I had trouble sleeping that night. I don't know why; sleep had always been my one blessing at Mercy, transporting me back to the pleasant days preceding my arrest. I usually woke with a smile on my face. But tonight, tired though I was, I found myself staring up at the ceiling, hour after tedious hour, wishing there were cracks there that I could count.
Some of the prisoners had started a debate the previous year over what was most painful about Mercy. Was it the separation from family and friends? The beatings? The humiliations? The backbreaking work? The rapes? The list went on and on.
I hadn't participated in the debate, which, like all such conversations, had taken the form of shouts exchanged between the cells. There was a reason I'd been granted the luxury of a single-man cell: my last three cellmates had been prepared to murder me rather than live another moment with me. Since the death of a prisoner was not, alas, one of the many pains permitted at a life prison, Mercy's Keeper had finally dealt with the problem by giving me a cell of my own – which, of course, had been my plan all along. It was irritating to have to endure being strangled three times in order to achieve what I wanted.
Particularly since I couldn't hope that the stranglings would be successful.
Though I had no desire to become chummy with the bog-scum who inhabited this place, my own unspoken contribution to the debate was that boredom was the greatest pain. Boredom didn't come often – most days after work I was barely awake enough to do whatever my present guard required of me – but when it occurred, it was excruciating, like being flayed slowly by a dagger. I often thought that, if I were ever broken into madness, it would be through such a spell of boredom.
I say all this to explain why, when I heard the cell door being opened at lamp-lighting time, my first thought was not (as one might expect), "Oh, no, not again," but rather, "Thank the gods, something new." I rolled over onto my stomach and raised my head to look.
He was a slightly built man; I could see that at once from the outline of his shape against the fire in the pit. With my eyes still dazzled by the newly lit lamps, I couldn't immediately make out the man's face, but I could see one of his hands, gripping hard the hilt of his dagger. That grip stopped my heart for a moment, but even my wildest imagination couldn't hope that the new guard would start our acquaintance by stabbing me, so I raised my eyes to his face.
And my heart stopped once more. I jerked upright in bed, twinging an old hip wound as I did so. I had been rather foolish during my first year, testing the guards in various ways. I winced.
The guard said softly, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."
"Not at all," I said through gritted teeth as I rubbed my hip. "I'll return the favor when I can."
It took no artifice on my part to sound annoyed, though the annoyance was aimed solely at myself. This was not the guard I had been preparing myself for. I had expected a rod-mutilating monster, and what I found myself faced with was a young man.
His face came full into the light as he stepped forward. Wearing the uniform of a Compassion guard, he looked even more like his father: he had the same thin lips and the same straight eyebrows. But the eyes were empty of all coldness – indeed, of all expression of any sort – and there was no smile on his lips, cruel or otherwise.
"My name is Thomas," he said. "I'm your new guard."
I noted the use of his given name rather than his paternal name, and with the instinct of a veteran fighter I dropped and made my attack accordingly. "Ah, yes," I said. "The son of Compassion's Keeper. I can expect great deeds from you, I'm sure."
His lips grew even thinner, but that was all; it seemed that he was well used to this mode of attack. He said, as though I had not spoken, "My job is to provide service to you during your stay at this prison, and to make your stay as comfortable as is possible under your circumstances. If you have any needs, I hope you will let me know of them."
I stared at him open-mouthed for a moment, and then I gave a hoot of laughter that resounded through the entire level. The early-morning conversations across the fire-pit paused briefly, and Sedgewick, who was passing my cell, glanced in with narrowed eyes before continuing on.
"Let me – let me understand you correctly," I said, struggling to gain control of myself. "You'll give me any service I want?"
"Any service that is in accordance with the rules of your stay."
"But the only rule is that I should not be permitted escape, either through death or any other means. So you'll give me anything else?"
"If it's within reason, yes."
"Anything at all?"
"Tell me what you want, and I'll be able to give you a firm answer." His patience, I saw with delight, was wearing down.
"Fine," I said, leaning back and pulling off the blanket to reveal my body underneath. I had given up wearing clothes at bedtime several guards before. "I want you to come over here and service me on your knees."
There was a pause. The young man's hand tightened on his dagger. I broadened my smile, trying not to be too obvious about how I was watching that hand.
"You are insolent," he said.
"Really?" I replied, letting my smirk be seen.
"Insolence in prisoners must be punished." He seemed to be the sort of man who liked stating the obvious.
"I suppose," I said with a sigh, "that you'll need your father's help with that. After all, you wouldn't have this work if it weren't for him. Nor your rank." I pointed to his shoulder, where the red stripe indicated a first-ranked guard, capable of guarding prisoners in single and dual cells. "Tell me, when you fuck prisoners, does your father stand beside you to give you hints on what to do next?"
I had been more subtle in past attacks; I doubt that I had been as successful. Dim though the cell was, I could see the red spreading down the young man's fair face to his neckline. He said, quite unnecessarily, "I will return."
"Going to fetch your father?" I asked. "Well, you'd better ask him to take the primary duties this morning. Somehow I don't think you're capable of managing the lifting part—"
My words were cut off by the sound of the inner door slamming. I leaned back in my bed, chuckling. If I could make a guard forget himself so much that he would close the inner door while outside the cell rather than inside, then I was halfway to making him kill me.
It took a while for him to return; when he did he had with him Tyrrell's guard, Oslo. "Hurry it up," said Oslo, shoving a pair of dice into his pocket. "I was just about to strip Sedgewick of his earnings."
The new guard, Thomas, ignored him. He had in his hand one of the standard whips issued to guards. I saw with disappointment that it wasn't the leaded whip, but I supposed that this was too much to hope for. Even an unleaded whip could be deadly in the right hands, and these were assuredly the right hands: the blush was gone from Thomas's face, and his eyes had turned as cool as his father's. He waited, his hands twitching with impatience, for Oslo to chain my wrists. "Front or back?" Oslo asked as he ground the links into my flesh. Since floggings on the front never occurred at Mercy, I guessed that he was curious to see how far a guard from Compassion would go.
"Back," replied Thomas. His voice was thinner than before. Oslo turned me round with the smoothness of experience and raised my chained hands above me. Swiftly he inserted the flat end of the chain into the slot in the outer wall, then turned the end so that it was locked in place.
It occurred to me that I was not taking full advantage of the moment. "Oh, so you don't even need daddy to help you with your work," I said. "You'll take anyone's help. Tell me, when you wipe yourself, does your mommy need to—"
"Oh, shut up." Oslo gave my mouth a cuff that left it bleeding. "Tom, do you want this one gagged?"
Thomas said, in a voice that sounded matter-of-fact, "I don't know. Do you give the prisoners here leather to chew on? He might bite into his tongue."
"Not for anything as trivial as this."
"Let it be, then." And then, as I drew breath, he added, in the same level voice, "You'd best not speak. You might bite your tongue at the wrong moment."
I fell silent, but only because I could hear the whistle of the whip as he tested it behind me. Having gone as far as I could to prepare the situation, I allowed myself to grow afraid.
Realistically speaking – and I had always been the most realistic prisoner at Mercy – it was unlikely that Thomas would kill me this morning. If nothing else, he had a witness watching. So this would simply be a preparation to whet his appetite for a stronger encounter in the future, one that would hopefully free me from this place. This was only a preparation.
Only a preparation. I was standing strung up, awaiting the whip of one of the most vicious guards in the nation. I felt myself begin to shake.
"Look, are you going to finish up here or not?" complained Oslo. "The game will be over at this rate."
"Give me a moment, please." Thomas was testing his whip with what seemed to me to be unnecessary thoroughness. I wondered whether this was part of the torture routinely inflicted upon Compassion's prisoners. My breathing grew more rapid.
"He's hyperventilating," Oslo observed in a bored voice. "You make him wait any longer, and he'll work himself into a faint."
"All right." And with those soft words, Thomas brought the whip down onto my back.
There were five lashes in all, the minimum for an insolent prisoner; it was over more quickly than any flogging I'd received in the past. Oslo pulled the chain from me with the efficiency of a mother pulling a napkin from her child and said, "Right, I'm off. Care to join us when you're through?"
His voice was less impatient then before, I noted through the murk of pain. Oslo was always one to appreciate a fine demonstration of lashing.
"Thanks, I'll be there in a few minutes." Thomas's voice was softer and thinner than before. He kept his gaze fixed upon the whip he was rolling into a circle until I had staggered my way to the bed-ledge. Then he looked up.
"I didn't want them to happen," he said, in the same even voice as before, "and I hope it will never happen again. If you treat me with courtesy hereafter, I can assure you I will return the courtesy."
He paused, as though waiting for me to reply, but I said nothing, so he left the cell, with a single backwards glance at me as he closed the outer door.
I waited till I heard his voice nearby, speaking to the dice players, before I flung myself onto my stomach. I did not cry; I had long since taught myself the uselessness of tears. But I came as close as I had to crying for many years: my body quivered, and my throat made sounds I tried to bite back. It was often like this at Mercy. I had prepared myself for the worst, and something yet worse had occurred.
My new guard was not a sadist. He would give me no escape.
That annoying twit Tyrrell asked me about my cut mouth that afternoon.
"Kiss from the new guard?" he called to me from where he was bent over, scrubbing clothes on the washboard. "What's your new one like, Merrick? I tell you, he can't be any worse than the one I've got. Last night Oslo—"
"Should have shoved himself into your mouth and kept you permanently gagged that way. Shut up." I tried to concentrate my thoughts on the staff I was using to heft the laundry from the boiling water. One tale among the Mercy prisoners – probably apocryphal – was of the prisoner who concluded that his only means of escape from Mercy was to jump into the laundry water, and who spent the next forty years dying of his burns. The artist in me was repelled by the idea of so uncertain a method of self-murder. As a result, all that the boiling water represented to me was far too many days spent suffering from water scorches or chemical scalds or an aching back from stirring and lifting the sodden clothes.
Today it was particularly hard to keep my mind on my work. It was not simply that I was exhausted from the work and from lack of sleep, nor that the welts on my back were being rubbed raw by the coarse cloth of my shirt. No, what my mind was trying to avoid was the thought of what awaited me back in my cell. For I had gone too far – not far enough, from one point of view, for this particular guard would refuse me the release I wanted, but I had gone too far to hope to escape with a single punishment. Even a patient guard like this one would have had time to reflect on what I had said and to make his plans accordingly. I cursed myself inwardly, and then caught Tyrrell watching me and cursed him outwardly. I felt somewhat better after that.
Thomas arrived that evening as I was engaging in my usual early-evening activity of staring at the walls. I was tired enough from the day's work to have dropped off to sleep at once, but I have always found it annoying to have my sweet dreams interrupted by a not-so-sweet visit from my guard. Best to stay awake until it was over; then I could console myself with dreams of better days.
As before, he closed only the outer door. I couldn't blame him for that; there are prisoners who consider choking their guard a pleasant pastime, though I have never found that the rewards of such an exercise outweigh the punishment that follows. Still, I wished that he had a better sense of privacy. This was going to be bad enough, without having the rest of the guards watching.
He paused at the doorway. "Good evening," he said.
I didn't reply; I've never seen the point of passing pleasantries with one's rapist. He apparently agreed with me that extended conversation would be a waste of time, for after a moment he said, "Will you take off your shirt, please?"
I took everything off. The only reason my clothes were in as good a shape as they were was that I had done my best to keep my guards from tearing at the fabric. I folded my uniform neatly upon the blankets – I always kept the blankets in a corner when not using them, so as to avoid getting the guards' stains upon them – and then, without waiting for orders, went over to the bed-shelf and placed myself in the position I found least painful, on my stomach.
To my relief, he didn't try to shift me. He walked forward, fully clothed, his hand resting lightly upon his dagger. I wasn't sure whether he meant that as a threat or whether this was simply his natural mode of walking. I kept a careful eye on the dagger in any case. When he reached me, he sat down next to me on the bed-ledge and pulled from his pocket a tiny jar.
I stared, fascinated, as he unscrewed it to reveal the ointment within. Under normal circumstances I would have been delighted – even Avery had only used spit – but my mind was still bitter with the disappointment of the morning. I heard myself say, "Did your daddy give you that as a coming-of-age present?"
His gaze flicked toward my face, then away. He dipped a finger into the ointment and then reached over and touched one of the welts on my back.
I jerked and bellowed, more from the shock than from the feel of the fiery ointment. I just managed to keep myself from hitting him. He raised his hand from my back and said, "Did that hurt?"
"Yes, it bloody well hurt!" I said, annoyed at the man's continued penchant for stating the obvious. "What is that, a salt solution?" I was trembling all through now, and was using every curse I knew against myself. I ought to have expected this, yet I hadn't guessed that he was the type of guard who would rub salt in prisoners' wounds.
He shook his head, dipping his finger into the ointment once more. "It's aloe. Lie still; it will sting for a moment before it begins to work."
I narrowed my eyes, trying to read his face, but the proof of his words' truth could be felt on my back; where the ointment touched one of my welts, the pain was beginning to ease. I closed my eyes and let him apply the rest of the ointment in silence.
He had firm hands, like that of a doctor who applies pain in an impassive manner, knowing that the pain will lead to healing. I'd heard of guards like this; they existed in prisoners' tales like beautiful princesses exist in the tales of ugly boys. I supposed that I ought to be grateful to have been assigned such a guard.
I didn't feel grateful. As I heard the sound of Thomas screwing shut the ointment jar, I said, "You were transferred from Compassion because you showed too much mercy to a prisoner, weren't you?"
I opened my eyes in time to see him turn as white as though I'd just kicked his balls. It was a gratifying sight, and I didn't bother to hide my grin.
He said stiffly, "My transfer is none of your business."
"Only your daddy's business, it seems. You'd have been ejected from the guards if it hadn't been for him protecting you, wouldn't you? What do you suppose he would think of you if he could see you acting as nurse to a prisoner who insulted you—?"
He stood up abruptly, and I tensed, waiting. But he simply said, again stiffly, "Do you have any other needs that require being tended to?"
"Only one," I said, rolling onto my side and enjoying the delicious amusement that came from seeing him shift his gaze away from my body. "It's quite simple. It should be simplest of all for you."
His eyes flicked toward my body briefly, then away again. His face said clearly that he expected to regret this question, but he asked it in a dutiful fashion: "And that need is?"
I let the lightness fall from my voice as I propped myself onto one elbow. "Help me to escape," I said quietly.
He remained frozen in place for a moment, one hand gripping the ointment jar, the other hand white-knuckled upon his dagger hilt. Then he said tersely, "No," and left the cell, slamming the outer door behind him.
I grinned. I had all the information I needed now to deal with this one.