Two-and-a-half years later: The year 363, the fourth month. (The year 1882 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
"Elsdon! Elsdon, wake up!"
His face stripe-shadowed by the alternation of light and dark from the lamp that Layle had lit, Elsdon Taylor began to blink. Layle hastily released him, before Elsdon should realize how tightly he was being gripped.
"Sir?" Elsdon's voice wavered uncertainly.
Layle could guess from whence he was emerging. He kept his own voice quiet. "Mr. Taylor, you are in the Eternal Dungeon. You are a junior Seeker. I am the High Seeker." The formal language was deliberate; it always seemed to calm Elsdon, when he was emerging from his nightmares.
"Sir?" Elsdon repeated as though he had not heard. He was blinking rapidly, the fine blond lashes of his eyes shimmering golden in the lamplight. Then: "High Seeker? . . . Layle?"
"Yes." He kept his voice gentle, moving back slightly on the bed so that Elsdon would not feel crowded. There was little enough room to do so. Some past High Torturer – giving in to the practical reality of the manner in which many of the dungeon's torturers chose to interact with their cell-mates – had authorized double beds for the torturers' cells, but the living cells of the torturers – now called Seekers – had never been luxurious. Indeed, there had been some discussion during Layle's early manhood as to whether the Seekers' mattresses should rest on stone foundations, as the mattresses of their prisoners did. Mr. Bergsen had vetoed this idea, arguing persuasively that conditions proper for temporary imprisonment were quite different from conditions proper for lifelong imprisonment. So Layle and Elsdon, like the other Seekers, slept in a proper bed.
But their double bed was a small one, and their bedroom was starkly furnished. No wallpaper, no rugs, not even a wardrobe. None was needed, since Seekers wore the same shirt and trousers every day, with only a spare set to allow for laundering, as well as changes of undergarments. Neither Layle nor Elsdon wore nightshirts; they had no need of sleeping garments, curled up in each other's warmth.
Now Layle reached forward and, without a word, draped the bed's topmost blanket over Elsdon's shoulders, which were beginning to pucker from the cool air. He said in a matter-of-fact voice, "You were dreaming of your father?"
Elsdon shook his head in a jerky fashion, as though trying to loosen the thoughts there. "No. No, not exactly. I was dreaming of Barrett's flogging."
The two words "not exactly" were like a blade under the nail. Layle found that he could not speak. Elsdon, still too groggy to be aware of what he had said, yawned into the palm of his hand. "What time is it?" he asked.
"About one," replied Layle. He did not bother to look back at the ticking clock visible in the nearby sitting room; after nearly thirty years of being an imprisoned torturer within dungeons, he knew the daily rhythms of the Eternal Dungeon without needing to see either clock or sun. "I'll go get us some cocoa."
It was a legitimate excuse for escaping from Elsdon's presence before the skilled junior Seeker should read what lay in Layle's face.
Layle scooped up his hood from off the night-table, in an automatic fashion. He always wore his hood outside this room, and frequently inside it as well, as Elsdon could have testified. Last night, there had been no drama between them of torture and rape; that was increasingly rare these days. Any sort of intimate touch between them was becoming rare.
Layle turned his thoughts aside from this as he stood and picked up his clothes, which were hanging from the railing at the end of the bed. With his clothes still in hand, he walked to the door. As he prepared to pass over the threshold to the sitting room, his gaze was snagged by a framed sketch on the bedroom wall.
It was a surprisingly well-done drawing by Mr. Sobel's son, depicting the goddess Mercy in the form of a young man. She lay on her stomach, naked, her legs parted to show her baubles. Mercy's head was turned away, but Layle knew the body in the picture so well that he had not needed any explanation as to why Elsdon had gifted him with the sketch on his birthday two months before.
Layle had been more than a little disconcerted by Elsdon's nudity in the drawing; Mr. Sobel's son was not yet seven years of age. When Layle discussed the matter with his senior night guard, though, Mr. Sobel had said, "He's just the right age for that type of model-sketching. I'll be frank, sir: If Finlay had been a few years older, I'd never have allowed him unchaperoned in the same room as Mr. Taylor, naked or clothed. You do know, don't you, that half the boys and men in this dungeon are in love with Mr. Taylor? And that half the girls and women are plotting ways to lure him into their beds, should his eye stray from you?" Mr. Sobel had smiled to show that he was making light-hearted mock.
Now Layle felt a shiver creep its way over his skin. He knew that he must be growing old, for the cool air, which had never affected him when he arrived at the Eternal Dungeon at age eighteen, was now too chill on his skin to allow him to walk naked around his cell.
It was a relief to clothe himself and to warm his hands over the newly installed stove in the sitting room of their cell. Three years before, he had greeted with stony silence the suggestion that Seekers be allowed to heat their living cells. Discussions with Weldon Chapman had changed his mind. Weldon and his wife and son had long occupied a cell that had originally been part of the outer dungeon, and so Weldon had experienced what it was like to live with the comfort of a stove.
"It makes me feel like a stoker again," he complained to Layle. "Up at five in the morning to feed the grate, clear out the ashes, haul them out in a bucket to the corridor for the maid to pick up . . . I could ask the maid to do it all, of course, but that doesn't seem right."
"Because you're a Seeker," suggested Layle.
Weldon had flashed him a smile. "Of course. You understand."
Layle understood very well indeed, and so he had instructed that stoves be installed in the cells of any Seekers who requested one, provided that the Seeker making the request be willing to clean the stove himself. Weldon – who had started his career at the Eternal Dungeon as a commoner laborer – had recognized what Layle had failed to recognize: the need for Seekers to undertake some of the works of physical labor that their commoner prisoners normally undertook in the lighted world.
Now Layle carefully scooped more coal out of the fuel bucket, added it to the coal already glowing in the stove, closed the stove door, and checked that the chimney pipe was properly drawing the smoke upwards to the dungeon's complex ventilation system. Turning aside, he pulled the handle of one of the mirror-bright steel storage bins attached high up on the wall in the kitchen area. From the bin, he removed a cocoa tin, and then withdrew a glass bottle of milk from the recently installed ice box.
Yet another innovation; Mr. Bergsen, concerned about the lack of milk in the prisoners' diets, had persuaded Layle to allow the prisoners daily cups of warm cocoa. Since the prisoners were now allowed this, so were the Seekers. Layle – who had spent much of his childhood living homeless on the streets – had never tasted cocoa before the previous year. Now drinking cocoa was rapidly becoming his favorite pastime.
At one time, his hours spent with Elsdon had been his favorite pastime. Once again, he jerked away from this thought.
He was not particularly surprised to learn that Elsdon had dreamt of Barrett Boyd's flogging in the same hour that Layle himself was dreaming of the events that had taken place three days after that flogging. He and Elsdon had begun to share sleep-dreams around the time that the two of them began to play out the dreamings that Layle had when he was awake.
That had been four years before, in 359 – one of the few periods of Layle's life when he had been truly happy. He had emerged from his madness, he and Elsdon had found a way in which to share thoughts during their lovemaking, and aside from a growing awareness of the extent of the dungeon workers' insubordination to his orders, Layle had regarded the Eternal Dungeon as being in good order. There had been no reason to suspect that his happiness would be broken sharply the following year.
They had muddled on since Mr. Boyd's flogging – he and Elsdon, the Seekers and guards. It was like one of the truces back in what was being called – now that it seemed finally over – the Thousand Years' War between Yclau and Vovim. There would be a promise of peace during the war, but everyone knew that the peace would be broken. The only question was how and when.
Layle stirred a bit of water into the cocoa and sugar, turning it into paste at the bottom of the cup, and then he poured in hot milk from the pan atop the stove. No, it was not surprising that either he or Elsdon had dreamt of Mr. Boyd's flogging. That flogging, and the events that had preceded it, had marked the beginning of the descent of their relationship. Nothing had broken permanently between them – not yet. But it was only a matter of time.
He felt the full blade enter into him then, and he had to close his eyes against the pain. He had lived thirty-five years before he met Elsdon Taylor, he reminded himself. He could live without Elsdon again, if need be. He had the strength to survive if Elsdon left him. He must.
The smell of burning tickled his nose; for a moment, he thought he had entered into one of his dreamings. They did not come often these days against his will, those dreamings of his years as an apprentice torturer in the Hidden Dungeon. But they still came, as though as a reminder of what he might become again.
Then he realized that he was not smelling burning flesh; he had left the remaining milk on the hot stove, and it was bubbling over, scalding as it hit the heated top of the stove. He hastily moved the pan onto an iron trivet nearby that showed the Queen's seal: a crown surrounded by the circle of rebirth.
The sight of the circle helped to steady him. This death of Elsdon's love for him, as he saw it, might be nothing more than transformation to a deeper love between the two of them. He had told prisoners time and time again over the years: "What you see as the end of your life is only the beginning. But you must let go of the old in order to grasp the new. Whatever the old may be – your lies, your crimes, your very lives – it will be transformed into something better than has come before."
He sipped the cocoa cautiously, then set about making the second cup. No, despite all appearances, something good might eventually emerge from Mr. Boyd's flogging. What concerned him more were the two words Elsdon had spoken in the bedroom: "not exactly." The High Seeker's vicious flogging had not been exactly like the vicious floggings that Elsdon's abusive father had given the junior Seeker when he was a boy – but it was close enough.
Layle leaned back against the sink next to the kitchen table, considering the problem as he would consider a problem posed by one of his prisoners. He was beginning to guess now why Elsdon had been plagued so much for the past two-and-a-half years by dreams of his father.
For fourteen years – fourteen unspeakably painful years – Elsdon Taylor had been abused by his father. Then, in 355, at the age of eighteen, he had come to live in the Eternal Dungeon, freed from the captivity of his father.
But he had entered a new captivity, not so much from the fact that he had taken an oath of eternal imprisonment within the dungeon, but from the fact that he had fallen in love with the High Seeker. Elsdon had discovered, within a very short time of the beginning of their love-bond, that Layle Smith needed his emotional support, and not long after that, Layle had gone mad. Elsdon had tenderly cared for him during all that time.
Elsdon had never been given a chance to grieve for his lost childhood. No chance to yearn, no chance to cry at what had been taken from him during his years with his father. He had moved almost immediately into a position of caretaker, a role that did not permit him to think about his own past troubles.
And so, when the time finally came when Layle was strong enough to need less care – less care, for Elsdon remained the foundation block of their relationship – Elsdon had become vulnerable to any image that might spark the memories of what his father had done, and would bring the accompanying pain. And the image that had sparked this inferno, Layle now saw, was Barrett Boyd's flogging.
Barrett Boyd, who had been abused by Layle Smith, just as Elsdon had been abused by his father.
Layle turned and picked up the cups of cocoa. What he had learned tonight was, in a certain sense, nothing new. He and Elsdon had both known, from the moment their relationship began, that they were taking a dangerous path: pairing an abused young man with a man who dreamt daily of abusing – who in fact had abused during his youth. Elsdon had always assured Layle that it was worth the risk – that Layle's very likeness to Elsdon's father was what helped to heal Elsdon, since Layle sought to transform his abusive desires into acts of love. Perhaps Elsdon had been correct in the past. But now, it seemed, Layle's flogging of Mr. Boyd had brought forth a firestorm of emotions in Elsdon that the junior Seeker could not control.
Control: the very hallmark of a Seeker. Something had to change here, if not for Elsdon's sake, then for the sake of his prisoners. And it was ironic – oh, entirely too ironic – that Layle had spent the past three years using every method he knew to forcibly control his rebellious junior Seeker.
Had that contributed to the dreams?
The scent of cocoa tickled his nose, overwhelming the smell of coal-dust and the mildew that seemed forever present in the Eternal Dungeon, even though most of the dungeon had artificial walls rather than stalactite-filled chambers. Layle paused in the doorway to the bedroom in order to gaze at Elsdon. The blanket had slipped from Elsdon's shoulders, revealing the statue-smooth skin, the filigree-fine chest hair that was the same golden color as the hair on his head and groin, the slender muscles that Elsdon had recently acquired, since he had begun spending some of his spare hours teaching the young commoners in the outer dungeon how to box. "It's best for them to have an outlet for their energy," Elsdon had said, an oblique reference to his own brief spell of impulses toward violence during his youth.
"An outlet is always good," Layle had replied dryly, a reference to his own lifelong impulses toward violence.
Now, with his mind still dwelling on the need for outlets to captive emotions, he approached the bed and handed Elsdon his cocoa. Always one to be grateful for simple gifts, Elsdon smiled as he drank the cocoa. Perching himself on the edge of the bed, Layle sipped from his own cup, waiting.
Finally Elsdon said, "I'm sorry to keep waking you at night."
"I didn't mind being awoken. I was having a bad dream myself."
"Oh? What about?" Instantly, Elsdon was alert, putting his cup aside, along with any further talk of his own dream. Ever the caretaker, Layle thought as he rolled the sweet cocoa over his tongue. It was a characteristic all Seekers shared, but Elsdon possessed it to an almost dangerous degree. It had taken Layle many years to realize that the submission he required of Elsdon in their bedroom dramas was perhaps the best gift he could have given the junior Seeker: an opportunity for Elsdon to drop the burden of caretaking that he held at all other times.
Layle waited until Elsdon's eyes were fastened upon his; then he said, "My dream ended with our conversation in the crematorium, three days after Barrett Boyd's flogging."
Elsdon's gaze dropped suddenly. He fingered the bed-sheet a moment before saying, "Ah." Then: "I've sometimes felt like that was the beginning of. . . I don't know what to call it. A truce?"
"Like the truces in the Thousand Years' War," Layle replied.
Looking up, Elsdon flashed him a sudden smile. "Precisely. A lowering of arms, but not an end to the war. Somehow, the truce has seemed worse than the battle that came before."
Layle said nothing. He had reached the dregs of the drink now but was reluctant to swallow the final, sharp-tasting grains of cocoa. He held the cup in his hand, lingering upon the shallows.
Elsdon's smile faded, and he looked away again. "Well, I suppose not," he said. "Not considering what came before."
"You didn't witness it," Layle observed.
"But Mr. Urman did; I was present when he described it to Mr. Crofford. My dream was from his point of view." Elsdon frowned, clutching his hands together in his old, youthful gesture of disturbed concentration. He bit at one his knuckles for a moment before saying, "There was something odd about it."
"About the dream?"
"About Mr. Urman's viewpoint. He was different inside than I'd always envisioned him. Less confident, less angry . . . and more discerning."
"People are often different inside than they appear to others," Layle observed.
Elsdon laughed then. "Oh, I know that. If you were what people think you are from your appearance . . . But this dream was strange. Mr. Urman was watching the flogging, and he was angry at what was happening, but he wasn't feeling the anger. He wasn't feeling anything at all. It was as though there was a wall of ice between him and what was happening. But later, when he heard me call out to you – it's as though the wall all came down at once. He was feeling pain, intense pain, and . . . it wasn't just about what he had seen. There was something more there, something deeper."
Layle carefully turned to place the cup on the night-table, taking the opportunity to turn down the lamp so that Elsdon, who could not see as well as the High Seeker in the dark, would not be able to read his expression. Elsdon's skills as a Seeker could be a disadvantage at times when Layle dared not speak what he thought.
He was enough of an Yclau to be a rationalist, and enough of a Vovimian to believe in the gods. Being Vovimian, he believed that important dreams were sent by the gods; being Yclau, he believed that the dreams only came to men and women who were already receptive to the messages that the dreams contained. In the case of a Vovimian, the receptivity might arise from prior prayer. But Elsdon was native Yclau. In his open-minded fashion, Elsdon had come to believe that there might be more to the Vovimian religion of gods and goddesses than most Yclau thought, but he never prayed to any deity. His receptivity was of a different sort.
Running his finger over the warm rim of the cup, Layle forced himself to think back on that day. Toward the end of the flogging, time had suspended itself and his senses had blurred; his senses had only become bright again at the moment that Elsdon reached him and touched him.
By that point, there were a great many people surrounding him. Weldon was at his side, begging him to remember his duty to the Code. Mr. Sobel, seeing that Elsdon had matters in hand, had gone back to the whipping post to free Mr. Boyd from his bonds. The dusk-shift guards who had helped Elsdon onto the platform were milling around, looking uneasy. Some of the Codifier's guards were reluctantly venturing onto the platform. They were confronted by the temporary healer, whose courage under fire rivalled that of Mistress Birdesmond; she put them quickly to work helping Mr. Sobel place Mr. Boyd on the stretcher.
And Mr. Urman? Layle knew, from what he had been told by Elsdon, that Mr. Urman had stood between Mr. Boyd and the High Seeker's whip. In fact, if Mr. Urman had not done so, it would likely have taken Elsdon longer to realize what was happening. Elsdon's immediate cry in response to Mr. Urman's action was what had kept the tragedy from reaching its full peak. Even one or two more lashes might have been enough to kill Mr. Boyd's body.
So Mr. Boyd – indeed, the entire dungeon – owed a great deal to Mr. Urman. The High Seeker saw the junior guard in his memory's eye. Mr. Urman was stepping away from the scene. His head was bowed, and his body was shaking. Nobody was taking notice of him.
"'I am alone, I am alone, I am always alone,'" Elsdon said softly in the dim light. "That's what he said to himself, at the end of the dream."
The aftermath of the flogging had been messy. It had taken Elsdon two full days to calm Layle enough that he could resume his duties. By that time, the Codifier had returned, and soon afterwards, Mr. Bergsen had appeared. For the next fortnight, Layle had dealt with numerous enquiries as to what had happened: from the Codifier, from Mr. Bergsen, from Mr. Boyd's parents, from the magistrates, from the Queen.
Amidst the turmoil, Layle now realized, Mr. Urman's courageous act had gone unremarked upon.
Elsdon bit his knuckle again. "I know that the dream was partly mine. Mr. Urman didn't even refer to himself by his given name in the dream – I don't think I've ever heard his given name, only his initial. So part of the dream was my own imagination. Yet it's one of those dreams that seemed to mean something. I wonder why?"
Layle could guess why. Elsdon, with his high skills as a Seeker, had noticed something that day which had made him receptive to a dream from the gods, showing him more than he had consciously recognized. Elsdon's dream had told him more than anyone in the dungeon likely knew about Mr. Urman . . . perhaps even more than Layle knew.
Layle dimmed yet further the old-fashioned oil-lamp he had bought from his own private allowance for luxuries, with permission from the Codifier. From what little Layle knew, he could guess why Mr. Urman had erected a barrier between himself and the vicious flogging. Layle could even guess why Elsdon's voice had been what broke that barrier. Where the deep pain lay, Layle could only speculate upon.
But he could not do so aloud. What he knew, he knew because he had access to the Codifier's private records, and also because Mr. Urman had answered honestly certain questions put to him during his initial interview for employment at the Eternal Dungeon. Layle had seen no reason at the time to probe far into the matter; more than most men, he understood why one would wish to be reticent about one's past. Layle had delved only far enough to assure himself that Mr. Urman would not use his past as an excuse to abuse the prisoners. The very opposite had appeared to be true, so Layle had given the young guard his chance. After all, if there was any place in the world where one might be reborn, it was in the Eternal Dungeon.
So now all that Layle said was, "It sounds like a mystery worth uncovering."
"Perhaps." Elsdon's voice had become distant. From the way his hands had tightened together, Layle guessed that his thoughts were drifting past Mr. Urman to the flogging.
Layle was still trying to figure out how to steer the conversation back to Mr. Urman when he heard a knock on the door to the corridor.
It was Mistress Birdesmond's senior day guard. He said not a word, but held out a bundle of envelopes, tied with a string.
Layle refrained from pointing out that one o'clock in the afternoon was not the best time to be delivering mail to a night-shift Seeker. He sliced the string open with his fingernail, glancing at the bedroom door to assure himself that it was closed. Elsdon's bodily nakedness was of no great matter, but Elsdon's nakedness of face – his current lack of his hood – must not be witnessed, even by one of the dungeon's long-term residents.
His own hood brushed against his face as he flipped quickly through the mail to be certain that the stack contained nothing urgent. The topmost letter held the seal of the Queen, but he knew what that envelope contained; he had been corresponding with the Queen concerning what charges might be legitimately brought against a notorious procurer-turned-sweetweed-dealer who was highly skilled at covering up evidence of his crimes. The other letters looked to be routine business from various departments of the Queen's government. No personal mail – Layle had never received personal mail from the lighted world, other than from the late High Master of the Hidden Dungeon.
At the bottom of the stack was the distinctive blue-green envelope used by the palace's telegraph office. Ah. Hence the early-afternoon mail delivery; the Record-keeper, who had charge over guards who were not on breaking-cell duty, must have decided that the telegram should be delivered immediately by a guard. Layle ripped open the envelope and scanned the message.
It was brief, merely acknowledging that the sender would appear for his interview the following day. Due to tram schedules, he would be arriving at the Eternal Dungeon in the afternoon but would be glad to wait until evening for the interview if that would be of greater convenience to the High Seeker.
Layle held the telegram lightly, as he might have held lightly a package that was sent by a bomb-throwing anarchist. Seconds ticked away on the clock behind him as he stared down at the telegram. Danger – that was what he was inviting into the Eternal Dungeon. He knew that without even having to conduct the interview. Why in the name of all that was sacred had he extended the invitation? The last thing that the Eternal Dungeon needed was another disruptive change.
He wondered whether he should order the gate guards to bar the entrance when this man arrived for his interview. Or perhaps it would be easiest simply to send a telegram back, cancelling the interview.
He became aware that he was being watched. Looking up, he saw dark eyes, examining him in the same manner that a butcher might examine a hen in the slaughterhouse.
He cleared his throat. "Thank you, Mr. Boyd. There will be no replies."
Barrett Boyd did not acknowledge his words with so much as a nod. He turned and began striding down the corridor that ran between the outer dungeon and the inner dungeon.
As he did so, another guard approached in the opposite direction, heading toward the outer dungeon. Clifford Crofford, seeing who was approaching, slowed his pace and gave a sketch of a greeting with his hand, accompanied by a tentative smile.
Mr. Boyd ignored him. He strode past the other guard without so much as looking his way.
Layle did not wait to see Mr. Crofford's expression fall. He closed the door, locked and barred it, and leaned back on it. His heart was thumping, as it rarely did outside of either his bedroom or the rack rooms.
Two years before, the healer who had been brought in to consult with Mr. Bergsen concerning Mr. Boyd's recovery had declared that the guard's mind had not been maimed. Everyone who had been acquainted with Mr. Boyd before the punishment knew otherwise, but even Mr. Bergsen had admitted that Mr. Boyd posed no danger to the prisoners. Learning this, Layle had quizzed Mr. Boyd carefully to ascertain that the guard had no future plans to violate the Code. Then Layle had offered Mr. Boyd his position back.
He had thought at the time that it was the right thing to do. Mr. Boyd had violated the Code on a single occasion and had nearly died from the punishment. Layle had violated the Code seven times in connection with Mr. Boyd's flogging and had received no punishment whatsoever. It had seemed only fair that Mr. Boyd should be allowed a second chance.
That had been before Layle had fully realized what it would be like to work in the same dungeon as a guard whose every look suggested that he was plotting the High Seeker's assassination. It had provided Layle with some insight as to what it must be like for others to work with himself.
Setting the routine letters aside, he carried the telegram over to the bookcase, kneeling down to peer at the books on the bottom row. There, hidden in the shadows, was a slender volume that had been a gift from Mr. Sobel at the beginning of this, Layle's twenty-fifth year in the Eternal Dungeon. The book was a history of the Yclau army, which included passages referencing the Eternal Dungeon.
Unless Mr. Sobel had suddenly acquired sadistic tendencies, Layle assumed that his senior night guard had not read the book through to the final chapter. Layle – whose father had been a soldier and who therefore maintained an academic interest in all matters military – had read the entire volume, and then had placed the book where Elsdon was unlikely to notice it.
Layle had taken the book from its hiding place several times since the beginning of the year, always when Elsdon was absent from the room. Now, settling back onto the bench nearby, he let the book fall open to a page that he had stared at so often that the volume naturally opened to it.
The book had been published over a decade ago. The final chapter was on the modern army. In order to provide liveliness to his account, the author had arranged for a photographer to take pictures of some of the younger members of the army, representing the new generation of soldiers. Amidst the photographs was one of a smiling young soldier, posed in a relaxed, easy-going manner.
Barrett Boyd did not look any different in the photograph than he had when he first came to work for the Eternal Dungeon the following year. Indeed, he had changed very little over the next nine years. Genial, generous, affable, always ready with a joke, affectionate with his friends and love-mate, honorable, occasionally capable of intense anger over injustices, but forever prepared to see the better side of his fellow man – those were the words that dungeon inhabitants had used to describe Mr. Boyd in those days. If Mr. Sobel's testimony was to be trusted – and of course it was – Mr. Boyd had remained that way up to the very moment of his flogging, spending his final minutes in concern, not only over his love-mate, but also over the soul of his torturer.
Layle stared at the picture of the smiling soldier; overlaying it, he could see the dark, cold expression of the guard who had just visited him. No one would believe that the two men were the same.
And of course they weren't.
Intense anger over injustices Mr. Boyd retained, as well as the honor which drove that anger. But everything else – everything that had made him one of the best-loved guards in the dungeon – was gone forever. Layle had killed that Barrett Boyd; now another man lived in his body, a man alien to almost all that the first Barrett Boyd had valued.
Feeling something well up in him like blood, Layle snapped the book shut and stared again at the telegram. Danger. Change. A blade in the body. . . .
"What is it?" asked Elsdon.
In a casual, unhurried manner, Layle slipped the evidence of Mr. Boyd's past onto the lowest bookshelf before turning his head to look at Elsdon. The junior Seeker was standing in the doorway to the bedroom, wearing nothing. His thighs were long and slender and the color new-churned butter. His whammer hung lazily amidst the golden threads of his groin.
"A telegram," Layle replied, slipping the sheet into his shirt pocket before Elsdon should see the name of the prison telegraph office that was written there. Elsdon might need to grieve for his past, but certain aspects of his past he should not be reminded of. "I have an interview tomorrow."
Elsdon nodded. "So you'll be taking a half-night shift this evening?" When night-shift Seekers had business during the daytime, either at the courts or elsewhere, they usually went to bed at the previous midnight, so as to be fully awake for their daytime duties.
"Yes. It's just as well that you woke me early. If I'd slept through till late afternoon, it would have been harder for me to go to sleep at midnight."
"I'm not feeling very sleepy myself." Elsdon came over to stand in front of Layle.
Layle eyed him silently for a minute. Amidst the golden hairs atop Elsdon's head was a single silver thread that Layle had discovered earlier that year. They had both laughed at this evidence of Elsdon's approaching old age, for he was only twenty-six. But when Layle had reached out to touch the silver piece of hair, Elsdon had shied away.
So now Layle kept his hands by his sides. In the past, he would have known what Elsdon meant by a declaration that he "wasn't sleepy." Now Layle could not be sure. And not knowing, he dared not make the first move.
A truce. A long, bitter truce that seemed to drag on forever, with no change in sight.
"Who is the interview with?" asked Elsdon.
Somebody who has come to the Eternal Dungeon to shed blood, Layle was tempted to reply, and then his mind caught on that image. Blood. Sweet blood.
A long, bitter, endless truce, with both parties unwilling to break the truce by raising their weapons. Endless changelessness, like the world of afterdeath. And into the midst of this came danger, disruption, blood.
Eternal death? Or transformation to eternal rebirth?
"No one you're likely to remember," Layle replied. "You'll probably have a chance to meet him at some point. He may be staying at the dungeon."
Elsdon nodded but asked no further questions; he knew well enough not to quiz Layle on matters that related to his duties as High Seeker. Instead, he asked, "Who delivered the telegram? Mr. Sobel isn't volunteering extra duty time again, is he?"
"No, I put a stop to that. With a wife and four children to care for, the last thing he needs is to kill himself from overwork."
"Then who?" Cocking his head, Elsdon regarded Layle. Like every Seeker, he was attuned to when someone was avoiding answering a question he had asked.
There was no point in playing games. "Mr. Boyd."
Elsdon looked away. He had tensed, and not merely from memories of the nightmare, Layle guessed. The High Seeker was not the only man in the dungeon to feel guilt over Barrett Boyd's flogging; it was because of Elsdon's own insubordination that Mr. Boyd had conceived the idea of breaking the Code, which had led to his punishment.
"How is he?" Elsdon asked finally.
"The same as ever. He never changes." The words echoed in his head, as though he had spoken them in Mercy's great hall.
For a moment, they were both still. Then Layle, following some instinct, went back to the bookcase. Reaching past the volume he had just shelved, he shoved aside some books blocking his way and brought out from behind the books an object that had been sitting there for two years and five months: the candle of rebirth that he had taken from the crematorium at the time of Mr. Boyd's injury.
When he turned round, he found that Elsdon was standing beside him, matchbox in hand. Layle lit the candle, placing it on a porcelain plate that was sitting on the desk nearby.
Standing back, he stared at the tiny flame, wondering whether he should bring out the book showing Mr. Boyd's old self. But no – that represented Mr. Boyd's lost past. Whatever he might be in the future, Barrett Boyd would not be what he had been in the past. But it was possible – just possible – that he could become more than what he was now. Perhaps he would even acquire new virtues he had not possessed in the past.
That was how transformation and rebirth worked.
He became aware that Elsdon was standing next to him, with a book in hand. Layle glanced quickly at the cover, then looked a second time. "So it's finally published?" he said. It seemed an odd object for Elsdon to bring out at this moment, but Elsdon's mind was like quicksilver, running rapidly in unexpected directions.
"Yes, he sent me the first copy, signed." Elsdon held out the book. "Happy anniversary."
For a moment, Layle stared, counting days in his head; then he began to count curses in his head.
Reading his expression, Elsdon laughed. "It doesn't matter. You never remember birthdays either."
"It's two weeks after the spring equinox. I might have remembered that much."
"How could you, now that you've equalized the day and night shifts so that they're the same year-round?" Elsdon asked reasonably. "That was always how I could tell what season of the year it was – by the shifts."
"There are still the bats." Layle took the volume of ballads into his hand. For a century and a half, the Eternal Dungeon had timed its shifts by the bats in the entry hall, which left the dungeon at dusk and returned at dawn. That had helped the Seekers, who never saw the sun, to remember the time of year from the change in day length. But the time-clock added to the guardroom a few months before Mr. Boyd's flogging could not cope with such complexity, and so Layle had done what he had long been urged to do: he had granted the day shift and night shift equal hours year-round. No longer would the equinoxes represent to the imprisoned Seekers the times when the night shift and day shift possessed unusual equality; the equinoxes were now just numbers on the reports that Seekers filled out for the Record-keeper.
But this particular equinox . . .
"Eight years," said Elsdon. "It's not as though it's the tenth anniversary of our first meeting. And we have a different anniversary coming in the seventh month, from when we became love-mates. You can give me a gift then."
"I'll try to remember." He opened the book of ballads, wondering again at Elsdon's choice of gift. Perhaps the choice was simply due to the fact that Layle had been born in Vovim, the kingdom noted for its arts. Yclau could boast only a few native art forms, most of them connected with the technology for which it was famed. If you wanted to learn how to take a photograph, you came to Yclau, but if you wanted to learn how to perform in a drama, conduct a symphony, or carve a sculpture, you went to Vovim.
Only the so-called "low arts" flourished in Yclau: the popular arts practiced by the commoners. Public-house sign-painting, xylophone playing, juggling, ballad-singing . . . Ballad-singing especially, since it was the commoners' way of sliding past the censorship laws that the Queen had long imposed upon her subjects. Printers were required to adhere to the terms of a license issued by the Queen's officials, but no one could prevent a commoner from standing on the street-corner and singing a ballad with the latest news, as seen from the commoners' perspective. Although various Queens over the centuries had sought to stamp out the seditious balladeers, none had been successful.
Indeed, Layle thought as he glanced at the title page, it appeared that the current Queen was permitting the sedition to spread into the printed realm. But then, the author might have played some role in forcing the volume past the Queen's censor. Elsdon's adopted brother, Yeslin, was a very determined young man.
Layle flipped through the pages rapidly, saving a lengthier reading for another time. He had known, from reports that drifted in from the lighted world, that Yeslin was a popular balladeer, but he saw now that he had underestimated the young man's talent. Yeslin's poetry would even have gone over well among the most exacting of audiences, the Vovimians. No wonder, then, that Elsdon, who knew of Layle's appreciation of the arts, would have arranged for Layle to receive the first copy of what was likely to become a well-renowned book. The only wonder was that Elsdon had managed to keep from bursting with the news till now.
Many of the ballads, Layle saw, dealt with the oppressions faced by men and women without power. That was hardly strange, given Yeslin's own interest in such matters. Layle's browsing began to slow, however, as he realized that the final portion of the book was given over to prison ballads. The first few ballads were about Alleyway Prison, the poorly-run holding prison in the commoner district. But the next ballad . . .
Sweet blood. Layle stared at the poem, barely breathing as he read it. Eventually, he reached the final line.
He looked up. Elsdon was watching him.
Layle cleared his throat. "He learned about this from you?" It seemed wildly unlikely; Elsdon knew as well as any other Seeker the penalties for revealing information about dungeon disciplinary matters to someone from the lighted world, even his own brother.
Elsdon shook his head. "He knew about it already. There were rumors, you know. The Queen kept the rumors from reaching the newspapers, but the tales have been rife among the commoners. Yeslin selected the most likely rumors, added a passage about me, and then asked me what your perspective on the event had been."
Layle stared again at the ballad describing Barrett Boyd's flogging. It was written from the point of view of an imaginary commoner laborer who had managed to slip into the entry hall during the punishment. Afterwards, the laborer eavesdropped on the High Seeker while he was speaking to his love-mate about what had happened.
The ballad was like a blurred photograph: the details weren't right. In the ballad, the High Seeker wielded, not a black whip, but the far more dangerous leaded whip. The imprisoned guard was bound upon the great X of a crucifixion stand, imported by the High Seeker from Vovim. The imprisoned guard's love-mate – a maid from the outer dungeon – cried as she watched the beating. . . . And so it went, all the way through to the death of the guard, and the High Seeker's continued beating of the corpse, and the impassioned enquiries of the High Seeker's love-mate as to why the High Seeker had showed such cruelty.
The details weren't right, but the overall impression was true.
Layle read the final words of the ballad, spoken by the High Seeker: "I must uphold the Code, in order to protect the prisoners against men like me."
He heard his voice speak to Elsdon, as though from a distance: "I didn't say that."
"No," replied Elsdon softly. "But it's what you thought, wasn't it?"
He turned then, laying the book aside, and took Elsdon into his arms. They clung together for a moment, each comforting the other against the memories that the ballad had raised. Over Elsdon's shoulder, Layle could see the flame of rebirth flickering, shifting, changing its position every moment as its bright sharpness bit into the air like a knife drawing blood.
Change. Rebirth. An end to the deadly, unchanging truce. Perhaps allowing danger into the dungeon was the only way to break the terrible stand-off between the Old School and the New School – the stand-off between himself and Elsdon. Pain would come, no doubt, but better a blade in the flesh, drawing fresh, sweet blood, than to live in eternal death.
He drew back and placed his hands on Elsdon's shoulders, resisting the impulse to order Elsdon onto his knees. That would come shortly, but Layle always gave his love-mate fair warning. "We will enter a dreaming now," he announced.
The flash of surprise in Elsdon's face told Layle how long it had been since this had happened. Elsdon did not pull away, though. "Yes, sir. Where are we, and who are we?"
His gaze wandered past Elsdon to the storage bins. Yes, there – Elsdon could reach up and place his hands on the handles, as though his wrists were bound there, while the reflection on the shining metal would allow the junior Seeker to see the man standing behind him. And to watch what the man did.
Layle turned his gaze back to his love-mate. He took a deep breath. "Where we are is the Eternal Dungeon, and we are the High Seeker . . . and the prisoner who is about to receive one hundred heavy strokes."
Elsdon's breath hitched – not from passion, Layle could guess. But still he did not pull away. "And afterwards?" he asked.
"Afterwards you will cry. You will cry and cry and cry, grieving for what you have lost." He could feel the handle of the black whip beginning to form in his hand, but he forced the dreaming back. He would not willingly enter into a dreaming unless Elsdon agreed to play-act with him.
Elsdon looked puzzled now. "And then?"
"That is all. The dreaming ends there."
Elsdon frowned. "High Seeker, I don't understand. The dreamings we share always end with something good happening. . . ."
He took Elsdon's face between his palms and stared into the junior Seeker's eyes. "And it will today. Trust me on this."
"Yes, sir." No hesitation. Even after all they had gone through in the past three years, Elsdon still trusted him unreservedly in such matters.
Layle kissed him then, drawing Elsdon gently into his arms, in the same way that he would hold Elsdon gently in his arms after the imaginary whip had done its work, and Elsdon had been broken so greatly that he could grieve for his lost childhood. Out of the corner of his eye, Layle could still see the flame of Mr. Boyd's rebirth. It occurred to him that, during the two years and five months that he had undergone daily flayings of guilt for what he had done to Barrett Boyd, he had never allowed himself to grieve for the smiling young man who had died under the High Seeker's whip.
Perhaps it was time.
. . . And in this year, the High Seeker of the Eternal Dungeon, Layle Smith, entered his forty-third year, and entered the worst battle of his recorded life.
Many would argue that Layle Smith's prolonged bout with madness in the 350s represented his worst battle; but throughout his madness, he was comforted and healed by his much-beloved companion, Elsdon Taylor. The events which began in 363 were very different. During that time, a breach which had been threatening for three years finally took place, and Layle Smith was forced to enter into battle without his companion by his side. His foremost enemy in that battle would be Elsdon Taylor.
Sweet blood. Only a faith-filled belief in the redemptive qualities of suffering could have given Layle Smith the strength to survive this time. There is no doubt that the High Seeker and many others in the dungeon carried that principle too far, forcing suffering upon prisoners who neither wanted nor needed it. Yet it must not be said that Layle Smith was a hypocrite. Always, during his time as a Seeker, he drew as much blood from himself as from the prisoners he tortured, though his figurative blood can only be recognized by those who understand what the word "blood" meant to that generation.
And so we turn finally to the bloody battle between the Old School and the New, a battle that would result in one literal death, and would transform forever the lives of the Seekers and guards and prisoners.
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.