After hunting a moment, Elsdon reached out and pecked a key.
Then he sat back in the office chair with casters – a birthday gift from Layle – and contemplated the typewriter on the desk in front of him. It was another gift from Layle, one that must have taken him many seasons to save for, out of the small allowance which Seekers were permitted for luxuries. It was an impossibly impractical gift. Elsdon didn't have the spare time to learn how to type fast on it, so typing a page took him longer than handwriting a page would. He couldn't use the typewriter for his voluminous piles of official documentwork, because the Record-keeper required handwritten documents. In fact, Elsdon could use it for only one task: writing letters to his brother.
He adored the typewriter. Its clacking type, its oily smell, its hard metal keys under his fingers – it was all very satisfying. He had not felt so intimately connected with a machine since the day he'd been bound to a rack in the royal dungeon of Vovim. And that had been a different sort of intimacy, one he had no desire to repeat.
He tapped another key. Because of the manner in which the typewriter was designed, he couldn't read what he'd typed without lifting the carriage to see the hidden words. He considered this a benefit, since he shared the same living cell as Layle. Layle would never intentionally read Elsdon's correspondence, but living with Layle – Elsdon reflected as he relaxed back, laying his arms upon the armrests of the chair – was like living with a sidling snake that might unexpectedly strike at any moment.
Cold hands closed around his throat.
The hands unclasped immediately, blooming open like a carnivorous flytrap releasing its prey; but the hands did not release him. They slid onto his shoulders, holding him hard, and then made their way down his arms, as though they were two loops of rope drawing tight. They ended at his wrists, pinioning him to the chair. Then they waited.
Elsdon trembled. His breath had escaped him from the moment that the hands touched his throat, but it was not the promise of death that caused him to sweat; it was the mere binding. It had taken him nine years and countless self-imposed trials before he had reached this point of high achievement: to sit still, without screaming, while two hands lightly held his wrists.
He could hear the heavy breath of the man kneeling behind him. The man said nothing. He was waiting, Elsdon knew, for a signal. All that Elsdon need do was nod or make some other sign that he was agreeable. And then Elsdon's hands would be pulled behind his back, and their play would begin again.
Elsdon shook his head.
The hands released him at once. There was no sound of the man's departure, any more than there had been any sound of his arrival. Elsdon took a moment to steady his breath and to wipe sweat off his face. Then he pushed the chair back and sideways, with a protesting screech of its metal casters, and contemplated the High Seeker.
Layle was standing at the stove now, at the end of their small parlor which served as a miniature kitchen. There was a tall pot on the stove that had been warming when Elsdon arrived home from his night's work. Layle looked down into it, stirring it as he said, "We've been delivered stew this morning. At least, I think it's stew. Those potatoes look suspiciously colored to me."
"Layle . . ."
"I could have them tested, I suppose. Or I could ask the healer for an antidote beforehand to food poisoning." Layle did not look up. The light from the stove glowed under his face, turning his eye sockets deeply dark, as though the face-cloth of his hood still hid his face.
Elsdon hesitated. It was difficult to communicate with the High Seeker when he got into one of these moods. If Elsdon were truthful with himself, he must admit he had made little effort during the past few months to communicate with Layle. They would discuss work, in a cool manner that did not touch upon matters of controversy. And then, when the silence began to boil up and threaten to scald them, they would make love, playing out Layle's usual dreamings of captivity and rape and torture. The play tortures had become more violent in imagery in recent months, as though Layle were releasing all his frustrations into the one place in his life where it was safe to play out his anger.
But never, in Elsdon's long experience with his love-mate, would Layle refuse to respond to Elsdon if Elsdon took the direct approach. So now Elsdon said, "I attended a meeting in the common room yesterday evening. Of the New School."
"Yes." The High Seeker, unofficial leader of the rival Old School, did not look up from where he was stirring the alleged stew.
Elsdon felt foolish then. Layle often had that effect on him. Belatedly, Elsdon remembered that the High Seeker had no need to set spies upon the New School to learn of their activities. Too many ambitious junior guards existed to require that. Within two-thirds of an hour after the meeting, at least one guard who had attended the meeting would have sidled his way up to Layle and whispered, "I have information you should know."
Layle despised gossip, though occasionally his duties as High Seeker required him to listen to the gossip. That alone would be enough to put him in a foul mood.
And the hands upon Elsdon . . . It was clear now what they had been. A gesture of true love. A last attempt at peacemaking, before the storm broke.
Elsdon winced inwardly at the realization of his rejection of Layle's generous offer; but there was no way now to retract that rejection. Sighing, Elsdon set aside all thought of safely summarizing what had occurred in the meeting. No doubt the High Seeker could have given him notes. Instead Elsdon said, "Layle, you have to do something. Matters are spiralling out of control."
"We've been over this before, Elsdon." Replacing the lid on the stew pot, Layle turned his back in order to take two soup dishes off the rack where they were stored. "What happened was my fault. I did not sufficiently supervise Vito de Vere's training, and so he developed bad habits that made him unsuitable for the position of Seeker. Because of my poor judgment, the Eternal Dungeon lost an otherwise highly qualified candidate for Seekership. The Codifier and I have discussed ways in which we can prevent this tragedy from happening again in the future. We are changing custom, so that the High Seeker keeps more careful watch over all Seekers-in-Training. We plan to create a new permanent appointment of a senior guard and junior guard whose primary duty will be to assist and guide Seekers-in-Training. The Record-keeper has created a new application form for prospective Seekers, more pointed in its questions—"
"Layle, you cannot cure a diseased dungeon by slapping a gauze bandage upon it! It's not one thing or another that's wrong, it's the entire way this dungeon is run!"
Layle did not so much as pause as he laid out ironware on the work counter where he and Elsdon ate together after dawn and in the late afternoon, whenever the High Seeker's duties permitted this. "What do you suggest I do?"
"You know what you have to do. Change the dungeon's rules, so that Seekers and guards have greater leeway to show mercy to prisoners. If a Seeker or guard makes a well-meaning mistake in an effort to help his prisoner, don't dismiss him or flog him, and for love of the Code, don't execute him! Allow him the opportunity to learn from his mistakes and grow more skilled at his work. Above all, stop the torture of prisoners."
This time, Layle's hands did pause briefly before he placed the pitcher of water onto the counter. "The Code of Seeking requires the use of torture when certain prisoners cannot be reached in any other manner."
"The Code of Seeking wasn't authored by a god," Elsdon said flatly. He had risen to his feet, though he remained where he was, standing in front of the chair. "Its fifth revision was authored by Layle Smith, who has every reason to know that he's a fallible man, capable of making mistakes. Sweet blood, Layle, you've admitted your mistakes to me on countless occasions. Why can you not admit to the rest of the dungeon that you made a mistake when you mandated the use of torture against certain prisoners?"
Folding the napkins with a precision that would have done credit to an army unit at drill practice, Layle said, "There are certain customs in this dungeon which I may change, but the rules of the Code are not in my power to change. Their change is regulated by Chapter Ten, Paragraph B—"
"Oh, Layle!" Frustrated, Elsdon pressed his hands against his face. The High Seeker, the Codifier . . . even the Record-keeper, who worked directly under the High Seeker. All of them reciting rules of bureaucracy, as a train station manager might recite rules in the seconds before the deadly crash of a train that has been sent onto the wrong track. How could Elsdon break through Layle's inflexible stance? It was a question that had haunted him for months and had kept him awake for endless hours as he began to sense the answer.
Layle added, "The rules exist for a reason. There was once a young man who had committed countless maulings and murders, as well as the rape of a virgin. The murderer was hard-hearted and could never have been reached by any pleadings for good behavior. He would have been lost to all civilized conduct, and his soul would have been trapped forever in the hell of afterdeath. But the man who searched him for his crime had the good sense to place the young man in physical torment for a brief while. The intense pain broke the murderer's defenses and permitted the torturer to take the first steps to transform the young man's heart. If the torturer had not done that, the young man would have remained what he had been: heartless and trapped in a perpetual cycle of evil."
It was a brave attempt at communication. Elsdon recognized that. Layle disliked speaking of his criminal past, and never before had he spoken in such detail of the torture he had undergone as a boy in Vovim's royal dungeon. Elsdon knew that Layle spoke the truth as he knew it. Layle genuinely believed that his soul could not have transformed if he had not been tortured, and he genuinely believed that he was helping his tortured prisoners into transformation.
"Layle," said Elsdon as he dropped his hands wearily to his sides, "you cannot assume that every prisoner reacts to torture as you did."
Layle raised an eyebrow. "I was about to say the same to you."
Elsdon sighed. Layle was too good at this game of wits. They had been playing this game for months – for years. They travelled nowhere by it. Layle's mind would not change; neither would Elsdon's. And each time they played the game, new scars appeared on both of them, tender to the touch.
How long before the scars grew so thick that their bond would break? Would it not be better to take action before then, in an attempt to save their bond?
Elsdon drew in his breath. He had been rehearsing this moment in his mind for months but had not been sure what to say. Not until yesterday evening, after speaking privately with Birdesmond. "Layle," he said, "Birdesmond plans to request that her work hours be changed to the night shift."
From the flicker in Layle's expression, it was clear that he understood what Elsdon was trying to say. But his voice was colorless as he replied, "The Record-keeper will send me that request in due time."
"It's not simply because she wishes a change in her duty hours," Elsdon continued with determination. "It's to give herself a suitable excuse to stop sharing Weldon's bed. She loves her husband dearly, but this difference of opinion has become so great between the two of them that she can't bear the pain of their fights. She wants to have time away from him, in hopes that both of them can consider what they should do, apart from each other."
Layle picked up the lid of the stew pot. Peering down into the stew, he said flatly, "You wish a change of shift."
Elsdon hesitated, wondering what the kindest way was to phrase this. "Not a change of shift, no. I'm a bat by nature; I work best during the night. But . . . Well, we've been fighting so much, over such important matters. It seems to me that it would be best if we both took a break—"
Layle said in an implacable voice, "I will have the Record-keeper move you to a new cell." He banged down the lid of the pot. "This is inedible. I am going to eat in the dining hall. I will have another dinner sent to you."
His face-cloth was down. That was what Elsdon noticed in the final seconds of that whirlwind which was Layle when he moved fast. Layle had pulled down his face-cloth, well before he reached the door.
He had cut himself off from Elsdon.
Zenas's room was blessed with a plethora of props. This was because the Codifier had ruled that the dungeon's usual property restrictions, which minimized the number of belongings that prisoners were permitted to keep, did not apply to Zenas, since he was the dungeon's only long-term prisoner who was underage. Because of this ruling, his parents had ordered store catalogues and had guided Zenas through the toy sections of those catalogues, doing their best, through gestures, to explain the nature of each toy. Zenas, who had never quite mastered the Yclau alphabet – largely because his parents had assumed he could not grasp such schooling – was grateful for the explanations, though the pictures alone were clear enough. He chose his props carefully: costumes and art supplies and building blocks and stuffed animals. He had considered the dolls, but his parents appeared so horrified when he lingered over those pictures – even his mama, who had chosen a career considered most unsuitable for one of her sex – that he had confined himself to stuffed animals, which either boys or girls might play with.
In retrospect, it was a wise decision. To have played with a lifelike doll in the manner that he was playing now would have been too painful.
"Kneel!" he shouted at his favorite fellow player – a battered lion cub that had belonged to his papa when he was a young child. "Kneel and suck me!"
The stuffed cub looked up at him pleadingly, and then, perhaps as an indication of weariness, it toppled over to one side.
"You horrible boy!" As he spoke, Zenas picked up the cub and shook it, though taking care not to be as vigorous with the cub as his master had once been with him. The cub was more fragile— Well, no, the cub was less fragile than Zenas had been as a young boy. But Zenas had no desire to leave the cub in the same state that he had been, shortly before his arrival in the Queendom of Yclau with his master.
So rather than throw the cub onto the ground, he threw it onto the bed. "Stay there!" he ordered.
It took him only a moment to bind the cub, paw to paw. The cub stayed still, just as Zenas had. Zenas was dimly aware of the tears on his face, but he focussed his thoughts on picking up the little switch that he had fashioned out of the remains of an old hazelwood basket. "Now I'm going to whip you," he announced, hearing the echo of his master's voice in his head. "You're lucky to be whipped. You're lucky I love you enough to do this to you."
He continued the whipping for the next third of an hour. It always took a while for his master's arm to grow weary. He had to pause several times to blow his nose into his handkerchief. Finally, when he reached the point where he knew he would break down completely into sobs, he tossed the switch away and marched to the other end of the room, pulling off the tie around his neck. He had never played out the killing of his master. To do so seemed wrong. Even though his parents had impressed upon him that this was the only way in which he could have saved his own life, he still knew that it was wrong for him to have taken a man's life. He prayed to the gods each night to give him tasks he could do to help bring good into the world, to demonstrate his repentance for the evil he had once done.
The tie represented his master, who always wore a suit except in bed. Zenas struggled for a moment to don the black cloth that represented a Seeker's hood. Finally he was ready. He took a deep breath and turned to face the cub, which was still bound upon the bed.
He walked toward it slowly, and then gently unbound the cub, as a Seeker had once ordered that he be gently unbound. He shared his handkerchief with the cub, as a Seeker had once shared his handkerchief. Then he took the cub into his arms, as a Seeker had once done.
He bowed his head over the cub, saying, "It's all right now. You're safe. Nobody will harm you again. I won't harm you, and I'll make sure that nobody else does. I promise you that. For I am your papa, and you are my beloved son."
As he spoke, he pulled back his face-cloth. He was still crying, but that was part of the performance. For it was his Seeker's tears – on that day long ago when the Seeker had come to his cell and comforted him – which had given Zenas his first hint that this was a man very unlike his master. A man of strength, but a man who was not afraid to admit when he was wrong and to ask forgiveness.
It was a moment that had opened up Zenas's world, though it had taken him many months to recognize what his master had done to him, and years more to forgive the dead man for the terrible deeds he had committed upon Zenas. That was all in the past, but if Zenas did not play out these events under bright lamplight, he knew that they would return to him in the darkness of his nightmares.
So now he rocked the cub in his arms, reassuring himself of the play's happy ending. "I love you, son," he told the cub. "I love you, and I have a wife who will be your mama, and she will love you too. We will take care of you, for as long as you need us. And after that—"
He broke off, alerted by the sound at his doorway.
It was his Seeker, of course. Weldon Chapman, supervisor of the day shift in the Eternal Dungeon, second-in-command to the High Seeker. At his word, any guard or Seeker might be beaten. At his word, any prisoner might be racked.
He was crying. That much Zenas knew, though his papa's face-cloth was still down, for he had only just arrived home from work.
"Go on with your play, son," his papa urged, gesturing to try to make clear what he wanted. "I'm sorry I disturbed you." He withdrew quickly.
Zenas waited until he heard the door to his parents' bedroom close; then he set the cub aside with a pat of reassurance, and made his way out of the curtained alcove where he had chosen to live.
He could hear anything his parents said in the bedroom; the bedroom door was not thick enough to keep out sounds. But it was always easier to understand them if he could see the expressions on their faces when they talked. So quietly, very quietly, he turned the knob and opened the door a bare inch, so that he could peek through the slight gap in the doorway.
His mama was sitting on the bed. She had evidently just awakened in preparation for her first night shift of work, for she was still in the frilly nightgown she wore because his papa thought she should have the opportunity during her leisure hours to dress up, the way gentlewomen in the lighted world did at all hours of the day and night. Left to herself, Zenas guessed, his mama would have worn the same sort of sensible clothes she had worn before she came to the dungeon, which Zenas had glimpsed only once, on his first day as their son. But she was a kind woman and liked to please her husband as much as her husband liked to please her.
Now her husband was buried within her arms as he sobbed against her breast. She cradled his head, now free of his hood, saying softly, "You didn't see anything we haven't seen many times before. My darling, we need to accept the truth."
"I know," replied his papa in a choked voice. "I know that the abuse which that vile man inflicted upon Zenas damaged his mind, so that he is still only a twelve-year-old."
"Younger than that," his mama said softly. "He plays with stuffed animals, and he has never learned our language, no matter how great an effort you've taken to teach him. At my guess, his mind is that of a seven-year-old – the same age that Zenas was when his master murdered Zenas's widowed father and began raping the child."
His papa gave another sob; he was clutching the lace on his wife's nightgown, and his eyes were squeezed shut, though tears continued to pour from them. His face was scrunched up and red. "I keep hoping," he said. "I keep hoping we're wrong. He's clever at checkers—"
"He's a very bright seven-year-old," replied his mama. She had the sort of distant look on her face that Zenas recognized as anguish as deep as her husband's, but with her husband crying, all her efforts would be focussed upon comforting him. She was as much a Seeker as his papa was.
"The healer said there was nothing wrong with his mind—"
"Mr. Bergsen doesn't live with Zenas from day to day," countered his mama. "Even the young children at the outer-dungeon nursery recognized that something was different about Zenas; they drew back from him whenever he attended. It was almost a relief when he began refusing to attend the nursery last year . . . though I do worry about leaving him alone all the time now. It was bad enough when you and I were both working on the same shift and we had to leave him in the nursery during the daytime. But now that he has left the nursery, and there will always be one of us gone from home and the other sleeping . . ."
His papa struggled onto one elbow, staring up at his mama. "What harm could come to him? This is the safest place in the world for him to be. The guards know he isn't permitted to leave the dungeon, and within the dungeon itself, there isn't a man or woman who would raise their hand against him. They all know what he endured when he was younger."
"That," said his mama grimly, "is precisely what worries me."
His papa sat upright. The two of them stared at each other silently for a minute. Finally his papa said, "You do him an injustice, Birdie. He has never harmed you, despite all the temptation he feels."
"He knows I would scream down his dungeon if he tried," replied his mama briskly. "But Zenas? He would cooperate with his abuser, just as he cooperated with his old slave-master. Weldon, you know I am not being foolish. You told me yourself that Layle Smith refused to come near Zenas during the boy's time in a breaking cell, because he feared what he might do to the boy. And now the High Seeker is living in the same dungeon as Zenas, catching sight of him day after day, knowing that he could harm the boy in any manner he wished. Zenas is so young in mind that he wouldn't realize that it was wrong for him to be harmed. . . . I know that the High Seeker is a man who desires good. But even such men have their limits."
Her husband shook his head. Now dry-eyed, he was wiping the tears from his cheeks with his palm. The electric lamp on the bedside table – one of the few objects in their stark Seekers' living cell, aside from Zenas's toys – made his face appear paler than it actually was. "Dearest, you're frightening yourself needlessly. I've known Layle for far longer than you have. He and I are the closest of friends. Zenas received a six-year sentence of imprisonment in this dungeon for his defensive murder of his master, and Layle would tear his own heart out before he harmed any prisoner—"
His mama arched an eyebrow. She was beautiful, not only in Zenas's eyes, but also in the eyes of most of the men of the dungeon, who could see no more of her appearance than her shapely figure and graceful movements. Only her status as a Seeker and as Weldon Chapman's wife kept her from being harassed by petitions for lovemaking. That, and the cool gaze she bestowed upon any fool who ventured such a petition. Now she said, "You think so? Yet since the beginning of this month, the High Seeker has ordered that half a dozen prisoners be racked."
His papa's movement, when it came, was so sudden that Zenas nearly fled backwards. But his papa, upon flinging himself off the bed, merely stared at the wall, his back to Zenas's mama. "We have already gone through this," he said, facing the wall.
"And reached nowhere in our discussion."
"You know I support you in any endeavor you undertake," replied his papa, still staring at the wall.
"You could better show your support by speaking out publicly against what the High Seeker is doing to this dungeon." His mama leaned forward, tucking her feet under her.
"Please," said his papa. "Please do not make this a matter of contention between us." His voice had begun to quiver.
His mama's voice, on the other hand, was filled with exasperation now. "You are so stubborn, Weldon. If you would just tell me why you're refusing! Is it loyalty to Layle Smith? Or do you truly believe that the prisoners are better off having their limbs nearly wrenched from their bodies?"
"I cannot speak to you about this." His papa's voice was stiff; his posture equally so.
"For love of the Code, Weldon—"
"I cannot." Turning swiftly away, he strode toward the bedroom door.
Zenas dived under the table where he and his parents had their meals. His papa didn't notice. His face-cloth was already down; he walked rigidly toward the door to the dungeon corridor and walked through it.
He closed the door gently. Zenas noticed that. He wondered whether his mama would.