Chapter 1: Day One, Dusk Shift
The year 365, the third month. (The year 1884 Clover by the Old Calendar.)
The most common error made by historians writing about the Golden Age of the Eternal Dungeon is to underestimate the depth of sacrifice required by the Seekers and guards who routinely made life-and-death decisions. It has often been suggested that the Seekers gave no more thought to their prisoners' fates than a military doctor does when deciding whether to amputate on the field.
Only someone who has never done medical work would consider this to settle the matter. The fact is that, while an emergency may require vital decisions to be made quickly by those of us in the healing arts, the ramifications of those decisions remain in our minds for many years afterwards.
During the crisis of 364, Layle Smith made the decision to appoint a junior Seeker, Elsdon Taylor, to revise the Code of Seeking, the book that outlined the process of questioning prisoners and explained the ethical and spiritual reasons for the process. While the decision had to be made quickly, we may be sure that the High Seeker did not make the decision lightly. By tradition, the man appointed to revise the Code of Seeking in each generation also became the succeeding leader of the dungeon – the "High Seeker," as Layle Smith had dubbed his own title.
We know, from the accounts of Weldon Chapman and others, that Elsdon Taylor was on intimate terms with Layle Smith; some historians have even suggested that the two Seekers were sexually intimate. Although no evidence exists to back this speculation, certainly the frequency with which the High Seeker mentions Elsdon Taylor in his letters suggests that a close personal tie existed. This must have placed special strain on Layle Smith when it came time to appoint his successor . . .
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
Day One, Dusk Shift
"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 laughter.
It took a moment for Vito to control his laughter. Elsdon Taylor, the "dear one" whom Vito's character had been addressing, waited patiently for his fellow player to return to his senses. Wiping tears from his cheeks, Vito gulped down a final giggle as he said, "I'm sorry, Elsdon, but truly, those are the most melodramatic lines I've heard in any theater production. Couldn't you buy a better script for the Transformation Players' debut performance?"
Elsdon simply smiled, stepping away from the wooden panel at the side of the room facing the inner dungeon. The panel, which had been painted by Mr. Sobel's talented young son, depicted a beautiful landscape of grass and shade trees, with sunlight shafting down onto the nearby sparkling bay. Vito, who had spent much of his childhood in a setting very like that, felt a brief pang of homesickness. He'd received a letter from his father a few weeks before, saying that a friend of Vito's had stopped by his parents' home, hoping to see Vito. The friend had left his name as Ned, which was the name of Vito's old academy roommate. "A nice, polite young man," said his father, obviously striving to provide Vito with incentive to return home.
Vito shook his head inwardly. In the past, he would have enjoyed seeing an old classmate – that one in particular. He would also have enjoyed seeing his parents, with whom he enjoyed good relations.
But not now. All his greatest efforts, these days, were aimed toward never again returning to his family home.
"Perhaps we should have our breakfast," Elsdon suggested. "I'll be on duty soon." He waved his hand in the direction of the inner-dungeon corridor. Faintly, Vito could hear guards chatting with one another as they came off duty at the end of the day shift. A few Seekers' voices could be heard mixed among them – distinguishable by those men's greater gravity and formality – but most of the senior Seekers, and a good many junior Seekers, remained at their posts, continuing to question prisoners throughout the dusk shift when they were ostensibly off duty.
It was said in the Eternal Dungeon that the degree of a Seeker's ambition could be measured by how often he worked during the dusk and dawn shifts that were intended as leisure periods between work and sleep. Vito cast a covert look at Elsdon, who appeared to be in no great hurry to return to his current work of revising the Code; he was pulling food from the bins in the little kitchen area at the far end of the room. Vito supposed that Elsdon, unlike the other Seekers, did not have to worry about attracting the attention of the High Seeker through his diligence at work.
"Would you like me to send for civilian food for you from the palace?" asked Elsdon. "I'm afraid this is poor fare, compared to what you could get in the lighted world."
"Is that meant to be a test?" As he came forward to sit at the rough wooden work counter that separated the parlor from the kitchen, Vito smiled. "Prisoners' food is good enough for me. It seems to have improved since the last time I was in the dungeon."
Elsdon Taylor – who had been imprisoned in the dungeon for ten years now – nodded in a matter-of-fact fashion. "That's the result of Mr. Bergsen's unique prison reform. He bullied the High Seeker into using the money that was left over from the electrical renovations to establish a fund that would allow better food for the prisoners. Needless to say, many of us prisoners were willing to back the healer in his campaign." Elsdon grinned as he crouched down to pull a glass bottle of milk from the hip-high ice-box.
"The Seekers, you mean?" Vito wiggled around the high stool he was sitting on, trying to establish a comfortable position. He had never considered himself to live a life of luxury, having worked in prisons since he came of age, but the utilitarian furniture and bland food that was given to the Seekers had made him keenly aware of what a privileged life he had lived until this time. "Even oatmeal for breakfast for the next fifty years won't scare me away from taking my oath as a Seeker. Though it appears," he added, "that I have something better to look forward to." Bacon sizzled as Elsdon placed an iron pan onto one of the little stoves that had warmed many Seekers' living cells since the time of the dungeon's renovation.
Elsdon nodded as he broke an egg into a second pan. "Thanks to Mr. Bergsen, yes. He says that the rest of us in the New School can worry about such trifling matters as uniforms and regulations of speech. His concern is merely to keep the prisoners alive and healthy."
"Till most of them are hanged," said Vito, an unusual note of bitterness touching him. Two months he had been waiting in this dungeon for word from the palace above. It seemed like a year.
"But fewer than in the past, I hope." Elsdon reached over to hand Vito a loaf of bread and a knife. As Vito obediently began slicing the loaf on the counter, Elsdon said, as though his mind were elsewhere, "I'm a bit worried whether we'll be ready for our performance in time. We only have ten more days of rehearsals."
"You ought to have started without me, at the beginning of the year," Vito suggested, laying aside the knife and coming round to Elsdon's side of the counter. He knew where the plates and cups and ironware were stored; he had breakfasted here every day since his return to the dungeon, officially as a guest to Mr. Bergsen.
In reality, his presence there was a devious move by the so-called New School to intensify the pressure upon the Queen to overrule the decision of the High Seeker to dismiss Vito from his quest to be a Seeker. One of the disadvantages that Vito had faced from the start of his lawsuit against the Eternal Dungeon was that, a quiet man by nature, he had not made many attempts during his previous training to get to know the other inhabitants of the Eternal Dungeon. As a result, to most Seekers and guards he was merely an abstract symbol of the New School's desire to bring about reform in the dungeon.
The leaders of the New School had set about to change that. The dungeon's healer, Mr. Bergsen – the only permanent resident of the inner dungeon who was not a prisoner and who could therefore invite guests as he wished – was presently housing Vito on the extra cot in his bedroom and introducing Vito to every man and woman who entered his surgery. Mistress Birdesmond Chapman, another of the New School's leaders, was hosting dinner parties every week's break, at which Vito was the chief guest. Mr. Sobel – the High Seeker's senior-most guard, who was not a member of the New School, but who was a friend to Elsdon – had invited Vito to participate in the guards' weekly domino games. Vito had done this, losing quite badly, much to the delight of the increasingly friendly guards.
Mr. Urman – senior night guard to Elsdon Taylor – upon hearing of Elsdon's concern that the High Seeker and Codifier would find some way to expel Vito from Mr. Bergsen's quarters, was said to have grunted and stated, "I can fix that." Which he did, most magnificently, by submitting with public fanfare an application to be a Seeker.
Within an hour, the entire Eternal Dungeon was in an uproar over the news that the dungeon's most trouble-making guard within living memory was aspiring to join the elite. The High Seeker and the Codifier were kept so busy answering questions – mainly indignant enquiries from Seekers who had possessed the misfortune to work with Mr. Urman – that official attention had entirely turned away from Vito.
That would change in ten days when Vito took the stage to play-act in the very first performance ever, in the history of the Queendom of Yclau, of a prison theatrical company.
"Do you truly think that the prisoners will be reformed by watching us act out a play? Even a play that's about transformation?" Vito asked Elsdon as he placed the plates on the counter. He had been disconcerted when he discovered that the play which Elsdon had chosen was not one of the light modern comedies that were so popular in Yclau. Instead, the play dramatized the most sacred event in Yclau's faith: the long-ago decision of a soul, dwelling in pleasant afterdeath, to choose the pain of oblivion, followed unexpectedly by that soul's rebirth into a new body. Sweet Blood was the name of the play – the very title a sacred oath.
"Just by watching the play?" replied Elsdon as he poured dried berries into a serving bowl. "Probably not. But the High Seeker's plan is to invite some of the prisoners – those who are likely to take many days to break – to perform in a play the following fortnight."
Vito, who had been in the midst of pouring water into the cups, nearly spilled the entire pitcher onto the counter. "As Vovimian prisoners do? And you really believe that such a performance would make a difference to any civilized Yclau man?"
"It did to me." Elsdon turned to scoop the eggs from the pan.
Vito bit his tongue to keep from speaking further. He had forgotten – it was so easy to forget – that Elsdon had twice been imprisoned in the neighboring Kingdom of Vovim. Vito was one of the few people who knew that, on the second occasion, Elsdon had performed in a play that, in accordance with Vovimian theatrical customs, should have ended with his death as a condemned prisoner. Only a timely rescue by the High Seeker had prevented Elsdon from ending his life, not in an execution cell, but on a stage in front of hundreds of avid theatergoers.
"You're surely not going to execute prisoners on stage here," Vito protested. "That would be barbaric!"
Elsdon cast him a look that Vito could not interpret, but simply replied, "The Eternal Dungeon isn't in charge of executions; that's handled by the Queen's magistracy. No, our hope is to reach the type of prisoner who is unwilling to speak to his Seeker. Whether he's innocent or guilty of the crimes he is charged with committing, we hope that the very act of rehearsing plays alongside his Seeker will establish a level of trust between the prisoner and his Seeker which will encourage the prisoner to speak more freely – and perhaps, if he is guilty of a crime, to give the man greater consideration as to how he has led his life." As he spoke, Elsdon finished setting the food onto the counter: eggs and bacon and bread and fruit and milk. No salt, no sugar, not even butter and jam and coffee. The meal was bleak compared to what Vito was accustomed to.
He attacked his meal with gusto. "The plays were your idea," he suggested.
Elsdon shook his head as he sat down and cut into his bacon. "Layle's. He's native-born Vovimian, after all."
"Ah." It seemed best to change the subject. Turning his gaze in an attempt to find an object for conversation, Vito caught sight of a pile of papers sitting at the end of the counter. He picked them up, glanced at the first page, and raised his eyebrows. "So the sixth revision has reached galley stage."
Elsdon smiled. "Yes. All we're waiting for now is the Queen's final approval; then we can go to press and release the new Code of Seeking."
Vito noticed something – a slight waver in tone that did not match Elsdon's smile – and put the galley proofs down slowly. "You don't think the Queen will approve your revision?"
Elsdon's smile disappeared. "Vito, I don't know. I hope so. The previous Queen had indicated she would approve the revision; I'd taken care to involve her at all stages of the drafting. But the new Queen . . . She's said to be a harsher woman than her mother was. And I've never had the opportunity to speak with her. So everything depends on whether the High Seeker can persuade her to accept the revision."
Vito's heart was thundering now; he had to swallow a mouthful of milk to coat his dry throat. "That can't be good news."
"That Layle is our advocate to the Queen for the sixth revision? Vito, nobody in this dungeon wants to return to the civil war that split the dungeon workers into rival camps for years – not the High Seeker, not the Codifier, and certainly not the New School, which is demanding this revision. Even the Old School has accepted the revision's necessity. If the Queen refuses to let the revision be passed, the lack of consensus between this dungeon's workers over how to search prisoners will tear apart the dungeon again. Next time, the Eternal Dungeon might not survive."
Elsdon's voice was strained. Vito reached out and placed a palm over his friend's hand. He said softly, "We're transforming the dungeon. Transformation is always painful. The first man who transformed himself had to thrust a dagger into his own heart."
"And his beloved friend was forced to watch. Yes, I know." Elsdon reached for his milk. "I'm just not sure how much more pain Layle can take."
It was typical of Elsdon, Vito thought with an inward sigh, that in the final stage of a five-year struggle to prevent the dungeon's prisoners from being mangled by torturers, Elsdon's chief concern would be to appease the worst of those torturers.
Layle Smith, High Seeker of the Eternal Dungeon, leader of the Old School. And Vito's greatest enemy.
Picking up the galleys again, Vito tried to turn his thoughts away from the deadly Vovimian torturer who was doing his best to keep Vito from becoming a Seeker. Glancing at a random page, Vito raised his eyebrows again, saying, "You've abolished the whippings."
"I had to, Vito," Elsdon said, with a practiced patience which suggested he'd been forced to argue this point on many past occasions. "I'm certainly not saying it's wrong for the Seekers to order the sort of disciplinary beating that any schoolmaster would order for an unruly schoolboy. Even the United Order of Prisons doesn't argue that, in its international code of prison ethics. But the Eternal Dungeon is emerging from many decades of depraved deeds; here, whipping prisoners could too easily be turned into abuse. All that the Seeker need do is whisper a few questions to his prisoner while the man is being beaten—"
"—and the Eternal Dungeon will have returned to the practice of questioning its prisoners under torture. Yes, I see. Well, I can't say that I'd be sorry to be relieved of the burden of ordering beatings. There are doubtless other ways in which Seekers can keep control over prisoners; this will give us the opportunity to develop them." Vito turned another page and felt shock jolt through him. He raised a startled gaze to the Seeker on the other side of the counter. "Elsdon, on the next page you've permitted the whippings to continue. You've permitted the rackings to continue."
Elsdon gave a wry smile which suggested that this had also been a matter he had been forced to defend at length. "And you can imagine how happy I am about that. Vito, I'm not supposed to be discussing this with you. Only senior members of the Eternal Dungeon are permitted to see and discuss the early drafts."
"How convenient, since you and your senior night guard are the only senior Seeker and guard who belong to the New School." Vito leaned over the counter, gripping it with his hands. "Elsdon, please tell me you haven't—"
And then he stopped abruptly, realizing the accusation he was about to make to his oldest friend.
"Betrayed the principles of the New School?" The weariness on Elsdon's face suggested that he'd received this accusation countless times.
"Sweet blood," said Vito reverently as he passed a hand over his face. He was naked-faced, of course, being dressed in civilian clothes. Elsdon too was naked-faced, and had been so for many months, even when searching prisoners: a visible symbol of his refusal to torture prisoners. Officially, that refusal meant he was breaking the Code. Until the sixth revision was approved by the Queen, Elsdon would continue to risk being arrested and executed for disobedience to the Code's requirement that he torture certain prisoners.
"Elsdon, I'm sorry," said Vito with heartfelt sorrow, reaching over to take hold of his friend's hand once more. "It was faithless of me to doubt you."
Elsdon gave him a wan smile. "I'm used to it, Vito. Even Seward Sobel thought I'd allied myself with the Old School, till I was able to explain to him the reason I wrote the sixth revision the way I did. I hope I'll be able to explain myself to you before long." Loosening himself from Vito's hand, Elsdon reached over to take Vito's empty plate from him.
"You expect the Queen's decision soon?" Vito suggested, forcing himself to set aside his lingering concern about the passage he'd glimpsed in the revision.
Elsdon shook his head. Taking both plates to the sink, he said, "I've no idea how long it will be before the Queen decides to approve or reject the new Code. But I've won a concession from the High Seeker. You'll recall that Seekers-in-Training aren't true Seekers until the time that the red strip of cloth on their hood is removed and they make their oath to be eternally confined within the dungeon. So Layle has agreed to allow forthcoming Seekers-in-Training to be governed, not by the current Code of Seeking, but by my revision of it. You'll see the Code before any other junior member of this dungeon does." He smiled over his shoulder at Vito.
"Optimist." Vito smiled back, relieved that Elsdon was so quick to forgive him for his appalling behavior.
Would that Layle Smith shared Elsdon's quality of mercy.
"Do you need help with the dishes?" asked Vito.
Elsdon shook his head. "The maid will take care of it."
"Layle Smith is allowing women into his living cell now?" said Vito, going over to look at the bookcase against the wall next to the outer dungeon. Most of the books on theater culture, Vito realized with a small shock, probably belonged to Layle, rather than to Elsdon, whose literary tastes ran more toward mechanical manuals. "Truly, this dungeon is entering into reform if the High Seeker has condescended to allow such lowly beings into his—"
Behind Vito, there was a bang. Two bangs. Vito whirled around.
It was Layle Smith, of course, opening the door and closing it behind him. Nobody else – perhaps not even Elsdon Taylor, who lived there – would dare to abruptly enter the High Seeker's living quarters. There were rumors that, in his early years, Layle Smith had broken the wrist of a guard who tapped him on the shoulder unexpectedly.
The High Seeker wore the same uniform that Elsdon did, with one great difference: his face-cloth was down. It always remained down, Vito had been given to understand, even in the presence of Seward Sobel, who had served as senior night guard to Layle Smith for twenty-seven years. Aside from the healer, whose work required him to examine naked men, only two men in the dungeon existed to whom the High Seeker would reveal his face: his close friend, Weldon Chapman, and his love-mate.
As always, Elsdon looked as though he would like to rush up to the High Seeker and greet him with a passionate kiss. But taking due note of the time – the High Seeker was normally required to work through the dusk and dawn shifts – Elsdon instead said in a professional manner, "Sir? May I help you with something?"
"I have news." The High Seeker's posture was rigid; so was his voice. There was nothing in his tone to indicate that the man he was addressing had shared his bed for ten years. "Mr. and Mistress Chapman have received a letter."
"From Vovim?" Elsdon stood up abruptly from where he had been crouching down to examine the stage scenery. "Then Zenas made it safely over the border?"
"No. He was arrested."
Vito felt a sharp pain in his chest, more from Elsdon's expression than from the news itself. He had only met the adopted son of Birdesmond Chapman and her fellow Seeker husband on a handful of occasions, and he had never held a conversation with the lad; until recently, Zenas had known only the native tongue of the province of Vovim in which he had been born. Elsdon had told Vito the whole story, however: how Zenas had been enslaved and mauled and molested by his father's murderer and had ultimately killed his slave-master in a desperate attempt to save his own life. He was twelve years old at the time. In what Vito considered to be an apt example of the lack of justice in the Queendom of Yclau, the boy had been delivered over to the Eternal Dungeon's torturers. Fortunately, it had been Weldon Chapman who questioned the lad, not Layle Smith, who would doubtless have stretched young Zenas on the rack, if only for the pleasure of seeing the youth in agony.
Elsdon, who remained terribly oblivious to the darker aspects of his love-mate, rose to his feet, crying, "Oh, no! For his defensive killing?"
"For his murder of the Vovimian ambassador, yes," the High Seeker responded. He had yet to look in Vito's direction. Vito was sure this was not because Layle Smith failed to be aware of Vito's presence.
Elsdon's fists were furled, his face pale. "Can the Eternal Dungeon help him in any way? Sir, it's unthinkable that Zenas should die for what he did! He already served out his sentence of six years' confinement in this dungeon. And he went home to try to help his own people. . . ."
Vito waited. Something about the High Seeker's stance told him that more was coming. It was just like Layle Smith, Vito thought sourly, to place his love-mate in unnecessary agony by prolonging the tale.
"And so he shall," said the High Seeker coolly. "Zenas invoked the gods' sanctuary, pledging to enter into lifelong poverty in order to serve the gods as penance for his crime. The border guards were pious men; they brought Zenas to a group of nearby aekae, who questioned Zenas and then declared him to be one of their own, veiling him as a fellow prophet. As a prophet of the gods, Zenas is immune to the King's punishments."
"And will now live in divine poverty for the rest of his life," Elsdon said softly. "Layle . . . do you think Zenas wanted this to happen?"
Vito blinked. It would not have occurred to him that this was the point of Layle Smith's seemingly unnecessary drama.
"Given the number of questions that Zenas asked me about the aekae during the months before he left?" the High Seeker replied dryly. "Frankly, I'm surprised he didn't veil himself during his final weeks in the dungeon. He must have kept his face naked here for the sake of his parents."
It took Vito a moment to understand what Layle Smith meant. Thanks to Elsdon Taylor's reform, the dungeon was now officially divided into two types of Seekers: the Old School Seekers, who followed the dungeon's traditional manner of breaking prisoners through questioning and torture, and the New School Seekers, who had pledged to search prisoners through questioning alone. The former wore hoods with face-cloths covering their faces; the latter wore hoods without face-cloths.
Both of Zenas's parents were naked-faced. Vito gathered that this had required a certain wrestling of conscience for Weldon Chapman, given his close relations with Layle Smith, but in the end he had sided with his wife, who, along with Elsdon and other dungeon-workers, had forced reform upon the High Seeker.
"Naked-faced" was now the Eternal Dungeon's shorthand way of saying "reformed." And so Zenas – who had returned to his native land in the hope of reforming the hearts and minds of Vovimians who forced men and women into captivity – had remained naked-faced until he was over the border, dwelling in a country where torturers did not hide their faces.
"There is news." For a moment, it seemed that the High Seeker was repeating himself. Then Vito jumped in place as he discovered that Layle Smith had turned his eyes in Vito's direction. The High Seeker had a tendency to do that, blast him.
"Yes, Mr. Smith?" He tried to keep his voice calm, though his pulse was racing.
"From the Queen. She has decided that she cannot be bothered with all the fuss over you. She has ordered the Eternal Dungeon to grant you a second chance at your training."
He felt all the breath leave him. "Then I am a Seeker again?"
"You are a Seeker-in-Training, Mr. de Vere. Whether you remain a Seeker will be determined by your behavior during your training. You will recommence your training at the point where you left off."
Vito cursed inwardly. Of course this was how Layle Smith would arrange matters: so that he continued to have the power to dismiss Vito from his dungeon.
But matters were different in the dungeon than they had been seventeen months before, Vito reminded himself. Now Vito was subject, not to the fifth revision of the Code of Seeking, which required him to torture certain prisoners, but to Elsdon's far more merciful sixth revision. As long as Vito remained naked-faced, he could follow Elsdon's version of the Code, rather than Layle Smith's.
"I appreciate learning of this news, High Seeker," Vito replied stiffly. "I am glad to have this opportunity to demonstrate my loyalty to the Code of Seeking. Please give to the Queen my heartfelt thanks for this second chance. . . . Am I to return to work soon?"
"Tomorrow evening," the High Seeker replied dispassionately. "A prisoner who was brought to the dungeon some time ago has been set aside for you in Breaking Cell 1. Your uniform has been delivered to a living cell that the Record-keeper has assigned to you. You will have the cell to yourself for a while. Your roommate is in the infirmary; he was attacked by a different prisoner and is not expected to live. He is naked-faced," the High Seeker added, as though in explanation. "You have been assigned guards for both shifts. You may begin searching the prisoner at the beginning of tomorrow's night shift. I have the prisoner's arrest records here, though I doubt you'll find much in them that is of use to you."
That stung. Vito's last disastrous searching of a prisoner – which had culminated with him falling in love with his prisoner and unwittingly helping the unscrupulous criminal to escape justice – had started with Vito's stubborn refusal to read the arrest records of Edwin Orville Gurth. Everything had deteriorated from that point onwards.
"I will do my best to familiarize myself with the prisoner's case," he told the High Seeker, still stiffly, as he took the blue volume from him.
"Try not to be too familiar, if you please." With that light and inexplicable remark, the High Seeker left his living cell, shutting the door behind him.
Vito stared at the door, bewildered. Then some instinct made him look down at his prisoner's arrest records. His breath rushed in.
"What is it?" Elsdon, who had remained silent but smiling throughout the conversation, came forward to place his hand on Vito's back.
Vito showed him the blue volume. Elsdon's light-skinned face grew paler. He jerked his gaze up to stare wordlessly at Vito.
Vito gave a bitter laugh. "Do you have any doubts left," he asked as he tucked the volume under his arm, "as to whether this will be a fair test?"
Chapter 2: Day Two, First Hour of the Night Shift
Vito was not particularly surprised to be assigned Breaking Cell 1, the cell which was located closest to the High Seeker's office, the Codifier's office, the entry hall filled with on-duty guards, the guardroom filled with off-duty guards, and the pair of guards at the entry hall door, who kept vigilant watch to ensure that no prisoner escaped.
He did wince, though, when he saw who his night guards were to be.
He could not fully blame Layle Smith for their assignment to him. He had learned from Elsdon that these two guards were not permanently assigned to any single Seeker; instead, they stepped in as substitutes any time that guards were sick or on leave. Their official assignment – the reason they were permanently paired – was to serve as primary-duty guards on the rare occasions that a Seeker-in-Training made it as far as the final days of his training, when the Seeker-in-Training would carry out a searching on his own, without the assistance of the senior Seeker who had trained him. Their experience was meant to assist the Seeker-in-Training in his final test.
Vito thought to himself, though, that if the High Seeker had possessed any mercy, he would have assigned different guards to Vito.
Vito's steps slowed as he approached the cell from the north, the direction of the rack rooms and of the living cell he had been assigned by the Record-keeper. The last time he had seen Mr. Boyd, the senior guard had held a dagger to Vito's throat, believing Edwin Orville Gurth's tale that Vito had raped his prisoner. The last time Vito had seen Mr. Crofford – the last four times – the junior guard had dispassionately provided the Eternal Dungeon's witness as to why Vito's incompetence and deliberate breaking of the Code disqualified him abundantly from being made a Seeker.
Vito had not argued against any of Mr. Crofford's evidence. It was all true. Instead, each of the four times – three times before the Queen's magistrates and once before the previous Queen – Vito had brought forth the documentary evidence he had gathered, with the assistance of his clever attorney: evidence that, on many occasions during the past five years, the High Seeker had deliberately driven faithful, skilled subordinates to the point where they must break the Code if they were to retain the true spirit of the Code. Among those documents, with the name carefully blacked out, was a paper describing the trial and punishment of a certain senior guard who had since been rehired by the Eternal Dungeon. If a senior guard had been punished so severely for a much more serious offense than Vito's – helping a prisoner to kill himself – and yet had been offered a second chance to redeem himself in the Eternal Dungeon, then there was no reason why Vito should not also be given a chance to do so, given his relative lack of experience at the time he broke the rules of the dungeon. Or so Vito had argued, with the help of his attorney.
Being used as evidence in favor of Vito's return to the Eternal Dungeon could not have sweetened Mr. Boyd's temper. Vito kept a wary eye on the senior guard, who was glaring at him. Mr. Crofford's face remained carefully neutral. This was a bad sign in itself; Vito knew, from what Elsdon had said, that the junior guard's relations with his Seekers were normally amiable.
Vito coughed to clear his throat as he came to a halt in front of the guards, who were standing with their backs to the cell door, as though barring his entrance. Keeping his voice low so that the prisoner would not hear him, he said, "Good evening."
Mr. Boyd said nothing. Mr. Crofford said, "Sir." Nothing more.
Taking a deep breath, Vito offered the blue volume to Mr. Boyd. "I would appreciate it if you would peruse carefully the prisoner's records, Mr. Boyd. There are several points in the prisoner's records, which I have marked, that you may understand better than I do. I would like your assistance in deciphering their meaning. Mr. Crofford—" He turned his attention to the junior guard. "I'm sure you will be keeping your eye to the watch-hole while I am in the cell, as your duty requires. If at any time you have concerns about how the searching is being conducted, I urge you to interrupt the proceedings. You and Mr. Boyd have far more experience in these matters than I do."
"Sir," said Mr. Crofford, with no change in his tone. Mr. Boyd said nothing, though he had taken the blue volume from Vito. He was continuing to glare at Vito.
Vito had not expected otherwise. Any guard worth his pay would know that a Seeker who intended to deliberately break the Code would do his best to cultivate good relations with his guards in order to lure his guards into unwariness.
In actual fact, Vito was feeling more than a little foolish. He had spent countless hours retracing in his mind all the mistakes he had made during his previous training in this dungeon. Among the most serious of his mistakes was that he had failed to draw upon the knowledge of his far more experienced guards when he searched Edwin Orville Gurth. His guards – much decorated and honored, leaving aside the black mark on Mr. Boyd's record – would surely not have been gullible enough to fall for the prisoner's plot to seduce Vito. If Vito had taken even a few minutes to discuss Edwin Orville Gurth with his guards, disaster might have been averted.
But Mr. Boyd still looked as though he would like to carve up Vito with his dagger, while Mr. Crofford continued to stand behind the barrier of cool formality. It would take time for Vito to regain the trust of his guards, as well as the trust of the many other inhabitants of this dungeon who considered Vito to be hopelessly disqualified for his current rank.
Stifling an impulse to sigh, Vito pocketed the prisoner's records and gestured with his hand. For a full third of a minute, it seemed as though the guards would continue to bar his entrance. Then they exchanged brief looks and simultaneously stepped to either side of the door. Mr. Crofford took out his keys and unlocked the door. Vito put his hand lightly on the junior guard's arm to prevent him from opening the door. "Mr. Boyd," he said, addressing the senior guard, "I suspect that the prisoner will be more forthcoming if I search him alone, but if you feel otherwise, I would welcome your assistance in the breaking cell."
This time, it was Mr. Boyd who turned his gaze toward Mr. Crofford – an odd gesture, given that Mr. Boyd was the senior man on duty. There was a moment's pause as Mr. Crofford appeared to consider Vito's offer, and then Mr. Crofford said, "Sir, I imagine you're correct concerning the prisoner's desire to speak to you alone. We'll be on hand outside, should you require any assistance during the searching."
It was hard to tell whether Mr. Crofford's reply was a concession to Vito's integrity or simply an indication that the junior guard had fully briefed himself concerning this particular prisoner. Vito contented himself with saying, "Then you may open the door, Mr. Crofford."
The door closed behind Vito a moment later, leaving him alone with his prisoner. The man was sitting on his bed-shelf, not facing the door through which his Seeker would come, but rather sitting sideways, with his legs stretched out in front of him, and with pillows propped behind him. He looked as though he were a wealthy businessman, lounging on a rare day of leisure. Although he must have heard the cell door open and close, he did not bother to look in his Seeker's direction.
"It's about time you got here," said Edwin Orville Gurth.
Chapter 3: Day Three, Dawn Shift
Vito found Mr. Boyd sitting in the corner of the dining hall, reading the Code of Seeking. His boots were resting upon a second chair at the table; the other chairs were pushed away. Nobody at the nearby tables looked eager to join the dour guard.
Mr. Boyd didn't look up, even when Vito paused next to him. Finally Vito asked, "May I join you?"
"It's as you wish, sir." Mr. Boyd's gaze remained fixed upon the page. Vito saw he was reading one of the passages on the terrible afterdeath fate that awaited Seekers who failed to do their best to bring their prisoners into rebirth.
Vito thought a moment, ignoring the whispers of the outer-dungeon laborers at the next table, who were watching this exchange. Then he crossed his wrists behind him and straightened his back. The position came naturally to him; not many years had passed since he had been a novice guard at Parkside Prison. "My apologies, sir," he said, keeping his gaze fixed on the wall. "What I meant to say was, Is it your pleasure that I should join you?"
The whispers nearby grew to a hum, like that of a beehive that has been shaken. Mr. Boyd slowly raised his head. Vito, still staring at the wall, could not read his expression. But he could hear the mixture of anger and annoyance in Mr. Boyd's voice when he said, "You could take lessons from the High Seeker in how to manipulate your guards. You know very well, sir, that, as a senior guard, I have no power to give you orders unless an emergency arises where you are likely to bring harm to your prisoner."
"I was under the impression," said Vito, continuing to stare at the wall, "that such an emergency had already arisen. I have been given no indication that you believe the danger is over. Sir."
He could hear now some of the whispered comments about his actions, and he was glad that he had inherited – from an ancestor whose name was best not spoken aloud, since his origins lay over the border in Vovim – a complexion dark enough to hide the blush that he knew must be covering his face.
The whispers abruptly broke off as Mr. Boyd turned his glare in the direction of the nearby table. Then the guard took his boots off the chair, shoving it by foot toward Vito. "Sit down, Mr. de Vere. You're making a spectacle of yourself. You can't afford that."
Gratefully, Vito sunk into the seat. Reaching down, he loosened his boots to give his swollen ankles more room. "I don't know how you guards manage it," he said. "You have standing-duty longer each day than Seekers do."
"I believe," said Mr. Boyd in a low voice as he refilled his cup from the water pitcher, "that the relevant passage here is in Appendix Eight of the private edition of the Code of Seeking, available only to Seekers and guards, since it describes the techniques for breaking. 'If you wish to break a prisoner who appears unwilling to trust you,' the Code says, 'the best approach is often to offer him the semblance of friendship. Indeed, in the worst cases, it may be necessary to humble yourself, as the opportunity to show his superiority over you is likely to lead the prisoner to become more candid. . . .'"
Vito's face was burning now. "You're right," he said, "I need lessons from the High Seeker. In fact, I think I'd better start down at the bottom, in training academy. Have I made myself insufferable?"
Mr. Boyd shook his head as he watched the water settle in his cup. "You're working under a disadvantage; more experienced Seekers than you have already tried that approach. I'll spare you time by delivering to myself the message you've prepared for me. I'm too much a loner, too unfriendly toward the other guards, too apt to leap upon small faults in other guards and Seekers, too wrapped up in my work. I need leisure activities, laughter, a love-mate, and by all things sacred, why don't I smile sometimes? . . . Did I miss anything you were planning to tell me?"
"The part where I ask you to take off your shirt."
Mr. Boyd was on the point of sipping his water; his lips paused at the lip of the cup. He looked over at Vito, who was carefully wiping up a few spilled drops of water.
After a minute, Mr. Boyd stood up. Turning his back to Vito and the corner walls, he faced the remainder of the dining room. As he began to unknot his shirt, lewd whistles came from a couple of the nearby laborers, quickly shushed by those who understood what he was doing. Silence spread across the nearby tables, and then spilled like an overflowing pond into the rest of the dining hall.
Vito did not know what the rest of the room saw; perhaps Mr. Boyd's expression alone was enough to cut conversation as quickly as a broken neck in a hangman's noose. Vito himself felt no desire to make commentary on what he saw.
He had witnessed the effects of the lash on many a beaten back – indeed, had whipped a few backs of his own during his years as a guard, and had felt no guilt afterwards, since the beatings were not torture used to obtain information. He had possessed no qualms about using a whip to punish a misbehaved prisoner or guard.
He suspected that he would have sickened if he had witnessed this punishment. The lines of the lash did not run parallel to one another, in a horizontal fashion; instead they ran top left to bottom right and top right to bottom left. They were crosshatched, as delicately as though the man who inflicted them were the most skilled etcher in the Queendom of Yclau.
Vito knew well enough that the places where lines of a beating crossed were where the pain was the greatest and blood was most likely to flow. Usually, in a heavy beating, that meant one or two crossed lines for every lash landed. But here, where each crosshatched line met at two dozen points of intersection . . .
He had heard tales of Vovimian prisoners' boots growing soggy as blood flowed into them during a back-beating. He no longer doubted those tales.
He wasn't aware that he had closed his eyes until he felt a jolt along the table. Raising his eyelids, he saw that Mr. Boyd was sitting opposite him again, retying his shirt. The other inhabitants of the dining hall had resumed their conversations in a subdued manner. Vito gulped in some air, hoping he would not disgrace himself by vomiting in front of the rest of the dungeon. Then he said, "The High Seeker did that?"
Mr. Boyd nodded. "No one else in the dungeon possessed the strength of arm to carry out a hard beating for that long. He offered to bring in a disciplinary soldier from the Queen's army to do it, but I told him that I'd heard of disciplined soldiers dying under the hundred strokes, and I'd sooner trust my life to him than to a stranger."
"It looks to me," said Vito, wiping the sweat off his face with his handkerchief, "as though you must have come close to death under his whip. How you must hate him."
It was a safe enough remark to make. The entire dungeon knew that there was no love lost between Vito de Vere and Layle Smith; Mr. Boyd would not suspect him of carrying tales to the High Seeker. Even so, for a moment it appeared as though the guard would remain silent. Then he said softly, "Everyone thinks that."
Vito raised his eyebrows. Mr. Boyd shrugged and added, "He did what he believed he had to do to protect the prisoners. I did the same. We understand each other, as enemies on the field understand each other."
"Respect between enemies is always a good thing," Vito agreed cautiously. He was working his way carefully through the conversation, judging what the right path was by the feel of each step in his path. Contrary to Mr. Boyd's assumptions, Vito never searched anyone by pre-planned rules. He worked by instinct. In the past, this method had brought him into disastrous trouble with his current prisoner, but he knew no other way in which to operate. He would leave it to Elsdon Taylor and other such theoreticians to figure out the best way for Seekers to work. Vito knew only that his own way worked, more often than not.
Now he said to Mr. Boyd, probing delicately, "Mr. Taylor told me that your punishment came about because the High Seeker had ordered that your prisoner be questioned under racking, even though evidence existed that the prisoner had no memory of the murders he had undoubtedly committed."
Mr. Boyd's gaze wandered back toward his untouched cup. "Yes."
"And so, since it was clear that the prisoner had committed death-sentence crimes, yet it was equally clear that he lacked the ability to confess to them, you gave him a dagger with which he could execute himself, thus providing him with the means both to escape from unjust torture and to renew his soul by demonstrating repentance for his crimes."
Mr. Boyd stared down at his fingers on the cup, turned golden under the electric lamplight. "Yes."
"And because you had helped a prisoner to rebirth by a means not permitted in the Code, the High Seeker had you beaten nearly to death. Yet you remained in his dungeon, risking the possibility that you would receive a worse punishment at a later date."
Mr. Boyd raised his eyes. The anger was in them again, unglossed by any other emotion. He said in a crisp voice, "What is the point of this recital, Mr. de Vere?"
Vito gave a small, helpless gesture. He had rehearsed that gesture during his early days as a Seeker-in-Training, in case he should ever need to use it with a prisoner. "You broke the Code, and your prisoner was reborn. I broke the Code, and my prisoner escaped to continue his life of crime. I was hoping you could tell me whether I'm going astray again."
Mr. Boyd's fingers tapped on the cup, a soft sound amidst the renewed conversations nearby. Finally the guard said, "I was wrong."
"You don't need any lessons from the High Seeker. You have skill enough of your own." He pushed the cup over to Vito's side of the table, saying, "Tell me what you want of me, Mr. de Vere."
"My enquiry was genuine."
"And I'll give you a genuine answer when you tell me what you want of me. Am I to mingle with the other guards? Take a love-mate? Smile?"
His voice was mocking; his eyes were not. Vito sipped the water he had been offered before shaking his head. "Mr. Boyd, I'm not the High Seeker. When he searches a prisoner, he knows what his goals are from the start. When I search a prisoner . . . Usually I learn what my goals are from the prisoner. If you should discover what you need, you will tell me, I hope?"
Something that might have been a change of expression touched Mr. Boyd's eyes, but it was gone too quickly for Vito to identify what it was. "You're still following the Code, Mr. de Vere. The cooperative prisoner must be allowed to break himself. What gives you reason to believe I'm cooperative?"
Vito gave the small gesture again; it played out better this time. "If I'm wrong, I'll soon discover that. But as to my official prisoner . . ."
Mr. Boyd settled back in the chair, his gaze upon Vito. His hands lightly traced a pattern upon the black volume in front of him before he said, "You're doing fine so far, Mr. de Vere. I'm not a Seeker; I can't say what methods you'll need to use to break Mr. Gurth. All I can say is what you already must know: Be on your guard with him. He's the sort who would lie if it meant his father's death."
Vito caught himself in time from saying that was already recorded. Vito couldn't chance having that remark overheard. He could imagine the wildfire of dungeon gossip that must already be spreading about his prisoner. Instead he said, "It's good to be reminded of that in any case. If I could reconcile the actions of Mr. Gurth and Orville . . . I'm sure Or holds the key to all this."
Mr. Boyd creased his forehead. "You're certain, then, that this 'Or' is a separate personality within Mr. Gurth?"
"Mr. Gurth says he isn't," Vito replied, "which is reason enough for me to believe that he is."
Mr. Boyd gave a snort that Vito identified incredulously as the guard's form of a chuckle. "Well, you have me there, Mr. de Vere. But even so . . . Be wary. This is the type of prisoner who will strike you when your back is bare to him."
"Believe me, Mr. Boyd," Vito said as he rose to his feet, "that much I have already learned. Thank you for your time."
He had begun to turn away when he heard a soft "Sir." He turned back. Mr. Boyd was cradling the Code in his hands. In an equally soft voice, the guard said, "May I ask why you requested to see the evidence of my brush with death?"
Vito let out his breath slowly. When he gave the small gesture this time, he was not even aware that he had done it until the gesture was completed. "Despite all my years as a prison-worker, I'd never before looked directly at death, or near death. I thought I should know the consequence for failure with my prisoner."
Mr. Boyd frowned. "The High Seeker has a poor reputation, but he hasn't delivered any Seeker to the hangman for five years now. If he didn't execute you last time for what you did, he's unlikely to do so if you fail this time."
"I meant the consequence for my prisoner. Thank you again, Mr. Boyd; I am in your debt." He saluted Mr. Boyd, as he might have done a superior officer if he were in the army. After a moment, Mr. Boyd slowly returned the salute.
Chapter 4: Day Two, First Hour of the Night Shift
"You have been in custody within this dungeon for five weeks, so I believe that you are familiar with the rules by which you are bound," replied Vito briskly. "Kindly stand up when I enter the cell."
The incipient smirk on Gurth's face – it was clearly Ed Gurth, not the alternative – faded away as he looked up at Vito, who had positioned himself carefully out of reach of a sudden assault. Gurth cocked his head. "Like that, is it?"
"It's like that," agreed Vito. He waited. His blood was thrumming from sight of Gurth, but there was no reason that Gurth should know that. Half the job of being a prison-worker consisted of hiding the fact that you were afraid of your prisoner.
Or in love with him.
Gurth stood up slowly, pushing aside the blankets on his bed-shelf. The so-called bed-shelf was no longer a shelf; the old, stone sleeping benches had been replaced in recent months with proper beds, in the same style as the beds in the Seekers' living cells. Running water had not yet been installed in this cell; the cell still contained a pitcher and bowl and chamber-pot, but the pot was now discreetly hidden within a washstand. With electric lights providing illumination from the ceiling, the room looked less like a cell in a dungeon of torture than a bedroom.
Vito quickly moved his mind away from that dangerous thought, keeping a careful eye on Gurth, who, at age nineteen, looked deceptively fragile, even in his present state. With greater scrutiny than he had bothered to make last time, Vito noticed the scars on Gurth's arms and the tell-tale blackening under the fingernails, only to be seen on the hands of soldiers or other men who routinely handled firearms.
The bed-shelf was placed against the far wall, to the left. Gurth chose to nestle his body in the far right corner, where he could lean back, folding his arms. He said nothing. Vito asked, "Have you been read the charges yet?"
Gurth merely shrugged. Though originally brought to the Eternal Dungeon during the previous year under the relatively innocuous charge of raping a prostitute, by all accounts he was an experienced criminal. The Queen's spies believed that Gurth had spent his seventeenth year murdering several dangerous men in order to gain control of the most nefarious businesses in the Queen's capital: notorious brothels, as well as illegal sweetweed dealing and operation of the opium dens that remained legal only because the Queen's Secretary (so it was whispered) had a share in the profits of one of the dens that sapped away the will and health of the men who frequented them.
Presumably, the Secretary did not own shares in Gurth's opium den, or the young man would not be here. Who ended up in the Eternal Dungeon, Elsdon had once noted, had less to do with how terrible their crimes were than whether they were of the elite and had friends in high places.
Edwin Orville Gurth – born in a brothel and still capable of speaking in a commoner fashion whenever it would profit him – was an easy target for any elite member of the government who wished to demonstrate his outrage at commoner criminals. That did not make Edwin Orville Gurth's alleged crimes any less serious.
Without removing his gaze – shifting his gaze from this particular prisoner could have deadly consequences – Vito recited from memory: "Edwin Orville Gurth, you are charged by the Queen's soldiers with the premeditated murder of John Ambrewster. Witnesses state that you entered a windowless room with the man, that nobody else entered the room through its single entrance, and that, an hour later, screams were heard from Mr. Ambrewster. When the locked door was broken down, you were seen by multiple witnesses to be kneeling over the corpse of Mr. Ambrewster, who had been stabbed many times with a knife. You were covered in blood, and your hand was on the knife in his chest. Patrol soldiers were summoned, and you were promptly delivered to this dungeon. You have not spoken since your arrival at the Eternal Dungeon, whether to confess your guilt or to enter a plea of innocence. Do you deny the charge of premeditated murder?"
"I didn't kill Ambrewster."
Gurth's voice was flat. Vito was taken aback. He had expected Gurth to deny only that he had murdered Ambrewster in a premeditated manner; that would leave an opening for him to claim a defensive murder or a defensive slaying. Either of those claims of lack of premeditation would spare him the hangman, should his claim be accepted by the magistrate.
But for Gurth to deny having killed a man who died in a locked room with him . . .
Vito waited, but Gurth offered no additional details. It was time, Vito thought, to switch tactics. A frontal assault on this particular prisoner was of no use. Ambrewster himself could have testified to that.
"Let's go further back," said Vito.
Gurth's eyes narrowed. "How far back?"
"To your childhood. What do you remember of your mother?"
If Gurth was surprised by this apparent change of topic, he hid it well. Resting the back of his head against the corner of the wall, he said lightly, "Died when I was two, didn't she? I was too young then – don't remember her."
Vito nodded. "What do you recall of your time with Hob?"
Unexpectedly, Gurth spat, like a snake striking with poison. He turned his head before doing so, though; the spittle landed on the floor, not Vito.
Gurth followed this up with a curse. The fifth revision of the Code of Seeking would have required Vito to beat Gurth at this point; from what Elsdon had told Vito the previous evening, the sixth revision provided more flexibility to Seekers. So Vito simply asked mildly, "Who are you cursing? The master of your House?" Gurth had carried the misfortune of being born into an illegal brothel, one that prostituted, not only grown women who had signed contracts to work there, but underage girls and boys who were given no choice.
"Hob," replied Gurth, who looked as if he wanted to spit again. "Bastard-of-a-slave."
"He harmed you?" Vito had the impulse to form his hands into fists, though he kept control over his body movements. There had been a hint in Gurth's records that his relations with his older half-brother might not have been entirely healthy. The two boys had slept together. . . .
"Abandoned me, didn't he?" replied Gurth sharply. "Bastard."
It took Vito a moment to think of an appropriate response to this extraordinary charge. Then he said carefully, "It would have been difficult for him to care for you when he was dying—"
"Dying!" At the word, Gurth stepped forward with his fists furled, like a boxer emerging from his corner. "Who said he was dying?"
"Your father," Vito replied slowly, keeping a careful eye on those fists. "And his account was confirmed at the time of your father's arrest by the investigating patrol soldiers. Several prostitutes at the House where you were raised told the soldiers that your brother died in 354, less than a month after he took the trouble to deliver you to your father, in hopes that your father would be willing to save you from the fate of becoming a prostitute like your mother and brother. . . . Your father told you none of this?"
Gurth's only response was to curse at length. He had returned to his corner, Vito noted thankfully. Even though Vito knew that Mr. Crofford and Mr. Boyd would arrive swiftly if Gurth should attack him, Vito was not at all sure of their ability to reach him in time if Gurth decided that the best way out of his present predicament was to murder his Seeker.
It appeared, though, that Gurth's current murderous thoughts were reserved for a man who was already dead. Vito waited for a pause in the cursing, then said, "And your brother didn't tell you his motive for taking you to your father?"
"Don't remember him." Gurth's response was terse. "I was too young."
An alarm bell went off in Vito's head. Gurth had been nine years old when his brother died. Keeping his voice mild, Vito said, "If you don't remember your brother, what is your first memory?"
Gurth shrugged. He was still glowering from Vito's revelation. Vito supposed it was a good sign that Gurth appeared to believe him.
"Do you remember your father?" pressed Vito. "If not, is your first memory of the school you attended after his death?" Gurth had been eleven when his father died, executed after Gurth – or rather, a part of Edwin Orville Gurth that was not Ed Gurth – had publicly accused the father of raping him. Edwin Orville Gurth's life – lives – had gone rapidly downhill after that; within two years, he was in a reform school for boys, soon afterwards he was a prostitute, and before he turned eighteen, he had allegedly murdered the master of his House in order to take over operation of his illegal brothel.
"Bastard," replied Gurth, clearly not referring to his brother this time.
"When is your first memory of your father?" asked Vito.
Gurth shrugged. "Dunno. One of the times he swung at me, I guess."
His voice was casual, but his eyes had narrowed again. The alarm bell in Vito's head grew louder. He had heard these words before . . . but not from Gurth.
"The first time I woke up, I was being beaten by a man. I don't know who he was. He called me Edwin. I knew that wasn't my name, but I didn't know how to tell him."
The voice of Or, Gurth's other personality, describing how he had emerged to find himself trapped in the body of a boy called Edwin Gurth.
Two voices, two memories of the same moment – or rather, two adjoining moments. Before that split moment . . . had Or and Gurth existed? Had there instead been only Edwin Orville Gurth, a young boy struggling to survive in a hostile world?
"Did he beat you often?" Vito asked quietly.
Gurth's eyes narrowed to bare slits. "Aye." His voice was hostile, aggressive.
"His father, Ed stated, had beaten and molested him." This time, the voice in Vito's memory was Layle Smith, light and disbelieving as he recounted the first of Gurth's nefarious deeds: the murder of his father through a false accusation of abuse.
"Did you tell anyone?" Vito asked. "Before you accused him officially of molesting you, I mean."
Gurth emitted a bitter laugh. "He was respectable. I was a brothel bastard he'd taken in, out of charity. Who'd believe me? . . . Aye, I tried. Almost made myself hoarse, telling folks. Got slapped by the local cleric for trying to smear my father's good name."
"I see," said Vito. He thought he did see. A boy abandoned by the only family member he'd ever known when he was young, into the hands of a stranger who beat him – far beyond the bounds that the law permitted to fathers – because the boy refused to conform to mid-class standards. Edwin Orville Gurth's growing desperation as everyone around him refused to save him from this brutality. The split in his personality as the aggressive side of the boy drew apart from the fragile aspect of the boy. Edwin Orville Gurth's attempts to regain control by making use of his split.
The alarm bells were silent now. Vito was beginning to sense an answer to his questions. The problem was, he didn't like the answer.
He forced himself to ask the remaining question on his mind: "Who decided to tell the patrol soldiers that your father had raped you? Was it you? Was it Or?"
Chapter 5: Day Four, Dusk Shift
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."
Chapter 6: Day Two, Second Hour of the Night Shift
"But he doesn't exist!"
Vito waited as a prisoner passed in the corridor. He could hear the man pleading desperately with his guards, evidently on his way to the rack. Vito let the sounds of the struggle fade into the distance before he replied, "If he doesn't exist, then there's no harm in letting me talk to him, is there? You'll be able to control whatever is said."
Continuing to stand in the corner of the cell, with his arms folded, Gurth scrutinized Vito with narrowed eyes. They had paused at the turn of the hour to allow Gurth to relieve himself into the chamber-pot. Vito had left the cell at that point, knowing better than to turn his back on this particular prisoner. He had found Mr. Crofford busy scribbling into the memorandum book that each guard carried at all times. Preparing a report for the High Seeker on the searching, no doubt. Surprisingly, Mr. Boyd had a flask of water ready for Vito.
Now, newly refreshed after the water and after a quick visit to use the pot in his own cell, Vito stood as he'd been trained at the patrol soldiers' academy: straight and tall, with his hands resting together behind his back. He waited.
"What's your game?" growled Gurth.
"You say you were asleep when the murder took place," Vito pointed out.
"Aye. Ambrewster had sent me a note saying he wanted to talk. I thought he was going to make me an offer for one of my businesses, so I set up the meeting. Warily."
Vito nodded. He had been present on the day, shortly after Edwin Orville Gurth's initial release from the Eternal Dungeon, when John Ambrewster had attempted to use Gurth's new bodyguard to assassinate his rival businessman.
"I arrived with half a dozen bodyguards, and Ambrewster and I went behind closed doors. After we'd talked of small matters for a bit, he offered me wine." Gurth shrugged. "Stupid of me to have accepted it; he must have drugged it. Next thing I know, I'm awake, with Ambrewster's men breaking down the door, and a bloody corpse beside me, with my own pocketknife sticking out of it. Ambrewster's men wanted to kill me; mine wanted to whisk me away to safety. After arguing it out, they compromised by calling the patrol soldiers."
"You suggested that solution, according to the patrol soldiers' report," pointed out Vito.
Gurth shrugged. "Ambrewster's men were baying for my blood. I figured that, once in custody, I'd at least be safe from them. Didn't count on being sent back here again."
Vito tamped down the impulse to respond to that remark. There were holes in this story – great, gaping holes – but Gurth was not the only man in this room who would be aware of that. One other man here might be able to supply the missing evidence.
"And you don't know who committed the murder," Vito prompted.
Gurth shrugged. "I told you – he was already dead when I woke up. I have a theory, though."
"Oh?" Vito prepared himself for a creative explanation. Edwin Orville Gurth was always creative.
"I think he jagged himself with my knife." Gurth offered this defense in the simplest of fashions, matter-of-fact in his presentation. "He's been raging to have me dead for the past two years, ever since I acquired half the brothels in the capital. He's tried three times and failed. I figure he knew that the only way to kill me was to frame me for his own self-murder."
Vito considered this possibility a moment before saying, "Ambrewster doesn't strike me as the sort of man to sacrifice himself to accomplish a goal, however coveted."
Yet again, Gurth shrugged nonchalantly, as though being quizzed on a trivial fact by a schoolmaster. "Best theory I got. The room was locked from the inside; I saw Ambrewster lock and bar it. It was like a stronghold. No windows, no trapdoors – nothing that would let in a murderer. His men were outside the only door the whole time; so were mine. I didn't kill him. It had to be his own hand that killed him. No one else was there."
Vito felt another gap loom before him. He kept his voice steady as he said, "I recall, from what he told me last year, that Or comes when you're asleep. He might have witnessed the murder."
Gurth shouted, "There's no such person as Or! I was the only one there!"
"So?" Vito responded mildly. "Last time Or tricked me in such a manner that the Eternal Dungeon was forced to release you. If he's simply you acting a role, why not do the same again?"
Gurth snorted, though his hands were still rolled into fists. "It was easy last time. You were in love with hi—"
He stopped abruptly. There was a pregnant pause. At the other end of the dungeon, where the rack rooms lay, screams had begun.
When it became clear that Gurth would not speak again, Vito said, "Mr. Gurth, I am here as a Seeker, to determine the truth of what occurred in that locked room. There are two living witnesses to what happened there. If I favored one witness over the other – if I sought to eliminate the testimony provided by one of the witnesses because I felt affection for the other witness – then my superiors would not be pleased."
Gurth laughed, a raw sound. "You mean the High Seeker would tear out your throat. Well, that has the ring of truth to it. But . . ."
This time Vito did not break the silence, though he dearly wished he could cover up the sound of the screamed pleas of the racked prisoner. Gurth seemed oblivious to the sound. He bit his thumb for several minutes before saying, "You fell in love with . . . me when I was that way. When I was acting the part of Or. And you believed him – me. Everyone believes Or."
Vito said quietly, with a touch of passion, "Mr. Gurth, of one thing I am absolutely sure: You were not alone in tricking me last time. Whatever happened this time, you were not alone either. I'm not going to make you the sole culprit of this crime, whatever Or says."
Gurth stared at the wall behind Vito. "He's— We're— I'm not that dumb. If Or says I did it, then we both hang. I mean . . ." He trailed off. Vito remained silent. After a moment more, Gurth said softly, "Will you want to talk to me, after?"
Vito suppressed a smile. It was the same fear Or had expressed, a year ago: that Vito would seek to eliminate the "intruder" who had taken over the real Edwin Orville Gurth. "You two are conjoined twins," Vito replied. "Two souls within the same body. You both hold the secret of what happened. You're both of value to me."
Gurth said nothing. He closed his eyes, appearing to consider the matter. Then he opened his eyes again.
Vito felt a jolt run through him, as though he were the prisoner being stretched on the table. He managed to keep his voice steady, though.
"Good evening, Or."
Chapter 7: Day Five, Dawn Shift
"He doesn't remember his early childhood," Vito reported to Elsdon. "He can't recall a time before his personality was split in two."
Elsdon nodded as he knelt down next to the stove, pushing the remaining coal out of the firebox, into the coal-hod. "Have you discussed his case with Mr. Bergsen? For that matter, have you discussed it with Mr. Boyd?"
"Yes. Mr. Boyd did his best to be helpful, but he says he has no recollection of the moment when his previous self transformed into his current self, during his beating. As far as he knows, the two Barrett Boyds were never in the same body together, at the same time. As for Mr. Bergsen, he says he hasn't read of a patient like this in his medical journals. He says he has only had one case similar to this during his time as a healer, but of course he can't discuss the case with me, due to medical confidentiality."
"I wonder who it could have been," Elsdon murmured as he rose and reached toward the cover-lifter. "Someone he treated while he was an army surgeon, I suppose."
Vito said nothing. After a moment, Elsdon looked up from his work of pulling open the stove covers. Vito merely raised his eyebrows.
"Oh!" Elsdon straightened up. "I hadn't considered that possibility. I've never thought of him as having split his personality."
"He's different when he's dreaming, you've said." Vito reached over to hand Elsdon the small, flat shovel he was reaching toward.
Elsdon took the shovel in hand and began to scrape ashes from over the oven, into the fire-box, but his mind clearly dwelled elsewhere. "Different, yes, but . . . It depends on when you're talking about."
"He has changed, then?" Vito sat down on the bench to watch Elsdon as he knelt to scrape ashes out from under the oven.
"Very much so. When Layle first decided to seek refuge in the Eternal Dungeon, he was an abusive torturer, good at his work and enjoying it a great deal. But he was also afire with a desire to change what he was: to become the sort of torturer that the Code of Seeking described, who helped prisoners into their transformation and rebirth." Elsdon carefully banged the flue with his shovel to bring down the remaining ashes. "I suppose you're right. In a way, his personality was split at that time."
"So how did the High Seeker resolve the split?" Having nothing better to do, Vito picked up a cloth and began wiping off the rest of the bench, where some of the gently drifting ashes had landed. He had been more than a little taken aback to discover that, as a Seeker, he was expected to clean his own stove. It had required a gentle reminder from Elsdon to recall Vito to the fact that, should he take his oath of confinement, he would be legally classified as a prisoner. Seekers had privileges beyond that of ordinary prisoners, but occasional menial tasks were intended to remind them that their lives were not so very different from that of the prisoners they searched.
As Vito was well aware, having come all too close to being hanged for his previous disobedience to the High Seeker's orders.
"He imprisoned his dark side," said Elsdon. "He shut it into his dreamings, so that he wouldn't be tempted to unlawfully abuse actual prisoners."
Vito paused as he passed Elsdon the ash pail. "The dreamings that came upon him during the daytime, against his will? That could have been dangerous."
"It would have driven him mad in the end. It very nearly did." Elsdon's voice was disconcertingly matter-of-fact as he scraped all the ashes into the pail. Vito, who had long thought that Elsdon's love for the High Seeker blinded him to Layle Smith's dark qualities, had begun to suspect during their recent conversations that Elsdon had a clearer-headed perspective on his love-mate than anyone else in the dungeon. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Elsdon alone had played out Layle Smith's dreamings.
"Your bed-play . . ." ventured Vito uneasily.
"Lovemaking," Elsdon corrected. "If we just did this for play, it would be far too dangerous."
"Because the High Seeker would truly abuse you in bed?"
Elsdon gave a sad little smile as he sat back on his heels. "You have no idea how unlikely that is. No, I meant dangerous for Layle. Have you forgotten why I was imprisoned?"
Vito felt – as he so often did when conversing with Elsdon – as though Elsdon had just cracked his head open with an iron beam. "You're worried that you might kill him?"
"I killed my sister," Elsdon said calmly. "And I did so because my father bound and beat me for years, since the time I was a small boy. If I thought that Layle was truly abusing me . . . Well, it has been many years since my temper was roused in a rage, but I wouldn't want to risk it happening again. What keeps our play-acting safe, for both of us, is that we do it in love."
Vito thought about this as Elsdon took up the broom to clean the ashes off the floor. "You told me once that you play he is rescuing you from captivity."
"That's one of our plays. We have many." Elsdon leaned over to brush the ashes into the dustpan. "In some manner or another, all of them involve me being hurt, and Layle doing something that heals me. We play out abuse – the abuse I suffered from, and the abuse that Layle inflicted on his past victims. And then we turn that darkness into something bright and beautiful."
"I see," Vito said slowly. This tale certainly cast a unique light on the High Seeker's dark dreamings. Vito found that his gaze was drifting to the side, over to where Elsdon had placed his shirt when stripping to his waist in order to clean the stove. A small, black volume poked out from his breast pocket.
Elsdon caught sight of where Vito was looking and smiled. "You can sense it in his revision of the Code, can't you? That was what cemented our relationship in the end. I already loved the Code of Seeking; then I realized that the parts in it which I most loved arose out of Layle's struggles to transform his darkness into something that would benefit the prisoners. . . . But I'm not sure any of this will be of use to you with your own prisoner. He certainly doesn't seem to have any struggles of conscience over what he has done."
"Not in that way," Vito agreed. "Gurth told me once that he does whatever is needed in order to survive. And Or . . . it's the same for him, I suspect. He had no scruples when I knew him last; he was willing to sacrifice me in order to gain his freedom."
"And your prisoner has been willing to sacrifice the lives of all the young girls he prostitutes, and all the men who suffer from the sweetweed and opium he sells," Elsdon concluded as he set aside the implements of his cleaning. "He certainly hasn't entered into his transformation, much less his rebirth, the way Layle did."
"Your love-mate came from Vovim to Yclau for love of the Code," said Vito, thinking aloud. "And he managed to heal the split in himself – as much as it could ever be healed – through love of you."
Elsdon nodded. He had his eye on the blacking liquid and brush, but he made no immediate move to start his polishing of the stove. "Well, that tells you something, doesn't it? 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."
"You seem very sure that he loves something," Vito commented.
Elsdon smiled as he finally sat down on the bench next to Vito. "He's sane enough to do his work, isn't he? Without love, he'd be utterly mad."
Chapter 8: Day Two, Third Hour of the Night Shift
"Vito!" His expression characteristically impulsive and excited, Or reached out toward Vito, evidently intending to embrace him.
And possibly to bite him venomously. Vito jerked out of reach. "No!"
Immediately chastened, Or huddled his body against the corner. "I'm sorry. . . . I'm sorry. . . . I forgot you can't touch me. . . . I don't want to get you into trouble. . . ."
"Don't you?" Despite his efforts to remain professional, Vito could not prevent bitterness from entering his tone.
Or flinched like a kicked puppy. "I'm sorry! I don't blame you for being angry. You must hate me."
It was like watching an abused boy abase himself in preparation for more abuse. Vito heard himself say, "I don't hate you. Why did you do it to me?"
"It was Gurth," Or said breathlessly. "He told me last year that you couldn't save me – that there was too much evidence against him, and that they'd hang him. Hang us both. He said my only hope was to follow his plan for escape."
Gaps. More bloody gaps. Vito forced his body to relax back into the position of a Seeker questioning his prisoner. "You told me last year that you couldn't communicate with Gurth."
Immediately, Or hung his head. He gnawed his lip.
The trouble was, Vito reflected, that whatever else Or might be, he was an abused boy. Both he and Gurth were, but they had found different ways to deal with the sufferings of their childhood. Gurth's method was to fight the world before it should destroy him. Or's method . . . It was a good deal subtler than Gurth's. But the suffering was genuine. Vito mustn't forget that.
He said quietly to his prisoner, "Or, I love you. You know that. But I can't help you if you lie to me. I'm the only person who can help you."
Silence. Still crumpled in the corner, Or had his arms wrapped tightly around his torso, as though in protection against blows.
"Do you know who killed Mr. Ambrewster?" Vito prompted quietly. "Was it Gurth?"
"Oh, no." Or's shake of the head was emphatic. "No, not at all. It was me."
Chapter 9: Day Six, Night Shift
"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."
Chapter 10: Day Two, Just Before Midnight
"Don't hate me," pleaded Or.
"I don't hate you," replied Vito automatically. He was trying his best to remain calm. He had sensed this confession was coming. He just wasn't sure yet how deeply in trouble Or had buried himself . . . and Gurth. "Just tell me how it happened."
"I'm not sure . . ." Or's voice wavered as his eyes blinked rapidly. He appeared to be on the point of tears. He blurted out, "Can I hold your hand while I tell you?"
"No." Vito tried to keep his voice brisk and professional.
Or reacted by cringing. "I'm sorry! I don't want to harm you . . ."
"I did what I always do – whatever is needed to survive – but I didn't particularly relish the idea of you dangling from a hangman's rope." Gurth's voice, from the past.
Vito gentled his voice. Whatever Or's motives, whatever his goals, there was no question that the young man was genuinely drawn toward Vito. Vito had evidence enough of that. "Or, you know I care for you. But I'm here as your Seeker. The Code of Seeking is very clear about this. Seekers must not touch their prisoners . . ."
His voice trailed off. He had forgotten to ask Elsdon about this. Had the sixth revision changed that particular rule?
Vito tried to clear his head. Regardless of what the sixth revision said, he could not afford to be seen touching his prisoner . . . and Mr. Crofford would assuredly see if Vito touched his prisoner. Even if Mr. Crofford had taken a momentary break from his watch after all these hours, the change in Edwin Orville Gurth's voice – from aggression and hostility to pleading and affection – would have alerted both guards outside to the fact that Or had arrived.
Or, who had seduced Vito the previous year.
Vito stiffened his stance. He said coolly, "We're here to discuss what happened when John Ambrewster died. When did you arrive that day?"
Tears still pearling upon his eyelashes, Or stared at him. "I'm not sure. I don't know what happened before I woke up. It was like the other times. I just . . . appeared."
Vito felt a prickling along his back, the way he had on the first occasion when Or had spoken to him. Sometimes he forgot that Edwin Orville Gurth was a wonder: a young man who had split into two. Vito made a note to himself that he should discuss this case with the dungeon's healer, as he had neglected to do during the previous year.
Nodding encouragingly, Vito asked, "What did you see first?"
"A man." Or's voice was hushed. "A big man. It seemed like he was twice as big as me. His face was hard and cruel."
So it was. Vito had seen a photograph of Ambrewster, taken when the man was arrested early during his career, on suspicion of poisoning a rival businessman.
"He was holding a knife," Or continued. "I thought it was a meat knife at first. I thought he was eating a meal. But then he noticed I was awake, and he whipped the knife under the table. I heard it fall on the rug. He said, 'So you're awake again? I thought all that wine we drank made you nod off.' As he spoke, he moved something behind the table-lamp. A bottle."
"Did you see what type of bottle it was?"
Or appeared to consider the question for a moment, gnawing his thumb in an oddly mirrored gesture to Gurth's nervousness. "It looked like a drugstore bottle. I saw a bit of the label as he moved it. Tinctura opii . . . I'm not sure what the rest said."
"Crocata," supplied Vito. "It was laudanum."
Or's eyes widened again. "Did he put Gurth to sleep?"
"Possibly." If so, it was hardly the first time Vito had encountered this practice. Vito thrust that thought aside. "Where were you during this conversation?"
"In an armchair," Or replied promptly. "I was all slumped down. The way he looked at me . . . I didn't know who he was or why he was there, but something seemed wrong."
Or's breath was coming more rapidly now. The tears were threatening again. Silently, Vito took out his handkerchief and stepped forward close enough to place it on the bed, within reach of Or. Vito was permitted to do that much for his prisoner, at least.
Or showed no indication of wanting to use this opportunity to attack Vito. He was struggling for breath as he said, "Last year, I told you that I intruded on Gurth when he was asleep. But you thought Gurth intruded on me. That he got us into trouble, and then he left me to deal with the trouble by myself. Do you think that's what happened this time?"
"Possibly," replied Vito. He could envision the scene: Gurth realizing that he had been drugged and using his last moments of consciousness to call forth Or, who came only when Gurth was asleep. It could not even be termed a spiteful act. If Gurth died, so would Or. Their only hope of living was for Or to take charge of Gurth's sleeping body.
"What did you say to the man?" asked Vito.
Using the handkerchief to wipe his eyelids clear of tears, Or said, "I wasn't sure what to do. I was afraid of him. I tried to make him think I was Gurth, but he guessed . . ." Or dipped his eyes. "I suppose it wasn't hard to guess. I'm so different from Gurth."
"In certain ways," said Vito.
Ignoring this comment, Or continued, "He started quizzing me. I panicked. I tried to run for the door, but he snatched me back. He laughed, saying, 'Even if you're not Gurth, you have something of Gurth's that I've wanted for a long time.' I couldn't think what he meant.
"Then he threw me on the rug."
With tears flowing fully again, Or described the nightmare that followed: his struggles to break free of the man who seemed merely amused by his efforts and who taunted him in his captivity.
"It wasn't like it was with the man who used to bed me in the place where all those girls worked," Or explained between sobs. "That man told me what to do and bound me to his bed, but he wasn't rough about it. I think he liked me. He praised me when I did something well, and he helped me enjoy it. But this man . . . He wanted to hurt me. He told me so. He told me how hard he was going to hurt me." Or's voice rose as high and hysterical as the racked prisoner's had been. Vito thought to himself that, if any of the dungeon dwellers had been concerned about what would take place in this cell, Or must be allaying their fears marvellously. He sounded exactly like any prisoner in the Eternal Dungeon who was being broken.
"He said that he'd kill me when he was through!" cried Or, shrill and sobbing. "He said he'd torture me to death!"
Vito said nothing. The climax of the story was at hand. Pinned beneath Ambrewster, Or was lying on the floor.
So was the knife.
"I was terrified," said Or. "I didn't know what to do—"
"Did you scream?" Only one scream had been reported by the witnesses – Ambrewster's.
Or shook his head. "I didn't know if anyone would hear me, of if they'd help me. This seemed to be the man's house. I just kept praying that Gurth would come back. He'd know what to do. But I—" Or was crying again between deep heaves of breath. "I didn't mean to kill him! I swear I didn't! I just meant to scare him so he'd let me go. But he was fighting me for the knife, telling me he'd flay me to death . . . I didn't mean to murder him." Or's voice fell, like a musical note at the completion of a diminuendo.
"It wasn't murder." Vito heard his voice as though it were at the end of a long tunnel.
Apparently surprised out of his tears, Or stared at Vito, blinking. "It wasn't?"
"What you just described is self-defense. To kill a man when he is making immediate threat to your own life isn't murder, much less premeditated murder. If the magistrate who judges you decides you were defending your life against an immediate threat, he'll declare you innocent and set you free."
Or continued to stare. The handkerchief in his hand was drenched with tears.
Vito reached into his other pocket and tossed his spare handkerchief onto the bed. "I know that you dislike talking to anyone besides me, Or, but without a second witness to your testimony, I can't present it in court. Will you repeat what you just said to my senior night guard, Mr. Boyd? He's a quiet man; he won't comment on what happened."
With hesitance, Or said, "I think . . . I think I've met him since I came here. He seems nice."
"Nice" was not the word that Vito would have chosen to describe Barrett Boyd, but it would do. Retreating to the front of the cell without turning his back or removing his gaze from his prisoner, Vito rapped on the door.
Mr. Boyd entered immediately, memorandum book and pen already in hand. With periodic encouragement from Vito, Or whispered his testimony while Mr. Boyd silently recorded it. There were a few changes in details from Or's previous account, but no more than might be expected from an ordinary witness with fallible memory.
As soon as the testimony had been read back by Vito and signed by Or, Vito dismissed Mr. Boyd. His mind was already skidding forward to what came next. If Gurth changed his story in response to Or's tale, that would provide reason to question the veracity of Vito's prisoner. But if Gurth and Or stuck with their stories . . .
Vito suddenly became aware that the cell was unusually silent. He pulled his thoughts back to the present and found that his prisoner was lying on the bed-shelf, curled up like a kitten.
"Or?" said Vito cautiously.
His prisoner's eyelashes fluttered. For a moment, nothing happened except that the eyes stared.
Then the prisoner leapt to his feet, so quickly that Vito instinctively took several steps back.
There was no need, though; Vito was not the object on his prisoner's mind.
"What did he say?" demanded Gurth. "Did the little brat blame me?"
Chapter 11: Days One Through Six, Dawn Shift
Vito had been surprised and saddened to learn that no devotional services were held in the dungeon. There was not even a chapel – just the crematorium and a vigil chamber far below it, where Seekers mourned loved ones who had died. The rituals governing such vigils were ancient and moving, but they were rarely undertaken, since they required Seekers to absent themselves from work for a full month.
The closest that the Eternal Dungeon came to a devotional service was the care of newly dead prisoners. The bodies of executed prisoners were returned to the dungeon and watched over in the crematorium by one of the guards who had assisted with the prisoner's searching. At the end of a shift's watch, the body was discreetly removed to another part of the dungeon, where it was cremated; then the ashes were returned to the crematorium, where they were scattered in the death pit by the guard, who sang prayers for the newly reborn.
All this was moving too: the desire for the Eternal Dungeon to care even for the executed, the optimism that convicted criminals would be reborn into a new life. Yet it seemed to Vito that all this emphasis on the dead did not encompass the full magnitude of the Yclau faith. Rebirth was not merely about mourning the dead; it was about living one's life anew.
He mentioned this at the weekly dominoes game, which on this occasion was attended only by junior guards. Vito usually stayed quiet during such games; gambling with money was forbidden in the Eternal Dungeon, so he need only lay down his tiles at the appropriate moments. Every now and then, if the opportunity presented itself during the guards' conversations, he would ask a question pertaining to his work. Even junior guards knew more than he did about how the Eternal Dungeon ran.
When he asked about the services, he found a ready audience for his concern. "It's a shame, a real shame," said one guard who was trying to decide whether to apply for senior rank. "When I was a boy, I used to skip chapel every chance I could. But now it's different. My wife pointed out that, if I lived in the dungeon with my family, as senior guards do, she and I and our children would no longer be able to attend chapel. It's the main thing that has been holding me back from applying for seniority."
"I heard that, back in the time of the old High Torturer, devotional services were held in the crematorium every dawn and dusk," inserted another guard.
"Surely we could get permission to revive that custom, couldn't we?" suggested Vito.
After much discussion, they agreed to hold services at dawn. Many Seekers remained on duty then, and the senior guards who had been released from guarding prisoners would be holding their daily meeting in the guardroom, which was closed at that time to junior guards.
"But perhaps this would interfere with your schedule, sir, if you're returned to Seeker duties?" suggested a guard to Vito, solicitously.
Vito smiled. "I don't work overtime. I'm not ambitious."
There was a mysterious exchange of looks between the guards.
The first service went well. With Elsdon's assistance, Vito had obtained a copy of the dungeon's devotional book, which was based upon the Code of Seeking, interlaced with traditional prayers and Sayings. The devotional book was still used on special occasions, so Vito was the only man present who stumbled through the words of the service.
A little more disconcerting was the fact that the junior guards asked Vito to provide the commentary. Yclau services didn't have sermons, or even priests, in the usual meaning of the word – just a cleric who explained any portions of the ancient prayers and Sayings whose meaning had become obscure over the centuries. But when a cleric was not present to undertake this task, it was common for especially respected members of the gathering to be asked to speak a few words about the prayers and Sayings of the day.
Vito had always been a quiet man, and he considered himself to be unpolished in his speech – not like the High Seeker, who had all the eloquence of a Vovimian stage-player. However, Vito's higher rank evidently made him the guards' choice for a commentator, and so he had done his best, stumbling out a few sentences about the man whose role he was rehearsing. "We usually think of the first man who was reborn as being the one who sacrificed himself," Vito said. "He stabbed himself in order to escape from the changeless world of afterdeath, but in doing so, he believed that his soul would die and he would lose his immortality. That was courage indeed. But I've been thinking about his friend, the one who stayed behind in the world of afterdeath. He witnessed the transformation and rebirth of the first man, so why did the friend choose to stay in afterdeath? Why didn't he take the path that the first man did?"
The guards were silent, awaiting an answer.
Vito shrugged. "I really don't know. I'm not a visionary or a prophet. But it occurred to me that perhaps the friend stayed behind for the same reason that we choose to work in this dungeon: to help dying men to enter into their transformation and rebirth. Perhaps the friend made his own sacrifice in that way."
On the second morning, word had evidently spread of the service. Not only did more junior guards show up, but also laborers from the outer dungeon; the crematorium was the only portion of the inner dungeon that many of them were permitted to visit. Again, Vito was the most senior member present; again, he was asked to make the commentary. Remembering a conversation he'd held with Elsdon's maid on a day when he arrived early at Elsdon's living cell and found her cleaning there, he mentioned the important role that the outer dungeon had played in the New School's battle to reform the dungeon. He linked this with the subtle but powerful role played by the ancient author of the Sayings in the devotional book, who had lived his life in service.
The crematorium was very crowded the third day, for many of the junior Seekers were in attendance. While delighted to see that the other junior members of the dungeon enjoyed the services as much as he did, Vito found himself wondering whether it would be too ambitious at this stage to hold services at dusk as well, as a way to accommodate more people. Because of his musings on this matter, it wasn't until he was requested to come forward to speak the commentary that he realized that the crowding was caused partly by the presence of all the senior Seekers.
Including the High Seeker, waiting with cold eyes for Vito to speak.
Vito was struck dumb. Standing there at the makeshift lectern that he and the junior guards had constructed, he wondered what, in the name of all that was sacred, he could say that the senior members of the dungeon hadn't heard frequently before. It seemed hubristic for him to be standing here, rather than, say, Weldon Chapman, who was positioned near the doors, lightly touching the hand of his wife.
The sight of Birdesmond loosened Vito's tongue, though. He pointed out to the worshippers that the Sayings and earliest prayers of Yclau faith held no reference to women; likewise, the political and social structure of Yclau originally held no place for women. Not until the twelfth century, by the Old Calendar, had Yclau come to realize the importance of women, and at that point, leading the rest of the world with its progressiveness, it had chosen a woman as its ruler.
"We are a queendom," said Vito, "because we were unafraid to transform ourselves. I pray that I will always have the courage to do what is right, even if it is not always what was done in the past. I hope you will join me in this prayer."
Then he stepped down from the lectern. His entire body was shaking.
"Well, what did you expect?" asked Elsdon afterwards in an infuriatingly calm manner. "After just two commentaries, you had hundreds of members of the dungeon attending devotionals. Of course the High Seeker and the other senior Seekers wanted to see what magic spell you had cast upon the rest of the dungeon."
"Elsdon, it wasn't like that!" protested Vito. "People came because there hadn't been devotional services for many years. I was only asked to speak because I was the senior-most member present—"
Cocking his head to one side, Elsdon said, "So you haven't heard about the petition?"
Vito waited a moment to let Elsdon's maid depart from where she had been dusting the parlor. She smiled at him as she left. Then Vito said, "Petition?"
"The junior guards that you play dominoes games with," said Elsdon patiently, "have submitted a petition to the Codifier that you should be made a full Seeker. They've made clear that any one of them would be willing to work under you."
After a moment, Elsdon reached forward and gently nudged Vito's jaw closed. "You didn't realize that you'd made such an impression on them?"
"Elsdon, I . . . No, this is impossible. I've barely spoken to them. And when I have, it has only been to ask ignorant questions."
Elsdon smiled. "So I'd heard."
Vito sighed as he flung himself into the armchair. "You make me feel as though I'm in my training days as a novice guard. What am I missing?"
Elsdon sat on the wooden arm of the desk chair nearby. "How long do you think it's been since a Seeker asked guards – junior guards – to answer his ignorant questions?"
Vito frowned. "Surely it's not unusual for inexperienced Seekers to ask advice from guards. The High Seeker encouraged me to do so during my first training as a Seeker-in-Training."
"Oh, yes, it happens quite often. Most of us are a bit more subtle about it, though." Elsdon flashed a smile at Vito. "See, if I were to ask my guards for advice, I'd turn to Mr. Urman – my senior guard, mind, who is officially above my rank – and would say something like this: 'Now, tell me: How would you handle this, Mr. Urman?' Making it seem as though I was quizzing Mr. Urman on his skills, you see. Whereas you talked to these guards – these junior guards, who are below you in rank – and made remarks such as, 'I really have no idea how to handle a prisoner who is persistently obscene. What in the name of all that is sacred should I do? Have any of you encountered cases like this? Do you have advice for me?'" Still smiling, Elsdon reached over to place his own copy of the devotional book on the desk. "I think they find your straightforward appeal to be refreshing."
After a minute, Vito said, "Very well, that explains the presence of the junior members of the dungeon at the services, as well as the outer-dungeon laborers, I suppose. But why the senior members? Surely the High Seeker wouldn't leave his usual duties simply out of curiosity to hear one of my commentaries."
"He might," said Elsdon, "if he thought that a certain Seeker-in-Training was becoming a dangerous rival."
There was a long silence before Vito said, "Surely not."
Elsdon sighed as he slid down into the seat of the desk chair. "Vito, you're a foil to the High Seeker. He issues orders; you ask questions. He gives speeches to his Seekers and guards; you stay silent, listening. He projects power; you project . . . something else entirely. I'm not sure I can put it into words except to say that I have never, during my decade in this dungeon, encountered a Seeker who spent as much time as you do asking advice."
Vito shrugged. "I didn't do so last time. That was my mistake. I'm not going to let myself make the same mistake this time. In any case, I don't see how that makes me a rival to the High Seeker's authority. I should think it would make me just the opposite."
"Perhaps it would," said Elsdon quietly, "if it weren't for the fact that those commentaries are revealing you to be much less the fool than your requests for advice suggest you are. And don't pretend you have no idea what I'm talking about, fellow player."
Vito finally said, "I could use a drink."
Elsdon smiled again. "I'll give you tea. That's what us prisoners drink."
Chapter 12: Day Seven, Final Hour of the Night Shift
"I take it," said the High Seeker as he shuffled through the mound of papers that Vito had handed him, "that what this all boils down to is that the man who calls himself Or is claiming that he is innocent due to self-defense undertaken to save himself from an imminent threat to his life."
"Yes, sir." Vito remained stiff in the posture of a guard making a report to his superior. He wasn't yet sure what the appropriate stance was for a Seeker-in-Training making a report to the superior who was intent on expelling him from the dungeon, but acting with the humility of a guard seemed safe enough. "And Mr. Gurth – the personality that calls himself Gurth – is claiming no knowledge of how the killing took place."
The High Seeker nodded without looking up from his desk. "And the witnesses?"
Layle Smith had the witness reports directly in front of him, so he doubtless knew the answer to his own question. Pretending to ignore that fact, Vito said, "Or's statement fits the witness reports from the bodyguards of Edwin Orville Gurth and John Ambrewster. They all claim that they heard Mr. Ambrewster speaking in a manner which suggested he was about to take Mr. Gurth to his bed. Since Mr. Ambrewster was known to have long desired Mr. Gurth, neither Mr. Gurth's guards nor Mr. Ambrewster's guards thought this out of the ordinary. They considered that it was part of the bargain which was being driven between the two men – that Mr. Gurth had agreed to be bedded in exchange for a higher price for the business he was selling."
The High Seeker said nothing, passing on to the next paper. Filling that silence as best he could, Vito added, "The chronology of events matches as well. I had Or describe the dialogue in such a manner that I could reconstruct the amount of time passed. While I can't be exact, I believe that Or's statement that he was attacked at a certain moment matches the place in time when the witnesses report that Mr. Ambrewster went silent. Mr. Ambrewster's scream occurred three minutes later, which is about how long Or said he struggled on the floor to prevent Mr. Ambrewster from raping and killing him."
The High Seeker turned another page. "Your prisoner gave his statement on the initial day you searched him."
"Yes, sir. Since then, I've been examining the witness reports and have had Or and Gurth give their statements again. Each time they've done so, the statements haven't changed, except to provide slightly more detail." Vito stared hard at the High Seeker, willing him to look up. Layle Smith knew all this. Vito had been quite careful to submit complete reports of each day's searching; he had submitted Or's statement to the High Seeker on the initial day of searching. Why was the man questioning him about the obvious?
"And you are satisfied now that you have all the information you will be able to obtain." The High Seeker turned yet another page, as though he were a schoolmaster.
"Yes, sir. Gurth and Or aren't budging from the statements they've made. I don't think there's any point in my searching them further. They've said everything to me that they're going to say. And as I mentioned, their statements match the statements of the witnesses."
The High Seeker moved finally, pushing the papers back as he leaned back in his chair. "Thank you, Mr. de Vere. That is as complete a report as I have ever received from one of my Seekers. There is only one point of information missing from it." His eyes rose slowly, flickering green and black under the light of the sputtering electric lamp upon his desk. "Do you believe what your prisoner has told you?"
Vito began to speak and then fell silent. He could hear, outside the door of the High Seeker's office, the silence which represented the final hour of the night shift. The Record-keeper had arrived early on duty. The night-shift Seekers and guards were on duty in and near the breaking cells, as were the night-shift guards who watched the gates and doors of the entry hall. Everyone else was asleep. The Eternal Dungeon was as still as it ever became.
Vito was thinking, not of the stillness, but of the silence between himself and Elsdon during each of the conversations they'd held for the past six days. It was an eloquent silence. He and Elsdon had discussed his prisoner's personalities. They had discussed how best to break the prisoner. They had discussed how best to transform him.
They had not discussed the possibility that his prisoner was innocent. The subject had never arisen.
"No, sir." His voice was quiet in the quiet office.
The High Seeker said nothing. He simply waited, like a wildcat waiting to pounce.
Vito had to clear his throat before he could continue. "The witness reports match my prisoner's story – their stories. But the reports also match what Or and Gurth did to me on the last occasion when they were in the dungeon. Or seduced me – and he admitted later that he did so after communicating with Gurth. With Gurth's cooperation, Or drugged me, seduced me into lying down beside him, and then waited until I was asleep to make his move against me. I've no doubt he could have murdered me, if that had been of any use to him. . . . You'll notice, sir, that both Or and Gurth mentioned in their statements that they had shared wine with Mr. Ambrewster—"
"Yes." The High Seeker's voice was flat. There was no surprise in his eyes. Vito's tension increase.
After a moment more, as Vito failed to speak, Layle Smith said, "Mr. de Vere, I am removing you from this searching."
His breath hitched. "Sir, no—"
The High Seeker looked down at the papers again, shuffling them into order. "What you just told me should have been at the beginning of your report, not at the end of it. It is certainly not something which you should have appended as an afterthought, once I'd questioned you."
It was increasingly hard to breathe. "Sir, I swear to you, I did not knowingly withhold information from you—"
"If I thought you had done so," said the High Seeker, stacking the papers neatly at the corner of his desk, "again, then I would be doing a great deal more than suspending you from your duties. . . . I will take charge of the prisoner."
This time Vito said nothing, but his fingernails cut into his palms.
Layle Smith's eyes flicked up toward his, then away again, indifferent. "You evidently have not read the sixth revision of the Code carefully enough, Mr. de Vito. In circumstances such as this, where a prisoner of a New School Seeker is transferred to an Old School Seeker, the Code requires that the searching methods of the original Seeker continue to be adhered to. Otherwise, as Mr. Taylor made clear in the section he added to the Code, it would be all too easy for the High Seeker to simply transfer every prisoner in this dungeon into the custody of an Old School Seeker, thus annulling the changes in this dungeon which the Code requires. Therefore, I will search your prisoner without aid of torture." The High Seeker reached forward and neatly plucked from Vito's breast pocket his copy of the Code of Seeking. "I wish you to remain in your cell until further notice, rereading this. Kindly take special note of the final paragraphs of the ninth chapter. I will see that your meals are delivered to your cell."
Vito did not reach out to take the volume that was being offered to him. "Sir, if you'll just let me have a few more days with my prisoner, I'm sure I can persuade one of his personalities to give me the truth—"
"You have already admitted that he won't." Rising to his feet, Layle Smith tucked the Code of Seeking back into Vito's pocket. "In any case, what you ought to be doing right now is requesting to recuse yourself from this case. I shouldn't need to tell you why."
Vito closed his eyes. He could feel himself growing chill. "Sir, my prisoner. Whatever mistakes I have made, he should not be the one to suffer from them."
"There are many Seekers in this dungeon," said the High Seeker implacably. "If need be, I will hand your prisoner over to each of them in turn. But you have come perilously close to breaking the Code again, despite the fact that you were no doubt on guard against any attempts by your prisoner to seduce you. This is a desperate and highly skilled criminal, Mr. de Vere. He deserves the best that the Eternal Dungeon has to offer him."
Vito opened his eyes and met the High Seeker's gaze squarely. "I have tried to give him that, sir."
"I've no doubt you did. Wait in your cell, Mr. de Vere, until you are released."
It was like facing a mountain, with nothing to move it except a shovel. Keenly aware that he had no power in this dungeon – that the High Seeker need only wave his hand, and Vito would be under arrest again – Vito turned away.
No power. The High Seeker held all the power here. Nothing could change the course that Layle Smith had chosen.
Vito left the High Seeker's office, the Code of Seeking still in his pocket.
Chapter 13: Day Eight, Dusk Shift
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."
Chapter 14: Day Nine
The following evening, Vito strode toward his prisoner's cell, feeling refreshed.
He had spent most of the intervening time in a pleasant manner. The interview with the Codifier had been surprisingly brief; the Codifier had done no more than consult with the dungeon's healer before approving Vito's request. Afterwards, Vito had fetched water for his bath; prisoners such as himself were not permitted such luxuries as running water. Once he had bathed, he had fallen asleep until well past noon.
His dinner meal, waiting on the table in his cell, was a cold salad; evidently Mr. Sobel had anticipated Vito's need for lengthy sleep. After dressing, Vito had attended the new early-afternoon devotionals in the crematorium, which were conducted by the outer-dungeon laborers.
It was a relief not to be asked to offer the commentary. The outer dungeon used a different prayer book than the inner dungeon did: one of the devotionals popular in the lighted world above. Whereas the inner-dungeon devotional, understandably, had a great deal to say about death and rebirth, the outer-dungeon devotional was mainly about everyday life: working and eating and playing and making love. Vito emerged from the service in a reflective mood.
His next stop was Mr. Urman's living quarters. He had chosen Mr. Urman with care, for Vito had no doubt that any Seeker or guard in the dungeon would be intelligent enough to guess what he was planning. Mr. Urman, however, was reputed to be the most rebellious of the dungeon's rebels.
He expected to find Mr. Urman rooming with Mr. Crofford. To Vito's surprise, one of the junior guards redirected Vito when he received no answer at Mr. Crofford's door. "Mr. Crofford only lives with Mr. Urman on week's ends," the guard replied to Vito's enquiry. "The rest of the time he rooms with Mr. Boyd. I've heard that Mr. Urman has applied for a suite for the three of them."
This left Vito amused at the many permutations which love-bonds took in the Eternal Dungeon. Following the junior guard's instructions, Vito found that Mr. Urman – raised in rank the previous year to be Elsdon's senior night guard – was housed in what surely must be the worst room in the entire dungeon: it was located directly next to the outer-dungeon room where garbage was stored, and was within earshot of the busy dining hall. Given that the Record-keeper was in charge of assigning living quarters to Seekers and any guards who chose to live in the dungeon, Mr. Urman's location spoke eloquently regarding the guard's lack of popularity with the authorities of the Eternal Dungeon.
Mr. Urman seemed cheerful about his location. "Saves me a long trek to breakfast," he said, hastily pushing a pile of dirty laundry off an armchair so that Vito could sit down. "And the dining hall's the best place for gossip. These days, most of the gossip is about me."
Vito was quite aware of that fact. Mr. Urman's petition to become a Seeker continued to be discussed – usually with raised voices – throughout the dungeon, drawing attention away from Vito, at dangerous cost to Mr. Urman.
Knowing that Mr. Urman could have timed his petition for a more discreet moment to himself, Vito enquired after the senior guard's progress with the petition.
"Well, they haven't said no." Mr. Urman flopped himself down on the floor; the other pieces of furniture were covered with an overflow of dirty cups and bowls. "Mr. Smith told me they'd give me an answer within the next few days. Apparently, he and the Codifier have been busy with some other crisis in the dungeon."
Yes, indeed. "I hope this delay is not too worrying to Mr. Crofford? He's your love-mate, is he not?"
He had practiced beforehand how to raise the topic in a subtle manner. Apparently, though, Mr. Urman was well-qualified to be petitioning for Seeker status, for after a moment while the senior guard gazed at Vito with narrowed eyes, Mr. Urman got up, disappeared behind the curtained area that constituted his bedroom, and then re-emerged with a small object in his hand. "This what you want?"
Vito stared at it, not reaching forward. It was occurring to him, far too belatedly, that any trouble he got himself into tonight might rebound upon Mr. Urman, for supplying him with the needed equipment. "I'm not sure—"
Mr. Urman tossed it into his hands. "You're not going to be such a bloody fool as to proceed without it, I hope. There've been bets going on in the dungeon for a week now as to whether you'd do this. I have a large wager in favor of you." Mr. Urman grinned.
Vito felt himself turn scarlet. "Will you be providing commentary on my performance?"
Mr. Urman's grin disappeared. "You're doing this for the prisoner's sake?"
"Then no. I don't gossip about what Seekers do to help prisoners. Ever." Mr. Urman's voice was flat.
Vito had heard as much from Elsdon. Reassured, Vito pocketed Mr. Urman's gift, saying, "I won't be going there as a Seeker tonight, you know."
"I should bloody well hope not," was Mr. Urman's only reply.
Emerging from Mr. Urman's living quarters, Vito was touched by the thought of all the people in this dungeon who held faith in him. Mr. Urman, risking his dream of becoming a Seeker. Elsdon, who had spent countless hours in discussion with Vito about his prisoner. Birdesmond, sacrificing her day off in order to help with Vito's prisoner. The dungeon's healer, Mr. Bergsen, who had approved Vito's request with such alacrity as to suggest that the more obvious aspect of Vito's unorthodox plan was already in his mind.
Which left only two men to offer their approval or to put an end to Vito's last hopes. Vito drew in a deep breath as he took the final steps down the corridor to where Mr. Boyd and Mr. Crofford silently awaited him.
From the junior guard at Mr. Crofford's door – who was friendly enough to give the Seeker-in-Training due warning – Vito had learned that the news had spread far and wide in the dungeon that he had abandoned his prisoner. "Tossed him to the lions in order to retain your position as Seeker," the junior guard had said with an apologetic look. "I'm sorry, sir, but nobody can think why else you would have recused yourself from this case."
Now, as Vito approached the prisoner's cell, he wondered whether Mr. Boyd or Mr. Crofford had spread the news. Although Layle Smith had evidently not publicized the fact that Vito was suspended from his duties, the prisoner's records would show that Vito had refused to accept Edwin Orville Gurth's stories. Did Vito's guards think he had made the prisoner look guilty, simply in order to curry favor with the High Seeker? Could they possibly understand that Vito had been forced to choose between his love of Edwin Orville Gurth and his love of the Code?
Taking care to move slowly – the guards were no doubt under orders from the High Seeker to keep Vito away from the cell at all costs – Vito pulled from his pocket the piece of paper that the Codifier had given him the previous night. "I have permission from the Codifier to visit the prisoner."
"Yes, sir." Mr. Boyd did not so much as glance at the paper. "Mr. Smith told us you would be doing so. He gave us orders to admit you, two days ago."
Two days ago?
Vito was left holding the piece of paper, feeling exceedingly foolish. It was little comfort to know that he was hardly the first man to have been made a fool of by the High Seeker.
"Kindly take special note of the final paragraphs of the ninth chapter," the High Seeker had said. The paragraphs that contained the sentence which would allow Vito access once more to his prisoner.
Feeling uneasy now – just how much had that blasted High Seeker guessed about what Vito would plan to do? – Vito pocketed the paper and cleared his throat. This was the tricky part. "I will be with the prisoner for some time. There is no need for you to remain on duty."
The guards exchanged glances. It was a wonder they didn't arrest him on the spot. Vito knew when the last occasion was that an inner-dungeon worker had sent away a guard from the prisoner he was watching over.
Mr. Boyd had done that five years ago . . . shortly before he gave his prisoner a dagger with which to kill himself, in order to save the prisoner from a more painful death.
Uncomfortably aware of the object that lay heavy in his pocket, Vito waited. And then stiffened as Mr. Crofford reached for his dagger.
Except that it was not his dagger he touched. Ignoring the weapons at his belt, Mr. Crofford drew a tiny tin from his pocket and handed it to Vito. Vito raised the lid of the tin and stared at the object there, mystified.
Mr. Crofford cleared his throat. "The healer uses it. When he's visiting prisoners."
It took Vito another moment to understand. Then he raised his gaze from the tin. "Mr. Crofford, this goes against your duty." As would abandoning his post, but Vito need not press that obvious point.
Mr. Crofford shook his head. "Sir, the Code of Seeking requires that junior guards watch through the hole any time that someone enters the prison cell if the junior guard should deem it necessary. Mr. Boyd and I already discussed this together. We agree that a watch isn't necessary in this case."
"Though quietness on your part would be helpful." Mr. Boyd's expression was as sober as always. There was no telling whether he had chosen this moment to indulge in dark humor.
Vito looked from one guard to the other. Clifford Crofford, Barrett Boyd, D. Urman, David Bergsen, Birdesmond Chapman, Elsdon Taylor. . . . All six of the remaining leaders of the New School trusted Vito unreservedly. And these two had the most to lose by doing so.
"Mr. Crofford," Vito said, "I understand that you and Mr. Boyd have requested reassignment."
"Not because of you, sir," responded Mr. Crofford swiftly. "We had hoped, when we were given our current assignment of substitute guards, that we would be able to work together. But more often than not, one of us is asked to substitute for a sick guard, while the other is assigned different duties. We'd prefer to work together."
And Mr. Boyd no doubt had difficulty finding a Seeker who was willing to work with him, being considered as much a challenge to his Seekers as Mr. Urman was. Vito had been thinking about that for several days.
Now he asked, "If I should become a full Seeker, would the two of you consider a permanent assignment as my night guards?"
Too late, he realized that his offer, under the current circumstances, could too easily be regarded as a bribe. Mr. Crofford had already turned his head toward Mr. Boyd, his expression full of anticipation.
Mr. Boyd was not so impulsive. But his response, when it came, was even more impressive than Mr. Crofford's eagerness. "Yes, sir. It would be an honor."
"The honor is mine," replied Vito quietly. "If I might enter the cell now . . ."
He was careful not to phrase the request as an order. As he had told Mr. Urman, he was not here as a Seeker.
He took a quick glance to the side. The nearby cells were evidently unpopulated at the moment; no guards stood there. Any guards who might have noticed him in conversation with Mr. Crofford and Mr. Boyd had apparently lost interest; nobody was looking his way. He turned his attention back to his own guards. Mr. Crofford waited until Mr. Boyd had pulled his whip from his belt. The final night before a trial heightened the danger that a prisoner would attempt to escape. Then Mr. Crofford unlocked the door, his own hand hovering over the dagger on his belt.
But there was no need for such precautions; the prisoner was lounging quietly on his bed, staring at the wall. Vito, who had already popped into his mouth the gum which Mr. Crofford had given him, took a few chews before turning to face the door that had just closed behind him. Hastily, he sealed the watch-hole with the chewed gum, in the manner that the healer did when he desired private time with his patient.
Then Vito turned swiftly back. Keeping his back turned on this particular prisoner, for any length of time, seemed undesirable.
Although he must have heard the cell door open and close, Edwin Orville Gurth did not bother to look in Vito's direction. "You're too late," he said. "They're going to kill me tomorrow."
"I know you're likely to die," said Vito. "That's why I'm here."
He remained with his back to the door, keeping his voice quiet, as Mr. Boyd had requested. It was not wrong for Vito to be here. He had the Codifier's permission – and, implicitly, the permission of the High Seeker. But it was best that the rest of the dungeon not know he was here. They might guess his purpose in visiting the condemned prisoner.
Gurth – Vito knew it was Gurth, from various small clues he picked up immediately these days – did not reply. His gaze remained fixed on the wall.
Vito walked slowly forward, saying, "There is a passage in the Code of Seeking – I don't think it's much remembered or invoked. But it says that, in any case where a prisoner's execution is almost certain, he is permitted a visit in this dungeon from his closest kinsman."
Gurth snorted. "So you lied to them, telling them you're my kinsman."
"I am your kinsman," Vito replied softly. "I'm your love-mate."
No response except another snort from Gurth. Vito had reached within grabbing distance of Gurth now. Pausing, he looked down at the prisoner, who resolutely ignored him. Vito asked, "Do you want me to leave?"
A long pause. Vito kept his breath shallow.
"I'm bored," said Gurth finally. "That idiot Or isn't talking to me. I think he's gone permanently to ground, the snivelling little coward. You might as well stay. You're more interesting than the wall."
"Thank you for the compliment," said Vito dryly, and sat down.
That got Gurth's attention – not the sitting down, but the comment. Drawing his feet up and swinging into a sitting position facing the door, Gurth said, "Sarcasm. I didn't know you were capable of that."
"Not during my work hours. But I'm here tonight as your kinsman, not as a Seeker. I can say and do whatever I bloody like."
Gurth stole a quick look at him before returning his attention to the door. "So you aren't some sort of Vovimian god, precious and pure."
"If I were pure, Or would never have succeeded in seducing me," Vito pointed out. He snatched the pillow from behind Gurth's back, tossed it onto the floor, reached over to the small bookshelf on the wall, tossed the book there onto the pillow, and turned it into a footstool for his boots. Layle Smith would have had a fit, witnessing this. It was the fifth revision of the Code that Vito was dirtying his boots on; Vito felt perfectly contented to maltreat Layle Smith's concept of rebirth, now that a better one existed in this dungeon.
Gurth scrutinized him with narrowed eyes. "I'd heard rumors, in the lighted world, that the High Seeker was trying to keep you out of this dungeon because you were a troublemaker. I never believed the rumors."
Vito stretched, placing his hands behind his neck. He stared at the ceiling.
"So when are you going to fuck me?"
Vito started out of his relaxed position. Gurth laughed.
"What?" said Vito weakly.
Gurth reached over. Before Vito could jerk away, Gurth snatched from Vito's pocket the bottle that D. Urman had given Vito.
"'Lily's Lovemaking Lotion,'" Gurth read aloud, holding the glass bottle up and sniffing it. "Oo, it smells of lavender. Is that your favorite scent with your boys, Seeker?"
Vito resisted the impulse to snatch the bottle back. Instead, he forced himself to return to his previous position. "I like to be prepared for all possibilities. . . . I'm bloody hungry. When do we get fed?"
"Well, this is new," said Gurth, and reached for a hard-boiled egg.
The second hour of the night shift, beginning on the ninth day. On the night before a probable execution, the prisoner was permitted to choose his own dinner, within the wide scope of what was offered by the cooks in the palace above the dungeon. Gurth, as it turned out, wanted picnic food.
"Never went to any picnics," he explained as he paused from guzzling an amber bottle of ginger beer. "My dad was my master of the small school he started. The school held an annual picnic . . . but only students who received good marks were permitted to attend. No good marks for me – I insisted on speaking commoner, aye?" Gurth switched effortlessly to his native tongue, the commoner accent and dialect of western Yclau.
"As did your mother," Vito pointed out, reaching for a piece of cheese. He was sitting with his left boot resting on his right thigh. It was the closest he could get to demonstrating informality. If he had still been a guard in the lighted world, he could have removed his jacket and vest and scarf, but Seekers wore the same clothes as prisoners – or rather, the same clothes as their fellow prisoners. Shirt, trousers, suspenders or belt, undergarments, boots. The only difference between the Seekers and the other prisoners was that Seekers were not searched for weapons.
Vito's hidden weapon lay under the bed, where Gurth had swept it when Mr. Crofford arrived with the dinner. Apparently, getting Vito into trouble wasn't Gurth's plan tonight.
Gurth snorted. "You think my dad wanted to be reminded of that? I heard it a hundred times: his justification for why he fucked my mam, a whore. He was even married at the time, did you know? I always suspected his wife found out and died of heartbreak. He figured that the way for him to be showing his penance was to turn me, a whore's bastard, into a proper gent. Only I didn't cooperate." He tentatively took a bite of the sandwich. "What is this?"
"Ham salad," Vito informed him. "What about the school run by the orphanage? You had good marks there; it was in your records."
Gurth shrugged. "I guess Or attended those picnics. He could tell you what they were like."
The two of them were silent for a while after that, sampling the fares. Outside, faintly, came the sound of a prisoner screaming. Too close to be the rack rooms; it must be due to a beating – one of the last beatings, for the sixth revision would be issued soon. Vito inwardly thanked Elsdon's foresight. It would not have occurred to Vito, had he been in charge of the revision of the Code of Seeking, to prevent the Seekers from beating their prisoners. The United Order of Prisons permitted disciplinary punishment, every workplace and educational institution in Yclau permitted it, and the right to discipline one's children was enshrined in Yclau law – a large part of the reason why Elsdon's father had succeeded in brutally abusing his son for years, and why Gurth/Or had been unable to interest anyone in his father's own brutal beatings until he falsely accused his father of rape.
Vito had possessed time, during his multiple rereadings of the sixth revision, to be able to imagine what the Eternal Dungeon would be like without any physical punishment whatsoever. It would make the guards' lives harder, there was no doubt; they would only be permitted to use weapons briefly to stop attacks by prisoners.
But in the long run . . . Vito looked at Gurth out of the corner of his eye, imagining a world in which Gurth's father was not permitted to beat him, the teachers at his orphanage were not permitted to beat him, the guards at his reform school were not permitted to beat him.
How much had Edwin Orville Gurth been shaped by the beatings he received, beatings he could only stop if he was sly or violent? If he had encountered, during his arrest two years before, a prison where no beatings took place, where not even the sadistic High Seeker was permitted to order a prisoner lashed, how might that have shaken Edwin Orville Gurth's view of what he must do to survive?
Oblivious to the chance that had slipped past him, Gurth said, "This is good. I suppose you eat posh like this, all the time?"
Vito nearly choked on his bread and butter. The last time they had met in the lighted world, Gurth had offered Vito caviar amidst the banquet of elegant foods Gurth could afford to buy from his ill-gained earnings. Apparently, "eating posh" had a different meaning for a young man who had been denied an ordinary childhood.
"Not now," replied Vito, forcing his mind back to the present. He was falling into his old, bad habit of letting his thoughts overwhelm his awareness of his surroundings. On this night of all nights, he mustn't let that happen. "Seekers eat the same food as prisoners do. We don't get feasts like this. Before I became a Seeker . . . Yes, I suppose I was lucky. At my primary school, one of the pupils was a recent immigrant from the Dozen Landsteads. The headmaster wanted to show that he was tolerant of foreigners' cultures and faiths, so he gave us holidays on every holiday that the Landsteader boy celebrated. We had dozens of holidays that year; we boys usually went on picnics."
Gurth paused in the midst of cramming gingerbread into his bulging mouth. He mumbled round the dessert, "Landsteaders have the same faith as the Yclau do. And they celebrate fewer holidays than we do."
"Yes," said Vito. He waited.
Fortunately, Gurth had swallowed the gingerbread before understanding came. He whooped with laughter. "Did the headmaster ever find out?"
Vito grinned. "At the end of the year. He was ready to cane the lot of us for stringing him along. Then one of the pupils – a lad with darker skin than the rest – piped up and said that his family now followed the holy days of their Vovimian ancestors, and he'd come to school with a long list of deity days that his parents wished the school to celebrate. . . . After that speech, the pupils were laughing so hard that the headmaster realized it was easier to join into the laughter than to punish us. But our school was patriotic after that, only celebrating Yclau holidays."
"And who was the dark-skinned pupil who held back the caning, eh?" Gurth poked Vito, the first time he'd touched Vito since the Seeker's arrival. Vito smiled, letting his silence be the reply. He reached for another sandwich.
As a matter of fact, the picnics back then had been a lot less pleasant for Vito than Gurth probably imagined. From the time that he learned of the Eternal Dungeon's atrocities, at age ten, Vito had known that he would be returning to this dungeon to fight the torturers. Knowing that, he had made no effort to acquire friends, either in school or in training academy or in the many prisons where he had worked, accumulating the credentials he needed to apply for work at the Eternal Dungeon. Friendly acquaintances, yes. People of whom he was fond, yes. But nobody with whom he might share the secrets of his soul.
Only now, belatedly, was he realizing that he lacked a certain skill which he needed in order to be a Seeker: the skill to befriend his fellow prison-workers, and on rare occasions like this, to befriend his prisoner.
With the exception of his relations with his fellow rebels, Elsdon and Birdesmond, Vito had no idea how to be social. He only knew how to pretend to be social, in order to break a prisoner. In that respect, Mr. Crofford had been quite wrong about him: Vito's words to prisoners might be truthful, but his friendliness was a mask he could take on or off.
Tonight he could not wear a mask. So he was doing his best, taking his cues from Gurth – who, whatever his other faults were, had evidently learned how to make friends.
"I don't know how to do this," Vito heard himself confessing. "I have no skills at being convivial."
"Aye?" Gurth seemed unsurprised by this confession. "Well, it's like anything else in life – you gotta work at it. I ain't that good myself, see? It's Or who does that, in the main. See now, he had friends flocking to him at the orphanage. All he had to do was be pretty and vulnerable . . . At the orphanage, there was only two ways to survive. First, be so fragile that none could bear to hit you. Second, be so tough that you hit first."
"You and Or must have done well at the orphanage," Vito observed quietly.
"Oh, aye." Gurth paused to munch on a chunk of cheese. His commoner dialect was growing more pronounced by the moment. "That's when we learned to work our act, aye? 'Fore that, it wasn't much use for Or to show up. My dad, he wasn't one to take notice of pleas for mercy. Then Or got the notion of going to the patrol soldiers – he's a bright one, he is – and after that, we worked it out together. When we needed to be fragile, he'd be fragile. And when we needed to be tough, I'd be tough. Sometimes Or would have to lure a bully into unwariness; then I'd step in. It always worked. You'd think that folk would have figured out, after a while. But nobody who'd seen Or would ever believe the bullies when they said I'd roughed them up." Gurth smiled with evident satisfaction.
"That must have been hard for you." Vito carefully laid aside his bottle of ginger beer.
"Hard?" Gurth stared at him. "Didn't you hear what I said, Seeker? It was easy. Or and I had our act done up in a ribbon and bow before we'd turned twelve."
"Oh, yes, I can see that," Vito replied. "But your act depended on everyone loving Or and hating you. As though Or were sweet and pure, while you were evil all through. Neither of you is entirely what people think, but you took on the role of the bad boy, so you received all the hatred. It must have grated on you to watch Or receive all the praise and loving."
Gurth actually growled. With his eyebrows drawn low, like a tiger ready to pounce, he said, "If you're trying to make me fight Or, it won't work, Seeker. We're a team. We work together."
"I don't doubt that." Vito leaned back, letting his gaze drift up to the ceiling. "And there are certainly aspects of Or that are lovable. It's no wonder I fell in love with him. But do you know why I kissed him last time? Not because I was in love with him. It was because I'd fallen in love with both of you. . . . Has that ever happened to you before?"
No reply. Outside the cell, the silence was deep and dark. Vito wondered how much time had passed since their feast began. Was it the third hour of the night shift yet? How close were they to midnight? How many hours until the execution?
"All right," said Gurth.
Vito looked over at him. Gurth's gaze was fixed on the door. Vito said, "All right?"
"You can fuck me. Might as well. It's going to be a long night."
"Not so fast," said Vito.
Gurth paused in the process of untying Vito's trousers. "You want to be the one to touch me, sir?" Then he scowled. The "sir" had obviously slipped out, a reminder of past years when he had been a prostitute, rather than running a House of prostitution.
"I just don't want to go so fast," repeated Vito patiently. "We're making love, not fucking."
Gurth shrugged, though he let go of Vito's trousers. "Same thing, ain't it? I can't believe you waited a week to do this. Is it because I'm a whore?"
Vito leaned forward to lick Gurth's collarbone. Despite his words to Gurth, he was as hot and hard as an iron rod fresh-made from a manufactory; it was taking all his effort to keep from flinging Gurth back and driving himself deep into his bed-partner.
But he was keenly aware that Gurth was a whore. A young man who had been trained to please, regardless as to whether he received any pleasure in return.
Vito pressed his groin against Gurth's as he kissed the young man. He could feel a hardness pressing back. Yes, Gurth was receiving pleasure from their lovemaking. But what sort of pleasure?
The pleasure of enticing a Seeker into his bed?
Emerging for air, Vito said, "I'd be a hypocrite if I rejected you for that reason. I've been visiting brothels since I came of age."
A pause. Vito pulled back to see Gurth's expression. The prisoner's eyes were narrowed – not hostile, but scrutinizing. "Truth?"
"Yes, it's true." Vito leaned back but kept hold of Gurth's hand, running his fingers lightly over the back of the hand. "Father recommended I do so because he judged I was hot-blooded. He said that, if I didn't find a proper outlet for my hot-bloodedness, I'd end up married too early or, worse, I'd ruin a good girl's prospects for marriage. He even gave me the money for my first visit. . . . He did tell me I must only visit the government-licensed brothels, the ones inspected for decent conditions."
Gurth snorted. "Explains why you never showed up at mine. What did your dad say about you falling for me?"
"We had a few words about it," admitted Vito. Gurth's hand was less tense than before; Vito read that news under his own fingers.
"I had to remind him of the date of his marriage to my mother."
It took Gurth only a second to understand; then he hooted with laughter. "Too close to the date of your birth?"
Vito smiled. "Much too close. My father knows all about hot-bloodedness."
They were silent for a while as they explored each other's upper bodies. Gurth followed Vito's lead in which parts of the body to touch, though he proved to have a most creative imagination as to the manner in which to touch. Vito's breath kept catching in his throat.
"Hard to imagine you fucking a whore," Gurth mumbled from partway down Vito's chest.
"Making love," Vito corrected, digging his fingernails into his hands in reaction to what Gurth was doing.
"They were whores."
"Doesn't mean I wasn't fond of them," Vito said. Gurth raised his head, and Vito just managed to hold back a groan. Trying to clear his mind, he added, "One young woman I spent time with wanted to leave her brothel. She was expecting. She didn't have enough money saved to buy out her contract, though. I paid the remainder of the fee for her training and helped her to establish her new home."
"But didn't marry her?" Sprawled lazily across Vito, half on the bed-shelf and half off, Gurth leaned his cheek upon his fist, clearly more interested in what Vito was saying than in continuing the exquisite torture with which he had been pleasuring Vito.
"The baby wasn't mine. I helped her track down the father. He didn't take much convincing to marry her, once he'd seen his young son."
Gurth's eyes narrowed again. Too late, Vito recalled another prostitute's son who had been claimed by his father, to disastrous effect.
But all that Gurth said, in the lightest of tones, was, "Lucky gal. Why'd you do all that for her?"
"I told you. I was fond of her. We'd spent a lot of time making love."
Gurth's fingers traced the path of where his lips and teeth had been. This time Vito couldn't hold back a groan, but when he looked over at Gurth, the young man seemed preoccupied in thought.
Gurth said abruptly, "So show me what this lovemaking business is about."
"Slow down," said Vito.
Gurth cursed, not under his breath. Then he said in a rough voice, "I'm not a girl."
Amused, Vito replied, "I never thought you were."
Drawing in a breath, Gurth flung himself off Vito. Under the electric lamplight from the ceiling, his sweat stood out in golden beads upon his skin. "A tip," he said. "Girls like it slow. Boys like it fast. You wouldn't know that, only going to the respectable brothels, where they don't offer boys."
"True," Vito agreed. He was feeling more relaxed than before, not only because he had spent the past quarter hour examining Gurth's body with his tongue, but also because he was beginning to tap into his old training as a patrol soldier and guard. Patience. Patience was the key to reaching a prisoner.
"So stop acting like I'm a bloody girl-whore!" Gurth exploded.
"You're not a girl." Vito turned on his side, appreciating the view of Gurth's naked, heaving chest. "Neither was my roommate at training academy."
Gurth's anger abruptly departed, replaced by raised eyebrows. "Ain't that illegal? Even for gents like you? I know they must have special rules here in the dungeon, if those ballads about the High Seeker and his love-mate are true, but up in the lighted world . . . That's the reason I had to figure out another career for myself: I was coming close on eighteen, and I'd have been the one clapped into jail, if I'd let a client bed me after I came of age. Was that only 'cause I'm a commoner?"
"The lighted world's law against full-grown men bedding other men applies to most of the elite as well," Vito assured him. Reaching into his trousers, he pulled out a clean handkerchief and began to dry off Gurth. "Fortunately, neither Ned nor I realized that till the final week of academy, when our law instructor covered the crimes of perversion."
Gurth snorted forth a laugh. "You didn't turn yourselves in?"
"There's a limit to my idealism," said Vito dryly. He was watching Gurth carefully for any sign that he would make use of the information he had just been given. As a Seeker-in-Training, Vito could not be charged with breaking civil law except by the Codifier, who was unlikely to be concerned by a youthful peccadillo that was entirely lawful under the Eternal Dungeon's separate law system. But Gurth could not know that; from Gurth's point of view, Vito had just handed him another bargaining chip for release.
He must have been watching Gurth a bit too closely, for the young man snorted again. "Your secret's safe," he said. "Whatever else I do, I don't turn in fellow criminals to the coppers – not unless the criminals are holding me captive. And you ain't here as a Seeker, you said."
"I can't be. I couldn't do this as a Seeker." He ran his hands lightly over the bulge in Gurth's trousers.
This time, it was Gurth who groaned. "For the Queen's love, just fuck me!"
"I know all about quick fucks," said Vito, tracing the outline of Gurth's shaft with his fingers. "That's not what we're doing tonight. We're getting to know each other slowly."
Gurth's chest was heaving again. "Bloody blades. You're killing me slowly. That's your plan, ain't it? Make me die of blue balls, and then I won't have to face the hangman in the morning."
The word "hangman" sent a bullet of pain through Vito, but he kept his voice even as he said, "How many times can you do it in one night?"
Gurth shrugged. "As many times as the client wants."
"While enjoying yourself," Vito clarified.
"Oh." Gurth was silent a minute, evidently never having thought over this question. "At this slow pace? Half a dozen times, maybe. I recover quick."
Vito's fingers reached the knot in Gurth's trousers. He pulled it loose. "So I'll give you a release now. Then we can continue."
Gurth's gaze turned down, watching Vito uncover what lay under the trousers, which was not drawers, but bare skin. "What about you?"
Vito smiled. "I have stamina. You may have noticed that."
"If you bite me down there, I'll strangle you."
Vito tilted his head to see Gurth, who had propped his head up with his pillows in order to watch Vito. They'd reached the point where the narrow bed-shelf – never intended for such gymnastics – was too cramped. They were having to make do with the hard floor, softened only by the blankets and pillows from Gurth's bed-shelf.
"Why should I bite you?" asked Vito in a mildly curious voice, though he suspected that behind Gurth's question lay a tale too dark to be recounted.
"I don't know. I can't figure out why you're doing this. Clients don't."
"I'm not a client," Vito pointed out, straightening up with a wince at the cramp in his back. He wondered whether it was past midnight yet. He'd lost track of time. "Didn't you ever have a client who preferred to be on bottom?"
"Not in a brothel famed for stocking the young 'uns," Gurth replied scornfully. "That's not what such clients are looking for."
Vito reached out, groped, and found what he was seeking. "Here," he said, offering the bottle.
Gurth sat up as he took the bottle in hand. "About time. You want me to shine you up?" Already, he was squirting the lovemaking liquid onto his palm.
Vito shook his head. He stripped off the remainder of his clothing – and the remainder of his honor, as his father would have said, except that Vito had discarded this particular form of "honor" in his student days. "Shine yourself up. You're on top." He turned to position himself, but not before he saw the shock in Gurth's face.
It must be very late. There was a certain stillness that came upon the Eternal Dungeon in the pre-dawn hours. The torturers and guards and prisoners were all tired, after many hours in which the prisoners were searched for their crimes. And unlike during the day shift, there were no interruptions from the outside world. In the old days, Elsdon had told Vito, the stokers had worked day and night to keep the furnaces burning, while the kitchen laborers had begun bringing breakfasts into the inner dungeon before dawn, so that guards could distribute the meals to the prisoners at the end of the night shift.
Modern inventions had put an end to the stokers' night-work, while the High Seeker had put an end to the kitchen laborers' night-work. Now breakfasts were served, not at dawn, but at the beginning of the day shift, two hours later. Food for the middle of the night shift was prepared on the previous day, so as to allow all outer-dungeon laborers the opportunity to rest eight hours. Meanwhile, the palace workers – the ones who actually lived in the palace – slept peacefully in their beds. The Eternal Dungeon was left alone during the drowsy hours before dawn.
The unfortunate result of this – Vito reflected, resting his cheek upon his forearm – was that any prisoner due for a trial were left with many quiet hours in which to contemplate the aftermath of that trial.
Vito turned his eyes toward Gurth, who was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling. Both of them were too tired by now to contemplate continuing their vigorous exercise, even though Vito thought that, toward the end, Gurth had begun to grasp the difference between fucking and making love.
Without moving his gaze from the ceiling, Gurth said, "I'm bloody scared of dying."
"I would be too," said Vito quietly. He did not make the mistake of touching Gurth, though he longed to pull the young man into his arms.
Gurth shrugged. "Don't know why. I've been expecting this to happen ever since age eleven, when the coppers grilled me to see whether I was trying to smear my dad's good name. Each time I found myself in trouble, over the years, I'd think, 'This is it. This is when it all ends.' And I'd got to find some way to trick death away. . . . When they brought me to the Eternal Dungeon last year, I thought I'd run out of tricks."
Vito said nothing. He felt his mind return to those early days of Edwin Orville Gurth's imprisonment – the long days of silence, while Gurth/Or desperately tried to think of a way to escape death, and Vito waited for his prisoner to speak, like a cat ready to pounce on a rat, the moment it moves.
It was an evocative image: Vito as villain, the prisoner as victim. But even as Vito thought this, an image drifted into his mind – an image that he must have been trying to avoid all this time.
A young prostitute, on the wrong side of the dividing line between girlhood and womanhood. The girl knelt to take Gurth into her mouth. Minutes later, dismissed casually by her employer, the girl hurried from Gurth's room, fear in her eyes. Then, hidden from sight, the girl began to cry.
"Fuck!" Gurth jerked around to lie facing Vito; his face had gone red with anger. "Get inside me. Make love to me. Make me forget."
Vito complied, not asking whether Gurth wanted to forget the future, or whether he wanted to erase the past.
They must have slept afterwards. The next thing Vito knew was a rap on the door.
He sat up. Beside him, Gurth had begun to stir. The rap came again. Too fatigued to recall that neither he nor Gurth wore any clothes, Vito said, "Enter."
The door opened. Mr. Boyd entered and set down a tray without looking toward their end of the cell. Beyond him, Mr. Crofford's body blocked the slight gap in the doorway. Mr. Crofford's gaze, after the first second, was fixed on the far wall. "Excuse me, Mr. Gurth," he said as though Vito were absent. "Here is your breakfast. After you break your fast, we will be taking you to the magistrate's court."
As the door closed behind the guards, Vito turned to look at Gurth. Gurth was looking, not at Mr. Crofford or at the ceiling, but at Vito. For a moment, they neither moved nor spoke.
Then, without need for words, they clasped each other tightly, kissing so hard that it was as though they were trying to bury themselves in each other.
Gurth was the one who broke the kiss first, though not by his own will. The men at his sides had begun to drag him backwards. Vito had to tamp down a wild impulse to grasp Gurth back.
Gurth's gaze remained fixed on Vito, all the way to the platform. It was Vito who saw the hangman's assistants step forward to pinion Gurth's arms and legs and to secure the hood over his head. Gurth's hands had already been tied behind him, before the magistrate's guards brought him here.
The hangman was a short, rotund man. Vito had invited him to luncheon one day the previous year, feeling instinctively that, if he was going to end up on that platform, as the High Seeker appeared to wish, it would be easier to be hanged by a man who was not entirely a stranger.
The hangman, in his leisure hours, was merry and bright and told atrocious jokes – none of them, fortunately, about his work. Now he was properly sober as he adjusted the knot of the noose behind Gurth's left ear. Seeing that the hangman and his assistants had the matter well in hand, the magistrate's guards left the room, letting the door slap closed behind them.
Gurth had been still until now, not even protesting when the eyeless hood that blinded him was placed over his head. But at the sound of the door closing, he jerked violently. Turning his head in the direction of the door, he cried with the anguish of an abandoned child: "Vito!"
"I'm here, my love." Vito kept his voice steady, though his heart throbbed so hard that he felt as though it was hammering his bones to liquid. "I'm staying here, I promise. I'll stay here till—"
The hangman threw the switch. The trap door opened under Gurth's feet, and he fell through the platform to the cellar beneath. The rope jerked. At the same moment came the unmistakable sound of a crack. Then the rope swayed slowly back and forth, with no vibration upon it.
Time passed; an eternity, it seemed. Finally the rope slowed to a stop. The hangman looked briefly down the hole before nodding, satisfied. At his signal, the assistants took hold of the crank to the wheel which pulled the rope upwards. Slowly, inch by inch, the body jerked back into view. The hooded head lay at an odd angle, like a doll that has been violently dashed to the floor.
The body was laid carefully down on the platform. The hangman's assistants blocked the proceedings as they knelt in front of the body. The magistrates' healer had moved forward, with the tubes of his stethoscope already in his ears. His inspection of the body was thorough; not until five minutes later did he rise to his feet, sign a book that the hangman offered to him, and leave the room in the same direction as the guards. The hangman scribbled a few notes in the book while his assistants worked; then he glanced up, looking across the room.
After a moment, he said something in a low voice to his assistants. They rose quickly, exiting through a door behind the platform. The hangman beckoned.
Vito came forward, feeling as though his entire body was pushing its way through filthy sludge. The sludge choked his throat. The hangman said quietly, "I can give you a few minutes alone, if you would like."
Vito managed to nod. He did not hear the hangman leave.
After a while, he knelt down. The assistants had removed the noose, but Vito knew better than to raise the hood and look at the face. He took Gurth's hand, which was now untied. The hand was still warm.
"I'm sorry," Vito said to the limp hand. "I'm sorry."
He was not sure how long he repeated the apology. Many minutes, he thought. But in time he became aware of something – not a sound, but a presence. He jerked his head around.
The High Seeker stood near the door to the corridor, forgotten in the shadows. Layle Smith said nothing, simply holding the Eternal Dungeon's Seeker-in-Training in his gaze as Vito continued to kneel beside his dead love-mate, tears streaming down Vito's face.
Finally, the High Seeker turned and slipped out of the room.
Chapter 15: Day Ten, Dusk Shift
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.
Chapter 16: 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.
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.
. . . 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.
Chapter 17: Sweet Blood | Historical Note
Edmund Orville Gurth's story has a peculiar origin. In the early 00s, I began composing a story in my head about a prison-worker overseeing a prisoner who was not quite what he appeared to be. The setting wasn't the Eternal Dungeon, but when it came time for me to write Sweet Blood, I decided that this prisoner was too interesting to leave behind, so I transformed him into Gurth/Or.
At least, that was where I thought the origins of his story lay. But
around the time I began writing "Split," I was sorting through a box of
news clippings left behind by my late mother. I began reading an article
that I had the feeling I'd read before, even though the clipping was thirty-five
years old. Then I reached this passage:
When Wilbur first summoned up Billy, Milligan jumped off
his chair and said, "Every time I come to, I'm in some kind of trouble.
I wish I were dead."
—"The Man with Ten Personalities: Experts unravel the psyche of an Ohio rape suspect," Time (23 October 1978).
Apparently, Gurth/Or's origins lay a lot further back than I had thought.
"Split" is set in 1882. The phenomenon of split personality, currently known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, was only just beginning to be studied intensively by the medical world in the 1880s. The idea of split personalities became popularized to the public in 1886 through Robert Louis Stevenson's novella, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Today, controversy continues over whether such an illness actually exists.
The background of Sweet Blood is the same as in the previous two volumes of the Eternal Dungeon series: the late-nineteenth-century rise of labor unions and other movements toward greater freedom for the individuals, particularly the oppressed. Prison reform and protests against the use of torture against prisoners were part of this rebellion against the old order, although in our world, the rebellion took a somewhat different form than in the Eternal Dungeon.
Sweet Blood is the climactic volume of the Eternal Dungeon series. However, just as "The Unanswered Question" serves as a prelude story to the series, there will also be a postlude story that wraps up some loose ends. Unlike most other stories in the series, the postlude is set outside the confines of the Eternal Dungeon, in the lighted world above. However, a few familiar faces will return or be referenced, as should be clear to longtime readers from the postlude's title: Forge.