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."
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.
"Well, now," said the Torturer as he picked up a chair and moved it to a more convenient location. In front of the door through which the men had just come. Vito's gaze moved swiftly to the other door. It remained unblocked, but it was in full view of all the men in the room. Until the men left, he and the girl remained trapped.
"We are missing one man," the clerk – if that was what he was – observed mildly. He looked like the sort of man who always spoke mildly.
The healer snorted. "You expect Luray to be on time? He's probably having too much fun playing with his prisoner."
"His prisoner is in no condition in which to be played with." The Torturer sounded as though he were frowning, but it was impossible to tell; the hood hid his expression.
"You think you need to tell me that?" snapped the healer. "Luray's prisoner isn't even in a condition to be out of his bed. If this dungeon had enough room for an infirmary, I'd have nurses hovering over him, day and night."
"Expenses are always a difficulty." Again, that mild voice from the clerk. "I've requested more funding for your surgery in next year's budget, Mr. Bergsen."
The healer did not appear mollified. He had picked up a slender knife – Vito supposed it must be a scalpel – and was tapping its hilt against the side of the secretary. "And what good does it do me to have funds to heal tortured prisoners, if all you do is go and hang them afterwards?"
"You knew what your job required of you when you took it," said the Torturer tersely, then raised his voice. "Ah, there you are, Lord Luray."
Vito had missed the other Torturer's entrance; it had come so quickly. He felt the girl touch his arm in light warning. Vito's throat tightened. This Torturer's hood did not hide his face, and Vito recognized him. He was the Torturer who had hurt the little boy in the corridor of the outer dungeon.
The newest Torturer said in a relaxed manner. "High Torturer. Codifier. Mr. Bergsen."
Codifier? It was a mysterious title. Vito briefly scrutinized the mild-mannered clerk before turning his attention to the Torturer who remained fully hooded. The High Torturer. The head Torturer. He must be the man from whom all other men in this dungeon took orders.
And indeed, the High Torturer was saying sharply, "Lord Luray, you know that current dungeon custom requires that you remain fully hooded at all times when you are on duty."
"Bloody stupid custom," said the lord Torturer cheerfully as he pulled down the face-cloth of his hood and seated himself in the nearest chair. "I suppose that this was another of your young protégé's ideas? As though he weren't getting into enough mischief in the breaking cells, without taking over disciplinary matters as well."
The Codifier inserted himself smoothly. "How are matters proceeding with young Layle Smith, Mr. Jenson?"
The healer turned his back hurriedly and pretended to be sorting some of his instruments, though Vito could tell that he was listening closely to the conversation. The High Torturer sighed. "Delicately."
"He's turning this dungeon upside down," said the lord Torturer bluntly. "High Torturer, far be it from me to tell you or the Codifier your jobs, but you're giving this puppy far too long a leash. He's making puddles everywhere he goes."
The Codifier raised his eyebrows. The healer poured himself a glass of water; his back remained to the proceedings. The High Torturer said wearily, "He is not your concern."
"He is the concern of every man in this dungeon who abides by the Code of Seeking. Sir, I am in earnest." The lord Torturer leaned forward, his forearms resting on his thighs. "I am tired of waking up each day thinking that I am going to find that every prisoner in this place has been raped, every servant mauled, and that your vicious young Torturer is in the process of cutting the throats of all his rivals."
"You exaggerate the dangers," said the High Torturer, but again he sounded weary.
The Codifier merely said, "Mr. Bergsen?"
"Private medical information cannot be released, even to you, sir." The healer turned back to the other men, but he kept his gaze focussed on the glass of water.
"Since I formulated that rule, I am aware of it," said the Codifier dryly. "However, you continue to believe that Mr. Smith's health is sufficiently stable to permit him employment in this dungeon?"
The healer lifted his head and glared at all the men present. "There isn't a single Torturer in this dungeon that I wouldn't gladly lock up in an asylum for the insane. If you're asking me whether Layle Smith is any more likely than the other Torturers to go beyond this dungeon's prescribed rules for destruction . . . I would say that he is far more aware than any of you are of the danger he represents to the prisoners, and is therefore far more likely to be alert to any changes in his mental condition. He brings all matters of concern to me promptly, and we deal with them."
"Which is what I have been saying all along," added the High Torturer, his voice no longer weary. "Lord Luray, our position gives us great power over the fates of the prisoners. Would that I or any man here had Mr. Smith's skill for being aware of that fact at all times. . . . We are wandering from our subject. Where is your prisoner?"
The girl whispered into Vito's ear. "He's outside, crying. Can't they hear him?"
Vito certainly could. The prisoner's labored sobbing had been providing a monotonous undertone to the entire conversation, as though in contrast to all the talk of caring about the prisoners' fates.
The lord Torturer said casually, "He's waiting outside. Are we ready for him, then?"
The healer slammed his glass onto the instruments table, so hard that Vito thought for a moment he had broken it. "You left a prisoner, racked just two days ago, waiting in the corridor? Sweet blood, man, have you no feelings of compassion?"
"Toward a prisoner who has confessed to raping and murdering half a dozen young women? Not bloody likely," the lord Torturer growled.
The High Torturer put up his hand. "Enough. Lord Luray, see that the prisoner is brought in. Mr. Bergsen, you will allow me to handle disciplinary matters, if you please. That is not your duty."
"The prisoners' health is always my duty," snapped the healer as the lord Torturer rose to his feet in a leisurely manner.
The Codifier's voice was as mild as before, but something about it – the edge of something hidden – caused the healer to take visible hold of his emotions. After a moment, the healer said stiffly, "My apologies, High Torturer. I should have brought my concern to you privately. But I don't know what the bloody blades you expect me to say in this case that I haven't already said in my report."
"Your medical insight is always invaluable," said the High Torturer, evidently not a man to nurse a grudge. "And I would appreciate it if you and Lord Luray would recall that profanity during duty-hours is never appropriate."
The healer snorted. The lord Torturer said, "Another of Layle Smith's fancies? —All right, you can bring him in." This was spoken as he opened the door.
Vito felt the girl grip his hand for the first time. He wasn't surprised. His own gorge was rising as he witnessed the entrance of the racked prisoner. The man could barely walk – he continued to be supported on both sides by his grey-uniformed guards – and though he was fully clothed, the collar of his shirt rode down far enough to reveal red welts on his back. He looked dazed, scarcely aware of his surroundings, and tears continued to course down his face, though he had managed to swallow his sobs.
The healer, frowning again, had moved forward and was giving sharp orders to the guards. Fortunately, the guards showed no particular tendency to manhandle their prisoner. They moved as ordered by the healer, carefully shifting the prisoner onto the bed.
The bed under which Vito and the girl hid. Vito held his breath, seeing the guards' feet inches from them, and feeling the thump as the prisoner was laid onto the bed. The springs above them sagged under the weight of the prisoner. Vito nudged himself closer to the girl to avoid the sagging springs. She put an arm around his back, which was unexpected; if anyone should be offering comfort in these circumstances, it was he. But he had already determined that she was a young lady of unexpected impulses.
"Now, then," said the High Torturer briskly as the guards left the room, "we are here to investigate a claim submitted by the prisoner, Mr. John Isaacs, against his Torturer, Martin Lord Luray, regarding Lord Luray's performance on the twenty-fourth day of this month in Rack Room B. Mr. Daniels, Codifier of the Eternal Dungeon, is the judge in such matters. Mr. Daniels, I am handing custody of the prisoner over to you for the duration of the proceedings."
The lord Torturer, who had looked so relaxed that it appeared he would fall asleep, now stiffened. "What is this?" he said in a voice of outrage.
Even the healer appeared startled. The Codifier said in his tranquil voice, "It is a new custom that we have agreed to institute in the Eternal Dungeon. The High Torturer has graciously conceded to grant me full power over any prisoner who brings a complaint against his Torturer, for the duration of the investigation."
The healer relaxed. The lord Torturer snorted. "One of Layle Smith's fancies again – I recognize his hand. Very well. But you won't find anything out of place, Mr. Daniels. I follow the Code of Seeking strictly."
The prisoner had begun to sob again. The Codifier raised his voice to be heard over the noise. "Let us be brief here. Mr. Isaacs, you claim that, under your Torturer, you were forced to make a false confession. Can you describe for us, please, the circumstances which led you to make your confession?"
"He hurt me," said the prisoner in a choked voice. "Over and over he hurt me. I couldn't stand the pain. I told him . . . what he wanted me. . . to tell him." The last sentence ended in a wail. The healer glanced quickly at the Codifier for permission, then came forward to the surgery bed. There was a pause as he tended to the prisoner.
"Succinctly put," said the Codifier when the healer had finally stepped back, and the prisoner's sobs had diminished. "Mr. Bergsen, you have already stated in your report that the injuries you tended afterwards were consonant with Mr. Isaacs being tortured at level seven. Lord Luray?"
The lord Torturer shrugged. "What can I say? I followed the rules on torture that are outlined in the Code of Seeking. The prisoner tried to attack me on his first day here. I had him whipped. On his third day, he tried to blame another man for his own crime—"
"It was my cousin who did it, not me!" cried the prisoner, his voice filled with agony.
"For his own crime," repeated the lord Torturer firmly. "After receiving permission from the High Torturer, I racked the prisoner. I took him no higher in the racking than I'd received permission for, the seventh level. The prisoner broke on the eighth hour and offered his confession. End of tale."
"Mr. Jenson?" The Codifier switched his attention to the High Torturer as the prisoner cried helplessly.
"It is as Lord Luray says, sir. Here is the prisoner's records, which includes the evidence brought against him by the soldiers who arrested him." The High Torturer handed him a book.
The Codifier scrutinized it carefully before saying, "All appears to be in order."
"No!" It was a scream of utter hopelessness from the prisoner. Everyone in the room ignored the prisoner except the healer, who picked up the scalpel again, looking as though he would like to use it against the other prison workers in the room.
"Lord Luray, you are fully satisfied that the prisoner has offered a true confession?" The Codifier raised his head to scrutinize the lord Torturer.
"Fully." The lord Torturer's voice was flat. "His confession fits the evidence. No evidence has been offered against the man he accuses. The prisoner's confession included certain facts that had not been publicly released—"
"I saw it happen! I told you that!" cried the prisoner.
"—which he did not see fit to mention until after he had made his confession, when he made his complaint against me." The lord Torturer's voice remained flat. "Sir, this is a self-confessed murderer and rapist who is trying to wriggle out of the penalty prescribed for men like him. He wants to save his own skin, by any means. He showed no mercy to his victims; I see no reason why we should show mercy to him."
The Codifier closed the book with a snap. "I trust, Lord Luray, that you will learn to hold a modicum of mercy toward your prisoners who have confessed. A proposal has been made that Torturers in this dungeon serve as defenders of their prisoners at their trials. If this proposal is accepted—"
"Oh, sweet blood. Layle Smith again." The lord Torturer shook his head. "I have met many a madman, but none like him. He spends half his days breaking prisoners in the most brutal manner possible, and half his days trying to destroy the Code of Seeking."
Everyone was now ignoring the prisoner's despairing sobs, even the healer, who seemed absorbed in this new discussion. The Codifier said, "The Code changes gradually, from generation to generation. Proposals offered by the Torturers of this dungeon are experimented with, and if they prove to be fruitful, are incorporated into the next revision of the Code."
There was a heartbeat of silence, punctuated only by the prisoner's soft wails, and then the lord Torturer said, "Do not. Tell me. That you have chosen that vicious brat. As the Code's reviser."
"That decision has not been made yet. —Thank you, Mr. Jenson," said the Codifier as he handed the blue volume back to the High Torturer. "I am satisfied that all is in order here."
The prisoner seemed beyond speech now; his sobs rolled like flood-waters over the room. The High Torturer, sounding sober, said, "Yes, sir. I will have the Record-keeper arrange for his trial tomorrow. The Queen's magistrate, of course, has the final word as to whether this man is guilty or innocent."
"So you will have a chance to plead your case to the Queen's representative," the Codifier explained to the prisoner. "My job, Mr. Isaacs, is only to determine whether the Code of Seeking has been broken. In this case, it appears that the Code's rules of torture have been adhered to."
The lord Torturer bowed his head in silent acceptance of the judgment, and then said, unexpectedly, "Perhaps, sir, the prisoner would feel more comfortable remaining in your custody until the trial."
"An excellent suggestion," said the High Torturer, sounding pleased. "A rational extension of Mr. Smith's proposal for the handling of prisoners who have cried complaint against their Torturers. You could place your own guards in charge of this prisoner, sir."
The Codifier appeared to consider this idea. "Perhaps. Or I could release the prisoner into the care of the healer, since he works under me. Mr. Bergsen, I know that your surgery is small, but do you have room for Mr. Isaacs overnight here?"
They all appeared smugly satisfied with their decision, Vito observed with dismay. As though they had come to a wonderful compromise, rather than deciding that a tortured prisoner's desperate confession was reason enough to send him to the hangman.
"No," said Mr. Bergsen brusquely. "Mr. Ferris has Rack Room A today." Right on cue, another scream emanated from the direction where Mr. Bergsen was pointing. "I'm expecting his prisoner here afterwards."
"But you can check on Mr. Isaacs in his cell, later today," concluded the Codifier. "Very well. Lord Luray, let your guards take the prisoner back to his breaking cell; I shall send my own guards to relieve them, once we are through here. Thank you for your assistance, gentlemen."
The meeting ended on that serene note. The prisoner was removed, too choked with his sobs to utter more protests. The lord Torturer removed a cigar from his pocket as he relaxed back into his seat. The High Torturer said merely, "A difficult case."
"Indeed," replied the Codifier. "False confessions are not unknown. However, in a case like this, where the prisoner offered a key point in his claim of innocence well after the confession . . . I would rather err on the side of true confession, in so serious a matter as serial murder and rape."
"Of course he would," whispered the girl in Vito's ear. "He's not the one being racked."
Vito shook his head, not out of any protest to his companion's sensible remark, but because he remained keenly aware of their continued danger. These were men with blood on their hands – even the healer, though he at least made an effort to protect the prisoners. And so did the Torturers, he realized with growing concern. They thought they were protecting the prisoners. They were, after a certain fashion.
Just not enough. The screams from the rack room continued.
"Well, I'll be getting back to my work," said the lord Torturer, shifting in order to rise to his feet.
There was a knock at the door.
A pause ensued. From where Vito crouched, he could see all of the men exchanging looks. Finally the High Torturer spoke. "Did you not place a sign on the door, indicating that the surgery was closed, Mr. Bergsen?"
"Of course I did," said the healer. "It must be one of your guards."
"Or perhaps mine," suggested the Codifier calmly. He raised his voice. "Enter."
The door opened, and a man slid inside. A guard, wearing a grey uniform. Once in this room, he seemed to feel under no obligation to say anything. He simply stood at attention, waiting.
"Bloody blades!" cried the lord Torturer explosively.
"Oh, sweet blood," murmured the healer.
"Not again?" said the High Torturer sharply.
The Codifier said nothing, but he leaned forward in his chair, frowning.
"I very much regret so, High Torturer." The guard's voice held exactly the right mixture of apology and concern. "He was absorbed in conversation with his junior night guard, in the midst of the crowded entry hall, so I took the opportunity to slip into the guards' washroom. When I returned, he was gone, and nobody knows which direction he took."
"What the bloody use is it having a guard shadow him if the guard can't keep track of him?" said the lord Torturer in a tone of exasperation.
"Nobody can keep track of him if he does not wish to be tracked," commented the Codifier.
The High Torturer sighed heavily. "All too true, I'm afraid. It's all right, Mr. Sobel," he added to the guard. "You did your best, I'm sure. He is simply far too skilled."
"Perhaps," said the healer, "you should set Layle Smith to the task of training your guards."
The Codifier raised his eyebrow.
The High Torturer snorted. "You say that in jest, yet it is not a bad notion at all."
The lord Torturer muttered something pithy and dark under his breath, which the other men chose to ignore. The guard coughed lightly before asking, "How shall I deal with the current problem, sir?"
"Let Layle Smith come home when he's ready," advised the healer.
But the Codifier shook his head. "He needs tight restraint upon him at this stage. It is the only way in which he can learn that the Code of Seeking is not his private playground, to be arranged at his own fancy; rather, it is a book of discipline, to which he must adhere. Mr. Jenson, if he did not seek your permission to slip away from his duties, then I recommend punishment for this episode."
The High Torturer nodded briskly. "I agree, sir. The only problem will be tracking him down. The sooner we do so," he added dryly, "the less damage he will leave in his wake. Mr. Sobel, have you checked the prisoners' cells?"
The healer winced at the conjunction of these two sentences. The guard replied, "Yes, sir – both the breaking cells and the rack rooms. I also checked the crematorium, his living quarters, the Torturers' common room, and the supply and equipment rooms within the inner dungeon. I did not enter your own rooms, sir." He bowed to the Codifier.
"He could hardly have managed to get past your guards, Mr. Daniels," offered the High Torturer. "Well, now. If I were Layle Smith, where would I go?"
The lord Torturer, who evidently now regarded himself off duty, had taken the opportunity to raise his face-cloth. Pausing from puffing on his cigar, he said, "Wherever he can cause the most trouble, if past experience is anything to go by. Have you checked whether any of the prisoners are missing?"
The healer winced again.
The High Torturer slammed his hands onto the arms of his chair. "This cannot continue. We must rein him under control."
"Finding him first is our present difficulty." The Codifier's voice remained quiet, though he was frowning again. "May I suggest that, if he cannot be located in the inner dungeon, he might be in the outer dungeon? —Unless you have a better solution to suggest, Mr. Sobel."
"He would hardly find any entertainment there," protested the lord Torturer.
The healer, who was on the point of plucking the lit cigar from the lord Torturer's hand, paused minutely before taking the offending object away. He ground it in a nearby ashtray without comment.
His voice contemplative, the High Torturer said, "So you agree, Mr. Bergsen? No, don't worry; I'm not going to probe you about your conversations with your patient. I wonder how often Mr. Smith has wandered in the outer dungeon, and what mischief he has been doing there. Mr. Sobel?"
"Yes, sir," said the guard and slipped out of the room, as quietly as he had come.
"The outer dungeon is far larger than the inner dungeon," observed the Codifier. "And far less interesting, from the point of view of a young Torturer like Mr. Smith. What could entice him to visit there?"
"Women, perhaps," suggested the lord Torturer. "More women spend time there than here."
This comment seemed to affect all three of the other men to the same degree. The healer now had a horrified expression on his face. The Codifier had frozen in place. The High Torturer cleared his throat. "We may be overreacting," he observed, in a voice that suggested he believed otherwise.
The lord Torturer threw his arms into the air. "Bloody blades! Why don't you just hire all the murderers and rapists in our cells to become Torturers? That would make as much sense as hiring a cut-throat like Layle Smith."
There was a staccato knock at the door.
It was so faint that, for a moment, Vito thought the sound came from his imagination. But from the swift looks that the men threw each other, it was clear that the pattern of this knock was familiar to them. The High Torturer cleared his throat. "Mr. Smith? Enter, please."
The door was opened and closed again in the blink of an eye. Standing now in front of it was a slender figure in a black uniform and a black hood with its face-cloth down. Not a single thread of color lightened his appearance. Seeing him, Vito caught his breath.
The girl whispered into his ear, "It's him! He was the one coming into the inner dungeon when we entered the surgery!"
Vito shook his head in silent warning. The young Torturer, though, gave no sign that he had heard the nearby whisper. He said formally, "Sirs. Forgive my intrusion."
There was no note of apology in his voice. The High Torturer sighed again. "I have your senior night guard out looking for you, as I'm sure you're aware. What have you been up to?"
"Why, I've been guarding this room." The young Torturer's voice was empty of all emotion, though somehow lighter than the occasion warranted. "I thought you might require help with the prisoners."
Vito's heart skipped a beat. He heard the girl's breath enter swiftly in.
"There's only been one prisoner here," said the lord Torturer, not deigning to look in Layle Smith's direction. "He's gone. Go find your minder."
The Codifier's frown had deepened. The High Torturer leaned forward. "Mr. Smith?" There was a note of enquiry in his voice.
"I was referring to the other prisoners, sir." Nor did the young Torturer look in the lord Torturer's direction; he addressed his remark to the High Torturer. "I saw them slip in here shortly before you arrived at the surgery. I waited outside—"
"Outside that door?" said the healer sharply. "Seward Sobel just came that way. So did two other guards. None of them reported seeing you."
"Yes," said Layle Smith, unconcerned. "I waited outside in case the prisoners should try to escape through that door. They didn't, and since you didn't bring them out, I thought you might require my assistance in capturing them."
The Codifier, the High Torturer, and the lord Torturer all stared at each other. The healer began to laugh – a spluttering, half-helpless laugh.
The young Torturer simply waited. Blocking the door.
Vito looked at the girl. They had only seconds left, he knew. It suddenly seemed vitally important to him that he not be captured in the company of a stranger. "I'm Vito," he whispered. "What is your name?"
"Birdie," she replied. And with a hand cold with fear, she grasped his hand, and they crawled out together to their doom.
The year 363, the fourth month. (The year 1882 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
"So that is how you first met Mistress Birdesmond."
Vito pulled himself back from his memories. The High Seeker – Layle Smith, now grown to middle age – sat in the exact same position as he had been since the beginning of the recital: his spine upright, his hands formally folded in front of him, his eyes sharp.
Vito supposed that he should be grateful that the High Seeker was no longer relaxed in enjoyment of his searching. Trying to pull back into the present time, Vito replied, "Yes, sir. Many years later, when I was working at Parkside Prison, I chanced to meet Birdie – I mean, Mistress Birdesmond. I recognized her. She is a few years older than me, you see, so she hadn't changed much. We renewed our acquaintance, and when she took her current position, she wrote to tell me that she was now working in the Eternal Dungeon. She couldn't tell me her exact work title, of course, but I knew of her ambitions, and so—"
"And so you quizzed her on the current horrors in the dungeon." The High Seeker's gaze remained sharp. Behind Vito, beyond the closed door, came sounds that signified to Vito – a long-time prison worker – that the day shift was coming to an end. The High Seeker – a night-shift worker – showed no signs of being eager to complete the interview and get back to his regular work in a breaking cell. Perhaps he found the current interview more entertaining.
"Not quite, sir." Vito managed a self-deprecating laugh. "I was terribly young and idealistic when I first visited here. I've had time, in the years since, to gain experience and wisdom. I realize now that, while I was well-intentioned back then, I had only a young boy's view of what was taking place in this dungeon. Since I've come of age, I've worked in prisons, and I've come to realize that harsh measures must sometimes be taken to keep harsh men under control."
The High Seeker said nothing. His eyes were unblinking, like a snake's.
"Of course," added Vito, picking his way carefully through the bramble-bush of the interview, "I still hold to the belief that prison workers must do all they can to help the prisoners become better men and women. That was why I was so greatly moved when I read the Code of Seeking. Mistress Birdesmond sent me a copy of the public edition of this dungeon's manual of ethics. It is truly a heart-stirring document which you wrote, sir."
The sincerity of his statement must have been clear from the manner in which he voiced himself, for the High Seeker moved finally, reaching forward to take hold of a pen. He tested it against the blotting paper on his desk; without looking up, he said, "I merely contributed a few refinements to a book that has stood the test of time. So that was why you decided to apply for the position of Seeker?"
"That, plus the light hints that Mistress Birdesmond was offering of the work done here." The hints had not all been of satisfaction in that work, but there was no need for him to volunteer such information. Being a lady, Mistress Birdesmond had been spared certain unpleasant duties performed by the male Seekers. Nonetheless, she remained concerned about the treatment of this dungeon's prisoners.
"Hmm." The High Seeker scribbled down an illegible note to himself. "In addition to having failed to mention this childhood episode to me at the time of her arrival in the dungeon, Mistress Birdesmond seems to have been a little less discreet with you than we require of our Seekers. A bit of her feminine nature surfacing, no doubt." It was difficult, from the High Seeker's tone, to tell whether this last statement was intended to be jocular, condemnatory, or approving. "I will have a word with her concerning the appropriate passages in the Code. Did you pass on what she told you to anyone?"
"No, sir," Vito replied firmly. "I gathered that her observations were made in private. I don't think she would have shared her thoughts with anyone except a former prisoner, who already knew about conditions here."
This characterization of himself, as he had hoped, did its work in providing the right note of humility. The High Seeker set aside his pen and turned on the electric lamp on his desk. The bulb promptly sparked and died. Vito winced. The High Seeker, apparently used to such episodes, merely turned on the second electric lamp on the desk. This one, after a moment of uncertain fizzling, decided to stay on, more or less.
In the flickering light, the eye-holes of the High Seeker's hood appeared more cavernous than before. "As High Torturer Jenson no doubt told you, Mr. de Vere, you were never classified as a prisoner here. Mr. Jenson judged that your actions were merely in the nature of a youthful prank, and once he had ascertained that you were unlikely to reveal the conversations you overheard here, he released you. You did not speak of what you heard to anyone?"
"No, sir." He had a vivid image of Pudge in his mind as he spoke. He had not mentioned Pudge to the High Seeker – and why should he? He had never revealed to Pudge what he had witnessed here. He had treated with great seriousness the oath of silence that the High Torturer had administered to him, and he still did.
Again, the sincerity of his reply must have been clear to the High Seeker, for Layle Smith set aside his pen. "Very well. As you know, Mr. de Vere, decisions concerning employment to inner-dungeon positions cannot be made by myself alone. I will need to discuss your application with the Codifier, who in turn will wish to consult with the Queen. In the meantime, to save you the journey back to Cape Henry, you may stay in the outer dungeon's guest apartment."
It was as good as saying that he had received the post. Vito let out his breath and then hastily rose to his feet as the High Seeker pulled himself out from under the desk. The second lamp gave up its valiant fight and fizzled out, leaving only candlelight flickering in the dark office.
The High Seeker ignored this. "My senior night guard has just arrived on duty. He will take you to your destination."
Vito simply stared for a moment. Now that the day shift had gone off duty, he could hear nothing outside except an occasional creak of a chair. Certainly he had heard nothing that heralded the arrival of a guard.
After a moment, he swallowed. He had known before he arrived here of the High Seeker's formidable skills. Truly, it was a miracle he had made it through this interview unscathed.
Feeling his skin prickle now from the sweat that had accumulated upon it, he offered his arm. "Thank you, sir. I am grateful to you for your kind consideration of my petition."
The High Seeker shook his arm in farewell, without comment. Upon his gesture, Vito opened the door to the entry hall. There, waiting patiently, was a guard. Vito recognized him as having been present at the trial of Elsdon Taylor.
"Mr. de Vere will be staying in the guest apartment," said the High Seeker. "See to it, please."
The guard murmured an acknowledgment of the order and then said to Vito, "If you will come this way, sir . . ."
They were halfway across the entry hall when something made Vito turn swiftly around. The High Seeker was stalking him, like a beast of prey. Seeing Vito turn, Layle Smith paused, his eyes too dark in the shadows to be seen. Then he said, "One thing more, Mr. de Vere."
"Sir?" Vito could feel the danger, somewhere deep in the pit of his stomach. The guard had backed away, to give the High Seeker room for whatever he wished to do.
"You are still an idealist, Mr. de Vere," said the High Seeker softly. "I will be watching you."
The year 343, the seventh month. (The year 1876 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
He was covered with sweat by the time he returned to Pudge. Flopping himself down onto the evening-chilled ground, he tried to still his heavy breath. Tried to still his heart, which was racing beyond measure.
Pudge began to speak, paused, and waited a minute. That was just like Pudge: to take the measure of another boy's ability to speak before asking him a question. Finally, as Vito's shaking began to stop, Pudge asked, "Are you all right? I was going to come find you if you didn't come back soon."
That was Pudge too: braving the terrors of the Eternal Dungeon to rescue a friend. Vito wiped his forehead on his sleeve. The sleeve turned black with his sweat.
Pudge persisted: "I was afraid you'd been captured."
"I was." It seemed too much trouble to get up and run. They knew his name. They knew his address. They could come get him any time they wanted.
Pudge's breath whistled in. He said, in the awed voice of a young boy who has witnessed mighty wonders, "Did they torture you?"
Pudge's admiration helped. Vito gave a strangled sound, halfway between a laugh and a sob. "No. The High Torturer talked to me, that's all. Then he let me go." The High Torturer had let the girl go too; that was the important part. Vito had refused to say anything to the High Torturer until the Eternal Dungeon released the girl Birdie into her father's custody. Her father, faced with this calamity, had seemed equally angry with the Torturers and with the girl. But he hadn't looked as though he was the type of man to hit his daughter, and he had promised to remove Birdie from the dungeon swiftly.
Which left Vito to face the High Torturer alone.
"He didn't touch me," Vito repeated, as though to reassure himself. The High Torturer hadn't touched him, but Vito had learned more in that hour than he had ever hoped to know about the techniques by which a Torturer may break a prisoner without use of physical weapons.
"Was it bad?" asked Pudge softly. There was sympathy in his voice now, rather than terror.
Vito turned his head to look at Pudge. The boy still had the bruises, very faint, where the other boys had pummelled him, on the day when Vito had rescued him. And yet Pudge had been willing to brave Torturers to rescue Vito.
Vito smiled. "Not that bad. Honest. I'll be all right." Then his smile faded. "But the other prisoners . . ."
After a minute of waiting, Pudge prodded. "What did you see?"
Vito shook his head. He had seen little. What he had heard, though . . .
He could not speak of that to Pudge. Not now, not ever.
Pudge tried again. "Was it as bad as the stories say?"
He could answer that question, at least. "Worse. Far worse." He had been prepared to encounter unscrupulous Torturers. What he had found instead was Torturers who believed that they were helping the prisoners they tortured. That was worse. Far, far worse. What lengths might such men go to, if they believed that the souls of their prisoners were at stake?
"What shall we do?" Pudge's voice was small.
Vito had been about to raise himself into a sitting position; now his head whipped over to look at the younger boy. Pudge was beginning to tremble.
"Nothing!" cried Vito. "Pudge, you mustn't do anything." And then, seeing the uncertainty in the boy's eyes, Vito added, "Your family wouldn't approve."
That accomplished the trick. Pudge hung his head, like a whipped dog. He whispered, "But we can't just leave the prisoners to be hurt."
Vito shook his head as he sat up. He was beginning to ache now, as though the High Torturer had placed him on a rack. The aching, he knew, was really in his heart. "I have to think about what to do. I can't rush into it, without thinking, the way I did today. I have to make a plan. I have to wait till I'm old enough to carry out the plan."
"And then?" Pudge scrambled onto his knees, looking cautiously eager.
"I'm going to destroy the Eternal Dungeon." Vito's voice was flat.
After a moment, he thought to look at Pudge. Pudge had turned pale. Too late, Vito realized that it was important not to use words like "destroy" around the younger boy.
"I don't mean I'm going to hurt anyone," Vito added quickly. "Not even the Torturers. I'm just going to find a way to stop them – to get the dungeon shut down, to free the prisoners."
"Some of the prisoners may have committed crimes," said Pudge in a doubtful voice.
It was always useful, having Pudge around. He thought of important points, at the proper moments.
"All right," conceded Vito. "Not shut down exactly. Changed. Made into a better prison, not a dungeon of torture. And I'll get rid of all those Torturers. Especially the youngest one." His voice turned fierce. The young Torturer – Layle Smith – hadn't stayed more than a split second after Vito and Birdie crawled out of their hiding place; nor had he taken part in the questioning. Vito was sure he would no longer be alive if that had happened. But it was thanks to Layle Smith that Vito had nearly been tortured himself. Probably it was only Vito's high rank that had helped him escape that.
How many commoner prisoners had died at Layle Smith's skilled hands? How many had made false confessions in order to escape from the pain he inflicted on them? How many more would die because he offered new ways for the Torturers to prettify the destruction they caused?
How many prisoners over the decades had the Eternal Dungeon murdered?
"Come on," Vito said, offering his hand to Pudge as he stood up. He felt calm now – calmer than he had been when he first entered the Eternal Dungeon, not knowing that his life was about to change.
A few hours ago, he had been a feckless youth, intent on nothing more than a prank to help while away his idle hours.
Now he had a mission. He knew what his life's goal must be.
"Let's go home," he said, putting his hand on Pudge's shoulder. "I have homework to do."
Homework, yes. But not for his schoolmaster. He needed to craft his plans.
The year 363, the fourth month. (The year 1882 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
Vito stood alone before the entrance to the inner dungeon, feeling memories wash over him.
He had anticipated this point in his journey as one of his final hurdles and had been uncertain whether it was worth the risk. After all, if he was hired as a Seeker, there would be time enough . . . But he wanted the timing to be of his own choosing. He did not want to risk the far greater danger of an unexpected encounter in public that might reveal facts better kept hidden.
As it happened, this hurdle had proved easy enough to leap. The High Seeker's senior guard – who well remembered Vito – was willing to believe Vito when he said that he knew the remainder of the way to the guest apartment. Mr. Sobel, it appeared, had far more urgent duties on this day than escorting an incipient Seeker-in-Training to the outer dungeon.
So now Vito stood at the entrance to the inner dungeon – the correct side of the entrance, still within the inner dungeon. There were no guards at the entrance; evidently, only a key was still used to pass in and out of this portion of the Eternal Dungeon.
Vito thought a moment, and then he turned, reached the crossroads where the healer's surgery stood, and did not hesitate. He turned left.
He had noticed, during his escort, that he and Mr. Sobel had passed a laborer. The laborer wore the traditional striped denim of a stoker, but his duties had evidently been changed since the removal of the old furnaces from the dungeon. He was currently standing on a ladder, changing a lightbulb. Recognizing the implication of that burnt-out lightbulb, Vito quickened his pace.
He managed to reach the stoker just as the man was folding up his stepladder in preparation to leave. "Oh, aye, sir," he replied to Vito's question. "That's the High Seeker's cell. Burns out the bulbs regular, he do. We're having to change them almost one a day."
"And the other Seekers live here too?" As he spoke, Vito ran his eye along the long line of doors. Knowing which room he should not enter was all well and good, but there were too many doors here. He couldn't try them all.
"Aye, sir!" The stoker seemed eager to show off his knowledge. No doubt he rarely received the opportunity to do so. According to what Birdesmond had written to him, all laborers who worked in the inner dungeon were bound by the same oath as Vito had taken here as a boy: not to speak to outsiders about what they saw.
But Vito – wearing the uniform of a Tidewater District prison guard – had evidently won the stoker's trust. The stoker rattled off the names of all the dwellers of the Seekers' living cells, ending by saying, ". . . and then there's Mr. Chapman and his wife, Mistress Birdesmond – they're both Seekers, would you believe it? – but they live in that other corridor there."
Vito frowned. He had not heard the name he wished to hear. "And those are the only men living here?"
"That's all, sir," replied the stoker cheerfully as he picked up his equipment. "No others, 'cept the High Seeker and his love-mate. Good day, sir."
Vito issued his farewell in an automatic manner, and then turned to stare at the door next to the changed lightbulb. The High Seeker's love-mate?
The stoker's whistle disappeared into the distance. The corridor was now empty. After another moment of hesitation, Vito knocked on the door.
There was an immediate, faint shout of acknowledgment, but it took a while for the door to be answered. Hearing the sound of water splashing, Vito guessed that he had interrupted the room's inhabitant while the man was at his bath. Finally, however, the door opened, revealing the Seeker.
He was fully clothed now, and fully hooded, all in black from head to foot. The clothes emphasized rather than obscured the essential strength of the man's slender frame: the tall body, the clear muscles in arm and thigh – an athletic body, here in a dungeon where one would expect Seekers to receive no more exercise than lifting their fingers to order the torture of prisoners.
For a moment, the Seeker merely stood still. Vito took advantage of that moment to slip inside. As Vito closed the door behind him, the Seeker threw back the face-cloth of his hood. His azure eyes were wide with astonishment.
"Vito de Vere!" cried Elsdon Taylor. "What in the name of all that is sacred are you doing here?"
"You know why I'm here, Pudge," replied Vito grimly. "I have come to destroy the Eternal Dungeon."
. . . 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. Vito de Vere would be aided in his quest by Elsdon Taylor and Birdesmond Chapman, the trio serving as leaders in the New School of dungeon reform. Thus we can see the veracity of the truism that great reform comes from within.
Or can we? Birdesmond Chapman may have been a Seeker, but as the dungeon's first woman Seeker, she was manifestly an outsider. As for Elsdon Taylor, the best historical research suggests that he was one of many former prisoners who was employed in the dungeon; he understood the prisoners' perspective as much as the Seekers' point of view. Even Layle Smith, the man who would play the most ambiguous role in the conflict, was born in the neighboring Kingdom of Vovim.
That leaves Vito de Vere. On the surface, he appears to be the classic insider: a career prison worker, with no prior record of ties with outside protesters. Yet his motives for entering into the conflict have proved the most difficult to trace. He left nothing on paper that has survived to explain why, without warning, he applied in 363 for a job as Seeker in the Eternal Dungeon, and why, without warning, he became the poster child for the new movement.
Indeed, his entrance into the New School is so abrupt – and so unlikely for a newly arrived Seeker-in-Training – that suspicion arises that he came to the dungeon expressly to create trouble. However, that would not explain why Layle Smith, surely the most discerning prison worker in the history of our queendom, should have missed the insidious danger to the accepted order that Vito de Vere represented.
Or did he miss the danger? Did the High Seeker instead hire the new Seeker for the express purpose of putting a conclusive end to the clamor for reform? The answer may lie in the next chapter of this episode, and in Vito de Vere's own frailties.
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.