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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.