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=== Cell-mates (Life Prison) ===

The year 385, the seventh month. (The year 1890 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
 

"All prisoners are at all times of the day and night under
observation. This seems a slight thing; but the cumulative effect of it
upon men's minds is disintegrating. At no moment of their lives can they
command the slightest privacy. And what right to privacy, you ask, has
a prisoner? Would he not use it to cut his way through the chilled steel
walls with his teeth and nails, or to plot revolt with his cellmate?"

—Julian Hawthorne: The Subterranean Brotherhood (1914).


They had to settle the issue of sex first.

"No," said Merrick flatly as he shoved his only belonging – a toothbrush given to him by his previous guard – under the stone bed-ledge on the other side of the cell.

Well, that was a direct enough answer. Or would have been, if Tyrrell had been the type to accept 'no' for an answer.

If he had been the type to accept 'no,' he wouldn't have spent two years persuading Merrick to become his cell-mate.

"Is it because . . ." He paused, wondering how to put this delicately. Because the Magisterial Republic of Mip had originally been colonized by the two warring nations of Yclau and Vovim, cultural clashes among Mippite citizens were inevitable. It was said that even Cecelia – the great Cecelia – had been rejected by a suitor's family, which was clearly a sign of lunacy in that family. Some of the Yclau-descended folk had strange notions about maintaining the purity of their families. Anyone ethnic or foreign or darker than a pasty shade of white was considered off-limits. That would make Tyrrell extremely off-limits. "It isn't because I was born in southern Vovim, is it?"

Merrick looked annoyed. "What, do you think I have something against players?"

Tyrrell straightened his spine. Like most emigrants from Vovim, he had acted in plays from time to time. Street plays, with no props other than broken objects dug out of the local garbage heap, but they were plays just the same. "Do you?" he responded in a challenging voice.

Merrick's mouth twisted. He was busy tightening the blankets on the bed-ledge with what seemed to Tyrrell to be unnecessary thoroughness, given that they were both about to go to bed. Unless – Tyrrell brightened at the thought – Merrick intended that they use only one bed-ledge.

After a moment, Merrick said, "The Bijou. The City Opera. The Frederick. . . ."

It turned out to be a very long recital. Tyrrell was impressed. "You've been to all the theaters in this city?"

"All the theaters in the whole of eastern Mip." Merrick mumbled the words.

"Gods preserve us – that many?"

Merrick glared at his blanket. "Does it matter? I've spent plenty of time with players. Let's move on to more important subjects."

Tyrrell hated to think what Merrick's idea was of an important subject. Probably how to strangle all the guards at Mercy Life Prison. He asked, "Is it because I'm short?"

Merrick sighed as he turned toward Tyrrell. "Look," he said, "you could be six feet tall, with dashing dark eyes, and skin a stunning shade of sepia—"

Tyrrell began to tick off in his mind which men in the prison fit this description.

"—and I still wouldn't fuck you. I'm just not interested in doing that. Not with you. Not with anyone here."

"Married?" Tyrrell asked sympathetically. So many men in the prison were, or had left behind love-mates, male or female, when they were convicted of their crimes and sent to spend the rest of their lives in Mercy Prison.

Merrick's gaze turned toward the flagstoned floor. "Hell."

"You don't have to swear at me," said Tyrrell reproachfully.

"I'm not swearing. I'm praying to Hell to rise up and kidnap you to his domain so that I won't have to continue this conversation. Look—"

And suddenly his voice was low, as low as it had been when he had finally made the amazing declaration that he would submit a formal request to his guard that he be transferred to Tyrrell's cell. So Tyrrell held his breath, because he knew that Merrick was never low-voiced – never, never, never – unless he was saying something that cost him a great deal to say.

"I'm not interested," Merrick said, coming over to stand by Tyrrell. "In fucking. At all. Got that? I'd maybe do it to please the other person, and if it takes that to stop you chattering, then fine, I'll do it. But otherwise, no."

Very direct. For once, Tyrrell had no response to make. Two years' worth of daydreaming, gone like that.

"Well?" Merrick said, his voice rising. "Make up your mind."

Did Merrick truly think that Tyrrell would force him into bed? From the expression on Merrick's face – the expression of a man girding himself for an unpleasant task – it appeared so.

Tyrrell shrugged. "Forget about it. It's not important. I'll flip you for who gets to clean the pit tomorrow morning." He pointed to the cell's cesspit, where the waste was placed. He had no dice to flip, but it was the best way he could think of to change the subject.

Merrick gave a chuckle as he turned away. "Wise man. You can find more appealing men to fuck than me."

His voice was still low. There was something wrong here besides Merrick's disinterest in sex, and Tyrrell hadn't figured out yet what it was.

Tyrrell's gaze wandered over to the doorway of the cell. Outside, the night-lamps had been lit, each giving off a faint smell of gas and a fainter flicker of light. The only other light – and the only heat – came from the central fire-pit, which was what passed for a furnace in this gods-forsaken place. A dark figure crossed in front of the fire. His uniform was made of the sky-after-sunset blue cloth that all guards wore, which set off his creamy complexion. That wasn't why he was dark.

Tyrrell held his breath as the guard's gaze turned his way. In general, Tyrrell got along well enough with guards. He had figured out long ago that Mercy Prison's guards were divided into two types. One type would beat you if they were in a bad mood, however well you behaved. The second type would erupt if you pushed them by your ill behavior, but would treat you fairly enough if you behaved properly. Those guards would even become better-tempered toward other prisoners if you behaved properly.

Merrick's guard was in a class all his own. Sedgewick had a thirst for blood which was never slaked. He scared his fellow guards. He terrified the prisoners. He even unnerved Merrick, which was saying a great deal.

Apparently, though, Sedgewick was only doing a routine check – perhaps out of bloodthirsty curiosity to see whether Merrick had killed his new cell-mate yet – for he passed by without pausing, idly scraping the iron bars with his naked dagger.

Tyrrell felt weak with relief when the guard was past. He turned his thoughts back to Merrick, who had gone over to lick the wall. The drinking water that trickled down from the ceiling to the cesspit was cold and clear, which was the best thing that could be said about this cell. Otherwise, the cell was stark, stripped of decoration except for the binding slot, which Tyrrell did his best to prevent being bound to.

Merrick was inspecting the slot now. No doubt he would be visiting it frequently. Rumor said that he'd tried to kill three guards on his first day at Mercy Prison, ten years earlier. He had barely slowed up since then.

Tyrrell tried not to think about how many cell-mates Merrick had nearly killed over the years.

"So let's talk about the important things," Merrick said now as he splashed water over his face. That was something new. Though a good-looking man, Merrick usually stank like a skunk, because he couldn't be bothered to clean himself between weekly showers.

"All right," said Tyrrell, wondering what "the important things" were, if they weren't sex. Could Merrick really be serious when he said that he wasn't interested in sex with anyone at all? He certainly seemed eager to move the conversation on.

"We should agree not to kill each other."

Tyrrell looked at him blankly. "You think I'm going to try to kill you?"

Merrick waved his hand in a vague fashion, not looking at his cell-mate. "No, not you. You're a thief; you're not the type of man who kills for pleasure. I've seen you hit people, but . . . Not killing. And not hitting. Agreed?"

There were disadvantages to having a cell-mate descended from Yclau blood; you could rarely get such a man to say anything in what a Vovimian would consider to be a coherent fashion. Mind you, Merrick was usually more articulate than this. He clearly found it embarrassing to admit that he didn't want to hit or kill Tyrrell. "All right," Tyrrell said cautiously, uncertain whether to trust Merrick's words. "We don't hit or kill each other."

"I already said that." Merrick was annoyed now. "I don't want you to parrot me."

Tyrrell shuffled his feet nervously. Anyone would, locked in a cell with Merrick in a bad mood. "What do you want, then?" No talk of sex. No parroting. Tyrrell decided that he would have to keep track of all the activities that were likely to annoy Merrick.

"I want you to . . ." More waving of the hand, more avoiding Tyrrell's eye. "You're Vovimian. You can say it better than I can. Dress it up. Put it in words to be remembered."

Tyrrell thought about this. "You want our agreement written down? Merrick, I can't write. Or can you?"

It was the wrong thing to say. Merrick turned, his fists tightening. He strode forward and stared down at Tyrrell. "Shut your trap. You hear me?"

Tyrrell swallowed. He looked out of the corner of his eye, but the only guard nearby was Sedgewick, who would probably sell entertainment tickets to Tyrrell's murder. "Maybe," Tyrrell suggested in a faint voice, "we should add something to our agreement about not threatening each other."

He was unprepared for Merrick's reaction. "Yes!" Merrick cried, stepping back and smiling broadly. "No killing. No hitting. No threatening. What else?"

Tyrrell stared at him. He was taking in, finally, that this topic was of deep importance to Merrick – something that he was ashamed to talk about, yet wanted to share. Wanted Tyrrell's help with.

Tyrrell felt his spine straighten again. It hadn't occurred to him that Merrick might have agreed to become a cell-mate because he wanted to be Tyrrell's cell-mate. Tyrrell had assumed that Merrick had simply grown tired of listening to Tyrrell's endless solicitations and wanted to have his revenge in private. Tyrrell's only hope had been that he could change Merrick's fury into furious passion in bed.

"You want us to figure a list of rules?" Tyrrell suggested. "Memorable rules? Ones we can recite?"

Merrick nodded energetically. "Boundaries. Boundaries of behavior. Limits we use to – to—" He waved his hand.

"To enhance life." Not for nothing had Tyrrell spent much of his youth sneaking into theaters through backstage doors. He could speak the finest rhetoric if he wished, though there was no reason to do so at Mercy, and every incentive not to. Any prisoner who appeared to be rich, or even mid-class, became the perpetual butt of jokes among both prisoners and guards. "To bring about fellow-feeling. To . . . to . . ."

"That!" Merrick pointed vigorously. "If we keep to these boundaries when we don't have to . . ." Merrick's wrist practically broke itself as his hand struggled to capture the right words.

"Mercy and Hell preserve us." Tyrrell whispered. He had finally grasped what Merrick was proposing. "You want us to be models? Model of behavior? So that the guards will notice and . . ." He looked again. Merrick had pointed at Sedgewick, which was clearly ludicrous, because Sedgewick was the type of man who would torture newborn kittens for pleasure.

But some of the other guards were in closer vicinity to their consciences, and if Merrick was well-behaved toward them—

Oh, gods. That was why Merrick wanted him as a cell-mate. Not as a murder victim. Merrick wanted Tyrrell as a model prisoner. Someone to imitate. Someone to help Merrick formulate a code of behavior that might change the conduct of some of the guards in this prison.

"We could tell the others!" Tyrrell was excited now. "We could persuade them to keep the boundaries also!"

"You think so?" Merrick's voice was cautious. Clearly, he was still struggling with the knowledge that he himself had decided to take this course of action.

"Certainly!" Tyrrell practically danced in his eagerness to pursue this thought. "The more prisoners who try this, the better the guards will treat us! We could tell the other prisoners on this level about our agreement, and invite them to try it too. And we could spread word to the upper levels of the prison, if we can only find a prisoner who can write—"

He stopped abruptly. Merrick's face had begun to flush.

Tyrrell leaned against the bars of their cell, thinking. The groans from the nearby cells – the nightly groans from prisoners who had been harshly treated by their guards – were beginning to fade as the prisoners fell asleep, exhausted from their back-breaking work in the prison's laundering room. Tyrrell was feeling tired as well, but not too tired to think back on all that Merrick had said.

The Bijou. The City Opera. The Frederick. Tyrrell had visited all of them at one time or another during his youth, sneaking into the city's theaters, listening to snippets of plays before he was chased away, wishing he could write the players' speeches down . . .

. . . and all the while there had been others listening to the play. Gentlemen and ladies, sitting in their expensive seats.

"You can write?" He kept his voice low.

Merrick glared, but he did not deny the charge.

"You're rich?" Tyrrell ventured hesitantly.

Merrick glared at him further. His hands were in fists again. Tyrrell began to think that this agreement of theirs ought to take the form of an oath.

Finally Merrick spoke. "My father," he said in a low voice, "was the eldest son of the Duke of Howard."

Tyrrell stared at him, aghast. There had been rumors of this – rumors that Merrick had initially been placed on the top level of the prison.

In the insane asylum.

Suddenly Merrick gave a sharp laugh, bitter as bile. "Not a true-born son. My father was illegitimate. My grandmother was maid to the Duke's wife."

"Oh." Tyrrell felt his face grow warm. The gods knew that bastardy in one's family was common enough in the neighborhood where he had grown up, but it still wasn't the sort of thing that any man liked to talk about.

Merrick shrugged then, in an easy-going manner, as though he had passed the worst hurdle. His fists had unfurled. "I wasn't rich. The Duke of Howard – not the present one, his father – arranged for my grandmother to marry one of his tenants. Paid the man well to do it. After my grandfather died, my father used his inheritance to buy a small cattle farm outside this city. We possessed enough to get by on."

Mid-class, then. "And the theaters?" Tyrrell prompted.

Merrick shrugged again, keeping his eye on the bed-ledge. "I can write."

"Yes, but—"

"I can write," Merrick emphasized.

"Oh." Tyrrell thought about this. "You wrote plays?"

"I wrote about plays. Theater critic. When I was first starting out in the news business. I turned to crime reporting after a while." The irony in Merrick's voice was light.

"Oh. Oh!" Suddenly it came to Tyrrell what this meant – what Merrick was trying to tell him. "You've seen plays? Lots of plays?"

"Hundreds." Merrick looked smug now.

"Did you see Cecelia?" Tyrrell could barely breathe. Cecelia Williamson was the most famous Vovimian player who had ever graced a Mippite stage. She had acted in Mip City for ten performances – only ten, and yet she was still being talked about after all these years. Tyrrell, seeing the play posters as a youth, had been quite overwhelmed by her beauty: she was statuesque, dark as dragon's blood, and had a winning smile. But he hadn't been able to sneak into the City Opera House on the nights that she played.

"Ten times." Merrick was grinning now. "Best actress I ever saw. I came up with excuses to my editor so that I could return for the repeat performances."

All further words strangled in Tyrrell's throat. An eyewitness to Cecelia. Merrick could tell him what Cecelia had been like, what lines she had sung, what gestures she had made.

Merrick could tell Tyrrell more than that. He had attended hundreds of plays. He held the vast treasure of Mippite theater in his mind.

"Bed."

Tyrrell jerked in place. Sedgewick – in his usual soft-footed manner – had crept up on them. He was staring at them from outside the cell, dark-gazed.

But the goddess Mercy was looking after her children tonight; Sedgewick did not enter the cell. Perhaps Merrick's unusually good behavior had made a difference after all.

Merrick was already stripping off his uniform's red-striped jacket and vest in preparation for bed. He waited until Sedgewick had moved on, and then whispered, "We'll talk about the boundaries tomorrow, right?"

In his latest excitement, Tyrrell had almost forgotten about where Merrick's own interest lay. He nodded.

The stone bed was cold. Tyrrell curled under the blankets, thinking about the plays, about the boundaries, and about his surprisingly well-behaved cell-mate.

It was not until he was on the very edge of sleep that it occurred to him that Merrick had spent the evening asking, in his usual forthright manner, whether Tyrrell minded having a cell-mate who was mid-class, well-educated, unwilling to fight the guards with fists any more, and not interested in sex.

"Mate," murmured Tyrrell under the sound of Merrick's loud snores, "you are a dream come true."

Then he fell asleep and dreamt that he was making love to Cecelia, while Merrick stood nearby with a pen bound to his hand, recording their performance.