Actions

Work Header

Chapter Text

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.