"Well, how shall we start?" asked his mama.
They were all there – all seven leaders of the New School, gathered in Zenas's home, in what his mama had wryly termed the parlor, because it had a seat or two. "Representatives," Elsdon Taylor was careful to call the leaders, but Zenas considered it unlikely that anyone else thought of them that way. Members of the Eternal Dungeon were prone to think in a hierarchical manner.
Perhaps this was on Mr. Taylor's mind as well, for he said, "Before we start . . . I've been thinking about the matter of representation."
They all waited. Mr. Bergsen, Zenas's mama, and Mr. Taylor were seated at the small dining table which doubled as a desk. The two senior guards, Mr. Boyd and Mr. Yates, sat on the sofa that stood near a pedestal holding the cut-glass vase which had been Elsdon Taylor's wedding gift to Zenas's parents. Mr. Crofford had seated himself on a footstool next to the sofa, close to Mr. Boyd's right hand, while Mr. Urman, like the loser in a game of Tuneful Chairs, was sitting on the floor near Mr. Crofford.
As for Zenas, he was spread out on his stomach on the floor, hoping his mama would not banish him from the proceedings. Nobody had elected him as a representative, he was acutely aware.
As though concerned about the danger of eavesdroppers, Mr. Urman glanced over his shoulder at the nearby bedroom door. "Will your husband be attending this meeting?"
"He will not." His mama's voice was unusually toneless. "He's still at work. He usually works through the dusk shift. I've asked him not to interrupt our meeting."
"He's not with us, then?" Mr. Urman eyed her in a canny manner. "Bet there'll be a lot of that before the end of this conflict: couples on rival sides."
"You were saying, Mr. Taylor," said his mama hurriedly. Zenas could guess that she was trying to derail Mr. Urman's train of thought, not for her own sake, but for the sake of Mr. Taylor, who had turned up at their door the previous day with his sparse belongings wrapped in a blanket that he had flung over his shoulder, hobo-fashion. Zenas's papa, who had answered the living cell's door, had quickly invited Mr. Taylor to stay in their guest room. Officially, that bedroom was intended for Zenas, but Zenas had always preferred the little alcove where he had slept since he was twelve. It adjoined the parlor, where all the interesting conversations took place.
Mr. Taylor cleared his throat. "That's what I wanted to talk about. Titles, I mean," he added, as everyone looked at him blankly. "I'm uncomfortable at the idea of conducting our meetings in a formal manner, as though we were all on duty. The other members of our protest—"
"The New School," said Mr. Yates, grinning.
"Yes, the New School, as we've been dubbed," acknowledged Mr. Taylor, with a fleeting glance at Mr. Urman, who had spread the name like wildfire around the dungeon. "The other members of the New School elected us as their representatives – all as equals. We'll need someone to conduct votes and the like, and I'd suggest that be our gracious hostess, who called the original meeting of protest." He gestured toward Zenas's mama, who pretended to curtsy from where she sat. "But other than that, I'd prefer that we treat each other as though we were all junior guards, equal in rank. It will make the conversations go more smoothly."
"Well, I am certainly in favor of that," said Zenas's mama, as Mr. Crofford and Mr. Urman – the only junior guards present – exchanged looks. "I don't know about the rest of you, but after seven years in this dungeon, I've grown tired of forever being greeted as 'ma'am' and 'mistress.' I'm younger than half the members of this room, and not terribly older than the rest of you, yet you make me feel as though I'm someone's aging spinster aunt."
This remark prompted light laughter from the men present, other than Mr. Boyd. Still grinning, Mr. Yates said, "Well, I have no objection to being addressed informally in these informal circumstances . . . provided that no occasion arises when I'm duty-bound to take official notice of an infraction by someone more junior than me. But I doubt that will arise."
Mr. Boyd said nothing. Mr. Bergsen looked amused but said nothing.
Nodding, Zenas's mama said, "Then I suggest that we all introduce ourselves by our full names and state, with honesty, what is most important to us in these proceedings. My name, as I believe you all know, is Birdesmond Manx Chapman – you may call me Birdesmond."
"Birdesmond," whispered Zenas, pulling himself into a sitting position on the bare floor. It seemed terribly disrespectful to think of his mama by first name alone, but if he was to be an equal to the others here, as Elsdon Taylor had urged, then he should follow the rules they were all following.
"I'm here," said Birdesmond, taking a deep breath, "because I loathe the practice of torture, and I decided long ago that I would not rest until I saw that practice wiped out in this dungeon."
Mr. Yates gave a low whistle. Mr. Crofford said, "You're remarkably forthright, ma'a— I'm sorry, I'm going to have a hard time remembering to call you by your first name."
Birdesmond gave a careless gesture. "Take as much time as you need. As for what you said, I don't believe that my views are in any way unusual in the lighted world; indeed, I'm only surprised that we're the first members of the Eternal Dungeon to oppose torture. . . . Let us continue. Mr. Bergsen? You're the highest-ranked man here, I believe."
"I'm David Stanhope Bergsen." The healer, who had looked as though he were about to respond to Birdesmond's opening remarks, chose instead to follow her instructions. "If anyone calls me David, I'll bash them, because I despise the name. Bergsen will do; that's what my friends call me."
The others exchanged looks. Hiding a smile, Zenas guessed that there was not a single person in the room who would dare to address the irascible healer without his title.
"Torture is just a symptom of the problem, in my view," continued the healer. "This dungeon has long been run in far too inflexible a manner, following the letter of the Code, rather than the spirit. Fiddling rules; I despise them. More room for common sense – that's what this dungeon needs."
There were general nods of agreement. Mr. Taylor, after pausing to see whether Mr. Yates preferred to speak next – the senior guards were officially higher-ranked than the junior Seekers – said quietly, "Elsdon Auburn Taylor. I go by Elsdon. I've more to learn than most of you, but my original concern started many years ago, when a Vovimian torturer suggested to me that the Eternal Dungeon deprived prisoners of the right to hold to their own beliefs, in matters of legitimate conscience. It seems to me that, whatever changes need to be made in this dungeon, we need to consider first what is in the best interests of the prisoners."
"Here, here!" agreed Mr. Yates. "I'm Willard Howard Yates. Howard was my foster parents' surname, and it's the name I prefer to use among friends."
"What is most important to you in this conflict, Howard?" prompted Birdesmond.
There was a startled silence. Howard Yates shrugged. "You asked us to be honest. My foster sister is who's most important to me. Our parents are dead, and she's been crippled since childhood; I'm the only person left to care for her. She's what matters most to me in life. But if I can, I'd like to help out in this conflict, because the High Seeker has scared the soul out of me, ever since the day we first met."
Leaning forward, Mr. Urman said, "He tortured you, didn't he?"
"Mr. Urman," murmured Elsdon. There was a frown in his voice. It was well known that, like the High Seeker, he despised gossip.
Howard waved a forgiving hand. "It doesn't matter. The story's been public for a long time. I was Layle Smith's test, when he first became a Seeker. Our dungeon's High Torturer, as he was called back then, wanted to see whether Mr. Smith would deliberately torture an innocent prisoner. So he told me to exercise my acting skills; then he gave me over to Layle Smith, telling Mr. Smith that I was a prisoner. I had the privilege" – a twist of the mouth, not quite a smile – "of being Mr. Smith's first victim. . . . But no, he didn't torture me, not physically. He ordered I be given a few disciplinary whiplashes when I lost my temper with him – nothing I wouldn't do to a prisoner in similar circumstances. No rack, nothing like that. He passed the test that the High Torturer set for him; he refused to torture me."
"But he was frightening," said Mr. Crofford in a hushed voice.
"Gave me nightmares for years afterwards," said Howard, all traces of a smile removed. "The nightmares started up again a few years ago, after Mr. Ferris disappeared. I don't want anything like that to happen again."
Mr. Boyd was frowning now, though Zenas wasn't sure why. It was frequently difficult to tell what the senior guard was thinking; he was the only man in the dungeon whose difficulties in communication rivalled Zenas's. Birdesmond, after glancing at Mr. Boyd – Barrett was his name, Zenas recalled – evidently decided not to strain the discussion by addressing that senior guard. Instead, she turned to the older of the two junior guards. "Mr. Urman?" she said.
"D. Urman," he introduced himself with a shrug. "This dungeon's in a bloody mess – everyone can see that. I want to help put it right."
Elsdon coughed. "I think we can do without the foul language. Mr. Crofford, you're the only man remaining—"
"Not his true name."
The conversation halted as abruptly as a pile-up of wagons that had all been trying to travel through the same crossroad at once. Everyone stared. Then Birdesmond said tentatively, "I'm sorry, Barrett – could you repeat that, please?"
"Not his true name." Barrett Boyd pointed at D. Urman. "D. Not legal."
"He's right," said Howard Yates slowly. "In this queendom, you can't be given an initial letter as your birth name."
D. Urman glared at him. "You don't use your birth name. Neither does he." He jerked his thumb toward Mr. Bergsen.
"We did, however, state what our birth names are," Mr. Bergsen pointed out mildly.
Howard turned his attention to Mr. Crofford. "Mr. Crofford – Clifford, isn't it? You must know Mr. Urman's first name. You're his closest friend."
"I've always called him D.," said Clifford Crofford, but there was puzzlement in his voice, as though he sensed a mystery.
Mr. Bergsen cleared his throat. "It would normally be in his medical records."
"Which you can't reveal, under your oath as a healer," said Birdesmond quickly. "We understand."
"Which I can't do, because I've never seen his name," said Mr. Bergsen. "His birth name is masked in his records."
Mr. Urman was looking furious now. Everyone else was looking intrigued. Howard whirled round to face Elsdon. "You must know, surely. He applied to be your senior guard at one point, didn't he?"
Elsdon shook his head. "I know no more than the rest of you do."
"Look, it really doesn't matter—" began Clifford, who was forever defending his friends.
"Trust," said Barrett.
"I'm afraid I must agree," said Birdesmond in that sorrowful tone she adopted when she was doing the verbal equivalent of boxing someone's ears. "We are discussing delicate topics, and if we don't demonstrate complete trustworthiness to each other, why should any of us trust the other? I really think it's important to establish trust in small matters, before we begin to discuss the very great matters we need to deal with."
Mr. Bergsen grunted in evident agreement. Mr. Urman said nothing; his gaze had wandered over to look at the only person present who had not expressed his opinion, other than Zenas.
"Mr. Urman," said Elsdon quietly, "I must join my voice with the others in asking you to be honest with us. Honesty is the path to rebirth – that's what I tell my prisoners. I'll ask you directly: What is your given name?"
Mr. Urman's gaze travelled in jerks from person to person in the room, as though he were a small boy surrounded by bullies. The gaze returned, in the end, to Elsdon, who was waiting patiently. His face now a deep red, Mr. Urman said in a very short voice, "Daniella."
After a brief moment of shock, Zenas buried his face in his hands. He was frightened to see what must come next. The laughter . . . Mr. Urman's fury . . . the breaking apart of the brief alliance of leaders.
But he underestimated the leaders of the New School. Every single one of them, from Mr. Bergsen to Clifford, had been trained not to taunt prisoners, however great the provocation. Not a single person present laughed. When he peeked through his fingers, Zenas saw that none of them were smiling either. After a silence that continued for far too long, Elsdon replied quietly, "Thank you. I take it that you prefer to be called Daniel."
Clifford let out a breath he had evidently been holding. Mr. Urman gave a crooked smile. "D. is fine. It's what my sisters call me."
That was rather an odd way to put it, Zenas thought, wondering whether the young guard's parents had already died. And why had they named their son Daniella? It could not be because D. Urman was a woman in disguise; Zenas had seen D. showering in one of the open stalls in the guards' washroom. Nor did D. behave as one who had chosen to imitate the gender of the goddess Mercy. There was a story here, clearly.
But the conversation was now moving on, thanks to Birdesmond's tact. "Where shall we start our discussion?" she asked. "I know that, for me, the most serious problems in this dungeon began in the year 360, the sixth month, when the High Seeker started interpreting strictly the rules of the Code. That was when the beatings and dismissals began."
Mr. Bergsen shook his head as he fingered the chain of his pocket-watch. "I'd say that the real trouble began three months later, when Mr. Ferris was arrested. That was a return to the dark days of Mr. Smith's predecessor."
Barrett frowned again. Evidently interpreting the frown as confusion, Clifford leaned forward. "You remember that, don't you, Barrett? When Mr. Ferris was executed by the High Seeker? Mr. Ferris was the oldest Seeker in the dungeon then."
Barrett simply shook his head. Apparently restless, he stood and went over to the sideboard, where Birdesmond had spread out refreshments for the meeting beforehand.
Clifford followed him. "Barrett, you can remember."
"It's hardly important—" began Howard.
"Oh, but he'll remember in a moment," said Clifford over his shoulder. "He always does. It just takes him a minute." He returned his attention to Barrett, who had abandoned the refreshments untouched and was now returning to his seat. Blocking his path, Clifford urged, "You can remember, Barrett. It's easy. It happened on the day that you asked me to be your love-mate. You remember that, don't you?"
Barrett frowned, furrowing his brow. He wasn't protesting Clifford's words, Zenas realized; he was trying to remember. His brow grew more furrowed. Sweat began to bead upon it. He put out his hand to touch the chair beside him. As he did so, Zenas saw that he was shaking.
"Wait." Elsdon's voice was quiet, but it was so firm that everyone turned to look at him – everyone except Barrett, who was now gripping hard the chair's back. Elsdon took a step forward, saying softly, "Clifford, bid him to stop."
Clifford looked from Barrett to Elsdon with confusion. "It's all right," he said. "He's always like this, when he tries to remember. He has a hard time, but he'll remember eventually."
"Mr. Crofford, bid him to stop." Elsdon's voice remained quiet; his gaze was fixed upon Barrett.
Clifford gulped. D. Urman was frowning, but he made no attempt to intervene. Everyone else simply waited.
Clifford hesitated for a moment more, but the change in address gave him no option; a Seeker's official orders had to be obeyed, unless the order went against the Code or against the orders of the High Seeker or Codifier. Turning to Barrett, Clifford said, "It's all right, Barrett. You don't need to remember; it's not important."
Barrett said nothing. His eyes were now squinted shut. But after a moment, his trembling began to ease.
With a voice as still as a hush after sleep, Elsdon asked, "What were you seeing, Mr. Boyd?"
The mode of address did its work on Barrett as well. He replied without hesitation, "Before."
"You were remembering?"
"What were you remembering, Mr. Boyd?"
Barrett's brow furrowed. This time his expression looked like puzzlement. "Before. That day before."
No reply. D. took a step over and looped his arm around the arm of Clifford, who was looking increasingly troubled. Howard had a reflective look on his face, as though he wished to take notes. Birdesmond had sunk down onto the sofa, evidently in an attempt to see Barrett's face better. As for Mr. Bergsen, he was whistling softly under his breath, the way he always did when he was worried about a patient, but he seemed contented to allow Elsdon to handle matters.
Elsdon tried a different tack. "When you remember that far back . . . how do you do it, Mr. Boyd?"
The puzzlement in Barrett's expression increased. He still had not opened his eyes. There was a fine sheen of sweat on his face now. "I remember."
"I remember back."
"How do you journey back there?"
"Past the fire."
Birdesmond stiffened. D. took a tighter grip on Clifford's arm, but Clifford simply continued to look confused.
"What fire?" Elsdon's voice was hardly higher than a whisper now.
For a space of time, there was silence, broken only by the healer's whistle. Then Elsdon seemed to make up his mind. His voice growing stronger, he said, "When does the fire occur?"
"At the beginning."
"The beginning of your memories?"
Barrett nodded. Starting to understand, Zenas drew his legs up within his arms. Clifford, though, still appeared to be bewildered by what was taking place.
"When do your memories begin?" Elsdon's voice was horribly matter-of-fact, though Zenas could guess that this was for Barrett's sake, rather than because he was unmoved by what was taking place.
Barrett's frown increased. He made no reply.
Elsdon flicked a glance toward Mr. Bergsen. The healer whistled at the ceiling for a moment, and then jerked his head toward the sofa. Birdesmond quickly arose.
"Come over here, please, Mr. Boyd." Elsdon continued to sound as bland as though he were issuing orders for a prisoner's daily meals. Without opening his eyes, Barrett moved toward Elsdon. When he'd nearly reached the sofa, Elsdon swung around to stand behind his back. "Turn, please."
Still blind, Barrett turned to face Elsdon. He seemed to sense that something was wrong, for he said, "Mr. Crofford—"
"I'm right here, Barrett," said Clifford quickly. "Just . . . just answer whatever questions the Seeker has."
"Sir." Barrett's tone toward Elsdon was more hostile than before.
Elsdon took no notice of the hostility. "Thank you, Mr. Boyd. I won't keep you long. I just have one question: On what day do your memories begin?"
Again, no reply. Barrett was breathing heavily.
"Very well." For the first time, Elsdon seemed hesitant. He glanced again at the healer, who broke off his whistling long enough to give Elsdon a nod. Turning his attention back to Barrett, Elsdon said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Boyd, but I must ask you to help me locate the beginning of your memories. I'd like you to go back to then."
"Through the fire?" Barrett's muscles tensed.
"Up to the point of the fire. Then stop. Stop there, where your memories begin, and tell me what day it is."
Clifford had turned pale. He began to shake his head vigorously. D. reached down and gripped his hand. Elsdon took no notice of either of them; his gaze was fixed upon Barrett, whose breathing was growing more erratic, whose frown was deepening, whose sweat was pouring, whose body—
The hoarse scream broke off abruptly. Barrett had passed out.
The healer was there to catch Barrett. He lowered Barrett to the sofa, arranged him on his side, and quickly stepped away. Elsdon knelt down beside Barrett. Already, Barrett was beginning to emerge from his faint; he groaned deeply.
Elsdon's gaze travelled up to look at the others: Birdesmond, with her hand clamped over her mouth. Howard, swearing under his breath. Clifford, crying within D.'s arms.
"The year 360, the eleventh month, the eighth day . . . shortly before midnight." Elsdon spoke softly. "That is when Barrett Boyd's memories begin. That is the fire he must pass through every time he tries to remember what happened before."
"I didn't know!" cried Clifford.
They were alone in the parlor now: D. Urman and Clifford Crofford. Elsdon, who had just stepped out of the guest room where he had been speaking privately with Birdesmond, could barely glimpse Zenas hidden behind the curtain of his alcove, granting the junior guards some token privacy. Mr. Bergsen had already escorted his patient to the infirmary, taking care not to touch him. Howard had gone into the corridor in order to answer the queries of several guards who had heard the scream and had come knocking on the door to discover what had happened. As he had left, Howard had given Clifford a sympathetic squeeze on the shoulder.
"I didn't know, D.," said Clifford, struggling to stop his tears. "I didn't realize that asking him to remember was putting him through so much pain."
"Hoi, mate, don't get yourself so wrought up," said D., embracing Clifford's shoulders with his arm. "It's a simple mistake. He won't hold it against you – or if he does, I'll make clear to him why he's being an idiot. It'll work out, I promise. It always does."
Clifford gave him a faint smile through his tears. "Except when it doesn't."
"Don't you believe me, then? Who's your best mate?" D. released Clifford, only to give him a mild punch in the arm.
"You are." After a moment, Clifford sighed. "You're right, of course. He'll forgive me; he always does. That's not what I'm crying about, though. It's the thought of him going through all that suffering for my sake—"
"Mr. Crofford, I'd like to speak with you." Elsdon's voice was so abrupt that even Zenas jumped in his hiding place. Clifford turned white.
D. glared at Elsdon. "He's in no state for a reprimand, Seeker."
"My apologies. I should have said: May I speak with you, Clifford?" Elsdon took no notice of D.'s ferocity. He had long since grown used to D.'s implacable hatred of him.
Clifford tugged at D.'s arm to draw him back from the confrontation with Elsdon. "I'll be fine, D. Will you go check the healer's surgery for me? See that Barrett's all right."
"Aye. Aye, of course." Still glaring like a watch-hound that's removed from duty at the exact moment when a burglar is breaking in, D. left the parlor. Clifford pulled a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and made an ineffectual attempt to wipe his face.
"Let me." Elsdon took the handkerchief from him.
For a while they did not speak. Elsdon carefully wiped Clifford's face, as though the guard were a child. Elsdon could hear faintly the soft snore of Weldon Chapman, who had returned home from work to find his wife kneeling over the prone body of Barrett Boyd. The senior Seeker hadn't said a word; he had merely walked through the anxious crowd around Barrett and entered his bedroom, shutting the door behind him.
Clifford gave a gulp, trying to swallow a series of hiccups that threatened to overwhelm him. "I didn't know, sir."
Elsdon nodded, keeping his gaze carefully focussed on Clifford's forehead, which he was wiping. "You'd asked him before to remember?"
Clifford nodded. The guard looked utterly miserable and entirely too young. He was only a year younger than Elsdon, but since his arrival at the Eternal Dungeon, Clifford's youthful friendliness had kept everyone entranced. Even – Elsdon was beginning to suspect – a certain guard who hated every other prison-worker in existence. "Did you ask him to remember work matters?"
The shame on Clifford's face was answer enough. "No, I asked him . . . I asked him to remember us."
Elsdon said nothing. It was a trick he had learned from the High Seeker: to remain silent in order to allow the man he was searching to fill the silence.
"He didn't remember us," Clifford said, all in a rush. "Not for the first three years. He'd pass me in the corridor, and he wouldn't even look at me. At first I thought he was angry at me, because I didn't stay to watch his punishment. D. said it couldn't be that, though, because Barrett wanted me to be absent that night. So one day last year, I managed to persuade Barrett to listen to me. I asked him why he was so cold to me, his love-mate. He just looked at me blankly. That's when I realized. He didn't remember me at all."
"It can happen, I understand," said Elsdon. "Amnesia following a traumatic event. It's nothing he deliberately tried to do, I'm sure."
"I know." Clifford bowed his head as Elsdon set aside the handkerchief. "I thought that all I needed to do was prod his memory. The first time . . . It was like it was today. He began to sweat and to shake. I thought it was due to simple exertion. I had no idea . . ."
Elsdon picked up the handkerchief again. After he'd wiped off the latest tears, he said, "And it's been like that every time?"
Clifford sniffed. "Every single time. Mr. Taylor, he's been going through torture for me for months! Why didn't he tell me?"
"Because he thought you knew." That would be the most honest answer. Elsdon decided against saying that. Clifford's repentance for what he had done was clear. So instead Elsdon said, "He clearly loves you a great deal."
Clifford's breath stopped. He stared at Elsdon, open-mouthed.
"Didn't you realize that?" asked Elsdon in a mild tone. Keep the voice gentle; that was best with frightened, cooperative prisoners.
"Of course I knew," whispered Clifford. "He'd never stop loving me. It was the last thing he said to me, before his arrest: that he would always love me. He would never break a pledge like that, no matter what. But everyone else thinks . . . Only D. understands. Everyone else has been telling me to forget about Barrett, to journey forth with my life, but D. has been saying I should stick with Barrett, I should figure out a way to help him remember our love-bond."
Hence D.'s foul mood. D. must be in as much agony of conscience right now as Clifford, but he expressed it in a very different manner. "Barrett has given you as clear a testimony of his love as any man could," said Elsdon. He put his finger under Clifford's chin, forcing up the guard's face. Another trick he had learned from the High Seeker, though Layle only practiced it with him, not the prisoners he was forbidden to touch. Elsdon asked, "Is something else bothering you?"
Clifford immediately turned his gaze away. "I was wondering . . . Will this endanger Barrett's job? Will the High Seeker dismiss Barrett when he discovers that Barrett has lost his memory?"
Elsdon considered that averted gaze for a moment and then released Clifford, stepping back. One trouble at a time – that was how to approach this conversation. "The healer is the one who advises the Codifier on whether workers in the inner dungeon are medically fit for their jobs. Mr. Bergsen didn't strike me as particularly alarmed today; he may well have known about the amnesia already, if not the precise manner in which Barrett's memories operate. . . . I wouldn't worry. Barrett has been monitored closely for the past four years, and according to the High Seeker, there's no indication that he's unable to do his job. Barrett may have lost his memories of the past, but he hasn't lost the knowledge he gained during that time. He's still what he always was: an experienced guard, skilled at his work."
Clifford's gaze remained fixed upon the sofa where Barrett had lain. He finally burst out, "But he can't speak well. Not in public. When he's alone with me or with the prisoners, it's different. But when he's talking to other guards or Seekers . . ."
"I know. The High Seeker knows."
"This dungeon has always taken a role of leadership," he had heard Layle tell Weldon on an evening three years before. "We were the first prison to place a code of ethics upon our workers. We were the first prison to permit adult men to mate with each other—"
"And the first to hire a woman Seeker," Weldon pointed out.
"Yes." Layle tensed, as he always did when references were made to Birdesmond, but he went on, "This may be another occasion when we can show leadership: by employing a mind-crippled guard."
"They'll say you're insane," warned Weldon.
Layle gave one of his dark smiles. "The world already has proof of that. Sometimes my insanity bears fruit. We shall see."
"The Record-keeper is under orders to pair Barrett only with experienced junior guards, those who can take over the work of communicating on Barrett's behalf," Elsdon explained to Clifford. "The problem has been that Barrett keeps requesting transfers. He seems to be dissatisfied with every Seeker he works for."
"Or perhaps he's dissatisfied with the junior guards he works alongside?" suggested Clifford, his tears forgotten. "It must be difficult for him to depend on another guard, one who's lower in rank than he is."
"Perhaps." Elsdon scrutinized his face. Clifford appeared calm now. This was the right moment for the question. "And perhaps difficult for you, to know how much it hurts him to remember his bond with you in the past?"
Clifford looked as though he'd been slapped. He lowered his head, gulping air. After a minute he said in a low voice, "He mustn't remember me again; I realize that now. He must forget we were ever love-mates. He must . . . I must stop making him love me."
"Oh, Clifford." It wasn't hard to make his voice sympathetic. It never was, when he was searching men who plowed forward, breaking themselves. All they needed was a little guidance on their path. "Clifford, you can't make him love you – you never could. And whether or not he has clear memories of you in the past doesn't matter. Barrett knows what you are now: a warm, gentle, generous, affectionate man. For your sake, he passed through a nightmare of memories; for your sake, he has attended meetings organized by a Seeker to help a former Seeker-in-Training, despite his hatred of Seekers and despite the special dangers that rebel meetings pose for him. He trusts you that much. What can you call such trust except love?"
Clifford looked as though he were about to be overwhelmed with tears again. Thankful that the Code did not forbid Seekers to touch guards, Elsdon put an arm around Clifford's shoulders. "Will you take a little advice from someone who's fallen in love with a man whose mind works differently from the mind of the average person?"
"Of course, sir." Clifford's voice remained low.
"You say you want Barrett to be your love-mate. You also say you want him to love you. Has it occurred to you that those are two different desires?"
Now appearing puzzled, Clifford frowned slightly, looking at Elsdon. But the junior guard possessed a great gift for remaining mute when he was confused – of waiting for answers, rather than rushing to supply his own answers.
Elsdon was counting on that. He said carefully, "If there's one thing which everyone in this dungeon knows, it's that Barrett Boyd dislikes being touched. He will touch his prisoners if his duties require it, but even that is painful for him in some manner – that's clear from the expression on his face when he does it. And to touch you, to lie in bed with you, to place his whole body against yours for hours on end. . . ."
A look of clear horror had descended upon Clifford. He blurted out, "I hadn't thought of that!"
No. He wouldn't have. Elsdon was well aware that Clifford was most likely a virgin. His experience of carnal matters would have been limited to a few kisses with his childhood darling, who had tragically died on the night before their wedding. Perhaps Clifford had exchanged a kiss or two with Barrett during the brief period of their courtship, before Barrett's punishment. But since then, Clifford's thoughts had been centered on renewing the emotional bond between himself and the senior guard. At this stage, it would not have occurred to Clifford that his love for Barrett might eventually take a more fleshly form.
But it would occur to Barrett. Until a few months before his punishment, Barrett Boyd had made periodic visits to the government-licensed brothels in the city. If he retained the knowledge he obtained in the past, as the healer said, then Barrett would be able to envision what duties were required of a love-mate.
To envision those duties, and to strive with all his great courage to fulfill those duties, once Clifford had made clear to him that he had previously pledged to be Clifford's love-mate.
"Oh, sweet blood," Clifford said in a strangled voice. "He's been letting me touch him. He always flinches away, as though he has touched a hot kettle, but he never stops me when I try to touch him. He's been trying to accept it – to accept the pain I give him. I've been such an idiot—"
Still standing with his arm around Clifford, Elsdon gave him a gentle squeeze. "It was a misunderstanding. Misunderstandings happen between two men who love each other – believe me, I know that from my own experience."
"I won't let it happen again—"
"I know you won't." A reassuring tone, a smile with the eyes, a warm encouragement. It was all in Elsdon's usual repertoire, and it was exceedingly pleasant to exercise his Seeker skills with a man who wholly deserved any help he could receive. "But remember what I said before? Loving and being a love-mate are two different things. You can still love each other without being love-mates."
Clifford raised his gaze finally to look at Elsdon. The calmness he showed at his work was beginning to settle over him, now that Elsdon had provided him with a foundation for the future. "But Barrett is more than just a friend to me. And I must be more than just a friend to him, if he's gone through all that for my sake. If we're not love-mates, what are we to each other?"
"I don't know," replied Elsdon simply, "but Barrett may." As Clifford stared, Elsdon added, "Clifford, you've spent a great deal of time making clear to Barrett what form you thought your love-bond together should take. Has it occurred to you to try to figure out what form he thinks it should take?"
Clifford left shortly thereafter, escorted by D., who had returned with news that all was well with Barrett in the healer's surgery. D., unfortunately, had refused an invitation to stay. Elsdon watched him leave with Clifford, feeling uneasiness ripple the surface of his mind.
"How many times, do you think, will scenes like this occur before we are through?"
He did not turn to look at Birdesmond, who had softly walked up beside him, her face-cloth down in preparation for her night's work. He replied, "Quite a few times, I suspect. Layle once told me that, the moment a prisoner first touches the Code, layers begin to peel off."