Work Header

Chapter Text

Three days before.

His path remained unimpeded. The other guards were staying well back from the platform, and most of the Seekers stood in the back of the entry hall, as they were required to do during meetings. Mr. Urman had always suspected that the High Seeker had ordered this arrangement so that, if anything went wrong at the front of the hall, the men most likely to take action against the High Seeker would be furthest away.

Only Mistress Birdesmond's husband, Weldon Chapman, stood just southeast of the platform, staring up at the proceedings. The count had reached the nineties now. Mr. Urman, still following some inner instinct, picked up his pace.

He was within a few yards' reach when a heart-sundering scream streamed out from the prisoner. It was as raw as a death-rattle, as deep as a dagger in the belly. Mr. Boyd threw back his head, revealing the unendurable agony on his face. Then, with his head still tilted back and his mouth open in that eternal scream, his feet seemed to slip out from under him. He hung in the irons, his body swaying from the impact of the latest lash, his head lolling back, his eyes open but unblinking.

"Mr. Smith!" The healer's voice was urgent; she had stepped forward. "The prisoner has fainted; you must allow him a moment to—"

But the High Seeker had no intention of allowing the prisoner anything, other than continued pain. He drew back the whip. Mr. Sobel had fallen silent the moment the healer stepped forward. No count came. With not the slightest indication that he cared, Layle Smith brought down the whip once more. The whip thudded; the body swayed, like a cut of naked beef in the butcher's shop.

A soft gasp rose from the crowd, like morning mist on lake water. Although the Code had nothing to say on this subject, there was not a single man present who did not know that, by dungeon custom, a beating was supposed to stop the moment the count stopped. And the Code was quite clear that the healer, who worked for the Codifier rather than the High Seeker, could order even the High Seeker to cease his torture if a prisoner was in imminent danger of dying.

"Mr. Smith!" The healer took another step forward. She was close to entering the area of the whip's path; seeing this, Mr. Sobel grabbed her and tried to pull her back. She fought to free herself from his grip.

Mr. Urman had already begun to run, from the moment that Layle Smith ignored the ceasing of the count. He passed Mr. Chapman, who was staring ashen-faced at the proceedings. Fool, fool, lackey to a bully – as the second-highest-ranked Seeker, only Mr. Chapman possessed the authority to arrest the High Seeker in the absence of the Codifier, but Mr. Chapman was standing dumb and motionless. Lackey to a bully – he was friend to Layle Smith and would do nothing as the High Seeker mauled his victim.

There were no steps on the eastern side of the platform; Mr. Urman used his hands to vault his body onto the platform, then scrambled to his feet and continued running. He had his dagger out, but there was no chance that he could use it; the High Seeker, perhaps alerted by the vibration of Mr. Urman's arrival, had turned his body so that he was now directly facing Mr. Boyd's back. Layle Smith should not have been able to land blows from that direction, yet he was continuing to rain down lashes upon Mr. Boyd's body, which hung motionless, except for the propulsion of the guard's chest into the whipping post every time a blow landed. Mr. Urman had a moment to wonder whether he was risking his own life for a corpse.

He knew what he had to do, of course. Every guard knew what to do under these circumstances. Word, whip, dagger, body – that was how the phrase ran. If a Seeker or guard endangered the life of a prisoner, you first spoke to the other man; if that didn't work, you used your whip to push him back; if that didn't work, you cut him with your dagger; and if none of those methods worked . . .

The healer's word had already been ignored. Mr. Urman's whip would be of no use in this case; it was far shorter than the whip of the High Seeker – who, in any case, was the most skilled whipster in the dungeon. And Mr. Urman could not use his dagger; the High Seeker would not allow him to get that close.

That left only one choice. By rank, Mr. Sobel should have been the one to do this, while every other guard within reach wrestled the High Seeker into submission. Though the crowd was now shouting at the top of its lungs, nobody was coming forward to help. Mr. Sobel – whose gentlemanly instincts toward the weaker sex seemed to have overcome momentarily his knowledge that the prisoner's best interests came first – was continuing to struggle with the healer, trying to keep her from impaling herself on the sharp lash of the High Seeker's whip.

Which continued to land. Mr. Urman's mind, which had kept the count through all this time, registered that the latest blow was the hundred and first. Mr. Boyd had still not given any sign that he remained alive.

Mr. Urman skidded to a halt, and with his heart's blood beating madly in his throat, he turned to face the High Seeker.


Three days later.

The healer's outer office was empty of the healer. This was a relief. The dungeon's regular healer, Mr. Bergsen, had returned the previous day, called back from leave by an urgent telegram from the Codifier. Alerted to the news of what had happened in the dungeon during his absence, Mr. Bergsen had arrived roaring like an infuriated lion. Only the compelling need to immediately tend his patient had prevented him from rending to pieces the temporary healer, who had gratefully made her escape. Layle strongly doubted that she would ever step foot in any prison again.

Unfortunately, Layle could not escape that easily. He could well envision the interview that would take place between Mr. Bergsen and himself once this episode was over, but for now, the healer was busy full around the clock, caring for his patient, who hovered at death's edge.

Judging from the closed door leading into the small inner chamber of the office, Mr. Bergsen was snatching a nap on the cot there. The male nurse from the palace who attended emergency cases during Mr. Bergsen's off-duty hours was not present; the only man in the room was Mr. Sobel. He was sitting next to the bed in the center of the room, his body blocking Layle's view of the patient's face. Mr. Sobel's back was to the High Seeker.

Layle silently closed the door behind him and took a moment to examine the scene. As a Seeker, it was usually his own responsibility to keep the death watch on any prisoner of his who had undergone serious torture, but in this particular case, he had thought it better to delegate the duty to Mr. Boyd's closest friend, Seward Sobel. Mr. Crofford had volunteered to keep the watch as well, but when Layle consulted the Codifier about this, Mr. Daniels had advised against it.

"We have enough trouble in this dungeon," he had said, his eyes steely upon Layle, "from Seekers who let their affairs with their love-mates keep them from their duties."

The reference was to the three years when Layle had been suspended from his duties because his guilt over how he treated Elsdon had sent him plummeting into madness. Layle had not bothered to point out that only Elsdon's loving efforts had kept the High Seeker from spending his final days in a lunatic asylum. The Codifier was currently angry at Elsdon – justifiably so – for the manner in which he had stirred up protests among the inner dungeon dwellers against the High Seeker's policy of strictly reinforcing the Code.

So only Mr. Sobel kept the watch, but given the strong bonds between himself and Mr. Boyd, it was unlikely that any other watch-keeper was necessary.

Assuming, Layle reminded himself, that Mr. Boyd was even aware of Mr. Sobel's presence.

He ran his eye over what he could see of Mr. Boyd. The injured guard was lying on his side, very still. His back was hidden from Layle, but on the edge of where the bandages carried round to the front, Layle could see that bloodstains had seeped through. There were further bandages on the chest that Layle, without any medical training, could not discern the purpose of. Mr. Boyd's wrists were bandaged; there, too, blood had seeped through.

The room was dim, lit only by a bracketed lamp upon the wall. Mr. Sobel, turning toward a table next to the bed, groped for the glass of water there. Then he caught sight of Layle. After a quick glance at Mr. Boyd, Mr. Sobel rose and walked forward to where Layle stood. As he did so, Mr. Boyd's face came into view, lying on its pillow. The injured guard's eyes were closed.

"What is the purpose of those bandages on his chest?" Layle asked without preliminary greeting, holding his voice low, so as not to disturb Mr. Boyd's sleep.

"They're for the ribs, sir. Mr. Bergsen said that Mr. Boyd's ribs were damaged by the whipping post."

Mr. Sobel kept his tone neutral, which Layle thought was merciful of him. His senior night guard had warned him beforehand that the design of the post was dangerous, but Layle had ignored the warning, so intent was he on carrying out the punishment in a manner that would frighten the dungeon inhabitants into submission.

He looked again at Mr. Boyd, whose chest was slowly rising and falling. Mr. Sobel had passed on to Layle the remark that Mr. Boyd had made about wanting to show the High Seeker and the dungeon how dangerous Layle Smith was, so that the High Seeker would be stopped. Well, Mr. Boyd had failed in his mission. From all accounts Layle had received, the guards and Seekers had reacted to Layle's ferocity, not by plotting further rebellions against him, but by retreating from their protests in frightened silence. For now, at least, the New School's rebellion was broken.

As for the self-knowledge that Mr. Boyd had hoped to impart to the High Seeker, the guard was far too late for that. Layle had known what he was, and what he was capable of, since he was a young boy.

"And his back?" He was tiptoeing around the real subject, he knew.

"It's too early to be certain, sir, but Mr. Bergsen believes that he can save it." Mr. Sobel hesitated, then added, "Sir, Mr. Bergsen asked that I pass on a message to you . . ." He paused.

"We both know what Mr. Bergsen's messages are like, Mr. Sobel; you may quote him directly." Layle's voice turned dry.

Mr. Sobel's mouth quirked, but it returned to sobriety as he said, "His message, sir, is that he will see you hanged, drawn, and quartered by the Guild of Healers if you or anyone else ever uses a black whip in this dungeon again."

"Thank you, Mr. Sobel," Layle replied quietly. "You may assure Mr. Bergsen that the Codifier has already delivered a similar message to me. Only the stub whip will be used in this dungeon henceforth."

As he spoke, he felt a sharp sting of regret in the part of him that was still lingering with pleasure over memories of the punishment. That part of him he had firmly under control again, or he would not have allowed himself to remain a Seeker. He had already disposed of the black whip before the Codifier reprimanded him – or rather, Elsdon had, for in the moments after the flogging, Layle had clutched the whip to himself, as though it were a favorite toy that he could not bear to be parted from.

Mr. Sobel took a deep breath. He too, it seemed, had been tiptoeing around the real subject. "Sir, Mr. Boyd emerged from his coma this morning."

Layle nodded without taking his eyes off the injured guard. It had been Mr. Sobel's written message on this subject that had given Layle the impulse to try to make love to Elsdon in the conventional manner. Even Layle did not quite have the nerve to engage in bedroom play while one of his prisoners was dying.

He forced himself to meet Mr. Sobel's eyes. "Has he said anything about what happened?"

"No, sir. He has answered all the questions Mr. Bergsen asks him concerning his state of health, but he has not volunteered any information to the healer."

"Nor in his conversations to you?"

Mr. Sobel hesitated. He was facing Layle, with his back to the patient; for a moment, it almost seemed that he would look over his shoulder at Mr. Boyd. But long training concerning the proper manner in which to make his reports held true. He said, his voice somewhat hesitant, "He doesn't seem to want to talk to me, sir."

From the tone of Mr. Sobel's voice, it was clear that he was not referring to bodily pain causing the communication barrier. Layle frowned. Mr. Boyd had made plain, in the days preceding his punishment, that he did not blame Mr. Sobel for following the High Seeker's orders. Why, then, would Mr. Boyd refuse to speak to his closest friend now? Had something about the punishment changed his perspective?

Layle turned his attention back to the patient and discovered, with a thump of the heart, that Barrett Boyd was watching him.

Layle could read, all too clearly, what lay in Mr. Boyd's look. The injured guard's eyes were not that of an infuriated lion; they were that of a dog that has turned vicious and unpredictable. His expression smoldered in a fashion like wildfire. His hands were clutched in fists, and his chest rose and lowered rapidly.

The exertion of his efforts to kill the High Seeker with his look appeared to exhaust Mr. Boyd; he gave out a breath suddenly and closed his eyes. The eyes remained closed, though his chest continued to move.

Mr. Sobel had not noticed. Layle wondered what he and Mr. Bergsen had read in Mr. Boyd's expression when the injured guard first awoke from his coma. Perhaps Mr. Boyd had succeeded in shielding his expression, or perhaps Mr. Sobel's hesitant speech indicated that he sensed something was wrong, but he was not sure what.

Layle knew exactly what was wrong. He had worked in the Hidden Dungeon, where prisoners were broken by means forbidden to Seekers, and to all civilized torturers in the world.

He felt the first lash of fear slice him. It was not often that he felt fear; usually he was too filled with guilt to be affected by fear. But in this case, the fear was great enough to rival the guilt. He forced himself to return his gaze to his senior night guard, who was beginning to look concerned.

"Mr. Sobel," Layle said quietly, "please tell Mr. Bergsen . . ." Now it was his turn to pause. He flicked another glance at the injured guard, whose eyes remained closed.

"Sir?" prompted Mr. Sobel.

Layle lowered his voice yet more. "Tell Mr. Bergsen that I would advise him to consult about Mr. Boyd's case with a healer who specializes in mental ailments."

The pain and shock that spread over Mr. Sobel's face was too much to bear. Layle turned on his heel and left the office.

He found Elsdon waiting for him in the crematorium. The junior Seeker was lighting a candle for Mr. Boyd.

Layle waited until he was done; then he gave Elsdon the news, keeping his voice quiet, though they were alone in the crematorium. He concluded by saying, "I have killed him, just as effectively as if I had beaten his body to death."

He half expected Elsdon to protest his judgment. But Elsdon said nothing; he simply held Layle's eyes with his steady look.