Vito was halfway to his bed when the High Seeker caught him.
The dungeon being short of living space, junior Seekers and Seekers-in-Training were housed in double living "cells," as the dungeon terminology put it. A central parlor and kitchen served both Seekers in these cells; curtains separated the small bedroom areas on either side of the parlor and kitchen. Privacy was at a minimum.
Since his arrival, Vito had scarcely seen his roommate, a night-shift Seeker. Vito was beginning to realize that Elsdon was friend to a large number of Seekers and guards, not by chance, but by sheer, determined, hard work. In theory, Seekers had leisure time during the four hours that constituted the dawn shift and dusk shift, and might mingle during those shifts with Seekers and guards who held opposite shifts. In practice, all senior Seekers, and any ambitious junior Seeker, worked through the dawn and dusk shifts.
Or else well into their sleeping time, Vito reflected as another yawn escaped him. Having left the library, he had entered the inner dungeon and was walking down the short corridor that lay immediately beyond it. It was starting to seem to Vito that he would have no time to get to know anyone except his prisoners. Or their ashes, he added inwardly, with a twist of the mouth. By dungeon custom, guards were the men who held vigil over the ashes of executed prisoners, but Seekers were expected to make an appearance at some point during the vigil, in order to light a candle in remembrance of their prisoner.
Layle Smith, the Record-keeper, his trainer, his guards, his prisoners, and of course Elsdon and Birdie . . . Had Vito really come to know so few inhabitants of the Eternal Dungeon during his six months in the dungeon?
Birdie was kept busy by her family obligations and was separated by her sex from making friendships with most of the Seekers and guards. How could the two of them revive a flagging revolution, when neither of them knew well the other potential revolutionaries?
By all that was sacred, they must have Elsdon. Elsdon Taylor, whose drive to comfort and sympathize with and (in a subtle manner) challenge everyone around him had led him to become the acquaintance or friend of virtually every man in the inner dungeon. He was even well known in the outer dungeon.
Vito and Birdie needed him. Without Elsdon Taylor, all their plans would fail.
Vito was thinking this at the very moment that the High Seeker caught hold of him.
For a moment, all that Vito could think was, "Captured before I even started." Then he came to his senses and stepped back from where Layle Smith had been holding him at arm's length, trying to prevent Vito from slamming into him.
"I apologize, sir," Vito said in an automatic manner. "I did not expect to meet anyone in this corridor, so late at night."
"I am still assigned to duties in the palace, but I have been visiting the surgery." As usual, the High Seeker had an uncanny gift for guessing Vito's real thoughts. Mr. Smith tilted his head, regarding Vito as a wild beast might regard its next meal. Vito tried to remain steady under that unyielding scrutiny.
They were standing, the two of them, in front of the door to the healer's surgery. Here the corridor that led from the outer dungeon to the rack rooms and breaking cells crossed the corridor that led from the Seekers' living cells to the healer's surgery and, on the other side of the surgery, the crematorium. It was here, at age ten, that Vito had met his destiny in the form of Layle Smith, who was a young junior Seeker at that time, testing his power against the Seekers whose regime he planned to overthrow.
Vito was not unaware of the irony of planning a revolution against such a man. But the need for a revolution against the High Seeker was Layle Smith's own fault, which he might still rectify. If the High Seeker could return to what he had been when he was younger – a man who encouraged innovation and forgave his innovative subordinates when they made honest mistakes in their attempts to improve the dungeon – Vito would . . . Well, not happily work with Layle Smith, no. But Vito would willingly work with Hell, as the Vovimian phrase went, if it would benefit the prisoners.
Layle Smith, whose gift for discernment did not extend to the point of mind-reading, had more mundane matters to discuss. "Your reports have been sent to me during my time in the palace, Mr. de Vere."
Vito braced himself.
The High Seeker glanced around. Vito followed his gaze and saw what Layle Smith, with his better hearing, had overheard: Weldon Chapman, who had paused in the crossroads ahead, where the corridor from the outer dungeon crossed the main corridor of the inner dungeon, where the breaking cells stood. Mr. Chapman was talking to the guards on duty there but had not yet noticed Vito and the High Seeker standing beyond.
Mr. Smith turned aside, opening a door that Vito had passed but never much thought about before. He waved Vito inside. Vito entered the room and found himself in a broom closet.
The closet door closed behind him, with a click. There was the sound of a key in the lock.
Vito stood quite still, considering his options, as he would if he were facing a murderous prisoner. His mind flashed through various possibilities: the High Seeker had placed him here in an attempt to frighten and intimidate him; the High Seeker would send chemicals into the room and stuff rags under the door, so that Vito suffocated; the High Seeker would let Vito humiliate himself in the eyes of the other dungeon dwellers by crying out for help.
The worst possibility of all did not occur to him: Layle Smith had entered the closet with him.
He felt a touch on his back and whirled around. Brooms clattered to the floor as he backed up; he nearly fell as he stepped into a pail.
Mr. Smith's hand shot forward and caught hold of him as he began to fall. "Are you having difficulty seeing, Mr. de Vere?"
There were several biting responses he could make to that. Just in time, however, he remembered something that Elsdon had told him: the High Seeker's eyesight, like his hearing, was much more acute than that of an average man.
"A bit of illumination would help," he acknowledged as he shook the pail off his foot. He tried to speak in a nonchalant fashion, but he could hear the strain in his own voice.
"My apologies. One moment." There was a whisper of a sound, barely noticeable, and then light flared, blinding Vito. After a minute, the brightness resolved itself into a candle-flame. The High Seeker placed the candle on the shelf, saying, "This was the closest location for a private conversation, but we can move the discussion to my cell if you prefer. Mr. Chapman has use of my office this week."
If there was anything worse than being grilled by the High Seeker in the close confines of a broom closet, it was being grilled by him in the living quarters where he play-raped his love-mate. Feeling his jaw ache, Vito said stiffly, "This is fine, sir. You had a concern about my reports?"
"On the contrary, I wanted to congratulate you on them. They are, without a doubt, the finest exercise I have encountered, in all my years as a Seeker, in using voluminous prose to say absolutely nothing."
Vito just managed to keep from flinching. He had heard, through dark rumor, of the High Seeker's gift for flaying by way of words, but he had never before been the recipient of this specialized form of mental torture. He replied, still stiffly, "There has been little to say, sir. The prisoner did not speak until just over a day ago. I'm still in the preliminary stages of examining him."
"At precisely what stage?" the High Seeker asked. He was still standing far closer than Vito would have liked; his face-cloth was nearly touching Vito's. Vito could feel himself begin to sweat.
Pushing himself a little further back against a group of upright mop handles, he said, "The first stage of an uncooperative searching, sir. That of determining whether the prisoner is the type of man who is capable of committing the crime of which he is accused."
There was a long, ominous silence after that. The High Seeker stood very still, looming over Vito with his greater height, like a vulture. Finally Layle Smith said, in a very soft voice, "Have the prisoner's arrest records been of any use to you in determining the answer to that question?"
The arrest records. Bloody blades, that must be where Layle Smith had acquired the fixed notion that the prisoner was guilty. No wonder he had been so eager to have Vito read those records; he wanted to infect Vito with the same certainty.
"The arrest records are helpful but incomplete, sir," said Vito, grasping for an answer that might sound reasonably plausible. Most arrest records were indeed incomplete, providing only a skeleton's worth of information.
Too late, he recalled that this particular arrest record had appeared rather thick. He braced himself again.
But all that the High Seeker said, after another spell of silence, was, "Then I would suggest – would suggest most strongly – that you reread the records. You may find that you have missed noticing important information there that will aid you in your searching. As you may recall, the Code says that a Seeker must peruse a prisoner's arrest records with great care."
"He is so bloody rigid in his approach to caring for prisoners!" raged Vito a few hours later. "'The Code says this—' 'The Code says that—' As though the letter of the Code matters, if it goes against the welfare of my prisoner! He knows perfectly well that those arrest records from the lesser prisons are slanted to paint the prisoner in the worst possible light, prejudicing the prisoner's chances of being found innocent. Why the High Seeker should think that I would want to filth my mind with such records— What in the name of all that is sacred are you laughing at?"
Lying pale amidst the pillows, Elsdon wiped away a tear of laughter. "I'm sorry," he said, catching his breath. "But you sound so much like me when I first arrived at the Eternal Dungeon: young and naive."
"I'm thirty years old," Vito pointed out as he set aside his hood, grateful to be able to discard it while alone with Elsdon.
"We're all young and naive when we first arrive at the Eternal Dungeon," Elsdon replied, shifting restlessly in his bed. "Even Layle was – he has told me so. And what you were saying just now . . . I could explain to you that you're taking exactly the wrong path, but you wouldn't believe me, would you?"
In the midst of pouring water into a glass, Vito paused to frown.
"No, I thought not," concluded Elsdon. "You need to discover that for yourself, just as I did. I only hope that you won't be too late. —Thank you," he added as Vito handed him the water. "But aren't you going to be overdue in searching your prisoner?"
"There's still time before the day shift begins." Vito sat down on the stool beside Elsdon's cot. "How is your pain? Have you been told how long your recovery will be?" Elsdon Taylor had spent the past thirty-six hours being healed and bandaged in the healer's infirmary, having narrowly survived an attack from a prisoner. It was not the first time the junior Seeker had been attacked, Vito had gathered, but Elsdon had escaped relatively ungrazed on the previous occasions.
Not this time. Vito ran his eye uneasily over the bandage around Elsdon's chest. Elsdon had barely escaped having a lung punctured by a buttonhook that a prisoner had secreted in his boot; instead, one of Elsdon's ribs had been damaged.
"Three months," replied Elsdon cheerfully, though Vito could hear the pain in his voice. "When Layle first sang me the tale of all the privileges which Seekers receive, he failed to mention our rate of work injuries."
"At least you still have your job," Vito pointed out, listening with half an ear for the small sounds that would alert him to the fact that the day shift had begun. Ordinarily, during the dawn hours, he would already be on duty, taking advantage of the time when he was neither sleeping nor searching prisoners. A great deal about the Eternal Dungeon could be gleaned from overhearing the conversations of guards, he had learned.
But he had other duties as well. Now he leaned forward and said, "You still have your job. You still have shelter and food and an allowance for luxuries. The Eternal Dungeon supplies you with a healer and pays all your medical bills. Elsdon, if you had worked at any of the lesser prisons I've worked at during the past, you'd have none of these things. You'd be an indigent man by now, unless your family members or friends were willing to take you in, as charity."
"I know that, Vito," replied Elsdon quietly. "I know that Layle is right when he says we're the most privileged prisoners that ever lived in this world. We're not allowed to leave this dungeon, except with the Codifier's permission, but some of the poor folk in the lighted world would beg to live here, if they could live like us. —Besides," he added more lightly, "who would want to leave a place like this?" As he spoke, he lightly touched the small black volume that sat on the bedstand next to him.
"True," Vito acknowledged. "I wouldn't be willing to consider taking my oath of eternal commitment if there weren't seeds of greatness in the Code of Seeking. It contains a high vision of how to transform prisoners into becoming better men and women. But certain passages in it . . ."
He let his voice trail away without speaking the words. It would not be fair to reveal to Elsdon that Vito had no intention whatsoever to comply with the bloodier, beastlier passages in the Code. The requirement that certain prisoners be racked to obtain confessions – a passage retained by Layle Smith from earlier editions of the Code – was one that Elsdon himself had balked at, in prior years. But the junior Seeker was playing a delicate game of balance these days, trying to retain both his integrity and his love-mate. Vito did not want to do anything that would risk tipping that balance in the wrong direction. Layle Smith had a reputation for executing Seekers when he grew displeased with them.
Uneasy at this thought, Vito rose from the stool and stretched. The healer's newly-built infirmary, shadow-dark, was empty at the moment, aside from Elsdon and himself. The nurse had taken the arrival of Vito as an opportunity to seek his own breakfast. Nearby, in the dungeon's crematorium, came the mournful sound of a guard singing the final rites of an executed prisoner.
"The Code has its flaws," Elsdon replied. "It will be revised one day. I hope I'm still around when that happens. —No, it's all right," he replied as Vito stepped solicitously forward. "I'm much better now. And I've scarcely had a moment in which to be bored. Layle has been here half a dozen times since I was injured; you just missed seeing him. I think he'd sleep on the floor here, if his current duties in the palace didn't prevent it. And I've had visits from many of my friends."
"Is there anything you'd like me to bring next time?" asked Vito. "A book, perhaps?"
Elsdon, who had been leaning forward to make his point, collapsed back onto the pillows piled against his bed's headboard. "By all that is sacred, no! Layle is practically crushing me with gifts of books. I had to remind him that I don't consider books about torture to be light reading."
Vito managed to catch himself before he asked, "How can you stay with a man like that?" He had learned long ago the futility of persuading a man in love that he had chosen the wrong beloved.
That Layle Smith was destroying Elsdon, Vito had no doubt. But his methods of doing so were subtle. Though Vito had watched carefully and covertly since his arrival, he had witnessed no overt sign that the High Seeker was harming Elsdon. Indeed, on the one occasion on which Vito had overheard the High Seeker speaking privately with Elsdon, it had appeared that such moments were the only time in which Layle Smith acted remotely human.
Vito turned aside to pick up his hood again; he could hear now the steps of the guards changing their watch as the day shift began. Words drifting through the door told him that the day's gossip was being exchanged in the process. There was a great deal of gossip in the dungeon concerning Layle Smith's relations with his younger love-mate. And Vito had learned from Elsdon himself that there was reason enough for that gossip.
It occurred to Vito that this was not the first time in his life when he had been alarmed over activities that occurred in a bedroom. He had been seven years old on the night that he wandered into his parents' room, only to discover them engaged in a most peculiar act.
His mother had been furious at the interruption and had wanted to spank him. His father, though, patiently took Vito aside and explained, in words that a seven-year-old could understand, what had been taking place, and why it was important that Vito always knock and wait for permission before entering his parents' bedroom.
Some years later, Vito would realize that nothing had been taking place in that room which wasn't taking place in millions of bedrooms around the globe. His parents were entirely ordinary in their sexual appetites. However, he had never forgotten the lesson he learned that day: what is peculiar to one person is normal to another.
Vito frowned. He had worked all his adult life among prisoners. He supposed he could think of worse ways for men to release their dark desires than to play-act rape. And it said something about Layle Smith that the High Seeker had chosen to share his play-acting only with another man who would enjoy it.
"What are you thinking?" Elsdon asked. It was his deceptively light voice, the one he used with prisoners.
Vito responded to that urging as promptly as though he were a prisoner. "That I ought to be fair to the High Seeker."
Smiling, Elsdon reached out and took Vito's hand, which had been on the point of lowering his face-cloth. "Vito, this is why you are the best friend I ever had in school. You and Layle, you're so very alike. Both of you find the other person irritating, yet both of you strive to remain fair in your assessment. I can't promise that you'll ever like the High Seeker," he added as Vito pulled free and stepped toward the door. "But I hope that, in time, you'll recognize his integrity."