The year 359, the tenth month. (The year 1881 Clover by the Old Calendar.)
The Eternal Dungeon's custom of granting its prisoners a feast on the Commoners' Festival had started on the first day that the High Seeker began work in the dungeon, when he was only a youth in training. Weldon Chapman, who later became supervisor of the Seekers and guards during the day shifts, was once heard to remark that the young newcomer's radical act ought to have been fair warning to the dungeon's residents of what was to come.
On that first day of employment, Layle Smith had merely ordered that his prisoner be given the same festival food that the prisoner's captors received. On that occasion, as on so many others, Layle Smith's radical departure from prior tradition had resulted in a slow, insidious change of dungeon custom as more and more Seekers began to follow suit.
Now, over two decades later, the dungeon's holiday customs were fully established: On the Commoners' Festival, in a dungeon filled mainly with commoner prisoners, no prisoner was questioned by his Seeker concerning the crimes he was accused of having committed. The Seekers and all but a skeleton crew of guards were released from work. The dungeon guards held their festivities in the palace above. The prisoners and Seekers – who were also prisoners, by law and by voluntary choice – remained in the dungeon but were permitted their pick of festal food. Similar festivities were taking place in households throughout the Queendom of Yclau, as lords and ladies and other members of the elite feasted and took the time to offer gifts to the poor.
"Even us," said Layle, standing in a quiet corner of the busy entry hall, where Seekers and guards were exchanging festival-day greetings. Being elite or mid-class, they were doing so through spoken greeting rather than through the frequently raucous ballad-singing of Yclau commoners.
Weldon Chapman chuckled, understanding the reference. "I must confess that Birdesmond and I have turned our own festivities into a party for our adopted commoner son. That seems more appropriate than feasting ourselves. Birdesmond was never a commoner, and as for me . . . Well, my days as a commoner are long past." He cocked his head, regarding Layle with thoughtful eyes through the eyeholes of his uniform's hood. "How many people here know about you?" he asked softly.
How many people knew that Layle too was born a commoner – that was what Weldon meant. Layle replied, "The Queen. The Codifier. The healer. My senior night guard. And Mr. Taylor, of course."
"Just Elsdon Taylor and me? You haven't told any other Seekers?"
Layle shook his head, his gaze wandering over to where a group of young guards were engaged in a vigorous battle of snowballs they'd smuggled in from outside – a perennial custom on the Commoners' Festival, since that moveable holiday marked the first day of snow. Layle remembered watching similar antics when he first arrived at the Eternal Dungeon.
He had been in self-imposed isolation then from the other members of the dungeon. In certain ways, he still was, despite the companionship of Weldon Chapman and Elsdon Taylor and his faithful senior night guard. And yet, oddly enough, his influence over the behavior of the other dungeon-workers had never been greater. It was a responsibility that weighed upon him.
"It wasn't necessary," he replied to Weldon. "That doesn't affect how I behave as a Seeker." He gathered his thoughts together, adding, "Elsdon and I will be feasting tonight. Should you wish to join us—"
He stopped. Weldon had another thoughtful look in his eyes. For once, Layle could not interpret what it meant.
Elsdon, with his usual talent for detail, had arranged with the dungeon kitchen for a magnificent feast. Layle appreciate the compassion that lay behind Elsdon's arrangements. This was their fourth year together, but it was the first in which Layle had been well enough to celebrate the Commoners' Festival. Nor had he celebrated the holiday before meeting Elsdon. In those years, he had possessed no intimates with whom to share the festivities.
"And you?" asked Layle, phrasing his question delicately. They were not alone, although they were the only Seekers in this rarely-used private dining room that existed in case the Queen should ever visit the dungeon. The room was royally furnished, with a table large enough for a banquet. He and Elsdon had taken seats toward one end of the table.
Though it was beginning to look as if they would need a second table just for the food.
"Nine courses," Elsdon reported with satisfaction as he watched a maid set down a platter filled with rockfish, a delicacy brought in from the bay at the other end of Yclau, no doubt at great expense, judging from the fish's freshness. Nearby, one of the menservants was setting down a tureen of calf's head soup – on feast days, all courses were placed on the table at once – while another manservant decanted a rare wine from the newly independent Magisterial Republic of Mip.
"Yes. And when you were a child?" Layle was adept by now at knowing when Elsdon was avoiding questions. It was a skill he had acquired when Elsdon was still his prisoner.
Elsdon sighed, but his response was immediate, not even waiting for the servants to withdraw. "Whatever other faults my father had, he wasn't a skinflint. We were well-fed on the Commoners' Festival. . . . Sara and I," he clarified, as though it were not immediately obvious which name he was avoiding. After all this time, Elsdon was still deeply in grief for the terrible destruction of his sister. And he was still coming to terms with the domestic destruction that had preceded his sister's death. Layle only wished he could be of more help to Elsdon as the junior Seeker painfully readjusted his perspective upon his father, whom Elsdon had adored as a child.
Now Layle waited, as he would wait for a prisoner to volunteer information. He was pursuing the conversation – which might or might not bear fruit – largely in order to take his mind off the enticing smell of the so-called Yclau ham, a cured ham that originated in the rural provinces of Yclau that surrounded the capital. It had just been placed on the table by a good-looking maid, but Layle could no more touch the ham than the maid. One of the many disadvantages of being a Seeker was that, while it was not entirely impossible to eat with one's hood on, it was a good deal easier to wait until one was in private and could raise the face-cloth. He and Elsdon would not be able to eat their dinner until the servants – who seemed to be taking their blasted time about it – had finished loading the table with culinary treasures.
"My father used to invite friends over on the Commoners' Festival," Elsdon continued. "I remember sitting at the table for hours as we feasted, while the servants brought in course after course. Outside, commoners in the Parkside district who had been released from work that day by their employers would sing ballads to each other. It made as fine an accompaniment to the meal as an orchestra. By the end of the meal, I was stuffed like a quahog. I remember our servants staying up till dawn, cleaning the mounds of dishes."
"Indeed?" How simple a manner Elsdon had of turning Layle's life upside down. Layle considered the problem. Beside him, a maid leaned over to place beside him the bowl of lemon water ice, a fruity delectable which was popular in the eastern province of the Kingdom of Vovim.
"I suppose I took it for granted back then," Elsdon confessed. "Delicious food, all the time. It's different when you can only feast twice a year."
Layle nodded. The Commoners' Festival at the beginning of winter and the Lords' Festival in the spring were the only two days of the year on which the Seekers were permitted to break away from the dungeon's bland diet, designed to keep prisoners alive but not to coddle them.
"And what about you?" Elsdon asked.
Elsdon had timed his question tactfully, for a moment when all the servants had withdrawn. Layle paused a few seconds to ascertain that nobody stood near the door. His ears having assured him of this, he replied, "I never knew of the Commoners' Festival till I came to live in this queendom. I've heard since then that some Vovimians celebrate the traditional Yclau holidays, but when I was growing up in east Vovim, the holiday for feasting and for giving presents to the poor was Mercy's Feast."
"Your goddess's festival?" Elsdon rested his hooded chin on his fists, clearly interested. "One of the girls at my school was originally from Vovim. Her family celebrated the traditional Vovimian festivals. Mercy's Feast is at midsummer, isn't it? Did your servants prepare feasts for you?"
Layle simply looked at him.
"Oh," said Elsdon, sounding embarrassed. "I'm sorry. I don't suppose your mother could afford servants, could she? And after she died . . . Were you even able to celebrate Mercy's Feast when you were living on the streets?"
"Once." The servants were returning. He considered pausing the conversation. There was enough gossip about him without the Eternal Dungeon knowing more details about his ill-spent youth. But after all, it might be possible to tell this tale as though the events had occurred to an ordinary boy who played pranks. The High Seeker was known for his dark, pointed pranks against guards who were showing signs of straying in their duties.
Besides, it was important that the servants hear this story.
So as the returning servants opened the door, Layle replied, "Once, when I was thirteen, I entered a house where I should not have been. I had my eye out for the master of the house."
So that he could capture and torture the master, thus gaining knowledge of where the master hid his money. Elsdon nodded, understanding the unspoken words. He was one of a handful of men in the dungeon who knew of Layle's criminal past.
Having traversed the tricky part of the tale, Layle continued, "When I opened the dining room door, I found a magnificent meal laid upon the table. I had forgotten that the day was Mercy's Feast. I was just trying to figure out how much food I could cram into my mouth when I heard voices approaching. I dashed behind the floor-length window curtains and hid there."
The mistress of the house entered the dining room first. She was an elderly lady. Through overhearing her conversation, young Layle learned that she was a widow who was holding a holiday party for a few of her friends and neighbors. The men and women settled down at the table as the servants began ladling out the first course.
"Unfortunately, a manservant discovered me," Layle continued. As he spoke, Layle flicked a glance at the servants, who were collectively unveiling the culmination of the feast for the High Seeker and his love-mate: a ten-layer cake, a magnificent dessert imported from Smith Island in the Dozen Landsteads. Given the Dozen Landsteads's traditional reluctance to interact with their neighbors in the Midcoast nations, the cake must have cost a pretty penny.
Elsdon nodded, clearly fascinated by the tale. "You weren't able to break free?"
"At that age, I hadn't yet perfected my techniques for escape," Layle said dryly. "The manservant was a good deal stronger than the rich, soft merchants I was accustomed to encountering. He dragged me out of my hiding place in a tight grip. The widow's guests exclaimed with dismay and anger at my intrusion as the manservant pulled me roughly in front of his mistress. There I stood, wearing my ragged clothes, with a dirty face and dirtier hair, waiting for this well-dressed elite woman to call the soldiers to shut me in prison."
"What did she do?" asked Elsdon, waiting. The servants were waiting too, for their dismissal from the room. Their eyes were on the feast, rather than the Seekers.
"This," replied Layle and rose to his feet. Pulling back his chair, he said to the nearest manservant, "Please sit. Your feast is ready."
The manservant stared dumbly at Layle. He looked stunned. So did Elsdon. But within seconds, Layle's heart grew warm, as it had done so many times in the past four years. Elsdon leapt to his feet and offered his chair to the maid next to him. "Please," he urged the servants. "You do us honor."
"But, sir—" said the bewildered manservant to Layle.
The manservant's protest sounded as though it would be lengthy. Layle cut it off in his usual manner, saying flatly, "This is my wish."
That was all he need say. The servants seated themselves promptly. Elsdon pushed in the maid's chair as she sat. Layle murmured a promise to the servants that he would let their majordomo know of this change in plans.
Then he left. If he and Elsdon stayed to serve the servants, the servants would be too inhibited to enjoy themselves. Left alone, the servants could enter into the proper festivities.
They were halfway to the office of the majordomo when Elsdon finally found his tongue. "Did you plan this beforehand?"
Layle shook his head. His stomach was growling. He tried to ignore that, as well as the knowledge that only bland food awaited him and Elsdon in their living cell. Instead, he centered his thoughts on the remaining problems. He needed to figure out a way to prevent the dungeon's servants from doing the washing-up for today's festival. Perhaps a bit of dish-cleaning was the best way for him and Elsdon to spend their evening. And in future years. . .
"Then when?" pressed Elsdon. "You must have known by the time you began your anecdote; you never tell stories without purpose. When did you decide?"
Layle glanced his way. Elsdon sounded curious, not angry. Layle replied, "When you reminded me of who I am."
With bowed head, Elsdon appeared to think about this. From behind them, in the room they had left, came the sound of feast-day ballads.
Finally Elsdon said, "A member of the elite? No longer a commoner?"
"A member of the elite," Layle agreed. "And charged, as all honorable elite men and women are, with caring for their commoners."
Elsdon said nothing for a while. Layle could guess that Elsdon was contemplating now his childhood, and was realizing what he had not realized in those days long ago, when his father feasted and his father's servants sweated on a day meant to honor them.
Unexpectedly, Elsdon smiled. The smile was in his voice as he slipped his arm around Layle's, in a manner he rarely did when they were in public. "You know, High Seeker," he said with an affection that made Layle's heart warm with love once more, "I think when tale of your latest radical act travels through the dungeon, more than a few of us Seekers are going to remember who we are as well."