Work Header

Chapter Text

The meeting was at midnight this time. An emergency meeting.

It started with a hurried, hushed discussion between Elsdon and Birdesmond in the corridor of the breaking cells where the two Seekers were working with their prisoners. Then Zenas – much to his mama's surprise – was sent by Elsdon to eavesdrop on the Record-keeper and discover who was free to meet that night. After that, Zenas delivered Elsdon's messages, slipping each one into a palm or under a door.

D. was on duty; he rolled his eyes but agreed to give up his lunch hour in order to meet with the rebel leaders. Barrett, who had transferred Seekers yet again that month, was asleep; upon being woken by Zenas's repeated whisper of his name, he responded to the message with nothing but a nod. Zenas left Clifford's message in his rooms in the inner dungeon; the young guard was nowhere to be found in the inner dungeon, but he was off-duty and was presumably free to meet.

Howard was not. Hence the meeting.

By a quarter past midnight, all of them except Clifford were gathered in Zenas's home, speaking in low voices, because Weldon was sleeping in the bedroom.

"Which I suppose is symbolic of this whole business," Birdesmond said with a sigh, her mouth grim. "I'm beginning to think that Weldon would sleep through his own death."

Zenas bit his lip. During the past two months, since the New School began to meet, his mama's criticisms of his papa had grown harsher and more frequent.

"We could meet elsewhere," suggested D., casting a wary eye at the bedroom door.

"I'll make matters easy for you," said Weldon, opening the bedroom door to reveal that he was clothed, with his face-cloth down. "Birdesmond, I'm going to the common room. Do you want me to take Zenas with me?"

Zenas shook his head vigorously. Elsdon said, "Weldon, we don't mean to disturb your sleep—"

"You have important matters to discuss. I understand. —I'll see you later, son." He switched to the King's tongue and tousled Zenas's hair before exiting the living cell, boots in hand. Zenas tiptoed after him as far as the common room, then returned to the cell to find that Elsdon was awaiting his report. Zenas gave him the all-clear sign.

"You're turning that boy into a spy," commented D., staring.

"No training needed, I believe," replied Elsdon. "We won't wait for Clifford; he may or may not be coming."

"And I think a certain senior guard is going to fall asleep on his feet if we don't finish this meeting soon," said D., pointing his thumb at Barrett, who was attempting to suppress a yawn. "What's the big news? And why isn't Howard here?"

"Howard," said Elsdon carefully, "will not be coming to any more meetings."

D. gave a yelp of outrage and unsheathed his blade, as though meeting an enemy in battle. "The traitor!"

Barrett, on the other hand, narrowed his eyes. "Suspended?"

"Pressured into retiring," Birdesmond said wearily. "The High Seeker tried to persuade Howard that he would serve the prisoners better if he withdrew from the New School. When that didn't work, the High Seeker offered Howard a pension that was twice as large as his current one, if he should change sides. And when that didn't work, the High Seeker threatened to deprive Howard of his pension if he didn't retire now. The threat worked. Howard was depending on that pension to provide money to care for his crippled sister, once he grew too old to earn a living."

"Traitor," muttered D., but it was unclear this time who was the object of his denunciation. He had set aside his dagger on the table.

"High Seeker told you?" Noticeably, Barrett's eyes were still narrowed.

Elsdon shook his head. "Zenas did. He overheard the High Seeker speaking about this to Weldon Chapman during the day shift. I checked with Seward Sobel; he confirmed what had happened and gave me the details. The High Seeker is planning to release the news during his dawn-shift meeting with the senior Seekers and senior guards."

Birdesmond's eyes widened. "Weldon and I had dinner together before I started my shift. He never spoke a word about this to me."

"Well, he wouldn't, would he?" said D. brutally. "He's in the enemy's camp. So what the fuck do we do? We can't let Layle Smith get away with this."

"Language, please, D.," murmured Elsdon. "I haven't been quite sure—"

At that moment, the door banged open.

Everyone jumped and turned toward the entrance, where Clifford stood, panting and sweating. "Did you hear the news?" the junior guard cried. "By all that is sacred, did you hear the news?"

"About Howard?" replied D. "Get in here, we were just deciding—"

But Clifford, banging the door shut behind him, overrode D.'s words. "Not about the inner dungeon. The outer dungeon. They're up in arms."

"What?" Birdesmond, who had been on the point of sitting on the sofa, straightened up and shot Clifford a look of disbelief. Barrett had gone rigid, as though in preparation for battle. Elsdon simply stared blankly at Clifford, as though trying to take in what he had said.

Zenas looked down at the chessboard, trying to decide which move to make. He had already heard the news; he had been there when the decision was made. It said something about the insularity of the inner dungeon, he thought as he touched each of the chess pieces, that it had taken the inner-dungeon workers nine whole hours to learn of events that had set the outer dungeon afire during the previous shift.

Clifford gulped down air; he was clearly exhausted from running to the living cell with his news. "The outer dungeon . . . It has gone on strike. Everyone there is on strike. The Guild of Outer Dungeon Laborers – the male workers there – met with the Women's Fellowship – the female workers there, who run the nursery and organize other women's concerns. Both groups agreed to stop working at midnight, in protest to the Eternal Dungeon's policy of torturing prisoners. They say they'll continue to provide food and clothing and other supplies to the prisoners, but any prison-worker here who can get his food and supplies from the lighted world had better do so, because they're not going to provide labor for such men until the High Seeker and the Codifier agree to abolish torture." Having delivered his news, all in one breath, Clifford collapsed onto the footstool. Zenas put out a protective arm to prevent the junior guard from leaning back onto the chessboard.

"Guild?" Now it was D. who looked blank. "I didn't know that the male laborers of this dungeon were joined in a guild."

"Yeslin established it long ago," contributed Elsdon. "It keeps its negotiations with the High Seeker as quiet as possible, to prevent the High Seeker from losing face and being forced to move publicly against the guild."

"And now the outer-dungeon workers are risking, not only the loss of the guild, but also the loss of their jobs." Reaching behind her, Birdesmond groped for the sofa as she sat down. "Elsdon, I had no idea this was about to happen. I'm a member of the Women's Fellowship, since Zenas attended the nursery when he was younger, but none of the women there told me anything about this."

"Marjorie Sobel," said Barrett in his usual abrupt manner.

Elsdon nodded. "She must have known. She's president of the Women's Fellowship. For all I know, she might have organized this. Sweet blood, this will drive a stake in her marriage to Seward." Elsdon spoke the sacred oath softly, with reverence.

Clifford wiped sweat off his face with his jacket sleeve as he said, "It was all of them decided to do this, not just Mistress Sobel. Wade Rowles is the one who told me – he's the guild leader and is a member of the electricians' crew. He said the whole outer dungeon has been waiting for weeks for the New School to let them know how they could help with the fight. They finally figured we weren't ever going to be sensible enough to request their aid. So they acted on their own."

Elsdon put a hand over his face. "The outer dungeon. They're the largest work force in the dungeon, yet it never occurred to me to consult with them."

"That's my fault." D. sounded disgusted with himself. "You're all elite or mid-class – you couldn't be expected to think of this."

"You're mid-class too," pointed out Clifford.

D. shrugged. "I went to a school for commoners. When the lads and lasses there wanted something, they weren't polite about it. They rioted."

"I think we can credit the outer-dungeon laborers with enough good sense not to engage in lawless violence," interjected Birdesmond. "Clifford . . . You said that the outer-dungeon laborers wouldn't be feeding the inner-dungeon workers who could obtain their own food in the lighted world. You also said that they would be feeding the prisoners. Do they intend to feed all the prisoners?"

Elsdon, whose head had been bowed in evident thought, jolted as he looked up. He exchanged a look with Barrett, who appeared even more grim-faced than usual.

D.'s expression turned to horror. "They can't do that! They can't stop feeding the Seekers! The Seekers aren't allowed to leave the prison – without food deliveries, the Seekers will all starve, even these two!" He pointed his thumb at Elsdon and Birdesmond.

Clifford merely grinned. "That's the best part of the plan. They've pledged to feed all the prisoners, including the Seekers . . . except the High Seeker. They say that, if he wants to eat, he can stop the torture."

D. gave a crow of laughter. Elsdon said nothing. Birdesmond placed a hand lightly on Elsdon's arm, saying, "It won't come to that. The Codifier is sure to arrange for food to be delivered from the palace to any prisoners who aren't fed by the outer-dungeon laborers. And with so great a strike, the High Seeker will be forced to submit to the strikers' terms."

Barrett shook his head, though. "Bread Riot."

Everyone winced. "Oh, dear," said Clifford in a small voice as he rose to his feet. "I'd forgotten that."

"Weldon hasn't," said Birdesmond, sighing. "His parents died at the hands of the Queen's soldiers during the Commoners' Bread Riot, even though his parents didn't take part in the protests. Barrett, the Codifier couldn't possibly send his guards to force the laborers to work, under threat of being shot. This is the year 364, not 339."

"Barrett is right, though," said Elsdon in his quiet voice. "The High Seeker is unlikely to let this protest stop him. All he need do is dismiss the laborers, after all. There are plenty of men and women seeking jobs, out in the lighted world."

"Then they've sacrificed their livelihoods for nothing?" said Clifford bleakly, all his excitement drained away.

"I didn't say that," Elsdon replied. "If the protesters are wise – and the guild leaders were trained by Yeslin Bainbridge, so we can take for granted that they're wise – they'll voice their protest publicly. The newspapers may or may not carry the story – they're under the Queen's censorship – but there are other ways to get the news around."

"Ballads," said Birdesmond. "Your brother is a balladeer. Do you think he's likely to compose a commoners' ballad about the protest?"

"He only ever sings about the elite," argued D. He had slung his arm over Clifford's shoulder in a comradely fashion. "It's a strategy of his. He sings about elite men and women, so that the elite folks who can make changes in policies will listen to his songs."

"Mad Seeker," said Barrett.

Elsdon nodded slowly. "Yes. Yeslin sings often about the High Seeker. And about my love for the High Seeker, though he doesn't name me in his ballads. The trouble is, I haven't been able to communicate with Yeslin about anything that's happening in the inner dungeon; I vowed not to speak to outsiders of dungeon affairs. All of us did. And what has happened so far? We have worn arm-bands. We have raised our face-cloths. That's not the stuff of which ballads are written."

"There's Howard," D. pointed out. "He's elite. Would your brother be willing to write about Howard?"

"What about Mr. Yates?" Looking from one face to another, Clifford frowned with confusion. "You mentioned him before – has something happened?"

"Let me," said Barrett abruptly, before anyone else could speak. He walked over to Clifford. D. silently released Clifford from his friendly embrace and stepped back. Bending forward, Barrett began to speak in an undertone to the junior guard. D.'s gaze seemed fixed on his two fellow guards.

Elsdon shook his head. "A ballad about a pension being threatened? I don't think so. No, this is something I've been worrying about for a while. I didn't say anything, because until now, there was no way in which we could get word to the lighted world about what was happening. Even the outer-dungeon laborers are bound by a vow of silence. But if they've decide to break that vow—"

"They wouldn't have to break any vows," said Clifford. He had come forward to join them, looking distinctly unsettled by the news that Barrett had broken to him, but bearing up bravely in any case. "A protest this big? The news is bound to leak out. The outer dungeon receives visitors."

"So does the inner dungeon."

Barrett's terse statement caused everyone to fall silent. At last, Elsdon drew in his breath. "Yes. That was what I was on the point of suggesting, before Clifford arrived with the latest news. We've reached the stage, I think, where we need to make our protest large enough that the news will reach the lighted world. If there are protests in the lighted world, as well as here in the Eternal Dungeon, then there is likely to be an uprising of opinion against the High Seeker and the Codifier."

"By the commoners, you mean." D. was chewing on his thumb, his forehead furrowed.

"And some of the mid-class and elite," added Birdesmond. "There are men and women of good conscience among the higher-ranked classes in this queendom."

"It would have to be a bloody big protest to get the attention of all those people." D. spoke lightly.

Zenas shifted restlessly in his seat on the floor. D. had spoken in a seemingly careless manner, but from his expression, and from the expressions of the others in this living cell, it was obvious that everyone knew what was being proposed.

Finally, Birdesmond said, "We knew we'd reach this stage in the end. I wasn't willing to take chances if our sacrifices would be useless, but . . . Yes, now is the moment to move."

"Surely you're not in danger, ma'am?" said Clifford. "You've never tortured any of your prisoners. You're not allowed to, by the dungeon rules on searching female prisoners."

Birdesmond gave a faint smile. "But I am a leader of the New School. If the New School makes its final move, the High Seeker will know which of us are to blame."

"Well, it's about bloody time, that's all I can say," growled D. "Some of the other guards who belong to the New School, the ones we represent – they've been asking me how long we planned to drag our feet before we did the fucking obvious."

"Language, please," Elsdon reprimanded automatically. "Do you mean that the other members of the New School would be willing to assist with this?"

"The ones with guts will," inserted Clifford. "Look, I don't want to sound stupid, but I just want us to be clear: We're talking about refusing to torture prisoners, aren't we?"

Barrett said, "Hangman."

"Yes," agreed Birdesmond softly. "The Code's penalty for Seekers and guards who refuse to carry out the prescribed methods of searching prisoners is execution."

"Ready to be hanged, Cliff?" As he spoke, D. gave a gruesome grin.

Nobody paid his words any mind except Elsdon, who said, "I think we have to be prepared for the possibility of the worst, even if the other guards join us in refusing to torture prisoners. In all likelihood, if the High Seeker executes anyone, it will be one of us, the representatives of the New School."

"Which will be to our advantage, in the long run," Clifford reflected. "If one of us is executed for refusing to torture . . . What a ballad that will make. The battle over the dungeon's future will move to the lighted world. Thousands will take over the fight. I just wish I knew who was likely to be meeting the hangman." He tried to give a smile and failed.

"Me." Birdesmond was so pale now that she looked as though she were on the point of fainting. "The High Seeker has wanted me dead since I began working here."

D. shook his head. "The High Seeker is a sadist. He could pick any of us as his victim. Except you, of course." He jerked his head toward Elsdon.

With a voice that was far too steady to be natural, Elsdon said, "I think we can take it for granted that the High Seeker might execute any of us. What I wish is that I'd had a chance to speak to Howard or Mr. Bergsen before they left the dungeon. Except for Mr. Ferris – who was an unusual case – no prison-worker has been executed for disobedience to orders since the time of Layle's predecessor, High Torturer Jenson. None of us representatives worked in the dungeon back then, except for Howard and Mr. Bergsen. I wish I knew what the procedure was for arresting men and women within the dungeon, under charge of a capital crime."

"Weldon worked under High Torturer Jenson; I could ask him," began Birdesmond, but Zenas had already turned his attention toward the man standing closest to his mama. He was curious as to whether the man would speak.

"No need," said Barrett, and everyone turned to look at him.

The silence that followed seemed to last through an eternity of hell. Clifford, who had been standing near D., went over to Barrett and tried to reach out his hand. Barrett visibly flinched, as though he had touched a hot stove. Biting his lip, Clifford backed away.

Birdesmond broke the silence by saying, "You needn't speak to us about so painful an episode – that is, if you recall it at all?" She ended on a tentative note.

"You need to know," said Barrett, folding his arms. It was clear from his tense stance that this memory, at least, he had plumbed the depths of. "It will be the High Seeker's senior night guard and junior night guard who will come for you. They're in charge of arrests." Quite noticeably, he did not look in the direction of D., who had been the High Seeker's junior night guard four years before. "They will knock at your door and tell you that the High Seeker wishes to speak to you in the Codifier's office. In the Codifier's office. That's their manner of telling you that you're under arrest for breaking the Code."

"But the Codifier was on leave when you were arrested," Birdesmond objected.

Barrett gave a jerk of a nod. "It didn't go the usual way with me. The High Seeker questioned me himself, with the Codifier's secretary taking notes of the interview. If the Codifier had been there, the High Seeker would have handed me over to the custody of the Codifier's guards. Then the Codifier would have questioned me and decided upon my fate, after consultation with the High Seeker."

It was the longest speech that Zenas had heard Barrett make since the brutal flogging of 360 had altered his mind. From the look on Clifford's face, Zenas guessed that it was the longest speech that Barrett had made in public since that time. Apparently desiring to ease this process for Barrett, Elsdon said, "Your arrest wasn't entirely analogous to this situation, however. You had broken Yclau law, as well as the Code. We will only be breaking the Code. The Codifier has the power to forgive such breakings, if he feels they're in the best interests of the prisoners."

"Not bloody likely he will in this case, is it? And I know I'm using bad language in the presence of a lady, Mr. Seeker; stop sending me reprimands." D. glared at Elsdon.

Apparently intent on preventing civil war from breaking out, Birdesmond asked hastily, "And if the Codifier doesn't? Elsdon, none of us are well acquainted with Mr. Daniels, but he's bound to consult with the High Seeker, and you know the High Seeker better than any of us do. How would he proceed in such a case?"

Elsdon frowned as Zenas reached out to touch a chessman, having made his decision. "I think he's likely to treat the prisoner in the same manner that he treats any disobedient Seeker or guard – as he treated Howard, in fact. First he'll appeal to your love of the Code: he'll try to persuade you that obeying his orders is in the best interests of the prisoners. Then, if he thinks it's worthwhile, he'll offer— Well, he'll offer a bribe. He'll offer a rise in rank or something else that he thinks the Seeker or guard wants. If that doesn't work, he'll threaten. And if the threat doesn't work . . ." His voice trailed off.

This time, the silence was broken, not by any of the rebel leaders, but by the soft click of bone against stone as Zenas made his move. The sound drew the attention of the Seekers and guards to him. After a moment, D. gave a humorless laugh. "Checkmate. The boy's got it right. If we don't give in to the threat, the High Seeker will stretch our necks, courtesy of the hangman."

"Only one of us." The voice of Birdesmond was brisk now. "One death, and the added efforts of the outer-dungeon workers, and we'll be the ones who have created the checkmate. The controversy will spread far and wide throughout the queendom – even across the international border, if the United Order of Prisons becomes involved."

"Which it will, won't it?" suggested Clifford. "That's what started this whole war, four years ago – the United Order of Prisons told the Eternal Dungeon that it had to stop torturing its prisoners."

"The final battle," Elsdon agreed. "Gentlemen. Ma'am. These are the final moments of our war on behalf of the prisoners—"

"You can't flinch." It was Barrett, the former soldier, who summarized the situation. "Whatever happens, you can't flinch. If you do, the enemy will win."