The year 363, the tenth month. (The year 1882 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
Layle Smith, the first High Seeker of the Eternal Dungeon, is the most ambiguous figure, not only in the history of our queendom's royal dungeon, but quite possibly in the entire history of the Queendom of Yclau.
If one consults history books, this ambiguity smacks one in the face. Some of the history books paint Layle Smith as a hero who fled from an abusive foreign dungeon and rewrote his new dungeon's Code of Seeking in a revolutionary manner, to emphasize the uplifting reform of prisoners. Other history books rail against Layle Smith as a reactionary torturer who lusted after the flesh of his prisoners.
Any complete portrait of the head torturer of the Eternal Dungeon cannot ignore half the facts about Layle Smith, as most history books do. For the truth about the first High Seeker is both more terrible and more wondrous than the dark-or-bright images of him that appear in simplistic histories. He was an abusive torturer who undertook great sacrifices for his prisoners; he was a reformer who actively strove to prevent a new generation of reforms; he was a man who, by the time of the Crisis of 364, had established himself as someone who would do the unexpected, always.
To catch a glimpse of this incredible, multifaceted man, we need only consult the memoir of Vito de Vere . . .
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
Vito had never thought, when he became a Seeker-in-Training, that his predominant activity would turn out to be arguing with a clerk over how to fill out documents.
"Our archive requires three copies," said the Record-keeper firmly. He was a middle-aged man, already balding, with spectacles that he peered through like one of the blind bats which hung from the stalactites of the Eternal Dungeon's entry hall. "Not two copies. Not – by all that is sacred – a single, scribbled, ink-blotted copy."
Vito resisted the automatic impulse to say, "Yes, sir." Not since his schoolboy days had he received a reprimand for his handwriting.
He reminded himself that, as a Seeker, he outranked this menial servant of the dungeon. "That will do," he said in what he hoped was a mature, level tone. "This is the manner in which I am accustomed to making out reports, and it is not your place to—"
"Oh, dear." The Record-keeper, sitting behind his enormous desk in the entry hall, pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. "Have I hurt your sensitive feelings? Shall I instead discuss this with" – he consulted a paper on his desk – "your trainer, Mr. Horowitz? Or perhaps with the High Seeker?"
Vito refused to let his voice waver. "Mr. Aaron," he said, leaning forward and placing his fists on the desk, "you seem to have forgotten that I am a Seeker—"
"—who is still in training and is therefore capable of being dismissed summarily."
Vito could not prevent himself from jumping in his place. He cursed inwardly. He had been trained, during his years as a prison guard, to hear a prisoner sneak up on him in order to attack. Yet after nearly six months in the Eternal Dungeon, he still could never hear when the man behind him crept up on him.
Vito turned. The High Seeker, in his usual manner of intimidation, was standing much closer than was customary between men in the Yclau nation – a tactic that Vito had noticed Layle Smith successfully used to force other men to step back. With effort, Vito held his ground, meeting the High Seeker's eyes. They were hard to see in the dim electric lights of the entry hall, especially since such lights tended to flicker whenever Layle Smith came near them. The High Seeker's eyes were the color of the slimy algae on the cave-rock walls of the entry hall, and the rest of him was black: boots, trousers, belt, shirt, and a hood hiding his face. He looked like a specter from the hell imagined by inhabitants of the neighboring kingdom, Vovim.
Vito, who knew that Layle Smith had designed the latest version of the Seekers' uniform, wondered whether he himself looked as bleakly forceful and frightening. He was wearing the same uniform, save for a red strip of cloth at the bottom hem of his hood. The strip marked him as a Seeker-in-Training.
"Incidentally," added the High Seeker in a silkily smooth voice, "our Record-keeper is among the men I consult when offering my recommendation to the Codifier as to whether Seekers-in-Training should be allowed to become full Seekers. May I borrow Mr. de Vere from you, Mr. Aaron?" He looked past Vito.
The Record-keeper, who was already absorbed again in his documentwork, waved a hand without looking up. The High Seeker waited, saying nothing to Vito.
The walk to the High Seeker's office was not long. The door to the room lay a little further down the back wall of the entry hall. There was only one feature upon that wall. Much of the dungeon had been updated with modern technology a few years back – very much against the High Seeker's wishes, Vito had been given to understand – but the largest object in the entry hall remained an old-fashioned chalkboard, on which were written the names of every prisoner in the dungeon.
Including the ones recently hanged. Their names were crossed out.
Mr. Smith waited until Vito was inside his office before entering, shutting the door, and making his way to his desk. He did not offer Vito a seat. Vito crossed his arms over his chest. This was less in recognition of the inevitably antagonistic encounters between himself and the High Seeker, than because Layle Smith's office was the chilliest room in the dungeon. Somehow, that seemed appropriate.
The High Seeker picked up a letter-opener from his desk and began to play with it. Vito would have thought this an attempt at intimidation, except he was aware by now that Mr. Smith was quite unconscious of how he played with anything resembling a weapon. Now, as he carefully, lovingly stroked the blunt blade, the High Seeker said, "You have reached, as you know, the next-to-last test of your training."
Vito nodded. The last test of all would be a whipping and a racking, conducted upon himself. It was an exercise required of all Seekers-in-Training, so that they should know intimately the instruments of torture that they would use upon their prisoners. Vito was less afraid of that test than he was exasperated by it. It was a useless test, at least in his case.
"I have here," Mr. Smith said, pointing with the blade without looking down, "a report from Mr. Horowitz. He states that you have shown great skill during your training, assisting him ably with his prisoners and demonstrating an especially strong talent for eliciting confessions from prisoners by word alone. His only concern is that you seem rather quiet and withdrawn in your private discussions with him. In his experience, men who seek to work in a dungeon of torture are not quiet, withdrawn men. He suspects that you are being less than candid with him."
Vito raised his eyebrows but said nothing. From the time of his arrival at the Eternal Dungeon, he had carefully cultivated the image of a man of few words. Since he was in fact more inclined by nature to listen than to talk, the deception wasn't hard to carry off. The High Seeker – another man who was deceptively quiet with prisoners he intended to break – said with fine irony, "You may find that characteristic to be helpful in your work. In any case, your lack of candidness does not matter." His voice was flat.
For the first time in this interview, Vito felt his stomach sicken. That always happened at some point in his talks with the High Seeker. Layle Smith always found a way to tell him, "I know what you're thinking, and I know what you're planning, and so it's no good for you to hide anything from me."
Perhaps Mr. Smith did know, on a certain level. But the High Seeker surely could not know in full what Vito was thinking and planning. If he'd known, he'd have ordered Vito strapped to a rack.
So Vito simply remained silent until the High Seeker let the letter-opener fall onto his desk. "Your next-to-last assignment," he said, as though the threat had not been thrown, "is to search a prisoner, without assistance from another Seeker. Your assigned guards will of course be on hand to offer you guidance should you request it. That is a service they offer, not only to Seekers-in-Training, but also to junior Seekers. Do not allow your pride to overcome your good sense. Your guards have many more years of experience in this dungeon than you do, and they are a valuable source of information on how to break a prisoner."
"Yes, sir." This was a statement he could safely agree with.
Layle Smith reached for a blue-bound book, unmistakably a prisoner's records. "Unfortunately, due to a lack of other Seekers to undertake this searching, I am forced to assign you an important prisoner. I had hoped to search this prisoner myself, but the Queen wishes to consult me this month concerning my knowledge of Vovim, in relation to that nation's continued civil war and any threat it might pose to our queendom's border. Therefore, I will only be able to make occasional visits to the dungeon, and I must leave you in charge of a prisoner whose handling is most vital. Mr. Horowitz assures me you are up to the challenge. I have my doubts, but I may be wrong, and in any case, no other Seekers are free to take this case. Here are the prisoner's records; I advise you to read them most carefully."
Vito took the loosely bound book without looking down at it. "Which cell am I assigned, sir?"
"Breaking Cell 13," the High Seeker replied, relaxing back in his seat, which was always an ominous sign. "Given what we know of this prisoner, it seems likely that he will at some point violate the dungeon rules of conduct. I trust that you will be able to keep the matter to the level of the whip, but in case it should become necessary, I have instructed Mr. Aaron to keep Room B reserved for your use. —That is the rack room," he added offhandedly, "which is closest to the crematorium."
Vito's hands gripped the record book painfully. The High Seeker could not have said more plainly, "I believe that your prisoner is guilty, and therefore, if you do your job properly, his ashes will end up in this dungeon's resting place for executed prisoners."
"Rack Room B. Yes, sir," Vito replied, as though memorizing this important information. "Do I start now?"
"After the dawn shift will be sufficient; you have time for your breakfast." And with that, the High Seeker leaned forward and began reading a document on his desk.
Vito waited a minute before withdrawing. Layle Smith – who must assuredly have received lessons on manners from his courteous love-mate – was normally polite, in a superficial manner. Only when dismissing Vito did his politeness drop, like a mask being abandoned. He never bothered to say anything along the lines of, "You may go now, Mr. de Vere." He simply ignored Vito, until such time as it became apparent to his subordinate that the interview was over.
Vito experienced the same flash of anger he had felt the first time that the High Seeker played this trick on him. Then he forced his mind away from that trivial matter. One prisoner. All he had to do was question one prisoner, and after that, he himself would undergo a period of excruciating but brief physical pain; then he was certain to be made a full Seeker, who could not be dismissed except by the combined judgment of the High Seeker, the dungeon's Codifier, and the Queen. Except for medical reasons, no dismissal had been inflicted upon any full Seeker for three generations. Essentially, once Vito became a Seeker, his job was guaranteed.
As a Seeker-in-Training, he was – as Layle Smith had so carefully reminded him – still capable of being dismissed summarily. But it was unlikely now that this would happen. Only if Vito grossly mishandled his prisoner would the High Seeker have an excuse to dismiss him. Even the High Seeker had implicitly admitted just now that Vito was too skilled a prison-worker to be easily disposed of.
He must not grow careless, he reminded himself as he wove his path across the entry hall, which was crowded with black-uniformed Seekers and grey-uniformed guards. Most of the Seekers and guards there had just finished the night shift and were making their way to their homes inside or outside the dungeon – always inside, in the case of the Seekers, who had all taken a vow to remain forever confined within the walls of the Eternal Dungeon. Vito wasn't afraid of that vow, but he should take care to remain duly diligent with his prisoner.
By the rules of the Eternal Dungeon – rules promulgated by the High Seeker, ironically – no Seeker could be faulted for failing to draw a confession from a prisoner. It was true that forcing a prisoner to confess, as well as persuading him to express his regret for his crime, was a skill highly valued in Seekers, who were considered the elite men in their craft in the Queendom of Yclau. But even Seekers could not break all prisoners; rather, Vito would be judged by how well he adhered to the dungeon rules for searching prisoners.
Vito hesitated, on the point of turning his steps toward the breaking cells. Pudge would still be awake, probably eating dinner in his room, for he was approaching his sleeping time during the day shift. Perhaps Vito should visit Pudge and lay before him his concerns about this searching. Pudge was Vito's oldest friend; he would understand Vito's quandary.
Though really, Vito reflected with a smile on his lips, he ought to rid himself of this habit of applying the childhood nickname of "Pudge" to one of the most skilled torturers in the Eternal Dungeon.
"It's amazing!" Pudge had cried six months before, pushing the face-cloth of his hood further back from his eyes. "I can't believe that you're here!"
Pudge – otherwise known as Elsdon Auburn Taylor, junior Seeker – was standing in a small, neat parlor that he evidently shared with his love-mate. Crammed into that tiny space were two armchairs, an end table, a bench, a desk, a wooden chair with casters, an enormous bookcase, a work counter, and a kitchen with storage bins, stove, and even a miniature ice-box. Apparently, whatever other deprivations the Seekers might undergo, they were kept well housed.
"After all these years," continued Pudge – or rather, Elsdon. "Twenty years. How you've grown!"
Vito, who had been trying to pull his gaze away from a drawing on the wall of Elsdon sprawled naked on the ground – Vito had as much eye as any man for a handsome youth, but he did not want to be thinking about his oldest friend in that way – abruptly turned his gaze back to Elsdon. "But Pudge – Elsdon, I mean – we met only eight years ago." Then, faced with Elsdon's blank expression, he added gently, "In the magistrate's judging room, in the fourth month of the year 355. You had just turned eighteen. I inserted myself between you and your father. Don't you remember?"
Something passed over Elsdon's eyes then – something dark and swooping, like a shadow of a bird of prey. The junior Seeker closed his eyes and rested his fingers lightly on his eyelids, his head bowed. "No, I – I remember thinking that the guard who was coming toward me looked familiar. Vito, that was a bad day for me."
Vito imagined so. He could recall his own frustration that day, eight years before, because he was barred from offering testimony on Elsdon's behalf, due to his position as a guard in the prison in which Elsdon had originally been held. Vito had not even had the opportunity to speak to Elsdon before the young man's trial began; he had not been able to ask his old friend whether there was anything he could do to help Elsdon fight this patently false charge of murder.
And then, as the trial proceeded, came Vito's growing, horrible realization that the charge was true – that years of secret abuse by his father had caused Elsdon to go momentarily mad and kill his innocent young sister.
How had Elsdon's father managed to torment his son for so many years, with nobody knowing except Elsdon and his sister? The answer to that was plain: friends of the family, such as Vito when he was younger, had considered it impolitic to enquire as to the cause of Elsdon's evident unhappiness with his home life.
"Elsdon, I'm sorry I wasn't able to do more. I mean, when we were in school together—"
Raising his head, Elsdon brushed the apology aside with a forceful gesture. "That's all past, Vito. I was even able to reconcile matters with my father before his death. But you . . ." He gave Vito a look up and down which made Vito wonder whether Elsdon too was contemplating the poor taste of lusting after one's friend. "I can scarcely believe that I recognized you. How old were you when you left our school? Eleven?"
"Ten," he corrected. "That's when my family moved away from the capital. I'd just moved back to the capital's Parkside district around the time you were arrested – I hadn't had a chance yet to meet with my old friends. Then you were sentenced to further questioning in the Eternal Dungeon, at the High Seeker's demand . . ."
It was increasingly hard for Vito to connect this bold, confident young man with the shy, bullied boy that Pudge had been when he was young. But now at last an expression came onto Elsdon's face that Vito remembered: sympathy. A desire to comfort a friend.
"It must have been hard for you," Elsdon said gently. "You couldn't have known that this was the High Seeker's way of preventing me from being hanged for my crime. Even if I hadn't been offered a job as Seeker, I wouldn't have been kept in a breaking cell, Vito. I would have been given some sort of work to do in the outer dungeon. And my quarters here in the inner dungeon" – he gestured – "are quite luxurious, considering that I'm a convicted murderer."
Vito took another look at the room, a harder look. In the past – he could tell from an indentation in the rug – the two armchairs had sat side by side, turned slightly so that the sitters could hold intimate conversation.
But at some point, the position of the armchairs had changed. Now they faced each other at a distance, with the bench between them, like a holding prison's table between a prisoner and his guard on a day of searching.
And the desk . . . The writing implements on the single desk were arranged so neatly that it was as though a line was drawn down the middle. On the left side of the desk lay paper, a pencil, a pen, and an old-fashioned inkwell. On the right side lay paper and one of the brand-new automatic typewriters.
Vito could read the signs easily. A civil war was taking place in this residence. The only question was how far the war had proceeded.
"That was kind of the High Seeker," he murmured.
Elsdon smiled. "You've heard, then? I imagine that was a shock for you as well. Did you know before you arrived here what you would find?"
He shook his head, turning his attention back to Elsdon. The four-year gap in their age, so important when they were young boys, seemed to have disappeared; now Elsdon, at age twenty-six, was filled with as much energy and vigor and maturity as Vito. "Not in any direct way," Vito replied. "After your sentencing, I tried to find out what had happened to you. It was difficult—" He swallowed hard on that memory. Month after month, making every effort he could to discover Elsdon's fate. Going to bed every night, not knowing whether his friend was dead . . . or was being kept alive by the High Seeker, tormented by whip and rack.
He turned away abruptly. The wall-long bookcase had only a few volumes in it, which appeared to be a mixture of the roommates' tastes: books on techniques of torture sat alongside volumes on art and theater and other civilized pursuits. The books had a musty smell that Vito associated with cellars. He ran his hand over one of the volumes, but evidently the air circulation system, humming faintly in the background, functioned well enough to prevent the books from growing moldy.
It was hard to remember, standing within this room like any room in the lighted world above the dungeon, that the entire Eternal Dungeon was housed in a set of caves. The inner dungeon, Birdie had explained to Vito, was where the prisoners were broken and the Seekers were housed; it was placed in the largest cavern of all. The portion of the dungeon where the laborers worked, called the outer dungeon, was made up of a warren of small caves on different levels, so that moving around the outer dungeon was akin to climbing up and down mountain peaks. Yet all of the dungeon, save the entry hall and crematorium and Codifier's office, was housed within walls, so that the prisoners, and those who cared for them, might be kept in relative comfort.
Or so said Birdie, who had the greatest gift Vito had ever known for being ironic with a straight face. "Relative" comfort indeed.
Behind him, Elsdon said softly, "So you didn't know I was safe?"
He shook his head. "Not for two years. It had reached the point where I was determined to break into the Eternal Dungeon again."
He heard a soft chuckle from Elsdon. "Oh, by all that is sacred. I had entirely forgotten about that episode."
"Had you?" Startled, Vito turned back to face Elsdon.
Elsdon gave a slight smile. "Well, I was very young, Vito, and I didn't get to see the Eternal Dungeon myself – you kept me outside, on the palace grounds, playing guard while you performed your boyhood prank of breaking into the dungeon. It was so long ago. . . . I have to confess that even my memories of our friendship then are faint. Mostly what I remember about you was your kindness to me, and how you used to defend me against the bullies. I never forgot that."
Touched, Vito said, "Yes. Well. The only thing that prevented me from breaking into the dungeon a second time – and no doubt getting arrested again – was that I received a letter from Birdie around this time. We'd kept in touch about your case, and about our general concerns over what was taking place in this dungeon. She told me that, by whatever devious means possible, she would find a way to get into the dungeon. She urged me to let her take the risk, since, as a woman, she couldn't be tortured if she was captured."
"Birdie?" Now Elsdon was frowning. "Do you mean Birdesmond Chapman, who used to be Birdesmond Manx? You knew her in the lighted world? She— Well, I suppose, since you're here for an interview, I can tell you. She became a Seeker, the dungeon's first female Seeker. Perhaps this is a different woman than you're talking about."
So Birdie hadn't told Elsdon her full purpose for becoming a Seeker. That was hardly surprising; what was surprising was the friendship that had bloomed between Elsdon and Birdie, which Birdie had lightly alluded to in her letters from the dungeon. Vito, who well knew what barriers Birdie had undergone in her attempts to care for prisoners at the holding prison where Vito had worked for two years, had not imagined that she would face anything but hostility in her new workplace. But Elsdon, Vito now recalled, had always been tender and loving toward his sister, before the murder. Perhaps Birdie had become a substitute sister for him.
"No, it's the same woman," he replied briefly. "She and I met when I broke into the Eternal Dungeon when I was ten and she was sixteen. She was visiting the outer dungeon that week with her father, and she helped me sneak into the inner dungeon. . . ."
Where they had seen and heard horrors that shocked both of them beyond measure. But even after all these years, his witness of what he had seen was sealed by the oath he had taken that day to Layle Smith's predecessor, as a condition to his release from the dungeon. Besides, Elsdon no doubt had seen and heard such horrors himself by now.
Perhaps he had committed them.
For a man whose hands were doubtless soaked in the blood of many a prisoner's torment, Elsdon offered a most unassuming appearance. Now his face held a look of astonishment. "She was there that day? She never told me. How extraordinary! That the three of us should all have been in or near the Eternal Dungeon on the same day of our childhoods . . . And that two of us should become Seekers . . . And now you say that you've applied to be a Seeker . . ."
"It's not that odd, if you think about it," he responded, tiptoeing into the dangerous realm. Vito had anticipated this part of the conversation from the moment, earlier in that day, when he had realized that Elsdon was not only alive and well – as Birdie had told him in her letters – but had actually become a Seeker. It was a turn of events that had taken his breath away. Now he said, with due caution, "Birdie and I both wanted to become Seekers because we were . . . concerned by what we saw here, and we concluded that the only way in which we could affect events here was by taking positions that would allow us to help shape the policies of this dungeon. And you . . ." He let the sentence hang.
"Yes," said Elsdon slowly, his brow furrowed as he stared down at his hands, which had tightened together. "Yes, I haven't thought of your prank for years, but . . . You wouldn't tell me afterwards what you had seen in the dungeon, which scared me. I suppose that's how I received the idea that the Eternal Dungeon was a place of horrors, and that prisoners here were all doomed to terrible deaths. That was why I was so terrified when I first arrived here as a prisoner. And when I found out the truth—" Suddenly Elsdon's smile was back. "You've seen, haven't you? Even though you've only been here a short time, you must have seen that it's not the way you thought as a child. Just one interview with the High Seeker must have shown you that."
It was tempting – oh, so tempting – to give an honest answer to that question. It was also tempting to leave immediately, slamming the door on this young man who had clearly forgotten what it was like to be helpless in the hands of bullies.
But Vito had reason for receiving the privilege of being interviewed for the most elite post of prison-worker in the Queendom of Yclau. As he looked into Elsdon's eyes, he saw, behind the mask of happiness, something deeper – something reflected also in Elsdon's hands, which were still clenched. The junior Seeker was genuinely awaiting Vito's response, as though Vito might provide the answer Elsdon needed.
Now, six months later, Vito turned away from the door leading to the Seekers' residences. Elsdon, he knew now – even more clearly than he had sensed that first day – was a man in agony. He was split between his duty toward his love-mate, the High Seeker, and his duty toward the prisoners he wished to care decently for.
The day would come – and would come soon, if Vito was any judge of such matters – when Elsdon would be forced to choose between those two duties. Vito had no doubt that Elsdon would make the right choice; the young man's conscience remained as strong as it had been when he was a boy.
But when that day came, Vito wanted to be the friend to whom Elsdon could turn for comfort, not the man who had bullied Elsdon into making a choice he was not yet ready for. No, Vito would not trouble Elsdon with his own quandary. For Vito's own conscience was clear, and his decision had been made long ago.
He would not torture any prisoner here. Not if it cost him his life.