The year 355, the twelfth month. (The year 1880 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
They were working on different shifts that month, which made matters awkward. Just how awkward, he did not initially realize.
Officially, Layle Smith – High Seeker of the Eternal Dungeon, head of the queendom's royal prison, and perhaps the most valued prison-worker in the Midcoast nations – was still in disgrace. He continued to feel keen shame for the unfortunate episode the previous autumn, when he had lost his temper with a prisoner and shoved him against the wall. Seekers were not supposed to do that. The High Seeker, who served as a model and guide for the other Seekers, should most emphatically not do that.
But most prison sentences come to an end eventually. And so, while Layle remained eternally confined in the Eternal Dungeon by his own oath and desire, his period of punishment for the assault was reaching an end.
The year dropped to its spiritual nadir of midwinter. Within the private confines of his living quarters, Layle quietly bound himself by the deprivations of Hell's Fast, as he had done since childhood: soup and bread twice a day till springtime. The remainder of his food he gave to the god Hell, in the form of charity offerings to the poor. The fast, as always, sharpened Layle's awareness of the privileges he received throughout the year, regardless of his worthiness to receive them.
And meanwhile – ironically – his public, symbolic chains slackened. Day by day, the dungeon's Codifier, who had disciplinary supervision over the High Seeker, was gradually lifting Layle's suspension from work, allowing Layle to take up the duties once more of High Seekership.
But not yet the duties of supervising the dungeon's latest Seeker-in-Training. Which meant that Layle, to his great regret, was seeing very little of his new love-mate.
Elsdon Taylor – eighteen years old, a former prisoner of Layle's, and rapidly acquiring a reputation for asking the most unexpected questions during his education as a Seeker – was currently training under Weldon Chapman, the Seeker who supervised the dungeon's day shift. Mr. Chapman was Layle's right-hand man, where matters of work were concerned; Layle had no doubt that Elsdon was receiving excellent training.
But now that Layle was once more burdened with the duties of a night-shift Seeker, he scarcely ever saw Elsdon. Layle would sleep in his bed, or Elsdon would sleep in his bed, but neither of them ever slept in his bed at the same time together. They were not even able to take meals together in Layle's cell, where Elsdon had been living for five months.
It seemed the heights of irony that Layle had waited all his life to possess a love-mate, only to find himself in possession of a love-mate he never saw.
Truth to tell, the situation was beginning to place him in a foul temper. He knew, if he spent a moment thinking about it, that humility, not fits of pique, were appropriate for the fasting season. But after all, nobody in the dungeon besides himself underwent the rigors of Hell's Fast, so why should he put himself through the charade of pretending such things mattered this year?
And then the desk began to shift.
It was a modest desk. All of the furniture in Seekers' living quarters was modest. "Living cells" the Seekers called their apartments, a proud proclamation of the fact that, like the prisoners they questioned, the Seekers were prisoners in the dungeon, though by their own choice. Seekers' cells were furnished with only the most basic objects, including a plain desk and chair, such as might be seen in the home of any commoner.
Layle had grown very fond of the desk and chair. Though he could not choose his furniture, he retained the right to position the furniture in any manner he wished. Because his cell was more spacious than any other Seeker's, he had spent a great deal of time moving the desk about until he found the perfect position: in the corner of the parlor, near the bedroom door. It was a dark, quiet corner, contemplative, like that of a cleric. Since the Seekers undertook the sacred work of transforming guilty prisoners out of their previous, selfish selves, it seemed highly appropriate to Layle that he should place the desk in a position which suggested sacred isolation.
"But if the desk were closer to the bookcase, the desk lamp would make it easier to see the books." Ever helpful, Elsdon had made this suggestion during their latest, brief conversation together, when Elsdon returned to the living cell just as Layle was leaving for work.
"I can see the books fine," he had replied. He was not surprised that Elsdon was as yet unaware of how keen Layle's eyesight was. It would take time for Layle's love-mate to come to know him.
If, that is, they ever had the opportunity to meet each other again. And so, in the midst of Layle's mounting irritation at Elsdon's absence during the shift when Layle was awake, it came as a supremely irritating shock to Layle to arrive home from the night shift one morning and discover that his desk had been moved.
He stood motionless in the doorway for a moment, staring at the desk, which had been plopped carelessly into a new spot, halfway down the wall. He could not believe what he was seeing. For eleven years, the desk had stood in the same position, since soon after Layle rose to his exalted title. The desk could not have decided, of its own volition, to shift to another spot.
There was trouble here. He was determined to find and break the troublemaker.
He had to brace himself at the entrance to the office of the majordomo.
The outer dungeon, where laborers and servants worked to provide the necessities of daily living for the prisoners of the dungeon, was not under Layle's direct control. Like many other aspects of the dungeon, it was tended by the Codifier, who assigned a majordomo to supervise the men and women working in the outer dungeon.
In theory, Layle was highly in favor of this arrangement. His duties in supervising the inner dungeon were onerous enough without the added burden of worrying about his employees in the outer dungeon. Besides, he had found over the years that, the more he limited his visits to the outer dungeon, the more smoothly his life ran. There were far too many distractions in the outer dungeon, in the form of handsome young women.
One of whom – to Layle's great horror – had recently been assigned by the Codifier to the duty of majordomo.
He took a deep breath. He was the High Seeker, a terror to all criminals who sought to hide their crimes from the Seekers. He could make a hardened prisoner break into tears through a simple look. He was not going to lose his nerve, just because he needed to talk to a lady majordomo.
She belonged to him, Layle reminded himself, as everyone and everything in the dungeon belonged to him. He would simply make use of her, as he might make use of any of his belongings.
If the majordomo was unnerved by this first visit from her employer – a visit which took the form of shouted accusations – she hid her sentiments well. "I will investigate the matter, sir," she said, "but I believe I can reassure you that, whoever moved your furniture, it was not one of the outer-dungeon workers. My predecessor left me with clear instructions as to your wishes in these matters. I have been careful to convey these instructions to all maids and manservants who are assigned duties in your cell."
"Well, the desk didn't walk there!" shouted Layle. "Find out who shifted it!"
By the time that the Codifier's note arrived, reproving the High Seeker for his loss of temper with the majordomo, Layle had already begun to regret the incident.
Why had he assumed that an outer-dungeon worker was at fault? Others besides the laborers and servants had access to his cell. He sent an apology back to the Codifier, adding his stiffly-worded regret for having questioned the Codifier's new arrangement of his desk.
The humor in the Codifier's subsequent letter of denial was cutting.
"Mr. Sobel," Layle said the following morning. "Might I have a private word with you?"
He was careful to keep his voice quiet this time, though his mood had darkened overnight. After staying awake all through the previous day shift in hopes that Elsdon would arrive back from work, so that Layle could share a satisfying grouse with his love-mate over why fasting was an unsuitable activity for a man in his high position, he had been forced to return to his duties a couple of hours early when a Seeker required his assistance – not Elsdon, alas. Layle had finally returned to his cell the following dawn, exhausted and hungry, only to find that Elsdon had already departed for work. To top it all, the bloody desk – which Layle had taken great care to shift back to its original position – was now in the wrong spot again.
So was his desk lamp. It was on the right side of the desk, whereas he had always preferred it to be on the left side.
He was in a mood to rack the offender. However, he needed to be tactful. Good senior guards were hard to replace.
"I know that you are most committed to my safety and comfort, Mr. Sobel," said Layle to the guard who had served as his faithful shadow from the moment Layle first arrived at the Eternal Dungeon. "Have you by any chance made recent changes to my cell in your quest to better aid me?"
"You mean the desk, sir?" responded Mr Sobel. Before Layle could decide whether he had the power to send Mr. Sobel to the hangman, the guard added, "The majordomo informed me of your trouble, sir. I've been making enquiries among the guards to determine whether any of them had been interfering with your preferred furniture arrangement. It's quite clear that none of them would dare to enter your cell without your permission. I'm sorry that I was unable to identify the source of the trouble. Have Mr. Taylor's enquiries been fruitful, sir?"
"Mr. Taylor?" Layle was distracted from his thoughts. He had been contemplating pulling every Seeker into his office and questioning all of them through the same firm methods by which he broke prisoners.
"Yes, sir. When you discussed this with him, did he have any ideas as to who the culprit might be?"
Layle refrained from pointing out that, if he currently possessed the opportunity to talk to his love-mate, he wouldn't be in so poor a mood. He said simply, "There was no need to discuss it with him. It is my desk; he has nothing to do with such matters."
Mr. Sobel opened his mouth. Then he closed it. "Yes, sir," he murmured.
Layle's eyes narrowed. For eighteen years he had worked with Mr. Sobel. And so he knew that, when Mr. Sobel declined to make comment on something Layle had said, it could only be because Layle had made the most horrendous of mistakes.
It was really quite impossible to imagine that Elsdon Taylor – a man deeply in love with Layle and clearly as committed as Mr. Sobel to Layle's welfare – would have deliberately undertaken a task which he must know would annoy Layle. If it had not been for their conversation about the desk, Layle would have assumed that this was a simple misunderstanding: that Elsdon, in his never-ending quest to bring ease to Layle's life, had moved the desk, out of a misplaced belief that this would please Layle.
But Elsdon knew that Layle wanted the desk where it was. So why the bloody blades would Elsdon move it?
No, the culprit must be someone else. Still, it wouldn't hurt to ask Elsdon who he thought the troublemaker was. It would be a fine test for him, during his training period. Perhaps he would suggest that an outsider to the dungeon had invaded Layle's cell. It would take time and money to track such a culprit, but after all, Layle had not yet sent to charity the extra allowance he received annually from the dungeon in acknowledgment of his diminished food costs during his winter fasting. He could use that money to find and trap the villain who had disrupted his privacy.
Buoyed by these thoughts, Layle returned home early from his night shift—
—and stopped dead in the doorway. The desk had been moved again.
What was worse, someone was using his desk.
Layle slammed his cell door shut. "What the bloody blades do you think you're doing, taking over my desk?" he shouted.
Remaining seated in the desk chair, Elsdon twisted his body to look back at the High Seeker. Elsdon had his Seeker hood on, but the face-cloth was up, revealing his faintly enquiring expression. "Your desk?" he said mildly.
Layle opened his mouth for a roar that would awake the Queen in her royal bed in the palace above.
And then, like Mr. Sobel, he shut his mouth with a snap.
Elsdon dimpled. He was quite irresistible when he dimpled. "I was wondering when you would figure it out," he said. "You've never roomed with anyone before, have you?"
Raising his face-cloth, Layle came slowly forward, staring at his desk. His desk, for eleven years.
Their desk, from the moment he invited Elsdon to live with him.
"Not in this manner," Layle replied finally. "Mr. Sobel shared my living cell when I was a Seeker-in-Training and later a junior Seeker. But Mr. Sobel . . ." His voice trailed off as he recalled those years, when he had ordered the furniture to his liking and had taken for granted that any furniture he used would not be used by his subordinate.
Elsdon nodded, unsurprised. "I had my own bedroom, when I was living at home. But I was in charge of my father's household, including deciding where to place the furniture. You have no idea how hard a decision that was. My father wanted the furniture a certain way, my sister wanted it a different way, the servants preferred a special pattern for their cleaning . . . It was always difficult, finding an arrangement that would satisfy everyone."
Layle did not immediately reply. He was noticing that the lamp, now shifted to the right side of the desk, cast light upon the bookcase, permitting Elsdon to see the books better.
Layle had the terrible feeling that, if he had been placed in charge of a household, he would have arranged the furniture to his own liking, consulting no one.
Elsdon had risen as Layle approached, ceding the desk chair to the High Seeker. Layle sat down at the desk.
Then he pulled Elsdon onto his lap and buried his face upon Elsdon's shoulder. He felt, like a welcome friend, the sacrificial gnawing of hunger in his own belly. "Have I told you," he said, his mouth muffled by Elsdon's body, "that you are good for me?"
"Am I?" For the first time, Elsdon sounded uncertain. He was still very young, and he was still in training. He had not yet entered into his full power as a Seeker.
Layle nodded as he raised his head. He ran his gaze over Elsdon's face, not knowing when their duties would permit them to meet next. It didn't matter. A single conversation with Elsdon Taylor was enough to last a man a lifetime.
"Truly so," Layle replied. "You are shifting me. You are transforming me into a better man."
And he claimed Elsdon's mouth.