The knock came at the end of a sleepless day.
Vito had succeeded in sleeping during the previous day, worn out by sheer nerves. Since that time, though, he had spent the hours pacing back and forth in his small living cell, trying to think of anything he might have overlooked, which he could use as a reason to demand that the High Seeker transfer Edwin Orville Gurth back into his custody. Each time, he found himself remembering the words that Elsdon had spoken on the fourth day of Vito's searching: "You can't make love to your prisoner; your duties as a Seeker don't permit that. But you can find out what else it is that your prisoner loves, and draw upon that to help transform him. . . . Without love, he'd be utterly mad."
Despite what he had told the High Seeker, Vito had not continued to search Edwin Orville Gurth merely for the sake of reconciling timelines. He had been searching for evidence that Gurth and Or cared for something or someone. Vito was hampered by the fact that Gurth and Or appeared to have few memories earlier than shortly before they had arrived at the patrol soldiers' station in tatters, giving the appearance of having been raped.
One of their first memories was of lying to preserve their own safety. And everything after that – their years in boarding school, their years in reform school, their years as a prostitute, their years as owner of the capital's largest network of prostitution houses and opium dens – had continued to be aimed at their self-preservation. Gurth and Or cared nothing about anyone except themselves. They had taken no risks for anyone; on the contrary, they had sacrificed the lives of everyone surrounding them, for their own sakes.
Including Vito's life.
Sighing heavily, Vito threw himself onto the desk chair which was the only piece of sitting furniture that appeared in the cells of junior Seekers. He was too exhausted to think. He ought to sleep. Perhaps his mind would send him the answer in his dreams.
There was a knock at the door.
Startled, Vito glanced at the ticking clock on the wall. What he saw there reassured him. It was dusk, time for his next meal. Mr. Sobel had faithfully brought Vito's food at every mealtime, despite his own heavy work schedule. Mr. Sobel helped to guard the High Seeker's prisoner during the night shifts. Vito had so far managed to restrain himself from asking Mr. Sobel how the searching was going.
It was not Mr. Sobel at the door. It was Elsdon. One look at Elsdon's face told Vito there was trouble. He opened the door silently for his friend.
Once the door was closed behind him, Elsdon was blunt. "The trial is the day after tomorrow."
Vito felt his throat close in. "Mr. Smith managed to break him, then." One shift. The prisoner had given his confession in a single night. Either Layle Smith's skills as a Seeker were as formidable as reputed or . . .
. . . or he had not kept his promise. He had tortured Edwin Orville Gurth.
Elsdon shook his head. There were dark rings around his eyes, as though his own, newly assigned prisoner were causing him sleepless days. "Layle questioned your prisoner for several hours. Then he brought me in, and I searched the prisoner on my own. When the dawn shift arrived, we brought in Birdesmond to question the prisoner; she had the day off from work, but she was willing to assist us in this crisis. Since noon, the three of us have been discussing this case. I'm sorry, Vito. We've all agreed there's no point in searching Edwin Orville Gurth any further."
He was holding onto the edge of the table that doubled as a meal-table and a desk; his grip tightened. "What did Gurth and Or say?"
"Exactly what they said to the four Seekers who searched your prisoner during the five weeks before you took over the searching: nothing. Edwin Orville Gurth won't speak to anyone except you. And to you, Gurth and Or will only tell lies."
Vito sat down heavily. After a minute, he said, "Last time, it took me days to persuade Or to speak to me, and Gurth barely spoke to me at all. The three of you have only searched my prisoner for a few hours—"
Elsdon shook his head, still standing by the door, looking weary. "Collectively, the three of us have forty-five years' worth of experience at searching . . . and we took the time to consult with the four New School Seekers who searched Edwin Orville Gurth before you did. All seven of us are agreed: the prisoner's willingness to speak to you was an opportunity that won't be repeated. After all, what motive do either Or or Gurth have to speak further? They've offered their defenses. They've made their defenses as strong as possible. If they spoke to Layle or me or Birdesmond, all that would happen is that one of us would be likely to discover the flaws in their stories."
"Whereas I'm the inexperienced Seeker-in-Training, so I'm the one that Or and Gurth tried to fool." The words were bitter on his tongue. Restless now, Vito rose and started to pace again. "Even if what you say is true, we aren't Seekers merely in order to draw confessions out of guilty prisoners. The first prisoner you ever searched . . . You once told me that you knew, within a couple of days of searching him, that he was guilty of murder. Yet you searched him for six months – six months – in order to transform his character and lead him toward rebirth. In the end, you succeeded." He stopped pacing, and turned his gaze toward Elsdon, standing motionless near the door. Vito's eyes pricked with wet heat as he said, "I need that chance, Elsdon. I can't let Edwin Orville Gurth go to his death unrepentant. With the sort of life he has led, he could dwell for centuries in afterdeath, denied rebirth."
"My first prisoner never repented of his crime," Elsdon said. "The most I was able to do was to help him care about the life of one of the elite, whom he considered his enemies. And yes, that was a moment of transformation." He held up his hand to forestall Vito from speaking. "If the High Seeker could give you those six months, he would."
"But why not?" cried Vito. "The Code provides no time limit on searching prisoners. Is the High Seeker that eager to rid himself of me, that he would sacrifice the soul of a prisoner?"
Elsdon closed his eyes. For a moment, Vito thought that staying awake for a full night and day had overcome Elsdon. Then Elsdon opened his eyes again. His gaze was as hard as an iron door.
Elsdon said softly, "This is not something I should be telling you. The High Seeker is keeping this matter unannounced. But when he met with our new Queen . . . matters did not go well. She had a number of complaints about how this dungeon is run. In order to persuade her to approve the sixth revision of the Code, the High Seeker had to make certain concessions to her. Among other things, he agreed that the Eternal Dungeon would release prisoners into the custody of the Queen's magistracy no later than one month after the searching begins. Nearly all of our prisoners are broken within that amount of time. The prisoners who have been searched longer have virtually never confessed or transformed themselves. My first prisoner, Mr. Little, was very much an exception to the rule. So the High Seeker agreed to this restriction on the Eternal Dungeon's power in order to preserve the Code of Seeking."
The clock on the wall ticked. Outside, low voices spoke in the corridor as Seekers on the night shift began to emerge from their living cells. Two guards from the day shift made their way down the corridor in the direction of the outer dungeon, pausing to converse with Elsdon's maid, who was just arriving for her dusk-shift work.
His voice still soft, Elsdon said, "Including the searching from the Seekers before you, your prisoner has been searched for over six weeks now. The High Seeker has been receiving increasingly angry communications from the Queen's magistracy. The Queen herself sent a message yesterday, commanding that the Eternal Dungeon transfer this prisoner into the magistrates' custody. The High Seeker was only able to stave off a crisis by arranging for Edwin Orville Gurth's trial to occur the day after tomorrow. . . . Layle asked me to tell you that, if you believe that you have a chance of succeeding in transforming Edwin Orville Gurth, he will delay the trial."
Standing with his back to the small array of bins and stove and icebox and washstand that constituted his kitchen, Vito reflected to himself that the High Seeker was indeed the slyest Seeker in the entire dungeon. Since the time that Vito began searching Edwin Orville Gurth, Vito had spoken to Layle Smith every day. On each day, the High Seeker had calmly enquired about Vito's progress. On each day, Vito had requested more time in which to search the prisoner. On each day, the High Seeker had granted that extra time, without indicating in any way that he had a bomb fuse sizzling in the Eternal Dungeon.
And now the High Seeker was risking that bomb going off, for the sake of a prisoner's soul.
With his voice as steady as the High Seeker's had been, Vito said, "Please give Mr. Smith my thanks. Tell him that I do not believe there is a high enough chance of such transformation occurring during further searching of Edwin Orville Gurth to warrant risking the future of the Eternal Dungeon. Let the High Seeker save his battles for prisoners who truly need that extra time."
Elsdon had come over to stand by Vito as he spoke. Now Elsdon reached over and squeezed Vito's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Vito. I'm so very sorry."
Vito swallowed hard before saying, "You should go to bed. We have a performance in three evenings' time."
Elsdon shook his head. "Now that the new revision of the Code is released, my duties have returned to the breaking cell. My new prisoner is awaiting me; I'll sleep during tomorrow's day shift. Shall we meet for a final rehearsal on the afternoon after next? Or would that be too soon?"
Too soon after Edwin Orville Gurth's execution, Elsdon meant. Vito shook his head. "We're committed to the performance the next evening. Will Mr. Smith be joining us for the afternoon rehearsal?"
"If you wish him to be there. He didn't want to inflict his presence on us if he wasn't needed."
Words that Elsdon had been speaking about Layle Smith – had been speaking for more than a year now – floated around in Vito's head. He shook his head, trying to free his thoughts. He really needed to sleep, and unlike Elsdon, he was free to go to bed immediately. "It will be a better performance if we see each other's scenes performed. I know I've already witnessed some of his performance—"
Elsdon gave a small smile. "You haven't. Layle is performing Vovimian-style – he will wait upon the gods to gift to him his exact lines and delivery, on the day of the performance. He said it would be a better performance if all three of us did that, but honestly, Vito, I've no idea how to spontaneously deliver a stage performance. It's easier for me to come with with my lines and delivery already prepared, as I do when I first enter the breaking cell as a Seeker."
"I too." He was keenly aware that Elsdon was doing his best – in his usual Seekerly fashion – to comfort Vito by taking his mind off the upcoming events in Edwin Orville Gurth's short life. Vito pushed Elsdon gently toward the door. "Go. Search your prisoner. Sleep. We both need to be fresh for the performance."
But with Elsdon gone from the cell, Vito found that he was pacing back and forth once more, playing out in his mind the events that would take place in the magistrate's court. Gurth and Or's statements would be entered into the record . . . but so would Layle Smith's statement that he believed the prisoner was lying. The healer's medical records would be entered as evidence as well. However, Vito already knew, from lengthy conversations with the troubled healer, that the lack of prior medical documentation of the existence of split personalities meant there was insufficient legal evidence of an illness of the mind to outweigh Yclau's strict laws against premeditated murder. Gurth and Or's best hope lay in the fact that the murder had occurred in such absurd circumstances – circumstances in which Edwin Orville Gurth was bound to be named as the murderer. Would a man who had truly planned to murder his opponent commit his murder in a room where no innocent party could be named as the murderer? Might this killing not have been a case of momentary passion?
The prisoner's counsel would say all that in the courtroom. No longer would the prisoner's Seeker be the prisoner's sole advocate; the sixth revision of the Code provided for a neutral counsel to be assigned to defend the prisoner. No doubt the counsel was meeting with the prisoner now.
Would Edwin Orville Gurth break his silence to speak to the only man left who might be able to save him from the hangman's noose?
Vito was sweating. He forced himself to sit down. His eye drifted over to the Code of Seeking, lying on the table. Despite the High Seeker's orders, Vito had not touched the volume since the beginning of his suspension, his mind too much on the searching that his prisoner was undergoing. Now, though, he snatched up the black volume eagerly. Perhaps the book contained something he had missed. Something that would allow him to save Or and Gurth.
For the next few hours he read. The Code of Seeking was a surprisingly slender book, but Vito read it over and over, wincing each time he reached the end of the ninth chapter – which, it turned out, dealt with the procedures that a Seeker was supposed to undertake when preparing a prisoner for his trial and possible execution. No doubt the High Seeker had recommended this section as a way to subtly warn Vito that matters were headed in that direction.
It was past midnight before Vito found it. Not the passage that would save Edwin Orville Gurth from being hanged – that was nowhere to be found in the Code of Seeking. Instead, Vito found a single sentence, so easily overlooked, so subtle in its significance, that it did not penetrate Vito's mind until he was on the point of falling asleep.
As he sat at the table, staring bleary-eyed at the sentence, there was a knock on the door. It was Mr. Sobel, bringing Vito's midnight lunch. Vito drew in his breath sharply, feeling his mind swim from the words he had read.
"Mr. Sobel," he said as he opened the door, "I need to speak with the Codifier."