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The Unanswered Question

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"If you ever meet our King . . ." Master Aeden had once said.

"Yes?" he had prompted impatiently. Patience came hard to him in those early days.

Master Aeden, who had been whetting his blade, gave him a level look. "Crawl on your belly," the master torturer had said flatly. "If you're lucky, you'll survive the encounter."

Layle Smith had laughed in response. He had laughed routinely in those days to any threat of danger. Now, standing in the vestibule of the King's enemy, the Queen of Yclau, he felt his stomach clench over and over, as though Master Aeden had forced boiling water down his throat. Again.

He was weaponless. Or rather, not quite weaponless, for he knew what he was capable of doing with his body, but he bore no blade, nor any whip, nor any lead pipe with which to stun his victim, nor any rope with which to strangle the victim . . . The number of potential weapons he had deliberately laid aside was frighteningly high. He fingered the book hidden in his cloak pocket, wondering how the torturers who had written it managed to break prisoners while demonstrating such unusual restraint.

Nearby, the Queen's guards eyed him uneasily. He was used to that. He had never met a man – nor a woman, for that matter – who did not fear him within a short time of meeting him. He had the aura of the High Master of hell, Master Aeden had once said, only half mocking. Layle had felt complimented at the time. Now he wished that he had a more innocent look, for the cold fearsomeness and sly intimacy he had used to bring himself to this point had encountered an unexpected barrier.

"I will not be moved," said the man sitting at the table in front of him.

The man was middle-aged, but he looked much like the elderly High Master of what had recently come to be called the Hidden Dungeon: he had the expression of a man who has seen everything and trusts no one. His eyes barely touched Layle's as he said, "You have managed to bribe and bluster and seduce and threaten and terrify your way past a dozen sets of guards in your quest to see our Queen. Those methods will not work with me."

He winced inwardly at the man's slight emphasis on the word "our." He had a good ear for accents and had never forgotten how his Yclau mother spoke – how he himself had spoken in his early childhood, before his mother died and he was left to make his own path in the Kingdom of Vovim. He had made good use of that accent ever since his arrival in the Queendom of Yclau, passing himself off as the son of an Yclau gentlewoman. Since his mother had in fact been an Yclau gentlewoman until she was abducted to Vovim by Layle's father, this was not a hard act to play.

The Queen's secretary, still not deigning to look Layle straight in the eye, picked up a pen and said reflectively, "You are rather young to be assigned the role of an assassin. I assume that you instead have some private grievance against the Queen, which you wish to air to her ear?"

Layle's dark humor took hold of him then; he just managed to keep from laughing at the idea that he was too young to murder. "I wish only to petition her, sir. I know that she is very busy with more important business, and I would not ask for a minute or two of her time if the matter were not so urgent—"

"Take him away." The secretary gestured with one hand while beginning to write with the other. "And if he re-enters the palace grounds again, I'll have Colonel Cartwright court-martial every guard in this palace."

The two guards came toward him, but slowly, reluctantly, with their hands gripping the hilts of their ceremonial swords. Layle waited until they were too close to be able to easily release their swords; then he stomped on the foot of one of them and punched the other one in the stomach. Amidst the howls of pain, he slipped free, as easily as a fish, and ran toward the Queen's door.

He had just reached the door when he heard a click behind him. He froze, recognizing the sound. Then he turned his head slowly in the direction of the click.

The secretary was standing now, both arms outstretched as he gripped a pistol that was levelled at Layle's head. "The Queen's guards may be fools," he said, "but I am not. Lie down on your belly."

Within three minutes, Layle had been stripped of all his clothes. He remained on his stomach, his fingers interlaced behind his head as he had been instructed, while the secretary and the Queen's guards discussed what they had found in his clothing. He was spending the time trying to figure out how best to extract himself from this situation. If this had happened only a month ago, the solution would have been easy: both the guards and the secretary would be dead by now. But he dared not kill, nor even maim the men.

No matter how much pleasure that would give him.

He was still contemplating this thought, and was wishing that he had developed ways over the years to disable men in a relatively harmless manner, when he heard a voice, frigid with disapproval, say, "What is going on here?"

He lifted his head cautiously. He could not see the new arrival, for the secretary, perhaps seeking to shield the arrival's modesty, had stepped forward to block the view. His back was now to Layle. The guards, frowning with concern, hurried over to their prisoner. One put his boot hard upon Layle's back, the other his blade against the back of Layle's neck.

A moment later, the first guard was lying on the floor writhing, while the second was staring with disbelief at his hand, which was dripping blood from his own sword. Layle, who was already regretting his precipitate action, ignored the secretary's pistol, which was ground against his temple. Kneeling down, he laid the guard's sword at the arrival's feet.

"Madam," he said, bowing his head to the Queen of Yclau, "might I beg your graciousness to spare a minute or two of your time?"

o—o—o

The Queen's chamber was filled to the brim with guards. Layle gathered, from the looks aimed at him, that this was unusual, as was the presence of the guards' colonel, who was glaring at the young man who had managed to trick his way past the palace defenses. Layle was less worried about the colonel and the guards than he was about the Queen's secretary, who was sitting quietly to the side, his pistol resting on his thigh, and his hand resting on the pistol. From the contemplative look on the secretary's face, Layle concluded that the secretary was not prepared to hold his fire the next time Layle made an unwise move.

Layle took care not to stir his now-clothed body in any way, but inwardly he shifted his feet. He had been within the houses of the mid-class: the tradesmen he had robbed and tortured and killed, as well as the house of his father and his father's wife, and once Master Aeden had received permission to take Layle to see an old friend of his, though the conversation on that day had gone so awkwardly that the master torturer had soon departed with his apprentice. Layle only wondered that Master Aeden had attempted the reunion. Surely he must have known that everyone in the world despised torturers, even the guards who helped the torturers with their bloody tasks.

So the looks of hatred he was receiving from every man in the room touched him hardly more than a sprinkling of summer rain. It was the furniture that alarmed him. Marble tables, diamond-edged mirrors, velvet-cushioned chairs, rugs that looked as though they must have been imported from overseas, and towering above it all, the gilded throne upon which the Queen sat.

Gods above and below. The part of Layle that wasn't counting up how much money he could get if he sold the room's contents to a fence was telling him, "You have taken a step too high for your station in life."

It did him no good to remind himself that, if the tales his mother had told were true – and of course they must have been – then his grandfather had once visited this palace as a child. If his mother's father were standing here now – rather than being long dead, murdered by Layle's father – he would spit upon his bastard grandson.

"And how do you come to know this information about my enemy?" the Queen asked in a clear voice. She was a stout, handsome woman, and to complete the portrait of elegance, she was wearing her crown, as well as her gold-threaded gown that had rustled like fine chain-mail when she ascended the throne. Layle knew that she must be no more than middle-aged – her surviving daughter had barely reached apprentice age – but she looked formidably old.

He hesitated. He had decided, upon one look at the Queen, to deal with her in a reasonably honest manner. It was no more than a confirmation of what he had decided on the journey here, but it still made him uneasy, to share so much damning information about himself with a stranger. It made him even more uneasy to share his information with a crowd of strangers.

This must have showed on his face, for the Queen waved her hand. "Clear the room."

"Madam!" The colonel leapt forward. "You must not strip yourself of your protection—"

The Queen turned a cold eye upon him. "Did you say 'must not,' Colonel?"

"I— Your graciousness, I only meant to suggest—"

"Did you indeed." The Queen's tone was dismissive. "I do not recall asking for your suggestion. Clear the room."

The colonel looked despairingly at the secretary, who said quietly, "As you wish, madam. But this young man has already shown himself to be dangerous."

"He has shown himself to be dangerous to anyone who tries to prevent him from speaking to me," the Queen agreed. "All the more reason to clear the room now. I do not want to have to wait to clear the room of the corpses of incompetent guards."

The colonel spluttered. The secretary, on the other hand, looked as though he might smile. "Yes, madam. May I stay?"

"I am counting on your protection. The rest of you may go." She waved her hand again.

Within two minutes, the chamber was cleared, except for the Queen, the secretary, and Layle, who had been careful to stay motionless during the exodus. He was straining his ear to check whether anyone was eavesdropping, but there were no windows in this lamplit chamber, and the doors were far away. If he kept his voice low, it was unlikely anyone would hear him.

Not that he had any choice in the matter. He swallowed the hardness in his throat before saying, "I know what activities take place in the Hidden Dungeon, your graciousness, because I used to work there."

"Indeed." The Queen appeared not at all surprised. "Tell me what you did there, and what you did before you came there."

By the time Layle was finished, even the secretary was beginning to look uneasy. He had clicked his pistol's change lever off the safe position soon after the beginning of the recital and had come to stand within an arm's reach of Layle. Layle ignored him. He was feeling somewhat faint; the recital had taken a long time, and he had not eaten since entering Yclau, sensing, somehow, that it would not be right to commit a theft within the Queen's territory.

When he finished speaking, the Queen's only comment was, "How many people did you say you have killed?"

He thought about this before asking, "Including the ones I executed at the King's command?"

"Yes."

It took him a while to tot up the numbers in his head. When he gave the approximate answer – dividing the figures for men, women, and children – the Queen lifted her eyebrows. There was a small spell of silence as Layle thought about what he had just said.

Then the Queen said, "You are eighteen?"

"Yes, your graciousness. Since last winter."

"In Vovim, you are regarded as a child. Do you understand that you are considered to be of age in this queendom?"

He understood. In Vovim, the age of a murderer did not matter, but Yclau, being more tender toward youthful offenders, only permitted the execution of adult murderers. He wondered whether he would be given a chance to defend himself. The Yclau liked to boast that all of their prisoners received fair trials. "Yes, your graciousness."

"And what sort of reward do you seek for the information you have given?"

He blinked, disconcerted by the change in topic. In the silence that followed, he heard the faint strains of a badly conducted orchestra, playing somewhere in the palace. Well, he was in Yclau. The Queen's rich but ugly furnishings had already told him that every tale he had ever heard about the inartistic Yclau had been true.

His silence was not due to lack of an answer. He knew the proper reply, of course. He had rehearsed it on the way here – of how he would pour every bit of information he knew into the Queen's lap, and then, if she expressed gratitude, persuade her to make manifest her thanks.

Since she did not seem to have any immediate plans to hang him – and why should she hang someone who had just provided her with weapons against her foremost war enemy? – this was the moment at which he should began his persuasion. He would start with humility, stammering that he was unworthy of any reward, and then he would shyly admit to having had a hope— But no, he would add, it would be wrong of him to ask for anything. His only desire was to serve the Queen, in whatever way his gifts would permit.. . .

"Well?" said the Queen. She was drumming her fingers on a book in her lap. Layle stared at the book, feeling bewilderment take hold of him – the same bewilderment that had led him to flee from his highly satisfying work in Vovim's Hidden Dungeon.

"I am not worthy," he heard himself say.

"What?" the Queen leaned forward, her arm moving to cover the book.

He looked up. The bewilderment was breaking him, as it had before; he felt the jagged teeth tear at his innards. He felt the bloody pain.

"Madam," he said, trying to blink away a strange pricking at his eyes, "the only reward I deserve is to be executed, and to be tortured eternally thereafter by hell's High Master. I am not worthy of Mercy's grace."

The Queen said nothing. The secretary, his eyes narrowed, said nothing. Layle lowered his gaze to the black volume in the Queen's lap. Of course, he thought dully. Of course, those are the only words I could have spoken. What was I thinking before? That I could lie to the Queen and then ask to work in a dungeon where lies are abhorrent? That I could come to her by means of trickery and violence, and then receive the privilege to live in a place where prisoners are persuaded through honorable means to repent of their crimes? What madness made me think that someone like myself could work in the Eternal Dungeon? My very presence would taint its purity.

"I'm sorry, madam." His voice sounded angry; he hoped that she understood that his anger was at himself. "I should never have come here. I . . . I would have sent a note with that information anyway, in case what I told you could be of use to you. But I should have given myself over to the soldiers in one of your lesser prisons, so that I could receive my just punishment for my crimes."

"So that you could be tortured eternally," said the Queen softly.

He did not reply. He was envisioning, not his death, but what awaited him thereafter. He had been tortured once before. That had been hard enough, to endure pain for a brief period in the hands of one of the King's torturers. But to be tortured eternally by one of Hell's men . . . He could feel himself begin to shake. He closed his eyes, pushing back furiously the impulse to chop his hand down on the neck of the secretary – who had foolishly lowered his pistol – and make his escape.

Whatever else he did, he would not return to what he had been. Not even if it meant enduring Hell's anger.

"Secretary of mine, you are standing rather too close to this young man." The Queen's voice held a faint note of warning.

"Yes, madam." The secretary quickly stepped back. "Though if I am any judge of men, it makes no difference."

"I am glad to hear that our judgment is in accord. —Young man."

He raised his eyes, as best he could. The mysterious pricking at his eyes had increased; his eyeballs felt hot, as though someone were using pokers onto them. "Yes?" he whispered.

The Queen held up the black book. "This was the only object found on you when your body was searched. You have read it?"

He stared at the black-and-gold binding of the Eternal Dungeon's Code of Seeking. "Yes, madam."

"Do you recall that it says anything about eternal punishment?"

He began to reply, then hesitated, sensing a gap in his knowledge. Master Aeden had once said, approvingly, that Layle's desire to learn was his strongest characteristic.

The Queen rose to her feet, lifted the side of her gown in one hand and the black book in the other, and descended the steps of the throne, saying, "In Vovim, they believe in eternal punishment. In Yclau, we believe in eternal rebirth."

It was like a blow to the kidney, learning that hope lay ahead. "You mean . . . After I am dead, I could . . . In my next life, I might be given the chance . . ." He swallowed. "But that isn't fair. Not after what I did."

"It is not a matter of fair or not fair," the Queen said patiently as she came forward. "It is merely a matter of what is. If you repent of your misdeeds, and willingly undergo punishment for them, you are transformed and are reborn eternally. None of us deserve that gift. All of us are offered it."

He stared at the black book in her hand. The words she spoke had been there. They were the reason he had come here. But he had thought of those words as applying only to the prisoners that were searched by the torturers in the Eternal Dungeon. He had not considered that the words might apply to a young, abusive torturer who had fled from Vovim's corrupt royal dungeon.

"It isn't fair," he said softly. "Too many innocents suffered in order that I might slake my pleasure on their bodies. But if you say that such a reward is always given, whether fairly or not . . . Madam, I promise you, in my next life I will do better. I will be loyal to you, and to your successors, and to this Code that you permit your torturers to follow."

The Queen sighed. "'Permit.' Did you hear that?"

"I did, madam." The secretary's voice had grown grim. "It tells us far too much about what sort of orders the King of Vovim gives to his torturers."

"Yet it is no more than the truth. The Code is not my own creation, nor the creation of my predecessors. It sprang forth and has been nurtured by visionary men who dwell far closer to eternal rebirth than I do. —Young man."

He raised his eyes. His vision had blurred in a way that puzzled him; it was as though he were anticipating the final moments of his death. And yet even with all that he knew about the horrors undergone by prisoners who were strangled, he could feel hope growing within him – the hope that he might be granted the undeserved opportunity to do better in his next life.

The Queen reached forth her hand and touched his face, just in time to catch something wet and hot that was trickling down his face. "You are crying," she observed.

"I am?" he said blankly. He placed his fingers against his face and found to his consternation that what she said was true. Yet he never cried. The gods knew that he had attempted to on many occasions. Tears might have been a good weapon with which to weaken Master Aeden, when the master torturer was disciplining him. "I never cry," he said, bewildered again.

The Queen placed her royal hands upon his face, which was now flooding with tears. "But you will," she said firmly. "Layle Smith, you will cry again and again, before I am through with you."