It is a truism that great reform comes from within, not from the outside. To test the veracity of this truism, we need only examine the events in the Eternal Dungeon during the early 360s.
At the beginning of the decade, the royal dungeon of the Queendom of Yclau stood at a crossroads. For centuries, torture had been accepted by all civilized nations of the world as a reasonable means by which to extract confessions from accused criminals. Indeed, it can fairly be argued that the Eternal Dungeon had shown far greater restraint than many prisons in neighboring nations, torturing only men and women accused of the most serious crimes, and frequently breaking the criminals, not through physical torture, but through words alone. Nor were these words always harsh, for the distinctive goal of the Eternal Dungeon – the goal that had made it a model for all reformed prisons in other nations – was that its torturers, later named Seekers, were required to place foremost the best interests of their prisoners. Torture and harsh words might be acceptable means of determining a prisoner's guilt and encouraging repentance, but if soft words could do the same trick, they were used.
Yet by 360, events had overtaken the Eternal Dungeon. Like a long line of falling dominoes, nation after nation was abolishing torture. The United Order of Prisons, an international organization for prison reform which had been founded by Yclau, passed a resolution requiring its member nations to cease use of physical pain to obtain confessions. When the Eternal Dungeon refused to comply with this resolution, Yclau was condemned and banned from the order. Throughout Yclau itself, pressure was building from outsiders against the Eternal Dungeon's time-sanctioned customs. The newly created Commoners' Guild spoke fervently against the practice of torture, arguing that this was a form of elite oppression against commoner prisoners. The Guild of Healers questioned whether men under torture had the mental capacity to give truthful confessions. Ethicists spoke against torture, in university and temple. With this very public opposition, it was becoming increasingly difficult for the Queendom of Yclau to speak with moral authority against the prison abuses taking place in its long-time rival, the Kingdom of Vovim.
Meanwhile, in the Eternal Dungeon, internal efforts to abolish torture utterly failed. After a flurry of disciplinary beatings, and one scandalous case of a Seeker being executed, the prison workers who had spoken out against torture fell silent.
But only for a while. For a second wave of reform was triggered in 363, and this wave of reform began with the arrival of a new man in the dungeon, one whose presence would spark the long-awaited inferno of civil war within the dungeon. . . .
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
The year 363, the fourth month. (The year 1882 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
For a prison, it was abnormally quiet.
Vito had lived in prisons for a long while now – over a dozen years, from the time he came of age. He had sampled all three of the city prisons, like a connoisseur sampling wines to test which was the finest. He had even spent time in the provincial prisons outside the queendom's capital.
Never before, though, had he encountered a prison where everyone spoke in whispers, and where business was conducted in the dark.
He looked around, straining to see. The great entry hall of the Eternal Dungeon – impressive both in size and in the fact that most of its walls were made of cave-rock – was virtually night-black. Lamps were scattered upon tables around the edge of the room, but these were all shuttered like lanterns. Guards stood by the tables, exchanging an occasional whisper. The only other sound came from the desk-seated Record-keeper, who studiously scratched away at a piece of paper with his pen, as though working in midnight black suited him.
And it was only four o'clock in the afternoon.
Vito was beginning to wonder whether this dungeon's prisoners were also questioned in pitch darkness. That was a matter of some personal concern to him. But then a stirring shuddered through the room, like wind over a field of corn.
Sounds came from the top of the steps that led to the palace above: a gate being drawn back with a screech, then heavy footsteps upon the cave-rock steps. Ignoring the vigilant escort of the dungeon guards who had brought him this far, Vito sidled his way toward the center of the hall in order to see better the stairway. Everyone else stood motionless. Even the Record-keeper had paused in his work and was now standing behind his desk.
Five men arrived: four were guards, dressed in royal scarlet, with ceremonial swords at their sides. Not the Eternal Dungeon's guards, then – those guards wore grey uniforms, utterly ungaudy. The Queen's guards, making their slow way down the steps, were struggling to hold level a stretcher.
The fifth man, who walked behind the stretcher, could not be said to be gaudy either, but his appearance was most striking. He wore no vest and no jacket, and he bore no weapons. His shirt and trousers were raven-black, and covering his head and face was a black hood.
Instinctively, Vito drew to the edge of the room, near the door that led further into the dungeon. The guards who flanked that door flicked a glance at him, then ignored him. His escorts remained oblivious to the fact he had strayed. The procession was coming closer.
All around the entry hall now, guards were bowing their heads and rubbing invisible circles upon their own foreheads with their thumbs. Vito, so newly arrived that he remained dressed for the outdoors, pulled his cap off and bowed his head. The procession had come close enough to him now that he had recognized what lay upon the stretcher: a motionless body, covered from head to foot with grey cloth.
The funeral procession neared the door to the inner dungeon. Vito raised his eyes just in time to catch closer sight of the fifth man in the procession. That man also had his head bowed, and his eyes – barely visible through the eyeholes of his hood – were hardly more than hollow pits in the dim light.
Yet something – perhaps it was merely the combination of straight spine and lowered head – caused Vito to catch his breath.
The door next to him was open now, held back by the younger guard who had been helping flank it. The older guard was peering carefully round the entry hall, obviously checking to see that nobody unauthorized was given the chance to slip through the doorway. The procession left the entry hall, the Queen's guards struggling to make their way through the relatively narrow entrance. The hooded man following them did not look up.
Vito had a sudden, wild desire to follow. Instead, as the door slammed shut, he stepped forward and tugged at the sleeve of the older guard, like an impatient child. "Who was that, please? The man behind the funeral procession?"
The guard replied, with careful precision, "That was one of our junior Seekers: Mr. Taylor. Please step away from the door, sir."
Vito did so hastily. He had already seen the younger guard draw his dagger; his escorts had likewise noticed his absence and had pulled their coiled whips from their belts. Vito – who was cursed with a sense of humor that helped him not the least in his work – had the impulse to pull out his hidden revolver and offer to trade with the guards.
But he was saved from acting on this disastrous impulse by the sound of a cough. Looking back toward where he had been standing before, Vito saw the Record-keeper silently gesturing. Further down the wall along which the Record-keeper's desk was placed, a man had appeared in an open doorway. His face was hidden by a black hood, and he stood quite far away in the hall, but Vito somehow knew, without having to see them, that the man's eyes were ice-cold.
Vito drew in a long breath. His mind had travelled beyond the dagger-and-whip-wielding guards nearby. They were unimportant. The true danger in this dungeon stood before him now.
He walked slowly forward for his employment interview with the High Seeker.
"'Vito de Vere,'" the High Seeker read aloud from his records. "'Age thirty. Parents both alive—' You do not use your father's given name as a middle name?"
Vito wondered what the High Seeker imagined he was deducing about Vito's family relations. "No, sir. My parents never did. They thought that practice was old-fashioned."
"Hmm." The High Seeker – who, as everyone knew, didn't use his father's given name as a middle name either – stared down at the paper, the eyes within his hood's eyeholes momentarily hidden by shadows from the light. From the candlelight. The rest of the dungeon, by order of the Queen, had been modernized three years ago with electric lights – Vito knew that from his connection here. But apparently the High Seeker preferred to use candles as illumination, as though he still lived in the middle centuries.
This same High Seeker also ordered the use of racks in his dungeon. Vito stirred uneasily in his chair, sitting directly opposite the High Seeker at his desk, and then froze as the High Seeker raised his head, instantly alert.
All that the dungeon's head torturer said, however, was, "You arrive with the most superb set of recommendations I have ever seen for an applicant to the post of Seeker. Every man who has ever employed you – from the Union Telegraph supervisor, who hired you as a messenger boy when you were eleven, to your most recent employer, the Jailor of Pleasant Ridge Prison – all describe you as extremely hard-working, passionate in your pursuit of perfection, and brilliant of mind." The High Seeker abruptly pushed aside the recommendations with a sweep of his hand. "None of that matters."
"No, sir," Vito agreed quietly. "I understand that, from the perspective of the Eternal Dungeon, a Seeker's skill is less important than to what ends he uses his skill. All I can say, sir, is that I hope my record reveals that I have tried to achieve the right balance between being too soft with my prisoners and being too harsh with them. I have always kept in mind that my position is one of privilege, and with that privilege comes a responsibility to serve the best interests of my Queen, my queendom . . . and my prisoners."
He had considered, during the long train ride to the capital, how best to phrase his commitment to the principles under which the Eternal Dungeon was run. The closer he came to the capital, the more absurd his earlier, elaborate statements had seen. He currently lived on Cape Henry, close to Norfolk, a part of Yclau which spoke of sophisticated modern tastes. But the capital of the Queendom of Yclau – barely more than a small town hugging the long ridge of mountains that divided the Midcoast nations from the Midcontinental nations – spoke of rustic simplicity. The palace itself, elaborate and gilded though it was, seemed much smaller than Vito's childhood memories of it. As for the Eternal Dungeon . . . bleak, stark, only a century and a half old, and yet somehow harkening back to the values of many centuries before.
Not all of those values were bad.
And so, gradually, Vito had felt himself adjusting back to the time in his childhood when all had seemed simple, and necessary words had been few.
The High Seeker, evidently a man of few words himself, made no comment on Vito's carefully crafted commitment to the principles embodied in the dungeon's Code of Seeking. Instead, he said, "You have moved around a great deal."
"Yes, sir," he agreed, wondering furiously in his mind whether the High Seeker thought this denoted lack of commitment on Vito's part. "There are many prisons in my area, and I thought, for the sake of gaining full experience of the lesser prisons' variety as a guard—"
"Before that," said the High Seeker in a mild tone. "You moved around before then."
Oh, dear. He took a deep breath. "Yes, sir. I lived in this capital until I was ten, and then my parents moved to the Tidewater District in order that they might live with my mother's mother, who had recently become widowed. After graduation from university and training academy, I moved back to the capital—"
"In the spring of 355." The High Seeker did not so much as glance aside at Vito's records.
"Yes, sir. Alternating with posts at Alleyway Prison and the Courthouse Jail, I worked as a patrol soldier stationed out of Parkside Prison for a couple of years—"
"And met a certain lady there?" The High Seeker raised the topmost page of recommendations from the stack of paper. "Mistress Birdesmond says she knew you only briefly at Parkside Prison, yet you and she seem to have grown quite intimate during that time."
He could feel the blush cover his face. "She was doing charity work at the prison," he replied, hoping he did not sound too defensive. "A most uncommon occupation for a lady of leisure. Naturally, I was impressed by her consideration of the needs of the prisoners' families, and I struck up an acquaintance. Her work was unusual—"
"—and Mistress Birdesmond is a most unusual woman. Yes." The High Seeker seemed to dismiss the matter. "So that was your only previous point of contact with the Eternal Dungeon?"
His voice remained mild. His shadowed eyes were opaque. Vito stared at those eyes, remembering all the tales he had heard, in the lighted world above, about the High Seeker's capacities. Mistress Birdesmond had lightly hinted, in her letters, that the ballads sung about the High Seeker were not exaggerations.
It had been many years ago. He had been much younger then. The meeting had been brief. The High Seeker could not possibly remember—
He heard himself say, "Actually, sir, we've met before, though you wouldn't recall that meeting. It was in one of the judging rooms . . ."
His voice trailed off as the High Seeker relaxed into his seat. The High Seeker pulled the topmost volume of a small stack of blue-bound record books onto the table, resting his elbow on the remaining volumes. Stamped in gold upon the volume's face were the words: "Arrest Records of The Eternal Dungeon." Below the gold, written neatly in a copperplate script across a white label, were three additional words: "Elsdon Auburn Taylor."
Vito managed to pull his eyes away and clear his throat. "You remember?"
"The episode is hard to forget," the High Seeker replied dryly. "You attacked my prisoner."
This was a most unexpected way in which to characterize what had happened. But then, Mistress Birdesmond had warned him that the High Seeker was a subtle man, with depths beyond which most people guessed. He was, after all, the author of the fifth revision of the Code of Seeking, which was praised for its compassion toward the Eternal Dungeon's prisoners.
The High Seeker was waiting. Licking his dry lips with a flick of his tongue, Vito said, "Sir, I knew Mr. Taylor—"
"You were friends with Auburn Taylor?" There was no change to the High Seeker's tone, yet somehow, with that deep intuition which Vito seemed to have been born with, he sensed that he was roughly six inches from being tied to a rack.
"Not intimately, sir," he replied quickly. "I had just begun work at Parkside Prison, and Mr. Taylor's neighborhood was part of my patrol area. He was well known, because he had royal connections and he owned a business that employed many men. I had spoken briefly with him . . . no more than briefly. There was neighborhood gossip that there might be trouble in his family. And so, when Mr. Taylor's son was arrested for killing his younger sister . . . I was curious, I'll admit. I had not yet fully settled into work at Parkside Prison at the time of the arrest, so I missed witnessing Elsdon Taylor's imprisonment there, but the other guards there were full of talk about the arrest. They said that Elsdon Taylor's behavior had been most unusual – both exceedingly wild and exceedingly compliant. That combination of states worried me, as did the apparent murder. I began to fear that perhaps the mind of Mr. Taylor – young Mr. Taylor – was ill. So I attended the trial in interest to learn the outcome of his arrest, since he had been transferred into the custody of the Eternal Dungeon."
He was gabbling. He knew he was gabbling; he didn't seem to be able to stop himself.
The High Seeker – still looking idle, which was a bad sign in itself, Vito knew from many years of having searched prisoners – took up a pen and began to play with it, twiddling it with his fingers. "And so, having heard of Elsdon Taylor's bloody murder of his sister, you naturally assumed that he would murder his father too."
Vito felt another hot blush cover his face. "I'm not sure I thought that far ahead, sir. But Mr. Auburn Taylor startled his son in the judging room, and his son responded by pushing him away . . . It was a bad moment, and I thought it best that I should be the one to intervene, since the prisoner knew me."
"Oh?" The High Seeker stared at his pen.
"Yes, sir. We'd spoken to each other. As I say, I patrolled the neighborhood."
He waited, his back tingling in a manner that it hadn't since the early days of his training as a patrol soldier, when he had made several mistakes that his colonel had felt could best be corrected with whiplashes.
The High Seeker – bare of all weapons – seemed to be in no rush to make use of his formidable skills at extracting information through torture. He said only, "You pulled Mr. Auburn Taylor aside at the end of the trial, I recall."
Vito had a moment to be grateful for his instincts back then. "Yes, sir. I was greatly shocked by the evidence revealed in the trial, that the older Mr. Taylor had misused his son, which had no doubt led to the disordering of his son's mind. The evidence all fit; I could think of no other circumstances under which a mild young man such as Elsdon Taylor would have killed his sister. So I took Mr. Auburn Taylor into custody, in hopes that I could extract a confession from him that could lead to his being charged with abuse of his son."
"And was he charged?" The High Seeker stared down at the pen, with its sharp nib.
"No, sir. The keeper of Parkside Prison had some hesitation about my placing charges against a man who had royal connections. He ordered that I release my prisoner, and not long afterwards, Mr. Auburn Taylor grew ill, so I was advised to drop my enquiry. —But you would know that, sir," he added boldly.
The High Seeker looked up from the pen long enough to raise his eyebrows.
Vito added, "You sent a Seeker to Mr. Taylor's house two years later. I moved back to the Tidewater District around that time – my grandmother's health was failing, so I wished to be with my family. But one of my fellow patrol soldiers wrote me with the news that a Seeker had visited Mr. Auburn Taylor while he was dying."
The High Seeker said nothing. He set aside the pen. He waited, his elbow firmly planted on the stack of blue volumes.
Vito – trained to search prisoners himself – recognized all the signs. The High Seeker did not trust him. The High Seeker suspected that truth was being kept from him. The High Seeker would not cease his questions until he was sure he had extracted the truth.
Vito swallowed, but could not prevent himself from saying, "At the end of the trial, you took Mr. Taylor's son back into custody, for further questioning. Did you send the Seeker to Mr. Taylor's house to let him know that his son had finally died?"
The High Seeker did not even bother to create a polite fiction to describe what had happened. Instead he said – lightly, remorselessly – "So that was your only previous point of contact with the Eternal Dungeon?"
Vito stared at him. He could not know. He could not possibly know—
Vito's eyes shifted to the stack of blue volumes. Oh.
He cleared his throat. "Actually, sir, I've been to the Eternal Dungeon once before. It was a long time ago . . ."
His voice trailed off as the High Seeker relaxed against the back of his seat. The High Seeker pulled the topmost volume of the blue-bound record books onto the table. Stamped in gold upon the volume's face were the words: "Arrest Records of The Eternal Dungeon." Below the gold, written neatly in a copperplate script across a white label, were three additional words: "Vito de Vere."
"Perhaps, Mr. de Vere," said the High Seeker softly, "you should start at the beginning."