The year 364, the fifth month. (The year 1883 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
I hope I will not seem as though I am heading onto a wild side trail in my history of the Eternal Dungeon if I spend a moment discussing linguistics and stagecraft.
The Kingdom of Vovim is a multilingual nation. It was founded by a variety of nations ("tribes," as they were termed at the time of which I am writing) who joined their fortunes together. Communication was initially difficult. Legend says that, in order to make clear their deeply held beliefs about their gods, the tribe later known as the southern Vovimians held a play for the tribe later known as the east Vovimians. The play was a mime, since the two nations did not know each other's languages.
From this first play, according to legend, sprung Vovim's grand tradition of theater. The earliest plays, archaeologists have confirmed through visual records, were mimes, often with one actor miming to a host of statues, standing in for the other actors. Later a human chorus was added, and at this point, speech was introduced into Vovim's theatrical tradition. But for many centuries afterwards, communication remained intensely difficult, since the territory we now know as Vovim was filled with nations who could barely understand each other's languages.
Before the development of the King's tongue, theater was the common speech of the Vovimians, and it has stayed so till modern times. During the period I am writing about, every small village, every prison, every slave-quarter in Vovim had its own little theatrical company. Penniless commoners attended street performances and could speak with great sophistication about the various theatrical techniques that developed in their kingdom. Out of the theater grew other arts: painting, statuary, music, literature, dance. In all of these, Vovim was known worldwide for its accomplishments.
Vovim's southeastern neighbor, the Queendom of Yclau, had almost no achievements in the arts. Its theatrical attendance was desultory, its museums and galleries were filled with second-hand copies of Vovimian masterpieces, and its literary accomplishments were confined to a few commoner ballads, whose value went largely unrecognized during this period. The only real passion that the Yclau could be said to hold for the arts was their passion for chess, a game they had borrowed from the Vovimians. The figurines of chess were directly descended from the stage statues of ancient times.
Yclau had no artistic traditions to unite it, perhaps because it had never needed uniting to begin with. It was founded by a single nation, and it remained largely homogenous in ethnicity over the centuries. Aside from the presence of a few immigrants, every Yclau man, woman, and child could easily communicate with one another.
Or so it appeared. Communication, however, can require more than a shared tongue, as every soldier on a battlefield realizes . . .
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
The sign at the entrance to the Seekers' common room was very old-fashioned. It was a rectangular block with four colored sides: white (the underside that was never turned up), green, blue, and red. Green for go, blue for caution, and red for stop. Or, as nervous young guards were accustomed to joke: green for rebirth, blue for transformation, and red for death.
The sign was currently turned to its red side. Zenas knew what it said without being able to read it, for he had heard the supervisor of the outer-dungeon laborers read it aloud to an illiterate maid who had been hired to clean the inner dungeon.
Common Room closed for private meeting.
Do not enter
upon penalty of torture.
In the Eternal Dungeon, this was no idle threat.
Zenas carefully turned the doorknob, pushed the door open a space, and slid inside the common room, shutting the door behind him. He had expected to have to breathe shallowly in a room filled with tobacco smoke. The junior guards, the most rebellious of the inner-dungeon workers, were not shy in making clear that they disliked the dungeon regulation against the use of tobacco. Normally, whenever the junior guards thought they were unlikely to be observed by their superiors, ashtrays and spittoons would arrive with the swiftness of a god, only to be whisked away if a senior member of the dungeon approached. Occasionally, one of the junior guards would end up tied to the dungeon's whipping post, enduring a disciplinary beating by the High Seeker's senior night guard, for no one in the dungeon could tell when the High Seeker approached. He was as silent as death, as the dungeon saying went.
Today, however, the room was remarkably free of smoke and spitting and raucous jokes. The reason, Zenas quickly realized, was the presence of the Seeker poised behind a schoolmasters' stand toward the front of the room.
Zenas stayed in the back, hidden by the crowd, so as not to distract the Seeker. She was saying, "—don't think anyone else will be arriving. A couple of the dusk-shift junior guards asked to be told of any decisions we make while they're at work, but the senior membership of this dungeon has chosen to make itself sadly absent. For the most part," she added, nodding toward the front row. Zenas, who had ducked behind the bar counter that was no longer used for alcoholic drinks, began to make his way cautiously to the front of the room, so that he could see who had risked their fortunes to attend the meeting.
As his mama had hinted, the room was almost entirely made up of junior guards. His mama – Mistress Birdesmond Chapman to everyone else in the dungeon – was the only Seeker present, and she too was of junior rank. The sole senior representative of the dungeon whom Zenas could easily sight was seated behind the schoolmasters' stand, in a row of otherwise empty chairs facing the rest of the men present. He had mutton-chop whiskers.
"I tried to persuade Seward Sobel to attend." The voice from the front row belonged to Mr. Yates, a senior guard of about fifty years. As Zenas reached the end of the counter, he peered round and saw that Mr. Yates was frowning. "I would swear that he is in agreement with our aims. But he said that he couldn't show disloyalty to the High Seeker."
There was growling among the junior guards then. One of them piped up, with a voice barely past youthful breaking, "What about loyalty to the prisoners? We're supposed to make sacrifices for them – that's what the opening lines of the Code of Seeking say!"
"The Code of Seeking only refers to the Seekers suffering for their prisoners," rejoined another junior guard.
"But the general principles of the Code require—"
"Will any other senior guards be attending, Mr. Yates?" asked Zenas's mama, neatly cutting off what appeared to be the beginning of one of the endless dungeon arguments over the exact meaning of the Code.
Mr. Yates shook his head, continuing to frown.
"They're all cowards!" cried an impetuous junior guard, which inspired a spell of cheers.
Zenas's mama raised her hand. "Please, gentlemen. Let us not turn this into a football rally." As the junior guards subsided – some with blushes at being reprimanded by a lady Seeker – his mama turned her gaze back to Mr. Yates. It was often hard to tell in which direction she was looking, for, like all Seekers, she wore a hood with a face-cloth that hid everything except her eyes. But Zenas had been living with her now for many years, since the time that she and his papa adopted him at age twelve. He could read concern in her eyes as she asked, "Did you speak to any other senior guards about the meeting?"
"All of them." Mr. Yates emitted a sigh. "It's not fear, ma'am – or at least not entirely fear, because who among us isn't nervous at the idea of attending this meeting? I had sweating spells all night, imagining the High Seeker sending his guards to arrest us."
There was a space of time while everyone thought about this. Their thoughts were eloquent upon their faces.
"Three of the senior guards said they couldn't attend because their Seekers worked through the dusk shift," continued Mr. Yates. "I think that was just an excuse, though. I can hardly blame them for their disinterest in this meeting. Mr. Boyd here" – he pointed his thumb toward the senior guard sitting next to him, stone-faced – "may recall that I once gave him a most eloquent speech about how torture was a necessary tool for justice."
"What changed your mind, Mr. Yates?" asked his mama. There was a rustle of uniforms, a squeak of chairs, as some of the junior guards shifted position restlessly in response to the senior guard's words. His mama chose to ignore that for the moment.
Mr. Yates opened his mouth, glanced to his side, and then quickly glanced away. There was a long silence as everyone present tried not to look at Mr. Boyd. Mr. Boyd's face remained as hard as before. He was staring, not at Zenas's mama, but somewhere beyond her, at the portion of the room which was filled with late-afternoon sunlight. By tradition, that section of the common room, which had a partially opaque skylight in the ceiling, could only be entered by Seekers wishing to refresh themselves under the sun's rays. They alone were permitted to partake of the only sunlight within the Eternal Dungeon, for they alone, among the inner-dungeon residents, had taken an oath to remain eternally confined within the dungeon.
There was actually one other inner-dungeon resident who hadn't felt the sun upon his skin for many years, and who would have appreciated being allowed to bathe in the warmth of the skylight. But Zenas had never been invited to enter the Seekers' end of the common room, and he had no easy way of conveying his longing to stand there, with the sunlight upon his face once more.
His mama – who had been confined to the dungeon as long as he had, and who never complained about her loss of the lighted world – broke the silence to say, "I think, since we are all here now, we should begin with a prayer. Mr. Crofford, will you lead us?"
"I?" said Mr. Crofford, who was a junior guard, but who sat in the front row beside Mr. Boyd. He looked more startled than the situation warranted. On the rare occasions when the High Seeker held meetings for the junior guards, Mr. Crofford was invariably invited to lead the prayers, for he was a good speaker. But Mr. Crofford, as everyone knew, was blessed with humility. Twice he had turned down the opportunity to rise to senior rank, explaining that he did not feel qualified to take on that responsibility.
Zenas's mama stepped back in order to allow Mr. Crofford to take the schoolmasters' stand. Everyone rose to their feet, other than Zenas, who crouched down upon his knees, the proper position for a prisoner of hell's High Master. All convicted criminals lay under the care of hell's High Master, Zenas knew, and those who died during their term of mortal imprisonment would enter into immortal imprisonment in hell. Those who were released from imprisonment during their mortal lives, or whom the gods judged innocent or forgiven of their crimes, could be received into the compassionate bosom of the High Master's sister, the goddess Mercy. But Zenas had not received any messages from Mercy's Grace to indicate that the gods had forgiven him for his crime. So he knelt to his immortal master, whose unspoken name was Hell.
Zenas assumed that Hell was the one who sent him the nightmares. Hell always exacted punishment upon evil humans.
Now, with his eyes closed, his knees bent, and his palms flat upon the floor – the position of the damned – he listened as Mr. Crofford said, "May we never forget our good fortune, we who are privileged to help prisoners escape from the dungeon of their ill deeds. Like the first man who denied himself the deceptively sweet life of afterdeath, let us undertake any sacrifice necessary. Let us sacrifice ourselves for the prisoners, so that, in helping them to be reborn as better men, we too may be better men than before."
Through the slits between his eyelids, Zenas peeked at his mama. She was in the position that the Yclau took when praying: standing straight, her back erect, her head bowed, her eyes opened. There was no sign in the expression of her eyes that she was bothered by the manner in which Mr. Crofford had just excluded her, all of her female prisoners, and most of the outer-dungeon workers who labored for dungeon-dwellers such as Mr. Crofford. No doubt his mama was used to the Eternal Dungeon's penchant for speaking only in male terms. Zenas, whose native language would have phrased such a prayer in the gender-neutral plural, held one of his momentary wishes that the rest of the dungeon spoke his far more civilized tongue.
It was an old, futile wish.
The men at the gathering seemed perfectly content with this speech, even the man who had protested earlier that guards were not required to make sacrifices for the prisoners. Mr. Crofford's words were no different from the words they had heard in a hundred different fashions since they took up employment in the dungeon. Everyone in the Eternal Dungeon – Seekers, guards, outer-dungeon workers, and auxiliary workers such as the dungeon's healer – were encouraged, through daily exhortations and through the impassioned wording of the dungeon's Code of Seeking, to put the best interests of the prisoners before all else.
That was not a matter of dispute anywhere in the dungeon. The dispute lay elsewhere.
The prayer had ended. Mr. Crofford, blushing, returned to his place in the front row. Zenas's mama waited until everyone reseated themselves; then she came forward again. "I know that you're all eager for news," she said. "Unfortunately, I have little to tell you. I've been told that a judgment was handed down last week, which requires the Codifier and the High Seeker to grant an interview to Mr. de Vere—"
There was a knock on the door. It was very soft; none of the guards nearest the door appeared to hear it. With his ears still attuned to what his mama was saying, Zenas crept back to the door. He opened it.
Vito de Vere stood in the doorway. It took a moment for Zenas to recognize him. Zenas had never before seen Mr. de Vere without his hood. But when the man at the doorway spoke, his voice, unusually authoritative for a man barely into his thirties, was unmistakable.
"Excuse me." Like most of the dungeon dwellers, past and present, Mr. de Vere never seemed to be sure how to address Zenas. He was peering over Zenas's shoulder, as though hoping that somebody would rescue him from this conversation. "Your mother sent me a letter telling me that there was going to be a meeting—"
At the front of the common room, Zenas's mama stopped speaking. She had sighted Mr. de Vere. Zenas quickly stepped back. Now ignoring Zenas entirely, Mr. de Vere entered the room. Seemingly immune to the fixed attention of the guards watching him, he strode down the center aisle between the chairs.
"Mr. de Vere," said Zenas's mama formally, "we were just speaking of you."
"I can't stay long," replied Mr. de Vere as he reached her side. "I told Mr. Sobel that I planned to leave by way of the back exit, but I wouldn't be surprised if the High Seeker sends out hunting hounds after me, if I don't arrive on time in the outer dungeon. With instructions to kill," he added dryly.
Some of the guards laughed uneasily. Mr. Boyd was still staring at the front of the common room, as though ignoring the proceedings. Mr. Crofford gave him a quick look and then leaned forward to listen to the conversation in the front. Most of the guards did; this was the news they had been awaiting.
"You had your interview with the Codifier and the High Seeker?" his mama suggested.
"I did. It was the shortest interview of my life."
Mr. Yates winced. Mr. Urman, a junior guard who was seated beside Mr. Crofford, growled oaths under his breath. Everyone else waited.
In the manner of a natural-born leader, Mr. de Vere turned smoothly to face the crowd. He was no taller than Zenas's mama, yet the audience appeared to be as expectant as if the towering High Seeker were about to address them.
As though continuing a conversation he had held previously with the guards, Mr. de Vere said, "The Codifier asked me only one question: Whether I would comply with the regulations of the Code if I were hired again as a Seeker. I said to him what I'd already said in court: that I had been exceedingly foolish to give my prisoner access to drugs without permission from the healer, to take my prisoner to a locked area of the dungeon without permission from the High Seeker, to grant my prisoner permission to strip, to let him make use of certain equipment in this dungeon that is ordinarily used only under highly regulated circumstances, and most of all, to touch my prisoner in a carnal manner."
There were exchanges of looks all around the common room. Even Mr. Urman, normally the most cynical of guards, appeared impressed. It was clear that nobody in the room had expected Mr. de Vere to be this candid about his failings as a former Seeker-in-Training.
"I also said what I had said in court," continued Mr. de Vere. "That under no circumstances whatsoever would I torture any prisoner."
This time, the reaction was audible as guards shifted in position, coughed, or muttered under their breath. Nobody spoke aloud, though, except his mama, who said, "And Mr. Daniels's response?"
"The Codifier thanked me for coming and said that he and Mr. Smith would be in touch with me. Then the High Seeker suggested that it would be best for me to leave his dungeon. Immediately."
With a wry smile on his face, Mr. Yates commented, "Our esteemed High Seeker is not quite as civilized in manner as our Codifier."
Mr. de Vere's voice was level as he said, "Their response came as no surprise to me. I knew that this would be a wasted trip."
"What will you do now?" asked Zenas's mama quietly.
"Appeal the decision. The magistrate did not hand down the ruling I requested – that I be reinstated as a Seeker – and so I will appeal his ruling to the next level of the magistracy. If that doesn't work, I will appeal to the high court of the magistracy. If that doesn't work, I will appeal to the Queen. And if the Queen fails to support my suit" – Mr. de Vere took a deep breath – "then I will appeal to the people."
This statement caused a much greater reaction among the guards. For the first time, Mr. Boyd's attention switched to the speaker. It was Mr. Crofford, though, who voiced everyone's worry: "Mr. de Vere, forgive me for contradicting you, but wouldn't that break the oath you took? I know that the laws of our queendom permit petitioners of lawsuits to take their appeals into the public realm, but even temporary workers in the Eternal Dungeon are required to swear a sacred oath that they won't speak of what takes place here."
"Hangman." It was the first word that Mr. Boyd had spoken.
Zenas's mama inserted herself quickly. "I doubt that Mr. de Vere will need to risk his life by breaking that oath. The Queen has as much reason as anyone to want to see this dungeon kept in peace, and burdened as she is by her present illness, she's unlikely to countenance total warfare breaking out here. . . . Thank you, Mr. de Vere. It's very kind of you to find the time to tell us in person what happened. We won't keep you."
Mr. de Vere nodded but did not remove his gaze from the guards. "I want to make one final remark before I go. When Mistress Chapman wrote me with news that some of you were planning a meeting of protest against my release from employment here, it took my breath away. I'm not good at getting to know people – I've barely spoken to any of you. I know that you're holding this meeting for the sake of upholding the spirit of the Code, not out of any personal concern for the future career of a man whose horrific misjudgments caused a clever criminal to escape this dungeon. Even so, I'm deeply grateful to you for your unexpected support. I hope I'll be able to return to work at this dungeon, if only so that I can thank all of you in person. Now I really must go; I'm sorry." He laid a hand lightly on the arm of Zenas's mama, smiled at her, and left rapidly. Zenas opened the door for him when he reached the back of the room, but Mr. de Vere appeared not to notice as he swept through the doorway.
Zenas checked that the sign on the door remained red and that no one was lingering in the corridor outside; then he closed the door. The departure of Vito de Vere seemed to have paralyzed everyone's tongues. The guards were looking at each other, as though waiting for someone to break the silence.
It was Mr. Pomroy, a junior guard close to seniority, who finally spoke up. "I don't want to sound combative," he said, "but that recital of his deeds which Mr. de Vere just gave us appears to me to be conclusive proof that he is not qualified to be a Seeker. Why are we here defending his actions?"
From the agitation of the audience, it was clear that quite a few of the guards shared Mr. Pomroy's sentiment. For some reason, the man with the mutton-chop whiskers appeared amused by their reaction. For the first time, he spoke.
As though reciting a nursery tale, the dungeon's healer said, "There was once a young Seeker – oh, I shall not name names. This happened before most of you were hired. But this Seeker committed the same deed that Mr. de Vere did: he kissed a bound prisoner. And unlike Mr. de Vere's prisoner, this other prisoner did not seduce her Seeker into committing the act. Would anyone care to guess what sort of judgment the Codifier handed down upon the Seeker in question?"
"Three months' suspension from duties, wasn't it, sir?" said Mr. Yates, who was now looking grim. "And a few years later, the same Seeker assaulted a prisoner. He was given six months' suspension then, before being returned to duty with full honors."
There were murmurings among the junior guards now. A few of them had worked in the dungeon long enough that they knew which Seeker was being referenced. With a sober expression, Mr. Pomroy said, "You're suggesting that the High Seeker is a hypocrite, Mr. Bergsen."
"The High Seeker had no say over those earlier sentences," demurred the healer. "What I am suggesting is that there is a quite clear pattern of punishment in this dungeon, which I'm surprised that nobody has noticed. Anyone who is considered to be useful to the Codifier and the High Seeker is given a light sentence if he commits an offense. Anyone who is considered to be a threat to the present regime is ousted from this dungeon, no matter how small their infraction."
Quite a few guards nodded. Zenas propped his chin on his elbow, considering Mr. Bergsen's words. He had been fourteen years old when the High Seeker took his first, fiery steps to suppress dissent by some of the prison-workers over how to handle the prisoners. For months, Zenas had lived in fear that the High Seeker would hang his mama. His papa, he thought, would be safe, for his papa was the High Seeker's friend. But it was said that the High Seeker feared and loathed all women. . . .
It had been some time after that when Zenas had first gotten to know the High Seeker. He sometimes wondered whether that was a coincidence, or whether the High Seeker, sensing Zenas's fear, had sought to take control of the situation in the only manner available to him.
Zenas never let his parents guess about his private encounters with the High Seeker. It was better that they not know. They wouldn't understand.
"It's all about torture," said Mr. Crofford, breaking through the continued murmur of the guards. "That's what I didn't understand for a long time. The High Seeker has been seeking out and punishing those of us who wish to show greater mercy to the prisoners than the Code allows. Those of us who question whether it's right to torture prisoners."
The blunt words were out, and now the audience was definitely on edge. Frowning, Mr. Pomroy said, "Are you telling me that, if a prisoner attacks me, I shouldn't punish him with a whipping?"
Mr. Yates shook his head. "We're not talking about a disciplinary beating. Nobody is questioning that; we've nearly all of us been beaten at some time in our lives for misbehavior, usually in school. We're talking about torture – about the application of pain to make a prisoner confess."
"Racking the prisoner, in other words," said Mr. Crofford. "No Seeker questions prisoners for their crimes when they're being whipped, does he?"
It was the second word that Mr. Boyd had spoken, and it created as electric an effect on the audience as the first. Guards glanced at each other, obviously trying to ascertain if anyone knew whether this accusation was true. Even Mr. Urman – normally the guard with the greatest knowledge of dungeon rumor – seemed mystified.
It was at this inopportune moment that another knock came at the door.
Again, nobody heard the knock but Zenas. As the guards whispered to each other, he hurried to the back of the room and answered the door.
The skin next to Elsdon Taylor's eyes crinkled in a smile. "Hello, Zenas," the junior Seeker said softly. "I'm sorry I'm late. Has the meeting begun?"
Smiling in return, Zenas nodded and opened the door wide. The conversations in the common room cut off abruptly; guards looked over their shoulders, straining to see the newcomer.
Unlike Vito de Vere, Mr. Taylor made no attempt to capture the attention of the audience. He quietly walked down the left-hand side of the room. When Mr. Bergsen gestured to the chair next to him, Mr. Taylor shook his head, instead seating himself in one of the chairs placed against the wall next to the counter, for the overflow crowd that had been anticipated for this event.
Even Zenas's mama seemed momentarily at a loss for words. There had been a time when Elsdon Taylor had been the primary voice for protest within the dungeon, Zenas knew. But that was long ago. For the past four years, Mr. Taylor had spoken not a peep of protest as the High Seeker ruled the dungeon with the ferocious implacability of a leaded whip.
It was Mr. Urman, predictably, who broke the silence. "Come to take notes for the High Seeker, have you?" he taunted the junior Seeker. "Shall we give you a list of guards who are attending?"
Mr. Taylor did not nip at the bait; he merely shook his head.
Mr. Yates cleared his throat. "Of course, you have as much right as anyone else to attend this meeting, Mr. Taylor—"
"Indeed," said Zenas's mama, clearly on firm ground now. "Will the High Seeker be observing this meeting, Mr. Taylor? I issued an invitation to him to listen to our concerns."
"I don't know, ma'am," replied Mr. Taylor quietly. "I haven't discussed this meeting with him."
"Well, as long as you're here," continued Mr. Urman maliciously, "you can tell us: Did you search a prisoner for evidence of his crime while you were having him beaten?"
Mr. Taylor flicked at glance at Mr. Boyd – Elsdon Taylor's former senior guard – and then quickly turned his gaze back toward Mr. Urman. "I did."
Now the restlessness of the crowd was positively mutinous. Someone said, "That's against the Code."
"No," contradicted Mr. Taylor quietly. At twenty-seven years of age, he was one of the older junior Seekers. Most Seekers pledged their oaths of eternal commitment immediately after university and were raised to senior rank after four years. This was necessary in order to provide rapid replacement of senior Seekers, who searched the most dangerous prisoners and were therefore inclined to die early.
Mr. Taylor's pledge had taken place when he was only eighteen, yet he had been passed over for a rise to seniority on numerous occasions. It occurred to Zenas, watching the junior Seeker sit in isolation, that this fact alone revealed a great deal about where Elsdon Taylor's loyalties lay, however silent he had been in public during the last few years.
Zenas made up his mind then. He was standing behind the counter, only a few feet from Mr. Taylor. He slipped out of his hiding place and slid onto Mr. Taylor's lap.
There was a gasp from a few of the junior guards who had not witnessed Zenas do this before. His mama began to speak and then fell silent, apparently deciding that this was not the proper occasion for a reprimand. Zenas knew that she and his papa would spend the next few days trying to impress upon him that he was no longer enslaved – that he need no longer serve men with his body.
Zenas knew that perfectly well. He also knew that he could not speak up in the meeting and say to the guards, "Mr. Taylor is trustworthy." His body was the only mode of communication he had in this dungeon, and he knew enough to only pick the laps of men who regarded him in an avuncular fashion. The few times he had been wrong, it was immediately obvious; it was impossible to hide that sort of thing from the young man who was snuggling on your lap. Whenever that happened, Zenas had slid off the man's lap at once, making apologetic noises. The man was invariably so embarrassed that he never again made reference to the incident.
Mr. Taylor wrapped an arm loosely around Zenas, sparing him another of his eye-smiles. He was young enough that he could have been an older brother to Zenas; but of course he was a Seeker, so it would have been disrespectful for Zenas to voice that thought.
Even if he could.
The tension in Mr. Taylor's body had begun to melt from the moment that Zenas made clear his alliance. Now Mr. Taylor raised his voice to be heard over the guards' disconcerted conversation. "I did question a prisoner who was being beaten for disciplinary reasons. That fact is to my great shame. There have been occasions when I sought to explore the outer boundaries of the Code, and at times my prisoners benefitted from my exploration, I think. This wasn't one of those times. But the exercise did benefit me, because it made clear to me how little assurance I had that my prisoners speak the truth when I torture them. I was so used to racking prisoners that I couldn't recognize this, until I tortured a prisoner in a manner unusual in the Eternal Dungeon."
"So you have your doubts about torture as well," said Mr. Yates, a note of surprise in his voice. "I remember that case; Mr. Boyd told me about it at the time. And I told him that it didn't matter how many innocents suffered on the rack, provided that most of the prisoners we racked were guilty."
This brought a stunned silence. Most of the junior guards, Zenas thought, were still inexperienced enough to believe that all the prisoners who were racked in the Eternal Dungeon were guilty of their accused crimes. Junior guards were posted at the rack room doors during rackings; they never witnessed what took place when a prisoner's limbs were wrenched. By the time they witnessed this, they held seniority, with a salary to match and probably a family to feed; they had financial incentive not to speak out against what they saw. This being the Eternal Dungeon, where idealism held reign, no doubt the senior guards used justifications in the same manner that Mr. Yates had, to hide the knowledge from themselves that they were benefitting from a system which did not benefit their prisoners.
Mr. Crofford said in a clear, steady voice that made him seem older than his twenty-six years, "If even one prisoner in this dungeon confessed falsely because we brought him to the rack room to be tortured, then we are responsible for that prisoner's death by the hangman. And there must be dozens of prisoners like that every year. Thousands, over the life of the Eternal Dungeon."
"I've heard enough." It was Mr. Rhodes, rising to his feet; he was another junior guard who was close to seniority. "I thought this meeting was convened to discuss whether we should support Mr. de Vere's suit to return to employment within this dungeon. But you lot are talking about something very different: the overthrow of the Code of Seeking."
"The Code changes from time to time," pointed out Zenas's mama, who remained in place behind the schoolmasters' stand. "Our volume of ethics has been revised five times since its inception. The last revision banned the use of certain instruments of torture which had been considered legitimate means of searching prisoners since long before the founding of the Eternal Dungeon."
"When is the next revision due?" asked someone in the audience.
"The Code calls for a revision every generation," replied someone else. "The fourth revision was issued in 313. The fifth revision was issued in 348."
"Fine," said Mr. Rhodes, hooking onto his belt the sheathed dagger and coiled whip he had taken off during the meeting. "In fifteen years' time, when the sixth revision is prepared, I'll be glad to attend whatever meeting the new reviser calls to discuss what changes should be made. This isn't that meeting. This is a rebel meeting, intended to tear down the lawful structure of the Code of Seeking. I'm having nothing to do with this. Come on, lads." He addressed this remark to several guards sitting beside him, who had evidently come to the meeting with him. They promptly rose and followed Mr. Rhodes out of the common room, emptying an entire row of seats. There were mutters and exchanged looks, and then more guards rose to their feet, and more.
It took five minutes for all of them to leave. When the common room door was finally shut again, fully three-quarters of the audience had left. Counting, Zenas concluded that there could not be more than four dozen guards remaining in the room.
Once again, it was Mr. Urman who broke the silence. "Bloody blades, it's good to have room to stretch my arms."
This broke the tension and prompted laughter. Smiling, Mr. Pomroy said, "I'm not saying I'm ready to break the Code, but I'm willing to listen to what you have to say. These are important issues we're discussing, and they deserve to be explored."
"The ineffectiveness of torture in helping us ascertain the truth about crimes," said Zenas's mama, ticking off topics with her fingers. "The strong possibility that innocent prisoners will implicate themselves in order to escape from pain—"
"The stupidity of it," inserted Mr. Bergsen, looking considerably more cheerful, now that the grumblers among the guards had left. "That's what has always infuriated me. Look here, men, you all swore to help criminals turn from their bloody pasts – to show them that violence isn't the way to achieve their ends. And what do you do? Strap these same criminals to the rack!"
Mr. Yates nodded slowly. "You have it right there in a pinhole, Mr. Bergsen. We're supposed to be transforming prisoners. How does tearing them from limb to limb transform the prisoners into better men?"
Zenas's mama, who had been keeping a careful eye on the audience, said, "You have something to add, Mr. Taylor?"
Elsdon Taylor nodded. He still had his arm loosely slung around Zenas's waist, but seeing that Mr. Taylor was no longer isolated from the other men in the room, Zenas slipped off his lap, in order not to distract the junior Seeker. His mama quickly gestured, and with an inward sigh, Zenas went over to stand by her. He was taller than she was now, but she seemed not to notice that; she pointed to the chair next to Mr. Bergsen, as though Zenas were still a little lad. Zenas tried not to let this anger him. The gods decreed that parents should be respected, including adoptive parents. He sat down quietly in the spot she had indicated and turned his attention back to Mr. Taylor.
Elsdon Taylor seemed to be having difficulty in voicing his thoughts. Finally he said, "This is an extension of what you've said to me before, Mr. Bergsen. You stated that the High Seeker and the Codifier are selective in which prison-workers they punish. Has it occurred to any of us that we are selective in which prisoners we punish?"
That roused a reaction indeed. Leaning forward, Mr. Yates said, "All prisoners are treated equally in this dungeon, Mr. Taylor. The Code requires that."
"But which prisoners reach this dungeon is not under our control," Elsdon Taylor replied. "It was my brother who pointed out the obvious to me: nearly every prisoner who is brought here – who is searched by questions and sometimes beaten and racked – is a commoner. Is anybody here going to argue that only commoners commit capital crimes?"
Now everyone looked stunned, other than Mr. Bergsen, who looked reflective, and Mr. Boyd, who remained as stone-faced as before. Even Zenas's mama, who had surely given more thought to such matters than anyone else in this room, had covered her hooded mouth in dismay.
Mr. Taylor continued in his quiet manner, "My brother is convinced that the Queen uses this dungeon as a tool to oppress the commoners. Whether or not my brother is right, I can't be comfortable with the fact that, with a very few exceptions, we torture men who are lower in rank than ourselves. That can cause communication difficulties on its own, as I believe one prisoner here could testify." He nodded toward Zenas.
Zenas jumped in place, startled at being acknowledged. His mama placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. She said, "When Zenas was in a breaking cell, long ago, he was searched by my husband. You know that Mr. Chapman was born a commoner."
"I also know that your husband had many problems in communicating with Zenas," Mr. Taylor replied. "In the end, Mr. Chapman had to make use of a Vovimian translator. I don't think that was merely because Zenas was a foreigner. Zenas was a slave; Mr. Chapman has lived the life of a mid-class man for the past two decades. Can you really say that, even to this day, you and your husband fully understand the life that Zenas led as a slave? Can those of us who torture commoner prisoners claim to fully understand the lives of our tortured prisoners?"
Mr. Pomroy frowned. "What are you saying, Mr. Taylor? That we should stop searching commoner prisoners at all? Or that this dungeon should hire only commoners as guards and Seekers?"
There was light laughter at this absurd suggestion. Mr. Bergsen looked yet more reflective. Mr. Taylor replied, "A few more commoner-born Seekers, such as Mr. Chapman, would certainly help to bring balance to this dungeon. But I was suggesting something else entirely: torture has long been used as a tool by the elite to oppress the commoners, and we have unwittingly allowed ourselves to be that tool. So my brother says, and I've come to agree with him."
"'My brother, my brother,'" mocked Mr. Urman. "I've never heard you mention a brother before. I thought there was only the one sister, and she—"
He stopped abruptly. Only one thing ever stopped Mr. Urman mid-sentence. For all his faults, there was a single line that Mr. Urman didn't pass: he never, ever gossiped about his prisoners.
Zenas leaned forward, fascinated. He had known, of course, that Mr. Taylor – in addition to being a Seeker – was a convict serving a life sentence in the Eternal Dungeon for a murder he had committed when he was young. Until now, though, Zenas had not realized that Mr. Urman had been one of the guards who held Mr. Taylor captive when he was broken by the High Seeker.
Mr. Urman was Mr. Taylor's harshest critic. Had something happened in Mr. Taylor's breaking cell that had sparked Mr. Urman's enmity?
Whatever had happened, it was clear from Mr. Urman's tightened lips that he was not going to share that tale with anyone. Mr. Taylor replied simply, "I murdered my sister, yes. Yeslin isn't my brother by birth. My father offered Yeslin a home after I was imprisoned here. Yeslin and I can only communicate through correspondence, but we've become as close as any brothers can be—"
"Yeslin?" Now Mr. Yates was on his feet. "Yeslin? Mr. Taylor, are you saying your brother is Yeslin Bainbridge?"
With a roar, guards surged to their feet. Amidst the shouts, Mr. Urman – who had remained seated – cried, "Who the bloody blades is Yeslin Bainbridge?"
"You know him, D." Mr. Crofford had paled from the latest revelation, but he was mainly concentrating on shielding Mr. Boyd from Mr. Yates, who, in his excitement, was coming perilously close to touching Mr. Boyd. Mr. Boyd, as might be expected, was taking no notice of the fuss. Mr. Crofford continued, "Yeslin Bainbridge. Head of the Commoners' Guild. That's the guild which has been holding protests and strikes all over the capital for the past four years. They've even started to extend their reach into the country districts, I've heard."
"Oh, him." Mr. Urman was apparently determined not to give Mr. Taylor the satisfaction of seeing him surprised; he folded his arms over his chest, saying, "So your brother is the reason my streetcar is late every time I come back from a week's-end break. Bloody strikers."
Everyone else, though, remained in a state of high excitement. Mr. Pomroy translated their thoughts into words: "If anyone alive can give us wise advice on how to hold a protest, it's Yeslin Bainbridge. Mr. Taylor, what does your brother suggest that we do?"
"Stop holding these meetings."
Elsdon Taylor's words were like ice water drenching the guards. The guards appeared stupefied by this change of events. As everyone sank down into their seats, Mr. Urman said, in a smug voice that suggested he'd known this treachery was coming, "So we're supposed to give up, is that what your brother advises? Or maybe this advice comes from the High Seeker?"
Mr. Taylor shook his head. He appeared as self-contained as before, though Zenas, watching him carefully, could tell that his body had tensed again. "I haven't been able to discuss directly with Yeslin the protests by dungeon-workers against the High Seeker's policy of enforcing the Code strictly. My oath of silence forbids that. But the existence of Mr. de Vere's suit against the dungeon is public, if not the exact details, and my brother guessed that there would be some sort of protest here against Mr. de Vere's dismissal. So he wrote to me with advice: Don't hold large, public meetings. Those are the sorts of meetings that the authorities will shut down immediately. If the authorities allow public meetings of protest to occur, it is only so that they can infiltrate such meetings and steer the course of them."
Mr. Urman's snort was expressive. But Mr. Yates said, "He's right, you know. I had my doubts about this meeting when I heard of it. Large meetings of open rebellion are dangerous. The rebels in Vovim have learned that."
There were reluctant nods now from some of the guards. Zenas's mama leaned over the schoolmasters' stand as she said, "I'll admit, I haven't followed closely the fortunes of the Commoners' Guild. How has your brother resolved the problem you mention, Mr. Taylor? For certainly the Commoners' Guild has become the most influential guild in the capital, despite all odds against them."
"Through representation," Mr. Taylor replied, continuing to sit as still as a schoolboy in his seat. "Yeslin told me that, early on, he had to discard the idea of having his guild be a pure democracy. Instead, he took a clue from the governmental structure of the Magisterial Republic of Mip and held elections for guild leadership. A small number of men and women meet in private and make decisions on behalf of the guild members who elected them to power. They consult with the other guild members, of course, but in an informal manner, not through public meetings. Once the decisions are made, the remaining guild members are notified."
"Representational democracy." Mr. Pomroy nodded. "I learned about that in school. Our own queendom has a parliament, though the parliament members are born to their power, not elected to it. If the Queen's hundreds of thousands of subjects tried to make decisions together, it would be impossibly complex."
There were nods all around the room now. Even Mr. Urman, the perpetual scoffer, seemed to have no objection to this proposal. Appearing to read the mood, Zenas's mama asked, "Shall we propose names, then?"
"Nominees," interjected Mr. Crofford, then went crimson as everyone turned to look at him.
"Nominees," agreed Zenas's mama. "Would anyone like to propose nominations?"
The nominations were quickly made; the voting took place equally quickly. Zenas was unsurprised at the results. Mr. Bergsen, Mr. Taylor, his mama, Mr. Yates, Mr. Boyd . . . The five senior-most members of the meeting had been elected as the group's representatives.
For the first time, Mr. Boyd stirred, looking around, as though not quite clear why he had been elected. He often seemed unaware that, for many years, he had been one of the most popular guards in the dungeon. Even the changes in personality that he had undergone four years ago could not entirely erase that.
Nearby him, Mr. Urman's expression had turned thunderous. Even Zenas's mama seemed disturbed by this turn of events.
It was Mr. Taylor, though, who voiced the dissenters' thoughts: "It seems to me that, with so many junior guards braving their careers to take part in this meeting, we ought to have at least one junior guard representing us. I nominate Mr. Crofford."
Mr. Crofford had been looking uneasily back and forth between the two men he sat beside: Mr. Boyd and Mr. Urman. Now he looked even more startled than Mr. Boyd to receive this honor. After a moment, he said, "It really ought to be Mr. Urman. He knows far more than I do about these matters."
In the end, both men were elected, Mr. Urman by a greater majority than Zenas would have predicted. Still trying to stay inconspicuous near his mama, Zenas scrutinized Mr. Urman, whose expression could not easily be read. Excitement, resentment, uncertainty, hope . . . Yes, hope was the predominant emotion.
Hope for what?
His mama was ending the meeting now. Glancing behind him, Zenas saw from the slant of light that it was nearly time for the night shift. Rising to his feet and reaching for his weapons, Mr. Pomroy said, "Ma'am, I think I speak for all when I say that I have a great deal of confidence in the representation we've just elected. I hope you'll let the rest of us know when we may be of help to you."
"I'm really not sure—" began another guard doubtfully.
"It's too late to be raising objections," said Mr. Pomroy, frowning.
The other guard looked as though he was ready to pick a fight. Lazily, Mr. Urman said, "Aye, I know. It's my looks. You'd rather have me in your bed than attending meetings."
The room exploded into laughter. Shaking his head and smiling, the doubtful guard let the matter drop. Soon the common room had emptied, except for the new representatives.
And Zenas, who was listening with great interest to what would come next.
To his disappointment, though, his mama said, "I know that some of you are due for work soon, so I think we should meet again at week's end, when those of you who are junior guards will have lighter duties."
"Coordinating the schedules of everyone is going to be difficult," pointed out Mr. Yates. "Since I live outside the dungeon with my foster sister, I can't attend any meetings held at dawn. Most of us are on day duty, but Mr. Taylor and Mr. Urman are on night duty. And any of us who are day guards might be required by our Seekers to work through the dusk shift."
"I can take Mr. Crofford on as my junior night guard, if that would assist matters," Elsdon suggested. "That way, I could release him from duty during the dusk shift."
"I could be your senior day guard," suggested Mr. Urman quickly.
Elsdon glanced in his direction, then away. "No."
There was a small, painful silence during which Mr. Urman's cheeks turned red. Then Mr. Crofford said, "I'd rather stay on the day shift, sir. In case . . ." He glanced toward Mr. Boyd, who was currently on the day shift.
"Perhaps we could coordinate matters in the opposite direction," suggested Mr. Bergsen, who worked during the day. "Since Mistress Chapman is already working the day shift—"
"Actually," said his mama in a clear voice, "I have submitted a request to be transferred to the night shift."
Mr. Urman shrugged as Mr. Taylor threw Zenas's mama a glance. "We'll work it out. Where shall we meet? Anyone might walk in on us if we continue meeting here."
"My living cell is the biggest," suggested Zenas's mama. "Even if we meet during the dusk shift, my husband will be at work – he works through the dawn and dusk shifts."
Mr. Urman narrowed his eyes. "Is that why he wasn't at our meeting today?"
"Your cell would be ideal," interjected Mr. Taylor, ignoring what Mr. Urman had said – or rather, thought Zenas, listening to what his mama had said earlier. "At the dusk shift at week's end, then? Is everyone agreed?"
All of them nodded, even Mr. Boyd. Mr. Bergsen cleared his throat. "There's one other thing."
Mr. Boyd had been on the point of turning away. Mr. Crofford reached out and pulled him back. Mr. Boyd accepted the touch, but Zenas noticed that Mr. Boyd held his breath until Mr. Crofford had released him; then he let out his breath very slowly.
Mr. Bergsen looked around at each of them. "I know that all of you have taken oaths to remain silent to outsiders about matters in this dungeon. I've taken an additional oath to remain silent about matters I discover about my patients in the course of my work, except under narrow circumstances defined by the Code. I suggest that it would be appropriate if we all took an oath now to remain silent about anything spoken in our meetings, unless we all agree that such information should be released. That makes it less likely that any of us will accidentally reveal what we should not."
"An excellent idea," said Mr. Yates, removing his pen from his jacket pocket. Zenas blinked a moment before he remembered that, in the Queendom of Yclau, oaths were given in ink, not in blood.
The oaths were quickly written down and signed in the memorandum book of the senior-most guard there, Mr. Yates; even Mr. Boyd added his signature, which was as finely penned as the signature of any other representative there. Zenas noticed, though, that Mr. Boyd, evidently ambidextrous, had chosen not to use his right hand, and that he was holding his right arm awkwardly. It was the arm that Mr. Crofford had grasped.
The door to the common room opened. Everyone turned swiftly. An outer-dungeon maid stood in the doorway, with a few more maids behind her. "Oh!" she said. "Is the meeting over, then?"
"Yes, miss, it is," replied his mama politely. "You may begin cleaning in here."
"We . . . we thought we could help you," said the maid uncertainly as the guards began to drag the chairs back to their regular places.
"Oh, don't worry about these chairs," said Mr. Urman cheerfully. "They're far too heavy for you girls. Cliff, help me get those tables back here?"
The maids continued to stand by the door, whispering to one another as the guards undertook their work. Whistling cheerfully, Mr. Bergsen made his way to the door, and the maids scattered back into the corridor.
Elsdon touched the arm of Zenas's mama and leaned close to her. "Birdesmond," he said softly under cover of the screeching chairs, "has something happened between you and Weldon?"
After hunting a moment, Elsdon reached out and pecked a key.
Then he sat back in the office chair with casters – a birthday gift from Layle – and contemplated the typewriter on the desk in front of him. It was another gift from Layle, one that must have taken him many seasons to save for, out of the small allowance which Seekers were permitted for luxuries. It was an impossibly impractical gift. Elsdon didn't have the spare time to learn how to type fast on it, so typing a page took him longer than handwriting a page would. He couldn't use the typewriter for his voluminous piles of official documentwork, because the Record-keeper required handwritten documents. In fact, Elsdon could use it for only one task: writing letters to his brother.
He adored the typewriter. Its clacking type, its oily smell, its hard metal keys under his fingers – it was all very satisfying. He had not felt so intimately connected with a machine since the day he'd been bound to a rack in the royal dungeon of Vovim. And that had been a different sort of intimacy, one he had no desire to repeat.
He tapped another key. Because of the manner in which the typewriter was designed, he couldn't read what he'd typed without lifting the carriage to see the hidden words. He considered this a benefit, since he shared the same living cell as Layle. Layle would never intentionally read Elsdon's correspondence, but living with Layle – Elsdon reflected as he relaxed back, laying his arms upon the armrests of the chair – was like living with a sidling snake that might unexpectedly strike at any moment.
Cold hands closed around his throat.
The hands unclasped immediately, blooming open like a carnivorous flytrap releasing its prey; but the hands did not release him. They slid onto his shoulders, holding him hard, and then made their way down his arms, as though they were two loops of rope drawing tight. They ended at his wrists, pinioning him to the chair. Then they waited.
Elsdon trembled. His breath had escaped him from the moment that the hands touched his throat, but it was not the promise of death that caused him to sweat; it was the mere binding. It had taken him nine years and countless self-imposed trials before he had reached this point of high achievement: to sit still, without screaming, while two hands lightly held his wrists.
He could hear the heavy breath of the man kneeling behind him. The man said nothing. He was waiting, Elsdon knew, for a signal. All that Elsdon need do was nod or make some other sign that he was agreeable. And then Elsdon's hands would be pulled behind his back, and their play would begin again.
Elsdon shook his head.
The hands released him at once. There was no sound of the man's departure, any more than there had been any sound of his arrival. Elsdon took a moment to steady his breath and to wipe sweat off his face. Then he pushed the chair back and sideways, with a protesting screech of its metal casters, and contemplated the High Seeker.
Layle was standing at the stove now, at the end of their small parlor which served as a miniature kitchen. There was a tall pot on the stove that had been warming when Elsdon arrived home from his night's work. Layle looked down into it, stirring it as he said, "We've been delivered stew this morning. At least, I think it's stew. Those potatoes look suspiciously colored to me."
"Layle . . ."
"I could have them tested, I suppose. Or I could ask the healer for an antidote beforehand to food poisoning." Layle did not look up. The light from the stove glowed under his face, turning his eye sockets deeply dark, as though the face-cloth of his hood still hid his face.
Elsdon hesitated. It was difficult to communicate with the High Seeker when he got into one of these moods. If Elsdon were truthful with himself, he must admit he had made little effort during the past few months to communicate with Layle. They would discuss work, in a cool manner that did not touch upon matters of controversy. And then, when the silence began to boil up and threaten to scald them, they would make love, playing out Layle's usual dreamings of captivity and rape and torture. The play tortures had become more violent in imagery in recent months, as though Layle were releasing all his frustrations into the one place in his life where it was safe to play out his anger.
But never, in Elsdon's long experience with his love-mate, would Layle refuse to respond to Elsdon if Elsdon took the direct approach. So now Elsdon said, "I attended a meeting in the common room yesterday evening. Of the New School."
"Yes." The High Seeker, unofficial leader of the rival Old School, did not look up from where he was stirring the alleged stew.
Elsdon felt foolish then. Layle often had that effect on him. Belatedly, Elsdon remembered that the High Seeker had no need to set spies upon the New School to learn of their activities. Too many ambitious junior guards existed to require that. Within two-thirds of an hour after the meeting, at least one guard who had attended the meeting would have sidled his way up to Layle and whispered, "I have information you should know."
Layle despised gossip, though occasionally his duties as High Seeker required him to listen to the gossip. That alone would be enough to put him in a foul mood.
And the hands upon Elsdon . . . It was clear now what they had been. A gesture of true love. A last attempt at peacemaking, before the storm broke.
Elsdon winced inwardly at the realization of his rejection of Layle's generous offer; but there was no way now to retract that rejection. Sighing, Elsdon set aside all thought of safely summarizing what had occurred in the meeting. No doubt the High Seeker could have given him notes. Instead Elsdon said, "Layle, you have to do something. Matters are spiralling out of control."
"We've been over this before, Elsdon." Replacing the lid on the stew pot, Layle turned his back in order to take two soup dishes off the rack where they were stored. "What happened was my fault. I did not sufficiently supervise Vito de Vere's training, and so he developed bad habits that made him unsuitable for the position of Seeker. Because of my poor judgment, the Eternal Dungeon lost an otherwise highly qualified candidate for Seekership. The Codifier and I have discussed ways in which we can prevent this tragedy from happening again in the future. We are changing custom, so that the High Seeker keeps more careful watch over all Seekers-in-Training. We plan to create a new permanent appointment of a senior guard and junior guard whose primary duty will be to assist and guide Seekers-in-Training. The Record-keeper has created a new application form for prospective Seekers, more pointed in its questions—"
"Layle, you cannot cure a diseased dungeon by slapping a gauze bandage upon it! It's not one thing or another that's wrong, it's the entire way this dungeon is run!"
Layle did not so much as pause as he laid out ironware on the work counter where he and Elsdon ate together after dawn and in the late afternoon, whenever the High Seeker's duties permitted this. "What do you suggest I do?"
"You know what you have to do. Change the dungeon's rules, so that Seekers and guards have greater leeway to show mercy to prisoners. If a Seeker or guard makes a well-meaning mistake in an effort to help his prisoner, don't dismiss him or flog him, and for love of the Code, don't execute him! Allow him the opportunity to learn from his mistakes and grow more skilled at his work. Above all, stop the torture of prisoners."
This time, Layle's hands did pause briefly before he placed the pitcher of water onto the counter. "The Code of Seeking requires the use of torture when certain prisoners cannot be reached in any other manner."
"The Code of Seeking wasn't authored by a god," Elsdon said flatly. He had risen to his feet, though he remained where he was, standing in front of the chair. "Its fifth revision was authored by Layle Smith, who has every reason to know that he's a fallible man, capable of making mistakes. Sweet blood, Layle, you've admitted your mistakes to me on countless occasions. Why can you not admit to the rest of the dungeon that you made a mistake when you mandated the use of torture against certain prisoners?"
Folding the napkins with a precision that would have done credit to an army unit at drill practice, Layle said, "There are certain customs in this dungeon which I may change, but the rules of the Code are not in my power to change. Their change is regulated by Chapter Ten, Paragraph B—"
"Oh, Layle!" Frustrated, Elsdon pressed his hands against his face. The High Seeker, the Codifier . . . even the Record-keeper, who worked directly under the High Seeker. All of them reciting rules of bureaucracy, as a train station manager might recite rules in the seconds before the deadly crash of a train that has been sent onto the wrong track. How could Elsdon break through Layle's inflexible stance? It was a question that had haunted him for months and had kept him awake for endless hours as he began to sense the answer.
Layle added, "The rules exist for a reason. There was once a young man who had committed countless maulings and murders, as well as the rape of a virgin. The murderer was hard-hearted and could never have been reached by any pleadings for good behavior. He would have been lost to all civilized conduct, and his soul would have been trapped forever in the hell of afterdeath. But the man who searched him for his crime had the good sense to place the young man in physical torment for a brief while. The intense pain broke the murderer's defenses and permitted the torturer to take the first steps to transform the young man's heart. If the torturer had not done that, the young man would have remained what he had been: heartless and trapped in a perpetual cycle of evil."
It was a brave attempt at communication. Elsdon recognized that. Layle disliked speaking of his criminal past, and never before had he spoken in such detail of the torture he had undergone as a boy in Vovim's royal dungeon. Elsdon knew that Layle spoke the truth as he knew it. Layle genuinely believed that his soul could not have transformed if he had not been tortured, and he genuinely believed that he was helping his tortured prisoners into transformation.
"Layle," said Elsdon as he dropped his hands wearily to his sides, "you cannot assume that every prisoner reacts to torture as you did."
Layle raised an eyebrow. "I was about to say the same to you."
Elsdon sighed. Layle was too good at this game of wits. They had been playing this game for months – for years. They travelled nowhere by it. Layle's mind would not change; neither would Elsdon's. And each time they played the game, new scars appeared on both of them, tender to the touch.
How long before the scars grew so thick that their bond would break? Would it not be better to take action before then, in an attempt to save their bond?
Elsdon drew in his breath. He had been rehearsing this moment in his mind for months but had not been sure what to say. Not until yesterday evening, after speaking privately with Birdesmond. "Layle," he said, "Birdesmond plans to request that her work hours be changed to the night shift."
From the flicker in Layle's expression, it was clear that he understood what Elsdon was trying to say. But his voice was colorless as he replied, "The Record-keeper will send me that request in due time."
"It's not simply because she wishes a change in her duty hours," Elsdon continued with determination. "It's to give herself a suitable excuse to stop sharing Weldon's bed. She loves her husband dearly, but this difference of opinion has become so great between the two of them that she can't bear the pain of their fights. She wants to have time away from him, in hopes that both of them can consider what they should do, apart from each other."
Layle picked up the lid of the stew pot. Peering down into the stew, he said flatly, "You wish a change of shift."
Elsdon hesitated, wondering what the kindest way was to phrase this. "Not a change of shift, no. I'm a bat by nature; I work best during the night. But . . . Well, we've been fighting so much, over such important matters. It seems to me that it would be best if we both took a break—"
Layle said in an implacable voice, "I will have the Record-keeper move you to a new cell." He banged down the lid of the pot. "This is inedible. I am going to eat in the dining hall. I will have another dinner sent to you."
His face-cloth was down. That was what Elsdon noticed in the final seconds of that whirlwind which was Layle when he moved fast. Layle had pulled down his face-cloth, well before he reached the door.
He had cut himself off from Elsdon.
Zenas's room was blessed with a plethora of props. This was because the Codifier had ruled that the dungeon's usual property restrictions, which minimized the number of belongings that prisoners were permitted to keep, did not apply to Zenas, since he was the dungeon's only long-term prisoner who was underage. Because of this ruling, his parents had ordered store catalogues and had guided Zenas through the toy sections of those catalogues, doing their best, through gestures, to explain the nature of each toy. Zenas, who had never quite mastered the Yclau alphabet – largely because his parents had assumed he could not grasp such schooling – was grateful for the explanations, though the pictures alone were clear enough. He chose his props carefully: costumes and art supplies and building blocks and stuffed animals. He had considered the dolls, but his parents appeared so horrified when he lingered over those pictures – even his mama, who had chosen a career considered most unsuitable for one of her sex – that he had confined himself to stuffed animals, which either boys or girls might play with.
In retrospect, it was a wise decision. To have played with a lifelike doll in the manner that he was playing now would have been too painful.
"Kneel!" he shouted at his favorite fellow player – a battered lion cub that had belonged to his papa when he was a young child. "Kneel and suck me!"
The stuffed cub looked up at him pleadingly, and then, perhaps as an indication of weariness, it toppled over to one side.
"You horrible boy!" As he spoke, Zenas picked up the cub and shook it, though taking care not to be as vigorous with the cub as his master had once been with him. The cub was more fragile— Well, no, the cub was less fragile than Zenas had been as a young boy. But Zenas had no desire to leave the cub in the same state that he had been, shortly before his arrival in the Queendom of Yclau with his master.
So rather than throw the cub onto the ground, he threw it onto the bed. "Stay there!" he ordered.
It took him only a moment to bind the cub, paw to paw. The cub stayed still, just as Zenas had. Zenas was dimly aware of the tears on his face, but he focussed his thoughts on picking up the little switch that he had fashioned out of the remains of an old hazelwood basket. "Now I'm going to whip you," he announced, hearing the echo of his master's voice in his head. "You're lucky to be whipped. You're lucky I love you enough to do this to you."
He continued the whipping for the next third of an hour. It always took a while for his master's arm to grow weary. He had to pause several times to blow his nose into his handkerchief. Finally, when he reached the point where he knew he would break down completely into sobs, he tossed the switch away and marched to the other end of the room, pulling off the tie around his neck. He had never played out the killing of his master. To do so seemed wrong. Even though his parents had impressed upon him that this was the only way in which he could have saved his own life, he still knew that it was wrong for him to have taken a man's life. He prayed to the gods each night to give him tasks he could do to help bring good into the world, to demonstrate his repentance for the evil he had once done.
The tie represented his master, who always wore a suit except in bed. Zenas struggled for a moment to don the black cloth that represented a Seeker's hood. Finally he was ready. He took a deep breath and turned to face the cub, which was still bound upon the bed.
He walked toward it slowly, and then gently unbound the cub, as a Seeker had once ordered that he be gently unbound. He shared his handkerchief with the cub, as a Seeker had once shared his handkerchief. Then he took the cub into his arms, as a Seeker had once done.
He bowed his head over the cub, saying, "It's all right now. You're safe. Nobody will harm you again. I won't harm you, and I'll make sure that nobody else does. I promise you that. For I am your papa, and you are my beloved son."
As he spoke, he pulled back his face-cloth. He was still crying, but that was part of the performance. For it was his Seeker's tears – on that day long ago when the Seeker had come to his cell and comforted him – which had given Zenas his first hint that this was a man very unlike his master. A man of strength, but a man who was not afraid to admit when he was wrong and to ask forgiveness.
It was a moment that had opened up Zenas's world, though it had taken him many months to recognize what his master had done to him, and years more to forgive the dead man for the terrible deeds he had committed upon Zenas. That was all in the past, but if Zenas did not play out these events under bright lamplight, he knew that they would return to him in the darkness of his nightmares.
So now he rocked the cub in his arms, reassuring himself of the play's happy ending. "I love you, son," he told the cub. "I love you, and I have a wife who will be your mama, and she will love you too. We will take care of you, for as long as you need us. And after that—"
He broke off, alerted by the sound at his doorway.
It was his Seeker, of course. Weldon Chapman, supervisor of the day shift in the Eternal Dungeon, second-in-command to the High Seeker. At his word, any guard or Seeker might be beaten. At his word, any prisoner might be racked.
He was crying. That much Zenas knew, though his papa's face-cloth was still down, for he had only just arrived home from work.
"Go on with your play, son," his papa urged, gesturing to try to make clear what he wanted. "I'm sorry I disturbed you." He withdrew quickly.
Zenas waited until he heard the door to his parents' bedroom close; then he set the cub aside with a pat of reassurance, and made his way out of the curtained alcove where he had chosen to live.
He could hear anything his parents said in the bedroom; the bedroom door was not thick enough to keep out sounds. But it was always easier to understand them if he could see the expressions on their faces when they talked. So quietly, very quietly, he turned the knob and opened the door a bare inch, so that he could peek through the slight gap in the doorway.
His mama was sitting on the bed. She had evidently just awakened in preparation for her first night shift of work, for she was still in the frilly nightgown she wore because his papa thought she should have the opportunity during her leisure hours to dress up, the way gentlewomen in the lighted world did at all hours of the day and night. Left to herself, Zenas guessed, his mama would have worn the same sort of sensible clothes she had worn before she came to the dungeon, which Zenas had glimpsed only once, on his first day as their son. But she was a kind woman and liked to please her husband as much as her husband liked to please her.
Now her husband was buried within her arms as he sobbed against her breast. She cradled his head, now free of his hood, saying softly, "You didn't see anything we haven't seen many times before. My darling, we need to accept the truth."
"I know," replied his papa in a choked voice. "I know that the abuse which that vile man inflicted upon Zenas damaged his mind, so that he is still only a twelve-year-old."
"Younger than that," his mama said softly. "He plays with stuffed animals, and he has never learned our language, no matter how great an effort you've taken to teach him. At my guess, his mind is that of a seven-year-old – the same age that Zenas was when his master murdered Zenas's widowed father and began raping the child."
His papa gave another sob; he was clutching the lace on his wife's nightgown, and his eyes were squeezed shut, though tears continued to pour from them. His face was scrunched up and red. "I keep hoping," he said. "I keep hoping we're wrong. He's clever at checkers—"
"He's a very bright seven-year-old," replied his mama. She had the sort of distant look on her face that Zenas recognized as anguish as deep as her husband's, but with her husband crying, all her efforts would be focussed upon comforting him. She was as much a Seeker as his papa was.
"The healer said there was nothing wrong with his mind—"
"Mr. Bergsen doesn't live with Zenas from day to day," countered his mama. "Even the young children at the outer-dungeon nursery recognized that something was different about Zenas; they drew back from him whenever he attended. It was almost a relief when he began refusing to attend the nursery last year . . . though I do worry about leaving him alone all the time now. It was bad enough when you and I were both working on the same shift and we had to leave him in the nursery during the daytime. But now that he has left the nursery, and there will always be one of us gone from home and the other sleeping . . ."
His papa struggled onto one elbow, staring up at his mama. "What harm could come to him? This is the safest place in the world for him to be. The guards know he isn't permitted to leave the dungeon, and within the dungeon itself, there isn't a man or woman who would raise their hand against him. They all know what he endured when he was younger."
"That," said his mama grimly, "is precisely what worries me."
His papa sat upright. The two of them stared at each other silently for a minute. Finally his papa said, "You do him an injustice, Birdie. He has never harmed you, despite all the temptation he feels."
"He knows I would scream down his dungeon if he tried," replied his mama briskly. "But Zenas? He would cooperate with his abuser, just as he cooperated with his old slave-master. Weldon, you know I am not being foolish. You told me yourself that Layle Smith refused to come near Zenas during the boy's time in a breaking cell, because he feared what he might do to the boy. And now the High Seeker is living in the same dungeon as Zenas, catching sight of him day after day, knowing that he could harm the boy in any manner he wished. Zenas is so young in mind that he wouldn't realize that it was wrong for him to be harmed. . . . I know that the High Seeker is a man who desires good. But even such men have their limits."
Her husband shook his head. Now dry-eyed, he was wiping the tears from his cheeks with his palm. The electric lamp on the bedside table – one of the few objects in their stark Seekers' living cell, aside from Zenas's toys – made his face appear paler than it actually was. "Dearest, you're frightening yourself needlessly. I've known Layle for far longer than you have. He and I are the closest of friends. Zenas received a six-year sentence of imprisonment in this dungeon for his defensive murder of his master, and Layle would tear his own heart out before he harmed any prisoner—"
His mama arched an eyebrow. She was beautiful, not only in Zenas's eyes, but also in the eyes of most of the men of the dungeon, who could see no more of her appearance than her shapely figure and graceful movements. Only her status as a Seeker and as Weldon Chapman's wife kept her from being harassed by petitions for lovemaking. That, and the cool gaze she bestowed upon any fool who ventured such a petition. Now she said, "You think so? Yet since the beginning of this month, the High Seeker has ordered that half a dozen prisoners be racked."
His papa's movement, when it came, was so sudden that Zenas nearly fled backwards. But his papa, upon flinging himself off the bed, merely stared at the wall, his back to Zenas's mama. "We have already gone through this," he said, facing the wall.
"And reached nowhere in our discussion."
"You know I support you in any endeavor you undertake," replied his papa, still staring at the wall.
"You could better show your support by speaking out publicly against what the High Seeker is doing to this dungeon." His mama leaned forward, tucking her feet under her.
"Please," said his papa. "Please do not make this a matter of contention between us." His voice had begun to quiver.
His mama's voice, on the other hand, was filled with exasperation now. "You are so stubborn, Weldon. If you would just tell me why you're refusing! Is it loyalty to Layle Smith? Or do you truly believe that the prisoners are better off having their limbs nearly wrenched from their bodies?"
"I cannot speak to you about this." His papa's voice was stiff; his posture equally so.
"For love of the Code, Weldon—"
"I cannot." Turning swiftly away, he strode toward the bedroom door.
Zenas dived under the table where he and his parents had their meals. His papa didn't notice. His face-cloth was already down; he walked rigidly toward the door to the dungeon corridor and walked through it.
He closed the door gently. Zenas noticed that. He wondered whether his mama would.
"Well, how shall we start?" asked his mama.
They were all there – all seven leaders of the New School, gathered in Zenas's home, in what his mama had wryly termed the parlor, because it had a seat or two. "Representatives," Elsdon Taylor was careful to call the leaders, but Zenas considered it unlikely that anyone else thought of them that way. Members of the Eternal Dungeon were prone to think in a hierarchical manner.
Perhaps this was on Mr. Taylor's mind as well, for he said, "Before we start . . . I've been thinking about the matter of representation."
They all waited. Mr. Bergsen, Zenas's mama, and Mr. Taylor were seated at the small dining table which doubled as a desk. The two senior guards, Mr. Boyd and Mr. Yates, sat on the sofa that stood near a pedestal holding the cut-glass vase which had been Elsdon Taylor's wedding gift to Zenas's parents. Mr. Crofford had seated himself on a footstool next to the sofa, close to Mr. Boyd's right hand, while Mr. Urman, like the loser in a game of Tuneful Chairs, was sitting on the floor near Mr. Crofford.
As for Zenas, he was spread out on his stomach on the floor, hoping his mama would not banish him from the proceedings. Nobody had elected him as a representative, he was acutely aware.
As though concerned about the danger of eavesdroppers, Mr. Urman glanced over his shoulder at the nearby bedroom door. "Will your husband be attending this meeting?"
"He will not." His mama's voice was unusually toneless. "He's still at work. He usually works through the dusk shift. I've asked him not to interrupt our meeting."
"He's not with us, then?" Mr. Urman eyed her in a canny manner. "Bet there'll be a lot of that before the end of this conflict: couples on rival sides."
"You were saying, Mr. Taylor," said his mama hurriedly. Zenas could guess that she was trying to derail Mr. Urman's train of thought, not for her own sake, but for the sake of Mr. Taylor, who had turned up at their door the previous day with his sparse belongings wrapped in a blanket that he had flung over his shoulder, hobo-fashion. Zenas's papa, who had answered the living cell's door, had quickly invited Mr. Taylor to stay in their guest room. Officially, that bedroom was intended for Zenas, but Zenas had always preferred the little alcove where he had slept since he was twelve. It adjoined the parlor, where all the interesting conversations took place.
Mr. Taylor cleared his throat. "That's what I wanted to talk about. Titles, I mean," he added, as everyone looked at him blankly. "I'm uncomfortable at the idea of conducting our meetings in a formal manner, as though we were all on duty. The other members of our protest—"
"The New School," said Mr. Yates, grinning.
"Yes, the New School, as we've been dubbed," acknowledged Mr. Taylor, with a fleeting glance at Mr. Urman, who had spread the name like wildfire around the dungeon. "The other members of the New School elected us as their representatives – all as equals. We'll need someone to conduct votes and the like, and I'd suggest that be our gracious hostess, who called the original meeting of protest." He gestured toward Zenas's mama, who pretended to curtsy from where she sat. "But other than that, I'd prefer that we treat each other as though we were all junior guards, equal in rank. It will make the conversations go more smoothly."
"Well, I am certainly in favor of that," said Zenas's mama, as Mr. Crofford and Mr. Urman – the only junior guards present – exchanged looks. "I don't know about the rest of you, but after seven years in this dungeon, I've grown tired of forever being greeted as 'ma'am' and 'mistress.' I'm younger than half the members of this room, and not terribly older than the rest of you, yet you make me feel as though I'm someone's aging spinster aunt."
This remark prompted light laughter from the men present, other than Mr. Boyd. Still grinning, Mr. Yates said, "Well, I have no objection to being addressed informally in these informal circumstances . . . provided that no occasion arises when I'm duty-bound to take official notice of an infraction by someone more junior than me. But I doubt that will arise."
Mr. Boyd said nothing. Mr. Bergsen looked amused but said nothing.
Nodding, Zenas's mama said, "Then I suggest that we all introduce ourselves by our full names and state, with honesty, what is most important to us in these proceedings. My name, as I believe you all know, is Birdesmond Manx Chapman – you may call me Birdesmond."
"Birdesmond," whispered Zenas, pulling himself into a sitting position on the bare floor. It seemed terribly disrespectful to think of his mama by first name alone, but if he was to be an equal to the others here, as Elsdon Taylor had urged, then he should follow the rules they were all following.
"I'm here," said Birdesmond, taking a deep breath, "because I loathe the practice of torture, and I decided long ago that I would not rest until I saw that practice wiped out in this dungeon."
Mr. Yates gave a low whistle. Mr. Crofford said, "You're remarkably forthright, ma'a— I'm sorry, I'm going to have a hard time remembering to call you by your first name."
Birdesmond gave a careless gesture. "Take as much time as you need. As for what you said, I don't believe that my views are in any way unusual in the lighted world; indeed, I'm only surprised that we're the first members of the Eternal Dungeon to oppose torture. . . . Let us continue. Mr. Bergsen? You're the highest-ranked man here, I believe."
"I'm David Stanhope Bergsen." The healer, who had looked as though he were about to respond to Birdesmond's opening remarks, chose instead to follow her instructions. "If anyone calls me David, I'll bash them, because I despise the name. Bergsen will do; that's what my friends call me."
The others exchanged looks. Hiding a smile, Zenas guessed that there was not a single person in the room who would dare to address the irascible healer without his title.
"Torture is just a symptom of the problem, in my view," continued the healer. "This dungeon has long been run in far too inflexible a manner, following the letter of the Code, rather than the spirit. Fiddling rules; I despise them. More room for common sense – that's what this dungeon needs."
There were general nods of agreement. Mr. Taylor, after pausing to see whether Mr. Yates preferred to speak next – the senior guards were officially higher-ranked than the junior Seekers – said quietly, "Elsdon Auburn Taylor. I go by Elsdon. I've more to learn than most of you, but my original concern started many years ago, when a Vovimian torturer suggested to me that the Eternal Dungeon deprived prisoners of the right to hold to their own beliefs, in matters of legitimate conscience. It seems to me that, whatever changes need to be made in this dungeon, we need to consider first what is in the best interests of the prisoners."
"Here, here!" agreed Mr. Yates. "I'm Willard Howard Yates. Howard was my foster parents' surname, and it's the name I prefer to use among friends."
"What is most important to you in this conflict, Howard?" prompted Birdesmond.
There was a startled silence. Howard Yates shrugged. "You asked us to be honest. My foster sister is who's most important to me. Our parents are dead, and she's been crippled since childhood; I'm the only person left to care for her. She's what matters most to me in life. But if I can, I'd like to help out in this conflict, because the High Seeker has scared the soul out of me, ever since the day we first met."
Leaning forward, Mr. Urman said, "He tortured you, didn't he?"
"Mr. Urman," murmured Elsdon. There was a frown in his voice. It was well known that, like the High Seeker, he despised gossip.
Howard waved a forgiving hand. "It doesn't matter. The story's been public for a long time. I was Layle Smith's test, when he first became a Seeker. Our dungeon's High Torturer, as he was called back then, wanted to see whether Mr. Smith would deliberately torture an innocent prisoner. So he told me to exercise my acting skills; then he gave me over to Layle Smith, telling Mr. Smith that I was a prisoner. I had the privilege" – a twist of the mouth, not quite a smile – "of being Mr. Smith's first victim. . . . But no, he didn't torture me, not physically. He ordered I be given a few disciplinary whiplashes when I lost my temper with him – nothing I wouldn't do to a prisoner in similar circumstances. No rack, nothing like that. He passed the test that the High Torturer set for him; he refused to torture me."
"But he was frightening," said Mr. Crofford in a hushed voice.
"Gave me nightmares for years afterwards," said Howard, all traces of a smile removed. "The nightmares started up again a few years ago, after Mr. Ferris disappeared. I don't want anything like that to happen again."
Mr. Boyd was frowning now, though Zenas wasn't sure why. It was frequently difficult to tell what the senior guard was thinking; he was the only man in the dungeon whose difficulties in communication rivalled Zenas's. Birdesmond, after glancing at Mr. Boyd – Barrett was his name, Zenas recalled – evidently decided not to strain the discussion by addressing that senior guard. Instead, she turned to the older of the two junior guards. "Mr. Urman?" she said.
"D. Urman," he introduced himself with a shrug. "This dungeon's in a bloody mess – everyone can see that. I want to help put it right."
Elsdon coughed. "I think we can do without the foul language. Mr. Crofford, you're the only man remaining—"
"Not his true name."
The conversation halted as abruptly as a pile-up of wagons that had all been trying to travel through the same crossroad at once. Everyone stared. Then Birdesmond said tentatively, "I'm sorry, Barrett – could you repeat that, please?"
"Not his true name." Barrett Boyd pointed at D. Urman. "D. Not legal."
"He's right," said Howard Yates slowly. "In this queendom, you can't be given an initial letter as your birth name."
D. Urman glared at him. "You don't use your birth name. Neither does he." He jerked his thumb toward Mr. Bergsen.
"We did, however, state what our birth names are," Mr. Bergsen pointed out mildly.
Howard turned his attention to Mr. Crofford. "Mr. Crofford – Clifford, isn't it? You must know Mr. Urman's first name. You're his closest friend."
"I've always called him D.," said Clifford Crofford, but there was puzzlement in his voice, as though he sensed a mystery.
Mr. Bergsen cleared his throat. "It would normally be in his medical records."
"Which you can't reveal, under your oath as a healer," said Birdesmond quickly. "We understand."
"Which I can't do, because I've never seen his name," said Mr. Bergsen. "His birth name is masked in his records."
Mr. Urman was looking furious now. Everyone else was looking intrigued. Howard whirled round to face Elsdon. "You must know, surely. He applied to be your senior guard at one point, didn't he?"
Elsdon shook his head. "I know no more than the rest of you do."
"Look, it really doesn't matter—" began Clifford, who was forever defending his friends.
"Trust," said Barrett.
"I'm afraid I must agree," said Birdesmond in that sorrowful tone she adopted when she was doing the verbal equivalent of boxing someone's ears. "We are discussing delicate topics, and if we don't demonstrate complete trustworthiness to each other, why should any of us trust the other? I really think it's important to establish trust in small matters, before we begin to discuss the very great matters we need to deal with."
Mr. Bergsen grunted in evident agreement. Mr. Urman said nothing; his gaze had wandered over to look at the only person present who had not expressed his opinion, other than Zenas.
"Mr. Urman," said Elsdon quietly, "I must join my voice with the others in asking you to be honest with us. Honesty is the path to rebirth – that's what I tell my prisoners. I'll ask you directly: What is your given name?"
Mr. Urman's gaze travelled in jerks from person to person in the room, as though he were a small boy surrounded by bullies. The gaze returned, in the end, to Elsdon, who was waiting patiently. His face now a deep red, Mr. Urman said in a very short voice, "Daniella."
After a brief moment of shock, Zenas buried his face in his hands. He was frightened to see what must come next. The laughter . . . Mr. Urman's fury . . . the breaking apart of the brief alliance of leaders.
But he underestimated the leaders of the New School. Every single one of them, from Mr. Bergsen to Clifford, had been trained not to taunt prisoners, however great the provocation. Not a single person present laughed. When he peeked through his fingers, Zenas saw that none of them were smiling either. After a silence that continued for far too long, Elsdon replied quietly, "Thank you. I take it that you prefer to be called Daniel."
Clifford let out a breath he had evidently been holding. Mr. Urman gave a crooked smile. "D. is fine. It's what my sisters call me."
That was rather an odd way to put it, Zenas thought, wondering whether the young guard's parents had already died. And why had they named their son Daniella? It could not be because D. Urman was a woman in disguise; Zenas had seen D. showering in one of the open stalls in the guards' washroom. Nor did D. behave as one who had chosen to imitate the gender of the goddess Mercy. There was a story here, clearly.
But the conversation was now moving on, thanks to Birdesmond's tact. "Where shall we start our discussion?" she asked. "I know that, for me, the most serious problems in this dungeon began in the year 360, the sixth month, when the High Seeker started interpreting strictly the rules of the Code. That was when the beatings and dismissals began."
Mr. Bergsen shook his head as he fingered the chain of his pocket-watch. "I'd say that the real trouble began three months later, when Mr. Ferris was arrested. That was a return to the dark days of Mr. Smith's predecessor."
Barrett frowned again. Evidently interpreting the frown as confusion, Clifford leaned forward. "You remember that, don't you, Barrett? When Mr. Ferris was executed by the High Seeker? Mr. Ferris was the oldest Seeker in the dungeon then."
Barrett simply shook his head. Apparently restless, he stood and went over to the sideboard, where Birdesmond had spread out refreshments for the meeting beforehand.
Clifford followed him. "Barrett, you can remember."
"It's hardly important—" began Howard.
"Oh, but he'll remember in a moment," said Clifford over his shoulder. "He always does. It just takes him a minute." He returned his attention to Barrett, who had abandoned the refreshments untouched and was now returning to his seat. Blocking his path, Clifford urged, "You can remember, Barrett. It's easy. It happened on the day that you asked me to be your love-mate. You remember that, don't you?"
Barrett frowned, furrowing his brow. He wasn't protesting Clifford's words, Zenas realized; he was trying to remember. His brow grew more furrowed. Sweat began to bead upon it. He put out his hand to touch the chair beside him. As he did so, Zenas saw that he was shaking.
"Wait." Elsdon's voice was quiet, but it was so firm that everyone turned to look at him – everyone except Barrett, who was now gripping hard the chair's back. Elsdon took a step forward, saying softly, "Clifford, bid him to stop."
Clifford looked from Barrett to Elsdon with confusion. "It's all right," he said. "He's always like this, when he tries to remember. He has a hard time, but he'll remember eventually."
"Mr. Crofford, bid him to stop." Elsdon's voice remained quiet; his gaze was fixed upon Barrett.
Clifford gulped. D. Urman was frowning, but he made no attempt to intervene. Everyone else simply waited.
Clifford hesitated for a moment more, but the change in address gave him no option; a Seeker's official orders had to be obeyed, unless the order went against the Code or against the orders of the High Seeker or Codifier. Turning to Barrett, Clifford said, "It's all right, Barrett. You don't need to remember; it's not important."
Barrett said nothing. His eyes were now squinted shut. But after a moment, his trembling began to ease.
With a voice as still as a hush after sleep, Elsdon asked, "What were you seeing, Mr. Boyd?"
The mode of address did its work on Barrett as well. He replied without hesitation, "Before."
"You were remembering?"
"What were you remembering, Mr. Boyd?"
Barrett's brow furrowed. This time his expression looked like puzzlement. "Before. That day before."
No reply. D. took a step over and looped his arm around the arm of Clifford, who was looking increasingly troubled. Howard had a reflective look on his face, as though he wished to take notes. Birdesmond had sunk down onto the sofa, evidently in an attempt to see Barrett's face better. As for Mr. Bergsen, he was whistling softly under his breath, the way he always did when he was worried about a patient, but he seemed contented to allow Elsdon to handle matters.
Elsdon tried a different tack. "When you remember that far back . . . how do you do it, Mr. Boyd?"
The puzzlement in Barrett's expression increased. He still had not opened his eyes. There was a fine sheen of sweat on his face now. "I remember."
"I remember back."
"How do you journey back there?"
"Past the fire."
Birdesmond stiffened. D. took a tighter grip on Clifford's arm, but Clifford simply continued to look confused.
"What fire?" Elsdon's voice was hardly higher than a whisper now.
For a space of time, there was silence, broken only by the healer's whistle. Then Elsdon seemed to make up his mind. His voice growing stronger, he said, "When does the fire occur?"
"At the beginning."
"The beginning of your memories?"
Barrett nodded. Starting to understand, Zenas drew his legs up within his arms. Clifford, though, still appeared to be bewildered by what was taking place.
"When do your memories begin?" Elsdon's voice was horribly matter-of-fact, though Zenas could guess that this was for Barrett's sake, rather than because he was unmoved by what was taking place.
Barrett's frown increased. He made no reply.
Elsdon flicked a glance toward Mr. Bergsen. The healer whistled at the ceiling for a moment, and then jerked his head toward the sofa. Birdesmond quickly arose.
"Come over here, please, Mr. Boyd." Elsdon continued to sound as bland as though he were issuing orders for a prisoner's daily meals. Without opening his eyes, Barrett moved toward Elsdon. When he'd nearly reached the sofa, Elsdon swung around to stand behind his back. "Turn, please."
Still blind, Barrett turned to face Elsdon. He seemed to sense that something was wrong, for he said, "Mr. Crofford—"
"I'm right here, Barrett," said Clifford quickly. "Just . . . just answer whatever questions the Seeker has."
"Sir." Barrett's tone toward Elsdon was more hostile than before.
Elsdon took no notice of the hostility. "Thank you, Mr. Boyd. I won't keep you long. I just have one question: On what day do your memories begin?"
Again, no reply. Barrett was breathing heavily.
"Very well." For the first time, Elsdon seemed hesitant. He glanced again at the healer, who broke off his whistling long enough to give Elsdon a nod. Turning his attention back to Barrett, Elsdon said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Boyd, but I must ask you to help me locate the beginning of your memories. I'd like you to go back to then."
"Through the fire?" Barrett's muscles tensed.
"Up to the point of the fire. Then stop. Stop there, where your memories begin, and tell me what day it is."
Clifford had turned pale. He began to shake his head vigorously. D. reached down and gripped his hand. Elsdon took no notice of either of them; his gaze was fixed upon Barrett, whose breathing was growing more erratic, whose frown was deepening, whose sweat was pouring, whose body—
The hoarse scream broke off abruptly. Barrett had passed out.
The healer was there to catch Barrett. He lowered Barrett to the sofa, arranged him on his side, and quickly stepped away. Elsdon knelt down beside Barrett. Already, Barrett was beginning to emerge from his faint; he groaned deeply.
Elsdon's gaze travelled up to look at the others: Birdesmond, with her hand clamped over her mouth. Howard, swearing under his breath. Clifford, crying within D.'s arms.
"The year 360, the eleventh month, the eighth day . . . shortly before midnight." Elsdon spoke softly. "That is when Barrett Boyd's memories begin. That is the fire he must pass through every time he tries to remember what happened before."
"I didn't know!" cried Clifford.
They were alone in the parlor now: D. Urman and Clifford Crofford. Elsdon, who had just stepped out of the guest room where he had been speaking privately with Birdesmond, could barely glimpse Zenas hidden behind the curtain of his alcove, granting the junior guards some token privacy. Mr. Bergsen had already escorted his patient to the infirmary, taking care not to touch him. Howard had gone into the corridor in order to answer the queries of several guards who had heard the scream and had come knocking on the door to discover what had happened. As he had left, Howard had given Clifford a sympathetic squeeze on the shoulder.
"I didn't know, D.," said Clifford, struggling to stop his tears. "I didn't realize that asking him to remember was putting him through so much pain."
"Hoi, mate, don't get yourself so wrought up," said D., embracing Clifford's shoulders with his arm. "It's a simple mistake. He won't hold it against you – or if he does, I'll make clear to him why he's being an idiot. It'll work out, I promise. It always does."
Clifford gave him a faint smile through his tears. "Except when it doesn't."
"Don't you believe me, then? Who's your best mate?" D. released Clifford, only to give him a mild punch in the arm.
"You are." After a moment, Clifford sighed. "You're right, of course. He'll forgive me; he always does. That's not what I'm crying about, though. It's the thought of him going through all that suffering for my sake—"
"Mr. Crofford, I'd like to speak with you." Elsdon's voice was so abrupt that even Zenas jumped in his hiding place. Clifford turned white.
D. glared at Elsdon. "He's in no state for a reprimand, Seeker."
"My apologies. I should have said: May I speak with you, Clifford?" Elsdon took no notice of D.'s ferocity. He had long since grown used to D.'s implacable hatred of him.
Clifford tugged at D.'s arm to draw him back from the confrontation with Elsdon. "I'll be fine, D. Will you go check the healer's surgery for me? See that Barrett's all right."
"Aye. Aye, of course." Still glaring like a watch-hound that's removed from duty at the exact moment when a burglar is breaking in, D. left the parlor. Clifford pulled a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and made an ineffectual attempt to wipe his face.
"Let me." Elsdon took the handkerchief from him.
For a while they did not speak. Elsdon carefully wiped Clifford's face, as though the guard were a child. Elsdon could hear faintly the soft snore of Weldon Chapman, who had returned home from work to find his wife kneeling over the prone body of Barrett Boyd. The senior Seeker hadn't said a word; he had merely walked through the anxious crowd around Barrett and entered his bedroom, shutting the door behind him.
Clifford gave a gulp, trying to swallow a series of hiccups that threatened to overwhelm him. "I didn't know, sir."
Elsdon nodded, keeping his gaze carefully focussed on Clifford's forehead, which he was wiping. "You'd asked him before to remember?"
Clifford nodded. The guard looked utterly miserable and entirely too young. He was only a year younger than Elsdon, but since his arrival at the Eternal Dungeon, Clifford's youthful friendliness had kept everyone entranced. Even – Elsdon was beginning to suspect – a certain guard who hated every other prison-worker in existence. "Did you ask him to remember work matters?"
The shame on Clifford's face was answer enough. "No, I asked him . . . I asked him to remember us."
Elsdon said nothing. It was a trick he had learned from the High Seeker: to remain silent in order to allow the man he was searching to fill the silence.
"He didn't remember us," Clifford said, all in a rush. "Not for the first three years. He'd pass me in the corridor, and he wouldn't even look at me. At first I thought he was angry at me, because I didn't stay to watch his punishment. D. said it couldn't be that, though, because Barrett wanted me to be absent that night. So one day last year, I managed to persuade Barrett to listen to me. I asked him why he was so cold to me, his love-mate. He just looked at me blankly. That's when I realized. He didn't remember me at all."
"It can happen, I understand," said Elsdon. "Amnesia following a traumatic event. It's nothing he deliberately tried to do, I'm sure."
"I know." Clifford bowed his head as Elsdon set aside the handkerchief. "I thought that all I needed to do was prod his memory. The first time . . . It was like it was today. He began to sweat and to shake. I thought it was due to simple exertion. I had no idea . . ."
Elsdon picked up the handkerchief again. After he'd wiped off the latest tears, he said, "And it's been like that every time?"
Clifford sniffed. "Every single time. Mr. Taylor, he's been going through torture for me for months! Why didn't he tell me?"
"Because he thought you knew." That would be the most honest answer. Elsdon decided against saying that. Clifford's repentance for what he had done was clear. So instead Elsdon said, "He clearly loves you a great deal."
Clifford's breath stopped. He stared at Elsdon, open-mouthed.
"Didn't you realize that?" asked Elsdon in a mild tone. Keep the voice gentle; that was best with frightened, cooperative prisoners.
"Of course I knew," whispered Clifford. "He'd never stop loving me. It was the last thing he said to me, before his arrest: that he would always love me. He would never break a pledge like that, no matter what. But everyone else thinks . . . Only D. understands. Everyone else has been telling me to forget about Barrett, to journey forth with my life, but D. has been saying I should stick with Barrett, I should figure out a way to help him remember our love-bond."
Hence D.'s foul mood. D. must be in as much agony of conscience right now as Clifford, but he expressed it in a very different manner. "Barrett has given you as clear a testimony of his love as any man could," said Elsdon. He put his finger under Clifford's chin, forcing up the guard's face. Another trick he had learned from the High Seeker, though Layle only practiced it with him, not the prisoners he was forbidden to touch. Elsdon asked, "Is something else bothering you?"
Clifford immediately turned his gaze away. "I was wondering . . . Will this endanger Barrett's job? Will the High Seeker dismiss Barrett when he discovers that Barrett has lost his memory?"
Elsdon considered that averted gaze for a moment and then released Clifford, stepping back. One trouble at a time – that was how to approach this conversation. "The healer is the one who advises the Codifier on whether workers in the inner dungeon are medically fit for their jobs. Mr. Bergsen didn't strike me as particularly alarmed today; he may well have known about the amnesia already, if not the precise manner in which Barrett's memories operate. . . . I wouldn't worry. Barrett has been monitored closely for the past four years, and according to the High Seeker, there's no indication that he's unable to do his job. Barrett may have lost his memories of the past, but he hasn't lost the knowledge he gained during that time. He's still what he always was: an experienced guard, skilled at his work."
Clifford's gaze remained fixed upon the sofa where Barrett had lain. He finally burst out, "But he can't speak well. Not in public. When he's alone with me or with the prisoners, it's different. But when he's talking to other guards or Seekers . . ."
"I know. The High Seeker knows."
"This dungeon has always taken a role of leadership," he had heard Layle tell Weldon on an evening three years before. "We were the first prison to place a code of ethics upon our workers. We were the first prison to permit adult men to mate with each other—"
"And the first to hire a woman Seeker," Weldon pointed out.
"Yes." Layle tensed, as he always did when references were made to Birdesmond, but he went on, "This may be another occasion when we can show leadership: by employing a mind-crippled guard."
"They'll say you're insane," warned Weldon.
Layle gave one of his dark smiles. "The world already has proof of that. Sometimes my insanity bears fruit. We shall see."
"The Record-keeper is under orders to pair Barrett only with experienced junior guards, those who can take over the work of communicating on Barrett's behalf," Elsdon explained to Clifford. "The problem has been that Barrett keeps requesting transfers. He seems to be dissatisfied with every Seeker he works for."
"Or perhaps he's dissatisfied with the junior guards he works alongside?" suggested Clifford, his tears forgotten. "It must be difficult for him to depend on another guard, one who's lower in rank than he is."
"Perhaps." Elsdon scrutinized his face. Clifford appeared calm now. This was the right moment for the question. "And perhaps difficult for you, to know how much it hurts him to remember his bond with you in the past?"
Clifford looked as though he'd been slapped. He lowered his head, gulping air. After a minute he said in a low voice, "He mustn't remember me again; I realize that now. He must forget we were ever love-mates. He must . . . I must stop making him love me."
"Oh, Clifford." It wasn't hard to make his voice sympathetic. It never was, when he was searching men who plowed forward, breaking themselves. All they needed was a little guidance on their path. "Clifford, you can't make him love you – you never could. And whether or not he has clear memories of you in the past doesn't matter. Barrett knows what you are now: a warm, gentle, generous, affectionate man. For your sake, he passed through a nightmare of memories; for your sake, he has attended meetings organized by a Seeker to help a former Seeker-in-Training, despite his hatred of Seekers and despite the special dangers that rebel meetings pose for him. He trusts you that much. What can you call such trust except love?"
Clifford looked as though he were about to be overwhelmed with tears again. Thankful that the Code did not forbid Seekers to touch guards, Elsdon put an arm around Clifford's shoulders. "Will you take a little advice from someone who's fallen in love with a man whose mind works differently from the mind of the average person?"
"Of course, sir." Clifford's voice remained low.
"You say you want Barrett to be your love-mate. You also say you want him to love you. Has it occurred to you that those are two different desires?"
Now appearing puzzled, Clifford frowned slightly, looking at Elsdon. But the junior guard possessed a great gift for remaining mute when he was confused – of waiting for answers, rather than rushing to supply his own answers.
Elsdon was counting on that. He said carefully, "If there's one thing which everyone in this dungeon knows, it's that Barrett Boyd dislikes being touched. He will touch his prisoners if his duties require it, but even that is painful for him in some manner – that's clear from the expression on his face when he does it. And to touch you, to lie in bed with you, to place his whole body against yours for hours on end. . . ."
A look of clear horror had descended upon Clifford. He blurted out, "I hadn't thought of that!"
No. He wouldn't have. Elsdon was well aware that Clifford was most likely a virgin. His experience of carnal matters would have been limited to a few kisses with his childhood darling, who had tragically died on the night before their wedding. Perhaps Clifford had exchanged a kiss or two with Barrett during the brief period of their courtship, before Barrett's punishment. But since then, Clifford's thoughts had been centered on renewing the emotional bond between himself and the senior guard. At this stage, it would not have occurred to Clifford that his love for Barrett might eventually take a more fleshly form.
But it would occur to Barrett. Until a few months before his punishment, Barrett Boyd had made periodic visits to the government-licensed brothels in the city. If he retained the knowledge he obtained in the past, as the healer said, then Barrett would be able to envision what duties were required of a love-mate.
To envision those duties, and to strive with all his great courage to fulfill those duties, once Clifford had made clear to him that he had previously pledged to be Clifford's love-mate.
"Oh, sweet blood," Clifford said in a strangled voice. "He's been letting me touch him. He always flinches away, as though he has touched a hot kettle, but he never stops me when I try to touch him. He's been trying to accept it – to accept the pain I give him. I've been such an idiot—"
Still standing with his arm around Clifford, Elsdon gave him a gentle squeeze. "It was a misunderstanding. Misunderstandings happen between two men who love each other – believe me, I know that from my own experience."
"I won't let it happen again—"
"I know you won't." A reassuring tone, a smile with the eyes, a warm encouragement. It was all in Elsdon's usual repertoire, and it was exceedingly pleasant to exercise his Seeker skills with a man who wholly deserved any help he could receive. "But remember what I said before? Loving and being a love-mate are two different things. You can still love each other without being love-mates."
Clifford raised his gaze finally to look at Elsdon. The calmness he showed at his work was beginning to settle over him, now that Elsdon had provided him with a foundation for the future. "But Barrett is more than just a friend to me. And I must be more than just a friend to him, if he's gone through all that for my sake. If we're not love-mates, what are we to each other?"
"I don't know," replied Elsdon simply, "but Barrett may." As Clifford stared, Elsdon added, "Clifford, you've spent a great deal of time making clear to Barrett what form you thought your love-bond together should take. Has it occurred to you to try to figure out what form he thinks it should take?"
Clifford left shortly thereafter, escorted by D., who had returned with news that all was well with Barrett in the healer's surgery. D., unfortunately, had refused an invitation to stay. Elsdon watched him leave with Clifford, feeling uneasiness ripple the surface of his mind.
"How many times, do you think, will scenes like this occur before we are through?"
He did not turn to look at Birdesmond, who had softly walked up beside him, her face-cloth down in preparation for her night's work. He replied, "Quite a few times, I suspect. Layle once told me that, the moment a prisoner first touches the Code, layers begin to peel off."
He was being beaten again.
He knew that it was because he had done something wrong. His old master had been forgiving of his mistakes, punishing him only once or twice a night. His new master, from what little he had seen of him so far, was more exacting.
He'd already made every effort he could to appease his new master, but the man seemed angry when he offered his body. He could not figure out what his master wanted. His master spoke in a strange tongue and kept his face hidden. Now, for reasons he could not comprehend, he had been stripped and was being bound to a whipping ring by one of his master's servants.
He tried to look over his shoulder at his master, but all he could see was another servant, holding the whip. Apparently, his master could not even be bothered to do the beating himself. His eyes prickling with tears, he buried his face between his arms. The beating began, hot lashes against his bare back.
What could he say to stop it? He tried frantically to pursue a solution. He would confess to the murder, he decided. He would confess to any misdeed that his master wished to charge him with—
A door closed, and Zenas jerked upright in bed, sweat slick upon his skin.
It took him a moment to catch his breath. It had been years since he had dreamt of his breaking at his papa's hands. Some of the first words he had come to understand in the Yclau tongue were his papa's repeated apologies for that beating. His papa had misunderstood Zenas's wordless actions, had thought that Zenas was attacking when he tried to offer his body to the Seeker whom he assumed was his new master.
That much Zenas had accepted and had easily forgiven. It had not been so easy to forgive the Eternal Dungeon, though, as he grew aware that what his papa had done to him was mild in comparison to how other prisoners were treated. Only the awareness of his own crime – of his dreadful, bloody murder – had kept his growing anger in check. How could he stand judgment upon men who had done nothing more than he himself had done?
Yet through all those years, his certainty had grown: the gods would not be pleased with what was taking place in the Eternal Dungeon. Torture was a privilege reserved to the High Master of hell, not to mortal men.
Now, seated sweating in bed, he breathed deeply, remembering that others here in the dungeon shared his concern – his mama, foremost of all.
And his papa?
It was then that he heard the footsteps.
The door closing had not been part of the dream, it seemed. Someone was in the parlor, walking through the dark. Not a single lamp had been lit in the windowless living cell, but dimly, against the faint glow of the kitchen stove that stood opposite to Zenas's alcove, the silhouette of a man walked past the blanket that covered the doorway to Zenas's alcove.
A Seeker; Zenas glimpsed the outline of his hood. It must be Zenas's papa, come home mid-day to fetch something. But why did he not light a lamp?
The silhouette passed out of sight. Perhaps it was Elsdon, returning to the guest room . . . But no, Elsdon had gone to bed earlier. Zenas had heard him praying, for Elsdon kept his door ajar in order to let in heat from the kitchen stove, the living cell's only source of warmth in the coolness of the underground dungeon.
Had Elsdon risen since then and left the cell?
Zenas began to pull his blankets off, in preparation to rising from his bed; then he shrank back instinctively. The silhouette had returned. It was not his papa – he was sure of that. His papa was shorter in stature. . . .
The door to the corridor clicked shut again. Zenas waited two minutes and then scrambled out of bed. Lighting the candle lamp on the night-table next to his bed, he lifted it and went to search the living cell.
The first thing he checked was his parents' bedroom. The door was locked. His papa, concerned at his mama being left alone while she was sleeping, had insisted that she lock the bedroom door, even though she pointed out that the living cell's main door always remained locked, and that Elsdon, a love-mated friend of the family, was a more than adequate guard to her virtue.
Zenas pressed his ear to the door. He could hear his mama's soft snore. Satisfied, he next checked the guest room, peering cautiously through the gap in the doorway. Elsdon was asleep too, sprawled loose-limbed across the sheets in a sensuous manner that helped Zenas to understand what had initially attracted the High Seeker to the junior Seeker.
Zenas prowled around the rest of the living cell, seeking some clue as to who had been there. Nothing was touched – not even the cut-glass vase, whose pedestal stood directly in the path between Elsdon's room and the door to the corridor. Elsdon had poor night vision, Zenas knew; surely the junior Seeker would have stumbled into the pedestal if he'd tried to walk to the guest room in the dark.
Finally Zenas found something out of place: a chessboard on a knee-high table, close to Elsdon's door. It must have been jarred, for an ebony hostage had skittered forward, as though it had been moved.
Zenas sat down on the floor to look, setting his candle on the table. The hostage – the "pawn," as the Yclau called it – was making its desperate attempt to escape from the Queen and from the High Seeker of the Queen's Eternal Dungeon. Ebony guards stood on either side of the Queen and High Seeker, preparing to recapture any Vovimian hostage who tried to escape. On the side of the board with the ivory figurines, the King and the High Master of the King's Hidden Dungeon held their own hostages, with their own guards ready to recapture any Yclau hostage who sought to escape them. But it was the Vovimian hostage who had fled first from the Eternal Dungeon, frantically trying to make its way to Vovim. Already, Zenas noticed, the High Seeker had edged forward, clearly seeking to be the chessman who made the capture.
Zenas spent a moment considering the position of the hostage. Then, with careful consideration, he moved forward the aeka, the prophet who stood only on the Vovimian side of the board. On the Yclau side of the board stood a cleric, but the High Seeker's move forward precluded the cleric from taking the primary position of capture. From now on, it would be a battle mainly between the aeka and the High Seeker, unless all the hostages were captured on one side, or the King or Queen were checkmated.
He was still thinking about the chessmen, and about his papa, when the others arrived.
His papa – Weldon, Zenas supposed he must think of his papa now, if Zenas was to think of his mama as Birdesmond – had apologized for what he'd done, but he continued to order other prisoners to be beaten or racked. Zenas knew that Weldon had once been a prisoner in the Eternal Dungeon, arrested on a false charge. Zenas also knew that Weldon, like all the Seekers, had undergone torture at the end of his training period as a Seeker, as a means to understand better the workings of the whip and the rack.
But Weldon had not experienced both at the same time. He did not know what it was like to be tortured as a prisoner, at the mercy of the man torturing you.
It was hard to understand what this was like, unless it had been done to you. Elsdon understood; he'd not only been abused by his father during his childhood and beaten by the High Seeker during his breaking, but he'd been held captive in the Hidden Dungeon after he travelled to Vovim on a mission for the Queen. Barrett Boyd understood also; he'd expected to die under the lash four years ago – had actually died, in a certain sense. He wasn't the man he'd been before he was beaten; everyone in the Eternal Dungeon agreed about that, including Zenas, who remembered the friendly guard who had smiled at him whenever they passed each other in the corridor.
Torture had transformed Mr. Boyd, and not in a good way. Whatever change Elsdon Taylor had undergone in the Hidden Dungeon was invisible on the surface, but he was now fighting to put an end to the Eternal Dungeon's torture.
And yet . . . and yet their foremost opponent was the High Seeker, who had been tortured as a prisoner.
Few people knew that. Zenas only knew the story because he had heard Weldon discuss it with Elsdon Taylor: the private tale of how Layle Smith, wicked in his youth, had been arrested on suspicion of having committed a terrible crime, had been tortured in the Hidden Dungeon for a confession, and then – unexpectedly – had been spared execution, only so that he could be trained to be a torturer for the King of Vovim. From that moment, Layle Smith had gradually risen to power, till he became the High Seeker of the Hidden Dungeon's rival, the Eternal Dungeon.
Was that why Layle Smith considered torture to be a good thing? Because his own confession under torture had brought him such material good? Zenas put his chin on his fist, contemplating the chessboard as the leaders of the New School arrived.
Elsdon emerged first from the guest room, fully clothed with the face-cloth of his hood down, since dungeon custom decreed that Seekers were only permitted to show their faces to a select few intimates. Likewise, his mama, Birdesmond, was fully hooded when she left her bedroom and began bringing out the food she had cooked during the previous dawn shift.
It was a mixture of foods, for most of the people at the meeting were coming off the day shift to their suppers, while Elsdon and Birdesmond and D. were beginning their work days. Snatching a piece of dried apple from a bowl, Zenas made his way back to the chessboard, where he could stay inconspicuous.
None of the leaders looked in a good mood. Howard readily explained his own discontent: "I had my annual leave stopped."
"Why?" demanded D., always eager to hear gossip.
"The High Seeker didn't say." Howard's lips thinned.
"That's odd," said Clifford slowly. "I was reprimanded by the High Seeker today for a sloppy uniform. He told me that a black mark would be placed in my record."
Everyone looked at Clifford's uniform. It was immaculate.
"Hmm." Mr. Bergsen looked reflective. "I put in a request for replacement instruments in my surgery. Since the request included scalpels, which could be used as weapons by escaped prisoners, the Codifier referred my request over to Layle Smith. Mr. Smith denied my request today, without explanation."
"The High Seeker's Record-keeper told me I would have to work today, even though it's usual for Seekers to take time off after the execution of their prisoner," said Birdesmond. "Do you suppose . . . ?"
"I was denied the usual leave after a racking," said Elsdon shortly. "Barrett?"
The senior guard briefly shook his head. D. volunteered, "I was beaten."
Howard emitted a short laugh. "Well, that's nothing new. But the timing of the rest . . ."
"Pressure from the High Seeker?" suggested Birdesmond as D. scowled. "He hasn't said anything to me about our recent meeting."
"He wouldn't," replied Howard. "The High Seeker, like the High Torturers who came before him, has no need to offer reasons for his conduct. It used to be that, in the old days, men would go into the Codifier's office, and only their corpses would be returned. We never knew why. . . ."
"The Codifier is part of this too?" said Clifford quickly. He had abandoned the food he was nibbling on. They all had, except Barrett.
"The High Seeker could hardly start denying leave to the Seekers without the Codifier's cooperation," said Elsdon quietly. "I think we can assume that the High Seeker, with the Codifier's permission, has decided to bear down upon those of us who are meeting to resist the present practices in the dungeon."
"But Barrett hasn't been affected," protested Clifford.
At that moment, there was the scrape of a lock at the door to the corridor. The door opened slightly, and Weldon's head poked through. "Ah, Mr. Boyd," he said to the senior guard. "Come with me, please."
"And just what do you intend to do with him?" Outrage personified, Birdesmond folded her arms.
Weldon kept his gaze centered upon Barrett. Elsdon reached over to touch Birdesmond's sleeve, murmuring, "Birdesmond, no."
Barrett had already set down his food. Strapping on the whip and dagger he had set aside upon his entrance, he stepped forward.
"Thank you, Mr. Boyd," said Weldon as the senior guard approached the door. "We're short a dusk-shift guard this evening – Mr. Rhodes has taken suddenly ill. I'd like you to serve as a substitute guard, since you're generally on duty during the dusk shift anyway."
Barrett said nothing; he simply followed Weldon from the living cell. The door closed behind them.
"Of all the arrogant, high-handed— Does Weldon really think he can destroy our opposition this way?" Birdesmond was in fine form now. Zenas could envision her as Mercy, swooping down with sword in hand to protect a beloved soul.
Elsdon touched her arm again. "I don't think it was his decision, Birdesmond. This has all the signs of being Layle's orders. Or perhaps it's just a coincidence."
"A coincidence!" D. turned his glare upon Elsdon. "You're forever defending the High Seeker."
Somewhat mollified, Birdesmond said, "He defends us to the High Seeker as well, I'm sure. Elsdon has always been something of a mediator."
D. snorted. Elsdon said, "It would be odd if one side in this dispute held all the truth. If I defend the High Seeker, it's because I want to question our premises to be certain we're right. I could be biased against the High Seeker because my own torture in Vovim slanted me toward the belief that torture is wrong."
"Or perhaps you're the one who arranged for all of us to be punished," rejoined D., quick as a whiplash. "You skipping your leave could just be a mask for your plot with Layle Smith."
"D., stop," said Clifford, obviously distressed.
D. ignored him. "You could be memorizing every word we speak, every decision we make, just in order to inform the High Seeker—"
"I don't need to tell him about you," Elsdon said mildly. "He knows everything he needs to about you."
This was so obviously true that Zenas expected nothing more than a shrug from D. Instead, D. took hold of the cut-glass vase and smashed it to the floor.
Everyone scurried back from the flying glass except Elsdon, who didn't move. His gaze remained level with D.'s. After a moment, D. turned and left the living cell. "Fled the cell" was perhaps the correct phrase.
There was silence, and then Clifford said in a small voice, "I'll clean up."
Elsdon shook his head; he had already stepped aside to pick up the broom in the kitchen. "The mess is my fault," he said. "I'll take care of it."
"Sometimes," said Birdesmond wryly, "I feel as though the true battle is not between the New School and the Old School, but between the seven of us."
Elsdon nodded slowly. The rest of the "rebel leaders," as D. had dubbed their group, had already left; the only remaining person in the living cell, aside from Birdesmond and himself, was Zenas, sitting on the floor by the chessboard, apparently oblivious to the proceedings.
Apparently. Shifting his mind away from the continuing mystery of the young man, Elsdon returned his thoughts to Birdesmond's remark. "Barrett's hostility I can understand. I was the Seeker he worked for when he was punished, so he associates me with that terrible period. But D. . . . I've never understood why D. dislikes me so much. His anger toward me existed long before my break from the New School. He has been furious toward me since I first came to this dungeon, nine years ago."
In a feminine manner, Birdesmond had paused in front of a mirror in order to tuck a stray tuft of hair back into the bun under her hood. She looked over her shoulder. "He applied to be your senior guard at one time, didn't he?"
"He has applied to be every Seeker's senior guard at one time or another," Elsdon replied dryly as he placed his foot upon the parlor stool and draped an arm over his upraised knee. "I've never understood why. It's quite clear that he's not going to advance in this dungeon – indeed, it's a wonder that the High Seeker didn't dismiss him long ago. D. has the highest record of reprimands and disciplinary beatings of any guard in the Eternal Dungeon."
"I've never worked with him," confessed Birdesmond, peering into the mirror as she straightened her collar. She wore the female equivalent of a Seeker's uniform: a plain black shirtwaist paired with a plain black skirt. The direct simplicity of the costume suited her well. "All I've heard about him is rumor. I suppose you must know him better. He was junior guard to the High Seeker when the High Seeker trained you, wasn't he?"
"And guarded me when the High Seeker broke me. Yes. But I can't say that I know him well." Elsdon frowned, staring down at the floor. Out of the edge of his eye, he could see Zenas scooting away from the chessboard. The board remained as he had left it: with the ivory and ebony chessmen deeply entangled in a battle.
"Well," said Birdesmond as she fiddled with a button, "I suppose that it really doesn't matter how adequately you know him. He doesn't work for you."
Elsdon raised his head then. Birdesmond continued to face the mirror, fussing with her uniform in a manner utterly woman-like and utterly unlike her.
"Birdesmond Manx Chapman," he said slowly, "are you searching me?"
With a grin, she faced him. "It's hard to resist. You don't often have open flaws."
He started to speak and then stopped, forcing himself to think. In the little alcove of the living cell, Zenas had begun playing with a stuffed lion and a stuffed kitten. Through Zenas's voice, the kitten was snarling at the lion.
"I suppose that I don't like to think about him," Elsdon said finally. "Just as memories of me are part of Barrett's dark time of punishment, the same is true of D. and me. One of my first memories of my arrival here, as a prisoner, is being whipped by D. after I instinctively pushed Seward Sobel away from me, when Seward touched me unexpectedly. I remember the fear I had, of not knowing how to stop D. from whipping me."
Birdesmond frowned. "Was Mr. Sobel in danger from you? Beating a prisoner for a mere push seems excessive."
Elsdon shook his head. "The High Seeker ordered that D. receive a disciplinary beating afterwards – not only for whipping me repeatedly, but for failing to tell the High Seeker the full circumstances of what happened, which could have saved me a second beating. Seward told me that, years later. I suppose that's how D.'s hostility toward me arose." Elsdon creased his brow, so absorbed in his thoughts now that he barely noticed that Zenas had moved the snarling kitten under the night-table, in an evident effort to protect it from the lion's anger. "The odd thing is, he was occasionally very helpful to me during my training. He was like a tap of water that can't decide which temperature it is. One moment, he'd be helping me; the next moment, he'd be surly and sarcastic."
"Which is his pattern of behavior as a guard," Birdesmond agreed. "His behavior doesn't puzzle me – I've seen that sort of behavior before from essentially good-natured men who have undergone hardship in their lives, so that they feel they must protect themselves. There's really only one mystery to all of this."
"What mystery is that?" Amidst the continued snarls of the kitten – who was now being licked by the friendly lion cub – Elsdon felt his mind travelling back to an incident that had occurred the year before. A dream. He had dreamed of D. Urman. Not of the present, but of D. at the time of Barrett Boyd's punishment, near the end of the year 360. It had been a disconcerting dream, which hinted at unknown depths within the guard. Elsdon had tried to tell Layle of the dream . . . but Layle, who normally treated his love-mate's dreams with great seriousness and interest, had quickly turned their conversation to other topics.
What had Layle said about the dream? "People are often different inside than they appear to others. . . . It sounds like a mystery worth uncovering."
"The mystery," said Birdesmond, responding to Elsdon's question, "is quite obvious. During these years when the High Seeker has beaten, suspended, and dismissed guards who disobeyed orders in the slightest manner . . . why has D. Urman not attracted the High Seeker's wrath?"
The answer to the mystery turned out to be a good deal more difficult to uncover than Elsdon had expected.
For the most part, the lives of the workers in the inner dungeon were an open book – literally. Every worker in the inner dungeon had his records placed in an archive maintained by the Record-keeper. Any Seeker or senior guard was permitted access to those records. Indeed, the High Seeker encouraged Seekers to examine the records of the guards who worked under them, in order to better know them.
Elsdon had already read D. Urman's records at the time that D. applied to be his senior guard. Those records were one of the reasons that he had rejected D.'s suit. The records revealed an almost endless sequence of reprimands and disciplinary beatings received by the junior guard, as well as countless complaints from his Seekers that the guard refused to obey orders. Over and over again, the guard followed his own inclinations, rather than the orders of his Seekers. The only positive note in D. Urman's files was that he was blessed with a good sense of humor. That fact was noted, not by any of D. Urman's recent Seekers, but by the High Seeker.
Now, rereading the records more carefully than before, Elsdon began to discern a pattern. It was a pattern, though, that made no sense. How could a guard with such qualities have ended up as the most disciplined guard in the Eternal Dungeon? And how could the High Seeker have failed to notice the long string of transgressions? During the past four years, guards who had committed minor infractions of trivial regulations had found themselves packed out of the dungeon within a shift's time. Yet D. Urman, notorious for his flagrant disobedience, continued to work in the dungeon.
There could be only one answer: the High Seeker was protecting D. Urman. But why?
Elsdon turned to the earliest portion of the records: D.'s basic information and his records of previous employment. Aside from the lack of D.'s given name, the records seemed quite complete. D. had worked as a guard at a well-respected prison in central Yclau and had received a recommendation from the Keeper there. The recommendation, which was included in the records, stressed that D. Urman had used humor to defuse several tense situations between violent prisoners and their guards.
Hence Layle Smith's awareness of the potential for D. Urman's humor. Elsdon let his mind drift back, remembering incidents long forgotten of D. making jokes with his fellow guards. Some of the jokes had bettered the conversations; some had gone awry. An untrained skill. Nobody except the High Seeker seemed to have recognized the skill at all.
Elsdon checked another date. Yes, that was right: D. had only been a guard-in-training at the time of Elsdon's arrival at the Eternal Dungeon as a prisoner. And after that . . . If the High Seeker had possessed any intention to develop D.'s skills further, that intention was derailed by Elsdon's arrival. First there had been the simmering romance between Layle and Elsdon, which Layle had fought so hard to prevent, fearing the nature of his own desires. Then there had been the madness: Layle's two bouts of madness, over the space of three years. By the end of that time, D. Urman had evidently given up on the High Seeker, for he had transferred away from Layle Smith.
He had tried to rise to senior guard under Weldon Chapman. A costly mistake with a prisoner had prevented D. from rising in rank. Then, after a short time, he had applied to be Elsdon's senior guard. Elsdon had turned him down. D. had returned to work with the High Seeker . . . but the High Seeker had been preoccupied during that period by the rise of the New School and Barrett Boyd's arrest.
Since then, a scattering of positions, increasingly frequent requests for transfers to different Seekers, all of whom ordered him to be beaten for disobedience. The latest beating had occurred after D. cracked a joke with a prisoner who had just finished being racked, evidently seeking to ease the man's pain through humor. His Seeker had treated D.'s act as insolence, since D. Urman had failed to maintain the solemn atmosphere that the Seeker desired. D. had requested a transfer to another Seeker after that incident.
"I am alone, I am alone, I am always alone." D. Urman's words in Elsdon's dream.
Acting on instinct, Elsdon rose to his feet. Not until he reached the Record-keeper's desk did he know what he was going to ask. "Mr. Aaron," he said when the Record-keeper finally looked up with that expression of impatience which never seemed to leave his face, "Mr. Urman lists his eldest sister as his next of kin. Does he no longer possess parents, then?"
With the profound sigh that the Record-keeper saved for Seekers who asked him foolish questions, Mr. Aaron turned the pages of the record to the medical report, which listed Mr. Urman's parents as living.
"Then why would he list his sister as next of kin?" asked Elsdon, his finger tracing the name and address of the sister. "Why not his father?"
The Record-keeper shrugged. "Not everyone chooses to list their fathers as next of kin. You didn't, while your father was alive." He rose to cross out the name of a prisoner on the slate tablet behind him, while Elsdon stood frozen in place.
"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."
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."
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."
"In the annals of historians," said Birdesmond, "the leaders of rebellions spend their days hunched over important documents, plotting the overthrow of regimes."
"You're in need of more flour," said Elsdon from the kitchen. He looked over his shoulder at where Birdesmond sat, preparing her grocery list. As the only married Seeker couple in the dungeon, Birdesmond and Weldon were privileged with a multi-room living cell, as well as a full kitchen. When her Seekerly duties permitted her a day off from work, Birdesmond preferred to cook meals for her family, rather than depend on the servant-prepared meals that most Seekers ate.
"Though really," she told Elsdon as she paused from nibbling on the pencil's eraser, "my cooking is due to Weldon's influence. Having lived the life of a commoner until he was raised to guard rank here, he dislikes us having to depend too heavily on the service of the outer-dungeon laborers. He says we should free them from some of their menial work, so that they will have more time for leisure."
"I often forget that Weldon was born a commoner," said Elsdon as he checked the bin of butter beans. "It must have been a hard transition for him to make: becoming a guard and then a Seeker."
"Nobody believed he could do it except Layle Smith," agreed Birdesmond. "Weldon would still be a stoker if it weren't for your love-mate's assistance. Weldon told me once that his first few days as a Seeker were unimaginably arduous. —There." She finished writing the list with a hard jab of the pencil upon the paper. "Is that all, Elsdon? I'll hand-deliver the list myself to the dungeon kitchen."
"And stay to listen to the gossip?" Turning around to face Birdesmond, Elsdon forced himself to smile. It was dawn; less than five hours had passed since Clifford had brought news of the outer-dungeon strike. Since then, both he and Birdesmond had returned to searching their prisoners. It would not be long, Elsdon thought, before his current prisoner decided to defy his captors by breaking the Code for the third time. When that happened, the Code of Seeking made clear that Elsdon must rack his prisoner.
And at that point, though the prisoner did not know it, his Seeker would enter into high danger through his own defiance of the Code. Perhaps this evening it would happen. During today's day shift, Elsdon reflected, he ought to spend most of his time sleeping. There was no knowing what the next shift would bring.
"I'll be back later this morning," said Birdesmond. "Don't wait up for me. Zenas, come with me."
"He appears to be asleep," Elsdon said, pointing to Zenas's cot. "Appears" was the key word; Elsdon thought he could see a glimmer of Zenas's eyes through the shut eyelids.
"Poor boy, I've been keeping him up at odd hours," said Birdesmond as she rose from her seat. "Elsdon, will you watch after him until you go to bed?"
Lying in bed, Zenas was wrapped around his much-beloved, much-battered lion cub. He was clutching it now. Elsdon said mildly, "I doubt he'll have need of me, at his age."
It took Birdesmond a moment to understand; then she winced. "I'm sorry," she said. "Truly, Weldon and I are trying to remember that there's nothing wrong with his mind, the way we mistakenly thought. As soon as I get a chance, I'm going to learn the King's tongue, so that I can speak to him myself. I take it, from what you said tonight at the meeting, that Zenas is proceeding well with his language lessons?"
Elsdon nodded as he closed the sugar bin. "Weldon tells me that he is being forced to rapidly revise his opinion of his son. He says that Zenas is racing through his language lessons with the High Seeker at a rate quite amazing."
"I feel very badly about my misjudgment of your love-mate," said Birdesmond as she picked up the alligator-skin handbag she carried in the outer dungeon. "In that regard, at least." Her eyes met Elsdon's. "Stay safe, Elsdon."
"And you," he replied, knowing they were giving each other futile instructions. Whether any members of the New School stayed safe was up to the High Seeker. And of all the members of the New School, Birdesmond and Elsdon were most in danger from Layle Smith. Birdesmond, because the High Seeker had long held dreamings of murdering her. And Elsdon, because the High Seeker loved him. That was how the High Seeker's dark desire worked: the person he loved most was most in danger from him.
With Birdesmond gone, and with Zenas pretending to be asleep, Elsdon did his best to tidy up the living cell. This was servants' work, but Elsdon had spent much of his youth supervising his father's household, and so he was familiar with servants' work, though not until he came under the influence of his brother had he attempted to take over any of that work. So now, to save the Chapmans' maid extra labor, he dusted the furniture and made the beds.
Outside the cell, faintly down the corridor, came the sounds of the dawn shift: the departure of the night-shift workers from the breaking cells and entry hall, accompanied by the arrival of the earliest day-shift workers. Elsdon thought he heard the voice of Clifford, talking to someone. Clifford would be returning to work soon. So would Barrett. Birdesmond would be off-duty until the evening. So would D.
Which of the five of them would break the Code first? Which of them would attract the wrath of the High Seeker? If Clifford was right, other guards would be joining in the protest, but it would make more sense for the High Seeker to move against one of the representatives of the New School.
It would make most sense of all for Layle Smith to move against a Seeker: Elsdon or Birdesmond. Alternatively, the High Seeker might simply arrest the first of the representatives to break the Code.
By this time tomorrow, they would likely know, thought Elsdon as he bent over to tuck a blanket across Zenas, who was definitely sleeping now. Despite what Elsdon had said to Birdesmond, he felt the same protective instincts toward Zenas as nearly anyone did who met the young man. It was a shame that the lad, who was so innocent and had endured so much pain in his childhood, should be forced to witness threats against the life of his mother. Elsdon hoped that Layle, who had clear fondness for the boy, would keep that in mind when he made his choice on who to send to the hangman.
There was a knock at the door.
Elsdon jumped. It took him a moment to gather up the courage to answer the door, even though common sense told him that the High Seeker would not be making any arrests yet, prior to the breaking of the Code.
It wasn't the High Seeker's guards; it was D. Urman. "Sorry," the guard muttered in his usual manner, half-sullen, half-apologetic. "Left my dagger here."
Elsdon looked around and saw the dagger where D. had laid it on the table. "Come in," he said. "Zenas is sleeping, so we should keep our voices down."
D. lingered at the doorway, though. "Can't stay. I'm working into the day shift. Mr. Gibson has a difficult prisoner."
Elsdon glanced past him. The corridor outside the Chapmans' living cell was always thronged with Seekers and guards at the beginning of the day shift, since the common room lay just a few yards away. It took him only a moment to locate the right man. "Mr. Kinney!" he called.
The dungeon's latest guard-in-training hurried forward. He had been about to enter the common room with his lunch pail in hand, evidently planning to eat breakfast there. Many of the guards preferred to socialize in the Seekers' common room, rather than in the far more cramped quarters of the guardroom. "Yes, sir?" Mr. Kinney said breathlessly. "May I help you?"
Elsdon smiled. "I hate to take leisure time away from you, but could I bother you to deliver a message for me? I need Mr. Gibson to know that I'd like to borrow his junior night guard for an hour, for official business. The Record-keeper will tell you where to find Mr. Gibson."
"Yes, sir." The guard-in-training sounded breathless with excitement. Many of the guards were these days, whenever Elsdon called upon their services. It had taken some pointed remarks by his close friend Seward Sobel before Elsdon had finally figured out that the guards' breathlessness was connected with his own recently-revealed appearance.
"Bring a reply from Mr. Gibson, if you will, Mr. Kinney. Thank you." He gently pushed the guard back so that he could close the door. Otherwise, he suspected, the guard would have spent all day standing there, breathless.
It was clear, as Elsdon turned around to face Mr. Urman, that D. was not one of the guards who grew passionate at the sight of Elsdon. He was glaring at Elsdon. "What's this? Another reprimand?"
Elsdon took a minute to respond, taking in D.'s rigid posture and his fist tightening on the dagger-hilt. Then Elsdon asked quietly, "Did you receive a reprimand earlier for not being properly weaponed on duty?"
D. snorted as he sheathed the blade. "This? Oh, this was only the beginning of a lovely night. Did you know that guards who refuse to assist in racking a prisoner are racked themselves? At least, according to Mr. Gibson, who had quite a few words to say about my performance tonight."
Elsdon felt a sickness in his stomach, as if he had just been punched in the gut. "You didn't mention that you were scheduled to help rack a prisoner." Mr. Gibson, though a most emphatic member of the Old School, was a junior Seeker; he would have had to receive permission for a racking prior to his work-night.
D. shrugged, shifting his eyes away from Elsdon. "It didn't matter, did it? It could have been any of us. At least it's not Cliff." He looked back at Elsdon, his eyes narrowing. "So what's this 'official business' you want me for?"
It took Elsdon only a heart's beat to decide on an answer. "I need your help in deciphering the petition that the Women's Fellowship and the Guild of Outer Dungeon Laborers have submitted to the Codifier. Barrett managed to get his hands on a copy of it and left it with Zenas while Birdesmond and I were at work. You were schooled with commoners; I figured you might have insight into what they're saying."
D. snorted. "And your brother runs the Commoners' Guild. You'd know as much as I do." But he followed the wave of Elsdon's hand and seated himself at the table, where the petition lay.
Elsdon sat down next to him and waited, taking the time to think. D. huddled over the paper, like a schoolboy concentrating hard on his studies. After a while, D. said, "Looks straightforward to me. They want the Codifier to rewrite the Code so that Seekers aren't permitted to torture prisoners. They don't know about the usual process for revising the Code, I guess. Marjorie Sobel must not have discussed the petition with her husband beforehand, or he would have told her that what she was proposing was impossible."
"So no Seekers or guards were involved in the writing of the petition." Elsdon glanced over at the alcove. Through the gap between the wall and the closed curtain he could see Zenas's chest rising steadily up and down as the lad slept.
"Looks that way." D. shoved the petition back. "It's funny we never guessed that the outer dungeon would become involved in the battle. We forgot all about the laborers."
"It's sometimes easy to forget subordinates, if they keep quiet about their troubles."
Missing the point, D. replied, "Aye, I imagine that's true. That the torture troubled them, I mean. They seemed so complacent about it, all the things we'd been doing to the prisoners. . . . But they're nearly all commoners, like most of our prisoners are, aye? They must have been thinking all this while about the bloody business we were at, and trying to figure on how to stop us."
The more unguarded D. became, the more he tended to lapse into the commoner dialect he had picked up at school. It was telling, thought Elsdon, that even at such a moment D. would identify, not with the persecuted commoners, but with the men who were guilty of their persecution and must force themselves to transform.
Transformation and rebirth. It was at the heart of what the Seekers strove to do. Yet here sat a potential transformation, and through all these years, Elsdon had never noticed.
"D.," he said, having finally decided that there was no graceful fashion in which to raise this topic, "I've been having a look at your records."
In an instant, D. was rigid again. His hands clutched into fists, crushing the petition. His gaze turned hostile. "Yes?"
"Yes," not "aye." The moment for unguarded confidences was gone. Elsdon spoke slowly, picking his way carefully over unsteady ground. "I've also been speaking with Mr. Sobel. I suggested to him that, if your work pattern had not altered after all these years, perhaps it would be best to consider a more radical change for you. After we'd discussed the matter, he agreed that this was appropriate."
"Yes?" The paper in D.'s hand was beginning to tear. "What do you think I should do, then? Quit my job? Leave the dungeon?"
His voice was as belligerent as ever. But looking into D.'s eyes, Elsdon knew that D.'s sister had told the truth. Elsdon hadn't been sure until now. Though clearly her letter had been kindly meant, it was quite possible that sisterly love had blinded Dorothea to her brother's true nature.
D. had his gaze fixed upon Elsdon, waiting for an answer. He was waiting to be told what he should do.
"I don't think that's necessary," replied Elsdon, reaching over to take the paper from D., before it should be utterly destroyed. "There are other jobs in this dungeon, besides the one you currently hold."
"You think I should work in the outer dungeon, then?" D.'s voice was, if anything, more aggressive than before. His eyes held relief and hope. He added, "I'm not trained for any of that work. Just guarding."
"You'd need extra training," Elsdon agreed. "Perhaps a year's training. You're a quick student, but I think you should wait a year before applying to become a Seeker."
There was a space of silence. Zenas's soft, even breathing filled the cell. Nearby, glasses clinked in the common room, where night-shift workers were celebrating the end of their daily work.
Then D. rose, so swiftly that he nearly upset the table. He shoved his chair back, toppling it to the ground. With fists furled, he growled, "Don't make mock at me."
If Elsdon was any judge – and he thought he was, after nine years as a Seeker – D. was at the point of explosion. Elsdon thought he knew what form that explosion would take. Still speaking softly, Elsdon said, "I'm not making mock. Mr. Sobel concurred with my assessment. He said that it had not occurred to him before, but now that I pointed out certain aspects of your work behavior, he was in agreement that you would be better off with a double rise in rank. More to the point, so would the prisoners."
Now confusion battled hostility upon D.'s face. It was clear he was not sure whether he was being made a fool of. Keeping his voice matter-of-fact and his mode of address formal, Elsdon said, "Mr. Urman, all of your reprimands have occurred when you took the initiative. Sometimes the initiative you took was misguided; sometimes it was perfect. It didn't matter. You're a junior guard; you've been expected to follow the lead of your Seeker and your senior guard. Even if you rose to the rank of senior guard, you'd still have limited ability to choose how the prisoner should be searched. If I had been assigned to guard duties, I know that I'd have found such a situation intolerable. I work best when I can make independent decisions and issue orders to my subordinates. I have the instincts of a Seeker, not a guard. So do you. That's been your trouble all along. You were assigned the wrong rank when you first came to this dungeon."
Now D. simply looked stunned. With his body still rigid, but his hands loose, he said, "The High Seeker . . ."
"The High Seeker," replied Elsdon gently, "is fallible. We both know that. I think his intention had been to make you a guard and then guide you through a rapid rise in rank to Seeker. That's how some of the Seekers achieve their rank, you know; Mr. Chapman was originally a stoker, and then a guard, before he became a Seeker. But because of his illness, the High Seeker was unable to train you properly. And after that—"
"I got myself into a bloody load of trouble by acting like I was a trained Seeker, even though I was just a barely trained guard." D.'s fists furled again as he contemplated the lost opportunity; then his head jerked up, taking in what Elsdon had said before. "You think I could still be trained to be a Seeker?"
"I don't know," replied Elsdon honestly. "You've trained yourself into a lot of bad habits, you know. Even as a Seeker, you'd be required to follow orders. All of us – the High Seeker himself – must follow the orders of those who are higher in rank than ourselves, such as the Codifier. You'd have to learn to follow orders and to restrain your temper and your tongue. For a guard to use foul language is a matter of reprimand. For a Seeker to use foul language . . . Many prisoners look to us as models for good behavior, you know. We have to act our best, for their sake."
"Us." "We." Elsdon could see the words sinking into D. Urman's soul, changing his view of himself as an ill-behaved, much-bullied guard to something stronger. A rebirth. A new Mr. Urman, who had always existed in potentiality, but who had rarely appeared, except at home with his sisters.
D.'s throat throbbed as he swallowed. "You think I could maybe do that? Train myself to be a good enough guard that I could apply to be a Seeker?"
"Train yourself? That would be difficult. But I could help. I've spoken to my senior night guard, and he's willing to work for another Seeker. Would you consider being his replacement?"
The explosion came then. D. turned immediately, but Elsdon could see his shoulders shaking. Elsdon rose and walked forward. There had been a knock at the door a moment before, but he ignored Mr. Kinney's return, instead placing his hand on D.'s shoulder. From where Elsdon stood, he could see the tears gushing down D's cheeks, like a waterfall.
The knock came again; evidently Mr. Kinney wasn't going to miss this chance for another glimpse of Elsdon's face. Elsdon squeezed D.'s shoulder. "I'll be right back," he said softly. "Here, take this."
He left D. clutching the handkerchief that all Seekers carried with them, for the sake of prisoners who had been broken, who frequently greeted their transformation with tears of pain, relief, and joy. Elsdon could still remember his own transformation in Breaking Cell 4, nine years before. D. had witnessed it, and, in his own fumbling manner, had helped to bring it about. Now Elsdon had the opportunity to return the favor.
The knock did not come from Mr. Kinney. At the door stood Mr. Sobel and his junior night guard. Instinctively, Elsdon moved to block their view of D.
Not because D. was still crying. But because D. had refused that night to torture a prisoner. Yet even as he moved, Elsdon knew that his body was no better a shield to D. Urman than a piece of paper. The High Seeker had made his choice.
"Mr. Taylor." Mr. Sobel's voice was unusually colorless. "The High Seeker wishes to speak to you in the Codifier's office."
Nearby, in the entry hall, voices buzzed with rumor and with fear. In the guardroom, Barrett Boyd calmly and methodically pulled his uniform jacket from the locker and began cleaning it with a stiff brush. No other guards were there; they were too busy chasing down news.
The guardroom door burst open. Nearly falling over himself, Clifford Crofford hung onto the time clock as the door swung shut behind him. He gasped, "Elsdon Taylor has been arrested!"
"Yes." Barrett did not look up from his jacket.
Clifford stared. "D. was there when it happened – he just told me. How did you know?"
Barrett gave a slight jerk of the head. Clifford's gaze turned toward the corner of the room.
Zenas was sitting cross-legged on the floor, experiencing the warmth of accomplishment. It had been his first attempt to speak the King's tongue to anyone in the dungeon, other than his papa and the High Seeker and Elsdon Taylor . . . and the Codifier, of course. Barrett had appeared to have no difficulty in understanding him.
Perhaps only because they had all been awaiting an event like this. Walking forward, Clifford asked, "What shall we do?"
"Nothing." Barrett sat down, laid the jacket aside, and picked up his boots, which were standing next to the bench he sat on. He began to brush them free of dust.
"Nothing!" Staring at him, Clifford moved around so that he was facing the senior guard. "Barrett, how can we do nothing? The High Seeker will tear Elsdon Taylor apart!"
"Fool." Barrett lifted his boot to the light, inspecting it.
After a pause, Clifford said, "Me? Or Mr. Taylor?"
"The High Seeker. He should have picked the weakest of us. He picked the strongest. Elsdon Taylor would die on the rack, rather than betray us."
Clifford sat down heavily on a footstool opposite Barrett. "So he'll die."
"Most likely. Better that, than turn traitor to our cause. The weakest of us would have."
Clifford bowed his head and pressed his fist against his lips. "You mean me."
Barrett shook his head as he lowered the boot and began brushing again. "Me."
"You!" Clifford stared again at the senior guard. "Barrett, you're one of the bravest guards in this dungeon!"
"No." Barrett put down the boot and picked up the other. "All that Layle Smith would have to say is, 'I beat you before. I will beat you again.' I would break. In an instant. It would be that easy. The High Seeker was a fool not to pick me."
Zenas pulled his legs up against his chest. The sounds of distress in the entry hall were growing louder. At a guess, D. was spreading the news of Elsdon's arrest far and wide, hoping to start a protest that would save the junior Seeker's life.
Clifford broke the stillness within the guardroom by rising slowly to his feet. "Four years ago, you deliberately saved a mentally ill prisoner from torture, knowing that you would be executed. And then you deliberately chose to receive one hundred lashes from the High Seeker, hoping that your terrible, prolonged death would change the hearts of the Seekers. . . . It was a miracle you survived the High Seeker's flogging. And yet you consider yourself a coward, just because you're unwilling to undergo again an extended torture that none of us would have been brave enough to choose on the first occasion?"
Barrett said nothing. His gaze remained fixed on the boot.
Clifford looked down at the floor, nudging a dust-ball with the toe of his right boot. His voice turning shy again, he said, "Elsdon gave me a book."
"He said it was a book the High Seeker loaned him. He told me he thought I should read it. It's called, Our Modern Army."
Barrett's hand stilled momentarily on the brush; then he laid the brush down and began putting on the boot.
"There was a whole section in the book about you," persisted Clifford, watching him. "About your time in the army. I hadn't realized you were a machine gunner."
Barrett grunted again. He was lacing up the second boot now.
"The book talked about how working the machine gun is a team effort," Clifford continued. "One man to fire the gun, the other man to feed the ammunition. If the two men don't work in perfect harmony with each other, the gun can't be fired. They're necessary to each other."
Barrett stood up, reaching for his work belt. He checked the sheathed dagger on the belt, as well as the hook from which the coiled whip hung. Then he began to don the belt.
"I was thinking," said Clifford, still hesitant in tone. "It's like that with senior guards and junior guards, isn't it? Or it should be. Right now, senior guards request their assignments and junior guards are arbitrarily assigned to them . . . But it oughtn't to be that way. The senior and junior guards on duty ought to work in perfect harmony, for the sake of the prisoners. They ought to plan together how they will care for the prisoners. It would be a sort of mateship, in a way. With the senior guard taking the lead, of course; I don't mean to suggest that the junior guard should usurp the senior's place of honor—"
Clifford's increasingly rapid speech broke off abruptly as Barrett turned, swept up his jacket, and left the guardroom with a few quick strides. After a frozen moment, Clifford followed.
Zenas was already ahead of Clifford. He reached the Record-keeper's desk just as Barrett did. Mr. Aaron looked even more harassed than usual; his desk was piled high with papers. Glancing at a few of them, with his newfound knowledge of the Yclau alphabet, Zenas saw Elsdon Taylor's name written over and over. Petitions for his release, no doubt.
Edging himself back so that he was out of the Record-keeper's view, Zenas pretended to be interested in the many stacks of paper on the Record-keeper's desk. Mr. Aaron said impatiently, "Well? What do you want?"
"Transfer." Barrett did not turn his gaze away from the Record-keeper as Clifford skidded to a halt beside him. Behind the Record-keeper, Zenas craned his neck, seeing a familiar piece of paper on top of one of the piles.
Mr. Aaron sighed heavily. "Mr. Boyd, you have requested a transfer every season for the past three years. You received yet another transfer only two weeks ago. I have run out of Seekers who are willing to endure—"
Zenas couldn't bear to wait for Mr. Aaron to figure out the obvious. With a quick flick of the finger, he sent the familiar document floating to the ground.
Mr. Aaron turned, saw Zenas, and glared at him before reaching over with another sigh to pick up the paper. Beside Barrett, Clifford was watching the senior guard with a worried expression. Nobody else in the entry hall was taking notice of the conversation; the hall continued to buzz with rumor, though accompanied now by discussions of action. The door to the Codifier's office was closed, with a double guard at its entrance, hands resting on their weapons, eyes watchful.
Mr. Aaron began to put the document back onto the pile, then paused, scrutinizing it. After a moment, he said, "As it happens, I may have an opening for you—"
"Both of us." Barrett Boyd was as terse as always.
"Both of you," repeated Mr. Aaron slowly, his gaze travelling between Barrett and Clifford, who was continuing to stare at Barrett, wonder growing in his face. "Well, you are in luck, Mr. Boyd. As it happens, the High Seeker is about to open a joint position for a senior guard and junior guard to work directly under him, assisting Seekers-in-Training. The position will not open until next year, but if you would like to apply now—"
Barrett grabbed the document from his hand, picked up a pen from the table, and scribbled his name down, just below the Queen's seal. Then he offered the pen to Clifford. Smiling broadly now, Clifford joined his name to the paper.
Huffing audibly, the Record-keeper took the paper back and placed it to one side, turning his attention to a guard who wanted to present yet another petition for Elsdon's release. Taking a few steps back from the desk, Barrett placed his hand on Clifford's shoulder, saying in a tone audible only to Clifford – and to Zenas, who had crept up close to them – "Let's go to my room. I have some ideas for improving our watch over the prisoners, which I'd like to discuss with you."
Still smiling, Clifford nodded. The two men left the hall together, unnoticed by the other prison-workers.
Out of the many battles which the High Seeker had waged, the greatest one had been against the architect who wished to modernize the Codifier's office.
Elsdon had been witness to their furious fights, which had taken place around the time that Barrett Boyd became Elsdon's guard, a few months before Mr. Boyd made a fateful decision to disobey the Code. At the time, the threat of the Queen's Architect to extend artificial walls into the Codifier's office had seemed far more important than Elsdon's acquisition of a new senior night guard. The Codifier himself – ostensibly the Queen's representative in the dungeon, though often defending the dungeon to the Queen – had tactfully excused himself from the debates. It had been left to the High Seeker to explain, over a matter of weeks rather than days, that the Codifier preferred cave walls in his office for reasons other than mere eccentricity.
In the end, Elsdon had felt duty-bound to intervene between the two opponents. Layle had been firmly set against any modernization of the dungeon, beyond the heating and lighting renovations which the Queen had ordered. The architect, on the other hand, had wanted to bring all of the dungeon into conformity with modern tastes.
"I think," said Elsdon to the architect over dinner one day, "that the High Seeker and some of the other senior Seekers are a little old-fashioned. Those of us who are of the new generation find that frustrating sometimes. The senior Seekers don't appreciate, for example, the beauty of the Queen's new court."
The architect, who had designed the Queen's new court, grew more affable. Elsdon – whose terms of imprisonment had never permitted him to visit the court – spent a good deal of time praising the court's renovation before he said, "I especially like how you managed to incorporate ancient styles into the design, through your use of classical pillars. That's the sort of modernity the new generation appreciates: a style that incorporates the best of the old, while bringing the building as a whole into our century."
The architect was not a slow-witted man; he looked thoughtful then.
Layle had proved trickier to handle; Elsdon had been forced to speak straightforwardly to him. "Love, you simply cannot allow your own artistic tastes to be the sole determinant of the future of this dungeon. Fight for what's most important; let the rest go."
In the end – as Elsdon had intended – a compromise was reached. The architect was permitted to reshape the outer dungeon to his heart's content, as well as adding new furnishings to the inner dungeon and preparing plans for a much-needed renovation of the breaking cells. The rack rooms, however, had been kept untouched, while the portions of the inner dungeon which retained their bare cave walls – the Codifier's office, the entry hall, and the crematorium – were permitted to remain without artificial walls, a testimony to the dungeon's roots in ancient days.
It was a role that Elsdon had played many times: mediator between Layle Smith and his opponents. But now, it seemed, his work for Layle had come to an end, in all respects.
Barrett had been quite accurate in his account of how matters would go. Upon Elsdon's arrival at the Codifier's office, the High Seeker had immediately dismissed his guards and had handed the proceedings over to the Codifier. The Codifier was merciful enough to keep his own guards out of the office, but their presence wasn't needed in any case. The Codifier's office was the most heavily guarded room in the dungeon, symbolizing the Queen's bastion within the dungeon. There were guards at the door to the Codifier's office. There were guards at the door to the secretarial anteroom which led to the Codifier's office. All of the guards were armed, not with whips, but with revolvers. The Codifier had no qualms about using modern technology when it suited his purpose.
His office, however, remained as it had doubtless been since folk from the Queendom of Yclau made their way into the foothills of the mountains, a few centuries after settlers had arrived from the Old World. There were stalactites on the ceiling. There were stalagmites on the floor. There was a waterfall which led into a pool. In the pool swum the blind Hooded Seeker fish, as ghostly in appearance as they had been in ancient times.
There was no gibbet. Elsdon supposed that condemned prisoners were escorted to the palace's hangman by way of the great locked door at the back of the Codifier's office, which was timed to open only twice a day.
He tried to focus his attention on the two men in the room. The Codifier looked as he always did: relaxed and alert. He was sitting at his desk with his hands folded over each other. The High Seeker's appearance was far more alarming. His eyes were bloodshot. His hand, as he waved Elsdon forward, was actually shaking.
The signs were all too obvious of what was taking place within the High Seeker. With his mind now preoccupied with thoughts of the High Seeker's health, Elsdon was taken off-guard when the Codifier said abruptly, "We will have to go to press sooner than I had anticipated."
"Sir?" Bewildered, Elsdon turned his attention fully to Mr. Daniels.
"The Queen's pressmen are in a tizzy," added the Codifier, as tranquil as could be. "This type of press run occurs only once in a generation. They are having to bring in extra presses from the other western districts."
There could be only one book in all of the queendom he could be talking about. "Is there need to reprint the Code of Seeking, sir?" Elsdon asked politely.
"Not reprint." The Codifier turned aside to set his pen in a different place on his desk. "Revise."
The waterfall continued its soft thunder in the office. A Hooded Seeker fish jumped out of the water, landing with a splash. The pocket-watch in Mr. Daniels's vest ticked steadily.
"Revise," repeated Elsdon.
"Yes," replied the Codifier, and waited.
Elsdon shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. "Sir, I thought the Code of Seeking was revised every thirty-five years."
"It is revised every generation," said the High Seeker, the one man present who could recite every sentence in the Code of Seeking from heart with perfect ease, since he had written many of those sentences. "Excuse me for my interruption, sir," he added, turning his face toward the Codifier.
"Insert yourself into the conversation as you wish, Mr. Smith," said the Codifier serenely. "Your High Seeker is correct, Mr. Taylor. The Code requires itself to be revised once every generation. The last revision was issued in . . ."
"The year 344, sir," murmured the High Seeker. His voice sounded raw, as though he had been screaming. Elsdon wondered what Layle's dreams had been like recently.
"Thank you, Mr. Smith," replied the Codifier. "The year 344. One year before Mr. Jenson passed into rebirth and your High Seeker received his current rank. Twenty years ago. Since Yclau men generally marry no earlier than age twenty-one, I think it is fair to say that next year will be the beginning of a new generation. It will take a full year to prepare the new Code."
Elsdon's mind was racing ahead. Weldon Chapman was second-in-command to Layle Smith and would eventually succeed Layle as High Seeker, just as Layle had been second-in-command of the Eternal Dungeon at the time he penned the fifth revision of the Code. Therefore Weldon would pen the sixth revision.
But all of the indications during the past weeks suggested that Weldon had become a tool of Layle's policies. That meant, in essence, that Layle would pen the revision that was meant to update and correct his current revision of the Code.
Breathing seemed helpful in this situation. Fainting away in the Codifier's office, as a result of becoming short of breath, would not help. Striving to keep his voice level, Elsdon said, "Will Mr. Chapman be consulting with the rest of the dungeon about the revision? Or will he only consult with the senior members?"
"The pressmen," said the Codifier, seemingly determined to complete his previous thought, "are especially frustrated because I cannot presently offer them an exact timetable for the publication of the sixth revision. It all depends."
"Depends, sir?" It took an effort to speak; Elsdon was envisioning Weldon in the High Seeker's office, listening to the High Seeker lecture and memorizing all that he said in order to revise the Code accordingly.
Sweet blood, this would be no revision. It would simply be an affirmation of the present bloody regime of the High Seeker.
"Depends on whether the Eternal Dungeon survives until next year," the Codifier replied.
Elsdon was shocked back into awareness of the two men in front of him. The High Seeker – standing aside from the Codifier's desk, on the side wing of the central drama – had folded his arms in an authoritative manner. It was a brave attempt to hide his shaking. The Codifier was now tapping his pen on the desk, which was as agitated an action as Elsdon had ever witnessed him undertake.
When Elsdon made no reply, the Codifier continued, "We have a difficulty, you see. Paragraph B of the tenth chapter of the Code of Seeking requires a revision of the Code once a generation, at the point in time when it becomes evident that the old Code is in need of revision. It is plain that such a revision is needed. As of today, most of the junior guards are refusing to obey one of the most important regulations in the Code of Seeking. They are supported in their protest by a formidable number of outer-dungeon laborers. Moreover, quite a few junior Seekers have made clear to me that, while they will not actively disobey the Code, they agree with the arguments which are put forth by the junior guards in advocacy of their protest."
"But most of the senior Seekers and guards do not agree," Elsdon said slowly. His gaze flicked over to the High Seeker, who remained silent.
"They do not. If the senior members of this dungeon were to remain in their jobs forever, that would not be a problem." The Codifier paused, like a schoolmaster waiting for a lad to recognize the obvious.
"They're growing old," said Elsdon, the obvious blooming open in his mind, like a burst of sun rays into a dark dungeon. "The junior members will replace the senior members when the latter die."
"Or possibly before then," murmured the High Seeker. "In addition to the usual need for replacement – the violent death of a senior Seeker or guard – it has been suggested by several senior members that retirement for causes other than permanent disability be permitted to senior Seekers in the next revision of the Code. This proposal was made several years ago, before the current conflict began, and Mr. Daniels and I agreed that it was a suggestion which ought to be passed on to the next reviser of the Code."
Elsdon raised his hand to wipe the sweat off his forehead. Despite his apprehensiveness that his appearance might be considered provocative, he had made the decision, upon his arrest, not to cover his face with his face-cloth. To do so would be to concede the fight to the High Seeker and the Codifier from the start. Now he said, "So you have been planning this revision for some time."
"Since . . ." The Codifier looked to the High Seeker.
"The fourth month of 356." The High Seeker's response was prompt.
Elsdon's memory was equally prompt. "That was when I returned from my imprisonment in Vovim." He stared at the Codifier. "It was my suggestion for a change to the Code which prompted you to consider revising the Code?"
The Codifier's expression remained bland. "Paragraph B of Chapter Ten of the Code of Seeking was invoked at that time. When a suggestion for a change in the Code is made, the Record-keeper must begin recording all suggestions for change. When it reaches the point where a majority of the members of the inner dungeon agree that a new edition of the Code of Seeking is needed, at that time the suggestions will be taken into account and incorporated into the new revision, at the discretion of the reviser. The senior members will then decide whether the revision should be approved."
"The majority of the members of the inner dungeon," echoed Elsdon. "The junior members are a majority. They are the ones who have been making the greatest number of suggestions for change, I'm sure."
"And the senior members," said the High Seeker softly, "must decide whether the revision should be approved."
The ancient fish continued to swim in their ancient pond. Just outside the Codifier's office, a guard said something to his fellow guard about his gun. His modern gun.
"You have a paradox," said Elsdon. His voice was even now; he recognized the crisis which had helped bring the High Seeker to this point of ill health. "The Code requires you to issue a revision, because of the junior members' desire for change in the Eternal Dungeon. But the Code forbids you to issue a revision, because of the senior members' desire that the dungeon not change."
"Thank you for stating my dilemma so succinctly, Mr. Taylor," said the Codifier briskly.
"It has been a problem every time the Code has changed," added the High Seeker. His voice remained hoarse and strained. "Conflict has always existed between the junior and senior members of this dungeon over whether the Code should be changed to reflect the views of the new generation. The original authors of the Code of Seeking, who had overturned the previous regulations by which the royal dungeon was conducted, recognized that it would be as foolish to blindly accept all aspects of a new generation's desire for change as it would be to complacently accept a previous generation's desire for constancy. Therefore, they created a balance of power in the revision: the junior members would require a change, while the senior members would have final approval of any revision to the Code."
"But this makes change hostage to the senior members," argued Elsdon, striving to hold back the fury he felt. "Whichever senior Seeker pens the revision can simply keep the Code the way it is, knowing that his fellow senior Seekers will approve the results, as will the senior guards. This 'balance' you speak of is a fraud."
Yet even as he spoke, Elsdon knew that he must be wrong. He had read the Code – not merely Layle's fifth revision, which had erased many passages from the fourth revision, but also the previous four revisions, as well as the original Code of Seeking and a description of the unwritten dungeon customs which the Code had replaced. The pattern was clear: in each revision, a new generation had recognized mistakes made by the previous generation and had improved the Code accordingly.
But how had this been done, if the Code permitted the senior members to control each revision?
The Codifier was now examining his pen. He was old-fashioned enough to use a pen and inkwell, rather than the newer cartridge pens favored by junior members of the dungeon. He said, without looking up, "The long-standing custom in this dungeon has been that the Seeker who pens the revision of the Code is a junior Seeker."
The ticking of the Codifier's watch seemed to fill the office. Nearby, a drop of water fell from a stalactite. It narrowly missed the Codifier's desk. The Hooded Seeker fish swum endlessly in their tiny pond.
"No," Elsdon heard himself say. "No, I won't let you get the drop on me like this."
The Codifier raised an eyebrow. "'Get the drop'?"
Then fury burst forth from Elsdon, as it had not done for many years. Swinging away from the Codifier, he turned to face Layle, his fists balled. "This was your idea – yours. You thought that you could offer me this bribe, and once I'd accepted, you'd have enough power over me to force me to revise the Code in the manner you wanted. And you—" He turned back to the Codifier, his voice choking. "You're the Queen's servant. You'd do anything to keep peace in this dungeon. Even if it meant turning the Code of Seeking into a travesty of justice."
The Codifier carefully placed the pen on the desk. He spent a moment adjusting a paperweight with the Queen's seal on it, while the High Seeker stayed coldly silent. Finally the Codifier looked up. "Mr. Taylor," he said, "I have held the title of Codifier for over thirty years. I quit a most lucrative post as the Queen's secretary in order that I might devote my full time to caring for the Code. That is my function in this dungeon: to care for the Code and to protect the prisoners against violations of the Code. And my most important function of all – my most vital job – is to pick the man who will take the Code of Seeking, the greatest work of ethics that this world has ever known, and shape it into something new and better. That is my perilous task, and if I fail in it, the world suffers from my failure. Only twice in my lifetime have I undertaken this function. This is the second time, and it will be my last exercise of this high privilege. Do you truly think" – he was on his feet now, fists pressed against the desk – "do you truly think, Mr. Taylor, that I would risk the life of this dungeon, this queendom, and this entire world, simply in order to offer a bribe?"
Rumor had long held that Mr. Daniels was the rebirth of a dragon. Elsdon, who had been scorched a little over the years by his encounters with the Codifier, had never before realized that Mr. Daniels had been holding back the full fury of his flames. Previously, the Codifier had only lightly toasted Elsdon, like a flicker of flames in a campfire.
This was different. This was like a volcano erupting.
The High Seeker had lowered his eyes. The High Seeker was a wise man. Elsdon took only a moment to gather his flame-blasted thoughts back into a semblance of order; then he knelt, in the old-fashioned, formal manner of a liegeman making his obeisance to his master. "Sir, I apologize," he said, bowing his head. "It was heartless and scandalous of me to suggest that you would act against the duty you hold toward the Code that we all love so well. Please forgive me."
A chair squeaked as the Codifier sat down again. Then he said in his usual mild manner, "Mr. Smith, how many prisoners has this young man broken since he arrived here?"
"I haven't stored the exact number in my memory," replied the High Seeker. "He is generally successful in his breakings."
"By methods such as this, no doubt." The Codifier sighed. "Stand up, Mr. Taylor. Your apology is accepted. . . . Now, if you are prepared to listen to reason, understand this: From the moment you suggested that the Code be changed to forbid Seekers from forcing prisoners to abandon deeply held matters of legitimate conscience, you were a potential candidate for reviser of the Code. Our strongest candidate, it became clear over time, as you took on a role of leadership among the junior members of this dungeon. That is the reason – the sole reason – why you have not been raised to the rank of senior Seeker before now. Likewise, Mr. Smith – when he first arrived here in a whirlwind, overturning this dungeon's customs left and right – was not raised to the rank of senior Seeker until Mr. Jenson and I determined to appoint Mr. Smith to revise the Code. But whether to accept that role had to be left to Mr. Smith. It is impossible for any true revision of the Code to take place if the author is forced to revise the volume against his will."
"But . . ." Elsdon's thoughts were beginning to move again, sluggishly. He could see the dilemma that Layle and the Codifier faced, and he could see how he himself was the only solution to their dilemma. He was the dungeon's mediator. Over the years, he had helped guide the dungeon to compromises in every grave conflict it faced. He was a bridge between the Old School and the New School. He shook his head. "We are speaking of the tearing apart of men's bodies. There can be no compromise on such a matter."
"That will be for you to decide, should you accept this post," the Codifier stated phlegmatically.
"If I accept—" He stopped then, envisioning what would occur if he accepted. Helplessly, he turned his gaze toward the High Seeker.
Layle said quietly, "Mr. Daniels and I are aware that we are placing you in a difficult position by making this offer. The junior and senior members of this dungeon are all likely to misunderstand your motives for acceptance, should you take the job. We have no choice, though. No one else in the dungeon possesses your qualities. No one else may have the ability to find a solution to our dilemma."
Elsdon was beginning to feel faint again. Breathing hardly seemed worth the effort. He looked back at the Codifier. "How long do I have to decide?"
The Codifier checked his watch. "Four hours. That is how long the dungeon has left."
"Sir?" Elsdon shook his head again, trying to free his thoughts.
"I have been ordered to meet with the Queen at noon," the Codifier explained, returning his watch to its vest pocket. "At that time, if I cannot provide evidence that I have taken steps to end the civil war in this dungeon, the Queen has warned me that she will send her guards to take control of the Eternal Dungeon."
Daily Notices from the Record-Keeper
Members of the Eternal Dungeon of the Queendom of Yclau are hereby notified that Paragraph B of Chapter Ten of the Code of Seeking has been invoked. A new revision of the Code of Seeking will be released next year, following discussion and approval by the Queen, the Codifier, the High Seeker, and the senior members of this dungeon. Any suggestions for changes to the Code should be submitted to Mr. E. Taylor.
Notice of Changes in Rank
Mr. D. Urman is hereby raised in rank to senior guard.
Mr. E. Taylor is hereby raised in rank to senior Seeker, second-in-command of the Eternal Dungeon. Mr. W. Chapman will retain his current title and duties as Supervisor of the Day Shift of the Eternal Dungeon. Mr. Taylor has been suspended from his regular duties in order that he may devote his full time to revision of the Code of Seeking. Members of the Eternal Dungeon are hereby informed that Mr. Taylor has been granted all privileges and powers associated with the second-in-command. Unless such orders should conflict with the Code of Seeking or with orders issued by the Codifier or High Seeker, members of the Eternal Dungeon are hereafter required to obey the orders of Mr. Taylor, on penalty of disciplinary beating, suspension from duties, or death.
Notice of Birthdays
The following members of the Eternal Dungeon are celebrating their days of birth today . . .
Elsdon straightened his back as he halted from leaning forward to read the notice-board. He was keenly aware that he had an audience. The day shift was well started, so all on-shift guards not watching prisoners were sitting in the entry hall. Ordinarily that meant the guards would be doing documentwork and chatting with one another. Not now, though. Silence had descended upon the entry hall the second that Elsdon left the Codifier's office, holding a frighteningly high number of papers that he had been required to fill out, in significance of his rise in rank.
Now the only sound in the entry hall, aside from the screech of the Record-keeper's chalk, were whispers throughout the hall, too low to be heard. Elsdon took a step back from the notice-board, which was located directly beside the great slate tablet indicating which of the dungeon's recent prisoners were currently imprisoned, racked, released to freedom, or released to the hangman. Without taking notice of whatever name the Record-keeper was adding to the board – it was a release, judging from the circular sweep of the Record-keeper's chalk – Elsdon laid down his burden upon the Record-keeper's desk. The Record-keeper, turning back from his work, held up a key.
The key to the Record-keeper's archive. Elsdon took it and added it to his key-ring, which already held the set of keys that opened practically every room in the dungeon. The only exception was the Codifier's office, but it had been made clear to him that he would be automatically granted permission to enter the Codifier's office at any time, in order to consult the private records that were normally only open for perusal to the Codifier, the High Seeker, and his second-in-command.
The whispers behind Elsdon had increased in intensity, from the moment that he took the key denoting his new authority. Trying to ignore them, Elsdon made his way toward the door leading to the corridor where the Seekers' living cells were located.
At the door he encountered a new barrier. It appeared that Barrett Boyd and Clifford Crofford had been assigned new duties, for both of them had been placed on guard at the doorway. Clifford's back was currently turned as he examined the credentials of a visitor to the inner dungeon, who had evidently entered the Eternal Dungeon in the usual manner, through the back entrance in the outer dungeon. Clifford did not notice Elsdon's approach.
Barrett did. It was difficult to tell from his expression what his thoughts were; as always, he appeared angry at the world. But as Elsdon passed him, there was a hiss, followed by an unmistakable signal of his judgment.
Elsdon paused barely a second before continuing past Clifford, who was still absorbed in his task, trusting his fellow guard to hold back danger from the opposite direction. Elsdon waited until he was around the corner, standing in the corridor leading to the common room, before he took out his handkerchief and wiped Barrett's spit from his face.
His heart was pounding. He forced himself to think. By this time of day, in mid-morning, Layle would be in bed. Weldon had just entered into conference with the Codifier; Elsdon would have to wait until later to discover what Weldon thought of his demotion from his previous role as the High Seeker's second-in-command. At least Weldon had not been stripped of his title as Day Supervisor; Elsdon had made sure of that by insisting that he himself operated better as a night-shift Seeker.
No chance to speak to D. Urman until he rose from bed. Little chance to change the mind of Barrett . . . or, Elsdon supposed, Clifford, since the young guard always took his cue from Barrett. As for Mr. Bergsen, he would be returning to duty – it had taken little effort on Elsdon's part to persuade the Codifier to lift his suspension of the dungeon's talented healer – but Mr. Bergsen would not be likely to show up for another day or two. Howard Yates, generously pensioned, had already moved himself and his foster sister to the south of Yclau and was unlikely to want to return to his work in the Eternal Dungeon.
That left only one representative of the New School.
She was not yet in bed; instead, she was sitting in her parlor, sewing. A pile of clothing to be sewn lay in the wicker basket by her feet. A smaller pile of Elsdon's belongings lay on the table by the door.
He paused at the doorway, looking down at his belongings, his throat aching. Then he looked up. With her usual clear-eyed gaze steady upon him, Birdesmond said, "The Record-keeper sent word that you would be moving out. He said that you had been assigned your own living cell, in accordance with your new rank."
Sickness was growing inside him. Fumbling for words, he said, "Birdesmond, I had to do it."
She rose then in a leisurely fashion, putting aside her sewing. Coming forward, she closed the door behind him and then grasped his hands and drew him into the room. "Elsdon," she said, "I have no idea what took place today between you and the High Seeker and the Codifier. But one thing I do know: you would die before you would betray the best interests of the prisoners. I trust you."
Elsdon released his breath, which he hadn't realized he was holding. Birdesmond smiled and said, "Come tell me. I'll make us some tea."
By the time that Elsdon finished the tale, he was beginning to yawn. He had been awake for over a full night and day. Not that he needed to worry about work hours for some weeks to come. In a sign of the grave importance of Elsdon's new duties, his prisoner had been transferred to another Seeker. Elsdon had already grazed through the list of suggested changes to the Code which the Codifier had recorded over the years. Until Elsdon had finished receiving further suggestions of revision to the Code from other members of the dungeon, he could not start his new duty of penning the revision. For now, he was free to live a life of leisure, as though he were a rich man in the lighted world, rather than a prisoner in the Eternal Dungeon.
Birdesmond stirred the remaining tea leaves in her cup, saying nothing. Elsdon asked, "Are you very angry with me?"
Birdesmond waved away that suggestion with her free hand. "I know that you made the only choice you could. The alternatives were for the Codifier to appoint a member of the Old School to revise the Code, or for the Queen to send her guards to take control of the dungeon. No, Elsdon, I'm not upset that you accepted the offer of the High Seeker and the Codifier. Whether or not they intended the offer as a bribe, there was nothing else you could have done to save the dungeon from destruction."
"Then what concerns you?" Elsdon dipped his head to try better to see Birdesmond's expression. She was wearing her face-cloth up. She had not bothered to pull it down when Elsdon opened the door to the living cell, despite the High Seeker's strong views on this issue and her awareness that Elsdon now possessed the power to punish her for breaking dungeon custom. She was what she had always been: a woman who consistently followed her conscience, no matter what the consequences to her.
Now she sighed as she pushed aside the teacup. "Elsdon, you don't realize it, but you had the Codifier and the High Seeker in the palm of your hand today. They were desperate for you to agree to revise the Code. They would have made any concession to you at that stage, even the immediate cessation of all torture in this dungeon."
"I considered requiring that of them," said Elsdon slowly. "I did think of that, Birdesmond. But if you had seen the High Seeker . . . He was on the point of breaking, I think. One more push by me, one more battle, and I truly think he would have sunk back into madness."
"Elsdon." Birdesmond took his hands again. Her own hands were cool and smooth, the hands of an elite Seeker. "I know that you love Layle Smith. By all that is sacred, I know what it is like to be torn between loving another Seeker and wanting to help the prisoners. But we have to be brave, those of us who are fighting for the prisoners. We have to make sacrifices for their sake. Even if it means losing those we love." She released Elsdon's hands to touch the small locket she wore that signified her marriage to Weldon Chapman.
For a moment, Elsdon did not speak. He was thinking again of Weldon – uncontentious, stubborn Weldon, refusing during all these weeks to budge from his stance, even as this drove his marriage to ruins. Elsdon put his hand in his pocket.
Birdesmond stared at the book he placed on the table. "What is this?"
"One of the volumes of disciplinary records that is kept locked in the Codifier's office. It's from the time of Layle's predecessor, High Torturer Jenson. The Codifier gave it to me."
Birdesmond raised an eyebrow. "To impress upon you that aspect of your new duties?"
Elsdon emitted a sharp laugh, then looked automatically toward Zenas's alcove. Yes, the lad was there and awake. Even now, with his tongue freed to communicate with any member of the dungeon who knew the common speech of Vovim, Zenas was such a silent lad, listening to conversations, observing, saying nothing. Elsdon wondered what had been going through the lad's mind all these weeks, as he observed the great events taking place in his home.
Then Elsdon turned his attention back to Birdesmond. "The Codifier knows that I'm not going to discipline any member of this dungeon who refuses to torture prisoners. Even the High Seeker agreed that the time was past for that. No, the Codifier showed me this when I asked him a question that had been troubling me." Elsdon played with the edges of the pages, though taking care not to unsettle the pieces of paper he had used to mark certain pages. "Birdesmond . . . do you remember when you said it was odd that we were the first members of this dungeon to oppose the use of torture?"
Birdesmond did not speak for a moment. She was looking down at the closed book. Finally she said, "Mr. Bergsen came close to challenging that remark, I recall. We weren't the first?"
Elsdon did not bother to reply. He opened the first marked page and pushed the book over to Birdesmond's side of the table.
She bent her head to read. After a moment, she gave a soft gasp. Then she turned to the next marked page. And the next.
After half a dozen readings, she raised her head. Her eyes were somber. "You've marked a dozen or so pages."
"Scores," replied Elsdon softly. "The Codifier told me that scores of Seekers and guards were disciplined for refusing to torture prisoners. The rebellions go back to the very beginning of the Eternal Dungeon, a century and a half ago."
"No disciplines like this have occurred during my time in the dungeon, I'd swear," said Birdesmond. "Only Mr. Ferris, and he was disciplined for ordering his prisoner to be tortured to a higher degree than the Code required. Elsdon . . . has Layle Smith been punishing men without anyone noticing it?"
Elsdon shook his head. "The very last arrest for refusal to torture took place two decades ago. Layle intervened, to prevent the High Torturer from punishing the Seeker who had rebelled against orders. Since that time, there have been no executions for refusal to obey orders, other than Mr. Ferris's."
Birdesmond placed her hand over her mouth. After a moment, she said, "I see."
Elsdon nodded. "I thought you would. Birdesmond, we should be dead. All of us who rebelled against orders would be dead, under the previous High Torturers. It's because of Layle – and Layle alone – that we're alive. He has held his hand; he has suspended one of us and forced another into retirement, but he hasn't exercised the power he has to execute us. Indeed, he has allowed us to meet and discuss our grievances—"
"And if he went mad, then he might simply be replaced by another High Seeker who would move to utterly suppress us. Then all our hope of helping the prisoners would be lost. Yes, I see." Birdesmond shut the book. "The rebels who came before us were all sentenced to execution?"
"Most of them were," said Elsdon. "Do you remember what Howard Yates said? 'It used to be that, in the old days, men would go into the Codifier's office, and only their corpses would be returned. We never knew why. . . .'"
"Oh, sweet blood." Birdesmond's face had paled. "Hundreds of them? Hundreds of Seekers and guards were hanged for refusing to torture prisoners?"
Elsdon returned his gaze to the book. "Not all of them. A few agreed to continue to abide by the Code's strictures."
Birdesmond's mouth thinned. "The cowards."
Elsdon raised his gaze. Keeping his voice light, he said, "Barrett Boyd spat in my face a short time ago."
Behind Birdesmond, Zenas cocked his head. Then, as quiet as before, he rose to his feet and made his way to the door of the living cell. The door shut softly behind him.
Unaware of this, Birdesmond said, "Elsdon, it is really quite annoying when you practice your Seeker skills outside a breaking cell." She paused to let Elsdon chuckle, and then conceded the argument with a wave of the hand, "All right. I'll admit that the men who chose to follow the orders of the Codifier and the High Seeker may have had good motives, as you did when you accepted the offer of a rise to second-in-command. We'll never know, I suppose."
He already had his hand upon the book. Carefully, he opened the book to the proper page, which he had not marked. Carefully, he pushed the book toward her.
When she finally raised her head, her expression was that of bewilderment. Elsdon gave her a half-smile. "It's as the High Seeker once told me," he said. "People are often different inside than they appear to others."
Elsdon stepped inconspicuously through the entry hall, heading toward the door to the corridor. Neither Barrett nor Clifford barred his way. The duty roster that Elsdon had asked the Record-keeper to show him a few minutes before indicated that both guards had been transferred to special training under the High Seeker. The roster also indicated that those guards were currently off duty.
Now the entry hall was rapidly filling up with dawn-shift guards, on their way to punch in the guardrooms' time-clock. The more dutiful day-shift guards were already at work during the "dawn" hours.
It had been several years since the "dawn" shift centered precisely upon dawn, Elsdon reflected, looking up at the ceiling of the entry hall, where the bats slept, having arrived home to the dungeon an hour earlier. Under pressure of modernization, Layle Smith had finally equalized the night and day shifts, which traditionally had been determined by the setting and rising of the sun. It used to be that, at this time of the year – the summer – night shifts were short and day shifts interminably long. Now the night shift would end after exactly ten hours, before the two-hour dawn shift gave way to the day shift.
Already, some night-shift guards had been released from their posts. During this second foray into the entry hall since his rise in rank on the previous day, Elsdon had encountered D. Urman, who had asked, without preliminary, what his new duties were. They had talked for some time, with Elsdon acutely aware that everyone nearby was listening to him for signs that he had adopted the High Seeker's forceful manner. When Elsdon mildly suggested that the next few weeks might be a good opportunity for Mr. Urman to take his first visit home since he became a guard in the Eternal Dungeon, there were sighs of relief all around the entry hall.
Stepping through the doorway into the corridor where the Seekers' living cells stood, Elsdon smiled at a junior Seeker who was on his way to work. Through the eye-holes of his hood, the Seeker scowled back. It made Elsdon feel nostalgic. He remembered this, from his early weeks as a Seeker, nine years before. Except for the High Seeker and his guards, nobody in the dungeon had known anything about Elsdon, other than that he was a recently convicted murderer who had slaughtered one of his kinfolk – the worst type of murder, from an Yclau perspective. It had taken time – and perhaps a bit of Mr. Urman's influence with the junior guards, Elsdon realized belatedly – before the Eternal Dungeon had come to accept that Elsdon was trustworthy.
And now the struggle would begin again. He passed a couple of senior Seekers, whom he did not bother to smile at, for they were quite pointedly talking about how the Codifier must have grown senile in his old age, to appoint a rapscallion to revise the Code of Seeking.
Elsdon noticed that they did not make any remarks about the High Seeker's mental state. They were passing the door to the High Seeker's cell as they spoke.
Elsdon waited until they had left the corridor; then he paused, listening. There was no sound in this portion of the dungeon, other than the soft whoosh of the Lungs, the machine that moved air in and out of the dungeon. At one time, this corridor would have been filled with stokers, hard at work during the final minutes of the night shift as they filled with coal the furnaces that ran along the backs of the prisoners' cells, on this side of the dungeon. But the furnaces had been modernized too; no longer was this corridor choked with soot and with flickering oil lamps.
Only one light flickered. It always flickered. That electric light hung from the ceiling directly in front of the High Seeker's cell.
With another look to assure himself that the corridor was empty, Elsdon pulled his key-ring from his pocket. So stuffed full of keys was the ring now that it took him a moment to locate the correct key. The key was still there, somewhat battered after all these years.
As he had expected, the High Seeker's door was locked. Elsdon inserted the key, opened the door a gap, and pocketed the keys, which he took care not to rattle. He slid inside and closed the door silently.
The High Seeker was sitting at the desk, with his back to Elsdon. He was writing. Without looking over his shoulder, he said, "I am rather busy, Mr. Taylor."
Elsdon walked slowly forward. The room was dim, lit only by the oil lamps that they had kept here for Layle's sake. Elsdon passed the work counter where he and Layle had eaten thousands of meals together, as well as the bench that they had put to most creative use on their first night together. He reached the desk.
With Layle sitting in it, the wheeled chair was difficult to move, but not impossible. Layle did not resist as Elsdon pulled the chair out and turned it. He simply waited, cocking his head, as Elsdon moved around to stand in front of him. At some point – probably when he heard the scrape of the key with his acute hearing – the High Seeker had pulled down his face-cloth. All that could be seen were his cold eyes.
His deceptively cold eyes. Keeping his voice gentle, as he would if speaking to a wounded animal, Elsdon said, "Love, I want to return to you. I truly do. But I can't do so until you do something for me."
Layle sat frigid, like a block of ice on a winter's day, waiting to be chipped. He said, in a voice grown hoarser by emotion, "Anything. I will do anything to have you back."
Elsdon slid onto his lap. It felt like coming home. He leaned back against Layle's arm, which had automatically moved to catch him, and he laid his cheek upon Layle's shoulder. He said softly, "Forgive me?"
Layle made no reply. Not with words. But his hand moved to push Elsdon's head back, and then Layle's face-cloth was up and his lips were upon Elsdon's. His lips tasted of tears.
Outside the High Seeker's cell, Zenas shifted from his cramped position, kneeling to look through the keyhole. He could hear another Seeker emerging from his cell. Pretending he had knelt merely in order to tie his bootlace, Zenas waited until the Seeker was past. Then he stood up. There was no point in watching further; he had already seen what he came to see. He began to walk down the corridor, in the direction of his own cell.
His papa and mama were in the bedroom together, sitting against the headboard of the bed, fully clothed. Neither of them noticed Zenas, peering through the gap in the doorway. Weldon – who had received the traditional day off following the racking of his prisoner – had his head bowed as he looked down at the volume in his lap. Birdesmond was looking at Weldon.
After a while, Birdesmond asked, "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I could not." Weldon had ceased reading some time before, but he continued to stare at the volume. "I swore an oath to remain silent. It was one of the conditions for my release."
Birdesmond reached over and took his hand. "You can speak now. Elsdon has the power to release you from that oath, and he encouraged me to discuss this with you."
Weldon nodded but did not look up. At present, he appeared very old, though he was only fifty-three, younger than Zenas's master had been when he first took Zenas to his bed. There were dark rings under his eyes.
Birdesmond asked, "How old were you?"
"Thirty-four." Weldon cleared his throat, apparently in order to speak more clearly. "It was in 344, just a few months before High Torturer Jenson died. I was rather old to become a Seeker. I can't blame my naiveté on youth or inexperience. I'd worked in the inner dungeon for a year as a guard, and for four years before that as a stoker. I'd been a prisoner here; I knew what that meant. Yet somehow I hadn't fully grasped, until the moment came, that I would be required to torture prisoners."
"You had your thoughts on the transformation part of searching," Birdesmond suggested softly. She had not let go of Weldon's hand.
Weldon shook his head. "I was more selfish than that. I had my thoughts on the difficulty of becoming the dungeon's first commoner Seeker. I'd scarcely had time to think about the prisoners during my year as a guard; I was too busy surviving the hazing I received from the other guards, who were angry at having to treat a commoner as their equal." Weldon raised his head finally, but only to lean it back against the headboard and close his eyes. "The first time it happened was on the first day. My prisoner twice disobeyed me, and then he went for my throat. I knew what the Code of Seeking required in such cases. I simply had not thought about such a possibility occurring. Since I had been a guard, I had been given no formal training as a Seeker. I was expected, in the space of a day, to change from a guard who racked prisoners upon orders, to a Seeker who ordered the racking." He opened his eyes and turned his head. His expression was bleak. "I refused."
Birdesmond squeezed his hand. "That was brave of you."
Weldon shook his head vigorously. "No, not at all. Not at first. I simply did not grasp it, you see. I didn't realize I could be executed for refusing to rack a prisoner. By the time I realized . . . You know how you have sometimes accused me of being overly stubborn?"
A sad little smile played on his lips. Birdesmond responded by pulling Weldon into her arms. Resting his cheek on her breast, Weldon said, "High Torturer Jenson was patient with me, I will say that. He has a reputation now of having committed summary executions, yet he spent three nights with me in my breaking cell, trying to convince me to change my mind. Finally he left me alone for one final night to make my choice."
Behind Zenas, the stove in the nearby kitchen crackled as coals combusted. He could smell the bread that his mama had set on the counter to cool. He took a moment to nibble at the carrot he had taken from the kitchen. He wasn't sure when he would have the opportunity to eat next.
"I spent most of that time praying," said Weldon, his voice reflective rather than grim. "Praying to whatever powers lay out there to give me the strength to follow my conscience to the gallows' rope. I'm not a brave man; I was crying by the end. But I think I would have remained strong to my commitment. I think so."
"What happened?" asked Birdesmond, entwining her fingers with his.
Something touched the side of Weldon's mouth. "Layle Smith happened, of course. I was feeling bitter toward him on that night; he had been the one who persuaded me to apply to become a torturer. I felt as if he had persuaded me to apply for my own death. He had not even come to visit me during my imprisonment, though he was the High Torturer's right-hand man by then. . . . He came to me that night."
"And persuaded you to go against your conscience?" Birdesmond bowed her head in an evident effort to see Weldon's face.
"Nay, not that." Weldon slipped back into his commoner dialect, as he only did at rare moments. "He knew that would be useless, aye? He came to my cell, and he stood there without a word, while I'm trying to decide whether to throw my water pitcher at him or simply shout curses. And then he spoke." Weldon's voice was so soft now that Zenas could barely hear him. "He spoke only two sentences. He said, 'Someday I will be High Torturer, and I will change this dungeon to be a better place. But I cannot do that if every torturer in this dungeon who possesses a healthy conscience allows himself to be hanged.'"
Birdesmond considered the ceiling for a moment before saying, "He didn't abolish torture when he became High Seeker."
"I did not expect him to. I knew he was requiring that concession from me. But I also knew that, if I followed him, and continued to follow him, this dungeon would become a better and better place for the prisoners as time went on. I had that faith in him."
There were tears in Birdesmond's eyes now. "And I accused you of caring nothing for the prisoners. Oh, my sweetest darling—"
Weldon moved then and gathered Birdesmond into his own arms. After a moment, Zenas quietly closed the door to the bedroom.
The common room had its usual sign upon the door. Layle Smith, forever on the hunt for ways to improve dungeon life, had decided a few years back that it would be best not to have a saloon in the dungeon. He had banned alcohol from the common room. There had been a brief period of protests from the Seekers, who were denied all other access to alcohol, until the High Seeker had asked, in his acidic manner, whether this meant that the other Seekers wished him to order that the prisoners be served alcohol.
That had put an end to the protest. The High Seeker – perhaps more than any other man in the dungeon – was acutely aware of the Seekers' legal status as prisoners in the dungeon. He was always prepared to remind his fellow Seeker prisoners that any privileges they received, above those enjoyed by the prisoners in the breaking cells, were just that: privileges which could be withdrawn at any time, for any reason.
And so the saloon had shut down, and after a while, without any spoken consensus, the common room had closed to games and other high-spirited entertainment during the second half of the day and night shifts, when prisoners were most likely to be racked. Only the occasional private meeting took place at the common room during those times. No lock was placed upon the door; the promise of the Seekers and guards was considered enough.
Now, with his hand on the smooth wood of the common room door, Zenas could hear voices speaking inside the room. He looked over his shoulder, listening to the sounds of guards talking as they left the inner dungeon. It was still the first hour of the dawn shift; the common room would not be opening until the day shift started, more than an hour from now.
He opened the door and slid inside, his pupils adjusting. Although the so-called dawn shift had only just begun within the dungeon, the actual dawn outside had already taken place. At the end of the room where the skylight let in a mote of the lighted world, the room was bathed in morning light.
Sitting on two ends of the sofa there – where only Seekers normally sat – were D. Urman and Clifford Crofford. The back of the sofa hid most of their bodies from Zenas, but he could clearly see them from the shoulders up. They were turned somewhat to face each other. D.'s right arm was slung carelessly over the back of the sofa, his hand nearly touching Clifford's left shoulder.
Clifford was saying, "It's all right, I'm sure it is. Barrett and I were talking about it. Of course we were upset when we first heard; we feared he'd gone over to the enemy. But after discussing it, we decided—"
"You mean you decided," interrupted D. "Barrett would have served Taylor up for mincemeat if you hadn't talked him around – you know that."
Clifford blushed. He looked tired; like all the other members of the Eternal Dungeon, he had received little sleep during the past thirty-six hours. Only the prisoners in the breaking cells had slept, oblivious to the fact that their futures were being determined.
"I saw you and Barrett on duty together," continued D. "You seemed to be getting along all right?" His voice ended on a questioning note.
Clifford blushed again. D. reached over to chuck him under the chin. "Come on, admit it," said D. "You two have become love-mates again. Shall we hold a celebration? With champagne, if we can smuggle it past the High Seeker?"
Clifford was smiling now, though he did not meet D.'s eyes. "A celebration, yes. But it's not exactly what you think. Barrett and I have become— Well, partners."
"Love-mates, yes. Good for you. Have a bun." D. reached down toward the table that was hidden from Zenas's view and passed something to Clifford. Evidently they'd been sharing a meal together.
Clifford took what he was offered but shook his head. He was still smiling. "Not love-mates. Partners. Work-mates. That was what Barrett wanted all along, you see. For us to work together, as a team. Not just the way that senior and junior Seekers do when they're paired together temporarily. We're committed to each other now. We've arranged that we'll always work together, and we're planning ways to help the prisoners. When we met in his living quarters earlier . . . Oh, I can't describe it, D. He opened up. He was actually communicating with me, in a way that he hasn't since the beating. We're friends again."
D. was tapping the back of the sofa with his hand, frowning. "But you don't just want to be friends with him. You want to be his love-mate."
Clifford dipped his head. He said softly, "I was wrong about that. I was trying to keep time frozen with Barrett – to force him to be what he used to be with me. He still loves me, just in a different way. Elsdon Taylor helped me see that."
"Aye." Still tapping the sofa, D. stared into the distance. "Taylor is good at that sort of thing."
Clifford reached forward and pushed his shoulder. "Go on. Give me your good news. That's why you called us here, didn't you? I saw the notice in the entry hall."
D., who had reached over to lift a slice of fried hominy from the table, paused with the food halfway to his mouth. "Called us here? I didn't call us here. It was you."
"Me?" Clifford stared at him. "Zenas told me you wanted to talk to me here."
"I found a note in my room about meeting you, when I came off shift." D. shrugged. "It doesn't matter. I know who must have set up this meeting." He began to shove the food into his mouth, in his usual manner, and then, at the last moment, nibbled at it in a polite fashion.
Clifford tilted his head to one side and then said, "Mr. Taylor? D., was he the one who arranged for you to be raised in rank? Are you going to work for him?"
"Aye." D. looked sheepish now. "He has this idea . . . Well, he must have gone insane, like his love-mate. He has this idea that I can train to become a Seeker. Isn't that mad?" He gave a lopsided grin.
"D.!" Clifford scooted over and grabbed him, narrowly avoiding squashing the hominy between the two of them as he hugged D. Urman hard. "That's wonderful news! Of course you can be a Seeker; I should have thought of that myself. When will that happen?"
"Depends on me," said D. He was looking a bit more confident now. "I've got lots of work to do, to break bad old habits."
"I'll help," said Clifford promptly. "I know your bad habits better than anyone. But is it still all right for us to meet off-duty, now that you're raised in rank? I know that we won't be able to remain friends once you're a Seeker." There was a note of dismay in his voice as Clifford returned to his end of the sofa.
"That's all nonsense." D. paused to take a final bite of his hominy before mumbling, through his food, "Mr. Taylor says—"
"D., you're eating," Clifford pointed out.
D. quickly swallowed the food. Reaching down, he picked up a glass and swallowed a drink of water before saying, "Sorry. Thanks. My table manners are terrible; I've got to improve them. . . . Anyway, Mr. Taylor says he thinks that rule in the fifth revision of the Code about different ranks not consorting with each other is all nonsense."
"Surely he didn't use that word," said Clifford, clearly shocked.
"Nay, he was polite about it. 'Needs to be refined' is the way he put it. He's friends with Seward Sobel, you know. He says that he even thinks that the rule forbidding guards and Seekers from becoming love-mates to each other is too harsh. He's planning to revise that, and to add a rule to make clear that Seekers can marry, the way other life prisoners in the queendom are allowed to. . . . Oh, he has all sorts of plans to change the Code." D. tipped his head back and gurgled down the remaining water, then wiped the water off with his sleeve.
"Manners," said Clifford quickly.
"Bloody—" D. cut off the oath as he picked up a napkin. "Sorry. It will take a while for me to get used to this. I'm not in the habit of being a model for good behavior." He grinned at Clifford.
Clifford smiled back. "Me neither. I used to play all sorts of pranks when I was a boy. Then I was hired by the Eternal Dungeon, and suddenly I was supposed to be law-abiding and upright. . . . It was something of a shock."
D. shrugged as he began to toss the napkin down, then caught himself, folded the napkin, and laid the cloth assiduously onto the table. "I guess we all have to grow up sometime. . . . Cliff, are you sure about this? Barrett, I mean. Perhaps you just haven't tried hard enough to persuade him to love you."
Clifford shook his head, his smile fading. "I'm sure. I'm taking the right path with Barrett, I assure you. And he really does love me; talking to him now, with him so open, is as good as going to bed with him."
D. leaned forward. "You don't look very happy."
Clifford gave a short laugh. "Don't you start using Seeker skills against me."
"Cliff, I mean it." D. moved over so that he could place his arm around Clifford's shoulders. "Let me talk to him. Maybe I can persuade him to change his mind."
Clifford shook his head vigorously this time. "D., I really am very happy with what has happened between Barrett and me."
"Then why ain't you smiling?" D.'s voice softened as his commoner dialect deepened.
"It's not to do with Barrett and me," said Clifford, his voice very quiet now. "It was . . . You remember about Fae."
"Aye." D. began to knead the back of Clifford's neck. "And then Barrett, a year later. Must have been hard for you, your fiancée dying, and then you losing your love-mate, all in the space of a year."
Clifford sighed. "The trouble is, I'm too shy. —No, don't deny it, D.; you know it's true. I've learned to speak out in work situations, but courting someone . . . It took me nearly ten years of knowing Fae before I got up the courage to tell her I loved her. And I'd probably never have had the courage to tell Barrett I loved him; it was he who took the initiative."
D. shrugged. "Well, he's older than you. Makes sense. The guardian does the courting, aye?"
Clifford laughed softly. "I don't think Barrett ever regarded himself as my guardian, training me in bed to prepare me for marrying a girl. That isn't necessary in the Eternal Dungeon, is it? Lifelong mating between men is allowed here. That's what he and I would have had. That's what we still have, on a certain level."
"Aye, well, I hope he's not expecting you to stay celibate all your life. If he is, I'll have to punch him." As always, D. was blunt.
Clifford laughed again. "Stop it, D. You bark like a guard dog any time you think someone's hurting me. Don't worry; Barrett made clear that he'd be relieved if I took a love-mate or a wife. He feels badly that he can't fulfill that part of his love-pledge to me. Which is just as well, for I can't envision myself as one of those aekae prophets of the Kingdom of Vovim, pledging my celibacy to their gods."
"Then what's wrong, mate?" Still speaking in commoner dialect, D. returned to kneading Clifford's neck. "You'll find a girl to marry. You've got that shiny uniform to attract them with."
Clifford shook his head slowly. "D., I'm shy. It took all the courage I had to court Fae. Now that she's dead, and now that Barrett is a different sort of partner to me . . . Oh, D., I don't know that I have the strength to go through all that again. Finding someone to court, or who's willing to court me. Finding a wife or a love-mate. And how many people do you think there are in the world who would understand the work we do? Even in the outer dungeon, they think we guards are madmen for wanting to work here. For that matter, how many people would be willing to love me, knowing that I'll always love Barrett deeply?"
D. stared blankly at the sunlight, growing stronger as the morning waxed. His hand now lay motionless behind Clifford's neck.
"D., did you hear me?" asked Clifford.
"Aye, I heard you." D.'s gaze remained fixed on the sunlight. "I was wondering . . . Well, not exactly wondering, but I was thinking . . . Oh, bloody blades." His tone suddenly strangled by a powerful potential, D. turned his head, leaned forward, and kissed Clifford.
There was a space of silence after he leaned back. Clifford stared at D. as though D. had transformed into some strange new animal. His voice gruff, D. said, "I just botched things up again, didn't I?"
Clifford continued to stare at him, as though D. had not spoken. Then Clifford said softly, "How long?"
D. shrugged, avoiding his eyes. "Five years. I'd just about gotten up my courage to tell you, when that blasted senior guard of yours swooped in and stole you, right in front of me."
"Five years." Clifford spoke the words with awe. "D., you never said a thing. All these years, when Barrett was pushing me away, and everyone was telling me I should abandon Barrett . . . You were the one who told me I should stay true to him. You were the one who said I should remain his love-mate."
"Aye, well." D. stared at his lap. "Didn't want you to be sad, did I? Bad enough, one of us being unhappy, without both of us being that way."
"Oh, D." Clifford emitted something between a sob and a laugh. "You utter fool. You best of all friends. Come here. . . ."
It took three minutes for the kiss to deepen to the point where D. and Clifford slid down onto the sofa, hidden from Zenas's view. Shaking out the pins and needles from his legs, Zenas got up from the shadowed corner where he had been sitting cross-legged. It was well into morning now. It was time to go.
Silently, Zenas slipped out of the common room and shut the door tight. After a moment's consideration, he turned the sign over so that it read:
Common Room closed for private meeting.
Do not enter
Someone had crossed out the remaining words.
For a moment Zenas stood still, staring down at the chessman which he had pulled from his pocket. It was the High Seeker. When Zenas had made his checkmate, capturing the High Seeker chessman through a chess move known only in southern Vovim, he had discovered a single word inscribed at the bottom of the chessman: "Victory."
The word was written in southern Vovimian. The High Seeker, slipping into Zenas's home once a day to catch a brief glimpse of his sleeping love-mate, had paused each time to play a game of chess with Zenas. And had known, before the end, that Zenas would defeat him.
Victory. For Zenas? Or for the Eternal Dungeon, which the High Seeker loved so much? How much did Layle Smith know about what Zenas had been doing during these past weeks? And how did he feel about Zenas's victory?
The answer would come soon, within a matter of minutes.
Zenas strode down the corridor, joy and thanksgiving swelling in his heart. It had all happened the way it should have; it had all happened in the manner that the gods ordained.
Only a few rambling remarks on his part, about Elsdon's behavior in the rebel meetings, had been enough to remind Layle Smith of Elsdon Taylor's skills at mediation. Once Zenas had learned to speak the King's tongue, a few more rambling remarks to the Codifier about the breakdown of his parents' marriage had been enough to give Mr. Daniels the idea to show that particular volume of the disciplinary books to Elsdon when the junior Seeker made his enquiry, as he inevitably would. Not even words had been needed by Zenas to bring Elsdon and D. together.
Then there was the book that showed Barrett's army photograph. Fourteen-year-old Zenas had noticed the High Seeker reading that book on the second occasion when they met in the common room. During the years that followed, Zenas had located where the High Seeker kept the book hidden in his living cell. At the appropriate moment, Zenas had slipped the book out of the High Seeker's cell and placed it under Elsdon's typewriter, knowing that Elsdon would find the book there and act accordingly.
As for Clifford and D., they had done their own work at joining together, once Zenas had offered them the chance to talk alone at length.
The gods had ordained it all, and Zenas – Zenas alone – had been given the opportunity to offer these mortals a chance for peace and reconciliation. Elsdon, Layle, Barrett, Clifford, D., his mama, his papa . . . Zenas had never doubted that all of them would follow the will of the gods, once they recognized the true paths they should take.
Because, of course, it was their choice. It was always given to mortals to choose whether to obey the gods' will. Only the very young, or the very dangerous, were deprived of this privilege.
Running now, Zenas zipped through the entry hall, eliciting several startled glances from the guards there. None of them tried to stop him, though, as he ran up the stony steps to the gates of the Eternal Dungeon.
His haste faltered as he reached the gates. His parents had not remembered; had the High Seeker? Or would the High Seeker treat Zenas's interference as a sign of incorrigibility?
But it was immediately clear that his fears were groundless. The guards opened the gates to Zenas, smiling and murmuring their best wishes.
He had known beforehand where he wished to go. If he turned to the right – to the only section of the palace where prisoners were permitted to travel – he would soon reach the judgment rooms, where long ago he had stood in peril of his life.
He turned left instead. The Seekers' common room had a skylight; therefore, the area above that portion of the Eternal Dungeon must face the sky.
Yes, there it was, not so far at all from the gates of the dungeon. A little courtyard, built in the style of the Yclau meditation courts of the middle centuries: open to the sky except for the covered, pillared walkways on three sides. The fourth side lay open to the remainder of the palace grounds. From where he stood, Zenas could see the great gate that led into the city. The High Seeker would have notified the guards there as well.
Zenas made no immediate move toward that gate, though. The courtyard was pleasantly designed, with flowerbeds and a fountain in the middle. Ignoring the fountain sculpture – which was in the shape of a ring, the sign of the Yclau faith – Zenas stepped forward and cupped his hands to capture some of the sun-sparkled water in the basin below the fountain. He held the water up toward the sky and then, in the moment before it would have trickled out of his hands, he let it fall to the ground. Mercy in her sky; Hell in his dominion below; and all the lesser gods and goddesses would know that Zenas's gift was meant for them as well. For they would know what day this was.
He stretched his arms above his head, twirling in place, feeling the sun upon his skin for the first time in six years.
It was his eighteenth birthday. The Eternal Dungeon had set him free.
. . . Communication, however, can require more than a shared tongue, as every soldier on a battlefield realizes, for the battlefield of the Eternal Dungeon in 364 required tact, and above all, sacrifice.
And so, after four years of struggle, the Old School and New School finally reached a truce. Further struggles of communication would occur during the following years, mediated by Elsdon Taylor, the skilled roommate of the High Seeker. For all intents and purposes, though, the battle of the two schools was over.
But readers who are even vaguely acquainted with the history of our queendom in the fourth century will recognize that one man is missing from the tale I have just told. In the long run, this man would make as great an impact on our queendom's history as the prison-workers I have been writing about for so many chapters now.
And so, in order to end my account of these early years of the Golden Age of the Eternal Dungeon, I must turn my attention partially away from the two central figures of my tale: High Seeker Layle Smith and rebel-leader Elsdon Taylor. I must return to a man who, at this time, was regarded as a relatively minor figure, virtually forgotten during the great peacemaking that occurred in the seventh month of 364.
But while the Eternal Dungeon may have forgotten him, Vito de Vere had not forgotten the Eternal Dungeon.
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.