Actions

Work Header

Chapter Text

Three days before.
 

Barrett Boyd had no sooner walked over the doorway's threshold than he stopped dead, jarring Mr. Urman, who was walking close behind. Stepping to the side to see what the obstacle was, Mr. Urman found that the Eternal Dungeon's entry hall was filled to the brim with guards and Seekers.

This was no more than he had expected. The entry hall was the meeting place for the Seekers and their guards, as well as for the small number of guards employed by the Codifier. The number had been larger in decades past, when the Codifier's guards might have been called upon to do active battle against the torturers' guards in order to enforce the Codifier's will, but that day was long past. For over a century now, the torturers had bowed their will in submission to the Codifier. Certainly the present High Seeker had rarely been called into the Codifier's office for one of the "little executions" that Mr. Daniels issued, as Mr. Urman had once humorously described the Codifier's reprimands.

Mr. Urman had been in that office only once, to give witness against the High Seeker when Mr. Smith shoved a prisoner against the wall; consequently, Mr. Urman held none of the nervousness that many of the other guards held toward that office. To Mr. Urman's mind, the Codifier's office was a refuge, a sanctuary against the abuse that took place in even the best-run prisons.

At least, that was how Mr. Urman had regarded it until recently. He frowned, looking at the Codifier's guards, lined up in front of the office, along with the Codifier's secretary. Mr. Daniels himself was on leave; in his absence, the guards took their orders from the High Seeker. No help could be found from that quarter.

Nor could help be found from the Seekers and their guards, Mr. Urman thought, running his eye over the restless crowd in the dark cavern of the entry hall. They were like blind bats: following their leaders, taking orders, and issuing punishments without thinking through the consequences of what they did.

And Mr. Urman was the blindest of them all, he reminded himself, for he knew clearly what the Seekers did when they placed a man on the rack and urged him to confess, upon penalty of further pain. He, of all men, had no excuse for helping the Seekers tear apart the bodies and wills of the helpless.

His eyes scanned the room, seeking the one man whose behavior seemed to set him apart from the other Seekers. But Elsdon Taylor was still in recovery from being accidentally electrocuted the previous month; he was nowhere to be seen.

His love-mate was there. Standing near the platform, leaning toward one of the new electric lamps, the High Seeker carefully, lovingly inspected his whip.

He had not owned a whip until the previous day. No Seeker owned a whip. Mr. Urman had assumed that the High Seeker would borrow Mr. Sobel's whip, as he had done on the few occasions that the Codifier had permitted him to show off his considerable skills to the guards. But no – apparently the "stub whip," the Eternal Dungeon's deliberately shortened whip that fit the cramped confines of the breaking cells, did not satisfy Layle Smith's full lust for vengeance.

When Mr. Urman learned that Mr. Smith had ordered a whip sent to him from a Vovimian merchant in the city, he had been appalled. He had half expected a leaded whip to show up. What had arrived was nearly as bad: the dreaded "black whip," used by executioners in the Kingdom of Vovim for deaths by flogging.

"The black whip is used in Vovim's prisons too, just for discipline," Mr. Sobel had said, determined, as always, to defend his Seeker's indefensible acts.

"And this is supposed to reassure me?" retorted Mr. Urman.

The High Seeker – who had spent three years of his youth as an apprentice torturer in Vovim's notorious Hidden Dungeon – looked like a barbarian Vovimian at the moment. Normally only half-dressed in the Seeker uniform of shirt and trousers, he had gone even further this evening and was stripped to the waist. In an automatic manner, Mr. Urman looked around to see whether the dungeon's female Seeker was present to witness this shameless display.

She was not; Mistress Birdesmond, Mr. Urman knew, had taken leave recently to care for her adopted son, who was weathering a bad spell of bronchitis, a common illness in the damp dungeon. But the inner dungeon's other female inhabitant was there: the temporary healer, whose name Mr. Urman could never quite remember, and who was also being served up for the High Seeker's vengeance.

Mr. Urman assumed as much, anyway. There was no reason why the healer should be here. It was true that, in any case of serious torture – and one hundred heavy strokes was as serious as you could get – the dungeon's healer could request to be present in order to stop the torture if the prisoner's life was endangered. But the High Seeker, Mr. Urman was sure, had no intention of truncating the count of this particular flogging, and the healer looked as though she wanted to be anywhere but standing on the punishment platform. She was quite young – almost as young as Mr. Urman's sisters – and she had turned so pale that Mr. Urman guessed she would pass out the moment that blood was drawn.

Some of the guards, Mr. Urman knew, blamed the temporary healer for having allowed the torture of the prisoner who had killed himself. Mr. Urman did not. He had worked under Mr. Smith on a number of occasions over the years – was being forced to work under him now, though he planned to ask for a transfer the moment the Codifier returned. He knew how difficult it was for even their regular healer – a crusty, opinionated man – to hold out when the High Seeker got it into his head that some prisoner needed to be racked. A slight child like the temporary healer had no hope of holding out against demands that she approve the torture of a prisoner.

She certainly would make no difference today. Mr. Urman dismissed her from his sight and turned his attention back to Mr. Boyd. The imprisoned guard was still frozen in place, staring at the crowd – which was odd, for he had known that all the guards and Seekers would be present to witness the humiliation of his excruciating death. Then Mr. Urman followed his gaze and understood.

Clifford Crofford, Mr. Urman's closest friend, was standing on his tiptoes amidst the other junior guards, trying to see through the crowd to the platform ahead. He had not yet noticed Mr. Boyd's entrance, yet his face was as bloodless as the imprisoned guard's. He already clutched a handkerchief in readiness.

"Mr. Boyd, we must continue," Mr. Sobel murmured from the other side of Barrett Boyd, gently urging him on with the touch of a hand.

Mr. Boyd nodded, but he did not take his gaze off Clifford until they had reached the western steps to the platform. By that time, Clifford was hidden in the crowd, so Mr. Urman did not see the junior guard's reaction to the entrance of his imprisoned love-mate.

A silence fell over the crowd as the prisoner and his escort came forward. The High Seeker – who had no doubt known of their presence from the moment they walked through the door – did not look up; he was painstakingly examining each twist of the leather on his whip. The prisoner and his escort passed within an arm's length of Mr. Smith as they walked up the short flight of steps to the platform, where the whipping post awaited.

Mr. Urman had been whipped more times than he liked to remember during his five years in the dungeon. Every time he made some small mistake, and every time he rebelled against some hideous plan that his Seeker had for a prisoner, he was tied to the fat whipping pole in the guardroom.

Mr. Urman figured that he could have endured worse fates. The pole's surface was smooth against his bare chest, and his wrists were tied on the opposite side of the pole, which was more restful than having them bound above his head.

Apparently too restful; here also the High Seeker had made special accommodations for Mr. Boyd. An army post had been brought in, under the excuse that the whipping post in the guardroom could not easily be moved into the entry hall. Mr. Sobel – normally the most imperturbable guard in the dungeon – had taken one look at the army's version of a whipping pole and had whistled mournfully.

It was a T beam – a long, tall, rectangular beam upon which rested a shorter beam in horizontal position. The tall beam was far too thin to embrace the prisoner's entire body; every time the lash landed, the prisoner's chest would grind against the thin post, and against its sharp edges.

As for the wrists, they would be tied far apart on the topmost beam, stretching the prisoner wide open in a painful manner. Rather than be bound with soft leather, as the dungeon's prisoners and disciplined guards invariably were, Mr. Boyd would be forced to place his wrists within cold iron manacles whose edges would scrape his skin raw as the punishment proceeded.

Perhaps Mr. Smith had even hoped that the beam would be so high that Mr. Boyd would be forced to stand on his toes, but in that respect he was foiled, for Mr. Boyd was a tall enough man that his hands could reach the manacles. Now, having arrived at the ugly instrument of torture, Mr. Boyd did not spare it a glance. Without waiting to be asked, he stripped off his shirt. He had already been stripped of his jacket, vest, undervest, and weapons at the time of his arrest for his self-confessed crime. All that was visibly left were his trousers and boots. He turned without a word, raised his arms, and placed his hands within the open manacles.

"Not yet, Mr. Boyd," murmured Mr. Sobel. Mr. Urman guessed that he was trying to spare Mr. Boyd a few extra minutes of torture from the gruesome whipping pole. It was a constant wonder to Mr. Urman that Seward Sobel – a guard clearly sensitive to where the boundary properly lay between keeping order and committing abuse – invariably backed any action that the High Seeker took, however much the High Seeker's prisoners might suffer. Mr. Urman had tried to understand, had tried to show patience toward Mr. Sobel's desire to remain loyal to Layle Smith, but recent events had removed from Mr. Urman the ability to sympathize with the senior night guard's divided loyalties. Mr. Sobel could not see – had willfully blinded himself from seeing – that a battlefield had been formed. On one side of the field stood the Old School of Seekers and guards who were determined to continue their abuse of the prisoners. On the other side of the field stood the New School, made up almost entirely of junior guards, who held a higher vision of how the dungeon could be run. Mr. Sobel, by remaining the High Seeker's shadow, had made himself an enemy of the New School, and Mr. Urman was no longer willing to try to convert the enemy. He knew, from past experience, how few lackeys to bullies ever recognized the need to convert their ways.

Helping a murderous prisoner to repent of his crime was far easier than convincing an abusive Seeker and his senior night guard that they were violating the spirit of the Code.

"Mr. Urman." Mr. Sobel glanced his way. "Ask Mr. Smith whether he is ready to proceed."

"Mr. Fucking Smith is ready to proceed with torture any hour of the day or night," muttered Mr. Urman, but he kept his voice too low to be heard by the senior guard. His remark was easily swallowed by the continued murmur of the onlookers. Clifford had made his way up to the edge of the platform; Mr. Urman could almost imagine him flinging himself between Barrett Boyd and the High Seeker's lash. Poor, besotted fool. Mr. Urman gave him a gesture of greeting which the younger guard failed to notice, so absorbed was he in watching Mr. Boyd. Well, that was nothing new.

Mr. Urman would be the first to admit that he was not swarming with friends. Clifford was the only one left, if truth be told. It didn't matter. Mr. Urman had long since figured out that most men smiled at you one day and then beat you to pulp the moment they got you into a quiet alley. He was selective in which men he chose as friends; even so, some friends, such as Mr. Sobel, ultimately turned their backs on him and went over to the enemy.

But it wasn't that simple. Nothing was ever that simple in life, Mr. Urman recognized. Mr. Sobel truly thought he was serving the best interests of the prisoners by allying himself with the High Seeker. And Mr. Urman was no easy man to befriend, he knew. As a matter of fact, he probably wouldn't have bothered to befriend himself.

For some reason, Clifford seemed to be able to put up with Mr. Urman's sharp tongue, but Clifford's thoughts were wholly absorbed these days in his new love-mate. Well, that was the way of the world. Best not to worry about such things; what mattered was the prisoners' welfare.

Mr. Urman clattered down the rickety steps on the western end of the platform. On his way, he nearly tripped over the stretcher that the healer had foresightedly placed at the edge of the platform. The High Seeker was still near the bottom of the steps, checking his whip as meticulously as a mother might check her baby. He did not look up as Mr. Urman stopped in front of him. The black face-cloth of the High Seeker's hood – featureless except for the eye-holes – hid his expression.

"Mr. Urman." Layle Smith ran his fingers lightly over a nasty-looking tassel at the end of the whip.

Mr. Urman delivered the message. The High Seeker, tenderly twisting a bit of leather that was coming loose, said, "Ask Mr. Sobel whether the prisoner has any final request before we proceed."

"So that you can refuse it," Mr. Urman muttered as he made his way back up onto the platform. Feeling as though he had been demoted to a messenger-boy, he repeated the High Seeker's words.

Mr. Sobel looked silently over at Mr. Boyd. The two of them were in the same position as before, with the imprisoned guard's back facing the audience, but Mr. Boyd kept looking over his shoulder. He seemed not to have heard Mr. Urman speak.

Touching him lightly, Mr. Sobel caught his attention and softly repeated the message. Mr. Boyd looked over his shoulder again, as though he had not heard. Then, looking back at Mr. Sobel, he said, "Does he need to be here?"

Mr. Sobel wordlessly looked over at Mr. Urman. Mr. Urman – wondering when he would be issued the little peaked cap that the Union Telegraph boys wore – made his way back to the High Seeker and delivered the request.

For the first time the High Seeker looked up. He turned his gaze toward Clifford Crofford, who was practically hanging his chest over the platform in an effort to allow Mr. Boyd to see him. The High Seeker's gaze drifted back to the whip. With his head bowed as he smoothed out a kink in the lash, he said, "You may tell Mr. Sobel that Mr. Crofford is excused from attending the punishment."

For a moment, Mr. Urman was disconcerted. Then he understood. The High Seeker was making a show of mercy in an attempt to pretend that this flogging was an act of justice, not a travesty of the Code. No doubt he simply worried that Clifford Crofford would interfere with the punishment once it started.

Back up onto the platform trotted Mr. Urman, wondering whether he should bring out the little memorandum book all guards carried, so that he could begin making notes of all the messages he carried. He delivered the message, and Mr. Boyd's breath emerged all at once, as though he were a hissing gas pipe. Mr. Sobel said, "Mr. Urman, please tell Mr. Crofford—"

"I know, I know," said Mr. Urman crossly. As he turned away, Mr. Sobel called to him. Sighing, Mr. Urman turned back in preparation for a reprimand.

However, Mr. Sobel said only, "You are released from guard duty here. I can handle both the count and the supervision of the flogging."

"Well, finally someone shows some fucking sense." Mr. Urman turned away before Mr. Sobel could lecture him about his language. He went to the front of the platform and jumped down beside Clifford.

Even then, Clifford did not notice him. He was chewing on his bottom lip, wriggling this way and that as Mr. Boyd continued to look over his shoulder. Mr. Urman took his arm. "Come on," he said, "the High Seeker says for you to leave."

To his surprise, Clifford – normally the most compliant of guards – jerked away. "No!" he cried, like a child being removed screaming from his mother's arms.

"You bloody idiot." Mr. Urman jerked his thumb in the direction of Mr. Boyd. "It's his request. He's about to go through the worst experience of his life. Do you think he wants to worry about you on top of all that?"

Clifford looked uncertainly up at Mr. Boyd. Sighing, Mr. Urman took Clifford's arm again. "Come on, you can wait in my rooms. I'll tell you afterwards what happened, I promise."

And with any luck, he thought as he pulled the young guard away from the platform, the very act of escorting Clifford to the outer dungeon would cause Mr. Urman to miss the flogging.

o—o—o

Three days later.
 

Layle hated the new electric lights in his cell with a passion. The businessman who had supervised their installation had promised wonders: A steady light that never flickered. A lamp that had no wick which needed replacing. An end to countless hours of filling lamps with oil.

What Layle had received in place of the old, comforting oil lamps was an electric chandelier that flickered and buzzed and snapped continuously, and that was forever going out with a loud pop. Usually when Layle was standing directly beneath it.

The electric lights were a necessity, though, since the Seekers were required by the Code of Seeking to share the same living conditions as the prisoners in the breaking cells, as far as was reasonably possible. The Queen had ordered the lights installed in the prisoners' breaking cells, along with a central heating system to replace the old, smoke-belching furnaces that had once heated the prisoners' cells.

The new heating system did not extend as far as the Seekers' cells, however; Seekers had never been permitted to keep stoves. Because they lived their entire lives within the Eternal Dungeon, they were allowed small luxuries beyond which most of the other prisoners possessed, such as desks and kitchen areas; the lack of heating reminded them that, by law, they were not free men but prisoners – men who had voluntarily chosen to imprison themselves eternally in order to share the lives of the men and women they searched for crimes.

Layle had firmly denied permission for new luxuries to be installed in the Seekers' living cells, though some of these had tempted even him: gramophones, stereoscopes, kaleidoscopes. He could have let himself and the other Seekers enjoy access to the world's music and art, but he had ruthlessly thrust aside the temptation. He was a prisoner. All Seekers were prisoners. It wasn't right that they should live lives that far above the lives of the prisoners in the breaking cells.

One new luxury he had permitted, but only for the sake of the outer dungeon's laborers: a system of running water had been installed, with washbasins in each Seeker's cell. No longer would servants be forced to bring hip-baths full of water to each Seeker once a week. Seekers could draw their own bath-water now, using a pail, and could also have access to fresh water whenever they wished.

Running his hand across the wooden hand-pump over the basin sunk into the kitchen countertop, Layle wondered whether he had been neglectful. He had been so busy trying to keep the Seekers from being saddled with luxuries they did not need that he had not given enough thought to items that might be of use to the prisoners. Why shouldn't the prisoners be permitted sinks? If the central water boiler was kept tepid enough, the water could do them no harm. And perhaps some way could be found to install water closets in each breaking cell, similar to the water closet that had graced the outer dungeon's dining hall for many years now.

Layle knew of no dungeon or prison in the world where the prisoners were permitted to have running water and toilets. All the more reason for him to consider the idea. This was the Eternal Dungeon, and one of the roles of Yclau's royal dungeon was to serve as a leader in prison reform.

So absorbed was he in thoughts of the prisoners' comfort that he did not hear the steps outside the door. Or rather, he heard them, but he ascribed them to the daily passage of men and women through the corridor that ran from the inner dungeon, where the prisoners and Seekers lived, to the outer dungeon, where the guards and laborers lived.

Then he heard the door rattle. His hand flew to the side of his belt.

Just as quickly, it flew away. His heart was pounding. Twenty-two years had passed since, at the age of eighteen, he had abandoned his abusive work as a torturer in Vovim's Hidden Dungeon. In all the years since that time, he had never worn a blade. And yet his hand had gone automatically to where his blade would have been in the old days – as automatically, indeed, as it would have gone in the days of his early youth, when he had worked as a criminal, torturing and murdering helpless victims.

Twenty-two years. After all that time, the instinct toward immediate violence should have drained from him. But it still overtook him at moments when he was startled. And he had felt that impulse more strongly than ever in the past three days, since he had wielded a living whip that removed flesh in great swaths.

His heart now hammering, he walked toward the door. Elsdon was fumbling with his key outside, no doubt because of the infernal, ever-flickering electric lights in the corridor. Layle unlocked his side of the door. Elsdon slipped inside, closed the door, bolted it behind him, and tossed back his face-cloth.

He was still pale from the rigors of the past month, as his body slowly recovered from the effects of the electrocution, but he looked considerably better than he had when Layle had mistaken him for a corpse. The color was back in his cheeks, and his eyes were alert and searching.

They searched Layle now, in a pattern that he had become accustomed to. Layle knew why. Elsdon was seeking some sign of what had taken place between the High Seeker and the Codifier during their interview that day.

Layle was interested in the results of a different interview. Without warning, he slammed his hands onto both sides of the wall beside Elsdon, trapping him in place.

Layle was careful to leave enough room to allow his love-mate to escape the trap. Elsdon, with his Seeker alertness, could instantly tell the difference between pretend imprisonment and real imprisonment. The last was forbidden between them, not because Elsdon would have objected to being taken temporarily captive by the High Seeker, but because he had endured an abusive childhood. The emotional aftereffects of that abuse limited the number of activities he and the High Seeker could undertake.

But pretend imprisonment was enough for both of them. Now, leaning forward so that his face was close to the other Seeker's, Layle saw Elsdon's pupils grow. He did not need to look downwards to know that another part of Elsdon's body was growing. He could smell the change: a muskier scent that came only when his love-mate was aroused.

"Has the healer given you permission to return to your work?" Layle asked in a hard voice.

Elsdon's eyes searched Layle, trying to puzzle out the meaning of his question. "Yes," he replied finally. "He said that I could resume my duties—"

"All your duties?" Layle pressed his body onto Elsdon's. It was a chance, but a chance worth taking; Elsdon had learned to accept being pressed against a wall, provided that he was given due warning.

Elsdon's pupils widened yet further. "Yes, sir," he replied breathlessly. "I can undertake any duties you wish."

"Good," said Layle into Elsdon's ear. "Because right now you're going to strip off those clothes, fall to your knees, and take my whammer in your mouth."

Elsdon's breath had turned rapid. Layle guessed this was as much due to the fear coursing through his body from the entrapment as it was from Layle's words. But Elsdon had no objection to a small amount of fear, and Layle, having been raised in a kingdom where terrifying deeds were played out on the stage, had gradually come to reconcile his love for Elsdon with his pleasure at Elsdon's fear. Elsdon never seemed harmed by their play-acting – indeed, he seemed as eager as any Vovimian to participate in private stage-tales of abduction, imprisonment, torture, rape . . . and the gentle love-making with which Layle always ended these tales.

"Yes, sir," Elsdon said now, his groin providing evidence of how much he enjoyed this turn of events. "If I knew . . . If you would be kind enough, sir, to tell me who and where we are."

Layle closed his eyes for a moment. He had been thinking about this all day, ever since he had left the Codifier's office. He had remained uncertain whether he possessed the courage to go through with this. But if there was ever a time in his life when this might work, it was one month after Elsdon's near death and three days after Barrett Boyd's bloody flogging.

He had sought in the early days of their relationship to hide from Elsdon the pattern of his dark desire. It had been futile to do so. Elsdon had quickly realized that Layle was most aroused in the hours and days after he had tortured prisoners. And after one terrible, unforgettable episode when Elsdon was sent on a dangerous mission for the Queen, Elsdon had come to realize that Layle's arousal reached its peak when Elsdon himself suffered pain.

Elsdon still loved him. This was a fact that Layle had never ceased to wonder at. Elsdon knew that his love-mate received pleasure from his suffering, yet he remained loyal in his love. To Elsdon, the simple fact that Layle would do anything in his power to save his love-mate from needless suffering balanced the fact that Elsdon's suffering invariably roused Layle's whammer and set into motion his deep-seated desire for absolute possession. Most wondrous of all, Elsdon could know that Layle's pleasure derived from his real pain, and yet could himself receive pleasure from their bedroom play. This despite the fact that Elsdon had never shown any sign that he himself received pleasure from pain. His pleasure derived from Layle's pleasure.

A most extraordinary man. There could not be another man like him in all the world. And Layle received the high honor of being his love-mate.

Now Layle let himself feel the pounding of Elsdon's heart, the sweat beginning to film Elsdon's skin, the rapid breath, the slight noises of protest in Elsdon's throat.

One month since Elsdon had nearly died, due to an accident that Layle had caused. Three days since Layle had torn apart Mr. Boyd's body. It might be enough. It might be enough, for the first time in Layle's life.

Layle pulled back far enough that he could see Elsdon's eyes. He and Elsdon were the same height, so he could see clearly his reflection in Elsdon's eyes: a torturer in the Eternal Dungeon, his face-cloth pulled back to reveal what lay within. "Where we are," said Layle, "is the Eternal Dungeon, and we are the High Seeker and his love-mate."

He almost regretted his words in the next moment as he saw the sharp joy in Elsdon's eyes. He wanted to cry, "This probably won't work!" But he had set the scenario in motion; he must continue through with it. Stepping back, he gave Elsdon room to strip naked.

Elsdon did so slowly, knowing that Layle appreciated the very act of increased vulnerability. There was little for Elsdon to remove, though. Seekers, like the prisoners they searched, were only permitted to wear a shirt, belt or suspenders, trousers, lower undergarments, and footwear. Elsdon, in his usual enticing manner, had taken to dispensing with the undergarments during his off-duty hours.

Now he carefully unknotted his belt. It was a regulation dungeon belt, designed to carry weapons if need be, though Seekers rarely had such need. Layle, his thoughts momentarily distracted by the memory of a certain sentence in the Code that forbade Seekers to touch instruments of torture, remained barely aware of Elsdon as the junior Seeker pulled off the remainder of his clothes.

As always, though, Layle was brought sharply back into awareness as Elsdon removed his hood. It was the ultimate act of stripping for a Seeker. A Seeker might be stripped of every article of clothing on his body, but only if he removed his hood was he truly naked.

The black cloth slid slowly over Elsdon's fine, aureate hair. Without the shadow of the hood-band upon them, Elsdon's eyes turned from the black-blue of dusk to the dark blue just before sunset. His lips, as always, looked as flushed as though he had reached the zenith of his passion.

Layle did not follow his usual practice of running an appreciative gaze over the remainder of Elsdon's body. Instead, keeping his eyes fixed on Elsdon's expression, Layle pulled off his own hood.

Elsdon's expression turned to shock. Layle usually stayed half-dressed during their lovemaking; even on the few occasions that he had removed all his clothes, he had never stripped himself of his hood. It denoted what he was to Elsdon at such times: the man in charge, the man who gave orders, the man who had the power to issue pain.

Now, as he finished unclothing himself, he said, "Your choice. What would you like to do next?"

Elsdon looked very much like a schoolboy who has just been told that he has the power to decide how his school will be run. Layle's mouth twisted at the absurd humor of the moment, even as he felt pain touch him inside. For over five years they had been joined together as love-mates, yet this was the very first time Layle had ever offered Elsdon the choice in what to do.

Layle had often wondered, during sleepless nights spent staring into the darkness of his bedroom, what Elsdon would have been like if he had not chosen to pair himself with the High Seeker. Elsdon had come to Layle as a virgin, with no experience beyond a bit of schoolyard kissing. What were his natural desires, when released from the High Seeker's demands? Layle simply did not know.

Elsdon's desire at the moment, it seemed, was to kneel down and take Layle's whammer in his mouth. Layle stared down at him, frowning with uncertainty as to whether Elsdon was simply obeying the High Seeker's careless order at the beginning of the session. "You needn't do this if you would prefer not to," Layle told the young man kneeling at his feet.

Releasing Layle from his mouth, Elsdon looked up. There was laughter in his face. "Those are the very words you spoke to me the first time we did this."

"Did I?" replied Layle blankly. In those days, he had not allowed Elsdon to enter into his dreamings, which had been of a different, much darker nature. He scarcely remembered the gentle words he had spoken to Elsdon outside the dreamings.

Elsdon shook his head as he sat back on his heels. "You've no faith in me, Layle. You never did. Don't you think I would tell you if I didn't want to do something you asked me to do?"

"This is your choice—"

"And I've made my choice. Shut your mouth, High Seeker."

It was the first time he had ever spoken to Layle like that under such circumstances. Reassured, Layle shut his mouth.

Unfortunately, another part of him had chosen to shrivel up during this conversation. It gave a sort of half-hearted jump as Elsdon ran his warm, wet tongue over it; Hell himself could not have remained entirely immune to Elsdon's skilled ministrations. But that was all. Elsdon licked, he nibbled lightly, he fondled Layle's baubles, he swallowed flesh. Layle's whammer remained unenthusiastic. Layle began to feel like a frigid bride.

Finally he reached down and pulled Elsdon to his feet. "My turn," he said. "You're not going to reserve all the fun for yourself, are you?"

Elsdon simply smiled as Layle knelt down in front of him. It was hardly the first time Layle had knelt to him. Some Seekers, Layle knew, regarded the suckling of cocks – they used the Yclau words for it, of course – as an act reserved for whichever man took the role of follower. A passive role, following the lead of another man.

Such Seekers, Layle assumed, had not spent three years in the Hidden Dungeon, learning creative manners in which to rape prisoners. Now Layle took a deep breath and tried to concentrate his thoughts. He would not allow himself to think about the prisoners he had abused in his youth. Nor – a far greater temptation – would he think about his recent flogging of Barrett Boyd. But he had standing permission to think in any manner he wished about his love-mate.

So now he allowed his thoughts to linger on the image he had tried to purge from his mind during the past month: Elsdon lying on the electrically-powered rack, motionless after his body had been seized by an electric charge. He had been badly hurt because Layle – in his usual incompetent manner around machines – had caused the rack to malfunction while it was being tested. The electrocution had been an accident; Layle need not fear that he had intentionally harmed Elsdon. But as long as Elsdon was lying there motionless on the rack, unable to resist him, unable to cry out and push him away when the High Seeker took his victim's whammer in his mouth . . .

With a jerk of his heart, he realized what he was doing and pulled back. Raising his eyes, he saw his love-mate looking down on him soberly. "You were going into a dreaming without me," Elsdon said quietly. It was a statement, not a question; Elsdon knew the signs.

Still breathing heavily, as though he had been running for many miles, Layle forced himself to his feet. "Let's try the bed," he said. "We can lie face-to-face."

It was always a comfort to lie in bed with Elsdon: to feel the other man's arms around him, to have his flesh warmed by Elsdon's flesh, and to know that Elsdon was receiving warmth from him. Elsdon's breath was as sweet as sugar-water, his body tasted like wine, his skin was as smooth as the finest suede bindings.

It was a comfort, but it was not a passion. Layle's whammer seemed to have fallen asleep.

They continued to press against each other for some time, Layle kissing his way round Elsdon's neck, Elsdon nibbling at his earlobes. With the right setting in his mind – a rape victim being forced to serve his rapist, or a prisoner showing his gratitude for a rescue from pain – Layle had no doubt that Elsdon's presence would bring fire to his own body.

But his body remained cool and unmoved by this mutual sharing of love. He could feel Elsdon's whammer droop as the High Seeker's lack of interest in their lovemaking became apparent. Layle, his eyes closed as he licked his way down Elsdon's collarbone, tried to think of what else he could attempt.

Suddenly, he felt Elsdon's body begin to vibrate underneath him. Alarmed, he pulled back, wondering what act he had undertaken that had caused Elsdon to begin crying. He found that Elsdon was stuffing one of the pillows into his mouth in an attempt not to laugh.

"Have you decided that you want a comic drama?" Layle tried to keep his voice light, though he was experiencing his old fear that Elsdon found the High Seeker's efforts at lovemaking to be ludicrous.

"I'm sorry," Elsdon managed to gasp. "So very rude of me, but . . . I just had a vision of us as young schoolboys, fumbling with each other, not quite sure of what we were doing."

A wry smile touched the edge of Layle's mouth. "An apt image. Well, it was worth a try." He pulled himself away from Elsdon, rolled over, and sat up on the edge of the bed. Not so long ago, a failure like this would have caused him to plunge into a paroxysm of guilt. Only as a result of Elsdon's wisdom had Layle come to recognize that he should treat his failures in the bedroom in the exact same manner as he treated his failures in the breaking cells: as opportunities for growth and learning.

So now, under the sting of disappointment, he remained reasonably relaxed as he reached for his trousers. His clothing and Elsdon's were mingled on the night-stand where they had placed the objects after leaving the sitting room, lest they should suddenly need to don their clothes in order to answer the door.

Layle had pulled on the lower half of his clothing when Elsdon's arm snaked round his chest. "Was it worth the try?" Elsdon asked softly in his ear. "Love, I know that you like to try new things, but . . . bland porridge when we usually eat sumptuous feasts?"

Layle broke himself free of Elsdon's grip and turned to look at his love-mate, who was kneeling on the bed behind him. "What in the name of all that is sacred are you talking about? I just denied you a sumptuous feast."

Elsdon, he would have sworn, looked puzzled in the next moment. Then he laughed. "Oh, High Seeker – were you trying to give me a gift?"

Swallowing, Layle turned his back and reached for his shirt. "I was trying to give you back what I took from you, five years ago."

"A chance to be normal?" Elsdon's voice was slightly mocking now. "A chance to make love the conventional way?"

Layle said nothing, concentrating his attention on the shirt-knots, and then on settling his hood over his head. He kept the face-cloth up, though he would just as soon have pulled the curtain on his face.

Elsdon's arm took him prisoner once more. "Do you remember the last time we made love?"

Instantly, his whammer awakened. Layle told himself that it was only because six weeks had passed since that episode. It had occurred a fortnight before Elsdon's electrocution, shortly after Elsdon had promised that he would no longer publicly denounce Layle's policy of strictly enforcing the Code. In turn, Layle had promised to listen to any criticisms Elsdon brought to him in private. It was, Layle had thought at the time, an act of detente that the ambassadors of Yclau and Vovim would have admired.

"You wanted to torture the man," Elsdon murmured in his ear. "I refused to let you do so. We fought bitterly, for a full day, inflicting wounds on each other. You threw me down and threatened to rape me."

Layle's whammer was beginning to crawl down one of his trouser legs. He shifted uneasily.

"And then you realized that you loved me," Elsdon said softly. "I, your sister Mercy, was more important to you than the pleasure you would receive from racking the prisoner in hell. And so you, the High Master of hell, released the man to me. And then we made love, you and I, Mercy and Hell joined together in an act of peace and mutual surrender." Elsdon tugged at Layle's earlobe with his teeth for a moment before saying, "And you want to replace that sort of play-acting with us merely lying in bed, groping each other? High Seeker, have you gone mad again?"

Layle laughed then, turning his lips to meet Elsdon's. Elsdon kissed back with a force that did not cause Layle's whammer to flag, any more than his imaginary battle with Mercy had caused it to flag. Quite the opposite, actually.

"So," he said as he finally withdrew from the kiss, "I occasionally make mistakes." He smiled at Elsdon, drawing his fingers across Elsdon's cheek.

"Yes."

Layle's smile dissolved. He was still a moment, and then slowly stood up. The tone of Elsdon's voice had been as soft as the whisper of a match as it lights a cannon on the battlefield.

Layle turned toward the wall and spent a minute adjusting the sputtering electric light bracketed there before saying, without looking back at Elsdon, "This isn't the right moment for such a conversation."

"When is the right moment? Layle, I've tried to talk with you for the past month, and each time you've said I'm too sick to discuss this matter. The few times I've managed to get a few words in on the subject, you've walked out of this cell . . . knowing that I was too sick to be able to follow you outside."

Layle pulled in his breath, held it, and turned stiffly, like a man turning to face a firing squad. "I'm sorry. But I don't know what we can say to each other that we haven't already said in the past."

"We can talk about Mr. Boyd's flogging."

He felt himself flinch. "I made mistakes there. I've already told you that . . ."

"And when will you admit to yourself that this is one of your mistakes?" Elsdon thrust his hand in the direction of a black volume lying on the night-stand, still open at the section that he and Layle had been reading and discussing together before bed, as they often did.

Layle closed his eyes, trying to keep his temper under check. Elsdon was not attacking the Code of Seeking, Layle reminded himself. They both revered the Code. That common ground should allow them to find a passage through this conversation.

"Elsdon," he said as he opened his eyes, his voice as tense as a racked prisoner's limbs, "I've never said that the Code was flawless. It couldn't be; I compiled the present revision. It contains all my mistakes, as well as any mistakes made by my predecessors that I failed to eliminate when I was revising the text. It's a human document, not a pronouncement from the gods. But you can't improve matters by letting Seekers and guards pick and choose which parts of the Code they want to follow. They'll only end up eliminating whichever parts of the Code best curb their darkest desires—"

"And what about the prisoners?" Elsdon had lost control over himself so far that he had raised his voice. "Layle, you talk about this in that bloody cold manner of yours, as though the Code were nothing more than a set of rules for mumblety-peg. The blade we flip goes into flesh and blood! If the Code says, 'Rack a man,' and the Code is wrong, then we are tearing apart men's bodies! We are endangering men's souls!"

"For love of the Code, Elsdon, we are torturers—"

"Well, maybe we shouldn't be!"

In the moment after Elsdon's shout, all was still except for the distant sound of laborers walking in the outer dungeon. Layle had a moment to be grateful that the Record-keeper had possessed the foresight to place the High Seeker in a cell that faced a little-visited portion of the outer dungeon. Even the cells flanking the High Seekers were empty at present; the Record-keeper, after enduring numerous complaints about the noise that the High Seeker and his love-mate emitted during their energetic play-acting sessions, had finally thrown up his hands and assigned day-shift Seekers to either side of the cell inhabited by Layle Smith and Elsdon Taylor, both of whom were night-shift Seekers.

Layle said, in the deep voice he rarely used outside of the prisoners' cells or his dreamings, "Mr. Taylor, you forget yourself."

"Better that I should forget myself than that I should center all my beliefs on my own experiences." Elsdon, still utterly naked, had a formidable set to his jaw now. "High Seeker, you think, because you were transformed and reborn due to the torture you underwent as a prisoner in the Hidden Dungeon, that all other prisoners are benefitted by torture. But I neither needed nor benefitted from the torture I received here as a prisoner."

"Mr. Taylor." He strove to keep his voice level. This had passed beyond a private discussion between two love-mates; what Elsdon was proposing was an overthrow of the foundations of the Code. "Neither I nor any other Seeker has ever denied that some prisoners are better off without physical torture. In your case, I made a mistake, thinking that you had lied to me—"

"But what if I had lied to you, because I was afraid of you, the torturer who was searching me? The Code would have required you to beat me, regardless as to whether that punishment brought me closer to transformation. High Seeker, don't you see how dangerous it is to allow Seekers even the option of torture, when less harmful means are available to them for controlling and breaking prisoners? Didn't your flogging of Barrett Boyd teach you anything?"

Layle's breath turned unsteady. It was a moment before he found the strength to speak – to speak, rather than to throw Elsdon to the ground and rape him. Arguments between himself and Elsdon always roused his whammer as thoroughly as though he were the god Hell, fighting his sister Mercy for possession of a newly dead human.

He said, through teeth that barely moved, "It taught me that I must uphold the Code."

He turned then and departed the cell, leaving Elsdon still fumbling to reach his own clothes. Almost, Layle thought, he could hear echoing in the cell the final words he had not spoken – the words that made clear how much of the Code of Seeking derived from his frailties and his mistakes and his crimes against the gods.

He wondered whether he would ever have the courage to speak those words to Elsdon Taylor.