Present values change past history. That is the first lesson one learns as a historian. As values shift over time, our perception of historical events changes, giving new meaning to past events, and stripping away old meanings that were clear to inhabitants of the past.
Nowhere is this fact more obvious than in historical accounts of the Eternal Dungeon. The intense secularism of our modern world blinds us to many aspects of Yclau's royal dungeon that were manifest to the contemporaries of the torturers and guards who controlled the dungeon. The very word for the dungeon's torturers – "Seekers" – would have evoked meanings that are virtually lost to our generation. But perhaps no other word from the Golden Age of the Eternal Dungeon has become so impoverished as the word "blood."
Blood. The word appears on practically every page of early accounts of the Eternal Dungeon. "The prisoner was whipped until he shed blood." "His life's blood was severed by the hangman." "The document ordering torture was a bloody blade in his hand." To many of our generation, such passages denote mere brutality. To the average man or woman today, the term "sweet blood" is merely a curse, with no underlying meaning.
It is time, then, that we turned our attention to the religious beliefs underlying the actions of the Seekers and guards.
We will start with a myth, not entirely lost to our generation, though it is rarely heard outside of the increasingly rare traditional services of the Yclau faith. Here is how the myth appeared during the Golden Age of the Eternal Dungeon, in a picture book that might have been read by any child of that day.
A man died, and with him died his friend, who dearly loved him. They were sent to a place of great beauty, with a shining sun, soft breezes, and a luxurious carpet of grass and flowers. The water in the brook bubbled softly, and birds flitted from tree to tree.
For many years the man and his friend dwelt happily in this place, as did others who lived there. For many years, the sun shone, the breezes blew softly, and birds sang in the trees.
Finally, however, the man grew restless. "Nothing ever changes in this place!" he cried.
"But that is why it is so beautiful," his friend argued. "Nothing changes here, so there is no suffering and no dying. We are living in eternity."
"What use is there in living in eternal painlessness if nothing ever grows, nothing ever renews? See those flowers over there? They will never die, and so new flowers will never be born. Autumn leaves will never fall from the trees. Baby birds will never be hatched. I cannot bear to live in this changelessness forever. You must help me to escape."
His friend begged and pleaded, but the man remained adamant. Finally, with great distress, the friend loaned the man his dagger. Eagerly, the man released himself from the changeless world, allowing his blood to flow from his body. "Sweet blood," he whispered as he left eternity. "Sweet, sweet blood."
As the man died, the friend wept for his loss. But then he saw something strange occur. Down in the world of suffering and change that he and the man had left behind, a baby was born. It was a new baby, with new joys and sorrows awaiting it. Yet somehow the friend could sense that deep within the baby lay the man who had refused to live in eternal changelessness.
So that is how man was first reborn: not through peace, but through the shedding of his own sweet blood.
"Sweet blood." Those two words resonated with a multitude of meanings to every Yclau man and woman of the fourth century. We can begin to peel off the layers of meaning by looking at a bloody episode that began in the Eternal Dungeon in the springtime of 363.
In this year, a lasting treaty of peace was signed between the Queendom of Yclau and the neighboring Kingdom of Vovim, as Vovim's increasingly beleaguered King redirected his attention to troubles at home. In this year, the Magisterial Republic of Mip broke away from the ethical principles of the United Order of Prisons, turning its back unexpectedly on the prison reform movement. And in this year, the High Seeker of the Eternal Dungeon, Layle Smith, entered his forty-third year . . .
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
The year 360, the eleventh month. (The year 1881 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
The main corridor in the Eternal Dungeon was cold. It was always cold; he had never known it to be otherwise. The prisoners received the comfort of heating in their cells, and presumably the Seekers did as well, though D. Urman had never lingered long enough in a Seeker's cell to find out. Guards such as himself shivered in autumnal temperatures year-round.
The corridor was also dark, lit only by a minimum of electric lamps that cast shadow-palls over the prisoner they escorted. Few guards were present in the corridor; the High Seeker had stripped the inner dungeon of all but the skeleton crew of the dusk-shift guard, forcing every other guard and Seeker to watch the coming event.
Mr. Urman – addressed that way by friend and foe alike in the stiltedly formal setting of the Eternal Dungeon – would just as soon have taken his annual leave this week. It wasn't as though he had never seen a punishment before. He had administered many himself, quelling murderous prisoners into obedience or brutalizing innocent prisoners – whatever his Seekers demanded of him, he had done. But today's punishment, everyone agreed, would be like none that the dungeon had seen for many decades. Mr. Urman wished that he had his prisoner's courage to rebel against orders.
They reached the closed door at the south end of the corridor, which lay closest to the great gates above the dungeon. The prisoner – walking unbound between his escorts – halted abruptly before the door. His breath and heartbeat were rapid; his skin was bleached clean of color. Mr. Sobel, senior night guard to the High Seeker, frowned on the other side of the prisoner. Like Mr. Urman, he had seen many a prisoner faint in his bonds. This prisoner looked as though he would not get as far as the place of his punishment before his knees gave way.
Mr. Urman thought this was eminently sensible of him. "Look," he said roughly to the prisoner, keeping his voice low enough that he would not be overheard by any of the guards they had recently walked past, "you don't have to go through with this. You can still ask for the other sentence to be passed."
Mr. Boyd's mouth twisted into something not quite a smile. He did not look in the direction of Mr. Urman; his attention was on the door. "Take the path of my late prisoner, you mean?"
"It's suicide either way!" His voice was too loud; Mr. Sobel shot him a look, and Mr. Urman quickly lowered his tone. "Mr. Boyd, you know that you're going to die either way. The High Seeker is determined to have his revenge on you for helping a prisoner escape from his cruelty. The only question is how long it will take you to die. Why let the High Seeker have his extra pleasure at your lingering death? Are you some sort of masochist?"
Mr. Sobel winced, but he made no effort to cut the conversation short. No doubt he had been making similar pleas to Mr. Boyd in the hours leading up to this moment. He and Mr. Boyd had been the closest of friends since the time that Barrett Boyd had agreed to the dubious honor of assisting Mr. Sobel to guard the High Seeker during his notorious breaking of the army officer Thatcher Owen.
Mr. Urman half expected Mr. Boyd to make some joke, perhaps in reference to Elsdon Taylor. But Mr. Boyd, staring at the door, simply said, "No."
"Then why satisfy his sadism?" Mr. Urman demanded. "For love of the Code, don't you know what kind of flogging you'll receive in there? By the time the High Seeker is through with you, your back will be nothing but strips of flesh hanging from bone, while your life's blood puddles on the—"
"Mr. Urman." Mr. Sobel's quiet voice held a distinct note of warning. Mr. Urman shut his mouth. Too late, he saw that Mr. Boyd had paled to the color of curd.
The imprisoned guard turned his face slowly toward Mr. Urman. His face was slick with sweat. His eyes seemed glazed over, like a dead man's. He said, in carefully spaced words, "If I allowed myself to be hanged quietly. . . If I allowed Layle Smith to take me discreetly away and execute me in a room far away from any eyewitness . . . How would matters change in the Eternal Dungeon?"
Mr. Urman started to speak, stopped, and tried to think of the right words to say.
"They would not change." Mr. Boyd's voice was unusually hard now. "Matters didn't change after the High Seeker murdered Mr. Ferris through a sentence of hanging. The High Seeker executed the oldest Seeker in this dungeon for a small disobedience, and nothing happened except that people here grumbled a bit for a day or two. If I allowed myself to be hanged – quickly, painlessly, privately – then the High Seeker would be free to continue on the murderous path he has chosen. Only by making this execution public – only by allowing the High Seeker to exercise his sadism on me in front of others – can I have any hope that the other inhabitants of this dungeon will be shocked into an awareness that they are being governed by a man who engages in behavior that is as vindictive and vicious as the behavior of any of the criminals we are supposed to be guarding the Queendom of Yclau against." Mr. Boyd took a deep breath before adding, "This is the only way in which I can make the High Seeker himself aware of what he has become. Mr. Urman, Layle Smith's soul is as much in danger right now as that of any unrepentant criminal."
Mr. Urman struggled for a reply, but Mr. Boyd had already turned away from him. "Let's get this over with," Mr. Boyd said in a flat voice, "while I still have enough courage left to do this."
And with those words, he opened the door and walked into his execution chamber.
Three days later.
"I count seven violations of the Code," said the Codifier from behind the desk in his office, reading under the oil lamp that he had insisted remain in his office, even after the recent electrification of the dungeon. "Am I correct? Or have I miscounted?"
"You may be a few counts short, sir." Sitting in the chair opposite the Codifier's desk, Layle Smith thought that he would have preferred another place for this interview. Barely a month had passed since his love-mate had nearly died in this office while testing new equipment for the dungeon. That Elsdon Taylor was now expected to make a full recovery was merely a testimony to the young man's innate vitality. It was not due to any wisdom Layle had shown during that incident, or any other incident recently.
But he need hardly make a tally of his latest offenses; the Codifier was doing that for him, while perusing the appropriate passages in the Code of Seeking, which lay open before him. "'The High Seeker shall consult with the Codifier on all important disciplinary matters in the Eternal Dungeon.'"
He did not try to offer the Codifier any excuse for his conduct. Mr. Daniels supplied his missing words. "You sent me a telegram. You received a telegram back from my housekeeper, indicating that I had decided to take a journey to Mip to visit friends, and that I would not be available for consultation until my return. You then took it upon yourself to decide that this matter – this death-sentence matter – could not await my return."
"Yes, sir." Being flayed alive would be easier than being reprimanded by the Codifier, Layle decided. He sat stiffly in his seat, awaiting the next scrape of the blade.
"'All sentences of death that are passed by the High Seeker for disciplinary matters must be approved by the Codifier.'" Mr. Daniels waited, his eyebrows raised.
Layle made no reply. He knew, as he was sure the Codifier knew, that a sentence of one hundred lashes was not a death sentence.
Not unless the sentence was carried out by Layle Smith.
The Codifier continued in his remorseless fashion. "'No Seeker shall touch any instrument of torture except with permission of the Codifier, unless it is necessary to save a life.'" Mr. Daniels looked up from the slim volume of the Code. "And which life, Mr. Smith, did you think you were saving when you bypassed the procedure for permission to use an instrument of torture? A procedure, I might add, that was most strenuously emphasized to you at the time you became High Seeker, thanks to your past background."
That was not a blade under the skin; that was a blade through the throat. Layle could feel himself begin to ache from the tension of his muscles. He remained silent.
"But perhaps you forgot the passage in the Code which states, 'All disciplinary beatings of guards shall take place under the supervision of the High Seeker and shall be carried out by the High Seeker's senior night guard.'"
The Codifier seemed to be waiting for an answer this time. Layle forced himself to say, "No, sir. I did not forget that passage." He could hardly forget it, having written it himself.
Mr. Daniels turned a page. "'No torture shall be greater or lesser than this Code requires.' I need not ask whether you remember that passage; I recall that you stated it to Mr. Ferris, shortly before you sentenced him to be hanged for violating that passage. One extra stroke is no different than ten extra strokes, Mr. Smith, as I'm sure you know. 'The Seeker in charge of a prisoner shall cease any torture if the healer deems that the prisoner's life is endangered.' Again, I need not linger over that passage; I have heard you state it on many occasions. 'The highest conduct in the Eternal Dungeon shall be required of the High Seeker, so that he may set an example for the other inhabitants of the Eternal Dungeon.'" The Codifier removed his reading spectacles and stared levelly at Layle. "Have I failed to name any ways in which you have most grievously violated the Code in my absence?"
"Yes, sir," he replied quietly. "'The healer shall take into account both the physical health and the mental health of any prisoner when judging whether that prisoner is fit to be tortured.'"
It was the passage that had kept him awake every night since this nightmare began. The passage said nothing about the High Seeker taking into account the mental health of the prisoner – a careless, callous omission on his part when he had revised the Code sixteen years before. But he should have known – he should have known – that his duty lay there.
The Codifier leaned back in his chair. Softly around the office came the rush of water down the wall, and the occasional splashes made by fish in the pool nearby. It had taken a considerable amount of exertion on Layle's part, but he had managed to persuade the Queen that the recent renovation of the Eternal Dungeon need not extend to the Codifier's eccentric desire to surround himself, not by the artificial walls found elsewhere in the dungeon, but by cave-rock, stalactites, and tiny cave-dwelling animals.
Layle understood the reason for this symbolism, even if the Queen did not. The Codifier represented the history of the Eternal Dungeon, extending back to the day, a century and a half before, when the torturers of the royal dungeon had rebelled against their bloody past and remade their methods of inquisition into something that would benefit the prisoners, as well as the Yclau citizens whom the Queen's justice protected.
The Codifier existed to protect the prisoners. He alone had the power to overrule and discipline the High Seeker; he served no one except the Code and the Queen who permitted the Code to exist. The rough surroundings of the cave spoke a message: "However sophisticated and modern and civilized you may think yourself to be, I remember. I remember this dungeon's bloody past, and I will not allow that past to return."
"'The healer shall take into account both the physical health and the mental health of any prisoner when judging whether that prisoner is fit to be tortured.'" Mr. Daniels repeated the words as he folded his fingers over his belly. "Yes. I have had that passage very much in mind since I received word yesterday of the events that have taken place in this dungeon during my absence. Shall we start from the beginning of the tale, three months ago? The High Seeker orders one of his Seekers to rack a prisoner who is too ill of mind to be able to confess to the death-sentence crimes he has undoubtedly committed. The healer approves that order. A guard assists the prisoner to commit suicide, in order that the prisoner should thereby escape from torture. The High Seeker declares, correctly, that the guard has committed a death-sentence crime. The High Seeker sentences the guard to the alternative army punishment of one hundred heavy lashes. The High Seeker carries out the punishment. . . . All of this followed from that single act, a failure to take into account the mental state of the prisoner. Am I correct?"
"Yes, sir." He wondered whether the Codifier was measuring him for his coffin. This was not the first time Layle had violated the Code; the first two times, Mr. Daniels had sentenced him only to suspension of duty, but surely there must be a limit to how far the Codifier's patience extended.
In the past, Layle would gladly have accepted the death sentence for his crimes – indeed, he had pled for it then, in the name of justice. But now he had another person in his life to consider.
Sweet blood, how would Elsdon survive Layle's death, knowing the part he had played in all this?
"'The healer shall take into account both the physical health and the mental health of any prisoner when judging whether that prisoner is fit to be tortured.'" Mr. Daniels's fingers remained laced upon his belly. "And on the very next page, the Code states, 'The Codifier shall overrule the healer's decisions if he believes that the prisoner's life or soul is endangered.'"
With a jolt like electricity passing through him, he recognized the change of direction in the conversation. "Sir, you have been on leave of absence, by advice of the Queen—"
"But I was not absent when you ordered Elsdon Taylor's prisoner to be racked; nor was I absent when the healer approved that racking. Mr. Smith, yesterday evening I tendered my resignation to the Queen."
"Sir, no!" He was alarmed now; he could think of no worse fate for the Eternal Dungeon than to lose the cool, strong, wise man who had served as its Codifier for nearly a quarter of a century. "The Eternal Dungeon is in a state of crisis, thanks to what I have done. The last thing it can afford is the absence of its leader—"
"So the Queen told me when I indicated to her that your first action, when I walked through the gates of this dungeon, was likely to be to resign from your post as High Seeker."
He was silenced, as he had been so many times over the years, by the superiority of the Codifier's vision. Mr. Daniels picked up the resignation letter that Layle had written and dropped it into the oil lamp. The flame sputtered and flickered as it ate the paper, throwing light onto the Codifier's weary face.
"It would be easier for me," Mr. Daniels said, staring at the flame, "if we were both to resign. Or, barring that, it would be easier if I advised you to withdraw the policy we both formulated five months ago, of requiring strict adherence to the Code of Seeking. It would be easier for me, and it would be easier for you. But would it be easier for the prisoners?"
He turned his eyes toward Layle. In the dim lamplight, the waterfall nearby sparkled, dancing flickers of light back onto the Codifier. Mr. Daniels's expression was grave as he said, "High Seeker, I should not need to remind you of why we instituted that policy. One lash more than a prisoner was sentenced to is a mild version of the flagrant violations of the Code that have occurred in recent years: Seekers deciding, on their own initiative, to order a prisoner beaten for twice as long as the Code requires. Guards offering comforts and assistance to prisoners that the Code does not permit. Seekers and guards alike deliberately disobeying orders issued by you. Mr. Smith, it is a miracle that we have only had one suicide in this dungeon in recent years. It is a wonder that we have not had a score of suicides, murders, and escapes."
"Yes, sir." He murmured an acknowledgment to the old, familiar problem. It was a problem that Elsdon, who held no supervisory duties, could never be made to understand. Layle was responsible, not only for his own actions, but for the actions of every Seeker and guard in this dungeon. To allow a Seeker or guard to blatantly violate the Code, even if it seemed in the best interests of the prisoner, could ultimately lead only to the destruction of the Code. The time would come, if the violations continued, when Seekers and guards would cease to allow their consciences to be shaped by the Code that had turned the royal dungeon from a place of bloody abuse into a place where prisoners found hope and transformation.
"Seven violations of the Code, Mr. Smith," said the Codifier. "Eight, if we count my own. All that our transgressions prove is that this dungeon desperately needs the Code and desperately needs leaders who are willing to take on the burden of punishing violations of the Code. If you and I were to resign today, who would take our places? Weldon Chapman, a man who barely escaped death for his own violation of the Code? Elsdon Taylor, who defied your orders to such a degree that his own senior night guard – a man of exemplary behavior until that time – took it into his head to loan his dagger to a mentally ill prisoner?"
Layle's fists clenched, his automatic reaction to any attack on his love-mate. "Sir, I am to blame for Mr. Taylor's refusal to rack his prisoner. I did not sufficiently impress upon him—"
"Mr. Smith, I am not trying to apportion blame here. Mr. Taylor is a junior Seeker and has been working in the dungeon for only five years; it is natural for him to make mistakes. I am simply pointing out that there is currently no man in this dungeon who holds the qualities of leadership necessary to take over your position or mine during this crisis, should either of us resign or even receive temporary suspension from our duties."
The Codifier carefully closed the Code of Seeking. Without looking Layle's way, he said, "It is the judgment of our Queen that we should remain at our posts, as we are needed here to deal with this crisis. It is also her judgment that we should continue our policy of requiring strict adherence to the Code. If any Seeker or guard violates the Code deliberately in the future, they will undergo discipline, just as Mr. Boyd did . . . but they will do so under my supervision of your actions."
He was silent for a long while. He knew, from the heaviness in his chest, that he had hoped for a different outcome. Resignation from his post, temporary suspension from his duties, a retraction of the policy of disciplining any guard or Seeker who violated the Code in even the smallest way . . . Any of these changes would have relieved him of the pain of continuing to fight the junior members of the dungeon who opposed his policy – of continuing to fight Elsdon over matters that his love-mate could never fully understand, because he had never been a senior Seeker . . . and never would be, if he continued to defy the High Seeker.
Oh, Mercy and Hell. He would gladly allow himself to be flayed for eternity if he could thereby escape the responsibility of disciplining Elsdon for any future violations of the Code.
He could feel the Codifier's eye upon him. He forced himself to speak the words he knew must be spoken: "I am the Queen's servant."
The Codifier slid the Code of Seeking into his desk drawer and rose to his feet. "If you were not, Mr. Smith, I would not have approved your appointment as High Seeker. Now let us put aside all thoughts of our own guilt and find a way to bring this dungeon back into order."
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.
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.
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.
Three days before.
He had been right about the puddles, he saw as he slipped back into the entry hall.
The scene was much as he had left it, except that someone had switched off most of the lamps in the hall, leaving the onlookers in darkness. The platform remained brightly lit, like a stage. From where Mr. Urman stood, on the upswelling of ground on the eastern side of the entry hall, he could see the activities there clearly, from a sideways angle. No Seekers or guards stood to the right of the stage; his view was unimpeded. Nor did he have any trouble hearing what was taking place: the onlookers were as silent as corpses, except for a few senior guards, who were exchanging mutters as they helped back onto his feet one of their fellow guards who had evidently fainted.
Given that the guard who had passed out was one who regularly supervised rackings, Mr. Urman considered that Layle Smith had surpassed himself this time. Mr. Urman looked again at the puddles of blood gathering on the platform.
Mr. Boyd's trousers-seat was black with blood that had dripped down from his back, but so vigorous were the strokes which the High Seeker was laying on that each lash sent blood spraying forth from Mr. Boyd's body, falling into pools at his feet. From the angle at which he stood, Mr. Urman could not see Mr. Boyd's back, but he would not have been surprised if bone had been reached by this point.
The High Seeker himself was in no danger of being spattered by blood. The long stretch of the black whip allowed him to stay well away from the prisoner. Perhaps in an effort to demonstrate his dexterity, he had chosen to stand on the right side of the prisoner, rather than the left side that was normally assumed by guards beating prisoners. His back was to Mr. Urman; his left arm reached back in an easy, almost lazy arc before he brought the whip forward in a snap that echoed in the high ceiling of the entry hall, causing a few queer bats which had chosen to remain in the hall on this night to rustle uneasily in their sleep. The lash sliced into Mr. Boyd's back, sending another spray of blood onto the floor.
Mr. Boyd barely moaned. He was sobbing continuously now in a hoarse manner that was more terrible than any scream, because it suggested that he had travelled beyond the ability to emit screams. His head stayed hidden within his arms as he pressed his face against the whipping post. He was sagging in his bonds; blood trailed down from the wrist that Mr. Urman could see.
Clear above the sound of Mr. Boyd's sobs, in an even manner, came the count. It was so mechanical in nature that it might have been emitted by the time-clock in the nearby guardroom. Mr. Urman could see Mr. Sobel from where the senior night guard stood, on the left side of the prisoner, just far enough back to be able to watch the High Seeker apply the lashes. Mr. Sobel was paler than Mr. Urman had ever seen him before, but there was no sign that he planned to discard his distasteful duty. He had reached the eighties in his count.
Next to Mr. Sobel was the healer. Surprisingly, she had not yet fainted. She was wringing her hands, apparently without knowledge of what she did, for she was staring with concentration at Mr. Boyd, tears rushing down her face. Mr. Sobel took a brief, worried glance at her but did not pause in his count.
There was further disturbance in the crowd as yet another onlooker fainted. This time it was a Seeker. Mr. Urman felt a certain grim satisfaction in that. With any luck, Mr. Boyd's gamble would pay off: nobody, after witnessing this scene, could tell themselves that the High Seeker had only the best interests of his prisoners in mind.
Mr. Boyd's breathing was turning more ragged, more uneven in interval. Mr. Urman, reviewing in his mind what he had read of Vovimian torture, guessed that the whipping post was partly at fault. Sagging as he was in his bonds, Mr. Boyd was essentially undergoing crucifixion, with all the consequent pressure on his chest that would make breathing – already driven from him by the thud of each lash – next to impossible. Mr. Urman began to list to himself all the illnesses that could result when breathing was restricted over a period of time. There could be mind damage, he seemed to recall. No doubt the High Seeker would be able to say; he was the one who had given Mr. Urman a lecture on the importance of immediately reviving any prisoner who fainted in his bonds.
Mr. Urman was not ashamed to admit that, upon his first arrival at the dungeon, he had admired the High Seeker. All that Mr. Urman had known of Layle Smith then was that he was the author of the fifth revision of the Code of Seeking. It had taken Mr. Urman a couple of months to realize that Mr. Smith's ideals were far different from his practice. Mr. Urman remembered the exact turning point when he had realized the High Seeker's true nature: the day on which Mr. Smith had ordered that a prisoner be beaten because he had stated that he loved his father.
Elsdon Taylor. He had transformed from prisoner to Seeker, but to Mr. Urman's mind he was still a prisoner of the High Seeker, still bound by Layle Smith's pernicious influence. For a few months this year, it had seemed that Elsdon Taylor would break free and serve as leader of the New School of protesters to the High Seeker's policies. But then he had fallen silent, apparently cowed into submission, perhaps by what Mr. Smith did to him in the bedroom.
Elsdon Taylor. He was not here today. What would he do if he were?
Without knowing why, Mr. Urman began to move forward.
Three days later.
The crematorium was sweet with the scent of warm wax. Layle paused at the threshold, standing between the great doors that swung open, wide enough for a funeral procession. Nobody was in the high, cave-walled chamber. At noontime, the day shift was well ensconced with the prisoners, while the night shift was asleep or on its way to bed. Layle himself had been assigned a new prisoner to search that evening; he knew that he ought to be abed by now. But bed meant Elsdon, and questions and accusations Layle could not face. He stepped into the crematorium, leaving the doors open behind him.
As he curved his way round the great lid that sealed the communal ash-tomb, his eyes rose toward the candles, lit or melted. The Record-keeper had a giant tablet – which had miraculously survived the recent renovation of the dungeon – on which were written the names of as many of the recent prisoners as could be crammed onto the board. And here were the candles of many of those men and women: level upon level rising high toward the ceiling, each on its own tiny shelf jutting out from the limestone.
A stalactite dripped water gently onto his shoulder as he walked forward. The stalagmites had been cleared away from this portion of the dungeon's cavern, and the maids were vigorous in keeping the floor mopped. Even so, the crematorium had a wild appearance, as though it were not fully aware that the lighted world outside the dungeon was now in the fourth century of the Tri-National Era.
Layle's eyes sought out the candles he knew best. There, on the bottom ledge, to the far left, was a cut-throat murderer. There, several shelves above it, was a man who had raped his virgin daughter. There, a little ways off, was a shelf dedicated to a long-time outer-dungeon cook who had received permission to be buried in the ash-pit when her time came. This shelf had more than one candle lit; her friends were still mourning her death.
Layle avoided looking toward the right, knowing what he would see. Instead, he came forward to a shelf where a candle had burnt out. Its wax was still warm to the touch. Reaching down, he pulled up the lid of a chest containing additional candles. He placed the new candle in the tall glass, used a taper to light it from another of the candles, and stepped back.
Jonathan O'Reilly, twenty-six years of age, a draper by trade, married, with two young sons. Hard-working, well-liked by friends and neighbors, respected by his employers. Arrested on the twenty-ninth day of the seventh month of the year 360, in connection with a burglary gone wrong that had resulted in the death of a householder. Lied repeatedly during his searching about facts that could be double-checked. Sentenced twice to beatings; the third time, he was placed on the rack. Died under questioning. Later determined to be innocent of the crime of which he was accused. Body burnt on the fifth day of the eighth month by his murderer, Layle Smith.
Layle could never bring himself to think of his failures in the rack room in any other way. He knew, in a rational fashion, that it was the healer's job to ascertain whether a prisoner's long-term health would be placed at risk if he were racked. He knew that it was the senior-most guard's job to actually rack the prisoner. But it had been the High Seeker's voice that had said, "Take him up to eight," and then, "Down! down!" – but too late, for the prisoner's spasms had ended in death.
Here, if anywhere, was the proof Elsdon required that Seekers should not torture their prisoners.
But against that was the candle near it. Terrence Harris, age forty-two, the rapist of his daughter. Had denied vigorously that he had done the deed. His testimony was backed by friends and family. The daughter, now pregnant with her rapist's child, refused to name the defiler of her purity, evidently fearing the man's vengeance. Only Layle's instinct had told him to search further. He had questioned and pressed and pressured until the prisoner, squirming to escape from Layle's needle-sharp questions, had done exactly what Layle intended for him to do: he had tried to place the blame for the crime on another man.
Sixty heavy strokes had followed, as decreed by the Code. No questions had been asked; the Code did not call for that at this level of punishment. But by the end, the prisoner, screaming for release, had confessed his crime and had confessed further his plans to rape his niece.
Evidence was located, swift upon the confession: bloody clothes, bed-stains, a hidden journal carefully recording the deeds. In the end, there remained no doubt in anyone's mind that the rapist had been found. The daughter, upon being told that her father was likely to be convicted, had shed tears of joy. The rapist's sister and brother-in-law had been weak-kneed with relief upon learning of the fate that their own daughter had escaped.
Layle had witnessed none of this first-hand. He had been busy with his prisoner over the next week, delaying the trial so that the prisoner should be properly prepared for the consequences of his likely death. The preparation had not been easy; the prisoner believed in neither afterdeath nor rebirth. But he did, it turned out, care about his daughter, and gradually, through Layle's patient efforts, the prisoner had come to recognize and regret the harm he had done. With any luck, his time spent in afterdeath, before his next rebirth, would be shortened thereby.
All this had followed from the beating. None of it, Layle was quite sure, could have occurred without the beating. If the dead prisoner managed to escape the tragic fate of everlasting afterdeath, his freedom into rebirth would be due to the brief torture he had endured. And the young daughter he had misused was now free of her father's cruelty.
Layle checked that the rapist's candle had enough wick left to remain alight until the next time Layle should visit, and then he reached down and picked a second candle out of the chest. He held his breath for a long moment before he turned toward the right.
Rarely did any person whose ashes were buried in this place have more than a dozen or so candles commemorating or praying for his or her rebirth. Most outer-dungeon residents would light candles for the dead at their homes or in the chapels of remembrance in the lighted world. Seekers encountered death too often to take special notice of dead souls, other than those of their own prisoners and close friends. Layle had been told, by those who had witnessed it, that only once in recent years had several dozen candles been lit for one man. That had been during the days that the High Seeker first began to enter into a spell of madness; Seekers, guards, and outer-dungeon laborers had crowded into the crematorium, lighting candles to try to draw Layle Smith's soul back from death.
Now the crematorium floor was littered with hundreds of flickering candles.
They filled nearly the entire chamber – far too many to have been placed on shelves. All of the candles were white with the purity of rebirth, all were gold-flamed with the fire of transformation. The red blood of death was missing from the memorials; in the Eternal Dungeon, death did not need to be supplied by symbols.
Still gripping the candle, Layle walked slowly forward. He was seeing, not the man whose rebirth was being sought, but the whip that had cut him.
A black whip. Layle had used many instruments of torture over the years, but none had given him as much pleasure as the black whip. The stub whip of the Eternal Dungeon was a poor creature by comparison, barely long enough to inflict pain. The black whip was slim, sleek, slicking through the air with a whistle and a crack, alighting, tearing, gouging. He had been taught in Vovim's Hidden Dungeon how to execute prisoners, using the black whip alone. Just holding it in his hands, after so many years, had been a pleasure beyond measure.
And that keen pleasure should have been enough to warn him to set the whip aside and let another man carry out the punishment. The Code spoke bluntly on this matter: "It is too great a temptation for the man who orders the torture to be the man who carries it out." This had proved to be true. Layle remembered the exact moment when the count had failed. It was also the exact moment when he became aware that he did not want to stop, and then, chillingly, that he could not stop. It had been too many years since he had handled the black whip, and he had given too many strokes to be able to pull himself away from his pleasure.
Gripping the candle tighter, Layle stared down at the hundreds of flames that sent sweet smoke into the air in the name of Barrett Boyd. After another minute, he placed the unlit candle in his shirt-pocket. He had burned candles for thousands of prisoners who had died due to his evidence or due to his mishandling of their torture. But never before, in his twenty-two years in the Eternal Dungeon, had he sent a prisoner into death's arms because he had given way to his passion for pain.
He had no right to light a candle for Mr. Boyd. He had no right to life itself, after what he had done.
With the candle weighing down his shirt-pocket like the deadweight of a hanged man's body, he walked to the far end of the crematorium and opened the door there.
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.
Three days before.
The crowd had fallen silent. The only sound came from the temporary healer, who – in a most unfeminine manner – was cursing Mr. Sobel as she struggled to escape his protective custody. Mr. Sobel had the ability to knock a burly prisoner unconscious with nothing other than his fists, but he was apparently unwilling to use such a method upon a woman, for the healer continued to fight in his arms, like a slippery fish that may slide out of one's grasp. The senior night guard had turned his back on the proceedings in an effort to push the healer away. The High Seeker's arm swung back as he prepared to land his next lash.
Not on Mr. Boyd. His next lash would land on Mr. Urman, shielding the prisoner with his own body.
Mr. Urman felt oddly calm. He knew, deep within his mind, that these might be the final moments of his life. Any whiplash on a man's vulnerable front side was dangerous; the High Seeker's lash would be deadly. It was only a question of where the lash would land. Would it land on Mr. Urman's groin, castrating him as effectively as though he were in the hands of a Vovimian torturer? Would it land on his belly, slicing into the soft flesh there and tearing through his guts? Would it wrap its way past the ribs and puncture his lungs? Would it land on his face?
It didn't matter. Nothing mattered, except that Mr. Urman should suffer for the prisoner, as both his conscience and the Code demanded.
The healer struggled in Mr. Sobel's arms. The onlookers watched silently. The High Seeker's arm stretched full back, poised to land the blow.
The voice carried across the entry hall like a lash, causing the bats to rustle in the ceiling high above. The High Seeker paused, as though in careful consideration of how to react. Mr. Urman did not need to turn his head to know who had cried out. He wondered how Elsdon Taylor had managed to rise from his sickbed and stumble his way to the entry hall unaided.
He wondered, but he did not turn to look, for suddenly he was frozen, and everything was tumbling down upon him at once.
Bound wrists and trouble breathing and naked flesh awaiting the pain and down came the pain and there was blood spilling and he couldn't stop it, he couldn't stop the pain—
(The crowd had begun to shout again. Mr. Sobel, turning toward the sound of Elsdon Taylor's cry and then seeing where the greatest danger now lay, thrust the healer aside and ran forward. He tried to push Mr. Urman away, to take the post of danger himself, but Mr. Urman still could not move.)
—he couldn't stop the pain and it was continuing, over and over and over, and the others stood by, doing nothing, lackeys to the bully—
(The crowd continued to shout. Mr. Chapman, coming awake belatedly, had scrambled onto the platform and raced over to the High Seeker. He was at the High Seeker's side now, talking rapidly to him, trying to take the whip from his hand. The High Seeker ignored him, as he might have ignored a petulant kitten demanding to be petted. Elsdon Taylor called again; he was closer now. Not close enough. He would not rescue Mr. Urman.)
—lackeys to the bully and none of them taking his side, nobody ever took his side, they mocked him or attacked him or turned their eyes away and nobody would care now if he died and oh sweet blood the naked flesh and the pain travelling into his depths—
(Somebody was screaming now, and he knew that the scream was inside himself, even though the blow had not yet landed. Mr. Sobel had abandoned him to try to help Mr. Chapman talk sense into the High Seeker. The High Seeker had not yet dropped his arm. Elsdon Taylor was not here. The blow would land, and nobody could stop it. Nobody would stop it.)
—and he was alone, he was alone, he was always alone—
(He closed his eyes, feeling the hot tears on his face, feeling his inner scream travel through his body. Hands gripped him, holding him tight. He tried to pull away, because he knew that it could not be his rescuer, so that meant it must be the bully, and he must protect the prisoner, because others were weaker than himself. He must protect, no matter what was done to him, no matter how great the pain, no matter if he lost his life—)
"Elsdon! Elsdon, wake up!"
He opened his eyes. The High Seeker was in front of him, gripping his arms.
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.