The year 343, the seventh month. (The year 1876 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
At the beginning of the second century, the monarchy of the Queendom of Yclau had undergone an upheaval. A certain Lady Luray had married the eldest prince of Yclau – a relatively inconsequential event, since one of the younger sisters of the prince would inherit the throne in their nation's royal matriarchy.
But then one of the sisters died of food poisoning, while the other died of swamp fever in the dreadful summer climate of New Columbia, the capital of Yclau. And then the Queen herself died before she had a chance to birth new heirs, and Lady Luray found herself to be the new Queen of Yclau.
Her first act was to move her capital out of the dreadful swamp. Amidst the horrified gasps of her new subjects – especially the First District subjects, whose swamp it was – she moved the government to her hometown of Luray, and built a palace for her new home.
Around this time, conveniently, the old royal dungeon collapsed. It had been located in one of the mountain-caves of Yclau, far away from the old capital, so that previous Queens would not be disturbed by the screaming of tortured prisoners. The latest Queen seemed impervious to such distractions. . . or perhaps she was simply intrigued by certain improvements that the surviving Torturers proposed, improvements that would soon be enshrined in a book entitled the Code of Seeking.
Her new palace was located close to the mountains. On a hill. With a set of caverns in it. She gave the biggest cavern to the Torturers. As time went on, the smaller caverns served as an adjunct to what became known as the inner dungeon. The outer dungeon had its own role to play.
Vito de Vere, lying on his stomach in the royal forest of the palace grounds, knew part of this history, of course. Everyone knew what lay beneath the palace. What virtually nobody knew was what actually took place there.
He chewed his lip as he raised his chest high enough to see through the shrubs hiding his body from the Queen's patrol, guarding the palace grounds. It would have made little difference if the patrol saw him. Vito had a pass from the guards at the palace gate, stating that he had lawfully entered the palace grounds. What he did not have was a pass guaranteeing him entrance to the place where he wanted to go.
"The door doesn't seem to be guarded," he said in a doubtful voice.
He turned his head to look at his companion. Past the other boy lay more forest, with faint glimpses of the palace wall beyond. The Queen's kinfolk still lived in the capital city of Luray; they were granted various distinguished positions within the government. One of the many Lord Lurays over the centuries had cleared away the forests surrounding the palace walls, to make the palace more easily defensible. But no one had suggested clearing out the small forest within the walls, where young royal boys could go squirrel-hunting and practice their military skills.
There were no royal boys at the moment – only a royal girl. Vito would have to hope that the princess wasn't in the habit of squirrel-hunting. The patrols didn't travel into the woods; as long as he and his companion stayed in the forest, they would remain undetected.
But Vito didn't plan to stay in the forest.
His companion wriggled a bit, silently protesting a daddy-long-legs that had chosen him as a path. Vito carefully used a bit of bark to persuade the creature to crawl elsewhere. Freed of this distraction, his companion said, "Maybe the guards are inside. Maybe they'll catch you the moment you go inside."
"Oh, Pudge." Vito sighed. In certain ways, he couldn't have chosen a worst companion for this mission. Pudge was forever seeing evil lurking behind closed doors. Mind you, he had reason to.
In the ordinary way of things, Vito would never have spoken to Pudge. Vito was ten, one of the older boys at their school, on the verge of entering into his apprentice years. Apprentice-aged boys did not befriend six-year-olds.
But one day during recess at school, he had happened across a pudgy little boy surrounded by a group of older boys. "Pudge" he was called by his classmates, for obvious reasons. The older boys had no doubts as to how pudgy little boys should be treated.
If Pudge had been bullied by his own peers, that would have been a different matter, but the contrast between the older, slender, athletic boys and Pudge's chubby little body had struck at Vito's heart. He had entered the melee, swinging his fists.
Fortunately, he knew how to fight. The bullies had scattered. And the next thing Vito knew, he had a little companion who followed him everywhere, both at recess and after school.
As long as Vito had an adorer, he might as well make use of the boy. Now he asked, "Did your parents ever say anything about guards at the entrance?"
Pudge lowered his brows over his eyes in fierce concentration, the cerulean irises turning dark as dusk. "I don't think so. But I don't think they ever went there. Just to the palace above."
Vito nodded slowly. Why would any innocent man or woman enter the dark dungeon below the palace? He should be glad that Pudge was high enough ranked that the boy had entered the palace before. Recognizing him, the guards at the palace gate had taken his word that his parents were awaiting him and his "cousin" at the palace. After all, two young schoolboys could not be plotting nefarious activities.
"I want to go with you," said Pudge abruptly.
The six-year-old was sweating at the very thought of it. Vito looked at him with interest. Beyond Pudge, over the palace wall, soared the nearby peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Surrounding the boys was the green-and-brown landscape of midsummer, with an occasional bird or chipmunk hopping by. Pudge, dressed in schoolboy brown, blent well into the natural scenery. He could hold himself very still, for such a young boy.
"You can't," said Vito. "I need you here." He'd receive the biggest whipping of his life if his normally patient father discovered his current prank. He couldn't begin to imagine what sort of punishment he'd receive if his father discovered that he'd brought young Pudge along on the prank.
Pudge would be safe enough, hidden here among the brown branches. Vito had no idea what danger lay behind that door.
He looked again at it. Nobody was going in and out of the door except men and women who looked like servants. He looked like a servant himself, in his modest school uniform. He could slide into the crowd, keeping his mouth shut so that his accent and grammar wouldn't betray his higher rank. He could go wherever the servants went . . .
. . . and see what? What lay behind that door?
It had to be the right door. They'd circled the multi-story palace, and this was the only door leading into the hillside below the palace, other than a vine-covered iron door that looked as though it were part of a disused loading dock. There could be another entrance within the palace, of course, but Vito had no idea where that other entrance might be, and he was sure to be caught and questioned by guards if he idly searched the palace.
No, it had to be this door. It had to be today. He was moving away from the capital in two weeks' time. He might never get this chance again.
"Is it because I'm ugly?"
The sadness in Pudge's voice brought Vito back into awareness of his companion, as much as the words that Pudge spoke. Vito looked over at him, saying quickly, "Who told you that you're ugly?"
"Some of the boys at school. They said I'm fat and ugly." Pudge sounded resigned. He hadn't tried to fight the boys who had hit him. Sometimes Vito wondered what in the name of all that was sacred took place in Pudge's home that the boy had not learned the normal methods of self-defense that all Yclau fathers taught to their sons.
"You're not ugly," said Vito. "You're beautiful." He leaned forward and gave Pudge a light kiss on the lips. Their school being co-educational, there was a certain amount of disagreement among the boys there over whether it was better to kiss boys or girls. Vito, being a normal boy, was willing to kiss either, but he certainly wouldn't have chosen to bestow his first kiss upon a pudgy little six-year-old.
Nor did he consider Pudge to be particularly beautiful. He was too roly-poly for that. But however unappealing Pudge might be on the outside, he had a beautiful soul. To Vito, that was what mattered most.
That was why Vito never told Pudge how annoying he found it to have the little boy forever tagging after him. Vito had enough insight to realize that he was lucky to have been befriended by so generous-minded an adorer.
And so courageous an adorer too, it seemed. Vito smiled at him and said, "I'd like you to come with me. But I have more need you here, as a messenger. It's an important position. If I haven't returned by midnight, I need you to tell your father what has happened, so that he can get me released." Come to think of it, that was exactly what Vito needed. The rank of Pudge's father was high enough that he alone might have the power to secure Vito's release, should Vito find himself a captive.
"I can do that," said Pudge, so eagerly that Vito could not help but laugh. He gave Pudge a one-armed hug, and then, after a cautious look to ensure that no royal guards were patrolling at this moment, he rose to his feet and began walking to the unguarded entrance.
He could only pray that the inhabitants of the Eternal Dungeon would prove as generous as Pudge, if Vito were captured.
The corridors of the Eternal Dungeon were cheerful. That was what struck Vito with force: the hallways were brightly lit, brightly painted, and filled with brightly talking people. The inhabitants were mainly commoners: men and women wearing service uniforms, toting brooms and laundry carts and heavy food baskets. To see them smiling at each other and laughing over each other's passing jokes, Vito would have thought he'd walked into a scene from afterdeath, with butterflies and flowers decorating the landscape.
An occasional mid-class man strode among them, and very occasionally the unmistakable elite man, taking notice of no one, asking direction from no other man. Yet even these men emitted the occasional smile and soft greeting.
Vito paused in an arched doorway, certain that he had wandered through the wrong entrance into some underground part of the palace. This feeling was increased a moment later, when two young boys ran by, shouting at each other in a game of tag. They were stopped in mid-stride by one of the maids, who admonished them with such a gentle smile that it was clear she was the mother of the two boys. Vito turned away, intending to go back the way he had come, in an effort to figure out where he had taken the wrong path—
—and then he shrank back into the doorway. Another man was striding down the corridor, an elite man, and this man was causing the commoners to step aside with alacrity.
There were no smiles on anyone's faces as the Torturer passed.
He looked like the pictures of Torturers that appeared in the shilling shockers that some of the boys in Vito's school surreptitiously passed around to read during recess: he was dressed in a scarlet uniform, with boots that shone glossy, he had a hood with its face-cloth flung back, and there was a cruel set to his mouth. The younger boy who had played tag was now frozen in fear, blocking the man's path. The Torturer took no notice of him except to shove him out of the way.
The boy fell to the ground, emitting a sharp cry, and then bit his lip, weeping silently. The other men and women present exchanged looks, and the boy's mother wrung her hands, but nobody stepped forward to rebuke the Torturer. The blood-red man reached a door along the wall and paused, taking out a set of keys that jingled and glistened. A moment later, the door shut behind him, and everyone emitted a collective sigh.
The mother hurried forward to help the crying boy to his feet. A couple of passing laborers paused to express their sympathy for the boy's injury. And then, amazingly, the smiles returned, as though they had never been absent.
Now thoroughly bewildered, Vito scrutinized the passing men and women more closely, trying to discern the source of their happiness. After a while it came to him that the commoners walking by looked better dressed and better fed than most commoners he knew. His own family, which had always treated its servants well, could boast maids and footmen, cook and scullery maid, butler and valet, all of whom had this decent, cared-for appearance. Few other households in the Queendom of Yclau could make such a boast.
There was a contradiction here – an odd contradiction. On the one hand, there were servants who were so well treated by their masters that they spent their days smiling and whistling and laughing. On the other hand, there was the cruel Torturer who had treated the frightened boy with harshness.
A mystery such as this demanded an explanation. And the explanation – Vito thought as he peered around the corner – must lie behind that door which nobody had yet passed beyond except the Torturer.
He took a step forward. Behind him, light with amusement, a voice said, "If you're going to try to break into the inner dungeon, you had better make sure you have the proper key."
He was the lookout, to start with. He stood opposite the doorway, turning his head left and right, awaiting the inevitable moment when someone would walk down their portion of the corridor. The corridor was horribly busy with traffic. Every few seconds he would whistle softly between his teeth and dive onto his knees. His companion, who was already kneeling next to the door, would scoot around and pretend to show interest in the game of marbles that Vito had marked with chalk on the floor. Neither of them had any marbles to throw, and his companion didn't even know how to play marbles, but none of the grown-ups who passed them took much notice, and the occasional boy who passed was too busy with his own play or work to pause much longer than to make critical remarks about Vito's choice of a games companion. Before long, Vito's face was flaming.
So his tone was somewhat rougher than it might have been when, after the latest of their inevitable pauses to look innocent, he said, "It's taking you forever."
His companion lightly jingled the ring of keys, hastily hidden whenever Vito whistled the oncoming danger. "Papa owns lots of property. I don't know which key is the right one."
"He won't own property for long if he leaves his keys carelessly around."
His companion-in-crime shrugged, pushing aside a strand of hair that had fallen astray. "There was just me in our guest apartment. And he'll be back in an hour. We need to be quick."
Fingering one of the pebbles they were using in place of marbles, Vito eyed his companion curiously. "You still haven't explained why you want to do this. You'll be in danger—"
"So will you," replied his companion bluntly. "More than me. My father will intervene for me if I'm caught. The Torturers know him; they're negotiating to have his firm build them a documents library for their Record-keeper. Will your father be able to stop the Torturers from torturing you if you're caught?"
"He's out of town," said Vito uneasily.
"Well, then." Crouching upright, his companion looked left and right, determined that no further danger was on its way, and grinned. "I'm mad with curiosity about what lies behind that door. Aren't you?"
Vito couldn't help but grin back, but his uneasiness returned as they took up their prior positions: Vito as lookout, his companion trying to break into the inner dungeon with use of stolen keys. Finally Vito burst out, "But you're a girl."
There were several biting replies she could have made to that, but all she said was, "Then it's even less likely they'll torture me, don't you think? —Ah!" As she knelt on her stockinged knees, peering at the lock, she leaned forward slightly, and there was a click. "That's it. Come on!"
After a quick look left and right, Vito hurried forward. The door was not yet open. He said in a low voice, "It seems a funny coincidence, that you should be there with the right key, just when I wanted to break in."
Her pale face flushed then. "It's not a coincidence. Papa left the dungeon this morning, to deal with an urgent matter in his office. He ordered me to stay in the guest apartment, locked away. I've been trying to get my courage up all day to use the key. But I didn't like the idea of going in there alone."
Vito felt his back straighten. "Don't worry," he said. "I won't let them torture you."
She rolled her eyes. "I meant that, if there were two of us, one of us could run for help if the other was captured. I hope you can run fast." And with that statement, she pushed the door slightly open.
They both leaned forward to peer through the crack. There was no obvious sign of danger ahead of them: no wailing prisoners, no instruments of pain, no grim Torturers. All that they could see was another corridor, barely lit. Vito looked at the girl. She bit her thumb, contemplating the scene, and then she nodded.
They slipped inside and closed the door behind them.
The corridor was so dim that it took Vito a moment to adjust his sight. The corridor went on for many yards, and along the way were open entranceways on the left and right. The corridor looked quite ordinary: a dull green, the color of transformation, though Vito supposed this was just a coincidence. It could hardly be supposed that Torturers spent their days thinking about transformation and rebirth . . . though they must certainly spend a lot of time thinking about death.
The girl had already taken a couple of steps forward. Although she was several years older than Vito, she had clearly not yet debuted in society, for she was dressed primly in a girl-length dress made of ivory-colored silk, with no less than four skirt-layers of lacy ruffles adorned with shapes of flowers and thorns, as well as a fussy little bustle in the back. She looked like a tiered wedding cake come to life. Wearing his school uniform, Vito felt mid-class by comparison, though in fact his family, like most of the families living in the Parkside district of the capital, was descended from aristocratic blood.
Now she stepped back to whisper, in the elite accent they shared, "I can't see anyone. Where do you suppose the Torturers are?"
As though on cue, a man screamed.
Vito took a step back. The girl merely turned a shade paler than her natural creamy complexion. The scream had come from straight ahead of them, near the end of the corridor. It continued, long and ragged, like a tattered ribbon being unwound. Then came words: "No more! Sweet blood, no more! I'll say anything you want, but no more!"
Whatever the Torturer said in reply was too soft for them to hear. Remembering that he was supposed to be protecting her, Vito came forward to stand beside the girl. She said only, "Do you suppose we can get close enough to see what's happening?"
"I don't know." Vito took another rapid look at the end of the corridor in front of them. He could see now that there were a couple of sets of open entranceways along their corridor, suggesting that their corridor twice met other hallways running at right angles to it. There seemed ample opportunities for escape. "Let's walk a bit further," he suggested.
She nodded, not taking her eye from the farther stretch of the corridor, from which the screaming continued. Either the Torturer didn't believe his victim, or else the Torturer simply liked to hurt men as long as possible.
Vito and the girl had reached the first set of entranceways now. As Vito had already guessed, they proved to be the crossroads to another hallway. To the left, the new hallway ran the full length of the dungeon, with doorways and hatchways along the sides, as well as an occasional oil-lamp, flickering flame and smoke. To the right, the hallway travelled only a yard or two before it ended in a closed door. On the door was fastened a label: "Surgery closed."
Vito glanced at the door only briefly before turning his attention back to the left portion of the new hallway. Was there an exit to the outer dungeon there? Or to the outside? Or had he and the girl passed through the only doorway through which they could escape?
Suddenly, the girl's fingers dug into his arm. Turning his head, Vito saw why. The corridor ahead of them, at the second set of open entranceways, was now blocked by two men – guards, from the looks of the daggers and whips at their sides. They were standing with their backs to the intruders, but only a very slight move of their heads would reveal to them the intruders.
"Oh, no," whispered the girl, and Vito's head turned again. More guards, coming toward them from the hallway to the left. Between them walked a man who was clearly a prisoner, for his hands appeared to be bound behind him. He was barely able to walk; his escorts were holding him upright. So absorbed were they in pushing along the prisoner that the guards had not yet sighted the children ahead. But it wouldn't be long before—
Vito felt the girl slip from his side. He turned and saw her opening the door labelled "Surgery closed."
Aghast, Vito whispered, "What are you—?" And then he froze. He too had heard what she had heard: the sound of someone opening the door that led to the outer dungeon.
He flew through the surgery door. As he and the girl entered the room, side by side, he thought he caught a glimpse of a slim, dark-clothed figure slipping through the outer-dungeon door, but he wasn't sure. Had the figure seen him? He and the girl shoved the surgery door closed. Then they stared at the door.
Vito's heart was pounding. The guards and their prisoner were coming closer. The prisoner's moans could be heard now, providing an undercurrent to the ragged scream that continued from the prisoner who was being tortured. Vito murmured, "This visit was a really, really bad idea."
The girl said nothing. When Vito looked at her, he found that she had turned around. Then he too heard the sound: Men talking, approaching them. About to come through the other door to the surgery.
There was no time to think of a plan. Vito looked right and left rapidly. He had a blurred image of tins and bottles; a microscope; books about anatomy; a skull; a painting showing the cycle of rebirth, transformation, and death. . . the sort of objects that one would expect to see in a surgery.
Then his sight settled on the object nearest them. A bed. A very high bed, presumably designed as such in order to allow the healer to examine his patient closely. It was currently bare, except for a partly translucent blanket that had been hastily flung over it. The blanket's tassels were just brushing the floor, hiding the bed-legs.
"Under here!" hissed Vito, and he pushed the girl down to her knees. She immediately crawled under the bed. Vito spent a split second ascertaining that she could no longer be seen, and then he joined her in her hiding spot.
They were just in time. The door opposite them opened, and three men stepped through.
One was clearly the healer. He had the seal of the Guild of Healers sewn across the breast pocket of his jacket. He was young, perhaps in his early thirties. He leaned against a cedarwood secretary whose lid was flipped up, hiding the contents, and stared at a nearby water-clock, as though disassociating himself from the other men.
The man who followed him could have been anything: a lord, a clerk, a businessman. The cut of his jacket and the gold of his pocket-watch suggested wealth, but not ostentatious wealth. His hairline was receding, but his eyes were as alert as a young man's. He found a cushioned armchair and sat down without asking anyone's permission.
The last man— Vito heard the girl's breath whistle in. Vito was holding his own breath. A red uniform. A hood, covering the face.
They were trapped in a room with a Torturer.