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Sweet Blood
EPILOGUE

After Vito de Vere had left, still shaken by what had happened to him in the drama, Layle was silent a long time, staring at the books of torture on his shelf. Finally he said softly, "My dear . . ."

"It's all right, Layle." Elsdon came over and embraced the High Seeker from behind, resting his cheek against the hood covering the back of Layle's neck. "I understand. Will you tell him? And the others?"

"Not yet." Despite Elsdon's reassurance, Layle seemed to be struggling for additional words. Finally the High Seeker said, "I do not want to create a new break between us."

"Oh, Layle." The High Seeker's skin was rich with the scent of his sweat; Elsdon buried his face against Layle's neck. "Love, I've been thinking about your fear. Your belief that, no matter what you did in the future, we'd be parted. And I've realized that you're right."

Layle was silent a very long time before he said, "Will you entrust me with the honor of your companionship for a short time more?"

It was enough to make Elsdon weep – the knowledge of how little Layle asked for himself. "For as long as you want. Layle, you don't understand. What I mean is that you're older than me."

After the briefest of seconds, Layle pulled himself free of Elsdon's embrace and turned around. He was frowning. "Elsdon," he said, "no man can escape death, but there is no certainty in this dungeon as to which of us will die first."

"I know." Elsdon joined his hands with Layle's. "It doesn't matter. You know those tales about love-mates who seek each other in their next lives? That's me, Layle. I'd go looking for you."

"The love-mates rarely find each other in those tales," Layle said, still frowning. "Elsdon, it means a great deal to me to hear you say this, but you mustn't promise more than you can—"

Elsdon brought his hands up to the High Seeker's lips. Sometimes that was the only way to stem Layle's sorrowful words. "I'll seek you," he promised Layle in a whisper. "They say that, if you meet another person in afterdeath, you are bound to them during your next life. Don't you see, Layle? You've been thinking like a Vovimian – like a Vovimian back in the days when Hell tortured prisoners forever. We know that's changed; we know that, even in Hell's domain, the prisoners are eventually released. Even if you or I were trapped in afterdeath, we'd be released to a new life. And once we were . . . How many lifetimes are ahead of us? A thousand? A million? Twelve to the twelfth power? How many lives will we have left in which I can seek you again? I promise you, High Seeker, I will find you and remind you of our bond."

Layle had remained silent throughout this long speech. Now he took Elsdon's fingers, which were still on his lips, and curled the fingers to kiss them on the back. "You do well to chide my lack of faith. I had indeed forgotten how many opportunities are offered to those who accept transformation and rebirth. I often question whether I myself will be reborn . . . but it doesn't matter," he added as Elsdon drew in his breath to protest. "The thought of you, alive through all those lifetimes, is enough." Leaning forward, he kissed Elsdon lightly on the lips; then he led him to bed.

o—o—o

Elsdon thought, as Layle's mouth settled between the apex of Elsdon's legs, that such a conversation as they had just held could not have occurred in any of the Vovimian romantic novels that Layle sometimes read when he thought Elsdon wasn't looking. In those tales, the love-mates were left on the pages to live always in happiness, forever young, as though they were trapped in the perpetual bliss of unchanging afterdeath. Yet such an image was horrible to any Yclau – even to Layle, who had not embraced the Yclau faith until he came to live in the Eternal Dungeon.

What would a romantic novel be like if it were created to conform with the Yclau faith?

He asked Layle this, and Layle – rather than grow angry at the distraction during lovemaking, as any other man would – propped his cheek on his palm and considered the question at length. Finally he replied, "It's difficult to say. Perhaps this is why the Yclau have so little literature or arts – because it is hard to dramatize what they believe."

"That is a coward's escape," Elsdon replied with a smile. "Answer my question, High Seeker."

Layle ran his finger lightly over the inside of Elsdon's thighs, causing Elsdon to shiver. "If I were to write about love," the High Seeker said, "I would write about you. About how you came to this dungeon ten years ago, with your heart filled with love for your abusive father and for the sister you would never have killed if it had not been for your father's abuse. Of how your love was so great that it was even able to embrace me, your torturer, as well as every other person you met in this dungeon. Of how you loved the prisoners so much that you were willing to risk losing me by opposing my will in their treatment. And of how, on the day that a young man – who had misused and killed scores of men and women and children through his pandering and drugs and murders – was justly executed for his terrible deeds, you went to the dungeon's crematorium where your sister's ashes were buried and prayed to her to seek out and help Edwin Orville Gurth in his new life."

Elsdon reached over to turn up the lamp so that he could see better the High Seeker's face. "I didn't realize you were there."

"I was there. You never cease to amaze me, Elsdon. And you know that I'd give you this dungeon if it were possible."

"I know." He reached down to touch Layle's hair. "Love, I told you that it doesn't matter. It's not something I need."

"What do you need, then?" Layle had taken on the look that Elsdon loved: the look of a man who is prepared to die a thousand times to give his love-mate what he needs . . . provided that the gift does not violate the Code of Seeking.

"I need a love-mate who won't grow jealous when I place the needs of others above his own. I need a love-mate who will forgive me when I attack him, mistakenly thinking he is abusing the prisoners. I need a love-mate who will allow me to abandon him when he is in peril of death, because the soul of a criminal is in peril as well. I need a love-mate who will watch me turn away from him in a civil war over the prisoners' future, and will never once consider spurning me. Oh, Layle." The High Seeker's look of puzzlement made Elsdon laugh. "Don't you see? I need you. I need someone whose concept of love is as wide as my own."

"I see." Layle strove to hide his smile by nuzzling the hair upon the interior of Elsdon's thighs. "You make it sound as though we are very well suited to become characters in Yclau's first romantic novels."

"Idiot," Elsdon reproved him gently. "What need have we of pens and paper? Haven't you heard the ballads about the High Seeker and his love-mate? Do you really think those tales will die with us?"

"Sweet blood." Again, Layle's expression turned to puzzlement. "I never thought of those as romantic tales. They're all about death and fear and pain—"

"They're about us," Elsdon said softly. "They're about the death, transformation, and rebirth of love."

They completed their lovemaking then, and they grew in knowledge of each other along the way, but afterwards, as they lay curled together, Elsdon's mind was not on their future together but on their younger selves, ten years before, meeting for a first conversation whose ripples would spread through many cycles of rebirth. "I am your Seeker," Layle had said then.

"Layle," murmured Elsdon, "I promised to seek you after this life is over. Will you seek me?"

He turned his head. The High Seeker was asleep, his brow furrowed. Elsdon ran his finger along the line of the furrows; as always, his touch caused the furrows to smooth out.

Sometimes, an answer need not be spoken, because the answer is so obvious. Smiling, Elsdon curled himself round Layle and fell fast asleep.

o—o—o
o—o—o

. . . This must have placed special strain on Layle Smith when it came time to appoint his successor, and he chose to appoint Vito de Vere instead.

In retrospect, we can recognize this as Layle Smith's greatest achievement. To create the sort of workplace that the first High Seeker did during the beginning years of the dungeon's Golden Age was an act of admirable creativity. To appoint as his successor a man who appeared determined to overthrow everything Layle Smith had achieved was an act of genius.

Only a genius such as the first High Seeker could have recognized that Vito de Vere's philosophies were complementary rather than destructive to the essence of Layle Smith's achievements. That Layle Smith came to this understanding through instinct rather than through any inherent liking for de Vere is clear from his frequent complaints about de Vere in his letters. If we were to judge from the letters alone, Layle Smith's primary desire during the years of his middle age was to throw de Vere from his dungeon.

Yet the indisputable fact remains that, in the spring of 365, Layle Smith began training Vito de Vere to be the next High Seeker. Nine-and-a-half years later, Layle Smith formally ceded power to the man he so hated. Thanks to the first High Seeker's decision, the Golden Age of the Eternal Dungeon would not end with Layle Smith; it would continue well into the next century.

What happened to the first High Seeker after he completed his term has been lost to history. Rumors abounded in the next century. Some rumors said that he was killed by a prisoner or by his own hand; others stated that he ended his life in madness or that he fled from the Eternal Dungeon for crimes he had committed. The most touching rumor comes from a ballad that claims he spent his final years in Vovim, teaching his native countrymen the wisdom he had learned in the Eternal Dungeon.

The truth is that we simply do not know. Far too much information about the early years of the Eternal Dungeon was accidentally burned or deliberately destroyed during the political uprisings at the end of the fourth century. We can no longer reconstruct how Layle Smith ended his life. That we possess any memory of him at all is a tribute to how great an impact he made on his contemporaries.

Today, the cave that housed the Eternal Dungeon lies in ruins. Although Yclau's central prison would survive the turn-of-the-century unrest, it was moved from the cave where all of Layle Smith's great work was done. The furnishings of the vast entry hall, the offices of the Record-keeper and Codifier and High Seeker and healer, the Lungs that brought air into the cave, the guardroom and rack rooms and common room, the rooms of the outer dungeon, the cells of the prisoners and Seekers . . . All these were torn down, so that nothing remains but a few buried air-ducts and the bare walls of an ordinary cave, now partially collapsed under the centuries-old weight of the palace above.

Only one portion of the original Eternal Dungeon remains, and few visitors are granted the privilege of seeing it. Most go no further than the mechanical models demonstrating methods of torture in the dungeon – models that distort the truth of what took place there, and which leave visitors puzzled as to why the Eternal Dungeon should have captured the hearts and minds of our nation's psychologists.

Once a year, though, a select few visitors who have queued for days on end are permitted to walk down a dark and narrow staircase that winds round a deep pit holding the ashes of nearly every man, woman, and child who died in the Eternal Dungeon. At the very bottom of the staircase, after a long and arduous journey, lies an ancient circular room that pre-dates the Eternal Dungeon. In this room, where the Seekers traditionally held vigil for their loved ones and their executed prisoners, are carved the names and dates of every Seeker who ever visited here, including the names of Seekers who are associated with Layle Smith: Weldon Chapman. Birdesmond Manx Chapman. Vito de Vere. D. Urman. Elsdon Auburn Taylor.

We do not know whether Layle Smith's ashes lie in the tomb above or whether he was buried elsewhere. But here, inconspicuous amidst the many names, are the two letters that visitors crowd to see: L.S.

This, then, is Layle Smith's true memorial: Not the models of torture above, nor even his revision of the Code of Seeking. What made the Eternal Dungeon what it was during those first, burning years of the Golden Age was not instruments of torture or writings on paper. The Eternal Dungeon's supreme achievements derived from Layle Smith's firm belief in the possibility of his prisoners' rebirth, which led him to symbolically shed his blood for them and for future generations.

Without the first High Seeker's belief in rebirth, it is unlikely our nation would have experienced its own rebirth at the end of the fourth century. We are the heirs of Layle Smith's hope.

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.