Encouraged by his conversation with Mr. Boyd, Vito arrived for work earlier than usual the next day. He found that Mr. Boyd had not yet arrived on duty and that Mr. Crofford was in the midst of quizzing the day guards on how the prisoner's day had gone.
It became apparent from the moment that Mr. Crofford turned his gaze toward his Seeker that Vito was in trouble.
Vito paused in an effort to clear his thoughts. He was still fuzzy with sleep, his body continuing to adjust to being awake all night and asleep during the day. He had no doubt that Layle Smith had placed him on the night shift, not in order that Vito might continue to rehearse with Elsdon during the afternoons, but in order that the High Seeker – himself a night-shift worker – could better keep a watch upon him. Although the High Seeker was spending much of his time visiting the new Queen this month, Layle Smith was keeping a closer eye on Vito than he had the previous year.
Even with his mind acting as slow as a racked prisoner's release, though, Vito knew that this was not the proper place to sort out whatever had gone wrong.
"Mr. Crofford, might I have a private word with you?" Ignoring the curious glances of the day guards, he beckoned his junior night guard toward the nearest empty cell – which, as it happened, was Breaking Cell 4, the cell in which the High Seeker had broken Elsdon Taylor, back when Elsdon was Layle Smith's prisoner.
Mr. Crofford came, hostility obvious from his squinting eyes. Vito waited until they were alone in the cell, with the door closed behind them, before saying, "Mr. Crofford, have I made an error with my prisoner? If so, I beg that you will—"
"Don't try that with me." Mr. Crofford's voice grated like sandpaper.
Vito paused again, genuinely taken aback. Then he said, "Excuse me?"
"You tried that with Mr. Boyd at dawn yesterday. 'Oh, dear, Mr. Boyd, I'm an innocent, naive Seeker who doesn't know how to break prisoners. With your greater experience, won't you please help me?'" Mr. Crofford shook his head, hair falling in front of his furious eyes. "Mr. Boyd hasn't seen Mr. Taylor break a prisoner, but I have. The appearance of naiveté is a technique Mr. Taylor uses to lure his prisoners into trusting him. I'm not fooled by it."
Vito considered Mr. Crofford for a moment, very much aware of their surroundings: the solid walls, the iron door, the harsh light from the ceiling above. Then he said mildly, "I was under the impression that you and Mr. Taylor had been close associates at one time."
"We still are," snapped Mr. Crofford. "But that doesn't mean I'm fooled by him when he sets out to break a prisoner. I'm not fooled by you either. You may have succeeded in breaking Mr. Boyd, but you won't break me."
Ah. Vito reflected that this was a moment when he would have preferred that the dungeon rule against smoking be lifted. It would have been an appropriate moment to hand Mr. Crofford a cigar in a comradely fashion. Clearly, Mr. Crofford possessed certain Seekerly qualities himself. The best guards in this dungeon always did.
Instead Vito said, again mildly, "I appreciate your concern for Mr. Boyd, but he strikes me as being capable of protecting himself."
Mr. Crofford spat out a word that was highly obscene. Vito decided to ignore that. He had not previously realized that Mr. Crofford had appointed himself to guard Mr. Boyd against unscrupulous members of the dungeon, but it explained certain matters that had mystified Vito: Mr. Boyd's dramatic improvement in his communication skills since the last time Vito stayed in this dungeon, as well as Mr. Boyd's tendency to consult with Mr. Crofford before making important work decisions. Apparently, Mr. Boyd accepted the arrangement, which was a tribute to Mr. Crofford's integrity.
Vito, who had never let himself forget the mental deficiencies that had afflicted Mr. Boyd since his health-breaking punishment at Layle Smith's hands, said now, "I'm sure that the High Seeker would not have rehired Mr. Boyd unless he believed he was still capable of doing his job." He waited for Mr. Crofford to take the point.
"The High Seeker was forced to rehire you." Again, the words were spat out.
"Yes," said Vito. "I was rather under the impression that you were one of the men who forced him to do so."
The High Seeker, Vito reflected, probably enjoyed moments like this, when the man he was questioning turned pale from a verbal blow. Vito merely wished that this interview was over with. He was not hired by the dungeon to discipline his junior guard; that was supposed to be Mr. Boyd's job. But clearly, under these particular circumstances, Vito could not ask Mr. Boyd to intervene.
Like many a man in Mr. Crofford's position, the junior guard decided to change tactics. "That was back when I thought you really wanted to be a Seeker. But now I know why you demanded to be rehired."
Oh, dear. Vito was slow indeed this evening. How many dungeon-workers had decided that? If this was the general viewpoint, then Vito was very much in trouble.
"I see," he replied. "You think that I foresaw Mr. Gurth's arrest for murder – for the deed itself took place five weeks ago, well after my return to this dungeon – and that I came here and managed to persuade our new Queen to overturn the Eternal Dungeon's ban upon me, so that I might have the opportunity to help my love-mate escape again. Is that correct?"
Mr. Crofford's face flushed. "Now you're using one of the High Seeker's techniques for breaking: derision."
"I'm simply stating in plain language the implicit accusation you have made against me," Vito pointed out. "Mr. Crofford, it hadn't occurred to me that anyone might think this. I suppose it would be a logical way to proceed. I suppose I might even have had a pre-existing relationship with Mr. Gurth and arranged to be hired here before his first arrest." From the look on Mr. Crofford's face, it was clear that dungeon speculation had travelled that far. "I wish I could name myself that insightful, but the fact is that, until the High Seeker read out the prisoner's records for me at the time of my own arrest – a highly humiliating experience, by the way, I can't recommend it – I had no real idea of who Mr. Gurth was. I still don't know who he is," he added frankly. "So if you have any information to offer me on that, I would welcome it."
He waited for Mr. Crofford to spit out obscenities again. Instead, the junior guard's gaze travelled over his face. Mr. Crofford said slowly, "It's a strange coincidence that you should be assigned twice to Mr. Gurth."
"Not a coincidence," said Vito shortly. "Mr. Smith made the assignment in both cases." He let frustration enter into his voice. Ordinarily, he would not criticize a superior in the presence of a subordinate. But Mr. Crofford was a leader of the New School; he no doubt knew all the details of Vito's previous clashes with the High Seeker.
Another moment passed in which Mr. Crofford considered what Vito had said. Vito had carefully positioned himself so that his body obscured the whipping ring against the wall. He wished to be honest with his guard, but he didn't wish Mr. Crofford to be that alert as to what was occurring.
Finally Mr. Crofford said in a changed voice, "I just don't understand."
"Why Mr. Taylor recruited you to help us reform the dungeon. He could have chosen anyone else as a symbol of the High Seeker's injustice – why you?"
Vito shrugged, opening his palms toward the ceiling. "As to why he and Mistress Chapman chose to use me as a symbol, you would have to ask them. But you have the chronology wrong in your tale, Mr. Crofford. It was not Mr. Taylor who recruited me into the New School; rather, I sought to recruit him." Seeing indignity gather in Mr. Crofford's expression, Vito added hastily, "As it happened, he recruited himself before I had an opportunity to speak to him about this. But I assure you, I was already committed to reform at the time that I first became a Seeker-in-Training. I believe that is one reason why the High Seeker dismissed me from my job: he perceived me as a danger to his bloody methods of keeping control over prisoners and prison-workers. That is why I laid a suit against his dismissal – that reason alone. As the fates are my witness, for all other reasons I certainly deserved to be dismissed as a Seeker. Last time I searched Mr. Gurth, I was clumsy, close-minded to the advice of experienced men such as yourself, and I committed the fatal error of allowing my personal feelings for the prisoner to overcome my duty as a Seeker. It was" – Vito drew a breath – "the most humiliating blunder of my life, and I am acutely aware that, under ordinary circumstances, it would be wrong for me to return to this dungeon. But I want to be here to help reform the Eternal Dungeon."
"The dungeon has already been reformed." Mr. Crofford had been frowning throughout this recital, though his gaze remained fixed on Vito. Which was just as Vito wanted. "Mr. Taylor reformed it."
"Mr. Taylor has taken the first step," Vito agreed. "But theory is one thing – practice is quite another. After the last revision of the Code of Seeking – the revision penned by Mr. Smith – who was the man who enforced the changes in that revision?"
Mr. Crofford was silent a minute before he said, "Mr. Smith. The previous head torturer was seriously ill during his final year of life; Mr. Smith did most of the work of running the dungeon. And since the day that Mr. Smith rose to the title of High Seeker, he has had sole power to enforce the Code, with the supervision of the Codifier."
"And who will enforce the new revision?" asked Vito.
No response this time. After a minute had passed, Mr. Crofford said softly, "That's why you're here?"
"That's why I'm here. The naked-faced Seekers are in a minority; Mr. Taylor will need all the help he can receive in persuading the Old School's Seekers and guards to accept his reform. The only way this dungeon can be reformed is if those of us who accept the need for change will demonstrate it through our actions with the prisoners. Through the manner in which we break the prisoners . . . or allow them to break themselves." He moved a step, allowing Mr. Crofford to see the whipping ring.
Whatever other skills he possessed, Mr. Crofford was not talented at hiding his expressions. He looked, at this moment, like a prisoner who has just discovered that he is on the rack. He swallowed and then returned his attention to Vito. Vito could imagine what Mr. Crofford was seeing: a breaking cell in which he stood alone with a man in a black hood, possessing all the authority of the dungeon to break a prisoner . . . or a recalcitrant guard.
Mr. Crofford finally said, still softly, "You're dangerous."
Vito did not bother to deny this.
"In a different way than Mr. Taylor and Mr. Smith," Mr. Crofford clarified. "Mr. Taylor misleads prisoners into thinking he's more vulnerable than he is, and Mr. Smith misleads prisoners into thinking he's more ruthless than he is. . . . All of the Seekers mislead their prisoners. It's how they break them. But you . . ." Mr. Crofford scanned Vito's face again. "Every word you've spoken to me has been completely true, hasn't it?"
"You use truth to break your prisoners," said Mr. Crofford. "I've seen you do it with Mr. Gurth. He tries to figure out the lies you're telling him, and he can't, because you're telling him the truth. Sweet blood," Mr. Crofford whispered, "you're more dangerous than the High Seeker."
"Language, please, Mr. Crofford," reprimanded Vito briskly. "No, I wouldn't say that I'm more dangerous than Mr. Smith. We use different techniques, that's all. And while I've never been searched by the High Seeker" – he managed to suppress a shudder at the thought – "Mr. Taylor has, and he tells me that his final breaking came when the High Seeker was brutally honest with him. Nor am I always entirely forthcoming with my prisoners." He took another step to once more obscure Mr. Crofford's sight of the whipping ring. "So Mr. Smith and I are not that far apart in our techniques; it is just a matter of emphasis." Vito smiled. "The disadvantage of my technique – of being as honest as possible about my failings and ignorance – is that I usually show myself up as a fool."
Mr. Crofford tried – and failed – to keep himself from laughing. "Whereas it's the other person who's the fool. I'm sorry, sir," he added. "I can't say that I entirely trust you—"
"It's your job as junior guard not to," Vito said approvingly.
Mr. Crofford nodded. "Yes, sir. I'm duty-bound to prevent you from misusing your power against your prisoner. But when Mr. Boyd told me over breakfast today that he thought we had overlooked some of your finer qualities . . . Well, I jumped to the conclusion that you had taken advantage of his limitations in assessing men."
Vito shook his head. "I have too much respect for him to take advantage of him. And too much debt to both of you." He inhaled a deep breath, his mind travelling to the past. "Do you recall that meeting of the New School which I interrupted last year? Mistress Chapman had told me by letter that the purpose of the meeting would be to plan a protest against my dismissal from the dungeon, and so I had come there expecting to see perhaps two or three people in conference. Maybe half a dozen if I was lucky. Instead, I found the Seekers' common room filled to the brim with guards, while you and Mr. Boyd sat in the front row." Vito shook his head. "It was a humbling experience. I know that I am very, very lucky to be given this second chance, and I swear to you, Mr. Crofford: I will not throw away this chance. I will prove myself worthy of the honor which you and Mr. Boyd and the others have paid me."