Mercy's Prisoner #3
The year 395, the twelfth month. (The year 1895 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
"I am inclined to the view that man was born almost an angel, and that, in spite of the fearful temptations of the world into which he has been thrust, much of the angelic pottery abides."
—Arthur Bidwell: Bidwell's Travels from Wall Street to London Prison: Fifteen Years in Solitude (1897).
"Where did you learn plumbing?" Llewellyn asked with curiosity as he handed Merrick a wrench.
Merrick – lying on his back, with his head and chest hanging through the gap in the floorboards that he and Llewellyn had laboriously created that evening – merely grunted in reply. Then, perhaps in token recognition that Llewellyn was one of the trusted, Merrick replied, "Met a man who worked in the trade, before I arrived at Mercy. I asked him a few questions."
Llewellyn, crouched next to the gap in the kitchen floorboards, had a moment to reflect that, if Merrick had truly met all the men he had mentioned meeting over the years, then Merrick must have spent his entire life quizzing men about their trades and hobbies and personal lives.
When he wasn't murdering, that is to say.
"Fuck!" shouted Merrick. "Denley!"
There was a pause, and then the guard, carelessly dressed in his uniform, entered the kitchen. "You meant 'Fuck, sir,' I'm sure," he replied with a grin.
"I get enough of that without requesting it," Merrick grumbled, not bothering to extract himself from the hole before addressing the newcomer.
"Seriously, Merrick, you ought to address me properly. Appearances count—"
"Fuck!" shouted Merrick again. "Drill! Swive!"
He continued in this vein for a full minute, showing an impressive knowledge of foreign profanity. Llewellyn cast a nervous look at Denley, but the guard merely shrugged, as though to say, Prisoners. What can you do with them?
Or perhaps it was past experience with Merrick which caused Denley to be cautious about being strict with him. Llewellyn knew that, after a full year at Mercy Life Prison, and with all the reasons he had to trust Merrick, he still felt nervous when Merrick's temper exploded. He had heard too many tales about the man.
Outside the kitchen with its torn-up floorboard, life continued as usual at Mercy Life Prison. It was evening now, so most of the prisoners were resting in their cells. Llewellyn could hear faintly the sound of prisoners talking in their cells, here on the third level. By prison regulations, this ought to have been punished with the lash. But since all the third-level guards on patrol tonight adhered voluntarily to Merrick's Boundaries of Behavior, it was unlikely that any of the prisoners would be beaten for such a small infraction of prison regulations.
Certainly Denley seemed to be more eager to chat than to enforce silence upon the prisoners he was supervising. He looked with curiosity down the hole that Merrick's head and chest were stuck through. "How goes it?"
"It would go better, sir, if you would get me out of this fucking hole and let me do this properly, by means of a ladder poked through the ceiling of the second level."
Denley shrugged. "There's a cell below here. Your cell. Prison regulations say that no holes may be made in the floors, walls, or ceilings of any cell. I didn't create the prison regulations." Then, perhaps hearing what he had said, he added, "It doesn't break the Boundaries, for me to require you to work from the top of the plumbing, rather than the bottom."
Merrick's only response was another string of profanity. Llewellyn said hastily to Denley, "Are you having any trouble with the other guards, sir, now that you're known to keep the Boundaries of Behavior?"
Denley's spine straightened, and his face took on the expression of a cat that has found a particularly nice bowl of cream to lap at. "Not me. Maybe I would have a year ago, when Merrick first asked me to vow to follow the Boundaries, but I timed my oath right. We're the elite of the prison now, those of us who voluntarily curb our behavior to adhere to ethical standards. Even Sedgewick has stopped making mock of us, and there are rumors that the Keeper will accept the Boundaries of Behavior soon and make it a prison-wide regulation. With us Boundaries-bound guards in charge, there will be no more troubles with abuse from guards in this prison."
Llewellyn said nothing. Mercifully, Merrick said nothing.
"Of course," added Denley with largesse, "you prisoners who came up with the idea of the Boundaries are helpful too. Have you had any problems with being mocked by other prisoners, Llewellyn?"
"No, sir," Llewellyn replied quietly. "It's as you say: those of us who keep the Boundaries are in the majority these days, since Mercy's Keeper hasn't yet forbidden the Boundaries."
Characteristically, Denley ignored the "yet" in Llewellyn's sentence. He leaned over the hole and repeated, "How goes it?"
"Do you want to have children?" Merrick called back.
"Not especially. Why?"
"Because, with you standing in that position, I could have sliced off your balls if I weren't keeping the Boundaries." Merrick emerged from the hole, holding not only the wrench but an assortment of plumbing, including a pipe with a wicked-looking edge.
Denley took a hasty step back. Most guards did so when Merrick made his dark jests; it was never entirely clear that Merrick intended them to be jests. "I have to get back to work patrolling," Denley said. "You let me know when you're through fixing the refrigerator." He began to edge away.
"Hold still a moment, and I'll be able to tell you where the problem lies." Panting from his exertions, Merrick began to inspect the plumbing. "Drip pan looks fine. Nothing clogging the strainer. Let me get this pipe open. Have you chosen your guard yet?"
It took a moment for Llewellyn to realize that the question was addressed to him. Denley filled the interval by saying, "You have that privilege thanks to the work that we Boundaries-bound guards have done, you know. We told Mercy's Keeper that it was cruel punishment to assign new guards to prisoners every six months. We convinced him that prisoners should have the opportunity to request a particular guard, once they'd been here for a year."
Llewellyn knew that the change in prison policy had actually taken place because Merrick had worn down the Keeper's resistance through repeated nagging. He had sense enough not to point this out. Merrick, who had finally managed to unscrew the pipe, grunted, "Nothing clogging the drum trap either. So have you figured out who you want?"
Llewellyn hesitated. "I'm not sure. . . ."
"There are lots of us guards abiding by the Boundaries these days," Denley pointed out, removing a cigarette from his jacket.
"I wondered . . . I thought perhaps I could do more for our Alliance if I picked a guard who doesn't keep the Boundaries."
"Try to persuade him to join the Alliance, you mean?" Denley tapped the end of his cigarette against the broken refrigerator.
"Milord," said Merrick, frowning over the plumbing pipe as he thrust his hand into it.
"You think so?" said Denley, his eyebrows raised. "He keeps the Boundaries."
"He has never admitted it, though." Merrick pushed the handkerchief into the pipe. "'I'm not going to have my judgment as a guard second-guessed by a scheme dreamed up by a clique of convicted criminals. . . .' He natters on and on about it, if the subject comes up."
"But he keeps the Boundaries?" said Llewellyn.
"Yes," replied Denley, lighting a match from the stove-fire.
"Yes, if you define the Boundaries as beating your prisoner every night." Merrick extracted the handkerchief, which showed little sign of having been inserted in the pipe.
"Not every night," Denley protested. "Be fair to him, Merrick. He's a strict disciplinarian, but he only beats prisoners who deserve it."
"Why is he called Milord, sir?" Llewellyn asked Denley.
"Oh, he's Lord Vere, officially. Comes from southern Vovim originally. He's one of those Vovimian lords who lost his land during that kingdom's civil war." Denley lit his cigarette. "He still has a lordly air to him, so we call him Milord, for fun. He doesn't mind; he'll accept a good-natured joke."
"So he's an honorable guard, but he's strict," Llewellyn concluded. "He'll only beat me if I've done something that makes me truly deserve a beating."
"Not that that will be a problem for you." Denley bestowed one of his condescending smiles upon Llewellyn. "You've been very well-behaved here. You deserve a better assignment than Milord as your permanent guard."
"Request Milord." Merrick threw aside the plumbing pipe with a gesture of disgust.
"You think I should?" Llewellyn asked uncertainly, standing up and leaning against the squat box of the refrigerator, which he and Merrick had laboriously pushed aside at the beginning of the evening, while Denley stood next to them, chatting brightly as other men did the hard work.
"He's the right guard for you." Merrick's voice was flat. "Denley, there's nothing wrong with the refrigerator's plumbing."
"Something is wrong," the guard insisted. "The ice-water won't drain out."
Merrick sighed heavily as he rose to his feet, wiping his dirty hands on the handkerchief. "Get that refrigerator up on blocks, and I'll inspect it from underneath. It's not like I have better things to do with my evenings." His voice was sour. For the third time in a year, he had been assigned one of the vicious guards who refused to adhere to the Boundaries of Behavior, the ethical code that Merrick and his fellow prisoner Tyrrell had created, which forbade abusive behavior by guards and prisoners alike. Llewellyn suspected that the vicious guards who were assigned to Merrick were a form of revenge by Mercy's Keeper, who both hated and feared Merrick, but who dared not challenge Merrick's power openly.
Denley, blithely unaware of the coming storm, sucked on his cigarette as he said, "I'll make sure that you and Llewellyn have the opportunity to put the refrigerator up on blocks. We guards who keep the Boundaries are in charge now, you know."
Merrick's eyes met Llewellyn's. By common consent, both prisoners remained silent.
Llewellyn had met plenty of new guards since the time he first arrived at Mercy Prison. They would arrive suddenly before the day shift, after the day shift, in the middle of his meals, in the middle of his sleep. They would stammer awkwardly, or they would shout to assert their authority, or they would simply take him, driving their authority deep into his body.
None of them, though, had ever stood silent for a full five minutes, simply assessing Llewellyn with contemplative eyes.
Lord Vere was hardly the first Vovimian whom Llewellyn had met over the years; as the crossroads of the Midcoast nations, the Magisterial Republic of Mip was a haven for many exiles from neighboring nations. Defying the stereotype that all southern Vovimian were bulky barbarians, Lord Vere turned out to be wiry and impeccably dressed, the scarf of his uniform turned with a knot that suggested he either hired an expensive valet or was personally determined to do credit to his native land. His skin was dark, of course, but not much darker than that of Llewellyn, who was of mixed race. His accent, when he finally deigned to speak, was thick with what Llewellyn supposed must be a southern Vovimian accent.
His Mippite grammar, though, was as impeccable as his uniform. "I expect the men I guard to strive for perfection."
Llewellyn, standing stiffly beside his bed and eyeing Vere's neatly knotted scarf, said nothing.
Vere gave a snort, though whether of amusement or satisfaction or disgust was not clear. "Perfection is for the gods," he clarified. "I do not expect any of us to reach it before Mercy embraces us and leads us to her home. But we cannot reach that perfect home unless we strive to be worthy of it. Those of us who have committed crimes" – he gave Llewellyn a hard stare – "have all the more reason to work hard in compensation for the evil we have done."
Llewellyn, thinking of how his employer had bruised and abused the youths under his charge, could look back on his crime only with satisfaction. Even if he had known what his life would be like in Mercy Prison, he would have been willing to pay the penalty for his murder, since it was the only way in which to rid the world of Mr. Maguire.
He wondered whether this was the right moment at which to mention this to Vere.
He knew that there would never be a right moment, with any audience, to mention the part of him that had sought his employer's attention.
"You'll follow my orders," Lord Vere continued. "Understand? Not the orders of any guard except me . . . and the Keeper, of course, but he's unlikely to issue orders to you. If another guard gives you an order that conflicts with mine, you report the matter to me. I won't have other guards groping you."
Southern Vovimians had a reputation for being proprietary with their prisoners, perhaps a legacy of the fact they had been slave-owners not so many years ago. Llewellyn remained mute, trying to hide the relief he felt. His last guard had been accustomed to pass him around, like a party favor.
Lord Vere, leaning his shoulder lightly against the bars of the cell, narrowed his eyes in the dim light from the central hearth-fire between the cells. "Nor will you follow the orders of other prisoners. Idealism in prisoners is all very well in its place, but I won't have my prisoners making oaths to each other or telling their guards how to behave. You follow my orders, and I'll treat you well. That's my bargain."
Llewellyn felt the promise like a boot thrust in his stomach. But this was hardly the first time he had encountered a guard like this, one who was prepared to act decently. He knew how to handle them, however sick he might feel afterwards.
"No," he replied. "Why should I follow the orders of a barbarian like you?"
Lord Vere smiled. Slowly. He pulled his watch from the pocket of his vest and opened the lid. "Eight minutes. Sedgewick wins."
"Sir?" Llewellyn stared at him, so disconcerted that he allowed the title of courtesy to slip through his lips.
"The other guards were taking bets in the guardroom on how long it would be before you defied your new guard. Sedgewick gambled for the lowest time; he won." Lord Vere closed his watch; his contemplative expression did not change. "Two days' isolation. Your meals will be delivered as usual, along with work you can do in this cell. If you defy me further, I'll send you to a disciplinary cell in the basement. Believe me, you don't want to be living there in the winter."
His stomach had turned sick, as though he were being kicked over and over in it. "You're not going to beat me?"
"Why should I? It's what you want." Lord Vere slipped the watch into his pocket. "I've met your type before. You want attention, and you'll do anything to get it. You'll endure a beating . . . or even murder a man. Giving you attention by beating you would simply reward you for your disobedience. So I'm giving you what you hate most of all: I'm ignoring you. If you defy me, I'll isolate you. The longer you defy me, the longer I'll isolate you. One of these days, you'll figure out that it's easier to obey me." He gave Llewellyn a mock tip of his cap. "Good evening, sir. I'll see you in two days."
And then he was gone, and Llewellyn was left contemplating the ruination of the rest of his life.
In the dark of winter, lying upon a cold, hard bed-shelf, one had far too much time to delve into the darkness of one's soul.
Llewellyn stared up at the ceiling of his cell, which was shadowed grey-black, since Lord Vere had closed and locked the solid inner door before departing. The guard had at least left the panel in the door open, allowing in heat and light from the fire outside, and he had made sure, before he departed, that Llewellyn was issued double the usual amount of blankets.
A guard who was considerate of his prisoner's welfare. And therein lay the thorn that tore at Llewellyn's flesh.
He placed his forearm over his eyes to shut out the light. It had seemed so simple, in the years before he arrived at Mercy Life Prison. Mr. Maguire and other such corrupt men were on the side of evil, of darkness, of Hell. Llewellyn was on the side of goodness, of light, of Mercy. He fought Hell, incarnated in the form of Mr. Maguire, sacrificing his liberty for the sake of the boys he saved.
Only to discover, once he arrived at Mercy Prison, that he was no better than the man he had murdered.
He thrust away the blankets abruptly, embracing the coldness that scourged him. He felt nothing other than the chill. He never felt anything, except when he was being beaten by his guards. And in between times, when he was fighting to help the other prisoners escape abuse, when he was being praised as a model prisoner, a man who always kept the Boundaries . . .
In between times, he served Hell's cause.
He twitched restlessly in bed, as though seeking some doorway through which he could escape the truth. The cold bit at him, as harshly as any lash. He could imagine Mr. Maguire laughing in Hell's domain. Was this the punishment Llewellyn was receiving for his murder? Or was the murder itself a sign of the corruption that had always lain within him?
And now . . . now, finally, he had met a guard who could not be corrupted.
The fingernails of his left hand scraped at the harsh stone of his bed-shelf as he opened and closed his fists repeatedly. Until now, he had been able to fool himself into thinking he was helping his guards. All of them, even the ones who stammered, were men who had broken the Boundaries of Behavior, and who would do so over and over again, regardless as to how well Llewellyn behaved. They were abusers, rapists, men who used their prisoners for their own pleasure.
This being the case, wasn't it better for their souls if Llewellyn consented to their beatings, turning their abuse into something better? Wasn't he benefitting his guards if he did this? Wasn't that more important than the fact that his own needs were thereby being met?
"Maybe that's why I always felt sick afterwards," he murmured. "Not because I despised them, but because I despised me."
He heard Mr. Maguire's mocking laughter in his mind. He was faintly aware of hot tears running down his face. Tears of contrition? Or of self-centered pity that he would no longer receive what he wanted? That he could no longer corrupt his guards, turning them into worse men than they had been before?
"Oh, Hell," he murmured. "I have always been your servant, haven't I?"
The Vovimian god did not reply; nor did his sister Mercy. Llewellyn could not even remember when he had begun to pray to the gods. His mother's family was of Yclau descent; Llewellyn had been taught to believe in rebirth, not in an afterworld filled with Hell and Mercy and the lesser gods. But there had been no one else he could speak to – no one to whom he could voice his shame and his pleas for help.
"Oh, Mercy," he whispered fruitlessly. "Help me. Send me your Grace."
The goddess Mercy was silent too. Outside the cell, a guard paused to speak low-toned to another guard. It was Sedgewick's voice. Llewellyn had often dreamed of having Sedgewick as his guard, and had dreaded the thought of having him. What would it be like to receive that much pain, and to despise his guard that thoroughly? More and more, as the months drew on, he had felt sick from the awareness that he allowed vile men the means by which to fulfill their base desires. For a few hours – just a few hours, after Merrick's description of Lord Vere – Llewellyn had thought he had found an alternative: a man of honor who would beat his prisoner for just reasons.
Groping for his blankets with his left hand, Llewellyn shuddered at the thought of his self-deception. Would he add much to his sentence of punishment in Hell's domain if he became of the few prisoners at Mercy Prison to succeed in killing himself? Perhaps he should be seeking the longest sentence possible, as compensation for what he had done. He shuddered again as he groped further. The blankets were beyond his reach. His right forearm remained over his eyes, shutting out the light.
Gradually, he became aware that he was not alone.
He jerked his arm off his eyes and stared up at the figure looming over him. In the dim light, he could not see the man's face, but he recognized the frame of the guard before him and could even see the neatness of his scarf's knot.
Lord Vere said, in the same contemplative manner that he had spoken earlier that day, "I could take you out of your bed. I could tear off your clothes and tie you to the whipping ring. I could lay my lash across your back, drawing stripes of agony over your body."
Llewellyn stared up at him, his heart pounding, his breath so scant that he could not have spoken, even if he had known what to say.
And then, too late, he realized that he was not facing a wall. He was not facing a wall, and his body was naked of its blankets. He was exposed.
He made a desperate swipe for the blankets with his left hand, but it was too late; Lord Vere's gaze had switched to Llewellyn's groin. "Interesting," Lord Vere said in the same contemplative manner. "I knew that men like you existed somewhere in the world, but I hadn't thought to encounter you in this prison."
Llewellyn could not think of what to say. He was still absorbing the phrase "men like you." There were others?
Lord Vere's gaze returned to Llewellyn's face, and his mouth twisted into a grimace. "Careless of me, to jump to conclusions as to your motive for misbehavior. I'd probably still be in the dark if Sedgewick hadn't dropped a heavy hint to me tonight. —Oh, yes, he has guessed about you." This was in response to what Llewellyn supposed must be the appalled expression on his own face. "He passed the information on to me as a point of interest, nothing more. I don't suppose he's really in a position to treat you as a matter for mockery."
Llewellyn didn't know what this meant about Sedgewick, and he didn't care. Pulling himself out of his paralysis, he rose to a seated position. Lord Vere stepped back to allow him to stumble to his feet. "Sir," Llewellyn said, his tongue thick with uncertainty, "I am sorry . . ."
Lord Vere was shaking his head. "You're always so polite, when you're not forcing yourself to be otherwise. That alone should have opened my mind to the truth. How long have you been this way?"
"I don't know." He stared at Lord Vere's boots, which were polished bright. "I didn't know about myself . . . until the first time I was beaten by a guard." He swallowed; his throat ached from the movement. "And then . . ." He hesitated, and then leapt to the summary of his recent thoughts. "I've corrupted my guards. I've encouraged them to break the Boundaries of Behavior. I'm no better than them."
"They gave you what you wanted. You didn't respect them?"
"No!" His voice was harsh, jagged. "Never! They . . . they were like animals, following their brute instincts rather than doing what was right for me. Yet I've been just as bad, embracing the brutish part of me, following Hell rather than Mercy. And then you . . ." He stopped and said softly, "I won't try to corrupt you, sir. I promise. Whatever evil I've done in the past, I won't repeat it with you. I have too much respect for you."
There was a long, long pause. Llewellyn dared not raise his gaze from Lord Vere's boots. Outside the solid door, with its panel now shut, came the tap of footsteps as the patrol guards made their rounds. The cell was still and cold; light flickered from the lamp that Lord Vere had set upon the floor when he arrived.
Finally, Lord Vere said, "You were committed to Mercy Prison for murder. The man you murdered . . . he was like the guards? You despised him because he beat you?"
Llewellyn shook his head quickly. "I didn't know then . . . that I was just as bad. Mr. Maguire used to hurt the youths he employed. Not me; my father was an old army companion of his. But I could see that nothing would stop him . . ." His voice trailed off. He had suddenly realized that, from Lord Vere's perspective, it might appear that nothing short of being murdered would stop Llewellyn from continuing his corruption.
Llewellyn raised his eyes. He found that Lord Vere had turned his contemplative gaze to the whipping ring set into the end wall of the cell. Llewellyn felt a jolt at his groin, which he strove to ignore. No, he prayed. Don't whip me. Don't give me what I want.
"Shall I whip you?" Lord Vere said, as though hearing the thoughts of his prisoner.
"No!" cried Llewellyn. "Sir, I want to be better than I am, don't you see? I want to . . . to strive for perfection, to be as you want me to be. I don't want to be evil any more. Please help me. Please show me how to keep from being corrupt—"
He swallowed the rest of his self-pitying pleas. His face was hot now with embarrassment and shame. He waited for Lord Vere's mockery.
"Interesting," Lord Vere said, his face still turned, as though addressing the whipping ring.
"What is, sir?" His voice was barely a whisper.
"Those words. I haven't heard them for . . . oh, it must be more than fifteen years now since I heard those words addressed to the gods."
"By someone like me?" he said slowly, remembering Lord Vere's startling revelation earlier that Llewellyn was not alone in his agonizing temptations.
"No," replied Lord Vere, turning his head back to contemplate Llewellyn. "Those words were spoken by me."