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On Guard 10

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

The Old School, leader: See Smith, Layle.
The New School, leader: See Taylor, Elsdon.

—Glossary to Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.


The entry hall was quiet and dark, except for the steady light of the electric lamps on the crowded tables where the guards worked, sorting documents or writing up reports. Several of the guards smiled or saluted their greetings as Seward Sobel reached the bottom step of the stairs leading down from the palace above. The three sets of guards on the stairs, who had not challenged his entrance, chatted lightly with each other.

Seward glanced in the direction of the Codifier's office, but saw no sign that it had been re-opened since Elsdon Taylor's mishap on the electric rack, ten days before. The Codifier was still on leave; so was Mr. Bergsen. Only one man was left to issue orders to the dungeon inhabitants, and he was nowhere to be seen in the entry hall. No guard stood in front of his office.

Seward made his way through the pool of darkness in the middle of the entry hall. Directly ahead of him, the last of the renovation laborers were making an attempt to remove the filing cabinet next to the Record-keeper's desk. They were being foiled by the Record-keeper.

"No, no, no!" Mr. Aaron stood frowning in front of the cabinet, his arms folded. "Don't you dare touch this!"

The laborer in charge raised his cap to scratch his head. "Sir, we have orders from the Queen to haul away anything that the dungeon inhabitants don't want. You told us when we first installed this—"

"I've just spent four months having the guards here take our documents out of boxes, remove the ribbons, add paper clips, and alphabetize the documents by drawer – am I to have them undo all that work? I will have you racked if you touch this cabinet!"

Seward did not wait to see how the laborers would react to this threat. He had reached the entrance to the corridor to the Seekers' cells; he nodded to one of the guards there, who greeted him with a smile and courteously held the door open. Seward made his way through the doorway and up the steps.

The corridor was silent and smoke-free. The furnace-doors on the left-hand wall were gone, replaced by smooth plaster. Unwavering light came from the electric lamps bracketed to the walls, each Seeker's cell lit by its own lamp.

Only one lamp was flickering and sputtering. It cast uneven sparks of light onto the guard standing there, looking uneasily over his shoulder at the shut door he guarded. His hand was resting on the coiled whip at his belt, as though he expected to have to use it. Seward, coming closer, heard muffled voices from behind the door. He could not immediately identify the voices, but the tone was clearly of anger.

Mr. Urman caught sight of Seward when he reached within whipping range of the junior guard. With a look of relief, Mr. Urman dropped his hand from his whip, but his voice was defensive as he said, "The High Seeker ordered me to stay outside."

"Oh?" Seward reached the doorway. He could identify the voices now; one of them appeared to be shouting. "It sounds as though Mr. Taylor is feeling better," he said, gesturing toward the door.

Mr. Urman's mouth twisted. "Still halfway to death, according to the healer; I heard the High Seeker say so. Not that that would stop the High Seeker from mutilating Elsdon Taylor."

From what Seward could hear, it sounded as though the mutilation was mutual. Well, at least Elsdon appeared unlikely to die. That was something.

"Speaking of halfway to death . . ." Mr. Urman's hand twitched in a nervous fashion on his belt. "Do you know whether the High Seeker has made any decision about Barrett Boyd's case? Clifford Crofford has been badgering me for information."

From the look in Mr. Urman's eyes, Seward guessed that the junior guard's concern was not merely on behalf of Mr. Crofford. Seward spent a moment readjusting the sheathed dagger at his belt, to give himself time to think. The moment he gave Mr. Urman the news, he knew, Mr. Urman would want to spread it all over the dungeon. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing, though. The High Seeker had already granted Mr. Sobel permission to make the announcement; Mr. Smith knew that the dungeon would not tolerate another hide-in-the-corner disciplinary case. Better, perhaps, that the announcement should come from Mr. Urman. The junior guard might be able to think of a way to make the news more palatable.

"He's not going to send Mr. Boyd to the hangman," Seward replied.

Mr. Urman's breath emerged in as big a puff as if the dungeon's Lungs had released it. "So the High Seeker is finally showing sense. He has decided not to enforce the Code strictly from this point forward?"

Seward hesitated. "No, the policy of strict enforcement is still in force."

"How could that be?" asked Mr. Urman crossly. "Mr. Boyd helped a prisoner to commit suicide. The Code declares the penalty for that to be death. Or wait – the High Seeker isn't simply dismissing Mr. Boyd from employment, is he? If he does, one of the city prisons could arrest Mr. Boyd under civil charges—"

"No, no." Seward passed his hand over his face. This conversation was not going well. The support he had hoped for was looking increasingly unlikely. "He's sticking to the Code. There's a passage in the Code of Seeking – I'd forgotten it until the High Seeker mentioned it – that allows any dungeon resident who has held a position in a previous army division to be sentenced under that division's system of justice. The Code says 'previous army division' because—"

"Yes, yes, I know," Mr. Urman said impatiently. "We're the Queen's soldiers, by law. And Mr. Boyd was previously in the Queen's infantry. What is the infantry's penalty for assistance in suicide?"

The junior guard's hands were already in fists. Seward, abandoning the last of his hope, said quietly, "One hundred heavy lashes."

Even in the flickering light, the change of color in Mr. Urman's face was clear. He turned nearly purple with rage. "That's murder!" he cried. "Mr. Sobel, you know it's murder! The Code only allows us to beat prisoners for sixty heavy lashes at the most – anything higher isn't permitted, because it would endanger the life of the prisoner! The healer—"

"Doesn't have the ability to overrule sentences in disciplinary cases." Seward thought again of the empty office adjoining the entry hall. The Codifier could have overruled the High Seeker's decision, but Mr. Daniels remained on leave. And the Queen, from what Seward had seen, was oblivious to the horrible difference between sixty heavy lashes and one hundred heavy lashes.

Seward said, trying to keep his voice neutral, "The infantry has been issuing this sentence for centuries."

He did not add that the infantry was considering abolishing the sentence, because it had led to so many deaths. And that was only when the sentence was carried out by an infantry soldier. . . .

"Who is to do the beating? You?" It seemed that Mr. Urman's mind moved in the same patterns as Seward's.

There was no way to avoid a straight answer. "The High Seeker will carry out the sentence. He has more experience in such matters."

"Bloody blades!" Mr. Urman's shout was so loud that it overwhelmed the sound of the shouting within the High Seeker's cell. "Of course he has more experience in this! He executed men in Vovim! Mr. Sobel, can't you see that this is just a way for him to exercise his sadism on someone other than—"

He stopped. Not because of the shushing gestures that Seward had been making, but because one of the voices within the cell had grown so loud that the words could now be distinctly heard.

"Don't try to pretend that you didn't intend this. You may not have known how far it would go, but you guessed that you would end up harmed in some way. You let yourself be racked only in order to try to make me feel pity for the prisoners who are racked. Well, your manipulation of my feelings won't work, Mr. Taylor. I am the High Seeker; I will not allow anyone to place himself between me and the proper exercise of the Code."

The entire corridor vibrated as a door within the cell slammed. Almost immediately, the door to the corridor opened. Mr. Urman jumped aside as though a bird of prey had suddenly swooped down upon him.

Layle Smith seemed not to see him. He had just covered his face with his hood; his hand was still jerking down the cloth. Mr. Sobel – who had spent too many years witnessing Layle Smith's unexpected moves to be unnerved by his sudden entrance – stood his ground, just opposite the doorway.

"Mr. Sobel." The High Seeker's voice was as deadly and controlled as a blade. "You were quite right to marry a woman of your own rank. The worst possible thing a man can do is to mate himself with someone who is his subordinate."

Mr. Urman, perhaps fearing what revelation the High Seeker's next words would bring, coughed into his fist. The High Seeker's gaze flicked his way. "Ah, Mr. Urman. I fear that I will not be retiring to my cell this morning as early as I had planned. I need to work for a few more hours. If you wish to take a short break before—"

"Sir," Seward interrupted softly, glancing in both directions to determine that the corridor was still empty. "The Queen has released us from bodyguard duty."

"Oh?" The High Seeker said; there was a note in his tone that Seward could not read.

"Yes, sir," Seward replied. "The latest news from Vovim is that matters have so much worsened between the King and his lords that the King has withdrawn all his agents from Yclau in order that they might protect him from assassins at home. The Queen and her advisers believe that you are in no further danger from a Vovimian assassin."

"Ah." The High Seeker was still for a long moment before adding, "Well, then, gentlemen, I will see you this evening, after the dusk shift. I understand from the Record-keeper that my day guards have delivered a new prisoner to the breaking cells. I trust that you will rest yourself well before the new searching begins." Without a word, he turned and began walking down the corridor, in the direction of the inner dungeon.

Mr. Urman waited until the High Seeker was out of sight before sighing. "Back to normal – or what passes as normal in this dungeon. Come on. Let's go see whether he has left any bit of Elsdon Taylor alive."

His eye still on the path that the High Seeker had taken, Seward shook his head.

"Why not?" Mr. Urman demanded. "Taylor is your friend, isn't he?"

"Yes." Seward turned his head to look at Mr. Urman. "Mr. Taylor has many friends. I'll check how he is later."

"I see," Mr. Urman said slowly. The expression on his face suggested that he had just sighted something in his path that he intensely disliked, and that he planned to grind it to death with his heel. "Well, then," he said, "I'll tell Taylor whose company you value most."

Seward said nothing. From what he knew of Elsdon Taylor, he thought it unlikely that the junior Seeker would take offense at his action. Mr. Urman, on the other hand . . .

It was like seeing the shattering of a brief truce. Perhaps, in the future, terms of peace might be offered again. But for now . . .

Mr. Urman had already turned away in order to duck past the door that the High Seeker had left open. Seward swivelled on his heel and began walking in the direction that the High Seeker had gone.

The entry hall was still crowded with guards, except at one table, whose inhabitants had abandoned it. Only one man stood there. He was staring down at the machine attached to the end of the table by a small vise. In his hand was a pencil.

He looked up as Seward approached. There was disapproval in his voice as he said, "You are off-duty, Mr. Sobel."

"Yes, sir." Seward glanced down at the small pile of mangled pencils next to the pointer. Apparently the High Seeker had been undergoing yet another failure in getting machinery to work in his presence.

"Then why are you here?" Layle Smith's voice was as sharp as an executioner's lash.

"My place is by your side, sir." Mr. Sobel took the pencil from him, stepped forward, and proceeded to sharpen it with the pointer. He was conscious of the whispers of the guards around him, accompanied by disapproving looks; he did his best to ignore them, though he felt as though he were being pelted by mud.

By the time he turned back, the High Seeker's eyes had turned thoughtful. The tone of his voice was also contemplative as he said softly, "You are likely, Mr. Sobel, to become highly unpopular in certain quarters."

"Not in the quarters that count most to me, sir." He handed the pencil to the High Seeker.

"Well, then," said the High Seeker, his eyes beginning to smile, "I would appreciate your help in my office. I need to submit a request for the purchase of a whip. You can help me fill out the form."

He felt his stomach churn, a familiar sensation by now. "Certainly, sir," he replied without hesitation; and then, as the High Seeker turned away, he took his place by Layle Smith's side, as close as a shadow.


Battle between the Old School and the New School: See Codification Crisis, 360-364.

—Glossary to Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.