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On Guard 2
PROTECTION

Seward Sobel
The year 360, the seventh month. (The year 1881 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
 

Guard: Assistant to the Seekers, charged with restraint.

—Glossary to Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
 

CHAPTER FIVE

"So then," said Mr. Urman as they walked down the corridor at the end of the dawn shift, "she said to me, 'You're not man enough for me.' And I told her, 'If you're seeking a man who will bully you, I can recommend some of my old classmates to you. They'd as soon slap a girl as kiss her.' She wouldn't listen to me, though. Honestly, Mr. Sobel, women are more trouble than they're worth."

"It often seems that way," Seward Sobel murmured in reply. The last thing he wanted to do was hear the latest shilling-shocker installment of Mr. Urman's love life – which, as far as Seward could tell, had never sailed on calm waters – but he had promised himself that he would endure all of what Mr. Urman considered friendliness, for the sake of keeping the junior guard in a good mood. In light of the junior guards' reaction to Layle Smith's speech in the entry hall during the previous week, Seward needed every ally he could get, even one as distasteful to him as Mr. Urman.

"And so you two weren't reconciled?" Seward said, stepping through the entry hall doorway. Then he stopped dead.

The entry hall – usually quiet and dark, ominously so for newly arriving prisoners – was ablaze with lights and bustle. Heavy crates were being carried down the stairway by huffing laborers, the palace's chief engineer was debating with other men in raised voices over the best way to lay electrical lines through the rocky hall, and the ordinarily imperturbable Record-keeper was shouting at one of the intruders.

"No, I do not need a modern, up-to-the-fashion cabinet for files!" he told a plump, balding man as he clutched a file box, as though it might be forcibly wrenched from his arms. "We've been using this filing system for decades. We have no need of any other."

"But, sir, surely you can see that you must move with the times," replied the plump man, smiling at the Record-keeper. He had the accent and clothes of a mid-class tradesman, and the manner of a man who is used to being obeyed. Seward's impression was confirmed in the same moment as the man, turning, snapped his fingers at a boy who was trying to wriggle his way past two guards. The boy immediately came over and took from his jacket a silver case. The man extracted a cut cigar from the case, waited for the boy to light his corona with a mechanical lighter, and then puffed a ring of smoke into the air before saying, "You will find, sir, that your life will be immeasurably improved by these advances in technology. Certainly our Queen believes so, or she would not have ordered your office renovated."

The Record-keeper, red-faced, said nothing, though he looked as though he were grinding his teeth to keep from replying.

"Now," said the tradesman, giving his cigar to the boy to hold, "let me show you how much better this cabinet is. Rather than pull boxes off shelves, you simply lay the papers in a drawer, ordered by alphabet . . . so." He carelessly picked up a stack of paper from the Record-keeper's desk, opened a drawer of the filing cabinet that was currently blocking access to the Record-keeper's documents library, and laid the papers flat in the drawer. "And now, when you wish to find the records of a prisoner whose name begins with H, you need only pull open a drawer—"

"—or take a box from my library and carry it to any place in the dungeon I wish," the Record-keeper replied grimly. "I fail to see how this monstrosity will improve matters. The guards will still have to file the papers, will still have to tie them together—"

"My dear man, you don't mean to say that you continue to use ribbons." The tradesman looked as though he had just stumbled across an inhabitant from the era prior to the founding of the Tri-National Calendar. "Ribbons are quite, quite out of fashion now. All of the better offices use clips of metal, so that the papers need not be damaged with ribbon-holes."

"Are you saying" – the Record-keeper's voice rose – "are you saying that, in order to be modern and efficient, I must replace thousands of ribbons with these clips of yours?"

"The time that you will save in the long run— Where has that boy gone? Here, let me just fetch you a few of my paper clips, and you will see the genius, the absolute superiority of modern methods of— Sweet blood!" the tradesman practically screeched. "No, no, no, gentlemen, you are proceeding in the wrong manner!"

A group of guards, appearing bemused, looked up from a small metal device that they had been fiddling with. "Sir, this pointer of yours doesn't appear to work," said Mr. Yates.

"Of course it cannot work in the fashion you are using it." The tradesman took from the guard's hand a badly mangled pencil. "Sir, these pencil pointers can only be used to sharpen the points of round lead, not square."

The guards exchanged looks. "Round pencils?" said one finally. "Surely they'd roll off the table."

"But the time that you will save in having a mechanical pointer to sharpen those pencils . . . Where is that boy? Ah, there you are; give me the samples."

The boy, with a resigned look on his face, promptly pulled a second silver case from his jacket. The tradesman snatched it from him, opened it, and began passing out cylindrical pencils to everyone present.

"You see, sir," said the tradesman, beaming as he tucked a pencil into Seward's breast pocket, "you will find that all of the most up-to-the-fashion prisons use round pencils."

"Really?" said Mr. Urman, staring at his pencil. "I'd heard that the firm of Whittier & Sons had developed a mechanical pointer for square pencils."

The tradesman paled. "Surely not."

"Oh, yes, and for triangular pencils too," said Mr. Urman, his eyes wide and innocent as the other guards snickered behind the tradesman's back. "They use those in Vovim, you know. I understand that Whittier & Sons is ready to completely take over the export market within the year. You must have heard. . . ."

Covering a smile with the back of his hand, Seward took the opportunity to escape from Mr. Urman.

He paused in the middle of the cavern that constituted the entry hall. Usually all that could be heard in this hall were the murmured conversations of guards who were currently assigned paperwork duties, the constant scratch of the Record-keeper's pen, and the occasional rustle of bat-wings from high above.

Now the cavern was filled with shouts, rattles, thumps, whistles, snatches of ballads, and laughter. Seward guessed that the ballads and laughter were bravado from the laborers who cast occasional, wary glances at the armed guards and even more wary glances at the few hooded Seekers in the hall. By following the direction of the wariest glances, Seward was able to locate the High Seeker.

Layle Smith was standing at the edge of the hall, near the entrance to the Codifier's office, surveying the laborers as they carried in picks, drills, spikes, and pliers. A more imaginative man than Seward might have assumed that Mr. Smith's interest in the laborers lay in the splendid possibilities that their tools offered for use in the rack room. As it was, Seward was reasonably sure that the High Seeker's mood at the moment was one of harassment.

Seward reached the High Seeker's side; Mr. Smith acknowledged his guard by handing over the clipboard he had been holding. It carried a formidable set of instructions from the Queen on how the laborers were to be accommodated.

Seward glanced through it, winced, and handed the clipboard back. Sticking to safe topics, he asked, "Is the renovation of the breaking cells likely to cause overcrowding, sir?"

"I doubt it." Mr. Smith's gaze lingered on a pulley being pushed through the hall. "For the time being, the Eternal Dungeon will only question prisoners accused of crimes involving royalty or the peerage. All other cases are being transferred to Front Royal."

Seward nodded. Front Royal Prison, located in a town thirty miles northeast of the capital – as the crow flies – was the closest lesser prison that was authorized to question men accused of capital crimes.

"Though I'm not sure," the High Seeker added, watching as two young laborers playfully tossed back and forth a metal rod of indeterminate purpose, "whether our latest prisoners will receive the proper impression of doom and gloom when they enter this dungeon."

Seward pointed his thumb in the direction of the tradesman, who had just waylaid a guard in order to explain to him the advantages of using cartridge pens rather than older-fashioned fountain pens. The guard was trying to escape from the tradesman's presence, but with no success. "Perhaps, Mr. Smith, we should simply hand over all our prisoners to Mr. Wyatt. His badgering sales technique may succeed where our whips and racks don't. The prisoners will be willing to give up their secrets simply to get away from him."

The High Seeker turned his gaze toward Sobel; there was an amused gleam in his eyes. "It may be that Mr. Wyatt has a sales delivery prepared for such situations. 'Now, sir, I wish you to examine the fine qualities of the latest, most modern designs in strappadoes. This first model, for example, can tear apart limbs from the trunk in less than twenty hoists. It is sold, for no extra cost, with a pair of pincers and one of our top-selling electrically heated red-hot irons . . .'"

The High Seeker's sense of humor was invariably much too dark for Seward. Turning his gaze away from the pulley, the pliers, and the rod, Seward said, "Well, sir, we should be glad that Mr. Wyatt hasn't chosen to introduce pneumatic tubes into the dungeon."

"Tubes!" Suddenly, without warning, the tradesman was at the High Seeker's elbow. "Mr. Smith, that reminds me of a very important fact. It is important – nay, vital – that we add talking tubes to your prisoners' cells so that, at any time, your prisoners may communicate with you. For just a slightly higher price—"

"Talking tubes?" said the High Seeker slowly, in the same tone of voice he used toward prisoners who had just confessed their intention to commit terrible crimes.

"To complement the pneumatic tubes that we will be laying in order to allow your healer to send documents instantly to this end of the dungeon, with none of that tedious walking back and forth which previous generations had to endure." Mr. Wyatt beamed. "Just think, sir, at any time of day or night, you will be able to receive spoken messages from your prisoners. . . ."

Seward, who was beginning to think that he would need to assign guards to the tradesman, solely in order to prevent Mr. Wyatt from being murdered by the High Seeker, was distracted from the conversation by sight of a guard who did not work under him. The guard – with the same terseness of communication as the man he worked for – simply nodded slightly to Seward. Murmuring his apologies, Seward quickly departed from the High Seeker, leaving him to explain to Mr. Wyatt why he did not wish to have talking tubes installed in his bedroom.

o—o—o

Two minutes later, Seward stood in front of the desk of the Codifier, feeling as though he were visiting an inhabitant from the era prior to the founding of the Tri-National Calendar.

If modernization had reached the Codifier's office, there was no sign of it. Stalactites and stalagmites dripped and thrust from the ceiling and floor; the so-called Hooded Seeker Fish swum blindly in pools of water; more water trickled and gushed down the walls. Amidst these primitive surroundings, on one of the few dry patches of ground, the Codifier sat at a desk that looked as though it had stood there for the century and a half of the Eternal Dungeon's existence, wearing a suit such as his grandfather might have worn, and wielding, not a cartridge pen, not a fountain pen, but a quill pen. He was currently sharpening it with a whittling knife.

The only remotely modern item in the room was one of the oldest: the great, iron door at the back of the room, whose inner clock was set to allow the door to unlock at dawn and dusk, the times when the Codifier arrived and departed from the dungeon. That clock had finally rusted dead the previous winter, prompting the Queen's call for a renovation of the entire dungeon. The High Seeker, Seward knew, had managed successfully to stave off the renovation until recent events had defeated him.

The Codifier, having cut the quill nib to his exacting standards, looked up and said, "Mr. Sobel, do you recall the orders that you were given when you were first assigned to guard Mr. Smith, twenty-two years ago this autumn?"

"Yes, sir. You told me that my duty would be to prevent Layle Smith from murdering any prisoners."

Seward was rewarded with the rare opportunity of seeing the Codifier discomposed. Mr. Daniels's discomposure consisted of a slight pause as he put down his knife. "Yes, well," he said, "that turned out not to be as grave a danger as the High Torturer and I had feared. I was referring to your other orders."

Seward said slowly, "You told me to protect him from being murdered."

The Codifier slid open a drawer and brought out an object bundled in a black handkerchief. He pulled the handkerchief open and pushed the object over to Seward's side of the desk.

Seward picked up the revolver. After checking it briefly to be sure that all of the chambers were loaded and that the bolt was in the "safe" position, he slipped the revolver into the right pocket of his jacket. The jacket barely sagged. It had been specially designed for him, twenty-two years before, having a padded pocket for the express purpose of concealing a pistol.

The Codifier appeared to consider the conversation over; he had returned to inspecting his quill. Seward knew from long experience, though, that he would be permitted to ask questions. Whether Mr. Daniels bothered to answer them depended on whether the Codifier considered those questions necessary.

Seward ventured, "The danger of assassination from the King of Vovim has returned?"

"Indeed. The same agent who brought word to our Queen of the recent unrest in Vovim also brought word that the King has ordered one of his own agents to kill our High Seeker – which one, we do not know. Ordinarily, the chances of assassination would be low, since few men are authorized to enter the inner dungeon. However, with the unfortunate coincidence of this dungeon's renovations . . ." The Codifier left his sentence unfinished.

Seward thought about it, and the more he thought about it, the less he liked the prospect. Dozens of unknown men swarming around the inner dungeon, permitted to enter every room except the crematorium and the Seekers' living cells. Anywhere else, they might come within a few feet of the High Seeker.

Seward asked, "Am I to be the only man assigned to guard the High Seeker?"

"If you need assistance, you may assign a second guard to the task. You will understand, though, that discretion is imperative in this matter."

Seward nodded. Under the present circumstances, to openly admit that the High Seeker's life was in danger was to openly admit that the Eternal Dungeon had reason to believe that the King of Vovim had sent an assassin. Such an admission could only impair the delicate diplomatic talks that were currently taking place between the Queendom of Yclau and the Kingdom of Vovim.

"And during the High Seeker's off-duty hours, sir?" Seward persisted. "Will I be guarding him when he is asleep?" If he moved into Layle Smith's cell – as he had done when Mr. Smith was a Torturer-in-Training – it would be a sure sign to everyone that something was wrong. Moreover, he suspected that his presence would place a certain inhibition on the High Seeker's bedroom activities with Elsdon Taylor, which would be likely to make Mr. Smith unhappy. For that matter, it would place a certain inhibition on his own bedroom activities, which would make his wife unhappy.

"No," replied the Codifier, turning his attention to the inkwell. "We have determined that Mr. Taylor received training in firearms as a youth – for the sake of shooting wild game, you understand – and that he has the proper temperament that would allow him to try to block any attacks on Mr. Smith during the High Seeker's off-duty hours."

Seward imagined this was so, or Elsdon Taylor would not have been sent to the Eternal Dungeon for a murder committed with his bare hands. "And the High Seeker? Is he content with having me serve as bodyguard?"

Mr. Daniels carefully dipped his quill into the inkwell. "Mr. Sobel, I am rather busy."

Seward murmured an apology and made his departure. He had received his answer to the most important question about his new duties. Alas, it was the wrong answer.

o—o—o

A short while later, Elsdon Taylor answered the door to the cell he shared with the High Seeker. He had his hand behind his back until he saw who the visitor was; then he let the hand relax at his side. It was holding a revolver.

Seward acknowledged with a nod the junior Seeker's careful watch. He had already stopped briefly in the outer dungeon to inform his wife that he had been assigned extra duties that would keep him late in the inner dungeon. Returning to the inner dungeon, he had learned that Layle Smith had retreated to his cell, sooner than the High Seeker was accustomed to do at the end of his workday.

Nor was Mr. Taylor where Seward would have expected to see him in the hours following the end of his own workday. "Are you planning to go to the common room?" Seward asked, pausing to cough into his fist. The corridor behind him was filled, as always, with smoke from the furnaces that ran behind the eastern breaking cells, as well as the cheerful exchange of insults by the stokers. The stokers' conversation was undiminished in merriness from the past, for the men had been promised new, higher-paying jobs in the dungeon once the furnaces were removed. For now, though, the renovation had not yet reached this corridor; Seward felt safe to hold this conversation at the High Seeker's open doorway.

Elsdon – one of Seward's friends, and therefore a man whom Seward addressed informally on off-duty hours – glanced over his shoulder toward the room behind him. "Not tonight. Not till this matter is settled."

Seward shook his head. "Elsdon, if you don't permit yourself time with your friends, apart from your time with the prisoners and with the High Seeker, then we'll soon be transferring you to a lunatic asylum, and that won't do Mr. Smith any good. Leave him to me. An extra hour or two of duty won't break my marriage."

Elsdon, who had raised his hood when he saw who the visitor was, gave a wan smile. "Layle and I do tend to get on each other's nerves if we're in each other's vicinity too much of the time. We learned that when I was in training under him. It's not fair, though, that you should be burdened with this."

"It's one of my duties. Check my work contract if you don't believe me."

Elsdon laughed then. "He's been trying to shoo me out the door ever since he arrived back. Now that you're here, I can leave you to be the one to receive his shooing noises."

Seward wondered whether Elsdon was aware of how likely that scenario was. "Tap your code on the door when you return," he suggested. "Otherwise, I'm likely to be nervous when opening the door."

Elsdon frowned and then said in a low voice, "No, I'll tap my code backwards. The assassin might have discovered my code."

Seward nodded approvingly as Elsdon handed him his gun, pulled down the face-cloth of his hood, and slipped into the corridor. With a quick-thinking man like Elsdon Taylor guarding the High Seeker during the day shift, it was unlikely that any assassin would have the opportunity to murder Layle Smith during Mr. Smith's leisure hours. Not that there was any great chance of an assassination when the High Seeker was cloistered at home, Seward thought to himself as he stepped in and turned to bar the door. Two entrances led into the High Seeker's cell, but both doors had heavy bars. Almost never used now, those bars were remnants of the time when the High Torturer had been the least popular member of the dungeon and therefore was vulnerable to murder by his own torturers and guards.

These days, the problem was rather the reverse. Taking a deep breath, Seward turned to face the High Seeker.

Layle Smith – who had undoubtedly overheard every word spoken between his love-mate and his senior night guard – was currently pretending that nobody was in the room except himself. He sat hooded in an armchair, turning pages of a large book that appeared to contain – Seward saw as he passed by – plates of artwork showing scenes from the sacred dramas of Vovim.

Seward did not linger to see whether Mr. Smith was dwelling upon the depictions of Hell. He paused only to place Elsdon's gun within easy reach of the High Seeker; despite Layle Smith's famous aversion to machinery, Seward would have been very surprised indeed if Mr. Smith's knowledge of firearms did not surpass his own. Then he ducked into the bedroom.

There he checked carefully under the bed – the only piece of furniture in the cell that might have hidden a man – and looked to see whether anything unpleasant and deadly had been placed under the sheets and pillows, or inside any of the smaller objects in the room.

He passed back into the main room and gave the bookcase and desk and seats a careful perusal. The task came easily to him, though thirty years had passed since he had received his training as a young palace guard assigned to watch over the Queen's heirs. Having spent hours in the palace checking under rugs, inside chests that existed purely for show, and behind endless numbers of knick-knacks, he was thankful that Seekers' cells were starkly furnished and held few decorations. Not many minutes passed before he busied himself in the small kitchen at the end of the main room, sorting the food, with thoughts of throwing it in the dustbin. When he reached the tea canister, Mr. Smith said, without looking up, "Mr. Sobel."

"Sir?" Seward had been reading the canister label – which was of a respectable tea manufacturer in southern Yclau – and wondering whether the label or the canister's contents were to be trusted. He turned his gaze toward the High Seeker, whose back was to him.

"The tea was delivered by one of the Codifier's guards shortly after I arrived here this morning. All deliveries of food will be through the Codifier's office, for the time being. Pray do not disturb yourself with thoughts of poison."

Seward – whose mind had leapt ahead to the unlikely possibility of the Codifier's guards being bribed by the assassin – carefully set aside the tea. "Yes, sir." Then, stating the obvious: "It seems, sir, that I am to be your shadow again."

Layle Smith turned a page. "In certain ways, Mr. Sobel, you have never ceased to be." He turned another page. "There are worse fates for a man of my past to endure."

No reply could be made to such a remark. Seating himself on a stool in the kitchen, where he could immediately sight any intruders into the cell but they would not immediately see him, Seward settled down for a long, uneasy watch.

o—o—o
o—o—o

High Seeker's guard: Traditional, unofficial title for the senior night guard of the High Seeker. See also: Tyrant (epithet).

—Glossary to Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.