The year 364, the fifth month. (The year 1883 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
I hope I will not seem as though I am heading onto a wild side trail in my history of the Eternal Dungeon if I spend a moment discussing linguistics and stagecraft.
The Kingdom of Vovim is a multilingual nation. It was founded by a variety of nations ("tribes," as they were termed at the time of which I am writing) who joined their fortunes together. Communication was initially difficult. Legend says that, in order to make clear their deeply held beliefs about their gods, the tribe later known as the southern Vovimians held a play for the tribe later known as the east Vovimians. The play was a mime, since the two nations did not know each other's languages.
From this first play, according to legend, sprung Vovim's grand tradition of theater. The earliest plays, archaeologists have confirmed through visual records, were mimes, often with one actor miming to a host of statues, standing in for the other actors. Later a human chorus was added, and at this point, speech was introduced into Vovim's theatrical tradition. But for many centuries afterwards, communication remained intensely difficult, since the territory we now know as Vovim was filled with nations who could barely understand each other's languages.
Before the development of the King's tongue, theater was the common speech of the Vovimians, and it has stayed so till modern times. During the period I am writing about, every small village, every prison, every slave-quarter in Vovim had its own little theatrical company. Penniless commoners attended street performances and could speak with great sophistication about the various theatrical techniques that developed in their kingdom. Out of the theater grew other arts: painting, statuary, music, literature, dance. In all of these, Vovim was known worldwide for its accomplishments.
Vovim's southeastern neighbor, the Queendom of Yclau, had almost no achievements in the arts. Its theatrical attendance was desultory, its museums and galleries were filled with second-hand copies of Vovimian masterpieces, and its literary accomplishments were confined to a few commoner ballads, whose value went largely unrecognized during this period. The only real passion that the Yclau could be said to hold for the arts was their passion for chess, a game they had borrowed from the Vovimians. The figurines of chess were directly descended from the stage statues of ancient times.
Yclau had no artistic traditions to unite it, perhaps because it had never needed uniting to begin with. It was founded by a single nation, and it remained largely homogenous in ethnicity over the centuries. Aside from the presence of a few immigrants, every Yclau man, woman, and child could easily communicate with one another.
Or so it appeared. Communication, however, can require more than a shared tongue, as every soldier on a battlefield realizes . . .
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
The sign at the entrance to the Seekers' common room was very old-fashioned. It was a rectangular block with four colored sides: white (the underside that was never turned up), green, blue, and red. Green for go, blue for caution, and red for stop. Or, as nervous young guards were accustomed to joke: green for rebirth, blue for transformation, and red for death.
The sign was currently turned to its red side. Zenas knew what it said without being able to read it, for he had heard the supervisor of the outer-dungeon laborers read it aloud to an illiterate maid who had been hired to clean the inner dungeon.
Common Room closed for private meeting.
Do not enter
upon penalty of torture.
In the Eternal Dungeon, this was no idle threat.
Zenas carefully turned the doorknob, pushed the door open a space, and slid inside the common room, shutting the door behind him. He had expected to have to breathe shallowly in a room filled with tobacco smoke. The junior guards, the most rebellious of the inner-dungeon workers, were not shy in making clear that they disliked the dungeon regulation against the use of tobacco. Normally, whenever the junior guards thought they were unlikely to be observed by their superiors, ashtrays and spittoons would arrive with the swiftness of a god, only to be whisked away if a senior member of the dungeon approached. Occasionally, one of the junior guards would end up tied to the dungeon's whipping post, enduring a disciplinary beating by the High Seeker's senior night guard, for no one in the dungeon could tell when the High Seeker approached. He was as silent as death, as the dungeon saying went.
Today, however, the room was remarkably free of smoke and spitting and raucous jokes. The reason, Zenas quickly realized, was the presence of the Seeker poised behind a schoolmasters' stand toward the front of the room.
Zenas stayed in the back, hidden by the crowd, so as not to distract the Seeker. She was saying, "—don't think anyone else will be arriving. A couple of the dusk-shift junior guards asked to be told of any decisions we make while they're at work, but the senior membership of this dungeon has chosen to make itself sadly absent. For the most part," she added, nodding toward the front row. Zenas, who had ducked behind the bar counter that was no longer used for alcoholic drinks, began to make his way cautiously to the front of the room, so that he could see who had risked their fortunes to attend the meeting.
As his mama had hinted, the room was almost entirely made up of junior guards. His mama – Mistress Birdesmond Chapman to everyone else in the dungeon – was the only Seeker present, and she too was of junior rank. The sole senior representative of the dungeon whom Zenas could easily sight was seated behind the schoolmasters' stand, in a row of otherwise empty chairs facing the rest of the men present. He had mutton-chop whiskers.
"I tried to persuade Seward Sobel to attend." The voice from the front row belonged to Mr. Yates, a senior guard of about fifty years. As Zenas reached the end of the counter, he peered round and saw that Mr. Yates was frowning. "I would swear that he is in agreement with our aims. But he said that he couldn't show disloyalty to the High Seeker."
There was growling among the junior guards then. One of them piped up, with a voice barely past youthful breaking, "What about loyalty to the prisoners? We're supposed to make sacrifices for them – that's what the opening lines of the Code of Seeking say!"
"The Code of Seeking only refers to the Seekers suffering for their prisoners," rejoined another junior guard.
"But the general principles of the Code require—"
"Will any other senior guards be attending, Mr. Yates?" asked Zenas's mama, neatly cutting off what appeared to be the beginning of one of the endless dungeon arguments over the exact meaning of the Code.
Mr. Yates shook his head, continuing to frown.
"They're all cowards!" cried an impetuous junior guard, which inspired a spell of cheers.
Zenas's mama raised her hand. "Please, gentlemen. Let us not turn this into a football rally." As the junior guards subsided – some with blushes at being reprimanded by a lady Seeker – his mama turned her gaze back to Mr. Yates. It was often hard to tell in which direction she was looking, for, like all Seekers, she wore a hood with a face-cloth that hid everything except her eyes. But Zenas had been living with her now for many years, since the time that she and his papa adopted him at age twelve. He could read concern in her eyes as she asked, "Did you speak to any other senior guards about the meeting?"
"All of them." Mr. Yates emitted a sigh. "It's not fear, ma'am – or at least not entirely fear, because who among us isn't nervous at the idea of attending this meeting? I had sweating spells all night, imagining the High Seeker sending his guards to arrest us."
There was a space of time while everyone thought about this. Their thoughts were eloquent upon their faces.
"Three of the senior guards said they couldn't attend because their Seekers worked through the dusk shift," continued Mr. Yates. "I think that was just an excuse, though. I can hardly blame them for their disinterest in this meeting. Mr. Boyd here" – he pointed his thumb toward the senior guard sitting next to him, stone-faced – "may recall that I once gave him a most eloquent speech about how torture was a necessary tool for justice."
"What changed your mind, Mr. Yates?" asked his mama. There was a rustle of uniforms, a squeak of chairs, as some of the junior guards shifted position restlessly in response to the senior guard's words. His mama chose to ignore that for the moment.
Mr. Yates opened his mouth, glanced to his side, and then quickly glanced away. There was a long silence as everyone present tried not to look at Mr. Boyd. Mr. Boyd's face remained as hard as before. He was staring, not at Zenas's mama, but somewhere beyond her, at the portion of the room which was filled with late-afternoon sunlight. By tradition, that section of the common room, which had a partially opaque skylight in the ceiling, could only be entered by Seekers wishing to refresh themselves under the sun's rays. They alone were permitted to partake of the only sunlight within the Eternal Dungeon, for they alone, among the inner-dungeon residents, had taken an oath to remain eternally confined within the dungeon.
There was actually one other inner-dungeon resident who hadn't felt the sun upon his skin for many years, and who would have appreciated being allowed to bathe in the warmth of the skylight. But Zenas had never been invited to enter the Seekers' end of the common room, and he had no easy way of conveying his longing to stand there, with the sunlight upon his face once more.
His mama – who had been confined to the dungeon as long as he had, and who never complained about her loss of the lighted world – broke the silence to say, "I think, since we are all here now, we should begin with a prayer. Mr. Crofford, will you lead us?"
"I?" said Mr. Crofford, who was a junior guard, but who sat in the front row beside Mr. Boyd. He looked more startled than the situation warranted. On the rare occasions when the High Seeker held meetings for the junior guards, Mr. Crofford was invariably invited to lead the prayers, for he was a good speaker. But Mr. Crofford, as everyone knew, was blessed with humility. Twice he had turned down the opportunity to rise to senior rank, explaining that he did not feel qualified to take on that responsibility.
Zenas's mama stepped back in order to allow Mr. Crofford to take the schoolmasters' stand. Everyone rose to their feet, other than Zenas, who crouched down upon his knees, the proper position for a prisoner of hell's High Master. All convicted criminals lay under the care of hell's High Master, Zenas knew, and those who died during their term of mortal imprisonment would enter into immortal imprisonment in hell. Those who were released from imprisonment during their mortal lives, or whom the gods judged innocent or forgiven of their crimes, could be received into the compassionate bosom of the High Master's sister, the goddess Mercy. But Zenas had not received any messages from Mercy's Grace to indicate that the gods had forgiven him for his crime. So he knelt to his immortal master, whose unspoken name was Hell.
Zenas assumed that Hell was the one who sent him the nightmares. Hell always exacted punishment upon evil humans.
Now, with his eyes closed, his knees bent, and his palms flat upon the floor – the position of the damned – he listened as Mr. Crofford said, "May we never forget our good fortune, we who are privileged to help prisoners escape from the dungeon of their ill deeds. Like the first man who denied himself the deceptively sweet life of afterdeath, let us undertake any sacrifice necessary. Let us sacrifice ourselves for the prisoners, so that, in helping them to be reborn as better men, we too may be better men than before."
Through the slits between his eyelids, Zenas peeked at his mama. She was in the position that the Yclau took when praying: standing straight, her back erect, her head bowed, her eyes opened. There was no sign in the expression of her eyes that she was bothered by the manner in which Mr. Crofford had just excluded her, all of her female prisoners, and most of the outer-dungeon workers who labored for dungeon-dwellers such as Mr. Crofford. No doubt his mama was used to the Eternal Dungeon's penchant for speaking only in male terms. Zenas, whose native language would have phrased such a prayer in the gender-neutral plural, held one of his momentary wishes that the rest of the dungeon spoke his far more civilized tongue.
It was an old, futile wish.
The men at the gathering seemed perfectly content with this speech, even the man who had protested earlier that guards were not required to make sacrifices for the prisoners. Mr. Crofford's words were no different from the words they had heard in a hundred different fashions since they took up employment in the dungeon. Everyone in the Eternal Dungeon – Seekers, guards, outer-dungeon workers, and auxiliary workers such as the dungeon's healer – were encouraged, through daily exhortations and through the impassioned wording of the dungeon's Code of Seeking, to put the best interests of the prisoners before all else.
That was not a matter of dispute anywhere in the dungeon. The dispute lay elsewhere.
The prayer had ended. Mr. Crofford, blushing, returned to his place in the front row. Zenas's mama waited until everyone reseated themselves; then she came forward again. "I know that you're all eager for news," she said. "Unfortunately, I have little to tell you. I've been told that a judgment was handed down last week, which requires the Codifier and the High Seeker to grant an interview to Mr. de Vere—"
There was a knock on the door. It was very soft; none of the guards nearest the door appeared to hear it. With his ears still attuned to what his mama was saying, Zenas crept back to the door. He opened it.
Vito de Vere stood in the doorway. It took a moment for Zenas to recognize him. Zenas had never before seen Mr. de Vere without his hood. But when the man at the doorway spoke, his voice, unusually authoritative for a man barely into his thirties, was unmistakable.
"Excuse me." Like most of the dungeon dwellers, past and present, Mr. de Vere never seemed to be sure how to address Zenas. He was peering over Zenas's shoulder, as though hoping that somebody would rescue him from this conversation. "Your mother sent me a letter telling me that there was going to be a meeting—"
At the front of the common room, Zenas's mama stopped speaking. She had sighted Mr. de Vere. Zenas quickly stepped back. Now ignoring Zenas entirely, Mr. de Vere entered the room. Seemingly immune to the fixed attention of the guards watching him, he strode down the center aisle between the chairs.
"Mr. de Vere," said Zenas's mama formally, "we were just speaking of you."
"I can't stay long," replied Mr. de Vere as he reached her side. "I told Mr. Sobel that I planned to leave by way of the back exit, but I wouldn't be surprised if the High Seeker sends out hunting hounds after me, if I don't arrive on time in the outer dungeon. With instructions to kill," he added dryly.
Some of the guards laughed uneasily. Mr. Boyd was still staring at the front of the common room, as though ignoring the proceedings. Mr. Crofford gave him a quick look and then leaned forward to listen to the conversation in the front. Most of the guards did; this was the news they had been awaiting.
"You had your interview with the Codifier and the High Seeker?" his mama suggested.
"I did. It was the shortest interview of my life."
Mr. Yates winced. Mr. Urman, a junior guard who was seated beside Mr. Crofford, growled oaths under his breath. Everyone else waited.
In the manner of a natural-born leader, Mr. de Vere turned smoothly to face the crowd. He was no taller than Zenas's mama, yet the audience appeared to be as expectant as if the towering High Seeker were about to address them.
As though continuing a conversation he had held previously with the guards, Mr. de Vere said, "The Codifier asked me only one question: Whether I would comply with the regulations of the Code if I were hired again as a Seeker. I said to him what I'd already said in court: that I had been exceedingly foolish to give my prisoner access to drugs without permission from the healer, to take my prisoner to a locked area of the dungeon without permission from the High Seeker, to grant my prisoner permission to strip, to let him make use of certain equipment in this dungeon that is ordinarily used only under highly regulated circumstances, and most of all, to touch my prisoner in a carnal manner."
There were exchanges of looks all around the common room. Even Mr. Urman, normally the most cynical of guards, appeared impressed. It was clear that nobody in the room had expected Mr. de Vere to be this candid about his failings as a former Seeker-in-Training.
"I also said what I had said in court," continued Mr. de Vere. "That under no circumstances whatsoever would I torture any prisoner."
This time, the reaction was audible as guards shifted in position, coughed, or muttered under their breath. Nobody spoke aloud, though, except his mama, who said, "And Mr. Daniels's response?"
"The Codifier thanked me for coming and said that he and Mr. Smith would be in touch with me. Then the High Seeker suggested that it would be best for me to leave his dungeon. Immediately."
With a wry smile on his face, Mr. Yates commented, "Our esteemed High Seeker is not quite as civilized in manner as our Codifier."
Mr. de Vere's voice was level as he said, "Their response came as no surprise to me. I knew that this would be a wasted trip."
"What will you do now?" asked Zenas's mama quietly.
"Appeal the decision. The magistrate did not hand down the ruling I requested – that I be reinstated as a Seeker – and so I will appeal his ruling to the next level of the magistracy. If that doesn't work, I will appeal to the high court of the magistracy. If that doesn't work, I will appeal to the Queen. And if the Queen fails to support my suit" – Mr. de Vere took a deep breath – "then I will appeal to the people."
This statement caused a much greater reaction among the guards. For the first time, Mr. Boyd's attention switched to the speaker. It was Mr. Crofford, though, who voiced everyone's worry: "Mr. de Vere, forgive me for contradicting you, but wouldn't that break the oath you took? I know that the laws of our queendom permit petitioners of lawsuits to take their appeals into the public realm, but even temporary workers in the Eternal Dungeon are required to swear a sacred oath that they won't speak of what takes place here."
"Hangman." It was the first word that Mr. Boyd had spoken.
Zenas's mama inserted herself quickly. "I doubt that Mr. de Vere will need to risk his life by breaking that oath. The Queen has as much reason as anyone to want to see this dungeon kept in peace, and burdened as she is by her present illness, she's unlikely to countenance total warfare breaking out here. . . . Thank you, Mr. de Vere. It's very kind of you to find the time to tell us in person what happened. We won't keep you."
Mr. de Vere nodded but did not remove his gaze from the guards. "I want to make one final remark before I go. When Mistress Chapman wrote me with news that some of you were planning a meeting of protest against my release from employment here, it took my breath away. I'm not good at getting to know people – I've barely spoken to any of you. I know that you're holding this meeting for the sake of upholding the spirit of the Code, not out of any personal concern for the future career of a man whose horrific misjudgments caused a clever criminal to escape this dungeon. Even so, I'm deeply grateful to you for your unexpected support. I hope I'll be able to return to work at this dungeon, if only so that I can thank all of you in person. Now I really must go; I'm sorry." He laid a hand lightly on the arm of Zenas's mama, smiled at her, and left rapidly. Zenas opened the door for him when he reached the back of the room, but Mr. de Vere appeared not to notice as he swept through the doorway.
Zenas checked that the sign on the door remained red and that no one was lingering in the corridor outside; then he closed the door. The departure of Vito de Vere seemed to have paralyzed everyone's tongues. The guards were looking at each other, as though waiting for someone to break the silence.
It was Mr. Pomroy, a junior guard close to seniority, who finally spoke up. "I don't want to sound combative," he said, "but that recital of his deeds which Mr. de Vere just gave us appears to me to be conclusive proof that he is not qualified to be a Seeker. Why are we here defending his actions?"
From the agitation of the audience, it was clear that quite a few of the guards shared Mr. Pomroy's sentiment. For some reason, the man with the mutton-chop whiskers appeared amused by their reaction. For the first time, he spoke.
As though reciting a nursery tale, the dungeon's healer said, "There was once a young Seeker – oh, I shall not name names. This happened before most of you were hired. But this Seeker committed the same deed that Mr. de Vere did: he kissed a bound prisoner. And unlike Mr. de Vere's prisoner, this other prisoner did not seduce her Seeker into committing the act. Would anyone care to guess what sort of judgment the Codifier handed down upon the Seeker in question?"
"Three months' suspension from duties, wasn't it, sir?" said Mr. Yates, who was now looking grim. "And a few years later, the same Seeker assaulted a prisoner. He was given six months' suspension then, before being returned to duty with full honors."
There were murmurings among the junior guards now. A few of them had worked in the dungeon long enough that they knew which Seeker was being referenced. With a sober expression, Mr. Pomroy said, "You're suggesting that the High Seeker is a hypocrite, Mr. Bergsen."
"The High Seeker had no say over those earlier sentences," demurred the healer. "What I am suggesting is that there is a quite clear pattern of punishment in this dungeon, which I'm surprised that nobody has noticed. Anyone who is considered to be useful to the Codifier and the High Seeker is given a light sentence if he commits an offense. Anyone who is considered to be a threat to the present regime is ousted from this dungeon, no matter how small their infraction."
Quite a few guards nodded. Zenas propped his chin on his elbow, considering Mr. Bergsen's words. He had been fourteen years old when the High Seeker took his first, fiery steps to suppress dissent by some of the prison-workers over how to handle the prisoners. For months, Zenas had lived in fear that the High Seeker would hang his mama. His papa, he thought, would be safe, for his papa was the High Seeker's friend. But it was said that the High Seeker feared and loathed all women. . . .
It had been some time after that when Zenas had first gotten to know the High Seeker. He sometimes wondered whether that was a coincidence, or whether the High Seeker, sensing Zenas's fear, had sought to take control of the situation in the only manner available to him.
Zenas never let his parents guess about his private encounters with the High Seeker. It was better that they not know. They wouldn't understand.
"It's all about torture," said Mr. Crofford, breaking through the continued murmur of the guards. "That's what I didn't understand for a long time. The High Seeker has been seeking out and punishing those of us who wish to show greater mercy to the prisoners than the Code allows. Those of us who question whether it's right to torture prisoners."
The blunt words were out, and now the audience was definitely on edge. Frowning, Mr. Pomroy said, "Are you telling me that, if a prisoner attacks me, I shouldn't punish him with a whipping?"
Mr. Yates shook his head. "We're not talking about a disciplinary beating. Nobody is questioning that; we've nearly all of us been beaten at some time in our lives for misbehavior, usually in school. We're talking about torture – about the application of pain to make a prisoner confess."
"Racking the prisoner, in other words," said Mr. Crofford. "No Seeker questions prisoners for their crimes when they're being whipped, does he?"
It was the second word that Mr. Boyd had spoken, and it created as electric an effect on the audience as the first. Guards glanced at each other, obviously trying to ascertain if anyone knew whether this accusation was true. Even Mr. Urman – normally the guard with the greatest knowledge of dungeon rumor – seemed mystified.
It was at this inopportune moment that another knock came at the door.
Again, nobody heard the knock but Zenas. As the guards whispered to each other, he hurried to the back of the room and answered the door.
The skin next to Elsdon Taylor's eyes crinkled in a smile. "Hello, Zenas," the junior Seeker said softly. "I'm sorry I'm late. Has the meeting begun?"
Smiling in return, Zenas nodded and opened the door wide. The conversations in the common room cut off abruptly; guards looked over their shoulders, straining to see the newcomer.
Unlike Vito de Vere, Mr. Taylor made no attempt to capture the attention of the audience. He quietly walked down the left-hand side of the room. When Mr. Bergsen gestured to the chair next to him, Mr. Taylor shook his head, instead seating himself in one of the chairs placed against the wall next to the counter, for the overflow crowd that had been anticipated for this event.
Even Zenas's mama seemed momentarily at a loss for words. There had been a time when Elsdon Taylor had been the primary voice for protest within the dungeon, Zenas knew. But that was long ago. For the past four years, Mr. Taylor had spoken not a peep of protest as the High Seeker ruled the dungeon with the ferocious implacability of a leaded whip.
It was Mr. Urman, predictably, who broke the silence. "Come to take notes for the High Seeker, have you?" he taunted the junior Seeker. "Shall we give you a list of guards who are attending?"
Mr. Taylor did not nip at the bait; he merely shook his head.
Mr. Yates cleared his throat. "Of course, you have as much right as anyone else to attend this meeting, Mr. Taylor—"
"Indeed," said Zenas's mama, clearly on firm ground now. "Will the High Seeker be observing this meeting, Mr. Taylor? I issued an invitation to him to listen to our concerns."
"I don't know, ma'am," replied Mr. Taylor quietly. "I haven't discussed this meeting with him."
"Well, as long as you're here," continued Mr. Urman maliciously, "you can tell us: Did you search a prisoner for evidence of his crime while you were having him beaten?"
Mr. Taylor flicked at glance at Mr. Boyd – Elsdon Taylor's former senior guard – and then quickly turned his gaze back toward Mr. Urman. "I did."
Now the restlessness of the crowd was positively mutinous. Someone said, "That's against the Code."
"No," contradicted Mr. Taylor quietly. At twenty-seven years of age, he was one of the older junior Seekers. Most Seekers pledged their oaths of eternal commitment immediately after university and were raised to senior rank after four years. This was necessary in order to provide rapid replacement of senior Seekers, who searched the most dangerous prisoners and were therefore inclined to die early.
Mr. Taylor's pledge had taken place when he was only eighteen, yet he had been passed over for a rise to seniority on numerous occasions. It occurred to Zenas, watching the junior Seeker sit in isolation, that this fact alone revealed a great deal about where Elsdon Taylor's loyalties lay, however silent he had been in public during the last few years.
Zenas made up his mind then. He was standing behind the counter, only a few feet from Mr. Taylor. He slipped out of his hiding place and slid onto Mr. Taylor's lap.
There was a gasp from a few of the junior guards who had not witnessed Zenas do this before. His mama began to speak and then fell silent, apparently deciding that this was not the proper occasion for a reprimand. Zenas knew that she and his papa would spend the next few days trying to impress upon him that he was no longer enslaved – that he need no longer serve men with his body.
Zenas knew that perfectly well. He also knew that he could not speak up in the meeting and say to the guards, "Mr. Taylor is trustworthy." His body was the only mode of communication he had in this dungeon, and he knew enough to only pick the laps of men who regarded him in an avuncular fashion. The few times he had been wrong, it was immediately obvious; it was impossible to hide that sort of thing from the young man who was snuggling on your lap. Whenever that happened, Zenas had slid off the man's lap at once, making apologetic noises. The man was invariably so embarrassed that he never again made reference to the incident.
Mr. Taylor wrapped an arm loosely around Zenas, sparing him another of his eye-smiles. He was young enough that he could have been an older brother to Zenas; but of course he was a Seeker, so it would have been disrespectful for Zenas to voice that thought.
Even if he could.
The tension in Mr. Taylor's body had begun to melt from the moment that Zenas made clear his alliance. Now Mr. Taylor raised his voice to be heard over the guards' disconcerted conversation. "I did question a prisoner who was being beaten for disciplinary reasons. That fact is to my great shame. There have been occasions when I sought to explore the outer boundaries of the Code, and at times my prisoners benefitted from my exploration, I think. This wasn't one of those times. But the exercise did benefit me, because it made clear to me how little assurance I had that my prisoners speak the truth when I torture them. I was so used to racking prisoners that I couldn't recognize this, until I tortured a prisoner in a manner unusual in the Eternal Dungeon."
"So you have your doubts about torture as well," said Mr. Yates, a note of surprise in his voice. "I remember that case; Mr. Boyd told me about it at the time. And I told him that it didn't matter how many innocents suffered on the rack, provided that most of the prisoners we racked were guilty."
This brought a stunned silence. Most of the junior guards, Zenas thought, were still inexperienced enough to believe that all the prisoners who were racked in the Eternal Dungeon were guilty of their accused crimes. Junior guards were posted at the rack room doors during rackings; they never witnessed what took place when a prisoner's limbs were wrenched. By the time they witnessed this, they held seniority, with a salary to match and probably a family to feed; they had financial incentive not to speak out against what they saw. This being the Eternal Dungeon, where idealism held reign, no doubt the senior guards used justifications in the same manner that Mr. Yates had, to hide the knowledge from themselves that they were benefitting from a system which did not benefit their prisoners.
Mr. Crofford said in a clear, steady voice that made him seem older than his twenty-six years, "If even one prisoner in this dungeon confessed falsely because we brought him to the rack room to be tortured, then we are responsible for that prisoner's death by the hangman. And there must be dozens of prisoners like that every year. Thousands, over the life of the Eternal Dungeon."
"I've heard enough." It was Mr. Rhodes, rising to his feet; he was another junior guard who was close to seniority. "I thought this meeting was convened to discuss whether we should support Mr. de Vere's suit to return to employment within this dungeon. But you lot are talking about something very different: the overthrow of the Code of Seeking."
"The Code changes from time to time," pointed out Zenas's mama, who remained in place behind the schoolmasters' stand. "Our volume of ethics has been revised five times since its inception. The last revision banned the use of certain instruments of torture which had been considered legitimate means of searching prisoners since long before the founding of the Eternal Dungeon."
"When is the next revision due?" asked someone in the audience.
"The Code calls for a revision every generation," replied someone else. "The fourth revision was issued in 313. The fifth revision was issued in 348."
"Fine," said Mr. Rhodes, hooking onto his belt the sheathed dagger and coiled whip he had taken off during the meeting. "In fifteen years' time, when the sixth revision is prepared, I'll be glad to attend whatever meeting the new reviser calls to discuss what changes should be made. This isn't that meeting. This is a rebel meeting, intended to tear down the lawful structure of the Code of Seeking. I'm having nothing to do with this. Come on, lads." He addressed this remark to several guards sitting beside him, who had evidently come to the meeting with him. They promptly rose and followed Mr. Rhodes out of the common room, emptying an entire row of seats. There were mutters and exchanged looks, and then more guards rose to their feet, and more.
It took five minutes for all of them to leave. When the common room door was finally shut again, fully three-quarters of the audience had left. Counting, Zenas concluded that there could not be more than four dozen guards remaining in the room.
Once again, it was Mr. Urman who broke the silence. "Bloody blades, it's good to have room to stretch my arms."
This broke the tension and prompted laughter. Smiling, Mr. Pomroy said, "I'm not saying I'm ready to break the Code, but I'm willing to listen to what you have to say. These are important issues we're discussing, and they deserve to be explored."
"The ineffectiveness of torture in helping us ascertain the truth about crimes," said Zenas's mama, ticking off topics with her fingers. "The strong possibility that innocent prisoners will implicate themselves in order to escape from pain—"
"The stupidity of it," inserted Mr. Bergsen, looking considerably more cheerful, now that the grumblers among the guards had left. "That's what has always infuriated me. Look here, men, you all swore to help criminals turn from their bloody pasts – to show them that violence isn't the way to achieve their ends. And what do you do? Strap these same criminals to the rack!"
Mr. Yates nodded slowly. "You have it right there in a pinhole, Mr. Bergsen. We're supposed to be transforming prisoners. How does tearing them from limb to limb transform the prisoners into better men?"
Zenas's mama, who had been keeping a careful eye on the audience, said, "You have something to add, Mr. Taylor?"
Elsdon Taylor nodded. He still had his arm loosely slung around Zenas's waist, but seeing that Mr. Taylor was no longer isolated from the other men in the room, Zenas slipped off his lap, in order not to distract the junior Seeker. His mama quickly gestured, and with an inward sigh, Zenas went over to stand by her. He was taller than she was now, but she seemed not to notice that; she pointed to the chair next to Mr. Bergsen, as though Zenas were still a little lad. Zenas tried not to let this anger him. The gods decreed that parents should be respected, including adoptive parents. He sat down quietly in the spot she had indicated and turned his attention back to Mr. Taylor.
Elsdon Taylor seemed to be having difficulty in voicing his thoughts. Finally he said, "This is an extension of what you've said to me before, Mr. Bergsen. You stated that the High Seeker and the Codifier are selective in which prison-workers they punish. Has it occurred to any of us that we are selective in which prisoners we punish?"
That roused a reaction indeed. Leaning forward, Mr. Yates said, "All prisoners are treated equally in this dungeon, Mr. Taylor. The Code requires that."
"But which prisoners reach this dungeon is not under our control," Elsdon Taylor replied. "It was my brother who pointed out the obvious to me: nearly every prisoner who is brought here – who is searched by questions and sometimes beaten and racked – is a commoner. Is anybody here going to argue that only commoners commit capital crimes?"
Now everyone looked stunned, other than Mr. Bergsen, who looked reflective, and Mr. Boyd, who remained as stone-faced as before. Even Zenas's mama, who had surely given more thought to such matters than anyone else in this room, had covered her hooded mouth in dismay.
Mr. Taylor continued in his quiet manner, "My brother is convinced that the Queen uses this dungeon as a tool to oppress the commoners. Whether or not my brother is right, I can't be comfortable with the fact that, with a very few exceptions, we torture men who are lower in rank than ourselves. That can cause communication difficulties on its own, as I believe one prisoner here could testify." He nodded toward Zenas.
Zenas jumped in place, startled at being acknowledged. His mama placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. She said, "When Zenas was in a breaking cell, long ago, he was searched by my husband. You know that Mr. Chapman was born a commoner."
"I also know that your husband had many problems in communicating with Zenas," Mr. Taylor replied. "In the end, Mr. Chapman had to make use of a Vovimian translator. I don't think that was merely because Zenas was a foreigner. Zenas was a slave; Mr. Chapman has lived the life of a mid-class man for the past two decades. Can you really say that, even to this day, you and your husband fully understand the life that Zenas led as a slave? Can those of us who torture commoner prisoners claim to fully understand the lives of our tortured prisoners?"
Mr. Pomroy frowned. "What are you saying, Mr. Taylor? That we should stop searching commoner prisoners at all? Or that this dungeon should hire only commoners as guards and Seekers?"
There was light laughter at this absurd suggestion. Mr. Bergsen looked yet more reflective. Mr. Taylor replied, "A few more commoner-born Seekers, such as Mr. Chapman, would certainly help to bring balance to this dungeon. But I was suggesting something else entirely: torture has long been used as a tool by the elite to oppress the commoners, and we have unwittingly allowed ourselves to be that tool. So my brother says, and I've come to agree with him."
"'My brother, my brother,'" mocked Mr. Urman. "I've never heard you mention a brother before. I thought there was only the one sister, and she—"
He stopped abruptly. Only one thing ever stopped Mr. Urman mid-sentence. For all his faults, there was a single line that Mr. Urman didn't pass: he never, ever gossiped about his prisoners.
Zenas leaned forward, fascinated. He had known, of course, that Mr. Taylor – in addition to being a Seeker – was a convict serving a life sentence in the Eternal Dungeon for a murder he had committed when he was young. Until now, though, Zenas had not realized that Mr. Urman had been one of the guards who held Mr. Taylor captive when he was broken by the High Seeker.
Mr. Urman was Mr. Taylor's harshest critic. Had something happened in Mr. Taylor's breaking cell that had sparked Mr. Urman's enmity?
Whatever had happened, it was clear from Mr. Urman's tightened lips that he was not going to share that tale with anyone. Mr. Taylor replied simply, "I murdered my sister, yes. Yeslin isn't my brother by birth. My father offered Yeslin a home after I was imprisoned here. Yeslin and I can only communicate through correspondence, but we've become as close as any brothers can be—"
"Yeslin?" Now Mr. Yates was on his feet. "Yeslin? Mr. Taylor, are you saying your brother is Yeslin Bainbridge?"
With a roar, guards surged to their feet. Amidst the shouts, Mr. Urman – who had remained seated – cried, "Who the bloody blades is Yeslin Bainbridge?"
"You know him, D." Mr. Crofford had paled from the latest revelation, but he was mainly concentrating on shielding Mr. Boyd from Mr. Yates, who, in his excitement, was coming perilously close to touching Mr. Boyd. Mr. Boyd, as might be expected, was taking no notice of the fuss. Mr. Crofford continued, "Yeslin Bainbridge. Head of the Commoners' Guild. That's the guild which has been holding protests and strikes all over the capital for the past four years. They've even started to extend their reach into the country districts, I've heard."
"Oh, him." Mr. Urman was apparently determined not to give Mr. Taylor the satisfaction of seeing him surprised; he folded his arms over his chest, saying, "So your brother is the reason my streetcar is late every time I come back from a week's-end break. Bloody strikers."
Everyone else, though, remained in a state of high excitement. Mr. Pomroy translated their thoughts into words: "If anyone alive can give us wise advice on how to hold a protest, it's Yeslin Bainbridge. Mr. Taylor, what does your brother suggest that we do?"
"Stop holding these meetings."
Elsdon Taylor's words were like ice water drenching the guards. The guards appeared stupefied by this change of events. As everyone sank down into their seats, Mr. Urman said, in a smug voice that suggested he'd known this treachery was coming, "So we're supposed to give up, is that what your brother advises? Or maybe this advice comes from the High Seeker?"
Mr. Taylor shook his head. He appeared as self-contained as before, though Zenas, watching him carefully, could tell that his body had tensed again. "I haven't been able to discuss directly with Yeslin the protests by dungeon-workers against the High Seeker's policy of enforcing the Code strictly. My oath of silence forbids that. But the existence of Mr. de Vere's suit against the dungeon is public, if not the exact details, and my brother guessed that there would be some sort of protest here against Mr. de Vere's dismissal. So he wrote to me with advice: Don't hold large, public meetings. Those are the sorts of meetings that the authorities will shut down immediately. If the authorities allow public meetings of protest to occur, it is only so that they can infiltrate such meetings and steer the course of them."
Mr. Urman's snort was expressive. But Mr. Yates said, "He's right, you know. I had my doubts about this meeting when I heard of it. Large meetings of open rebellion are dangerous. The rebels in Vovim have learned that."
There were reluctant nods now from some of the guards. Zenas's mama leaned over the schoolmasters' stand as she said, "I'll admit, I haven't followed closely the fortunes of the Commoners' Guild. How has your brother resolved the problem you mention, Mr. Taylor? For certainly the Commoners' Guild has become the most influential guild in the capital, despite all odds against them."
"Through representation," Mr. Taylor replied, continuing to sit as still as a schoolboy in his seat. "Yeslin told me that, early on, he had to discard the idea of having his guild be a pure democracy. Instead, he took a clue from the governmental structure of the Magisterial Republic of Mip and held elections for guild leadership. A small number of men and women meet in private and make decisions on behalf of the guild members who elected them to power. They consult with the other guild members, of course, but in an informal manner, not through public meetings. Once the decisions are made, the remaining guild members are notified."
"Representational democracy." Mr. Pomroy nodded. "I learned about that in school. Our own queendom has a parliament, though the parliament members are born to their power, not elected to it. If the Queen's hundreds of thousands of subjects tried to make decisions together, it would be impossibly complex."
There were nods all around the room now. Even Mr. Urman, the perpetual scoffer, seemed to have no objection to this proposal. Appearing to read the mood, Zenas's mama asked, "Shall we propose names, then?"
"Nominees," interjected Mr. Crofford, then went crimson as everyone turned to look at him.
"Nominees," agreed Zenas's mama. "Would anyone like to propose nominations?"
The nominations were quickly made; the voting took place equally quickly. Zenas was unsurprised at the results. Mr. Bergsen, Mr. Taylor, his mama, Mr. Yates, Mr. Boyd . . . The five senior-most members of the meeting had been elected as the group's representatives.
For the first time, Mr. Boyd stirred, looking around, as though not quite clear why he had been elected. He often seemed unaware that, for many years, he had been one of the most popular guards in the dungeon. Even the changes in personality that he had undergone four years ago could not entirely erase that.
Nearby him, Mr. Urman's expression had turned thunderous. Even Zenas's mama seemed disturbed by this turn of events.
It was Mr. Taylor, though, who voiced the dissenters' thoughts: "It seems to me that, with so many junior guards braving their careers to take part in this meeting, we ought to have at least one junior guard representing us. I nominate Mr. Crofford."
Mr. Crofford had been looking uneasily back and forth between the two men he sat beside: Mr. Boyd and Mr. Urman. Now he looked even more startled than Mr. Boyd to receive this honor. After a moment, he said, "It really ought to be Mr. Urman. He knows far more than I do about these matters."
In the end, both men were elected, Mr. Urman by a greater majority than Zenas would have predicted. Still trying to stay inconspicuous near his mama, Zenas scrutinized Mr. Urman, whose expression could not easily be read. Excitement, resentment, uncertainty, hope . . . Yes, hope was the predominant emotion.
Hope for what?
His mama was ending the meeting now. Glancing behind him, Zenas saw from the slant of light that it was nearly time for the night shift. Rising to his feet and reaching for his weapons, Mr. Pomroy said, "Ma'am, I think I speak for all when I say that I have a great deal of confidence in the representation we've just elected. I hope you'll let the rest of us know when we may be of help to you."
"I'm really not sure—" began another guard doubtfully.
"It's too late to be raising objections," said Mr. Pomroy, frowning.
The other guard looked as though he was ready to pick a fight. Lazily, Mr. Urman said, "Aye, I know. It's my looks. You'd rather have me in your bed than attending meetings."
The room exploded into laughter. Shaking his head and smiling, the doubtful guard let the matter drop. Soon the common room had emptied, except for the new representatives.
And Zenas, who was listening with great interest to what would come next.
To his disappointment, though, his mama said, "I know that some of you are due for work soon, so I think we should meet again at week's end, when those of you who are junior guards will have lighter duties."
"Coordinating the schedules of everyone is going to be difficult," pointed out Mr. Yates. "Since I live outside the dungeon with my foster sister, I can't attend any meetings held at dawn. Most of us are on day duty, but Mr. Taylor and Mr. Urman are on night duty. And any of us who are day guards might be required by our Seekers to work through the dusk shift."
"I can take Mr. Crofford on as my junior night guard, if that would assist matters," Elsdon suggested. "That way, I could release him from duty during the dusk shift."
"I could be your senior day guard," suggested Mr. Urman quickly.
Elsdon glanced in his direction, then away. "No."
There was a small, painful silence during which Mr. Urman's cheeks turned red. Then Mr. Crofford said, "I'd rather stay on the day shift, sir. In case . . ." He glanced toward Mr. Boyd, who was currently on the day shift.
"Perhaps we could coordinate matters in the opposite direction," suggested Mr. Bergsen, who worked during the day. "Since Mistress Chapman is already working the day shift—"
"Actually," said his mama in a clear voice, "I have submitted a request to be transferred to the night shift."
Mr. Urman shrugged as Mr. Taylor threw Zenas's mama a glance. "We'll work it out. Where shall we meet? Anyone might walk in on us if we continue meeting here."
"My living cell is the biggest," suggested Zenas's mama. "Even if we meet during the dusk shift, my husband will be at work – he works through the dawn and dusk shifts."
Mr. Urman narrowed his eyes. "Is that why he wasn't at our meeting today?"
"Your cell would be ideal," interjected Mr. Taylor, ignoring what Mr. Urman had said – or rather, thought Zenas, listening to what his mama had said earlier. "At the dusk shift at week's end, then? Is everyone agreed?"
All of them nodded, even Mr. Boyd. Mr. Bergsen cleared his throat. "There's one other thing."
Mr. Boyd had been on the point of turning away. Mr. Crofford reached out and pulled him back. Mr. Boyd accepted the touch, but Zenas noticed that Mr. Boyd held his breath until Mr. Crofford had released him; then he let out his breath very slowly.
Mr. Bergsen looked around at each of them. "I know that all of you have taken oaths to remain silent to outsiders about matters in this dungeon. I've taken an additional oath to remain silent about matters I discover about my patients in the course of my work, except under narrow circumstances defined by the Code. I suggest that it would be appropriate if we all took an oath now to remain silent about anything spoken in our meetings, unless we all agree that such information should be released. That makes it less likely that any of us will accidentally reveal what we should not."
"An excellent idea," said Mr. Yates, removing his pen from his jacket pocket. Zenas blinked a moment before he remembered that, in the Queendom of Yclau, oaths were given in ink, not in blood.
The oaths were quickly written down and signed in the memorandum book of the senior-most guard there, Mr. Yates; even Mr. Boyd added his signature, which was as finely penned as the signature of any other representative there. Zenas noticed, though, that Mr. Boyd, evidently ambidextrous, had chosen not to use his right hand, and that he was holding his right arm awkwardly. It was the arm that Mr. Crofford had grasped.
The door to the common room opened. Everyone turned swiftly. An outer-dungeon maid stood in the doorway, with a few more maids behind her. "Oh!" she said. "Is the meeting over, then?"
"Yes, miss, it is," replied his mama politely. "You may begin cleaning in here."
"We . . . we thought we could help you," said the maid uncertainly as the guards began to drag the chairs back to their regular places.
"Oh, don't worry about these chairs," said Mr. Urman cheerfully. "They're far too heavy for you girls. Cliff, help me get those tables back here?"
The maids continued to stand by the door, whispering to one another as the guards undertook their work. Whistling cheerfully, Mr. Bergsen made his way to the door, and the maids scattered back into the corridor.
Elsdon touched the arm of Zenas's mama and leaned close to her. "Birdesmond," he said softly under cover of the screeching chairs, "has something happened between you and Weldon?"