The Queendom of Yclau espouses ideals of egalitarianism and encourages humane treatment of commoners and criminals. It is the birthplace of various reform movements. However, Yclau struggles with class divisions that are reflected in its punitive justice system. Yclau folk are believers in eternal rebirth, a concept that foreigners find puzzling.
In the Queendom of Yclau lies an underground royal prison that embraces the worst of the past and the best of the future. The Eternal Dungeon is old-fashioned in its equipment and ahead of its time in its treatment of prisoners, seeking to put their best welfare above all else. Torture is part of the process of assisting the prisoners.
Elsdon Taylor peered through the slot in the door at his new prisoner. If he had not chanced to meet him or her upon entry to The Eternal Dungeon he liked to study them for a few moments before reviewing the documents and entering the cell. He liked to "read" his prisoners before seeing what others had to say about them.
He swore an oath under his breath.
Turning to his guard he said, "I need to see Mr. Smith." Pause. "I knew this prisoner ... before."
Beneath his hood, Layle Smith gave a heavy sigh. Mr. Brown was still recovering from that case of bloody flux that had nearly killed him, Mr. Hickmann had a full load, Mr. Moore had a full load, Mr. Murdock's last case had so stressed him that he had started to break down physically (Mr. Bergsen insisted he take no less than two weeks rest), Mistress Birdesmond was still recovering both physically and emotionally from her latest miscarriage, not that she would be questioning a male prisoner, but that it put additional strain on Mr. Chapman, who already had a full caseload, and now this.
"How well did you know him on the outside?" He asked, flipping his face cloth up.
"Well enough, Layle." Slight note of annoyance. Elsdon chewed his lip in thought for a moment and added, "If it's any help, I think he should see the healer, first. He's got a black-eye and a knot on his jaw that I don't like the looks of. There might be other injuries under his clothes."
Layle glanced at the documents before him. "It says that he was anything but a model prisoner during his two days at Parkside."
Elsdon's lips quirked at a memory. "From my memories of Parkside, I can say that that's entirely in keeping with what I remember of Mr. Skyler."
"Hot tempered, then?"
Elsdon tilted his head in thought. "Not really, but if provoked? I never saw him start a fight, but I did see him finish a few."
Layle digested that. "Very well, then. First the healer. I don't like to let a prisoner sit without searching for long at all, but in this case it perhaps it can't be helped."
"Mr. Skyler, I'm Mr. Bergsen, the healer."
A nod of acknowledgment, but otherwise no reply.
Sigh. One of these kind .... "Disrobe," Bergsen said. "I haven't got all day."
A sullen stare met his request.
Inwardly Bergsen rolled his eyes. "This isn't a prelude to rape, if that's what you're thinking. The High Seeker is concerned, based on those bruises on your face -- don't like the look of that split lip myself -- that you've got other injuries, and I'll need to assess your condition before this goes any further."
More sullen silence.
"Mr. Skyler, the Seekers are barred from laying hand on you without a writ. The guards, on the other hand, may touch you with cause. I can touch you with cause. Disrobe, or, I assure you, I shall not hesitate to have you restrained while I use a shears to remove your shirt and trousers."
The prisoner gave a huffy sigh and somewhat stiffly removed his clothes down to his groin cloth.
"Oh my," Bergsen gasped. "Boot to the ribs, I take it?"
"More than one," Skyler said dryly. "And yes," he sucked in a deep lung full of air and expelled it in a forceful rush, "I can breathe in and out well enough."
"Turn around, I want to see ..." his voice trailed off.
"Enjoying the view?"
"In the sense that I seldom see a man in such superb physical shape, yes. You could be modeling in an art class or for apprentice healers learning anatomy. That black and blue mass over your kidneys? Any blood in your water?"
Bergsen clucked his tongue in thought. "Those muscles you've worked to put on turned out to be good for more than just your looks, then. Turn 'round, show me your teeth. Open your mouth," he gently held the tongue down with a small wooden depressor, "Any undue bleeding? Soreness that's gotten worse? Loose teeth that aren't starting to tighten back?"
Bergsen withdrew the depressor. "Mr. Skyler, I need to ask you a difficult question, and I need you to be absolutely honest with me. Were you -- did anyone force themselves upon you?"
A quirk of the lips followed by a wince of pain. "No, Mr. Bergsen, I can assure you that nobody forced themselves upon me."
"This beating, was it guards or a fight with prisoners?"
"I don't suppose it would do any good to say that I'm innocent."
Bergsen harrumphed. "To me, no. To the Seekers … perhaps."
"Then, I can categorically state that no guard at Parkside laid a hand on me, except to move me along my way."
"Very well. You can dress. I can give you a salve now -- help that lip of yours. I'll be back later with some liniment and couple of basins of hot water. For the next few days, I'll be by with more of the same. You need to move and stretch as much as you can. It will ... it will only be worse for you later if you heal up stiff."
Mr. Bergsen paused in the doorway. "Mr. Skyler, do you play solitaire?"
"I'll bring a deck of cards, then, when I return. No Seeker's going to be seeing you for at least a week. It's ... it's not good for your mind to be entirely idle, not in a place like this."
"A week?!" Layle gasped.
"Possibly even two, depending on how he heals." Mr. Bergsen glared, daring Layle to challenge him. "I've a care plan here." He produced a document. "All of it necessary." Another glare.
"It must have been some beating, then." Layle began reading the care plan.
"I've seen worse. He's got a very athletic body, it's what allowed him to take the punishment without lasting damage to anything vital. But in his current state, if you were to flog him you would do more harm than good."
Not that Mr. Bergsen ever thought they did any good by flogging, period.
"One other thing, Mr. Smith --" Mr. Bergsen cleared his throat.
Layle paused in his reading of the care plan and looked up.
"The scars are old and somewhat faded, but Mr. Skyler has been flogged before."
Layle sighed as the door closed. He hated to leave a prisoner sitting that long un-searched in a cell, but in week or two, surely someone's schedule would clear.
As luck would have it, his schedule cleared first.
He studied the file before him.
Durian Skyler. Harrogate school, Dockside, until the age of 14. Indifferent marks, punished several times for fighting and falling asleep in class. Most recently a footman in service to Brendant Starsmore, Earl of Iceal, son of Ragnel Starsmore, Duke of The Lakelands, and first cousin to Her Majesty, the Queen. Statement from Isolde, Countess Iceal, stating that Skyler shoved Lady Nieve Starsmore down a flight of stairs, resulting in the child's death, and that he had also struck the Countess in the face during the ensuing fracas.
Ah ... Lady Nieve had been somewhere in the line of succession. That would explain Skyler's extremely brief stay at Parkside -- no longer than it took to get the Countess' statement and collect other relevant documents -- and why he had not been searched while there.
The Eternal Dungeon, and only the Eternal Dungeon conducted searchings concerning a crime involving the crown.
He poured himself a cup of rosemary and chamomile tea in an effort to ward off the headache he felt knotting up at the base of his skull. It didn't work half so well as he hoped.
After explaining the rules to the prisoner he decided to open with a fairly direct line of questioning.
"Tell me about the Earl."
"Anything in particular?...sir."
His honorific added just at the last moment. Skyler would test the rules no later than their third session.
"Your opinion of him, Mr. Skyler."
Long pause. Then, in a matter-of-fact tone of voice: "He's pleasant enough at first, sir, but it doesn't take long to discover he's a weak-willed rake and a wastrel."
Too easy. Glib. And yet, the truth. Layle felt a moment of despair that Skyler would not crack or be trapped into breaking easily or quickly, then ruthlessly pushed it aside. Skyler's needs came first, not whatever inconveniences he caused for his Seeker.
In a slightly too light tone of voice Layle asked, "And the Countess?"
Skyler's jaw visibly clenched. Then, in a very tight voice he asked, "Exactly how much honesty do you want in your answer, Mr. Smith?"
Putting a smile he did not feel into his words, Layle replied, "Don't hold back on my account."
"I hate that swyving cunt." A whisper as sharp as a whipcrack.
"The Lady Nieve?"
Brittle smile. "I'll decline to answer that today." Pause. "Your rules, not mine ... Mr. Smith."
"Yes. The rules." Layle paced a few moments then asked, "And how do you feel about rules, Mr. Skyler?"
Skyler cast his eyes downward in thought for some time then said, "It depends. Rules can be useful tools or they can be impediments."
"And your schoolmasters and workmasters?"
"Heh. Same as rules, sir. Some of my schoolmasters I didn't mind, some I did. I don't have problems with orders from someone who's earned my respect, if that's what you're asking."
"The Earl and the Countess?"
Something flickered across Skyler's face but was gone before Layle could parse it. At times like this he cursed the somewhat dim and flickering lighting of the cells. "I don't respect them. Not at all."
"And the child?" Layle pressed, knowing that he would not get a useful answer, but still needing to probe.
"She never gave me orders. Obviously I wasn't her nanny, and no, I wasn't sweet on her nanny, either."
"But did you respect her? She did rank you, after all."
Skyler steepled his fingers, and, looking at Layle over the top of them, said, "Three year old girls are respected? Really?"
"Sarcasm does not become you, Mr. Skyler."
"And neither does any shade of purple, Mr. Smith."
"Thank you, Mr. Skyler, I think that will be enough for now."
Trying to remain as detached and professional as the circumstances and permitted, Layle Smith studied the face of the man before him.
Pale skin, smooth, unblemished skin with a sallow undertone where the last remnants of his bruising lingered. Strong, square jaw in need of a shave, tawny brown stubble, the color matching his hair. Sharp cheekbones. Long, slightly aquiline nose. He had clear hazel eyes, and other than a certain tightness from pain around their edges --
(A quick intake of breath, "Two."
The lash sang through the air == hwwa== and landed ==qeet!
Slight involuntary hiss of breath.)
-- his face and eyes betrayed nothing. In fact, he wore the sort of look Layle noticed on the faces of the guards (the better players) when they sat down to a game of cards.
A touch too hard, that blow. He would have to speak to Mr. Urman about --
"Mr. Smith, may I ask a question?" Skyler whispered. Before Layle could answer, he continued, "Would you like it better if I moaned?"
"What?" Layle asked before catching himself.
"Would you prefer pleasure, sir," (soft and breathy) "or pain?" (short and sharp).
Only a deep breath and iron discipline kept Layle's knees locked as the heat already pooled low in his groin turned to a throb.
And all the while not the slightest hint of emotion colored the prisoner's face. Not contempt, not triumph, not amusement. It remained as blank and smooth as river polished stone. His eyes looked as clear and glassy as a doll's eyes.
"Mr. Skyler," Layle said after several moments of consideration. "I am afraid I shall have to recuse myself as your Seeker. Another will be assigned to you in short order."
"No need to rush on my account." Sardonic humor colored the words.
Layle paused in the doorway. "These cells are not a place to linger," he said softly.
The look in the prisoner's eyes went agate hard. "Says you. I'll go when I've made my peace with the way of things and not before."
Oh this is not good, Weldon Chapman thought, seating himself opposite the High Seeker. It should not have been possible, one would think, to glower through a hood, but somehow Layle succeeded.
"May I inquire about Mistress Birdesmond?" Layle's voice was mild, polite, at odds with the thunderclouds that Weldon could all but see forming over the High Seeker.
"She is well, thank you." Weldon was looking forward to spending time with her, now that his work load had reduced.
Layle let out a long breath and folded his hands atop the documents on the blotter.
Oh, this was really, really bad. Weldon decided to take a page out of Mr. Taylor's playbook. "What's the prisoner like?"
Layle blinked in shock. "Which one?"
"The one you are about to assign me."
"You must understand, Mr. Chapman, the severity of my regret, but yes, I am assigning you another prisoner, Mr. Skyler. I know that these past months have not been easy for you and Mistress Birdesmond, but --"
Weldon wanted to shriek in frustration. He wanted to smash his writing board to the floor and ask why the bloody blazes now of all times. What he said was, "We all understand that the prisoner comes first."
"Mr. Skyler is a very ... insightful man, Mr. Chapman. On my second day questioning him, he discovered something about me and was prepared to continue to use it to manipulate me."
"Mr. Smith, if Mr. Skyler is as you say, is there a reason Mr. Taylor isn't searching him? It's not that I'm trying to shirk, but we both know he's very skilled when it comes to prisoners like that."
"Mr. Skyler was initially assigned to Mr. Taylor," Layle replied coolly, "but he knew him from his previous life, well enough that he felt he could not do a proper job as his Seeker."
"I do not envy you this task, Mr. Chapman, on the other hand, I feel you have different personal qualities that render you equally well suited to it." A note of warmth crept into Layle's voice, "You are as persistent as the tides."
And about as straightforward. "Alright," said Weldon. "Let me see his file. I shall start in the morning."
Layle held it out, then hesitated a moment, "I would suggest you be exceptionally circumspect in what you say to Mistress Birdesmond about this prisoner. The case in question concerns the murder of a small child."