Vere had grown up as the only child and heir of the widower lord of a southern Vovimian estate. It was a way of life that was already dead in other provinces of the Kingdom of Vovim; within forty years, that way of life would be gone from southern Vovim as well. A new generation was growing up, one that wished to turn its back on the old ways.
Vere was part of that new generation. Having allied himself at an early age with a group of progressive-minded young nobles, he spoke with contempt of the slavery on his father's estate, of the forced bond between tenant and lord that caused even the strongest of freeholders to kneel and mumble subservient words upon meeting his father. He spoke with anger of the harsh punishments his father meted out to those who dared to disobey him, and of the even harsher measures his father took to ensure that his slaves and tenants understood that he alone was the one who controlled them.
Vere did not speak to others of the mixture of sickness and pleasure he felt whenever he witnessed any of this.
In the year 365, civil war broke out in Vovim. The ostensible cause of the uprising of lords against their King was their demand that the King reform his Hidden Dungeon, whose torturers were notorious for their abuse of prisoners. A few young radicals, such as Vere, demanded that this royal dungeon be closed altogether.
Now nineteen and still a child by Vovimian standards, Vere joined the rebel army joyfully. The King, in one of his typically idiotic decisions that had brought about civil war in the first place, reacted by killing his long-time loyal advisor, Vere's father.
In the chaos that followed upon the declaration of war, Vere managed to slip home to his estate. The muddle-minded King had not thought to strip Vere of his inheritance, so Vere took on that task himself. He freed the slaves that now belonged to him, gave the tenants the deeds to their property, and sold the rest of the estate, which no longer had the needed slaves to run it. The considerable amount of money this brought he gave to the former slaves and contributed to the rebel army, earning his fellow rebels' admiration and respect.
Thanks to his donation, the rebels were able to successfully win battles for three years. Inevitably, though, the mighty weight of the royal army began to crush the mutinous movement. Vere was among the rebel lords who were captured after one particularly unsuccessful battle.
Most of the rebel lords were executed. A few of the younger ones, such as Vere, were exiled to the Magisterial Republic of Mip, since they were considered to be of no further threat.
This was a tactical mistake on the part of the King. For the next five years, Vere was the foremost of the exiles who warned loudly that the Vovimian royal army was a threat to its Midcoast neighbors, Mip and Yclau. Five years later, when the young rebels returned from exile, it was with the financial backing of the Mippite government and with the military backing of Yclau. The Queendom of Yclau had long ago learned the futility of trying to conquer Vovimian territory, but the Yclau people were not averse to arranging the downfall of a King who had attacked their borders so often in the past.
The royal army fell in 375; shortly thereafter, the King was executed for his crimes. An inevitable power struggle began between the rebel army and the King's heir, but the heir was a wiser man than his father had been, and it appeared that some sort of accommodation would eventually be reached between the lords and the monarchy. The lords who had been exiled were now high in power, taking control over many of the men and women who had once owed their loyalty to the old King. To be a lord now in Vovim was to hold power as mighty as a monarch's.
Vere was not among those lords.
His case had been an unusual one from the start. Having stripped himself of all sources of income, he had depended on his token army stipend to stay alive. With that gone, he had been forced, during his time in exile, to take employment. He drifted from job to job, always choosing honorable positions such as administrative work for the magisterial seats. His greatest energy was devoted to winning Mippite backing to the rebels' cause. Once that was done, he had time – all too much time – to think about what had driven him to free his father's slaves and tenants and to fight for the freedom of Vovim's royal prisoners.
What drove him, he knew by now, was the temptation to abuse such men and women himself.
He had a rare honesty that would not allow him to avoid acknowledging this truth, once it had become clear in his mind. He dreamed of his childhood still – of the slaves kneeling in silent submission to his father, of their cries of pain as his father hit them and had them beaten, and even of the screams of the dungeon prisoners whom Vere had never seen.
He wanted it all. He wanted such power over others: he wanted to see men and women drop quailing to their knees in front of him and to accept with fear and subservience any blows he gave them.
He cursed himself after every dream of this sort; he cursed himself even more after the dreams began to haunt his days. Eventually, he recognized that curses would not be enough to cure him of his problem. Having spent a lifetime praying to Mercy alone, he now began to seek the guidance of Hell, that god who had been forced to turn his destructive impulses to good. If any god could help him, it was Hell.
Not long afterwards, Vere heard an Yclau bookseller singing a ballad from a book he was hawking on the streets of the Mippite capital. Vere paused to listen, only because the book was penned by the leader of Yclau's Guild of Commoners, whose cause for social equality Vere supported. Once he began to listen, though, he realized that Hell had answered his prayers.
He bought the book, and then bought every book by this author that he could obtain. The ballads had already become famous in their homeland. Many of the songs held the same sort of sentiments that Vere was known to publicly espouse: a desire for a world in which all men were equal, in which no man held greater power unless he had fairly earned such power.
Yet amidst these ballads were tales of a different sort. They told of the High Seeker of Yclau's Eternal Dungeon: a man, it was said, whose desire to control and destroy was as great as that of any Vovimian torturer. Since the High Seeker had in fact learned his trade in Vovim, this was hardly surprising. The ballads told of how the High Seeker had bound himself by the Eternal Dungeon's code of ethics in order to do no true harm to the prisoners whose submission and pain gave him pleasure. The ballads also told of the High Seeker's love-mate, who stood by him with loyalty.
Beyond that, there were tantalizing hints of what bound the love-mate to the High Seeker – hints of Vovimian sacred drama that resonated deeply in Vere's soul. But those hints were too faint to offer Vere a clear outline of how the High Seeker had sought peace of mind in his private life.
By the time the King's army finally fell to the rebels, Vere had made up his mind. He had already volunteered to stay in Mip while the other lords returned to the fight, saying that there needed to be at least one noble left in exile in order to persuade the Mippites to back the new government that the rebels were trying to achieve. Now that the King was gone, his fellow rebels were urging Vere to return home and take up the reins of the power he had helped win. He refused. Such power, he knew, was too great a temptation for a man like himself. In southern Vovim, although slavery was now outlawed, many members of the lower class still accepted passively whatever orders they were given by their lords. Vere could not afford to allow himself to come into contact with men and women who would accept without protest any blows he gave them.
His road forked from the road of the other lords after that. Having less need for Mip once they had gained power, and being busy exercising the power they had sought for so long, the Vovimian lords gradually forgot about him. In Mip, Vere became just another high-born foreigner in a nation with many high-born foreigners.
He successfully applied for Mippite citizenship. He received official commendations from the Mippite government for his role in championing the poor and powerless in Vovim, a role that was now past. He planned a trip to the Eternal Dungeon, but then cancelled the trip when he learned that the man mentioned in the ballads was no longer High Seeker. What had happened to him, nobody seemed to know. The leader of the Commoners' Guild, who might or might not have been able to shed light on this matter, was embroiled in his own battles with the Yclau government and was unlikely to want to waste time advising an out-of-power lord on a matter unrelated to his guild.
Vere spent one long night lying in chains upon the altar of Hell in the Vovimian temple at Mip City before he made up his mind. The High Seeker had received the peace of mind he needed by accepting the ethical code of his dungeon. Vere would do the same by applying for work at the life prison at Mip City and accepting whatever code of ethics bound the guards there.
Within a single day of his arrival at Mercy Life Prison, Vere realized how terrible a mistake he had made.
No code of ethics bound the guards at Mercy. Indeed, what customs existed were in the exact opposite direction: guards were encouraged to abuse their prisoners, to rape and beat the prisoners at the guards' whim, in an effort to break the prisoners utterly, so that these dangerous men could be figuratively kept on leashes, like wild animals brought to bay.
The temptations he faced were so strong that he could taste them like blood. He told himself he should resign at once; he told himself he should walk out the door and never come back.
He stayed. What kept him there was the realization that, even without abusing prisoners, he could permit himself to fulfill some of his dreams.
The prisoners were dangerous; they did require a certain amount of discipline to be handled. Vere, having been raised from childhood to discipline the powerless, knew instinctively how to handle his charges. Not with abuse – he never allowed himself to go that far. But with strict, firm words, and with beatings where the words were not heeded, he was able to bring much-needed order and discipline into the lives of prisoners who had often received no discipline before, leading them to commit their terrible crimes.
Some of his prisoners, Vere was amazed to find, even respected him for the firmness he showed in handling them. These prisoners were not like the slaves and tenants he had known in southern Vovim; they would not accept with silent submission any abuse they received from their guards. Vere was not faced with the degree of temptation he would have endured in his homeland. But by the same token, the prisoners were willing to express their thankfulness if a guard treated them in a fair fashion. His prisoners respected him for his restraint, his fellow guards respected him for not putting up with nonsense from recalcitrant prisoners, and gradually Vere developed a reputation that was as high, in its own way, as the one he had possessed in Vovim.
He stayed at Mercy, and he kept silent about the dreams he continued to have of hitting his prisoners for no reason except that it gave him pleasure, or of having his prisoners kneel at his feet and give him their willing submission.
He would not become his father. If he had to kill himself, he would keep that vow.
"Shame," Lord Vere said to Llewellyn. "Shame is something we must never feel. We serve Hell, yes, but Hell is Mercy's brother, and she loves her dark brother, provided that his actions serve as a healthy balance to her own. There is room in Mercy's domain for men who use force, and also for men who receive joy from being forced, provided that the force is used to bring about good. If we serve Hell properly—"
He stopped abruptly. Llewellyn had knelt at his feet.
Llewellyn kept his head bowed. His left hand, groping awkwardly, found the inner side of the crook of his right arm and gripped it tightly, in the position of service. He could hear Lord Vere's breath; it had grown more rapid.
"Ah," said the guard finally. "This . . . I had not expected."
"What had you expected, Milord?" The title came to his tongue easily, without need for thought. He tilted up his head cautiously until he could see Lord Vere's expression, which turned out to be dumbfounded.
"In response to my tale? Contempt. Fear. At best, perhaps a cautious willingness to explore the possibilities that our god-sent meeting presented. Not . . . this. Not submission." Lord Vere's voice ended in a whisper.
"Milord," he said carefully, in a voice that was stronger than it had been for many years, "I cannot say in all honesty that I envisioned this in my life. Whenever I dreamed, it was only of pain – of the enjoyment I received from being beaten. I never thought of submitting myself to any of the men who beat me, much less being a man's slave, without hope of receiving beatings as a reward for my service. But . . . I have never before met a guard I so respected."
Lord Vere closed his eyes, as though unable to bear the words spoken. More softly now, Llewellyn added, "Perhaps I will grow to enjoy this. But whether I do or not, I know that I will receive joy from providing pleasure to a man of your honor."
For a minute – a very long minute – Lord Vere remained silent, his eyes screwed shut. Llewellyn could not even hear the footsteps of guards outside the cell. All of the other cells were quiet in the final hours of night.
Then Lord Vere opened his eyes. "Get up. Take off your clothes. Stand over there."
With his heart racing rapidly, Llewellyn followed the instructions, not needing to be told where "there" was. His groin was already swollen in anticipation of "there" by the time he placed himself in obedience against the wall, underneath the whipping ring, facing Lord Vere.
The guard took his time in approaching Llewellyn. He had removed his jacket but otherwise stayed fully clothed. The whip remained coiled at his belt.
He paused before Llewellyn. The guard's heartbeat, showing itself in a blue vein along the neck, was as rapid as his prisoner's. Lord Vere said, "Be sure that you want this – be very sure. I am a hard man."
"That is what I want, Milord," Llewellyn whispered.
"I know. And I will not take you further than I think you can bear. But you must be sure. Because once I start, I will not stop until I have received my full pleasure."
Llewellyn closed his eyes. The warmth of Lord Vere's body touched him, like a hearth-flame. "Thank you, Milord," he breathed out.
He opened his eyes in time to witness Lord Vere scrutinize him once more. Then the guard nodded. He placed his palm lightly upon Llewellyn's cheek. "May Mercy guard you," Lord Vere said softly.
Then: "May Hell guide me." And with those words, Lord Vere struck his prisoner's face so hard that Llewellyn fell to the floor.
After it was over – the blows, the beating, the shouted insults, the whispered threats that were carried through until he exploded in a scream of pain and pleasure – Llewellyn thought that Lord Vere would simply finish his own pleasure, wipe off the blood, and leave. Instead, Lord Vere bound his hands together and his feet together, blindfolded him, lowered him carefully onto the cold floor, and stood back.
Llewellyn waited through what seemed like a month of days, cold and stiff, not even certain that Lord Vere remained in the cell, but staying still because it appeared that was what Milord wanted. Finally he felt Lord Vere's touch as the guard carefully pushed him onto his stomach. A moment later – so softly that he hardly knew that it was happening – Lord Vere entered him.
The guard made love to him, slow and deep. Llewellyn tried to find another way to describe what was occurring, but other words were stripped away by the feel of Lord Vere's lips exploring the curve of his neck.
His explosion was quiet this time. Two minutes later, Lord Vere drove so deep into him that Llewellyn thought the guard must have reached his heart. Llewellyn remained still, his breath ragged, until Lord Vere finally drew out of him and released him.
"Have you ever done that before?" Lord Vere asked him afterwards as they lay on the ground next to each other.
He knew what the guard meant, of course. He stared up at the ceiling, tracing the cracks with his eye. "Never. Never when it was that gentle."
"Nor I." Lord Vere was lying on his side, with his head propped up by his arm. "This has become more than I intended."
They lay a while more beside each other, not touching, until Lord Vere's hand found Llewellyn's and closed tightly around it.
"Enough," said the guard, and rose to his feet, pulling up Llewellyn in his wake. "We have much to do. Tomorrow I will observe you at your work in the tailoring shop. I have been told that you are a diligent worker and a neat seamster, but I wish to see you expand your work to boots. So that you can care for mine." He flashed a grin.
"Yes, Milord." Llewellyn grinned back.
"In the evenings this week, as I understand it, you are assisting Merrick with the repair of a malfunctioning refrigerator on the third level. That is fortunate; it will provide you with the opportunity to tell him that you are withdrawing from participation in his rebellious circle. Tomorrow night—"
But Llewellyn was no longer listening. He stared at Lord Vere, his smile fading as rapidly as a cloud-covered moon.
Lord Vere said sharply, "What is wrong?"
"Sir, I—" He stopped, swallowed. "Milord, please don't ask me to break the Boundaries. Anything but that."
"I am not asking you to break your blasted Boundaries," Lord Vere responded with clear irritation. "I am ordering you – ordering you – to stop your association with prisoners who are notorious for their refusal to accept the judgment of their betters."
Llewellyn said nothing. The sickness had returned to his stomach.
Lord Vere's eyes were narrowed now. "You said you wished to serve me – to be my slave, no less, though I would not have thrust that title upon you. You say all that, and yet you are determined to disobey the first order I give you."
"Milord—" He swallowed the word and forced himself to speak in a steady voice. "Sir, you wish me to serve you faithfully, but you demand that I do so by breaking faith with others – by breaking a sacred vow I have made to uphold the Boundaries of Behavior and to do everything I can to stop the abusive behavior of guards who do not possess your honor. How can you ask that of me, sir? And how can you ever be sure of my promises again, if I forswear my oath?"
Lord Vere remained silent for a minute. Outside the cell, the lazy silence of night was being broken by the first sounds of morning, as prisoners cried out against the pain of being raped yet again by their guards. Llewellyn, sick and miserable, stood with his hands formed in fists, preparing himself for the return of Lord Vere's cold anger.
In the mildest of voices, Lord Vere said, "Well, this is a relief."
He must have gaped. "Sir?"
"Your defiance. Oh, don't mistake me; the first time you defy me over a small matter, I will punish you in ways you'll find not at all pleasurable. But for you to defy me on a matter that weighs heavily upon your conscience. . . . Lad, don't you realize what it is that I fear the most?"
Belatedly, he did. "Abusing me?"
"Abusing you, and you accepting that abuse mutely, as my father's slaves would have done." Lord Vere was smiling now as he reached over to pick up his jacket. "Mercy and Hell, you were indeed sent by the gods: a young man who knows when to submit, and when to fight." He shrugged his shoulders as he slid into his jacket. "I can't say that I agree with your reasoning. The oath you took was harmless enough, and I'm not requiring you to break it in any way. It's your decision to consort with open rebels that I won't permit. —However," he added as Llewellyn opened his mouth, "perhaps we can come to an understanding that does not violate your conscience. At any rate, I am willing to discuss this with you. Does that ease your conscience?"
"Milord," he said, hearing the relief in his own voice, "I knew there was a reason I respected you. I knew that you were worthy to serve."
Lord Vere raised his eyebrows. "You know," he said reflectively, "if you say too many things like that, neither of us is likely to be finished in time for breakfast."
"No?" Grinning, Llewellyn knelt at his feet again.