The year 372, the sixth month. (The year 1885 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
"We have no need of racks or death sentences to control our prisoners," said the young man who represented the Magisterial Republic of Mip in the United Order of Prisons. The criticism of the Queendom of Yclau's Eternal Dungeon was implicit. "By lifting all threat of torture in the life prisons, we are able to appeal to the better nature of our prisoners."
"Indeed?" responded Layle Smith politely. He wondered whether he himself had ever been that naive. It seemed unlikely.
"Of course," added the young man in an evident effort to match his guest's politeness, "we have learned a great deal from the Eternal Dungeon's Code of Seeking. Your Code was carefully consulted at the time that our republic founded, seventeen years ago, and its best elements were incorporated into our plans for the life prisons . . . with a few improvements. These doors, for example—"
"Yes, I see." No privacy for the prisoners. None whatsoever. The barred doors in this life prison allowed any casual passerby to see what the prisoners were doing at any time of the day. The prisoners' urination and defecation must be public events.
"—are simply a wider extension of the principle you established, in your revision of the Code, that guards must keep watch over the prisoners at all times."
He managed to keep from wincing. "We use watch-holes in the cell doors in the Eternal Dungeon."
"Yes, we thought we could improve on that." The young man smiled at him. "Is there anything else you would like to see while we are here?"
Layle turned slowly, taking in the view before him. A fire-pit in the center of the circular level appeared to be the only source of heating – heaven only knew how cold it became for the prisoners in the winter. The cells held no pitchers of water and no chamber-pots. As for the bedding. . .
Exactly the same as the hard bed-ledges in the Eternal Dungeon. Perhaps he should consider whether it was time to make improvements to the prisoners' bedding back home.
"I would like to speak with one of the prisoners," he said.
"Sir?" The young representative gaped at him.
"That one." He pointed. "Alone, please."
"But . . ."
Give the representative time enough to think about it, and the young man would be able to think up objections; after all, Layle was visiting this foreign prison only under the sufferance of the magisterial seats of Mip. He turned, snatched a set of keys from the hand of a nearby guard, and said to the representative, "Thank you. I will call for you when I need you again."
"But sir," the representative spluttered. "That prisoner . . . I've been told he's the most dangerous man in this entire prison. . . ."
He simply looked at the representative until the young man blushed.
"Oh," said the representative. "Well. If he turns violent, I suppose you can take care of him yourself. I mean, if the stories about you are true . . ."
He did not bother to reply. Nodding his thanks to the guard – who had apparently heard the stories too, because he was making no effort to retrieve his keys – Layle let himself into the cell.
"They hold costume parties in Yclau prisons?" The prisoner, thankfully, seemed more amused now than angered by Layle's presence.
"A hood that covers the face is part of a Seeker's traditional uniform." He slipped the cell keys into his pocket. Thankfully, there was a second, solid door inside the barred door, which he could close for privacy's sake.
What he wanted to know was why that door existed.
"They say you rack your prisoners," the prisoner commented.
"If circumstances warrant it." The prisoner was currently half a cell's span away. It would take him two-and-half seconds to reach Layle if he tried to attack. More than sufficient time for Layle to counter the attack.
"How long is a racking?" Layle replied.
"No, how long do you imprison your prisoners? For years? For life?" The prisoner cocked his head, regarding Layle. He was wearing only his lower drawers, which was hardly surprising; already, in early summer, this prison was stifling. The Eternal Dungeon, being underground, was always pleasantly cool.
Layle ran his eye over the prisoner's body. There was a bruise at the base of the man's neck. Not the one Layle had given the prisoner when the man foolishly tried to attack his unarmed visitor. This bruise was oval-shaped. Layle thought he knew the nature of that bruise.
He said, "We are charged only with the responsibility of searching men and women who have recently been arrested, to determine whether they have committed serious crimes. We rarely keep prisoners for more than a week." Because after that, most of the prisoners were tried and executed. He waited for the prisoner to comment upon that. Every Mippite he had met so far had had a great deal to say about the inhumane Yclau methods of dealing with prisoners.
The prisoner snorted. "And then they're hung? Fucking lucky prisoners."
It was not what he had expected to hear. He thought a moment as his gaze drifted down toward the prisoner's knees. There were holes there in the drawers, which might be explained by continued use of the clothing over many years. But that would not explain the state of the prisoner's knees. "What sort of work do you do?"
That launched the prisoner into a rant about his work. Layle listened with apparent interest, making sympathetic noises at appropriate intervals, though in fact the information he had sought had been supplied within the first minute or so of the rant. The prisoner's work did not involve going down on his knees.
Layle glanced at the prisoner's palms as the prisoner gesticulated. The calluses there might be due to the prisoner's laborious work.
Or they might not.
He decided to turn the conversation back to where he had left it. "You spoke a moment ago against lengthy imprisonments, implying that death would be a mercy for prisoners. What is the worst aspect of your imprisonment here?" He could not actually force the prisoner to testify as to the nature of what he was undergoing in this prison, but some prisoners might be daring enough to volunteer the information.
"I'm bloody bored!" The prisoner shouted the words at the ceiling.
"Really?" Again, it was not the response he had expected.
"Yes, really." The prisoner turned a wrathful eye upon him. "Do you know what I do between eight at night and eight in the morning? Nothing. Not one fucking thing. I eat, I sleep, I deal with visits from my guard, and that's it. There's nothing else to do."
Visits, not a single visit. "And you prefer your guard's visits to being alone?"
The prisoner glared at him. "It's torture either way. But if I had to make a choice . . . Gods, give me the hangman any day."
Interesting. He decided that he really did not need to ask the prisoner to strip himself; it was clear enough what Layle would see beneath the cloth. What had not been clear was what was taking place in the prisoner's mind.
"Thank you, Mr. . . ."
The prisoner rolled his eyes and supplied his given name. He would have said more, but at that moment, there was a creak behind Layle.
Layle turned quickly, taking care not to lose sight of the prisoner in the process. "Yes?" he said coldly to the representative, who was staring at him through a panel in the door.
The representative gulped at his tone of voice, but said, "Mr. Smith, I've checked with Mercy's Keeper, and he would really prefer that you not disturb the prisoners. . . ."
"Very well." The last thing he wanted to do was anger this prison's equivalent of the High Seeker; the prisoners would be most likely to suffer from that anger. "I'll leave straightaway." He slammed the panel shut and turned his attention back to the prisoner. "If I might make a suggestion, sir . . ."
The prisoner snorted. "Nobody addresses me as sir any more. Go ahead. You might be worth listening to."
That was, Layle judged, a very great compliment to himself. "If you're bored," he said, "you might try talking with your guard."
The prisoner stared at him. "Are you out of your fucking mind?"
"It would pass the time," he remarked mildly, and left the cell.
He waited until they had left the prison altogether before asking, "Are those inner doors part of the original design of the prison?"
"What?" The representative, who had been chatting about the guards' efforts to bring transformation and rebirth to the prisoners, stared at Layle, apparently disconcerted by this raising of a trivial topic. "Ah. . . I don't believe so. No, I think they were added a few years ago, to allow the guards to speak in private with their prisoners."
Naiveté did not begin to describe the representative's perspective. Layle wondered how this young man had managed to be chosen for the office of representing Mip in the United Order of Prisons, the international body which advised nations on ethical practices in imprisonment.
Though on second reflection, the answer was obvious: the young man was naive. Too naive to have grasped what was taking place in Mip's life prisons.
Perhaps there was some hope, then, that matters could be changed. It all depended on whether the young representative possessed any spine. In any case, the best place for Layle to raise this issue was at a meeting of the United Order, where other, experienced men could weigh in with their thoughts. So Layle simply said, "I am grateful to you for allowing me this opportunity to visit one of your nation's life prisons."
"I was sure that you could learn important lessons from us." The young man's voice was more eager than pompous. Layle was glad that the hood hid his own smile. He liked the representative, and he was genuinely sorry that he would have to shatter the young man's innocence soon.
"Yes, I've learned a great deal," he replied. He had indeed. He had learned that Mip had no need of racks or death sentences; the young nation had its own methods of keeping control of its prisoners.
Thank all the gods in every nation that the Eternal Dungeon had abolished rape as a method of torture in the previous century. Mercy Life Prison was a visible example of what might have happened otherwise. A prison where rape was so institutionalized that the very architecture supported its practice . . .
. . . and yet, he reminded himself, the prisoner had not seen his nightly rapes as the only evil he endured. For him, boredom was equally torturous.
What had the Eternal Dungeon ever done to alleviate the boredom of its prisoners? How many prisoners had spent hour upon hour in its cells, with nothing to do except to accumulate new grievances against the dungeon's guards and Seekers?
Sweet blood. He would need to make changes, swiftly and surely, when he returned home.
"I have indeed learned lessons from your prison," he acknowledged, turning to shake arms with the representative as they reached the outer gate of the prison, where a buggy waited to return him to the Eternal Dungeon. "I thank you for that."
"Would you care to share a luncheon with me before you go?" asked the representative, smiling.
"I'm afraid I must begin my journey back this afternoon." The terms of his employment within the Eternal Dungeon did not permit him to do more than visit Yclau's palace and any foreign prisons that he needed to inspect, as part of his work as the High Seeker. But he could hardly explain to Mip's representative, in a few sentences, that he identified less with the representative than with the man he had just left behind in Mercy Life Prison.
He climbed into the buggy, his mind drifting back to the prisoner. There was little he could do for the man – Merrick was the name of the prisoner he had just met. Layle could raise the topics of rape, boredom, and bedding at the next meeting of the United Order of Prisons, but any changes made to Mip's life prisons were likely to be slow. He could not alter the fact that Merrick underwent daily torture, nor that this torture was poisoning his mind against his caretakers, thereby lessening any hope that the prisoner might be transformed in character.
But one of the prisoner's guards might be able to make a difference. In a prison system as large as Mip's, it was likely that some of the guards held to ethical standards. If Merrick was willing to talk to his guards, perhaps some day he would be assigned a guard who would say things that, as Merrick put it, were "worth listening to."
Layle leaned back in his seat as the doors of the buggy were locked, returning him to his imprisonment.