The House of Enchantment was less luxurious than its name suggested. It was a ramshackle, forty-room building that had once belonged to a noble family, before that family fell on hard times. It was located at the border between the Parkside district and the far less respectable Alleyway district. The only indication that the building lay within the boundaries of the Parkside district were the exceedingly high prices that were discreetly inscribed on a metal plate near the door.
The proprietor of the House was currently sitting in a wicker armchair, leaning back, his eyes closed as he smoked a cigar. He appeared to be ignoring the girl between his legs.
At the doorway, his bodyguard said, "There's a fella here to see you."
The proprietor did not open his eyes, though the girl's bobbing head had grown more vigorous. "Hunter," he said in a cultured accent, "what were my instructions to you an hour ago?"
The bodyguard hesitated. "You wasn't to be bothered. But this fella insists—"
"And do you recall what happened to your predecessor when he disobeyed my orders?"
The bodyguard paled and stepped backwards. Seeing this, Vito spoke up from behind him. "You took my livelihood and my heart. The least you can do is give me five minutes of your time."
In the wicker chair, Edwin Orville Gurth chuckled. "You have no idea," he said, "how many men have said that to me." He opened his eyes and looked down at the girl. "That's enough for now, dear. You did very well. Just remember to swirl your tongue next time."
The girl nodded rapidly, buttoned Gurth back up, and then reached for her clothes. Gurth turned his attention to a nearby ashtray, stubbing out his cigar. As the girl scurried through the doorway, still half-dressed, Vito resisted the impulse to ask her what age she was. With her employer in the same room, no doubt she would lie.
Besides, he no longer possessed the legal power to enquire into potential crimes.
Rising to his feet in that same lazy manner, Gurth switched his attention to the sideboard, which was filled to the brim with dishes of food and with vials holding substances that might or might not have been legal. "That will do, Hunter," Gurth said as he pulled out a stopper. "You may wait outside."
The bodyguard cast Vito a suspicious glance. "This fella looks awful strong, boss. I think I should—"
"Hunter," said Gurth, and suddenly his voice was as smooth as a silk handkerchief tied around a murder victim's neck, "do you have trouble hearing, or have you misunderstood what I said?"
There was a long pause, during which Vito could hear, faintly in the background, the sound of a girl crying. Then the guard mumbled an apology, stumbling back to allow Vito into the room. Vito stepped forward, and the door closed behind him.
Apparently absorbed in pouring green liquid into a wine glass, Gurth said, "So the High Seeker let you live."
Gurth stared at the glass, swirling the liquid in it slowly. "Good."
For the first time, Gurth turned to look at him. There was that smile of sardonic amusement on his face which Vito remembered well. "Of course 'Good.' I have nothing against you, de Vere. You're a fool, but you're a well-meaning fool, and you saved my life. I did what I always do – whatever is needed to survive – and I'll admit there was a certain satisfaction in slipping a lie past one of the famous Seekers. But I didn't particularly relish the idea of you dangling from a hangman's rope. Would you like some?" He offered the cup that he'd been swirling.
Vito hesitated. He could hear outside the sound of the bodyguard's feet, shuffling.
Gurth misinterpreted his hesitation. "Oh, I suppose not. I wouldn't trust me either, if I were you. A shame; I'm told that absinthe is delicious." He put the glass down and reached for a plate of what appeared to be caviar. "It was an interesting experience, the Eternal Dungeon. Not one I'd want to repeat, but I definitely learned a lot there about human nature. The ability of men to believe what they want to believe—"
"I think I'll have that drink after all," Vito interrupted as Gurth was on the point of shovelling the caviar into his mouth. The sound of shuffling footsteps was too close. But after coming all this way, he was not going to leave before doing what he'd set out to do. He would have to take a chance with the bodyguard.
Gurth smiled, putting down the plate untouched. It looked, for once, like a genuine smile. "By all means. These delicacies have just arrived, and I'm told they're quite tasty." He gestured.
It took Vito half a dozen steps to reach the table. It took him another two steps to pin Gurth against the wall.
Gurth looked serenely unconcerned. Vito could feel a hard object in his pocket; he wondered what weapon Gurth was hiding there.
All that the young man did, though, was say in a low tone, "My bodyguard is watching. He's only waiting before attacking you because I have occasional, shall we say, assignations with my visitors."
"I know he's watching." Vito leaned forward and breathed in Gurth's ear, "You're in danger."
Gurth's heart, hard against his, increased in speed. The young man's arms wrapped around his back, and Gurth took a little nibble of his neck. "Go on," Gurth murmured.
Vito's heart raced as Gurth's hands wandered across his torso, pulled up his jacket and vest and shirt and undervest, and began exploring what lay underneath. Rapidly but softly, Vito said, "Before I left the dungeon, I went to the office of the Codifier, to see whether I could persuade him to overturn my dismissal. He was in conference. While I was waiting to speak with him, I overheard him tell the High Seeker that there was little likelihood you'd live anyway, because the Queen's spies had discovered that someone named Ambrewster—"
"A rival," whispered Gurth. He was licking Vito's lips now, an effective way to disguise from the bodyguard that Vito was speaking, though it seemed doubtful this was Gurth's full motive.
"Ambrewster had arranged for one of his men to be appointed as your new bodyguard. That man is assigned to kill you."
"When and how?" Gurth's reply was matter-of-fact.
Vito had to wait until Gurth had finished tongue-kissing him before he managed to gasp out, "I don't know. That's all I heard."
"Mm." Gurth bit his earlobe hard. "Take me on the bed."
Vito threw a startled glance at the corner of the room, where a bed with satin bedsheets – and quite a few stains on the sheets – stood waiting. "The . . . ?"
"You heard me. Be a good lad and fuck me over the side of the bed. About the middle of the bed, me facing the wall."
Vito glanced at the bed again, saw what he needed to see, and propelled Gurth toward the bed. It wasn't easy. Gurth was clinging to him like a monkey now. Vito found himself hoping that nobody except the bodyguard was witnessing this exchange.
The bodyguard's witness didn't matter, he suspected.
With effort, he positioned Gurth on his knees, torso over the bed. Gurth squirmed as Vito pulled down the young man's trousers, begging Vito loudly, in the basest of commoner language, to be faster, faster. . . . Resting his hands on Gurth's boots and keeping his body carefully positioned as a shield between Gurth and the door, Vito watched as Gurth pulled open an inconspicuous panel in the wall. Behind it was a cylindrical hole. A speaking tube.
It was clearly Vito's turn to make noise. He filled the room with curses, which the bodyguard might take in any manner he wished. By the time he had run out of curses, Gurth had finished whispering into the speaking tube and had closed the panel.
By that time, Vito was also, embarrassingly, quite hard.
Looking over his shoulder, Gurth gave a low chuckle. "Go ahead if you want to, de Vere. It's not as though no one has been there before."
Fortunately for Vito's peace of mind, Gurth's rescue arrived at that moment.
There were shouts from behind the door – the bodyguard's alarmed voice was unmistakable – and then silence. Gurth, reclothing himself in a leisurely manner, sat on the bed and waited. Vito stood up, slid his hands into his pockets, and waited also.
After a moment, a man poked his head into the room – clearly another bodyguard, from his build. "All done," he said. "Sorry about that, sir; I'll question your new employees better in the future. We found this on him." He tossed something forward.
Vito caught it. Glancing at the label on the paper packet – the packet was torn open, with half the contents used – he raised his eyebrows. With a certain reluctance, he handed the packet to Gurth as the door closed behind the bodyguard.
Gurth simply looked amused. "Arsenic. I suppose that means I'll have to get rid of all those lovely drinks and appetizers that Hunter brought me today. Oh, don't worry," he added, as Vito started with alarm, "I hadn't consumed any of them yet." He turned the packet so that its underside showed to Vito. "Ambrewster's handwriting, giving instructions for administering the poison to me. He's as much a fool as you." With a dismissive gesture, Gurth tossed the packet into a dustbin nearby.
Vito must have looked disconcerted, because Gurth gave a hard laugh as he stood up. "I don't give men slow, painful deaths, de Vere. You ought to have guessed that much about me." He moved toward the table, looked over the bottles of liquid, and then reached over toward the mantelpiece. There was a click, and a drawer flew open. Gurth fiddled with the drawer for a moment before raising a lid. From the hidden container, he drew out a flask.
"Have some?" He offered up the flask. "It's quite untouched, I assure you. Combination lock."
"No, thank you," Vito said evenly.
Gurth finished off the contents of the flask in three gulps. Under these circumstances, Vito didn't begrudge him the drink. "I hope I didn't shock you," said Gurth.
"Killing for defense," replied Vito briefly. "It's legal, when a man's life is in imminent danger."
Gurth gave another of his low chuckles. "Trust you to have thought of that. I suppose you debated the ethics of telling me, all the way here." He tossed the flask into the bin, alongside the packet of poison. "So now I owe my life to you twice over. I do pay my debts, de Vere. What can I give you? Money? Girls? A fuck?"
Vito just managed to keep from flinching. "I didn't do it for a reward. But if you want to give me something . . ."
"Yes?" Gurth was busy pulling another flask from the hidden drawer. Beside the flask glinted something silverish: a blade.
"Let me speak to Or."
Gurth choked in mid-swallow. Turning his head, he sputtered the liquid all over his fine Vovimian rug and continued choking. After a brief moment, in which Vito walked forward and tried to decide whether to thump Gurth on the back, it became apparent that Gurth's "choking" was in truth hysterical laughter.
"Oh, sweet blood," said Gurth, turning back and wiping tears of amusement from his face. "I knew you were a fool, but not that much of a fool. My poor de Vere, Or never existed. I invented him in order to manipulate people. He's what I become when I'm around people who respond well to pathetic, naive little boys who think the world is filled with heroes who will rescue them from danger." His voice was filled with scorn.
Drawing back to where he had stood before, Vito managed not to glance again at the packet of poison. "I don't doubt that's what triggers his appearance. And I was certainly a fool in certain ways. But not all ways." He drew his revolver and pointed it at the proprietor of the House of Enchantment.
Gurth stood very still. "How did you slip that past my bodyguard?"
"I didn't. I told your late bodyguard that I was here to kill you. He was quite happy to have someone besides himself do the dirty work." With his free hand, Vito pulled the knife from his pocket. Both of them, the one he had slipped out of Gurth's pocket when he pinned him to the wall, and the one he had taken from the hidden drawer when Gurth was laughing.
Gurth began to sink down onto his wicker chair again. Vito shook his head. "If your hand is headed toward your boot, the knife that was in it is under the bed. I slid it there while you thought I was merely wrestling with passion toward you. Though perhaps you have a fourth weapon?"
Gurth said nothing. His expression was impenetrable.
Vito clicked the gun. Then, the safety engaged, he slipped his gun into his pocket and tossed the two knives onto the table, within reach of Gurth's hand. "Not entirely a fool, Gurth. Let's be clear about that."
Gurth glanced briefly at the knives but made no move to touch them. "Very well. Why are you here?"
"I already told you: to save your life. And, if it's possible, to talk to Or."
"Or doesn't exist." Gurth's voice turned hard. "Do you have trouble hearing, or have you misunderstood what I said?"
"I heard what you said. Both of you." Vito turned.
He had nearly reached the door when Gurth said in a voice somewhat breathless, "Where are you going?"
"Home." He spared a glance at the young man surrounded by his toys of youth: strong drink, hidden chambers, and weapons. "If Or wants to talk to me, he knows where to find me."
Outside, with the door closed, Vito paused. The entryway was empty, although he could hear the other bodyguard talking to someone further down the hallway that led to the front door of the House. Vito spent a moment judging from the sound how long it would take the bodyguard to walk to a point where he could see Vito; then Vito turned and pressed his eye against the watch-hole in the door.
Gurth was still standing where Vito had left him. His face had turned red. As Vito watched, Gurth whirled around with a curse and flung his second flask into the dustbin. It landed so hard that the crash was accompanied by the sound of shattering.
Gurth's back was to Vito now, and the bodyguard's voice was closer. Vito turned around and began walking toward the entrance, his hands in his pockets. One hand touched the revolver; the other a piece of paper.
Elsdon's letter had arrived overnight, reaching Vito at the city hotel where he was staying. It was brief and circumspect, but reading between the lines, Vito could tell what had happened.
Vito's dismissal had driven the final wedge between Elsdon and the High Seeker.
That had been all the news Vito needed. He would return home, yes; he must explain to his family what had happened before his father learned of Vito's dismissal through official channels. But Vito would not stay home.
Somehow or other, he would return to the Eternal Dungeon.
. . . To catch a glimpse of this incredible, multifaceted man, one need only consult the memoir of Vito de Vere, who was himself a figure of great controversy.
The central facts about Vito de Vere's clash with Layle Smith in the tenth month of 363 were not disputed by any of the parties: While completing his term as a Seeker-in-Training, the young de Vere fell in love with a prisoner and unwittingly permitted this dangerous criminal a means to escape the dungeon.
Layle Smith took what, even by modern standards, would seem to be a reasonable course of action: he dismissed Vito de Vere from his job, denying that young man the opportunity to take his final oath of commitment as a Seeker. If the story had ended there, de Vere would be remembered only as a minor footnote in history: one of many prison-workers who failed to live up to the high standards of employment at the Eternal Dungeon.
But Vito de Vere shared one characteristic with Layle Smith: he always did the unexpected. Within days of de Vere's dismissal, the newspapers of Yclau and foreign countries headlined the news: for the first time ever, a lawsuit for unjust dismissal had been brought by a recent Seeker-in-Training against the Eternal Dungeon.
Thus was triggered the final, climactic battle between the New School and the Old School.
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.