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Life Prison: the short version

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Against themselves men may be violent,
  And their own lives or their own goods destroy;
  So they in the second ring in vain repent

Who rob themselves of [this] world, or make a toy
  Of fortune, gambling and wasting away their purse,
  And turn to weeping what was meant for joy.
—Dante: "Inferno" XI:40-45 (translated by Dorothy L. Sayers)

o—o—o
o—o—o

The magistrate who sentenced me to Mercy Prison told me, "We are not barbarians. You have committed a vile and savage act, one that any other nation would punish with death. Our punishment, on the other hand, will only be to give you what you want. You have sought to live in a world without boundaries of civilization, and such a world shall henceforth be your dwelling place. The place you are being sent to has no boundaries but death, and you will not be permitted to travel that far except in the natural manner. Other than that, you will find yourself in a society with no rules, no restrictions, no restraints. And soon you will come to discover that a lack of boundaries can mean only one thing: pain, pain, and unending pain."

I was foolish enough to disbelieve him.

o—o—o

On the tenth anniversary of my arrival at Mercy Prison, I lay beneath my guard, trying to make my mind dwell on thoughts other than what he was doing to me.

It was not difficult. Of all the Mercy guards who had watched over me in this place, Avery was undoubtedly the most merciful. He disliked the sight of blood – not many guards could say that – and was disdainful of the guards whose idea of entertainment was forcing their charges to undertake humiliating and degrading acts. Avery's only desire was for a quick, hard fuck, and thanks to his queasiness about blood, the pain was minimal enough that I could usually put my mind to other matters while he was with me. It was the most pleasant time I'd had with a guard since my arrival at Mercy Prison, and I found myself wishing that it could last. But of course I knew that it wouldn't.

And indeed, Avery was now sighing as he withdrew, saying, "Ah, that was nice. You're a good one, Merrick – I'm sorry this won't happen again." He gave me a slap on my buttocks in token of his gratitude.

I didn't stir. When I had first arrived here, a guard touching me on the cheek had stirred me into a frenzy of self-defense; now it would take a beating with the leaded whip before I would emit a note of protest. Instead, I merely opened my eyes and said, "I'm to have a new guard, then?"

"A guard all to yourself – lucky you." Avery gave me a grin as he pulled on his trousers. "If you were assigned to Compassion Prison, you'd be serviced each night by every guard on your level, if the rumors I hear about that place are true. We're a bit more gentlemanly here at Mercy."

"Everything is relative," I agreed. There is a division of opinion among the prisoners of Mercy as to whether it is better to cooperate with your guard or defy him. I've tried both methods and haven't seen that it makes any difference one way or the other; the guards get what they want in the end, either way. But I prefer the guards who like to pretend that their prisoners are whores who deserve fair payment for their services; those guards are usually willing to offer valuable news to their prisoners.

Knowledge of the arrival of a new guard was certainly valuable news; there had been times I wasn't aware that a transfer had taken place until I woke to find myself choking upon a strange shaft.

Avery – who had always been polite enough to wake me before starting proceedings – stretched his arms a moment before pulling on his shirt. Like most of the guards, he was a big man, outweighing me and every other prisoner on this level. I'd tested his strength only once, when we first met, and that had been in an attempt to goad him into stabbing me. He had done nothing more than to knock me unconscious with the hilt of his dagger; when I awoke a minute later with an aching head, he had laughed and helped me to my feet, telling me that I wouldn't escape Mercy Prison that easily.

He had always been an amiable guard; now he smiled at me and said, "Those sadists over at Compassion are hardly better than the bog-scum they guard – the few times I've visited there, I've had a hard time telling which was which, the guards or the prisoners."

I was tired of being told by the guards that I was fortunate to be assigned to Mercy. Moving my eyes to watch Avery strap on the heavy belt holding his whip and his dagger – I'd once tried to steal a guard's dagger and had received a broken wrist to mark that occasion – I asked, "Why the transfer?"

Avery's smile dropped away; he looked down at the belt he was adjusting, saying, "My request. I wanted shorter hours – I've been having troubles at home with my youngest."

I would have laughed if I hadn't known the dangers. He had troubles? I had nothing but contempt for the guards who whined on about their domestic problems, while surrounded by life prisoners who knew that death was the only mercy they would ever receive. I turned my head, which had been resting upon my forearms, and rubbed the incipient smile from my face before saying, "Who's the new guard? Anyone I know?"

Avery paused in the midst of tucking his shirt under his belt; he looked up at me with that searching look he had given me in the first week of our acquaintance, before he had become certain of how I would behave. In a voice I could not read, he said, "I doubt it. He's from Compassion."

It is never truly silent at Mercy – even late at night you can hear the sounds of groans and screams. Now, in early morning, Mercy was a cacophony of sound: prisoners shouting to each other from their cells; guards ordering them to be quiet or joining in the conversation, as the mood took them; the clang of metal from cell doors opening and the hiss of fire from the central pit. In this cell, where the inner door was closed, the air was dark and chill, and I felt pinpricks cover my back.

Hoping that my voice was as unrevealing as Avery's, I said, "One of the sadists?"

"I assume so." Avery was avoiding my eye now, carrying out a mock inspection of my cell for forbidden items. "He got into some sort of trouble at Compassion – I don't know the details, but apparently it took the intervention of Compassion's Keeper himself to keep this guard from being released from his service. Instead, they're giving him a second chance by sending him here. Perhaps they think the influence of more civilized guards will tame him." He snorted.

"Unlikely," I said. My heart was pounding harder than a whip now, and I had to bury my face within my arms in the hope that Avery wouldn't see the expression there. With only my eyes visible, I made the muffled comment, "You'd think they'd assign him in accordance with which prisoner deserved him most."

Avery straightened up from where he had been crouching, looking under my blankets in the corner. His eyes travelled back to me, lying naked upon the hard bed, with only one bruise upon my shoulder to mark his taking of me. In a chill voice such as he had never used toward me before, he said, "They undoubtedly did."

And then he was gone, slamming the outer door shut on his way. That was the last I ever saw of Avery.

It took me a moment to stir myself. As always, Avery had left the solid inner door open, and through the bars of the outer door came puffs of smoke from the central fire-pit that provided the only warmth in this dark, frigid place. A guard, striding down past the cells, glanced into mine and made a lewd remark, then walked on without breaking stride. I ignored him, as I ignored the trickle of water in my cell; my mind was on weightier subjects.

I lay for a while like that, bare-skinned: in my first year at Mercy I caught five colds, but one becomes used to the temperature, especially when one is kept stripped half the time. After several minutes I got up; trying to ignore the ache in my bottom, I dressed myself in my rough-clothed prison garb and sat down in the middle of the floor, with my back to the doors. It was the closest I could come to privacy, since the solid inner door was always left open except when a guard desired privacy with his prisoner. I let my eyes travel over the familiar surroundings.

The cell was the shape of a slim trapezoid, with the broad expanse of part of the prison's outer wall before me and the narrow entrance into the round fire-pit area behind me. On this level of Mercy, as on the four levels above, all of the cells were located between the circular outer wall and the level's circular fire-pit, arranged like spokes on an endless wheel. It was the only touch of beauty that Mercy held: all else that I beheld was tedium.

The smooth walls, punctuated only by a slot toward the ceiling of the outer wall. The hard ledge that served as a bed. The two blankets allotted to me – they would seem to be sufficient, if it had not been the case that they also served as my bedding. The covered hole in the corner that served as a combined latrine and rubbish heap. The trickle of water draining from a crack in the ceiling that was too fine for me to see; when I wished to drink, I had to lick the wall. I had tried denying myself food and water once, hoping that no one would notice, but the daily cleaning of my rubbish hole had revealed the food stuffed there, and that evening I had learned the more painful methods by which food and water can be inserted into a prisoner.

The water continued to trickle, a pleasant sound. The water eventually made its way down into the hole, and one ingenious prisoner I knew had tried to cover the hole entirely and stuff blankets under the inner door, in hopes that the water would drown him. Of course, the door would not have been closed if the guard had not been present; when the guard awoke to find an inch of water on the floor, he simply removed the cover of the hole and allowed the prisoner to live with the results for the next week.

All of us at Mercy had tales like that. My own attempt at self-murder had involved the third of my blankets, painstakingly torn into long shreds, and an attempt to somehow fasten a noose around the slick vertical bars of the outer door. I was noticed while still trying to puzzle the matter out, and I paid accordingly, but even lengthy contemplation of the dilemma during the painful week that followed did not provide me with an answer. For indeed there was none: as the magistrate had truly told me, there was no escape from life prison except through death, and that would not be granted to us.

Except, perhaps, from a Compassion guard.

I felt the same thrill enter me as had coursed through me at Avery's news. It had been a long time since I had felt hope, and I tried to beat it away, but it kept creeping back. Most of the guards at Mercy were not sadists, alas – they were simply brutish men who liked their pleasure to come easy and who had no qualms about using whatever methods needful to receive their pleasure. But a guard who truly enjoyed inflicting pain .. . There were rumors among the Mercy prisoners about Compassion prisoners who had died far short of their allotted term, pushed past the boundaries of life by overeager guards. And it appeared that I was about to receive the services of such a guard – there could be no other explanation for his transfer except that he had violated the single rule placed upon guards of life prisoners: that the prisoners be kept alive.

For the first time in ten years, I had hope that I might escape.

o—o—o

We were late to work that morning: an idiot newbie prisoner had tried to intervene when a guard took a whip to an older prisoner who was working too slowly in chopping wood for the fire-pit. Anyone who had been at Mercy for more than a month could have explained the folly of such intervention, but newbies always convince themselves that they can transform Mercy into a place worthy of its name.

Or almost always convince themselves; I couldn't recall having ever held such delusions myself. I began to fall asleep during the tedium of the public punishment – the rhythmic sound of the whip-crack and the prisoner's sobbing was like a lullaby – but came abruptly awake as a thread of pain travelled across my bare arm. Clutching the line of blood, I looked up to see that the newbie prisoner's guard had bent over the balcony railing and sent down a taste of his whip onto me. He smiled at me as he rolled up his whip. "For old time's sake," he said softly.

I felt a shiver travel through my body – he was the only guard who could still do that to me – and then turned my attention away to the guards standing on the ground near the prisoners. This was an all-level punishment, and I eyed the guards unfamiliar to me, wondering which of them had been assigned to me. That big brute in the corner, nodding with satisfaction as he watched? That tall man nearby, yawning as he tossed dice in his hand? Or, perhaps most dangerous of all, it might be that hard-muscled guard toward the front, watching the proceedings without expression.

There were visitors as well. Mercy's Keeper, who was never seen except on important occasions such as this, had emerged from his quarters next to the balcony, bringing along what looked to be family friends: two young girls who were hugging each other about their waists and emitting soft wails, an older woman who kept dabbing at her eyes and declaring to all and sundry that it was a pity such things had to occur, and a young man who was doing the best of the four to remain still and silent.

Beside the young man was a man of about fifty, dressed in uniform, and as I caught sight of his chill eyes I felt as though I had been thrown into the cells below my feet, where prisoners deserving lengthy punishment are kept without benefit of a fire-pit.

I knew who he was, of course: the pictures of the Keepers of the nation's three dozen life prisons were displayed in the hall where we stood, and there was much speculation amongst the prisoners of Mercy as to whether the personality of Compassion's Keeper matched his looks. It would appear so; there was a hard smile travelling over the Keeper's thin lips, his eyes were narrow under his straight brows, and he had as tight a grip on the young man's shoulder as though he were holding him prisoner. Indeed, I thought sourly, it said enough about Compassion's Keeper that he would bring his family to watch this event.

That left me only with the need to find one more man, and I located him finally, half hidden in the shadows behind the Keeper: his face was wholly concealed by the darkness, but he wore the uniform of a Compassion guard, and as I watched, he carefully and methodically broke a bamboo rod in his hands into a dozen even pieces.

My mouth grew dry as I watched the deliberate destruction. I would have preferred that it was messy. This was a man who would not be easily goaded into losing control; even if I succeeded, it would take time to stir his anger sufficiently. And in the meanwhile . . .

A truncated cry cut off my thoughts; I looked over at the other end of the balcony in time to see the newbie fall slack in his chains. Mercy's Keeper gave a sigh of impatience and gestured to the newbie's guard to release the fainting man from his bonds. Around me there was no response from the prisoners but for the faintest sound escaping from the throat of someone beside me; looking around I saw that it was the older prisoner who had been defended by the newbie. I dismissed him from my thoughts. Any prisoner who was fool enough to develop love for another person here – whether that love was friendship or something more – deserved whatever increased agony he endured. The only way to survive the life prisons was to cut oneself off from feeling, as much as was possible. There were even prisoners who, trying to defy the pronouncement that the only escape from Mercy was death, had gone mad. But my judgment, from watching the mad prisoners, was that they suffered no less than the rest of us. No, only death would take me from this place.

I looked back up at the Compassion party, only to be disappointed: my new guard had disappeared altogether, while the Keeper and his family were in the process of leaving the hall. The mother was now sobbing with pleas of mercy for all prisoners – I noticed that she didn't translate those pleas into any concrete action, like trying to intervene on our behalf. The face of Compassion's Keeper told well enough what he thought of this display; he leaned over and said something to the young man, who was continuing to remain silent. The young man replied something briefly, then turned to offer his mother his arm. They disappeared from the hall.

I barely noticed all this: my gaze was upon the young girls, the first I had seen since my arrival at Mercy ten years before. They were about seven and nine years of age, but with their faces contorted with grief they looked younger. I let my gaze linger in their direction far beyond the time during which I could actually see them.

"Like to get your hands on them, eh, Merrick?"

The comment came from Tyrrell, who lived in the cell next to me; he was accustomed to making remarks like this. I could never be entirely sure whether he was expressing sympathy or beating me over the head with a reminder of my past.

I had never seen any reason to worry myself with speculation over such matters. "Too old for me," I said tersely. "How old's your sister, Tyrrell?"

He went for my throat, the fool; I stayed passive, so that the guards, reaching us quickly, issued their punishment where it was deserved. I grinned, listening to Tyrrell's yelps as I was led away to my day's work. There weren't many pleasures at Mercy, and I savored them all the more when they came.

o—o—o

I had trouble sleeping that night. I don't know why: sleep had always been my one blessing at Mercy, transporting me back to the pleasant days preceding my arrest. I usually woke with a smile on my face. But tonight, tired though I was, I found myself staring up at the ceiling, hour after tedious hour, wishing there were cracks there that I could count.

Some of the prisoners had started a debate the previous year over what was most painful about Mercy. Was it the separation from family and friends? The beatings? The humiliations? The backbreaking work? The rapes? The list went on and on.

I hadn't participated in the debate, which, like all such conversations, had taken the form of shouts exchanged between the cells. There was a reason I'd been granted the luxury of a single-man cell: my last three cellmates had been prepared to murder me rather than live another moment with me. Since the death of a prisoner was not, alas, one of the many pains permitted at a life prison, Mercy's Keeper had finally dealt with the problem by giving me a cell of my own – which, of course, had been my plan all along. It was irritating to have to endure being strangled three times in order to achieve what I wanted.

Particularly since I couldn't hope that the stranglings would be successful.

Though I had no desire to become chummy with the bog-scum who inhabited this place, my own unspoken contribution to the debate was that boredom was the greatest pain. Boredom didn't come often – most days after work I was barely awake enough to do whatever my present guard required of me – but when it occurred, it was excruciating, like being flayed slowly by a dagger. I often thought that, if I were ever broken into madness, it would be through such a spell of boredom.

I say all this to explain why, when I heard the cell door being opened at lamp-lighting time, my first thought was not (as one might expect), "Oh, no, not again," but rather, "Thank heavens, something new." I rolled over onto my stomach and raised my head to look.

He was a slightly built man, I could see that at once from the outline of his shape against the fire in the pit. With my eyes still dazzled by the newly lit lamps, I could not immediately make out the man's face, but I could see one of his hands, gripping hard the hilt of his dagger. That grip stopped my heart for a moment, but even my wildest imagination couldn't hope that the new guard would start our acquaintance by stabbing me, so I raised my eyes to his face.

And my heart stopped once more. I jerked upright in bed, twinging an old hip wound as I did so – I had been rather foolish during my first year, testing the guards in various ways. I winced.

The guard said softly, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."

"Not at all," I said through gritted teeth as I rubbed my hip. "I'll return the favor when I can."

It took no artifice on my part to sound annoyed, though the annoyance was aimed solely at myself. This was not the guard I had been preparing myself for. I had expected a rod-mutilating monster, and what I found myself faced with was a young man.

His face came full into the light as he stepped forward. With his Compassion uniform on, he looked even more like his father: he had the same thin lips, and the same straight eyebrows. But the eyes were empty of all coldness – indeed, of all expression of any sort – and there was no smile on his lips, cruel or otherwise.

"My name is Thomas," he said. "I'm your new guard."

I noted the use of his given name rather than his paternal name, and with the instinct of a veteran fighter I dropped and made my attack accordingly. "Ah, yes," I said. "The son of Compassion's Keeper. I can expect great deeds from you, I'm sure."

His lips grew even thinner, but that was all; it seemed that he was well used to this mode of attack. He said, as though I had not spoken, "My job is to provide service to you during your stay at this prison, and to make your stay as comfortable as is possible under your circumstances. If you have any needs, I hope you will let me know of them."

I stared at him open-mouthed for a moment, and then I gave a hoot of laughter that resounded through the entire level. The early-morning conversations across the fire-pit paused briefly, and the newbie prisoner's guard, who was passing my cell, glanced in with narrowed eyes before continuing on.

"Let me – let me understand you correctly," I said, struggling to gain control of myself. "You'll give me any service I want?"

"Any service that is in accordance with the rules of your stay."

"But the only rule is that I should not be permitted escape, either through death or any other means. So you'll give me anything else?"

"If it's within reason, yes."

"Anything at all?"

"Tell me what you want, and I'll be able to give you a firm answer." His patience, I saw with delight, was wearing down.

"Fine," I said, leaning back and pulling off the blanket to reveal my body underneath – I had given up wearing clothes at bedtime several guards before. "I want you to come over here and service me on your knees."

There was a pause; the young man's hand tightened on his dagger. I broadened my smile, trying not to be too obvious about how I was watching that hand.

"You are insolent," he said.

"Really?" I replied, letting my smirk be seen.

"Insolence in prisoners must be punished." He seemed to be the sort of man who liked stating the obvious.

"I suppose," I said with a sigh, "that you'll need your father's help with that. After all, you wouldn't have this work if it weren't for him. Nor your rank." I pointed to his shoulder, where the red stripe indicated a second-ranked guard, capable of guarding prisoners in single and dual cells. "Tell me, when you fuck prisoners, does your father come along to give you hints on what to do next?"

I had been more subtle in past attacks; I doubt that I had been as successful. Dim though the cell was, I could see the red spreading down the young man's fair face to his neckline. He said, quite unneedfully, "I will return."

"Going to fetch your father?" I asked. "Well, you'd better ask him to take the primary duties this morning. Somehow I don't think you're capable of managing the lifting part—"

My words were cut off by the sound of the inner door slamming. I leaned back in my bed, chuckling. If I could make a guard forget himself so much that he would close the inner door while outside the cell rather than inside, then I was halfway to making him kill me.

It took a while for him to return; when he did he had with him Tyrrell's guard, Oslo. "Hurry it up," said Oslo, shoving a pair of dice into his pocket. "I was just about to strip Sedgewick of his earnings."

The new guard, Thomas, ignored him. He had in his hand one of the standard whips issued to guards; I saw with disappointment that it wasn't the leaded whip, but I supposed that this was too much to hope for. Even an unleaded whip could be deadly in the right hands, and these were assuredly the right hands: the blush was gone from Thomas's face, and his eyes had turned as cool as his father's. He waited, his hands twitching with impatience, for Oslo to chain my hands. "Front or back?" Oslo asked as he ground the links into my wrists.

"Back," said Thomas; his voice was thinner than before. Oslo turned me round with the smoothness of experience and raised my chained hands above me. Swiftly he inserted the flat end of the chain into the slot in the outer wall, then turned the end so that it was locked in place.

It occurred to me that I was not taking full advantage of the moment. "Oh, so you don't even need daddy to help you with your work," I said. "You'll take anyone's help. Tell me, when you wipe yourself, does your mommy need to—"

"Oh, shut up." Oslo gave my mouth a cuff that left it bleeding. "Tom, do you want this one gagged?"

Thomas said, in a voice that sounded matter-of-fact, "I don't know. Do you give the prisoners here leather to chew on? He might bite into his tongue."

"Not for anything as trivial as this."

"Let it be, then." And then, as I drew breath, he added, in the same level voice, "You'd best not speak. You might bite your tongue at the wrong moment."

I fell silent, but only because I could hear the whistle of the whip as he tested it behind me. Having gone as far as I could to prepare the situation, I allowed myself to grow afraid.

Realistically speaking – and I had always been the most realistic prisoner at Mercy – it was unlikely that Thomas would kill me this morning. If nothing else, he had a witness watching. So this would simply be a preparation to whet his appetite for a stronger encounter in the future, one that would hopefully free me from this place. This was only a preparation.

Only a preparation. I was standing strung up, awaiting the whip of one of the most vicious guards in the nation. I felt myself begin to shake.

"Look, are you going to finish up here or not?" complained Oslo. "The game will be over at this rate."

"Give me a moment, please." Thomas was testing his whip with what seemed to me to be unneedful thoroughness; I wondered whether this was part of the torture routinely inflicted upon Compassion's prisoners. My breathing grew more rapid.

"He's hyperventilating," Oslo observed in a bored voice. "You make him wait any longer, and he'll work himself into a faint."

"All right." And with those soft words, Thomas brought the whip down onto my back.

There were five lashes in all, the minimum for an insolent prisoner; it was over more quickly than any whipping I'd received in the past. Oslo pulled the chain from me with the efficiency of a mother pulling a napkin from her child and said, "Right, I'm off. Care to join us when you're through?"

His voice was less impatient then before, I noted through the murk of pain. Oslo was always one to appreciate a fine demonstration of lashing.

"Thanks, I'll be there in a few minutes." Thomas's voice was softer and thinner than before; he kept his gaze fixed upon the whip he was rolling into a circle until I had staggered my way to the bed-ledge, then he looked up.

"I didn't enjoy that," he said, in the same even voice as before, "and I hope it will never happen again. If you treat me with courtesy hereafter, I can assure you I will return the courtesy."

He paused, as though waiting for me to reply, but I said nothing, so he left the cell, with a single backwards glance at me as he closed the outer door.

I waited till I heard his voice nearby, speaking to the dice players, before I flung myself onto my stomach. I did not cry – I had long since taught myself the uselessness of tears. But I came as close as I had to crying for many years: my body quivered, and my throat made sounds I tried to bite back. It was often like this at Mercy: I had prepared myself for the worst, and something yet worse had occurred.

My new guard was not a sadist. He would give me no escape.

o—o—o

That annoying twit Tyrrell asked me about my cut mouth that afternoon.

"Kiss from the new guard?" he called to me from where he was bent over, scrubbing clothes. "What's your new one like, Merrick? I tell you, he can't be any worse than the one I've got. Last night Oslo—"

"Should have shoved himself into your mouth and kept you permanently gagged that way. Shut up." I tried to concentrate my thoughts on the staff I was using to heft the laundry from the boiling water. One tale among the Mercy prisoners – probably apocryphal – was of the prisoner who concluded that his only means of escape from Mercy was to jump into the laundry water, and who spent the next forty years dying of his burns. The artist in me was repelled by the idea of so uncertain a method of self-murder; as a result, all that the boiling water represented to me was far too many days spent suffering from water scorchings or chemical scalds or aching backs from stirring and lifting the sodden clothes.

Today it was particularly hard to keep my mind on my work. It was not simply that I was exhausted from the work and from lack of sleep, nor that the welts on my back were being rubbed raw by the coarse cloth of my shirt. No, what my mind was trying to avoid was the thought of what awaited me back in my cell. For I had gone too far – not far enough, from one point of view, for this particular guard would refuse me the release I wanted, but I had gone too far to hope to escape with a single punishment. Even a patient guard like this one would have had time to reflect on what I had said and to make his plans accordingly. I cursed myself inwardly, and then caught Tyrrell watching me and cursed him outwardly. I felt somewhat better after that.

He arrived that evening as I was engaging in my usual early-evening activity of staring at the walls. I was tired enough from the day's work to have dropped off to sleep at once, but I have always found it annoying to have my sweet dreams interrupted by a not-so-sweet visit from my guard. Best to stay awake until it was over; then I could console myself with dreams of better days.

As before, he closed only the outer door. I couldn't blame him for that – there are prisoners who consider choking their guard a pleasant pastime, though I have never found that the rewards of such an exercise outweigh the punishment that follows. Still, I wished that he had a better sense of privacy. This was going to be bad enough, without having the rest of the guards watching.

He paused at the doorway. "Good evening," he said.

I didn't reply – I've never seen the point of passing pleasantries with one's rapist. He apparently agreed with me that extended conversation would be a waste of time, for after a moment he said, "Will you take off your shirt, please?"

I took everything off; the only reason my clothes were in as good a shape as they were was that I had done my best to keep my guards from tearing at the fabric. I folded the clothes neatly upon the blankets – I always kept the blankets in a corner when not using them, so as to avoid getting the guards' stains upon them – and then, without waiting for orders, placed myself in the position I found least painful, on my stomach.

To my relief, he didn't try to shift me. He walked forward, fully clothed, his hand resting lightly upon his dagger – I wasn't sure whether he meant that as a threat or whether this was simply his natural mode of walking. I kept a careful eye on the dagger in any case. When he reached me he sat down next to me on the bed-ledge and pulled from his pocket a tiny jar.

I stared, fascinated, as he unscrewed it to reveal the ointment within. Under normal circumstances I would have been delighted – even Avery had only used spit – but my mind was still bitter with the disappointment of the morning, and I heard myself say, "Did your daddy give you that as a coming-of-age present?"

His gaze flicked over to my face, then away. He dipped a finger into the ointment and then reached over and touched one of the welts on my back.

I jerked and bellowed, more from the shock than from the feel of the fiery ointment; I just managed to keep myself from hitting him. He raised his hand from my back and said, "Did that hurt?"

"Yes, it bloody well hurt!" I said, annoyed at the man's continued penchant for stating the obvious. "What is that, a salt solution?" I was trembling all through now, and was using every curse I knew against myself. I ought to have expected this; yet I hadn't guessed that he was the type of guard who would rub salt in prisoners' wounds.

He shook his head, dipping his finger into the ointment once more. "It's aloe. Lie still; it will sting for a moment before it begins to work."

I narrowed my eyes, trying to read his face, but the proof of his words' truth could be felt on my back; where the ointment touched my welt, I was beginning to feel the pain ease. I closed my eyes and let him apply the rest of the ointment in silence.

He had firm hands, like that of a doctor who applies pain in an impassive manner, knowing that the pain will lead to healing. I'd heard of guards like this – they existed in prisoners' tales like beautiful princesses exist in the tales of ugly boys. I supposed that I ought to be grateful to have been assigned such a guard.

I didn't feel grateful. As I heard the sound of the guard screwing shut the ointment jar, I said, "You were transferred from Compassion because you showed too much mercy to a prisoner, weren't you?"

I opened my eyes in time to see him turn as white as though I'd just kicked his privates. It was a gratifying sight, and I didn't bother to hide my grin.

He said stiffly, "My transfer is none of your business."

"Only your daddy's business, it seems. You'd have been ejected from the guards if it hadn't been for him protecting you, wouldn't you? What do you suppose he would think of you if he could see you acting as nurse to a prisoner who insulted you—"

He stood up abruptly, and I tensed, waiting. But he simply said, again stiffly, "Do you have any other needs that require being tended to?"

"Only one," I said, rolling onto my side and enjoying the delicious amusement that came from seeing him shift his gaze away from my body. "It's quite simple. It should be simplest of all for you."

His eyes flicked toward my body briefly, then away again. His face said clearly that he expected to regret this question, but he asked it in a dutiful fashion: "And that need is?"

I let the lightness fall from my voice as I propped myself onto one elbow. "Help me to escape," I said quietly.

He remained frozen in place for a moment, one hand gripping the ointment jar, the other hand white-knuckled upon his dagger hilt. Then he said tersely, "No," and left the cell, slamming the outer door behind him.

I grinned. I had all the information I needed now to deal with this one.

o—o—o

Breaking a guard is a favorite pastime amongst Mercy prisoners. It doesn't happen often – if any of my previous guards had held vulnerabilities, they'd hidden them well – but any prisoner who succeeds in getting a guard to kowtow to his wishes spends a long while afterwards enduring backslaps and good wishes from the other prisoners.

I could do without the good wishes, but if all went as I planned, I wouldn't be around to receive them. The first thing that was needed was a change of tactics.

Accordingly, when Thomas arrived the next morning – it was my day of rest from work, so I was engaging in a particularly agonizing examination of the walls – I said, before he could speak, "I'm sorry about my bad temper last time. I get out of sorts occasionally."

"Not at all." His reply was cool, as were his eyes, which rested upon me heavily, like a block of ice. It came to me as I watched him that this young man, whatever his flaws might be, had received personal training from Compassion's Keeper. He could not be quite the fool he appeared to be.

I'm nothing if not flexible, as Avery had pronounced on the day he tried me in a dozen different positions. I let the smile drop from my face and said in my normal voice, "Well? What brings you here?"

The coolness disappeared from his eyes and he said, "The usual. See to your needs and all that. The dancing girls are on their way, but I'm afraid I couldn't fit the performing elephant into the stairwell."

There was a moment's silence, and then, despite myself, I burst into laughter. Thomas grinned like a boy and moved forward, keeping well away from me and resting his hand on his dagger. He inspected the rubbish hole first, then the water – going so far as to give the wall a lick – and then, satisfied, moved to the other end of the cell. "You're short a blanket," he said. "That's against regulations."

I snorted. "There aren't any regulations in the life prisons, or hadn't you noticed?"

"Well, there are customs." He was inspecting the blankets now, checking them for secreted objects. "Short-tail whip – that's the type used at Mercy. Compassion uses the black whip – longer range, harder to control. Four of the other life prisons use the straight whip – rather like a bamboo rod, but more flexible. The remainder use the bamboo rod alone. . . . You keep your cell neat."

Yes, he'd been trained by a Keeper all right. I wondered whether he thought he was scaring me. "What type of bamboo rod?" I asked. "Imported or domestic? The type that splinter? We had a prisoner last year who came close to dying from the splinters alone."

"Those ought to be banned." He got up from his hands and knees from inspecting under my bed; I had retreated into the corner to allow him to do this without nervousness. As he dusted off his hands on his trousers, he said, "Mind you, if a guard does his work properly, he needn't resort to any of those." He looked over at me.

It was hard to say whether his speech was more effective as an apology or as a threat; I was beginning to think that I might have underestimated this young man. My face must have given an adequate reply, for he nodded as though I had spoken and said, "May I get you anything?"

"Only those dancing girls," I said. "They would be a bit more interesting than spending the rest of today staring at these walls."

He glanced at the walls. "Mm, yes. Couldn't you talk with the other prisoners?" He had to raise his voice slightly to be heard above the shouts of those prisoners who were also back in their cells for their day of rest.

"Those bog-scum?" I raised my voice in hopes that Tyrrell would hear me. "Conversation with them would be like cleaning a rubbish hole."

He said nothing for a moment; his gaze was running over my cell again. "Some of the other prisoners have books or dice. Why don't you?"

"Some of the other prisoners have loved ones who have gifted them with books or dice," I said harshly. "My loved ones considered it sufficient gift to offer testimony against me at my trial."

I don't know why I was so candid. For a moment I was afraid he would offer me sympathy; if he had, I think I would have hit him, splintering bamboo rods or not. But he simply said, "I'll be back in a moment."

I returned to contemplating the walls; next door, Tyrrell was engaged in an amiable argument with his cellmate over whether it should be considered murder or self-murder if one prisoner helped another to die. Neither of them sounded particularly eager to try the experiment. I closed my eyes, grateful that I did not live in Compassion, where each level's prisoners lived in a single cell, and it was said that the worst abuse came, not from the guards, but from one's fellow prisoners. Here the only abuse I had to put up with was Tyrrell's nattering voice.

I heard the outer door scrape open and I opened my eyes to see Thomas standing at the doorway, holding dice in hand. He tossed them to me, saying, "They're Oslo's spare pair, but I'll get you your own on my day off, when I visit my fiancée."

I stared down at the ivory cubes. They were the first gift I'd received since my arrival at this place – my first gift, indeed, since Sharon gave me her flowers. I looked up to see whether Thomas expected me to be grateful. But he had already left.

o—o—o

He returned earlier than I had expected him, at midafternoon, while I was idly throwing the dice up to the ceiling and seeing whether they would fall within arm's reach. "Do they work well?" he asked, as though he had handed me some sort of esoteric machinery that required delicate skill to be run.

"Well enough," I said, "if I knew any games of solitaire."

I had spent all afternoon rehearsing my speech; I was pleased to see Thomas sit down immediately on the floor. He kept a good distance from me, I noticed, and his hand was not far from his dagger; I found that flattering. I tossed him the dice, and he contemplated the cubes as though they were objects of a secret rite. Sighing, I began to explain to him their purpose.

He was a quick learner; by late afternoon he was winning one round out of eight, his eyes narrowed with concentration as he contemplated whether to risk the soft fish bones we were using as stakes. In the midst of one of the rounds, he said, "Why did your family testify against you?"

I had been expecting the question; I was able to keep my voice calm as I said, "I killed my niece. Look, you don't want to gamble all of your stakes at once – if you lose, you'll have nothing to play with."

"But if I gamble only a little each time, I'll never win the whole."

"Better that than losing the whole. Trust me on this." I pushed forward a few bones, tossed the dice, and grunted with satisfaction as the results turned my way.

He pushed me my winnings, saying, "How old was she?"

This was ridiculous; he must know the answer from my prison records. But I found myself saying, "Three. It was her third birthday when I killed her. I took her on a secret expedition to pick flowers for her mother.. . . I figured that, even if any of the family guessed who had done it, they'd keep quiet out of family pride. My error." I tossed the dice and cursed softly as the roll went against me.

Leaning forward to take the bones, he said, "You'd planned it beforehand, then?"

I snorted. "Do you think they'd send me to a place like this for a crime of momentary passion? I'd been planning it for a year – had notes, sketches, maps. My family found them after her death and turned the evidence over to the magistrates. . . . Look, you're gambling too high again."

"Sorry." He pulled back half the stakes and said, "A full year?"

I shrugged. "Or since I was in my calf-days, depending on how you look at it. That's how long I'd had fantasies of killing someone. I used to practice murder techniques on any stray cats I caught."

I looked over at him to see how he'd take this, but he didn't look up from the dice he was fingering. He said, "It happens that way sometimes – you discover early on that you're different from how people expect you to be."

It was the opening I'd been waiting for; I'm not sure why I didn't take it. Possibly because this was the first person, aside from nosy Tyrrell, who had demonstrated any interest in my story. I waited for the dice to finish rolling, then said, "Yes, well, I suppose not many men can say they've fulfilled the supreme dream of their childhood. I still have dreams about killing her, you know – sweet, sweet dreams. Those memories are a source of neverending pleasure to me."

I looked over at him again, but if he was shocked, he was doing well at hiding it. He carefully pushed forward a few bones and said, "Dreams can be pleasant, however strange they may seem to outsiders. But is forcing someone else to live out your dreams fair?"

I snorted again. "You sound like my father. 'Imaginings are one thing, acts are another' – that's the only thing he said to me when the soldiers came to arrest me; he never spoke to me again. A bit late, that advice; I could have used it at age six, when he found me methodically stabbing all of my sister's dolls. But he didn't say anything to me then or any of the times in later years when he caught me at that sort of thing – he just took the dagger away and beat me, acting as though he wasn't hosting a murderer in his house."

I was surprised at how bitter my voice sounded; I had thought that I'd pushed these memories aside long ago. With his straight brows drawn low as he contemplated my stakes, Thomas said, "Would it have made a difference if he'd spoken to you?"

I thought about this a moment, then shook my head. "Probably not. I knew well enough what people would think of me once they guessed what I was, as they inevitably would. I figured that, if people were going to despise me, I might as well have had some pleasure along the way to make up for that. . . . It's your turn."

"Mm?" He shook his head, as though freeing himself from some daydream; I found myself wondering whether he was actually listening to my replies. He picked up the dice and said, "So you think it was worth it?"

"Worth this? Nothing's worth this. But if I could have gotten away with it . . . If you were to hand me your dagger and send Sharon into this cell, I'd do it again. Your roll."

He took the dice silently, and I thought I'd finally shocked him from this useless conversation. After a while, though, he said, "Would it need to be a little girl you killed?"

I grinned at him then. "No, it could be anyone. A young man of about twenty would do."

Disconcertingly, he smiled back. "If you're trying to scare me, you're too late," he said.

"You're afraid of me?" I said, pleasantly surprised.

"All of the guards are. You have the reputation of being the most vicious prisoner at Mercy – you've sent five guards to the healing center, one of whom left service permanently because of you."

"Oh." It took me a minute to remember the guards in question; I had undertaken a lot of risky deeds during my first year, back when I still thought they could do any good. "It was self-defense," I said finally.

"I've no doubt it was." He tossed the dice down, saying, "I'm out of stakes; you win this round."

I looked down at the dice, trying to figure out how I'd won; Thomas rose to his feet to stretch. I leaned back against the bed-ledge, saying, "You'll get better, provided you keep your stakes low. . . . I suppose they assigned you to me because they figured that a Compassion guard could keep me in hand."

I thought for a moment he wouldn't reply; then he said, in a low voice, "The assignment was arranged by my father. Look, I have duties to see to; may I get you anything?"

"No need." I smiled up at him. "I have everything I need now."

o—o—o

From that point on, we played dice every evening. After the first day, our stakes were hard candies supplied by Thomas: if I won, I kept all the candies, while if Thomas won, I kept all the candies. It was that sort of game.

I made sure he won at least half the time, though; I wanted to keep his temper sweet. It wasn't hard; if I'd tried to strangle him, I suspect that he would have appeared at my doorway with an apology for failing his duty as my guard. I should have had utter contempt for his softness, but something about the way his eyes turned cool when I took an occasional misstep warned me that I ought not to hurry my conclusions about him.

After the first day, the subject of his father didn't come up, and I cursed myself for missed opportunities. I tried making general enquiries about his family, but to no avail. From the gossip of the other guards, I heard tales about Thomas's fiancée, whose primary virtue appeared to be that she would beat him bloody if he so much as turned his eyes in lust toward another human being.

Thomas never spoke of her to me; instead, we discussed philosophy.

"It's like in music," he said. "There are strict rules determining which notes sound beautiful together."

"I heard a foreign band once that didn't adhere to any rules about beautiful notes," I replied.

He shrugged. "Maybe you just didn't know their rules well enough – the rules don't have to be the same everywhere. But there has to be some sort of regulation, some sort of boundary, or there's no beauty."

I shook my head as I passed him the dice. "Beauty's in freedom, not in prison walls. Listen: Who are the happiest men in Mercy? The guards, because they have no rules to adhere to except that they should keep us imprisoned. The rest of us have the rules – we're the miserable ones."

He sighed as he watched the dice tumble. "If you make a rule that random notes are beautiful, that won't make the notes any more beautiful. Rules have to make sense. When they make sense, the results are more beautiful than the lack of rules."

He was filled with pretty nonsense like that; I listened to it just as much as was needful to keep the conversation going. My own thoughts were on how to break beyond the boundaries imposed upon me so I could regain my freedom, and my nights were filled, more than ever, with thoughts of Sharon. I would wake each morning with a sigh of happiness. "Beautiful boundaries" indeed. If Thomas had known what it was like on that day of freedom . . .

All this time he was taking care to keep his distance from me – I began to suspect that this was as much courtesy to me as it was security to himself. Though he never said so explicitly, it was clear from all his talk of boundaries what he thought of the other guards' behavior toward their charges. I asked him once, when I had gotten to know him well enough to ask such questions, how he got along with the other guards.

"Well enough," was his surprising answer. "They think I'm eccentric, of course, but I don't try to suggest that my way is better than theirs, so we get along fine."

This would have given me pause for thought, if I'd been in any mood to pause. But the more I got to know the young man, the more sure I was of the success of my plan, and the more impatient I was to implement it. The trouble was how to do so without making him unduly wary.

I was unable to take my first steps until the morning he arrived at my cell wearing cool eyes.

At first I was afraid the cause was me. It was my rest day, and I had been awake since before lamp-lighting, having been woken by screams in another cell. I found this irritating, as I'd long since trained myself to ignore such routine noises. Now I was curled up on the bed-ledge with a book, a gift from Thomas – the only thing more boring to me than walls are books, but I hadn't told him this, naturally, and I was in the habit of bringing out the book during the minutes before I expected him to arrive each day.

Catching sight of Thomas's eyes, I slowly uncurled myself, my body tingling in preparation for whatever punishment I was about to receive. It would be an unjust punishment, of course, but I was used to those.

But all he said was, "I can't stay for long: there's a meeting of the guards this morning."

"What sort of meeting?" I asked, not really caring.

He had already turned away, though, and was kneeling next to my blankets. "They still haven't delivered the third blanket; I'll have to get it from supply myself. Nothing works in this prison the way it should—" His voice broke off abruptly. From where I sat, facing his back, I could see the trembling along his shoulderline.

Someone once said to me, "Don't stand useless! Do something!" Well, all my attempts at doing since that day had ended in disaster; I had long since adopted the philosophy that it is better to stand back and let matters take whatever course they will. So it could only have been unusual curiosity on my part that prompted me to rise from the ledge and walk toward Thomas.

I was still three steps behind him and just starting to put my hand forward when he rose and whirled, faster than a whip; the dagger was in his hand before he had risen. It was the first time since my whipping that I'd truly seen him at work, and if I'd had any doubts about where he received his training, they were erased in that moment.

It unnerved me, so naturally I reacted with a snarl: "Put that bloody blade away before you hurt yourself, calf-boy. Do you think I have nothing better to do this morning than face the leaded whip for trying to strangle you?"

"I'm sorry." The dagger was already in its sheath before I'd had time to speak. "I'm not at my best today."

"So it would seem." I was tempted to let the matter die there – I'd lost whatever driblet of curiosity had driven me forward – but I couldn't think of any way to step back without looking nervous, so I said, "What's wrong with you anyway? You're acting like a jittery three-year-old."

For a moment he didn't reply; then he said softly, "Sedgewick found Harrow in bed with Dorn this morning."

"What?" This was news of the decade. Sedgewick was the guard who had flicked me with his whip in the hall; his charge was Dorn, the newbie prisoner who had been punished for defending his love-mate, Harrow. Love affairs between prisoners were an old tale, but until now, the most that any pair not cellmated had managed to accomplish was a two-minute coupling in the kitchen when a guard stepped away from supervising the workers. That coupling had taken place in front of a dozen prisoners; the desperate yearning of prisoner love-mates was well known.

"How did Harrow manage that?" I asked, my curiosity returned.

"They haven't figure out yet; that's what the meeting's about. There will probably be new customs instituted that may affect you . . ." His voice trailed off; it was clear that, for once, his mind was not on me.

"What of Harrow and Dorn?" I asked, giving him the lead he wanted.

All at once the chill was back in his eyes, and when he spoke, his voice was colorless. "They have already received part of their punishment. Harrow was forced to watch while Sedgewick raped Dorn, and then Harrow's guard put his whip to Harrow while Sedgewick told Dorn, at every stroke, that it was all his fault. Harrow made hardly a sound, I'm told, but Dorn was screaming by the end. They've put Harrow down on the first level, where he'll stay for a week; then he's to be transferred to the third level."

He recited this tale without any shock in his voice; and indeed, I could have told him several dozen variations upon it. So I jerked with surprise in the next moment when he suddenly said, with the ferocity of a snake striking, "It's not right."

"Right?" I gave a dry laugh. "Who's to say what's right or wrong in a prison with no boundaries?"

"Oh, there are boundaries all right." He pointed at my blanket, taking on suddenly the voice of the supply master. "'No, Merrick can't be given a third blanket; he was given three blankets upon arrival. Yes, some prisoners give back their third blanket, but Merrick can't have any of their blankets; he was given three blankets upon arrival. No, you can't buy Merrick a blanket; he was given three blankets upon arrival. . . .' If they can come up with such blastedly rigid regulations for counting blankets, why can't they bind the guards to make them treat the prisoners like human beings rather than cattle?"

"My father's a cattle farmer," I replied. "I envy his beasts."

"Then you see what I mean." He was pacing back and forth along the edge of the cell now, like a newbie prisoner. "There are customs for everything in this prison: when the lamps should be lit and dimmed, what sort of shifts the prisoners should be given, what sort of luxuries the prisoners should be permitted, and so on. If we can decide that prisoners should be permitted dessert no more than three times a year, why shouldn't we decide that guards should not be allowed to ill-treat their prisoners?"

"Well," I said, "have you tried suggesting this to your father?"

He stopped in midstride and looked back at me; I waited, my body tingling in anticipation of his reply.

"Tom!" From behind us, Oslo clanged his dagger against the bars of my door as he passed. "Give your love-mate a goodbye kiss and hurry your body. The meeting's about to start."

"Thanks, Oslo." Thomas turned, and I stepped back several steps to give him room to unlock the outer door.

"Your love-mate?" I said when Oslo was gone. "Is that what the guards call me now?"

He shrugged. "They can't think of any other explanation for why I treat you as I do. Simple humanity doesn't seem motive enough."

"No," I said softly as he stepped away. "It doesn't, does it?"

o—o—o

Thomas failed to arrive at his usual time that afternoon; I didn't see him till the evening, when he appeared, with the other guards, at the disciplinary meeting held for the prisoners.

It was conducted, like all such meetings, in the disciplinary hall. The prison's first level in fact consisted of three levels: the balcony extending off of the Keeper's quarters, where announcements were made and major punishments administered; below it the disciplinary hall, where the prisoners stood; and under the hall, deep and dark and cold, the disciplinary cells.

Not that warmth could readily be found at any level of the round tower housing Mercy's prisoners, but rank helped to determine such matters: the higher the level, the greater the warmth. I had been assigned to the second level since three weeks after my arrival – the sixth level had been nice while it lasted – but I was no stranger to the frigid cells on the first level.

Now all of us prisoners stood in the disciplinary hall, while the guards looked down at us from above, aside from the few who were kept at close range to maintain order. Thomas was among the guards above; he was standing near Mercy's Keeper, looking no different from the other guards, but the chill was back in his eyes.

We were told the consequences for Dorn and Harrow's deed: All privileges for prisoners stopped for a month. New "customs" that further cut the limited amount of cell visiting between prisoners that had been permitted in the past. A new regulation forbidding speech between prisoners at work – I saw Tyrrell's face fall at that. Restrictions on the hours during which prisoners could shout at each other from their cells. And so on – I grew bored after a certain point and stopped listening.

I was amused but not surprised to see that none of the regulations were aimed at the guards who – prisoners' rumors had already determined – were at fault in this case. It was said that a cross-cell visit between Harrow and Dorn on the previous evening had gone awry when Harrow's guard was called away on an urgent family matter and Dorn's guard let himself be lured away to a dice game. Within a short while, Sedgewick had become so absorbed in the game that he had forgotten about the prisoners who were now making frantic love together, convinced that this would be their only chance. As, indeed, it would.

There were some grumbles from the prisoners during the announcements, but not many; the guards nearby had whips in hand. Judiciously, Mercy's Keeper permitted us a few minutes to grouse together before we were led back to our cells.

"So what do you think?" Tyrrell asked me.

I didn't reply; I was watching the man who had just stepped out from the Keeper's quarters and was making his way toward one of the guards.

Thomas sighted him a moment later; he stiffened, like a dog meeting an enemy, then made his way over to the cold-eyed man awaiting him. His father said something to him – I could guess that it was much the same as Tyrrell's question had been – and what followed I can only describe as the most entertaining theatrical production I have ever had the opportunity to attend.

Well-trained guards do not fight in public, and both of these men were assuredly well-trained. No voices were raised, no gestures were made, no fists were clenched. All of the activity came in the form of the expressions, which built, like a beautiful piece of music, into a crashing crescendo. I found myself wondering whether this melody was regulated by boundaries, or whether I would be privileged to witness one of the few guard-to-guard murders to take place in the history of the life prisons.

It appeared there were boundaries. The two men stepped back – they had ample room, for the other guards, seeing their expressions, had elected to stay far back from the Keeper and his son. A few more words were said, apparently of the conventional sort; Compassion's Keeper gave a stiff nod of farewell to his son and returned to where Mercy's Keeper was watching all this with ill-kept amusement. Thomas turned away and, without any hesitation, walked over to join a conversation taking place between Oslo and several of the other guards. It was hard to decide which man had fared better in the contest; they both gave the appearance of being fresh from the fray.

"So what do you think?"

At first I thought Tyrrell's question referred to my assessment of the battle above; then I realized that he was still concerned with more mundane matters. I said, "Anyone who gives his heart to someone else in this place shouldn't be surprised if those are the results."

Tyrrell's expression turned from eager enquiry to something more closed. After a moment he said quietly, "You're a cold man, Merrick."

I shrugged and pointed to the frost-laden walls. "Could be the surroundings, don't you think?"

"Maybe," he said slowly. "But I think you'd be cold anyway."

He stopped speaking to me after that day. Even on the worst days, fortune can shine.

o—o—o

It was quietly restless during the next couple of weeks, as is often the case after a disciplinary meeting. Despite the new regulations on prisoners' interactions, the rumors flew between the prisoners' cells as freely as before: from one of those rumors I learned that Thomas had successfully intervened on Harrow's behalf, arguing that the whipping that prisoner had received made him a poor candidate for a week in the chill disciplinary cells. What if Harrow should die? Mercy's Keeper agreed, suspending the isolation sentence but refusing Thomas's request that Harrow remain on the second level.

Myself, I couldn't help but wonder whether this was all a clever ploy by Harrow to get himself moved up. Not only was it warmer on the upper levels, but there was less time spent with guards: rather than one guard being assigned to each prisoner, on the upper levels one guard was assigned to each half dozen cells. This had obvious advantages for the prisoner, come nightfall.

It was a continuing joy to me now to spend my nights free of guards. Every now and then, when Thomas was on night watch and he noticed that I was still awake, he would call out a soft greeting, but he never entered my cell after the day-lamps were extinguished. I could lie on my bed for hour after hour, watching the pattern of firelight upon the walls and hearing the grunts and groans in adjoining cells, smug in the knowledge that I would still be unmolested come morning.

This is not to say that I let my thoughts slip from my true goal. During the daytime, I made what I could of our opportunities to talk: Thomas's brief visits in the mornings to see whether I had any needs before the day began, and his longer visits in the evenings and on rest-days, when we threw dice and exchanged seemingly idle talk. To my frustration, I had run out of luck again in finding a way to get him to talk about his father; finally, lacking greater inspiration, I asked him what the fight had been about.

He was silent through the next three rolls of the dice; then he said abruptly, "Did your father want you to be a cattle-farmer?"

"I expect so," I said. "I never made the mistake of letting him think I did."

He gave a soft chuckle. "I don't recall ever being asked; it was one of those unwritten customs that everyone takes for granted."

His story was much as I had guessed it to be. He had been raised by a mother who wept for hours upon seeing an ant squashed and by a father whose idea of a pleasant rest-day activity was to take his five-year-old son to major prison whippings. Surprisingly, the boy had managed to steer a sane path in life, embracing his father's desire that he should become a guard at a life prison, but maintaining his own views on how to do so.

"My problem was that I gained most of my knowledge about life prisons from books," he said, fingering the now-forgotten dice. "Of course I heard my father's tales when he came home to visit on his days off, but I held faith that somehow his stories could be reconciled with the books I'd been reading, which told how the life prisons were supposed to work."

"Is that where you got the litany you chanted me about making my stay comfortable?"

He nodded. "The original idea behind the life prisons was that some men had forfeited the right to remain free, but that they retained all their other rights, most especially the right to life. That was why these were named 'life prisons.' The life prison guards had two duties: to protect the rights of our nation's people by keeping the prisoners confined, and to protect the rights of the prisoners by keeping them alive and occupied with productive work."

The side of his mouth turned up as he let the dice trickle through his fingers. "It's still there in the language – when you become a guard you enter into service. But somewhere along the way the original ideals were lost, I think because nobody took the trouble to codify them into rules. The original creators of the life prisons seemed to have assumed that the guards would go on behaving in a civilized fashion, offering as humane a treatment as was possible to men who must be locked away for life."

I gave a loud snort at this, and Thomas smiled. "I know – they really were idealists. So was I, till my father became Keeper."

One of the Keeper's privileges is that his family can live in the prison with him. This happened when Thomas was twelve, and from that time forward he had the opportunity to see a life prison in its full glory.

"I suppose you're wondering why I became a guard anyway," he said; he'd been staring at the ground, but now he raised his head to give me a half-smile.

"Not really," I said. "Good hours. Unlimited sex. Best of all, the thrilling chance to wield a leaded whip."

He laughed, drawing his legs up to his chest so that he could rest his chin on his knees. "The hours are terrible. No, the problem is that my father's right: I do have the qualities that make for a good guard. I'm methodical and can organize efficiently. I get along well with the other guards. I picked up the various skills I needed easily—"

"Such as administering punishment in a cool fashion?" I suggested.

He nodded. "I'm grateful I inherited that from my father. It's not as easy for me as it is for him, but I'd rather run the danger of being too cold in my approach than end up too hot – keeping control of oneself is half the battle of being a guard."

"You should teach that to the other guards," I said dryly. "Not many of them know the meaning of the term 'self-control.' So you're the perfect guard?"

"Far from perfect, but I'll do." He rolled the dice back and forth with the tips of his boots for a moment before saying, "My father wants me to become Compassion's Keeper. He's just waiting for me to reach proper rank before he retires in my favor."

"So? Compassion could do worse."

He flung himself to his feet, so suddenly that I retreated in an automatic manner, keeping my eye on his dagger. But his vision was blind to me; he was striding back and forth across the front of the cell now, saying, "If I became Keeper, it would be an endorsement of this lunatic system that is used to control prisoners. How can I come out of my quarters to say, 'Ah, this prisoner was found loving another prisoner? Beat him till he bleeds, then throw him in a lightless cell for a week.'"

"You're endorsing the system now, by being a guard," I reminded him.

He stopped pacing, and his lips thinned. "Yes, I know. That's why—" He stopped.

Hoping we had finally reached the point I had been seeking these past three weeks, I said, "That's why you helped the prisoner at Compassion?"

From the startled look on his face, I gathered that his thoughts had been elsewhere, but after a moment during which I held my breath, he shrugged and said in a quiet voice, "Yes, that's why. I thought I could do some good, if not for all the prisoners, then for one."

"By helping him to escape?"

I was rewarded this time by a look of shock, quickly shuttered. He sat down crosslegged and said evenly, "I didn't know the news had reached here. My father tried to ensure few people heard about it."

I decided there was no harm in letting him feel indebted to me. "I guessed – but I haven't shared my guesses with anyone. I take it the escape wasn't successful?"

"No, thank goodness." He caught my look and said, "My father showed me the prisoner's records afterwards. The man had been in and out of prisons for thirty years – he kept promising he'd reform his ways, then he'd go and do some deed that was even more dreadful than before. It would have been a tragedy if he'd escaped, like letting a deadly leopard loose among schoolchildren. I deserved the discipline I've been receiving for that."

"Of course." As I said, I'm nothing if not adaptable; I was marking my new course before he'd finished speaking. "We're in life prison for a reason, don't forget that. Still, it seems like an overly harsh sentence to me. All of us here would probably have been better off if we'd been given the death sentence."

He glanced at me briefly but said nothing; he had returned to fingering the dice.

I let the matter go for the moment, saying, "You agree with your father on this, but not on other matters?"

He nodded. "I've tried talking to him about our disagreements. We— Well, you saw for yourself how our arguments go."

"'Never argue with one who loves you,'" I said, quoting the old proverb. "Emotions get in the way of debate."

"That's just it." He rolled the dice back and forth with his fingers, as though he were a long-time dicer. "Despite everything, we care about each other, and it hurts both of us that the other person won't be the way we want him to be. My father keeps trying to mold me into his image of an ideal guard."

"Hmm." I had been about to end the conversation, having achieved what I wanted, but now, thinking back on the cold-eyed man with his firm grip upon the young man's shoulder, I had one of my few brilliant moments.

"Has it occurred to you," I said slowly, "that your father might respect you more if you broke free of him entirely on disciplinary matters? Suppose you went to him and said, 'Sir, I wish you to give me precisely the same treatment as all the other guards receive. If I disobey rules' – there's only one rule, but never mind – 'if I disobey rules, I expect to be punished, but otherwise I want the exact same freedom that the other guards have to do as they wish. You've given them the freedom to rape prisoners; I want the freedom to refrain from raping prisoners. You've given them the freedom to whip prisoners for trivialities; I want the freedom to whip prisoners only for major offenses. If I decide, on my own initiative, to create boundaries in my interactions with my prisoners, then it should concern you no more than it concerns you if another guard decides to ignore all boundaries with his prisoners.'"

He was smiling before I'd finished my speech; throwing the dice up and catching them, he said, "I wish I'd had you as my counsellor four years ago, when I first became a guard. I think it's too late now – my father and I have become too fixed in our approach toward each other. Still, I'll give it some thought. I have another three weeks to decide, before I go back."

My stomach did not quite fall to the floor, but it jiggled up and down for a moment; I suppose I must have looked queasy. "Go back?"

His face immediately took on its tone of profound apology. "I'm sorry, I thought you'd been told. My discipline only lasts two months; my father said, 'We'll see how you handle the worst prisoner at Mercy; then we'll decide your future here.'"

Under ordinary circumstances, I would have been flattered by this speech; as it was, I was too busy cursing myself. It wasn't as though I hadn't known our time together would be short. The shifting of guards from prisoner to prisoner was one of the unwritten customs of the life prisons; I'd never had a guard for more than six months at a time. But three weeks! How could I finish my plans in the space of three weeks?

"I'll be sorry to see you go," I said finally, my most genuine contribution to the conversation so far.

He smiled and ducked his head, looking suddenly his age. "I'll be sorry to leave. I've had twenty-eight prisoners" – he spoke this number casually, as though every guard kept track of such information – "but none that took the trouble that you have to ask after my life."

"Well," I said, trying not to smile, "some guards find those sorts of questions offensive. They prefer to discuss such matters only with their friends."

I saw a hint of his smile as he glanced up. "I suppose I'll develop friends amongst the guards eventually. I don't have any friends outside the prison – I've lived at Compassion for the past eight years."

"What about your fiancée?"

It was only the second time I'd seen him blush; it made him look even younger than before. "Well . . . she doesn't exist, actually."

"Oh?" I did my best to sound surprised.

"No, I invented her when I first became a guard – she was a convenient excuse to the other guards for me not to rape my prisoners. I suppose I should put her to rest – everyone has guessed by now that I'm not held back from rape by a jealous fiancée."

"You'd best get rid of her," I said, "if there's any chance that you'll fall in love while in prison. That seems likely, considering you spend nearly all your time here."

He looked up sharply then, but only said, "I haven't met any guards yet that I fancy that way."

I shrugged. "So," I concluded, "you hate the life prisons, think that the men who run the prisons are morally deplorable . . . and the person you are closest to in love is the Keeper of Compassion Prison."

His eyes turned chill, and there was an accompanying shiver down my back. But it seemed that his coolness was reserved for himself, for after a moment he said in a level voice, "You have a talent for pinpointing the primary source of pain. You would have made a good guard."

I smiled at him as he rose to leave. "Not enough control," I said.

Which was a lie. In my opinion, I'd controlled that conversation very well indeed.

o—o—o

I knew what he wanted, of course. I doubt that he did; when I caught him looking at me during our dice games, he would show no signs of embarrassment or shyness, only a faint puzzlement, as though he were hearing a foreign melody sung in a tonal scheme he did not yet understand.

Anyone else at Mercy could have deciphered the mystery during the interval between two lashes: he had Wistful Virgin inscribed all over him. But apparently, being unaware of the true nature of his interest in me, he had given no hint of it to others – though I kept a careful ear to the rumors, it seemed that the guards' references to me being his love-mate were purely jocular.

You will be wondering by now why I didn't take advantage of this. Indeed, I wondered it myself: it would be an obvious method by which to affix his affections to me and get what I wanted. I suppose I did not quite dare to go that far, knowing that I was dealing with a well-trained guard who would be on the alert for obvious ploys. The guard who risks himself for his beloved prisoner is a weary cliché; better that I not alert Thomas to the fact that he was well on his way to living out that cliché.

There were other reasons, of course. The faintest thought of sex had become distasteful to me within my first year at Mercy, and even if this had not been the case, I would have received little pleasure from a night encounter with Thomas – little pleasure unless he allowed me to stab him a few times. I'd given up at an early age trying to understand what drew other males to sex; the best I could guess was that it was akin to what had drawn me to a flowering glade with Sharon.

Sexually naive as Thomas was, I could have hidden this from him, but I was grateful that there was no needfulness for me to do so. Indeed, I was receiving a great deal of enjoyment out of the fact that our relationship was seemingly honest – more honest than any relationship I'd ever had with a guard.

The black lie poisoning the core of our relationship remained hidden, and time was running out for me to make use of it.

Life was much as usual in the meantime. Tyrrell's cellmate had acquired a new guard, one who was not averse to the sight of blood, and there were loud moans from that cell every night now. The mind of a quiet young prisoner came suddenly, shatteringly undone, and the youth had to be hauled from the laundry chamber as he screamed his fears about the spiders into whose web he had fallen. He was reassigned to the easier work of weaving, which activity seemed natural to him in light of his new surroundings.

Sedgewick was now supervising the laundry chamber, and he was amusing himself by recounting to me tales of days gone by. He was a sadist without doubt, but one who had such adamantine control over himself that he was of no use to me. I ignored him, as I ignored the familiar mutter of "Baby killer" from the other prisoners. Tyrrell still was not speaking to me.

And so it continued. A rest-day came and went, with the usual tedium relieved only by my dice-game with Thomas, but I could not figure out how to bring us closer to my goal. There were only ten days left now.

And then something happened that was so glorious, so utterly wonderful that it was as though my dreams of Sharon had suddenly turned real, and the second level was covered with a soft drift of sweet-scented flowers.

A prisoner was sentenced to the leaded whip.

o—o—o

One must give Dorn credit for novelty: he was the first second-level prisoner I'd ever known who was assigned the leaded whip for any reason other than trying to murder a guard.

One of the few advantages of living on the second level was that it was close to the ground: just a few steps down the stairwell was the prison's main exit. At least, I had thought this was an advantage when I first arrived at Mercy, and had laughed inwardly at the folly of the Keeper's decision to place the most dangerous prisoners in close proximity to their means of escape.

Five tries later – followed by five visits to the cells on the first level – I conceded that the Keeper knew what he was doing. Since then I had watched men far more clever than myself encounter similar defeat in getting past the system of locked gates and passwords that led to the outside world. Still, one would have expected a newbie prisoner who slipped past the second-level guards to make a try down those half-dozen steps.

Dorn did not. He went up the steps, trying to reach the third level, where Harrow was.

He was captured before he could reach the level; this being his third offense for essentially the same crime, there was never any doubt what punishment he would receive. From the moment that news reached our level of his capture, the mood in the cells was a mixture of somberness and bright anticipation. The bright anticipation came from the prisoners who held a taste for blood.

I was not one of those. The fool Tyrrell had once implied to me that I must find whippings exciting, given my background; I didn't bother to explain to him the difference between torture and murder. I was no more inclined than the average man to receive joy out of seeing a prisoner's skin lashed, knowing, as I did, that the prisoner would still be alive at the end of the proceedings.

But I had to admit that there was something special about a whipping such as this. The only cases any of us had ever heard of in which a Mercy prisoner died under lashing had occurred when the leaded whip was being used.

We assembled once more in the dark disciplinary hall; on the balcony where the guards stood, the prisoner had already been strung to the whipping post. None of us looked at Dorn, though; everyone's eyes were reserved for the door through which each level's prisoners were entering, escorted by a handful of guards.

Harrow was one of the last prisoners to arrive. There was little in his expression to satisfy the most sadistic observer, though his eyes were turned up toward the balcony from the moment of his entrance. He was flanked on both sides by third-level guards, but Thomas, who was one of the guards assigned to keep watch over us in the hall, came forward and said something inaudible to them. They withdrew, gratitude spread upon their faces, toward the metal stairs leading to the warmer balcony.

Thomas leaned over and murmured something in Harrow's ear; the older prisoner nodded in acknowledgment, but did not move his gaze from the balcony. Thomas returned to his previous position, then looked upward as his name was spoken.

It was Mercy's Keeper; he shouted something to Thomas I could not catch, and the young man responded by running lightly up the wrought metal staircase. There the Keeper spoke to Thomas for several minutes, at one point handing him a piece of paper; the young man glanced at it, then slipped it into his pocket without comment and continued to listen to the Keeper's words.

I grew bored eventually and let my attention travel over to the whipping post. Dorn's face couldn't be seen, but not surprisingly he had begun to shake during this lengthy wait: the cold would have been reason enough for that. I myself was beginning to rub my arms and blow on my hands, and I was hardly the only prisoner doing so. Amidst the shifting waters of the sea of prisoners, Harrow stood unmoved, a rock with an unreadable expression.

I wondered whether the delay was caused by an inability to reach a decision over who should have the privilege of wielding the leaded whip today. The leaded whip was two feet longer than the whips ordinarily used by Mercy guards, and was knotted with pieces of lead so small that you'd have sworn they'd have little effect, unless you'd seen the whip in use. It was a machine of pain as effective as the old-time rack, and its reputation was such that even Mercy's non-sadistic guards would vie for the opportunity to wield the coveted weapon.

Mercy's Keeper, I could guess, would pick carefully among them, for the leaded whip was also a deadly instrument. It was a hard tool to control – I'd seen it once in the hands of a guard who could not command it, and that was the messiest punishment I'd witnessed in all my years at Mercy. If Mercy's Keeper wanted to ensure that Dorn was still alive after this was over, he'd select a guard who had better chance of keeping hold of the whip. Certainly he'd have enough volunteers to choose from: looking around, I could see a hopeful expression in the eyes of all the guards nearest to me.

The prisoners had begun to grow restless now: the guards who were assigned to watch over us moved forward, whips in hand, flicking their lashes where needful. I had lost sight of Thomas: he was not at his original post, and Mercy's Keeper had returned to the front of the balcony. He raised his hand, and the lashes on the ground below forced silence. Then he began to explain why the punishment would take place.

I could have recited the speech for him; I let my attention wander, and only came back into awareness as the tension around me alerted me to the fact that the speech was over and the punishment about to begin.

Dorn was now shaking so badly that he looked like a man with palsy; his face was still hidden against the post. I glanced over at Harrow, who had sweat on his face now, and then turned back in time to see the volunteer step forward who had been granted the privilege of wielding the leaded whip.

Among the many things I had anticipated to happen that day, this had not been one of them.

Thomas did not immediately set to work: he was carefully unwinding the whip, checking each knot of lead as he went, at one point pausing to tighten a loose knot. Then he let the lash fall full toward the floor, like a tiny black waterfall; I thought that he would test the whip a few times now, but he did not. Instead he leaned over and said something to Dorn, who nodded vigorously. His gesture translated itself quite plainly into words: "Get on with it." Then Dorn turned his head, and I saw that he was biting his lip, clearly struggling to keep as long as possible from screaming, knowing, as he did, that his love-mate must be watching.

There was a pause as Thomas placed a bit of leather between Dorn's teeth, and then my guard stepped back. And back. And back, until I wondered whether Thomas fully understood the length of this whip and the resultant consequences for lack of control; if he did not, the results could be quite nasty. I found myself wincing. I didn't want Dorn dead: that would destroy all my plans. Why had that cursed Keeper chosen a young, gentle guard for this task rather than men who were far better qualified?

I nearly missed the beginning of the punishment; a blink would have erased it. Thomas struck no dramatic poses, did not even pause his arm to judge whether his distancing had been right: he simply drew back his arm and landed the blow in the same movement.

And what followed was a symphony.

Until now, I had only been on the receiving end of Thomas's whipping: now I saw what Oslo had seen that day in my cell, which must have gone a long way to securing Thomas's good reputation amongst the guards. Every guard I knew treated whips as bamboo rods that could curve: the only difference between the rod and the whip was considered to be the fact that the rod landed as a straight line, while the whip curved around the back.

But Thomas, trained upon the longer black whips used by Compassion guards, had learned that the true difference between a whip and a rod was not in shape but in movement. Whereas the Mercy guards treated the whip as a static creature, doing their best to retain the same shape at every moment in the lash's progress, Thomas used his arm to impart motion. What had been a dead, inanimate object came alive in Thomas's hand.

The movement started from his body, with the whip no more than an extension of the jerk that flowed through Thomas's flesh. It travelled, like a wave over water, down the length of the whip, arriving at the end of the lash at the precise moment that the whip reached its target. If Thomas had been aiming the whip for Dorn's back, the results would have sliced Dorn in half. But Thomas, positioned further than any Mercy guard would position himself, was aiming his strikes at the open air a hand's span from Dorn's back. Only the rippling wave kissed Dorn, landing not in a single line that conformed to the curve of Dorn's back, but as a small, sharp wave that was inverse to the curve of Dorn's back, and that rolled its way lightly across the flesh, leaving a bloody welt as it went.

Even before the first wave reached Dorn's back, Thomas was already jerking his wrist again, commanding the wave to withdraw: the message was delayed, travelling as it did down the long line of ever-shifting leather, and by the time the wave received the message and began to withdraw, Thomas had sent a second wave down the line, which would reach Dorn's back at the precise moment after Thomas moved the whip downward, so that the second wave kissed Dorn's back just below the first.

It takes a long time to describe this: as I say, if I had blinked I would have missed it. It was the quickest whipping I ever saw, over before the slower observers had managed to grasp that they were witnessing the most beautiful melody of punishment ever played in this prison.

It was over so quickly that Dorn did not even have a chance to cry out during it. If he cried out afterwards, he could not have been heard: as the last lash was withdrawn and Thomas stepped back, with not so much as a single drop of sweat marking his exertions, a roar travelled up from both the prisoners and the guards that threatened to shake down the building. Anyone standing outside Mercy Prison must have thought a riot was taking place. The roar was wordless, but several of the guards could be seen whistling and applauding. Mercy's Keeper, for the first time since I had known him, looked stunned.

Thomas ignored the reaction of his audience. He turned to say something to Sedgewick, who was standing beside the prisoner who had now gone limp on the post; Sedgewick listened and nodded, then turned to begin releasing Dorn.

I lost sight of Thomas after that; he successfully evaded Mercy's Keeper, who was coming forward to speak to him, and disappeared through one of the doors leading to the stairwell. All around me prisoners were talking at the top of their lungs about what they had seen; everybody had forgotten Harrow, who had withdrawn into some dark corner where he could witness Dorn's pain in private.

And amidst all the uproar and talk and movement, I stood fixed in my place, like a child who has just felt the blade of death enter and is still trying to grasp what has happened.

I had thought I was setting out cream for a purring kitten. I hadn't realized that I was inviting onto my lap a deadly leopard.

o—o—o

Back in my cell a short while later, I tried to retie my frazzled nerves. Heavens knew I had no one to blame except myself.

He had given me clues enough. His cool eyes . . . his talk of how he resembled his father . . . even his profound patience, which I now realized arose from a simple recognition of what he could do if that patience snapped. "Keeping control of oneself is half the battle of being a guard." In his case, it was an utter needfulness. If he did not exert control over himself, every prisoner who came into his hands would die a beautiful death.

It was odd, discovering that he was someone so like myself, but a master where I was only an apprentice. What I had seen today was something akin to what I had tried to achieve with Sharon, but the lovely flowers I had so prided myself upon seemed like ugly, shapeless masses compared to the sweet flow of pain that he had imparted into the whip. And of course there was one other difference: his motive for his deed. I hoped I was right about that motive, because if I was not, I had been playing a dangerous game with an unscrupulous opponent who would not hesitate to make me pay for my arrogance.

I heard the cell door slide back; my breath jerked out of me and I turned, half expecting to see a chill-eyed Thomas standing at the door with whip in hand, saying, "Tonight I teach you what it is like to be raped by a virgin . . ."

But when he entered the cell, he looked just as I might have hoped: pale-faced, as though he had been the one to endure the whipping. The only shock came from seeing who accompanied him.

I forgot all my fears about Thomas in the face of this new horror. "What the bloody—"

"Quiet." Thomas voice was soft, with none of the sharpness of the whip he had just wielded, but I shut my mouth. He was already withdrawing, his gaze focussed beyond the cell; he looked back only to say, "Keep the inner door closed."

For a prisoner to close the inner door when a guard isn't present is a whipping offense. I wondered whether Thomas knew that. I wondered whether he cared.

I sighed and closed the inner door; it was heavier than I had ever imagined it to be, and it took a moment's struggle to slide it closed. Then I turned to look at the other inhabitant in the cell. Silence stretched between us until I folded my arms, leaned back against the wall, and said, "So, is it warmer upstairs?"

Harrow didn't bother to reply; his face had jerked toward the door, and a moment later I heard what he had: steps coming our way. The steps of more than one guard.

The outer door screeched as it moved, the inner door opened, and then Thomas and Sedgewick were struggling through the doorway, carrying between them the limp body of Dorn.

There was a breathless battle to get him properly positioned on the floor; if they'd placed him on his back at this moment, he would no doubt have screamed down the prison walls. As it was, I could see that Dorn was biting his lip, fighting to hold sounds in. They spent a moment checking that he would remain where he was on the blankets on the floor – I had time to wonder how Thomas had managed to prepare this cell in the brief interval between the time he escorted me out and the time he joined the other guards making their way to the disciplinary hall – and then Sedgewick stood up with a grunt, saying, "Five minutes. You owe me for this, Tom."

"Thanks, Sedge," Thomas said softly, then waited till the other guard had slipped outside the cell again before closing both doors.

Harrow was already kneeling next to Dorn. If Thomas had envisioned a dramatic reunion, with both parties stretching out their arms to each other and declaring their undying love, he was disappointed: Harrow took Dorn's hand in his own, but what few words I could hear him saying were matter-of-fact: he was apparently asking after Dorn's health and welfare. His voice was low and phlegmatic; only the tears streaming down his face revealed what lay within. Dorn gave broken replies between shuddered gasps: from where I sat I could see the line of crimson welts along his back, each row exactly parallel to the next, with deep holes where the lead had landed. The blood was trickling down, staining my blankets.

I looked over at Thomas. He was kneeling upon one knee, with his head bowed and his eyes closed, as though in the presence of a scene too sacred to be witnessed, but slung over his bent knee was his arm, and at the end of that arm was his dagger, which was tight in his hand's grip. I could guess that his ears were attuned, not to the conversation in the cell, but to any sounds approaching.

After what seemed to me to be a hideously long interval, he rose suddenly and went to the door, opening it a crack; then he flung it open.

"They've realized he's missing," Sedgewick said breathlessly as Thomas let him into the cell. "Get him off this level now."

The words were not needful: Thomas was already pulling Harrow back toward the door. The older prisoner made no protest, but his face remained turned toward Dorn, who had struggled up onto one elbow to watch him go. Their eyes remained linked up to the moment that Thomas pulled Harrow around the corner.

Then Dorn collapsed with a whimper, rolling onto his stomach in a faint. Sedgewick cursed, managed the awkward task of picking up Dorn unaided, and made his way heavily to the door, through which the sounds of the search party could now be heard like hunting dogs in the distance.

I held the doors open for Sedgewick and his charge. I would have been happy to do anything to get them out of my cell.

After they were gone, I carefully returned the inner door to its usual open position and closed the outer door, trying to make it look as though it was locked. I felt no temptation whatsoever to take advantage of this moment to slip outside my cell. When the search party arrived, they would find me exactly as I always was at this time of day: lying on my bed-ledge, awaiting my guard's evening visit, unconnected in any way with seditious activities taking place at the prison tonight.

I knew that Thomas had succeeded in getting Harrow safely back to the third level when I heard shouts call off the search party, with no glee in the guards' voices to indicate that a punishment would follow. The shouts could barely be heard over the loud conversation between the prisoners who had, during this interval, gradually returned to their cells and were still chattering over what they had seen on the first level. It was the sudden break in that conversation which alerted me to the fact that Thomas was walking through the fire-pit area: I could envision every prisoner and guard falling silent as they caught sight of him. As a Keeper's son, he would be used to that.

He stepped within the cell, showing no particular surprise that his charge remained within the unlocked door. For the first time since he had been assigned to me, he closed the inner door, for which I was grateful. I had had time during his absence to reflect upon what had happened, and I was prepared with a commentary.

The echo of the inner door's thud was still resounding through the cell when I hissed, "How dare you endanger me!"

He paused in the midst of stepping forward. He was hard to see. The inner door contained a shuttered window; if a guard suspected that foul play was taking place within the closed cell, he could reach through the bars of the outer door and open the shutter. At all other times the window was left shut. With the inner door closed, the only light fell from the narrow slit above the door: the slit was angled to shine light just below the door, and in the remainder of the cell little more could be seen than dim impressions of shapes.

I could read the quiet surprise in Thomas's voice, though, as he said, "Endanger you?"

"Yes, endanger! While you were whispering your plans to everyone and their grandchildren, did it occur to you to consult with the person most likely to be punished if it was discovered that his cell was being used as a meeting place for clandestine love-mates? Or have you decided after all that it's right to force others to live out your dreams?"

My voice shook with anger. I was vaguely aware that, in light of what I had seen today, I ought to be choosing my words to this man carefully, but I could not stop myself: we had been too close to disaster. I had only one week left in which to make my escape, and I might have spent that week recovering from a whipping.

Thomas was silent for a moment, then said, "I guess I assumed you'd be willing to help."

"Help those bog-scum?" I was so astounded that I forgot to lower my voice. "Haven't I told you a thousand times what I think of the prisoners here? Do you have any idea what these men did to get sent to life prison?"

There was no response from Thomas except for the slightest lift at the edge of his mouth.

It was all I needed for my fury to be pushed beyond all bounds. "You self-sucking baby of a Keeper!" I screamed, balling my hands into fists as I strode forward. "Don't you dare laugh at me! I'll tear your throat—"

A squeaky hinge screeched; Oslo's face appeared in the window of the inner door. His hand, which rested upon the window ledge, held his whip. "Need help?" he asked Thomas politely.

Thomas shook his head, and the window shut promptly.

Thomas, I belatedly noticed, had his own hand on his dagger hilt. That should have been warning enough to me to back off, but control had escaped me: I stood where I was, a yard from him, shaking with rage.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "You're right, I should have asked your permission first."

"That's not good enough," I snarled. "I want your promise this won't happen again."

This was madness; my anger was all out of proportion with the offense. Since when did a guard consult with a prisoner over use of his cell, much less ask him permission? If any of my previous guards had decided to use my cell for rule-breaking activities, the first thing they would have done was ensure that, if the activities were discovered, I would be the one who took the blame for what had happened.

I had no time to analyze the source of my anger, though, for Thomas said, "I'm afraid I can promise that." Removing his hand from his dagger hilt with a nonchalance that should have been an alarm call that deafened me, he fished in his pocket for a moment before removing a sheet of paper and handing it to me.

Even before I read the words, I felt the blade enter me. With the blood rapidly draining from my face, I lifted my gaze from the paper and said, "Tomorrow?"

He nodded. "I'm scheduled to report for duty at Compassion three days from now. I got permission from Mercy's Keeper to stay here through tomorrow evening, but that's all."

I stared down again at the transfer, signed by Mercy's Keeper and countersigned by Compassion's Keeper. "But your discipline lasts another week," I said blankly.

He shrugged. "My father heard that I volunteered to take the leaded whip – he read this as a sign that I now understand the need for harsh disciplining of prisoners." His lips thinned. "You know why I took the whip."

"Of course." My voice sounded hollow to my ears. "The leaded whip is deadly in unskilled hands. You're Compassion-trained; you were the guard least likely to cause Dorn permanent injury."

"The leaded whip always causes permanent injury; Dorn will have ugly scars on his back till the end of his life. But at least I ensured he was still alive afterwards."

The words cut into me, as nothing else had. He wasn't ready. I wasn't ready. Why hadn't I anticipated this would happen? Why hadn't I assumed that his discipline would be cut short and paced my plans accordingly? Everything was lost now; I was lost, imprisoned for decade after decade in a cold, dark world.

I heard myself say, with no attempt to shield my sarcasm, "Enjoy your trip back." Then I flung the paper at him.

He caught it as it was floating to the ground. He didn't seem angry at my gesture or my words. For a moment he looked at me with that familiar puzzlement, and then he said, "I'm not going back."

"Not going back?" My heart skipped several beats.

"I'm leaving service. I wasn't sure till today, but after what happened with Dorn and Harrow . . . I just can't help support this cruelty any more."

I could have fallen to my knees and kissed his dusty boots. It had all come to pass – everything I'd hoped to achieve was shining before me, and I hadn't needed to do a single thing. He'd done everything himself. Oh, had I seen such fortune since the day that the morning light fell upon Sharon's face?

It took a great deal of effort for me to keep control of myself; I reminded myself that one last task remained, and I mustn't blunder this – if I was too obvious, my plans could still tumble. "Do you think your father will accept your decision?" I asked in what I hoped was a casual voice.

"He'll have to."

I shook my head slowly, wordlywise. "Has he ever accepted your decisions? Just imagine what it will be like: another long, drawn-out argument, painful on both sides, only this argument will last for months and months – perhaps years. If you thought your past arguments with him were bad, what do you think this one will be like?"

I saw his throat move as he swallowed. "You may be right. I won't remain a guard, though."

I snorted. "Do you think I'd suggest that you should? The less guards there are at the life prisons, the better off we prisoners are. All I'm suggesting is that you need to make a clean break from prison life. Remember what I said the other day about freeing yourself from your father? You need to find a way to demonstrate to him once and for all that you aren't proper material for a guard."

"But I am," he said quietly. "That's the problem."

"Because you can wield a pretty whip?" I gave a sharp laugh. "You know that's not the essence of being a guard – the essence of guardwork consists of upholding this system of bloody cattle-slaughter. A guard needs to have the desire to rape a prisoner before breakfast, to beat him before lunch, and then to end the day with a lengthy session of humiliation. What you need to do is prove to your father you're utterly unsuited to that type of work. You need to shock him by being too merciful to a prisoner."

He shook his head. "I already tried that. I told you, I was wrong to help that prisoner try to escape—"

"That was the wrong method," I said impatiently. "Of course you don't want to show mercy to a prisoner in any way that would endanger innocent people in the outside world – but you can find another way to show mercy to a prisoner, one that doesn't endanger anyone. All that you need to do is find a rule so fundamental to the existence of the life prisons that your breaking of it will convince your father that you must leave service."

I would have held my breath then, if I'd had any breath left to hold; I was panting with eagerness by now. For a moment, Thomas chewed his lower lip, rubbing the fingers of his right hand together as though he were an old-timer feeling the dice. Then he said softly, "I'll have to think about that."

I let the matter go then; I'd given him all the clues he needed. He was an intelligent young man; he could figure out the rest on his own.

o—o—o

By the following evening, I was ready to scream the prison walls down.

Thomas's failure to arrive for his usual morning visit had done nothing to heal the rawness that my nerves had undergone overnight, as I contemplated everything that could go wrong at this point. Thomas might leave early – he might fail to make the needful deductions – he might not be convinced by my argument. Worst of all, it had occurred to me, in light of his behavior toward Dorn and Harrow, that he might treat my reference to "a prisoner" more broadly than I'd intended. Well, curse him, I was his charge. He'd just better remember that.

Not that I had any intention of letting him know how worried I was. When I heard the cell door clang open that evening, I didn't leap to my feet or even turn my head. I continued staring up at the ceiling as I said, "So you're off."

"I'm afraid so." He stepped into view; he was already wearing civilian clothes for his travel, and in his hands was a blanket. It was fortunate I was lying down; if I'd been standing up, my knees would have given way at sight of that blanket.

He gestured toward it awkwardly, saying, "I had to smuggle this in from the outside, but I don't think it will get you in trouble. Your next guard will assume that you had three blankets all along."

I grunted in reply; I was failing in my battle to keep from staring at the blanket.

Thomas stepped out of my view again, saying, "I'll just put it here with the others. . . . You might want to wait till after lamp-dimming to use it, in case anyone notices it and connects it with my leaving."

I grunted again; it was the only noise I could manage at this point.

He stepped back into view; now that the blanket was out of his hands, it could be seen that, since he was not wearing his uniform, he was also not wearing his heavy belt with his dagger and whip. It said something about him that he would enter my cell unarmed. "Well," he said hesitantly, "I guess I should go. I have a long trip tomorrow."

"Mm-hmm," I said, deciding on a need to vary my responses.

He looked down at his toes for a moment, then said, "I've enjoyed getting to know you. Would you mind if I keep in touch with you by correspondence?"

I began to laugh then, so hard that I nearly rolled off the ledge. I looked over at him in time to see the redness dip its way down into his neckline.

I managed to regain enough control of myself to say, "I was just – just imagining what my new guard would do if I received a friendly letter from the outside world. If I was lucky, he'd simply burn it in front of me. More likely, he'd post it in the guardroom and turn the best bits into ditties for the guards to sing."

"Oh." He gave a shy smile, looking abashed. "I hadn't thought of that – I'm sorry. It's just— Well, I'll miss you."

I shrugged. "We had our time together. Now it's over."

I was cribbing from an old love song; I hoped he didn't recognize that. Apparently he didn't, for his face fell somewhat. After a while he said, "I'd been thinking about the conversations we had about boundaries. It occurred to me . . . When you have a bunch of notes that are all jumbled together in cacophony, you don't need to bring all of them into order at once. You can start with just two or three notes, and work from there. If the initial joining of those two notes is beautiful enough, you'll have the start of a song."

"You think so?" I was trying to figure out how to end this conversation and get him out of this cell; the longer he was here, the more likelihood there was that a last-minute disaster would arise.

"Yes," he said. "It's been like that with us, hasn't it?"

For a moment more I continued to stare up at the featureless ceiling; then I turned my head and let him see the coldness on my face. "You think so?" I said softly.

I knew that I was taking the greatest of risks at that moment; I should have kept him sweet till the end. If that meant letting him think like a three-year-old, so be it.

But the truth was that I'd gained a good deal of respect for this young man during our time together, and I hated to see him act like a fool. There are guards who spend their entire careers that way – every time a prisoner, out of sheer self-defense, shows them some courtesy, they leap to the conclusion that this is a sign of friendship. I didn't want Thomas falling into such self-delusions.

He was standing motionless, as though a blade had just entered his heart; the redness in his skin was being replaced rapidly by whiteness. The sight would have broken my heart, if I'd had any heart left.

As it was, I went back to staring at the ceiling. After a while Thomas said in a low voice, "Yes, I thought so. Well, goodbye."

I didn't bother to grunt this time. I heard his slow step to the front of the cell, and the screech of the outer door being pulled back, then the screech of it being pulled forward again. Thomas's key rattled in the lock.

I got up onto one elbow and looked back. "Hey!"

He raised his head; the hope was bright in his eyes. "Yes?"

"Do you know who my new guard is?"

He shook his head slowly.

"Ah." I lay back down. After a while, I heard his steps fade away.

I was barely aware of him. Already he was fading from my consciousness; even the pleasure of having broken a guard was less important to me than what else I had accomplished. It was going to be very hard to wait the two hours before the lamps were dimmed.

Yet I not only managed to control myself that long, I even waited an extra half hour more, in case my eagerness should manifest itself too clearly. Then, as the cells around me began to be filled with the usual evening sounds of moans and screams, I got up slowly, and with my body drumming from the rapid beat of my heart, I walked over to the corner and knelt down.

It was just where I had hoped it would be, folded within the new blanket: my key to freedom from this place.

Thomas's dagger.

o—o—o

I don't know why I failed to use the blade immediately.

It could not have been out of any doubts as to how to use it. The days were long gone since I'd held newbie notions of stealing a guard's dagger and using it to threaten my way past the guards holding the gates to the outside world. The first guard to sight a prisoner with a weapon would let out an alarm call so loud that he'd have the sixth-level guards scrambling down the stairs to help. And then would come the leaded whip. It would be just my luck if they called Thomas back for a repeat performance.

Nor did my hesitation lie in uncertainty as to which technique to use. Although the idea of self-murder had never appealed to me in the old days, I had thought of little else since I realized the impossibility of escape from Mercy by any other means. Any apprehension I had held about stepping into the unknown beyond life had disappeared around the time of my tenth guard. Nor had I ever needed to worry about pain: I had worked out the most painless methods of slaughter at the time of Sharon. All I had lacked till today was the means to my end, and now I had it.

Logic told me that I should act at once: every hour's delay increased the chance that I would be discovered with Thomas's dagger and would face the consequences. What held me back, I think, was something I ought to have anticipated.

It was so very sweet to have a dagger in my hand again.

I lay in my bed, curled around the blade, imagining what it would be like to use it, as I had imagined it in the year preceding Sharon's death. The sweetness had a certain poignancy about it this time, as I realized that this might be the only pleasure I received from the act. In the moment that I plunged the blade in, would I retain enough awareness to feel what I had ten years before? If not, then this pleasure now, in the anticipation, was all that I could expect to be gifted with.

Thoughts of who had given me this gift never entered my mind; that part of my life was over now. Instead, I fell asleep, drawn back to an older, happier time.

She came into my dreams as she always did, singing.

She was crouched down on the ground, tugging at a flower stubbornly determined to cling to life, and humming a throaty melody that was of her own making. She was a sight to behold: her hair was golden-red and fell in curls that half-hid her face, but at the moment her hair looked brown because the early morning sky was overcast. I thought it was a shame. The bright flowers deserved better treatment today, as did she.

She finally managed to loosen the flower from its roots and scrambled to her feet, holding the flower out to me, dirty roots and all. "Here!" she said.

I took the offering from her and added it to the pile of silken-petalled flowers in the wicker basket I held for her. For a moment we smiled at each other, two fellow laborers satisfied with a job well done; then she looked back over her shoulder at the small white house in the distance, surrounded by barns. No smoke travelled through the chimney yet; its inhabitants were still asleep.

"We should go back," she said uncertainly. At times like this she most nearly resembled her father, a rough but shy man whom I much liked. The part of her that was my sister, though, was always near to the surface.

"There's no hurry," I said. "They know where we are, thanks to you."

She grinned then, pleased with her contribution of a note that I had shown her how to write, letter by painful letter. With the help of that note, all searches for her would go far astray of her actual location; it would be days before she was found.

Where we actually were was the glade. The very word made my heart beat faster, so often had I built my plans for this place. It was darker here than I'd anticipated, but everything else was right: the soft green moss sparkling with dew, the brook singing nearby, the birds warbling in the trees. A beautiful resting place.

"I want Mommy to see the flowers when she wakes up," argued Sharon. A little of her mother was surfacing now, though kept in check by the hesitancy she inherited from her father.

"All right," I said agreeably. "Would you like to carry the flowers on the way back?"

Eagerly she stretched out her hands, and I placed the heavy basket in them. As anyone might have anticipated – and indeed, I had anticipated this quite carefully – the basket fell, tipping as it turned in the air, and spilling the flowers about her feet.

"Oh!" cried Sharon, staring down at the gayly colored blossoms with the anguish of a housewife met with an unexpected domestic emergency. She looked up at me; I was standing but a yard from her now, feeling uncertainty race through me.

Perhaps that reflected itself in my face, for at that moment my sister's heritage took hold of Sharon. She frowned, folded her arms, and stamped her foot, crushing several blossoms in the process. "Don't stand useless!" she cried. "Do something!"

"All right," I said. I knelt down, took the dagger from out of my shirt, and stabbed her.

She made no cry – I was pleased with that. I had not wanted to hurt her or even to scare her – all I wanted was what I received now: the image of her body stiffening, her face turning up in shock, and then – oh, so glorious! – her body crumpling, falling into the bed of flowers I had prepared for her.

It was so close to my dreams I could have wept. But fortune had not finished with me, for at that moment, the sun came out.

It fell through a break in the leaves, directly onto Sharon. There she lay, among the flowers shining in multi-colored splendor, the dagger hilt sticking out from her chest with no more than a single trickle of blood staining her white dress. Her curls glowed about her face like burnished bronze, and in her eyes remained the expression of shock I had seen before.

Tears began to roll down my face. I sank down onto my haunches beside the girl, feeling wave after wave of sweetness enter into me, a feeling that made all the sweetness of the weeks of planning seem dull by comparison. I pushed the locks back from her forehead with a trembling hand, and as I did so, the sweetness of the death was joined by an overwhelming sensation of love and gratitude toward the one who had given me this.

"You are beautiful," I whispered to her. "So very beautiful." And I bent down to kiss her forehead. Above us, a lark trilled out its heart.

It was at that moment – the supreme moment in my memories, when I would awaken with a sigh and a smile  – that the dream took an unexpected turn.

A heavy weight fell upon my back, and with it came pain – pain greater than I had ever known, beating upon my skin and my muscles and my very bones. I had gone blind – something was tied over my eyes – and I could not move my limbs, for they were held in icy bonds. My whole body, which a moment before had been bathed in warmth, was now chill and shaking, and I could barely breathe because of the weight upon me.

The weight shifted, pounding me over and over; I began to realize that the greatest pain was taking place within me – a harsh, scraping sensation. I screamed.

Hot breath burned my ear; it was accompanied by a chuckle. "You'll get used to this," a voice said.

And then the scene shifted. The weight was still upon me and I still lay in darkness, but no longer was I bound and blindfolded – I lay this way voluntarily, not struggling against my captor, but accepting with closed eyes and dull resignation all that he did to me. A voice breathed into my ear, "Ah, that was nice. . . . I'm sorry this won't happen again."

And then I awoke, racked with sobs, my hands still clutching the hilt of the naked dagger.

It took me a long while to get my weeping under control. I could hear the sound of my sobs echoing in the fire-pit area, but no one came to investigate. . . naturally. Crying prisoners are a nightly tedium at Mercy. By the time I had managed to control my moist, shaking mass of a body, I was aware that it must now be late at night, for few sounds could be heard coming from the other cells. The rapes were over for the night; the prisoners slept on in their pain and their nightmares.

Except that I had never slept in nightmares: to me, sleep had always been a delicious haven of retreat from Mercy. Why, tonight of all nights, had that haven been closed to me?

I wiped the tears from my face, trying to analyze the meaning of my dream. Of its source there could be no doubt: the first voice in the dream was my first guard, speaking on the night of my arrival at Mercy. It had taken him dagger, whip, chains, and the help of two fellow guards to subdue me, and by the time the rape actually occurred, I was bleeding and broken in so many portions of my body that I barely noticed when he entered me.

I had pushed that memory away long ago, or so I had thought. Yet there was his voice again, saying, "You'll get used to this."

I had gotten used to it, I realized slowly. Not simply to the nightly rapes to which the guard referred, but to the old dream that had once been so fresh. For ten years I had relived it over and over: the only time in my life when I had truly felt happiness. It was a wonder that it had not grown stale to me before. If a man has no memory of lovemaking except for a single night, won't he eventually grow weary of replaying the same memory over and over? I was a man who had fulfilled my appetite only once, and now the memory was no longer sweet. It had been nice, but it wouldn't happen again.

It was unfair – so utterly unfair. Only one night more, and I'd be free of this place – was it too much to ask that my final night be filled with pleasant thoughts, not with memories of the pain I'd undergone since then? I couldn't even feel any sweetness now from my upcoming death. I remembered Sharon's look of shock, with nothing following it. It would be the same with me – I would feel death, but none of death's sweetness.

All that was left to me now was the cold darkness of Mercy, and I felt myself rage against it.

And then I became aware that my cell was a little colder than I might have expected, and a little darker.

I jerked up in bed, turning to look at the barred door. I couldn't see it; it was hidden by the closed inner door. Standing in front of the inner door was a man.

It was not my new guard; that screaming nightmare vanished as I saw the slight build of the unarmed man. Thomas's face was directly in the light falling from the window above, but my eyes were too dazzled by the darkness to be able to see his expression.

I could read the hesitancy in his voice, though, as he said, "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to startle you. I thought I heard you—"

"Not at all," I said, smiling as I rose. Fortune had been kind to me twice, it seemed. This was like the sun falling upon Sharon's face.

He began to speak as I turned my steps toward him; then his voice turned abruptly into a jerk of breath. He had seen the dagger in my hand.

I walked forward, shifting the dagger so that it was in the right position. No well-trained guard could have mistaken my movement; this one surely did not. But he did not call out for the other guards. I had known that he would not. This was going to be sweet – oh, so very sweet. All I needed was this to carry me over into my final act.

I was close to him now, close enough to see the rapid rise and fall of his chest and the quick beat of blood in one of the veins in his throat. I felt a faint regret at that – I had managed to kill Sharon so swiftly that she had not had time to fear me; it ought to have been the same here. No matter, I would put that to rights as soon as I could. I came up against him and drew the dagger back.

I had made my decision by then; I knew that afterwards. The dagger would have taken the same path, whether or not I had looked at his face at that moment. All that my viewing revealed to me was the full extent to which I had been wrong about what had been taking place in this cell for these past seven weeks.

For a moment I merely stared, hearing the soft trickle of water down the wall behind me, the hiss of flames from the fire-pit outside, and the moans from a prisoner whose guard had stopped by his cell with thoughts of service in mind. Then I said, "Just to slake my curiosity: When did you learn to play dice?"

For a moment, his eyes remained cool; then the coolness dissipated, like dew on the morning ground, and the edge of Thomas's mouth lifted. "When I was five. My father taught me."

I had to turn swiftly then, in order to muffle my mouth against my arm, else the sound of my roar would have brought the night watch running to see what was amiss. Sobs are common at Mercy; laughter is not.

You will be wondering, I'm sure, why I wasn't angry. But indeed anger had boiled within me . . . the previous day, when I first realized how this song would end. There had been that moment when the cell door opened and Sedgewick bore in Dorn – Sedgewick, my first guard, who was the most vicious man I had ever met. A man with a matchless and pitiless talent for tormenting prisoners – if Thomas's simple request could persuade a man like that to risk discipline for the sake of a prisoner, then all was lost. Part of me had known from that moment that I was fighting a man much too skilled to defeat.

The rage had come then; now, as the slower part of me finally acknowledged the truth, time enough had passed for me to see the humor of this.

"I'll bet you've cleared every guard at Compassion of his earnings," I said finally, wiping the tears of laughter from my eyes. "Thanks for letting me think I was winning half the time."

He grinned but said nothing, simply put out his hand palm-up.

I handed him the dagger, saying, "Your stakes were too high."

"Not really," he said, sheathing his dagger; the very presence of his uniform ought to have warned me before that he was still giving me service. "I knew that you'd make the right decision this time."

He spoke with the relaxed contentment of a man who has just given his beloved satisfactory service in bed, but the blood in his vein was only just now beginning to slow its pace. His fear of me had been real, then, if nothing else had. The faint regret I had felt before deepened into guilt.

In so quiet a manner is a new emotion born. It would not be till later that I identified this as the moment of turning.

Now, I simply repeated, "Your stakes were too high. Even if I hadn't murdered you or myself, I might have betrayed you to Mercy's Keeper in order to gain something. You must find ways to help prisoners that won't risk you losing your guardwork. You'll never make it to the rank of Keeper at this rate."

He shook his head. "I didn't lie to you about that; I'm really leaving service."

I felt a warmth enter me then, a rising warmth like the morning sun. So he did not in fact know all that had been taking place here for the past seven weeks. That was a relief; I had begun to think that my role in this ballad would be confined to standing useless.

Placing my hand against the inner door, I leaned toward Thomas and saw the first sign of uncertainty enter his eyes. I did not move back. "No, you aren't," I told him firmly. "You're going to go back to Compassion and give your father that speech about doing guardwork in the way you yourself see fit. Then you're going to do what you've done here at Mercy: you'll impress the Compassion guards with your skill to such an extent that you'll begin to civilize some of them. And then, when the day comes that you're made Keeper, you will change your life prison into a place that offers its prisoners service, not unending pain."

"But—"

I suppose I ought to have let him offer his arguments. He was still very young; he still found it easiest to reach conclusions with the help of others. But he was capable of travelling the hard road to this conclusion on his own; he had wielded the leaded whip for Dorn's sake. And there was still one service I could do for him, if we didn't waste what time was left.

I smothered his reply with a kiss.

His expression, when I finally drew back, was a sight to behold; it caused me to conclude that there were more pleasant pastimes at Mercy than breaking a guard. With the sweetness beginning to sing through me, I reached up and touched his cheek, smiling at him.

"Never argue with one who loves you," I said softly.

Then I stepped back, releasing all but his hand, which I held lightly. After a minute's hesitation, he let me lead him to my bed, and there I gave the young man what he needed to break free of his father.

o—o—o

Today was the twentieth anniversary of my arrival at Mercy Prison, and I celebrated the occasion by spending the evening listening to my guard bewail his troubles with his mistress. It's hard to lend a sympathetic ear to a man who has been raping you every night for the past three months, but I did my best. If nothing else, I have my reputation to uphold.

Before we go any further, let's get one thing straight: I don't know how the rumors started that I was the creator of the Boundaries of Behavior, but it's not true. As you can tell from this tale, the original idea for the Boundaries belonged to another man, while it was Tyrrell who first suggested that we take the informal agreement he and I had reached over how to behave toward each other and formalize it into a code of behavior for all the inhabitants of Mercy. I even scoffed when Tyrrell suggested this, telling him that nobody except us would be idiots enough to place voluntary boundaries on their behavior. Well, I've been known to be wrong.

My only contribution was to spread the word that the original idea for the Boundaries came from one of the many guards I've had over the years. This piqued the interest of some of the younger guards, who were still fresh enough in their arrival to question long-held prison customs; before long it was the raging fashion among the guards to refuse to do the obvious, and now fully one quarter of the guards adhere to the Boundaries.

Of course, that means that three quarters of the guards do not. In many ways, life at Mercy has not changed. Dorn and Harrow still live on separate levels, though they now maintain an eager correspondence through the aid of some sympathetic guards. The less sympathetic guards make their presence better known: every night, Mercy continues to be filled with the sounds of groans and screams. In fact, last year an ill-controlled sadist was assigned to me; just my luck to be given a murderous guard when he could no longer be of use. I made the mistake of trying to sympathize with him one day over a grazed knuckle and found myself splayed against the wall shortly thereafter, shrieking under the blows of a splintering bamboo rod. Some men just can't be helped.

Some men can't be. It has always been a wonder to me that Thomas knew I was one of those who could be.

Little news comes from the other life prisons, though Tyrrell and I keep our ears zealously attuned to all rumors, particularly those arriving from Compassion. I would like to think that Thomas kept the promises he made to me during that single night we had together, and that one of these days we will receive word that Compassion's Keeper has retired in favor of a younger man, who will begin to make the prison worthy of its name. But whether or not that happens, we aren't waiting here to let others do the work. Some of the Boundaries-adhering guards have even taken their case to the magistrates, pressing for changes to require all of the guards to treat life prisoners humanely.

Well, I know magistrates: if any changes of that sort happen, it will be after my lifetime. I'm growing older now, and it worries me whether I'll be able to accomplish everything needful before my death. I'd like to report that all of us who hold to the Boundaries carry our weight evenly, but the truth is that the greatest weight falls where it has from the beginning, upon Tyrrell and me.

Tomorrow night, for example, Tyrrell and I are scheduled to meet with Mercy's Keeper so that we can urge him to let two prisoners who are love-mates share a cell together. Then we're going to try to persuade one of the rapist-guards that he'd be far happier servicing the prisoner in the next cell, who would gladly share his bed. After that, we'll return to our cell and undergo the unavoidable delay of being serviced by our guards; at least these days I can exchange sympathetic looks with Tyrrell while it's happening. And then – well past midnight – Tyrrell and I are likely to spend time arguing over ways to make the Boundaries seem more appealing to newly arrived prisoners and guards. The arguments take a long time; Tyrrell and I are no more inclined now than in the past to reach ready agreement. But we do well enough in our painstaking work, and our goal is that, by the end of the next ten years, we will have every new arrival keeping to the Boundaries.

All of this means that I rarely get a full night's sleep these days, and the problem is compounded by the fact that, at least once a week, I wake up sobbing with guilt from dreams of Sharon. Matters are getting better there, though: last night I dreamt that she was no longer the three-year-old girl I destroyed but the twenty-three-year-old woman she might have become. She folded her arms and frowned at me, stamping her foot as she said, "Don't stand useless! Do something!"

And then I awoke, and I had plenty to do. Honestly, I can't imagine why I ever thought this place was boring.