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Mercy's Prisoner

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Mercy's Prisoner #5
CURIOUS

The year 400, the third month. (The year 1895 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
 

"If pain is not an evil, it certainly is a very good imitation."

—Arthur Bidwell: Bidwell's Travels from Wall Street to London Prison: Fifteen Years in Solitude (1897).


CHAPTER ONE

"We've had trouble with the prisoners," said Mercy's Keeper.

"Sir?" Ulick could think of no other reply to make to this bland remark, which might have been spoken by any Keeper at any prison at any moment of the day.

"Seditious activities. Attempts to manipulate the guards. That sort of thing."

"Oh." Understanding reached him. "Yes, I'd read that in the newspapers."

Mercy's Keeper – who was not gracious enough to offer his name, much less offer Ulick a chair – winced, as though in distaste at the foreign orange he was munching on throughout the conversation. "Too much publicity. Pressmen should all be shot. Good thing the death sentence is back."

Ulick decided not to ask how serious the Keeper was in his statement. Instead, he took the opportunity to glance around the Keeper's office, which also served as the man's living quarters. Opulent walnut chests, imported Vovimian carpets, a wall full of books, and a kitchen's worth of food. And the food was only for his lunch. If Mercy's Keeper was suffering from the presence of his seditious prisoners, there was no sign of it.

"Blasted Boundaries," said Mercy's Keeper, as though summing up matters.

"Sir?"

"They should be shot. Every one of them. Will, if I find out who they are."

Ulick wondered whether his expression held the proper amount of bewilderment. It must have, for in the next moment, from the corner of the room, came a quiet voice. "If I may, sir. . . . I believe that your new guard may need to be briefed on our situation."

"Eh?" Mercy's Keeper twisted round in his chair to stare at the speaker. "Oh, rather. If you say so. You explain, and I'll get on with . . ." He waved his hand expansively over his desk, embracing both paperwork and food.

"Thank you, sir." The speaker, who was standing in the shadows, raised his eyes to Ulick. Looking into them, Ulick had the momentary feeling of falling down a deep well. He considered himself moderately good at reading expressions; it was one of the skills that had led him to take up guard-work. But nothing lay behind those eyes to tell him what the other man was thinking.

"In brief," said the guard quietly, holding Ulick's gaze with apparently effortless ease, "one of the prisoners here, a kin-murderer by the name of Merrick, developed a very clever plan some years ago to gain power over the guards. He executed this plan with the help of a cunning strategist, a cut-throat named Tyrrell. Their plan was to put forward something that purported to be a code of ethics for prison conduct, and to persuade the guards here to adhere to it. Many guards were fooled into doing so."

Ulick, who had been trying unsuccessfully to move his eyes away from the speaker, heard himself say, "Many guards?"

A smile entered the other man's eyes. "Including myself. I will admit that I was a victim of Merrick's plan. A guard whom I respected had chosen to adopt the Boundaries of Behavior that Merrick advocated, and . . . Well, I will not recount for you the tedious story. Suffice it to say that, for too many years afterwards, I treated my prisoners in a sickeningly soft manner. I allowed them to get away with disrespectful behavior, with attempts to control me and all the other guards, and in the end I even went so far as to ally myself with these prisoners. I tried to bring to court a suit that, if it had been won, would have resulted in the complete loss of any power that the guards possess to curb the prisoners' destructive behavior."

"Ah." Ulick cleared his throat. "Yes, I thought your face looked familiar, Mr. . . ."

"Staunton. Please, call me Sedgewick. We are not formal here at Mercy Life Prison."

As Ulick struggled for a reply, Mercy's Keeper coughed. Or perhaps he burped; it was hard to tell. In any case, Sedgewick Staunton – the notorious Sedgewick Staunton – turned his head immediately. "I apologize, sir. Here I am, rambling on when you wish to speak."

His tone was as slick as seal-skin. Mercy's Keeper, visibly moved by this gesture of deference, said, "No, no – you have summarized the situation admirably. Chaos. Rebellion. Can't trust anyone here, don't you know." He peered narrow-eyed at Ulick, who remained silent.

"Which is why, in your wisdom, you have brought in a new guard." Sedgewick – as Ulick supposed he must think of Staunton now – inserted this comment smoothly.

"Exactly!" cried Mercy's Keeper, chiming his wine glass with a spoon, like an after-dinner speaker. "Can't trust the others. Need to bring in a guard with integrity."

Ulick just managed to keep from wincing. He knew what the word "integrity" meant in the prison system.

Seemingly Sedgewick did as well, for the cold smile was back in his eyes. "You need a guard who can be your informer," he translated with surprising candidness.

Mercy's Keeper actually grinned at him. "You've never been one to mince words, Sedgewick."

"I like to think I have my own form of integrity." There was no smile in Sedgewick's eyes as he turned his gaze back toward Ulick. "I'll be direct, then: Our Keeper needs information. We've managed to separate Merrick from his co-conspirator, Tyrrell—" Sedgewick's sharp gesture suggested how violent that separation had been. "However, our Keeper believes that Merrick is still receiving assistance from a member of this prison."

"A guard," Mercy's Keeper clarified. "That's been your theory, Sedgewick."

"In all likelihood, a guard," Sedgewick agreed. "We know that, despite our efforts to isolate him, Merrick is continuing to send messages to prisoners at other levels of this prison than his own. He could only do that with help from a guard."

"The prisoners aren't permitted to travel between levels, then?" asked Ulick, grasping upon the one piece of practical information he had been granted since his arrival at Mercy Prison during the previous hour.

"Certainly not!" Mercy's Keeper sounded shocked. "Conspiracies! Violence! Can be expected when prisoners are allowed to gallivant about."

"As we sadly discovered, sir."

Something about the tone of Sedgewick's voice led Ulick to suspect that the guard was mocking Mercy's Keeper. The Keeper evidently missed this note, however; he simply faltered before saying, "Yes, yes. Was a mistake, letting Merrick and Tyrrell have the run of the prison." Then, apparently seizing upon a chance to pass this ill judgment onto another person, he glared at Sedgewick. "You gave me bad advice about that."

"I did indeed." There was no mockery to Sedgewick's tone now, only the hint of a deeply banked inferno. "Well, I learned my lesson. I am only sorry, sir," he added, "that my lesson was gained at your expense."

Mercy's Keeper gave a gesture that was apparently intended to convey the largesse of his gracious forgiveness, but was spoiled by the fact that the gesture caused the peas on his fork to splatter to the ground. "No, no. Evil, conniving prisoners. Can't always anticipate their villainy."

"Which is why we need an informer." Sedgewick turned his attention back to Ulick, still standing silently in front of the Keeper's desk. "You are new here. If Merrick's past patterns prove true, you will be approached – possibly by Merrick himself, more likely by the guard who is his co-conspirator. You will be probed to see whether your sentiments align with the current regime of this prison. If Merrick's co-conspirator probes you, it is likely that his approach will be subtle. If Merrick himself probes you . . . Merrick has no gift for subtlety. He will be brutally blunt in his approach. In either case, if you are found to be fertile ground, either Merrick or his co-conspirator will seek to convert you to their cause – to the keeping of the Boundaries."

"The Boundaries." Ulick leapt onto this word. "I've heard mention of them in the newspapers, but no details were provided. May I know what the Boundaries are?"

"Certainly not!" bellowed Mercy's Keeper, pausing in the midst of digging into his strawberry trifle.

"I'm afraid," said Sedgewick with a blandness that suggested he held no sorrow whatsoever in making this announcement, "that discussion of the Boundaries of Behavior is now strictly forbidden in this prison, whether by prisoners or by guards. All that you need know about the Boundaries – the so-called ethical rules which Merrick and Tyrrell plotted together – is that they are considered to be a danger to the smooth running of Mercy Life Prison." The hint of amusement returned to his eyes.

Ulick turned his head toward Mercy's Keeper, thus dismissing Sedgewick in favor of the man who actually held charge over this prison. "Is that your wish, sir?" he asked.

Mercy's Keeper seemed surprised to be consulted. "Of course. Sedgewick is my right-hand man; any order he gives can be considered to come from me."

Ulick turned his gaze back to Sedgewick, only to discover that the other guard's look of amusement had increased. "Keeping order in this prison," Sedgewick said softly, "is my primary duty."

"I see." Ulick kept his tone level. He had no wish to make enemies within an hour of his arrival, but he was becoming increasingly convinced that the notoriety which the press had ascribed to Sedgewick Staunton had been fairly earned.

Perhaps Ulick's tone was quite not so level as he would have liked, for the coldness in Sedgewick's gaze increased, without the amusement diminishing one whit. "Perhaps, sir," said Sedgewick, addressing the Keeper without moving his gaze from Ulick, "you would like me to introduce your new guard to his duties. Then you can take your afternoon nap."

Ulick's gaze snapped over to Mercy's Keeper, convinced that Sedgewick had finally gone too far. The Keeper, though, was in the midst of yawning.

"A good idea," Mercy's Keeper said. "A good idea. Need to be fresh for my evening duties, don't you know."

"Certainly, sir." The slickness had returned to Sedgewick's voice. "Your unremitting discipline in maintaining your health is a model for us all. Ulick?" He gestured toward the door, and Ulick was left with no choice but to nod his farewell to the Keeper and turn his back in order to open the door.

Though in truth, he reflected as he pulled up the door-latch, there was no one in the entire Magisterial Republic of Mip to whom he was more reluctant to turn his back than Sedgewick Staunton.

o—o—o

Although he was eager to remove his back from Sedgewick's presence, he was unable to prevent himself from pausing momentarily on the threshold of the doorway. The Keeper's quarters opened directly onto a balcony that wrapped its way round a circular hall within the cylindrical prison. The balcony was made of iron.

Ornamental iron. Carefully wrought in the Vovimian style, which imitated basketwork. Basketwork with gaps between the iron. Every step that one took on the balcony gave the illusion that one was walking on air.

Ulick closed his eyes to combat a momentary wave of dizziness, and then forced his eyes open again. He suspected that if he had known he would have to traverse this balcony whenever he reported to the Keeper here, he would not have taken employment within Mercy Prison. Then again, perhaps he would have. He had made greater sacrifices during his years as a prison guard.

His first step did not result in the iron giving way and plummeting him to the ground. Nor did the second. Now he only had to worry about the growing, irrational desire to fling himself from the balcony. He was still debating the relative merits of hugging the wall versus taking hold of the waist-high handrail when he sensed something behind him.

He turned quickly. Sedgewick, who had evidently spent some previous lifetime as a spy, had managed to sidle up behind Ulick without warning of his approach. This was no mean achievement; after seventeen years as a prison guard, and twelve attempts on his life by disgruntled prisoners, Ulick had trained himself to hear a roach scuttle toward him.

But this vermin, it seemed, had greater skills than his own. Sedgewick was busy removing a cigar from a case – he did not offer one to Ulick – and his gaze had drifted toward the hall underneath.

"Our dining hall," he explained, gesturing with the cigar. "Or that's what it would have been, if the magisterial seats had given us the promised money for furnishings. Instead, the prisoners eat in their cells, and we use this as an assembly hall for important punishments."

"Oh?" said Ulick, refusing to turn his gaze toward the rest of the hall, a sickening drop below.

"Yes, there's a whipping post over there." Sedgewick pointed to a spot a few yards away on the balcony, and Ulick glanced briefly in that direction, but saw nothing out of the ordinary: just a wooden post with a binding ring, such as any prison in Mip might use. "Important beatings are done up here, while the prisoners assemble below. It allows them to witness the punishment, and it allows us to keep careful watch on them." Sedgewick paused to light his cigar with a safety match. He carelessly tossed away the match when he was through; it fell through one of the gaps in the balcony, the flame dying before it reached the ground.

Watching it fall, Ulick felt another wave of dizziness, which he strove to hide by asking, "Are there any other punishments inflicted here besides flogging?"

"Only in the prisoners' cells." There was something in Sedgewick's voice that Ulick could not quite define. "Oh, and there's the disciplinary cells."

"The disciplinary cells?"

"Cells for solitary confinement, directly below here, in the cellar. You can see the door to the cellar over there." Sedgewick pointed over Ulick's shoulder. Ulick turned—

—and in the next moment found himself hanging over the railing of the balcony, his feet off the ground, only a hand on his collar preventing him from falling to his death.

He nearly vomited on the spot. He closed his eyes, struggling against the alternating waves of cold sickness and faintness. Closing his eyes didn't help. He could still see the last image offered to him: his cap, several yards away, lying on the floor that awaited the remainder of him: the breaking of his bones and the crushing of his skull.

His feet kicked, more out of instinct than anything else. They could not gain purchase; he was swung too far forward. He tried to use his hands to lever himself back, then froze as he felt the heat of fire against his neck. At the same moment, something hard pressed itself against his bottom.

He knew what that hardness was. It wasn't the first time that Ulick had met a man who received erotic enjoyment at the thought of killing. This time, however, the killer was not a convict.

"I've heard tell," said Sedgewick softly, "that if a man falls from this height and lands on his head, he may remain in a coma for years. Nobody knows what it's like to be in a coma. Do you suppose that it's something like the old Vovimian tales of hell? Unending torture?"

There was no mistaking the amusement in his voice. Ulick, keeping his eyes closed, waited until he was sure he could speak in a steady voice. If he let this man guess that his captive was deathly afraid of heights, all would be lost.

Finally Ulick said, "I doubt that Mercy's Keeper would be pleased at the murder of his new guard."

"Who said anything about murder?" The amusement continued in Sedgewick's voice as he tapped hot ashes onto the back of Ulick's neck. "New guards are notoriously prone to die of accidents in this prison. Carelessly naive of them, to turn their backs on prisoners. I usually make sure to send a wreath to their funeral."

Ulick shallowed his breath, before his heavy breathing alone should reveal the extent of his fear. "What do you want from me?"

"Nothing but your careful attention." The amusement dropped from Sedgewick's voice like a body in a hangman's noose. "I know you. You're the sort who is curious. It is bound to occur to you at some point that, if you worm yourself far enough into this nefarious network of Merrick's, you can learn everything you want to know about the Boundaries. It might even occur to you that this would be suitable revenge against a certain guard you've taken a dislike to." The cigar tip, barely above Ulick's neck, traced a pattern. "Just a fair warning: Everything that takes place in this prison, I know about. If you seek to betray me, I'll know, and you'll learn what happens to traitors."

Ulick, biting his lip against the scream growing in his throat, felt tears leak from his eyes as the pain on his neck grew and the dizziness began to overwhelm him. Sedgewick gave a breathless chuckle—

—and then Ulick was on his feet again. Sedgewick had turned casually aside to toss away his cigar. It plummeted, landing upon Ulick's cap, and lay there, glowing as it began to eat the cloth.

"Oslo is waiting for you." Sedgewick pointed. "He'll show you the remainder of the prison."

This time, Ulick had sense enough not to turn to look, but out of the corner of his eye he could see a guard standing at the foot of the stair landing, smoking a cigarette and occasionally glancing in their direction.

Sedgewick chuckled again. "Don't worry – on the day that you die, there will be no witnesses." And with that sentiment voiced, he pushed Ulick toward Oslo with such force that Ulick nearly fell over the railing again.