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Mercy's Prisoner

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CHAPTER FOUR

Alone in his bedroom, Thomas leaned back against the wall, once more fingering his amulet.

It had been given to him by his grandmother, who must have made a thousand baskets or more to afford the cost of its creation. It held the symbols of the three faiths that Thomas followed. Now Thomas carefully traced the lines of the image that had caught Ahiga's eye: the symbol of one of the Ammippian tribes.

There was more than one tribe. That was what most Mippites failed to grasp: that "Ammippian" was simply the name that the invaders from the Old World had given to all of the natives they encountered in what would become the midcoast nations. Those native tribes had fought amongst themselves until they had realized who their true enemy was and had united under one banner of war against the invaders. Their fortunes were joined thereafter in their suffering.

All of the Ammippians shared a belief in the importance of honoring the ways of one's ancestors, but Thomas's grandmother had come from one of the few tribes which was willing to show that belief in a visible symbol of art. There on the amulet was her tribe's image of the passing on of knowledge from one generation to another: a teacher lying on the ground with his lad.

The teacher, stomach-down, was tracing symbols in the dirt – no doubt he was teaching his lad the sacred alphabet. The lad, his head close to the teacher's, was pointing, in the midst of asking his elder a question. Both the man and the lad were absorbed in the lesson. Later in the evening, Thomas knew from his grandmother's tales, the teacher and lad would share one blanket, the teacher keeping his lad warm in the chill forest where the two of them hunted together during the lad's period of training.

Thomas carefully placed the amulet's chain around his neck again. As a small boy, he had assumed that his father took care of lads in the Ammippian manner. What else could his father's casual references to "taking lads" mean? His mother had had similar tales to tell, from her homeland of Vovim, of lads being cared for by men, though she had delicately hinted that the "caring" there was more than the chaste relationship between an Ammippian teacher and his lad.

In both cultures, the man and his lad were bound by affection, by the man's willingness to teach, and by the lad's willingness to obey. Thomas had been pleased to think that his father was continuing this noble tradition.

He went over to stand by the untouched teacup, staring down at it. The tradition he had learned about was not entirely a lie, he knew. It was practiced, to varying degrees, by some of the prisoners who took weaker prisoners under their protection. The prisoners even used the word "lad" to refer to these weaker members of the prison, although the "lads" were all adults. A sixty-year-old, Thomas had come to realize, might have as much need to learn as a sixteen-year-old.

So the tradition of men and lads was practiced at Compassion Prison, occasionally, and always at the stronger prisoner's whim. There was enough of that tradition at Compassion that it might be nurtured, if encouraged.

But not among the guards. To them, a "lad" was fit for only one thing: to be taken unwilling, as a punishment for the crimes that the prisoner had committed before his arrest.

Thomas picked up the cup of tea and sipped from it. It had gone cold. Thomas tried to think.

What could he say to his father? That he had beaten a dangerous prisoner as punishment for that prisoner's assault on him, and then had left the room in order to fetch tea for the prisoner? That he had left the prisoner alone and unguarded?

His father would strip him of his title as Assistant Keeper. Most likely he would sack Thomas. To let any prisoner escape was bad enough, but a prisoner who had done what Ahiga had done . . .

And now Ahiga was loose again, ready to bring more destruction upon the nation. It was not even as though this was the first time Thomas had made this mistake.

He sighed and set the teacup back on his desk, staring at the open doorway leading to the hallway. He ought to alert the Mippite soldiers, he supposed; they were charged with hunting down escaped prisoners. It would mean sending one of the prison guards on a long ride to Hagerstown, since neither this town nor Compassion Prison possessed a telegraph line. He imagined himself saying to Pugh, "I just lost a prisoner. Will you loan me one of your men?"

Perhaps he could wake Starke and ask him to send the message. But somehow, the thought of Starke's condescending pity was worst at all.

He rubbed his eyes. When he opened them again, the bedroom door was closed, and Ahiga was standing before him.

o—o—o

He left Dick in the custody of one of Compassion's prison guards, Starke. Dick twisted around, giving him a look half-pleading, half-hopeful, which he ignored. Starke pulled the lad into the prison, and the riot doors closed behind them, with a boom.

He was left contemplating the dark entryway, this being as far as the wary guards would allow him to go. If he had revealed his true identity, no doubt he would have been escorted in to see Compassion's Keeper; he had acquired a reputation for treachery that Keepers seemed to find irresistible. But he was at Compassion, as he had carefully told the entry guards, because he was a tradesman, trying to finish up a bit of business. As a result, he now found himself to be the focussed attention of two rifle barrels, aimed at his heart. He ignored them, as well as the entry guards who were aiming the rifles at him.

The riot doors opened again, and his heartbeat sped up.

He recognized Tom at once, although the guards' cap he was wearing shadowed his features. There was something unmistakable about Tom's slow, leisurely walk, which could turn – as Tom had shown during his time in Mercy Prison – into the quick lash of a striking snake, without any warning. Now Tom was walking in the sauntering manner that, along with his seemingly naive expression, had initially fooled every guard at Mercy as to Tom's nature.

He had never been fooled. Not since the first day, when Tom had looked upon him as he was mauling a prisoner. He still could not say why that look had made a difference, when all the sharp words, threats, and beatings he had experienced in his lifetime had never swerved him from his destructive goals.

Perhaps it was merely that he had sensed kinship with Tom.

Now, as Tom's face came into view, his heartbeat sped up still more. Tom's face was as blank and hard as the walls of Compassion Prison. There was no sign of recognition as Tom glanced briefly, dismissively at the waiting visitor.

He had not expected that there would be. He had never known anyone as skilled as Tom at deceiving without actually telling lies.

One of the entry guards had come down from his balcony perch in order to intercept Tom. The guard said, without preliminary, "Visitor for you."

"Mr. Starke told me. I'll be away until the night shift begins; inform the Keeper if he asks." Tom's voice was cool.

The entry guard gave a half-shrug; he had already started to turn away. Tom's lips thinned, but the business before him was evidently too important to allow for any delays. He gestured to the other entry guard, who pulled down the lever that opened the gate to the outside.

Compassion Prison stood atop a broad foothill, the inner part of the building having previously served as both a prison and a fort during the Thousand Years' War. Since shortly before Mip's emancipation, there had been no need for a fort, for Mip's neighboring nations, Vovim and Yclau, had pledged to stop making the territory of Mip the center of their quarrels. Surprisingly – he was always surprised when human nature took a turn for good – both countries had kept their promise and left Mip in peace. No doubt that had something to do with the fact that the Magisterial Republic of Mip had become a useful place of exchange for trade and industry.

Now he could see no signs that this hillside had once served as a bloody battlefield. A generous-sized lawn draped down toward the bottom of the hill, dotted by the occasional tree and – incongruously – a pumpkin patch. A farmer and his sons were hefting the last of the season's pumpkins onto a cart; the farmer tipped his hat at Tom as he passed, and Tom returned the greeting by tipping his own cap. Tom had not yet spoken to his visitor.

He reminded himself of Tom's abilities at deception. Still, he felt his stomach tighten. His visit brought danger, not only to himself, but to Tom as well. Was Tom angered by his unexpected and unsolicited arrival? What lay between them, he well knew, was a bond as delicate as gossamer, given their very different characters and backgrounds.

They reached the railroad, just in time to watch the final cars of a freight-train – perhaps the same train – travel east. Waving away the cloud of soot that followed the locomotive, he was amused to see that two tramps were riding the rods of one of the cars. Not the means of travel he would have chosen – rods were beneath the cars, mere inches from the track – but he had acquired a certain interest now in tramps, so much despised by the general public.

Which, upon reflection, was hardly surprising.

He and Tom passed over the tracks and came to a canal lock. Tom pushed forward a swinging bridge, but once the two of them were over it, Tom did not bother to push the bridge back, out of the way of canal-boats. In matter of fact, there were no canal-boats. To the east was the narrow canal, to the west was the lake of Big Pool, and in neither direction could any boat be seen.

Tom, seeing his visitor's interest, commented, "This stretch of the canal still hasn't been repaired since the floods of 384."

"Will it be?" he asked. At least Tom was now talking to him, albeit in the sort of distant fashion that he might adopt toward a lowly tradesman.

"It's hard to say. The Western Mippite Railroad bought the canal after the flood."

And the railroad company might well be pleased to see the canal founder, since the canal was its rival for carrying freight. He gazed at Tom, once again struck by how a seemingly innocent and pure guard had so strong an understanding of evil.

Tom still had not looked at him directly, for more than brief second. "This way," he said in a brusque manner and stepped onto the canal towpath.

Williamsport was only twelve miles away by rail, but since Big Pool was higher in elevation, autumn had reached its dying dregs here, in the final days leading up to Hell's Fast. Yellowing osage-orange leaves rattled like the throats of dying men; the trees' hedge-apples lay smashed and moldering on the ground, leaving the towpath looking much like the stinking, cluttered house his mother had once purported to housekeep.

Death lay all around. He idly picked up a handful of brittle leaves and began tearing them apart, one by one.

They reached a point on the towpath that was beyond sight of the railroad or the prison. Tom abruptly stopped, looking out toward the water. He did not speak. His silence lengthened. There was only the caw of the occasional crow, and the sigh of the wind, light in the trees. Then there was nothing at all except silence.

The silence began to seep into his heart, stilling the turmoil there. The water lapped near his feet, chuckling softly to itself. Following Tom's gaze, he saw, on the thin strip of grassy ground between the towpath and Big Pool, a spark of green: a pine sapling, pushing its way through the dead leaves in anticipation of spring.

He murmured, "You could find hope in Hell's domain."

When he looked up, he saw that Tom was smiling. Tom knew his own skills in transforming men, although there had been a time, back during their first acquaintance, when it had appeared that Tom would be afraid to use his skills.

But then Tom had met Merrick, and everything had changed.

Now Tom put forward his arm. "It's very good to see you again."

He noted that, even with the two of them apparently alone, Tom was careful not to speak his name. He took Tom's arm, and the two of them shook forearms. Tom's grip was much firmer than his appearance would have suggested.

There was a small silence, such as invariably occurs at any meeting between two men who have not seen each other for a long time. He finally broke it by saying, "Tom . . . why did that guard of yours obey you in such a lackadaisical manner?"

The edge of Tom's mouth turned up in a wry manner. His expressions were the same as in the past, though the lines on his face were etched more deeply. It seemed likely that the lines weren't there due to age; Tom was still only twenty-eight years old. "It was worse eight years ago," Tom replied.

"When you first became Assistant Keeper?"

Tom nodded. "At least they'll obey me these days, albeit in a reluctant, off-hand fashion. When I first became Assistant Keeper . . . I was far too young for the post. And I made too many mistakes in my first year. One time, I decided I could gain the other guards' respect by joining into their customs, as far as my conscience would permit me."

He started to ask about the lad, then changed his mind. Tom had only mentioned the lad once, eight years before. At that time, he had ridiculed Tom. Tom had never spoken to him of the lad again. In his own way, Tom was as harsh a disciplinarian as his father.

Nor did Tom indicate now what the source of the past trouble was. He merely added, "My plan backfired, of course."

It was a vivid image: a fire approaching and eating another fire. "They felt contempt for you?"

"And expressed it. I didn't agree with their assessment of the situation, but after that I made no further attempts to curry favor with them. I was a fool for trying to pretend I shared their moral beliefs." He dismissed the matter with a wave of the hand. "Enough about me. How was your trip here?"

It was typical of Tom, he thought, that the man should so swiftly turn a discussion of his deep troubles to a minute examination of his visitor's journey. It was even more typical of Tom that he had been so frank about his failures.

Mercy Prison was filled with men who lied. The prisoners were the least of it. Most of the guards were rapists and torturers – even the Boundaries-bound guards usually went through a period of thrilling sadism before they belatedly came to the conclusion that there were less destructive ways to keep control of the prisoners.

He never lied. That was one of the things that made him so unpopular among the other guards. He called himself for what he was: a rapist, a torturer, a man who long ago would have forfeited his right to rebirth, if such a thing existed. The other guards didn't like that. They wanted to disguise their horrendous deeds under a kindly guise of impotent words: "Mistakes." "Errors." Or even "appropriate discipline."

All but Tom. He was the purest guard working in the life prisons, yet he never tried to excuse himself when he took a misstep. Nor had he ever tried to disguise that he could easily have been a rapist or a torturer himself. Through implicit statements, he was willing to claim kinship with the most evil man ever to work in the life prisons.

He turned his attention back to Tom's words; the discussion had turned from freight-hopping to more important matters.

"—very clever, suing Mercy's Keeper rather than attacking the magisterial seats openly for their policies in running the life prisons," Tom was saying. "Was that your idea?"

He shook his head. "Merrick's."

"Ah." Not surprisingly, Tom's gaze wandered away. He was silent a moment, looking out on the water that reflected the various shades of brown leaves. Finally he said, "And your odds of succeeding in the suit?"

"Not good. But we're hoping that we can at least scare the other Keepers into rethinking their methods of keeping order."

Tom gave a low chuckle, deep in his throat. "You've succeeded in that. My father has been developing new ways to disguise his nefarious deeds to the world."

He swore aloud – he wasn't the type to swear under his breath – and then cut off his recital as he recalled that Tom disliked blasphemous oaths. Instead he asked, "Has your father spoken again about retiring?"

Tom's wry smile returned. "He has said that he will retire once the situation is more stable in the life prisons. That is to say, when he thinks that the Boundaries of Behavior are doomed at Mercy."

He shouted his blasphemies to the sky this time. Tom's hand tightening on his arm cut him off. Pulling himself free, he snatched a handful of leaves from the tree next to him and began to tear them into pieces, saying, "Your father ought to recognize that, no matter what your ethical differences with him, you're a better guard than he will ever be."

"You forget; he was the one who urged me to train to replace him one day." Tom was ever one to give due credit, even to his enemies. "My rise to power will take time. You and I both knew that from the beginning. But with me working here, and with you and Merrick and the others working at Mercy Prison, we'll find a way to ensure that the Boundaries of Behavior are kept in all the life prisons, and that guards who don't keep the Boundaries are suitably punished."

The corpses of dead, broken, mutilated leaves drifted down from his hands. He was aware once more of the stillness of this place – the sense of peace that seemed to accompany Tom wherever he went. Trees, shrubs, birds: the entire autumn world lay hushed, awaiting its rebirth in spring.

All but one man. One man who had figuratively been reborn once, and had used the opportunity of his rebirth to destroy once more.

He looked up. Tom's eyes were steady upon his, waiting. He drew in breath, feeling the sharp autumn cold penetrate his lungs.

"Tom," he said, "I've broken the Boundaries of Behavior."