The corridor bustled with activity; it always did at the dusk shift. Seekers passed by, debating, with exacting politeness, the reforms which Elsdon Taylor intended to institute. The sixth revision of the Code of Seeking had been published that day, but the members of the Eternal Dungeon, like war-weary soldiers who long for a truce, had accepted its arrival as a path to peace.
Indeed, the guards who were now walking by spoke with excitement, not of the revision, but of the upcoming performance. With tactful timing, the High Seeker had scheduled the revision's publication on the eve of the holiday upon which the entire dungeon – prisoners, guards, Seekers, outer-dungeon laborers – would watch the Transformation Players' first performance. Such a large audience was possible because the Queen had belatedly arranged for the performance to take place in her enormous throne room. It was said that the Queen herself would attend.
Holding Layle Smith's notice of the new venue that Vito had found lying beside his bed when he awoke after his afternoon nap, Vito wondered what it must be like for the prisoners of the Eternal Dungeon, to be briefly released from their confinement. Some of the prisoners – the senior Seekers – had lived underground here for decades.
Vito's mind touched lightly on the thought; then, with dull movement, he set the notice aside. Even the prospect of being presented to the new Queen could not wake him from the bleary bleakness that smothered him.
"Did he tell you, in the end?"
Vito turned. Elsdon stood at the other end of the room, next to the bucolic scenery, which had not yet been moved upstairs to the palace. He was in costume, wearing an ethereal toga, such as the first inhabitants of the Yclau had worn. A wreath of mountain-laurel leaves held back his golden-brown hair. A last-minute decision had been made by the Codifier to permit the players to act without their hoods – all but the High Seeker, who played the deceptive friend.
"Yes," Vito said after a minute. "Between the time that the guards brought breakfast and the time they took the prisoner away for trial. I thought Gurth might want to make love again during that period, but he wanted to talk. I think he just needed to say it aloud to me, but he also told me that, if I passed on the truth of what happened to the High Seeker, perhaps Layle Smith would reward me for the information. Gurth seemed worried, toward the end, that I'd be punished for not having broken him."
Elsdon picked up the dagger – a stage prop, rather than the daggers that dungeon guards carried – and stared at its bloody tip. "So which one did it? Both of them?"
Like the slap of a cold wave, Elsdon's words woke Vito somewhat from his torpor. Vito stared. "You're quicker than I was."
Elsdon gave a fleeting smile. "With both of them contending so strongly that the other wasn't involved, a conspiracy seemed likely. Whose idea was it?"
"Or's," Vito said slowly. "He wanted to see me, Gurth said. Gurth was against the idea at first, but Or brought Gurth around to his way of thinking . . . as he always did."
Vito stared down at the newspaper on the table, probably left by Mr. Urman, since he was one of the few dungeon dwellers who dared to defy the High Seeker's rule against bringing newspapers into the dungeon. There was no mention in the headlines of the theatrical performance, which would be privately held; instead, the headlines blared the news, just released, of Vito's success in his lawsuit.
"They went to Cape Henry first," Vito said, his head bowed to stare at the newspaper he no longer saw. "I'd told them that was where I'd be: at home, with my family. 'A nice, polite young man.'" Out of the corner of his eye, Vito saw Elsdon raise an enquiring eyebrow. Vito added, "That's how my father described a visitor to me, in a letter. I should have guessed it was Edwin Orville Gurth, from Father's description. Father told the visitor that I'd returned to the Eternal Dungeon. He didn't mention to the visitor that I wasn't yet an oath-bound Seeker, so I could still leave the dungeon. Gurth and Or must have thought that the only way to see me was to commit a capital crime. They must have thought that, once they were arrested, I'd save their lives."
Vito could hear the dullness in his own voice. He wondered whether Elsdon would ask what Gurth and Or wanted to talk with him about. To Vito, the answer was obvious. The needed conversation between Vito and his prisoner had taken place during their week together, especially on the final night.
But Elsdon only asked, "Did you have the chance to talk to Or again?"
Vito hesitated. "I'm not sure."
Vito continued slowly, "At the time, I thought it was Gurth, all the way to the end. But the quiet words he spoke at his trial, neither confessing nor denying his guilt . . . And the last kiss he gave me, before his execution . . . And he cried out my name, just before he died. . . . I'm not sure which of them it was, toward the end."
Vito turned to stare at Elsdon, startled by his fellow Seeker's firmness. "Him?"
"Edwin Orville Gurth," Elsdon clarified. "Layle told me that he believed you'd succeeded in rejoining the two personalities together. Barrett Boyd – who has equally deep experience in abnormal states of mind – told me the same thing, in a separate conversation."
Vito shook his head vigorously. "It can't be that easy."
"No," Elsdon agreed. "If he'd lived, it would have been a long, hard struggle, with backslides and valleys of despair and everything else that Layle and Barrett must suffer through. Sometimes looming death can compress a war into a single battle."
Vito's mouth twitched into a humorless smile. "With no victory at the end. I couldn't save him."
"You saved his soul," said Elsdon quietly as he settled himself on the arm of his desk chair. "That's what you set out to do, wasn't it? You gave him someone to care about in his final hours. He not only cared about you, he made an attempt to help you. Whatever lies beyond death for him, he has started his transformation. He'll reach rebirth in the end."
Outside in the corridor, two maids giggled, the outer-dungeon girls sharing their delight at the prospect of attending a play for the first time in their lives. Mr. Urman greeted the girls with a cheerful shout, then paused to discuss the play with them.
Elsdon's gaze flicked toward the corridor, then away. He walked over and touched Vito on the arm. Breaking the silence that had followed his previous statement, Elsdon said, "It's always heartbreaking when a prisoner dies who is worthy of sympathy. I remember what that was like with my first prisoner, Mr. Little. But at least you know for sure that your prisoner committed the crime he was accused of. In all likelihood, he committed hundreds of dark deeds. All those men who became captive to the drugs he sold, all those women whom he frightened into serving in his brothels, all those children . . . Especially the children. He committed many terrible deeds, and he paid the penalty for the suffering he caused others."
"I know," said Vito. "I know that what he endured as a child was no excuse for what he did to others. I know that justice requires payment for misdeeds. It's not that."
Vito stared a moment at the beautiful scenery of endless serenity, untouched by the cycle of death, rebirth, and transformation. Then he burst out, "I started him on his new path, but mine is ended. Whatever sacrifice Edwin Orville Gurth gave me at the end, in order to save my career, was all in vain. He suffered needlessly for me on the day of his execution. It was too late. I came close to lying under witness for his sake, I was suspended from my duties for failing to be forthcoming in my reports, and I acted like a bereaved love-mate when he died, rather than maintaining professional distance. Layle Smith knows all that. He saw. He'll never permit me to become a full Seeker."
"Oh, Vito." Elsdon emitted something between a sigh and a laugh. "Sometimes I think you idealize Layle as much as I once did. . . . Listen. When I first came to this dungeon and was Layle's prisoner, he offered me refuge in the Eternal Dungeon rather than handing me over to the hangman, since I repented of my crime. I thought at the time that the High Seeker's deed was as simple as that. I didn't realize that the magistrate who had condemned me to death could have appealed the High Seeker's clemency, and that the Queen could have overruled the High Seeker's decision. I asked Layle once what it was like for him the night before my trial, knowing that he would give testimony against me that might result in my death."
Vito forgot the newspaper, the conversations in the corridor, and the corpse in the crematorium that was being cared for by Mr. Crofford, in accordance with the customs of the Eternal Dungeon. Staring at Elsdon, Vito asked, "What did he say?"
"He wouldn't tell me. It's the only question I ever asked him that he refused to answer." Elsdon placed his hand lightly upon Vito's shoulder. "Vito, if anyone exists in this dungeon who understands what it's like to fall in love with a prisoner and be tempted to break the Code to save his life, it's Layle Smith."
Vito made a weary gesture. He could not manage more than that. Thanks to his duties as a player in the upcoming performance, Vito could not even take Mr. Crofford's place during the final rites before the cremation and burial of Edwin Orville Gurth. He could not do that much for the young man he had loved so much. And as for his own future . . .
Elsdon stepped back. He said, "Shall we rehearse the final scene again?"
Vito was tempted to say no. There was still time to visit his love-mate's body before the cremation. He could try again to say what he had failed to say on the hangman's platform.
But Edwin Orville Gurth was dead, and hundreds of eager prisoners and dungeon-workers awaited Vito's performance. It was clear where his foremost duty lay. Nodding, Vito turned away to try to compose himself.
Behind Vito, there was a bang. Two bangs.
"High Seeker?" said Elsdon, his voice filled with uncertainty and – yes, fear.
Vito turned. He immediately understood what had alarmed Elsdon.
The High Seeker was standing at the doorway, with his back to the door he had just slammed open and shut. His posture was as upright and rigid as always, and he was wearing his usual black uniform.
Except for the hood. The back of the hood remained in place, but the face-cloth – the cloth which Vito well knew that the High Seeker never raised in the presence of anyone but Elsdon and Weldon Chapman and the dungeon's healer – had been flung back to reveal his face.
It was not a friendly face. The high cheekbones, cutting across the face like scars, matched the cold eyes that Vito had long known. There was nothing in the High Seeker's face which spoke of love or even companionship.
What it spoke of, at the moment, was terror.
It was in the skin, more than in the expression. The High Seeker's skin, normally the olive-brown of an eastern Vovimian, had drained so pale that one might have thought he was one hundred percent Yclau, rather than a bastard half-breed. His eyes were not cold – they were wide and wild.
"Elsdon," said the High Seeker in a voice more strangled than a hanged man's, "today I saw a man who had loved, and who had loved hard, but who had feared his love and had refused to acknowledge it. I witnessed how, in the final moment of his life, he recognized that he had thrown away the opportunity for joyous companionship. He had finally seen the happiness that lay beyond his fear, but it was too late. It will forever be too late. In his fear, he wasted his life."
For a moment, the three of them stood there, all frozen like players at a pivotal point in the final act of the play. Then the High Seeker, without so much as a flicker in his expression, pulled down his face-cloth. Not even bothering to turn his head, he said, "Forgive me, Mr. de Vito. I was not aware that I was imposing my presence upon you."
Vito had to bite his tongue to keep from replying. He would be willing to gamble the Queen's fortune that Layle Smith had been quite aware, all along, that Vito was there.
And yet the High Seeker had raised his face-cloth. He had raised his face-cloth and allowed Vito to witness him in his moment of supreme vulnerability. Which meant—
What did it mean?
Smiling, Elsdon reached out a hand toward the High Seeker. "Come sit down, Layle. We were just finishing up here, performing your play."
"His play!" The words exploded from Vito's lips.
The High Seeker had allowed Elsdon to pull him forward and was on the point of seating himself on the bench. Now he paused to look in Vito's direction for the first time. His voice was bland as he said, "It would be more accurate to say that it was both our play. Mr. Taylor and I composed the play together . . . when we were off duty."
Vito was left without reply. Did any of the other dungeon inhabitants know, he wondered, that he and Elsdon Taylor and Layle Smith were preparing to publicly perform one of the High Seeker's dark bed-play rites?
To Vito's surprise, Elsdon had settled himself beside the High Seeker on the bench. To Vito's greater surprise, the High Seeker laid an arm lightly around Elsdon's waist. Elsdon looked over at Vito and nodded.
Feeling more than a little awkward, Vito stepped forward. This was not something he had done before, except when auditioning for his role: to play the scene alone, without support from another player. And he suddenly realized that he was playing the split portion of a role that Layle Smith had once played. The friend in the High Seeker's original dreaming had been a whole man: truthful at times, deceitful at others, but always loving.
Doing his best to ignore the small audience awaiting his performance, Vito turned his body half away and began to address the invisible player across from him.
"Please," he said, "I beg of you, my dearest one: Do not leave me. This happy haven, this shielding shelter, will all be bleak and black as burnt wood if you should leave me. Do not go; I cannot bear it—"
His words dissolved into sobs.
He knew nothing, in the next moments, except the heaving of his chest, the hot tears on his cheeks, the harsh noise in his throat as he strove vainly to contain his weeping. He could see nothing ahead of him except darkness. Then a shadow swooped over his darkness. He looked up.
"Give me your hood," said the High Seeker.
He knew what the words meant, but even now, faced with the ruin of his dreams and his mission in the Eternal Dungeon, he could not find the words to protest – could not find any words at all, drowned as he was in the misery of his loss. With shaking hands, he removed the hood of his Seekership and handed it to Layle Smith.
The High Seeker took the hood, and with a swift, decisive gesture, he tore off the red strip denoting a Seeker-in-Training.
Then he placed the hood back onto Vito's head. "Thank you, Mr. de Vere," he said as he settled the hood in place, "for performing my play in the manner in which it was intended."
Shocked out of his tears, Vito stared at the High Seeker. Standing as the High Seeker was, an arm's length away, Layle Smith's eyes were glitter-green in the lamplight. Vito could see no sign of friendliness in them, no sign of lessening chill.
And yet the words that Layle Smith had just said, the decision he had just made, spoke as loudly as those eyes. The High Seeker still did not like Vito. Yet somehow, in some indiscernible manner, Vito had won Layle Smith's trust.
And that trust – Vito realized with a stab of amazement that travelled to his depths – was now mutual.