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On Guard

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PROLOGUE

The junior Seeker stood in the entrance, awaiting death.

He did not turn his head to look at the guard moving behind him. Instead, his eyes and thoughts remained focussed on the chamber around him. Unlike most other parts of the Eternal Dungeon, this chamber had no artificial walls. Instead, the chamber was a vast, semi-circular cavern, with niches carved into the walls to serve as shelves for glass-enclosed candles. Many of the candles were lit; their smoke created a haze in the upper part of the chamber, drifting slowly up to a smoke-hole at the very top of the ceiling.

The ground below was littered with ladders and extra candles and matches; otherwise it was stark. The floor consisted of nothing but the rough, uneven stone of the cavern, gleaming faintly in the light. In the middle of the chamber, a low railing guarded a circular area larger than a prisoner's cell. This area was made of stone as well, but the stone was manmade, as could be seen from the fact that it rose up in the middle to form a hook. From this hook rose a chain as vast in width as the chain that holds a steamer's anchor.

In the brightly lit chamber, only one other person stood: a woman from the outer dungeon, lighting a candle in honor of some Seeker or former prisoner she had known. The guard, stepping past the junior Seeker without a word, went over to the woman and said something to her in a whisper. She jerked and looked over her shoulder, staring with wide eyes at the hooded Seeker by the doors, as if she had seen a ghost. Then she nodded and hurried toward the only other exit from the chamber, a small door to the right of the junior Seeker.

Once she was through this, the guard closed and bolted the smaller exit before returning to the Seeker. Still silent, he stepped past. In a minute, the junior Seeker heard the great, booming sound of the crematorium's doors shutting behind him.

Only then did he move. He went over to one side of the chamber, used a key to open a metal panel set within the wall, and contemplated the switch there. With a wrench, he pulled up the switch.

A screech filled the chamber, like the grieving howl of a soul trapped in afterdeath. He covered his ears as the slack chain above the circular stone tightened, and then began rising. The screech of the metal was accompanied by a low, harsh rumble as stone scraped against stone.

He looked up at where the chain travelled over a pulley hanging from the ceiling, as it had for a century. The chain, though frequently replaced, was old in design; the machinery pulling the chain onto a vast wheel nearby had stood there for only twenty years. It was said to be the most powerful mechanical crane in the world, far more powerful than the cranes that had been used to build the mighty train-bridges that awed foreign visitors to the queendom of Yclau. Watching the rise of the stone lid, as heavy as any train, the junior Seeker did not doubt the boast about the crane. He only wondered how, by all that was sacred, the Seekers had managed to raise the lid before the existence of mechanical engines.

The lid stopped and hung, swaying, barely high enough for a man to crouch under it. This the junior Seeker did, feeling, as he always did, the breathless fear of an ant who has deliberately walked under a man's boot. He grabbed a nearby safety lamp as he ducked down, swinging it forward so that he could locate the top landing of the stairs spiralling round the pit below the lid. The light also landed on the circular wall of the ash-pit that the spiral staircase curved around. The ashes themselves were hidden from view.

He felt a little better once he was on the iron stairs, climbing his way down. The stairs, though of open ironwork, were steady under the feet and had strong handrails on both sides. There was little chance he would slip and fall, provided that he kept the lamplight spilling upon the steps to come. The stairs wound their way gradually round the pit, with manmade stones on both sides, so it was easy to pretend that he was going down a circular stairway in the palace above the Eternal Dungeon, rather than circling in a spiral around a pit of death-ashes.

He could no longer hear the crackle of candle-flames above him, but he could hear the hiss of air, and occasionally the air would brush him when he passed a vent. The sound was reassuring. He had heard tales that, when the mechanical Lungs that kept the Eternal Dungeon alive had broken down, back in '42, the only person who failed to escape alive had been a Seeker who was in this pit at the time, mourning the death of a parent. Forgotten in the mad rush to evacuate the dungeon, he was found later at the top of the iron stairs, his hands pressed futilely against the stone lid that would open from below for no man, no matter how strong.

The junior Seeker looked back up the stairway. He could see dim light above, a sure sign that the lid remained raised. He told himself that the doors to the crematorium were now locked and guarded; he told himself that, even if by some chance a Seeker entered the crematorium and closed the lid, not knowing he was there, he could still survive here for weeks, and his absence would be noticed long before that. It made no difference. This place felt to him as it had on his previous visits, as though it were his grave.

As of course it was, he reminded himself. He looked at the convex wall next to him, wondering whether he had yet reached the level of the pit where, one day, his own ashes would rest.

He took a deep breath and continued down.

The only sound was his boots tapping the steps, and the thump of his rapid heartbeat. It was difficult, at times like this, not to think of the ashes that lay in the pit because of him. He could tell himself that his former prisoners' souls had been reborn into new life, but the only certainty he held was that the ashes of their bodies lay in the cold earth. Despite the autumnal coolness of the air, he paused a minute to raise the face-cloth of his hood, knowing that no one could see him here. Sweat lay thick on his face.

He walked more carefully after that, his palms now slick upon the railing. He felt sure that he must be nearing the end of his journey, and he knew that certainty to be an illusion. The pit was wide and deep, made to hold ashes for many centuries in the future. Travelling down to its bottom took as much time as walking across the whole of the capital's Parkside district.

He could feel himself shaking by the end. He was strong, for a man of his class; he did not spend his days idling in a parlor chair but instead stood for anywhere up to twelve hours a day, searching prisoners. But walking down an endless staircase, holding a lamp in the dark and trying not to stumble to one's death, was an exercise that would exhaust even the strongest man. He tried not to think of what the journey upward would be like.

The door came so suddenly that he nearly walked into it. He stood a moment, trying to catch his labored breath, and feeling his heart drum inside him. He did not bother to look up; he knew he was too far down to see any light now. After a minute, he hung his lamp on the hook designed for it, next to another lamp that was dark. He closed the shutter of his own lamp, more out of respect for where he went than out of fear that some unknown gas would set the stairwell ablaze. He could still hear the ventilated air sighing, like a mother soothing her frightened child. He groped a moment in the dark, found the latch, and opened the door as quietly as he could.

He was just as quiet closing it. The small cubicle he stood in was nearly pitch-black; he paused a moment before soundlessly pushing back the curtain in front of him. Then, as he heard the unmistakable hiss of another ventilation shaft, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the light in the chamber of death.

"The vigil chamber" was its official title, but the junior Seeker had never heard this room called that except in documents. It was as stark in design as the crematorium: nothing more than a circular floor that was the width of the pit, with a stone wall curving round the sides. Its ceiling had begun, in the past two years, to bow under the accumulated weight of a century's worth of death-ashes. The junior Seeker did not like to think of what the scene in this room would be like if the ceiling gave way while he was there. He knew that the palace engineers were still battling each other over the best way to preserve this place. In the meantime, the High Seeker had broken with decades' worth of tradition and ordered that a small electric light be installed above the only exit, in case there should be enough warning of an impending cave-in to give the vigil-keeper time to dash for the stairwell. No longer would vigil-keepers be plunged into the dark once the oil in their lamps gave out, permitting them to share in the lonely darkness experienced by the newly dead. For now, the vigil-keepers' prayers would take place in dim light.

The junior Seeker could not see that the light made any difference to the atmosphere of the chamber. This place still looked like what it was: an ancient burial tomb.

As his pupils widened, his vision took in what lay in the chamber: Crates of tinned food and tinned milk, enough to supply this place for a month. Other supplies necessary for a long sojourn. An inconspicuous metal plate in the ground that the junior Seeker knew led to a waste pit that would be cleaned out later by dungeon workers. A bed that looked as though it had not been slept in. A chair that had clearly not been sat in, for it was holding one of the crates. And in the midst of this all, kneeling on the stone floor in the center of the chamber with his body upright but for his bowed head, was the High Seeker.

His head was bare of his hood; his back was to the junior Seeker. He said without turning, "I was told I could have a month."

The junior Seeker stepped out of the darkness of the tiny antechamber. "Another message arrived from Vovim. The Codifier needs to speak with you."

The High Seeker did not move for a moment. Then, with a sigh, he made a gesture that was foreign to the junior Seeker but elaborate enough that it appeared to convey meaning to something unseen. The High Seeker rose slowly to his feet but continued to look down, as though his thoughts were not on the ashes above, but on something that lay much further below.

After a minute, he moved over to one of the crates, picked up an incising instrument that lay atop it, and stared at the wall that surrounded him. The junior Seeker, sensing what he was searching for, went over to one curve of the wall and pointed to his own name, carefully incised into the stone. The carving was surrounded by hundreds of other names, some overlapping each other as the Seekers who had visited this place vied for elbow room in the remaining space on the wall.

The High Seeker nodded and began incising his initials next to the junior Seeker's name. The junior Seeker watched him work without speaking. He had carved his name here three years before, when he had come here to honor the delayed interment of his sister's ashes. He had been here twice since then, once to mourn the death of his father, and a second time when he learned of the death of the schoolmaster who had taught him his letters. The High Seeker, though, had apparently never entered this chamber in vigil before, not even after the death of the man who had first trained him to be a Seeker.

Behind him, the junior Seeker heard a faint, irregular beeping, like the peep of a newborn chick. He looked round the dim chamber until he found what he was searching for: a niche in the wall, holding a pair of headphones and a signalling instrument.

Leaving the High Seeker at his work, the junior Seeker went over and put on the headphones. The code, as he had suspected, was from the Codifier's night secretary, signalling the vigil-keeper in the required daily pattern. The junior Seeker waited for a pause, and then acknowledged the signal with his own name and the High Seeker's, tapping in the code with the painstaking care of someone who has learned his code in school rather than at work. He added the information that he and the High Seeker would be returning to the dungeon.

The acknowledgment from the Codifier's office came immediately; the acknowledgment from the palace above the dungeon took longer. The junior Seeker was not surprised. The signalling office of the Yclau palace was the largest in the world, hooked by cable to dozens of governments and receiving hundreds of messages each hour. Most of these messages required no more than a token acknowledgment, so the palace signalling office had developed machines to punch the code onto paper that could be read and transcribed at a later date.

Out of all the signalling instruments in that room, the junior Seeker had been told, only one had a bell attached to it to alert the code-men that a new message had arrived. Even so, three minutes passed before a code-man responded.

The junior Seeker used that time to marvel at the marriage of old and new that was represented by this signalling instrument in the ancient vigil chamber. He knew that the High Seeker had received strong opposition from the other senior Seekers when he had proposed this addition several years before. They had argued that a true vigil required that the vigil-keeper share the conditions of the dead.

The High Seeker had not tried to argue with his colleagues; that was not his way. Instead, he had placed before them a list of the names of the vigil-keepers who had died from illness of body or mind in the death chamber over the past century, because the chamber lacked any direct means of communication with the world above. Then, equally silently, he had laid before them the passage in the Code of Seeking which required that Seekers preserve life wherever possible.

The signal from the palace arrived, a terse acknowledgment followed by a reminder that the palace would require word from the Codifier's office once the vigil-keeper and his companion were returned to the Eternal Dungeon. Both the junior Seeker and the Codifier's secretary acknowledged the message; then the junior Seeker pulled off the headphones and turned to look at the High Seeker.

The High Seeker had by now stepped back to gaze at the initials and year he had incised, which were hidden in the shadow of his body. The junior Seeker wondered whether he was seeing instead the initials of the man for whom he had come here.

The junior Seeker said, "He is reborn. You can be sure of that."

"Can I?" The High Seeker often pronounced questions like this in the presence of prisoners. When he did so, it was with a light voice, mildly inquisitive, no matter how deep his actual interest in the prisoner's answer. Now his voice sounded as though it were dipped in dark liquid. "He was Vovimian, believing that he would spend eternity at hell. Perhaps that makes a difference."

The junior Seeker stepped forward then, touching the High Seeker lightly on his sleeve. "Love, he abused prisoners," he reminded the High Seeker solemnly. "If he is undergoing pain now, it is no worse than the pain he often gave others."

The High Seeker did not look his way. "The last words he wrote were of his apprehension that I would despise him if I learned that he was afraid when he was brought to his final moments. Despise!" The High Seeker's voice was halfway between a laugh and a sob. "He tried to reform his dungeon, knowing what fate awaited him if his efforts were discovered, and yet he believed I would think less of him because he feared that ending when it came!" He turned away abruptly, went over to the bed, and picked up the hood that lay on the pillow there.

He did not put it on immediately, though. He remained where he was, staring at the ground in the cool room, saying softly, "And it was all for nothing. All the work he did, all the pain he endured at the end – it was wasted. His dungeon is returned to what it was; his blood was spent for nothing."

"Then see that his death was worth it."

The High Seeker raised his head slowly to look at the junior Seeker. Though his face remained naked, his expression was unreadable. The junior Seeker gave an impatient shrug of his shoulders. "Love, you've told me often enough that, if a prisoner dies before he has accomplished what he should in his life, it is up to those who were close to him to bring to fruit the deeds that remain to be done. He wouldn't want you to give way to despair like this. If he sent you his last thoughts, it was because he hoped that you could make something of his death."

The High Seeker was very still. His eyes were opaque. Then, without any expression entering his face, he pulled his hood over his head.

"Yes," he said softly as he walked forward. "I will make something of his death. I swear that, by the name of hell's High Master."

The junior Seeker felt uneasiness enter him then. He opened his mouth to speak, but the High Seeker walked past him without pause, flicking a switch in the wall as he did so. The chamber plunged into darkness.
 
 

On Guard 1
PROMOTION

Barrett Boyd
The year 360, the sixth month. (The year 1881 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
 

In our day, the crime that the first High Seeker of the Eternal Dungeon has often been charged with is of having been a vicious, cruel abuser of prisoners, torturing men and women without reason and using his power to force others to horribly maltreat prisoners. In light of these charges, Layle Smith's justifications for the actions he began taking in his fortieth year make no sense.

To understand those events, we must remember that, even in our own day, an opposing charge has been placed against Layle Smith. Citizens of victim rights organizations complain that Layle Smith was the first in a long line of prison workers who cared more about the welfare of their prisoners than about their prisoners' victims and possible future victims. These critics argue that the first High Seeker's policy of urging in court that his prisoners receive lower sentences established a terrible trend that has continued into our own crime-filled era.

In the Golden Age of the Eternal Dungeon, such voices must have been, not a minority, but an overwhelming chorus. Few people would have argued that Layle Smith was too hard on his prisoners. Instead, from the time that Layle Smith first began reforming the Eternal Dungeon's overly punitive handling of prisoners, he must have been told again and again that he was being far too soft on criminals who deserved nothing less than prolonged torture and death.

Anyone who claims that Layle Smith should have remained on a pedestal, far above these criticisms, must ask themselves whether they would have had the ability to remain deaf to such a united chorus. What is surprising is not that Layle Smith began to listen to the charges. What is surprising is that he waited until the moment at which, for the first time, a second charge was placed against him. At that point, buffeted by blows in opposite directions, he chose to stand his ground firmly in the middle. Too firmly, as history would later judge . . .

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
 

CHAPTER ONE

"Most people would consider it a demotion," said Barrett Boyd. "To go from being senior day guard to the second-highest ranked Seeker in the dungeon to serving a junior Seeker . . ."

"Anyone who has seen Mr. Chapman and Mr. Taylor at work would understand," replied Mr. Sobel in a quiet voice, his gaze slowly grazing the posted guards as he passed them. "Mr. Chapman well deserves his rank, but he breaks his prisoners through the same, time-honored methods each time. He doesn't experiment with new techniques. Mr. Taylor, on the other hand—"

"That's exactly right!" Barrett interrupted. "Elsdon Taylor is fresh, new. He uses bold methods to break his prisoners; he isn't afraid to try techniques that haven't been tried before."

Mr. Sobel nodded without looking Barrett's way. "Mr. Smith is like that as well. He nearly gave heart attacks to the senior members of this dungeon during his first six months here. He was pressing the boundaries of the Code so hard that everyone was convinced he would not be permitted to take his oath as a torturer."

"And instead he became High Seeker." Barrett was not disturbed by the fact that Mr. Sobel continued to keep his face turned away from his fellow guard. Barrett was off-duty; Mr. Sobel was on-duty, and the greater part of his attention must be focussed on supervising the other guards of this dungeon, checking that they were properly watching the prisoners in their cells. It was a measure of the trust between Mr. Sobel and Barrett that the High Seeker's senior night guard would converse with him in a casual manner while on duty. Some guards, Barrett thought sourly, would be all too likely to take advantage of Mr. Sobel's familiarity.

Mr. Sobel nodded, his eyes narrowing as he sighted something he did not like. "He has continued to experiment, though. After twenty-two years, he is as inclined as ever to press the boundaries of the Code. . . . Mr. Crofford."

"Sir?" squeaked the young guard standing by the door of a prisoner's cell, clearly alarmed at being singled out for reproof.

"Am I right in surmising you are left-handed?"

A look of bewilderment appeared on the young guard's face. "Yes, sir."

"Then you may carry your dagger at your left hip rather than your right, if you wish."

Mr. Crofford's expression grew yet more bewildered in the dim lamplight of the dungeon corridor. "But sir, the Code says . . ."

"The intention of the Code is to place the dagger at closest hand, in case an emergency should arise. For right-handed guards, that means at their right hand. The High Seeker has always permitted guards who are left-handed to wear their daggers at the left."

"Oh!" Mr. Crofford tugged at the sheath on his belt. Although his speech had been fumbling, his movements were not, Barrett noted with pride. He had trained Mr. Crofford himself, and as he passed on, his eyes linked with Mr. Crofford's in a wordless acknowledgment of their tie.

Mr. Sobel was saying, "It's a good choice, but Mr. Urman will be angry when he hears that Mr. Taylor has picked you. He was hoping for that position himself."

Barrett snorted. "He had his chance to be a senior guard for Mr. Chapman last year, and he wrecked it," he said – perhaps a bit unkindly, he admitted to himself. Mr. Urman had paid the price for his carelessness in handling one of Mr. Chapman's prisoners. "Besides, can you see him working under Mr. Taylor? He's been at Elsdon Taylor's throat since the day Mr. Taylor arrived here."

"Understandable," said Mr. Sobel. "Has Mr. Urman told you about the beating?"

"Whose, Mr. Taylor's? I know he was beaten when he was the High Seeker's prisoner, if that's what you're asking."

"The beating was in error." Mr. Sobel lowered his voice yet further, though they were beyond the other guards now, entering the lampless stretch of corridor past the rack rooms. "But that's Mr. Urman's tale, if he has not already told it." He frowned. "What's going on here?" He strode forward, with Barrett at his heels.

Mr. Urman was a competent guard, Barrett had to admit as they came out of the darkness into the lamplight next to the crematorium doors. Even before they emerged, Mr. Urman had his dagger out and his other hand on his whip. The junior guard relaxed as he saw the two senior guards come forward.

"What are you doing here, Mr. Urman?" Mr. Sobel's voice was perhaps too sharp, but given Mr. Urman's history, that was hardly surprising.

The junior guard shrugged as he sheathed his dagger. "How should I know? I was under the impression that the night shift was my time for sleep. But it appears I was mistaken about that. The almighty wise one – namely, Taylor – grabbed me and posted me here several hours ago."

"Mr. Urman, you will refer to him as Mr. Taylor," said Mr. Sobel, his voice edged like a blade, as Barrett cast a sympathetic glance at him. He had always been glad that Mr. Sobel, not himself, was senior-most guard in the dungeon and therefore was burdened with the uncomfortable task of having to reprove the speech of his fellow guards.

Mr. Urman shrugged again. "The High Seeker's love-mate put me here. Is that identification enough?"

Mr. Sobel chose to ignore this. He was staring beyond Mr. Urman at the crematorium doors, which, when opened, were just wide enough for a corpse and its attendants. "What does he want in there, I wonder?" the High Seeker's guard murmured.

"The almighty one? To play Torturer and Prisoner in the High Seeker's bed, I suppose." Mr. Urman's voice was acid.

Mr. Sobel's gaze switched to the junior guard. "Mr. Urman," he said in the matter-of-fact voice that made him so different from the High Seeker, "I do hope I will not have to ask you to visit me in the guardroom again."

The junior guard shifted uneasily. This gave Barrett the opening he needed. "What's this I hear about Mr. Taylor and a beating?" he asked.

Mr. Urman glared at Mr. Sobel. "I thought you were supposed to keep silent about disciplinary matters."

"We were discussing Mr. Taylor's beating," Mr. Sobel said mildly.

"You were beaten?" Barrett said to Mr. Urman. "Because of Mr. Taylor?" He was curious rather than surprised.

For a moment, Mr. Urman looked as though he would explode; then he shrugged. "That was a long time ago, when Mr. Taylor first arrived here as a prisoner. I made a mistake; I didn't tell the High Seeker something about Mr. Taylor's actions he should have known."

"So Mr. Taylor was beaten when he should not have been," prodded Mr. Sobel.

"That's what the High Seeker said afterwards, anyway." Mr. Urman's tone was sulky. "That was his excuse for ordering my beating." He shrugged again, as though trying to remove the memory of the lash from his shoulder-blades; then he glared at Barrett. "I was in training then. Don't tell me that you never received a beating when you were in training."

Barrett had enough sense not to speak aloud the truth, which was that he had received no beatings and few reprimands during his time as a guard-in-training. He also bit back the retort that Mr. Urman had received fifteen disciplinary beatings since becoming a fully-trained guard, tying the all-time record for disciplined guards in this dungeon. The beatings were not entirely Mr. Urman's fault. Boldness and innovation were encouraged in senior Seekers and senior guards; the same qualities were discouraged in junior Seekers and junior guards to a degree that Barrett found disturbing. He was not surprised that a guard like Mr. Urman, restless to try new methods, had endured Mr. Sobel's whip on so many occasions. He was only surprised that Mr. Taylor had not.

But since the High Seeker would have been the one to order Mr. Taylor's beating, perhaps that was not so surprising after all. Barrett toyed with this thought for a moment, trying to decide which image was odder in his mind: Mr. Smith ordering his love-mate's beating, or Mr. Smith not ordering his love-mate's beating.

Mr. Sobel apparently felt that the conversation had turned too grim. He said lightly, "Isn't the central Vovimian rite the marriage of Mercy and Hell? Perhaps the High Seeker needs Mr. Taylor to assist him with whatever religious rituals he is performing down there."

Mr. Urman's expression made Barrett snort again. He supposed that Mr. Urman had never been privileged before now to hear the High Seeker's senior night guard make a filthy joke. Barrett added, "We can guess which of them is playing Mercy."

"And who is Hell." Mr. Sobel gave the slight grimace of discomfort that he always showed on the few occasions when he poked fun at his Seeker.

Mr. Urman evidently decided it was safe to join the merriment. "And we can imagine what the rite is like too. Mr. Smith will go down on one knee before Mr. Taylor—"

"He'll pledge to him his undying love," said Barrett.

"He'll offer him flowers—"

"—and all the riches of his life and body—"

"—and then he'll tie up Mr. Taylor and use his instruments of torture on him," Mr. Sobel said wearily as the other two men crowed with laughter. "Yes, I know; we've all heard the jokes before."

"The trouble is," said Barrett, wiping away tears of amusement, "that those jokes are likely to be too close to the truth. I can't imagine why Mr. Taylor stays with the High Seeker."

"Let's just be thankful that he does," replied Mr. Sobel shortly. His head had turned toward the darkness behind them, and Barrett knew he was thinking that he should return to his patrol.

Mr. Urman, though he had not moved from his post during this conversation, allowed himself to lean back against the narrow crack between the crematorium doors. "What does it matter if those two stay at peace with one another?"

Mr. Sobel's head snapped back. He and Barrett exchanged looks.

"What?" asked Mr. Urman, frowning.

"Mr. Urman," Mr. Sobel replied in that patient voice Mr. Boyd remembered him using often during Mr. Urman's training, "have you noticed, by any chance, that Mr. Taylor is an extremely stubborn individual?"

Mr. Urman gave a short laugh. "Stubborn? I suppose that's the polite way of putting it. Bloody-minded is how I would have put it."

"And have you noticed," contributed Barrett, "that Mr. Smith is also a very stubborn man?"

Mr. Urman did not bother to reply this time.

"And has it occurred to you to wonder," finished Mr. Sobel softly, "what would happen to this dungeon if Mr. Taylor's stubbornness came into conflict with Mr. Smith's stubbornness?"

Mr. Urman opened his mouth, and left it hanging. There was a pause. The crematorium doors slid open.

Mr. Urman, who was still leaning against the crack, nearly fell flat onto his back. He was saved by Mr. Taylor, who managed to put Mr. Urman back on his feet with such swiftness that it appeared that Mr. Urman had not moved. A characteristic generosity, Barrett thought to himself, as he ran his eye over the junior Seeker.

Elsdon Taylor, lit by the lamp over the doorway and by candles in the chamber beyond, looked as though he were about to drop from exhaustion. Barrett could not blame him. By tradition, only the men and women who would one day be buried in this crematorium – mainly Seekers and former prisoners who lived in this dungeon – were permitted to use the death chamber. Barrett had once gone there, though, to assist a Seeker who was too elderly to make his way up the stairs without assistance. They had taken the journey in easy stages, with long pauses periodically, but even so, Barrett had been shaking as hard as the elderly Seeker by the end of the journey.

By contrast, the High Seeker looked as though he had spent the last few hours sitting behind his desk in his office. His gaze, half-hidden within his hood's eye-holes, travelled over the three guards. Under normal circumstances, his gaze would have been cool, in a manner that always made Mr. Boyd's stomach churn, as though he had received the sudden, disastrous misfortune of becoming a prisoner to the High Seeker. But Mr. Smith's expression was different on this occasion: it seemed vague, as though he were not fully present.

Mr. Boyd had seen this expression before, in the eyes of other vigil-keepers emerging from their isolation. He often wondered what it was that vigil-keepers saw during their weeks of silence and darkness.

Mr. Urman, recovering his composure without so much as a glance of gratitude to Mr. Taylor, took something from his pocket and thrust it toward the High Seeker. "This arrived from the Codifier's office an hour ago, Mr. Smith. I was instructed to give it to you when you emerged. The messenger said that it's a separate matter from the news that Mr. Taylor conveyed to you."

The High Seeker took the folded note silently and used his teeth to cut through the string. Barrett had never wanted to ask how the High Seeker had learned to use his teeth like dagger-blades. As Mr. Smith read the note, Mr. Taylor gave a nod of greeting to Mr. Urman, a nod of greeting to Mr. Sobel, and a word of greeting to Barrett. Given that Mr. Sobel, not Barrett, was Mr. Taylor's close friend, Barrett felt the compliment as though it were warm tea entering his body on a winter's day.

"Mr. Sobel." The abruptness of the High Seeker's voice made everyone present jump, even Mr. Taylor, who must assuredly be accustomed to abruptness from his love-mate.

"Sir." Mr. Sobel, not surprisingly, was the quickest of the guards to recover.

"There will be an inner-dungeon meeting at tomorrow's dusk break. All active-duty Seekers and guards are to attend, other than the dusk-break guards, with whom I will speak later. See that word is spread."

Mr. Sobel murmured an acknowledgment that the High Seeker did not await; he had brushed past the guards and was swallowed up quickly by the darkness. He had not shown the note to Mr. Taylor, Barrett noted. Mr. Taylor paused a moment in the doorway, and then hurried after the High Seeker.

"Well," said Mr. Urman, not quite long enough for the High Seeker to be out of earshot, "what do you suppose that was about?"

Barrett waited until the Seekers' footsteps had receded far enough for him to safely reply, "We'll find out soon enough, I suppose. Mr. Sobel, do you want me to spread word to the Seekers and guards on the day shift, when they come on duty?"

"Thank you, Mr. Boyd." Mr. Sobel did not look at him; he was still staring into the darkness, his brow creased.

Barrett asked hesitantly, "What is it?"

Mr. Sobel replied slowly, "His eyes."

"So? He has been in vigil for three weeks; they always look like that when they come up from the pit."

The High Seeker's senior night guard did not reply but continued to stare into the darkness. Nearby, Mr. Urman said cheerfully, "Bed at last. At least I'll be able to get a couple of hours' sleep before my shift."

Mr. Sobel turned round swiftly, as though the renewed acid in Mr. Urman's voice had awoken him. "I need your help in spreading word to the guards who are on their monthly leave. Some of them have left the dungeon; you'll have to go retrieve them from the lighted world."

"Oh, for love of— Honestly, Mr. Sobel, I think you must hate me. You could easily choose another guard to do that. . . ."

Barrett let them battle the matter out. He stepped into the dark stretch of corridor, his mind no longer on the High Seeker. Instead, his thoughts were on the junior Seeker, hurrying to catch up with the man who had not looked his way.
 

CHAPTER TWO

The guardroom, when Barrett entered it at the beginning of the dawn shift, was its usual self: crowded, chaotic, and full of comradeship. The jam at the main entrance was worse than usual, though; Barrett paused to see what was causing the clutter. The new object of interest, it turned out, was a time clock.

An older guard, close to retirement, examined the clock's dial and gleaming metal surface before snorting. "It'll last one month," he predicted. "Then it will rust."

Several of the other guards nodded. Everyone knew the effects of the dungeon's air on machinery; perpetual dampness was the reason that the Eternal Dungeon had resisted the introduction of most machinery since the Industrial Era began.

"No more water clocks to turn, though," said a guard who evidently hoped for a reduction in workload.

Mr. Crofford, having located his time card, with each hour and half hour carefully listed on the edge, tentatively inserted the card into the time clock, and then jumped in place as the clock emitted a heavy "chunk" sound. The guards around him gave half-smothered laughs that Mr. Crofford failed to notice. He was busy extracting and staring at his card, which now had a bite against the time: "3.30 AM."

"But how do I know whether my shift has ended?" the young guard asked, bewildered.

"Ask a bat," replied another guard, to chortles from the men around him.

"They forgot to give the bats their cards," said a third guard, which left the guards howling with laughter. Barrett, grinning, squeezed his way past the crowd, nodding to several guards in greeting as he passed.

The jam lessened as he reached the place where the entryway gave way to a narrow room. Not that there was much to look at here. With the notable exception of the washroom section, the guardroom was not a place where guards lingered, since the dungeon's common room and dining hall were the preferred locations for leisure activities. The guardroom had the more utilitarian purpose of being a place for storage and notices and discipline.

Ignoring the thick pillar at the far end of the room, Barrett armed himself with dagger and whip from his locked cubbyhole at the armory – he had already uniformed himself in his living quarters – and then made his way toward the wooden notice-board, ignoring the horseplay taking place beyond the washroom doorway to his right. Mr. Yates, who had trained Barrett upon his arrival at the dungeon, and who was now senior guard to a day-shift Seeker, was spending the final minutes of his off-duty time perusing this week's city arrest report, which was attached to the notice-board. He smiled a greeting at Barrett and asked, "Have you seen the latest news?"

"What news is that?" replied Barrett, reaching toward a stack of blank paper that was left on the table near the notice-board for anyone who wished to make use of it. He did not bother to look up at the arrest report. He had never seen the point of reading it, since most of the men and women arrested in the city were sent to the lesser prisons for searching.

Mr. Yates, squinting in the flickering light of the old-fashioned oil lamp attached to the wall, said, "They've caught the man responsible for the case of the Earl of Hartgrove."

"The man thought responsible," Barrett replied automatically, screwing open the inkwell. A Vovimian-style paintbrush lay nearby, courtesy of the High Seeker, who had argued seven years before that the broad strokes of the brush were more appropriate for notices that might be seen from afar. Some guards had made mock at the time about Mr. Smith trying to turn the Eternal Dungeon into the Hidden Dungeon. Nobody had made mock about this in his presence, or in any tone above a whisper.

Mr. Yates grinned at him. "You've turned the mentor. You're right, of course – 'thought responsible.' He'll be showing up here, no doubt, so we'll have the chance to find out for ourselves whether he's innocent."

Barrett leaned over the table as he wrote out a notice that told of the dusk-shift meeting. "It's not a capital crime. They'll send him to one of the lesser prisons."

"For a case involving an earl? He'll end up here for sure."

Barrett shook his head as he blew the paint dry, and then reached for the hammer and nails. "Hold this for me?" he requested.

Mr. Yates obligingly held the notice in place as Barrett hammered it onto the board. "You're stubborn. I say that he'll turn up here."

"And I say that he won't," Barrett mumbled around the wooden nails in his mouth. He paused to give Mr. Yates a challenging look.

Mr. Yates smiled, glanced to the side, and leaned in, his hand already fingering the inner jacket pocket where his bill-clasp lay. "Want to wager a day's pay on that?" he asked in an undertone.

Barrett was about to ask whose level of pay they were wagering – he had seniority in rank over Mr. Yates these days – but at that moment, Mr. Yates's face suddenly went blank. Pulling his hand hastily out of his jacket, the guard turned his attention back to the notice he was holding.

Barrett spit the remaining nails into his palm, and then turned to look at the man who had come up beside them. Thankfully, it was not the High Seeker, but it was bad enough.

"Mr. Boyd, may I have a word with you?" murmured Mr. Sobel.

"Yes, sir." Strict formality seemed best under the circumstances. "Mr. Yates, will you finish nailing the notice for me?"

Mr. Yates, whose expression had turned bleak, nodded as he took the hammer and nails from Mr. Boyd. Mr. Boyd stepped away, following Mr. Sobel to the clearest space in the room, which was next to the washroom. Mr. Sobel glanced through the open door, where the horseplay had proceeded to wet towels being snapped against bare bottoms; he carefully closed the door. One of Mr. Sobel's many merits, in the eyes of the other guards, was that he was willing to overlook certain high-spirited activities that took place in the washroom.

What had happened at the notice-board was clearly not an activity he was willing to overlook. The High Seeker's senior night guard flicked a glance at Mr. Yates, who was diligently hammering in nails. Over the sound of continued laughter at the time clock, Mr. Sobel murmured, "Your fault, or his?"

"Mine," replied Barrett. "I encouraged him to make the offer. I'm sorry."

Mr. Sobel slipped from the left pocket of his jacket the small, familiar volume that every guard was required to carry when on duty. "Find me the appropriate passage, please."

Barrett did so with ease; the passage in the Code of Seeking that forbade gambling within the Eternal Dungeon was the one that guards were most likely to make mock at when having late-night drinking sessions in private. The mockery invariably led into a game of whist, played for stakes.

"Read the passage aloud, please." Mr. Sobel's voice remained quiet.

"'We take necessary risks with the lives of our prisoners, but we refuse to profit from our prisoners' sufferings and deaths. For that reason, no Seeker or guard may place wagers within the confines of the Eternal Dungeon, nor in the lighted world on any matter related to the dungeon.'" Barrett recited the passage in an automatic manner, seeing nothing there that he had not seen before.

Mr. Sobel took back the book, sliding it into his jacket. "A game of cards is one thing," he observed. "Gambling on whether a prisoner will be placed in a breaking cell here is quite another. Are you aware that the High Seeker added that rule to the Code after a guard sought to win his wager about a prisoner's endurance on the rack by trying to surreptitiously raise the racking level higher than he had been ordered?"

Barrett felt himself stiffen. "Mr. Sobel, you know that I would never do anything like that."

"No, but you might encourage the folly of less experienced guards. There was a case before your time – I will not name names – where a senior guard made light remarks about the fates of certain prisoners. These remarks were overhead by the junior guard serving under him, who, trusting that his senior's perspective was the correct one, made the quite reasonable assumption that guards, as much as Seekers, had the right to determine the outcome of their prisoners' fates." Mr. Sobel paused as two guards emerged from the room behind them, laughing and reaching out to rumple each other's wet hair. Seeing Mr. Sobel and Barrett, they smiled but did not pause on their way to the uniform racks.

They were both naked, except for the wet towels clinging to their loins; it took some effort for Barrett to turn his attention back to what Mr. Sobel was saying.

Mr. Sobel continued, "Soon afterwards, this junior guard was assigned to a prisoner who, unbeknownst to him, was mentally unbalanced. The Seeker searching the prisoner made this assessment swiftly and arranged to have the prisoner examined by this dungeon's healer. The healer approved the prisoner's transfer to an asylum. All was well and good, except that this guard, being very junior indeed, was not told of the transfer or of the reason for it."

Barrett's attention was on Mr. Sobel now, despite the fact that the guards had dropped their towels in the act of donning the drawers they had left next to the uniform rack. He thought he knew what was coming; it was the sort of scare-tale told to every new guard. He was embarrassed to discover that Mr. Sobel believed he might require a reminder of this elementary lesson.

"One day," said Mr. Sobel, "the junior guard was left alone on duty while his senior guard was sent on an errand. Their Seeker had the night off duty; nobody was around to care for the prisoner except for the junior guard. Hearing the prisoner weep inconsolably, the junior guard went to investigate. The prisoner, in his madness, wove a very convincing tale of terrible horrors he had endured in the rack room, and swore that the Seeker had promised to place him in an iron chair the following day, with the fire beneath stoked to the point of unendurable torment. No such chair has ever existed in this dungeon, of course, even in its primitive years, but the guard was inexperienced and gullible enough to believe the prisoner's mad fancy.

"So he helped the prisoner escape in the only way he knew how. When the senior guard returned, he found the prisoner dead in his cell, with the junior guard's dagger through his heart."

Barrett scratched his earlobe, tilting his head as he did so. "And the three boys who skated without permission on Farmer Jones's pond fell through the ice and drowned. I don't want to sound cynical, Mr. Sobel, but I've heard so many variations on this morality tale that I find it hard to believe. Every guard in this dungeon – nearly every man and woman in this queendom – knows that assisting a suicide is a capital crime."

"So did this junior guard," replied Mr. Sobel quietly. "As for fictional morality tales, I would be glad to show you my record of witness from the trial that led to this junior guard's hanging. I was the senior guard who had spoken lightly about our prisoners in the junior guard's presence, and I was the guard who discovered the prisoner's corpse."

Barrett closed his eyes. Through the darkness he could hear laughter from the guards at the time clock, now joined by the laughter of Mr. Crofford, attempting to imitate his elders' levity.

He opened his eyes finally to see that Mr. Sobel was watching him carefully. Barrett said, "Sir, why don't you just strip me to the waist and tie me to that pillar over there? Twenty lashes of your finest would be easier for me to endure than being shown what a fool I am."

Mr. Sobel gave a quirk of a smile. "You're far too talented a guard to need lashes. I take it that I won't have to worry about this in the future?"

"No, sir, and I apologize for worrying you about it today." Barrett kept his voice firm, though he was beginning to feel that he would need to splash cold water on himself afterwards, for his face was burning.

Mr. Sobel said, "You're going on leave at week's end?"

Barrett nodded cautiously. "Unless my leave has been cancelled, as it certainly deserves to be."

"No, that's not at all what I had in mind. What I wanted to suggest is that you come by my quarters before you leave. My wife can make up a fruit bouquet for you to give to your mother – I'm sure your mother would enjoy that, if I remember her tastes correctly."

It took a minute for Barrett to regain his speech. Then he said, with an attempt at lightness, "Rewarding a miscreant, Mr. Sobel? It's a good thing that the High Seeker isn't around to witness this."

Mr. Sobel smiled then. "Mr. Smith has his own ways of encouraging good behavior, and some of those ways are very pleasant indeed." His gaze drifted past Barrett. "Excuse me. It looks to me as though someone is taking the opportunity to use the notice-board as a spot to add a rude graffito – something about time clocks mating with bats to produce a clock that will tell us when our shifts have ended. The sentiment I agree with; the placement of the sentiment I can't permit." He gave Barrett another, swift smile before moving forward to intercept the offender, who either had not seen or had not cared that the High Seeker's senior night guard was standing nearby.

Barrett, watching him go, shook his head. It was fortunate, he decided, that his ambitions had never run to working directly under the High Seeker. Mr. Sobel had one of the worst jobs in the dungeon, and Barrett was quite happy to leave such supervisory activities in the other guard's hands.

He turned away, and went over to the time clock to tell the guards there of Layle Smith's dusk-shift meeting.
 

CHAPTER THREE

The presence of Layle Smith in the Eternal Dungeon, Barrett thought as he squeezed his way past the junior guards at the front of the entry hall, caused everything in the dungeon to be run topsy-turvy.

It was not the first time he had held this thought, but he rarely had the opportunity to see his viewpoint incarnated in so visible a manner. In the royal army, Barrett knew, the announcement of important news took place in a precise fashion. The chief general informed his highest officers, who in turn informed the officers just below them, until, after a day or so, the news trickled down to the bottom ranks. This was how most of the world worked, as far as Barrett could tell.

But not in the Eternal Dungeon – not under Layle Smith's High Seekership. Here, important news was announced to everyone at once; nor would the highest ranked Seekers be placed closest to the High Seeker as he made his announcement. Instead, the junior-most members of the inner dungeon, the junior guards, would stand nearest the platform that was placed in the portion of the entry hall where the Record-keeper's desk usually stood. The High Seeker's theory, it was said, was that the junior guards should be in a location where they could easily ask questions, since they were the ones most likely to have questions. Standing behind them would be the senior guards, while behind the guards, sitting on chairs on tables so that they could easily watch the proceedings, were the junior Seekers. Last of all, standing far away on the steps that led out of the dungeon's caverns, were the senior Seekers. The senior Seekers rarely spoke during such meetings, but they, like the others, were welcome to ask the High Seeker whatever questions they had, as though the High Seeker were nothing more than a schoolmaster giving lessons, rather than the man whose word determined how the dungeon was run.

That ordering was the theory, at any rate, but Barrett was not surprised to notice a black-hooded man standing in the front row, alongside the junior guards. That was unfailingly Elsdon Taylor's position during such meetings; he always kept close to the High Seeker so that he could provide moral support to Mr. Smith in the minutes following any announcement that disgruntled the dungeon dwellers. Knowing Mr. Taylor's reputation for heterodoxy, Barrett had no doubt that Mr. Taylor followed up such public support by shoving hot protests of his own at the High Seeker when they were in private. But whenever in public, Mr. Taylor was a solid foundation of support for the High Seeker.

Mr. Boyd reached the back of the crowd of senior guards, who were spread from one wall of the entry hall to another. The entry hall was the largest room in the inner dungeon, other than the crematorium, but with so many dungeon dwellers here today, Barrett found himself bumping into guards as he passed along the side of one of the tables, seeking a clear space. His head brushed against the foot of a junior Seeker who had his legs crossed as he sat in a chair on the table, and Barrett opened his mouth to apologize.

He swallowed his words as he looked up. Mr. Urman, holding a folded newspaper in one hand, sat slouched in the chair above, his collar unclasped and his shirt unknotted at the top, as though he were sitting in a beach chair rather than in a chair reserved for the junior Seekers. As Barrett watched, Mr. Urman, without raising his eyes from the newsprint, fished into his pocket, drew out a piece of chickory gum, and popped it into his mouth, blithely ignoring the curious stares of the junior Seekers on either side of him.

Mr. Boyd quickly looked round. It took him a moment to locate Mr. Sobel; the senior-most guard had positioned himself apart from the other dungeon dwellers, on an upswelling of the uneven cavern floor, which allowed him to easily survey everyone in the entry hall. That Mr. Sobel knew where Mr. Urman was seated, Barrett had no doubt. Barrett decided that Mr. Sobel was right to take no official notice of the fact that Mr. Urman had taken Mr. Taylor's vacated seat. The junior guard had black rings under his eyes; he had been awake now for thirty-six hours and would have to continue to stay awake until this meeting was through. He looked like dry tinder, just waiting for a spark.

Mr. Urman looked casually over his shoulder, as though watching children frolic in the waves. Barrett guessed he was trying to check whether Mr. Sobel had sighted him yet. Whatever the junior guard saw startled him so much that he slid quickly out of the chair and jumped down onto the floor beside Barrett.

A moment later, Barrett recognized what had caused Mr. Urman to move so quickly. Murmurs rose in the entry hall as a pathway opened among the tightly crowded senior guards to let through the new arrivals: a pair of the Queen's guards flanking an elderly man who had all the signs of being a magistrate.

Mr. Urman whistled lightly as the path closed again in the procession's wake. "This must be an important meeting if the Queen sends her representative."

Barrett decided that he too would ignore Mr. Urman's previous impertinence, even though the junior guard had slid himself onto the edge of the table in order to see better as the Queen's guards and the magistrate took up positions at the back of the platform. Instead, Barrett pointed and said, "Not just the Queen's representative either. Look."

At the left-hand side of the room, near the door leading to the corridor where the prisoners' cells lay, a man was emerging from an inconspicuous doorway: the Codifier, rarely seen outside his office except when a prisoner was reported to have been abused by a Seeker or guard, or else during the Codifier's periodic, unannounced, terrifying visits to the prisoners' cells, when he checked to see whether the Code was being adhered to.

"The Queen's magistrate. The Codifier. This meeting must be about the Code, then," Mr. Urman concluded. "Do you suppose the Queen has abolished the Code?"

Barrett gave him a sharp look. "Don't say that, even in mock."

Mr. Urman shrugged and returned to his newspaper. Barrett looked back at the Codifier. One of the Codifier's guards had brought forward a chair for the man whose power was so great that he, alone of all the dungeon dwellers, had the right to overrule the High Seeker's decisions. The Codifier shook his head and remained standing against the wall, turning to speak to the healer.

Barrett frowned. The healer's presence here was no surprise, since the healer worked under the Codifier and was entitled to attend such meetings. But this was not their regular healer, who was taking a much-deserved holiday after a quarter century of working in the dungeon.

Barrett liked to think that he was a forward-looking man. He was one of the few guards who had welcomed the arrival of the first female Seeker. He had long believed that female prisoners, who were never tortured, should be searched by a woman.

But a lady healer was another thing entirely. Among the healer's many duties was that he or she must give medical approval before any prisoner was tortured. In cases of beatings, this approval was almost routinely granted, even before the Seeker first entered his prisoner's cell. But prisoners destined for rackings were more strenuously examined. Fully a quarter of the prisoners whom the Seekers wished to rack were not racked, due to the dungeon's healer denying permission on medical grounds.

Barrett suspected that the number of denials would rise to one hundred percent under the substitute healer. He could not imagine any woman having the strength to say, "You may place this man on an instrument of torture and stretch him until he cooperates." Barrett often wondered how he himself found the strength to be the one to turn the wheel.

Beside him, Mr. Urman cracked his gum as he turned a page. Barrett leaned back so that he could see what Mr. Urman was reading and learn what was taking place in the lighted world. One of the few advantages of living in the Eternal Dungeon, Barrett decided as he scanned the page, was that the dungeon received no delivery of newspapers. The news was as bad as always: charges against factory owners of abusive work conditions, illegal rallies by disgruntled workers, illegal strikes led by the new and surprisingly powerful Commoners' Guild, and an editor's note attributing the city's rising crime to the magistrates' softness with criminals.

"More hangings," murmured Mr. Urman, voicing Barrett's thought.

Barrett nodded. "That's what it will mean in the short run: more men and women will go to the gallows as the magistrates try to show to the world how fierce they are. It happens periodically."

Mr. Urman turned a page. "Maybe the magistrates will keep more death-sentence criminals off the streets. Rather than let murderers and rapists go free, the way the Code urges."

Barrett frowned. "Are you questioning the Code's views on this? The Seekers provide a balance: the patrol soldiers who give witness against the prisoner try to obtain a heavy sentence for him, while the Seeker tries to prove his innocence or obtain a light sentence for him. The magistrate decides which argument is right. That is, when the magistrates aren't cowering in fear of the press."

Mr. Urman grinned at him. "Do you know the easiest way to get anyone riled in this dungeon, Mr. Boyd? Question our holy book. Nobody wants to admit that the Code of Seeking might have a few flaws in it."

Barrett strove to keep his voice level as he asked, "Do you wish to abolish the Code?"

Mr. Urman's gaze drifted back to the newspaper. "I've worked at one of the lesser prisons. I've seen the alternative."

It was a comment requiring no reply. Barrett leaned back again, scanning the foreign news columns, which were mainly filled with war-scare articles. Having served in an earlier outbreak of war against Vovim, Barrett felt a moment of relief that his job as dungeon guard shielded him from call-up orders . . . then a moment of guilt that someone else might die in his place.

Mr. Urman's breath travelled in with such suddenness that he apparently swallowed his gum. Barrett pounded the junior guard on the back as he coughed, but already Mr. Urman had slipped off the table. Within moments, he was pushing his way through the crowd.

Curious, Barrett followed him, and then hesitated when he saw Mr. Urman's destination. Barrett, of all people, knew that it was wrong to disturb a pair of senior and junior guards when they were in private conversation with one another. But he did not know whether this was a private conversation, he reminded himself as he started across the empty space leading to where Mr. Urman and Mr. Sobel stood.

The entry hall was loud with conversation now, but not so loud that Barrett failed to hear the rustling in the high darkness above. Dusk was nearing. As he came close to the upswelling of ground where Mr. Sobel had placed himself, Barrett realized that this location provided a cunning view, not only of the floor, but also of the stairs where the senior Seekers stood. He could see his own Seeker, Mr. Chapman, deep in conversation with the oldest active-duty Seeker, Mr. Ferris. The chairs for the junior Seekers were all filled now except for the seat Mr. Urman had left and a second one, with a step-stool below it to provide easy climbing. Looking around for its owner, Barrett saw that Mistress Birdesmond, Mr. Chapman's wife, had stopped to talk with the substitute healer rather than join the other junior Seekers in their prominent perch. Mistress Birdesmond always had enough sense to keep herself out of the High Seeker's immediate gaze. It was said that the mere fact of a female Seeker's presence in the inner dungeon made Layle Smith come close to the breaking point. This was yet another rumor that Barrett had never wanted to ask the details about.

He was close enough now to hear Mr. Urman: ". . . said the border between Vovim and Yclau has been closed for the past month. So the package couldn't have come from Vovim, unless it was smuggled."

Mr. Sobel parted his lips to reply, but shut them again as he caught sight of Barrett. Barrett halted as though he had turned the corner and seen the High Seeker with a whip in his hand. "I'm sorry," he murmured and began to back away.

Mr. Urman, who had turned toward the new company with eagerness, looked crestfallen. Mr. Sobel hesitated, then glanced at his junior guard and beckoned Barrett forward.

Barrett came toward them slowly, his spirits falling. If Mr. Sobel was willing to indulge Mr. Urman in his favorite pastime – gossip – then it could only be because the senior guard anticipated problems after this meeting and wanted Mr. Urman kept sweet so that he would back any action Mr. Sobel took to calm the trouble. Mr. Urman, who at times did not have great depth when it came to deciphering the motives of others, simply looked pleased as Barrett arrived.

"What package?" Barrett asked, giving Mr. Urman the lead he needed.

Mr. Urman looked briefly at Mr. Sobel to confirm that he had permission to speak on the matter, and then said, "It arrived three weeks ago. I was with Mr. Smith when it happened. We had just walked into his office to discuss my request to become Mr. Taylor's senior night guard, when Mr. Smith saw the package lying on his desk. It was wrapped in brown paper, with ropes binding it – not string. It didn't have anything written on it. Mr. Smith wouldn't touch it."

"That's how he managed to live so long in his cut-throat native land, no doubt," Mr. Sobel commented. His gaze had returned to the crowd on the floor and stairway. He was scanning it carefully, as though the men and women there were guards at their posts.

"Did you get the opportunity to see what was in the package?" Barrett asked.

Mr. Urman refused to cut the story short. "He walked out of his office and asked the Record-keeper where the package had come from. Mr. Aaron said that it had been delivered by one of the guards at the main gates. So the High Seeker strode up the steps—"

"With you tagging along," Barrett added with a grin.

Mr. Urman managed to keep his expression straight. "In case he needed any assistance in searching the guard. The guard who'd made the delivery said that a civilian man had delivered it to the gates. The guard didn't know who he was or how he had gotten as far as the dungeon gates. The man was wearing a cloak that hid his clothes, and he spoke in the Yclau tongue, but from his accent and color, the guard thought he must be Vovimian."

Barrett whistled lightly. "And the High Seeker didn't smote the guard on the spot for delivering a potential assassination package?"

"Not when he heard the rest of the tale. He asked the guard if the man had given his name, and the guard said no, the man had stated that he was delivering the package, not for himself, but for an old friend of Mr. Smith's. And the man said that the friend had asked Mr. Smith to give his greetings to Toler Forge."

Barrett looked enquiringly at Mr. Sobel. Mr. Sobel shook his head. "'Toler' is a Vovimian name. That's all I know."

"Did the High Seeker recognize the name?" Barrett asked Mr. Urman.

"I'd say he did. He went all still, the way he does when a prisoner has said something that provides the clue on how to break him. Then the High Seeker turned without a word and went down the stairs. Fast. I barely got there in time before he closed the office door."

"But of course you followed him in," said Barrett dryly.

Mr. Urman's face was innocent as he replied, "We hadn't finished discussing my request for a rise in rank. When he saw I was there, he snapped, 'Fetch Mr. Taylor.' So I did. Taylor – sorry, Mr. Taylor – wasn't far away. When we got back to the office, the High Seeker was struggling to break the ropes around the package. He looked up and said to Mr. Taylor, 'One of Millard's men brought this. Help me open it.'"

"And you stayed for that as well," Barrett said, his mouth twitching.

"I lent him my dagger," Mr. Urman replied blandly.

"And stayed by his side, in case he should have any troubles using the blade, him being unused to weapons?"

Mr. Sobel passed a hand over his mouth. Mr. Urman grinned openly. "He sliced through those ropes as though he were wielding a knife through butter. Then he pulled the brown paper off, and we could see that the package contained a book."

"What was the title?" Barrett asked curiously.

Mr. Urman shook his head. "The book was face down when he opened it. It wasn't a printed book, in any case – it was a daybook, and when Mr. Smith opened the book to the last page, I could see that the page was handwritten."

"And of course," said Barrett in a deadpan voice, "you read what was on the page, in case your knowledge of the book's contents could assist the High Seeker."

Mr. Urman grinned again. "No such luck. It was written in Vovimian; I can't translate that without a dictionary at hand. Anyway, the High Seeker didn't read more than a sentence or two before he slammed the book shut. Then he just stared at the cover. He was breathing really heavy. So Mr. Taylor told me to leave, and I did."

Barrett thought that, if he had been in a room where the High Seeker was breathing heavily, he would have left quickly also. Mr. Urman added, "They stayed in there together for an hour."

"While you stayed outside, watching the door," Barrett supplied.

"I had documentwork to do in the entry hall." Mr. Urman had returned to his look of innocence. "When they finally came out, Mr. Smith went straight into the Codifier's office. That's when he got permission to take vigil in the crematorium. For a whole month, as though he were mourning a brother or a favorite schoolmaster."

Barrett's smile dissipated. His gaze moved and locked with Mr. Sobel's. They were silent a minute, as the rustling in the ceiling increased.

Finally Barrett asked, "Could it be a brother?"

"No," Mr. Sobel replied. "He has no surviving family. I know that much."

"Then do you think the rumors are true?"

"They could be. I don't know what his name is. I've never seen it printed in the newspapers."

"Am I privileged to know what you're talking about, or is this a private conference?" Mr. Urman asked tartly.

Barrett ignored him. "He couldn't have been much older."

"A few years older. There was some sort of connection, I'm not quite sure what. Perhaps the older boy taught the younger boy what he knew."

"Well," said Mr. Urman, his voice changing from bitterness to anger, "if you two are going to spend all evening gossiping, I'll just leave you and get back to my duties." He took a step away.

Mr. Sobel grabbed him. A moment later, Barrett realized why as a hush fell over the entry hall like a smothering blanket. He turned in time to see the High Seeker emerge from his office at the front of the entry hall, and then climb the steps onto the platform. The High Seeker did not acknowledge the presence of the Queen's representative in any way, but simply turned toward the dungeon dwellers now awaiting his word with suspended breath.

He did not speak. Barrett tried to read what lay in his eyes, but the High Seeker was too far away. The silence lengthened. Then the rustling above the crowd, which had continued all this while, turned into low thunder. Barrett lifted his face and watched the bats stream down from the ceiling, as they did every evening at dusktime.

The black stream followed its usual course up the stairs, flying round the senior Seekers, who appeared undisturbed to have become rocks in a black river. Barrett felt the floor vibrate slightly as the outer gates above, which were beyond his sight, were opened to allow the bats passage – a symbolic move rather than a practical one, since the bars of the outer gates were wide enough for the small bats to pass through, unlike the solid wood of the rarely-closed inner gates. Then the black stream disappeared, and a boom rang through the entry hall as the outer gates were closed again.

The boom repeated itself. Barrett's breath caught, and he saw several of the junior guards twist round to look back toward the gates in puzzlement. A few bats that had been slower than the rest raced up the stairway, disappearing out of view. They reappeared a moment later and circled the entry hall in evident confusion.

Barrett switched his gaze quickly to the only entrance he could see, the door leading to the prisoners' cells. Except on the rare occasions when a prisoner broke out from his cell, this door was always kept unlocked, but he was not surprised to see one of the Codifier's guards barring the door. A noise further down the wall that Barrett stood against told him that the door leading to the outer dungeon was also being barred.

A number of the junior guards were now whispering to one another, evidently trying to ascertain the meaning of what was happening. The High Seeker ignored them. Instead he turned his hooded head unerringly in the direction of his senior night guard. "Mr. Sobel?"

"All are here who should be here, High Seeker," replied the guard in ritualistic fashion. It was then that Barrett realized that Mr. Sobel had positioned himself at this location, not only to see that all were here who should be here, but also to see that none were here who should not be here.

The High Seeker nodded and turned his attention back to the remainder of the dungeon dwellers. "For those of you who were not here on the last occasion when the inner gates of the inner dungeon were closed," he said, "I shall explain that this is a locked meeting. Some of what I tell you today has not been publicly announced, and will not be for the foreseeable future. Until I give word otherwise, what I say to you today may not be spoken of to anyone outside the inner dungeon, including your wives, your love-mates, and the dwellers of the outer dungeon." He paused, and then added, "Speaking without permission about the contents of a locked meeting is considered a treasonable offense."

A groan of proper appreciation for this announcement arose from the junior guards. Barrett thought the noise sounded forced. He glanced at the Seekers, both sitting and standing, and saw the knowledgeable, grim stiffness of their stances. They were the only people in this place who had seen men and women hanged; they alone fully comprehended the High Seeker's threat.

The High Seeker waited until his audience was settled again. In his black hood, black shirt, and black trousers, he was hard to see against the tall black slate-tablet behind him, containing the names of the current prisoners in the dungeon or those who had recently departed this place. As always, Barrett found himself sliding his gaze away from the tablet, so as to avoid sight of the names that had been crossed out.

In a voice pitched to carry up to the gates, the High Seeker said, "Some of you will have heard rumors that the High Master of the Hidden Dungeon has been executed."

Barrett and Mr. Sobel exchanged glances. All round the entry hall, other inner dungeon dwellers were doing the same, some giving shrugs of indifference at this topic. Mr. Urman sighed heavily and opened his newspaper again. Mr. Sobel swiftly moved in front of him to shield the High Seeker's gaze from the junior guard.

The High Seeker appeared to take no notice of the restlessness of his crowd. He continued, "We received official confirmation yesterday afternoon that the rumors are true. The High Master was killed three months ago. He received a royal execution."

Several of the men present screwed up their faces at this news. Barrett began to turn to Mr. Sobel for enlightenment, and then decided that he really did not wish to know what a Vovimian royal execution consisted of.

The High Seeker's head had been turning from side to side, scanning the crowd. Suddenly he froze in place, like a wild-cat about to pounce. "Mr. Crofford," he said, "do you have a question?"

Barrett could see Mr. Crofford at the right edge of the group of junior guards. The young guard had been leaning over to whisper to a neighbor. Now he went as pale as though the High Seeker had suddenly produced a dagger in his hand. "Yes, sir," he said, his voice wavering. "I was wondering why this information was important. Doesn't the King of Vovim kill the head torturer of his dungeon every few years, in order to keep complete control over that dungeon? Besides, the Vovimians are our enemies."

Barrett looked quickly over at Mr. Sobel, but the High Seeker's guard did not look his way this time. His gaze was fixed upon Layle Smith, waiting for him to reply.

The High Seeker's voice was quieter than before when he responded. "It matters, Mr. Crofford, because, for the past year, the Hidden Dungeon has been unofficially operated under a code of conduct that bears a certain family resemblance to the Code of Seeking."

Mr. Urman dropped his newspaper. The sound of it falling was lost in the rising voices that echoed in the entry hall, which caused the remaining handful of bats to flutter nervously from perch to perch. There was not a Seeker or guard present who did not know the bloody history of the Hidden Dungeon and of Yclau's efforts to convince Vovim's King to reform his dungeon.

"'Unofficially,' did you say, Mr. Smith?" called out a junior guard, too eager to await recognition.

"Unofficially," confirmed the High Seeker, his voice causing the audience to quiet. "The late High Master acted on his own initiative, as Vovimian law permits. Unlike myself, the head torturer of Vovim's dungeon is not required to consult with anyone before making changes to his dungeon, not even the King. Although," he added dryly, "it is usually considered politic to ask the King's permission." With his head still turned toward the guard who had asked the question, he said, "Mr. Urman, your interest in this meeting is renewed by this news, I believe."

Mr. Urman uttered a soft curse, and then stepped out from behind Mr. Sobel. "Yes, Mr. Smith. I'm wondering whether the reason the High Master was killed was because he had instituted a code of conduct similar to the Code of Seeking that the King has opposed for so long."

"I think we can assume that played a role in the King's decision to execute the High Master."

"But it was not the whole reason?" Mr. Urman pressed.

"No, Mr. Urman. The High Master was originally arrested because one of the King's agents discovered that the High Master had been in correspondence with me for the past four years."

The whispers that had continued in the entry hall died suddenly, as though the audience were a prisoner whose neck had cracked on the gallows. In the utter silence that followed, Layle Smith said, "High Master Millard and I first became acquainted with one another when we were both apprentices under the same master torturer in the Hidden Dungeon. Four years ago, during a trip to Vovim that was undertaken at the Queen's request, I briefly renewed my acquaintance with the High Master. Shortly thereafter, he and I entered into private correspondence concerning the work conditions in our respective dungeons."

For a breath's pause, the audience did not react. Then, to a man, everyone's head turned in the direction of the Queen's guards.

Barrett had already turned his gaze that way, from the moment he heard the words "private correspondence." The guards were in sentry position, with their right hands resting on the hilts of their ceremonial swords, while their left hands, in a more practical manner, rested upon their pistols. Their gazes were directed toward the unarmed High Seeker. The expression of the magistrate between them was unreadable.

Barrett took a moment to glance at Mr. Sobel. Concern was written across the other guard's face, but no surprise. Barrett supposed his own face looked the same.

The High Seeker did not turn round to look at the Queen's guards and representative. Instead, he said to his audience, "Nearly all of you here know of the long tradition that exists in dungeons of the world, by which torturers exchange information with one another, in the same fashion that healers exchange information with their foreign colleagues, regardless as to whether their respective countries are at peace or at war. These exchanges of information are always dangerous and are often considered treasonous by the leaders of the countries in which the torturers live." The High Seeker paused again, and Barrett wondered whether everyone else in the entry hall was joining him in holding breath suspended. Finally the High Seeker said, "I spoke with the Queen this morning concerning my correspondence with High Master Millard, and she accepts my statement that I engaged in this correspondence in the hopes of bringing benefit to Yclau." He turned suddenly and gave an old-fashioned bow to the magistrate. The magistrate bowed back.

A collective sigh rose from the floor and stairs of the entry hall, like morning mist. The bats, apparently treating this as a signal of peace, settled down together on the back of Elsdon Taylor's abandoned chair, hanging down from the top rung.

The High Seeker turned back to face the dungeon dwellers, and without missing a beat, he said, "You have a question, Mr. Boyd?"

Barrett felt his heart thump hard, as it always did when the High Seeker noticed him. "I was wondering whether the High Master was seeking to be disloyal to his King, sir."

"He was not." Layle Smith's voice was crisp. "High Master Millard's loyalty to his King was exemplary, as is well known in Vovim. Indeed, the full extent of his loyalty, and the sacrifices he made on the King's behalf, are only just now beginning to be revealed. No one in Vovim doubts the High Master's loyalty or believes that he was engaging in treasonous behavior when he sought to reform his dungeon, as his powers lawfully permitted. It appears" – the High Seeker's voice went suddenly dry as he turned his gaze toward the rest of his audience – "that the King of Vovim slew the High Master out of pique, because the High Master had been in correspondence with Vovim's traditional enemy."

"Not Yclau – the High Seeker," murmured Mr. Urman in Barrett's ear. "He's the one that the King hates most."

Barrett nodded. It was well known that the Vovimian King's temper raged high whenever he heard the name of the torturer who had broken his oath of loyalty to Vovim by fleeing to Yclau in order to work in the Eternal Dungeon. Layle Smith had only made matters worse, in the King's eyes, by using international pressure, through the United Order of Prisons, to try to reform Vovim's dungeon and prisons.

"Mr. Sobel." The words snapped like a whiplash over the crowd, silencing everyone.

"Sir," the guard acknowledged the High Seeker's notice of him. "I'm wondering whether all of this has anything to do with the present civil unrest in Vovim, and the King's threats of war against Yclau."

Barrett cast an admiring look at Mr. Sobel. The senior-most guard was known chiefly for his strength and quickness in dealing with prisoners. Only occasionally would the guard provide brief hints that his mind could be as quick as his body.

"It does, Mr. Sobel." The note of approval in the High Seeker's voice was subtle but clear to all who knew him. "Because the King killed the High Master for corresponding with Yclau, he blames Yclau for the High Master's death." He gave his audience a moment to digest this contorted logic, and then added, "As for the internal unrest within Vovim, it is due to the High Master's death. The King's decision to execute his head torturer upon a whim has made the king's lords nervous."

"But he always executes his High Masters!" cried Mr. Crofford, eager that his point should not be forgotten.

"He does, Mr. Crofford, and he has also executed quite a few men of power since taking the throne. Until now, though, the remaining lords were able to delude themselves into thinking that the King only executed traitors, and that they themselves, being loyal, were immune to arbitrary arrests. The High Master's death has stripped that delusion from them. They now know that, if the King's favorite can be given a prolonged death for little reason, they too are in danger. And that is where the Eternal Dungeon enters into this matter, gentlemen. And ladies," he added belatedly.

Mr. Urman leaned back against the wall, his arms folded, a sardonic look on his face, as though he had heard all of this many times before. Barrett noticed, though, that Mr. Urman was nudging the newspaper out of the way with his foot.

Even the remaining bats seemed to have given their full attention to the proceedings. They hung from the chair-back rungs, occasionally wiping their faces with their wings, but showing no sign of wishing to search the entry hall for any bugs that might have wandered in from the lighted world. A senior Seeker who was standing on a step immediately behind the chairs – Mr. Ferris – casually put a hand out to steady himself upon the back of Mr. Taylor's chair. One of the bats nudged its way over till it was hanging from Mr. Ferris's hand, its claws digging into the Seeker's skin. Mr. Ferris glanced down, appeared to assess the small torturer for a moment, and then looked up again without moving. Amused, Barrett turned his attention back to the High Seeker.

Mr. Smith was saying, "Few Vovimians care whether prisoners are treated in a just manner, but their King's decision to execute his head torturer and abolish the code of conduct established by High Master Millard has become a political issue. The lords who wish to gain power over the King, in hopes of stopping the arbitrary killings, are now demanding that the King reinstitute the old High Master's code. The King, and other lords who remain loyal to him, oppose this move. Every man in that conflict is aware that the High Master loosely patterned his code after the Code of Seeking. As a result, the Eternal Dungeon will be the focus of much attention from Vovim and similar-minded nations in the weeks to come. . . . That would be reason enough to call this meeting. However, the Codifier received a communication last night by government courier that is as important as the news I have just told you, if not more so. He has given me permission to read the letter to you."

From where he stood, Barrett could only see that the letter Mr. Smith pulled from his pocket was on the blue stationery used by the land to the northeast of Yclau, which had been a disputed territory for several centuries between Yclau and Vovim until Yclau's Queen dealt with the rivalry by granting the land its independence five years before. Barrett cast a final glance at Mr. Ferris, whose eyes remained fixed on the High Seeker. Mr. Ferris was now using his free hand to lightly rub the back of the sleepy little bat.

The High Seeker's voice rang through the entry hall.
 


The fourteenth day of the sixth month of 360 in the Tri-National Era.

To Mr. J. Daniels, Codifier of the Eternal Dungeon (founded 202, in succession to a prior royal dungeon), The Queendom of Yclau.

My dear Sir,

I am writing on behalf of the executive committee of the United Order of Prisons, Dungeons, and Places of Execution to inform you of a new policy that has been passed by the committee today, in accordance with a recommendation made to us last summer by the code committee of our Order.

This policy requires that all member nations of the United Order of Prisons restrict uses of physical punishment, corporal discipline, torture, or any similar acts, to self-defense or the punishment of deeds that bring grave danger to the prison workers, prisoners, or outsiders. Specific acts that may be addressed through the use of physical pain are physical assaults by prisoners on prison workers or fellow prisoners, attempts to escape, and conspiracies by prisoners to lead riots. Other acts bringing grave danger may be addressed by physical pain, but only upon review and approval by this Order.

It has been brought to our attention that the Eternal Dungeon's Code of Seeking (fifth revision, issued in 344, author L. Smith et al.) is not in compliance with our new policy. Your dungeon's code permits the use of physical pain (referred to in your code as "torture") in all instances where the prisoners violate the portions of the code which are applicable to them. This amounts to 48 potential offences; these offences can be as trivial as lying or failing to address formally the prison worker who is searching him (the "Seeker"). Moreover, your code permits Seekers to make use of physical pain while searching prisoners for information concerning their alleged crimes, an action that our new policy strongly condemns.

I have enclosed on a separate page the exact wording of our new policy. I ask you to take special note of the section identifying the means by which physical pain may be administered. Racks are not mentioned in that section.

As you know, one of the requirements of membership in the United Order of Prisons is that the member nations be willing to accept the judgment of the Order on matters concerning ethical conditions in prisons, dungeons, and places of executions. The United Order of Prisons has exercised its power to recommend changes in ethical policy only six times in its 150-year career. On each occasion, the Eternal Dungeon has made the necessary adjustments to its conditions, although on two occasions (in 280 and 311) the Eternal Dungeon requested and received permission to delay the institution of such changes until the next revision of its code.

We trust that we will have the Eternal Dungeon's full cooperation on this matter, as we have in all past cases. I should add that, as in the past, member nations that refuse to comply with the Order's ethical policies may face expulsion from the Order and additional penalties, such as international embargoes.

With best wishes,
Arthur Jones-Brown
Keeper, Mercy Life Prison (founded 355), The Magisterial Republic of Mip
On behalf of the executive committee of the United Order of Prisons

Postscriptum. Mr. Edwards of the communications committee has asked me to convey the information that he has received Mr. Smith's letter, dated last month, requesting that his committee make enquiries to Vovim concerning the rumors of High Master Millard's demise. Mr. Edwards will be in touch with the High Seeker shortly.


Barrett was barely able to hear the final words of the letter; by the time the second paragraph had been read, the entry hall was in an uproar. The bats, startled, flew up and circled uneasily around the men and women reacting with raised voices to this news of a dramatic change in the dungeon's fortunes.

Barrett kept his eye on the High Seeker. He was no longer trying to read the shadowed eyes; he was watching Mr. Smith's chest as it rose once, taking in a deep breath of air, then rose a second time, and then rose a third. Before Barrett could worry about these aborted attempts at speech, the High Seeker's voice cut through the crowd, and Barrett understood.

"Mistress Birdesmond," the High Seeker said, "do have something you wish to say?"

The audience softened at once to a murmur, several of the audience members turning to check what posture of the junior Seeker had alerted the High Seeker to her burning need to speak.

Whatever it was, Barrett could read only calmness in her pose as she responded. "I apologize for disrupting your news, High Seeker," she said, as though she, like the others, had been roaring at the top of her lungs. "I am curious about the letter's reference to the Order's code committee. I was under the impression that you are chairman of that committee."

"I am." The High Seeker, quite noticeably, did not look in the junior Seeker's direction as he replied. "This new policy arose from a proposal I made to the committee last summer that the Order require its members to apply physical pain only under the circumstances that our own queendom permits, namely when the written code of the dungeon or prison has been violated. Until now, as I'm sure you know, a number of the Order's members have held to the policy that physical pain can be applied under any circumstances considered advisable by the individual prison worker who applies the pain. I, and several other members of the committee, had hoped to require that pain be applied under more narrow circumstances. Some of the younger members of the committee, however, felt that my proposal did not go far enough. I and the other committee members who shared my views were overruled."

There was silence now, as the bats continued to circle cautiously overhead. The junior Seeker did not follow up on her remark; the High Seeker allowed himself to look from side to side of the assembly before him.

"All of you know," he said in a voice quieter than before, "that Yclau was one of the founding members of the United Order of Prisons, whose mission is to encourage ethical practices in lawful places of captivity around the world. For the first one hundred and thirty years after the Order was founded, it had few member nations and exerted little influence. Then, in 344, the Order voted to require its members to create written codes of conduct for the workers in their dungeons."

"That's the year the fifth revision of the Code of Seeking was published," Mr. Urman whispered to Barrett. "Not a coincidence."

The High Seeker continued, "All of the codes bear a certain similarity to one another, and as a result, the joint impact of them has been great. The Order has swelled to four times the size it was in 344, all of the new member nations being required to create codes of conduct for their dungeons as they join. Indeed, some nations – not yet ours, I regret to say – have also created codes of conduct for their lesser prisons. It is perhaps inevitable that, as newer members joined who had already received the benefits of the older members' work, the newer nations would feel the desire to make their own contributions to the creation of such codes."

Barrett wondered whether the High Seeker really believed this: that the conflict implicit in the Order's letter was nothing more than a case of new, adolescent nations wishing to challenge the greater wisdom of their elders. Barrett's gaze fell to the newspaper lying on the ground near him. It was open to the article about the Commoners' Guild.

The world was changing, he thought. It was no longer what it had been in 344, when Layle Smith's revision of the Code of Seeking, with shocking boldness, abolished centuries of received wisdom on how to treat prisoners. Now a new generation had arrived that wished to take Layle Smith's principles and apply them a step further. And the High Seeker, it seemed, could not see this.

Barrett had already sensed that, even before the High Seeker said, "I have discussed this matter with the Codifier and the Queen on several occasions since last summer, and I have also held conversations with this dungeon's senior Seekers. The Queen, the Codifier, and I are agreed that the Code of Seeking, in its present form, provides the necessary balance between controlling the prisoners with too much harshness and granting them greater mercy than their cases merit. We hold firm to this balance, in opposition to nations that would treat their prisoners with undue harshness or undue lightness."

Barrett took note of the fact that the senior Seekers' thoughts on this matter had not been mentioned. He looked quickly over to the steps. A few of the Seekers there, such as Mr. Ferris, were exchanging glances with one another, but the majority of senior Seekers, he saw, were nodding in agreement.

The response of the junior Seekers and senior guards was more neutral, while the junior guards seemed downright restless in their response to the news. The High Seeker turned his head toward them suddenly, and they all froze, as if sighting a predator. Barrett could feel, though, the tension in Mr. Urman as the junior guard muttered something under his breath.

The High Seeker did not speak for a minute more. He looked, Barrett thought, like a wildcat waiting patiently for his craven prey to emerge from its hole. Finally Mr. Smith said, in a voice so quiet that it forced silence to all lingering whispers, "This is a moment of crisis in the Eternal Dungeon's history. Neither I nor the Codifier nor the Queen treat lightly the threats made against us by the United Order of Prisons and the Kingdom of Vovim. All eyes of the world will be turned to this dungeon in the coming weeks, to see how we react to the recent events. We must conduct ourselves accordingly."

Barrett flicked a glance at Elsdon Taylor, still standing close to the platform. His back was to Barrett, and there was nothing in his posture to indicate his reaction to the speech. He looked the same as he always did at public pronouncements such as this: calm and ready to step forward in order to offer the High Seeker his support as soon as the speech was through.

"Beginning at the end of this week," said Mr. Smith, "there will be a daily training session for junior guards, held during the dusk shift. Those of you who are junior guards have been learning your duties in the traditional manner, through informal instruction, but the Codifier and I believe that, during these days of crisis, it is vital that you understand the foundations of the Code of Seeking. Attendance at this training is required for all junior guards; other members of the inner dungeon are encouraged to attend. Even those of you who have been senior guards for many years are likely to benefit from what is said there."

Next to Barrett, Mr. Urman sighed heavily. Before he or any other junior guard had an opportunity to mutter remarks about lost leisure time, though, the High Seeker added, "One matter all of you need to know, guards and Seekers alike: This dungeon's policy toward punishment of inner dungeon members will undergo a slight change."

The audience seemed to shift in place, like bats rustling their wings. Barrett looked over his shoulder at the senior Seekers and saw surprise in the eyes of many of them. Mr. Ferris's eyes had narrowed.

The High Seeker's voice continued in a level manner, as though he had not noticed the turn in mood. "As all of you know, members of the inner dungeon are immune from Yclau law. If we break a civil law within this dungeon or in the portion of the palace devoted to justice, we cannot be arrested by Yclau's soldiers – which is to say that Seekers cannot be arrested for violation of civil law at all, since we are not ordinarily permitted to pass beyond those bounds. Seekers, and to a large extent guards, are allowed to break civil law where that law comes into conflict with the Code."

"If they weren't," Mr. Urman murmured, "you wouldn't be sleeping with Mr. Taylor, would you?"

Mr. Sobel shushed Mr. Urman while Barrett passed his hand over his mouth to hide his smile. It was true enough that Yclau's archaic laws prevented men from sleeping with anyone over the age of twenty-one, unless their bed-partner was their wife. The Seekers – imprisoned eternally in a dungeon with few underage youths and with no recourse to marriage – had gone their own way in such matters, as in many others. There had been tension in the early years of the Eternal Dungeon, Barrett had heard, when the Code of Seeking began to deviate from civil law, but the Queen at that time had dealt with the matter by enshrining in Yclau law the Seekers' right to create their own laws, provided that those laws were not exercised outside the dungeon.

And so, in the Eternal Dungeon, full-grown men slept with full-grown men, a fact that had shocked Barrett when he first arrived only because such affairs were openly spoken of here. In the lighted world, the old laws against men sleeping with men were routinely broken, but in a covert manner. "I spent the night in bed with my boy," one of Barrett's friends in the army had once said with a wink, and everyone around him had understood that his "boy" was the middle-aged civilian man he spent time with. Here in the Eternal Dungeon, no such coded messages were needed, for the Queen's laws did not extend this far.

Mr. Smith said, "The Eternal Dungeon originally petitioned for this right, not in order to protect the Seekers against the consequences of any heinous deeds they might commit, but in order to protect the Code. The circumstances in which we live and work are so different from that of the lighted world, that at times we must permit acts which are forbidden to ordinary men, and at other times we must forbid acts which are permitted to ordinary men."

Barrett had heard this statement many times – it was a central passage in the fifth revision of the Code – but again he saw a rustling of uneasiness ripple through the onlookers, as though they were all taking in the meaning of the High Seeker's words for the first time.

"In the lighted world," the High Seeker continued relentlessly, "it is a magistrate who determines the sentence of an offending prisoner. He does so after receiving evidence from various parties; the trial is held in public. If the prisoner appeals sentence to the Queen, then the case may be tried by a higher magistrate, and so on up to the highest courts, and even to the Queen herself. The lowliest prisoner has the right to appeal to the Queen's mercy, and if she fails to give it, the lowliest prisoner has the right to appeal to the people whom the Queen rules, if he believes that he has been wronged. Every prisoner in the land of Yclau retains this privilege, including the prisoners of this dungeon, who have been accused of the worst of crimes: kin-murder, treason, the rape of virgins. Every man and woman in Yclau, our great queendom, possesses this right." The High Seeker paused, his gaze sweeping over the crowd that silently watched him, anticipating his final words. "You do not."

Even Mr. Urman remained voiceless in the pause that followed. Finally the High Seeker said, with a tone so light that he might have been discussing flower-weaving for the Lords' Spring Festival, "This is one of the many sacrifices that we as Seekers and guards make for the sake of our prisoners: We agree that the only law we follow within this dungeon will be the Code. In the original Code of Seeking, and in every revision since then, it has been determined that any man who takes employment within the inner dungeon – or any woman – thereby gives up his right of appeal. Final decisions in all disciplinary matters are made by one man: myself. As always, I am supervised by the Codifier, who in turn is supervised by the Queen's magistrates. But if you are arrested on a serious charge, you will not be turned over to a magistrate for a public trial whose judgment you may appeal. I will decide your sentence, and unless the Codifier overturns my judgment, the sentence I place upon any guilty prisoner will be carried out immediately."

Barrett looked over at Mr. Sobel. The older guard's memory of the Eternal Dungeon stretched back further than Barrett's; Mr. Sobel had been a guard under Layle Smith's predecessor. Barrett had heard whispered tales of what those times had been like. Seekers and guards would disappear without warning, and when they reappeared, it would be in the form of ashes, to be buried in the communal pit at the dark end of the dungeon. No public notice was ever issued at the time of their arrests; no explanation was ever given for their deaths. In those days, it was said, torturers and guards had trod tenderly in the presence of the High Torturer.

All that had changed when Layle Smith came to power and turned the torturers into Seekers. Though in theory he still held the power of life and death over every member of the inner dungeon, Barrett knew of only two cases where he had exercised it: in both cases, the men executed had been guards who had blatantly abused their power over prisoners on more than one occasion. It lay within the High Seeker's power to torture his prisoners, but he had not done so in those cases. Instead, he had consulted with the senior Seekers before making the arrests, had asked the Codifier to call in witnesses on the prisoners' behalf, and had permitted the prisoners to see their loved ones before their executions. The days of execution had been known beforehand to everyone, and by the time the prisoners' ashes had arrived at the communal pit, the general sentiment had been that the prisoners were lucky to have been tried under so fair a magistrate.

Mr. Sobel was frowning, which might have meant anything: concern at what the High Seeker was saying, concentration on his words, or simply annoyance that the audience, once again, was reacting with uneasiness at Mr. Smith's pronouncements. Barrett turned his attention back to the speaker in time to hear Mr. Smith say, "Our critics – both those who consider the Code too lax and those who consider it too harsh – argue that, when Seekers and guards bring about the repentance and renewal in prisoners that is always our primary aim, we do so despite the Code, not because of it."

This time the murmur in the crowd was clearly of anger, and the anger was not aimed toward the High Seeker. Barrett saw Mr. Taylor form his hands into fists and then quickly release them again. Mr. Smith waited a moment before acknowledging his listeners' anger with a nod. "Few of our critics have had the opportunity to witness for themselves the breaking and rebirth of our prisoners, under the rules of the Code; thus, their perspective is limited. Nonetheless . . ." His voice lingered on the word as he turned his head to scan the crowd. ". . . these criticisms have a certain force. On too many occasions over the years, the rules of the Code have been bent or broken with impunity. I am to blame for that. I did not hold enough faith in the Code to trust its limits, and now the Eternal Dungeon is paying the price for my faithlessness."

Watching the stunned reaction of the junior guards to this candid confession of fault, Barrett wondered whether any of those guards realized how carefully they were being manipulated by the High Seeker. Barrett himself had only witnessed Mr. Smith at work with a prisoner on one occasion, but he had seen, that previous year, how the High Seeker could use apparent displays of weakness as a means to trap a prisoner into following his will.

It appeared that the High Seeker would have his way again. One junior guard, more bold than the rest, cried out, "You're not to blame, sir!" Most of the other junior guards – and a good many junior Seekers also – murmured their agreement, seemingly moved by the sight of so powerfully ranked a man confessing his misdeeds to lesser-ranked men. Mr. Urman – who had worked long enough under the High Seeker to know his methods – simply rolled his eyes.

"Thank you, gentlemen." The High Seeker began to turn toward the women, perhaps to include them in his thanks, but quickly turned back. Mistress Birdesmond had the advantage of keeping her expression hooded from the onlookers, but the temporary healer appeared not at all moved by the High Seeker's confession. Perhaps her mind had flitted ahead to what must follow from such words.

Mr. Smith made no delay in stating his conclusion. "I will not repeat my mistakes of the past. The Code itself provides abundant flexibility. It offers a range of punishments for most crimes, and it permits the granting of mercy in cases where a prisoner committed his misdeed out of ignorance or pressure or unwonted fear. As in the past, I will follow the Code's lead in bestowing mercy where it is merited. But from this point henceforth" – the High Seeker's voice suddenly deepened – "I will not ameliorate the consequences for anyone who deliberately breaks the Code. I will bring down the full penalties upon any Seeker, guard, prisoner, or other member of the inner dungeon who intentionally breaks the Code, in however small a matter. That is all I have to say today."

With typical swiftness, the High Seeker was off the platform before the magistrate, staring at the empty space where Layle Smith had stood, had time to take in that the proclamation was finished. The residents of the inner dungeon, more used to Layle Smith's abrupt manner of ending meetings, had already begun to move. Guards were unbarring the doors leading out of the entry hall, the Codifier was disappearing into his office, junior Seekers were beginning to climb down from their seats, and the gates above were sliding back with a clank. The little bat, sensing his opportunity, rose from his perch upon Mr. Ferris's hand and flew fleetly up the stairs.

The guards who were free of immediate duties had already begun to gather in clusters to discuss excitedly – though in suitably low voices – the contents of the speech. The Seekers, trained to be more discreet, were catching each other's eyes, as though to say, "We must talk of this, once we're behind closed doors." The expressions in their eyes told clearly enough, though, what they thought of what they had heard.

Looking around, Barrett decided that little had changed since the beginning of the speech. Most of the Seekers and senior guards supported what Mr. Smith had said; despite the High Seeker's best efforts, most of the junior guards were angry. Mr. Urman, without asking leave of Mr. Sobel, hurried forward to join his voice with the other junior guards who were beginning to raise their voices in protest at what they had heard.

As Mr. Urman went, he passed by Mr. Crofford. The young guard was staring down at the dagger sheathed at his left hip. Quickly, as though his life depended upon it, he moved the sheathed dagger to his right hip.

Barrett felt a heaviness come upon him then. He turned, opening his mouth to say he-knew-not-what to Mr. Sobel, but the words shrivelled on his tongue as he saw Mr. Sobel's expression. He followed the other guard's gaze.

The High Seeker, as was always the case, had not adopted the safe course by retreating into his office; he was standing in front of the platform, answering questions from all comers. His head turned as he spoke, however, as though he were missing someone in the crowd. He soon found what he was seeking: Elsdon Taylor, who had not yet come forward to join him.

For a moment, the gazes of the two Seekers remained locked. Then, in a deliberate manner, Mr. Taylor turned his back on the High Seeker and began to listen to a handful of junior Seekers who were denouncing the High Seeker's decisions.

Barrett's eyes met Mr. Sobel's. The other man, grave-faced, said nothing. After a moment, both guards looked away from each other.
 

CHAPTER FOUR

As always at the dawn shift, the entrance to the outer dungeon's dining hall was crowded with night-shift guards coming off duty to eat a leisurely supper, as well as day-shift guards catching a quick breakfast before they went on duty. Using the privilege of his rank – a privilege much needed on days like this, when his time was short – Barrett bypassed the long queue for outer-dungeon laborers, the shorter queue for junior guards and junior Seekers, and headed for the briefest queue of all, for senior guards and senior Seekers. He passed Mr. Taylor on the way; the young Seeker did not notice Barrett, being absorbed in conversation with another junior Seeker.

It bemused Barrett that, in theory anyway, his rank was greater than that of his new Seeker. In practice, if a senior guard overturned the orders of a junior Seeker for any reason other than to resolve an emergency, he was likely to receive a beating shortly thereafter, under the watchful eye of the High Seeker. Every guard who had undergone this exercise agreed that the High Seeker's watchful eye was worse than the beating.

Senior rank had its advantages for a guard, though. For one thing, he could give orders to junior guards without discussing them first with a Seeker. Of yet greater importance, to Barrett's mind, was that the food in the dungeon's dining hall was still likely to be hot by the time he tasted it.

He had nearly reached the door when he tripped over an obstacle. Looking down, he saw four-year-old Finlay, who was sitting cross-legged as he sketched people in the queue with a piece of charcoal upon paper.

Artistry was an unusual ambition for an Yclau child, but Finlay was said to have pawed through the High Seeker's collection of art books one day while his father was discussing business in Mr. Smith's living cell. Since that time, Finlay was a predictable presence at any large gathering in the outer dungeon; he always had pencil or charcoal or crayon in hand, creating portraits that bore a certain rough resemblance to the people he saw.

At age thirty-two, Barrett was still a bachelor, though he no longer had the excuse of his army career to explain his periodic visits to brothels rather than to tea parties where respectable women might be courted. Any time he began to be tempted to settle into domestic life, he had only to visit Mr. Sobel's living quarters, filled with the stink of babies' groin-cloths and with Finlay shouting his insistence that he would die if his parents didn't buy him a new sketch-pad.

Still, Barrett found children tolerable in small doses. Crouching down, he pointed to the mess of lines, asking, "Is that me?"

Finlay cast him a scornful look. "It's the lady."

Glancing round, Barrett finally found the "lady": a rotund washerwoman. Barrett looked again at the sketch. With greater scrutiny, he saw how the messy lines represented the washerwoman's face, alight with enjoyment as she exchanged gossip with a neighbor.

"You have a gift," Barrett said with such surprise that Finlay gave him another scornful look.

"I've been working all year," he said, as though presenting his twenty-years' credentials as a craftsman.

"So I see," replied Barrett, trying hard not to laugh. Mr. Sobel, he knew, treated his eldest child's ambitions with the greatest seriousness, though he could hardly be happy that Finlay had chosen work which would place him in the commoners' class, unless the boy lost his head entirely and moved to Vovim, where artists held higher rank. Barrett supposed that Mr. Sobel was simply hoping that Finlay would outgrow his ambition. Rising to his feet, Barrett had a sudden vision of Finlay in a dozen years: a young man as handsome as his father, stubbornly determined to remain an artist, no matter what price he paid.

Barrett felt his heart's pace increase.

He shook his head as he turned away. He could not decide whether Mr. Sobel would be amused or appalled to know that Barrett had been inwardly stirred at the thought of what Finlay might become, but perhaps it was time for Barrett to put down roots by taking a woman or youth as his love-mate – perhaps even a man, since the Code permitted him that.

The trouble was in deciding where to send down those roots.

A waiter was standing by the door when Barrett arrived at the head of the queue. "Will you sit at the head table as usual, sir?" the man asked briskly, smoothing down the napkin draped over his forearm.

"Yes. —No, wait." He craned his neck to see the head table, where senior guards and their guests usually sat and where, in theory, senior Seekers could sit. The Seekers, though, usually took food in their living cells, since eating while wearing a hood was not the easiest activity. Mr. Taylor was one of the few Seekers regularly seen in the dining hall, and even he often opted to dine in the cell he shared with the High Seeker.

Mr. Sobel was nowhere to be seen at the head table, and Barrett really did not relish the idea of listening to the other senior guards comment on how wise the High Seeker was to enforce the Code. He glanced round the room, which was the largest in the outer dungeon, but was certainly not large enough to accommodate all the dungeon dwellers at one time. Finally he caught sight of Mr. Phelps, who was junior night guard to Elsdon Taylor. He was sitting with two other guards who had their backs to Barrett.

"At Mr. Phelps's table, if you please," he said, pointing. The waiter went down on both knees in acknowledgment of the command – the laborers in the Eternal Dungeon tended to be as old-fashioned as their surroundings – and then quickly rose and began breaking their path to the table through the crowd of junior guards and Seekers who must find their own way to the tables.

A good opportunity, Barrett thought, to get to know better the guard who would be working directly under him. He had been somewhat worried when he learned of his appointment; a junior guard who failed to be appointed to an open senior position above him could make life miserable for the guard who took his place. But one brief talk with Mr. Phelps after the closed meeting in the entry hall had provided Barrett with the measure of the man. Mr. Phelps was without ambition, happy to be working in the Eternal Dungeon, but with no aspirations to rise above his present position. Indeed, he was the sort of guard who, while able to take initiative where needed, preferred following orders – the perfect sort of junior guard, from Barrett's perspective. He had heard that Mr. Urman had provided a less happy life for his senior guards through the years.

Too late, as they approached the table, Barrett saw that one of Mr. Phelps's companions was Mr. Urman. Before Barrett could decide whether the pleasure of Mr. Phelps's company would be worth the accompanying commentary by Mr. Urman, Mr. Phelps rose to his feet.

"You may have my chair, sir," he said, holding the chair back in waiting, in clear acknowledgment of Barrett's higher rank. "I was about to join the queue." He jerked his head toward the line of men and women nearby, waiting to use one of the few water closets in the dungeon. It was installed for the sake of workers such as Mr. Phelps, who did not live in the dungeon and so could not make use of a chamber-pot in their rooms. More than one dungeon dweller such as Barrett, though, had been known to wait in the ever-long queue out of nostalgia for the conveniences of modern living that they had sacrificed upon leaving the lighted world. Barrett was sure that he was not the only dungeon dweller who, on nights when the chamber-pot filled to its brim, wondered whether the sacrifice was worth it.

Barrett took the proffered seat, sighing inwardly. To leave now would make clear enough which guard he was trying to escape, for nobody could think that he'd want to flee from the presence of the third man at the table, Mr. Crofford.

"Nonsense," said Mr. Urman to the younger guard as Barrett sat down. "That announcement was bloody nonsense. The High Seeker's wits have been addled again."

Mr. Crofford wriggled in his chair, as though he had sat in something nasty. "I'm not sure about that," he said in his usual soft, hesitant voice. "Mr. Ferris says that Mr. Smith is just being a bit rash. He says that's natural in someone as young as the High Seeker is, and that he'll see things more clearly soon."

Mr. Urman snorted as the waiter, returning swiftly to the table, began setting down their food. In the Eternal Dungeon, there was no choice of menu; long-term dungeon residents ate the same food as the prisoners did, which meant they ate plain but well.

"The High Seeker is what – nearly two decades older than you?" Mr. Urman responded with an angry gesture that nearly upset the water pitcher being placed in front of him by the waiter. "And he's been a torturer since he was fifteen. He's had time and enough to learn his trade."

"He didn't come to the Eternal Dungeon till he was eighteen," Mr. Crofford protested as he neatly placed his napkin on his lap while the waiter slipped away.

"No, he didn't, did he?" Mr. Urman said in a significant fashion.

In the silence that followed, the only sound that could be heard, other than the loud, cheerful chatter of nearby dungeon dwellers, was the scrape of Mr. Urman's spoon on the bottom of his stew bowl. Then Mr. Crofford said, "That was a long time ago. He hasn't been a Vovimian torturer for years. And anyway, the Eternal Dungeon is a dungeon of torture too."

Mr. Urman raised his eyebrows. "Perhaps it shouldn't be."

Barrett sputtered into his stew spoon. Mr. Crofford was too busy looking shocked to notice. "Mr. Urman!" he said. "Don't say that you're one of those radicals who believes torture should be abolished!"

Mr. Urman gave a slight shrug that suggested world-weariness. "I've been working in prisons for nine years, since I was nineteen," he said, as though he were decades above Mr. Crofford in age, rather than only four years older. "I've learned that, if you hurt a prisoner enough, he'll say anything he thinks you want to hear. Which is all very well if you're interested in nothing but a confession. But here in the Eternal Dungeon, we're supposed to be interested in more than just an admission of guilt."

"The Code permits torture," Barrett said, drawn into the conversation despite himself.

"If you look at the first version of the Code, from a century and a half ago, you'll see that it permitted use of the strappado. Times change, Mr. Boyd. When prison workers are wise enough to admit to past errors, times change for the better."

Barrett fell silent, returning his attention to the stew, for Mr. Urman's remark came perilously close to thoughts that had long littered his mind late at night, when he was unable to sleep after a day of racking a prisoner. It was Mr. Crofford who responded, "Mr. Ferris says that external pain is sometimes necessary to make a prisoner's mind break through into recognition of the horrors he has committed by bringing pain to the world."

Mr. Urman snorted again as he waved down the waiter, who was passing their table. "So lawful pain will teach him that unlawful pain is wrong? You and your fine Mr. Ferris never took lessons in logic, I'd guess. —This stew is cold," he told the waiter. "Doesn't anyone here know how to give proper service?"

The waiter looked down his nose at Mr. Urman. "I wouldn't know about that, sir. Did you receive better training in such matters?"

"You bloody—!" Mr. Urman was on his feet in an instant, nearly spilling his stew as he grabbed the waiter by his collar with one hand and swung back his fist with the other. Before Barrett could think to react, Mr. Crofford had bounced up and pinioned Mr. Urman's arms behind him.

"D., no!" the younger guard said urgently. "The High Seeker is watching!"

Mr. Urman went still at once. Barrett quickly located the High Seeker, but Layle Smith, if he had noticed anything, was doing a good job of pretending that he was absorbed in conversation with Elsdon Taylor, who had just entered the dining hall.

The waiter, looking shaken, smoothed down his shirt. "My apologies, sir," he said to Mr. Urman. "My remark was uncalled for."

"Yes, well, I'm sorry too," replied Mr. Urman as he shook himself free from Mr. Crofford and sat down. "I'm sorry you don't know how to deliver a bowl of stew when it's still warm. Now get out of my sight."

The waiter's lips thinned, but he departed. Barrett said, keeping his voice mild, "You won't make friends that way."

"I don't need friends; I need people to stop ragging me about my accent. You never see anyone ragging Mr. Chapman about his accent, and he was born a commoner. I just picked up the accent from my classmates."

"You're too easy to tease," Mr. Crofford suggested, eyeing Mr. Urman carefully as he sat down, as though fearing he might attack someone else. "Mr. Chapman merely laughs when anyone makes fun of his accent."

"Mr. Crofford is right," contributed Barrett. "If you learned to laugh at yourself, matters would go a lot easier for you here."

"Maybe I've had enough people laughing at me in my life without joining my mockery to theirs," Mr. Urman said, thrusting the stew away so quickly that it spilled on the tablecloth. "So what do you think of the High Seeker's announcement, Mr. Boyd? Or are you afraid the High Seeker will beat you if you're honest with your opinions?"

Barrett refused to be goaded. "My honest opinion," he said, "is that Finlay Sobel is headed in the direction of being a skilled artist."

Mr. Urman groaned. Mr. Crofford laughed, and then stopped abruptly, looking at something over Mr. Barrett's shoulder. A deep voice, filled with amusement, said, "Are you seeking to confirm the worst nightmares of a father about his best and brightest?"

Grinning, Barrett turned to pull an empty chair forward from a nearby table. "You could put an end to his sketches easily. He'd obey you if you told him to stop drawing."

Mr. Sobel shook his head as he seated himself beside Barrett. "My wife says those drawings are the best insight we could have into what's going through Finlay's mind. We worry, you know, about bringing up children in a place like this. —Thank you." This was to Mr. Crofford, who had passed a wicker basket of buns to Mr. Sobel.

"Judging from today's drawing, I'd say that you have nothing to fear," Barrett responded.

"Unless, of course, he begins drawing pictures of guards getting into fist fights with waiters." Mr. Sobel did not look up as he tore open a bun. "Mr. Urman, I never want to see a scene like that occurring in this dining hall again."

"The waiter made mock." Surprisingly, the respondent was Mr. Crofford.

Mr. Sobel flashed him a smile. "The High Seeker surmised as much. Which is why I was sent here to reprimand Mr. Urman, rather than the High Seeker coming himself. Contrary to rumors, Mr. Smith does have a sense of justice."

Mr. Urman snorted, but had sense enough to keep quiet otherwise. Scattering bun crumbs into his stew, Barrett said, "Rumors are always flying about Layle Smith, but the latest dread foretellings are all speculation so far. The High Seeker likes to frighten prisoners so that he won't need to do worse than frighten them. He's likely doing the same to us."

"Oh, the High Seeker enjoys frightening prisoners, that's for certain," said Mr. Urman, tossing his napkin aside, as though he had lost interest in the meal. "In fact, I can think of only one thing Layle Smith enjoys more than frightening prisoners."

"If everyone behaves themselves, it won't come to that," Mr. Sobel responded, taking the glass of water that Mr. Crofford had poured and offered him. "And you had better learn to curb your tongue about such matters, Mr. Urman, because you've been reassigned."

"To Mr. Chapman?" Mr. Urman said. His voice was light, but Barrett saw the flash of hope in his eyes at the thought of the open senior guard position.

"To Mr. Smith. Junior night guard. We'll be working together again."

"I've already been his bloody junior night guard," Mr. Urman grumbled.

"Language, Mr. Urman," cautioned Mr. Sobel. "Even though you're off-duty, you should be setting an example for more junior guards." He nodded in the direction of Mr. Crofford.

"Oh, he already taught me that word," Mr. Crofford said with a smile. "He taught me an entire list of words to call my Seeker when he requires me to work overtime. Nobody gives vocabulary lessons like D. Urman."

Barrett collapsed into helpless laughter. Mr. Crofford and Mr. Sobel quickly followed him with chortles. After a moment of indecision as to whether he should take offense, Mr. Urman joined the merriment as people at the surrounding tables smiled.

o—o—o

That night, though, while lying in his old bed in the lighted world, Barrett could not sleep. He got up, clothed himself in a dressing gown, and pulled open the curtains.

His childhood bedroom looked out upon the high-fenced walls of the back garden of a mid-class townhouse. The neatly mowed lawn was white as bones under the moonlight. Pushing one of the windowpanes open, Barrett leaned out, smelling the onion-sharp scent of summer grass. He had played croquet on that lawn with his sisters and brothers and cousins when he was young, absentmindedly hearing the grown-ups talk of city crime, and of the need for more patrol soldiers and prison workers.

His mother had wept with joy when he had left the army in order to become a guard in the Eternal Dungeon; his father had pounded him on the back, beaming as he said over and over, "A great honor. A great honor. The people of Yclau are in your debt."

Barrett closed the window and returned to the coolness of his bed, where he lay sleepless until dawn.

o—o—o
o—o—o

. . . Too firmly, as history would later judge – but in saying that, we have the benefit of hindsight.

To the most objective observers of that time, the men who had no strong feelings one way or another on the issue of torture, the essential conflict in the Eternal Dungeon was not over prison ethics but over authority. If we recall the power that Layle Smith's predecessor had exercised over his torturers and guards, we see why that must be so. Yet we miss the point if we throw forth epithets like "dictator" about Layle Smith.

By the standards of his era, the Eternal Dungeon's High Seeker was an exceptionally generous employer. In an age when disobedience over the slightest matter would routinely result in the dismissal of an employee, Layle Smith stands out as having been strikingly willing to listen sympathetically to complaints about work conditions in his dungeon.

How, then, did a man like that become known, during the year 360, as a harsh and brutal employer? There is no paradox here; in fact, the answer lies in what appears to be the paradox of Layle Smith's gentleness toward the men who worked for him. But that is a matter which will become clearer as we turn our attention to events in the summer of 360.

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.