Actions

Work Header

Chapter Text

"Don't disturb her," Elsdon said in a soft voice. "She's still in mourning."

It was well past midnight, and they were standing outside the door of the multi-roomed living cell shared by Birdesmond, her husband Weldon Chapman, and, until recently, their son Zenas. At this time of night, Vito and Elsdon would normally be in the breaking cells, searching prisoners. But Elsdon was still on extended leave from his usual work in order to see the new revision of the Code to its publication. As for Vito, he had arrived at his prisoner's breaking cell that evening, only to discover that it was occupied by Mr. Bergsen, who wished to make a thorough examination of Vito's prisoner. That the Codifier, who employed Mr. Bergsen, would arrange for the healer to make an unscheduled visit was a stinging reminder of how little Vito was trusted by the dungeon's authorities.

"But she knew that he would be returning to Vovim," Vito protested to Elsdon, though he too kept his voice low. The period between midnight and five a.m. was the quietest time in the dungeon. The outer-dungeon laborers, who mainly worked the day shift, had gone home; the day-shift workers who lived in the dungeon were asleep; and the night-shift Seekers and guards were at their work.

At their bloody work, in some cases. In the distance, Vito could hear the sound that never failed to chill him: the scream of a prisoner who was being racked.

Elsdon shook his head. He had that hollow-eyed look which Vito had come to associate with the days on which Elsdon was unable to reach agreement with Layle Smith. "It was hard enough for her and Weldon when Zenas chose not to continue living in the dungeon when he came of age. Since Birdesmond and Weldon are oath-bound to remain in this dungeon till their deaths, they knew that they would only see Zenas on his days off from work, when he visited them. And then he told them that he was returning to his native kingdom. That was a hard blow indeed, but they nursed the hope that, on special occasions, he would return to Yclau and visit them. But now . . ."

"Vovimian prophets aren't permitted to travel to foreign lands?" Vito ventured.

Elsdon shook his head.

"Surely he will correspond with them," said Vito.

"Oh, yes. They've already received their first letter from him. But he's their only child, and they love him dearly. Give her the time she and Weldon need to heal, Vito." Elsdon gently drew Vito away from the door. "I wanted the opportunity to speak with you anyway." He glanced around the corridor, which was empty, then lowered his voice further. "Layle has the night off; he finished a racking earlier this evening. I expect he's in our living cell. Let's talk in the common room instead."

The Seekers' common room was just a few paces away from Birdesmond's living cell. At this time of night, the common room was closed, but as second-in-command of the dungeon, Elsdon had the privilege to enter any part of the dungeon he wished. He opened the common-room door and gestured Vito inside.

The room was dark except for a shaft of moonlight falling through the partially translucent skylight at the end of the room. The moonlight fell upon an empty area where, Vito knew, he and Elsdon and their third player would be performing Sweet Blood in five days' time. How they would manage to squeeze their entire audience into the room, Vito could not imagine. The common room was one of the largest rooms in the dungeon, rivalled only by the entry hall, crematorium, and dining hall. But word of the performance had spread; not only did most of the Seekers and guards wish to attend, but so did many of the outer-dungeon laborers. And every prisoner would be there, as well as the Codifier, the healer, and many other high-ranked men associated with the Eternal Dungeon. There was not a room in the entire dungeon that could house so great an audience.

Elsdon turned on one of the table-lamps. The lamp sputtered fitfully, as though uncertain whether to work, before finally lighting the small area around the table, flickering occasionally. At the dusky edges of the lamplight, Vito could see the drinks counter, but Elsdon did not approach it. Instead, he pulled out a chair and seated himself at the table. Vito followed suit, just in time to see Elsdon place a small, black volume, stamped with gold letters, upon the table.

Vito felt the immense weight of that tiny volume upon his heart. "It has been approved?"

Elsdon nodded. "As of yesterday. The royal press has only issued a short press run – enough to allow the senior members of the dungeon to examine the volume for typographic errors before it is released to the dungeon. Layle agreed that you could have one of the initial copies."

Vito opened the sixth revision of the Code of Seeking as he might open a copy of the ancient Sayings used in chapel, if they had been handed to him by their original Author. For a while he was silent, perusing the pages. Much that he read was familiar; like previous revisers, such as Layle Smith, Elsdon had not discarded the wisdom of prior authors of the volume. Rather, he had skillfully pruned the text, then added new material.

Vito had intended only to skim the opening pages; but what he saw caused him to read carefully through to the end. The clock in the corner of the common room was chiming the fourth hour by the time he finished. For a while after he closed the book, he stared down at the cover. Then he raised his eyes.

Elsdon was still sitting quietly beside Vito. His expression was difficult to read. Elsdon said, "Well?"

"You're going to need a bodyguard when this is released," Vito said.

"Not from you, I trust." Elsdon's voice was soft in the stillness of the room.

Vito sighed as he pushed the book back. His muscles were aching, and he realized that this was not simply due to the fact that he had sat hunched over a book for a full hour. His body remained rigid. "Explain it to me," he pleaded. "Elsdon, you had the power to abolish torture in this dungeon. Instead, you're going to let it continue. For at least a decade – possibly forever. Why?"

Elsdon did not seem disturbed by the bluntness of his question. "Vito, who will carry out the rules in the new Code?"

It was the question that Vito had asked Mr. Crofford. He said uneasily, "If the Code required them not to use torture—"

"Then the Code would never have been approved," Elsdon said with his own, characteristic brand of bluntness. "Vito, I was appointed to revise the Code, not because I'm the Seeker best qualified to author a book like this, but for one reason only: the High Seeker and the Codifier believed I had the ability to craft a Code that would allow all the Seekers in this dungeon to continue with their work, without breaking their consciences."

"And the prisoners? What about them?" He felt his voice turn rough, and he struggled to modulate his tone. "Elsdon, a Seeker must suffer for the prisoners. You retained those words at the beginning of the Code. This is the time when the Old School must suffer—"

"And not the New School?" By contrast, Elsdon kept his voice mild. "Vito, you said, 'Possibly forever.' Do you have so little conviction, then, in your own beliefs?"

Elsdon must be redoubtable in the breaking cell, Vito reflected wryly. "Very well," he conceded. "The test you call for in the new Code, a test to demonstrate whether the New School's methods of Seeking produce appropriate results . . . That will work. Given time, we of the New School will be able to show that our prisoners are more likely to transform themselves if we don't apply torture to them. But Elsdon—" Vito felt a hardness in his throat, as though he could still hear the screams of the racked prisoner through the common room's door. "Ten years? Ten more years of torture by the Old School? Why did you pick ten years as the length of the test?"

"Because," Elsdon said quietly, "in ten years' time, nearly all of the Old School torturers will be aged sixty or older."

For a moment, Vito stared blankly at him. Then he opened the sixth revision and flipped rapidly through it until he found the appropriate passage. He read aloud, "'In prior days, Seekers were expected to continue to work in the dungeon until their deaths, unless released from their duties by the healer of the dungeon. Recognizing that such long years at work may not be of advantage to either the Seekers or their prisoners, it is now declared that Seekers may themselves request, at any time after their sixtieth birthday, a release from their duties as Seekers, though they will remain bound by their oath of eternal confinement within the dungeon unless released by the Codifier or the healer. . . .'" Vito looked up. "You're going to pressure them into retirement."

Elsdon shook his head. "It won't be necessary, I think. After ten years, any Seeker who still insists on the necessity of torture will be so clearly out of tune with the times that he will be forced to recuse himself. The new rules on retirement allow him a graceful way in which to withdraw from the inner dungeon. Layle already has plans to build a new wing onto the outer dungeon, where retired Seekers can spend the final years of their lives."

Vito looked down at the black volume in front of him. He felt none of the excitement he had expected to experience upon reading the new Code – only a dull sickness. "Ten years, Elsdon."

"Ten years," Elsdon acknowledged, weariness in his voice. "I've discussed this with Weldon; he agrees with me that we should expect to see changes long before then. As he did, other Seekers will switch their loyalties from the Old School to the New School – especially the junior Seekers, who have had less time to be shaped by tradition. Well before the year 375, Seekers will be raising their face-cloths to their prisoners, or they will retire. The tenth year is the final year of this dungeon's transformation, Vito – not the initial year."

Vito sighed heavily. "I wanted it to happen overnight."

"That was never a possibility, alas." For the first time, Elsdon lowered his gaze. "You missed witnessing most of the civil war here. There are Seekers in this dungeon who will never, ever change their minds about the need to bring about transformation through torture. Many of them are senior Seekers; they possessed the power to oppose the passing of this revision. Vito, I was left with only two choices: introduce new methods of Seeking in a manner that the Old School would accept, or watch the Queen abolish the Code."

Vito was still a moment before saying, "The new Queen is that great a threat to the dungeon?"

"Her mother made the initial threat. The old Queen held her hand long enough to allow us time to find a solution. The new Queen would have acted immediately." Elsdon touched lightly the cover of the Code. "I've had a lit bomb beside me all these weeks, trying to craft a Code that would be accepted by both the New School and the Old School, before the Queen should grow impatient and revoke the Eternal Dungeon's power to govern itself by its own code of ethics. When the old Queen died, I had just begun to check the galleys. Layle actually swept the galley proofs off my desk as I was checking them and rushed upstairs to offer the new Queen his oath of loyalty . . . and to beg her to accept the revision that her mother was so close to approving."

"Sweet blood," whispered Vito, his body now as cold as a corpse. "I had no idea that the Code of Seeking was that near to destruction."

Elsdon nodded. "This" – he touched the black volume lightly again – "is a victory. I know that most of the dungeon won't see it that way. The Old School guards and Seekers will see only that they are being asked to risk the possibility of abolishing time-honored methods of searching prisoners. The New School guards and Seekers will see only that they are being asked to allow bloody methods of breaking to continue for years more. As you suggested, I'll be the target of everyone's fury." He gave a small smile, shaking his head. "It doesn't matter. The Code was saved. I know that, the Codifier knows that, the High Seeker knows that . . . A few others, like you. It doesn't matter what the rest of the dungeon thinks of me, as long as the Code remains safe for another generation."

Vito gave Elsdon a sharp look. "Your love-mate is only forty-five years old. He won't be of retirement age in ten years' time. Will he abide by the sixth revision? Will he stop torturing prisoners?"

"The High Seeker," said Elsdon carefully, "has never deliberately broken the Code. He will abide by whatever strictures this Code places upon him. If you doubt that, you really don't know the High Seeker at all." He stood up, his chair screeching against the flagstones. "I'm feeling rather tired, Vito. Let's seek out our beds; we can talk again later."

Reminding himself that Elsdon had also sacrificed some of his own high ideals, Vito rose to his feet. As he did so, however, the lamp flickered again. Turning to look at it, Vito's gaze was drawn toward a shadow at the end of the room. He froze.

Elsdon followed his gaze. He was still for only a second; then he walked forward. "Sir?" he said cautiously.

The shadow detached itself from the wall and stepped into the moonlight. It was the High Seeker, his face-cloth hiding his expression. He said abruptly, "I have been thinking of what you said."

On the point of joining his love-mate, Elsdon hesitated briefly; then he stepped into the moonlight, asking, "What have you decided?"

"That what you say is false." The High Seeker's voice was harsh. "You say that there may be happiness beyond this, but that is merely your attempt to escape from the truth. The truth is that this is the end. There is nothing more beyond this. You must accept that."

Elsdon's head jerked back. His eyes were wide. "I cannot accept that."

"You will go."

"I love you—"

"But you do not love me enough, I see." There was a flash of light in the High Seeker's hand; then he handed Elsdon the dagger. "Do it, then. Kill yourself. Do not expect me to cry for you."

Elsdon slowly took the dagger and stared down at it. The moonlit scene remained frozen for a moment as he contemplated the blade. Then the High Seeker stepped back and turned his head. "Well, Mr. de Vito? What is your judgment? How can I improve my performance?"

Still shaken by what he had seen, Vito slowly stepped forward. By the time he reached his two fellow players, he was still having trouble formulating his thoughts. He said, "It's not quite right yet."

"In what way?" There was nothing in the High Seeker's voice to indicate whether he held any interest in what Vito was saying.

Vito stumbled through his words. "Mr. Smith, whoever wrote this script altered the traditional role of the friend by splitting that role into two parts. He created two friends for the man who transformed himself. One friend – the role that I play – is a friend who speaks his doubts with clear truthfulness. The other friend – the role that you play – speaks his doubts with deceit. But both friends are supposed to feel affection for the man they are trying to persuade to remain with them in afterdeath. They both love the man dearly." Vito shook his head. "I couldn't see love in the way you recited your lines – only cold rage. There ought to be love as well."

Layle Smith offered no immediate reply. He simply stood there, staring at Vito, his eyes black in the dim light. Then he said very quietly, "I will take your advice into consideration." He swept past Vito as though he barely noticed the Seeker-in-Training. The door to the common room closed behind him with a slam.

Vito didn't realize he was whispering curses until he felt Elsdon's hand on his shoulder. Elsdon said, "He's not angry at you, Vito. He's angry at himself. He knows you're right."

Vito tore his gaze away from the common-room door. "He unnerves me. He slipped into this room, eavesdropped on our conversation, and then began rehearsing that scene with you so abruptly, as though it were real. . . ."

Placing the prop onto the table, Elsdon shook his head. "He was here when we first arrived – I should have realized that, when I saw the lamp flickering. He sometimes comes here late at night when his duties permit, to pray in private."

Vito raised his eyebrows. "He doesn't pray in the crematorium, then."

"Where he would be publicly on display? No. He doesn't like to shout to the world the fact that he still prays to the Vovimian gods. Tonight, he probably was praying to his gods and remained oblivious to our presence till we started discussing the Code. As for the scene-playing . . . It's the way he is, Vito. He wasn't trying to scare you. He simply slips between the world around us and the world of the mind with complete ease. He's the perfect player."

Vito frowned. "Does he do this with other members of the dungeon, besides yourself? I'd have thought that people would talk about that, and I've heard nothing."

Elsdon shook his head. "He hasn't done it around other people for years. Why he did it tonight . . . I'm not sure. I suppose he simply wanted your advice on his performance, since he and I have been rehearsing our roles together separately from you and I."

"What is your judgment? How can I improve my performance?" The High Seeker's words whispered in Vito's head. Vito heard himself say, "His words felt so real. . . ."

Elsdon turned his head away abruptly, as though he'd been slapped. He said, "I should go—"

Vito caught hold of him. "Elsdon. Tell me the truth. Is there trouble between you and Layle Smith?"

Elsdon sighed but did not try to release himself. "Not the sort you think. He hasn't been abusing me."

"What, then?" Vito kept hold of Elsdon's hands, which were cold. Elsdon's body remained as listless as it had been when he had spoken to the High Seeker.

Elsdon said nothing for a while. The room was as quiet as a crematorium. Finally Elsdon replied in a low voice, "I vowed to Layle, when I first met him, that I would never leave him."

"And now you wish to break your vow?" As he spoke, Vito searched Elsdon's face with his eyes.

Elsdon shook his head. "I already broke it. During the civil war last year, when the New School was fighting the Old School so vigorously . . . I moved out of the living cell I share with Layle. We were separated for weeks, not communicating with each other except through official notes."

"But you returned." Vito narrowed his eyes in an attempt to see Elsdon better in the dim light. "You've been living together for months. If he blames you for what happened, isn't he willing to forgive you?"

Elsdon gave a weary chuckle. "Oh, Vito. You still don't understand Layle. It's not a matter of forgiving me. He blames himself for what happened. Even if he thought I was to blame, he would willingly lay his life down for me. But he's scared."

"Scared." Vito spoke the word tentatively, sure that he had misunderstood.

"Of losing me again. He has always been convinced that he's unworthy of me, that I'd eventually recognize this and leave him. I spent years – years – building up his trust in me. And then I was a fool, and I destroyed all that trust."

"Elsdon, you had to oppose the High Seeker on the issue of torture—"

"But I didn't have to leave him," Elsdon said simply. "I did that for my own convenience, because I couldn't bear the idea of quarrelling daily with him. It was a terrible, terrible mistake, Vito. Layle wants to trust I'll stay. But all his self-hatred, all his certainty that I am the personification of Mercy and he is despicable Hell . . . After what took place last year, he can no longer believe that I will remain with him. Our bed has been cold since I returned."

Vito was deeply moved. If Elsdon hadn't spoken of these matters before now to him, then, in all likelihood, Vito was the first person Elsdon had entrusted with this tale.

He was deeply moved, but he was deeply, deeply disconcerted. "He despises himself?"

Elsdon shook his head in a quick little jerk. "I said more than I should have. Vito, I don't know what I can do with Layle. I've tried everything to return our love-mateship to what it was. I hoped that, once the Code was passed . . . But you saw it today, in his performance. He still feels cold rage toward himself. He is still determined to keep me at a distance, in anticipation of the rejection and loss he expects to come. Vito, what do you advise?"

"What is your judgment? How can I improve my performance?" Again, Vito heard the words in his head. His performance as a player? Was that the judgment which the High Seeker sought?

Or, like Elsdon, was he seeking a different sort of help?

Vito squeezed Elsdon's hands, which he was still holding. "I'm no expert at love, but if he were your prisoner . . . You're doing the right thing. You're waiting. You're remaining patient. Give him the time he needs to break himself."

Elsdon released a deep sigh as he pulled himself free. "Yes, of course. I should have thought of that myself. The techniques of breaking . . . They don't just work with the prisoners in the breaking cells." He looked at the black volume on the table, and this time his smile was neither weary nor wry. "Layle's words remain in that Code. He taught me how to care for a prisoner who is silent out of needless fear. So he taught me how to care for him."