Oslo was an attractive-looking man. Ulick had long since concluded that his career served as both his wife and his love-mate, but even he could tell that the other guard's combination of tawny skin, glossy cornrows, and amber eyes would be enough to cause many men and women to pause in their tracks. Somehow the Magisterial Republic of Mip – the crossroads of many races and cultures – had a gift for mixing all the foreign influences together and producing new generations which combined the best features of other nations.
Ulick himself, being of direct Yclau descent, was one hundred percent white-skinned, a fact that he had never ceased to feel slightly embarrassed about. "Purebreds" were looked upon with some suspicion in Mip, since some of their ancestors had been the aristocrats who had ruled the republic before Mip's people finally won their independence. Now, feeling self-conscious and more than a little dizzy, he made his way over to Oslo, who was tossing dice in his right hand.
Not dominoes. Ulick made a mental note of that. It was becoming increasingly clear – from the fact that the guards addressed each other by first name, as commoners would, and from the fact that they played commoner games – that this was not the place to mention that Ulick's father owned most of the farmland in the outskirts of the capital.
Oslo's accent was mid-class, however. "You need a new cap" were his first words as he turned his head to look at Ulick.
Ulick glanced back at Sedgewick, who was still standing next to the balcony railing, smoking another cigar in an unconcerned manner. In the holding prisons, a guard could be summarily dismissed for smoking on duty. Or for attacking a fellow guard, for that matter.
"Just as a matter of curiosity," said Ulick as he gently touched the fiercely raw skin at the back of his neck, "what usually happens to people to whom Mr. Staunton takes a dislike?"
"Sedgewick?" Oslo's voice was reflective as he stared up at the stairway, circling toward the top of the prison. "Well, that depends. The Keeper before our present one kept fining Sedgewick for misdemeanors. Then he beat Sedgewick. About a month later, that Keeper died. Under mysterious circumstances, so the investigative soldiers were brought in. They eventually found the murder weapon in the possession of one of the guards here. The guard protested that the murder weapon had been planted on him, but the magistrate who tried him was having nothing of it. From what I heard, the guard was sent to one of the prisons in the west, as a life prisoner." Oslo jiggled the dice in his hand for a moment before adding, "Sedgewick never much liked that guard."
Ulick considered this a moment before saying, "Friend of yours, is he?"
Oslo gave a low chuckle as he pocketed the dice and turned to face Ulick fully. "Sedge doesn't have friends. He has acquaintances who despise him to varying degrees. Even Mercy's Keeper isn't foolish enough to trust him entirely – not after Sedgewick played the turncoat twice over. . . . I keep out of Sedge's way. That's safest." He smiled suddenly. "So, now that you've become acquainted with the most dangerous man in this prison, would you like to meet the prisoners?"
Despite himself, Ulick couldn't hold back a slight laugh. Oslo grinned and thrust forward his arm. "Oslo Guard. Call me Oslo or 'Lo. Your name is Guard too, I suppose?"
"Ulick Guard," he confirmed as he shook Oslo's arm. "I chose my occupation-name when I came of age. And you?"
"Guarding has been my lifelong profession as well. I started off at Compassion Life Prison, then was transferred here . . . oh, a couple of decades ago, I suppose. One loses track of time."
As he spoke, Oslo stepped lightly up the staircase, passing the triple set of gates leading to the prison's entry hall. The gates were carefully guarded, Ulick had noticed upon his arrival at the prison. No escapes had ever occurred from Mercy; he knew that much from his research.
"Is that good or bad?" he asked Oslo.
"The swift passage of time? Oh, it's good. This isn't a bad place to work. Mercy's Keeper offers us enough freedom to do our jobs properly. The main problem is guards taking advantage of that freedom. —This is the second level."
He paused at a landing. Ulick looked through a gated doorway, but could see no evidence of the prisoners – just three dozen cell doors, with open bars, set around a great, circular floor with an old-fashioned fire-pit in the middle. The fire was currently dead; the early-spring air was cold.
"There's not much to see at this time of day," remarked Oslo as he leaned against the wall next to the gate. "All the prisoners are at their work – on the second level, that means they're in the laundering room." He pointed with his thumb, then caught hold of Ulick's arm as Ulick began to step forward. "No, best leave that alone. The laundering room is Sedge's territory. He doesn't like other guards poking their noses into it, even when he's absent. —Hey, Bailey." He waved his hand at a young guard who was standing in front of the closed door to the laundering room, looking bored. The young guard's face lit up when he saw Oslo, and he offered an enthusiastic wave back.
"Do you have many friends here?" Ulick asked as he began again to follow Oslo up the stairs, which had zigzagged direction at the landing.
"Oh, sacks. I get along well with the other guards; I don't believe in tale-telling and other such nonsense. Mind you, I don't always care for the other guards' methods of controlling their prisoners, but that's their business, not mine."
Ulick wondered whether he should follow up on this clear hint – twice given now – that Oslo was not fully satisfied with the running of the prison. He heard Sedgewick's voice whisper in his mind: If Merrick's co-conspirator probes you, it is likely that his approach will be subtle. . . . Ulick shook his head, as though to free himself from Sedgewick's venom, and asked, "Do you work on the second level?"
"Oh, yes. We all do, at one point or another. The second level is where we're sent when we misbehave." He looked over his shoulder to flash Ulick a smile. "That's where the worst prisoners are kept . . . with a few exceptions. So having to care for the second-level prisoners is like being assigned months of bread and water. Thank the gods, not many of us are given permanent assignments to that level. —-That's the third level we just passed; more cells, as well as the kitchen. Here's the fourth level. You're still missing your cap."
Ulick looked blankly at him, and Oslo laughed.
"Fourth level is stores and weapons," he explained, pointing his thumb. "Your new uniform will have to be tailored, of course, but we can start by getting you a new cap."
Ulick nodded, but his gaze had already drifted over to the fourth level. On this level, the cells were occupied, two men to each cell. "You house prisoners on the same level as the weapons?" he said.
Oslo shrugged. "No choice, really. Mercy was originally built as an experimental prison, to house only two hundred prisoners, but the magistrates kept sending us new convicts." He glanced over at the occupied cells. "Evening meal has been delivered; that means the night guards must be on duty already. Blast." Then, as Ulick raised his eyebrows, Oslo added, "The keys to the armory are held by one of the day guards: Mad Milord."
"Excuse me?" said Ulick, sure that he had misheard.
Oslo laughed again. "That's what Vere is called. He used to be a Vovimian lord, once upon a day. A southern Vovimian lord," he added, as though that fact were significant.
"Why is he called Mad?" asked Ulick, stepping carefully out of the doorway in order to make way for a guard who had just opened the fourth level's gate.
"You'll see. Hey." Oslo caught hold of the departing guard. "Where's Milord?"
The guard snorted. "Vere's off-duty. Where do you think he is?"
Oslo swore pungently, and not under his breath. "Again?" he concluded.
"Again." The guard shook his head. "It's his prisoner's own fault. He was sassy again today. But I've told Vere before: he's risking a murder charge if he keeps this up."
Oslo sighed heavily. "And they call us the guards. Someone should be guarding the prisoners against us."
The guard gave a quirk of a smile. "Don't bother to give your speech to me. You know I agree. And you know that, if Sedgewick decides that we're keeping the Boundaries, he'll have us sacked. If giving my prisoners a few extra lashes each day means keeping my job . . . Well, I've a wife and children at home. Speaking of which, I'll be late for dinner if I don't run; then I'll receive my lashes, in the form of tongue-lashing." He tipped his cap in polite greeting to Ulick, then hurried down the stairs.
"That's Keane," Oslo said as he and Ulick stepped through the gated doorway. "He was working out west for quite a few years, but he recently transferred back to the capital. He's one of the better guards working here."
For the third time, Ulick refused to follow up on the hint. "Guards are permitted to live outside the prison?" he said.
"Married guards are," Ulick replied as he locked the gate behind them. "The rest of us have to ask permission; otherwise, we're housed down on the first level. You saw that there are doors all along the balcony circling the hall? That's where most of us live."
With great effort, Ulick managed to receive this news with an unrevealing expression. "But permission is sometimes granted for guards to live outside the prison?"
"Certainly. Talk to Sedgewick about it; he's in charge of such matters. —Here we are."
Ulick had feared this was their destination. The particular cell they had halted in front of was closed, not only by bars, but by a solid door behind the bars. Ulick had seen such doors at holding prisons, where they were used for prisoners kept in solitary confinement. Here, however, the solid door seemed to have a different purpose, for, glancing to the side, Ulick realized that all of the cells had these doors within the barred gates. The other solid doors were open at the moment.
From inside this cell came the crack of a whip, accompanied by the rasping gasps of a prisoner in pain.
Oslo reached between the bars and pounded on the door. "Vere! Open up!"
The cracking of the whip halted immediately, and the prisoner's gasps subsided into a whimper. Ulick thought he heard a murmur of voices. After a minute, the food-slot panel in the solid door slid back, revealing the face of a black-skinned man. "Well?" he said sharply in a thick Vovimian accent.
Oslo pointed to Ulick. "New man. Needs to be armed."
"Later," said Vere, and began to slide the panel shut.
Oslo caught hold of the panel. "Now," he insisted. "He has duty this evening. Sedgewick's orders."
Vere sighed heavily. "May Sedgewick be hell-damned for eternity. He always times these matters to coincide with my off-duty hours. All right, just give me a minute to finish here."
The panel closed. There was another murmur of voices. Then the whip began again, faster than before. Soon the prisoner was giving a keening sound, as though he were in mourning; then he screamed.
The whip-crack stopped. After another couple of minutes, the solid door opened wide.
The cell was small, by the standards of the holding prisons, and it held no furnishings whatsoever, other than a shelf that appeared to be made of stone. On the shelf lay a couple of folded blankets. The only other object in the cell was a whipping ring. Kneeling under it, his hands bound behind him, the naked prisoner pressed himself against the wall. Across his light brown arms, back, buttocks, and thighs were ugly red stripes.
The prisoner's head was turned to the side, but his eyes were hidden by his hair. He was biting his lip. Vere, who was in the midst of picking up his jacket, said over his shoulder to the prisoner, "Stay there. If you move an inch, you'll regret it."
Ulick looked at the naked prisoner, and then looked behind him at the fire-pit. A nearby guard was beginning to light it. Did this mean that the fire-pits were only used at night, even at this time of year? The flames barely touched the icy chill as yet.
"It's rather cold for a man to be naked," Ulick pointed out to Vere.
"You think so?" Vere sounded indifferent. "I've trained him to endure worse cold than this."
Ulick said nothing. After a moment, Vere shrugged. "I suppose you're right. No point in taking chances with a valuable slave." With those words, he strode back to the prisoner and dropped his jacket onto the man's shoulders. The prisoner staggered under the weight, but maintained his position.
Ulick looked over at Oslo. "'Slave'?" he said softly.
Oslo, with a quirk of a smile, tapped his head significantly.
If Vere saw the gesture as he returned, he ignored it. "Right," he said as he pulled back the barred gate and then locked it closed behind him. "Let's get this over with. I promised my slave a nice, long session tonight. He has been looking forward to it all week."
Behind Vere's back, Oslo rolled his eyes. Ulick merely said, "You're from Vovim, Lord Vere?"
Vere halted, looked at him more carefully, and then smiled. "Just call me Vere. I don't use my title any more . . . except with my slave. And you are . . . ?"
It was clear that Oslo had no intention of making introductions, so Ulick bowed his head slightly. "Ulick Guard, sir." He had noticed the first-ranked stripe on Vere's jacket before the guard had dropped the jacket onto his prisoner's shoulders.
"Oh, my," said Vere, smiling slightly as he offered his arm. "I like this one, Oslo. No need for the sir, though," he added to Ulick. "It's not the custom, here at Mercy. Not even Sedgewick demands that from his fellow guards. Oslo, what does he require?"
"Arms and a new uniform," replied Oslo. "He doesn't know yet whether he'll be living in the prison, so you needn't worry about bed linens. Can you take charge here? I need to go have a word with Bailey about a dice game. Ulick, I'll be back in a few minutes. Don't worry, Milord doesn't bite fellow guards." He grinned and departed, while Vere watched him go with a reflective expression on his face.
"Do they train you in unarmed combat in the holding prisons?" Vere asked as they reached the door to the armory, which looked like nothing more than a cell door.
"They do, yes," replied Ulick, glancing at the nearest cell. The prisoners there looked lethargic and glum.
"Good. Guard my back, will you?" Vere waited only long enough to receive Ulick's nod of acknowledgment; then he began fiddling with the lock of the barred gate. Ulick obediently turned to scan the fourth level with his eyes, but he could see nothing other than a pair of guards chatting together as they warmed their hands over the fire-pit. The fire still had not risen much above the ember stage.
Behind Ulick, metal tinkled and scraped, then screeched. "All right," said Vere. "Grab that lamp on the way in. And be quick about it."
Ulick snatched a nearby lantern from its hook on the wall, taking care not to spill the oil as he slid into the armory. He was barely inside before Vere had slammed the solid door shut. For a minute, the most vivid image in the room was Vere's eyes, sparkling as he looked at Ulick.
Then Vere turned away to lock the door. "You'll need weapons," he said. "Have you been trained?"
"In dagger-defense, yes," replied Ulick, placing the lamp on a shelf. The armory was nothing more than a cell to which many shelves had been added; the shelves were crammed with clothing and equipment. "I never learned to use a whip. I was trained for a gun."
"Were you indeed?" Vere's tone quickened with interest, which was hardly surprising; Mip had few firearms, so only the most skilled prison-guards were permitted to carry guns. "Well, we don't have any of those here, I regret to say. Budget problems; the magisterial seats have never sent much money our way. I think they prefer to pretend that the life prisons don't exist. I'll be glad to train you with a whip if we can harmonize our schedules."
"Will I need a whip?" Ulick asked, fingering a knuckleduster on one of the shelves.
Vere chuckled softly as he bent over to open a metal box on the floor. "Ideally, no. In reality, yes – but I don't need to tell you that, if you've worked at the holding prisons."
"Whips to defend against attack, yes," Ulick acknowledged. "But do you have many floggings for punishment here?"
Vere smiled as he straightened up and handed Ulick a sheathed dagger. "You've been listening to Oslo. 'Alas and alack, all the guards in this prison are cruel except me . . .' All of us have our own way of keeping control of our prisoners. Even Oslo."
Ulick said nothing. Vere shrugged as he turned away, adding, "How much flogging you do depends on the prisoner. I had Merrick as my prisoner one year – you've heard of him? Gods above and below, he nearly wore out my arm, the number of beatings I needed to give him to keep him in line. Of course, that was quite a few years back. These days, he has developed new ways to run guards ragged. Here." He handed Ulick a looped whip.
Ulick took it, but asked, "What if I issue no floggings for punishment at all?"
Vere gave a twist of a smile. "We had a few idealistic guards like that. Funny – they all disappeared last month. Sedgewick took a dislike to them."
Ulick's stomach clenched. "They died?"
"Nothing that drastic. They were sacked or transferred. I wouldn't worry about it, if I were you. Chances are, you'll find yourself thrust into duty with a prisoner who won't behave unless you control him with the taste of a whip. Right, take those off now."
Ulick hesitated; then, under Vere's dispassionate eye, he stripped himself down to his drawers and undervest. "And your prisoner needs to be controlled that way?"
"My slave?" Once again, Vere smiled. "He's special. Very special. Needs very careful handling, I've found. Any idea what your hat size is?" He knelt down, in an awkward manner suggesting this was not one of his usual positions, and unrolled a measuring tape along the inside of Ulick's leg. Ulick flinched as Vere's hand brushed his testicles.
"Sorry," said Vere, without looking up from where he was peering at the tape. "And while we're on that topic, you needn't worry about your fellow guards. We had a bit of that sort of thing going on, when I first arrived here, but it didn't last long. After a while, the offenders realized that making other guards angry simply meant they had fewer allies to protect them if a prisoner decided to attack them. Since then, we guards have been one happy confederation . . . leaving aside the recent civil war."
"I read about that," said Ulick, raising his arm to allow Vere to measure it.
"All lies," said Vere cheerfully as he rose to his feet. "The press wouldn't know Truth if she stared them in their faces."
"Even the part about guards abusing prisoners?" Ulick said quietly.
"It all depends on what you consider abuse, I suppose." Vere's voice had turned reflective. "Mind you, I'm not going to defend the actions of some guards, like that drilling bastard-of-a-slave, Sedgewick. He's viler than any prisoner we guard. And hypocrites like Oslo aren't worth my time of day. But most of the guards do whatever they think needs to be done to keep the prisoners under control. You'll do the same, I expect, or else will die when you trust the wrong prisoner. Hat size?" he asked as he rose to his feet.
Ulick recited the number. Vere nodded and turned to write down Ulick's measurements. "No problems with you; you're an average size. Take this cap and see whether it fits. Oh, and take that suit over there. It will need to be tucked in a bit here and there, but it will do for now. Come back tomorrow, and I'll see that the hem is taken in a bit more."
"You do the tailoring here?" Ulick asked as he slipped into the uniform that Vere had indicated.
Vere flashed him a smile. "Don't be absurd. My slave does the guards' tailoring. I trained him for that. How are your dagger skills?"
"Decent," Ulick said cautiously as he hooked his whip and dagger to his belt.
"Glad to hear it. Just check through that watch-hole and tell me whether it's clear." As he spoke, Vere picked up the lantern with one hand and pulled out his keys with the other.
Ulick glanced through the watch-hole in question, a pin-prick in the door. "All's clear," he reported.
Vere nodded and managed to unlock the door, pocket his keys, and pull his dagger, all in one swift motion. He lifted the latch, opened the door with a thunderous kick, and leapt out, dagger in the ready.
Ulick was close behind him, his dagger unsheathed, but the level remained empty, other than the guards on duty, who glanced their way and then returned to chatting.
"Is that necessary?" Ulick asked as he followed Vere's lead in sheathing his dagger.
"You never know," replied Vere, setting the lamp aside in order to lock the armory door. "Within a week of this prison's opening in 355, a guard stepping out from the armory was jumped and strangled to death by a prisoner, who proceeded to use one of the armory daggers to take hostages. Ever since then, only one guard has been permitted to keep the keys to the armory. A guard who knows how to keep control of prisoners," he added with a smile. "Sedgewick had my position for several years. I've heard that he was a little too inclined to borrow weapons so that he could play with his prisoners during his off-duty hours. Then, three years ago, he decided to present himself as a reformed man who followed the Boundaries; he turned the armory keys over to me at that point." Vere shrugged. "I expect he'll want them back, any day now."
"About the Boundaries . . ." said Ulick slowly, but Vere had turned his head away.
"Oh, will you look at that?" said the guard softly. "Isn't that sweet?"
Ulick followed Vere's gaze to the cell where the guard had left his prisoner. Through the barred gate, it could be seen that Vere's coat had fallen off the prisoner's shoulders. The sweat there glistened like ice. The prisoner's face was turned to the side; his eyes were still hidden by his hair, but down his exposed cheek ran a continuous stream of tears. His whole body was trembling.
Vere shook his head. "May Mercy bless him. He could have held out longer, but he knows how much I enjoy seeing him cry."
Ulick stared at the other guard. There was no mistaking the message in Vere's soft voice, nor the look in his eyes. Both the voice and the eyes spoke of love.
Vere glanced over at Ulick and smiled. "You can find your way back to Oslo, can't you? I don't want to keep my dear slave waiting any longer."
Even as he spoke, he was pulling his whip from his belt. He strode toward the cell, leaving Ulick staring after him.