The year 360, the fourth month. (The year 1881 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
"A property tax!" exclaimed the High Seeker of the Eternal Dungeon.
As head of Yclau's royal prison, he was used to handling crises. Prisoners who tried to escape. Guards who tried to carry out their duties while drunk. Fellow Seekers who whined about how much easier life had been for them in the lighted world, despite the fact that they paid not a single penny in the dungeon for their housing, food, and clothing.
Never before, though, had Layle Smith been faced with the possibility of the dungeon's utter ruin.
"Yes, we all have to do our part during these difficult times," said the newly appointed royal official cheerfully. "It is every subject's duty to our beloved sovereign."
Layle offered a dark look to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, who was presumably not the royal official in charge of raising revenue by sacking enemy towns. Not that such sacking had taken place for a while now. "We're not at war," he pointed out.
"Not yet." The Commissioner looked exceedingly sorrowful at this loss of revenue. "But signs are strong that our extended peace talks with the Vovimians will fail. And the treasury has not been doing well. We need more funds to pay for the upcoming war."
"'The treasury has not been doing well'?" repeated Layle slowly. They could not possibly be talking about the same treasury. The wealth of the Queendom of Yclau was legendary. The queendom controlled the largest empire since ancient times, with colonies throughout the Old World. It had the most advanced mechanics in the entire globe, with the result that it held a virtual monopoly on advanced industry in the New World. How could the Queen's treasury not be doing well?
"Yes," confirmed the Commissioner, without elaborating. "We've been doing our best to assist the treasury by drawing money from wherever we can. We've taken control of the pension fund for the Queen's Guards, the expense fund of the Queen's Home for Orphans Displaced by War, the annual Gift to the Deserving Poor . . ."
Layle listened with a certain amount of respect during the lengthy recital. Given his own past, he always had respect for men who successfully carried out the greatest of crimes.
Though these days, he usually managed to cause such men to regret their crimes, once he had them in a breaking cell.
He cut off a recital of which hospital funds were being drained, asking, "And the Queen approves of these measures?"
"Most certainly." The Commissioner's eyes were wide and innocent. "She had difficulty understanding the need at first, but her Secretary has been most helpful in making the necessity plain to her."
Ah. The weak link in the Queen's otherwise efficiently run government: her inordinately trusted Secretary. Layle slid his gaze over the Commissioner. Very young, very handsome, and very sly. Just the sort of youth that the Secretary was accustomed to taking into his bed.
Though it was not clear, in this case, who was the seducer and who was the seduced.
"I will need to discuss this matter with the Queen," Layle said tersely.
"Of course." The Commissioner's reply was complacent. "Take all the time you need, High Seeker. You have another two weeks to send us the payment before we seize your property as payment for the tax."
"If the Commissioner had only been twenty-one," said Layle, pacing back and forth in the sitting chamber of his living cell. "Twenty-one, rather than twenty. Incalculable harm has come to this dungeon over the years from that blasted Secretary. He insists on taking advantage of the old law that permits the Queen's officials to take young men into their beds until the youths are twenty-one, rather than eighteen, as the law goes for other men in the queendom. The amount of favoritism that this hell-damned Secretary engages in—"
"Deplorable," said Elsdon Taylor. "Men sleeping with full-grown men. Employers sleeping with men they have appointed to high positions."
Layle stopped to glare at the junior Seeker. "This is not a time for jokes. The future of the Eternal Dungeon is at stake."
"And will not be resolved by you worrying about the idiot Secretary. Come sit down, love." Elsdon took Layle's hand, tugging Layle down onto the bench beside him.
Layle sighed as he placed his arm around Elsdon. Elsdon promptly laid his head upon Layle's shoulder. He was twenty-three now; the lines of youth that had softened his body when Layle first met him, at age eighteen, were disappearing, leaving behind a hard solidity of body that aptly echoed his solidity of mind. Layle brushed Elsdon's fine golden hair with his lips before saying, "You are right. I am a hypocrite."
"Where matters of love are concerned, men will always take advantage of whatever laws they are placed under," Elsdon agreed. "I didn't fully realize as a young man, you know, that I would be unable to sleep with other men once I became an adult. I wonder sometimes what I would have done if I had stayed in the lighted world and had fallen in love with another man. Where are prisoners sent who break the purity laws?"
"Not to this dungeon, thankfully. The Queen has enough sense not to make hypocrites of us all." Layle paused to kiss Elsdon lightly on the lips. His hood brushed Elsdon's face as he did so. Normally Elsdon would have been hooded as well, with his face-cloth up in the privacy of their living cell, but Layle had interrupted Elsdon in his bath. It occurred to Layle belatedly that, while he'd been ranting about the Secretary and his thrice-blasted Commissioner love-mate, Elsdon had been patiently sitting, naked and wet, with only a towel around his groin to protect him from the year-round cool air of the underground dungeon.
Five minutes later, they were both naked and under the covers in their bedroom, Layle using the heat of his own body to warm Elsdon. Following up masterfully from Layle's last sensible remark, Elsdon said, "You spoke with the Queen."
"Of course. She pointed out what I have pointed out to her many times over the years, in disputes between the Throne and her dungeon: that the Eternal Dungeon is run under its own laws and its own treasury. In exchange for this independence, the dungeon is expected to handle its own legal and financial troubles, without involving the Queen. Even if," Layle added bitterly, "the Queen's own Commissioner is the cause of those troubles."
Elsdon ran his hand absentmindedly across the side of Layle's neck and down over the shoulder; they were embracing each other face-to-face. "I remember you told me, when we first met, that the dungeon's finances are separate from the royal finances. Who runs our treasury?"
"Our exceedingly overworked Record-keeper," replied Layle, watching as Elsdon entwined his fingers with Layle's. "We've tried to hire other treasurers over the years, but none of them had the integrity of our own Record-keeper."
"As for integrity . . ." As he spoke, Elsdon propped himself onto one elbow. "What did the Commissioner mean when he said, 'The Queen's treasury has not been doing well'?"
"Clever of you to have picked up on that," said Layle approvingly. It was always a pleasure to see signs of clever searching in the junior Seeker whom Layle had helped train. "I had a quiet word afterwards with an official in the Queen's treasury with whom I have exchanged information in the past. He tells me that there is some sort of leak in the treasury. Millions of pounds were drained last year."
"That much? Was the money taken by robbers?" Still youthful in certain ways, Elsdon looked excited at this image of bank robbers stealing bullion from the treasury.
Layle laughed then. "Being drained by documentwork. You've never seen the Queen's budget. It takes up dozens of volumes. Most of the volumes are copied over from year to year, with only a most cursory glance at them. Apparently, some organization within the Queen's government has managed to use this convoluted documentwork to sidle away a large chunk of the money in the treasury. The treasury officials suspect chicanery. They have been spending long evenings trying to discover the source of the theft. All that they've been able to determine so far is that the money is not being taken in a single lump sum."
"Millions of small requests for money, all from the same source." Elsdon nodded. "If that's so, they'll identify the thief eventually. In the meantime. . ." He reached over and took from the night-table the document that Layle had slammed down earlier, upon his arrival back at his living cell. "Layle, this figure can't be right. That's an enormous amount of money!"
"Five times our annual budget," Layle agreed. "Alas, it's a property tax. Three percent tax on any real estate in the Queendom of Yclau. Would you like to venture to guess what the most valuable land in the queendom is?"
"I suppose," said Elsdon with a sigh, "that would be the hillside for the Queen's palace and the dungeon that lies within it."
Layle nodded, taking back the tax demand that the Commissioner had given him. "So we have two weeks in which to raise five times the amount of money that this dungeon receives from the Queen each year . . . or the Commissioner of Internal Revenue will seize the Eternal Dungeon in payment."
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."
"A rise in wages?" He tried to keep the horror out of his voice, but he could not have been quite successful, for Mistress Sobel looked rather as if she was contemplating fleeing the room.
Like her husband, however, Mistress Sobel was a stalwart soldier. "Yes, Mr. Smith. The laborers of the dungeon asked me to pass on to you their request."
"Demand" was the word Layle would have chosen. He contemplated again the firmly worded petition in his hand, totting up numbers. If he gave every laborer in the Eternal Dungeon a six-percent rise in pay . . . and no doubt the guards would be applying to him soon for a similar rise in pay . . .
"The laborers are asking no more than enough money to help them pay for the recent taxes," Mistress Sobel pointed out.
"The income tax is only three percent—"
"But there is the property tax added onto that. Most of the laborers live outside the dungeon, you know."
Flinging Mistress Sobel to the ground and raping her would not help the situation. Glancing at Mr. Sobel – who knew enough about Layle's background that he had taken care to be a silent, armed witness to his wife's visit – Layle wondered how he could explain to hundreds of laborers, many of them illiterate commoners, that the Eternal Dungeon simply did not possess enough money to cover such an abrupt rise in wages.
And that was even leaving aside the dungeon's own tax debt.
By good chance – or rather, not by chance, because Elsdon knew Layle's background as well – there was a rap at the door. Elsdon poked his head in. "Sir? May I have a word with you?"
"Certainly, Mr. Taylor." Layle managed to find his composure, or at least a semblance of it. "Thank you for your kindness in alerting me to the laborers' difficulties, Mistress Sobel. I will need to discuss this matter with the Record-keeper before I can respond."
"Naturally," replied Mistress Sobel. "If you will just note, sir, that there is a ten-day deadline for when the taxes are due—"
"Yes thank you, you may go now, I'll see you now Mr. Taylor, goodbye Mr. Sobel."
Both the Sobels took the hint and departed quickly. Elsdon waited till they were gone and the door was closed again before he raised his face-cloth. "That bad?"
Layle, who would ordinarily have chided the junior Seeker for raising his face-cloth during duty hours, found that he had raised his own face-cloth in order to wipe the sweat from his face. "The laborers want a rise in pay. Six percent."
"I meant Mistress Sobel," said Elsdon, his voice gentle with sympathy.
Layle covered his face with his hands. "Why the women of this dungeon insist on continuing to thrust their presence upon me . . ."
"She is the head of the Women's Fellowship in the outer dungeon," Elsdon pointed out, taking the seat opposite Layle's desk.
Layle began to pace back and forth. "And she's Seward Sobel's wife. Mr. Sobel should have warned her. The last thing I need right now is to be around those bloody women."
"High Seeker," Elsdon said softly.
It was always Elsdon's soft voice that brought Layle up short. He paused in his pacing, forced air into his lungs, and said, "My apologies. You are correct; she is a brave woman who was carrying out her duties. This isn't her fault."
"Whose is it?" Elsdon had a talent for cutting down to the bone of the matter.
"Someone very clever." Layle began pacing again.
"You know who it is. Aren't you going to tell me?"
Layle shook his head as he traced his path back and forth. "A theft on this scale, of the Queen's own treasury . . . It's likely that, if the culprit is caught, he will be charged with treason."
"And will be delivered to the Eternal Dungeon to be searched for his crimes," Elsdon said quietly. "Yes, of course; you're right. Any of us Seekers might be duty-bound to search the alleged thief; you can't prejudice us by telling us who you think the thief is. But if you know who it is, can't you do something?"
"I have no proof, only a suspicion." Layle forced himself to sit down behind his desk. His blotting pad stared up at him like a battlefield pockmarked with cannon-holes. "The problem is that I have no knowledge of this sort of thing."
A dimple appeared in Elsdon's cheek. "I would have thought that, of all the Seekers, you had the best knowledge."
"Of robbery, yes. I could write a volume of commentary on what the Commissioner is doing to Her Majesty's subjects. But embezzlement? No. I have little knowledge of numbers; my mother taught me to read before she died, but she didn't teach me any mathematics except basic arithmetic." He tilted his head to one side. "Your school marks in mathematics were excellent."
But Elsdon shook his head. "Excellent if I should want to teach ancient mathematics. Finance is a different type of mathematics; they only teach that in the financial guild schools, I believe."
"Or in trade schools," Layle amended. "The Record-keeper learned his finances there."
"You've consulted with him?"
"Of course. And Mr. Aaron had a long conversation with my acquaintance in the treasury. Unfortunately, we cannot request the records of the royal investigation of the treasury theft, since we are not currently searching any prisoner whom we suspect to have committed a crime connected with the theft. But the treasury official was able to tell Mr. Aaron that the royal officials who are investigating the drain in the treasury are certain now that the theft is not internal – that is, the money has not been stolen from within, by a treasury official."
Elsdon raised his eyebrows. "You sound skeptical."
"I'm sure they are correct that the money is not being stolen from inside the treasury," Layle hedged. "But anyone – a royal official or a civilian – might find means to steal the money from the outside. As far as the investigators can tell, there have been no large withdrawals, all at once. What they're investigating now is interest."
"Interest?" Elsdon leaned forward, curiosity on his face. He was always like this when he was learning something new.
"Bank interest," Layle clarified. "The treasury, you know, is in charge of paying out interest on accounts in the hundreds of branches of the royal bank. It appears that the amount of money being spent on interest has risen, very gradually, and has now reached a height where it is drawing blood from the treasury. What concerns the investigators is that most of the interest is being paid out to the same accounts: several hundred accounts. Nor do the accounts bring any benefits to the royal bank. The accounts are funds that cannot be tapped into by the bank; their access is open only to the bank account holders."
"All of the accounts were started on the same day?" suggested Elsdon.
Layle shook his head. "Nothing that simple. Some of the accounts are recent; others go back decades. The accounts that are oldest are drawing very large amounts of money from the treasury. 'Compound interest,' whatever that is."
"I'll figure it out," Elsdon promised.
And he would, Layle knew. Elsdon had once searched a bricklayer who was suspected to have murdered a fellow bricklayer, though no evidence of a weapon had been found. Elsdon had arranged for a bricklayer to come to the Eternal Dungeon and spend a week teaching Elsdon how to lay bricks. By the end of that week, Elsdon had figured out how the crime was committed.
"Consult with the Record-keeper," Layle ordered. "I'm keeping this matter as quiet as possible, but Mr. Aaron is our best source of information on this dungeon's finances."
"Layle," said Elsdon, frowning, "could something like that happen to the Eternal Dungeon's finances? Could somebody be stealing our money?"
"Other than by taxing us?" replied Layle dryly. "No, I've discussed this with the Record-keeper. Our finances are entirely different from the treasury's. We receive payment from the Throne for every prisoner successfully broken—"
"How do they define 'success'?" As always, Elsdon was quick off the mark.
"The way we do," Layle replied quietly. "Through our determination of the truth about crimes. The Queen recognizes that innocent prisoners are sometimes mistakenly sent here; we receive payment for those as well, if we can ascertain the truth of their innocence. . . . From that point forth, the money is divided into separate accounts, each under the control of different officials within the dungeon. I have control over one account, the majordomo of the laborers has control over another account, the Record-keeper has control over yet another account . . . There are dozens of accounts, each independent of the other. The dungeon's finances are designed so that, even if a theft takes place of one account, it's unlikely the thief will be able to tap into the other accounts."
"Dozens of accounts," mused Elsdon, his eyes growing thoughtful. "Dozens of accounts. . . . And the treasury thief is using hundreds of accounts to hide his theft. . . . Layle, it sounds as though this theft was carried out by someone who knows the dungeon's finances and is making use of a similar operation to hide what he is doing. Is that why you think the thief is a royal official?"
"That aspect of the matter had not occurred to me, but it fits very well with my theory." Layle rose from behind his desk. "The investigators have applied to the magistracy to allow them to break this queendom's privacy laws and receive the names of the account holders from the bank officials. It will take time for the magistrates to decide on this case. In the meantime. . . We have ten days to determine where the missing money has gone and to return it to the treasury."
"Ten days." Elsdon smiled. "That's three more days than we usually need with our prisoners."
By the beginning of the following week, news had leaked out that the Eternal Dungeon was in danger of financial ruin.
Even the prisoners knew that, blast them.
"What's the bloody point of you trying to question me?" said Layle's latest prisoner, who might or might not have committed a premeditated rape. "This dungeon is going to be shut down any day now."
"Mr. Boenick," Layle said as patiently as he could, "I have explained to you that there are penalties for cursing—"
"Aye, what are you going to do? Rack me? Bet you'll be selling all your racks soon, to pay your debts."
"We need to consider the possibility of selling three of our four racks," said the Record-keeper, frowning over a set of figures a few hours later. "They are the most valuable property that we own, since they are antiques. With dungeons closing throughout the world, museums are beginning to pay high prices for torture equipment—"
"We are not closing this dungeon," Layle said firmly.
"Mr. Smith, I've heard that the dungeon will be closing soon," said Mr. Gibson, a junior Seeker, when Layle came on duty the following evening. "I need to know: will I receive a pension? Or will the money be returned to me that I gave up at the time that I swore my oath of Seekership—?"
"We are not closing this dungeon," Layle said, his jaw tightening.
"We've had three dozen resignations of laborers in the outer dungeon," said the majordomo somewhat apologetically as she prepared to go off-duty near midnight. "Rumors are flying that the dungeon will go out of business soon. If you could just release an official statement—"
"We are not closing this dungeon!" Layle shouted.
"What will you do if the dungeon is closed?" asked Elsdon.
It was only a couple of hours past dawn, but by mutual consent, Elsdon and Layle had chosen to retire early, without even eating their suppers. They were lying in bed now with their arms around each other, skin against naked skin.
Layle did not reply for a minute. He was thinking that Elsdon, who had shown increasing reluctance during the past year to rack any of his prisoners for misbehavior, might well have mixed feelings about the possibility of the Eternal Dungeon going out of business. As yet, this remained an unspoken topic between the two of them.
All other topics, though, were fair ground for discussion. With his finger, Layle traced the path of a vein in Elsdon's neck, saying, "Emigrate, I suppose."
"You'll return to Vovim?" Elsdon's voice was admirably even.
"Never." Layle paused to retrace the path of the vein with his tongue. "I will not return to the kingdom of my darkest days. No, I meant I'd emigrate to one of Yclau's colonies overseas. A few of them still have dungeons."
"You could work at one of the other prisons in this queendom," Elsdon suggested.
None of which hired torturers. Layle thought a moment and then decided that this was not a fight he wanted to initiate yet. Instead he said, "With my reputation, I doubt any of them would hire me."
"Over the ocean is a long journey."
Again, Elsdon's tone remained even; the young man's self-control was immense. Chiding himself inwardly for letting his thoughts stray, Layle took hold of Elsdon's chin and lifted his face so that their eyes met. "My dear," he said softly, "there is no question of us being separated. I've already spoken to the Queen about this. Provided that I continue to work in a prison that is located in Yclau or one of its colonies, I can bring you with me, wherever I go. The Queen will allow you to serve out the rest of your sentence in whatever prison I work at."
And the Queen's refusal to intervene with her Commissioner at this dire moment told Layle all he needed to know about where the fate of the dungeon was headed. The Queen too had mixed feelings about the Eternal Dungeon. Much as she valued the work it did in breaking prisoners, she, like her predecessors, intensely disliked having her will turned by the dungeon's separate law system. Although she had never gone so far as to withdraw permission from the dungeon to use the Code of Seeking, she would no doubt prefer to be able to start the dungeon anew: new Seekers, new guards, and no Code to prevent the dungeon from condemning prisoners whom she considered her enemies.
Elsdon buried his face against Layle's shoulder. Layle held him close, wishing that he could have given better news. He had argued forcefully with the Queen that Elsdon should be pardoned; the junior Seeker's crime, terrible though it was, had been a momentary crime of passion brought on by years of abuse under his father. For five years, Elsdon had worked as a Seeker, helping his guilty prisoners to repent and transform. He was widely acknowledged to be one of the most skilled Seekers in the Eternal Dungeon.
But in any other prison, he would be nothing but a prisoner. Only the Eternal Dungeon offered employment to a select number of convicted criminals who had been broken in the dungeon's cells. Wherever Elsdon went after this, he would be locked in a cell, condemned to confinement in a tiny room for the rest of his life.
Layle would be able to visit him daily; the Queen had conceded the High Seeker that much. But otherwise, Elsdon's life would be drab and dreary. And as for Layle being his love-mate . . . Outside the Eternal Dungeon, the imperial laws would be in force. Elsdon and Layle would continue to love each other, but never again would they be permitted to share a bed. They would not even be able to kiss.
Whatever thoughts Elsdon may have had of his future, he did nothing more than kiss Layle's cheek and say, "Thank you, love. That will ease my sleep considerably. . . . Did Mr. Aaron have a chance to talk again with your acquaintance in the treasury?"
"He did. There've been no advances in the investigation – not there, not here in the dungeon. I have half a dozen of my best Seekers working on the problem, but without access to either the treasury records or the bank records, they can make no progress."
"Have you considered applying directly to the royal bank branches for access to the account information?" Elsdon seemed more absorbed in what Layle was saying than in Layle's hands cupping the curve of his bottom.
"I would do so," said Layle dryly, "if I knew where those accounts were. That is not information which the treasury official is permitted to release to us."
Elsdon sighed as Layle stroked his way up his love-mate's back. "This is the worst case I've ever encountered. In the past, we've always been able to petition for evidence and for witness accounts. But in this case—"
"We're not even supposed to be investigating the crime." Layle trapped Elsdon's earlobe between tongue and teeth and mumbled, "May that Commissioner be damned eternally."
"Mm," said Elsdon somewhat indistinctly; his whammer had gone stiff, evidently taking interest in what Layle's tongue and hands were doing. "One of the Seekers knows him, did you know?"
Layle drew back abruptly. "Knows the Commissioner? How? Which Seeker?"
Elsdon looked reluctant to speak further. Layle thought it was because he regretted the break in Layle's lovemaking. Then Elsdon said, "Your junior-most Seeker."
Layle closed his eyes. Of course it was. And he had thought that this month could not possibly grow worse.
"Under what circumstances did you meet the Commissioner, Mistress Birdesmond?"
Layle was well aware that he sounded as pedantic as a newly trained Seeker with his first prisoner. He considered it a tribute to his own self-discipline that he was capable of asking the question at all. Less than three years had passed since the arrival of the dungeon's first female Seeker had plunged Layle into a spell of screaming madness. Since then, he had managed to avoid speaking to Mistress Birdesmond Manx Chapman on all but half a dozen occasions. And on those occasions, he had made sure he was heavily chaperoned with guards and with Elsdon by his side.
But if Mistress Birdesmond had the information Layle needed, he dare not spread that information to any other Seeker, even Elsdon. And so Layle had done what he had sworn he would never again do: he had entered a room alone with a woman.
If Mistress Birdesmond was fearing imminent rape, she hid it well. Poised elegantly on a chair in Layle's office, dressed in her black shirtwaist and skirt, with her Seeker hood hiding all but her eyes, she said, "We were engaged."
"Engaged." Layle's skills at irony and skepticism in the breaking cell were well known.
"For a few months. You may recall that I mentioned a broken engagement, at the time you hired me."
He had done his best to forget that interview. "He is much younger than you."
"He is, yes. He told me he preferred mature women."
Layle wondered whether the Commissioner had conveyed these preferences to the Queen's Secretary. "But the engagement was broken?"
"Yes. He did not approve of my ambition to become a prison-worker."
Alarm bells went off in Layle's head. "Did you tell him that you planned to apply for work in the Eternal Dungeon?"
Layle had a moment to imagine the reaction of the Commissioner-to-be to the idea of his fiancée working for a group of men who were skilled at ferreting out crimes. Layle probed further. "Did you ever discuss financial matters?"
"Only once, after our engagement was broken. I consulted him professionally, concerning my trust fund."
This sounded banal to the extreme, but Layle had learned long ago not to judge by appearances. "You owned a trust fund?" A question phrased in the past tense, because Mistress Birdesmond would have had to give up all her belongings at the time she became a Seeker.
"Not at the time. I'm referring to the Eternal Dungeon's trust fund for me."
Silence. The door between the High Seeker's office and the entry hall was thick, but Layle could hear the Seekers' day-shift supervisor, Weldon Chapman, talking just outside the door to Layle's guards. Weldon, unlike his wife, had looked exceedingly nervous about this interview.
Layle drummed his fingers a few times before saying, "Mistress Birdesmond, I have no idea what you're talking about."
"I'm sorry, sir," said the female Seeker calmly. "I had thought you might know— But of course, you would not have had to worry about such matters, when you first arrived at the dungeon."
Layle had no desire to discuss his past with a subordinate. Much less a female subordinate. "Educate me, please. What sort of trust fund do you imagine that the Eternal Dungeon gave you?"
"A trust fund for my past savings, in case I should be disabled and unable to work as a Seeker. Don't all of your Seekers receive such trust funds?"
The blindfold fell from Layle's eyes, sending shattering light into his vision.
"Layle, there must be dozens of trust funds listed here!" cried Elsdon.
They were in their living cell again, but this time they were seated clothed on a bench in the sitting room, examining together the documents that the Record-keeper had retrieved from his archives. The Record-keeper had been apologetic about not having thought to share them before with the High Seeker.
"Hundreds," said Layle grimly. "Every Seeker who ever worked in this dungeon has had a trust fund established for his savings at the time he entered employment here."
Elsdon looked up quickly. "No such trust fund was established for me."
"You were only a few months past your eighteenth birthday at the time you were arrested; legally, any funds you possessed belonged to your father. And though I was an orphan, I was penniless at the time I fled to Yclau, in hopes of working in the Eternal Dungeon. Most new Seekers, however, are rich men, well-endowed with money. Rather than provide pensions for disabled Seekers, some long-ago Record-keeper decided that it would make more sense to place the Seekers' money in individual trust funds. Under the terms of the trusts, the Seekers would be unable to draw upon the money while they remained active Seekers, but should they be forced to retire due to injury or illness, the money in their trust fund could be returned to them."
"Most Seekers never retire," Elsdon pointed out, scanning the list.
"No," said Layle dryly, "they do not. Did I mention that the trust funds earn interest?"
Elsdon opened his mouth. It remained open for a third of a minute. Then Elsdon said in a strangled voice, "Oh, sweet blood."
It was always a pleasure to be love-bonded to a man whose mind worked as quickly as Layle's; Layle never had to spell out to Elsdon matters that Layle himself considered to be obvious, though most of humanity, alas, did not see it that way. "Hundreds of Seekers have worked for the Eternal Dungeon," Layle pointed out.
Elsdon stole a look at the list again. "Mr. N. Getz. Mr. B. Perkins. Mr. T. Jenson— Layle, Mr. Jenson has been dead for fifteen years!"
"Some of the Seekers on that list have been dead for a century and a half. Yet their trust funds live on . . . accumulating interest."
"Compound interest." Elsdon had the glazed look he acquired when he was making calculations in his head. "Layle, if a rich man put all his savings into a trust fund . . . If that trust fund earned interest for decades . . . And if the money from the interest also earned interest .. ."
"And there have been hundreds of trust funds doing this. Yes. We've found the criminal draining the treasury dry of its money. The criminal is us."
"Here is our check for the property taxes owed by the Eternal Dungeon," said Layle, laying down the piece of paper with a most formidable string of numbers penned upon it.
The Commissioner, sitting behind his desk, raised his eyebrows. "You are certain that the royal bank will honor your check?"
Ignoring this remark, Layle laid down a second check with a longer string of numbers. "This will cover the income taxes of all the employees of the Eternal Dungeon: the Seekers, guards, laborers, and auxiliary employees."
The Commissioner stared at the check, bug-eyed.
"And this" – Layle tenderly placed the third check on the desk – "will pay the income taxes and property taxes of all prisoners currently held for questioning in the Eternal Dungeon. We would appreciate it if you would keep us up to date with any changes in the current laws regarding taxes, in case we need to cover the taxes of next year's prisoners."
The Commissioner finally found words. Or perhaps just his breath. "The Eternal Dungeon must be breaking prisoners at the rate of a dozen a minute, to be overflowing with such funds."
"We are merely frugal." Under his hood, Layle's smile was tight. "We save our money."
"You knew it was us?"
Elsdon's voice was soft. There were not many places for private conversation in the Eternal Dungeon, other than their own living cell, but Elsdon had happened upon Layle lighting a candle for his prisoner, who had been hanged that morning for premeditated rape. Mr. Boenick had offered his confession after it became clear that the Eternal Dungeon would survive.
Layle kept his voice equally soft, mindful of the reverent atmosphere in this place, where men's souls were reborn into a better life. "No, my instincts went awry for once. I thought the thief was the Commissioner, stealing funds from the treasury through hundreds of bank accounts, and then ensuring that he was assigned a duty that would allow him to send yet more funds into the treasury to be stolen. . . . We gave all of the trust funds' interest back to the Throne today, through payment of the taxes."
"And the trust funds themselves? Will you keep them secret?"
It had been very tempting to do so. The trust funds broke no laws, and their interest would be a steady source of income for centuries to come. The Eternal Dungeon need never worry again about paying taxes . . . or, for that matter, paying for cleaning supplies, which took up far too large a portion of the dungeon's annual budget.
But it would be theft, in spirit if not through actual law-breaking. A theft as insidious as the thefts Layle had committed during his youthful years of robbery and murder and rape, before he turned his talents to breaking prisoners rather than breaking laws. If he were to turn to thievery again, how could he face his prisoners and persuade them to repent of their crimes?
Layle looked at Elsdon. The junior Seeker was listening patiently. He always listened patiently, when determining whether his prisoners had committed crimes.
Layle smiled then, knowing that his smile would be reflected in his eyes, the only part of his face that Elsdon could currently see. "I told the Queen. She agreed with my solution for paying back the interest, and she is most generously permitting us to keep the money from the trust funds. . . provided that we move the funds into accounts that collect only simple interest."
Elsdon let out his breath the moment that Layle spoke the first sentence. Layle suspected that Elsdon had spent the last couple of minutes making plans for Layle's arrest and breaking. For both Elsdon and Layle, the Code of Seeking, and the Queen's law that lay behind it, surpassed their personal loyalties. It was one of the commonalities between them that fueled their love.
Layle added dryly, "It helped, of course, that a goodly portion of that money will go to taxes. The Commissioner is considering taxing interest next year."
Elsdon groaned. Smiling, Layle said, "Even with the trust funds accumulating only simple interest, we will not run short of money for a few years more; we can tap into the funds of the deceased Seekers. Therefore, we can continue to pay the taxes of our employees and prisoners for as long as this wartime tax continues."
"Perhaps we could also establish trust funds for living Seekers who were not rich when they came here, like Weldon Chapman," suggested Elsdon. "And perhaps we could distribute the trust funds of recently deceased Seekers to any destitute kinfolk they might have."
It was typical of Layle's love-mate to consider such matters. Layle reflected on the fact that, however serious the crisis might become when he and Elsdon began openly disagreeing about the need to torture prisoners, the disagreements between the two of them would never turn violent or spiteful. It was not merely love that would hold them back. The Eternal Dungeon, which gave some of its convicted criminals a new home to live in, had a way of nurturing compassion in its inhabitants. And Elsdon, whose generosity was inborn, was the most compassionate Seeker of all.
"Perhaps," said Layle, drawn into a new thought, "we could spend part of the funds to financially assist prisoners who are not fortunate enough to be incarcerated in a prison run by the Code of Seeking."
"Or a prison run by you." And Elsdon embraced Layle, in a manner that did not diminish the reverent atmosphere of the crematorium, but instead enhanced it.