Perhaps the greatest surprise of all was that Seward Sobel had little praise for Layle's bold plan to save the dungeon.
Twenty-two years had passed since Mr. Sobel had suggested to the Eternal Dungeon's newest member, in the most tentative of tones, that he might remain as Layle's senior night guard after Layle's training period was over. Since that time, year after year, their companionship and mutual respect had deepened. Paradoxically, Mr. Sobel's decision not to mix his personal life with his professional – that is, not to pursue friendship with Layle – had permitted the two of them to grow far more intimate in their work relationship than would otherwise have been possible. When Mr. Sobel was candid with the High Seeker, Layle knew that the guard's opinions were not warped by personal feelings.
When Mr. Sobel was less than candid with the High Seeker, Layle knew there was trouble.
Doing his best to determine in what way he had stumbled this time, Layle said, "It seems the fairest method by which to share the burden of the enormous payment the dungeon is facing. Of course, the dungeon would not levy a tax on any guards or laborers who live outside the dungeon. But guards and laborers who choose to live within the dungeon would pay their small portion of the property tax, determined by the sizes of their apartments within the dungeon."
"Yes, sir." Mr. Sobel's expression spoke, most elegantly, of misery.
Layle took a minute to examine that expression. They were both standing in Layle's office, with the door closed; it had seemed best to sound out Mr. Sobel in private over this delicate matter. Layle knew well enough that Seward Sobel would willingly fling his own body between the High Seeker and a prisoner intent on murder. He had done so on more than one occasion. So it could not be that Mr. Sobel was reluctant to undertake his own sacrifice, though in fact, he and his family dwelt in the largest apartment within the Eternal Dungeon.
No, Mr. Sobel's own high tax was not what was troubling him. The difficulty must lie elsewhere.
Layle probed. "Do you anticipate objections from the guards? Or rather from the outer dungeon laborers?" Neither he nor Mr. Sobel were well acquainted with the men and women who labored to keep the dungeon supplied with food, clothing, and other necessities. However, Mistress Sobel spent much time with the female laborers, since she had helped found a nursery for the dungeon's children. She might have passed on relevant information to her husband.
Mr. Sobel was slow to respond. Finally he said, "I was wondering, sir, whether the Commissioner happened to mention to you the income tax."
"Income tax?" The phrase was new and strange. Property taxes were precedented; so were tariffs. But taxing income?
That was absurd. Income was what was needed to pay the other taxes.
"Yes, sir. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue has instituted a three-percent tax on all subjects of the Queen who earn an income. I don't imagine he would have mentioned this to you, since Seekers do not earn incomes—"
Oh, sweet blood. There were going to be riots throughout the queendom over this. Layle made a mental note to clear the dungeon's breaking cells as quickly as possible, in anticipation of the arrests.
"—but the burden is great on those of us in the dungeon who do earn incomes. Three percent may not sound like much, but it amounts to a third of a month's income. My wife and I had already begun discussing the possibility of withdrawing our children from their present schools, because we won't be able to afford next term's fees. And I have the highest salary of any guard in the dungeon. I honestly don't know how any guard could afford to pay a three-percent property tax on top of a three-percent income tax. Some of the laborers, who earn only enough to pay for basic necessities, are facing financial ruin."
Which meant riots were possible within the dungeon itself. Blast and blast and blast.
"Thank you, Mr. Sobel," said Layle, trying to sound properly grateful, although he was struggling with a desire to murder everyone within reach. "I appreciate your placing my proposal in the proper context. Naturally, you are correct that, under these circumstances, I cannot set a further financial burden upon the dungeon's employees. Do you have any suggestions for alternative plans?"
Again, it took Mr. Sobel time to respond. Layle spent that time stabbing his blotting pad with his letter opener. Mr. Sobel, used to Layle's ways, did not so much as blink.
Finally, Mr. Sobel said, "Sir, if I understand you correctly, the trouble in this matter ultimately lies with the theft of money from the treasury. Given that this dungeon is filled to the brim with Seekers whose jobs are to ascertain whether and how crimes were committed . . . would it not be possible for you to turn some of that talent toward the task of figuring out who the thief is?"
"Elsdon, the plan I had won't work, but Mr. Sobel has offered a superb idea for an alternative—"
Layle stopped dead in the doorway of their living cell. Then he closed the door carefully behind him. He could not have said, at first, what alerted him to danger, for Elsdon had given him a smile of greeting, as he always did at the end of their work-shifts.
But Elsdon was holding a piece of paper in his hand, and the envelope that had originally held the paper was not merely torn open but shredded into fine pieces that were drifting off the desk in their sitting chamber.
Thinking of the punctured blotting pad he had left in the office, Layle said, "We are going to have a higher than average expense in office supplies this quarter."
Elsdon looked blankly at him, and then his gaze switched to the ruined paper. "Oh. I'm sorry. I did think of starting my lesson a few days early."
Layle knew what he meant: the weekly lesson in pugilism which Elsdon taught to some of the young male laborers in the dungeon. Matters must be bad indeed if Elsdon was in the mood to go punch someone in the face. Layle held out his hand. Elsdon gave him the paper and promptly turned to pocket the old-fashioned pen-knife they kept on the desk in order to open wax-sealed documents from the Queen.
Worse and worse. Carefully positioning himself so that nothing was within reach that he might use as a weapon, Layle took a moment to steel his self-control. Then he looked down at the paper.
Twenty seconds later, the sitting chamber was a wreck. The plaster on the wall was punched through by the bench Layle had flung at it, the lamp lay shattered on the floor, the desk chair had smashed the bookcase and sent several dozen books tumbling to the ground, and only superhuman effort had prevented Layle from sending the desk in the direction of the pottery in the adjoining kitchen area.
"Five hundred pounds?" he shouted at the top of his lungs. "Where the bloody blades does he expect penniless prisoners to get five hundred pounds?"
Nobody came to the door in response to the noise. Every member of the Eternal Dungeon was probably quailing under tables at this moment. They all knew their High Seeker.
Imperturbable as always, Elsdon had merely stepped out of the path of destruction. He waited a minute, probably to see whether Layle planned to raid the knife drawer in the kitchen and start stabbing people. Then Elsdon said, in the mildest of voices, "It does seem rather unreasonable."
"Unreasonable?" Layle looked around for something else handy to destroy. All that he saw was the letter from the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, which he promptly shredded.
Elsdon stared down at the paper drifting in flakes to the floor, joining the shattered glass there, like snow covering ice. "I suppose we could hold a shredding party. There must be hundreds of thousands of people in Yclau right now who would like to shred the tax demands they've received. Including the prisoners in our breaking cells."
That sobered him, as nothing else could have. "Surely the Commissioner wouldn't tax men and women who are imprisoned."
Elsdon held his palms toward the ceiling in a shrug. "Layle, he's taxing the Seekers. We're prisoners, by law; we can't leave this dungeon, and we can't earn money for the work we do here. If the Commissioner is taxing us, based on 'equivalent income to the amount of service rendered to the queendom,' what's to prevent him from engaging in similar trickery to tax every prisoner in the entire queendom? And then to seize their families' properties in payment when the prisoners are unable to pay?"
Layle had begun to pace back and forth, his boots grinding the glass to dust. "He is attacking my prisoners."
If Elsdon noticed that Layle's comment was phrased in a somewhat proprietary manner, he chose to ignore that. "It hardly matters what he does to Seekers. What private property do we have that he could seize? A few books—" Elsdon gestured toward the volumes heaped on the floor. "That's all that you and I own. No Seeker owns more than he can buy with his small luxury allowance. But the prisoners in our breaking cells and throughout Yclau . . . Layle, troubles already exist among this queendom's commoners: demands for higher wages and better working conditions. If the Commissioner begins seizing the property of commoner families, especially families whose men are imprisoned. . ."
It would mean, at the very least, that the Eternal Dungeon's problems with prisoners would increase tenfold. Seekers already suffered from the handicap that they worked in a royal dungeon, so it was assumed that they were mere lackeys for the Queen's government. Exceedingly few prisoners realized that, on the contrary, the Eternal Dungeon was the prisoners' best protection against any attempt by government officials to falsify evidence against the prisoners. The Eternal Dungeon ran under separate laws and a separate budget; because of this, the Seekers could afford to determine the truth of any accusations of crime, regardless of how high in power the men and women were who made such accusations.
And now the Commissioner was not merely making the dungeon's separate operation a disadvantage; he was making their prisoners far more hostile to all men in authority, including the Seekers. More innocent prisoners would resist answering questions from their Seekers, which meant more innocent prisoners would end up hanged.
"This is intolerable," said Layle, still pacing back and forth. "We must put an end to this."
Elsdon nodded. He was already on his hands and knees, using a couple of pieces of cardboard to sweep up the broken glass. "You mentioned that Seward Sobel had a plan?"
It was at that moment that Layle had his revelation. The moments came to him now and then, like messages from a goddess. For all that Layle knew, they were indeed messages from Mercy, whom he worshipped.
"We are going to track a thief," announced Layle, kneeling down to pick up the fallen books. "And I think I know who that thief is."