Actions

Work Header

Bonds

Chapter Text

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."