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Mercy's Prisoner

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CHAPTER THREE

"So," said Merrick, lying on his back as he peered at the bottom of the refrigerator. "Everything working out between you and Milord?"

A couple of prisoners, entering the kitchen to deposit a load of radishes, glanced over at Merrick and Llewellyn. One of them glared at Llewellyn and leaned over to whisper something to the other radish-deliverer. Llewellyn caught a bit of what he was saying and ducked his head, feeling his ears burn. Then he looked with concern at Merrick, wondering whether he had heard yet.

The entire prison had heard by now, as far as Llewellyn could tell. Milord, after giving lip service for many years to the idea that prisoners should not be abused, had finally shown his true colors by assaulting a prisoner . . . or so the tale went. Llewellyn, rather than endure the attack stoically as the Boundaries required, had attacked back, shouting insults at his guard. Quite naturally, this had heightened the guard's anger, worsening matters between the two of them. Blood had been spilled on both sides before the end.

Licking the side of his mouth where his lip was cut, Llewellyn regretted yet again that he and Lord Vere had decided to have a second session at dawn. It had seemed a good notion at the time: to play-act that Llewellyn was no passive victim but instead was willing to fight against his abuser. Neither of them had given any thought to the Boundaries when they chose their drama; they were playing an older tale, one that came from Vovim's sacred plays.

To their surprise, both of them had enjoyed the drama enormously. The moment when Llewellyn finally made his willing surrender and Milord treated him with gentle generosity was all the more heightened by the struggle that had come before. But their pleasure would hardly be worth it, Llewellyn thought, if he ended up with a broken neck for this.

"Ratchet driver," said Merrick, putting down his hammer.

"Right hand?" asked Llewellyn, looking over the choices.

"Right and left hand. The spiral one. No, not the rigid one." A note of irritation entered Merrick's voice, and Llewellyn hastily handed him the screwdriver Merrick wanted. He didn't like the look of the tool. He could well imagine what a good weapon it would make.

There had been rumors floating around about Merrick at the time Llewellyn first arrived at Mercy Prison. Merrick had murdered a small child, the rumors said. He'd broken the back of a guard, other rumors said. He'd nearly killed several prisoners, yet more rumors said. Of course, the rumors always added that these deeds had taken place in the past, before Merrick had adopted the Boundaries of Behavior. But as far as Llewellyn knew, Merrick's adherence to the Boundaries had never been put to a severe test.

Never before had one of Merrick's close allies deliberately turned his back on the Boundaries.

Llewellyn was still trying to figure out whether there was any hope that Merrick would believe the truth when the man said, "Vere ordered you to break away from our Alliance."

His mouth went dry as he watched Merrick carefully force the screw into the hole. "Yes."

"And you told him to go fuck himself on Hell's cock."

Llewellyn stared. "How did you know?"

Merrick put aside the screwdriver. "Tyrrell and I divide our duties in leading the Alliance. Tyrrell is in charge of figuring out what our plans should be. I'm in charge of figuring out who we can trust to carry out the plans. I take it that you and Vere reached a compromise? . . . Bloody blades, some administrator at the magisterial seats should be shot for authorizing the purchase of malfunctioning screws like these. I'm going to have to use the drill."

"Single gear?" asked Llewellyn automatically, looking around.

"I don't have any choice, do I? I use what tools I can get."

Llewellyn passed the hand drill to him and waited until Merrick had grunted from the initial push of cranking the handle. Then Llewellyn said, "He's allowing me to keep the Boundaries. But . . . I can't do it openly any more. I can consult with you, since you're the man I made my oath to, but I'm not allowed to talk about the Boundaries in public. I'm not allowed to let people know that I continue to keep the Boundaries."

"Good." Merrick paused to wipe sweat off his face with the back of his hand.

"Good?" Llewellyn couldn't keep his voice from squeaking.

"Of course it's good. Why do you think I paired you two? I'm not in the habit of being a bloody matchmaker."

Llewellyn watched Merrick finish drilling in the hole. Finally he said, "You don't want people to know I keep the Boundaries. Why?"

Merrick waved a hand in the direction of Denley, who was standing at the doorway, chatting with another guard and ignoring their conversation.

Llewellyn stared down at Merrick. "Just because you don't like how showy Denley is? That's the only reason?"

Merrick shook his head as he pushed himself out from under the refrigerator, which he and Llewellyn had painfully raised onto blocks. Llewellyn helped him up into a sitting position, and then waited as Merrick stretched his back in an arch, like a cat. Merrick said, "My back is going to be gone before I reach age fifty, between this and the beatings. . . . Llewellyn, how long do you think Mercy's Keeper will tolerate the present situation?"

Llewellyn let his finger trail over the cherrywood of the drill handle. "I don't know."

"Neither do I. Neither does Tyrrell. If we're lucky, it will be long enough for us to make permanent changes in this prison. If we're not . . . How long do you think someone like that" – he jerked his thumb toward Denley – "will continue to keep the Boundaries, once our Keeper threatens to beat him or sack him or even imprison him?"

Llewellyn pushed the drill aside. "Five minutes."

"At most. Llewellyn, there's going to be a purge in this prison eventually, and when that happens, we'll lose most of the Boundaries-keeping guards – either they'll abandon us, or they'll be sent away. Many of the prisoners will continue to keep the Boundaries, at least until things get very bad, but we'll be watched like vermin for any sign of seditious activity."

"Except me," Llewellyn said slowly. "I won't be watched, because the Keeper will think I no longer follow the Boundaries. So I can carry out any plans you have, without suspicion."

"Exactly. Tyrrell and I have been waiting a long time for someone like you to come along: someone who was willing to keep the Boundaries, no matter how great the pressure to stop, but who didn't need public praise for doing so." Merrick rose to his feet and began brushing dirt off the seat of his trousers.

Llewellyn rose too. "And Milord . . . I mean, Lord Vere . . ."

"Could be useful too. I'm not sure how yet. But a guard who keeps the Boundaries while telling everyone around him that he doesn't believe in the Boundaries, and who acts in such a way that everyone is sure he's breaking the Boundaries . . . Yes, he may be helpful too, when the time comes."

Llewellyn stared open-mouthed at him for a moment. "But how . . . Merrick, you couldn't possibly know that Lord Vere didn't break the Boundaries with me last night. How did you know that he and I . . . That we're . . . ?" His voice trailed off as Merrick glanced at him, then looked away.

Merrick shrugged. "You can't go cock-high every time you beat your prisoner without someone noticing eventually. That 'someone' happened to be me, when I was his prisoner, back in the days when I was a demon incarnate. The fact that Vere never abused me or any of his other prisoners told me all I needed to know about his character. As for you . . . I guessed."

"You guessed." Llewellyn looked hard at Merrick. The other man avoided his eye. "Merrick, none of my own guards guessed, other than Lord Vere. There's no way you could have guessed."

"Mm." Merrick stared at the refrigerator, as though trying to work out the best way to take it apart again. Finally he said, "Recognized you. Like a mirror image."

"A mirror . . ." His voice trailed off again.

Merrick shrugged, still avoiding his eye. "Not exactly the same, of course. It's murder for me, not beatings, and it's someone else's murder, not mine. That's why I'm here. It's not exactly . . . Well, the basic principle is the same. Getting enjoyment where people wouldn't expect me to get it. You had that sort of haunted look of frustrated desire that I recognized. Have seen it in my own eyes, when I look in the mirror."

Llewellyn found his voice finally. "You're far worse off than me."

He must have allowed pity to enter his tone, because in the next moment, Merrick was glowering at him. "If you tell anyone," he said, "I'll kill you."

His voice was so coldly matter-of-fact that Llewellyn could not speak for a moment. Then he said lightly, "It's all show, then? Your keeping of the Boundaries?"

Merrick's look of anger transmuted into irritation, then into amusement. "Bloody cut-sharp mind. You would figure that out. All right, no, I wouldn't break the Boundaries, but if everyone knew this about me, I'd die of embarrassment. Is that reason enough for you to keep quiet?"

Smiling, Llewellyn shook his head. "I wouldn't tell. Just as you wouldn't tell about me. We both know that."

"Good," said Merrick briskly. "Just so long as you understand. Now, then, I am about to berate you at the top of my lungs for your perfidious behavior, and by the time I'm through, you will be so utterly humiliated that you'll skulk out of here shame-faced, as a traitor like you ought to. Are you ready?"

"I'll try," said Llewellyn, "not to like it too much."

They both shared a final laugh then, before their drama began. It was in its own way a sacred drama; Llewellyn wished he could have shared tale of the drama with Milord. But he knew that he could tell Milord the most important part, which was that he had made a joke about his own corrupt inclinations, and that he had laughed with ease at himself.

The night before, he had been ready to kill himself for what he was. He wondered now how vast a change he could help Merrick bring about, with Milord's assistance.