The year 343, the ninth month. (The year 1876 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
Layle Smith discovered his special talent the week he was appointed to revise the Eternal Dungeon's code of conduct.
He spent the first afternoon with a headache. This was not merely because he had been plied with drinks by fellow torturers who – taking due note of the fact that Layle was now in direct succession for the title of High Torturer – had decided to make a head start on oiling their way into his favors. Already, culinary bribes had started to pile up in his living quarters within the dungeon. Some of them were doubtless poisoned. Layle wondered whether he should test the bribes on the prisoners.
Then he groaned as the racket began again. Sitting at his desk, he covered his head with his arms. The High Torturer, with impeccable timing, had decided that this would be the week he brought in engineers to do a full refit of the Lungs, which had broken down temporarily the previous year. Fortunately, Layle had been visiting the Lungs at the time that the steam-powered bellows unexpectedly stopped. He had quickly sent warnings to all quarters of the Eternal Dungeon that the machine which circulated air throughout the underground dungeon had failed. It was thanks to him that hundreds of lives had been saved. He had received a commendation from the Queen, and no doubt his rescue had played a factor in the High Torturer's decision to assign him the supreme honor of revising the dungeon's Code of Seeking. It was an appointment that had raised many an eyebrow, given that Layle was the youngest torturer in the dungeon, only twenty-three. All eyes would be upon him to judge whether he was worthy of his new post.
But gods protect him, how could he get any work done on the revision amidst the clanking and shouts from the laborers across the corridor?
Layle pressed his hands upon his ears, his eyes watering as he tried to read the volume on his desk in the flickering light of the oil lamp. It was not as though he had an easy job before him. One hundred and twenty pages of the Code were devoted to the three dozen instruments of torture in the dungeon. He would have to decide when they should be used, for how long, and how many dead bodies could be tolerated in the quest for justice.
There were also a couple of pages at the end of the Code about determining first whether the prisoners were innocent. He thought that section could use a bit of expansion.
The hammering continued. He'd already met the chief engineer, an amiable man imported – so like so many of this queendom's engineers – from the tiny island nation that the Queendom of Yclau had colonized several centuries before, at the time when the New World rediscovered the Old World. Layle had read a book about the travails which the Yclau explorers had undergone during that time. On one occasion, for example, the explorers had visited a primitive city by the name of Londinium. In Londinium, they had decided to bring back to Yclau a native playwright to whom they'd taken a fancy.
There had been riots in the streets over that. "He's a national treasure!" had cried one native as the playwright clung to his desk, desperately trying to scribble a few more words of the play he was working on, which had the eccentric name of Hamlet.
Natives could be absurdly parochial. However, the playwright had refused to create any plays during the rest of his captive life, so after that, Yclau's explorers had abandoned the idea of enslaving natives; instead, they lured talented natives overseas to the queendom with promises of riches. As a result, Yclau – not the little island colony – was now the most technologically advanced nation in the world: the birthplace of an Industrial Revolution that had changed the queendom forever.
Layle glanced at a mechanical jill-in-the-box which the native engineer had been fiddling with when he came to visit. The engineer had left it behind when Layle expressed his admiration of its ingenuity. Layle had spent most of the afternoon since then attempting to figure out how to revise the Code in a manner that was unlikely to draw the wrong sort of attention from the High Torturer.
The High Torturer was a man of changeable tempers. The last dozen torturers he had executed had discovered that too late.
Sighing, Layle reached over and picked up the jill-in-the-box. It made an odd little clicking sound as he grasped it – no doubt he had touched a hidden button to turn it on. But the jill-in-the-box seemed no longer to operate, for some strange reason.
Layle put the mechanical toy back on his desk and rose to his feet, flipping down the face-cloth of his black hood in preparation for work. Barbaric colonial construction. He would have to hope that the engineers did a better job on the Lungs.
On his way to work, he took a detour to visit his faithful senior-most guard.
Mr. Sobel was confined to his bed in the Eternal Dungeon by order of the dungeon's healer this week, since he'd acquired a bad case of influenza. Characteristically, he was sitting propped up in bed, working on official documents.
"I really don't know how to advise you, sir," he replied when Layle had confessed his inability to know where to start with the Code. "You're right about Mr. Jenson's temper. I'd hate to see you become the target of his wrath. On the other hand, you are assigned the job of revising the Code to be more modern. Keeping the Code old-fashioned . . . Well, that would be failing your duty to this dungeon. I imagine that Mr. Jenson knows you would like to make some changes."
This was undoubtedly true, since Layle and the High Torturer had spent the past five years locked in combat with each other over Layle's tendency to bend the dungeon's rules. It was a miracle that Layle was still alive. "Perhaps I could take small steps," he suggested. "Transform the dungeon in modest ways. We have engineers here, bringing the Lungs to a newer fashion. Perhaps they could do further work in the dungeon?"
Mr. Sobel, who was a few years older than Layle but considerably more in touch with the times, considered this for a moment. Then he reflected, "The newspapers are full every week of stories about new inventions. I could have the Queen's patent office send me a list of the patent applications this year. That's work I could do in bed."
"Good," said Layle crisply. "Now I'm off to take a much-needed break of rest and relaxation."
"Sir?" With a look of confusion, Mr. Sobel cast his eyes toward one of the old-fashioned water clocks that stood in every room of the dungeon. As a result of his promotion, Layle was now assigned the role of supervisor of the day shift. The clock showed that the day shift was about to begin.
Layle gave one of his dark smiles, hidden by the hood. "You're sick. That means I get to be the one to rack the prisoner."
Usually he let Mr. Sobel turn the rack wheel. By this point, five years on, that was purely precautionary; Layle no longer worried, as he had during his early days in the Eternal Dungeon, that he would lose control of himself and end up mauling the prisoner beyond the point that was needed to elicit a confession. He was even in the habit of taking twice as long as other torturers did to determine beforehand whether the prisoner was innocent. He received a good deal of ragging from the other torturers about his laggardly ways.
"I want greater efficiency in our methods of torture." Those had been the only instructions which the High Torturer gave Layle when he handed the future fate of the Code of Seeking into Layle's hands. In his own way, Layle was concerned with efficiency too, which was why he was finding his present prisoner so tiresome.
"I really don't have time for this," said Mr. Maroon as he was strapped to the rack.
Mr. Maroon was a prosperous businessman who was accused of locking the exits of his manufactory and setting fire to the building while all his workers were inside. There had been a dispute over wages, Layle gathered.
"This won't take long," Layle assured him as he tightened a strap. The junior day guard was in the room, watching the proceedings silently, but he was not yet trained for rack duty. So, as Layle had indicated to Mr. Sobel, Layle himself would have the enjoyment of breaking Mr. Maroon.
If only he could get Mr. Maroon to shut up about his business duties.
"I have taxes to determine this week," huffed Mr. Maroon. "Do you have any idea how difficult it is to calculate the taxes on a business as large as mine? Particularly when one of my manufactories burns down in the middle of the year."
"I imagine your workers' widows are having equal difficulty calculating their taxes," replied Layle. "Mr. Sawyer, we are ready. Lock the door, please."
The junior guard obeyed. Mr. Maroon grumbled, "This had better be brief, young man. It really is an absurd waste of time, you know."
A "laggard" Layle might be in the breaking cells, where prisoners were questioned by word alone, but no one had ever accused him of being slow when breaking prisoners by torture. He gave a lingering glance at some of the instruments of torture lined upon the wall – some form of fire would have been especially appropriate in this case – and then turned his attention back to the matter at hand. The other torturers also ragged Layle for confining his torturing to the rack, which could be more easily controlled than the other instruments and was therefore less likely to result in premature deaths.
Though really, he wouldn't be terribly upset if his current prisoner decided to die on the rack.
"I will be sending you a bill for this," continued Mr. Maroon. "Itemized. I'm losing thousands of pounds as we speak."
"I'll try not to lose you a few sinews," Layle murmured. "Now, then. . . Did you order the doors locked on your workers, and did you arrange for the fire that killed them?"
"Don't be absurd. Do you know how many insurance documents must be filled out after a fire?"
"Do tell." As Layle spoke, he turned the wheel, anticipating with pleasure the prisoner's first gasp of shock.
A crack, as loud as thunder, filled the room.
"Well, get on with it, young man," complained Mr. Maroon. "I have a luncheon appointment today."
"I broke the rack's shaft?" exclaimed Layle, aghast. "But that's impossible! That bar is made of iron, and it's three inches thick!"
"Well, sir, that's all I can tell you," said the native engineer apologetically. Being closer at hand than the city blacksmith who usually repaired any malfunctioning racks, he had agreed to take a look at the rack during his noonday break from working on the Lungs. "I can have my men fix it, after we're done with the Lungs. . . By the way, sir, are you finished with that little toy I loaned you? I was planning to give it to my young daughter the day after tomorrow. It's a present for her birthday."
"I . . . I would like to examine it a bit longer," replied Layle. "Where did you say you bought it?"
"Oh, I made it myself, sir," said the engineer in an easy manner as he picked up his toolbox. "I usually create and sell mechanical toys like this for a pretty penny, but this particular toy is one-of-a-kind. Good afternoon, sir." He tipped his cap.
"I need you to find a craftsman who can duplicate this. By tomorrow."
Mr. Sobel, sitting in his bed with patent papers spread all around him, took a careful look at the jill-in-the-box. "I'll do my best, sir. Having problems with machines again?"
"Problems?" said Layle, disconcerted.
"There was the mechanical calculator that the dungeon's Record-keeper bought, which you borrowed—"
"That calculator didn't work at all."
"No, sir. Not after you borrowed it. And you decided to experiment one time with mechanized pincers, to check whether they would be a suitable method of breaking—"
"Absolutely flimsy construction," Layle complained. "They fell apart in my hands."
"Yes, sir. I'll see if I can get the toy replaced or repaired. Any objections if I hand the new toy to the engineer myself?"
Layle directed a dark gaze at his senior-most guard. "Mr. Sobel, you are supposed to show faith in me."
Mr. Sobel gave a slight smile. "I have great faith in you, sir. How is your revision of the Code proceeding?"
"It isn't." He left the guard's room with a slam of the door.
"And how is your revision of the Code proceeding?" asked the High Torturer that afternoon when he met Layle in the dungeon's entry hall.
Layle wished that Mr. Jenson would phrase his queries in a manner that had less of a hint of the question, "Are you ready for the hangman?"
"Quite well, High Torturer," Layle replied. "Oh, sir, are you getting married?"
As he had hoped, this quip distracted Mr. Jenson's attention from the topic at hand. "It's my gift to the Codifier, on the twentieth anniversary of his marriage." The High Torturer looked down at the object he held in his hand. "His marriage watch is growing old. I bought this to replace it."
"That must have taken you quite a lot of money, sir." Layle stared lovingly at the pocket-watch as Mr. Jenson held it open for his inspection. It was a beautiful, delicate instrument, showing not only the time of day, but also the cycle of sun throughout the year – a gift truly worthy of the Codifier, the highest official in the Eternal Dungeon.
"A good deal of money," Mr. Jenson acknowledged. "I had to save for three years to buy it."
"May I see it?" asked Layle, always eager to inspect works of art, whether they be timepieces or instruments of torture. Without waiting for a response, he took the watch in hand.
There was a sound of a sproing! A spring exploded through the face of the watch as the watch-hands flew in all directions.
"Five years," said Layle. "Five years! That's how long the High Torturer has stopped my monthly allowance for luxuries. And when I went to see the Codifier to explain and apologize, I nervously picked up his current pocket-watch from the desk, and its casing cracked. It's as though the gods are out to get me."
He was pacing back and forth in Mr. Sobel's room. The guard reached out to prevent the patent papers from falling off the bed.
"Well, sir," said Mr. Sobel sympathetically, "perhaps the gods are trying to tell you something."
Layle stopped pacing abruptly. Mr. Sobel's speech was purely metaphorical; the guard did not believe in the existence of the gods.
But Layle did, and suddenly he could feel the baleful breath of the gods at the back of his neck.
"Sir?" said Mr. Sobel uncertainly.
"I need to go," said Layle.
"Go?" The guard gaped at him.
"To my room. To write. Send word that I am not to be disturbed for the next month, Mr. Sobel."
When the first draft of the revised Code of Seeking was circulated, the reaction of the dungeon was predictable.
"Fifteen notices of lawsuit." Mr. Sobel, now risen from his sick-bed, stood in Layle's living quarters, sorting through Layle's morning correspondence. "Twenty-two death-threats. . . . Oh, this is interesting. Mr. Bennett has invited you to attend his breaking session today. He wants you to try out the new strappado he ordered."
"I've done strappadoes in the past." Layle paced back and forth.
"Not while you were hanging from them, I imagine. Sir, how do you plan to respond to all this criticism?"
Layle had no chance to reply, for at that moment, Mr. Jenson burst through the doorway.
Mr. Sobel discreetly stepped back into a shadow in the corner of the room. Mr. Jenson took no notice of him. Slamming the door shut, he levelled an accusatory finger at his twenty-three-year-old assistant. "You aren't going to let me torture any more!"
Layle cleared his throat before replying. "Sir, you can order your guards to—"
"I won't be able to use leg-screws! Or to flay a prisoner! Sweet blood, man, you've abolished the use of virtually all the instruments of torture! How the bloody blades do you expect us torturers to do our job if we can't torment the prisoners?"
Layle, who had spent the previous night trying to remember exactly how many strands of hemp existed in a hangman's rope, so that he could count them when his time came, said in the mildest voice he could manage, "Well, sir, you did request that I be efficient."
The High Torturer, who appeared as though he were on the point of drawing a dagger and plunging it into Layle's heart, said in a dangerously soft voice, "Efficient."
"Yes, sir. What could be more efficient than determining whether a prisoner has committed a crime before we waste time torturing him? You'll notice that I've devoted one hundred and twenty pages to discussing that preliminary procedure. But of course, if you believe that this dungeon's current torturers aren't skilled enough to determine innocence or to break guilty prisoners by word alone . . ."
He waited, stiff with anticipation, as the High Torturer gave him a look which suggested that three dozen instruments of torture would not be sufficient in Layle's own breaking.
Then Mr. Jenson emitted a dry chuckle. "Lad, the day I hired you is the day that I sealed my own doom. How did you conceive of such an absurdly radical notion?"
"Oh, it simply occurred to me, sir." He did not glance in the direction of his desk, which held the broken jill-in-the-box.
"'It simply occurred to me,'" mocked Mr. Jenson. "So, no doubt, said the man who recently invented an incandescent lamp. Well, I will leave you to explain your actions to the other members of this dungeon." He waved his hand toward the pile of protests on Layle's desk. "In the most efficient manner, of course."
After he had left, the room was silent a moment before Mr. Sobel said, "These new regulations mean that you will never touch an instrument of torture again."
"Yes." He felt the words like a pang in the heart.
"Not even a rack?"
He turned then, a smile touching his face. "Not even a rack. The Eternal Dungeon would be grateful to me, if they knew my full reasons for that particular regulation." And the gods, he hoped, would be pleased with him for going beyond the modest, fear-driven steps he had planned to take in revising the Code. "What was that paper you brought with you, Mr. Sobel?"
The guard hesitated. "This may not be the best time—"
"Mr. Sobel." He let his voice deepen. This was not a morning on which he wished to play games.
"Sorry, sir," replied Mr. Sobel quickly. "It's . . . well, it's the patent for that invention which Mr. Jenson mentioned. A design for an electric light—"
"No!" he shouted at the ceiling. "No electric lights in this dungeon! Under no circumstances!"
"Yes, sir." Mr. Sobel smiled with understanding. "We really couldn't afford the number of laborers it would take to replace all those broken lights. This dungeon has survived with old-fashioned methods of living for several centuries. No doubt we can survive a bit longer. . . . May I just make one suggestion, sir?"
"If you must." He was staring at the pile of papers. They would have to be answered. At least it would be amusing to answer the death threats.
Mr. Sobel said in the gentlest of voices, "I would suggest, sir, that from now on, it would be best for you to stay away from the Lungs."
He left the room while Layle was still gaping at him.