The year 359, the eighth month.
"You're a bloody idiot" is all that his guard seemed interested in saying to him.
It was the tenth day on which the guard had said this – the tenth day of Pete's fast. By now, the hunger pangs had subsided, leaving him feeling as though he were floating effortlessly through the cycle of death, transformation, and rebirth. He wondered whether this was what it would be like, when he reached the end of his fast.
He had no reason to speak, and every reason not to. He was in the Eternal Dungeon. He was amidst torturers and cruel guards – members of the elite, whose mission was to oppress commoners. Who knew what they might make of any single word he spoke?
But the hunger in him was greater than he had thought. He said, on that tenth day, "What do you mean?"
The guard rolled his eyes. He was holding in his hands Pete's untouched tray of food. He held it up. "This. You're starving yourself to death, and why? Nothing's been done to you. You haven't been whipped. You haven't been racked. Yet you're acting like a sulking babe – wah, wah, I don' wanna be here, mama take away the bad food."
The mockery stung as hard as any whiplash would have done. He stared at the guard from where he lay on the cell's stone bed-shelf – it was becoming too much of an effort to rise to his feet. He wondered how he could convey to the guard, who lived in a world of clear-cut categories of black and white and good and evil, what it was like to live in a world of isolation and chaos, where a simple mistake could turn into a nightmare of pain and regret.
"You wouldn't understand," he said finally.
The guard snorted at that, and took the food away.
"The trouble with you," said the guard on the thirteenth day, "the trouble with you is that you don't bloody well pay attention."
"What do you mean?" he asked. He was weaker now and could barely lift his head to look at the guard.
"You haven't been whipped. You haven't been racked. You haven't been fed." The guard lifted the tray.
"I have," he protested, his mouth drooling at the sight of his untouched food.
The guard sighed. "Bloody idiot. Water?" He raised a bottle invitingly.
Pete nodded. He wasn't sure why he was continuing to accept water, for thirst would surely kill him faster than hunger. But death from hunger was a kinder fate, filled with less pain.
It wasn't until the guard had gone that it occurred to Pete that the guard need not have asked. He could have held Pete down, forced the water into his mouth, closed his mouth and nose until Pete swallowed. Or Pete's torturer could have ordered that the guard force food into him.
Of course neither of them would do so. Forcing food and water into another person went against the tenets of their queendom's religion. But since when did torturers and cruel guards abide by religious teachings?
The torturer came every day. He was unfailingly polite. Pete had noticed that, and had noticed the torturer's patience when Pete refused to respond to the torturer's questions.
Now he began to notice other things. The torturer, who named himself Mr. Chapman, never touched Pete. Never whipped him. Never racked him. Never forced him to eat.
Pete set aside the mystery of the polite, restrained torturer and concentrated his thoughts on the guard, so very rude, who continued to offer Pete food and water every day.
Because he was under orders? Why would cruel guards and torturers want him to live?
"Do the patrol soldiers require you to feed and water the prisoners?" Pete asked finally.
The guard gave a sharp laugh as he picked up the tray. "The soldiers? Those well-fed idiots? Why the bloody blades do you think they care about you? They delivered you into our fucking hands. They've forgotten you now."
Pete thought about this as the guard waited, tray delicately balanced in his arms. Finally Pete decided he had penetrated the mystery of his guard. "You're a commoner like me, aren't you?"
He knew at once that he'd made a mistake . . . another mistake. He flinched back, as best he could on the bed-shelf.
But after a moment of tension, the guard merely shrugged. "There aren't any commoners in the inner dungeon, except the prisoners. And Mr. Chapman, of course."
He left Pete gaping.
It took him two more days to raise his courage – two days in which the hunger grew within him, ravening, as though it were a wild beast. Finally he asked in a squeaky voice, "Did you like Alleyway School?"
"Alleyway School?" His torturer frowned. He had been in the midst of asking the questions he asked every day, which Pete refused to answer.
Pete shrank back, but his torturer merely waited. Then Mr. Chapman laughed.
"Oh," he said. "I see. No, I didn't attend Alleyway School. There was another school, further into the manufactory district – I've heard it's been torn down to make way for a new park for the elite." The torturer's voice was carefully neutral. "You didn't attend Alleyway, I believe – did your parents teach you your lettering at home? Or were they too busy with work for that?"
He made his confession on the seventeenth day. He ate that night, and in the days afterwards. The dungeon healer visited him on the twenty-third day – it was hardly the man's first visit, but this time he declared Pete well enough to stand trial the next morning.
Pete was sentenced to be hanged.
"I told you that you were a bloody idiot" was the guard's only comment when they crossed paths later that day.
Pete said nothing. He was feeling bewilderment in the aftermath of his death sentence – in the realization that, through the mercy of the Eternal Dungeon, he would not end his life dangling from the hangman's rope but would instead be permitted to live out the rest of his days here, in the outer portion of the Eternal Dungeon, where the dungeon's workers lived.
He could take whatever job he liked, walk wherever in the dungeon he liked, speak to anyone he liked. Already, he'd been greeted by a dozen or more residents of the outer dungeon, ready to welcome him into their midst. His case was not unusual, he gathered.
The hunger pangs were subsiding. He looked at the guard, wondering what to say. But when Pete opened his mouth, the guard turned away. And when Pete tried to approach the guard later, with words of thanks carefully prepared, the guard roughly shoved him away and walked into the inner dungeon, as everyone around him gave him wide berth.
With newly awakened eyes, Pete watched Mr. Urman leave. His own hunger pangs had been met. Mr. Urman, it seemed, was still starving himself.
Pete turned away and began to partake of the bounteous banquet of friendships in the Eternal Dungeon.