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On Guard 4
APPOINTMENT

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

Firearms: Usually forbidden in the Eternal Dungeon because, unless the gun is wielded by a highly skilled gunman, the close confines of the dungeon make likely the accidental shooting of innocent bystanders. The fifth revision of the Code of Seeking also notes that guns are the lazy man's method of restraint. See Sacrifice.

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

CHAPTER TEN

"What the Queen will need from you . . ."

"Yes, sir?" There was only one thing Seward hated more than torturing a prisoner or handing him over to be executed.

". . . is a detailed list of all the guards, with notes on their performance levels and their rates of pay."

Triplicate forms. Bloody blades, it was enough to make him seek a new profession. "Couldn't the Record-keeper provide her with that information, sir?" he asked hopefully.

"The Record-keeper is burdened with his own special duties at the moment, Mr. Sobel."

The faint warning note in the High Seeker's voice caused Seward to dip his eyes. "I apologize, sir."

Layle Smith strode beside him in the main corridor during the dusk shift as they passed cells, and guards, and laborers shouting instructions to one another. The High Seeker added with characteristic generosity, "I'm sorry that you are carrying such a heavy burden at this time."

Seward gave a small smile. "At least I know that, as you reminded me, all of the dungeon dwellers are sharing this burden. Mr. Crofford told me that his prisoner recently asked, with great anxiety, whether he would be placed in 'the vise.' Apparently the prisoner had overheard Mr. Wyatt's laborers talking about the instruments of their trade, and had drawn his own conclusion as to their purpose."

"Indeed?" Mr. Smith made a manful attempt to keep his voice neutral, but he could not quite hide the longing in it. "What exactly was it that he feared, Mr. Sobel?"

Seward was still trying to figure out how to avoid answering this question – or perhaps even to find a way to convey to Layle Smith that this was not the sort of question that normal men asked – but at that moment they reached the door of Rack Room D. Seward, in an automatic manner, opened the door for the High Seeker and stepped back to let him enter first. The High Seeker put his foot on the threshold; then he stopped abruptly.

Seward was beside him at once, ready to place his body in front of the High Seeker, if need be. But the intruder – or rather, intruders – were no assassins.

"Do you think he wants us to measure underneath the bench?" With his hair tousled and his hands covered with dirt, Mr. Crofford crouched in the corner, trying to push a yardstick under the stone bench that jutted out from the wall.

"How the bloody blades should I know?" The voice of Mr. Urman emerged from under the rack; only his backside could be seen.

"Gentlemen."

There came a thud and a muffled yelp as Mr. Urman evidently hit his head on the base of the rack. Mr. Crofford had already scrambled to his feet, dropping his yardstick in his anxiety. Mr. Urman, rubbing his head but with too high a sense of self-preservation to utter the oaths that normally would have accompanied this action, wriggled out from under the rack and rose to his feet.

"May I ask what you're doing?" The High Seeker turned his gaze from one guard to the other.

Even Mr. Crofford could read the High Seeker's displeasure; he turned as white as an electric lamp. Mr. Urman, whose reaction to bull-strong danger always seemed to be to wave a red flag in front of it, said crossly, "Following orders."

"Whose orders?" Mr. Smith's voice was as mild as sweet honey, which was always a sign of high danger.

"His." Mr. Urman pointed.

The High Seeker did not bother to look Seward's way. "I think not."

Seward decided it was time to intervene. "Who told you that I had given those orders, Mr. Urman?"

Mr. Urman shrugged. Seward supposed that he meant to look indifferent, but his shrug looked instead as though he were flinching away from a lash of discipline that he anticipated. It was Mr. Crofford who said, "Sir, Mr. Wyatt told us that a rack room needed to be measured. He didn't actually say . . . I'm sorry, Mr. Sobel, but I'm afraid we assumed from the way he spoke that he had already discussed the matter with you."

The High Seeker sighed, but contented himself with that. There would be no disciplinary beating, then; that was something. Not that the junior guards had violated the Code in any way, but the High Seeker did not like – he really did not like – having the rack rooms entered without his permission.

In his bleaker moments, Seward sometimes suspected that Layle Smith regarded the rack rooms as his private playground.

"Let that be a warning to you, then," Seward said quietly to the junior guards. "If an outsider hints he already has permission for you to undertake an action, he might have his own motives for suggesting that."

"Such as helping a prisoner to escape." Mr. Urman looked disgusted, but it became clear with his next words that his disgust was not aimed at Seward. "That was stupid of me."

"And me," Mr. Crofford added. "We're sorry, Mr. Sobel . . . High Seeker."

"I've made worse mistakes in my time," said Layle Smith, which was no more than the truth. "Did Mr. Wyatt inform you as to his intentions here?"

Mr. Urman shrugged. He always shrugged when being questioned by the High Seeker. Seward had never ceased to wonder at the High Seeker's ability to show patience in the face of Mr. Urman's continual insolence.

In recent weeks, Seward's wonder had turned to curiosity.

It was Mr. Crofford who replied, "He said something about an electric rack, sir."

"An . . . electric rack, you say?"

Seward turned his attention swiftly back to the High Seeker. He might have thought the change in Layle Smith's tone was a product of his own overactive imagination. There was no mistaking, though, the change in Mr. Smith's posture. The High Seeker, normally the most stiff and formal of men, had relaxed. He looked like a pleased child who has just sighted a new toy.

Out of the corner of his eye, Seward saw Mr. Urman shudder. No, it was not Seward's imagination that a change had taken place in this room.

"Electricity is applied to the prisoner's body?" the High Seeker asked in the same matter-of-fact manner in which he always discussed the prisoners' torment.

"Er . . . no, sir." Mr. Crofford was looking uneasy too. "It is applied to the mechanism." He scrabbled in his jacket and brought out a piece of paper in florid colors and yet more florid type. "He gave this to us because it has the measurements—"

Mr. Smith held out his hand. Mr. Crofford came forward and handed him the broadsheet, and then retreated swiftly, as though he had been feeding a copperhead. There was a silence, which no one dared break, while the High Seeker read Mr. Wyatt's advertisement. Then Layle Smith said, "This might be worth looking into, Mr. Sobel. If Mr. Wyatt's claims are correct, the electric rack runs more smoothly than a hand-driven rack. You know that many unintentional deaths have occurred in the rack rooms, due to sudden jerks when a rack-wheel is placed in a new notch. There are no notches in the electric rack – just a smooth, safe draw."

"Yes, sir," he replied. He wondered whether Mr. Smith had actually fooled himself into thinking that his keen interest in the electric rack lay in its safety features. The High Seeker's body remained relaxed as he read the broadsheet.

"Well," said Layle Smith finally, folding the broadsheet and tucking it into his shirt pocket as he opened the rack-room door, "we shall see. —No, Mr. Sobel, you may remain here. I need to speak privately with another Seeker."

Seward, who had been about to follow the High Seeker out, took a cautious look down the corridor. Mr. Taylor had just emerged from his prisoner's cell. Seeing Seward's look of query, he nodded and patted his trousers pocket.

Satisfied that Elsdon Taylor was prepared to defend the High Seeker, Seward returned to the rack room. He was in time to hear Mr. Urman say, in an acid voice, "Well, isn't that nice? The High Seeker denies our prisoners the comfort of modern lighting and heating for years, because he says that machinery isn't suitable for this dungeon, but the moment he hears about a new machine of torture, he leaps at the chance to use it on the prisoners."

This statement was so filled with truth that, for once, Seward decided to overlook Mr. Urman's disrespectful speech. "Continue with the work here, then. . . . No, wait. You may take a break, Mr. Urman. Mr. Crofford, I would like to speak with you."

He waited until Mr. Crofford had followed him into the corridor; then he closed the door and looked to see that all was well.

There was no sign of disturbance. The only men who could be see in the dim, flickering light of the gas-lamps were the pairs of guards in front of each occupied cell, as well as two Seekers in quiet conversation with each other. Seward moved down until he could see along the corridor that crossed the main corridor, leading on one end to the Seekers' cells and the outer dungeon. No movement, except from the guards watching to see that no prisoner escaped this way. The door to the outer dungeon was always kept locked. From the corridor of the Seekers' cells came the sound of clanks and conversation as Mr. Wyatt's laborers replaced the old furnaces with central heating ducts.

Seward stole another look at the High Seeker and his companion. Elsdon Taylor had his hands in his trousers pockets, seemingly in an idle manner. Seekers, being required by the Code to wear the same clothes as other prisoners, were denied the comfort of a jacket, despite the fact that the Seekers must enter colder areas of the dungeon than the prisoners did. As a result of his lack of a jacket, Mr. Taylor was carrying only a pocket pistol suitable for being concealed in the confines of his trouser pocket. The gun was powerful enough to stop an assassin; the Codifier had seen to that. But what if Mr. Taylor should encounter a clever assassin who tried to trick him into looking away at the wrong moment?

Mr. Taylor had his back to Seward. Yet as Seward watched, the junior Seeker slipped his left hand out of his pocket and made a fist twice: the signal, used by Seekers and guards, that all was well.

How, by all that was sacred, had Mr. Taylor known that Seward had returned to the corridor? Seward shook his head. Five years before, the High Seeker had instructed Seward to offer the semblance of friendship to a prisoner who was proving difficult to break, in order to relax him sufficiently to allow the searching to continue smoothly. Seward, puzzled as to how to carry out this instruction, had finally set out with what he thought was a very clever plan: he had pretended to be a shy, awkward, uncertain guard – just the type of man that a sympathetic prisoner might wish to converse with, out of compassion.

Elsdon Taylor had seen through Seward. He had not only guessed that the man guarding him was acting under orders; he had also guessed that Seward's pretense was the truth. Under the semblance of confidence that his duty required him to display, Seward was actually a shy, awkward, uncertain guard, a fact that only the High Seeker had hitherto guessed.

Within four days, Seward had found himself babbling to Elsdon Taylor his doubts about the work he did.

Shaking his head again, Seward turned away from the conversation in the corridor. Elsdon Taylor was a very dangerous young man. Seward pitied any assassin who made the mistake of trying to attack the High Seeker while Mr. Taylor was on guard.

He returned his attention to Mr. Crofford, who had been patiently waiting all this time. A competent young guard, but he had a quality more valuable than that, from Seward's perspective: he was fully committed to his work. Mr. Crofford was showing himself to be one of that rare species of guard who chooses to spend his entire career in the Eternal Dungeon.

Mr. Crofford had been Seward's first choice for this mission. But to pick him for the mission would mean transferring Mr. Urman to another Seeker, and right now, Mr. Urman was proving to be a valuable source of information about the mood of the dungeon dwellers.

Still, Seward had his doubts. He said, "Mr. Urman is your closest friend."

"Yes, sir?" Mr. Crofford tilted his head to the side, looking mildly enquiring.

"I need you to answer my questions truthfully," Seward warned. "I don't want you to let your friendship with Mr. Urman color your answers."

Mr. Crofford straightened his shoulders. "Sir, my duty to the prisoners comes before anything else in my life."

His duty to the High Seeker was more relevant in this case, but Seward dared not say that, lest he reveal too much. "What do you think of Mr. Urman as a guard?"

"He's one of the best men in the dungeon," Mr. Crofford replied promptly.

He had not said that Mr. Urman was one of the best guards in the dungeon, Seward noticed. He stored that away in his mind for future reference. "Why do you say that?"

"Because he's faithful to his duty, sir. And because the prisoners mean everything to him."

Not the information he needed. "What about his relations with the other dungeon workers? He doesn't have a good reputation."

Mr. Crofford hesitated before giving a half-smile. "Well, sir, he's rough-tongued. Most people don't like that. But he'd give his life for the Code – truly he would."

Seward's gaze wandered back to the figure of the High Seeker, standing silently as he listened to what Mr. Taylor had to say. Seward caught a word or two of Mr. Taylor's speech, and part of him that had been tense relaxed. Of course. He had underestimated the High Seeker again. Layle Smith knew well enough where his temptations lay and how those temptations occasionally clouded his vision. He was consulting his far-more-objective love-mate as to whether it would be a good idea for the dungeon to acquire an electric rack.

It was well known in the Eternal Dungeon that Layle Smith had only three intimates: his love-mate, Elsdon Taylor; the dungeon's day supervisor, Weldon Chapman; and his senior night guard. In the past, the chill distance that Mr. Smith kept from all other members of the dungeon had not prevented the dungeon dwellers from feeling a high degree of respect and even concern for him. After all, Layle Smith was author of the fifth revision of the Code of Seeking.

Seward wondered how long it would be before that past good will eroded. He looked back at the junior guard by his own side. "Thank you, Mr. Crofford. You may finish your work in the rack room."

He followed Mr. Crofford back into the rack room. Then, just as the High Seeker had, he stopped abruptly.

Mr. Crofford had halted as well. He was staring at the broadsheet lying on the rack; the sheet was now covered with scribbled numbers. Mr. Urman – just emerging, with yardstick in hand, from the cramped confines of beneath the bench – came over and scribbled more numbers onto the sheet.

Seward finally found his tongue. "You continued the work here?"

"Finished," Mr. Urman replied shortly as he began to tot up the numbers.

Mr. Crofford said, "You could have waited till I was back, you know. Mr. Sobel said that you could take a break."

Mr. Urman gave a half-shrug, saying nothing. Mr. Crofford turned his gaze back to Seward and raised his eyebrows.

Seward looked silently at Mr. Urman for a minute. He was thinking to himself that diligence ought to be rewarded.

It was a shame that he would have to penalize it instead. "Mr. Urman," he said, "let Mr. Crofford finish here. I need to speak with you."

Mr. Urman's lips flattened, as though the High Seeker had applied that much-longed-for vise to them. He threw down the pencil and stalked out of the rack room, then waited in the corridor, arms folded. "Well?" he said. "What have I done now?"

Seward, after a quick glance toward the High Seeker, softly told Mr. Urman what he needed from the junior guard. Not surprisingly, Mr. Urman's expression turned from truculence to uncertainty, then to apprehension.

There was a long silence after Seward finished. Mr. Smith had seemingly completed his conversation with Mr. Taylor, but seeing his senior night guard engaged in conversation – and perhaps guessing at the delicate nature of that conversation – he waited patiently as Mr. Taylor turned to speak with his senior night guard, who had just come on duty.

Finally Mr. Urman spoke. "No gun, you say?"

"No," replied Seward. "The Codifier has already issued firearms to myself and Mr. Taylor. The Code of Seeking has such strong words to say against the use of firearms in this dungeon that he is reluctant to issue a third gun." In actual fact, the matter had been decided by the High Seeker, who knew of Mr. Urman's abysmal scores in shooting tests at his previous prison. But Seward had enough sense not to say this.

Mr. Urman did not reply at once. He was squeezing the back of his neck, as he often did when he had one of his bad headaches. Seward wondered whether he was remembering the episode that had led to those times of chronic pain. Seward wondered too whether he was remembering how close he had come to death on that day.

"This is a volunteer position," Seward emphasized. "I can seek another guard." An abrupt transfer of guards would alert the quick-minded in the dungeon that something unusual was taking place, and the very quick-minded might guess why the High Seeker needed a more committed guard by his side. Seward wanted to avoid that. But he could not force any guard to take on this role.

Mr. Urman seemed not to hear him; he was staring down the corridor, at where the High Seeker still stood, next to Elsdon Taylor. Mr. Urman said abruptly, "If the assassin looks ready to shoot the High Seeker, do I place my body so that his bullet will enter my heart? Or do I arrange for a lingering death, in order to distract him from his goal?"

Seward stared. This was not the reply he had expected. "You surprise me, Mr. Urman."

Mr. Urman took on his expression of familiar stubbornness. "I'm new to being an assistant bodyguard. I have to ask questions about my duties."

"That's not what I meant." Seward looked him up and down, seeing more clearly what Mr. Crofford had recognized in him. "I did not expect you to be so quick to volunteer for so dangerous a task."

Mr. Urman's gaze turned once more to the two Seekers standing in the corridor. After a while he said, in a voice so quiet that Seward barely heard him, "Being a hero – even a dead hero – would be a change."

o—o—o

"Hoi!"

Seward looked up from where he was inspecting the weapons on the arms rack. It was mid-morning: the guardroom was abandoned, aside from a bat that had taken a wrong turn upon its return to the cave that dawn, and was now fluttering around the whipping pole, as though inspecting it as a likely new home.

Mr. Urman, dressed in his off-duty clothes, asked, "What are you doing? It's hours since the High Seeker released us from bodyguard duty. You should be in bed."

He was doing work that he couldn't do during his shift-hours, because he was too busy shadowing the High Seeker these days. "The same is true for you," he replied.

Mr. Urman shrugged as he walked forward. "Couldn't sleep. Nightmares."

"About the dungeon?" Leaning forward, Seward unlocked a cubbyhole and withdrew a dagger from it. He was the only guard who had a key that fit every lock in the dungeon; all of the other guards could only unlock their own weapons and cell doors. The locks had been a suggestion from the High Seeker, back in the days before he acquired an aversion to machinery. Before then, the arms had been kept all together in a storage chest that any guard could open. Within one week of his arrival at the Eternal Dungeon, Layle Smith had demonstrated – with the assistance of a rather bewildered prisoner – how easy it would be for a prisoner to steal a key from a guard and proceed to steal the arms of every off-duty guard.

Seward had been the guard whose key had been stolen by the prisoner, on careful instruction by Layle Smith. Seward had received a nasty beating from the old High Torturer for that. He had never revealed this to Mr. Smith.

"Not the dungeon," replied Mr. Urman. "Those types of nightmares would be easier to forget." Without having to be asked, he picked up the clipboard next to Seward and drew a pencil from his jacket pocket. It was cylindrical, Seward noticed. Seward doubted that Mr. Wyatt had pressed a cylindrical pencil upon the unwilling guard; Mr. Urman always had a taste for novelty.

"Mr. Milz," Seward said. "Slight rust near the handle. Edge not fully honed." He returned the dagger to its cubbyhole.

"Will he get a beating for this?" Mr. Urman asked as he scribbled down the report.

"I hope not." In all likelihood, yes. The High Seeker seemed prepared to leap upon the dungeon workers for the slightest infraction these days.

"You know, I've been asking around about you," said Mr. Urman as he paused from his writing.

"Oh?" Seward braced himself. Mr. Urman's roots tapped deep, where gossip was concerned.

"They say that you saved the princess's life. Is that true?"

"It's part of the story." He had saved the princess's life. He had failed to do what he should have done. He sometimes wondered whether the Queen had offered to promote him as a reward for saving her daughter, or because she could not stand to see his face any longer after his failure to accomplish the more important task.

"Bloody blades!" The excitement in Mr. Urman's face sparked like electricity. "What are you doing down here, man? You could have asked any sort of reward for that. You could be a lord now—"

Seward had been about to reprimand Mr. Urman for his language – the moment that Mr. Urman picked up the ledger, he had placed himself back on duty – but instead he burst out laughing. "A lord?" he said to Mr. Urman. "What would I do as a lord? Spend my days graciously waving my hand at servants?"

Mr. Urman grinned. "Not a lord, then. But you could have asked to be keeper of a prison. Why did the Queen send you down here?"

"Because I requested that as my reward." Seward unlocked the cubbyhole holding Mr. Urman's dagger and whip. Both were in perfect order.

Mr. Urman was silent a moment before he said, in a changed voice, "You like it here, then."

"Yes. Don't you? You've been here for five years. That's longer than most guards stay."

Mr. Urman was silent so long that Seward stole a look at him. The junior guard was staring, not at the arms rack, but at the whipping post.

"Aye," Mr. Urman said finally, falling back on commoner dialect, as he sometimes did in moments of stress. "Aye, I do. It's not so bad here as it is in the lighted world. I wouldn't go back."

o—o—o

Seward wouldn't go back either, and not simply because he valued so highly the Code of Seeking and the High Seeker. Seward's ties to the lighted world had been cut too thoroughly for him to return.

That night, lying beside his wife, smelling her sweet breath and hearing the slight snuffles of his children in the nearby rooms, he remembered that final day in the lighted world.

He had left the lighted world – at least, as a full-time resident – on the same day that he acquired the peak of his fame. He had been the youngest member of the Queen's Guard then, so young that he had been delegated to the lesser duty of watching over the crowd rather than guarding the royal family directly when the Queen and her daughters came forward to accept the annual obeisance of a select group of commoners at the Commoners' Autumn Festival.

One commoner had been selected badly, as it turned out. Seward caught sight of him drawing his revolver in the bare few seconds before it was fired.

Seward had that much time to act. The assassin, cleverly, had chosen the moment when the royal trumpets were shouting the fanfare of the royal family's entrance. Nobody could have heard Seward's shout of warning. And the man was on a hillock at the other side of the crowd from Seward – too far away for Seward to reach the assassin in time. Seward had no gun; he was dressed only in his ceremonial uniform, with a sword at his side.

He took one second to assess the angle of the assassin's gun – the man wasn't aiming for the Queen, it appeared – and then Seward made a flying leap onto the platform where the royal family stood, disarmed with one swoop of his sword the rifle-armed guard who mistook him for an attacker, and placed his body in front of the princess.

The wrong princess. He had misjudged the angle of the gun. The assassin fired, and the Queen's heir fell dead to the ground.

They said afterwards that the assassin would have killed the younger girl too, if not for Seward's alertness. Maybe so. What kept Seward awake at night was the memory of the Queen's heir: the sweet, generous, loving girl who would have served as a noble Queen.

Her younger sister, now the heir to the throne of Yclau, was capricious, cranky, and overly stubborn. Had Seward changed the entire history of the world, in making the wrong decision about who to protect?

He turned over in bed, huddling against the warmth of his wife, and forced himself to fall asleep.

o—o—o
o—o—o

Sacrifice: The verb used most often in the Code of Seeking (other than variations on "to be"). All Seekers and guards are judged primarily by their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the prisoners. The fifth revision of the Code of Seeking includes an appendix that delves into the difficult question of when sacrifice by a Seeker or guard would actually be contradictory to the prisoner's best interests.

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