Chapter 1: Promotion
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
. . . 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.
Chapter 2: Protection
On Guard 2
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
Chapter 3: Searching
On Guard 3
The year 360, the seventh month. (The year 1881 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
Historians of Yclau's labor movement divide the movement into two periods: the "elite" period, when guilds were confined to artisans and other mid-class clients of aristocrats, at which time the guilds sought to preserve past traditions, and the "commoner" period, when labor power transferred into the hands of progressive-minded lower-class laborers – the most important of these guilds being of course the Commoners' Guild, founded in 359.
It has often been suggested, by careless historians who ought to know better, that the Eternal Dungeon was so violently touched by this revolution because its members belonged to the Guild of Prison Workers, one of the traditional-minded "elite" guilds. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The torturers and guards of Yclau's royal dungeon, being under the control of the Queen, were forbidden from joining any sort of guild. The basic social structure of the Eternal Dungeon was founded, not on guild principles, but on the principles of military structure. The High Seeker – as the head torturer came to be called – was conceived as being commander of an "army" of torturers and guards who could be "court-martialled" for disobedience to orders.
Once we understand that, much that appears murky about the events of 360 becomes immediately clear. Most of the senior Seekers and senior guards may have thought of themselves – if they thought about their place at all – as being akin to members of the elite guilds, preserving the past. But the junior Seekers and junior guards did not: they identified themselves with the disenfranchised commoners, forbidden from having any say in how the dungeon was run.
It was perhaps inevitable that such a situation would give rise to unrest. All that was needed, it seems, was for a handful of prison workers to begin to doubt the foundational principles of their work . . .
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
The training session was not held in its usual place, the entry hall. The Queen, in an apparent effort to convince the world that the Eternal Dungeon was up to date, had unexpectedly ordered renovations made to the dungeon. The entry hall was consequently crowded with laborers dragging in equipment and furnishings and boxes. As a result of this institutional chaos, the junior guards' training had been moved to a quieter spot.
Pausing at the doorway to the Seekers' common room, Barrett Boyd looked around for someone to sit next to. He could see at a glance that almost none of the other senior guards had accepted the High Seeker's invitation for them to attend the training. No doubt most were taking advantage of the extra free time they had been given, for Mr. Smith had ordered that, during this training period, the between-shifts dusk break be extended from two hours to three.
Barrett could see several day guards yawning into their fists, and he could not blame them. With a perverse adherence to tradition, the Eternal Dungeon maintained its centuries-old custom of determining shifts, not by where the hands stood on a clock, but by the daily leave-taking and homecoming of the dungeon's bats, which in turn was determined by the seasonally changing hours of sunset and sunrise. At this time of year, near midsummer, the day guards had a shift that was fully fourteen hours long, though in the winter their shift would accordingly narrow to six hours a day. Barrett was looking forward to the shorter hours he would enjoy as a night guard on summer duty, although he had heard that the night guards' long winter shifts came close to driving men mad. The High Seeker had rejected a petition a few years back to equalize the hours of the night and day shifts year-round, although Barrett understood that the decision had been a close call. He found himself wondering whether the High Seeker would even consider such a petition again, now that matters had changed in the dungeon.
The High Seeker had at least possessed enough tact to extend the dusk break into the day shift rather than the night shift. Although the dusk shift had officially begun, the sun remained above the horizon. Sunlight still flooded this room, the only one in the dungeon to have a window. The "window" consisted of a thick, semi-translucent stone in the ceiling that obscured sight of everything above except the occasional cloud shadow. Now the sky was cloudless, as Barrett knew from having spent the past week visiting his parents, who lived in the city surrounding the palace.
What with the upcoming training and his start at a new position, he had been aware that it was unlikely he would receive his usual monthly work break for some time, so he had asked and received permission to visit the lighted world in order to tell his parents of his change of position. He gathered that no other guards were being permitted to leave the dungeon during this tense period; the guards who did not already live in the outer dungeon had been crammed into whatever living space was available for them. He felt honored that Layle Smith apparently trusted him to hold his tongue during his visit to the city.
His visit had not been relaxing, though. His parents had grumbled without pause about the latest unrest caused by the Commoners' Guild and had appeared to blame him for the rise in crime in the city. "If those Seekers of yours didn't spend so much time arguing in courts that criminal commoners should be let free," his father had said, "we wouldn't have violent young men thronging our streets, causing trouble." And he had pointed at a newspaper photograph of the youthful founder of the Commoners' Guild, who had a deceptively mild expression on his face.
"So where shall we sit?"
Barrett was brought back to the present by Mr. Urman's cheerful question. He glanced over at the junior guard, who had evidently just come from the dining hall, for he was munching on carrots. He offered one to Barrett.
Barrett took it reluctantly. The last thing he wanted was to be forced to listen through the entire two hours to Mr. Urman's no doubt acid commentary on what was taking place, but given that he had just accepted a position that Mr. Urman had been vying for, he could hardly reject this friendly overture. He looked again at the guards sitting on the benches; with relief, he caught sight of a senior guard standing near the front, next to the wall. "Let's ask Mr. Sobel where he plans to sit," he replied.
Mr. Urman shrugged, but followed Barrett as he squeezed his way through the crowd. The tables and chairs that normally littered the room had been removed, replaced by benches brought in from the entry hall. They had been placed in neat, orderly lines, as though the guards were schoolboys. There was even a schoolmasters' stand near the front of the common room, Barrett noticed as they came closer to that area. Mr. Smith was leaning against the solid stand of wood as he spoke with a Seeker whose back was turned, so that Barrett could not immediately recognize who the man was.
The benches were filling fast. Some of the younger guards, recognizing that there would be a shortage of seats, had begun to line up against the walls. Barrett squeezed his way past them with murmured apologies. Mr. Urman squeezed his way past them with rude comments about how much room they took up. It was hard to tell whether the comments were intended as jokes, and it was evident that several of the guards did not have the patience to enquire, for Barrett heard dark mutterings in the wake of their progress. Only the fact that Mr. Urman was now the High Seeker's junior night guard saved him from returned rudeness, Barrett guessed.
Not for the first time, Barrett reflected that working under a strong Seeker had its advantages for a guard, and he momentarily wondered whether he was making a mistake in transferring into service under Mr. Taylor. True, Elsdon Taylor was said to be creative in how he broke his prisoners, but he was also gentle and mild-mannered. Barrett frowned, and then shook his head clear of such thoughts as he reached Mr. Sobel, who was standing at the front of the crowd, along the wall to the right of the schoolmasters' stand.
The common room was rectangular and exceedingly plain in design, like all the rooms and cells in the Eternal Dungeon. The walls were white-washed cement blocks, broken only by the single door and by air ducts. A fat, iron stove in the middle of the room had a pipe leading up to the ceiling, but the stove was rarely used to heat the room. Near the door, lining one wall, was a bar counter; with seats short, several of the junior guards had seated themselves upon the counter.
The front half of the room was empty except for the sunlight and the schoolmasters' stand. Layle Smith had shifted his position so that his back was to the crowd; the Seeker he spoke with was now facing the guards. It was always difficult to recognize a Seeker from his eyes alone – that was part of the point of the hoods, after all – but Barrett had worked long enough in the dungeon that he could tell that the other Seeker here was Mr. Ferris.
That was an interesting turn of events. Switching his attention to Mr. Sobel, Barrett saw that the older guard was not watching the High Seeker, as he was accustomed to do when the two men were in the same location, but instead was scanning with his eyes the crowded benches where the day and night guards sought to make room for newcomers.
"What are you doing here?" Barrett asked. "You must know everything that's going to be said in this place."
"I imagine that you do as well," Mr. Sobel replied. "We might learn something new."
He did not look Barrett's way as he spoke; his gaze was moving ceaselessly over the crowd.
Barrett turned his eyes. Very few seats were left now. "Where shall we sit?" he asked.
"I'm standing." Still Mr. Sobel did not move his gaze from the crowd, though his eyes had slowed, as though he were examining particular aspects of the scene before him.
Barrett was silent a moment before saying, "I'll join you."
He had forgotten all about Mr. Urman, standing behind him, and was only brought back to remembrance of the other guard's presence by Mr. Urman's loud sigh. "You two are idiots," the junior guard said. "If we stand here, the High Seeker is likely to make us demonstration models for whatever torture devices he plans to show off."
Barrett guessed that Mr. Urman was irritated at being ignored, but even so, a junior guard simply did not address two senior guards as idiots. Barrett waited to see how Mr. Sobel would respond to this breach of duty, but the older guard seemed too preoccupied to notice. Barrett decided that he would be too preoccupied to notice as well. After a couple of minutes, he looked round and saw that Mr. Urman had departed; the junior guard was now sitting on the back bench, glaring at nothing in particular.
Barrett felt a stab of guilt at his own rudeness, and then another stab of guilt at not having reprimanded Mr. Urman. As a senior guard, that was his duty as much as Mr. Sobel's, and Mr. Sobel was clearly too preoccupied at the moment to deal with a troublesome junior guard.
Under the light chatter of the waiting audience, Barrett murmured to Mr. Sobel, "Are you expecting trouble?"
"Not necessarily." Mr. Sobel's voice was equally quiet. Whether he would have said anything more, Barrett could not know, for at that moment, Mr. Sobel's attention suddenly snapped toward the back of the room.
Barrett followed his gaze. A man in laborers' clothing stood at the doorway to the common room. He was staring around the room, appearing to search for something. A couple of guards brushed past him in the doorway, ignoring him. Barrett glanced over at Mr. Sobel to see what he thought of this intruder.
Mr. Sobel was no longer standing next to him. He was directly in front of the schoolmasters' stand now, talking with Mr. Crofford, who, having already taken his seat at the foremost bench, looked somewhat overwhelmed at being singled out for conversation by the senior-most guard in the dungeon. Mr. Sobel nodded at something Mr. Crofford said as he slid his hands into his jacket pockets.
Barrett was amused. Guards did not rest their hands in their pockets, least of all well-trained guards like Mr. Sobel. Rarely did Mr. Sobel ever slip in his duties. It was a good thing Mr. Urman was not here to notice, Barrett thought, or Mr. Sobel would endure his ragging for months to come.
Barrett was about to turn his attention back to the laborer when he noticed something important, something he ought to have seen right away, for his own training should have ensured that he noticed such details.
Mr. Sobel was no longer carrying his whip.
Barrett's gaze flew to the High Seeker. Mr. Smith was standing in the same position as he had been before, with his back to the schoolmasters' stand as he spoke with Mr. Ferris. But as Barrett watched, Mr. Smith's arm snaked back to the stand, twisting in an improbably difficult position, and pulled something off the stand. Mr. Ferris, who had been standing very still, nodded to whatever the High Seeker had said and stepped aside, well out of Mr. Smith's line of sight.
Not out of his line of sight, Barrett thought. Out of the line of fire.
All was clear now. A laborer, standing where he should not be, searching for someone. Mr. Sobel, blocking the High Seeker from the laborer's sight and placing his hand in his pocket. Mr. Smith, taking Mr. Sobel's whip. No Seeker ever touched a weapon, except when a life was at stake.
Barrett's heart was pounding so hard now that he found it difficult to breathe. The laborer must have a gun, he thought. If he did not, then there would be no reason for Mr. Sobel to try to hide the High Seeker's location. The guard would have moved forward by now to capture the laborer. Indeed, the High Seeker himself might have moved forward, using his deadly skill with the whip. Instead, both men were frozen, unable to take action.
Mr. Sobel had a handgun in his pocket; of that much, Barrett could be sure. By tradition, dungeon guards were not normally permitted to carry guns, since any shooting in the confined spaces of the Eternal Dungeon could easily result in ricocheting bullets. Whips and daggers were considered far safer weapons with which to subdue the unarmed prisoners. However, Mr. Sobel, as senior-most guard to the High Seeker, had a higher responsibility than other guards, and he had the appropriate training for the added responsibility.
But if Mr. Sobel started a gunfight in this crowd, there was too great a chance that someone besides the laborer would die. All that the guard could do was continue to block the laborer's line of fire and hope that, if anyone was shot, it was himself rather than the High Seeker.
Barrett did not know he had moved until he heard another guard complain loudly at having his feet trodden upon. Barrett paid no attention; his eyes were focussed on the laborer, whose gaze had narrowed as he continued to search the room. Nobody else had taken notice of him. He looked much like the laborers who were presently renovating the dungeon, and though the Seekers' common room was not being renovated, nobody would think twice about the man's presence here. Which, Barrett thought bitterly, would be precisely why he chose those clothes.
He wasted no time in speculating as to the man's motives. All Seekers had enemies; it was in the nature of their work, which required them to obtain evidence that condemned men to death. This laborer – if he truly was a laborer – might be the brother or son of a former prisoner of the High Seeker, a prisoner whose ashes now lay in the crematorium. Mr. Sobel, most likely, had recognized the resemblance and drawn the proper conclusion in his quick-minded manner. What mattered was not why the laborer was trying to kill the High Seeker, but whether he would succeed.
As Barrett squirmed his way to the back of the room, he glanced at the crowd to see who, besides Mr. Sobel, was in the laborer's line of fire. As he did so, he noticed that Mr. Urman was now sitting on the edge of his bench, watching him expectantly. Barrett hesitated only momentarily; then he beckoned with his chin.
Mr. Urman promptly placed his dagger on his seat to mark his place and made his way over to Barrett. Barrett did not let himself worry about the loss of the blade; daggers would be of no use in this situation. He wasn't even sure a whip would be, though he was busy uncoiling the one he always carried at his left hip. A guard he was passing eyed him curiously, but did not quiz Barrett as to his purpose.
Neither did Mr. Urman when he arrived, for which Barrett was grateful. He simply followed Barrett's gaze over to the laborer and said in a low voice, "Shall I arrest him?"
Barrett shook his head. "He may be weaponed," he responded in an equally low voice. "I'm going to try to get him into the corridor. If I succeed, bolt the door behind us." He hesitated before adding, "Stand away from the door when you're done. He may have a gun."
Mr. Urman's eyes widened, but he simply nodded. Barrett felt a small measure of relief at that. There was a reason, he reminded himself, that Mr. Urman had kept his position as junior guard for five years. The younger guard had often shown himself to be competent when emergencies arose.
They had reached the area between the benches and the back wall now. The man standing under the door lintel still hadn't noticed them. His brow was puckered, either with puzzlement or with anger. Barrett took a swift look toward the front of the room, but nothing had changed there. Mr. Sobel – several inches taller than the High Seeker and considerably more broad-shouldered – was still blocking the killer's view of the High Seeker. Mr. Smith remained motionless. Barrett turned his attention back to his own problem. He began to edge his way along the wall in which the door was set.
If he simply approached the gunman directly, the man would see him coming, and he would shoot Barrett. Guards were expected to make such a sacrifice if it was needed to save the life of a Seeker, but the assassin, if he panicked, might began firing randomly into the crowd – and he might be carrying a six-shot revolver. Six deaths would be five too many. Barrett needed to get the intruder back into the hallway, where it was more likely that, if anyone died, Barrett alone would be the victim.
The man was standing just a couple of inches outside the frame of the doorway. His head was turned away now to look toward the bar counter that the young guards were sitting upon. Barrett wondered whether he was considering using that as a place from which to make his shots. The thick counter would shield him from any answering gunfire.
The man took a step in the direction of the bar. Barrett, who already had his arm pulled back, flung his lash forward in the direction of the door.
Over the years, he had developed power in his arm from giving prisoners heavy beatings, and with any luck he would have sliced the man open with his whip. Luck was not with him. At the very moment he began to swing, the killer turned his head in the direction of Barrett. With quick reflexes, the man jerked his body back through the doorway, and the lash landed upon the doorway itself, jarring Barrett's arm.
He did not wait to see whether the killer would re-emerge through the doorway; nor did he look round to see the expressions of the onlookers, though he had noticed the sudden silence. He charged through the door. Mr. Urman, nearly as quick, had the door closed behind him, with the bar scraping into place, by the time Barrett skidded to a halt in the corridor.
He half expected to meet a bullet or a knife. But his lashing had apparently been more effective than he had thought; the killer had stumbled back several yards. Too many yards; he was out of range of Barrett's whip now. Barrett was still trying to figure out what to do next when the man began to fumble inside his jacket.
Three seconds were all that Barrett had in which to think. Thanks to his training, those three seconds were enough. He knew that if he ran straight forward, not deviating from his path, he would have time enough to come within whip range of the assassin, and he might be able to disarm the man with his whip.
But if Barrett should miss, and the man's pistol was powerful enough, the bullet would travel through him, and through the door, and through anyone close to that door. Mr. Urman or one of the other junior guards might die – perhaps even Mr. Sobel, if he had run forward to help.
Barrett did not hesitate. He flung himself against the left wall of the corridor, far enough down the corridor that any bullet that passed through him would enter, not the common room, but one of plumbing rooms. Nothing would die now except himself and perhaps a water pipe or two.
The man's hand emerged from the jacket. The hand was shaking. It held a white handkerchief, which the man dabbed against his face and neck, apparently soaking up the sweat there. "What – what did you do that for?" he asked in a plaintive voice.
There is nothing worse, Barrett reflected during the next few minutes, than to think yourself a principal player in a tragedy, only to discover that you are the buffoon in a farce. The fact that Mr. Sobel had made the same error offered no comfort. Barrett was the one who had made the attack; he was the one whom the other guards would be ragging for weeks to come.
He heard the man out, and then hailed down a servant who was emerging with a push-cart from the shared living quarters of Mr. Chapman and Mistress Birdesmonde. She had just finished collecting the contents of the Seekers' chamber-pots, and so she readily agreed to escort the laborer to the outer dungeon.
"She'll explain to you how to travel to the dining hall without journeying past the Seekers' living cells," Barrett told the laborer. "You might want to inform your fellow workers of this path, so that they won't make the same error."
The High Seeker would have delivered such a statement in a dangerously dark voice, while fingering his whip. Fortunately, no such measure was needed here; the laborer's face was still pasty white after his terrifying encounter with a guard from the infamous Eternal Dungeon. His hands shook as the servant guided him away.
Barrett was shaking too, and the sweat on his skin was as slick as the lubricating oil of lovemaking liquid. He hoped the servant hadn't noticed. He spent a moment near the door to the common room, trying to steady his breath. It was hardly the first time he had risked his life for the sake of a Seeker or a prisoner or another guard, but always before he had been able to comfort himself with knowledge of a life saved. Now he simply felt stupid on top of his continued illness at the thought of what might have happened, had this been the tragedy he had imagined.
He rapped at the door – a coded rap, known by all guards. The bar scraped, and the door opened a crack. Mr. Urman cautiously looked past him, and then opened the door wide enough for Barrett to slide in.
The common room, he saw to his amazement, had changed little since he had left it. Junior guards and a handful of senior guards were chatting with one another lightly, as though they were used to having a guard use his whip in this room and charge out the door. A couple of guards sitting on the benches glanced over their shoulders and smirked at Barrett.
Barrett turned his attention back to Mr. Urman, who was assuming an expression of innocence. Barrett's eyes narrowed. "What did you tell them?"
Mr. Urman raised his eyebrows. When he spoke, it was in a voice loud enough to be heard by the smirking guards. "I told them the truth, of course – that I'd fooled you into thinking that a common laborer was a deadly assassin, intent on killing the High Seeker."
For a long moment, Barrett contemplated various manners in which he could employ the antique instruments of torture on the walls of the rack room. Then he allowed himself to chuckle. Mr. Urman grinned. He was well known for his practical jokes against fellow guards, and his story would be easily believed. Thanks to Mr. Urman's tale, Barrett decided, the ragging he would receive from the other guards would be marginally better than the jokes he would have had to endure if anyone had known the truth.
Mr. Urman glanced at the nearby guards, who had switched their attention back to their own conversations, since it was clear that Barrett would take Mr. Urman's joke with good grace. Turning back to Barrett, Mr. Urman asked in a low voice, "So what did happen?"
Barrett's smile turned wry. "I was fooled into thinking a common laborer was a deadly assassin." As Mr. Urman laughed, Barrett added, "He's helping to renovate the furnace in the corridor next to the Seekers' living cells. Thirsty work, so he asked where the Seekers drink their beer. Some fool directed him here."
Mr. Urman whistled. "If that fool was a guard, I'll wager his back will be bare to Mr. Sobel's whip by the end of the day."
"Yes." Barrett's mind wandered away from the conversation; matters of discipline were Mr. Sobel's concern, not his own. The High Seeker's senior-most guard, he noticed, had retrieved his whip and returned to his place against the wall, as though he had never left it. As for Mr. Smith, he was back in conversation with Mr. Ferris, leaning against the schoolmasters' stand with his body as relaxed as though he were directing the torture of a prisoner. He had probably enjoyed watching the attack, Barrett thought cynically.
"All the junior guards are here," said Mr. Urman. "I counted them while you were out there."
"Mm." Barrett fished his chain of keys out of his pocket and handed them to Mr. Urman. "Best lock the door, then. If any senior guards arrive late, they can use their keys to get in." His eye remained on Mr. Sobel, who still had not turned his gaze away from the crowd, despite the lack of danger. Barrett frowned.
"Lock it yourself." Mr. Urman thrust the keys back into his hand. "I'm not your maid."
By the time Barrett took notice of what Mr. Urman had said, the other guard was already returning to his seat – treading on several people's feet again in the process, judging from the muffled curses coming in that direction. Barrett hesitated. Disobeying the orders of a senior guard was a flogging matter; at the very least, he ought to reprimand Mr. Urman, to prevent his insolence from growing into a more serious case than it already was.
Barrett sighed as he turned to lock the door. He had had enough troubles already today; if the matter grew worse, no doubt Mr. Sobel would take action. Right now, Barrett just wanted to get through this training session and his subsequent duty shift so that he could return to his room and put his mind to leisure activities in an effort to forget his stupidity.
Mr. Sobel, as he might have anticipated, greeted his return with a discreet murmur of thanks for his assistance. Barrett glanced over at the High Seeker and discovered, with a jump of the heart, that Mr. Smith was watching him. For a moment, Mr. Smith held his gaze; then the High Seeker gave a brief nod, barely perceptible, before turning his attention to whatever it was he was reading upon his stand.
Barrett's heart thundered like hooves. The High Seeker was notorious for rarely offering commentary on the actions of the Seekers and guards who were under his care. If his men did poorly, they would be punished; if they did well, the High Seeker treated this as no more than what he would have expected of them. For Mr. Smith to have given a brief nod in acknowledgment of what Barrett had done was the equivalent of him handing out the Queen's commendation for outstanding service.
The mixture of fear and embarrassment Barrett had felt before drained away, leaving him with a more solid feeling, like a foundation block. Glancing over at Mr. Sobel, he saw that the other guard was watching him. In a low voice that did not carry to the other men standing near them, Barrett said, "Sometimes I remember why I became a guard here."
Mr. Sobel smiled but said nothing; he had returned to running his eye over the crowd, even though he must have noticed that Barrett had locked the door against further intruders. Barrett looked over the men as well, the solid feeling increasing inside him. All these men, united in their love of the Code, were willing to sacrifice their lives if needed to uphold the Code. Sometimes he forgot that – sometimes he began to think of guard duty in the Eternal Dungeon as being like guard duty anywhere else. That simple acknowledgment by the High Seeker of what he had done was enough to remind him of what Mr. Urman had said the other day: The Eternal Dungeon was not like the lesser prisons. In the lesser prisons, he would have had praise heaped upon him for risking his life. Here his action was taken for granted. No man who would think twice about sacrificing himself to uphold the Code was permitted to work in the Eternal Dungeon.
"Gentlemen." The voice was the High Seeker's, cutting through the conversation as cleanly as a surgeon's knife parting flesh. There was immediate silence, other than a rustle as various guards settled firmly into their seats. Barrett turned his head in time to see Mr. Smith place a small, black, familiar volume onto the schoolmasters' stand.
"We will begin with the prayer for dedication to duty," the High Seeker said. "Mr. Crofford, will you be so kind as to guide the responses?"
Flushed with pleasure at receiving this privilege, Mr. Crofford hurried toward the stand as the High Seeker stepped back. Around the room, guards exchanged glances with guards. One junior guard who had served under Barrett a few years earlier caught his eye, but Barrett shook his head slightly. He had no more idea than the other men what Layle Smith had in mind. Though the Code of Seeking had always included prayers as a reminder of the essentially religious goals of the Seekers' work, those prayers were usually only recited at funerals or in private devotions. He could not remember any time during his nine years as a guard in this dungeon that the High Seeker had required their recitation at a general meeting.
"O Immortal Ones, who have sacrificed renewal of life and who dwell in the death of immortality . . ."
Many of the guards were now inscribing circles of rebirth upon their foreheads with their thumbs. Barrett followed their example, reflecting to himself that Mr. Smith could not have chosen a less cheerful prayer for recital. The Immortal Ones – the souls who had chosen to remain in afterdeath for eternity rather than be reborn into mortal life – were never a pleasant topic to dwell on. Why anyone would choose unchanging eternity rather than the sorrows and joys of life was a question that exercised theologians in every generation. Barrett could certainly think of no reason why Mr. Smith, with his patent thirst to bring prisoners to rebirth, should want to dwell on the prisoners who, refusing to acknowledge their faults, went to their deaths unrepentant and remained trapped in afterdeath.
". . . grant that, as once you gave the knife of death to the soul who was first reborn, so too we may have the courage to guide our prisoners into death. . . ." Mr. Crofford's voice wavered; he had been a guard long enough that those words were more than formality. The other guards quickly covered his hesitation by reciting tonelessly the response: "As we too shall be guided to our death, and may hope for our rebirth."
Barrett glanced over at the High Seeker. All around the room, men were making the sign of rebirth, and all around the room, men were either staring straight ahead, as a brave man stares unflinching at the death that will bring him to rebirth, or they were staring upward toward the world of afterdeath, no doubt hoping that their time there would be brief. The High Seeker, though, was staring at the ground, and his hands were flat at his side, as though he had never known the sign of rebirth.
Perhaps, Barrett thought, there was a simpler reason for Mr. Smith's choice of prayer: It was the only prayer in the Code that was addressed to other beings. Indeed, Yclau theologians were uncertain whether most of their queendom's prayers could properly be called prayers at all, while foreign theologians were often uncharitable enough to claim that the Yclau religion was no religion, since it did not include belief in the gods. No doubt, for a man like Layle Smith, who had been raised to believe in the existence of gods above and below, it was easier to choose a prayer which intimated that something other than mortal beings existed in the world.
". . . that once reborn, our prisoners may renew their lives, gaining strength from what they have suffered in the past . . ." Mr. Crofford's voice had grown more confident; he was still inexperienced enough a guard that he could speak the word "suffer" without full understanding of what that meant. One session in the rack room, Barrett thought with a twist of the mouth, would be enough to make the younger guard question whether any renewal of life was worth the suffering experienced by some prisoners in the Eternal Dungeon. Barrett could not say that he had ever fully answered that question himself.
". . . that our own sacrifices may be used to bring healing to the prisoners here . . ."
Much more to the point; but Barrett's contemplation of the most beautiful image the Code of Seeking had to offer – the image of a torturer suffering for his prisoners – was interrupted by a squeak of the hinges.
A few guards in the back rows looked over their shoulders. Barrett stared too, wondering which senior guard was so brave – or so unwise – as to enter a room where the High Seeker had already begun a meeting.
No guard entered; it was a Seeker, too far away for Barrett to immediately identify him. Barrett glanced quickly at the High Seeker, but Mr. Smith was so absorbed in the prayer – or pretending to be absorbed – that he failed to take note of the late arrival.
Barrett looked back at the new arrival. He seemed in no hurry to dispose any of the guards of their seats, which puzzled Barrett a moment until the Seeker, glancing around the room, paused his search long enough to raise a hand of greeting at Barrett.
Ah. Barrett gave him a military salute, there being no regulation in the Code to guide a guard in how to greet his Seeker from across the room. At that moment, as Mr. Crofford was stumbling through the final words of the prayer – a dreadful promise of the eternal life that awaited any Seeker or guard who failed to obey the Code – Mr. Urman suddenly rose from his seat, causing a number of anguished yelps from his neighbors as he trod his way over their toes and hurried toward Barrett.
This left an open seat. Mr. Taylor engaged in a brief dispute with a senior guard over who should take precedence – each man encouraging the other to sit down – before he quietly claimed the seat, treading on no one's toes in the process. Barrett, following the gestures of the dispute, found himself frowning. Politeness in a Seeker he valued, of course, but he wanted a Seeker who was capable of taking leadership. How much of the submission that Mr. Taylor was rumored to show in the bedroom with Layle Smith did he carry into the breaking cells? Was Barrett giving up a steady but unimaginative Seeker in place of a creative but weak one?
Mr. Urman had reached his side now. "Can't see a bloody thing back there," the junior guard grumbled as Mr. Crofford settled back into his seat. The guards around the room shifted minutely on the benches in the aftermath of the prayers.
"Half a day's pay for cursing on duty, Mr. Urman." Mr. Sobel's voice could barely be heard amidst the guards' whispers as the High Seeker stepped toward the stand. Mr. Sobel's eyes were fixed on the doorway, though he had surely seen Mr. Taylor relock it after he entered.
"You—" Mr. Urman wisely cut off the rest of his protest as Mr. Smith reached the stand and turned to look at the guards.
As was always the case, the High Seeker waited until the rustles and whispers had died down, and then waited a long moment more, until all eyes were upon him. Then he said, "You are a prisoner. You are being abused by your Seeker in a heinous fashion, in contradiction to the Code. Who is your protector?"
The guards exchanged looks. None, it seemed, were eager to voice their opinion and chance earning the High Seeker's scorn. Finally a junior guard said, "The healer, sir. He— That is, she must give approval to all torture that the prisoners undergo, and if she learns that the prisoner's body has been abused, she must report that fact to the Codifier."
"How would she know that a prisoner was being abused, if no one notified her of that fact?" Mr. Smith responded. "And what if the abuse was of mind, not of body? Come, gentlemen, your wits are better than that."
The guard who had responded flinched visibly at this reprimand. The High Seeker's tone had indeed been cutting; Barrett suspected that this had something to do with the pronoun "she" that Mr. Smith had been forced to voice. There was another, longer silence, as the High Seeker patiently waited, like a murderer in the shadows. Finally one of the braver junior guards said, "The Codifier, sir. He inspects the prisoners periodically."
"Better," said Mr. Smith, and then, waiting until the very moment that the guard emitted a sigh of relief, "but not good enough. The Codifier is only here during the daytime, and his inspections, as you say, are only periodic. What if the prisoner should be abused at night, or at some other time when the Codifier was unaware? For that matter, what is to save the Codifier from being in league with the Seeker? He has lived many years in this dungeon, after all, and no man can be said to be totally immune from corruption—"
"The magistrates, sir!" The junior guard who was sure he had the answer was so eager to speak that he overrode the end of Mr. Smith's sentence. "You said it at the meeting the other day: Prisoners can appeal to the magistrates, and if their appeal is ignored, they can offer their plea to the Queen, and even the Queen's ruling can be overturned if the people say—"
"And how," said the High Seeker, his voice now a knife flaying flesh, "is the prisoner to get word to the magistrates, much less to the Queen or her people? He is imprisoned; the Codifier is in conspiracy with the Seeker; the only other people who visit him are his guards. Gentlemen, who is the prisoner's protector?"
As one or two of the senior guards shook their heads at the younger men's inability to answer so obvious a question, Barrett carefully watched the junior guards, taking note of who the most courageous of the junior guards were. Those were the ones who were opening their mouths to reply.
Mr. Phelps finally said, with a voice that emerged in something hardly better than a hushed whisper, "The prisoner's senior-most guard?"
The High Seeker said nothing. He simply waited, his gaze fixed on the speaker.
Mr. Phelps, wilting somewhat, answered his own question. "No, it couldn't be him. He could be in league with the Seeker too."
"Indeed, since senior guards often work for many years alongside their Seekers," Mr. Smith replied. "Even in cases where the senior guard does not intend harm, his close alliance with the Seeker may blind him to abuses the Seeker commits." His gaze flicked, ever so quickly, toward Mr. Sobel, and then away again. He leaned forward against the stand. "Gentlemen, there is not a man among you who should not know the answer to this question; it is written plainly in the Code of Seeking. . . . Mr. Crofford, you have been silent, and I suspect that is out of modesty, for I believe that you know the answer to this question, since you came close at one time to seeing this process put in place – though thankfully, your Seeker, who had intended no harm, reported himself to the Codifier. Who is the prisoner's protector, Mr. Crofford?"
"Myself, sir." Mr. Crofford's voice was quiet.
"Yes. Yourself." The High Seeker's raised his eyes, but he did not raise his voice, which had grown soft. "Gentlemen, the prisoner's greatest hope does not lie in the healer or the Codifier or the senior guards or even in myself. His greatest hope lies in you. You are the members of the inner dungeon who have dwelt here the shortest amount of time; you are most likely, out of all the members of the inner dungeon, to have the integrity to defy authority when the Code requires it to be defied. Mr. Phelps, with that matter clear in your mind, can you tell me what would happen if a prisoner under your care was abused by his Seeker?"
Mr. Phelps, who shared the looks of chagrin that had spread over the faces of most of the junior guards, said in a subdued manner, "I would report the matter directly to the Codifier, sir. If the Codifier failed to heed my warning, then my duty would require that I leave the dungeon and alert one of the Queen's magistrates."
"And the chances that a magistrate you chose at random was in league with the rest of us would be extremely small. Yes." The High Seeker raised his voice finally. "Gentlemen, you are the prisoner's shield. You are his greatest hope against abuse, assault, violation, oppression. You must . . . not . . . fail him."
Barrett glanced at Mr. Urman. There was no trace of his usual mockery or impatience in his expression. Everyone at the dungeon knew that Mr. Urman, like Mr. Crofford, had come close to being forced to exercise that power over his Seeker on one occasion, though in that case also, the Seeker who had committed the abuse – Layle Smith – had turned himself over to the Codifier for punishment.
Barrett could only imagine the sort of courage it would have taken to defy the High Seeker's wishes. Yet judging from Mr. Urman's expression, he had that courage.
Barrett found his gaze wandering over to Elsdon Taylor. He discovered that Mr. Taylor, whose line of sight did not permit him to look directly at Mr. Phelps, already had his head pointed in Barrett's expression. Barrett gave him a rueful smile. Despite what the High Seeker had said about the corruptibility of senior guards, Barrett knew that it was the duty of every guard here, from Mr. Sobel on down, to intervene if a prisoner was abused by his Seeker. It would be Barrett's duty, if Mr. Taylor unduly harmed his prisoner.
It seemed unlikely that would happen. True, Elsdon Taylor had originally arrived at the dungeon under arrest for a crime he had committed, but he had been barely eighteen at the time, and he had shown no tendencies in the five years since then toward violence or even due force. Frowning as he turned his attention back to the High Seeker, Barrett wondered again whether he had chosen a Seeker who was too gentle at his work.
"Some of you worked in the lesser prisons before you came here," Mr. Smith said, breaking into Barrett's thoughts. "The rest of you worked at other types of employment – or arrived here immediately after your school years." His head, perhaps not by coincidence, turned in the direction of Mr. Taylor at that moment. "Even those of you who have worked at other Yclau prisons, however, may not be aware of the extent to which the Code of Seeking has shaped the behavior of guards in the lesser prisons. Nobody who has worked only at Yclau prisons knows what it is like to be in a place of imprisonment where a code of ethics is entirely unknown."
"Bloody blades," muttered Mr. Urman, too low for his oath to reach Mr. Sobel's ears. "I don't want to hear what's coming next."
His sentiment matched Barrett's . . . and, to judge from the restlessness of the audience, everyone else's in the room. The Eternal Dungeon had managed to survive the news that their High Seeker was a former torturer of the Hidden Dungeon, only because Mr. Smith had been kind enough to spare them the details of what he had done there. Mr. Taylor, perhaps, knew what deeds Layle Smith had committed in the past; if nothing else, the junior Seeker had been a prisoner in the Hidden Dungeon for a brief period. The rest of the Eternal Dungeon would sooner not know.
"Are there any questions at this point?"
Without warning, a smile appeared in the High Seeker's voice. Apparently he could guess quite well what his audience was dreading to hear and was amused by their response. Mr. Urman muttered something that sounded like, "Bloody sadist," but he kept his voice so quiet as to be indistinguishable this time.
Mr. Smith's voice returned to sobriety as he said, "Because of this, I have asked Mr. Ferris to speak to us here. He was arrested in Vovim thirty-seven years ago, shortly before the Intermittent Peace Accord, and spent time in a prison in east Vovim. Although you may find this hard to believe before his tale is over, east Vovimian prisons are the most advanced prisons of that kingdom, since they lie close to the Yclau border and have been influenced by conditions in this queendom. Prisoners in east Vovim are kept in relative warmth during the winter; their cells are fairly sanitary and vermin-free; the prisoners are permitted a period of exercise each day in order to keep up their strength. Other than the Hidden Dungeon under its recent High Master, you will find no prison in Vovim where prisoners are better treated than they are in prisons like the one Mr. Ferris was held captive in. Mr. Ferris's prison therefore represents the heights of civilization that can be achieved without the Code of Seeking or another ethical code like it. Mr. Ferris?" The High Seeker stepped back from the schoolmasters' stand.
Mr. Ferris came forward. He was a tall man, taller than the High Seeker, with hands that had the sunken skin and pronounced veins of age. His voice was vigorous, though, as he said, "The High Seeker and I don't see eye to eye on everything. I want you all to understand that. I think he's taken the wrong course of action in the present crisis. Seekers aren't meant to be puppets on a string, rigidly following every jot and tittle of the Code. To my mind, the Code's spirit is what is meant to guide us, and sometimes that means the letter of the Code must be broken. That's always been true in this dungeon, for as long as I can remember; the High Seeker is going against tradition by demanding that Seekers set aside their best judgment on how to handle particular prisoners. —Nonetheless," he added, cutting into the whispers that had begun, "I think I understand better than anyone else here at the dungeon what he fears . . . with the possible exception of one other man." He nodded in the direction of Mr. Taylor.
Elsdon Taylor made no gesture in reply. He was sitting very quietly, not joining into the whispered discussions raging on either side of him. He was watching, not Mr. Ferris, but Mr. Smith.
"I'll be brief about this," said Mr. Ferris. "Your gorges would rise if I made it a lengthy tale. I was arrested in Vovim in the spring of 323, on charges of being a spy. I was not a soldier; I don't know whether my fate would have been better or worse than a soldier's would have been. I was simply a mid-class tradesman, visiting Vovim on a business matter at a time when the King there – the father of today's King – had promised that no foreign visitors would undergo molestation, despite the continued unrest between our two nations.
"I was rounded up, along with every other Yclau citizen in that town, and placed in the town's prison. This was in the years before Vovim's royal dungeon flitted from prison to prison, keeping its activities hidden from the public eye; ours was just an ordinary prison, no different than the rest. None of the guards there struck me as being in any way out of the ordinary, so I expected decent treatment. Perhaps I received it. My mistake was in thinking the decency would match Yclau standards.
"Some of the men and women and young folks had been wounded during their arrests. We asked for medical supplies to care for them. The guards laughed at us. They were not mocking us, I came to realize; they were simply unable to hold back their laughter at so absurd a request.
"We cared for the wounded as best we could. We were all in one cell, and our surroundings were not uncomfortable. Indeed, the pallets we were given to sleep on were far softer than those on the bed-shelves in the Eternal Dungeon, and certainly more comfortable than the straw-strewn floors that serve as beds in Yclau's lesser prisons. Once a day we were taken to a courtyard within the prison and allowed to walk in circles. We were given water and food, and our night buckets were removed daily. To that extent, it was as well-run a prison as I have ever visited.
"But that was the full degree of mercy we received. Guards entered our cells every few hours, sometimes to see whether our daily needs had been met, sometimes to beat a prisoner bloody. We never could be entirely sure which motive would bring a guard into our cell, though over time we learned to be wary of certain guards.
"Periodically, men and women and young folk were taken from our cells for questioning. We could tell from their screams how they were being questioned. When I asked a guard whether those prisoners would have the opportunity to defend themselves at their trials, he looked at me as though I were some strange, alien creature that had wandered up from the depths of the sea. Out of pity, I think, he carefully explained matters to me: There would be no trials. The prisoners would be questioned under torture until they confessed to their crimes, and then they would be executed.
"I asked him whether there were no alternatives for any of us prisoners. He looked me up and down and said, Yes, an alternative existed, but he doubted I would like it.
"The next day – perhaps by chance, perhaps not – a group of guards came into our cell and began choosing the prisoners they wanted to serve them in their beds. Mainly it was the young that were chosen: youths and maidens. The guard I had spoken to on the previous day chose me.
"I allowed him to take me."
Mr. Ferris paused at this point. The whispering had stopped, but a number of the guards were now exchanging looks with one another. When it became apparent that nobody was prepared to speak, Mr. Ferris continued.
"Perhaps I might have done otherwise if the guard had not phrased his order in such a manner as to make clear that he was offering me a choice. He was a man of honor, after his own fashion; he was not a rapist by nature. He was offering me his protection, under the conditions that this prison's tradition permitted. I suspected – and as it turned out, I was right – that the only prisoners left alive at the end of all this would be those who had served the guards in their beds. So I entered into his service."
Mr. Ferris shrugged. His voice was phlegmatic as he said, "I have undergone worse tasks in my life. His needs were simple. He had a certain wariness about him that I eventually realized came from the fact that, in Vovim, to ask another man to sleep with you is a killing matter. He was a man who desired other men; short of taking up a life of crime, this was the only fashion in which he could satisfy his desires. Nonetheless, he felt ashamed of himself for what he required of his prisoners.
"Once I had learned that, matters went better between us. I was able to assure him that – having visited nations where such acts were lawful – I had slept with men since my coming of age and did not consider the mere act of sleeping with another man to be a stain upon my honor. Though surprised by this, he took this as his cue to make me his confidant. He was unhappy with the way in which matters were run in the prison, he told me, but he did not know of any alternative. As far as he knew, every prison in the world was run like this one.
"From him, and through my own eyes, I witnessed what it means to be a prisoner in Vovim. His restraint with me was as much a part of the pattern as the harshness I had experienced from other guards. I realized this after a new lot of prisoners arrived two months later. These were Vovimian prisoners, men who had truly committed crimes, judging from their behavior. They bullied the other prisoners, or beat them, or raped them. Most of the stronger Yclau men had been executed by now or had died under torture; there weren't enough of us left to protect the weaker prisoners.
"Some of the guards, such as my own, would stop the Vovimian prisoners' cruelty when they witnessed it; other would not. It was all haphazard, a matter of each guard's whim. One guard might like to beat prisoners, the next one might dislike such an act, but neither of them had any guide directing their behavior. The guard who enjoyed beating prisoners would beat a frail old man; the guard who disliked beating prisoners would stand back and watch as one prisoner preyed on the other.
"It was anarchy. It was a world without law or order. It was hell."
The silence in the room was now absolute. Even Mr. Urman did not seem inclined to make commentary. Finally one of the senior guards, braver than the others, said, "You were released, sir?"
Mr. Ferris nodded. "After four months, as part of the terms of the Intermittent Peace Accord. I returned to Yclau, determined to learn whether my guard had been right in believing that all other prisons in the world were run as his was. I simply could not put what had happened behind me, much as I would have liked to have escaped from my memories.
"With the assistance of a cousin of mine who had connections within the Queen's government, I received permission to inspect our queendom's places of imprisonment. The first few Yclau prisons I visited were bad. Very bad. And yet they were not as bad as they could have been, given that the prisons had no code of behavior to govern their guards. I kept hunting around, trying to determine what was creating greater order in these prisons than in the Vovimian prison.
"Finally, at one prison, I managed to trace a source: a guard who seemed to be following some invisible pattern that elevated his behavior above that of the other guards. When I asked the keeper why this guard was so different from the rest, he laughed. 'He spent a year working in the Eternal Dungeon,' the keeper replied. 'Ever since he got back, he's been spreading around his fool notions of how to run a prison. If you're interested in prison management, you ought to visit the royal dungeon,' he added. 'They do everything there topsy-turvy.'"
Mr. Ferris held the silence in his grasp for a minute, and then said quietly, "Three years later, I was hooded."
There was a collective sigh, as though everyone in the room had been holding their breath. One of the junior guards, apparently dissatisfied with this abrupt end to the tale, asked, "Sir, do you know what happened to the guard at the Vovimian prison, the one who cared for you?"
"Ah," said Mr. Ferris, his voice suddenly light. "Now, that is an interesting sequel indeed. At the time that I became Seeker, I sent my former guard a letter. He was not a torturer, you understand, and so he lived in the town near his prison rather than within the prison itself; I thought it was safe enough for me to correspond with him. With the letter, I sent him a copy of the public edition of the Code of Seeking and urged him to read it. I received no reply – perhaps he considered it too dangerous to send a letter to Yclau's royal dungeon – and so I set the matter aside in my mind. That was all I knew for many years. It was from another man that I learned the ending to that part of my tale." His head turned in the direction of the High Seeker as he stepped back from the schoolmasters' stand.
Mr. Smith came forward, but slowly, as though reluctant to add to the tale. When finally he spoke, his voice was so low that the guards in the back row leaned forward to hear him.
"Not long after I turned eighteen, the Hidden Dungeon shifted from its previous location to a prison located in a rural town in east Vovim," Mr. Smith said. "I was still under the age of manhood by Vovimian standards, and so I still received solicitations from men around me – though not from the workers of the Hidden Dungeon, who had grown to distrust me.
"At this prison was a guard who had worked there for many years. He was rumored to confine his bed-partners to full-grown men, but I must have seemed more mature to him than the average youth, for he made clear his interest in me. I let him think that the interest was shared, in order to learn what I could obtain from him before I set him aside.
"As it happened, I had been trying for some time to get my hands on a copy of the Code of Seeking – I had heard rumors that made me mildly curious about the Code. When the guard learned of my interest, he brought to the prison a copy of the Code that he had owned for many years." The High Seeker paused.
The junior guard, not quite knowledgeable enough to know the dangers of prompting the High Seeker, said, "He loaned you the book, sir?"
"No, I had him arrested." Mr. Smith's voice was level. "He was delivered to me for questioning, so that I could check whether he was running a black market in such unlawful material."
Several of the guards glared at the junior guard, who had shrunk back in his seat. Mr. Urman's lips twisted into a small smile; he was apparently amused by the dark humor of this turn of events. Even Mr. Sobel seemed to have lost interest in scanning the audience, though no surprise showed on his face.
Mr. Smith said, "Fortunately for my prisoner, the Code was delivered to me as well, in case I should need it in my questioning. I read it during my leisure hours, mainly out of boredom, because my prisoner was turning out to be far too easy to break. Even raping him while he hung from the hook proved uninteres—"
He stopped abruptly. Mr. Barrett was not sure what sign had warned the High Seeker to do so, though his own stomach had begun to sicken. After a moment, Mr. Smith said, even quieter than before, "Forgive me, gentlemen. I had not meant to supply the unpleasant details of what occurred. I simply want you to understand: I did not read the Code out of any great interest in its subject matter, nor out of any belief that it held truths I could learn from, despite the fact that my prisoner had told me that he had not taken any prisoners to his bed since the time he first read that the Code of Seeking forbade this. He had sought other, less conventional ways to assist the prisoners – a remarkable change in his behavior. As for myself, I did not expect my own views on the proper manner of handling prisoners to change in any way."
He paused, his head turned in the direction of Mr. Taylor. Looking back, Mr. Barrett saw that Mr. Taylor was staring straight at the High Seeker, as though this recounting held special significance for them both. After a moment more, Mr. Smith broke his gaze and said, "Yet after three days, I made the decision to release my prisoner. I arranged for him to work as a guard at a prison in southern Vovim, a province which holds to certain ancient customs that permit men to sleep with other men. I thought my prisoner would be happier there than where I planned to go."
The silence was unbroken this time. Barrett finally decided that it was his turn to step back into danger. "The Eternal Dungeon, sir?"
The High Seeker glanced his way. "The Eternal Dungeon. Yes." He returned his attention to the audience. "That is the tale of two Vovimian prison-workers who had their lives changed by adopting the Code as their guide, and whose prisoners had their lives changed thereby. I believe I know of a third case of this sort. Mr. Taylor, as all of you know, was held in the Hidden Dungeon for a short spell. His torturer delayed executing him, a delay that permitted Mr. Taylor to be rescued. Although the reasons for that delay are complex, Mr. Taylor has suggested, and I concur, that the delay may be partially due to the fact that his torturer had received access to the Code. Mr. Taylor, who would have died an unjust death, therefore owes his life to the Code."
The High Seeker leaned forward, resting his arms on the schoolmasters' stand. "This is what lies at stake in the present crisis, gentlemen. Not merely our reputations, which are of little importance, but the lives and souls of our prisoners, and the lives and souls of thousands of prisoners in Vovim. If we are to help them, we cannot shrink from the hard task of adhering to the Code. We must remain unified against nations who pressure us to alter the Code."
His voice had taken on a passion that Barrett had rarely heard in the High Seeker. For a moment, everyone in the room hung upon that passion, swaying forward as though they were all souls held in the palm of Layle Smith's hand. Then Mr. Smith straightened. He said in his normal, level voice, "Are there any questions?"
Barrett looked around. Everyone appeared stunned, like Vovimian play-goers after a particularly powerful performance. Nobody seemed to want to serve as the anti-climax to that speech.
Except one man. He had his hands clasped together over his head, in the universal sign of a pupil petitioning his schoolmaster for the right to speak.
"Are there no questions?" asked Mr. Smith, moving his head to and fro.
"I have a question, High Seeker," insisted the petitioner, lowering his arms.
"You may address your question to me in private, Mr. Taylor," the High Seeker responded, not even looking in the junior Seeker's direction. "This instruction is intended for guards."
"You said that anyone might attend, sir."
"Mr. Taylor" – and now there was a significant chill to the High Seeker's voice – "Seekers are given formal instruction in all matters related to the Code. If you failed to pay attention to the instruction you were given, this is not the appropriate venue at which to correct the deficiencies in your education."
Mr. Crofford sucked in his breath audibly. Even Mr. Sobel winced. Barrett could envision the blood draining from Mr. Taylor's face.
But he was wrong. In a voice as level as the High Seeker's had been, Elsdon Taylor said, "I fear, sir, that the deficiencies in my education are due to the fact that I was switched between instructors during my time as a Seeker-in-Training. Since this inevitably resulted in certain gaps in my education, I was hoping that you could fill them."
This time there was a collective gasp from the audience. Barrett stared at Mr. Taylor, unable to believe that the young Seeker had spoken those words deliberately. Surely it had simply been a slip on Mr. Taylor's part to draw public attention to the fact that Layle Smith had been unable to tutor Mr. Taylor for the first six months of his training, due to the fact that the High Seeker had been suspended from his duties for attacking a prisoner.
Barrett was unable to read any emotion in Mr. Smith's voice when he spoke again. "What is your question, Mr. Taylor?"
"It is concerning the Code of Seeking that you and Mr. Ferris's guard were transformed by reading. That would have been the previous edition of the Code, the fourth revision?"
"Since I had not yet been assigned to revise the Code, my introduction to the Code was indeed through the fourth revision." Mr. Smith's response was dry. Several of the younger guards tittered.
If anything, though, Mr. Taylor seemed more determined than before to pursue his thought. "Then, if you were willing to revise the Code, you must have noticed certain flaws in it?"
The tittering stopped. Mr. Smith paused before saying, "Mr. Taylor, you know as well as anyone else here that the Code is revised once in every generation, in order to incorporate new insights. I believe that you have been in touch in the past with the Codifier concerning certain suggestions for revision; those will be taken under consideration at the time of the next revision. The Codifier and I always welcome suggestions for bringing the Code up to date. That is a very different matter from deliberately transgressing the current Code—"
"But sir, isn't part of the process of revision gained from knowledge provided by experimental testings of new methods of questioning by Seekers, prior to the revision?"
"Mr. Taylor." The High Seeker's voice was now as hard as a breaking cell's bed-shelf. "If this is your circumlocutory manner of asking whether you might have permission to undertake experimental testing, let me remind you, please, that such experiments may only occur with permission of the High Seeker, and that I only grant such permission to senior Seekers—"
"But sir, isn't it true that sections 18, 23, 51, and 72 of the Code – which have been much praised for their effectiveness in transforming prisoners – were introduced to the fifth revision due to certain experiments in new forms of questioning that were undertaken in 338?" Mr. Taylor's voice was as bland as unsweetened porridge. "And isn't it true, sir, that the man who undertook those experiments was a Torturer-in-Training? And isn't it true that he experimented without prior permission of this dungeon's High Torturer, and that there was some question at the time as to whether the Torturer-in-Training should be placed under discipline or dismissed from the dungeon altogether?"
The room had gone completely silent again. Even the many guards who had not been here in 338 knew the date of Layle Smith's arrival at the Eternal Dungeon.
For a minute, it appeared that the High Seeker would make no response. Then he said in a very soft voice, "Mr. Taylor, these matters are somewhat advanced for this class. I will address your questions later. Gentlemen, I believe that our time is complete. You may go to your duties or may enter into your leisure hours, as is applicable." The High Seeker turned away from the schoolmasters' stand.
Barrett lost sight of him in the next moment as everyone in the room stood up and began talking in loud voices about what had happened. Mr. Sobel murmured something and slipped away in the direction of his Seeker. Standing on his toes, Barrett just managed to catch sight of Elsdon Taylor, walking toward the door in a seemingly calm and collected manner.
Barrett turned in consternation to Mr. Urman, who had been watching him. "Is that what he's like in a breaking cell?" he demanded to the junior guard.
Mr. Urman grinned. Slapping Barrett on the back, he said, "Enjoy your new job, mate."
"Thirty-six people have submitted affidavits testifying to the purity of his character," Elsdon Taylor said.
Barrett gave a low whistle. "That many?" He glanced over at his Seeker, who was perusing a slim volume containing the prisoner's records as they walked slowly down the deserted corridor. Barrett raised the electric lantern higher so that Mr. Taylor could easily read the words that had been carefully typed by a clerk at one of the lesser prisons.
They were strolling together through the only truly private corridor in the Eternal Dungeon, namely the narrow hallway that led behind the prisoners' western cells. At the northern end of the corridor lay the area near the rack rooms. At the southern end of the corridor lay the guardroom, next to the entry hall. In past days, he and Mr. Taylor would have had to time their visit carefully to avoid meeting the stokers who fed the furnaces behind the western cells of the dungeon, but now the furnaces lay abandoned, and the cells in front of them had been emptied to allow laborers to install ducts for the new central heating system. Barrett could hear the laborers clanking away and cheerfully chatting with one another. He also thought he could hear faintly one laborer describing what terrible, awesome creatures the Eternal Dungeon's guards were.
Barrett smiled. His common-room encounter with the laborer, he decided, would allow the laborer to spend the rest of his days boasting of his hair-raising adventure in this dungeon. If nothing else, Barrett had brought a little pleasure into the man's life.
Mr. Taylor nodded as he turned a page. "Affidavits have been received from Cornelius Rosero-Black, Secretary to the Queen; Henry Lloyd Argyll, Tutor to the Princess; Edward, Duke of White Oak Landing . . ."
"By all that is sacred!" Barrett was startled into the only oath that was mild enough for him to speak while on duty. "I thought you said our prisoner was a commoner?"
Mr. Taylor nodded again, his expression hidden by the hood that fell to his shoulders. "A commoner, but a scholar of some renown. He began as a scullery boy in the household of William, Earl of Hartgrove, over sixty years ago. Rather than use his leisure hours for relaxation, he used to sneak into a cubbyhole outside the schoolroom of the Earl's children and eavesdrop on their lessons. He saved his pennies and bought the same lesson-books they used, and thereby taught himself to read. By the time he was twenty-one, he had become so skilled at imitating the style of the books he read that, when he wrote letters to famous scholars, asking them questions about their work, they assumed that they were corresponding with a man of leisure and learning, and so they responded freely to his questions."
"And he was receiving their letters back?" Barrett said, trying to imagine this scene. He himself had an elite accent, learned from his mother, who was high-born, but his mother's family had disowned her when she eloped in order to marry below herself. As a result, Barrett had been raised in the mid-class, and his family had only possessed a couple of servants, but he could well imagine how his father would have reacted if he had discovered one of his servants corresponding with his betters.
Mr. Taylor nodded again. "Which was how his correspondence was uncovered finally. There was a confrontation between him and the Earl, which reputedly consisted of the Earl bringing all the fire of his fury upon a meek young man. At any rate, something of a scandal arose from the encounter, because the Earl left the young man half dead in the street. This being the age when the concept of noblesse oblige still held strong in our queendom, many people spoke of their outrage as to the Earl's actions, particularly the men with whom the Earl's servant had been corresponding. Nobody believed the Earl when he said that this meek young servant had tried to use the Earl's own ceremonial sword against him, and even the Earl admitted that the servant had not sought to defend himself until the Earl had slammed him head-first against the wall.
"The young man was healed in a hospital for paupers. His patrons – for that was what his correspondents now became – set him up in a mid-class cottage, stocked with a good library, where he could continue his studies. He did not leave the house thereafter."
It took Barrett a minute to grasp what his Seeker had said. "For fifty-two years? Surely not!"
"So the reports say." Elsdon Taylor turned a page, his face still hidden. "He permitted no visitors either. For the first twenty or so years, the only person who spoke to him face-to-face was a maid who came in once a week to bring him supplies and to remove any items that needed to be removed. When she died of old age, her daughter took her place, and he ended up marrying her after about a decade. His wife insisted on caring for him herself, without bringing in a new servant. Neighbors report having glimpsed him occasionally in his back garden, talking with his wife. By all accounts, he has remained meek and gentle, sweetly affectionate to his wife. He has written a number of books on the virtuous life, which have been well received by readers, especially one in which he deplored the dishonesty he had shown to the Earl of Hartgrove in his childhood, and in which he publicly asked the Earl's forgiveness." Elsdon Taylor turned over several pages at once. "The Earl's son has entered an affidavit of character witness for the prisoner. He believes that Mr. Holloway was sincere in his apology and that his books reflect his true character, which is not that of an attempted murderer."
"And the Earl's son was the victim of the attack."
"Yes, which is why Mr. Holloway has ended up in the Eternal Dungeon." Elsdon Taylor's voice had turned dry. He had been of the elite, Barrett knew, even before he obtained the high-titled position of Queen's Seeker, but he was said to have no patience with the system of received privileges which ensured that commoners accused of relatively minor crimes, such as failed murders, occasionally had death-sentence charges placed against them.
"Still," said Barrett, "if the crime took place in the manner that is said . . ."
"A stabbing in the back, late at night, with no apparent provocation. Yes. It was a serious crime indeed, and the city patrol soldiers have been carefully investigating whether the Earl's son – who is now the Earl of Hartgrove himself – might have done something to provoke the crime. So far they have turned up no evidence that the younger Earl has any serious enemies, nor any evidence that the Earl has entered into the prisoner's life for the past quarter of a century. At the time that the younger Earl gained his title, he sent a letter to the prisoner, apologizing for his father's ill treatment and offering to compensate the prisoner for the injuries he had received. The prisoner politely declined, saying that he had only pleasant memories of the younger Earl's treatment of him. That was the end of all contact between them, as far as anyone can tell."
Barrett frowned. They had slowed their pace gradually, until they were now standing motionless, three-quarters of the way down the corridor. At the northern end of the corridor, from which they had come, dim light shone from the short hallway that led back to the main corridor of the inner dungeon. Faint sounds of conversation emerged from that end. Ahead of them lay only darkness and silence.
"Who reported the prisoner as having tried to kill the Earl?" Barrett asked.
"The local prison received a note, hand-delivered by a commoner woman whose appearance, alas, was not noted. That prison's soldiers, who were the initial investigators of the crime, suspect that the note was delivered by the prisoner's wife, but she vigorously denies having written any note to the soldiers, saying she knows that her husband is innocent of any misdeed. At any rate, when the soldiers entered the prisoner's house, they found what the note told them they would find: in the prisoner's wardrobe was one of his own shirts, embroidered with green lions and covered with blood. Hidden within the shirt's folds was a knife – the same meat-knife from the Earl's dinner-set that was used against the Earl in the attempt on his life."
Barrett shook his head. "It could have been planted there by an enemy."
"Certainly, which is why the soldiers were initially skeptical that their meek prisoner was the true culprit. Unfortunately, when the Earl's servants were closely questioned, it was found that a man of Mr. Holloway's description, wearing a shirt embroidered with green lions, had entered the Earl's house on the night of the attack, claiming that he was making a delivery. Many of the servants testified to meeting this man, and when they were shown a sketch of Mr. Holloway, they agreed that he was the man. All of them seemed surprised when told who the delivery man had been; the servants who had worked with the Earl's father during Mr. Holloway's time in service had all since died or retired. None of the current servants appeared to have any personal grievance against the prisoner; indeed, many had heard of his tale and expressed regret that their testimony placed him at the scene of the crime."
"The shirt . . ." Barrett said.
"Was hand-made by the prisoner's wife, and was presented to him on his last birthday. He had not yet worn it into the garden, and as nobody ever entered his home, only his wife could have known of it."
Barrett sighed. "It sounds as though either the prisoner committed the murder, or his wife made it seem that way for her own purposes."
"Which is why she is presently being held in custody at the women's prison within this city. And which is why we have been left with the unpleasant task of determining whether this meek, kind man who is loved by many for his writings on virtue has committed an attack – and if so, for what reason."
Barrett licked his lips as he began to walk forward with Elsdon Taylor again. This was not the first time that a Seeker had consulted with him before searching a prisoner; Weldon Chapman had been accustomed to doing the same. Barrett always felt inadequate on such occasions. He had not become a guard because he possessed a Seeker's skills to ferret out the truth about crimes; he had become a guard because he was able to keep violent men under control while using a minimum of violence himself. That was a quality much honored in the Eternal Dungeon, and he wished that his Seekers would let him play his chosen role rather than continually drag him into attempting to do tasks for which they were better suited than he.
Finally Barrett asked, "Did the soldiers find anything else unusual in the prisoner's house?"
Barrett gave a startled glance at Mr. Taylor, moving the lantern upwards to try to see his eyes. "Sir?"
"The prisoner's house had no serving knives, no table knives – nothing that could be used for stabbing or slicing. When questioned, the prisoner said that, while his severe injuries at the time had wiped away all memory of his encounter with his former employer, he took seriously the elder Earl's accusation that he had tried to stab the man with a sword. Therefore he had divested his house of any stabbing instruments, so as not to permit himself any such temptations if he should ever quarrel with his maids, or later with his wife."
"Oh, dear," Barrett said.
"Yes, he's far too honest," said Mr. Taylor, with his usual uncanny ability of reading into the thoughts of the person he was talking to. "Though he has not confessed to the crime, he has provided the soldiers with all sorts of superficial evidence that has led them to believe that he committed it. He ought to have had a legal counsellor by his side, who would have advised him to remain quiet. As it is, it will be very hard indeed for me to prove that he is innocent, unless we can determine the true culprit."
Barrett nodded. One of the paradoxes of the Eternal Dungeon was that the Seekers, after doing their best to extract evidence of their prisoners' guilt, were then require by their duty to argue in court that the prisoners were either innocent or deserved only light punishment. Barrett had never been able to figure out how Seekers managed this miraculous transformation from accuser to defender.
Mr. Taylor sighed suddenly as they started to walk forward again. "This is the most frustrating case I've come across in a long time. It might take as long to work out as that of my first prisoner."
Barrett winced. The Eternal Dungeon was quite small, as prisons went, and it was one of the only prisons in the queendom that was permitted to house men and women accused of the most serious death-sentence crimes. As a result, there was quiet pressure on every Seeker to break his prisoner as quickly as possible. If the prisoner was not determined guilty or innocent within a week, the Seeker would begin to receive enquiries from the dungeon's Record-keeper as to how matters were proceeding. If another week passed without change, the Seeker and his guards would be called into the High Seeker's office to explain their delay. It was rare for any prisoner in the Eternal Dungeon to remain silent as to his guilt or innocence longer than three weeks.
Elsdon Taylor had broken his first prisoner in the space of six months. Only the High Seeker's illness during that time had allowed him to get away with such a slow breaking, and Mr. Taylor had later received an official reprimand for his delay. The reprimand had not changed matters much. Mr. Taylor remained the slowest Seeker in the dungeon, determined not to overlook any clues as to extenuating circumstances or to his prisoner's possible innocence – understandable, since he himself had once been a prisoner, but this meant that he and his guards were continually being questioned and reprimanded by the High Seeker. If Mr. Taylor's rate of success as a Seeker had not been so high, it was likely that he would have been stripped of his hood long ago. As it was, the Record-keeper took care these days to assign him only prisoners who could be reasonably expected to hold out for long periods under any Seeker.
Five months, though . . . "I'm not sure, sir," said Barrett carefully, "that this is the right moment at which to test the High Seeker's temper."
He could hear the smile in Mr. Taylor's voice as the junior Seeker replied, "There is never a right moment at which to test the High Seeker's temper, Mr. Boyd – particularly not when one shares a living cell with Layle Smith. But I took an oath to suffer for the prisoners, and I don't regard that oath lightly." He gestured toward the door they had just reached, leading to the guardroom.
"I took no oath," Barrett muttered, envisioning an upcoming reprimand from the High Seeker, but he kept his comment too low for Mr. Taylor to hear. His friends had warned him of the disadvantages of becoming Elsdon Taylor's guard, so he could not claim to have been ignorant of what sort of role he was entering into. Fumbling one-handed with his key as he held the lantern near the door lock, he managed to push the door open for Mr. Taylor.
Mr. Taylor stepped through the doorway, then stopped abruptly. Following in behind him, still blinking at the bright light, Barrett was just in time to see Mr. Sobel's lash land full upon the naked back of a Seeker.
The Seeker grunted as the lash's force drove his body against the thick whipping post that his arms were bound around. His hooded head was turned away, making recognition difficult. Barrett, taking in the situation at a glance, quickly turned to lock and bar the door, so that no other guard or Seeker would make the mistake that he and Mr. Taylor had just made.
As he turned back, he saw the High Seeker gesture impatiently at them from his position on the other side of the punished Seeker, watching the man's eyes during the beating, as the Code required. Mr. Taylor turned and made his way silently to the sliding door of the guardroom that was only closed when this portion of the room was used for punishment. It was the most private place in the dungeon for punishment, since punished Seekers or guards could be brought in through the little-used passage that Barrett and Mr. Taylor had just traversed.
Barrett managed to get to the door before his Seeker, sliding the door open and closed for him. Then they were both past the danger, and they let out their breaths simultaneously.
The guardroom was usually crowded at this time of day, during the dusk shift, with guards coming off-duty or getting ready to start their duties for the evening. Not surprisingly, the room was presently deserted, except for a knot of guards standing near the door leading to the dungeon's entry hall.
Mr. Taylor did not hesitate, but moved to the left, so that he would be hidden from the view of the guards who would no doubt quiz him and Barrett if they tried to move past. This left them standing in front of the door to the long, slender room that made up the guards' washroom.
With professional courtesy, Mr. Taylor waited for Barrett to enter first. As a Seeker, he could only enter this room as the guest of a guard, for Seekers had their own living quarters in the inner dungeon – their "cells" – and it was there that they partook of their refreshment. Barrett, who had moved to living quarters in the outer dungeon when he reached seniority, rarely came to this washroom any more, though he had many fond memories of the place.
"Sanitation," Barrett's sergeant major had once said to him, "is more of a problem for our army than for the Vovimian army." What he meant was that, in Vovim, washings and calls of nature were done in public, with merely a minimal division between sexes. Only the homes of the elite had private water closets; mid-class folk and commoners made do with communal privies. Nearly every Vovimian boy grew up used to bathing and relieving himself in public, just as every Yclau boy considered privacy in such matters to be a hallmark of civilization.
It had come as a considerable shock to Barrett, as a young guard in the Eternal Dungeon, when he had discovered that the guards' washroom consisted of a single room, with no stalls to divide the occupants from one another. A ceramic trough on one side of the room carried away bodily fluids; a ceramic trough on the other side of the room held the bathing water. The latter trough had been replaced with separate showerheads in recent years, but still the principle remained: the Eternal Dungeon's guards bathed in public, not in private.
It had not taken long for Barrett to understand the reason for this and to understand what the other guards felt at sharing the same sort of conditions that their prisoners did. In most dungeons, prisoners were humiliated by being required to relieve themselves and bathe themselves in cells that could be watched by their guards at any time. The Eternal Dungeon, in its usual topsy-turvy manner, made public bathing an act of pride for its guards, and the guards in turn found subtle ways to indicate to prisoners that they did not look down on the prisoners for being forced to bathe and relieve themselves in public.
Guards being guards, they had found other ways in which to enjoy this place. Barrett had been present one long winter night when a group of his fellow day guards had decided to clean one another. They had no fear of interruption by Mr. Smith, who never visited the washroom and who was well ensconced on this night in a prisoner's breaking cell. Nobody in the dungeon would have thought to interrupt a Seeker at his searching, over so trivial a matter. As a result, not much time had passed before sponges and soap were replaced with lips and tongues, while nipples and groins had become the favored spots to be cleaned. This had led, in due time, to a friendly argument over whether use of the soap as a lubricant was likely to cause irritation to the skin.
Barrett, who had been an observer rather than a participant, had nonetheless jumped half a foot in the air when the washroom door – which he had carefully locked himself – had suddenly banged open to reveal the High Seeker, carrying a very large bottle filled with pale liquid.
"Gentlemen," said Layle Smith, as guards with burning faces scrambled to their feet, "you are members of the royal dungeon, the elite among the guards of this queendom. You are famed for your ability to be ready for duty at all times. On no account do I wish to ever see you unprepared again." And he had swept out of the room, leaving behind him the large bottle, which proved, upon examination, to be filled with lovemaking liquid.
It was thus, and through similar, darkly humorous episodes, that Layle Smith had managed to put across his point to the guards and Seekers: "Don't you dare break the Code, because if you do, I will know."
Now Barrett and Mr. Taylor made their way through the mist of spray emitted by the shower of a lone guard, who took no notice of their passing. Not until they had exited through the door at the opposite end of the room and were standing in the entry hall did Barrett ask, "Do you know which Seeker that was?"
Mr. Taylor did not respond to his question; the junior Seeker's gaze was travelling across the entry hall, which was filled with guards and Seekers. "Excuse me," Mr. Taylor murmured, and stepped away.
Barrett watched him walk over to Mr. Chapman, who was handing a report to the Record-keeper. All around the room, men were talking, and since they were not bothering to lower their voices, Barrett began to hear pieces of what had occurred. He waited patiently, knowing that half of what was being said was rumor, and that his Seeker would soon know the full truth.
He was wrong, though. Mr. Chapman responded to Mr. Taylor's quiet enquiry with a shake of the head and a brief response. Mr. Taylor nodded and immediately turned away. When he had returned, Barrett said, "He won't tell you?"
"No. It's a matter for senior members only."
"Ah." Barrett glanced around the entry hall again. From what he could see, the news had travelled well beyond the senior Seekers and guards, but Weldon Chapman was notorious for sticking to regulations, even when those regulations had already been broken by others. "In that case, sir. . ."
"Go ahead," responded Mr. Taylor with a wave of the hand. "I'll wait for you in the breaking-cell corridor."
Barrett returned to him within five minutes, having paused only to pass word to Mr. Phelps, who had just come on duty, and who was making a manful effort to await the news through proper channels. Barrett was a "proper channel," and so he had quickly briefed the junior night guard before making his way back to Elsdon Taylor.
"It's Mr. Newton, sir," he said at once. "Mr. Chapman says that—"
"Mr. Boyd," Elsdon Taylor interrupted sharply, "is it necessary to my duties that I know this?"
Barrett was taken aback. He had forgotten that Mr. Taylor was said to have just as strong an aversion to gossip as the High Seeker did. It took him only a second, though, to formulate his reply. "I think so, sir. It could affect the High Seeker's state of mind. Mr. Chapman hinted as much – I suppose that was his way of suggesting I should tell you."
After a moment, Mr. Taylor nodded, and Barrett added, "Mr. Newton was found to have been arranging for the delivery of letters between his prisoner and the prisoner's family."
"For a bribe?" suggested Mr. Taylor. They both knew how serious a matter that would be; the Eternal Dungeon prided itself as being the only prison in the queendom where all prisoners were treated in an equal fashion, without favoritism being shown toward prisoners who were rich enough to bribe their guards and Seekers.
"No, sir. Apparently he just felt sorry for the prisoner, since the prisoner was quite attached to his family."
They both fell silent, contemplating this. Finally Mr. Taylor said, "The rule against prisoners communicating with outsiders exists for a reason. Prisoners could easily obtain information from outsiders that would allow them to escape, or they could send letters that warned fellow criminals to flee. Since a prisoner is always permitted to spend time with his family on the day of his trial, it's not wise to allow him to send letters during his usually brief period of imprisonment here."
"Yes, of course, sir," Barrett agreed. He did not say what they both knew: that the High Seeker would have dealt in the past with such a well-meant action by reprimanding the Seeker, not beating him.
"Who reported Mr. Newton?" asked Elsdon Taylor suddenly.
"He did, sir. In light of the High Seeker's recent announcement, Mr. Newton thought it best to report himself, rather than place that burden on his guards, who were aware of the correspondence."
"And he received how many lashes after he confessed?"
"Mr. Chapman said he was being given the full penalty for such Code-breaking, sir: forty medium lashes."
Mr. Taylor said nothing as the door to the entry hall opened to admit night-duty guards on their way to relieve the dusk shift. Finally Barrett added, "This will mean that fewer dungeon dwellers report themselves for misdeeds."
Mr. Taylor did not respond to this obvious statement. Instead he looked over Barrett's shoulder and said, "You're ready, Mr. Phelps? Good. We shouldn't leave the prisoner awaiting us any longer."
The junior Seeker started down the hall, and Barrett automatically fell into step behind him, one pace behind his Seeker, slightly to the right. Mr. Phelps was walking one pace behind Mr. Taylor, slightly to the left, and Barrett wondered whether he should pass on to the junior night guard what Mr. Taylor had told him about the prisoner. Ordinarily he would have done so in an automatic manner, but the thought of Mr. Taylor's disapproval of his gossip lingered in his thoughts. Perhaps, he thought, he should consult with his new Seeker as to what his preferences were in such matters.
They approached the breaking cell where the prisoner awaited his Seeker.
The prisoner was meek and gentle and very, very afraid. He had gone down on both knees the moment Elsdon Taylor entered the cell, and it had taken a good many soft words by Mr. Taylor to persuade him that he need not stay there. Now he stood with his left arm behind his back, his left hand locked in front of his right elbow, in the manner of a well-trained servant. He looked as though he would faint at any moment.
In light of Mr. Holloway's diffidence, Barrett could not figure out what he and Mr. Phelps were doing in the cell. Their presence was not against regulations; any Seeker might choose to keep his guards at his side if he were searching a particularly dangerous prisoner. But guards had an inhibiting effect on prisoners' willingness to speak truthfully, and so the Code of Seeking strongly discouraged Seekers from keeping guards in the breaking cell during a searching.
It was not a good sign, that Elsdon Taylor would come so close to breaking the Code on Barrett's first day of duty.
Barrett tried giving a brief smile to the prisoner, who looked so alarmed at this development that Barrett abandoned all friendly overtures. He would have liked to have looked away, knowing that having three pairs of eyes on him could not be easy for the prisoner, but his duty required him to watch the prisoner any time he entered the cell. So he focussed his attention on the prisoner's scar. It must have been well hidden by hair when the prisoner was younger, but now, with the prisoner's hair thin and wispy with old age, anyone could see clearly what the elder Earl had done when Mr. Holloway was young.
"Yes, sir," the prisoner was responding now in a quavering voice. "My wife is always with me at night. Her family is dead, and she pays all her calls to friends during the daytime."
"And do you share a bedroom, Mr. Holloway?" Elsdon Taylor asked. As regulation required, he was standing, and he was doing so at a considerable distance from the prisoner. Barrett wondered again what danger Mr. Taylor sensed about the prisoner that was opaque to Barrett's own vision.
The prisoner blushed at this question. "We . . . we are fortunate to have a cottage with two bedrooms. We share my bedroom only on the nights when we engage in . . . conjugal relations. About twice a week. Sometimes thrice."
Out of the corner of his eye, Barrett saw Mr. Phelps raise his eyebrows. Barrett was too experienced to do likewise, but he gave a second glance at his prisoner's body. The man was seventy-three years old now; he must retain a certain vigor beyond which his frail body suggested.
"Your wife," Mr. Taylor said, as though pursuing the same thought, "is twenty-two years younger than you?"
"Yes, sir, and she's a great help to me. I . . ." His voice faded out, and the ball in his throat bobbled. "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean to volunteer information."
"No, go on, pursue your thought." Mr. Taylor's voice was gentle. Barrett had learned from other guards that Mr. Taylor's voice was always gentle when he was searching. He used that gentleness to great effect to break unwary prisoners.
"Well, sir, my memory is not as well honed as it could be. Sometimes I forget things: where I laid my pen and journal, where I placed a book I want, where I hung a shirt. My wife is nearly always able to find such things for me."
"Journal?" said Mr. Taylor, picking up on the word.
"My health journal, sir. I've had bad headaches every few months or so during the last five years. My healer thought it might be due to the head injury I sustained as a young man, after I so foolishly disobeyed my master. He asked me to keep a record of when I had my headaches."
"And when you have these headaches, what happens?"
"I go to bed, sir. The quinine that my healer prescribed for my headaches has failed to relieve them, so I just try to sleep them out."
"And your wife does not share your bed on those nights?"
"No, sir." The prisoner sounded puzzled now. "She sees that I have water by my bed, and she checks on me in the morning, but otherwise she lets me rest."
"And did you have a headache on the night on which the younger Earl of Hartgrove was attacked?"
"Why, yes, sir." The prisoner sounded truly puzzled now. "How did you know?"
Mr. Taylor flicked a glance at Barrett, who carefully extracted from the inner breast pocket of his jacket the small memorandum book and pencil there. Jotting down a note to himself to submit a request for the seizure of the journal for evidence, he cursed the city soldiers' penchant for ignoring the obvious. A dated diary showing the pattern of the prisoner's health – surely they should have understood that object's possible significance.
The paper of his memorandum book seemed unnaturally bright under the newly installed electric lights in the ceiling. Already he was missing the soft waver of the furnace fires that had long burned behind the frosted glass blocks of every breaking cell – though he supposed that this prisoner, with his thick spectacles, might prefer the steady electric light. Certainly the new heating system seemed to be working well, pumping a steady stream of warm air into the cell. It was a shame that the High Seeker couldn't take the hint from this and move the Eternal Dungeon into the modern age in other ways.
"And how did you first learn of the attack on the Earl, Mr. Holloway?" asked Elsdon Taylor.
"From my wife, sir. She heard the balladeers singing the news when she went to fetch food from the grocer's the next morning, and so she brought back a ballad for me, since she knew that I had served with that family. She sang it to me over breakfast, and then I went upstairs to change out of my dressing gown and to prepare a note of condolence to the Earl's manservant for the pain that his household had undergone."
"You knew the manservant?"
"No, sir. But it seemed more proper to address myself to him than to the Earl. I . . . was once foolish enough to send letters to men much higher than myself, and in the arrogance of my youth, I let them think I was of their class. Fortunately, the men I corresponded with forgave me when they learned of my deception, and even showed me great kindness. But of course I would not trouble my betters again in such a way."
"You have said that you were treated kindly by the younger Earl, I believe."
"Oh, yes, sir. He never spoke an unkind word to me when he was a boy, and he sent me a most gracious note after his father's death."
Mr. Taylor nodded. Barrett wondered whether it was only his imagination that this line of enquiry had utterly foundered. Either the prisoner was truly innocent of all misdeeds, or he was a consummate liar – and if he was the latter, Barrett could not imagine how Mr. Taylor would go about breaking him.
"Mr. Holloway," said Mr. Taylor quietly, "you stated that your wife would do anything for you."
"Anything within the law, I meant, sir," the prisoner responded quickly, evidently seeing danger in this question. "She is an upright woman and would never assist in any matter that was unlawful."
"But if the matter appeared lawful, she would do it?"
The prisoner hesitated, apparently uneasy at the use of the word "appeared," but finally said, "Yes, sir."
"And so she delivered your note to the soldiers, telling them where to find the bloody shirt and knife."
The prisoner's mouth opened, and stayed open, like that of a fish. Out of the corner of his eye, Barrett could see that Mr. Phelps's mouth had likewise fallen open.
"Mr. Holloway," Elsdon Taylor said gently, "you are in the Eternal Dungeon. You could not have thought you could conceal such a matter here for long."
The prisoner bit his lip and stared at the floor. Barrett had a sudden, vivid image of him as a young man, confronting the wrath of the angry Earl.
"How did the shirt come to be in your wardrobe, Mr. Holloway?" The junior Seeker kept his voice soft.
"I don't know, sir." The prisoner's voice quavered. "I swear by all the Queen's mercy, I have no idea how it came to be in my wardrobe."
"When did you find it there?"
"On the morning after the Earl's death, when I went upstairs to change. I . . . I nearly fainted when I saw it. And then I saw the knife, just like the knife that the balladeer said had been used to kill the Earl. . . . I'm sorry, sir; I should have reported it at once, and I should have told you at once that I had found it. It was very wrong of me to seek to conceal that information from you."
"Why did you decide eventually to alert the soldiers?"
"I . . . I just did. It seemed the right thing to do."
"You did not consult with anyone?"
"No, sir." The prisoner's voice was firmer now. "I was the only one who knew about the shirt, and I consulted with no one."
There was a pause, giving Barrett time to wonder how his Seeker was determining which of these answers were true and which were false. He himself could not have guessed – which was probably just as well, as he did not wish to be the one responsible for declaring the punishment for a false answer.
Mr. Taylor said, quite softly, "You have saved your money over the years?"
"Yes, sir," said the prisoner, looking startled at the change of topic. "I am a man of little needs, and I have received generous sums of money from my patrons and from the sales of my books. My income has grown lesser in recent years, but it's of no matter, for I have assured myself enough money to see myself and my wife through to our final days. That being the case, I have been making plans to give the rest to the hospital for paupers that cared for me when I was young."
Mr. Phelps frowned. Barrett was frowning too. He was no Seeker, but he had read enough penny-novel tales to be able to guess what was coming next.
Mr. Taylor did not disappoint them. "Your wife," he said, "is twenty-two years younger than you."
Perhaps the prisoner had read the same novels; he instantly paled. "Sir, you cannot mean— Sir, my wife has never been greedy for money; you cannot think that she would seek to increase her wealth by—"
"Who receives your money in the event of your death or life imprisonment, Mr. Holloway?"
Mr. Holloway bit his lip again before saying, in the same firm voice he had used a short time before, "My cousin."
Elsdon Taylor sighed and briefly brought his fingers up to cover the eye-holes of his hood. When he finally looked up, he said, "I am very sorry to hear you say that, sir. You ought to have guessed that I have been given access to your legal records; I know that your wife is named as the sole recipient of your fortunes in your will. Take off your shirt, please, and face the wall, just under that ring. Mr. Phelps?"
Mr. Phelps, quick to gather in the situation, had already taken into hand his coiled whip. The prisoner now looked as though he would pass out within seconds. Barrett, glancing in an assessing manner at Mr. Holloway, shook his head and handed Mr. Phelps the binding rope he himself had just slipped out of his trouser pocket. Under normal circumstances, he, as senior guard, would bind the prisoner, while Mr. Phelps would beat him, but in a case like this, with a seventy-three-year-old prisoner, he did not want to take any chances with Mr. Phelps's unknown skill with the whip. He managed to catch Mr. Taylor's eye as the Seeker backed up to provide room for the guards, and Mr. Taylor nodded slightly, approving the switch.
The prisoner, obedient if not truthful, had stripped himself now of his shirt and had turned to face the far wall. Returning his coiled whip to its usual clip on his belt, Mr. Phelps bound the prisoner's wrists to the whipping ring high upon the wall. Barrett noticed, with an inward sigh, that the binding rope had begun to fray again. It was made of a soft hemp that was thought by the High Seeker to cause less abrasion to prisoners' skin than the leather binders that had been used in the prison for decades, but the rope continually frayed, leaving guards with the duty of cutting off frayed ends at spare moments. Barrett would just have soon kept the leather binders, but he had not been consulted.
The life of a guard, he thought to himself as the prisoner wriggled in his bonds, trying to catch sight of Mr. Phelps's whip, evidently believing that the junior guard would both bind him and beat him. Barrett did not bother to correct his misapprehension. His eye was on the junior Seeker, and he was wondering what Mr. Taylor was feeling at this moment. Not the sadistic thrill that the High Seeker would have felt, surely. At one time, it was rumored, Mr. Taylor had received a certain emotional release from watching beatings, but that was when he was younger and had only recently been permitted escape from the care of an abusive father. These days, Barrett guessed, Mr. Taylor probably relished the sight of a tortured prisoner no more than he himself did.
Elsdon Taylor's voice remained steady, though, as he said, "I told you at the start, Mr. Holloway, that there would be adverse consequences for you if you lied to me. However, I want you to understand that your honest responses will receive their due reward. The prisoner is securely bound, Mr. Phelps?" The junior Seeker walked forward to the prisoner, who was still trying to catch sight of Mr. Phelps behind him; as he did so, Mr. Taylor quickly held up five fingers toward Barrett.
Mr. Phelps, stepping back now that his duty was over, caught sight of the gesture and waggled his eyebrows at Barrett, obviously enquiring as to whether Mr. Taylor had given the proper number. Barrett nodded back. Five light lashes was the minimum of punishment that the Code permitted to a prisoner who lied, but in a case like this – where the prisoner had a spotless record and was clearly lying to protect his wife rather than himself – such a low punishment seemed justified.
He could only hope that the High Seeker would agree.
Barrett took a quick look at the prisoner's back. He disliked what he saw. Like a vulture, old age had stripped flesh from the prisoner; the back barely held any fat, and Barrett suspected that it had never held much muscle. The prisoner's ribs stood out against his skin. It was going to be very hard to find places to land the lash that wouldn't cause excruciating pain, and severe pain was not permitted in a light beating. With only five lashes planned, however, he thought he could manage to locate room for the lashes.
Being right-handed, he moved to the left side, beyond the prisoner's vision. Mr. Taylor had already taken his own place, along the wall to the right of the prisoner. The prisoner, without need for instruction, was watching his Seeker.
"Mr. Holloway," Elsdon Taylor said softly, "I know that you spent your boyhood in a household where honesty was not rewarded. So did I. You need to understand that matters are very different in the Eternal Dungeon. In this place, lies represent pain, while honesty and a desire for reparation represent relief from pain. That would be true even if you were never touched by an instrument of torture. This time, the lesson in pain and lack of pain will come from me; I hope that, in the future, you will be able to bring your own peace to yourself."
Barrett, doing a last-minute check of his whip to see that it was ready for business, wondered what the bloody blades Mr. Taylor was talking about. The only "relief from pain" that the prisoner would experience would be the end of his beating, and that ending would have no connection with honesty or lack of honesty. He inwardly shrugged and set his mind back to the task at hand.
"Yes, sir," said the prisoner, clearly as bewildered as Barrett was.
"One lash to begin with, then, in punishment of your previous lie. Mr. Phelps, are we ready?" He looked over at the junior guard, who was standing directly behind the prisoner, and who now had the task of determining, from his central position, whether the three men in front of him were all in the right position for the beating.
"We are ready, sir," said Mr. Phelps, his mid-class accent clipped short, more so than usual. Barrett guessed that he was no more eager to witness this beating than Barrett was to give it.
"One," said Mr. Taylor, his gaze now fixed upon the prisoner's face.
Barrett pulled back the whip and landed it on the spot he had selected, a narrow band of muscles below the jutting shoulder-blades. The prisoner gasped. Barrett flicked back the lash, satisfied. If he had landed the lash wrong, the prisoner would have screamed.
"Now, then," said Mr. Taylor to the prisoner, "I am going to ask you four questions. Every time you respond to one those questions with a lie, you will receive three more lashes than you just received. Do you understand, Mr. Holloway?"
The prisoner's breath was heavy, which was just as well, as it covered up the sound of Barrett muttering curses to himself. He totted up the numbers in his head. One lash to start with, and then four more lashes multiplied by four – seventeen lashes total was within the maximum of twenty lashes that could be given for this offense, but it was too many for such a slight matter. And Barrett could not imagine where he would find room within the narrow ridge of back muscles for that many lashes. The prisoner would surely be screaming in agony by the end.
Well, his job was to deliver the lashes, not decide how many should occur. Grimly, he held himself in readiness.
"Did your wife know the contents of the note, Mr. Holloway?" the junior Seeker asked.
"No." The prisoner's voice was faint but firm. Mr. Phelps winced. Probably, like Barrett, he was beginning to figure out the pattern that Elsdon Taylor had already perceived: which tone of voice revealed that the prisoner was lying.
"Two through five," was Mr. Taylor's response, and Barrett brought down the lash four times, in rapid succession. He landed them where he had planned to land the final four lashes when he had thought there would be only five. Then he paused, sweating, not only because of his exertion, but because he could not figure out any place to land the lash next that would not cause the prisoner unnecessary pain.
The prisoner was sobbing now. Mr. Taylor, backing away, said, "Mr. Phelps, would you please wipe Mr. Holloway's face?"
Mr. Phelps came forward, handkerchief in hand, and silently wiped away the moisture that was dripping from the prisoner's forehead and eyes and nose. The prisoner said to him, in a shaking voice, "Does your whip have knots?"
Mr. Phelps backed out of sight, properly leaving it to his Seeker to respond to the prisoner's question.
"No, Mr. Holloway," said Elsdon Taylor, returning to his previous spot. "None of the whips in the Eternal Dungeon are designed to maim. And I promise you: If you answer the next three questions truthfully, you will receive no more strokes."
Mr. Phelps turned to Barrett, his face filled with consternation. Barrett struggled to figure out what his Seeker had in mind. It was strange enough, that Mr. Taylor should be questioning the prisoner during a beating. Usually questioning was reserved for when the prisoner was on the rack, when lies would be punished by greater pain, while honesty would be rewarded by—
Ah. The answer came to him in the same moment that Mr. Taylor asked, "Did your wife know the contents of the note?"
The prisoner, after a breathless moment, whispered, "Yes."
Mr. Taylor held up his hand, warding off any potential blows, in case Barrett should have misunderstood his intentions. "Did your wife suggest the wording of the note?"
The prisoner was beginning to cry again, and not from the pain of the previous lashes, Barrett guessed. "Yes."
"Is she the one who suggested that you report the shirt's presence to the soldiers?"
The prisoner replied only with a nod this time; he was crying too hard to speak.
"Thank you for your honesty, Mr. Holloway. Mr. Phelps, you may release the prisoner."
Barrett, slowly coiling up his whip, wondered to himself why he ever bothered to try to second-guess Seekers. In this case, though, he thought he was justified in feeling more than a little confused.
What Elsdon Taylor had just done was quite out of the ordinary. Normally, torture was divided into two categories in the Eternal Dungeon: a fixed degree of pain for punishment through a beating, and an indeterminate degree of pain for punishment and questioning through the rack. When beaten, prisoners simply received the punishment they had incurred for their ill behavior. When racked, on the other hand, they were encouraged to answer questions honestly by being told that they would receive less pain or release if they were truthful.
Mr. Taylor had just reversed that custom by giving Mr. Holloway an indeterminate punishment through beating; as he had promised, he had given Mr. Holloway relief from pain when the prisoner answered truthfully. Rapidly, Barrett reviewed in his mind the relevant sections of the Code of Seeking. He could not see any point at which his Seeker had violated the Code. Indeed, if asked by the High Seeker, Barrett could truthfully say that Mr. Taylor had told him to give the prisoner five lashes, and he had done so.
Barrett sighed. Life with Mr. Taylor, he was beginning to suspect, would be like walking on the edge of a cliff, waiting for the inevitable moment when the ground gave way.
He glanced over at Mr. Phelps, who was still holding the frayed rope. The junior guard's brow was furrowed as he looked down. Barrett refrained from rebuking Mr. Phelps from taking his eye off the prisoner; he himself was worried. He was always worried after a prisoner was searched under torture.
Belatedly, he was beginning to recognize what Mr. Taylor must have recognized from the moment he examined the prisoner's records: Mr. Holloway had a record of lying. He had been forced to lie in his youth, in order to cover up his furtive education and his scholarly work; then, when the truth had emerged, he had been viciously beaten by the man questioning him. Little wonder that Mr. Holloway had lied to protect his wife; his only experience till now had been that truth was rewarded with unjust punishment. Mr. Taylor had questioned Mr. Holloway under torture in order to teach him, in a quick and relatively painless manner, that any truthful statements he made to the Seeker would be rewarded, not punished.
It all made sense, if . . . if Mr. Holloway had indeed spoken the truth under torture. Mr. Urman's voice drifted into Barrett's mind: "If you hurt a prisoner enough, he'll say anything he thinks you want to hear."
Barrett shook his head and tried to focus his thoughts back on the scene before him: the Seeker standing in the middle of the cell, with Mr. Phelps a yard behind him, still fingering the binding rope, and the prisoner standing as far as he could from the Seeker and guards, in the corner of the cell nearest to the whipping ring. He was wiping the moisture off his face with his sleeve, and he was trembling.
Barrett glanced at Mr. Taylor. The young Seeker had an upright carriage and was standing still, embodying all the authority of the Queen's Seekers. It was a reassuring stance. Barrett reminded himself that he was serving as guard to one of the most talented men in the dungeon. What was dark and murky to him was no doubt clear as sunlight to Elsdon Taylor.
"Mr. Holloway," said Mr. Taylor, "if you believe anything I tell you, please believe this now: I am going to ask you a question, and there will be no penalty for you, regardless of what answer you make. I will trust that you are giving me the truth, and I will not punish you under any circumstances. Do you understand?"
Mr. Holloway, looking understandably unnerved by this turn of events, nodded as he steeled himself for the question.
Still soft in tone, Mr. Taylor asked, "Did you answer the last three questions truthfully during your beating?"
All of Barrett's trust crashed in on him, as though the cavern holding the Eternal Dungeon had suddenly collapsed.
Mr. Taylor didn't know. He didn't know whether the prisoner had given his answers under torture because they were truthful or because he thought it was the only way to stop the torture. And if a Seeker of Mr. Taylor's talent didn't know . . .
Hundreds of prisoners. Barrett had tortured hundreds of prisoners in the Eternal Dungeon, and dozens of them had died because of witness they had given under that torture. How many innocent men had ended their lives in the hangman's noose because Barrett had hurt a prisoner enough that he would say anything he thought his guards and Seeker wanted to hear?
Barrett felt the sudden urge to vomit. He glanced at Mr. Phelps, wondering whether the junior guard was undergoing a similar agony of conscience, but the other guard continued to seem more concerned with the frayed rope than with what was taking place. And why should he not be? He was relatively new to the Eternal Dungeon; he trusted that the Seekers knew what they were doing. Barrett himself had always held such trust; if Elsdon Taylor had not held scruples above that of the other Seekers Barrett had served under, Barrett would never have questioned Mr. Taylor's knowledge.
He nearly missed the prisoner's answer when it came. "Sir," said Mr. Holloway in a wavering voice, "I can see that you are a man of good character and that you do not wish me harm. I regret exceedingly that I ever sought to hide the truth from you. But you must understand . . . my wife . . ."
"Mr. Holloway, if your wife is innocent, anything you say can only help her." Mr. Taylor's voice was firm. "If she is not, then her soul lies in peril at this moment, and hiding the truth won't help her."
Mr. Holloway gulped visibly before saying, "She is innocent, sir – you must believe me. When she had recovered from her shock of seeing the shirt on that first morning I discovered it, her only thought was to protect me. She suggested that we bury the shirt and knife in the back garden late at night, when nobody would see. We . . . we did consider doing that, sir." Mr. Holloway's voice trembled yet more as he made this confession.
"Quite understandable," Mr. Taylor responded in a reassuring voice. "Nobody wishes to be accused unjustly of committing a crime."
Mr. Holloway seemed to take courage from this statement. He straightened his back and said in a calmer voice, "We talked about it for several days. Each day, my wife would go to buy food, and we would hear from the balladeers what the news was. She even bought newspapers so that we could read the official accounts. Every day, the news said that the soldiers investigating the crime could find no clues as to what had happened. 'The trail is not merely cold but frozen,' one of the soldiers said.
"That was what decided us in the end. The shirt and knife were the only clue to who the murderer was; we couldn't hold back such evidence, not when the victim was so upright a man as my former master's son. We agreed that we must tell the soldiers. It was my wife's idea that I should write an anonymous note. Perhaps . . . perhaps that part of the plan was not such a good idea."
"No," Mr. Taylor agreed. "You would have been less likely to fall under suspicion if you had reported the matter openly."
Mr. Holloway shook his head. "Sir, we did not think straight. At the time, all I could think was that, if we truthfully stated that we had known about the shirt for days, we would be arrested for withholding evidence. I was willing to pay any penalty necessary for what I had done, but my wife—"
His voice broke suddenly, and tears streamed down his face. "My wife, sir. She did no harm, she sought only to protect me, and yet the soldiers took her away. What will happen to her?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Barrett saw Mr. Phelps pause in the middle of some action with the rope. Mr. Taylor replied quietly, "I will communicate with the women's prison to let them know the testimony you have offered on her behalf. Mr. Boyd, if you would kindly make a note—" The Seeker turned toward the guards, and then stopped speaking abruptly.
Barrett quickly looked at where Mr. Taylor was staring. Mr. Phelps was caught in the act of carefully cutting away the frayed ends of the rope with his dagger. Blushing at being noticed neglecting his main duty, Mr. Phelps began to sheathe his blade.
There was a blur of motion, and before Barrett could see what had happened, the prisoner had leapt past his Seeker and grabbed Mr. Phelps's dagger.
Mr. Phelps, startled, made no move to defend himself with his whip. Mr. Taylor said sharply, "Mr. Phelps! Back!" He himself, being unarmed, was moving as far back out of reach of the prisoner as he could, as the Code required under such circumstances.
But the prisoner, perhaps sensing from his voice that Mr. Taylor had drawn out of reach, made no attempt to move in that direction. Nor did he try to attack Mr. Phelps, who was still standing frozen, within an arm's reach of the deadly blade. Instead, just as Barrett pulled his whip from his belt, Mr. Holloway turned and rushed toward Barrett, his arm raised high as he made ready to plunge the dagger into his chosen target.
He came so swiftly that Barrett had no time in which to uncoil the whip, no time even to curse this change in events. With reflexes honed by years of experience, he pulled out his dagger, turned it in his hand, and hit the prisoner on the side of the head with the hilt in the moment before Mr. Holloway would have plunged the blade into him.
Mr. Holloway crumpled to the ground. Barrett felt his own knees weaken, and he had to step back against the wall to steady himself. Mr. Phelps had finally broken from his paralysis; he rushed over and took hold of Barrett's arm, supporting him.
Mr. Taylor, as Barrett might have predicted, had more important concerns. He ran over and dropped to his knees beside the prisoner.
This move recalled Barrett's mind to his duty. Pushing Mr. Phelps's hand away, he went down on one knee beside the prisoner, doing what Mr. Taylor could not do without breaking the Code: he placed his fingers upon Mr. Holloway's neck, searching for a pulse.
His search for life was cut short by a groan from Mr. Holloway. The prisoner struggled into a sitting position. Mr. Phelps, his brow furrowed once more, quickly knelt down, sheathed the fallen blade, and bound the prisoner's hands behind him with the frayed rope. The prisoner barely seemed to notice. He was staring at the Seeker, his eyes unfocussed.
"My head," he muttered. "It hurts even worse than before. Did I pass out?"
"Yes, Mr. Holloway; my senior night guard knocked you unconscious. Are you well?"
Barrett, who had taken firm hold of the prisoner's arm to prevent him from lunging forward, felt Mr. Phelps tense beside him. Young as the guard was, he already knew that, under such circumstances as this, a Seeker's enquiry after a prisoner's health was a most ominous question. The words the prisoner spoke during the next few minutes – any excuses he offered for his conduct, whether it be ill health or fear or some other cause – would help to determine his coming fate.
The prisoner seemed not to have heard Mr. Taylor's question. With eyes still unfocussed, he said, "But why did he hit me? I didn't do anything wrong."
Mr. Taylor's eyes rose and came to rest upon the face of his senior night guard. He and Barrett exchanged looks.
Barrett glanced into the cell to see that Mr. Phelps was remaining properly attentive to the prisoner, then carefully closed and locked the cell door. A full five minutes after the beating had ended, Mr. Holloway's screams were only just beginning to diminish. Barrett glanced down the corridor in the direction of the healer's office, half expecting to see Mr. Bergsen, their regular healer, striding toward them, cursing Seekers and guards at the top of his lungs for their brutal treatment of prisoners. With Mr. Holloway's screams and pleas still ringing in his ears, Barrett did not feel he could have denied such a charge, even though he knew that his Seeker had had no choice but to order the beating, after Mr. Holloway had denied responsibility for his actions.
Mr. Taylor was rubbing his eyes with his fingertips, as though he had spent all night tending a prisoner on the rack, rather than having a brief searching session interrupted by an unexpected attack and punishment. "Mr. Boyd," he said, "I wish that Mr. Urman was tending this prisoner instead of you."
Barrett had begun to step away in order to fetch the healer, a necessary action after a medium beating. Now he went still. A rebuke he had expected; he deserved nothing less for having allowed Mr. Phelps to take his gaze off the prisoner. Indeed, Barrett had already begun cursing himself for not passing on to Mr. Phelps the vitally important information that he must not draw his blade in the presence of a prisoner who feared that he would behave violently with blades. As senior night guard, it was Barrett's duty to issue orders to his Seeker's other guards, and he had neglected that duty.
So a rebuke he had expected, but this was something more than a rebuke. Barrett struggled for a response, wondering at what he point he should tender his resignation.
Mr. Taylor seemed uninterested in receiving a reply, though. Turning away, he added, "And I dearly wish that Mr. Chapman was searching this prisoner instead of I."
He walked down the corridor, in the direction of the High Seeker's office, leaving Barrett to stare after him.
Mr. Sobel sat silently for a long time after Barrett spoke, tapping a pencil quietly on the table between them. It was the only sound in the senior guard's living quarters. His wife and children, who followed his schedule of sleeping between the dawn and dusk shifts, were in bed now, for it was late afternoon, Mr. Sobel's equivalent of staying up long past midnight. Mr. Sobel's neighbors were similarly scheduled for the night shift and were asleep now. Barrett – who had been awake since the searching the previous evening – should have been asleep too.
When Mr. Sobel did not respond, Barrett pressed him. "What do you think he meant?"
Mr. Sobel shrugged with a vague look in his eyes, as though his mind had been far away from the conversation. "I'm not the High Seeker, able to read Mr. Taylor's mind. I can only think of one thing that Mr. Chapman and Mr. Urman hold in common."
"They both have commoner accents?" Barrett said slowly. When Mr. Sobel nodded, Barrett leaned back in his chair – one of the plain, functional chairs that appeared in the living quarters of all the dungeon dwellers. He found that he was tapping on the table too, with his dagger hilt, and he forcibly stopped himself. "I'd been wondering about that: why he attacked me rather than Mr. Phelps. It was Mr. Phelps who bound him to the whipping ring, and he thought it was Mr. Phelps who beat him. So why should he choose to attack me, when I'd done nothing except smile at him?"
"Many of our commoner prisoners resent the elite, often with good reason," responded Mr. Sobel. "It wouldn't be the first time that a prisoner attacked a guard who had the wrong accent. Usually, though, such prisoners don't try to deny knowledge afterwards of what they have done."
"I hit him on the head. That can cause momentary confusion."
"And did somebody hit the Earl of Hartgrove's attacker on the head?"
"I don't know," said Barrett slowly, thinking of the prisoner's old scar. He stared down at the dagger, using its blade to crease down the folds of the paper in front of him.
Mr. Sobel caught himself in mid-yawn in order to say, "Documentwork?"
"Requests for release of information." Barrett unfolded the document for Mr. Sobel to see. Mr. Sobel glanced at the document Barrett and nodded. Barrett added, "Mr. Taylor wants me to go through the prisoner's health journal, to see whether it reveals any patterns. He's particularly worried because Mr. Holloway hinted that he had a headache just before he attacked me. Also, Mr. Taylor placed a petition to have the prisoner's financial records released."
"The prisoner's bank will likely fight that petition." Mr. Sobel reached for Barrett's glass to refill it with water – except in the Seekers' common room, water and tea were the only drinks that were permitted to adult dungeon dwellers, since those were the only drinks permitted to prisoners. "The city banks pride themselves on protecting their clients' privacy."
"Mr. Taylor only wants names, not money figures. He says that, if he knows who the prisoner's patrons are, he may be able to persuade them to yield up their correspondence with Mr. Holloway, which could shed light on his thoughts and activities. Mr. Taylor has received first-level authorization from the High Seeker for his petition."
Mr. Sobel raised his eyebrows. "The prisoner's bank won't be able to fight that. What about his patrons?"
"Mostly elite men, Mr. Taylor thinks, judging from the affidavits that have been submitted on the prisoner's behalf."
Mr. Sobel shook his head as he took up his pencil again. "Dukes and marquesses and earls will look down their noses at first-level authorization petitions. You'll have to get the help of the Queen."
"Her Secretary has submitted an affidavit in favor of the prisoner."
Mr. Sobel winced. "You won't get the Queen's ear on this matter, I fear, unless the High Seeker intervenes, and he's busy with other matters at the moment. How old did you say this prisoner was?"
"Some of his original patrons must have died, then, since they would be older than him."
"Most of them have, I suspect. Mr. Holloway said that his income has diminished in recent years."
Mr. Sobel nodded. "Rather than send a petition for the correspondence, you might want to suggest to Mr. Taylor that he write directly to the families of the former patrons. You know that Elsdon Taylor is descended from the Queen's great-great-grandmother?"
Barrett nodded. "He holds no title, though. He can't claim to be of the highest elite."
"Which is why he'd be unlikely to make any headway with Mr. Holloway's surviving patrons, but widows can often be impressed by mentions of lineage." Mr. Sobel dropped the pencil on the table; it rolled off, being of a modern, cylindrical design. "If Mr. Taylor decides to take this course, tell him I can assign Mr. Urman to draft the letter. Mr. Taylor's usual modesty would get in the way of him mentioning his high-born status, but Mr. Urman has no such scruples. I've heard him give the full run-down on Elsdon Taylor's accomplishments."
Mr. Barrett frowned. "Mr. Taylor can't be too exact in his claims. Other than the Guild of Magistrates and the Queen's councillors, nobody outside this dungeon except his brother knows that the E. Taylor who works as a Seeker is the Elsdon Taylor whose late father ran this city's tannery – the largest in our queendom. I didn't even know his family lineage till he told me."
Mr. Sobel shrugged again, retrieving his pencil. "He is hooded; the widows will expect reticence from him concerning his life in the lighted world. I don't suppose there's a single Seeker in this dungeon, save Mr. Smith, whose past has been publicized. But Mr. Taylor has the right to use the seal of the Queen's extended family; that should impress the widows, if nothing else does." He glanced at the paper Barrett had handed him before. "Are those the only petitions he's making?"
"They're the only ones he could think of. He said I could add more. Do you have any suggestions?"
Mr. Sobel's pencil went tap-tap-tap on the table a dozen times before the High Seeker's guard reached forward and scribbled something onto the next blank line of the petition.
Barrett glanced at what he had written and then looked up enquiringly.
Mr. Sobel gave a small smile. "Layle Smith has often said that one of the worst mistakes a Seeker can make is to assume that a murderer has only committed one murder." He pushed the paper over to Barrett's side of the table, and then winced, as though the very effort had hurt him.
Barrett said, "You should retire to bed."
"I should have retired to bed three days ago. That's what my wife says."
"You've been awake for three days?" Barrett raised his eyebrows, but let that be his strongest reaction. Unlike Mr. Urman – who was gifted in ignoring obvious signs of suffering on the part of his fellow guards – Barrett knew that Mr. Sobel's working hours often matched those of the High Seeker.
"Rack room duties, which meant preparations extending into the dusk shift, so I had to be awake for duty in the early afternoon. The healer kept me busy the following day, quizzing me about conditions in the rack room. Then we had medical trouble on the second night, which spared the High Seeker the formality of a death watch, but it meant I had to fill out all the usual long reports, explaining why matters had gone awry. Then I had to send telegrams to the family. Then it turned out that the prisoner was related to a pressman, so I had the happy duty of explaining to the pressman why he would have to request all information on the death through the Guild of Magistrates. He threatened to write an exposé on the Eternal Dungeon's abuse of its prisoners. I showed him a few of the news articles that had already been written on the Eternal Dungeon, and he admitted that he couldn't surpass his colleagues in their fine invectives. He threatened, though, to petition for a murder charge against the High Seeker."
Barrett shook his head. "Seekers and guards are immune from murder charges, unless such charges are placed by the High Seeker or the Codifier. The pressman should know that."
"Yes, but the High Seeker will no doubt hear of the petition, which won't help his state of mind. You know how he is whenever he loses a prisoner."
Barrett did not, in fact, know how the High Seeker was when he lost a prisoner, since Barrett had received the supreme good fortune of having served only once under the High Seeker, during the searching of a single prisoner. But seeing the dark circles under Mr. Sobel's eyes, he bit back all comments about what he had witnessed then. Before he could think of a way to gently persuade Mr. Sobel to go to bed, the other guard said, "I was tempted, though, to have the pressman give a lecture to the junior guards about the danger that Mr. Smith poses to the world."
Barrett frowned as he reached again for his cup. "Why on earth do you say that, Mr. Sobel? The High Seeker's reputation in this dungeon is already as black as the ash-pit when its lid is closed."
Mr. Sobel's gaze touched his. "You haven't been following the latest gossip."
"No." He did not add that he had assiduously avoided listening to dungeon rumors since he had realized the extent of Mr. Taylor's disapproval of gossip.
"I had Mr. Urman transferred back under me partly so that I could keep easy track of such matters, since he's the hub of all gossip in our dungeon. The tale that's being told among the junior guards now is that Layle Smith is all bark, no bite."
It took Barrett a minute to respond. It was like hearing a rumor that the sun rose at midnight. Finally he said, "You're mocking me."
"I only wish I were."
"We're talking about Layle Smith. There are entire ballads written about his bloodthirsty deeds!"
Mr. Sobel shook his head wearily. "Mr. Smith's usual lecture to the dungeon dwellers about how they shouldn't believe gossip has made its mark on the junior guards, at least thus far. They don't believe the ballads, nor the tales about Mr. Smith's acts in the Hidden Dungeon."
"For love of the Queen, Mr. Sobel, they don't need to believe tales of past deeds when they have a sadist in their midst!" Barrett was having a hard time remembering to keep his voice low, even though Finlay Sobel's latest sketches – of various men and women frowning at each other – were scattered on the floor nearby, a visible reminder that the boy and his younger sisters slept nearby. "Mr. Newton—"
"Has been making light of his injuries. Many of the junior guards are fool enough to take him at his word."
"But Layle Smith's prisoners . . ."
Mr. Sobel sighed. "Mr. Boyd, many of the junior guards have been hired since 356."
Barrett reflected upon this fact before saying, "Oh."
"Yes. Their image of the High Seeker is of a lunatic who raved that he would destroy the dungeon, and never did a speck of harm to anyone. They see him as a harmless eccentric – at worst, a harmless madman. And since the time he returned to searching-duty last year, he has been keeping his activities in the breaking cells and rack rooms quiet – far too quiet. There are guards in this dungeon who have no idea what the High Seeker is like when he sets out to break someone. So they've been mocking him."
The full horror of Mr. Sobel's tale was only now beginning to descend upon Barrett, like a nightmare seizing him. "They've been mocking him," he said, as though repeating the words would cause them to vanish.
"They've been saying he's all show, with no blade to back his threats. And Elsdon Taylor tells me that things are almost as bad with the recently hired junior Seekers. He said he could make a fortune if he were given a pound for every time he has heard the word 'bluster' spoken in reference to the High Seeker."
Barrett stared at Mr. Sobel, his heart pounding. "They've said this to Mr. Smith's face?"
"Not to his face, no. The High Seeker's lessons in civility have had a certain effect on the dungeon dwellers. But he's Layle Smith – he knows what's being said about him."
Barrett stumbled to his feet, barely aware of the chair crashing to the floor behind him. "Mr. Sobel, this is like small children goading a bear, thinking that it won't maul. Has the High Seeker said anything to you about this?"
"Only one remark. He says that he finds the latest tales about him amusing."
Barrett blinked in the dim light of the living quarters, trying to make sense of this. "Amusing?"
Mr. Sobel stared down at Barrett's dagger, abandoned on the table. He said quietly, "He told me once that, when he was young, he found it amusing to allow prisoners to think he was harmless, right up to the moment he destroyed them."
Barrett's legs began to shake; he barely managed to pull the chair upright and sit down in it before his strength failed him. "Sweet blood," he whispered. "Sweet, sweet blood."
Mr. Sobel shook his head, not looking up. "I oughtn't to have told you that last part."
"I won't pass it on," Barrett promised. "But Mr. Sobel, if the High Seeker sets out to prove these rumor-mongers wrong—" He could hear his voice rising in panic, and he strove to keep control of himself. "The Codifierwouldn't permit him to destroy the Eternal Dungeon."
"The Codifier wouldn't, if he knew what the High Seeker was doing. Do you remember what Mr. Smith was like when he broke Thatcher Owen?"
Mr. Boyd shut his eyes, remembering vividly the moment at which he had witnessed the prisoner go white with shock as he realized that he had walked blithely into Layle Smith's trap. "He's subtle."
"Far too subtle. He could utterly destroy the Code of Seeking, and nobody would realize it until it was too late. Right now, we are relatively safe from him, because he is showing us the blade of his power. It's when he stops showing his blade that the real danger will begin."
"And some junior guards and Seekers are fools enough to think he has no blade." Barrett thumped the table with frustration as he opened his eyes. The neighboring quarters were beginning to reverberate with sound as its inhabitants rose with the approach of the dusk shift, but the sound came faintly to Barrett's ears, like the surge of a wave beginning to gather strength. "Mr. Sobel, why did we ever allow a man like that to become our High Seeker?"
"Because he is a genius." Mr. Sobel's response was soft. "He is a genius, and a high visionary. When Mr. Smith wrote the fifth revision of the Code of Seeking, it had to be approved by the Guild of Magistrates. I was present at the reading; I saw a group of hardened, phlegmatic men reduced to tears as they heard the words he had written about rebirth. And he has lived out those words in his work with the prisoners here. At his best, no one can surpass him as a model for humane treatment of prisoners. He is like an incarnation of the goddess Mercy."
"And at his worst, he is Hell." Barrett ran his fingers through his hair, trying to think straight. "What can we do?"
Mr. Sobel pushed the dagger over to Barrett. "Aside from praying? Look to his mind's health."
Barrett, who had been about to sheathe his dagger, flicked his gaze up to the other guard. "You think he is in danger of going mad again?" he said softly.
"At the moment, no. But that doesn't mean his mind is healthy. Mr. Boyd, whatever Mr. Bergsen may say publicly about the High Seeker being cured of his madness, he knows as well as the Codifier and the Record-keeper and anyone else who has worked closely with the High Seeker that Layle Smith is never entirely right in his mind. He is a man who is perpetually unbalanced, but who has learned to control himself so well that he can do his work, and do it in a remarkable fashion. Yet he is always dancing on a knife's edge."
"Elsdon Taylor's love is what keeps him from falling off," Barrett suggested.
"Yes, to a large degree. Which is why the best thing you can do for Layle Smith – and by extension, this dungeon – is try to keep those two at peace with each other. This present tension between the two of them is what is worsening Mr. Smith's health, more than any mockery he endures."
Barrett folded up the petitions before replying. "Mr. Sobel, I think you have a more exalted view of my role in this matter than the circumstances warrant."
Mr. Sobel's smile was wry as he rose to escort Barrett to the door. "Mr. Boyd," he said, "if there is one thing I have learned in the twenty-seven years of my career here, it is never to underestimate the role that guards can play in the life of the Eternal Dungeon."
. . . All that was needed, it seems, was for a handful of prison workers to begin to doubt the foundational principles of their work; once that had happened, a revolution was set in motion. Or so it is often said by historians who take a superficial view of the origins of the conflict.
We may say, if we like, that it was obvious who was in the right. But we must remember again that the traditions of the Eternal Dungeon were military traditions. A soldier might decide, out of tender conscience, that it is wrong to kill in warfare, but if he has signed up for the army, he is expected to carry out orders. If he does not, he may reasonably expect to be shot.
What created tension in the Eternal Dungeon in 360 was therefore not the fact that some Seekers and guards began to question whether torture was the best means by which to question prisoners. We know that this had happened in past decades, and that the past questioning had no effect on how the dungeon was run. What created tension was the conflict Layle Smith found himself in – a conflict of his own making.
For it was Layle Smith who had encouraged the junior members of the dungeon to speak freely. It was Layle Smith who had permitted their greater participation in the decision-making. And it was Layle Smith who would now find that his high principles had been turned into a weapon against him as a new generation refused to accept his orders in the fashion of obedient soldiers.
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
Chapter 4: Appointment
On Guard 4
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.
"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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
Chapter 5: Mediation
On Guard 5
The year 360, the eighth month. (The year 1881 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
I would like to dwell for a bit on what I believe is the most-neglected aspect of Layle Smith's background: his experience with the military.
For the sake of readers who are a bit hazy in their grasp of history (that would be all university students, judging from my experience teaching), let us recall that, in the middle of the fourth century, the Thousand Years' War between Yclau and Vovim primarily took the form of raids by Vovimian soldiers into the border areas of Yclau. The soldiers would invade small villages, seize any objects they considered valuable – money, jewels, women, boys – and then, if not caught and killed by the Yclau soldiers, they would retreat to Vovim, taking their loot with them. It was believed by the Vovimian soldiers that these periodic episodes of terror would force the Queendom of Yclau to cede territory to the Kingdom of Vovim – or, to phrase it from the Vovimian perspective, to return Vovimian territory which Yclau had stolen.
The fate of the women and boys caught in these raids was usually terrible. The soldiers would "play" with them for a time, and then either abandon their victims – miles from Yclau, with no food or money – or they would sell the women and boys to houses of prostitution.
When we realize this, we can understand why Layle Smith, in all his surviving writings on this topic, referred to his late father only with respect. Unlike most Vovimian soldiers, Layle Smith's father did not abandon or sell the Yclau woman he had abducted; instead, he spent a good deal of money to set her up in a cottage on his property, he saw that her young son was given the beginnings of a good education, and he showered his mistress and his bastard son with presents.
What Layle Smith's mother thought of such tokens of affection from her rapist we do not know, but young Layle seems to have taken away two lessons from the experience. One lesson was that he must protect whoever he loved. The other was that the manner in which to do so was through terror.
This terror took a particularly hideous form when he worked as a torturer in Vovim's Hidden Dungeon, abusing the prisoners he periodically fell in love with. During his time in the Eternal Dungeon, thankfully, he seems to have learned to divorce his desire to protect the prisoners and his desire to destroy them.
But it must never be forgotten that Layle Smith's father was, in modern parlance, a terrorist . . .
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
"Amnesia?" said Barrett. "You think that's what it is?"
Mr. Taylor did not immediately reply, since he was busy chipping out old wax from a candle-holder with the dagger he had borrowed from Barrett. Finally, when the holder was cleaned to his satisfaction, he replied, "It's not unknown, in cases where the murderer commits an act that violates his conscience. It happened to me."
Barrett started slightly as he took the dagger back from his Seeker. So used was he to thinking of Elsdon Taylor as an upholder of the law that he often forgot that the younger man was in this place only because he had committed a bloody kin-murder at age eighteen.
"It would fit the facts, I suppose," Barrett said finally, as he used his handkerchief to wipe off the remaining bits of wax from the tip of his dagger. "I would swear that Mr. Holloway was sincere when he said he didn't know how the bloody dagger came to be in his wardrobe. But why would he attack the younger Earl, who had shown him kindness when he was young?"
Barrett thought he could hear a grim smile in Elsdon Taylor's voice as he replied, "I've been asked that question myself, many times. Why did I kill my sister, who did me no harm, when it was my father who abused me? All I can say is that, toward the end, everyone like my father became my enemy."
Barrett considered this as Mr. Taylor carefully spiked a new candle so that it would be set in place in the holder. Barrett had met the junior Seeker walking down the corridor next to the Seekers' cells, wiping his hands free of grease because he had just spent an hour examining the dungeon's new heating system. "Wasting my time on pleasure activities," Mr. Taylor had commented apologetically, as though he had been born in a mechanic's household rather than being raised by a high-born father who had owned one of the largest businesses in the city. Elsdon Taylor forever revealed new layers to himself; Barrett wondered how the High Seeker managed to keep up with him.
"Who are the prisoner's enemies, then?" Barrett asked finally. "The younger Earl, because his father abused Mr. Holloway?"
"And perhaps any high-born man. Have you noticed Mr. Holloway's extreme diffidence?"
"It's hard to miss, sir," Barrett replied as Mr. Taylor blew out the taper he had just used to light a candle.
"I had the same diffidence in my boyhood. I told myself that I was a much lesser creature than my father. But part of me knew otherwise and raged against my father's attempts to unjustly humble me. So on the surface I was meek, while inside I was developing into a killer." Mr. Taylor stepped back from the wall, his eye on the flame of rebirth that he had just lit for one of his former prisoners. "It was so great a separation in my mind that I hid from myself the knowledge of the murderer that lurked inside me. Though I can't be sure, it seems possible to me that Mr. Holloway has done the same, making a murderous attack on the younger Earl because of the man's high-born status, and then hiding from himself the fact that he had committed the crime."
Barrett took a deep breath, his eye travelling over the hundreds of flames lit in this place for executed prisoners. They represented, he knew, only a small portion of the prisoners who had died due to evidence given by the Seekers. "Sir," he said, "if Mr. Holloway has committed the murders—"
"Murder," corrected Mr. Taylor without looking away from his prisoner's flame. "An attempted murder."
"If he has committed murder, sir, then is there any chance that the magistrates will sentence him to life imprisonment?"
Mr. Taylor shook his head as he turned away from the candle. "Not when he has been charged with an unprovoked attack. And the magistrates are not currently in a mood to ameliorate charges against any prisoner, as you may have heard."
"Yes, sir," said Barrett, inwardly cursing the power of the press to sway justice. "Then perhaps the Eternal Dungeon will be able to grant him refuge, as it did in your case? For this is surely a case where the prisoner would be willing to make reparation for his criminal activity, through his labor here."
Mr. Taylor paused to stare at a black hollow in the ground, where prisoners' bodies were burned after execution. "The High Seeker has decided to end that custom. He says there is no mention of it in the Code of Seeking."
Barrett felt as though the lid of the ash-pit had just been lowered upon his stomach. It took him a minute to find breath to speak. "I hadn't heard that, sir."
"It hasn't been officially announced yet. He told me last night, when I discussed Mr. Holloway's case with him."
Discussed with raised voices, Barrett guessed, interpreting the levelness of his Seeker's tone. Even now, with Elsdon Taylor publicly opposing the High Seeker's policies, he would not directly criticize his love-mate in the presence of others.
"Is there no hope for the prisoner, sir?" He could hear the desperation in his voice.
Mr. Taylor kneeled down to stare at the blackened ground. "If he is found guilty, he will hang – unless I can prove that he is mad. Yclau law does not permit the execution or imprisonment of young children or the insane."
Barrett frowned. "Was that issue raised at your own trial, sir? You could surely have been said to have entered into a momentary madness when you committed your crime."
Mr. Taylor shook his head. "The magistrates are reluctant to release convicted murderers unless the prison's healer certifies that the prisoner is permanently insane. Mr. Bergsen could find no justification for making such an assessment in my case. This case is somewhat different, though, since the attempted murder has taken place so many years after the original act that may have sparked it – and Mr. Holloway's scar suggests that his brain may have been harmed fifty years ago, with the effects only now being shown." Mr. Taylor rose to his feet. "In any case, the issue may be moot, as we are not yet absolutely sure that Mr. Holloway was the one who attacked the younger Earl."
Barrett's silence must have reached the junior Seeker eventually, for Mr. Taylor slowly turned his head. "Mr. Boyd?" he said cautiously.
Barrett sighed. "Over here, sir, if you will." He waved toward the table-ledge nearby, in front of the enormous glass case of leather-bound books.
The books were behind glass to protect them against the mildew that dungeon books were prone to acquire. Books elsewhere in the dungeon could be cleaned periodically, but many of the volumes in the glass case were too ancient for such treatment, having been transferred from the ruins of the previous royal dungeon. They contained the names of every prisoner – and in recent decades, every torturer – who had been buried in the royal dungeons.
Only the most recent volume lay open for use on the table-ledge. Glancing at it as he came forward, Barrett saw the name of the High Seeker's prisoner from the previous month, who had died on the rack, due to a heart condition that had not appeared in his medical records. In the far right column of the volume, in his characteristically bold handwriting, the High Seeker had noted the cause of the prisoner's death: "Killed by his Seeker."
Barrett wished he knew whether Layle Smith had written those words with sorrow or with pleasure.
Mr. Taylor carefully pushed the volume aside before looking down at the two documents that Barrett placed on the table-ledge. After a moment, he said, "The first list, I assume, shows the dates on which Mr. Holloway had his headaches. And the second list, with names and dates?"
"The dates are those on which murders occurred in this city that remain unsolved, during the past five years. Mr. Sobel suggested I petition for that list. The names are those of the victims."
Mr. Taylor scanned rapidly the list, which was a jumble of names, mainly that of commoners and mid-class folk, but with a few elite mixed within them. "You've marked the names of several titled men here," he said.
"Yes, sir. Their murders match the dates on which Mr. Holloway had his headaches."
Mr. Taylor nodded. "This is well done, but the evidence is still superficial. There are many dates on which Mr. Holloway had headaches but no murder occurred, and many dates on which a murder occurred but Mr. Holloway had no headache. The overlapping dates could be coincidence."
Barrett said nothing, but placed the third list in front of Mr. Taylor.
After a minute, Elsdon Taylor said, in a voice too level, "What is this, Mr. Boyd?"
"The other information you requested, sir. The names of Mr. Holloway's patrons, over the years. I've marked the relevant names."
After two minutes more, Mr. Taylor raised his right hand and covered his eyes with the tips of his fingers. He stood that way for a long time. Then he stepped back from the table-ledge. "Send a message to the magistrates, Mr. Boyd, and tell them that, in addition to the original charge, the Eternal Dungeon is charging Mr. Holloway with eight murders."
"Yes, sir. And the lesser prisons who investigated his patrons' deaths? Should they be informed?"
"Yes. I want a complaint lodged against those prisons, at the Guild of Prison Workers. The investigators should have made this link before."
"They could hardly have thought, sir, that a beneficiary would kill his own patrons. Only a madman would do that."
"I very much hope," said Elsdon Taylor as he turned toward the sanctuary door, "that the dungeon healer agrees with your assessment, Mr. Boyd."
Rolling his pencil back and forth on the dining table with the greatest of ease, Mr. Yates smiled when Barrett had finished speaking. "Mr. Boyd," he said, "you'll forgive me, I hope, if I'm blunt: You're exceedingly naive if you've ever thought that Seekers are infallible."
Wincing, Barrett took a sip of his morning tea. "It's not that. Working under Mr. Chapman . . . Well, he never tried to disguise when he was puzzled about how to proceed in a case. But I always thought that, when it came to the Seekers with greater skills, men like Mr. Taylor . . ."
Mr. Yates shook his head as he pushed toward Barrett a basket of scones that were shaped like rings of rebirth. "Even the High Seeker has never claimed to be a Vovimian god. We all make mistakes, Mr. Boyd. And what of it? Just because the magistrates sometimes sentence an innocent prisoner to be hanged, does that mean we should abolish the magistracy? Shall we allow criminals to roam the streets at will because we're afraid to take the chance of harming an innocent prisoner?"
Barrett tore his scone in half. "Imprisonment is one thing. What we do in the rack room, though . . ."
Mr. Yates sighed heavily as he buttered his scone. No jam and clotted cream appeared on the table. The prisoners were not permitted those with their tea; therefore, neither were the other dungeon inhabitants. "Look, Mr. Boyd, you're making it sound as though every prisoner who walks into the Eternal Dungeon ends up on the rack. On the contrary, it's the vicious prisoners – the ones who have almost certainly committed murder or rape – who are placed there. Consider how it works. A prisoner disobeys a minor rule, such as failing to stand in the presence of his Seeker. The way the United Order of Prisons would like the world to think, we immediately rack the prisoner. You know that's not the case; the prisoner is sentenced to a minor punishment – as low as five lashes, depending on his past history of being punished in the lighted world. Usually that's all it takes to keep a prisoner under control. —More tea?" He offered Mr. Barrett the pitcher as Barrett stared morosely at his empty cup. Barrett shook his head. Mr. Yates continued, "So then the same prisoner attacks a guard. Well, it's not unknown for an innocent prisoner to attack a guard in a moment of panic. So he's only whipped at that point. Since it's a second offense, he receives forty to sixty heavy lashes. If you were an innocent, law-abiding man, and you were given sixty heavy lashes, would you immediately conclude, 'I should test my Seeker's patience, and risk being put on the rack'?" Mr. Yates shook his head as he sipped from his cup. "No, Mr. Boyd, virtually the only prisoners who end up in the rack room are the ones who are unscrupulous murderers and rapists. Ninety-eight point five percent guilty. I didn't pick that figure out of the ash-pit; it's the number of racked men who are subsequently sentenced to death by the magistrates."
"And how do you know that the magistrates are right?" Barrett asked, tearing his scone in half. "Have you followed the hanged men into afterdeath to determine their guilt?"
Mr. Yates smiled. "I said that the magistrates are fallible, not utter dunces. —Are you planning to eat that?" He pointed to Barrett's plate. Barrett, looking blankly down at his scone, realized that he had shredded the scone into a dozen pieces.
Mr. Yates laughed at his expression. "I must go; I'm due on duty. Don't worry, Mr. Boyd; all of us ask these questions sooner or later. You're just a bit later than most of us in settling matters with your conscience." Patting his mustache with his napkin, he reached over, scooped up the pencil, thrust it into his breast pocket, and left the table, whistling blithely.
Abandoning the scone he had tortured, Mr. Boyd rose to his feet and looked around. This being the beginning of the day shift, the dining hall was largely abandoned. Even the water closet – usually the most popular spot in the dungeon – was sporting an "out of order" sign. Mr. Boyd saw Mr. Sobel – whose time of labor, like the High Seeker's, often lasted well through the dawn shift – enter the room. Mr. Boyd began walking over to him. Mr. Sobel was the wisest guard Barrett knew; no doubt he would be able to offer better answers than Mr. Yates had.
Then Barrett saw Finlay standing on a chair, waving his latest sketch in the air for Mr. Sobel's benefit: a drawing of a group of men shouting at one another. By the time Barrett reached Mr. Sobel, the other guard was standing beside the table, solemnly examining the sketch as Finlay chattered on.
"—couldn't draw the fists right. See?" Finlay pointed.
"I see," acknowledged his father. "Well, I'm afraid I don't have the skills to help you. But perhaps the High Seeker would be willing to lend you some of his art books."
"Should I ask him now?" Finlay looked doubtfully at the table next to them, where the High Seeker was speaking in undertones to the dungeon's day supervisor, Weldon Chapman.
Mr. Sobel shook his head. "He's still on duty; I'll convey your request to him later. Besides, it's time for your bath." He pointed to the doorway of the dining hall, where a round-bellied woman stood, with two young girls holding her hands.
Finlay groaned, but after a stern look from his father, he clambered down from the table and trotted over to his mother, waving the sketch for her to see. Barrett hesitated, realizing that Mr. Sobel must still be on duty, but the other guard waved him into a chair.
Mr. Sobel himself did not sit down. He turned round a chair and rested his bottom upon the backrest, leaving Barrett to wonder whether Mr. Sobel was off-duty after all. Barrett glanced again at Layle Smith. Surely Mr. Sobel would not be following around the High Seeker if he had been dismissed from duty?
"You look tired," Seward remarked to Mr. Sobel, wondering how to broach the topic that was bothering him.
Mr. Sobel sighed and rubbed the skin next to his eyes. His gaze, however, remained fixed on the High Seeker. "It's been quite a night. On top of everything else, a prisoner decided to smash one of the supposedly unbreakable plates of glass that protect the new ceiling-lights in the cells. He managed to slice his wrists with the glass before his guards reached him."
"Sweet blood," said Barrett softly. "Is he alive?"
"Oh, yes. His guards moved quickly enough to prevent death."
"Is he the High Seeker's prisoner?" Barrett ventured. Mr. Sobel, he knew, was disinclined to take credit when he acted in an exemplary manner.
Mr. Sobel shook his head, though. "Mr. Chapman's prisoner. Poor Mr. Chapman. This will bring back the wrong sort of memories."
Barrett began to ask why, then remembered. According to Mr. Urman – whose gossip ranged farther than the junior guard's own time in the dungeon – back in the days when Mr. Chapman served as a guard, he had been the unfortunate man who had been on duty during one of the dungeon's few successful suicides.
"Neither episode was his fault," Barrett countered.
"Of course not. But the older suicide still looms in his conscience."
Barrett began to speak, then stopped. It had finally occurred to him that the suicidal prisoner who was on Mr. Sobel's mind was not Mr. Chapman's old prisoner.
"Seward," he said – one of the few times he had spoken the senior night guard's given name, though the two of them had become fast friends the previous year, during the hair-raising case of Thatcher Owen. "It wasn't your fault either."
Mr. Sobel gave him a crooked smile, glancing briefly his way before returning his gaze to the High Seeker. "So everyone told me at the time. But it keeps me awake some nights, knowing that a man is forever trapped in afterdeath, unable to be reborn, because of my careless talk to the junior guard."
"I'm not so sure about that," Barrett said slowly, leaning back in his chair.
Mr. Sobel's gaze snapped over to him, then quickly back to the High Seeker. "What do you mean?"
"You know that my father is chaplain at Parkside University." Barrett waited until Mr. Sobel nodded before adding, "He tells me that some of the greatest minds at the university today believe that the traditional interpretation of the ancient injunction against suicide is wrong. It is likely, they say, that the injunction against suicide was only meant to cover cases where death was otherwise unlikely, and the suicide was undertaken for selfish reasons. So rebirth would still be permitted to, say, a prisoner who turned himself over to the authorities as reparation for his crimes, even though he knew that he would be hanged . . . or, as another example, a condemned prisoner who killed himself because he couldn't bear the thought of being hanged—"
"Have you said this to anyone in the dungeon?"
"What?" Barrett was startled; Mr. Sobel did not ordinarily interrupt other people. "No, I don't think so. Why—?"
"Then you will not do so. Mr. Boyd, that is an order."
Barrett stared at the other guard's stern expression for a moment; then he felt a flush of embarrassment enter his face. "Of course, sir," he said softly, glancing to ascertain that nobody was close enough to have heard him. The only possible exception was the High Seeker, which was hardly comforting. "I'm sorry. I didn't think."
"The last thing this dungeon needs," Mr. Sobel said, equally softly, "is a group of junior guards who have taken it into their heads that the prisoners here would be better off if they committed suicide. Thank you for seeking to comfort me, but our job is to protect lives, not to worry about abstruse philosophical debates."
"Yes, sir." His face was feeling very hot indeed, though he could not help asking, "And if the university debates end up carrying over to the rest of the lighted world, so that everyone here eventually realizes that a prisoner who kills himself isn't necessarily denied rebirth?"
Mr. Sobel sighed. "I'm going to hope that such an event happens after our time."
He was looking tired again. Barrett felt regret eat at him for the additional burden he had placed on the High Seeker's guard. He asked, "Shall I fetch you some tea?"
"No, thank you." Mr. Sobel's gaze wandered away again. "As soon as I'm released from duty, I plan to fall into bed and sleep for two days."
"I see." A two-day break from duty for Mr. Sobel meant that one of the High Seeker's prisoners had just been executed. This had indeed not been a good day for Mr. Sobel. Seeking to lighten the mood, Barrett said, "If your children allow you that much time to sleep."
But it was the wrong remark to make, for Mr. Sobel replied quietly, "Yes. My daughters have been kept awake by nightmares for the past few nights."
"Oh." Barrett thought again of Finlay's latest sketch, and he winced.
Mr. Sobel sighed heavily. "My wife and I have been seriously considering whether we should move the children into the lighted world. Until this point, Finlay and his sisters have acted like normal children. But now. . ."
"You'd move out of the dungeon?" Barrett raised his eyebrows. By tradition, the High Seeker's senior-most guard always roomed in the outer dungeon.
Mr. Sobel shook his head. "Not me. My duties don't permit it. No, it would mean a separation from my wife and children, which is why she and I have been agonizing over this matter."
Barrett rose then, as though he were a gas balloon that had abruptly lost its ballast. "You look deathly weary; I'm sure the last thing you want is to be carrying on a long conversation. I'll drop by and see you in a couple of days, shall I?"
"I'd enjoy that." Mr. Sobel barely took his eyes off Barrett long enough to give him a nod of farewell; then he turned his attention back to the High Seeker. Mr. Smith was continuing to speak quietly with Mr. Chapman, who now had his head bowed.
Barrett turned away. Mr. Sobel was a family man, Barrett reflected. He did not deserve to be burdened with other men's troubles during the hours when he was dealing with family matters.
Besides, Barrett had just been forcefully reminded that Mr. Sobel was the High Seeker's senior night guard. If Mr. Sobel knew how deep Barrett's doubts went, he might feel duty-bound to report the matter to the High Seeker.
And so Barrett could not seek advice from him. That left . . .
His eye drifted over to a familiar spot: the place where, more and more during the past weeks, he had found himself sitting.
As usual, the two of them were there: Mr. Crofford and Mr. Urman. The latter had evidently just come off-duty, for he was still in uniform. However, today a Seeker had joined the two guards. Barrett hesitated, but Mr. Crofford caught sight of him and smiled, and so Barrett walked over to join the group.
As he reached the table and slipped unobtrusively into a seat, Mr. Ferris was saying, ". . . was a real handful, I tell you. After two months, Mr. Jenson handed the boy over to me, saying, 'If you can survive him, your work will be worth it. I don't have the strength to handle him.' That was saying something, I'll tell you."
"So why was he so difficult?" Mr. Urman asked. "Too traditionalist to accept the innovations of the Eternal Dungeon?"
Mr. Ferris snorted. As usual, he was hooded, but the amusement was plain in his voice as he said, "Traditionalist? He was the most radical boy who ever walked through the gates of this dungeon. He questioned everything, and he accepted nothing that he was taught without testing it for himself. Every morning he would come to me and say, in a deceptively polite voice, 'Excuse me, sir, but I've discovered a couple of ways in which the Code of Seeking, in its present form, could be used to exploit the prisoners.' Then he'd rattle off a dozen or so complaints that he'd compiled overnight. . . . At first I made the mistake of trying to brush off his complaints."
"What did he do?" With his chin resting on his fists, Mr. Crofford looked wholly absorbed in the tale.
"Can't you guess?" Mr. Urman shot back. "He exploited the prisoners."
"He exploited the Code," Mr. Ferris corrected. "He'd take advantage of the Code to twist it into a weapon against the prisoners . . . but always stopped just a hair's breadth short of harming them. Oh, he was a handful, all right. My assignment was like trying to control a bomb-throwing anarchist; I barely slept during the time we worked together. I've never been so relieved as the day when Layle Smith ended his period as a Torturer-in-Training."
"And now he's trying to keep the dungeon frozen in time," Mr. Crofford said mournfully.
Mr. Ferris sucked at his straw, even though his glass was empty – the sure sign of a former pipe-smoker who now lived in a dungeon where smoking was forbidden. "Ah, well, that always happens when one grows old. One day you wake up and discover that a new generation has displaced your own, and has its own ideas on how to run things."
"That's exactly how it feels," inserted Barrett. "As though this dungeon has been divided into two schools of thought: an old school that wants to keep things the way they are, and a new school that wants to move forward."
"And Elsdon Taylor is heading the new school," Mr. Urman inserted.
But Mr. Ferris was shaking his head. "You young ones shouldn't discount the value of tradition. Even Mr. Smith, when he was young, knew that he was building upon a treasure. He never went so far as to break the Code – that's important to remember. He's no hypocrite. He has always believed in bringing about change while abiding by the Code."
"But he's not even talking about change any more!" Mr. Crofford protested.
"Maybe not at the moment." Mr. Ferris abandoned the straw and leaned forward. "I'll tell you how I think things are. The High Seeker has had problems recently in keeping control over some of the guards. Junior guards," he added with a wink. "And some of the junior Seekers, like Mr. Newton, are too filled with a sense of their own self-importance to heed his orders. I'll make a safe prediction: Once Layle Smith has brought those young rebels to heel, this dungeon will return to normal. Until then," he added with a smile in his voice, "it's business as usual for us senior members. Isn't that right, Mr. Boyd?"
Barrett hesitated, wondering whether to offer an honest answer, but at that moment, Mr. Ferris looked over his shoulder and said, "Ah, High Seeker. We were just speaking of you."
Barrett jumped in place, as though he had been touched by an electric spark, and then he hastily rose to his feet and turned to face Layle Smith. The other guards were doing likewise. Mr. Ferris followed suit at a more leisurely pace.
"Oh, dear." The High Seeker's voice was utterly expressionless, which was usually a bad sign. "Should I go away again?"
All of the guards tensed, but Mr. Ferris merely slapped Layle Smith on the back and laughed. "You have the driest sense of humor of any man I know," he told the High Seeker, leaving his hand on Mr. Smith's back as he turned his colleague around and began walking forward. "Did you receive the invitation for my seventieth birthday celebration?"
"I did," the High Seeker replied as he walked beside Mr. Ferris. "I believe that Mr. Taylor will be sending his acceptance. I fear that I cannot attend; I have too much work at the moment. I thank you for your kind invitation, however. . . ."
Their voices faded as they drew away. They were not quite far enough away, to Barrett's mind, when Mr. Urman said in an acid voice, "He always has a fucking cold-blooded manner of speaking."
Barrett winced; sometimes, Mr. Urman's commoner origins showed themselves all too plainly. Mr. Crofford, always willing to overlook his friend's vulgarities, said only, "He likes Mr. Ferris, though."
Mr. Urman emitted a sniff. "You mean, Mr. Ferris likes him. All that nonsense Mr. Ferris spoke about how Mr. Smith was just trying to keep control over a few junior members . . ."
"The High Seeker likes Mr. Ferris too," Mr. Crofford insisted. "Did you see how he let Mr. Ferris touch him? If any of us had done that, he'd have given us a look that turned us into blocks of ice."
"I suppose that age and seniority have their privileges." Mr. Urman dismissed the matter with a wave of the hand.
"No, it's more than that, if Mr. Ferris trained him," Barrett argued. "Training someone creates a link—" He stopped; Mr. Crofford was smiling at him.
Mr. Urman shrugged. "I wouldn't know. I've never trained anyone." But he did not look up as he spoke; he was fiddling with the dice in his hand.
Mr. Crofford voiced Barrett's thoughts. "Mr. Sobel trained you, D., and you're working with him again. How are matters going between you two?"
Mr. Urman simply shrugged. Barrett, watching the dice, said, "Game?" Generosity was what prompted his offer; dominoes was his preferred game, as it was for most of the guards in the dungeon. Only commoners – or men like Mr. Urman, who had been raised among commoners – played dice.
Mr. Urman shrugged again but shoved the dice over to Barrett. "No stakes," he said.
"No stakes," Barrett agreed. Even the dungeon's whist players – whose stake-games had been benignly ignored by the authorities for decades – had decided that it was wiser to adhere strictly to the Code for the time being.
They threw dice in turns, with Mr. Crofford keeping score; the game mainly went in Barrett's favor. Finally Mr. Urman said abruptly, "I think people are misjudging Mr. Sobel."
"Oh?" Barrett threw the dice, got triple nines, and threw again.
"Yes, everyone is saying that he shares the High Seeker's views, just because he carries out the High Seeker's orders. Well, I carry out the High Seeker's orders too, and I'm bloody well not on the High Seeker's side. We— That is, I think he's waiting for the right moment to make a stand against the High Seeker. Not yet, not over small matters like tardiness and drunkenness—"
Barrett looked up quickly from the dice. "Has something new happened?"
Mr. Urman looked over at Mr. Crofford, who said softly, "The notice went up in the entry hall an hour ago. Mr. Milz, Mr. Prosser, and Mr. Gamage are being suspended for tardiness . . . and Mr. Raupp is being dismissed from employment altogether."
"What?" Barrett half rose to his feet. "Mr. Raupp is the most promising young guard this dungeon has! Was he really drunk on duty?"
He directed his question at Mr. Urman, but that guard said nothing. It was remarkable, Barrett thought, how Mr. Urman's willingness to circulate gossip ceased abruptly whenever the gossip concerned prisoners whom he himself had guarded.
Mr. Crofford, though, was able to supply the missing details. "The story that Mr. Raupp has been telling is that he attended a family dinner, the evening before last, which honored his great-grandmother's death and rebirth. He hadn't planned to drink, but his brothers urged him to join in the toast honoring his great-grandmother's transformation to a new life. He took just one sip and then set the drink down. It was only two-thirds of an hour past midnight, and he wasn't due to work again till yesterday's dusk shift; he was never even close to being tipsy. But he spilled some of the wine on his shirt, and the junior guard on the day shift smelled it when they exchanged shifts. The junior day guard reported him to the Codifier, and when searched, Mr. Raupp admitted to the High Seeker that he had broken the Code's rule against guards drinking on the same day as they are due for duty."
"Maybe the High Seeker didn't believe his tale," suggested Barrett, who was barely aware now that he had just tossed a throw that had won him the dice game.
"Mr. Raupp said that the High Seeker did believe him. He said that Mr. Smith told him, 'I'm very sorry, Mr. Raupp, but the Code of Seeking must be upheld.'"
Barrett swallowed down several curses before saying, "At this rate, there won't be any decent guards left in this dungeon."
Mr. Urman gave a sharp, humorless laugh as he frowned at Barrett's winning throw. "You think that's a coincidence?"
"What do you mean?" Barrett leaned back in his seat. The dining hall was empty now except for the three of them. Even Mr. Sobel had followed the High Seeker and Mr. Ferris out of the hall. From the direction of the kitchen came the sound of pump-water, the clash of the stoneware plates that all dungeon inhabitants ate upon, and subdued chatter. Straining his ear, Barrett thought he caught a scrap of the dishwashers' conversation. The outer-dungeon laborers were also concerned by this latest turn of events, it seemed.
"You just mark me, Mr. Boyd: The High Seeker will get rid of every man who opposes him and will replace them with workers who are willing to lick his boots." Mr. Urman scooped up the dice. "Another game?"
Barrett shook his head. His thoughts had drifted back to Mr. Sobel. Three suspensions, one expulsion, an attempted suicide, and an execution . . . all in one night. No wonder Mr. Sobel had looked tired.
Mr. Crofford said, "I'll play."
On the point of pocketing the dice, Mr. Urman paused to look at him. "You don't know how. I had to teach you how to score us just now."
Mr. Crofford smiled at him. "You could teach me the rest."
Mr. Urman fingered the dice. "Maybe. I'd like to— Well, that's something for us to talk about. Mr. Boyd, do you think you could possibly—?"
In the midst of what sounded like a surprisingly polite request for Mr. Boyd to depart, Mr. Urman shut his mouth. Mr. Sobel had suddenly appeared at the table. He gave a silent nod of greeting to Barrett and Mr. Crofford, then leaned over and murmured something in Mr. Urman's ear.
Mr. Urman growled deep inside his throat, but made no other protest. Mr. Sobel departed, as silently as he had come. Mr. Urman stood up and straightened his jacket and cravat, then checked the weapons at his belt. Barrett, looking in the direction that Mr. Sobel had departed, saw that the High Seeker was looming in the doorway.
"Another arrest?" suggested Barrett.
Mr. Urman made no reply to his question. He simply tossed the dice into Mr. Crofford's hands. "Here," he said. "I'll teach you later."
For a while after Mr. Urman followed Layle Smith and his senior night guard out of the room, there was silence. Mr. Crofford kept his head bowed, fingering the dice until Barrett said, "I'll teach you, if you like."
Mr. Crofford raised his head. His expression was so startled that it was clear that his mind was on something other than the bone-smooth dice in his hand. But after a moment, he smiled and said, "Thank you, sir."
"We're off-duty," Barrett reminded him as he took the dice. "And at the rate you're advancing in your work, you'll be receiving your seniority soon. After a few years, perhaps you'll have risen so high that I'll be calling you sir."
Mr. Crofford gave a wan smile. "Oh, I don't intend to apply for seniority. I'm content to be one of those guards who follows others' lead. Except. . ."
"Except?" Barrett paused in the midst of throwing the dice.
Mr. Crofford bit his lip, stared at the dice, and finally burst out, "It was easier being a junior guard before now."
Barrett's eyes nearly went to the doorway through which Mr. Urman had exited. Then he saw the dark smudges under Mr. Crofford's eyes and realized that the young guard's worries preceded today's events . . . though they had perhaps been increased by them.
"It used to be easy," said Mr. Crofford, his voice wringing misery from every word. "If you reported someone whom you believed had broken the Code, he'd get a fair trial. It was that way with Mr. Chapman: when he reported himself for beating a prisoner who had been trying to obey his orders, the Codifier and High Seeker took into account that Mr. Chapman's mind was in disarray because he had recently lost his baby son. But now . . ." Mr. Crofford took hold of one of the dice, and his hand clenched around it. "I don't know. It seems like the world has gone mad since Fae died."
Fae had been Mr. Crofford's fiancée, who had died on the eve of their wedding, in a most senseless manner: she had tangled her foot in her skirt while climbing a ladder to help her servants hang wedding bunting from an outside balcony. She had fallen hard, had hit her head on a stone, and had died within minutes.
Mr. Crofford, Barrett knew, had taken the death equally hard: even though an entire year had passed since the death, only recently had Mr. Crofford stripped himself of his mourning armband. Barrett said quietly, "I don't have the knowledge to help you with the latter problem, I'm afraid; I've never been engaged or even had a love-mate, however briefly."
"Really?" Mr. Crofford was startled out of his sable thoughts.
Barrett smiled. "Really. But as for the rest . . . The Seekers have always had the same problem, you know."
"What do you mean?" Resting his chin on his fists once more, Mr. Crofford regarded Barrett with a quizzical eye.
"Don't you realize that every Seeker who sends a prisoner to a magistrate is stepping on hot coals until he discovers whether the magistrate will give the prisoner a fair trial? Mr. Taylor's first prisoner didn't receive a fair trial: he was hung, although there were extenuating circumstances for his murder. Mr. Taylor told me that he was only able to comfort himself afterwards with the knowledge that he had done what he could for the prisoner: he had helped the prisoner enter into his transformation, the prisoner had made indirect reparation for his crime by seeking to help draw Mr. Smith from his madness . . . and so the prisoner was as close as any unrepentant murderer can be to entering into his rebirth."
"I see," said Mr. Crofford slowly. "So your advice is . . ."
"Keep your mind on your own work. Any man you report for breaking the Code may or may not receive a fair trial, but you've done what you can for the prisoners in this dungeon . . . and also for the breaker of the Code, who is facing his own need for transformation."
Mr. Crofford smiled suddenly: a vivid, sun-bright smile. "That makes it easier. That makes it much, much easier. Thank you, Mr. Boyd." He scooped up the dice. "I'll sleep better tonight. Meet you for a game at the dusk shift?"
"I'll look forward to it," said Barrett. But as he watched Mr. Crofford walk away, he was left with uneasiness. Not merely about his own questions, which remained unanswered, but about the answer he had given Mr. Crofford. He had the terrible feeling that he had offered the young guard an analogy that was dangerously wrong.
For what if there were only one magistrate, and his judgments were always unbalanced?
"Murdered?" Mr. Holloway's face had turned as pale as curd, and his hands trembled as he reached up to fiddle with his spectacles. He looked as though he would faint at any moment. "All of them?"
"I'm afraid so." Mr. Taylor was as gentle as a soldier breaking news of a wife's death to her husband. "You didn't know this?"
"I knew they were dead." Mr. Holloway's voice grew yet fainter, and his fingers fluttered on his spectacles. "My bank informed me that I wouldn't be receiving further payments from them. But I thought . . . they were old . . ." His voice trailed to a stop, and his eyes widened, as though taking in a new thought.
Mr. Taylor voiced the thought for him. "Sir, I have been in touch with the women's prison about these killings. Upon being questioned on this topic, your wife has confessed that she had heard of your benefactors' murders, but, believing that you had no part in them, she concealed the news from you, so as not to grieve you."
Barrett, who was standing near the junior Seeker, gave him a sharp look. Mr. Holloway's wife had also been the one who had decided to conceal the bloody knife, and had then changed her mind and persuaded her husband that they should inform the soldiers of the evidence. After eight murders and an attempted murder, had she begun to lose faith in her husband's innocence?
Barrett set aside the matter in his mind. He could not judge her actions; hers was not a comfortable position for any woman of virtue to be placed in. It might well be that her doubts had lingered for some time now, and only this latest murder attempt – with its clear evidence that her husband had been involved – had led her to break her silence. Even then, she had not spoken about the previous murders to the soldiers searching her until she had been directly questioned about them.
None of this, it appeared, was going through Mr. Holloway's mind, for he was shaking his head and saying in a sorrowful voice, "She has always sought to protect me, but she ought to have known that I would want to hear of the unhappy fates of the men who had shown me such kindness and generosity. As it is—" His throat-ball bobbed as he swallowed. "You say that these murders all occurred on the nights I had my headaches?"
"Yes. Do you have any memory of what you did on those nights?"
Mr. Holloway shook his head. Removing his spectacles with trembling hands, he began to wipe the steam off them with his handkerchief.
"The last of these murders was many weeks ago." Mr. Taylor's voice remained gentle. "It's understandable that your memory of those times would be faint."
"I—" Mr. Holloway stared down at the glass lenses; he was blinking rapidly now. "It is not because I have forgotten those times. The murder of the Duke of Fincastle . . . that occurred on my birthday. I remember that day clearly."
"But not the night?" came Mr. Taylor's soft reply.
"No." Mr. Holloway's voice was shaking now. "No, all I remember is the headache. And waking up early the next morning because . . . because a stray cat had entered the house and found his way into the cold pantry, where we keep the milk. Either my wife or I had left the house's front door ajar, you see. Yet we were both sure we had checked that it was locked before we went to our separate beds."
Mr. Phelps – who had taken great care to keep his dagger sheathed when visiting this breaking cell for the past month – winced as Mr. Holloway completed his testimony. Only long training kept Barrett from doing the same. Hell-damned and hell-damned and hell-damned . . . every word that Mr. Holloway spoke provided evidence of his probable guilt.
Yet would probability alone be enough evidence for Mr. Taylor? For what evidence did they truly have? Only that Mr. Holloway could have committed the murder – not that he had, but that he could have. And the only evidence they possessed that he was of a murderous temperament was a single attack they had witnessed. Would that one attack be enough to convince Mr. Taylor of his guilt?
Polishing his spectacles over and over as he stared down at them, Mr. Holloway said, "I could not believe that I would undertake such an act. . . but I would not have believed that I would use violence against a man of the law, and you say that I tried to attack your guard last month."
"Yes, Mr. Holloway." The junior Seeker now sounded as though he were consoling the grieving widower. "All three of us saw it happen. I know that it must be hard for you to trust the word of strangers . . ."
"No, sir." Mr. Holloway shook his head vigorously. "No, sir. I do not doubt your word. No man who had evil intentions toward me would have taken the trouble that you have taken to explore all avenues for my innocence. I . . . this is just a great shock for me. I don't understand how I could have done such a thing, and to such fine men." A tear escaped his control; he ignored it, polishing the glass so hard that Barrett felt sure Mr. Holloway would grind the lenses.
"I can understand that, Mr. Holloway." Still soft, still cradling his prisoner with his words. "I do not in any way intend to suggest that you deliberately set out to commit these murders. I have asked our healer to come and examine you. It may be that she will be able to shed more light on this mystery."
"Yes, sir." Mr. Holloway's voice was broken now. "Of course, I will be glad to be examined by anyone you wish—" His fingers tightened on the lenses, and in the next moment, they slipped out of his handkerchief, landed on the floor, and shattered.
Mr. Phelps stepped back in an automatic manner; several pieces of glass had shot in his direction. Mr. Taylor, more cool under fire, merely glanced quickly down to ascertain that none of the shards had landed on his trousers. "Please don't touch the glass, Mr. Holloway; you might cut yourself. Mr. Phelps, would you kindly fetch a broom and pan and see that this is swept up? Mr. Boyd—"
Barrett barely took in what he was saying. He was watching Mr. Holloway, who was staring at the glass at his feet, and whose breathing had turned rapid.
Barrett realized what was going to happen in the same moment that it happened. "Sir, back!" he cried, and reached for his whip.
Mr. Taylor – showing an alertness that would have saved him under fire on the battlefield – immediately took several steps back, but he was too late. Diving with inhuman speed, Mr. Holloway picked up a piece of glass and ran toward the nearest man, which was his Seeker.
Mr. Phelps immediately hurried forward to intercept the prisoner. Barrett let loose with his whip. Neither of them was in time. With a strangled sound, Mr. Taylor staggered back, his hands over his hooded face, blood seeping through his fingers.
Cursing, Mr. Phelps thrust the Seeker out of danger's way and turned to face the attacker. He had his dagger out, but there was no need. Barrett's lash caught the prisoner full on the back, and as the man screamed in pain, Barrett took three long strides forward. Repeating the same movement he had made five weeks before, he knocked Mr. Holloway unconscious with the hilt of his dagger.
There was a moment of silence, broken by the soft thump of Mr. Holloway's body hitting the floor. Guttural noises were emerging from Mr. Taylor, as though he were holding back screams. Barrett snapped, "Healer," and Mr. Phelps turned and raced from the cell, his dagger still naked in his hand.
Boyd took a swift glance at Mr. Holloway, duty-bound as he was to go first to his prisoner's aid. But Mr. Holloway appeared to be breathing, and Boyd was far more worried by the blood trickling through Mr. Taylor's hands. Taking the junior Seeker by the arm, he steered him through the cell door that Mr. Phelps had left open, locked the door behind them, and began to carefully pry Mr. Taylor's hands from his face.
Mr. Taylor did not resist this procedure, though he was trembling as hard as Mr. Holloway had before the attack. Barrett had a moment to be grateful for the dungeon's new electric lights. Mr. Holloway's breaking cell was located at the end of the dungeon next to the rack rooms; all of the cells nearby were cleared for renovation. If he had been at the entry-hall end of the dungeon, Barrett might have been standing in near darkness, trying to see in the soft, wavering light of the old oil lamps.
He glanced briefly down the rest of the corridor to ascertain that nobody was near – certain habits were hard to kill – before lifting the torn front flap of his Seeker's hood.
Some guards, such as Mr. Sobel, treated the first sight of their Seeker's face as a matter of great momentousness. As far as Barrett was concerned, a hood was a piece of clothing like any other; under normal circumstances, he would have been no more moved to see Elsdon Taylor's bare face for the first time than he would have been if he had first glimpsed the Seeker's bare arm. These were not normal circumstances, however. His breath paused as he took out his clean handkerchief and tentatively dabbed at the blood.
A minute passed before he could be sure of what he saw. Then he let his breath escape in a sigh.
"How bad is it?" Mr. Taylor, understandably, sounded more like a frightened schoolboy than like a Seeker. His eyes were screwed shut, his eyelids covered with blood.
"Only the healer will be able to say for certain, sir, but he missed your eyes. The wound on your temple looks shallow—"
But Mr. Taylor's eyes had flown open at his first words. "You've called for the healer?"
"Yes, sir." Barrett heard the puzzlement in his own voice. "Mr. Phelps has gone to fetch her—"
"No!" It was nearly a shout; Mr. Taylor had gone rigid.
Barrett stared at him; then, belatedly, he understood. Without a word, he turned to race after Mr. Phelps.
He was too late, though. By the time he reached the corridor that ended at the door to the healer's surgery, Mr. Phelps had already been intercepted and was pouring out his story – not to the healer, but to the High Seeker, whose stance was as motionless as that of the Vovimian god of hell, deciding which instrument of torture to use first.
Barrett had been in the Battle of the Wilderness. He had seen men blown to bits by cannon, mowed down by rifle-fire, explode into fragments by shells, and die long, slow deaths in the following weeks from dysentery, lung-worm, and other such diseases that ate out the insides of a man until nothing was left but a screaming hollow.
On the whole, he thought, he would rather be back on the battlefield than standing in the High Seeker's office.
All faint hopes he had held that he might have been summoned here from his living quarters in order to be commended for his investigative work on Mr. Holloway's past had died in the moment that he realized Mr. Sobel and Mr. Urman would be escorting him to the High Seeker. To be escorted by Layle Smith's guards was as good as having an eyeless hood placed over one's head as one was taken to a breaking cell. An escort meant he was under arrest.
Now he was in the High Seeker's office, standing in stiff formality with his arms at his side, chasing a dozen thoughts: At what point he would be ordered to strip down to the minimal clothes worn by prisoners. How to get word to his parents of his arrest. How to defend his lack of readiness in protecting his Seeker against a prisoner who had been charged with eight murders and an attempted murder.
That must be the reason he was here. He could think of no other way in which he had failed in his duty as a guard. Guards who failed to protect their Seekers usually received reprimands, not arrests – but then, he was not just any guard. He was senior night guard to the High Seeker's love-mate.
The High Seeker made him wait a long time before deigning to look up. He was sitting behind his desk, perusing Mr. Taylor's reports on his searching of Mr. Holloway. Probably, Barrett thought as sickness built in his stomach, the fact that he had failed to anticipate Mr. Holloway's attack on himself during the first day of searching would also be brought forth as evidence of his dereliction of duties.
The High Seeker finally lifted his head. Under the newly installed electric lights, his eyes looked brighter than ever, like two pools of green slime. "Mr. Taylor ordered a medium beating for the prisoner."
"S-sir?" He was taken off-guard and stumbled on this single word.
"Your prisoner attacked a guard – yourself – and your Seeker ordered that he receive twenty medium lashes for the offense. The Code calls for at least forty heavy lashes in such a case."
The sickness suddenly increased, to the point where vomit filled his throat and mouth. He was not here because he was under arrest, he realized. He was here to provide witness against another man who was under arrest.
He swallowed the sickness and said breathlessly, "Sir, the Code permits a lower punishment if the prisoner's body is too frail to withstand a heavy beating."
"The healer should have been brought in to judge that."
"The healer was busy with another prisoner when this happened, sir." He was on safer ground now. "In my capacity as the guard who gave the beating, I advised my Seeker against a heavy beating. Since Mr. Taylor is a junior Seeker, he deferred to my greater experience in such matters."
Layle Smith folded his hands over the documentwork, like a magistrate at his judging. "Mr. Boyd," he said softly, "it is mistake to characterize Mr. Taylor as someone who 'defers to greater experience.' We both know otherwise. Mr. Taylor defers to no one, where a prisoner's welfare is concerned. As his own report shows, he made the decision to give the prisoner a medium beating, and you backed his decision."
Barrett hesitated, unable to know how to respond to this entirely accurate account of what had happened. If he denied Mr. Taylor's account, then Mr. Taylor could be beaten for issuing a false report.
Layle Smith leaned forward. With a voice as liquid as molten iron, he said, "Your job, Mr. Boyd, is to place the prisoner's welfare above all other considerations. Too light a punishment can ultimately lead to loss of the prisoner's rebirth, which is what every one of us is striving for. Mr. Taylor has, as you say, lesser experience than your own. Your own experience should have told you what to do."
He felt his back ache as he drew himself up further. "Sir," he said in a stiff voice, "I have served as a guard in the Eternal Dungeon for nine years. Five of those years have been spent as a senior guard. Before that, I served as a soldier in the Queen's army for three years, was promoted twice, and ended up as a guard in the unit for army investigators. I think I know under what circumstances it is proper to report my superior to a higher authority for breaking the rules."
Mr. Smith responded to this speech by shaking his head and leaning back in his chair. His fingers began to play with the silver letter-opener on his desk, rubbing up and down the flat of the blade. "Either I am not doing a good enough job of making myself understood, Mr. Boyd, or you are being willfully obtuse. I hope it is the former case, because the last thing I need in my life at the moment is a recalcitrant senior guard. Let me be clearer: You are not standing in this office because you failed to report Mr. Taylor's decision. You are here because you failed to overrule it."
Barrett's breath stopped in his throat. Before he could think of what to reply, the High Seeker leaned forward. This time the light glittered in his eyes.
"Mr. Taylor is under your care, Mr. Boyd," the High Seeker said, soft as a slithering snake. "If you do not understand what that means, I will spell it out for you. If you fail to overrule your Seeker the next time he makes a decision that endangers your prisoner's path to rebirth, and if it becomes necessary for me to order that your Seeker be beaten, you will be the man I order to apply the lashes. And if higher punishment should be needed, then your final act as a guard will be to witness Mr. Taylor's hanging."
A very long pause followed. The High Seeker did not move his gaze. Barrett finally managed to get his tongue detached from the roof of his mouth. "Sir," he said hoarsely, "you are speaking of your love-mate."
Mr. Smith's gaze drifted away to the papers under his hands. "I show favoritism to no one. Out."
"Get out of this office, before I am forced to make threats against Mr. Phelps as well. Do not test my patience."
Layle Smith's hand was now gripping the hilt of the letter opener. Barrett, stumbling backwards, managed to get the door open without turning his back on the High Seeker. Then he stepped through, closed the door, and collapsed against it.
A hand appeared in front of his face, holding a handkerchief. Gratefully he took the cloth and wiped the sweat from his face. By the time he handed the handkerchief back to Mr. Sobel, he had managed to steady himself. He glanced at Mr. Urman, expecting to see a smirk on the junior guard's face, but Mr. Urman, standing to the left side of the doorway, was doing a good job of pretending to be interested in the Record-keeper, who was striking out the name of an executed prisoner on his tablet.
Barrett turned his attention back to Mr. Sobel, who was standing on the left side of the doorway. Wondering how much the senior guard had overheard, he said, "Mr. Sobel, he wouldn't— He must be—"
"Blustering?" suggested the other guard softly.
A shudder ran through Barrett's body. He felt his hands form into fists. "What do I do now?" he asked, as plaintively as a child.
"Deliver the High Seeker's message, I suppose," Mr. Sobel responded. Then, as Barrett stared, he added, "Mr. Boyd, you really don't think, do you, that Mr. Smith would arrange for you to be escorted here purely in order to scare you? By the time the dusk shift starts, word will have spread to the far ends of this dungeon that you were summoned to the High Seeker under guard. I think you should deliver the High Seeker's message to the proper person before that person begins to fear the worst for you."
Barrett tried to wipe the sweat off the back of his neck with his palm. "Mr. Sobel," he said, keeping his voice quiet, "matters have reached a new low if the High Seeker is using one of the dungeon's guards to deliver death threats."
Mr. Sobel's gaze flicked away toward the Record-keeper's tablet, filled with crossed-out names. "The High Seeker never delivers a threat to dungeon dwellers unless he fears that he will need to carry it out," he said quietly. "Do you know why he believes he might be forced to carry it out in this case?"
Barrett wiped his sweaty palm on his trouser-leg. "Yes," he said bleakly. "Curse it, yes. I can guess."
"The life of a guard," said Mr. Urman, inserting his dark humor. "Now you get to serve as mediator between battling love-mates. Like I said, enjoy your job, mate."
Elsdon Taylor stood brooding outside his prisoner's cell. Since his arrival in the dungeon, he had grown into a tall man, about the same height as the High Seeker. He outdid the High Seeker in neatness. Somehow he managed matters so that his uniform was always perfectly in place: the shirt-knots all in a line, the belt-knot precisely centered, the boots so well buffed that one would have sworn that the junior Seeker had his own private boot-boy. Though perhaps, Barrett thought in a moment of insight, the High Seeker simply liked to watch his love-mate shine boots.
Now Mr. Taylor was biting his thumbs. At least, Barrett assumed that was what was happening to the hands gripping each other underneath the hood. It reminded him, forcibly, that his Seeker was still only twenty-three years of age.
The hood was a new one; it hid any sign of a bandage, but Barrett had been in the healer's surgery when the glass-cut was tended to, and he knew that this wound, at least, could not be troubling his Seeker badly.
Finally the hands slipped out from behind the cloth, and Mr. Taylor said, "This is my fault."
Mr. Taylor waved away his protest. "For your ears only," he said softly. "You deserve an explanation. I had a fight with the High Seeker this afternoon over Mr. Holloway. I told him that I wouldn't permit Mr. Holloway to be punished for what had happened, regardless of what the healer may declare about his state of mind. The High Seeker pointed out that the Code requires the use of the rack upon a second offense of this sort. I said that, if the author of the fifth revision of the Code – who most assuredly should have known better – had not considered the possibility of a prisoner attacking his Seeker and guard due to mental illness, then that was not the fault of my prisoner, and I wouldn't allow him to suffer needlessly, simply to satisfy a formality. The High Seeker ordered me to use the rack. I told him he'd have to hang me first."
Barrett sucked in his breath. "Sir," he said cautiously, "that remark was not . . ." He struggled for an appropriate word.
"Tactful?" The sadness in Mr. Taylor's voice was so strong that Barrett did not need to see his face to guess at its expression. "Yes, it was a blow between the legs. I know that ordering my death would hurt the High Seeker far more than if he were to spend eternity being tortured in the Vovimian hell. Yet he would do it if his duty required it of him."
Barrett decided that "safe" was the word he had been searching for. "I find that hard to believe, sir." He tried to make his response sound convincing.
"We both would." Mr. Taylor's voice was firm. "Mr. Boyd, you haven't taken the oath of eternal commitment; you don't understand how it is for us Seekers. 'I am willing to suffer for the sake of the prisoners' – that is what we all swear, and by this, we not only mean that we are willing to suffer with our own bodies. We also mean that we are willing to sacrifice what is dearest to us, if need be. The High Seeker and I agreed upon that when we first became love-mates – we agreed that if we ever faced the choice between the welfare of a prisoner and the welfare of one of us, the prisoner must come first."
Barrett was remembering now why he had decided never to try to earn the right to become a Seeker. It wasn't simply that he was ill-qualified for the role; it was that all Seekers were lunatics. Functioning lunatics, yes, but something vital had been cut out of them – their hearts, perhaps.
Mr. Taylor continued, "It's the same for me. Even though I know that it would tear the High Seeker's soul apart to punish me, I can't allow that to stand in the way of what I believe is right. That's why I refused to follow his order."
Barrett sighed. Faintly behind the door – too faintly to be clearly discerned, for breaking-cell doors were thick – he could hear the high, light voice of the healer, questioning Mr. Holloway. "And this is the High Seeker's reply to what you said."
Mr. Taylor nodded. "He is telling me that, if I disobey his order, my senior night guard will be the one to pay the price."
Only Elsdon Taylor, Barrett thought, could have characterized his own death in such a manner. Barrett ran his fingers through his hair, trying not to be distracted by his growing realization that his entire interview with the High Seeker had been a sham.
Mr. Taylor had submitted his report about Mr. Holloway's first attack how long ago? Two months? It was unlikely that the High Seeker had waited two months to read a report on an attack committed by the prisoner of his love-mate. Yet Layle Smith had waited two months before summoning Barrett to his office. Had the High Seeker actually stated that Elsdon Taylor should have ordered forty heavy strokes for the prisoner? Thinking back on the interview, Barrett could not remember a moment at which Mr. Smith had explicitly made that statement. He had simply allowed Barrett to think that this was the source of his anger. Yet, as the High Seeker himself had tacitly acknowledged, the Code permitted a lower punishment.
Barrett sighed. The High Seeker, he now realized, had never really cared whether Elsdon Taylor had ordered twenty medium strokes. He had simply used that incident as an excuse to have Barrett deliver a message to Mr. Taylor about the racking. And Barrett, falling for the High Seeker's trick as smoothly as any naive prisoner, had delivered the message.
Well, it was a message that he would have delivered in any case, if the High Seeker had been so courteous as to ask him. There was no way in all the Queendom of Yclau that Barrett was going to allow his Seeker to be hanged.
"Sir," he said carefully, "I would prefer not to see my career destroyed." He paused to let Mr. Taylor absorb this. "More importantly, though, I would prefer not to see this dungeon destroyed. You say that you vowed to suffer for the prisoners – do you mean all of the prisoners, or just this one?"
Mr. Taylor began to speak, and then hesitated, evidently seeing what came next.
Barrett pressed his point home. "Sir, if you refuse to rack this one prisoner, all that will happen is that Mr. Holloway will be transferred to another Seeker who will rack him, and you will be executed. And the High Seeker, in all likelihood, will go mad again. Without you at his side, can you be certain that he will be able to hold himself back this time from destroying the Eternal Dungeon?"
Elsdon Taylor covered his face. Not simply his eyes; he placed his palms over his face. With muffled words, he said, "I cannot harm a prisoner in order to prevent a greater harm from occurring. Any Seeker could use that excuse to commit atrocities. The Vovimian torturers claim that they are preserving the King's peace when they abuse their prisoners."
Barrett wondered how Seekers managed to continue to break their prisoners when they saw them in pain. He certainly did not possess that skill. "Well, sir," he said, drawing back from what he had said, "this may all be moot. It's plain to see that the prisoner isn't fit for the rack, either physically or mentally, and so the healer—"
As though summoned, there came a tap on the door. Barrett checked the door's watch-hole to be sure that Mr. Holloway was standing well away from the exit, and then he unlocked and opened the door to allow the healer to depart.
The healer was a brunette who wore her hair unbound, in the Vovimian fashion for women that Barrett's father had once described as "shameless." She was undoubtedly Yclau, though, with her pale skin and her elite accent that echoed that of the Queen's ladies. She was quite young, about the age of Mr. Urman. Barrett had felt nervous about leaving her alone with the prisoner, envisioning her bringing a scalpel out of her medical bag and inciting a murderous attack. She was slender and slight, with high breasts that looked – from a murderer's perspective – as though they were just made to have blood spattered upon them.
"Sir," said the healer, "kindly raise your eyes above my neckline."
Barrett felt the blush cover his entire face. Rather than raise his eyes, he dipped them, staring down at his boots. They were dusty and scuffed, in marked contrast with his Seeker's.
Mr. Taylor murmured a question, and the healer responded, "Well, he's in remarkably good health. I hope that my body is in as fine a shape when I reach his age."
Barrett raised his eyes in time to see Elsdon Taylor stiffen. The Seeker's voice was level, though, as he said, "He underwent greater than average pain when he was beaten."
"His back is not a good a place for punishment, no." The healer pushed a piece of hair behind her ear in an absentminded manner. "I'm afraid I can't authorize any further beatings. But the rest of his body is another matter. He has a wiry frame and a good heart and lungs. His family history shows no trace of heart disease or stroke or any other disease that might make racking him medically risky. Being purely cautionary, I would advise that you not take him up to the highest levels. Nothing above seven."
Level seven was only three levels short of the highest level. Mr. Taylor formed his hands into fists, and then released them, so quickly that Barrett barely saw the movement. "And his mind?"
The healer shrugged as she checked that her bag was snapped closed. "Borderline."
"Mentally well for most of his life, but with recent episodes of illness. I certainly can't certify that he would remain insane if given proper treatment."
"Madam," said Mr. Taylor, the levelness in his voice not quite so controlled as before, "if you do not certify him as insane, there will be no proper treatment. He will die in an execution room – or possibly on the rack."
The healer tilted her head, staring up at Mr. Taylor. "Are you advising me to issue a false report, Mr. Taylor?"
"I am advising you to place the welfare of the prisoner above all other considerations," Mr. Taylor responded. "I was under the impression that this was your job as a healer."
"Oh? Then you have received a false impression of the role of healers. My job is to place the welfare of our society first, and if I arrange for this man to be released, that won't happen." The healer's voice snapped like a whip.
There was a pause. Further down the corridor, in the direction of the rack rooms, a prisoner was screaming. Mr. Taylor said in a soothing voice, as though she were a hysterical prisoner, "I'm afraid I don't understand."
The healer sighed and made another attempt to push her hair away from her face. "Mr. Taylor, do you know why I am here?" She did not wait for a response, but instead added, "My younger sister died last year."
"I'm very sorry to hear that, madam." Mr. Taylor, whose own younger sister had died at his murderous hands, sounded genuinely grieved.
"She was killed by a murderer. Her purity was taken from her before she was killed, and her death is believed to have been lengthy – perhaps several hours."
Barrett winced. In a colorless voice, Mr. Taylor said, "And you came here in hope that you could assist the Seekers in bringing other such men to justice?"
"I came here to determine whether the Seekers have any sense of justice. You see, this was not the first time my sister's murderer had acted. He had killed in the past. When he was finally arrested and sent to the Eternal Dungeon, his Seeker argued in court that he ought to be released, due to his repentance for his acts. And he was released. Because this dungeon's healer had certified him as permanently insane."
The screams had dwindled to pleas now. A door further down the corridor opened and shut. Mr. Taylor said, "Madam, this is a terrible tale, and with your permission I will pass it on to the High Seeker in hopes that the Eternal Dungeon can prevent any such thing from happening again. Your sister's murderer ought to have been sent to an asylum for the insane."
"He was sent to an asylum for the insane." The healer sounded anything but hysterical; her voice was flat. "Houses of mental illness are not designed to imprison criminals, Mr. Taylor. A man who has broken into houses and killed without being detected is hardly going to be deterred by the sort of locks and guards that keep in ordinary men and women."
"If he had been sent to a life prison—"
"Matters would have been no better, for guards at such prisons are not trained to deal with the insane. Mr. Taylor, if you Seekers had any sort of compassion, either for the murderers or for their victims, you would put insane murderers out of their misery, in the same way that we put down a vicious dog who has begun foaming at the mouth. That is what is in the prisoner's best interests, sir, not releasing him so that he commits more crimes." The healer took up the side of her skirt with her free hand. "You will excuse me, Mr. Taylor. I have work to do today." She swept past the Seeker, her bag firmly in hand, and strode down the corridor in the direction of her surgery.
Watching her go, Barrett murmured, "And I thought she would be too soft to condemn any man to torture."
Mr. Taylor made no reply; he had turned to look at Mr. Phelps, who was hurrying down the corridor. As the junior night guard reached them, he panted, "I'm sorry for being late to my shift, sir."
"Delayed by the Record-keeper?" Mr. Taylor kept his voice as mild as he always did with his prisoners.
Mr. Phelps, who had evidently learned Mr. Taylor's ways, stiffened into the stance of a guard being reprimanded. "No, sir. By the High Seeker. He asked me to let you know that Rack Room D is open for use today."
Barrett bit off a remark about the precipitousness of Layle Smith. Such was the High Seeker's skill that he might have read the outcome of the healer's inspection from her prior demeanor.
Mr. Taylor was silent for a long moment. Nearby, Mr. Ferris had emerged from his breaking cell and was speaking in a low voice with Mr. Crofford. Mr. Ferris's senior night guard looked half asleep.
"Mr. Phelps, I confess to having a poor ear, where class is concerned," said Mr. Taylor abruptly. "I know that you are of the mid-class – what of Mr. Birchfield and Mr. Underwood?"
"Why, they're both mid-class too, sir," said Mr. Phelps, looking surprised at this turn in the interrogation.
"They have very clear mid-class accents, sir," Barrett said, having a better sense of what information Mr. Taylor was seeking. "The day guards are in no danger of being attacked by the prisoner, if your surmise about his motive is correct."
Mr. Taylor nodded. "Then from this time forth, Mr. Boyd, you will only enter this cell when Mr. Phelps or one of the day guards is present, and you will confine your visits to urgent communications that cannot be delivered by the other guards. On no account will you enter the cell alone."
"What about you, sir?" Mr. Phelps asked, relaxing as he grasped that he was no longer the center of his Seeker's attention. "Should one of us be present when you enter the cell?"
"I?" Mr. Taylor's gaze drifted past them, in the direction of the entry hall. "I am feeling rather unwell at the moment, I'm afraid. An after-effect of the attack, no doubt. I am going to take healing leave until further notice; I know that I can depend on the four of you to care for the prisoner while I'm gone."
"Yes, sir," said Barrett, and stepped out of Mr. Taylor's path. But Elsdon Taylor made no move toward the entry hall; instead, he turned and made his way back to the far exit of the dungeon, the one that led directly to the Seekers' cells.
Mr. Phelps stared after him. "By all that is sacred, what is he doing? I've never known him to ask for healing leave. He has continued to search prisoners at times when he was ready to faint from his sickness."
Mr. Phelps had kept his voice discreet. Barrett, glancing around to be sure that no one was within earshot, kept his voice equally discreet when he replied. "What he is doing, Mr. Phelps, is buying time for the prisoner."
. . . But it must never be forgotten that Layle Smith's father was, in modern parlance, a terrorist, and that, like all idealistic terrorists, he must have believed that terror was the only means by which to protect his nation, his province, and his family. This being the case, we can see why, in the earliest days that Layle Smith worked in the Eternal Dungeon, one of his closest acquaintances was on record as saying that the young torturer's most dangerous characteristic was his desire to protect the prisoners.
It is ironic that the speaker of these words was Seward Sobel, who would help Layle Smith carry out his reign of terror in the year 360.
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
Chapter 6: Advice
On Guard 6
The year 360, the ninth month. (The year 1881 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
Senior-most guard: The guard who holds highest rank under a Seeker. Rank is determined by a Seeker's shift: if a Seeker is on the day shift, his senior-most guard is his senior day guard, while if a Seeker is on the night shift, his senior-most guard is his senior night guard. A senior-most guard is not only charged with restraining prisoners, but also with supervising any member of the dungeon who requires supervision.
—Glossary to Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
Seward held the High Seeker's forehead until the retching had stopped and all that was emerging from Mr. Smith's mouth was vile yellow-green bile. Then, as Layle Smith sat back on his heels, Seward began to reach up toward the lavatory chain, but a weak gesture from Mr. Smith stopped him. Seward hesitated, still on his knees, awaiting orders.
None came. Finally, hesitantly, he raised his eyes to Layle Smith's face. It was not a face he had ever expected to see again. His decision, the year before, not to pursue a friendship with his Seeker – in a word, not to see Mr. Smith's naked face – had contented them both, since what they had achieved in its place was, in certain ways, as firm a binding as though they had become love-mates. A great man and his faithful guard – that was the tale of which ballads were sung. Seward had grown up hearing such ballads from his nurse, never guessing that he would one day live them out.
Nobody had told him that one of his loyal duties would be holding the great man as he vomited. Seward glanced over at the water-basin nearby, which had a newly installed faucet above it, but he dared not stir. Layle Smith looked as though he might keel over at any moment.
The High Seeker's face was paper-white, which would have been bad enough if he had been native Yclau, but Seward had seen his hands often enough, and even his bare arms on the occasions when he gave whipping demonstrations to new guards, and so he knew that the High Seeker was normally much browner than the average Yclau man, despite the fact that he had lived most of his life in lightless dungeons. "Partly my father's skin-color," Mr. Smith had once said when Seward asked. "Partly sun-darkening from my years as a street-boy."
Seward shied away from both thoughts. He handed the High Seeker the rag he had been groping for and watched as the other man wiped away the remaining vomit from the corners of his mouth. Cold eyes, tight mouth – Layle Smith looked the very image of a torturer, and a Vovimian one at that. Only his breath was unusually rapid-paced, but Seward had seen that often enough, when Mr. Smith tended a prisoner on the rack.
He wished he could be sure that the cause was not the same this time.
Layle had sat down on the floor now, his body leaning back against the rough cement wall of the lavatory. There was only one light in here, a flickering electric bulb that had been installed just this week by the laborers. It was supposed to be safer than the oil lamps that had previously lit the dungeon, but the shadows from it made the High Seeker look like some ghastly specter from a Vovimian myth: hollow cheeks, hollow eye-sockets, hands like claws. With one nail, Mr. Smith was picking at his sleeve.
"Did I ever tell you," he asked, "about my final murder?"
In an instant, Seward was covered in sweat. Layle Smith could still do that to him, after all these years. "Just before you left the Hidden Dungeon, sir?" he asked hopefully. Mr. Smith had recounted that tale once – the story of an attempted execution that had gone awry when the young torturer's conscience finally bettered him and drove him to seek out the Eternal Dungeon. It was a terrible tale, filled with torture and rape and a desire for death that was intimately bound with the other two acts . . . but it was not as terrible as certain earlier portions of Layle Smith's life.
Mr. Smith shook his head, and his hood slid askew as he did so. Seward, upon seeing Layle Smith's body jerk as they had entered the dining hall and had overheard the remarks being made by the dungeon inhabitants about the day's events, had barely managed to get the High Seeker into this room with the door barred before the High Seeker had fallen to his knees in front of the toilet, raised his face-cloth, and retched his guts out.
"Not that one," Layle Smith replied. "Not an execution – a murder. The final murder before I was caught and delivered to the Hidden Dungeon." His gaze drifted up toward the high ceiling, dusted with shadows, as though he saw something there. "It was my first – my only – murder of a woman. A girl, actually; she was no older than myself and was still a virgin. I don't know what her parents were thinking, to leave her in an isolated wing like that. Perhaps they merely imagined that nobody would dare to touch so distinguished a child. But I would dare anything in those days.
"At first I thought only to frighten her into telling me where her father was, so that I could torture him into revealing where he kept the key to the guild's treasure. But her fear was so sweet – I had never seen a fear like it. Nobody had ever been afraid of me in the way she was. And when I finally realized where the nature of her fear lay – it took me some time to comprehend, for I was a virgin too – I could not resist committing the act."
Layle Smith's arms were round his knees now. His body was relaxed. His voice was soft as he stared at the ceiling and said, "I remember the supreme sweetness of her screams into her gag as I entered her. I'd never experienced such joy before. Oh, I had known what I was for many years; I knew my body's own reactions, and one doesn't live on the streets without hearing whispered talk of folks like me. But it had never before occurred to me that I could have more than the pleasure of going cock-high. I had not known that I could pursue my pleasure to the zenith."
His gaze finally drifted down. His eyes were steady upon Seward's as he said, "It happened again an hour ago, when I watched the prisoner dangle from the noose, at my orders. He trusted me, and that is why he confessed what he had done to me. He believed that I would show him mercy. He had trusted me so greatly, and had held such affection and respect for me, and there he died by my orders. . . . It brought back all the sweetness of my childhood murder. I reached my zenith and passed it."
Seward could not have spoken if a pistol had been placed against his head, with orders for him to speak or die. Behind him, faintly, he could hear the rumble of the diners as they discussed the news that had just arrived in the Eternal Dungeon, through the official announcement made by the Codifier. The voices were faint, almost like the whispers Seward remembered from his days as a young guard, when Layle Smith's predecessor had killed any man in the inner dungeon who stood in his way, with little consideration of whether justice was being upheld. But this news was far worse.
Layle Smith jerked his head in the direction of the voices. "They are speaking of me."
"Yes, sir." That was a safe enough response to make.
"They are saying I am heartless – that I have become what I was before I arrived here: an abusive torturer. And they don't even know what happened to me in the execution room when I saw the prisoner hanged."
Seward could not help but notice that Layle Smith had ceased to speak the prisoner's name. He was not surprised. He doubted that Mr. Smith would ever possess the courage to speak that name again.
The High Seeker leaned forward. All the relaxation was gone from his body; the veins stood out in his hands and his neck as he said in a low, urgent voice, "Tell me the truth, Seward Sobel. Have I become what they say? Tell me what I am, please." His voice broke on the final word.
There were many responses Seward could make, all of them truthful. He could say, "In trying to uphold the letter of the Code, you have broken its spirit." He could say, "Most of these men and women would willingly die out of loyalty for you, but you have driven them beyond where their consciences will go." He could say, "If you continue this way, not even the prisoners will be safe from you." He could say, "Even before this happened, Elsdon Taylor had begun to lose faith in you, and I have nearly done so as well."
Perhaps he would need to find some way to make these statements, all but the last. But if he said any of them now, he suspected, Layle Smith's mind would snap, and the High Seeker would plunge back into madness.
Perhaps that would be best; perhaps that was the only resolution to what was occurring. But Seward had been assigned to protect the High Seeker, and he could not bring himself to kill the man he was meant to guard.
So he said, "High Seeker, when you raped and murdered that girl, I'm willing to lay odds that you were pleased with yourself afterwards. And I'm willing to lay my life on the line that you didn't vomit afterwards at the thought of your bodily pleasure at what you had done." He gestured toward the ugly liquid in the toilet. "Sir, abusers and murderers don't have consciences – or if they do, they stop abusing and murdering. I can't guide your conscience, but I know that you have one."
Mr. Smith closed his eyes. He was still a minute before he opened his eyes and spoke. "There are flaws in what you say, Mr. Sobel. I had a conscience as a boy; I merely chose not to act on it. But . . . Yes, I think my conscience is a little healthier than it was in those days, or we would not be having this conversation. Thank you."
His voice had grown firm again, as it had been when he pronounced the prisoner's doom. Seward felt his stomach twist, wondering whether he had only made matters worse.
The High Seeker flipped down his face-cloth and rose to his feet, giving his body a long, languorous stretch. His tone was normal again as he said, "Thank you, Mr. Sobel; I very much appreciate your assistance. However, I wish to have a few moments alone, if you would not mind."
His voice held the firmness of an order. Seward automatically glanced toward the ceiling, toward the walls, toward any place that might prove an entrance to an assassin. But the walls here were of cement, the ventilation shaft was too small to crawl through and too long to place poisoned gas in, and so the only vulnerable point was the door, which he could guard from the outside. Murmuring an acknowledgment of Mr. Smith's order, he rose to his feet and turned toward the door.
He was not looking forward to what lay outside. For one thing, there was Mr. Urman. The junior guard had deliberately refused to escort the prisoner to his death. Understandable, but it meant that Seward would be forced to place him under discipline, which could only mean a beating for Mr. Urman. And Mr. Urman, he knew, would never be able to understand why Seward had beaten him. From the junior guard's perspective, Mr. Urman had shown tremendous restraint in not fighting Seward for the prisoner's life.
And then there were the other dungeon dwellers. There would be questions, endless questions, as to whether Seward backed the High Seeker's decision to execute a Seeker.
Seward had no mind for abstract matters of right and wrong. He had known, from an early age, that his best chance for rebirth lay in placing his trust in a good man or woman, and pledging his loyalty to that man or woman. And so he had served a succession of lieges: the Queen, the old High Torturer, and the High Torturer's successor, Layle Smith.
But was Layle Smith still a good man?
Seward finished closing the water-closet door and leaned back against it, feeling the sweat break out anew on his skin. Mr. Smith must be right in what he had done. He must be. For if he was not . . .
If he was not, then Seward had just helped the High Seeker commit the most treacherous murder the Eternal Dungeon had ever known.
Code of Seeking: The book which guides the consciences of all members of the Eternal Dungeon.
—Glossary to Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
Chapter 7: Judgment
On Guard 7
The year 360, the ninth month. (The year 1881 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
Some accounts of the Eternal Dungeon have suggested that, in the year 360, a group of men rose en masse, united in their opposition to all forms of physical punishment.
Poppycock. Historians who believe this are projecting the beliefs of our own, enlightened age onto men who were products of their time.
Let us clarify matters by distinguishing between the different types of physical punishment in the fourth century.
Did anyone oppose physical punishment as a means to prevent further disobedience?
No. In the fourth century, the use of physical punishment as a means to keep control of unruly members of society was ubiquitous. Fathers beat their disobedient sons, schoolmasters beat their disobedient students, employees beat their disobedient employees, and so, following from this, guards beat their disobedient prisoners.
It is true that, around this time, concerns began to grow that certain types of beatings were too severe; at the very end of the fourth century, for example, the Yclau army banned use of the one-hundred-stroke beating, which had led to so many deaths. But even Elsdon Taylor, who had endured abusive beatings at the hands of his father, did not argue against the use of the lash as a means to control disobedient prisoners.
Did anyone oppose physical punishment as a means to dissuade others from committing crimes?
For the most part, no. The one notable exception is the Magisterial Republic of Mip, which banned executions at the time of its founding in the year 355, on the grounds that executions did nothing to deter crime. But even Mip reversed this stance some years later.
Did anyone oppose physical punishment as a means of obtaining information from prisoners?
Yes, but this was nothing new. For as long as torture had existed, a small minority of society had argued that torture was ineffective – that a man in pain will tell lies in order to escape pain. So when some of the members of the Eternal Dungeon began saying this in 360, few eyebrows were raised. The efficiency or inefficiency of torture was a longstanding dispute that would not be fully settled until many years later, when scientific methods were developed to judge when prisoners were lying under torture. By that time, the use of torture was no longer needed. Scientists had developed more effective means of force for obtaining information from unwilling prisoners – and more importantly, of forcing the prisoners into a belief that they should follow societal rules. "Forced therapy" is the latest of science's insidious means of changing the beliefs of prisoners.
But those means have been repeatedly banned by our nation's courts. The reason for this is that the dispute in the Eternal Dungeon in 360 was not over physical punishment at all . . .
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
He knew at once that something was wrong. Or rather, he knew that matters had worsened, for the dining hall had been growing steadily more subdued during the past month.
Now, though, the dining hall reminded Barrett of how the Yclau army camp had looked on the day that news arrived of a great defeat of their troops by the Vovimian soldiers. People were talking in whispers, huddling in corners, or sitting in groups at tables over untouched food.
Barrett did not want to know the news. In the absence of Mr. Taylor – whose healing leave would end soon – it was the privilege of the senior night guard to announce to a prisoner his upcoming punishment. Barrett had done so a short while ago, in the protective presence of Mr. Phelps.
Mr. Holloway had fallen to his knees and wept. Barrett had wanted to assure him that he would live through the ordeal, but he could not bring himself to do so. Even if Mr. Holloway survived the rack, he would endure three full days of pain beyond which any civilian could reasonably expect to endure in his life. And the end of it all would be death in any case; the evidence was so strong against Mr. Holloway that his execution was certain. Everyone who knew of the case agreed about that. The pain of the rack would provide nothing to the prisoner except an agonizing end to his life.
Transformation, reparation, rebirth – all these goals of the Code of Seeking now seemed stale hypocrisies to Barrett.
"Just confess!" Barrett urged him and left the prisoner to his weeping.
He had gone in search of Mr. Taylor, hoping that the junior Seeker could provide him with some insight on what approach to take in this matter, but Elsdon Taylor had not been where he should have been at mealtime, in his living cell. Since the Seekers' common room was currently undergoing renovation, that meant Mr. Taylor must be taking his supper in the dining hall, a room that Barrett had avoided as much as possible in recent weeks, due to the intensity of the gloomy gossip there.
And now matters had evidently grown worse in the dungeon. Searching for an oasis of peace amidst the latest horrors awaiting him, Barrett caught sight of young Finlay Sobel, sitting at an otherwise abandoned table and scribbling diligently at his pad. With a sigh of relief, Barrett walked over to him and said lightly, "A new drawing?"
Finlay raised his head. The whites of his eyes were bloodshot, and there were dark circles under his eyes, as though he had not slept recently. Silently he showed Barrett his drawing.
It was of a bound man, his head covered with the eyeless hood of execution. He was dangling from a noose.
Barrett's breath stopped, as though a prisoner had punched him in the belly. He raised his eyes from the drawing in order to return his gaze to the four-year-old. Finlay said, in a voice that shook, "Did he die right away from a broken neck? Or was he strangled? I wasn't sure. It makes a difference in how I draw the head."
"He died at once," Barrett said, with more reassurance than he felt. There was talk in Yclau of replacing hangings with the death squad, because hangmen did not receive the same level of training they had in the past. Too many hangings went awry.
Finlay nodded, apparently satisfied. Taking the drawing back, he began altering the angle of the head so that it was clear that the neck was broken. Barrett looked round the room. He told himself he was trying to catch sight of Mr. Sobel, who would assuredly want to know of this latest development in his son's artistic career. In actuality, Barrett was trying to catch sight of another man who ought to be here at this time of day.
Elsdon Taylor was nowhere in sight.
Then he saw something that made him forget Mr. Sobel, Finlay, and the dead man recorded in smudged charcoal. He hurried forward, just in time to hear Mr. Crofford emit a sob.
"Mr. Crofford, what is wrong?" he asked, keeping his voice low, though all of the people at the neighboring tables seemed wholly absorbed in the news.
Mr. Crofford lifted his face from his palms. His eyelashes and cheeks were soaked with tears. "I didn't know," he said in a strangled voice. "I never would have reported him if I'd known."
Barrett's limbs turned heavy as an iron foundry's hearth. He sat down abruptly, turning his attention to Mr. Urman, who was standing beside the table, his hands formed into fists, as though he might have to fight someone at any moment. Barrett said, "Mr. Ferris?"
"Of course," Mr. Urman responded, bitterness like bile on his tongue. "Who else? The man who helped to train Layle Smith. The man who openly expressed his admiration for the High Seeker. A perfect victim for Layle Smith's sadism."
"Sweet blood," Barrett said softly. He thought an oath was forgivable under such circumstances, though he was struggling to hide his relief. Mr. Taylor had escaped the worst, but Mr. Urman was right: for Layle Smith to have executed the oldest Seeker in the dungeon was very bad news indeed.
"I thought he would show Mr. Ferris mercy!" Mr. Crofford cried, laying his hands flat on the table as though he were a prisoner about to be cuffed. "It was only a matter of ten lashes' difference between what the Code required and what he did. How could I have known that he would kill Mr. Ferris over so small a matter?"
Heads were beginning to turn now, attracted by the hysteria in Mr. Crofford's voice. Barrett doubted that anyone had been giving great consideration to Mr. Crofford's role in this, but that might change if the young guard continued to berate himself in public.
Acting on impulse, Barrett reached out and placed his palm over the back of Mr. Crofford's right hand. It was clammy. As Mr. Crofford turned startled eyes toward him, Barrett said quietly and firmly, "It's not your fault. You did what the Code required of you; it is the High Seeker's judgment that is at fault, and no one will blame you for what has happened. Not in my hearing."
The last words tumbled off his tongue without thought; only when he saw Mr. Crofford's face change did he realize what he had said, and realize the implications of his statement.
He half expected Mr. Crofford to jerk back his hand. Instead, the younger guard searched his face, as though seeking something there.
Barrett felt something stir within him then, in the same manner that it had stirred when he had imagined Finlay as a youth. He opened his mouth and found that he could not speak. Feeling Mr. Crofford's hand move, he began to draw back, only to find his hand gripped by Mr. Crofford's.
The other guard had begun to blush, but as Barrett might have expected from what he knew of the man, Mr. Crofford did not look away. Shy Mr. Crofford might be, but he had never sought to escape from the consequences of decisions he made. Barrett felt another stirring, and this time it was on the exterior part of his body.
He was not sure how long this lasted, their moment of joined hands and eyes, before Mr. Urman, predictably, commented in an irritated voice, "If you two are through doing eye-latch with each other like two long-lost love-mates . . ."
Barrett half expected Mr. Crofford to blush harder; instead, Mr. Crofford bit his lip, as though suppressing a laugh. Giving him a quick smile, Barrett released his hand and said, without looking in Mr. Urman's direction, "Or just-found love-mates. Mr. Crofford—" He hesitated.
"Clifford," the other guard offered, the shyness returned to his voice.
"Clifford, how did this happen? Did Mr. Ferris try to hide his Code-breaking from you and his senior-most guard?"
Clifford Crofford shook his head, using a napkin to blow away the results of his weeping. "I don't suppose he thought he needed to," the guard said in a low, level voice that caused the remaining eavesdroppers to turn away in disinterest. "It mustn't have seemed to him a serious enough matter to be reported to the Codifier. He just thought the prisoner's insolence was great enough to warrant ten extra lashes—"
"Extra lashes?" Barrett said, struggling to keep his voice quiet. "You mean Mr. Ferris punished his prisoner more than the Code requires?"
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the door to the nearby water closet open and Mr. Sobel emerged. The dungeon's senior-most guard carefully closed the door behind him and then turned over the sign that said, "Under repairs." The people waiting in a queue for use of the water closet responded with groans, but only lightly; everyone had more weighty matters in mind.
"Oh, yes, that's what everyone will say," Mr. Urman replied, rage full in his voice. "'Mr. Ferris abused a prisoner, so he deserved to die.' Mr. Boyd, don't you see that you and the others are snatching at the High Seeker's lure? He'll start with killing a Seeker who has given ten extra lashes. Then, when everyone has meekly accepted that injustice, he'll go after the Seekers who give ten fewer lashes. Your Seeker will be next, Mr. Boyd, you mark my words."
"Well . . ." said Barrett, unable to think of a way to counter Mr. Urman's prediction without revealing his own worries. With relief, he saw Mr. Smith's senior night guard walk a few steps forward and join them. "What do you think, Mr. Sobel?" he asked. "Is this the beginning of the end for the Eternal Dungeon?"
He regretted his remark the moment he saw the way in which the lines of worry deepened in Mr. Sobel's face. No doubt many people had been badgering Mr. Sobel to produce a statement about what had happened. He deserved better from his friends.
All that the other guard said, though, was, "I can't judge that." His gaze drifted back to the water closet.
"Bloody blades, Mr. Sobel!" cried Mr. Urman in so loud a voice that heads turned throughout the dining hall. "You were the one who named Layle Smith as Hell!"
Mr. Sobel said nothing. He seemed frozen in place, like an ancient monument. Following his gaze, Barrett saw the High Seeker, newly emerged from the water closet, looking at the guard who had apparently just betrayed him.
The High Seeker was the one who broke eye contact first. He turned away, walking swiftly toward the dining-hall entrance while the dungeon dwellers silently parted to make way for him, as they might for a hangman. He was gone before Barrett had drawn his next breath.
"Sweet blood," said Mr. Sobel in a strangled voice, and then he was gone too, running to catch up with the High Seeker, who was now making his way alone from the field where he had lost the battle of opinion.
"Well," said Mr. Urman, his voice suddenly defensive, "he didn't have to be so rude as to run right off like that."
Mr. Barrett would have ignored this remark on any other occasion. Suddenly, though, he felt sick at himself for all the ignoring he had done. By not acting against Mr. Urman before now, he had doubled the burden of the finest, most generous guard in the dungeon. Moreover, he had allowed a possible break to occur between Mr. Sobel and Layle Smith – who, whatever other punishments he deserved, did not deserve to be left with the false impression that his closest remaining supporter had become his enemy.
Barrett rose slowly to his feet. "Sit," he told Mr. Urman.
"Why the bloody blades should I—?"
"Sit," he repeated, in a voice that snapped like a whip. Mr. Urman sat down, his face truculent. Barrett leaned over him. "Mr. Urman," he said slowly, "you have a foul mouth, a foul mind, and a penchant for making trouble with both of the above. I can't cleanse your mind, but if you ever again speak to a senior member of this dungeon in the manner that you just spoke to Mr. Sobel, I will personally take you to the guardroom and, with the High Seeker's permission, I will give you the worst beating you have ever received in your life. Are you clear as to my intentions, Mr. Urman?"
The truculence faded to wariness, accompanied by a sliver of fear. Mr. Urman nodded.
Barrett turned away, his thoughts travelling beyond Mr. Urman and all that had occurred at this table. There were things that needed to be done in this dungeon, and he strongly suspected that he was the only guard left who could do them.
As he stepped toward the door, he caught sight of Clifford Crofford rising to his feet, confusion on his face. Barrett remembered then, but he did not turn back.
The stillest hour in the Eternal Dungeon was at sunset during the summer. All but a few of the laborers had left for the day, most of the day shift had gone to bed, and the night shift was at its work.
Barrett was at his work, but not in the usual way. Following time-honored dungeon tradition, the High Seeker was excused from duty until two night shifts after the execution of his prisoner. Elsdon Taylor, having successfully pled for an extension to his healing leave, was not scheduled to return to duty until the following month. Now, as the sun dimmed and the room grew dark, the two men sat at a table in the empty common room, talking in low voices.
Barrett, leaning against a wall, was facing them. Mr. Sobel was not; he was facing the room's single door. Barrett knew, without having to ask, that his own job was to keep an eye out for any unlikely danger that might approach the High Seeker from the other end of the room. He had figured out by now that Mr. Sobel was shadowing the High Seeker, and he could guess why. But for now, the greatest danger in the dungeon lay in the soft conversation between the two Seekers.
Hearing a word or two of what was spoken between them, Barrett said quietly, "It sounds as though they are reaching a compromise."
"That doesn't surprise me." Mr. Sobel, his body turned in the direction of Barrett, kept his eye on the door rather than Barrett.
"So no more fiery speeches from Mr. Taylor?" Barrett suggested.
"They couldn't continue the way they were going. The High Seeker would have had to take action against Mr. Taylor."
And Elsdon Taylor, it seemed, cared more for the High Seeker's good opinion of him than for his own principles. Barrett shifted uneasily.
"Not an easy choice," reflected Mr. Sobel.
"Choosing between Mr. Smith and the prisoners?" Barrett tried to keep his voice blank of all bitterness, but Mr. Sobel's gaze flicked his way briefly before settling back on its watch, like a lighthouse keeper straining to see a ship that it expects to crash into the shoals.
Mr. Sobel said, "I had heard that you urged Mr. Taylor to make his peace with the High Seeker."
After a moment's reflection, Barrett sighed heavily. "Yes. I know that he's making the best choice he can. But I had expected . . . I had hoped that other Seekers would step up to take his place in speaking out against Mr. Smith's policy."
"No," said Mr. Sobel. Then he added, "Three guards have turned in their resignations."
"Is that the only choice we have? To resign our jobs or to resign ourselves to the High Seeker's policy?" Barrett strained to keep his voice low; he could still hear an occasional soft word between the Seekers. Layle Smith reached out and briefly, lightly touched Mr. Taylor's hands before withdrawing again.
Mr. Sobel's gaze lingered longer on Barrett this time. "You've been considering resigning."
Barrett nodded slowly. "I've been considering it for the past month. I was just on the point of turning in my resignation when this happened. . . ." His voice trailed off. He could barely see the Seekers now; no sunlight came now through the translucent stone in the ceiling, only cold moonlight, and nobody in the room had moved to light the lamps.
"I'd have thought Mr. Ferris's hanging would have been the final sprinkling of the death-ashes for you," Mr. Sobel remarked.
"It would have been . . . if I hadn't remembered that Mr. Taylor can't leave here. Even if he resigned as a Seeker, he would still be eternally confined to the dungeon for life, because of his oath of eternal commitment."
"You're a guard," Mr. Sobel pointed out. "You have the right to leave here."
Barrett shook his head wordlessly.
Mr. Sobel gave a small smile. "No, I didn't think you were the type to leave a mess for other men to clean up. But what will you do?"
"I don't know."
There was a long silence, unbroken even by the Seekers' voices; they had evidently travelled beyond need of words. The dungeon was still, like an old man dying, or like an unborn child. The room was cobwebbed in darkness. Barrett turned, found the wall-lamp and matches by groping, and spent a minute lighting the oil.
When he turned back, he found that Mr. Sobel was watching him. The High Seeker's senior night guard began to speak; then he changed his mind, and they passed the rest of the time in silence.
. . . The reason for this is that the dispute in the Eternal Dungeon in 360 was not over physical punishment at all: it was over whether a man could be forced against his will to hold opinions he believed false. In a word, the dispute was over whether the use of force as a means for psychological transformation stripped prisoners of their humanity.
The first person to voice this opinion – in 356, four whole years before the crisis began in the Eternal Dungeon – was Elsdon Taylor. Ironically, the junior Seeker claimed to have arrived at this opinion as a result of speaking to a Vovimian torturer: the very man who had trained Layle Smith in the Hidden Dungeon.
The seeds of this change in worldview had been planted by Layle Smith himself, in his fifth revision of the Code of Seeking, in which he had urged Seekers to use alternative means of persuasion before resorting to torture. Yet it took Elsdon Taylor a very long time to recruit any other members of the Eternal Dungeon to his belief that force is never a legitimate means by which to transform a man's soul. So longstanding was the belief that force is a proper way by which to change men's minds that four entire years passed before any other members of the dungeon began to tentatively entertain the idea that perhaps, if they wished to transform the prisoners' souls, they should not place the prisoners on racks and threaten to stretch them unless they held the same viewpoints as the Seekers held.
Elsdon Taylor's senior-most guard at this time, Barrett Boyd, was the first senior guard in the dungeon to speak out publicly against torture in 360. Yet even he seemed reluctant to conclude that the use of force as a means of persuasion strips a man of his humanity.
The irony of this fact was not lost on later observers.
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
Chapter 8: Testing
On Guard 8
The year 360, the tenth month. (The year 1881 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
Codifier's office: Usually refers to the small cavern west of the entry hall. Sometimes refers also to the antechamber preceding it, which is the province of the Codifier's secretary. The High Seeker's powers traditionally end at the entrance to the Codifier's rooms.
—Glossary to Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
"Nervous, Mr. Sobel?"
Seward, who had been running an automatic eye across all the laborers they passed in the main corridor, looked over at Layle Smith. The High Seeker appeared the same as he always did in public: cool and inscrutable.
"Well, sir, my nerves would probably be better if I hadn't seen an electric seat in operation," Seward replied.
The High Seeker gave a low chuckle. Only the High Seeker could have chuckled at mention of the electric seat. "I'd forgotten that you were the dungeon's representative at that failed experiment. The prisoner lived, as I recall?"
"Yes, sir. He received a pardon afterwards." Though what good the pardon would do him, Seward could not imagine. Ninety seconds of "electrocution" (as the newspapers termed it), while the palace hangmen tried futilely to get their new device of execution to work properly, was not calculated to leave a condemned prisoner in any bodily state worth living in. The prisoner had been sent afterwards to an asylum for the crippled, Seward had heard.
"Ah, well, no doubt Mr. Wyatt keeps his equipment in better order than the palace hangmen do." The High Seeker's voice remained light, as it had ever since his reconciliation with Elsdon Taylor in the previous month. "I remember one hanging I witnessed, several years ago . . ."
Mr. Smith's gruesome anecdote carried them to the end of the corridor and several yards into the entry hall, still crowded with laborers moving equipment back and forth. Seward glanced quickly around, but could see no sign of the electric rack, much less the generator and steam engine that ran it. "Perhaps Mr. Wyatt has reconsidered offering us the—"
He stopped; the High Seeker had waved him silent. Mr. Smith's head was up, as though he were a hunting dog. Then, in one of his lightning-quick moves, he turned and strode toward the west wall of the entry hall.
Seward caught up with him just as Mr. Smith reached the door to the Codifier's rooms and flung it open. A cacophony of hisses, whistles, and screeches flew out of the rooms, as though released to freedom. Following Mr. Smith inside, Seward ducked under the low lintel, closed the door behind him, passed a group of laborers crowded around some object he could not see, nudged his way past the Codifier's secretary and guards – who trusted him well enough not to bar his way – and was just in time to see the High Seeker stop dead at the threshold to the Codifier's office.
Seward looked over his shoulder. Where once the waterfall had rushed down the wall unimpeded, now a waterwheel arrested its fall. Attached to the outer rim of the giant wheel were cups, catching the water and carrying it down to the pool where the Hooded Seeker Fish swum. The fish – normally as imperturbable as the Codifier himself – were swimming around in a frenzy, disturbed by the constant waves as each new cup dumped water into the pool.
On the other side of the room – not quite far enough from the water for Seward's liking – was the electric generator. Black and energetic, it hissed and screeched as it pumped its pistons back and forth, sending out hissing steam that nearly singed Seward when he took a step too close.
Standing in the midst of this all, with his suit damp from water spraying off the wheel, was the Codifier. He said, in a manner somewhat less level than usual, "I would have appreciated it, Mr. Smith, if you had applied for permission to make use of my office."
Layle Smith's sigh was audible under his hood. "I'm very sorry, sir. I'll have these objects removed at once."
"Do not bother." The Codifier turned to pick up a daybook, a pen, and a folded piece of paper. "The Queen has been urging me for some time now to take a leave of absence as a reward for my long service in this dungeon. I had planned to wait until Mr. Bergsen was returned from his leave, but in light of the present need for my office, I will start my leave today. If you will allow me passage, Mr. Smith . . ."
The High Seeker, murmuring an acknowledgment of the order, stepped into the office and away from the doorway to let the Codifier pass. Seward stepped back into the secretary's room, unintentionally pushing back the Codifier's guards, who had been peering curiously over his shoulder. The guards snapped to attention as the Codifier paused by them and issued them with orders to vacate the premises "so that the High Seeker may have room for his experiment." Seward began to slip past the Codifier in order to reach the High Seeker; as he did so, something touched his hand. A piece of paper.
He looked at the Codifier. The Codifier glanced at him, nodded, and then turned his attention back to his own guards.
Seward felt relief run through him then. He was not sure why he felt relief; danger still lurked in this room, hideous as a hangman. Perhaps his relief simply came from the fact that he knew where the High Seeker's special vulnerabilities lay.
As the Codifier and his guards and secretary departed, Seward caught sight of Mr. Urman, who was chatting with one of the laborers. At Seward's gesture, Mr. Urman came forward.
Seward showed him the note before slipping it into his inner jacket pocket. "Go let him know. Then close that door to the entry hall and stand outside. Don't allow anyone in who isn't authorized. If word of this should get around, we're likely to have half the dungeon inhabitants trying to conduct a rescue operation."
"Well, then, half the dungeon inhabitants aren't fools," replied Mr. Urman. "Why can't you or I be the one to test the rack? Guards are supposed to suffer for the prisoners too."
"The Code says that Seekers must be the ones to test new devices of torture." Seward's eye went past Mr. Urman to the crowd of laborers. As the crowd shifted, he caught a glimpse of a long, metal table. The legs of the table were elegantly engraved and razor-thin. Seward, who had bumped into enough dungeon equipment over the years to be able to envision the consequences of those razor-thin legs, winced, even before he heard one of the laborers give a shout of rage, followed by a curse.
"Watch your tongue!" Mr. Wyatt, who had been hidden in the crowd, came forward to reprimand the laborer.
"Mr. Wyatt, I want compensation. That bloody rack of yours cut my leg hard. If you don't pay me square for my healer's expenses, I'll see that the Commoners' Guild pickets you—"
Seward did not hear how this confrontation ended, though he was interested by this sign that the new guild was making its power known in the workplace. Over the sound of the waterwheel, the generator, and the laborer's complaint, Mr. Urman was saying, "I don't care what the Code says. If there's going to be danger—"
Seward's gaze snapped over to Mr. Urman. "If there is going to be danger, Mr. Urman, you are not going to increase it by failing to do your duty. I need that door guarded. Can you imagine what would happen if someone charged into this room while the rack was in use and knocked into the wrong piece of equipment? Or if we had to deal with a gunman at the very same moment that the experiment took place?"
He kept his voice low, though all of Mr. Wyatt's laborers were now engaged in a vigorous argument over whether the laborer should receive his compensation, while Mr. Wyatt tried without success to regain control of the situation. Mr. Urman sighed, stared at the wall, and scratched the back of his neck. Finally he said in a low voice, "Well, the laborers aren't hidden assassins, anyway. I talked to them individually. They've all been working for Mr. Wyatt for years; their stories cross-check each other."
"Well done." Seward was mildly surprised, but only mildly. He was beginning to realize that, given the right work conditions, Mr. Urman would always go beyond the call of duty.
Seward looked again at the rack. Other than the nasty-looking metal legs and body, the rack appeared no different from any he had used in the past. It even had a wheel, though presumably the wheel was only used to regulate the level of racking, not to actually pull the chains that moved the top bar. The rack was a one-bar model rather than a two-bar model; the only moving part was the bar at the top of the rack, to which the wrist-straps were attached. The other bar, holding the ankle-straps, would remain fixed. That was good to learn; two-bar models were much more inclined to develop problems.
"Best fetch him now," Mr. Sobel murmured, and Mr. Urman, with a grunt of disgust, disappeared through the door to the entry hall.
Seward turned his attention back to the room. The labor dispute had been resolved; the men had returned to their business, which mainly seemed to consist of installing a switch box on the wall next to the rack. Seward did not like to think what the Codifier would say when he discovered that his secretary's wall had been drilled into. Some of the men were beginning to lay a line between the switch box and the generator in the next room.
"Mr. Wyatt!" called one of the men – a supervisor rather than a laborer, judging from his accent and the cut of his suit. "We can't lay the line along the walls. These cave-rocks are too jagged; there's too great a chance that the rocks would cut through the line."
Mr. Wyatt sighed heavily, as though the electrical line had entered into conspiracy with his men. "Place it on the floor, then, but put coconut mats over it, so nobody will trip over it."
The supervisor nodded and then said to the men nearby, "Go fetch the coconut mats, Wright. Flaherty, let's lay this line as close to the corner of the room as we can. Yes, that's right – lay it near to the wall, then along that wall, then along the third wall to the switch box. Keep it as far away from the rack as you can. Jimmy, don't forget to be careful when you switch on the electricity. You know how Mr. Wyatt hates to pay death compensations."
This brought laughter from the laborers and a frown from Mr. Wyatt, who was apparently unable to appreciate a joke at his expense. Seward waited two-thirds of an hour, until the line and the mats had been placed to the supervisor's satisfaction; then he glanced at the High Seeker, who was deep in conversation with Mr. Wyatt. Seward sidled up to the supervisor.
The supervisor shook his head, though, when he learned what Seward wanted. "It's not that I'm going to pretend that things couldn't go wrong," he said, "but believe me, we've learned from experience: it isn't safe to touch the prisoner if something does go wrong. Bodies conduct electricity to one another, you know."
"But if I had rubber gloves on—"
"Under such circumstances, the prisoner would be jerking like a live wire. It would be like trying to hold onto an eel – an electric eel. No, Mr. Sobel, the safest way to save the prisoner if something goes wrong is simply to shut down the generator. We're trained to do so within two minutes of any crisis arising."
"And how long," asked Mr. Sobel, "can the prisoner survive under such circumstances?"
The supervisor gave him a quirk of a smile. "I wish I could tell you. But the truth is that this is a relatively new machine. We've only used it on monkeys so far, and an electrocuted monkey can't be expected to live as long as an electrocuted human. . . . That prisoner who was supposed to be executed by electricity managed to survive for ninety seconds. We'll just have to hope for the best."
Mr. Sobel murmured his thanks and then stepped away, wondering whether he should tell the High Seeker that this rack was even more "modern" than Mr. Wyatt had indicated. But at that moment, Mr. Wyatt said, "We're nearly ready now? Good. Mr. Smith, if you would care to begin. Ah, and this is your guard. Good, good. There's no need for him to turn the wheel – the wheel is really there only for show, for the electricity regulates it all. I will push the proper buttons myself. But I'm sure your guard feels privileged to be present at the unveiling of so wonderful a machine." He smiled at Mr. Sobel.
Seward made no reply. He waited until the moment when the High Seeker was sitting down in a chair in order to pull off his boots; then Seward went to the door to the entry hall and opened it.
Elsdon Taylor had just arrived. With his face-cloth down, his expression was hidden, but his body appeared to be as steady as usual.
"It's an experimental model," Seward warned him in an undertone. "It's never been used before, except with animals."
"Worse than we thought, eh?" Elsdon's voice sounded understandably grim. "Is everything ready, then?"
"Yes. The High Seeker is just preparing to lie down on it." Seward glanced over at Mr. Urman, who looked as though he wanted to kill someone, but who was nonetheless standing in guard position next to the door.
Mr. Taylor took a deep breath. Then he walked through the door, saying in a clear voice, "Don't bother to remove your boots, High Seeker. I'm here to take your place."
The High Seeker looked up from reading the Codifier's note. Even with his hood hiding his expression, his stance was such that all of the laborers were staying very, very quiet.
"You convinced the Codifier to order this." Mr. Smith's voice was flat as he spoke to Elsdon Taylor.
"No, sir. I was the one who convinced him."
Everyone turned to look at Seward, who was trying to keep his spine straight. Half the job of being a guard, he had always told the men he trained, is pretending to be brave in the face of certain death.
"You, Mr. Sobel?" Layle Smith's voice was so quiet that even Mr. Taylor tensed.
Mr. Sobel took a deep breath. "Sir, you have a history of unfortunate interactions with machinery. And right now the Eternal Dungeon is in the midst of . . . matters that require your attention. The Codifier agreed with me that you could not be spared from your duties."
The water in the hour-clock nearby dripped methodically. Seward kept his eyes lowered.
Finally the High Seeker said, "We will have words about this later, Mr. Sobel." He turned back to Mr. Taylor. "Why you?"
"Because my healing leave doesn't end until tomorrow." As always, when fighting fiercely in battle, Mr. Taylor sounded calm and reasonable. "All of the other Seekers have prisoners assigned to them. I am the only Seeker who is currently free of duties."
It was as clean a blow as the junior Seeker could have made. Layle Smith's one weakness – if it could be called that – was that he would never act against the Code. The Code required that all active-duty Seekers, once they had begun a searching, continue to the end. The High Seeker, believing that he alone would be testing the rack, had not thought to arrange that any other Seekers be free of their prisoners on this night.
It had taken Seward quite a bit of coordination between himself, the Record-keeper, and Mr. Taylor to arrange that Mr. Wyatt's demonstration should take place on the exact same night when the only two Seekers free of their searching duties would be Layle Smith and Elsdon Taylor. Otherwise, too great a chance existed that Mr. Smith would delay the rack-testing in order to "have time to select the proper Seeker," and would use that time to change the Codifier's mind.
Unfortunately, this was one of those times when the High Seeker was unlikely to appreciate the hard work that Seward had undertaken on his behalf.
"I must accede, it seems." The High Seeker's voice was frustrated and weary as he handed the Codifier's note back to Elsdon Taylor. There was another note in his voice too, but it was buried so deep that several minutes passed before Seward realized what the hidden emotion must be.
It was eagerness.
A short time later, Mr. Taylor lay strapped to the rack. His voice sounded serenely unconcerned as the High Seeker checked his bindings, but Seward, who knew of the junior Seeker's past experiences with being bound, could guess that Elsdon Taylor was having to exert all his discipline to keep from screaming.
"How do they feel?" asked the High Seeker. He too was putting on a charade of indifference. Seward prayed that none of the laborers would be foolish enough to steal a look at Layle Smith's groin.
"Odd," replied Elsdon Taylor, giving a few tentative tugs at the metal manacles upon the slack chains. "I'm used to leather straps. Even in the Hidden Dungeon, I was placed in those."
A few of the laborers paused in their work, staring at Elsdon Taylor. Unconcerned, Mr. Wyatt said, "Set the clock higher on the wall – yes, that's right, so that we can all easily see the time taken during the demonstration. No, don't worry about placing it near the switch; the clock is controlled by a battery. . . ."
The High Seeker's voice held a frown as he replied, "We had metal manacles for the racks when you first arrived at this dungeon, you may recall. You were the one who convinced me to change them to a less dangerous material. And even back then, our manacles were padded. To allow yourself to be stretched through the use of bare metal . . ."
"It's only a test, sir."
Suddenly, Mr. Wyatt was at their side. "We can of course custom-make the manacles in any material you wish. And any color too. Perhaps a bright pink would liven up the dull colors of this prison. . . ."
Seward turned his attention away. The wiring was evidently finished: a great cable snaking its way along the edges of the room, mainly buried the coconut matting. The supervisor of Mr. Wyatt's men had just finished connecting the cable to the switchbox on the wall to the left of the rack: the box was red, with a great, hand-sized switch, like a fire alarm. To the right of the rack, the doorway opened minutely as Mr. Urman peered in. Apparently satisfying himself that Mr. Taylor was not dead – yet – he closed the door again.
"Are preparations completed?" Mr. Wyatt asked his supervisor, who waved a hand and then ducked back into the Codifier's office, from which the sounds of screeching and cranking and splashing continued. "Good, good. Mr. Smith, if you would care to throw the switch . . ."
The High Seeker stood very still. Seward held his breath until Layle Smith said, in a voice much too level, "Thank you, but no. I am not skilled with machinery. I will stand back while you and your men do your work."
"Please stand very far back, sir." Elsdon Taylor laughed, but for the first time his laughter held a hint of nervousness.
"Very far back," the High Seeker agreed. "I will not interfere with the machinery. But I will remain in the room, in order to check that the experiment goes well." As he spoke, he slid back, as soundlessly as one of the Hooded Seeker Fish, until he was in the far corner of the room, where some of the coconut mats lay piled.
Seward – accustomed at all times to surveying danger points – took a quick look around the room. In the southwest corner stood the door leading to the Codifier's office. Nobody could enter through there who was not already in the Codifier's office. In the southeast corner, another door led to the entry hall. Mr. Urman was guarding that, and by this stage of their acquaintance, Seward knew that Mr. Urman would guard the door to the limits of his ability. In the northeast corner, there was only Mr. Wyatt, the ticking clock on the wall, the switch, a small table with a dial-studded metal contraption on it, and Mr. Wyatt's young assistant, who had evidently been granted the honor of flicking down the switch. Seward took a closer look at the youngster's expression of concentration and then nodded, satisfied. The boy too would work to the limits of his ability, and Mr. Wyatt was close at hand should anything go wrong.
That left the northwest corner, the corner closest to the breaking cells, where the High Seeker stood absolutely motionless, like a connoisseur of music awaiting the first strain of a symphony.
If there was one thing certain in this world, Seward thought as he looked hastily away, it was that the High Seeker's attention would not waver from Elsdon Taylor as the young man was racked.
"Begin," said the High Seeker, so softly that the word might have been a mere wish, but Mr. Wyatt's young assistant treated this as a signal: he pulled down the switch.
Nothing happened for a moment except that the clock continued to tick. It was one of the modern clocks that did not bother to mark the time intervals except at the thirds. Fully a third of a minute passed as Mr. Wyatt fiddled with the dials of the rack's control mechanism. The dials looked like a miniature version of the dials at the Parkside Electrical Company, which Seward had toured upon its grand opening two years before.
Then Mr. Wyatt gave a satisfied grunt, and the rack chains began to clank as they moved.
They quickly grew taut. Elsdon drew in his breath audibly, then was quiet as the rack did its work.
"Mr. Taylor?" The High Seeker's voice remained quiet; his gaze was unmoving from the figure on the rack.
"It's smooth." Elsdon Taylor sounded breathless but otherwise calm. "Much smoother than our racks are. Are we past the first level yet? Usually there's a jerk when we reach the first notch of the rack's wheel."
"You just passed the second level," Mr. Wyatt announced, smiling.
"Slow the pace, please, Mr. Wyatt. It is important for the prisoner's safety that he not be stretched too quickly." Mr. Smith did not turn his head to address the department-store manager as he spoke.
Elsdon gave a throaty laugh that sounded tighter than before. "Actually, I'd prefer that this was over as soon as possible. You know why, sir."
So did Seward, and he was watching Elsdon Taylor anxiously; but there was no sign that the junior Seeker would panic as the manacles continued to bind his body to the rack. Perhaps, Seward thought, that was because of the unchanging shape of the metal manacles: they did not tighten around his wrists, as leather manacles would have done.
"Keep a moderate pace, then, Mr. Wyatt, but do not raise him above the sixth level," the High Seeker said, his attention still wholly focussed on the figure on the rack. "It is not necessary to raise him all the way to the tenth level."
So he said, but Seward could hear the longing in his voice. So could the watching laborers; they began to mutter amongst themselves.
"Quiet," said the High Seeker, and the laborers' comments cut off immediately.
"Code . . . requires . . . new instruments of torture . . . be tested to their limits." Elsdon was struggling to speak now.
"These racks have been designed to meet Vovimian specifications," Mr. Wyatt volunteered helpfully. "So we can take him all the way up to the thirtieth level—"
"No!" The horror and the longing permeated Layle Smith's voice. Then, taking hold of himself with that whip-cracking self-discipline which had allowed him to rule a dungeon of torture for twenty-two years without destroying its prisoners, he added quietly, "I said six, and we have reached that level." Mr. Wyatt blinked, evidently disconcerted by the High Seeker's ability to judge a level simply by watching a prisoner on the rack. "Slacken the chains, please, Mr. Wyatt. Mr. Taylor, you are the prisoner in this experiment; please do not attempt to argue."
Elsdon Taylor made no reply; from where Seward stood, he could see that Mr. Taylor was beginning to struggle to breathe. Seward took a quick glance at the clock; its minute hand had barely moved. A dangerously quick stretching, but there was no sign that Elsdon Taylor had undergone serious damage, and his greatest suffering – his fear of bondage – would be over soon.
Mr. Wyatt heaved a sigh, spun a dial, and the chains began to slacken. Stepping away from the control mechanism, he said, "Well, that is a great shame. If you were to see how smoothly this tool works at even the highest levels . . ."
As he spoke, Mr. Wyatt moved round the rack, his bulky frame blocking Mr. Smith's view. Frowning, the High Seeker moved forward in order to keep Mr. Taylor in sight, his gaze never leaving the rack. Thus it was that Layle Smith, the most agile and alert of men, tripped upon the power cord, which was peeking out from one of the coconut mats.
He did not fall, of course. The High Seeker never fell. But he stumbled, dragging the cord forward. Clearly irritated and too absorbed in his love-mate's ordeal to pay attention to so small a distraction, the High Seeker tried to shake the cord off his foot. This only resulted in him stumbling forward again. He did not notice that the power cord was thus being dragged out of its safe corner.
Seward's shout of warning came too late. Dragged inexorably forward by the High Seeker, the cord reached one of the razor-thin legs at the bottom of the rack, and with a shower of sparks, the cord divided into two.
And with that division came a demon of death.
Seward was never sure, afterwards, whether he actually saw what he remembered, or whether, as seemed more likely, his memories were drawn from the collective testimony of all who gave witness before the Codifier, with Seward in attendance in order to answer any questions the Codifier had about that testimony. Certainly no man could have seen everything that happened in that short time . . . with the likely exception of the High Seeker.
The sparks travelled with demon speed, up the rack leg and onto the frame. Seward did not see the exact moment when the electricity reached the now-slackened chains, but he heard Elsdon Taylor's scream.
And then there was no sound from the junior Seeker – only convulsion after convulsion as the demon electricity ravished his body.
Nearby, Mr. Wyatt was shouting to his young assistant, "No, don't touch the switch, you idiot boy! It's live! Mathcett—"
But Seward did not wait to hear whether there was a response from Mr. Wyatt's supervisor, who was tending the generator next door. Layle Smith was the fastest man in the Eternal Dungeon; the only way to be quicker than him was to anticipate where he would go next, and to be there first.
And so it was that, when the High Seeker succeeded in freeing himself from the cord and raced toward the rack, he found his way blocked by his senior night guard.
Seward did not feel any need to say anything. He knew that the High Seeker knew why he was there. Seward's hand was in his pocket, but before he could decide whether to draw the gun, Mr. Smith uttered a loud huff of exasperation and turned away—
—and kept turning, spinning on his heel so fast that neither Seward nor any other witness saw the moment when Layle Smith's booted foot swung round and kicked Seward Sobel in the groin.
Inborn quick reflexes and three decades of guardwork saved Seward from losing the ability to father more children; he jerked back so fast that Layle Smith's boot merely grazed him. But being grazed by the High Seeker's kick was like being grazed by a bullet. He went down with sparks of pain eating his loins. Only thirty years of training kept him from screaming louder than Elsdon Taylor had. The greatest pain, though, was not in his body. It was in his single thought:
He had failed. He had failed to save the Queen's heir from death, and now he had failed to save the High Seeker.
He was lying on his back, clutching his groin, with his eyes open in slits. He expected to see Mr. Smith leap over him in a final, fatal swiftness that would join his deadly fate with Elsdon Taylor's. Instead, Seward felt a hand on his belt, tugging. In the next moment, Mr. Smith had freed the whip. Its lash spun forward, with seemingly no effort, toward the power cord, which was still latched to the rack like a demon clutching at its favorite toy.
The whip snaked round the cord and jerked it back, far enough that the connection between the flowing electricity and the rack was cut. Mr. Taylor gave one final convulsion and was still.
The room, which a moment before had been filled with shouts, was now silent as a tomb as everyone turned to look at the High Seeker. The clock showed that less than one-third a minute had passed since the emergency began. Seward, who had recovered enough that he could now turn his head, expected to see the High Seeker rush toward the rack.
He did not. That was what Seward remembered until the end of his life: the High Seeker did not immediately rush forward to check on his love-mate. Instead, Layle Smith knelt next to his senior night guard and put his hand on Seward's shoulder. "Are you all right, Mr. Sobel?" he asked.
Seward managed to nod. The High Seeker squeezed his shoulder in a manner that Seward recognized as thanks; then Mr. Smith rose swiftly, still clutching Seward's whip. He made his way over to the rack, where the laborers were beginning to cluster.
When they saw him coming, they made way for him with alacrity. The minute hand of the clock reached its apex, and the electric wire ceased dancing and sparking. The laborers' supervisor, emerging from the Codifier's office with sweat on his face from his recent exertions at stopping the generator hastily, took one look at the situation and softly whistled the men into order. They departed the room silently, passing Mr. Urman, who was standing white-faced in the open doorway, staring at the rack, from which no sound came.
Chains clanked as the High Seeker freed Mr. Taylor from his bondage. Seward managed to pull himself to his feet. A crowd of dungeon-dwellers was beginning to gather at the doorway, but they were being held back by the High Seeker's day guards, whom Mr. Urman must have recruited to help him in the emergency. Seward managed to catch Mr. Urman's eye. He mouthed a single word to the junior guard: "Healer." Mr. Urman nodded, and he raced away.
Seward turned his attention to the remaining men in the room. He could see Elsdon Taylor now: the junior Seeker was motionless on the rack, his eyes closed. The High Seeker, standing next to him, had his left hand circled round Mr. Taylor's wrist, though it wasn't clear whether this was meant as a means to take Mr. Taylor's pulse, or to provide comfort, or to mourn the dead, or for some other, darker purpose.
The meaning of his right hand was all too clear, however.
Mr. Wyatt was fluttering about the High Seeker, like a scarf that flutters in the wind, continually blinding one. "You understand," he said, "you understand that this is just our display model. The rack we will sell you has more advanced features. Its legs are rounded, to avoid injury, and it has a mechanism to shut off the machinery, should there be—"
"Sir." Reaching the scene quickly, Seward took firm hold of Mr. Wyatt's arm.
"What? What? Unhand me, man!" Mr. Wyatt glared at Seward.
Seward did not release him. "Sir, are you familiar with the ballads of the Mad High Seeker?"
"What?" Mr. Wyatt spluttered. "Of course I am. Everyone has heard those old tales. I fail to see why . . ."
His voice trailed off. He had followed Seward's gaze, which was quite pointedly focussed on the High Seeker's hand, white-knuckled as Layle Smith continued to clench Seward's whip.
Seward steered Mr. Wyatt toward the door. "If you will come this way, sir," he said firmly, "I will be glad to sing you a few of the ballads you may have missed."
Mr. Wyatt did not wait to hear more. Mumbling something about business – very important business that awaited him at his store – he fled through the doorway.
Seward paused to look back. Elsdon Taylor remained motionless. So was the High Seeker, his head bowed to stare down at the rack. Seward quietly closed the door, to allow Layle Smith to be alone with his love-mate.
As he did so, he turned, and at that moment, two things happened. One was that Mr. Urman shoved his way through the crowd, with the healer running at his heels. The other was that, from the corridor leading to the prisoners' cells, Mr. Boyd emerged.
On his face was an expression that made Seward's heart sink.
Codifier: The person charged with enforcing the ethical standards of the Code of Seeking. In the absence of the Codifier, the High Seeker is in charge of determining whether activities in the Eternal Dungeon violate the foundational standards of the Code of Seeking.
—Glossary to Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
Chapter 9: Decision
On Guard 9
The year 360, the tenth month. (The year 1881 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
One question I am often asked in the classroom is how the Eternal Dungeon came to be structured along military lines. The answer is simple: Yclau's royal dungeon originated as a military enquiry unit. It was set up, many centuries before it adopted the name of the Eternal Dungeon, as a means to question enemy soldiers who had been captured. As we might expect from those primitive times, the methods of enquiry were brutal.
Gradually, as the Thousand Years' War between Yclau and Vovim became punctuated by longer and longer intervals of peace, the Queen's torturers began devoting more of their attention to enemies of the state, and then, at the beginning of the modern era, to prisoners who were believed to have committed especially heinous crimes. At no point, though, did the royal dungeon cease to be regarded as a military unit; to the final years of the Thousand Years' War, it continued to question military prisoners who could not be broken by other army investigators. It may be recalled that Layle Smith's first prisoner after he returned to his duties as High Seeker in the year 359 was one such man, Thatcher Owen.
The Code of Seeking bears testimony to the dungeon's military origins, for example in the passage that permitted condemned prison workers to opt for a military punishment. But even without such clauses, it is clear that many of the workers in the Eternal Dungeon were familiar with military discipline, for many of those workers came from military backgrounds. Layle Smith's father was a soldier, and the High Seeker would no doubt have heard tales from his father about the importance of discipline in the army. Layle Smith's senior night guard, Seward Sobel, had formerly served as a member of the Queen's guard, an army unit. Elsdon Taylor's senior night guard, Barrett Boyd, had been a soldier for three years before he became a prison guard. It cannot be said, therefore, that these men were unaware of the consequences for disobedience . . .
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
His mind was focussed, his goal clear. He no longer felt the fear that had torn at his soul the night before, weakening his body. Now he was driven, like a dagger finding its mark.
But he found, as he approached the cell, that his path was blocked by Clifford Crofford.
The young man said, "I was wondering . . ."
"Yes?" Barrett looked past him. The day guards had left, Mr. Phelps having arrived on duty. Mr. Phelps looked sleepy; for the past fortnight, all of the dungeon dwellers had spent long hours discussing what the High Seeker had done to Mr. Ferris.
"Would you like to come visit my parents tomorrow?" Mr. Crofford blurted out.
He turned his attention back to Clifford. The junior guard was staring at him with uncertainty, his cheeks pink. But his gaze did not waver from Barrett's.
Barrett said, "I have extra duty tomorrow. I'm sorry."
Clifford lowered his eyes and nodded, running the tip of his tongue nervously over his upper lip. Barrett glanced over his shoulder again. Mr. Phelps was looking curiously their way.
Barrett took hold of Clifford's arm and pulled him into the nearest cell. The renovations of the breaking cells were completed now, but this one still lay empty, awaiting its next prisoner. Barrett closed the door and put his hands on Clifford's shoulders. "You know I love you."
Clifford's eyes flashed up. A smile appeared on his face. He nodded.
Barrett tightened his grip on Clifford's shoulders. "I want you to keep that thought present in your mind. Remember that I love you and will always love you."
Clifford's smile disappeared. He searched Barrett's face with his eyes. Barrett braced himself to stave off the questions he could not answer.
But Clifford asked no questions. He simply pulled Barrett into a tight embrace.
They stood for a while like that, heart near heart, loin near loin, resting their heads on each other's shoulders. Then Barrett turned his head and found Clifford's lips. The junior guard's mouth tasted sweeter than anything Barrett had ever known in his life.
He pulled himself away before he should lose courage. "I must go," he said. "I'm on duty."
Clifford said nothing. His expression was bleak, but he did not try to pull Barrett back as Barrett opened the cell door.
This time Barrett did look back. He gave Clifford a small smile. Clifford gave him a small smile in return. Then Barrett walked on to where Mr. Phelps was awaiting him in front of their prisoner's cell.
Somewhere down at the end of the corridor, a prisoner was screaming. Barrett checked his step as he reached the door to his prisoner's cell. The scream sounded as though it were coming, not from the breaking cells, but from the entry hall or one of the rooms surrounding it.
The scream halted abruptly. Most likely it came from another Seeker or guard who was enduring the High Seeker's discipline under Mr. Sobel's lash, Barrett decided. Still, it gave him the excuse he needed.
"Go find out what that sound is," Barrett told Mr. Phelps, who had been standing next to their prisoner's cell, looking uneasily in the direction of the scream.
Mr. Phelps needed no further encouragement; he raced off, in the direction of the entry hall. Barrett noticed that Mr. Crofford and several other guards had abandoned their posts as well, though at least one guard remained on duty in front of each occupied cell.
Barrett took a deep breath and unlocked the cell door. He was not surprised to find, when he entered, that the prisoner was curled up in a ball in the corner. Mr. Holloway lifted his face. Moisture ran from his eyes and from his nose, which was red.
"Have you come to . . . ?" the prisoner whispered.
Barrett shook his head as he closed the door behind him. He did not bother to lock the cell. "Your racking has been delayed until tomorrow. Mr. Taylor has work he needs to do for the High Seeker today."
He walked forward. The hard, regular sound of his boots upon the paving stones was echoed by his heart. When he reached the prisoner, he squatted down beside him and offered him his handkerchief.
"Have you thought about what I said two weeks ago?" he asked softly as Mr. Holloway wiped his eyes and nose.
"I can't," sniffed the prisoner. "I don't remember. If I remembered— But I don't remember anything about that night."
Would the mere absence of memory be considered a confession of guilt? wondered Barrett. But he knew the answer: The Code of Seeking required an explicit statement that the crime had been committed or not committed. Under normal circumstances, the High Seeker might be willing to bend the rule for this case, where the prisoner obviously had no choice but to say that he did not know whether he had committed the crime. But these were not normal circumstances.
"I think I did it," whispered the prisoner. "It must have been me, mustn't it?"
"Yes," said Barrett. Like Elsdon Taylor, he had no doubt that this prisoner was the murderer.
"If I said I thought it was me . . ."
If he said he thought it was him but was not sure, it would not be a complete confession of guilt. The rack would be used to obtain that complete confession, a confession that the prisoner could not deliver.
Barrett did not know he had moved until he saw Mr. Holloway's breath quicken. The prisoner stared down at the dagger in Barrett's hand.
"Please," Mr. Holloway pleaded, "put it away. I can't . . . I mustn't. . ."
Barrett pressed the hilt into the prisoner's hand. Mr. Holloway stared at him, uncomprehending.
"Do you need my help?" Barrett asked softly.
Understanding entered Mr. Holloway's eyes. He stared at the dagger again, curling his hand hard around the hilt. A faint smile touched his lips.
"No," he said. "I don't suppose I do, do I?"
His breath was coming faster now. Quickly, Barrett reached forward and traced the circle of rebirth on his forehead. Mr. Holloway looked up from the dagger, startled.
"You have made reparation," Barrett explained as he rose. "You are transformed."
"Oh," said the prisoner, and he stared at the dagger with wonder in his eyes. Then his eyes grew unfocussed.
Mr. Holloway was right; he did not need help. He slid the dagger into his own heart with as much ease as though he had done it a dozen times – as he no doubt had. Barrett waited until the prisoner's body was still, and then he knelt down and took the dagger back. The prisoner's heart must have still been pumping faintly, for some blood spattered onto Barrett as he pulled the dagger out. Barrett reflected, with grim amusement, that it was just as well that he himself had not decided to take up the career of a secretive murderer, for he could never have carried off the deception.
He rose and remained staring down at the body, mentally lighting a flame of rebirth for the prisoner's journey into his new life. As time passed, many other flames appeared in his mind, marking the deaths of prisoners he had racked.
Then he heard excited voices in the corridor: the guards who had gone to investigate the sound of the screaming had returned. Barrett sheathed the blade, not bothering to clean it of its blood. For a moment more, he stood in place, wiping the moisture from his face onto his sleeve. Then, in preparation for his own reparation, he made the sign of rebirth upon his forehead.
He turned and went to tell the High Seeker what he had done.
. . . It cannot be said, therefore, that these men were unaware of the consequences for disobedience; but Elsdon Taylor is a different matter.
Elsdon Taylor's activities in 360 remain an enigma to scholars: to this day, historians disagree virulently as to what extent his ignorance of the military structure of the Eternal Dungeon led to the tragic fate of Barrett Boyd. It can be said with fairness that Elsdon Taylor exacerbated an already delicate situation by continually confronting Layle Smith in public with his opposition to the High Seeker's new policies. Under such circumstances, he made it impossible for Layle Smith to ameliorate the policies he had previously announced; the High Seeker was left with the choice of either admitting he was entirely wrong or enforcing his policies to the fullest extent. This would have been particularly the case in any situation involving Elsdon Taylor's prisoner.
Yet when all is said and done, it was Barrett Boyd alone who decided, on that autumn day in 360, to give Elsdon Taylor's prisoner the means to kill himself – a capital crime by Yclau law (which, in the fourth century, still outlawed both suicide and assistance to suicide) and also by the Code of Seeking (which forbade prison workers from assisting prisoners in illegal activities).
However much one may fault the High Seeker for bringing matters to this pass, one can only view with sympathy the situation he found himself on that day not long after Antonius Ferris's hanging: leaving the room where Elsdon Taylor barely clung to life, only to find himself confronted by Elsdon Taylor's senior night guard, who proceeded to confess to a death-sentence crime.
It was at this point – and perhaps the only point in Layle Smith's career – that his military origins showed itself. His next act, like that of Elsdon Taylor's fierce opposition, remains an enigma to scholars who wish to provide easy answers as to whether Layle Smith was as brutal as the torture he sought to defend.
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
Chapter 10: Consequences
On Guard 10
The year 360, the eleventh month. (The year 1881 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
The Old School, leader: See Smith, Layle.
The New School, leader: See Taylor, Elsdon.
—Glossary to Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
The entry hall was quiet and dark, except for the steady light of the electric lamps on the crowded tables where the guards worked, sorting documents or writing up reports. Several of the guards smiled or saluted their greetings as Seward Sobel reached the bottom step of the stairs leading down from the palace above. The three sets of guards on the stairs, who had not challenged his entrance, chatted lightly with each other.
Seward glanced in the direction of the Codifier's office, but saw no sign that it had been re-opened since Elsdon Taylor's mishap on the electric rack, ten days before. The Codifier was still on leave; so was Mr. Bergsen. Only one man was left to issue orders to the dungeon inhabitants, and he was nowhere to be seen in the entry hall. No guard stood in front of his office.
Seward made his way through the pool of darkness in the middle of the entry hall. Directly ahead of him, the last of the renovation laborers were making an attempt to remove the filing cabinet next to the Record-keeper's desk. They were being foiled by the Record-keeper.
"No, no, no!" Mr. Aaron stood frowning in front of the cabinet, his arms folded. "Don't you dare touch this!"
The laborer in charge raised his cap to scratch his head. "Sir, we have orders from the Queen to haul away anything that the dungeon inhabitants don't want. You told us when we first installed this—"
"I've just spent four months having the guards here take our documents out of boxes, remove the ribbons, add paper clips, and alphabetize the documents by drawer – am I to have them undo all that work? I will have you racked if you touch this cabinet!"
Seward did not wait to see how the laborers would react to this threat. He had reached the entrance to the corridor to the Seekers' cells; he nodded to one of the guards there, who greeted him with a smile and courteously held the door open. Seward made his way through the doorway and up the steps.
The corridor was silent and smoke-free. The furnace-doors on the left-hand wall were gone, replaced by smooth plaster. Unwavering light came from the electric lamps bracketed to the walls, each Seeker's cell lit by its own lamp.
Only one lamp was flickering and sputtering. It cast uneven sparks of light onto the guard standing there, looking uneasily over his shoulder at the shut door he guarded. His hand was resting on the coiled whip at his belt, as though he expected to have to use it. Seward, coming closer, heard muffled voices from behind the door. He could not immediately identify the voices, but the tone was clearly of anger.
Mr. Urman caught sight of Seward when he reached within whipping range of the junior guard. With a look of relief, Mr. Urman dropped his hand from his whip, but his voice was defensive as he said, "The High Seeker ordered me to stay outside."
"Oh?" Seward reached the doorway. He could identify the voices now; one of them appeared to be shouting. "It sounds as though Mr. Taylor is feeling better," he said, gesturing toward the door.
Mr. Urman's mouth twisted. "Still halfway to death, according to the healer; I heard the High Seeker say so. Not that that would stop the High Seeker from mutilating Elsdon Taylor."
From what Seward could hear, it sounded as though the mutilation was mutual. Well, at least Elsdon appeared unlikely to die. That was something.
"Speaking of halfway to death . . ." Mr. Urman's hand twitched in a nervous fashion on his belt. "Do you know whether the High Seeker has made any decision about Barrett Boyd's case? Clifford Crofford has been badgering me for information."
From the look in Mr. Urman's eyes, Seward guessed that the junior guard's concern was not merely on behalf of Mr. Crofford. Seward spent a moment readjusting the sheathed dagger at his belt, to give himself time to think. The moment he gave Mr. Urman the news, he knew, Mr. Urman would want to spread it all over the dungeon. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing, though. The High Seeker had already granted Mr. Sobel permission to make the announcement; Mr. Smith knew that the dungeon would not tolerate another hide-in-the-corner disciplinary case. Better, perhaps, that the announcement should come from Mr. Urman. The junior guard might be able to think of a way to make the news more palatable.
"He's not going to send Mr. Boyd to the hangman," Seward replied.
Mr. Urman's breath emerged in as big a puff as if the dungeon's Lungs had released it. "So the High Seeker is finally showing sense. He has decided not to enforce the Code strictly from this point forward?"
Seward hesitated. "No, the policy of strict enforcement is still in force."
"How could that be?" asked Mr. Urman crossly. "Mr. Boyd helped a prisoner to commit suicide. The Code declares the penalty for that to be death. Or wait – the High Seeker isn't simply dismissing Mr. Boyd from employment, is he? If he does, one of the city prisons could arrest Mr. Boyd under civil charges—"
"No, no." Seward passed his hand over his face. This conversation was not going well. The support he had hoped for was looking increasingly unlikely. "He's sticking to the Code. There's a passage in the Code of Seeking – I'd forgotten it until the High Seeker mentioned it – that allows any dungeon resident who has held a position in a previous army division to be sentenced under that division's system of justice. The Code says 'previous army division' because—"
"Yes, yes, I know," Mr. Urman said impatiently. "We're the Queen's soldiers, by law. And Mr. Boyd was previously in the Queen's infantry. What is the infantry's penalty for assistance in suicide?"
The junior guard's hands were already in fists. Seward, abandoning the last of his hope, said quietly, "One hundred heavy lashes."
Even in the flickering light, the change of color in Mr. Urman's face was clear. He turned nearly purple with rage. "That's murder!" he cried. "Mr. Sobel, you know it's murder! The Code only allows us to beat prisoners for sixty heavy lashes at the most – anything higher isn't permitted, because it would endanger the life of the prisoner! The healer—"
"Doesn't have the ability to overrule sentences in disciplinary cases." Seward thought again of the empty office adjoining the entry hall. The Codifier could have overruled the High Seeker's decision, but Mr. Daniels remained on leave. And the Queen, from what Seward had seen, was oblivious to the horrible difference between sixty heavy lashes and one hundred heavy lashes.
Seward said, trying to keep his voice neutral, "The infantry has been issuing this sentence for centuries."
He did not add that the infantry was considering abolishing the sentence, because it had led to so many deaths. And that was only when the sentence was carried out by an infantry soldier. . . .
"Who is to do the beating? You?" It seemed that Mr. Urman's mind moved in the same patterns as Seward's.
There was no way to avoid a straight answer. "The High Seeker will carry out the sentence. He has more experience in such matters."
"Bloody blades!" Mr. Urman's shout was so loud that it overwhelmed the sound of the shouting within the High Seeker's cell. "Of course he has more experience in this! He executed men in Vovim! Mr. Sobel, can't you see that this is just a way for him to exercise his sadism on someone other than—"
He stopped. Not because of the shushing gestures that Seward had been making, but because one of the voices within the cell had grown so loud that the words could now be distinctly heard.
"Don't try to pretend that you didn't intend this. You may not have known how far it would go, but you guessed that you would end up harmed in some way. You let yourself be racked only in order to try to make me feel pity for the prisoners who are racked. Well, your manipulation of my feelings won't work, Mr. Taylor. I am the High Seeker; I will not allow anyone to place himself between me and the proper exercise of the Code."
The entire corridor vibrated as a door within the cell slammed. Almost immediately, the door to the corridor opened. Mr. Urman jumped aside as though a bird of prey had suddenly swooped down upon him.
Layle Smith seemed not to see him. He had just covered his face with his hood; his hand was still jerking down the cloth. Mr. Sobel – who had spent too many years witnessing Layle Smith's unexpected moves to be unnerved by his sudden entrance – stood his ground, just opposite the doorway.
"Mr. Sobel." The High Seeker's voice was as deadly and controlled as a blade. "You were quite right to marry a woman of your own rank. The worst possible thing a man can do is to mate himself with someone who is his subordinate."
Mr. Urman, perhaps fearing what revelation the High Seeker's next words would bring, coughed into his fist. The High Seeker's gaze flicked his way. "Ah, Mr. Urman. I fear that I will not be retiring to my cell this morning as early as I had planned. I need to work for a few more hours. If you wish to take a short break before—"
"Sir," Seward interrupted softly, glancing in both directions to determine that the corridor was still empty. "The Queen has released us from bodyguard duty."
"Oh?" The High Seeker said; there was a note in his tone that Seward could not read.
"Yes, sir," Seward replied. "The latest news from Vovim is that matters have so much worsened between the King and his lords that the King has withdrawn all his agents from Yclau in order that they might protect him from assassins at home. The Queen and her advisers believe that you are in no further danger from a Vovimian assassin."
"Ah." The High Seeker was still for a long moment before adding, "Well, then, gentlemen, I will see you this evening, after the dusk shift. I understand from the Record-keeper that my day guards have delivered a new prisoner to the breaking cells. I trust that you will rest yourself well before the new searching begins." Without a word, he turned and began walking down the corridor, in the direction of the inner dungeon.
Mr. Urman waited until the High Seeker was out of sight before sighing. "Back to normal – or what passes as normal in this dungeon. Come on. Let's go see whether he has left any bit of Elsdon Taylor alive."
His eye still on the path that the High Seeker had taken, Seward shook his head.
"Why not?" Mr. Urman demanded. "Taylor is your friend, isn't he?"
"Yes." Seward turned his head to look at Mr. Urman. "Mr. Taylor has many friends. I'll check how he is later."
"I see," Mr. Urman said slowly. The expression on his face suggested that he had just sighted something in his path that he intensely disliked, and that he planned to grind it to death with his heel. "Well, then," he said, "I'll tell Taylor whose company you value most."
Seward said nothing. From what he knew of Elsdon Taylor, he thought it unlikely that the junior Seeker would take offense at his action. Mr. Urman, on the other hand . . .
It was like seeing the shattering of a brief truce. Perhaps, in the future, terms of peace might be offered again. But for now . . .
Mr. Urman had already turned away in order to duck past the door that the High Seeker had left open. Seward swivelled on his heel and began walking in the direction that the High Seeker had gone.
The entry hall was still crowded with guards, except at one table, whose inhabitants had abandoned it. Only one man stood there. He was staring down at the machine attached to the end of the table by a small vise. In his hand was a pencil.
He looked up as Seward approached. There was disapproval in his voice as he said, "You are off-duty, Mr. Sobel."
"Yes, sir." Seward glanced down at the small pile of mangled pencils next to the pointer. Apparently the High Seeker had been undergoing yet another failure in getting machinery to work in his presence.
"Then why are you here?" Layle Smith's voice was as sharp as an executioner's lash.
"My place is by your side, sir." Mr. Sobel took the pencil from him, stepped forward, and proceeded to sharpen it with the pointer. He was conscious of the whispers of the guards around him, accompanied by disapproving looks; he did his best to ignore them, though he felt as though he were being pelted by mud.
By the time he turned back, the High Seeker's eyes had turned thoughtful. The tone of his voice was also contemplative as he said softly, "You are likely, Mr. Sobel, to become highly unpopular in certain quarters."
"Not in the quarters that count most to me, sir." He handed the pencil to the High Seeker.
"Well, then," said the High Seeker, his eyes beginning to smile, "I would appreciate your help in my office. I need to submit a request for the purchase of a whip. You can help me fill out the form."
He felt his stomach churn, a familiar sensation by now. "Certainly, sir," he replied without hesitation; and then, as the High Seeker turned away, he took his place by Layle Smith's side, as close as a shadow.
Battle between the Old School and the New School: See Codification Crisis, 360-364.
—Glossary to Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.