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Mercy's Prisoner

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CHAPTER FIVE

Ulick stood on duty, trying to ignore his pressing bladder.

It was not as though he lacked things to think about on this second night of duty. The previous afternoon, he had requested the keys to the disciplinary cells from Rufus. Rufus had undergone a bad night with Merrick, or so he claimed, and Ulick was so weary from having spent the entire day awake – his visit to the fifth-level prisoner had been during the morning – that a third of an hour had passed before it occurred to Ulick to wonder why Rufus would have spent the night with Merrick.

He bit his tongue to keep from asking, and listened to Rufus complain at length about Merrick's habit of snoring. Finally, Rufus handed over the keys. "Need help finding your way?" the guard asked.

"Is there a door to the cellar that bypasses the balcony?" Ulick rejoined.

Fortunately, Rufus was still too preoccupied with grumbles about Merrick to ask questions. "Out in the prison yard. You can enter there in the daytime; come evening, the yard is locked."

Ulick thanked him and made his way outside to the yard, a bleak stretch of asphaltum with high walls. He found the door to the cellar easily enough and entered the cellar without any trouble. As he began to explore, he saw at once that all of the disciplinary cells had barred windows near the ceiling, which let in a bit of light.

None of windows held either glass or shutters. The winter winds swirled in the corners of the cell, where ice formed. Other than straw on the flagstones, there was nothing in the disciplinary cells: no beds, no blankets.

"They're disciplinary cells," Denley said blankly when Ulick met him in the guardroom later, preparing for their shift. "Did you expect them to be decorated with chandeliers?"

"Has anyone ever died from the cold there?" Ulick asked.

Denley shrugged as he turned away. "Mercy's Keeper doesn't send many prisoners down there. Usually, the threat of the disciplinary cells is enough to break a recalcitrant prisoner."

He had not answered the question, Ulick noticed.

Now, five hours later, Ulick stepped forward to poke the fire that, once again, Denley had not bothered to feed before disappearing down the stairs to the guardroom.

Ulick's thoughts were not on the disciplinary cells, but on the guns. He saw them again in his mind's eye, gleaming black in the firelight. The crown jewels of Mercy Prison. The untended treasure.

He heard a step and turned around. Oslo had just entered the sixth level; he was yawning.

"I thought you slept during the night shift," said Ulick. "The time must be well after midnight."

Oslo smiled. His jacket and vest were unbuttoned; his shirt was rumpled; his breath was sweet with wine. "I was checking on one of my prisoners. And before that, I made the mistake of winning a dice game with Sedgewick."

"Mistake?" said Ulick, eyeing the rumpled shirt and wondering what form Oslo's "checking" had taken.

"I'm usually not that careless. I made a quick exit from the guardroom before Sedgewick should decide to deliver a threat to me. He always feels obliged to fulfill his promises." Oslo glanced around. "Where's Denley? In the guardroom again?"

"I don't know," said Ulick dryly. "I haven't seen him since the shift started."

Oslo shook his head. "Idiot. I left him losing his money to Sedgewick. That was at least two hours ago; he should know better. Sooner or later, Sedge will remember that Denley's supposed to be on duty and will decide to deliver a reprimand."

The two men considered this possibility for a moment; then they simultaneously winced.

"Oslo," said Ulick, seeing an opportunity to breach the subject on his mind, "is Sedgewick Staunton rich?"

Oslo, who had just brought a flask out of his pocket and was sipping from it, began to choke. Ulick clapped him on the back till he recovered.

"Sweet blood, what makes you think that?" asked Oslo, wiping the spilled wine from his mouth.

"He's not, then?"

"One rumor has it he was a street-boy when he was young, and that he rose in life by murdering a banker and using the money to set himself up as mid-class. Another rumor has it that his parents were commoners who earned their honest way to the mid-class before they died of heartbreak when they saw what a wolf they'd raised. Either way, Sedge has never been rich. If you listen carefully, you can hear what's left of his commoner accent."

"But since he became a guard . . ."

Oslo snorted. "I don't know what sort of salaries you get paid in the holding prisons, but even first-ranked guards here are paid less than schoolteachers. If you saved every bit of money and spent nothing on luxuries— Well, come to think of it, I can see Sedgewick doing that. He wins fairly often at dice games – and not just because it's dangerous to lose to him – and yet he never spends money on anything but room and board, as far as I can tell. His sole source of entertainment is free: his prisoners. If he invested the money wisely, he might have accumulated a fair amount of stash after all these years. So yes, I suppose he could be well off by now. Why do you ask?"

Ulick shook his head. The image that had existed in his mind – of Sedgewick committing a spectacular bank robbery in order to gain money for the guns – had been replaced, as Oslo spoke, by an image of Sedgewick carefully hoarding his money like a miser . . . and then spending it all for the sake of the prisoners.

I will not recount for you the tedious story, Sedgewick had said. Little wonder that Sedgewick Staunton was so determined to crush the Boundaries-bound men in this prison. He had spent his fortune on a treasure for them that he could now neither use nor remove from the prison.

Ulick's mind drifted back to the untended treasure.

A sound of jabbering broke through his reverie. Turning, he found that the seemingly meaningless jabber came from the prisoner he had seen on his first night here: the one who had railed at his cell-mate.

He was railing again, and again his cell-mate was ignoring him. But this time the prisoner was railing at the wall.

Ulick watched for a long while as the prisoner screamed and then spit at the wall. Thoughts shaped themselves in Ulick's mind, like vapor turning solid. Then his gaze drifted over to the other prisoner he had seen on the first night, the one who had been reading a book.

The prisoner was still reading a book. He was reading it even though the light was too dim for him to be able to see.

Ulick turned to look at Oslo, who was drinking in an unconcerned manner from his flask. "This level is the prison's asylum?"

Oslo raised his eyebrows. "You didn't figure that out till now?"

Ulick looked back at the prisoners, calculating in his mind. Six levels of cells. One level of the prison consisted of disciplinary cells that were cold enough to kill the prisoners. On the next three levels, the prisoners were routinely beaten and raped. The fifth level housed men who were ill, dying without care or comfort. The highest level of all housed the insane – and from the looks of it, none of these men received any special care either.

"This prison is six levels of hell," Ulick murmured.

After a moment, he turned his head again. Oslo had apparently not heard his remark; the other guard was scrutinizing the jabbering prisoner's sleeping cell-mate, whose blankets had fallen back far enough to show his naked torso. "Do you need a break for a call of nature?" Oslo asked, keeping his eye on the prisoner.

"I do, yes."

"Then go ahead. I'll cover for you while you're gone." He turned to smile at Ulick. "Don't worry. Unlike Denley, I remember to take care of the prisoners."

"All right," said Ulick slowly. "I'll accept that offer . . . on one condition."

"Which is?"

"Keep out of the cells." His tone was flat, uncompromising.

Oslo's smile never wavered. But in his eyes flashed that darkness which Ulick had seen before, and which he now knew that far too many prisoners had seen, when they were alone in a cell with Oslo.

All that Oslo said was, "As you wish. But you're not going to make many friends at this prison if you take that attitude."

"Does that matter?" he asked simply, and reaching forward, he extracted from Oslo's jacket the guard's keys to the cells.

o—o—o

The guardroom took up much of the fourth level, curving round from the prison's main staircase to its back staircase, so that the guards need not travel through the fourth level to reach the guardroom, if they did not wish to.

The dice game was still underway when Ulick arrived. Denley and Sedgewick were the only players, but Rufus was standing nearby, jeering Denley, and a number of other day guards watched the contest with interest. There was no sign here of Vere – nor, for that matter, of the briefly glimpsed Bailey. Keane and the other married guards were presumably snug in their beds outside the prison.

Ulick walked past the game, unacknowledged and apparently unnoticed by the players and onlookers. The guards' water closet was in the back of the guardroom; Ulick used one of the urinals there and washed his hands. Then, on impulse, he slipped through the door leading to the prisoners' washroom.

There were no urinals here; Ulick had learned that, for prisoners, sanitation consisted of the cesspit in the floors of their cells. The guards complained of this as much as the prisoners did, since the pits – which were supposed to empty into a great waste barrel below – continually clogged and had to be cleaned by the prisoners, under the careful supervision of the guards.

Once a week, however, the prisoners were brought to the washroom to be showered and shaved. Each level had its own washroom, other than the fifth and sixth levels, where no provisions appeared to be made for the cleaning of the prisoners.

On the fourth level, half a dozen showers stood empty and dark. Ulick, who had snatched up a lantern from the water closet, made his way down the row of showers as the shadows leapt and withdrew at his approach.

Each shower was large, with room enough for a chair that was presumably placed where the supervising guard sat. Next to the chair were the shower controls, marked "hot," "warm," "cold," and "ice cold." Ulick looked at the last control for a long moment, then turned his attention to the other end of the shower.

There, on the wall directly under the showerhead, were chains and manacles.

He stood for a while, fingering the manacles, imagining what it felt like to be held there while the ice-cold water drenched him. Then he shook his head and moved away. Sympathy with prisoners was all very well, but empathy could cause him to lose his objectivity. The prisoners here weren't innocent victims; they were violent men who had raped and murdered. Merrick himself – Ulick had learned from the guards' talk – was rumored to have killed a young child in his own family. Men like that could rarely be controlled by soft words alone.

But torture?

He leaned against the cold metal of the showers, his eyes closed. He had spoken to Vere about floggings, more out of a desire to gauge the other guard's views than out of any real opposition to the act he was discussing. Floggings for punishment took place in every prison in Mip; so did confinement to solitary, underground cells for punishment. Even rape by guards was not unknown in the holding prisons, though it was not considered an acceptable mode of discipline, since guards in the holding prisons were bound by the legal prohibitions against rape.

But if they had not been . . .

He was in danger of seeing the guards here as something utterly separate from himself: a species different from his own type. But if this had been the first prison he had ever worked in – or if, like Oslo, he had worked in the past in other life prisons – would he find anything strange about the practices here?

Had he ever found anything strange in the past years, when he had flogged prisoners, and confined them to dark disciplinary cells, and treated them worse than beasts in a zoo are treated?

"Mercy Life Prison," he murmured, "you're making me question whether I am in the right profession."

He forced himself to analyze the problem. The problem, he now saw, lay in the regulations that the guards followed. Every prison in the world attracted unscrupulous men who wished to practice their cruelty through becoming guards, but in the better prisons, their cruelty was leashed by rules.

Ulick had always considered himself to have worked in the better prisons. Now, with faint memories of news articles about international criticism of Mip's prison system, he began to wonder whether he had ever worked in a well-run prison at all. But there was no doubt that Mercy Prison was the worst prison he had ever served at, and from what he had heard from guards who had served at other life prisons, Mercy was actually one of the better life prisons. The tales that Oslo had told Ulick about his work at Compassion Life Prison had made the hair on the back of Ulick's neck stand up straight. However poorly the holding prisons might be run, the guards there were at least required to leash their baser desires in a minimal fashion.

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.

As his mind swam with the image of Sedgewick holding him over the balcony rail, Ulick pushed himself away from the wall. He hesitated, looking toward the door that led back to the water closet and then the guardroom; the faintly-heard voices permeating those doors sounded merry. He had no desire to walk past that blithe cheerfulness. Instead, after dousing his light and setting aside the lantern, he groped his way to the door.

It opened, to his surprise, onto the back stairs.

He stared for a minute before he realized that, in all likelihood, the door had been placed there to allow guards easy access to the water closet beyond the washroom. He looked up. Darkness. Then he looked down. The stairway was dim, but he thought he could see a faint shimmer of light coming from below. He made his way cautiously down, intending to cut back onto the main staircase once he reached the second level.

Then he saw the source of the light.

It was a very dim light, white and wavering, like a sun-lit blossom shuddering in the wind. It came from just around the curve of the stairway, and holding it – holding the lantern that embraced the lit candle – was Merrick. He was speaking to someone just beyond Ulick's view.

Ulick checked his first impulse, which was to leap forward and capture Merrick. Make any sound or sudden movement, and Ulick would doubtlessly lose sight of Merrick's companion. And there seemed little doubt as to the nature of Merrick's conversation: it was low-voiced, too low for Ulick to make out individual words, but Merrick was relaxed in his tone and posture. He must be talking with a confidant – most likely, his co-conspirator.

Ulick pressed himself against the interior wall of the stairwell, trying to creep forward far enough to see Merrick's companion. But at that moment, a decision was apparently made; Merrick began to trot down the steps.

Ulick followed. Without pausing, Merrick passed the landing to the third level, as well as the landing to the second level. His companion remained beyond Ulick's view, though Ulick could hear the man's steps, faint like a shadow in the night. The candlelight bounced and wavered against the walls, sliding its way down the stairwell.

Merrick reached the exit gates leading out of the prison. Ulick tensed, but Merrick merely moved more cautiously. When he reached the gates, Ulick saw why Merrick had been able to move at all: both the guards of the outermost gate were asleep at their posts.

Plied with drink? Ulick paused long enough to sniff at the bottle of one of the guards. He thought he faintly smelt the distinctive scent of paraldehyde. He set down the bottle and glanced through the gate: the guards at the other two gates were still on duty, though they were so busy chatting that they had not yet noticed that their fellow guards were asleep.

Or perhaps they did not care. Ulick detached the key-rings from the belts of the drunken guards. They keys were in plain sight, yet Merrick had not paused to steal them; nor had the man who gave the drugged beer to the first set of guards attempted to drug the second and third sets. Escape was not in the plans, then. Merrick and his co-conspirator simply did not wish to be noticed as they made their way down to the first level.

Ulick hurried to catch up. It was therefore not until he reached the doorway to the first level that he remembered what lay there.

The ground ahead was swallowed up by the darkness within the hall. All that could be seen, faint now, was the flicker-light of the lantern and the faint outline of Merrick's body. Ulick could not see the other man, but Merrick's voice drifted back like a whisper in the wind. The conversation between the two leaders was continuing. Their goal, quite obviously, was to reach the cellar.

And between them and Ulick lay the iron balcony.

He could not see the balcony. He could not see the railing, nor the small holes in the wrought iron that, in his imagination, grew large enough to swallow him up. No light lay ahead of him except that one faint, bobbing lantern.

He considered his choices. He could retreat – go in search of light or of help. But by the time he returned, Merrick and his co-conspirator might have finished their secret conversation.

Or he could pretend he had never seen them talking. That choice was very appealing.

He took a deep breath and stepped onto the balcony.

The ground beneath his feet did not give way. He shuffled forward until he found the railing; then, gripping it firmly, he began to slide his feet forward. Left boot. Right boot. Left boot. Right boot.

He could still envision the consequences if he stepped the wrong way: if he stepped too far to the left, so that he fell over the railing; if he stepped too far to the right, so that he bounced off the wall and fell over the railing; if he stepped straight ahead and tripped over some unseen obstacle, so that he fell over the railing.

And then there was the fear, which he could not shake, that the balcony was riddled with holes. Gaping holes, awaiting him, so that his next step would be into air, and there would be a final, screaming moment before his body was crushed on the floor below the balcony.

The light ahead disappeared. He was left in total darkness.

His legs, trembling now like that of a child learning to walk, bent; he knelt down on the balcony, gasping for air, feeling his heart jumping in his rib-cage. Its pounding was the only sound in the hall. He had no light to guide him, no sound. Perhaps he should crawl back the way he had come? He must be closer to where he had been than to where he had intended to go.

At that moment, as he groped slick-palmed for the path behind him, an image rose unbidden in his mind: the image of a dying man, shut away to rot, asking, "Whose side are you on?"

He found that he had risen to his feet. He sought out the railing again; then, gripping it firmly, he stepped forward once more.

It seemed a lifetime and three rebirths before he reached the end of the balcony. He stood a moment at the doorway there, gulping down air and feeling the sweat turn cold upon his skin in the winter air. He swallowed the sickness in his mouth; then, determined but shaky, he began to climb down the steps before him, continuing his search for Merrick and his co-conspirator.

o—o—o

The cellar smelled of earth and human waste. The recessed cell-doors were solid, except for barred windows, through which fell patches of moonlight.

Standing near one such recessed doorway, at the far end of the corridor, was Merrick. His back was to Ulick; he was leaning against the doorjamb, his head half-turned in the direction of the cell. The moonlit patch in which he stood was much larger than the rest; Ulick guessed that the door must be fully open. The sound of Merrick's voice was faint as he spoke.

The co-conspirator was nowhere in sight. Cautiously, Ulick made his way down the corridor, confident that, in the event that Merrick began to turn, Ulick could duck quickly into one of the recessed doorways, which would hide him from sight.

The closer he came, the more clearly he could see Merrick, his candy-cane-striped uniform bright in the moonlight, his unkempt hair glossy, his posture relaxed. The words he spoke were becoming clearer, clearer . . . Ulick, stepping soundlessly along the pavement, strove to hear.
 

Poke the prisoner,
Poke the guard,
See who squeaks
Loud and hard. . . .


A nursery rhyme. Merrick, his head turned toward the hidden cell, was reciting a nursery rhyme.

Ulick froze, recognizing finally the significance of the recessed doorways. It was too late, though; as he turned his head, he saw a flicker of dark cloth and the gleam of a blade. He had just enough time to see the face of Merrick's co-conspirator; then the blade-hilt hit him on the head, and he went down into the sparking darkness.

o—o—o

He had one of those dreams in which the dreamer is paralyzed, unable to flee, unable even to move his legs. He awoke to find that the dream was real.

He was sitting slumped in the corner of a moonlit cell, the smell of human waste stronger than ever. His ankles were bound together; his hands were likewise tied together, behind his back. The first thing he saw, when he opened his eyes, was the lantern, its candle-fire now motionless. Then he raised his eyes and saw the blade, pointed toward him.

Merrick, sounding highly irritated, said, "You bloody idiot!"

He was inclined to agree. His head ached from the blow, his stomach continued to clench from the sickness of his journey across the balcony, and the rest of his body . . . He did not move his eyes from the unwavering blade.

Sighing heavily, Merrick said, "Look, just swear that you won't say anything about this to anyone. If you make that oath, by whatever you hold most sacred, we'll let you go."

He moved his eyes finally, not to Merrick, who was sitting cross-legged in front of him, but up to the face of the man standing behind Merrick, holding the blade. The man's face was dark in the shadows, but the faint outlines of a cold expression could be seen.

Ulick finally found his voice. "Are those the choices you offer me? If I refuse to remain silent, you'll kill me . . . won't you?" He addressed his question to the silent bladesman, who did not bother to deny the accusation. "And if I remain silent . . . if Mercy's Keeper discovers that I've withheld information about you . . . I'll die anyway, won't I? Either way, trust will have been broken."

Again, the bladesman did not bother to reply. More tellingly, Merrick was chewing worriedly at his lip.

Ulick heard a memory whisper in his mind: You'll learn what happens to traitors.

The anger in him boiled over: the anger he rarely allowed to surface, because it could so easily cause him to fail his duty. "If this is what you call the Boundaries of Behavior, then kill me," he said flatly. "I'd rather die than be tainted by association with men like you."

The blade, cold as moonlight, hovered in the air. Then the bladesman crouched down and placed the dagger in Merrick's hand.

Merrick looked stunned. The bladesman leaned forward and murmured something in Merrick's ear; then he picked up the lantern, rose from his crouching position, and made his way to the door. He closed the door carefully behind him.

Ulick turned his attention back to Merrick, who was contemplating the blade in a manner that Ulick liked not one whit. "What did he say?"

Without a word, Merrick took hold of Ulick's arm and shoved him around. The dagger touched his back.

"He said," replied Merrick, "that you are right." There was a pause as Merrick sliced through the rope binding Ulick's wrists. "He said that we can't claim to keep the Boundaries if we use unlawful force against you to keep you quiet." He pushed Ulick back to his previous position and sliced through the rope binding his ankles. "Go, then," Merrick added, the anger and the frustration clear in his voice. "You're free to do what you want. Just remember that you're holding all of us in your hands. Not only those of us who keep the Boundaries, but every prisoner in every life prison in Mip. Our fate depends upon your decision." He stood up and turned abruptly away from Ulick, as though in disgust.

Ulick slowly rose to his feet. The dagger had nicked his wrist; he rubbed the blood off absentmindedly. Merrick did not turn back. Ulick made his way to the door, opened it, slid into the moonlit corridor, and closed the door.

The bladesman was nowhere to be seen, but faintly nearby, above a stairway leading up to the hall, came the sound of bootsteps treading upon iron. Then there was the faint creak of a door opening and closing. Then no sound at all.

Ulick turned his attention back to the cell, staring through the door-panel. Merrick was again contemplating the dagger. He made a sound halfway between a grunt and a whimper and threw the dagger through the high, barred window that faced the prison yard.

It landed with a clatter and a screech as it skidded on the pavement. Merrick had already turned away. His face was in his hands; he muttered something indistinct that sounded like a curse to the gods, or a plea.

Ulick stood alone in the corridor, just a few yards from the door leading to the Keeper's office. He had a moment to remember that, when he was kneeling on the pitch-black balcony, what had come to his mind was not the memory of his duty to Mercy's Keeper, but his memory of the lonely prisoner on the fifth level, waiting to see what Ulick would do.

Curiosity was a dangerous thing. It could take you into dark places you never intended to enter.

Merrick's head jerked up as the cell door opened. The surprise and wariness in his expression told Ulick everything he needed to know about whether this was a planned lure.

He closed the door behind him. "Recite to me the Boundaries of Behavior," he told Merrick in a low voice. "If they're what I think they are, I'll help you to keep them."