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Green Ruin

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The year 360, the first month. (The year 1881 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
 

During the dawn hours at the Eternal Dungeon, as the day shift yawned itself awake and the night shift yawned itself to bed, the talk turned, as it always did, to the injustices of being a guard.

"Half the crime in this queendom would be solved," declared Barrett Boyd, "if the victims of crime would stop being so credulous."

The four of them were sitting at a table in the dungeon's entry hall: two senior guards and two junior guards, only lightly divided by their ranks. From nearby came the sound of a pen scratching as Elsdon Taylor, one of the junior Seekers, prepared a report about a prisoner's beating that he had ordered. As always, his hood hid his face.

"You're right, Mr. Boyd," replied Seward Sobel, speaking with the formality that the Eternal Dungeon encouraged, even between close acquaintances. "Take this latest case of the High Seeker's. If the victims hadn't believed the patently transparent lies of the criminal . . ."

"The criminals are no wiser than their victims," grumbled D. Urman, digging his dagger into the table, which had undergone similar abuse from many guards over the decades. "The Seekers tell them lies—"

"Not lies," inserted Clifford Crofford, the youngest and most junior guard there. "It would be against the Code of Seeking for a Seeker to lie to his prisoner."

Mr. Urman shrugged without letting go of the dagger he was drawing down the grain of the table. "Misleadings, then. The prisoners always believe what the Seekers tell them, even though it's obvious that the Seekers aren't telling the full truth. I vow, I could do as good a job as the Seekers at misleading prisoners."

"I feel that way sometimes too," confessed Mr. Boyd. "When I watch how the magistrates believe any small statement that a Seeker tells them about his prisoner, even if the Seeker is trying to pressure the magistrate to hang the prisoner—"

"Or release the prisoner," interjected Mr. Crofford, always ready to defend the Seekers against unjust charges.

"The point is," Mr. Urman emphasized by pounding the point of his dagger into the table, "we could do just as good a job as the Seekers do at their work, yet we get paid half of what they do."

At this stage, when it looked as though the group would enter into a pleasant grumble about guards' pay rates, the door closest to them crashed open. Everyone jerked, and not merely from the sound of the crash. The same look was on all the guards' faces, expressing the same, unspoken question: Had they been overheard?

If the High Seeker of the Eternal Dungeon had heard their complaints against the Seekers, he chose to overlook their malefaction. "Mr. Sobel," he said, stepping forward. "Take charge of this, please. It was seized as evidence, but it will not be needed at the trial after all. You may dispose of it in any manner you wish."

Mr. Sobel, who had risen to his feet the moment he saw his Seeker, murmured an appropriate acknowledgment of the order. The High Seeker glanced around the table and caught sight of Mr. Crofford, who happened to be the High Seeker's junior night guard that month. "Ah, Mr. Crofford," he said, "I need you to pass on this note to Mr. Taylor. It contains information for an important case."

Nobody at the table bothered to ask the High Seeker why he was having a note delivered to Elsdon Taylor, rather than stepping a few yards further in order to speak to the junior Seeker himself . . . or, for that matter, waiting an hour or two until they were both off-duty and sharing the same living quarters. The High Seeker's deliberate, distant formality with Mr. Taylor, whenever they were in public, was well known.

"Yes, sir," replied Mr. Crofford, adding characteristically, "and may I do anything else for you?"

"That will be sufficient," replied the High Seeker brusquely and returned to his office. Mr. Crofford hurried off on his errand.

Everyone else stared at what the High Seeker had placed upon the table. It was a pitcher consisting of two connected glass globes, like the top and bottom of a gas lamp. The liquid in the globes eddied like a whirlpool in the ocean. The liquid was green.

"What the bloody blades is that?" Mr. Boyd forgot himself so far as to swear on duty.

"It certainly is an intriguing mystery." Mr. Sobel, who was in charge of reprimanding guards who disobeyed dungeon regulations, seemed too absorbed in the green liquid to notice Mr. Boyd's infraction.

"Ask a Seeker," Mr. Urman suggested in a sour voice. "They know everything, don't they? That's why they're paid so much more than we are."

This attempt to return the conversation to the guards' ill fortunes failed; even Mr. Urman seemed more interested in staring at the hypnotically twisting green liquid. Nearby, Mr. Crofford, who had been returning to the guards' table, paused to speak to one of the Queen's messenger boys, who was only a few years younger than the junior guard. Elsdon Taylor, refolding the message he had just received from the High Seeker, rose from his seat and hurried toward the steps leading out of the Eternal Dungeon.

Nobody paid him any mind; though Seekers' movements were restricted, all Seekers were permitted to visit a small stretch of the palace above the dungeon. That wing housed the magistrates' judging rooms, the offices of the magistrates and their secretaries, and the Queen's library.

Besides, the green liquid was too interesting.

Mr. Sobel held the glass pitcher up to the light. "The liquid certainly is green. I don't think the glass is dyed."

"Green, green . . . I've heard of a green drink before." Mr. Urman frowned.

"Where do you get your knowledge of criminal ways, Mr. Urman?" asked Mr. Boyd, grinning. "Whenever evidence passes through our hands, you always seem to know what it is."

Mr. Urman grumbled something about being just as qualified as Seekers to figure out the obvious. Mr. Sobel slowly turned the globes, which were now reflecting the images of the dungeon bats, returning at dawn to roost in the ceiling of the entry hall's cavern. "It's probably obvious," he murmured. "So obvious that we should be able to see it. . . ."

"Absent," said Mr. Urman abruptly.

"Absent what?" asked Mr. Boyd, momentarily tearing away his attention from the greenness.

"The name of the liquid. Absent. No, not absent. Bloody blades, it's on the tip of my tongue."

Nearby, Mr. Taylor returned to the dungeon, holding an armful of books.

"Language, Mr. Urman," reprimanded Mr. Sobel, placing the double globe onto the table again.

"What will you do with it, Mr. Sobel?" asked Mr. Boyd. "The High Seeker said you could dispose of it as you wished."

Mr. Sobel opened his mouth to speak, but at that moment, Elsdon Taylor appeared at their table.

"I'm sorry to interrupt you," he said, addressing them all, "but my guards are nowhere to be seen, and I have some books that need to be returned to the Queen's library. Would you mind taking care of that for me? The High Seeker wishes to speak with me."

Mr. Taylor's friendly politeness when issuing orders was one of the reasons he was the most popular Seeker in the dungeon, at least among the guards. Even Mr. Urman, who perpetually grumbled at doing any task, simply confined himself to asking, once the junior Seeker was safely ensconced in the High Seeker's office, "Where'd those books come from? He didn't have them a minute ago."

"Delivered, probably." Mr. Boyd pointed his thumb at the messenger boy, who was still chatting with Mr. Crofford. "Or misdelivered, perhaps. Those must not be the volumes that Mr. Taylor wanted from the library. Come, let's finish this. I'm due on duty in a little while."

Lying next to a couple of empty water glasses, the books were scattered on the table – two open, the third bookmarked. Mr. Urman idly glanced at one of the open pages and stiffened. "Absinthe!"

"Absinthe?" queried Mr. Boyd, pausing to glance at the spine of a book he was picking up. Its title said: Diseases of Modern Life.

"Absinthe – that's the liquor I was trying to think of," explained Mr. Urman. "It's green at first, and then it changes color when you pour sugared water into it." He leaned over and read aloud from the open book: "'The mania for absinthe drinking; the determined and daily plunge of one-half of the male population into green ruin . . .'"

"Green ruin?" said Mr. Sobel. "Let me see that."

"'This so-called Vovimian absinthe has attracted public attention for some time,'" said Mr. Urman, continuing to read from his book, "'and much credit is due to the writers of many scientific and medical essays, for indicating with so much persevering energy the abuses of this product, a horrible curse which is killing the youth of our colleges, decimating the army, and will cause the fatal debasement of the rising generation.'"

"Foreign," commented Mr. Boyd with satisfied smugness. "Everyone knows that Vovimians are perpetual drunkards."

Automatically, all three of the guards looked over their shoulders, but the door to the office of the foreign-born High Seeker remained closed.

"Its effects aren't merely negative," suggested Mr. Boyd, who had opened the book in his hand to the bookmarked page. "Listen to this: 'A quarter of a century ago, the drinkers were coachmen, footmen, ragpickers: now they are also the educated and the affluent; men of letters, artists, financiers, and even women. The fumes of the enticing liquor, they say, ascend to the weary brain and give it a renewed activity, developing a world of ideas, and inspiring noble works of literature and art.'"

"'It has the unfortunate reputation of being a poetical poison – like opium, like hashish.'" Unable to wrest Mr. Urman's book from him, Mr. Sobel had picked up the remaining book on the table. "'Absinthe has killed a legion of intellectual drunkards whom Vovim numbers among the victims of poesy.'"

"'Victims of poesy'?" Mr. Boyd raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Those supposed victims probably drank too much. Anything that's taken out of moderation—"

"'Absinthe taken in what is considered to be moderate quantities, viz. from one to two wine-glassfuls in the day, leads, in a short time, to a permanent dyspepsia,'" Mr. Urman read aloud with grim satisfaction. "'The tongue is rendered dry, the mouth parched, and the throat irritable. After a while all desire for food is destroyed, until such desire is prompted by the agent that has vitiated the natural appetite. At last no food is taken except under these conditions.'"

Mr. Boyd snorted in disbelief. Mr. Sobel said cautiously, "One needs to be careful when imbibing strong liquor. I've heard tales—"

"Oh, tales." Mr. Boyd dismissed this with one wave of the hand.

Mr. Urman, still enjoying the task of imparting the worst news, read: "'The partial insensibility caused by the absinthe is attended with the ideal existence of long intervals of time, in which the events of a whole life are arrayed and appreciated, to be succeeded by terrific hallucinations and intellectual weakness, ending in unconscious struggling as if for life. In time, if the use of the absinthe be continued, these phenomena become permanently established and the result is inevitably fatal.'"

"Fatal memories!" Turning a page, Mr. Boyd snorted again. "Does the author really expect us to believe that?"

"You never know." Mr. Urman set aside the book, as though he had read enough.

"'A Vovimian physician tells us that after the first dose of absinthe, you are carried in imagination away from earth into a lofty and boundless realm without horizon,'" Mr. Sobel murmured as he read from his book. "'You imagine yourself travelling into the infinite spirals of rebirth. . . .'"

"'Hallucinations of various kinds, of naked women' – there's one for you, Mr. Sobel," teased Mr. Boyd.

"Mr. Boyd, please." Mr. Sobel had turned scarlet.

Unable to resist this opportunity to make mock at the dungeon's senior-most guard, Mr. Urman returned to his reading. "'He now carried his excesses still further, and added absinthe to his list of excitants. Then this youth, so chaste and reserved in his intervals of sobriety, lost his modesty with a very remarkable facility, not only when under the influence of liquor, but when simply dominated by a desire to drink. For a drink he would give himself to the first comer. . . .'"

"Sounds like an aphrodisiac," observed Mr. Boyd. "That could be handy in certain situations." He nudged Mr. Sobel, the married man.

Mr. Sobel, though, had renewed his composure. "It's a dangerous drug," he stated flatly. "Listen to what is said here: 'In the case of excessive drinkers there is first the feeling of exaltation peculiar to a state of intoxication. The increasing dose necessary to produce this state quickly deranges the digestive organs, and destroys the appetite. An unappeasable thirst takes possession of the victim, with giddiness, tingling in the ears, and hallucinations of sight and hearing, followed by a constant mental oppression and anxiety, loss of brain power, and, eventually, idiocy.'"

"Excessive drinkers," Mr. Boyd emphasized, unwilling to let go of a point. "Do you mind if I borrow a glassful of this, Mr. Sobel? It would be interesting to see what the drink tastes like."

"I have a cousin who works at a chemistry laboratory," Mr. Urman volunteered. "If you let me have a small sample, he could analyze it to see whether it contains any deadly substances."

"I suppose that such information could be useful to the High Seeker." With a frown, Mr. Sobel poured out two small quantities of the liquor into the water cups that were sitting nearby.

"What's that?"

They all jumped at the sound of the voice; then they looked over at where Mr. Crofford stood, staring at the scene.

After a moment, they all picked up their share of the absinthe. "Nothing," said Mr. Boyd. "Just some evidence.

"Nothing at all," agreed Mr. Urman, hiding his glass in his palm.

"Are you finished with the task that the High Seeker assigned you?" asked Mr. Sobel. "Good. You'd better head for bed, then. We all should."

There was a round of deliberate yawns by the three guards, and then they scattered. Mr. Crofford was left staring after them, bewildered.

Then he leaned over the table and began to read.

o—o—o

Late that morning – which was the equivalent of late at night, for a guard on the night shift – Mr. Sobel sat in an armchair in his sitting room, contemplating the slowly swirling green liquid.

It was not as though he gave credence to the tales about illness and idiocy; those were obviously exaggerations by men of science who held a prejudice against liqueurs. Granted, the story about absinthe arousing memories might be true. His thoughts strayed to the manner in which Mr. Urman had jerked back from the books when that passage was read. Everyone knew that Mr. Urman refused to speak about what sort of life he had lived before he came to the Eternal Dungeon; no one knew why. Presumably, the High Seeker knew. But the High Seeker – having committed a number of exceedingly vile acts in his youth – was eccentric in his hiring practices. Despite being granted the honor of a guard position in the Eternal Dungeon, Mr. Urman's past might be very dark indeed; little wonder if he regarded absinthe more as a poison to be tested than as a possibility to explore.

". . . carried in imagination away from earth into a lofty and boundless realm without horizon. You imagine yourself travelling into the infinite spirals of rebirth. . . ." What would that be like, to journey into a world that only philosophers and similar visionaries had seen in their mind's eye?

Seward Sobel possessed many virtues, but he was prepared to admit that imagination was not his strength. Imagination was one of the things he envied about the High Seeker: the creative, spiritual mind that Layle Smith had evidently nurtured in that most creative of nations, the Kingdom of Vovim. Seward Sobel had not been raised in Vovim; here in the Queendom of Yclau, he had been trained in practical matters, in a practical fashion.

But to see the infinite spirals of rebirth . . .

Without thinking further, he leaned forward, brushed aside a doll that one of his daughters had left on the tea table, and picked up the pitcher of absinthe. He did not bother to dilute the drink with the sugared water that Mr. Urman had spoken of, so it took him a mere moment to pour himself a glass and drink the contents. Then he settled back in his armchair and waited.

Certainly, some sort of change seemed to be effecting itself. He could feel the change swirling through his body, like smoke filling crannies. He moved restlessly in the chair; then he crossed his legs. Then he moved in the armchair again.

His wife found him like that a while later. "I've finally convinced Finlay to go to sleep," she said, keeping her voice soft, not only because the children were asleep, but because she was that sort of woman – a gentlewoman in all respects, whom Seward Sobel had always treated with great gentleness. "He was crying because I wouldn't let him take his crayons to bed. I finally had to threaten him by saying I'd turn the matter over to you. I think Finlay is a bit afraid of you, Seward, because of your work, even though I've told the children, time and time again, that your work is confined to the inner dungeon. Here in the outer dungeon, you're a man of tender care— Why, what is that?" She pointed at the absinthe.

He looked up at her. He could feel the sweat on his face. "Absinthe."

"Absinthe. I've heard tales— Well, no doubt they are nonsense. Did you have some?"

He nodded. It was taking every bit of strength he possessed to hold back, but he would not violate the trust she held in him.

She looked him over; then she put her fingers against her mouth in an unsuccessful effort to hold back a giggle. "Oh, no. So the tales are true?"

"My dear . . ." he said weakly.

"Oh, Seward!" She was laughing openly now. She held out her hand to him. "You poor darling. Well, just this once. I don't think I could live with that much force every night, but to be with you when your passion is fully extended— That would be interesting. Just once."

She led him into their bedroom.

o—o—o

From Mr. Urman's small living quarters in the outer dungeon came the sound of mutters and hunting.

"—too young to be told about this sort of thing. Too innocent. After all, he lived with his grandmother till last year—" As he spoke, Mr. Urman pulled up a pile of discarded clothing that had been sitting on the floor, next to a footstool. Under the clothing was a half-full seltzer bottle, an almost empty tin of sardines, and three cockroaches. He brushed the cockroaches aside in an absent-minded manner and dropped down onto his hands and knees in order to look under the footstool.

"—not as though I really needed it," the muttering resumed. "I can manage without it, as far as the actual act goes. But if it loosens one up . . . 'Gave himself to the first comer' – do you suppose that's true? You see," he added as he threw over his shoulder a slipper that he had just fished out from under his sofa, "you see, it's the beginning that's the hardest. Going up to him. Asking him. Waiting to see if he laughs. Only he wouldn't laugh. He's too polite. He'd wait till he was alone to laugh at my offer, so how could I ever know for sure that he wants—? Ah!"

He knelt back on his heels, triumphant, holding the metal canister that he'd found under the table, beneath a bag of rags that were spilling over into a box of unsorted papers.

"Now we'll see," he muttered as he rose to his feet. "Can't do any harm to try, can it? I mean, the worst that could happen is that I'd become an idiot." His sharp laugh conveyed how little he cared about this possibility. "Of course, the others, with their sharp minds – losing their intelligence would matter to them. But as for me . . ." With a shaking hand, he took a sugar cube from the canister, placed it on a slotted spoon that was balanced on the rim of the glass of absinthe, and slowly dripped ice water onto the sugar, melting it. Then he watched, fascinated, as the green liquid turned into a cloudy mixture of green, blue, and yellow.

"That's enough," he decided aloud. "Don't want to dilute whatever drug works the wonder. Now, then." He picked up the glass, stared at it, and then, still irresolute, swallowed the glass's contents in one gulp.

An hour later, a rapping noise came at his door. "D.?" It was Clifford Crofford, speaking softly. "Are you still awake? I have insomnia. May I visit?"

"No!" He raised his head. "I'm in bed. I went to bed early."

"You? In bed early?" Mr. Crofford was understandably disconcerted by this news. "Oh. Well, I'll see you at dusk then, shall I?"

D. Urman grunted. Since this was one of his normal ways of responding to other people's remarks, Mr. Crofford gave him a cheerful "Good night" and went away. D. Urman waited until Mr. Crofford was gone before letting out his breath; then, with a shaking hand, he wiped his lips with the filthy rag he had been holding.

"Thank goodness he didn't guess," Mr. Urman muttered; then he leaned over and began to retch into the bucket again.

o—o—o

Barrett Boyd's room was located in the quietest section of the outer dungeon. His walls were covered with tokens of his years in the army – medals and written commendations that evoked fond memories of his army companions – but his shelves held unmilitary books. Poetry, always poetry – that was how he filled his evenings, when he wasn't visiting friends. He loved to read aloud the words, imagine himself writing such words.

And now, perhaps . . .

"'Victims of poesy,'" he murmured, holding the glass of absinthe.

He weighed the matter carefully in his mind. He had a good intellect, a matter he took for granted rather than appreciated fully; intelligent guards were common enough in the Eternal Dungeon as to call for little comment. Barrett Boyd was more intelligent than most, as his schoolmasters could have testified, but right now what was worrying him was not the effects of the absinthe on his mind, but on his body.

Well, what did it matter? He shrugged inwardly. It was not as though he was a married man like Mr. Sobel, who might paw his sweet wife in a bestial manner. If the absinthe worked as an aphrodisiac, Barrett Boyd need merely avoid the presence of any good-looking woman or handsome youth, until the effects of the drink wore off. And he had a hardy digestive system; he wasn't worried about being sick to his stomach. Therefore . . .

"Philosopher or poet?" he murmured as he raised the glass. "Which shall it be?"

A little while later, he lowered the glass and looked around. The room appeared slightly tilted. He narrowed his eyes. This didn't help. Now the room appeared fuzzy. He looked down at the pen and paper he had carefully placed on the table beforehand, but no words of great poetry appeared in his mind. Instead, it appeared to him that the pen was trying to crawl off the table.

"Oh, sweet blood," he whispered. "I must warn the others." He staggered toward the door.

o—o—o

As the dusk drew the bats from the rafters and sent them hunting in the night, Mr. Sobel could be found in the entry hall, standing next to the table on which the pitcher of the remaining absinthe stood. He stroked the glass gently, murmuring, "'Well, maybe more than once.'"

"What? What was that you said?"

Mr. Sobel looked up quickly and cleared his throat. "Nothing. I was just repeating something that my wife said to me recently." Then he took in Mr. Urman's rumpled appearance. "Are you well, Mr. Urman?"

Stumbling in his haste, Mr. Urman reached over the table and grabbed Mr. Sobel's shirt. "I drank it, Mr. Sobel! I drank the absinthe! And . . . and I remembered it. I remembered it all!"

Mr. Sobel opened his mouth and then let it remain open, uncertain what to say.

"It's a terrible drug, Mr. Sobel – terrible!" cried Mr. Urman. "You mustn't drink a drop!"

"He's right." Mr. Boyd, tottering forward, dropped into a chair. "Oh, sweet blood, what shall I do?"

"Mr. Boyd, your language—" began Mr. Sobel, but his fellow senior guard took no notice.

"I'm becoming an idiot," he said hoarsely. "I can feel it. The absinthe is drawing me downwards, draining my mind's vitality. What shall I tell my parents? They're teetotalers – they made me swear when I came of age that I wouldn't drink. How will they understand what drove me to this ruin?"

"Did you drink any of the absinthe, Mr. Sobel?" asked Mr. Urman urgently.

Mr. Sobel cleared his throat again. "A little. Its effects were . . . unexpected." He shifted a bit. "Not unpleasant, in my case. But Mr. Boyd, I'm concerned to hear what you say. If the absinthe has had a bad effect on you, then you must certainly see the dungeon's healer. And Mr. Urman, you also—"

There was a cough behind their backs. They turned. Mr. Crofford stood there, staring inquisitively at them.

"You all look terrible!" he reported candidly. "Mr. Urman, you look as though you're going to be sick, and Mr. Boyd, did you hurt your head? You look a bit dazed. And Mr. Sobel . . . forgive me, sir, but you look the worst of all. As though you've been doing heavy labor for several hours."

Mr. Sobel's face went scarlet as the other guards turned their attention to him. Mr. Crofford, still filled with concern, said, "Maybe you should all go to bed. Mr. Sobel, I could call your wife, if you wish."

Mr. Sobel turned a deeper shade of red. A hint of a smile appeared on Mr. Urman's face. Before he could say anything, though, Mr. Crofford turned back to him and said sympathetically, "Is it a sick stomach, Mr. Urman? And a sick head, Mr. Boyd? What caused—? Oh!" Before anyone could stop him, Mr. Crofford darted forward – he had the reflexes of a well-trained guard – and picked up the pitcher. "Is that why you're all feeling ill? Did you drink too much absinthe?"

On the point of removing the pitcher from his hand, Mr. Sobel paused. "You know what this is?"

The other two guards made interrogative noises in their throats.

Mr. Crofford smiled at the three of them. "Of course I do. My grandmother serves it at every Sunday dinner, without fail. She let me drink half a glass, well watered, from the time I was of school age. Of course, once I reached manhood, I could have as much as I wanted."

The three guards exchanged glances. Mr. Urman was the one who broke the silence. "And you've never had any ill effects from it?"

"Did it make me tipsy, you mean?" The young guard continued to smile. "Once or twice, I suppose. —Oh, Mr. Urman." Mr. Crofford burst into laughter. "I saw the most amusing sight earlier. Someone had left a pile of books here, all filled with wild tales about absinthe. The books claimed that absinthe drags you down into your memories or makes you an idiot or even serves as an aphrodisiac – can you believe that? And it was all written up in the finest scientific language, so I suppose that most uneducated readers would think these fabulous fables were true. Most uneducated folk are so credulous, don't you agree?"

He looked around expectantly at the other three guards, who were now staring at each other, horror written upon their faces.

Anything they might have said, though, was cut off abruptly by a sound coming from a nearby table. They turned in time to see a junior Seeker bury his hooded face in his arms, making a muffled noise that sounded suspiciously like a roar of laughter.

o—o—o

"You're a cruel man, High Seeker."

Layle Smith raised his eyebrows. He had changed into the black silk pajamas that Vovimian men wore in place of nightshirts, and his face-cloth was tossed back in the privacy of his bedroom, but he had not yet removed his hood; his eyebrows brushed the cloth hanging over his forehead. "I? Who is it that rushed up to the Queen's library, borrowed books, rushed back, and made sure that the books were marked and opened at appropriate places? All this, I might add, at record speed, without losing your breath."

"I wouldn't have thought to do it if I hadn't received a certain note of information." Smiling, Elsdon Taylor held up the white card; on it, in the High Seeker's careful handwriting, lay a single word: Absinthe. "That was all the incentive I needed, though. To hear those guards rambling on about how easy it is to tell the difference between truth and falsehood, and how any of them could do the job we do . . ."

"This episode will make them think twice before they come demanding pay raises again," said Layle Smith with satisfaction.

Elsdon Taylor laughed. "I should have known that you had an ulterior motive for your lesson. But where, by all that is sacred, did you get that handy pitcher of absinthe? It wasn't evidence, surely."

"It was your birthday present," Layle Smith admitted ruefully as he dimmed the lamp in the starkly decorated bedroom. "The first year that I've actually remembered your birthday . . ."

"Oh, Layle!" Elsdon Taylor laughed again as he stepped forward. He wore neither nightshirt nor pajamas nor hood; he never did, when he was alone in this room with Layle Smith. "You thought I wanted to be a philosopher? A poet? A consummate love-mate? Absinthe isn't what I need."

"Then what is it that you need?" Cued by the tone in Elsdon Taylor's voice, Layle Smith stepped forward and cradled Elsdon's wrists with his own hands, rubbing his thumbs against the soft inner skin, ever so lightly.

Elsdon smiled at him. "Nothing that I want ruined by drink," he said, and opened his mouth to Layle's kiss.