"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."
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.