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.
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.
Outside the cell, there was a scuffing of boots as one of the guards adjusted his position. Further down the corridor, Mr. Chapman – the nominal supervisor of the day-shift workers, who tended to defer all important decisions to the High Seeker – spoke in low tones to his own guards. A door's hinges creaked, and then the door closed with a soft thud. Then silence.
Silence had reigned in Vito's breaking cell for three hours now. Vito lightly leaned his hand against the cool stone blocks of the cell wall, a luxury he would ordinarily not have permitted himself. The painted surface of the wall was moist. The ventilation system in the Eternal Dungeon did a miraculous job of sucking moisture out of the underground dungeon's air, but the breaking cells were the most tightly enclosed rooms in the dungeon. Thin slots on the ceiling provided ventilation; the only other escape for the moisture was the equally thin space under the door and the tiny watch-hole, through which the junior guard was duty-bound to keep an eye on his Seeker, in case the Seeker should break the Code.
Breaking the Code with this particular prisoner seemed increasingly unlikely. For a prisoner to refuse to answer questions was not uncommon, particularly since the time that Layle Smith followed his love-mate's advice and ordered that a copy of the Code of Seeking be placed in every breaking cell, so that the prisoners could better understand their rights. Until then, Seekers had been required to recite the most important rules to prisoners, a practice still followed with prisoners who were illiterate or who knew only foreign tongues. But Elsdon, who had the prisoner's perspective on such matters, had argued that prisoners were often too terrified of their Seekers to fully absorb any introductory remarks made by the man whom the prisoner believed would be torturing them soon afterwards.
So now every prisoner received a copy of the Code. As a result, every prisoner knew that, if he wanted to avoid incriminating himself or being punished by a Seeker, all that he need do is stay respectful but silent.
This particular prisoner was not following the dungeon rules for "respect." Like a child who has been menaced, he was huddled under his high bed once more, gripping his legs against his chest and staring into his lap. Dungeon custom required that a prisoner stand during his searching, a custom that had broken more than one prisoner through weariness alone.
Vito considered that particular custom a form of mild torture. He was willing enough to practice it on hardy men who were used to standing for long hours at their work, but not on the slender youth before him, who looked barely into his manhood.
Vito's arm was growing tired of holding his weight. He shifted back to the position he had held before: parade rest, his legs apart, his hands at the small of his back.
The prisoner spoke. It was the first time he had spoken in three days. He said, "Aren't you tired?"
He had raised his eyes high enough to peer at Vito through his unkempt hair, which fell over his face. His arms were still rigid around his legs.
Vito replied, "A bit. But I've been trained to stand for long periods."
This reminder that Vito had received the training of a prison-worker had an unfortunate effect: the prisoner's face dived into the cradle of his arms. Vito simply waited.
It was not uncommon for many days to pass before a prisoner was broken. Elsdon's first prisoner had taken five months to break, though that was an extreme case. Two weeks was the average time needed to break a prisoner who was not tortured; one week for a prisoner who was tortured. One month was not unusual.
Vito was beginning to think that it would take a year to persuade this particular prisoner to speak. It didn't matter. Patience was one of his strengths as a prison-worker.
Two hours later, the prisoner said, "I'm tired too."
His voice was soft. It had always been soft, except when he had made that astounding announcement on the first day. Vito doubted that Mr. Crofford, standing behind the iron door, could hear the prisoner now. But he and Mr. Boyd had undoubtedly heard the prisoner cry out on the first day.
What did the guards think of this case? If they had been any other guards, Vito might have asked them. The High Seeker had been quite correct when he said that long-time guards could pass on valuable information concerning the handling of prisoners. Vito knew that himself, as a former guard.
But in face of Mr. Boyd's implacable hostility and Mr. Crofford's frigid formality, Vito hadn't been tempted to ask. Nor had he been able to consult Birdie about this case. He would have to solve it himself.
He suggested, "You might be a bit cramped. You could walk about for a spell."
The prisoner greeted this suggestion with wide eyes. "You wouldn't mind?"
"Not at all. I might do the same. There's room enough here, near the door."
"Oh." The prisoner slid out from under the bed, keeping a wary eye on the other inhabitant of the cell. Vito did the same. He had been safer with the prisoner crouching under the bed; now the chances that Vito would be physically attacked by the prisoner had risen.
But the prisoner simply shook one of his legs, as though it had been asleep, and began walking back and forth before his bed. After a moment, Vito followed his example, striding the short length to and fro along the wall that held the door.
The breaking cells were exceedingly narrow, due to the need to cram as many cells as possible into the confined space of the inner dungeon. In the old days, before the renovation, the whipping ring had been placed upon the wall of glass blocks that hid the furnace, while the stone ledge that constituted a bed was located along one of the long walls. During the renovation, their positions had been reversed, so that prisoners could sleep in the warmest part of the cell. Vito had heard guards complain that the new arrangement made it harder for them to whip prisoners, because there wasn't enough room for them to draw back the whip. As far as Vito was concerned, that was reason enough for the change.
The prisoner was walking rapidly to and fro, his head bowed, his left arm behind his back with his left hand grasping the right arm, behind the elbow. The position of service. Had this prisoner been in service, then? The mid-class accent remained to be explained.
After a few minutes, Vito said, "Better?"
"Yes, sir, thank you."
Lack of respect was clearly not going to be a problem with this prisoner. Vito was relieved at that knowledge. One of the easiest justifications that Seekers found for torturing prisoners was to claim the prisoners had violated the dungeon rule that prisoners and Seekers alike demonstrate signs of respect to one another. All that a prisoner need do is forget to say sir, or sit down for an instant, or some other trivial lapse, and the Seeker would instantly have the prisoner bound to the whipping ring. After three such lapses, the Seeker had an excuse to rack the prisoner, with the High Seeker's permission. The High Seeker rarely failed to give permission.
It was a much easier way to break the prisoner than waiting three days for him to speak. Vito had been somewhat nervous on the second day, when the prisoner collapsed into a huddle under his bed. His nervousness came from the fact that Mr. Crofford was watching the exchange. Would the guards intervene, knowing that Vito had permitted a prisoner to break the Code?
But there had been no intervention. Perhaps there would be some positive aspects to Mr. Boyd's clear commitment to protect the prisoners against evil-hearted Seekers.
Vito made no further remarks, but after a minute, he paused to stretch. The prisoner followed suit. Then Vito stretched his leg out to one side: stretching his left leg while standing on his right leg, then stretching his right leg while standing on his left leg. The prisoner followed suit and then, of his own accord, began leaning forward to touch his toes.
The prisoner knew calisthenics. Therefore, at some time or another, he had either been gently schooled or had attended classes at the Young Men's Rebirth Association.
Calisthenics were not taught at commoners' schools. The mystery deepened.
Vito said, "I always used to hate calisthenics class. Too rigidly formal, I thought. I preferred the rough-and-tumble of the athletics field."
The prisoner peered at him sideways as he pushed imaginary dumb-bells away from his chest, but said nothing. Perhaps, upon reflection, "rough-and-tumble" was the wrong phrase to have added to this conversation.
Vito tried again. "Or schoolwork. I liked that. All those books, teaching me things I'd never known before. . . . I suppose I was an unusual schoolboy."
No response from the prisoner. Well, it had been worth a try. Vito pulled himself up from doing squats and leaned against the wall, panting. He was soaked to the skin with sweat. Intelligent Seekers, who knew that they would be standing for hours on end at the cold end of breaking cells – not to mention in the chilly rack rooms – would bundle themselves up in layers of warm drawers. That type of clothing was ill-suited for exercise. He could feel the cool air begin to prick his moist skin.
The prisoner said, as though surprised, "I was hot, but now I'm getting cold."
"It's probably due to your perspiration. There's a blanket on your bed. I'll call for a fresh set of clothes for you."
"No, don't!" The prisoner's voice was so anguished that Vito turned back, his hand still raised on the point of knocking on the iron door. He held the key to the cell, but the prisoner wasn't to know that.
At Vito's enquiring look, the prisoner stammered, "I . . . I'd rather not take off my clothes in front of you, sir."
It was not unknown for prisoners to fear rape at the hands of their Seekers, but there was something particularly poignant about having a youth stare at him with fright.
Vito was not so far past his own youth that he had forgotten the vulnerability of that time. He had heard that, in Vovim, only brothel youths shared men's beds, but the customs were different in Yclau. His parents had made sure that, after a certain age, he always walked the streets with groups of friends or with a trusted family escort. There had also been long, earnest discussions, late at night, as to whether they should appoint Vito with a "guardian," as the Yclau termed it. Vito himself had taken part in the discussions. His parents were modern-minded enough to believe that the youth should be consulted on such matters, and Vito's father had made clear that Vito need not sleep with his guardian unless he desired instruction that would help him in his marriage-bed.
Though he did not tell his parents, Vito already knew that his destiny lay in the Eternal Dungeon. He might or might not be free to marry there – he might be hired as a guard and thus be permitted to marry – but he had no particular desire to wed. His life's goal was focussed, quite narrowly, upon reforming the Eternal Dungeon. Unlike Birdie, who would eventually marry a fellow Seeker, Vito wasn't interested in diluting his energy through domestic concerns.
Besides, he had already received what sexual instruction he might need from his schoolfellows.
So he had passed up the opportunity to be gently mentored by a man who would protect him against less scrupulous men. As a result, his youth had been haunted by a certain awareness of danger from older men.
What must it be like to be a youth who had barely reached manhood, and who found himself the captive of an older man?
Vito tried to give a reassuring smile, though he knew that the prisoner could not see his expression behind the hood. "I wouldn't stay in the room while you changed. And I won't touch you, whatever happens. The guards may touch you, under narrow circumstances that are in accordance with the dungeon's Code, but Seekers are never permitted to touch prisoners. It's one of our strictest rules."
A rule that had been broken many times, and not only by Seekers who wished to harm their prisoners. Even Elsdon had admitted privately to Vito that, more than once, he had longed to place his arm around a prisoner who was sobbing in anguish.
"The regulation against touching prisoners is a good rule, Vito," Elsdon had said, "but it's a bit too inflexible for my liking. There ought to be a way to reframe it to allow Seekers to comfort their prisoners. I know that it hurt me greatly that the High Seeker wouldn't touch me when I cried during my imprisonment."
Vito's prisoner stared down at his feet, biting his lip and looking very young. He whispered something.
"What did you say, Mr.—?"
He hesitated on the name, but the prisoner appeared not to notice. Speaking just above a whisper this time, the prisoner said, "But you'll have to touch me when you torture me."
His voice must have been overly firm, for the prisoner's gaze flew up; astonishment lay in his eyes.
"No," Vito repeated firmly but more gently. "That's not the type of work I do. I'm capable of carrying out my duties without need for torture. It goes against my professional pride to resort to racks." It went against a great deal more than that, but he had decided beforehand that "professional pride" was the most convincing excuse to use, should this topic arise with any of his prisoners.
Now the astonishment on his prisoner's face was giving way to a look of wonder. "But . . . but what do you do to your prisoners, then?"
"I talk to them."
"Yes. That's all. We talk, and I listen to anything they want to tell me."
The prisoner considered this with furrowed brow before blurting out, "I wasn't trained in the social graces."
Vito managed, with effort, to keep from smiling. "That doesn't matter. You needn't talk about the weather or the fashions this season or any other gracious conversation."
"Then what do you talk about with your prisoners?" the youth asked cautiously.
"Well," said Vito, feeling on safer ground now, for he had entered into the portion of the Code that he actually agreed with, "the first thing I do is try to determine whether my prisoner is innocent—"
"Oh!" The prisoner's face lit up, glowing like a newborn sun. "Do you? Do you really? Then I—"
And then the glow was gone, as though the moon's face had suddenly eclipsed it. The prisoner's expression had turned with frightening suddenness to despair. "Then I'm lost," he whispered.
"Why is that?" asked Vito quietly.
The prisoner toed the tiled floor, saying nothing.
"Mr. Gurth?" Vito said yet more softly.
The prisoner did not look up.
"Or do you have another name?" pursued Vito.
The prisoner nodded, a brief jerk of the head, without raising his gaze.
"What is your name?"
"You said it," whispered the prisoner.
"Or? As in either/or?"
The prisoner's face seemed shadowed by a smile for a moment, and then the incipient amusement disappeared. "Yes," the prisoner said. "Either. Or."
"And who is Mr. Gurth?" Keeping his voice low, Vito moved to the center of the cell, so that there would be no chance of the guards overhearing him. "Is he your 'either'?"
The prisoner bit his lip again. He was clutching his trouser legs now, his knuckles white.
"Does he look like you?" Vito persisted.
The most likely possibility, of course, was that this was a case of mistaken identity. It was not supposed to happen, especially in the Eternal Dungeon, but occasionally the patrol soldiers would arrest someone who simply looked like the criminal. Surprisingly few prisoners had ever tried to exploit this fact by pretending that they had been mistaken for the real criminal.
This youth might be the exception, though.
The prisoner lifted his head; the astonishment had returned to his eyes. "I don't know," he said. "I . . . I suppose he must."
"You've never seen him?" Vito took a few steps forward, keeping a careful eye on the prisoner.
The prisoner, though, seemed too absorbed in this question to be considering an attack. "How could I?" he responded. "It's either him . . . or . . ."
Vito felt a prickling along his back that did not come from the coldness of his sweat. "Or you? He goes away when you're here?"
Again the prisoner hung his head, remaining silent.
"Just Or," the prisoner whispered.
"'Or,' then," said Vito quietly, "I'm trying to understand. Is someone taking your place?"
"Oh, no." The prisoner shook his head. "Not at all. I'm the intruder. He's real, and I'm the one who takes over his mind and body."
"You're so close to successfully ending your training that you really ought to find yourself a love-mate here."
Leaning over to hand Elsdon a wrench, Vito blinked rapidly. He had not expected so direct an approach.
Not that he mistook Elsdon's meaning. His early fears that Elsdon would seek to change the nature of their friendship had faded as he realized how unlikely that was. In the ordinary way of things, he supposed, Elsdon would have sampled the beds of various Seekers, the way many Seekers did. Elsdon was too generous-minded a man to confine his love to a single person.
But Elsdon had not taken the ordinary way of things: he had taken Layle Smith as his love-mate. The High Seeker, it was manifestly clear to Vito, was a man whose single-minded focus on Elsdon had become dangerously possessive.
Still trying to figure out how to raise the subject he wished to discuss, Vito protested, "I'm no frustrated virgin, Elsdon. I'm not going to rape my prisoner!" He had told Elsdon of his prisoner's fears – he had felt he could share that much with Elsdon – as a general way of raising a topic that was increasingly concerning him.
Elsdon gave a sad little laugh as he tightened a screw on the underside of a rack he lay beneath. "It's dangerous to predict what any of us are capable of, but I wasn't envisioning that. There are other ways that an unmated Seeker can be a danger to his prisoner . . . Well, Layle could speak better about this than I can."
Vito could well imagine that the High Seeker had great expertise on the topic of sexually assaulting one's prisoners. Like all Seekers, Layle Smith's public records lay open to view to Seekers and guards. Vito had perused those records carefully upon his arrival in the dungeon. His only surprise had been that the High Seeker was arrested for raping a prisoner in this dungeon on a single occasion.
The case had been hushed up, of course. Since it was run under its own laws, separate from the queendom's, the Eternal Dungeon possessed its own judicial system. In theory, a Seeker who had committed premeditated rape or murder ought to be condemned to death, just as any of the dungeon's other prisoners would be. Indeed, the Code of Seeking went further than Yclau law, defining any sexual contact between a prison-worker and a prisoner as rape, punishable by the death of the prison-worker.
In practice, though, such a punishment rarely occurred, for any execution must enter into the public record. The Eternal Dungeon was all too fond of protecting its reputation against open scandal.
"I suppose," Vito said, delicately toeing his way around the subject at hand, "being mated to you helps him."
"To keep control of himself with the prisoners?" Elsdon replied cheerfully as he leaned to the side to drop a rusted bolt into his tool chest and to select a new one. "Oh, Layle's control over himself is extraordinary – you'd know that if you realized how powerful his urges are toward destruction."
This was hardly the reassurance Vito had sought. Still dancing around the edge of his chosen topic, he said, "And it's not hard for you?"
"To keep control of myself with the prisoners?" asked Elsdon, wiping his sweaty forehead with a rag. Budget cuts had forced the dungeon to cease hiring blacksmiths, who were ordinarily in charge of keeping the racks in working order. Elsdon, who had been a mechanical-minded boy, had spent so many years quizzing the blacksmiths about their work on the racks that he had volunteered to take over as the dungeon's mechanic of racks. Vito had entered the rack room just as Elsdon was pulling a pair of pincers off the wall, from the collection of antique instruments stored there.
Sometimes Elsdon did things which Vito found entirely bewildering. He supposed it was the influence of Layle Smith. "No," he replied to Elsdon. "I mean . . . helping your love-mate to keep control of himself . . ."
"You mean our special form of lovemaking?" responded Elsdon bluntly, still chipper as he tightened hard the nut around the new bolt. "It's easier for me than for Layle. For me, it's something I do out of love for him. For Layle, it's a genuine need. He was ashamed of himself for years. Do you know that three of his past love-mates abandoned him when they discovered he was a sadist in the bedroom? Three! I can't imagine how much courage it took him to tell me, and to ask me to bond with him."
Vito had no wish to hear about Layle's past love-life. "And you . .. I mean, given your past . . ."
Elsdon turned his head. "Vito," he said in his usual direct manner, "are you asking me what I do in bed with Layle?"
He felt his face flame. Reaching aside for the flask of water he had brought with him, he said quietly, "I heard you crying last night."
He had heard more than that. He had heard Elsdon shouting for help, and then screaming, and then, after a suitable interval, emitting sobs so deep that Vito could imagine that Elsdon was still with his father, being bound and beaten.
"Oh, Vito," said Elsdon, pulling himself out from under the rack. "I'm so sorry." He put his arm around Vito.
It was just like Elsdon to seek to comfort him at such a moment. He shrugged within the warmth of Elsdon's arm, muttering, "I don't want to invade your privacy, but—" But if Elsdon screamed like that again, Vito would attack the High Seeker, no matter what the consequences. The only reason he hadn't done so this time was because Layle Smith's night guards had been standing a little ways down the corridor, talking to each other, apparently unconcerned by the sounds of agony. Vito knew enough about the skills of the High Seeker's senior night guard that he didn't wish to test those skills. More importantly, Mr. Sobel was a friend to Elsdon, which had made it seem prudent to seek Elsdon's perspective on what had happened.
"Layle doesn't like us talking to others about what we do," Elsdon explained.
Sweet blood, Vito had figured that much out long ago.
"It's sacred to him," Elsdon went on.
"Sacred?" Vito pulled himself away from Elsdon's arm. "What sort of god does he worship, Hell?"
Elsdon gave a slight smile. "He has never told me. But I imagine Hell enters into it, yes."
Vito was aghast. In his worst imaginings, it had never occurred to him that Layle Smith was still following the faith of his native land, worshipping and emulating a god who raped and murdered. "And . . . in bed with you . . ." He would have Layle Smith dead for this. Surely there must be some way to enter a death charge against him. Elsdon's father would have been hanged for his abuse if sufficient evidence had existed.
Unexpectedly, Elsdon touched Vito's bare cheek – a brief, light touch, as soft as down. The junior Seeker's smile deepened. "You're really worried for me, aren't you? I ought to have explained to you before now. People who have known Layle for years, like Seward Sobel, don't worry about what he's doing to me, but you, so new to the dungeon . . ." Elsdon rose to his feet, stretching like a pleasantly satisfied cat after his nap. "It's sacred because it's a play, Vito. We play-act."
It took Vito a minute to understand what he meant. There had been a lecture on that in school, something about how theater was a form of religion for the Vovimians. . . . "So he play-acts he's Hell, and you're his victim?"
"Not always. Sometimes he's the man who rescues me from Hell. Or rescues me from anyone else who is harming me. But yes, sometimes he's the captor. He'll lay me out on a rack" – in a nonchalant manner, Elsdon gestured toward the instrument of torture beside them – "and torment me and rape me and prepare to kill me. And then, in the midst of that, he'll be transformed. He'll realize that he's wrong to harm me, and he'll heal me instead."
This was, without doubt, the most twisted form of love-making that Vito could imagine. Rising slowly to his feet, he said flatly, "Transformed."
"Yes, that part is true." Elsdon leaned over to toss the pincers into his tool chest. "Layle really was transformed, back when he was a torturer in Vovim's Hidden Dungeon. He realized suddenly one night, when he was at his terrible work there, that what he was doing was wrong. That's when he fled to Yclau and became a Seeker."
Vito could manage nothing but a bitter laugh. "I can't see that there's any difference between torturing a prisoner in Vovim and torturing a prisoner here."
Once again, Elsdon gave a slight smile. "There's a very great difference between the Hidden Dungeon and the Eternal Dungeon. You'd understand if you'd been there."
Too late to pull his words back; he had forgotten just how it was that Elsdon had come by his knowledge of the Hidden Dungeon. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pull the scabs off old wounds. . . ."
Elsdon waved aside his apology. "That was years ago. I don't regret my imprisonment in the Hidden Dungeon. I learned a lot there that was of value to me."
"That there are worse places than the Eternal Dungeon?" He watched as Elsdon turned the wheel of the rack, testing its readiness for use. The wrist-straps were controlled by the wheel; the ankle-straps were fixed to a heavy bar that did not move. As the wheel turned, the wrist-straps moved back, stretching the anguished body of their imaginary prisoner. Vito felt sick.
"Oh, I already knew that." Elsdon clicked the wheel into the notch of its highest setting. "My father's torment was enough to teach me that. No, what I learned at the Hidden Dungeon was that the Eternal Dungeon has its unique dangers. In its own way, it can be as evil as any prison on this planet."
Vito just managed to keep his jaw from dropping. He had never imagined he would hear Elsdon speak the words that Vito had thought for so long. "In what way?" he asked.
"Through its idealism." Satisfied, Elsdon moved back from the rack. Taking the flask that Vito offered him, he swallowed the remaining water, wiped his face neatly with the rag, and said, "Because we Seekers are so high in our ideals – so strong in our belief that what we do benefits the prisoners – there is a much greater danger here than in the Hidden Dungeon or any other unscrupulous dungeon that we will harm the prisoners while seeking to help them."
Sweet blood. Exactly what he had concluded at age ten, when he sneaked into this dungeon. Exactly what Birdie too had concluded, he knew from his conversations with her.
He and Birdie had reached that conclusion, and then they had set out to find a way to overturn the Eternal Dungeon's practices: to wipe away the old abuses, the ancient chains and tortures, and turn the dungeon into a modern prison that truly lived up to the idealistic words of the Code of Seeking.
And Elsdon . . .
"What did you do with this knowledge?" Vito asked. His heart was beating so hard now that his hand was unsteady as he took back the flask. A potential ally. He had not been sure before, but now he was close to knowing. If Elsdon was secretly waging war against the High Seeker, then Vito and Birdie could share their plans with him—
Elsdon abruptly turned aside and began fiddling with the rack-straps. "I told the Codifier of my concerns."
The disappointment was cold in his stomach, like the sickness that had come before. "What did the Codifier say?" he asked, knowing the answer. The High Seeker and the Codifier were two chessmen of the same color, forever upholding the dungeon's current destructive regime.
"He thanked me for my insight." Elsdon did not look up from the rack. "He promised me that my thoughts would be taken into consideration when he and Layle selected a successor for the High Seekership, and that man penned the next revision of the Code."
Which was as much to say that nothing would change. Vito could just imagine what sort of man Layle Smith would select as his successor. At best, it would be Weldon Chapman, who was a good man and could have been a good Seeker if he hadn't chosen to blindly follow Layle Smith down every disgusting path.
At worst . . . Over the years, Layle Smith had filled the dungeon with like-minded Seekers. Admittedly, many were older than him and had probably been there since his own days of training, but despite their clear hostility to any sort of change in the dungeon, the supposedly forward-thinking High Seeker had made no effort to have them dismissed. Instead, he had concentrated all his energies on dismissing or executing any guard or Seeker who strayed in the slightest from his old-fashioned policies. He had made it impossible in this dungeon for any prison-worker to so much as whisper the heresy that there might be better ways to reform prisoners than to break their bodies.
And Elsdon . . . Oh, Vito could see the cleverness of Layle's scheme now. No doubt the High Seeker enjoyed what he did to Elsdon in bed, but his nefariousness lay deeper than that. He had trained Elsdon to submit to him, to interpret chains and torture as pleasure, to extend that twisted outlook to Elsdon's own work—
"You're glossing again," observed Elsdon in the mildest of voices.
Vito blinked. "Excuse me?"
"Glossing my words. You recall the scribes in the middle centuries who used to write glosses for prayer books? They'd take a prayer that was three lines long, and before they were through, their gloss on the prayer would fill a hundred pages. You do the same thing when you're talking to people. You gloss what we say, at greater length than what we've actually said."
He felt his face flame again. "I'm a bit worried about you, that's all—"
Elsdon laughed then, picking up his tool chest from the floor. "Vito, you do it with everyone. People have commented. Layle said that you're the most introspective man he has ever met, outdoing even himself. He says that when he has you into his office, he always makes your appointments twice as long as other people's because he knows that half that time will be spent with you silent, interpreting in your mind the words he has spoken. He says that you sometimes get so caught up in your thoughts that you forget he's there and miss him thanking you for your time."
This was so unjust an accusation that Vito strangled on a reply. Glancing over his shoulder at the mended rack, Elsdon added, "Layle used to do the same, but in his case it was due to daytime dreamings, and he successfully worked hard to stop himself from dreaming while he was searching prisoners. He was always aware of the dreamings, from the time they first started when he was a youth. But you, Vito . . ." Elsdon turned back, his expression somber. "You didn't realize until I told you, did you? Even though everyone else around you knew. If you aren't willing to face your own self-deceptions, how do you expect to help the prisoners face theirs? And how can you truly listen to what the prisoners tell you if you're busy glossing and interpreting their words and actions?"
The embarrassment and anger had receded, leaving behind a great weight of humility. It was not the first time this had happened. Elsdon was truly one of the most skilled Seekers in the dungeon. You would go to him, thinking that you were about to aid him, and then he would "turn the turtle over," as the Vovimians put it, and you'd find yourself lying with your vulnerable belly up, needing a helping hand from Elsdon to escape from your predicament.
"I'll try to change," Vito said quietly.
"I know you will, old friend." Elsdon rested his free hand lightly on Vito's shoulder. "You have a gift for self-transformation. I've known that since I witnessed you emerge from this dungeon as a child and dedicate yourself, at the age of ten, to spending your life helping prisoners. I'm a much better man because I knew you when I was young."
And that too was just like Elsdon, thought Vito as Elsdon doused the oil lamp in the rack room before opening the door. To Elsdon, that long-ago episode was only a dim memory, but he would recall it as a way to energize Vito into keeping his promise.
A Seeker of exceeding talents. What would happen to this dungeon if Elsdon finally chose to turn the turtle over with Layle Smith, and seek his own, separate path?
"If you're the intruder," said Vito, "then I'd like to meet my real prisoner, please."
It was the fifth day of searching. After the previous day's revelation by the prisoner – "Or," Vito found he was thinking of the prisoner – the young man had grown silent and withdrawn from conversation, apparently regretting his outburst. This morning, though, he had jumped to his feet when Vito entered the cell, and he looked as though he were hanging upon every word that Vito spoke.
Now the prisoner paled. He turned a sickly white, all in an instant. Vito said sharply, "Sit down."
The prisoner sank down onto his bed and gulped air. More gently, Vito said, "Hang your head over. You'll be all right in a minute. Do you feel dizzy?"
Or said nothing, but he nodded, bowed his head, and continued to gulp air while Vito wondered what he would do if his prisoner fainted. It was the senior guard's duty to revive fainting prisoners with smelling salts, but if Or woke to find a large, grim guard looming over him . . .
"I'm sorry," whispered Or. "I'm sorry."
Again, Vito moved to the center of the cell, this time to hear Or more clearly. "It's all right. I didn't mean to startle you. You would rather I didn't speak to Mr. Gurth?"
"It's not that." Or stared at his hands, which were once more clutching his trousers.
"You'd rather not go away?" Vito ventured.
Or licked his lips and said nothing.
"I should think that you'd prefer to escape from this place." Vito gestured at the walls.
"I . . . I would if . . ."
Vito waited. As he did so, he tried very hard not to think, just to listen and watch. Elsdon's accusation had kept Vito awake until the small hours of morning. He had no doubt the accusation was true; Elsdon was far too talented to have gone astray in so important a matter. And other people had noticed this too, Elsdon had said. Vito wasted half the night rolling back and forth in his bed, caught in the humiliation of having his lapse in duty noticed by the High Seeker.
Then he came to his senses. Layle Smith didn't matter; what mattered was Vito's prisoner. Somehow, Vito must find a way to exert control over himself in the breaking cell and keep his attention firmly fixed upon—
It seemed the cap of his embarrassment that Vito had to ask Or to repeat what he was in the midst of saying. Or stared at him, fear on his face, and Vito found himself saying, "It's my fault. I let my thoughts stray. I apologize for my inattention."
"Oh," breathed Or. "Oh, I – I don't mind, sir. Really, I don't. You see, it's the first time—" He stopped abruptly. A blush crept up his neckline.
"Yes?" Vito asked politely. During the ensuing silence, he tried to focus himself on Or's hands, long-fingered, with well-trimmed nails.
"It's the first time anyone has spoken to me," Or said in a rush.
Vito remained silent a moment, his gaze raised to Or's face, flushed and breathless, the red extending under the line of his chestnut hair, which fell across his brow in a stiff wave. Then Vito said, "I'll be glad to talk with you for as long as you wish. But I'd like to talk to Mr. Gurth as well."
Or stroked the backs of his hands in nervous jerks, apparently unaware of what his hands were doing. He said, "I don't know . . . I don't know whether I can fetch him."
"He decides when to come and go, then?"
"And when you come . . ."
"No one has guessed," Or said. "No one has ever known that I'm me. They think I'm Gurth."
"And you haven't told them?"
Or shook his head. "They'd help Gurth get rid of me. Because I'm the intruder. I don't . . . I don't want to die."
There were tears in his eyes now, rimming his lashes and making them sparkle under the light. Vito said in as matter-of-fact a manner as he could manage, "Is that why you're here now? Because Mr. Gurth wanted you here, in his place?"
"I . . . I suppose so."
"Well, then, he'll want you back afterwards if I talk to him, won't he?" Vito smiled at the prisoner, frustrated once more by his inability to convey friendliness through facial expression. A Seeker's face-cloth must remain down whenever he searched a prisoner; the Code dictated this. The High Seeker had very firm opinions on that rule. Vito supposed that, in Layle Smith's case, it was a way of hiding from the prisoner his essentially vicious nature, lest the prisoner take fright—
". . . if you want me to," Or was saying. "I don't want to go against your orders."
"It's not an order," Vito said, wondering what he had missed hearing. "It's just a request. I think it might help you if I got to know your 'either.' And then we can talk later about what I saw. Agreed?" His smile still couldn't be seen – blast the High Seeker and his inflexible rules – but he tried to make his voice as warm as possible.
Or said softly, "I'm not sure how to tell him to come. I've always wanted him to stay away, before."
"Just let yourself go, as though you were falling asleep," Vito suggested. "Let him come to the surface."
Or gnawed at his lip, before saying with a burst, "You'd better stand back!"
"Is he dangerous, then?" He took several steps backwards, until his back was against the door again.
"I think so," whispered Or. "People are afraid of me . . . afraid of him. I think he's very dangerous."
If Gurth was as dangerous as all that, Vito ought to fetch his guards into the cell. Vito thought that, and then dismissed the idea. He had been a guard not long ago, charged with controlling dangerous prisoners. Although he was handicapped now by the Code's rule that Seekers should avoid touching prisoners, the Code was realistic enough to make an exception if someone's life – including the Seeker's – was under immediate threat. Whatever happened when the dangerous prisoner arrived, Vito thought he could handle it.
"Thank you for warning me," Vito replied quietly. "You can . . . wait outside now."
Or said nothing. He was staring at a point above Vito's head, glassy-eyed, as though he had ingested silver pot-herb. Vito waited, curious to see what sort of transformation would take place . . . and how convincing it would be.
In fact, he missed the moment of transformation. If he'd been less skilled at his work, he'd have missed the transformation altogether.
Nothing happened. The prisoner's face did not take on the expression of a cocky criminal. The prisoner did not snarl, "What d'ya want, copper?" or any other clichéd line from shilling-shocker stories.
Nothing happened except that Vito became aware that the prisoner no longer looked glassy-eyed, and that he was breathing heavily.
Slowly, as though with great caution, the prisoner looked around the cell. It took him a moment to notice Vito, and when he did, nothing dramatic happened. The prisoner's hands formed slowly into fists, but that was all. He said nothing, and after a moment, his gaze returned to the spot where it had been before. He closed his eyes and whispered.
Despite his awareness of the danger, Vito found himself walking forward, drawn to that whisper. By the time he was halfway down the cell, he could hear what the prisoner was saying: "Gotta get 'im back. Gotta get 'im back. Gotta think – aye, gotta think."
The accent was that of a commoner. So was the grammar. Yet the prisoner was making no effort to speak loudly enough to be heard at the other end of the cell, and the whisper was clearly not meant as a lure to draw Vito closer, for in the next moment, the prisoner opened his eyes. He blinked several times, as though awakening from sleep.
"Did he come?" asked Or.
The healer was not available. Vito's immediate response to this news was relief.
Vito's encounters with the dungeon healer, Mr. Bergsen, had been pleasant ones; the man clearly had strong feelings against the use of torture upon the prisoners whom he healed. But the healer worked for the Codifier, and his usual seal of secrecy on medical matters was lifted in cases of mental illness. If Mr. Bergsen determined that Vito's prisoner had a mental disease, then the Codifier would be notified and, in all likelihood, the prisoner would be removed from Vito's care.
Vito did not think that pride alone made him reluctant to give up his prisoner. To persuade a frightened prisoner to talk was a skill not all Seekers possessed; some possess greater talent at intimidating harsh, hostile prisoners into offering their confessions. Intimidation would only cause Or to bury himself more deeply than he had already done, with the possibility that he would not emerge a second time.
No, Or was best suited to remain Vito's prisoner. With both the High Seeker and Mr. Bergsen gone from the dungeon, Vito need not worry about interference.
But he did worry about Or's health. After thinking a moment, he asked a second question to Mr. Bergsen's medical aide, a nurse who tended the inner dungeon's sick and tortured in the healer's absence. The nurse, pausing from his task of refilling a locked medicine cabinet, directed Vito to the Eternal Dungeon's lending library.
The library was relatively new. It had been added during the renovation of the dungeon, part of Layle Smith's long-term plan to keep the outer-dungeon workers happy and satisfied with their work and, Vito suspected, too secure in their employment to want to risk questioning the bloody activities of the Seekers.
Whatever the High Seeker's motives, there was no question that the Eternal Dungeon offered unsurpassed luxuries to its laborers: a nursery for the laborers' children, an evening school for any laborers who wished to improve their minds, and a ranking system that awarded hard work and creativity. Vito had heard from Elsdon that Yeslin Bainbridge, the famous leader of the Commoners' Guild, had visited the dungeon, intending to stir up its laborers against unjust working conditions, only to learn that there were no injustices in the outer dungeon for him to correct.
The lending library was the latest luxury offered to the laborers. It was modelled after the lending library in the capital, where many of the laborers lived, but unlike the library in the lighted world above, this one charged not even a token lending fee. It did not need to; laborers who failed to return books in good condition and in a timely manner would have their pay docked.
During non-work hours – the two-hour dawn shift and the two-hour dusk shift – the library was clogged with laborers borrowing penny dreadfuls and shilling shockers and other such lurid literature suitable for commoners. The library had been half filled with such books before a Seeker, very quietly, had suggested that prisoners liked to read also – even prisoners of the better class.
Nobody had mistaken his meaning. A consultation had followed, and at the end of the consultation, the remaining half of the library was filled with higher-class literature, donated by inner-dungeon workers, primarily Seekers who had used their small allowance over the years to buy books. The High Seeker – who proved to have surprisingly cultured tastes – donated his library of books on theater and the visual arts. Elsdon donated a few books on engineering, as well as some collections of ballads penned by Yeslin Bainbridge. The High Seeker's senior night guard, Seward Sobel, was able to offer a very large collection of books on military history. Mr. Chapman – purportedly blushing as he did so – gave the library a small stack of volumes of love poetry, many inscribed to his wife. And there was, of course, an impressive collection on the techniques of torture, though this was kept in a locked room within the library, accessible only by special permission.
Very few of the prisoners in the breaking cells borrowed any of these books. Virtually all of those prisoners were commoners, and the few who had interest in anything other than their continued survival were more likely to request a shilling shocker filled with tales of crime and gore.
It was the other prisoners who borrowed high-class books in great quantities from the library: the Seekers, who had vowed to spend the rest of their lives in the Eternal Dungeon.
Because they were classified as prisoners, they could not afford to build up the sort of large libraries that these elite men would doubtlessly have owned if the Seekers had remained in the lighted world. The lending library, where their individual small collections were pooled into a large collection, was a boon to such men.
Eyeing the books of revolutionary ballads by the leader of the Commoners' Guild, Vito reflected that Elsdon possessed a talent for creating rebellions in a most subtle manner. When he became a full Seeker, Vito thought he could follow suit by donating all the books he had accumulated over the years on the ethical dangers and practical uselessness of torturing prisoners for confessions. That sort of reading ought to give the book-hungry Seekers a few sleepless nights.
But his immediate need was in another part of the collection.
After consulting with the librarian – a suitably taciturn woman – Vito was led to another locked room, where he was given free use of the books for as long as he desired. This room contained the healer's medical library.
The medical library was especially rich with books on mental healing, for Mr. Bergsen had tended the High Seeker during the worst years of that man's mental illness. It said something about the Eternal Dungeon, Vito thought grimly, that it allowed itself to be led by a man who had almost ended his days in a mental sanitarium. But Mr. Bergsen's interest in mental illness was to Vito's benefit now. Vito had sought out many books on mental healing over the years, but this was a collection beyond imagination, filling six full bookcases. There were even imported books on the topic from foreign countries. Taking into hand the fat volume of the latest revision of the Mental Healing Encyclopaedia, Vito sat down to begin his research.
Seven hours later, nearly buried under the volumes he had piled on the table after consulting, Vito stretched wearily. He glanced at the grandpapa clock, ticking between a bookcase containing leather-bound volumes on mental disorders. Hysteria, hypochondriasis, paralytic insanity, puerperal insanity . . . Vito's mind buzzed now with the names of all the diseases which native and foreign mental healers had identified.
None of them fit what Vito had seen in his prisoner's breaking cell. Nowhere could Vito find a case history of a man whose personality had evidently split in two.
Vito covered his face with his hands. The smell of old books tickled his nose. He could hear the deep, reverberant tick of the clock and the shuffle of papers by the librarian in the main room. The dungeon was otherwise silent. It was well past midnight now; the midnight meals had been served, and the outer-dungeon kitchen workers had been released to go home. Aside from a few ancillary workers, such as the night nurse, the only men still awake in the dungeon were the Seekers and guards on the night watch, as well as their prisoners. Having talked to Or beyond the end of the dusk shift, Vito had left his own night-shift guards keeping vigil over his prisoner. The guards were both young, the older of them only recently promoted to senior position, and both were eager to follow orders and prove themselves worthy of their titles. Vito wasn't worried that his prisoner would come to harm at their hands.
But if Vito did not resolve this problem soon, the High Seeker and the healer would return to the dungeon, and Vito would likely be removed from Or's searching. Sighing heavily, Vito stared down at the volume. No case of a personality splitting . . . That did not mean no such case existed. It might be written up in some obscure volume within the library. But if it was so obscure as this, it was unlikely that Mr. Bergsen had any more knowledge to offer than Vito himself possessed. So Vito must use his own wits to decipher the case.
Pushing aside the book, he crossed his arms upon the table and laid his head onto his arms. He was tired, but he was too well-trained to fall asleep while he remained – in his own mind, at least – on duty. Resting his eyes alone, he began to try to recall the words and actions that Or had spoken since their first meeting.
The trouble he had in recalling those words and actions made him uneasy. He had a good memory; the problem was simply that he had not been paying enough attention to Or to easily recall their time together. There were gaps in his memory that he could fill only with his thoughts at the time, not with a recollection of what had taken place while he ruminated in the breaking cell.
It was becoming increasingly clear that Elsdon was right: Vito had allowed his interior monologues to drown out his awareness of his prisoner. With the wrong sort of prisoner, that would not only be professionally careless but downright dangerous. Vito was lucky that Or wasn't the type of prisoner to have attacked him.
He heard again the tick of the clock. He tried to hold onto the sound of that ticking, but it drifted away after a moment, drowned out by his thoughts about the antique water-clocks which stood in the rack room, necessitating their refilling every twelve hours by dungeon workers, when the last of the water dripped away. . . .
Vito sighed. No doubt, if he'd been in the rack room at this moment, he'd be allowing his thoughts about grandpapa clocks to drown out his awareness of the water-clocks. He had a very serious lack of self-discipline which Elsdon had been generous enough to point out in his gentle manner. Somehow Vito would have to resolve that disciplinary problem before it caused him to harm his prisoner. But for now . . .
For now he must do his best to help Or with what memories he possessed. He tried again, recalling every word, every gesture that Or and his alter ego had displayed in the breaking room. He ran over and over the memories, seeking the slightest bit of evidence that his prisoner had lied.
For of course that was the most obvious explanation of all for the prisoner's behavior: he had lied to Vito, pretending to be mad, because madmen could not be sent to the gallows. Indeed, thanks to a petition from the Eternal Dungeon to the magistrates' courts some years ago, mentally ill prisoners could not even receive a sentence of life imprisonment for their capital crimes. Instead, prisoners with mental diseases were sent to mental sanitariums, from which, if they were cured of their illness, they might be released in due time.
Only a very naive and inexperienced prison-worker would treat uncritically a prisoner's apparently mad behavior. Vito considered himself neither naive nor inexperienced. From the moment that Or first spoke Gurth's name, as though Gurth were separate from himself, Vito had considered the possibility that his prisoner was lying to save his own skin.
He ran the memories through his mind again, dwelling especially on the moment when Or transformed into Edwin Gurth, and when Gurth transformed into Or. If the break had been clear-cut . . . But it had not; the difference had been subtle, extremely subtle. Far too subtle to be effective as a deliberate display intended for the benefit of the Seeker.
Vito finally drew himself up, taking in a sharp breath. No. Vito would gamble his life on the fact that Or and Gurth were separate men. Not even the finest actor in Vovim could have made so complete a transformation, in so subtle a manner. Every word, gesture, value, and emotion in Gurth was completely different from Or's, yet there had been no attempt on Gurth's part to so much as speak to Vito in order to convince the Seeker that Gurth was a separate personality. The prisoner Or might still be lying to Vito – that possibility could not yet be ruled out – but Vito was quite sure that Or was not lying about the fact that Gurth was a different man from himself.
In which case . . . Vito pulled from his pocket the clipping he had torn from the newspaper he had confiscated shortly before searching Or on the first day. The clipping about conjoined twins.
It was a brief news item from the magistrates' court. One of the magistrates was currently receiving testimony from the Theological Union as to whether conjoined twins had two souls or a single soul. It was a difficult theological case, made more complex by the medical testimony already received, indicating that the conjoined twins could not live separately – that one would die if the other did. The twins functioned bodily as though they were a single human being.
But were their souls separate? Did they have separate consciences? That was the key issue, for one of the twins had been proven guilty of premeditated murder of a nobleman. If the souls were separate, there was a chance that the magistrate would spare the murderer, for the sake of the twin who claimed he had not wished the murder to take place, and who would inevitably die if his twin died.
But if the Theological Union gave witness that the twins' souls and consciences were one, as their bodies were, then both twins would die for the murder that one twin had committed.
As Or would die, if Gurth had committed a capital crime.
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."
"I don't remember when I first intruded," said Or. "It was when I was a child, I think."
The tenth day of searching. Much of the intervening time had been spent in silence – Or periodically withdrew from conversation, still in evident fear of his Seeker – or in repeated attempts by Vito to draw Gurth to the surface. In most instances, Or could manage to draw Gurth back, but that man always slipped away within seconds, ignoring anything that Vito said to him while he was there.
And Or, it was becoming clear, was equally reluctant to provide useful information.
"When you were both children?" Vito replied. On this day, as on most days, he was following the Code's guidelines for searching, which went well beyond the rules for torture. If a prisoner failed to supply the information needed, the Seeker's best course was to persuade the prisoner to talk about some subject that seemed unrelated to the crime – his childhood, for example. A surprising amount of relevant information could often be uncovered that way.
"I suppose so. I never saw him – never spoke to him. I didn't speak to anyone at all. Usually it was at night that I came. I'd stand at the window and watch people pass occasionally in the street, but I was afraid to go out. The first time—" Or swallowed heavily. "—the first time I woke up, I was being beaten by a man. I don't know who he was. He called me Edwin. I knew that wasn't my name, but I didn't know how to tell him. I was afraid that, if I told him the truth, he'd beat me harder, for not being Edwin."
"I see." Vito managed to keep his voice even. Since his arrival at the dungeon, Vito had asked Elsdon once what his father had done to him, and Elsdon had told him, so readily that Vito was startled.
Seeing his surprise, Elsdon had said, "You'll encounter similar stories among your prisoners. Some are falsehoods meant to raise sympathy, but many of these stories are all too true, alas. Men don't become murderers and rapists on a random impulse, Vito. They often turn to violence for the same reason I did: because they were shaped by acts committed upon them at an early age."
It was so easy to forget that Elsdon was a convicted murderer. It was equally easy to forget that this young man sitting in a breaking cell was the same age that Elsdon had been when he battered his young sister to death.
"Sir?" Blinking up at Vito from where he sat on his bed, Or sounded concerned.
Bloody blades, he had to find a way to stop himself from drifting off like this. He focussed himself on Or's body: slender with youth and still fragile to Vito's eye, though Vito had been making sure that Or was properly fed. Or's eye sockets were larger than most men's, adding to his youthful appearance. His lips, on the other hand, were rather thin, which made him look worried and vulnerable. His hair—
"Did this happen again?" Vito asked. "The man beating you?"
Or nodded. "Lots of times. Other times . . . I think Gurth was just asleep. I think that's how I was able to slip into him."
"And what about as you grew older?"
Or bit his lip in evident concentration. "It was the same, really. Sometimes Gurth was in fights with other boys at school. I'd wake up and find myself fighting, but I didn't know how to fight, so I'd lose. And sometimes I'd wake up in the dormitory, and all of the other boys would be asleep. I used to walk up and down, looking at them sleeping, wishing I could tell them who I was – wishing that we could become friends. But of course I couldn't."
It was the matter-of-factness of Or's voice which made this statement so terrible. It took Vito a moment to swallow down the hardness in his throat. "So those were the two times when you were awake? When you were being beaten – by the man or by your schoolfellows – and when Mr. Gurth was sleeping?"
But here, it seemed, he had gone too far, for Or fell silent, and it took Vito another seven hours to persuade him to speak.
They had nearly reached the end of the dusk shift; Vito could hear the night-shift guards replacing the dusk-shift guards, Mr. Boyd and Mr. Crofford having retired from duty a couple of hours earlier to have their suppers. Both men, Vito knew, would arrive promptly at the beginning of the dawn shift; although their duties did not require this of them, the two guards who took the primary shift in Vito's Seekership always seemed to feel the need to quiz the night-shift guards on their duties. It was the mark of skilled guards; Vito only wished that it did not make him feel as though he were being watched to see whether he raped his prisoner during the night.
"It was another man," Or said abruptly.
"Another man?" With effort, Vito shifted his thoughts back to his prisoner.
"Later. After the dormitory. He – he had me in his bed."
Vito stiffened. After a moment, he asked, "Was he your guardian?"
"I don't know. I – I suppose he might have been. But he knew my name. That was what scared me. He called me Or. He told me . . . he told me that I must let him do whatever he wanted to me."
Sweet blood. This was even worse than Elsdon's tales of his childhood.
"And did you?" Vito asked.
Or nodded without looking up.
"That must have been difficult," Vito said. It was not hard to sound sympathetic. "You must have hated it."
Or looked up. His face held an unmistakable expression of surprise. "Oh, no," he replied. "I liked it. I liked quite a lot what he did to me."
Vito had spent the evening wrestling with his conscience, and then wrestling with the Charges index.
The battle with his conscience had been over whether he should read the prisoner's arrest records after all. It had never been his custom to do so – not since the time, as a young patrol soldier, when he had realized how easily such records could be slanted to satisfy any vindictive impulses of the arresting soldiers. Layle Smith's insistence that all Seekers read their prisoners' arrest records was simply evidence that the High Seeker had never been a patrol soldier.
But it was becoming increasingly difficult for Vito to search the prisoner without even knowing why the youth was in this dungeon. Finally, as a compromise with his conscience, Vito had carefully opened the arrest records, bypassing the first page, on which the prisoner's name and other vital statistics were recorded. He already knew the prisoner's legal name. It was written on the front of the volume: Edwin Gurth. The information he sought was on the second page: the charge made against the prisoner.
What he saw made his eyebrows rise. After a few minutes' thought, he visited the Record-keeper.
The dungeon's Record-keeper was normally not the most co-operative person. He seemed to consider any request for information to be an infringement upon his preciously kept time. For once, however, he seemed pleased. Vito gathered that few Seekers had ever asked to consult the Charges volumes that were kept in the Record-keeper's archive.
Once Vito had seen the archive, he understood why. The documents library was so small that the heavy volumes which indexed the many charges made against the dungeon's prisoners over the past century and a half were stacked on a topmost shelf, one upon each other, like boxes in a freight car. Moreover, the charges were not alphabetical; they had been added chronologically over the decades, as the queendom's increasingly complex law system refined the various degrees of murder and rape for which a prisoner might be charged.
It took Vito five full hours to pull out all the volumes, bring them down the ladder, tote them into the entry hall, and skim through them. The charge he was seeking was in the final volume; it had been made only the previous year. On only one other occasion in the entire history of the Eternal Dungeon had a prisoner been charged with raping a prostitute.
It seemed an absurd charge to Vito. A prostitute, by her very nature, was bought and sold. A client who took her without payment could be charged with theft, but how could a prostitute be said to refuse her favors?
Frustrated, Vito asked to consult the arrest records of the prisoner who had previously been sent to the dungeon on this charge. Here he ran into a problem: for reasons that the Record-keeper was unwilling to explain, this particular prisoner's records were kept in the Codifier's office, where Vito would need permission from either the Codifier or the High Seeker to consult them. Finally, in desperation, Vito asked to at least be given the name of the Seeker who had searched the prisoner.
The Record-keeper, with grudging reluctance, gave him the name – gave him three names, in fact. The first name was all that mattered.
Fortunately, Elsdon was still awake, since he was used to being a night-shift worker. When Vito reached the healer's infirmary, he found Elsdon being moved by his nurse into a wheeling chair, on the point of being taken for a much-needed bath.
The nurse looked harassed and overworked. Vito knew, from overhearing dungeon gossip, that no less than three racked prisoners had entered the surgery that day, leaving the nurse to cope with them alone, since the healer was not due back from the palace until week's end.
Vito offered to take Elsdon to his bath. There followed a short conversation in which Vito was able to assure the nurse that he had a license as a medical aide. Military medicine had been his primary study at the Patrol Soldiers' Training Academy, this being the closest he could come to specializing in prisoners' mind-healing, which was his real interest.
Soon he had wheeled Elsdon down to the guards' washroom, which contained the only full-sized bathtub in the inner dungeon. Several naked guards were standing around chatting when he and Elsdon arrived. Among soldiers and guards alike, prolonged washroom gossip was a favorite activity, since superiors were normally not permitted to enter into their subordinates' washing area.
Seeing the injured Elsdon, however, the guards clothed themselves and graciously ceded the washroom to the two Seekers, going so far as to promise to place signs on the washroom's two doors, granting Elsdon his privacy while he bathed.
"I don't know what they envision happening if I bathed in their presence," said Elsdon with a smile. "I'm hardly in any condition to assault them."
Vito paused as he leaned over to scrub Elsdon's back. "Has that happened in this dungeon? Seekers assaulting guards?"
"Not for many years. It was still occurring when Layle first arrived at the Eternal Dungeon. Seward Sobel, who began working here before Layle did, has some harrowing tales to tell of those years. Layle put a stop to all that when he became High Seeker, of course."
Vito bit his cheek to keep himself from replying, "So he wanted all the victims for himself?" He supposed that, after a certain fashion, Elsdon's mateship had benefitted the dungeon; there was no indication in Layle Smith's records that he had sexually assaulted any more victims after Elsdon offered himself up for nightly "play" at the High Seeker's hands. Unfortunately, the dungeon's current rules provided the High Seeker with all too many opportunities to order his guards to physically assault the prisoners, with whip and rack.
Which led Vito to think, yet again, about all the ways in which vindictive patrol soldiers could make life difficult for anyone they chose to arrest. He asked Elsdon the question he needed answered.
To his surprise, Elsdon seemed reluctant to discuss the case. "One of my greatest failures, Vito," said the junior Seeker, staring down at the cooling water of his bath. "I wanted so much to help Garrett Gerson transform himself. But he refused to give me more than his confession. I had to hand him over to another Seeker for further searching, and he in turn handed Garrett on to yet another Seeker. In the end, Garrett was sentenced to execution, unrepentant."
Vito raised his eyebrows. Elsdon usually adhered strictly to the dungeon custom of referring to prisoners by their title and last name. Use of only a first name suggested . . . intimacy. Keeping his voice low as he passed Elsdon the soap, he said, "Were you a bit in love with him, perhaps?"
Elsdon looked startled; then he laughed. "Not I. That's never happened to me with a prisoner . . . though it's happened to Layle a few times. It happened when I was his prisoner, actually, but he is a man without self-deception. He was aware of what was taking place and took steps not to let his falling in love with me influence his behavior in the breaking cell. He was entirely professional in his searching."
Elsdon was far too fond, for Vito's peace of mind, of reminiscing about the days when he was beaten and broken by the High Seeker. Vito sometimes woke from nightmares in which the High Seeker decided it would be more entertaining to have Elsdon hanged than to lure his young prisoner into serving as his bed-victim. Trying to prod the conversation back to safer territory, Vito said, "But this charge . . ."
Elsdon shook his head. "I'd never heard of anyone else being charged with raping a prostitute. All I could think was that the patrol soldiers were tired of arresting Garrett on petty charges and came up with any excuse they could to charge him with a capital crime."
Just as Vito had thought. He wondered what "petty crimes" Edwin Gurth had committed, or whether, indeed, Edwin Gurth had any criminal past at all. His conjoined half, Or, had implied that Gurth was a troublemaker, but that could encompass anything from petty thefts to pranks on passing patrol soldiers.
He needed to know more about Edwin Gurth's background. That meant he needed to ask the person who would most likely give him a truthful answer: Or.
He felt a hand touch his leg. "Hoi, mate. You're drifting off."
Elsdon's attempt to imitate commoner speech caused Vito to smile. Elsdon's hand lay warm on Vito's thigh. Getting Elsdon into the bath had turned out to be such a tricky, wet business that Vito had finally stripped down to his skin as well and was sitting naked on the edge of the bath. He felt as though he'd returned to his dormitory days, when he and his fellow students at the academy would spend hours in the washroom, secure in the knowledge that their superiors were barred from entering the room.
"Mr. de Vere."
Vito fell off the edge of the bathtub. Sprawled naked on the floor, he stared up with outrage at the High Seeker. How dare he – how dare he – enter a washroom where he knew his subordinates to be?
"Layle!" By contrast, Elsdon's voice was filled with joy. "You said you'd be busy all night. Are you finished with the Queen, then?"
"The Queen is finished with me, yes." The High Seeker did not turn his gaze from Vito. "I have not received any reports from you for the last two days, Mr. de Vere."
Vito managed to pick up himself, if not his dignity. "I've been busy during the evenings doing research on my prisoner, sir." Figuring out whether his prisoner was mad and whether he was being framed for a crime was certainly research.
"I will look forward to receiving your findings. Tomorrow, on my desk before the night shift." The High Seeker abruptly turned his attention to Elsdon. "I met the healer in the palace corridor. He has been sent daily reports by your nurse. Mr. Bergsen informed me that you are to be released from the infirmary, to finish the remainder of your recovery in your own bed. Would you like an escort home?"
Elsdon smiled up at him, his eyes brimming with pleasure. "I can think of no better guide, love."
Vito left the washroom then, before he should be sick.
"I feel as though I don't belong here," said Or.
Vito felt much the same. He looked around at the walls of the room, filled with antique instruments that had once torn apart the tormented bodies of prisoners. Some of them still had dried blood on them. They glittered in the light of the oil lamp near the door: wicked and greedy for more suffering.
His prisoner, however, had fixed his gaze upon the largest object in the room: the rack. While most of the ancient instruments of torture on the wall had a certain evil beauty to them, the rack held no pretenses to loveliness. It sat there, a solid lump of metal, awaiting its victim.
Running his finger lightly over the wheel, Or said in an awed voice, "This was created for mighty prisoners – men who have done mighty deeds. Men who will be spoken of in hushed whispers for centuries to come. I'm just an imposter."
Well. Vito supposed that was one way of putting it. He took from his right pocket the little metal drug-box and from his left pocket the flask he had often carried as a patrol soldier. "Come here," he instructed. "I have something for you."
His prisoner came obediently. In the dim lamplight of the rack room – for reasons of drama, all of the rack rooms retained old-fashioned lighting – Or's face appeared to be a sickly yellow. His eyes were bright, however, as he took from Vito's hand the pills.
Vito's gaze wandered away again toward the instruments of torture. This was a ghastly place for a searching – indeed, it was a forbidden place. During work hours, he should not have entered this room with his prisoner except with written permission from the High Seeker.
Technically, though, he was off duty. His night guards, a bit too naive, had not questioned him when he took the prisoner from the breaking cell, saying that he wanted to "frighten" the prisoner with a look at the rack room. Vito would have to have a talk with his night guards later, particularly the junior night guard, who was supposed to protect the prisoner against such unauthorized behavior. For all his night guards knew, Vito might be ravishing his prisoner in the privacy of the rack room.
Mr. Boyd and Mr. Crofford would have been more canny. Fortunately, they were off duty.
"They're just sleeping pills," Vito said to Or, who was staring at the pills as though he had never seen such objects. "They'll help you to sleep at night." And perhaps allow Vito to talk with Gurth? Vito had a theory that it was sleepiness which caused Or's "either" to appear. But it had been Or who spoke to Vito of his difficulty in sleeping, and it had been Or who begged for an "aid" to help him rest.
The prisoner nodded as Vito slipped the empty drug-box into his pocket. The pills were his own, kept on the off-chance that he should need them; he had dared not approach the dungeon nurse for the drug. Seemingly in no great hurry to swallow the pills, Or asked, "What is that?"
Vito turned to look, wincing as he saw the bulky outline of the Swelling Globe. "Nothing for you to worry about. I don't use instruments of torture." He looked back to smile reassuringly at Or, who was swallowing down the water, his left palm now empty of the pills.
"Not that," said Or, wiping his mouth in a dainty fashion with his fingertips. "That tall thing in the corner."
"Oh, that." It took all his determination at this juncture not to think of grandpapa clocks. "That's a water-clock. It's used to keep time. As the water gradually drips into the bottom half of the cylinder, the cylinder notches show how much time has passed. Then the water-clock is turned upside down with that lever, any water that has evaporated is replaced, and the clock starts draining again." He felt like a schoolmaster, but Or's eyes were wide as a schoolboy's, taking in this information. Vito didn't suppose that the young man had ever seen a water-clock before. Not many people in the Queendom of Yclau had, outside of museums.
It was Layle Smith's idea to continue to use water-clocks in the rack-room, of course. He justified his decision by speaking of the effects of the steady sound of dripping upon the prisoners who were contemplating the slow drag of time as they were racked. The truth was, however, that water-clocks had not been used anywhere else in Yclau for centuries. And "centuries ago" was precisely where Layle Smith's mind was stuck.
Still goggle-eyed at this wonder, Or walked over to inspect the clock. Vito cast a wary look at the door to the rack room. It was unlocked; whatever other rule-bending he might be capable of, Vito wasn't going to lock Or in a rack room. Unfortunately, this meant that any passing Seeker, guard, or even servant might enter the room and stumble upon Vito's illicit meeting with his prisoner. A feeling of urgency pressed upon Vito.
"Or, you said you wanted to speak privately with me," he reminded the prisoner, who was now fiddling with the clock. That was the reason they were here, after all: Or had requested to speak privately with Vito. Even if they spoke in the softest of whispers in the breaking cell, Vito could offer no guarantee that his guards wouldn't overhear the conversation. Nor was Vito particularly eager to have the guards record Or's words. If Or was about to confess that he had knowledge of a crime that Gurth had committed, Vito wanted time to decide what he should do with that confession.
Hearing Vito speak, Or turned around immediately and made his way back to his Seeker. He reached out with his hand; the water-flask was in it. Vito took it from Or and nearly dropped it in surprise. The flask was full to the brim.
"I thought you might want to share water," Or said shyly.
Vito stared down at the water uneasily. "You filled this from the water-clock?"
His prisoner nodded. "There's a spigot to drain water. I had a little of the water myself. You . . . you don't mind sharing water with me, do you?"
Vito, who had been contemplating with growing dismay the much-recycled water in his flask, now turned his attention back to his prisoner. The young man was toeing the ground, clearly certain that his gift was about to be rejected. Vito remembered what Or had said before about "mighty men."
"Certainly," Vito told him with a smile, and stoically swallowed the water in a single gulp.
He nearly gagged in the next moment. The water was bitter with minerals or dust or whatever grime lay at the bottom of the water-clock. His stomach threatened to throw up the contents. With self-discipline such as he had not been required to exert since his academy days, Vito forced himself to keep the contents down.
After a quick smile with lowered eyelids, Or wandered off to inspect the rack. Vito's gaze followed him. The rest of his body remained frozen. He had realized, in the moment after swallowing, that he had forgotten the most elementary rule that every prison-worker was taught early on: Never, ever accept a gift of drink or food from a prisoner.
His mind was scurrying forth. If he had been poisoned, he would know that soon; the criminal elements of Yclau preferred poisons that acted swiftly, leaving their victims with no time in which to seek medical help. The nurse was just a few yards away, in the surgery – but how could Vito explain, in a very few words, what had happened? The Eternal Dungeon's prisoners were inspected for poisons and weapons upon their initial arrival; afterwards, their water and meals and other supplies were delivered under careful supervision. Only if a prisoner's Seeker and guards were extremely lax would the prisoner be granted the opportunity to poison anyone.
Extremely lax, and extremely foolish.
"Are you all right, sir?" It was Or. He was still standing next to the rack, but he was staring at Vito with concern on his face. "You look sick. Should I ask the guards to fetch a healer for you?"
It was Or's expression, as much as his words, which cleared Vito of his momentary, needless panic. He smiled at his prisoner. "No, I was just thinking. . . . Or, you've spoken several times of being Mr. Gurth's imposter. Has it occurred to you that the opposite might be true?"
Or simply stared at him, his hand covering one of the wrist-straps on the rack.
Vito tried again. "Mr. Gurth is more experienced than you. Older than you, in certain ways. If you're the younger version of the either/or, then perhaps you were there first. Perhaps Mr. Gurth is the intruder."
Even before he finished, Or was shaking his head vigorously. "No. No, that can't be. Nobody knows me. Everyone knows Gurth."
"Perhaps he has taken over your body for a long time—"
But Or had turned away abruptly, as though that part of the conversation had clearly ended. He leaned closer to the rack. With his back to Vito, he said, "The sleeping aid isn't working. I'm still wide awake."
"You'll be sleepy soon. The pills act fairly quickly, and it's several hours past your bedtime." Vito cast a worried look at the water-clock, which showed that the time had now reached a few hours before dawn. It was well past his own bedtime – he suppressed a yawn – and the longer he kept Or here, the more likely it was that someone would notice. It was not impossible that his day guards would rise early and decide to check on his lesser-trained night guards. "You said that you wanted to speak to me—"
"I wish I were back at Gurth's home." Again, Or's change of topic was abrupt.
Vito hesitated before deciding to follow the course of Or's thought instead of his own. He had been keeping in mind, all this day, Elsdon's advice that Vito focus his mind on his prisoner, rather than on his own thoughts. Now he kept his gaze fixed on Or's back. The youth's slender figure could be seen through the thin shirt; he was shivering. Vito resisted an impulse to take off his own shirt and place it over his prisoner's shoulders. "Where is your home, Or?"
There was a small pause, long enough for Vito to regret the question; he had forgotten that this was information which, as Or's Seeker, he would be expected to know. Then Or replied, "Gurth's home? I don't know. I've never been outside. When I look outside the window, I can see trains going by."
The Alleyway district, then. That matched Gurth's accent and grammar. Or's accent and grammar remained a mystery. Vito watched Or reach out and run his hand lightly over the wheel at the head of the rack.
"Where are you from, sir?" asked Or.
There was an entire page in the Code of Seeking offering advice to Seekers on how to deflect personal questions. Vito had accumulated quite a few techniques of his own during his time as a guard. It was never wise to mix one's professional life with one's personal life, as Elsdon should have realized.
Vito heard himself say, "Cape Henry. My family's house is at the tip of land where the bay meets the ocean. It's a beautiful waterside setting."
"Have you lived there all your life?" Or's hand was touching each of the spokes on the wheel, one after the other, like a boy running his hand along a set of railings.
"Not entirely. The earliest part of my childhood was spent here in the capital, and I also worked here for two years as a patrol soldier." And spent much of that time trying to learn more about the Eternal Dungeon. He had moved home six years ago, only because he knew that he would eventually be interviewed by the Eternal Dungeon, and he did not want it to be apparent to the High Seeker how strong his interest was in the dungeon. He had been anticipating, since the time he was ten, the day when he would submit his application to work in the dungeon.
Twenty years, taking him to these final moments before he could begin his plan to destroy the Eternal Dungeon, breaking it and remaking it into something new and better—
Blast it, he was letting his mind wander again. He tried to focus his attention once more on Or's back, but found himself yawning instead. He had scarcely slept during the past few days, as he sought to decipher the mystery of his prisoner before the High Seeker yanked him away from Or. He really must finish this interview now, if he was to get any sleep before his next shift.
"Or," he said, letting his voice grow a little stern, "I'm rather sleepy, and so will you be in a short while. I'd like to know why you wished to speak in private to me."
Or looked over his shoulder. His eyes were wide. "I'm sorry . . . I didn't mean to . . ."
"It's all right." Again, he had to resist the impulse to cover Or in warmth, with his shirt or his arms or something else. The youth looked so fragile here, amidst the deadly instruments. "Just tell me what's on your mind, and we can both rest." He smiled, then remembered that Or could not see his smile.
Or licked his lips. No matter what Gurth's grammar might suggest about the prisoner's past, Or had the very pale complexion of a gently raised boy who had not been forced to labor on the streets. Perhaps Gurth was a worker in the city's manufactory? The Alleyway district, the oldest district in the capital, was where the manufactories were to be found. Parkside district, by contrast, was filled with parks and schools and museums and other institutions of refinement. Or looked as though he belonged in Parkside, rather than in Alleyway: his eyes were wide like an owl's, his hands smooth and long-fingered, his body slim and long-limbed. His lips—
Wait. Was Vito letting his mind wander again? But no, he was focussing it on where it belonged: his prisoner. He watched Or turn back to the rack and trail a finger down the bed of it.
"I wasn't sure . . ." Or's voice had turned shy.
"When I told you I liked what the man did to me, I wasn't sure whether it was wrong for me to like it. Was it?"
Startled, Vito said, "I can't judge—"
"It matters to me." Or raised his enormous eyes, staring at Vito through his dark lashes. "If you think I did something wrong, I want to know."
"Or," Vito replied helplessly, "I really can't say. I wasn't there at the time—"
His prisoner stood waiting, erect and still. Only his finger continued to trickle its way along the rack.
It was the image of that stroking finger which clicked open the revelation in Vito's mind. He had seen this before. Many months ago, when he was first introduced to the rack rooms. Layle Smith had run his finger delicately, lovingly down the bed of the rack.
Just as Or was doing.
"It's wrong, isn't it?" Suddenly, tears sprang forth from Or's eyes. "I thought it must be. Your body went all rigid when I told you that. It's wrong, the way it's wrong for me to take over Gurth's body—"
"For Layle, it's a genuine need," Elsdon's voice whispered in Vito's mind. "He was ashamed of himself for years. . . . I can't imagine how much courage it took him to tell me. . . ."
Instinct took over then. Stepping forward, Vito placed his hands upon Or's shoulders and said quietly, "Or, there's nothing to be ashamed of. You aren't the only person in the world who feels such desires. I know a man . . ." He hesitated. He did not particularly want to put forward Layle Smith as a role model. In any case, Or's problem was somewhat different. So instead Vito said, "A friend of mine submits to his love-mate in bed. They play-act together that he's a bound captive. They both enjoy it, and they both do it out of love." It took some effort to make the last statement, but he supposed that, if he was perfectly fair, he had to concede that much to the High Seeker. After all, if the man had merely wanted to destroy Elsdon, he could have done so when Elsdon was his prisoner. Smiling as he inwardly cursed Layle Smith for requiring him to keep his face-cloth down, Vito said, "It's quite natural. Your desires are nothing to be ashamed of."
With his lashes lowered, Or licked his lips again. His voice was hesitant as he said, "Then you don't mind . . . It's all right . . ."
"It's fine, Or."
Or's eyes flashed up; eagerness was in his expression. "Then it's all right if I try out the rack?"
There had not been many moments in Vito's career as a prison-worker when he was too taken aback to speak. Unfortunately, this was one of those rare moments.
"Unfortunately" because his lack of speech caused Or to crumple. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" exclaimed Or, his body sagging, his face aghast at his mistake. "I didn't mean— Please forgive me!"
He was clinging to Vito's shirt, clutching it like a child. Vito tried to figure out a way to extract himself. He could hardly invoke the Code's rule against Seekers touching prisoners when he himself had been the first to touch Or. "Or, no. I didn't mean—"
Suddenly, with a child's changeability, Or's face brightened again. "It's all right, then? I can try the rack?"
Sweet blood. Vito attempted to run his mind through various possibilities to escape this misunderstanding that he and Or had fallen into, but sleepiness was fuzzing his mind. He ran his hand against his neck, trying to massage away the tension that was growing there.
The first step – the most important step – was to get Or's hands off him, in the gentlest manner possible. There were very few acts that would see him instantly expelled from the dungeon if he were discovered doing them, but touching a prisoner was one of them.
As for the rack . . . Vito's gorge rose at the thought of using the rack – a real instrument of torture – as a toy. But if part of Or's shyness arose from his feelings of shame at enjoying being bound, then could this be the breakthrough that Vito had been hoping for? Perhaps, if he demonstrated to Or in a concrete manner that Vito did not despise him for his desires, Or would be willing to share more information. Perhaps information that would save Or from the hangman.
Using the rack as an instrument of freedom rather than torture. Yes, that was the proper way to look at it. In any case – he thought wryly as he made yet another attempt to detach himself from Or – this might be the only way in which he could prevent himself from becoming permanently attached to the youth.
"All right," he conceded, and then placed his hand over Or's mouth to prevent the young man from letting out a whoop. "Now, listen. The rack is not a toy. It's a real instrument of torture. So I'll let you lie on it for a few seconds, but you need to follow my orders, because I don't want you to be harmed."
"And be bound to it?" asked Or breathlessly. "Can we do that?"
"Just for a few seconds." He managed, finally, to break Or's grasp on him. "Stay here. I'm going to make ready the room."
The wrist-cushions. That was the only real work he had to do to make the rack as comfortable as possible for Or. The wrist-cushions were an optional part of the racking, used only for prisoners whose racking was more symbolic than painful. Vito could guess that every single prisoner that Elsdon had ever racked had been cushioned. Indeed, Elsdon had once let slip that it was he, not the High Seeker, who had invented the wrist-cushions.
The wrist-cushions were all that was needed to ready the room—
Oh, blast. The door.
Positioned at the head of the rack, Vito whirled round and stood uncertainly, wrist-cushions in hand, like a fashionable young woman holding her muff. The door stood in front of him, closed but unlocked. Rack rooms were always locked when the racks were in use; that was required by the Code. The official reason was that rackings should not be witnessed by unauthorized persons. The more likely reason, Vito had always thought, was that Layle Smith didn't want his own prisoners' rackings – rumored to be ferocious – to be witnessed by anyone who might report his abuses to the world.
If Vito placed Or on the rack without locking the room, would he be breaking the Code? Alternatively, would it be worse to lock the room? Vito was quite aware that, under ordinary circumstances, prisoners could not be racked without permission from the High Seeker.
But these were not ordinary circumstances. Never before in the history of the Eternal Dungeon had any prisoner's body contained two people, Vito could guess. And he would not be racking Or, not in any real sense.
Vito decided to lock the door. Not because of the Code, but because he could imagine the expressions of his night guards, should they decide to investigate their prisoner's long absence. Other than the High Seeker's senior night guard – who was presumably still off duty, since Layle Smith had only recently returned from the palace – no guards carried keys to the rack rooms. Only a few men did: the High Seeker, the Codifier, the Record-keeper, the healer, and the Seekers. None of these men were likely to unlock the door of Rack Room D, for this rack room was not scheduled for use until the next day shift. Vito had taken care to determine that, surreptitiously glancing at the Record-keeper's schedule when the man was busy with a new prisoner.
The door locked with a satisfying clunk. Vito returned his keys to his pocket, then turned swiftly to see whether Or had been watching him. Prisoners were not supposed to know that Seekers held the keys to their freedom.
The young man had not noticed. He was already lying on the rack. Naked.
Vito found that his steps had carried him to the rack. He looked down at Or, who was lying upon the clothes he had shed. With his clothes off, Or no longer looked in any way like a child. Like Elsdon's body, Or's slender frame held strength: muscles in his arms and thighs, presently stretched by the position of his arms and legs, which were held in readiness for the straps. His torso was furred with light hair that extended to his groin, where his shaft lay thick and sleeping. His nipples were tight from the cool air.
"Now?" The eagerness had not left Or's voice.
Vito just managed to swallow. "Yes, now. Only for a few seconds, mind."
Or nodded. All the fear had fled his face, as though he had finally found the sanctuary he was seeking. As though the straps that Vito was binding to his wrists were a cradle holding him safe.
As Vito finished placing the cushioned straps around Or's ankles – trim and neat ankles, the ankles of a dancer – Or tugged at one of the wrist-straps. "It's not very tight," he reported, with a certain amount of criticism creeping in. "Couldn't you turn the wheel—?"
"No!" Then, seeing Or's face grow uncertain again, Vito said more gently, "No, that's enough. You've experienced what it's like to be on a rack; now I'm going to let you go." He reached toward the strap he had just placed around Or's ankle.
"But aren't you going to touch me?"
He raised his head slowly. Or had his eyes closed; there was a smile on his face. The youth said softly, "He always touched me when I was bound. I liked it. That was the best part." As he spoke, his shaft, growing long by the second, poked its head up, as though awakened by a signal.
Vito could not seem to turn his gaze from that shaft. Vito's whole body was drenched with sweat; he was not sure when that had happened. Or's eyes were still closed. Vito pulled back the face-cloth of his hood, intending to wipe the sweat off his face with his shirt-sleeve.
Instead he leaned forward and lightly kissed the tip of Or's shaft.
Or gave a great sigh. The smile on his face made clear that it was a sigh of satisfaction. He wriggled his body, as though asking for more.
He is a man without self-deception. Elsdon's words echoed in Vito's mind as he straightened his back. Without self-deception. Very well; in that respect, Layle Smith was clearly a better man than Vito de Vere.
It was all too clear to Vito, now that the irrevocable step had been taken, what had happened. Indeed, he should have guessed before. Elsdon had advised Vito to pay attention to his prisoner, and what had Vito done? Paid attention to his prisoner's body.
Not that he believed that it was his prisoner's body alone which he desired. Vito had desired men and women many times in his life, but this was different. There was a complexity to his prisoner that lured him. One body, two personalities, each distinct, each battling the other, and yet forced also to co-operate with each other.
"May the fates help me," murmured Vito. "I've fallen in love with both of you."
He finally managed to turn his gaze toward Or's face. Or wore a serene expression, like that of a love-mate who has been satisfied in bed. His lips continued to curl up at their edges.
Something about that smile made Vito more uneasy than he had been all day. Shaking his head to try to sharpen his increasingly fuzzy thoughts, he fumbled at the straps, releasing Or's ankles as quickly as he could. As he went to the head of the rack to release Or's wrists, he said, "We need to get you back to your cell. We'll talk later about what happened here, but right now the important thing is to make sure that nobody comes looking for you."
As he spoke, he pulled the last strap off Or. Or's eyes flew open. "You're letting me go?"
Vito stepped over to the side of the rack, where he could better see Or's expression. "Or, I must. You need to be released—"
This time, Or's clutching caught him entirely off-balance. Vito stumbled, his torso falling onto the rack. He tried to pull himself free, but Or, surprisingly strong, succeeded in pulling him entirely onto the rack. "No, you mustn't let us go – you mustn't! Oh please please please—"
His clutch was nearly strangling Vito. But no, it wasn't Or's hands drowning him but a black pool of darkness in Vito's head. "Or," he said breathlessly. "Let me go, sweet one." Bloody blades. Now he was speaking endearments to his prisoner. He tried again. "There's no reason to be upset—"
But Or was clearly lost to his fear, sobbing and squeezing Vito, who could not seem to lift himself off the rack. By all that was sacred, he was trained to be able to break the hold of a murderous prisoner; surely he could break the hold of a young, hysterical prisoner.
Vito's shirt was wet with sweat and, no doubt, Or's tears. Since Or was now practically on top of him, Vito lightly wrapped his arms around his prisoner. Taking Or into the corridor in this state would result in every guard within eyesight reporting Vito's actions to the Codifier, whose primary job was to protect the prisoners against violations of the Code. Better to wait until Or had cried himself to weariness. Then Vito would calm him down, take him back to the breaking cell, and immediately seek out the advice of Elsdon Taylor. For Vito had broken the Code—
On this thought, he fell asleep.
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.
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.
Chapter 10: Historical Note
Edmund Orville Gurth's story has a peculiar origin. In the early 00s, I began composing a story in my head about a prison-worker overseeing a prisoner who was not quite what he appeared to be. The setting wasn't the Eternal Dungeon, but when it came time for me to write Sweet Blood, I decided that this prisoner was too interesting to leave behind, so I transformed him into Gurth/Or.
At least, that was where I thought the origins of his story lay. But around the time I began writing "Split," I was sorting through a box of news clippings left behind by my late mother. I began reading an article that I had the feeling I'd read before, even though the clipping was thirty-five years old. Then I reached this passage:
When Wilbur first summoned up Billy, Milligan jumped off his chair and said, "Every time I come to, I'm in some kind of trouble. I wish I were dead."
—"The Man with Ten Personalities: Experts unravel the psyche of an Ohio rape suspect," Time (23 October 1978).
Apparently, Gurth/Or's origins lay a lot further back than I had thought.
"Split" is set in 1882. The phenomenon of split personality, currently known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, was only just beginning to be studied intensively by the medical world in the 1880s. The idea of split personalities became popularized to the public in 1886 through Robert Louis Stevenson's novella, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Today, controversy continues over whether such an illness actually exists.