The sign at the common room's door was red. Knowing that all the leaders of the New School were either asleep or at work, Zenas opened the door with caution.
He saw nothing but stars flickering in the firmament. His eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. Then he realized that the stars were candles on the floor, arranged in a circle around a patch of moonlight falling through the skylight. Kneeling in that moonlight, poised to light the final candle in the circle, was a Seeker.
That much Zenas saw before the Seeker dropped the taper onto the bare tiles and raised his hand to pull down his face-cloth. What lay under the face-cloth Zenas had not seen, for the Seeker had his back to Zenas. But looking at the candles, Zenas knew who the Seeker must be.
The man stood so slowly that his movement did not disturb the flickering flames. He carefully ground the taper-flame under his boot. Then he turned.
He was tall, though not as tall as most men thought; his height lay in the authority he projected. His posture was stiff. Grasping the doorknob, Zenas wondered whether he should run. Then the Seeker lifted his face-cloth.
"Servant of the House," said the High Seeker, "how may I assist you?"
Zenas felt warmth run through him then, as though the sun's rays had touched him. They were the right words. The High Seeker always knew the right words by which to address Zenas.
Servant of the House. As a boy, Zenas had been addressed formally as Slave of the House and had taken pride in the title, knowing himself to belong to a Household that worked together to bring in the harvest. Those were the years before he realized how his master exploited his tenants and slaves, using their labor to benefit himself.
Yet still, there lingered in Zenas's memory the time in which he had been part of a Household. The time before he came to the Eternal Dungeon and was cut off from other people.
"You are no longer a slave," his new parents had told him over and over. He knew they meant well. He knew they didn't realize he was still a slave, for slave and prisoner were the same word in the southern Vovimian tongue. He was still a slave . . . but a slave without a Household.
Now the High Seeker, who was master of this dungeon, was using southern Vovimian words which indicated he considered Zenas to belong to his Household. And not just as a prisoner, but as a servant who had chosen to live here, in the same manner that the Seekers did, giving up their liberty voluntarily in order to serve the needs of the House.
"Master of the House," replied Zenas quietly, his carriage upright, "I crave your pardon for interrupting your peace and your privacy."
The High Seeker responded by waving Zenas into the room. Closing the door behind him, Zenas walked slowly forward. His gaze was upon the circle of lights, which looked much like a pattern of lights he had once witnessed an aeka light on a road in order to force all passersby to stop and listen to his messages from the gods. Zenas could still remember how awestruck he had been by the veiled figure of the prophet, who wore clothing as rough and impoverished as his own, yet who spoke with the power of divinity.
The High Seeker's candles, Zenas realized, must have been taken from the crematorium, where a ready supply of candles was always available for dungeon members to light memorials for the dead. Their use in this instance seemed appropriate. It was not difficult to guess which god was being petitioned here, in the darkness of the night, below the ground.
The High Seeker had taken an unused candle from a pile at the side of the circle and had lit it, bringing it forward to place on a table. Seating himself in a chair next to the table, he gestured Zenas toward the chair opposite him.
It took Zenas only a moment to decide. Then, moving swiftly, he slid onto the High Seeker's lap.
He heard the High Seeker's soft gasp, and with it came the hardness, growing against Zenas's hip. Zenas put his arms around the High Seeker and buried his head against the man's shoulder. He was in very great danger, he knew. A surprising number of the Seekers were lambs, playing that they were lions in order to scare their prisoners. The High Seeker was a genuine lion, one who had chosen to live in a place where he was only permitted to eat plants. But he still had the instincts of a carnivore.
A minute passed in which Zenas contemplated all the possibilities of what might happen. It was easy for him to imagine, from his childhood experiences. The High Seeker's breath was heavy and hasty.
And then, almost imperceptibly at first, the hardness began to fade, forced back by a greater strength than passion. Zenas could hear the High Seeker deliberately slowing the pace of his breath, as a chaste prophet might if he found himself unwillingly caught into passion. After a minute more, the hardness was entirely gone, and the High Seeker placed his right arm gently around Zenas's back. He asked quietly, "What troubles you, chau of my chau, chau and chau?"
Zenas's eyes stung then. Southern Vovimian was a subtle language. Very few foreigners – having been born in east Vovim, the High Seeker qualified as a foreigner – were able to grasp its nuances. Chau – that was a word his papa used for Zenas occasionally, but Weldon only knew a couple of the more obvious meanings of the word. The High Seeker, through his accent, was turning the word to other meanings. Chau of my chau. Beloved son of my beloved friend. Chau and chau. Beloved also unto me, belovedly guarded by me. They were words similar to what his master had once spoken to him, on the day he murdered Zenas's birth-father. But the High Seeker actually meant what he said. His words meant protection, guardianship – the willingness to give his own life for Zenas's sake, if need be.
If Zenas spoke of his troubles now, he would burst into tears. Instead he asked, knowing the answer, "To whom do you pray, beloved master?" Chau, acknowledging the gift and turning it back as a gift to the man who had given it.
The High Seeker was silent a long while after that. His body was warm against Zenas's body, and his arm circled Zenas's with its strength. It was the first time Zenas had ever experienced the High Seeker's touch.
Indeed, it had not been clear, on the initial occasion that Zenas had chanced upon the High Seeker alone in the common room in the predawn hours, whether Layle Smith would be willing to speak with the fourteen-year-old boy who had interrupted his prayers. Something about Zenas's need to communicate with a fellow countryman must have made itself apparent, though, for when Zenas slipped into the common room the next night, he had found the High Seeker perusing a book with photographs, while his senior night guard sat in a corner, penning some documentwork.
For the next hour, Zenas had talked and talked, for the first time since his days as a prisoner in the breaking cell. At the end of the discussion, the High Seeker had brought out a box of dominoes, and the two of them had played a game together. To Zenas's delight, the High Seeker had given no quarter; the few games that Zenas won against the High Seeker over the next few years had been won as a result of Zenas's skill, not as a result of misplaced compassion from the High Seeker.
It was characteristic of Layle Smith, Zenas would come to realize as the years passed, that he would arrange for a chaperone to be present while he was speaking with an apprentice-aged boy. The High Seeker was not the sort to take chances, where his desires were concerned. Mr. Sobel was always present when Zenas responded to Layle Smith's invitations for them to meet in the common room. Never once had the High Seeker touched Zenas, and the High Seeker had taken care, tonight, to be praying alone at a later time than when Zenas usually visited him.
But the chaperonage, it seemed, had never been truly necessary. Zenas felt himself relaxing. He had undergone this feeling of peace occasionally, when he showed Finlay how to paint stage scenery, or when he was in the same room as Elsdon, the only man in the inner dungeon, besides the High Seeker, who treated him as a mature youth. But it felt different to experience this peace with a man who had so much power for destruction, and who held back that power out of love for his servant. Zenas had not felt this safe and secure since he was a young child, believing falsely that his master would care for him. This time, Zenas knew, he had not misjudged the character of the man who promised protection.
But Zenas was not a young child anymore. He was nearing his manhood, and those candles would not have been lit if the petitioner weren't in great need.
Finally the High Seeker said, in a voice that strove to be light, "I have been praying to the High Master."
Yes, of course. Zenas turned his head to look at the lights, lit for the god Hell, whose name must not be spoken aloud. Hell was a fearful god. Few Vovimians would have the courage to directly petition him . . . except in dire need.
"What rite, master?" Zenas asked softly. He was treading into dangerous territory, he knew. But he was a member of the High Seeker's House, a beloved member, the son of the High Seeker's only friend. He had the right to ask.
Again the High Seeker was slow to respond. Zenas understood why when the High Seeker spoke once more. "The rite of sacrifice."
A shiver travelled down Zenas's back. "What is the pleading?" he asked.
When the High Seeker finally spoke, it was in an oblique manner, like a man trying to hide from his own shadow. "He will not return."
Zenas thought about this before saying, "Mr. Taylor?"
"I have hurt him too badly – once too often, I have hurt him too badly." The High Seeker's voice had gone very deep, as though he spoke from the bottom of the dungeon's burial pit. "Over and over, as the years have passed, I have hurt him and tried his patience. This time was too much. He will not return to me."
Zenas waited, keeping his head cradled upon the High Seeker's shoulder, watching the flames burn steadily in the breezeless dungeon. The moonlight was beginning to fade. The moon was setting . . . and this rite could only be performed under moonlight.
Finally the High Seeker said, "He will come back if I want him to."
Startled, Zenas raised his head. The High Seeker was staring into the black nothingness at the back of the common room, his eyes moving to and fro, as though he saw something hidden. He said, his voice yet deeper, "I have that power. I have had it since I was a youth. The power to lure and seduce. He cannot protect himself against me, should I use that power against him. I can have him back and make him mine forever."
Zenas turned his head to look at the candles. The need for the rite was now manifest. Only Hell, the seducer and betrayer, could be petitioned if a man found himself in danger of committing so great a breach of trust toward his love-mate.
But Hell was an exacting god, demanding much. And this was a very great request that the High Seeker was making to the god: to be granted the strength to fight against an all-consuming temptation.
Zenas whispered, "And the sacrifice?"
The High Seeker's head did not turn, but the ball in his throat bobbed. "That he shall not return. He shall leave me forever and find someone else to love."
Zenas looked at the candles. The last one was not yet lit.
He had to bite his lip to keep from speaking precipitously. The obvious reply to make was, "You are wrong. Elsdon Taylor loves you as dearly as you love him. I have heard him praying at night that you and he should be reconciled. You have only to wait for this crisis to end, and all will be healed between the two of you."
But that was not what the High Seeker needed to hear. The High Seeker was praying, not for Elsdon's return, but for the strength to keep from betraying Elsdon's trust. If the High Seeker did not obtain that strength, then the temptation to enslave Elsdon might be acted upon, even if Elsdon returned to him.
Finally Zenas said with soft hesitation, "Had you considered the possibility, master, that this is a test?"
The High Seeker's head turned. He stared at Zenas, his dark green eyes narrowed. "A test? From the god, you mean?"
Zenas shook his head. Best to keep the gods out of this conversation, though he could feel their breath against his neck. "A test by Mr. Taylor. Perhaps he left you in order that you could see for yourself that you're strong enough to withstand all temptation to take him back by unfair means. Perhaps he feared that you would not believe him if he told you that you possessed such strength."
The moonlight was growing greyer by the second. The candles were beginning to fade, guttering out from their own melting wax. The High Seeker's head was now bowed.
At last the High Seeker said, "He has often told me that I am too dependent on him."
Zenas waited. The High Seeker's lap was a pleasant place to wait.
Finally the High Seeker said, "If that is what he has done . . . If he has arranged for us to have time apart so that I may grow stronger in my independence, more skilled in withstanding temptation . . . If he has done this out of love of me, and for the sake of our bond, then I can hold out for as long as he wishes. For decades, if he deems that necessary."
The High Seeker raised his head. He was wearing a rare smile. "Thank you, chau. The gods have sent you to me tonight. I would not have recognized this without your help."
Zenas nodded, contented. What he had told the High Seeker was true, he knew. Elsdon Taylor might not be aware that he was testing the High Seeker, but it was clear, from every word he spoke about his love-mate, that Elsdon desired the High Seeker to grow stronger in spirit. When Elsdon finally returned home and discovered that his love-mate had acquired greater capacity for independent actions during his absence, his reaction – unlike most men's reaction under similar circumstances – was bound to be delight. Like the High Seeker, Elsdon Taylor did not mistake love for possession.
"And now, Zenas Chapman," said the High Seeker, in a voice so forceful that Zenas jumped in his seat, "you will tell me what troubles you."
Feeling chagrin, Zenas slipped out of the High Seeker's lap. Of course. Layle Smith was a Seeker. Even in the midst of his troubles, he would not fail to recognize when a prisoner was avoiding a reply to his question.
It seemed better for Zenas to sit in his own chair for this conversation. The room was dimmer, now that the final beams of moonlight were nearly gone and the candle-flames were gasping for their lives. The candle on the table, lit more recently than the others, continued to stand straight and tall. Zenas straightened his back, trying to figure out how to voice his quandary.
Finally he said, "I have started a theater."
He tensed for a moment, uncertain how the High Seeker would react. The High Seeker was Vovimian . . . but he had left his homeland long ago and had chosen to pledge his allegiance to the Queen of Yclau. Even if he continued to pray privately to the Vovimian gods, there was no knowing how much of his native heritage he had discarded or forgotten.
The High Seeker simply nodded in a matter-of-fact manner. "Finlay Sobel mentioned to me once that you had an interest in stage scenery. Have you experienced any difficulties in obtaining the proper props?"
His tension was somewhat remitted. "No, master. I am following the Minimalist School of playing."
"Ah." The High Seeker relaxed back into his chair. It was the first time in his life that Zenas had witnessed him a restful posture. "A tribute to my own native province. I've never seen a Minimalist performance; the east Vovimians developed that stage technique after I left the kingdom. But it's based on ancient stagecraft techniques, as I recall? One player, a chorus, and statues to represent the other players?"
"Yes, master." It was growing easier by the moment to speak. Zenas found his mind drifting toward certain rumors that circulated in the dungeon. The rumors were garbled; it was obvious that none of the dungeon dwellers fully understood what took place in the High Seeker's living cell when he was alone with Elsdon Taylor, on their days off. The dungeon dwellers only knew enough to stay far away from the cell on those occasions. Zenas had heard enough of the rumors to be both intrigued and quite determined to remain at a distance from the High Seeker's living cell at those times. Certain performances were so sacred they ought not to be witnessed by others.
Alas, Zenas had never possessed such privacy himself. Treading carefully now, he said, "I have no chorus, master – only figurines."
"Mannequins?" suggested the High Seeker, leaning forward in evident interest. "But no – I would have seen them if you had such large figurines in your living cell. Dolls, perhaps?"
There was not a trace of a smile on his face, nor any scorn – merely the continued posture of interest. Encouraged, Zenas said, "Stuffed animals, master."
"Ah!" The High Seeker leaned back. "You've mixed the Minimalist School with the Quadruped School of playing. How unique. I had a chance to witness a Quadruped performance once, when I was fifteen. The Hidden Dungeon was located in a north-central town at that time. It was a fascinating experience to watch players in the guise of animals, playing out characters whose personalities matched those of the beasts they represented. . . . Do you have a lion? He was the most vicious player, as I recall."
"Yes, sir. He's my master."
The High Seeker's gaze wandered up toward the ceiling. Zenas looked up, but he could see nothing. The High Seeker's voice seemed distant as he said, "I would be most interested to witness such a performance."
Too late, Zenas realized the mistake he had made. Quickly he added, "Not you, master. The lion is my former master. I would never be so disrespectful as to use a lion to represent you."
When the High Seeker looked down, there was a faint smile on his face. "Your former master and I could both play the part, I think. But thank you. . . . Your former master, you say."
There was a subtle change of tone to his voice. Zenas looked down at his lap. His hands were grasped together, rather as Elsdon's tended to be in moments of great tension. He said, without looking up, "I am playing what happened, master."
"As a purge and protection. Yes."
Zenas peered up cautiously. There had been only sympathy in the High Seeker's voice as he spoke, and there was compassion in his eyes as he looked back at Zenas.
And perhaps a little understanding? Zenas thought again of the performances that Elsdon and his love-mate undertook together. The High Seeker was surely a man who required a purge for the darkness of his earlier life. A lion who still had the instincts of a carnivore. If he did not play-act such desires, in the privacy of his bedroom . . .
But that was a private matter, between him and Elsdon. So Zenas simply said, "Yes, master. I've found that it's very helpful. . . . I perform other plays, as well. Should you wish to attend."
He spoke the words shyly, but the High Seeker smiled again, replying, "I haven't been an audience member to a theatrical performance for many, many years. It would give me great delight to attend. I'm surprised your father hasn't invited me to a performance before now. He and your mother must be very proud of you, putting together such a sophisticated theater in a dungeon with so little resources and— What is it?" The High Seeker's voice sharpened.
Zenas kept his face turned away. It was easier to speak of this while staring at the darkness where the candles had been lit. "They don't realize it's a theater. They think I'm playing with toys, as a young child does."
He heard the swift intake of the High Seeker's breath. "Surely you've misunderstood something they said," the High Seeker suggested.
"No." Zenas forced himself to turn back and look the High Seeker straight in the eye. "They think I'm mind-crippled. They think that, because I can't speak their language, I have the wits of a seven-year-old."
He couldn't prevent the tears from coming then. The High Seeker said nothing; he simply offered his handkerchief. Zenas blew his nose into it before saying, in a blasting burst of bitterness, "It's ridiculous! As though what language I speak is a measure of intelligence! They treat me like a child, simply because I can't speak their horrible language, yet they've never made the slightest effort to learn mine!"
"Yclau and southern Vovimian are both difficult languages to learn," said the High Seeker quietly. He had his gaze steady upon Zenas, but he was making no effort to move forward, which Zenas appreciated. The last thing he wanted right now was to be gathered into the High Seeker's arms, as though he were a child needing to be comforted. "Very few Yclau can learn to speak southern Vovimian, just as very few southern Vovimians can learn to speak Yclau. The languages are entirely unrelated to each other. The southern Vovimian tribe originally came from the Southwest Continent of the Old World, while the Yclau tribe originally came from an island next to the Northwest Continent of the Old World. And for many centuries in the New World, the southern Vovimians were separated from the Yclau by an unexplored chain of mountains. They had little opportunity to intermingle, so their cultures and language remained separate."
Zenas had known all this, of course, but it was a comfort to hear the facts spoken aloud – an implicit way for the High Seeker to say, "You are not to blame for being unable to speak the Yclau tongue."
Zenas understood, though, that the High Seeker was also trying to defend his parents' lack of knowledge of southern Vovimian. Zenas frowned, saying, "You speak southern Vovimian. And your tribe is from the Northwest Continent as well."
The High Seeker nodded. "From a peninsula in the southern portion of the Northwest Continent. I was fortunate enough to learn several languages as a young child, at an age when learning comes easy. East Vovimian, of course – that was my father's tongue, and that was what most people in my province spoke. My mother was Yclau, and so I learned her native language from her. And I had a friend on the streets who was southern Vovimian; he taught me that language when I was still young enough to master its intricacies. I learned his language in order to communicate better with him, for he couldn't speak the east Vovimian dialect."
Zenas thought about this and then said, "But how could he teach you, if you didn't know his language, and he didn't know yours?"
The High Seeker smiled once more. He had a surprisingly pleasant smile, for such a dangerous man. "We had a shared language: the common speech, the King's tongue, which the prophets spread throughout Vovim so that they could converse with all Vovimians. The common speech blends southern Vovimian grammar and accent with east Vovimian vocabulary. It's an easy tongue for anyone in Vovim to use, which is why it's the common speech of our kingdom."
Zenas shrugged. He had never learned the King's tongue. He had a vague memory that Weldon had once tried to speak such words to Zenas, back when Zenas was his prisoner in a breaking cell. That miscommunication had ended in disaster. Probably, Zenas thought bleakly, he should have realized from that moment that he and his parents were doomed to misunderstand each other.
"I am to blame." The High Seeker's voice was crisp.
"Master?" said Zenas cautiously.
"For not realizing so grave a calamity was taking place in my dungeon. Your father had told me on several occasions that you had difficulty in expressing your thoughts to him. I had not realized that he meant you were unable to speak the same language as he was."
Zenas looked at the floor. He said softly, "He's ashamed of me, master. They both are. They try to keep me hidden in their cell, because they don't want people to know that their son is an imbecile."
"Would you allow a seven-year-old to wander about a dungeon of torture by himself?" responded the High Seeker in the same matter-of-fact manner as before. "It has nothing to do with shame. Your parents have simply been trying to protect you, lacking the knowledge of your maturity. No, the fault is mine, for not realizing that you and your parents were making fruitless attempts to speak Yclau together. I do recall that your father asked me, early on, whether you could learn the Yclau language, and I said something along the lines that it was possible you could do so, since you were still young. It never occurred to me that he would take this to mean that you and he should only speak Yclau together."
Zenas shrugged again. "What other option was he left with, master? You say he couldn't learn my language. I tried, but I couldn't learn his. . . . We make gestures. They help sometimes."
He could hear the bleakness in his own voice. He knew that it arose from the homesickness he felt, talking to the High Seeker like this. The High Seeker couldn't be expected to act as an interpreter between Zenas and his parents; he was far too busy a man for Zenas to request that. And the High Seeker was too busy with his duties to speak often with Zenas. Layle Smith rarely took the shift off from work that all Seekers were permitted from time to time. When he did, it was usually so that he could spend time with his love-mate. Only on uncommon occasions such as this, a few times each year, had Zenas been granted the opportunity to speak as the gods had willed he should speak, and to be treated his actual age, rather than as a stunted child.
"Deaf-and-dumb gestures?" For some reason, the High Seeker seemed amused. He did have a dark sense of humor, Zenas knew.
"Nothing so formal as that, master. I don't know the speech of the deaf. I've never learned—" He stopped, struck by a sudden thought.
"Well, you and your parents needn't resort to that," said the High Seeker, leaning back in his chair. "The solution is obvious: You should learn the King's tongue. Your father is already fluent in it. I doubt your mother speaks it – Yclau girls rarely receive training in foreign languages – but east Vovimian is distantly related to the Yclau language, so she should have no problem learning the King's tongue. Most Yclau men are taught the King's tongue in school; once you've learned the language, you'll be able to communicate with nearly any man or boy in this dungeon. If you wish to work in the capital city above this dungeon when you come of age, the banks are in dire need of translators—"
Layle Smith stopped speaking, possibly because he was in danger of being smothered. It took Zenas a long while to loosen his hold on the High Seeker; he spent much of that time sobbing onto the High Seeker's shoulder. It was the act of a child, but he cared nothing about that any more.
He had been given the key to his manhood.
Finally he raised his face, tear-stained. The High Seeker waited, compassion in his eyes once more. Zenas drew in a ragged breath. "Beloved master," he said, "will you teach me a few words tonight?"
His mama's voice was clear from the moment that the High Seeker opened the common room's door to the corridor. Her voice was unusually high-pitched. "You have to check! If you won't, I will!"
"Birdesmond, don't be ridiculous." Weldon's voice was quieter, but it was clear that he had reached the end of his patience. "You can't burst into the High Seeker's cell and accuse him of kidnapping your son."
Zenas looked quickly over at the High Seeker. His face was hooded again, of course, but there was a crinkle around his eyes which suggested amusement. Zenas relaxed as the two of them reached the door to his family's cell.
"Sweet blood, Weldon, what is happening to you?" cried Birdesmond. "First you refuse to protect the prisoners, and then you refuse to protect your own son—!"
She broke off, apparently hearing the knock on the door. A moment later, the door was flung open. His mama – distress clear upon her naked face – stared at Zenas, took a quick glance at the High Seeker, and wrenched Zenas into the room, thrusting him behind her. "What have you done to him!" she cried.
"Dearest, for love of the Code . . ." Weldon came forward, looking harassed. His face-cloth was raised as well; his expression was apologetic as he turned to the High Seeker. "Layle, I'm sorry. She came home from work an hour ago, only to find Zenas missing. Naturally, she's been worried—"
"I will let Zenas explain. Good night." His tone terse, the High Seeker closed the door, leaving both his parents gaping.
Out of the corner of his eye, Zenas could see Elsdon at the guest room door. He was already dressed in his nightshirt, but had evidently been pulled from his bed-rest by the shouting. Birdesmond turned, knelt in front of Zenas, and said, "Sweet one, did he hurt you? Did he touch you beneath your clothes?"
Weldon looked as though he were about to bellow. It was time that Zenas put an end to this. Carefully remembering the lesson he had just received, Zenas turned to Weldon and said in the King's tongue, "Papa, I apologize to you for my failure to communicate adequately in the past. I hope I will be able to correct that in the future, so that I may be a dutiful and loving son to you and to my esteemed mama."
Weldon's mouth fell open. Even Birdesmond, who could not have grasped what Zenas had said, looked stunned.
Elsdon smiled. He said quietly, "The High Seeker performs yet another miracle."