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Sweet Blood (The Eternal Dungeon, Volume 5)

The Eternal Dungeon
Volume 5

SWEET BLOOD
Dusk Peterson

Love in Dark Settings Press
Havre de Grace, Maryland

Published in the United States of America. August 2017 edition. Publication history.

This story was originally published at duskpeterson.com. The story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Copyright © 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 Dusk Peterson. Some rights reserved. The story is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0). You may freely share this story, provided that you include this copyright notice. If you transform or otherwise adapt this story, please give credit to Dusk Peterson for the original story and make clear that you made changes to the original story. Sample credit for a transformative work: “This fanfic is inspired by [Story Name] by Dusk Peterson (duskpeterson.com).” Please also read Dusk Peterson’s Shared Universe Disclaimer (http://duskpeterson.com/copyright.htm#disclaimer).

CONTENTS

= _Front matter_ =

Maps.

= _Sweet Blood_ =

The Eternal Dungeon has been split by a civil war, with the division clearly marked by a quarrel between two Seekers (torturers) whose faithfulness to each other has already become legendary. Into this explosive situation arrives a new Seeker, one who is determined to see that past evils do not continue in the dungeon. But can he keep control of himself when assigned a prisoner who falls in love with him?

1 | Bonds. A prisoner meeting his fate. A torturer meeting his demons. And between them, a man whose bonds are on the point of shattering.

2 | Searching. Walking into a trap may be the only way to create one.

3 | Split. It was his duty to transform the prisoner’s soul. But which one?

4 | Checkmate. The Eternal Dungeon is no longer a prison. It’s a battlefield.

5 | Truth and Trust. Time is running out.

Sweet Blood: Epilogue.

Sweet Blood: Historical Note.

= [_More _]Turn-of-the-Century Toughs[_ fiction_]

(excerpt). A preview of a volume collecting stories from The Eternal Dungeon and related series.

Whipster (excerpt). A preview of a volume in a related series.

= _Back matter_ =

Appendix: Turn-of-the-Century Toughs calendar systems.

Appendix: Turn-of-the-Century Toughs timeline. Includes links to all the current Toughs stories.

Credits and more e-books by Dusk Peterson.

MAPS

A larger version of the first map is available at:
duskpeterson.com/toughs

o—o—o
o—o—o
o—o—o

=== Sweet Blood ===

Stars that behold our world upon its way,
Pure legions camped upon the plains of night,
Mute watchful hosts of heaven, what must you say
When men destroy each other in their might?
Upon their deadly race each runner starts,
Nor one but will his brothers all outrun!
Ah, see their blood jet upward to the sun
Like living fountains refluent on our hearts!
O dead divinely for so great a faith,
Help us, whose agony is but begun,
For bitterly we yield you up to death,
We who had dreamed that Life and Love were one.

—Anna de Noailles: Our Dead (translated by Edith Wharton).

Sweet Blood #1
BONDS

Present values change past history. That is the first lesson one learns as a historian. As values shift over time, our perception of historical events changes, giving new meaning to past events, and stripping away old meanings that were clear to inhabitants of the past.

Nowhere is this fact more obvious than in historical accounts of the Eternal Dungeon. The intense secularism of our modern world blinds us to many aspects of Yclau’s royal dungeon that were manifest to the contemporaries of the torturers and guards who controlled the dungeon. The very word for the dungeon’s torturers – “Seekers” – would have evoked meanings that are virtually lost to our generation. But perhaps no other word from the Golden Age of the Eternal Dungeon has become so impoverished as the word “blood.”

Blood. The word appears on practically every page of early accounts of the Eternal Dungeon. “The prisoner was whipped until he shed blood.” “His life’s blood was severed by the hangman.” “The document ordering torture was a bloody blade in his hand.” To many of our generation, such passages denote mere brutality. To the average man or woman today, the term “sweet blood” is merely a curse, with no underlying meaning.

It is time, then, that we turned our attention to the religious beliefs underlying the actions of the Seekers and guards.

We will start with a myth, not entirely lost to our generation, though it is rarely heard outside of the increasingly rare traditional services of the Yclau faith. Here is how the myth appeared during the Golden Age of the Eternal Dungeon, in a picture book that might have been read by any child of that day.

A man died, and with him died his friend, who dearly loved him. They were sent to a place of great beauty, with a shining sun, soft breezes, and a luxurious carpet of grass and flowers. The water in the brook bubbled softly, and birds flitted from tree to tree.

For many years the man and his friend dwelt happily in this place, as did others who lived there. For many years, the sun shone, the breezes blew softly, and birds sang in the trees.

Finally, however, the man grew restless. “Nothing ever changes in this place!” he cried.

“But that is why it is so beautiful,” his friend argued. “Nothing changes here, so there is no suffering and no dying. We are living in eternity.”

“What use is there in living in eternal painlessness if nothing ever grows, nothing ever renews? See those flowers over there? They will never die, and so new flowers will never be born. Autumn leaves will never fall from the trees. Baby birds will never be hatched. I cannot bear to live in this changelessness forever. You must help me to escape.”

His friend begged and pleaded, but the man remained adamant. Finally, with great distress, the friend loaned the man his dagger. Eagerly, the man released himself from the changeless world, allowing his blood to flow from his body. “Sweet blood,” he whispered as he left eternity. “Sweet, sweet blood.”

As the man died, the friend wept for his loss. But then he saw something strange occur. Down in the world of suffering and change that he and the man had left behind, a baby was born. It was a new baby, with new joys and sorrows awaiting it. Yet somehow the friend could sense that deep within the baby lay the man who had refused to live in eternal changelessness.

So that is how man was first reborn: not through peace, but through the shedding of his own sweet blood.

“Sweet blood.” Those two words resonated with a multitude of meanings to every Yclau man and woman of the fourth century. We can begin to peel off the layers of meaning by looking at a bloody episode that began in the Eternal Dungeon in the springtime of 363.

In this year, a lasting treaty of peace was signed between the Queendom of Yclau and the neighboring Kingdom of Vovim, as Vovim’s increasingly beleaguered King redirected his attention to troubles at home. In this year, the Magisterial Republic of Mip broke away from the ethical principles of the United Order of Prisons, turning its back unexpectedly on the prison reform movement. And in this year, the High Seeker of the Eternal Dungeon, Layle Smith, entered his forty-third year . . .

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.

CHAPTER ONE

The year 360, the eleventh month. (The year 1881 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)

The main corridor in the Eternal Dungeon was cold. It was always cold; he had never known it to be otherwise. The prisoners received the comfort of heating in their cells, and presumably the Seekers did as well, though D. Urman had never lingered long enough in a Seeker’s cell to find out. Guards such as himself shivered in autumnal temperatures year-round.

The corridor was also dark, lit only by a minimum of electric lamps that cast shadow-palls over the prisoner they escorted. Few guards were present in the corridor; the High Seeker had stripped the inner dungeon of all but the skeleton crew of the dusk-shift guard, forcing every other guard and Seeker to watch the coming event.

Mr. Urman – addressed that way by friend and foe alike in the stiltedly formal setting of the Eternal Dungeon – would just as soon have taken his annual leave this week. It wasn’t as though he had never seen a punishment before. He had administered many himself, quelling murderous prisoners into obedience or brutalizing innocent prisoners – whatever his Seekers demanded of him, he had done. But today’s punishment, everyone agreed, would be like none that the dungeon had seen for many decades. Mr. Urman wished that he had his prisoner’s courage to rebel against orders.

They reached the closed door at the south end of the corridor, which lay closest to the great gates above the dungeon. The prisoner – walking unbound between his escorts – halted abruptly before the door. His breath and heartbeat were rapid; his skin was bleached clean of color. Mr. Sobel, senior night guard to the High Seeker, frowned on the other side of the prisoner. Like Mr. Urman, he had seen many a prisoner faint in his bonds. This prisoner looked as though he would not get as far as the place of his punishment before his knees gave way.

Mr. Urman thought this was eminently sensible of him. “Look,” he said roughly to the prisoner, keeping his voice low enough that he would not be overheard by any of the guards they had recently walked past, “you don’t have to go through with this. You can still ask for the other sentence to be passed.”

Mr. Boyd’s mouth twisted into something not quite a smile. He did not look in the direction of Mr. Urman; his attention was on the door. “Take the path of my late prisoner, you mean?”

“It’s suicide either way!” His voice was too loud; Mr. Sobel shot him a look, and Mr. Urman quickly lowered his tone. “Mr. Boyd, you know that you’re going to die either way. The High Seeker is determined to have his revenge on you for helping a prisoner escape from his cruelty. The only question is how long it will take you to die. Why let the High Seeker have his extra pleasure at your lingering death? Are you some sort of masochist?”

Mr. Sobel winced, but he made no effort to cut the conversation short. No doubt he had been making similar pleas to Mr. Boyd in the hours leading up to this moment. He and Mr. Boyd had been the closest of friends since the time that Barrett Boyd had agreed to the dubious honor of assisting Mr. Sobel to guard the High Seeker during his notorious breaking of the army officer Thatcher Owen.

Mr. Urman half expected Mr. Boyd to make some joke, perhaps in reference to Elsdon Taylor. But Mr. Boyd, staring at the door, simply said, “No.”

“Then why satisfy his sadism?” Mr. Urman demanded. “For love of the Code, don’t you know what kind of flogging you’ll receive in there? By the time the High Seeker is through with you, your back will be nothing but strips of flesh hanging from bone, while your life’s blood puddles on the—”

“Mr. Urman.” Mr. Sobel’s quiet voice held a distinct note of warning. Mr. Urman shut his mouth. Too late, he saw that Mr. Boyd had paled to the color of curd.

The imprisoned guard turned his face slowly toward Mr. Urman. His face was slick with sweat. His eyes seemed glazed over, like a dead man’s. He said, in carefully spaced words, “If I allowed myself to be hanged quietly . . . If I allowed Layle Smith to take me discreetly away and execute me in a room far away from any eyewitness . . . How would matters change in the Eternal Dungeon?”

Mr. Urman started to speak, stopped, and tried to think of the right words to say.

“They would not change.” Mr. Boyd’s voice was unusually hard now. “Matters didn’t change after the High Seeker murdered Mr. Ferris through a sentence of hanging. The High Seeker executed the oldest Seeker in this dungeon for a small disobedience, and nothing happened except that people here grumbled a bit for a day or two. If I allowed myself to be hanged – quickly, painlessly, privately – then the High Seeker would be free to continue on the murderous path he has chosen. Only by making this execution public – only by allowing the High Seeker to exercise his sadism on me in front of others – can I have any hope that the other inhabitants of this dungeon will be shocked into an awareness that they are being governed by a man who engages in behavior that is as vindictive and vicious as the behavior of any of the criminals we are supposed to be guarding the Queendom of Yclau against.” Mr. Boyd took a deep breath before adding, “This is the only way in which I can make the High Seeker himself aware of what he has become. Mr. Urman, Layle Smith’s soul is as much in danger right now as that of any unrepentant criminal.”

Mr. Urman struggled for a reply, but Mr. Boyd had already turned away from him. “Let’s get this over with,” Mr. Boyd said in a flat voice, “while I still have enough courage left to do this.”

And with those words, he opened the door and walked into his execution chamber.

o—o—o

Three days later.

“I count seven violations of the Code,” said the Codifier from behind the desk in his office, reading under the oil lamp that he had insisted remain in his office, even after the recent electrification of the dungeon. “Am I correct? Or have I miscounted?”

“You may be a few counts short, sir.” Sitting in the chair opposite the Codifier’s desk, Layle Smith thought that he would have preferred another place for this interview. Barely a month had passed since his love-mate had nearly died in this office while testing new equipment for the dungeon. That Elsdon Taylor was now expected to make a full recovery was merely a testimony to the young man’s innate vitality. It was not due to any wisdom Layle had shown during that incident, or any other incident recently.

But he need hardly make a tally of his latest offenses; the Codifier was doing that for him, while perusing the appropriate passages in the Code of Seeking, which lay open before him. “‘The High Seeker shall consult with the Codifier on all important disciplinary matters in the Eternal Dungeon.’”

“Yes, sir.”

He did not try to offer the Codifier any excuse for his conduct. Mr. Daniels supplied his missing words. “You sent me a telegram. You received a telegram back from my housekeeper, indicating that I had decided to take a journey to Mip to visit friends, and that I would not be available for consultation until my return. You then took it upon yourself to decide that this matter – this [_death-sentence _]matter – could not await my return.”

“Yes, sir.” Being flayed alive would be easier than being reprimanded by the Codifier, Layle decided. He sat stiffly in his seat, awaiting the next scrape of the blade.

“‘All sentences of death that are passed by the High Seeker for disciplinary matters must be approved by the Codifier.’” Mr. Daniels waited, his eyebrows raised.

Layle made no reply. He knew, as he was sure the Codifier knew, that a sentence of one hundred lashes was not a death sentence.

Not unless the sentence was carried out by Layle Smith.

The Codifier continued in his remorseless fashion. “‘No Seeker shall touch any instrument of torture except with permission of the Codifier, unless it is necessary to save a life.’” Mr. Daniels looked up from the slim volume of the Code. “And which life, Mr. Smith, did you think you were saving when you bypassed the procedure for permission to use an instrument of torture? A procedure, I might add, that was most strenuously emphasized to you at the time you became High Seeker, thanks to your past background.”

That was not a blade under the skin; that was a blade through the throat. Layle could feel himself begin to ache from the tension of his muscles. He remained silent.

“But perhaps you forgot the passage in the Code which states, ‘All disciplinary beatings of guards shall take place under the supervision of the High Seeker and shall be carried out by the High Seeker’s senior night guard.’”

The Codifier seemed to be waiting for an answer this time. Layle forced himself to say, “No, sir. I did not forget that passage.” He could hardly forget it, having written it himself.

Mr. Daniels turned a page. “‘No torture shall be greater or lesser than this Code requires.’ I need not ask whether you remember that passage; I recall that you stated it to Mr. Ferris, shortly before you sentenced him to be hanged for violating that passage. One extra stroke is no different than ten extra strokes, Mr. Smith, as I’m sure you know. ‘The Seeker in charge of a prisoner shall cease any torture if the healer deems that the prisoner’s life is endangered.’ Again, I need not linger over that passage; I have heard you state it on many occasions. ‘The highest conduct in the Eternal Dungeon shall be required of the High Seeker, so that he may set an example for the other inhabitants of the Eternal Dungeon.’” The Codifier removed his reading spectacles and stared levelly at Layle. “Have I failed to name any ways in which you have most grievously violated the Code in my absence?”

“Yes, sir,” he replied quietly. “‘The healer shall take into account both the physical health and the mental health of any prisoner when judging whether that prisoner is fit to be tortured.’”

It was the passage that had kept him awake every night since this nightmare began. The passage said nothing about the High Seeker taking into account the mental health of the prisoner – a careless, callous omission on his part when he had revised the Code sixteen years before. But he should have known – he should have known – that his duty lay there.

The Codifier leaned back in his chair. Softly around the office came the rush of water down the wall, and the occasional splashes made by fish in the pool nearby. It had taken a considerable amount of exertion on Layle’s part, but he had managed to persuade the Queen that the recent renovation of the Eternal Dungeon need not extend to the Codifier’s eccentric desire to surround himself, not by the artificial walls found elsewhere in the dungeon, but by cave-rock, stalactites, and tiny cave-dwelling animals.

Layle understood the reason for this symbolism, even if the Queen did not. The Codifier represented the history of the Eternal Dungeon, extending back to the day, a century and a half before, when the torturers of the royal dungeon had rebelled against their bloody past and remade their methods of inquisition into something that would benefit the prisoners, as well as the Yclau citizens whom the Queen’s justice protected.

The Codifier existed to protect the prisoners. He alone had the power to overrule and discipline the High Seeker; he served no one except the Code and the Queen who permitted the Code to exist. The rough surroundings of the cave spoke a message: “However sophisticated and modern and civilized you may think yourself to be, I remember. I remember this dungeon’s bloody past, and I will not allow that past to return.”

“‘The healer shall take into account both the physical health and the mental health of any prisoner when judging whether that prisoner is fit to be tortured.’” Mr. Daniels repeated the words as he folded his fingers over his belly. “Yes. I have had that passage very much in mind since I received word yesterday of the events that have taken place in this dungeon during my absence. Shall we start from the beginning of the tale, three months ago? The High Seeker orders one of his Seekers to rack a prisoner who is too ill of mind to be able to confess to the death-sentence crimes he has undoubtedly committed. The healer approves that order. A guard assists the prisoner to commit suicide, in order that the prisoner should thereby escape from torture. The High Seeker declares, correctly, that the guard has committed a death-sentence crime. The High Seeker sentences the guard to the alternative army punishment of one hundred heavy lashes. The High Seeker carries out the punishment. . . . All of this followed from that single act, a failure to take into account the mental state of the prisoner. Am I correct?”

“Yes, sir.” He wondered whether the Codifier was measuring him for his coffin. This was not the first time Layle had violated the Code; the first two times, Mr. Daniels had sentenced him only to suspension of duty, but surely there must be a limit to how far the Codifier’s patience extended.

In the past, Layle would gladly have accepted the death sentence for his crimes – indeed, he had pled for it then, in the name of justice. But now he had another person in his life to consider.

Sweet blood, how would Elsdon survive Layle’s death, knowing the part he had played in all this?

“‘The healer shall take into account both the physical health and the mental health of any prisoner when judging whether that prisoner is fit to be tortured.’” Mr. Daniels’s fingers remained laced upon his belly. “And on the very next page, the Code states, ‘The Codifier shall overrule the healer’s decisions if he believes that the prisoner’s life or soul is endangered.’”

With a jolt like electricity passing through him, he recognized the change of direction in the conversation. “Sir, you have been on leave of absence, by advice of the Queen—”

“But I was not absent when you ordered Elsdon Taylor’s prisoner to be racked; nor was I absent when the healer approved that racking. Mr. Smith, yesterday evening I tendered my resignation to the Queen.”

“Sir, no!” He was alarmed now; he could think of no worse fate for the Eternal Dungeon than to lose the cool, strong, wise man who had served as its Codifier for nearly a quarter of a century. “The Eternal Dungeon is in a state of crisis, thanks to what I have done. The last thing it can afford is the absence of its leader—”

“So the Queen told me when I indicated to her that your first action, when I walked through the gates of this dungeon, was likely to be to resign from your post as High Seeker.”

He was silenced, as he had been so many times over the years, by the superiority of the Codifier’s vision. Mr. Daniels picked up the resignation letter that Layle had written and dropped it into the oil lamp. The flame sputtered and flickered as it ate the paper, throwing light onto the Codifier’s weary face.

“It would be easier for me,” Mr. Daniels said, staring at the flame, “if we were both to resign. Or, barring that, it would be easier if I advised you to withdraw the policy we both formulated five months ago, of requiring strict adherence to the Code of Seeking. It would be easier for me, and it would be easier for you. But would it be easier for the prisoners?”

He turned his eyes toward Layle. In the dim lamplight, the waterfall nearby sparkled, dancing flickers of light back onto the Codifier. Mr. Daniels’s expression was grave as he said, “High Seeker, I should not need to remind you of why we instituted that policy. One lash more than a prisoner was sentenced to is a mild version of the flagrant violations of the Code that have occurred in recent years: Seekers deciding, on their own initiative, to order a prisoner beaten for twice as long as the Code requires. Guards offering comforts and assistance to prisoners that the Code does not permit. Seekers and guards alike deliberately disobeying orders issued by you. Mr. Smith, it is a miracle that we have only had one suicide in this dungeon in recent years. It is a wonder that we have not had a score of suicides, murders, and escapes.”

“Yes, sir.” He murmured an acknowledgment to the old, familiar problem. It was a problem that Elsdon, who held no supervisory duties, could never be made to understand. Layle was responsible, not only for his own actions, but for the actions of every Seeker and guard in this dungeon. To allow a Seeker or guard to blatantly violate the Code, even if it seemed in the best interests of the prisoner, could ultimately lead only to the destruction of the Code. The time would come, if the violations continued, when Seekers and guards would cease to allow their consciences to be shaped by the Code that had turned the royal dungeon from a place of bloody abuse into a place where prisoners found hope and transformation.

“Seven violations of the Code, Mr. Smith,” said the Codifier. “Eight, if we count my own. All that our transgressions prove is that this dungeon desperately needs the Code and desperately needs leaders who are willing to take on the burden of punishing violations of the Code. If you and I were to resign today, who would take our places? Weldon Chapman, a man who barely escaped death for his own violation of the Code? Elsdon Taylor, who defied your orders to such a degree that his own senior night guard – a man of exemplary behavior until that time – took it into his head to loan his dagger to a mentally ill prisoner?”

Layle’s fists clenched, his automatic reaction to any attack on his love-mate. “Sir, I am to blame for Mr. Taylor’s refusal to rack his prisoner. I did not sufficiently impress upon him—”

“Mr. Smith, I am not trying to apportion blame here. Mr. Taylor is a junior Seeker and has been working in the dungeon for only five years; it is natural for him to make mistakes. I am simply pointing out that there is currently no man in this dungeon who holds the qualities of leadership necessary to take over your position or mine during this crisis, should either of us resign or even receive temporary suspension from our duties.”

The Codifier carefully closed the Code of Seeking. Without looking Layle’s way, he said, “It is the judgment of our Queen that we should remain at our posts, as we are needed here to deal with this crisis. It is also her judgment that we should continue our policy of requiring strict adherence to the Code. If any Seeker or guard violates the Code deliberately in the future, they will undergo discipline, just as Mr. Boyd did . . . but they will do so under my supervision of your actions.”

He was silent for a long while. He knew, from the heaviness in his chest, that he had hoped for a different outcome. Resignation from his post, temporary suspension from his duties, a retraction of the policy of disciplining any guard or Seeker who violated the Code in even the smallest way . . . Any of these changes would have relieved him of the pain of continuing to fight the junior members of the dungeon who opposed his policy – of continuing to fight Elsdon over matters that his love-mate could never fully understand, because he had never been a senior Seeker . . . and never would be, if he continued to defy the High Seeker.

Oh, Mercy and Hell. He would gladly allow himself to be flayed for eternity if he could thereby escape the responsibility of disciplining Elsdon for any future violations of the Code.

He could feel the Codifier’s eye upon him. He forced himself to speak the words he knew must be spoken: “I am the Queen’s servant.”

The Codifier slid the Code of Seeking into his desk drawer and rose to his feet. “If you were not, Mr. Smith, I would not have approved your appointment as High Seeker. Now let us put aside all thoughts of our own guilt and find a way to bring this dungeon back into order.”

CHAPTER TWO

Three days before.

Barrett Boyd had no sooner walked over the doorway’s threshold than he stopped dead, jarring Mr. Urman, who was walking close behind. Stepping to the side to see what the obstacle was, Mr. Urman found that the Eternal Dungeon’s entry hall was filled to the brim with guards and Seekers.

This was no more than he had expected. The entry hall was the meeting place for the Seekers and their guards, as well as for the small number of guards employed by the Codifier. The number had been larger in decades past, when the Codifier’s guards might have been called upon to do active battle against the torturers’ guards in order to enforce the Codifier’s will, but that day was long past. For over a century now, the torturers had bowed their will in submission to the Codifier. Certainly the present High Seeker had rarely been called into the Codifier’s office for one of the “little executions” that Mr. Daniels issued, as Mr. Urman had once humorously described the Codifier’s reprimands.

Mr. Urman had been in that office only once, to give witness against the High Seeker when Mr. Smith shoved a prisoner against the wall; consequently, Mr. Urman held none of the nervousness that many of the other guards held toward that office. To Mr. Urman’s mind, the Codifier’s office was a refuge, a sanctuary against the abuse that took place in even the best-run prisons.

At least, that was how Mr. Urman had regarded it until recently. He frowned, looking at the Codifier’s guards, lined up in front of the office, along with the Codifier’s secretary. Mr. Daniels himself was on leave; in his absence, the guards took their orders from the High Seeker. No help could be found from that quarter.

Nor could help be found from the Seekers and their guards, Mr. Urman thought, running his eye over the restless crowd in the dark cavern of the entry hall. They were like blind bats: following their leaders, taking orders, and issuing punishments without thinking through the consequences of what they did.

And Mr. Urman was the blindest of them all, he reminded himself, for he knew clearly what the Seekers did when they placed a man on the rack and urged him to confess, upon penalty of further pain. He, of all men, had no excuse for helping the Seekers tear apart the bodies and wills of the helpless.

His eyes scanned the room, seeking the one man whose behavior seemed to set him apart from the other Seekers. But Elsdon Taylor was still in recovery from being accidentally electrocuted the previous month; he was nowhere to be seen.

His love-mate was there. Standing near the platform, leaning toward one of the new electric lamps, the High Seeker carefully, lovingly inspected his whip.

He had not owned a whip until the previous day. No Seeker owned a whip. Mr. Urman had assumed that the High Seeker would borrow Mr. Sobel’s whip, as he had done on the few occasions that the Codifier had permitted him to show off his considerable skills to the guards. But no – apparently the “stub whip,” the Eternal Dungeon’s deliberately shortened whip that fit the cramped confines of the breaking cells, did not satisfy Layle Smith’s full lust for vengeance.

When Mr. Urman learned that Mr. Smith had ordered a whip sent to him from a Vovimian merchant in the city, he had been appalled. He had half expected a leaded whip to show up. What had arrived was nearly as bad: the dreaded “black whip,” used by executioners in the Kingdom of Vovim for deaths by flogging.

“The black whip is used in Vovim’s prisons too, just for discipline,” Mr. Sobel had said, determined, as always, to defend his Seeker’s indefensible acts.

“And this is supposed to reassure me?” retorted Mr. Urman.

The High Seeker – who had spent three years of his youth as an apprentice torturer in Vovim’s notorious Hidden Dungeon – looked like a barbarian Vovimian at the moment. Normally only half-dressed in the Seeker uniform of shirt and trousers, he had gone even further this evening and was stripped to the waist. In an automatic manner, Mr. Urman looked around to see whether the dungeon’s female Seeker was present to witness this shameless display.

She was not; Mistress Birdesmond, Mr. Urman knew, had taken leave recently to care for her adopted son, who was weathering a bad spell of bronchitis, a common illness in the damp dungeon. But the inner dungeon’s other female inhabitant was there: the temporary healer, whose name Mr. Urman could never quite remember, and who was also being served up for the High Seeker’s vengeance.

Mr. Urman assumed as much, anyway. There was no reason why the healer should be here. It was true that, in any case of serious torture – and one hundred heavy strokes was as serious as you could get – the dungeon’s healer could request to be present in order to stop the torture if the prisoner’s life was endangered. But the High Seeker, Mr. Urman was sure, had no intention of truncating the count of this particular flogging, and the healer looked as though she wanted to be anywhere but standing on the punishment platform. She was quite young – almost as young as Mr. Urman’s sisters – and she had turned so pale that Mr. Urman guessed she would pass out the moment that blood was drawn.

Some of the guards, Mr. Urman knew, blamed the temporary healer for having allowed the torture of the prisoner who had killed himself. Mr. Urman did not. He had worked under Mr. Smith on a number of occasions over the years – was being forced to work under him now, though he planned to ask for a transfer the moment the Codifier returned. He knew how difficult it was for even their regular healer – a crusty, opinionated man – to hold out when the High Seeker got it into his head that some prisoner needed to be racked. A slight child like the temporary healer had no hope of holding out against demands that she approve the torture of a prisoner.

She certainly would make no difference today. Mr. Urman dismissed her from his sight and turned his attention back to Mr. Boyd. The imprisoned guard was still frozen in place, staring at the crowd – which was odd, for he had known that all the guards and Seekers would be present to witness the humiliation of his excruciating death. Then Mr. Urman followed his gaze and understood.

Clifford Crofford, Mr. Urman’s closest friend, was standing on his tiptoes amidst the other junior guards, trying to see through the crowd to the platform ahead. He had not yet noticed Mr. Boyd’s entrance, yet his face was as bloodless as the imprisoned guard’s. He already clutched a handkerchief in readiness.

“Mr. Boyd, we must continue,” Mr. Sobel murmured from the other side of Barrett Boyd, gently urging him on with the touch of a hand.

Mr. Boyd nodded, but he did not take his gaze off Clifford until they had reached the western steps to the platform. By that time, Clifford was hidden in the crowd, so Mr. Urman did not see the junior guard’s reaction to the entrance of his imprisoned love-mate.

A silence fell over the crowd as the prisoner and his escort came forward. The High Seeker – who had no doubt known of their presence from the moment they walked through the door – did not look up; he was painstakingly examining each twist of the leather on his whip. The prisoner and his escort passed within an arm’s length of Mr. Smith as they walked up the short flight of steps to the platform, where the whipping post awaited.

Mr. Urman had been whipped more times than he liked to remember during his five years in the dungeon. Every time he made some small mistake, and every time he rebelled against some hideous plan that his Seeker had for a prisoner, he was tied to the fat whipping pole in the guardroom.

Mr. Urman figured that he could have endured worse fates. The pole’s surface was smooth against his bare chest, and his wrists were tied on the opposite side of the pole, which was more restful than having them bound above his head.

Apparently too restful; here also the High Seeker had made special accommodations for Mr. Boyd. An army post had been brought in, under the excuse that the whipping post in the guardroom could not easily be moved into the entry hall. Mr. Sobel – normally the most imperturbable guard in the dungeon – had taken one look at the army’s version of a whipping pole and had whistled mournfully.

It was a T beam – a long, tall, rectangular beam upon which rested a shorter beam in horizontal position. The tall beam was far too thin to embrace the prisoner’s entire body; every time the lash landed, the prisoner’s chest would grind against the thin post, and against its sharp edges.

As for the wrists, they would be tied far apart on the topmost beam, stretching the prisoner wide open in a painful manner. Rather than be bound with soft leather, as the dungeon’s prisoners and disciplined guards invariably were, Mr. Boyd would be forced to place his wrists within cold iron manacles whose edges would scrape his skin raw as the punishment proceeded.

Perhaps Mr. Smith had even hoped that the beam would be so high that Mr. Boyd would be forced to stand on his toes, but in that respect he was foiled, for Mr. Boyd was a tall enough man that his hands could reach the manacles. Now, having arrived at the ugly instrument of torture, Mr. Boyd did not spare it a glance. Without waiting to be asked, he stripped off his shirt. He had already been stripped of his jacket, vest, undervest, and weapons at the time of his arrest for his self-confessed crime. All that was visibly left were his trousers and boots. He turned without a word, raised his arms, and placed his hands within the open manacles.

“Not yet, Mr. Boyd,” murmured Mr. Sobel. Mr. Urman guessed that he was trying to spare Mr. Boyd a few extra minutes of torture from the gruesome whipping pole. It was a constant wonder to Mr. Urman that Seward Sobel – a guard clearly sensitive to where the boundary properly lay between keeping order and committing abuse – invariably backed any action that the High Seeker took, however much the High Seeker’s prisoners might suffer. Mr. Urman had tried to understand, had tried to show patience toward Mr. Sobel’s desire to remain loyal to Layle Smith, but recent events had removed from Mr. Urman the ability to sympathize with the senior night guard’s divided loyalties. Mr. Sobel could not see – had willfully blinded himself from seeing – that a battlefield had been formed. On one side of the field stood the Old School of Seekers and guards who were determined to continue their abuse of the prisoners. On the other side of the field stood the New School, made up almost entirely of junior guards, who held a higher vision of how the dungeon could be run. Mr. Sobel, by remaining the High Seeker’s shadow, had made himself an enemy of the New School, and Mr. Urman was no longer willing to try to convert the enemy. He knew, from past experience, how few lackeys to bullies ever recognized the need to convert their ways.

Helping a murderous prisoner to repent of his crime was far easier than convincing an abusive Seeker and his senior night guard that they were violating the spirit of the Code.

“Mr. Urman.” Mr. Sobel glanced his way. “Ask Mr. Smith whether he is ready to proceed.”

“Mr. Fucking Smith is ready to proceed with torture any hour of the day or night,” muttered Mr. Urman, but he kept his voice too low to be heard by the senior guard. His remark was easily swallowed by the continued murmur of the onlookers. Clifford had made his way up to the edge of the platform; Mr. Urman could almost imagine him flinging himself between Barrett Boyd and the High Seeker’s lash. Poor, besotted fool. Mr. Urman gave him a gesture of greeting which the younger guard failed to notice, so absorbed was he in watching Mr. Boyd. Well, that was nothing new.

Mr. Urman would be the first to admit that he was not swarming with friends. Clifford was the only one left, if truth be told. It didn’t matter. Mr. Urman had long since figured out that most men smiled at you one day and then beat you to pulp the moment they got you into a quiet alley. He was selective in which men he chose as friends; even so, some friends, such as Mr. Sobel, ultimately turned their backs on him and went over to the enemy.

But it wasn’t that simple. Nothing was ever that simple in life, Mr. Urman recognized. Mr. Sobel truly thought he was serving the best interests of the prisoners by allying himself with the High Seeker. And Mr. Urman was no easy man to befriend, he knew. As a matter of fact, he probably wouldn’t have bothered to befriend himself.

For some reason, Clifford seemed to be able to put up with Mr. Urman’s sharp tongue, but Clifford’s thoughts were wholly absorbed these days in his new love-mate. Well, that was the way of the world. Best not to worry about such things; what mattered was the prisoners’ welfare.

Mr. Urman clattered down the rickety steps on the western end of the platform. On his way, he nearly tripped over the stretcher that the healer had foresightedly placed at the edge of the platform. The High Seeker was still near the bottom of the steps, checking his whip as meticulously as a mother might check her baby. He did not look up as Mr. Urman stopped in front of him. The black face-cloth of the High Seeker’s hood – featureless except for the eye-holes – hid his expression.

“Mr. Urman.” Layle Smith ran his fingers lightly over a nasty-looking tassel at the end of the whip.

Mr. Urman delivered the message. The High Seeker, tenderly twisting a bit of leather that was coming loose, said, “Ask Mr. Sobel whether the prisoner has any final request before we proceed.”

“So that you can refuse it,” Mr. Urman muttered as he made his way back up onto the platform. Feeling as though he had been demoted to a messenger-boy, he repeated the High Seeker’s words.

Mr. Sobel looked silently over at Mr. Boyd. The two of them were in the same position as before, with the imprisoned guard’s back facing the audience, but Mr. Boyd kept looking over his shoulder. He seemed not to have heard Mr. Urman speak.

Touching him lightly, Mr. Sobel caught his attention and softly repeated the message. Mr. Boyd looked over his shoulder again, as though he had not heard. Then, looking back at Mr. Sobel, he said, “Does he need to be here?”

Mr. Sobel wordlessly looked over at Mr. Urman. Mr. Urman – wondering when he would be issued the little peaked cap that the Union Telegraph boys wore – made his way back to the High Seeker and delivered the request.

For the first time the High Seeker looked up. He turned his gaze toward Clifford Crofford, who was practically hanging his chest over the platform in an effort to allow Mr. Boyd to see him. The High Seeker’s gaze drifted back to the whip. With his head bowed as he smoothed out a kink in the lash, he said, “You may tell Mr. Sobel that Mr. Crofford is excused from attending the punishment.”

For a moment, Mr. Urman was disconcerted. Then he understood. The High Seeker was making a show of mercy in an attempt to pretend that this flogging was an act of justice, not a travesty of the Code. No doubt he simply worried that Clifford Crofford would interfere with the punishment once it started.

Back up onto the platform trotted Mr. Urman, wondering whether he should bring out the little memorandum book all guards carried, so that he could begin making notes of all the messages he carried. He delivered the message, and Mr. Boyd’s breath emerged all at once, as though he were a hissing gas pipe. Mr. Sobel said, “Mr. Urman, please tell Mr. Crofford—”

“I know, I know,” said Mr. Urman crossly. As he turned away, Mr. Sobel called to him. Sighing, Mr. Urman turned back in preparation for a reprimand.

However, Mr. Sobel said only, “You are released from guard duty here. I can handle both the count and the supervision of the flogging.”

“Well, finally someone shows some fucking sense.” Mr. Urman turned away before Mr. Sobel could lecture him about his language. He went to the front of the platform and jumped down beside Clifford.

Even then, Clifford did not notice him. He was chewing on his bottom lip, wriggling this way and that as Mr. Boyd continued to look over his shoulder. Mr. Urman took his arm. “Come on,” he said, “the High Seeker says for you to leave.”

To his surprise, Clifford – normally the most compliant of guards – jerked away. “No!” he cried, like a child being removed screaming from his mother’s arms.

“You bloody idiot.” Mr. Urman jerked his thumb in the direction of Mr. Boyd. “It’s his request. He’s about to go through the worst experience of his life. Do you think he wants to worry about you on top of all that?”

Clifford looked uncertainly up at Mr. Boyd. Sighing, Mr. Urman took Clifford’s arm again. “Come on, you can wait in my rooms. I’ll tell you afterwards what happened, I promise.”

And with any luck, he thought as he pulled the young guard away from the platform, the very act of escorting Clifford to the outer dungeon would cause Mr. Urman to miss the flogging.

o—o—o

Three days later.

Layle hated the new electric lights in his cell with a passion. The businessman who had supervised their installation had promised wonders: A steady light that never flickered. A lamp that had no wick which needed replacing. An end to countless hours of filling lamps with oil.

What Layle had received in place of the old, comforting oil lamps was an electric chandelier that flickered and buzzed and snapped continuously, and that was forever going out with a loud pop. Usually when Layle was standing directly beneath it.

The electric lights were a necessity, though, since the Seekers were required by the Code of Seeking to share the same living conditions as the prisoners in the breaking cells, as far as was reasonably possible. The Queen had ordered the lights installed in the prisoners’ breaking cells, along with a central heating system to replace the old, smoke-belching furnaces that had once heated the prisoners’ cells.

The new heating system did not extend as far as the Seekers’ cells, however; Seekers had never been permitted to keep stoves. Because they lived their entire lives within the Eternal Dungeon, they were allowed small luxuries beyond which most of the other prisoners possessed, such as desks and kitchen areas; the lack of heating reminded them that, by law, they were not free men but prisoners – men who had voluntarily chosen to imprison themselves eternally in order to share the lives of the men and women they searched for crimes.

Layle had firmly denied permission for new luxuries to be installed in the Seekers’ living cells, though some of these had tempted even him: gramophones, stereoscopes, kaleidoscopes. He could have let himself and the other Seekers enjoy access to the world’s music and art, but he had ruthlessly thrust aside the temptation. He was a prisoner. All Seekers were prisoners. It wasn’t right that they should live lives that far above the lives of the prisoners in the breaking cells.

One new luxury he had permitted, but only for the sake of the outer dungeon’s laborers: a system of running water had been installed, with washbasins in each Seeker’s cell. No longer would servants be forced to bring hip-baths full of water to each Seeker once a week. Seekers could draw their own bath-water now, using a pail, and could also have access to fresh water whenever they wished.

Running his hand across the wooden hand-pump over the basin sunk into the kitchen countertop, Layle wondered whether he had been neglectful. He had been so busy trying to keep the Seekers from being saddled with luxuries they did not need that he had not given enough thought to items that might be of use to the prisoners. Why shouldn’t the prisoners be permitted sinks? If the central water boiler was kept tepid enough, the water could do them no harm. And perhaps some way could be found to install water closets in each breaking cell, similar to the water closet that had graced the outer dungeon’s dining hall for many years now.

Layle knew of no dungeon or prison in the world where the prisoners were permitted to have running water and toilets. All the more reason for him to consider the idea. This was the Eternal Dungeon, and one of the roles of Yclau’s royal dungeon was to serve as a leader in prison reform.

So absorbed was he in thoughts of the prisoners’ comfort that he did not hear the steps outside the door. Or rather, he heard them, but he ascribed them to the daily passage of men and women through the corridor that ran from the inner dungeon, where the prisoners and Seekers lived, to the outer dungeon, where the guards and laborers lived.

Then he heard the door rattle. His hand flew to the side of his belt.

Just as quickly, it flew away. His heart was pounding. Twenty-two years had passed since, at the age of eighteen, he had abandoned his abusive work as a torturer in Vovim’s Hidden Dungeon. In all the years since that time, he had never worn a blade. And yet his hand had gone automatically to where his blade would have been in the old days – as automatically, indeed, as it would have gone in the days of his early youth, when he had worked as a criminal, torturing and murdering helpless victims.

Twenty-two years. After all that time, the instinct toward immediate violence should have drained from him. But it still overtook him at moments when he was startled. And he had felt that impulse more strongly than ever in the past three days, since he had wielded a living whip that removed flesh in great swaths.

His heart now hammering, he walked toward the door. Elsdon was fumbling with his key outside, no doubt because of the infernal, ever-flickering electric lights in the corridor. Layle unlocked his side of the door. Elsdon slipped inside, closed the door, bolted it behind him, and tossed back his face-cloth.

He was still pale from the rigors of the past month, as his body slowly recovered from the effects of the electrocution, but he looked considerably better than he had when Layle had mistaken him for a corpse. The color was back in his cheeks, and his eyes were alert and searching.

They searched Layle now, in a pattern that he had become accustomed to. Layle knew why. Elsdon was seeking some sign of what had taken place between the High Seeker and the Codifier during their interview that day.

Layle was interested in the results of a different interview. Without warning, he slammed his hands onto both sides of the wall beside Elsdon, trapping him in place.

Layle was careful to leave enough room to allow his love-mate to escape the trap. Elsdon, with his Seeker alertness, could instantly tell the difference between pretend imprisonment and real imprisonment. The last was forbidden between them, not because Elsdon would have objected to being taken temporarily captive by the High Seeker, but because he had endured an abusive childhood. The emotional aftereffects of that abuse limited the number of activities he and the High Seeker could undertake.

But pretend imprisonment was enough for both of them. Now, leaning forward so that his face was close to the other Seeker’s, Layle saw Elsdon’s pupils grow. He did not need to look downwards to know that another part of Elsdon’s body was growing. He could smell the change: a muskier scent that came only when his love-mate was aroused.

“Has the healer given you permission to return to your work?” Layle asked in a hard voice.

Elsdon’s eyes searched Layle, trying to puzzle out the meaning of his question. “Yes,” he replied finally. “He said that I could resume my duties—”

All your duties?” Layle pressed his body onto Elsdon’s. It was a chance, but a chance worth taking; Elsdon had learned to accept being pressed against a wall, provided that he was given due warning.

Elsdon’s pupils widened yet further. “Yes, sir,” he replied breathlessly. “I can undertake any duties you wish.”

“Good,” said Layle into Elsdon’s ear. “Because right now you’re going to strip off those clothes, fall to your knees, and take my whammer in your mouth.”

Elsdon’s breath had turned rapid. Layle guessed this was as much due to the fear coursing through his body from the entrapment as it was from Layle’s words. But Elsdon had no objection to a small amount of fear, and Layle, having been raised in a kingdom where terrifying deeds were played out on the stage, had gradually come to reconcile his love for Elsdon with his pleasure at Elsdon’s fear. Elsdon never seemed harmed by their play-acting – indeed, he seemed as eager as any Vovimian to participate in private stage-tales of abduction, imprisonment, torture, rape . . . and the gentle love-making with which Layle always ended these tales.

“Yes, sir,” Elsdon said now, his groin providing evidence of how much he enjoyed this turn of events. “If I knew . . . If you would be kind enough, sir, to tell me who and where we are.”

Layle closed his eyes for a moment. He had been thinking about this all day, ever since he had left the Codifier’s office. He had remained uncertain whether he possessed the courage to go through with this. But if there was ever a time in his life when this might work, it was one month after Elsdon’s near death and three days after Barrett Boyd’s bloody flogging.

He had sought in the early days of their relationship to hide from Elsdon the pattern of his dark desire. It had been futile to do so. Elsdon had quickly realized that Layle was most aroused in the hours and days after he had tortured prisoners. And after one terrible, unforgettable episode when Elsdon was sent on a dangerous mission for the Queen, Elsdon had come to realize that Layle’s arousal reached its peak when Elsdon himself suffered pain.

Elsdon still loved him. This was a fact that Layle had never ceased to wonder at. Elsdon knew that his love-mate received pleasure from his suffering, yet he remained loyal in his love. To Elsdon, the simple fact that Layle would do anything in his power to save his love-mate from needless suffering balanced the fact that Elsdon’s suffering invariably roused Layle’s whammer and set into motion his deep-seated desire for absolute possession. Most wondrous of all, Elsdon could know that Layle’s pleasure derived from his real pain, and yet could himself receive pleasure from their bedroom play. This despite the fact that Elsdon had never shown any sign that he himself received pleasure from pain. His pleasure derived from Layle’s pleasure.

A most extraordinary man. There could not be another man like him in all the world. And Layle received the high honor of being his love-mate.

Now Layle let himself feel the pounding of Elsdon’s heart, the sweat beginning to film Elsdon’s skin, the rapid breath, the slight noises of protest in Elsdon’s throat.

One month since Elsdon had nearly died, due to an accident that Layle had caused. Three days since Layle had torn apart Mr. Boyd’s body. It might be enough. It might be enough, for the first time in Layle’s life.

Layle pulled back far enough that he could see Elsdon’s eyes. He and Elsdon were the same height, so he could see clearly his reflection in Elsdon’s eyes: a torturer in the Eternal Dungeon, his face-cloth pulled back to reveal what lay within. “Where we are,” said Layle, “is the Eternal Dungeon, and we are the High Seeker and his love-mate.”

He almost regretted his words in the next moment as he saw the sharp joy in Elsdon’s eyes. He wanted to cry, “This probably won’t work!” But he had set the scenario in motion; he must continue through with it. Stepping back, he gave Elsdon room to strip naked.

Elsdon did so slowly, knowing that Layle appreciated the very act of increased vulnerability. There was little for Elsdon to remove, though. Seekers, like the prisoners they searched, were only permitted to wear a shirt, belt or suspenders, trousers, lower undergarments, and footwear. Elsdon, in his usual enticing manner, had taken to dispensing with the undergarments during his off-duty hours.

Now he carefully unknotted his belt. It was a regulation dungeon belt, designed to carry weapons if need be, though Seekers rarely had such need. Layle, his thoughts momentarily distracted by the memory of a certain sentence in the Code that forbade Seekers to touch instruments of torture, remained barely aware of Elsdon as the junior Seeker pulled off the remainder of his clothes.

As always, though, Layle was brought sharply back into awareness as Elsdon removed his hood. It was the ultimate act of stripping for a Seeker. A Seeker might be stripped of every article of clothing on his body, but only if he removed his hood was he truly naked.

The black cloth slid slowly over Elsdon’s fine, aureate hair. Without the shadow of the hood-band upon them, Elsdon’s eyes turned from the black-blue of dusk to the dark blue just before sunset. His lips, as always, looked as flushed as though he had reached the zenith of his passion.

Layle did not follow his usual practice of running an appreciative gaze over the remainder of Elsdon’s body. Instead, keeping his eyes fixed on Elsdon’s expression, Layle pulled off his own hood.

Elsdon’s expression turned to shock. Layle usually stayed half-dressed during their lovemaking; even on the few occasions that he had removed all his clothes, he had never stripped himself of his hood. It denoted what he was to Elsdon at such times: the man in charge, the man who gave orders, the man who had the power to issue pain.

Now, as he finished unclothing himself, he said, “Your choice. What would you like to do next?”

Elsdon looked very much like a schoolboy who has just been told that he has the power to decide how his school will be run. Layle’s mouth twisted at the absurd humor of the moment, even as he felt pain touch him inside. For over five years they had been joined together as love-mates, yet this was the very first time Layle had ever offered Elsdon the choice in what to do.

Layle had often wondered, during sleepless nights spent staring into the darkness of his bedroom, what Elsdon would have been like if he had not chosen to pair himself with the High Seeker. Elsdon had come to Layle as a virgin, with no experience beyond a bit of schoolyard kissing. What were his natural desires, when released from the High Seeker’s demands? Layle simply did not know.

Elsdon’s desire at the moment, it seemed, was to kneel down and take Layle’s whammer in his mouth. Layle stared down at him, frowning with uncertainty as to whether Elsdon was simply obeying the High Seeker’s careless order at the beginning of the session. “You needn’t do this if you would prefer not to,” Layle told the young man kneeling at his feet.

Releasing Layle from his mouth, Elsdon looked up. There was laughter in his face. “Those are the very words you spoke to me the first time we did this.”

“Did I?” replied Layle blankly. In those days, he had not allowed Elsdon to enter into his dreamings, which had been of a different, much darker nature. He scarcely remembered the gentle words he had spoken to Elsdon outside the dreamings.

Elsdon shook his head as he sat back on his heels. “You’ve no faith in me, Layle. You never did. Don’t you think I would tell you if I didn’t want to do something you asked me to do?”

“This is your choice—”

“And I’ve made my choice. Shut your mouth, High Seeker.”

It was the first time he had ever spoken to Layle like that under such circumstances. Reassured, Layle shut his mouth.

Unfortunately, another part of him had chosen to shrivel up during this conversation. It gave a sort of half-hearted jump as Elsdon ran his warm, wet tongue over it; Hell himself could not have remained entirely immune to Elsdon’s skilled ministrations. But that was all. Elsdon licked, he nibbled lightly, he fondled Layle’s baubles, he swallowed flesh. Layle’s whammer remained unenthusiastic. Layle began to feel like a frigid bride.

Finally he reached down and pulled Elsdon to his feet. “My turn,” he said. “You’re not going to reserve all the fun for yourself, are you?”

Elsdon simply smiled as Layle knelt down in front of him. It was hardly the first time Layle had knelt to him. Some Seekers, Layle knew, regarded the suckling of cocks – they used the Yclau words for it, of course – as an act reserved for whichever man took the role of follower. A passive role, following the lead of another man.

Such Seekers, Layle assumed, had not spent three years in the Hidden Dungeon, learning creative manners in which to rape prisoners. Now Layle took a deep breath and tried to concentrate his thoughts. He would not allow himself to think about the prisoners he had abused in his youth. Nor – a far greater temptation – would he think about his recent flogging of Barrett Boyd. But he had standing permission to think in any manner he wished about his love-mate.

So now he allowed his thoughts to linger on the image he had tried to purge from his mind during the past month: Elsdon lying on the electrically-powered rack, motionless after his body had been seized by an electric charge. He had been badly hurt because Layle – in his usual incompetent manner around machines – had caused the rack to malfunction while it was being tested. The electrocution had been an accident; Layle need not fear that he had intentionally harmed Elsdon. But as long as Elsdon was lying there motionless on the rack, unable to resist him, unable to cry out and push him away when the High Seeker took his victim’s whammer in his mouth . . .

With a jerk of his heart, he realized what he was doing and pulled back. Raising his eyes, he saw his love-mate looking down on him soberly. “You were going into a dreaming without me,” Elsdon said quietly. It was a statement, not a question; Elsdon knew the signs.

Still breathing heavily, as though he had been running for many miles, Layle forced himself to his feet. “Let’s try the bed,” he said. “We can lie face-to-face.”

It was always a comfort to lie in bed with Elsdon: to feel the other man’s arms around him, to have his flesh warmed by Elsdon’s flesh, and to know that Elsdon was receiving warmth from him. Elsdon’s breath was as sweet as sugar-water, his body tasted like wine, his skin was as smooth as the finest suede bindings.

It was a comfort, but it was not a passion. Layle’s whammer seemed to have fallen asleep.

They continued to press against each other for some time, Layle kissing his way round Elsdon’s neck, Elsdon nibbling at his earlobes. With the right setting in his mind – a rape victim being forced to serve his rapist, or a prisoner showing his gratitude for a rescue from pain – Layle had no doubt that Elsdon’s presence would bring fire to his own body.

But his body remained cool and unmoved by this mutual sharing of love. He could feel Elsdon’s whammer droop as the High Seeker’s lack of interest in their lovemaking became apparent. Layle, his eyes closed as he licked his way down Elsdon’s collarbone, tried to think of what else he could attempt.

Suddenly, he felt Elsdon’s body begin to vibrate underneath him. Alarmed, he pulled back, wondering what act he had undertaken that had caused Elsdon to begin crying. He found that Elsdon was stuffing one of the pillows into his mouth in an attempt not to laugh.

“Have you decided that you want a comic drama?” Layle tried to keep his voice light, though he was experiencing his old fear that Elsdon found the High Seeker’s efforts at lovemaking to be ludicrous.

“I’m sorry,” Elsdon managed to gasp. “So very rude of me, but . . . I just had a vision of us as young schoolboys, fumbling with each other, not quite sure of what we were doing.”

A wry smile touched the edge of Layle’s mouth. “An apt image. Well, it was worth a try.” He pulled himself away from Elsdon, rolled over, and sat up on the edge of the bed. Not so long ago, a failure like this would have caused him to plunge into a paroxysm of guilt. Only as a result of Elsdon’s wisdom had Layle come to recognize that he should treat his failures in the bedroom in the exact same manner as he treated his failures in the breaking cells: as opportunities for growth and learning.

So now, under the sting of disappointment, he remained reasonably relaxed as he reached for his trousers. His clothing and Elsdon’s were mingled on the night-stand where they had placed the objects after leaving the sitting room, lest they should suddenly need to don their clothes in order to answer the door.

Layle had pulled on the lower half of his clothing when Elsdon’s arm snaked round his chest. “Was it worth the try?” Elsdon asked softly in his ear. “Love, I know that you like to try new things, but . . . bland porridge when we usually eat sumptuous feasts?”

Layle broke himself free of Elsdon’s grip and turned to look at his love-mate, who was kneeling on the bed behind him. “What in the name of all that is sacred are you talking about? I just denied you a sumptuous feast.”

Elsdon, he would have sworn, looked puzzled in the next moment. Then he laughed. “Oh, High Seeker – were you trying to give me a gift?”

Swallowing, Layle turned his back and reached for his shirt. “I was trying to give you back what I took from you, five years ago.”

“A chance to be normal?” Elsdon’s voice was slightly mocking now. “A chance to make love the conventional way?”

Layle said nothing, concentrating his attention on the shirt-knots, and then on settling his hood over his head. He kept the face-cloth up, though he would just as soon have pulled the curtain on his face.

Elsdon’s arm took him prisoner once more. “Do you remember the last time we made love?”

Instantly, his whammer awakened. Layle told himself that it was only because six weeks had passed since that episode. It had occurred a fortnight before Elsdon’s electrocution, shortly after Elsdon had promised that he would no longer publicly denounce Layle’s policy of strictly enforcing the Code. In turn, Layle had promised to listen to any criticisms Elsdon brought to him in private. It was, Layle had thought at the time, an act of detente that the ambassadors of Yclau and Vovim would have admired.

“You wanted to torture the man,” Elsdon murmured in his ear. “I refused to let you do so. We fought bitterly, for a full day, inflicting wounds on each other. You threw me down and threatened to rape me.”

Layle’s whammer was beginning to crawl down one of his trouser legs. He shifted uneasily.

“And then you realized that you loved me,” Elsdon said softly. “I, your sister Mercy, was more important to you than the pleasure you would receive from racking the prisoner in hell. And so you, the High Master of hell, released the man to me. And then we made love, you and I, Mercy and Hell joined together in an act of peace and mutual surrender.” Elsdon tugged at Layle’s earlobe with his teeth for a moment before saying, “And you want to replace that sort of play-acting with us merely lying in bed, groping each other? High Seeker, have you gone mad again?”

Layle laughed then, turning his lips to meet Elsdon’s. Elsdon kissed back with a force that did not cause Layle’s whammer to flag, any more than his imaginary battle with Mercy had caused it to flag. Quite the opposite, actually.

“So,” he said as he finally withdrew from the kiss, “I occasionally make mistakes.” He smiled at Elsdon, drawing his fingers across Elsdon’s cheek.

“Yes.”

Layle’s smile dissolved. He was still a moment, and then slowly stood up. The tone of Elsdon’s voice had been as soft as the whisper of a match as it lights a cannon on the battlefield.

Layle turned toward the wall and spent a minute adjusting the sputtering electric light bracketed there before saying, without looking back at Elsdon, “This isn’t the right moment for such a conversation.”

“When is the right moment? Layle, I’ve tried to talk with you for the past month, and each time you’ve said I’m too sick to discuss this matter. The few times I’ve managed to get a few words in on the subject, you’ve walked out of this cell . . . knowing that I was too sick to be able to follow you outside.”

Layle pulled in his breath, held it, and turned stiffly, like a man turning to face a firing squad. “I’m sorry. But I don’t know what we can say to each other that we haven’t already said in the past.”

“We can talk about Mr. Boyd’s flogging.”

He felt himself flinch. “I made mistakes there. I’ve already told you that . . .”

“And when will you admit to yourself that this is one of your mistakes?” Elsdon thrust his hand in the direction of a black volume lying on the night-stand, still open at the section that he and Layle had been reading and discussing together before bed, as they often did.

Layle closed his eyes, trying to keep his temper under check. Elsdon was not attacking the Code of Seeking, Layle reminded himself. They both revered the Code. That common ground should allow them to find a passage through this conversation.

“Elsdon,” he said as he opened his eyes, his voice as tense as a racked prisoner’s limbs, “I’ve never said that the Code was flawless. It couldn’t be; I compiled the present revision. It contains all my mistakes, as well as any mistakes made by my predecessors that I failed to eliminate when I was revising the text. It’s a human document, not a pronouncement from the gods. But you can’t improve matters by letting Seekers and guards pick and choose which parts of the Code they want to follow. They’ll only end up eliminating whichever parts of the Code best curb their darkest desires—”

“And what about the prisoners?” Elsdon had lost control over himself so far that he had raised his voice. “Layle, you talk about this in that bloody cold manner of yours, as though the Code were nothing more than a set of rules for mumblety-peg. The blade we flip goes into flesh and blood! If the Code says, ‘Rack a man,’ and the Code is wrong, then we are tearing apart men’s bodies! We are endangering men’s souls!”

“For love of the Code, Elsdon, we are torturers—”

“Well, maybe we shouldn’t be!”

In the moment after Elsdon’s shout, all was still except for the distant sound of laborers walking in the outer dungeon. Layle had a moment to be grateful that the Record-keeper had possessed the foresight to place the High Seeker in a cell that faced a little-visited portion of the outer dungeon. Even the cells flanking the High Seekers were empty at present; the Record-keeper, after enduring numerous complaints about the noise that the High Seeker and his love-mate emitted during their energetic play-acting sessions, had finally thrown up his hands and assigned day-shift Seekers to either side of the cell inhabited by Layle Smith and Elsdon Taylor, both of whom were night-shift Seekers.

Layle said, in the deep voice he rarely used outside of the prisoners’ cells or his dreamings, “Mr. Taylor, you forget yourself.”

“Better that I should forget myself than that I should center all my beliefs on my own experiences.” Elsdon, still utterly naked, had a formidable set to his jaw now. “High Seeker, you think, because you were transformed and reborn due to the torture you underwent as a prisoner in the Hidden Dungeon, that all other prisoners are benefitted by torture. But I neither needed nor benefitted from the torture I received here as a prisoner.”

“Mr. Taylor.” He strove to keep his voice level. This had passed beyond a private discussion between two love-mates; what Elsdon was proposing was an overthrow of the foundations of the Code. “Neither I nor any other Seeker has ever denied that some prisoners are better off without physical torture. In your case, I made a mistake, thinking that you had lied to me—”

“But what if I had lied to you, because I was afraid of you, the torturer who was searching me? The Code would have required you to beat me, regardless as to whether that punishment brought me closer to transformation. High Seeker, don’t you see how dangerous it is to allow Seekers even the option of torture, when less harmful means are available to them for controlling and breaking prisoners? Didn’t your flogging of Barrett Boyd teach you anything?”

Layle’s breath turned unsteady. It was a moment before he found the strength to speak – to speak, rather than to throw Elsdon to the ground and rape him. Arguments between himself and Elsdon always roused his whammer as thoroughly as though he were the god Hell, fighting his sister Mercy for possession of a newly dead human.

He said, through teeth that barely moved, “It taught me that I must uphold the Code.”

He turned then and departed the cell, leaving Elsdon still fumbling to reach his own clothes. Almost, Layle thought, he could hear echoing in the cell the final words he had not spoken – the words that made clear how much of the Code of Seeking derived from his frailties and his mistakes and his crimes against the gods.

He wondered whether he would ever have the courage to speak those words to Elsdon Taylor.

CHAPTER THREE

Three days before.

He had been right about the puddles, he saw as he slipped back into the entry hall.

The scene was much as he had left it, except that someone had switched off most of the lamps in the hall, leaving the onlookers in darkness. The platform remained brightly lit, like a stage. From where Mr. Urman stood, on the upswelling of ground on the eastern side of the entry hall, he could see the activities there clearly, from a sideways angle. No Seekers or guards stood to the right of the stage; his view was unimpeded. Nor did he have any trouble hearing what was taking place: the onlookers were as silent as corpses, except for a few senior guards, who were exchanging mutters as they helped back onto his feet one of their fellow guards who had evidently fainted.

Given that the guard who had passed out was one who regularly supervised rackings, Mr. Urman considered that Layle Smith had surpassed himself this time. Mr. Urman looked again at the puddles of blood gathering on the platform.

Mr. Boyd’s trousers-seat was black with blood that had dripped down from his back, but so vigorous were the strokes which the High Seeker was laying on that each lash sent blood spraying forth from Mr. Boyd’s body, falling into pools at his feet. From the angle at which he stood, Mr. Urman could not see Mr. Boyd’s back, but he would not have been surprised if bone had been reached by this point.

The High Seeker himself was in no danger of being spattered by blood. The long stretch of the black whip allowed him to stay well away from the prisoner. Perhaps in an effort to demonstrate his dexterity, he had chosen to stand on the right side of the prisoner, rather than the left side that was normally assumed by guards beating prisoners. His back was to Mr. Urman; his left arm reached back in an easy, almost lazy arc before he brought the whip forward in a snap that echoed in the high ceiling of the entry hall, causing a few queer bats which had chosen to remain in the hall on this night to rustle uneasily in their sleep. The lash sliced into Mr. Boyd’s back, sending another spray of blood onto the floor.

Mr. Boyd barely moaned. He was sobbing continuously now in a hoarse manner that was more terrible than any scream, because it suggested that he had travelled beyond the ability to emit screams. His head stayed hidden within his arms as he pressed his face against the whipping post. He was sagging in his bonds; blood trailed down from the wrist that Mr. Urman could see.

Clear above the sound of Mr. Boyd’s sobs, in an even manner, came the count. It was so mechanical in nature that it might have been emitted by the time-clock in the nearby guardroom. Mr. Urman could see Mr. Sobel from where the senior night guard stood, on the left side of the prisoner, just far enough back to be able to watch the High Seeker apply the lashes. Mr. Sobel was paler than Mr. Urman had ever seen him before, but there was no sign that he planned to discard his distasteful duty. He had reached the eighties in his count.

Next to Mr. Sobel was the healer. Surprisingly, she had not yet fainted. She was wringing her hands, apparently without knowledge of what she did, for she was staring with concentration at Mr. Boyd, tears rushing down her face. Mr. Sobel took a brief, worried glance at her but did not pause in his count.

There was further disturbance in the crowd as yet another onlooker fainted. This time it was a Seeker. Mr. Urman felt a certain grim satisfaction in that. With any luck, Mr. Boyd’s gamble would pay off: nobody, after witnessing this scene, could tell themselves that the High Seeker had only the best interests of his prisoners in mind.

Mr. Boyd’s breathing was turning more ragged, more uneven in interval. Mr. Urman, reviewing in his mind what he had read of Vovimian torture, guessed that the whipping post was partly at fault. Sagging as he was in his bonds, Mr. Boyd was essentially undergoing crucifixion, with all the consequent pressure on his chest that would make breathing – already driven from him by the thud of each lash – next to impossible. Mr. Urman began to list to himself all the illnesses that could result when breathing was restricted over a period of time. There could be mind damage, he seemed to recall. No doubt the High Seeker would be able to say; he was the one who had given Mr. Urman a lecture on the importance of immediately reviving any prisoner who fainted in his bonds.

Mr. Urman was not ashamed to admit that, upon his first arrival at the dungeon, he had admired the High Seeker. All that Mr. Urman had known of Layle Smith then was that he was the author of the fifth revision of the Code of Seeking. It had taken Mr. Urman a couple of months to realize that Mr. Smith’s ideals were far different from his practice. Mr. Urman remembered the exact turning point when he had realized the High Seeker’s true nature: the day on which Mr. Smith had ordered that a prisoner be beaten because he had stated that he loved his father.

Elsdon Taylor. He had transformed from prisoner to Seeker, but to Mr. Urman’s mind he was still a prisoner of the High Seeker, still bound by Layle Smith’s pernicious influence. For a few months this year, it had seemed that Elsdon Taylor would break free and serve as leader of the New School of protesters to the High Seeker’s policies. But then he had fallen silent, apparently cowed into submission, perhaps by what Mr. Smith did to him in the bedroom.

Elsdon Taylor. He was not here today. What would he do if he were?

Without knowing why, Mr. Urman began to move forward.

o—o—o

Three days later.

The crematorium was sweet with the scent of warm wax. Layle paused at the threshold, standing between the great doors that swung open, wide enough for a funeral procession. Nobody was in the high, cave-walled chamber. At noontime, the day shift was well ensconced with the prisoners, while the night shift was asleep or on its way to bed. Layle himself had been assigned a new prisoner to search that evening; he knew that he ought to be abed by now. But bed meant Elsdon, and questions and accusations Layle could not face. He stepped into the crematorium, leaving the doors open behind him.

As he curved his way round the great lid that sealed the communal ash-tomb, his eyes rose toward the candles, lit or melted. The Record-keeper had a giant tablet – which had miraculously survived the recent renovation of the dungeon – on which were written the names of as many of the recent prisoners as could be crammed onto the board. And here were the candles of many of those men and women: level upon level rising high toward the ceiling, each on its own tiny shelf jutting out from the limestone.

A stalactite dripped water gently onto his shoulder as he walked forward. The stalagmites had been cleared away from this portion of the dungeon’s cavern, and the maids were vigorous in keeping the floor mopped. Even so, the crematorium had a wild appearance, as though it were not fully aware that the lighted world outside the dungeon was now in the fourth century of the Tri-National Era.

Layle’s eyes sought out the candles he knew best. There, on the bottom ledge, to the far left, was a cut-throat murderer. There, several shelves above it, was a man who had raped his virgin daughter. There, a little ways off, was a shelf dedicated to a long-time outer-dungeon cook who had received permission to be buried in the ash-pit when her time came. This shelf had more than one candle lit; her friends were still mourning her death.

Layle avoided looking toward the right, knowing what he would see. Instead, he came forward to a shelf where a candle had burnt out. Its wax was still warm to the touch. Reaching down, he pulled up the lid of a chest containing additional candles. He placed the new candle in the tall glass, used a taper to light it from another of the candles, and stepped back.

Jonathan O’Reilly, twenty-six years of age, a draper by trade, married, with two young sons. Hard-working, well-liked by friends and neighbors, respected by his employers. Arrested on the twenty-ninth day of the seventh month of the year 360, in connection with a burglary gone wrong that had resulted in the death of a householder. Lied repeatedly during his searching about facts that could be double-checked. Sentenced twice to beatings; the third time, he was placed on the rack. Died under questioning. Later determined to be innocent of the crime of which he was accused. Body burnt on the fifth day of the eighth month by his murderer, Layle Smith.

Layle could never bring himself to think of his failures in the rack room in any other way. He knew, in a rational fashion, that it was the healer’s job to ascertain whether a prisoner’s long-term health would be placed at risk if he were racked. He knew that it was the senior-most guard’s job to actually rack the prisoner. But it had been the High Seeker’s voice that had said, “Take him up to eight,” and then, “Down! down!” – but too late, for the prisoner’s spasms had ended in death.

Here, if anywhere, was the proof Elsdon required that Seekers should not torture their prisoners.

But against that was the candle near it. Terrence Harris, age forty-two, the rapist of his daughter. Had denied vigorously that he had done the deed. His testimony was backed by friends and family. The daughter, now pregnant with her rapist’s child, refused to name the defiler of her purity, evidently fearing the man’s vengeance. Only Layle’s instinct had told him to search further. He had questioned and pressed and pressured until the prisoner, squirming to escape from Layle’s needle-sharp questions, had done exactly what Layle intended for him to do: he had tried to place the blame for the crime on another man.

Sixty heavy strokes had followed, as decreed by the Code. No questions had been asked; the Code did not call for that at this level of punishment. But by the end, the prisoner, screaming for release, had confessed his crime and had confessed further his plans to rape his niece.

Evidence was located, swift upon the confession: bloody clothes, bed-stains, a hidden journal carefully recording the deeds. In the end, there remained no doubt in anyone’s mind that the rapist had been found. The daughter, upon being told that her father was likely to be convicted, had shed tears of joy. The rapist’s sister and brother-in-law had been weak-kneed with relief upon learning of the fate that their own daughter had escaped.

Layle had witnessed none of this first-hand. He had been busy with his prisoner over the next week, delaying the trial so that the prisoner should be properly prepared for the consequences of his likely death. The preparation had not been easy; the prisoner believed in neither afterdeath nor rebirth. But he did, it turned out, care about his daughter, and gradually, through Layle’s patient efforts, the prisoner had come to recognize and regret the harm he had done. With any luck, his time spent in afterdeath, before his next rebirth, would be shortened thereby.

All this had followed from the beating. None of it, Layle was quite sure, could have occurred without the beating. If the dead prisoner managed to escape the tragic fate of everlasting afterdeath, his freedom into rebirth would be due to the brief torture he had endured. And the young daughter he had misused was now free of her father’s cruelty.

Layle checked that the rapist’s candle had enough wick left to remain alight until the next time Layle should visit, and then he reached down and picked a second candle out of the chest. He held his breath for a long moment before he turned toward the right.

Rarely did any person whose ashes were buried in this place have more than a dozen or so candles commemorating or praying for his or her rebirth. Most outer-dungeon residents would light candles for the dead at their homes or in the chapels of remembrance in the lighted world. Seekers encountered death too often to take special notice of dead souls, other than those of their own prisoners and close friends. Layle had been told, by those who had witnessed it, that only once in recent years had several dozen candles been lit for one man. That had been during the days that the High Seeker first began to enter into a spell of madness; Seekers, guards, and outer-dungeon laborers had crowded into the crematorium, lighting candles to try to draw Layle Smith’s soul back from death.

Now the crematorium floor was littered with hundreds of flickering candles.

They filled nearly the entire chamber – far too many to have been placed on shelves. All of the candles were white with the purity of rebirth, all were gold-flamed with the fire of transformation. The red blood of death was missing from the memorials; in the Eternal Dungeon, death did not need to be supplied by symbols.

Still gripping the candle, Layle walked slowly forward. He was seeing, not the man whose rebirth was being sought, but the whip that had cut him.

A black whip. Layle had used many instruments of torture over the years, but none had given him as much pleasure as the black whip. The stub whip of the Eternal Dungeon was a poor creature by comparison, barely long enough to inflict pain. The black whip was slim, sleek, slicking through the air with a whistle and a crack, alighting, tearing, gouging. He had been taught in Vovim’s Hidden Dungeon how to execute prisoners, using the black whip alone. Just holding it in his hands, after so many years, had been a pleasure beyond measure.

And that keen pleasure should have been enough to warn him to set the whip aside and let another man carry out the punishment. The Code spoke bluntly on this matter: “It is too great a temptation for the man who orders the torture to be the man who carries it out.” This had proved to be true. Layle remembered the exact moment when the count had failed. It was also the exact moment when he became aware that he did not want to stop, and then, chillingly, that he could not stop. It had been too many years since he had handled the black whip, and he had given too many strokes to be able to pull himself away from his pleasure.

Gripping the candle tighter, Layle stared down at the hundreds of flames that sent sweet smoke into the air in the name of Barrett Boyd. After another minute, he placed the unlit candle in his shirt-pocket. He had burned candles for thousands of prisoners who had died due to his evidence or due to his mishandling of their torture. But never before, in his twenty-two years in the Eternal Dungeon, had he sent a prisoner into death’s arms because he had given way to his passion for pain.

He had no right to light a candle for Mr. Boyd. He had no right to life itself, after what he had done.

With the candle weighing down his shirt-pocket like the deadweight of a hanged man’s body, he walked to the far end of the crematorium and opened the door there.

CHAPTER FOUR

Three days before.

His path remained unimpeded. The other guards were staying well back from the platform, and most of the Seekers stood in the back of the entry hall, as they were required to do during meetings. Mr. Urman had always suspected that the High Seeker had ordered this arrangement so that, if anything went wrong at the front of the hall, the men most likely to take action against the High Seeker would be furthest away.

Only Mistress Birdesmond’s husband, Weldon Chapman, stood just southeast of the platform, staring up at the proceedings. The count had reached the nineties now. Mr. Urman, still following some inner instinct, picked up his pace.

He was within a few yards’ reach when a heart-sundering scream streamed out from the prisoner. It was as raw as a death-rattle, as deep as a dagger in the belly. Mr. Boyd threw back his head, revealing the unendurable agony on his face. Then, with his head still tilted back and his mouth open in that eternal scream, his feet seemed to slip out from under him. He hung in the irons, his body swaying from the impact of the latest lash, his head lolling back, his eyes open but unblinking.

“Mr. Smith!” The healer’s voice was urgent; she had stepped forward. “The prisoner has fainted; you must allow him a moment to—”

But the High Seeker had no intention of allowing the prisoner anything, other than continued pain. He drew back the whip. Mr. Sobel had fallen silent the moment the healer stepped forward. No count came. With not the slightest indication that he cared, Layle Smith brought down the whip once more. The whip thudded; the body swayed, like a cut of naked beef in the butcher’s shop.

A soft gasp rose from the crowd, like morning mist on lake water. Although the Code had nothing to say on this subject, there was not a single man present who did not know that, by dungeon custom, a beating was supposed to stop the moment the count stopped. And the Code was quite clear that the healer, who worked for the Codifier rather than the High Seeker, could order even the High Seeker to cease his torture if a prisoner was in imminent danger of dying.

“Mr. Smith!” The healer took another step forward. She was close to entering the area of the whip’s path; seeing this, Mr. Sobel grabbed her and tried to pull her back. She fought to free herself from his grip.

Mr. Urman had already begun to run, from the moment that Layle Smith ignored the ceasing of the count. He passed Mr. Chapman, who was staring ashen-faced at the proceedings. Fool, fool, lackey to a bully – as the second-highest-ranked Seeker, only Mr. Chapman possessed the authority to arrest the High Seeker in the absence of the Codifier, but Mr. Chapman was standing dumb and motionless. Lackey to a bully – he was friend to Layle Smith and would do nothing as the High Seeker mauled his victim.

There were no steps on the eastern side of the platform; Mr. Urman used his hands to vault his body onto the platform, then scrambled to his feet and continued running. He had his dagger out, but there was no chance that he could use it; the High Seeker, perhaps alerted by the vibration of Mr. Urman’s arrival, had turned his body so that he was now directly facing Mr. Boyd’s back. Layle Smith should not have been able to land blows from that direction, yet he was continuing to rain down lashes upon Mr. Boyd’s body, which hung motionless, except for the propulsion of the guard’s chest into the whipping post every time a blow landed. Mr. Urman had a moment to wonder whether he was risking his own life for a corpse.

He knew what he had to do, of course. Every guard knew what to do under these circumstances. Word, whip, dagger, body – that was how the phrase ran. If a Seeker or guard endangered the life of a prisoner, you first spoke to the other man; if that didn’t work, you used your whip to push him back; if that didn’t work, you cut him with your dagger; and if none of those methods worked . . .

The healer’s word had already been ignored. Mr. Urman’s whip would be of no use in this case; it was far shorter than the whip of the High Seeker – who, in any case, was the most skilled whipster in the dungeon. And Mr. Urman could not use his dagger; the High Seeker would not allow him to get that close.

That left only one choice. By rank, Mr. Sobel should have been the one to do this, while every other guard within reach wrestled the High Seeker into submission. Though the crowd was now shouting at the top of its lungs, nobody was coming forward to help. Mr. Sobel – whose gentlemanly instincts toward the weaker sex seemed to have overcome momentarily his knowledge that the prisoner’s best interests came first – was continuing to struggle with the healer, trying to keep her from impaling herself on the sharp lash of the High Seeker’s whip.

Which continued to land. Mr. Urman’s mind, which had kept the count through all this time, registered that the latest blow was the hundred and first. Mr. Boyd had still not given any sign that he remained alive.

Mr. Urman skidded to a halt, and with his heart’s blood beating madly in his throat, he turned to face the High Seeker.

o—o—o

Three days later.

The healer’s outer office was empty of the healer. This was a relief. The dungeon’s regular healer, Mr. Bergsen, had returned the previous day, called back from leave by an urgent telegram from the Codifier. Alerted to the news of what had happened in the dungeon during his absence, Mr. Bergsen had arrived roaring like an infuriated lion. Only the compelling need to immediately tend his patient had prevented him from rending to pieces the temporary healer, who had gratefully made her escape. Layle strongly doubted that she would ever step foot in any prison again.

Unfortunately, Layle could not escape that easily. He could well envision the interview that would take place between Mr. Bergsen and himself once this episode was over, but for now, the healer was busy full around the clock, caring for his patient, who hovered at death’s edge.

Judging from the closed door leading into the small inner chamber of the office, Mr. Bergsen was snatching a nap on the cot there. The male nurse from the palace who attended emergency cases during Mr. Bergsen’s off-duty hours was not present; the only man in the room was Mr. Sobel. He was sitting next to the bed in the center of the room, his body blocking Layle’s view of the patient’s face. Mr. Sobel’s back was to the High Seeker.

Layle silently closed the door behind him and took a moment to examine the scene. As a Seeker, it was usually his own responsibility to keep the death watch on any prisoner of his who had undergone serious torture, but in this particular case, he had thought it better to delegate the duty to Mr. Boyd’s closest friend, Seward Sobel. Mr. Crofford had volunteered to keep the watch as well, but when Layle consulted the Codifier about this, Mr. Daniels had advised against it.

“We have enough trouble in this dungeon,” he had said, his eyes steely upon Layle, “from Seekers who let their affairs with their love-mates keep them from their duties.”

The reference was to the three years when Layle had been suspended from his duties because his guilt over how he treated Elsdon had sent him plummeting into madness. Layle had not bothered to point out that only Elsdon’s loving efforts had kept the High Seeker from spending his final days in a lunatic asylum. The Codifier was currently angry at Elsdon – justifiably so – for the manner in which he had stirred up protests among the inner dungeon dwellers against the High Seeker’s policy of strictly reinforcing the Code.

So only Mr. Sobel kept the watch, but given the strong bonds between himself and Mr. Boyd, it was unlikely that any other watch-keeper was necessary.

Assuming, Layle reminded himself, that Mr. Boyd was even aware of Mr. Sobel’s presence.

He ran his eye over what he could see of Mr. Boyd. The injured guard was lying on his side, very still. His back was hidden from Layle, but on the edge of where the bandages carried round to the front, Layle could see that bloodstains had seeped through. There were further bandages on the chest that Layle, without any medical training, could not discern the purpose of. Mr. Boyd’s wrists were bandaged; there, too, blood had seeped through.

The room was dim, lit only by a bracketed lamp upon the wall. Mr. Sobel, turning toward a table next to the bed, groped for the glass of water there. Then he caught sight of Layle. After a quick glance at Mr. Boyd, Mr. Sobel rose and walked forward to where Layle stood. As he did so, Mr. Boyd’s face came into view, lying on its pillow. The injured guard’s eyes were closed.

“What is the purpose of those bandages on his chest?” Layle asked without preliminary greeting, holding his voice low, so as not to disturb Mr. Boyd’s sleep.

“They’re for the ribs, sir. Mr. Bergsen said that Mr. Boyd’s ribs were damaged by the whipping post.”

Mr. Sobel kept his tone neutral, which Layle thought was merciful of him. His senior night guard had warned him beforehand that the design of the post was dangerous, but Layle had ignored the warning, so intent was he on carrying out the punishment in a manner that would frighten the dungeon inhabitants into submission.

He looked again at Mr. Boyd, whose chest was slowly rising and falling. Mr. Sobel had passed on to Layle the remark that Mr. Boyd had made about wanting to show the High Seeker and the dungeon how dangerous Layle Smith was, so that the High Seeker would be stopped. Well, Mr. Boyd had failed in his mission. From all accounts Layle had received, the guards and Seekers had reacted to Layle’s ferocity, not by plotting further rebellions against him, but by retreating from their protests in frightened silence. For now, at least, the New School’s rebellion was broken.

As for the self-knowledge that Mr. Boyd had hoped to impart to the High Seeker, the guard was far too late for that. Layle had known what he was, and what he was capable of, since he was a young boy.

“And his back?” He was tiptoeing around the real subject, he knew.

“It’s too early to be certain, sir, but Mr. Bergsen believes that he can save it.” Mr. Sobel hesitated, then added, “Sir, Mr. Bergsen asked that I pass on a message to you . . .” He paused.

“We both know what Mr. Bergsen’s messages are like, Mr. Sobel; you may quote him directly.” Layle’s voice turned dry.

Mr. Sobel’s mouth quirked, but it returned to sobriety as he said, “His message, sir, is that he will see you hanged, drawn, and quartered by the Guild of Healers if you or anyone else ever uses a black whip in this dungeon again.”

“Thank you, Mr. Sobel,” Layle replied quietly. “You may assure Mr. Bergsen that the Codifier has already delivered a similar message to me. Only the stub whip will be used in this dungeon henceforth.”

As he spoke, he felt a sharp sting of regret in the part of him that was still lingering with pleasure over memories of the punishment. That part of him he had firmly under control again, or he would not have allowed himself to remain a Seeker. He had already disposed of the black whip before the Codifier reprimanded him – or rather, Elsdon had, for in the moments after the flogging, Layle had clutched the whip to himself, as though it were a favorite toy that he could not bear to be parted from.

Mr. Sobel took a deep breath. He too, it seemed, had been tiptoeing around the real subject. “Sir, Mr. Boyd emerged from his coma this morning.”

Layle nodded without taking his eyes off the injured guard. It had been Mr. Sobel’s written message on this subject that had given Layle the impulse to try to make love to Elsdon in the conventional manner. Even Layle did not quite have the nerve to engage in bedroom play while one of his prisoners was dying.

He forced himself to meet Mr. Sobel’s eyes. “Has he said anything about what happened?”

“No, sir. He has answered all the questions Mr. Bergsen asks him concerning his state of health, but he has not volunteered any information to the healer.”

“Nor in his conversations to you?”

Mr. Sobel hesitated. He was facing Layle, with his back to the patient; for a moment, it almost seemed that he would look over his shoulder at Mr. Boyd. But long training concerning the proper manner in which to make his reports held true. He said, his voice somewhat hesitant, “He doesn’t seem to want to talk to me, sir.”

From the tone of Mr. Sobel’s voice, it was clear that he was not referring to bodily pain causing the communication barrier. Layle frowned. Mr. Boyd had made plain, in the days preceding his punishment, that he did not blame Mr. Sobel for following the High Seeker’s orders. Why, then, would Mr. Boyd refuse to speak to his closest friend now? Had something about the punishment changed his perspective?

Layle turned his attention back to the patient and discovered, with a thump of the heart, that Barrett Boyd was watching him.

Layle could read, all too clearly, what lay in Mr. Boyd’s look. The injured guard’s eyes were not that of an infuriated lion; they were that of a dog that has turned vicious and unpredictable. His expression smoldered in a fashion like wildfire. His hands were clutched in fists, and his chest rose and lowered rapidly.

The exertion of his efforts to kill the High Seeker with his look appeared to exhaust Mr. Boyd; he gave out a breath suddenly and closed his eyes. The eyes remained closed, though his chest continued to move.

Mr. Sobel had not noticed. Layle wondered what he and Mr. Bergsen had read in Mr. Boyd’s expression when the injured guard first awoke from his coma. Perhaps Mr. Boyd had succeeded in shielding his expression, or perhaps Mr. Sobel’s hesitant speech indicated that he sensed something was wrong, but he was not sure what.

Layle knew exactly what was wrong. He had worked in the Hidden Dungeon, where prisoners were broken by means forbidden to Seekers, and to all civilized torturers in the world.

He felt the first lash of fear slice him. It was not often that he felt fear; usually he was too filled with guilt to be affected by fear. But in this case, the fear was great enough to rival the guilt. He forced himself to return his gaze to his senior night guard, who was beginning to look concerned.

“Mr. Sobel,” Layle said quietly, “please tell Mr. Bergsen . . .” Now it was his turn to pause. He flicked another glance at the injured guard, whose eyes remained closed.

“Sir?” prompted Mr. Sobel.

Layle lowered his voice yet more. “Tell Mr. Bergsen that I would advise him to consult about Mr. Boyd’s case with a healer who specializes in mental ailments.”

The pain and shock that spread over Mr. Sobel’s face was too much to bear. Layle turned on his heel and left the office.

He found Elsdon waiting for him in the crematorium. The junior Seeker was lighting a candle for Mr. Boyd.

Layle waited until he was done; then he gave Elsdon the news, keeping his voice quiet, though they were alone in the crematorium. He concluded by saying, “I have killed him, just as effectively as if I had beaten his body to death.”

He half expected Elsdon to protest his judgment. But Elsdon said nothing; he simply held Layle’s eyes with his steady look.

CHAPTER FIVE

Three days before.

The crowd had fallen silent. The only sound came from the temporary healer, who – in a most unfeminine manner – was cursing Mr. Sobel as she struggled to escape his protective custody. Mr. Sobel had the ability to knock a burly prisoner unconscious with nothing other than his fists, but he was apparently unwilling to use such a method upon a woman, for the healer continued to fight in his arms, like a slippery fish that may slide out of one’s grasp. The senior night guard had turned his back on the proceedings in an effort to push the healer away. The High Seeker’s arm swung back as he prepared to land his next lash.

Not on Mr. Boyd. His next lash would land on Mr. Urman, shielding the prisoner with his own body.

Mr. Urman felt oddly calm. He knew, deep within his mind, that these might be the final moments of his life. Any whiplash on a man’s vulnerable front side was dangerous; the High Seeker’s lash would be deadly. It was only a question of where the lash would land. Would it land on Mr. Urman’s groin, castrating him as effectively as though he were in the hands of a Vovimian torturer? Would it land on his belly, slicing into the soft flesh there and tearing through his guts? Would it wrap its way past the ribs and puncture his lungs? Would it land on his face?

It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered, except that Mr. Urman should suffer for the prisoner, as both his conscience and the Code demanded.

The healer struggled in Mr. Sobel’s arms. The onlookers watched silently. The High Seeker’s arm stretched full back, poised to land the blow.

“Layle!”

The voice carried across the entry hall like a lash, causing the bats to rustle in the ceiling high above. The High Seeker paused, as though in careful consideration of how to react. Mr. Urman did not need to turn his head to know who had cried out. He wondered how Elsdon Taylor had managed to rise from his sickbed and stumble his way to the entry hall unaided.

He wondered, but he did not turn to look, for suddenly he was frozen, and everything was tumbling down upon him at once.

Bound wrists and trouble breathing and naked flesh awaiting the pain and down came the pain and there was blood spilling and he couldn’t stop it, he couldn’t stop the pain—

(The crowd had begun to shout again. Mr. Sobel, turning toward the sound of Elsdon Taylor’s cry and then seeing where the greatest danger now lay, thrust the healer aside and ran forward. He tried to push Mr. Urman away, to take the post of danger himself, but Mr. Urman still could not move.)

—he couldn’t stop the pain and it was continuing, over and over and over, and the others stood by, doing nothing, lackeys to the bully—

(The crowd continued to shout. Mr. Chapman, coming awake belatedly, had scrambled onto the platform and raced over to the High Seeker. He was at the High Seeker’s side now, talking rapidly to him, trying to take the whip from his hand. The High Seeker ignored him, as he might have ignored a petulant kitten demanding to be petted. Elsdon Taylor called again; he was closer now. Not close enough. He would not rescue Mr. Urman.)

—lackeys to the bully and none of them taking his side, nobody ever took his side, they mocked him or attacked him or turned their eyes away and nobody would care now if he died and oh sweet blood the naked flesh and the pain travelling into his depths—

(Somebody was screaming now, and he knew that the scream was inside himself, even though the blow had not yet landed. Mr. Sobel had abandoned him to try to help Mr. Chapman talk sense into the High Seeker. The High Seeker had not yet dropped his arm. Elsdon Taylor was not here. The blow would land, and nobody could stop it. Nobody would stop it.)

—and he was alone, he was alone, he was always alone—

(He closed his eyes, feeling the hot tears on his face, feeling his inner scream travel through his body. Hands gripped him, holding him tight. He tried to pull away, because he knew that it could not be his rescuer, so that meant it must be the bully, and he must protect the prisoner, because others were weaker than himself. He must protect, no matter what was done to him, no matter how great the pain, no matter if he lost his life—)

“Elsdon! Elsdon, wake up!

He opened his eyes. The High Seeker was in front of him, gripping his arms.

CHAPTER SIX

Two-and-a-half years later: The year 363, the fourth month. (The year 1882 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)

“Elsdon! Elsdon, wake up!

His face stripe-shadowed by the alternation of light and dark from the lamp that Layle had lit, Elsdon Taylor began to blink. Layle hastily released him, before Elsdon should realize how tightly he was being gripped.

“Sir?” Elsdon’s voice wavered uncertainly.

Layle could guess from whence he was emerging. He kept his own voice quiet. “Mr. Taylor, you are in the Eternal Dungeon. You are a junior Seeker. I am the High Seeker.” The formal language was deliberate; it always seemed to calm Elsdon, when he was emerging from his nightmares.

“Sir?” Elsdon repeated as though he had not heard. He was blinking rapidly, the fine blond lashes of his eyes shimmering golden in the lamplight. Then: “High Seeker? . . . Layle?”

“Yes.” He kept his voice gentle, moving back slightly on the bed so that Elsdon would not feel crowded. There was little enough room to do so. Some past High Torturer – giving in to the practical reality of the manner in which many of the dungeon’s torturers chose to interact with their cell-mates – had authorized double beds for the torturers’ cells, but the living cells of the torturers – now called Seekers – had never been luxurious. Indeed, there had been some discussion during Layle’s early manhood as to whether the Seekers’ mattresses should rest on stone foundations, as the mattresses of their prisoners did. Mr. Bergsen had vetoed this idea, arguing persuasively that conditions proper for temporary imprisonment were quite different from conditions proper for lifelong imprisonment. So Layle and Elsdon, like the other Seekers, slept in a proper bed.

But their double bed was a small one, and their bedroom was starkly furnished. No wallpaper, no rugs, not even a wardrobe. None was needed, since Seekers wore the same shirt and trousers every day, with only a spare set to allow for laundering, as well as changes of undergarments. Neither Layle nor Elsdon wore nightshirts; they had no need of sleeping garments, curled up in each other’s warmth.

Now Layle reached forward and, without a word, draped the bed’s topmost blanket over Elsdon’s shoulders, which were beginning to pucker from the cool air. He said in a matter-of-fact voice, “You were dreaming of your father?”

Elsdon shook his head in a jerky fashion, as though trying to loosen the thoughts there. “No. No, not exactly. I was dreaming of Barrett’s flogging.”

The two words “not exactly” were like a blade under the nail. Layle found that he could not speak. Elsdon, still too groggy to be aware of what he had said, yawned into the palm of his hand. “What time is it?” he asked.

“About one,” replied Layle. He did not bother to look back at the ticking clock visible in the nearby sitting room; after nearly thirty years of being an imprisoned torturer within dungeons, he knew the daily rhythms of the Eternal Dungeon without needing to see either clock or sun. “I’ll go get us some cocoa.”

It was a legitimate excuse for escaping from Elsdon’s presence before the skilled junior Seeker should read what lay in Layle’s face.

Layle scooped up his hood from off the night-table, in an automatic fashion. He always wore his hood outside this room, and frequently inside it as well, as Elsdon could have testified. Last night, there had been no drama between them of torture and rape; that was increasingly rare these days. Any sort of intimate touch between them was becoming rare.

Layle turned his thoughts aside from this as he stood and picked up his clothes, which were hanging from the railing at the end of the bed. With his clothes still in hand, he walked to the door. As he prepared to pass over the threshold to the sitting room, his gaze was snagged by a framed sketch on the bedroom wall.

It was a surprisingly well-done drawing by Mr. Sobel’s son, depicting the goddess Mercy in the form of a young man. She lay on her stomach, naked, her legs parted to show her baubles. Mercy’s head was turned away, but Layle knew the body in the picture so well that he had not needed any explanation as to why Elsdon had gifted him with the sketch on his birthday two months before.

Layle had been more than a little disconcerted by Elsdon’s nudity in the drawing; Mr. Sobel’s son was not yet seven years of age. When Layle discussed the matter with his senior night guard, though, Mr. Sobel had said, “He’s just the right age for that type of model-sketching. I’ll be frank, sir: If Finlay had been a few years older, I’d never have allowed him unchaperoned in the same room as Mr. Taylor, naked or clothed. You do know, don’t you, that half the boys and men in this dungeon are in love with Mr. Taylor? And that half the girls and women are plotting ways to lure him into their beds, should his eye stray from you?” Mr. Sobel had smiled to show that he was making light-hearted mock.

Now Layle felt a shiver creep its way over his skin. He knew that he must be growing old, for the cool air, which had never affected him when he arrived at the Eternal Dungeon at age eighteen, was now too chill on his skin to allow him to walk naked around his cell.

It was a relief to clothe himself and to warm his hands over the newly installed stove in the sitting room of their cell. Three years before, he had greeted with stony silence the suggestion that Seekers be allowed to heat their living cells. Discussions with Weldon Chapman had changed his mind. Weldon and his wife and son had long occupied a cell that had originally been part of the outer dungeon, and so Weldon had experienced what it was like to live with the comfort of a stove.

“It makes me feel like a stoker again,” he complained to Layle. “Up at five in the morning to feed the grate, clear out the ashes, haul them out in a bucket to the corridor for the maid to pick up . . . I could ask the maid to do it all, of course, but that doesn’t seem right.”

“Because you’re a Seeker,” suggested Layle.

Weldon had flashed him a smile. “Of course. You understand.”

Layle understood very well indeed, and so he had instructed that stoves be installed in the cells of any Seekers who requested one, provided that the Seeker making the request be willing to clean the stove himself. Weldon – who had started his career at the Eternal Dungeon as a commoner laborer – had recognized what Layle had failed to recognize: the need for Seekers to undertake some of the works of physical labor that their commoner prisoners normally undertook in the lighted world.

Now Layle carefully scooped more coal out of the fuel bucket, added it to the coal already glowing in the stove, closed the stove door, and checked that the chimney pipe was properly drawing the smoke upwards to the dungeon’s complex ventilation system. Turning aside, he pulled the handle of one of the mirror-bright steel storage bins attached high up on the wall in the kitchen area. From the bin, he removed a cocoa tin, and then withdrew a glass bottle of milk from the recently installed ice box.

Yet another innovation; Mr. Bergsen, concerned about the lack of milk in the prisoners’ diets, had persuaded Layle to allow the prisoners daily cups of warm cocoa. Since the prisoners were now allowed this, so were the Seekers. Layle – who had spent much of his childhood living homeless on the streets – had never tasted cocoa before the previous year. Now drinking cocoa was rapidly becoming his favorite pastime.

At one time, his hours spent with Elsdon had been his favorite pastime. Once again, he jerked away from this thought.

He was not particularly surprised to learn that Elsdon had dreamt of Barrett Boyd’s flogging in the same hour that Layle himself was dreaming of the events that had taken place three days after that flogging. He and Elsdon had begun to share sleep-dreams around the time that the two of them began to play out the dreamings that Layle had when he was awake.

That had been four years before, in 359 – one of the few periods of Layle’s life when he had been truly happy. He had emerged from his madness, he and Elsdon had found a way in which to share thoughts during their lovemaking, and aside from a growing awareness of the extent of the dungeon workers’ insubordination to his orders, Layle had regarded the Eternal Dungeon as being in good order. There had been no reason to suspect that his happiness would be broken sharply the following year.

They had muddled on since Mr. Boyd’s flogging – he and Elsdon, the Seekers and guards. It was like one of the truces back in what was being called – now that it seemed finally over – the Thousand Years’ War between Yclau and Vovim. There would be a promise of peace during the war, but everyone knew that the peace would be broken. The only question was how and when.

Layle stirred a bit of water into the cocoa and sugar, turning it into paste at the bottom of the cup, and then he poured in hot milk from the pan atop the stove. No, it was not surprising that either he or Elsdon had dreamt of Mr. Boyd’s flogging. That flogging, and the events that had preceded it, had marked the beginning of the descent of their relationship. Nothing had broken permanently between them – not yet. But it was only a matter of time.

He felt the full blade enter into him then, and he had to close his eyes against the pain. He had lived thirty-five years before he met Elsdon Taylor, he reminded himself. He could live without Elsdon again, if need be. He had the strength to survive if Elsdon left him. He must.

The smell of burning tickled his nose; for a moment, he thought he had entered into one of his dreamings. They did not come often these days against his will, those dreamings of his years as an apprentice torturer in the Hidden Dungeon. But they still came, as though as a reminder of what he might become again.

Then he realized that he was not smelling burning flesh; he had left the remaining milk on the hot stove, and it was bubbling over, scalding as it hit the heated top of the stove. He hastily moved the pan onto an iron trivet nearby that showed the Queen’s seal: a crown surrounded by the circle of rebirth.

The sight of the circle helped to steady him. This death of Elsdon’s love for him, as he saw it, might be nothing more than transformation to a deeper love between the two of them. He had told prisoners time and time again over the years: “What you see as the end of your life is only the beginning. But you must let go of the old in order to grasp the new. Whatever the old may be – your lies, your crimes, your very lives – it will be transformed into something better than has come before.”

He sipped the cocoa cautiously, then set about making the second cup. No, despite all appearances, something good might eventually emerge from Mr. Boyd’s flogging. What concerned him more were the two words Elsdon had spoken in the bedroom: “not exactly.” The High Seeker’s vicious flogging had not been exactly like the vicious floggings that Elsdon’s abusive father had given the junior Seeker when he was a boy – but it was close enough.

Layle leaned back against the sink next to the kitchen table, considering the problem as he would consider a problem posed by one of his prisoners. He was beginning to guess now why Elsdon had been plagued so much for the past two-and-a-half years by dreams of his father.

For fourteen years – fourteen unspeakably painful years – Elsdon Taylor had been abused by his father. Then, in 355, at the age of eighteen, he had come to live in the Eternal Dungeon, freed from the captivity of his father.

But he had entered a new captivity, not so much from the fact that he had taken an oath of eternal imprisonment within the dungeon, but from the fact that he had fallen in love with the High Seeker. Elsdon had discovered, within a very short time of the beginning of their love-bond, that Layle Smith needed his emotional support, and not long after that, Layle had gone mad. Elsdon had tenderly cared for him during all that time.

Elsdon had never been given a chance to grieve for his lost childhood. No chance to yearn, no chance to cry at what had been taken from him during his years with his father. He had moved almost immediately into a position of caretaker, a role that did not permit him to think about his own past troubles.

And so, when the time finally came when Layle was strong enough to need less care – less care, for Elsdon remained the foundation block of their relationship – Elsdon had become vulnerable to any image that might spark the memories of what his father had done, and would bring the accompanying pain. And the image that had sparked this inferno, Layle now saw, was Barrett Boyd’s flogging.

Barrett Boyd, who had been abused by Layle Smith, just as Elsdon had been abused by his father.

Layle turned and picked up the cups of cocoa. What he had learned tonight was, in a certain sense, nothing new. He and Elsdon had both known, from the moment their relationship began, that they were taking a dangerous path: pairing an abused young man with a man who dreamt daily of abusing – who in fact had abused during his youth. Elsdon had always assured Layle that it was worth the risk – that Layle’s very likeness to Elsdon’s father was what helped to heal Elsdon, since Layle sought to transform his abusive desires into acts of love. Perhaps Elsdon had been correct in the past. But now, it seemed, Layle’s flogging of Mr. Boyd had brought forth a firestorm of emotions in Elsdon that the junior Seeker could not control.

Control: the very hallmark of a Seeker. Something had to change here, if not for Elsdon’s sake, then for the sake of his prisoners. And it was ironic – oh, entirely too ironic – that Layle had spent the past three years using every method he knew to forcibly control his rebellious junior Seeker.

Had that contributed to the dreams?

The scent of cocoa tickled his nose, overwhelming the smell of coal-dust and the mildew that seemed forever present in the Eternal Dungeon, even though most of the dungeon had artificial walls rather than stalactite-filled chambers. Layle paused in the doorway to the bedroom in order to gaze at Elsdon. The blanket had slipped from Elsdon’s shoulders, revealing the statue-smooth skin, the filigree-fine chest hair that was the same golden color as the hair on his head and groin, the slender muscles that Elsdon had recently acquired, since he had begun spending some of his spare hours teaching the young commoners in the outer dungeon how to box. “It’s best for them to have an outlet for their energy,” Elsdon had said, an oblique reference to his own brief spell of impulses toward violence during his youth.

“An outlet is always good,” Layle had replied dryly, a reference to his own lifelong impulses toward violence.

Now, with his mind still dwelling on the need for outlets to captive emotions, he approached the bed and handed Elsdon his cocoa. Always one to be grateful for simple gifts, Elsdon smiled as he drank the cocoa. Perching himself on the edge of the bed, Layle sipped from his own cup, waiting.

Finally Elsdon said, “I’m sorry to keep waking you at night.”

“I didn’t mind being awoken. I was having a bad dream myself.”

“Oh? What about?” Instantly, Elsdon was alert, putting his cup aside, along with any further talk of his own dream. [_Ever the caretaker, _]Layle thought as he rolled the sweet cocoa over his tongue. It was a characteristic all Seekers shared, but Elsdon possessed it to an almost dangerous degree. It had taken Layle many years to realize that the submission he required of Elsdon in their bedroom dramas was perhaps the best gift he could have given the junior Seeker: an opportunity for Elsdon to drop the burden of caretaking that he held at all other times.

Layle waited until Elsdon’s eyes were fastened upon his; then he said, “My dream ended with our conversation in the crematorium, three days after Barrett Boyd’s flogging.”

Elsdon’s gaze dropped suddenly. He fingered the bed-sheet a moment before saying, “Ah.” Then: “I’ve sometimes felt like that was the beginning of . . . I don’t know what to call it. A truce?”

“Like the truces in the Thousand Years’ War,” Layle replied.

Looking up, Elsdon flashed him a sudden smile. “Precisely. A lowering of arms, but not an end to the war. Somehow, the truce has seemed worse than the battle that came before.”

Layle said nothing. He had reached the dregs of the drink now but was reluctant to swallow the final, sharp-tasting grains of cocoa. He held the cup in his hand, lingering upon the shallows.

Elsdon’s smile faded, and he looked away again. “Well, I suppose not,” he said. “Not considering what came before.”

“You didn’t witness it,” Layle observed.

“But Mr. Urman did; I was present when he described it to Mr. Crofford. My dream was from his point of view.” Elsdon frowned, clutching his hands together in his old, youthful gesture of disturbed concentration. He bit at one his knuckles for a moment before saying, “There was something odd about it.”

“About the dream?”

“About Mr. Urman’s viewpoint. He was different inside than I’d always envisioned him. Less confident, less angry . . . and more discerning.”

“People are often different inside than they appear to others,” Layle observed.

Elsdon laughed then. “Oh, I know that. If you were what people think you are from your appearance . . . But this dream was strange. Mr. Urman was watching the flogging, and he was angry at what was happening, but he wasn’t feeling the anger. He wasn’t feeling anything at all. It was as though there was a wall of ice between him and what was happening. But later, when he heard me call out to you – it’s as though the wall all came down at once. He was feeling pain, intense pain, and . . . it wasn’t just about what he had seen. There was something more there, something deeper.”

Layle carefully turned to place the cup on the night-table, taking the opportunity to turn down the lamp so that Elsdon, who could not see as well as the High Seeker in the dark, would not be able to read his expression. Elsdon’s skills as a Seeker could be a disadvantage at times when Layle dared not speak what he thought.

He was enough of an Yclau to be a rationalist, and enough of a Vovimian to believe in the gods. Being Vovimian, he believed that important dreams were sent by the gods; being Yclau, he believed that the dreams only came to men and women who were already receptive to the messages that the dreams contained. In the case of a Vovimian, the receptivity might arise from prior prayer. But Elsdon was native Yclau. In his open-minded fashion, Elsdon had come to believe that there might be more to the Vovimian religion of gods and goddesses than most Yclau thought, but he never prayed to any deity. His receptivity was of a different sort.

Running his finger over the warm rim of the cup, Layle forced himself to think back on that day. Toward the end of the flogging, time had suspended itself and his senses had blurred; his senses had only become bright again at the moment that Elsdon reached him and touched him.

By that point, there were a great many people surrounding him. Weldon was at his side, begging him to remember his duty to the Code. Mr. Sobel, seeing that Elsdon had matters in hand, had gone back to the whipping post to free Mr. Boyd from his bonds. The dusk-shift guards who had helped Elsdon onto the platform were milling around, looking uneasy. Some of the Codifier’s guards were reluctantly venturing onto the platform. They were confronted by the temporary healer, whose courage under fire rivalled that of Mistress Birdesmond; she put them quickly to work helping Mr. Sobel place Mr. Boyd on the stretcher.

And Mr. Urman? Layle knew, from what he had been told by Elsdon, that Mr. Urman had stood between Mr. Boyd and the High Seeker’s whip. In fact, if Mr. Urman had not done so, it would likely have taken Elsdon longer to realize what was happening. Elsdon’s immediate cry in response to Mr. Urman’s action was what had kept the tragedy from reaching its full peak. Even one or two more lashes might have been enough to kill Mr. Boyd’s body.

So Mr. Boyd – indeed, the entire dungeon – owed a great deal to Mr. Urman. The High Seeker saw the junior guard in his memory’s eye. Mr. Urman was stepping away from the scene. His head was bowed, and his body was shaking. Nobody was taking notice of him.

“‘I am alone, I am alone, I am always alone,’” Elsdon said softly in the dim light. “That’s what he said to himself, at the end of the dream.”

The aftermath of the flogging had been messy. It had taken Elsdon two full days to calm Layle enough that he could resume his duties. By that time, the Codifier had returned, and soon afterwards, Mr. Bergsen had appeared. For the next fortnight, Layle had dealt with numerous enquiries as to what had happened: from the Codifier, from Mr. Bergsen, from Mr. Boyd’s parents, from the magistrates, from the Queen.

Amidst the turmoil, Layle now realized, Mr. Urman’s courageous act had gone unremarked upon.

Elsdon bit his knuckle again. “I know that the dream was partly mine. Mr. Urman didn’t even refer to himself by his given name in the dream – I don’t think I’ve ever heard his given name, only his initial. So part of the dream was my own imagination. Yet it’s one of those dreams that seemed to mean something. I wonder why?”

Layle could guess why. Elsdon, with his high skills as a Seeker, had noticed something that day which had made him receptive to a dream from the gods, showing him more than he had consciously recognized. Elsdon’s dream had told him more than anyone in the dungeon likely knew about Mr. Urman . . . perhaps even more than Layle knew.

Layle dimmed yet further the old-fashioned oil-lamp he had bought from his own private allowance for luxuries, with permission from the Codifier. From what little Layle knew, he could guess why Mr. Urman had erected a barrier between himself and the vicious flogging. Layle could even guess why Elsdon’s voice had been what broke that barrier. Where the deep pain lay, Layle could only speculate upon.

But he could not do so aloud. What he knew, he knew because he had access to the Codifier’s private records, and also because Mr. Urman had answered honestly certain questions put to him during his initial interview for employment at the Eternal Dungeon. Layle had seen no reason at the time to probe far into the matter; more than most men, he understood why one would wish to be reticent about one’s past. Layle had delved only far enough to assure himself that Mr. Urman would not use his past as an excuse to abuse the prisoners. The very opposite had appeared to be true, so Layle had given the young guard his chance. After all, if there was any place in the world where one might be reborn, it was in the Eternal Dungeon.

So now all that Layle said was, “It sounds like a mystery worth uncovering.”

“Perhaps.” Elsdon’s voice had become distant. From the way his hands had tightened together, Layle guessed that his thoughts were drifting past Mr. Urman to the flogging.

Layle was still trying to figure out how to steer the conversation back to Mr. Urman when he heard a knock on the door to the corridor.

o—o—o

It was Mistress Birdesmond’s senior day guard. He said not a word, but held out a bundle of envelopes, tied with a string.

Layle refrained from pointing out that one o’clock in the afternoon was not the best time to be delivering mail to a night-shift Seeker. He sliced the string open with his fingernail, glancing at the bedroom door to assure himself that it was closed. Elsdon’s bodily nakedness was of no great matter, but Elsdon’s nakedness of face – his current lack of his hood – must not be witnessed, even by one of the dungeon’s long-term residents.

His own hood brushed against his face as he flipped quickly through the mail to be certain that the stack contained nothing urgent. The topmost letter held the seal of the Queen, but he knew what that envelope contained; he had been corresponding with the Queen concerning what charges might be legitimately brought against a notorious procurer-turned-sweetweed-dealer who was highly skilled at covering up evidence of his crimes. The other letters looked to be routine business from various departments of the Queen’s government. No personal mail – Layle had never received personal mail from the lighted world, other than from the late High Master of the Hidden Dungeon.

At the bottom of the stack was the distinctive blue-green envelope used by the palace’s telegraph office. Ah. Hence the early-afternoon mail delivery; the Record-keeper, who had charge over guards who were not on breaking-cell duty, must have decided that the telegram should be delivered immediately by a guard. Layle ripped open the envelope and scanned the message.

It was brief, merely acknowledging that the sender would appear for his interview the following day. Due to tram schedules, he would be arriving at the Eternal Dungeon in the afternoon but would be glad to wait until evening for the interview if that would be of greater convenience to the High Seeker.

Layle held the telegram lightly, as he might have held lightly a package that was sent by a bomb-throwing anarchist. Seconds ticked away on the clock behind him as he stared down at the telegram. Danger – that was what he was inviting into the Eternal Dungeon. He knew that without even having to conduct the interview. Why in the name of all that was sacred had he extended the invitation? The last thing that the Eternal Dungeon needed was another disruptive change.

He wondered whether he should order the gate guards to bar the entrance when this man arrived for his interview. Or perhaps it would be easiest simply to send a telegram back, cancelling the interview.

He became aware that he was being watched. Looking up, he saw dark eyes, examining him in the same manner that a butcher might examine a hen in the slaughterhouse.

He cleared his throat. “Thank you, Mr. Boyd. There will be no replies.”

Barrett Boyd did not acknowledge his words with so much as a nod. He turned and began striding down the corridor that ran between the outer dungeon and the inner dungeon.

As he did so, another guard approached in the opposite direction, heading toward the outer dungeon. Clifford Crofford, seeing who was approaching, slowed his pace and gave a sketch of a greeting with his hand, accompanied by a tentative smile.

Mr. Boyd ignored him. He strode past the other guard without so much as looking his way.

Layle did not wait to see Mr. Crofford’s expression fall. He closed the door, locked and barred it, and leaned back on it. His heart was thumping, as it rarely did outside of either his bedroom or the rack rooms.

Two years before, the healer who had been brought in to consult with Mr. Bergsen concerning Mr. Boyd’s recovery had declared that the guard’s mind had not been maimed. Everyone who had been acquainted with Mr. Boyd before the punishment knew otherwise, but even Mr. Bergsen had admitted that Mr. Boyd posed no danger to the prisoners. Learning this, Layle had quizzed Mr. Boyd carefully to ascertain that the guard had no future plans to violate the Code. Then Layle had offered Mr. Boyd his position back.

He had thought at the time that it was the right thing to do. Mr. Boyd had violated the Code on a single occasion and had nearly died from the punishment. Layle had violated the Code seven times in connection with Mr. Boyd’s flogging and had received no punishment whatsoever. It had seemed only fair that Mr. Boyd should be allowed a second chance.

That had been before Layle had fully realized what it would be like to work in the same dungeon as a guard whose every look suggested that he was plotting the High Seeker’s assassination. It had provided Layle with some insight as to what it must be like for others to work with himself.

Setting the routine letters aside, he carried the telegram over to the bookcase, kneeling down to peer at the books on the bottom row. There, hidden in the shadows, was a slender volume that had been a gift from Mr. Sobel at the beginning of this, Layle’s twenty-fifth year in the Eternal Dungeon. The book was a history of the Yclau army, which included passages referencing the Eternal Dungeon.

Unless Mr. Sobel had suddenly acquired sadistic tendencies, Layle assumed that his senior night guard had not read the book through to the final chapter. Layle – whose father had been a soldier and who therefore maintained an academic interest in all matters military – had read the entire volume, and then had placed the book where Elsdon was unlikely to notice it.

Layle had taken the book from its hiding place several times since the beginning of the year, always when Elsdon was absent from the room. Now, settling back onto the bench nearby, he let the book fall open to a page that he had stared at so often that the volume naturally opened to it.

The book had been published over a decade ago. The final chapter was on the modern army. In order to provide liveliness to his account, the author had arranged for a photographer to take pictures of some of the younger members of the army, representing the new generation of soldiers. Amidst the photographs was one of a smiling young soldier, posed in a relaxed, easy-going manner.

Barrett Boyd did not look any different in the photograph than he had when he first came to work for the Eternal Dungeon the following year. Indeed, he had changed very little over the next nine years. Genial, generous, affable, always ready with a joke, affectionate with his friends and love-mate, honorable, occasionally capable of intense anger over injustices, but forever prepared to see the better side of his fellow man – those were the words that dungeon inhabitants had used to describe Mr. Boyd in those days. If Mr. Sobel’s testimony was to be trusted – and of course it was – Mr. Boyd had remained that way up to the very moment of his flogging, spending his final minutes in concern, not only over his love-mate, but also over the soul of his torturer.

Layle stared at the picture of the smiling soldier; overlaying it, he could see the dark, cold expression of the guard who had just visited him. No one would believe that the two men were the same.

And of course they weren’t.

Intense anger over injustices Mr. Boyd retained, as well as the honor which drove that anger. But everything else – everything that had made him one of the best-loved guards in the dungeon – was gone forever. Layle had killed that Barrett Boyd; now another man lived in his body, a man alien to almost all that the first Barrett Boyd had valued.

Feeling something well up in him like blood, Layle snapped the book shut and stared again at the telegram. Danger. Change. A blade in the body. . . .

“What is it?” asked Elsdon.

In a casual, unhurried manner, Layle slipped the evidence of Mr. Boyd’s past onto the lowest bookshelf before turning his head to look at Elsdon. The junior Seeker was standing in the doorway to the bedroom, wearing nothing. His thighs were long and slender and the color new-churned butter. His whammer hung lazily amidst the golden threads of his groin.

“A telegram,” Layle replied, slipping the sheet into his shirt pocket before Elsdon should see the name of the prison telegraph office that was written there. Elsdon might need to grieve for his past, but certain aspects of his past he should not be reminded of. “I have an interview tomorrow.”

Elsdon nodded. “So you’ll be taking a half-night shift this evening?” When night-shift Seekers had business during the daytime, either at the courts or elsewhere, they usually went to bed at the previous midnight, so as to be fully awake for their daytime duties.

“Yes. It’s just as well that you woke me early. If I’d slept through till late afternoon, it would have been harder for me to go to sleep at midnight.”

“I’m not feeling very sleepy myself.” Elsdon came over to stand in front of Layle.

Layle eyed him silently for a minute. Amidst the golden hairs atop Elsdon’s head was a single silver thread that Layle had discovered earlier that year. They had both laughed at this evidence of Elsdon’s approaching old age, for he was only twenty-six. But when Layle had reached out to touch the silver piece of hair, Elsdon had shied away.

So now Layle kept his hands by his sides. In the past, he would have known what Elsdon meant by a declaration that he “wasn’t sleepy.” Now Layle could not be sure. And not knowing, he dared not make the first move.

A truce. A long, bitter truce that seemed to drag on forever, with no change in sight.

“Who is the interview with?” asked Elsdon.

Somebody who has come to the Eternal Dungeon to shed blood, Layle was tempted to reply, and then his mind caught on that image. Blood. Sweet blood.

A long, bitter, endless truce, with both parties unwilling to break the truce by raising their weapons. Endless changelessness, like the world of afterdeath. And into the midst of this came danger, disruption, blood.

Eternal death? Or transformation to eternal rebirth?

“No one you’re likely to remember,” Layle replied. “You’ll probably have a chance to meet him at some point. He may be staying at the dungeon.”

Elsdon nodded but asked no further questions; he knew well enough not to quiz Layle on matters that related to his duties as High Seeker. Instead, he asked, “Who delivered the telegram? Mr. Sobel isn’t volunteering extra duty time again, is he?”

“No, I put a stop to that. With a wife and four children to care for, the last thing he needs is to kill himself from overwork.”

“Then who?” Cocking his head, Elsdon regarded Layle. Like every Seeker, he was attuned to when someone was avoiding answering a question he had asked.

There was no point in playing games. “Mr. Boyd.”

Elsdon looked away. He had tensed, and not merely from memories of the nightmare, Layle guessed. The High Seeker was not the only man in the dungeon to feel guilt over Barrett Boyd’s flogging; it was because of Elsdon’s own insubordination that Mr. Boyd had conceived the idea of breaking the Code, which had led to his punishment.

“How is he?” Elsdon asked finally.

“The same as ever. He never changes.” The words echoed in his head, as though he had spoken them in Mercy’s great hall.

For a moment, they were both still. Then Layle, following some instinct, went back to the bookcase. Reaching past the volume he had just shelved, he shoved aside some books blocking his way and brought out from behind the books an object that had been sitting there for two years and five months: the candle of rebirth that he had taken from the crematorium at the time of Mr. Boyd’s injury.

When he turned round, he found that Elsdon was standing beside him, matchbox in hand. Layle lit the candle, placing it on a porcelain plate that was sitting on the desk nearby.

Standing back, he stared at the tiny flame, wondering whether he should bring out the book showing Mr. Boyd’s old self. But no – that represented Mr. Boyd’s lost past. Whatever he might be in the future, Barrett Boyd would not be what he had been in the past. But it was possible – just possible – that he could become more than what he was now. Perhaps he would even acquire new virtues he had not possessed in the past.

That was how transformation and rebirth worked.

o—o—o

He became aware that Elsdon was standing next to him, with a book in hand. Layle glanced quickly at the cover, then looked a second time. “So it’s finally published?” he said. It seemed an odd object for Elsdon to bring out at this moment, but Elsdon’s mind was like quicksilver, running rapidly in unexpected directions.

“Yes, he sent me the first copy, signed.” Elsdon held out the book. “Happy anniversary.”

For a moment, Layle stared, counting days in his head; then he began to count curses in his head.

Reading his expression, Elsdon laughed. “It doesn’t matter. You never remember birthdays either.”

“It’s two weeks after the spring equinox. I might have remembered that much.”

“How could you, now that you’ve equalized the day and night shifts so that they’re the same year-round?” Elsdon asked reasonably. “That was always how I could tell what season of the year it was – by the shifts.”

“There are still the bats.” Layle took the volume of ballads into his hand. For a century and a half, the Eternal Dungeon had timed its shifts by the bats in the entry hall, which left the dungeon at dusk and returned at dawn. That had helped the Seekers, who never saw the sun, to remember the time of year from the change in day length. But the time-clock added to the guardroom a few months before Mr. Boyd’s flogging could not cope with such complexity, and so Layle had done what he had long been urged to do: he had granted the day shift and night shift equal hours year-round. No longer would the equinoxes represent to the imprisoned Seekers the times when the night shift and day shift possessed unusual equality; the equinoxes were now just numbers on the reports that Seekers filled out for the Record-keeper.

But this particular equinox . . .

“Eight years,” said Elsdon. “It’s not as though it’s the tenth anniversary of our first meeting. And we have a different anniversary coming in the seventh month, from when we became love-mates. You can give me a gift then.”

“I’ll try to remember.” He opened the book of ballads, wondering again at Elsdon’s choice of gift. Perhaps the choice was simply due to the fact that Layle had been born in Vovim, the kingdom noted for its arts. Yclau could boast only a few native art forms, most of them connected with the technology for which it was famed. If you wanted to learn how to take a photograph, you came to Yclau, but if you wanted to learn how to perform in a drama, conduct a symphony, or carve a sculpture, you went to Vovim.

Only the so-called “low arts” flourished in Yclau: the popular arts practiced by the commoners. Public-house sign-painting, xylophone playing, juggling, ballad-singing . . . Ballad-singing especially, since it was the commoners’ way of sliding past the censorship laws that the Queen had long imposed upon her subjects. Printers were required to adhere to the terms of a license issued by the Queen’s officials, but no one could prevent a commoner from standing on the street-corner and singing a ballad with the latest news, as seen from the commoners’ perspective. Although various Queens over the centuries had sought to stamp out the seditious balladeers, none had been successful.

Indeed, Layle thought as he glanced at the title page, it appeared that the current Queen was permitting the sedition to spread into the printed realm. But then, the author might have played some role in forcing the volume past the Queen’s censor. Elsdon’s adopted brother, Yeslin, was a very determined young man.

Layle flipped through the pages rapidly, saving a lengthier reading for another time. He had known, from reports that drifted in from the lighted world, that Yeslin was a popular balladeer, but he saw now that he had underestimated the young man’s talent. Yeslin’s poetry would even have gone over well among the most exacting of audiences, the Vovimians. No wonder, then, that Elsdon, who knew of Layle’s appreciation of the arts, would have arranged for Layle to receive the first copy of what was likely to become a well-renowned book. The only wonder was that Elsdon had managed to keep from bursting with the news till now.

Many of the ballads, Layle saw, dealt with the oppressions faced by men and women without power. That was hardly strange, given Yeslin’s own interest in such matters. Layle’s browsing began to slow, however, as he realized that the final portion of the book was given over to prison ballads. The first few ballads were about Alleyway Prison, the poorly-run holding prison in the commoner district. But the next ballad . . .

Sweet blood. Layle stared at the poem, barely breathing as he read it. Eventually, he reached the final line.

He looked up. Elsdon was watching him.

Layle cleared his throat. “He learned about this from you?” It seemed wildly unlikely; Elsdon knew as well as any other Seeker the penalties for revealing information about dungeon disciplinary matters to someone from the lighted world, even his own brother.

Elsdon shook his head. “He knew about it already. There were rumors, you know. The Queen kept the rumors from reaching the newspapers, but the tales have been rife among the commoners. Yeslin selected the most likely rumors, added a passage about me, and then asked me what your perspective on the event had been.”

Layle stared again at the ballad describing Barrett Boyd’s flogging. It was written from the point of view of an imaginary commoner laborer who had managed to slip into the entry hall during the punishment. Afterwards, the laborer eavesdropped on the High Seeker while he was speaking to his love-mate about what had happened.

The ballad was like a blurred photograph: the details weren’t right. In the ballad, the High Seeker wielded, not a black whip, but the far more dangerous leaded whip. The imprisoned guard was bound upon the great X of a crucifixion stand, imported by the High Seeker from Vovim. The imprisoned guard’s love-mate – a maid from the outer dungeon – cried as she watched the beating. . . . And so it went, all the way through to the death of the guard, and the High Seeker’s continued beating of the corpse, and the impassioned enquiries of the High Seeker’s love-mate as to why the High Seeker had showed such cruelty.

The details weren’t right, but the overall impression was true.

Layle read the final words of the ballad, spoken by the High Seeker: “I must uphold the Code, in order to protect the prisoners against men like me.”

He heard his voice speak to Elsdon, as though from a distance: “I didn’t say that.”

“No,” replied Elsdon softly. “But it’s what you thought, wasn’t it?”

He turned then, laying the book aside, and took Elsdon into his arms. They clung together for a moment, each comforting the other against the memories that the ballad had raised. Over Elsdon’s shoulder, Layle could see the flame of rebirth flickering, shifting, changing its position every moment as its bright sharpness bit into the air like a knife drawing blood.

Change. Rebirth. An end to the deadly, unchanging truce. Perhaps allowing danger into the dungeon was the only way to break the terrible stand-off between the Old School and the New School – the stand-off between himself and Elsdon. Pain would come, no doubt, but better a blade in the flesh, drawing fresh, sweet blood, than to live in eternal death.

He drew back and placed his hands on Elsdon’s shoulders, resisting the impulse to order Elsdon onto his knees. That would come shortly, but Layle always gave his love-mate fair warning. “We will enter a dreaming now,” he announced.

The flash of surprise in Elsdon’s face told Layle how long it had been since this had happened. Elsdon did not pull away, though. “Yes, sir. Where are we, and who are we?”

His gaze wandered past Elsdon to the storage bins. Yes, there – Elsdon could reach up and place his hands on the handles, as though his wrists were bound there, while the reflection on the shining metal would allow the junior Seeker to see the man standing behind him. And to watch what the man did.

Layle turned his gaze back to his love-mate. He took a deep breath. “Where we are is the Eternal Dungeon, and we are the High Seeker . . . and the prisoner who is about to receive one hundred heavy strokes.”

Elsdon’s breath hitched – not from passion, Layle could guess. But still he did not pull away. “And afterwards?” he asked.

“Afterwards you will cry. You will cry and cry and cry, grieving for what you have lost.” He could feel the handle of the black whip beginning to form in his hand, but he forced the dreaming back. He would not willingly enter into a dreaming unless Elsdon agreed to play-act with him.

Elsdon looked puzzled now. “And then?”

“That is all. The dreaming ends there.”

Elsdon frowned. “High Seeker, I don’t understand. The dreamings we share always end with something good happening. . . .”

He took Elsdon’s face between his palms and stared into the junior Seeker’s eyes. “And it will today. Trust me on this.”

“Yes, sir.” No hesitation. Even after all they had gone through in the past three years, Elsdon still trusted him unreservedly in such matters.

Layle kissed him then, drawing Elsdon gently into his arms, in the same way that he would hold Elsdon gently in his arms after the imaginary whip had done its work, and Elsdon had been broken so greatly that he could grieve for his lost childhood. Out of the corner of his eye, Layle could still see the flame of Mr. Boyd’s rebirth. It occurred to him that, during the two years and five months that he had undergone daily flayings of guilt for what he had done to Barrett Boyd, he had never allowed himself to grieve for the smiling young man who had died under the High Seeker’s whip.

Perhaps it was time.

o—o—o
o—o—o

. . . And in this year, the High Seeker of the Eternal Dungeon, Layle Smith, entered his forty-third year, and entered the worst battle of his recorded life.

Many would argue that Layle Smith’s prolonged bout with madness in the 350s represented his worst battle; but throughout his madness, he was comforted and healed by his much-beloved companion, Elsdon Taylor. The events which began in 363 were very different. During that time, a breach which had been threatening for three years finally took place, and Layle Smith was forced to enter into battle without his companion by his side. His foremost enemy in that battle would be Elsdon Taylor.

Sweet blood. Only a faith-filled belief in the redemptive qualities of suffering could have given Layle Smith the strength to survive this time. There is no doubt that the High Seeker and many others in the dungeon carried that principle too far, forcing suffering upon prisoners who neither wanted nor needed it. Yet it must not be said that Layle Smith was a hypocrite. Always, during his time as a Seeker, he drew as much blood from himself as from the prisoners he tortured, though his figurative blood can only be recognized by those who understand what the word “blood” meant to that generation.

And so we turn finally to the bloody battle between the Old School and the New, a battle that would result in one literal death, and would transform forever the lives of the Seekers and guards and prisoners.

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.

Sweet Blood #2
SEARCHING

It is a truism that great reform comes from within, not from the outside. To test the veracity of this truism, we need only examine the events in the Eternal Dungeon during the early 360s.

At the beginning of the decade, the royal dungeon of the Queendom of Yclau stood at a crossroads. For centuries, torture had been accepted by all civilized nations of the world as a reasonable means by which to extract confessions from accused criminals. Indeed, it can fairly be argued that the Eternal Dungeon had shown far greater restraint than many prisons in neighboring nations, torturing only men and women accused of the most serious crimes, and frequently breaking the criminals, not through physical torture, but through words alone. Nor were these words always harsh, for the distinctive goal of the Eternal Dungeon – the goal that had made it a model for all reformed prisons in other nations – was that its torturers, later named Seekers, were required to place foremost the best interests of their prisoners. Torture and harsh words might be acceptable means of determining a prisoner’s guilt and encouraging repentance, but if soft words could do the same trick, they were used.

Yet by 360, events had overtaken the Eternal Dungeon. Like a long line of falling dominoes, nation after nation was abolishing torture. The United Order of Prisons, an international organization for prison reform which had been founded by Yclau, passed a resolution requiring its member nations to cease use of physical pain to obtain confessions. When the Eternal Dungeon refused to comply with this resolution, Yclau was condemned and banned from the order. Throughout Yclau itself, pressure was building from outsiders against the Eternal Dungeon’s time-sanctioned customs. The newly created Commoners’ Guild spoke fervently against the practice of torture, arguing that this was a form of elite oppression against commoner prisoners. The Guild of Healers questioned whether men under torture had the mental capacity to give truthful confessions. Ethicists spoke against torture, in university and temple. With this very public opposition, it was becoming increasingly difficult for the Queendom of Yclau to speak with moral authority against the prison abuses taking place in its long-time rival, the Kingdom of Vovim.

Meanwhile, in the Eternal Dungeon, internal efforts to abolish torture utterly failed. After a flurry of disciplinary beatings, and one scandalous case of a Seeker being executed, the prison workers who had spoken out against torture fell silent.

But only for a while. For a second wave of reform was triggered in 363, and this wave of reform began with the arrival of a new man in the dungeon, one whose presence would spark the long-awaited inferno of civil war within the dungeon. . . .

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.

CHAPTER ONE

The year 363, the fourth month. (The year 1882 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)

For a prison, it was abnormally quiet.

Vito had lived in prisons for a long while now – over a dozen years, from the time he came of age. He had sampled all three of the city prisons, like a connoisseur sampling wines to test which was the finest. He had even spent time in the provincial prisons outside the queendom’s capital.

Never before, though, had he encountered a prison where everyone spoke in whispers, and where business was conducted in the dark.

He looked around, straining to see. The great entry hall of the Eternal Dungeon – impressive both in size and in the fact that most of its walls were made of cave-rock – was virtually night-black. Lamps were scattered upon tables around the edge of the room, but these were all shuttered like lanterns. Guards stood by the tables, exchanging an occasional whisper. The only other sound came from the desk-seated Record-keeper, who studiously scratched away at a piece of paper with his pen, as though working in midnight black suited him.

And it was only four o’clock in the afternoon.

Vito was beginning to wonder whether this dungeon’s prisoners were also questioned in pitch darkness. That was a matter of some personal concern to him. But then a stirring shuddered through the room, like wind over a field of corn.

Sounds came from the top of the steps that led to the palace above: a gate being drawn back with a screech, then heavy footsteps upon the cave-rock steps. Ignoring the vigilant escort of the dungeon guards who had brought him this far, Vito sidled his way toward the center of the hall in order to see better the stairway. Everyone else stood motionless. Even the Record-keeper had paused in his work and was now standing behind his desk.

Five men arrived: four were guards, dressed in royal scarlet, with ceremonial swords at their sides. Not the Eternal Dungeon’s guards, then – those guards wore grey uniforms, utterly ungaudy. The Queen’s guards, making their slow way down the steps, were struggling to hold level a stretcher.

The fifth man, who walked behind the stretcher, could not be said to be gaudy either, but his appearance was most striking. He wore no vest and no jacket, and he bore no weapons. His shirt and trousers were raven-black, and covering his head and face was a black hood.

Instinctively, Vito drew to the edge of the room, near the door that led further into the dungeon. The guards who flanked that door flicked a glance at him, then ignored him. His escorts remained oblivious to the fact he had strayed. The procession was coming closer.

All around the entry hall now, guards were bowing their heads and rubbing invisible circles upon their own foreheads with their thumbs. Vito, so newly arrived that he remained dressed for the outdoors, pulled his cap off and bowed his head. The procession had come close enough to him now that he had recognized what lay upon the stretcher: a motionless body, covered from head to foot with grey cloth.

The funeral procession neared the door to the inner dungeon. Vito raised his eyes just in time to catch closer sight of the fifth man in the procession. That man also had his head bowed, and his eyes – barely visible through the eyeholes of his hood – were hardly more than hollow pits in the dim light.

Yet something – perhaps it was merely the combination of straight spine and lowered head – caused Vito to catch his breath.

The door next to him was open now, held back by the younger guard who had been helping flank it. The older guard was peering carefully round the entry hall, obviously checking to see that nobody unauthorized was given the chance to slip through the doorway. The procession left the entry hall, the Queen’s guards struggling to make their way through the relatively narrow entrance. The hooded man following them did not look up.

Vito had a sudden, wild desire to follow. Instead, as the door slammed shut, he stepped forward and tugged at the sleeve of the older guard, like an impatient child. “Who was that, please? The man behind the funeral procession?”

The guard replied, with careful precision, “That was one of our junior Seekers: Mr. Taylor. Please step away from the door, sir.”

Vito did so hastily. He had already seen the younger guard draw his dagger; his escorts had likewise noticed his absence and had pulled their coiled whips from their belts. Vito – who was cursed with a sense of humor that helped him not the least in his work – had the impulse to pull out his hidden revolver and offer to trade with the guards.

But he was saved from acting on this disastrous impulse by the sound of a cough. Looking back toward where he had been standing before, Vito saw the Record-keeper silently gesturing. Further down the wall along which the Record-keeper’s desk was placed, a man had appeared in an open doorway. His face was hidden by a black hood, and he stood quite far away in the hall, but Vito somehow knew, without having to see them, that the man’s eyes were ice-cold.

Vito drew in a long breath. His mind had travelled beyond the dagger-and-whip-wielding guards nearby. They were unimportant. The true danger in this dungeon stood before him now.

He walked slowly forward for his employment interview with the High Seeker.

o—o—o

“‘Vito de Vere,’” the High Seeker read aloud from his records. “‘Age thirty. Parents both alive—’ You do not use your father’s given name as a middle name?”

Vito wondered what the High Seeker imagined he was deducing about Vito’s family relations. “No, sir. My parents never did. They thought that practice was old-fashioned.”

“Hmm.” The High Seeker – who, as everyone knew, didn’t use his father’s given name as a middle name either – stared down at the paper, the eyes within his hood’s eyeholes momentarily hidden by shadows from the light. From the candlelight. The rest of the dungeon, by order of the Queen, had been modernized three years ago with electric lights – Vito knew that from his connection here. But apparently the High Seeker preferred to use candles as illumination, as though he still lived in the middle centuries.

This same High Seeker also ordered the use of racks in his dungeon. Vito stirred uneasily in his chair, sitting directly opposite the High Seeker at his desk, and then froze as the High Seeker raised his head, instantly alert.

All that the dungeon’s head torturer said, however, was, “You arrive with the most superb set of recommendations I have ever seen for an applicant to the post of Seeker. Every man who has ever employed you – from the Union Telegraph supervisor, who hired you as a messenger boy when you were eleven, to your most recent employer, the Jailor of Pleasant Ridge Prison – all describe you as extremely hard-working, passionate in your pursuit of perfection, and brilliant of mind.” The High Seeker abruptly pushed aside the recommendations with a sweep of his hand. “None of that matters.”

“No, sir,” Vito agreed quietly. “I understand that, from the perspective of the Eternal Dungeon, a Seeker’s skill is less important than to what ends he uses his skill. All I can say, sir, is that I hope my record reveals that I have tried to achieve the right balance between being too soft with my prisoners and being too harsh with them. I have always kept in mind that my position is one of privilege, and with that privilege comes a responsibility to serve the best interests of my Queen, my queendom . . . and my prisoners.”

He had considered, during the long train ride to the capital, how best to phrase his commitment to the principles under which the Eternal Dungeon was run. The closer he came to the capital, the more absurd his earlier, elaborate statements had seen. He currently lived on Cape Henry, close to Norfolk, a part of Yclau which spoke of sophisticated modern tastes. But the capital of the Queendom of Yclau – barely more than a small town hugging the long ridge of mountains that divided the Midcoast nations from the Midcontinental nations – spoke of rustic simplicity. The palace itself, elaborate and gilded though it was, seemed much smaller than Vito’s childhood memories of it. As for the Eternal Dungeon . . . bleak, stark, only a century and a half old, and yet somehow harkening back to the values of many centuries before.

Not all of those values were bad.

And so, gradually, Vito had felt himself adjusting back to the time in his childhood when all had seemed simple, and necessary words had been few.

The High Seeker, evidently a man of few words himself, made no comment on Vito’s carefully crafted commitment to the principles embodied in the dungeon’s Code of Seeking. Instead, he said, “You have moved around a great deal.”

“Yes, sir,” he agreed, wondering furiously in his mind whether the High Seeker thought this denoted lack of commitment on Vito’s part. “There are many prisons in my area, and I thought, for the sake of gaining full experience of the lesser prisons’ variety as a guard—”

“Before that,” said the High Seeker in a mild tone. “You moved around before then.”

Oh, dear. He took a deep breath. “Yes, sir. I lived in this capital until I was ten, and then my parents moved to the Tidewater District in order that they might live with my mother’s mother, who had recently become widowed. After graduation from university and training academy, I moved back to the capital—”

“In the spring of 355.” The High Seeker did not so much as glance aside at Vito’s records.

“Yes, sir. Alternating with posts at Alleyway Prison and the Courthouse Jail, I worked as a patrol soldier stationed out of Parkside Prison for a couple of years—”

“And met a certain lady there?” The High Seeker raised the topmost page of recommendations from the stack of paper. “Mistress Birdesmond says she knew you only briefly at Parkside Prison, yet you and she seem to have grown quite intimate during that time.”

He could feel the blush cover his face. “She was doing charity work at the prison,” he replied, hoping he did not sound too defensive. “A most uncommon occupation for a lady of leisure. Naturally, I was impressed by her consideration of the needs of the prisoners’ families, and I struck up an acquaintance. Her work was unusual—”

“—and Mistress Birdesmond is a most unusual woman. Yes.” The High Seeker seemed to dismiss the matter. “So that was your only previous point of contact with the Eternal Dungeon?”

His voice remained mild. His shadowed eyes were opaque. Vito stared at those eyes, remembering all the tales he had heard, in the lighted world above, about the High Seeker’s capacities. Mistress Birdesmond had lightly hinted, in her letters, that the ballads sung about the High Seeker were not exaggerations.

It had been many years ago. He had been much younger then. The meeting had been brief. The High Seeker could not possibly remember—

He heard himself say, “Actually, sir, we’ve met before, though you wouldn’t recall that meeting. It was in one of the judging rooms . . .”

His voice trailed off as the High Seeker relaxed into his seat. The High Seeker pulled the topmost volume of a small stack of blue-bound record books onto the table, resting his elbow on the remaining volumes. Stamped in gold upon the volume’s face were the words: “Arrest Records of The Eternal Dungeon.” Below the gold, written neatly in a copperplate script across a white label, were three additional words: “Elsdon Auburn Taylor.”

Vito managed to pull his eyes away and clear his throat. “You remember?”

“The episode is hard to forget,” the High Seeker replied dryly. “You attacked my prisoner.”

This was a most unexpected way in which to characterize what had happened. But then, Mistress Birdesmond had warned him that the High Seeker was a subtle man, with depths beyond which most people guessed. He was, after all, the author of the fifth revision of the Code of Seeking, which was praised for its compassion toward the Eternal Dungeon’s prisoners.

The High Seeker was waiting. Licking his dry lips with a flick of his tongue, Vito said, “Sir, I knew Mr. Taylor—”

“You were friends with Auburn Taylor?” There was no change to the High Seeker’s tone, yet somehow, with that deep intuition which Vito seemed to have been born with, he sensed that he was roughly six inches from being tied to a rack.

“Not intimately, sir,” he replied quickly. “I had just begun work at Parkside Prison, and Mr. Taylor’s neighborhood was part of my patrol area. He was well known, because he had royal connections and he owned a business that employed many men. I had spoken briefly with him . . . no more than briefly. There was neighborhood gossip that there might be trouble in his family. And so, when Mr. Taylor’s son was arrested for killing his younger sister . . . I was curious, I’ll admit. I had not yet fully settled into work at Parkside Prison at the time of the arrest, so I missed witnessing Elsdon Taylor’s imprisonment there, but the other guards there were full of talk about the arrest. They said that Elsdon Taylor’s behavior had been most unusual – both exceedingly wild and exceedingly compliant. That combination of states worried me, as did the apparent murder. I began to fear that perhaps the mind of Mr. Taylor – young Mr. Taylor – was ill. So I attended the trial in interest to learn the outcome of his arrest, since he had been transferred into the custody of the Eternal Dungeon.”

He was gabbling. He knew he was gabbling; he didn’t seem to be able to stop himself.

The High Seeker – still looking idle, which was a bad sign in itself, Vito knew from many years of having searched prisoners – took up a pen and began to play with it, twiddling it with his fingers. “And so, having heard of Elsdon Taylor’s bloody murder of his sister, you naturally assumed that he would murder his father too.”

Vito felt another hot blush cover his face. “I’m not sure I thought that far ahead, sir. But Mr. Auburn Taylor startled his son in the judging room, and his son responded by pushing him away . . . It was a bad moment, and I thought it best that I should be the one to intervene, since the prisoner knew me.”

“Oh?” The High Seeker stared at his pen.

“Yes, sir. We’d spoken to each other. As I say, I patrolled the neighborhood.”

He waited, his back tingling in a manner that it hadn’t since the early days of his training as a patrol soldier, when he had made several mistakes that his colonel had felt could best be corrected with whiplashes.

The High Seeker – bare of all weapons – seemed to be in no rush to make use of his formidable skills at extracting information through torture. He said only, “You pulled Mr. Auburn Taylor aside at the end of the trial, I recall.”

Vito had a moment to be grateful for his instincts back then. “Yes, sir. I was greatly shocked by the evidence revealed in the trial, that the older Mr. Taylor had misused his son, which had no doubt led to the disordering of his son’s mind. The evidence all fit; I could think of no other circumstances under which a mild young man such as Elsdon Taylor would have killed his sister. So I took Mr. Auburn Taylor into custody, in hopes that I could extract a confession from him that could lead to his being charged with abuse of his son.”

“And was he charged?” The High Seeker stared down at the pen, with its sharp nib.

“No, sir. The keeper of Parkside Prison had some hesitation about my placing charges against a man who had royal connections. He ordered that I release my prisoner, and not long afterwards, Mr. Auburn Taylor grew ill, so I was advised to drop my enquiry. —But you would know that, sir,” he added boldly.

The High Seeker looked up from the pen long enough to raise his eyebrows.

Vito added, “You sent a Seeker to Mr. Taylor’s house two years later. I moved back to the Tidewater District around that time – my grandmother’s health was failing, so I wished to be with my family. But one of my fellow patrol soldiers wrote me with the news that a Seeker had visited Mr. Auburn Taylor while he was dying.”

The High Seeker said nothing. He set aside the pen. He waited, his elbow firmly planted on the stack of blue volumes.

Vito – trained to search prisoners himself – recognized all the signs. The High Seeker did not trust him. The High Seeker suspected that truth was being kept from him. The High Seeker would not cease his questions until he was sure he had extracted the truth.

Vito swallowed, but could not prevent himself from saying, “At the end of the trial, you took Mr. Taylor’s son back into custody, for further questioning. Did you send the Seeker to Mr. Taylor’s house to let him know that his son had finally died?”

The High Seeker did not even bother to create a polite fiction to describe what had happened. Instead he said – lightly, remorselessly – “So that was your only previous point of contact with the Eternal Dungeon?”

Vito stared at him. He could not know. He could not possibly know—

Vito’s eyes shifted to the stack of blue volumes. Oh.

He cleared his throat. “Actually, sir, I’ve been to the Eternal Dungeon once before. It was a long time ago . . .”

His voice trailed off as the High Seeker relaxed against the back of his seat. The High Seeker pulled the topmost volume of the blue-bound record books onto the table. Stamped in gold upon the volume’s face were the words: “Arrest Records of The Eternal Dungeon.” Below the gold, written neatly in a copperplate script across a white label, were three additional words: “Vito de Vere.”

“Perhaps, Mr. de Vere,” said the High Seeker softly, “you should start at the beginning.”

CHAPTER TWO

The year 343, the seventh month. (The year 1876 Barley by the Old Calendar.)

At the beginning of the second century, the monarchy of the Queendom of Yclau had undergone an upheaval. A certain Lady Luray had married the eldest prince of Yclau – a relatively inconsequential event, since one of the younger sisters of the prince would inherit the throne in their nation’s royal matriarchy.

But then one of the sisters died of food poisoning, while the other died of swamp fever in the dreadful summer climate of New Columbia, the capital of Yclau. And then the Queen herself died before she had a chance to birth new heirs, and Lady Luray found herself to be the new Queen of Yclau.

Her first act was to move her capital out of the dreadful swamp. Amidst the horrified gasps of her new subjects – especially the First District subjects, whose swamp it was – she moved the government to her hometown of Luray, and built a palace for her new home.

Around this time, conveniently, the old royal dungeon collapsed. It had been located in one of the mountain-caves of Yclau, far away from the old capital, so that previous Queens would not be disturbed by the screaming of tortured prisoners. The latest Queen seemed impervious to such distractions . . . or perhaps she was simply intrigued by certain improvements that the surviving Torturers proposed, improvements that would soon be enshrined in a book entitled the Code of Seeking.

Her new palace was located close to the mountains. On a hill. With a set of caverns in it. She gave the biggest cavern to the Torturers. As time went on, the smaller caverns served as an adjunct to what became known as the inner dungeon. The outer dungeon had its own role to play.

Vito de Vere, lying on his stomach in the royal forest of the palace grounds, knew part of this history, of course. Everyone knew what lay beneath the palace. What virtually nobody knew was what actually took place there.

He chewed his lip as he raised his chest high enough to see through the shrubs hiding his body from the Queen’s patrol, guarding the palace grounds. It would have made little difference if the patrol saw him. Vito had a pass from the guards at the palace gate, stating that he had lawfully entered the palace grounds. What he did not have was a pass guaranteeing him entrance to the place where he wanted to go.

“The door doesn’t seem to be guarded,” he said in a doubtful voice.

He turned his head to look at his companion. Past the other boy lay more forest, with faint glimpses of the palace wall beyond. The Queen’s kinfolk still lived in the capital city of Luray; they were granted various distinguished positions within the government. One of the many Lord Lurays over the centuries had cleared away the forests surrounding the palace walls, to make the palace more easily defensible. But no one had suggested clearing out the small forest within the walls, where young royal boys could go squirrel-hunting and practice their military skills.

There were no royal boys at the moment – only a royal girl. Vito would have to hope that the princess wasn’t in the habit of squirrel-hunting. The patrols didn’t travel into the woods; as long as he and his companion stayed in the forest, they would remain undetected.

But Vito didn’t plan to stay in the forest.

His companion wriggled a bit, silently protesting a daddy-long-legs that had chosen him as a path. Vito carefully used a bit of bark to persuade the creature to crawl elsewhere. Freed of this distraction, his companion said, “Maybe the guards are inside. Maybe they’ll catch you the moment you go inside.”

“Oh, Pudge.” Vito sighed. In certain ways, he couldn’t have chosen a worst companion for this mission. Pudge was forever seeing evil lurking behind closed doors. Mind you, he had reason to.

In the ordinary way of things, Vito would never have spoken to Pudge. Vito was ten, one of the older boys at their school, on the verge of entering into his apprentice years. Apprentice-aged boys did not befriend six-year-olds.

But one day during recess at school, he had happened across a pudgy little boy surrounded by a group of older boys. “Pudge” he was called by his classmates, for obvious reasons. The older boys had no doubts as to how pudgy little boys should be treated.

If Pudge had been bullied by his own peers, that would have been a different matter, but the contrast between the older, slender, athletic boys and Pudge’s chubby little body had struck at Vito’s heart. He had entered the melee, swinging his fists.

Fortunately, he knew how to fight. The bullies had scattered. And the next thing Vito knew, he had a little companion who followed him everywhere, both at recess and after school.

As long as Vito had an adorer, he might as well make use of the boy. Now he asked, “Did your parents ever say anything about guards at the entrance?”

Pudge lowered his brows over his eyes in fierce concentration, the cerulean irises turning dark as dusk. “I don’t think so. But I don’t think they ever went there. Just to the palace above.”

Vito nodded slowly. Why would any innocent man or woman enter the dark dungeon below the palace? He should be glad that Pudge was high enough ranked that the boy had entered the palace before. Recognizing him, the guards at the palace gate had taken his word that his parents were awaiting him and his “cousin” at the palace. After all, two young schoolboys could not be plotting nefarious activities.

“I want to go with you,” said Pudge abruptly.

The six-year-old was sweating at the very thought of it. Vito looked at him with interest. Beyond Pudge, over the palace wall, soared the nearby peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Surrounding the boys was the green-and-brown landscape of midsummer, with an occasional bird or chipmunk hopping by. Pudge, dressed in schoolboy brown, blent well into the natural scenery. He could hold himself very still, for such a young boy.

“You can’t,” said Vito. “I need you here.” He’d receive the biggest whipping of his life if his normally patient father discovered his current prank. He couldn’t begin to imagine what sort of punishment he’d receive if his father discovered that he’d brought young Pudge along on the prank.

Pudge would be safe enough, hidden here among the brown branches. Vito had no idea what danger lay behind that door.

He looked again at it. Nobody was going in and out of the door except men and women who looked like servants. He looked like a servant himself, in his modest school uniform. He could slide into the crowd, keeping his mouth shut so that his accent and grammar wouldn’t betray his higher rank. He could go wherever the servants went . . .

. . . and see what? What lay behind that door?

It had to be the right door. They’d circled the multi-story palace, and this was the only door leading into the hillside below the palace, other than a vine-covered iron door that looked as though it were part of a disused loading dock. There could be another entrance within the palace, of course, but Vito had no idea where that other entrance might be, and he was sure to be caught and questioned by guards if he idly searched the palace.

No, it had to be this door. It had to be today. He was moving away from the capital in two weeks’ time. He might never get this chance again.

“Is it because I’m ugly?”

The sadness in Pudge’s voice brought Vito back into awareness of his companion, as much as the words that Pudge spoke. Vito looked over at him, saying quickly, “Who told you that you’re ugly?”

“Some of the boys at school. They said I’m fat and ugly.” Pudge sounded resigned. He hadn’t tried to fight the boys who had hit him. Sometimes Vito wondered what in the name of all that was sacred took place in Pudge’s home that the boy had not learned the normal methods of self-defense that all Yclau fathers taught to their sons.

“You’re not ugly,” said Vito. “You’re beautiful.” He leaned forward and gave Pudge a light kiss on the lips. Their school being co-educational, there was a certain amount of disagreement among the boys there over whether it was better to kiss boys or girls. Vito, being a normal boy, was willing to kiss either, but he certainly wouldn’t have chosen to bestow his first kiss upon a pudgy little six-year-old.

Nor did he consider Pudge to be particularly beautiful. He was too roly-poly for that. But however unappealing Pudge might be on the outside, he had a beautiful soul. To Vito, that was what mattered most.

That was why Vito never told Pudge how annoying he found it to have the little boy forever tagging after him. Vito had enough insight to realize that he was lucky to have been befriended by so generous-minded an adorer.

And so courageous an adorer too, it seemed. Vito smiled at him and said, “I’d like you to come with me. But I have more need you here, as a messenger. It’s an important position. If I haven’t returned by midnight, I need you to tell your father what has happened, so that he can get me released.” Come to think of it, that was exactly what Vito needed. The rank of Pudge’s father was high enough that he alone might have the power to secure Vito’s release, should Vito find himself a captive.

“I can do that,” said Pudge, so eagerly that Vito could not help but laugh. He gave Pudge a one-armed hug, and then, after a cautious look to ensure that no royal guards were patrolling at this moment, he rose to his feet and began walking to the unguarded entrance.

He could only pray that the inhabitants of the Eternal Dungeon would prove as generous as Pudge, if Vito were captured.

o—o—o

The corridors of the Eternal Dungeon were cheerful. That was what struck Vito with force: the hallways were brightly lit, brightly painted, and filled with brightly talking people. The inhabitants were mainly commoners: men and women wearing service uniforms, toting brooms and laundry carts and heavy food baskets. To see them smiling at each other and laughing over each other’s passing jokes, Vito would have thought he’d walked into a scene from afterdeath, with butterflies and flowers decorating the landscape.

An occasional mid-class man strode among them, and very occasionally the unmistakable elite man, taking notice of no one, asking direction from no other man. Yet even these men emitted the occasional smile and soft greeting.

Vito paused in an arched doorway, certain that he had wandered through the wrong entrance into some underground part of the palace. This feeling was increased a moment later, when two young boys ran by, shouting at each other in a game of tag. They were stopped in mid-stride by one of the maids, who admonished them with such a gentle smile that it was clear she was the mother of the two boys. Vito turned away, intending to go back the way he had come, in an effort to figure out where he had taken the wrong path—

—and then he shrank back into the doorway. Another man was striding down the corridor, an elite man, and this man was causing the commoners to step aside with alacrity.

There were no smiles on anyone’s faces as the Torturer passed.

He looked like the pictures of Torturers that appeared in the shilling shockers that some of the boys in Vito’s school surreptitiously passed around to read during recess: he was dressed in a scarlet uniform, with boots that shone glossy, he had a hood with its face-cloth flung back, and there was a cruel set to his mouth. The younger boy who had played tag was now frozen in fear, blocking the man’s path. The Torturer took no notice of him except to shove him out of the way.

The boy fell to the ground, emitting a sharp cry, and then bit his lip, weeping silently. The other men and women present exchanged looks, and the boy’s mother wrung her hands, but nobody stepped forward to rebuke the Torturer. The blood-red man reached a door along the wall and paused, taking out a set of keys that jingled and glistened. A moment later, the door shut behind him, and everyone emitted a collective sigh.

The mother hurried forward to help the crying boy to his feet. A couple of passing laborers paused to express their sympathy for the boy’s injury. And then, amazingly, the smiles returned, as though they had never been absent.

Now thoroughly bewildered, Vito scrutinized the passing men and women more closely, trying to discern the source of their happiness. After a while it came to him that the commoners walking by looked better dressed and better fed than most commoners he knew. His own family, which had always treated its servants well, could boast maids and footmen, cook and scullery maid, butler and valet, all of whom had this decent, cared-for appearance. Few other households in the Queendom of Yclau could make such a boast.

There was a contradiction here – an odd contradiction. On the one hand, there were servants who were so well treated by their masters that they spent their days smiling and whistling and laughing. On the other hand, there was the cruel Torturer who had treated the frightened boy with harshness.

A mystery such as this demanded an explanation. And the explanation – Vito thought as he peered around the corner – must lie behind that door which nobody had yet passed beyond except the Torturer.

He took a step forward. Behind him, light with amusement, a voice said, “If you’re going to try to break into the inner dungeon, you had better make sure you have the proper key.”

o—o—o

He was the lookout, to start with. He stood opposite the doorway, turning his head left and right, awaiting the inevitable moment when someone would walk down their portion of the corridor. The corridor was horribly busy with traffic. Every few seconds he would whistle softly between his teeth and dive onto his knees. His companion, who was already kneeling next to the door, would scoot around and pretend to show interest in the game of marbles that Vito had marked with chalk on the floor. Neither of them had any marbles to throw, and his companion didn’t even know how to play marbles, but none of the grown-ups who passed them took much notice, and the occasional boy who passed was too busy with his own play or work to pause much longer than to make critical remarks about Vito’s choice of a games companion. Before long, Vito’s face was flaming.

So his tone was somewhat rougher than it might have been when, after the latest of their inevitable pauses to look innocent, he said, “It’s taking you forever.”

His companion lightly jingled the ring of keys, hastily hidden whenever Vito whistled the oncoming danger. “Papa owns lots of property. I don’t know which key is the right one.”

“He won’t own property for long if he leaves his keys carelessly around.”

His companion-in-crime shrugged, pushing aside a strand of hair that had fallen astray. “There was just me in our guest apartment. And he’ll be back in an hour. We need to be quick.”

Fingering one of the pebbles they were using in place of marbles, Vito eyed his companion curiously. “You still haven’t explained why you want to do this. You’ll be in danger—”

“So will you,” replied his companion bluntly. “More than me. My father will intervene for me if I’m caught. The Torturers know him; they’re negotiating to have his firm build them a documents library for their Record-keeper. Will your father be able to stop the Torturers from torturing you if you’re caught?”

“He’s out of town,” said Vito uneasily.

“Well, then.” Crouching upright, his companion looked left and right, determined that no further danger was on its way, and grinned. “I’m mad with curiosity about what lies behind that door. Aren’t you?”

Vito couldn’t help but grin back, but his uneasiness returned as they took up their prior positions: Vito as lookout, his companion trying to break into the inner dungeon with use of stolen keys. Finally Vito burst out, “But you’re a girl.”

There were several biting replies she could have made to that, but all she said was, “Then it’s even less likely they’ll torture me, don’t you think? —Ah!” As she knelt on her stockinged knees, peering at the lock, she leaned forward slightly, and there was a click. “That’s it. Come on!”

After a quick look left and right, Vito hurried forward. The door was not yet open. He said in a low voice, “It seems a funny coincidence, that you should be there with the right key, just when I wanted to break in.”

Her pale face flushed then. “It’s not a coincidence. Papa left the dungeon this morning, to deal with an urgent matter in his office. He ordered me to stay in the guest apartment, locked away. I’ve been trying to get my courage up all day to use the key. But I didn’t like the idea of going in there alone.”

Vito felt his back straighten. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I won’t let them torture you.”

She rolled her eyes. “I meant that, if there were two of us, one of us could run for help if the other was captured. I hope you can run fast.” And with that statement, she pushed the door slightly open.

They both leaned forward to peer through the crack. There was no obvious sign of danger ahead of them: no wailing prisoners, no instruments of pain, no grim Torturers. All that they could see was another corridor, barely lit. Vito looked at the girl. She bit her thumb, contemplating the scene, and then she nodded.

They slipped inside and closed the door behind them.

The corridor was so dim that it took Vito a moment to adjust his sight. The corridor went on for many yards, and along the way were open entranceways on the left and right. The corridor looked quite ordinary: a dull green, the color of transformation, though Vito supposed this was just a coincidence. It could hardly be supposed that Torturers spent their days thinking about transformation and rebirth . . . though they must certainly spend a lot of time thinking about death.

The girl had already taken a couple of steps forward. Although she was several years older than Vito, she had clearly not yet debuted in society, for she was dressed primly in a girl-length dress made of ivory-colored silk, with no less than four skirt-layers of lacy ruffles adorned with shapes of flowers and thorns, as well as a fussy little bustle in the back. She looked like a tiered wedding cake come to life. Wearing his school uniform, Vito felt mid-class by comparison, though in fact his family, like most of the families living in the Parkside district of the capital, was descended from aristocratic blood.

Now she stepped back to whisper, in the elite accent they shared, “I can’t see anyone. Where do you suppose the Torturers are?”

As though on cue, a man screamed.

Vito took a step back. The girl merely turned a shade paler than her natural creamy complexion. The scream had come from straight ahead of them, near the end of the corridor. It continued, long and ragged, like a tattered ribbon being unwound. Then came words: “No more! Sweet blood, no more! I’ll say anything you want, but no more!”

Whatever the Torturer said in reply was too soft for them to hear. Remembering that he was supposed to be protecting her, Vito came forward to stand beside the girl. She said only, “Do you suppose we can get close enough to see what’s happening?”

“I don’t know.” Vito took another rapid look at the end of the corridor in front of them. He could see now that there were a couple of sets of open entranceways along their corridor, suggesting that their corridor twice met other hallways running at right angles to it. There seemed ample opportunities for escape. “Let’s walk a bit further,” he suggested.

She nodded, not taking her eye from the farther stretch of the corridor, from which the screaming continued. Either the Torturer didn’t believe his victim, or else the Torturer simply liked to hurt men as long as possible.

Vito and the girl had reached the first set of entranceways now. As Vito had already guessed, they proved to be the crossroads to another hallway. To the left, the new hallway ran the full length of the dungeon, with doorways and hatchways along the sides, as well as an occasional oil-lamp, flickering flame and smoke. To the right, the hallway travelled only a yard or two before it ended in a closed door. On the door was fastened a label: “Surgery closed.”

Vito glanced at the door only briefly before turning his attention back to the left portion of the new hallway. Was there an exit to the outer dungeon there? Or to the outside? Or had he and the girl passed through the only doorway through which they could escape?

Suddenly, the girl’s fingers dug into his arm. Turning his head, Vito saw why. The corridor ahead of them, at the second set of open entranceways, was now blocked by two men – guards, from the looks of the daggers and whips at their sides. They were standing with their backs to the intruders, but only a very slight move of their heads would reveal to them the intruders.

“Oh, no,” whispered the girl, and Vito’s head turned again. More guards, coming toward them from the hallway to the left. Between them walked a man who was clearly a prisoner, for his hands appeared to be bound behind him. He was barely able to walk; his escorts were holding him upright. So absorbed were they in pushing along the prisoner that the guards had not yet sighted the children ahead. But it wouldn’t be long before—

Vito felt the girl slip from his side. He turned and saw her opening the door labelled “Surgery closed.”

Aghast, Vito whispered, “What are you—?” And then he froze. He too had heard what she had heard: the sound of someone opening the door that led to the outer dungeon.

He flew through the surgery door. As he and the girl entered the room, side by side, he thought he caught a glimpse of a slim, dark-clothed figure slipping through the outer-dungeon door, but he wasn’t sure. Had the figure seen him? He and the girl shoved the surgery door closed. Then they stared at the door.

Vito’s heart was pounding. The guards and their prisoner were coming closer. The prisoner’s moans could be heard now, providing an undercurrent to the ragged scream that continued from the prisoner who was being tortured. Vito murmured, “This visit was a really, really bad idea.”

The girl said nothing. When Vito looked at her, he found that she had turned around. Then he too heard the sound: Men talking, approaching them. About to come through the other door to the surgery.

There was no time to think of a plan. Vito looked right and left rapidly. He had a blurred image of tins and bottles; a microscope; books about anatomy; a skull; a painting showing the cycle of rebirth, transformation, and death . . . the sort of objects that one would expect to see in a surgery.

Then his sight settled on the object nearest them. A bed. A very high bed, presumably designed as such in order to allow the healer to examine his patient closely. It was currently bare, except for a partly translucent blanket that had been hastily flung over it. The blanket’s tassels were just brushing the floor, hiding the bed-legs.

“Under here!” hissed Vito, and he pushed the girl down to her knees. She immediately crawled under the bed. Vito spent a split second ascertaining that she could no longer be seen, and then he joined her in her hiding spot.

They were just in time. The door opposite them opened, and three men stepped through.

One was clearly the healer. He had the seal of the Guild of Healers sewn across the breast pocket of his jacket. He was young, perhaps in his early thirties. He leaned against a cedarwood secretary whose lid was flipped up, hiding the contents, and stared at a nearby water-clock, as though disassociating himself from the other men.

The man who followed him could have been anything: a lord, a clerk, a businessman. The cut of his jacket and the gold of his pocket-watch suggested wealth, but not ostentatious wealth. His hairline was receding, but his eyes were as alert as a young man’s. He found a cushioned armchair and sat down without asking anyone’s permission.

The last man— Vito heard the girl’s breath whistle in. Vito was holding his own breath. A red uniform. A hood, covering the face.

They were trapped in a room with a Torturer.

CHAPTER THREE

“Well, now,” said the Torturer as he picked up a chair and moved it to a more convenient location. In front of the door through which the men had just come. Vito’s gaze moved swiftly to the other door. It remained unblocked, but it was in full view of all the men in the room. Until the men left, he and the girl remained trapped.

“We are missing one man,” the clerk – if that was what he was – observed mildly. He looked like the sort of man who always spoke mildly.

The healer snorted. “You expect Luray to be on time? He’s probably having too much fun playing with his prisoner.”

“His prisoner is in no condition in which to be played with.” The Torturer sounded as though he were frowning, but it was impossible to tell; the hood hid his expression.

“You think you need to tell me that?” snapped the healer. “Luray’s prisoner isn’t even in a condition to be out of his bed. If this dungeon had enough room for an infirmary, I’d have nurses hovering over him, day and night.”

“Expenses are always a difficulty.” Again, that mild voice from the clerk. “I’ve requested more funding for your surgery in next year’s budget, Mr. Bergsen.”

The healer did not appear mollified. He had picked up a slender knife – Vito supposed it must be a scalpel – and was tapping its hilt against the side of the secretary. “And what good does it do me to have funds to heal tortured prisoners, if all you do is go and hang them afterwards?”

“You knew what your job required of you when you took it,” said the Torturer tersely, then raised his voice. “Ah, there you are, Lord Luray.”

Vito had missed the other Torturer’s entrance; it had come so quickly. He felt the girl touch his arm in light warning. Vito’s throat tightened. This Torturer’s hood did not hide his face, and Vito recognized him. He was the Torturer who had hurt the little boy in the corridor of the outer dungeon.

The newest Torturer said in a relaxed manner. “High Torturer. Codifier. Mr. Bergsen.”

Codifier? It was a mysterious title. Vito briefly scrutinized the mild-mannered clerk before turning his attention to the Torturer who remained fully hooded. The High Torturer. The head Torturer. He must be the man from whom all other men in this dungeon took orders.

And indeed, the High Torturer was saying sharply, “Lord Luray, you know that current dungeon custom requires that you remain fully hooded at all times when you are on duty.”

“Bloody stupid custom,” said the lord Torturer cheerfully as he pulled down the face-cloth of his hood and seated himself in the nearest chair. “I suppose that this was another of your young protégé’s ideas? As though he weren’t getting into enough mischief in the breaking cells, without taking over disciplinary matters as well.”

The Codifier inserted himself smoothly. “How are matters proceeding with young Layle Smith, Mr. Jenson?”

The healer turned his back hurriedly and pretended to be sorting some of his instruments, though Vito could tell that he was listening closely to the conversation. The High Torturer sighed. “Delicately.”

“He’s turning this dungeon upside down,” said the lord Torturer bluntly. “High Torturer, far be it from me to tell you or the Codifier your jobs, but you’re giving this puppy far too long a leash. He’s making puddles everywhere he goes.”

The Codifier raised his eyebrows. The healer poured himself a glass of water; his back remained to the proceedings. The High Torturer said wearily, “He is not your concern.”

“He is the concern of every man in this dungeon who abides by the Code of Seeking. Sir, I am in earnest.” The lord Torturer leaned forward, his forearms resting on his thighs. “I am tired of waking up each day thinking that I am going to find that every prisoner in this place has been raped, every servant mauled, and that your vicious young Torturer is in the process of cutting the throats of all his rivals.”

“You exaggerate the dangers,” said the High Torturer, but again he sounded weary.

The Codifier merely said, “Mr. Bergsen?”

“Private medical information cannot be released, even to you, sir.” The healer turned back to the other men, but he kept his gaze focussed on the glass of water.

“Since I formulated that rule, I am aware of it,” said the Codifier dryly. “However, you continue to believe that Mr. Smith’s health is sufficiently stable to permit him employment in this dungeon?”

The healer lifted his head and glared at all the men present. “There isn’t a single Torturer in this dungeon that I wouldn’t gladly lock up in an asylum for the insane. If you’re asking me whether Layle Smith is any more likely than the other Torturers to go beyond this dungeon’s prescribed rules for destruction . . . I would say that he is far more aware than any of you are of the danger he represents to the prisoners, and is therefore far more likely to be alert to any changes in his mental condition. He brings all matters of concern to me promptly, and we deal with them.”

“Which is what I have been saying all along,” added the High Torturer, his voice no longer weary. “Lord Luray, our position gives us great power over the fates of the prisoners. Would that I or any man here had Mr. Smith’s skill for being aware of that fact at all times. . . . We are wandering from our subject. Where is your prisoner?”

The girl whispered into Vito’s ear. “He’s outside, crying. Can’t they hear him?”

Vito certainly could. The prisoner’s labored sobbing had been providing a monotonous undertone to the entire conversation, as though in contrast to all the talk of caring about the prisoners’ fates.

The lord Torturer said casually, “He’s waiting outside. Are we ready for him, then?”

The healer slammed his glass onto the instruments table, so hard that Vito thought for a moment he had broken it. “You left a prisoner, racked just two days ago, waiting in the corridor? Sweet blood, man, have you no feelings of compassion?”

“Toward a prisoner who has confessed to raping and murdering half a dozen young women? Not bloody likely,” the lord Torturer growled.

The High Torturer put up his hand. “Enough. Lord Luray, see that the prisoner is brought in. Mr. Bergsen, you will allow me to handle disciplinary matters, if you please. That is not your duty.”

“The prisoners’ health is always my duty,” snapped the healer as the lord Torturer rose to his feet in a leisurely manner.

“Mr. Bergsen.”

The Codifier’s voice was as mild as before, but something about it – the edge of something hidden – caused the healer to take visible hold of his emotions. After a moment, the healer said stiffly, “My apologies, High Torturer. I should have brought my concern to you privately. But I don’t know what the bloody blades you expect me to say in this case that I haven’t already said in my report.”

“Your medical insight is always invaluable,” said the High Torturer, evidently not a man to nurse a grudge. “And I would appreciate it if you and Lord Luray would recall that profanity during duty-hours is never appropriate.”

The healer snorted. The lord Torturer said, “Another of Layle Smith’s fancies? —All right, you can bring him in.” This was spoken as he opened the door.

Vito felt the girl grip his hand for the first time. He wasn’t surprised. His own gorge was rising as he witnessed the entrance of the racked prisoner. The man could barely walk – he continued to be supported on both sides by his grey-uniformed guards – and though he was fully clothed, the collar of his shirt rode down far enough to reveal red welts on his back. He looked dazed, scarcely aware of his surroundings, and tears continued to course down his face, though he had managed to swallow his sobs.

The healer, frowning again, had moved forward and was giving sharp orders to the guards. Fortunately, the guards showed no particular tendency to manhandle their prisoner. They moved as ordered by the healer, carefully shifting the prisoner onto the bed.

The bed under which Vito and the girl hid. Vito held his breath, seeing the guards’ feet inches from them, and feeling the thump as the prisoner was laid onto the bed. The springs above them sagged under the weight of the prisoner. Vito nudged himself closer to the girl to avoid the sagging springs. She put an arm around his back, which was unexpected; if anyone should be offering comfort in these circumstances, it was he. But he had already determined that she was a young lady of unexpected impulses.

“Now, then,” said the High Torturer briskly as the guards left the room, “we are here to investigate a claim submitted by the prisoner, Mr. John Isaacs, against his Torturer, Martin Lord Luray, regarding Lord Luray’s performance on the twenty-fourth day of this month in Rack Room B. Mr. Daniels, Codifier of the Eternal Dungeon, is the judge in such matters. Mr. Daniels, I am handing custody of the prisoner over to you for the duration of the proceedings.”

The lord Torturer, who had looked so relaxed that it appeared he would fall asleep, now stiffened. “What is this?” he said in a voice of outrage.

Even the healer appeared startled. The Codifier said in his tranquil voice, “It is a new custom that we have agreed to institute in the Eternal Dungeon. The High Torturer has graciously conceded to grant me full power over any prisoner who brings a complaint against his Torturer, for the duration of the investigation.”

The healer relaxed. The lord Torturer snorted. “One of Layle Smith’s fancies again – I recognize his hand. Very well. But you won’t find anything out of place, Mr. Daniels. I follow the Code of Seeking strictly.”

The prisoner had begun to sob again. The Codifier raised his voice to be heard over the noise. “Let us be brief here. Mr. Isaacs, you claim that, under your Torturer, you were forced to make a false confession. Can you describe for us, please, the circumstances which led you to make your confession?”

“He hurt me,” said the prisoner in a choked voice. “Over and over he hurt me. I couldn’t stand the pain. I told him . . . what he wanted me . . . to tell him.” The last sentence ended in a wail. The healer glanced quickly at the Codifier for permission, then came forward to the surgery bed. There was a pause as he tended to the prisoner.

“Succinctly put,” said the Codifier when the healer had finally stepped back, and the prisoner’s sobs had diminished. “Mr. Bergsen, you have already stated in your report that the injuries you tended afterwards were consonant with Mr. Isaacs being tortured at level seven. Lord Luray?”

The lord Torturer shrugged. “What can I say? I followed the rules on torture that are outlined in the Code of Seeking. The prisoner tried to attack me on his first day here. I had him whipped. On his third day, he tried to blame another man for his own crime—”

“It was my cousin who did it, not me!” cried the prisoner, his voice filled with agony.

“For his own crime,” repeated the lord Torturer firmly. “After receiving permission from the High Torturer, I racked the prisoner. I took him no higher in the racking than I’d received permission for, the seventh level. The prisoner broke on the eighth hour and offered his confession. End of tale.”

“Mr. Jenson?” The Codifier switched his attention to the High Torturer as the prisoner cried helplessly.

“It is as Lord Luray says, sir. Here is the prisoner’s records, which includes the evidence brought against him by the soldiers who arrested him.” The High Torturer handed him a book.

The Codifier scrutinized it carefully before saying, “All appears to be in order.”

“No!” It was a scream of utter hopelessness from the prisoner. Everyone in the room ignored the prisoner except the healer, who picked up the scalpel again, looking as though he would like to use it against the other prison workers in the room.

“Lord Luray, you are fully satisfied that the prisoner has offered a true confession?” The Codifier raised his head to scrutinize the lord Torturer.

“Fully.” The lord Torturer’s voice was flat. “His confession fits the evidence. No evidence has been offered against the man he accuses. The prisoner’s confession included certain facts that had not been publicly released—”

“I saw it happen! I told you that!” cried the prisoner.

“—which he did not see fit to mention until after he had made his confession, when he made his complaint against me.” The lord Torturer’s voice remained flat. “Sir, this is a self-confessed murderer and rapist who is trying to wriggle out of the penalty prescribed for men like him. He wants to save his own skin, by any means. He showed no mercy to his victims; I see no reason why we should show mercy to him.”

The Codifier closed the book with a snap. “I trust, Lord Luray, that you will learn to hold a modicum of mercy toward your prisoners who have confessed. A proposal has been made that Torturers in this dungeon serve as defenders of their prisoners at their trials. If this proposal is accepted—”

“Oh, sweet blood. Layle Smith again.” The lord Torturer shook his head. “I have met many a madman, but none like him. He spends half his days breaking prisoners in the most brutal manner possible, and half his days trying to destroy the Code of Seeking.”

Everyone was now ignoring the prisoner’s despairing sobs, even the healer, who seemed absorbed in this new discussion. The Codifier said, “The Code changes gradually, from generation to generation. Proposals offered by the Torturers of this dungeon are experimented with, and if they prove to be fruitful, are incorporated into the next revision of the Code.”

There was a heartbeat of silence, punctuated only by the prisoner’s soft wails, and then the lord Torturer said, “Do not. Tell me. That you have chosen that vicious brat. As the Code’s reviser.”

“That decision has not been made yet. —Thank you, Mr. Jenson,” said the Codifier as he handed the blue volume back to the High Torturer. “I am satisfied that all is in order here.”

The prisoner seemed beyond speech now; his sobs rolled like flood-waters over the room. The High Torturer, sounding sober, said, “Yes, sir. I will have the Record-keeper arrange for his trial tomorrow. The Queen’s magistrate, of course, has the final word as to whether this man is guilty or innocent.”

“So you will have a chance to plead your case to the Queen’s representative,” the Codifier explained to the prisoner. “My job, Mr. Isaacs, is only to determine whether the Code of Seeking has been broken. In this case, it appears that the Code’s rules of torture have been adhered to.”

The lord Torturer bowed his head in silent acceptance of the judgment, and then said, unexpectedly, “Perhaps, sir, the prisoner would feel more comfortable remaining in your custody until the trial.”

“An excellent suggestion,” said the High Torturer, sounding pleased. “A rational extension of Mr. Smith’s proposal for the handling of prisoners who have cried complaint against their Torturers. You could place your own guards in charge of this prisoner, sir.”

The Codifier appeared to consider this idea. “Perhaps. Or I could release the prisoner into the care of the healer, since he works under me. Mr. Bergsen, I know that your surgery is small, but do you have room for Mr. Isaacs overnight here?”

They all appeared smugly satisfied with their decision, Vito observed with dismay. As though they had come to a wonderful compromise, rather than deciding that a tortured prisoner’s desperate confession was reason enough to send him to the hangman.

“No,” said Mr. Bergsen brusquely. “Mr. Ferris has Rack Room A today.” Right on cue, another scream emanated from the direction where Mr. Bergsen was pointing. “I’m expecting his prisoner here afterwards.”

“But you can check on Mr. Isaacs in his cell, later today,” concluded the Codifier. “Very well. Lord Luray, let your guards take the prisoner back to his breaking cell; I shall send my own guards to relieve them, once we are through here. Thank you for your assistance, gentlemen.”

The meeting ended on that serene note. The prisoner was removed, too choked with his sobs to utter more protests. The lord Torturer removed a cigar from his pocket as he relaxed back into his seat. The High Torturer said merely, “A difficult case.”

“Indeed,” replied the Codifier. “False confessions are not unknown. However, in a case like this, where the prisoner offered a key point in his claim of innocence well after the confession . . . I would rather err on the side of true confession, in so serious a matter as serial murder and rape.”

“Of course he would,” whispered the girl in Vito’s ear. “He’s not the one being racked.”

Vito shook his head, not out of any protest to his companion’s sensible remark, but because he remained keenly aware of their continued danger. These were men with blood on their hands – even the healer, though he at least made an effort to protect the prisoners. And so did the Torturers, he realized with growing concern. They thought they were protecting the prisoners. They were, after a certain fashion.

Just not enough. The screams from the rack room continued.

“Well, I’ll be getting back to my work,” said the lord Torturer, shifting in order to rise to his feet.

There was a knock at the door.

o—o—o

A pause ensued. From where Vito crouched, he could see all of the men exchanging looks. Finally the High Torturer spoke. “Did you not place a sign on the door, indicating that the surgery was closed, Mr. Bergsen?”

“Of course I did,” said the healer. “It must be one of your guards.”

“Or perhaps mine,” suggested the Codifier calmly. He raised his voice. “Enter.”

The door opened, and a man slid inside. A guard, wearing a grey uniform. Once in this room, he seemed to feel under no obligation to say anything. He simply stood at attention, waiting.

“Bloody blades!” cried the lord Torturer explosively.

“Oh, sweet blood,” murmured the healer.

“Not again?” said the High Torturer sharply.

The Codifier said nothing, but he leaned forward in his chair, frowning.

“I very much regret so, High Torturer.” The guard’s voice held exactly the right mixture of apology and concern. “He was absorbed in conversation with his junior night guard, in the midst of the crowded entry hall, so I took the opportunity to slip into the guards’ washroom. When I returned, he was gone, and nobody knows which direction he took.”

“What the bloody use is it having a guard shadow him if the guard can’t keep track of him?” said the lord Torturer in a tone of exasperation.

“Nobody can keep track of him if he does not wish to be tracked,” commented the Codifier.

The High Torturer sighed heavily. “All too true, I’m afraid. It’s all right, Mr. Sobel,” he added to the guard. “You did your best, I’m sure. He is simply far too skilled.”

“Perhaps,” said the healer, “you should set Layle Smith to the task of training your guards.”

The Codifier raised his eyebrow.

The High Torturer snorted. “You say that in jest, yet it is not a bad notion at all.”

The lord Torturer muttered something pithy and dark under his breath, which the other men chose to ignore. The guard coughed lightly before asking, “How shall I deal with the current problem, sir?”

“Let Layle Smith come home when he’s ready,” advised the healer.

But the Codifier shook his head. “He needs tight restraint upon him at this stage. It is the only way in which he can learn that the Code of Seeking is not his private playground, to be arranged at his own fancy; rather, it is a book of discipline, to which he must adhere. Mr. Jenson, if he did not seek your permission to slip away from his duties, then I recommend punishment for this episode.”

The High Torturer nodded briskly. “I agree, sir. The only problem will be tracking him down. The sooner we do so,” he added dryly, “the less damage he will leave in his wake. Mr. Sobel, have you checked the prisoners’ cells?”

The healer winced at the conjunction of these two sentences. The guard replied, “Yes, sir – both the breaking cells and the rack rooms. I also checked the crematorium, his living quarters, the Torturers’ common room, and the supply and equipment rooms within the inner dungeon. I did not enter your own rooms, sir.” He bowed to the Codifier.

“He could hardly have managed to get past your guards, Mr. Daniels,” offered the High Torturer. “Well, now. If I were Layle Smith, where would I go?”

The lord Torturer, who evidently now regarded himself off duty, had taken the opportunity to raise his face-cloth. Pausing from puffing on his cigar, he said, “Wherever he can cause the most trouble, if past experience is anything to go by. Have you checked whether any of the prisoners are missing?”

The healer winced again.

The High Torturer slammed his hands onto the arms of his chair. “This cannot continue. We must rein him under control.”

“Finding him first is our present difficulty.” The Codifier’s voice remained quiet, though he was frowning again. “May I suggest that, if he cannot be located in the inner dungeon, he might be in the outer dungeon? —Unless you have a better solution to suggest, Mr. Sobel.”

“He would hardly find any entertainment there,” protested the lord Torturer.

The healer, who was on the point of plucking the lit cigar from the lord Torturer’s hand, paused minutely before taking the offending object away. He ground it in a nearby ashtray without comment.

His voice contemplative, the High Torturer said, “So you agree, Mr. Bergsen? No, don’t worry; I’m not going to probe you about your conversations with your patient. I wonder how often Mr. Smith has wandered in the outer dungeon, and what mischief he has been doing there. Mr. Sobel?”

“Yes, sir,” said the guard and slipped out of the room, as quietly as he had come.

“The outer dungeon is far larger than the inner dungeon,” observed the Codifier. “And far less interesting, from the point of view of a young Torturer like Mr. Smith. What could entice him to visit there?”

“Women, perhaps,” suggested the lord Torturer. “More women spend time there than here.”

This comment seemed to affect all three of the other men to the same degree. The healer now had a horrified expression on his face. The Codifier had frozen in place. The High Torturer cleared his throat. “We may be overreacting,” he observed, in a voice that suggested he believed otherwise.

The lord Torturer threw his arms into the air. “Bloody blades! Why don’t you just hire all the murderers and rapists in our cells to become Torturers? That would make as much sense as hiring a cut-throat like Layle Smith.”

There was a staccato knock at the door.

It was so faint that, for a moment, Vito thought the sound came from his imagination. But from the swift looks that the men threw each other, it was clear that the pattern of this knock was familiar to them. The High Torturer cleared his throat. “Mr. Smith? Enter, please.”

The door was opened and closed again in the blink of an eye. Standing now in front of it was a slender figure in a black uniform and a black hood with its face-cloth down. Not a single thread of color lightened his appearance. Seeing him, Vito caught his breath.

The girl whispered into his ear, “It’s him! He was the one coming into the inner dungeon when we entered the surgery!”

Vito shook his head in silent warning. The young Torturer, though, gave no sign that he had heard the nearby whisper. He said formally, “Sirs. Forgive my intrusion.”

There was no note of apology in his voice. The High Torturer sighed again. “I have your senior night guard out looking for you, as I’m sure you’re aware. What have you been up to?”

“Why, I’ve been guarding this room.” The young Torturer’s voice was empty of all emotion, though somehow lighter than the occasion warranted. “I thought you might require help with the prisoners.”

Vito’s heart skipped a beat. He heard the girl’s breath enter swiftly in.

“There’s only been one prisoner here,” said the lord Torturer, not deigning to look in Layle Smith’s direction. “He’s gone. Go find your minder.”

The Codifier’s frown had deepened. The High Torturer leaned forward. “Mr. Smith?” There was a note of enquiry in his voice.

“I was referring to the other prisoners, sir.” Nor did the young Torturer look in the lord Torturer’s direction; he addressed his remark to the High Torturer. “I saw them slip in here shortly before you arrived at the surgery. I waited outside—”

“Outside that door?” said the healer sharply. “Seward Sobel just came that way. So did two other guards. None of them reported seeing you.”

“Yes,” said Layle Smith, unconcerned. “I waited outside in case the prisoners should try to escape through that door. They didn’t, and since you didn’t bring them out, I thought you might require my assistance in capturing them.”

The Codifier, the High Torturer, and the lord Torturer all stared at each other. The healer began to laugh – a spluttering, half-helpless laugh.

The young Torturer simply waited. Blocking the door.

Vito looked at the girl. They had only seconds left, he knew. It suddenly seemed vitally important to him that he not be captured in the company of a stranger. “I’m Vito,” he whispered. “What is your name?”

“Birdie,” she replied. And with a hand cold with fear, she grasped his hand, and they crawled out together to their doom.

CHAPTER FOUR

The year 363, the fourth month. (The year 1882 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)

“So that is how you first met Mistress Birdesmond.”

Vito pulled himself back from his memories. The High Seeker – Layle Smith, now grown to middle age – sat in the exact same position as he had been since the beginning of the recital: his spine upright, his hands formally folded in front of him, his eyes sharp.

Vito supposed that he should be grateful that the High Seeker was no longer relaxed in enjoyment of his searching. Trying to pull back into the present time, Vito replied, “Yes, sir. Many years later, when I was working at Parkside Prison, I chanced to meet Birdie – I mean, Mistress Birdesmond. I recognized her. She is a few years older than me, you see, so she hadn’t changed much. We renewed our acquaintance, and when she took her current position, she wrote to tell me that she was now working in the Eternal Dungeon. She couldn’t tell me her exact work title, of course, but I knew of her ambitions, and so—”

“And so you quizzed her on the current horrors in the dungeon.” The High Seeker’s gaze remained sharp. Behind Vito, beyond the closed door, came sounds that signified to Vito – a long-time prison worker – that the day shift was coming to an end. The High Seeker – a night-shift worker – showed no signs of being eager to complete the interview and get back to his regular work in a breaking cell. Perhaps he found the current interview more entertaining.

“Not quite, sir.” Vito managed a self-deprecating laugh. “I was terribly young and idealistic when I first visited here. I’ve had time, in the years since, to gain experience and wisdom. I realize now that, while I was well-intentioned back then, I had only a young boy’s view of what was taking place in this dungeon. Since I’ve come of age, I’ve worked in prisons, and I’ve come to realize that harsh measures must sometimes be taken to keep harsh men under control.”

The High Seeker said nothing. His eyes were unblinking, like a snake’s.

“Of course,” added Vito, picking his way carefully through the bramble-bush of the interview, “I still hold to the belief that prison workers must do all they can to help the prisoners become better men and women. That was why I was so greatly moved when I read the Code of Seeking. Mistress Birdesmond sent me a copy of the public edition of this dungeon’s manual of ethics. It is truly a heart-stirring document which you wrote, sir.”

The sincerity of his statement must have been clear from the manner in which he voiced himself, for the High Seeker moved finally, reaching forward to take hold of a pen. He tested it against the blotting paper on his desk; without looking up, he said, “I merely contributed a few refinements to a book that has stood the test of time. So that was why you decided to apply for the position of Seeker?”

“That, plus the light hints that Mistress Birdesmond was offering of the work done here.” The hints had not all been of satisfaction in that work, but there was no need for him to volunteer such information. Being a lady, Mistress Birdesmond had been spared certain unpleasant duties performed by the male Seekers. Nonetheless, she remained concerned about the treatment of this dungeon’s prisoners.

“Hmm.” The High Seeker scribbled down an illegible note to himself. “In addition to having failed to mention this childhood episode to me at the time of her arrival in the dungeon, Mistress Birdesmond seems to have been a little less discreet with you than we require of our Seekers. A bit of her feminine nature surfacing, no doubt.” It was difficult, from the High Seeker’s tone, to tell whether this last statement was intended to be jocular, condemnatory, or approving. “I will have a word with her concerning the appropriate passages in the Code. Did you pass on what she told you to anyone?”

“No, sir,” Vito replied firmly. “I gathered that her observations were made in private. I don’t think she would have shared her thoughts with anyone except a former prisoner, who already knew about conditions here.”

This characterization of himself, as he had hoped, did its work in providing the right note of humility. The High Seeker set aside his pen and turned on the electric lamp on his desk. The bulb promptly sparked and died. Vito winced. The High Seeker, apparently used to such episodes, merely turned on the second electric lamp on the desk. This one, after a moment of uncertain fizzling, decided to stay on, more or less.

In the flickering light, the eye-holes of the High Seeker’s hood appeared more cavernous than before. “As High Torturer Jenson no doubt told you, Mr. de Vere, you were never classified as a prisoner here. Mr. Jenson judged that your actions were merely in the nature of a youthful prank, and once he had ascertained that you were unlikely to reveal the conversations you overheard here, he released you. You did not speak of what you heard to anyone?”

“No, sir.” He had a vivid image of Pudge in his mind as he spoke. He had not mentioned Pudge to the High Seeker – and why should he? He had never revealed to Pudge what he had witnessed here. He had treated with great seriousness the oath of silence that the High Torturer had administered to him, and he still did.

Again, the sincerity of his reply must have been clear to the High Seeker, for Layle Smith set aside his pen. “Very well. As you know, Mr. de Vere, decisions concerning employment to inner-dungeon positions cannot be made by myself alone. I will need to discuss your application with the Codifier, who in turn will wish to consult with the Queen. In the meantime, to save you the journey back to Cape Henry, you may stay in the outer dungeon’s guest apartment.”

It was as good as saying that he had received the post. Vito let out his breath and then hastily rose to his feet as the High Seeker pulled himself out from under the desk. The second lamp gave up its valiant fight and fizzled out, leaving only candlelight flickering in the dark office.

The High Seeker ignored this. “My senior night guard has just arrived on duty. He will take you to your destination.”

Vito simply stared for a moment. Now that the day shift had gone off duty, he could hear nothing outside except an occasional creak of a chair. Certainly he had heard nothing that heralded the arrival of a guard.

After a moment, he swallowed. He had known before he arrived here of the High Seeker’s formidable skills. Truly, it was a miracle he had made it through this interview unscathed.

Feeling his skin prickle now from the sweat that had accumulated upon it, he offered his arm. “Thank you, sir. I am grateful to you for your kind consideration of my petition.”

The High Seeker shook his arm in farewell, without comment. Upon his gesture, Vito opened the door to the entry hall. There, waiting patiently, was a guard. Vito recognized him as having been present at the trial of Elsdon Taylor.

“Mr. de Vere will be staying in the guest apartment,” said the High Seeker. “See to it, please.”

The guard murmured an acknowledgment of the order and then said to Vito, “If you will come this way, sir . . .”

They were halfway across the entry hall when something made Vito turn swiftly around. The High Seeker was stalking him, like a beast of prey. Seeing Vito turn, Layle Smith paused, his eyes too dark in the shadows to be seen. Then he said, “One thing more, Mr. de Vere.”

“Sir?” Vito could feel the danger, somewhere deep in the pit of his stomach. The guard had backed away, to give the High Seeker room for whatever he wished to do.

“You are still an idealist, Mr. de Vere,” said the High Seeker softly. “I will be watching you.”

o—o—o

The year 343, the seventh month. (The year 1876 Barley by the Old Calendar.)

He was covered with sweat by the time he returned to Pudge. Flopping himself down onto the evening-chilled ground, he tried to still his heavy breath. Tried to still his heart, which was racing beyond measure.

Pudge began to speak, paused, and waited a minute. That was just like Pudge: to take the measure of another boy’s ability to speak before asking him a question. Finally, as Vito’s shaking began to stop, Pudge asked, “Are you all right? I was going to come find you if you didn’t come back soon.”

That was Pudge too: braving the terrors of the Eternal Dungeon to rescue a friend. Vito wiped his forehead on his sleeve. The sleeve turned black with his sweat.

Pudge persisted: “I was afraid you’d been captured.”

“I was.” It seemed too much trouble to get up and run. They knew his name. They knew his address. They could come get him any time they wanted.

Pudge’s breath whistled in. He said, in the awed voice of a young boy who has witnessed mighty wonders, “Did they torture you?”

Pudge’s admiration helped. Vito gave a strangled sound, halfway between a laugh and a sob. “No. The High Torturer talked to me, that’s all. Then he let me go.” The High Torturer had let the girl go too; that was the important part. Vito had refused to say anything to the High Torturer until the Eternal Dungeon released the girl Birdie into her father’s custody. Her father, faced with this calamity, had seemed equally angry with the Torturers and with the girl. But he hadn’t looked as though he was the type of man to hit his daughter, and he had promised to remove Birdie from the dungeon swiftly.

Which left Vito to face the High Torturer alone.

“He didn’t touch me,” Vito repeated, as though to reassure himself. The High Torturer hadn’t touched him, but Vito had learned more in that hour than he had ever hoped to know about the techniques by which a Torturer may break a prisoner without use of physical weapons.

“Was it bad?” asked Pudge softly. There was sympathy in his voice now, rather than terror.

Vito turned his head to look at Pudge. The boy still had the bruises, very faint, where the other boys had pummelled him, on the day when Vito had rescued him. And yet Pudge had been willing to brave Torturers to rescue Vito.

Vito smiled. “Not that bad. Honest. I’ll be all right.” Then his smile faded. “But the other prisoners . . .”

After a minute of waiting, Pudge prodded. “What did you see?”

Vito shook his head. He had seen little. What he had heard, though . . .

He could not speak of that to Pudge. Not now, not ever.

Pudge tried again. “Was it as bad as the stories say?”

He could answer that question, at least. “Worse. Far worse.” He had been prepared to encounter unscrupulous Torturers. What he had found instead was Torturers who believed that they were helping the prisoners they tortured. That was worse. Far, far worse. What lengths might such men go to, if they believed that the souls of their prisoners were at stake?

“What shall we do?” Pudge’s voice was small.

Vito had been about to raise himself into a sitting position; now his head whipped over to look at the younger boy. Pudge was beginning to tremble.

“Nothing!” cried Vito. “Pudge, you mustn’t do anything.” And then, seeing the uncertainty in the boy’s eyes, Vito added, “Your family wouldn’t approve.”

That accomplished the trick. Pudge hung his head, like a whipped dog. He whispered, “But we can’t just leave the prisoners to be hurt.”

Vito shook his head as he sat up. He was beginning to ache now, as though the High Torturer had placed him on a rack. The aching, he knew, was really in his heart. “I have to think about what to do. I can’t rush into it, without thinking, the way I did today. I have to make a plan. I have to wait till I’m old enough to carry out the plan.”

“And then?” Pudge scrambled onto his knees, looking cautiously eager.

“I’m going to destroy the Eternal Dungeon.” Vito’s voice was flat.

After a moment, he thought to look at Pudge. Pudge had turned pale. Too late, Vito realized that it was important not to use words like “destroy” around the younger boy.

“I don’t mean I’m going to hurt anyone,” Vito added quickly. “Not even the Torturers. I’m just going to find a way to stop them – to get the dungeon shut down, to free the prisoners.”

“Some of the prisoners may have committed crimes,” said Pudge in a doubtful voice.

It was always useful, having Pudge around. He thought of important points, at the proper moments.

“All right,” conceded Vito. “Not shut down exactly. Changed. Made into a better prison, not a dungeon of torture. And I’ll get rid of all those Torturers. Especially the youngest one.” His voice turned fierce. The young Torturer – Layle Smith – hadn’t stayed more than a split second after Vito and Birdie crawled out of their hiding place; nor had he taken part in the questioning. Vito was sure he would no longer be alive if that had happened. But it was thanks to Layle Smith that Vito had nearly been tortured himself. Probably it was only Vito’s high rank that had helped him escape that.

How many commoner prisoners had died at Layle Smith’s skilled hands? How many had made false confessions in order to escape from the pain he inflicted on them? How many more would die because he offered new ways for the Torturers to prettify the destruction they caused?

How many prisoners over the decades had the Eternal Dungeon murdered?

“Come on,” Vito said, offering his hand to Pudge as he stood up. He felt calm now – calmer than he had been when he first entered the Eternal Dungeon, not knowing that his life was about to change.

A few hours ago, he had been a feckless youth, intent on nothing more than a prank to help while away his idle hours.

Now he had a mission. He knew what his life’s goal must be.

“Let’s go home,” he said, putting his hand on Pudge’s shoulder. “I have homework to do.”

Homework, yes. But not for his schoolmaster. He needed to craft his plans.

CHAPTER FIVE

The year 363, the fourth month. (The year 1882 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)

Vito stood alone before the entrance to the inner dungeon, feeling memories wash over him.

He had anticipated this point in his journey as one of his final hurdles and had been uncertain whether it was worth the risk. After all, if he was hired as a Seeker, there would be time enough . . . But he wanted the timing to be of his own choosing. He did not want to risk the far greater danger of an unexpected encounter in public that might reveal facts better kept hidden.

As it happened, this hurdle had proved easy enough to leap. The High Seeker’s senior guard – who well remembered Vito – was willing to believe Vito when he said that he knew the remainder of the way to the guest apartment. Mr. Sobel, it appeared, had far more urgent duties on this day than escorting an incipient Seeker-in-Training to the outer dungeon.

So now Vito stood at the entrance to the inner dungeon – the correct side of the entrance, still within the inner dungeon. There were no guards at the entrance; evidently, only a key was still used to pass in and out of this portion of the Eternal Dungeon.

Vito thought a moment, and then he turned, reached the crossroads where the healer’s surgery stood, and did not hesitate. He turned left.

He had noticed, during his escort, that he and Mr. Sobel had passed a laborer. The laborer wore the traditional striped denim of a stoker, but his duties had evidently been changed since the removal of the old furnaces from the dungeon. He was currently standing on a ladder, changing a lightbulb. Recognizing the implication of that burnt-out lightbulb, Vito quickened his pace.

He managed to reach the stoker just as the man was folding up his stepladder in preparation to leave. “Oh, aye, sir,” he replied to Vito’s question. “That’s the High Seeker’s cell. Burns out the bulbs regular, he do. We’re having to change them almost one a day.”

“And the other Seekers live here too?” As he spoke, Vito ran his eye along the long line of doors. Knowing which room he should not enter was all well and good, but there were too many doors here. He couldn’t try them all.

“Aye, sir!” The stoker seemed eager to show off his knowledge. No doubt he rarely received the opportunity to do so. According to what Birdesmond had written to him, all laborers who worked in the inner dungeon were bound by the same oath as Vito had taken here as a boy: not to speak to outsiders about what they saw.

But Vito – wearing the uniform of a Tidewater District prison guard – had evidently won the stoker’s trust. The stoker rattled off the names of all the dwellers of the Seekers’ living cells, ending by saying, “. . . and then there’s Mr. Chapman and his wife, Mistress Birdesmond – they’re both Seekers, would you believe it? – but they live in that other corridor there.”

Vito frowned. He had not heard the name he wished to hear. “And those are the only men living here?”

“That’s all, sir,” replied the stoker cheerfully as he picked up his equipment. “No others, ’cept the High Seeker and his love-mate. Good day, sir.”

Vito issued his farewell in an automatic manner, and then turned to stare at the door next to the changed lightbulb. The High Seeker’s love-mate?

The stoker’s whistle disappeared into the distance. The corridor was now empty. After another moment of hesitation, Vito knocked on the door.

There was an immediate, faint shout of acknowledgment, but it took a while for the door to be answered. Hearing the sound of water splashing, Vito guessed that he had interrupted the room’s inhabitant while the man was at his bath. Finally, however, the door opened, revealing the Seeker.

He was fully clothed now, and fully hooded, all in black from head to foot. The clothes emphasized rather than obscured the essential strength of the man’s slender frame: the tall body, the clear muscles in arm and thigh – an athletic body, here in a dungeon where one would expect Seekers to receive no more exercise than lifting their fingers to order the torture of prisoners.

For a moment, the Seeker merely stood still. Vito took advantage of that moment to slip inside. As Vito closed the door behind him, the Seeker threw back the face-cloth of his hood. His azure eyes were wide with astonishment.

“Vito de Vere!” cried Elsdon Taylor. “What in the name of all that is sacred are you doing here?”

“You know why I’m here, Pudge,” replied Vito grimly. “I have come to destroy the Eternal Dungeon.”

o—o—o
o—o—o

. . . This wave of reform began with the arrival of a new man in the dungeon, one whose presence would spark the long-awaited inferno of civil war within the dungeon. Vito de Vere would be aided in his quest by Elsdon Taylor and Birdesmond Chapman, the trio serving as leaders in the New School of dungeon reform. Thus we can see the veracity of the truism that great reform comes from within.

Or can we? Birdesmond Chapman may have been a Seeker, but as the dungeon’s first woman Seeker, she was manifestly an outsider. As for Elsdon Taylor, the best historical research suggests that he was one of many former prisoners who was employed in the dungeon; he understood the prisoners’ perspective as much as the Seekers’ point of view. Even Layle Smith, the man who would play the most ambiguous role in the conflict, was born in the neighboring Kingdom of Vovim.

That leaves Vito de Vere. On the surface, he appears to be the classic insider: a career prison worker, with no prior record of ties with outside protesters. Yet his motives for entering into the conflict have proved the most difficult to trace. He left nothing on paper that has survived to explain why, without warning, he applied in 363 for a job as Seeker in the Eternal Dungeon, and why, without warning, he became the poster child for the new movement.

Indeed, his entrance into the New School is so abrupt – and so unlikely for a newly arrived Seeker-in-Training – that suspicion arises that he came to the dungeon expressly to create trouble. However, that would not explain why Layle Smith, surely the most discerning prison worker in the history of our queendom, should have missed the insidious danger to the accepted order that Vito de Vere represented.

Or did he miss the danger? Did the High Seeker instead hire the new Seeker for the express purpose of putting a conclusive end to the clamor for reform? The answer may lie in the next chapter of this episode, and in Vito de Vere’s own frailties.

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.

Sweet Blood #3
SPLIT

The year 363, the tenth month. (The year 1882 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)

Layle Smith, the first High Seeker of the Eternal Dungeon, is the most ambiguous figure, not only in the history of our queendom’s royal dungeon, but quite possibly in the entire history of the Queendom of Yclau.

If one consults history books, this ambiguity smacks one in the face. Some of the history books paint Layle Smith as a hero who fled from an abusive foreign dungeon and rewrote his new dungeon’s Code of Seeking in a revolutionary manner, to emphasize the uplifting reform of prisoners. Other history books rail against Layle Smith as a reactionary torturer who lusted after the flesh of his prisoners.

Any complete portrait of the head torturer of the Eternal Dungeon cannot ignore half the facts about Layle Smith, as most history books do. For the truth about the first High Seeker is both more terrible and more wondrous than the dark-or-bright images of him that appear in simplistic histories. He was an abusive torturer who undertook great sacrifices for his prisoners; he was a reformer who actively strove to prevent a new generation of reforms; he was a man who, by the time of the Crisis of 364, had established himself as someone who would do the unexpected, always.

To catch a glimpse of this incredible, multifaceted man, we need only consult the memoir of Vito de Vere . . .

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.

CHAPTER ONE

Vito had never thought, when he became a Seeker-in-Training, that his predominant activity would turn out to be arguing with a clerk over how to fill out documents.

“Our archive requires three copies,” said the Record-keeper firmly. He was a middle-aged man, already balding, with spectacles that he peered through like one of the blind bats which hung from the stalactites of the Eternal Dungeon’s entry hall. “Not two copies. Not – by all that is sacred – a single, scribbled, ink-blotted copy.”

Vito resisted the automatic impulse to say, “Yes, sir.” Not since his schoolboy days had he received a reprimand for his handwriting.

He reminded himself that, as a Seeker, he outranked this menial servant of the dungeon. “That will do,” he said in what he hoped was a mature, level tone. “This is the manner in which I am accustomed to making out reports, and it is not your place to—”

“Oh, dear.” The Record-keeper, sitting behind his enormous desk in the entry hall, pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. “Have I hurt your sensitive feelings? Shall I instead discuss this with” – he consulted a paper on his desk – “your trainer, Mr. Horowitz? Or perhaps with the High Seeker?”

Vito refused to let his voice waver. “Mr. Aaron,” he said, leaning forward and placing his fists on the desk, “you seem to have forgotten that I am a Seeker—”

“—who is still in training and is therefore capable of being dismissed summarily.”

Vito could not prevent himself from jumping in his place. He cursed inwardly. He had been trained, during his years as a prison guard, to hear a prisoner sneak up on him in order to attack. Yet after nearly six months in the Eternal Dungeon, he still could never hear when the man behind him crept up on him.

Vito turned. The High Seeker, in his usual manner of intimidation, was standing much closer than was customary between men in the Yclau nation – a tactic that Vito had noticed Layle Smith successfully used to force other men to step back. With effort, Vito held his ground, meeting the High Seeker’s eyes. They were hard to see in the dim electric lights of the entry hall, especially since such lights tended to flicker whenever Layle Smith came near them. The High Seeker’s eyes were the color of the slimy algae on the cave-rock walls of the entry hall, and the rest of him was black: boots, trousers, belt, shirt, and a hood hiding his face. He looked like a specter from the hell imagined by inhabitants of the neighboring kingdom, Vovim.

Vito, who knew that Layle Smith had designed the latest version of the Seekers’ uniform, wondered whether he himself looked as bleakly forceful and frightening. He was wearing the same uniform, save for a red strip of cloth at the bottom hem of his hood. The strip marked him as a Seeker-in-Training.

“Incidentally,” added the High Seeker in a silkily smooth voice, “our Record-keeper is among the men I consult when offering my recommendation to the Codifier as to whether Seekers-in-Training should be allowed to become full Seekers. May I borrow Mr. de Vere from you, Mr. Aaron?” He looked past Vito.

The Record-keeper, who was already absorbed again in his documentwork, waved a hand without looking up. The High Seeker waited, saying nothing to Vito.

The walk to the High Seeker’s office was not long. The door to the room lay a little further down the back wall of the entry hall. There was only one feature upon that wall. Much of the dungeon had been updated with modern technology a few years back – very much against the High Seeker’s wishes, Vito had been given to understand – but the largest object in the entry hall remained an old-fashioned chalkboard, on which were written the names of every prisoner in the dungeon.

Including the ones recently hanged. Their names were crossed out.

Mr. Smith waited until Vito was inside his office before entering, shutting the door, and making his way to his desk. He did not offer Vito a seat. Vito crossed his arms over his chest. This was less in recognition of the inevitably antagonistic encounters between himself and the High Seeker, than because Layle Smith’s office was the chilliest room in the dungeon. Somehow, that seemed appropriate.

The High Seeker picked up a letter-opener from his desk and began to play with it. Vito would have thought this an attempt at intimidation, except he was aware by now that Mr. Smith was quite unconscious of how he played with anything resembling a weapon. Now, as he carefully, lovingly stroked the blunt blade, the High Seeker said, “You have reached, as you know, the next-to-last test of your training.”

Vito nodded. The last test of all would be a whipping and a racking, conducted upon himself. It was an exercise required of all Seekers-in-Training, so that they should know intimately the instruments of torture that they would use upon their prisoners. Vito was less afraid of that test than he was exasperated by it. It was a useless test, at least in his case.

“I have here,” Mr. Smith said, pointing with the blade without looking down, “a report from Mr. Horowitz. He states that you have shown great skill during your training, assisting him ably with his prisoners and demonstrating an especially strong talent for eliciting confessions from prisoners by word alone. His only concern is that you seem rather quiet and withdrawn in your private discussions with him. In his experience, men who seek to work in a dungeon of torture are not quiet, withdrawn men. He suspects that you are being less than candid with him.”

Vito raised his eyebrows but said nothing. From the time of his arrival at the Eternal Dungeon, he had carefully cultivated the image of a man of few words. Since he was in fact more inclined by nature to listen than to talk, the deception wasn’t hard to carry off. The High Seeker – another man who was deceptively quiet with prisoners he intended to break – said with fine irony, “You may find that characteristic to be helpful in your work. In any case, your lack of candidness does not matter.” His voice was flat.

For the first time in this interview, Vito felt his stomach sicken. That always happened at some point in his talks with the High Seeker. Layle Smith always found a way to tell him, “I know what you’re thinking, and I know what you’re planning, and so it’s no good for you to hide anything from me.”

Perhaps Mr. Smith did know, on a certain level. But the High Seeker surely could not know in full what Vito was thinking and planning. If he’d known, he’d have ordered Vito strapped to a rack.

So Vito simply remained silent until the High Seeker let the letter-opener fall onto his desk. “Your next-to-last assignment,” he said, as though the threat had not been thrown, “is to search a prisoner, without assistance from another Seeker. Your assigned guards will of course be on hand to offer you guidance should you request it. That is a service they offer, not only to Seekers-in-Training, but also to junior Seekers. Do not allow your pride to overcome your good sense. Your guards have many more years of experience in this dungeon than you do, and they are a valuable source of information on how to break a prisoner.”

“Yes, sir.” This was a statement he could safely agree with.

Layle Smith reached for a blue-bound book, unmistakably a prisoner’s records. “Unfortunately, due to a lack of other Seekers to undertake this searching, I am forced to assign you an important prisoner. I had hoped to search this prisoner myself, but the Queen wishes to consult me this month concerning my knowledge of Vovim, in relation to that nation’s continued civil war and any threat it might pose to our queendom’s border. Therefore, I will only be able to make occasional visits to the dungeon, and I must leave you in charge of a prisoner whose handling is most vital. Mr. Horowitz assures me you are up to the challenge. I have my doubts, but I may be wrong, and in any case, no other Seekers are free to take this case. Here are the prisoner’s records; I advise you to read them most carefully.”

Vito took the loosely bound book without looking down at it. “Which cell am I assigned, sir?”

“Breaking Cell 13,” the High Seeker replied, relaxing back in his seat, which was always an ominous sign. “Given what we know of this prisoner, it seems likely that he will at some point violate the dungeon rules of conduct. I trust that you will be able to keep the matter to the level of the whip, but in case it should become necessary, I have instructed Mr. Aaron to keep Room B reserved for your use. —That is the rack room,” he added offhandedly, “which is closest to the crematorium.”

Vito’s hands gripped the record book painfully. The High Seeker could not have said more plainly, “I believe that your prisoner is guilty, and therefore, if you do your job properly, his ashes will end up in this dungeon’s resting place for executed prisoners.”

“Rack Room B. Yes, sir,” Vito replied, as though memorizing this important information. “Do I start now?”

“After the dawn shift will be sufficient; you have time for your breakfast.” And with that, the High Seeker leaned forward and began reading a document on his desk.

Vito waited a minute before withdrawing. Layle Smith – who must assuredly have received lessons on manners from his courteous love-mate – was normally polite, in a superficial manner. Only when dismissing Vito did his politeness drop, like a mask being abandoned. He never bothered to say anything along the lines of, “You may go now, Mr. de Vere.” He simply ignored Vito, until such time as it became apparent to his subordinate that the interview was over.

Vito experienced the same flash of anger he had felt the first time that the High Seeker played this trick on him. Then he forced his mind away from that trivial matter. One prisoner. All he had to do was question one prisoner, and after that, he himself would undergo a period of excruciating but brief physical pain; then he was certain to be made a full Seeker, who could not be dismissed except by the combined judgment of the High Seeker, the dungeon’s Codifier, and the Queen. Except for medical reasons, no dismissal had been inflicted upon any full Seeker for three generations. Essentially, once Vito became a Seeker, his job was guaranteed.

As a Seeker-in-Training, he was – as Layle Smith had so carefully reminded him – still capable of being dismissed summarily. But it was unlikely now that this would happen. Only if Vito grossly mishandled his prisoner would the High Seeker have an excuse to dismiss him. Even the High Seeker had implicitly admitted just now that Vito was too skilled a prison-worker to be easily disposed of.

He must not grow careless, he reminded himself as he wove his path across the entry hall, which was crowded with black-uniformed Seekers and grey-uniformed guards. Most of the Seekers and guards there had just finished the night shift and were making their way to their homes inside or outside the dungeon – always inside, in the case of the Seekers, who had all taken a vow to remain forever confined within the walls of the Eternal Dungeon. Vito wasn’t afraid of that vow, but he should take care to remain duly diligent with his prisoner.

By the rules of the Eternal Dungeon – rules promulgated by the High Seeker, ironically – no Seeker could be faulted for failing to draw a confession from a prisoner. It was true that forcing a prisoner to confess, as well as persuading him to express his regret for his crime, was a skill highly valued in Seekers, who were considered the elite men in their craft in the Queendom of Yclau. But even Seekers could not break all prisoners; rather, Vito would be judged by how well he adhered to the dungeon rules for searching prisoners.

Vito hesitated, on the point of turning his steps toward the breaking cells. Pudge would still be awake, probably eating dinner in his room, for he was approaching his sleeping time during the day shift. Perhaps Vito should visit Pudge and lay before him his concerns about this searching. Pudge was Vito’s oldest friend; he would understand Vito’s quandary.

Though really, Vito reflected with a smile on his lips, he ought to rid himself of this habit of applying the childhood nickname of “Pudge” to one of the most skilled torturers in the Eternal Dungeon.

o—o—o

“It’s amazing!” Pudge had cried six months before, pushing the face-cloth of his hood further back from his eyes. “I can’t believe that you’re here!”

Pudge – otherwise known as Elsdon Auburn Taylor, junior Seeker – was standing in a small, neat parlor that he evidently shared with his love-mate. Crammed into that tiny space were two armchairs, an end table, a bench, a desk, a wooden chair with casters, an enormous bookcase, a work counter, and a kitchen with storage bins, stove, and even a miniature ice-box. Apparently, whatever other deprivations the Seekers might undergo, they were kept well housed.

“After all these years,” continued Pudge – or rather, Elsdon. “Twenty years. How you’ve grown!”

Vito, who had been trying to pull his gaze away from a drawing on the wall of Elsdon sprawled naked on the ground – Vito had as much eye as any man for a handsome youth, but he did not want to be thinking about his oldest friend in that way – abruptly turned his gaze back to Elsdon. “But Pudge – Elsdon, I mean – we met only eight years ago.” Then, faced with Elsdon’s blank expression, he added gently, “In the magistrate’s judging room, in the fourth month of the year 355. You had just turned eighteen. I inserted myself between you and your father. Don’t you remember?”

Something passed over Elsdon’s eyes then – something dark and swooping, like a shadow of a bird of prey. The junior Seeker closed his eyes and rested his fingers lightly on his eyelids, his head bowed. “No, I – I remember thinking that the guard who was coming toward me looked familiar. Vito, that was a bad day for me.”

Vito imagined so. He could recall his own frustration that day, eight years before, because he was barred from offering testimony on Elsdon’s behalf, due to his position as a guard in the prison in which Elsdon had originally been held. Vito had not even had the opportunity to speak to Elsdon before the young man’s trial began; he had not been able to ask his old friend whether there was anything he could do to help Elsdon fight this patently false charge of murder.

And then, as the trial proceeded, came Vito’s growing, horrible realization that the charge was true – that years of secret abuse by his father had caused Elsdon to go momentarily mad and kill his innocent young sister.

How had Elsdon’s father managed to torment his son for so many years, with nobody knowing except Elsdon and his sister? The answer to that was plain: friends of the family, such as Vito when he was younger, had considered it impolitic to enquire as to the cause of Elsdon’s evident unhappiness with his home life.

“Elsdon, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to do more. I mean, when we were in school together—”

Raising his head, Elsdon brushed the apology aside with a forceful gesture. “That’s all past, Vito. I was even able to reconcile matters with my father before his death. But you . . .” He gave Vito a look up and down which made Vito wonder whether Elsdon too was contemplating the poor taste of lusting after one’s friend. “I can scarcely believe that I recognized you. How old were you when you left our school? Eleven?”

“Ten,” he corrected. “That’s when my family moved away from the capital. I’d just moved back to the capital’s Parkside district around the time you were arrested – I hadn’t had a chance yet to meet with my old friends. Then you were sentenced to further questioning in the Eternal Dungeon, at the High Seeker’s demand . . .”

It was increasingly hard for Vito to connect this bold, confident young man with the shy, bullied boy that Pudge had been when he was young. But now at last an expression came onto Elsdon’s face that Vito remembered: sympathy. A desire to comfort a friend.

“It must have been hard for you,” Elsdon said gently. “You couldn’t have known that this was the High Seeker’s way of preventing me from being hanged for my crime. Even if I hadn’t been offered a job as Seeker, I wouldn’t have been kept in a breaking cell, Vito. I would have been given some sort of work to do in the outer dungeon. And my quarters here in the inner dungeon” – he gestured – “are quite luxurious, considering that I’m a convicted murderer.”

Vito took another look at the room, a harder look. In the past – he could tell from an indentation in the rug – the two armchairs had sat side by side, turned slightly so that the sitters could hold intimate conversation.

But at some point, the position of the armchairs had changed. Now they faced each other at a distance, with the bench between them, like a holding prison’s table between a prisoner and his guard on a day of searching.

And the desk . . . The writing implements on the single desk were arranged so neatly that it was as though a line was drawn down the middle. On the left side of the desk lay paper, a pencil, a pen, and an old-fashioned inkwell. On the right side lay paper and one of the brand-new automatic typewriters.

Vito could read the signs easily. A civil war was taking place in this residence. The only question was how far the war had proceeded.

“That was kind of the High Seeker,” he murmured.

Elsdon smiled. “You’ve heard, then? I imagine that was a shock for you as well. Did you know before you arrived here what you would find?”

He shook his head, turning his attention back to Elsdon. The four-year gap in their age, so important when they were young boys, seemed to have disappeared; now Elsdon, at age twenty-six, was filled with as much energy and vigor and maturity as Vito. “Not in any direct way,” Vito replied. “After your sentencing, I tried to find out what had happened to you. It was difficult—” He swallowed hard on that memory. Month after month, making every effort he could to discover Elsdon’s fate. Going to bed every night, not knowing whether his friend was dead . . . or was being kept alive by the High Seeker, tormented by whip and rack.

He turned away abruptly. The wall-long bookcase had only a few volumes in it, which appeared to be a mixture of the roommates’ tastes: books on techniques of torture sat alongside volumes on art and theater and other civilized pursuits. The books had a musty smell that Vito associated with cellars. He ran his hand over one of the volumes, but evidently the air circulation system, humming faintly in the background, functioned well enough to prevent the books from growing moldy.

It was hard to remember, standing within this room like any room in the lighted world above the dungeon, that the entire Eternal Dungeon was housed in a set of caves. The inner dungeon, Birdie had explained to Vito, was where the prisoners were broken and the Seekers were housed; it was placed in the largest cavern of all. The portion of the dungeon where the laborers worked, called the outer dungeon, was made up of a warren of small caves on different levels, so that moving around the outer dungeon was akin to climbing up and down mountain peaks. Yet all of the dungeon, save the entry hall and crematorium and Codifier’s office, was housed within walls, so that the prisoners, and those who cared for them, might be kept in relative comfort.

Or so said Birdie, who had the greatest gift Vito had ever known for being ironic with a straight face. “Relative” comfort indeed.

Behind him, Elsdon said softly, “So you didn’t know I was safe?”

He shook his head. “Not for two years. It had reached the point where I was determined to break into the Eternal Dungeon again.”

He heard a soft chuckle from Elsdon. “Oh, by all that is sacred. I had entirely forgotten about that episode.”

“Had you?” Startled, Vito turned back to face Elsdon.

Elsdon gave a slight smile. “Well, I was very young, Vito, and I didn’t get to see the Eternal Dungeon myself – you kept me outside, on the palace grounds, playing guard while you performed your boyhood prank of breaking into the dungeon. It was so long ago. . . . I have to confess that even my memories of our friendship then are faint. Mostly what I remember about you was your kindness to me, and how you used to defend me against the bullies. I never forgot that.”

Touched, Vito said, “Yes. Well. The only thing that prevented me from breaking into the dungeon a second time – and no doubt getting arrested again – was that I received a letter from Birdie around this time. We’d kept in touch about your case, and about our general concerns over what was taking place in this dungeon. She told me that, by whatever devious means possible, she would find a way to get into the dungeon. She urged me to let her take the risk, since, as a woman, she couldn’t be tortured if she was captured.”

“Birdie?” Now Elsdon was frowning. “Do you mean Birdesmond Chapman, who used to be Birdesmond Manx? You knew her in the lighted world? She— Well, I suppose, since you’re here for an interview, I can tell you. She became a Seeker, the dungeon’s first female Seeker. Perhaps this is a different woman than you’re talking about.”

So Birdie hadn’t told Elsdon her full purpose for becoming a Seeker. That was hardly surprising; what was surprising was the friendship that had bloomed between Elsdon and Birdie, which Birdie had lightly alluded to in her letters from the dungeon. Vito, who well knew what barriers Birdie had undergone in her attempts to care for prisoners at the holding prison where Vito had worked for two years, had not imagined that she would face anything but hostility in her new workplace. But Elsdon, Vito now recalled, had always been tender and loving toward his sister, before the murder. Perhaps Birdie had become a substitute sister for him.

“No, it’s the same woman,” he replied briefly. “She and I met when I broke into the Eternal Dungeon when I was ten and she was sixteen. She was visiting the outer dungeon that week with her father, and she helped me sneak into the inner dungeon. . . .”

Where they had seen and heard horrors that shocked both of them beyond measure. But even after all these years, his witness of what he had seen was sealed by the oath he had taken that day to Layle Smith’s predecessor, as a condition to his release from the dungeon. Besides, Elsdon no doubt had seen and heard such horrors himself by now.

Perhaps he had committed them.

For a man whose hands were doubtless soaked in the blood of many a prisoner’s torment, Elsdon offered a most unassuming appearance. Now his face held a look of astonishment. “She was there that day? She never told me. How extraordinary! That the three of us should all have been in or near the Eternal Dungeon on the same day of our childhoods . . . And that two of us should become Seekers . . . And now you say that you’ve applied to be a Seeker . . .”

“It’s not that odd, if you think about it,” he responded, tiptoeing into the dangerous realm. Vito had anticipated this part of the conversation from the moment, earlier in that day, when he had realized that Elsdon was not only alive and well – as Birdie had told him in her letters – but had actually become a Seeker. It was a turn of events that had taken his breath away. Now he said, with due caution, “Birdie and I both wanted to become Seekers because we were . . . concerned by what we saw here, and we concluded that the only way in which we could affect events here was by taking positions that would allow us to help shape the policies of this dungeon. And you . . .” He let the sentence hang.

“Yes,” said Elsdon slowly, his brow furrowed as he stared down at his hands, which had tightened together. “Yes, I haven’t thought of your prank for years, but . . . You wouldn’t tell me afterwards what you had seen in the dungeon, which scared me. I suppose that’s how I received the idea that the Eternal Dungeon was a place of horrors, and that prisoners here were all doomed to terrible deaths. That was why I was so terrified when I first arrived here as a prisoner. And when I found out the truth—” Suddenly Elsdon’s smile was back. “You’ve seen, haven’t you? Even though you’ve only been here a short time, you must have seen that it’s not the way you thought as a child. Just one interview with the High Seeker must have shown you that.”

It was tempting – oh, so tempting – to give an honest answer to that question. It was also tempting to leave immediately, slamming the door on this young man who had clearly forgotten what it was like to be helpless in the hands of bullies.

But Vito had reason for receiving the privilege of being interviewed for the most elite post of prison-worker in the Queendom of Yclau. As he looked into Elsdon’s eyes, he saw, behind the mask of happiness, something deeper – something reflected also in Elsdon’s hands, which were still clenched. The junior Seeker was genuinely awaiting Vito’s response, as though Vito might provide the answer Elsdon needed.

o—o—o

Now, six months later, Vito turned away from the door leading to the Seekers’ residences. Elsdon, he knew now – even more clearly than he had sensed that first day – was a man in agony. He was split between his duty toward his love-mate, the High Seeker, and his duty toward the prisoners he wished to care decently for.

The day would come – and would come soon, if Vito was any judge of such matters – when Elsdon would be forced to choose between those two duties. Vito had no doubt that Elsdon would make the right choice; the young man’s conscience remained as strong as it had been when he was a boy.

But when that day came, Vito wanted to be the friend to whom Elsdon could turn for comfort, not the man who had bullied Elsdon into making a choice he was not yet ready for. No, Vito would not trouble Elsdon with his own quandary. For Vito’s own conscience was clear, and his decision had been made long ago.

He would not torture any prisoner here. Not if it cost him his life.

CHAPTER TWO

The inner dungeon was chilly as a tomb and smelt like a mortuary. It looked – as Elsdon had once remarked with a quirk of a smile – like their old school-hall. The corridors were painted a pleasant green, the color of transformation, and the electric lights which hung from the ceiling did their best to simulate old-fashioned candle chandeliers. The corridor floor had recently been changed from flagstones to wood, which caused the dungeon laborers to complain about the increased difficulty in mopping up bloodstains.

The only outward sign that this was not a hallway leading to schoolrooms was the presence of guards next to the doors. There were two of them flanking each door, a junior guard and a senior guard – now, during the day shift, they were all day guards. They were well trained, keeping their mind on their duties, ignoring the black-hooded figure striding past them, except for one guard who was sneaking peeks at a newspaper. Without having to think twice, Vito snatched the paper from his hand. “Mind on work,” he said to the guard.

“Yes, sir.” The junior guard stiffened at his post. The senior guard, arriving on duty at that moment, took one look at the situation and nodded his thanks to Vito before beginning to reprimand the junior guard.

Vito moved away. After glancing at the newspaper and tearing out a brief article for future reference, he tossed the newspaper into the hands of Mr. Sobel, the High Seeker’s senior night guard, who was doing his usual early-morning patrol of the guards before retiring to bed. Mr. Sobel glanced down the corridor, saw that the matter was already being handled by the senior guard, and offered a soft “Thank you, sir” before moving on. Unlike his master, Mr. Sobel was not the sort to continually spout reminders of Vito’s junior-most status in the dungeon.

A few guards had glanced idly at Vito when he snatched the newspaper, but now only two guards watched Vito’s progress down the corridor. At sight of the taller guard, Vito cursed the High Seeker under his breath. It was just like Layle Smith to assign him Mr. Boyd.

In a dungeon full of notorious guards, Mr. Boyd was the most notorious. There were rumors of how he had gotten that way; it was said that Mr. Smith’s vicious infliction of punishment had shaped Mr. Boyd’s character. Whatever the cause, Mr. Boyd hated all Seekers. He considered all of them potential assailants against the prisoners.

This ought to have made him Vito’s ally. But from the moment they first met, Mr. Boyd had treated Vito as a more dangerous enemy than most other Seekers. It had taken Vito weeks to unravel this mystery. Then he had learned that the High Seeker’s former junior night guard, Mr. Urman, had been present on the day when Vito had drawn his ceremonial sword in order to break up what appeared to be the beginning of an explosive fight between Elsdon and his father, in the magistrate’s room where Elsdon was about to be placed on trial for his life. Mr. Urman was an infamous gossip. He had spread word around the dungeon that Vito had once “attacked” a prisoner.

It would have been useless, Vito judged, to have explained to Mr. Boyd that he had only been trying to prevent a second charge from being placed against his childhood friend. Nor would there have been any use in pointing out the obvious: that Elsdon Taylor in no way blamed Vito for his action that day. In Mr. Boyd’s mind, all Seekers were by definition torturers.

Vito shook his head at himself as he approached Breaking Cell 13. It was beneath his dignity to justify himself to the guard who was working under him. Although Mr. Boyd, like all guards, possessed the right to intervene if Vito blatantly broke the dungeon rules, he was otherwise under Vito’s orders. Vito tried to appear stately as he paused before the metal door of the cell, his head tilting to look up at his tall senior day guard. “Mr. Boyd,” he said.

“Mr. de Vere,” the guard snapped back, as though the very words were distasteful to him.

With effort, Vito turned his attention to his junior day guard. “Good morning, Mr. Crofford.”

“Sir.” There was civility, but no warmth, from the younger guard. He was taking his cue in behavior from the guard senior to him, as was entirely proper.

Vito drew in a breath. Sometimes it seemed to him that Layle Smith had set out to make Vito’s trial as a Seeker-in-Training as difficult as possible. Sometimes he suspected this thought was not mere paranoia. “You may let me into the cell.”

Taking out his keys, Mr. Boyd said nothing. Mr. Crofford, still speaking in that cool, civil voice, replied, “Yes, sir. We will be watching, in case you have need of us.”

Vito shot him a look. This entirely unnecessary reminder that the cell door contained a watch-hole was nothing more than Mr. Crofford’s way of saying, “I’ll be spying on you. The moment you break the Code, we’ll be there to bind you.”

Holding back a biting response, Vito said simply, “Thank you. No, I will not need you, Mr. Boyd.” This, as the senior day guard looked inclined to step into the cell with him. “It is not necessary in this case.”

Mr. Boyd and Mr. Crofford exchanged looks. Wondering uneasily what blunder he had just made – was this a notoriously dangerous prisoner? – Vito thought of the blue book he had left behind in his living quarters. It was not only stubbornness against Layle Smith that had prevented Vito from reading the prisoner’s records. Not only that.

At any rate, he knew the prisoner’s name; that was written on the cover of the volume. Drawing in another deep breath, he stepped into the cell.

The narrow breaking cell was warmer than the corridor. Although the Eternal Dungeon, with due caution toward the ingenuity of its prisoners, refused to place stoves within the breaking cells, the prisoners were kept in relative comfort. The ceiling held electric lights behind unbreakable glass, while a vertical hypocaust blasted warm air through the old furnaces, located behind glass blocks along the short end wall of each cell. The old stone ledges in the cells were in the process of being replaced by tall beds that matched the size and shape of beds in the Seekers’ living quarters; this particular cell had already made the change. In this redesigned breaking cell, there was also a washstand, a small shelf beneath it for toiletry articles, and a shelf on the wall on which were placed a copy of the Code of Seeking and the prisoner’s choice of a prayer book. There were even plans to add a toilet and running water to every breaking cell. In design, the prisoners’ cells of the Eternal Dungeon offered the appearance of being quite modern.

Vito could well guess why Layle Smith had sought to disguise, through superficial changes, the antique cruelty of the dungeon. Inconspicuous against the long wall was the whipping ring, while the dungeon racks were kept in separate rooms, never shown to dungeon visitors, other than the prisoners.

The prisoner in this cell was hard to see, for he had somehow managed to cram himself under the tall bed. He was sitting on the hard floor, his arms wrapped around his legs, his face pressed against his knees, his body rocking back and forth.

Vito paused at the entrance, hearing the cell door lock behind him. Then he cleared his throat. “Mr. Gurth?”

The rocking continued, unabated.

He tried again. “Edwin Gurth?”

A face looked up cautiously. It was young. It said nothing.

Vito did not make the mistake of walking forward to take a closer look at the prisoner. Seekers died that way. “Sir, will you stand up, please?”

He expected, at best, a cautious rising; instead, the prisoner scrambled quickly out from under the bed, leapt to his feet, and stood rigidly at attention. Fear was stark upon his face.

So much for the guards’ assessment of this being a dangerous prisoner. Vito lowered his voice accordingly. “Mr. Gurth, I am your Seeker—”

“Seeker?” The prisoner’s face took on a look of bewilderment. “Seeker? Am I in the Eternal Dungeon?”

Once again, Vito paused, taking in the prisoner’s appearance. Prisoners in the Eternal Dungeon were permitted to keep their own clothes, other than their jacket and vest. This prisoner’s shirt and trousers were manifestly commoners’ clothing, yet his accent, unexpectedly, was that of a mid-class man. Perhaps he or his family had received a downturn of fortune. Vito thought again of the book sitting unopened in his own living cell.

“Yes, Mr. Gurth. Were you not informed at the time of your arrest that you would be brought here?”

He was prepared for anything at this point, but even so, the prisoner’s response took him off-guard. A look of shock blasted across the young man’s face, like a storm-wave. The prisoner fell to his knees. “Oh, no!” he cried. “Is Gurth in trouble again?”

o—o—o

The cavern which made up the crematorium was the oldest human dwelling in the Eternal Dungeon. It preceded even the settling of western Yclau by the men who had originally come from the Old World, and who would eventually claim as their own queendom an enormous strip of land that went from the ocean coast to the high Appalachian Mountains that stood as a barrier between Yclau and its neighboring countries to the west.

The crematorium lay within a foothill of an eastern portion of the Appalachians called the Blue Ridge Mountains. The underground burial room for ashes had once served as a resting place for the bones of past members of the local native tribe. After the tribe was driven out of the expanding queendom by settlers, the crematorium had lain quiet for a millennium and a half, waiting.

The crematorium, along with its fellow caverns, had finally been discovered by spelunkers hired by the baron of the nearby town of Luray to explore the interior of the hill. At that time, the Queen of Yclau had lived far to the east, in the original First District of Yclau, while her torturers plied their bloody trade in a cave in the Appalachians. When a new Queen settled her palace on a hill in Luray, and placed her dungeon in the cave below, the old crematorium – now recognized by archaeologists as an ancient burial site – was rededicated as a Chapel of Rebirth. In the purified dungeon that followed the Code of Seeking, prisoners would be questioned to discover whether they were innocent, and if they proved to be guilty, they would be gently guided to recognize and repent their misdoings. If justice demanded that they die for their crimes, their ashes would be laid to rest in a great burial pit in the crematorium, along with the ashes of the Seekers who had sacrificed their own liberties, and sometimes their lives, to help the prisoners be transformed and reborn into a new and better life.

Or so went the mythology of the Eternal Dungeon. Vito was no atheist, but he was skeptical of the idea of rebirth arising under the guidance of men who tortured their prisoners to obtain the proper results. Moreover, he had seen the death statistics for the Eternal Dungeon: far too many prisoners continued to die, not from the nooses of the royal executioners, but from being questioned under torture. However improved the Eternal Dungeon might be over its predecessor – and even Vito was prepared to admit that the Code of Seeking contained the seeds of magnificent theology and prison-work – yet still the Eternal Dungeon had far to go.

At one time, if Vito discerned the present conversation correctly, Layle Smith had understood this.

Vito felt a light touch on his leg. Taking tighter hold of a rung of the ladder he stood on, he leaned forward to lift from a shelf a guttered candle that had burned down to the bottom of its blue glass bowl. Then he looked down at one of the torturers whose maimed prisoners lay in the pit below.

Taking the candle from him, Elsdon said over his shoulder, “I don’t know . . . I just don’t know. Nothing has happened for years, but in theory, at least, the strict protocols remain in place. The Codifier has refused to rescind them—”

“How the Code of Seeking is implemented is decided, not only by the Codifier, but by the High Seeker,” Birdie reminded him as she took the candle from his hand. Her other hand held a cloth which she wrapped around the bowl and candle before placing them in a crate that was tucked between two stalagmites on the floor. Later, dungeon laborers would move the guttered candles to the outer dungeon, where the remaining wax would be melted down to create new candles, and the bowls would be cleaned. Then, reborn, the new candles and freshly washed bowls would be returned to the crematorium, where once again the candles would be lit in memory of the newly dead.

Vito was all too aware that one of the candles currently lit in the crematorium celebrated the rebirth of a prisoner who had died because Vito became a Seeker-in-Training. Mr. Horowitz had possessed no luck in breaking the prisoner, but Vito had found a way past the prisoner’s defenses. Under Vito’s guidance, the prisoner had confessed to his crime, for which he had later been executed.

Was Vito a hypocrite? He looked around at the lit candles – hundreds of them, so many that the fire inspectors were horrified by this place and only permitted it to continue to exist because the crematorium walls were cave walls. The only furnishing in the crematorium was a bookcase-desk holding volumes with the death statistics. His prisoner’s name was inscribed there.

Elsdon was wincing. “I know, Birdesmond. The trouble is, I can see both points of view. Layle has told me how, when he first arrived at the Eternal Dungeon, numerous abuses were taking place because the discipline upon the men who worked in the inner dungeon was either nonexistent or arbitrary. Layle genuinely believes that only through consistent, strong discipline can he prevent the Seekers and guards from abusing their power over the prisoners.”

“A Seeker who has been executed,” observed Birdie, “is certainly unlikely to abuse his power in the future.”

“There was only one execution—”

“Barrett Boyd,” Birdie replied softly.

This time Elsdon bit his lip and turned his head away. Reaching down to hand Elsdon another guttered candle, Vito reflected that Birdie herself had a certain talent for discipline. Mr. Boyd had been Elsdon’s senior-most guard at the time of his arrest and punishment at the hands of the High Seeker.

“Mr. Boyd,” Elsdon reluctantly conceded, “if we include what was done to his mind. And there were far too many disciplinary whippings of Seekers and dismissals of guards. Birdesmond, I’m not arguing about you with that. I spoke out against it at the time—”

“But not since then,” Birdesmond pointed out, tilting a glass to inspect it carefully under the dim light of the oil lamps that were still used in the crematorium, since the Eternal Dungeon had rightly declined to drill electrical lines into the crematorium walls. “Elsdon, it’s been three years since you last made a public statement against the High Seeker’s decision to interpret the Code of Seeking’s rules in the strictest manner. And if there’s been little trouble since then, it’s because Seekers and guards alike are terrified of making any changes, of suggesting any better ways to run this dungeon, because they dread the possibility of the wrath of the High Seeker descending upon them. When I first became a Seeker, six years ago, workers in the inner dungeon were still abrim with eagerness to learn and grow. Even your love-mate was like that, I’d swear. He hired me to search prisoners – me, a woman – and in doing so, he deliberately went against centuries of tradition in Yclau’s prisons. But ever since Barrett Boyd’s body and mind were broken by the High Seeker . . .”

The two Seekers were silent, apparently remembering a lost era. Looking again at the candles, Vito reflected that perhaps here lay the difference between himself and the High Seeker. Not merely that Vito was unwilling to use violence to achieve the prisoners’ rebirth, but also that he was willing to admit when he had made a mistake – to admit it, to learn from it, to benefit from it in order to become a better prison-worker. But Layle Smith . . .

“The Eternal Dungeon has . . . stagnated,” admitted Elsdon, his voice as reluctant as the slow drip of water from the stalactites above. “And that’s a violation of everything that Layle ever wanted for this dungeon. He must recognize the problem – he’s too great a man not to – but he can’t see any way out of this problem. From his perspective, if he slackens the reins of discipline, the Seekers and guards will abuse their prisoners, yet if he maintains current discipline—”

“No better methods for helping prisoners will develop. Yes, I do see his dilemma.” As always, Birdie was judicious. And watching Elsdon’s down-turned head – witnessing the shame written upon Elsdon’s face – Vito was once against struck with pity for his old friend, torn between two duties. Would Vito have done any better than Elsdon in such a situation, deeply loving a man who had such power to abuse?

It was too bad that Vito’s primary thought at the moment was how to get rid of Elsdon.

Not permanently, by any means. In time, Elsdon might once again serve as a leader for the so-called New School: the prison-workers who wished for the Eternal Dungeon to be reborn once more. With Elsdon’s help, the New School might win victory over the Old School that was led by the High Seeker.

No, Vito’s concern was far narrower than that: he wanted to talk about his latest prisoner with Birdie. And since his thoughts about his prisoners were always wrapped up with his thoughts about complying with the Code’s rules on when to torture a prisoner, he daren’t discuss his new prisoner in Elsdon’s presence.

Birdie was not an easy person to have a private word with. She spent much of her spare time with her husband and son; on her days off from work, she generally volunteered her time with the outer-dungeon nursery, started by Mr. Sobel’s wife, which cared for the dungeon children who were not yet of school age. Vito certainly didn’t grudge Birdie the chance to get to know other women in the dungeon. Her opportunities for a social life were scant in the inner dungeon, where all of the workers were men, many of whom still resented the presence of a lady Seeker.

Vito sighed. No, he would have to resolve the problem himself: how, without violence, to break a prisoner who now refused to speak, and whose last statement had implied a denial that he was the person he was supposed to be.

CHAPTER THREE

Outside the cell, there was a scuffing of boots as one of the guards adjusted his position. Further down the corridor, Mr. Chapman – the nominal supervisor of the day-shift workers, who tended to defer all important decisions to the High Seeker – spoke in low tones to his own guards. A door’s hinges creaked, and then the door closed with a soft thud. Then silence.

Silence had reigned in Vito’s breaking cell for three hours now. Vito lightly leaned his hand against the cool stone blocks of the cell wall, a luxury he would ordinarily not have permitted himself. The painted surface of the wall was moist. The ventilation system in the Eternal Dungeon did a miraculous job of sucking moisture out of the underground dungeon’s air, but the breaking cells were the most tightly enclosed rooms in the dungeon. Thin slots on the ceiling provided ventilation; the only other escape for the moisture was the equally thin space under the door and the tiny watch-hole, through which the junior guard was duty-bound to keep an eye on his Seeker, in case the Seeker should break the Code.

Breaking the Code with this particular prisoner seemed increasingly unlikely. For a prisoner to refuse to answer questions was not uncommon, particularly since the time that Layle Smith followed his love-mate’s advice and ordered that a copy of the Code of Seeking be placed in every breaking cell, so that the prisoners could better understand their rights. Until then, Seekers had been required to recite the most important rules to prisoners, a practice still followed with prisoners who were illiterate or who knew only foreign tongues. But Elsdon, who had the prisoner’s perspective on such matters, had argued that prisoners were often too terrified of their Seekers to fully absorb any introductory remarks made by the man whom the prisoner believed would be torturing them soon afterwards.

So now every prisoner received a copy of the Code. As a result, every prisoner knew that, if he wanted to avoid incriminating himself or being punished by a Seeker, all that he need do is stay respectful but silent.

This particular prisoner was not following the dungeon rules for “respect.” Like a child who has been menaced, he was huddled under his high bed once more, gripping his legs against his chest and staring into his lap. Dungeon custom required that a prisoner stand during his searching, a custom that had broken more than one prisoner through weariness alone.

Vito considered that particular custom a form of mild torture. He was willing enough to practice it on hardy men who were used to standing for long hours at their work, but not on the slender youth before him, who looked barely into his manhood.

Vito’s arm was growing tired of holding his weight. He shifted back to the position he had held before: parade rest, his legs apart, his hands at the small of his back.

The prisoner spoke. It was the first time he had spoken in three days. He said, “Aren’t you tired?”

He had raised his eyes high enough to peer at Vito through his unkempt hair, which fell over his face. His arms were still rigid around his legs.

Vito replied, “A bit. But I’ve been trained to stand for long periods.”

This reminder that Vito had received the training of a prison-worker had an unfortunate effect: the prisoner’s face dived into the cradle of his arms. Vito simply waited.

It was not uncommon for many days to pass before a prisoner was broken. Elsdon’s first prisoner had taken five months to break, though that was an extreme case. Two weeks was the average time needed to break a prisoner who was not tortured; one week for a prisoner who was tortured. One month was not unusual.

Vito was beginning to think that it would take a year to persuade this particular prisoner to speak. It didn’t matter. Patience was one of his strengths as a prison-worker.

Two hours later, the prisoner said, “I’m tired too.”

His voice was soft. It had always been soft, except when he had made that astounding announcement on the first day. Vito doubted that Mr. Crofford, standing behind the iron door, could hear the prisoner now. But he and Mr. Boyd had undoubtedly heard the prisoner cry out on the first day.

What did the guards think of this case? If they had been any other guards, Vito might have asked them. The High Seeker had been quite correct when he said that long-time guards could pass on valuable information concerning the handling of prisoners. Vito knew that himself, as a former guard.

But in face of Mr. Boyd’s implacable hostility and Mr. Crofford’s frigid formality, Vito hadn’t been tempted to ask. Nor had he been able to consult Birdie about this case. He would have to solve it himself.

He suggested, “You might be a bit cramped. You could walk about for a spell.”

The prisoner greeted this suggestion with wide eyes. “You wouldn’t mind?”

“Not at all. I might do the same. There’s room enough here, near the door.”

“Oh.” The prisoner slid out from under the bed, keeping a wary eye on the other inhabitant of the cell. Vito did the same. He had been safer with the prisoner crouching under the bed; now the chances that Vito would be physically attacked by the prisoner had risen.

But the prisoner simply shook one of his legs, as though it had been asleep, and began walking back and forth before his bed. After a moment, Vito followed his example, striding the short length to and fro along the wall that held the door.

The breaking cells were exceedingly narrow, due to the need to cram as many cells as possible into the confined space of the inner dungeon. In the old days, before the renovation, the whipping ring had been placed upon the wall of glass blocks that hid the furnace, while the stone ledge that constituted a bed was located along one of the long walls. During the renovation, their positions had been reversed, so that prisoners could sleep in the warmest part of the cell. Vito had heard guards complain that the new arrangement made it harder for them to whip prisoners, because there wasn’t enough room for them to draw back the whip. As far as Vito was concerned, that was reason enough for the change.

The prisoner was walking rapidly to and fro, his head bowed, his left arm behind his back with his left hand grasping the right arm, behind the elbow. The position of service. Had this prisoner been in service, then? The mid-class accent remained to be explained.

After a few minutes, Vito said, “Better?”

“Yes, sir, thank you.”

Lack of respect was clearly not going to be a problem with this prisoner. Vito was relieved at that knowledge. One of the easiest justifications that Seekers found for torturing prisoners was to claim the prisoners had violated the dungeon rule that prisoners and Seekers alike demonstrate signs of respect to one another. All that a prisoner need do is forget to say sir, or sit down for an instant, or some other trivial lapse, and the Seeker would instantly have the prisoner bound to the whipping ring. After three such lapses, the Seeker had an excuse to rack the prisoner, with the High Seeker’s permission. The High Seeker rarely failed to give permission.

It was a much easier way to break the prisoner than waiting three days for him to speak. Vito had been somewhat nervous on the second day, when the prisoner collapsed into a huddle under his bed. His nervousness came from the fact that Mr. Crofford was watching the exchange. Would the guards intervene, knowing that Vito had permitted a prisoner to break the Code?

But there had been no intervention. Perhaps there would be some positive aspects to Mr. Boyd’s clear commitment to protect the prisoners against evil-hearted Seekers.

Vito made no further remarks, but after a minute, he paused to stretch. The prisoner followed suit. Then Vito stretched his leg out to one side: stretching his left leg while standing on his right leg, then stretching his right leg while standing on his left leg. The prisoner followed suit and then, of his own accord, began leaning forward to touch his toes.

The prisoner knew calisthenics. Therefore, at some time or another, he had either been gently schooled or had attended classes at the Young Men’s Rebirth Association.

Calisthenics were not taught at commoners’ schools. The mystery deepened.

Vito said, “I always used to hate calisthenics class. Too rigidly formal, I thought. I preferred the rough-and-tumble of the athletics field.”

The prisoner peered at him sideways as he pushed imaginary dumb-bells away from his chest, but said nothing. Perhaps, upon reflection, “rough-and-tumble” was the wrong phrase to have added to this conversation.

Vito tried again. “Or schoolwork. I liked that. All those books, teaching me things I’d never known before. . . . I suppose I was an unusual schoolboy.”

No response from the prisoner. Well, it had been worth a try. Vito pulled himself up from doing squats and leaned against the wall, panting. He was soaked to the skin with sweat. Intelligent Seekers, who knew that they would be standing for hours on end at the cold end of breaking cells – not to mention in the chilly rack rooms – would bundle themselves up in layers of warm drawers. That type of clothing was ill-suited for exercise. He could feel the cool air begin to prick his moist skin.

The prisoner said, as though surprised, “I was hot, but now I’m getting cold.”

“It’s probably due to your perspiration. There’s a blanket on your bed. I’ll call for a fresh set of clothes for you.”

“No, don’t!” The prisoner’s voice was so anguished that Vito turned back, his hand still raised on the point of knocking on the iron door. He held the key to the cell, but the prisoner wasn’t to know that.

At Vito’s enquiring look, the prisoner stammered, “I . . . I’d rather not take off my clothes in front of you, sir.”

Oh, dear.

It was not unknown for prisoners to fear rape at the hands of their Seekers, but there was something particularly poignant about having a youth stare at him with fright.

Vito was not so far past his own youth that he had forgotten the vulnerability of that time. He had heard that, in Vovim, only brothel youths shared men’s beds, but the customs were different in Yclau. His parents had made sure that, after a certain age, he always walked the streets with groups of friends or with a trusted family escort. There had also been long, earnest discussions, late at night, as to whether they should appoint Vito with a “guardian,” as the Yclau termed it. Vito himself had taken part in the discussions. His parents were modern-minded enough to believe that the youth should be consulted on such matters, and Vito’s father had made clear that Vito need not sleep with his guardian unless he desired instruction that would help him in his marriage-bed.

Though he did not tell his parents, Vito already knew that his destiny lay in the Eternal Dungeon. He might or might not be free to marry there – he might be hired as a guard and thus be permitted to marry – but he had no particular desire to wed. His life’s goal was focussed, quite narrowly, upon reforming the Eternal Dungeon. Unlike Birdie, who would eventually marry a fellow Seeker, Vito wasn’t interested in diluting his energy through domestic concerns.

Besides, he had already received what sexual instruction he might need from his schoolfellows.

So he had passed up the opportunity to be gently mentored by a man who would protect him against less scrupulous men. As a result, his youth had been haunted by a certain awareness of danger from older men.

What must it be like to be a youth who had barely reached manhood, and who found himself the captive of an older man?

Vito tried to give a reassuring smile, though he knew that the prisoner could not see his expression behind the hood. “I wouldn’t stay in the room while you changed. And I won’t touch you, whatever happens. The guards may touch you, under narrow circumstances that are in accordance with the dungeon’s Code, but Seekers are never permitted to touch prisoners. It’s one of our strictest rules.”

A rule that had been broken many times, and not only by Seekers who wished to harm their prisoners. Even Elsdon had admitted privately to Vito that, more than once, he had longed to place his arm around a prisoner who was sobbing in anguish.

“The regulation against touching prisoners is a good rule, Vito,” Elsdon had said, “but it’s a bit too inflexible for my liking. There ought to be a way to reframe it to allow Seekers to comfort their prisoners. I know that it hurt me greatly that the High Seeker wouldn’t touch me when I cried during my imprisonment.”

Vito’s prisoner stared down at his feet, biting his lip and looking very young. He whispered something.

“What did you say, Mr.—?”

He hesitated on the name, but the prisoner appeared not to notice. Speaking just above a whisper this time, the prisoner said, “But you’ll have to touch me when you torture me.”

“No.”

His voice must have been overly firm, for the prisoner’s gaze flew up; astonishment lay in his eyes.

“No,” Vito repeated firmly but more gently. “That’s not the type of work I do. I’m capable of carrying out my duties without need for torture. It goes against my professional pride to resort to racks.” It went against a great deal more than that, but he had decided beforehand that “professional pride” was the most convincing excuse to use, should this topic arise with any of his prisoners.

Now the astonishment on his prisoner’s face was giving way to a look of wonder. “But . . . but what do you do to your prisoners, then?”

“I talk to them.”

“Talk?”

“Yes. That’s all. We talk, and I listen to anything they want to tell me.”

The prisoner considered this with furrowed brow before blurting out, “I wasn’t trained in the social graces.”

Vito managed, with effort, to keep from smiling. “That doesn’t matter. You needn’t talk about the weather or the fashions this season or any other gracious conversation.”

“Then what do you talk about with your prisoners?” the youth asked cautiously.

“Well,” said Vito, feeling on safer ground now, for he had entered into the portion of the Code that he actually agreed with, “the first thing I do is try to determine whether my prisoner is innocent—”

“Oh!” The prisoner’s face lit up, glowing like a newborn sun. “Do you? Do you really? Then I—”

And then the glow was gone, as though the moon’s face had suddenly eclipsed it. The prisoner’s expression had turned with frightening suddenness to despair. “Then I’m lost,” he whispered.

“Why is that?” asked Vito quietly.

The prisoner toed the tiled floor, saying nothing.

“Mr. Gurth?” Vito said yet more softly.

The prisoner did not look up.

“Or do you have another name?” pursued Vito.

The prisoner nodded, a brief jerk of the head, without raising his gaze.

“What is your name?”

“You said it,” whispered the prisoner.

“I did?”

“Yes. Or.”

“Or? As in either/or?”

The prisoner’s face seemed shadowed by a smile for a moment, and then the incipient amusement disappeared. “Yes,” the prisoner said. “Either. Or.”

“And who is Mr. Gurth?” Keeping his voice low, Vito moved to the center of the cell, so that there would be no chance of the guards overhearing him. “Is he your ‘either’?”

The prisoner bit his lip again. He was clutching his trouser legs now, his knuckles white.

“Does he look like you?” Vito persisted.

The most likely possibility, of course, was that this was a case of mistaken identity. It was not supposed to happen, especially in the Eternal Dungeon, but occasionally the patrol soldiers would arrest someone who simply looked like the criminal. Surprisingly few prisoners had ever tried to exploit this fact by pretending that they had been mistaken for the real criminal.

This youth might be the exception, though.

The prisoner lifted his head; the astonishment had returned to his eyes. “I don’t know,” he said. “I . . . I suppose he must.”

“You’ve never seen him?” Vito took a few steps forward, keeping a careful eye on the prisoner.

The prisoner, though, seemed too absorbed in this question to be considering an attack. “How could I?” he responded. “It’s either him . . . or . . .”

Vito felt a prickling along his back that did not come from the coldness of his sweat. “Or you? He goes away when you’re here?”

Again the prisoner hung his head, remaining silent.

“Mr. Or—”

“Just Or,” the prisoner whispered.

“‘Or,’ then,” said Vito quietly, “I’m trying to understand. Is someone taking your place?”

“Oh, no.” The prisoner shook his head. “Not at all. I’m the intruder. He’s real, and I’m the one who takes over his mind and body.”

o—o—o

“You’re so close to successfully ending your training that you really ought to find yourself a love-mate here.”

Leaning over to hand Elsdon a wrench, Vito blinked rapidly. He had not expected so direct an approach.

Not that he mistook Elsdon’s meaning. His early fears that Elsdon would seek to change the nature of their friendship had faded as he realized how unlikely that was. In the ordinary way of things, he supposed, Elsdon would have sampled the beds of various Seekers, the way many Seekers did. Elsdon was too generous-minded a man to confine his love to a single person.

But Elsdon had not taken the ordinary way of things: he had taken Layle Smith as his love-mate. The High Seeker, it was manifestly clear to Vito, was a man whose single-minded focus on Elsdon had become dangerously possessive.

Still trying to figure out how to raise the subject he wished to discuss, Vito protested, “I’m no frustrated virgin, Elsdon. I’m not going to rape my prisoner!” He had told Elsdon of his prisoner’s fears – he had felt he could share that much with Elsdon – as a general way of raising a topic that was increasingly concerning him.

Elsdon gave a sad little laugh as he tightened a screw on the underside of a rack he lay beneath. “It’s dangerous to predict what any of us are capable of, but I wasn’t envisioning that. There are other ways that an unmated Seeker can be a danger to his prisoner . . . Well, Layle could speak better about this than I can.”

Vito could well imagine that the High Seeker had great expertise on the topic of sexually assaulting one’s prisoners. Like all Seekers, Layle Smith’s public records lay open to view to Seekers and guards. Vito had perused those records carefully upon his arrival in the dungeon. His only surprise had been that the High Seeker was arrested for raping a prisoner in this dungeon on a single occasion.

The case had been hushed up, of course. Since it was run under its own laws, separate from the queendom’s, the Eternal Dungeon possessed its own judicial system. In theory, a Seeker who had committed premeditated rape or murder ought to be condemned to death, just as any of the dungeon’s other prisoners would be. Indeed, the Code of Seeking went further than Yclau law, defining any sexual contact between a prison-worker and a prisoner as rape, punishable by the death of the prison-worker.

In practice, though, such a punishment rarely occurred, for any execution must enter into the public record. The Eternal Dungeon was all too fond of protecting its reputation against open scandal.

“I suppose,” Vito said, delicately toeing his way around the subject at hand, “being mated to you helps him.”

“To keep control of himself with the prisoners?” Elsdon replied cheerfully as he leaned to the side to drop a rusted bolt into his tool chest and to select a new one. “Oh, Layle’s control over himself is extraordinary – you’d know that if you realized how powerful his urges are toward destruction.”

This was hardly the reassurance Vito had sought. Still dancing around the edge of his chosen topic, he said, “And it’s not hard for you?”

“To keep control of myself with the prisoners?” asked Elsdon, wiping his sweaty forehead with a rag. Budget cuts had forced the dungeon to cease hiring blacksmiths, who were ordinarily in charge of keeping the racks in working order. Elsdon, who had been a mechanical-minded boy, had spent so many years quizzing the blacksmiths about their work on the racks that he had volunteered to take over as the dungeon’s mechanic of racks. Vito had entered the rack room just as Elsdon was pulling a pair of pincers off the wall, from the collection of antique instruments stored there.

Sometimes Elsdon did things which Vito found entirely bewildering. He supposed it was the influence of Layle Smith. “No,” he replied to Elsdon. “I mean . . . helping your love-mate to keep control of himself . . .”

“You mean our special form of lovemaking?” responded Elsdon bluntly, still chipper as he tightened hard the nut around the new bolt. “It’s easier for me than for Layle. For me, it’s something I do out of love for him. For Layle, it’s a genuine need. He was ashamed of himself for years. Do you know that three of his past love-mates abandoned him when they discovered he was a sadist in the bedroom? Three! I can’t imagine how much courage it took him to tell me, and to ask me to bond with him.”

Vito had no wish to hear about Layle’s past love-life. “And you . . . I mean, given your past . . .”

Elsdon turned his head. “Vito,” he said in his usual direct manner, “are you asking me what I do in bed with Layle?”

He felt his face flame. Reaching aside for the flask of water he had brought with him, he said quietly, “I heard you crying last night.”

He had heard more than that. He had heard Elsdon shouting for help, and then screaming, and then, after a suitable interval, emitting sobs so deep that Vito could imagine that Elsdon was still with his father, being bound and beaten.

“Oh, Vito,” said Elsdon, pulling himself out from under the rack. “I’m so sorry.” He put his arm around Vito.

It was just like Elsdon to seek to comfort him at such a moment. He shrugged within the warmth of Elsdon’s arm, muttering, “I don’t want to invade your privacy, but—” But if Elsdon screamed like that again, Vito would attack the High Seeker, no matter what the consequences. The only reason he hadn’t done so this time was because Layle Smith’s night guards had been standing a little ways down the corridor, talking to each other, apparently unconcerned by the sounds of agony. Vito knew enough about the skills of the High Seeker’s senior night guard that he didn’t wish to test those skills. More importantly, Mr. Sobel was a friend to Elsdon, which had made it seem prudent to seek Elsdon’s perspective on what had happened.

“Layle doesn’t like us talking to others about what we do,” Elsdon explained.

Sweet blood, Vito had figured that much out long ago.

“It’s sacred to him,” Elsdon went on.

“Sacred?” Vito pulled himself away from Elsdon’s arm. “What sort of god does he worship, Hell?”

Elsdon gave a slight smile. “He has never told me. But I imagine Hell enters into it, yes.”

Vito was aghast. In his worst imaginings, it had never occurred to him that Layle Smith was still following the faith of his native land, worshipping and emulating a god who raped and murdered. “And . . . in bed with you . . .” He would have Layle Smith dead for this. Surely there must be some way to enter a death charge against him. Elsdon’s father would have been hanged for his abuse if sufficient evidence had existed.

Unexpectedly, Elsdon touched Vito’s bare cheek – a brief, light touch, as soft as down. The junior Seeker’s smile deepened. “You’re really worried for me, aren’t you? I ought to have explained to you before now. People who have known Layle for years, like Seward Sobel, don’t worry about what he’s doing to me, but you, so new to the dungeon . . .” Elsdon rose to his feet, stretching like a pleasantly satisfied cat after his nap. “It’s sacred because it’s a play, Vito. We play-act.”

It took Vito a minute to understand what he meant. There had been a lecture on that in school, something about how theater was a form of religion for the Vovimians. . . . “So he play-acts he’s Hell, and you’re his victim?”

“Not always. Sometimes he’s the man who rescues me from Hell. Or rescues me from anyone else who is harming me. But yes, sometimes he’s the captor. He’ll lay me out on a rack” – in a nonchalant manner, Elsdon gestured toward the instrument of torture beside them – “and torment me and rape me and prepare to kill me. And then, in the midst of that, he’ll be transformed. He’ll realize that he’s wrong to harm me, and he’ll heal me instead.”

This was, without doubt, the most twisted form of love-making that Vito could imagine. Rising slowly to his feet, he said flatly, “Transformed.”

“Yes, that part is true.” Elsdon leaned over to toss the pincers into his tool chest. “Layle really was transformed, back when he was a torturer in Vovim’s Hidden Dungeon. He realized suddenly one night, when he was at his terrible work there, that what he was doing was wrong. That’s when he fled to Yclau and became a Seeker.”

Vito could manage nothing but a bitter laugh. “I can’t see that there’s any difference between torturing a prisoner in Vovim and torturing a prisoner here.”

Once again, Elsdon gave a slight smile. “There’s a very great difference between the Hidden Dungeon and the Eternal Dungeon. You’d understand if you’d been there.”

Too late to pull his words back; he had forgotten just how it was that Elsdon had come by his knowledge of the Hidden Dungeon. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pull the scabs off old wounds. . . .”

Elsdon waved aside his apology. “That was years ago. I don’t regret my imprisonment in the Hidden Dungeon. I learned a lot there that was of value to me.”

“That there are worse places than the Eternal Dungeon?” He watched as Elsdon turned the wheel of the rack, testing its readiness for use. The wrist-straps were controlled by the wheel; the ankle-straps were fixed to a heavy bar that did not move. As the wheel turned, the wrist-straps moved back, stretching the anguished body of their imaginary prisoner. Vito felt sick.

“Oh, I already knew that.” Elsdon clicked the wheel into the notch of its highest setting. “My father’s torment was enough to teach me that. No, what I learned at the Hidden Dungeon was that the Eternal Dungeon has its unique dangers. In its own way, it can be as evil as any prison on this planet.”

Vito just managed to keep his jaw from dropping. He had never imagined he would hear Elsdon speak the words that Vito had thought for so long. “In what way?” he asked.

“Through its idealism.” Satisfied, Elsdon moved back from the rack. Taking the flask that Vito offered him, he swallowed the remaining water, wiped his face neatly with the rag, and said, “Because we Seekers are so high in our ideals – so strong in our belief that what we do benefits the prisoners – there is a much greater danger here than in the Hidden Dungeon or any other unscrupulous dungeon that we will harm the prisoners while seeking to help them.”

Sweet blood. Exactly what he had concluded at age ten, when he sneaked into this dungeon. Exactly what Birdie too had concluded, he knew from his conversations with her.

He and Birdie had reached that conclusion, and then they had set out to find a way to overturn the Eternal Dungeon’s practices: to wipe away the old abuses, the ancient chains and tortures, and turn the dungeon into a modern prison that truly lived up to the idealistic words of the Code of Seeking.

And Elsdon . . .

“What did you do with this knowledge?” Vito asked. His heart was beating so hard now that his hand was unsteady as he took back the flask. A potential ally. He had not been sure before, but now he was close to knowing. If Elsdon was secretly waging war against the High Seeker, then Vito and Birdie could share their plans with him—

Elsdon abruptly turned aside and began fiddling with the rack-straps. “I told the Codifier of my concerns.”

The disappointment was cold in his stomach, like the sickness that had come before. “What did the Codifier say?” he asked, knowing the answer. The High Seeker and the Codifier were two chessmen of the same color, forever upholding the dungeon’s current destructive regime.

“He thanked me for my insight.” Elsdon did not look up from the rack. “He promised me that my thoughts would be taken into consideration when he and Layle selected a successor for the High Seekership, and that man penned the next revision of the Code.”

Which was as much to say that nothing would change. Vito could just imagine what sort of man Layle Smith would select as his successor. At best, it would be Weldon Chapman, who was a good man and could have been a good Seeker if he hadn’t chosen to blindly follow Layle Smith down every disgusting path.

At worst . . . Over the years, Layle Smith had filled the dungeon with like-minded Seekers. Admittedly, many were older than him and had probably been there since his own days of training, but despite their clear hostility to any sort of change in the dungeon, the supposedly forward-thinking High Seeker had made no effort to have them dismissed. Instead, he had concentrated all his energies on dismissing or executing any guard or Seeker who strayed in the slightest from his old-fashioned policies. He had made it impossible in this dungeon for any prison-worker to so much as whisper the heresy that there might be better ways to reform prisoners than to break their bodies.

And Elsdon . . . Oh, Vito could see the cleverness of Layle’s scheme now. No doubt the High Seeker enjoyed what he did to Elsdon in bed, but his nefariousness lay deeper than that. He had trained Elsdon to submit to him, to interpret chains and torture as pleasure, to extend that twisted outlook to Elsdon’s own work—

“You’re glossing again,” observed Elsdon in the mildest of voices.

Vito blinked. “Excuse me?”

“Glossing my words. You recall the scribes in the middle centuries who used to write glosses for prayer books? They’d take a prayer that was three lines long, and before they were through, their gloss on the prayer would fill a hundred pages. You do the same thing when you’re talking to people. You gloss what we say, at greater length than what we’ve actually said.”

He felt his face flame again. “I’m a bit worried about you, that’s all—”

Elsdon laughed then, picking up his tool chest from the floor. “Vito, you do it with everyone. People have commented. Layle said that you’re the most introspective man he has ever met, outdoing even himself. He says that when he has you into his office, he always makes your appointments twice as long as other people’s because he knows that half that time will be spent with you silent, interpreting in your mind the words he has spoken. He says that you sometimes get so caught up in your thoughts that you forget he’s there and miss him thanking you for your time.”

This was so unjust an accusation that Vito strangled on a reply. Glancing over his shoulder at the mended rack, Elsdon added, “Layle used to do the same, but in his case it was due to daytime dreamings, and he successfully worked hard to stop himself from dreaming while he was searching prisoners. He was always aware of the dreamings, from the time they first started when he was a youth. But you, Vito . . .” Elsdon turned back, his expression somber. “You didn’t realize until I told you, did you? Even though everyone else around you knew. If you aren’t willing to face your own self-deceptions, how do you expect to help the prisoners face theirs? And how can you truly listen to what the prisoners tell you if you’re busy glossing and interpreting their words and actions?”

The embarrassment and anger had receded, leaving behind a great weight of humility. It was not the first time this had happened. Elsdon was truly one of the most skilled Seekers in the dungeon. You would go to him, thinking that you were about to aid him, and then he would “turn the turtle over,” as the Vovimians put it, and you’d find yourself lying with your vulnerable belly up, needing a helping hand from Elsdon to escape from your predicament.

“I’ll try to change,” Vito said quietly.

“I know you will, old friend.” Elsdon rested his free hand lightly on Vito’s shoulder. “You have a gift for self-transformation. I’ve known that since I witnessed you emerge from this dungeon as a child and dedicate yourself, at the age of ten, to spending your life helping prisoners. I’m a much better man because I knew you when I was young.”

And that too was just like Elsdon, thought Vito as Elsdon doused the oil lamp in the rack room before opening the door. To Elsdon, that long-ago episode was only a dim memory, but he would recall it as a way to energize Vito into keeping his promise.

A Seeker of exceeding talents. What would happen to this dungeon if Elsdon finally chose to turn the turtle over with Layle Smith, and seek his own, separate path?

CHAPTER FOUR

“If you’re the intruder,” said Vito, “then I’d like to meet my real prisoner, please.”

It was the fifth day of searching. After the previous day’s revelation by the prisoner – “Or,” Vito found he was thinking of the prisoner – the young man had grown silent and withdrawn from conversation, apparently regretting his outburst. This morning, though, he had jumped to his feet when Vito entered the cell, and he looked as though he were hanging upon every word that Vito spoke.

Now the prisoner paled. He turned a sickly white, all in an instant. Vito said sharply, “Sit down.”

The prisoner sank down onto his bed and gulped air. More gently, Vito said, “Hang your head over. You’ll be all right in a minute. Do you feel dizzy?”

Or said nothing, but he nodded, bowed his head, and continued to gulp air while Vito wondered what he would do if his prisoner fainted. It was the senior guard’s duty to revive fainting prisoners with smelling salts, but if Or woke to find a large, grim guard looming over him . . .

“I’m sorry,” whispered Or. “I’m sorry.”

Again, Vito moved to the center of the cell, this time to hear Or more clearly. “It’s all right. I didn’t mean to startle you. You would rather I didn’t speak to Mr. Gurth?”

“It’s not that.” Or stared at his hands, which were once more clutching his trousers.

“You’d rather not go away?” Vito ventured.

Or licked his lips and said nothing.

“I should think that you’d prefer to escape from this place.” Vito gestured at the walls.

“I . . . I would if . . .”

Vito waited. As he did so, he tried very hard not to think, just to listen and watch. Elsdon’s accusation had kept Vito awake until the small hours of morning. He had no doubt the accusation was true; Elsdon was far too talented to have gone astray in so important a matter. And other people had noticed this too, Elsdon had said. Vito wasted half the night rolling back and forth in his bed, caught in the humiliation of having his lapse in duty noticed by the High Seeker.

Then he came to his senses. Layle Smith didn’t matter; what mattered was Vito’s prisoner. Somehow, Vito must find a way to exert control over himself in the breaking cell and keep his attention firmly fixed upon—

Wait.

It seemed the cap of his embarrassment that Vito had to ask Or to repeat what he was in the midst of saying. Or stared at him, fear on his face, and Vito found himself saying, “It’s my fault. I let my thoughts stray. I apologize for my inattention.”

“Oh,” breathed Or. “Oh, I – I don’t mind, sir. Really, I don’t. You see, it’s the first time—” He stopped abruptly. A blush crept up his neckline.

“Yes?” Vito asked politely. During the ensuing silence, he tried to focus himself on Or’s hands, long-fingered, with well-trimmed nails.

“It’s the first time anyone has spoken to me,” Or said in a rush.

Vito remained silent a moment, his gaze raised to Or’s face, flushed and breathless, the red extending under the line of his chestnut hair, which fell across his brow in a stiff wave. Then Vito said, “I’ll be glad to talk with you for as long as you wish. But I’d like to talk to Mr. Gurth as well.”

Or stroked the backs of his hands in nervous jerks, apparently unaware of what his hands were doing. He said, “I don’t know . . . I don’t know whether I can fetch him.”

“He decides when to come and go, then?”

Or nodded.

“And when you come . . .”

“No one has guessed,” Or said. “No one has ever known that I’m me. They think I’m Gurth.”

“And you haven’t told them?”

Or shook his head. “They’d help Gurth get rid of me. Because I’m the intruder. I don’t . . . I don’t want to die.”

There were tears in his eyes now, rimming his lashes and making them sparkle under the light. Vito said in as matter-of-fact a manner as he could manage, “Is that why you’re here now? Because Mr. Gurth wanted you here, in his place?”

“I . . . I suppose so.”

“Well, then, he’ll want you back afterwards if I talk to him, won’t he?” Vito smiled at the prisoner, frustrated once more by his inability to convey friendliness through facial expression. A Seeker’s face-cloth must remain down whenever he searched a prisoner; the Code dictated this. The High Seeker had very firm opinions on that rule. Vito supposed that, in Layle Smith’s case, it was a way of hiding from the prisoner his essentially vicious nature, lest the prisoner take fright—

Wait.

“. . . if you want me to,” Or was saying. “I don’t want to go against your orders.”

“It’s not an order,” Vito said, wondering what he had missed hearing. “It’s just a request. I think it might help you if I got to know your ‘either.’ And then we can talk later about what I saw. Agreed?” His smile still couldn’t be seen – blast the High Seeker and his inflexible rules – but he tried to make his voice as warm as possible.

Or said softly, “I’m not sure how to tell him to come. I’ve always wanted him to stay away, before.”

“Just let yourself go, as though you were falling asleep,” Vito suggested. “Let him come to the surface.”

Or gnawed at his lip, before saying with a burst, “You’d better stand back!”

“Is he dangerous, then?” He took several steps backwards, until his back was against the door again.

“I think so,” whispered Or. “People are afraid of me . . . afraid of him. I think he’s very dangerous.”

If Gurth was as dangerous as all that, Vito ought to fetch his guards into the cell. Vito thought that, and then dismissed the idea. He had been a guard not long ago, charged with controlling dangerous prisoners. Although he was handicapped now by the Code’s rule that Seekers should avoid touching prisoners, the Code was realistic enough to make an exception if someone’s life – including the Seeker’s – was under immediate threat. Whatever happened when the dangerous prisoner arrived, Vito thought he could handle it.

“Thank you for warning me,” Vito replied quietly. “You can . . . wait outside now.”

Or said nothing. He was staring at a point above Vito’s head, glassy-eyed, as though he had ingested silver pot-herb. Vito waited, curious to see what sort of transformation would take place . . . and how convincing it would be.

In fact, he missed the moment of transformation. If he’d been less skilled at his work, he’d have missed the transformation altogether.

Nothing happened. The prisoner’s face did not take on the expression of a cocky criminal. The prisoner did not snarl, “What d’ya want, copper?” or any other clichéd line from shilling-shocker stories.

Nothing happened except that Vito became aware that the prisoner no longer looked glassy-eyed, and that he was breathing heavily.

Slowly, as though with great caution, the prisoner looked around the cell. It took him a moment to notice Vito, and when he did, nothing dramatic happened. The prisoner’s hands formed slowly into fists, but that was all. He said nothing, and after a moment, his gaze returned to the spot where it had been before. He closed his eyes and whispered.

Despite his awareness of the danger, Vito found himself walking forward, drawn to that whisper. By the time he was halfway down the cell, he could hear what the prisoner was saying: “Gotta get ’im back. Gotta get ’im back. Gotta think – aye, gotta think.”

The accent was that of a commoner. So was the grammar. Yet the prisoner was making no effort to speak loudly enough to be heard at the other end of the cell, and the whisper was clearly not meant as a lure to draw Vito closer, for in the next moment, the prisoner opened his eyes. He blinked several times, as though awakening from sleep.

“Did he come?” asked Or.

o—o—o

The healer was not available. Vito’s immediate response to this news was relief.

Vito’s encounters with the dungeon healer, Mr. Bergsen, had been pleasant ones; the man clearly had strong feelings against the use of torture upon the prisoners whom he healed. But the healer worked for the Codifier, and his usual seal of secrecy on medical matters was lifted in cases of mental illness. If Mr. Bergsen determined that Vito’s prisoner had a mental disease, then the Codifier would be notified and, in all likelihood, the prisoner would be removed from Vito’s care.

Vito did not think that pride alone made him reluctant to give up his prisoner. To persuade a frightened prisoner to talk was a skill not all Seekers possessed; some possess greater talent at intimidating harsh, hostile prisoners into offering their confessions. Intimidation would only cause Or to bury himself more deeply than he had already done, with the possibility that he would not emerge a second time.

No, Or was best suited to remain Vito’s prisoner. With both the High Seeker and Mr. Bergsen gone from the dungeon, Vito need not worry about interference.

But he did worry about Or’s health. After thinking a moment, he asked a second question to Mr. Bergsen’s medical aide, a nurse who tended the inner dungeon’s sick and tortured in the healer’s absence. The nurse, pausing from his task of refilling a locked medicine cabinet, directed Vito to the Eternal Dungeon’s lending library.

The library was relatively new. It had been added during the renovation of the dungeon, part of Layle Smith’s long-term plan to keep the outer-dungeon workers happy and satisfied with their work and, Vito suspected, too secure in their employment to want to risk questioning the bloody activities of the Seekers.

Whatever the High Seeker’s motives, there was no question that the Eternal Dungeon offered unsurpassed luxuries to its laborers: a nursery for the laborers’ children, an evening school for any laborers who wished to improve their minds, and a ranking system that awarded hard work and creativity. Vito had heard from Elsdon that Yeslin Bainbridge, the famous leader of the Commoners’ Guild, had visited the dungeon, intending to stir up its laborers against unjust working conditions, only to learn that there were no injustices in the outer dungeon for him to correct.

The lending library was the latest luxury offered to the laborers. It was modelled after the lending library in the capital, where many of the laborers lived, but unlike the library in the lighted world above, this one charged not even a token lending fee. It did not need to; laborers who failed to return books in good condition and in a timely manner would have their pay docked.

During non-work hours – the two-hour dawn shift and the two-hour dusk shift – the library was clogged with laborers borrowing penny dreadfuls and shilling shockers and other such lurid literature suitable for commoners. The library had been half filled with such books before a Seeker, very quietly, had suggested that prisoners liked to read also – even prisoners of the better class.

Nobody had mistaken his meaning. A consultation had followed, and at the end of the consultation, the remaining half of the library was filled with higher-class literature, donated by inner-dungeon workers, primarily Seekers who had used their small allowance over the years to buy books. The High Seeker – who proved to have surprisingly cultured tastes – donated his library of books on theater and the visual arts. Elsdon donated a few books on engineering, as well as some collections of ballads penned by Yeslin Bainbridge. The High Seeker’s senior night guard, Seward Sobel, was able to offer a very large collection of books on military history. Mr. Chapman – purportedly blushing as he did so – gave the library a small stack of volumes of love poetry, many inscribed to his wife. And there was, of course, an impressive collection on the techniques of torture, though this was kept in a locked room within the library, accessible only by special permission.

Very few of the prisoners in the breaking cells borrowed any of these books. Virtually all of those prisoners were commoners, and the few who had interest in anything other than their continued survival were more likely to request a shilling shocker filled with tales of crime and gore.

It was the other prisoners who borrowed high-class books in great quantities from the library: the Seekers, who had vowed to spend the rest of their lives in the Eternal Dungeon.

Because they were classified as prisoners, they could not afford to build up the sort of large libraries that these elite men would doubtlessly have owned if the Seekers had remained in the lighted world. The lending library, where their individual small collections were pooled into a large collection, was a boon to such men.

Eyeing the books of revolutionary ballads by the leader of the Commoners’ Guild, Vito reflected that Elsdon possessed a talent for creating rebellions in a most subtle manner. When he became a full Seeker, Vito thought he could follow suit by donating all the books he had accumulated over the years on the ethical dangers and practical uselessness of torturing prisoners for confessions. That sort of reading ought to give the book-hungry Seekers a few sleepless nights.

But his immediate need was in another part of the collection.

After consulting with the librarian – a suitably taciturn woman – Vito was led to another locked room, where he was given free use of the books for as long as he desired. This room contained the healer’s medical library.

The medical library was especially rich with books on mental healing, for Mr. Bergsen had tended the High Seeker during the worst years of that man’s mental illness. It said something about the Eternal Dungeon, Vito thought grimly, that it allowed itself to be led by a man who had almost ended his days in a mental sanitarium. But Mr. Bergsen’s interest in mental illness was to Vito’s benefit now. Vito had sought out many books on mental healing over the years, but this was a collection beyond imagination, filling six full bookcases. There were even imported books on the topic from foreign countries. Taking into hand the fat volume of the latest revision of the Mental Healing Encyclopaedia, Vito sat down to begin his research.

Seven hours later, nearly buried under the volumes he had piled on the table after consulting, Vito stretched wearily. He glanced at the grandpapa clock, ticking between a bookcase containing leather-bound volumes on mental disorders. Hysteria, hypochondriasis, paralytic insanity, puerperal insanity . . . Vito’s mind buzzed now with the names of all the diseases which native and foreign mental healers had identified.

None of them fit what Vito had seen in his prisoner’s breaking cell. Nowhere could Vito find a case history of a man whose personality had evidently split in two.

Vito covered his face with his hands. The smell of old books tickled his nose. He could hear the deep, reverberant tick of the clock and the shuffle of papers by the librarian in the main room. The dungeon was otherwise silent. It was well past midnight now; the midnight meals had been served, and the outer-dungeon kitchen workers had been released to go home. Aside from a few ancillary workers, such as the night nurse, the only men still awake in the dungeon were the Seekers and guards on the night watch, as well as their prisoners. Having talked to Or beyond the end of the dusk shift, Vito had left his own night-shift guards keeping vigil over his prisoner. The guards were both young, the older of them only recently promoted to senior position, and both were eager to follow orders and prove themselves worthy of their titles. Vito wasn’t worried that his prisoner would come to harm at their hands.

But if Vito did not resolve this problem soon, the High Seeker and the healer would return to the dungeon, and Vito would likely be removed from Or’s searching. Sighing heavily, Vito stared down at the volume. No case of a personality splitting . . . That did not mean no such case existed. It might be written up in some obscure volume within the library. But if it was so obscure as this, it was unlikely that Mr. Bergsen had any more knowledge to offer than Vito himself possessed. So Vito must use his own wits to decipher the case.

Pushing aside the book, he crossed his arms upon the table and laid his head onto his arms. He was tired, but he was too well-trained to fall asleep while he remained – in his own mind, at least – on duty. Resting his eyes alone, he began to try to recall the words and actions that Or had spoken since their first meeting.

The trouble he had in recalling those words and actions made him uneasy. He had a good memory; the problem was simply that he had not been paying enough attention to Or to easily recall their time together. There were gaps in his memory that he could fill only with his thoughts at the time, not with a recollection of what had taken place while he ruminated in the breaking cell.

It was becoming increasingly clear that Elsdon was right: Vito had allowed his interior monologues to drown out his awareness of his prisoner. With the wrong sort of prisoner, that would not only be professionally careless but downright dangerous. Vito was lucky that Or wasn’t the type of prisoner to have attacked him.

He heard again the tick of the clock. He tried to hold onto the sound of that ticking, but it drifted away after a moment, drowned out by his thoughts about the antique water-clocks which stood in the rack room, necessitating their refilling every twelve hours by dungeon workers, when the last of the water dripped away. . . .

Vito sighed. No doubt, if he’d been in the rack room at this moment, he’d be allowing his thoughts about grandpapa clocks to drown out his awareness of the water-clocks. He had a very serious lack of self-discipline which Elsdon had been generous enough to point out in his gentle manner. Somehow Vito would have to resolve that disciplinary problem before it caused him to harm his prisoner. But for now . . .

For now he must do his best to help Or with what memories he possessed. He tried again, recalling every word, every gesture that Or and his alter ego had displayed in the breaking room. He ran over and over the memories, seeking the slightest bit of evidence that his prisoner had lied.

For of course that was the most obvious explanation of all for the prisoner’s behavior: he had lied to Vito, pretending to be mad, because madmen could not be sent to the gallows. Indeed, thanks to a petition from the Eternal Dungeon to the magistrates’ courts some years ago, mentally ill prisoners could not even receive a sentence of life imprisonment for their capital crimes. Instead, prisoners with mental diseases were sent to mental sanitariums, from which, if they were cured of their illness, they might be released in due time.

Only a very naive and inexperienced prison-worker would treat uncritically a prisoner’s apparently mad behavior. Vito considered himself neither naive nor inexperienced. From the moment that Or first spoke Gurth’s name, as though Gurth were separate from himself, Vito had considered the possibility that his prisoner was lying to save his own skin.

He ran the memories through his mind again, dwelling especially on the moment when Or transformed into Edwin Gurth, and when Gurth transformed into Or. If the break had been clear-cut . . . But it had not; the difference had been subtle, extremely subtle. Far too subtle to be effective as a deliberate display intended for the benefit of the Seeker.

Vito finally drew himself up, taking in a sharp breath. No. Vito would gamble his life on the fact that Or and Gurth were separate men. Not even the finest actor in Vovim could have made so complete a transformation, in so subtle a manner. Every word, gesture, value, and emotion in Gurth was completely different from Or’s, yet there had been no attempt on Gurth’s part to so much as speak to Vito in order to convince the Seeker that Gurth was a separate personality. The prisoner Or might still be lying to Vito – that possibility could not yet be ruled out – but Vito was quite sure that Or was not lying about the fact that Gurth was a different man from himself.

In which case . . . Vito pulled from his pocket the clipping he had torn from the newspaper he had confiscated shortly before searching Or on the first day. The clipping about conjoined twins.

It was a brief news item from the magistrates’ court. One of the magistrates was currently receiving testimony from the Theological Union as to whether conjoined twins had two souls or a single soul. It was a difficult theological case, made more complex by the medical testimony already received, indicating that the conjoined twins could not live separately – that one would die if the other did. The twins functioned bodily as though they were a single human being.

But were their souls separate? Did they have separate consciences? That was the key issue, for one of the twins had been proven guilty of premeditated murder of a nobleman. If the souls were separate, there was a chance that the magistrate would spare the murderer, for the sake of the twin who claimed he had not wished the murder to take place, and who would inevitably die if his twin died.

But if the Theological Union gave witness that the twins’ souls and consciences were one, as their bodies were, then both twins would die for the murder that one twin had committed.

As Or would die, if Gurth had committed a capital crime.

CHAPTER FIVE

Vito was halfway to his bed when the High Seeker caught him.

The dungeon being short of living space, junior Seekers and Seekers-in-Training were housed in double living “cells,” as the dungeon terminology put it. A central parlor and kitchen served both Seekers in these cells; curtains separated the small bedroom areas on either side of the parlor and kitchen. Privacy was at a minimum.

Since his arrival, Vito had scarcely seen his roommate, a night-shift Seeker. Vito was beginning to realize that Elsdon was friend to a large number of Seekers and guards, not by chance, but by sheer, determined, hard work. In theory, Seekers had leisure time during the four hours that constituted the dawn shift and dusk shift, and might mingle during those shifts with Seekers and guards who held opposite shifts. In practice, all senior Seekers, and any ambitious junior Seeker, worked through the dawn and dusk shifts.

Or else well into their sleeping time, Vito reflected as another yawn escaped him. Having left the library, he had entered the inner dungeon and was walking down the short corridor that lay immediately beyond it. It was starting to seem to Vito that he would have no time to get to know anyone except his prisoners. Or their ashes, he added inwardly, with a twist of the mouth. By dungeon custom, guards were the men who held vigil over the ashes of executed prisoners, but Seekers were expected to make an appearance at some point during the vigil, in order to light a candle in remembrance of their prisoner.

Layle Smith, the Record-keeper, his trainer, his guards, his prisoners, and of course Elsdon and Birdie . . . Had Vito really come to know so few inhabitants of the Eternal Dungeon during his six months in the dungeon?

Birdie was kept busy by her family obligations and was separated by her sex from making friendships with most of the Seekers and guards. How could the two of them revive a flagging revolution, when neither of them knew well the other potential revolutionaries?

By all that was sacred, they must have Elsdon. Elsdon Taylor, whose drive to comfort and sympathize with and (in a subtle manner) challenge everyone around him had led him to become the acquaintance or friend of virtually every man in the inner dungeon. He was even well known in the outer dungeon.

Vito and Birdie needed him. Without Elsdon Taylor, all their plans would fail.

Vito was thinking this at the very moment that the High Seeker caught hold of him.

For a moment, all that Vito could think was, “Captured before I even started.” Then he came to his senses and stepped back from where Layle Smith had been holding him at arm’s length, trying to prevent Vito from slamming into him.

“I apologize, sir,” Vito said in an automatic manner. “I did not expect to meet anyone in this corridor, so late at night.”

“I am still assigned to duties in the palace, but I have been visiting the surgery.” As usual, the High Seeker had an uncanny gift for guessing Vito’s real thoughts. Mr. Smith tilted his head, regarding Vito as a wild beast might regard its next meal. Vito tried to remain steady under that unyielding scrutiny.

They were standing, the two of them, in front of the door to the healer’s surgery. Here the corridor that led from the outer dungeon to the rack rooms and breaking cells crossed the corridor that led from the Seekers’ living cells to the healer’s surgery and, on the other side of the surgery, the crematorium. It was here, at age ten, that Vito had met his destiny in the form of Layle Smith, who was a young junior Seeker at that time, testing his power against the Seekers whose regime he planned to overthrow.

Vito was not unaware of the irony of planning a revolution against such a man. But the need for a revolution against the High Seeker was Layle Smith’s own fault, which he might still rectify. If the High Seeker could return to what he had been when he was younger – a man who encouraged innovation and forgave his innovative subordinates when they made honest mistakes in their attempts to improve the dungeon – Vito would . . . Well, not happily work with Layle Smith, no. But Vito would willingly work with Hell, as the Vovimian phrase went, if it would benefit the prisoners.

Layle Smith, whose gift for discernment did not extend to the point of mind-reading, had more mundane matters to discuss. “Your reports have been sent to me during my time in the palace, Mr. de Vere.”

Vito braced himself.

The High Seeker glanced around. Vito followed his gaze and saw what Layle Smith, with his better hearing, had overheard: Weldon Chapman, who had paused in the crossroads ahead, where the corridor from the outer dungeon crossed the main corridor of the inner dungeon, where the breaking cells stood. Mr. Chapman was talking to the guards on duty there but had not yet noticed Vito and the High Seeker standing beyond.

Mr. Smith turned aside, opening a door that Vito had passed but never much thought about before. He waved Vito inside. Vito entered the room and found himself in a broom closet.

The closet door closed behind him, with a click. There was the sound of a key in the lock.

Vito stood quite still, considering his options, as he would if he were facing a murderous prisoner. His mind flashed through various possibilities: the High Seeker had placed him here in an attempt to frighten and intimidate him; the High Seeker would send chemicals into the room and stuff rags under the door, so that Vito suffocated; the High Seeker would let Vito humiliate himself in the eyes of the other dungeon dwellers by crying out for help.

The worst possibility of all did not occur to him: Layle Smith had entered the closet with him.

He felt a touch on his back and whirled around. Brooms clattered to the floor as he backed up; he nearly fell as he stepped into a pail.

Mr. Smith’s hand shot forward and caught hold of him as he began to fall. “Are you having difficulty seeing, Mr. de Vere?”

There were several biting responses he could make to that. Just in time, however, he remembered something that Elsdon had told him: the High Seeker’s eyesight, like his hearing, was much more acute than that of an average man.

“A bit of illumination would help,” he acknowledged as he shook the pail off his foot. He tried to speak in a nonchalant fashion, but he could hear the strain in his own voice.

“My apologies. One moment.” There was a whisper of a sound, barely noticeable, and then light flared, blinding Vito. After a minute, the brightness resolved itself into a candle-flame. The High Seeker placed the candle on the shelf, saying, “This was the closest location for a private conversation, but we can move the discussion to my cell if you prefer. Mr. Chapman has use of my office this week.”

If there was anything worse than being grilled by the High Seeker in the close confines of a broom closet, it was being grilled by him in the living quarters where he play-raped his love-mate. Feeling his jaw ache, Vito said stiffly, “This is fine, sir. You had a concern about my reports?”

“On the contrary, I wanted to congratulate you on them. They are, without a doubt, the finest exercise I have encountered, in all my years as a Seeker, in using voluminous prose to say absolutely nothing.”

Vito just managed to keep from flinching. He had heard, through dark rumor, of the High Seeker’s gift for flaying by way of words, but he had never before been the recipient of this specialized form of mental torture. He replied, still stiffly, “There has been little to say, sir. The prisoner did not speak until just over a day ago. I’m still in the preliminary stages of examining him.”

“At precisely what stage?” the High Seeker asked. He was still standing far closer than Vito would have liked; his face-cloth was nearly touching Vito’s. Vito could feel himself begin to sweat.

Pushing himself a little further back against a group of upright mop handles, he said, “The first stage of an uncooperative searching, sir. That of determining whether the prisoner is the type of man who is capable of committing the crime of which he is accused.”

There was a long, ominous silence after that. The High Seeker stood very still, looming over Vito with his greater height, like a vulture. Finally Layle Smith said, in a very soft voice, “Have the prisoner’s arrest records been of any use to you in determining the answer to that question?”

The arrest records. Bloody blades, that must be where Layle Smith had acquired the fixed notion that the prisoner was guilty. No wonder he had been so eager to have Vito read those records; he wanted to infect Vito with the same certainty.

“The arrest records are helpful but incomplete, sir,” said Vito, grasping for an answer that might sound reasonably plausible. Most arrest records were indeed incomplete, providing only a skeleton’s worth of information.

Too late, he recalled that this particular arrest record had appeared rather thick. He braced himself again.

But all that the High Seeker said, after another spell of silence, was, “Then I would suggest – would suggest most strongly – that you reread the records. You may find that you have missed noticing important information there that will aid you in your searching. As you may recall, the Code says that a Seeker must peruse a prisoner’s arrest records with great care.”

o—o—o

“He is so bloody rigid in his approach to caring for prisoners!” raged Vito a few hours later. “‘The Code says this—’ ‘The Code says that—’ As though the letter of the Code matters, if it goes against the welfare of my prisoner! He knows perfectly well that those arrest records from the lesser prisons are slanted to paint the prisoner in the worst possible light, prejudicing the prisoner’s chances of being found innocent. Why the High Seeker should think that I would want to filth my mind with such records— What in the name of all that is sacred are you laughing at?”

Lying pale amidst the pillows, Elsdon wiped away a tear of laughter. “I’m sorry,” he said, catching his breath. “But you sound so much like me when I first arrived at the Eternal Dungeon: young and naive.”

“I’m thirty years old,” Vito pointed out as he set aside his hood, grateful to be able to discard it while alone with Elsdon.

“We’re all young and naive when we first arrive at the Eternal Dungeon,” Elsdon replied, shifting restlessly in his bed. “Even Layle was – he has told me so. And what you were saying just now . . . I could explain to you that you’re taking exactly the wrong path, but you wouldn’t believe me, would you?”

In the midst of pouring water into a glass, Vito paused to frown.

“No, I thought not,” concluded Elsdon. “You need to discover that for yourself, just as I did. I only hope that you won’t be too late. —Thank you,” he added as Vito handed him the water. “But aren’t you going to be overdue in searching your prisoner?”

“There’s still time before the day shift begins.” Vito sat down on the stool beside Elsdon’s cot. “How is your pain? Have you been told how long your recovery will be?” Elsdon Taylor had spent the past thirty-six hours being healed and bandaged in the healer’s infirmary, having narrowly survived an attack from a prisoner. It was not the first time the junior Seeker had been attacked, Vito had gathered, but Elsdon had escaped relatively ungrazed on the previous occasions.

Not this time. Vito ran his eye uneasily over the bandage around Elsdon’s chest. Elsdon had barely escaped having a lung punctured by a buttonhook that a prisoner had secreted in his boot; instead, one of Elsdon’s ribs had been damaged.

“Three months,” replied Elsdon cheerfully, though Vito could hear the pain in his voice. “When Layle first sang me the tale of all the privileges which Seekers receive, he failed to mention our rate of work injuries.”

“At least you still have your job,” Vito pointed out, listening with half an ear for the small sounds that would alert him to the fact that the day shift had begun. Ordinarily, during the dawn hours, he would already be on duty, taking advantage of the time when he was neither sleeping nor searching prisoners. A great deal about the Eternal Dungeon could be gleaned from overhearing the conversations of guards, he had learned.

But he had other duties as well. Now he leaned forward and said, “You still have your job. You still have shelter and food and an allowance for luxuries. The Eternal Dungeon supplies you with a healer and pays all your medical bills. Elsdon, if you had worked at any of the lesser prisons I’ve worked at during the past, you’d have none of these things. You’d be an indigent man by now, unless your family members or friends were willing to take you in, as charity.”

“I know that, Vito,” replied Elsdon quietly. “I know that Layle is right when he says we’re the most privileged prisoners that ever lived in this world. We’re not allowed to leave this dungeon, except with the Codifier’s permission, but some of the poor folk in the lighted world would beg to live here, if they could live like us. —Besides,” he added more lightly, “who would want to leave a place like this?” As he spoke, he lightly touched the small black volume that sat on the bedstand next to him.

“True,” Vito acknowledged. “I wouldn’t be willing to consider taking my oath of eternal commitment if there weren’t seeds of greatness in the Code of Seeking. It contains a high vision of how to transform prisoners into becoming better men and women. But certain passages in it . . .”

He let his voice trail away without speaking the words. It would not be fair to reveal to Elsdon that Vito had no intention whatsoever to comply with the bloodier, beastlier passages in the Code. The requirement that certain prisoners be racked to obtain confessions – a passage retained by Layle Smith from earlier editions of the Code – was one that Elsdon himself had balked at, in prior years. But the junior Seeker was playing a delicate game of balance these days, trying to retain both his integrity and his love-mate. Vito did not want to do anything that would risk tipping that balance in the wrong direction. Layle Smith had a reputation for executing Seekers when he grew displeased with them.

Uneasy at this thought, Vito rose from the stool and stretched. The healer’s newly-built infirmary, shadow-dark, was empty at the moment, aside from Elsdon and himself. The nurse had taken the arrival of Vito as an opportunity to seek his own breakfast. Nearby, in the dungeon’s crematorium, came the mournful sound of a guard singing the final rites of an executed prisoner.

“The Code has its flaws,” Elsdon replied. “It will be revised one day. I hope I’m still around when that happens. —No, it’s all right,” he replied as Vito stepped solicitously forward. “I’m much better now. And I’ve scarcely had a moment in which to be bored. Layle has been here half a dozen times since I was injured; you just missed seeing him. I think he’d sleep on the floor here, if his current duties in the palace didn’t prevent it. And I’ve had visits from many of my friends.”

“Is there anything you’d like me to bring next time?” asked Vito. “A book, perhaps?”

Elsdon, who had been leaning forward to make his point, collapsed back onto the pillows piled against his bed’s headboard. “By all that is sacred, no! Layle is practically crushing me with gifts of books. I had to remind him that I don’t consider books about torture to be light reading.”

Vito managed to catch himself before he asked, “How can you stay with a man like that?” He had learned long ago the futility of persuading a man in love that he had chosen the wrong beloved.

That Layle Smith was destroying Elsdon, Vito had no doubt. But his methods of doing so were subtle. Though Vito had watched carefully and covertly since his arrival, he had witnessed no overt sign that the High Seeker was harming Elsdon. Indeed, on the one occasion on which Vito had overheard the High Seeker speaking privately with Elsdon, it had appeared that such moments were the only time in which Layle Smith acted remotely human.

Vito turned aside to pick up his hood again; he could hear now the steps of the guards changing their watch as the day shift began. Words drifting through the door told him that the day’s gossip was being exchanged in the process. There was a great deal of gossip in the dungeon concerning Layle Smith’s relations with his younger love-mate. And Vito had learned from Elsdon himself that there was reason enough for that gossip.

It occurred to Vito that this was not the first time in his life when he had been alarmed over activities that occurred in a bedroom. He had been seven years old on the night that he wandered into his parents’ room, only to discover them engaged in a most peculiar act.

His mother had been furious at the interruption and had wanted to spank him. His father, though, patiently took Vito aside and explained, in words that a seven-year-old could understand, what had been taking place, and why it was important that Vito always knock and wait for permission before entering his parents’ bedroom.

Some years later, Vito would realize that nothing had been taking place in that room which wasn’t taking place in millions of bedrooms around the globe. His parents were entirely ordinary in their sexual appetites. However, he had never forgotten the lesson he learned that day: what is peculiar to one person is normal to another.

Vito frowned. He had worked all his adult life among prisoners. He supposed he could think of worse ways for men to release their dark desires than to play-act rape. And it said something about Layle Smith that the High Seeker had chosen to share his play-acting only with another man who would enjoy it.

“What are you thinking?” Elsdon asked. It was his deceptively light voice, the one he used with prisoners.

Vito responded to that urging as promptly as though he were a prisoner. “That I ought to be fair to the High Seeker.”

Smiling, Elsdon reached out and took Vito’s hand, which had been on the point of lowering his face-cloth. “Vito, this is why you are the best friend I ever had in school. You and Layle, you’re so very alike. Both of you find the other person irritating, yet both of you strive to remain fair in your assessment. I can’t promise that you’ll ever like the High Seeker,” he added as Vito pulled free and stepped toward the door. “But I hope that, in time, you’ll recognize his integrity.”

CHAPTER SIX

“I don’t remember when I first intruded,” said Or. “It was when I was a child, I think.”

The tenth day of searching. Much of the intervening time had been spent in silence – Or periodically withdrew from conversation, still in evident fear of his Seeker – or in repeated attempts by Vito to draw Gurth to the surface. In most instances, Or could manage to draw Gurth back, but that man always slipped away within seconds, ignoring anything that Vito said to him while he was there.

And Or, it was becoming clear, was equally reluctant to provide useful information.

“When you were both children?” Vito replied. On this day, as on most days, he was following the Code’s guidelines for searching, which went well beyond the rules for torture. If a prisoner failed to supply the information needed, the Seeker’s best course was to persuade the prisoner to talk about some subject that seemed unrelated to the crime – his childhood, for example. A surprising amount of relevant information could often be uncovered that way.

“I suppose so. I never saw him – never spoke to him. I didn’t speak to anyone at all. Usually it was at night that I came. I’d stand at the window and watch people pass occasionally in the street, but I was afraid to go out. The first time—” Or swallowed heavily. “—the first time I woke up, I was being beaten by a man. I don’t know who he was. He called me Edwin. I knew that wasn’t my name, but I didn’t know how to tell him. I was afraid that, if I told him the truth, he’d beat me harder, for not being Edwin.”

“I see.” Vito managed to keep his voice even. Since his arrival at the dungeon, Vito had asked Elsdon once what his father had done to him, and Elsdon had told him, so readily that Vito was startled.

Seeing his surprise, Elsdon had said, “You’ll encounter similar stories among your prisoners. Some are falsehoods meant to raise sympathy, but many of these stories are all too true, alas. Men don’t become murderers and rapists on a random impulse, Vito. They often turn to violence for the same reason I did: because they were shaped by acts committed upon them at an early age.”

It was so easy to forget that Elsdon was a convicted murderer. It was equally easy to forget that this young man sitting in a breaking cell was the same age that Elsdon had been when he battered his young sister to death.

“Sir?” Blinking up at Vito from where he sat on his bed, Or sounded concerned.

Bloody blades, he had to find a way to stop himself from drifting off like this. He focussed himself on Or’s body: slender with youth and still fragile to Vito’s eye, though Vito had been making sure that Or was properly fed. Or’s eye sockets were larger than most men’s, adding to his youthful appearance. His lips, on the other hand, were rather thin, which made him look worried and vulnerable. His hair—

“Did this happen again?” Vito asked. “The man beating you?”

Or nodded. “Lots of times. Other times . . . I think Gurth was just asleep. I think that’s how I was able to slip into him.”

“And what about as you grew older?”

Or bit his lip in evident concentration. “It was the same, really. Sometimes Gurth was in fights with other boys at school. I’d wake up and find myself fighting, but I didn’t know how to fight, so I’d lose. And sometimes I’d wake up in the dormitory, and all of the other boys would be asleep. I used to walk up and down, looking at them sleeping, wishing I could tell them who I was – wishing that we could become friends. But of course I couldn’t.”

It was the matter-of-factness of Or’s voice which made this statement so terrible. It took Vito a moment to swallow down the hardness in his throat. “So those were the two times when you were awake? When you were being beaten – by the man or by your schoolfellows – and when Mr. Gurth was sleeping?”

But here, it seemed, he had gone too far, for Or fell silent, and it took Vito another seven hours to persuade him to speak.

They had nearly reached the end of the dusk shift; Vito could hear the night-shift guards replacing the dusk-shift guards, Mr. Boyd and Mr. Crofford having retired from duty a couple of hours earlier to have their suppers. Both men, Vito knew, would arrive promptly at the beginning of the dawn shift; although their duties did not require this of them, the two guards who took the primary shift in Vito’s Seekership always seemed to feel the need to quiz the night-shift guards on their duties. It was the mark of skilled guards; Vito only wished that it did not make him feel as though he were being watched to see whether he raped his prisoner during the night.

“It was another man,” Or said abruptly.

“Another man?” With effort, Vito shifted his thoughts back to his prisoner.

“Later. After the dormitory. He – he had me in his bed.”

Vito stiffened. After a moment, he asked, “Was he your guardian?”

“I don’t know. I – I suppose he might have been. But he knew my name. That was what scared me. He called me Or. He told me . . . he told me that I must let him do whatever he wanted to me.”

Sweet blood. This was even worse than Elsdon’s tales of his childhood.

“And did you?” Vito asked.

Or nodded without looking up.

“That must have been difficult,” Vito said. It was not hard to sound sympathetic. “You must have hated it.”

Or looked up. His face held an unmistakable expression of surprise. “Oh, no,” he replied. “I liked it. I liked quite a lot what he did to me.”

o—o—o

Vito had spent the evening wrestling with his conscience, and then wrestling with the Charges index.

The battle with his conscience had been over whether he should read the prisoner’s arrest records after all. It had never been his custom to do so – not since the time, as a young patrol soldier, when he had realized how easily such records could be slanted to satisfy any vindictive impulses of the arresting soldiers. Layle Smith’s insistence that all Seekers read their prisoners’ arrest records was simply evidence that the High Seeker had never been a patrol soldier.

But it was becoming increasingly difficult for Vito to search the prisoner without even knowing why the youth was in this dungeon. Finally, as a compromise with his conscience, Vito had carefully opened the arrest records, bypassing the first page, on which the prisoner’s name and other vital statistics were recorded. He already knew the prisoner’s legal name. It was written on the front of the volume: Edwin Gurth. The information he sought was on the second page: the charge made against the prisoner.

What he saw made his eyebrows rise. After a few minutes’ thought, he visited the Record-keeper.

The dungeon’s Record-keeper was normally not the most co-operative person. He seemed to consider any request for information to be an infringement upon his preciously kept time. For once, however, he seemed pleased. Vito gathered that few Seekers had ever asked to consult the Charges volumes that were kept in the Record-keeper’s archive.

Once Vito had seen the archive, he understood why. The documents library was so small that the heavy volumes which indexed the many charges made against the dungeon’s prisoners over the past century and a half were stacked on a topmost shelf, one upon each other, like boxes in a freight car. Moreover, the charges were not alphabetical; they had been added chronologically over the decades, as the queendom’s increasingly complex law system refined the various degrees of murder and rape for which a prisoner might be charged.

It took Vito five full hours to pull out all the volumes, bring them down the ladder, tote them into the entry hall, and skim through them. The charge he was seeking was in the final volume; it had been made only the previous year. On only one other occasion in the entire history of the Eternal Dungeon had a prisoner been charged with raping a prostitute.

It seemed an absurd charge to Vito. A prostitute, by her very nature, was bought and sold. A client who took her without payment could be charged with theft, but how could a prostitute be said to refuse her favors?

Frustrated, Vito asked to consult the arrest records of the prisoner who had previously been sent to the dungeon on this charge. Here he ran into a problem: for reasons that the Record-keeper was unwilling to explain, this particular prisoner’s records were kept in the Codifier’s office, where Vito would need permission from either the Codifier or the High Seeker to consult them. Finally, in desperation, Vito asked to at least be given the name of the Seeker who had searched the prisoner.

The Record-keeper, with grudging reluctance, gave him the name – gave him three names, in fact. The first name was all that mattered.

Fortunately, Elsdon was still awake, since he was used to being a night-shift worker. When Vito reached the healer’s infirmary, he found Elsdon being moved by his nurse into a wheeling chair, on the point of being taken for a much-needed bath.

The nurse looked harassed and overworked. Vito knew, from overhearing dungeon gossip, that no less than three racked prisoners had entered the surgery that day, leaving the nurse to cope with them alone, since the healer was not due back from the palace until week’s end.

Vito offered to take Elsdon to his bath. There followed a short conversation in which Vito was able to assure the nurse that he had a license as a medical aide. Military medicine had been his primary study at the Patrol Soldiers’ Training Academy, this being the closest he could come to specializing in prisoners’ mind-healing, which was his real interest.

Soon he had wheeled Elsdon down to the guards’ washroom, which contained the only full-sized bathtub in the inner dungeon. Several naked guards were standing around chatting when he and Elsdon arrived. Among soldiers and guards alike, prolonged washroom gossip was a favorite activity, since superiors were normally not permitted to enter into their subordinates’ washing area.

Seeing the injured Elsdon, however, the guards clothed themselves and graciously ceded the washroom to the two Seekers, going so far as to promise to place signs on the washroom’s two doors, granting Elsdon his privacy while he bathed.

“I don’t know what they envision happening if I bathed in their presence,” said Elsdon with a smile. “I’m hardly in any condition to assault them.”

Vito paused as he leaned over to scrub Elsdon’s back. “Has that happened in this dungeon? Seekers assaulting guards?”

“Not for many years. It was still occurring when Layle first arrived at the Eternal Dungeon. Seward Sobel, who began working here before Layle did, has some harrowing tales to tell of those years. Layle put a stop to all that when he became High Seeker, of course.”

Vito bit his cheek to keep himself from replying, “So he wanted all the victims for himself?” He supposed that, after a certain fashion, Elsdon’s mateship had benefitted the dungeon; there was no indication in Layle Smith’s records that he had sexually assaulted any more victims after Elsdon offered himself up for nightly “play” at the High Seeker’s hands. Unfortunately, the dungeon’s current rules provided the High Seeker with all too many opportunities to order his guards to physically assault the prisoners, with whip and rack.

Which led Vito to think, yet again, about all the ways in which vindictive patrol soldiers could make life difficult for anyone they chose to arrest. He asked Elsdon the question he needed answered.

To his surprise, Elsdon seemed reluctant to discuss the case. “One of my greatest failures, Vito,” said the junior Seeker, staring down at the cooling water of his bath. “I wanted so much to help Garrett Gerson transform himself. But he refused to give me more than his confession. I had to hand him over to another Seeker for further searching, and he in turn handed Garrett on to yet another Seeker. In the end, Garrett was sentenced to execution, unrepentant.”

Vito raised his eyebrows. Elsdon usually adhered strictly to the dungeon custom of referring to prisoners by their title and last name. Use of only a first name suggested . . . intimacy. Keeping his voice low as he passed Elsdon the soap, he said, “Were you a bit in love with him, perhaps?”

Elsdon looked startled; then he laughed. “Not I. That’s never happened to me with a prisoner . . . though it’s happened to Layle a few times. It happened when I was his prisoner, actually, but he is a man without self-deception. He was aware of what was taking place and took steps not to let his falling in love with me influence his behavior in the breaking cell. He was entirely professional in his searching.”

Elsdon was far too fond, for Vito’s peace of mind, of reminiscing about the days when he was beaten and broken by the High Seeker. Vito sometimes woke from nightmares in which the High Seeker decided it would be more entertaining to have Elsdon hanged than to lure his young prisoner into serving as his bed-victim. Trying to prod the conversation back to safer territory, Vito said, “But this charge . . .”

Elsdon shook his head. “I’d never heard of anyone else being charged with raping a prostitute. All I could think was that the patrol soldiers were tired of arresting Garrett on petty charges and came up with any excuse they could to charge him with a capital crime.”

Just as Vito had thought. He wondered what “petty crimes” Edwin Gurth had committed, or whether, indeed, Edwin Gurth had any criminal past at all. His conjoined half, Or, had implied that Gurth was a troublemaker, but that could encompass anything from petty thefts to pranks on passing patrol soldiers.

He needed to know more about Edwin Gurth’s background. That meant he needed to ask the person who would most likely give him a truthful answer: Or.

He felt a hand touch his leg. “Hoi, mate. You’re drifting off.”

Elsdon’s attempt to imitate commoner speech caused Vito to smile. Elsdon’s hand lay warm on Vito’s thigh. Getting Elsdon into the bath had turned out to be such a tricky, wet business that Vito had finally stripped down to his skin as well and was sitting naked on the edge of the bath. He felt as though he’d returned to his dormitory days, when he and his fellow students at the academy would spend hours in the washroom, secure in the knowledge that their superiors were barred from entering the room.

“Mr. de Vere.”

Vito fell off the edge of the bathtub. Sprawled naked on the floor, he stared up with outrage at the High Seeker. How dare he – how dare he – enter a washroom where he knew his subordinates to be?

“Layle!” By contrast, Elsdon’s voice was filled with joy. “You said you’d be busy all night. Are you finished with the Queen, then?”

“The Queen is finished with me, yes.” The High Seeker did not turn his gaze from Vito. “I have not received any reports from you for the last two days, Mr. de Vere.”

Vito managed to pick up himself, if not his dignity. “I’ve been busy during the evenings doing research on my prisoner, sir.” Figuring out whether his prisoner was mad and whether he was being framed for a crime was certainly research.

“I will look forward to receiving your findings. Tomorrow, on my desk before the night shift.” The High Seeker abruptly turned his attention to Elsdon. “I met the healer in the palace corridor. He has been sent daily reports by your nurse. Mr. Bergsen informed me that you are to be released from the infirmary, to finish the remainder of your recovery in your own bed. Would you like an escort home?”

Elsdon smiled up at him, his eyes brimming with pleasure. “I can think of no better guide, love.”

Vito left the washroom then, before he should be sick.

CHAPTER SEVEN

“I feel as though I don’t belong here,” said Or.

Vito felt much the same. He looked around at the walls of the room, filled with antique instruments that had once torn apart the tormented bodies of prisoners. Some of them still had dried blood on them. They glittered in the light of the oil lamp near the door: wicked and greedy for more suffering.

His prisoner, however, had fixed his gaze upon the largest object in the room: the rack. While most of the ancient instruments of torture on the wall had a certain evil beauty to them, the rack held no pretenses to loveliness. It sat there, a solid lump of metal, awaiting its victim.

Running his finger lightly over the wheel, Or said in an awed voice, “This was created for mighty prisoners – men who have done mighty deeds. Men who will be spoken of in hushed whispers for centuries to come. I’m just an imposter.”

Well. Vito supposed that was one way of putting it. He took from his right pocket the little metal drug-box and from his left pocket the flask he had often carried as a patrol soldier. “Come here,” he instructed. “I have something for you.”

His prisoner came obediently. In the dim lamplight of the rack room – for reasons of drama, all of the rack rooms retained old-fashioned lighting – Or’s face appeared to be a sickly yellow. His eyes were bright, however, as he took from Vito’s hand the pills.

Vito’s gaze wandered away again toward the instruments of torture. This was a ghastly place for a searching – indeed, it was a forbidden place. During work hours, he should not have entered this room with his prisoner except with written permission from the High Seeker.

Technically, though, he was off duty. His night guards, a bit too naive, had not questioned him when he took the prisoner from the breaking cell, saying that he wanted to “frighten” the prisoner with a look at the rack room. Vito would have to have a talk with his night guards later, particularly the junior night guard, who was supposed to protect the prisoner against such unauthorized behavior. For all his night guards knew, Vito might be ravishing his prisoner in the privacy of the rack room.

Mr. Boyd and Mr. Crofford would have been more canny. Fortunately, they were off duty.

“They’re just sleeping pills,” Vito said to Or, who was staring at the pills as though he had never seen such objects. “They’ll help you to sleep at night.” And perhaps allow Vito to talk with Gurth? Vito had a theory that it was sleepiness which caused Or’s “either” to appear. But it had been Or who spoke to Vito of his difficulty in sleeping, and it had been Or who begged for an “aid” to help him rest.

The prisoner nodded as Vito slipped the empty drug-box into his pocket. The pills were his own, kept on the off-chance that he should need them; he had dared not approach the dungeon nurse for the drug. Seemingly in no great hurry to swallow the pills, Or asked, “What is that?”

Vito turned to look, wincing as he saw the bulky outline of the Swelling Globe. “Nothing for you to worry about. I don’t use instruments of torture.” He looked back to smile reassuringly at Or, who was swallowing down the water, his left palm now empty of the pills.

“Not that,” said Or, wiping his mouth in a dainty fashion with his fingertips. “That tall thing in the corner.”

“Oh, that.” It took all his determination at this juncture not to think of grandpapa clocks. “That’s a water-clock. It’s used to keep time. As the water gradually drips into the bottom half of the cylinder, the cylinder notches show how much time has passed. Then the water-clock is turned upside down with that lever, any water that has evaporated is replaced, and the clock starts draining again.” He felt like a schoolmaster, but Or’s eyes were wide as a schoolboy’s, taking in this information. Vito didn’t suppose that the young man had ever seen a water-clock before. Not many people in the Queendom of Yclau had, outside of museums.

It was Layle Smith’s idea to continue to use water-clocks in the rack-room, of course. He justified his decision by speaking of the effects of the steady sound of dripping upon the prisoners who were contemplating the slow drag of time as they were racked. The truth was, however, that water-clocks had not been used anywhere else in Yclau for centuries. And “centuries ago” was precisely where Layle Smith’s mind was stuck.

Still goggle-eyed at this wonder, Or walked over to inspect the clock. Vito cast a wary look at the door to the rack room. It was unlocked; whatever other rule-bending he might be capable of, Vito wasn’t going to lock Or in a rack room. Unfortunately, this meant that any passing Seeker, guard, or even servant might enter the room and stumble upon Vito’s illicit meeting with his prisoner. A feeling of urgency pressed upon Vito.

“Or, you said you wanted to speak privately with me,” he reminded the prisoner, who was now fiddling with the clock. That was the reason they were here, after all: Or had requested to speak privately with Vito. Even if they spoke in the softest of whispers in the breaking cell, Vito could offer no guarantee that his guards wouldn’t overhear the conversation. Nor was Vito particularly eager to have the guards record Or’s words. If Or was about to confess that he had knowledge of a crime that Gurth had committed, Vito wanted time to decide what he should do with that confession.

Hearing Vito speak, Or turned around immediately and made his way back to his Seeker. He reached out with his hand; the water-flask was in it. Vito took it from Or and nearly dropped it in surprise. The flask was full to the brim.

“I thought you might want to share water,” Or said shyly.

Vito stared down at the water uneasily. “You filled this from the water-clock?”

His prisoner nodded. “There’s a spigot to drain water. I had a little of the water myself. You . . . you don’t mind sharing water with me, do you?”

Vito, who had been contemplating with growing dismay the much-recycled water in his flask, now turned his attention back to his prisoner. The young man was toeing the ground, clearly certain that his gift was about to be rejected. Vito remembered what Or had said before about “mighty men.”

“Certainly,” Vito told him with a smile, and stoically swallowed the water in a single gulp.

He nearly gagged in the next moment. The water was bitter with minerals or dust or whatever grime lay at the bottom of the water-clock. His stomach threatened to throw up the contents. With self-discipline such as he had not been required to exert since his academy days, Vito forced himself to keep the contents down.

After a quick smile with lowered eyelids, Or wandered off to inspect the rack. Vito’s gaze followed him. The rest of his body remained frozen. He had realized, in the moment after swallowing, that he had forgotten the most elementary rule that every prison-worker was taught early on: Never, ever accept a gift of drink or food from a prisoner.

His mind was scurrying forth. If he had been poisoned, he would know that soon; the criminal elements of Yclau preferred poisons that acted swiftly, leaving their victims with no time in which to seek medical help. The nurse was just a few yards away, in the surgery – but how could Vito explain, in a very few words, what had happened? The Eternal Dungeon’s prisoners were inspected for poisons and weapons upon their initial arrival; afterwards, their water and meals and other supplies were delivered under careful supervision. Only if a prisoner’s Seeker and guards were extremely lax would the prisoner be granted the opportunity to poison anyone.

Extremely lax, and extremely foolish.

“Are you all right, sir?” It was Or. He was still standing next to the rack, but he was staring at Vito with concern on his face. “You look sick. Should I ask the guards to fetch a healer for you?”

It was Or’s expression, as much as his words, which cleared Vito of his momentary, needless panic. He smiled at his prisoner. “No, I was just thinking. . . . Or, you’ve spoken several times of being Mr. Gurth’s imposter. Has it occurred to you that the opposite might be true?”

Or simply stared at him, his hand covering one of the wrist-straps on the rack.

Vito tried again. “Mr. Gurth is more experienced than you. Older than you, in certain ways. If you’re the younger version of the either/or, then perhaps you were there first. Perhaps Mr. Gurth is the intruder.”

Even before he finished, Or was shaking his head vigorously. “No. No, that can’t be. Nobody knows me. Everyone knows Gurth.”

“Perhaps he has taken over your body for a long time—”

But Or had turned away abruptly, as though that part of the conversation had clearly ended. He leaned closer to the rack. With his back to Vito, he said, “The sleeping aid isn’t working. I’m still wide awake.”

“You’ll be sleepy soon. The pills act fairly quickly, and it’s several hours past your bedtime.” Vito cast a worried look at the water-clock, which showed that the time had now reached a few hours before dawn. It was well past his own bedtime – he suppressed a yawn – and the longer he kept Or here, the more likely it was that someone would notice. It was not impossible that his day guards would rise early and decide to check on his lesser-trained night guards. “You said that you wanted to speak to me—”

“I wish I were back at Gurth’s home.” Again, Or’s change of topic was abrupt.

Vito hesitated before deciding to follow the course of Or’s thought instead of his own. He had been keeping in mind, all this day, Elsdon’s advice that Vito focus his mind on his prisoner, rather than on his own thoughts. Now he kept his gaze fixed on Or’s back. The youth’s slender figure could be seen through the thin shirt; he was shivering. Vito resisted an impulse to take off his own shirt and place it over his prisoner’s shoulders. “Where is your home, Or?”

There was a small pause, long enough for Vito to regret the question; he had forgotten that this was information which, as Or’s Seeker, he would be expected to know. Then Or replied, “Gurth’s home? I don’t know. I’ve never been outside. When I look outside the window, I can see trains going by.”

The Alleyway district, then. That matched Gurth’s accent and grammar. Or’s accent and grammar remained a mystery. Vito watched Or reach out and run his hand lightly over the wheel at the head of the rack.

“Where are you from, sir?” asked Or.

There was an entire page in the Code of Seeking offering advice to Seekers on how to deflect personal questions. Vito had accumulated quite a few techniques of his own during his time as a guard. It was never wise to mix one’s professional life with one’s personal life, as Elsdon should have realized.

Vito heard himself say, “Cape Henry. My family’s house is at the tip of land where the bay meets the ocean. It’s a beautiful waterside setting.”

“Have you lived there all your life?” Or’s hand was touching each of the spokes on the wheel, one after the other, like a boy running his hand along a set of railings.

“Not entirely. The earliest part of my childhood was spent here in the capital, and I also worked here for two years as a patrol soldier.” And spent much of that time trying to learn more about the Eternal Dungeon. He had moved home six years ago, only because he knew that he would eventually be interviewed by the Eternal Dungeon, and he did not want it to be apparent to the High Seeker how strong his interest was in the dungeon. He had been anticipating, since the time he was ten, the day when he would submit his application to work in the dungeon.

Twenty years, taking him to these final moments before he could begin his plan to destroy the Eternal Dungeon, breaking it and remaking it into something new and better—

Blast it, he was letting his mind wander again. He tried to focus his attention once more on Or’s back, but found himself yawning instead. He had scarcely slept during the past few days, as he sought to decipher the mystery of his prisoner before the High Seeker yanked him away from Or. He really must finish this interview now, if he was to get any sleep before his next shift.

“Or,” he said, letting his voice grow a little stern, “I’m rather sleepy, and so will you be in a short while. I’d like to know why you wished to speak in private to me.”

Or looked over his shoulder. His eyes were wide. “I’m sorry . . . I didn’t mean to . . .”

“It’s all right.” Again, he had to resist the impulse to cover Or in warmth, with his shirt or his arms or something else. The youth looked so fragile here, amidst the deadly instruments. “Just tell me what’s on your mind, and we can both rest.” He smiled, then remembered that Or could not see his smile.

Or licked his lips. No matter what Gurth’s grammar might suggest about the prisoner’s past, Or had the very pale complexion of a gently raised boy who had not been forced to labor on the streets. Perhaps Gurth was a worker in the city’s manufactory? The Alleyway district, the oldest district in the capital, was where the manufactories were to be found. Parkside district, by contrast, was filled with parks and schools and museums and other institutions of refinement. Or looked as though he belonged in Parkside, rather than in Alleyway: his eyes were wide like an owl’s, his hands smooth and long-fingered, his body slim and long-limbed. His lips—

Wait. Was Vito letting his mind wander again? But no, he was focussing it on where it belonged: his prisoner. He watched Or turn back to the rack and trail a finger down the bed of it.

“I wasn’t sure . . .” Or’s voice had turned shy.

“Sure?”

“When I told you I liked what the man did to me, I wasn’t sure whether it was wrong for me to like it. Was it?”

Startled, Vito said, “I can’t judge—”

“It matters to me.” Or raised his enormous eyes, staring at Vito through his dark lashes. “If you think I did something wrong, I want to know.”

“Or,” Vito replied helplessly, “I really can’t say. I wasn’t there at the time—”

His prisoner stood waiting, erect and still. Only his finger continued to trickle its way along the rack.

It was the image of that stroking finger which clicked open the revelation in Vito’s mind. He had seen this before. Many months ago, when he was first introduced to the rack rooms. Layle Smith had run his finger delicately, lovingly down the bed of the rack.

Just as Or was doing.

“It’s wrong, isn’t it?” Suddenly, tears sprang forth from Or’s eyes. “I thought it must be. Your body went all rigid when I told you that. It’s wrong, the way it’s wrong for me to take over Gurth’s body—”

“For Layle, it’s a genuine need,” Elsdon’s voice whispered in Vito’s mind. “He was ashamed of himself for years. . . . I can’t imagine how much courage it took him to tell me. . . .”

Instinct took over then. Stepping forward, Vito placed his hands upon Or’s shoulders and said quietly, “Or, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. You aren’t the only person in the world who feels such desires. I know a man . . .” He hesitated. He did not particularly want to put forward Layle Smith as a role model. In any case, Or’s problem was somewhat different. So instead Vito said, “A friend of mine submits to his love-mate in bed. They play-act together that he’s a bound captive. They both enjoy it, and they both do it out of love.” It took some effort to make the last statement, but he supposed that, if he was perfectly fair, he had to concede that much to the High Seeker. After all, if the man had merely wanted to destroy Elsdon, he could have done so when Elsdon was his prisoner. Smiling as he inwardly cursed Layle Smith for requiring him to keep his face-cloth down, Vito said, “It’s quite natural. Your desires are nothing to be ashamed of.”

With his lashes lowered, Or licked his lips again. His voice was hesitant as he said, “Then you don’t mind . . . It’s all right . . .”

“It’s fine, Or.”

Or’s eyes flashed up; eagerness was in his expression. “Then it’s all right if I try out the rack?”

o—o—o

There had not been many moments in Vito’s career as a prison-worker when he was too taken aback to speak. Unfortunately, this was one of those rare moments.

“Unfortunately” because his lack of speech caused Or to crumple. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” exclaimed Or, his body sagging, his face aghast at his mistake. “I didn’t mean— Please forgive me!”

He was clinging to Vito’s shirt, clutching it like a child. Vito tried to figure out a way to extract himself. He could hardly invoke the Code’s rule against Seekers touching prisoners when he himself had been the first to touch Or. “Or, no. I didn’t mean—”

Suddenly, with a child’s changeability, Or’s face brightened again. “It’s all right, then? I can try the rack?”

Sweet blood. Vito attempted to run his mind through various possibilities to escape this misunderstanding that he and Or had fallen into, but sleepiness was fuzzing his mind. He ran his hand against his neck, trying to massage away the tension that was growing there.

The first step – the most important step – was to get Or’s hands off him, in the gentlest manner possible. There were very few acts that would see him instantly expelled from the dungeon if he were discovered doing them, but touching a prisoner was one of them.

As for the rack . . . Vito’s gorge rose at the thought of using the rack – a real instrument of torture – as a toy. But if part of Or’s shyness arose from his feelings of shame at enjoying being bound, then could this be the breakthrough that Vito had been hoping for? Perhaps, if he demonstrated to Or in a concrete manner that Vito did not despise him for his desires, Or would be willing to share more information. Perhaps information that would save Or from the hangman.

Using the rack as an instrument of freedom rather than torture. Yes, that was the proper way to look at it. In any case – he thought wryly as he made yet another attempt to detach himself from Or – this might be the only way in which he could prevent himself from becoming permanently attached to the youth.

“All right,” he conceded, and then placed his hand over Or’s mouth to prevent the young man from letting out a whoop. “Now, listen. The rack is not a toy. It’s a real instrument of torture. So I’ll let you lie on it for a few seconds, but you need to follow my orders, because I don’t want you to be harmed.”

“And be bound to it?” asked Or breathlessly. “Can we do that?”

“Just for a few seconds.” He managed, finally, to break Or’s grasp on him. “Stay here. I’m going to make ready the room.”

The wrist-cushions. That was the only real work he had to do to make the rack as comfortable as possible for Or. The wrist-cushions were an optional part of the racking, used only for prisoners whose racking was more symbolic than painful. Vito could guess that every single prisoner that Elsdon had ever racked had been cushioned. Indeed, Elsdon had once let slip that it was he, not the High Seeker, who had invented the wrist-cushions.

The wrist-cushions were all that was needed to ready the room—

Oh, blast. The door.

Positioned at the head of the rack, Vito whirled round and stood uncertainly, wrist-cushions in hand, like a fashionable young woman holding her muff. The door stood in front of him, closed but unlocked. Rack rooms were always locked when the racks were in use; that was required by the Code. The official reason was that rackings should not be witnessed by unauthorized persons. The more likely reason, Vito had always thought, was that Layle Smith didn’t want his own prisoners’ rackings – rumored to be ferocious – to be witnessed by anyone who might report his abuses to the world.

If Vito placed Or on the rack without locking the room, would he be breaking the Code? Alternatively, would it be worse to lock the room? Vito was quite aware that, under ordinary circumstances, prisoners could not be racked without permission from the High Seeker.

But these were not ordinary circumstances. Never before in the history of the Eternal Dungeon had any prisoner’s body contained two people, Vito could guess. And he would not be racking Or, not in any real sense.

Vito decided to lock the door. Not because of the Code, but because he could imagine the expressions of his night guards, should they decide to investigate their prisoner’s long absence. Other than the High Seeker’s senior night guard – who was presumably still off duty, since Layle Smith had only recently returned from the palace – no guards carried keys to the rack rooms. Only a few men did: the High Seeker, the Codifier, the Record-keeper, the healer, and the Seekers. None of these men were likely to unlock the door of Rack Room D, for this rack room was not scheduled for use until the next day shift. Vito had taken care to determine that, surreptitiously glancing at the Record-keeper’s schedule when the man was busy with a new prisoner.

The door locked with a satisfying clunk. Vito returned his keys to his pocket, then turned swiftly to see whether Or had been watching him. Prisoners were not supposed to know that Seekers held the keys to their freedom.

The young man had not noticed. He was already lying on the rack. Naked.

Vito found that his steps had carried him to the rack. He looked down at Or, who was lying upon the clothes he had shed. With his clothes off, Or no longer looked in any way like a child. Like Elsdon’s body, Or’s slender frame held strength: muscles in his arms and thighs, presently stretched by the position of his arms and legs, which were held in readiness for the straps. His torso was furred with light hair that extended to his groin, where his shaft lay thick and sleeping. His nipples were tight from the cool air.

“Now?” The eagerness had not left Or’s voice.

Vito just managed to swallow. “Yes, now. Only for a few seconds, mind.”

Or nodded. All the fear had fled his face, as though he had finally found the sanctuary he was seeking. As though the straps that Vito was binding to his wrists were a cradle holding him safe.

As Vito finished placing the cushioned straps around Or’s ankles – trim and neat ankles, the ankles of a dancer – Or tugged at one of the wrist-straps. “It’s not very tight,” he reported, with a certain amount of criticism creeping in. “Couldn’t you turn the wheel—?”

“No!” Then, seeing Or’s face grow uncertain again, Vito said more gently, “No, that’s enough. You’ve experienced what it’s like to be on a rack; now I’m going to let you go.” He reached toward the strap he had just placed around Or’s ankle.

“But aren’t you going to touch me?”

Vito froze.

He raised his head slowly. Or had his eyes closed; there was a smile on his face. The youth said softly, “He always touched me when I was bound. I liked it. That was the best part.” As he spoke, his shaft, growing long by the second, poked its head up, as though awakened by a signal.

Vito could not seem to turn his gaze from that shaft. Vito’s whole body was drenched with sweat; he was not sure when that had happened. Or’s eyes were still closed. Vito pulled back the face-cloth of his hood, intending to wipe the sweat off his face with his shirt-sleeve.

Instead he leaned forward and lightly kissed the tip of Or’s shaft.

Or gave a great sigh. The smile on his face made clear that it was a sigh of satisfaction. He wriggled his body, as though asking for more.

He is a man without self-deception. Elsdon’s words echoed in Vito’s mind as he straightened his back. Without self-deception. Very well; in that respect, Layle Smith was clearly a better man than Vito de Vere.

It was all too clear to Vito, now that the irrevocable step had been taken, what had happened. Indeed, he should have guessed before. Elsdon had advised Vito to pay attention to his prisoner, and what had Vito done? Paid attention to his prisoner’s body.

Not that he believed that it was his prisoner’s body alone which he desired. Vito had desired men and women many times in his life, but this was different. There was a complexity to his prisoner that lured him. One body, two personalities, each distinct, each battling the other, and yet forced also to co-operate with each other.

“May the fates help me,” murmured Vito. “I’ve fallen in love with both of you.”

He finally managed to turn his gaze toward Or’s face. Or wore a serene expression, like that of a love-mate who has been satisfied in bed. His lips continued to curl up at their edges.

Something about that smile made Vito more uneasy than he had been all day. Shaking his head to try to sharpen his increasingly fuzzy thoughts, he fumbled at the straps, releasing Or’s ankles as quickly as he could. As he went to the head of the rack to release Or’s wrists, he said, “We need to get you back to your cell. We’ll talk later about what happened here, but right now the important thing is to make sure that nobody comes looking for you.”

As he spoke, he pulled the last strap off Or. Or’s eyes flew open. “You’re letting me go?”

Vito stepped over to the side of the rack, where he could better see Or’s expression. “Or, I must. You need to be released—”

“No!”

This time, Or’s clutching caught him entirely off-balance. Vito stumbled, his torso falling onto the rack. He tried to pull himself free, but Or, surprisingly strong, succeeded in pulling him entirely onto the rack. “No, you mustn’t let us go – you mustn’t! Oh please please please—”

His clutch was nearly strangling Vito. But no, it wasn’t Or’s hands drowning him but a black pool of darkness in Vito’s head. “Or,” he said breathlessly. “Let me go, sweet one.” Bloody blades. Now he was speaking endearments to his prisoner. He tried again. “There’s no reason to be upset—”

But Or was clearly lost to his fear, sobbing and squeezing Vito, who could not seem to lift himself off the rack. By all that was sacred, he was trained to be able to break the hold of a murderous prisoner; surely he could break the hold of a young, hysterical prisoner.

Vito’s shirt was wet with sweat and, no doubt, Or’s tears. Since Or was now practically on top of him, Vito lightly wrapped his arms around his prisoner. Taking Or into the corridor in this state would result in every guard within eyesight reporting Vito’s actions to the Codifier, whose primary job was to protect the prisoners against violations of the Code. Better to wait until Or had cried himself to weariness. Then Vito would calm him down, take him back to the breaking cell, and immediately seek out the advice of Elsdon Taylor. For Vito had broken the Code—

On this thought, he fell asleep.

CHAPTER EIGHT

He awoke to darkness.

Through the haze of his grogginess, he was aware that he still lay on the rack. His body ached from hours spent on the hard metal. His head ached worst of all. He had the feeling he had not experienced since his days of training at the academy: as though his head had split open, a stale fruit on the morning after a long session at the local saloon.

The oil lamp had flickered out at some point during his sleep, eating the last of its fuel. He reached out toward Or, but his hand touched only cloth.

Then came again the sound that had woken him: a sharp knock on the door.

“Mr. de Vere.” The voice of the High Seeker’s senior night guard was strong and authoritative. “Open the door, please.”

Through the continued mist in his mind, Vito felt apprehension. He dared not ignore the summons; as the senior-most guard in the dungeon, Mr. Sobel possessed the master key that opened all doors. And if he should find a Seeker entwined with a naked prisoner . . .

Vito groped further. Again, all that he encountered was the cloth of Or’s clothing. In all likelihood, the hammering on the door had caused Or to take refuge under the rack. Vito pulled himself off the rack. There was no time to search. Leaning over, he whispered under the rack, “Or, if you’re there, stay still. Stay here till I say it’s safe.”

He stumbled his way to the door. The lamp would be impossible to fill in the dark, but he managed to locate the emergency candles and safety matches. He lit a candle, placed it upright within a candle-holder on the shelf next to the door, and took one swift look to assure himself that Or wasn’t huddled in a corner or under the benches at the far end of the room. The shadowed area under the rack was shielded from view by the great wheel that controlled it.

The knock came a third time. With a shaking hand, Vito smoothed down his shirt, remembered at the last moment to pull down his face-cloth, and opened the door.

Both of the High Seeker’s guards stood at the door. “Mr. de Vere,” said Mr. Sobel, “the High Seeker wishes to speak with you in his office.”

The senior night guard was making no effort to look past Vito, but Vito quickly stepped into the corridor and shut the door. “Certainly,” he said. “I was just about finished checking that the rack is in working order. I’ll lock up here—”

He started to pull his keys from his pocket but was checked by Mr. Sobel, who took firm hold of his arm. “The High Seeker wishes to speak to you now, Mr. de Vere.” His tone was inflexible.

Vito took an uneasy look at the door. To leave a prisoner in an unlocked room went against all his instincts. But after all, Or probably had sense enough to follow Vito’s instruction to stay where he was. Vito would just have to hope that whatever lecture the High Seeker had planned for him was a short one.

The guards escorted him down the corridor silently. Vito spent much of the time rubbing his eyes, willing himself to wake up. For a man who had drunk nothing but water the previous day, he felt uncommonly as though he were suffering from a long drinking session. He just couldn’t seem to rouse his mind.

It was because of this that he did not become aware until he reached the entry hall that others were watching him.

What alerted him in the entry hall was the sound. Or rather, the lack of sound. The entry hall was normally filled with cheerfully chattering guards exchanging gossip with each other as they completed documentwork at the tables. Now there was complete silence. He turned his head toward the entrance to the dungeon, expecting to see the guards watching a newly arrived prisoner, escorted by his captors.

The guards were all watching him. It was at that moment that Vito became fully aware that he was flanked by the High Seeker’s guards.

He had little time in which to think through the implications of this with his fog-filled mind. They reached the High Seeker’s office, and the junior night guard opened the door for him. Mr. Sobel was at Vito’s back. Vito stepped through the doorway and then stopped dead, taken aback by the sight before him.

The High Seeker’s office – normally empty except for scattered items of furniture and Layle Smith himself – was filled to the brim with men. Vito’s night guards were there, talking to each other in a huddled cluster in the corner of the room. They looked up as Vito entered. His day guards were there as well; Mr. Crofford was pacing back and forth, while Mr. Boyd looked grim. Two other guards stood near the High Seeker’s desk; Vito didn’t recognize them, but since they had revolvers at their belts, there was no question to whom they belonged.

The High Seeker was not at his desk. He was standing against the wall, his face turned toward the new inhabitant of the chair behind the desk: the Codifier.

And beyond them all, at the far end of the room, was Or.

He was on a chair, but he was not sitting on it; he was crouched upon it, in his usual defensive posture of arms around knees, head bowed to hide the face. Someone had placed a blanket over his shoulders, but it was clear from his legs that he was naked under the blanket. He was shivering.

“Or . . .” Without thinking, Vito took three steps forward.

That was as far as he got before Mr. Boyd’s dagger touched his throat.

Vito stopped, the breath shocked out of him by the prick of the point. Behind the blade, Mr. Boyd’s face was dark with fury. The anger cut through the fog of Vito’s mind like a mower through ripe grass.

Still sitting at his desk, the Codifier murmured in a matter-of-fact manner, “I don’t believe that bloodshed is necessary at this juncture.”

Mr. Boyd did not move; nor did he turn his eyes away from Vito. But he said with a furious growl, “He was attacking my prisoner.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Vito saw the Codifier turn his gaze toward the High Seeker. The High Seeker, who had been watching the Codifier rather than the confrontation, immediately switched his attention to the violent encounter. “Mr. Boyd,” he said, “you are in the presence of the Codifier. You will sheathe your blade.

The High Seeker, Vito had heard, rarely raised his voice. Nor did he now. He simply let the words drop, like tiny, deadly blades of ice.

After a moment, Mr. Boyd stepped back, his eyes still fixed on Vito. He walked backwards, not moving his gaze. When he finally reached Or’s side, he sheathed his blade. He crossed his arms and waited, like a bodyguard daring an assassin to come near.

The High Seeker switched his attention back to the Codifier. “I apologize, sir. The proceedings are yours.”

The Codifier nodded. His guards, Vito could not help notice, had shifted across the room, taking the place of the High Seeker’s guards at Vito’s flanks. The High Seeker’s guards went over to stand by their master.

Everyone else was looking at the Codifier now. Vito waited, his heart hammering.

“Mr. de Vere,” the Codifier said briskly, “your day guards, upon reporting for duty this morning, were informed by your night guards that you had removed the prisoner from his cell during their watch and had not yet returned him. After sending Mr. Crofford to check with Mr. Smith as to whether you had been authorized to remove the prisoner from his cell, Mr. Boyd advanced toward the rack rooms, since the day guards had reported that as your destination. He had not yet reached the rooms, however, when he came upon your prisoner, who was standing unclothed in the corridor. Your prisoner ran up to Mr. Boyd and begged asylum. Mr. Boyd brought him to the High Seeker, who in turn sent a message to me, requesting that I deal with this matter in his office, since the prisoner was in no fit state to be removed from the privacy of his office.”

The Codifier leaned forward. His hands were crossed over each other, in a businesslike fashion. The watch in his vest pocket ticked steadily.

“Mr. de Vere,” the Codifier continued, “your prisoner has made a most serious charge against you. He claims that last night you took him to a rack room, stripped him of his clothes, bound him to the rack, and proceeded to molest his genitals with your mouth. Do you have anything to say in response to this charge?”

Vito looked over at his prisoner. The prisoner’s face was still hidden from view. Everyone was waiting.

Water, Vito thought. He gave me water. Water that was bitter like sleeping pills.

He said, in as steady a voice as he could manage, “It is true that I took my prisoner to the rack room, bound him naked to the rack, and touched him in a sexual fashion.”

The guards in the room were too well-trained to gasp, but they exchanged looks – all but Mr. Boyd, who had murder in his eyes now. The prisoner continued to shiver.

“Very well.” For the first time, an unusual note of strain could be heard in the Codifier’s voice. “Mr. Gurth, you made an offer earlier. You stated that you would not place a formal charge against your Seeker, in exchange for which you required a certain concession on the part of the Eternal Dungeon.”

Finally the prisoner raised his head. His eyelashes were wet with tears. He said breathlessly, “Yes, sir. I . . . I don’t want to cause trouble for anyone. I just want to make sure that he doesn’t hurt anyone again.” He gave a shy, uncertain smile at Vito, as though in apology.

The Codifier stood up. “Well, gentlemen, I have little choice in this matter. One of my duties as Codifier is to protect the Eternal Dungeon from open scandal. Since a Seeker being convicted of rape in a magistrate’s court would most certainly cause scandal, I must accept the only alternative available to me. Mr. Gurth.” The Codifier’s voice was brisk again, and not in the least bit gentle. “My guards will take you to a place where you may be clothed, and I will have our healer check you for any injuries. After that, my guards will escort you to the palace gates, where you will be released.”

Vito drew in his breath sharply and began to speak. The High Seeker shot him a look, and Vito closed his mouth. The prisoner said, “Oh, thank you, sir, thank you!”

The Codifier did not look his way. “Mr. Smith, I leave the prisoner in your hands, to deal with as you wish. Mr. Gurth, come with us, please.”

Upon a soft spoken order by Layle Smith, all of the guards who were under the direct control of the High Seeker left the room: Vito’s night guards, Mr. Crofford, and Mr. Boyd, his eyes still promising murder. Then came the Codifier, who did not so much as glance in Vito’s direction. He was followed by his own guards, and, a step behind him, Vito’s prisoner.

The High Seeker was in the midst of making his way around the desk; his back was to the proceedings. The rest of the men had their backs to Vito’s prisoner. So it was Vito, and Vito alone, who saw the moment when his prisoner’s shy, uncertain smile transmogrified into a hard, sardonic smirk.

Then the others were gone, and the High Seeker was left alone with his prisoner.

o—o—o

For a minute, Vito was aware of nothing but the receding footsteps of the youth who was about to regain his freedom. Then Vito took half a dozen swift steps till he reached the desk of the High Seeker. Now seated, the High Seeker looked up at him silently.

“Sir,” said Vito, all in a rush, “do whatever you want to me, hang me if you will, but for the Queen’s love, don’t release my prisoner! He’s a dangerous man—”

“I am well aware that your former prisoner is dangerous,” said the High Seeker. “The question is: Why weren’t you?”

Vito’s response dried up in his throat. The High Seeker waited a moment, and then he reached over and pulled in front of him a blue-bound volume. Written on the front of it were the words “Edwin Gurth.”

“Are you ready,” the High Seeker asked softly, “to hear what this contains?”

Vito’s mouth remained dry. After another moment, the High Seeker opened the volume and lowered his eyes. “‘Prisoner’s name: Edwin Gurth. Prisoner’s birth name: Orville Gurth.’” The High Seeker’s gaze flicked briefly up at Vito, then returned to the page. “The remainder of the volume is too long to read to you in full this morning; just the documents of the trial of 354 take up thirty pages. I will do my best to summarize what lies herein . . .”

o—o—o

Edwin Orville Gurth was born in a House of prostitution. His mother was a prostitute, his father a client. His mother having died from a sexual disease when he was two, Or (as he was nicknamed by his mother) was raised by his half-brother, who was eight years older and was already being trained by the proprietor to take his mother’s place.

This fact alone showed what type of business the House was. A century had passed since the Queendom of Yclau had abolished male youth prostitution in favor of the prostitution of adult women, heavily regulated and supervised by the Queen’s government. Proper Houses of prostitution were run by former prostitutes – madams who were assumed to understand and sympathize with their workers’ conditions. Government inspectors checked the welfare of the prostitutes periodically and ensured that no underage girls were hired. No underage boy was permitted to cross the threshold of a House.

But there remained many Houses that flouted the rules, disguising themselves as orphanages or other organizations of charity. They were run by men who did not scruple to gain their earnings by the darkest of trades: pickpocketing, extortion, robbery, gambling dens, sweetweed dealing, and murder.

It was in such a place that Or grew up. His half-brother successfully protected Or from being used for nefarious purposes by the proprietor. Whether the half-brother intended to save Or for his own nefarious purposes remained unclear to outsiders; the brothers slept together, but a doctor who examined Or when he was nine years old stated there were no signs of molestation upon Or. Young Or himself had no doubts in the matter; he told the doctor that his brother was a hero who had watched over him.

The hero, alas, followed in the path of his mother, dying of the dreaded Damnation disease when he was seventeen. In the last months before his death, he courageously spent his final energy in tracking down Or’s father, whose name had been handed down by Or’s mother. The brother took Or to his father’s house and begged the man to let Or stay as a servant.

Or’s father, a schoolmaster, took the boy into his home. Even more surprisingly – for it meant the ruination of his social reputation and the loss of his current job – he publicly acknowledged Or as his son. Renaming the boy Edwin, after his late wife Edwina, the elder Mr. Gurth tutored his son and set out to turn him into a proper mid-class boy.

He succeeded in changing the language and learning of Ed, as he dubbed his son. A good pupil, Ed was bilingual thereafter, capable of speaking either with a refined tongue or in street gutter tongue. But in all other respects the experiment was seemingly a failure. Apparently resentful of being required to deny his roots, Ed fought bitterly with his father. Neighbors initially placed their sympathy with Mr. Gurth, for bringing such a “wild beast” into his peaceful home.

All that changed on Ed’s eleventh birthday, when he arrived at the local station for patrol soldiers, his good clothes torn, his face bloody and bruised. His father, Ed stated, had beaten and molested him.

An examination by doctors offered proof that Ed’s anus had been penetrated. Mr. Gurth was arrested on charges of incest, sexual assault, and mistreatment of his heir. The last charge alone was enough to qualify him for the hangman.

At his trial, Mr. Gurth insisted that Ed was “a bad boy” who had faked the evidence of his own assault. Given Ed’s age, the magistrate was not swayed by this testimony. Mr. Gurth’s counsel tried to argue that Ed had been sexually assaulted when he was still living in the House of prostitution, but evidence was entered into the court from the doctor who had examined Ed when he came to live with his father. The doctor firmly held that Ed had been a virgin at the time of his arrival at his father’s home.

Mr. Gurth was sent to the hangman, protesting his innocence to the last. Ed was sent to an orphanage.

For the next couple of years, Gurth – as he demanded to be called by others – travelled in and out of orphanages like a train on a regular milk run. His good looks and seemingly shy and pleasant disposition meant that he was often fostered by parents who were considering whether to adopt him. Just as regularly, those parents would be revealed – through Gurth’s testimony and through physical evidence – to have committed some terrible crime. The parents would end up on trial for their crimes, and Gurth would land back in the orphanage. Even the harshest bullies there knew not to tamper with Gurth; the last master at the orphanage who had tried to punish Gurth had ended up accused of murder. That master disappeared into the depths of the Eternal Dungeon and was never seen again.

This agreeable state of affairs – as possibly regarded from Gurth’s point of view – ended when he was thirteen. In that year, he was uncovered in a plot to frame a fellow orphan who had been foolish enough to laugh at Gurth when he tripped during calisthenics. Gurth was sent to a reform school for incorrigible lads. The soldiers who ran it were not in the least bit intimidated by Gurth.

He did the only thing he could: he ran away.

At this point, for several years, Edwin Orville Gurth ceased to exist. The only indication that he had not died was testimony from one of the Queen’s spies, who had been assigned to watch a particularly dubious “orphanage” that was suspected of being a House of prostitution. The spy reported that a new boy had arrived at the House, by the name of Or, and that he was referred to by the other boys as “master’s pet,” since the master of the House had taken a liking to him. There was indication that Or slept with the master on most nights.

The House’s master, who may have guessed he was being watched, showed discretion by dismissing all of his underage employees except for Or, his “nephew.” Unable to shut down the House, the Queen’s soldiers kept a wary watch on it, for the proprietor of the now entirely legal House of prostitution was believed to be involved in some of the grimmest of the crimes in the capital city of Yclau.

These were the years when the crime lords of the capital engaged in cut-throat competition with each other. It was of no surprise to anyone when the master of this particular House was discovered murdered one morning, stabbed to death during the night. His beloved nephew – now known simply as “the pet” – brought the news to the rest of the House, sobbing at the loss of his (it was whispered) bed-mate.

Immediately, all the crime lords in the capital were on the alert. Who had killed the master of this House, the most powerful of the city’s crime lords? Who would inherit the House? Several crime lords made an attempt to do so; several crime lords died in quick succession, and their crime-ridden Houses were taken over by the so far unseen proprietor of the House.

The women of the House were perhaps the only people not surprised when, after a suitable period of suspense, the new proprietor was revealed to be a seventeen-year-old named Ed Gurth.

o—o—o

“Because of his age, the Queen’s soldiers hesitated to arrest Mr. Gurth immediately,” the High Seeker said, his eyes fixed on the prisoner’s arrest records as he turned a page. “As you know, this queendom’s laws were changed a few years ago, upon the urging of the Eternal Dungeon, so that no youth could be charged with a capital crime. Therefore, the soldiers bided their time while the Queen’s spies did their best to gather evidence against Mr. Gurth. This proved difficult; though the Houses that had apparently been taken over by Mr. Gurth were notorious centers of criminal activity, there was no way to prove Mr. Gurth’s ownership of these Houses. His own original House was run with scrupulous lawfulness. Finally, as Mr. Gurth’s birthday of manhood arrived, the despairing soldiers charged him with raping one of his own prostitutes. Even here, the evidence was slender, and so the Queen ordered that Mr. Gurth be delivered to the Eternal Dungeon. Only in the Eternal Dungeon, it is believed, can the blackest deceits be uncovered and truth freed in order to shine pure.”

The High Seeker finally looked up for the first time since his recital began. He waited, like a cat crouching in front of a mouse-hole.

Vito asked quietly, “Why didn’t you tell me any of this, sir?”

“Because,” said the High Seeker, closing the volume, “I made the worst mistake that a man in my position can make: I placed the best interests of a Seeker above the best interests of his prisoner. I knew, from your guards’ witness to your behavior and from my own conversations with you, that you had failed to follow my order to read the prisoner’s arrest records. I also knew that, if I officially acknowledged this fact, that would be the end of your career at the Eternal Dungeon. However much you and I may disagree about how this dungeon should be run, Mr. de Vere, you are a talented prison-worker. The Eternal Dungeon needs such talent.” He pushed the volume aside. “You have allowed a dangerous criminal to escape to commit new crimes, and just as importantly, you have deprived a troubled young man of what may be his only opportunity to repent and transform. You did so because I failed to remove you from this case when I knew that you had disobeyed my order. This is why I advised the Codifier that you not be hung for your crime. What happened is as much my fault as yours.”

Vito swallowed. “Thank you, sir. I promise you, I’ve learned from this episode, and I won’t let anything like this happen again. If there’s anything I can do to prevent Mr. Gurth from escaping—”

“Give me your hood.”

The High Seeker’s voice, which had remained as level and colorless as a pond’s surface on a cloudy day, abruptly turned to ice. His eyes, steady upon Vito’s, glinted like scissors.

Vito slowly complied, pulling off the hood that marked his Seekership. His heart was beating hard again.

The High Seeker took the hood, and with a swift, decisive gesture, he tore off the red strip denoting a Seeker-in-Training. Then he pulled open a drawer of his desk, dropped the hood and the strip into it, and slammed the drawer shut.

“Now pack your bags and get out of my dungeon.” Midwinter freeze frosted every word that Layle Smith spoke. “I never want to see you again.”

Vito drew in his breath sharply. But he had no opportunity to respond. The door opened, and the High Seeker’s guards appeared, flanking him. They took his arms and propelled him out of the room.

Vito’s last glimpse of the High Seeker was of Layle Smith sitting down and touching the arrest records lightly, in the same manner that he lovingly stroked his instruments of torture.

CHAPTER NINE

The House of Enchantment was less luxurious than its name suggested. It was a ramshackle, forty-room building that had once belonged to a noble family, before that family fell on hard times. It was located at the border between the Parkside district and the far less respectable Alleyway district. The only indication that the building lay within the boundaries of the Parkside district were the exceedingly high prices that were discreetly inscribed on a metal plate near the door.

The proprietor of the House was currently sitting in a wicker armchair, leaning back, his eyes closed as he smoked a cigar. He appeared to be ignoring the girl between his legs.

At the doorway, his bodyguard said, “There’s a fella here to see you.”

The proprietor did not open his eyes, though the girl’s bobbing head had grown more vigorous. “Hunter,” he said in a cultured accent, “what were my instructions to you an hour ago?”

The bodyguard hesitated. “You wasn’t to be bothered. But this fella insists—”

“And do you recall what happened to your predecessor when he disobeyed my orders?”

The bodyguard paled and stepped backwards. Seeing this, Vito spoke up from behind him. “You took my livelihood and my heart. The least you can do is give me five minutes of your time.”

In the wicker chair, Edwin Orville Gurth chuckled. “You have no idea,” he said, “how many men have said that to me.” He opened his eyes and looked down at the girl. “That’s enough for now, dear. You did very well. Just remember to swirl your tongue next time.”

The girl nodded rapidly, buttoned Gurth back up, and then reached for her clothes. Gurth turned his attention to a nearby ashtray, stubbing out his cigar. As the girl scurried through the doorway, still half-dressed, Vito resisted the impulse to ask her what age she was. With her employer in the same room, no doubt she would lie.

Besides, he no longer possessed the legal power to enquire into potential crimes.

Rising to his feet in that same lazy manner, Gurth switched his attention to the sideboard, which was filled to the brim with dishes of food and with vials holding substances that might or might not have been legal. “That will do, Hunter,” Gurth said as he pulled out a stopper. “You may wait outside.”

The bodyguard cast Vito a suspicious glance. “This fella looks awful strong, boss. I think I should—”

“Hunter,” said Gurth, and suddenly his voice was as smooth as a silk handkerchief tied around a murder victim’s neck, “do you have trouble hearing, or have you misunderstood what I said?”

There was a long pause, during which Vito could hear, faintly in the background, the sound of a girl crying. Then the guard mumbled an apology, stumbling back to allow Vito into the room. Vito stepped forward, and the door closed behind him.

Apparently absorbed in pouring green liquid into a wine glass, Gurth said, “So the High Seeker let you live.”

“Yes.”

Gurth stared at the glass, swirling the liquid in it slowly. “Good.”

“Good?”

For the first time, Gurth turned to look at him. There was that smile of sardonic amusement on his face which Vito remembered well. “Of course ‘Good.’ I have nothing against you, de Vere. You’re a fool, but you’re a well-meaning fool, and you saved my life. I did what I always do – whatever is needed to survive – and I’ll admit there was a certain satisfaction in slipping a lie past one of the famous Seekers. But I didn’t particularly relish the idea of you dangling from a hangman’s rope. Would you like some?” He offered the cup that he’d been swirling.

Vito hesitated. He could hear outside the sound of the bodyguard’s feet, shuffling.

Gurth misinterpreted his hesitation. “Oh, I suppose not. I wouldn’t trust me either, if I were you. A shame; I’m told that absinthe is delicious.” He put the glass down and reached for a plate of what appeared to be caviar. “It was an interesting experience, the Eternal Dungeon. Not one I’d want to repeat, but I definitely learned a lot there about human nature. The ability of men to believe what they want to believe—”

“I think I’ll have that drink after all,” Vito interrupted as Gurth was on the point of shovelling the caviar into his mouth. The sound of shuffling footsteps was too close. But after coming all this way, he was not going to leave before doing what he’d set out to do. He would have to take a chance with the bodyguard.

Gurth smiled, putting down the plate untouched. It looked, for once, like a genuine smile. “By all means. These delicacies have just arrived, and I’m told they’re quite tasty.” He gestured.

It took Vito half a dozen steps to reach the table. It took him another two steps to pin Gurth against the wall.

Gurth looked serenely unconcerned. Vito could feel a hard object in his pocket; he wondered what weapon Gurth was hiding there.

All that the young man did, though, was say in a low tone, “My bodyguard is watching. He’s only waiting before attacking you because I have occasional, shall we say, assignations with my visitors.”

“I know he’s watching.” Vito leaned forward and breathed in Gurth’s ear, “You’re in danger.”

Gurth’s heart, hard against his, increased in speed. The young man’s arms wrapped around his back, and Gurth took a little nibble of his neck. “Go on,” Gurth murmured.

Vito’s heart raced as Gurth’s hands wandered across his torso, pulled up his jacket and vest and shirt and undervest, and began exploring what lay underneath. Rapidly but softly, Vito said, “Before I left the dungeon, I went to the office of the Codifier, to see whether I could persuade him to overturn my dismissal. He was in conference. While I was waiting to speak with him, I overheard him tell the High Seeker that there was little likelihood you’d live anyway, because the Queen’s spies had discovered that someone named Ambrewster—”

“A rival,” whispered Gurth. He was licking Vito’s lips now, an effective way to disguise from the bodyguard that Vito was speaking, though it seemed doubtful this was Gurth’s full motive.

“Ambrewster had arranged for one of his men to be appointed as your new bodyguard. That man is assigned to kill you.”

“When and how?” Gurth’s reply was matter-of-fact.

Vito had to wait until Gurth had finished tongue-kissing him before he managed to gasp out, “I don’t know. That’s all I heard.”

“Mm.” Gurth bit his earlobe hard. “Take me on the bed.”

Vito threw a startled glance at the corner of the room, where a bed with satin bedsheets – and quite a few stains on the sheets – stood waiting. “The . . . ?”

“You heard me. Be a good lad and fuck me over the side of the bed. About the middle of the bed, me facing the wall.”

Vito glanced at the bed again, saw what he needed to see, and propelled Gurth toward the bed. It wasn’t easy. Gurth was clinging to him like a monkey now. Vito found himself hoping that nobody except the bodyguard was witnessing this exchange.

The bodyguard’s witness didn’t matter, he suspected.

With effort, he positioned Gurth on his knees, torso over the bed. Gurth squirmed as Vito pulled down the young man’s trousers, begging Vito loudly, in the basest of commoner language, to be faster, faster. . . . Resting his hands on Gurth’s boots and keeping his body carefully positioned as a shield between Gurth and the door, Vito watched as Gurth pulled open an inconspicuous panel in the wall. Behind it was a cylindrical hole. A speaking tube.

It was clearly Vito’s turn to make noise. He filled the room with curses, which the bodyguard might take in any manner he wished. By the time he had run out of curses, Gurth had finished whispering into the speaking tube and had closed the panel.

By that time, Vito was also, embarrassingly, quite hard.

Looking over his shoulder, Gurth gave a low chuckle. “Go ahead if you want to, de Vere. It’s not as though no one has been there before.”

Fortunately for Vito’s peace of mind, Gurth’s rescue arrived at that moment.

There were shouts from behind the door – the bodyguard’s alarmed voice was unmistakable – and then silence. Gurth, reclothing himself in a leisurely manner, sat on the bed and waited. Vito stood up, slid his hands into his pockets, and waited also.

After a moment, a man poked his head into the room – clearly another bodyguard, from his build. “All done,” he said. “Sorry about that, sir; I’ll question your new employees better in the future. We found this on him.” He tossed something forward.

Vito caught it. Glancing at the label on the paper packet – the packet was torn open, with half the contents used – he raised his eyebrows. With a certain reluctance, he handed the packet to Gurth as the door closed behind the bodyguard.

Gurth simply looked amused. “Arsenic. I suppose that means I’ll have to get rid of all those lovely drinks and appetizers that Hunter brought me today. Oh, don’t worry,” he added, as Vito started with alarm, “I hadn’t consumed any of them yet.” He turned the packet so that its underside showed to Vito. “Ambrewster’s handwriting, giving instructions for administering the poison to me. He’s as much a fool as you.” With a dismissive gesture, Gurth tossed the packet into a dustbin nearby.

Vito must have looked disconcerted, because Gurth gave a hard laugh as he stood up. “I don’t give men slow, painful deaths, de Vere. You ought to have guessed that much about me.” He moved toward the table, looked over the bottles of liquid, and then reached over toward the mantelpiece. There was a click, and a drawer flew open. Gurth fiddled with the drawer for a moment before raising a lid. From the hidden container, he drew out a flask.

“Have some?” He offered up the flask. “It’s quite untouched, I assure you. Combination lock.”

“No, thank you,” Vito said evenly.

Gurth finished off the contents of the flask in three gulps. Under these circumstances, Vito didn’t begrudge him the drink. “I hope I didn’t shock you,” said Gurth.

“Killing for defense,” replied Vito briefly. “It’s legal, when a man’s life is in imminent danger.”

Gurth gave another of his low chuckles. “Trust you to have thought of that. I suppose you debated the ethics of telling me, all the way here.” He tossed the flask into the bin, alongside the packet of poison. “So now I owe my life to you twice over. I do pay my debts, de Vere. What can I give you? Money? Girls? A fuck?”

Vito just managed to keep from flinching. “I didn’t do it for a reward. But if you want to give me something . . .”

“Yes?” Gurth was busy pulling another flask from the hidden drawer. Beside the flask glinted something silverish: a blade.

“Let me speak to Or.”

Gurth choked in mid-swallow. Turning his head, he sputtered the liquid all over his fine Vovimian rug and continued choking. After a brief moment, in which Vito walked forward and tried to decide whether to thump Gurth on the back, it became apparent that Gurth’s “choking” was in truth hysterical laughter.

“Oh, sweet blood,” said Gurth, turning back and wiping tears of amusement from his face. “I knew you were a fool, but not that much of a fool. My poor de Vere, Or never existed. I invented him in order to manipulate people. He’s what I become when I’m around people who respond well to pathetic, naive little boys who think the world is filled with heroes who will rescue them from danger.” His voice was filled with scorn.

Drawing back to where he had stood before, Vito managed not to glance again at the packet of poison. “I don’t doubt that’s what triggers his appearance. And I was certainly a fool in certain ways. But not all ways.” He drew his revolver and pointed it at the proprietor of the House of Enchantment.

Gurth stood very still. “How did you slip that past my bodyguard?”

“I didn’t. I told your late bodyguard that I was here to kill you. He was quite happy to have someone besides himself do the dirty work.” With his free hand, Vito pulled the knife from his pocket. Both of them, the one he had slipped out of Gurth’s pocket when he pinned him to the wall, and the one he had taken from the hidden drawer when Gurth was laughing.

Gurth began to sink down onto his wicker chair again. Vito shook his head. “If your hand is headed toward your boot, the knife that was in it is under the bed. I slid it there while you thought I was merely wrestling with passion toward you. Though perhaps you have a fourth weapon?”

Gurth said nothing. His expression was impenetrable.

Vito clicked the gun. Then, the safety engaged, he slipped his gun into his pocket and tossed the two knives onto the table, within reach of Gurth’s hand. “Not entirely a fool, Gurth. Let’s be clear about that.”

Gurth glanced briefly at the knives but made no move to touch them. “Very well. Why are you here?”

“I already told you: to save your life. And, if it’s possible, to talk to Or.”

“Or doesn’t exist.” Gurth’s voice turned hard. “Do you have trouble hearing, or have you misunderstood what I said?”

“I heard what you said. Both of you.” Vito turned.

He had nearly reached the door when Gurth said in a voice somewhat breathless, “Where are you going?”

“Home.” He spared a glance at the young man surrounded by his toys of youth: strong drink, hidden chambers, and weapons. “If Or wants to talk to me, he knows where to find me.”

Outside, with the door closed, Vito paused. The entryway was empty, although he could hear the other bodyguard talking to someone further down the hallway that led to the front door of the House. Vito spent a moment judging from the sound how long it would take the bodyguard to walk to a point where he could see Vito; then Vito turned and pressed his eye against the watch-hole in the door.

Gurth was still standing where Vito had left him. His face had turned red. As Vito watched, Gurth whirled around with a curse and flung his second flask into the dustbin. It landed so hard that the crash was accompanied by the sound of shattering.

Gurth’s back was to Vito now, and the bodyguard’s voice was closer. Vito turned around and began walking toward the entrance, his hands in his pockets. One hand touched the revolver; the other a piece of paper.

Elsdon’s letter had arrived overnight, reaching Vito at the city hotel where he was staying. It was brief and circumspect, but reading between the lines, Vito could tell what had happened.

Vito’s dismissal had driven the final wedge between Elsdon and the High Seeker.

That had been all the news Vito needed. He would return home, yes; he must explain to his family what had happened before his father learned of Vito’s dismissal through official channels. But Vito would not stay home.

Somehow or other, he would return to the Eternal Dungeon.

o—o—o
o—o—o

. . . To catch a glimpse of this incredible, multifaceted man, one need only consult the memoir of Vito de Vere, who was himself a figure of great controversy.

The central facts about Vito de Vere’s clash with Layle Smith in the tenth month of 363 were not disputed by any of the parties: While completing his term as a Seeker-in-Training, the young de Vere fell in love with a prisoner and unwittingly permitted this dangerous criminal a means to escape the dungeon.

Layle Smith took what, even by modern standards, would seem to be a reasonable course of action: he dismissed Vito de Vere from his job, denying that young man the opportunity to take his final oath of commitment as a Seeker. If the story had ended there, de Vere would be remembered only as a minor footnote in history: one of many prison-workers who failed to live up to the high standards of employment at the Eternal Dungeon.

But Vito de Vere shared one characteristic with Layle Smith: he always did the unexpected. Within days of de Vere’s dismissal, the newspapers of Yclau and foreign countries headlined the news: for the first time ever, a lawsuit for unjust dismissal had been brought by a recent Seeker-in-Training against the Eternal Dungeon.

Thus was triggered the final, climactic battle between the New School and the Old School.

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.

Sweet Blood #4
CHECKMATE

The year 364, the fifth month. (The year 1883 Barley by the Old Calendar.)

I hope I will not seem as though I am heading onto a wild side trail in my history of the Eternal Dungeon if I spend a moment discussing linguistics and stagecraft.

The Kingdom of Vovim is a multilingual nation. It was founded by a variety of nations (“tribes,” as they were termed at the time of which I am writing) who joined their fortunes together. Communication was initially difficult. Legend says that, in order to make clear their deeply held beliefs about their gods, the tribe later known as the southern Vovimians held a play for the tribe later known as the east Vovimians. The play was a mime, since the two nations did not know each other’s languages.

From this first play, according to legend, sprung Vovim’s grand tradition of theater. The earliest plays, archaeologists have confirmed through visual records, were mimes, often with one actor miming to a host of statues, standing in for the other actors. Later a human chorus was added, and at this point, speech was introduced into Vovim’s theatrical tradition. But for many centuries afterwards, communication remained intensely difficult, since the territory we now know as Vovim was filled with nations who could barely understand each other’s languages.

Before the development of the King’s tongue, theater was the common speech of the Vovimians, and it has stayed so till modern times. During the period I am writing about, every small village, every prison, every slave-quarter in Vovim had its own little theatrical company. Penniless commoners attended street performances and could speak with great sophistication about the various theatrical techniques that developed in their kingdom. Out of the theater grew other arts: painting, statuary, music, literature, dance. In all of these, Vovim was known worldwide for its accomplishments.

Vovim’s southeastern neighbor, the Queendom of Yclau, had almost no achievements in the arts. Its theatrical attendance was desultory, its museums and galleries were filled with second-hand copies of Vovimian masterpieces, and its literary accomplishments were confined to a few commoner ballads, whose value went largely unrecognized during this period. The only real passion that the Yclau could be said to hold for the arts was their passion for chess, a game they had borrowed from the Vovimians. The figurines of chess were directly descended from the stage statues of ancient times.

Yclau had no artistic traditions to unite it, perhaps because it had never needed uniting to begin with. It was founded by a single nation, and it remained largely homogenous in ethnicity over the centuries. Aside from the presence of a few immigrants, every Yclau man, woman, and child could easily communicate with one another.

Or so it appeared. Communication, however, can require more than a shared tongue, as every soldier on a battlefield realizes . . .

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.

CHAPTER ONE

The sign at the entrance to the Seekers’ common room was very old-fashioned. It was a rectangular block with four colored sides: white (the underside that was never turned up), green, blue, and red. Green for go, blue for caution, and red for stop. Or, as nervous young guards were accustomed to joke: green for rebirth, blue for transformation, and red for death.

The sign was currently turned to its red side. Zenas knew what it said without being able to read it, for he had heard the supervisor of the outer-dungeon laborers read it aloud to an illiterate maid who had been hired to clean the inner dungeon.

Common Room closed for private meeting.
Do not enter
upon penalty of torture.

In the Eternal Dungeon, this was no idle threat.

Zenas carefully turned the doorknob, pushed the door open a space, and slid inside the common room, shutting the door behind him. He had expected to have to breathe shallowly in a room filled with tobacco smoke. The junior guards, the most rebellious of the inner-dungeon workers, were not shy in making clear that they disliked the dungeon regulation against the use of tobacco. Normally, whenever the junior guards thought they were unlikely to be observed by their superiors, ashtrays and spittoons would arrive with the swiftness of a god, only to be whisked away if a senior member of the dungeon approached. Occasionally, one of the junior guards would end up tied to the dungeon’s whipping post, enduring a disciplinary beating by the High Seeker’s senior night guard, for no one in the dungeon could tell when the High Seeker approached. He was as silent as death, as the dungeon saying went.

Today, however, the room was remarkably free of smoke and spitting and raucous jokes. The reason, Zenas quickly realized, was the presence of the Seeker poised behind a schoolmasters’ stand toward the front of the room.

Zenas stayed in the back, hidden by the crowd, so as not to distract the Seeker. She was saying, “—don’t think anyone else will be arriving. A couple of the dusk-shift junior guards asked to be told of any decisions we make while they’re at work, but the senior membership of this dungeon has chosen to make itself sadly absent. For the most part,” she added, nodding toward the front row. Zenas, who had ducked behind the bar counter that was no longer used for alcoholic drinks, began to make his way cautiously to the front of the room, so that he could see who had risked their fortunes to attend the meeting.

As his mama had hinted, the room was almost entirely made up of junior guards. His mama – Mistress Birdesmond Chapman to everyone else in the dungeon – was the only Seeker present, and she too was of junior rank. The sole senior representative of the dungeon whom Zenas could easily sight was seated behind the schoolmasters’ stand, in a row of otherwise empty chairs facing the rest of the men present. He had mutton-chop whiskers.

“I tried to persuade Seward Sobel to attend.” The voice from the front row belonged to Mr. Yates, a senior guard of about fifty years. As Zenas reached the end of the counter, he peered round and saw that Mr. Yates was frowning. “I would swear that he is in agreement with our aims. But he said that he couldn’t show disloyalty to the High Seeker.”

There was growling among the junior guards then. One of them piped up, with a voice barely past youthful breaking, “What about loyalty to the prisoners? We’re supposed to make sacrifices for them – that’s what the opening lines of the Code of Seeking say!”

“The Code of Seeking only refers to the Seekers suffering for their prisoners,” rejoined another junior guard.

“But the general principles of the Code require—”

“Will any other senior guards be attending, Mr. Yates?” asked Zenas’s mama, neatly cutting off what appeared to be the beginning of one of the endless dungeon arguments over the exact meaning of the Code.

Mr. Yates shook his head, continuing to frown.

“They’re all cowards!” cried an impetuous junior guard, which inspired a spell of cheers.

Zenas’s mama raised her hand. “Please, gentlemen. Let us not turn this into a football rally.” As the junior guards subsided – some with blushes at being reprimanded by a lady Seeker – his mama turned her gaze back to Mr. Yates. It was often hard to tell in which direction she was looking, for, like all Seekers, she wore a hood with a face-cloth that hid everything except her eyes. But Zenas had been living with her now for many years, since the time that she and his papa adopted him at age twelve. He could read concern in her eyes as she asked, “Did you speak to any other senior guards about the meeting?”

“All of them.” Mr. Yates emitted a sigh. “It’s not fear, ma’am – or at least not entirely fear, because who among us isn’t nervous at the idea of attending this meeting? I had sweating spells all night, imagining the High Seeker sending his guards to arrest us.”

There was a space of time while everyone thought about this. Their thoughts were eloquent upon their faces.

“Three of the senior guards said they couldn’t attend because their Seekers worked through the dusk shift,” continued Mr. Yates. “I think that was just an excuse, though. I can hardly blame them for their disinterest in this meeting. Mr. Boyd here” – he pointed his thumb toward the senior guard sitting next to him, stone-faced – “may recall that I once gave him a most eloquent speech about how torture was a necessary tool for justice.”

“What changed your mind, Mr. Yates?” asked his mama. There was a rustle of uniforms, a squeak of chairs, as some of the junior guards shifted position restlessly in response to the senior guard’s words. His mama chose to ignore that for the moment.

Mr. Yates opened his mouth, glanced to his side, and then quickly glanced away. There was a long silence as everyone present tried not to look at Mr. Boyd. Mr. Boyd’s face remained as hard as before. He was staring, not at Zenas’s mama, but somewhere beyond her, at the portion of the room which was filled with late-afternoon sunlight. By tradition, that section of the common room, which had a partially opaque skylight in the ceiling, could only be entered by Seekers wishing to refresh themselves under the sun’s rays. They alone were permitted to partake of the only sunlight within the Eternal Dungeon, for they alone, among the inner-dungeon residents, had taken an oath to remain eternally confined within the dungeon.

There was actually one other inner-dungeon resident who hadn’t felt the sun upon his skin for many years, and who would have appreciated being allowed to bathe in the warmth of the skylight. But Zenas had never been invited to enter the Seekers’ end of the common room, and he had no easy way of conveying his longing to stand there, with the sunlight upon his face once more.

His mama – who had been confined to the dungeon as long as he had, and who never complained about her loss of the lighted world – broke the silence to say, “I think, since we are all here now, we should begin with a prayer. Mr. Crofford, will you lead us?”

“I?” said Mr. Crofford, who was a junior guard, but who sat in the front row beside Mr. Boyd. He looked more startled than the situation warranted. On the rare occasions when the High Seeker held meetings for the junior guards, Mr. Crofford was invariably invited to lead the prayers, for he was a good speaker. But Mr. Crofford, as everyone knew, was blessed with humility. Twice he had turned down the opportunity to rise to senior rank, explaining that he did not feel qualified to take on that responsibility.

Zenas’s mama stepped back in order to allow Mr. Crofford to take the schoolmasters’ stand. Everyone rose to their feet, other than Zenas, who crouched down upon his knees, the proper position for a prisoner of hell’s High Master. All convicted criminals lay under the care of hell’s High Master, Zenas knew, and those who died during their term of mortal imprisonment would enter into immortal imprisonment in hell. Those who were released from imprisonment during their mortal lives, or whom the gods judged innocent or forgiven of their crimes, could be received into the compassionate bosom of the High Master’s sister, the goddess Mercy. But Zenas had not received any messages from Mercy’s Grace to indicate that the gods had forgiven him for his crime. So he knelt to his immortal master, whose unspoken name was Hell.

Zenas assumed that Hell was the one who sent him the nightmares. Hell always exacted punishment upon evil humans.

Now, with his eyes closed, his knees bent, and his palms flat upon the floor – the position of the damned – he listened as Mr. Crofford said, “May we never forget our good fortune, we who are privileged to help prisoners escape from the dungeon of their ill deeds. Like the first man who denied himself the deceptively sweet life of afterdeath, let us undertake any sacrifice necessary. Let us sacrifice ourselves for the prisoners, so that, in helping them to be reborn as better men, we too may be better men than before.”

Through the slits between his eyelids, Zenas peeked at his mama. She was in the position that the Yclau took when praying: standing straight, her back erect, her head bowed, her eyes opened. There was no sign in the expression of her eyes that she was bothered by the manner in which Mr. Crofford had just excluded her, all of her female prisoners, and most of the outer-dungeon workers who labored for dungeon-dwellers such as Mr. Crofford. No doubt his mama was used to the Eternal Dungeon’s penchant for speaking only in male terms. Zenas, whose native language would have phrased such a prayer in the gender-neutral plural, held one of his momentary wishes that the rest of the dungeon spoke his far more civilized tongue.

It was an old, futile wish.

The men at the gathering seemed perfectly content with this speech, even the man who had protested earlier that guards were not required to make sacrifices for the prisoners. Mr. Crofford’s words were no different from the words they had heard in a hundred different fashions since they took up employment in the dungeon. Everyone in the Eternal Dungeon – Seekers, guards, outer-dungeon workers, and auxiliary workers such as the dungeon’s healer – were encouraged, through daily exhortations and through the impassioned wording of the dungeon’s Code of Seeking, to put the best interests of the prisoners before all else.

That was not a matter of dispute anywhere in the dungeon. The dispute lay elsewhere.

The prayer had ended. Mr. Crofford, blushing, returned to his place in the front row. Zenas’s mama waited until everyone reseated themselves; then she came forward again. “I know that you’re all eager for news,” she said. “Unfortunately, I have little to tell you. I’ve been told that a judgment was handed down last week, which requires the Codifier and the High Seeker to grant an interview to Mr. de Vere—”

There was a knock on the door. It was very soft; none of the guards nearest the door appeared to hear it. With his ears still attuned to what his mama was saying, Zenas crept back to the door. He opened it.

Vito de Vere stood in the doorway. It took a moment for Zenas to recognize him. Zenas had never before seen Mr. de Vere without his hood. But when the man at the doorway spoke, his voice, unusually authoritative for a man barely into his thirties, was unmistakable.

“Excuse me.” Like most of the dungeon dwellers, past and present, Mr. de Vere never seemed to be sure how to address Zenas. He was peering over Zenas’s shoulder, as though hoping that somebody would rescue him from this conversation. “Your mother sent me a letter telling me that there was going to be a meeting—”

At the front of the common room, Zenas’s mama stopped speaking. She had sighted Mr. de Vere. Zenas quickly stepped back. Now ignoring Zenas entirely, Mr. de Vere entered the room. Seemingly immune to the fixed attention of the guards watching him, he strode down the center aisle between the chairs.

“Mr. de Vere,” said Zenas’s mama formally, “we were just speaking of you.”

“I can’t stay long,” replied Mr. de Vere as he reached her side. “I told Mr. Sobel that I planned to leave by way of the back exit, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the High Seeker sends out hunting hounds after me, if I don’t arrive on time in the outer dungeon. With instructions to kill,” he added dryly.

Some of the guards laughed uneasily. Mr. Boyd was still staring at the front of the common room, as though ignoring the proceedings. Mr. Crofford gave him a quick look and then leaned forward to listen to the conversation in the front. Most of the guards did; this was the news they had been awaiting.

“You had your interview with the Codifier and the High Seeker?” his mama suggested.

“I did. It was the shortest interview of my life.”

Mr. Yates winced. Mr. Urman, a junior guard who was seated beside Mr. Crofford, growled oaths under his breath. Everyone else waited.

In the manner of a natural-born leader, Mr. de Vere turned smoothly to face the crowd. He was no taller than Zenas’s mama, yet the audience appeared to be as expectant as if the towering High Seeker were about to address them.

As though continuing a conversation he had held previously with the guards, Mr. de Vere said, “The Codifier asked me only one question: Whether I would comply with the regulations of the Code if I were hired again as a Seeker. I said to him what I’d already said in court: that I had been exceedingly foolish to give my prisoner access to drugs without permission from the healer, to take my prisoner to a locked area of the dungeon without permission from the High Seeker, to grant my prisoner permission to strip, to let him make use of certain equipment in this dungeon that is ordinarily used only under highly regulated circumstances, and most of all, to touch my prisoner in a carnal manner.”

There were exchanges of looks all around the common room. Even Mr. Urman, normally the most cynical of guards, appeared impressed. It was clear that nobody in the room had expected Mr. de Vere to be this candid about his failings as a former Seeker-in-Training.

“I also said what I had said in court,” continued Mr. de Vere. “That under no circumstances whatsoever would I torture any prisoner.”

This time, the reaction was audible as guards shifted in position, coughed, or muttered under their breath. Nobody spoke aloud, though, except his mama, who said, “And Mr. Daniels’s response?”

“The Codifier thanked me for coming and said that he and Mr. Smith would be in touch with me. Then the High Seeker suggested that it would be best for me to leave his dungeon. Immediately.”

With a wry smile on his face, Mr. Yates commented, “Our esteemed High Seeker is not quite as civilized in manner as our Codifier.”

Mr. de Vere’s voice was level as he said, “Their response came as no surprise to me. I knew that this would be a wasted trip.”

“What will you do now?” asked Zenas’s mama quietly.

“Appeal the decision. The magistrate did not hand down the ruling I requested – that I be reinstated as a Seeker – and so I will appeal his ruling to the next level of the magistracy. If that doesn’t work, I will appeal to the high court of the magistracy. If that doesn’t work, I will appeal to the Queen. And if the Queen fails to support my suit” – Mr. de Vere took a deep breath – “then I will appeal to the people.”

This statement caused a much greater reaction among the guards. For the first time, Mr. Boyd’s attention switched to the speaker. It was Mr. Crofford, though, who voiced everyone’s worry: “Mr. de Vere, forgive me for contradicting you, but wouldn’t that break the oath you took? I know that the laws of our queendom permit petitioners of lawsuits to take their appeals into the public realm, but even temporary workers in the Eternal Dungeon are required to swear a sacred oath that they won’t speak of what takes place here.”

“Hangman.” It was the first word that Mr. Boyd had spoken.

Zenas’s mama inserted herself quickly. “I doubt that Mr. de Vere will need to risk his life by breaking that oath. The Queen has as much reason as anyone to want to see this dungeon kept in peace, and burdened as she is by her present illness, she’s unlikely to countenance total warfare breaking out here. . . . Thank you, Mr. de Vere. It’s very kind of you to find the time to tell us in person what happened. We won’t keep you.”

Mr. de Vere nodded but did not remove his gaze from the guards. “I want to make one final remark before I go. When Mistress Chapman wrote me with news that some of you were planning a meeting of protest against my release from employment here, it took my breath away. I’m not good at getting to know people – I’ve barely spoken to any of you. I know that you’re holding this meeting for the sake of upholding the spirit of the Code, not out of any personal concern for the future career of a man whose horrific misjudgments caused a clever criminal to escape this dungeon. Even so, I’m deeply grateful to you for your unexpected support. I hope I’ll be able to return to work at this dungeon, if only so that I can thank all of you in person. Now I really must go; I’m sorry.” He laid a hand lightly on the arm of Zenas’s mama, smiled at her, and left rapidly. Zenas opened the door for him when he reached the back of the room, but Mr. de Vere appeared not to notice as he swept through the doorway.

Zenas checked that the sign on the door remained red and that no one was lingering in the corridor outside; then he closed the door. The departure of Vito de Vere seemed to have paralyzed everyone’s tongues. The guards were looking at each other, as though waiting for someone to break the silence.

It was Mr. Pomroy, a junior guard close to seniority, who finally spoke up. “I don’t want to sound combative,” he said, “but that recital of his deeds which Mr. de Vere just gave us appears to me to be conclusive proof that he is not qualified to be a Seeker. Why are we here defending his actions?”

From the agitation of the audience, it was clear that quite a few of the guards shared Mr. Pomroy’s sentiment. For some reason, the man with the mutton-chop whiskers appeared amused by their reaction. For the first time, he spoke.

As though reciting a nursery tale, the dungeon’s healer said, “There was once a young Seeker – oh, I shall not name names. This happened before most of you were hired. But this Seeker committed the same deed that Mr. de Vere did: he kissed a bound prisoner. And unlike Mr. de Vere’s prisoner, this other prisoner did not seduce her Seeker into committing the act. Would anyone care to guess what sort of judgment the Codifier handed down upon the Seeker in question?”

“Three months’ suspension from duties, wasn’t it, sir?” said Mr. Yates, who was now looking grim. “And a few years later, the same Seeker assaulted a prisoner. He was given six months’ suspension then, before being returned to duty with full honors.”

There were murmurings among the junior guards now. A few of them had worked in the dungeon long enough that they knew which Seeker was being referenced. With a sober expression, Mr. Pomroy said, “You’re suggesting that the High Seeker is a hypocrite, Mr. Bergsen.”

“The High Seeker had no say over those earlier sentences,” demurred the healer. “What I am suggesting is that there is a quite clear pattern of punishment in this dungeon, which I’m surprised that nobody has noticed. Anyone who is considered to be useful to the Codifier and the High Seeker is given a light sentence if he commits an offense. Anyone who is considered to be a threat to the present regime is ousted from this dungeon, no matter how small their infraction.”

Quite a few guards nodded. Zenas propped his chin on his elbow, considering Mr. Bergsen’s words. He had been fourteen years old when the High Seeker took his first, fiery steps to suppress dissent by some of the prison-workers over how to handle the prisoners. For months, Zenas had lived in fear that the High Seeker would hang his mama. His papa, he thought, would be safe, for his papa was the High Seeker’s friend. But it was said that the High Seeker feared and loathed all women. . . .

It had been some time after that when Zenas had first gotten to know the High Seeker. He sometimes wondered whether that was a coincidence, or whether the High Seeker, sensing Zenas’s fear, had sought to take control of the situation in the only manner available to him.

Zenas never let his parents guess about his private encounters with the High Seeker. It was better that they not know. They wouldn’t understand.

“It’s all about torture,” said Mr. Crofford, breaking through the continued murmur of the guards. “That’s what I didn’t understand for a long time. The High Seeker has been seeking out and punishing those of us who wish to show greater mercy to the prisoners than the Code allows. Those of us who question whether it’s right to torture prisoners.”

The blunt words were out, and now the audience was definitely on edge. Frowning, Mr. Pomroy said, “Are you telling me that, if a prisoner attacks me, I shouldn’t punish him with a whipping?”

Mr. Yates shook his head. “We’re not talking about a disciplinary beating. Nobody is questioning that; we’ve nearly all of us been beaten at some time in our lives for misbehavior, usually in school. We’re talking about torture – about the application of pain to make a prisoner confess.”

“Racking the prisoner, in other words,” said Mr. Crofford. “No Seeker questions prisoners for their crimes when they’re being whipped, does he?”

“Taylor.”

It was the second word that Mr. Boyd had spoken, and it created as electric an effect on the audience as the first. Guards glanced at each other, obviously trying to ascertain if anyone knew whether this accusation was true. Even Mr. Urman – normally the guard with the greatest knowledge of dungeon rumor – seemed mystified.

It was at this inopportune moment that another knock came at the door.

Again, nobody heard the knock but Zenas. As the guards whispered to each other, he hurried to the back of the room and answered the door.

The skin next to Elsdon Taylor’s eyes crinkled in a smile. “Hello, Zenas,” the junior Seeker said softly. “I’m sorry I’m late. Has the meeting begun?”

Smiling in return, Zenas nodded and opened the door wide. The conversations in the common room cut off abruptly; guards looked over their shoulders, straining to see the newcomer.

Unlike Vito de Vere, Mr. Taylor made no attempt to capture the attention of the audience. He quietly walked down the left-hand side of the room. When Mr. Bergsen gestured to the chair next to him, Mr. Taylor shook his head, instead seating himself in one of the chairs placed against the wall next to the counter, for the overflow crowd that had been anticipated for this event.

Even Zenas’s mama seemed momentarily at a loss for words. There had been a time when Elsdon Taylor had been the primary voice for protest within the dungeon, Zenas knew. But that was long ago. For the past four years, Mr. Taylor had spoken not a peep of protest as the High Seeker ruled the dungeon with the ferocious implacability of a leaded whip.

It was Mr. Urman, predictably, who broke the silence. “Come to take notes for the High Seeker, have you?” he taunted the junior Seeker. “Shall we give you a list of guards who are attending?”

Mr. Taylor did not nip at the bait; he merely shook his head.

Mr. Yates cleared his throat. “Of course, you have as much right as anyone else to attend this meeting, Mr. Taylor—”

“Indeed,” said Zenas’s mama, clearly on firm ground now. “Will the High Seeker be observing this meeting, Mr. Taylor? I issued an invitation to him to listen to our concerns.”

“I don’t know, ma’am,” replied Mr. Taylor quietly. “I haven’t discussed this meeting with him.”

“Well, as long as you’re here,” continued Mr. Urman maliciously, “you can tell us: Did you search a prisoner for evidence of his crime while you were having him beaten?”

Mr. Taylor flicked at glance at Mr. Boyd – Elsdon Taylor’s former senior guard – and then quickly turned his gaze back toward Mr. Urman. “I did.”

Now the restlessness of the crowd was positively mutinous. Someone said, “That’s against the Code.”

“No,” contradicted Mr. Taylor quietly. At twenty-seven years of age, he was one of the older junior Seekers. Most Seekers pledged their oaths of eternal commitment immediately after university and were raised to senior rank after four years. This was necessary in order to provide rapid replacement of senior Seekers, who searched the most dangerous prisoners and were therefore inclined to die early.

Mr. Taylor’s pledge had taken place when he was only eighteen, yet he had been passed over for a rise to seniority on numerous occasions. It occurred to Zenas, watching the junior Seeker sit in isolation, that this fact alone revealed a great deal about where Elsdon Taylor’s loyalties lay, however silent he had been in public during the last few years.

Zenas made up his mind then. He was standing behind the counter, only a few feet from Mr. Taylor. He slipped out of his hiding place and slid onto Mr. Taylor’s lap.

There was a gasp from a few of the junior guards who had not witnessed Zenas do this before. His mama began to speak and then fell silent, apparently deciding that this was not the proper occasion for a reprimand. Zenas knew that she and his papa would spend the next few days trying to impress upon him that he was no longer enslaved – that he need no longer serve men with his body.

Zenas knew that perfectly well. He also knew that he could not speak up in the meeting and say to the guards, “Mr. Taylor is trustworthy.” His body was the only mode of communication he had in this dungeon, and he knew enough to only pick the laps of men who regarded him in an avuncular fashion. The few times he had been wrong, it was immediately obvious; it was impossible to hide that sort of thing from the young man who was snuggling on your lap. Whenever that happened, Zenas had slid off the man’s lap at once, making apologetic noises. The man was invariably so embarrassed that he never again made reference to the incident.

Mr. Taylor wrapped an arm loosely around Zenas, sparing him another of his eye-smiles. He was young enough that he could have been an older brother to Zenas; but of course he was a Seeker, so it would have been disrespectful for Zenas to voice that thought.

Even if he could.

The tension in Mr. Taylor’s body had begun to melt from the moment that Zenas made clear his alliance. Now Mr. Taylor raised his voice to be heard over the guards’ disconcerted conversation. “I did question a prisoner who was being beaten for disciplinary reasons. That fact is to my great shame. There have been occasions when I sought to explore the outer boundaries of the Code, and at times my prisoners benefitted from my exploration, I think. This wasn’t one of those times. But the exercise did benefit me, because it made clear to me how little assurance I had that my prisoners speak the truth when I torture them. I was so used to racking prisoners that I couldn’t recognize this, until I tortured a prisoner in a manner unusual in the Eternal Dungeon.”

“So you have your doubts about torture as well,” said Mr. Yates, a note of surprise in his voice. “I remember that case; Mr. Boyd told me about it at the time. And I told him that it didn’t matter how many innocents suffered on the rack, provided that most of the prisoners we racked were guilty.”

This brought a stunned silence. Most of the junior guards, Zenas thought, were still inexperienced enough to believe that all the prisoners who were racked in the Eternal Dungeon were guilty of their accused crimes. Junior guards were posted at the rack room doors during rackings; they never witnessed what took place when a prisoner’s limbs were wrenched. By the time they witnessed this, they held seniority, with a salary to match and probably a family to feed; they had financial incentive not to speak out against what they saw. This being the Eternal Dungeon, where idealism held reign, no doubt the senior guards used justifications in the same manner that Mr. Yates had, to hide the knowledge from themselves that they were benefitting from a system which did not benefit their prisoners.

Mr. Crofford said in a clear, steady voice that made him seem older than his twenty-six years, “If even one prisoner in this dungeon confessed falsely because we brought him to the rack room to be tortured, then we are responsible for that prisoner’s death by the hangman. And there must be dozens of prisoners like that every year. Thousands, over the life of the Eternal Dungeon.”

“I’ve heard enough.” It was Mr. Rhodes, rising to his feet; he was another junior guard who was close to seniority. “I thought this meeting was convened to discuss whether we should support Mr. de Vere’s suit to return to employment within this dungeon. But you lot are talking about something very different: the overthrow of the Code of Seeking.”

“The Code changes from time to time,” pointed out Zenas’s mama, who remained in place behind the schoolmasters’ stand. “Our volume of ethics has been revised five times since its inception. The last revision banned the use of certain instruments of torture which had been considered legitimate means of searching prisoners since long before the founding of the Eternal Dungeon.”

“When is the next revision due?” asked someone in the audience.

“The Code calls for a revision every generation,” replied someone else. “The fourth revision was issued in 313. The fifth revision was issued in 348.”

“Fine,” said Mr. Rhodes, hooking onto his belt the sheathed dagger and coiled whip he had taken off during the meeting. “In fifteen years’ time, when the sixth revision is prepared, I’ll be glad to attend whatever meeting the new reviser calls to discuss what changes should be made. This isn’t that meeting. This is a rebel meeting, intended to tear down the lawful structure of the Code of Seeking. I’m having nothing to do with this. Come on, lads.” He addressed this remark to several guards sitting beside him, who had evidently come to the meeting with him. They promptly rose and followed Mr. Rhodes out of the common room, emptying an entire row of seats. There were mutters and exchanged looks, and then more guards rose to their feet, and more.

It took five minutes for all of them to leave. When the common room door was finally shut again, fully three-quarters of the audience had left. Counting, Zenas concluded that there could not be more than four dozen guards remaining in the room.

Once again, it was Mr. Urman who broke the silence. “Bloody blades, it’s good to have room to stretch my arms.”

This broke the tension and prompted laughter. Smiling, Mr. Pomroy said, “I’m not saying I’m ready to break the Code, but I’m willing to listen to what you have to say. These are important issues we’re discussing, and they deserve to be explored.”

“The ineffectiveness of torture in helping us ascertain the truth about crimes,” said Zenas’s mama, ticking off topics with her fingers. “The strong possibility that innocent prisoners will implicate themselves in order to escape from pain—”

“The stupidity of it,” inserted Mr. Bergsen, looking considerably more cheerful, now that the grumblers among the guards had left. “That’s what has always infuriated me. Look here, men, you all swore to help criminals turn from their bloody pasts – to show them that violence isn’t the way to achieve their ends. And what do you do? Strap these same criminals to the rack!”

Mr. Yates nodded slowly. “You have it right there in a pinhole, Mr. Bergsen. We’re supposed to be transforming prisoners. How does tearing them from limb to limb transform the prisoners into better men?”

Zenas’s mama, who had been keeping a careful eye on the audience, said, “You have something to add, Mr. Taylor?”

Elsdon Taylor nodded. He still had his arm loosely slung around Zenas’s waist, but seeing that Mr. Taylor was no longer isolated from the other men in the room, Zenas slipped off his lap, in order not to distract the junior Seeker. His mama quickly gestured, and with an inward sigh, Zenas went over to stand by her. He was taller than she was now, but she seemed not to notice that; she pointed to the chair next to Mr. Bergsen, as though Zenas were still a little lad. Zenas tried not to let this anger him. The gods decreed that parents should be respected, including adoptive parents. He sat down quietly in the spot she had indicated and turned his attention back to Mr. Taylor.

Elsdon Taylor seemed to be having difficulty in voicing his thoughts. Finally he said, “This is an extension of what you’ve said to me before, Mr. Bergsen. You stated that the High Seeker and the Codifier are selective in which prison-workers they punish. Has it occurred to any of us that we are selective in which prisoners we punish?”

That roused a reaction indeed. Leaning forward, Mr. Yates said, “All prisoners are treated equally in this dungeon, Mr. Taylor. The Code requires that.”

“But which prisoners reach this dungeon is not under our control,” Elsdon Taylor replied. “It was my brother who pointed out the obvious to me: nearly every prisoner who is brought here – who is searched by questions and sometimes beaten and racked – is a commoner. Is anybody here going to argue that only commoners commit capital crimes?”

Now everyone looked stunned, other than Mr. Bergsen, who looked reflective, and Mr. Boyd, who remained as stone-faced as before. Even Zenas’s mama, who had surely given more thought to such matters than anyone else in this room, had covered her hooded mouth in dismay.

Mr. Taylor continued in his quiet manner, “My brother is convinced that the Queen uses this dungeon as a tool to oppress the commoners. Whether or not my brother is right, I can’t be comfortable with the fact that, with a very few exceptions, we torture men who are lower in rank than ourselves. That can cause communication difficulties on its own, as I believe one prisoner here could testify.” He nodded toward Zenas.

Zenas jumped in place, startled at being acknowledged. His mama placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. She said, “When Zenas was in a breaking cell, long ago, he was searched by my husband. You know that Mr. Chapman was born a commoner.”

“I also know that your husband had many problems in communicating with Zenas,” Mr. Taylor replied. “In the end, Mr. Chapman had to make use of a Vovimian translator. I don’t think that was merely because Zenas was a foreigner. Zenas was a slave; Mr. Chapman has lived the life of a mid-class man for the past two decades. Can you really say that, even to this day, you and your husband fully understand the life that Zenas led as a slave? Can those of us who torture commoner prisoners claim to fully understand the lives of our tortured prisoners?”

Mr. Pomroy frowned. “What are you saying, Mr. Taylor? That we should stop searching commoner prisoners at all? Or that this dungeon should hire only commoners as guards and Seekers?”

There was light laughter at this absurd suggestion. Mr. Bergsen looked yet more reflective. Mr. Taylor replied, “A few more commoner-born Seekers, such as Mr. Chapman, would certainly help to bring balance to this dungeon. But I was suggesting something else entirely: torture has long been used as a tool by the elite to oppress the commoners, and we have unwittingly allowed ourselves to be that tool. So my brother says, and I’ve come to agree with him.”

“‘My brother, my brother,’” mocked Mr. Urman. “I’ve never heard you mention a brother before. I thought there was only the one sister, and she—”

He stopped abruptly. Only one thing ever stopped Mr. Urman mid-sentence. For all his faults, there was a single line that Mr. Urman didn’t pass: he never, ever gossiped about his prisoners.

Zenas leaned forward, fascinated. He had known, of course, that Mr. Taylor – in addition to being a Seeker – was a convict serving a life sentence in the Eternal Dungeon for a murder he had committed when he was young. Until now, though, Zenas had not realized that Mr. Urman had been one of the guards who held Mr. Taylor captive when he was broken by the High Seeker.

Mr. Urman was Mr. Taylor’s harshest critic. Had something happened in Mr. Taylor’s breaking cell that had sparked Mr. Urman’s enmity?

Whatever had happened, it was clear from Mr. Urman’s tightened lips that he was not going to share that tale with anyone. Mr. Taylor replied simply, “I murdered my sister, yes. Yeslin isn’t my brother by birth. My father offered Yeslin a home after I was imprisoned here. Yeslin and I can only communicate through correspondence, but we’ve become as close as any brothers can be—”

“Yeslin?” Now Mr. Yates was on his feet. “Yeslin? Mr. Taylor, are you saying your brother is Yeslin Bainbridge?”

With a roar, guards surged to their feet. Amidst the shouts, Mr. Urman – who had remained seated – cried, “Who the bloody blades is Yeslin Bainbridge?”

“You know him, D.” Mr. Crofford had paled from the latest revelation, but he was mainly concentrating on shielding Mr. Boyd from Mr. Yates, who, in his excitement, was coming perilously close to touching Mr. Boyd. Mr. Boyd, as might be expected, was taking no notice of the fuss. Mr. Crofford continued, “Yeslin Bainbridge. Head of the Commoners’ Guild. That’s the guild which has been holding protests and strikes all over the capital for the past four years. They’ve even started to extend their reach into the country districts, I’ve heard.”

“Oh, him.” Mr. Urman was apparently determined not to give Mr. Taylor the satisfaction of seeing him surprised; he folded his arms over his chest, saying, “So your brother is the reason my streetcar is late every time I come back from a week’s-end break. Bloody strikers.”

Everyone else, though, remained in a state of high excitement. Mr. Pomroy translated their thoughts into words: “If anyone alive can give us wise advice on how to hold a protest, it’s Yeslin Bainbridge. Mr. Taylor, what does your brother suggest that we do?”

“Stop holding these meetings.”

Elsdon Taylor’s words were like ice water drenching the guards. The guards appeared stupefied by this change of events. As everyone sank down into their seats, Mr. Urman said, in a smug voice that suggested he’d known this treachery was coming, “So we’re supposed to give up, is that what your brother advises? Or maybe this advice comes from the High Seeker?”

Mr. Taylor shook his head. He appeared as self-contained as before, though Zenas, watching him carefully, could tell that his body had tensed again. “I haven’t been able to discuss directly with Yeslin the protests by dungeon-workers against the High Seeker’s policy of enforcing the Code strictly. My oath of silence forbids that. But the existence of Mr. de Vere’s suit against the dungeon is public, if not the exact details, and my brother guessed that there would be some sort of protest here against Mr. de Vere’s dismissal. So he wrote to me with advice: Don’t hold large, public meetings. Those are the sorts of meetings that the authorities will shut down immediately. If the authorities allow public meetings of protest to occur, it is only so that they can infiltrate such meetings and steer the course of them.”

Mr. Urman’s snort was expressive. But Mr. Yates said, “He’s right, you know. I had my doubts about this meeting when I heard of it. Large meetings of open rebellion are dangerous. The rebels in Vovim have learned that.”

There were reluctant nods now from some of the guards. Zenas’s mama leaned over the schoolmasters’ stand as she said, “I’ll admit, I haven’t followed closely the fortunes of the Commoners’ Guild. How has your brother resolved the problem you mention, Mr. Taylor? For certainly the Commoners’ Guild has become the most influential guild in the capital, despite all odds against them.”

“Through representation,” Mr. Taylor replied, continuing to sit as still as a schoolboy in his seat. “Yeslin told me that, early on, he had to discard the idea of having his guild be a pure democracy. Instead, he took a clue from the governmental structure of the Magisterial Republic of Mip and held elections for guild leadership. A small number of men and women meet in private and make decisions on behalf of the guild members who elected them to power. They consult with the other guild members, of course, but in an informal manner, not through public meetings. Once the decisions are made, the remaining guild members are notified.”

“Representational democracy.” Mr. Pomroy nodded. “I learned about that in school. Our own queendom has a parliament, though the parliament members are born to their power, not elected to it. If the Queen’s hundreds of thousands of subjects tried to make decisions together, it would be impossibly complex.”

There were nods all around the room now. Even Mr. Urman, the perpetual scoffer, seemed to have no objection to this proposal. Appearing to read the mood, Zenas’s mama asked, “Shall we propose names, then?”

“Nominees,” interjected Mr. Crofford, then went crimson as everyone turned to look at him.

“Nominees,” agreed Zenas’s mama. “Would anyone like to propose nominations?”

The nominations were quickly made; the voting took place equally quickly. Zenas was unsurprised at the results. Mr. Bergsen, Mr. Taylor, his mama, Mr. Yates, Mr. Boyd . . . The five senior-most members of the meeting had been elected as the group’s representatives.

For the first time, Mr. Boyd stirred, looking around, as though not quite clear why he had been elected. He often seemed unaware that, for many years, he had been one of the most popular guards in the dungeon. Even the changes in personality that he had undergone four years ago could not entirely erase that.

Nearby him, Mr. Urman’s expression had turned thunderous. Even Zenas’s mama seemed disturbed by this turn of events.

It was Mr. Taylor, though, who voiced the dissenters’ thoughts: “It seems to me that, with so many junior guards braving their careers to take part in this meeting, we ought to have at least one junior guard representing us. I nominate Mr. Crofford.”

Mr. Crofford had been looking uneasily back and forth between the two men he sat beside: Mr. Boyd and Mr. Urman. Now he looked even more startled than Mr. Boyd to receive this honor. After a moment, he said, “It really ought to be Mr. Urman. He knows far more than I do about these matters.”

In the end, both men were elected, Mr. Urman by a greater majority than Zenas would have predicted. Still trying to stay inconspicuous near his mama, Zenas scrutinized Mr. Urman, whose expression could not easily be read. Excitement, resentment, uncertainty, hope . . . Yes, hope was the predominant emotion.

Hope for what?

His mama was ending the meeting now. Glancing behind him, Zenas saw from the slant of light that it was nearly time for the night shift. Rising to his feet and reaching for his weapons, Mr. Pomroy said, “Ma’am, I think I speak for all when I say that I have a great deal of confidence in the representation we’ve just elected. I hope you’ll let the rest of us know when we may be of help to you.”

“I’m really not sure—” began another guard doubtfully.

“It’s too late to be raising objections,” said Mr. Pomroy, frowning.

The other guard looked as though he was ready to pick a fight. Lazily, Mr. Urman said, “Aye, I know. It’s my looks. You’d rather have me in your bed than attending meetings.”

The room exploded into laughter. Shaking his head and smiling, the doubtful guard let the matter drop. Soon the common room had emptied, except for the new representatives.

And Zenas, who was listening with great interest to what would come next.

To his disappointment, though, his mama said, “I know that some of you are due for work soon, so I think we should meet again at week’s end, when those of you who are junior guards will have lighter duties.”

“Coordinating the schedules of everyone is going to be difficult,” pointed out Mr. Yates. “Since I live outside the dungeon with my foster sister, I can’t attend any meetings held at dawn. Most of us are on day duty, but Mr. Taylor and Mr. Urman are on night duty. And any of us who are day guards might be required by our Seekers to work through the dusk shift.”

“I can take Mr. Crofford on as my junior night guard, if that would assist matters,” Elsdon suggested. “That way, I could release him from duty during the dusk shift.”

“I could be your senior day guard,” suggested Mr. Urman quickly.

Elsdon glanced in his direction, then away. “No.”

There was a small, painful silence during which Mr. Urman’s cheeks turned red. Then Mr. Crofford said, “I’d rather stay on the day shift, sir. In case . . .” He glanced toward Mr. Boyd, who was currently on the day shift.

“Perhaps we could coordinate matters in the opposite direction,” suggested Mr. Bergsen, who worked during the day. “Since Mistress Chapman is already working the day shift—”

“Actually,” said his mama in a clear voice, “I have submitted a request to be transferred to the night shift.”

Mr. Urman shrugged as Mr. Taylor threw Zenas’s mama a glance. “We’ll work it out. Where shall we meet? Anyone might walk in on us if we continue meeting here.”

“My living cell is the biggest,” suggested Zenas’s mama. “Even if we meet during the dusk shift, my husband will be at work – he works through the dawn and dusk shifts.”

Mr. Urman narrowed his eyes. “Is that why he wasn’t at our meeting today?”

“Your cell would be ideal,” interjected Mr. Taylor, ignoring what Mr. Urman had said – or rather, thought Zenas, listening to what his mama had said earlier. “At the dusk shift at week’s end, then? Is everyone agreed?”

All of them nodded, even Mr. Boyd. Mr. Bergsen cleared his throat. “There’s one other thing.”

Mr. Boyd had been on the point of turning away. Mr. Crofford reached out and pulled him back. Mr. Boyd accepted the touch, but Zenas noticed that Mr. Boyd held his breath until Mr. Crofford had released him; then he let out his breath very slowly.

Mr. Bergsen looked around at each of them. “I know that all of you have taken oaths to remain silent to outsiders about matters in this dungeon. I’ve taken an additional oath to remain silent about matters I discover about my patients in the course of my work, except under narrow circumstances defined by the Code. I suggest that it would be appropriate if we all took an oath now to remain silent about anything spoken in our meetings, unless we all agree that such information should be released. That makes it less likely that any of us will accidentally reveal what we should not.”

“An excellent idea,” said Mr. Yates, removing his pen from his jacket pocket. Zenas blinked a moment before he remembered that, in the Queendom of Yclau, oaths were given in ink, not in blood.

The oaths were quickly written down and signed in the memorandum book of the senior-most guard there, Mr. Yates; even Mr. Boyd added his signature, which was as finely penned as the signature of any other representative there. Zenas noticed, though, that Mr. Boyd, evidently ambidextrous, had chosen not to use his right hand, and that he was holding his right arm awkwardly. It was the arm that Mr. Crofford had grasped.

The door to the common room opened. Everyone turned swiftly. An outer-dungeon maid stood in the doorway, with a few more maids behind her. “Oh!” she said. “Is the meeting over, then?”

“Yes, miss, it is,” replied his mama politely. “You may begin cleaning in here.”

“We . . . we thought we could help you,” said the maid uncertainly as the guards began to drag the chairs back to their regular places.

“Oh, don’t worry about these chairs,” said Mr. Urman cheerfully. “They’re far too heavy for you girls. Cliff, help me get those tables back here?”

The maids continued to stand by the door, whispering to one another as the guards undertook their work. Whistling cheerfully, Mr. Bergsen made his way to the door, and the maids scattered back into the corridor.

Elsdon touched the arm of Zenas’s mama and leaned close to her. “Birdesmond,” he said softly under cover of the screeching chairs, “has something happened between you and Weldon?”

CHAPTER TWO

After hunting a moment, Elsdon reached out and pecked a key.

Then he sat back in the office chair with casters – a birthday gift from Layle – and contemplated the typewriter on the desk in front of him. It was another gift from Layle, one that must have taken him many seasons to save for, out of the small allowance which Seekers were permitted for luxuries. It was an impossibly impractical gift. Elsdon didn’t have the spare time to learn how to type fast on it, so typing a page took him longer than handwriting a page would. He couldn’t use the typewriter for his voluminous piles of official documentwork, because the Record-keeper required handwritten documents. In fact, Elsdon could use it for only one task: writing letters to his brother.

He adored the typewriter. Its clacking type, its oily smell, its hard metal keys under his fingers – it was all very satisfying. He had not felt so intimately connected with a machine since the day he’d been bound to a rack in the royal dungeon of Vovim. And that had been a different sort of intimacy, one he had no desire to repeat.

He tapped another key. Because of the manner in which the typewriter was designed, he couldn’t read what he’d typed without lifting the carriage to see the hidden words. He considered this a benefit, since he shared the same living cell as Layle. Layle would never intentionally read Elsdon’s correspondence, but living with Layle – Elsdon reflected as he relaxed back, laying his arms upon the armrests of the chair – was like living with a sidling snake that might unexpectedly strike at any moment.

Cold hands closed around his throat.

The hands unclasped immediately, blooming open like a carnivorous flytrap releasing its prey; but the hands did not release him. They slid onto his shoulders, holding him hard, and then made their way down his arms, as though they were two loops of rope drawing tight. They ended at his wrists, pinioning him to the chair. Then they waited.

Elsdon trembled. His breath had escaped him from the moment that the hands touched his throat, but it was not the promise of death that caused him to sweat; it was the mere binding. It had taken him nine years and countless self-imposed trials before he had reached this point of high achievement: to sit still, without screaming, while two hands lightly held his wrists.

He could hear the heavy breath of the man kneeling behind him. The man said nothing. He was waiting, Elsdon knew, for a signal. All that Elsdon need do was nod or make some other sign that he was agreeable. And then Elsdon’s hands would be pulled behind his back, and their play would begin again.

Elsdon shook his head.

The hands released him at once. There was no sound of the man’s departure, any more than there had been any sound of his arrival. Elsdon took a moment to steady his breath and to wipe sweat off his face. Then he pushed the chair back and sideways, with a protesting screech of its metal casters, and contemplated the High Seeker.

Layle was standing at the stove now, at the end of their small parlor which served as a miniature kitchen. There was a tall pot on the stove that had been warming when Elsdon arrived home from his night’s work. Layle looked down into it, stirring it as he said, “We’ve been delivered stew this morning. At least, I think it’s stew. Those potatoes look suspiciously colored to me.”

“Layle . . .”

“I could have them tested, I suppose. Or I could ask the healer for an antidote beforehand to food poisoning.” Layle did not look up. The light from the stove glowed under his face, turning his eye sockets deeply dark, as though the face-cloth of his hood still hid his face.

Elsdon hesitated. It was difficult to communicate with the High Seeker when he got into one of these moods. If Elsdon were truthful with himself, he must admit he had made little effort during the past few months to communicate with Layle. They would discuss work, in a cool manner that did not touch upon matters of controversy. And then, when the silence began to boil up and threaten to scald them, they would make love, playing out Layle’s usual dreamings of captivity and rape and torture. The play tortures had become more violent in imagery in recent months, as though Layle were releasing all his frustrations into the one place in his life where it was safe to play out his anger.

But never, in Elsdon’s long experience with his love-mate, would Layle refuse to respond to Elsdon if Elsdon took the direct approach. So now Elsdon said, “I attended a meeting in the common room yesterday evening. Of the New School.”

“Yes.” The High Seeker, unofficial leader of the rival Old School, did not look up from where he was stirring the alleged stew.

Elsdon felt foolish then. Layle often had that effect on him. Belatedly, Elsdon remembered that the High Seeker had no need to set spies upon the New School to learn of their activities. Too many ambitious junior guards existed to require that. Within two-thirds of an hour after the meeting, at least one guard who had attended the meeting would have sidled his way up to Layle and whispered, “I have information you should know.”

Layle despised gossip, though occasionally his duties as High Seeker required him to listen to the gossip. That alone would be enough to put him in a foul mood.

And the hands upon Elsdon . . . It was clear now what they had been. A gesture of true love. A last attempt at peacemaking, before the storm broke.

Elsdon winced inwardly at the realization of his rejection of Layle’s generous offer; but there was no way now to retract that rejection. Sighing, Elsdon set aside all thought of safely summarizing what had occurred in the meeting. No doubt the High Seeker could have given him notes. Instead Elsdon said, “Layle, you have to do something. Matters are spiralling out of control.”

“We’ve been over this before, Elsdon.” Replacing the lid on the stew pot, Layle turned his back in order to take two soup dishes off the rack where they were stored. “What happened was my fault. I did not sufficiently supervise Vito de Vere’s training, and so he developed bad habits that made him unsuitable for the position of Seeker. Because of my poor judgment, the Eternal Dungeon lost an otherwise highly qualified candidate for Seekership. The Codifier and I have discussed ways in which we can prevent this tragedy from happening again in the future. We are changing custom, so that the High Seeker keeps more careful watch over all Seekers-in-Training. We plan to create a new permanent appointment of a senior guard and junior guard whose primary duty will be to assist and guide Seekers-in-Training. The Record-keeper has created a new application form for prospective Seekers, more pointed in its questions—”

“Layle, you cannot cure a diseased dungeon by slapping a gauze bandage upon it! It’s not one thing or another that’s wrong, it’s the entire way this dungeon is run!”

Layle did not so much as pause as he laid out ironware on the work counter where he and Elsdon ate together after dawn and in the late afternoon, whenever the High Seeker’s duties permitted this. “What do you suggest I do?”

“You know what you have to do. Change the dungeon’s rules, so that Seekers and guards have greater leeway to show mercy to prisoners. If a Seeker or guard makes a well-meaning mistake in an effort to help his prisoner, don’t dismiss him or flog him, and for love of the Code, don’t execute him! Allow him the opportunity to learn from his mistakes and grow more skilled at his work. Above all, stop the torture of prisoners.”

This time, Layle’s hands did pause briefly before he placed the pitcher of water onto the counter. “The Code of Seeking requires the use of torture when certain prisoners cannot be reached in any other manner.”

“The Code of Seeking wasn’t authored by a god,” Elsdon said flatly. He had risen to his feet, though he remained where he was, standing in front of the chair. “Its fifth revision was authored by Layle Smith, who has every reason to know that he’s a fallible man, capable of making mistakes. Sweet blood, Layle, you’ve admitted your mistakes to me on countless occasions. Why can you not admit to the rest of the dungeon that you made a mistake when you mandated the use of torture against certain prisoners?”

Folding the napkins with a precision that would have done credit to an army unit at drill practice, Layle said, “There are certain customs in this dungeon which I may change, but the rules of the Code are not in my power to change. Their change is regulated by Chapter Ten, Paragraph B—”

“Oh, Layle!” Frustrated, Elsdon pressed his hands against his face. The High Seeker, the Codifier . . . even the Record-keeper, who worked directly under the High Seeker. All of them reciting rules of bureaucracy, as a train station manager might recite rules in the seconds before the deadly crash of a train that has been sent onto the wrong track. How could Elsdon break through Layle’s inflexible stance? It was a question that had haunted him for months and had kept him awake for endless hours as he began to sense the answer.

Layle added, “The rules exist for a reason. There was once a young man who had committed countless maulings and murders, as well as the rape of a virgin. The murderer was hard-hearted and could never have been reached by any pleadings for good behavior. He would have been lost to all civilized conduct, and his soul would have been trapped forever in the hell of afterdeath. But the man who searched him for his crime had the good sense to place the young man in physical torment for a brief while. The intense pain broke the murderer’s defenses and permitted the torturer to take the first steps to transform the young man’s heart. If the torturer had not done that, the young man would have remained what he had been: heartless and trapped in a perpetual cycle of evil.”

It was a brave attempt at communication. Elsdon recognized that. Layle disliked speaking of his criminal past, and never before had he spoken in such detail of the torture he had undergone as a boy in Vovim’s royal dungeon. Elsdon knew that Layle spoke the truth as he knew it. Layle genuinely believed that his soul could not have transformed if he had not been tortured, and he genuinely believed that he was helping his tortured prisoners into transformation.

“Layle,” said Elsdon as he dropped his hands wearily to his sides, “you cannot assume that every prisoner reacts to torture as you did.”

Layle raised an eyebrow. “I was about to say the same to you.”

Elsdon sighed. Layle was too good at this game of wits. They had been playing this game for months – for years. They travelled nowhere by it. Layle’s mind would not change; neither would Elsdon’s. And each time they played the game, new scars appeared on both of them, tender to the touch.

How long before the scars grew so thick that their bond would break? Would it not be better to take action before then, in an attempt to save their bond?

Elsdon drew in his breath. He had been rehearsing this moment in his mind for months but had not been sure what to say. Not until yesterday evening, after speaking privately with Birdesmond. “Layle,” he said, “Birdesmond plans to request that her work hours be changed to the night shift.”

From the flicker in Layle’s expression, it was clear that he understood what Elsdon was trying to say. But his voice was colorless as he replied, “The Record-keeper will send me that request in due time.”

“It’s not simply because she wishes a change in her duty hours,” Elsdon continued with determination. “It’s to give herself a suitable excuse to stop sharing Weldon’s bed. She loves her husband dearly, but this difference of opinion has become so great between the two of them that she can’t bear the pain of their fights. She wants to have time away from him, in hopes that both of them can consider what they should do, apart from each other.”

Layle picked up the lid of the stew pot. Peering down into the stew, he said flatly, “You wish a change of shift.”

Elsdon hesitated, wondering what the kindest way was to phrase this. “Not a change of shift, no. I’m a bat by nature; I work best during the night. But . . . Well, we’ve been fighting so much, over such important matters. It seems to me that it would be best if we both took a break—”

Layle said in an implacable voice, “I will have the Record-keeper move you to a new cell.” He banged down the lid of the pot. “This is inedible. I am going to eat in the dining hall. I will have another dinner sent to you.”

His face-cloth was down. That was what Elsdon noticed in the final seconds of that whirlwind which was Layle when he moved fast. Layle had pulled down his face-cloth, well before he reached the door.

He had cut himself off from Elsdon.

o—o—o

Zenas’s room was blessed with a plethora of props. This was because the Codifier had ruled that the dungeon’s usual property restrictions, which minimized the number of belongings that prisoners were permitted to keep, did not apply to Zenas, since he was the dungeon’s only long-term prisoner who was underage. Because of this ruling, his parents had ordered store catalogues and had guided Zenas through the toy sections of those catalogues, doing their best, through gestures, to explain the nature of each toy. Zenas, who had never quite mastered the Yclau alphabet – largely because his parents had assumed he could not grasp such schooling – was grateful for the explanations, though the pictures alone were clear enough. He chose his props carefully: costumes and art supplies and building blocks and stuffed animals. He had considered the dolls, but his parents appeared so horrified when he lingered over those pictures – even his mama, who had chosen a career considered most unsuitable for one of her sex – that he had confined himself to stuffed animals, which either boys or girls might play with.

In retrospect, it was a wise decision. To have played with a lifelike doll in the manner that he was playing now would have been too painful.

“Kneel!” he shouted at his favorite fellow player – a battered lion cub that had belonged to his papa when he was a young child. “Kneel and suck me!”

The stuffed cub looked up at him pleadingly, and then, perhaps as an indication of weariness, it toppled over to one side.

“You horrible boy!” As he spoke, Zenas picked up the cub and shook it, though taking care not to be as vigorous with the cub as his master had once been with him. The cub was more fragile— Well, no, the cub was less fragile than Zenas had been as a young boy. But Zenas had no desire to leave the cub in the same state that he had been, shortly before his arrival in the Queendom of Yclau with his master.

So rather than throw the cub onto the ground, he threw it onto the bed. “Stay there!” he ordered.

It took him only a moment to bind the cub, paw to paw. The cub stayed still, just as Zenas had. Zenas was dimly aware of the tears on his face, but he focussed his thoughts on picking up the little switch that he had fashioned out of the remains of an old hazelwood basket. “Now I’m going to whip you,” he announced, hearing the echo of his master’s voice in his head. “You’re lucky to be whipped. You’re lucky I love you enough to do this to you.”

He continued the whipping for the next third of an hour. It always took a while for his master’s arm to grow weary. He had to pause several times to blow his nose into his handkerchief. Finally, when he reached the point where he knew he would break down completely into sobs, he tossed the switch away and marched to the other end of the room, pulling off the tie around his neck. He had never played out the killing of his master. To do so seemed wrong. Even though his parents had impressed upon him that this was the only way in which he could have saved his own life, he still knew that it was wrong for him to have taken a man’s life. He prayed to the gods each night to give him tasks he could do to help bring good into the world, to demonstrate his repentance for the evil he had once done.

The tie represented his master, who always wore a suit except in bed. Zenas struggled for a moment to don the black cloth that represented a Seeker’s hood. Finally he was ready. He took a deep breath and turned to face the cub, which was still bound upon the bed.

He walked toward it slowly, and then gently unbound the cub, as a Seeker had once ordered that he be gently unbound. He shared his handkerchief with the cub, as a Seeker had once shared his handkerchief. Then he took the cub into his arms, as a Seeker had once done.

He bowed his head over the cub, saying, “It’s all right now. You’re safe. Nobody will harm you again. I won’t harm you, and I’ll make sure that nobody else does. I promise you that. For I am your papa, and you are my beloved son.”

As he spoke, he pulled back his face-cloth. He was still crying, but that was part of the performance. For it was his Seeker’s tears – on that day long ago when the Seeker had come to his cell and comforted him – which had given Zenas his first hint that this was a man very unlike his master. A man of strength, but a man who was not afraid to admit when he was wrong and to ask forgiveness.

It was a moment that had opened up Zenas’s world, though it had taken him many months to recognize what his master had done to him, and years more to forgive the dead man for the terrible deeds he had committed upon Zenas. That was all in the past, but if Zenas did not play out these events under bright lamplight, he knew that they would return to him in the darkness of his nightmares.

So now he rocked the cub in his arms, reassuring himself of the play’s happy ending. “I love you, son,” he told the cub. “I love you, and I have a wife who will be your mama, and she will love you too. We will take care of you, for as long as you need us. And after that—”

He broke off, alerted by the sound at his doorway.

It was his Seeker, of course. Weldon Chapman, supervisor of the day shift in the Eternal Dungeon, second-in-command to the High Seeker. At his word, any guard or Seeker might be beaten. At his word, any prisoner might be racked.

He was crying. That much Zenas knew, though his papa’s face-cloth was still down, for he had only just arrived home from work.

“Go on with your play, son,” his papa urged, gesturing to try to make clear what he wanted. “I’m sorry I disturbed you.” He withdrew quickly.

Zenas waited until he heard the door to his parents’ bedroom close; then he set the cub aside with a pat of reassurance, and made his way out of the curtained alcove where he had chosen to live.

He could hear anything his parents said in the bedroom; the bedroom door was not thick enough to keep out sounds. But it was always easier to understand them if he could see the expressions on their faces when they talked. So quietly, very quietly, he turned the knob and opened the door a bare inch, so that he could peek through the slight gap in the doorway.

His mama was sitting on the bed. She had evidently just awakened in preparation for her first night shift of work, for she was still in the frilly nightgown she wore because his papa thought she should have the opportunity during her leisure hours to dress up, the way gentlewomen in the lighted world did at all hours of the day and night. Left to herself, Zenas guessed, his mama would have worn the same sort of sensible clothes she had worn before she came to the dungeon, which Zenas had glimpsed only once, on his first day as their son. But she was a kind woman and liked to please her husband as much as her husband liked to please her.

Now her husband was buried within her arms as he sobbed against her breast. She cradled his head, now free of his hood, saying softly, “You didn’t see anything we haven’t seen many times before. My darling, we need to accept the truth.”

“I know,” replied his papa in a choked voice. “I know that the abuse which that vile man inflicted upon Zenas damaged his mind, so that he is still only a twelve-year-old.”

“Younger than that,” his mama said softly. “He plays with stuffed animals, and he has never learned our language, no matter how great an effort you’ve taken to teach him. At my guess, his mind is that of a seven-year-old – the same age that Zenas was when his master murdered Zenas’s widowed father and began raping the child.”

His papa gave another sob; he was clutching the lace on his wife’s nightgown, and his eyes were squeezed shut, though tears continued to pour from them. His face was scrunched up and red. “I keep hoping,” he said. “I keep hoping we’re wrong. He’s clever at checkers—”

“He’s a very bright seven-year-old,” replied his mama. She had the sort of distant look on her face that Zenas recognized as anguish as deep as her husband’s, but with her husband crying, all her efforts would be focussed upon comforting him. She was as much a Seeker as his papa was.

“The healer said there was nothing wrong with his mind—”

“Mr. Bergsen doesn’t live with Zenas from day to day,” countered his mama. “Even the young children at the outer-dungeon nursery recognized that something was different about Zenas; they drew back from him whenever he attended. It was almost a relief when he began refusing to attend the nursery last year . . . though I do worry about leaving him alone all the time now. It was bad enough when you and I were both working on the same shift and we had to leave him in the nursery during the daytime. But now that he has left the nursery, and there will always be one of us gone from home and the other sleeping . . .”

His papa struggled onto one elbow, staring up at his mama. “What harm could come to him? This is the safest place in the world for him to be. The guards know he isn’t permitted to leave the dungeon, and within the dungeon itself, there isn’t a man or woman who would raise their hand against him. They all know what he endured when he was younger.”

“That,” said his mama grimly, “is precisely what worries me.”

His papa sat upright. The two of them stared at each other silently for a minute. Finally his papa said, “You do him an injustice, Birdie. He has never harmed you, despite all the temptation he feels.”

“He knows I would scream down his dungeon if he tried,” replied his mama briskly. “But Zenas? He would cooperate with his abuser, just as he cooperated with his old slave-master. Weldon, you know I am not being foolish. You told me yourself that Layle Smith refused to come near Zenas during the boy’s time in a breaking cell, because he feared what he might do to the boy. And now the High Seeker is living in the same dungeon as Zenas, catching sight of him day after day, knowing that he could harm the boy in any manner he wished. Zenas is so young in mind that he wouldn’t realize that it was wrong for him to be harmed. . . . I know that the High Seeker is a man who desires good. But even such men have their limits.”

Her husband shook his head. Now dry-eyed, he was wiping the tears from his cheeks with his palm. The electric lamp on the bedside table – one of the few objects in their stark Seekers’ living cell, aside from Zenas’s toys – made his face appear paler than it actually was. “Dearest, you’re frightening yourself needlessly. I’ve known Layle for far longer than you have. He and I are the closest of friends. Zenas received a six-year sentence of imprisonment in this dungeon for his defensive murder of his master, and Layle would tear his own heart out before he harmed any prisoner—”

His mama arched an eyebrow. She was beautiful, not only in Zenas’s eyes, but also in the eyes of most of the men of the dungeon, who could see no more of her appearance than her shapely figure and graceful movements. Only her status as a Seeker and as Weldon Chapman’s wife kept her from being harassed by petitions for lovemaking. That, and the cool gaze she bestowed upon any fool who ventured such a petition. Now she said, “You think so? Yet since the beginning of this month, the High Seeker has ordered that half a dozen prisoners be racked.”

His papa’s movement, when it came, was so sudden that Zenas nearly fled backwards. But his papa, upon flinging himself off the bed, merely stared at the wall, his back to Zenas’s mama. “We have already gone through this,” he said, facing the wall.

“And reached nowhere in our discussion.”

“You know I support you in any endeavor you undertake,” replied his papa, still staring at the wall.

“You could better show your support by speaking out publicly against what the High Seeker is doing to this dungeon.” His mama leaned forward, tucking her feet under her.

“Please,” said his papa. “Please do not make this a matter of contention between us.” His voice had begun to quiver.

His mama’s voice, on the other hand, was filled with exasperation now. “You are so stubborn, Weldon. If you would just tell me why you’re refusing! Is it loyalty to Layle Smith? Or do you truly believe that the prisoners are better off having their limbs nearly wrenched from their bodies?”

“I cannot speak to you about this.” His papa’s voice was stiff; his posture equally so.

“For love of the Code, Weldon—”

“I cannot.” Turning swiftly away, he strode toward the bedroom door.

Zenas dived under the table where he and his parents had their meals. His papa didn’t notice. His face-cloth was already down; he walked rigidly toward the door to the dungeon corridor and walked through it.

He closed the door gently. Zenas noticed that. He wondered whether his mama would.

CHAPTER THREE

“Well, how shall we start?” asked his mama.

They were all there – all seven leaders of the New School, gathered in Zenas’s home, in what his mama had wryly termed the parlor, because it had a seat or two. “Representatives,” Elsdon Taylor was careful to call the leaders, but Zenas considered it unlikely that anyone else thought of them that way. Members of the Eternal Dungeon were prone to think in a hierarchical manner.

Perhaps this was on Mr. Taylor’s mind as well, for he said, “Before we start . . . I’ve been thinking about the matter of representation.”

They all waited. Mr. Bergsen, Zenas’s mama, and Mr. Taylor were seated at the small dining table which doubled as a desk. The two senior guards, Mr. Boyd and Mr. Yates, sat on the sofa that stood near a pedestal holding the cut-glass vase which had been Elsdon Taylor’s wedding gift to Zenas’s parents. Mr. Crofford had seated himself on a footstool next to the sofa, close to Mr. Boyd’s right hand, while Mr. Urman, like the loser in a game of Tuneful Chairs, was sitting on the floor near Mr. Crofford.

As for Zenas, he was spread out on his stomach on the floor, hoping his mama would not banish him from the proceedings. Nobody had elected him as a representative, he was acutely aware.

As though concerned about the danger of eavesdroppers, Mr. Urman glanced over his shoulder at the nearby bedroom door. “Will your husband be attending this meeting?”

“He will not.” His mama’s voice was unusually toneless. “He’s still at work. He usually works through the dusk shift. I’ve asked him not to interrupt our meeting.”

“He’s not with us, then?” Mr. Urman eyed her in a canny manner. “Bet there’ll be a lot of that before the end of this conflict: couples on rival sides.”

“You were saying, Mr. Taylor,” said his mama hurriedly. Zenas could guess that she was trying to derail Mr. Urman’s train of thought, not for her own sake, but for the sake of Mr. Taylor, who had turned up at their door the previous day with his sparse belongings wrapped in a blanket that he had flung over his shoulder, hobo-fashion. Zenas’s papa, who had answered the living cell’s door, had quickly invited Mr. Taylor to stay in their guest room. Officially, that bedroom was intended for Zenas, but Zenas had always preferred the little alcove where he had slept since he was twelve. It adjoined the parlor, where all the interesting conversations took place.

Mr. Taylor cleared his throat. “That’s what I wanted to talk about. Titles, I mean,” he added, as everyone looked at him blankly. “I’m uncomfortable at the idea of conducting our meetings in a formal manner, as though we were all on duty. The other members of our protest—”

“The New School,” said Mr. Yates, grinning.

“Yes, the New School, as we’ve been dubbed,” acknowledged Mr. Taylor, with a fleeting glance at Mr. Urman, who had spread the name like wildfire around the dungeon. “The other members of the New School elected us as their representatives – all as equals. We’ll need someone to conduct votes and the like, and I’d suggest that be our gracious hostess, who called the original meeting of protest.” He gestured toward Zenas’s mama, who pretended to curtsy from where she sat. “But other than that, I’d prefer that we treat each other as though we were all junior guards, equal in rank. It will make the conversations go more smoothly.”

“Well, I am certainly in favor of that,” said Zenas’s mama, as Mr. Crofford and Mr. Urman – the only junior guards present – exchanged looks. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but after seven years in this dungeon, I’ve grown tired of forever being greeted as ‘ma’am’ and ‘mistress.’ I’m younger than half the members of this room, and not terribly older than the rest of you, yet you make me feel as though I’m someone’s aging spinster aunt.”

This remark prompted light laughter from the men present, other than Mr. Boyd. Still grinning, Mr. Yates said, “Well, I have no objection to being addressed informally in these informal circumstances . . . provided that no occasion arises when I’m duty-bound to take official notice of an infraction by someone more junior than me. But I doubt that will arise.”

Mr. Boyd said nothing. Mr. Bergsen looked amused but said nothing.

Nodding, Zenas’s mama said, “Then I suggest that we all introduce ourselves by our full names and state, with honesty, what is most important to us in these proceedings. My name, as I believe you all know, is Birdesmond Manx Chapman – you may call me Birdesmond.”

“Birdesmond,” whispered Zenas, pulling himself into a sitting position on the bare floor. It seemed terribly disrespectful to think of his mama by first name alone, but if he was to be an equal to the others here, as Elsdon Taylor had urged, then he should follow the rules they were all following.

“I’m here,” said Birdesmond, taking a deep breath, “because I loathe the practice of torture, and I decided long ago that I would not rest until I saw that practice wiped out in this dungeon.”

Mr. Yates gave a low whistle. Mr. Crofford said, “You’re remarkably forthright, ma’a— I’m sorry, I’m going to have a hard time remembering to call you by your first name.”

Birdesmond gave a careless gesture. “Take as much time as you need. As for what you said, I don’t believe that my views are in any way unusual in the lighted world; indeed, I’m only surprised that we’re the first members of the Eternal Dungeon to oppose torture. . . . Let us continue. Mr. Bergsen? You’re the highest-ranked man here, I believe.”

“I’m David Stanhope Bergsen.” The healer, who had looked as though he were about to respond to Birdesmond’s opening remarks, chose instead to follow her instructions. “If anyone calls me David, I’ll bash them, because I despise the name. Bergsen will do; that’s what my friends call me.”

The others exchanged looks. Hiding a smile, Zenas guessed that there was not a single person in the room who would dare to address the irascible healer without his title.

“Torture is just a symptom of the problem, in my view,” continued the healer. “This dungeon has long been run in far too inflexible a manner, following the letter of the Code, rather than the spirit. Fiddling rules; I despise them. More room for common sense – that’s what this dungeon needs.”

There were general nods of agreement. Mr. Taylor, after pausing to see whether Mr. Yates preferred to speak next – the senior guards were officially higher-ranked than the junior Seekers – said quietly, “Elsdon Auburn Taylor. I go by Elsdon. I’ve more to learn than most of you, but my original concern started many years ago, when a Vovimian torturer suggested to me that the Eternal Dungeon deprived prisoners of the right to hold to their own beliefs, in matters of legitimate conscience. It seems to me that, whatever changes need to be made in this dungeon, we need to consider first what is in the best interests of the prisoners.”

“Here, here!” agreed Mr. Yates. “I’m Willard Howard Yates. Howard was my foster parents’ surname, and it’s the name I prefer to use among friends.”

“What is most important to you in this conflict, Howard?” prompted Birdesmond.

“Family.”

There was a startled silence. Howard Yates shrugged. “You asked us to be honest. My foster sister is who’s most important to me. Our parents are dead, and she’s been crippled since childhood; I’m the only person left to care for her. She’s what matters most to me in life. But if I can, I’d like to help out in this conflict, because the High Seeker has scared the soul out of me, ever since the day we first met.”

Leaning forward, Mr. Urman said, “He tortured you, didn’t he?”

“Mr. Urman,” murmured Elsdon. There was a frown in his voice. It was well known that, like the High Seeker, he despised gossip.

Howard waved a forgiving hand. “It doesn’t matter. The story’s been public for a long time. I was Layle Smith’s test, when he first became a Seeker. Our dungeon’s High Torturer, as he was called back then, wanted to see whether Mr. Smith would deliberately torture an innocent prisoner. So he told me to exercise my acting skills; then he gave me over to Layle Smith, telling Mr. Smith that I was a prisoner. I had the privilege” – a twist of the mouth, not quite a smile – “of being Mr. Smith’s first victim. . . . But no, he didn’t torture me, not physically. He ordered I be given a few disciplinary whiplashes when I lost my temper with him – nothing I wouldn’t do to a prisoner in similar circumstances. No rack, nothing like that. He passed the test that the High Torturer set for him; he refused to torture me.”

“But he was frightening,” said Mr. Crofford in a hushed voice.

“Gave me nightmares for years afterwards,” said Howard, all traces of a smile removed. “The nightmares started up again a few years ago, after Mr. Ferris disappeared. I don’t want anything like that to happen again.”

Mr. Boyd was frowning now, though Zenas wasn’t sure why. It was frequently difficult to tell what the senior guard was thinking; he was the only man in the dungeon whose difficulties in communication rivalled Zenas’s. Birdesmond, after glancing at Mr. Boyd – Barrett was his name, Zenas recalled – evidently decided not to strain the discussion by addressing that senior guard. Instead, she turned to the older of the two junior guards. “Mr. Urman?” she said.

“D. Urman,” he introduced himself with a shrug. “This dungeon’s in a bloody mess – everyone can see that. I want to help put it right.”

Elsdon coughed. “I think we can do without the foul language. Mr. Crofford, you’re the only man remaining—”

“Not his true name.”

The conversation halted as abruptly as a pile-up of wagons that had all been trying to travel through the same crossroad at once. Everyone stared. Then Birdesmond said tentatively, “I’m sorry, Barrett – could you repeat that, please?”

“Not his true name.” Barrett Boyd pointed at D. Urman. “D. Not legal.”

“He’s right,” said Howard Yates slowly. “In this queendom, you can’t be given an initial letter as your birth name.”

D. Urman glared at him. “You don’t use your birth name. Neither does he.” He jerked his thumb toward Mr. Bergsen.

“We did, however, state what our birth names are,” Mr. Bergsen pointed out mildly.

Howard turned his attention to Mr. Crofford. “Mr. Crofford – Clifford, isn’t it? You must know Mr. Urman’s first name. You’re his closest friend.”

“I’ve always called him D.,” said Clifford Crofford, but there was puzzlement in his voice, as though he sensed a mystery.

Mr. Bergsen cleared his throat. “It would normally be in his medical records.”

“Which you can’t reveal, under your oath as a healer,” said Birdesmond quickly. “We understand.”

“Which I can’t do, because I’ve never seen his name,” said Mr. Bergsen. “His birth name is masked in his records.”

Mr. Urman was looking furious now. Everyone else was looking intrigued. Howard whirled round to face Elsdon. “You must know, surely. He applied to be your senior guard at one point, didn’t he?”

Elsdon shook his head. “I know no more than the rest of you do.”

“Look, it really doesn’t matter—” began Clifford, who was forever defending his friends.

“Trust,” said Barrett.

“I’m afraid I must agree,” said Birdesmond in that sorrowful tone she adopted when she was doing the verbal equivalent of boxing someone’s ears. “We are discussing delicate topics, and if we don’t demonstrate complete trustworthiness to each other, why should any of us trust the other? I really think it’s important to establish trust in small matters, before we begin to discuss the very great matters we need to deal with.”

Mr. Bergsen grunted in evident agreement. Mr. Urman said nothing; his gaze had wandered over to look at the only person present who had not expressed his opinion, other than Zenas.

“Mr. Urman,” said Elsdon quietly, “I must join my voice with the others in asking you to be honest with us. Honesty is the path to rebirth – that’s what I tell my prisoners. I’ll ask you directly: What is your given name?”

Mr. Urman’s gaze travelled in jerks from person to person in the room, as though he were a small boy surrounded by bullies. The gaze returned, in the end, to Elsdon, who was waiting patiently. His face now a deep red, Mr. Urman said in a very short voice, “Daniella.”

After a brief moment of shock, Zenas buried his face in his hands. He was frightened to see what must come next. The laughter . . . Mr. Urman’s fury . . . the breaking apart of the brief alliance of leaders.

But he underestimated the leaders of the New School. Every single one of them, from Mr. Bergsen to Clifford, had been trained not to taunt prisoners, however great the provocation. Not a single person present laughed. When he peeked through his fingers, Zenas saw that none of them were smiling either. After a silence that continued for far too long, Elsdon replied quietly, “Thank you. I take it that you prefer to be called Daniel.”

Clifford let out a breath he had evidently been holding. Mr. Urman gave a crooked smile. “D. is fine. It’s what my sisters call me.”

That was rather an odd way to put it, Zenas thought, wondering whether the young guard’s parents had already died. And why had they named their son Daniella? It could not be because D. Urman was a woman in disguise; Zenas had seen D. showering in one of the open stalls in the guards’ washroom. Nor did D. behave as one who had chosen to imitate the gender of the goddess Mercy. There was a story here, clearly.

But the conversation was now moving on, thanks to Birdesmond’s tact. “Where shall we start our discussion?” she asked. “I know that, for me, the most serious problems in this dungeon began in the year 360, the sixth month, when the High Seeker started interpreting strictly the rules of the Code. That was when the beatings and dismissals began.”

Mr. Bergsen shook his head as he fingered the chain of his pocket-watch. “I’d say that the real trouble began three months later, when Mr. Ferris was arrested. That was a return to the dark days of Mr. Smith’s predecessor.”

Barrett frowned again. Evidently interpreting the frown as confusion, Clifford leaned forward. “You remember that, don’t you, Barrett? When Mr. Ferris was executed by the High Seeker? Mr. Ferris was the oldest Seeker in the dungeon then.”

Barrett simply shook his head. Apparently restless, he stood and went over to the sideboard, where Birdesmond had spread out refreshments for the meeting beforehand.

Clifford followed him. “Barrett, you can remember.”

“It’s hardly important—” began Howard.

“Oh, but he’ll remember in a moment,” said Clifford over his shoulder. “He always does. It just takes him a minute.” He returned his attention to Barrett, who had abandoned the refreshments untouched and was now returning to his seat. Blocking his path, Clifford urged, “You can remember, Barrett. It’s easy. It happened on the day that you asked me to be your love-mate. You remember that, don’t you?”

Barrett frowned, furrowing his brow. He wasn’t protesting Clifford’s words, Zenas realized; he was trying to remember. His brow grew more furrowed. Sweat began to bead upon it. He put out his hand to touch the chair beside him. As he did so, Zenas saw that he was shaking.

“Wait.” Elsdon’s voice was quiet, but it was so firm that everyone turned to look at him – everyone except Barrett, who was now gripping hard the chair’s back. Elsdon took a step forward, saying softly, “Clifford, bid him to stop.”

Clifford looked from Barrett to Elsdon with confusion. “It’s all right,” he said. “He’s always like this, when he tries to remember. He has a hard time, but he’ll remember eventually.”

“Mr. Crofford, bid him to stop.” Elsdon’s voice remained quiet; his gaze was fixed upon Barrett.

Clifford gulped. D. Urman was frowning, but he made no attempt to intervene. Everyone else simply waited.

Clifford hesitated for a moment more, but the change in address gave him no option; a Seeker’s official orders had to be obeyed, unless the order went against the Code or against the orders of the High Seeker or Codifier. Turning to Barrett, Clifford said, “It’s all right, Barrett. You don’t need to remember; it’s not important.”

Barrett said nothing. His eyes were now squinted shut. But after a moment, his trembling began to ease.

With a voice as still as a hush after sleep, Elsdon asked, “What were you seeing, Mr. Boyd?”

The mode of address did its work on Barrett as well. He replied without hesitation, “Before.”

“You were remembering?”

Barrett nodded.

What were you remembering, Mr. Boyd?”

Barrett’s brow furrowed. This time his expression looked like puzzlement. “Before. That day before.”

“Before what?”

No reply. D. took a step over and looped his arm around the arm of Clifford, who was looking increasingly troubled. Howard had a reflective look on his face, as though he wished to take notes. Birdesmond had sunk down onto the sofa, evidently in an attempt to see Barrett’s face better. As for Mr. Bergsen, he was whistling softly under his breath, the way he always did when he was worried about a patient, but he seemed contented to allow Elsdon to handle matters.

Elsdon tried a different tack. “When you remember that far back . . . how do you do it, Mr. Boyd?”

The puzzlement in Barrett’s expression increased. He still had not opened his eyes. There was a fine sheen of sweat on his face now. “I remember.”

“How?”

“I remember back.”

“How do you journey back there?”

“Past the fire.”

Birdesmond stiffened. D. took a tighter grip on Clifford’s arm, but Clifford simply continued to look confused.

“What fire?” Elsdon’s voice was hardly higher than a whisper now.

“The fire.”

For a space of time, there was silence, broken only by the healer’s whistle. Then Elsdon seemed to make up his mind. His voice growing stronger, he said, “When does the fire occur?”

“At the beginning.”

“The beginning of your memories?”

Barrett nodded. Starting to understand, Zenas drew his legs up within his arms. Clifford, though, still appeared to be bewildered by what was taking place.

“When do your memories begin?” Elsdon’s voice was horribly matter-of-fact, though Zenas could guess that this was for Barrett’s sake, rather than because he was unmoved by what was taking place.

Barrett’s frown increased. He made no reply.

Elsdon flicked a glance toward Mr. Bergsen. The healer whistled at the ceiling for a moment, and then jerked his head toward the sofa. Birdesmond quickly arose.

“Come over here, please, Mr. Boyd.” Elsdon continued to sound as bland as though he were issuing orders for a prisoner’s daily meals. Without opening his eyes, Barrett moved toward Elsdon. When he’d nearly reached the sofa, Elsdon swung around to stand behind his back. “Turn, please.”

Still blind, Barrett turned to face Elsdon. He seemed to sense that something was wrong, for he said, “Mr. Crofford—”

“I’m right here, Barrett,” said Clifford quickly. “Just . . . just answer whatever questions the Seeker has.”

“Sir.” Barrett’s tone toward Elsdon was more hostile than before.

Elsdon took no notice of the hostility. “Thank you, Mr. Boyd. I won’t keep you long. I just have one question: On what day do your memories begin?”

Again, no reply. Barrett was breathing heavily.

“Very well.” For the first time, Elsdon seemed hesitant. He glanced again at the healer, who broke off his whistling long enough to give Elsdon a nod. Turning his attention back to Barrett, Elsdon said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Boyd, but I must ask you to help me locate the beginning of your memories. I’d like you to go back to then.”

“Through the fire?” Barrett’s muscles tensed.

“Up to the point of the fire. Then stop. Stop there, where your memories begin, and tell me what day it is.”

Clifford had turned pale. He began to shake his head vigorously. D. reached down and gripped his hand. Elsdon took no notice of either of them; his gaze was fixed upon Barrett, whose breathing was growing more erratic, whose frown was deepening, whose sweat was pouring, whose body—

“Aaaaaaaaaauuuu—!”

The hoarse scream broke off abruptly. Barrett had passed out.

The healer was there to catch Barrett. He lowered Barrett to the sofa, arranged him on his side, and quickly stepped away. Elsdon knelt down beside Barrett. Already, Barrett was beginning to emerge from his faint; he groaned deeply.

Elsdon’s gaze travelled up to look at the others: Birdesmond, with her hand clamped over her mouth. Howard, swearing under his breath. Clifford, crying within D.’s arms.

“The year 360, the eleventh month, the eighth day . . . shortly before midnight.” Elsdon spoke softly. “That is when Barrett Boyd’s memories begin. That is the fire he must pass through every time he tries to remember what happened before.”

o—o—o

“I didn’t know!” cried Clifford.

They were alone in the parlor now: D. Urman and Clifford Crofford. Elsdon, who had just stepped out of the guest room where he had been speaking privately with Birdesmond, could barely glimpse Zenas hidden behind the curtain of his alcove, granting the junior guards some token privacy. Mr. Bergsen had already escorted his patient to the infirmary, taking care not to touch him. Howard had gone into the corridor in order to answer the queries of several guards who had heard the scream and had come knocking on the door to discover what had happened. As he had left, Howard had given Clifford a sympathetic squeeze on the shoulder.

“I didn’t know, D.,” said Clifford, struggling to stop his tears. “I didn’t realize that asking him to remember was putting him through so much pain.”

“Hoi, mate, don’t get yourself so wrought up,” said D., embracing Clifford’s shoulders with his arm. “It’s a simple mistake. He won’t hold it against you – or if he does, I’ll make clear to him why he’s being an idiot. It’ll work out, I promise. It always does.”

Clifford gave him a faint smile through his tears. “Except when it doesn’t.”

“Don’t you believe me, then? Who’s your best mate?” D. released Clifford, only to give him a mild punch in the arm.

“You are.” After a moment, Clifford sighed. “You’re right, of course. He’ll forgive me; he always does. That’s not what I’m crying about, though. It’s the thought of him going through all that suffering for my sake—”

“Mr. Crofford, I’d like to speak with you.” Elsdon’s voice was so abrupt that even Zenas jumped in his hiding place. Clifford turned white.

D. glared at Elsdon. “He’s in no state for a reprimand, Seeker.”

“My apologies. I should have said: May I speak with you, Clifford?” Elsdon took no notice of D.’s ferocity. He had long since grown used to D.’s implacable hatred of him.

Clifford tugged at D.’s arm to draw him back from the confrontation with Elsdon. “I’ll be fine, D. Will you go check the healer’s surgery for me? See that Barrett’s all right.”

“Aye. Aye, of course.” Still glaring like a watch-hound that’s removed from duty at the exact moment when a burglar is breaking in, D. left the parlor. Clifford pulled a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and made an ineffectual attempt to wipe his face.

“Let me.” Elsdon took the handkerchief from him.

For a while they did not speak. Elsdon carefully wiped Clifford’s face, as though the guard were a child. Elsdon could hear faintly the soft snore of Weldon Chapman, who had returned home from work to find his wife kneeling over the prone body of Barrett Boyd. The senior Seeker hadn’t said a word; he had merely walked through the anxious crowd around Barrett and entered his bedroom, shutting the door behind him.

Clifford gave a gulp, trying to swallow a series of hiccups that threatened to overwhelm him. “I didn’t know, sir.”

Elsdon nodded, keeping his gaze carefully focussed on Clifford’s forehead, which he was wiping. “You’d asked him before to remember?”

Clifford nodded. The guard looked utterly miserable and entirely too young. He was only a year younger than Elsdon, but since his arrival at the Eternal Dungeon, Clifford’s youthful friendliness had kept everyone entranced. Even – Elsdon was beginning to suspect – a certain guard who hated every other prison-worker in existence. “Did you ask him to remember work matters?”

The shame on Clifford’s face was answer enough. “No, I asked him . . . I asked him to remember us.”

Elsdon said nothing. It was a trick he had learned from the High Seeker: to remain silent in order to allow the man he was searching to fill the silence.

“He didn’t remember us,” Clifford said, all in a rush. “Not for the first three years. He’d pass me in the corridor, and he wouldn’t even look at me. At first I thought he was angry at me, because I didn’t stay to watch his punishment. D. said it couldn’t be that, though, because Barrett wanted me to be absent that night. So one day last year, I managed to persuade Barrett to listen to me. I asked him why he was so cold to me, his love-mate. He just looked at me blankly. That’s when I realized. He didn’t remember me at all.”

“It can happen, I understand,” said Elsdon. “Amnesia following a traumatic event. It’s nothing he deliberately tried to do, I’m sure.”

“I know.” Clifford bowed his head as Elsdon set aside the handkerchief. “I thought that all I needed to do was prod his memory. The first time . . . It was like it was today. He began to sweat and to shake. I thought it was due to simple exertion. I had no idea . . .”

Elsdon picked up the handkerchief again. After he’d wiped off the latest tears, he said, “And it’s been like that every time?”

Clifford sniffed. “Every single time. Mr. Taylor, he’s been going through torture for me for months! Why didn’t he tell me?”

“Because he thought you knew.” That would be the most honest answer. Elsdon decided against saying that. Clifford’s repentance for what he had done was clear. So instead Elsdon said, “He clearly loves you a great deal.”

Clifford’s breath stopped. He stared at Elsdon, open-mouthed.

“Didn’t you realize that?” asked Elsdon in a mild tone. Keep the voice gentle; that was best with frightened, cooperative prisoners.

“Of course I knew,” whispered Clifford. “He’d never stop loving me. It was the last thing he said to me, before his arrest: that he would always love me. He would never break a pledge like that, no matter what. But everyone else thinks . . . Only D. understands. Everyone else has been telling me to forget about Barrett, to journey forth with my life, but D. has been saying I should stick with Barrett, I should figure out a way to help him remember our love-bond.”

Hence D.’s foul mood. D. must be in as much agony of conscience right now as Clifford, but he expressed it in a very different manner. “Barrett has given you as clear a testimony of his love as any man could,” said Elsdon. He put his finger under Clifford’s chin, forcing up the guard’s face. Another trick he had learned from the High Seeker, though Layle only practiced it with him, not the prisoners he was forbidden to touch. Elsdon asked, “Is something else bothering you?”

Clifford immediately turned his gaze away. “I was wondering . . . Will this endanger Barrett’s job? Will the High Seeker dismiss Barrett when he discovers that Barrett has lost his memory?”

Elsdon considered that averted gaze for a moment and then released Clifford, stepping back. One trouble at a time – that was how to approach this conversation. “The healer is the one who advises the Codifier on whether workers in the inner dungeon are medically fit for their jobs. Mr. Bergsen didn’t strike me as particularly alarmed today; he may well have known about the amnesia already, if not the precise manner in which Barrett’s memories operate. . . . I wouldn’t worry. Barrett has been monitored closely for the past four years, and according to the High Seeker, there’s no indication that he’s unable to do his job. Barrett may have lost his memories of the past, but he hasn’t lost the knowledge he gained during that time. He’s still what he always was: an experienced guard, skilled at his work.”

Clifford’s gaze remained fixed upon the sofa where Barrett had lain. He finally burst out, “But he can’t speak well. Not in public. When he’s alone with me or with the prisoners, it’s different. But when he’s talking to other guards or Seekers . . .”

“I know. The High Seeker knows.”

“This dungeon has always taken a role of leadership,” he had heard Layle tell Weldon on an evening three years before. “We were the first prison to place a code of ethics upon our workers. We were the first prison to permit adult men to mate with each other—”

“And the first to hire a woman Seeker,” Weldon pointed out.

“Yes.” Layle tensed, as he always did when references were made to Birdesmond, but he went on, “This may be another occasion when we can show leadership: by employing a mind-crippled guard.”

“They’ll say you’re insane,” warned Weldon.

Layle gave one of his dark smiles. “The world already has proof of that. Sometimes my insanity bears fruit. We shall see.”

“The Record-keeper is under orders to pair Barrett only with experienced junior guards, those who can take over the work of communicating on Barrett’s behalf,” Elsdon explained to Clifford. “The problem has been that Barrett keeps requesting transfers. He seems to be dissatisfied with every Seeker he works for.”

“Or perhaps he’s dissatisfied with the junior guards he works alongside?” suggested Clifford, his tears forgotten. “It must be difficult for him to depend on another guard, one who’s lower in rank than he is.”

“Perhaps.” Elsdon scrutinized his face. Clifford appeared calm now. This was the right moment for the question. “And perhaps difficult for you, to know how much it hurts him to remember his bond with you in the past?”

Clifford looked as though he’d been slapped. He lowered his head, gulping air. After a minute he said in a low voice, “He mustn’t remember me again; I realize that now. He must forget we were ever love-mates. He must . . . I must stop making him love me.”

“Oh, Clifford.” It wasn’t hard to make his voice sympathetic. It never was, when he was searching men who plowed forward, breaking themselves. All they needed was a little guidance on their path. “Clifford, you can’t make him love you – you never could. And whether or not he has clear memories of you in the past doesn’t matter. Barrett knows what you are now: a warm, gentle, generous, affectionate man. For your sake, he passed through a nightmare of memories; for your sake, he has attended meetings organized by a Seeker to help a former Seeker-in-Training, despite his hatred of Seekers and despite the special dangers that rebel meetings pose for him. He trusts you that much. What can you call such trust except love?”

Clifford looked as though he were about to be overwhelmed with tears again. Thankful that the Code did not forbid Seekers to touch guards, Elsdon put an arm around Clifford’s shoulders. “Will you take a little advice from someone who’s fallen in love with a man whose mind works differently from the mind of the average person?”

“Of course, sir.” Clifford’s voice remained low.

“You say you want Barrett to be your love-mate. You also say you want him to love you. Has it occurred to you that those are two different desires?”

Now appearing puzzled, Clifford frowned slightly, looking at Elsdon. But the junior guard possessed a great gift for remaining mute when he was confused – of waiting for answers, rather than rushing to supply his own answers.

Elsdon was counting on that. He said carefully, “If there’s one thing which everyone in this dungeon knows, it’s that Barrett Boyd dislikes being touched. He will touch his prisoners if his duties require it, but even that is painful for him in some manner – that’s clear from the expression on his face when he does it. And to touch you, to lie in bed with you, to place his whole body against yours for hours on end. . . .”

A look of clear horror had descended upon Clifford. He blurted out, “I hadn’t thought of that!”

No. He wouldn’t have. Elsdon was well aware that Clifford was most likely a virgin. His experience of carnal matters would have been limited to a few kisses with his childhood darling, who had tragically died on the night before their wedding. Perhaps Clifford had exchanged a kiss or two with Barrett during the brief period of their courtship, before Barrett’s punishment. But since then, Clifford’s thoughts had been centered on renewing the emotional bond between himself and the senior guard. At this stage, it would not have occurred to Clifford that his love for Barrett might eventually take a more fleshly form.

But it would occur to Barrett. Until a few months before his punishment, Barrett Boyd had made periodic visits to the government-licensed brothels in the city. If he retained the knowledge he obtained in the past, as the healer said, then Barrett would be able to envision what duties were required of a love-mate.

To envision those duties, and to strive with all his great courage to fulfill those duties, once Clifford had made clear to him that he had previously pledged to be Clifford’s love-mate.

“Oh, sweet blood,” Clifford said in a strangled voice. “He’s been letting me touch him. He always flinches away, as though he has touched a hot kettle, but he never stops me when I try to touch him. He’s been trying to accept it – to accept the pain I give him. I’ve been such an idiot—”

Still standing with his arm around Clifford, Elsdon gave him a gentle squeeze. “It was a misunderstanding. Misunderstandings happen between two men who love each other – believe me, I know that from my own experience.”

“I won’t let it happen again—”

“I know you won’t.” A reassuring tone, a smile with the eyes, a warm encouragement. It was all in Elsdon’s usual repertoire, and it was exceedingly pleasant to exercise his Seeker skills with a man who wholly deserved any help he could receive. “But remember what I said before? Loving and being a love-mate are two different things. You can still love each other without being love-mates.”

Clifford raised his gaze finally to look at Elsdon. The calmness he showed at his work was beginning to settle over him, now that Elsdon had provided him with a foundation for the future. “But Barrett is more than just a friend to me. And I must be more than just a friend to him, if he’s gone through all that for my sake. If we’re not love-mates, what are we to each other?”

“I don’t know,” replied Elsdon simply, “but Barrett may.” As Clifford stared, Elsdon added, “Clifford, you’ve spent a great deal of time making clear to Barrett what form you thought your love-bond together should take. Has it occurred to you to try to figure out what form he thinks it should take?”

o—o—o

Clifford left shortly thereafter, escorted by D., who had returned with news that all was well with Barrett in the healer’s surgery. D., unfortunately, had refused an invitation to stay. Elsdon watched him leave with Clifford, feeling uneasiness ripple the surface of his mind.

“How many times, do you think, will scenes like this occur before we are through?”

He did not turn to look at Birdesmond, who had softly walked up beside him, her face-cloth down in preparation for her night’s work. He replied, “Quite a few times, I suspect. Layle once told me that, the moment a prisoner first touches the Code, layers begin to peel off.”

CHAPTER FOUR

He was being beaten again.

He knew that it was because he had done something wrong. His old master had been forgiving of his mistakes, punishing him only once or twice a night. His new master, from what little he had seen of him so far, was more exacting.

He’d already made every effort he could to appease his new master, but the man seemed angry when he offered his body. He could not figure out what his master wanted. His master spoke in a strange tongue and kept his face hidden. Now, for reasons he could not comprehend, he had been stripped and was being bound to a whipping ring by one of his master’s servants.

He tried to look over his shoulder at his master, but all he could see was another servant, holding the whip. Apparently, his master could not even be bothered to do the beating himself. His eyes prickling with tears, he buried his face between his arms. The beating began, hot lashes against his bare back.

What could he say to stop it? He tried frantically to pursue a solution. He would confess to the murder, he decided. He would confess to any misdeed that his master wished to charge him with—

A door closed, and Zenas jerked upright in bed, sweat slick upon his skin.

It took him a moment to catch his breath. It had been years since he had dreamt of his breaking at his papa’s hands. Some of the first words he had come to understand in the Yclau tongue were his papa’s repeated apologies for that beating. His papa had misunderstood Zenas’s wordless actions, had thought that Zenas was attacking when he tried to offer his body to the Seeker whom he assumed was his new master.

That much Zenas had accepted and had easily forgiven. It had not been so easy to forgive the Eternal Dungeon, though, as he grew aware that what his papa had done to him was mild in comparison to how other prisoners were treated. Only the awareness of his own crime – of his dreadful, bloody murder – had kept his growing anger in check. How could he stand judgment upon men who had done nothing more than he himself had done?

Yet through all those years, his certainty had grown: the gods would not be pleased with what was taking place in the Eternal Dungeon. Torture was a privilege reserved to the High Master of hell, not to mortal men.

Now, seated sweating in bed, he breathed deeply, remembering that others here in the dungeon shared his concern – his mama, foremost of all.

And his papa?

It was then that he heard the footsteps.

The door closing had not been part of the dream, it seemed. Someone was in the parlor, walking through the dark. Not a single lamp had been lit in the windowless living cell, but dimly, against the faint glow of the kitchen stove that stood opposite to Zenas’s alcove, the silhouette of a man walked past the blanket that covered the doorway to Zenas’s alcove.

A Seeker; Zenas glimpsed the outline of his hood. It must be Zenas’s papa, come home mid-day to fetch something. But why did he not light a lamp?

The silhouette passed out of sight. Perhaps it was Elsdon, returning to the guest room . . . But no, Elsdon had gone to bed earlier. Zenas had heard him praying, for Elsdon kept his door ajar in order to let in heat from the kitchen stove, the living cell’s only source of warmth in the coolness of the underground dungeon.

Had Elsdon risen since then and left the cell?

Zenas began to pull his blankets off, in preparation to rising from his bed; then he shrank back instinctively. The silhouette had returned. It was not his papa – he was sure of that. His papa was shorter in stature. . . .

The door to the corridor clicked shut again. Zenas waited two minutes and then scrambled out of bed. Lighting the candle lamp on the night-table next to his bed, he lifted it and went to search the living cell.

The first thing he checked was his parents’ bedroom. The door was locked. His papa, concerned at his mama being left alone while she was sleeping, had insisted that she lock the bedroom door, even though she pointed out that the living cell’s main door always remained locked, and that Elsdon, a love-mated friend of the family, was a more than adequate guard to her virtue.

Zenas pressed his ear to the door. He could hear his mama’s soft snore. Satisfied, he next checked the guest room, peering cautiously through the gap in the doorway. Elsdon was asleep too, sprawled loose-limbed across the sheets in a sensuous manner that helped Zenas to understand what had initially attracted the High Seeker to the junior Seeker.

Zenas prowled around the rest of the living cell, seeking some clue as to who had been there. Nothing was touched – not even the cut-glass vase, whose pedestal stood directly in the path between Elsdon’s room and the door to the corridor. Elsdon had poor night vision, Zenas knew; surely the junior Seeker would have stumbled into the pedestal if he’d tried to walk to the guest room in the dark.

Finally Zenas found something out of place: a chessboard on a knee-high table, close to Elsdon’s door. It must have been jarred, for an ebony hostage had skittered forward, as though it had been moved.

Zenas sat down on the floor to look, setting his candle on the table. The hostage – the “pawn,” as the Yclau called it – was making its desperate attempt to escape from the Queen and from the High Seeker of the Queen’s Eternal Dungeon. Ebony guards stood on either side of the Queen and High Seeker, preparing to recapture any Vovimian hostage who tried to escape. On the side of the board with the ivory figurines, the King and the High Master of the King’s Hidden Dungeon held their own hostages, with their own guards ready to recapture any Yclau hostage who sought to escape them. But it was the Vovimian hostage who had fled first from the Eternal Dungeon, frantically trying to make its way to Vovim. Already, Zenas noticed, the High Seeker had edged forward, clearly seeking to be the chessman who made the capture.

Zenas spent a moment considering the position of the hostage. Then, with careful consideration, he moved forward the aeka, the prophet who stood only on the Vovimian side of the board. On the Yclau side of the board stood a cleric, but the High Seeker’s move forward precluded the cleric from taking the primary position of capture. From now on, it would be a battle mainly between the aeka and the High Seeker, unless all the hostages were captured on one side, or the King or Queen were checkmated.

o—o—o

He was still thinking about the chessmen, and about his papa, when the others arrived.

His papa – Weldon, Zenas supposed he must think of his papa now, if Zenas was to think of his mama as Birdesmond – had apologized for what he’d done, but he continued to order other prisoners to be beaten or racked. Zenas knew that Weldon had once been a prisoner in the Eternal Dungeon, arrested on a false charge. Zenas also knew that Weldon, like all the Seekers, had undergone torture at the end of his training period as a Seeker, as a means to understand better the workings of the whip and the rack.

But Weldon had not experienced both at the same time. He did not know what it was like to be tortured as a prisoner, at the mercy of the man torturing you.

It was hard to understand what this was like, unless it had been done to you. Elsdon understood; he’d not only been abused by his father during his childhood and beaten by the High Seeker during his breaking, but he’d been held captive in the Hidden Dungeon after he travelled to Vovim on a mission for the Queen. Barrett Boyd understood also; he’d expected to die under the lash four years ago – had actually died, in a certain sense. He wasn’t the man he’d been before he was beaten; everyone in the Eternal Dungeon agreed about that, including Zenas, who remembered the friendly guard who had smiled at him whenever they passed each other in the corridor.

Torture had transformed Mr. Boyd, and not in a good way. Whatever change Elsdon Taylor had undergone in the Hidden Dungeon was invisible on the surface, but he was now fighting to put an end to the Eternal Dungeon’s torture.

And yet . . . and yet their foremost opponent was the High Seeker, who had been tortured as a prisoner.

Few people knew that. Zenas only knew the story because he had heard Weldon discuss it with Elsdon Taylor: the private tale of how Layle Smith, wicked in his youth, had been arrested on suspicion of having committed a terrible crime, had been tortured in the Hidden Dungeon for a confession, and then – unexpectedly – had been spared execution, only so that he could be trained to be a torturer for the King of Vovim. From that moment, Layle Smith had gradually risen to power, till he became the High Seeker of the Hidden Dungeon’s rival, the Eternal Dungeon.

Was that why Layle Smith considered torture to be a good thing? Because his own confession under torture had brought him such material good? Zenas put his chin on his fist, contemplating the chessboard as the leaders of the New School arrived.

Elsdon emerged first from the guest room, fully clothed with the face-cloth of his hood down, since dungeon custom decreed that Seekers were only permitted to show their faces to a select few intimates. Likewise, his mama, Birdesmond, was fully hooded when she left her bedroom and began bringing out the food she had cooked during the previous dawn shift.

It was a mixture of foods, for most of the people at the meeting were coming off the day shift to their suppers, while Elsdon and Birdesmond and D. were beginning their work days. Snatching a piece of dried apple from a bowl, Zenas made his way back to the chessboard, where he could stay inconspicuous.

None of the leaders looked in a good mood. Howard readily explained his own discontent: “I had my annual leave stopped.”

“Why?” demanded D., always eager to hear gossip.

“The High Seeker didn’t say.” Howard’s lips thinned.

“That’s odd,” said Clifford slowly. “I was reprimanded by the High Seeker today for a sloppy uniform. He told me that a black mark would be placed in my record.”

Everyone looked at Clifford’s uniform. It was immaculate.

“Hmm.” Mr. Bergsen looked reflective. “I put in a request for replacement instruments in my surgery. Since the request included scalpels, which could be used as weapons by escaped prisoners, the Codifier referred my request over to Layle Smith. Mr. Smith denied my request today, without explanation.”

“The High Seeker’s Record-keeper told me I would have to work today, even though it’s usual for Seekers to take time off after the execution of their prisoner,” said Birdesmond. “Do you suppose . . . ?”

“I was denied the usual leave after a racking,” said Elsdon shortly. “Barrett?”

The senior guard briefly shook his head. D. volunteered, “I was beaten.”

Howard emitted a short laugh. “Well, that’s nothing new. But the timing of the rest . . .”

“Pressure from the High Seeker?” suggested Birdesmond as D. scowled. “He hasn’t said anything to me about our recent meeting.”

“He wouldn’t,” replied Howard. “The High Seeker, like the High Torturers who came before him, has no need to offer reasons for his conduct. It used to be that, in the old days, men would go into the Codifier’s office, and only their corpses would be returned. We never knew why. . . .”

“The Codifier is part of this too?” said Clifford quickly. He had abandoned the food he was nibbling on. They all had, except Barrett.

“The High Seeker could hardly start denying leave to the Seekers without the Codifier’s cooperation,” said Elsdon quietly. “I think we can assume that the High Seeker, with the Codifier’s permission, has decided to bear down upon those of us who are meeting to resist the present practices in the dungeon.”

“But Barrett hasn’t been affected,” protested Clifford.

At that moment, there was the scrape of a lock at the door to the corridor. The door opened slightly, and Weldon’s head poked through. “Ah, Mr. Boyd,” he said to the senior guard. “Come with me, please.”

“And just what do you intend to do with him?” Outrage personified, Birdesmond folded her arms.

Weldon kept his gaze centered upon Barrett. Elsdon reached over to touch Birdesmond’s sleeve, murmuring, “Birdesmond, no.”

Barrett had already set down his food. Strapping on the whip and dagger he had set aside upon his entrance, he stepped forward.

“Thank you, Mr. Boyd,” said Weldon as the senior guard approached the door. “We’re short a dusk-shift guard this evening – Mr. Rhodes has taken suddenly ill. I’d like you to serve as a substitute guard, since you’re generally on duty during the dusk shift anyway.”

Barrett said nothing; he simply followed Weldon from the living cell. The door closed behind them.

“Of all the arrogant, high-handed— Does Weldon really think he can destroy our opposition this way?” Birdesmond was in fine form now. Zenas could envision her as Mercy, swooping down with sword in hand to protect a beloved soul.

Elsdon touched her arm again. “I don’t think it was his decision, Birdesmond. This has all the signs of being Layle’s orders. Or perhaps it’s just a coincidence.”

“A coincidence!” D. turned his glare upon Elsdon. “You’re forever defending the High Seeker.”

Somewhat mollified, Birdesmond said, “He defends us to the High Seeker as well, I’m sure. Elsdon has always been something of a mediator.”

D. snorted. Elsdon said, “It would be odd if one side in this dispute held all the truth. If I defend the High Seeker, it’s because I want to question our premises to be certain we’re right. I could be biased against the High Seeker because my own torture in Vovim slanted me toward the belief that torture is wrong.”

“Or perhaps you’re the one who arranged for all of us to be punished,” rejoined D., quick as a whiplash. “You skipping your leave could just be a mask for your plot with Layle Smith.”

“D., stop,” said Clifford, obviously distressed.

D. ignored him. “You could be memorizing every word we speak, every decision we make, just in order to inform the High Seeker—”

“I don’t need to tell him about you,” Elsdon said mildly. “He knows everything he needs to about you.”

This was so obviously true that Zenas expected nothing more than a shrug from D. Instead, D. took hold of the cut-glass vase and smashed it to the floor.

Everyone scurried back from the flying glass except Elsdon, who didn’t move. His gaze remained level with D.’s. After a moment, D. turned and left the living cell. “Fled the cell” was perhaps the correct phrase.

There was silence, and then Clifford said in a small voice, “I’ll clean up.”

Elsdon shook his head; he had already stepped aside to pick up the broom in the kitchen. “The mess is my fault,” he said. “I’ll take care of it.”

CHAPTER FIVE

“Sometimes,” said Birdesmond wryly, “I feel as though the true battle is not between the New School and the Old School, but between the seven of us.”

Elsdon nodded slowly. The rest of the “rebel leaders,” as D. had dubbed their group, had already left; the only remaining person in the living cell, aside from Birdesmond and himself, was Zenas, sitting on the floor by the chessboard, apparently oblivious to the proceedings.

Apparently. Shifting his mind away from the continuing mystery of the young man, Elsdon returned his thoughts to Birdesmond’s remark. “Barrett’s hostility I can understand. I was the Seeker he worked for when he was punished, so he associates me with that terrible period. But D. . . . I’ve never understood why D. dislikes me so much. His anger toward me existed long before my break from the New School. He has been furious toward me since I first came to this dungeon, nine years ago.”

In a feminine manner, Birdesmond had paused in front of a mirror in order to tuck a stray tuft of hair back into the bun under her hood. She looked over her shoulder. “He applied to be your senior guard at one time, didn’t he?”

“He has applied to be every Seeker’s senior guard at one time or another,” Elsdon replied dryly as he placed his foot upon the parlor stool and draped an arm over his upraised knee. “I’ve never understood why. It’s quite clear that he’s not going to advance in this dungeon – indeed, it’s a wonder that the High Seeker didn’t dismiss him long ago. D. has the highest record of reprimands and disciplinary beatings of any guard in the Eternal Dungeon.”

“I’ve never worked with him,” confessed Birdesmond, peering into the mirror as she straightened her collar. She wore the female equivalent of a Seeker’s uniform: a plain black shirtwaist paired with a plain black skirt. The direct simplicity of the costume suited her well. “All I’ve heard about him is rumor. I suppose you must know him better. He was junior guard to the High Seeker when the High Seeker trained you, wasn’t he?”

“And guarded me when the High Seeker broke me. Yes. But I can’t say that I know him well.” Elsdon frowned, staring down at the floor. Out of the edge of his eye, he could see Zenas scooting away from the chessboard. The board remained as he had left it: with the ivory and ebony chessmen deeply entangled in a battle.

“Well,” said Birdesmond as she fiddled with a button, “I suppose that it really doesn’t matter how adequately you know him. He doesn’t work for you.”

Elsdon raised his head then. Birdesmond continued to face the mirror, fussing with her uniform in a manner utterly woman-like and utterly unlike her.

“Birdesmond Manx Chapman,” he said slowly, “are you searching me?”

With a grin, she faced him. “It’s hard to resist. You don’t often have open flaws.”

He started to speak and then stopped, forcing himself to think. In the little alcove of the living cell, Zenas had begun playing with a stuffed lion and a stuffed kitten. Through Zenas’s voice, the kitten was snarling at the lion.

“I suppose that I don’t like to think about him,” Elsdon said finally. “Just as memories of me are part of Barrett’s dark time of punishment, the same is true of D. and me. One of my first memories of my arrival here, as a prisoner, is being whipped by D. after I instinctively pushed Seward Sobel away from me, when Seward touched me unexpectedly. I remember the fear I had, of not knowing how to stop D. from whipping me.”

Birdesmond frowned. “Was Mr. Sobel in danger from you? Beating a prisoner for a mere push seems excessive.”

Elsdon shook his head. “The High Seeker ordered that D. receive a disciplinary beating afterwards – not only for whipping me repeatedly, but for failing to tell the High Seeker the full circumstances of what happened, which could have saved me a second beating. Seward told me that, years later. I suppose that’s how D.’s hostility toward me arose.” Elsdon creased his brow, so absorbed in his thoughts now that he barely noticed that Zenas had moved the snarling kitten under the night-table, in an evident effort to protect it from the lion’s anger. “The odd thing is, he was occasionally very helpful to me during my training. He was like a tap of water that can’t decide which temperature it is. One moment, he’d be helping me; the next moment, he’d be surly and sarcastic.”

“Which is his pattern of behavior as a guard,” Birdesmond agreed. “His behavior doesn’t puzzle me – I’ve seen that sort of behavior before from essentially good-natured men who have undergone hardship in their lives, so that they feel they must protect themselves. There’s really only one mystery to all of this.”

“What mystery is that?” Amidst the continued snarls of the kitten – who was now being licked by the friendly lion cub – Elsdon felt his mind travelling back to an incident that had occurred the year before. A dream. He had dreamed of D. Urman. Not of the present, but of D. at the time of Barrett Boyd’s punishment, near the end of the year 360. It had been a disconcerting dream, which hinted at unknown depths within the guard. Elsdon had tried to tell Layle of the dream . . . but Layle, who normally treated his love-mate’s dreams with great seriousness and interest, had quickly turned their conversation to other topics.

What had Layle said about the dream? “People are often different inside than they appear to others. . . . It sounds like a mystery worth uncovering.”

“The mystery,” said Birdesmond, responding to Elsdon’s question, “is quite obvious. During these years when the High Seeker has beaten, suspended, and dismissed guards who disobeyed orders in the slightest manner . . . why has D. Urman not attracted the High Seeker’s wrath?”

o—o—o

The answer to the mystery turned out to be a good deal more difficult to uncover than Elsdon had expected.

For the most part, the lives of the workers in the inner dungeon were an open book – literally. Every worker in the inner dungeon had his records placed in an archive maintained by the Record-keeper. Any Seeker or senior guard was permitted access to those records. Indeed, the High Seeker encouraged Seekers to examine the records of the guards who worked under them, in order to better know them.

Elsdon had already read D. Urman’s records at the time that D. applied to be his senior guard. Those records were one of the reasons that he had rejected D.’s suit. The records revealed an almost endless sequence of reprimands and disciplinary beatings received by the junior guard, as well as countless complaints from his Seekers that the guard refused to obey orders. Over and over again, the guard followed his own inclinations, rather than the orders of his Seekers. The only positive note in D. Urman’s files was that he was blessed with a good sense of humor. That fact was noted, not by any of D. Urman’s recent Seekers, but by the High Seeker.

Now, rereading the records more carefully than before, Elsdon began to discern a pattern. It was a pattern, though, that made no sense. How could a guard with such qualities have ended up as the most disciplined guard in the Eternal Dungeon? And how could the High Seeker have failed to notice the long string of transgressions? During the past four years, guards who had committed minor infractions of trivial regulations had found themselves packed out of the dungeon within a shift’s time. Yet D. Urman, notorious for his flagrant disobedience, continued to work in the dungeon.

There could be only one answer: the High Seeker was protecting D. Urman. But why?

Elsdon turned to the earliest portion of the records: D.’s basic information and his records of previous employment. Aside from the lack of D.’s given name, the records seemed quite complete. D. had worked as a guard at a well-respected prison in central Yclau and had received a recommendation from the Keeper there. The recommendation, which was included in the records, stressed that D. Urman had used humor to defuse several tense situations between violent prisoners and their guards.

Hence Layle Smith’s awareness of the potential for D. Urman’s humor. Elsdon let his mind drift back, remembering incidents long forgotten of D. making jokes with his fellow guards. Some of the jokes had bettered the conversations; some had gone awry. An untrained skill. Nobody except the High Seeker seemed to have recognized the skill at all.

Elsdon checked another date. Yes, that was right: D. had only been a guard-in-training at the time of Elsdon’s arrival at the Eternal Dungeon as a prisoner. And after that . . . If the High Seeker had possessed any intention to develop D.’s skills further, that intention was derailed by Elsdon’s arrival. First there had been the simmering romance between Layle and Elsdon, which Layle had fought so hard to prevent, fearing the nature of his own desires. Then there had been the madness: Layle’s two bouts of madness, over the space of three years. By the end of that time, D. Urman had evidently given up on the High Seeker, for he had transferred away from Layle Smith.

He had tried to rise to senior guard under Weldon Chapman. A costly mistake with a prisoner had prevented D. from rising in rank. Then, after a short time, he had applied to be Elsdon’s senior guard. Elsdon had turned him down. D. had returned to work with the High Seeker . . . but the High Seeker had been preoccupied during that period by the rise of the New School and Barrett Boyd’s arrest.

Since then, a scattering of positions, increasingly frequent requests for transfers to different Seekers, all of whom ordered him to be beaten for disobedience. The latest beating had occurred after D. cracked a joke with a prisoner who had just finished being racked, evidently seeking to ease the man’s pain through humor. His Seeker had treated D.’s act as insolence, since D. Urman had failed to maintain the solemn atmosphere that the Seeker desired. D. had requested a transfer to another Seeker after that incident.

“I am alone, I am alone, I am always alone.” D. Urman’s words in Elsdon’s dream.

Acting on instinct, Elsdon rose to his feet. Not until he reached the Record-keeper’s desk did he know what he was going to ask. “Mr. Aaron,” he said when the Record-keeper finally looked up with that expression of impatience which never seemed to leave his face, “Mr. Urman lists his eldest sister as his next of kin. Does he no longer possess parents, then?”

With the profound sigh that the Record-keeper saved for Seekers who asked him foolish questions, Mr. Aaron turned the pages of the record to the medical report, which listed Mr. Urman’s parents as living.

“Then why would he list his sister as next of kin?” asked Elsdon, his finger tracing the name and address of the sister. “Why not his father?”

The Record-keeper shrugged. “Not everyone chooses to list their fathers as next of kin. You didn’t, while your father was alive.” He rose to cross out the name of a prisoner on the slate tablet behind him, while Elsdon stood frozen in place.

CHAPTER SIX

“Sorry.” Clifford banged the door shut as he spoke breathlessly. “My Seeker wanted to work through the dusk shift.”

D., who had been checking the clock in the parlor every five minutes for the past two-thirds of an hour, was generous enough to remain silent. Barrett – the other guard who was due for duty, because he had recently transferred to a night-shift Seeker – sent no glares in Clifford’s direction. Birdesmond, however, sighed as she consulted her clock. “You’re not the only late arrival. Elsdon, are you sure you told the healer about this meeting?”

“I’ll check,” said Howard, who had arrived only a couple of minutes before, having lost an argument with his Seeker over whether he should work through the dusk shift. “He may be busy with a patient.”

Once he was gone, Birdesmond flopped herself down upon the sofa. “This is a tragicomedy. After three weeks, the leaders of a revolution still haven’t been able to find the time to make any plans.”

“The first failed meeting was my fault,” said Clifford softly.

Elsdon shook his head. “It’s nobody’s fault. It’s hard to run a revolution when all the representatives are working up to sixteen hours a day at breaking prisoners.”

“And even if we guards could coordinate our vacations, Seekers normally aren’t permitted lengthy periods of time off work,” observed D., seating himself on the arm of the chair that Clifford had sunk down into. “Hadn’t you better leave, Barrett? All I’ll get is yet another reprimand in my records, but you’re senior-most guard for your Seeker. You could be given a beating if you’re late for work.”

Barrett shook his head, but Zenas, sitting cross-legged in front of the chess game, thought he looked strained.

Zenas himself was tired. A few hours before, he had awakened from a nightmare to the soft sound of a door closing and had been unable to fall back to sleep. Now he considered the chessboard. He and his papa had played checkers many times over the years; it was their only real means of communication. At first, the two of them had fought bitterly: Weldon to let Zenas win, Zenas to keep the game fairly fought. After a while, though, Zenas had realized that the only way to make his papa happy was for Zenas to let Weldon lose in his favor.

Weldon never played chess with Zenas. It never occurred to him to do so.

Someone – likely Elsdon, who often idly fiddled with objects when he was upset – had moved the High Seeker chessman. Zenas looked again at the board, then moved the Vovimian prophet forward, taking care first to ensure that the prophet was not in a position where he was in danger of being captured by the Yclau chessmen. In a few more moves, the prophet might be in a position where he could capture the High Seeker, checkmating the Queen.

So absorbed was Zenas in the game that he missed the moment of Howard’s arrival back. He was alerted to trouble, not by Howard’s report, but by the babble which greeted that report.

D. managed to raise his voice above the others. “What do you mean, taken leave? How can he fucking walk out on us like that?”

“D., please.” Elsdon’s voice remained quiet. “What was the exact wording, Howard, if I may ask?”

Howard sighed as he leaned back against the corridor door he had just closed. “The nurse said, ‘I’ve been informed by the Codifier that, if anyone asks for the healer, I’m to tell them that Mr. Bergsen is on leave until further notice.’”

Clifford, who was now on his feet, swung round to look at Elsdon. “Can he do that?”

“Yes.” Barrett’s reply was terse.

“Yes,” agreed Elsdon in a weary voice. “The Codifier possesses great power, and Mr. Bergsen works directly under him. The Codifier wouldn’t need anyone’s permission to suspend the healer from his duties. The Codifier answers only to the Queen.”

“Mr. Smith must know,” said Birdesmond. She was on her feet now, pacing back and forth. Zenas reached out with his arm to prevent her long skirt from tipping over the chess pieces. “The High Seeker’s gate-guards will be in charge of preventing Mr. Bergsen from re-entering the dungeon.”

Howard sighed. “If you know his address in the lighted world, I’ll visit him at week’s end. But I think we can assume that he won’t be able to take part in our little conspiracy any longer.”

D. thumped the top of the chair that Clifford had vacated. “We can’t ignore this!”

“No, we can’t,” chimed in Clifford. “We have to hold a protest.”

Elsdon cleared his throat. “I don’t think Mr. Bergsen would be happy at being made the center of a protest. Rather, I think he would prefer that we get on with our business of protesting the High Seeker’s policies.”

“But it’s one and the same, ain’t it?” argued D., lapsing into commoner speech. “This is the sort of thing we’re protesting: the High Seeker and the Codifier expelling from the dungeon anyone who disagrees with them. We’ve got to find a way to make clear we won’t stand for this.”

Clifford bit his lip. “But not by breaking the Code, surely? I mean . . . We’ve only just begun to protest.”

“I agree.” Elsdon pulled out a chair and sat down, gesturing for the others to follow suit. “Here’s what I think we should do. I think that, as a form of silent protest, Birdesmond and I should keep our face-cloths raised in public.”

Clear through the eyeholes in her hood, Birdesmond’s eyebrows shot up. Clifford gave a little gasp. Howard said, “By all that is sacred. Won’t that break the Code?”

Birdesmond shook her head slowly. “No. Not if we keep our face-cloths down when we search prisoners. The Code requires that. At all other times . . . The Code encourages Seekers to remain completely hooded at all times in public. The High Seeker backs that custom by fining Seekers who raise their face-cloths in public.”

“You Seekers receive so little money as it is . . .” began Clifford doubtfully, but Elsdon shook his head.

“If giving up our luxury allowance for several weeks is the worst contribution that Birdesmond and I make in this battle, we’ll be more fortunate soldiers than most. Are we agreed, then?” Elsdon looked around at the others. “If Birdesmond and I raise our face-cloths during the next day shift, when we’re off-duty—”

“If you do that.” D.’s voice was loud. “It’s all about you, isn’t it, Seeker? You and your fellow Seeker are the soldiers. The rest of us, we’re just navvies taking your orders.”

“D.!” Clifford exclaimed.

Barrett said nothing, but he was glaring now at both Elsdon and Birdesmond. Howard said slowly, “He has a point, Elsdon. There are only two of you, but the rest of us should be taking part in the protest – not just us, but the other junior guards who are in the New School.”

“You’re right, of course.” Elsdon addressed Howard rather than D., and Zenas winced. He could see D.’s expression from where he sat.

“What sort of protest do you have in mind, Howard?” asked Birdesmond. “You can’t make any changes to your uniform.”

Elsdon said slowly, “You wear whips . . .”

“No!” Surprisingly, it was Clifford who spoke sharply. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but we really need those whips. Sometimes they’re the only way to stop an attack from a violent prisoner.”

Elsdon nodded. More hesitantly, Clifford said, “I think . . . Well, I’m not sure, but perhaps black arm-bands?”

Howard and D. exchanged looks. “Superb,” D. declared.

“Black arm-bands?” said Birdesmond. Elsdon leaned forward, looking equally confused.

“It’s an old custom,” explained Howard. “Hasn’t occurred for a while. Last time was . . . Oh, it must have been when you were attacked, D. That was in the fourth month of 359, while you were on leave to care for Zenas when he had influenza, Birdesmond.”

“I was in mourning for my late father then,” Elsdon murmured. “What happened?”

“I was an idiot,” muttered D., keeping his gaze averted.

“Oh, D.” Clifford went over to take D’s arm. Barrett followed Clifford with his eyes, but said nothing.

“It was when D. was training to be senior guard for Mr. Chapman,” Howard explained. “D. got knocked on the head pretty bad by a vicious prisoner. Hostage situation. The High Seeker came to the rescue, so no one died. But there was a period where it wasn’t clear whether D. would recover—”

“That’s why he has headaches all the time,” inserted Clifford. “Really bad ones.”

“I had no idea,” said Birdesmond softly. “Do you take time off from work, D.? I hadn’t noticed.”

“They’re nothing. I can handle them.” D. was glaring at the floor now.

“He ought to take time off from work,” said Clifford. “He doesn’t. No matter how bad his head gets.”

Howard coughed. “Speaking of work, D. and Barrett are both overdue for their shifts. So let me finish what I was saying. Whenever this sort of thing has happened – when a guard was in danger of dying – the rest of us would wear black arm-bands, for as long as the guard remained in danger. We haven’t done that since the attack on D. Even when—”

He stopped abruptly. Zenas had already turned his eyes.

But there was nothing to see. Barrett was looking at the clock, not at anyone else in the room. After a moment, Clifford said in a hushed voice, “We thought of doing it again, four years ago. We talked about it. But everyone was afraid. The High Seeker had nearly killed one of us, and all of us guards were afraid of what would happen if we wore arm-bands in support of the man he’d nearly killed.”

“You argued most forcefully in favor of the arm-bands,” said Howard. “As for the rest of us . . . We were cowards, I’m afraid. But we won’t be this time.”

Elsdon nodded. “I agree that what you’re suggesting is appropriate. Not to protest Mr. Bergsen’s suspension, but if you are willing to mourn men who are in danger of dying—”

“—as every prisoner is whom we rack,” said Clifford, finally releasing D. from his embrace. “We can protest the rackings while you’re protesting Mr. Bergsen’s suspension. People will understand the connection.”

“Because, of course, Seekers can’t be expected to protest rackings.” It was D. again, as acidic as usual.

Elsdon made no reply. Birdesmond merely said mildly, “Since we Seekers wear black at all times, I doubt that a black arm-band would show up as well on our uniforms as it would on guards’ grey uniforms. . . . Thank you, Clifford. That’s a wonderful suggestion. Thank you for your explanation, Howard. D., perhaps you would be kind enough to spread word to the other guards—”

But D. was already heading toward the door. Barrett, after a brief glance at the clock, did the same. Clifford followed, murmuring apologies for the abrupt departures of his friend and his former love-mate. Howard, rolling his eyes, left as well.

Zenas folded his arms and laid his chin upon the low table, contemplating the chessmen. It was a very early move he had made, but already he was beginning to envision the implications of the prophet’s move – the moves that would follow the prophet’s venture. It would be interesting, he thought, to see how his unknown opponent reacted.

o—o—o

After hunting a moment, Elsdon reached out and pecked another key.

He had found his typewriter mysteriously sitting on his night-table upon waking on the afternoon after their latest meeting, where everyone had reported the High Seeker’s unexpected lack of interest in their change of clothing. Elsdon could guess who had delivered typewriter; other than Weldon and Seward Sobel, only one man possessed keys to all the rooms in the Eternal Dungeon. The stark, silent presentation of the only belonging he had left behind in Layle’s cell had made Elsdon uneasy, but there was no denying that the typewriter was coming in handy, since Layle – unlike the Record-keeper – was willing to accept typewritten correspondence from Elsdon.

Not that this letter was proving easy to write. Sighing, Elsdon paused again, interrupted by the conversation outside his room.

“Sweet one, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the nursery again, if you just give it a try. Think of all the toys you can play with.” That was Birdesmond, speaking in a bright voice that was quite different from the subtle coaxing tone she used with her adult prisoners.

“I’m sure you’ll make lots of friends there, son.” That was Weldon, joined with Birdesmond in the urging, though he sounded less than enthusiastic at the exercise.

Elsdon had been doing his best not to eavesdrop; he well knew that, if it hadn’t been for his friends’ generosity in permitting him to stay as a guest, he would not have overheard this private family discussion. However, the silence on Zenas’s side – not so much as an inarticulate moan of protest – caused him to peek a look at the boy. Zenas was standing straight, his dark face set in grim lines, as though he were a slave receiving unacceptable orders from his master.

Birdesmond and Weldon, however, were not the sort of Seekers to issue orders if coaxing would do. “Mistress Sobel is in charge of the nursery on week’s end,” Birdesmond said. “You remember her, don’t you? The pretty lady?”

Elsdon winced. He tried to concentrate once more on the letter he was typing.

Even Weldon seemed to sense that this was going too far. He said, “Birdie, I’m sure he remembers Marjorie Sobel. He attended nursery for five years.”

“Finlay’s mother,” Birdesmond added, continuing to use the bright voice she used with no one else. “You remember Finlay, don’t you? He is your best friend.”

Weldon muttered something under his breath about Finlay being Zenas’s only friend. Then he cleared his throat and made another try. “Your mama and I would rather that you not be by yourself when I’m sleeping and she’s working. Come back and stay at the nursery with the other children – that’s a good boy.”

Zenas, though, seemed to have latched on to a single word of what was said. He suggested tentatively, “Finlay?”

“No, sweet one,” replied Birdesmond quickly. “Finlay goes to grammar school and art classes in the lighted world during the daytime. In the evening, he does his homework, and he sleeps after that. I know that you enjoyed playing with him when he spent all his time in the dungeon, but he’s too old now for you to play with.”

Elsdon carefully eased his hands of the typewriter keys, anticipating an explosion. Finlay Sobel, eldest child to Seward and Marjorie Sobel, was ten years younger than Zenas.

Zenas, though, said nothing. Peeking another look, Elsdon saw through the gap in his doorway that the boy was standing rigidly, as though enduring a heavy beating.

Elsdon was still trying to decide whether he had the right to interfere when Weldon – apparently able to interpret Zenas’s posture – said hesitantly, “Maybe that would be best, Birdie. Marjorie Sobel would keep an eye on him, I’m sure.”

“Weldon, we cannot hand Zenas over to the Sobels.” The exasperation was clear in Birdesmond’s voice. “He’s a young boy; the responsibility for him is ours.”

Elsdon rose from his chair then; but not quickly enough. The explosion came – not from Zenas, who was continuing to exert iron-clad control over himself, but from Weldon.

“Birdesmond, it’s all very well to protect the boy, but we can’t keep him tied to your apron strings—”

“Weldon Chapman, we agreed together that this was the best course of action—”

“To offer him the chance to go back to the nursery! Not to force him!”

“You of all people accuse me of using undue force! I am trying to protect him from the bloody practices that take place in this dungeon! What if he should enter the rack room when you’re torturing a prisoner?”

Since Weldon was not in the habit of torturing prisoners while he was sleeping, Elsdon was unsurprised that the only response to Birdesmond’s accusation was a slammed door. At the same moment, a slight figure rushed into Elsdon’s room. The boy skidded to a halt when he saw that Elsdon was there.

Elsdon smiled and gestured toward the back of the room. With a look of gratitude, Zenas hid behind the bed.

“Zenas!” cried his mama. “Sweet one, where have you gone?”

“Birdesmond, could you help me with this?” Elsdon hastily looked around for something that he could use as a source for conversation. All that he could see was a book that Layle had evidently used as a base for the typewriter, for it had turned up at the same moment as the typewriter. Elsdon had glanced through the book, curious because he could not recall ever seeing it before; a certain chapter in it had caught his attention. He would need to discuss that chapter with Clifford Crofford.

But not with Birdesmond. Instead, Elsdon pulled the document off his desk and walked into the parlor. He found Birdesmond looking around, pulling her long, beautiful hair from a braid in her distraction. She was dressed for bed, in a frilly nightgown.

She sighed when she saw Elsdon, but it appeared that her sigh was due to the requirements of modesty, because she walked over to fetch her wrapper from her bedroom. “Elsdon, did you see which way Zenas went?” she asked as she returned. “He was here a moment ago.”

“Perhaps he went to use the communal toilet,” Elsdon suggested as he turned to place the document on the table.

He had said the wrong thing. Gripping the back of a chair on which her husband’s spare trousers were hanging, Birdesmond responded in a horrified voice, “In the dining hall?”

“I expect so,” said Elsdon, carefully staring down at the document. “Many of the children like to play there, you know; it’s the largest room in the dungeon, and there are always adults around to supervise. Seward and Marjorie began allowing Finlay to play there when he was four years old.”

“Oh.” Birdesmond’s voice changed. “Well, in that case . . . ” She sighed again. “That blasted husband of mine. He’s inflexibly stubborn. I’m sorry if we disturbed you with our argument. I suppose Weldon has gone to weep on the High Seeker’s shoulder.”

Something about the way she said this made Elsdon look sharply at her. “Surely you don’t think Weldon shares your private conversations with Layle.”

She gestured wearily into the air. “Elsdon, I’m not naive. I know that, at the heart of our disputes, lies Weldon’s love for the High Seeker. —Not that I am accusing your love-mate of being unfaithful to you,” she added hastily as Elsdon’s expression changed. “No, the problem is all on Weldon’s side. He has never stopped adoring the High Seeker.”

“Sweet blood, Birdesmond, I had no idea you were worrying yourself in such a fashion.” Elsdon touched Birdesmond’s arm lightly. “That was years ago, and you yourself helped Weldon to recognize that his affection for Layle wasn’t in the nature of a romantic passion.” As Birdesmond frowned, Elsdon added with a smile, “I’ve kissed a few girls in my time, and I was once kissed by a boy at my grammar school.” By Vito de Vere, actually, but Elsdon needn’t go into the details of that schooldays kiss, which both he and Vito had set aside in favor of their current friendship. “Yet if the most beautiful of my past loves were to walk into this dungeon, I wouldn’t spare a single look at her. I have Layle . . . and Weldon has you.”

Birdesmond pursed her lips, looking uncertain, but after a moment she nodded. “It’s not worth worrying about, I suppose. What do you need help with?”

Elsdon risked a glance toward his bedroom door. He’d left it open a mere inch. Wherever Zenas was in the room, he was taking care not to be seen. “It’s something that Layle asked me to look over.”

Birdesmond raised her eyebrows as she sat down at the table. “So he’s still talking to you?”

“Talking? No. I found this document on top of my typewriter when I returned from work this morning. When Layle wants to issue me orders these days, he sends mail. He hasn’t spoken to me since I left his living cell.” Elsdon sat down, staring at the document, which was in Layle’s distinctive handwriting, with the Queen’s seal upon it to indicate she had approved it. Very few dungeon documents required the Queen’s seal, but this one was for new positions not mentioned in the Code of Seeking, so the document had travelled through the hands of both the Codifier and the Queen.

Why Layle should want Elsdon to examine the document after the Queen’s approval, Elsdon could not guess. Was it too much to hope that this was Layle’s excuse for continuing to communicate with Elsdon, albeit silently?

“Oh, yes, I remember this document.” Birdesmond glanced at it. “It was delivered an hour ago, while you were in your bath.”

Elsdon’s gaze jerked up. “By Layle?”

“No, by Zenas; he had slipped out before I got back from work, the naughty boy. I suppose that Seward Sobel gave him the document to deliver; the guards often treat him as a messenger boy.”

“Mm.” Elsdon did not look in the direction of the guest room, but he found himself wondering whether, in fact, Layle had any idea that the document had gone missing. Zenas had a tendency – unnoticed by his adoptive parents – to take it upon himself to move matters forward in the dungeon. As the only inhabitant of the Eternal Dungeon with dark brown skin – even Layle’s skin tone was light olive – Zenas should have been easily noticeable among the light-skinned Yclau, yet the boy was skilled at hiding in corners and eavesdropping on conversations. He might well have overheard his father discussing the document with the High Seeker and decided, on his own initiative, that Elsdon should see it. Certainly the lack of any accompanying note was unusual.

But why? The document, though bearing the Queen’s seal, was a routine one – a matter of guards’ duties. Was there some reason that Zenas considered it necessary for Elsdon to think about guards?

Guards.

Zenas had overheard the conversation between Birdesmond and Elsdon about D. Urman. For all Elsdon knew, Zenas might have overheard Elsdon’s conversation with the Record-keeper. Elsdon had set aside the mystery of D. since that time.

A fact that Zenas might well have decided to correct, with this subtle reminder.

Smiling now, Elsdon began to take back the document, since he suspected that the High Seeker would be surprised to receive any comment on it from Elsdon. Birdesmond, however, had already begun to read it. “This is because of what happened with Vito,” she suggested.

“I imagine so.” Elsdon glanced again at the document. It referred to the course of action that Layle had lightly mentioned during their final conversation together: the creation of permanent posts for a senior and junior guard, to supervise Seekers-in-Training. An unusual act, for guards never held permanent posts, other than the High Seeker’s senior-most guard, Seward Sobel. All other guards were transferred periodically from Seeker to Seeker, gaining experience through their exposure to different Seekers.

Could Zenas be suggesting that he thought D. Urman should be assigned to such a post? If so, the boy was showing poor judgment, Elsdon reflected. D. was in no way qualified for a position of such high honor.

“This will permit a senior and junior guard to work together for many years,” Birdesmond pointed out.

“I suppose so.” Elsdon was distracted by a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye. Zenas, standing near the guest room door, listening in on the conversation.

But any further thoughts Elsdon might have had were interrupted by the arrival of the male servant who delivered coal to the Seekers’ living cells. “Excuse me, sir, ma’am,” said the outer-dungeon laborer deferentially.

“It’s quite all right,” replied Elsdon, folding the document and making a mental note to himself to hand it back to Zenas. He hoped the boy would have the sense to return it before Layle noticed its loss.

Still in her wrapper, Birdesmond had discreetly retreated to her bedroom. The male servant cleared his throat. “I was wondering, sir . . . could I or any of the other outer-dungeon workers be of any help?”

The kitchen was in a mess. Rather than sleep, Birdesmond had stayed up during the afternoon, preparing treats for the next meeting of the New School’s representatives. If nothing else, the rebels were well fed. “Thank you, that’s very kind of you,” said Elsdon as he slipped the document into Zenas’s palm. Zenas promptly returned the document to the pocket of Weldon’s spare trousers. “I’ll just leave you to take care of the kitchen,” Elsdon told the servant.

Then Elsdon left the living cell. He had an address to fetch and a letter to write before he could sleep.

o—o—o

My dear Mr. Taylor,

Your Grace,

Mr. Seeker, sir,

I hope you will forgive me if I have chosen the incorrect manner by which to address you. My brother told me once that you were kin to the Queen, but that you were not in the direct line of descent. My sisters and I have pored over Mistress Perfect’s Book of Etiquette for Young Ladies, but we are unable to find any entry telling us how such royal kinfolk should be addressed, and we are not sure whether there is a special manner in which Seekers should be addressed in correspondence. I hope you will forgive me for any mistakes I make in this letter, for my sisters and I were taught at home, and my mother only worked one year as a schoolmistress before her marriage, and nobody in our family circulates among the highest circles of society – except my brother, since he works with you, but of course I cannot ask his advice on how to respond to you. My sisters and I did ask our parents’ advice, but my father is very busy at the moment, preparing for the train company’s annual reception for the Queen, and my mother is in charge of raising subscriptions for charitable relief of impoverished children in the southwestern districts, so they did not have the time to advise us.

But I am sure that, by now, you are drumming your fingers, wondering when I will arrive at the point. So I will try to answer the questions you asked me, and I hope, in your kindness, you will forgive me for any mistakes I make along the way and will understand that my mistakes are from ignorance, not from any desire to show disrespect.

You are correct, sir, in guessing that my brother’s name has caused him many problems over the years. To start the tale at the beginning: My brother is the eldest of us, and at the time he was born, it seemed that he would be the only child, for my mother had experienced a number of miscarriages. (I hope it is not indelicate of me to use that word. I am not sure what the proper way is of saying that.) Because of this, my parents were very concerned, before the birth of their child, that they give their child the right name. They decided to name their child Daniella, after my father’s aunt, who was quite elderly and who might be willing to pass on her estate to my father after her death.

When the child turned out to be a boy, my mother was crestfallen, and my father, in one of his stubborn moments, insisted that the child be named Daniella in any case. And so my brother was registered that way with the city record-keeper. (I might add that my great-aunt ended up passing on her fortune to her niece, for she decided my father had shown poor judgment in giving his son a girl’s name.)

My brother’s early childhood was happy, he has told me in the past. I just barely remember this time, being three years younger than my brother. All of us in the family called him D., and he did not even know what his real name was before he entered school.

He was enrolled at age six in Charlottesville Grammar School. This is a good private school, with fees low enough that our parents could afford to send him there, but some of the aristocratic boys attend there as well. It is a very advanced school, allowing girls to study alongside boys. I remember how eager and excited D. was when he left for school on his first day.

When he came home that day, he was struggling not to cry. My parents had naturally handed over my brother’s legal records to the school, and on the first day of class, when the schoolmaster called the roll, he called out for Daniella Urman. My brother, recognizing his family name, and not realizing the significance of his given name, had raised his hands over his head to indicate he was present. The schoolmaster refused to believe that my brother was Daniella Urman and had my brother whipped when he insisted that he was. When the schoolmaster consulted with the headmaster and discovered that my brother’s name was indeed Daniella, the schoolmaster grew even more angry; he seemed to consider it an insult to himself that he had whipped an innocent boy. Thereafter, he treated my brother scornfully, speaking his name in a sarcastic manner.

As for D.’s classmates, I think they were young enough that many of them would have had sympathy for my brother, but they took their cue from the schoolmaster’s behavior and mocked my brother mercilessly.

This continued for six years. Every school-day my brother returned home looking as though he had been on the losing side of a battlefield. Early on, he pleaded with my parents to allow him to leave the school, but my parents insisted that it was important for him to make connections with the better class of boys and girls in our town. After a while, he stopped pleading and stopped talking about what was taking place at school. He was always gentle and kind to my sisters and me (by the time he reached twelve, my two younger sisters had been born), and he never cried, though he often looked as though he wanted to. He always came straight home after school, except when he was delayed by other boys who wanted to bully him.

Finally, the problem at school became so great that the headmaster took notice of it. He decided he could not have that sort of commotion in his school, and so he dismissed D. from school.

My father was very angry, saying that D. should have done more to pacify the other children. I swear, sir, I do not see how D. could have done more than he did. But my father was angry enough at D. that, rather than dipping into our family savings to send my brother to the local grammar school for mid-class boys, he instead sent D. to the commoners’ school at the far end of town. In order to reach there and back each day, my brother had to walk five miles each way, for my father refused to give him rides in our carriage, and my mother was very busy at that time with a charity drive to aid wounded young soldiers, so she was not able to attend to D.’s difficulty.

Despite the long walk, D. seemed happier for a while, but then some of the commoner children – gossiping, as children will, with their betters – learned from the children in our district why D. had left the other school. And so it all began again.

On one terrible night when D. was fifteen, a group of boys cornered him in an alley, and there— I am sorry, I do not know the polite word for this. While the other boys looked on, doing nothing, one of the bullies took from D. his purity.

That would have been horrible enough, but the bully told D. that he had done this because D. was really a girl. The bully said that girls are the weaker sex, and D. would always be weak, so he might as well open his legs to any passing boy. I am sorry, I know it is very rude for me to speak such words, but I do not know any other way to convey how dreadful an experience this was for D.

When he came home, my parents were out – my father was attending a meeting of the Railroadmen’s Guild, and my mother was organizing the annual charity drive for local commoner children. D. came straight up to the room where I and my sisters sleep, and he cried in my arms for the entire evening. Even though my sisters and I had only the slightest notion of what had happened (we learned the details later, by eavesdropping when the healer came to examine D.), we knew that something truly horrendous must have taken place, for my brother normally never allowed himself to cry.

When my parents finally arrived home, it seemed for a while that they would take D.’s part, but then my father discovered that D. had been cornered, not by commoner boys, but by fellow mid-class boys, and that the bully who attacked him was in fact the son of the head of the Railroadmen’s Guild. My father declared that we must not say anything that would offend the guildmaster, and he swore us all to secrecy over what had happened.

Although D. took the oath, he flatly refused to return to school after that. For a month, he did nothing but sit in his bedroom, while my father railed at him for not attempting to make peace with the bully who had attacked him. Then one day, as I was returning home, a young man who had been pestering me for days with talk of love (I was only twelve, but old enough to be courted) took hold of me and tried to pull me into his arms. I struggled, of course, but could not break free of him.

The next thing I knew, D., who had seen this all from his bedroom window, was by my side, punching the young man. I fear that D. emerged much the worse for wear from that fight, but since the young man fled, both D. and I considered his rescue to be a great victory.

Unfortunately, my father did not see it that way. The young man who had been pestering me was the same man who had been about to donate a large amount of money to my mother’s charity drive. I think he had been intending to do this only to impress me, and that he discarded the idea after he lost interest in me. (So shallow was his love that a few punches from my brother persuaded him I was not worth pursuing.) But he told my father that he would not donate to the effort because my father’s “unruly” son had “assaulted” him in the streets. He told my father that our family was no better than a pack of commoners.

My father was so angry that he threatened to whip D. To the surprise of my sisters and me, D. did not withdraw again to his room. Instead, he left our home for the space of a day. When he returned, it was with a number of schoolbooks he had bought with his allowance, accompanied by the news that he had enrolled at the local Commoners’ Institute in a boxing class.

After that, my brother became single-minded in his goals. He learned every form of defense that our town taught to boys, and though he never made any friends among the town children, they learned not to bully him. He also studied the schoolbooks with great diligence, seeking to learn what he would have learned in school. My mother, unfortunately, did not have the time to help him, but my sisters and I would quiz him from the books he loaned us. Three years later, I managed to persuade a young schoolmaster, who had fallen in love with me, to give D. his school-leaving certificate. Truly, D. deserved to receive the certificate, for he had studied very hard.

We thought for a while that he might join the army, which worried my sisters and me greatly, for these were the years when many bloody fatalities were occurring in the war against Vovim. But D. wanted to remain at home, to be with my sisters and me, so instead he applied for work at the local prison.

He worked just as hard as a guard as he had at his studies, though his relations with the other guards were not the best. I am sure you will understand, sir, that by this time in his life it was very difficult for my brother to trust anyone. Though he was always sweet to my sisters and me, with anyone else he tended to take offense at the smallest slight, and he often grumbled when he thought others were taking advantage of him. When he truly did care for anyone, he would cover it up through rough talk about the other person, because he was sure they would dislike him if they guessed his admiration for them. This roughness unfortunately made him unpopular with his fellow guards. He did show a good sense of humor, though, and some of the pranks he played amused the other guards.

He was also good at handling the prisoners. I had worried, when he first started work, that he would regard the prisoners as being like the bullies who had hurt him, and so he would seek to hurt them. But he said it was not that simple. Some of the prisoners, he said, were bullies, but all of them were vulnerable to bullying from the guards, and he wanted to make sure they were all treated fairly, no matter what they had done in the past. My sisters and I were greatly impressed by his willingness to be honorable in his dealings even with violent, unscrupulous criminals.

I hope you will not think badly of me for saying this, but I am not sure that anyone at our local prison ever fully appreciated D.’s honorable approach toward guardwork. It is not that there was active abuse taking place in our prison (or not much, anyway), but none of the other guards seemed to share D.’s strong concern about the prisoners’ welfare. They teased him about his earnestness, and then . . .

Well, sir, being the wise man that you are, you will have already guessed what happened next. They discovered D.’s name, and he became an object for mockery and scorn once more.

I remember the look on his face after that happened. He didn’t cry this time; he seemed drained of all emotion, as though his feelings had been severed from him. My sisters and I were highly alarmed. We took it into our hands to search for other places of employment for our brother, outside our town, for though we loved him dearly and would gladly have welcomed his continued presence at our home, it was becoming clear that he could not live anywhere in which others would know his true name, aside from any employers he might have – and they must be honorable enough men to keep his secret.

The Eternal Dungeon was the last place we would have thought to look. I hope you are not upset at hearing me say that, for you must know that your dungeon has a very dark reputation. I think my brother had assumed the reputation was true; he had never shown any interest in the dungeon, though he regularly read the ethics reports of the United Order of Prisons, which the Eternal Dungeon had helped found. But when I visited a local book-dealer, seeking writings that might be of assistance to D., the dealer sold to me the Code of Seeking – not the private version used in the dungeon, you understand, but the public version that was published some years ago. I bought the fifth revision of the book, if that is important for you to know.

My brother approached the book with caution and was understandably skeptical of its claims. But matters were bad enough at his workplace that he applied for a job at the Eternal Dungeon. The keeper of our prison was willing to give him a very good reference – I secretly suspect he was tired of D. badgering him on ways in which the prisoners’ conditions could be improved – and so your High Seeker accepted my brother as a guard-in-training in the first month of 355.

Well, you know most of the rest of the story, sir, and so I’m sure you will not be surprised to hear that the first letter my sisters and I received from D. that showed happiness occurred after your arrival in the dungeon that spring. Until then, he had been worried that the Seekers were trying to fool him, to disguise their neglect and abuse of the prisoners. But you had been in some difficulties with the Seekers when you first came to work at the dungeon. (D. did not give us the details of what happened, of course, because of his oath of silence to the Eternal Dungeon.) Since you had been captive to the Seekers yourself, he knew that your judgment of what it was like to be a Seeker must be true. From that point forward, his letters were always full of your name and of his growing excitement as you sought, in small ways, to correct problems you recognized in the conduct of the Seekers and guards.

He was bitterly disappointed when, four years ago, you refused to allow him to become one of your guards, but he took this as a sign that he had not worked hard enough to improve himself. “I need to show myself worthy of his notice,” he wrote to me, and he redoubled his efforts after that to make himself into a good enough guard that you would be willing to let him work alongside you.

I am sorry, sir; I should have said, “Work under you.” You must not think that my slip in any way reflects my brother’s opinion of you. Even though you spent time as a prisoner, he has always recognized you as being far above him in both vision and skills, and that is why he has hoped that, some day, he might be permitted the opportunity to learn from you.

I do not mean, of course, that he wants you to take time away from your prisoners in order to tend to him. He wants only to be able to watch you at your work. I do apologize, sir; I seem not to be able to say what I mean, and I hope you will not penalize my brother for my poor communication. He really does admire you greatly, and he considers you the model for what Seekers should be. From what I have written, I think you can recognize how highly he trusts you, that he would give you his birth name when you asked for it. He realizes, of course, that, like our parents, you are a very busy person, and that your attention must be focussed on the prisoners. He has said that often and has written to us that he does not expect you to pay much attention to him. He is very used by now to learning new things alone, without anyone’s help (for my sisters and I have not been able to help him with his lessons since he came to the dungeon). So I apologize, sir, if I have written you too long a letter or taken up your time with matters that are of no concern to you. If so, please do not blame my brother. I am entirely to blame for any mistakes I have made in this letter.

If I have not answered any questions you had, I hope you will write to me again, sir, and once more, please, please do not blame my brother if I have said anything wrong. He has always tried his best to be a good guard, and he has always been willing to suffer for the prisoners. I think perhaps, from what he has written to us about you, that this is of importance to you?

Cordially yours, with great respect, sir,
Mistress Dorothea (Urman)

o—o—o

“Sweet blood,” said Elsdon.

He was standing in Rack Room C, where his junior night guard had delivered him a message before assisting Elsdon’s senior night guard in removing the tormented body of Elsdon’s current prisoner. With his confession given, the prisoner could be turned over to the magistrate . . . and, no doubt, the executioner. Elsdon wished he could be sure the confession was true.

But his mind was no longer on that; it was on Dorothea Urman’s message, spread open in his hands.

“Sweet blood,” Elsdon repeated to the empty room as he pressed his fingers against his eyelids. “And I call myself a Seeker. I should have guessed. I should have guessed long ago.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

The sign at the common room’s door was red. Knowing that all the leaders of the New School were either asleep or at work, Zenas opened the door with caution.

He saw nothing but stars flickering in the firmament. His eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. Then he realized that the stars were candles on the floor, arranged in a circle around a patch of moonlight falling through the skylight. Kneeling in that moonlight, poised to light the final candle in the circle, was a Seeker.

That much Zenas saw before the Seeker dropped the taper onto the bare tiles and raised his hand to pull down his face-cloth. What lay under the face-cloth Zenas had not seen, for the Seeker had his back to Zenas. But looking at the candles, Zenas knew who the Seeker must be.

The man stood so slowly that his movement did not disturb the flickering flames. He carefully ground the taper-flame under his boot. Then he turned.

He was tall, though not as tall as most men thought; his height lay in the authority he projected. His posture was stiff. Grasping the doorknob, Zenas wondered whether he should run. Then the Seeker lifted his face-cloth.

“Servant of the House,” said the High Seeker, “how may I assist you?”

Zenas felt warmth run through him then, as though the sun’s rays had touched him. They were the right words. The High Seeker always knew the right words by which to address Zenas.

Servant of the House. As a boy, Zenas had been addressed formally as Slave of the House and had taken pride in the title, knowing himself to belong to a Household that worked together to bring in the harvest. Those were the years before he realized how his master exploited his tenants and slaves, using their labor to benefit himself.

Yet still, there lingered in Zenas’s memory the time in which he had been part of a Household. The time before he came to the Eternal Dungeon and was cut off from other people.

“You are no longer a slave,” his new parents had told him over and over. He knew they meant well. He knew they didn’t realize he was still a slave, for slave and prisoner were the same word in the southern Vovimian tongue. He was still a slave . . . but a slave without a Household.

Now the High Seeker, who was master of this dungeon, was using southern Vovimian words which indicated he considered Zenas to belong to his Household. And not just as a prisoner, but as a servant who had chosen to live here, in the same manner that the Seekers did, giving up their liberty voluntarily in order to serve the needs of the House.

“Master of the House,” replied Zenas quietly, his carriage upright, “I crave your pardon for interrupting your peace and your privacy.”

The High Seeker responded by waving Zenas into the room. Closing the door behind him, Zenas walked slowly forward. His gaze was upon the circle of lights, which looked much like a pattern of lights he had once witnessed an aeka light on a road in order to force all passersby to stop and listen to his messages from the gods. Zenas could still remember how awestruck he had been by the veiled figure of the prophet, who wore clothing as rough and impoverished as his own, yet who spoke with the power of divinity.

The High Seeker’s candles, Zenas realized, must have been taken from the crematorium, where a ready supply of candles was always available for dungeon members to light memorials for the dead. Their use in this instance seemed appropriate. It was not difficult to guess which god was being petitioned here, in the darkness of the night, below the ground.

The High Seeker had taken an unused candle from a pile at the side of the circle and had lit it, bringing it forward to place on a table. Seating himself in a chair next to the table, he gestured Zenas toward the chair opposite him.

It took Zenas only a moment to decide. Then, moving swiftly, he slid onto the High Seeker’s lap.

He heard the High Seeker’s soft gasp, and with it came the hardness, growing against Zenas’s hip. Zenas put his arms around the High Seeker and buried his head against the man’s shoulder. He was in very great danger, he knew. A surprising number of the Seekers were lambs, playing that they were lions in order to scare their prisoners. The High Seeker was a genuine lion, one who had chosen to live in a place where he was only permitted to eat plants. But he still had the instincts of a carnivore.

A minute passed in which Zenas contemplated all the possibilities of what might happen. It was easy for him to imagine, from his childhood experiences. The High Seeker’s breath was heavy and hasty.

And then, almost imperceptibly at first, the hardness began to fade, forced back by a greater strength than passion. Zenas could hear the High Seeker deliberately slowing the pace of his breath, as a chaste prophet might if he found himself unwillingly caught into passion. After a minute more, the hardness was entirely gone, and the High Seeker placed his right arm gently around Zenas’s back. He asked quietly, “What troubles you, chau of my chau, chau and chau?”

Zenas’s eyes stung then. Southern Vovimian was a subtle language. Very few foreigners – having been born in east Vovim, the High Seeker qualified as a foreigner – were able to grasp its nuances. Chau – that was a word his papa used for Zenas occasionally, but Weldon only knew a couple of the more obvious meanings of the word. The High Seeker, through his accent, was turning the word to other meanings. Chau of my chau. Beloved son of my beloved friend. Chau and chau. Beloved also unto me, belovedly guarded by me. They were words similar to what his master had once spoken to him, on the day he murdered Zenas’s birth-father. But the High Seeker actually meant what he said. His words meant protection, guardianship – the willingness to give his own life for Zenas’s sake, if need be.

If Zenas spoke of his troubles now, he would burst into tears. Instead he asked, knowing the answer, “To whom do you pray, beloved master?” Chau, acknowledging the gift and turning it back as a gift to the man who had given it.

The High Seeker was silent a long while after that. His body was warm against Zenas’s body, and his arm circled Zenas’s with its strength. It was the first time Zenas had ever experienced the High Seeker’s touch.

Indeed, it had not been clear, on the initial occasion that Zenas had chanced upon the High Seeker alone in the common room in the predawn hours, whether Layle Smith would be willing to speak with the fourteen-year-old boy who had interrupted his prayers. Something about Zenas’s need to communicate with a fellow countryman must have made itself apparent, though, for when Zenas slipped into the common room the next night, he had found the High Seeker perusing a book with photographs, while his senior night guard sat in a corner, penning some documentwork.

For the next hour, Zenas had talked and talked, for the first time since his days as a prisoner in the breaking cell. At the end of the discussion, the High Seeker had brought out a box of dominoes, and the two of them had played a game together. To Zenas’s delight, the High Seeker had given no quarter; the few games that Zenas won against the High Seeker over the next few years had been won as a result of Zenas’s skill, not as a result of misplaced compassion from the High Seeker.

It was characteristic of Layle Smith, Zenas would come to realize as the years passed, that he would arrange for a chaperone to be present while he was speaking with an apprentice-aged boy. The High Seeker was not the sort to take chances, where his desires were concerned. Mr. Sobel was always present when Zenas responded to Layle Smith’s invitations for them to meet in the common room. Never once had the High Seeker touched Zenas, and the High Seeker had taken care, tonight, to be praying alone at a later time than when Zenas usually visited him.

But the chaperonage, it seemed, had never been truly necessary. Zenas felt himself relaxing. He had undergone this feeling of peace occasionally, when he showed Finlay how to paint stage scenery, or when he was in the same room as Elsdon, the only man in the inner dungeon, besides the High Seeker, who treated him as a mature youth. But it felt different to experience this peace with a man who had so much power for destruction, and who held back that power out of love for his servant. Zenas had not felt this safe and secure since he was a young child, believing falsely that his master would care for him. This time, Zenas knew, he had not misjudged the character of the man who promised protection.

But Zenas was not a young child anymore. He was nearing his manhood, and those candles would not have been lit if the petitioner weren’t in great need.

Finally the High Seeker said, in a voice that strove to be light, “I have been praying to the High Master.”

Yes, of course. Zenas turned his head to look at the lights, lit for the god Hell, whose name must not be spoken aloud. Hell was a fearful god. Few Vovimians would have the courage to directly petition him . . . except in dire need.

“What rite, master?” Zenas asked softly. He was treading into dangerous territory, he knew. But he was a member of the High Seeker’s House, a beloved member, the son of the High Seeker’s only friend. He had the right to ask.

Again the High Seeker was slow to respond. Zenas understood why when the High Seeker spoke once more. “The rite of sacrifice.”

A shiver travelled down Zenas’s back. “What is the pleading?” he asked.

When the High Seeker finally spoke, it was in an oblique manner, like a man trying to hide from his own shadow. “He will not return.”

Zenas thought about this before saying, “Mr. Taylor?”

“I have hurt him too badly – once too often, I have hurt him too badly.” The High Seeker’s voice had gone very deep, as though he spoke from the bottom of the dungeon’s burial pit. “Over and over, as the years have passed, I have hurt him and tried his patience. This time was too much. He will not return to me.”

Zenas waited, keeping his head cradled upon the High Seeker’s shoulder, watching the flames burn steadily in the breezeless dungeon. The moonlight was beginning to fade. The moon was setting . . . and this rite could only be performed under moonlight.

Finally the High Seeker said, “He will come back if I want him to.”

Startled, Zenas raised his head. The High Seeker was staring into the black nothingness at the back of the common room, his eyes moving to and fro, as though he saw something hidden. He said, his voice yet deeper, “I have that power. I have had it since I was a youth. The power to lure and seduce. He cannot protect himself against me, should I use that power against him. I can have him back and make him mine forever.”

Zenas turned his head to look at the candles. The need for the rite was now manifest. Only Hell, the seducer and betrayer, could be petitioned if a man found himself in danger of committing so great a breach of trust toward his love-mate.

But Hell was an exacting god, demanding much. And this was a very great request that the High Seeker was making to the god: to be granted the strength to fight against an all-consuming temptation.

Zenas whispered, “And the sacrifice?”

The High Seeker’s head did not turn, but the ball in his throat bobbed. “That he shall not return. He shall leave me forever and find someone else to love.”

Zenas looked at the candles. The last one was not yet lit.

He had to bite his lip to keep from speaking precipitously. The obvious reply to make was, “You are wrong. Elsdon Taylor loves you as dearly as you love him. I have heard him praying at night that you and he should be reconciled. You have only to wait for this crisis to end, and all will be healed between the two of you.”

But that was not what the High Seeker needed to hear. The High Seeker was praying, not for Elsdon’s return, but for the strength to keep from betraying Elsdon’s trust. If the High Seeker did not obtain that strength, then the temptation to enslave Elsdon might be acted upon, even if Elsdon returned to him.

Finally Zenas said with soft hesitation, “Had you considered the possibility, master, that this is a test?”

The High Seeker’s head turned. He stared at Zenas, his dark green eyes narrowed. “A test? From the god, you mean?”

Zenas shook his head. Best to keep the gods out of this conversation, though he could feel their breath against his neck. “A test by Mr. Taylor. Perhaps he left you in order that you could see for yourself that you’re strong enough to withstand all temptation to take him back by unfair means. Perhaps he feared that you would not believe him if he told you that you possessed such strength.”

The moonlight was growing greyer by the second. The candles were beginning to fade, guttering out from their own melting wax. The High Seeker’s head was now bowed.

At last the High Seeker said, “He has often told me that I am too dependent on him.”

Zenas waited. The High Seeker’s lap was a pleasant place to wait.

Finally the High Seeker said, “If that is what he has done . . . If he has arranged for us to have time apart so that I may grow stronger in my independence, more skilled in withstanding temptation . . . If he has done this out of love of me, and for the sake of our bond, then I can hold out for as long as he wishes. For decades, if he deems that necessary.”

The High Seeker raised his head. He was wearing a rare smile. “Thank you, chau. The gods have sent you to me tonight. I would not have recognized this without your help.”

Zenas nodded, contented. What he had told the High Seeker was true, he knew. Elsdon Taylor might not be aware that he was testing the High Seeker, but it was clear, from every word he spoke about his love-mate, that Elsdon desired the High Seeker to grow stronger in spirit. When Elsdon finally returned home and discovered that his love-mate had acquired greater capacity for independent actions during his absence, his reaction – unlike most men’s reaction under similar circumstances – was bound to be delight. Like the High Seeker, Elsdon Taylor did not mistake love for possession.

“And now, Zenas Chapman,” said the High Seeker, in a voice so forceful that Zenas jumped in his seat, “you will tell me what troubles you.”

Feeling chagrin, Zenas slipped out of the High Seeker’s lap. Of course. Layle Smith was a Seeker. Even in the midst of his troubles, he would not fail to recognize when a prisoner was avoiding a reply to his question.

It seemed better for Zenas to sit in his own chair for this conversation. The room was dimmer, now that the final beams of moonlight were nearly gone and the candle-flames were gasping for their lives. The candle on the table, lit more recently than the others, continued to stand straight and tall. Zenas straightened his back, trying to figure out how to voice his quandary.

Finally he said, “I have started a theater.”

He tensed for a moment, uncertain how the High Seeker would react. The High Seeker was Vovimian . . . but he had left his homeland long ago and had chosen to pledge his allegiance to the Queen of Yclau. Even if he continued to pray privately to the Vovimian gods, there was no knowing how much of his native heritage he had discarded or forgotten.

The High Seeker simply nodded in a matter-of-fact manner. “Finlay Sobel mentioned to me once that you had an interest in stage scenery. Have you experienced any difficulties in obtaining the proper props?”

His tension was somewhat remitted. “No, master. I am following the Minimalist School of playing.”

“Ah.” The High Seeker relaxed back into his chair. It was the first time in his life that Zenas had witnessed him a restful posture. “A tribute to my own native province. I’ve never seen a Minimalist performance; the east Vovimians developed that stage technique after I left the kingdom. But it’s based on ancient stagecraft techniques, as I recall? One player, a chorus, and statues to represent the other players?”

“Yes, master.” It was growing easier by the moment to speak. Zenas found his mind drifting toward certain rumors that circulated in the dungeon. The rumors were garbled; it was obvious that none of the dungeon dwellers fully understood what took place in the High Seeker’s living cell when he was alone with Elsdon Taylor, on their days off. The dungeon dwellers only knew enough to stay far away from the cell on those occasions. Zenas had heard enough of the rumors to be both intrigued and quite determined to remain at a distance from the High Seeker’s living cell at those times. Certain performances were so sacred they ought not to be witnessed by others.

Alas, Zenas had never possessed such privacy himself. Treading carefully now, he said, “I have no chorus, master – only figurines.”

“Mannequins?” suggested the High Seeker, leaning forward in evident interest. “But no – I would have seen them if you had such large figurines in your living cell. Dolls, perhaps?”

There was not a trace of a smile on his face, nor any scorn – merely the continued posture of interest. Encouraged, Zenas said, “Stuffed animals, master.”

“Ah!” The High Seeker leaned back. “You’ve mixed the Minimalist School with the Quadruped School of playing. How unique. I had a chance to witness a Quadruped performance once, when I was fifteen. The Hidden Dungeon was located in a north-central town at that time. It was a fascinating experience to watch players in the guise of animals, playing out characters whose personalities matched those of the beasts they represented. . . . Do you have a lion? He was the most vicious player, as I recall.”

“Yes, sir. He’s my master.”

The High Seeker’s gaze wandered up toward the ceiling. Zenas looked up, but he could see nothing. The High Seeker’s voice seemed distant as he said, “I would be most interested to witness such a performance.”

Too late, Zenas realized the mistake he had made. Quickly he added, “Not you, master. The lion is my former master. I would never be so disrespectful as to use a lion to represent you.”

When the High Seeker looked down, there was a faint smile on his face. “Your former master and I could both play the part, I think. But thank you. . . . Your former master, you say.”

There was a subtle change of tone to his voice. Zenas looked down at his lap. His hands were grasped together, rather as Elsdon’s tended to be in moments of great tension. He said, without looking up, “I am playing what happened, master.”

“As a purge and protection. Yes.”

Zenas peered up cautiously. There had been only sympathy in the High Seeker’s voice as he spoke, and there was compassion in his eyes as he looked back at Zenas.

And perhaps a little understanding? Zenas thought again of the performances that Elsdon and his love-mate undertook together. The High Seeker was surely a man who required a purge for the darkness of his earlier life. A lion who still had the instincts of a carnivore. If he did not play-act such desires, in the privacy of his bedroom . . .

But that was a private matter, between him and Elsdon. So Zenas simply said, “Yes, master. I’ve found that it’s very helpful. . . . I perform other plays, as well. Should you wish to attend.”

He spoke the words shyly, but the High Seeker smiled again, replying, “I haven’t been an audience member to a theatrical performance for many, many years. It would give me great delight to attend. I’m surprised your father hasn’t invited me to a performance before now. He and your mother must be very proud of you, putting together such a sophisticated theater in a dungeon with so little resources and— What is it?” The High Seeker’s voice sharpened.

Zenas kept his face turned away. It was easier to speak of this while staring at the darkness where the candles had been lit. “They don’t realize it’s a theater. They think I’m playing with toys, as a young child does.”

He heard the swift intake of the High Seeker’s breath. “Surely you’ve misunderstood something they said,” the High Seeker suggested.

“No.” Zenas forced himself to turn back and look the High Seeker straight in the eye. “They think I’m mind-crippled. They think that, because I can’t speak their language, I have the wits of a seven-year-old.”

He couldn’t prevent the tears from coming then. The High Seeker said nothing; he simply offered his handkerchief. Zenas blew his nose into it before saying, in a blasting burst of bitterness, “It’s ridiculous! As though what language I speak is a measure of intelligence! They treat me like a child, simply because I can’t speak their horrible language, yet they’ve never made the slightest effort to learn mine!”

“Yclau and southern Vovimian are both difficult languages to learn,” said the High Seeker quietly. He had his gaze steady upon Zenas, but he was making no effort to move forward, which Zenas appreciated. The last thing he wanted right now was to be gathered into the High Seeker’s arms, as though he were a child needing to be comforted. “Very few Yclau can learn to speak southern Vovimian, just as very few southern Vovimians can learn to speak Yclau. The languages are entirely unrelated to each other. The southern Vovimian tribe originally came from the Southwest Continent of the Old World, while the Yclau tribe originally came from an island next to the Northwest Continent of the Old World. And for many centuries in the New World, the southern Vovimians were separated from the Yclau by an unexplored chain of mountains. They had little opportunity to intermingle, so their cultures and language remained separate.”

Zenas had known all this, of course, but it was a comfort to hear the facts spoken aloud – an implicit way for the High Seeker to say, “You are not to blame for being unable to speak the Yclau tongue.”

Zenas understood, though, that the High Seeker was also trying to defend his parents’ lack of knowledge of southern Vovimian. Zenas frowned, saying, “You speak southern Vovimian. And your tribe is from the Northwest Continent as well.”

The High Seeker nodded. “From a peninsula in the southern portion of the Northwest Continent. I was fortunate enough to learn several languages as a young child, at an age when learning comes easy. East Vovimian, of course – that was my father’s tongue, and that was what most people in my province spoke. My mother was Yclau, and so I learned her native language from her. And I had a friend on the streets who was southern Vovimian; he taught me that language when I was still young enough to master its intricacies. I learned his language in order to communicate better with him, for he couldn’t speak the east Vovimian dialect.”

Zenas thought about this and then said, “But how could he teach you, if you didn’t know his language, and he didn’t know yours?”

The High Seeker smiled once more. He had a surprisingly pleasant smile, for such a dangerous man. “We had a shared language: the common speech, the King’s tongue, which the prophets spread throughout Vovim so that they could converse with all Vovimians. The common speech blends southern Vovimian grammar and accent with east Vovimian vocabulary. It’s an easy tongue for anyone in Vovim to use, which is why it’s the common speech of our kingdom.”

Zenas shrugged. He had never learned the King’s tongue. He had a vague memory that Weldon had once tried to speak such words to Zenas, back when Zenas was his prisoner in a breaking cell. That miscommunication had ended in disaster. Probably, Zenas thought bleakly, he should have realized from that moment that he and his parents were doomed to misunderstand each other.

“I am to blame.” The High Seeker’s voice was crisp.

“Master?” said Zenas cautiously.

“For not realizing so grave a calamity was taking place in my dungeon. Your father had told me on several occasions that you had difficulty in expressing your thoughts to him. I had not realized that he meant you were unable to speak the same language as he was.”

Zenas looked at the floor. He said softly, “He’s ashamed of me, master. They both are. They try to keep me hidden in their cell, because they don’t want people to know that their son is an imbecile.”

“Would you allow a seven-year-old to wander about a dungeon of torture by himself?” responded the High Seeker in the same matter-of-fact manner as before. “It has nothing to do with shame. Your parents have simply been trying to protect you, lacking the knowledge of your maturity. No, the fault is mine, for not realizing that you and your parents were making fruitless attempts to speak Yclau together. I do recall that your father asked me, early on, whether you could learn the Yclau language, and I said something along the lines that it was possible you could do so, since you were still young. It never occurred to me that he would take this to mean that you and he should only speak Yclau together.”

Zenas shrugged again. “What other option was he left with, master? You say he couldn’t learn my language. I tried, but I couldn’t learn his. . . . We make gestures. They help sometimes.”

He could hear the bleakness in his own voice. He knew that it arose from the homesickness he felt, talking to the High Seeker like this. The High Seeker couldn’t be expected to act as an interpreter between Zenas and his parents; he was far too busy a man for Zenas to request that. And the High Seeker was too busy with his duties to speak often with Zenas. Layle Smith rarely took the shift off from work that all Seekers were permitted from time to time. When he did, it was usually so that he could spend time with his love-mate. Only on uncommon occasions such as this, a few times each year, had Zenas been granted the opportunity to speak as the gods had willed he should speak, and to be treated his actual age, rather than as a stunted child.

“Deaf-and-dumb gestures?” For some reason, the High Seeker seemed amused. He did have a dark sense of humor, Zenas knew.

“Nothing so formal as that, master. I don’t know the speech of the deaf. I’ve never learned—” He stopped, struck by a sudden thought.

“Well, you and your parents needn’t resort to that,” said the High Seeker, leaning back in his chair. “The solution is obvious: You should learn the King’s tongue. Your father is already fluent in it. I doubt your mother speaks it – Yclau girls rarely receive training in foreign languages – but east Vovimian is distantly related to the Yclau language, so she should have no problem learning the King’s tongue. Most Yclau men are taught the King’s tongue in school; once you’ve learned the language, you’ll be able to communicate with nearly any man or boy in this dungeon. If you wish to work in the capital city above this dungeon when you come of age, the banks are in dire need of translators—”

Layle Smith stopped speaking, possibly because he was in danger of being smothered. It took Zenas a long while to loosen his hold on the High Seeker; he spent much of that time sobbing onto the High Seeker’s shoulder. It was the act of a child, but he cared nothing about that any more.

He had been given the key to his manhood.

Finally he raised his face, tear-stained. The High Seeker waited, compassion in his eyes once more. Zenas drew in a ragged breath. “Beloved master,” he said, “will you teach me a few words tonight?”

o—o—o

His mama’s voice was clear from the moment that the High Seeker opened the common room’s door to the corridor. Her voice was unusually high-pitched. “You have to check! If you won’t, I will!”

“Birdesmond, don’t be ridiculous.” Weldon’s voice was quieter, but it was clear that he had reached the end of his patience. “You can’t burst into the High Seeker’s cell and accuse him of kidnapping your son.”

Zenas looked quickly over at the High Seeker. His face was hooded again, of course, but there was a crinkle around his eyes which suggested amusement. Zenas relaxed as the two of them reached the door to his family’s cell.

“Sweet blood, Weldon, what is happening to you?” cried Birdesmond. “First you refuse to protect the prisoners, and then you refuse to protect your own son—!”

She broke off, apparently hearing the knock on the door. A moment later, the door was flung open. His mama – distress clear upon her naked face – stared at Zenas, took a quick glance at the High Seeker, and wrenched Zenas into the room, thrusting him behind her. “What have you done to him!” she cried.

“Dearest, for love of the Code . . .” Weldon came forward, looking harassed. His face-cloth was raised as well; his expression was apologetic as he turned to the High Seeker. “Layle, I’m sorry. She came home from work an hour ago, only to find Zenas missing. Naturally, she’s been worried—”

“I will let Zenas explain. Good night.” His tone terse, the High Seeker closed the door, leaving both his parents gaping.

Out of the corner of his eye, Zenas could see Elsdon at the guest room door. He was already dressed in his nightshirt, but had evidently been pulled from his bed-rest by the shouting. Birdesmond turned, knelt in front of Zenas, and said, “Sweet one, did he hurt you? Did he touch you beneath your clothes?”

Weldon looked as though he were about to bellow. It was time that Zenas put an end to this. Carefully remembering the lesson he had just received, Zenas turned to Weldon and said in the King’s tongue, “Papa, I apologize to you for my failure to communicate adequately in the past. I hope I will be able to correct that in the future, so that I may be a dutiful and loving son to you and to my esteemed mama.”

Weldon’s mouth fell open. Even Birdesmond, who could not have grasped what Zenas had said, looked stunned.

Elsdon smiled. He said quietly, “The High Seeker performs yet another miracle.”

CHAPTER EIGHT

The meeting was at midnight this time. An emergency meeting.

It started with a hurried, hushed discussion between Elsdon and Birdesmond in the corridor of the breaking cells where the two Seekers were working with their prisoners. Then Zenas – much to his mama’s surprise – was sent by Elsdon to eavesdrop on the Record-keeper and discover who was free to meet that night. After that, Zenas delivered Elsdon’s messages, slipping each one into a palm or under a door.

D. was on duty; he rolled his eyes but agreed to give up his lunch hour in order to meet with the rebel leaders. Barrett, who had transferred Seekers yet again that month, was asleep; upon being woken by Zenas’s repeated whisper of his name, he responded to the message with nothing but a nod. Zenas left Clifford’s message in his rooms in the inner dungeon; the young guard was nowhere to be found in the inner dungeon, but he was off-duty and was presumably free to meet.

Howard was not. Hence the meeting.

By a quarter past midnight, all of them except Clifford were gathered in Zenas’s home, speaking in low voices, because Weldon was sleeping in the bedroom.

“Which I suppose is symbolic of this whole business,” Birdesmond said with a sigh, her mouth grim. “I’m beginning to think that Weldon would sleep through his own death.”

Zenas bit his lip. During the past two months, since the New School began to meet, his mama’s criticisms of his papa had grown harsher and more frequent.

“We could meet elsewhere,” suggested D., casting a wary eye at the bedroom door.

“I’ll make matters easy for you,” said Weldon, opening the bedroom door to reveal that he was clothed, with his face-cloth down. “Birdesmond, I’m going to the common room. Do you want me to take Zenas with me?”

Zenas shook his head vigorously. Elsdon said, “Weldon, we don’t mean to disturb your sleep—”

“You have important matters to discuss. I understand. —I’ll see you later, son.” He switched to the King’s tongue and tousled Zenas’s hair before exiting the living cell, boots in hand. Zenas tiptoed after him as far as the common room, then returned to the cell to find that Elsdon was awaiting his report. Zenas gave him the all-clear sign.

“You’re turning that boy into a spy,” commented D., staring.

“No training needed, I believe,” replied Elsdon. “We won’t wait for Clifford; he may or may not be coming.”

“And I think a certain senior guard is going to fall asleep on his feet if we don’t finish this meeting soon,” said D., pointing his thumb at Barrett, who was attempting to suppress a yawn. “What’s the big news? And why isn’t Howard here?”

“Howard,” said Elsdon carefully, “will not be coming to any more meetings.”

D. gave a yelp of outrage and unsheathed his blade, as though meeting an enemy in battle. “The traitor!”

Barrett, on the other hand, narrowed his eyes. “Suspended?”

“Pressured into retiring,” Birdesmond said wearily. “The High Seeker tried to persuade Howard that he would serve the prisoners better if he withdrew from the New School. When that didn’t work, the High Seeker offered Howard a pension that was twice as large as his current one, if he should change sides. And when that didn’t work, the High Seeker threatened to deprive Howard of his pension if he didn’t retire now. The threat worked. Howard was depending on that pension to provide money to care for his crippled sister, once he grew too old to earn a living.”

“Traitor,” muttered D., but it was unclear this time who was the object of his denunciation. He had set aside his dagger on the table.

“High Seeker told you?” Noticeably, Barrett’s eyes were still narrowed.

Elsdon shook his head. “Zenas did. He overheard the High Seeker speaking about this to Weldon Chapman during the day shift. I checked with Seward Sobel; he confirmed what had happened and gave me the details. The High Seeker is planning to release the news during his dawn-shift meeting with the senior Seekers and senior guards.”

Birdesmond’s eyes widened. “Weldon and I had dinner together before I started my shift. He never spoke a word about this to me.”

“Well, he wouldn’t, would he?” said D. brutally. “He’s in the enemy’s camp. So what the fuck do we do? We can’t let Layle Smith get away with this.”

“Language, please, D.,” murmured Elsdon. “I haven’t been quite sure—”

At that moment, the door banged open.

Everyone jumped and turned toward the entrance, where Clifford stood, panting and sweating. “Did you hear the news?” the junior guard cried. “By all that is sacred, did you hear the news?”

“About Howard?” replied D. “Get in here, we were just deciding—”

But Clifford, banging the door shut behind him, overrode D.’s words. “Not about the inner dungeon. The outer dungeon. They’re up in arms.”

“What?” Birdesmond, who had been on the point of sitting on the sofa, straightened up and shot Clifford a look of disbelief. Barrett had gone rigid, as though in preparation for battle. Elsdon simply stared blankly at Clifford, as though trying to take in what he had said.

Zenas looked down at the chessboard, trying to decide which move to make. He had already heard the news; he had been there when the decision was made. It said something about the insularity of the inner dungeon, he thought as he touched each of the chess pieces, that it had taken the inner-dungeon workers nine whole hours to learn of events that had set the outer dungeon afire during the previous shift.

Clifford gulped down air; he was clearly exhausted from running to the living cell with his news. “The outer dungeon . . . It has gone on strike. Everyone there is on strike. The Guild of Outer Dungeon Laborers – the male workers there – met with the Women’s Fellowship – the female workers there, who run the nursery and organize other women’s concerns. Both groups agreed to stop working at midnight, in protest to the Eternal Dungeon’s policy of torturing prisoners. They say they’ll continue to provide food and clothing and other supplies to the prisoners, but any prison-worker here who can get his food and supplies from the lighted world had better do so, because they’re not going to provide labor for such men until the High Seeker and the Codifier agree to abolish torture.” Having delivered his news, all in one breath, Clifford collapsed onto the footstool. Zenas put out a protective arm to prevent the junior guard from leaning back onto the chessboard.

“Guild?” Now it was D. who looked blank. “I didn’t know that the male laborers of this dungeon were joined in a guild.”

“Yeslin established it long ago,” contributed Elsdon. “It keeps its negotiations with the High Seeker as quiet as possible, to prevent the High Seeker from losing face and being forced to move publicly against the guild.”

“And now the outer-dungeon workers are risking, not only the loss of the guild, but also the loss of their jobs.” Reaching behind her, Birdesmond groped for the sofa as she sat down. “Elsdon, I had no idea this was about to happen. I’m a member of the Women’s Fellowship, since Zenas attended the nursery when he was younger, but none of the women there told me anything about this.”

“Marjorie Sobel,” said Barrett in his usual abrupt manner.

Elsdon nodded. “She must have known. She’s president of the Women’s Fellowship. For all I know, she might have organized this. Sweet blood, this will drive a stake in her marriage to Seward.” Elsdon spoke the sacred oath softly, with reverence.

Clifford wiped sweat off his face with his jacket sleeve as he said, “It was all of them decided to do this, not just Mistress Sobel. Wade Rowles is the one who told me – he’s the guild leader and is a member of the electricians’ crew. He said the whole outer dungeon has been waiting for weeks for the New School to let them know how they could help with the fight. They finally figured we weren’t ever going to be sensible enough to request their aid. So they acted on their own.”

Elsdon put a hand over his face. “The outer dungeon. They’re the largest work force in the dungeon, yet it never occurred to me to consult with them.”

“That’s my fault.” D. sounded disgusted with himself. “You’re all elite or mid-class – you couldn’t be expected to think of this.”

“You’re mid-class too,” pointed out Clifford.

D. shrugged. “I went to a school for commoners. When the lads and lasses there wanted something, they weren’t polite about it. They rioted.”

“I think we can credit the outer-dungeon laborers with enough good sense not to engage in lawless violence,” interjected Birdesmond. “Clifford . . . You said that the outer-dungeon laborers wouldn’t be feeding the inner-dungeon workers who could obtain their own food in the lighted world. You also said that they would be feeding the prisoners. Do they intend to feed all the prisoners?”

Elsdon, whose head had been bowed in evident thought, jolted as he looked up. He exchanged a look with Barrett, who appeared even more grim-faced than usual.

D.’s expression turned to horror. “They can’t do that! They can’t stop feeding the Seekers! The Seekers aren’t allowed to leave the prison – without food deliveries, the Seekers will all starve, even these two!” He pointed his thumb at Elsdon and Birdesmond.

Clifford merely grinned. “That’s the best part of the plan. They’ve pledged to feed all the prisoners, including the Seekers . . . except the High Seeker. They say that, if he wants to eat, he can stop the torture.”

D. gave a crow of laughter. Elsdon said nothing. Birdesmond placed a hand lightly on Elsdon’s arm, saying, “It won’t come to that. The Codifier is sure to arrange for food to be delivered from the palace to any prisoners who aren’t fed by the outer-dungeon laborers. And with so great a strike, the High Seeker will be forced to submit to the strikers’ terms.”

Barrett shook his head, though. “Bread Riot.”

Everyone winced. “Oh, dear,” said Clifford in a small voice as he rose to his feet. “I’d forgotten that.”

“Weldon hasn’t,” said Birdesmond, sighing. “His parents died at the hands of the Queen’s soldiers during the Commoners’ Bread Riot, even though his parents didn’t take part in the protests. Barrett, the Codifier couldn’t possibly send his guards to force the laborers to work, under threat of being shot. This is the year 364, not 339.”

“Barrett is right, though,” said Elsdon in his quiet voice. “The High Seeker is unlikely to let this protest stop him. All he need do is dismiss the laborers, after all. There are plenty of men and women seeking jobs, out in the lighted world.”

“Then they’ve sacrificed their livelihoods for nothing?” said Clifford bleakly, all his excitement drained away.

“I didn’t say that,” Elsdon replied. “If the protesters are wise – and the guild leaders were trained by Yeslin Bainbridge, so we can take for granted that they’re wise – they’ll voice their protest publicly. The newspapers may or may not carry the story – they’re under the Queen’s censorship – but there are other ways to get the news around.”

“Ballads,” said Birdesmond. “Your brother is a balladeer. Do you think he’s likely to compose a commoners’ ballad about the protest?”

“He only ever sings about the elite,” argued D. He had slung his arm over Clifford’s shoulder in a comradely fashion. “It’s a strategy of his. He sings about elite men and women, so that the elite folks who can make changes in policies will listen to his songs.”

“Mad Seeker,” said Barrett.

Elsdon nodded slowly. “Yes. Yeslin sings often about the High Seeker. And about my love for the High Seeker, though he doesn’t name me in his ballads. The trouble is, I haven’t been able to communicate with Yeslin about anything that’s happening in the inner dungeon; I vowed not to speak to outsiders of dungeon affairs. All of us did. And what has happened so far? We have worn arm-bands. We have raised our face-cloths. That’s not the stuff of which ballads are written.”

“There’s Howard,” D. pointed out. “He’s elite. Would your brother be willing to write about Howard?”

“What about Mr. Yates?” Looking from one face to another, Clifford frowned with confusion. “You mentioned him before – has something happened?”

“Let me,” said Barrett abruptly, before anyone else could speak. He walked over to Clifford. D. silently released Clifford from his friendly embrace and stepped back. Bending forward, Barrett began to speak in an undertone to the junior guard. D.’s gaze seemed fixed on his two fellow guards.

Elsdon shook his head. “A ballad about a pension being threatened? I don’t think so. No, this is something I’ve been worrying about for a while. I didn’t say anything, because until now, there was no way in which we could get word to the lighted world about what was happening. Even the outer-dungeon laborers are bound by a vow of silence. But if they’ve decide to break that vow—”

“They wouldn’t have to break any vows,” said Clifford. He had come forward to join them, looking distinctly unsettled by the news that Barrett had broken to him, but bearing up bravely in any case. “A protest this big? The news is bound to leak out. The outer dungeon receives visitors.”

“So does the inner dungeon.”

Barrett’s terse statement caused everyone to fall silent. At last, Elsdon drew in his breath. “Yes. That was what I was on the point of suggesting, before Clifford arrived with the latest news. We’ve reached the stage, I think, where we need to make our protest large enough that the news will reach the lighted world. If there are protests in the lighted world, as well as here in the Eternal Dungeon, then there is likely to be an uprising of opinion against the High Seeker and the Codifier.”

“By the commoners, you mean.” D. was chewing on his thumb, his forehead furrowed.

“And some of the mid-class and elite,” added Birdesmond. “There are men and women of good conscience among the higher-ranked classes in this queendom.”

“It would have to be a bloody big protest to get the attention of all those people.” D. spoke lightly.

Zenas shifted restlessly in his seat on the floor. D. had spoken in a seemingly careless manner, but from his expression, and from the expressions of the others in this living cell, it was obvious that everyone knew what was being proposed.

Finally, Birdesmond said, “We knew we’d reach this stage in the end. I wasn’t willing to take chances if our sacrifices would be useless, but . . . Yes, now is the moment to move.”

“Surely you’re not in danger, ma’am?” said Clifford. “You’ve never tortured any of your prisoners. You’re not allowed to, by the dungeon rules on searching female prisoners.”

Birdesmond gave a faint smile. “But I am a leader of the New School. If the New School makes its final move, the High Seeker will know which of us are to blame.”

“Well, it’s about bloody time, that’s all I can say,” growled D. “Some of the other guards who belong to the New School, the ones we represent – they’ve been asking me how long we planned to drag our feet before we did the fucking obvious.”

“Language, please,” Elsdon reprimanded automatically. “Do you mean that the other members of the New School would be willing to assist with this?”

“The ones with guts will,” inserted Clifford. “Look, I don’t want to sound stupid, but I just want us to be clear: We’re talking about refusing to torture prisoners, aren’t we?”

Barrett said, “Hangman.”

“Yes,” agreed Birdesmond softly. “The Code’s penalty for Seekers and guards who refuse to carry out the prescribed methods of searching prisoners is execution.”

“Ready to be hanged, Cliff?” As he spoke, D. gave a gruesome grin.

Nobody paid his words any mind except Elsdon, who said, “I think we have to be prepared for the possibility of the worst, even if the other guards join us in refusing to torture prisoners. In all likelihood, if the High Seeker executes anyone, it will be one of us, the representatives of the New School.”

“Which will be to our advantage, in the long run,” Clifford reflected. “If one of us is executed for refusing to torture . . . What a ballad that will make. The battle over the dungeon’s future will move to the lighted world. Thousands will take over the fight. I just wish I knew who was likely to be meeting the hangman.” He tried to give a smile and failed.

“Me.” Birdesmond was so pale now that she looked as though she were on the point of fainting. “The High Seeker has wanted me dead since I began working here.”

D. shook his head. “The High Seeker is a sadist. He could pick any of us as his victim. Except you, of course.” He jerked his head toward Elsdon.

With a voice that was far too steady to be natural, Elsdon said, “I think we can take it for granted that the High Seeker might execute any of us. What I wish is that I’d had a chance to speak to Howard or Mr. Bergsen before they left the dungeon. Except for Mr. Ferris – who was an unusual case – no prison-worker has been executed for disobedience to orders since the time of Layle’s predecessor, High Torturer Jenson. None of us representatives worked in the dungeon back then, except for Howard and Mr. Bergsen. I wish I knew what the procedure was for arresting men and women within the dungeon, under charge of a capital crime.”

“Weldon worked under High Torturer Jenson; I could ask him,” began Birdesmond, but Zenas had already turned his attention toward the man standing closest to his mama. He was curious as to whether the man would speak.

“No need,” said Barrett, and everyone turned to look at him.

The silence that followed seemed to last through an eternity of hell. Clifford, who had been standing near D., went over to Barrett and tried to reach out his hand. Barrett visibly flinched, as though he had touched a hot stove. Biting his lip, Clifford backed away.

Birdesmond broke the silence by saying, “You needn’t speak to us about so painful an episode – that is, if you recall it at all?” She ended on a tentative note.

“You need to know,” said Barrett, folding his arms. It was clear from his tense stance that this memory, at least, he had plumbed the depths of. “It will be the High Seeker’s senior night guard and junior night guard who will come for you. They’re in charge of arrests.” Quite noticeably, he did not look in the direction of D., who had been the High Seeker’s junior night guard four years before. “They will knock at your door and tell you that the High Seeker wishes to speak to you in the Codifier’s office. In the Codifier’s office. That’s their manner of telling you that you’re under arrest for breaking the Code.”

“But the Codifier was on leave when you were arrested,” Birdesmond objected.

Barrett gave a jerk of a nod. “It didn’t go the usual way with me. The High Seeker questioned me himself, with the Codifier’s secretary taking notes of the interview. If the Codifier had been there, the High Seeker would have handed me over to the custody of the Codifier’s guards. Then the Codifier would have questioned me and decided upon my fate, after consultation with the High Seeker.”

It was the longest speech that Zenas had heard Barrett make since the brutal flogging of 360 had altered his mind. From the look on Clifford’s face, Zenas guessed that it was the longest speech that Barrett had made in public since that time. Apparently desiring to ease this process for Barrett, Elsdon said, “Your arrest wasn’t entirely analogous to this situation, however. You had broken Yclau law, as well as the Code. We will only be breaking the Code. The Codifier has the power to forgive such breakings, if he feels they’re in the best interests of the prisoners.”

“Not bloody likely he will in this case, is it? And I know I’m using bad language in the presence of a lady, Mr. Seeker; stop sending me reprimands.” D. glared at Elsdon.

Apparently intent on preventing civil war from breaking out, Birdesmond asked hastily, “And if the Codifier doesn’t? Elsdon, none of us are well acquainted with Mr. Daniels, but he’s bound to consult with the High Seeker, and you know the High Seeker better than any of us do. How would he proceed in such a case?”

Elsdon frowned as Zenas reached out to touch a chessman, having made his decision. “I think he’s likely to treat the prisoner in the same manner that he treats any disobedient Seeker or guard – as he treated Howard, in fact. First he’ll appeal to your love of the Code: he’ll try to persuade you that obeying his orders is in the best interests of the prisoners. Then, if he thinks it’s worthwhile, he’ll offer— Well, he’ll offer a bribe. He’ll offer a rise in rank or something else that he thinks the Seeker or guard wants. If that doesn’t work, he’ll threaten. And if the threat doesn’t work . . .” His voice trailed off.

This time, the silence was broken, not by any of the rebel leaders, but by the soft click of bone against stone as Zenas made his move. The sound drew the attention of the Seekers and guards to him. After a moment, D. gave a humorless laugh. “Checkmate. The boy’s got it right. If we don’t give in to the threat, the High Seeker will stretch our necks, courtesy of the hangman.”

“Only one of us.” The voice of Birdesmond was brisk now. “One death, and the added efforts of the outer-dungeon workers, and we’ll be the ones who have created the checkmate. The controversy will spread far and wide throughout the queendom – even across the international border, if the United Order of Prisons becomes involved.”

“Which it will, won’t it?” suggested Clifford. “That’s what started this whole war, four years ago – the United Order of Prisons told the Eternal Dungeon that it had to stop torturing its prisoners.”

“The final battle,” Elsdon agreed. “Gentlemen. Ma’am. These are the final moments of our war on behalf of the prisoners—”

“You can’t flinch.” It was Barrett, the former soldier, who summarized the situation. “Whatever happens, you can’t flinch. If you do, the enemy will win.”

CHAPTER NINE

“In the annals of historians,” said Birdesmond, “the leaders of rebellions spend their days hunched over important documents, plotting the overthrow of regimes.”

“You’re in need of more flour,” said Elsdon from the kitchen. He looked over his shoulder at where Birdesmond sat, preparing her grocery list. As the only married Seeker couple in the dungeon, Birdesmond and Weldon were privileged with a multi-room living cell, as well as a full kitchen. When her Seekerly duties permitted her a day off from work, Birdesmond preferred to cook meals for her family, rather than depend on the servant-prepared meals that most Seekers ate.

“Though really,” she told Elsdon as she paused from nibbling on the pencil’s eraser, “my cooking is due to Weldon’s influence. Having lived the life of a commoner until he was raised to guard rank here, he dislikes us having to depend too heavily on the service of the outer-dungeon laborers. He says we should free them from some of their menial work, so that they will have more time for leisure.”

“I often forget that Weldon was born a commoner,” said Elsdon as he checked the bin of butter beans. “It must have been a hard transition for him to make: becoming a guard and then a Seeker.”

“Nobody believed he could do it except Layle Smith,” agreed Birdesmond. “Weldon would still be a stoker if it weren’t for your love-mate’s assistance. Weldon told me once that his first few days as a Seeker were unimaginably arduous. —There.” She finished writing the list with a hard jab of the pencil upon the paper. “Is that all, Elsdon? I’ll hand-deliver the list myself to the dungeon kitchen.”

“And stay to listen to the gossip?” Turning around to face Birdesmond, Elsdon forced himself to smile. It was dawn; less than five hours had passed since Clifford had brought news of the outer-dungeon strike. Since then, both he and Birdesmond had returned to searching their prisoners. It would not be long, Elsdon thought, before his current prisoner decided to defy his captors by breaking the Code for the third time. When that happened, the Code of Seeking made clear that Elsdon must rack his prisoner.

And at that point, though the prisoner did not know it, his Seeker would enter into high danger through his own defiance of the Code. Perhaps this evening it would happen. During today’s day shift, Elsdon reflected, he ought to spend most of his time sleeping. There was no knowing what the next shift would bring.

“I’ll be back later this morning,” said Birdesmond. “Don’t wait up for me. Zenas, come with me.”

“He appears to be asleep,” Elsdon said, pointing to Zenas’s cot. “Appears” was the key word; Elsdon thought he could see a glimmer of Zenas’s eyes through the shut eyelids.

“Poor boy, I’ve been keeping him up at odd hours,” said Birdesmond as she rose from her seat. “Elsdon, will you watch after him until you go to bed?”

Lying in bed, Zenas was wrapped around his much-beloved, much-battered lion cub. He was clutching it now. Elsdon said mildly, “I doubt he’ll have need of me, at his age.”

It took Birdesmond a moment to understand; then she winced. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Truly, Weldon and I are trying to remember that there’s nothing wrong with his mind, the way we mistakenly thought. As soon as I get a chance, I’m going to learn the King’s tongue, so that I can speak to him myself. I take it, from what you said tonight at the meeting, that Zenas is proceeding well with his language lessons?”

Elsdon nodded as he closed the sugar bin. “Weldon tells me that he is being forced to rapidly revise his opinion of his son. He says that Zenas is racing through his language lessons with the High Seeker at a rate quite amazing.”

“I feel very badly about my misjudgment of your love-mate,” said Birdesmond as she picked up the alligator-skin handbag she carried in the outer dungeon. “In that regard, at least.” Her eyes met Elsdon’s. “Stay safe, Elsdon.”

“And you,” he replied, knowing they were giving each other futile instructions. Whether any members of the New School stayed safe was up to the High Seeker. And of all the members of the New School, Birdesmond and Elsdon were most in danger from Layle Smith. Birdesmond, because the High Seeker had long held dreamings of murdering her. And Elsdon, because the High Seeker loved him. That was how the High Seeker’s dark desire worked: the person he loved most was most in danger from him.

With Birdesmond gone, and with Zenas pretending to be asleep, Elsdon did his best to tidy up the living cell. This was servants’ work, but Elsdon had spent much of his youth supervising his father’s household, and so he was familiar with servants’ work, though not until he came under the influence of his brother had he attempted to take over any of that work. So now, to save the Chapmans’ maid extra labor, he dusted the furniture and made the beds.

Outside the cell, faintly down the corridor, came the sounds of the dawn shift: the departure of the night-shift workers from the breaking cells and entry hall, accompanied by the arrival of the earliest day-shift workers. Elsdon thought he heard the voice of Clifford, talking to someone. Clifford would be returning to work soon. So would Barrett. Birdesmond would be off-duty until the evening. So would D.

Which of the five of them would break the Code first? Which of them would attract the wrath of the High Seeker? If Clifford was right, other guards would be joining in the protest, but it would make more sense for the High Seeker to move against one of the representatives of the New School.

It would make most sense of all for Layle Smith to move against a Seeker: Elsdon or Birdesmond. Alternatively, the High Seeker might simply arrest the first of the representatives to break the Code.

By this time tomorrow, they would likely know, thought Elsdon as he bent over to tuck a blanket across Zenas, who was definitely sleeping now. Despite what Elsdon had said to Birdesmond, he felt the same protective instincts toward Zenas as nearly anyone did who met the young man. It was a shame that the lad, who was so innocent and had endured so much pain in his childhood, should be forced to witness threats against the life of his mother. Elsdon hoped that Layle, who had clear fondness for the boy, would keep that in mind when he made his choice on who to send to the hangman.

There was a knock at the door.

Elsdon jumped. It took him a moment to gather up the courage to answer the door, even though common sense told him that the High Seeker would not be making any arrests yet, prior to the breaking of the Code.

It wasn’t the High Seeker’s guards; it was D. Urman. “Sorry,” the guard muttered in his usual manner, half-sullen, half-apologetic. “Left my dagger here.”

Elsdon looked around and saw the dagger where D. had laid it on the table. “Come in,” he said. “Zenas is sleeping, so we should keep our voices down.”

D. lingered at the doorway, though. “Can’t stay. I’m working into the day shift. Mr. Gibson has a difficult prisoner.”

Elsdon glanced past him. The corridor outside the Chapmans’ living cell was always thronged with Seekers and guards at the beginning of the day shift, since the common room lay just a few yards away. It took him only a moment to locate the right man. “Mr. Kinney!” he called.

The dungeon’s latest guard-in-training hurried forward. He had been about to enter the common room with his lunch pail in hand, evidently planning to eat breakfast there. Many of the guards preferred to socialize in the Seekers’ common room, rather than in the far more cramped quarters of the guardroom. “Yes, sir?” Mr. Kinney said breathlessly. “May I help you?”

Elsdon smiled. “I hate to take leisure time away from you, but could I bother you to deliver a message for me? I need Mr. Gibson to know that I’d like to borrow his junior night guard for an hour, for official business. The Record-keeper will tell you where to find Mr. Gibson.”

“Yes, sir.” The guard-in-training sounded breathless with excitement. Many of the guards were these days, whenever Elsdon called upon their services. It had taken some pointed remarks by his close friend Seward Sobel before Elsdon had finally figured out that the guards’ breathlessness was connected with his own recently-revealed appearance.

“Bring a reply from Mr. Gibson, if you will, Mr. Kinney. Thank you.” He gently pushed the guard back so that he could close the door. Otherwise, he suspected, the guard would have spent all day standing there, breathless.

It was clear, as Elsdon turned around to face Mr. Urman, that D. was not one of the guards who grew passionate at the sight of Elsdon. He was glaring at Elsdon. “What’s this? Another reprimand?”

Elsdon took a minute to respond, taking in D.’s rigid posture and his fist tightening on the dagger-hilt. Then Elsdon asked quietly, “Did you receive a reprimand earlier for not being properly weaponed on duty?”

D. snorted as he sheathed the blade. “This? Oh, this was only the beginning of a lovely night. Did you know that guards who refuse to assist in racking a prisoner are racked themselves? At least, according to Mr. Gibson, who had quite a few words to say about my performance tonight.”

Elsdon felt a sickness in his stomach, as if he had just been punched in the gut. “You didn’t mention that you were scheduled to help rack a prisoner.” Mr. Gibson, though a most emphatic member of the Old School, was a junior Seeker; he would have had to receive permission for a racking prior to his work-night.

D. shrugged, shifting his eyes away from Elsdon. “It didn’t matter, did it? It could have been any of us. At least it’s not Cliff.” He looked back at Elsdon, his eyes narrowing. “So what’s this ‘official business’ you want me for?”

It took Elsdon only a heart’s beat to decide on an answer. “I need your help in deciphering the petition that the Women’s Fellowship and the Guild of Outer Dungeon Laborers have submitted to the Codifier. Barrett managed to get his hands on a copy of it and left it with Zenas while Birdesmond and I were at work. You were schooled with commoners; I figured you might have insight into what they’re saying.”

D. snorted. “And your brother runs the Commoners’ Guild. You’d know as much as I do.” But he followed the wave of Elsdon’s hand and seated himself at the table, where the petition lay.

Elsdon sat down next to him and waited, taking the time to think. D. huddled over the paper, like a schoolboy concentrating hard on his studies. After a while, D. said, “Looks straightforward to me. They want the Codifier to rewrite the Code so that Seekers aren’t permitted to torture prisoners. They don’t know about the usual process for revising the Code, I guess. Marjorie Sobel must not have discussed the petition with her husband beforehand, or he would have told her that what she was proposing was impossible.”

“So no Seekers or guards were involved in the writing of the petition.” Elsdon glanced over at the alcove. Through the gap between the wall and the closed curtain he could see Zenas’s chest rising steadily up and down as the lad slept.

“Looks that way.” D. shoved the petition back. “It’s funny we never guessed that the outer dungeon would become involved in the battle. We forgot all about the laborers.”

“It’s sometimes easy to forget subordinates, if they keep quiet about their troubles.”

Missing the point, D. replied, “Aye, I imagine that’s true. That the torture troubled them, I mean. They seemed so complacent about it, all the things we’d been doing to the prisoners. . . . But they’re nearly all commoners, like most of our prisoners are, aye? They must have been thinking all this while about the bloody business we were at, and trying to figure on how to stop us.”

The more unguarded D. became, the more he tended to lapse into the commoner dialect he had picked up at school. It was telling, thought Elsdon, that even at such a moment D. would identify, not with the persecuted commoners, but with the men who were guilty of their persecution and must force themselves to transform.

Transformation and rebirth. It was at the heart of what the Seekers strove to do. Yet here sat a potential transformation, and through all these years, Elsdon had never noticed.

“D.,” he said, having finally decided that there was no graceful fashion in which to raise this topic, “I’ve been having a look at your records.”

In an instant, D. was rigid again. His hands clutched into fists, crushing the petition. His gaze turned hostile. “Yes?”

[“Yes,” _]not[ “aye.”_] The moment for unguarded confidences was gone. Elsdon spoke slowly, picking his way carefully over unsteady ground. “I’ve also been speaking with Mr. Sobel. I suggested to him that, if your work pattern had not altered after all these years, perhaps it would be best to consider a more radical change for you. After we’d discussed the matter, he agreed that this was appropriate.”

“Yes?” The paper in D.’s hand was beginning to tear. “What do you think I should do, then? Quit my job? Leave the dungeon?”

His voice was as belligerent as ever. But looking into D.’s eyes, Elsdon knew that D.’s sister had told the truth. Elsdon hadn’t been sure until now. Though clearly her letter had been kindly meant, it was quite possible that sisterly love had blinded Dorothea to her brother’s true nature.

D. had his gaze fixed upon Elsdon, waiting for an answer. He was waiting to be told what he should do.

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” replied Elsdon, reaching over to take the paper from D., before it should be utterly destroyed. “There are other jobs in this dungeon, besides the one you currently hold.”

“You think I should work in the outer dungeon, then?” D.’s voice was, if anything, more aggressive than before. His eyes held relief and hope. He added, “I’m not trained for any of that work. Just guarding.”

“You’d need extra training,” Elsdon agreed. “Perhaps a year’s training. You’re a quick student, but I think you should wait a year before applying to become a Seeker.”

There was a space of silence. Zenas’s soft, even breathing filled the cell. Nearby, glasses clinked in the common room, where night-shift workers were celebrating the end of their daily work.

Then D. rose, so swiftly that he nearly upset the table. He shoved his chair back, toppling it to the ground. With fists furled, he growled, “Don’t make mock at me.”

If Elsdon was any judge – and he thought he was, after nine years as a Seeker – D. was at the point of explosion. Elsdon thought he knew what form that explosion would take. Still speaking softly, Elsdon said, “I’m not making mock. Mr. Sobel concurred with my assessment. He said that it had not occurred to him before, but now that I pointed out certain aspects of your work behavior, he was in agreement that you would be better off with a double rise in rank. More to the point, so would the prisoners.”

Now confusion battled hostility upon D.’s face. It was clear he was not sure whether he was being made a fool of. Keeping his voice matter-of-fact and his mode of address formal, Elsdon said, “Mr. Urman, all of your reprimands have occurred when you took the initiative. Sometimes the initiative you took was misguided; sometimes it was perfect. It didn’t matter. You’re a junior guard; you’ve been expected to follow the lead of your Seeker and your senior guard. Even if you rose to the rank of senior guard, you’d still have limited ability to choose how the prisoner should be searched. If I had been assigned to guard duties, I know that I’d have found such a situation intolerable. I work best when I can make independent decisions and issue orders to my subordinates. I have the instincts of a Seeker, not a guard. So do you. That’s been your trouble all along. You were assigned the wrong rank when you first came to this dungeon.”

Now D. simply looked stunned. With his body still rigid, but his hands loose, he said, “The High Seeker . . .”

“The High Seeker,” replied Elsdon gently, “is fallible. We both know that. I think his intention had been to make you a guard and then guide you through a rapid rise in rank to Seeker. That’s how some of the Seekers achieve their rank, you know; Mr. Chapman was originally a stoker, and then a guard, before he became a Seeker. But because of his illness, the High Seeker was unable to train you properly. And after that—”

“I got myself into a bloody load of trouble by acting like I was a trained Seeker, even though I was just a barely trained guard.” D.’s fists furled again as he contemplated the lost opportunity; then his head jerked up, taking in what Elsdon had said before. “You think I could still be trained to be a Seeker?”

“I don’t know,” replied Elsdon honestly. “You’ve trained yourself into a lot of bad habits, you know. Even as a Seeker, you’d be required to follow orders. All of us – the High Seeker himself – must follow the orders of those who are higher in rank than ourselves, such as the Codifier. You’d have to learn to follow orders and to restrain your temper and your tongue. For a guard to use foul language is a matter of reprimand. For a Seeker to use foul language . . . Many prisoners look to us as models for good behavior, you know. We have to act our best, for their sake.”

“Us.” “We.” Elsdon could see the words sinking into D. Urman’s soul, changing his view of himself as an ill-behaved, much-bullied guard to something stronger. A rebirth. A new Mr. Urman, who had always existed in potentiality, but who had rarely appeared, except at home with his sisters.

D.’s throat throbbed as he swallowed. “You think I could maybe do that? Train myself to be a good enough guard that I could apply to be a Seeker?”

“Train yourself? That would be difficult. But I could help. I’ve spoken to my senior night guard, and he’s willing to work for another Seeker. Would you consider being his replacement?”

The explosion came then. D. turned immediately, but Elsdon could see his shoulders shaking. Elsdon rose and walked forward. There had been a knock at the door a moment before, but he ignored Mr. Kinney’s return, instead placing his hand on D.’s shoulder. From where Elsdon stood, he could see the tears gushing down D’s cheeks, like a waterfall.

The knock came again; evidently Mr. Kinney wasn’t going to miss this chance for another glimpse of Elsdon’s face. Elsdon squeezed D.’s shoulder. “I’ll be right back,” he said softly. “Here, take this.”

He left D. clutching the handkerchief that all Seekers carried with them, for the sake of prisoners who had been broken, who frequently greeted their transformation with tears of pain, relief, and joy. Elsdon could still remember his own transformation in Breaking Cell 4, nine years before. D. had witnessed it, and, in his own fumbling manner, had helped to bring it about. Now Elsdon had the opportunity to return the favor.

The knock did not come from Mr. Kinney. At the door stood Mr. Sobel and his junior night guard. Instinctively, Elsdon moved to block their view of D.

Not because D. was still crying. But because D. had refused that night to torture a prisoner. Yet even as he moved, Elsdon knew that his body was no better a shield to D. Urman than a piece of paper. The High Seeker had made his choice.

“Mr. Taylor.” Mr. Sobel’s voice was unusually colorless. “The High Seeker wishes to speak to you in the Codifier’s office.”

CHAPTER TEN

Nearby, in the entry hall, voices buzzed with rumor and with fear. In the guardroom, Barrett Boyd calmly and methodically pulled his uniform jacket from the locker and began cleaning it with a stiff brush. No other guards were there; they were too busy chasing down news.

The guardroom door burst open. Nearly falling over himself, Clifford Crofford hung onto the time clock as the door swung shut behind him. He gasped, “Elsdon Taylor has been arrested!”

“Yes.” Barrett did not look up from his jacket.

Clifford stared. “D. was there when it happened – he just told me. How did you know?”

Barrett gave a slight jerk of the head. Clifford’s gaze turned toward the corner of the room.

Zenas was sitting cross-legged on the floor, experiencing the warmth of accomplishment. It had been his first attempt to speak the King’s tongue to anyone in the dungeon, other than his papa and the High Seeker and Elsdon Taylor . . . and the Codifier, of course. Barrett had appeared to have no difficulty in understanding him.

Perhaps only because they had all been awaiting an event like this. Walking forward, Clifford asked, “What shall we do?”

“Nothing.” Barrett sat down, laid the jacket aside, and picked up his boots, which were standing next to the bench he sat on. He began to brush them free of dust.

“Nothing!” Staring at him, Clifford moved around so that he was facing the senior guard. “Barrett, how can we do nothing? The High Seeker will tear Elsdon Taylor apart!”

“Fool.” Barrett lifted his boot to the light, inspecting it.

After a pause, Clifford said, “Me? Or Mr. Taylor?”

“The High Seeker. He should have picked the weakest of us. He picked the strongest. Elsdon Taylor would die on the rack, rather than betray us.”

Clifford sat down heavily on a footstool opposite Barrett. “So he’ll die.”

“Most likely. Better that, than turn traitor to our cause. The weakest of us would have.”

Clifford bowed his head and pressed his fist against his lips. “You mean me.”

Barrett shook his head as he lowered the boot and began brushing again. “Me.”

“You!” Clifford stared again at the senior guard. “Barrett, you’re one of the bravest guards in this dungeon!”

“No.” Barrett put down the boot and picked up the other. “All that Layle Smith would have to say is, ‘I beat you before. I will beat you again.’ I would break. In an instant. It would be that easy. The High Seeker was a fool not to pick me.”

Zenas pulled his legs up against his chest. The sounds of distress in the entry hall were growing louder. At a guess, D. was spreading the news of Elsdon’s arrest far and wide, hoping to start a protest that would save the junior Seeker’s life.

Clifford broke the stillness within the guardroom by rising slowly to his feet. “Four years ago, you deliberately saved a mentally ill prisoner from torture, knowing that you would be executed. And then you deliberately chose to receive one hundred lashes from the High Seeker, hoping that your terrible, prolonged death would change the hearts of the Seekers. . . . It was a miracle you survived the High Seeker’s flogging. And yet you consider yourself a coward, just because you’re unwilling to undergo again an extended torture that none of us would have been brave enough to choose on the first occasion?”

Barrett said nothing. His gaze remained fixed on the boot.

Clifford looked down at the floor, nudging a dust-ball with the toe of his right boot. His voice turning shy again, he said, “Elsdon gave me a book.”

Barrett grunted.

“He said it was a book the High Seeker loaned him. He told me he thought I should read it. It’s called, Our Modern Army.”

Barrett’s hand stilled momentarily on the brush; then he laid the brush down and began putting on the boot.

“There was a whole section in the book about you,” persisted Clifford, watching him. “About your time in the army. I hadn’t realized you were a machine gunner.”

Barrett grunted again. He was lacing up the second boot now.

“The book talked about how working the machine gun is a team effort,” Clifford continued. “One man to fire the gun, the other man to feed the ammunition. If the two men don’t work in perfect harmony with each other, the gun can’t be fired. They’re necessary to each other.”

Barrett stood up, reaching for his work belt. He checked the sheathed dagger on the belt, as well as the hook from which the coiled whip hung. Then he began to don the belt.

“I was thinking,” said Clifford, still hesitant in tone. “It’s like that with senior guards and junior guards, isn’t it? Or it should be. Right now, senior guards request their assignments and junior guards are arbitrarily assigned to them . . . But it oughtn’t to be that way. The senior and junior guards on duty ought to work in perfect harmony, for the sake of the prisoners. They ought to plan together how they will care for the prisoners. It would be a sort of mateship, in a way. With the senior guard taking the lead, of course; I don’t mean to suggest that the junior guard should usurp the senior’s place of honor—”

Clifford’s increasingly rapid speech broke off abruptly as Barrett turned, swept up his jacket, and left the guardroom with a few quick strides. After a frozen moment, Clifford followed.

Zenas was already ahead of Clifford. He reached the Record-keeper’s desk just as Barrett did. Mr. Aaron looked even more harassed than usual; his desk was piled high with papers. Glancing at a few of them, with his newfound knowledge of the Yclau alphabet, Zenas saw Elsdon Taylor’s name written over and over. Petitions for his release, no doubt.

Edging himself back so that he was out of the Record-keeper’s view, Zenas pretended to be interested in the many stacks of paper on the Record-keeper’s desk. Mr. Aaron said impatiently, “Well? What do you want?”

“Transfer.” Barrett did not turn his gaze away from the Record-keeper as Clifford skidded to a halt beside him. Behind the Record-keeper, Zenas craned his neck, seeing a familiar piece of paper on top of one of the piles.

Mr. Aaron sighed heavily. “Mr. Boyd, you have requested a transfer every season for the past three years. You received yet another transfer only two weeks ago. I have run out of Seekers who are willing to endure—”

Zenas couldn’t bear to wait for Mr. Aaron to figure out the obvious. With a quick flick of the finger, he sent the familiar document floating to the ground.

Mr. Aaron turned, saw Zenas, and glared at him before reaching over with another sigh to pick up the paper. Beside Barrett, Clifford was watching the senior guard with a worried expression. Nobody else in the entry hall was taking notice of the conversation; the hall continued to buzz with rumor, though accompanied now by discussions of action. The door to the Codifier’s office was closed, with a double guard at its entrance, hands resting on their weapons, eyes watchful.

Mr. Aaron began to put the document back onto the pile, then paused, scrutinizing it. After a moment, he said, “As it happens, I may have an opening for you—”

“Both of us.” Barrett Boyd was as terse as always.

“Both of you,” repeated Mr. Aaron slowly, his gaze travelling between Barrett and Clifford, who was continuing to stare at Barrett, wonder growing in his face. “Well, you are in luck, Mr. Boyd. As it happens, the High Seeker is about to open a joint position for a senior guard and junior guard to work directly under him, assisting Seekers-in-Training. The position will not open until next year, but if you would like to apply now—”

Barrett grabbed the document from his hand, picked up a pen from the table, and scribbled his name down, just below the Queen’s seal. Then he offered the pen to Clifford. Smiling broadly now, Clifford joined his name to the paper.

Huffing audibly, the Record-keeper took the paper back and placed it to one side, turning his attention to a guard who wanted to present yet another petition for Elsdon’s release. Taking a few steps back from the desk, Barrett placed his hand on Clifford’s shoulder, saying in a tone audible only to Clifford – and to Zenas, who had crept up close to them – “Let’s go to my room. I have some ideas for improving our watch over the prisoners, which I’d like to discuss with you.”

Still smiling, Clifford nodded. The two men left the hall together, unnoticed by the other prison-workers.

o—o—o

Out of the many battles which the High Seeker had waged, the greatest one had been against the architect who wished to modernize the Codifier’s office.

Elsdon had been witness to their furious fights, which had taken place around the time that Barrett Boyd became Elsdon’s guard, a few months before Mr. Boyd made a fateful decision to disobey the Code. At the time, the threat of the Queen’s Architect to extend artificial walls into the Codifier’s office had seemed far more important than Elsdon’s acquisition of a new senior night guard. The Codifier himself – ostensibly the Queen’s representative in the dungeon, though often defending the dungeon to the Queen – had tactfully excused himself from the debates. It had been left to the High Seeker to explain, over a matter of weeks rather than days, that the Codifier preferred cave walls in his office for reasons other than mere eccentricity.

In the end, Elsdon had felt duty-bound to intervene between the two opponents. Layle had been firmly set against any modernization of the dungeon, beyond the heating and lighting renovations which the Queen had ordered. The architect, on the other hand, had wanted to bring all of the dungeon into conformity with modern tastes.

“I think,” said Elsdon to the architect over dinner one day, “that the High Seeker and some of the other senior Seekers are a little old-fashioned. Those of us who are of the new generation find that frustrating sometimes. The senior Seekers don’t appreciate, for example, the beauty of the Queen’s new court.”

The architect, who had designed the Queen’s new court, grew more affable. Elsdon – whose terms of imprisonment had never permitted him to visit the court – spent a good deal of time praising the court’s renovation before he said, “I especially like how you managed to incorporate ancient styles into the design, through your use of classical pillars. That’s the sort of modernity the new generation appreciates: a style that incorporates the best of the old, while bringing the building as a whole into our century.”

The architect was not a slow-witted man; he looked thoughtful then.

Layle had proved trickier to handle; Elsdon had been forced to speak straightforwardly to him. “Love, you simply cannot allow your own artistic tastes to be the sole determinant of the future of this dungeon. Fight for what’s most important; let the rest go.”

In the end – as Elsdon had intended – a compromise was reached. The architect was permitted to reshape the outer dungeon to his heart’s content, as well as adding new furnishings to the inner dungeon and preparing plans for a much-needed renovation of the breaking cells. The rack rooms, however, had been kept untouched, while the portions of the inner dungeon which retained their bare cave walls – the Codifier’s office, the entry hall, and the crematorium – were permitted to remain without artificial walls, a testimony to the dungeon’s roots in ancient days.

It was a role that Elsdon had played many times: mediator between Layle Smith and his opponents. But now, it seemed, his work for Layle had come to an end, in all respects.

Barrett had been quite accurate in his account of how matters would go. Upon Elsdon’s arrival at the Codifier’s office, the High Seeker had immediately dismissed his guards and had handed the proceedings over to the Codifier. The Codifier was merciful enough to keep his own guards out of the office, but their presence wasn’t needed in any case. The Codifier’s office was the most heavily guarded room in the dungeon, symbolizing the Queen’s bastion within the dungeon. There were guards at the door to the Codifier’s office. There were guards at the door to the secretarial anteroom which led to the Codifier’s office. All of the guards were armed, not with whips, but with revolvers. The Codifier had no qualms about using modern technology when it suited his purpose.

His office, however, remained as it had doubtless been since folk from the Queendom of Yclau made their way into the foothills of the mountains, a few centuries after settlers had arrived from the Old World. There were stalactites on the ceiling. There were stalagmites on the floor. There was a waterfall which led into a pool. In the pool swum the blind Hooded Seeker fish, as ghostly in appearance as they had been in ancient times.

There was no gibbet. Elsdon supposed that condemned prisoners were escorted to the palace’s hangman by way of the great locked door at the back of the Codifier’s office, which was timed to open only twice a day.

He tried to focus his attention on the two men in the room. The Codifier looked as he always did: relaxed and alert. He was sitting at his desk with his hands folded over each other. The High Seeker’s appearance was far more alarming. His eyes were bloodshot. His hand, as he waved Elsdon forward, was actually shaking.

The signs were all too obvious of what was taking place within the High Seeker. With his mind now preoccupied with thoughts of the High Seeker’s health, Elsdon was taken off-guard when the Codifier said abruptly, “We will have to go to press sooner than I had anticipated.”

“Sir?” Bewildered, Elsdon turned his attention fully to Mr. Daniels.

“The Queen’s pressmen are in a tizzy,” added the Codifier, as tranquil as could be. “This type of press run occurs only once in a generation. They are having to bring in extra presses from the other western districts.”

There could be only one book in all of the queendom he could be talking about. “Is there need to reprint the Code of Seeking, sir?” Elsdon asked politely.

“Not reprint.” The Codifier turned aside to set his pen in a different place on his desk. “Revise.”

The waterfall continued its soft thunder in the office. A Hooded Seeker fish jumped out of the water, landing with a splash. The pocket-watch in Mr. Daniels’s vest ticked steadily.

“Revise,” repeated Elsdon.

“Yes,” replied the Codifier, and waited.

Elsdon shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. “Sir, I thought the Code of Seeking was revised every thirty-five years.”

“It is revised every generation,” said the High Seeker, the one man present who could recite every sentence in the Code of Seeking from heart with perfect ease, since he had written many of those sentences. “Excuse me for my interruption, sir,” he added, turning his face toward the Codifier.

“Insert yourself into the conversation as you wish, Mr. Smith,” said the Codifier serenely. “Your High Seeker is correct, Mr. Taylor. The Code requires itself to be revised once every generation. The last revision was issued in . . .”

“The year 344, sir,” murmured the High Seeker. His voice sounded raw, as though he had been screaming. Elsdon wondered what Layle’s dreams had been like recently.

“Thank you, Mr. Smith,” replied the Codifier. “The year 344. One year before Mr. Jenson passed into rebirth and your High Seeker received his current rank. Twenty years ago. Since Yclau men generally marry no earlier than age twenty-one, I think it is fair to say that next year will be the beginning of a new generation. It will take a full year to prepare the new Code.”

Elsdon’s mind was racing ahead. Weldon Chapman was second-in-command to Layle Smith and would eventually succeed Layle as High Seeker, just as Layle had been second-in-command of the Eternal Dungeon at the time he penned the fifth revision of the Code. Therefore Weldon would pen the sixth revision.

But all of the indications during the past weeks suggested that Weldon had become a tool of Layle’s policies. That meant, in essence, that Layle would pen the revision that was meant to update and correct his current revision of the Code.

Breathing seemed helpful in this situation. Fainting away in the Codifier’s office, as a result of becoming short of breath, would not help. Striving to keep his voice level, Elsdon said, “Will Mr. Chapman be consulting with the rest of the dungeon about the revision? Or will he only consult with the senior members?”

“The pressmen,” said the Codifier, seemingly determined to complete his previous thought, “are especially frustrated because I cannot presently offer them an exact timetable for the publication of the sixth revision. It all depends.”

“Depends, sir?” It took an effort to speak; Elsdon was envisioning Weldon in the High Seeker’s office, listening to the High Seeker lecture and memorizing all that he said in order to revise the Code accordingly.

Sweet blood, this would be no revision. It would simply be an affirmation of the present bloody regime of the High Seeker.

“Depends on whether the Eternal Dungeon survives until next year,” the Codifier replied.

Elsdon was shocked back into awareness of the two men in front of him. The High Seeker – standing aside from the Codifier’s desk, on the side wing of the central drama – had folded his arms in an authoritative manner. It was a brave attempt to hide his shaking. The Codifier was now tapping his pen on the desk, which was as agitated an action as Elsdon had ever witnessed him undertake.

When Elsdon made no reply, the Codifier continued, “We have a difficulty, you see. Paragraph B of the tenth chapter of the Code of Seeking requires a revision of the Code once a generation, at the point in time when it becomes evident that the old Code is in need of revision. It is plain that such a revision is needed. As of today, most of the junior guards are refusing to obey one of the most important regulations in the Code of Seeking. They are supported in their protest by a formidable number of outer-dungeon laborers. Moreover, quite a few junior Seekers have made clear to me that, while they will not actively disobey the Code, they agree with the arguments which are put forth by the junior guards in advocacy of their protest.”

“But most of the senior Seekers and guards do not agree,” Elsdon said slowly. His gaze flicked over to the High Seeker, who remained silent.

“They do not. If the senior members of this dungeon were to remain in their jobs forever, that would not be a problem.” The Codifier paused, like a schoolmaster waiting for a lad to recognize the obvious.

“They’re growing old,” said Elsdon, the obvious blooming open in his mind, like a burst of sun rays into a dark dungeon. “The junior members will replace the senior members when the latter die.”

“Or possibly before then,” murmured the High Seeker. “In addition to the usual need for replacement – the violent death of a senior Seeker or guard – it has been suggested by several senior members that retirement for causes other than permanent disability be permitted to senior Seekers in the next revision of the Code. This proposal was made several years ago, before the current conflict began, and Mr. Daniels and I agreed that it was a suggestion which ought to be passed on to the next reviser of the Code.”

Elsdon raised his hand to wipe the sweat off his forehead. Despite his apprehensiveness that his appearance might be considered provocative, he had made the decision, upon his arrest, not to cover his face with his face-cloth. To do so would be to concede the fight to the High Seeker and the Codifier from the start. Now he said, “So you have been planning this revision for some time.”

“Since . . .” The Codifier looked to the High Seeker.

“The fourth month of 356.” The High Seeker’s response was prompt.

Elsdon’s memory was equally prompt. “That was when I returned from my imprisonment in Vovim.” He stared at the Codifier. “It was my suggestion for a change to the Code which prompted you to consider revising the Code?”

The Codifier’s expression remained bland. “Paragraph B of Chapter Ten of the Code of Seeking was invoked at that time. When a suggestion for a change in the Code is made, the Record-keeper must begin recording all suggestions for change. When it reaches the point where a majority of the members of the inner dungeon agree that a new edition of the Code of Seeking is needed, at that time the suggestions will be taken into account and incorporated into the new revision, at the discretion of the reviser. The senior members will then decide whether the revision should be approved.”

“The majority of the members of the inner dungeon,” echoed Elsdon. “The junior members are a majority. They are the ones who have been making the greatest number of suggestions for change, I’m sure.”

“And the senior members,” said the High Seeker softly, “must decide whether the revision should be approved.”

The ancient fish continued to swim in their ancient pond. Just outside the Codifier’s office, a guard said something to his fellow guard about his gun. His modern gun.

“You have a paradox,” said Elsdon. His voice was even now; he recognized the crisis which had helped bring the High Seeker to this point of ill health. “The Code requires you to issue a revision, because of the junior members’ desire for change in the Eternal Dungeon. But the Code forbids you to issue a revision, because of the senior members’ desire that the dungeon not change.”

“Thank you for stating my dilemma so succinctly, Mr. Taylor,” said the Codifier briskly.

“It has been a problem every time the Code has changed,” added the High Seeker. His voice remained hoarse and strained. “Conflict has always existed between the junior and senior members of this dungeon over whether the Code should be changed to reflect the views of the new generation. The original authors of the Code of Seeking, who had overturned the previous regulations by which the royal dungeon was conducted, recognized that it would be as foolish to blindly accept all aspects of a new generation’s desire for change as it would be to complacently accept a previous generation’s desire for constancy. Therefore, they created a balance of power in the revision: the junior members would require a change, while the senior members would have final approval of any revision to the Code.”

“But this makes change hostage to the senior members,” argued Elsdon, striving to hold back the fury he felt. “Whichever senior Seeker pens the revision can simply keep the Code the way it is, knowing that his fellow senior Seekers will approve the results, as will the senior guards. This ‘balance’ you speak of is a fraud.”

Yet even as he spoke, Elsdon knew that he must be wrong. He had read the Code – not merely Layle’s fifth revision, which had erased many passages from the fourth revision, but also the previous four revisions, as well as the original Code of Seeking and a description of the unwritten dungeon customs which the Code had replaced. The pattern was clear: in each revision, a new generation had recognized mistakes made by the previous generation and had improved the Code accordingly.

But how had this been done, if the Code permitted the senior members to control each revision?

The Codifier was now examining his pen. He was old-fashioned enough to use a pen and inkwell, rather than the newer cartridge pens favored by junior members of the dungeon. He said, without looking up, “The long-standing custom in this dungeon has been that the Seeker who pens the revision of the Code is a junior Seeker.”

The ticking of the Codifier’s watch seemed to fill the office. Nearby, a drop of water fell from a stalactite. It narrowly missed the Codifier’s desk. The Hooded Seeker fish swum endlessly in their tiny pond.

“No,” Elsdon heard himself say. “No, I won’t let you get the drop on me like this.”

The Codifier raised an eyebrow. “‘Get the drop’?”

Then fury burst forth from Elsdon, as it had not done for many years. Swinging away from the Codifier, he turned to face Layle, his fists balled. “This was your idea – yours. You thought that you could offer me this bribe, and once I’d accepted, you’d have enough power over me to force me to revise the Code in the manner you wanted. And you—” He turned back to the Codifier, his voice choking. “You’re the Queen’s servant. You’d do anything to keep peace in this dungeon. Even if it meant turning the Code of Seeking into a travesty of justice.”

The Codifier carefully placed the pen on the desk. He spent a moment adjusting a paperweight with the Queen’s seal on it, while the High Seeker stayed coldly silent. Finally the Codifier looked up. “Mr. Taylor,” he said, “I have held the title of Codifier for over thirty years. I quit a most lucrative post as the Queen’s secretary in order that I might devote my full time to caring for the Code. That is my function in this dungeon: to care for the Code and to protect the prisoners against violations of the Code. And my most important function of all – my most vital job – is to pick the man who will take the Code of Seeking, the greatest work of ethics that this world has ever known, and shape it into something new and better. That is my perilous task, and if I fail in it, the world suffers from my failure. Only twice in my lifetime have I undertaken this function. This is the second time, and it will be my last exercise of this high privilege. Do you truly think” – he was on his feet now, fists pressed against the desk – “do you truly think, Mr. Taylor, that I would risk the life of this dungeon, this queendom, and this entire world, simply in order to offer a bribe?”

Rumor had long held that Mr. Daniels was the rebirth of a dragon. Elsdon, who had been scorched a little over the years by his encounters with the Codifier, had never before realized that Mr. Daniels had been holding back the full fury of his flames. Previously, the Codifier had only lightly toasted Elsdon, like a flicker of flames in a campfire.

This was different. This was like a volcano erupting.

The High Seeker had lowered his eyes. The High Seeker was a wise man. Elsdon took only a moment to gather his flame-blasted thoughts back into a semblance of order; then he knelt, in the old-fashioned, formal manner of a liegeman making his obeisance to his master. “Sir, I apologize,” he said, bowing his head. “It was heartless and scandalous of me to suggest that you would act against the duty you hold toward the Code that we all love so well. Please forgive me.”

A chair squeaked as the Codifier sat down again. Then he said in his usual mild manner, “Mr. Smith, how many prisoners has this young man broken since he arrived here?”

“I haven’t stored the exact number in my memory,” replied the High Seeker. “He is generally successful in his breakings.”

“By methods such as this, no doubt.” The Codifier sighed. “Stand up, Mr. Taylor. Your apology is accepted. . . . Now, if you are prepared to listen to reason, understand this: From the moment you suggested that the Code be changed to forbid Seekers from forcing prisoners to abandon deeply held matters of legitimate conscience, you were a potential candidate for reviser of the Code. Our strongest candidate, it became clear over time, as you took on a role of leadership among the junior members of this dungeon. That is the reason – the sole reason – why you have not been raised to the rank of senior Seeker before now. Likewise, Mr. Smith – when he first arrived here in a whirlwind, overturning this dungeon’s customs left and right – was not raised to the rank of senior Seeker until Mr. Jenson and I determined to appoint Mr. Smith to revise the Code. But whether to accept that role had to be left to Mr. Smith. It is impossible for any true revision of the Code to take place if the author is forced to revise the volume against his will.”

“But . . .” Elsdon’s thoughts were beginning to move again, sluggishly. He could see the dilemma that Layle and the Codifier faced, and he could see how he himself was the only solution to their dilemma. He was the dungeon’s mediator. Over the years, he had helped guide the dungeon to compromises in every grave conflict it faced. He was a bridge between the Old School and the New School. He shook his head. “We are speaking of the tearing apart of men’s bodies. There can be no compromise on such a matter.”

“That will be for you to decide, should you accept this post,” the Codifier stated phlegmatically.

“If I accept—” He stopped then, envisioning what would occur if he accepted. Helplessly, he turned his gaze toward the High Seeker.

Layle said quietly, “Mr. Daniels and I are aware that we are placing you in a difficult position by making this offer. The junior and senior members of this dungeon are all likely to misunderstand your motives for acceptance, should you take the job. We have no choice, though. No one else in the dungeon possesses your qualities. No one else may have the ability to find a solution to our dilemma.”

Elsdon was beginning to feel faint again. Breathing hardly seemed worth the effort. He looked back at the Codifier. “How long do I have to decide?”

The Codifier checked his watch. “Four hours. That is how long the dungeon has left.”

“Sir?” Elsdon shook his head again, trying to free his thoughts.

“I have been ordered to meet with the Queen at noon,” the Codifier explained, returning his watch to its vest pocket. “At that time, if I cannot provide evidence that I have taken steps to end the civil war in this dungeon, the Queen has warned me that she will send her guards to take control of the Eternal Dungeon.”

o—o—o

Daily Notices from the Record-Keeper

Special Notice

Members of the Eternal Dungeon of the Queendom of Yclau are hereby notified that Paragraph B of Chapter Ten of the Code of Seeking has been invoked. A new revision of the Code of Seeking will be released next year, following discussion and approval by the Queen, the Codifier, the High Seeker, and the senior members of this dungeon. Any suggestions for changes to the Code should be submitted to Mr. E. Taylor.

Notice of Changes in Rank

Mr. D. Urman is hereby raised in rank to senior guard.

Mr. E. Taylor is hereby raised in rank to senior Seeker, second-in-command of the Eternal Dungeon. Mr. W. Chapman will retain his current title and duties as Supervisor of the Day Shift of the Eternal Dungeon. Mr. Taylor has been suspended from his regular duties in order that he may devote his full time to revision of the Code of Seeking. Members of the Eternal Dungeon are hereby informed that Mr. Taylor has been granted all privileges and powers associated with the second-in-command. Unless such orders should conflict with the Code of Seeking or with orders issued by the Codifier or High Seeker, members of the Eternal Dungeon are hereafter required to obey the orders of Mr. Taylor, on penalty of disciplinary beating, suspension from duties, or death.

Notice of Birthdays

The following members of the Eternal Dungeon are celebrating their days of birth today . . .

o—o—o

Elsdon straightened his back as he halted from leaning forward to read the notice-board. He was keenly aware that he had an audience. The day shift was well started, so all on-shift guards not watching prisoners were sitting in the entry hall. Ordinarily that meant the guards would be doing documentwork and chatting with one another. Not now, though. Silence had descended upon the entry hall the second that Elsdon left the Codifier’s office, holding a frighteningly high number of papers that he had been required to fill out, in significance of his rise in rank.

Now the only sound in the entry hall, aside from the screech of the Record-keeper’s chalk, were whispers throughout the hall, too low to be heard. Elsdon took a step back from the notice-board, which was located directly beside the great slate tablet indicating which of the dungeon’s recent prisoners were currently imprisoned, racked, released to freedom, or released to the hangman. Without taking notice of whatever name the Record-keeper was adding to the board – it was a release, judging from the circular sweep of the Record-keeper’s chalk – Elsdon laid down his burden upon the Record-keeper’s desk. The Record-keeper, turning back from his work, held up a key.

The key to the Record-keeper’s archive. Elsdon took it and added it to his key-ring, which already held the set of keys that opened practically every room in the dungeon. The only exception was the Codifier’s office, but it had been made clear to him that he would be automatically granted permission to enter the Codifier’s office at any time, in order to consult the private records that were normally only open for perusal to the Codifier, the High Seeker, and his second-in-command.

The whispers behind Elsdon had increased in intensity, from the moment that he took the key denoting his new authority. Trying to ignore them, Elsdon made his way toward the door leading to the corridor where the Seekers’ living cells were located.

At the door he encountered a new barrier. It appeared that Barrett Boyd and Clifford Crofford had been assigned new duties, for both of them had been placed on guard at the doorway. Clifford’s back was currently turned as he examined the credentials of a visitor to the inner dungeon, who had evidently entered the Eternal Dungeon in the usual manner, through the back entrance in the outer dungeon. Clifford did not notice Elsdon’s approach.

Barrett did. It was difficult to tell from his expression what his thoughts were; as always, he appeared angry at the world. But as Elsdon passed him, there was a hiss, followed by an unmistakable signal of his judgment.

Elsdon paused barely a second before continuing past Clifford, who was still absorbed in his task, trusting his fellow guard to hold back danger from the opposite direction. Elsdon waited until he was around the corner, standing in the corridor leading to the common room, before he took out his handkerchief and wiped Barrett’s spit from his face.

His heart was pounding. He forced himself to think. By this time of day, in mid-morning, Layle would be in bed. Weldon had just entered into conference with the Codifier; Elsdon would have to wait until later to discover what Weldon thought of his demotion from his previous role as the High Seeker’s second-in-command. At least Weldon had not been stripped of his title as Day Supervisor; Elsdon had made sure of that by insisting that he himself operated better as a night-shift Seeker.

No chance to speak to D. Urman until he rose from bed. Little chance to change the mind of Barrett . . . or, Elsdon supposed, Clifford, since the young guard always took his cue from Barrett. As for Mr. Bergsen, he would be returning to duty – it had taken little effort on Elsdon’s part to persuade the Codifier to lift his suspension of the dungeon’s talented healer – but Mr. Bergsen would not be likely to show up for another day or two. Howard Yates, generously pensioned, had already moved himself and his foster sister to the south of Yclau and was unlikely to want to return to his work in the Eternal Dungeon.

That left only one representative of the New School.

She was not yet in bed; instead, she was sitting in her parlor, sewing. A pile of clothing to be sewn lay in the wicker basket by her feet. A smaller pile of Elsdon’s belongings lay on the table by the door.

He paused at the doorway, looking down at his belongings, his throat aching. Then he looked up. With her usual clear-eyed gaze steady upon him, Birdesmond said, “The Record-keeper sent word that you would be moving out. He said that you had been assigned your own living cell, in accordance with your new rank.”

Sickness was growing inside him. Fumbling for words, he said, “Birdesmond, I had to do it.”

She rose then in a leisurely fashion, putting aside her sewing. Coming forward, she closed the door behind him and then grasped his hands and drew him into the room. “Elsdon,” she said, “I have no idea what took place today between you and the High Seeker and the Codifier. But one thing I do know: you would die before you would betray the best interests of the prisoners. I trust you.”

Elsdon released his breath, which he hadn’t realized he was holding. Birdesmond smiled and said, “Come tell me. I’ll make us some tea.”

By the time that Elsdon finished the tale, he was beginning to yawn. He had been awake for over a full night and day. Not that he needed to worry about work hours for some weeks to come. In a sign of the grave importance of Elsdon’s new duties, his prisoner had been transferred to another Seeker. Elsdon had already grazed through the list of suggested changes to the Code which the Codifier had recorded over the years. Until Elsdon had finished receiving further suggestions of revision to the Code from other members of the dungeon, he could not start his new duty of penning the revision. For now, he was free to live a life of leisure, as though he were a rich man in the lighted world, rather than a prisoner in the Eternal Dungeon.

Birdesmond stirred the remaining tea leaves in her cup, saying nothing. Elsdon asked, “Are you very angry with me?”

Birdesmond waved away that suggestion with her free hand. “I know that you made the only choice you could. The alternatives were for the Codifier to appoint a member of the Old School to revise the Code, or for the Queen to send her guards to take control of the dungeon. No, Elsdon, I’m not upset that you accepted the offer of the High Seeker and the Codifier. Whether or not they intended the offer as a bribe, there was nothing else you could have done to save the dungeon from destruction.”

“Then what concerns you?” Elsdon dipped his head to try better to see Birdesmond’s expression. She was wearing her face-cloth up. She had not bothered to pull it down when Elsdon opened the door to the living cell, despite the High Seeker’s strong views on this issue and her awareness that Elsdon now possessed the power to punish her for breaking dungeon custom. She was what she had always been: a woman who consistently followed her conscience, no matter what the consequences to her.

Now she sighed as she pushed aside the teacup. “Elsdon, you don’t realize it, but you had the Codifier and the High Seeker in the palm of your hand today. They were desperate for you to agree to revise the Code. They would have made any concession to you at that stage, even the immediate cessation of all torture in this dungeon.”

“I considered requiring that of them,” said Elsdon slowly. “I did think of that, Birdesmond. But if you had seen the High Seeker . . . He was on the point of breaking, I think. One more push by me, one more battle, and I truly think he would have sunk back into madness.”

“Elsdon.” Birdesmond took his hands again. Her own hands were cool and smooth, the hands of an elite Seeker. “I know that you love Layle Smith. By all that is sacred, I know what it is like to be torn between loving another Seeker and wanting to help the prisoners. But we have to be brave, those of us who are fighting for the prisoners. We have to make sacrifices for their sake. Even if it means losing those we love.” She released Elsdon’s hands to touch the small locket she wore that signified her marriage to Weldon Chapman.

For a moment, Elsdon did not speak. He was thinking again of Weldon – uncontentious, stubborn Weldon, refusing during all these weeks to budge from his stance, even as this drove his marriage to ruins. Elsdon put his hand in his pocket.

Birdesmond stared at the book he placed on the table. “What is this?”

“One of the volumes of disciplinary records that is kept locked in the Codifier’s office. It’s from the time of Layle’s predecessor, High Torturer Jenson. The Codifier gave it to me.”

Birdesmond raised an eyebrow. “To impress upon you that aspect of your new duties?”

Elsdon emitted a sharp laugh, then looked automatically toward Zenas’s alcove. Yes, the lad was there and awake. Even now, with his tongue freed to communicate with any member of the dungeon who knew the common speech of Vovim, Zenas was such a silent lad, listening to conversations, observing, saying nothing. Elsdon wondered what had been going through the lad’s mind all these weeks, as he observed the great events taking place in his home.

Then Elsdon turned his attention back to Birdesmond. “The Codifier knows that I’m not going to discipline any member of this dungeon who refuses to torture prisoners. Even the High Seeker agreed that the time was past for that. No, the Codifier showed me this when I asked him a question that had been troubling me.” Elsdon played with the edges of the pages, though taking care not to unsettle the pieces of paper he had used to mark certain pages. “Birdesmond . . . do you remember when you said it was odd that we were the first members of this dungeon to oppose the use of torture?”

Birdesmond did not speak for a moment. She was looking down at the closed book. Finally she said, “Mr. Bergsen came close to challenging that remark, I recall. We weren’t the first?”

Elsdon did not bother to reply. He opened the first marked page and pushed the book over to Birdesmond’s side of the table.

She bent her head to read. After a moment, she gave a soft gasp. Then she turned to the next marked page. And the next.

After half a dozen readings, she raised her head. Her eyes were somber. “You’ve marked a dozen or so pages.”

“Scores,” replied Elsdon softly. “The Codifier told me that scores of Seekers and guards were disciplined for refusing to torture prisoners. The rebellions go back to the very beginning of the Eternal Dungeon, a century and a half ago.”

“No disciplines like this have occurred during my time in the dungeon, I’d swear,” said Birdesmond. “Only Mr. Ferris, and he was disciplined for ordering his prisoner to be tortured to a higher degree than the Code required. Elsdon . . . has Layle Smith been punishing men without anyone noticing it?”

Elsdon shook his head. “The very last arrest for refusal to torture took place two decades ago. Layle intervened, to prevent the High Torturer from punishing the Seeker who had rebelled against orders. Since that time, there have been no executions for refusal to obey orders, other than Mr. Ferris’s.”

Birdesmond placed her hand over her mouth. After a moment, she said, “I see.”

Elsdon nodded. “I thought you would. Birdesmond, we should be dead. All of us who rebelled against orders would be dead, under the previous High Torturers. It’s because of Layle – and Layle alone – that we’re alive. He has held his hand; he has suspended one of us and forced another into retirement, but he hasn’t exercised the power he has to execute us. Indeed, he has allowed us to meet and discuss our grievances—”

“And if he went mad, then he might simply be replaced by another High Seeker who would move to utterly suppress us. Then all our hope of helping the prisoners would be lost. Yes, I see.” Birdesmond shut the book. “The rebels who came before us were all sentenced to execution?”

“Most of them were,” said Elsdon. “Do you remember what Howard Yates said? ‘It used to be that, in the old days, men would go into the Codifier’s office, and only their corpses would be returned. We never knew why. . . .’”

“Oh, sweet blood.” Birdesmond’s face had paled. “Hundreds of them? Hundreds of Seekers and guards were hanged for refusing to torture prisoners?”

Elsdon returned his gaze to the book. “Not all of them. A few agreed to continue to abide by the Code’s strictures.”

Birdesmond’s mouth thinned. “The cowards.”

Elsdon raised his gaze. Keeping his voice light, he said, “Barrett Boyd spat in my face a short time ago.”

Behind Birdesmond, Zenas cocked his head. Then, as quiet as before, he rose to his feet and made his way to the door of the living cell. The door shut softly behind him.

Unaware of this, Birdesmond said, “Elsdon, it is really quite annoying when you practice your Seeker skills outside a breaking cell.” She paused to let Elsdon chuckle, and then conceded the argument with a wave of the hand, “All right. I’ll admit that the men who chose to follow the orders of the Codifier and the High Seeker may have had good motives, as you did when you accepted the offer of a rise to second-in-command. We’ll never know, I suppose.”

He already had his hand upon the book. Carefully, he opened the book to the proper page, which he had not marked. Carefully, he pushed the book toward her.

When she finally raised her head, her expression was that of bewilderment. Elsdon gave her a half-smile. “It’s as the High Seeker once told me,” he said. “People are often different inside than they appear to others.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Elsdon stepped inconspicuously through the entry hall, heading toward the door to the corridor. Neither Barrett nor Clifford barred his way. The duty roster that Elsdon had asked the Record-keeper to show him a few minutes before indicated that both guards had been transferred to special training under the High Seeker. The roster also indicated that those guards were currently off duty.

Now the entry hall was rapidly filling up with dawn-shift guards, on their way to punch in the guardrooms’ time-clock. The more dutiful day-shift guards were already at work during the “dawn” hours.

It had been several years since the “dawn” shift centered precisely upon dawn, Elsdon reflected, looking up at the ceiling of the entry hall, where the bats slept, having arrived home to the dungeon an hour earlier. Under pressure of modernization, Layle Smith had finally equalized the night and day shifts, which traditionally had been determined by the setting and rising of the sun. It used to be that, at this time of the year – the summer – night shifts were short and day shifts interminably long. Now the night shift would end after exactly ten hours, before the two-hour dawn shift gave way to the day shift.

Already, some night-shift guards had been released from their posts. During this second foray into the entry hall since his rise in rank on the previous day, Elsdon had encountered D. Urman, who had asked, without preliminary, what his new duties were. They had talked for some time, with Elsdon acutely aware that everyone nearby was listening to him for signs that he had adopted the High Seeker’s forceful manner. When Elsdon mildly suggested that the next few weeks might be a good opportunity for Mr. Urman to take his first visit home since he became a guard in the Eternal Dungeon, there were sighs of relief all around the entry hall.

Stepping through the doorway into the corridor where the Seekers’ living cells stood, Elsdon smiled at a junior Seeker who was on his way to work. Through the eye-holes of his hood, the Seeker scowled back. It made Elsdon feel nostalgic. He remembered this, from his early weeks as a Seeker, nine years before. Except for the High Seeker and his guards, nobody in the dungeon had known anything about Elsdon, other than that he was a recently convicted murderer who had slaughtered one of his kinfolk – the worst type of murder, from an Yclau perspective. It had taken time – and perhaps a bit of Mr. Urman’s influence with the junior guards, Elsdon realized belatedly – before the Eternal Dungeon had come to accept that Elsdon was trustworthy.

And now the struggle would begin again. He passed a couple of senior Seekers, whom he did not bother to smile at, for they were quite pointedly talking about how the Codifier must have grown senile in his old age, to appoint a rapscallion to revise the Code of Seeking.

Elsdon noticed that they did not make any remarks about the High Seeker’s mental state. They were passing the door to the High Seeker’s cell as they spoke.

Elsdon waited until they had left the corridor; then he paused, listening. There was no sound in this portion of the dungeon, other than the soft whoosh of the Lungs, the machine that moved air in and out of the dungeon. At one time, this corridor would have been filled with stokers, hard at work during the final minutes of the night shift as they filled with coal the furnaces that ran along the backs of the prisoners’ cells, on this side of the dungeon. But the furnaces had been modernized too; no longer was this corridor choked with soot and with flickering oil lamps.

Only one light flickered. It always flickered. That electric light hung from the ceiling directly in front of the High Seeker’s cell.

With another look to assure himself that the corridor was empty, Elsdon pulled his key-ring from his pocket. So stuffed full of keys was the ring now that it took him a moment to locate the correct key. The key was still there, somewhat battered after all these years.

As he had expected, the High Seeker’s door was locked. Elsdon inserted the key, opened the door a gap, and pocketed the keys, which he took care not to rattle. He slid inside and closed the door silently.

The High Seeker was sitting at the desk, with his back to Elsdon. He was writing. Without looking over his shoulder, he said, “I am rather busy, Mr. Taylor.”

Elsdon walked slowly forward. The room was dim, lit only by the oil lamps that they had kept here for Layle’s sake. Elsdon passed the work counter where he and Layle had eaten thousands of meals together, as well as the bench that they had put to most creative use on their first night together. He reached the desk.

With Layle sitting in it, the wheeled chair was difficult to move, but not impossible. Layle did not resist as Elsdon pulled the chair out and turned it. He simply waited, cocking his head, as Elsdon moved around to stand in front of him. At some point – probably when he heard the scrape of the key with his acute hearing – the High Seeker had pulled down his face-cloth. All that could be seen were his cold eyes.

His deceptively cold eyes. Keeping his voice gentle, as he would if speaking to a wounded animal, Elsdon said, “Love, I want to return to you. I truly do. But I can’t do so until you do something for me.”

Layle sat frigid, like a block of ice on a winter’s day, waiting to be chipped. He said, in a voice grown hoarser by emotion, “Anything. I will do anything to have you back.”

Elsdon slid onto his lap. It felt like coming home. He leaned back against Layle’s arm, which had automatically moved to catch him, and he laid his cheek upon Layle’s shoulder. He said softly, “Forgive me?”

Layle made no reply. Not with words. But his hand moved to push Elsdon’s head back, and then Layle’s face-cloth was up and his lips were upon Elsdon’s. His lips tasted of tears.

o—o—o

Outside the High Seeker’s cell, Zenas shifted from his cramped position, kneeling to look through the keyhole. He could hear another Seeker emerging from his cell. Pretending he had knelt merely in order to tie his bootlace, Zenas waited until the Seeker was past. Then he stood up. There was no point in watching further; he had already seen what he came to see. He began to walk down the corridor, in the direction of his own cell.

His papa and mama were in the bedroom together, sitting against the headboard of the bed, fully clothed. Neither of them noticed Zenas, peering through the gap in the doorway. Weldon – who had received the traditional day off following the racking of his prisoner – had his head bowed as he looked down at the volume in his lap. Birdesmond was looking at Weldon.

After a while, Birdesmond asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I could not.” Weldon had ceased reading some time before, but he continued to stare at the volume. “I swore an oath to remain silent. It was one of the conditions for my release.”

Birdesmond reached over and took his hand. “You can speak now. Elsdon has the power to release you from that oath, and he encouraged me to discuss this with you.”

Weldon nodded but did not look up. At present, he appeared very old, though he was only fifty-three, younger than Zenas’s master had been when he first took Zenas to his bed. There were dark rings under his eyes.

Birdesmond asked, “How old were you?”

“Thirty-four.” Weldon cleared his throat, apparently in order to speak more clearly. “It was in 344, just a few months before High Torturer Jenson died. I was rather old to become a Seeker. I can’t blame my naiveté on youth or inexperience. I’d worked in the inner dungeon for a year as a guard, and for four years before that as a stoker. I’d been a prisoner here; I knew what that meant. Yet somehow I hadn’t fully grasped, until the moment came, that I would be required to torture prisoners.”

“You had your thoughts on the transformation part of searching,” Birdesmond suggested softly. She had not let go of Weldon’s hand.

Weldon shook his head. “I was more selfish than that. I had my thoughts on the difficulty of becoming the dungeon’s first commoner Seeker. I’d scarcely had time to think about the prisoners during my year as a guard; I was too busy surviving the hazing I received from the other guards, who were angry at having to treat a commoner as their equal.” Weldon raised his head finally, but only to lean it back against the headboard and close his eyes. “The first time it happened was on the first day. My prisoner twice disobeyed me, and then he went for my throat. I knew what the Code of Seeking required in such cases. I simply had not thought about such a possibility occurring. Since I had been a guard, I had been given no formal training as a Seeker. I was expected, in the space of a day, to change from a guard who racked prisoners upon orders, to a Seeker who ordered the racking.” He opened his eyes and turned his head. His expression was bleak. “I refused.”

Birdesmond squeezed his hand. “That was brave of you.”

Weldon shook his head vigorously. “No, not at all. Not at first. I simply did not grasp it, you see. I didn’t realize I could be executed for refusing to rack a prisoner. By the time I realized . . . You know how you have sometimes accused me of being overly stubborn?”

A sad little smile played on his lips. Birdesmond responded by pulling Weldon into her arms. Resting his cheek on her breast, Weldon said, “High Torturer Jenson was patient with me, I will say that. He has a reputation now of having committed summary executions, yet he spent three nights with me in my breaking cell, trying to convince me to change my mind. Finally he left me alone for one final night to make my choice.”

Behind Zenas, the stove in the nearby kitchen crackled as coals combusted. He could smell the bread that his mama had set on the counter to cool. He took a moment to nibble at the carrot he had taken from the kitchen. He wasn’t sure when he would have the opportunity to eat next.

“I spent most of that time praying,” said Weldon, his voice reflective rather than grim. “Praying to whatever powers lay out there to give me the strength to follow my conscience to the gallows’ rope. I’m not a brave man; I was crying by the end. But I think I would have remained strong to my commitment. I think so.”

“What happened?” asked Birdesmond, entwining her fingers with his.

Something touched the side of Weldon’s mouth. “Layle Smith happened, of course. I was feeling bitter toward him on that night; he had been the one who persuaded me to apply to become a torturer. I felt as if he had persuaded me to apply for my own death. He had not even come to visit me during my imprisonment, though he was the High Torturer’s right-hand man by then. . . . He came to me that night.”

“And persuaded you to go against your conscience?” Birdesmond bowed her head in an evident effort to see Weldon’s face.

“Nay, not that.” Weldon slipped back into his commoner dialect, as he only did at rare moments. “He knew that would be useless, aye? He came to my cell, and he stood there without a word, while I’m trying to decide whether to throw my water pitcher at him or simply shout curses. And then he spoke.” Weldon’s voice was so soft now that Zenas could barely hear him. “He spoke only two sentences. He said, ‘Someday I will be High Torturer, and I will change this dungeon to be a better place. But I cannot do that if every torturer in this dungeon who possesses a healthy conscience allows himself to be hanged.’”

Birdesmond considered the ceiling for a moment before saying, “He didn’t abolish torture when he became High Seeker.”

“I did not expect him to. I knew he was requiring that concession from me. But I also knew that, if I followed him, and continued to follow him, this dungeon would become a better and better place for the prisoners as time went on. I had that faith in him.”

There were tears in Birdesmond’s eyes now. “And I accused you of caring nothing for the prisoners. Oh, my sweetest darling—”

Weldon moved then and gathered Birdesmond into his own arms. After a moment, Zenas quietly closed the door to the bedroom.

o—o—o

The common room had its usual sign upon the door. Layle Smith, forever on the hunt for ways to improve dungeon life, had decided a few years back that it would be best not to have a saloon in the dungeon. He had banned alcohol from the common room. There had been a brief period of protests from the Seekers, who were denied all other access to alcohol, until the High Seeker had asked, in his acidic manner, whether this meant that the other Seekers wished him to order that the prisoners be served alcohol.

That had put an end to the protest. The High Seeker – perhaps more than any other man in the dungeon – was acutely aware of the Seekers’ legal status as prisoners in the dungeon. He was always prepared to remind his fellow Seeker prisoners that any privileges they received, above those enjoyed by the prisoners in the breaking cells, were just that: privileges which could be withdrawn at any time, for any reason.

And so the saloon had shut down, and after a while, without any spoken consensus, the common room had closed to games and other high-spirited entertainment during the second half of the day and night shifts, when prisoners were most likely to be racked. Only the occasional private meeting took place at the common room during those times. No lock was placed upon the door; the promise of the Seekers and guards was considered enough.

Now, with his hand on the smooth wood of the common room door, Zenas could hear voices speaking inside the room. He looked over his shoulder, listening to the sounds of guards talking as they left the inner dungeon. It was still the first hour of the dawn shift; the common room would not be opening until the day shift started, more than an hour from now.

He opened the door and slid inside, his pupils adjusting. Although the so-called dawn shift had only just begun within the dungeon, the actual dawn outside had already taken place. At the end of the room where the skylight let in a mote of the lighted world, the room was bathed in morning light.

Sitting on two ends of the sofa there – where only Seekers normally sat – were D. Urman and Clifford Crofford. The back of the sofa hid most of their bodies from Zenas, but he could clearly see them from the shoulders up. They were turned somewhat to face each other. D.’s right arm was slung carelessly over the back of the sofa, his hand nearly touching Clifford’s left shoulder.

Clifford was saying, “It’s all right, I’m sure it is. Barrett and I were talking about it. Of course we were upset when we first heard; we feared he’d gone over to the enemy. But after discussing it, we decided—”

“You mean you decided,” interrupted D. “Barrett would have served Taylor up for mincemeat if you hadn’t talked him around – you know that.”

Clifford blushed. He looked tired; like all the other members of the Eternal Dungeon, he had received little sleep during the past thirty-six hours. Only the prisoners in the breaking cells had slept, oblivious to the fact that their futures were being determined.

“I saw you and Barrett on duty together,” continued D. “You seemed to be getting along all right?” His voice ended on a questioning note.

Clifford blushed again. D. reached over to chuck him under the chin. “Come on, admit it,” said D. “You two have become love-mates again. Shall we hold a celebration? With champagne, if we can smuggle it past the High Seeker?”

Clifford was smiling now, though he did not meet D.’s eyes. “A celebration, yes. But it’s not exactly what you think. Barrett and I have become— Well, partners.”

“Love-mates, yes. Good for you. Have a bun.” D. reached down toward the table that was hidden from Zenas’s view and passed something to Clifford. Evidently they’d been sharing a meal together.

Clifford took what he was offered but shook his head. He was still smiling. “Not love-mates. Partners. Work-mates. That was what Barrett wanted all along, you see. For us to work together, as a team. Not just the way that senior and junior Seekers do when they’re paired together temporarily. We’re committed to each other now. We’ve arranged that we’ll always work together, and we’re planning ways to help the prisoners. When we met in his living quarters earlier . . . Oh, I can’t describe it, D. He opened up. He was actually communicating with me, in a way that he hasn’t since the beating. We’re friends again.”

D. was tapping the back of the sofa with his hand, frowning. “But you don’t just want to be friends with him. You want to be his love-mate.”

Clifford dipped his head. He said softly, “I was wrong about that. I was trying to keep time frozen with Barrett – to force him to be what he used to be with me. He still loves me, just in a different way. Elsdon Taylor helped me see that.”

“Aye.” Still tapping the sofa, D. stared into the distance. “Taylor is good at that sort of thing.”

Clifford reached forward and pushed his shoulder. “Go on. Give me your good news. That’s why you called us here, didn’t you? I saw the notice in the entry hall.”

D., who had reached over to lift a slice of fried hominy from the table, paused with the food halfway to his mouth. “Called us here? I didn’t call us here. It was you.”

“Me?” Clifford stared at him. “Zenas told me you wanted to talk to me here.”

“I found a note in my room about meeting you, when I came off shift.” D. shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I know who must have set up this meeting.” He began to shove the food into his mouth, in his usual manner, and then, at the last moment, nibbled at it in a polite fashion.

Clifford tilted his head to one side and then said, “Mr. Taylor? D., was he the one who arranged for you to be raised in rank? Are you going to work for him?”

“Aye.” D. looked sheepish now. “He has this idea . . . Well, he must have gone insane, like his love-mate. He has this idea that I can train to become a Seeker. Isn’t that mad?” He gave a lopsided grin.

“D.!” Clifford scooted over and grabbed him, narrowly avoiding squashing the hominy between the two of them as he hugged D. Urman hard. “That’s wonderful news! Of course you can be a Seeker; I should have thought of that myself. When will that happen?”

“Depends on me,” said D. He was looking a bit more confident now. “I’ve got lots of work to do, to break bad old habits.”

“I’ll help,” said Clifford promptly. “I know your bad habits better than anyone. But is it still all right for us to meet off-duty, now that you’re raised in rank? I know that we won’t be able to remain friends once you’re a Seeker.” There was a note of dismay in his voice as Clifford returned to his end of the sofa.

“That’s all nonsense.” D. paused to take a final bite of his hominy before mumbling, through his food, “Mr. Taylor says—”

“D., you’re eating,” Clifford pointed out.

D. quickly swallowed the food. Reaching down, he picked up a glass and swallowed a drink of water before saying, “Sorry. Thanks. My table manners are terrible; I’ve got to improve them. . . . Anyway, Mr. Taylor says he thinks that rule in the fifth revision of the Code about different ranks not consorting with each other is all nonsense.”

“Surely he didn’t use that word,” said Clifford, clearly shocked.

“Nay, he was polite about it. ‘Needs to be refined’ is the way he put it. He’s friends with Seward Sobel, you know. He says that he even thinks that the rule forbidding guards and Seekers from becoming love-mates to each other is too harsh. He’s planning to revise that, and to add a rule to make clear that Seekers can marry, the way other life prisoners in the queendom are allowed to. . . . Oh, he has all sorts of plans to change the Code.” D. tipped his head back and gurgled down the remaining water, then wiped the water off with his sleeve.

“Manners,” said Clifford quickly.

“Bloody—” D. cut off the oath as he picked up a napkin. “Sorry. It will take a while for me to get used to this. I’m not in the habit of being a model for good behavior.” He grinned at Clifford.

Clifford smiled back. “Me neither. I used to play all sorts of pranks when I was a boy. Then I was hired by the Eternal Dungeon, and suddenly I was supposed to be law-abiding and upright. . . . It was something of a shock.”

D. shrugged as he began to toss the napkin down, then caught himself, folded the napkin, and laid the cloth assiduously onto the table. “I guess we all have to grow up sometime. . . . Cliff, are you sure about this? Barrett, I mean. Perhaps you just haven’t tried hard enough to persuade him to love you.”

Clifford shook his head, his smile fading. “I’m sure. I’m taking the right path with Barrett, I assure you. And he really does love me; talking to him now, with him so open, is as good as going to bed with him.”

D. leaned forward. “You don’t look very happy.”

Clifford gave a short laugh. “Don’t you start using Seeker skills against me.”

“Cliff, I mean it.” D. moved over so that he could place his arm around Clifford’s shoulders. “Let me talk to him. Maybe I can persuade him to change his mind.”

Clifford shook his head vigorously this time. “D., I really am very happy with what has happened between Barrett and me.”

“Then why ain’t you smiling?” D.’s voice softened as his commoner dialect deepened.

“It’s not to do with Barrett and me,” said Clifford, his voice very quiet now. “It was . . . You remember about Fae.”

“Aye.” D. began to knead the back of Clifford’s neck. “And then Barrett, a year later. Must have been hard for you, your fiancée dying, and then you losing your love-mate, all in the space of a year.”

Clifford sighed. “The trouble is, I’m too shy. —No, don’t deny it, D.; you know it’s true. I’ve learned to speak out in work situations, but courting someone . . . It took me nearly ten years of knowing Fae before I got up the courage to tell her I loved her. And I’d probably never have had the courage to tell Barrett I loved him; it was he who took the initiative.”

D. shrugged. “Well, he’s older than you. Makes sense. The guardian does the courting, aye?”

Clifford laughed softly. “I don’t think Barrett ever regarded himself as my guardian, training me in bed to prepare me for marrying a girl. That isn’t necessary in the Eternal Dungeon, is it? Lifelong mating between men is allowed here. That’s what he and I would have had. That’s what we still have, on a certain level.”

“Aye, well, I hope he’s not expecting you to stay celibate all your life. If he is, I’ll have to punch him.” As always, D. was blunt.

Clifford laughed again. “Stop it, D. You bark like a guard dog any time you think someone’s hurting me. Don’t worry; Barrett made clear that he’d be relieved if I took a love-mate or a wife. He feels badly that he can’t fulfill that part of his love-pledge to me. Which is just as well, for I can’t envision myself as one of those aekae prophets of the Kingdom of Vovim, pledging my celibacy to their gods.”

“Then what’s wrong, mate?” Still speaking in commoner dialect, D. returned to kneading Clifford’s neck. “You’ll find a girl to marry. You’ve got that shiny uniform to attract them with.”

Clifford shook his head slowly. “D., I’m shy. It took all the courage I had to court Fae. Now that she’s dead, and now that Barrett is a different sort of partner to me . . . Oh, D., I don’t know that I have the strength to go through all that again. Finding someone to court, or who’s willing to court me. Finding a wife or a love-mate. And how many people do you think there are in the world who would understand the work we do? Even in the outer dungeon, they think we guards are madmen for wanting to work here. For that matter, how many people would be willing to love me, knowing that I’ll always love Barrett deeply?”

D. stared blankly at the sunlight, growing stronger as the morning waxed. His hand now lay motionless behind Clifford’s neck.

“D., did you hear me?” asked Clifford.

“Aye, I heard you.” D.’s gaze remained fixed on the sunlight. “I was wondering . . . Well, not exactly wondering, but I was thinking . . . Oh, bloody blades.” His tone suddenly strangled by a powerful potential, D. turned his head, leaned forward, and kissed Clifford.

There was a space of silence after he leaned back. Clifford stared at D. as though D. had transformed into some strange new animal. His voice gruff, D. said, “I just botched things up again, didn’t I?”

Clifford continued to stare at him, as though D. had not spoken. Then Clifford said softly, “How long?”

D. shrugged, avoiding his eyes. “Five years. I’d just about gotten up my courage to tell you, when that blasted senior guard of yours swooped in and stole you, right in front of me.”

“Five years.” Clifford spoke the words with awe. “D., you never said a thing. All these years, when Barrett was pushing me away, and everyone was telling me I should abandon Barrett . . . You were the one who told me I should stay true to him. You were the one who said I should remain his love-mate.”

“Aye, well.” D. stared at his lap. “Didn’t want you to be sad, did I? Bad enough, one of us being unhappy, without both of us being that way.”

“Oh, D.” Clifford emitted something between a sob and a laugh. “You utter fool. You best of all friends. Come here. . . .”

It took three minutes for the kiss to deepen to the point where D. and Clifford slid down onto the sofa, hidden from Zenas’s view. Shaking out the pins and needles from his legs, Zenas got up from the shadowed corner where he had been sitting cross-legged. It was well into morning now. It was time to go.

o—o—o

Silently, Zenas slipped out of the common room and shut the door tight. After a moment’s consideration, he turned the sign over so that it read:

Common Room closed for private meeting.
Do not enter

Someone had crossed out the remaining words.

For a moment Zenas stood still, staring down at the chessman which he had pulled from his pocket. It was the High Seeker. When Zenas had made his checkmate, capturing the High Seeker chessman through a chess move known only in southern Vovim, he had discovered a single word inscribed at the bottom of the chessman: “Victory.”

The word was written in southern Vovimian. The High Seeker, slipping into Zenas’s home once a day to catch a brief glimpse of his sleeping love-mate, had paused each time to play a game of chess with Zenas. And had known, before the end, that Zenas would defeat him.

Victory. For Zenas? Or for the Eternal Dungeon, which the High Seeker loved so much? How much did Layle Smith know about what Zenas had been doing during these past weeks? And how did he feel about Zenas’s victory?

The answer would come soon, within a matter of minutes.

Zenas strode down the corridor, joy and thanksgiving swelling in his heart. It had all happened the way it should have; it had all happened in the manner that the gods ordained.

Only a few rambling remarks on his part, about Elsdon’s behavior in the rebel meetings, had been enough to remind Layle Smith of Elsdon Taylor’s skills at mediation. Once Zenas had learned to speak the King’s tongue, a few more rambling remarks to the Codifier about the breakdown of his parents’ marriage had been enough to give Mr. Daniels the idea to show that particular volume of the disciplinary books to Elsdon when the junior Seeker made his enquiry, as he inevitably would. Not even words had been needed by Zenas to bring Elsdon and D. together.

Then there was the book that showed Barrett’s army photograph. Fourteen-year-old Zenas had noticed the High Seeker reading that book on the second occasion when they met in the common room. During the years that followed, Zenas had located where the High Seeker kept the book hidden in his living cell. At the appropriate moment, Zenas had slipped the book out of the High Seeker’s cell and placed it under Elsdon’s typewriter, knowing that Elsdon would find the book there and act accordingly.

As for Clifford and D., they had done their own work at joining together, once Zenas had offered them the chance to talk alone at length.

The gods had ordained it all, and Zenas – Zenas alone – had been given the opportunity to offer these mortals a chance for peace and reconciliation. Elsdon, Layle, Barrett, Clifford, D., his mama, his papa . . . Zenas had never doubted that all of them would follow the will of the gods, once they recognized the true paths they should take.

Because, of course, it was their choice. It was always given to mortals to choose whether to obey the gods’ will. Only the very young, or the very dangerous, were deprived of this privilege.

Running now, Zenas zipped through the entry hall, eliciting several startled glances from the guards there. None of them tried to stop him, though, as he ran up the stony steps to the gates of the Eternal Dungeon.

His haste faltered as he reached the gates. His parents had not remembered; had the High Seeker? Or would the High Seeker treat Zenas’s interference as a sign of incorrigibility?

But it was immediately clear that his fears were groundless. The guards opened the gates to Zenas, smiling and murmuring their best wishes.

He had known beforehand where he wished to go. If he turned to the right – to the only section of the palace where prisoners were permitted to travel – he would soon reach the judgment rooms, where long ago he had stood in peril of his life.

He turned left instead. The Seekers’ common room had a skylight; therefore, the area above that portion of the Eternal Dungeon must face the sky.

Yes, there it was, not so far at all from the gates of the dungeon. A little courtyard, built in the style of the Yclau meditation courts of the middle centuries: open to the sky except for the covered, pillared walkways on three sides. The fourth side lay open to the remainder of the palace grounds. From where he stood, Zenas could see the great gate that led into the city. The High Seeker would have notified the guards there as well.

Zenas made no immediate move toward that gate, though. The courtyard was pleasantly designed, with flowerbeds and a fountain in the middle. Ignoring the fountain sculpture – which was in the shape of a ring, the sign of the Yclau faith – Zenas stepped forward and cupped his hands to capture some of the sun-sparkled water in the basin below the fountain. He held the water up toward the sky and then, in the moment before it would have trickled out of his hands, he let it fall to the ground. Mercy in her sky; Hell in his dominion below; and all the lesser gods and goddesses would know that Zenas’s gift was meant for them as well. For they would know what day this was.

He stretched his arms above his head, twirling in place, feeling the sun upon his skin for the first time in six years.

It was his eighteenth birthday. The Eternal Dungeon had set him free.

o—o—o
o—o—o

. . . Communication, however, can require more than a shared tongue, as every soldier on a battlefield realizes, for the battlefield of the Eternal Dungeon in 364 required tact, and above all, sacrifice.

And so, after four years of struggle, the Old School and New School finally reached a truce. Further struggles of communication would occur during the following years, mediated by Elsdon Taylor, the skilled roommate of the High Seeker. For all intents and purposes, though, the battle of the two schools was over.

But readers who are even vaguely acquainted with the history of our queendom in the fourth century will recognize that one man is missing from the tale I have just told. In the long run, this man would make as great an impact on our queendom’s history as the prison-workers I have been writing about for so many chapters now.

And so, in order to end my account of these early years of the Golden Age of the Eternal Dungeon, I must turn my attention partially away from the two central figures of my tale: High Seeker Layle Smith and rebel-leader Elsdon Taylor. I must return to a man who, at this time, was regarded as a relatively minor figure, virtually forgotten during the great peacemaking that occurred in the seventh month of 364.

But while the Eternal Dungeon may have forgotten him, Vito de Vere had not forgotten the Eternal Dungeon.

—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.

Sweet Blood #5
TRUTH AND TRUST

The year 365, the third month. (The year 1884 Clover by the Old Calendar.)

The most common error made by historians writing about the Golden Age of the Eternal Dungeon is to underestimate the depth of sacrifice required by the Seekers and guards who routinely made life-and-death decisions. It has often been suggested that the Seekers gave no more thought to their prisoners’ fates than a military doctor does when deciding whether to amputate on the field.

Only someone who has never done medical work would consider this to settle the matter. The fact is that, while an emergency may require vital decisions to be made quickly by those of us in the healing arts, the ramifications of those decisions remain in our minds for many years afterwards.

During the crisis of 364, Layle Smith made the decision to appoint a junior Seeker, Elsdon Taylor, to revise the Code of Seeking, the book that outlined the process of questioning prisoners and explained the ethical and spiritual reasons for the process. While the decision had to be made quickly, we may be sure that the High Seeker did not make the decision lightly. By tradition, the man appointed to revise the Code of Seeking in each generation also became the succeeding leader of the dungeon – the “High Seeker,” as Layle Smith had dubbed his own title.

We know, from the accounts of Weldon Chapman and others, that Elsdon Taylor was on intimate terms with Layle Smith; some historians have even suggested that the two Seekers were sexually intimate. Although no evidence exists to back this speculation, certainly the frequency with which the High Seeker mentions Elsdon Taylor in his letters suggests that a close personal tie existed. This must have placed special strain on Layle Smith when it came time to appoint his successor . . .

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.

CHAPTER ONE
Day One, Dusk Shift

“Please,” he said, “I beg of you, my dearest one: Do not leave me. This happy haven, this shielding shelter, will all be bleak and black as burnt wood if you should leave me. Do not go; I cannot bear it—”

His words dissolved into laughter.

It took a moment for Vito to control his laughter. Elsdon Taylor, the “dear one” whom Vito’s character had been addressing, waited patiently for his fellow player to return to his senses. Wiping tears from his cheeks, Vito gulped down a final giggle as he said, “I’m sorry, Elsdon, but truly, those are the most melodramatic lines I’ve heard in any theater production. Couldn’t you buy a better script for the Transformation Players’ debut performance?”

Elsdon simply smiled, stepping away from the wooden panel at the side of the room facing the inner dungeon. The panel, which had been painted by Mr. Sobel’s talented young son, depicted a beautiful landscape of grass and shade trees, with sunlight shafting down onto the nearby sparkling bay. Vito, who had spent much of his childhood in a setting very like that, felt a brief pang of homesickness. He’d received a letter from his father a few weeks before, saying that a friend of Vito’s had stopped by his parents’ home, hoping to see Vito. The friend had left his name as Ned, which was the name of Vito’s old academy roommate. “A nice, polite young man,” said his father, obviously striving to provide Vito with incentive to return home.

Vito shook his head inwardly. In the past, he would have enjoyed seeing an old classmate – that one in particular. He would also have enjoyed seeing his parents, with whom he enjoyed good relations.

But not now. All his greatest efforts, these days, were aimed toward never again returning to his family home.

“Perhaps we should have our breakfast,” Elsdon suggested. “I’ll be on duty soon.” He waved his hand in the direction of the inner-dungeon corridor. Faintly, Vito could hear guards chatting with one another as they came off duty at the end of the day shift. A few Seekers’ voices could be heard mixed among them – distinguishable by those men’s greater gravity and formality – but most of the senior Seekers, and a good many junior Seekers, remained at their posts, continuing to question prisoners throughout the dusk shift when they were ostensibly off duty.

It was said in the Eternal Dungeon that the degree of a Seeker’s ambition could be measured by how often he worked during the dusk and dawn shifts that were intended as leisure periods between work and sleep. Vito cast a covert look at Elsdon, who appeared to be in no great hurry to return to his current work of revising the Code; he was pulling food from the bins in the little kitchen area at the far end of the room. Vito supposed that Elsdon, unlike the other Seekers, did not have to worry about attracting the attention of the High Seeker through his diligence at work.

“Would you like me to send for civilian food for you from the palace?” asked Elsdon. “I’m afraid this is poor fare, compared to what you could get in the lighted world.”

“Is that meant to be a test?” As he came forward to sit at the rough wooden work counter that separated the parlor from the kitchen, Vito smiled. “Prisoners’ food is good enough for me. It seems to have improved since the last time I was in the dungeon.”

Elsdon Taylor – who had been imprisoned in the dungeon for ten years now – nodded in a matter-of-fact fashion. “That’s the result of Mr. Bergsen’s unique prison reform. He bullied the High Seeker into using the money that was left over from the electrical renovations to establish a fund that would allow better food for the prisoners. Needless to say, many of us prisoners were willing to back the healer in his campaign.” Elsdon grinned as he crouched down to pull a glass bottle of milk from the hip-high ice-box.

“The Seekers, you mean?” Vito wiggled around the high stool he was sitting on, trying to establish a comfortable position. He had never considered himself to live a life of luxury, having worked in prisons since he came of age, but the utilitarian furniture and bland food that was given to the Seekers had made him keenly aware of what a privileged life he had lived until this time. “Even oatmeal for breakfast for the next fifty years won’t scare me away from taking my oath as a Seeker. Though it appears,” he added, “that I have something better to look forward to.” Bacon sizzled as Elsdon placed an iron pan onto one of the little stoves that had warmed many Seekers’ living cells since the time of the dungeon’s renovation.

Elsdon nodded as he broke an egg into a second pan. “Thanks to Mr. Bergsen, yes. He says that the rest of us in the New School can worry about such trifling matters as uniforms and regulations of speech. His concern is merely to keep the prisoners alive and healthy.”

“Till most of them are hanged,” said Vito, an unusual note of bitterness touching him. Two months he had been waiting in this dungeon for word from the palace above. It seemed like a year.

“But fewer than in the past, I hope.” Elsdon reached over to hand Vito a loaf of bread and a knife. As Vito obediently began slicing the loaf on the counter, Elsdon said, as though his mind were elsewhere, “I’m a bit worried whether we’ll be ready for our performance in time. We only have ten more days of rehearsals.”

“You ought to have started without me, at the beginning of the year,” Vito suggested, laying aside the knife and coming round to Elsdon’s side of the counter. He knew where the plates and cups and ironware were stored; he had breakfasted here every day since his return to the dungeon, officially as a guest to Mr. Bergsen.

In reality, his presence there was a devious move by the so-called New School to intensify the pressure upon the Queen to overrule the decision of the High Seeker to dismiss Vito from his quest to be a Seeker. One of the disadvantages that Vito had faced from the start of his lawsuit against the Eternal Dungeon was that, a quiet man by nature, he had not made many attempts during his previous training to get to know the other inhabitants of the Eternal Dungeon. As a result, to most Seekers and guards he was merely an abstract symbol of the New School’s desire to bring about reform in the dungeon.

The leaders of the New School had set about to change that. The dungeon’s healer, Mr. Bergsen – the only permanent resident of the inner dungeon who was not a prisoner and who could therefore invite guests as he wished – was presently housing Vito on the extra cot in his bedroom and introducing Vito to every man and woman who entered his surgery. Mistress Birdesmond Chapman, another of the New School’s leaders, was hosting dinner parties every week’s break, at which Vito was the chief guest. Mr. Sobel – the High Seeker’s senior-most guard, who was not a member of the New School, but who was a friend to Elsdon – had invited Vito to participate in the guards’ weekly domino games. Vito had done this, losing quite badly, much to the delight of the increasingly friendly guards.

Mr. Urman – senior night guard to Elsdon Taylor – upon hearing of Elsdon’s concern that the High Seeker and Codifier would find some way to expel Vito from Mr. Bergsen’s quarters, was said to have grunted and stated, “I can fix that.” Which he did, most magnificently, by submitting with public fanfare an application to be a Seeker.

Within an hour, the entire Eternal Dungeon was in an uproar over the news that the dungeon’s most trouble-making guard within living memory was aspiring to join the elite. The High Seeker and the Codifier were kept so busy answering questions – mainly indignant enquiries from Seekers who had possessed the misfortune to work with Mr. Urman – that official attention had entirely turned away from Vito.

That would change in ten days when Vito took the stage to play-act in the very first performance ever, in the history of the Queendom of Yclau, of a prison theatrical company.

“Do you truly think that the prisoners will be reformed by watching us act out a play? Even a play that’s about transformation?” Vito asked Elsdon as he placed the plates on the counter. He had been disconcerted when he discovered that the play which Elsdon had chosen was not one of the light modern comedies that were so popular in Yclau. Instead, the play dramatized the most sacred event in Yclau’s faith: the long-ago decision of a soul, dwelling in pleasant afterdeath, to choose the pain of oblivion, followed unexpectedly by that soul’s rebirth into a new body. Sweet Blood was the name of the play – the very title a sacred oath.

“Just by watching the play?” replied Elsdon as he poured dried berries into a serving bowl. “Probably not. But the High Seeker’s plan is to invite some of the prisoners – those who are likely to take many days to break – to perform in a play the following fortnight.”

Vito, who had been in the midst of pouring water into the cups, nearly spilled the entire pitcher onto the counter. “As Vovimian prisoners do? And you really believe that such a performance would make a difference to any civilized Yclau man?”

“It did to me.” Elsdon turned to scoop the eggs from the pan.

Vito bit his tongue to keep from speaking further. He had forgotten – it was so easy to forget – that Elsdon had twice been imprisoned in the neighboring Kingdom of Vovim. Vito was one of the few people who knew that, on the second occasion, Elsdon had performed in a play that, in accordance with Vovimian theatrical customs, should have ended with his death as a condemned prisoner. Only a timely rescue by the High Seeker had prevented Elsdon from ending his life, not in an execution cell, but on a stage in front of hundreds of avid theatergoers.

“You’re surely not going to execute prisoners on stage here,” Vito protested. “That would be barbaric!”

Elsdon cast him a look that Vito could not interpret, but simply replied, “The Eternal Dungeon isn’t in charge of executions; that’s handled by the Queen’s magistracy. No, our hope is to reach the type of prisoner who is unwilling to speak to his Seeker. Whether he’s innocent or guilty of the crimes he is charged with committing, we hope that the very act of rehearsing plays alongside his Seeker will establish a level of trust between the prisoner and his Seeker which will encourage the prisoner to speak more freely – and perhaps, if he is guilty of a crime, to give the man greater consideration as to how he has led his life.” As he spoke, Elsdon finished setting the food onto the counter: eggs and bacon and bread and fruit and milk. No salt, no sugar, not even butter and jam and coffee. The meal was bleak compared to what Vito was accustomed to.

He attacked his meal with gusto. “The plays were your idea,” he suggested.

Elsdon shook his head as he sat down and cut into his bacon. “Layle’s. He’s native-born Vovimian, after all.”

“Ah.” It seemed best to change the subject. Turning his gaze in an attempt to find an object for conversation, Vito caught sight of a pile of papers sitting at the end of the counter. He picked them up, glanced at the first page, and raised his eyebrows. “So the sixth revision has reached galley stage.”

Elsdon smiled. “Yes. All we’re waiting for now is the Queen’s final approval; then we can go to press and release the new Code of Seeking.”

Vito noticed something – a slight waver in tone that did not match Elsdon’s smile – and put the galley proofs down slowly. “You don’t think the Queen will approve your revision?”

Elsdon’s smile disappeared. “Vito, I don’t know. I hope so. The previous Queen had indicated she would approve the revision; I’d taken care to involve her at all stages of the drafting. But the new Queen . . . She’s said to be a harsher woman than her mother was. And I’ve never had the opportunity to speak with her. So everything depends on whether the High Seeker can persuade her to accept the revision.”

Vito’s heart was thundering now; he had to swallow a mouthful of milk to coat his dry throat. “That can’t be good news.”

“That Layle is our advocate to the Queen for the sixth revision? Vito, nobody in this dungeon wants to return to the civil war that split the dungeon workers into rival camps for years – not the High Seeker, not the Codifier, and certainly not the New School, which is demanding this revision. Even the Old School has accepted the revision’s necessity. If the Queen refuses to let the revision be passed, the lack of consensus between this dungeon’s workers over how to search prisoners will tear apart the dungeon again. Next time, the Eternal Dungeon might not survive.”

Elsdon’s voice was strained. Vito reached out and placed a palm over his friend’s hand. He said softly, “We’re transforming the dungeon. Transformation is always painful. The first man who transformed himself had to thrust a dagger into his own heart.”

“And his beloved friend was forced to watch. Yes, I know.” Elsdon reached for his milk. “I’m just not sure how much more pain Layle can take.”

It was typical of Elsdon, Vito thought with an inward sigh, that in the final stage of a five-year struggle to prevent the dungeon’s prisoners from being mangled by torturers, Elsdon’s chief concern would be to appease the worst of those torturers.

Layle Smith, High Seeker of the Eternal Dungeon, leader of the Old School. And Vito’s greatest enemy.

Picking up the galleys again, Vito tried to turn his thoughts away from the deadly Vovimian torturer who was doing his best to keep Vito from becoming a Seeker. Glancing at a random page, Vito raised his eyebrows again, saying, “You’ve abolished the whippings.”

“I had to, Vito,” Elsdon said, with a practiced patience which suggested he’d been forced to argue this point on many past occasions. “I’m certainly not saying it’s wrong for the Seekers to order the sort of disciplinary beating that any schoolmaster would order for an unruly schoolboy. Even the United Order of Prisons doesn’t argue that, in its international code of prison ethics. But the Eternal Dungeon is emerging from many decades of depraved deeds; here, whipping prisoners could too easily be turned into abuse. All that the Seeker need do is whisper a few questions to his prisoner while the man is being beaten—”

“—and the Eternal Dungeon will have returned to the practice of questioning its prisoners under torture. Yes, I see. Well, I can’t say that I’d be sorry to be relieved of the burden of ordering beatings. There are doubtless other ways in which Seekers can keep control over prisoners; this will give us the opportunity to develop them.” Vito turned another page and felt shock jolt through him. He raised a startled gaze to the Seeker on the other side of the counter. “Elsdon, on the next page you’ve permitted the whippings to continue. You’ve permitted the rackings to continue.”

Elsdon gave a wry smile which suggested that this had also been a matter he had been forced to defend at length. “And you can imagine how happy I am about that. Vito, I’m not supposed to be discussing this with you. Only senior members of the Eternal Dungeon are permitted to see and discuss the early drafts.”

“How convenient, since you and your senior night guard are the only senior Seeker and guard who belong to the New School.” Vito leaned over the counter, gripping it with his hands. “Elsdon, please tell me you haven’t—”

And then he stopped abruptly, realizing the accusation he was about to make to his oldest friend.

“Betrayed the principles of the New School?” The weariness on Elsdon’s face suggested that he’d received this accusation countless times.

“Sweet blood,” said Vito reverently as he passed a hand over his face. He was naked-faced, of course, being dressed in civilian clothes. Elsdon too was naked-faced, and had been so for many months, even when searching prisoners: a visible symbol of his refusal to torture prisoners. Officially, that refusal meant he was breaking the Code. Until the sixth revision was approved by the Queen, Elsdon would continue to risk being arrested and executed for disobedience to the Code’s requirement that he torture certain prisoners.

“Elsdon, I’m sorry,” said Vito with heartfelt sorrow, reaching over to take hold of his friend’s hand once more. “It was faithless of me to doubt you.”

Elsdon gave him a wan smile. “I’m used to it, Vito. Even Seward Sobel thought I’d allied myself with the Old School, till I was able to explain to him the reason I wrote the sixth revision the way I did. I hope I’ll be able to explain myself to you before long.” Loosening himself from Vito’s hand, Elsdon reached over to take Vito’s empty plate from him.

“You expect the Queen’s decision soon?” Vito suggested, forcing himself to set aside his lingering concern about the passage he’d glimpsed in the revision.

Elsdon shook his head. Taking both plates to the sink, he said, “I’ve no idea how long it will be before the Queen decides to approve or reject the new Code. But I’ve won a concession from the High Seeker. You’ll recall that Seekers-in-Training aren’t true Seekers until the time that the red strip of cloth on their hood is removed and they make their oath to be eternally confined within the dungeon. So Layle has agreed to allow forthcoming Seekers-in-Training to be governed, not by the current Code of Seeking, but by my revision of it. You’ll see the Code before any other junior member of this dungeon does.” He smiled over his shoulder at Vito.

“Optimist.” Vito smiled back, relieved that Elsdon was so quick to forgive him for his appalling behavior.

Would that Layle Smith shared Elsdon’s quality of mercy.

“Do you need help with the dishes?” asked Vito.

Elsdon shook his head. “The maid will take care of it.”

“Layle Smith is allowing women into his living cell now?” said Vito, going over to look at the bookcase against the wall next to the outer dungeon. Most of the books on theater culture, Vito realized with a small shock, probably belonged to Layle, rather than to Elsdon, whose literary tastes ran more toward mechanical manuals. “Truly, this dungeon is entering into reform if the High Seeker has condescended to allow such lowly beings into his—”

Behind Vito, there was a bang. Two bangs. Vito whirled around.

It was Layle Smith, of course, opening the door and closing it behind him. Nobody else – perhaps not even Elsdon Taylor, who lived there – would dare to abruptly enter the High Seeker’s living quarters. There were rumors that, in his early years, Layle Smith had broken the wrist of a guard who tapped him on the shoulder unexpectedly.

The High Seeker wore the same uniform that Elsdon did, with one great difference: his face-cloth was down. It always remained down, Vito had been given to understand, even in the presence of Seward Sobel, who had served as senior night guard to Layle Smith for twenty-seven years. Aside from the healer, whose work required him to examine naked men, only two men in the dungeon existed to whom the High Seeker would reveal his face: his close friend, Weldon Chapman, and his love-mate.

As always, Elsdon looked as though he would like to rush up to the High Seeker and greet him with a passionate kiss. But taking due note of the time – the High Seeker was normally required to work through the dusk and dawn shifts – Elsdon instead said in a professional manner, “Sir? May I help you with something?”

“I have news.” The High Seeker’s posture was rigid; so was his voice. There was nothing in his tone to indicate that the man he was addressing had shared his bed for ten years. “Mr. and Mistress Chapman have received a letter.”

“From Vovim?” Elsdon stood up abruptly from where he had been crouching down to examine the stage scenery. “Then Zenas made it safely over the border?”

“No. He was arrested.”

Vito felt a sharp pain in his chest, more from Elsdon’s expression than from the news itself. He had only met the adopted son of Birdesmond Chapman and her fellow Seeker husband on a handful of occasions, and he had never held a conversation with the lad; until recently, Zenas had known only the native tongue of the province of Vovim in which he had been born. Elsdon had told Vito the whole story, however: how Zenas had been enslaved and mauled and molested by his father’s murderer and had ultimately killed his slave-master in a desperate attempt to save his own life. He was twelve years old at the time. In what Vito considered to be an apt example of the lack of justice in the Queendom of Yclau, the boy had been delivered over to the Eternal Dungeon’s torturers. Fortunately, it had been Weldon Chapman who questioned the lad, not Layle Smith, who would doubtless have stretched young Zenas on the rack, if only for the pleasure of seeing the youth in agony.

Elsdon, who remained terribly oblivious to the darker aspects of his love-mate, rose to his feet, crying, “Oh, no! For his defensive killing?”

“For his murder of the Vovimian ambassador, yes,” the High Seeker responded. He had yet to look in Vito’s direction. Vito was sure this was not because Layle Smith failed to be aware of Vito’s presence.

Elsdon’s fists were furled, his face pale. “Can the Eternal Dungeon help him in any way? Sir, it’s unthinkable that Zenas should die for what he did! He already served out his sentence of six years’ confinement in this dungeon. And he went home to try to help his own people. . . .”

Vito waited. Something about the High Seeker’s stance told him that more was coming. It was just like Layle Smith, Vito thought sourly, to place his love-mate in unnecessary agony by prolonging the tale.

“And so he shall,” said the High Seeker coolly. “Zenas invoked the gods’ sanctuary, pledging to enter into lifelong poverty in order to serve the gods as penance for his crime. The border guards were pious men; they brought Zenas to a group of nearby aekae, who questioned Zenas and then declared him to be one of their own, veiling him as a fellow prophet. As a prophet of the gods, Zenas is immune to the King’s punishments.”

“And will now live in divine poverty for the rest of his life,” Elsdon said softly. “Layle . . . do you think Zenas wanted this to happen?”

Vito blinked. It would not have occurred to him that this was the point of Layle Smith’s seemingly unnecessary drama.

“Given the number of questions that Zenas asked me about the aekae during the months before he left?” the High Seeker replied dryly. “Frankly, I’m surprised he didn’t veil himself during his final weeks in the dungeon. He must have kept his face naked here for the sake of his parents.”

It took Vito a moment to understand what Layle Smith meant. Thanks to Elsdon Taylor’s reform, the dungeon was now officially divided into two types of Seekers: the Old School Seekers, who followed the dungeon’s traditional manner of breaking prisoners through questioning and torture, and the New School Seekers, who had pledged to search prisoners through questioning alone. The former wore hoods with face-cloths covering their faces; the latter wore hoods without face-cloths.

Both of Zenas’s parents were naked-faced. Vito gathered that this had required a certain wrestling of conscience for Weldon Chapman, given his close relations with Layle Smith, but in the end he had sided with his wife, who, along with Elsdon and other dungeon-workers, had forced reform upon the High Seeker.

“Naked-faced” was now the Eternal Dungeon’s shorthand way of saying “reformed.” And so Zenas – who had returned to his native land in the hope of reforming the hearts and minds of Vovimians who forced men and women into captivity – had remained naked-faced until he was over the border, dwelling in a country where torturers did not hide their faces.

“There is news.” For a moment, it seemed that the High Seeker was repeating himself. Then Vito jumped in place as he discovered that Layle Smith had turned his eyes in Vito’s direction. The High Seeker had a tendency to do that, blast him.

“Yes, Mr. Smith?” He tried to keep his voice calm, though his pulse was racing.

“From the Queen. She has decided that she cannot be bothered with all the fuss over you. She has ordered the Eternal Dungeon to grant you a second chance at your training.”

He felt all the breath leave him. “Then I am a Seeker again?”

“You are a Seeker-in-Training, Mr. de Vere. Whether you remain a Seeker will be determined by your behavior during your training. You will recommence your training at the point where you left off.”

Vito cursed inwardly. Of course this was how Layle Smith would arrange matters: so that he continued to have the power to dismiss Vito from his dungeon.

But matters were different in the dungeon than they had been seventeen months before, Vito reminded himself. Now Vito was subject, not to the fifth revision of the Code of Seeking, which required him to torture certain prisoners, but to Elsdon’s far more merciful sixth revision. As long as Vito remained naked-faced, he could follow Elsdon’s version of the Code, rather than Layle Smith’s.

“I appreciate learning of this news, High Seeker,” Vito replied stiffly. “I am glad to have this opportunity to demonstrate my loyalty to the Code of Seeking. Please give to the Queen my heartfelt thanks for this second chance. . . . Am I to return to work soon?”

“Tomorrow evening,” the High Seeker replied dispassionately. “A prisoner who was brought to the dungeon some time ago has been set aside for you in Breaking Cell 1. Your uniform has been delivered to a living cell that the Record-keeper has assigned to you. You will have the cell to yourself for a while. Your roommate is in the infirmary; he was attacked by a different prisoner and is not expected to live. He is naked-faced,” the High Seeker added, as though in explanation. “You have been assigned guards for both shifts. You may begin searching the prisoner at the beginning of tomorrow’s night shift. I have the prisoner’s arrest records here, though I doubt you’ll find much in them that is of use to you.”

That stung. Vito’s last disastrous searching of a prisoner – which had culminated with him falling in love with his prisoner and unwittingly helping the unscrupulous criminal to escape justice – had started with Vito’s stubborn refusal to read the arrest records of Edwin Orville Gurth. Everything had deteriorated from that point onwards.

“I will do my best to familiarize myself with the prisoner’s case,” he told the High Seeker, still stiffly, as he took the blue volume from him.

“Try not to be too familiar, if you please.” With that light and inexplicable remark, the High Seeker left his living cell, shutting the door behind him.

Vito stared at the door, bewildered. Then some instinct made him look down at his prisoner’s arrest records. His breath rushed in.

“What is it?” Elsdon, who had remained silent but smiling throughout the conversation, came forward to place his hand on Vito’s back.

Vito showed him the blue volume. Elsdon’s light-skinned face grew paler. He jerked his gaze up to stare wordlessly at Vito.

Vito gave a bitter laugh. “Do you have any doubts left,” he asked as he tucked the volume under his arm, “as to whether this will be a fair test?”

CHAPTER TWO
Day Two, First Hour of the Night Shift

Vito was not particularly surprised to be assigned Breaking Cell 1, the cell which was located closest to the High Seeker’s office, the Codifier’s office, the entry hall filled with on-duty guards, the guardroom filled with off-duty guards, and the pair of guards at the entry hall door, who kept vigilant watch to ensure that no prisoner escaped.

He did wince, though, when he saw who his night guards were to be.

He could not fully blame Layle Smith for their assignment to him. He had learned from Elsdon that these two guards were not permanently assigned to any single Seeker; instead, they stepped in as substitutes any time that guards were sick or on leave. Their official assignment – the reason they were permanently paired – was to serve as primary-duty guards on the rare occasions that a Seeker-in-Training made it as far as the final days of his training, when the Seeker-in-Training would carry out a searching on his own, without the assistance of the senior Seeker who had trained him. Their experience was meant to assist the Seeker-in-Training in his final test.

Vito thought to himself, though, that if the High Seeker had possessed any mercy, he would have assigned different guards to Vito.

Vito’s steps slowed as he approached the cell from the north, the direction of the rack rooms and of the living cell he had been assigned by the Record-keeper. The last time he had seen Mr. Boyd, the senior guard had held a dagger to Vito’s throat, believing Edwin Orville Gurth’s tale that Vito had raped his prisoner. The last time Vito had seen Mr. Crofford – the last four times – the junior guard had dispassionately provided the Eternal Dungeon’s witness as to why Vito’s incompetence and deliberate breaking of the Code disqualified him abundantly from being made a Seeker.

Vito had not argued against any of Mr. Crofford’s evidence. It was all true. Instead, each of the four times – three times before the Queen’s magistrates and once before the previous Queen – Vito had brought forth the documentary evidence he had gathered, with the assistance of his clever attorney: evidence that, on many occasions during the past five years, the High Seeker had deliberately driven faithful, skilled subordinates to the point where they must break the Code if they were to retain the true spirit of the Code. Among those documents, with the name carefully blacked out, was a paper describing the trial and punishment of a certain senior guard who had since been rehired by the Eternal Dungeon. If a senior guard had been punished so severely for a much more serious offense than Vito’s – helping a prisoner to kill himself – and yet had been offered a second chance to redeem himself in the Eternal Dungeon, then there was no reason why Vito should not also be given a chance to do so, given his relative lack of experience at the time he broke the rules of the dungeon. Or so Vito had argued, with the help of his attorney.

Being used as evidence in favor of Vito’s return to the Eternal Dungeon could not have sweetened Mr. Boyd’s temper. Vito kept a wary eye on the senior guard, who was glaring at him. Mr. Crofford’s face remained carefully neutral. This was a bad sign in itself; Vito knew, from what Elsdon had said, that the junior guard’s relations with his Seekers were normally amiable.

Vito coughed to clear his throat as he came to a halt in front of the guards, who were standing with their backs to the cell door, as though barring his entrance. Keeping his voice low so that the prisoner would not hear him, he said, “Good evening.”

Mr. Boyd said nothing. Mr. Crofford said, “Sir.” Nothing more.

Taking a deep breath, Vito offered the blue volume to Mr. Boyd. “I would appreciate it if you would peruse carefully the prisoner’s records, Mr. Boyd. There are several points in the prisoner’s records, which I have marked, that you may understand better than I do. I would like your assistance in deciphering their meaning. Mr. Crofford—” He turned his attention to the junior guard. “I’m sure you will be keeping your eye to the watch-hole while I am in the cell, as your duty requires. If at any time you have concerns about how the searching is being conducted, I urge you to interrupt the proceedings. You and Mr. Boyd have far more experience in these matters than I do.”

“Sir,” said Mr. Crofford, with no change in his tone. Mr. Boyd said nothing, though he had taken the blue volume from Vito. He was continuing to glare at Vito.

Vito had not expected otherwise. Any guard worth his pay would know that a Seeker who intended to deliberately break the Code would do his best to cultivate good relations with his guards in order to lure his guards into unwariness.

In actual fact, Vito was feeling more than a little foolish. He had spent countless hours retracing in his mind all the mistakes he had made during his previous training in this dungeon. Among the most serious of his mistakes was that he had failed to draw upon the knowledge of his far more experienced guards when he searched Edwin Orville Gurth. His guards – much decorated and honored, leaving aside the black mark on Mr. Boyd’s record – would surely not have been gullible enough to fall for the prisoner’s plot to seduce Vito. If Vito had taken even a few minutes to discuss Edwin Orville Gurth with his guards, disaster might have been averted.

But Mr. Boyd still looked as though he would like to carve up Vito with his dagger, while Mr. Crofford continued to stand behind the barrier of cool formality. It would take time for Vito to regain the trust of his guards, as well as the trust of the many other inhabitants of this dungeon who considered Vito to be hopelessly disqualified for his current rank.

Stifling an impulse to sigh, Vito pocketed the prisoner’s records and gestured with his hand. For a full third of a minute, it seemed as though the guards would continue to bar his entrance. Then they exchanged brief looks and simultaneously stepped to either side of the door. Mr. Crofford took out his keys and unlocked the door. Vito put his hand lightly on the junior guard’s arm to prevent him from opening the door. “Mr. Boyd,” he said, addressing the senior guard, “I suspect that the prisoner will be more forthcoming if I search him alone, but if you feel otherwise, I would welcome your assistance in the breaking cell.”

This time, it was Mr. Boyd who turned his gaze toward Mr. Crofford – an odd gesture, given that Mr. Boyd was the senior man on duty. There was a moment’s pause as Mr. Crofford appeared to consider Vito’s offer, and then Mr. Crofford said, “Sir, I imagine you’re correct concerning the prisoner’s desire to speak to you alone. We’ll be on hand outside, should you require any assistance during the searching.”

It was hard to tell whether Mr. Crofford’s reply was a concession to Vito’s integrity or simply an indication that the junior guard had fully briefed himself concerning this particular prisoner. Vito contented himself with saying, “Then you may open the door, Mr. Crofford.”

The door closed behind Vito a moment later, leaving him alone with his prisoner. The man was sitting on his bed-shelf, not facing the door through which his Seeker would come, but rather sitting sideways, with his legs stretched out in front of him, and with pillows propped behind him. He looked as though he were a wealthy businessman, lounging on a rare day of leisure. Although he must have heard the cell door open and close, he did not bother to look in his Seeker’s direction.

“It’s about time you got here,” said Edwin Orville Gurth.

CHAPTER THREE
Day Three, Dawn Shift

Vito found Mr. Boyd sitting in the corner of the dining hall, reading the Code of Seeking. His boots were resting upon a second chair at the table; the other chairs were pushed away. Nobody at the nearby tables looked eager to join the dour guard.

Mr. Boyd didn’t look up, even when Vito paused next to him. Finally Vito asked, “May I join you?”

“It’s as you wish, sir.” Mr. Boyd’s gaze remained fixed upon the page. Vito saw he was reading one of the passages on the terrible afterdeath fate that awaited Seekers who failed to do their best to bring their prisoners into rebirth.

Vito thought a moment, ignoring the whispers of the outer-dungeon laborers at the next table, who were watching this exchange. Then he crossed his wrists behind him and straightened his back. The position came naturally to him; not many years had passed since he had been a novice guard at Parkside Prison. “My apologies, sir,” he said, keeping his gaze fixed on the wall. “What I meant to say was, Is it your pleasure that I should join you?”

The whispers nearby grew to a hum, like that of a beehive that has been shaken. Mr. Boyd slowly raised his head. Vito, still staring at the wall, could not read his expression. But he could hear the mixture of anger and annoyance in Mr. Boyd’s voice when he said, “You could take lessons from the High Seeker in how to manipulate your guards. You know very well, sir, that, as a senior guard, I have no power to give you orders unless an emergency arises where you are likely to bring harm to your prisoner.”

“I was under the impression,” said Vito, continuing to stare at the wall, “that such an emergency had already arisen. I have been given no indication that you believe the danger is over. Sir.”

He could hear now some of the whispered comments about his actions, and he was glad that he had inherited – from an ancestor whose name was best not spoken aloud, since his origins lay over the border in Vovim – a complexion dark enough to hide the blush that he knew must be covering his face.

The whispers abruptly broke off as Mr. Boyd turned his glare in the direction of the nearby table. Then the guard took his boots off the chair, shoving it by foot toward Vito. “Sit down, Mr. de Vere. You’re making a spectacle of yourself. You can’t afford that.”

Gratefully, Vito sunk into the seat. Reaching down, he loosened his boots to give his swollen ankles more room. “I don’t know how you guards manage it,” he said. “You have standing-duty longer each day than Seekers do.”

“I believe,” said Mr. Boyd in a low voice as he refilled his cup from the water pitcher, “that the relevant passage here is in Appendix Eight of the private edition of the Code of Seeking, available only to Seekers and guards, since it describes the techniques for breaking. ‘If you wish to break a prisoner who appears unwilling to trust you,’ the Code says, ‘the best approach is often to offer him the semblance of friendship. Indeed, in the worst cases, it may be necessary to humble yourself, as the opportunity to show his superiority over you is likely to lead the prisoner to become more candid. . . .’”

Vito’s face was burning now. “You’re right,” he said, “I need lessons from the High Seeker. In fact, I think I’d better start down at the bottom, in training academy. Have I made myself insufferable?”

Mr. Boyd shook his head as he watched the water settle in his cup. “You’re working under a disadvantage; more experienced Seekers than you have already tried that approach. I’ll spare you time by delivering to myself the message you’ve prepared for me. I’m too much a loner, too unfriendly toward the other guards, too apt to leap upon small faults in other guards and Seekers, too wrapped up in my work. I need leisure activities, laughter, a love-mate, and by all things sacred, why don’t I smile sometimes? . . . Did I miss anything you were planning to tell me?”

“The part where I ask you to take off your shirt.”

Mr. Boyd was on the point of sipping his water; his lips paused at the lip of the cup. He looked over at Vito, who was carefully wiping up a few spilled drops of water.

After a minute, Mr. Boyd stood up. Turning his back to Vito and the corner walls, he faced the remainder of the dining room. As he began to unknot his shirt, lewd whistles came from a couple of the nearby laborers, quickly shushed by those who understood what he was doing. Silence spread across the nearby tables, and then spilled like an overflowing pond into the rest of the dining hall.

Vito did not know what the rest of the room saw; perhaps Mr. Boyd’s expression alone was enough to cut conversation as quickly as a broken neck in a hangman’s noose. Vito himself felt no desire to make commentary on what he saw.

He had witnessed the effects of the lash on many a beaten back – indeed, had whipped a few backs of his own during his years as a guard, and had felt no guilt afterwards, since the beatings were not torture used to obtain information. He had possessed no qualms about using a whip to punish a misbehaved prisoner or guard.

He suspected that he would have sickened if he had witnessed this punishment. The lines of the lash did not run parallel to one another, in a horizontal fashion; instead they ran top left to bottom right and top right to bottom left. They were crosshatched, as delicately as though the man who inflicted them were the most skilled etcher in the Queendom of Yclau.

Vito knew well enough that the places where lines of a beating crossed were where the pain was the greatest and blood was most likely to flow. Usually, in a heavy beating, that meant one or two crossed lines for every lash landed. But here, where each crosshatched line met at two dozen points of intersection . . .

He had heard tales of Vovimian prisoners’ boots growing soggy as blood flowed into them during a back-beating. He no longer doubted those tales.

He wasn’t aware that he had closed his eyes until he felt a jolt along the table. Raising his eyelids, he saw that Mr. Boyd was sitting opposite him again, retying his shirt. The other inhabitants of the dining hall had resumed their conversations in a subdued manner. Vito gulped in some air, hoping he would not disgrace himself by vomiting in front of the rest of the dungeon. Then he said, “The High Seeker did that?”

Mr. Boyd nodded. “No one else in the dungeon possessed the strength of arm to carry out a hard beating for that long. He offered to bring in a disciplinary soldier from the Queen’s army to do it, but I told him that I’d heard of disciplined soldiers dying under the hundred strokes, and I’d sooner trust my life to him than to a stranger.”

“It looks to me,” said Vito, wiping the sweat off his face with his handkerchief, “as though you must have come close to death under his whip. How you must hate him.”

It was a safe enough remark to make. The entire dungeon knew that there was no love lost between Vito de Vere and Layle Smith; Mr. Boyd would not suspect him of carrying tales to the High Seeker. Even so, for a moment it appeared as though the guard would remain silent. Then he said softly, “Everyone thinks that.”

Vito raised his eyebrows. Mr. Boyd shrugged and added, “He did what he believed he had to do to protect the prisoners. I did the same. We understand each other, as enemies on the field understand each other.”

“Respect between enemies is always a good thing,” Vito agreed cautiously. He was working his way carefully through the conversation, judging what the right path was by the feel of each step in his path. Contrary to Mr. Boyd’s assumptions, Vito never searched anyone by pre-planned rules. He worked by instinct. In the past, this method had brought him into disastrous trouble with his current prisoner, but he knew no other way in which to operate. He would leave it to Elsdon Taylor and other such theoreticians to figure out the best way for Seekers to work. Vito knew only that his own way worked, more often than not.

Now he said to Mr. Boyd, probing delicately, “Mr. Taylor told me that your punishment came about because the High Seeker had ordered that your prisoner be questioned under racking, even though evidence existed that the prisoner had no memory of the murders he had undoubtedly committed.”

Mr. Boyd’s gaze wandered back toward his untouched cup. “Yes.”

“And so, since it was clear that the prisoner had committed death-sentence crimes, yet it was equally clear that he lacked the ability to confess to them, you gave him a dagger with which he could execute himself, thus providing him with the means both to escape from unjust torture and to renew his soul by demonstrating repentance for his crimes.”

Mr. Boyd stared down at his fingers on the cup, turned golden under the electric lamplight. “Yes.”

“And because you had helped a prisoner to rebirth by a means not permitted in the Code, the High Seeker had you beaten nearly to death. Yet you remained in his dungeon, risking the possibility that you would receive a worse punishment at a later date.”

Mr. Boyd raised his eyes. The anger was in them again, unglossed by any other emotion. He said in a crisp voice, “What is the point of this recital, Mr. de Vere?”

Vito gave a small, helpless gesture. He had rehearsed that gesture during his early days as a Seeker-in-Training, in case he should ever need to use it with a prisoner. “You broke the Code, and your prisoner was reborn. I broke the Code, and my prisoner escaped to continue his life of crime. I was hoping you could tell me whether I’m going astray again.”

Mr. Boyd’s fingers tapped on the cup, a soft sound amidst the renewed conversations nearby. Finally the guard said, “I was wrong.”

“Wrong?”

“You don’t need any lessons from the High Seeker. You have skill enough of your own.” He pushed the cup over to Vito’s side of the table, saying, “Tell me what you want of me, Mr. de Vere.”

“My enquiry was genuine.”

“And I’ll give you a genuine answer when you tell me what you want of me. Am I to mingle with the other guards? Take a love-mate? Smile?”

His voice was mocking; his eyes were not. Vito sipped the water he had been offered before shaking his head. “Mr. Boyd, I’m not the High Seeker. When he searches a prisoner, he knows what his goals are from the start. When I search a prisoner . . . Usually I learn what my goals are from the prisoner. If you should discover what you need, you will tell me, I hope?”

Something that might have been a change of expression touched Mr. Boyd’s eyes, but it was gone too quickly for Vito to identify what it was. “You’re still following the Code, Mr. de Vere. The cooperative prisoner must be allowed to break himself. What gives you reason to believe I’m cooperative?”

Vito gave the small gesture again; it played out better this time. “If I’m wrong, I’ll soon discover that. But as to my official prisoner . . .”

Mr. Boyd settled back in the chair, his gaze upon Vito. His hands lightly traced a pattern upon the black volume in front of him before he said, “You’re doing fine so far, Mr. de Vere. I’m not a Seeker; I can’t say what methods you’ll need to use to break Mr. Gurth. All I can say is what you already must know: Be on your guard with him. He’s the sort who would lie if it meant his father’s death.”

Vito caught himself in time from saying that was already recorded. Vito couldn’t chance having that remark overheard. He could imagine the wildfire of dungeon gossip that must already be spreading about his prisoner. Instead he said, “It’s good to be reminded of that in any case. If I could reconcile the actions of Mr. Gurth and Orville . . . I’m sure Or holds the key to all this.”

Mr. Boyd creased his forehead. “You’re certain, then, that this ‘Or’ is a separate personality within Mr. Gurth?”

“Mr. Gurth says he isn’t,” Vito replied, “which is reason enough for me to believe that he is.”

Mr. Boyd gave a snort that Vito identified incredulously as the guard’s form of a chuckle. “Well, you have me there, Mr. de Vere. But even so . . . Be wary. This is the type of prisoner who will strike you when your back is bare to him.”

“Believe me, Mr. Boyd,” Vito said as he rose to his feet, “that much I have already learned. Thank you for your time.”

He had begun to turn away when he heard a soft “Sir.” He turned back. Mr. Boyd was cradling the Code in his hands. In an equally soft voice, the guard said, “May I ask why you requested to see the evidence of my brush with death?”

Vito let out his breath slowly. When he gave the small gesture this time, he was not even aware that he had done it until the gesture was completed. “Despite all my years as a prison-worker, I’d never before looked directly at death, or near death. I thought I should know the consequence for failure with my prisoner.”

Mr. Boyd frowned. “The High Seeker has a poor reputation, but he hasn’t delivered any Seeker to the hangman for five years now. If he didn’t execute you last time for what you did, he’s unlikely to do so if you fail this time.”

“I meant the consequence for my prisoner. Thank you again, Mr. Boyd; I am in your debt.” He saluted Mr. Boyd, as he might have done a superior officer if he were in the army. After a moment, Mr. Boyd slowly returned the salute.

CHAPTER FOUR
Day Two, First Hour of the Night Shift

“You have been in custody within this dungeon for five weeks, so I believe that you are familiar with the rules by which you are bound,” replied Vito briskly. “Kindly stand up when I enter the cell.”

The incipient smirk on Gurth’s face – it was clearly Ed Gurth, not the alternative – faded away as he looked up at Vito, who had positioned himself carefully out of reach of a sudden assault. Gurth cocked his head. “Like that, is it?”

“It’s like that,” agreed Vito. He waited. His blood was thrumming from sight of Gurth, but there was no reason that Gurth should know that. Half the job of being a prison-worker consisted of hiding the fact that you were afraid of your prisoner.

Or in love with him.

Gurth stood up slowly, pushing aside the blankets on his bed-shelf. The so-called bed-shelf was no longer a shelf; the old, stone sleeping benches had been replaced in recent months with proper beds, in the same style as the beds in the Seekers’ living cells. Running water had not yet been installed in this cell; the cell still contained a pitcher and bowl and chamber-pot, but the pot was now discreetly hidden within a washstand. With electric lights providing illumination from the ceiling, the room looked less like a cell in a dungeon of torture than a bedroom.

Vito quickly moved his mind away from that dangerous thought, keeping a careful eye on Gurth, who, at age nineteen, looked deceptively fragile, even in his present state. With greater scrutiny than he had bothered to make last time, Vito noticed the scars on Gurth’s arms and the tell-tale blackening under the fingernails, only to be seen on the hands of soldiers or other men who routinely handled firearms.

The bed-shelf was placed against the far wall, to the left. Gurth chose to nestle his body in the far right corner, where he could lean back, folding his arms. He said nothing. Vito asked, “Have you been read the charges yet?”

Gurth merely shrugged. Though originally brought to the Eternal Dungeon during the previous year under the relatively innocuous charge of raping a prostitute, by all accounts he was an experienced criminal. The Queen’s spies believed that Gurth had spent his seventeenth year murdering several dangerous men in order to gain control of the most nefarious businesses in the Queen’s capital: notorious brothels, as well as illegal sweetweed dealing and operation of the opium dens that remained legal only because the Queen’s Secretary (so it was whispered) had a share in the profits of one of the dens that sapped away the will and health of the men who frequented them.

Presumably, the Secretary did not own shares in Gurth’s opium den, or the young man would not be here. Who ended up in the Eternal Dungeon, Elsdon had once noted, had less to do with how terrible their crimes were than whether they were of the elite and had friends in high places.

Edwin Orville Gurth – born in a brothel and still capable of speaking in a commoner fashion whenever it would profit him – was an easy target for any elite member of the government who wished to demonstrate his outrage at commoner criminals. That did not make Edwin Orville Gurth’s alleged crimes any less serious.

Without removing his gaze – shifting his gaze from this particular prisoner could have deadly consequences – Vito recited from memory: “Edwin Orville Gurth, you are charged by the Queen’s soldiers with the premeditated murder of John Ambrewster. Witnesses state that you entered a windowless room with the man, that nobody else entered the room through its single entrance, and that, an hour later, screams were heard from Mr. Ambrewster. When the locked door was broken down, you were seen by multiple witnesses to be kneeling over the corpse of Mr. Ambrewster, who had been stabbed many times with a knife. You were covered in blood, and your hand was on the knife in his chest. Patrol soldiers were summoned, and you were promptly delivered to this dungeon. You have not spoken since your arrival at the Eternal Dungeon, whether to confess your guilt or to enter a plea of innocence. Do you deny the charge of premeditated murder?”

“I didn’t kill Ambrewster.”

Gurth’s voice was flat. Vito was taken aback. He had expected Gurth to deny only that he had murdered Ambrewster in a premeditated manner; that would leave an opening for him to claim a defensive murder or a defensive slaying. Either of those claims of lack of premeditation would spare him the hangman, should his claim be accepted by the magistrate.

But for Gurth to deny having killed a man who died in a locked room with him . . .

Vito waited, but Gurth offered no additional details. It was time, Vito thought, to switch tactics. A frontal assault on this particular prisoner was of no use. Ambrewster himself could have testified to that.

“Let’s go further back,” said Vito.

Gurth’s eyes narrowed. “How far back?”

“To your childhood. What do you remember of your mother?”

If Gurth was surprised by this apparent change of topic, he hid it well. Resting the back of his head against the corner of the wall, he said lightly, “Died when I was two, didn’t she? I was too young then – don’t remember her.”

Vito nodded. “What do you recall of your time with Hob?”

Unexpectedly, Gurth spat, like a snake striking with poison. He turned his head before doing so, though; the spittle landed on the floor, not Vito.

Gurth followed this up with a curse. The fifth revision of the Code of Seeking would have required Vito to beat Gurth at this point; from what Elsdon had told Vito the previous evening, the sixth revision provided more flexibility to Seekers. So Vito simply asked mildly, “Who are you cursing? The master of your House?” Gurth had carried the misfortune of being born into an illegal brothel, one that prostituted, not only grown women who had signed contracts to work there, but underage girls and boys who were given no choice.

“Hob,” replied Gurth, who looked as if he wanted to spit again. “Bastard-of-a-slave.”

“He harmed you?” Vito had the impulse to form his hands into fists, though he kept control over his body movements. There had been a hint in Gurth’s records that his relations with his older half-brother might not have been entirely healthy. The two boys had slept together. . . .

“Abandoned me, didn’t he?” replied Gurth sharply. “Bastard.”

It took Vito a moment to think of an appropriate response to this extraordinary charge. Then he said carefully, “It would have been difficult for him to care for you when he was dying—”

“Dying!” At the word, Gurth stepped forward with his fists furled, like a boxer emerging from his corner. “Who said he was dying?”

“Your father,” Vito replied slowly, keeping a careful eye on those fists. “And his account was confirmed at the time of your father’s arrest by the investigating patrol soldiers. Several prostitutes at the House where you were raised told the soldiers that your brother died in 354, less than a month after he took the trouble to deliver you to your father, in hopes that your father would be willing to save you from the fate of becoming a prostitute like your mother and brother. . . . Your father told you none of this?”

Gurth’s only response was to curse at length. He had returned to his corner, Vito noted thankfully. Even though Vito knew that Mr. Crofford and Mr. Boyd would arrive swiftly if Gurth should attack him, Vito was not at all sure of their ability to reach him in time if Gurth decided that the best way out of his present predicament was to murder his Seeker.

It appeared, though, that Gurth’s current murderous thoughts were reserved for a man who was already dead. Vito waited for a pause in the cursing, then said, “And your brother didn’t tell you his motive for taking you to your father?”

“Don’t remember him.” Gurth’s response was terse. “I was too young.”

An alarm bell went off in Vito’s head. Gurth had been nine years old when his brother died. Keeping his voice mild, Vito said, “If you don’t remember your brother, what is your first memory?”

Gurth shrugged. He was still glowering from Vito’s revelation. Vito supposed it was a good sign that Gurth appeared to believe him.

“Do you remember your father?” pressed Vito. “If not, is your first memory of the school you attended after his death?” Gurth had been eleven when his father died, executed after Gurth – or rather, a part of Edwin Orville Gurth that was not Ed Gurth – had publicly accused the father of raping him. Edwin Orville Gurth’s life – lives – had gone rapidly downhill after that; within two years, he was in a reform school for boys, soon afterwards he was a prostitute, and before he turned eighteen, he had allegedly murdered the master of his House in order to take over operation of his illegal brothel.

“Bastard,” replied Gurth, clearly not referring to his brother this time.

“When is your first memory of your father?” asked Vito.

Gurth shrugged. “Dunno. One of the times he swung at me, I guess.”

His voice was casual, but his eyes had narrowed again. The alarm bell in Vito’s head grew louder. He had heard these words before . . . but not from Gurth.

“The first time I woke up, I was being beaten by a man. I don’t know who he was. He called me Edwin. I knew that wasn’t my name, but I didn’t know how to tell him.”

The voice of Or, Gurth’s other personality, describing how he had emerged to find himself trapped in the body of a boy called Edwin Gurth.

Two voices, two memories of the same moment – or rather, two adjoining moments. Before that split moment . . . had Or and Gurth existed? Had there instead been only Edwin Orville Gurth, a young boy struggling to survive in a hostile world?

“Did he beat you often?” Vito asked quietly.

Gurth’s eyes narrowed to bare slits. “Aye.” His voice was hostile, aggressive.

“His father, Ed stated, had beaten and molested him.” This time, the voice in Vito’s memory was Layle Smith, light and disbelieving as he recounted the first of Gurth’s nefarious deeds: the murder of his father through a false accusation of abuse.

“Did you tell anyone?” Vito asked. “Before you accused him officially of molesting you, I mean.”

Gurth emitted a bitter laugh. “He was respectable. I was a brothel bastard he’d taken in, out of charity. Who’d believe me? . . . Aye, I tried. Almost made myself hoarse, telling folks. Got slapped by the local cleric for trying to smear my father’s good name.”

“I see,” said Vito. He thought he did see. A boy abandoned by the only family member he’d ever known when he was young, into the hands of a stranger who beat him – far beyond the bounds that the law permitted to fathers – because the boy refused to conform to mid-class standards. Edwin Orville Gurth’s growing desperation as everyone around him refused to save him from this brutality. The split in his personality as the aggressive side of the boy drew apart from the fragile aspect of the boy. Edwin Orville Gurth’s attempts to regain control by making use of his split.

Their split.

The alarm bells were silent now. Vito was beginning to sense an answer to his questions. The problem was, he didn’t like the answer.

He forced himself to ask the remaining question on his mind: “Who decided to tell the patrol soldiers that your father had raped you? Was it you? Was it Or?”

CHAPTER FIVE
Day Four, Dusk Shift

Encouraged by his conversation with Mr. Boyd, Vito arrived for work earlier than usual the next day. He found that Mr. Boyd had not yet arrived on duty and that Mr. Crofford was in the midst of quizzing the day guards on how the prisoner’s day had gone.

It became apparent from the moment that Mr. Crofford turned his gaze toward his Seeker that Vito was in trouble.

Vito paused in an effort to clear his thoughts. He was still fuzzy with sleep, his body continuing to adjust to being awake all night and asleep during the day. He had no doubt that Layle Smith had placed him on the night shift, not in order that Vito might continue to rehearse with Elsdon during the afternoons, but in order that the High Seeker – himself a night-shift worker – could better keep a watch upon him. Although the High Seeker was spending much of his time visiting the new Queen this month, Layle Smith was keeping a closer eye on Vito than he had the previous year.

Even with his mind acting as slow as a racked prisoner’s release, though, Vito knew that this was not the proper place to sort out whatever had gone wrong.

“Mr. Crofford, might I have a private word with you?” Ignoring the curious glances of the day guards, he beckoned his junior night guard toward the nearest empty cell – which, as it happened, was Breaking Cell 4, the cell in which the High Seeker had broken Elsdon Taylor, back when Elsdon was Layle Smith’s prisoner.

Mr. Crofford came, hostility obvious from his squinting eyes. Vito waited until they were alone in the cell, with the door closed behind them, before saying, “Mr. Crofford, have I made an error with my prisoner? If so, I beg that you will—”

“Don’t try that with me.” Mr. Crofford’s voice grated like sandpaper.

Vito paused again, genuinely taken aback. Then he said, “Excuse me?”

“You tried that with Mr. Boyd at dawn yesterday. ‘Oh, dear, Mr. Boyd, I’m an innocent, naive Seeker who doesn’t know how to break prisoners. With your greater experience, won’t you please help me?’” Mr. Crofford shook his head, hair falling in front of his furious eyes. “Mr. Boyd hasn’t seen Mr. Taylor break a prisoner, but I have. The appearance of naiveté is a technique Mr. Taylor uses to lure his prisoners into trusting him. I’m not fooled by it.”

Vito considered Mr. Crofford for a moment, very much aware of their surroundings: the solid walls, the iron door, the harsh light from the ceiling above. Then he said mildly, “I was under the impression that you and Mr. Taylor had been close associates at one time.”

“We still are,” snapped Mr. Crofford. “But that doesn’t mean I’m fooled by him when he sets out to break a prisoner. I’m not fooled by you either. You may have succeeded in breaking Mr. Boyd, but you won’t break me.”

Ah. Vito reflected that this was a moment when he would have preferred that the dungeon rule against smoking be lifted. It would have been an appropriate moment to hand Mr. Crofford a cigar in a comradely fashion. Clearly, Mr. Crofford possessed certain Seekerly qualities himself. The best guards in this dungeon always did.

Instead Vito said, again mildly, “I appreciate your concern for Mr. Boyd, but he strikes me as being capable of protecting himself.”

Mr. Crofford spat out a word that was highly obscene. Vito decided to ignore that. He had not previously realized that Mr. Crofford had appointed himself to guard Mr. Boyd against unscrupulous members of the dungeon, but it explained certain matters that had mystified Vito: Mr. Boyd’s dramatic improvement in his communication skills since the last time Vito stayed in this dungeon, as well as Mr. Boyd’s tendency to consult with Mr. Crofford before making important work decisions. Apparently, Mr. Boyd accepted the arrangement, which was a tribute to Mr. Crofford’s integrity.

Vito, who had never let himself forget the mental deficiencies that had afflicted Mr. Boyd since his health-breaking punishment at Layle Smith’s hands, said now, “I’m sure that the High Seeker would not have rehired Mr. Boyd unless he believed he was still capable of doing his job.” He waited for Mr. Crofford to take the point.

“The High Seeker was forced to rehire you.” Again, the words were spat out.

“Yes,” said Vito. “I was rather under the impression that you were one of the men who forced him to do so.”

The High Seeker, Vito reflected, probably enjoyed moments like this, when the man he was questioning turned pale from a verbal blow. Vito merely wished that this interview was over with. He was not hired by the dungeon to discipline his junior guard; that was supposed to be Mr. Boyd’s job. But clearly, under these particular circumstances, Vito could not ask Mr. Boyd to intervene.

Like many a man in Mr. Crofford’s position, the junior guard decided to change tactics. “That was back when I thought you really wanted to be a Seeker. But now I know why you demanded to be rehired.”

Oh, dear. Vito was slow indeed this evening. How many dungeon-workers had decided that? If this was the general viewpoint, then Vito was very much in trouble.

“I see,” he replied. “You think that I foresaw Mr. Gurth’s arrest for murder – for the deed itself took place five weeks ago, well after my return to this dungeon – and that I came here and managed to persuade our new Queen to overturn the Eternal Dungeon’s ban upon me, so that I might have the opportunity to help my love-mate escape again. Is that correct?”

Mr. Crofford’s face flushed. “Now you’re using one of the High Seeker’s techniques for breaking: derision.”

“I’m simply stating in plain language the implicit accusation you have made against me,” Vito pointed out. “Mr. Crofford, it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone might think this. I suppose it would be a logical way to proceed. I suppose I might even have had a pre-existing relationship with Mr. Gurth and arranged to be hired here before his first arrest.” From the look on Mr. Crofford’s face, it was clear that dungeon speculation had travelled that far. “I wish I could name myself that insightful, but the fact is that, until the High Seeker read out the prisoner’s records for me at the time of my own arrest – a highly humiliating experience, by the way, I can’t recommend it – I had no real idea of who Mr. Gurth was. I still don’t know who he is,” he added frankly. “So if you have any information to offer me on that, I would welcome it.”

He waited for Mr. Crofford to spit out obscenities again. Instead, the junior guard’s gaze travelled over his face. Mr. Crofford said slowly, “It’s a strange coincidence that you should be assigned twice to Mr. Gurth.”

“Not a coincidence,” said Vito shortly. “Mr. Smith made the assignment in both cases.” He let frustration enter into his voice. Ordinarily, he would not criticize a superior in the presence of a subordinate. But Mr. Crofford was a leader of the New School; he no doubt knew all the details of Vito’s previous clashes with the High Seeker.

Another moment passed in which Mr. Crofford considered what Vito had said. Vito had carefully positioned himself so that his body obscured the whipping ring against the wall. He wished to be honest with his guard, but he didn’t wish Mr. Crofford to be that alert as to what was occurring.

Finally Mr. Crofford said in a changed voice, “I just don’t understand.”

“Understand?”

“Why Mr. Taylor recruited you to help us reform the dungeon. He could have chosen anyone else as a symbol of the High Seeker’s injustice – why you?”

Vito shrugged, opening his palms toward the ceiling. “As to why he and Mistress Chapman chose to use me as a symbol, you would have to ask them. But you have the chronology wrong in your tale, Mr. Crofford. It was not Mr. Taylor who recruited me into the New School; rather, I sought to recruit him.” Seeing indignity gather in Mr. Crofford’s expression, Vito added hastily, “As it happened, he recruited himself before I had an opportunity to speak to him about this. But I assure you, I was already committed to reform at the time that I first became a Seeker-in-Training. I believe that is one reason why the High Seeker dismissed me from my job: he perceived me as a danger to his bloody methods of keeping control over prisoners and prison-workers. That is why I laid a suit against his dismissal – that reason alone. As the fates are my witness, for all other reasons I certainly deserved to be dismissed as a Seeker. Last time I searched Mr. Gurth, I was clumsy, close-minded to the advice of experienced men such as yourself, and I committed the fatal error of allowing my personal feelings for the prisoner to overcome my duty as a Seeker. It was” – Vito drew a breath – “the most humiliating blunder of my life, and I am acutely aware that, under ordinary circumstances, it would be wrong for me to return to this dungeon. But I want to be here to help reform the Eternal Dungeon.”

“The dungeon has already been reformed.” Mr. Crofford had been frowning throughout this recital, though his gaze remained fixed on Vito. Which was just as Vito wanted. “Mr. Taylor reformed it.”

“Mr. Taylor has taken the first step,” Vito agreed. “But theory is one thing – practice is quite another. After the last revision of the Code of Seeking – the revision penned by Mr. Smith – who was the man who enforced the changes in that revision?”

Mr. Crofford was silent a minute before he said, “Mr. Smith. The previous head torturer was seriously ill during his final year of life; Mr. Smith did most of the work of running the dungeon. And since the day that Mr. Smith rose to the title of High Seeker, he has had sole power to enforce the Code, with the supervision of the Codifier.”

“And who will enforce the new revision?” asked Vito.

No response this time. After a minute had passed, Mr. Crofford said softly, “That’s why you’re here?”

“That’s why I’m here. The naked-faced Seekers are in a minority; Mr. Taylor will need all the help he can receive in persuading the Old School’s Seekers and guards to accept his reform. The only way this dungeon can be reformed is if those of us who accept the need for change will demonstrate it through our actions with the prisoners. Through the manner in which we break the prisoners . . . or allow them to break themselves.” He moved a step, allowing Mr. Crofford to see the whipping ring.

Whatever other skills he possessed, Mr. Crofford was not talented at hiding his expressions. He looked, at this moment, like a prisoner who has just discovered that he is on the rack. He swallowed and then returned his attention to Vito. Vito could imagine what Mr. Crofford was seeing: a breaking cell in which he stood alone with a man in a black hood, possessing all the authority of the dungeon to break a prisoner . . . or a recalcitrant guard.

Mr. Crofford finally said, still softly, “You’re dangerous.”

Vito did not bother to deny this.

“In a different way than Mr. Taylor and Mr. Smith,” Mr. Crofford clarified. “Mr. Taylor misleads prisoners into thinking he’s more vulnerable than he is, and Mr. Smith misleads prisoners into thinking he’s more ruthless than he is. . . . All of the Seekers mislead their prisoners. It’s how they break them. But you . . .” Mr. Crofford scanned Vito’s face again. “Every word you’ve spoken to me has been completely true, hasn’t it?”

Vito nodded.

“You use truth to break your prisoners,” said Mr. Crofford. “I’ve seen you do it with Mr. Gurth. He tries to figure out the lies you’re telling him, and he can’t, because you’re telling him the truth. Sweet blood,” Mr. Crofford whispered, “you’re more dangerous than the High Seeker.”

“Language, please, Mr. Crofford,” reprimanded Vito briskly. “No, I wouldn’t say that I’m more dangerous than Mr. Smith. We use different techniques, that’s all. And while I’ve never been searched by the High Seeker” – he managed to suppress a shudder at the thought – “Mr. Taylor has, and he tells me that his final breaking came when the High Seeker was brutally honest with him. Nor am I always entirely forthcoming with my prisoners.” He took another step to once more obscure Mr. Crofford’s sight of the whipping ring. “So Mr. Smith and I are not that far apart in our techniques; it is just a matter of emphasis.” Vito smiled. “The disadvantage of my technique – of being as honest as possible about my failings and ignorance – is that I usually show myself up as a fool.”

Mr. Crofford tried – and failed – to keep himself from laughing. “Whereas it’s the other person who’s the fool. I’m sorry, sir,” he added. “I can’t say that I entirely trust you—”

“It’s your job as junior guard not to,” Vito said approvingly.

Mr. Crofford nodded. “Yes, sir. I’m duty-bound to prevent you from misusing your power against your prisoner. But when Mr. Boyd told me over breakfast today that he thought we had overlooked some of your finer qualities . . . Well, I jumped to the conclusion that you had taken advantage of his limitations in assessing men.”

Vito shook his head. “I have too much respect for him to take advantage of him. And too much debt to both of you.” He inhaled a deep breath, his mind travelling to the past. “Do you recall that meeting of the New School which I interrupted last year? Mistress Chapman had told me by letter that the purpose of the meeting would be to plan a protest against my dismissal from the dungeon, and so I had come there expecting to see perhaps two or three people in conference. Maybe half a dozen if I was lucky. Instead, I found the Seekers’ common room filled to the brim with guards, while you and Mr. Boyd sat in the front row.” Vito shook his head. “It was a humbling experience. I know that I am very, very lucky to be given this second chance, and I swear to you, Mr. Crofford: I will not throw away this chance. I will prove myself worthy of the honor which you and Mr. Boyd and the others have paid me.”

CHAPTER SIX
Day Two, Second Hour of the Night Shift

“But he doesn’t exist!”

Vito waited as a prisoner passed in the corridor. He could hear the man pleading desperately with his guards, evidently on his way to the rack. Vito let the sounds of the struggle fade into the distance before he replied, “If he doesn’t exist, then there’s no harm in letting me talk to him, is there? You’ll be able to control whatever is said.”

Continuing to stand in the corner of the cell, with his arms folded, Gurth scrutinized Vito with narrowed eyes. They had paused at the turn of the hour to allow Gurth to relieve himself into the chamber-pot. Vito had left the cell at that point, knowing better than to turn his back on this particular prisoner. He had found Mr. Crofford busy scribbling into the memorandum book that each guard carried at all times. Preparing a report for the High Seeker on the searching, no doubt. Surprisingly, Mr. Boyd had a flask of water ready for Vito.

Now, newly refreshed after the water and after a quick visit to use the pot in his own cell, Vito stood as he’d been trained at the patrol soldiers’ academy: straight and tall, with his hands resting together behind his back. He waited.

“What’s your game?” growled Gurth.

“You say you were asleep when the murder took place,” Vito pointed out.

“Aye. Ambrewster had sent me a note saying he wanted to talk. I thought he was going to make me an offer for one of my businesses, so I set up the meeting. Warily.”

Vito nodded. He had been present on the day, shortly after Edwin Orville Gurth’s initial release from the Eternal Dungeon, when John Ambrewster had attempted to use Gurth’s new bodyguard to assassinate his rival businessman.

“I arrived with half a dozen bodyguards, and Ambrewster and I went behind closed doors. After we’d talked of small matters for a bit, he offered me wine.” Gurth shrugged. “Stupid of me to have accepted it; he must have drugged it. Next thing I know, I’m awake, with Ambrewster’s men breaking down the door, and a bloody corpse beside me, with my own pocketknife sticking out of it. Ambrewster’s men wanted to kill me; mine wanted to whisk me away to safety. After arguing it out, they compromised by calling the patrol soldiers.”

“You suggested that solution, according to the patrol soldiers’ report,” pointed out Vito.

Gurth shrugged. “Ambrewster’s men were baying for my blood. I figured that, once in custody, I’d at least be safe from them. Didn’t count on being sent back here again.”

Vito tamped down the impulse to respond to that remark. There were holes in this story – great, gaping holes – but Gurth was not the only man in this room who would be aware of that. One other man here might be able to supply the missing evidence.

“And you don’t know who committed the murder,” Vito prompted.

Gurth shrugged. “I told you – he was already dead when I woke up. I have a theory, though.”

“Oh?” Vito prepared himself for a creative explanation. Edwin Orville Gurth was always creative.

“I think he jagged himself with my knife.” Gurth offered this defense in the simplest of fashions, matter-of-fact in his presentation. “He’s been raging to have me dead for the past two years, ever since I acquired half the brothels in the capital. He’s tried three times and failed. I figure he knew that the only way to kill me was to frame me for his own self-murder.”

Vito considered this possibility a moment before saying, “Ambrewster doesn’t strike me as the sort of man to sacrifice himself to accomplish a goal, however coveted.”

Yet again, Gurth shrugged nonchalantly, as though being quizzed on a trivial fact by a schoolmaster. “Best theory I got. The room was locked from the inside; I saw Ambrewster lock and bar it. It was like a stronghold. No windows, no trapdoors – nothing that would let in a murderer. His men were outside the only door the whole time; so were mine. I didn’t kill him. It had to be his own hand that killed him. No one else was there.”

Vito felt another gap loom before him. He kept his voice steady as he said, “I recall, from what he told me last year, that Or comes when you’re asleep. He might have witnessed the murder.”

Gurth shouted, “There’s no such person as Or! I was the only one there!”

“So?” Vito responded mildly. “Last time Or tricked me in such a manner that the Eternal Dungeon was forced to release you. If he’s simply you acting a role, why not do the same again?”

Gurth snorted, though his hands were still rolled into fists. “It was easy last time. You were in love with hi—”

He stopped abruptly. There was a pregnant pause. At the other end of the dungeon, where the rack rooms lay, screams had begun.

When it became clear that Gurth would not speak again, Vito said, “Mr. Gurth, I am here as a Seeker, to determine the truth of what occurred in that locked room. There are two living witnesses to what happened there. If I favored one witness over the other – if I sought to eliminate the testimony provided by one of the witnesses because I felt affection for the other witness – then my superiors would not be pleased.”

Gurth laughed, a raw sound. “You mean the High Seeker would tear out your throat. Well, that has the ring of truth to it. But . . .”

This time Vito did not break the silence, though he dearly wished he could cover up the sound of the screamed pleas of the racked prisoner. Gurth seemed oblivious to the sound. He bit his thumb for several minutes before saying, “You fell in love with . . . me when I was that way. When I was acting the part of Or. And you believed him – me. Everyone believes Or.”

Vito said quietly, with a touch of passion, “Mr. Gurth, of one thing I am absolutely sure: You were not alone in tricking me last time. Whatever happened this time, you were not alone either. I’m not going to make you the sole culprit of this crime, whatever Or says.”

Gurth stared at the wall behind Vito. “He’s— We’re— I’m not that dumb. If Or says I did it, then we both hang. I mean . . .” He trailed off. Vito remained silent. After a moment more, Gurth said softly, “Will you want to talk to me, after?”

Vito suppressed a smile. It was the same fear Or had expressed, a year ago: that Vito would seek to eliminate the “intruder” who had taken over the real Edwin Orville Gurth. “You two are conjoined twins,” Vito replied. “Two souls within the same body. You both hold the secret of what happened. You’re both of value to me.”

Gurth said nothing. He closed his eyes, appearing to consider the matter. Then he opened his eyes again.

Vito felt a jolt run through him, as though he were the prisoner being stretched on the table. He managed to keep his voice steady, though.

“Good evening, Or.”

CHAPTER SEVEN
Day Five, Dawn Shift

“He doesn’t remember his early childhood,” Vito reported to Elsdon. “He can’t recall a time before his personality was split in two.”

Elsdon nodded as he knelt down next to the stove, pushing the remaining coal out of the firebox, into the coal-hod. “Have you discussed his case with Mr. Bergsen? For that matter, have you discussed it with Mr. Boyd?”

“Yes. Mr. Boyd did his best to be helpful, but he says he has no recollection of the moment when his previous self transformed into his current self, during his beating. As far as he knows, the two Barrett Boyds were never in the same body together, at the same time. As for Mr. Bergsen, he says he hasn’t read of a patient like this in his medical journals. He says he has only had one case similar to this during his time as a healer, but of course he can’t discuss the case with me, due to medical confidentiality.”

“I wonder who it could have been,” Elsdon murmured as he rose and reached toward the cover-lifter. “Someone he treated while he was an army surgeon, I suppose.”

Vito said nothing. After a moment, Elsdon looked up from his work of pulling open the stove covers. Vito merely raised his eyebrows.

“Oh!” Elsdon straightened up. “I hadn’t considered that possibility. I’ve never thought of him as having split his personality.”

“He’s different when he’s dreaming, you’ve said.” Vito reached over to hand Elsdon the small, flat shovel he was reaching toward.

Elsdon took the shovel in hand and began to scrape ashes from over the oven, into the fire-box, but his mind clearly dwelled elsewhere. “Different, yes, but . . . It depends on when you’re talking about.”

“He has changed, then?” Vito sat down on the bench to watch Elsdon as he knelt to scrape ashes out from under the oven.

“Very much so. When Layle first decided to seek refuge in the Eternal Dungeon, he was an abusive torturer, good at his work and enjoying it a great deal. But he was also afire with a desire to change what he was: to become the sort of torturer that the Code of Seeking described, who helped prisoners into their transformation and rebirth.” Elsdon carefully banged the flue with his shovel to bring down the remaining ashes. “I suppose you’re right. In a way, his personality was split at that time.”

“So how did the High Seeker resolve the split?” Having nothing better to do, Vito picked up a cloth and began wiping off the rest of the bench, where some of the gently drifting ashes had landed. He had been more than a little taken aback to discover that, as a Seeker, he was expected to clean his own stove. It had required a gentle reminder from Elsdon to recall Vito to the fact that, should he take his oath of confinement, he would be legally classified as a prisoner. Seekers had privileges beyond that of ordinary prisoners, but occasional menial tasks were intended to remind them that their lives were not so very different from that of the prisoners they searched.

As Vito was well aware, having come all too close to being hanged for his previous disobedience to the High Seeker’s orders.

“He imprisoned his dark side,” said Elsdon. “He shut it into his dreamings, so that he wouldn’t be tempted to unlawfully abuse actual prisoners.”

Vito paused as he passed Elsdon the ash pail. “The dreamings that came upon him during the daytime, against his will? That could have been dangerous.”

“It would have driven him mad in the end. It very nearly did.” Elsdon’s voice was disconcertingly matter-of-fact as he scraped all the ashes into the pail. Vito, who had long thought that Elsdon’s love for the High Seeker blinded him to Layle Smith’s dark qualities, had begun to suspect during their recent conversations that Elsdon had a clearer-headed perspective on his love-mate than anyone else in the dungeon. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Elsdon alone had played out Layle Smith’s dreamings.

“Your bed-play . . .” ventured Vito uneasily.

“Lovemaking,” Elsdon corrected. “If we just did this for play, it would be far too dangerous.”

“Because the High Seeker would truly abuse you in bed?”

Elsdon gave a sad little smile as he sat back on his heels. “You have no idea how unlikely that is. No, I meant dangerous for Layle. Have you forgotten why I was imprisoned?”

Vito felt – as he so often did when conversing with Elsdon – as though Elsdon had just cracked his head open with an iron beam. “You’re worried that you might kill him?”

“I killed my sister,” Elsdon said calmly. “And I did so because my father bound and beat me for years, since the time I was a small boy. If I thought that Layle was truly abusing me . . . Well, it has been many years since my temper was roused in a rage, but I wouldn’t want to risk it happening again. What keeps our play-acting safe, for both of us, is that we do it in love.”

Vito thought about this as Elsdon took up the broom to clean the ashes off the floor. “You told me once that you play he is rescuing you from captivity.”

“That’s one of our plays. We have many.” Elsdon leaned over to brush the ashes into the dustpan. “In some manner or another, all of them involve me being hurt, and Layle doing something that heals me. We play out abuse – the abuse I suffered from, and the abuse that Layle inflicted on his past victims. And then we turn that darkness into something bright and beautiful.”

“I see,” Vito said slowly. This tale certainly cast a unique light on the High Seeker’s dark dreamings. Vito found that his gaze was drifting to the side, over to where Elsdon had placed his shirt when stripping to his waist in order to clean the stove. A small, black volume poked out from his breast pocket.

Elsdon caught sight of where Vito was looking and smiled. “You can sense it in his revision of the Code, can’t you? That was what cemented our relationship in the end. I already loved the Code of Seeking; then I realized that the parts in it which I most loved arose out of Layle’s struggles to transform his darkness into something that would benefit the prisoners. . . . But I’m not sure any of this will be of use to you with your own prisoner. He certainly doesn’t seem to have any struggles of conscience over what he has done.”

“Not in that way,” Vito agreed. “Gurth told me once that he does whatever is needed in order to survive. And Or . . . it’s the same for him, I suspect. He had no scruples when I knew him last; he was willing to sacrifice me in order to gain his freedom.”

“And your prisoner has been willing to sacrifice the lives of all the young girls he prostitutes, and all the men who suffer from the sweetweed and opium he sells,” Elsdon concluded as he set aside the implements of his cleaning. “He certainly hasn’t entered into his transformation, much less his rebirth, the way Layle did.”

“Your love-mate came from Vovim to Yclau for love of the Code,” said Vito, thinking aloud. “And he managed to heal the split in himself – as much as it could ever be healed – through love of you.”

Elsdon nodded. He had his eye on the blacking liquid and brush, but he made no immediate move to start his polishing of the stove. “Well, that tells you something, doesn’t it? You can’t make love to your prisoner; your duties as a Seeker don’t permit that. But you can find out what else it is that your prisoner loves, and draw upon that to help transform him.”

“You seem very sure that he loves something,” Vito commented.

Elsdon smiled as he finally sat down on the bench next to Vito. “He’s sane enough to do his work, isn’t he? Without love, he’d be utterly mad.”

CHAPTER EIGHT
Day Two, Third Hour of the Night Shift

“Vito!” His expression characteristically impulsive and excited, Or reached out toward Vito, evidently intending to embrace him.

And possibly to bite him venomously. Vito jerked out of reach. “No!”

Immediately chastened, Or huddled his body against the corner. “I’m sorry. . . . I’m sorry. . . . I forgot you can’t touch me. . . . I don’t want to get you into trouble. . . .”

“Don’t you?” Despite his efforts to remain professional, Vito could not prevent bitterness from entering his tone.

Or flinched like a kicked puppy. “I’m sorry! I don’t blame you for being angry. You must hate me.”

It was like watching an abused boy abase himself in preparation for more abuse. Vito heard himself say, “I don’t hate you. Why did you do it to me?”

“It was Gurth,” Or said breathlessly. “He told me last year that you couldn’t save me – that there was too much evidence against him, and that they’d hang him. Hang us both. He said my only hope was to follow his plan for escape.”

Gaps. More bloody gaps. Vito forced his body to relax back into the position of a Seeker questioning his prisoner. “You told me last year that you couldn’t communicate with Gurth.”

Immediately, Or hung his head. He gnawed his lip.

The trouble was, Vito reflected, that whatever else Or might be, he was an abused boy. Both he and Gurth were, but they had found different ways to deal with the sufferings of their childhood. Gurth’s method was to fight the world before it should destroy him. Or’s method . . . It was a good deal subtler than Gurth’s. But the suffering was genuine. Vito mustn’t forget that.

He said quietly to his prisoner, “Or, I love you. You know that. But I can’t help you if you lie to me. I’m the only person who can help you.”

Silence. Still crumpled in the corner, Or had his arms wrapped tightly around his torso, as though in protection against blows.

“Do you know who killed Mr. Ambrewster?” Vito prompted quietly. “Was it Gurth?”

“Oh, no.” Or’s shake of the head was emphatic. “No, not at all. It was me.”

CHAPTER NINE
Day Six, Night Shift

“Don’t disturb her,” Elsdon said in a soft voice. “She’s still in mourning.”

It was well past midnight, and they were standing outside the door of the multi-roomed living cell shared by Birdesmond, her husband Weldon Chapman, and, until recently, their son Zenas. At this time of night, Vito and Elsdon would normally be in the breaking cells, searching prisoners. But Elsdon was still on extended leave from his usual work in order to see the new revision of the Code to its publication. As for Vito, he had arrived at his prisoner’s breaking cell that evening, only to discover that it was occupied by Mr. Bergsen, who wished to make a thorough examination of Vito’s prisoner. That the Codifier, who employed Mr. Bergsen, would arrange for the healer to make an unscheduled visit was a stinging reminder of how little Vito was trusted by the dungeon’s authorities.

“But she knew that he would be returning to Vovim,” Vito protested to Elsdon, though he too kept his voice low. The period between midnight and five a.m. was the quietest time in the dungeon. The outer-dungeon laborers, who mainly worked the day shift, had gone home; the day-shift workers who lived in the dungeon were asleep; and the night-shift Seekers and guards were at their work.

At their bloody work, in some cases. In the distance, Vito could hear the sound that never failed to chill him: the scream of a prisoner who was being racked.

Elsdon shook his head. He had that hollow-eyed look which Vito had come to associate with the days on which Elsdon was unable to reach agreement with Layle Smith. “It was hard enough for her and Weldon when Zenas chose not to continue living in the dungeon when he came of age. Since Birdesmond and Weldon are oath-bound to remain in this dungeon till their deaths, they knew that they would only see Zenas on his days off from work, when he visited them. And then he told them that he was returning to his native kingdom. That was a hard blow indeed, but they nursed the hope that, on special occasions, he would return to Yclau and visit them. But now . . .”

“Vovimian prophets aren’t permitted to travel to foreign lands?” Vito ventured.

Elsdon shook his head.

“Surely he will correspond with them,” said Vito.

“Oh, yes. They’ve already received their first letter from him. But he’s their only child, and they love him dearly. Give her the time she and Weldon need to heal, Vito.” Elsdon gently drew Vito away from the door. “I wanted the opportunity to speak with you anyway.” He glanced around the corridor, which was empty, then lowered his voice further. “Layle has the night off; he finished a racking earlier this evening. I expect he’s in our living cell. Let’s talk in the common room instead.”

The Seekers’ common room was just a few paces away from Birdesmond’s living cell. At this time of night, the common room was closed, but as second-in-command of the dungeon, Elsdon had the privilege to enter any part of the dungeon he wished. He opened the common-room door and gestured Vito inside.

The room was dark except for a shaft of moonlight falling through the partially translucent skylight at the end of the room. The moonlight fell upon an empty area where, Vito knew, he and Elsdon and their third player would be performing Sweet Blood in five days’ time. How they would manage to squeeze their entire audience into the room, Vito could not imagine. The common room was one of the largest rooms in the dungeon, rivalled only by the entry hall, crematorium, and dining hall. But word of the performance had spread; not only did most of the Seekers and guards wish to attend, but so did many of the outer-dungeon laborers. And every prisoner would be there, as well as the Codifier, the healer, and many other high-ranked men associated with the Eternal Dungeon. There was not a room in the entire dungeon that could house so great an audience.

Elsdon turned on one of the table-lamps. The lamp sputtered fitfully, as though uncertain whether to work, before finally lighting the small area around the table, flickering occasionally. At the dusky edges of the lamplight, Vito could see the drinks counter, but Elsdon did not approach it. Instead, he pulled out a chair and seated himself at the table. Vito followed suit, just in time to see Elsdon place a small, black volume, stamped with gold letters, upon the table.

Vito felt the immense weight of that tiny volume upon his heart. “It has been approved?”

Elsdon nodded. “As of yesterday. The royal press has only issued a short press run – enough to allow the senior members of the dungeon to examine the volume for typographic errors before it is released to the dungeon. Layle agreed that you could have one of the initial copies.”

Vito opened the sixth revision of the Code of Seeking as he might open a copy of the ancient Sayings used in chapel, if they had been handed to him by their original Author. For a while he was silent, perusing the pages. Much that he read was familiar; like previous revisers, such as Layle Smith, Elsdon had not discarded the wisdom of prior authors of the volume. Rather, he had skillfully pruned the text, then added new material.

Vito had intended only to skim the opening pages; but what he saw caused him to read carefully through to the end. The clock in the corner of the common room was chiming the fourth hour by the time he finished. For a while after he closed the book, he stared down at the cover. Then he raised his eyes.

Elsdon was still sitting quietly beside Vito. His expression was difficult to read. Elsdon said, “Well?”

“You’re going to need a bodyguard when this is released,” Vito said.

“Not from you, I trust.” Elsdon’s voice was soft in the stillness of the room.

Vito sighed as he pushed the book back. His muscles were aching, and he realized that this was not simply due to the fact that he had sat hunched over a book for a full hour. His body remained rigid. “Explain it to me,” he pleaded. “Elsdon, you had the power to abolish torture in this dungeon. Instead, you’re going to let it continue. For at least a decade – possibly forever. Why?”

Elsdon did not seem disturbed by the bluntness of his question. “Vito, who will carry out the rules in the new Code?”

It was the question that Vito had asked Mr. Crofford. He said uneasily, “If the Code required them not to use torture—”

“Then the Code would never have been approved,” Elsdon said with his own, characteristic brand of bluntness. “Vito, I was appointed to revise the Code, not because I’m the Seeker best qualified to author a book like this, but for one reason only: the High Seeker and the Codifier believed I had the ability to craft a Code that would allow all the Seekers in this dungeon to continue with their work, without breaking their consciences.”

“And the prisoners? What about them?” He felt his voice turn rough, and he struggled to modulate his tone. “Elsdon, a Seeker must suffer for the prisoners. You retained those words at the beginning of the Code. This is the time when the Old School must suffer—”

“And not the New School?” By contrast, Elsdon kept his voice mild. “Vito, you said, ‘Possibly forever.’ Do you have so little conviction, then, in your own beliefs?”

Elsdon must be redoubtable in the breaking cell, Vito reflected wryly. “Very well,” he conceded. “The test you call for in the new Code, a test to demonstrate whether the New School’s methods of Seeking produce appropriate results . . . That will work. Given time, we of the New School will be able to show that our prisoners are more likely to transform themselves if we don’t apply torture to them. But Elsdon—” Vito felt a hardness in his throat, as though he could still hear the screams of the racked prisoner through the common room’s door. “Ten years? Ten more years of torture by the Old School? Why did you pick ten years as the length of the test?”

“Because,” Elsdon said quietly, “in ten years’ time, nearly all of the Old School torturers will be aged sixty or older.”

For a moment, Vito stared blankly at him. Then he opened the sixth revision and flipped rapidly through it until he found the appropriate passage. He read aloud, “‘In prior days, Seekers were expected to continue to work in the dungeon until their deaths, unless released from their duties by the healer of the dungeon. Recognizing that such long years at work may not be of advantage to either the Seekers or their prisoners, it is now declared that Seekers may themselves request, at any time after their sixtieth birthday, a release from their duties as Seekers, though they will remain bound by their oath of eternal confinement within the dungeon unless released by the Codifier or the healer. . . .’” Vito looked up. “You’re going to pressure them into retirement.”

Elsdon shook his head. “It won’t be necessary, I think. After ten years, any Seeker who still insists on the necessity of torture will be so clearly out of tune with the times that he will be forced to recuse himself. The new rules on retirement allow him a graceful way in which to withdraw from the inner dungeon. Layle already has plans to build a new wing onto the outer dungeon, where retired Seekers can spend the final years of their lives.”

Vito looked down at the black volume in front of him. He felt none of the excitement he had expected to experience upon reading the new Code – only a dull sickness. “Ten years, Elsdon.”

“Ten years,” Elsdon acknowledged, weariness in his voice. “I’ve discussed this with Weldon; he agrees with me that we should expect to see changes long before then. As he did, other Seekers will switch their loyalties from the Old School to the New School – especially the junior Seekers, who have had less time to be shaped by tradition. Well before the year 375, Seekers will be raising their face-cloths to their prisoners, or they will retire. The tenth year is the final year of this dungeon’s transformation, Vito – not the initial year.”

Vito sighed heavily. “I wanted it to happen overnight.”

“That was never a possibility, alas.” For the first time, Elsdon lowered his gaze. “You missed witnessing most of the civil war here. There are Seekers in this dungeon who will never, ever change their minds about the need to bring about transformation through torture. Many of them are senior Seekers; they possessed the power to oppose the passing of this revision. Vito, I was left with only two choices: introduce new methods of Seeking in a manner that the Old School would accept, or watch the Queen abolish the Code.”

Vito was still a moment before saying, “The new Queen is that great a threat to the dungeon?”

“Her mother made the initial threat. The old Queen held her hand long enough to allow us time to find a solution. The new Queen would have acted immediately.” Elsdon touched lightly the cover of the Code. “I’ve had a lit bomb beside me all these weeks, trying to craft a Code that would be accepted by both the New School and the Old School, before the Queen should grow impatient and revoke the Eternal Dungeon’s power to govern itself by its own code of ethics. When the old Queen died, I had just begun to check the galleys. Layle actually swept the galley proofs off my desk as I was checking them and rushed upstairs to offer the new Queen his oath of loyalty . . . and to beg her to accept the revision that her mother was so close to approving.”

“Sweet blood,” whispered Vito, his body now as cold as a corpse. “I had no idea that the Code of Seeking was that near to destruction.”

Elsdon nodded. “This” – he touched the black volume lightly again – “is a victory. I know that most of the dungeon won’t see it that way. The Old School guards and Seekers will see only that they are being asked to risk the possibility of abolishing time-honored methods of searching prisoners. The New School guards and Seekers will see only that they are being asked to allow bloody methods of breaking to continue for years more. As you suggested, I’ll be the target of everyone’s fury.” He gave a small smile, shaking his head. “It doesn’t matter. The Code was saved. I know that, the Codifier knows that, the High Seeker knows that . . . A few others, like you. It doesn’t matter what the rest of the dungeon thinks of me, as long as the Code remains safe for another generation.”

Vito gave Elsdon a sharp look. “Your love-mate is only forty-five years old. He won’t be of retirement age in ten years’ time. Will he abide by the sixth revision? Will he stop torturing prisoners?”

“The High Seeker,” said Elsdon carefully, “has never deliberately broken the Code. He will abide by whatever strictures this Code places upon him. If you doubt that, you really don’t know the High Seeker at all.” He stood up, his chair screeching against the flagstones. “I’m feeling rather tired, Vito. Let’s seek out our beds; we can talk again later.”

Reminding himself that Elsdon had also sacrificed some of his own high ideals, Vito rose to his feet. As he did so, however, the lamp flickered again. Turning to look at it, Vito’s gaze was drawn toward a shadow at the end of the room. He froze.

Elsdon followed his gaze. He was still for only a second; then he walked forward. “Sir?” he said cautiously.

The shadow detached itself from the wall and stepped into the moonlight. It was the High Seeker, his face-cloth hiding his expression. He said abruptly, “I have been thinking of what you said.”

On the point of joining his love-mate, Elsdon hesitated briefly; then he stepped into the moonlight, asking, “What have you decided?”

“That what you say is false.” The High Seeker’s voice was harsh. “You say that there may be happiness beyond this, but that is merely your attempt to escape from the truth. The truth is that this is the end. There is nothing more beyond this. You must accept that.”

Elsdon’s head jerked back. His eyes were wide. “I cannot accept that.”

“You will go.”

“I love you—”

“But you do not love me enough, I see.” There was a flash of light in the High Seeker’s hand; then he handed Elsdon the dagger. “Do it, then. Kill yourself. Do not expect me to cry for you.”

Elsdon slowly took the dagger and stared down at it. The moonlit scene remained frozen for a moment as he contemplated the blade. Then the High Seeker stepped back and turned his head. “Well, Mr. de Vito? What is your judgment? How can I improve my performance?”

Still shaken by what he had seen, Vito slowly stepped forward. By the time he reached his two fellow players, he was still having trouble formulating his thoughts. He said, “It’s not quite right yet.”

“In what way?” There was nothing in the High Seeker’s voice to indicate whether he held any interest in what Vito was saying.

Vito stumbled through his words. “Mr. Smith, whoever wrote this script altered the traditional role of the friend by splitting that role into two parts. He created two friends for the man who transformed himself. One friend – the role that I play – is a friend who speaks his doubts with clear truthfulness. The other friend – the role that you play – speaks his doubts with deceit. But both friends are supposed to feel affection for the man they are trying to persuade to remain with them in afterdeath. They both love the man dearly.” Vito shook his head. “I couldn’t see love in the way you recited your lines – only cold rage. There ought to be love as well.”

Layle Smith offered no immediate reply. He simply stood there, staring at Vito, his eyes black in the dim light. Then he said very quietly, “I will take your advice into consideration.” He swept past Vito as though he barely noticed the Seeker-in-Training. The door to the common room closed behind him with a slam.

Vito didn’t realize he was whispering curses until he felt Elsdon’s hand on his shoulder. Elsdon said, “He’s not angry at you, Vito. He’s angry at himself. He knows you’re right.”

Vito tore his gaze away from the common-room door. “He unnerves me. He slipped into this room, eavesdropped on our conversation, and then began rehearsing that scene with you so abruptly, as though it were real. . . .”

Placing the prop onto the table, Elsdon shook his head. “He was here when we first arrived – I should have realized that, when I saw the lamp flickering. He sometimes comes here late at night when his duties permit, to pray in private.”

Vito raised his eyebrows. “He doesn’t pray in the crematorium, then.”

“Where he would be publicly on display? No. He doesn’t like to shout to the world the fact that he still prays to the Vovimian gods. Tonight, he probably was praying to his gods and remained oblivious to our presence till we started discussing the Code. As for the scene-playing . . . It’s the way he is, Vito. He wasn’t trying to scare you. He simply slips between the world around us and the world of the mind with complete ease. He’s the perfect player.”

Vito frowned. “Does he do this with other members of the dungeon, besides yourself? I’d have thought that people would talk about that, and I’ve heard nothing.”

Elsdon shook his head. “He hasn’t done it around other people for years. Why he did it tonight . . . I’m not sure. I suppose he simply wanted your advice on his performance, since he and I have been rehearsing our roles together separately from you and I.”

“What is your judgment? How can I improve my performance?” The High Seeker’s words whispered in Vito’s head. Vito heard himself say, “His words felt so real. . . .”

Elsdon turned his head away abruptly, as though he’d been slapped. He said, “I should go—”

Vito caught hold of him. “Elsdon. Tell me the truth. Is there trouble between you and Layle Smith?”

Elsdon sighed but did not try to release himself. “Not the sort you think. He hasn’t been abusing me.”

“What, then?” Vito kept hold of Elsdon’s hands, which were cold. Elsdon’s body remained as listless as it had been when he had spoken to the High Seeker.

Elsdon said nothing for a while. The room was as quiet as a crematorium. Finally Elsdon replied in a low voice, “I vowed to Layle, when I first met him, that I would never leave him.”

“And now you wish to break your vow?” As he spoke, Vito searched Elsdon’s face with his eyes.

Elsdon shook his head. “I already broke it. During the civil war last year, when the New School was fighting the Old School so vigorously . . . I moved out of the living cell I share with Layle. We were separated for weeks, not communicating with each other except through official notes.”

“But you returned.” Vito narrowed his eyes in an attempt to see Elsdon better in the dim light. “You’ve been living together for months. If he blames you for what happened, isn’t he willing to forgive you?”

Elsdon gave a weary chuckle. “Oh, Vito. You still don’t understand Layle. It’s not a matter of forgiving me. He blames himself for what happened. Even if he thought I was to blame, he would willingly lay his life down for me. But he’s scared.”

“Scared.” Vito spoke the word tentatively, sure that he had misunderstood.

“Of losing me again. He has always been convinced that he’s unworthy of me, that I’d eventually recognize this and leave him. I spent years – years – building up his trust in me. And then I was a fool, and I destroyed all that trust.”

“Elsdon, you had to oppose the High Seeker on the issue of torture—”

“But I didn’t have to leave him,” Elsdon said simply. “I did that for my own convenience, because I couldn’t bear the idea of quarrelling daily with him. It was a terrible, terrible mistake, Vito. Layle wants to trust I’ll stay. But all his self-hatred, all his certainty that I am the personification of Mercy and he is despicable Hell . . . After what took place last year, he can no longer believe that I will remain with him. Our bed has been cold since I returned.”

Vito was deeply moved. If Elsdon hadn’t spoken of these matters before now to him, then, in all likelihood, Vito was the first person Elsdon had entrusted with this tale.

He was deeply moved, but he was deeply, deeply disconcerted. “He despises himself?”

Elsdon shook his head in a quick little jerk. “I said more than I should have. Vito, I don’t know what I can do with Layle. I’ve tried everything to return our love-mateship to what it was. I hoped that, once the Code was passed . . . But you saw it today, in his performance. He still feels cold rage toward himself. He is still determined to keep me at a distance, in anticipation of the rejection and loss he expects to come. Vito, what do you advise?”

“What is your judgment? How can I improve my performance?” Again, Vito heard the words in his head. His performance as a player? Was that the judgment which the High Seeker sought?

Or, like Elsdon, was he seeking a different sort of help?

Vito squeezed Elsdon’s hands, which he was still holding. “I’m no expert at love, but if he were your prisoner . . . You’re doing the right thing. You’re waiting. You’re remaining patient. Give him the time he needs to break himself.”

Elsdon released a deep sigh as he pulled himself free. “Yes, of course. I should have thought of that myself. The techniques of breaking . . . They don’t just work with the prisoners in the breaking cells.” He looked at the black volume on the table, and this time his smile was neither weary nor wry. “Layle’s words remain in that Code. He taught me how to care for a prisoner who is silent out of needless fear. So he taught me how to care for him.”

CHAPTER TEN
Day Two, Just Before Midnight

“Don’t hate me,” pleaded Or.

“I don’t hate you,” replied Vito automatically. He was trying his best to remain calm. He had sensed this confession was coming. He just wasn’t sure yet how deeply in trouble Or had buried himself . . . and Gurth. “Just tell me how it happened.”

“I’m not sure . . .” Or’s voice wavered as his eyes blinked rapidly. He appeared to be on the point of tears. He blurted out, “Can I hold your hand while I tell you?”

“No.” Vito tried to keep his voice brisk and professional.

Or reacted by cringing. “I’m sorry! I don’t want to harm you . . .”

“I did what I always do – whatever is needed to survive – but I didn’t particularly relish the idea of you dangling from a hangman’s rope.” Gurth’s voice, from the past.

Vito gentled his voice. Whatever Or’s motives, whatever his goals, there was no question that the young man was genuinely drawn toward Vito. Vito had evidence enough of that. “Or, you know I care for you. But I’m here as your Seeker. The Code of Seeking is very clear about this. Seekers must not touch their prisoners . . .”

His voice trailed off. He had forgotten to ask Elsdon about this. Had the sixth revision changed that particular rule?

Vito tried to clear his head. Regardless of what the sixth revision said, he could not afford to be seen touching his prisoner . . . and Mr. Crofford would assuredly see if Vito touched his prisoner. Even if Mr. Crofford had taken a momentary break from his watch after all these hours, the change in Edwin Orville Gurth’s voice – from aggression and hostility to pleading and affection – would have alerted both guards outside to the fact that Or had arrived.

Or, who had seduced Vito the previous year.

Vito stiffened his stance. He said coolly, “We’re here to discuss what happened when John Ambrewster died. When did you arrive that day?”

Tears still pearling upon his eyelashes, Or stared at him. “I’m not sure. I don’t know what happened before I woke up. It was like the other times. I just . . . appeared.”

Vito felt a prickling along his back, the way he had on the first occasion when Or had spoken to him. Sometimes he forgot that Edwin Orville Gurth was a wonder: a young man who had split into two. Vito made a note to himself that he should discuss this case with the dungeon’s healer, as he had neglected to do during the previous year.

Nodding encouragingly, Vito asked, “What did you see first?”

“A man.” Or’s voice was hushed. “A big man. It seemed like he was twice as big as me. His face was hard and cruel.”

So it was. Vito had seen a photograph of Ambrewster, taken when the man was arrested early during his career, on suspicion of poisoning a rival businessman.

“He was holding a knife,” Or continued. “I thought it was a meat knife at first. I thought he was eating a meal. But then he noticed I was awake, and he whipped the knife under the table. I heard it fall on the rug. He said, ‘So you’re awake again? I thought all that wine we drank made you nod off.’ As he spoke, he moved something behind the table-lamp. A bottle.”

“Did you see what type of bottle it was?”

Or appeared to consider the question for a moment, gnawing his thumb in an oddly mirrored gesture to Gurth’s nervousness. “It looked like a drugstore bottle. I saw a bit of the label as he moved it. Tinctura opii . . . I’m not sure what the rest said.”

“Crocata,” supplied Vito. “It was laudanum.”

Or’s eyes widened again. “Did he put Gurth to sleep?”

“Possibly.” If so, it was hardly the first time Vito had encountered this practice. Vito thrust that thought aside. “Where were you during this conversation?”

“In an armchair,” Or replied promptly. “I was all slumped down. The way he looked at me . . . I didn’t know who he was or why he was there, but something seemed wrong.”

Or’s breath was coming more rapidly now. The tears were threatening again. Silently, Vito took out his handkerchief and stepped forward close enough to place it on the bed, within reach of Or. Vito was permitted to do that much for his prisoner, at least.

Or showed no indication of wanting to use this opportunity to attack Vito. He was struggling for breath as he said, “Last year, I told you that I intruded on Gurth when he was asleep. But you thought Gurth intruded on me. That he got us into trouble, and then he left me to deal with the trouble by myself. Do you think that’s what happened this time?”

“Possibly,” replied Vito. He could envision the scene: Gurth realizing that he had been drugged and using his last moments of consciousness to call forth Or, who came only when Gurth was asleep. It could not even be termed a spiteful act. If Gurth died, so would Or. Their only hope of living was for Or to take charge of Gurth’s sleeping body.

“What did you say to the man?” asked Vito.

Using the handkerchief to wipe his eyelids clear of tears, Or said, “I wasn’t sure what to do. I was afraid of him. I tried to make him think I was Gurth, but he guessed . . .” Or dipped his eyes. “I suppose it wasn’t hard to guess. I’m so different from Gurth.”

“In certain ways,” said Vito.

Ignoring this comment, Or continued, “He started quizzing me. I panicked. I tried to run for the door, but he snatched me back. He laughed, saying, ‘Even if you’re not Gurth, you have something of Gurth’s that I’ve wanted for a long time.’ I couldn’t think what he meant.

“Then he threw me on the rug.”

With tears flowing fully again, Or described the nightmare that followed: his struggles to break free of the man who seemed merely amused by his efforts and who taunted him in his captivity.

“It wasn’t like it was with the man who used to bed me in the place where all those girls worked,” Or explained between sobs. “That man told me what to do and bound me to his bed, but he wasn’t rough about it. I think he liked me. He praised me when I did something well, and he helped me enjoy it. But this man . . . He wanted to hurt me. He told me so. He told me how hard he was going to hurt me.” Or’s voice rose as high and hysterical as the racked prisoner’s had been. Vito thought to himself that, if any of the dungeon dwellers had been concerned about what would take place in this cell, Or must be allaying their fears marvellously. He sounded exactly like any prisoner in the Eternal Dungeon who was being broken.

“He said that he’d kill me when he was through!” cried Or, shrill and sobbing. “He said he’d torture me to death!”

Vito said nothing. The climax of the story was at hand. Pinned beneath Ambrewster, Or was lying on the floor.

So was the knife.

“I was terrified,” said Or. “I didn’t know what to do—”

“Did you scream?” Only one scream had been reported by the witnesses – Ambrewster’s.

Or shook his head. “I didn’t know if anyone would hear me, of if they’d help me. This seemed to be the man’s house. I just kept praying that Gurth would come back. He’d know what to do. But I—” Or was crying again between deep heaves of breath. “I didn’t mean to kill him! I swear I didn’t! I just meant to scare him so he’d let me go. But he was fighting me for the knife, telling me he’d flay me to death . . . I didn’t mean to murder him.” Or’s voice fell, like a musical note at the completion of a diminuendo.

“It wasn’t murder.” Vito heard his voice as though it were at the end of a long tunnel.

Apparently surprised out of his tears, Or stared at Vito, blinking. “It wasn’t?”

“What you just described is self-defense. To kill a man when he is making immediate threat to your own life isn’t murder, much less premeditated murder. If the magistrate who judges you decides you were defending your life against an immediate threat, he’ll declare you innocent and set you free.”

Or continued to stare. The handkerchief in his hand was drenched with tears.

Vito reached into his other pocket and tossed his spare handkerchief onto the bed. “I know that you dislike talking to anyone besides me, Or, but without a second witness to your testimony, I can’t present it in court. Will you repeat what you just said to my senior night guard, Mr. Boyd? He’s a quiet man; he won’t comment on what happened.”

With hesitance, Or said, “I think . . . I think I’ve met him since I came here. He seems nice.”

“Nice” was not the word that Vito would have chosen to describe Barrett Boyd, but it would do. Retreating to the front of the cell without turning his back or removing his gaze from his prisoner, Vito rapped on the door.

Mr. Boyd entered immediately, memorandum book and pen already in hand. With periodic encouragement from Vito, Or whispered his testimony while Mr. Boyd silently recorded it. There were a few changes in details from Or’s previous account, but no more than might be expected from an ordinary witness with fallible memory.

As soon as the testimony had been read back by Vito and signed by Or, Vito dismissed Mr. Boyd. His mind was already skidding forward to what came next. If Gurth changed his story in response to Or’s tale, that would provide reason to question the veracity of Vito’s prisoner. But if Gurth and Or stuck with their stories . . .

Vito suddenly became aware that the cell was unusually silent. He pulled his thoughts back to the present and found that his prisoner was lying on the bed-shelf, curled up like a kitten.

“Or?” said Vito cautiously.

His prisoner’s eyelashes fluttered. For a moment, nothing happened except that the eyes stared.

Then the prisoner leapt to his feet, so quickly that Vito instinctively took several steps back.

There was no need, though; Vito was not the object on his prisoner’s mind.

“What did he say?” demanded Gurth. “Did the little brat blame me?”

CHAPTER ELEVEN
Days One Through Six, Dawn Shift

Vito had been surprised and saddened to learn that no devotional services were held in the dungeon. There was not even a chapel – just the crematorium and a vigil chamber far below it, where Seekers mourned loved ones who had died. The rituals governing such vigils were ancient and moving, but they were rarely undertaken, since they required Seekers to absent themselves from work for a full month.

The closest that the Eternal Dungeon came to a devotional service was the care of newly dead prisoners. The bodies of executed prisoners were returned to the dungeon and watched over in the crematorium by one of the guards who had assisted with the prisoner’s searching. At the end of a shift’s watch, the body was discreetly removed to another part of the dungeon, where it was cremated; then the ashes were returned to the crematorium, where they were scattered in the death pit by the guard, who sang prayers for the newly reborn.

All this was moving too: the desire for the Eternal Dungeon to care even for the executed, the optimism that convicted criminals would be reborn into a new life. Yet it seemed to Vito that all this emphasis on the dead did not encompass the full magnitude of the Yclau faith. Rebirth was not merely about mourning the dead; it was about living one’s life anew.

He mentioned this at the weekly dominoes game, which on this occasion was attended only by junior guards. Vito usually stayed quiet during such games; gambling with money was forbidden in the Eternal Dungeon, so he need only lay down his tiles at the appropriate moments. Every now and then, if the opportunity presented itself during the guards’ conversations, he would ask a question pertaining to his work. Even junior guards knew more than he did about how the Eternal Dungeon ran.

When he asked about the services, he found a ready audience for his concern. “It’s a shame, a real shame,” said one guard who was trying to decide whether to apply for senior rank. “When I was a boy, I used to skip chapel every chance I could. But now it’s different. My wife pointed out that, if I lived in the dungeon with my family, as senior guards do, she and I and our children would no longer be able to attend chapel. It’s the main thing that has been holding me back from applying for seniority.”

“I heard that, back in the time of the old High Torturer, devotional services were held in the crematorium every dawn and dusk,” inserted another guard.

“Surely we could get permission to revive that custom, couldn’t we?” suggested Vito.

After much discussion, they agreed to hold services at dawn. Many Seekers remained on duty then, and the senior guards who had been released from guarding prisoners would be holding their daily meeting in the guardroom, which was closed at that time to junior guards.

“But perhaps this would interfere with your schedule, sir, if you’re returned to Seeker duties?” suggested a guard to Vito, solicitously.

Vito smiled. “I don’t work overtime. I’m not ambitious.”

There was a mysterious exchange of looks between the guards.

The first service went well. With Elsdon’s assistance, Vito had obtained a copy of the dungeon’s devotional book, which was based upon the Code of Seeking, interlaced with traditional prayers and Sayings. The devotional book was still used on special occasions, so Vito was the only man present who stumbled through the words of the service.

A little more disconcerting was the fact that the junior guards asked Vito to provide the commentary. Yclau services didn’t have sermons, or even priests, in the usual meaning of the word – just a cleric who explained any portions of the ancient prayers and Sayings whose meaning had become obscure over the centuries. But when a cleric was not present to undertake this task, it was common for especially respected members of the gathering to be asked to speak a few words about the prayers and Sayings of the day.

Vito had always been a quiet man, and he considered himself to be unpolished in his speech – not like the High Seeker, who had all the eloquence of a Vovimian stage-player. However, Vito’s higher rank evidently made him the guards’ choice for a commentator, and so he had done his best, stumbling out a few sentences about the man whose role he was rehearsing. “We usually think of the first man who was reborn as being the one who sacrificed himself,” Vito said. “He stabbed himself in order to escape from the changeless world of afterdeath, but in doing so, he believed that his soul would die and he would lose his immortality. That was courage indeed. But I’ve been thinking about his friend, the one who stayed behind in the world of afterdeath. He witnessed the transformation and rebirth of the first man, so why did the friend choose to stay in afterdeath? Why didn’t he take the path that the first man did?”

The guards were silent, awaiting an answer.

Vito shrugged. “I really don’t know. I’m not a visionary or a prophet. But it occurred to me that perhaps the friend stayed behind for the same reason that we choose to work in this dungeon: to help dying men to enter into their transformation and rebirth. Perhaps the friend made his own sacrifice in that way.”

On the second morning, word had evidently spread of the service. Not only did more junior guards show up, but also laborers from the outer dungeon; the crematorium was the only portion of the inner dungeon that many of them were permitted to visit. Again, Vito was the most senior member present; again, he was asked to make the commentary. Remembering a conversation he’d held with Elsdon’s maid on a day when he arrived early at Elsdon’s living cell and found her cleaning there, he mentioned the important role that the outer dungeon had played in the New School’s battle to reform the dungeon. He linked this with the subtle but powerful role played by the ancient author of the Sayings in the devotional book, who had lived his life in service.

The crematorium was very crowded the third day, for many of the junior Seekers were in attendance. While delighted to see that the other junior members of the dungeon enjoyed the services as much as he did, Vito found himself wondering whether it would be too ambitious at this stage to hold services at dusk as well, as a way to accommodate more people. Because of his musings on this matter, it wasn’t until he was requested to come forward to speak the commentary that he realized that the crowding was caused partly by the presence of all the senior Seekers.

Including the High Seeker, waiting with cold eyes for Vito to speak.

Vito was struck dumb. Standing there at the makeshift lectern that he and the junior guards had constructed, he wondered what, in the name of all that was sacred, he could say that the senior members of the dungeon hadn’t heard frequently before. It seemed hubristic for him to be standing here, rather than, say, Weldon Chapman, who was positioned near the doors, lightly touching the hand of his wife.

The sight of Birdesmond loosened Vito’s tongue, though. He pointed out to the worshippers that the Sayings and earliest prayers of Yclau faith held no reference to women; likewise, the political and social structure of Yclau originally held no place for women. Not until the twelfth century, by the Old Calendar, had Yclau come to realize the importance of women, and at that point, leading the rest of the world with its progressiveness, it had chosen a woman as its ruler.

“We are a queendom,” said Vito, “because we were unafraid to transform ourselves. I pray that I will always have the courage to do what is right, even if it is not always what was done in the past. I hope you will join me in this prayer.”

Then he stepped down from the lectern. His entire body was shaking.

“Well, what did you expect?” asked Elsdon afterwards in an infuriatingly calm manner. “After just two commentaries, you had hundreds of members of the dungeon attending devotionals. Of course the High Seeker and the other senior Seekers wanted to see what magic spell you had cast upon the rest of the dungeon.”

“Elsdon, it wasn’t like that!” protested Vito. “People came because there hadn’t been devotional services for many years. I was only asked to speak because I was the senior-most member present—”

Cocking his head to one side, Elsdon said, “So you haven’t heard about the petition?”

Vito waited a moment to let Elsdon’s maid depart from where she had been dusting the parlor. She smiled at him as she left. Then Vito said, “Petition?”

“The junior guards that you play dominoes games with,” said Elsdon patiently, “have submitted a petition to the Codifier that you should be made a full Seeker. They’ve made clear that any one of them would be willing to work under you.”

After a moment, Elsdon reached forward and gently nudged Vito’s jaw closed. “You didn’t realize that you’d made such an impression on them?”

“Elsdon, I . . . No, this is impossible. I’ve barely spoken to them. And when I have, it has only been to ask ignorant questions.”

Elsdon smiled. “So I’d heard.”

Vito sighed as he flung himself into the armchair. “You make me feel as though I’m in my training days as a novice guard. What am I missing?”

Elsdon sat on the wooden arm of the desk chair nearby. “How long do you think it’s been since a Seeker asked guards – junior guards – to answer his ignorant questions?”

Vito frowned. “Surely it’s not unusual for inexperienced Seekers to ask advice from guards. The High Seeker encouraged me to do so during my first training as a Seeker-in-Training.”

“Oh, yes, it happens quite often. Most of us are a bit more subtle about it, though.” Elsdon flashed a smile at Vito. “See, if I were to ask my guards for advice, I’d turn to Mr. Urman – my senior guard, mind, who is officially above my rank – and would say something like this: ‘Now, tell me: How would you handle this, Mr. Urman?’ Making it seem as though I was quizzing Mr. Urman on his skills, you see. Whereas you talked to these guards – these junior guards, who are below you in rank – and made remarks such as, ‘I really have no idea how to handle a prisoner who is persistently obscene. What in the name of all that is sacred should I do? Have any of you encountered cases like this? Do you have advice for me?’” Still smiling, Elsdon reached over to place his own copy of the devotional book on the desk. “I think they find your straightforward appeal to be refreshing.”

After a minute, Vito said, “Very well, that explains the presence of the junior members of the dungeon at the services, as well as the outer-dungeon laborers, I suppose. But why the senior members? Surely the High Seeker wouldn’t leave his usual duties simply out of curiosity to hear one of my commentaries.”

“He might,” said Elsdon, “if he thought that a certain Seeker-in-Training was becoming a dangerous rival.”

There was a long silence before Vito said, “Surely not.”

Elsdon sighed as he slid down into the seat of the desk chair. “Vito, you’re a foil to the High Seeker. He issues orders; you ask questions. He gives speeches to his Seekers and guards; you stay silent, listening. He projects power; you project . . . something else entirely. I’m not sure I can put it into words except to say that I have never, during my decade in this dungeon, encountered a Seeker who spent as much time as you do asking advice.”

Vito shrugged. “I didn’t do so last time. That was my mistake. I’m not going to let myself make the same mistake this time. In any case, I don’t see how that makes me a rival to the High Seeker’s authority. I should think it would make me just the opposite.”

“Perhaps it would,” said Elsdon quietly, “if it weren’t for the fact that those commentaries are revealing you to be much less the fool than your requests for advice suggest you are. And don’t pretend you have no idea what I’m talking about, fellow player.”

Vito finally said, “I could use a drink.”

Elsdon smiled again. “I’ll give you tea. That’s what us prisoners drink.”

CHAPTER TWELVE
Day Seven, Final Hour of the Night Shift

“I take it,” said the High Seeker as he shuffled through the mound of papers that Vito had handed him, “that what this all boils down to is that the man who calls himself Or is claiming that he is innocent due to self-defense undertaken to save himself from an imminent threat to his life.”

“Yes, sir.” Vito remained stiff in the posture of a guard making a report to his superior. He wasn’t yet sure what the appropriate stance was for a Seeker-in-Training making a report to the superior who was intent on expelling him from the dungeon, but acting with the humility of a guard seemed safe enough. “And Mr. Gurth – the personality that calls himself Gurth – is claiming no knowledge of how the killing took place.”

The High Seeker nodded without looking up from his desk. “And the witnesses?”

Layle Smith had the witness reports directly in front of him, so he doubtless knew the answer to his own question. Pretending to ignore that fact, Vito said, “Or’s statement fits the witness reports from the bodyguards of Edwin Orville Gurth and John Ambrewster. They all claim that they heard Mr. Ambrewster speaking in a manner which suggested he was about to take Mr. Gurth to his bed. Since Mr. Ambrewster was known to have long desired Mr. Gurth, neither Mr. Gurth’s guards nor Mr. Ambrewster’s guards thought this out of the ordinary. They considered that it was part of the bargain which was being driven between the two men – that Mr. Gurth had agreed to be bedded in exchange for a higher price for the business he was selling.”

The High Seeker said nothing, passing on to the next paper. Filling that silence as best he could, Vito added, “The chronology of events matches as well. I had Or describe the dialogue in such a manner that I could reconstruct the amount of time passed. While I can’t be exact, I believe that Or’s statement that he was attacked at a certain moment matches the place in time when the witnesses report that Mr. Ambrewster went silent. Mr. Ambrewster’s scream occurred three minutes later, which is about how long Or said he struggled on the floor to prevent Mr. Ambrewster from raping and killing him.”

The High Seeker turned another page. “Your prisoner gave his statement on the initial day you searched him.”

“Yes, sir. Since then, I’ve been examining the witness reports and have had Or and Gurth give their statements again. Each time they’ve done so, the statements haven’t changed, except to provide slightly more detail.” Vito stared hard at the High Seeker, willing him to look up. Layle Smith knew all this. Vito had been quite careful to submit complete reports of each day’s searching; he had submitted Or’s statement to the High Seeker on the initial day of searching. Why was the man questioning him about the obvious?

“And you are satisfied now that you have all the information you will be able to obtain.” The High Seeker turned yet another page, as though he were a schoolmaster.

“Yes, sir. Gurth and Or aren’t budging from the statements they’ve made. I don’t think there’s any point in my searching them further. They’ve said everything to me that they’re going to say. And as I mentioned, their statements match the statements of the witnesses.”

The High Seeker moved finally, pushing the papers back as he leaned back in his chair. “Thank you, Mr. de Vere. That is as complete a report as I have ever received from one of my Seekers. There is only one point of information missing from it.” His eyes rose slowly, flickering green and black under the light of the sputtering electric lamp upon his desk. “Do you believe what your prisoner has told you?”

Vito began to speak and then fell silent. He could hear, outside the door of the High Seeker’s office, the silence which represented the final hour of the night shift. The Record-keeper had arrived early on duty. The night-shift Seekers and guards were on duty in and near the breaking cells, as were the night-shift guards who watched the gates and doors of the entry hall. Everyone else was asleep. The Eternal Dungeon was as still as it ever became.

Vito was thinking, not of the stillness, but of the silence between himself and Elsdon during each of the conversations they’d held for the past six days. It was an eloquent silence. He and Elsdon had discussed his prisoner’s personalities. They had discussed how best to break the prisoner. They had discussed how best to transform him.

They had not discussed the possibility that his prisoner was innocent. The subject had never arisen.

“No, sir.” His voice was quiet in the quiet office.

The High Seeker said nothing. He simply waited, like a wildcat waiting to pounce.

Vito had to clear his throat before he could continue. “The witness reports match my prisoner’s story – their stories. But the reports also match what Or and Gurth did to me on the last occasion when they were in the dungeon. Or seduced me – and he admitted later that he did so after communicating with Gurth. With Gurth’s cooperation, Or drugged me, seduced me into lying down beside him, and then waited until I was asleep to make his move against me. I’ve no doubt he could have murdered me, if that had been of any use to him. . . . You’ll notice, sir, that both Or and Gurth mentioned in their statements that they had shared wine with Mr. Ambrewster—”

“Yes.” The High Seeker’s voice was flat. There was no surprise in his eyes. Vito’s tension increase.

After a moment more, as Vito failed to speak, Layle Smith said, “Mr. de Vere, I am removing you from this searching.”

His breath hitched. “Sir, no—”

The High Seeker looked down at the papers again, shuffling them into order. “What you just told me should have been at the beginning of your report, not at the end of it. It is certainly not something which you should have appended as an afterthought, once I’d questioned you.”

It was increasingly hard to breathe. “Sir, I swear to you, I did not knowingly withhold information from you—”

“If I thought you had done so,” said the High Seeker, stacking the papers neatly at the corner of his desk, “again, then I would be doing a great deal more than suspending you from your duties. . . . I will take charge of the prisoner.”

This time Vito said nothing, but his fingernails cut into his palms.

Layle Smith’s eyes flicked up toward his, then away again, indifferent. “You evidently have not read the sixth revision of the Code carefully enough, Mr. de Vito. In circumstances such as this, where a prisoner of a New School Seeker is transferred to an Old School Seeker, the Code requires that the searching methods of the original Seeker continue to be adhered to. Otherwise, as Mr. Taylor made clear in the section he added to the Code, it would be all too easy for the High Seeker to simply transfer every prisoner in this dungeon into the custody of an Old School Seeker, thus annulling the changes in this dungeon which the Code requires. Therefore, I will search your prisoner without aid of torture.” The High Seeker reached forward and neatly plucked from Vito’s breast pocket his copy of the Code of Seeking. “I wish you to remain in your cell until further notice, rereading this. Kindly take special note of the final paragraphs of the ninth chapter. I will see that your meals are delivered to your cell.”

Vito did not reach out to take the volume that was being offered to him. “Sir, if you’ll just let me have a few more days with my prisoner, I’m sure I can persuade one of his personalities to give me the truth—”

“You have already admitted that he won’t.” Rising to his feet, Layle Smith tucked the Code of Seeking back into Vito’s pocket. “In any case, what you ought to be doing right now is requesting to recuse yourself from this case. I shouldn’t need to tell you why.”

Vito closed his eyes. He could feel himself growing chill. “Sir, my prisoner. Whatever mistakes I have made, he should not be the one to suffer from them.”

“There are many Seekers in this dungeon,” said the High Seeker implacably. “If need be, I will hand your prisoner over to each of them in turn. But you have come perilously close to breaking the Code again, despite the fact that you were no doubt on guard against any attempts by your prisoner to seduce you. This is a desperate and highly skilled criminal, Mr. de Vere. He deserves the best that the Eternal Dungeon has to offer him.”

Vito opened his eyes and met the High Seeker’s gaze squarely. “I have tried to give him that, sir.”

“I’ve no doubt you did. Wait in your cell, Mr. de Vere, until you are released.”

It was like facing a mountain, with nothing to move it except a shovel. Keenly aware that he had no power in this dungeon – that the High Seeker need only wave his hand, and Vito would be under arrest again – Vito turned away.

No power. The High Seeker held all the power here. Nothing could change the course that Layle Smith had chosen.

Vito left the High Seeker’s office, the Code of Seeking still in his pocket.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN
Day Eight, Dusk Shift

The knock came at the end of a sleepless day.

Vito had succeeded in sleeping during the previous day, worn out by sheer nerves. Since that time, though, he had spent the hours pacing back and forth in his small living cell, trying to think of anything he might have overlooked, which he could use as a reason to demand that the High Seeker transfer Edwin Orville Gurth back into his custody. Each time, he found himself remembering the words that Elsdon had spoken on the fourth day of Vito’s searching: “You can’t make love to your prisoner; your duties as a Seeker don’t permit that. But you can find out what else it is that your prisoner loves, and draw upon that to help transform him. . . . Without love, he’d be utterly mad.”

Despite what he had told the High Seeker, Vito had not continued to search Edwin Orville Gurth merely for the sake of reconciling timelines. He had been searching for evidence that Gurth and Or cared for something or someone. Vito was hampered by the fact that Gurth and Or appeared to have few memories earlier than shortly before they had arrived at the patrol soldiers’ station in tatters, giving the appearance of having been raped.

One of their first memories was of lying to preserve their own safety. And everything after that – their years in boarding school, their years in reform school, their years as a prostitute, their years as owner of the capital’s largest network of prostitution houses and opium dens – had continued to be aimed at their self-preservation. Gurth and Or cared nothing about anyone except themselves. They had taken no risks for anyone; on the contrary, they had sacrificed the lives of everyone surrounding them, for their own sakes.

Including Vito’s life.

Sighing heavily, Vito threw himself onto the desk chair which was the only piece of sitting furniture that appeared in the cells of junior Seekers. He was too exhausted to think. He ought to sleep. Perhaps his mind would send him the answer in his dreams.

There was a knock at the door.

Startled, Vito glanced at the ticking clock on the wall. What he saw there reassured him. It was dusk, time for his next meal. Mr. Sobel had faithfully brought Vito’s food at every mealtime, despite his own heavy work schedule. Mr. Sobel helped to guard the High Seeker’s prisoner during the night shifts. Vito had so far managed to restrain himself from asking Mr. Sobel how the searching was going.

It was not Mr. Sobel at the door. It was Elsdon. One look at Elsdon’s face told Vito there was trouble. He opened the door silently for his friend.

Once the door was closed behind him, Elsdon was blunt. “The trial is the day after tomorrow.”

Vito felt his throat close in. “Mr. Smith managed to break him, then.” One shift. The prisoner had given his confession in a single night. Either Layle Smith’s skills as a Seeker were as formidable as reputed or . . .

. . . or he had not kept his promise. He had tortured Edwin Orville Gurth.

Elsdon shook his head. There were dark rings around his eyes, as though his own, newly assigned prisoner were causing him sleepless days. “Layle questioned your prisoner for several hours. Then he brought me in, and I searched the prisoner on my own. When the dawn shift arrived, we brought in Birdesmond to question the prisoner; she had the day off from work, but she was willing to assist us in this crisis. Since noon, the three of us have been discussing this case. I’m sorry, Vito. We’ve all agreed there’s no point in searching Edwin Orville Gurth any further.”

He was holding onto the edge of the table that doubled as a meal-table and a desk; his grip tightened. “What did Gurth and Or say?”

“Exactly what they said to the four Seekers who searched your prisoner during the five weeks before you took over the searching: nothing. Edwin Orville Gurth won’t speak to anyone except you. And to you, Gurth and Or will only tell lies.”

Vito sat down heavily. After a minute, he said, “Last time, it took me days to persuade Or to speak to me, and Gurth barely spoke to me at all. The three of you have only searched my prisoner for a few hours—”

Elsdon shook his head, still standing by the door, looking weary. “Collectively, the three of us have forty-five years’ worth of experience at searching . . . and we took the time to consult with the four New School Seekers who searched Edwin Orville Gurth before you did. All seven of us are agreed: the prisoner’s willingness to speak to you was an opportunity that won’t be repeated. After all, what motive do either Or or Gurth have to speak further? They’ve offered their defenses. They’ve made their defenses as strong as possible. If they spoke to Layle or me or Birdesmond, all that would happen is that one of us would be likely to discover the flaws in their stories.”

“Whereas I’m the inexperienced Seeker-in-Training, so I’m the one that Or and Gurth tried to fool.” The words were bitter on his tongue. Restless now, Vito rose and started to pace again. “Even if what you say is true, we aren’t Seekers merely in order to draw confessions out of guilty prisoners. The first prisoner you ever searched . . . You once told me that you knew, within a couple of days of searching him, that he was guilty of murder. Yet you searched him for six months – six months – in order to transform his character and lead him toward rebirth. In the end, you succeeded.” He stopped pacing, and turned his gaze toward Elsdon, standing motionless near the door. Vito’s eyes pricked with wet heat as he said, “I need that chance, Elsdon. I can’t let Edwin Orville Gurth go to his death unrepentant. With the sort of life he has led, he could dwell for centuries in afterdeath, denied rebirth.”

“My first prisoner never repented of his crime,” Elsdon said. “The most I was able to do was to help him care about the life of one of the elite, whom he considered his enemies. And yes, that was a moment of transformation.” He held up his hand to forestall Vito from speaking. “If the High Seeker could give you those six months, he would.”

“But why not?” cried Vito. “The Code provides no time limit on searching prisoners. Is the High Seeker that eager to rid himself of me, that he would sacrifice the soul of a prisoner?”

Elsdon closed his eyes. For a moment, Vito thought that staying awake for a full night and day had overcome Elsdon. Then Elsdon opened his eyes again. His gaze was as hard as an iron door.

Elsdon said softly, “This is not something I should be telling you. The High Seeker is keeping this matter unannounced. But when he met with our new Queen . . . matters did not go well. She had a number of complaints about how this dungeon is run. In order to persuade her to approve the sixth revision of the Code, the High Seeker had to make certain concessions to her. Among other things, he agreed that the Eternal Dungeon would release prisoners into the custody of the Queen’s magistracy no later than one month after the searching begins. Nearly all of our prisoners are broken within that amount of time. The prisoners who have been searched longer have virtually never confessed or transformed themselves. My first prisoner, Mr. Little, was very much an exception to the rule. So the High Seeker agreed to this restriction on the Eternal Dungeon’s power in order to preserve the Code of Seeking.”

The clock on the wall ticked. Outside, low voices spoke in the corridor as Seekers on the night shift began to emerge from their living cells. Two guards from the day shift made their way down the corridor in the direction of the outer dungeon, pausing to converse with Elsdon’s maid, who was just arriving for her dusk-shift work.

His voice still soft, Elsdon said, “Including the searching from the Seekers before you, your prisoner has been searched for over six weeks now. The High Seeker has been receiving increasingly angry communications from the Queen’s magistracy. The Queen herself sent a message yesterday, commanding that the Eternal Dungeon transfer this prisoner into the magistrates’ custody. The High Seeker was only able to stave off a crisis by arranging for Edwin Orville Gurth’s trial to occur the day after tomorrow. . . . Layle asked me to tell you that, if you believe that you have a chance of succeeding in transforming Edwin Orville Gurth, he will delay the trial.”

Standing with his back to the small array of bins and stove and icebox and washstand that constituted his kitchen, Vito reflected to himself that the High Seeker was indeed the slyest Seeker in the entire dungeon. Since the time that Vito began searching Edwin Orville Gurth, Vito had spoken to Layle Smith every day. On each day, the High Seeker had calmly enquired about Vito’s progress. On each day, Vito had requested more time in which to search the prisoner. On each day, the High Seeker had granted that extra time, without indicating in any way that he had a bomb fuse sizzling in the Eternal Dungeon.

And now the High Seeker was risking that bomb going off, for the sake of a prisoner’s soul.

With his voice as steady as the High Seeker’s had been, Vito said, “Please give Mr. Smith my thanks. Tell him that I do not believe there is a high enough chance of such transformation occurring during further searching of Edwin Orville Gurth to warrant risking the future of the Eternal Dungeon. Let the High Seeker save his battles for prisoners who truly need that extra time.”

Elsdon had come over to stand by Vito as he spoke. Now Elsdon reached over and squeezed Vito’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Vito. I’m so very sorry.”

Vito swallowed hard before saying, “You should go to bed. We have a performance in three evenings’ time.”

Elsdon shook his head. “Now that the new revision of the Code is released, my duties have returned to the breaking cell. My new prisoner is awaiting me; I’ll sleep during tomorrow’s day shift. Shall we meet for a final rehearsal on the afternoon after next? Or would that be too soon?”

Too soon after Edwin Orville Gurth’s execution, Elsdon meant. Vito shook his head. “We’re committed to the performance the next evening. Will Mr. Smith be joining us for the afternoon rehearsal?”

“If you wish him to be there. He didn’t want to inflict his presence on us if he wasn’t needed.”

Words that Elsdon had been speaking about Layle Smith – had been speaking for more than a year now – floated around in Vito’s head. He shook his head, trying to free his thoughts. He really needed to sleep, and unlike Elsdon, he was free to go to bed immediately. “It will be a better performance if we see each other’s scenes performed. I know I’ve already witnessed some of his performance—”

Elsdon gave a small smile. “You haven’t. Layle is performing Vovimian-style – he will wait upon the gods to gift to him his exact lines and delivery, on the day of the performance. He said it would be a better performance if all three of us did that, but honestly, Vito, I’ve no idea how to spontaneously deliver a stage performance. It’s easier for me to come with with my lines and delivery already prepared, as I do when I first enter the breaking cell as a Seeker.”

“I too.” He was keenly aware that Elsdon was doing his best – in his usual Seekerly fashion – to comfort Vito by taking his mind off the upcoming events in Edwin Orville Gurth’s short life. Vito pushed Elsdon gently toward the door. “Go. Search your prisoner. Sleep. We both need to be fresh for the performance.”

But with Elsdon gone from the cell, Vito found that he was pacing back and forth once more, playing out in his mind the events that would take place in the magistrate’s court. Gurth and Or’s statements would be entered into the record . . . but so would Layle Smith’s statement that he believed the prisoner was lying. The healer’s medical records would be entered as evidence as well. However, Vito already knew, from lengthy conversations with the troubled healer, that the lack of prior medical documentation of the existence of split personalities meant there was insufficient legal evidence of an illness of the mind to outweigh Yclau’s strict laws against premeditated murder. Gurth and Or’s best hope lay in the fact that the murder had occurred in such absurd circumstances – circumstances in which Edwin Orville Gurth was bound to be named as the murderer. Would a man who had truly planned to murder his opponent commit his murder in a room where no innocent party could be named as the murderer? Might this killing not have been a case of momentary passion?

The prisoner’s counsel would say all that in the courtroom. No longer would the prisoner’s Seeker be the prisoner’s sole advocate; the sixth revision of the Code provided for a neutral counsel to be assigned to defend the prisoner. No doubt the counsel was meeting with the prisoner now.

Would Edwin Orville Gurth break his silence to speak to the only man left who might be able to save him from the hangman’s noose?

Vito was sweating. He forced himself to sit down. His eye drifted over to the Code of Seeking, lying on the table. Despite the High Seeker’s orders, Vito had not touched the volume since the beginning of his suspension, his mind too much on the searching that his prisoner was undergoing. Now, though, he snatched up the black volume eagerly. Perhaps the book contained something he had missed. Something that would allow him to save Or and Gurth.

For the next few hours he read. The Code of Seeking was a surprisingly slender book, but Vito read it over and over, wincing each time he reached the end of the ninth chapter – which, it turned out, dealt with the procedures that a Seeker was supposed to undertake when preparing a prisoner for his trial and possible execution. No doubt the High Seeker had recommended this section as a way to subtly warn Vito that matters were headed in that direction.

It was past midnight before Vito found it. Not the passage that would save Edwin Orville Gurth from being hanged – that was nowhere to be found in the Code of Seeking. Instead, Vito found a single sentence, so easily overlooked, so subtle in its significance, that it did not penetrate Vito’s mind until he was on the point of falling asleep.

As he sat at the table, staring bleary-eyed at the sentence, there was a knock on the door. It was Mr. Sobel, bringing Vito’s midnight lunch. Vito drew in his breath sharply, feeling his mind swim from the words he had read.

“Mr. Sobel,” he said as he opened the door, “I need to speak with the Codifier.”

CHAPTER FOURTEEN
Day Nine

The following evening, Vito strode toward his prisoner’s cell, feeling refreshed.

He had spent most of the intervening time in a pleasant manner. The interview with the Codifier had been surprisingly brief; the Codifier had done no more than consult with the dungeon’s healer before approving Vito’s request. Afterwards, Vito had fetched water for his bath; prisoners such as himself were not permitted such luxuries as running water. Once he had bathed, he had fallen asleep until well past noon.

His dinner meal, waiting on the table in his cell, was a cold salad; evidently Mr. Sobel had anticipated Vito’s need for lengthy sleep. After dressing, Vito had attended the new early-afternoon devotionals in the crematorium, which were conducted by the outer-dungeon laborers.

It was a relief not to be asked to offer the commentary. The outer dungeon used a different prayer book than the inner dungeon did: one of the devotionals popular in the lighted world above. Whereas the inner-dungeon devotional, understandably, had a great deal to say about death and rebirth, the outer-dungeon devotional was mainly about everyday life: working and eating and playing and making love. Vito emerged from the service in a reflective mood.

His next stop was Mr. Urman’s living quarters. He had chosen Mr. Urman with care, for Vito had no doubt that any Seeker or guard in the dungeon would be intelligent enough to guess what he was planning. Mr. Urman, however, was reputed to be the most rebellious of the dungeon’s rebels.

He expected to find Mr. Urman rooming with Mr. Crofford. To Vito’s surprise, one of the junior guards redirected Vito when he received no answer at Mr. Crofford’s door. “Mr. Crofford only lives with Mr. Urman on week’s ends,” the guard replied to Vito’s enquiry. “The rest of the time he rooms with Mr. Boyd. I’ve heard that Mr. Urman has applied for a suite for the three of them.”

This left Vito amused at the many permutations which love-bonds took in the Eternal Dungeon. Following the junior guard’s instructions, Vito found that Mr. Urman – raised in rank the previous year to be Elsdon’s senior night guard – was housed in what surely must be the worst room in the entire dungeon: it was located directly next to the outer-dungeon room where garbage was stored, and was within earshot of the busy dining hall. Given that the Record-keeper was in charge of assigning living quarters to Seekers and any guards who chose to live in the dungeon, Mr. Urman’s location spoke eloquently regarding the guard’s lack of popularity with the authorities of the Eternal Dungeon.

Mr. Urman seemed cheerful about his location. “Saves me a long trek to breakfast,” he said, hastily pushing a pile of dirty laundry off an armchair so that Vito could sit down. “And the dining hall’s the best place for gossip. These days, most of the gossip is about me.”

Vito was quite aware of that fact. Mr. Urman’s petition to become a Seeker continued to be discussed – usually with raised voices – throughout the dungeon, drawing attention away from Vito, at dangerous cost to Mr. Urman.

Knowing that Mr. Urman could have timed his petition for a more discreet moment to himself, Vito enquired after the senior guard’s progress with the petition.

“Well, they haven’t said no.” Mr. Urman flopped himself down on the floor; the other pieces of furniture were covered with an overflow of dirty cups and bowls. “Mr. Smith told me they’d give me an answer within the next few days. Apparently, he and the Codifier have been busy with some other crisis in the dungeon.”

Yes, indeed. “I hope this delay is not too worrying to Mr. Crofford? He’s your love-mate, is he not?”

He had practiced beforehand how to raise the topic in a subtle manner. Apparently, though, Mr. Urman was well-qualified to be petitioning for Seeker status, for after a moment while the senior guard gazed at Vito with narrowed eyes, Mr. Urman got up, disappeared behind the curtained area that constituted his bedroom, and then re-emerged with a small object in his hand. “This what you want?”

Vito stared at it, not reaching forward. It was occurring to him, far too belatedly, that any trouble he got himself into tonight might rebound upon Mr. Urman, for supplying him with the needed equipment. “I’m not sure—”

Mr. Urman tossed it into his hands. “You’re not going to be such a bloody fool as to proceed without it, I hope. There’ve been bets going on in the dungeon for a week now as to whether you’d do this. I have a large wager in favor of you.” Mr. Urman grinned.

Vito felt himself turn scarlet. “Will you be providing commentary on my performance?”

Mr. Urman’s grin disappeared. “You’re doing this for the prisoner’s sake?”

“Yes.”

“Then no. I don’t gossip about what Seekers do to help prisoners. Ever.” Mr. Urman’s voice was flat.

Vito had heard as much from Elsdon. Reassured, Vito pocketed Mr. Urman’s gift, saying, “I won’t be going there as a Seeker tonight, you know.”

“I should bloody well hope not,” was Mr. Urman’s only reply.

Emerging from Mr. Urman’s living quarters, Vito was touched by the thought of all the people in this dungeon who held faith in him. Mr. Urman, risking his dream of becoming a Seeker. Elsdon, who had spent countless hours in discussion with Vito about his prisoner. Birdesmond, sacrificing her day off in order to help with Vito’s prisoner. The dungeon’s healer, Mr. Bergsen, who had approved Vito’s request with such alacrity as to suggest that the more obvious aspect of Vito’s unorthodox plan was already in his mind.

Which left only two men to offer their approval or to put an end to Vito’s last hopes. Vito drew in a deep breath as he took the final steps down the corridor to where Mr. Boyd and Mr. Crofford silently awaited him.

From the junior guard at Mr. Crofford’s door – who was friendly enough to give the Seeker-in-Training due warning – Vito had learned that the news had spread far and wide in the dungeon that he had abandoned his prisoner. “Tossed him to the lions in order to retain your position as Seeker,” the junior guard had said with an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, sir, but nobody can think why else you would have recused yourself from this case.”

Now, as Vito approached the prisoner’s cell, he wondered whether Mr. Boyd or Mr. Crofford had spread the news. Although Layle Smith had evidently not publicized the fact that Vito was suspended from his duties, the prisoner’s records would show that Vito had refused to accept Edwin Orville Gurth’s stories. Did Vito’s guards think he had made the prisoner look guilty, simply in order to curry favor with the High Seeker? Could they possibly understand that Vito had been forced to choose between his love of Edwin Orville Gurth and his love of the Code?

Taking care to move slowly – the guards were no doubt under orders from the High Seeker to keep Vito away from the cell at all costs – Vito pulled from his pocket the piece of paper that the Codifier had given him the previous night. “I have permission from the Codifier to visit the prisoner.”

“Yes, sir.” Mr. Boyd did not so much as glance at the paper. “Mr. Smith told us you would be doing so. He gave us orders to admit you, two days ago.”

Two days ago?

Vito was left holding the piece of paper, feeling exceedingly foolish. It was little comfort to know that he was hardly the first man to have been made a fool of by the High Seeker.

“Kindly take special note of the final paragraphs of the ninth chapter,” the High Seeker had said. The paragraphs that contained the sentence which would allow Vito access once more to his prisoner.

Feeling uneasy now – just how much had that blasted High Seeker guessed about what Vito would plan to do? – Vito pocketed the paper and cleared his throat. This was the tricky part. “I will be with the prisoner for some time. There is no need for you to remain on duty.”

The guards exchanged glances. It was a wonder they didn’t arrest him on the spot. Vito knew when the last occasion was that an inner-dungeon worker had sent away a guard from the prisoner he was watching over.

Mr. Boyd had done that five years ago . . . shortly before he gave his prisoner a dagger with which to kill himself, in order to save the prisoner from a more painful death.

Uncomfortably aware of the object that lay heavy in his pocket, Vito waited. And then stiffened as Mr. Crofford reached for his dagger.

Except that it was not his dagger he touched. Ignoring the weapons at his belt, Mr. Crofford drew a tiny tin from his pocket and handed it to Vito. Vito raised the lid of the tin and stared at the object there, mystified.

Mr. Crofford cleared his throat. “The healer uses it. When he’s visiting prisoners.”

It took Vito another moment to understand. Then he raised his gaze from the tin. “Mr. Crofford, this goes against your duty.” As would abandoning his post, but Vito need not press that obvious point.

Mr. Crofford shook his head. “Sir, the Code of Seeking requires that junior guards watch through the hole any time that someone enters the prison cell if the junior guard should deem it necessary. Mr. Boyd and I already discussed this together. We agree that a watch isn’t necessary in this case.”

“Though quietness on your part would be helpful.” Mr. Boyd’s expression was as sober as always. There was no telling whether he had chosen this moment to indulge in dark humor.

Vito looked from one guard to the other. Clifford Crofford, Barrett Boyd, D. Urman, David Bergsen, Birdesmond Chapman, Elsdon Taylor. . . . All six of the remaining leaders of the New School trusted Vito unreservedly. And these two had the most to lose by doing so.

“Mr. Crofford,” Vito said, “I understand that you and Mr. Boyd have requested reassignment.”

“Not because of you, sir,” responded Mr. Crofford swiftly. “We had hoped, when we were given our current assignment of substitute guards, that we would be able to work together. But more often than not, one of us is asked to substitute for a sick guard, while the other is assigned different duties. We’d prefer to work together.”

And Mr. Boyd no doubt had difficulty finding a Seeker who was willing to work with him, being considered as much a challenge to his Seekers as Mr. Urman was. Vito had been thinking about that for several days.

Now he asked, “If I should become a full Seeker, would the two of you consider a permanent assignment as my night guards?”

Too late, he realized that his offer, under the current circumstances, could too easily be regarded as a bribe. Mr. Crofford had already turned his head toward Mr. Boyd, his expression full of anticipation.

Mr. Boyd was not so impulsive. But his response, when it came, was even more impressive than Mr. Crofford’s eagerness. “Yes, sir. It would be an honor.”

“The honor is mine,” replied Vito quietly. “If I might enter the cell now . . .”

He was careful not to phrase the request as an order. As he had told Mr. Urman, he was not here as a Seeker.

He took a quick glance to the side. The nearby cells were evidently unpopulated at the moment; no guards stood there. Any guards who might have noticed him in conversation with Mr. Crofford and Mr. Boyd had apparently lost interest; nobody was looking his way. He turned his attention back to his own guards. Mr. Crofford waited until Mr. Boyd had pulled his whip from his belt. The final night before a trial heightened the danger that a prisoner would attempt to escape. Then Mr. Crofford unlocked the door, his own hand hovering over the dagger on his belt.

But there was no need for such precautions; the prisoner was lounging quietly on his bed, staring at the wall. Vito, who had already popped into his mouth the gum which Mr. Crofford had given him, took a few chews before turning to face the door that had just closed behind him. Hastily, he sealed the watch-hole with the chewed gum, in the manner that the healer did when he desired private time with his patient.

Then Vito turned swiftly back. Keeping his back turned on this particular prisoner, for any length of time, seemed undesirable.

Although he must have heard the cell door open and close, Edwin Orville Gurth did not bother to look in Vito’s direction. “You’re too late,” he said. “They’re going to kill me tomorrow.”

o—o—o

“I know you’re likely to die,” said Vito. “That’s why I’m here.”

He remained with his back to the door, keeping his voice quiet, as Mr. Boyd had requested. It was not wrong for Vito to be here. He had the Codifier’s permission – and, implicitly, the permission of the High Seeker. But it was best that the rest of the dungeon not know he was here. They might guess his purpose in visiting the condemned prisoner.

Gurth – Vito knew it was Gurth, from various small clues he picked up immediately these days – did not reply. His gaze remained fixed on the wall.

Vito walked slowly forward, saying, “There is a passage in the Code of Seeking – I don’t think it’s much remembered or invoked. But it says that, in any case where a prisoner’s execution is almost certain, he is permitted a visit in this dungeon from his closest kinsman.”

Gurth snorted. “So you lied to them, telling them you’re my kinsman.”

“I am your kinsman,” Vito replied softly. “I’m your love-mate.”

No response except another snort from Gurth. Vito had reached within grabbing distance of Gurth now. Pausing, he looked down at the prisoner, who resolutely ignored him. Vito asked, “Do you want me to leave?”

A long pause. Vito kept his breath shallow.

“I’m bored,” said Gurth finally. “That idiot Or isn’t talking to me. I think he’s gone permanently to ground, the snivelling little coward. You might as well stay. You’re more interesting than the wall.”

“Thank you for the compliment,” said Vito dryly, and sat down.

That got Gurth’s attention – not the sitting down, but the comment. Drawing his feet up and swinging into a sitting position facing the door, Gurth said, “Sarcasm. I didn’t know you were capable of that.”

“Not during my work hours. But I’m here tonight as your kinsman, not as a Seeker. I can say and do whatever I bloody like.”

Gurth stole a quick look at him before returning his attention to the door. “So you aren’t some sort of Vovimian god, precious and pure.”

“If I were pure, Or would never have succeeded in seducing me,” Vito pointed out. He snatched the pillow from behind Gurth’s back, tossed it onto the floor, reached over to the small bookshelf on the wall, tossed the book there onto the pillow, and turned it into a footstool for his boots. Layle Smith would have had a fit, witnessing this. It was the fifth revision of the Code that Vito was dirtying his boots on; Vito felt perfectly contented to maltreat Layle Smith’s concept of rebirth, now that a better one existed in this dungeon.

Gurth scrutinized him with narrowed eyes. “I’d heard rumors, in the lighted world, that the High Seeker was trying to keep you out of this dungeon because you were a troublemaker. I never believed the rumors.”

Vito stretched, placing his hands behind his neck. He stared at the ceiling.

“So when are you going to fuck me?”

Vito started out of his relaxed position. Gurth laughed.

“What?” said Vito weakly.

Gurth reached over. Before Vito could jerk away, Gurth snatched from Vito’s pocket the bottle that D. Urman had given Vito.

“‘Lily’s Lovemaking Lotion,’” Gurth read aloud, holding the glass bottle up and sniffing it. “Oo, it smells of lavender. Is that your favorite scent with your boys, Seeker?”

Vito resisted the impulse to snatch the bottle back. Instead, he forced himself to return to his previous position. “I like to be prepared for all possibilities. . . . I’m bloody hungry. When do we get fed?”

o—o—o

“Well, this is new,” said Gurth, and reached for a hard-boiled egg.

The second hour of the night shift, beginning on the ninth day. On the night before a probable execution, the prisoner was permitted to choose his own dinner, within the wide scope of what was offered by the cooks in the palace above the dungeon. Gurth, as it turned out, wanted picnic food.

“Never went to any picnics,” he explained as he paused from guzzling an amber bottle of ginger beer. “My dad was my master of the small school he started. The school held an annual picnic . . . but only students who received good marks were permitted to attend. No good marks for me – I insisted on speaking commoner, aye?” Gurth switched effortlessly to his native tongue, the commoner accent and dialect of western Yclau.

“As did your mother,” Vito pointed out, reaching for a piece of cheese. He was sitting with his left boot resting on his right thigh. It was the closest he could get to demonstrating informality. If he had still been a guard in the lighted world, he could have removed his jacket and vest and scarf, but Seekers wore the same clothes as prisoners – or rather, the same clothes as their fellow prisoners. Shirt, trousers, suspenders or belt, undergarments, boots. The only difference between the Seekers and the other prisoners was that Seekers were not searched for weapons.

Vito’s hidden weapon lay under the bed, where Gurth had swept it when Mr. Crofford arrived with the dinner. Apparently, getting Vito into trouble wasn’t Gurth’s plan tonight.

Gurth snorted. “You think my dad wanted to be reminded of that? I heard it a hundred times: his justification for why he fucked my mam, a whore. He was even married at the time, did you know? I always suspected his wife found out and died of heartbreak. He figured that the way for him to be showing his penance was to turn me, a whore’s bastard, into a proper gent. Only I didn’t cooperate.” He tentatively took a bite of the sandwich. “What is this?”

“Ham salad,” Vito informed him. “What about the school run by the orphanage? You had good marks there; it was in your records.”

Gurth shrugged. “I guess Or attended those picnics. He could tell you what they were like.”

The two of them were silent for a while after that, sampling the fares. Outside, faintly, came the sound of a prisoner screaming. Too close to be the rack rooms; it must be due to a beating – one of the last beatings, for the sixth revision would be issued soon. Vito inwardly thanked Elsdon’s foresight. It would not have occurred to Vito, had he been in charge of the revision of the Code of Seeking, to prevent the Seekers from beating their prisoners. The United Order of Prisons permitted disciplinary punishment, every workplace and educational institution in Yclau permitted it, and the right to discipline one’s children was enshrined in Yclau law – a large part of the reason why Elsdon’s father had succeeded in brutally abusing his son for years, and why Gurth/Or had been unable to interest anyone in his father’s own brutal beatings until he falsely accused his father of rape.

Vito had possessed time, during his multiple rereadings of the sixth revision, to be able to imagine what the Eternal Dungeon would be like without any physical punishment whatsoever. It would make the guards’ lives harder, there was no doubt; they would only be permitted to use weapons briefly to stop attacks by prisoners.

But in the long run . . . Vito looked at Gurth out of the corner of his eye, imagining a world in which Gurth’s father was not permitted to beat him, the teachers at his orphanage were not permitted to beat him, the guards at his reform school were not permitted to beat him.

How much had Edwin Orville Gurth been shaped by the beatings he received, beatings he could only stop if he was sly or violent? If he had encountered, during his arrest two years before, a prison where no beatings took place, where not even the sadistic High Seeker was permitted to order a prisoner lashed, how might that have shaken Edwin Orville Gurth’s view of what he must do to survive?

Oblivious to the chance that had slipped past him, Gurth said, “This is good. I suppose you eat posh like this, all the time?”

Vito nearly choked on his bread and butter. The last time they had met in the lighted world, Gurth had offered Vito caviar amidst the banquet of elegant foods Gurth could afford to buy from his ill-gained earnings. Apparently, “eating posh” had a different meaning for a young man who had been denied an ordinary childhood.

“Not now,” replied Vito, forcing his mind back to the present. He was falling into his old, bad habit of letting his thoughts overwhelm his awareness of his surroundings. On this night of all nights, he mustn’t let that happen. “Seekers eat the same food as prisoners do. We don’t get feasts like this. Before I became a Seeker . . . Yes, I suppose I was lucky. At my primary school, one of the pupils was a recent immigrant from the Dozen Landsteads. The headmaster wanted to show that he was tolerant of foreigners’ cultures and faiths, so he gave us holidays on every holiday that the Landsteader boy celebrated. We had dozens of holidays that year; we boys usually went on picnics.”

Gurth paused in the midst of cramming gingerbread into his bulging mouth. He mumbled round the dessert, “Landsteaders have the same faith as the Yclau do. And they celebrate fewer holidays than we do.”

“Yes,” said Vito. He waited.

Fortunately, Gurth had swallowed the gingerbread before understanding came. He whooped with laughter. “Did the headmaster ever find out?”

Vito grinned. “At the end of the year. He was ready to cane the lot of us for stringing him along. Then one of the pupils – a lad with darker skin than the rest – piped up and said that his family now followed the holy days of their Vovimian ancestors, and he’d come to school with a long list of deity days that his parents wished the school to celebrate. . . . After that speech, the pupils were laughing so hard that the headmaster realized it was easier to join into the laughter than to punish us. But our school was patriotic after that, only celebrating Yclau holidays.”

“And who was the dark-skinned pupil who held back the caning, eh?” Gurth poked Vito, the first time he’d touched Vito since the Seeker’s arrival. Vito smiled, letting his silence be the reply. He reached for another sandwich.

As a matter of fact, the picnics back then had been a lot less pleasant for Vito than Gurth probably imagined. From the time that he learned of the Eternal Dungeon’s atrocities, at age ten, Vito had known that he would be returning to this dungeon to fight the torturers. Knowing that, he had made no effort to acquire friends, either in school or in training academy or in the many prisons where he had worked, accumulating the credentials he needed to apply for work at the Eternal Dungeon. Friendly acquaintances, yes. People of whom he was fond, yes. But nobody with whom he might share the secrets of his soul.

Only now, belatedly, was he realizing that he lacked a certain skill which he needed in order to be a Seeker: the skill to befriend his fellow prison-workers, and on rare occasions like this, to befriend his prisoner.

With the exception of his relations with his fellow rebels, Elsdon and Birdesmond, Vito had no idea how to be social. He only knew how to pretend to be social, in order to break a prisoner. In that respect, Mr. Crofford had been quite wrong about him: Vito’s words to prisoners might be truthful, but his friendliness was a mask he could take on or off.

Tonight he could not wear a mask. So he was doing his best, taking his cues from Gurth – who, whatever his other faults were, had evidently learned how to make friends.

“I don’t know how to do this,” Vito heard himself confessing. “I have no skills at being convivial.”

“Aye?” Gurth seemed unsurprised by this confession. “Well, it’s like anything else in life – you gotta work at it. I ain’t that good myself, see? It’s Or who does that, in the main. See now, he had friends flocking to him at the orphanage. All he had to do was be pretty and vulnerable . . . At the orphanage, there was only two ways to survive. First, be so fragile that none could bear to hit you. Second, be so tough that you hit first.”

“You and Or must have done well at the orphanage,” Vito observed quietly.

“Oh, aye.” Gurth paused to munch on a chunk of cheese. His commoner dialect was growing more pronounced by the moment. “That’s when we learned to work our act, aye? ’Fore that, it wasn’t much use for Or to show up. My dad, he wasn’t one to take notice of pleas for mercy. Then Or got the notion of going to the patrol soldiers – he’s a bright one, he is – and after that, we worked it out together. When we needed to be fragile, he’d be fragile. And when we needed to be tough, I’d be tough. Sometimes Or would have to lure a bully into unwariness; then I’d step in. It always worked. You’d think that folk would have figured out, after a while. But nobody who’d seen Or would ever believe the bullies when they said I’d roughed them up.” Gurth smiled with evident satisfaction.

“That must have been hard for you.” Vito carefully laid aside his bottle of ginger beer.

“Hard?” Gurth stared at him. “Didn’t you hear what I said, Seeker? It was easy. Or and I had our act done up in a ribbon and bow before we’d turned twelve.”

“Oh, yes, I can see that,” Vito replied. “But your act depended on everyone loving Or and hating you. As though Or were sweet and pure, while you were evil all through. Neither of you is entirely what people think, but you took on the role of the bad boy, so you received all the hatred. It must have grated on you to watch Or receive all the praise and loving.”

Gurth actually growled. With his eyebrows drawn low, like a tiger ready to pounce, he said, “If you’re trying to make me fight Or, it won’t work, Seeker. We’re a team. We work together.”

“I don’t doubt that.” Vito leaned back, letting his gaze drift up to the ceiling. “And there are certainly aspects of Or that are lovable. It’s no wonder I fell in love with him. But do you know why I kissed him last time? Not because I was in love with him. It was because I’d fallen in love with both of you. . . . Has that ever happened to you before?”

No reply. Outside the cell, the silence was deep and dark. Vito wondered how much time had passed since their feast began. Was it the third hour of the night shift yet? How close were they to midnight? How many hours until the execution?

“All right,” said Gurth.

Vito looked over at him. Gurth’s gaze was fixed on the door. Vito said, “All right?”

“You can fuck me. Might as well. It’s going to be a long night.”

o—o—o

“Not so fast,” said Vito.

Gurth paused in the process of untying Vito’s trousers. “You want to be the one to touch me, sir?” Then he scowled. The “sir” had obviously slipped out, a reminder of past years when he had been a prostitute, rather than running a House of prostitution.

“I just don’t want to go so fast,” repeated Vito patiently. “We’re making love, not fucking.”

Gurth shrugged, though he let go of Vito’s trousers. “Same thing, ain’t it? I can’t believe you waited a week to do this. Is it because I’m a whore?”

Vito leaned forward to lick Gurth’s collarbone. Despite his words to Gurth, he was as hot and hard as an iron rod fresh-made from a manufactory; it was taking all his effort to keep from flinging Gurth back and driving himself deep into his bed-partner.

But he was keenly aware that Gurth was a whore. A young man who had been trained to please, regardless as to whether he received any pleasure in return.

Vito pressed his groin against Gurth’s as he kissed the young man. He could feel a hardness pressing back. Yes, Gurth was receiving pleasure from their lovemaking. But what sort of pleasure?

The pleasure of enticing a Seeker into his bed?

Emerging for air, Vito said, “I’d be a hypocrite if I rejected you for that reason. I’ve been visiting brothels since I came of age.”

A pause. Vito pulled back to see Gurth’s expression. The prisoner’s eyes were narrowed – not hostile, but scrutinizing. “Truth?”

“Yes, it’s true.” Vito leaned back but kept hold of Gurth’s hand, running his fingers lightly over the back of the hand. “Father recommended I do so because he judged I was hot-blooded. He said that, if I didn’t find a proper outlet for my hot-bloodedness, I’d end up married too early or, worse, I’d ruin a good girl’s prospects for marriage. He even gave me the money for my first visit. . . . He did tell me I must only visit the government-licensed brothels, the ones inspected for decent conditions.”

Gurth snorted. “Explains why you never showed up at mine. What did your dad say about you falling for me?”

“We had a few words about it,” admitted Vito. Gurth’s hand was less tense than before; Vito read that news under his own fingers.

“And?”

“I had to remind him of the date of his marriage to my mother.”

It took Gurth only a second to understand; then he hooted with laughter. “Too close to the date of your birth?”

Vito smiled. “Much too close. My father knows all about hot-bloodedness.”

They were silent for a while as they explored each other’s upper bodies. Gurth followed Vito’s lead in which parts of the body to touch, though he proved to have a most creative imagination as to the manner in which to touch. Vito’s breath kept catching in his throat.

“Hard to imagine you fucking a whore,” Gurth mumbled from partway down Vito’s chest.

“Making love,” Vito corrected, digging his fingernails into his hands in reaction to what Gurth was doing.

“They were whores.”

“Doesn’t mean I wasn’t fond of them,” Vito said. Gurth raised his head, and Vito just managed to hold back a groan. Trying to clear his mind, he added, “One young woman I spent time with wanted to leave her brothel. She was expecting. She didn’t have enough money saved to buy out her contract, though. I paid the remainder of the fee for her training and helped her to establish her new home.”

“But didn’t marry her?” Sprawled lazily across Vito, half on the bed-shelf and half off, Gurth leaned his cheek upon his fist, clearly more interested in what Vito was saying than in continuing the exquisite torture with which he had been pleasuring Vito.

“The baby wasn’t mine. I helped her track down the father. He didn’t take much convincing to marry her, once he’d seen his young son.”

Gurth’s eyes narrowed again. Too late, Vito recalled another prostitute’s son who had been claimed by his father, to disastrous effect.

But all that Gurth said, in the lightest of tones, was, “Lucky gal. Why’d you do all that for her?”

“I told you. I was fond of her. We’d spent a lot of time making love.”

Gurth’s fingers traced the path of where his lips and teeth had been. This time Vito couldn’t hold back a groan, but when he looked over at Gurth, the young man seemed preoccupied in thought.

Gurth said abruptly, “So show me what this lovemaking business is about.”

o—o—o

“Slow down,” said Vito.

Gurth cursed, not under his breath. Then he said in a rough voice, “I’m not a girl.”

Amused, Vito replied, “I never thought you were.”

Drawing in a breath, Gurth flung himself off Vito. Under the electric lamplight from the ceiling, his sweat stood out in golden beads upon his skin. “A tip,” he said. “Girls like it slow. Boys like it fast. You wouldn’t know that, only going to the respectable brothels, where they don’t offer boys.”

“True,” Vito agreed. He was feeling more relaxed than before, not only because he had spent the past quarter hour examining Gurth’s body with his tongue, but also because he was beginning to tap into his old training as a patrol soldier and guard. Patience. Patience was the key to reaching a prisoner.

“So stop acting like I’m a bloody girl-whore!” Gurth exploded.

“You’re not a girl.” Vito turned on his side, appreciating the view of Gurth’s naked, heaving chest. “Neither was my roommate at training academy.”

Gurth’s anger abruptly departed, replaced by raised eyebrows. “Ain’t that illegal? Even for gents like you? I know they must have special rules here in the dungeon, if those ballads about the High Seeker and his love-mate are true, but up in the lighted world . . . That’s the reason I had to figure out another career for myself: I was coming close on eighteen, and I’d have been the one clapped into jail, if I’d let a client bed me after I came of age. Was that only ’cause I’m a commoner?”

“The lighted world’s law against full-grown men bedding other men applies to most of the elite as well,” Vito assured him. Reaching into his trousers, he pulled out a clean handkerchief and began to dry off Gurth. “Fortunately, neither Ned nor I realized that till the final week of academy, when our law instructor covered the crimes of perversion.”

Gurth snorted forth a laugh. “You didn’t turn yourselves in?”

“There’s a limit to my idealism,” said Vito dryly. He was watching Gurth carefully for any sign that he would make use of the information he had just been given. As a Seeker-in-Training, Vito could not be charged with breaking civil law except by the Codifier, who was unlikely to be concerned by a youthful peccadillo that was entirely lawful under the Eternal Dungeon’s separate law system. But Gurth could not know that; from Gurth’s point of view, Vito had just handed him another bargaining chip for release.

He must have been watching Gurth a bit too closely, for the young man snorted again. “Your secret’s safe,” he said. “Whatever else I do, I don’t turn in fellow criminals to the coppers – not unless the criminals are holding me captive. And you ain’t here as a Seeker, you said.”

“I can’t be. I couldn’t do this as a Seeker.” He ran his hands lightly over the bulge in Gurth’s trousers.

This time, it was Gurth who groaned. “For the Queen’s love, just fuck me!”

“I know all about quick fucks,” said Vito, tracing the outline of Gurth’s shaft with his fingers. “That’s not what we’re doing tonight. We’re getting to know each other slowly.”

Gurth’s chest was heaving again. “Bloody blades. You’re killing me slowly. That’s your plan, ain’t it? Make me die of blue balls, and then I won’t have to face the hangman in the morning.”

The word “hangman” sent a bullet of pain through Vito, but he kept his voice even as he said, “How many times can you do it in one night?”

Gurth shrugged. “As many times as the client wants.”

“While enjoying yourself,” Vito clarified.

“Oh.” Gurth was silent a minute, evidently never having thought over this question. “At this slow pace? Half a dozen times, maybe. I recover quick.”

Vito’s fingers reached the knot in Gurth’s trousers. He pulled it loose. “So I’ll give you a release now. Then we can continue.”

Gurth’s gaze turned down, watching Vito uncover what lay under the trousers, which was not drawers, but bare skin. “What about you?”

Vito smiled. “I have stamina. You may have noticed that.”

o—o—o

“If you bite me down there, I’ll strangle you.”

Vito tilted his head to see Gurth, who had propped his head up with his pillows in order to watch Vito. They’d reached the point where the narrow bed-shelf – never intended for such gymnastics – was too cramped. They were having to make do with the hard floor, softened only by the blankets and pillows from Gurth’s bed-shelf.

“Why should I bite you?” asked Vito in a mildly curious voice, though he suspected that behind Gurth’s question lay a tale too dark to be recounted.

“I don’t know. I can’t figure out why you’re doing this. Clients don’t.”

“I’m not a client,” Vito pointed out, straightening up with a wince at the cramp in his back. He wondered whether it was past midnight yet. He’d lost track of time. “Didn’t you ever have a client who preferred to be on bottom?”

“Not in a brothel famed for stocking the young ’uns,” Gurth replied scornfully. “That’s not what such clients are looking for.”

Vito reached out, groped, and found what he was seeking. “Here,” he said, offering the bottle.

Gurth sat up as he took the bottle in hand. “About time. You want me to shine you up?” Already, he was squirting the lovemaking liquid onto his palm.

Vito shook his head. He stripped off the remainder of his clothing – and the remainder of his honor, as his father would have said, except that Vito had discarded this particular form of “honor” in his student days. “Shine yourself up. You’re on top.” He turned to position himself, but not before he saw the shock in Gurth’s face.

o—o—o

It must be very late. There was a certain stillness that came upon the Eternal Dungeon in the pre-dawn hours. The torturers and guards and prisoners were all tired, after many hours in which the prisoners were searched for their crimes. And unlike during the day shift, there were no interruptions from the outside world. In the old days, Elsdon had told Vito, the stokers had worked day and night to keep the furnaces burning, while the kitchen laborers had begun bringing breakfasts into the inner dungeon before dawn, so that guards could distribute the meals to the prisoners at the end of the night shift.

Modern inventions had put an end to the stokers’ night-work, while the High Seeker had put an end to the kitchen laborers’ night-work. Now breakfasts were served, not at dawn, but at the beginning of the day shift, two hours later. Food for the middle of the night shift was prepared on the previous day, so as to allow all outer-dungeon laborers the opportunity to rest eight hours. Meanwhile, the palace workers – the ones who actually lived in the palace – slept peacefully in their beds. The Eternal Dungeon was left alone during the drowsy hours before dawn.

The unfortunate result of this – Vito reflected, resting his cheek upon his forearm – was that any prisoner due for a trial were left with many quiet hours in which to contemplate the aftermath of that trial.

Vito turned his eyes toward Gurth, who was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling. Both of them were too tired by now to contemplate continuing their vigorous exercise, even though Vito thought that, toward the end, Gurth had begun to grasp the difference between fucking and making love.

Without moving his gaze from the ceiling, Gurth said, “I’m bloody scared of dying.”

“I would be too,” said Vito quietly. He did not make the mistake of touching Gurth, though he longed to pull the young man into his arms.

Gurth shrugged. “Don’t know why. I’ve been expecting this to happen ever since age eleven, when the coppers grilled me to see whether I was trying to smear my dad’s good name. Each time I found myself in trouble, over the years, I’d think, ‘This is it. This is when it all ends.’ And I’d got to find some way to trick death away. . . . When they brought me to the Eternal Dungeon last year, I thought I’d run out of tricks.”

Vito said nothing. He felt his mind return to those early days of Edwin Orville Gurth’s imprisonment – the long days of silence, while Gurth/Or desperately tried to think of a way to escape death, and Vito waited for his prisoner to speak, like a cat ready to pounce on a rat, the moment it moves.

It was an evocative image: Vito as villain, the prisoner as victim. But even as Vito thought this, an image drifted into his mind – an image that he must have been trying to avoid all this time.

A young prostitute, on the wrong side of the dividing line between girlhood and womanhood. The girl knelt to take Gurth into her mouth. Minutes later, dismissed casually by her employer, the girl hurried from Gurth’s room, fear in her eyes. Then, hidden from sight, the girl began to cry.

“Fuck!” Gurth jerked around to lie facing Vito; his face had gone red with anger. “Get inside me. Make love to me. Make me forget.”

Vito complied, not asking whether Gurth wanted to forget the future, or whether he wanted to erase the past.

o—o—o

They must have slept afterwards. The next thing Vito knew was a rap on the door.

He sat up. Beside him, Gurth had begun to stir. The rap came again. Too fatigued to recall that neither he nor Gurth wore any clothes, Vito said, “Enter.”

The door opened. Mr. Boyd entered and set down a tray without looking toward their end of the cell. Beyond him, Mr. Crofford’s body blocked the slight gap in the doorway. Mr. Crofford’s gaze, after the first second, was fixed on the far wall. “Excuse me, Mr. Gurth,” he said as though Vito were absent. “Here is your breakfast. After you break your fast, we will be taking you to the magistrate’s court.”

As the door closed behind the guards, Vito turned to look at Gurth. Gurth was looking, not at Mr. Crofford or at the ceiling, but at Vito. For a moment, they neither moved nor spoke.

Then, without need for words, they clasped each other tightly, kissing so hard that it was as though they were trying to bury themselves in each other.

o—o—o

Gurth was the one who broke the kiss first, though