He awoke to darkness.
Through the haze of his grogginess, he was aware that he still lay on the rack. His body ached from hours spent on the hard metal. His head ached worst of all. He had the feeling he had not experienced since his days of training at the academy: as though his head had split open, a stale fruit on the morning after a long session at the local saloon.
The oil lamp had flickered out at some point during his sleep, eating the last of its fuel. He reached out toward Or, but his hand touched only cloth.
Then came again the sound that had woken him: a sharp knock on the door.
"Mr. de Vere." The voice of the High Seeker's senior night guard was strong and authoritative. "Open the door, please."
Through the continued mist in his mind, Vito felt apprehension. He dared not ignore the summons; as the senior-most guard in the dungeon, Mr. Sobel possessed the master key that opened all doors. And if he should find a Seeker entwined with a naked prisoner . . .
Vito groped further. Again, all that he encountered was the cloth of Or's clothing. In all likelihood, the hammering on the door had caused Or to take refuge under the rack. Vito pulled himself off the rack. There was no time to search. Leaning over, he whispered under the rack, "Or, if you're there, stay still. Stay here till I say it's safe."
He stumbled his way to the door. The lamp would be impossible to fill in the dark, but he managed to locate the emergency candles and safety matches. He lit a candle, placed it upright within a candle-holder on the shelf next to the door, and took one swift look to assure himself that Or wasn't huddled in a corner or under the benches at the far end of the room. The shadowed area under the rack was shielded from view by the great wheel that controlled it.
The knock came a third time. With a shaking hand, Vito smoothed down his shirt, remembered at the last moment to pull down his face-cloth, and opened the door.
Both of the High Seeker's guards stood at the door. "Mr. de Vere," said Mr. Sobel, "the High Seeker wishes to speak with you in his office."
The senior night guard was making no effort to look past Vito, but Vito quickly stepped into the corridor and shut the door. "Certainly," he said. "I was just about finished checking that the rack is in working order. I'll lock up here—"
He started to pull his keys from his pocket but was checked by Mr. Sobel, who took firm hold of his arm. "The High Seeker wishes to speak to you now, Mr. de Vere." His tone was inflexible.
Vito took an uneasy look at the door. To leave a prisoner in an unlocked room went against all his instincts. But after all, Or probably had sense enough to follow Vito's instruction to stay where he was. Vito would just have to hope that whatever lecture the High Seeker had planned for him was a short one.
The guards escorted him down the corridor silently. Vito spent much of the time rubbing his eyes, willing himself to wake up. For a man who had drunk nothing but water the previous day, he felt uncommonly as though he were suffering from a long drinking session. He just couldn't seem to rouse his mind.
It was because of this that he did not become aware until he reached the entry hall that others were watching him.
What alerted him in the entry hall was the sound. Or rather, the lack of sound. The entry hall was normally filled with cheerfully chattering guards exchanging gossip with each other as they completed documentwork at the tables. Now there was complete silence. He turned his head toward the entrance to the dungeon, expecting to see the guards watching a newly arrived prisoner, escorted by his captors.
The guards were all watching him. It was at that moment that Vito became fully aware that he was flanked by the High Seeker's guards.
He had little time in which to think through the implications of this with his fog-filled mind. They reached the High Seeker's office, and the junior night guard opened the door for him. Mr. Sobel was at Vito's back. Vito stepped through the doorway and then stopped dead, taken aback by the sight before him.
The High Seeker's office – normally empty except for scattered items of furniture and Layle Smith himself – was filled to the brim with men. Vito's night guards were there, talking to each other in a huddled cluster in the corner of the room. They looked up as Vito entered. His day guards were there as well; Mr. Crofford was pacing back and forth, while Mr. Boyd looked grim. Two other guards stood near the High Seeker's desk; Vito didn't recognize them, but since they had revolvers at their belts, there was no question to whom they belonged.
The High Seeker was not at his desk. He was standing against the wall, his face turned toward the new inhabitant of the chair behind the desk: the Codifier.
And beyond them all, at the far end of the room, was Or.
He was on a chair, but he was not sitting on it; he was crouched upon it, in his usual defensive posture of arms around knees, head bowed to hide the face. Someone had placed a blanket over his shoulders, but it was clear from his legs that he was naked under the blanket. He was shivering.
"Or . . ." Without thinking, Vito took three steps forward.
That was as far as he got before Mr. Boyd's dagger touched his throat.
Vito stopped, the breath shocked out of him by the prick of the point. Behind the blade, Mr. Boyd's face was dark with fury. The anger cut through the fog of Vito's mind like a mower through ripe grass.
Still sitting at his desk, the Codifier murmured in a matter-of-fact manner, "I don't believe that bloodshed is necessary at this juncture."
Mr. Boyd did not move; nor did he turn his eyes away from Vito. But he said with a furious growl, "He was attacking my prisoner."
Out of the corner of his eye, Vito saw the Codifier turn his gaze toward the High Seeker. The High Seeker, who had been watching the Codifier rather than the confrontation, immediately switched his attention to the violent encounter. "Mr. Boyd," he said, "you are in the presence of the Codifier. You will sheathe your blade."
The High Seeker, Vito had heard, rarely raised his voice. Nor did he now. He simply let the words drop, like tiny, deadly blades of ice.
After a moment, Mr. Boyd stepped back, his eyes still fixed on Vito. He walked backwards, not moving his gaze. When he finally reached Or's side, he sheathed his blade. He crossed his arms and waited, like a bodyguard daring an assassin to come near.
The High Seeker switched his attention back to the Codifier. "I apologize, sir. The proceedings are yours."
The Codifier nodded. His guards, Vito could not help notice, had shifted across the room, taking the place of the High Seeker's guards at Vito's flanks. The High Seeker's guards went over to stand by their master.
Everyone else was looking at the Codifier now. Vito waited, his heart hammering.
"Mr. de Vere," the Codifier said briskly, "your day guards, upon reporting for duty this morning, were informed by your night guards that you had removed the prisoner from his cell during their watch and had not yet returned him. After sending Mr. Crofford to check with Mr. Smith as to whether you had been authorized to remove the prisoner from his cell, Mr. Boyd advanced toward the rack rooms, since the day guards had reported that as your destination. He had not yet reached the rooms, however, when he came upon your prisoner, who was standing unclothed in the corridor. Your prisoner ran up to Mr. Boyd and begged asylum. Mr. Boyd brought him to the High Seeker, who in turn sent a message to me, requesting that I deal with this matter in his office, since the prisoner was in no fit state to be removed from the privacy of his office."
The Codifier leaned forward. His hands were crossed over each other, in a businesslike fashion. The watch in his vest pocket ticked steadily.
"Mr. de Vere," the Codifier continued, "your prisoner has made a most serious charge against you. He claims that last night you took him to a rack room, stripped him of his clothes, bound him to the rack, and proceeded to molest his genitals with your mouth. Do you have anything to say in response to this charge?"
Vito looked over at his prisoner. The prisoner's face was still hidden from view. Everyone was waiting.
Water, Vito thought. He gave me water. Water that was bitter like sleeping pills.
He said, in as steady a voice as he could manage, "It is true that I took my prisoner to the rack room, bound him naked to the rack, and touched him in a sexual fashion."
The guards in the room were too well-trained to gasp, but they exchanged looks – all but Mr. Boyd, who had murder in his eyes now. The prisoner continued to shiver.
"Very well." For the first time, an unusual note of strain could be heard in the Codifier's voice. "Mr. Gurth, you made an offer earlier. You stated that you would not place a formal charge against your Seeker, in exchange for which you required a certain concession on the part of the Eternal Dungeon."
Finally the prisoner raised his head. His eyelashes were wet with tears. He said breathlessly, "Yes, sir. I . . . I don't want to cause trouble for anyone. I just want to make sure that he doesn't hurt anyone again." He gave a shy, uncertain smile at Vito, as though in apology.
The Codifier stood up. "Well, gentlemen, I have little choice in this matter. One of my duties as Codifier is to protect the Eternal Dungeon from open scandal. Since a Seeker being convicted of rape in a magistrate's court would most certainly cause scandal, I must accept the only alternative available to me. Mr. Gurth." The Codifier's voice was brisk again, and not in the least bit gentle. "My guards will take you to a place where you may be clothed, and I will have our healer check you for any injuries. After that, my guards will escort you to the palace gates, where you will be released."
Vito drew in his breath sharply and began to speak. The High Seeker shot him a look, and Vito closed his mouth. The prisoner said, "Oh, thank you, sir, thank you!"
The Codifier did not look his way. "Mr. Smith, I leave the prisoner in your hands, to deal with as you wish. Mr. Gurth, come with us, please."
Upon a soft spoken order by Layle Smith, all of the guards who were under the direct control of the High Seeker left the room: Vito's night guards, Mr. Crofford, and Mr. Boyd, his eyes still promising murder. Then came the Codifier, who did not so much as glance in Vito's direction. He was followed by his own guards, and, a step behind him, Vito's prisoner.
The High Seeker was in the midst of making his way around the desk; his back was to the proceedings. The rest of the men had their backs to Vito's prisoner. So it was Vito, and Vito alone, who saw the moment when his prisoner's shy, uncertain smile transmogrified into a hard, sardonic smirk.
Then the others were gone, and the High Seeker was left alone with his prisoner.
For a minute, Vito was aware of nothing but the receding footsteps of the youth who was about to regain his freedom. Then Vito took half a dozen swift steps till he reached the desk of the High Seeker. Now seated, the High Seeker looked up at him silently.
"Sir," said Vito, all in a rush, "do whatever you want to me, hang me if you will, but for the Queen's love, don't release my prisoner! He's a dangerous man—"
"I am well aware that your former prisoner is dangerous," said the High Seeker. "The question is: Why weren't you?"
Vito's response dried up in his throat. The High Seeker waited a moment, and then he reached over and pulled in front of him a blue-bound volume. Written on the front of it were the words "Edwin Gurth."
"Are you ready," the High Seeker asked softly, "to hear what this contains?"
Vito's mouth remained dry. After another moment, the High Seeker opened the volume and lowered his eyes. "'Prisoner's name: Edwin Gurth. Prisoner's birth name: Orville Gurth.'" The High Seeker's gaze flicked briefly up at Vito, then returned to the page. "The remainder of the volume is too long to read to you in full this morning; just the documents of the trial of 354 take up thirty pages. I will do my best to summarize what lies herein. . . ."
Edwin Orville Gurth was born in a House of prostitution. His mother was a prostitute, his father a client. His mother having died from a sexual disease when he was two, Or (as he was nicknamed by his mother) was raised by his half-brother, who was eight years older and was already being trained by the proprietor to take his mother's place.
This fact alone showed what type of business the House was. A century had passed since the Queendom of Yclau had abolished male youth prostitution in favor of the prostitution of adult women, heavily regulated and supervised by the Queen's government. Proper Houses of prostitution were run by former prostitutes – madams who were assumed to understand and sympathize with their workers' conditions. Government inspectors checked the welfare of the prostitutes periodically and ensured that no underage girls were hired. No underage boy was permitted to cross the threshold of a House.
But there remained many Houses that flouted the rules, disguising themselves as orphanages or other organizations of charity. They were run by men who did not scruple to gain their earnings by the darkest of trades: pickpocketing, extortion, robbery, gambling dens, sweetweed dealing, and murder.
It was in such a place that Or grew up. His half-brother successfully protected Or from being used for nefarious purposes by the proprietor. Whether the half-brother intended to save Or for his own nefarious purposes remained unclear to outsiders; the brothers slept together, but a doctor who examined Or when he was nine years old stated there were no signs of molestation upon Or. Young Or himself had no doubts in the matter; he told the doctor that his brother was a hero who had watched over him.
The hero, alas, followed in the path of his mother, dying of the dreaded Damnation disease when he was seventeen. In the last months before his death, he courageously spent his final energy in tracking down Or's father, whose name had been handed down by Or's mother. The brother took Or to his father's house and begged the man to let Or stay as a servant.
Or's father, a schoolmaster, took the boy into his home. Even more surprisingly – for it meant the ruination of his social reputation and the loss of his current job – he publicly acknowledged Or as his son. Renaming the boy Edwin, after his late wife Edwina, the elder Mr. Gurth tutored his son and set out to turn him into a proper mid-class boy.
He succeeded in changing the language and learning of Ed, as he dubbed his son. A good pupil, Ed was bilingual thereafter, capable of speaking either with a refined tongue or in street gutter tongue. But in all other respects the experiment was seemingly a failure. Apparently resentful of being required to deny his roots, Ed fought bitterly with his father. Neighbors initially placed their sympathy with Mr. Gurth, for bringing such a "wild beast" into his peaceful home.
All that changed on Ed's eleventh birthday, when he arrived at the local station for patrol soldiers, his good clothes torn, his face bloody and bruised. His father, Ed stated, had beaten and molested him.
An examination by doctors offered proof that Ed's anus had been penetrated. Mr. Gurth was arrested on charges of incest, sexual assault, and mistreatment of his heir. The last charge alone was enough to qualify him for the hangman.
At his trial, Mr. Gurth insisted that Ed was "a bad boy" who had faked the evidence of his own assault. Given Ed's age, the magistrate was not swayed by this testimony. Mr. Gurth's counsel tried to argue that Ed had been sexually assaulted when he was still living in the House of prostitution, but evidence was entered into the court from the doctor who had examined Ed when he came to live with his father. The doctor firmly held that Ed had been a virgin at the time of his arrival at his father's home.
Mr. Gurth was sent to the hangman, protesting his innocence to the last. Ed was sent to an orphanage.
For the next couple of years, Gurth – as he demanded to be called by others – travelled in and out of orphanages like a train on a regular milk run. His good looks and seemingly shy and pleasant disposition meant that he was often fostered by parents who were considering whether to adopt him. Just as regularly, those parents would be revealed – through Gurth's testimony and through physical evidence – to have committed some terrible crime. The parents would end up on trial for their crimes, and Gurth would land back in the orphanage. Even the harshest bullies there knew not to tamper with Gurth; the last master at the orphanage who had tried to punish Gurth had ended up accused of murder. That master disappeared into the depths of the Eternal Dungeon and was never seen again.
This agreeable state of affairs – as possibly regarded from Gurth's point of view – ended when he was thirteen. In that year, he was uncovered in a plot to frame a fellow orphan who had been foolish enough to laugh at Gurth when he tripped during calisthenics. Gurth was sent to a reform school for incorrigible lads. The soldiers who ran it were not in the least bit intimidated by Gurth.
He did the only thing he could: he ran away.
At this point, for several years, Edwin Orville Gurth ceased to exist. The only indication that he had not died was testimony from one of the Queen's spies, who had been assigned to watch a particularly dubious "orphanage" that was suspected of being a House of prostitution. The spy reported that a new boy had arrived at the House, by the name of Or, and that he was referred to by the other boys as "master's pet," since the master of the House had taken a liking to him. There was indication that Or slept with the master on most nights.
The House's master, who may have guessed he was being watched, showed discretion by dismissing all of his underage employees except for Or, his "nephew." Unable to shut down the House, the Queen's soldiers kept a wary watch on it, for the proprietor of the now entirely legal House of prostitution was believed to be involved in some of the grimmest of the crimes in the capital city of Yclau.
These were the years when the crime lords of the capital engaged in cut-throat competition with each other. It was of no surprise to anyone when the master of this particular House was discovered murdered one morning, stabbed to death during the night. His beloved nephew – now known simply as "the pet" – brought the news to the rest of the House, sobbing at the loss of his (it was whispered) bed-mate.
Immediately, all the crime lords in the capital were on the alert. Who had killed the master of this House, the most powerful of the city's crime lords? Who would inherit the House? Several crime lords made an attempt to do so; several crime lords died in quick succession, and their crime-ridden Houses were taken over by the so far unseen proprietor of the House.
The women of the House were perhaps the only people not surprised when, after a suitable period of suspense, the new proprietor was revealed to be a seventeen-year-old named Ed Gurth.
"Because of his age, the Queen's soldiers hesitated to arrest Mr. Gurth immediately," the High Seeker said, his eyes fixed on the prisoner's arrest records as he turned a page. "As you know, this queendom's laws were changed a few years ago, upon the urging of the Eternal Dungeon, so that no youth could be charged with a capital crime. Therefore, the soldiers bided their time while the Queen's spies did their best to gather evidence against Mr. Gurth. This proved difficult; though the Houses that had apparently been taken over by Mr. Gurth were notorious centers of criminal activity, there was no way to prove Mr. Gurth's ownership of these Houses. His own original House was run with scrupulous lawfulness. Finally, as Mr. Gurth's birthday of manhood arrived, the despairing soldiers charged him with raping one of his own prostitutes. Even here, the evidence was slender, and so the Queen ordered that Mr. Gurth be delivered to the Eternal Dungeon. Only in the Eternal Dungeon, it is believed, can the blackest deceits be uncovered and truth freed in order to shine pure."
The High Seeker finally looked up for the first time since his recital began. He waited, like a cat crouching in front of a mouse-hole.
Vito asked quietly, "Why didn't you tell me any of this, sir?"
"Because," said the High Seeker, closing the volume, "I made the worst mistake that a man in my position can make: I placed the best interests of a Seeker above the best interests of his prisoner. I knew, from your guards' witness to your behavior and from my own conversations with you, that you had failed to follow my order to read the prisoner's arrest records. I also knew that, if I officially acknowledged this fact, that would be the end of your career at the Eternal Dungeon. However much you and I may disagree about how this dungeon should be run, Mr. de Vere, you are a talented prison-worker. The Eternal Dungeon needs such talent." He pushed the volume aside. "You have allowed a dangerous criminal to escape to commit new crimes, and just as importantly, you have deprived a troubled young man of what may be his only opportunity to repent and transform. You did so because I failed to remove you from this case when I knew that you had disobeyed my order. This is why I advised the Codifier that you not be hung for your crime. What happened is as much my fault as yours."
Vito swallowed. "Thank you, sir. I promise you, I've learned from this episode, and I won't let anything like this happen again. If there's anything I can do to prevent Mr. Gurth from escaping—"
"Give me your hood."
The High Seeker's voice, which had remained as level and colorless as a pond's surface on a cloudy day, abruptly turned to ice. His eyes, steady upon Vito's, glinted like scissors.
Vito slowly complied, pulling off the hood that marked his Seekership. His heart was beating hard again.
The High Seeker took the hood, and with a swift, decisive gesture, he tore off the red strip denoting a Seeker-in-Training. Then he pulled open a drawer of his desk, dropped the hood and the strip into it, and slammed the drawer shut.
"Now pack your bags and get out of my dungeon." Midwinter freeze frosted every word that Layle Smith spoke. "I never want to see you again."
Vito drew in his breath sharply. But he had no opportunity to respond. The door opened, and the High Seeker's guards appeared, flanking him. They took his arms and propelled him out of the room.
Vito's last glimpse of the High Seeker was of Layle Smith sitting down and touching the arrest records lightly, in the same manner that he lovingly stroked his instruments of torture.