"Sometimes," said Birdesmond wryly, "I feel as though the true battle is not between the New School and the Old School, but between the seven of us."
Elsdon nodded slowly. The rest of the "rebel leaders," as D. had dubbed their group, had already left; the only remaining person in the living cell, aside from Birdesmond and himself, was Zenas, sitting on the floor by the chessboard, apparently oblivious to the proceedings.
Apparently. Shifting his mind away from the continuing mystery of the young man, Elsdon returned his thoughts to Birdesmond's remark. "Barrett's hostility I can understand. I was the Seeker he worked for when he was punished, so he associates me with that terrible period. But D. . . . I've never understood why D. dislikes me so much. His anger toward me existed long before my break from the New School. He has been furious toward me since I first came to this dungeon, nine years ago."
In a feminine manner, Birdesmond had paused in front of a mirror in order to tuck a stray tuft of hair back into the bun under her hood. She looked over her shoulder. "He applied to be your senior guard at one time, didn't he?"
"He has applied to be every Seeker's senior guard at one time or another," Elsdon replied dryly as he placed his foot upon the parlor stool and draped an arm over his upraised knee. "I've never understood why. It's quite clear that he's not going to advance in this dungeon – indeed, it's a wonder that the High Seeker didn't dismiss him long ago. D. has the highest record of reprimands and disciplinary beatings of any guard in the Eternal Dungeon."
"I've never worked with him," confessed Birdesmond, peering into the mirror as she straightened her collar. She wore the female equivalent of a Seeker's uniform: a plain black shirtwaist paired with a plain black skirt. The direct simplicity of the costume suited her well. "All I've heard about him is rumor. I suppose you must know him better. He was junior guard to the High Seeker when the High Seeker trained you, wasn't he?"
"And guarded me when the High Seeker broke me. Yes. But I can't say that I know him well." Elsdon frowned, staring down at the floor. Out of the edge of his eye, he could see Zenas scooting away from the chessboard. The board remained as he had left it: with the ivory and ebony chessmen deeply entangled in a battle.
"Well," said Birdesmond as she fiddled with a button, "I suppose that it really doesn't matter how adequately you know him. He doesn't work for you."
Elsdon raised his head then. Birdesmond continued to face the mirror, fussing with her uniform in a manner utterly woman-like and utterly unlike her.
"Birdesmond Manx Chapman," he said slowly, "are you searching me?"
With a grin, she faced him. "It's hard to resist. You don't often have open flaws."
He started to speak and then stopped, forcing himself to think. In the little alcove of the living cell, Zenas had begun playing with a stuffed lion and a stuffed kitten. Through Zenas's voice, the kitten was snarling at the lion.
"I suppose that I don't like to think about him," Elsdon said finally. "Just as memories of me are part of Barrett's dark time of punishment, the same is true of D. and me. One of my first memories of my arrival here, as a prisoner, is being whipped by D. after I instinctively pushed Seward Sobel away from me, when Seward touched me unexpectedly. I remember the fear I had, of not knowing how to stop D. from whipping me."
Birdesmond frowned. "Was Mr. Sobel in danger from you? Beating a prisoner for a mere push seems excessive."
Elsdon shook his head. "The High Seeker ordered that D. receive a disciplinary beating afterwards – not only for whipping me repeatedly, but for failing to tell the High Seeker the full circumstances of what happened, which could have saved me a second beating. Seward told me that, years later. I suppose that's how D.'s hostility toward me arose." Elsdon creased his brow, so absorbed in his thoughts now that he barely noticed that Zenas had moved the snarling kitten under the night-table, in an evident effort to protect it from the lion's anger. "The odd thing is, he was occasionally very helpful to me during my training. He was like a tap of water that can't decide which temperature it is. One moment, he'd be helping me; the next moment, he'd be surly and sarcastic."
"Which is his pattern of behavior as a guard," Birdesmond agreed. "His behavior doesn't puzzle me – I've seen that sort of behavior before from essentially good-natured men who have undergone hardship in their lives, so that they feel they must protect themselves. There's really only one mystery to all of this."
"What mystery is that?" Amidst the continued snarls of the kitten – who was now being licked by the friendly lion cub – Elsdon felt his mind travelling back to an incident that had occurred the year before. A dream. He had dreamed of D. Urman. Not of the present, but of D. at the time of Barrett Boyd's punishment, near the end of the year 360. It had been a disconcerting dream, which hinted at unknown depths within the guard. Elsdon had tried to tell Layle of the dream . . . but Layle, who normally treated his love-mate's dreams with great seriousness and interest, had quickly turned their conversation to other topics.
What had Layle said about the dream? "People are often different inside than they appear to others. . . . It sounds like a mystery worth uncovering."
"The mystery," said Birdesmond, responding to Elsdon's question, "is quite obvious. During these years when the High Seeker has beaten, suspended, and dismissed guards who disobeyed orders in the slightest manner . . . why has D. Urman not attracted the High Seeker's wrath?"
The answer to the mystery turned out to be a good deal more difficult to uncover than Elsdon had expected.
For the most part, the lives of the workers in the inner dungeon were an open book – literally. Every worker in the inner dungeon had his records placed in an archive maintained by the Record-keeper. Any Seeker or senior guard was permitted access to those records. Indeed, the High Seeker encouraged Seekers to examine the records of the guards who worked under them, in order to better know them.
Elsdon had already read D. Urman's records at the time that D. applied to be his senior guard. Those records were one of the reasons that he had rejected D.'s suit. The records revealed an almost endless sequence of reprimands and disciplinary beatings received by the junior guard, as well as countless complaints from his Seekers that the guard refused to obey orders. Over and over again, the guard followed his own inclinations, rather than the orders of his Seekers. The only positive note in D. Urman's files was that he was blessed with a good sense of humor. That fact was noted, not by any of D. Urman's recent Seekers, but by the High Seeker.
Now, rereading the records more carefully than before, Elsdon began to discern a pattern. It was a pattern, though, that made no sense. How could a guard with such qualities have ended up as the most disciplined guard in the Eternal Dungeon? And how could the High Seeker have failed to notice the long string of transgressions? During the past four years, guards who had committed minor infractions of trivial regulations had found themselves packed out of the dungeon within a shift's time. Yet D. Urman, notorious for his flagrant disobedience, continued to work in the dungeon.
There could be only one answer: the High Seeker was protecting D. Urman. But why?
Elsdon turned to the earliest portion of the records: D.'s basic information and his records of previous employment. Aside from the lack of D.'s given name, the records seemed quite complete. D. had worked as a guard at a well-respected prison in central Yclau and had received a recommendation from the Keeper there. The recommendation, which was included in the records, stressed that D. Urman had used humor to defuse several tense situations between violent prisoners and their guards.
Hence Layle Smith's awareness of the potential for D. Urman's humor. Elsdon let his mind drift back, remembering incidents long forgotten of D. making jokes with his fellow guards. Some of the jokes had bettered the conversations; some had gone awry. An untrained skill. Nobody except the High Seeker seemed to have recognized the skill at all.
Elsdon checked another date. Yes, that was right: D. had only been a guard-in-training at the time of Elsdon's arrival at the Eternal Dungeon as a prisoner. And after that . . . If the High Seeker had possessed any intention to develop D.'s skills further, that intention was derailed by Elsdon's arrival. First there had been the simmering romance between Layle and Elsdon, which Layle had fought so hard to prevent, fearing the nature of his own desires. Then there had been the madness: Layle's two bouts of madness, over the space of three years. By the end of that time, D. Urman had evidently given up on the High Seeker, for he had transferred away from Layle Smith.
He had tried to rise to senior guard under Weldon Chapman. A costly mistake with a prisoner had prevented D. from rising in rank. Then, after a short time, he had applied to be Elsdon's senior guard. Elsdon had turned him down. D. had returned to work with the High Seeker . . . but the High Seeker had been preoccupied during that period by the rise of the New School and Barrett Boyd's arrest.
Since then, a scattering of positions, increasingly frequent requests for transfers to different Seekers, all of whom ordered him to be beaten for disobedience. The latest beating had occurred after D. cracked a joke with a prisoner who had just finished being racked, evidently seeking to ease the man's pain through humor. His Seeker had treated D.'s act as insolence, since D. Urman had failed to maintain the solemn atmosphere that the Seeker desired. D. had requested a transfer to another Seeker after that incident.
"I am alone, I am alone, I am always alone." D. Urman's words in Elsdon's dream.
Acting on instinct, Elsdon rose to his feet. Not until he reached the Record-keeper's desk did he know what he was going to ask. "Mr. Aaron," he said when the Record-keeper finally looked up with that expression of impatience which never seemed to leave his face, "Mr. Urman lists his eldest sister as his next of kin. Does he no longer possess parents, then?"
With the profound sigh that the Record-keeper saved for Seekers who asked him foolish questions, Mr. Aaron turned the pages of the record to the medical report, which listed Mr. Urman's parents as living.
"Then why would he list his sister as next of kin?" asked Elsdon, his finger tracing the name and address of the sister. "Why not his father?"
The Record-keeper shrugged. "Not everyone chooses to list their fathers as next of kin. You didn't, while your father was alive." He rose to cross out the name of a prisoner on the slate tablet behind him, while Elsdon stood frozen in place.