The year 364, the third month. (The year 1883 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
The problem that day was her name.
"I want a close watch kept on my prisoner," she told her junior day guard as she wearily left the breaking cell after thirteen hours of questioning her prisoner.
"Yes, Mistress Birdesmond."
She paused before speaking further. Was it her imagination, or had her junior day guard placed unneeded emphasis on her name? She turned her attention to her senior day guard. "I'm concerned by the crying spells she is having. I fear my prisoner may try to do violence to herself."
"Yes, Mistress Birdesmond."
No, it had not been her imagination. As her senior day guard spoke, her junior day guard sniggered. She spun to face him. "Do you find something amusing about what I just said, Mr. Milz?"
This time it was the senior day guard who sniggered. Aghast – and feeling yet more weary – Birdesmond glanced quickly to see who was overhearing this conversation. Her encounters with her guards – her many encounters with her many guards over the seven years she had worked in the Eternal Dungeon – inevitably provided fodder for jokes from her fellow Seekers. None of those jokes were good-natured.
No other Seekers were within hearing range, though, except two Seekers who would never make mock at her. Elsdon Taylor, because he was Birdesmond's friend. And the High Seeker, because he refused to acknowledge the existence of Birdesmond.
Even as she thought this, the High Seeker, who was holding a low-voiced conversation with Elsdon, swung around so that his back faced Birdesmond. Elsdon's day guards, who had been keeping their minds on their work until now, nudged each other and looked in the direction of Birdesmond, smirking. Absorbed in conversation with the High Seeker, Elsdon failed to notice.
Birdesmond sighed and returned her attention to her own guards. The High Seeker's refusal to look in her direction was bad enough. But her name was proving to be a chain around her ankle.
She had thought the matter through, quite carefully, at the time she first submitted her application to be a Seeker. She would not hide the fact that she was a woman. That meant she would follow the centuries-old tradition in the Queendom of Yclau of using her title and first name, rather than her title and last name, as a man would.
At the time, she had been a single young woman who had never held a job; it had not bothered her to be called Mistress Birdesmond, or even Miss. But now, seven years later, she was a middle-aged matron, wife to a Seeker who was addressed by his last name. Most importantly, she was a Seeker herself: a member of the most elite group of prison-workers in the queendom, charged with searching prisoners who were believed to have committed the most dangerous of crimes.
And saddled, over and over, with guards who sniggered at her and treated her like a young girl.
Behind her, she heard the whisper, "Birdie!" It was followed by the trill of a bird-call.
She whirled around. Both her guards were laughing openly now. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see knowing smiles on the faces of the nearby guards. Elsdon – who, with one soft word, would have given his own guards cause to grow pale – remained absorbed in conversation.
Or perhaps was waiting to see whether the royal prison's only female Seeker had the strength to deal with recalcitrant guards.
It took her a moment to think. She was all too aware that her face was warm; thankfully, the face-cloth of her hood hid her flush. She required time to steady her voice before she could say, "Mr. Milz – your name is Milz, am I correct?"
"Yes, miss." He was practically rolling on the ground with laughter.
"And your name is Mr. Gamage?" She turned to the senior day guard.
"Yes, Mistress Birdesmond." He grinned.
"Oh, I don't think so," she said in a serene voice. "I think your names are Master Johnny and Master Tommy."
Their smiles disappeared. So did the smiles of the nearby guards.
Mr. Milz cleared his throat. "Mistress Birdesmond . . . I'm always addressed as Mr. Milz on duty. And my name is John Milz, not Johnny."
"Really?" she replied in a sweet voice. "How good of you to tell me. I shall have to try to remember that . . . Master Johnny."
Mr. Milz's face flushed. Elsdon's day guards were beginning to smile.
Absorbing the lesson quickly, Mr. Gamage said, "Ah . . . how would you prefer to be addressed . . . ma'am?"
"Mistress Chapman will do," she replied in an offhand fashion.
"Not Mr. Chapman?" Mr. Milz's voice was angry now.
She looked at him until his flush deepened. Then she said, "The last time I checked, I was a woman, Master Johnny. But I can have my husband, Mr. Chapman, check on that matter again when I go off-duty."
There was a ripple of laughter all down the corridor as the guards passed along the report of this riposte.
Even Mr. Gamage smiled. "Yes, ma'am," he said in a resigned voice. "We'll remember."
"Thank you, Master Tommy," she replied. "After a few days, I might be able to remember your own names."
Elsdon caught hold of her elbow before she could escape the scene, retreat to the privacy of her living quarters, and indulge in a few angry tears before her husband returned from work.
"May I show you something?" he murmured.
"Of course." She tried to settle her nerves. The High Seeker had slipped away. At least she could be sure that he would not gossip about what he had overheard – though, for all she knew, he might be snickering inwardly at the idea of a woman arrogantly demanding to be addressed like a man.
She and Elsdon walked silently along the corridor. She was keenly aware of guards smiling as she passed. She did not know – as she often did not know – whether they were smiling at her triumph in taking control over her guards, or smiling at her need to take control over her guards. No other Seekers in the dungeon, she knew, faced problems of this magnitude with their guards.
They reached the dungeon's entry hall. To Birdesmond's surprise, Elsdon held open the door to the immediate right of the doorway leading to the corridor with the breaking cells. She hesitated. She knew, without ever having to be told, that this was the one room in the entire dungeon she was never supposed to so much as glance within.
But Elsdon jerked his head silently, and so, with trepidation, she looked inside.
To her relief, all of the guards inside were clothed. Only one was stripped to his waist; he was blindfolded too. He was trying to make his way past the guards who surrounded him, but every time he took a step forward, he was met by the sharp flick of a wet towel. His upper torso was covered with red marks. The blindfolded guard – it was Mr. Kinney, their latest guard-in-training – cursed the cruelty, but he continued to try to break past the bruising barrier of his fellow guards.
Elsdon closed the door quietly. Not until they were both walking down the silent corridor alongside the Seekers' living cells did Birdesmond ask, "Are you suggesting that I ought to have accepted my guards' hazing?"
Elsdon replied simply, "Do you know what the High Seeker would have done to any guard who tried to haze him?"
She could well imagine. Elsdon paused, unlocked a door in the corridor, and gestured toward Birdesmond. She took the time to check that the room was empty before she stepped in, just as she would have checked to make sure that an outhouse was free of serpents. Elsdon shared his living cell with the High Seeker.
When the door was closed, Elsdon said, "Unlike guards, new Seekers are never hazed; they're assumed to have undergone any needed hazing during their university years."
She thought about this, then said, "I never attended university."
"Nor did I." Elsdon offered her a seat.
She settled herself in the armchair. This meant having to gather up her skirt and poise herself delicately in the exact position on the chair where she would not squash her bustle or, alternatively, slide off the chair. The move was second nature to her by now, though she often wondered how many minutes in the day she would have saved if she'd been born in a body that was permitted to wear the simpler clothing of a man.
With the door closed and locked behind them, Elsdon raised his face-cloth. Birdesmond copied the gesture and gratefully accepted the offer of water from her host. She asked, "Were you hazed when you first arrived here?"
"Not in any blatant manner," he replied as he handed her the water. "I was the High Seeker's protégé, and I was known to be a man with violence in my past. But even so . . . I'm sorry, Birdesmond, but this is one of the disadvantages of working in a man's world. Men are competitive by nature. And if someone comes into their world whom they consider an outsider, their competitiveness can turn ugly."
She raised her eyebrows as she looked at him over the rim of her cup. "I know you well enough to be sure that you're not chiding me for taking on an unwomanly profession. What are you suggesting, Elsdon?"
"I really don't know," he said apologetically as he settled himself onto the bench opposite her. "I suppose I'm simply trying to give you the context for what happened today, so that you can better judge the best path to take."
Elsdon, she thought with satisfaction, was one of the only men she knew in the dungeon – her husband was the other – who was prepared to admit that she might be better suited to solve problems than the men around her. She sipped the cool water for a minute, trying to think. A man's world. A lone woman in a man's world, attempting to survive by men's rules, without in any way discarding her womanly nature. It was a paradox she had lived with for years.
"Elsdon," she said slowly, "are you still in touch with Yeslin?"
"Yes, of course," he replied. Then, more hesitantly, "What do you have in mind, Birdesmond?"
She smiled, setting the cup aside. "I'd like a favor from you. From you and that talented brother of yours."
A week later, as she was walking down the corridor of the Seekers' living cells, the High Seeker stopped her in her tracks.
The act took her breath away. Her first impulse was to look around to see whether anyone else was within screaming distance. She needn't have worried in that regard. Elsdon was standing nearby, pretending to be interested in a bit of documentwork in his hand. Moreover, the High Seeker's night guards stood within reach, ready to take any needed action.
She eased a breath in slowly. The High Seeker, standing with his arms crossed, said, "There was a speech."
"A speech?" She tried to keep her voice light.
"By Yeslin Bainbridge, leader of the Commoners' Guild. The speech was covered by all of the city newspapers. Mr. Bainbridge suggested that the best way for this queendom to cure the problem of prisoner abuse would be for prisons to hire women to care for the prisoners. Such women, he said, would provide a 'maternal, nurturing, gentle' supplement to the stern measures sometimes required against prisoners."
"Really?" she said, making a note to herself to send Elsdon's adopted brother her thanks. Yeslin Bainbridge had come through magnificently.
The High Seeker's hands were now in fists. "Since the time that the newspapers reported this, the Eternal Dungeon has received three dozen applications for employment from women. Half a dozen of the applicants wish to be Seekers."
She said nothing. She was struggling not to smile. The High Seeker was all too skilled at reading smiles that were hidden under hoods.
"Birdesmond Manx Chapman," the High Seeker said in a deep voice, "I'm sure that your husband and son could testify that you are maternal. You may even be nurturing. The one thing you are not, however, is gentle. I would greatly appreciate, any time that you plan to stir up a hornet's nest in this dungeon, that you would give me a little advance warning."
She just managed to keep from laughing. "Yes, sir. I'm sorry about the added burden to your duties. May I help in any way?"
He heaved a deep sigh, then. Turning his eyes away from her for the first time, the High Seeker said, "Yes, Mistress Chapman. You may assist the Record-keeper in culling the applications. . . . Your guards can help you," he added in an offhand manner.
She narrowed her eyes then. She knew about the High Seeker's offhand manner.
But she soon realized that she was not the target this time of the High Seeker's revenge.
Her guards stared aghast at the growing pile of applications. "There are going to be more women working in the inner dungeon?" said Mr. Gamage.
"Some of them Seekers?" Mr. Milz's voice squeaked.
"Why, yes." She kept her voice light. "And I will be training any new female Seekers. With your help, of course."
"Training them." Mr. Gamage stared gloomily at the applications.
"Mind, if you don't feel you are up to the task, I could ask the High Seeker to assign me female guards—"
The expressions on her guards' faces were a treasure. "No, ma'am!" blurted out Mr. Milz. "We have the skills to help train a female Seeker. Er . .. how are women trained?"
"By helping them." She spoke in a soothing voice to her guards. "In the same comradely fashion that soldiers at war help their pals. I'm sure you can adapt your training methods accordingly, can't you?"
On the other side of the dungeon's entry hall, Elsdon gave a thumbs up. Under her hood, she grinned. Then she turned her attention back to one of her duties: guiding her guards to behave properly.