The year 333, the fourth month.
"Never!" she exclaimed, shocked, when he asked her to marry him.
It was a precipitous suit in any case; they had barely met. There was a morning reception at the palace for men and women who were receiving honors from the Queen, as well as high-class guests. Dancing was scheduled, and so she had gone. But once there, she had been abandoned by her younger brother, who had gone off to talk to some sweet young thing, leaving her surrounded by servants, guards, and her fellow elite of the queendom.
Many of whom, it turned out, were men in a mood to dance with eligible young women.
Exhausted after a dozen dances with men who wanted to explain to her why their faces and fortunes and deeds made them a suitable husband for her, she had taken refuge in a cubbyhole close to the kitchen, from which servants brought out local treats such as lemon pie and apple custard, and where the wiser of the Queen's guards stationed themselves in order to snatch up tidbits as the servants passed by. There he had found her.
He had not seemed a threat at first, even after it became apparent that he was attending as an honored guest. He had no fortune, his face was pleasant but nothing to boast about, and he said not a word about his deeds, though he might easily have done so, with the Queen's medal of honor glittering upon his chest.
Instead, after a suitable interval spent deploring the bad weather, he and she drifted into a conversation about the equally deplorable wave of crime that was troubling the Parkside District of the capital. Her brother was of the opinion that the magistrates were too squeamish to imprison criminals; her parents believed that the soldiers who arrested suspected criminals did not take the time needed to dig out their prisoners' nefarious deeds. She was curious to hear what the man with the medal had to say.
He knew little of such matters, he confessed, though he hoped to know more, and he explained why.
She was tempted then to turn her back on him and go seek out her brother and tell him exactly what she thought of him abandoning her, when he ought to have been chaperoning her against men such as this. She had been raised, to be polite, however, even in such company. So she turned the conversation back to the weather, and together they deplored the conditions that had created a failure in the crops for the third year running. Somehow – she was not quite sure how, afterwards – they ended up agreeing that starvation was the likely motive for the recent wave of burglaries in the city. They also agreed that such criminals were likely not irredeemably wedded to their criminal careers and might be transformed into better men.
Then he asked her to marry him.
"Never!" she exclaimed, shocked, and gritted herself to explain why.
But he withdrew with disconcerting quickness, pleading, in soft words, a previous engagement to dance. By the time she could think what to reply to this, he was gone.
"Never," she said firmly when he asked her again, five years later.
They had met, by chance, at the noontime opening of the new Parkside Prison, which her brother had agreed to be patron of. She had gone with him to the opening for lack of anything better to do. Since breaking off her engagement with Lord Stonyman – a young man with a fair face and fairer fortune, but very few accomplishments, she had belatedly discovered – she had been doing her best to avoid social engagements that might lead to an awkward encounter between the two of them. A prison opening seemed a most unlikely place for Lord Stonyman to visit.
As it turned out, it was an unlikely place for any of the elite to visit. She and her brother were the only members of the elite there – indeed, she turned out to be the only woman of any rank. She made polite conversation with the prison's Keeper – mid-class and happily married, so he didn't leer at her. The Keeper was careful to discuss anything with her except his actual occupation. Then she listened to a series of dull speeches that avoided all mention of the new building's actual purpose. If she had not known better, she would have thought she was attending the opening of a library or museum.
It was when she was ready to scream of complete boredom that she noticed him watching her.
He was not on the platform, among the honored guests. He was simply standing in the crowd, which was mainly composed of commoners eyeing the new building with a certain weary appreciation of the threat it posed to them. As soon as her eyes met his, he looked away, a blush covering his face.
It was the blush that decided her – that, and the boredom. As soon as a decent interval presented itself, she asked her brother to formally introduce her to the young man whom she had received the pleasure of meeting at the Queen's ball five years before.
Perhaps she had been thinking of the young man when she asked to attend the prison opening. Perhaps just a little.
She was disconcerted to learn that her brother already knew him. The two men had attended school together, it developed; her suitor might not have had any fortune, but he was gently born, and he had accordingly received the right education.
"Are you sure you want to talk to him?" her brother asked dubiously. "He is working these days in the Eternal Dungeon."
"Oh, I know all about that," she said dismissively, in order to impress her brother. "It need not affect matters. We are only meeting briefly, and I am so very bored, Harold."
Her brother grinned and said that he expected so, since this was hardly the sort of event she was accustomed to attending. He made the introduction and then, curse him, he went off to talk with the Keeper, who, as it turned out, had a beautiful, grown daughter.
She and her erstwhile suitor discussed the weather. She was quite careful to avoid mentioning any connection between the weather and crime waves. She was congratulating herself on keeping the conversation well away from dangerous topics when they were interrupted by a commoner who wished to wring her suitor's hand. The commoner was crying, she realized with discomfort.
"Never thought I'd thank you," said the commoner to her companion. "Never thought I'd do anything but slit your throat. But it made a difference, my time in the Eternal Dungeon. It made all the difference in the world, I vow by all that is sacred. I've lived a straight life since then – my wife can testify to that."
Her companion demurred, saying something about playing only a small role in such matters.
The commoner, however, shook his head. "Nay," he replied. "That's what they say out here in the lighted world, that it's the Torturers we have to look out for. But it's you guards who carry out the Torturers' orders, and how you do so makes all the difference. If you'd been harsh to me, or cruel or indifferent, then nothing my Torturer said would have swayed me. But you were always civil to me – you treated me like a man, not like a miserable criminal. And once I'd seen what it was like to be treated as a man, I thirsted for it, sir. I truly did. I began to think how I might live that way. So what the Torturer said to me, that made a mark. But only because of how you'd treated me, first-off."
This was, to say the least, a disconcerting speech. She made a private resolve to ask her brother afterwards what this was about. Surely all that took place in the Eternal Dungeon was that prisoners were tortured until they confessed to their crimes?
Her companion was apologetic, once the commoner had left. "I had not meant for you to be exposed to such dark matters," he said.
Paradoxically – for she had already regretted asking to be introduced to him – she found herself saying angrily, "I should think it would be the duty of every gentlewoman in this queendom to know of how criminals are handled in prisons, since the criminals' conduct affects the lives of everyone, elite and mid-class and commoner. That is why I am here today." Which was as bold a lie as she had ever told. She resolved to make her statement true by asking her brother a few questions about the Keeper's plans for Parkside Prison.
The conversation ended then, as her brother fetched her to take her home. She was relieved, knowing that she had passed through this trial unscathed.
And so it was not a little annoying when she received a letter soon afterwards from the guard.
He apologized for being so bold, begged her forgiveness if he was creating distress in her life by contacting her. He had been struck, he said, by the remark she made about the duties of gentlewomen. . . .
It was even more annoying to find herself writing back to him. She discussed the weather, of course. And the balls she had attended. Anything but his work.
She received another letter from him, apologetically indicating that he had nothing to say on the matter of balls. The reception she had first met him at was the only ball he had ever attended; his family had deterred him from frivolous play, encouraging him from an early age to confine his social mingling to charity events and similar, serious-minded occasions.
So blatant an insult to her took her breath away. She was tempted to throw the letter in the hearth-fire. And would have, if she hadn't found herself, that very afternoon, begging her brother to stop taking her on another tedious round of balls and instead to invite her along to the latest event on his calendar, namely the opening of a soup kitchen for the indigent in the capital. He was surprised but agreeable; their parents, though tolerant of their son's interest in charity work, had never expressed any desire to take part in it themselves. He was as yet unmarried and was glad for a companion to the opening.
Grimly triumphant, she had announced her plans in her letter back to the guard. She received a prompt reply from him, in which he showed himself to be amazingly knowledgeable about the conditions of the poor in the capital. It turned out that, since most of the prisoners of the Eternal Dungeon were commoners, the guard contributed to most of the charities in the capital that benefitted commoners.
It was not quite clear to her how this followed. Her father owned many tenements where commoners lived, yet neither he nor her mother had ever shown any interest in charity work. After discussing this matter privately, she and her brother agreed that their parents' indifference was to be deplored. She found herself concurring with her brother's plan that she be made patroness of a newly opened charity, the Red Circle, which was intended to provide free medical assistance in times of war and disaster.
She reported this news accordingly to the guard. They were in the midst of holding a quite satisfactory conversation about the name of the charity – meant to evoke the cycle of death, transformation, and rebirth – when her correspondent spoiled it all by sending her a letter in which he asked her to marry him.
"Never," she said firmly, and began to marshal in her mind the arguments she would make in subsequent letters to him.
But he never wrote back.
"Never," she said when he asked her to marry him ten years later, but she tried to soften her refusal with a smile and a touch on the arm.
It was her third refusal, and – by longstanding custom in the Queendom of Yclau – her last. Three times might a suitor ask for a young woman's hand; three times might he be refused before he must accept that the refusal was final.
She was hardly a young woman any more, and her youthful beauty was slipping away with the years. She was too busy to worry about that, however. She had become more deeply involved than she ever expected to be in the work of the Red Circle. On many a day, she visited the hospital that the Red Circle had founded, bringing small gifts to the patients there – mainly commoners who had found themselves caught up in disasters like fires and floods and avalanches. She did not go onto the battlefields, of course, but she received reports about the work that the Red Circle doctors and nurses were doing there, bringing comfort to the wounded.
It hardly seemed the moment to worry about marriage. She remained one of the most eligible women in the capital, if not because of her middle-aged face, then because she was heir to her father's fortune and her mother's title. The latter was more valuable; most of the fortune, by pre-arrangement, would go to her brother, who was now struggling to care for no less than six children, having married a young woman with no elite rank and no fortune, other than her sunny disposition and her willingness to encourage him in his charity work.
In order to earn the money needed to support his large family, her brother had moved to the Border District, which she regretted. She never saw him anymore, and though she had made a few desultory attempts to return to the balls that had occupied her adolescent years, she had found that very few men there had any interest in the lives of the commoners. The few who showed such interest were invariably married or otherwise ineligible.
So she had set aside the idea of marriage for a while, plunging herself into her charity work, for she was not only patroness of the Red Circle, but also of the many charities which her brother had been forced to abandon when he moved away.
Including, of course, Parkside Prison. Fearing that she would meet there her long-ago suitor, which would be embarrassing, she had never entered the prison itself, but she often visited the house of her brother's father-and mother-in-law: the Keeper and his wife. She spent long hours discussing whatever prison topics the Keeper considered suitable for her delicate ears, and also discussing charity topics with his wife, while growing more and more knowledgeable about the lives of commoners.
Where she finally met the guard, disconcertingly, was at the butcher's.
She never visited a butcher, in the normal way of things. She had servants to do that. But just that day she had learned from the Keeper's wife that the family of one of the imprisoned men at Parkside Prison was on the point of starvation, since the prisoner's wagers provided their only source of income – the children were too young to work, and the mother was crippled. Appalled, she had resolved to bring food to the family at once, even though it meant that she could not await her father's usual escort home from the Keeper's house.
In order to save time, she had shopped for food in the Alleyway District, where the family lived, and it was there, with her arms full of a bag of potatoes and her hands dripping with the blood of a newly wrapped slab of beef, that she met the guard.
If she was surprised to meet him there, he was positively appalled. He swiftly relieved her of her purchases and took her to a public fountain where she might wash her hands. "Don't you have servants to do this sort of work for you?" he asked as she wiped her hands on the handkerchief he offered her.
"Don't you?" she shot back, looking pointedly at the bag of beans he was struggling to hold, alongside her purchases.
He did not look abashed, however. "Yes, madam, I do. That is to say, the Eternal Dungeon hires servants who tend all the guards who live there. But I try to spare the servants from tending me. They dislike doing so, given who I work for."
She did not want to hear about that. She had come to understand, during the past ten years' worth of conversations with the Keeper of Parkside Prison, that the Eternal Dungeon's mission was more charitable than it might appear on the surface, but even so, she could not in any way imagine herself dwelling in such a place. Why, one might as well live on a bloody battlefield.
So she discussed the weather with him. And also her own charity work, in which he took a lively interest. It turned out they had many mutual acquaintances; although his time in the "lighted world," as he put it, was limited, he did accompany his employer on trips to the United Order of Prisons, which was one of the queendom's most famous organizations, formed to promote ethical practices in the prisons. The Keeper of Parkside Prison had often talked to her of the Order's work, and her brother was keenly interested in its activities, while the Red Circle was discussing whether to create ties with the Order, in an effort to bring their services to prisoners . . .
Their discussion brought them all the way to the prisoner's tenement home. The guard did not abandon her there, but stayed while she distributed food to the family and promised to have her soup kitchen send future deliveries to the bed-bound mother. One of the nurses of the Red Circle would check on the family, the mother was reassured, and as for the education of the oldest child . . .
By the time she and the guard emerged from the tenement home, the sun was beginning to approach the horizon. The guard was silent as he accompanied her back to her house; she barely noticed, caught up in her thoughts about the family. It was not enough, she realized, to intervene with the poor when they were in a crisis. She must find some way in which to build up their fortunes before that happened. Perhaps a new charity . . .
It was then that he asked her for the third time. Even if she had been willing to entertain the thought of marrying a Torturer's guard, this was certainly not the moment at which to do so. She would have to go live with him in that dreadful dungeon, abandoning her charity work. It was unthinkable.
She had planned to explain this to him. But he left before she could do so.
That was the last she would ever see of him, she knew.
"Never!" she thundered at the entrance to the Eternal Dungeon, seven years later.
She had elected to enter the dungeon, not by way of its main entrance in the palace above, but through its service entrance, thinking that this was more likely to lead her to the place she wanted to go.
But the service entrance was barred by a formidable pair of guards who refused to let her through. She ought to have worn her pearls, she decided. Her pearls and her best dress and any other indication that she was not some mid-class girl, wanting to idly giggle her way through a visit to the notorious Eternal Dungeon.
So "Never!" she thundered when the guards proposed that she leave. "Just tell him I'm here. Just tell him that."
A messenger was sent, who returned with the news that the man she wished to see was "unavailable." He presented this polite fiction with the same sort of cool smile that a butler might use when turning away an unwanted suitor.
"Then I shall wait until he is available," she replied and sat down on the bench immediately outside the dungeon.
She could not think of what else to do. She had gambled her heart's hope on his being willing to see her. And now she had learned that she had said "Never" three times too many.
It was not as though she lacked other options. The moment that her parents died in a train accident, the entire city of eligible elite men – or so it seemed to her – had descended upon her. Anyone who married her would be Marquess of Hawksbill and would receive her share of her father's fortune. The prize was too good to miss.
Her brother, thankfully, had arrived home soon afterwards. Tearfully, she had pleaded with him to stay – to take his sweet wife and eleven children and fill up their parents' large house with his family. He now had the fortune with which he could run the house, and the last thing she wanted was to spend her days alone in the house with whatever suitor she considered least worse.
Sympathetic to her troubles, he had consulted their family lawyer, who had discovered no barrier to her giving over the house to her brother. Indeed, the lawyer had gone so far as to discern a way in which she could bestow her title of Marchioness upon her brother's wife, allowing her brother to inherit his father's title as Marquess of Hawksbill. She had been tempted to give them the remainder of her fortune too, but her brother had managed to persuade her to place most of the money in a trust fund for her eventual children, leaving her with a small yearly allowance.
Children were an unlikely scenario, she knew. Once she announced the stripping of her title and property and fortune, not a single eligible elite man in the queendom would want the aging spinster. And though she had not had the energy to point this out to her brother, she no longer possessed the health to raise children, nor the money to hire full-time nurses to care for the children in her place. So marrying below her rank was not possible either: no man she had ever met would want to marry a woman who was incapable of raising his children. Marriage was now a lost cause.
She had already lost her charity work. That had been the shattering of her life that had brought her to the point of despairing tears. The same doctor who had tended her parents in their dying hours had taken one look at her and demanded to examine her. The result of the examination was bleak: the doctor had told her bluntly that, if she did not abandon her heavy schedule as patroness of two dozen charities, she would drive herself into the grave. Her brother, learning the news, had promptly offered to take over patronage of the charities. He had both the skills and the fortune to do so, and so she had no excuse not to abandon her life's work.
No excuse except that, for the first time in seventeen years, she once more found herself bored.
And so she had come to this terrible dungeon, hoping once more to meet the guard whose words had turned her life onto a better path, so long ago. What she hoped would occur at this meeting she did not know. She could no longer offer her former suitor anything of value, nor could she be of any assistance to the dungeon which he cared for so greatly.
She could still go back. She had not yet signed the papers that would release her from her title and fortune. She could leave the papers unsigned and return to her old life – to the endless rounds of balls and idle gossip and perhaps an eligible man who found her rank and money reason enough to marry her.
Instead, quite stubbornly, she was sitting on this hard bench on one of the coldest evenings in winter, like a spurned suitor who is determined not to lose his place in the queue.
The guards left her there in the darkness, choosing to ignore her. After a few hours, the messenger – an apprentice-aged youth – brought her a cup of tea. She thanked him and tipped him generously. The money surprised him, she could see; clearly it changed his perception of her status, for soon afterwards, the guards invited her to wait inside. Abandoning her dignity along with the cold bench, she did so.
This was the outer dungeon, she knew from her long-ago correspondence with the guard – the place where servants and laborers prepared food and fuel and other necessities, and where many of the commoners and guards lived. She was placed in a small waiting room for ladies, near the entrance to the dungeon, where she fell into conversation with a maid who was dusting the furniture. The maid was replaced, some time later, by a stoker who had come to fill the stove; she asked him some questions about living conditions in the Eternal Dungeon, which he readily answered. He was replaced in turn by a cook, curious to know whether this was the same lady who helped run the Red Circle, which had done such good work in caring for the cook's nephew in his time of trouble, bless her. . . .
Eventually, she realized that the stream of visitors was not accidental: word of her was leaking throughout the dungeon. She was touched that so many of the dungeon's servants and laborers had heard of her and held a good opinion of her. It made her feel less useless than she had felt since her parents died and she lost her life's work.
"That's right bad, you having to give up all that kind work," said a scullery girl to whom she made this confession. "It's not good, having idle hands. Perhaps you could marry, and grow some kiddies?" The girl gave a hopeful look.
She forced herself to laugh. "Even if I should find a man who was willing to marry someone with so great an interest in commoners' lives, I doubt I'd be able to find the energy to raise children. My doctor warned me against that."
"Oh, that's not a problem here in the dungeon," said the scullery girl. "We all look after each other's kiddies. Priscilla, that's my sister what lives with me here and helps count the stored goods, she was widowed two years ago, and she's crippled real bad with arthritis, she is, so it's hard for her to care for her two babies. But we all chip in our time, we do, and tend to whoever's kiddies need caring for. Of course," she added, suddenly shy, "it might be different for you, seeing as you're well-born."
"I hope not," she replied, feeling her spirits rise. "What you're speaking of is sort of a shared nursery, isn't it? Tell me, how does it work? Do you arrange your schedules beforehand?"
It turned out that the nursery was not as well-run as it might have been, and so she offered a few suggestions, based on what she knew of how the Red Circle handled such matters, and the scullery girl, excited, ran off and fetched her sister. Soon an entire room's worth of mothers and sisters and other interested women were standing there, or sitting on the floor, eagerly discussing ways in which their shared child-care might be better arranged. She entirely forgot the original reason she had come to the dungeon.
Until she raised her eyes and saw him standing there, at the doorway, silently listening to the conversation.
He was not the only man there. A few of the male servants and laborers – husbands, mainly, who had a special interest in how the children of the dungeon were cared for – had been mute observers of the women's meeting; she had been aware of their presence all along. But this newest visitor was different. He was wearing the grey uniform of a guard of the Eternal Dungeon. It was the first time she had seen him dressed that way, and it gave her a start.
She found a polite way to dismiss her other visitors. When she was finally alone with the guard, she said, in a more accusing manner than she liked, "I've been waiting for hours."
He was slow in replying. "The messenger was reluctant to break into my work tonight. I was in the rack room."
She was tempted then to turn on her heel and leave. But she had known, before she ever came here, what sort of work he did. And she had known that none of the other men she had met over the years, save perhaps her brother, would be willing to discuss such matters with her.
So she asked him to tell her what he did in the rack room.
He took a step back, turning pale. "Never!" he cried. "I could never discuss such things with a gentlewoman such as you."
She smiled then and offered him her hand. "You had better," she said, "for I have it in mind to be your wife, and I will never rest until we share each other's lives, Seward Sobel."