"Sorry." Clifford banged the door shut as he spoke breathlessly. "My Seeker wanted to work through the dusk shift."
D., who had been checking the clock in the parlor every five minutes for the past two-thirds of an hour, was generous enough to remain silent. Barrett – the other guard who was due for duty, because he had recently transferred to a night-shift Seeker – sent no glares in Clifford's direction. Birdesmond, however, sighed as she consulted her clock. "You're not the only late arrival. Elsdon, are you sure you told the healer about this meeting?"
"I'll check," said Howard, who had arrived only a couple of minutes before, having lost an argument with his Seeker over whether he should work through the dusk shift. "He may be busy with a patient."
Once he was gone, Birdesmond flopped herself down upon the sofa. "This is a tragicomedy. After three weeks, the leaders of a revolution still haven't been able to find the time to make any plans."
"The first failed meeting was my fault," said Clifford softly.
Elsdon shook his head. "It's nobody's fault. It's hard to run a revolution when all the representatives are working up to sixteen hours a day at breaking prisoners."
"And even if we guards could coordinate our vacations, Seekers normally aren't permitted lengthy periods of time off work," observed D., seating himself on the arm of the chair that Clifford had sunk down into. "Hadn't you better leave, Barrett? All I'll get is yet another reprimand in my records, but you're senior-most guard for your Seeker. You could be given a beating if you're late for work."
Barrett shook his head, but Zenas, sitting cross-legged in front of the chess game, thought he looked strained.
Zenas himself was tired. A few hours before, he had awakened from a nightmare to the soft sound of a door closing and had been unable to fall back to sleep. Now he considered the chessboard. He and his papa had played checkers many times over the years; it was their only real means of communication. At first, the two of them had fought bitterly: Weldon to let Zenas win, Zenas to keep the game fairly fought. After a while, though, Zenas had realized that the only way to make his papa happy was for Zenas to let Weldon lose in his favor.
Weldon never played chess with Zenas. It never occurred to him to do so.
Someone – likely Elsdon, who often idly fiddled with objects when he was upset – had moved the High Seeker chessman. Zenas looked again at the board, then moved the Vovimian prophet forward, taking care first to ensure that the prophet was not in a position where he was in danger of being captured by the Yclau chessmen. In a few more moves, the prophet might be in a position where he could capture the High Seeker, checkmating the Queen.
So absorbed was Zenas in the game that he missed the moment of Howard's arrival back. He was alerted to trouble, not by Howard's report, but by the babble which greeted that report.
D. managed to raise his voice above the others. "What do you mean, taken leave? How can he fucking walk out on us like that?"
"D., please." Elsdon's voice remained quiet. "What was the exact wording, Howard, if I may ask?"
Howard sighed as he leaned back against the corridor door he had just closed. "The nurse said, 'I've been informed by the Codifier that, if anyone asks for the healer, I'm to tell them that Mr. Bergsen is on leave until further notice.'"
Clifford, who was now on his feet, swung round to look at Elsdon. "Can he do that?"
"Yes." Barrett's reply was terse.
"Yes," agreed Elsdon in a weary voice. "The Codifier possesses great power, and Mr. Bergsen works directly under him. The Codifier wouldn't need anyone's permission to suspend the healer from his duties. The Codifier answers only to the Queen."
"Mr. Smith must know," said Birdesmond. She was on her feet now, pacing back and forth. Zenas reached out with his arm to prevent her long skirt from tipping over the chess pieces. "The High Seeker's gate-guards will be in charge of preventing Mr. Bergsen from re-entering the dungeon."
Howard sighed. "If you know his address in the lighted world, I'll visit him at week's end. But I think we can assume that he won't be able to take part in our little conspiracy any longer."
D. thumped the top of the chair that Clifford had vacated. "We can't ignore this!"
"No, we can't," chimed in Clifford. "We have to hold a protest."
Elsdon cleared his throat. "I don't think Mr. Bergsen would be happy at being made the center of a protest. Rather, I think he would prefer that we get on with our business of protesting the High Seeker's policies."
"But it's one and the same, ain't it?" argued D., lapsing into commoner speech. "This is the sort of thing we're protesting: the High Seeker and the Codifier expelling from the dungeon anyone who disagrees with them. We've got to find a way to make clear we won't stand for this."
Clifford bit his lip. "But not by breaking the Code, surely? I mean . . . We've only just begun to protest."
"I agree." Elsdon pulled out a chair and sat down, gesturing for the others to follow suit. "Here's what I think we should do. I think that, as a form of silent protest, Birdesmond and I should keep our face-cloths raised in public."
Clear through the eyeholes in her hood, Birdesmond's eyebrows shot up. Clifford gave a little gasp. Howard said, "By all that is sacred. Won't that break the Code?"
Birdesmond shook her head slowly. "No. Not if we keep our face-cloths down when we search prisoners. The Code requires that. At all other times . . . The Code encourages Seekers to remain completely hooded at all times in public. The High Seeker backs that custom by fining Seekers who raise their face-cloths in public."
"You Seekers receive so little money as it is . . ." began Clifford doubtfully, but Elsdon shook his head.
"If giving up our luxury allowance for several weeks is the worst contribution that Birdesmond and I make in this battle, we'll be more fortunate soldiers than most. Are we agreed, then?" Elsdon looked around at the others. "If Birdesmond and I raise our face-cloths during the next day shift, when we're off-duty—"
"If you do that." D.'s voice was loud. "It's all about you, isn't it, Seeker? You and your fellow Seeker are the soldiers. The rest of us, we're just navvies taking your orders."
"D.!" Clifford exclaimed.
Barrett said nothing, but he was glaring now at both Elsdon and Birdesmond. Howard said slowly, "He has a point, Elsdon. There are only two of you, but the rest of us should be taking part in the protest – not just us, but the other junior guards who are in the New School."
"You're right, of course." Elsdon addressed Howard rather than D., and Zenas winced. He could see D.'s expression from where he sat.
"What sort of protest do you have in mind, Howard?" asked Birdesmond. "You can't make any changes to your uniform."
Elsdon said slowly, "You wear whips . . ."
"No!" Surprisingly, it was Clifford who spoke sharply. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to be rude, but we really need those whips. Sometimes they're the only way to stop an attack from a violent prisoner."
Elsdon nodded. More hesitantly, Clifford said, "I think . . . Well, I'm not sure, but perhaps black arm-bands?"
Howard and D. exchanged looks. "Superb," D. declared.
"Black arm-bands?" said Birdesmond. Elsdon leaned forward, looking equally confused.
"It's an old custom," explained Howard. "Hasn't occurred for a while. Last time was . . . Oh, it must have been when you were attacked, D. That was in the fourth month of 359, while you were on leave to care for Zenas when he had influenza, Birdesmond."
"I was in mourning for my late father then," Elsdon murmured. "What happened?"
"I was an idiot," muttered D., keeping his gaze averted.
"Oh, D." Clifford went over to take D's arm. Barrett followed Clifford with his eyes, but said nothing.
"It was when D. was training to be senior guard for Mr. Chapman," Howard explained. "D. got knocked on the head pretty bad by a vicious prisoner. Hostage situation. The High Seeker came to the rescue, so no one died. But there was a period where it wasn't clear whether D. would recover—"
"That's why he has headaches all the time," inserted Clifford. "Really bad ones."
"I had no idea," said Birdesmond softly. "Do you take time off from work, D.? I hadn't noticed."
"They're nothing. I can handle them." D. was glaring at the floor now.
"He ought to take time off from work," said Clifford. "He doesn't. No matter how bad his head gets."
Howard coughed. "Speaking of work, D. and Barrett are both overdue for their shifts. So let me finish what I was saying. Whenever this sort of thing has happened – when a guard was in danger of dying – the rest of us would wear black arm-bands, for as long as the guard remained in danger. We haven't done that since the attack on D. Even when—"
He stopped abruptly. Zenas had already turned his eyes.
But there was nothing to see. Barrett was looking at the clock, not at anyone else in the room. After a moment, Clifford said in a hushed voice, "We thought of doing it again, four years ago. We talked about it. But everyone was afraid. The High Seeker had nearly killed one of us, and all of us guards were afraid of what would happen if we wore arm-bands in support of the man he'd nearly killed."
"You argued most forcefully in favor of the arm-bands," said Howard. "As for the rest of us . . . We were cowards, I'm afraid. But we won't be this time."
Elsdon nodded. "I agree that what you're suggesting is appropriate. Not to protest Mr. Bergsen's suspension, but if you are willing to mourn men who are in danger of dying—"
"—as every prisoner is whom we rack," said Clifford, finally releasing D. from his embrace. "We can protest the rackings while you're protesting Mr. Bergsen's suspension. People will understand the connection."
"Because, of course, Seekers can't be expected to protest rackings." It was D. again, as acidic as usual.
Elsdon made no reply. Birdesmond merely said mildly, "Since we Seekers wear black at all times, I doubt that a black arm-band would show up as well on our uniforms as it would on guards' grey uniforms. . . . Thank you, Clifford. That's a wonderful suggestion. Thank you for your explanation, Howard. D., perhaps you would be kind enough to spread word to the other guards—"
But D. was already heading toward the door. Barrett, after a brief glance at the clock, did the same. Clifford followed, murmuring apologies for the abrupt departures of his friend and his former love-mate. Howard, rolling his eyes, left as well.
Zenas folded his arms and laid his chin upon the low table, contemplating the chessmen. It was a very early move he had made, but already he was beginning to envision the implications of the prophet's move – the moves that would follow the prophet's venture. It would be interesting, he thought, to see how his unknown opponent reacted.
After hunting a moment, Elsdon reached out and pecked another key.
He had found his typewriter mysteriously sitting on his night-table upon waking on the afternoon after their latest meeting, where everyone had reported the High Seeker's unexpected lack of interest in their change of clothing. Elsdon could guess who had delivered typewriter; other than Weldon and Seward Sobel, only one man possessed keys to all the rooms in the Eternal Dungeon. The stark, silent presentation of the only belonging he had left behind in Layle's cell had made Elsdon uneasy, but there was no denying that the typewriter was coming in handy, since Layle – unlike the Record-keeper – was willing to accept typewritten correspondence from Elsdon.
Not that this letter was proving easy to write. Sighing, Elsdon paused again, interrupted by the conversation outside his room.
"Sweet one, I'm sure you'll enjoy the nursery again, if you just give it a try. Think of all the toys you can play with." That was Birdesmond, speaking in a bright voice that was quite different from the subtle coaxing tone she used with her adult prisoners.
"I'm sure you'll make lots of friends there, son." That was Weldon, joined with Birdesmond in the urging, though he sounded less than enthusiastic at the exercise.
Elsdon had been doing his best not to eavesdrop; he well knew that, if it hadn't been for his friends' generosity in permitting him to stay as a guest, he would not have overheard this private family discussion. However, the silence on Zenas's side – not so much as an inarticulate moan of protest – caused him to peek a look at the boy. Zenas was standing straight, his dark face set in grim lines, as though he were a slave receiving unacceptable orders from his master.
Birdesmond and Weldon, however, were not the sort of Seekers to issue orders if coaxing would do. "Mistress Sobel is in charge of the nursery on week's end," Birdesmond said. "You remember her, don't you? The pretty lady?"
Elsdon winced. He tried to concentrate once more on the letter he was typing.
Even Weldon seemed to sense that this was going too far. He said, "Birdie, I'm sure he remembers Marjorie Sobel. He attended nursery for five years."
"Finlay's mother," Birdesmond added, continuing to use the bright voice she used with no one else. "You remember Finlay, don't you? He is your best friend."
Weldon muttered something under his breath about Finlay being Zenas's only friend. Then he cleared his throat and made another try. "Your mama and I would rather that you not be by yourself when I'm sleeping and she's working. Come back and stay at the nursery with the other children – that's a good boy."
Zenas, though, seemed to have latched on to a single word of what was said. He suggested tentatively, "Finlay?"
"No, sweet one," replied Birdesmond quickly. "Finlay goes to grammar school and art classes in the lighted world during the daytime. In the evening, he does his homework, and he sleeps after that. I know that you enjoyed playing with him when he spent all his time in the dungeon, but he's too old now for you to play with."
Elsdon carefully eased his hands of the typewriter keys, anticipating an explosion. Finlay Sobel, eldest child to Seward and Marjorie Sobel, was ten years younger than Zenas.
Zenas, though, said nothing. Peeking another look, Elsdon saw through the gap in his doorway that the boy was standing rigidly, as though enduring a heavy beating.
Elsdon was still trying to decide whether he had the right to interfere when Weldon – apparently able to interpret Zenas's posture – said hesitantly, "Maybe that would be best, Birdie. Marjorie Sobel would keep an eye on him, I'm sure."
"Weldon, we cannot hand Zenas over to the Sobels." The exasperation was clear in Birdesmond's voice. "He's a young boy; the responsibility for him is ours."
Elsdon rose from his chair then; but not quickly enough. The explosion came – not from Zenas, who was continuing to exert iron-clad control over himself, but from Weldon.
"Birdesmond, it's all very well to protect the boy, but we can't keep him tied to your apron strings—"
"Weldon Chapman, we agreed together that this was the best course of action—"
"To offer him the chance to go back to the nursery! Not to force him!"
"You of all people accuse me of using undue force! I am trying to protect him from the bloody practices that take place in this dungeon! What if he should enter the rack room when you're torturing a prisoner?"
Since Weldon was not in the habit of torturing prisoners while he was sleeping, Elsdon was unsurprised that the only response to Birdesmond's accusation was a slammed door. At the same moment, a slight figure rushed into Elsdon's room. The boy skidded to a halt when he saw that Elsdon was there.
Elsdon smiled and gestured toward the back of the room. With a look of gratitude, Zenas hid behind the bed.
"Zenas!" cried his mama. "Sweet one, where have you gone?"
"Birdesmond, could you help me with this?" Elsdon hastily looked around for something that he could use as a source for conversation. All that he could see was a book that Layle had evidently used as a base for the typewriter, for it had turned up at the same moment as the typewriter. Elsdon had glanced through the book, curious because he could not recall ever seeing it before; a certain chapter in it had caught his attention. He would need to discuss that chapter with Clifford Crofford.
But not with Birdesmond. Instead, Elsdon pulled the document off his desk and walked into the parlor. He found Birdesmond looking around, pulling her long, beautiful hair from a braid in her distraction. She was dressed for bed, in a frilly nightgown.
She sighed when she saw Elsdon, but it appeared that her sigh was due to the requirements of modesty, because she walked over to fetch her wrapper from her bedroom. "Elsdon, did you see which way Zenas went?" she asked as she returned. "He was here a moment ago."
"Perhaps he went to use the communal toilet," Elsdon suggested as he turned to place the document on the table.
He had said the wrong thing. Gripping the back of a chair on which her husband's spare trousers were hanging, Birdesmond responded in a horrified voice, "In the dining hall?"
"I expect so," said Elsdon, carefully staring down at the document. "Many of the children like to play there, you know; it's the largest room in the dungeon, and there are always adults around to supervise. Seward and Marjorie began allowing Finlay to play there when he was four years old."
"Oh." Birdesmond's voice changed. "Well, in that case . . . " She sighed again. "That blasted husband of mine. He's inflexibly stubborn. I'm sorry if we disturbed you with our argument. I suppose Weldon has gone to weep on the High Seeker's shoulder."
Something about the way she said this made Elsdon look sharply at her. "Surely you don't think Weldon shares your private conversations with Layle."
She gestured wearily into the air. "Elsdon, I'm not naive. I know that, at the heart of our disputes, lies Weldon's love for the High Seeker. —Not that I am accusing your love-mate of being unfaithful to you," she added hastily as Elsdon's expression changed. "No, the problem is all on Weldon's side. He has never stopped adoring the High Seeker."
"Sweet blood, Birdesmond, I had no idea you were worrying yourself in such a fashion." Elsdon touched Birdesmond's arm lightly. "That was years ago, and you yourself helped Weldon to recognize that his affection for Layle wasn't in the nature of a romantic passion." As Birdesmond frowned, Elsdon added with a smile, "I've kissed a few girls in my time, and I was once kissed by a boy at my grammar school." By Vito de Vere, actually, but Elsdon needn't go into the details of that schooldays kiss, which both he and Vito had set aside in favor of their current friendship. "Yet if the most beautiful of my past loves were to walk into this dungeon, I wouldn't spare a single look at her. I have Layle . . . and Weldon has you."
Birdesmond pursed her lips, looking uncertain, but after a moment she nodded. "It's not worth worrying about, I suppose. What do you need help with?"
Elsdon risked a glance toward his bedroom door. He'd left it open a mere inch. Wherever Zenas was in the room, he was taking care not to be seen. "It's something that Layle asked me to look over."
Birdesmond raised her eyebrows as she sat down at the table. "So he's still talking to you?"
"Talking? No. I found this document on top of my typewriter when I returned from work this morning. When Layle wants to issue me orders these days, he sends mail. He hasn't spoken to me since I left his living cell." Elsdon sat down, staring at the document, which was in Layle's distinctive handwriting, with the Queen's seal upon it to indicate she had approved it. Very few dungeon documents required the Queen's seal, but this one was for new positions not mentioned in the Code of Seeking, so the document had travelled through the hands of both the Codifier and the Queen.
Why Layle should want Elsdon to examine the document after the Queen's approval, Elsdon could not guess. Was it too much to hope that this was Layle's excuse for continuing to communicate with Elsdon, albeit silently?
"Oh, yes, I remember this document." Birdesmond glanced at it. "It was delivered an hour ago, while you were in your bath."
Elsdon's gaze jerked up. "By Layle?"
"No, by Zenas; he had slipped out before I got back from work, the naughty boy. I suppose that Seward Sobel gave him the document to deliver; the guards often treat him as a messenger boy."
"Mm." Elsdon did not look in the direction of the guest room, but he found himself wondering whether, in fact, Layle had any idea that the document had gone missing. Zenas had a tendency – unnoticed by his adoptive parents – to take it upon himself to move matters forward in the dungeon. As the only inhabitant of the Eternal Dungeon with dark brown skin – even Layle's skin tone was light olive – Zenas should have been easily noticeable among the light-skinned Yclau, yet the boy was skilled at hiding in corners and eavesdropping on conversations. He might well have overheard his father discussing the document with the High Seeker and decided, on his own initiative, that Elsdon should see it. Certainly the lack of any accompanying note was unusual.
But why? The document, though bearing the Queen's seal, was a routine one – a matter of guards' duties. Was there some reason that Zenas considered it necessary for Elsdon to think about guards?
Zenas had overheard the conversation between Birdesmond and Elsdon about D. Urman. For all Elsdon knew, Zenas might have overheard Elsdon's conversation with the Record-keeper. Elsdon had set aside the mystery of D. since that time.
A fact that Zenas might well have decided to correct, with this subtle reminder.
Smiling now, Elsdon began to take back the document, since he suspected that the High Seeker would be surprised to receive any comment on it from Elsdon. Birdesmond, however, had already begun to read it. "This is because of what happened with Vito," she suggested.
"I imagine so." Elsdon glanced again at the document. It referred to the course of action that Layle had lightly mentioned during their final conversation together: the creation of permanent posts for a senior and junior guard, to supervise Seekers-in-Training. An unusual act, for guards never held permanent posts, other than the High Seeker's senior-most guard, Seward Sobel. All other guards were transferred periodically from Seeker to Seeker, gaining experience through their exposure to different Seekers.
Could Zenas be suggesting that he thought D. Urman should be assigned to such a post? If so, the boy was showing poor judgment, Elsdon reflected. D. was in no way qualified for a position of such high honor.
"This will permit a senior and junior guard to work together for many years," Birdesmond pointed out.
"I suppose so." Elsdon was distracted by a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye. Zenas, standing near the guest room door, listening in on the conversation.
But any further thoughts Elsdon might have had were interrupted by the arrival of the male servant who delivered coal to the Seekers' living cells. "Excuse me, sir, ma'am," said the outer-dungeon laborer deferentially.
"It's quite all right," replied Elsdon, folding the document and making a mental note to himself to hand it back to Zenas. He hoped the boy would have the sense to return it before Layle noticed its loss.
Still in her wrapper, Birdesmond had discreetly retreated to her bedroom. The male servant cleared his throat. "I was wondering, sir . . . could I or any of the other outer-dungeon workers be of any help?"
The kitchen was in a mess. Rather than sleep, Birdesmond had stayed up during the afternoon, preparing treats for the next meeting of the New School's representatives. If nothing else, the rebels were well fed. "Thank you, that's very kind of you," said Elsdon as he slipped the document into Zenas's palm. Zenas promptly returned the document to the pocket of Weldon's spare trousers. "I'll just leave you to take care of the kitchen," Elsdon told the servant.
Then Elsdon left the living cell. He had an address to fetch and a letter to write before he could sleep.
My dear Mr. Taylor,
Mr. Seeker, sir,
I hope you will forgive me if I have chosen the incorrect manner by which to address you. My brother told me once that you were kin to the Queen, but that you were not in the direct line of descent. My sisters and I have pored over Mistress Perfect's Book of Etiquette for Young Ladies, but we are unable to find any entry telling us how such royal kinfolk should be addressed, and we are not sure whether there is a special manner in which Seekers should be addressed in correspondence. I hope you will forgive me for any mistakes I make in this letter, for my sisters and I were taught at home, and my mother only worked one year as a schoolmistress before her marriage, and nobody in our family circulates among the highest circles of society – except my brother, since he works with you, but of course I cannot ask his advice on how to respond to you. My sisters and I did ask our parents' advice, but my father is very busy at the moment, preparing for the train company's annual reception for the Queen, and my mother is in charge of raising subscriptions for charitable relief of impoverished children in the southwestern districts, so they did not have the time to advise us.
But I am sure that, by now, you are drumming your fingers, wondering when I will arrive at the point. So I will try to answer the questions you asked me, and I hope, in your kindness, you will forgive me for any mistakes I make along the way and will understand that my mistakes are from ignorance, not from any desire to show disrespect.
You are correct, sir, in guessing that my brother's name has caused him many problems over the years. To start the tale at the beginning: My brother is the eldest of us, and at the time he was born, it seemed that he would be the only child, for my mother had experienced a number of miscarriages. (I hope it is not indelicate of me to use that word. I am not sure what the proper way is of saying that.) Because of this, my parents were very concerned, before the birth of their child, that they give their child the right name. They decided to name their child Daniella, after my father's aunt, who was quite elderly and who might be willing to pass on her estate to my father after her death.
When the child turned out to be a boy, my mother was crestfallen, and my father, in one of his stubborn moments, insisted that the child be named Daniella in any case. And so my brother was registered that way with the city record-keeper. (I might add that my great-aunt ended up passing on her fortune to her niece, for she decided my father had shown poor judgment in giving his son a girl's name.)
My brother's early childhood was happy, he has told me in the past. I just barely remember this time, being three years younger than my brother. All of us in the family called him D., and he did not even know what his real name was before he entered school.
He was enrolled at age six in Charlottesville Grammar School. This is a good private school, with fees low enough that our parents could afford to send him there, but some of the aristocratic boys attend there as well. It is a very advanced school, allowing girls to study alongside boys. I remember how eager and excited D. was when he left for school on his first day.
When he came home that day, he was struggling not to cry. My parents had naturally handed over my brother's legal records to the school, and on the first day of class, when the schoolmaster called the roll, he called out for Daniella Urman. My brother, recognizing his family name, and not realizing the significance of his given name, had raised his hands over his head to indicate he was present. The schoolmaster refused to believe that my brother was Daniella Urman and had my brother whipped when he insisted that he was. When the schoolmaster consulted with the headmaster and discovered that my brother's name was indeed Daniella, the schoolmaster grew even more angry; he seemed to consider it an insult to himself that he had whipped an innocent boy. Thereafter, he treated my brother scornfully, speaking his name in a sarcastic manner.
As for D.'s classmates, I think they were young enough that many of them would have had sympathy for my brother, but they took their cue from the schoolmaster's behavior and mocked my brother mercilessly.
This continued for six years. Every school-day my brother returned home looking as though he had been on the losing side of a battlefield. Early on, he pleaded with my parents to allow him to leave the school, but my parents insisted that it was important for him to make connections with the better class of boys and girls in our town. After a while, he stopped pleading and stopped talking about what was taking place at school. He was always gentle and kind to my sisters and me (by the time he reached twelve, my two younger sisters had been born), and he never cried, though he often looked as though he wanted to. He always came straight home after school, except when he was delayed by other boys who wanted to bully him.
Finally, the problem at school became so great that the headmaster took notice of it. He decided he could not have that sort of commotion in his school, and so he dismissed D. from school.
My father was very angry, saying that D. should have done more to pacify the other children. I swear, sir, I do not see how D. could have done more than he did. But my father was angry enough at D. that, rather than dipping into our family savings to send my brother to the local grammar school for mid-class boys, he instead sent D. to the commoners' school at the far end of town. In order to reach there and back each day, my brother had to walk five miles each way, for my father refused to give him rides in our carriage, and my mother was very busy at that time with a charity drive to aid wounded young soldiers, so she was not able to attend to D.'s difficulty.
Despite the long walk, D. seemed happier for a while, but then some of the commoner children – gossiping, as children will, with their betters – learned from the children in our district why D. had left the other school. And so it all began again.
On one terrible night when D. was fifteen, a group of boys cornered him in an alley, and there— I am sorry, I do not know the polite word for this. While the other boys looked on, doing nothing, one of the bullies took from D. his purity.
That would have been horrible enough, but the bully told D. that he had done this because D. was really a girl. The bully said that girls are the weaker sex, and D. would always be weak, so he might as well open his legs to any passing boy. I am sorry, I know it is very rude for me to speak such words, but I do not know any other way to convey how dreadful an experience this was for D.
When he came home, my parents were out – my father was attending a meeting of the Railroadmen's Guild, and my mother was organizing the annual charity drive for local commoner children. D. came straight up to the room where I and my sisters sleep, and he cried in my arms for the entire evening. Even though my sisters and I had only the slightest notion of what had happened (we learned the details later, by eavesdropping when the healer came to examine D.), we knew that something truly horrendous must have taken place, for my brother normally never allowed himself to cry.
When my parents finally arrived home, it seemed for a while that they would take D.'s part, but then my father discovered that D. had been cornered, not by commoner boys, but by fellow mid-class boys, and that the bully who attacked him was in fact the son of the head of the Railroadmen's Guild. My father declared that we must not say anything that would offend the guildmaster, and he swore us all to secrecy over what had happened.
Although D. took the oath, he flatly refused to return to school after that. For a month, he did nothing but sit in his bedroom, while my father railed at him for not attempting to make peace with the bully who had attacked him. Then one day, as I was returning home, a young man who had been pestering me for days with talk of love (I was only twelve, but old enough to be courted) took hold of me and tried to pull me into his arms. I struggled, of course, but could not break free of him.
The next thing I knew, D., who had seen this all from his bedroom window, was by my side, punching the young man. I fear that D. emerged much the worse for wear from that fight, but since the young man fled, both D. and I considered his rescue to be a great victory.
Unfortunately, my father did not see it that way. The young man who had been pestering me was the same man who had been about to donate a large amount of money to my mother's charity drive. I think he had been intending to do this only to impress me, and that he discarded the idea after he lost interest in me. (So shallow was his love that a few punches from my brother persuaded him I was not worth pursuing.) But he told my father that he would not donate to the effort because my father's "unruly" son had "assaulted" him in the streets. He told my father that our family was no better than a pack of commoners.
My father was so angry that he threatened to whip D. To the surprise of my sisters and me, D. did not withdraw again to his room. Instead, he left our home for the space of a day. When he returned, it was with a number of schoolbooks he had bought with his allowance, accompanied by the news that he had enrolled at the local Commoners' Institute in a boxing class.
After that, my brother became single-minded in his goals. He learned every form of defense that our town taught to boys, and though he never made any friends among the town children, they learned not to bully him. He also studied the schoolbooks with great diligence, seeking to learn what he would have learned in school. My mother, unfortunately, did not have the time to help him, but my sisters and I would quiz him from the books he loaned us. Three years later, I managed to persuade a young schoolmaster, who had fallen in love with me, to give D. his school-leaving certificate. Truly, D. deserved to receive the certificate, for he had studied very hard.
We thought for a while that he might join the army, which worried my sisters and me greatly, for these were the years when many bloody fatalities were occurring in the war against Vovim. But D. wanted to remain at home, to be with my sisters and me, so instead he applied for work at the local prison.
He worked just as hard as a guard as he had at his studies, though his relations with the other guards were not the best. I am sure you will understand, sir, that by this time in his life it was very difficult for my brother to trust anyone. Though he was always sweet to my sisters and me, with anyone else he tended to take offense at the smallest slight, and he often grumbled when he thought others were taking advantage of him. When he truly did care for anyone, he would cover it up through rough talk about the other person, because he was sure they would dislike him if they guessed his admiration for them. This roughness unfortunately made him unpopular with his fellow guards. He did show a good sense of humor, though, and some of the pranks he played amused the other guards.
He was also good at handling the prisoners. I had worried, when he first started work, that he would regard the prisoners as being like the bullies who had hurt him, and so he would seek to hurt them. But he said it was not that simple. Some of the prisoners, he said, were bullies, but all of them were vulnerable to bullying from the guards, and he wanted to make sure they were all treated fairly, no matter what they had done in the past. My sisters and I were greatly impressed by his willingness to be honorable in his dealings even with violent, unscrupulous criminals.
I hope you will not think badly of me for saying this, but I am not sure that anyone at our local prison ever fully appreciated D.'s honorable approach toward guardwork. It is not that there was active abuse taking place in our prison (or not much, anyway), but none of the other guards seemed to share D.'s strong concern about the prisoners' welfare. They teased him about his earnestness, and then . . .
Well, sir, being the wise man that you are, you will have already guessed what happened next. They discovered D.'s name, and he became an object for mockery and scorn once more.
I remember the look on his face after that happened. He didn't cry this time; he seemed drained of all emotion, as though his feelings had been severed from him. My sisters and I were highly alarmed. We took it into our hands to search for other places of employment for our brother, outside our town, for though we loved him dearly and would gladly have welcomed his continued presence at our home, it was becoming clear that he could not live anywhere in which others would know his true name, aside from any employers he might have – and they must be honorable enough men to keep his secret.
The Eternal Dungeon was the last place we would have thought to look. I hope you are not upset at hearing me say that, for you must know that your dungeon has a very dark reputation. I think my brother had assumed the reputation was true; he had never shown any interest in the dungeon, though he regularly read the ethics reports of the United Order of Prisons, which the Eternal Dungeon had helped found. But when I visited a local book-dealer, seeking writings that might be of assistance to D., the dealer sold to me the Code of Seeking – not the private version used in the dungeon, you understand, but the public version that was published some years ago. I bought the fifth revision of the book, if that is important for you to know.
My brother approached the book with caution and was understandably skeptical of its claims. But matters were bad enough at his workplace that he applied for a job at the Eternal Dungeon. The keeper of our prison was willing to give him a very good reference – I secretly suspect he was tired of D. badgering him on ways in which the prisoners' conditions could be improved – and so your High Seeker accepted my brother as a guard-in-training in the first month of 355.
Well, you know most of the rest of the story, sir, and so I'm sure you will not be surprised to hear that the first letter my sisters and I received from D. that showed happiness occurred after your arrival in the dungeon that spring. Until then, he had been worried that the Seekers were trying to fool him, to disguise their neglect and abuse of the prisoners. But you had been in some difficulties with the Seekers when you first came to work at the dungeon. (D. did not give us the details of what happened, of course, because of his oath of silence to the Eternal Dungeon.) Since you had been captive to the Seekers yourself, he knew that your judgment of what it was like to be a Seeker must be true. From that point forward, his letters were always full of your name and of his growing excitement as you sought, in small ways, to correct problems you recognized in the conduct of the Seekers and guards.
He was bitterly disappointed when, four years ago, you refused to allow him to become one of your guards, but he took this as a sign that he had not worked hard enough to improve himself. "I need to show myself worthy of his notice," he wrote to me, and he redoubled his efforts after that to make himself into a good enough guard that you would be willing to let him work alongside you.
I am sorry, sir; I should have said, "Work under you." You must not think that my slip in any way reflects my brother's opinion of you. Even though you spent time as a prisoner, he has always recognized you as being far above him in both vision and skills, and that is why he has hoped that, some day, he might be permitted the opportunity to learn from you.
I do not mean, of course, that he wants you to take time away from your prisoners in order to tend to him. He wants only to be able to watch you at your work. I do apologize, sir; I seem not to be able to say what I mean, and I hope you will not penalize my brother for my poor communication. He really does admire you greatly, and he considers you the model for what Seekers should be. From what I have written, I think you can recognize how highly he trusts you, that he would give you his birth name when you asked for it. He realizes, of course, that, like our parents, you are a very busy person, and that your attention must be focussed on the prisoners. He has said that often and has written to us that he does not expect you to pay much attention to him. He is very used by now to learning new things alone, without anyone's help (for my sisters and I have not been able to help him with his lessons since he came to the dungeon). So I apologize, sir, if I have written you too long a letter or taken up your time with matters that are of no concern to you. If so, please do not blame my brother. I am entirely to blame for any mistakes I have made in this letter.
If I have not answered any questions you had, I hope you will write to me again, sir, and once more, please, please do not blame my brother if I have said anything wrong. He has always tried his best to be a good guard, and he has always been willing to suffer for the prisoners. I think perhaps, from what he has written to us about you, that this is of importance to you?
Cordially yours, with great respect, sir,
Mistress Dorothea (Urman)
"Sweet blood," said Elsdon.
He was standing in Rack Room C, where his junior night guard had delivered him a message before assisting Elsdon's senior night guard in removing the tormented body of Elsdon's current prisoner. With his confession given, the prisoner could be turned over to the magistrate . . . and, no doubt, the executioner. Elsdon wished he could be sure the confession was true.
But his mind was no longer on that; it was on Dorothea Urman's message, spread open in his hands.
"Sweet blood," Elsdon repeated to the empty room as he pressed his fingers against his eyelids. "And I call myself a Seeker. I should have guessed. I should have guessed long ago."