The inner dungeon was chilly as a tomb and smelt like a mortuary. It looked – as Elsdon had once remarked with a quirk of a smile – like their old school-hall. The corridors were painted a pleasant green, the color of transformation, and the electric lights which hung from the ceiling did their best to simulate old-fashioned candle chandeliers. The corridor floor had recently been changed from flagstones to wood, which caused the dungeon laborers to complain about the increased difficulty in mopping up bloodstains.
The only outward sign that this was not a hallway leading to schoolrooms was the presence of guards next to the doors. There were two of them flanking each door, a junior guard and a senior guard – now, during the day shift, they were all day guards. They were well trained, keeping their mind on their duties, ignoring the black-hooded figure striding past them, except for one guard who was sneaking peeks at a newspaper. Without having to think twice, Vito snatched the paper from his hand. "Mind on work," he said to the guard.
"Yes, sir." The junior guard stiffened at his post. The senior guard, arriving on duty at that moment, took one look at the situation and nodded his thanks to Vito before beginning to reprimand the junior guard.
Vito moved away. After glancing at the newspaper and tearing out a brief article for future reference, he tossed the newspaper into the hands of Mr. Sobel, the High Seeker's senior night guard, who was doing his usual early-morning patrol of the guards before retiring to bed. Mr. Sobel glanced down the corridor, saw that the matter was already being handled by the senior guard, and offered a soft "Thank you, sir" before moving on. Unlike his master, Mr. Sobel was not the sort to continually spout reminders of Vito's junior-most status in the dungeon.
A few guards had glanced idly at Vito when he snatched the newspaper, but now only two guards watched Vito's progress down the corridor. At sight of the taller guard, Vito cursed the High Seeker under his breath. It was just like Layle Smith to assign him Mr. Boyd.
In a dungeon full of notorious guards, Mr. Boyd was the most notorious. There were rumors of how he had gotten that way; it was said that Mr. Smith's vicious infliction of punishment had shaped Mr. Boyd's character. Whatever the cause, Mr. Boyd hated all Seekers. He considered all of them potential assailants against the prisoners.
This ought to have made him Vito's ally. But from the moment they first met, Mr. Boyd had treated Vito as a more dangerous enemy than most other Seekers. It had taken Vito weeks to unravel this mystery. Then he had learned that the High Seeker's former junior night guard, Mr. Urman, had been present on the day when Vito had drawn his ceremonial sword in order to break up what appeared to be the beginning of an explosive fight between Elsdon and his father, in the magistrate's room where Elsdon was about to be placed on trial for his life. Mr. Urman was an infamous gossip. He had spread word around the dungeon that Vito had once "attacked" a prisoner.
It would have been useless, Vito judged, to have explained to Mr. Boyd that he had only been trying to prevent a second charge from being placed against his childhood friend. Nor would there have been any use in pointing out the obvious: that Elsdon Taylor in no way blamed Vito for his action that day. In Mr. Boyd's mind, all Seekers were by definition torturers.
Vito shook his head at himself as he approached Breaking Cell 13. It was beneath his dignity to justify himself to the guard who was working under him. Although Mr. Boyd, like all guards, possessed the right to intervene if Vito blatantly broke the dungeon rules, he was otherwise under Vito's orders. Vito tried to appear stately as he paused before the metal door of the cell, his head tilting to look up at his tall senior day guard. "Mr. Boyd," he said.
"Mr. de Vere," the guard snapped back, as though the very words were distasteful to him.
With effort, Vito turned his attention to his junior day guard. "Good morning, Mr. Crofford."
"Sir." There was civility, but no warmth, from the younger guard. He was taking his cue in behavior from the guard senior to him, as was entirely proper.
Vito drew in a breath. Sometimes it seemed to him that Layle Smith had set out to make Vito's trial as a Seeker-in-Training as difficult as possible. Sometimes he suspected this thought was not mere paranoia. "You may let me into the cell."
Taking out his keys, Mr. Boyd said nothing. Mr. Crofford, still speaking in that cool, civil voice, replied, "Yes, sir. We will be watching, in case you have need of us."
Vito shot him a look. This entirely unnecessary reminder that the cell door contained a watch-hole was nothing more than Mr. Crofford's way of saying, "I'll be spying on you. The moment you break the Code, we'll be there to bind you."
Holding back a biting response, Vito said simply, "Thank you. No, I will not need you, Mr. Boyd." This, as the senior day guard looked inclined to step into the cell with him. "It is not necessary in this case."
Mr. Boyd and Mr. Crofford exchanged looks. Wondering uneasily what blunder he had just made – was this a notoriously dangerous prisoner? – Vito thought of the blue book he had left behind in his living quarters. It was not only stubbornness against Layle Smith that had prevented Vito from reading the prisoner's records. Not only that.
At any rate, he knew the prisoner's name; that was written on the cover of the volume. Drawing in another deep breath, he stepped into the cell.
The narrow breaking cell was warmer than the corridor. Although the Eternal Dungeon, with due caution toward the ingenuity of its prisoners, refused to place stoves within the breaking cells, the prisoners were kept in relative comfort. The ceiling held electric lights behind unbreakable glass, while a vertical hypocaust blasted warm air through the old furnaces, located behind glass blocks along the short end wall of each cell. The old stone ledges in the cells were in the process of being replaced by tall beds that matched the size and shape of beds in the Seekers' living quarters; this particular cell had already made the change. In this redesigned breaking cell, there was also a washstand, a small shelf beneath it for toiletry articles, and a shelf on the wall on which were placed a copy of the Code of Seeking and the prisoner's choice of a prayer book. There were even plans to add a toilet and running water to every breaking cell. In design, the prisoners' cells of the Eternal Dungeon offered the appearance of being quite modern.
Vito could well guess why Layle Smith had sought to disguise, through superficial changes, the antique cruelty of the dungeon. Inconspicuous against the long wall was the whipping ring, while the dungeon racks were kept in separate rooms, never shown to dungeon visitors, other than the prisoners.
The prisoner in this cell was hard to see, for he had somehow managed to cram himself under the tall bed. He was sitting on the hard floor, his arms wrapped around his legs, his face pressed against his knees, his body rocking back and forth.
Vito paused at the entrance, hearing the cell door lock behind him. Then he cleared his throat. "Mr. Gurth?"
The rocking continued, unabated.
He tried again. "Edwin Gurth?"
A face looked up cautiously. It was young. It said nothing.
Vito did not make the mistake of walking forward to take a closer look at the prisoner. Seekers died that way. "Sir, will you stand up, please?"
He expected, at best, a cautious rising; instead, the prisoner scrambled quickly out from under the bed, leapt to his feet, and stood rigidly at attention. Fear was stark upon his face.
So much for the guards' assessment of this being a dangerous prisoner. Vito lowered his voice accordingly. "Mr. Gurth, I am your Seeker—"
"Seeker?" The prisoner's face took on a look of bewilderment. "Seeker? Am I in the Eternal Dungeon?"
Once again, Vito paused, taking in the prisoner's appearance. Prisoners in the Eternal Dungeon were permitted to keep their own clothes, other than their jacket and vest. This prisoner's shirt and trousers were manifestly commoners' clothing, yet his accent, unexpectedly, was that of a mid-class man. Perhaps he or his family had received a downturn of fortune. Vito thought again of the book sitting unopened in his own living cell.
"Yes, Mr. Gurth. Were you not informed at the time of your arrest that you would be brought here?"
He was prepared for anything at this point, but even so, the prisoner's response took him off-guard. A look of shock blasted across the young man's face, like a storm-wave. The prisoner fell to his knees. "Oh, no!" he cried. "Is Gurth in trouble again?"
The cavern which made up the crematorium was the oldest human dwelling in the Eternal Dungeon. It preceded even the settling of western Yclau by the men who had originally come from the Old World, and who would eventually claim as their own queendom an enormous strip of land that went from the ocean coast to the high Appalachian Mountains that stood as a barrier between Yclau and its neighboring countries to the west.
The crematorium lay within a foothill of an eastern portion of the Appalachians called the Blue Ridge Mountains. The underground burial room for ashes had once served as a resting place for the bones of past members of the local native tribe. After the tribe was driven out of the expanding queendom by settlers, the crematorium had lain quiet for a millennium and a half, waiting.
The crematorium, along with its fellow caverns, had finally been discovered by spelunkers hired by the baron of the nearby town of Luray to explore the interior of the hill. At that time, the Queen of Yclau had lived far to the east, in the original First District of Yclau, while her torturers plied their bloody trade in a cave in the Appalachians. When a new Queen settled her palace on a hill in Luray, and placed her dungeon in the cave below, the old crematorium – now recognized by archaeologists as an ancient burial site – was rededicated as a Chapel of Rebirth. In the purified dungeon that followed the Code of Seeking, prisoners would be questioned to discover whether they were innocent, and if they proved to be guilty, they would be gently guided to recognize and repent their misdoings. If justice demanded that they die for their crimes, their ashes would be laid to rest in a great burial pit in the crematorium, along with the ashes of the Seekers who had sacrificed their own liberties, and sometimes their lives, to help the prisoners be transformed and reborn into a new and better life.
Or so went the mythology of the Eternal Dungeon. Vito was no atheist, but he was skeptical of the idea of rebirth arising under the guidance of men who tortured their prisoners to obtain the proper results. Moreover, he had seen the death statistics for the Eternal Dungeon: far too many prisoners continued to die, not from the nooses of the royal executioners, but from being questioned under torture. However improved the Eternal Dungeon might be over its predecessor – and even Vito was prepared to admit that the Code of Seeking contained the seeds of magnificent theology and prison-work – yet still the Eternal Dungeon had far to go.
At one time, if Vito discerned the present conversation correctly, Layle Smith had understood this.
Vito felt a light touch on his leg. Taking tighter hold of a rung of the ladder he stood on, he leaned forward to lift from a shelf a guttered candle that had burned down to the bottom of its blue glass bowl. Then he looked down at one of the torturers whose maimed prisoners lay in the pit below.
Taking the candle from him, Elsdon said over his shoulder, "I don't know . . . I just don't know. Nothing has happened for years, but in theory, at least, the strict protocols remain in place. The Codifier has refused to rescind them—"
"How the Code of Seeking is implemented is decided, not only by the Codifier, but by the High Seeker," Birdie reminded him as she took the candle from his hand. Her other hand held a cloth which she wrapped around the bowl and candle before placing them in a crate that was tucked between two stalagmites on the floor. Later, dungeon laborers would move the guttered candles to the outer dungeon, where the remaining wax would be melted down to create new candles, and the bowls would be cleaned. Then, reborn, the new candles and freshly washed bowls would be returned to the crematorium, where once again the candles would be lit in memory of the newly dead.
Vito was all too aware that one of the candles currently lit in the crematorium celebrated the rebirth of a prisoner who had died because Vito became a Seeker-in-Training. Mr. Horowitz had possessed no luck in breaking the prisoner, but Vito had found a way past the prisoner's defenses. Under Vito's guidance, the prisoner had confessed to his crime, for which he had later been executed.
Was Vito a hypocrite? He looked around at the lit candles – hundreds of them, so many that the fire inspectors were horrified by this place and only permitted it to continue to exist because the crematorium walls were cave walls. The only furnishing in the crematorium was a bookcase-desk holding volumes with the death statistics. His prisoner's name was inscribed there.
Elsdon was wincing. "I know, Birdesmond. The trouble is, I can see both points of view. Layle has told me how, when he first arrived at the Eternal Dungeon, numerous abuses were taking place because the discipline upon the men who worked in the inner dungeon was either nonexistent or arbitrary. Layle genuinely believes that only through consistent, strong discipline can he prevent the Seekers and guards from abusing their power over the prisoners."
"A Seeker who has been executed," observed Birdie, "is certainly unlikely to abuse his power in the future."
"There was only one execution—"
"Barrett Boyd," Birdie replied softly.
This time Elsdon bit his lip and turned his head away. Reaching down to hand Elsdon another guttered candle, Vito reflected that Birdie herself had a certain talent for discipline. Mr. Boyd had been Elsdon's senior-most guard at the time of his arrest and punishment at the hands of the High Seeker.
"Mr. Boyd," Elsdon reluctantly conceded, "if we include what was done to his mind. And there were far too many disciplinary whippings of Seekers and dismissals of guards. Birdesmond, I'm not arguing about you with that. I spoke out against it at the time—"
"But not since then," Birdesmond pointed out, tilting a glass to inspect it carefully under the dim light of the oil lamps that were still used in the crematorium, since the Eternal Dungeon had rightly declined to drill electrical lines into the crematorium walls. "Elsdon, it's been three years since you last made a public statement against the High Seeker's decision to interpret the Code of Seeking's rules in the strictest manner. And if there's been little trouble since then, it's because Seekers and guards alike are terrified of making any changes, of suggesting any better ways to run this dungeon, because they dread the possibility of the wrath of the High Seeker descending upon them. When I first became a Seeker, six years ago, workers in the inner dungeon were still abrim with eagerness to learn and grow. Even your love-mate was like that, I'd swear. He hired me to search prisoners – me, a woman – and in doing so, he deliberately went against centuries of tradition in Yclau's prisons. But ever since Barrett Boyd's body and mind were broken by the High Seeker . . ."
The two Seekers were silent, apparently remembering a lost era. Looking again at the candles, Vito reflected that perhaps here lay the difference between himself and the High Seeker. Not merely that Vito was unwilling to use violence to achieve the prisoners' rebirth, but also that he was willing to admit when he had made a mistake – to admit it, to learn from it, to benefit from it in order to become a better prison-worker. But Layle Smith . . .
"The Eternal Dungeon has . . . stagnated," admitted Elsdon, his voice as reluctant as the slow drip of water from the stalactites above. "And that's a violation of everything that Layle ever wanted for this dungeon. He must recognize the problem – he's too great a man not to – but he can't see any way out of this problem. From his perspective, if he slackens the reins of discipline, the Seekers and guards will abuse their prisoners, yet if he maintains current discipline—"
"No better methods for helping prisoners will develop. Yes, I do see his dilemma." As always, Birdie was judicious. And watching Elsdon's down-turned head – witnessing the shame written upon Elsdon's face – Vito was once against struck with pity for his old friend, torn between two duties. Would Vito have done any better than Elsdon in such a situation, deeply loving a man who had such power to abuse?
It was too bad that Vito's primary thought at the moment was how to get rid of Elsdon.
Not permanently, by any means. In time, Elsdon might once again serve as a leader for the so-called New School: the prison-workers who wished for the Eternal Dungeon to be reborn once more. With Elsdon's help, the New School might win victory over the Old School that was led by the High Seeker.
No, Vito's concern was far narrower than that: he wanted to talk about his latest prisoner with Birdie. And since his thoughts about his prisoners were always wrapped up with his thoughts about complying with the Code's rules on when to torture a prisoner, he daren't discuss his new prisoner in Elsdon's presence.
Birdie was not an easy person to have a private word with. She spent much of her spare time with her husband and son; on her days off from work, she generally volunteered her time with the outer-dungeon nursery, started by Mr. Sobel's wife, which cared for the dungeon children who were not yet of school age. Vito certainly didn't grudge Birdie the chance to get to know other women in the dungeon. Her opportunities for a social life were scant in the inner dungeon, where all of the workers were men, many of whom still resented the presence of a lady Seeker.
Vito sighed. No, he would have to resolve the problem himself: how, without violence, to break a prisoner who now refused to speak, and whose last statement had implied a denial that he was the person he was supposed to be.