Actions

Work Header

Mercy's Prisoner

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THREE

Breaking a guard is a favorite pastime amongst Mercy prisoners. It doesn't happen often – if any of my previous guards had held vulnerabilities, they'd hidden them well – but any prisoner who succeeds in getting a guard to kowtow to his wishes spends a long while afterwards enduring backslaps and good wishes from the other prisoners.

I could do without the good wishes, but if all went as I planned, I wouldn't be around to receive them. The first thing that was needed was a change of tactics.

When Thomas arrived the next morning – it was my weekly day of rest from work, so I was engaging in a particularly agonizing examination of the walls – I said, before he could speak, "I'm sorry about my bad temper last time. I get out of sorts occasionally."

"Not at all." His reply was cool, as were his eyes, which rested upon me heavily, like a block of ice. It came to me as I watched him that this young man, whatever his flaws might be, had received personal training from Compassion's Keeper. He could not be quite the fool he appeared to be.

I'm nothing if not flexible, as Sedgewick had pronounced on the day he tried me in a dozen different positions. I let the smile drop from my face and said in my normal voice, "Well? What brings you here?"

The coolness disappeared from his eyes, and he said, "The usual. See to your needs and all that. The dancing girls are on their way, but I'm afraid I couldn't fit the performing elephant into the stairwell."

There was a moment's silence, and then, despite myself, I burst into laughter. Thomas grinned like a boy and moved forward, keeping well away from me and resting his hand on his dagger. He inspected the rubbish hole first, then the water – going so far as to give the wall a lick – and then, satisfied, moved to the other end of the cell. "You're short a blanket," he said. "That's against regulations."

I snorted. "There aren't any regulations in the life prisons, or hadn't you noticed?"

"Well, there are customs." He was inspecting the blankets now, checking them for secreted objects. "Short-tail whip – that's the type used at Mercy. Compassion uses the black whip – longer range, harder to control. Four of the other life prisons use the straight whip – rather like a bamboo rod, but more flexible. The remainder use the bamboo rod alone. . . . Your cell could do with some tidying."

Yes, he'd been trained by a Keeper all right. I wondered whether he thought he was scaring me. "What type of bamboo rod?" I asked. "Imported or domestic? The type that splinter? We had a prisoner last year who came close to dying from the splinters alone."

"Those ought to be banned." He got up from his hands and knees from inspecting under my bed. I had retreated into the corner to allow him to do this without nervousness. As he dusted off his hands on his trousers, he said, "Mind you, if a guard does his work properly, he needn't resort to any of those." He looked over at me.

It was hard to say whether his speech was more effective as an apology or as a threat. I was beginning to think that I might have underestimated this young man. My face must have given an adequate reply, for he nodded as though I had spoken. "May I get you anything?" he asked.

"Only those dancing girls," I said. "They would be a bit more interesting than spending the rest of today staring at these walls."

He glanced at the walls. "Mm, yes. Couldn't you talk with the other prisoners?" He had to raise his voice slightly to be heard above the shouts of the other second-level prisoners, who were also back in their cells for their day of rest.

"Those bog-scum?" I raised my voice in hopes that Tyrrell would hear me. "Conversation with them would be like cleaning a rubbish hole."

He said nothing for a moment. His gaze was running over my cell again. "Some of the other prisoners have books or dice. Why don't you?"

"Some of the other prisoners have loved ones who gifted them with books or dice," I said harshly. "My loved ones considered it sufficient gift to offer testimony against me at my trial."

I don't know why I was so candid. For a moment I was afraid he would offer me sympathy; if he had, I think I would have hit him, splintering bamboo rods or not. But he simply said, "I'll be back in a minute."

I returned to contemplating the walls. Next door, Tyrrell was engaged in an amiable argument with his cellmate over whether it should be considered murder or self-murder if one prisoner helped another to die. Neither of them sounded particularly eager to try the experiment. I closed my eyes, grateful that I did not live in Compassion, where each level's prisoners lived in a single cell, and it was said that the worst abuse came, not from the guards, but from one's fellow prisoners. Here the only abuse I had to put up with from prisoners was Tyrrell's nattering voice.

I heard the outer door scrape open, and I opened my eyes to see Thomas standing at the doorway, holding dice in hand. He tossed them to me, saying, "They're Oslo's spare pair, but I'll get you your own on my day off, when I visit my fiancée."

I stared down at the ivory cubes. They were the first gift I'd received since my arrival at this place – my first gift, indeed, since Sharon gave me her flowers. I looked up to see whether Thomas expected me to be grateful. But he had already left.

o—o—o

He returned earlier than I had expected him, at midafternoon, while I was idly throwing the dice up to the ceiling and seeing whether they would fall within arm's reach. "Do they work well?" he asked, as though he had handed me some sort of esoteric machinery that required delicate skill to be run.

"Well enough," I said, "if I knew any games of solitaire."

I had spent all afternoon rehearsing my speech. I was pleased to see Thomas sit down immediately on the floor, across from me. He kept a good distance from me, I noticed, and his hand was not far from his dagger.

I found that flattering. I tossed him the dice, and he contemplated the cubes as though they were objects of a secret rite. Sighing, I began to explain to him their purpose.

He was a quick learner; by late afternoon he was winning one round out of eight, his eyes narrowed with concentration as he contemplated whether to risk the soft fish bones we were using as stakes. In the midst of one of the rounds, he said, "Why did your family testify against you?"

I had been expecting the question. I was able to keep my voice calm as I said, "I killed my niece. Look, you don't want to gamble all of your stakes at once. If you lose, you'll have nothing to play with."

"But if I gamble only a little each time, I'll never win the whole."

"Better that than losing the whole. Trust me on this." I pushed forward a few bones, tossed the dice, and grunted with satisfaction as the results turned my way.

He pushed me my winnings, saying, "How old was she?"

This was ridiculous; he must know the answer from my prison records. But I found myself saying, "Three. It was her third birthday when I killed her. I took her on a secret expedition to pick flowers for her mother. . . . I figured that, even if any of the family guessed who had done it, they'd keep quiet out of family pride. My error." I tossed the dice and cursed softly as the roll went against me.

Leaning forward to take the bones, he said, "You'd planned it beforehand, then?"

I snorted. "Do you think they'd send me to a place like this for a crime of momentary passion? I'd been planning it for a year – had notes, sketches, maps. My family found them after her death and turned the evidence over to the magistrates. . . . Look, you're gambling too high again."

"Sorry." He pulled back half the stakes and said, "A full year?"

I shrugged. "Or since I was in my calf-days, depending on how you look at it. That's how long I'd had fantasies of killing someone. I used to practice murder techniques on any stray cats I caught."

I glanced over at him to see how he'd take this, but he didn't look up from the dice he was fingering. He said, "It happens that way sometimes. You discover early on that you're different from how people expect you to be."

It was the opening I'd been waiting for; I'm not sure why I didn't take it. Possibly because this was the first person, aside from nosy Tyrrell, who had demonstrated any interest in my story. I waited for the dice to finish rolling, then said, "Yes, well, I suppose not many men can say they've fulfilled the supreme dream of their childhood. I still have dreams about killing her, you know – sweet, sweet dreams. Those memories are a source of never-ending pleasure to me."

I looked over at him again, but if he was shocked, he was doing well at hiding it. He carefully pushed forward a few bones and said, "Dreams can be pleasant, however strange they may seem to outsiders. But is forcing someone else to live out your dreams fair?"

I snorted again. "You sound like my father. 'Imaginings are one thing, acts are another' – that's the only thing he said to me when the soldiers came to arrest me. He never spoke to me again. A bit late, that advice; I could have used it at age six, when he found me methodically stabbing all of my sister's dolls. But he didn't say anything to me then or any of the times in later years when he caught me at that sort of thing. He just took the dagger away and beat me, acting as though he wasn't hosting a murderer in his house."

I was surprised at how bitter my voice sounded; I had thought that I'd pushed these memories aside long ago. With his straight brows drawn low as he contemplated my stakes, Thomas said, "Would it have made a difference if he'd spoken to you?"

I thought about this a moment, then shook my head. "Probably not. I knew well enough what people would think of me once they guessed what I was, as they inevitably would. I figured that, if people were going to despise me, I might as well have had some pleasure along the way to make up for that. . . . It's your turn."

"Mm?" He shook his head, as though freeing himself from some daydream. I found myself wondering whether he was actually listening to my replies. He picked up the dice and said, "So you think it was worth it?"

"Worth this? Nothing's worth this. But if I could have gotten away with it . . . If you were to hand me your dagger and send Sharon into this cell, I'd do it again. Your roll."

He took the dice silently, and I thought I'd finally shocked him from this useless conversation. After a while, though, he said, "Would it need to be a little girl you killed?"

I grinned at him then. "No, it could be anyone. A young man of twenty would do."

Disconcertingly, he smiled back. "If you're trying to scare me, you're too late," he said.

"You're afraid of me?" I said, pleasantly surprised.

"All of the guards are. You have the reputation of being the most vicious prisoner at Mercy. You've sent five guards to the city hospitals, one of whom left service permanently because of you."

"Oh." It took me a minute to remember the guards in question. I had undertaken a lot of risky deeds during my first year, back when I still thought they could do any good. "It was self-defense," I said finally.

"I've no doubt it was." He tossed the dice down, saying, "I'm out of stakes; you win this round."

I looked down at the dice, trying to figure out how I'd won. Thomas rose to his feet to stretch. I leaned back against the bed-shelf, saying, "You'll get better, provided you keep your stakes low. . . . I suppose they assigned you to me because they figured that a guard from Compassion could keep me in hand."

I thought for a moment he wouldn't reply. Then he said, in a low voice, "The assignment was arranged by my father. Look, I have duties to see to; may I get you anything?"

"No need." I smiled up at him. "I have everything I need now."

o—o—o

From that point on, we played dice every evening. After the first day, our stakes were hard candies supplied by Thomas. If I won, I kept all the candies, while if Thomas won, I kept all the candies. It was that sort of game.

I made sure he won at least half the time, though; I wanted to keep his temper sweet. It wasn't hard. If I'd tried to strangle him, I suspect that he would have appeared at my doorway with an apology for failing his duty as my guard. I should have had utter contempt for his softness, but something about the way his eyes turned cool when I took an occasional misstep warned me that I ought not to hurry my conclusions about him.

After the first day, the subject of his father didn't come up, and I cursed myself for missed opportunities. I tried making general enquiries about his family, but to no avail. From the gossip of the other guards, I heard tales about Thomas's fiancée, whose primary virtue appeared to be that she would beat him bloody if he so much as turned his eyes in lust toward another human being.

Thomas never spoke of her to me. Instead, we discussed philosophy.

"It's like in music," he said. "There are strict rules determining which notes sound beautiful together."

"I heard a foreign band once that didn't adhere to any rules about beautiful notes," I replied.

He shrugged. "Maybe you just didn't know their rules well enough. The rules don't have to be the same everywhere. But there has to be some sort of regulation, some sort of boundary, or there's no beauty."

I shook my head as I passed him the dice. "Beauty's in freedom, not in prison walls. Listen: Who are the happiest men in Mercy? The guards, because they have no rules to adhere to except that they should keep us imprisoned. The rest of us have the rules – we're the miserable ones."

He sighed as he watched the dice tumble. "If you make a rule that random notes are beautiful, that won't make the notes any more beautiful. Rules have to make sense. When they make sense, the results are more beautiful than a lack of rules."

He was filled with pretty nonsense like that. I listened to it just as much as was necessary to keep the conversation going. My own thoughts were on how to break beyond the boundaries imposed upon me so I could regain my freedom, and my nights were filled, more than ever, with thoughts of Sharon. I would wake each morning with a sigh of happiness. "Beautiful boundaries," my ass. If Thomas had known what it was like on that day of freedom . . .

All this time he was taking care to keep his distance from me. I began to suspect that this was as much courtesy to me as it was security to himself. Though he never said so explicitly, it was clear from all his talk of boundaries what he thought of the other guards' behavior toward their charges. I asked him once, when I had gotten to know him well enough to ask such questions, how he got along with the other guards.

"Well enough," was his surprising answer. "They think I'm eccentric, of course, but I don't try to suggest that my way is better than theirs, so we get along fine."

This would have given me pause for thought, if I'd been in any mood to pause. But the more I got to know the young man, the more sure I was of the success of my plan, and the more impatient I was to put it in action. The trouble was how to do so without making him unduly wary.

I was unable to take my first steps until the morning he arrived at my cell wearing cool eyes.

At first I was afraid the cause was me. It was the beginning of the day, but I had been awake since well before lamp-lighting, having been woken by screams in another cell. I found this irritating, as I'd long since trained myself to ignore such routine noises. Now I was curled up on the bed-shelf with a book, a gift from Thomas. The only thing more boring to me than walls are books, but I hadn't told him this, naturally, and I was in the habit of bringing out the book during the minutes before I expected him to arrive each day.

Catching sight of Thomas's eyes, I slowly uncurled myself, my body tingling in preparation for whatever punishment I was about to receive. It would be an unjust punishment, of course, but I was used to those.

But all he said was, "I can't stay for long. There's a meeting of the guards this morning."

"What sort of meeting?" I asked, not really caring.

He had already turned away, though, and was kneeling next to my blankets. "They still haven't delivered the third blanket. I'll have to get it from supply myself. Nothing works in this prison the way it should—" His voice broke off abruptly. From where I sat, facing his back, I could see the trembling along his shoulder-line.

Someone once said to me, "Don't stand useless! Do something!" Well, all my attempts at doing since that day had ended in disaster; I had long since adopted the philosophy that it is better to stand back and let matters take whatever course they will. So it could only have been unusual curiosity on my part that prompted me to rise from the bed-shelf and walk toward Thomas.

I was still three steps behind him and just starting to put my hand forward when he rose and whirled, faster than a whip. The dagger was in his hand before he had risen. It was the first time since my flogging that I'd truly seen him at work, and if I'd had any doubts about where he received his training, they were erased in that moment.

It unnerved me, so naturally I reacted with a snarl. "Put that bloody blade away before you hurt yourself, calf-boy. Do you think I have nothing better to do this morning than face the leaded whip for trying to strangle you?"

"I'm sorry." The dagger was already in its sheath before I'd had time to speak. "I'm not at my best today."

"So it would seem." I was tempted to let the matter die there – I'd lost whatever driblet of curiosity had driven me forward – but I couldn't think of any way to step back without looking nervous, so I said, "What's wrong with you anyway? You're acting like a jittery three-year-old."

For a moment he didn't reply; then he said softly, "Sedgewick found Harrow in bed with Dorn this morning."

"What?" This was news of the decade. Harrow was the older prisoner whom Dorn had been whipped for defending. Love affairs between prisoners were an old tale, but until now, the most that any pair not cellmated had managed to accomplish was a two-minute coupling in the kitchen when a guard stepped away from supervising the workers. That coupling had taken place in front of a dozen prisoners; the desperate yearning of prisoner love-mates was well known.

"How did Harrow manage that?" I asked, my curiosity returned.

"They haven't figure out yet; that's what the meeting's about. There will probably be new customs instituted that may affect you. . . ." His voice trailed off. It was clear that, for once, his mind was not on me.

"What of Harrow and Dorn?" I asked, giving him the lead he wanted.

All at once the chill was back in his eyes, and when he spoke, his voice was colorless. "They have already received part of their punishment. Harrow was forced to watch while Sedgewick raped Dorn. Then Harrow's guard put his whip to Harrow while Sedgewick told Dorn, at every stroke, that it was all his fault. Harrow made hardly a sound, I'm told, but Dorn was screaming by the end. They've put Harrow down on the first level, where he'll stay for a week; then he's to be transferred to the third level."

He recited this tale without any shock in his voice – and indeed, I could have told him several dozen variations upon it. So I jerked with surprise in the next moment when he suddenly said, with the ferocity of a snake striking, "It's not right."

"Right?" I gave a dry laugh. "Who's to say what's right or wrong in a prison with no boundaries?"

"Oh, there are boundaries all right." He pointed at my blanket, taking on suddenly the voice of the supply master. "'No, Merrick can't be given a third blanket; he was given three blankets upon arrival. Yes, some prisoners give back their third blanket, but Merrick can't have any of their blankets; he was given three blankets upon arrival. No, you can't buy Merrick a blanket; he was given three blankets upon arrival. . . .' If they can come up with such blastedly rigid regulations for counting blankets, why can't they bind the guards to make them treat the prisoners like human beings rather than cattle?"

"My father's a cattle farmer," I replied. "I envy his beasts."

"Then you see what I mean." He was pacing back and forth along the edge of the cell now, like a newbie prisoner. "There are customs for everything in this prison: when the lamps should be lit and dimmed, what sort of shifts the prisoners should be given, what sort of luxuries the prisoners should be permitted, and so on. If we can decide that prisoners should be permitted fruit no more than four times a year, why shouldn't we decide that guards should not be allowed to ill-treat their prisoners?"

"Well," I said, "have you tried suggesting this to your father?"

He stopped in midstride and looked back at me. I waited, my body tingling in anticipation of his reply.

"Tom!" From behind us, Oslo clanged his dagger against the bars of my door as he passed. "Give your love-mate a goodbye kiss and hurry your body. The meeting's about to start."

"Thanks, Oslo." Thomas turned, and I stepped back to give him room to unlock the outer door.

"Your love-mate?" I said as Oslo greeted Sedgewick cheerfully nearby. Sedgewick grunted in reply. "Is that what the guards call me now?"

He shrugged. "They can't think of any other explanation for why I treat you as I do. Simple humanity doesn't seem motive enough."

"No," I said softly as he stepped away. "It doesn't, does it?"

o—o—o

Thomas failed to arrive at his usual time that afternoon. I didn't see him till the evening, when he appeared, with the other guards, at the disciplinary meeting held for the prisoners.

It was conducted, like all such meetings, in the disciplinary hall. The prison's so-called first level actually consisted of three levels: the balcony extending off of the Keeper's quarters, where announcements were made and major punishments administered; below it the disciplinary hall, where the prisoners stood; and under the hall, deep and dark and cold, the disciplinary cells.

Not that warmth could readily be found during early spring at any level of the round tower housing Mercy's prisoners. Rank helped to determine such matters, though: the higher the level, the greater the warmth. I had been assigned to the second level since three weeks after my arrival – the sixth level had been nice while it lasted – but I was no stranger to the frigid cells on the first level.

Now all of us prisoners stood in the disciplinary hall, while the guards looked down at us from above, aside from the few who were kept at close range to maintain order. Thomas was among the guards above; he was standing near Mercy's Keeper, looking no different from the other guards, but the chill was back in his eyes.

We were told the consequences for Dorn and Harrow's deed: All privileges for prisoners stopped for a month. New "customs" that further cut the limited amount of cell visiting between prisoners that had been permitted in the past. A new regulation forbidding speech between prisoners at work; I saw Tyrrell's face fall at that announcement. Restrictions on the hours during which prisoners could shout at each other from their cells. And so on – I grew bored after a certain point and stopped listening.

I was amused but not surprised to see that none of the regulations were aimed at the guards who – prisoners' rumors had already determined – were at fault in this case. It was said that a cross-cell visit between Harrow and Dorn on the previous evening had gone awry when Harrow's guard, Rufus, was called away on an urgent family matter, and Dorn's guard let himself be lured away to a dice game. Within a short while, Sedgewick had become so absorbed in the game that he had forgotten about the prisoners who were now making frantic love together, convinced that this would be their only chance. As, indeed, it would.

There were some grumbles from the prisoners during the announcements, but not many; the guards nearby had whips in hand. Judiciously, Mercy's Keeper permitted us a few minutes to grouse together before we were led back to our cells.

"So what do you think?" Tyrrell asked me.

I didn't reply. I was watching the man who had just stepped out from the Keeper's quarters and was making his way toward one of the guards.

Thomas sighted him a moment later. He stiffened, like a dog meeting an enemy, then made his way over to the cold-eyed man awaiting him. His father said something to him – I could guess that it was much the same as Tyrrell's question had been – and what followed I can only describe as the most entertaining theatrical production I have ever had the opportunity to attend.

Well-trained guards do not fight in public, and both of these men were assuredly well-trained. No voices were raised, no gestures were made, no fists were clenched. All of the activity came in the form of the expressions, which built, like a beautiful piece of music, into a crashing crescendo. I found myself wondering whether this melody was regulated by boundaries, or whether I would be privileged to witness one of the few guard-to-guard murders to take place in the history of the life prisons.

It appeared there were boundaries. The two men stepped back – they had ample room, for the other guards, seeing their expressions, had elected to stay far back from Compassion's Keeper and his son. A few more words were said, apparently of the conventional sort. Compassion's Keeper gave a stiff nod of farewell to his son and returned to where Mercy's Keeper was watching all this with ill-kept amusement. Thomas turned away and, without any hesitation, walked over to join a conversation taking place between Oslo and several of the other guards. It was hard to decide which man had fared better in the contest; they both gave the appearance of being fresh from the fray.

"So what do you think?"

At first I thought Tyrrell's question referred to my assessment of the battle above; then I realized that he was still concerned with more mundane matters. I said, "Anyone who gives his heart to someone else in this place shouldn't be surprised if those are the results."

Tyrrell's expression turned from eager enquiry to something more closed. After a moment he said quietly, "You're a cold man, Merrick."

I shrugged and pointed to the frost-laden walls. "Could be the surroundings, don't you think?"

"Maybe," he said slowly. "But I think you'd be cold anyway."

He stopped speaking to me after that day. Even on the worst days, fortune can shine.

o—o—o

Mercy was quietly restless during the next couple of weeks, as is often the case after a disciplinary meeting. Despite the new regulations on prisoners' interactions, rumors flew between the prisoners' cells as freely as before. From one of those rumors I learned that Thomas had successfully intervened on Harrow's behalf, arguing that the hard flogging that prisoner had received made him a poor candidate for a week in the chill disciplinary cells. What if Harrow should die? Mercy's Keeper agreed, suspending the isolation sentence but refusing Thomas's request that Harrow remain on the second level.

Myself, I couldn't help but wonder whether this was all a clever ploy by Harrow to get himself moved up. Not only was it warmer on the upper levels, but there was less time spent with guards. Rather than one guard being assigned to each prisoner, on the upper levels one guard was assigned to each half dozen cells. This had obvious advantages for the prisoner, come nightfall.

It was a continuing joy to me now to spend my nights free of guards. Every now and then, when Thomas was on night watch and he noticed that I was still awake, he would call out a soft greeting, but he never entered my cell after the day-lamps were extinguished. I could lie on my bed for hour after hour, watching the pattern of firelight upon the walls and hearing the grunts and groans in adjoining cells, smug in the knowledge that I would still be unmolested come morning.

This is not to say that I let my thoughts slip from my true goal. During the daytime, I made what I could of our opportunities to talk: Thomas's brief visits in the mornings to see whether I had any needs before the work-day began, and his longer visits in the evenings and on rest-days, when we threw dice and exchanged seemingly idle talk. To my frustration, I had run out of luck again in finding a way to get him to talk about his father. Finally, lacking greater inspiration, I asked him what the fight had been about.

He was silent through the next three rolls of the dice; then he said abruptly, "Did your father want you to be a cattle-farmer?"

"I expect so," I said. "I never made the mistake of letting him think I did."

He gave a soft chuckle. "I don't recall ever being asked. It was one of those unwritten customs that everyone takes for granted."

His story was much as I had guessed it to be. He had been raised by a mother who wept for hours upon seeing an ant squashed and by a father whose idea of a pleasant rest-day activity was to take his five-year-old son to major prison floggings. Surprisingly, the boy had managed to steer a sane path in life, embracing his father's desire that he should become a guard at a life prison, but maintaining his own views on how to do so.

"My problem was that I gained most of my knowledge about life prisons from books," he said, fingering the now-forgotten dice. "Of course I heard my father's tales when he came home to visit on his days off, but I held faith that somehow his stories could be reconciled with the books I'd been reading, which told how the life prisons were supposed to work."

"Is that where you got the litany you chanted me about making my stay comfortable?"

He nodded. "The original idea behind the life prisons was that some men had forfeited the right to remain free, but that they retained all their other rights, most especially the right to life. That was why these were named 'life prisons.' The life prison guards had two duties: to protect the rights of our nation's people by keeping the prisoners confined, and to protect the rights of the prisoners by keeping them alive and occupied with productive work."

The side of his mouth turned up as he let the dice trickle through his fingers. "It's still there in the language; when you become a guard, you enter into service. But somewhere along the way the original ideals were lost, I think because nobody took the trouble to codify them into rules. The original creators of the life prisons seemed to have assumed that the guards would go on behaving in a civilized fashion, offering as humane a treatment as was possible to men who must be locked away for life."

I gave a loud snort at this, and Thomas smiled. "I know – they really were idealists. So was I, till my father became Keeper."

One of the Keeper's privileges is that his family can live in prison with him. This happened when Thomas was twelve, and from that time forward he had the opportunity to see a life prison in its full glory.

"I suppose you're wondering why I became a guard anyway," he said. He'd been staring at the ground, but now he raised his head to give me a half-smile.

"Not really," I said. "Good hours. Unlimited sex. Best of all, the thrilling chance to wield a leaded whip."

He laughed, drawing his legs up to his chest so that he could rest his chin on his knees. "The hours are terrible. No, the problem is that my father is right: I do have the qualities that make for a good guard. I'm methodical and can organize efficiently. I get along well with the other guards. I picked up the various skills I needed easily—"

"Such as administering punishment in a cool fashion?" I suggested.

He nodded. "I'm grateful I inherited that from my father. It's not as easy for me as it is for him, but I'd rather run the danger of being too cold in my approach than end up too hot. Keeping control of oneself is half the battle of being a guard."

"You should teach that to the other guards," I said dryly. "Not many of them know the meaning of the term 'self-control.' So you're the perfect guard?"

"Far from perfect, but I'll do." He rolled the dice back and forth with the tips of his boots for a moment before saying, "My father wants me to become Compassion's Keeper. He's just waiting for me to acquire the proper amount of experience before he retires in my favor."

"So? Compassion could do worse."

He flung himself to his feet, so suddenly that I retreated in an automatic manner, keeping my eye on his dagger. But his vision was blind to me. He strode back and forth across the front of the cell, saying, "If I became Keeper, it would be an endorsement of this lunatic system that is used to control prisoners. How can I come out of my quarters to say, 'Ah, this prisoner was found loving another prisoner? Beat him till he bleeds, then throw him in a lightless cell for a week.'"

"You're endorsing the system now, by being a guard," I reminded him.

He stopped pacing, and his lips thinned. "Yes, I know. That's why—" He stopped.

Hoping we had finally reached the point I had been seeking these past three weeks, I said, "That's why you helped the prisoner at Compassion?"

From the startled look on his face, I gathered that his thoughts had been elsewhere, but after a moment during which I held my breath, he said in a quiet voice, "Yes, that's why. I thought I could do some good, if not for all the prisoners, then for one."

"By helping him to escape?"

I was rewarded this time by a look of shock, quickly shuttered. He sat down cross-legged and said evenly, "I didn't know the news had reached here. My father tried to ensure few people heard about it."

I decided there was no harm in letting him feel indebted to me. "I guessed – but I haven't shared my guesses with anyone. I take it the escape wasn't successful?"

"No, thank goodness." He caught my look and said, "My father showed me the prisoner's records afterwards. The man had been in and out of prisons for thirty years. He kept promising he'd reform his ways, and then he'd go and do some deed that was even more dreadful than before. It would have been a tragedy if he'd escaped, like letting a deadly leopard loose among schoolchildren. I deserved the discipline I've been receiving for that."

"Of course." As I said, I'm nothing if not adaptable. I was marking my new course before he'd finished speaking. "We're in life prison for a reason, don't forget that. Still, it seems like an overly harsh sentence to me. All of us here would probably have been better off if we'd been given the death sentence."

He glanced at me briefly but said nothing; he had returned to fingering the dice.

I let the matter go for the moment, saying, "You agree with your father on this, but not on other matters?"

He nodded. "I've tried talking to him about our disagreements. We . . . Well, you saw for yourself how our arguments go."

"'Never argue with one who loves you,'" I said, quoting the old proverb. "Emotions get in the way of debate."

"That's just it." He rolled the dice back and forth with his fingers, as though he were a long-time dicer. "Despite everything, we care about each other, and it hurts both of us that the other person won't be the way we want him to be. My father keeps trying to mold me into his image of an ideal guard."

"Hmm." I had been about to end the conversation, having achieved what I wanted, but now, thinking back on the cold-eyed man with his firm grip upon the young man's shoulder, I had one of my few brilliant moments.

"Has it occurred to you," I said slowly, "that your father might respect you more if you broke free of him entirely on disciplinary matters? Suppose you went to him and said, 'Sir, I wish you to give me precisely the same treatment as all the other guards receive. If I disobey rules' – there's only one rule, but never mind – 'if I disobey rules, I expect to be punished, but otherwise I want the exact same freedom that the other guards have to do as they wish. You've given them the freedom to rape prisoners; I want the freedom to refrain from raping prisoners. You've given them the freedom to flog prisoners for trivialities; I want the freedom to flog prisoners only for major offenses. If I decide, on my own initiative, to create boundaries in my interactions with my prisoners, then it should concern you no more than it concerns you if another guard decides to ignore all boundaries with his prisoners.'"

He was smiling before I'd finished my speech. Throwing the dice up and catching them, he said, "I wish I'd had you as my counsellor two years ago, when I first became a guard. I think it's too late now; my father and I have become too fixed in our approach toward each other. Still, I'll give it some thought. I have another three weeks to decide, before I go back."

My stomach did not quite fall to the floor, but it jiggled up and down for a moment. I suppose I must have looked queasy. "Go back?"

His face immediately took on its tone of profound apology. "I'm sorry, I thought you'd been told. My discipline only lasts two months. My father said, 'We'll see how you handle the worst prisoner at Mercy; then we'll decide your future here.'"

Under ordinary circumstances, I would have been flattered by this speech. As it was, I was too busy cursing myself.

It wasn't as though I hadn't known our time together would be short. The shifting of guards from prisoner to prisoner was one of the unwritten customs of the life prisons; I'd never had a guard for more than six months at a time. But three weeks! How could I finish my plans in the space of three weeks?

"I'll be sorry to see you go," I said finally, my most genuine contribution to the conversation so far.

He smiled and ducked his head, looking suddenly his age. "I'll be sorry to leave. I've had twenty-eight prisoners" – he spoke this number casually, as though every guard kept track of such information – "but none that took the trouble that you have to ask after my life."

"Well," I said, trying not to smile, "some guards find those sorts of questions offensive. They prefer to discuss such matters only with their friends."

I saw a hint of his smile as he glanced up. "I suppose I'll develop friends amongst the guards eventually. I don't have any friends outside the prison; I've lived at Compassion for the past eight years."

"What about your fiancée?"

It was only the second time I'd seen him blush. It made him look even younger than before. "Well . . . she doesn't exist, actually."

"Oh?" I did my best to sound surprised.

"No, I invented her when I first became a guard. She was a convenient excuse to the other guards for me not to rape my prisoners. I suppose I should put her to rest. Everyone has guessed by now that I'm not held back from rape by a jealous fiancée."

"You'd best get rid of her," I said, "if there's any chance that you'll fall in love while in prison. That seems likely, considering you spend nearly all your time here."

He looked up sharply then, but only said, "I haven't met any guards yet that I fancy that way."

I shrugged. "So," I concluded, "you hate the life prisons, think that the men who run the prisons are morally deplorable . . . and the person you are closest to in love is the Keeper of Compassion Prison."

His eyes turned chill, and there was an accompanying shiver down my back. But it seemed that his coolness was reserved for himself, for after a moment he said in a level voice, "You have a talent for pinpointing the primary source of pain. You would have made a good guard."

I smiled at him as he rose to leave. "Not enough control," I said.

Which was a lie. In my opinion, I'd controlled that conversation very well indeed.

o—o—o

I knew what he wanted, of course. I doubt that he did; when I caught him looking at me during our dice games, he would show no signs of embarrassment or shyness, only a faint puzzlement, as though he were hearing a foreign melody sung in a tonal scheme he did not yet understand.

Anyone else at Mercy could have deciphered the mystery during the interval between two lashes: he had Wistful Virgin inscribed all over him. But apparently, being unaware of the true nature of his interest in me, he had given no hint of it to others. Though I kept a careful ear to the rumors, it seemed that the guards' references to me being his love-mate were purely jocular.

You will be wondering by now why I didn't take advantage of this. Indeed, I wondered it myself. It would be an obvious method by which to affix his affections to me and get what I wanted. I suppose I did not quite dare to go that far, knowing that I was dealing with a well-trained guard who would be on the alert for obvious ploys. The guard who risks himself for his beloved prisoner is a weary cliché; better that I not alert Thomas to the fact that he was well on his way to living out that cliché.

There were other reasons, of course. The faintest thought of sex had become distasteful to me within my first year at Mercy, and even if this had not been the case, I would have received no pleasure from a night encounter with Thomas – no pleasure unless he allowed me to stab him a few times. I'd given up at an early age trying to understand what drew other males to sex. The best I could guess was that it was akin to what had drawn me to a flowering glade with Sharon.

Sexually naive as Thomas was, I could have hidden this from him, but I was grateful that there was no necessity for me to do so. Indeed, I was receiving a great deal of enjoyment out of the fact that our relationship was seemingly honest – more honest than any relationship I'd ever had with a guard.

The black lie poisoning the core of our relationship remained hidden, and time was running out for me to make use of it.

Life was much as usual in the meantime. Tyrrell's cellmate had acquired a new guard, one who was not averse to the sight of blood. Loud moans came from that cell every night now. The mind of a quiet young prisoner came suddenly, shatteringly undone, and the youth had to be hauled from the laundering room as he screamed his fears about the spiders into whose web he had fallen. He was reassigned to the easier work of weaving, which activity seemed natural to him in light of his new surroundings.

Sedgewick was now supervising the laundering room, and he was amusing himself by recounting to me tales of days gone by. He was a sadist without doubt, but one who had such adamantine control over himself that he was of no use to me. I ignored him, as I ignored the familiar mutter of "Baby killer" from the other prisoners. Tyrrell still was not speaking to me.

And so it continued. A rest-day came and went, with the usual tedium relieved only by my dice-game with Thomas, but I could not figure out how to bring us closer to my goal. There were only ten days left now.

And then something happened that was so glorious, so utterly wonderful that it was as though my dreams of Sharon had suddenly turned real, and the second level was covered with a soft drift of sweet-scented flowers.

A prisoner was sentenced to the leaded whip.