He was being beaten again.
He knew that it was because he had done something wrong. His old master had been forgiving of his mistakes, punishing him only once or twice a night. His new master, from what little he had seen of him so far, was more exacting.
He'd already made every effort he could to appease his new master, but the man seemed angry when he offered his body. He could not figure out what his master wanted. His master spoke in a strange tongue and kept his face hidden. Now, for reasons he could not comprehend, he had been stripped and was being bound to a whipping ring by one of his master's servants.
He tried to look over his shoulder at his master, but all he could see was another servant, holding the whip. Apparently, his master could not even be bothered to do the beating himself. His eyes prickling with tears, he buried his face between his arms. The beating began, hot lashes against his bare back.
What could he say to stop it? He tried frantically to pursue a solution. He would confess to the murder, he decided. He would confess to any misdeed that his master wished to charge him with—
A door closed, and Zenas jerked upright in bed, sweat slick upon his skin.
It took him a moment to catch his breath. It had been years since he had dreamt of his breaking at his papa's hands. Some of the first words he had come to understand in the Yclau tongue were his papa's repeated apologies for that beating. His papa had misunderstood Zenas's wordless actions, had thought that Zenas was attacking when he tried to offer his body to the Seeker whom he assumed was his new master.
That much Zenas had accepted and had easily forgiven. It had not been so easy to forgive the Eternal Dungeon, though, as he grew aware that what his papa had done to him was mild in comparison to how other prisoners were treated. Only the awareness of his own crime – of his dreadful, bloody murder – had kept his growing anger in check. How could he stand judgment upon men who had done nothing more than he himself had done?
Yet through all those years, his certainty had grown: the gods would not be pleased with what was taking place in the Eternal Dungeon. Torture was a privilege reserved to the High Master of hell, not to mortal men.
Now, seated sweating in bed, he breathed deeply, remembering that others here in the dungeon shared his concern – his mama, foremost of all.
And his papa?
It was then that he heard the footsteps.
The door closing had not been part of the dream, it seemed. Someone was in the parlor, walking through the dark. Not a single lamp had been lit in the windowless living cell, but dimly, against the faint glow of the kitchen stove that stood opposite to Zenas's alcove, the silhouette of a man walked past the blanket that covered the doorway to Zenas's alcove.
A Seeker; Zenas glimpsed the outline of his hood. It must be Zenas's papa, come home mid-day to fetch something. But why did he not light a lamp?
The silhouette passed out of sight. Perhaps it was Elsdon, returning to the guest room . . . But no, Elsdon had gone to bed earlier. Zenas had heard him praying, for Elsdon kept his door ajar in order to let in heat from the kitchen stove, the living cell's only source of warmth in the coolness of the underground dungeon.
Had Elsdon risen since then and left the cell?
Zenas began to pull his blankets off, in preparation to rising from his bed; then he shrank back instinctively. The silhouette had returned. It was not his papa – he was sure of that. His papa was shorter in stature. . . .
The door to the corridor clicked shut again. Zenas waited two minutes and then scrambled out of bed. Lighting the candle lamp on the night-table next to his bed, he lifted it and went to search the living cell.
The first thing he checked was his parents' bedroom. The door was locked. His papa, concerned at his mama being left alone while she was sleeping, had insisted that she lock the bedroom door, even though she pointed out that the living cell's main door always remained locked, and that Elsdon, a love-mated friend of the family, was a more than adequate guard to her virtue.
Zenas pressed his ear to the door. He could hear his mama's soft snore. Satisfied, he next checked the guest room, peering cautiously through the gap in the doorway. Elsdon was asleep too, sprawled loose-limbed across the sheets in a sensuous manner that helped Zenas to understand what had initially attracted the High Seeker to the junior Seeker.
Zenas prowled around the rest of the living cell, seeking some clue as to who had been there. Nothing was touched – not even the cut-glass vase, whose pedestal stood directly in the path between Elsdon's room and the door to the corridor. Elsdon had poor night vision, Zenas knew; surely the junior Seeker would have stumbled into the pedestal if he'd tried to walk to the guest room in the dark.
Finally Zenas found something out of place: a chessboard on a knee-high table, close to Elsdon's door. It must have been jarred, for an ebony hostage had skittered forward, as though it had been moved.
Zenas sat down on the floor to look, setting his candle on the table. The hostage – the "pawn," as the Yclau called it – was making its desperate attempt to escape from the Queen and from the High Seeker of the Queen's Eternal Dungeon. Ebony guards stood on either side of the Queen and High Seeker, preparing to recapture any Vovimian hostage who tried to escape. On the side of the board with the ivory figurines, the King and the High Master of the King's Hidden Dungeon held their own hostages, with their own guards ready to recapture any Yclau hostage who sought to escape them. But it was the Vovimian hostage who had fled first from the Eternal Dungeon, frantically trying to make its way to Vovim. Already, Zenas noticed, the High Seeker had edged forward, clearly seeking to be the chessman who made the capture.
Zenas spent a moment considering the position of the hostage. Then, with careful consideration, he moved forward the aeka, the prophet who stood only on the Vovimian side of the board. On the Yclau side of the board stood a cleric, but the High Seeker's move forward precluded the cleric from taking the primary position of capture. From now on, it would be a battle mainly between the aeka and the High Seeker, unless all the hostages were captured on one side, or the King or Queen were checkmated.
He was still thinking about the chessmen, and about his papa, when the others arrived.
His papa – Weldon, Zenas supposed he must think of his papa now, if Zenas was to think of his mama as Birdesmond – had apologized for what he'd done, but he continued to order other prisoners to be beaten or racked. Zenas knew that Weldon had once been a prisoner in the Eternal Dungeon, arrested on a false charge. Zenas also knew that Weldon, like all the Seekers, had undergone torture at the end of his training period as a Seeker, as a means to understand better the workings of the whip and the rack.
But Weldon had not experienced both at the same time. He did not know what it was like to be tortured as a prisoner, at the mercy of the man torturing you.
It was hard to understand what this was like, unless it had been done to you. Elsdon understood; he'd not only been abused by his father during his childhood and beaten by the High Seeker during his breaking, but he'd been held captive in the Hidden Dungeon after he travelled to Vovim on a mission for the Queen. Barrett Boyd understood also; he'd expected to die under the lash four years ago – had actually died, in a certain sense. He wasn't the man he'd been before he was beaten; everyone in the Eternal Dungeon agreed about that, including Zenas, who remembered the friendly guard who had smiled at him whenever they passed each other in the corridor.
Torture had transformed Mr. Boyd, and not in a good way. Whatever change Elsdon Taylor had undergone in the Hidden Dungeon was invisible on the surface, but he was now fighting to put an end to the Eternal Dungeon's torture.
And yet . . . and yet their foremost opponent was the High Seeker, who had been tortured as a prisoner.
Few people knew that. Zenas only knew the story because he had heard Weldon discuss it with Elsdon Taylor: the private tale of how Layle Smith, wicked in his youth, had been arrested on suspicion of having committed a terrible crime, had been tortured in the Hidden Dungeon for a confession, and then – unexpectedly – had been spared execution, only so that he could be trained to be a torturer for the King of Vovim. From that moment, Layle Smith had gradually risen to power, till he became the High Seeker of the Hidden Dungeon's rival, the Eternal Dungeon.
Was that why Layle Smith considered torture to be a good thing? Because his own confession under torture had brought him such material good? Zenas put his chin on his fist, contemplating the chessboard as the leaders of the New School arrived.
Elsdon emerged first from the guest room, fully clothed with the face-cloth of his hood down, since dungeon custom decreed that Seekers were only permitted to show their faces to a select few intimates. Likewise, his mama, Birdesmond, was fully hooded when she left her bedroom and began bringing out the food she had cooked during the previous dawn shift.
It was a mixture of foods, for most of the people at the meeting were coming off the day shift to their suppers, while Elsdon and Birdesmond and D. were beginning their work days. Snatching a piece of dried apple from a bowl, Zenas made his way back to the chessboard, where he could stay inconspicuous.
None of the leaders looked in a good mood. Howard readily explained his own discontent: "I had my annual leave stopped."
"Why?" demanded D., always eager to hear gossip.
"The High Seeker didn't say." Howard's lips thinned.
"That's odd," said Clifford slowly. "I was reprimanded by the High Seeker today for a sloppy uniform. He told me that a black mark would be placed in my record."
Everyone looked at Clifford's uniform. It was immaculate.
"Hmm." Mr. Bergsen looked reflective. "I put in a request for replacement instruments in my surgery. Since the request included scalpels, which could be used as weapons by escaped prisoners, the Codifier referred my request over to Layle Smith. Mr. Smith denied my request today, without explanation."
"The High Seeker's Record-keeper told me I would have to work today, even though it's usual for Seekers to take time off after the execution of their prisoner," said Birdesmond. "Do you suppose . . . ?"
"I was denied the usual leave after a racking," said Elsdon shortly. "Barrett?"
The senior guard briefly shook his head. D. volunteered, "I was beaten."
Howard emitted a short laugh. "Well, that's nothing new. But the timing of the rest . . ."
"Pressure from the High Seeker?" suggested Birdesmond as D. scowled. "He hasn't said anything to me about our recent meeting."
"He wouldn't," replied Howard. "The High Seeker, like the High Torturers who came before him, has no need to offer reasons for his conduct. It used to be that, in the old days, men would go into the Codifier's office, and only their corpses would be returned. We never knew why. . . ."
"The Codifier is part of this too?" said Clifford quickly. He had abandoned the food he was nibbling on. They all had, except Barrett.
"The High Seeker could hardly start denying leave to the Seekers without the Codifier's cooperation," said Elsdon quietly. "I think we can assume that the High Seeker, with the Codifier's permission, has decided to bear down upon those of us who are meeting to resist the present practices in the dungeon."
"But Barrett hasn't been affected," protested Clifford.
At that moment, there was the scrape of a lock at the door to the corridor. The door opened slightly, and Weldon's head poked through. "Ah, Mr. Boyd," he said to the senior guard. "Come with me, please."
"And just what do you intend to do with him?" Outrage personified, Birdesmond folded her arms.
Weldon kept his gaze centered upon Barrett. Elsdon reached over to touch Birdesmond's sleeve, murmuring, "Birdesmond, no."
Barrett had already set down his food. Strapping on the whip and dagger he had set aside upon his entrance, he stepped forward.
"Thank you, Mr. Boyd," said Weldon as the senior guard approached the door. "We're short a dusk-shift guard this evening – Mr. Rhodes has taken suddenly ill. I'd like you to serve as a substitute guard, since you're generally on duty during the dusk shift anyway."
Barrett said nothing; he simply followed Weldon from the living cell. The door closed behind them.
"Of all the arrogant, high-handed— Does Weldon really think he can destroy our opposition this way?" Birdesmond was in fine form now. Zenas could envision her as Mercy, swooping down with sword in hand to protect a beloved soul.
Elsdon touched her arm again. "I don't think it was his decision, Birdesmond. This has all the signs of being Layle's orders. Or perhaps it's just a coincidence."
"A coincidence!" D. turned his glare upon Elsdon. "You're forever defending the High Seeker."
Somewhat mollified, Birdesmond said, "He defends us to the High Seeker as well, I'm sure. Elsdon has always been something of a mediator."
D. snorted. Elsdon said, "It would be odd if one side in this dispute held all the truth. If I defend the High Seeker, it's because I want to question our premises to be certain we're right. I could be biased against the High Seeker because my own torture in Vovim slanted me toward the belief that torture is wrong."
"Or perhaps you're the one who arranged for all of us to be punished," rejoined D., quick as a whiplash. "You skipping your leave could just be a mask for your plot with Layle Smith."
"D., stop," said Clifford, obviously distressed.
D. ignored him. "You could be memorizing every word we speak, every decision we make, just in order to inform the High Seeker—"
"I don't need to tell him about you," Elsdon said mildly. "He knows everything he needs to about you."
This was so obviously true that Zenas expected nothing more than a shrug from D. Instead, D. took hold of the cut-glass vase and smashed it to the floor.
Everyone scurried back from the flying glass except Elsdon, who didn't move. His gaze remained level with D.'s. After a moment, D. turned and left the living cell. "Fled the cell" was perhaps the correct phrase.
There was silence, and then Clifford said in a small voice, "I'll clean up."
Elsdon shook his head; he had already stepped aside to pick up the broom in the kitchen. "The mess is my fault," he said. "I'll take care of it."