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Mercy's Prisoner

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CHAPTER SEVEN

I awoke alone, aching all over.

Nobody had warned me that the physical, after-morning effects of lovemaking aren't much different from the after-morning effects of being raped. At least there was no blood to clean up this time. I lay for a while, staring up at the cracks in the ceiling, trying to convince myself that, when I turned my head, he'd still be there, ready to play another dice game. I knew, though, that it was too late; what was taking place outside my cell told me that. The morning lamps were lit, prisoners were asking querulously whether their breakfast would be coming soon, and guards were emerging from cells, cracking jokes about their early-morning entertainment. Thomas wouldn't have risked leaving my cell when there was a chance that he'd be seen and the nature of his overnight visit misinterpreted. He was far away now, and I was left where I'd been seven weeks ago: awaiting my new guard.

After a while I got tired of wagering with myself whether the new guard would like me better on my back, my stomach, or my knees. I shifted, trying to throw off the blankets that Thomas had carefully tucked around me in my sleep. As I did, my hand touched something.

I knew immediately what it was, though it was sheathed this time. There was a piece of paper wrapped around it. I got up onto one elbow and glanced at the doorway. The inner door was open, but nobody seemed to be taking any special notice of me. Cautiously I withdrew the note.

"In case you have need of it," he had written. It was the first time I had seen his writing; his hand was strong and firm, both in those words and in his signature below. Only the words in between – "With all my love" – were written more tentatively, as though he still wasn't sure it was all right for him to voice that thought.

I snorted with amusement, then looked quickly toward the doorway to see whether anyone had noticed. The sound of the wagon carrying breakfast trays was approaching. I thought for a moment about the note. I would have liked to have kept it sewn inside my shirt, next to my heart – yes, I was in a bad way by then – but I knew that there was no place on myself or in the cell where the note would not eventually be found. I could endure whatever ridicule followed the note's discovery, I guessed, but what if word got back to Compassion? The breakfast wagon was close to my door now.

I ate the note. It tasted better than my breakfast did.

I nibbled the food slowly, with one hand under the blanket, touching the blade there, trying to figure out what to do with it. "In case you have need of it," he had said. I wondered what in Hell's name he meant by that. He knew well enough that I wouldn't use the dagger against myself or anyone else. Was he simply testing me again? Or did he have something cleverer in mind?

I shook my head, as though in hope that it would make my mind move less sluggishly. I'd always thought myself mildly intelligent, but Thomas was at an entirely different rank from myself. I just couldn't figure out what Thomas had in mind. Maybe this was his way of trying to distract me from thought of his departure. He must have known what I was just beginning to figure out: the longer he was gone, the more it was going to feel as though he'd never been there.

I felt a stab of pain then at the idea that the time would come when Thomas was just a faint memory. Would I still be able to hold onto what he'd taught me when that time came? It seemed unlikely.

In the end, I slipped the sheathed dagger inside my body-clinging drawers. Positioning it so that it wouldn't slip down one of my legs was difficult, but that was better than leaving it out in the open, where my new guard was likely to find it when he carried out his first inspection. I had until tonight to figure out how to discard the dagger in such a way as not to cast suspicion on Thomas.

I wished I knew whether his dagger was marked in some way that identified its owner. The guards would know, of course. I imagined myself going up to Sedgewick and saying, "Excuse me, I need a piece of information from you . . ."

I lay down on my bed-shelf and laughed. After a while I realized that my laughter was beginning to turn to something different. I sat up quickly, wiped the moisture off my face with my hand, and rose to my feet as I heard the cell door open.

It was Oslo; he pointed with his thumb. I took the hint and left the cell, pausing only to ask, "Where's the new one?"

I didn't expect an answer, but Oslo replied, "He came by this morning, before you were awake." He grinned suddenly. "You must have looked sweet, all curled up in the blankets like that, because he wanted to try you out on the spot. Sedgewick dragged him away, though, so that they could complete some paperwork together."

This was not welcome news. If there was one thing that was guaranteed to put Sedgewick in a temper, it was prison paperwork. I'd known him to nearly flay me to my bones on the evenings after he'd filled out reports. I guessed this was going to turn out to be an even worse morning than it already was.

I saw I was right when we reached the laundering room. Sedgewick was standing outside, ticking off the names of each arriving prisoner in a little black ledger. He didn't look up as I passed him, nor did he greet Oslo. I felt a tingling across my back, as though it already knew what it would encounter later.

Oslo pushed me into the laundering room, slammed shut the barred door, and then paused to say hello to Sedgewick. I heard Sedgewick respond with a grunt. Stepping forward into the room, I allowed their voices to fade from my thoughts.

Those of us who were born in the middle of the century have been privileged, some say, to grow up in a world filled with wondrous inventions. I'd gathered from the gossip of newer prisoners that laundries in the outside world now included such marvels as coal-fueled coppers, steam-powered manglers, and even electric irons.

There was about as much chance of such items appearing in Mercy Prison as there was of the goddess Mercy paying us a visit. Make the labor of prisoners easier and safer? Hell forfend such a thought.

As I walked in, one of the prisoners was in the process of lighting the fuel under the man-high copper – not coal, but wood that I'd spent the previous day chopping. I glanced round the room, trying to decide whether I wanted to boil my skin off at the copper, crush my hand in the mangler, or burn myself with an iron. Not that I was likely to have any choice once Sedgewick arrived and began assigning duties in accordance with which ones he thought the prisoners would like least.

Then I noticed Tyrrell standing at the table near the copper, sorting soiled clothes.

He was concentrating so hard on his task that he didn't hear me until I was beside him. He glanced over at me, then quickly away. I knew that it wasn't because he disliked conversation.

"Hoi," I said, keeping my voice low. "I need to talk to you."

He turned to look at me, and for a moment I thought he'd respond. Then his gaze went past me, and he turned swiftly back to his work.

I tried to step away, but it was too late. In the next moment, Sedgewick grabbed me by my collar. He threw me against the copper.

It had only just started heating; otherwise my scream might have been heard all the way to the magisterial seats. As it was, I gave a healthy yowl as my back hit the hot metal. I tried to pull away, but Sedgewick's hands were already on my shoulders, pushing me against the heat.

"Did I say you could talk on my shift?" he shouted. "Did I?"

I went suddenly still. So did everyone else in the room, gawking at Sedgewick. Even Oslo, who had paused at the doorway to talk to another guard, turned his head to stare.

For Sedgewick to abuse a prisoner was nothing remarkable. He did that the way other men breathe. But he never lost control of himself. Never. I didn't think I'd heard him shout in the ten years since my arrival at Mercy.

He was breathing heavily, as though he had already drawn blood. His next move, I thought wildly, would be to throw me into the laundering water and drown me. What in the names of Hell and Mercy had gotten him into this state?

Keeping quiet seemed the best defense. Keep quiet, and he'd lose interest. Or maybe keeping quiet wouldn't be enough this time. He was baring his teeth now like a wild animal, and his hands were boring down on my shoulders. The heat against my back was beginning to bite.

If only Thomas were here. . . .

I whispered, "Search my crotch."

He stopped baring his teeth. His eyes narrowed. I wasn't surprised. I wasn't the type of prisoner to invite guards to search me. I pushed my hips toward him. That was something new also; his eyes narrowed further. But he must have felt that something was there which shouldn't be there, because after a moment he released my left shoulder long enough to reach down and draw his dagger. Then he placed it edge-on against my throat.

A couple of the prisoners gasped. Tyrrell took a step forward, then was wise enough to stop. Me, I figured that Sedgewick was just being reasonably cautious, given our past history. Swallowing, though, seemed like an exercise I had best leave for later, even though my mouth had gone dry.

With dagger in place, Sedgewick released my other shoulder and reached down with his left hand to my trousers. With the ease of long experience, he had my buttons undone within seconds. Then he slid his hand into my drawers.

The one thing I hadn't anticipated was that the Hell-damned dagger would come out of its sheath as he pulled it up.

Thanks to Sedgewick throwing me against the copper, the dagger had slid down to the top of my right leg. Now, as the blade emerged from its sheath, it brushed against my cock. I could feel the cool touch of its bite.

I didn't think he'd drawn blood yet, but all that was needed was a bit more pressure . . . He must have known from my face what was happening. He smiled. "You don't really need this, do you?" he murmured.

It wasn't clear whether he was referring to the dagger or my cock. The water was now boiling in the copper, and my back felt as though flames were eating it, but I couldn't breathe, much less move. With a low chuckle, Sedgewick pushed the blade back down till it was sheathed, then pulled the sheathed dagger out and glanced at it.

And went still. His right hand, the one that had been holding his blade against my throat, drifted away as he absentmindedly sheathed his own dagger, which was of the same life-prison-guard design as the blade he was holding in his left hand. I pulled my back away from the copper in the moment before I would have screamed every stone of the prison from its bed of mortar.

Sedgewick took no notice. He was staring down at Thomas's blade as though he were not sure what it was doing there. Then he looked up at me.

I shrugged. "I figured he'd have wanted you to have it."

What made me say that, of all the things I could have said, I can't imagine. Maybe I was beginning to think like Thomas by then.

I couldn't read the expression in Sedgewick's face. For a long moment, we stared at each other as whispers spread among the prisoners like fire through a rag factory. I hadn't bothered to lower my voice this time. The prisoners nearest to us had already seen Sedgewick take the dagger from me, and it was only a matter of time before everyone guessed where I had gotten it from. I wondered, with a twisting of the stomach, whether I had just ended Thomas's career as a guard.

Then Sedgewick stepped back, whirled, and strode toward the door. He paused at the door, which Oslo was opening in his eagerness to hear the full tale. Glancing back at us, Sedgewick announced loudly, "If the work isn't finished by the time I get back, I'll flay every one of you."

Then he left, the door clanged shut, and we were all alone.

I looked at Tyrrell. He looked at me. Then he grinned.

Despite my worries, I grinned back. Tyrrell came over to my side, and together we began to haul the clothes into the boiling water.

o—o—o

He came to my cell that night.

I wasn't particularly surprised when I awoke from a bad dream to find him standing over my bed. Rumors had been flying round the second level all afternoon, and though it was hard to disentangle fact from the overly vivid imaginations of guards and prisoners, I gathered that Sedgewick had gone to Mercy's Keeper and accused my new guard of smuggling a dagger to me.

Sedgewick had eighteen years of experience as a guard to back his story, as well as a document showing that the new guard had requested a second dagger upon his transfer to my cell. I'd never known that Sedgewick's talents extended to forgery. The new guard was said to have protested at length that he'd never before seen either the dagger or the document, but before the day was out, he'd been sacked.

Everyone thought Sedgewick had done it for the rise in pay he received as a result of his report. Me, I figured it was a clever way for him to arrange for a transfer from his current prisoner. Mercy's guards aren't usually assigned the same prisoner twice.

Now I stood with my back against the wall – not out of respect for Sedgewick, needless to say, but because leaving my back open to him just didn't seem like a good idea. He was clearly still in his sour mood, and I could guess what that was going to lead to.

All he said at first, though, was, "You're not him."

I didn't have to ask what he meant. I shrugged. "So I'll do as lousy a job at this as I did at playing dice with him. It's better than lying around doing nothing."

The inner door was shut – of course – so I couldn't read what lay in his face. After a minute he said, "Clothes off. Face the wall." He was already pulling the whip from his belt.

I sighed. Back to the old routine. At least I knew how this one went. That should have made it easier, but I was shaking by the time I stripped myself and turned to face the wall. I leaned my damp forehead against my arm, trying to will myself to take steady breaths, because fainting dead away sure wasn't going to save me from this. It would only provide Sedgewick with an amusing tale to tell the other guards.

I felt his finger trail across my back, marking where he planned to lay his first stroke. Sedgewick had his little customs he liked. If he'd been a different sort of man, he'd have ended each day with a cup of tea, sipping it in exactly the same way, from exactly the same cup.

Sedgewick had his own way of enjoying the end of his day.

The first lash drove all breath from me. The second rendered me speechless. The third thrust me past that speechlessness into a howl that must have awoken every prisoner at Mercy, up to the sixth level.

He paused then. He was probably appreciating the sight of the moisture dripping down my back. Only Sedgewick could have drawn blood with a short-tail whip by the third stroke, with no warm-up.

No, one other man could have done it. I set my teeth, as much to hold back the curses as to contain my howls. Usually, by this time in a beating, I was calling Sedgewick every name I could think of. But this was the same cell where I'd made certain promises to a young man the night before, and though it probably wouldn't be long before I went back on all I'd said, I was cursed if I was going to allow myself to lose him that easily. I set my mind on the image of him watching me, waiting to see what I did.

And suddenly, for the first time since he left me, my mind was clear again. Why, I couldn't figure out, because it wasn't like I had any thoughts in my mind worth thinking. All I knew was that I'd get through this somehow, and then I'd get through the next day, and the next, and everything would be fine.

Sedgewick had been tracing a line across my back; now his hand dropped. I don't know what gave him the clue that something had changed. Maybe it was just that I'd stopped moaning. In the next moment, he grabbed hold of my hair and wrenched my head around.

I've no idea what my expression held. Fear, very likely. I could guess well enough why he'd stopped whipping me. Sedgewick could get impatient sometimes, once he'd drawn blood. I guessed I'd be on my knees before long, sobbing into the cold flagstones as he rendered me his service.

Well, if he thought that me giving him the dagger meant I'd gone all soft, he was about to learn otherwise. Oddly enough, what Thomas had given me had stripped me of all the passive resignation I'd felt before. I might not be willing to fight Sedgewick with fists any more, but I'd fight him by new means. I just had to figure out what means Thomas had used.

In the meantime, I gave Sedgewick a stare back for a stare.

His breath was heavy. Yes, and the sun was going to rise tomorrow. I waited to see whether he'd shove me down now or take a couple more licks with his lash. But as it turned out, he wasn't finished lecturing me.

"You don't talk on my shift again," he said softly as he let go of my hair. "You keep yourself clean as a newborn babe from now on. That's the only way you're going to manage to do this."

I was glad one of us had some idea of what I was doing. I wondered what in Hell's name he had seen that I was missing. "Thanks," I said. And then, as I watched his face change, I heard what I'd said.

I tried to puzzle it out through the haze of pain. Sedgewick had given me advice – and it must have been good advice, because he never gave any other kind. I still didn't know what he was talking about. But he'd given me something, so I'd thanked him. It was as simple as that.

As simple as that. I think it was then I realized that the task I'd set for myself wasn't going to be as impossible as I'd thought.

He took a step back from me. "Clean this cell up," he said, his voice suddenly raw. "And clean yourself up. You stink like an outhouse. You smell, and your cell is kept like a filthy pigsty. This place is disgusting, and I want it clean by tomorrow."

He had reached the doors by then, and he was through them and beyond my sight before I was able to figure out that what he had just said was nothing more than an extension of the advice he had given before.

I shrugged and leaned over to pick up my clothes before turning my attention to cleaning up the cell and myself. I wouldn't be getting any more late-night visits from Sedgewick, that much was clear. I knew we'd both figured out the answer around the same moment: the only way to keep Thomas with us was to pretend that he was still here.

o—o—o

Today was the twenty-fifth anniversary of my arrival at Mercy Prison, and I celebrated the occasion by spending the evening listening to my guard bewail his troubles with his mistress. It's hard to lend a sympathetic ear to a man who rapes you every week, but I did my best. If nothing else, I have my reputation to uphold.

Before we go any further, let's get one thing straight: I don't know how the rumors started that I was the creator of the Boundaries of Behavior, but it's not true. As you can tell from this tale, the original idea for the Boundaries belonged to another man, while Tyrrell was the one who first suggested that we take the informal agreement he and I had reached over how to behave toward each other and formalize it into a code of behavior for all the inhabitants of Mercy. I even scoffed when Tyrrell suggested this, telling him that nobody except us would be idiots enough to place voluntary boundaries on their behavior.

Well, I've been known to be wrong.

My one contribution was to spread the word that the original idea for the Boundaries came from one of the many guards I've had over the years. This piqued the interest of some of the newer guards, who were still fresh enough in their arrival to question long-held prison customs. Before long, it was the raging fashion among the guards to refuse to do the obvious, and now fully one quarter of the guards adhere to the Boundaries.

Of course, that means that three quarters of the guards do not. In many ways, life at Mercy has not changed. Dorn and Harrow still live on separate levels, though they're treated with kindness by sympathetic guards. The less sympathetic guards make their presence better known: every night, Mercy continues to be filled with the sounds of groans and screams. In fact, one year an ill-controlled sadist was assigned to me. Just my luck to be given a murderous guard when he could no longer be of use. I made the mistake of trying to sympathize with him one day over a grazed knuckle and found myself splayed against the wall shortly thereafter, shrieking under the blows of a splintering bamboo rod. Some men just can't be helped.

Some men can't be. It has always been a wonder to me that Thomas knew I was one of those who could be.

Little news comes from the other life prisons, though Tyrrell and I keep our ears zealously attuned to all rumors, particularly those arriving from Compassion. I would like to think that Thomas kept the promises he made to me during that single night we had together, and that one of these days we will receive word that Compassion's Keeper has retired in favor of a younger man, who will begin to make the prison worthy of its name. But whether or not that happens, we aren't waiting here to let others do the work. Some of the Boundaries-bound guards have even taken their case to the magistrates, pressing for changes to require all of the guards to treat life prisoners humanely.

I was the only one not shocked when Sedgewick became principle signer of the suit.

Well, I know magistrates: if any changes of that sort happen, it will be after my lifetime. I'm growing older now, and it worries me whether I'll be able to accomplish everything necessary before my death. I'd like to report that all of us who keep the Boundaries carry our weight evenly, but the truth is that the greatest weight falls where it has from the beginning, upon Tyrrell and me.

Tomorrow evening, for example, Tyrrell and I are scheduled to meet with Mercy's Keeper so that we can urge him to let two prisoners who are love-mates share a cell together. Then we're going to try to persuade one of the rapist-guards that he'd be far happier servicing a new prisoner in the next cell, who would gladly share his bed. After that, we'll return to our cell and undergo the unavoidable delay of being serviced by our guards. At least these days I can exchange sympathetic looks with Tyrrell while it's happening. And then – well past midnight – Tyrrell and I are likely to spend time arguing over ways to make the Boundaries seem more appealing to newly arrived prisoners and guards.

The arguments take a long time; Tyrrell and I are no more inclined now than in the past to reach ready agreement. But we do well enough in our painstaking work, and our goal is that, by the end of the next ten years, we will have every new arrival keeping to the Boundaries.

All of this means that I rarely get a full night's sleep these days, and the problem is compounded by the fact that, at least once a week, I wake up sobbing with guilt from dreams of Sharon. Matters are improving there, however: last night I dreamt that she was no longer the three-year-old girl I destroyed but the twenty-eight-year-old woman she might have become. She folded her arms and frowned at me, stamping her foot as she said, "Don't stand useless! Do something!"

And then I awoke, and I had plenty to do. Honestly, I can't imagine why I ever thought this place was boring.