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Mercy's Prisoner

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Mercy's Prisoner #1
LIFE PRISON

The year 385, the third month. (The year 1890 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
 

Against themselves men may be violent,
  And their own lives or their own goods destroy;
  So they in the second ring in vain repent

Who rob themselves of [this] world, or make a toy
  Of fortune, gambling and wasting away their purse,
  And turn to weeping what was meant for joy.

—Dante: Inferno XI:40-45 (translated by Dorothy L. Sayers).

The magistrate who sentenced me to Mercy Life Prison told me, "We are not barbarians. You have committed a vile and savage act, one that any other nation would punish with death. Our punishment, on the other hand, will only be to give you what you want. You have sought to live in a world without boundaries of civilization, and such a world shall henceforth be your dwelling place. The place you are being sent to has no boundaries but death, and you will not be permitted to travel that far except in the natural manner. Other than that, you will find yourself in a society with no rules, no restrictions, no restraints. And soon you will come to discover that a lack of boundaries can mean only one thing: pain, pain, and unending pain."

I was foolish enough to disbelieve him.

o—o—o

On the tenth anniversary of my arrival at Mercy Prison, I lay beneath my guard, trying to make my mind dwell on thoughts other than what he was doing to me.

It was not difficult. Of all the Mercy guards who had watched over me in this place, Avery was undoubtedly the most merciful. He disliked the sight of blood – not many guards could say that – and was disdainful of the guards whose idea of entertainment was forcing their charges to undertake humiliating and degrading acts. Avery's only desire was for a quick, hard fuck, and thanks to his queasiness about blood, the pain was minimal enough that I could usually put my mind to other matters while he was with me. It was the most pleasant time I'd had with a guard since my arrival at Mercy Prison, and I found myself wishing that it could last. But of course I knew that it wouldn't.

And indeed, Avery was now sighing as he withdrew, saying, "Ah, that was nice. You're a good one, Merrick; I'm sorry this won't happen again." He gave me a slap on my ass in token of his gratitude.

I didn't stir. When I had first arrived here, a guard touching me on the cheek had stirred me into a frenzy of self-defense; now it would take a beating with the leaded whip before I would emit a note of protest. Instead, I merely opened my eyes and said, "I'm to have a new guard, then?"

"A guard all to yourself – lucky you." Avery gave me a grin as he pulled on his trousers. "If you were assigned to Compassion Life Prison, you'd be serviced each night by every guard on your level, if the rumors I hear about that place are true. We're a bit more gentlemanly here at Mercy."

"Everything is relative," I agreed. There is a division of opinion among the prisoners of Mercy as to whether it is better to cooperate with your guard or defy him. I've tried both methods and haven't seen that it makes any difference one way or the other; the guards get what they want in the end, either way. But I prefer the guards who like to pretend that their prisoners are whores who deserve fair payment for their services. Those guards are usually willing to offer valuable news to their prisoners.

Knowledge of the arrival of a new guard was certainly valuable news. There had been times I wasn't aware that a transfer had taken place until I woke to find myself choking upon a strange cock.

Avery – who had always been polite enough to wake me before starting proceedings – stretched his arms a moment before pulling on his shirt. Like most of the guards, he was a big man, outweighing me and every other prisoner on this level. I'd tested his strength only once, when we first met, and that had been in an attempt to goad him into stabbing me. He had done nothing more than to knock me unconscious with the hilt of his dagger. When I awoke a minute later with an aching head, he had laughed and helped me to my feet, telling me that I wouldn't escape Mercy Prison that easily.

He had always been an amiable guard. Now he smiled at me and said, "Those sadists over at Compassion are hardly better than the bog-scum they guard. The few times I've visited there, I've had a hard time telling which was which, the guards or the prisoners."

I was tired of being told by the guards that I was fortunate to be assigned to Mercy. Moving my eyes to watch Avery strap on the heavy belt holding his whip and his dagger – I'd once tried to steal a guard's dagger and had received a broken wrist to mark that occasion – I asked, "Why the transfer?"

Avery's smile dropped away. He looked down at the belt he was adjusting. "My request. I wanted shorter hours; I've been having troubles at home with my youngest."

I would have laughed if I hadn't known the dangers. He had troubles? I had nothing but contempt for guards who whined on about their domestic problems, while surrounded by life prisoners who knew that death was the only mercy they would ever receive. I turned my head, which had been resting upon my forearms, and rubbed the incipient smile from my face before saying, "Who's the new guard? Anyone I know?"

Avery paused in the midst of buttoning up his vest. He looked at me with that searching look he had given me during the first week of our acquaintance, before he had become certain of how I would behave. In a voice I could not read, he said, "I doubt it. He's from Compassion."

It is never truly silent at Mercy. Even late at night you can hear the sounds of groans and screams. Now, in early morning, Mercy was a cacophony of sound: prisoners shouting to each other from their cells; guards ordering them to be quiet or joining the conversation, as the mood took them; the clang of metal from cell doors opening and the hiss of fire from the central pit. In this cell, where the inner door was closed, the air was dark and chill, and I felt pinpricks cover my back.

Hoping that my voice was as unrevealing as Avery's, I said, "One of the sadists?"

"I assume so." Avery was avoiding my eye now. He had finished donning his jacket and was now carrying out an inspection of my cell for forbidden items. "He got into some sort of trouble at Compassion. I don't know the details, but apparently it took the intervention of Compassion's Keeper himself to keep this guard from being released from his service. Instead, they're giving him a second chance by sending him here. Perhaps they think the influence of more civilized guards will tame him." He snorted.

"Unlikely," I said. My heart was pounding harder than a whip now, and I had to bury my face within my arms in the hope that Avery wouldn't see the expression there. With only my eyes visible, I made the muffled comment, "You'd think they'd assign him in accordance with which prisoner deserved him most."

Avery straightened up from where he had been crouching, looking under my blankets in the corner. His eyes travelled back to me, lying naked upon the hard bed, with only one bruise upon my shoulder to mark his taking of me. In a chill voice such as he had never used toward me before, he said, "They undoubtedly did."

And then he was gone, slamming the outer door shut on his way. That was the last I ever saw of Avery.

It took me a moment to stir myself. As always, Avery had left the solid inner door open, and through the bars of the outer door came puffs of smoke from the central fire-pit that provided the only warmth in this dark, frigid place. A guard, striding down past the cells, glanced into mine and made a lewd remark, then walked on without breaking stride. I ignored him, as I ignored the sound of trickling water in my cell; my mind was on weightier subjects.

I lay for a while like that, bare-skinned. In my first year at Mercy I caught five colds, but one becomes used to the temperature, especially when one is kept stripped half the time. After several minutes I got up. Trying to ignore the ache in my ass, I dressed myself in my striped, rough-fabric prison uniform and sat down in the middle of the floor, with my back to the doors. It was the closest I could come to privacy, since the solid inner door was always left open except when a guard desired privacy with his prisoner. I let my eyes travel over the familiar surroundings.

The cell was the shape of a slim trapezoid, with the broad expanse of part of the prison's outer wall before me and the narrow entrance into the round fire-pit area behind me. On this level of Mercy, as on the four levels above, all of the cells were located between the circular outer wall and the level's circular fire-pit, arranged like spokes on an endless wheel. It was the only touch of beauty that Mercy held; all else that I beheld was tedium.

The smooth walls, punctuated only by a slot toward the ceiling of the outer wall. The hard ledge that served as a bed. The two blankets on the bed-shelf; they would seem to be sufficient, if it had not been the case that they also served as my bedding. The covered hole in the corner that served as a combined latrine and rubbish heap. The trickle of water draining from a crack in the ceiling that was too fine for me to see; when I wished to drink, I had to lick the wall. I had tried denying myself food and water once, hoping that no one would notice, but the daily cleaning of my rubbish hole had revealed the food stuffed there. That evening I had learned the more painful methods by which food and water can be inserted into a prisoner.

The water continued to trickle, a pleasant sound. The water eventually made its way down into the hole. One ingenious prisoner I knew had covered the hole entirely and stuffed blankets under the inner door, in hopes that the water would drown him. Of course, the door would not have been closed if his guard had not been present. When the guard awoke to find an inch of water on the floor, he simply removed the cover of the hole and allowed the prisoner to live with the results for the next week.

Most of us at Mercy had tales like that. My last try at self-murder had involved the third of my blankets, painstakingly torn into long shreds, and an attempt to somehow fasten a noose around the slick vertical bars of the outer door. I was noticed while still trying to puzzle the matter out, and I paid accordingly, but even lengthy contemplation of the dilemma during the painful week that followed did not provide me with an answer. For indeed, there was none. As the magistrate had truly told me, there was no escape from life prison except through death, and that would not be granted to us.

Except, perhaps, from a Compassion guard.

I felt the same thrill enter me as had coursed through me at Avery's news. It had been a long time since I had felt hope, and I tried to beat it away, but it kept creeping back. Most of the guards at Mercy were not sadists, alas; they were simply brutish men who liked their pleasure to come easy and who had no qualms about using whatever methods necessary to receive their pleasure. But a guard who truly enjoyed inflicting pain . . . There were rumors among Mercy's prisoners about prisoners at Compassion who had died far short of their allotted term, pushed past the boundaries of life by overeager guards. And it appeared that I was about to receive the services of such a guard. There could be no other explanation for his transfer except that he had violated the single rule placed upon guards of life prisoners: that the prisoners be kept alive.

For the first time in ten years, I had hope that I might escape.

o—o—o

We were late to work that morning. An idiot newbie prisoner had tried to intervene when his guard took a whip to an older prisoner who was working too slowly in chopping wood for the fire-pit. Anyone who had been at Mercy for more than a month could have explained the folly of such intervention, but newbies always convince themselves that they can transform Mercy into a place worthy of its name.

Or almost always convince themselves; I couldn't recall having ever held such delusions myself. I began to fall asleep during the tedium of the public punishment – the rhythmic sound of the whip-crack and the prisoner's sobbing was like a lullaby – but came abruptly awake as a thread of pain travelled across my bare arm. Clutching the line of blood, I looked up to see that the newbie prisoner's guard had bent over the balcony railing and sent down a taste of his whip onto me. He smiled at me as he rolled up his whip. "For old time's sake," he said softly.

I felt a shiver travel through my body – Sedgewick was the only guard who could still do that to me – and then turned my attention toward the guards standing on the ground near the rest of us prisoners. This was an all-level punishment, and I eyed the guards unfamiliar to me, wondering which of them had been assigned to me. That big brute in the corner, nodding with satisfaction as he watched? That tall man nearby, yawning as he tossed dice in his hand? Or, perhaps most dangerous of all, it might be that hard-muscled guard toward the front, watching the proceedings without expression.

There were visitors as well. Mercy's Keeper, who was never seen except on important occasions such as this, had emerged from his quarters along the balcony, bringing along what looked to be family friends: two young girls who were hugging each other about their waists and emitting soft wails, an older woman who kept dabbing at her eyes and declaring to all and sundry that it was a pity such things had to occur, and a young man who was doing the best of the four to remain still and silent.

Beside the young man was a man of about fifty, dressed in uniform, and as I caught sight of his chill eyes I felt as though I had been thrown into the cells below my feet, where prisoners deserving lengthy punishment are kept without benefit of a fire-pit.

I knew who he was, of course. The pictures of the Keepers of the nation's three dozen life prisons were displayed in the hall where we stood, and the prisoners of Mercy often speculated as to whether the personality of Compassion's Keeper matched his looks. It would appear so. A hard smile was travelling now over the Keeper's thin lips, his eyes were narrow under his straight brows, and he had as tight a grip on the young man's shoulder as though he were holding him prisoner. Indeed, I thought sourly, it said enough about Compassion's Keeper that he would bring his family to watch this event.

That left me only with the need to find one more man, and I located him finally, half hidden in the shadows behind the Keeper. His face was wholly concealed by the darkness, but he wore the uniform of a Compassion guard, and as I watched, he carefully and methodically broke a bamboo rod in his hands into a dozen even pieces.

My mouth grew dry as I watched the deliberate destruction. I would have preferred that it be messy. This was a man who would not be easily goaded into losing control; even if I succeeded, it would take time to stir his anger sufficiently. And in the meanwhile . . .

A truncated cry cut off my thoughts. I looked over at the other end of the balcony in time to see the newbie fall slack in his chains. Mercy's Keeper gave a sigh of impatience and gestured to Sedgewick to release the fainting man from his bonds. Around me there was no response from the prisoners but for the faintest sound escaping from the throat of someone beside me. Looking around I saw that the man next to me was the older prisoner who had been defended by the newbie.

I dismissed him from my thoughts. Any prisoner who was fool enough to develop love for another person here – whether that love was friendship or something more – deserved whatever increased agony he endured. The only way to survive the life prisons was to cut oneself off from feeling, as much as was possible. There were even prisoners who, trying to defy the pronouncement that the only escape from Mercy was death, had gone mad. But my judgment, from watching the mad prisoners, was that they suffered no less than the rest of us. No, only death would take me from this place.

I looked back up at the party from Compassion Prison, only to be disappointed. My new guard had disappeared altogether, while the Keeper and his family were in the process of leaving the hall. The mother was now sobbing with pleas of mercy for all prisoners. I noticed that she didn't translate those pleas into any concrete action, like trying to intervene on our behalf. The face of Compassion's Keeper told well enough what he thought of this display. He leaned over and said something to the young man, who was continuing to remain silent. The young man replied something briefly, then turned to offer his mother his arm. They disappeared from the hall.

I barely noticed all this. My gaze was upon the young girls, the first I had seen since my arrival at Mercy ten years before. They were about seven and nine years of age, but with their faces contorted with grief they looked younger. I let my gaze linger in their direction far beyond the time during which I could actually see them.

"Like to get your hands on them, eh, Merrick?"

The comment came from Tyrrell, who lived in the cell next to me. He was accustomed to making remarks like this. I could never be entirely sure whether he was expressing sympathy or beating me over the head with a reminder of my past.

I had never seen any reason to worry myself with speculation over such matters. "Too old for me," I said tersely. "How old's your sister, Tyrrell?"

He went for my throat, the fool. I stayed passive, so that the guards, reaching us quickly, issued their punishment where it was deserved. I grinned, listening to Tyrrell's yelps as I was led away to my day's work. There weren't many pleasures at Mercy, and I savored them all the more when they came.

o—o—o

That afternoon, as it chanced, was showering day.

I had never seen showers before my arrival at Mercy Prison; those were rich men's luxuries. I had wondered upon my arrival what reason, other than lack of space, had caused the designer of the prison to favor shower stalls rather than tubs. I'd also wondered why the stalls had shackles hanging from the wall.

A couple of days later, I discovered the answer to both questions, shortly after I came close to dislocating a guard's jaw during a difference of opinion between us over whether my ass should be free to his use. It was said that some prisoners over the years had died under cold-water treatment. Unfortunately, I wasn't one of them.

Now a reassuring haze of steam was emerging from each stall ahead of us. I dropped my clothes in the enormous pile of dirty clothes that would eventually end up in the laundering room and joined the line of naked prisoners awaiting showers. Anyone who was shy about showing off his body got over it double quick at Mercy Prison.

A few of the prisoners ahead of me were eyeing each other in a meaningful manner. I caught the newbie prisoner, Dorn, glancing back down the queue. I knew that he was probably seeking sight of the older prisoner who cared for him, but I glared at him anyway. He shrank back as though I'd attacked him, then turned to see a guard beckoning him into a free stall. Dorn gulped visibly.

It said something about Mercy, I reflected to myself as Dorn reluctantly walked forward, that they would force a prisoner into a steaming shower on the very day that his back had been ripped raw with a whip. I could guess, though, that the shower wasn't what was worrying him most.

Sedgewick, sitting in a leisurely manner on the guards' stool just outside the stall, smiled at his prisoner as Dorn approached. Dorn gulped again, but forced himself to enter the stall. The guard put his hand out in an apparent attempt to position Dorn properly under the nozzle. It appeared that the positioning required him to run his hand over the lower half of Dorn's body. Dorn made a small sound.

"Two minutes," said Sedgewick. "Make sure your hair is clean. I don't want to feel any lice in it tonight."

It didn't take any imagination to figure out under what circumstances Sedgewick would have his hands in Dorn's hair. Dorn nearly dropped the soap that Sedgewick flicked into his hands. Some of the other prisoners had politely turned their gazes to the other stalls, where less interesting transactions were taking place, such as Tyrrell cheerfully informing his guard, Oslo, that the water was lukewarm. Oslo clipped Tyrrell on the head in a bored manner. Tyrrell merely laughed.

Sedgewick had reached over to fiddle with the gauge regulating the temperature of the water. He paused and smiled at Dorn again. "And make sure you're clean inside," he added softly. "I'll be very angry if you aren't."

From Dorn's yelp as the water started, I guessed that Sedgewick had turned the heat up higher, so as to irritate the wounds on Dorn's back as much as possible. Dorn scrubbed himself with frantic haste. I noticed he followed both of Sedgewick's orders.

Several prisoners in front of me in the queue had been called over to other free stalls. Dorn stumbled out of the shower, sobbing as he pulled his towel around his waist. He was met almost immediately by the older prisoner, who carefully guided him into the line where prisoners who had showered were waiting to be issued clean clothes before being given their weekly shave. I glanced over at Sedgewick to see whether he had noticed this little encounter and found that he was beckoning me.

Cursing the magistrate who had sent me to this prison, I made my path to the shower. Sedgewick seemed uninterested in my arrival; he was fiddling with the gauge again.

When the water came on, I howled so loudly that all of the whispered conversations between the prisoners in the queue came to an abrupt halt. Sedgewick smiled at me. "We're short of hot water today," he said, throwing the soap into my hands. "Do you need help?"

I glared at him, but said nothing. Sedgewick was perfectly capable of manacling me to the shower wall.

Two minutes later I emerged from the shower, covered in goose-pimples and shaking violently. Sedgewick hadn't handed me a towel to dry myself with. Tyrrell, who had been delayed by Oslo's desire to conduct an unneeded body search on him, joined the queue just as I did. He looked me up and down and shook his head. "You could use some warming up," he said. "A good night of play in bed, that's what you need."

I began to tell him what he could do with his bed-play; then I found myself with my back flattened against the floor. Sedgewick's hands tightened around my throat.

"Did I say you could talk on my shift?" he asked. His voice was very cool. "Did I?"

How he expected me to talk when he was squeezing the life out of me, I didn't know. I knew better than to hope that he'd complete the act. Just when I was beginning to see sparks behind my eyes, he let go of my throat. My vision cleared, and I began coughing and gasping hoarsely. Tyrrell was outside my line of sight. He had probably been wise enough to move on.

Sedgewick contemplated me a moment. He was sitting on my stomach like a heavy stone, but I didn't bother to try to throw him off. He had my arms trapped with his knees.

He drew his dagger. "Do you remember," he asked, addressing the dagger, "how I came to work on the second level?"

The fingernail of his free hand scraped my skin delicately as he drew an invisible line across my chest, then another parallel to it, just to the right of my right nipple. Then he drew a third line directly across the first two. The fourth line, parallel to the third, scraped both my nipples.

"We were playing cross-hatch, Rufus and I," Sedgewick said as he drew his pattern. "I was winning. You took it into your head to object to the fact that we were carving lines onto your cell floor. You created such a fuss that a guard, overhearing your shouts, panicked and clanged the riot alarm. Which meant, of course, that our Keeper was awoken from his morning nap."

Sedgewick raised the blade and turned it, so that I could see the edge, honed like a razor. Behind the dagger, his gaze was steady on mine.

"We were demoted," said Sedgewick. "Not because we were gambling in a prisoner's cell. Not because we were drinking on duty. Not because we were smoking. Our Keeper didn't care about any of that. What he cared about was that his morning nap had been disturbed. So we were sent down to second level, and our duty time was tripled."

A smile entered Sedgewick's face slowly, starting with the eyes. "Very clever of you," he said softly, "or it would have been, if you hadn't been so foolish as to get yourself in trouble again, so that you were transferred to the second level soon afterwards."

He lowered the blade to where he had drawn the fourth line. I felt the prick as the point pressed at my right nipple. Over my moan, Sedgewick said, still more softly, "Shall we play cross-hatch together? I'll let you choose which mark I should make first."

Several prisoners walked past us. So did Oslo, who was careful not to look our way. Sedgewick didn't like being disturbed when he was busy with his prisoners, and while I wasn't his prisoner, that made little difference here.

Suddenly Sedgewick's head jerked up, and he glared at something in front of him. I wondered which prisoner or guard had been foolish enough to stop and gape at us. I didn't dare try to look, though; Sedgewick's blade was still pricking my nipple.

After a moment, Sedgewick looked back down at me. He stared at the blade in his hand, as though he were not sure what it was doing there. Then, without a word, he sheathed his blade, got up, and left me lying on the ground.

Tyrrell was the one who pulled me to my feet. I ignored him; I was looking round to see who had been the silent eyewitness to this encounter, other than Tyrrell. Finally I was forced to say, "Oslo?"

Tyrrell gave me an odd look. "New guard," he replied. He opened his mouth to say more, but at that moment Oslo came forward to warn us about the penalties of talking while in a queue.

I shrugged. I'd know soon enough what the meaning of that silent exchange had been.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWO

I had trouble sleeping that night. I don't know why; sleep had always been my one blessing at Mercy, transporting me back to the pleasant days preceding my arrest. I usually woke with a smile on my face. But tonight, tired though I was, I found myself staring up at the ceiling, hour after tedious hour, wishing there were cracks there that I could count.

Some of the prisoners had started a debate the previous year over what was most painful about Mercy. Was it the separation from family and friends? The beatings? The humiliations? The backbreaking work? The rapes? The list went on and on.

I hadn't participated in the debate, which, like all such conversations, had taken the form of shouts exchanged between the cells. There was a reason I'd been granted the luxury of a single-man cell: my last three cellmates had been prepared to murder me rather than live another moment with me. Since the death of a prisoner was not, alas, one of the many pains permitted at a life prison, Mercy's Keeper had finally dealt with the problem by giving me a cell of my own – which, of course, had been my plan all along. It was irritating to have to endure being strangled three times in order to achieve what I wanted.

Particularly since I couldn't hope that the stranglings would be successful.

Though I had no desire to become chummy with the bog-scum who inhabited this place, my own unspoken contribution to the debate was that boredom was the greatest pain. Boredom didn't come often – most days after work I was barely awake enough to do whatever my present guard required of me – but when it occurred, it was excruciating, like being flayed slowly by a dagger. I often thought that, if I were ever broken into madness, it would be through such a spell of boredom.

I say all this to explain why, when I heard the cell door being opened at lamp-lighting time, my first thought was not (as one might expect), "Oh, no, not again," but rather, "Thank the gods, something new." I rolled over onto my stomach and raised my head to look.

He was a slightly built man; I could see that at once from the outline of his shape against the fire in the pit. With my eyes still dazzled by the newly lit lamps, I couldn't immediately make out the man's face, but I could see one of his hands, gripping hard the hilt of his dagger. That grip stopped my heart for a moment, but even my wildest imagination couldn't hope that the new guard would start our acquaintance by stabbing me, so I raised my eyes to his face.

And my heart stopped once more. I jerked upright in bed, twinging an old hip wound as I did so. I had been rather foolish during my first year, testing the guards in various ways. I winced.

The guard said softly, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."

"Not at all," I said through gritted teeth as I rubbed my hip. "I'll return the favor when I can."

It took no artifice on my part to sound annoyed, though the annoyance was aimed solely at myself. This was not the guard I had been preparing myself for. I had expected a rod-mutilating monster, and what I found myself faced with was a young man.

His face came full into the light as he stepped forward. Wearing the uniform of a Compassion guard, he looked even more like his father: he had the same thin lips and the same straight eyebrows. But the eyes were empty of all coldness – indeed, of all expression of any sort – and there was no smile on his lips, cruel or otherwise.

"My name is Thomas," he said. "I'm your new guard."

I noted the use of his given name rather than his paternal name, and with the instinct of a veteran fighter I dropped and made my attack accordingly. "Ah, yes," I said. "The son of Compassion's Keeper. I can expect great deeds from you, I'm sure."

His lips grew even thinner, but that was all; it seemed that he was well used to this mode of attack. He said, as though I had not spoken, "My job is to provide service to you during your stay at this prison, and to make your stay as comfortable as is possible under your circumstances. If you have any needs, I hope you will let me know of them."

I stared at him open-mouthed for a moment, and then I gave a hoot of laughter that resounded through the entire level. The early-morning conversations across the fire-pit paused briefly, and Sedgewick, who was passing my cell, glanced in with narrowed eyes before continuing on.

"Let me – let me understand you correctly," I said, struggling to gain control of myself. "You'll give me any service I want?"

"Any service that is in accordance with the rules of your stay."

"But the only rule is that I should not be permitted escape, either through death or any other means. So you'll give me anything else?"

"If it's within reason, yes."

"Anything at all?"

"Tell me what you want, and I'll be able to give you a firm answer." His patience, I saw with delight, was wearing down.

"Fine," I said, leaning back and pulling off the blanket to reveal my body underneath. I had given up wearing clothes at bedtime several guards before. "I want you to come over here and service me on your knees."

There was a pause. The young man's hand tightened on his dagger. I broadened my smile, trying not to be too obvious about how I was watching that hand.

"You are insolent," he said.

"Really?" I replied, letting my smirk be seen.

"Insolence in prisoners must be punished." He seemed to be the sort of man who liked stating the obvious.

"I suppose," I said with a sigh, "that you'll need your father's help with that. After all, you wouldn't have this work if it weren't for him. Nor your rank." I pointed to his shoulder, where the red stripe indicated a first-ranked guard, capable of guarding prisoners in single and dual cells. "Tell me, when you fuck prisoners, does your father stand beside you to give you hints on what to do next?"

I had been more subtle in past attacks; I doubt that I had been as successful. Dim though the cell was, I could see the red spreading down the young man's fair face to his neckline. He said, quite unnecessarily, "I will return."

"Going to fetch your father?" I asked. "Well, you'd better ask him to take the primary duties this morning. Somehow I don't think you're capable of managing the lifting part—"

My words were cut off by the sound of the inner door slamming. I leaned back in my bed, chuckling. If I could make a guard forget himself so much that he would close the inner door while outside the cell rather than inside, then I was halfway to making him kill me.

It took a while for him to return; when he did he had with him Tyrrell's guard, Oslo. "Hurry it up," said Oslo, shoving a pair of dice into his pocket. "I was just about to strip Sedgewick of his earnings."

The new guard, Thomas, ignored him. He had in his hand one of the standard whips issued to guards. I saw with disappointment that it wasn't the leaded whip, but I supposed that this was too much to hope for. Even an unleaded whip could be deadly in the right hands, and these were assuredly the right hands: the blush was gone from Thomas's face, and his eyes had turned as cool as his father's. He waited, his hands twitching with impatience, for Oslo to chain my wrists. "Front or back?" Oslo asked as he ground the links into my flesh. Since floggings on the front never occurred at Mercy, I guessed that he was curious to see how far a guard from Compassion would go.

"Back," replied Thomas. His voice was thinner than before. Oslo turned me round with the smoothness of experience and raised my chained hands above me. Swiftly he inserted the flat end of the chain into the slot in the outer wall, then turned the end so that it was locked in place.

It occurred to me that I was not taking full advantage of the moment. "Oh, so you don't even need daddy to help you with your work," I said. "You'll take anyone's help. Tell me, when you wipe yourself, does your mommy need to—"

"Oh, shut up." Oslo gave my mouth a cuff that left it bleeding. "Tom, do you want this one gagged?"

Thomas said, in a voice that sounded matter-of-fact, "I don't know. Do you give the prisoners here leather to chew on? He might bite into his tongue."

"Not for anything as trivial as this."

"Let it be, then." And then, as I drew breath, he added, in the same level voice, "You'd best not speak. You might bite your tongue at the wrong moment."

I fell silent, but only because I could hear the whistle of the whip as he tested it behind me. Having gone as far as I could to prepare the situation, I allowed myself to grow afraid.

Realistically speaking – and I had always been the most realistic prisoner at Mercy – it was unlikely that Thomas would kill me this morning. If nothing else, he had a witness watching. So this would simply be a preparation to whet his appetite for a stronger encounter in the future, one that would hopefully free me from this place. This was only a preparation.

Only a preparation. I was standing strung up, awaiting the whip of one of the most vicious guards in the nation. I felt myself begin to shake.

"Look, are you going to finish up here or not?" complained Oslo. "The game will be over at this rate."

"Give me a moment, please." Thomas was testing his whip with what seemed to me to be unnecessary thoroughness. I wondered whether this was part of the torture routinely inflicted upon Compassion's prisoners. My breathing grew more rapid.

"He's hyperventilating," Oslo observed in a bored voice. "You make him wait any longer, and he'll work himself into a faint."

"All right." And with those soft words, Thomas brought the whip down onto my back.

There were five lashes in all, the minimum for an insolent prisoner; it was over more quickly than any flogging I'd received in the past. Oslo pulled the chain from me with the efficiency of a mother pulling a napkin from her child and said, "Right, I'm off. Care to join us when you're through?"

His voice was less impatient then before, I noted through the murk of pain. Oslo was always one to appreciate a fine demonstration of lashing.

"Thanks, I'll be there in a few minutes." Thomas's voice was softer and thinner than before. He kept his gaze fixed upon the whip he was rolling into a circle until I had staggered my way to the bed-ledge. Then he looked up.

"I didn't want them to happen," he said, in the same even voice as before, "and I hope it will never happen again. If you treat me with courtesy hereafter, I can assure you I will return the courtesy."

He paused, as though waiting for me to reply, but I said nothing, so he left the cell, with a single backwards glance at me as he closed the outer door.

I waited till I heard his voice nearby, speaking to the dice players, before I flung myself onto my stomach. I did not cry; I had long since taught myself the uselessness of tears. But I came as close as I had to crying for many years: my body quivered, and my throat made sounds I tried to bite back. It was often like this at Mercy. I had prepared myself for the worst, and something yet worse had occurred.

My new guard was not a sadist. He would give me no escape.

o—o—o

That annoying twit Tyrrell asked me about my cut mouth that afternoon.

"Kiss from the new guard?" he called to me from where he was bent over, scrubbing clothes on the washboard. "What's your new one like, Merrick? I tell you, he can't be any worse than the one I've got. Last night Oslo—"

"Should have shoved himself into your mouth and kept you permanently gagged that way. Shut up." I tried to concentrate my thoughts on the staff I was using to heft the laundry from the boiling water. One tale among the Mercy prisoners – probably apocryphal – was of the prisoner who concluded that his only means of escape from Mercy was to jump into the laundry water, and who spent the next forty years dying of his burns. The artist in me was repelled by the idea of so uncertain a method of self-murder. As a result, all that the boiling water represented to me was far too many days spent suffering from water scorches or chemical scalds or an aching back from stirring and lifting the sodden clothes.

Today it was particularly hard to keep my mind on my work. It was not simply that I was exhausted from the work and from lack of sleep, nor that the welts on my back were being rubbed raw by the coarse cloth of my shirt. No, what my mind was trying to avoid was the thought of what awaited me back in my cell. For I had gone too far – not far enough, from one point of view, for this particular guard would refuse me the release I wanted, but I had gone too far to hope to escape with a single punishment. Even a patient guard like this one would have had time to reflect on what I had said and to make his plans accordingly. I cursed myself inwardly, and then caught Tyrrell watching me and cursed him outwardly. I felt somewhat better after that.

Thomas arrived that evening as I was engaging in my usual early-evening activity of staring at the walls. I was tired enough from the day's work to have dropped off to sleep at once, but I have always found it annoying to have my sweet dreams interrupted by a not-so-sweet visit from my guard. Best to stay awake until it was over; then I could console myself with dreams of better days.

As before, he closed only the outer door. I couldn't blame him for that; there are prisoners who consider choking their guard a pleasant pastime, though I have never found that the rewards of such an exercise outweigh the punishment that follows. Still, I wished that he had a better sense of privacy. This was going to be bad enough, without having the rest of the guards watching.

He paused at the doorway. "Good evening," he said.

I didn't reply; I've never seen the point of passing pleasantries with one's rapist. He apparently agreed with me that extended conversation would be a waste of time, for after a moment he said, "Will you take off your shirt, please?"

I took everything off. The only reason my clothes were in as good a shape as they were was that I had done my best to keep my guards from tearing at the fabric. I folded my uniform neatly upon the blankets – I always kept the blankets in a corner when not using them, so as to avoid getting the guards' stains upon them – and then, without waiting for orders, went over to the bed-shelf and placed myself in the position I found least painful, on my stomach.

To my relief, he didn't try to shift me. He walked forward, fully clothed, his hand resting lightly upon his dagger. I wasn't sure whether he meant that as a threat or whether this was simply his natural mode of walking. I kept a careful eye on the dagger in any case. When he reached me, he sat down next to me on the bed-ledge and pulled from his pocket a tiny jar.

I stared, fascinated, as he unscrewed it to reveal the ointment within. Under normal circumstances I would have been delighted – even Avery had only used spit – but my mind was still bitter with the disappointment of the morning. I heard myself say, "Did your daddy give you that as a coming-of-age present?"

His gaze flicked toward my face, then away. He dipped a finger into the ointment and then reached over and touched one of the welts on my back.

I jerked and bellowed, more from the shock than from the feel of the fiery ointment. I just managed to keep myself from hitting him. He raised his hand from my back and said, "Did that hurt?"

"Yes, it bloody well hurt!" I said, annoyed at the man's continued penchant for stating the obvious. "What is that, a salt solution?" I was trembling all through now, and was using every curse I knew against myself. I ought to have expected this, yet I hadn't guessed that he was the type of guard who would rub salt in prisoners' wounds.

He shook his head, dipping his finger into the ointment once more. "It's aloe. Lie still; it will sting for a moment before it begins to work."

I narrowed my eyes, trying to read his face, but the proof of his words' truth could be felt on my back; where the ointment touched one of my welts, the pain was beginning to ease. I closed my eyes and let him apply the rest of the ointment in silence.

He had firm hands, like that of a doctor who applies pain in an impassive manner, knowing that the pain will lead to healing. I'd heard of guards like this; they existed in prisoners' tales like beautiful princesses exist in the tales of ugly boys. I supposed that I ought to be grateful to have been assigned such a guard.

I didn't feel grateful. As I heard the sound of Thomas screwing shut the ointment jar, I said, "You were transferred from Compassion because you showed too much mercy to a prisoner, weren't you?"

I opened my eyes in time to see him turn as white as though I'd just kicked his balls. It was a gratifying sight, and I didn't bother to hide my grin.

He said stiffly, "My transfer is none of your business."

"Only your daddy's business, it seems. You'd have been ejected from the guards if it hadn't been for him protecting you, wouldn't you? What do you suppose he would think of you if he could see you acting as nurse to a prisoner who insulted you—?"

He stood up abruptly, and I tensed, waiting. But he simply said, again stiffly, "Do you have any other needs that require being tended to?"

"Only one," I said, rolling onto my side and enjoying the delicious amusement that came from seeing him shift his gaze away from my body. "It's quite simple. It should be simplest of all for you."

His eyes flicked toward my body briefly, then away again. His face said clearly that he expected to regret this question, but he asked it in a dutiful fashion: "And that need is?"

I let the lightness fall from my voice as I propped myself onto one elbow. "Help me to escape," I said quietly.

He remained frozen in place for a moment, one hand gripping the ointment jar, the other hand white-knuckled upon his dagger hilt. Then he said tersely, "No," and left the cell, slamming the outer door behind him.

I grinned. I had all the information I needed now to deal with this one.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THREE

Breaking a guard is a favorite pastime amongst Mercy prisoners. It doesn't happen often – if any of my previous guards had held vulnerabilities, they'd hidden them well – but any prisoner who succeeds in getting a guard to kowtow to his wishes spends a long while afterwards enduring backslaps and good wishes from the other prisoners.

I could do without the good wishes, but if all went as I planned, I wouldn't be around to receive them. The first thing that was needed was a change of tactics.

When Thomas arrived the next morning – it was my weekly day of rest from work, so I was engaging in a particularly agonizing examination of the walls – I said, before he could speak, "I'm sorry about my bad temper last time. I get out of sorts occasionally."

"Not at all." His reply was cool, as were his eyes, which rested upon me heavily, like a block of ice. It came to me as I watched him that this young man, whatever his flaws might be, had received personal training from Compassion's Keeper. He could not be quite the fool he appeared to be.

I'm nothing if not flexible, as Sedgewick had pronounced on the day he tried me in a dozen different positions. I let the smile drop from my face and said in my normal voice, "Well? What brings you here?"

The coolness disappeared from his eyes, and he said, "The usual. See to your needs and all that. The dancing girls are on their way, but I'm afraid I couldn't fit the performing elephant into the stairwell."

There was a moment's silence, and then, despite myself, I burst into laughter. Thomas grinned like a boy and moved forward, keeping well away from me and resting his hand on his dagger. He inspected the rubbish hole first, then the water – going so far as to give the wall a lick – and then, satisfied, moved to the other end of the cell. "You're short a blanket," he said. "That's against regulations."

I snorted. "There aren't any regulations in the life prisons, or hadn't you noticed?"

"Well, there are customs." He was inspecting the blankets now, checking them for secreted objects. "Short-tail whip – that's the type used at Mercy. Compassion uses the black whip – longer range, harder to control. Four of the other life prisons use the straight whip – rather like a bamboo rod, but more flexible. The remainder use the bamboo rod alone. . . . Your cell could do with some tidying."

Yes, he'd been trained by a Keeper all right. I wondered whether he thought he was scaring me. "What type of bamboo rod?" I asked. "Imported or domestic? The type that splinter? We had a prisoner last year who came close to dying from the splinters alone."

"Those ought to be banned." He got up from his hands and knees from inspecting under my bed. I had retreated into the corner to allow him to do this without nervousness. As he dusted off his hands on his trousers, he said, "Mind you, if a guard does his work properly, he needn't resort to any of those." He looked over at me.

It was hard to say whether his speech was more effective as an apology or as a threat. I was beginning to think that I might have underestimated this young man. My face must have given an adequate reply, for he nodded as though I had spoken. "May I get you anything?" he asked.

"Only those dancing girls," I said. "They would be a bit more interesting than spending the rest of today staring at these walls."

He glanced at the walls. "Mm, yes. Couldn't you talk with the other prisoners?" He had to raise his voice slightly to be heard above the shouts of the other second-level prisoners, who were also back in their cells for their day of rest.

"Those bog-scum?" I raised my voice in hopes that Tyrrell would hear me. "Conversation with them would be like cleaning a rubbish hole."

He said nothing for a moment. His gaze was running over my cell again. "Some of the other prisoners have books or dice. Why don't you?"

"Some of the other prisoners have loved ones who gifted them with books or dice," I said harshly. "My loved ones considered it sufficient gift to offer testimony against me at my trial."

I don't know why I was so candid. For a moment I was afraid he would offer me sympathy; if he had, I think I would have hit him, splintering bamboo rods or not. But he simply said, "I'll be back in a minute."

I returned to contemplating the walls. Next door, Tyrrell was engaged in an amiable argument with his cellmate over whether it should be considered murder or self-murder if one prisoner helped another to die. Neither of them sounded particularly eager to try the experiment. I closed my eyes, grateful that I did not live in Compassion, where each level's prisoners lived in a single cell, and it was said that the worst abuse came, not from the guards, but from one's fellow prisoners. Here the only abuse I had to put up with from prisoners was Tyrrell's nattering voice.

I heard the outer door scrape open, and I opened my eyes to see Thomas standing at the doorway, holding dice in hand. He tossed them to me, saying, "They're Oslo's spare pair, but I'll get you your own on my day off, when I visit my fiancée."

I stared down at the ivory cubes. They were the first gift I'd received since my arrival at this place – my first gift, indeed, since Sharon gave me her flowers. I looked up to see whether Thomas expected me to be grateful. But he had already left.

o—o—o

He returned earlier than I had expected him, at midafternoon, while I was idly throwing the dice up to the ceiling and seeing whether they would fall within arm's reach. "Do they work well?" he asked, as though he had handed me some sort of esoteric machinery that required delicate skill to be run.

"Well enough," I said, "if I knew any games of solitaire."

I had spent all afternoon rehearsing my speech. I was pleased to see Thomas sit down immediately on the floor, across from me. He kept a good distance from me, I noticed, and his hand was not far from his dagger.

I found that flattering. I tossed him the dice, and he contemplated the cubes as though they were objects of a secret rite. Sighing, I began to explain to him their purpose.

He was a quick learner; by late afternoon he was winning one round out of eight, his eyes narrowed with concentration as he contemplated whether to risk the soft fish bones we were using as stakes. In the midst of one of the rounds, he said, "Why did your family testify against you?"

I had been expecting the question. I was able to keep my voice calm as I said, "I killed my niece. Look, you don't want to gamble all of your stakes at once. If you lose, you'll have nothing to play with."

"But if I gamble only a little each time, I'll never win the whole."

"Better that than losing the whole. Trust me on this." I pushed forward a few bones, tossed the dice, and grunted with satisfaction as the results turned my way.

He pushed me my winnings, saying, "How old was she?"

This was ridiculous; he must know the answer from my prison records. But I found myself saying, "Three. It was her third birthday when I killed her. I took her on a secret expedition to pick flowers for her mother. . . . I figured that, even if any of the family guessed who had done it, they'd keep quiet out of family pride. My error." I tossed the dice and cursed softly as the roll went against me.

Leaning forward to take the bones, he said, "You'd planned it beforehand, then?"

I snorted. "Do you think they'd send me to a place like this for a crime of momentary passion? I'd been planning it for a year – had notes, sketches, maps. My family found them after her death and turned the evidence over to the magistrates. . . . Look, you're gambling too high again."

"Sorry." He pulled back half the stakes and said, "A full year?"

I shrugged. "Or since I was in my calf-days, depending on how you look at it. That's how long I'd had fantasies of killing someone. I used to practice murder techniques on any stray cats I caught."

I glanced over at him to see how he'd take this, but he didn't look up from the dice he was fingering. He said, "It happens that way sometimes. You discover early on that you're different from how people expect you to be."

It was the opening I'd been waiting for; I'm not sure why I didn't take it. Possibly because this was the first person, aside from nosy Tyrrell, who had demonstrated any interest in my story. I waited for the dice to finish rolling, then said, "Yes, well, I suppose not many men can say they've fulfilled the supreme dream of their childhood. I still have dreams about killing her, you know – sweet, sweet dreams. Those memories are a source of never-ending pleasure to me."

I looked over at him again, but if he was shocked, he was doing well at hiding it. He carefully pushed forward a few bones and said, "Dreams can be pleasant, however strange they may seem to outsiders. But is forcing someone else to live out your dreams fair?"

I snorted again. "You sound like my father. 'Imaginings are one thing, acts are another' – that's the only thing he said to me when the soldiers came to arrest me. He never spoke to me again. A bit late, that advice; I could have used it at age six, when he found me methodically stabbing all of my sister's dolls. But he didn't say anything to me then or any of the times in later years when he caught me at that sort of thing. He just took the dagger away and beat me, acting as though he wasn't hosting a murderer in his house."

I was surprised at how bitter my voice sounded; I had thought that I'd pushed these memories aside long ago. With his straight brows drawn low as he contemplated my stakes, Thomas said, "Would it have made a difference if he'd spoken to you?"

I thought about this a moment, then shook my head. "Probably not. I knew well enough what people would think of me once they guessed what I was, as they inevitably would. I figured that, if people were going to despise me, I might as well have had some pleasure along the way to make up for that. . . . It's your turn."

"Mm?" He shook his head, as though freeing himself from some daydream. I found myself wondering whether he was actually listening to my replies. He picked up the dice and said, "So you think it was worth it?"

"Worth this? Nothing's worth this. But if I could have gotten away with it . . . If you were to hand me your dagger and send Sharon into this cell, I'd do it again. Your roll."

He took the dice silently, and I thought I'd finally shocked him from this useless conversation. After a while, though, he said, "Would it need to be a little girl you killed?"

I grinned at him then. "No, it could be anyone. A young man of twenty would do."

Disconcertingly, he smiled back. "If you're trying to scare me, you're too late," he said.

"You're afraid of me?" I said, pleasantly surprised.

"All of the guards are. You have the reputation of being the most vicious prisoner at Mercy. You've sent five guards to the city hospitals, one of whom left service permanently because of you."

"Oh." It took me a minute to remember the guards in question. I had undertaken a lot of risky deeds during my first year, back when I still thought they could do any good. "It was self-defense," I said finally.

"I've no doubt it was." He tossed the dice down, saying, "I'm out of stakes; you win this round."

I looked down at the dice, trying to figure out how I'd won. Thomas rose to his feet to stretch. I leaned back against the bed-shelf, saying, "You'll get better, provided you keep your stakes low. . . . I suppose they assigned you to me because they figured that a guard from Compassion could keep me in hand."

I thought for a moment he wouldn't reply. Then he said, in a low voice, "The assignment was arranged by my father. Look, I have duties to see to; may I get you anything?"

"No need." I smiled up at him. "I have everything I need now."

o—o—o

From that point on, we played dice every evening. After the first day, our stakes were hard candies supplied by Thomas. If I won, I kept all the candies, while if Thomas won, I kept all the candies. It was that sort of game.

I made sure he won at least half the time, though; I wanted to keep his temper sweet. It wasn't hard. If I'd tried to strangle him, I suspect that he would have appeared at my doorway with an apology for failing his duty as my guard. I should have had utter contempt for his softness, but something about the way his eyes turned cool when I took an occasional misstep warned me that I ought not to hurry my conclusions about him.

After the first day, the subject of his father didn't come up, and I cursed myself for missed opportunities. I tried making general enquiries about his family, but to no avail. From the gossip of the other guards, I heard tales about Thomas's fiancée, whose primary virtue appeared to be that she would beat him bloody if he so much as turned his eyes in lust toward another human being.

Thomas never spoke of her to me. Instead, we discussed philosophy.

"It's like in music," he said. "There are strict rules determining which notes sound beautiful together."

"I heard a foreign band once that didn't adhere to any rules about beautiful notes," I replied.

He shrugged. "Maybe you just didn't know their rules well enough. The rules don't have to be the same everywhere. But there has to be some sort of regulation, some sort of boundary, or there's no beauty."

I shook my head as I passed him the dice. "Beauty's in freedom, not in prison walls. Listen: Who are the happiest men in Mercy? The guards, because they have no rules to adhere to except that they should keep us imprisoned. The rest of us have the rules – we're the miserable ones."

He sighed as he watched the dice tumble. "If you make a rule that random notes are beautiful, that won't make the notes any more beautiful. Rules have to make sense. When they make sense, the results are more beautiful than a lack of rules."

He was filled with pretty nonsense like that. I listened to it just as much as was necessary to keep the conversation going. My own thoughts were on how to break beyond the boundaries imposed upon me so I could regain my freedom, and my nights were filled, more than ever, with thoughts of Sharon. I would wake each morning with a sigh of happiness. "Beautiful boundaries," my ass. If Thomas had known what it was like on that day of freedom . . .

All this time he was taking care to keep his distance from me. I began to suspect that this was as much courtesy to me as it was security to himself. Though he never said so explicitly, it was clear from all his talk of boundaries what he thought of the other guards' behavior toward their charges. I asked him once, when I had gotten to know him well enough to ask such questions, how he got along with the other guards.

"Well enough," was his surprising answer. "They think I'm eccentric, of course, but I don't try to suggest that my way is better than theirs, so we get along fine."

This would have given me pause for thought, if I'd been in any mood to pause. But the more I got to know the young man, the more sure I was of the success of my plan, and the more impatient I was to put it in action. The trouble was how to do so without making him unduly wary.

I was unable to take my first steps until the morning he arrived at my cell wearing cool eyes.

At first I was afraid the cause was me. It was the beginning of the day, but I had been awake since well before lamp-lighting, having been woken by screams in another cell. I found this irritating, as I'd long since trained myself to ignore such routine noises. Now I was curled up on the bed-shelf with a book, a gift from Thomas. The only thing more boring to me than walls are books, but I hadn't told him this, naturally, and I was in the habit of bringing out the book during the minutes before I expected him to arrive each day.

Catching sight of Thomas's eyes, I slowly uncurled myself, my body tingling in preparation for whatever punishment I was about to receive. It would be an unjust punishment, of course, but I was used to those.

But all he said was, "I can't stay for long. There's a meeting of the guards this morning."

"What sort of meeting?" I asked, not really caring.

He had already turned away, though, and was kneeling next to my blankets. "They still haven't delivered the third blanket. I'll have to get it from supply myself. Nothing works in this prison the way it should—" His voice broke off abruptly. From where I sat, facing his back, I could see the trembling along his shoulder-line.

Someone once said to me, "Don't stand useless! Do something!" Well, all my attempts at doing since that day had ended in disaster; I had long since adopted the philosophy that it is better to stand back and let matters take whatever course they will. So it could only have been unusual curiosity on my part that prompted me to rise from the bed-shelf and walk toward Thomas.

I was still three steps behind him and just starting to put my hand forward when he rose and whirled, faster than a whip. The dagger was in his hand before he had risen. It was the first time since my flogging that I'd truly seen him at work, and if I'd had any doubts about where he received his training, they were erased in that moment.

It unnerved me, so naturally I reacted with a snarl. "Put that bloody blade away before you hurt yourself, calf-boy. Do you think I have nothing better to do this morning than face the leaded whip for trying to strangle you?"

"I'm sorry." The dagger was already in its sheath before I'd had time to speak. "I'm not at my best today."

"So it would seem." I was tempted to let the matter die there – I'd lost whatever driblet of curiosity had driven me forward – but I couldn't think of any way to step back without looking nervous, so I said, "What's wrong with you anyway? You're acting like a jittery three-year-old."

For a moment he didn't reply; then he said softly, "Sedgewick found Harrow in bed with Dorn this morning."

"What?" This was news of the decade. Harrow was the older prisoner whom Dorn had been whipped for defending. Love affairs between prisoners were an old tale, but until now, the most that any pair not cellmated had managed to accomplish was a two-minute coupling in the kitchen when a guard stepped away from supervising the workers. That coupling had taken place in front of a dozen prisoners; the desperate yearning of prisoner love-mates was well known.

"How did Harrow manage that?" I asked, my curiosity returned.

"They haven't figure out yet; that's what the meeting's about. There will probably be new customs instituted that may affect you. . . ." His voice trailed off. It was clear that, for once, his mind was not on me.

"What of Harrow and Dorn?" I asked, giving him the lead he wanted.

All at once the chill was back in his eyes, and when he spoke, his voice was colorless. "They have already received part of their punishment. Harrow was forced to watch while Sedgewick raped Dorn. Then Harrow's guard put his whip to Harrow while Sedgewick told Dorn, at every stroke, that it was all his fault. Harrow made hardly a sound, I'm told, but Dorn was screaming by the end. They've put Harrow down on the first level, where he'll stay for a week; then he's to be transferred to the third level."

He recited this tale without any shock in his voice – and indeed, I could have told him several dozen variations upon it. So I jerked with surprise in the next moment when he suddenly said, with the ferocity of a snake striking, "It's not right."

"Right?" I gave a dry laugh. "Who's to say what's right or wrong in a prison with no boundaries?"

"Oh, there are boundaries all right." He pointed at my blanket, taking on suddenly the voice of the supply master. "'No, Merrick can't be given a third blanket; he was given three blankets upon arrival. Yes, some prisoners give back their third blanket, but Merrick can't have any of their blankets; he was given three blankets upon arrival. No, you can't buy Merrick a blanket; he was given three blankets upon arrival. . . .' If they can come up with such blastedly rigid regulations for counting blankets, why can't they bind the guards to make them treat the prisoners like human beings rather than cattle?"

"My father's a cattle farmer," I replied. "I envy his beasts."

"Then you see what I mean." He was pacing back and forth along the edge of the cell now, like a newbie prisoner. "There are customs for everything in this prison: when the lamps should be lit and dimmed, what sort of shifts the prisoners should be given, what sort of luxuries the prisoners should be permitted, and so on. If we can decide that prisoners should be permitted fruit no more than four times a year, why shouldn't we decide that guards should not be allowed to ill-treat their prisoners?"

"Well," I said, "have you tried suggesting this to your father?"

He stopped in midstride and looked back at me. I waited, my body tingling in anticipation of his reply.

"Tom!" From behind us, Oslo clanged his dagger against the bars of my door as he passed. "Give your love-mate a goodbye kiss and hurry your body. The meeting's about to start."

"Thanks, Oslo." Thomas turned, and I stepped back to give him room to unlock the outer door.

"Your love-mate?" I said as Oslo greeted Sedgewick cheerfully nearby. Sedgewick grunted in reply. "Is that what the guards call me now?"

He shrugged. "They can't think of any other explanation for why I treat you as I do. Simple humanity doesn't seem motive enough."

"No," I said softly as he stepped away. "It doesn't, does it?"

o—o—o

Thomas failed to arrive at his usual time that afternoon. I didn't see him till the evening, when he appeared, with the other guards, at the disciplinary meeting held for the prisoners.

It was conducted, like all such meetings, in the disciplinary hall. The prison's so-called first level actually consisted of three levels: the balcony extending off of the Keeper's quarters, where announcements were made and major punishments administered; below it the disciplinary hall, where the prisoners stood; and under the hall, deep and dark and cold, the disciplinary cells.

Not that warmth could readily be found during early spring at any level of the round tower housing Mercy's prisoners. Rank helped to determine such matters, though: the higher the level, the greater the warmth. I had been assigned to the second level since three weeks after my arrival – the sixth level had been nice while it lasted – but I was no stranger to the frigid cells on the first level.

Now all of us prisoners stood in the disciplinary hall, while the guards looked down at us from above, aside from the few who were kept at close range to maintain order. Thomas was among the guards above; he was standing near Mercy's Keeper, looking no different from the other guards, but the chill was back in his eyes.

We were told the consequences for Dorn and Harrow's deed: All privileges for prisoners stopped for a month. New "customs" that further cut the limited amount of cell visiting between prisoners that had been permitted in the past. A new regulation forbidding speech between prisoners at work; I saw Tyrrell's face fall at that announcement. Restrictions on the hours during which prisoners could shout at each other from their cells. And so on – I grew bored after a certain point and stopped listening.

I was amused but not surprised to see that none of the regulations were aimed at the guards who – prisoners' rumors had already determined – were at fault in this case. It was said that a cross-cell visit between Harrow and Dorn on the previous evening had gone awry when Harrow's guard, Rufus, was called away on an urgent family matter, and Dorn's guard let himself be lured away to a dice game. Within a short while, Sedgewick had become so absorbed in the game that he had forgotten about the prisoners who were now making frantic love together, convinced that this would be their only chance. As, indeed, it would.

There were some grumbles from the prisoners during the announcements, but not many; the guards nearby had whips in hand. Judiciously, Mercy's Keeper permitted us a few minutes to grouse together before we were led back to our cells.

"So what do you think?" Tyrrell asked me.

I didn't reply. I was watching the man who had just stepped out from the Keeper's quarters and was making his way toward one of the guards.

Thomas sighted him a moment later. He stiffened, like a dog meeting an enemy, then made his way over to the cold-eyed man awaiting him. His father said something to him – I could guess that it was much the same as Tyrrell's question had been – and what followed I can only describe as the most entertaining theatrical production I have ever had the opportunity to attend.

Well-trained guards do not fight in public, and both of these men were assuredly well-trained. No voices were raised, no gestures were made, no fists were clenched. All of the activity came in the form of the expressions, which built, like a beautiful piece of music, into a crashing crescendo. I found myself wondering whether this melody was regulated by boundaries, or whether I would be privileged to witness one of the few guard-to-guard murders to take place in the history of the life prisons.

It appeared there were boundaries. The two men stepped back – they had ample room, for the other guards, seeing their expressions, had elected to stay far back from Compassion's Keeper and his son. A few more words were said, apparently of the conventional sort. Compassion's Keeper gave a stiff nod of farewell to his son and returned to where Mercy's Keeper was watching all this with ill-kept amusement. Thomas turned away and, without any hesitation, walked over to join a conversation taking place between Oslo and several of the other guards. It was hard to decide which man had fared better in the contest; they both gave the appearance of being fresh from the fray.

"So what do you think?"

At first I thought Tyrrell's question referred to my assessment of the battle above; then I realized that he was still concerned with more mundane matters. I said, "Anyone who gives his heart to someone else in this place shouldn't be surprised if those are the results."

Tyrrell's expression turned from eager enquiry to something more closed. After a moment he said quietly, "You're a cold man, Merrick."

I shrugged and pointed to the frost-laden walls. "Could be the surroundings, don't you think?"

"Maybe," he said slowly. "But I think you'd be cold anyway."

He stopped speaking to me after that day. Even on the worst days, fortune can shine.

o—o—o

Mercy was quietly restless during the next couple of weeks, as is often the case after a disciplinary meeting. Despite the new regulations on prisoners' interactions, rumors flew between the prisoners' cells as freely as before. From one of those rumors I learned that Thomas had successfully intervened on Harrow's behalf, arguing that the hard flogging that prisoner had received made him a poor candidate for a week in the chill disciplinary cells. What if Harrow should die? Mercy's Keeper agreed, suspending the isolation sentence but refusing Thomas's request that Harrow remain on the second level.

Myself, I couldn't help but wonder whether this was all a clever ploy by Harrow to get himself moved up. Not only was it warmer on the upper levels, but there was less time spent with guards. Rather than one guard being assigned to each prisoner, on the upper levels one guard was assigned to each half dozen cells. This had obvious advantages for the prisoner, come nightfall.

It was a continuing joy to me now to spend my nights free of guards. Every now and then, when Thomas was on night watch and he noticed that I was still awake, he would call out a soft greeting, but he never entered my cell after the day-lamps were extinguished. I could lie on my bed for hour after hour, watching the pattern of firelight upon the walls and hearing the grunts and groans in adjoining cells, smug in the knowledge that I would still be unmolested come morning.

This is not to say that I let my thoughts slip from my true goal. During the daytime, I made what I could of our opportunities to talk: Thomas's brief visits in the mornings to see whether I had any needs before the work-day began, and his longer visits in the evenings and on rest-days, when we threw dice and exchanged seemingly idle talk. To my frustration, I had run out of luck again in finding a way to get him to talk about his father. Finally, lacking greater inspiration, I asked him what the fight had been about.

He was silent through the next three rolls of the dice; then he said abruptly, "Did your father want you to be a cattle-farmer?"

"I expect so," I said. "I never made the mistake of letting him think I did."

He gave a soft chuckle. "I don't recall ever being asked. It was one of those unwritten customs that everyone takes for granted."

His story was much as I had guessed it to be. He had been raised by a mother who wept for hours upon seeing an ant squashed and by a father whose idea of a pleasant rest-day activity was to take his five-year-old son to major prison floggings. Surprisingly, the boy had managed to steer a sane path in life, embracing his father's desire that he should become a guard at a life prison, but maintaining his own views on how to do so.

"My problem was that I gained most of my knowledge about life prisons from books," he said, fingering the now-forgotten dice. "Of course I heard my father's tales when he came home to visit on his days off, but I held faith that somehow his stories could be reconciled with the books I'd been reading, which told how the life prisons were supposed to work."

"Is that where you got the litany you chanted me about making my stay comfortable?"

He nodded. "The original idea behind the life prisons was that some men had forfeited the right to remain free, but that they retained all their other rights, most especially the right to life. That was why these were named 'life prisons.' The life prison guards had two duties: to protect the rights of our nation's people by keeping the prisoners confined, and to protect the rights of the prisoners by keeping them alive and occupied with productive work."

The side of his mouth turned up as he let the dice trickle through his fingers. "It's still there in the language; when you become a guard, you enter into service. But somewhere along the way the original ideals were lost, I think because nobody took the trouble to codify them into rules. The original creators of the life prisons seemed to have assumed that the guards would go on behaving in a civilized fashion, offering as humane a treatment as was possible to men who must be locked away for life."

I gave a loud snort at this, and Thomas smiled. "I know – they really were idealists. So was I, till my father became Keeper."

One of the Keeper's privileges is that his family can live in prison with him. This happened when Thomas was twelve, and from that time forward he had the opportunity to see a life prison in its full glory.

"I suppose you're wondering why I became a guard anyway," he said. He'd been staring at the ground, but now he raised his head to give me a half-smile.

"Not really," I said. "Good hours. Unlimited sex. Best of all, the thrilling chance to wield a leaded whip."

He laughed, drawing his legs up to his chest so that he could rest his chin on his knees. "The hours are terrible. No, the problem is that my father is right: I do have the qualities that make for a good guard. I'm methodical and can organize efficiently. I get along well with the other guards. I picked up the various skills I needed easily—"

"Such as administering punishment in a cool fashion?" I suggested.

He nodded. "I'm grateful I inherited that from my father. It's not as easy for me as it is for him, but I'd rather run the danger of being too cold in my approach than end up too hot. Keeping control of oneself is half the battle of being a guard."

"You should teach that to the other guards," I said dryly. "Not many of them know the meaning of the term 'self-control.' So you're the perfect guard?"

"Far from perfect, but I'll do." He rolled the dice back and forth with the tips of his boots for a moment before saying, "My father wants me to become Compassion's Keeper. He's just waiting for me to acquire the proper amount of experience before he retires in my favor."

"So? Compassion could do worse."

He flung himself to his feet, so suddenly that I retreated in an automatic manner, keeping my eye on his dagger. But his vision was blind to me. He strode back and forth across the front of the cell, saying, "If I became Keeper, it would be an endorsement of this lunatic system that is used to control prisoners. How can I come out of my quarters to say, 'Ah, this prisoner was found loving another prisoner? Beat him till he bleeds, then throw him in a lightless cell for a week.'"

"You're endorsing the system now, by being a guard," I reminded him.

He stopped pacing, and his lips thinned. "Yes, I know. That's why—" He stopped.

Hoping we had finally reached the point I had been seeking these past three weeks, I said, "That's why you helped the prisoner at Compassion?"

From the startled look on his face, I gathered that his thoughts had been elsewhere, but after a moment during which I held my breath, he said in a quiet voice, "Yes, that's why. I thought I could do some good, if not for all the prisoners, then for one."

"By helping him to escape?"

I was rewarded this time by a look of shock, quickly shuttered. He sat down cross-legged and said evenly, "I didn't know the news had reached here. My father tried to ensure few people heard about it."

I decided there was no harm in letting him feel indebted to me. "I guessed – but I haven't shared my guesses with anyone. I take it the escape wasn't successful?"

"No, thank goodness." He caught my look and said, "My father showed me the prisoner's records afterwards. The man had been in and out of prisons for thirty years. He kept promising he'd reform his ways, and then he'd go and do some deed that was even more dreadful than before. It would have been a tragedy if he'd escaped, like letting a deadly leopard loose among schoolchildren. I deserved the discipline I've been receiving for that."

"Of course." As I said, I'm nothing if not adaptable. I was marking my new course before he'd finished speaking. "We're in life prison for a reason, don't forget that. Still, it seems like an overly harsh sentence to me. All of us here would probably have been better off if we'd been given the death sentence."

He glanced at me briefly but said nothing; he had returned to fingering the dice.

I let the matter go for the moment, saying, "You agree with your father on this, but not on other matters?"

He nodded. "I've tried talking to him about our disagreements. We . . . Well, you saw for yourself how our arguments go."

"'Never argue with one who loves you,'" I said, quoting the old proverb. "Emotions get in the way of debate."

"That's just it." He rolled the dice back and forth with his fingers, as though he were a long-time dicer. "Despite everything, we care about each other, and it hurts both of us that the other person won't be the way we want him to be. My father keeps trying to mold me into his image of an ideal guard."

"Hmm." I had been about to end the conversation, having achieved what I wanted, but now, thinking back on the cold-eyed man with his firm grip upon the young man's shoulder, I had one of my few brilliant moments.

"Has it occurred to you," I said slowly, "that your father might respect you more if you broke free of him entirely on disciplinary matters? Suppose you went to him and said, 'Sir, I wish you to give me precisely the same treatment as all the other guards receive. If I disobey rules' – there's only one rule, but never mind – 'if I disobey rules, I expect to be punished, but otherwise I want the exact same freedom that the other guards have to do as they wish. You've given them the freedom to rape prisoners; I want the freedom to refrain from raping prisoners. You've given them the freedom to flog prisoners for trivialities; I want the freedom to flog prisoners only for major offenses. If I decide, on my own initiative, to create boundaries in my interactions with my prisoners, then it should concern you no more than it concerns you if another guard decides to ignore all boundaries with his prisoners.'"

He was smiling before I'd finished my speech. Throwing the dice up and catching them, he said, "I wish I'd had you as my counsellor two years ago, when I first became a guard. I think it's too late now; my father and I have become too fixed in our approach toward each other. Still, I'll give it some thought. I have another three weeks to decide, before I go back."

My stomach did not quite fall to the floor, but it jiggled up and down for a moment. I suppose I must have looked queasy. "Go back?"

His face immediately took on its tone of profound apology. "I'm sorry, I thought you'd been told. My discipline only lasts two months. My father said, 'We'll see how you handle the worst prisoner at Mercy; then we'll decide your future here.'"

Under ordinary circumstances, I would have been flattered by this speech. As it was, I was too busy cursing myself.

It wasn't as though I hadn't known our time together would be short. The shifting of guards from prisoner to prisoner was one of the unwritten customs of the life prisons; I'd never had a guard for more than six months at a time. But three weeks! How could I finish my plans in the space of three weeks?

"I'll be sorry to see you go," I said finally, my most genuine contribution to the conversation so far.

He smiled and ducked his head, looking suddenly his age. "I'll be sorry to leave. I've had twenty-eight prisoners" – he spoke this number casually, as though every guard kept track of such information – "but none that took the trouble that you have to ask after my life."

"Well," I said, trying not to smile, "some guards find those sorts of questions offensive. They prefer to discuss such matters only with their friends."

I saw a hint of his smile as he glanced up. "I suppose I'll develop friends amongst the guards eventually. I don't have any friends outside the prison; I've lived at Compassion for the past eight years."

"What about your fiancée?"

It was only the second time I'd seen him blush. It made him look even younger than before. "Well . . . she doesn't exist, actually."

"Oh?" I did my best to sound surprised.

"No, I invented her when I first became a guard. She was a convenient excuse to the other guards for me not to rape my prisoners. I suppose I should put her to rest. Everyone has guessed by now that I'm not held back from rape by a jealous fiancée."

"You'd best get rid of her," I said, "if there's any chance that you'll fall in love while in prison. That seems likely, considering you spend nearly all your time here."

He looked up sharply then, but only said, "I haven't met any guards yet that I fancy that way."

I shrugged. "So," I concluded, "you hate the life prisons, think that the men who run the prisons are morally deplorable . . . and the person you are closest to in love is the Keeper of Compassion Prison."

His eyes turned chill, and there was an accompanying shiver down my back. But it seemed that his coolness was reserved for himself, for after a moment he said in a level voice, "You have a talent for pinpointing the primary source of pain. You would have made a good guard."

I smiled at him as he rose to leave. "Not enough control," I said.

Which was a lie. In my opinion, I'd controlled that conversation very well indeed.

o—o—o

I knew what he wanted, of course. I doubt that he did; when I caught him looking at me during our dice games, he would show no signs of embarrassment or shyness, only a faint puzzlement, as though he were hearing a foreign melody sung in a tonal scheme he did not yet understand.

Anyone else at Mercy could have deciphered the mystery during the interval between two lashes: he had Wistful Virgin inscribed all over him. But apparently, being unaware of the true nature of his interest in me, he had given no hint of it to others. Though I kept a careful ear to the rumors, it seemed that the guards' references to me being his love-mate were purely jocular.

You will be wondering by now why I didn't take advantage of this. Indeed, I wondered it myself. It would be an obvious method by which to affix his affections to me and get what I wanted. I suppose I did not quite dare to go that far, knowing that I was dealing with a well-trained guard who would be on the alert for obvious ploys. The guard who risks himself for his beloved prisoner is a weary cliché; better that I not alert Thomas to the fact that he was well on his way to living out that cliché.

There were other reasons, of course. The faintest thought of sex had become distasteful to me within my first year at Mercy, and even if this had not been the case, I would have received no pleasure from a night encounter with Thomas – no pleasure unless he allowed me to stab him a few times. I'd given up at an early age trying to understand what drew other males to sex. The best I could guess was that it was akin to what had drawn me to a flowering glade with Sharon.

Sexually naive as Thomas was, I could have hidden this from him, but I was grateful that there was no necessity for me to do so. Indeed, I was receiving a great deal of enjoyment out of the fact that our relationship was seemingly honest – more honest than any relationship I'd ever had with a guard.

The black lie poisoning the core of our relationship remained hidden, and time was running out for me to make use of it.

Life was much as usual in the meantime. Tyrrell's cellmate had acquired a new guard, one who was not averse to the sight of blood. Loud moans came from that cell every night now. The mind of a quiet young prisoner came suddenly, shatteringly undone, and the youth had to be hauled from the laundering room as he screamed his fears about the spiders into whose web he had fallen. He was reassigned to the easier work of weaving, which activity seemed natural to him in light of his new surroundings.

Sedgewick was now supervising the laundering room, and he was amusing himself by recounting to me tales of days gone by. He was a sadist without doubt, but one who had such adamantine control over himself that he was of no use to me. I ignored him, as I ignored the familiar mutter of "Baby killer" from the other prisoners. Tyrrell still was not speaking to me.

And so it continued. A rest-day came and went, with the usual tedium relieved only by my dice-game with Thomas, but I could not figure out how to bring us closer to my goal. There were only ten days left now.

And then something happened that was so glorious, so utterly wonderful that it was as though my dreams of Sharon had suddenly turned real, and the second level was covered with a soft drift of sweet-scented flowers.

A prisoner was sentenced to the leaded whip.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FOUR

One must give Dorn credit for novelty: he was the first second-level prisoner I'd ever known who was assigned the leaded whip for any reason other than trying to murder a guard.

One of the few advantages of living on the second level was that it was close to the ground; just a few steps down the stairwell was the prison's main exit. At least, I had thought this was an advantage when I first arrived at Mercy, and had laughed inwardly at the folly of the Keeper's decision to place the most dangerous prisoners in close proximity to their means of escape.

Five tries later – followed by five visits to the cells on the first level – I conceded that the Keeper knew what he was doing. Since then I had watched men far more clever than myself encounter similar defeat in getting past the system of locked gates and guards and passwords that led to the outside world. Still, one would have expected a newbie prisoner who slipped past the second-level guards to make a try down those half-dozen steps.

Dorn did not. He went up the steps, trying to reach the third level, where Harrow was.

He was captured before he could reach the level. This being his third offense for essentially the same crime, there was never any doubt what punishment he would receive. From the moment that news reached our level of his capture, the mood in the cells was a mixture of somberness and bright anticipation. The bright anticipation came from the prisoners who held a taste for blood.

I was not one of those. The fool Tyrrell had once implied to me that I must find floggings exciting, given my background. I didn't bother to explain to him the difference between torture and murder. I was no more inclined than the average man to receive joy out of seeing a prisoner's skin lashed, knowing, as I did, that the prisoner would still be alive at the end of the proceedings.

But I had to admit that there was something special about a flogging such as this. The only cases any of us had ever heard of in which a Mercy prisoner died under lashing had occurred when the leaded whip was being used.

We assembled once more in the dark disciplinary hall. On the balcony where the guards stood, the prisoner had already been strung to the whipping post. None of us looked at Dorn, though; everyone's eyes were reserved for the door through which each level's prisoners were entering, escorted by guards.

Harrow was one of the last prisoners to arrive. There was little in his expression to satisfy the most sadistic observer, though his eyes were turned up toward the balcony from the moment of his entrance. He was flanked on both sides by third-level guards, but Thomas, who was one of the guards assigned to keep watch over us in the hall, came forward and said something inaudible to them. They withdrew, gratitude spread upon their faces, toward the metal stairs leading to the warmer balcony.

Thomas leaned over and murmured something in Harrow's ear. The older prisoner nodded in acknowledgment, but did not move his gaze from the balcony. Thomas returned to his previous position, then looked upward as his name was spoken.

It was Mercy's Keeper. He shouted something to Thomas I could not catch, and the young man responded by running lightly up the wrought metal staircase. There the Keeper spoke to Thomas for several minutes, at one point handing him a piece of paper. The young man glanced at it, then slipped it into his pocket without comment and continued to listen to the Keeper's words.

I grew bored eventually and let my attention travel over to the whipping post. Dorn's face couldn't be seen, but not surprisingly he had begun to shake during this lengthy wait; the cold would have been reason enough for that. I myself was beginning to rub my arms and to blow on my hands, and I was hardly the only prisoner doing so. Amidst the shifting waters of the sea of prisoners, Harrow stood unmoved, a rock with an unreadable expression.

I wondered whether the delay was caused by an inability to reach a decision over who should have the privilege of wielding the leaded whip today. The leaded whip was two feet longer than the whips ordinarily used by Mercy guards, and was knotted with pieces of lead so small that you'd have sworn they'd have little effect, unless you'd seen the whip in use. It was a machine of pain as effective as the old-time rack, and its reputation was such that even Mercy's non-sadistic guards would vie for the opportunity to wield the coveted weapon.

Mercy's Keeper, I could guess, would pick carefully among them, for the leaded whip was also a deadly instrument. It was a hard tool to control; I'd seen it once in the hands of a guard who could not command it, and that was the messiest punishment I'd witnessed in all my years at Mercy. If Mercy's Keeper wanted to ensure that Dorn was still alive after this was over, he'd select a guard who had better chance of keeping hold of the whip. Certainly he'd have enough volunteers to choose from: looking around, I could see a hopeful expression in the eyes of all the guards nearest to me.

The prisoners had begun to grow restless now. The guards who were assigned to watch over us moved forward, whips in hand, flicking their lashes where necessary. I had lost sight of Thomas; he was not at his original station, nor where he had been standing to talk.

Mercy's Keeper had returned to the front of the balcony. He raised his hand, and the lashes on the ground below forced silence. Then he began to explain why the punishment would take place.

I could have recited the speech for him. I let my attention wander, and only came back into awareness as the tension around me alerted me to the fact that the speech was over and the punishment about to begin.

Dorn was now shaking so badly that he looked like a man with palsy. His face was still hidden against the post. I glanced over at Harrow, who had sweat on his face now, and then turned back in time to see the volunteer step forward who had been granted the privilege of wielding the leaded whip.

Among the many things I had anticipated to happen that day, this had not been one of them.

Thomas did not immediately set to work. Instead, he carefully unwound the whip, checking each knot of lead as he went. At one point he paused to tighten a loose knot. Then he let the lash fall full toward the floor, like a tiny black waterfall. I thought that he would test the whip a few times now, but he did not. Instead he leaned over and said something to Dorn, who nodded vigorously. His gesture translated itself quite plainly into words: "Get on with it." Then Dorn turned his head, and I saw that he was biting his lip, clearly struggling to keep as long as possible from screaming, knowing, as he did, that his love-mate must be watching.

There was a pause as Thomas placed a bit of leather between Dorn's teeth, and then my guard stepped back. And back. And back, until I wondered whether Thomas fully understood the length of this whip and the resultant consequences for lack of control. If he did not, the results could be quite nasty. I found myself wincing. I didn't want Dorn dead; that would destroy all my plans. Why had that cursed Keeper chosen a young, gentle guard for this task rather than men who were far better qualified?

I nearly missed the beginning of the punishment; a blink would have erased it. Thomas struck no dramatic poses, did not even pause his arm to judge whether his distancing had been right. He simply drew back his arm and landed the blow in the same movement.

And what followed was a symphony.

Until now, I had only been on the receiving end of Thomas's flogging. Now I saw what Oslo had seen that day in my cell, which must have gone a long way to securing Thomas's good reputation amongst the guards.

Every guard I knew treated whips as bamboo rods that could curve. The only difference between the rod and the whip was considered to be the fact that the rod landed as a straight line, while the whip curved around the back. But Thomas, trained upon the longer black whips used by Compassion guards, had learned that the true difference between a whip and a rod was not in shape but in movement. Whereas the Mercy guards treated the whip as a static creature, doing their best to retain the same shape at every moment in the lash's progress, Thomas used his arm to impart motion. What had been a dead, inanimate object came alive in Thomas's hand.

The movement started from his body, with the whip no more than an extension of the jerk that flowed through Thomas's flesh. It travelled, like a wave over water, down the length of the whip, arriving at the end of the lash at the precise moment that the whip reached its target. If Thomas had been aiming the whip for Dorn's back, the results would have sliced Dorn in half. But Thomas, positioned further than any Mercy guard would position himself, was aiming his strikes at the open air a hand's span from Dorn's back. Only the rippling wave kissed Dorn, landing not in a single line that conformed to the curve of Dorn's back, but as a small, sharp wave that was inverse to the curve of Dorn's back, and that rolled its way lightly across the flesh, leaving a bloody welt as it went.

Even before the first wave reached Dorn's back, Thomas was already jerking his wrist again, commanding the wave to withdraw. The message was delayed, travelling as it did down the long line of ever-shifting leather, and by the time the wave received the message and began to withdraw, Thomas had sent a second wave down the line, which would reach Dorn's back at the precise moment after Thomas moved the whip downward, so that the second wave kissed Dorn's back just below the first.

It takes a long time to describe this; as I say, if I had blinked I would have missed it. It was the quickest flogging I had ever seen, finished before the slower observers had managed to grasp that they were witnessing the most beautiful melody of punishment ever played in this prison.

It was over so quickly that Dorn did not even have a chance to cry out during it. If he cried out afterwards, he could not have been heard. As the last lash was withdrawn and Thomas stepped back, with not so much as a single drop of sweat marking his exertions, a roar travelled up from both the prisoners and the guards that threatened to shake down the building. Anyone standing outside Mercy Prison must have thought a riot was taking place. The roar was wordless, but several of the guards could be seen whistling and applauding. Mercy's Keeper, for the first time since I had known him, looked stunned.

Thomas ignored the reaction of his audience. He turned to say something to Sedgewick, who was standing beside the prisoner who had now gone limp on the post. Sedgewick listened. After a brief pause during which he appeared to consider what Thomas had said, Sedgewick nodded before turning to release Dorn.

I lost sight of Thomas after that; he successfully evaded Mercy's Keeper, who was coming forward to speak to him, and disappeared through one of the doors leading to the stairwell. All around me prisoners were talking at the top of their lungs about what they had seen. Everybody had forgotten Harrow, who had withdrawn into some dark corner where he could witness Dorn's pain in private.

And amidst all the uproar and talk and movement, I stood fixed in my place, like a child who has just felt the blade of death enter and is still trying to grasp what has happened.

I had thought I was setting out cream for a purring kitten. I hadn't realized that I was inviting onto my lap a deadly leopard.

o—o—o

Back in my cell a short while later, I tried to retie my frazzled nerves. The gods of heaven and hell knew I had no one to blame except myself.

He had given me clues enough. His cool eyes . . . His talk of how he resembled his father . . . Even his profound patience, which I now realized arose from a simple recognition of what he could do if that patience snapped. "Keeping control of oneself is half the battle of being a guard." In his case, it was an utter necessity. If he did not exert control over himself, every prisoner who came into his hands would die a beautiful death.

It was odd, discovering that he was someone so like myself, but a master where I was only an apprentice. What I had seen today was something akin to what I had tried to achieve with Sharon, but the lovely flowers I had so prided myself upon seemed like ugly, shapeless masses compared to the sweet flow of pain that he had imparted into the whip. And of course there was one other difference: his motive for his deed. I hoped I was right about that motive, because if I was not, I had been playing a dangerous game with an unscrupulous opponent who would not hesitate to make me pay for my arrogance.

I heard the cell door slide back. My breath jerked out of me, and I turned, half expecting to see a chill-eyed Thomas standing at the door with whip in hand, saying, "Tonight I teach you what it is like to be raped by a virgin . . ."

But when he entered the cell, he looked just as I might have hoped: pale-faced, as though he had been the one to endure the flogging. The only shock came from seeing who accompanied him.

I forgot all my fears about Thomas in the face of this new horror. "What the bloody—!"

"Quiet." Thomas voice was soft, with none of the sharpness of the whip he had just wielded, but I shut my mouth. He was already withdrawing, his gaze focussed beyond the cell. He looked back only to say, "Keep the inner door closed."

For a prisoner to close the inner door when a guard isn't present is a flogging offense. I wondered whether Thomas knew that. I wondered whether he cared.

I sighed and closed the inner door. It was heavier than I had ever imagined it to be, and it took a moment's struggle to slide it closed. Then I turned to look at the other inhabitant in the cell. Silence stretched between us until I folded my arms, leaned back against the wall, and said, "So, is it warmer upstairs?"

Harrow didn't bother to reply. His gaze had jerked toward the door, and a moment later I heard what he had: steps coming our way. The steps of more than one guard.

The outer door screeched as it moved, the inner door opened, and then Thomas and Sedgewick were struggling through the doorway, carrying between them the limp body of Dorn.

There was a breathless battle to get him properly positioned on the floor. If they'd placed him on his back at this moment, he would no doubt have screamed down the prison walls. As it was, I could see that Dorn was biting his lip, fighting to hold sounds in. They spent a moment checking that he would remain where he was on the blankets on the floor. I had time to wonder how Thomas had managed to prepare this cell in the brief interval between the time he escorted me out and the time he joined the other guards making their way to the disciplinary hall. Then Sedgewick stood up with a grunt, saying, "Five minutes. You owe me for this, Tom."

"Thanks, Sedge," Thomas said softly, then waited till the other guard had slipped outside the cell again before closing both doors.

Harrow was already kneeling next to Dorn. If Thomas had envisioned a dramatic reunion, with both parties stretching out their arms to each other and declaring their undying love, he was disappointed. Harrow took Dorn's hand in his own, but what few words I could hear him saying were matter-of-fact. He was apparently asking after Dorn's health and welfare. His voice was low and phlegmatic; only the tears streaming down his face revealed what lay within. Dorn gave broken replies between shuddered gasps. From where I sat I could see the line of crimson welts along his back, each row exactly parallel to the next, with deep holes where the lead had landed. The blood was trickling down, staining my blankets.

I looked over at Thomas. He was kneeling upon one knee, with his head bowed and his eyes closed, as though he were in the presence of a scene too sacred to be witnessed. But slung over his bent knee was his arm, and at the end of that arm was his dagger, which was tight in his hand's grip. I could guess that his ears were attuned, not to the conversation in the cell, but to any sounds approaching.

After what seemed to me to be a hideously long interval, he rose suddenly and went to the door, opening it a crack; then he flung it open.

"They've realized he's missing," Sedgewick said breathlessly as Thomas let him into the cell. "Get him off this level now."

The words were unnecessary; Thomas was already pulling Harrow back toward the door. The older prisoner made no protest, but his face remained turned toward Dorn, who had struggled up onto one elbow to watch him go. Their eyes remained linked up to the moment that Thomas pulled Harrow around the corner.

Then Dorn collapsed with a whimper, rolling onto his stomach in a faint. Sedgewick cursed, managed the awkward task of picking up Dorn unaided, and made his way heavily to the door, through which the sounds of the search party could now be heard like hunting dogs in the distance.

I held the doors open for Sedgewick and his charge. I would have been happy to do anything to get them out of my cell.

After they were gone, I carefully returned the inner door to its usual open position and closed the outer door, trying to make it look as though it was locked. I felt no temptation whatsoever to take advantage of this moment to slip outside my cell. When the search party arrived, they would find me exactly as I always was at this time of day: lying on my bed-shelf, awaiting my guard's evening visit, unconnected in any way with seditious activities taking place at the prison tonight.

I knew that Thomas had succeeded in getting Harrow safely back to the third level when I heard shouts call off the search party, with no glee in the guards' voices to indicate that a punishment would follow. The shouts could barely be heard over the loud conversation between the prisoners who had, during this interval, gradually returned to their cells and were still chattering over what they had seen on the first level. It was the sudden break in that conversation which alerted me to the fact that Thomas was walking through the fire-pit area. I could envision every prisoner and guard falling silent as they caught sight of him. As a Keeper's son, he would be used to that.

He stepped within the cell, showing no particular surprise that his charge remained within the unlocked door. For the first time since he had been assigned to me, he closed the inner door, for which I was grateful. I had had time during his absence to reflect upon what had happened, and I was prepared with a commentary.

The echo of the inner door's thud was still resounding through the cell when I hissed, "How dare you endanger me!"

He paused in the midst of stepping forward. He was difficult to see. The inner door contained a shuttered window; if a guard suspected that foul play was taking place within the closed cell, he could reach through the bars of the outer door and open the shutter. At all other times the window was left shut. With the inner door closed, the only light fell from the narrow slit above the door. The slit was angled to shine light just beyond the door; in the remainder of the cell, little more could be seen than dim impressions of shapes.

I could read the quiet surprise in Thomas's voice, though, as he said, "Endanger you?"

"Yes, endanger! While you were whispering your plans to everyone and their grandchildren, did it occur to you to consult the person most likely to be punished if it was discovered that his cell was being used as a meeting place for clandestine love-mates? Or have you decided after all that it's right to force others to live out your dreams?"

My voice shook with anger. I was vaguely aware that, in light of what I had seen today, I ought to be choosing my words to this man carefully, but I could not stop myself. We had been too close to disaster. I had only one week left in which to make my escape, and I might have spent that week recovering from a flogging.

Thomas was silent for a moment before saying, "I guess I assumed you'd be willing to help."

"Help those bog-scum?" I was so astounded that I forgot to lower my voice. "Haven't I told you a thousand times what I think of the prisoners here? Do you have any idea what these men did to get sent to life prison?"

There was no response from Thomas except for the slightest lift at the edge of his mouth.

It was all I needed for my fury to be pushed beyond all bounds. "You self-sucking baby of a Keeper!" I screamed, balling my hands into fists as I strode forward. "Don't you dare laugh at me! I'll tear your throat—"

A squeaky hinge screeched; Oslo's face appeared in the window of the inner door. His hand, which rested upon the window ledge, held his whip. "Need help?" he asked Thomas politely.

Thomas shook his head, and the window shut promptly.

Thomas, I belatedly noticed, had his hand on his dagger hilt. That should have been warning enough to me to back off, but control had escaped me. I stood where I was, a yard from him, shaking with rage.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "You're right, I should have asked your permission first."

"That's not good enough," I snarled. "I want your promise this won't happen again."

This was madness; my anger was all out of proportion with the offense. Since when did a guard consult with a prisoner over use of his cell, much less ask him permission? If any of my previous guards had decided to use my cell for rule-breaking activities, the first thing they would have done was ensure that, if the activities were discovered, I would be the one who took the blame for what had happened.

I had no time to analyze the source of my anger, though, for Thomas said, "I'm afraid I can promise that." Removing his hand from his dagger hilt with a nonchalance that should have been an alarm call that deafened me, he fished in his pocket for a moment before removing a sheet of paper and handing it to me.

Even before I read the words, I felt the blade of despair enter me. With the blood rapidly draining from my face, I lifted my gaze from the paper and said, "Tomorrow?"

He nodded. "I'm scheduled to report for duty at Compassion three days from now. I received permission from Mercy's Keeper to stay here through tomorrow evening, but that's all."

I stared down again at the transfer, signed by Mercy's Keeper and countersigned by Compassion's Keeper. "But your discipline lasts another week," I said blankly.

He shrugged. "My father received word that I volunteered to take the leaded whip. He read this as a sign that I now understand the need for harsh disciplining of prisoners." His lips thinned. "You know why I took the whip."

"Of course." My voice sounded hollow to my ears. "The leaded whip is deadly in unskilled hands. You're Compassion-trained. You were the guard least likely to cause Dorn permanent injury."

"The leaded whip always causes permanent injury; Dorn will have ugly scars on his back till the end of his life. But at least I ensured he was still alive afterwards."

The words cut into me, as nothing else had. He wasn't ready. I wasn't ready. Why hadn't I anticipated this would happen? Why hadn't I assumed that his discipline would be cut short and paced my plans accordingly? Everything was lost now; I was lost, imprisoned for decade after decade in a cold, dark world.

I heard myself say, with no attempt to shield my sarcasm, "Enjoy your trip back." Then I flung the paper at him.

He caught it as it was floating to the ground. He didn't seem angry at my gesture or my words. For a moment he looked at me with that familiar puzzlement, and then he said, "I'm not going back."

"Not going back?" My heart skipped several beats.

"I'm leaving service. I wasn't sure till today, but after what happened with Dorn and Harrow . . . I just can't help support this cruelty any more."

I could have fallen to my knees and kissed his dusty boots. It had all come to pass – everything I'd hoped to achieve was shining before me, and I hadn't needed to do a single thing. He'd done everything himself. Oh, had I seen such fortune since the day that the morning light fell upon Sharon's face?

It took a great deal of effort for me to keep control of myself. I reminded myself that one last task remained, and I mustn't blunder this. If I was too obvious, my plans could still tumble. "Do you think your father will accept your decision?" I asked in what I hoped was a casual voice.

"He'll have to."

I shook my head slowly, worldly-wise. "Has he ever accepted your decisions? Just imagine what it will be like: another long, drawn-out argument, painful on both sides. Except that this argument will last for months and months – perhaps years. If you thought your past arguments with him were bad, what do you think this one will be like?"

I saw his throat move as he swallowed. "You may be right. I won't remain a guard, though."

I snorted. "Do you think I'd suggest that you should? The less guards there are at the life prisons, the better off we prisoners are. All I'm suggesting is that you need to make a clean break from prison life. Remember what I said the other day about freeing yourself from your father? You need to find a way to demonstrate to him once and for all that you aren't proper material for a guard."

"But I am," he said quietly. "That's the problem."

"Because you can wield a pretty whip?" I gave a sharp laugh. "You know that's not the essence of being a guard; the essence of guard-work consists of upholding this system of bloody cattle-slaughter. A guard needs to have the desire to rape a prisoner before breakfast, beat him before lunch, and then end the day with a lengthy session of humiliation. What you need to do is prove to your father you're utterly unsuited to that type of work. You need to shock him by being too merciful to a prisoner."

He shook his head. "I already tried that. I told you, I shouldn't have helped that prisoner try to escape—"

"That was the wrong method," I said impatiently. "Of course you don't want to show mercy to a prisoner in any way that would endanger innocent people in the outside world – but you can find another way to show mercy to a prisoner, one that doesn't endanger anyone. All that you need to do is find a rule so fundamental to the existence of the life prisons that your breaking of it will convince your father that you must leave service."

I would have held my breath then, if I'd had any breath left to hold; I was panting with eagerness by now. For a moment, Thomas chewed his lower lip, rubbing the fingers of his right hand together as though he were an old-timer feeling the dice. Then he said softly, "I'll have to think about that."

I let the matter go then. I'd given him all the clues he needed. He was an intelligent young man; he could figure out the rest on his own.

o—o—o

By the following evening, I was ready to scream the prison walls down.

Thomas's failure to arrive for his usual morning visit had done nothing to heal the rawness that my nerves had undergone overnight, as I contemplated everything that could go wrong at this point. Thomas might leave early. . . . He might fail to make the necessary deductions. . . . He might not be convinced by my argument. Worst of all, it had occurred to me, in light of his behavior toward Dorn and Harrow, that he might treat my reference to "a prisoner" more broadly than I'd intended. Well, curse him, I was his charge. He'd just better remember that.

Not that I had any intention of letting him know how worried I was. When I heard the cell door clang open that evening, I didn't leap to my feet or even turn my head. I continued staring up at the ceiling as I said, "So you're off."

"I'm afraid so." He stepped into view. He was already wearing civilian clothes for his travel, and in his hands was a blanket. It was fortunate I was lying down; if I'd been standing up, my knees would have given way at sight of that blanket.

He gestured toward it awkwardly, saying, "I had to smuggle this in from the outside, but I don't think it will get you in trouble. Your next guard will assume that you had three blankets all along."

I grunted in reply. I was failing in my battle to keep from staring at the blanket.

Thomas stepped out of my view again, saying, "I'll just put it here with the others. . . . You might want to wait till after lamp-dimming to use it, in case anyone notices it and connects it with my leaving."

I grunted again. It was the only noise I could manage at this point.

He stepped back into view. Now that the blanket was out of his hands, it could be seen that, since he was not wearing his uniform, he was also not wearing his heavy belt with his dagger and whip. It said something about him that he would enter my cell unarmed. "Well," he said hesitantly, "I guess I should go. I have a long trip tomorrow."

"Mm-hmm," I said, deciding on a need to vary my responses.

He looked down at his toes for a moment, then said, "I've enjoyed getting to know you. Would you mind if I keep in touch with you by correspondence?"

I began to laugh then, so hard that I nearly rolled off the bed-shelf. I looked over at him in time to see the redness dip its way down into his neckline.

I managed to regain enough control of myself to say, "I was just – just imagining what my new guard would do if I received a friendly letter from the outside world. If I was lucky, he'd simply burn it in front of me. More likely, he'd post it in the guardroom and turn the best bits into ditties for the guards to sing."

"Oh." He gave a shy smile, looking abashed. "I hadn't thought of that; I'm sorry. It's just— Well, I'll miss you."

I shrugged. "We had our time together. Now it's over."

I was cribbing from an old love song; I hoped he didn't recognize that. Apparently he didn't, for his face fell somewhat. After a while he said, "I'd been thinking about the conversations we had about boundaries. It occurred to me . . . When you have a bunch of notes that are all jumbled together in cacophony, you don't need to bring all of them into order at once. You can start with just two or three notes, and work from there. If the initial joining of those two notes is beautiful enough, you'll have the start of a song."

"You think so?" I was trying to figure out how to end this conversation and get him out of this cell. The longer he was here, the more likelihood there was that a last-minute disaster would arise.

"Yes," he said. "It's been like that with us, hasn't it?"

For a moment more I continued to stare up at the featureless ceiling. Then I turned my head and let him see the coldness on my face. "You think so?" I said softly.

I knew that I was taking the greatest of risks at that moment. I should have kept him sweet till the end. If that meant letting him think like a three-year-old, so be it.

But the truth was that I'd gained a good deal of respect for this young man during our time together, and I hated to see him act like a fool. There are guards who spend their entire careers that way. Every time a prisoner, out of sheer self-defense, shows them some courtesy, they leap to the conclusion that this is a sign of friendship. I didn't want Thomas falling into such self-delusions.

He stood motionless, as though a blade had just entered his heart. The skin that had been red was now white. The sight would have broken my heart, if I'd had any heart left.

As it was, I went back to staring at the ceiling. After a while Thomas said in a low voice, "Yes, I thought so. Well, goodbye."

I didn't bother to grunt this time. I heard his slow step to the front of the cell, and the screech of the outer door being pulled back, then the screech of it being pulled forward again. Thomas's key rattled in the lock.

I got up onto one elbow and looked back. "Hey!"

He raised his head. The hope was bright in his eyes. "Yes?"

"Do you know who my new guard is?"

He shook his head slowly.

"Ah." I lay back down. After a while, I heard his steps fade away.

I was barely aware of him. Already he was fading from my consciousness; even the pleasure of having broken a guard was less important to me than what else I had accomplished. It was going to be very hard to wait the two hours before the lamps were dimmed.

Yet I not only managed to control myself that long, I even waited an extra half hour more, in case my eagerness should manifest itself too clearly. Then, as the cells around me began to be filled with the usual evening sounds of moans and screams, I got up slowly, and with my body drumming from the rapid beat of my heart, I walked over to the corner and knelt down.

It was just where I had hoped it would be, folded within the new blanket: my key to freedom from this place.

Thomas's dagger.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FIVE

I don't know why I failed to use the blade immediately.

It could not have been out of any doubts as to how to use it. The days were long gone since I'd held newbie notions of stealing a guard's dagger and using it to threaten my way past the guards holding the gates to the outside world. The first guard to sight a prisoner with a weapon would let out an alarm call so loud that he'd have the sixth-level guards scrambling down the stairs to help. And then would come the leaded whip. It would be just my luck if they called Thomas back for a repeat performance.

Nor did my hesitation lie in uncertainty as to which technique to use. Although the idea of self-murder had never appealed to me in the old days, I had thought of little else since I realized the impossibility of escape from Mercy by any other means. Any apprehension I had held about stepping into the unknown that was beyond life had disappeared by the second week of my first guard. Nor had I ever needed to worry about pain: I had worked out the most painless methods of slaughter at the time of Sharon. All I had lacked till today was the means to my end, and now I had it.

Logic told me that I should act at once. Every hour's delay increased the chance that I would be discovered with Thomas's dagger and would face the consequences. What held me back, I think, was something I ought to have anticipated.

It was so very sweet to have a dagger in my hand again.

I lay in my bed, curled around the blade, imagining what it would be like to use it, as I had imagined it in the year preceding Sharon's death. The sweetness had a certain poignancy about it this time, as I realized that this might be the only pleasure I received from the act. In the moment that I plunged the blade in, would I retain enough awareness to feel what I had ten years before? If not, then this pleasure now, in the anticipation, was all that I could expect to be gifted with.

Thoughts of who had given me this gift never entered my mind; that part of my life was over. Instead, I fell asleep, drawn back to an older, happier time.

o—o—o

She came into my dreams as she always did, singing.

She was crouched down on the ground, tugging at a flower stubbornly determined to cling to life, and humming a throaty melody that was of her own making. She was a sight to behold: her hair was golden-red and fell in curls that half-hid her face, but at the moment her hair looked brown because the early morning sky was overcast. I thought it was a shame. The bright flowers deserved better treatment today, as did she.

She finally managed to loosen the flower from its roots and scrambled to her feet, holding the flower out to me, dirty roots and all. "Here!" she said.

I took the offering from her and added it to the pile of silken-petalled flowers in the wicker basket I held for her. For a moment we smiled at each other, two fellow laborers satisfied with a job well done. Then she looked back over her shoulder at the small white house in the distance, surrounded by barns. No smoke travelled through the chimney yet; its inhabitants were still asleep.

"We should go back," she said uncertainly. At times like this she most nearly resembled her father, a rough but shy man whom I much liked. The part of her that was my sister, though, was always near to the surface.

"There's no hurry," I said. "They know where we are, thanks to you."

She grinned then, pleased with her contribution of a note that I had shown her how to write, letter by painful letter. With the help of that note, all searches for her would go far astray of her actual location. Days would pass before she was found.

Where we actually were was the glade. The very word made my heart beat faster, so often had I built my plans for this place. It was darker here than I'd anticipated, but everything else was right: the soft green moss sparkling with dew, the brook singing nearby, the birds warbling in the trees. A beautiful resting place.

"I want Mommy to see the flowers when she wakes up," argued Sharon. A little of her mother was surfacing now, though kept in check by the hesitancy she inherited from her father.

"All right," I said agreeably. "Would you like to carry the flowers on the way back?"

Eagerly she stretched out her hands, and I placed the heavy basket in them. As anyone might have anticipated – and indeed, I had anticipated this quite carefully – the basket fell, tipping as it turned in the air, and spilling the flowers around her feet.

"Oh!" cried Sharon, staring down at the gaily colored blossoms with the anguish of a housewife met with an unexpected domestic emergency. She looked up at me. I was standing but a yard from her now, feeling uncertainty race through me.

Perhaps that reflected itself in my face, for at that moment my sister's heritage took hold of Sharon. She frowned, folded her arms, and stamped her foot, crushing several blossoms in the process. "Don't stand useless!" she cried. "Do something!"

"All right," I said. I knelt down, took the dagger from out of my shirt, and stabbed her.

She made no cry – I was pleased with that. I had not wanted to hurt her or even to scare her. All I wanted was what I received now: the image of her body stiffening, her face turning up in shock, and then – oh, so glorious! – her body crumpling, falling into the bed of flowers I had prepared for her.

It was so close to my dreams I could have wept. But fortune had not finished with me, for at that moment, the sun came out.

It fell through a break in the leaves, directly onto Sharon. There she lay, among the flowers shining in multi-colored splendor, the dagger hilt sticking out from her chest with no more than a single trickle of blood staining her white dress. Her curls glowed about her face like burnished bronze, and in her eyes remained the expression of shock I had seen before.

Tears began to roll down my face. I sank down onto my haunches beside the girl, feeling wave after wave of sweetness enter into me, a feeling that made all the sweetness of the weeks of planning seem dull by comparison. I pushed the locks back from her forehead with a trembling hand, and as I did so, the sweetness of the death was joined by an overwhelming sensation of love and gratitude toward the one who had given me this.

"You are beautiful," I whispered to her. "So very beautiful." And I bent down to kiss her forehead. Above us, a lark trilled out its heart.

It was at that moment – the supreme moment in my memories, when I would awaken with a sigh and a smile – that the dream took an unexpected turn.

A heavy weight fell upon my back, and with it came pain – pain greater than I had ever known, beating upon my skin and my muscles and my very bones. I had gone blind – something was tied over my eyes – and I could not move my limbs, for they were held in icy bonds. My whole body, which a moment before had been bathed in warmth, was now chill and shaking, and I could barely breathe because of the weight upon me.

The weight shifted, pounding me over and over. I began to realize that the greatest pain was taking place within me – a harsh, scraping sensation. I screamed.

Hot breath burned my ear; it was accompanied by a chuckle. "You'll get used to this," a voice said.

And then the scene shifted. The weight was still upon me, and I still lay in darkness, but no longer was I bound and blindfolded. I lay this way voluntarily, not struggling against my captor, but accepting with closed eyes and dull resignation all that he did to me. A voice breathed into my ear, "Ah, that was nice. . . . I'm sorry this won't happen again."

And then I awoke, racked with sobs, my hands still clutching the hilt of the naked dagger.

o—o—o

It took me a long while to get my weeping under control. I could hear the sound of my sobs echoing in the fire-pit area, but no one came to investigate . . . naturally. Crying prisoners are a nightly tedium at Mercy. By the time I had managed to control my moist, shaking mass of a body, I was aware that it must now be late at night, for few sounds could be heard coming from the other cells. The rapes were over for the night; the prisoners slept on in their pain and their nightmares.

Except that I had never slept in nightmares. To me, sleep had always been a delicious haven of retreat from Mercy. Why, tonight of all nights, had that haven been closed to me?

I wiped the tears from my face, trying to analyze the meaning of my dream. Of its source there could be no doubt. The first voice in the dream was my first guard, speaking on the night of my arrival at Mercy. It had taken him dagger, whip, chains, and the help of two fellow guards to subdue me. By the time the rape actually occurred, I was bleeding and broken in so many portions of my body that I barely noticed when he entered me.

I had pushed that memory away long ago, or so I had thought. Yet there was his voice again, saying, "You'll get used to this."

I had gotten used to it, I realized slowly. Not simply to the nightly rapes to which the guard referred, but to the old dream that had once been so fresh. For ten years I had relived it over and over: the only time in my life when I had truly felt happiness. It was a wonder that it had not grown stale to me before. If a man has no memory of lovemaking except for a single night, won't he eventually grow weary of replaying the same memory over and over? I was a man who had fulfilled my appetite only once, and now the memory was no longer sweet. It had been nice, but it wouldn't happen again.

It was unfair, so utterly unfair. Only one night more, and I'd be free of this place – was it too much to ask that my final night be filled with pleasant thoughts, not with memories of the pain I'd undergone since then? I couldn't even feel any sweetness now from my upcoming death. I remembered Sharon's look of shock, with nothing following it. It would be the same with me; I would feel death, but none of death's sweetness.

All that was left to me now was the cold darkness of Mercy, and I felt myself rage against it.

And then I became aware that my cell was a little colder than I might have expected, and a little darker.

I jerked up in bed, turning to look at the barred door. I couldn't see it; it was hidden by the closed inner door. Standing in front of the inner door was a man.

It was not my new guard; that screaming nightmare vanished as I saw the slight build of the unarmed man. Thomas's face was directly in the light falling from the window above, but my eyes were too dazzled by the darkness to be able to see his expression.

I could read the hesitancy in his voice, though, as he said, "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to startle you. I thought I heard you—"

"Not at all," I said, smiling as I rose. Fortune had been kind to me twice, it seemed. This was like the sun falling upon Sharon's face.

He began to speak as I turned my steps toward him; then his voice turned abruptly into a jerk of breath. He had seen the dagger in my hand.

I walked forward, shifting the dagger so that it was in the right position. No well-trained guard could have mistaken my movement; this one surely did not. But he did not call out for the other guards. I had known that he would not. This was going to be sweet – oh, so very sweet. All I needed was this to carry me over into my final act.

I was close to him now, close enough to see the rapid rise and fall of his chest and the quick beat of blood in one of the veins in his throat. I felt a faint regret at that. I had managed to kill Sharon so swiftly that she had not had time to fear me; it ought to have been the same here. No matter, I would put that to rights as soon as I could. I came up against him and drew the dagger back.

I had made my decision by then. I knew that afterwards. The dagger would have taken the same path, whether or not I had looked at his face at that moment. All that my viewing revealed to me was the full extent to which I had been wrong about what had been taking place in this cell for these past seven weeks.

For a moment I merely stared, hearing the soft trickle of water down the wall behind me, the hiss of flames from the fire-pit outside, and the moans from a prisoner whose guard had stopped by his cell with thoughts of service in mind. Then I said, "Just to slake my curiosity: When did you learn to play dice?"

For a moment, his eyes remained cool. Then the coolness dissipated, like dew on the morning ground, and the edge of Thomas's mouth lifted. "When I was five. My father taught me."

I had to turn swiftly then in order to muffle my mouth against my arm, else the sound of my roar would have brought the night watch running to see what was amiss. Sobs are common at Mercy. Laughter is not.

You will be wondering, I'm sure, why I wasn't angry. But indeed, anger had boiled within me . . . the previous day, when I first realized how this song would end. There had been that moment when the cell door opened and Sedgewick bore in Dorn – Sedgewick, my first guard, who was the most vicious man I had ever met. A man with a matchless and pitiless talent for tormenting prisoners . . . If Thomas's simple request could persuade a man like that to risk discipline for the sake of a prisoner, then all was lost. Part of me had known from that moment that I was fighting a man much too skilled to defeat.

The rage had come then. Now, as the slower part of me finally acknowledged the truth, time enough had passed for me to see the humor of this.

"I'll bet you've cleared every guard at Compassion of his earnings," I said finally, wiping the tears of laughter from my eyes. "Thanks for letting me think I was winning half the time."

He grinned but said nothing. He simply put out his hand palm-up.

I handed him the dagger, saying, "Your stakes were too high."

"Not really," he replied, sheathing his dagger. The very presence of his uniform ought to have warned me before that he was still giving me service. "I knew that you'd make the right decision this time."

He spoke with the relaxed contentment of a man who has just given his beloved satisfactory service in bed, but the blood in his vein was only just now beginning to slow its pace. His fear of me had been real, then, if nothing else had. The faint regret I had felt before deepened into guilt.

In so quiet a manner is a new emotion born. It would not be till later that I identified this as the moment of turning.

Now, I simply repeated, "Your stakes were too high. Even if I hadn't murdered you or myself, I might have betrayed you to Mercy's Keeper in order to gain something. You must find ways to help prisoners that won't risk you losing your guard-work. You'll never make it to the rank of Keeper at this rate."

He shook his head. "I didn't lie to you about that. I'm really leaving service."

I felt a warmth enter me then, a rising warmth like the morning sun. So he did not in fact know all that had been taking place here for the past seven weeks. That was a relief. I had begun to think that my role in this ballad would be confined to standing useless.

Placing my hand against the inner door, I leaned toward Thomas and saw the first sign of uncertainty enter his eyes. I did not move back. "No, you aren't," I told him firmly. "You're going to go back to Compassion and give your father that speech about doing guard-work in the way you yourself see fit. Then you're going to do what you've done here at Mercy: you'll impress Compassion's guards with your skill to such an extent that you'll begin to civilize some of them. And then, when the day comes that you're made Keeper, you'll change your life prison into a place that offers its prisoners service, not unending pain."

"But . . ."

I suppose I ought to have let him offer his arguments. He was still very young; he still found it easiest to reach conclusions with the help of others. But he was capable of travelling the hard road to this conclusion on his own – he had wielded the leaded whip for Dorn's sake. And there was still one service I could do for him, if we didn't waste what time was left.

I smothered his reply with a kiss.

His expression, when I finally drew back, was a sight to behold. It caused me to conclude that there were more pleasant pastimes at Mercy than breaking a guard. With the sweetness beginning to sing through me, I reached up and touched his cheek, smiling at him.

"Never argue with one who loves you," I said softly.

Then I stepped back, releasing all but his hand, which I held lightly. After a minute's hesitation, he let me lead him to my bed, and there I set out to give the young man what he needed to break free of his father.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SIX

I managed to get him all the way to the bed-shelf and sitting on it before his expression cleared. I would have continued anyway, but when I reached out to him, he warded off my hands. He said hesitantly, stating the obvious, "I've always thought it was wrong to use prisoners in this way."

I rolled my eyes. Ten years I'd been waiting for a guard who had an inkblot's worth of scruples. Now I was saddled with a guard who acted on his scruples at the wrong moment.

"Is that what it feels like to you?" I asked him. "As though you're using me? Forcing me? Manipulating me into being bedded?"

After a moment, I thought I saw the faintest trace of a smile on his face. "It feels more like the opposite, actually."

I leaned forward, close enough to smell his breath, which was as sweet as spring grass. I wondered why I'd never noticed that before.

"Look," I said, "you've played me the fool for the past seven weeks. You did it for my own sake," I added as he opened his mouth, "but even so, I've been the idiot all this while, walking blithely into your trap. The least you can do is soothe my pride by letting me give you something back that you weren't expecting."

He considered this for a minute while outside our cell a couple of on-duty guards exchanged murmurs. I wondered how late it was. Very late, or the guards wouldn't be bothering to lower their voices. Any minute now, the morning lamps might be lit. I felt the edge of panic touch me that I'd waited this long to do what I should have had sense enough to do during the first week. It might be too late.

Finally Thomas's smile deepened. He had a dimple; I'd never noticed that either. "Well," he said, "if you phrase it in that manner . . ." He leaned forward.

His mouth didn't taste like grass. It tasted a lot like my own mouth, which surprised me. I didn't really have anything to compare him to. All the times in the past I'd done this sort of thing, I'd been mildly drunk, that being the way I'd gotten my courage up to try again. Except that first time, which I didn't like to think about. I could still remember the girl's laughter when she realized that I couldn't live up to my half of the arrangement.

I'd had boys too – that is, I'd made an attempt to have them – and I tried to remember what they'd liked. It was so very long ago, and that hadn't been the type of memory I'd cherished. I forced myself to relax. Thomas wasn't like anyone else, I reminded myself. We'd have to write new rules here, no matter what my past experience was.

He made a startled sound when I pushed my tongue in, then relaxed. After a moment, he began exploring my mouth too, which surprised me more than it should have. It gave me the first clue I needed, though, to how this was going to go. It could go any of three ways, depending on how wedded to tradition he was. But apparently he wasn't interested in playing the role of the compliant youth. To my surprise, I found I wasn't particularly worried if he decided he wanted me to play that role.

He eliminated that possibility, though, in the next moment when he drew back and asked, "What do we do now?"

I eyed him, wondering whether he even knew that he'd just struck tradition a hard blow. Chances were he didn't, and I didn't want him to worry about such matters. A bedding between equals suited me just fine; it helped me leave aside all the messy memories of the past ten years.

Then I took in what he'd said. "Don't you have any idea how this is going to go?"

His skin turned pink. I could see that, even in the dim light. He directed his gaze toward the ground and swallowed.

I laughed. Not so loud that any passing guards could hear, but loud enough to make him turn even pinker. "Bloody blades," I said. "I should think that, after spending nearly half your life in Compassion Prison, you'd have seen this before."

He kept his gaze fixed on the ground. "It happens behind closed doors. I stumbled across it one day when I was thirteen, and after my father explained to me what he'd been doing . . . I never wanted to watch after that." He scuffed his right boot on the floor.

"Sweet blood," I swore softly. "Does your mother know?"

"Oh, yes. My father considers it a part of his duties, you see. He only does it twice a month, at scheduled times. We have special rituals for it at Compassion. My mother knew all about that before my father took his post; some of the rituals come from her homeland. She considers what he does . . . sacred."

"Does she indeed?" This was all offering a new and terrible perspective on Thomas's childhood. Matters were bad at Mercy, but we didn't mix rape with religion. I could guess what he meant, though. I swore daily to the god of hell as mere invective, but there were some guards at Mercy who swore to Hell in earnest. For all I knew, perhaps they thought their rapes were sacred too.

Suddenly I realized that I had good reason to be afraid of what we were doing. There is more than one way to stab with a blade, and if Thomas had been fed such imagery since he was young . . .

"It's different with my parents," he said quietly, his eyes still lowered.

"Different?"

"Yes. When they kiss. It's soft. My father is gentle with her. That's always been one thing I've admired about him – that he doesn't let his work spill over into how he treats my mother."

I let out my breath slowly. I hadn't known I was holding it. "Well," I said, "I can't claim to be an expert at this, but my impression is that it isn't soft or hard that matters. It's what lies between the two who are doing the kissing."

He raised his gaze, frowning in puzzlement. It was a joy to see him looking genuinely puzzled about something. I was feeling less and less useless by the moment. I said in a firm voice, "Let me show you." Then I pulled him into my arms and kissed him hard.

I could feel his back-muscles under the cloth of his uniform, his rib-cage pressed against my heart, his teeth scraping mine as we probed each other. As he shifted his body against mine, I could even feel his hardness against my hip, which was a delight. I hadn't been entirely sure that he'd enjoy himself with me. This might actually work.

Then he put his hand in my lap.

I pushed his hand away, but too late. Startled, he pulled back and looked down at me. I resisted the impulse to hide what was there – or rather, what wasn't there. My breath, which had been steady as a spring breeze a moment before, was now jagged.

He raised his eyes to mine. "I know I don't know much about this," he said, "but I've practiced what my father refers to as the solitary vice, and when I've done that . . . I thought it would be the same with other men."

Hell's balls, and Mercy's eyes, for that matter. I tried to think of a convincing lie. Then I saw the steadiness of his gaze on me, and I knew that, even in the unlikely event that I could slip a lie past him, I couldn't let a falsehood come between us now. Not with mere hours – perhaps minutes – left between us.

So I told him. Told him what I'd never told anyone, though a few of my past bed-partners might have guessed. When I was through, he was silent a while, absentmindedly trailing his fingers up and down the inside of my thigh. If I'd been a different sort of man, I'd have been driven mad with desire. But if I'd been a different sort of man, I wouldn't have had to tell my tale.

"Not even when you're alone?" he said finally.

I shook my head. "And don't tell me that I'll meet the right woman or man some day. I thought that too, till I began to seriously plan my murder. Then I knew . . . Well, I knew that I'd been made different from others, that's all. I get my pleasure in a different way from other men."

He was silent again. I could guess that he was trying to reconcile this with what I'd failed to do earlier that night. Truth was, I was still trying to reconcile it too. It wasn't going to be easy, deliberately giving that up, and I couldn't lie and tell myself that what Thomas and I were doing was a simple replacement. It wasn't the same; it couldn't be. And yet . . .

"Yes," he murmured. "Yes, I see."

"Do you?" I replied, surprised.

He nodded, raising his eyes to me again. "It isn't that I feel no temptation to take what the other guards take," he said. "I'm too much my father's son not to understand the lure. So I can understand the wanting. It's like that with you, isn't it?"

I nodded slowly. "But it's different for you," I pointed out. "It's acceptable for you to take, as long as it's given. You can allow yourself that pleasure. If Sharon had truly given herself over to my blade— No, I know that would have been wrong too," I said before he could speak. "So it's wrong for me either way. I can't take my pleasure, no matter what. And something like this . . ." I waved my hand in a vague fashion toward our laps. "It doesn't mean anything to me. It—"

I stopped, suddenly aware that I'd said too much. Gods, it was over now. He would leave me, and I wouldn't be able to explain the rest to him – the surge of happiness I'd felt when I realized I had something to give him. I was still having a hard time understanding it myself, much less trying to explain it to someone else.

He had been quiet, listening. Now, to my amazement, he smiled. "I think I understand," he said. "It's the giving, isn't it? It's the giving that gives you pleasure here. You don't need the taking."

I nodded, struck dumb, wondering how he could have known.

"All right," he said softly, "that's reason enough for us to do this. But if it turns out you like anything we're doing – you will tell me, won't you? So that we can do more of it?"

I shrugged, which he must have taken for some sort of answer, because he leaned into another kiss.

I did a bit of neck nibbling after that, which he seemed to like, judging from the way he clutched at my waist. He cleaned my ear with his tongue afterwards, which made me suddenly aware that I hadn't bathed in nearly a week. I wasn't the sort to wash myself between showers, and I had the feeling I was going to regret that before the night was through.

My mind, though, was drifting toward more important matters, namely how fast to take Thomas through this journey. Normally, my answer would have been, "Slow," what with him being a virgin and me having only this one time with him. But I was very conscious of the time passing. The last thing I wanted was for us to be interrupted before we were halfway through.

I was about to ask him what o'clock it had been when he arrived at my cell, when he breathed in my ear, "I'd like to see what you look like with your clothes off."

Virgin, my ass. Seducer, more like. I decided it was a good thing I was immune to such temptations, or the gods only knew how I'd end up. Probably licking the soles of his feet.

"You've already seen me without clothes," I pointed out.

"I know. That's why I'd like to see you that way again."

The boy wasn't shy with compliments, that was clear. I grinned, got up, and stripped myself in short order. This exercise, at least, I had well memorized.

He just sat there for a long while, looking at me. Not at my body, oddly enough, but at my face. I hoped he liked what he saw. "You'd be a handsome man," my sister had once said in one of her more acid moods, "if you didn't look as frigid as Hell." Staring at myself in the mirror over the years, I'd had to concede she was right. There was something cold and hard about my expression that made all other aspects of my face forgettable.

Thomas looked at me so long that I began to feel uncomfortable. "What is it you're staring at?" I asked finally in a harsh voice.

"Your eyes," he murmured. "You're so defenseless there."

It wasn't the answer I'd expected. I was still trying to take this in when he slipped down onto his knees in front of me. Very gently he touched my right nipple, then my left. They sprang up at his touch. Nothing lower down sprang up; that part of me was in its usual permanent hibernation. His fingers felt nice, though, as they trickled their way through the hair on my chest, then passed over my belly to the hair below.

He paused, looking down at what lay there. He asked in a shy voice, "Is it all right if I touch you there?"

I shrugged again. "Sure," I said, then sucked in my breath as he leaned over and kissed me.

In the old tales, when the dead are kissed they come back to life. In my case, all that happened was that I felt something warm and moist touch me. It felt good. I looked down at his head, thinking that we were beginning to be a bit traditional here, but I didn't feel like moving him away. He gently cupped my balls while running his finger along my crack with his other hand, then slid his hands down the inside of my thighs. He lowered his head further.

That's when I discovered that, if you don't teach a young man the established way of doing things, he'll come up with new ideas on his own.

He'd probably still have been licking my kneecaps at dawn if I hadn't hauled him back onto his feet and set him down on the bed-shelf. "Enough," I said firmly. "It's my turn now."

Easier stated than done. Five minutes later, I grumbled, "Why couldn't you have been a guard in the Eternal Dungeon? They wear the same clothes as their prisoners."

He smiled, saying nothing. Taking off my own clothes had been easy enough. Though a few prisoners at Mercy, such as Tyrrell, insisted on wearing year-round the full uniform we'd been issued upon arrival, most of us had sense enough to strip down rather than be encumbered with heavy clothes that got in the way of our work. Except in deep winter, all I usually wore was lower drawers, trousers, suspenders, and shirt, which had once led Sedgewick to say that half-naked prisoners got what they deserved.

Thomas, on the other hand, was wearing his full uniform. In order to get at his flesh, I had to unbutton and remove his jacket, unbutton and remove his vest, pull down his suspenders, untie and remove his scarf, take off his collar, remove his cufflinks and cuffs, unbutton and pull off his shirt – and after all that, it turned out that he was wearing full-body drawers, so after I'd unbuttoned the top half, I had to go down on my knees and remove his weapons belt, then unbutton his trousers. That left his boots, which, of course, had twenty-one buttons each . . .

By the time I finished pulling off his half-hose, he was laughing. "Shut your mouth, you overdressed aristocrat," I muttered, struggling to pull down the lower half of his drawers, "or I'll stuff something big and stiff into it."

After a while, it occurred to me that he was responding in an awfully quiet manner to this time-honored insult. It also occurred to me that his quietness might have something to do with the proximity of my mouth to his crotch. I looked up in time to catch him staring reflectively into space. He caught my eye on him, and suddenly his face was pink again. "Do folks really do that?" he asked softly.

So then I showed him what folks really do. I'd done this for plenty of guards in the past, and never much liked it, but this time I was barely conscious of the aching of my jaw and the protests of my throat. Instead, my concentration was on the feel of Thomas's fingers kneading my hair and the sound of him whispering my name over and over. He must have said my name a hundred times, and each time he made it seem as though he'd just discovered me.

I was beginning to wonder whether I should pause and discuss with him other possibilities for this night when, without warning, he pushed me back, shoved me stomach-first onto the floor, and slammed down onto me.

I had just time enough to think that it was a good thing he'd remembered what my favorite position was; then I gasped as he entered me like a piston shoving its well-oiled way into a cylinder. A very fast piston, entering very hard, in a relentless manner.

It was the leaded whip all over again. He was quick, he was ruthless, and within three strokes he'd figured out the right angle. Within five I knew that I was being plowed by the most skilled bed-partner I'd ever had.

I don't think I breathed before the end. All my benighted soul was focussed on the feel of each solid, pitiless stroke and the rasp of his heavy breath as he drove himself into an unexplored region of his life.

And then he gasped. I felt him shudder upon me, then collapse.

My heart pounded. The water on my cell wall trickled faintly. Fire whispered outside the cell. A guard's boots rapped their way past my cell without pausing. I recognized the tuneless whistle as Sedgewick's.

After a minute, Thomas rasped in my ear, "I'm sorry. . . . Merrick, I'm sorry."

I tried to twist my face round to look at him, and he immediately raised his weight from my back, shifting over to the side of me. "I'm sorry," he repeated, and this time his words were nearly a sob. "Merrick, please forgive me."

I propped myself up on one elbow to stare at him. His face was stricken. For a moment I thought he had just realized the danger of entering my much-plundered body without a sheath, and I was going to reassure him that I wasn't carrying anything deadly. Then he whispered, "Did I hurt you much?"

I laughed then. I realized later that this was the best thing I could have done. If I'd merely protested, it might have taken hours to convince him. As it was, by the time I managed to contain my laughter, his expression had changed to puzzlement. He said, "I didn't ask whether you wanted . . . I simply forced you . . ."

"Bloody virgin." I addressed the ceiling. If there were any gods up there, presumably they would have a better chance of understanding my guard's mind than I could. I turned my head toward Thomas and grinned. "What sort of request were you contemplating making to me? 'Please, Merrick, I've just fucked your mouth. Would you mind terribly if I fucked your ass as well?'"

He gave a lopsided smile then, but said, "You gasped with pain when I entered you. I heard you. And I didn't stop—"

I waved the matter away with my hand. "I'm not hurt. You surprised me." He'd also scared me, just for a second at the beginning, but there was no reason to tell him that. "I'd forgotten how fast you are. And how skilled. Is your father that skilled?"

"My father?" he said in a distracted manner.

And that was the moment of climax for me. I felt as though my soul had burst open and poured out something sweet. He'd forgotten his father. I figured there'd probably never been a minute in his life when his father wasn't preying on his mind. But now he'd found something more important to think about.

He was quick, much too quick. I saw his expression change, and then his eyes met mine, and I knew that he knew what I'd set out to give him. After a moment more, he dipped his eyes and smiled. "Perhaps," he said, tracing a pattern across my chest. "I don't know. It doesn't really matter, does it?" He leaned over and used his tongue to trace the pattern he had made.

He worked his way down my body slowly, missing nothing. It was like having a warm, moist chick fluttering against my skin. I hadn't even needed to tell him that I'd liked him touching my body before; he had known. His fingers and lips and tongue paid their tribute to my body, as a subject does to his king. I could still feel the faint ache where he had exacted his own tribute. The sensations blent into a warmth that seemed to permeate my bones.

By the time he reached my kneecaps again, I had started to worry about Sedgewick.

There weren't many good times for me to remember at Mercy Prison, and most of them were accompanied by a memory of how Sedgewick had maliciously destroyed whatever pleasure I had received. The man seemed to have an instinct for knowing when prisoners were enjoying themselves; he always turned up when that was happening. I had to finish this before Sedgewick interrupted what we were doing.

I cleared my throat. "Thank you," I said, "but this really isn't necessary. The best part for me came before."

"Mm?" He confined himself to an interrogatory sound, probably because he was busy sucking my big toe.

I tried to explain then, about the enjoyment I'd received, knowing that I was taking him into a place where he had never been before. Then, when he paid no attention and began licking the sole of my left foot, I desperately explained the burst of joy I'd felt in knowing that I'd helped him break free of his imprisonment.

I was babbling; I knew I was babbling. It had something to do with the way he was following the arch of my foot with one of his fingernails. I decided that the part of me which was asleep was an utter fool, because the rest of my body had never had so much fun in its life.

I tried again. "It was the giving. I told you before. The giving was enough – it was a kind of taking in its way. . . ."

He raised his head. I could see his smile, half-screened by the foot he had lifted. "I know," he said. "It was the same for me, earlier tonight."

I can be slow, but not that slow. Shortly thereafter, I began cursing him in a methodical manner, and when I ran out of curses, I started over again.

He was laughing by that time; then suddenly he wasn't laughing. He flung himself down at my side like a soldier dropping into a trench, and he placed his hand over my mouth.

I heard it also then: the tap of Sedgewick's boots. The tap slowed and paused outside our cell. I couldn't breathe. All that Sedgewick had to do was open the little window, and he'd see everything. And by the morning, the entire prison would know – gods, the entire system of life prisons would know. The story would follow Thomas back to Compassion, and his father would hear. I could imagine the scene between them, Thomas's father quizzing him to see whether he'd properly raped his prisoner.

I took Thomas's free hand. It was rigid. He was leaning on one elbow, staring beyond us to the door. I didn't dare move my head to look back at the door.

Then the boots slowly tapped their way past. A moment later I heard the sound of a cell door opening, and then closing again, followed by the closing of a second door. Sedgewick had decided to pay a visit on his own prisoner.

Thomas's hand was still over my mouth. I bit it, too gently to draw blood, and he removed his hand. Relief was written upon his face.

"That was a distraction," I growled at him. "You bribed Sedgewick to appear at that exact moment so that I'd forget what you'd done."

He smiled then, not bothering to respond.

"Did you plan this all?" I persisted. "Even the first kiss?"

He shook his head. "Honestly, no, Merrick, I had no idea you were going to do this. I didn't even know I wanted it to happen. But when I realized that you were giving this to me without need for taking, and that you had begun to recognize that the giving was a pleasure in itself . . ." He hesitated.

"Go on," I said grimly, pulling myself up into a sitting position and folding my arms. "Explain your devious purpose for doing this."

He stared down at my thigh, tracing a pattern on it with his finger. I refused to allow myself to be distracted. After a while he said softly, "Everyone thinks it's easy, what I do: the transforming of prisoners, guiding them into unexplored territory. . . . It's easier now, because I've done it so many times. But in the beginning, there were times when I would come close to weeping because what I was doing was so hard. It was like trying to run from the bottom of this prison to the top level. I wasn't used to the work, and my soul ached. It would have been so much easier for me if somebody had showed me at the start what sort of pleasure could eventually come from the giving. I could have held that in mind during the hard moments."

I saw then what he was suggesting, and my heart began pounding, the way it had when he had taken me with such swiftness and perfection. His eyes flicked up toward my face, and then down. He looked more uncertain now than he had at any time since we met.

And well he might. Asking a prisoner to turn from his old life of vice was one thing. Thomas was asking a great deal more than that from me. I doubted he'd had the gall to make this proposal to any other prisoner.

It was a compliment, in a way. I sighed and pulled him into my arms. "Bloody idiot," I said, ruffling his hair. "It's like asking a crippled man to run to the top of Mercy. Whatever you may say about the importance of hard work, you have the gift for this sort of thing. I don't."

He didn't say anything, just smiled and rested his head against my shoulder. I spent a minute smoothing down the hair I'd ruffled before I said quietly, "I'll try. That's all I can promise, that I'll try. But what about you?"

"Me?" He seemed genuinely startled.

"We've determined where my future lies. Where is yours? What do you plan to do when you've taken Compassion into your hands?"

His expression drifted into a faraway look. Several minutes passed before he spoke again.

So we talked, and we talked for a long time, because he'd arrived at the cell much earlier than I'd thought. And in the midst of our talking, we fell asleep, which was remarkable in its own way, because Mercy bed-shelves aren't made to be slept in by more than one person. But it can be done if one of the persons is lying half-over the other, murmuring words of fidelity into the hollow of his love-mate's shoulder.

That was me. I figured that, if I was going to learn to do new things, I might as well spend the last of our time together in that learning.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Mercy's Prisoner #2
MEN AND LADS
 

"The punk [young tramp] rolled up his big blue eyes
And said to the jocker [older tramp that the punk followed], "Sandy,
I've hiked and hiked and wandered too,
But I ain't seen any candy.
I've hiked and hiked till my feet are sore
I'll be God damned if I hike any more
To be * * * * * * * *
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains."

—Final verse of the original version of Harry McClintock's Big Rock Candy Mountain (about 1897), as quoted – and censored – by folklorist John Greenway.

o—o—o

"The decent hoboes were protective as long as they were around, but there were times when I fought like a wildcat or ran like a deer to preserve my independence and my virginity. I whittled my way out of two or three jams with a big barlow knife, and on one occasion I jumped into the darkness from a boxcar door – from a train that must have been doing better than thirty miles an hour."

—Harry McClintock on his experiences as a teenage tramp in the 1890s.

o—o—o

"There has to be a first time for everything; for friendship as well as love; and first friendship, once given, can no more be given again than first love."

—Rosemary Sutcliff: Blood Vow.


PROLOGUE

He knew what his prisoner's expression would be before he saw it: a mixture of apprehension, wary hope, and the expression he had come to fear most of all – determination.

He said, before his prisoner could speak, "I'm going away."

His prisoner stared. "Away?"

"Yes." He told himself that the prisoner's growing look of concern was only due to the implications of being transferred to a strange guard. "I've arranged for Keane to provide service to you."

It was the old phrase, the source of many jokes at Mercy Life Prison, but his prisoner didn't smile. "When will you be back?"

"Don't give him any trouble." He needed to get out of here before he did something he'd regret. "I've told him you are not difficult."

"But—"

He let the sound of the barred door clashing behind him be his answer. He could feel his prisoner's eye on him as he crossed the fire-pit area on his way to the level's exit.

Not difficult. It was a lie, in actual fact. His prisoner was more difficult than anyone he had ever guarded in his life. That was why he needed to go away.
 

CHAPTER ONE

The year 385, the eleventh month. (The year 1890 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
 

After the riot, Compassion Life Prison's surviving prisoners – and surviving guards – were lodged temporarily in a building at the crossroads of the nearest town, Ammippian Springs. The town itself – as bored guards had long since realized – offered nothing of interest to a city man. None of that area of western Mip did. In order to reach anything even mildly interesting in the way of nightlife, one had to travel by buggy or wagon to the closest city, Hagerstown, which was more than ten miles away. Mip's capital was even further away; travelling there by road was a matter of hours. So the guards, as they had for centuries, made their own entertainment.

Thomas, leaning his cheek against a cool bar of the cell as he listened to the satisfied grunts of the prison's day supervisor, wondered whether he would ever be free.

He looked around again. The prison cell – four walls of bars, with an iron foundation and roof – had been placed in the holding prison's attic, which could be reached only through a ladder leading up from the second floor. The ladder end of the attic was where the guards had placed a wardrobe that could hardly be termed spacious, but it was adequate for the job that the guards had in mind. This was where they took the prisoners they had chosen as their lads – an old custom, probably as old as Compassion Prison itself.

The prisoners in the cell were doing their very best to ignore the current re-enactment of that custom, though every now and then, some of the more vulnerable prisoners – the "lads," as they were termed – glanced over at the wardrobe with wide eyes, obviously envisioning what was taking place. None of them looked at Thomas, standing on the other side of the bars.

He was used to being ignored by now. He took another look at the "men" among the prisoners. There were four of them now, two more than there had been the previous week, for new prisoners continued to arrive. Despite being natural rivals for one another's property – food, blankets, and lads – the prison's men appeared to be getting along reasonably well. Perhaps the horrors of the riot had taught the prisoners that much.

The only other person in the attic, standing on Thomas's side of the bars, was Starke, who was busy lighting up a cigarette as he guarded the wardrobe. Smoking on duty was against life-prison regulations. Thomas wondered whether he dare remind Starke of that.

Starke noticed him and silently offered his cigarette case. "No," replied Thomas. "It's against regulations."

Starke slipped the case back into his jacket pocket, took a long moment blowing a ring of smoke toward the ceiling, and finally said, "I remember the day I taught you that regulation. You'd just been fitted for your first long pants, and you were eager to have your first smoke, in order to show how manly you were."

Thomas tried to think of a reply to this – he was acutely aware of the prisoners listening in, with grins on their faces – but at that moment, Pugh emerged from the closet, with his right hand grasping hard the nape of a dazed-looking prisoner, while his left hand buttoned up his fly.

Starke, without a word, took the prisoner from him. Thomas – bound as always to follow regulations – lifted his coiled whip from his belt. There had been occasional trouble, he heard, with the transfer of prisoners in and out of the cell; the humiliation of the riot was still fresh in the prisoners' mind.

There was no trouble this time, though. The prisoners looked at Thomas, and they looked at his whip, and they came nowhere near the cell door as Starke unlocked it and thrust the shaken lad inside.

The prisoners' mute looks of respect for his skill with a whip went a little ways in restoring Thomas's confidence. He waited until the cell door was locked and Starke was out of reach of the prisoners; then he returned his whip to his belt and said, "May I have a word with you, Mr. Pugh?"

"Save it for when I'm on duty." Pugh turned toward Starke. "Give me some baccer, for love of the gods. I'm parched."

Starke offered his cigarette case again. Thomas said, "Smoking on duty is against regulations."

"So?" Pugh did not look his way as he pressed his cigarette against the glowing end of Starke's cigarette. "The Keeper isn't above smoking a bit of baccer while he's on duty. And the Keeper takes lads, if that's the lecture you were planning to give me. Are you saying that you know better how to behave than the Keeper of Compassion Prison?"

Thomas forced himself to count backwards from ten. He knew, of course, from whence Pugh's resentment arose. Pugh had long been the day supervisor of Compassion Prison; by right of rank, he should have risen to the rank of night supervisor and received the title of Assistant Keeper after the previous Assistant Keeper died in the riot. Instead, that rank and title had been taken by a youth who was still in his journeyman years: the Keeper's son, Thomas.

It would do no good to remind Pugh that he had been away on a foreign holiday at the time that the riots occurred, and that an immediate appointment had needed to be made. It would do even less good to say that the appointment had been a punishment. How could Thomas explain that his father had appointed him Assistant Keeper and night supervisor, years before Thomas ought to have risen so high in rank, as a way of burdening him with responsibility that would likely crush him?

Starke was watching Thomas steadily. Thomas suspected he had guessed the truth; Starke had witnessed father and son enter into their grim battles with each other more than once. But not even Starke would follow Thomas's orders, when they went against long-standing prison custom. Not even him.

Thomas said, "The Keeper left me in charge of this holding prison while Compassion's building is rebuilt, Mr. Pugh."

"As Assistant Keeper." Pugh turned away. "That gives you the right to determine at what hour our shifts exchange. It doesn't give you the right to overturn centuries' worth of customs. Good night, Starke. I'll see you at work tomorrow." And he swung himself down onto the ladder leading to the second floor, never looking Thomas's way.

Thomas was left burning with rage and humiliation. But if nothing else, he had inherited his father's ability to sound cool under pressure. "Where are the night guards, Mr. Starke? They should be on duty by now."

"You tell me." Starke blew out another ring. "If you want to keep matters in order here, stop wasting your time with trivialities. Make sure that the night guards relieve us on time from our duty. They're your responsibility."

Thomas let his cool gaze travel over to Starke. "You meant to say 'sir,' I'm sure."

Starke merely snorted. Stubbing out the final remains of his cigarette in the guards' ashtray – placed there by order of the Keeper himself – he came forward and said in a soft voice, "Look, Tom, Pugh's a pig, but he's right in what he said: You don't have the authority to do anything except supervise the night guards and make sure that Pugh supervises the day guards. Maybe you can keep the night guards from smoking on duty. Maybe. But if you try to do more than that, the guards are going to laugh at you. Even more than they're already laughing at you."

He could feel an aching in his throat. "Are you laughing at me?"

Starke shook his head. "You want the best for this prison. You always have. You're an idealist, and that's not a bad thing in a youth." He smiled, managing somehow to encompass in that smile all the superiority of being five years older than Thomas. "We're all idealists when we're young. We grow out of it. . . . I almost wish that you'd been at Compassion during the riot."

"So do I." He managed to swallow the hard lump in his throat. "How is your shoulder?"

Starke half-shrugged, using the shoulder that wasn't bandaged beneath his uniform. "Still keeps me awake at night. I'm told it will heal eventually, more or less. You want me to keep guard while you round up the stragglers? I won't be getting to sleep for hours anyway."

It was impossible to stay angry at Starke, Thomas reflected as he worked his way down the ladder and then checked the empty bedrooms of the missing night guards. Starke was unfailingly protective of the boy whom Compassion's Keeper had entrusted to him, eight years before.

But Thomas was no longer a boy. And he was finding it impossible to convince anyone at Compassion of that fact.

It had been easier at Mercy . . .

At that moment, as his thoughts turned toward Mercy Prison and all the longing that he held toward that life prison, the front door of the holding prison banged open. The missing night guards had returned.

"Where have you been?" Thomas snapped. He had just made his way to the bottom of the stairs, in preparation for searching the main floor and the surrounding yard – perhaps even the rest of the town.

The senior of the night guards, Chase, looked startled. "Following Pugh's orders," he replied. "He told me to pick up the new shipment."

It was then that Thomas noticed the prisoner.

o—o—o

The year 393, the eleventh month. (The year 1892 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
 

Given the number of train connections between Mercy Life Prison and his destination, he elected to hire a buggy to take him to Williamsport. He could have hired a buggy for the full trip, but he had no desire to have his presence traced that far. Instead, offering a tale about relatives in Williamsport, he paid off the buggy-driver. Then he went in search of a train headed west on the Western Mippite Railroad's newly built line to Cherry Run.

But matters did not prove to be so easy.

"Not yet, sir," said the station agent firmly as he counted the bills in his hand.

"I thought your company advertised last summer that this new rail-line would have several passenger trains a day." He had to work very hard to keep sarcasm out of his voice.

"Oh, yes." The agent smiled at him, his face alight from sun reflected off the nearby creek. "We expect lots of passengers to ride the new line in order to visit Clear Spring. For the orchard-picking, you know." The agent winked; the outlawed cock-fighting at Clear Spring was notorious among gamblers. "But we don't have more than one passenger train a day yet. Try us again in a month's time."

Punching away that smug smile would go a long way to easing the tension that had been building up in him during the past few weeks, but it would not supply him with needed answers. Also, he reminded himself, he was not immune to arrest here, as he would be if he committed the same act against his prisoner. "Very well. Where may I hire a buggy?"

But here he ran up against another barrier. Williamsport, for all its claims to be the crossroads of western Mip, had not yet established a buggy-hiring service.

"Never needed one," declared the perpetually grinning agent. "We've got the trains. And before that, during the great migrations to Vovim, settlers brought their own wagons. Why, they say that, in the days before the settlers arrived, the Ammippian tribe made this town a part of its trail . . ."

"Yes, yes," he said impatiently, since the agent seemed prepared to launch into ancient history, before the Old World had discovered the New World. "But this particular settler sent away his buggy, since he was unwise enough to trust the glittering advertisements of the Western Mippite Railroad. What can you do for me?"

He had not, it seemed, succeeded in stripping sarcasm from his voice this time, for he saw a familiar look of truculence enter the agent's face. The agent said gruffly, "Might call a special for you."

"Do that," he ordered. "I'll return in two-thirds of an hour." He had to get himself away from here before he did something that . . . Well, not that he would entirely regret smashing in the agent's face, but he couldn't afford to call attention to himself on this trip.

Besides, he reminded himself, he could hardly descend upon his host with blood drying upon his knuckles, and then ask for help.

He took a look at the road behind him: houses straggled up the hill to the town center. He shook his head. Williamsport was too near the capital; there was a chance he might meet someone he knew if he walked through the respectable part of town. Instead, he turned away and followed the railroad tracks down the wooded creek bank to the canal, in the direction of the western mountains.

The canal was easy enough to sight from the depot: an aqueduct carried the canal boats over the creek. Near the aqueduct was a turning basin for the boats, accompanied by a short railroad track leading to a warehouse on the basin. He stood a while, watching coal being loaded from the boats onto freight cars.

The day was cool – "headed toward Hell," as his father used to humorously put it, in the days before his only child had grown old enough to break his jaw, and be disinherited, and leave home to take up the surprisingly respectable occupation of prison guard.

He supposed his parents still lived in Clear Spring, a town he would pass during his journey. He had no intention of stopping there. He didn't want to have to decide whether his new-found duty to the Boundaries required him to apologize to his drunken father and his slovenly mother.

Canal-boat captains shouted cheerful insults at one another as craned buckets took coal from their boats. The boats no doubt brought the coal from mines in the mountains of western Mip. But he didn't so much as contemplate hiring one of the boats headed back west; the gossip range of canal captains was notorious. As for the freight cars, they were presumably headed east toward Hagerstown, or perhaps even as far as Balmer, the largest city in the Dozen Landsteads, over Mip's eastern border.

But other freight cars would be headed west to pick up coal and coke from Cherry Run, the first town over western Mip's southern border with the Kingdom of Vovim, or perhaps grain from Big Pool, the westernmost station in the Magisterial Republic of Mip. A thought began to form in his mind.

The agent, though, had grown even more truculent during their time apart. "Company rules don't allow it, sir," he said firmly. "Passengers have to use the passenger trains. Freight trains are for freight. Specials," he added with a smile, "aren't available today. Too many cars in for repairs, I'm told."

He had a momentary vision of how tasty the agent would look if his neck were strung tight with his own telegraph wire. Before he could decide whether to carry out his plan, though, the agent suddenly turned red in the face. "You rascal!"

"Are you addressing me?" He was amused rather than offended; "rascal" was the mildest name he had been called since he became a prison guard.

The agent paid no attention to him. Instead, he dashed around the corner of the depot. Shortly thereafter, he returned to the front of the depot, holding the ear of a ragged-clothed youth.

"What did I tell you about loitering around here?" he shouted at the lad, who was now yelping from the pain of having his ear tugged.

"But you told me it would be all right, mister, since I was heading for a job. . . . You said if I gave you all my money . . ." The lad spoke in a breathless voice.

"Liar!" The agent let go of the lad's ear, only in order to shake him. "Hopping our freights at the expense of the company – why, I ought to give you over to the town soldiers. They'd see that you cooled your heels in jail."

The lad made no further protest, though his face was screwed up in anguish at the prospect of being handed over to the authorities.

There was more than one way in which to have revenge, he reflected as he put away the pipe he had been about to light. "I can take care of that," he declared.

"Sir?" Baffled, the agent turned toward him.

Opening his jacket, he flashed the badge pinned inside it, too quickly for the agent to read the name on it. "I work in the life prisons. A rascal like that won't learn his lesson until he has spent a very long time indeed in a cell."

"No!" cried the lad, and with good reason, given the reputation of the life prisons.

"Well," said the agent, clearly torn between satisfaction and justice, "he's not quite old enough for a life prison—"

"He's of journeyman age." This was a guess, but the lad made no protest. "That's plenty old enough. Come here." He grabbed the lad's arm, and the agent released him. "Thank you for turning over this prisoner to me, sir. We know how to deal with such young men in the life prisons." He propelled the lad off the platform before the agent should have time to think up new protests.

With any luck, the agent would spend the rest of his life filled with nightmares about having handed over a young man to the unremitting cruelties of the life prisons.

"Please, mister." The lad was breathless, but he wasn't crying, which showed remarkable will-power on his part. "Please, I weren't going to do no harm—"

"Quiet." He needed to get both of them out of sight, before the agent should begin to wonder how he planned to transport his prisoner to a life prison.

"Mister, I won't do it again! I promise! Please let me go—"

"I said, Quiet." He dug his fingers into the lad's arm and received a quite satisfactory grunt of pain. Then the lad was quiet, compliant. Which was a satisfaction in itself, but was rather too tempting. Taking the chance, he stopped on the bridge over the creek and released the lad. "Fine. Here we are. Go on your way."

As he had hoped, the lad did not immediately flee; instead, the boy stared, bewildered. "Why are you letting me go, mister?"

He could have said, "Because you're a dirty little emigrant from the Dozen Landsteads, too cowed by your childhood training to disobey authorities, even when they're abusing you." That would have been half the truth. But only half.

"You're free to go," he emphasized to both the lad and himself. "I can't hold you. I don't possess the power to arrest men, and even if I did, no one is sentenced to life imprisonment for hopping freight trains. Though we'll just leave the agent wondering about that, shall we?" He allowed himself to offer one of his dark smiles.

After a moment, the lad gave the hint of a smile himself. "Thank you, mister. I'm ever so much obliged to you. If there's anything I can do for you . . ."

They were still standing on the bridge spanning the creek. From the far side of the creek came the faint whistle of a freight train headed west.

"Well," he replied, "now that you mention it . . ."

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWO

Thomas stood on the porch of the holding prison, breathing in the sharp crispness of autumn leaves and the ash-and-meat scent of a nearby smokehouse and the pungent smell of sheep grazing on the hillside opposite. He was thinking how much he would have liked to have turned time backwards.

All around him were mountains: mountains to the west and southwest, fading blue into the distance; mountains to the east, separating western Mip from the softer central districts; and the mountain on which he stood, quiet with the slowing rhythms of late autumn.

From where he stood, he could not see Compassion Prison, hidden by the ridge opposite him and by the screen of undeveloped forest. He could almost imagine that he was a boy again, playing in the fields, never knowing what took place in the prison where his father worked.

That had all ended on the day he turned twelve, and his father announced that, as the new Keeper, he was entitled to house his family within Compassion Prison.

He stepped away from the holding prison, which was built in the western style, with a broad porch running the full length of the building's front. The building itself was ordinarily used as the town's general merchandise store and post office. There had been some grumbling among the townsfolk when the store was confiscated for temporary government use; the townsfolk complained that Compassion's Keeper should have used his own house, standing empty all these years. Thomas had been secretly glad that his childhood home would not be tainted by the activities of Compassion's guards and prisoners.

He passed the store's outhouse, from which Pugh was just emerging. They ignored each other. Leaving the yard of the holding prison, Thomas turned toward the setting sun and walked down the turnpike, its finely ground stone pavement packed hard. He passed small shacks, buildings with broken windows and peeling paint . . . Ammippian Springs, being planted upon rocky mountain ground that made farming difficult, had long struggled for survival. There had been a time when everyone had hoped that the National Turnpike which ran through the town would change matters, since the turnpike carried hundreds of travellers journeying west, all the way from the Dozen Landsteads to the middle of the continent.

But then the railroads had been built throughout Mip and its neighboring nations, and traffic on the turnpike had diminished. The owners of the turnpike, seeing their profits dip, stopped keeping up the road. Now the turnpike was crumbling in places, like the town surrounding it.

He passed another road, leading south to Compassion Prison; again, he did not pause. Just ahead of him on the right was a graciously built house, taking up the position of pride on a great lawn that swept up onto the mountainside behind it. A nearby barn, looking somewhat frail, was the only hint that this property had once been a working farm.

Thomas paused on the house's porch. His father's family, he well knew, had once owned most of Ammippian Springs. But like many Yclau aristocrats, his grandfather had been hard hit by the depression of 355, in the year when Mip received its freedom from Yclau. Some Mippite aristocrats had managed to toddle along in the years since then, supported by the stubborn desire of their neighbors to continue calling them by aristocratic titles that the Magisterial Republic of Mip no longer recognized. But Thomas's grandfather had been much disliked by his tenants; when rising prices for manufactured goods forced him to sell most of his land to the tenants who farmed the land, his former tenants promptly dropped use of his anachronistic title and ignored him.

Thomas had not known this as a child; he had assumed that the reason none of the other children in town would play with him was because his father was a guard at one of Mip's life prisons. That was reason enough, he would eventually realize.

He stared across the road at the autumn-brown fields, stripped of the last of their crops for the season. He had made his own entertainment as a child, playing by himself amidst haystacks or hunting for deer in the mountains, once Starke had taught him how to shoot. But in the same year that he learned how to shoot, he had conceived the ambition of becoming a prison guard himself. He had not realized then that he was slamming the door shut to all future hope of daily contact with the townsfolk.

And if not with the townsfolk, then with whom? The other guards either despised him or humored him. His father was displeased with Thomas's radical notions, while Thomas's mother and sisters were puzzled as to why he failed to follow the lead of his father. There was his grandmother . . . But she had died when he was eleven, the last of her line to survive. Her absence had left a small grave in his heart.

There remained the prisoners. Thomas had always possessed his father's example to dissuade him from taking that path.

He stepped off the porch of his family home, reminding himself that he was neglecting his duty. Slowly, reluctantly, he made his way back to the holding prison.

In the brief time he had been absent, he would not have been surprised to see that the new prisoner had taken control of the prison cell, stripping the "men" among the prisoners of their status of leadership. But when Thomas arrived in the attic, he found that someone had managed to rip off the top half of the new prisoner's uniform. The new prisoner was standing at the far end of the cell, sharing the space with cobwebs, as sweat glistened on his dark chest. His palms were laid flat upon a couple of the cell bars he stood against, as though he were a hunted animal seeking escape.

Indeed, it appeared that the only reason matters had not gone further than this was that the cell's men had paused to argue.

"Look, it doesn't matter which of us goes first," said Valdis in an irritated voice. "We'll all be taking him in the end. None of us is claiming him, is he?"

"Him?" Shaking his head, Horace snorted. "I'm not even sure I want to fuck his filthy body."

Walker said something in a low voice that caused Delgado to nod vigorously. "He's right. Fuck him, then rid this cell of him." He drew his finger across his neck, and the new prisoner stiffened. Whether or not he understood exactly what was being said, it was clear from his posture that he gathered the gist of the men's plans. Yet he gave no sign that he would fight in defense.

"No killings," ordered Chase in an automatic manner, but he turned to the other night guard, Blythe, and spoke in a lower voice. "He deserves a bloody long killing. Did you hear what he did before he was caught?"

"Mr. Chase, please don't swear on duty." Thomas did not need to be told what the new prisoner had done. The case had been notorious. He kept his eye on the prisoner, seeking some sign of what action the prisoner would take.

Chase simply grinned at this reprimand. "Going to claim this one, Tom? You've waited long enough."

"No one will claim him," Blythe predicted confidently. He was watching as the prisoners drew straws to determine which would conduct the initial rape. "Not in any full sense of the word."

Thomas was inclined to agree. Even the lads – who normally showed pity for any suffering endured by their fellow lads – were casting looks of scorn at the new prisoner. "He stinks," one of them muttered. "He stinks worse than Brewster, and he doesn't have Brewster's excuse." He cast a look at Brewster, an ugly prisoner who, after three weeks in the cell, was still unclaimed by anyone except the guards . . . for whom a "claim" had nothing to do with protection. Made the toy of the guards and all the men in the prison for days on end, Brewster had withdrawn into himself; he was sitting in a ball in the corner of the prison, rocking to and fro, humming tunelessly as he stared blankly forward.

"Let's thrust the new lad headfirst into the water-barrel," another lad suggested. "That will clean him well enough."

The new prisoner's gaze had flicked over to the lads. He was now gripping the cell bars hard. Thomas – who bore the primary responsibility of seeing that none of the prisoners broke out to freedom – mentally measured the new prisoner's muscles, wondering whether he had strength enough to bash in the head of any guard entering the cell. It seemed likely. But it continued to seem unlikely that the new prisoner would use violence as a means of escape. He simply stood still, awaiting the outcome of the discussions, his chin held high and his eyes defiant.

He would not end up like Brewster, Thomas guessed. No matter what restraint the new prisoner was showing now, in the long run he would not endure the trial being set upon him. He would return to his deadly ways, and then . . . In theory, prisoners were not supposed to be allowed to kill each other. By prison custom, though, the guards stood back and allowed the prisoners themselves to deal with any rogue killers.

"He's mine," declared Valdis. "The rest of you will have to wait a minute or two." Wearing a satisfied smile, he stepped forward.

"Wait."

The new prisoner's gaze flicked away from Valdis. Everyone else had turned to stare, including the night guards. "Tom," Chase said, finding his tongue. "It's prison custom. We don't interfere with a claim."

"That isn't a claim." Thomas kept his eyes on the new prisoner, who was meeting them square.

"Don't be difficult, Tom." Chase sighed. "You know your father's orders: we don't enter the cell any more, except to make our own claims. Come on." He placed an avuncular hand on Thomas's shoulder. "If it makes you squeamish to watch, you can wait downstairs."

"Yes," said Thomas, and saw a telling flicker in the prisoner's eyes. "Yes, I'm going downstairs. Deliver the prisoner to my room."

Chase stared. "Tom . . ."

"I claim him." Thomas turned away. "Bring me the Ammippian."

o—o—o

"Not yet!" whispered Dick. "Wait for the brakey!"

Lying stomach-down next to the lad, both of them screened by the shrubbery overlooking the tracks near the creek – there was a slaughterhouse behind them, which was far too appropriate – he turned his attention to the brakeman, who was inspecting a coupling between the final freight car and his caboose. Evidently satisfied, the brakeman swung himself up into the caboose and disappeared inside.

"Now!" whispered Dick, and the two of them scrambled down the bank toward the railroad junction, where the train had paused in its journey west. They began their frantic search for an empty boxcar.

Checking whether a boxcar was empty required him to leap up onto the still-step, cling to the grab irons along the side of the car, lean over, unlatch the door, shove it open . . . and then repeat the procedure when he discovered the car was filled with freight. By the fifth boxcar, he was sweating and had a good deal more respect than he had held previously for tramps' survival skills.

"Mister! Here!"

Hopping down to the ground, he turned his head. Dick had managed to make his way halfway down the line of freight cars in the time it had taken his elder to inspect just five cars. The lad was standing in the doorway of a boxcar, waving.

And the train had started to move.

Cursing, he began to ran, then ran faster as the locomotive, puffing out grey waves of smoke, churned its wheels faster. He managed to catch hold of the grab irons next to the boxcar door and haul himself up, but for a moment it appeared that the rising speed of the train would cause him to lose his grip.

Then Dick reached across, grabbed his free hand, and wrenched him into the car. They both fell to the ground, Dick underneath him.

The thought immediately crossed his mind that no magistrate in the republic was likely to trust the word of a ragged young tramp that a respectable, mid-class man such as himself had committed an assault. He pushed the thought away. Instead, he rolled over onto the floor – which smelled of rat droppings – and lay panting.

Dick, whose smile had grown slightly more noticeable, turned onto his side, resting his head on his upraised forearm. "You look filthy!" he shouted over the rattle of the train.

"So do you," he managed to gasp out. He was reflecting that, for all his Landstead ancestry, the lad seemed to have mastered the republican manners of Mip. The Queendom of Yclau, from which the Magisterial Republic of Mip had sprung, liked to boast that its new egalitarian movement was the most advanced in the world, but only in Mip had the elite and the commoners received the same system of justice since the republic's founding, thirty-seven years before . . . at least in theory. With that equality had come a tendency of commoners to treat their betters as though the elite truly were the commoners' equals, not just in the magistrates' court, but everywhere.

He found himself scanning the prone lad with his eye. The youth appeared to be somewhere in the scant year between the beginning of journeymanship and adulthood, and he had the fair looks of adolescence beneath his torn, dirty shirt and overalls.

Not that it mattered. It was said in Mercy Prison that he would fuck anything he could trap. "You mean 'rape anything,'" he had always corrected, for the amusement of seeing the speakers writhe. His fellow guards were never willing to admit that what they did to the prisoners was rape, however immune from legal prosecution they might be.

He needed to move his mind away from this subject. Pushing himself to his feet, he looked down and saw that Dick was right: he was indeed covered now with the solid evidence of the rats' previous occupation of this car. With a sigh, he took out a handkerchief.

In the next moment, Dick was kneeling at his feet, brushing away the filth with his bare hands.

"You don't need to do that," he commented, too much enjoying the view to offer any real protest.

"I don't mind," the lad rejoined. "Done it to myself often enough. Where are you headed in such a hurry, mister?"

He hesitated before lying. "The end of the line."

Dick leaned down to wipe his boots. "You transferring to the B&V, then?"

"I've often thought of visiting Vovim," he hedged. The Balmer & Vovim Railroad, just over the border in the Kingdom of Vovim, ran all the way from Balmer in the Dozen Landsteads to southern Vovim. He had no intention of taking that train . . . though perhaps he should say that he had no intention yet. A great deal depended on what he would learn at his destination.

"Thought at first you might be going to Balmer." The lad straightened up.

He managed to bat away Dick's hands and step back, the moment before the lad was about to brush off the cloth of his trousers, at crotch level. "No. Is that where you were headed before? East to the Dozen Landsteads?"

Dick shook his head as he rose to his feet. He stood with ease on the swaying floor of the boxcar, his voice pitched just loud enough to be heard over the persistent clankety-clank of the train and the occasional whistle from the locomotive. The northern-facing doorway of the boxcar was propped open with a railway spike that the lad had thoughtfully grabbed along the way; the doorway revealed that they were passing farmland. The train whooshed by a station without stopping: Pinesburg. From the slant of the floor and the energetic puff of the locomotive, it was clear that the train was beginning to climb up one of the mountains that could be seen from Williamsport.

"It's no good there," Dick declared. "Not for servants. It's better here. My parents said."

"You ran away from them?" He thought of taking out his pipe, and then dismissed the idea. Trying to light a pipe in a swaying freight car was beyond his abilities. Instead, he stepped back to brace himself against the wall opposite the doorway.

Something moved in the lad's eyes then. "No, mister. My mama and daddy are dead. They was killed, crossing the border."

"Mippite border guards?"

"Landstead guards. Our mister and mistress didn't give us permission to leave our landstead, you see."

"I begin to see why your parents tried to emigrate." Another station name flashed by: Clear Spring. The train began to slow, chugging harder. "How old were you?"

The lad straightened his shoulders. "Four tri-years. I mean, twelve years old. Old enough. I wandered around till I found the meeting place of some tramps. One of them taught me their ways, for a couple of years before he fell off a bumper while we was beating our way east. Knocked his head in."

He thought of asking what the lad's payment for that education had been – he knew enough about Mip's underworld to have heard of such things – but decided against the question. "So is that your ambition in life? To be a tramp?"

Dick shrugged. "I've taken work, sometimes. Some of the other tramps laugh at me, but I don't like begging. I'd rather earn my own way. Can't find much work, though."

In those ragged clothes, certainly not. He looked the lad over again, assessing him, this time in a professional manner, as he would if the lad turned up as a prisoner. "Can you read?" he asked. Landstead servants usually couldn't.

"Oh, yes, mister!" The lad was clearly proud of this accomplishment, for he pulled out a memorandum book from a pocket of his overalls. "I taught myself. See?"

He gestured with his hand. With visible reluctance, the lad handed over the book. The lad began to speak, then fell silent as the unmistakable sound of footsteps tapped their way across the roof of the boxcar: the brakeman, preparing to brake each car when the train reached the summit of the mountain and began to go downhill. The train slowed yet further as the locomotive huffed its way to the top.

Opening the book, he expected to see half-literate scribbles. Indeed, much of the terminology was mysterious to him; he guessed that, in the privacy of his journal, the lad felt free to use the tramps' lingo that he wouldn't use around a stranger such as himself.

But he should have guessed what he'd find, from the fact that the lad had stripped himself of his Landstead accent and most of his servant grammar. Despite the underworld catch-phrases, the journal entries were painstakingly meticulous, both in language and in character. They were well-written, detailed observations of the men and boys whom Dick had met on his travels. The lad captured their virtues, their foibles . . . and the darkness that some of them strove to hide.

He did not look up from the book, but he suddenly felt naked. He wondered why Dick, so keen an observer, wasn't more frightened of him. "Have you ever shown this to any of your employers?"

"No, sir. Not to anyone. I figured they'd take it away from me."

He raised his eyes. The lad was keeping a good distance, but Dick's tense stance was that of a mother who has entrusted her much-beloved child to the arms of someone else. He said, "But you trust me?"

He never received the answer. At that moment, as the train began to make its way swiftly down the mountain, the brakeman swung into the car and pointed his revolver at Dick.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THREE

Fingering his amulet, Thomas thought about his father's advice.

He leaned back in his chair behind the desk. Upon settling into the holding prison, he had positioned his desk so that it was facing the door to his room, in order to give an official atmosphere to the setting. The position of the desk could not disguise the fact that his room was actually a bedroom. Even with the prison's guard reduced to a skeleton crew, there were too few rooms in the building to allow Thomas both an office and a bedroom. "That could be an advantage," Pugh had told Thomas in his coarse manner.

Gamble high, his father had said when he first taught Thomas how to play dice, at age five. Sometimes you'll lose everything. But if you're skilled enough, you'll win it all back.

"Oh, Merrick," Thomas murmured, "am I gambling too high this time?"

There were steps at the door. No time in which to undo his collar again and thrust the amulet down his shirt; Thomas let the amulet fall loose around his neck, trusting to the high desk to hide it from view.

The door opened. Blythe escorted in the prisoner, not touching the man, which showed that the guard had a certain amount of native sense. "Shall I stay inside, or guard the door?" he asked Thomas.

"Neither," Thomas replied. "You may return to your post, Mr. Blythe."

Blythe looked startled; then, as Thomas had known it would, the guard's gaze shifted over to the bed. "Ah. Well. We'll be within shouting distance, if you need us."

The prisoner was looking at the bed too, but as the door closed, his gaze snapped over to Thomas. He was unbound; Thomas had managed to convey to the night guard his firm notions about keeping prisoners unbound except during punishment. The night guards had grudgingly accepted his eccentricity, since his skill with a whip was well known.

Unbound, Ahiga had chosen to cross his arms. That position made his considerable muscles bulge. He looked furious, as well he might.

Thomas tried not to think about what he knew of this prisoner's past history. "You are Ahiga," he said.

The prisoner made no reply. He was still bare-chested. He was youthful in appearance, but with a hard set to his mouth, and harder eyes. His long hair was gathered in a knot behind his neck, in the fashion of Ammippian warriors.

Thomas flicked the briefest of glances at the prisoner's records. The prisoner had requested and used an interpreter at his trial. Most Ammippians refused to learn the languages of their conquerors. Thomas weighed that fact against what he had witnessed in the cell.

He tried again. "I generally address prisoners by title and last name. But Ammippians do not adopt a career name upon adulthood, and they have no family names, because they believe it shows dishonor to their ancestors to reuse names and titles. So I will address you in the Ammippian fashion, simply as Ahiga."

Still no response. Scorn glazed the eyes of the prisoner.

There was an easy way by which to tear away the prisoner's complacence. But it was not yet time to roll double sixes, so instead Thomas said, "I have claimed you. Do you know what that means?"

A deepening of the hatred in the prisoner's look was the man's only response.

Thomas abruptly decided that he despised the desk. He had not broken through Merrick's considerable barriers by sitting behind a desk and reciting officialese. He stood up and walked forward, saying, "I want you to understand that I am not—"

Ahiga attacked.

Thomas had a split second in which to decide what to do. That was to say, he had ample time in which to decide what to do. The prisoner was too close for Thomas to use his whip. At the rate at which the prisoner was attacking, any use of the dagger would have deadly consequences for the prisoner.

Against that, there was knowledge of the prisoner's death toll.

Gamble high, Thomas's father had advised, and Thomas did so. He put out his hand, like a soldier directing traffic.

Ahiga paid no attention to this mild defense. He thrust Thomas against the wall and grabbed his amulet, shaking it in his face. "Thief!" he shouted.

There was only one response Thomas could make to this that the Ammippian would understand. He threw his dice.

"Youngest of the young," he said in the Ammippian tongue. "You dare to touch the sacred body of your elder?"

o—o—o

He had a split second in which to assess the chances of survival for himself and for Dick.

The chances weren't good for the lad. Dick had been standing next to the boxcar door; the brakeman, swinging himself in with lightning quickness, had managed to place himself behind the lad. The brakeman's revolver was now pressed against Dick's back.

Which meant that the brakeman's back was to the other occupant of the train, standing half-hidden in the shadows. If this had been Mercy Prison, and the brakeman had been his prisoner holding a knife – or even his father holding a knife – the man would have been easy enough to disarm.

But even though he was a guard, he had never touched a gun; firearms were rare in Mip. He had heard enough about them to be reluctant to attack a man wielding one. Instead, he remained silent, watching the drama take place.

"Off," said the brakeman.

"We're going too fast!" protested the lad – who, to his credit, had said nothing about the second occupant of this car. Perhaps he was simply hoping to be rescued.

"You should have thought of that before you stole a ride on the company's property. If you haven't jumped in nine seconds, I'll shoot you. Nine, eight, seven . . ."

Dick twisted his head around to give a despairing look at the brakeman. Beyond him, the open boxcar door revealed that the train was presently making its way along a trestle over a steep ravine. If Dick jumped now, he would certainly end up dead at the bottom of the gorge. It wasn't clear whether the brakeman cared.

It was time, he decided, that he tested whether the brakeman cared. Slipping the memorandum book into his pocket, he took out his pipe, tobacco, and matches.

The sound of a match striking the box caused the guard to swing his head around. "What in Hell's name . . . ?"

Dick – who should have taken this opportunity to wrench the revolver out of the brakeman's hand – stared too. His face was drained of all blood.

He lit his pipe in a leisurely fashion, long enough that the train made its way off the trestle. Then he said, "Push him."

"Beg pardon?" The brakeman, understandably, was disconcerted by this unsolicited advice.

"Push him. I needed to get to my destination in a hurry, so it amused me to hire him to show me how to hop freights. But he has bored me with his endless chit-chat. So push him off the train. He's a penniless orphan; if he breaks his neck, no magistrate will bring a murder charge against you."

He had always possessed a talent for putting into plain Mippite the deeds that other guards tried to hide from their consciences through mealy-mouthed euphemisms. Now, as so many times before, he watched the other man's face change as the brakeman fully grasped what he had been about to do.

The lad – hearing only the words, not seeing the effect of those words – had turned his white face toward the apparent traitor. He said nothing, but his eyes spoke of Hell's domain.

The brakeman cleared his throat as he clicked the change lever to the safe position on his revolver. "We're about to arrive at Big Pool. I might as well let you both off there."

The brakeman was as good as his word. The train slowed as they approached the freight station, a small wooden building with broad eaves that protected the barrels and crates waiting to be loaded. Dick promptly jumped off, landing on his knees. He scrambled off.

Following in a more leisurely fashion, he handed the brakeman the note he had scribbled in the interval, using a bit of paper torn from the memorandum book. "What's this?" asked the brakeman, staring at the name and address.

"A good legal counsel. You'll need him if you continue to follow your present course of action against illicit riders."

It was as bold a lie as he had ever told. It was quite true, what he had said before, that no magistrate was likely to care about the death of a tramp who had been found hopping a train. But from the expression on the brakeman's face, it was clear that the brakeman didn't intend to test the matter further.

Swinging down from the train – the wrong side of the train, away from the platform – he paused a moment. Partly this was to catch his breath. The extremities of his body were still throbbing from what he had witnessed. All his extremities. Tapping his pipe clean of the tobacco, he waited a minute for the hardness to soften; then he took an assessing look at the landscape. The broad body of water in front of him – the "Big Pool" from which the station took its name – had a spillway across it. He thought a moment, then followed the train track in the direction of Big Pool.

He caught up with Dick on the canal towpath; the lad had stopped to nurse his scraped knees. Dick scrambled to his feet as soon as he saw the intruder. "Don't come near me!" he cried. An open penknife appeared in his hand, from out of nowhere.

He took a long look at the knife, wondering where Dick had hidden it – wondering too why Dick hadn't used it back in the train, when the man who had hired him had ended up lying on top of him.

After a while, Dick said in a shaking voice, "Go away."

"Here." He tossed Dick the memorandum book. "You're an intelligent lad, to have survived this long on your own. All you need to make it through life is one skill you've missed: the art of creative falsehood."

Dick – who had caught the memorandum book in his left hand without letting go of the knife in his right – stared at the book, and at the piece of paper sticking out from within its pages.

Perhaps he thought it was a bribe.

But no, evidently the lad's ability to assess the motives of men and women was as keen as ever. Dick raised his eyes, swallowed, and said, "I don't want to lie."

He shrugged. "Then learn to keep your mouth shut. You told me more than you should have; I could have used it against you, if I'd chosen. Keep your mouth shut and your ears and eyes open. You'll go further that way."

Dick slowly put away the knife and pulled the piece of paper out from the pages. It was a twenty-dollar bill, enough to keep the lad fed and sheltered for a month. Dick said softly, "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. I've fooled more experienced men than you." He jerked his head eastward, in the direction of the opposite end of Big Pool. "Come on."

Dick fell into pace beside him, stuffing the book and the bill into his pocket. "Where are we going, mister?"

"You ought to have figured that out by now." He amused himself by showing the lad his dark smile. "Compassion Life Prison."

Chapter Text

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."

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FIVE

Ahiga had stripped himself of the last remnants of his prison uniform. He wore only his loincloth – the normal clothing of an Ammippian, Thomas knew, except in the dead of winter. Ahiga still looked angry. Little wonder. What was he doing here?

When Ahiga finally spoke, it was in Ammippian. "You should not leave me without guard. I am a danger."

"I am knowing that," Thomas replied in the same tongue.

Ahiga smoothly switched to the Mippite language. "Then why did you so? I could have escaped."

"I left you free," replied Thomas in Mippite, holding out the teacup, "so that you should know in what manner I am claiming you."

Frowning, Ahiga took the cup, but he did not drink from it. He said, his voice harsh, "You are a thief."

Thomas raised his eyebrows.

Ahiga pointed at the amulet hanging from Thomas's neck. "You steal our images. You steal our tongue. Who is giving you knowledge of such things?"

"My grandmother," Thomas replied, and then added her name in her native tongue.

Ahiga looked at Thomas as though he were something unpleasant that the Ammippian had stepped on. "You are a half-breed."

"A quarter-breed," Thomas replied calmly. "One-quarter of my blood is Ammippian. The other three-quarters . . . a mixture. I'm a Mippite. That means I'm not ashamed to be of mixed blood."

It was the truth, though not the entire truth. Thomas, like many Mippites of his generation, gloried in his mixed heritage, but his father had adopted the older view that mixed blood was a taint upon a pure bloodline. Compassion's Keeper was always defensive about the fact that he had married a Vovimian woman, and he had done his best to keep his only son from being in contact with his own Ammippian mother. Thomas had sneaked away periodically to visit his Ammippian grandmother – the first of many acts of defiance he would show toward his father.

In the Ammippian language, there was no greater insult than to call someone a half-breed, unless it was to name what Thomas's grandmother had done when she married Thomas's grandfather. Thomas could see that Ahiga was puzzled by the Assistant Keeper's calm acceptance of the insult that had been flung at him.

Thomas carefully explained, "She was the last member of her tribe. She didn't want her tribe's ways to be forgotten. So she taught me her language, as well as the language that the tribes use when speaking together – the language that the Mippites refer to as Ammippian. She taught me the ways of her tribe and the ways of all the Ammippians, so that, if I should ever meet another Ammippian, we would be able to converse together, and share knowledge."

Still frowning, Ahiga said, "You have the blood of the invaders. Your people destroyed mine."

"Yes," said Thomas softly. "And you had your revenge for that, didn't you?"

Ahiga abruptly turned his face away, as though he had been struck. His dark-skinned face had begun to flush. Thomas pressed him: "Why did you return here? You were free to escape and wreak further destruction."

For a long moment, the Ammippian did not speak. Finally he said in a low voice, "I was taught wrong. I do not want to return to those who taught me wrong. And the others among my people, who might have taught me right . . . they have wiped their memories of me." His throat moved as he swallowed.

"You have only reached your twenty-first autumn," Thomas replied. "There is still time to learn the right teaching."

Ahiga turned his face slowly back to look at the Assistant Keeper. He bore the tattoos of manhood on his torso; he had already undergone his coming-of-age ceremony. He might justifiably have been insulted by such a suggestion. But his forehead was puckered, as though he were considering the proposal.

Over the years, Thomas had found that honesty was the best manner in which to disarm hostile prisoners. Now he said, "I'm a year younger than you. I can't claim to hold the wisdom of an elder. But I can do one thing for you that your eldest elder couldn't do: I can protect you here. If you allow me to claim you as my lad, I will protect you against any guard or prisoner who wishes to harm you. I swear that."

"You would do this for the sake of your grandmother's ghost?" Ahiga replied slowly.

Thomas hesitated. But Ahiga was bound to find out, soon enough; better that he should hear it from Thomas. "And for another reason. Having a lad will give me status among the other guards. I need that status, in order to protect the other prisoners. I can't claim them all as my lads, but if my power is greater than it is now, I could influence the other guards' behavior. If you are willing—"

"You are alone."

Ahiga's words stopped Thomas's mouth. He stared down at his boots, uncertain how to reply. He could hear, faintly, the sound of the night guards, laughing as they shared some joke with each other.

"How long is it being?" Ahiga persisted.

Thomas could feel sweat upon his skin, clammy. He took a deep breath. "All my life, I think. There was a time recently, when I came to know another man at Mercy Life Prison—"

"You took him as your lad?" The Ammippian seemed wholly absorbed in the tale.

"Not as my lad, no. That wasn't part of his tradition. But when I was with him, I wasn't lonely, for a while. Now . . ." He forced himself to look up and meet Ahiga's gaze squarely. "I'm sorry. I should have realized that my motives for trying to help you were selfish."

He saw that Ahiga was grinning.

"Ha!" Ahiga shouted the word up to the ceiling, then swallowed the tea with one gulp and threw the cup at the wall, shattering it. "Ha, now I know you! I thought you wished to take me from pity, standing in your lofty station above me – but it is not that, is it, Mippite? You know me to be like you. You see me alone, and you see yourself. And the danger – you have known the danger?" Ahiga's voice was eager now.

"Yes," said Thomas firmly, doing his best to hide his surprise at Ahiga's change of mood. "I've known the temptation to destroy, many times."

"Then you can teach me." Reaching forward, Ahiga thumped Thomas on the back, so hard that Thomas staggered. "You wish to destroy, but have not. You are alone, but you think not of your aloneness – instead, you reach out to another who is alone. You are an elder, Mippite, though you have not known it. And I—"

Suddenly he was on his knees in front of Thomas, and Thomas's heart was throbbing in his throat as he felt that supreme ecstasy of power which he knew his father had always known when he forced a lad to serve him in bed.

But this was different. Thomas knew it was different, from the fierce joy in Ahiga's face. "I am your lad," the Ammippian pledged. "And you will teach me right, in the ways of your people, so that your grandmother's ghost will not sorrow. We will give this gift to her ghost, so that she may speak to the other ancestors on my behalf. I will do whatever you wish, for the sake of this learning."

Thomas took a deep breath, feeling Ahiga's willing submission enter into his heart, healing the wound there. "In that case," he said quietly, "I wish you to ready our bed."

o—o—o

"—no excuse for what I've been doing," he told Tom. "I know perfectly well that he has only been offering himself to me because he fears me. It's not as though the Boundaries of Behavior that you inspired Merrick to invent are hazy on this point. 'I take no one unwilling,' they say. Offering yourself up to your guard because you're afraid he will torture you is not a willing giving. I've been taking advantage of him."

Tom did not speak for a minute. His eye was on the far end of the lake, where smoke rose from an eastbound locomotive. As the thunder of the train neared, Tom crouched down and cleared a little space around the young pine tree.

The locomotive passed, sixty-five tons of deadly steel, swooping over the tracks with the elegance of a great blue heron swooping over the water. "Blue herons are good luck," he had been told when he was young, but this heron was dark and deadly . . . like himself.

"Tom?" he prodded finally. "What should I do?"

"I don't know." Tom rose to his feet.

He stared. It was not the answer he had expected. "Tom . . ."

Tom shook his head, still staring at the sapling. "I just don't know. I'm too far away from Mercy to know for sure what you're doing. You'll have to trust your own instinct."

"My instinct?" He gave an incredulous laugh. "My instinct is for destruction, always. If I don't have someone to stop me—" He cut himself off abruptly. He was not prepared to say aloud what the entrance of Tom into his life had meant.

And now Tom had failed him. Had failed to give him any guidance whatsoever on what to do.

He tried again. "Should I leave the prison? I know that you've been counting on me to help with matters at Mercy, if you should ever gain control of Compassion, but with my instinct for destruction . . ."

But Tom did not seem to be listening to what he was saying. The Assistant Keeper's attention was focussed on his visitor's left hand.

He looked down at his hand. He was still clutching the last of the leaves he had picked up before. It was not yet crumpled. Looking at it, he could feel the desire rising in him: to mutilate, to tear, to crush. To utterly destroy.

Tom's hand folded over his, pushing his hand into a fist. The leaf crumpled. Its remains fluttered to the ground, onto the space of ground that Tom had cleared around the sapling.

He looked up, bewildered. Tom looked steadily back at him. "Saplings need soil to grow. Soil needs dead leaves. There's a place for everything offered in sacrifice throughout the cycle of death, transformation, and rebirth . . . even for your consummate skills in destruction."

"Tom . . ." he said weakly.

Tom turned away again, his attention caught by something moving further down the bank. "I can't tell you what to do about your prisoner. But I can remind you of what you've told me today. As I understand from what you've hinted, today you had the opportunity to molest without consequences a young, orphaned tramp. You had the opportunity to watch that same tramp be arrested and even murdered . . . again, without consequences for you." Tom's eyes followed the object moving beside the lake. "Instead, using that deadly talent of yours, you forced two men in authority to reconsider the immorality of their lives. You rescued the young man from arrest. You rescued him from death, at risk of your own life. You paid him a month's wages for an hour's work, and you did your best to set him on the road to a better life." Tom turned and gave him a crooked smile, saying softly, "He trusts you. I trust you. Perhaps, my friend, it's time you learned to trust yourself."

On the water, the moving object coalesced into a flutter of wings, and then the great blue heron soared into the sky, climbing toward the setting sun.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SIX

When he arrived at the cell around midnight, Thomas found only Starke on duty.

"Couldn't sleep," Starke explained, yawning into my fist. "Might as well be here as anywhere else."

"Where is the night guard?" As he returned Ahiga to the cell, he glanced over at the other prisoners. They were still casting looks of scorn at the Ammippian, but none of them appeared inclined to come near. Nor would they be likely to trouble Ahiga again, Thomas knew, once Ahiga made clear his on-going service to the Assistant Keeper. Such harassment would go against prison custom, now that Ahiga had truly been claimed.

Starke shrugged. "The night guards told me that, if you were going to have a night out, they might as well too."

Thomas made a mental note to interview the night guards. Preferably with his whip. Some time between dusk and midnight, it had occurred to him that what the prison guards lacked was the same thing that Ahiga had lacked until now: loving discipline.

He couldn't discipline Pugh; only Compassion's Keeper could do that. And without Pugh's help, it would take time to bring the day guard to heel. But he would make sure the night guard came under his immediate control, or else prove himself unworthy of the rank he had been given.

He handed Starke the sheet he had been working on. "You're more likely to see Mr. Pugh before the day shift than I am. Tell him that I'm changing my hours slightly. I'll be available for daily consultation between noon and dusk . . . but not in the morning hours, unless it's an emergency."

Starke raised his eyebrows but took the paper silently, asking no questions.

Thomas felt the silence like a punch in the stomach. "The news has already spread, then?"

"That you've taken the Ammippian as your lad? Oh, yes. There have been quite a few words among the guards about your hypocrisy." Starke neatly folded the paper and placed it in his jacket.

"Including from you?" Thomas's throat had grown tight.

Starke shrugged. "I'm keeping quiet. I don't know what to think."

"Very well," said Thomas. "Think this. I want you to go to bed. I want you to sleep. You will sleep, because you're going to borrow bromide from the medical kit to aid you. And I don't want you taking other men's on-duty time in the future. If they abandon their posts, you're to report the matter to me. Understand?"

He waited, heart beating rapidly, as Starke stared at the cell door. After a time, Starke took out his cigarette case, removed a cigarette, and tapped it on the case, all while continuing to stare at the prisoners. Through the hole leading down to the second floor came the sound of the night guards' voices as they returned to their duty in a leisurely manner.

Finally Starke said, "Did I ever tell you that I was fifteen when I joined the army?"

"Fifteen?" Thomas was caught off-guard.

"I lied about my age. Anything to get away from home."

Thomas quickly calculated in his head. "That means you were sixteen when you became a prison guard."

"Yes, sixteen. Not five years older than you. Four." Starke carefully placed the cigarette back in the case, closed the case, and returned it to his jacket pocket. He gave Thomas a half-smile as he turned toward him. "You won't tell your father, will you? He might strip me of my rank if he realized how young I am."

"Your secret is safe with me," Thomas assured him. "But I'll confiscate that cigarette case if I find you smoking on duty again, you know."

"I know." Starke's smile deepened. "Good night . . . Assistant Keeper."

Assistant Keeper, Thomas thought as he watched Starke make his way down the ladder. Not quite the mode of address that Thomas had asked for, but it would do for now. Perhaps Thomas could figure out some devious means to get Pugh to call him by his title. The rest of the day guards would follow Pugh's cue.

As for the night guards . . . With his lips thinned in a grim fashion, Thomas set out to meet his next challenge.

o—o—o

The lad was waiting for him in the prison entryway. His expression showed quite clearly how his interview had gone.

"No luck?" He began to light his pipe, then changed his mind. Tom didn't approve of smoking within the life prisons. Neither did the prison regulations, for that matter.

Dick shook his head. His shoulders had the same hunched, defeated look they had possessed back at Williamsport Station. "No jobs available – not for the likes of me, he said."

"You talked to the day supervisor? Try the night supervisor. He's over there." He pointed toward where Tom has paused to speak to the entry guards. Tom gave him a brief glance, then returned his attention to the guards.

"Do you want me to give him a message?" he had asked Tom as they made their farewells at the lake. No need to specify who "him" was.

Tom had hesitated, clearly tempted, but he had never been a man to give way to strong temptation. "Best not. Just . . . watch over Merrick, please."

Dick chewed at his lip before saying, "Will you give a good word for me, sir?"

He had already given a good word, more than a single good word. Tom, who had the softest heart and the hardest whiplashes of any prison guard in the Tri-Nation area, would certainly hire the lad at once for whatever laborers' jobs were available in the prison. But Tom was discreet; he would not so much as hint that he was doing so as a favor to his recent visitor.

"No need." He put the pipe away. "He'll hire you. You're the sort he's looking for." He tipped his hat, a rare courtesy. "Mercy's fortune to you, Mr.—" He hesitated, realizing that he had never learned the lad's family name.

"Don't have one," said Dick, who was looking somewhat more hopeful after this show of faith. "Servants don't have last names in the Dozen Landsteads. My mama and daddy was going to pick one after we went over the border, but . . ." His voice trailed off.

"Medinger," he said firmly. "Your name is Richard Medinger now." He took a step back. "Don't forget what I told you."

Dick Medinger's shoulders had straightened completely; he had the proud look of a lad who has found his name. "I know," he said. "Keep my mouth shut and my ears and eyes open." He gave a brief, brilliant smile. "I won't tell anyone how I met you."

Feeling that he had underestimated the lad, he tipped his hat again and turned toward the exit door, which had been left open for him. Medinger had been his mother's maiden name. Why in all of Hell's domain had he chosen that name? For that matter, why had his parents been on his mind all day?

"We've no passenger trains till tomorrow, sir," said the agent at the Big Pool passenger station, when he stood there some time later.

"I'll wait overnight in town, then." His leave ended tomorrow morning, but perhaps he would be forgiven a delay in returning to work. He had no desire to show off what he had learned about freight-hopping.

"Destination?" the agent prodded.

"Clear Spring," he heard himself say. It had occurred to him, some time between Williamsport and this moment, that he no longer needed his parents. And it had also occurred to him that they might need him.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SEVEN

The other night guards were asleep. Thomas, lying in bed, stared up at the ceiling, wondering what Merrick would think if he could see his love-mate now.

It was a useless exercise in contemplation. The chances were high against Merrick ever seeing him again. Even if Thomas should be released from his duties long enough to visit the capital, Mercy's Keeper had made clear that he would never again let Thomas past the guarded entrance to his prison. There was no way to contact Merrick – no way, except through one guard there who might or might not be on his way to becoming a friend. And the words Thomas wished to speak to Merrick could not be spoken through a third party.

He nearly turned over restlessly in bed, then remembered, and stilled himself. He was still counting up his vices of the night: Weakness in dealing with the guards who were ostensibly under his control. Tentativeness in dealing with the prisoners. Lack of honesty with everyone, including the prisoner he had claimed. And as for his faithlessness to Merrick . . .

"Sir?"

Thomas turned his head. Ahiga, who had been asleep a moment before, was now propped up on his elbow, regarding Thomas with concern. At his look, Thomas felt a tightness ease within him.

Concern. He was willing to gamble that Ahiga had never felt concern for anyone in his life – perhaps not even for his victims, although the Ammippian had recognized the depths of his crime before he met Thomas. Now Ahiga was taking a step further: he was beginning to relearn the right emotions and actions that had been stripped from him in the terrible, distorted training of his childhood.

He had done so after only one day with Thomas. Ahiga was a quick learner; already he had memorized a handful of words in the tongue of Thomas's grandmother, such as "sir." But Thomas was under no delusions: Ahiga would not have learned any of this under another teacher. It was the bond built between Thomas and Ahiga that had brought the Ammippian this far.

And the bond of friendship, so tenuous between himself and the guard at Mercy? That, Thomas was less sure of. But he suspected that, in the long run, that other bond, whatever its nature, would have greater consequences – not merely for himself, but for the prisoners of Mip's life prisons.

At least that man could guess at Thomas's limitations. Thomas need not hide those from him.

Someday, perhaps, Thomas would figure out a way to make Ahiga recognize his man's frailties as a teacher. Until then – until such time as Thomas could be as honest with Ahiga as he had been with Merrick and the guard at Mercy – Thomas would have to content himself with what already lay between him and Ahiga. Not the bond between two love-mates – no, that much of himself, Thomas would reserve for the memory of Merrick. But the bond between a teacher and his lad was here, in the bed that Thomas shared with Ahiga.

He carefully tucked Ahiga's blanket around him; Thomas had not yet grown sure enough of himself and Ahiga that he could risk sharing the same blanket with his lad. All that he could offer Ahiga now was a time of bed-rest, free from the horrors of Compassion's cell. And he would give that much to Ahiga. What Ahiga gave back to him was immeasurable.

"Go to sleep, lad," he said, making his voice as soothing as his touch; then he reached over and turned out the light.

o—o—o

Keane grabbed him by the elbow, almost the moment he arrived in Mercy's guardroom. "Where have you been? Your leave ended a week ago!"

He simply looked at Keane, saying nothing, until Keane slowly, carefully released him. Then he returned to buttoning up his uniform's jacket, saying, "You couldn't handle him?"

Keane scratched his head. "I'm not sure."

He raised his eyebrows.

"I mean," Keane clarified, "he hasn't caused me any trouble. But he's been asking for you each day – almost hourly. He keeps saying that he needs something that only you can supply." Keane shrugged. "I couldn't drag it out of him. I suppose you know what it is he wants?"

He tossed Keane his civilian clothes. "Here. Hang these up."

"I'm not your—" Keane stopped abruptly, perhaps thinking better of what he was going to say. Instead he commented, "He's sleeping."

"All the better."

At that, Keane rolled his eyes. "You haven't changed in the least while you've been gone, have you?"

"Did you expect me to?" He didn't wait for an answer. Already his mind was away from Keane, toward what lay in the cell.

His prisoner was not asleep. He was sitting huddled in a corner, holding his face in his hands. He looked up and stared blankly for a moment; then he sprang to his feet. "You're back!"

He shut the cell's inner door with a bang. His prisoner grew suddenly still. He appeared to cease to breathe as he watched his guard step forward.

He waited until he was close enough to his prisoner to smell his scent; then he reached forward. The prisoner shivered under his touch.

He kept his hand cupped upon his prisoner's wet cheek. "What do you need?" he asked.

He knew the answer even before his prisoner spoke:

"You."

Chapter Text

Mercy's Prisoner #3
MILORD

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).


CHAPTER ONE

"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.

Yet.

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.

o—o—o

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.

o—o—o

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."

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWO

Vere had grown up as the only child and heir of the widower lord of a southern Vovimian estate. It was a way of life that was already dead in other provinces of the Kingdom of Vovim; within forty years, that way of life would be gone from southern Vovim as well. A new generation was growing up, one that wished to turn its back on the old ways.

Vere was part of that new generation. Having allied himself at an early age with a group of progressive-minded young nobles, he spoke with contempt of the slavery on his father's estate, of the forced bond between tenant and lord that caused even the strongest of freeholders to kneel and mumble subservient words upon meeting his father. He spoke with anger of the harsh punishments his father meted out to those who dared to disobey him, and of the even harsher measures his father took to ensure that his slaves and tenants understood that he alone was the one who controlled them.

Vere did not speak to others of the mixture of sickness and pleasure he felt whenever he witnessed any of this.

In the year 365, civil war broke out in Vovim. The ostensible cause of the uprising of lords against their King was their demand that the King reform his Hidden Dungeon, whose torturers were notorious for their abuse of prisoners. A few young radicals, such as Vere, demanded that this royal dungeon be closed altogether.

Now nineteen and still a child by Vovimian standards, Vere joined the rebel army joyfully. The King, in one of his typically idiotic decisions that had brought about civil war in the first place, reacted by killing his long-time loyal advisor, Vere's father.

In the chaos that followed upon the declaration of war, Vere managed to slip home to his estate. The muddle-minded King had not thought to strip Vere of his inheritance, so Vere took on that task himself. He freed the slaves that now belonged to him, gave the tenants the deeds to their property, and sold the rest of the estate, which no longer had the needed slaves to run it. The considerable amount of money this brought he gave to the former slaves and contributed to the rebel army, earning his fellow rebels' admiration and respect.

Thanks to his donation, the rebels were able to successfully win battles for three years. Inevitably, though, the mighty weight of the royal army began to crush the mutinous movement. Vere was among the rebel lords who were captured after one particularly unsuccessful battle.

Most of the rebel lords were executed. A few of the younger ones, such as Vere, were exiled to the Magisterial Republic of Mip, since they were considered to be of no further threat.

This was a tactical mistake on the part of the King. For the next five years, Vere was the foremost of the exiles who warned loudly that the Vovimian royal army was a threat to its Midcoast neighbors, Mip and Yclau. Five years later, when the young rebels returned from exile, it was with the financial backing of the Mippite government and with the military backing of Yclau. The Queendom of Yclau had long ago learned the futility of trying to conquer Vovimian territory, but the Yclau people were not averse to arranging the downfall of a King who had attacked their borders so often in the past.

The royal army fell in 375; shortly thereafter, the King was executed for his crimes. An inevitable power struggle began between the rebel army and the King's heir, but the heir was a wiser man than his father had been, and it appeared that some sort of accommodation would eventually be reached between the lords and the monarchy. The lords who had been exiled were now high in power, taking control over many of the men and women who had once owed their loyalty to the old King. To be a lord now in Vovim was to hold power as mighty as a monarch's.

Vere was not among those lords.

His case had been an unusual one from the start. Having stripped himself of all sources of income, he had depended on his token army stipend to stay alive. With that gone, he had been forced, during his time in exile, to take employment. He drifted from job to job, always choosing honorable positions such as administrative work for the magisterial seats. His greatest energy was devoted to winning Mippite backing to the rebels' cause. Once that was done, he had time – all too much time – to think about what had driven him to free his father's slaves and tenants and to fight for the freedom of Vovim's royal prisoners.

What drove him, he knew by now, was the temptation to abuse such men and women himself.

He had a rare honesty that would not allow him to avoid acknowledging this truth, once it had become clear in his mind. He dreamed of his childhood still – of the slaves kneeling in silent submission to his father, of their cries of pain as his father hit them and had them beaten, and even of the screams of the dungeon prisoners whom Vere had never seen.

He wanted it all. He wanted such power over others: he wanted to see men and women drop quailing to their knees in front of him and to accept with fear and subservience any blows he gave them.

He cursed himself after every dream of this sort; he cursed himself even more after the dreams began to haunt his days. Eventually, he recognized that curses would not be enough to cure him of his problem. Having spent a lifetime praying to Mercy alone, he now began to seek the guidance of Hell, that god who had been forced to turn his destructive impulses to good. If any god could help him, it was Hell.

Not long afterwards, Vere heard an Yclau bookseller singing a ballad from a book he was hawking on the streets of the Mippite capital. Vere paused to listen, only because the book was penned by the leader of Yclau's Guild of Commoners, whose cause for social equality Vere supported. Once he began to listen, though, he realized that Hell had answered his prayers.

He bought the book, and then bought every book by this author that he could obtain. The ballads had already become famous in their homeland. Many of the songs held the same sort of sentiments that Vere was known to publicly espouse: a desire for a world in which all men were equal, in which no man held greater power unless he had fairly earned such power.

Yet amidst these ballads were tales of a different sort. They told of the High Seeker of Yclau's Eternal Dungeon: a man, it was said, whose desire to control and destroy was as great as that of any Vovimian torturer. Since the High Seeker had in fact learned his trade in Vovim, this was hardly surprising. The ballads told of how the High Seeker had bound himself by the Eternal Dungeon's code of ethics in order to do no true harm to the prisoners whose submission and pain gave him pleasure. The ballads also told of the High Seeker's love-mate, who stood by him with loyalty.

Beyond that, there were tantalizing hints of what bound the love-mate to the High Seeker – hints of Vovimian sacred drama that resonated deeply in Vere's soul. But those hints were too faint to offer Vere a clear outline of how the High Seeker had sought peace of mind in his private life.

By the time the King's army finally fell to the rebels, Vere had made up his mind. He had already volunteered to stay in Mip while the other lords returned to the fight, saying that there needed to be at least one noble left in exile in order to persuade the Mippites to back the new government that the rebels were trying to achieve. Now that the King was gone, his fellow rebels were urging Vere to return home and take up the reins of the power he had helped win. He refused. Such power, he knew, was too great a temptation for a man like himself. In southern Vovim, although slavery was now outlawed, many members of the lower class still accepted passively whatever orders they were given by their lords. Vere could not afford to allow himself to come into contact with men and women who would accept without protest any blows he gave them.

His road forked from the road of the other lords after that. Having less need for Mip once they had gained power, and being busy exercising the power they had sought for so long, the Vovimian lords gradually forgot about him. In Mip, Vere became just another high-born foreigner in a nation with many high-born foreigners.

He successfully applied for Mippite citizenship. He received official commendations from the Mippite government for his role in championing the poor and powerless in Vovim, a role that was now past. He planned a trip to the Eternal Dungeon, but then cancelled the trip when he learned that the man mentioned in the ballads was no longer High Seeker. What had happened to him, nobody seemed to know. The leader of the Commoners' Guild, who might or might not have been able to shed light on this matter, was embroiled in his own battles with the Yclau government and was unlikely to want to waste time advising an out-of-power lord on a matter unrelated to his guild.

Vere spent one long night lying in chains upon the altar of Hell in the Vovimian temple at Mip City before he made up his mind. The High Seeker had received the peace of mind he needed by accepting the ethical code of his dungeon. Vere would do the same by applying for work at the life prison at Mip City and accepting whatever code of ethics bound the guards there.

Within a single day of his arrival at Mercy Life Prison, Vere realized how terrible a mistake he had made.

No code of ethics bound the guards at Mercy. Indeed, what customs existed were in the exact opposite direction: guards were encouraged to abuse their prisoners, to rape and beat the prisoners at the guards' whim, in an effort to break the prisoners utterly, so that these dangerous men could be figuratively kept on leashes, like wild animals brought to bay.

The temptations he faced were so strong that he could taste them like blood. He told himself he should resign at once; he told himself he should walk out the door and never come back.

He stayed. What kept him there was the realization that, even without abusing prisoners, he could permit himself to fulfill some of his dreams.

The prisoners were dangerous; they did require a certain amount of discipline to be handled. Vere, having been raised from childhood to discipline the powerless, knew instinctively how to handle his charges. Not with abuse – he never allowed himself to go that far. But with strict, firm words, and with beatings where the words were not heeded, he was able to bring much-needed order and discipline into the lives of prisoners who had often received no discipline before, leading them to commit their terrible crimes.

Some of his prisoners, Vere was amazed to find, even respected him for the firmness he showed in handling them. These prisoners were not like the slaves and tenants he had known in southern Vovim; they would not accept with silent submission any abuse they received from their guards. Vere was not faced with the degree of temptation he would have endured in his homeland. But by the same token, the prisoners were willing to express their thankfulness if a guard treated them in a fair fashion. His prisoners respected him for his restraint, his fellow guards respected him for not putting up with nonsense from recalcitrant prisoners, and gradually Vere developed a reputation that was as high, in its own way, as the one he had possessed in Vovim.

He stayed at Mercy, and he kept silent about the dreams he continued to have of hitting his prisoners for no reason except that it gave him pleasure, or of having his prisoners kneel at his feet and give him their willing submission.

He would not become his father. If he had to kill himself, he would keep that vow.

o—o—o

"Shame," Lord Vere said to Llewellyn. "Shame is something we must never feel. We serve Hell, yes, but Hell is Mercy's brother, and she loves her dark brother, provided that his actions serve as a healthy balance to her own. There is room in Mercy's domain for men who use force, and also for men who receive joy from being forced, provided that the force is used to bring about good. If we serve Hell properly—"

He stopped abruptly. Llewellyn had knelt at his feet.

Llewellyn kept his head bowed. His left hand, groping awkwardly, found the inner side of the crook of his right arm and gripped it tightly, in the position of service. He could hear Lord Vere's breath; it had grown more rapid.

"Ah," said the guard finally. "This . . . I had not expected."

"What had you expected, Milord?" The title came to his tongue easily, without need for thought. He tilted up his head cautiously until he could see Lord Vere's expression, which turned out to be dumbfounded.

"In response to my tale? Contempt. Fear. At best, perhaps a cautious willingness to explore the possibilities that our god-sent meeting presented. Not . . . this. Not submission." Lord Vere's voice ended in a whisper.

"Milord," he said carefully, in a voice that was stronger than it had been for many years, "I cannot say in all honesty that I envisioned this in my life. Whenever I dreamed, it was only of pain – of the enjoyment I received from being beaten. I never thought of submitting myself to any of the men who beat me, much less being a man's slave, without hope of receiving beatings as a reward for my service. But . . . I have never before met a guard I so respected."

Lord Vere closed his eyes, as though unable to bear the words spoken. More softly now, Llewellyn added, "Perhaps I will grow to enjoy this. But whether I do or not, I know that I will receive joy from providing pleasure to a man of your honor."

For a minute – a very long minute – Lord Vere remained silent, his eyes screwed shut. Llewellyn could not even hear the footsteps of guards outside the cell. All of the other cells were quiet in the final hours of night.

Then Lord Vere opened his eyes. "Get up. Take off your clothes. Stand over there."

With his heart racing rapidly, Llewellyn followed the instructions, not needing to be told where "there" was. His groin was already swollen in anticipation of "there" by the time he placed himself in obedience against the wall, underneath the whipping ring, facing Lord Vere.

The guard took his time in approaching Llewellyn. He had removed his jacket but otherwise stayed fully clothed. The whip remained coiled at his belt.

He paused before Llewellyn. The guard's heartbeat, showing itself in a blue vein along the neck, was as rapid as his prisoner's. Lord Vere said, "Be sure that you want this – be very sure. I am a hard man."

"That is what I want, Milord," Llewellyn whispered.

"I know. And I will not take you further than I think you can bear. But you must be sure. Because once I start, I will not stop until I have received my full pleasure."

Llewellyn closed his eyes. The warmth of Lord Vere's body touched him, like a hearth-flame. "Thank you, Milord," he breathed out.

He opened his eyes in time to witness Lord Vere scrutinize him once more. Then the guard nodded. He placed his palm lightly upon Llewellyn's cheek. "May Mercy guard you," Lord Vere said softly.

Then: "May Hell guide me." And with those words, Lord Vere struck his prisoner's face so hard that Llewellyn fell to the floor.

o—o—o

After it was over – the blows, the beating, the shouted insults, the whispered threats that were carried through until he exploded in a scream of pain and pleasure – Llewellyn thought that Lord Vere would simply finish his own pleasure, wipe off the blood, and leave. Instead, Lord Vere bound his hands together and his feet together, blindfolded him, lowered him carefully onto the cold floor, and stood back.

Llewellyn waited through what seemed like a month of days, cold and stiff, not even certain that Lord Vere remained in the cell, but staying still because it appeared that was what Milord wanted. Finally he felt Lord Vere's touch as the guard carefully pushed him onto his stomach. A moment later – so softly that he hardly knew that it was happening – Lord Vere entered him.

The guard made love to him, slow and deep. Llewellyn tried to find another way to describe what was occurring, but other words were stripped away by the feel of Lord Vere's lips exploring the curve of his neck.

His explosion was quiet this time. Two minutes later, Lord Vere drove so deep into him that Llewellyn thought the guard must have reached his heart. Llewellyn remained still, his breath ragged, until Lord Vere finally drew out of him and released him.

"Have you ever done that before?" Lord Vere asked him afterwards as they lay on the ground next to each other.

He knew what the guard meant, of course. He stared up at the ceiling, tracing the cracks with his eye. "Never. Never when it was that gentle."

"Nor I." Lord Vere was lying on his side, with his head propped up by his arm. "This has become more than I intended."

They lay a while more beside each other, not touching, until Lord Vere's hand found Llewellyn's and closed tightly around it.

"Enough," said the guard, and rose to his feet, pulling up Llewellyn in his wake. "We have much to do. Tomorrow I will observe you at your work in the tailoring shop. I have been told that you are a diligent worker and a neat seamster, but I wish to see you expand your work to boots. So that you can care for mine." He flashed a grin.

"Yes, Milord." Llewellyn grinned back.

"In the evenings this week, as I understand it, you are assisting Merrick with the repair of a malfunctioning refrigerator on the third level. That is fortunate; it will provide you with the opportunity to tell him that you are withdrawing from participation in his rebellious circle. Tomorrow night—"

But Llewellyn was no longer listening. He stared at Lord Vere, his smile fading as rapidly as a cloud-covered moon.

Lord Vere said sharply, "What is wrong?"

"Sir, I—" He stopped, swallowed. "Milord, please don't ask me to break the Boundaries. Anything but that."

"I am not asking you to break your blasted Boundaries," Lord Vere responded with clear irritation. "I am ordering you – ordering you – to stop your association with prisoners who are notorious for their refusal to accept the judgment of their betters."

Llewellyn said nothing. The sickness had returned to his stomach.

Lord Vere's eyes were narrowed now. "You said you wished to serve me – to be my slave, no less, though I would not have thrust that title upon you. You say all that, and yet you are determined to disobey the first order I give you."

"Milord—" He swallowed the word and forced himself to speak in a steady voice. "Sir, you wish me to serve you faithfully, but you demand that I do so by breaking faith with others – by breaking a sacred vow I have made to uphold the Boundaries of Behavior and to do everything I can to stop the abusive behavior of guards who do not possess your honor. How can you ask that of me, sir? And how can you ever be sure of my promises again, if I forswear my oath?"

Lord Vere remained silent for a minute. Outside the cell, the lazy silence of night was being broken by the first sounds of morning, as prisoners cried out against the pain of being raped yet again by their guards. Llewellyn, sick and miserable, stood with his hands formed in fists, preparing himself for the return of Lord Vere's cold anger.

In the mildest of voices, Lord Vere said, "Well, this is a relief."

He must have gaped. "Sir?"

"Your defiance. Oh, don't mistake me; the first time you defy me over a small matter, I will punish you in ways you'll find not at all pleasurable. But for you to defy me on a matter that weighs heavily upon your conscience. . . . Lad, don't you realize what it is that I fear the most?"

Belatedly, he did. "Abusing me?"

"Abusing you, and you accepting that abuse mutely, as my father's slaves would have done." Lord Vere was smiling now as he reached over to pick up his jacket. "Mercy and Hell, you were indeed sent by the gods: a young man who knows when to submit, and when to fight." He shrugged his shoulders as he slid into his jacket. "I can't say that I agree with your reasoning. The oath you took was harmless enough, and I'm not requiring you to break it in any way. It's your decision to consort with open rebels that I won't permit. —However," he added as Llewellyn opened his mouth, "perhaps we can come to an understanding that does not violate your conscience. At any rate, I am willing to discuss this with you. Does that ease your conscience?"

"Milord," he said, hearing the relief in his own voice, "I knew there was a reason I respected you. I knew that you were worthy to serve."

Lord Vere raised his eyebrows. "You know," he said reflectively, "if you say too many things like that, neither of us is likely to be finished in time for breakfast."

"No?" Grinning, Llewellyn knelt at his feet again.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THREE

"So," said Merrick, lying on his back as he peered at the bottom of the refrigerator. "Everything working out between you and Milord?"

A couple of prisoners, entering the kitchen to deposit a load of radishes, glanced over at Merrick and Llewellyn. One of them glared at Llewellyn and leaned over to whisper something to the other radish-deliverer. Llewellyn caught a bit of what he was saying and ducked his head, feeling his ears burn. Then he looked with concern at Merrick, wondering whether he had heard yet.

The entire prison had heard by now, as far as Llewellyn could tell. Milord, after giving lip service for many years to the idea that prisoners should not be abused, had finally shown his true colors by assaulting a prisoner . . . or so the tale went. Llewellyn, rather than endure the attack stoically as the Boundaries required, had attacked back, shouting insults at his guard. Quite naturally, this had heightened the guard's anger, worsening matters between the two of them. Blood had been spilled on both sides before the end.

Licking the side of his mouth where his lip was cut, Llewellyn regretted yet again that he and Lord Vere had decided to have a second session at dawn. It had seemed a good notion at the time: to play-act that Llewellyn was no passive victim but instead was willing to fight against his abuser. Neither of them had given any thought to the Boundaries when they chose their drama; they were playing an older tale, one that came from Vovim's sacred plays.

To their surprise, both of them had enjoyed the drama enormously. The moment when Llewellyn finally made his willing surrender and Milord treated him with gentle generosity was all the more heightened by the struggle that had come before. But their pleasure would hardly be worth it, Llewellyn thought, if he ended up with a broken neck for this.

"Ratchet driver," said Merrick, putting down his hammer.

"Right hand?" asked Llewellyn, looking over the choices.

"Right and left hand. The spiral one. No, not the rigid one." A note of irritation entered Merrick's voice, and Llewellyn hastily handed him the screwdriver Merrick wanted. He didn't like the look of the tool. He could well imagine what a good weapon it would make.

There had been rumors floating around about Merrick at the time Llewellyn first arrived at Mercy Prison. Merrick had murdered a small child, the rumors said. He'd broken the back of a guard, other rumors said. He'd nearly killed several prisoners, yet more rumors said. Of course, the rumors always added that these deeds had taken place in the past, before Merrick had adopted the Boundaries of Behavior. But as far as Llewellyn knew, Merrick's adherence to the Boundaries had never been put to a severe test.

Never before had one of Merrick's close allies deliberately turned his back on the Boundaries.

Llewellyn was still trying to figure out whether there was any hope that Merrick would believe the truth when the man said, "Vere ordered you to break away from our Alliance."

His mouth went dry as he watched Merrick carefully force the screw into the hole. "Yes."

"And you told him to go fuck himself on Hell's cock."

Llewellyn stared. "How did you know?"

Merrick put aside the screwdriver. "Tyrrell and I divide our duties in leading the Alliance. Tyrrell is in charge of figuring out what our plans should be. I'm in charge of figuring out who we can trust to carry out the plans. I take it that you and Vere reached a compromise? . . . Bloody blades, some administrator at the magisterial seats should be shot for authorizing the purchase of malfunctioning screws like these. I'm going to have to use the drill."

"Single gear?" asked Llewellyn automatically, looking around.

"I don't have any choice, do I? I use what tools I can get."

Llewellyn passed the hand drill to him and waited until Merrick had grunted from the initial push of cranking the handle. Then Llewellyn said, "He's allowing me to keep the Boundaries. But . . . I can't do it openly any more. I can consult with you, since you're the man I made my oath to, but I'm not allowed to talk about the Boundaries in public. I'm not allowed to let people know that I continue to keep the Boundaries."

"Good." Merrick paused to wipe sweat off his face with the back of his hand.

"Good?" Llewellyn couldn't keep his voice from squeaking.

"Of course it's good. Why do you think I paired you two? I'm not in the habit of being a bloody matchmaker."

Llewellyn watched Merrick finish drilling in the hole. Finally he said, "You don't want people to know I keep the Boundaries. Why?"

Merrick waved a hand in the direction of Denley, who was standing at the doorway, chatting with another guard and ignoring their conversation.

Llewellyn stared down at Merrick. "Just because you don't like how showy Denley is? That's the only reason?"

Merrick shook his head as he pushed himself out from under the refrigerator, which he and Llewellyn had painfully raised onto blocks. Llewellyn helped him up into a sitting position, and then waited as Merrick stretched his back in an arch, like a cat. Merrick said, "My back is going to be gone before I reach age fifty, between this and the beatings. . . . Llewellyn, how long do you think Mercy's Keeper will tolerate the present situation?"

Llewellyn let his finger trail over the cherrywood of the drill handle. "I don't know."

"Neither do I. Neither does Tyrrell. If we're lucky, it will be long enough for us to make permanent changes in this prison. If we're not . . . How long do you think someone like that" – he jerked his thumb toward Denley – "will continue to keep the Boundaries, once our Keeper threatens to beat him or sack him or even imprison him?"

Llewellyn pushed the drill aside. "Five minutes."

"At most. Llewellyn, there's going to be a purge in this prison eventually, and when that happens, we'll lose most of the Boundaries-keeping guards – either they'll abandon us, or they'll be sent away. Many of the prisoners will continue to keep the Boundaries, at least until things get very bad, but we'll be watched like vermin for any sign of seditious activity."

"Except me," Llewellyn said slowly. "I won't be watched, because the Keeper will think I no longer follow the Boundaries. So I can carry out any plans you have, without suspicion."

"Exactly. Tyrrell and I have been waiting a long time for someone like you to come along: someone who was willing to keep the Boundaries, no matter how great the pressure to stop, but who didn't need public praise for doing so." Merrick rose to his feet and began brushing dirt off the seat of his trousers.

Llewellyn rose too. "And Milord . . . I mean, Lord Vere . . ."

"Could be useful too. I'm not sure how yet. But a guard who keeps the Boundaries while telling everyone around him that he doesn't believe in the Boundaries, and who acts in such a way that everyone is sure he's breaking the Boundaries . . . Yes, he may be helpful too, when the time comes."

Llewellyn stared open-mouthed at him for a moment. "But how . . . Merrick, you couldn't possibly know that Lord Vere didn't break the Boundaries with me last night. How did you know that he and I . . . That we're . . . ?" His voice trailed off as Merrick glanced at him, then looked away.

Merrick shrugged. "You can't go cock-high every time you beat your prisoner without someone noticing eventually. That 'someone' happened to be me, when I was his prisoner, back in the days when I was a demon incarnate. The fact that Vere never abused me or any of his other prisoners told me all I needed to know about his character. As for you . . . I guessed."

"You guessed." Llewellyn looked hard at Merrick. The other man avoided his eye. "Merrick, none of my own guards guessed, other than Lord Vere. There's no way you could have guessed."

"Mm." Merrick stared at the refrigerator, as though trying to work out the best way to take it apart again. Finally he said, "Recognized you. Like a mirror image."

"A mirror . . ." His voice trailed off again.

Merrick shrugged, still avoiding his eye. "Not exactly the same, of course. It's murder for me, not beatings, and it's someone else's murder, not mine. That's why I'm here. It's not exactly . . . Well, the basic principle is the same. Getting enjoyment where people wouldn't expect me to get it. You had that sort of haunted look of frustrated desire that I recognized. Have seen it in my own eyes, when I look in the mirror."

Llewellyn found his voice finally. "You're far worse off than me."

He must have allowed pity to enter his tone, because in the next moment, Merrick was glowering at him. "If you tell anyone," he said, "I'll kill you."

His voice was so coldly matter-of-fact that Llewellyn could not speak for a moment. Then he said lightly, "It's all show, then? Your keeping of the Boundaries?"

Merrick's look of anger transmuted into irritation, then into amusement. "Bloody cut-sharp mind. You would figure that out. All right, no, I wouldn't break the Boundaries, but if everyone knew this about me, I'd die of embarrassment. Is that reason enough for you to keep quiet?"

Smiling, Llewellyn shook his head. "I wouldn't tell. Just as you wouldn't tell about me. We both know that."

"Good," said Merrick briskly. "Just so long as you understand. Now, then, I am about to berate you at the top of my lungs for your perfidious behavior, and by the time I'm through, you will be so utterly humiliated that you'll skulk out of here shame-faced, as a traitor like you ought to. Are you ready?"

"I'll try," said Llewellyn, "not to like it too much."

They both shared a final laugh then, before their drama began. It was in its own way a sacred drama; Llewellyn wished he could have shared tale of the drama with Milord. But he knew that he could tell Milord the most important part, which was that he had made a joke about his own corrupt inclinations, and that he had laughed with ease at himself.

The night before, he had been ready to kill himself for what he was. He wondered now how vast a change he could help Merrick bring about, with Milord's assistance.

Chapter Text

Mercy's Prisoner #4
ISOLATION

The year 399, the tenth month. (The year 1894 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
 

"Probably all great suffering comes accompanied with a reserve of strength or with a power of resistance which may even spring from weakness, but which invests the sufferer with courage, and perhaps, too, with hope, to meet it."

—Arthur Bidwell: Bidwell's Travels from Wall Street to London Prison: Fifteen Years in Solitude (1897).

It took me some minutes to figure out that the sawbones at Mercy Life Prison was drunk.

At start, I had mind he was just afraid of me. I'm used to that. My Dad's got the sort of looks that make pit bull terriers whimper when they see him coming their way; I'm the image of him. The scar I got from my last fight – the one that landed me into prison – didn't help my looks. But my looks had helped me in the holding prison where I was stayed 'fore my trial; none of the other cons tried to mess with me. In fact, I was sent to three holding prisons, each Keeper handing me off to the next, like as an uncraved parcel.

Now I was at the last prison of all, the one I'd be at till they buried my body in quicklime.

I looked round about the sawbones' surgery, trying to judge what sort of place I'd been set in. Measuring scales, ointment pots, a bronze catheter, needles, knives, cautery irons . . . It looked just like the surgery I'd been in when I was twelve, when I was fool enough to fight the head boy of the local street-tribe with no weapon but my penknife, and my Mam had got to spend all the month's rent on getting me sewed up. You'd have had mind that would've made me wise to the rewards of behaving well, but my Dad ever been on about how I was birthed without good sense. I figured he was the smart man on such things, having spent half his life in and out of prisons.

Me, I wasn't going to make trouble at this place. That was what I'd figured out on the long, bleak night after the magistrate had tale to me that this would be my new home. It's one thing to make trouble in a district where you can move on if you get too many enemies. It's another to make trouble in a life prison where there's no place to go if the guards have mind they're not liking you.

I tried smiling at the guard who sat across the room on a sofa, reading a newsie. He gave me one long look and then paid no mind to me.

I dropped the smile and looked quick-like at the door. I'd have been running for it – I wasn't that well-behaved – but I had knowing that 'twas no use. Three sets of guards we'd passed to get this far, and three gates with nasty big locks. The guards hadn't got guns, but they looked as if they were knowing how to use their whips and daggers. And my escorting guard looked as if he was just jumping for an excuse to use his weapons. I'd met his sort 'fore.

So I'd be the model con. I straightened up from where I was sitting on the examining table while the sawbones came near on me.

He was wearing one of those funny little things that his kind ever wear in pictures in the newsies: a rubber pipe that went into both his ears and had some sort of nozzle at the other end. He put the nozzle against my bare chest, and I stayed myself from knocking his head off. I don't care for being touched, 'specially in prison. I'd caught tale of what went on in places of this kind, and I'd seen enough in the holding prisons to have knowing 'twas true.

But this sawbones, he looked as if he didn't much crave touching me either, 'cause he barely held the nozzle against my chest for a second 'fore he drew it back, tut-tutting. He turned to the table 'side me and wrote something down in a black book there. Then he frowned, crossed it out, and wrote something new. Then he crossed that out too and stared down at the book. Then he reached over and poured himself a drink from a glass bottle that was near-like empty.

That was when I came to have knowing he was drunk. His breath should have told me, I'm figuring, but I'd had mind till now that I'd just interrupted him during his morning break. The guards at the holding prisons hadn't been above sipping from a flask when their Keeper's back was turned.

Judging from the way the sawbones guzzled his drink in front of the guard, he made no secret of his drunkenness. The guard, looking bored, turned a page. He was reading Mip City's illustrated newsie, the one my Mam and Dad bought some days for the pictures, though none of our family has ever had knowing of the Mippite tongue. Why should we? Round near where we've lived in Mip City, every folk speak Vovimian – the King's tongue of Vovimian, for sure, though the King's tongue is a second language to me. I speak the Riverbend dialect of Vovimian best, that being where our family lived, back in the days when we lived in Vovim. My Mam and Dad also spoke the tongue of northwestern Vovim . . . and northeastern Vovim and north-central Vovim and southern Vovim and eastern Vovim. Our family had moved sacks of times and knew sacks of dialects. But Mippite, no – that's too close on the Yclau tongue. My Granddad had died fighting the Yclau soldiers. Our family had been willing to move to Mip, seeing like as that seems to be where all the good jobs are these days, but we weren't going to be speaking a tongue that was like the one of our enemy. Most Mippites have knowing of Vovimian, so I'd never had trouble finding someone who chatters our way. Even the magistrate had been willing to do the trial in the Vovimian tongue, when he learned I didn't have knowing of Mippite. I'd had some hope then that he was the accommodating type.

Well, I was only twenty-six. The young are often naive.

So I couldn't go and read the words of the guard's newsie, but I could be seeing the pictures, and they gave tale themselves. News from the Magisterial Republic of Mip at the top: that showed a picture of some of the members of the Mippite branch of the Commoners' Guild, shouting with joy on the streets after the courts had gone and made the guild's activities lawful. They'd been in the courtroom next to mine during their trial; I never caught tale of so much shouting back and fro in my life. It was more like as a street brawl than a trial. But the guild had come out triumphant; no longer would commoners be slung in prison for demanding their rights.

Or so the courts claimed. I – who would most like have gotten a ten-year sentence if I'd been mid-class – was more skeptical.

But anyhow, the guild might do some good work in Mip, thanks to the victory. The news from the other two lands of the Tri-Nation area was darker. Down in the bottom-left corner of the page was a photo from Mip's western and northern neighbor, the Kingdom of Vovim. The picture showed commoners grinding away in a new manufactory while their supervisors grinned nearby. Funny, I'd had mind that slavery was no longer lawful in Vovim.

The news from the Queendom of Yclau, in the bottom-right corner of the newsie, wasn't the best either. Mip's southern neighbor, which claimed to be the seed of all civilization in the world, had chosen to celebrate the Autumn Commoners' Festival by sending soldiers to beat up the Yclau branch of the Commoners' Guild. In the photo, there was a kiddie lying bleeding on the ground, her head bashed in by a passing soldier.

"Poor little lass," I muttered. "She should have someone to protect her."

The guard flicked another glance at me – this one a grimmer one, like as he suspected I was muttering curses against him – and then he gave back his attention to the newsie. I felt my chest tighten, having mind of all those poor commoners being beat over the head by the nightsticks of the soldiers. Then I came to have knowing that my chest was tightening for another reason. I was near on having another of my attacks.

I looked round, wild-like. Back in my last holding prison, one of the guards had gifted me with a cup to cough into. There was an empty cup next to the brandy bottle, within reach. I grabbed it and coughed up what was in my throat: a greenish-grey mess, with spots of red in it. The red spots had been worrying me for some days now.

I'd put from mind the sawbones. Right away, with a cry, he yanked the cup from me. I was figuring he didn't much care for having his cups messed up. He stared down at the cup and gave another cry of dismay. Dismally, I wondered if I'd gotten myself in trouble already.

The guard had put down his paper; he spoke something to the sawbones in Mippite. The sawbones turned and chattered away. I couldn't figure out any of the words he spoke, 'cept for one he gave tale to again over and over: Tibby. I wondered if that was the name of his girl. Drunks get soppy with having mind of love some days.

The guard got off his seat with great care. He walked over to where the sawbones stood and stared down at the cup. Then he looked up at me and smiled.

I didn't care for that smile. It was a cold smile, and I didn't have mind that the guard was the sort of man to smile 'cept at another man's bad luck. I held back till he was staring again at the cup, and then I looked quick-like toward the door. It might be there was another way out of this prison than the one I'd come in through.

I took only one step toward the door. I swear it. You can't blame a man for dreaming, can you? But the next thing I knew, I was doubled over, gasping for breath. My belly, it felt like 'twas going to fall out and spill all my guts onto the floor.

The guard had stepped back. Glancing up, I saw he was still smiling while he rolled up the whip he'd butted me with. He said something to me in Mippite when he hooked the whip back onto his belt. I didn't have knowing of the words, but from the way he looked at me, I figured he was giving tale of something like as, "Try that again, and I'll slit your throat."

The sawbones was ignoring all this; you might have had mind that he was used to having his patients mauled in front of him. It may be that he was. Anyhow, he set the cup careful-like inside a big glass jar. Then he screwed on the jar lid. Then he taped the lid shut. Then he put the jar inside a burlap bag. Then he tied the bag shut.

Round then, I got the notion that, whatever it was that I'd coughed up, it interested the sawbones. He took up a pen and stared at the bag. Most like, he was trying to give mind again to the alphabet of his own language. The guard, turning away from me, snatched the pen from the sawbones' hand and scribbled something in Mippite on the bag. The guard had tale of something to the sawbones, and I could tell that the sawbones wasn't much liking what the guard was speaking. But after a minute or three, the sawbones shrugged and put the bag inside a crate nearby, with straw in it. Then he hammered the crate shut and stuck something on the top of the crate. Postage stamps, it seemed like as. Once again, 'twas the guard who scribbled the label.

Then the guard grabbed another of the cups from the table – this one still had a bit of brandy left in it – and thrust it into my hand. He was glaring at me, like as though he didn't much care for having to gift me. Grabbing my arm, he drew me from the room.

I looked round the moment we got out, like as any folk could figure. I was knowing enough of prisons to guess that this was my last chance. But those drilling guards with their drilling whips and daggers were yet standing where they'd been 'fore, staying eye on me, like as I was a dangerous dog. So I'd got to let my escort draw me up the stairs.

I was panting by the time we got to the level he was aiming for. I just didn't seem to have much energy left, ever since I got this bad cold, back in the first holding prison I was stuck in. A dank place my cell had been, cold and musty. My Mam, she had ever insisted that our family live in tenements with big windows and sacks of sunlight. It took some walking round to find places of that kind, but my Mam was sure that fresh air and sunlight was healthy for us kiddies. Seems she was right.

The guard, he took no note of my panting, for sure. He was drawing me into the darkest place I'd been ever during my time in prison. The level I was on now, it was all in a circle. There was a big black pit in the middle of it that held ashes but no fire. There wasn't any stoves round either, just a lamp or three hanging from the wall. No windows. All round the circling wall were cell doors, solid like a fist. I could catch tale of some folk or another sobbing from inside one of the cells.

The guard took no note of that, like as any folk could figure. He'd drawn out a set of keys and was opening a cell door with one hand while holding tight to me with the other. I opened my mouth to give tale to something, I don't have knowing of what, but at that moment my chest 'gan to rack with coughs.

His face screwed up with disgust. He spoke something that sounded like a curse and flung me into the cell. The door slammed shut 'hind me, and I was left in darkness.

o—o—o

All darkness; there wasn't a single lamp in my cell, and the door 'hind me was solid, with no grate. I stood a moment, drawing this in; then I turned and beat the door, calling the guard every filthy name I could have mind of.

He shaped no say-back. I was figuring he had already gone away. After a time, I got tired of hurting my fists; I leaned onto the door and tried to draw back my mind to what my situation was.

My new cell, 'twas cold and damp and musty like as the one back at the holding prison. It had a nasty, sickly-sweet scent to it that made me have mind of my gram in her dying days. 'Side from the very faint rasp of the other con sobbing in his cell, the only sound I could catch tale of was a trickle of liquid.

I followed the sound, groping my way along the stone wall to the left of the door. Almost right away, I bloodied my shins on something hard. Swallowing curses, I leaned over and felt what I'd bumped into. Some sort of shelf shaped of the same rocky material like as the cell, I had mind.

Then I came to have knowing what 'twas, with a right-away thump of the heart: a bed. There were blankets on it, shaped of scratchy wool. No sheets, no pillows – just blankets and that rock-hard shelf.

"Gods of the fields, this is a dungeon of torture," I muttered to myself. 'Twasn't as if I'd been figuring on a feather mattress; the bunks in the holding prisons had abided me awake at night with their lumps. But here I was to have nothing but a cold, hard shelf to sleep on for the lasting of my life?

Trying to pay no mind to the throbbing hurt in my bloodied shins, I stayed on groping my way forward. At the end, I reached the far wall, which was seeming to be wider than the wall where the door was set. Having mind on this, I came to be knowing that this shaped sense, for the outside walls of the prison were all in a circle, bigger than the circle of floor I'd gone and seen when I first entered this level. I traced patterns of geometry for a time – I'd got no schooling, 'cept my letters and numbers, but my Dad, he's a woodworker's helper by trade, so he taught me a bit of figures. A trapezoid – that was the name for the shape of my cell.

Then I put down that minding and started the first act of finding that liquid. 'Twas simple. The liquid, 'twas trickling down the center of the far wall, like as water melts from an icicle. I dabbed at it, tender-like, with my finger. The liquid was cold. I licked it off my finger.

Water. I had water, at least. I'd not be dying of thirst.

I have mind 'twas then that I figured I'd draw no more help. Not from that guard who'd smiled when he punched me with his whip handle – he'd not lift a finger to help even a dying man. Nay, I'd just have got to hope that another guard yielded me food and that I'd be able to find a way to have tale with him when he drew my food into the cell. There must be other guards in this place who were knowing Vovimian?

I wet my finger again and licked it. Then, impatient-like, I set my tongue against the tiny waterfall, letting my mouth fill with the rich drops. After, I was cleaning my face, wetting the handkerchief that had come with my new prison uniform.

I felt better then. Mam, she has ever given tale to that, if you abide clean, half the battle in life is won. Whatever else I did in this place, I swore to the gods, I would abide clean. I'd not let myself grow to be one of those filthy men that Mam has been ever ashamed of.

o—o—o

Took me a time to explore the rest of my cell. I was in no hurry. I was already figuring I'd not be getting visitors.

Aside from the stony shelf for sleeping and the trickling water, there was only one other object in the cell that seemed useful: a shallow pit with a lid.

I could figure what that was for. 'Twas a relief, knowing I'd not got to put up with the stench from night buckets any more. At least, 'twas a relief till I went and discovered that the hole at the bottom of the pit was clogged, and I started the first act at figuring out who'd be doing the digging out the pit.

After a few hours – I figure 'twas hours, though 'twas feeling like as days – supper came. A little panel in the door clicked open wide enough that a tray slid through. I went and stumbled to my feet, calling out to the guard. Whosoever he was, he went and paid no mind to me. The tray was lasting at the panel for a time, letting in a slit of light; then the tray, it just dropped to the ground. I had got to find the fallen things by grubbing round on my hands and knees, groping. The coffee, it had seeped into the cracks of the flagstones.

By that time, I was in a bad way. I ever was, these days, in the evenings. I'd felt scorching hot for the last few hours, and my chest, 'twas hurting real smart. My heart was all a-flutter, like as a bird trying to escape my rib-cage. And then there was the ever-there coughing. My chest was feeling worse when I coughed.

'Tween the hurt and the fever, I wasn't much liking to munch, but Mam ever gave tale that we mustn't be wasting food, so I forced myself to munch the tater and beans, though they were filthy from rolling in the dirt. Then I'm sitting on the cold ground and trying to have mind of things to do, to stay from going mad.

Me, I'd met cons 'fore who'd spent time in isolation. They ever had a wide-eyed look to them when they came out. And those were men who'd only been shut away alone for a day or a week. What would fall to me while week by week was going by? What would fall to my mind?

"Whatever troubles you find yourself in," Mam was once giving tale, "you'll ever find a way out. You just got to keep on."

Dad, like as ever, had been more to the point: "Use your thick head, lad."

Using that thick head now, I went and figured I got to find way to stay myself busy, till I could find out a way to break out of this Hell-hole. Games? My Dad was ever a good man for a dice game. I'd got no dice, but I could be figuring dice in my head, aye? Me, I could roll random numbers, and I could play myself a turn or three. Or thirty. Or thirty thousand. . . .

'Twas then that I was catching tale of the first knock.

o—o—o

'Twas coming from one of the long walls – a wall 'side another of the cells. First there comes a knock, then a soft tap, and at least a screech, like as though some folk was dragging a stone along the stone wall.

Then there was this pause, and then the sounds gave tale again. Knock, tap, screech. Knock, tap, screech. Knock, tap, screech.

I went and caught tale of them for a time, having mind. The sounds, they weren't regular. So they were being created by a person, not a machine. Another con?

At last I went and crouched down 'side the wall where those sounds were coming from. Taking my meal-spoon in hand, I tapped the wall.

The sounds from the other cell, they stopped right away. When they were coming again, they were all urgent-like. Knock-tap-screech, knock-tap-screech.

Knock-tap-screech, I said back with my spoon. Came from that a series of rapid taps from the other side of the wall.

Then 'twas 'ginning again, slower this time: Knock tap screech. Knock tap screech.

I bit my lip, trying to have mind. The sounds, they were plain-like a try at chatter. It may be the other con was in isolation too, and was desperate to find some folk to give tale to. But what kind of chatter could be done through the sound of rocks?

"Hoi!" I shouted, loud as it may be.

There wasn't any break to the knocking. I'm figuring the walls here were too thick to let voices through; only thing they would let through is the vibration from knocking on the wall.

Knocking and tapping and screeching. Three sounds. Why three sounds? Why not one?

It came to me at last. Mam ever gave tale that I got a good mind. Dad, he was on about how I'd run a question ragged, till I was finding the answer.

Three sounds. Just like as the three colors of the heliograph code. Each sound must match one of the colors: red, blue, green. The other con, he was trying to chatter through heliograph code.

That man, he was smart. Only problem was, I didn't have knowing of the heliograph code.

After having mind a time, at last I used my spoon again: Knock tap screech. Knock screech tap. Screech tap knock. Screech knock tap. Tap screech knock. Tap knock screech.

I paused then. For a bit, there was no say-back. Then: Screech. Screech-knock. Screech-tap. Screech-screech. Screech-knock-knock. . . .

'Twas going on that way for a time. I went and counted the number of ways he did it, all careful-like. Me, I wasn't surprised when the number were turning out to equal the number of letters in the alphabet.

So much for dice. I'd got a real interesting game to be giving play to now.

o—o—o

'Twas luck in my path I was able to stay busy my mind in being learned the heliograph code, 'cause life, it just went on being plain awful.

Nights were being the worst. At nights, my chest would ache, and I would cough over and over, and I'd sweat through my clothes, which left me bone-chilled in a freezing cell. I wasn't getting much sleep. And when I went and rose in the morn, I ever had trouble moving my bowels.

'Twas 'coming plain that the sawbones was right in figuring I had a bad sickness. Having been learned the heliograph code well enough to chatter, I went and asked my new mate what sort of sickness I might have got.

"He gave tale it was tibby," I went and knocked and tapped and screeched.

"TB," my mate said back. "Tuberculosis."

My chest was hurting worse than ever, then. "Consumption? I got consumption?"

"Poor appetite? Fever? Cough? Night sweats? Better count your days." He was ever straightforward of that kind, my mate.

I went and spent a long time having mind, after that. Consumption. I got consumption. I would die.

Consumption, it doesn't kill all the time, I'd been catching tale – not if you were rich, not if you had the money to go to a bright and airy sanatorium, with nurses hovering over you.

Me, I was locked in a dark prison cell with no windows. I'd die here.

But I'd have gone and died anyhow, aye? I was in a life prison. All of the cons, they died here. No point in feeling all sorry for myself, just 'cause I was going to be dying sooner than most other cons. It may be I wasn't the only con treated this way.

The next day, I went and asked my mate, "Are you sick too?"

"You could say that." He had a way of giving tale, through his knocks and taps and screeches, when he was amused.

"Can I do anything for you?" Chances were, I couldn't, but 'twas seeming polite to yield him the words. It may be that would make him feel good, to have knowing that some folk cared if he was well.

There was a long silence. At last he went and coded, "Perhaps." And then silence after that.

o—o—o

I couldn't draw anything more out of him on that subject. That was all right. Me, I had sacks of other things to worry of.

After the first day, I'd been learned to be on hand to grab the food tray whensoever 'twas shoved through. I'd also been learned – at the cost of several missed meals – that if I didn't give back my food tray when the slot in the door opened, I'd not draw my next meal. By the time I went and worked that out, I'd gotten a nice stash of bowls and cups and spoons. I went and figured I'd stay them. I was coming to have knowing that I got to get every weapon I could in my battle for surviving.

The guard who yielded me my meals never spoke, no matter how many times I yielded greetings to him. One time I tried drawing my hand through the door-slot when the slot was opening, so that I could peer through and see who was yielding my food. I drew a vicious bang on the hand for that, which was leading me to figure I'd still got the same guard who'd put me here at the start. So I went and gave up hope of help from him.

The waste-pit was growing to be a problem; 'twas full to overflowing. Using a spoon, I went and scooped out some of what it contained into an empty bowl. Next time my meal came, I tried shoving that bowl through the slot. To my surprise, the guard drew back the bowl. I felt a victor after that, having figured out a solving to one of my problems. I felt even more a victor when, on some feast day that I'd lost track of, I was given a withered old corncob with my meal. I went and saved the cob; 'twas real handy for cleaning myself, after I'd used the pit.

My prison uniform was being another problem; it stank from my night-sweats. Rummaging round, I went and found a second uniform in a pile of blankets under the bed-shelf. After having mind for a time, I filled one of the bowls I'd stayed with the cold water trickling down the wall. Then I went and wiped myself clean, using the handkerchiefs that came with the uniform. After having mind a bit more, I tried shoving the first uniform through the slot at meal-time.

'Twas taken. 'Twas given back to me the following morn, all fresh and clean.

I'd got to laugh then. Me, I was going to die in this dark, dank place, but at least I'd do so in a manner that would make Mam proud: I was wearing clean clothes.

After that, I took sacks of care to abide clean. My uniform, I figured from trial and error, was only cleaned once a week, so I would spend my days cleaning it like as best I could by hand, with the aid of the bowl, handkerchief, and water.

'Twas helping to pass the time. Not much else did.

o—o—o

All this while, I looked forward to my three-times-a-day chatters with my heliograph-mate.

We ever gave tale to each just after the meals were yielded. I figure he had knowing that those were the only times of the day when he could be sure I was awake; I'd let slip, early on, that I was so tired out now from the consumption that I was drawing naps in the daytime. After meals, we'd be on for a bit, and then he'd end the chatter right away.

He'd not give tale to anything of himself, not even his name, but I picked up a little about him. He knew the King's tongue – that was why we could give tale to each other – but 'twasn't his native language. He'd been on the lower levels of the prison 'fore he was sent to the infirmary level – "for my sins," was how he put it.

I didn't quiz him on what "sinful" sickness he'd got; nor on what crime he had done. A man has a right to his privacy. Nor did he ask any questions of me. Instead, we gave tale of little things we missed from the outside world: footer games in the streets, dice games in smoke-filled salons, my Mam's cooking and gentle scolding. 'Twas plain enough that he came from the same world I did, though he'd been learned to speak posh.

'Hind all the chatter of stick-ball and Mam's tidy tables and the boxing games at the Young Men's Rebirth Association, I kept on remembering that "Perhaps" he'd once said. He stayed hinting at some great, unmet necessity in my life.

I drew it out of him at the end, through patient questions and reassurances that I'd stay mute of this.

Seemed that, 'fore he'd been sent upstairs to this level, he'd been recruited by cons downstairs to join an Alliance. A dangerous Alliance, aimed at ending the abuse by guards in the prison. Turned out my oh-so-friendly guard wasn't the only vicious man at Mercy; there were sacks of guards of that kind. After catching tale to what things were like for cons on the other levels, I had mind that luck was in my path that my sickness stayed my own guard from visiting me late at night.

"That's Sedgewick," my mate gave tale when I described what fell on my first day at Mercy. "He's the worst guard in the prison – everyone agrees about that. But he's not the only bad one. The bad ones, they imitate one another – egg one another on by competing to see who can commit the worse abuse."

"So what do you and your Alliance do?" I asked curious-like, figuring guards going and having their throats slit.

I could catch tale of the amusement in his say-back. "Those of us who keep the Boundaries provide an alternative model."

'Twas plain enough, once he gave explanation of it. The cons in his group took a vow – a sacred oath, vowed to whatsoever the cons held most high. The con promised that, no matter how much the vicious guards deserved it, the cons would not use unlawful violence against the guards. They would have battle against the guards – oh, they had sacks of ways of having battle against the guards, like as a lawsuit against the prison's Keeper – but they'd not battle the guards by breaking the law.

"If we ever fight the guards with fists and weapons," my mate gave tale at the end, "it will be because higher authorities, like the magistrates, have given us permission to do so. Then violence will be lawful. Until then, we fight the abusive guards with the weapon of our own model behavior. We shame them by behaving better than they do."

Don't have knowing why his vision caught me all on fire. It may be 'twas 'cause I figured I'd not got many months stayed in my life. My cough was drawing worse, I was starting the first act to vomiting in the daytime, and I was drawing fits at night. Whatsoever was stayed of my life, I craved to spend it well.

Mam would have craved that. So would Dad, in his own way. "If you got to go down," were the last words he'd given tale to me, the night 'fore my trial, "then go down having battle, lad. Show them that they can't beat you."

Dad had meant I should have battle at them with fists and weapons. But Mam had ever had her own way of battling, and Dad loved her for it. It may be 'twas time for me to be learned to have battle the way Mam did.

o—o—o

Turned out, my mate craved me to give my oath in person, palm to palm, in the way that Mippites shape their oaths.

"How you going to manage that?" I asked, more than a little thrown off.

"I'll manage it," he said back. "You be ready. Be sure this is what you want to do. Be absolutely sure. You'll be tested."

I could figure what he meant. Every day, the days got colder, and the hurt I was feeling got worse. It 'came harder and harder not to scream at my guard when he yielded my meals – to stay myself from reaching through the slot and grabbing his collar and throttling him.

That was the test. Could I stay my oath? Even while death came near on me?

"I crave to help the other cons," I had my mate know. And I did. I could catch tale of them sometimes faint-like, through my thick door: they screamed from the hurt of their sicknesses, or pleaded to be let out. If all of us who stayed the Boundaries did our work proper-like, it may be some day the cons who got struck down by death-sickness wouldn't be locked away in dark cells to hurt alone. It may be they would be treated decent-like, the way any dying man should.

It may be. I'd be long dead by then, I figured. But at least I'd die having done my part, and knowing that my Mam and Dad would have been proud of me if they'd known of it.

"I'm up to it," I gave tale to my mate that day.

He yielded me his rules then. I was to hold for my meal to come. Two minutes after the coming of the meal, my cell door would be unlocked. I was to go next door – his door would also be unlocked. I'd yield my oath and come back to my cell, where I'd be locked in again.

I didn't ask how he was going to do all this. I was too excited at having mind of being let out of my cell. Oh, I'd come back to the cell almost right away; if I tried to run away, I'd wreck everything that me and my mate were working for. But for a time, just a little time, I'd be free of this dank, stinking cell.

It all fell, just like as he gave tale. The meal came; there was silence; and then the lock on my door clicked quiet-like. I held a minute – that was part of my mate's rules too – and then I opened the door cautious-like.

The light blinded me. 'Twas just a little light – there was no fire in the pit here – but the light leaking in from the stairwell was more than I'd seen for weeks. Closing my eyes, I groped my way to the cell next to me, opened the heavy door, stepped in, closed the door 'hind me, and held for my eyes to grow used to it.

So my nose had time to give tale to me that my surroundings were strange.

I smelled tobacco. The faintest, lingering traces of tobacco, and the mouth-watering scent of meat. There was a smell of flowers too. And leather. From a belt? Or a weapon?

I opened my eyes.

The leather smell came from books. They lined a small bookcase which was topped with a crystal vase filled with fall flowers. Near on to them were several chairs and sofas, all well-stuffed and covered with bright fabric. There were pictures on the walls. And hanging from a wooden hook was a dark blue jacket and a dark blue cap.

This was no cell. This was a guardroom.

A guard was standing there, near on the wall. He had hold in his hand what was seeming like as a paperweight, 'cept that 'twas chipped on one edge. He smiled at me. While I kept eye on him, he struck the wall: screech knock screech, screech, knock screech screech, screech tap tap, knock knock knock.

He heliographed my name, Gavin. Sedgewick, the vicious guard who had stayed me here, had been the one who'd been heliographing me, all these weeks.

I felt hotness of heart sweep through me, like as a fever. I didn't yet having knowing of Sedgewick's reason for fooling me. It may be he craved to lure me into giving oath to join that imaginary Alliance to have battle with guards, so that he could punish me. It may be he just craved to raise my hopes so that he could crush them.

All I had knowing of was that he was amused. He'd got on his face that smile, that vicious smile, I'd seen on the first day of my coming to Mercy Life Prison.

I should have recognized that same smile in the words he had heliographed to me.

"Are you going to attack me?" His smile never wavered while he gave tale. He had a whip at his belt, after all; he could beat me into submission. But not till I got a few punches in; not till I beat that smirk off his face—

"Nay," I gave tale.

Some days I surprise myself. Like the day I killed a man, and the day I gave my Mam flowers for no reason, and today, the day I had mind to stay the Boundaries of Behavior. It didn't matter that nobody else in the prison was staying them. Everything that Sedgewick had given tale to was true, even if he hadn't come to know it. The only way to have battle against him and other abusive guards was by being more good than them. By being the man my Mam had ever craved me to be.

I don't have knowing of how much of this showed in my face. A lot of it, I'm figuring, 'cause his smile right-away disappeared. He put down the paperweight on the bookshelf and walked toward me. I braced myself. Whatsoever fell was going to be bad, and 'twas going to take all my guts not to have battle back with my fists. But Dad had ever been on about how I was the scrappiest battler in all our neighborhood. I'd been learned a new way to have battle, and I'd best learn myself quick-like how to be skilled at it.

"Good." Sedgewick stopped in front of me, close enough to grab me – or close enough for me to spread my consumption to him by coughing in his face. I stayed my mouth closed.

"Good," he gave tale again. "Because the Alliance needs you. We need you very much."

And he took my sick hand in his own and shaped his oath to me, palm to palm.

Chapter Text

Mercy's Prisoner #5
CURIOUS

The year 400, the third month. (The year 1895 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
 

"If pain is not an evil, it certainly is a very good imitation."

—Arthur Bidwell: Bidwell's Travels from Wall Street to London Prison: Fifteen Years in Solitude (1897).


CHAPTER ONE

"We've had trouble with the prisoners," said Mercy's Keeper.

"Sir?" Ulick could think of no other reply to make to this bland remark, which might have been spoken by any Keeper at any prison at any moment of the day.

"Seditious activities. Attempts to manipulate the guards. That sort of thing."

"Oh." Understanding reached him. "Yes, I'd read that in the newspapers."

Mercy's Keeper – who was not gracious enough to offer his name, much less offer Ulick a chair – winced, as though in distaste at the foreign orange he was munching on throughout the conversation. "Too much publicity. Pressmen should all be shot. Good thing the death sentence is back."

Ulick decided not to ask how serious the Keeper was in his statement. Instead, he took the opportunity to glance around the Keeper's office, which also served as the man's living quarters. Opulent walnut chests, imported Vovimian carpets, a wall full of books, and a kitchen's worth of food. And the food was only for his lunch. If Mercy's Keeper was suffering from the presence of his seditious prisoners, there was no sign of it.

"Blasted Boundaries," said Mercy's Keeper, as though summing up matters.

"Sir?"

"They should be shot. Every one of them. Will, if I find out who they are."

Ulick wondered whether his expression held the proper amount of bewilderment. It must have, for in the next moment, from the corner of the room, came a quiet voice. "If I may, sir. . . . I believe that your new guard may need to be briefed on our situation."

"Eh?" Mercy's Keeper twisted round in his chair to stare at the speaker. "Oh, rather. If you say so. You explain, and I'll get on with . . ." He waved his hand expansively over his desk, embracing both paperwork and food.

"Thank you, sir." The speaker, who was standing in the shadows, raised his eyes to Ulick. Looking into them, Ulick had the momentary feeling of falling down a deep well. He considered himself moderately good at reading expressions; it was one of the skills that had led him to take up guard-work. But nothing lay behind those eyes to tell him what the other man was thinking.

"In brief," said the guard quietly, holding Ulick's gaze with apparently effortless ease, "one of the prisoners here, a kin-murderer by the name of Merrick, developed a very clever plan some years ago to gain power over the guards. He executed this plan with the help of a cunning strategist, a cut-throat named Tyrrell. Their plan was to put forward something that purported to be a code of ethics for prison conduct, and to persuade the guards here to adhere to it. Many guards were fooled into doing so."

Ulick, who had been trying unsuccessfully to move his eyes away from the speaker, heard himself say, "Many guards?"

A smile entered the other man's eyes. "Including myself. I will admit that I was a victim of Merrick's plan. A guard whom I respected had chosen to adopt the Boundaries of Behavior that Merrick advocated, and . . . Well, I will not recount for you the tedious story. Suffice it to say that, for too many years afterwards, I treated my prisoners in a sickeningly soft manner. I allowed them to get away with disrespectful behavior, with attempts to control me and all the other guards, and in the end I even went so far as to ally myself with these prisoners. I tried to bring to court a suit that, if it had been won, would have resulted in the complete loss of any power that the guards possess to curb the prisoners' destructive behavior."

"Ah." Ulick cleared his throat. "Yes, I thought your face looked familiar, Mr. . . ."

"Staunton. Please, call me Sedgewick. We are not formal here at Mercy Life Prison."

As Ulick struggled for a reply, Mercy's Keeper coughed. Or perhaps he burped; it was hard to tell. In any case, Sedgewick Staunton – the notorious Sedgewick Staunton – turned his head immediately. "I apologize, sir. Here I am, rambling on when you wish to speak."

His tone was as slick as seal-skin. Mercy's Keeper, visibly moved by this gesture of deference, said, "No, no – you have summarized the situation admirably. Chaos. Rebellion. Can't trust anyone here, don't you know." He peered narrow-eyed at Ulick, who remained silent.

"Which is why, in your wisdom, you have brought in a new guard." Sedgewick – as Ulick supposed he must think of Staunton now – inserted this comment smoothly.

"Exactly!" cried Mercy's Keeper, chiming his wine glass with a spoon, like an after-dinner speaker. "Can't trust the others. Need to bring in a guard with integrity."

Ulick just managed to keep from wincing. He knew what the word "integrity" meant in the prison system.

Seemingly Sedgewick did as well, for the cold smile was back in his eyes. "You need a guard who can be your informer," he translated with surprising candidness.

Mercy's Keeper actually grinned at him. "You've never been one to mince words, Sedgewick."

"I like to think I have my own form of integrity." There was no smile in Sedgewick's eyes as he turned his gaze back toward Ulick. "I'll be direct, then: Our Keeper needs information. We've managed to separate Merrick from his co-conspirator, Tyrrell—" Sedgewick's sharp gesture suggested how violent that separation had been. "However, our Keeper believes that Merrick is still receiving assistance from a member of this prison."

"A guard," Mercy's Keeper clarified. "That's been your theory, Sedgewick."

"In all likelihood, a guard," Sedgewick agreed. "We know that, despite our efforts to isolate him, Merrick is continuing to send messages to prisoners at other levels of this prison than his own. He could only do that with help from a guard."

"The prisoners aren't permitted to travel between levels, then?" asked Ulick, grasping upon the one piece of practical information he had been granted since his arrival at Mercy Prison during the previous hour.

"Certainly not!" Mercy's Keeper sounded shocked. "Conspiracies! Violence! Can be expected when prisoners are allowed to gallivant about."

"As we sadly discovered, sir."

Something about the tone of Sedgewick's voice led Ulick to suspect that the guard was mocking Mercy's Keeper. The Keeper evidently missed this note, however; he simply faltered before saying, "Yes, yes. Was a mistake, letting Merrick and Tyrrell have the run of the prison." Then, apparently seizing upon a chance to pass this ill judgment onto another person, he glared at Sedgewick. "You gave me bad advice about that."

"I did indeed." There was no mockery to Sedgewick's tone now, only the hint of a deeply banked inferno. "Well, I learned my lesson. I am only sorry, sir," he added, "that my lesson was gained at your expense."

Mercy's Keeper gave a gesture that was apparently intended to convey the largesse of his gracious forgiveness, but was spoiled by the fact that the gesture caused the peas on his fork to splatter to the ground. "No, no. Evil, conniving prisoners. Can't always anticipate their villainy."

"Which is why we need an informer." Sedgewick turned his attention back to Ulick, still standing silently in front of the Keeper's desk. "You are new here. If Merrick's past patterns prove true, you will be approached – possibly by Merrick himself, more likely by the guard who is his co-conspirator. You will be probed to see whether your sentiments align with the current regime of this prison. If Merrick's co-conspirator probes you, it is likely that his approach will be subtle. If Merrick himself probes you . . . Merrick has no gift for subtlety. He will be brutally blunt in his approach. In either case, if you are found to be fertile ground, either Merrick or his co-conspirator will seek to convert you to their cause – to the keeping of the Boundaries."

"The Boundaries." Ulick leapt onto this word. "I've heard mention of them in the newspapers, but no details were provided. May I know what the Boundaries are?"

"Certainly not!" bellowed Mercy's Keeper, pausing in the midst of digging into his strawberry trifle.

"I'm afraid," said Sedgewick with a blandness that suggested he held no sorrow whatsoever in making this announcement, "that discussion of the Boundaries of Behavior is now strictly forbidden in this prison, whether by prisoners or by guards. All that you need know about the Boundaries – the so-called ethical rules which Merrick and Tyrrell plotted together – is that they are considered to be a danger to the smooth running of Mercy Life Prison." The hint of amusement returned to his eyes.

Ulick turned his head toward Mercy's Keeper, thus dismissing Sedgewick in favor of the man who actually held charge over this prison. "Is that your wish, sir?" he asked.

Mercy's Keeper seemed surprised to be consulted. "Of course. Sedgewick is my right-hand man; any order he gives can be considered to come from me."

Ulick turned his gaze back to Sedgewick, only to discover that the other guard's look of amusement had increased. "Keeping order in this prison," Sedgewick said softly, "is my primary duty."

"I see." Ulick kept his tone level. He had no wish to make enemies within an hour of his arrival, but he was becoming increasingly convinced that the notoriety which the press had ascribed to Sedgewick Staunton had been fairly earned.

Perhaps Ulick's tone was quite not so level as he would have liked, for the coldness in Sedgewick's gaze increased, without the amusement diminishing one whit. "Perhaps, sir," said Sedgewick, addressing the Keeper without moving his gaze from Ulick, "you would like me to introduce your new guard to his duties. Then you can take your afternoon nap."

Ulick's gaze snapped over to Mercy's Keeper, convinced that Sedgewick had finally gone too far. The Keeper, though, was in the midst of yawning.

"A good idea," Mercy's Keeper said. "A good idea. Need to be fresh for my evening duties, don't you know."

"Certainly, sir." The slickness had returned to Sedgewick's voice. "Your unremitting discipline in maintaining your health is a model for us all. Ulick?" He gestured toward the door, and Ulick was left with no choice but to nod his farewell to the Keeper and turn his back in order to open the door.

Though in truth, he reflected as he pulled up the door-latch, there was no one in the entire Magisterial Republic of Mip to whom he was more reluctant to turn his back than Sedgewick Staunton.

o—o—o

Although he was eager to remove his back from Sedgewick's presence, he was unable to prevent himself from pausing momentarily on the threshold of the doorway. The Keeper's quarters opened directly onto a balcony that wrapped its way round a circular hall within the cylindrical prison. The balcony was made of iron.

Ornamental iron. Carefully wrought in the Vovimian style, which imitated basketwork. Basketwork with gaps between the iron. Every step that one took on the balcony gave the illusion that one was walking on air.

Ulick closed his eyes to combat a momentary wave of dizziness, and then forced his eyes open again. He suspected that if he had known he would have to traverse this balcony whenever he reported to the Keeper here, he would not have taken employment within Mercy Prison. Then again, perhaps he would have. He had made greater sacrifices during his years as a prison guard.

His first step did not result in the iron giving way and plummeting him to the ground. Nor did the second. Now he only had to worry about the growing, irrational desire to fling himself from the balcony. He was still debating the relative merits of hugging the wall versus taking hold of the waist-high handrail when he sensed something behind him.

He turned quickly. Sedgewick, who had evidently spent some previous lifetime as a spy, had managed to sidle up behind Ulick without warning of his approach. This was no mean achievement; after seventeen years as a prison guard, and twelve attempts on his life by disgruntled prisoners, Ulick had trained himself to hear a roach scuttle toward him.

But this vermin, it seemed, had greater skills than his own. Sedgewick was busy removing a cigar from a case – he did not offer one to Ulick – and his gaze had drifted toward the hall underneath.

"Our dining hall," he explained, gesturing with the cigar. "Or that's what it would have been, if the magisterial seats had given us the promised money for furnishings. Instead, the prisoners eat in their cells, and we use this as an assembly hall for important punishments."

"Oh?" said Ulick, refusing to turn his gaze toward the rest of the hall, a sickening drop below.

"Yes, there's a whipping post over there." Sedgewick pointed to a spot a few yards away on the balcony, and Ulick glanced briefly in that direction, but saw nothing out of the ordinary: just a wooden post with a binding ring, such as any prison in Mip might use. "Important beatings are done up here, while the prisoners assemble below. It allows them to witness the punishment, and it allows us to keep careful watch on them." Sedgewick paused to light his cigar with a safety match. He carelessly tossed away the match when he was through; it fell through one of the gaps in the balcony, the flame dying before it reached the ground.

Watching it fall, Ulick felt another wave of dizziness, which he strove to hide by asking, "Are there any other punishments inflicted here besides flogging?"

"Only in the prisoners' cells." There was something in Sedgewick's voice that Ulick could not quite define. "Oh, and there's the disciplinary cells."

"The disciplinary cells?"

"Cells for solitary confinement, directly below here, in the cellar. You can see the door to the cellar over there." Sedgewick pointed over Ulick's shoulder. Ulick turned—

—and in the next moment found himself hanging over the railing of the balcony, his feet off the ground, only a hand on his collar preventing him from falling to his death.

He nearly vomited on the spot. He closed his eyes, struggling against the alternating waves of cold sickness and faintness. Closing his eyes didn't help. He could still see the last image offered to him: his cap, several yards away, lying on the floor that awaited the remainder of him: the breaking of his bones and the crushing of his skull.

His feet kicked, more out of instinct than anything else. They could not gain purchase; he was swung too far forward. He tried to use his hands to lever himself back, then froze as he felt the heat of fire against his neck. At the same moment, something hard pressed itself against his bottom.

He knew what that hardness was. It wasn't the first time that Ulick had met a man who received erotic enjoyment at the thought of killing. This time, however, the killer was not a convict.

"I've heard tell," said Sedgewick softly, "that if a man falls from this height and lands on his head, he may remain in a coma for years. Nobody knows what it's like to be in a coma. Do you suppose that it's something like the old Vovimian tales of hell? Unending torture?"

There was no mistaking the amusement in his voice. Ulick, keeping his eyes closed, waited until he was sure he could speak in a steady voice. If he let this man guess that his captive was deathly afraid of heights, all would be lost.

Finally Ulick said, "I doubt that Mercy's Keeper would be pleased at the murder of his new guard."

"Who said anything about murder?" The amusement continued in Sedgewick's voice as he tapped hot ashes onto the back of Ulick's neck. "New guards are notoriously prone to die of accidents in this prison. Carelessly naive of them, to turn their backs on prisoners. I usually make sure to send a wreath to their funeral."

Ulick shallowed his breath, before his heavy breathing alone should reveal the extent of his fear. "What do you want from me?"

"Nothing but your careful attention." The amusement dropped from Sedgewick's voice like a body in a hangman's noose. "I know you. You're the sort who is curious. It is bound to occur to you at some point that, if you worm yourself far enough into this nefarious network of Merrick's, you can learn everything you want to know about the Boundaries. It might even occur to you that this would be suitable revenge against a certain guard you've taken a dislike to." The cigar tip, barely above Ulick's neck, traced a pattern. "Just a fair warning: Everything that takes place in this prison, I know about. If you seek to betray me, I'll know, and you'll learn what happens to traitors."

Ulick, biting his lip against the scream growing in his throat, felt tears leak from his eyes as the pain on his neck grew and the dizziness began to overwhelm him. Sedgewick gave a breathless chuckle—

—and then Ulick was on his feet again. Sedgewick had turned casually aside to toss away his cigar. It plummeted, landing upon Ulick's cap, and lay there, glowing as it began to eat the cloth.

"Oslo is waiting for you." Sedgewick pointed. "He'll show you the remainder of the prison."

This time, Ulick had sense enough not to turn to look, but out of the corner of his eye he could see a guard standing at the foot of the stair landing, smoking a cigarette and occasionally glancing in their direction.

Sedgewick chuckled again. "Don't worry – on the day that you die, there will be no witnesses." And with that sentiment voiced, he pushed Ulick toward Oslo with such force that Ulick nearly fell over the railing again.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWO

Oslo was an attractive-looking man. Ulick had long since concluded that his career served as both his wife and his love-mate, but even he could tell that the other guard's combination of tawny skin, glossy cornrows, and amber eyes would be enough to cause many men and women to pause in their tracks. Somehow the Magisterial Republic of Mip – the crossroads of many races and cultures – had a gift for mixing all the foreign influences together and producing new generations which combined the best features of other nations.

Ulick himself, being of direct Yclau descent, was one hundred percent white-skinned, a fact that he had never ceased to feel slightly embarrassed about. "Purebreds" were looked upon with some suspicion in Mip, since some of their ancestors had been the aristocrats who had ruled the republic before Mip's people finally won their independence. Now, feeling self-conscious and more than a little dizzy, he made his way over to Oslo, who was tossing dice in his right hand.

Not dominoes. Ulick made a mental note of that. It was becoming increasingly clear – from the fact that the guards addressed each other by first name, as commoners would, and from the fact that they played commoner games – that this was not the place to mention that Ulick's father owned most of the farmland in the outskirts of the capital.

Oslo's accent was mid-class, however. "You need a new cap" were his first words as he turned his head to look at Ulick.

Ulick glanced back at Sedgewick, who was still standing next to the balcony railing, smoking another cigar in an unconcerned manner. In the holding prisons, a guard could be summarily dismissed for smoking on duty. Or for attacking a fellow guard, for that matter.

"Just as a matter of curiosity," said Ulick as he gently touched the fiercely raw skin at the back of his neck, "what usually happens to people to whom Mr. Staunton takes a dislike?"

"Sedgewick?" Oslo's voice was reflective as he stared up at the stairway, circling toward the top of the prison. "Well, that depends. The Keeper before our present one kept fining Sedgewick for misdemeanors. Then he beat Sedgewick. About a month later, that Keeper died. Under mysterious circumstances, so the investigative soldiers were brought in. They eventually found the murder weapon in the possession of one of the guards here. The guard protested that the murder weapon had been planted on him, but the magistrate who tried him was having nothing of it. From what I heard, the guard was sent to one of the prisons in the west, as a life prisoner." Oslo jiggled the dice in his hand for a moment before adding, "Sedgewick never much liked that guard."

Ulick considered this a moment before saying, "Friend of yours, is he?"

Oslo gave a low chuckle as he pocketed the dice and turned to face Ulick fully. "Sedge doesn't have friends. He has acquaintances who despise him to varying degrees. Even Mercy's Keeper isn't foolish enough to trust him entirely – not after Sedgewick played the turncoat twice over. . . . I keep out of Sedge's way. That's safest." He smiled suddenly. "So, now that you've become acquainted with the most dangerous man in this prison, would you like to meet the prisoners?"

Despite himself, Ulick couldn't hold back a slight laugh. Oslo grinned and thrust forward his arm. "Oslo Guard. Call me Oslo or 'Lo. Your name is Guard too, I suppose?"

"Ulick Guard," he confirmed as he shook Oslo's arm. "I chose my occupation-name when I came of age. And you?"

"Guarding has been my lifelong profession as well. I started off at Compassion Life Prison, then was transferred here . . . oh, a couple of decades ago, I suppose. One loses track of time."

As he spoke, Oslo stepped lightly up the staircase, passing the triple set of gates leading to the prison's entry hall. The gates were carefully guarded, Ulick had noticed upon his arrival at the prison. No escapes had ever occurred from Mercy; he knew that much from his research.

"Is that good or bad?" he asked Oslo.

"The swift passage of time? Oh, it's good. This isn't a bad place to work. Mercy's Keeper offers us enough freedom to do our jobs properly. The main problem is guards taking advantage of that freedom. —This is the second level."

He paused at a landing. Ulick looked through a gated doorway, but could see no evidence of the prisoners – just three dozen cell doors, with open bars, set around a great, circular floor with an old-fashioned fire-pit in the middle. The fire was currently dead; the early-spring air was cold.

"There's not much to see at this time of day," remarked Oslo as he leaned against the wall next to the gate. "All the prisoners are at their work – on the second level, that means they're in the laundering room." He pointed with his thumb, then caught hold of Ulick's arm as Ulick began to step forward. "No, best leave that alone. The laundering room is Sedge's territory. He doesn't like other guards poking their noses into it, even when he's absent. —Hey, Bailey." He waved his hand at a young guard who was standing in front of the closed door to the laundering room, looking bored. The young guard's face lit up when he saw Oslo, and he offered an enthusiastic wave back.

"Do you have many friends here?" Ulick asked as he began again to follow Oslo up the stairs, which had zigzagged direction at the landing.

"Oh, sacks. I get along well with the other guards; I don't believe in tale-telling and other such nonsense. Mind you, I don't always care for the other guards' methods of controlling their prisoners, but that's their business, not mine."

Ulick wondered whether he should follow up on this clear hint – twice given now – that Oslo was not fully satisfied with the running of the prison. He heard Sedgewick's voice whisper in his mind: If Merrick's co-conspirator probes you, it is likely that his approach will be subtle. . . . Ulick shook his head, as though to free himself from Sedgewick's venom, and asked, "Do you work on the second level?"

"Oh, yes. We all do, at one point or another. The second level is where we're sent when we misbehave." He looked over his shoulder to flash Ulick a smile. "That's where the worst prisoners are kept . . . with a few exceptions. So having to care for the second-level prisoners is like being assigned months of bread and water. Thank the gods, not many of us are given permanent assignments to that level. —-That's the third level we just passed; more cells, as well as the kitchen. Here's the fourth level. You're still missing your cap."

Ulick looked blankly at him, and Oslo laughed.

"Fourth level is stores and weapons," he explained, pointing his thumb. "Your new uniform will have to be tailored, of course, but we can start by getting you a new cap."

Ulick nodded, but his gaze had already drifted over to the fourth level. On this level, the cells were occupied, two men to each cell. "You house prisoners on the same level as the weapons?" he said.

Oslo shrugged. "No choice, really. Mercy was originally built as an experimental prison, to house only two hundred prisoners, but the magistrates kept sending us new convicts." He glanced over at the occupied cells. "Evening meal has been delivered; that means the night guards must be on duty already. Blast." Then, as Ulick raised his eyebrows, Oslo added, "The keys to the armory are held by one of the day guards: Mad Milord."

"Excuse me?" said Ulick, sure that he had misheard.

Oslo laughed again. "That's what Vere is called. He used to be a Vovimian lord, once upon a day. A southern Vovimian lord," he added, as though that fact were significant.

"Why is he called Mad?" asked Ulick, stepping carefully out of the doorway in order to make way for a guard who had just opened the fourth level's gate.

"You'll see. Hey." Oslo caught hold of the departing guard. "Where's Milord?"

The guard snorted. "Vere's off-duty. Where do you think he is?"

Oslo swore pungently, and not under his breath. "Again?" he concluded.

"Again." The guard shook his head. "It's his prisoner's own fault. He was sassy again today. But I've told Vere before: he's risking a murder charge if he keeps this up."

Oslo sighed heavily. "And they call us the guards. Someone should be guarding the prisoners against us."

The guard gave a quirk of a smile. "Don't bother to give your speech to me. You know I agree. And you know that, if Sedgewick decides that we're keeping the Boundaries, he'll have us sacked. If giving my prisoners a few extra lashes each day means keeping my job . . . Well, I've a wife and children at home. Speaking of which, I'll be late for dinner if I don't run; then I'll receive my lashes, in the form of tongue-lashing." He tipped his cap in polite greeting to Ulick, then hurried down the stairs.

"That's Keane," Oslo said as he and Ulick stepped through the gated doorway. "He was working out west for quite a few years, but he recently transferred back to the capital. He's one of the better guards working here."

For the third time, Ulick refused to follow up on the hint. "Guards are permitted to live outside the prison?" he said.

"Married guards are," Ulick replied as he locked the gate behind them. "The rest of us have to ask permission; otherwise, we're housed down on the first level. You saw that there are doors all along the balcony circling the hall? That's where most of us live."

With great effort, Ulick managed to receive this news with an unrevealing expression. "But permission is sometimes granted for guards to live outside the prison?"

"Certainly. Talk to Sedgewick about it; he's in charge of such matters. —Here we are."

Ulick had feared this was their destination. The particular cell they had halted in front of was closed, not only by bars, but by a solid door behind the bars. Ulick had seen such doors at holding prisons, where they were used for prisoners kept in solitary confinement. Here, however, the solid door seemed to have a different purpose, for, glancing to the side, Ulick realized that all of the cells had these doors within the barred gates. The other solid doors were open at the moment.

From inside this cell came the crack of a whip, accompanied by the rasping gasps of a prisoner in pain.

Oslo reached between the bars and pounded on the door. "Vere! Open up!"

The cracking of the whip halted immediately, and the prisoner's gasps subsided into a whimper. Ulick thought he heard a murmur of voices. After a minute, the food-slot panel in the solid door slid back, revealing the face of a black-skinned man. "Well?" he said sharply in a thick Vovimian accent.

Oslo pointed to Ulick. "New man. Needs to be armed."

"Later," said Vere, and began to slide the panel shut.

Oslo caught hold of the panel. "Now," he insisted. "He has duty this evening. Sedgewick's orders."

Vere sighed heavily. "May Sedgewick be hell-damned for eternity. He always times these matters to coincide with my off-duty hours. All right, just give me a minute to finish here."

The panel closed. There was another murmur of voices. Then the whip began again, faster than before. Soon the prisoner was giving a keening sound, as though he were in mourning; then he screamed.

The whip-crack stopped. After another couple of minutes, the solid door opened wide.

The cell was small, by the standards of the holding prisons, and it held no furnishings whatsoever, other than a shelf that appeared to be made of stone. On the shelf lay a couple of folded blankets. The only other object in the cell was a whipping ring. Kneeling under it, his hands bound behind him, the naked prisoner pressed himself against the wall. Across his light brown arms, back, buttocks, and thighs were ugly red stripes.

The prisoner's head was turned to the side, but his eyes were hidden by his hair. He was biting his lip. Vere, who was in the midst of picking up his jacket, said over his shoulder to the prisoner, "Stay there. If you move an inch, you'll regret it."

Ulick looked at the naked prisoner, and then looked behind him at the fire-pit. A nearby guard was beginning to light it. Did this mean that the fire-pits were only used at night, even at this time of year? The flames barely touched the icy chill as yet.

"It's rather cold for a man to be naked," Ulick pointed out to Vere.

"You think so?" Vere sounded indifferent. "I've trained him to endure worse cold than this."

Ulick said nothing. After a moment, Vere shrugged. "I suppose you're right. No point in taking chances with a valuable slave." With those words, he strode back to the prisoner and dropped his jacket onto the man's shoulders. The prisoner staggered under the weight, but maintained his position.

Ulick looked over at Oslo. "'Slave'?" he said softly.

Oslo, with a quirk of a smile, tapped his head significantly.

If Vere saw the gesture as he returned, he ignored it. "Right," he said as he pulled back the barred gate and then locked it closed behind him. "Let's get this over with. I promised my slave a nice, long session tonight. He has been looking forward to it all week."

Behind Vere's back, Oslo rolled his eyes. Ulick merely said, "You're from Vovim, Lord Vere?"

Vere halted, looked at him more carefully, and then smiled. "Just call me Vere. I don't use my title any more . . . except with my slave. And you are . . . ?"

It was clear that Oslo had no intention of making introductions, so Ulick bowed his head slightly. "Ulick Guard, sir." He had noticed the first-ranked stripe on Vere's jacket before the guard had dropped the jacket onto his prisoner's shoulders.

"Oh, my," said Vere, smiling slightly as he offered his arm. "I like this one, Oslo. No need for the sir, though," he added to Ulick. "It's not the custom, here at Mercy. Not even Sedgewick demands that from his fellow guards. Oslo, what does he require?"

"Arms and a new uniform," replied Oslo. "He doesn't know yet whether he'll be living in the prison, so you needn't worry about bed linens. Can you take charge here? I need to go have a word with Bailey about a dice game. Ulick, I'll be back in a few minutes. Don't worry, Milord doesn't bite fellow guards." He grinned and departed, while Vere watched him go with a reflective expression on his face.

o—o—o

"Do they train you in unarmed combat in the holding prisons?" Vere asked as they reached the door to the armory, which looked like nothing more than a cell door.

"They do, yes," replied Ulick, glancing at the nearest cell. The prisoners there looked lethargic and glum.

"Good. Guard my back, will you?" Vere waited only long enough to receive Ulick's nod of acknowledgment; then he began fiddling with the lock of the barred gate. Ulick obediently turned to scan the fourth level with his eyes, but he could see nothing other than a pair of guards chatting together as they warmed their hands over the fire-pit. The fire still had not risen much above the ember stage.

Behind Ulick, metal tinkled and scraped, then screeched. "All right," said Vere. "Grab that lamp on the way in. And be quick about it."

Ulick snatched a nearby lantern from its hook on the wall, taking care not to spill the oil as he slid into the armory. He was barely inside before Vere had slammed the solid door shut. For a minute, the most vivid image in the room was Vere's eyes, sparkling as he looked at Ulick.

Then Vere turned away to lock the door. "You'll need weapons," he said. "Have you been trained?"

"In dagger-defense, yes," replied Ulick, placing the lamp on a shelf. The armory was nothing more than a cell to which many shelves had been added; the shelves were crammed with clothing and equipment. "I never learned to use a whip. I was trained for a gun."

"Were you indeed?" Vere's tone quickened with interest, which was hardly surprising; Mip had few firearms, so only the most skilled prison-guards were permitted to carry guns. "Well, we don't have any of those here, I regret to say. Budget problems; the magisterial seats have never sent much money our way. I think they prefer to pretend that the life prisons don't exist. I'll be glad to train you with a whip if we can harmonize our schedules."

"Will I need a whip?" Ulick asked, fingering a knuckleduster on one of the shelves.

Vere chuckled softly as he bent over to open a metal box on the floor. "Ideally, no. In reality, yes – but I don't need to tell you that, if you've worked at the holding prisons."

"Whips to defend against attack, yes," Ulick acknowledged. "But do you have many floggings for punishment here?"

Vere smiled as he straightened up and handed Ulick a sheathed dagger. "You've been listening to Oslo. 'Alas and alack, all the guards in this prison are cruel except me . . .' All of us have our own way of keeping control of our prisoners. Even Oslo."

Ulick said nothing. Vere shrugged as he turned away, adding, "How much flogging you do depends on the prisoner. I had Merrick as my prisoner one year – you've heard of him? Gods above and below, he nearly wore out my arm, the number of beatings I needed to give him to keep him in line. Of course, that was quite a few years back. These days, he has developed new ways to run guards ragged. Here." He handed Ulick a looped whip.

Ulick took it, but asked, "What if I issue no floggings for punishment at all?"

Vere gave a twist of a smile. "We had a few idealistic guards like that. Funny – they all disappeared last month. Sedgewick took a dislike to them."

Ulick's stomach clenched. "They died?"

"Nothing that drastic. They were sacked or transferred. I wouldn't worry about it, if I were you. Chances are, you'll find yourself thrust into duty with a prisoner who won't behave unless you control him with the taste of a whip. Right, take those off now."

Ulick hesitated; then, under Vere's dispassionate eye, he stripped himself down to his drawers and undervest. "And your prisoner needs to be controlled that way?"

"My slave?" Once again, Vere smiled. "He's special. Very special. Needs very careful handling, I've found. Any idea what your hat size is?" He knelt down, in an awkward manner suggesting this was not one of his usual positions, and unrolled a measuring tape along the inside of Ulick's leg. Ulick flinched as Vere's hand brushed his testicles.

"Sorry," said Vere, without looking up from where he was peering at the tape. "And while we're on that topic, you needn't worry about your fellow guards. We had a bit of that sort of thing going on, when I first arrived here, but it didn't last long. After a while, the offenders realized that making other guards angry simply meant they had fewer allies to protect them if a prisoner decided to attack them. Since then, we guards have been one happy confederation . . . leaving aside the recent civil war."

"I read about that," said Ulick, raising his arm to allow Vere to measure it.

"All lies," said Vere cheerfully as he rose to his feet. "The press wouldn't know Truth if she stared them in their faces."

"Even the part about guards abusing prisoners?" Ulick said quietly.

"It all depends on what you consider abuse, I suppose." Vere's voice had turned reflective. "Mind you, I'm not going to defend the actions of some guards, like that drilling bastard-of-a-slave, Sedgewick. He's viler than any prisoner we guard. And hypocrites like Oslo aren't worth my time of day. But most of the guards do whatever they think needs to be done to keep the prisoners under control. You'll do the same, I expect, or else will die when you trust the wrong prisoner. Hat size?" he asked as he rose to his feet.

Ulick recited the number. Vere nodded and turned to write down Ulick's measurements. "No problems with you; you're an average size. Take this cap and see whether it fits. Oh, and take that suit over there. It will need to be tucked in a bit here and there, but it will do for now. Come back tomorrow, and I'll see that the hem is taken in a bit more."

"You do the tailoring here?" Ulick asked as he slipped into the uniform that Vere had indicated.

Vere flashed him a smile. "Don't be absurd. My slave does the guards' tailoring. I trained him for that. How are your dagger skills?"

"Decent," Ulick said cautiously as he hooked his whip and dagger to his belt.

"Glad to hear it. Just check through that watch-hole and tell me whether it's clear." As he spoke, Vere picked up the lantern with one hand and pulled out his keys with the other.

Ulick glanced through the watch-hole in question, a pin-prick in the door. "All's clear," he reported.

Vere nodded and managed to unlock the door, pocket his keys, and pull his dagger, all in one swift motion. He lifted the latch, opened the door with a thunderous kick, and leapt out, dagger in the ready.

Ulick was close behind him, his dagger unsheathed, but the level remained empty, other than the guards on duty, who glanced their way and then returned to chatting.

"Is that necessary?" Ulick asked as he followed Vere's lead in sheathing his dagger.

"You never know," replied Vere, setting the lamp aside in order to lock the armory door. "Within a week of this prison's opening in 355, a guard stepping out from the armory was jumped and strangled to death by a prisoner, who proceeded to use one of the armory daggers to take hostages. Ever since then, only one guard has been permitted to keep the keys to the armory. A guard who knows how to keep control of prisoners," he added with a smile. "Sedgewick had my position for several years. I've heard that he was a little too inclined to borrow weapons so that he could play with his prisoners during his off-duty hours. Then, three years ago, he decided to present himself as a reformed man who followed the Boundaries; he turned the armory keys over to me at that point." Vere shrugged. "I expect he'll want them back, any day now."

"About the Boundaries . . ." said Ulick slowly, but Vere had turned his head away.

"Oh, will you look at that?" said the guard softly. "Isn't that sweet?"

Ulick followed Vere's gaze to the cell where the guard had left his prisoner. Through the barred gate, it could be seen that Vere's coat had fallen off the prisoner's shoulders. The sweat there glistened like ice. The prisoner's face was turned to the side; his eyes were still hidden by his hair, but down his exposed cheek ran a continuous stream of tears. His whole body was trembling.

Vere shook his head. "May Mercy bless him. He could have held out longer, but he knows how much I enjoy seeing him cry."

Ulick stared at the other guard. There was no mistaking the message in Vere's soft voice, nor the look in his eyes. Both the voice and the eyes spoke of love.

Vere glanced over at Ulick and smiled. "You can find your way back to Oslo, can't you? I don't want to keep my dear slave waiting any longer."

Even as he spoke, he was pulling his whip from his belt. He strode toward the cell, leaving Ulick staring after him.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THREE

"Don't worry about Mad Milord," said Oslo as he met Ulick on the landing of the steps that zig-zagged their way round the southern curve of the tower of Mercy Life Prison. "He's harmless enough. Doesn't even beat his prisoners unless they deserve it – with the exception of his so-called slave, of course."

Ulick turned his eye away from the staircase in order to look at Oslo in the wavering lamp-light. It was time, he decided, that he followed up on Oslo's earlier hints. "Are there many beatings here?"

Oslo nearly fell off the landing laughing. He had to hold onto the railing to keep his balance. "Oh, my," he said, wiping away tears of amusement. "I can see that you're new to the life prisons."

"There's a certain amount of undue harshness by guards at the holding prisons too—"

"Not like at the life prisons," Oslo said firmly as he straightened up. "Nowhere in the world will you see as many punishments as you do here. Some guards beat their prisoners morning, noon, and night – whenever it suits their fancy."

"I take it from your tone that you don't approve."

"Most of the guards here are animals," Oslo replied in a matter-of-fact manner. "They slake their beastly desires with the unwilling help of their prisoners. Those guards are the ones who deserve to be imprisoned for life."

"And the prisoners?"

"Oh, they deserve life imprisonment too." Oslo paused with his foot on the next step as Ulick glanced again at the level he had just left. More prisoners were emerging through a door. They were being carefully corralled into cell doors by the guards on watch-duty.

"They're finishing up their work for the day," Oslo said when Ulick enquired. "Over there, in the tailoring shop, is where the uniforms are made and repaired. The tannery is the door next to it; the prisoners make all the boots and belts that are issued here. Prisoners also work in the kitchen and laundry on the third and second levels. We keep the convicts busy during the daytime. Idle hands are likely to lead to insolence and indolence – that's the Keeper's theory."

"He would know," Ulick murmured, taking care to keep his voice too low to be heard. The sound of his voice was covered by the crack of a whip nearby, accompanied by screaming.

Oslo grimaced. "That's a sure sign that the night shift has begun. The day guards always like to round out the day with a good beating. I'd better get you upstairs." He began hurrying up the stairs, taking two steps at a time, not pausing when they reached the next landing.

"What is on the fifth level?" Ulick asked, poking his head through the doorway. The cells here all had solid doors in place of bars; there was no fire in the pit. No guards stood on duty.

"Infirmary. Don't worry; you won't be assigned there, unless Sedgewick takes a dislike to you. He used to work there by choice, back in the days he was trying to convince everyone how repentant he was for his treatment of the prisoners." Oslo grabbed Ulick's sleeve, urging him onwards, and then stopped abruptly. In the next moment, his whip was in his right hand and his dagger in his left.

Ulick followed suit. He too could hear the faint sound of breath around the curve of stairway, accompanied by muttered curses. Oslo mouthed, "Stay here," and Ulick nodded. He knew the maneuver well enough: Allow the escaped prisoner room enough to escape down the stairs; then place a guard at the bottom of the stairs, to await the prisoner's arrival.

He was not long in waiting. When the prisoner arrived a moment later, he was already collared by Oslo, who was shaking the man as though he were a mangy rabbit. "What in Hell's name are you doing here, Merrick?" Oslo demanded in an irritated voice.

The man named Merrick – middle-aged, white-skinned, with a shock of light blond hair which told clearly that his family was of Yclau origin – merely cast Oslo a look of scorn. "How the fuck should I know? Ask that sisterfucker Sedgewick. He's the bastard-of-a-slave who planted me here and told me to wait."

For the briefest of moments, darkness flashed in Oslo's eyes, but he had evidently meant what he said when he derided the guards who used excessive force, for he merely said, "Watch over him, Ulick. I need to fetch his guard."

Ulick nodded without moving his gaze from Merrick. His hands still gripped the whip and dagger, though he very much doubted that any attempt at liberty would do Merrick good. The architect of Mercy Life Prison had designed the most fool-proof system of exit gates that Ulick had seen in his life.

Perhaps knowing this, Merrick made no attempt to leave. Instead, he scrutinized Ulick with an idle eye. "You're new, aren't you?" he said.

"Yes, I am." Ulick kept his voice polite. He had always believed that politeness was the best policy when dealing with prisoners who, more often than not, had received no training in restraining their tempers.

Rather than be amused, as most prisoners were by Ulick's politeness, Merrick gave Ulick another look of assessment. Then he opened his mouth and took in a deep breath, as though preparing himself for a lengthy recitation.

"I keep the Boundaries," Merrick said. "I attack no one, even in self-defense. I take no one unwilling—"

"Stop!" shouted Ulick. Once he had gotten his own breath back, he added, "Not another word of that illicit ethical code of yours, unless you want to feel my whip on your back."

Merrick shrugged, as though to say, "It was worth a try." Then he was silent.

Ulick's heart raced. He resisted the urge to look behind him to see whether anyone had overheard the conversation. It was ridiculous – ridiculous! – for him to think that Sedgewick had planted Merrick on this stairway for the sole purpose of testing Ulick's loyalty.

Rescue finally came, in the form of a capless guard; his skin was golden, though it wasn't clear whether the glow came from Vovimian ancestry or from working in the sunshine. He raged up the stairs, grabbed Merrick by the collar, and began banging him against the wall.

"Bastard!" he shouted in Merrick's face, which was beginning to turn purple under the combined assault of the blows against the wall and the guard's hand tightening on his collar. "Just when I was about to leave for supper! You're more trouble than my other dozen prisoners combined."

"Sir," said Ulick, taking gentle hold of the guard's sleeve, "the prisoner's head is hitting the wall. If you continue that way, you will give him brain damage."

"And why the fuck should I care?" The capless guard turned his wrath on Ulick.

Behind him, Oslo rolled his eyes, then said briskly, "You could kill him. Our Keeper would have you up before a death squad if you let a life prisoner die prematurely."

The capless guard immediately released Merrick, who slumped against the wall, his throat rasping.

"Just you wait till I get you back in your cell," the capless guard said through gritted teeth. "I'll take off so much of your hide with my lash that the tannery will be busy for a week."

Hidden behind the capless guard, Oslo gave Ulick a significant look. Then he said smoothly, "Don't bother with Merrick. I can take care of him for you. I know you're already off-duty."

The capless guard flung Merrick like an unwanted parcel into Oslo's waiting arms. "Who's this?" the capless guard asked, pointing his thumb at Ulick.

"New man. Show him up to the sixth level, will you? He's due on duty. —Come on, you." Oslo turned Merrick gently away from his guard. Merrick responded by turning a furious eye on him, as though Oslo had been the one who had committed the abuse. But he allowed himself to be escorted downstairs, with Oslo's left arm still tight around him.

"Bastard-of-a-slave," the capless guard muttered.

"Merrick?"

"The Keeper's Wolf." Then, seeing Ulick's blank expression, he added, "The Assistant Keeper, Sedgewick. Taking my prisoner out of his cell without telling me, and then dumping him here." He took a longer look at Ulick. "You appear a bit rumpled. The Keeper's Wolf has been welcoming you in his usual loving manner, has he?" The guard's smile suddenly appeared, and he thrust out his arm. "Rufus Mason. And you?"

Ulick made no move to introduce himself or to shake Rufus's arm. After a moment, Rufus dropped his arm and gave a sour look. "Hell and all his torturers. Oslo's been talking to you. He has been telling you about the cruel, cruel guards here, and how he alone is the soul of purity. . . . Did he happen to mention that he fucks his prisoners?"

"What?" responded Ulick weakly.

"Like clockwork – morning, noon, and night. Several times a night. That's the only reason he took Merrick off my hands; he loves fucking the man, in every possible position." Rufus took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped off the sweat from his face. "Not that there's anything wrong with that. Helps to keep the prisoners in line. But gods be my judge, I can't stand a hypocrite, and that's what Oslo is. A first-rate hypocrite, whining about our cruelty at the same time he cheerfully fucks his screaming prisoners." Rufus shrugged as he pocketed his handkerchief. "Sometimes I think he and Milord should be sent to the same madhouse. —Come on."

Ulick followed him, trying to think through the muddle of information being thrust at him. "Do many guards here rape their prisoners?"

Rufus glanced over at him and laughed lightly. "You're as bad as Sedgewick."

"How so?"

"He likes to use words like that: 'rape' and 'abuse' and 'molest.' It's his way of amusing himself; it shocks some of the guards who are hypocrites like Oslo."

"You don't consider it rape?" Ulick kept his voice quiet; they were approaching the landing to the sixth level.

Rufus shrugged again. "It's legal. Look at the prison laws when you have a chance; the magistrates gave us guards at the life prisons full power to control the prisoners in whatever way we consider best. Our way works; we've never had a breakout from Mercy, never had a riot. As long as it works, I don't care what the Keeper's Wolf calls it."

He swiftly unlocked the gate in front of them and swung it open. Ulick entered the top-most level of the prison cautiously. By now, he wouldn't have been surprised to find that the cells were filled with old-fashioned torture racks.

"Right," said Rufus. "My shift is over; I'm overdue for a night out on the town. I'll just give you over to Denley here. Den, here's the new guard your level has been expecting. Don't teach him any seditious behavior, will you?"

This was evidently intended as a stinging remark, for Denley's mouth twisted. He was a stocky man of about Ulick's own age, in his thirties, wearing one of the moustaches that were becoming fashionable in Vovim, but he had the cream-and-rose skin of a man of Yclau descent. He wore two stripes on his sleeve, making him the same rank as Ulick, so Ulick offered his arm.

Denley shook it in an absent-minded manner; his thoughts were evidently still on Rufus's remark. "Hell damn and rack you, Rufus," he said. "I've told you before: I'm all finished with that lot. Was, from the moment they picked that self-sucker Sedgewick—"

But Rufus had turned away, disdaining to listen to Denley's defense. Ulick waited until the gate to the sixth level had clanged shut before saying to his latest guide, "Mr. Staunton seems not to be popular in this prison."

"Sedge? He's a treacherous, foul beast – but at least he's obvious about what he is. Not like certain men in this prison, who smile at you before stabbing you."

Ulick waited, not saying anything. After a while, Denley sighed and reached toward a lamp on the wall. "Here, you turn off the gas in the other lamp. . . . You might as well know, I suppose. Everyone is likely to tell you, whether or not I do. I used to be one of those who kept the Boundaries. It seemed sensible enough at the time. Punish the prisoners when they ought to be punished; leave them alone the rest of the time. How in the names of the racked prisoners of hell was I to know that it was all a scheme by Merrick and Tyrrell to get the prisoners released through pardons they didn't deserve?"

"That's what they planned?" Ulick said as he reached up to turn off the gas in the lamp that Denley gestured toward.

"So Sedge says. He was in the thick of it, before he turned traitor."

Ulick waited until they had gone three paces to the next lamp along the wall. He could now see the whole of the sixth level; it looked no different from the other levels. The same fire-pit, the same cell doors encircling the pit. The prisoners here were quieter, though. He heard a muttered conversation coming from one of the cells – cell-mates talking to each other, he realized as he looked closer. In another cell, someone was whistling; in yet another cell, someone was moaning. No talking was taking place between cells; the silence would have been unusual in the holding prisons.

At the opposite side of the level, a couple of guards patrolled, peering into each cell. They looked bored.

"So you stopped keeping the Boundaries when Sedgewick announced Merrick and Tyrrell's plan," Ulick suggested.

"Well, no. Three years before that, actually, when Sedge joined them." Denley was staring at the lamp that Ulick had just turned off, as though doubting that the new guard was capable of performing his task properly. "I figured that anything Sedge was involved with would get dangerous, and so . . ."

"So you didn't want to be around when the danger started." In the act of turning off the gaslight in yet another lamp, Ulick glanced at the cell beside the lamp. A prisoner was sitting there on the floor, wearing an ordinary grey prisoners' uniform; unlike Merrick's uniform, this one had no stripes on it. The prisoner had his back to the bars as he read a book. As the lamplight disappeared, he sighed and closed the book, making no sign of protest at this loss of light. Ulick expected him to move toward his bed, but the prisoner simply pulled the blanket closer around his shoulders and remained huddled against the bars. Nearby, his cell-mate snored.

Denley looked at Ulick sidelong, evidently trying to judge whether he was being mocked. Whatever he saw must have reassured him, for he said firmly, "That's right. We're in enough danger as it is, what with having to guard murderers like Merrick. Why make things worse for ourselves? I figured I'd cut and run before things got bad for the Boundaries-keeping guards. And sure enough, they nearly all got sacked or transferred or had to quit. I was one of the lucky guards."

Ulick nodded as he reached the cell where the conversation was taking place. He had been wrong, he saw; this was not a two-way conversation, as he had thought, but a lecture, for one of the prisoners was standing on his feet, pointing as he made garbled accusations at his cell-mate, who was resolutely ignoring him by pretending to sleep.

Ulick would have liked to have paused to hear what the accusations were, but Denley had taken him by the elbow to hurry him along, so instead he asked, "Are there any other lucky guards in this prison?"

Denley shrugged as he paused in front of a lamp, its glass as bright as a looking-glass from the flickering flames in the pit. He carefully pressed together the hairs at one end of his moustache as he said, "A few. The bright fellows, the ones who didn't wait for the boom to fall. Not that you can really trust any of them. They might still be working for Merrick."

Ulick said nothing. By now, they were halfway through eliminating the lamplight, and between the increased darkness and the smoke from the fire, it was becoming hard to see what was taking place on the other side of the level. However, he could still hear the tap of the boots as the other guards continued to patrol.

As though he had responded, Denley said, "Of course, it's different with me. I mean, I got out long before they did. It wasn't like I waited till the last minute."

Ulick nodded as his eyes followed the figure of one of the patrolling guards, just emerging from the murkiness. The guard paused at a cell doorway, pulled out his keys from beneath his vest, and opened the cell door. He entered the cell and locked the door behind him. Then he closed the solid door. The second patrolling guard, passing by at that moment, watched the solid door close without breaking a step.

"Did you hear me?" Denley's voice was sharp.

Ulick nodded again as he turned his attention back to the guard. "Is it always so smoky in here?"

Denley frowned, the skin upon his forehead folding inward like a lizard's scales. For a moment, it appeared that he was aching to turn Ulick's lack of a satisfactory response into a battle. Then, as Ulick had guessed he would, the other guard took the safer route. "Always. We receive the smoke drifting upwards from the floors below. There's a ventilation system here, or so it's claimed, but if it ever worked properly, that was before my time. Almost as many guards here die of consumption as the prisoners do." He paused, as though he had passed on a challenge.

Ulick merely nodded. They had circled back to their original position; now he could see little in the dimness other than the flames of the fire-pit, continuing to claw the air. From behind the door where the guard had gone, a voice began to plead for mercy in a high, hysterical voice.

Ulick glanced at Denley, but the other guard acted as though he were deaf to the noise. "You're on night watch at the start," he said. "You'll be elevated to day watch once you've proved you can handle the prisoners – not that that's likely to take you long," he said, glancing at the stripes on Ulick's sleeve. "Been working in prisons for a while, have you?"

"Seventeen years this spring."

Denley nodded, his expression looking approving. "Good. I'm tired of all those guards who leave here after a short time because they don't have the stomach for this type of work."

His voice, unaccountably, had risen in volume. Glancing to the side, Ulick saw that the cause was the day guard walking up to them. He was grinning, as though he'd heard this speech on more than one occasion.

"I'll believe that," the day guard said, still grinning, "when I see you fucking your prisoners."

Denley's lips thinned. "I don't fuck in a crowd. My prisoners can tell you I keep them properly tamed."

"This lot?" The day guard hooted, as though Denley had made a particularly choice jest. Denley began to turn red in the face.

Ulick said hurriedly, "Magisterial courts?"

The day guard frowned. "Yes. How the drilling gods did you know . . . ? Oh, Mercy, it's you!" He passed a hand over his forehead, as though wiping away a barrier from his eyes. "Forgive me, sir – I didn't recognize you."

Denley's frown was now directed toward Ulick, who said to the day guard in a mild voice, "We're of the same rank now."

The day guard's mouth turned up on the side. "Old habits. I forgot it's been fourteen years – and oh, yes, they don't give guards in the holding prisons their second elevation till after twenty years' work, do they? Otherwise, you'd be first-ranked for sure by now. This fellow," he said, pointing to Ulick as he addressed Denley, "is the fucking best sharpshooter I ever knew. Back when I worked in the magisterial courts, we had a prisoner suddenly go wild on us. He managed to get loose of his chains and was headed in the direction of a group of schoolchildren – to take a hostage, most likely, given what he'd done in the past. This guard here, he wasn't even on duty that day, he'd dropped into the court to deliver a message, and he was all the way at the back of the room. Yet he managed to bring the prisoner down with one shot, without harming a single spectator. Amazing shooting; never seen the like of it before or after."

"You killed the prisoner?" Denley eyed Ulick with a half-suspicious, half-wary look, as though he had discovered that his companion were Hell in disguise.

"Shoulder wound," Ulick replied briefly. It never ceased to puzzle him how the episodes in his life that he least liked to remember were the ones that most enthralled other folk.

The day guard clapped Ulick on the back. "No need for you to give this man lectures on not being a namby-pamby, Denley. I heard that Sedgewick himself signed the approval for this man's transfer. That gives you some sense of what sort of grit our newcomer has."

"Oh." Denley's expression had changed from wariness to clear hostility. Ulick opened his mouth, and then quickly shut it. What could he say? That he wasn't Sedgewick's tool? He most certainly was, and this new knowledge that Sedgewick had intended him to be an informer from the moment of his arrival deepened his disquiet.

The day guard took a watch from his vest pocket and squinted at it under the dim light. "I'm off." He glanced at the closed door. "Tell Sam when he emerges that I'll wait for him at the saloon if he's not too late with his everlasting fucking."

"He's in competition with the rest of us." Evidently, Denley had decided that it was safest to approach this topic through humor. He had the earnest look on his face of a man trying out an unaccustomed form of mockery.

The day guard glanced at Denley, and the corners of his mouth turned up. "I doubt we'll be giving any blue ribbons to you for your performance. Don't blame us if one of your oh-so-tenderly-cared-for prisoners decides to knife you some bright day."

Denley scowled. The day guard, catching up his cap and greatcoat from a hook on the wall near the level's entry gate, tipped his cap at Ulick before turning to leave.

Denley waited until the boom of the gate was resounding through the entire level before he turned to Ulick. He said briskly, "Duties."

"Yes, duties," said Ulick, grateful for the return to a safe topic. "We patrol during the night, I take it. What do we inspect?"

"Inspect?"

Ulick, his mind still filled with memories of nightly patrols at the Magisterial Holding Prison – the guards' lanterns checking every corner of the prison, the inspection of the roof and exercise yards and cellar, the bolting of the passage doorways, the visits outside to check that the cell windows remained secure – opened his mouth and then closed it again. It was clear, from Denley's expression, that he had no idea what Ulick was talking about.

"Well, we check that the prisoners are still in their cells, of course," Denley said in a doubtful voice, as though he thought Ulick might need to have this elementary fact pointed out to him. "You could check the doors to see that they're secure – sometimes the day guards forget to lock them properly when they leave a cell. Beyond that . . . Try not to fall asleep on duty."

"There's not much to do on night watch, then."

Denley snorted. "Bloody little, except to recite train tables to oneself. Oslo claims he taught himself Vovimian by reciting verb forms while on night watch. Most of us take plenty of visits downstairs to the guardroom, under the excuse that we're inspecting the stairwell for escaped prisoners, or simply that we're using the water closet downstairs. You'll find that the guardroom is the liveliest place here at night, though it's considered bad form to spend more than a quarter of an hour there during any given visit. Mind you, nobody will object if you decide to pay a long visit to one of your prisoners. Just be sure to let the other guard on duty know before you enter the cell."

It took Ulick a minute to figure out how to formulate an answer to this. "I'll be assigned particular prisoners, then?"

"Oh, you already have prisoners – as junior night guard, you're in charge of that half of the level." Denley made a sweeping gesture toward the left half of the level, his hand pausing as it pointed toward the closed cell. "Better leave that cell alone tonight, though. Day guards have first dibs on the prisoners, since there's not a lot of opportunity to fuck prisoners during the daytime. Not that that's ever stopped Sedge."

His voice was acid as he finished this commentary. Ulick took out his handkerchief and coughed into it for a minute, as much to delay his response as to clear his throat of the acrid smoke that was accumulating there. "Is that part of my duties?" he asked finally.

Denley eyed him. Ulick waited, guessing that the delay was due to the earlier linking of his own name with Sedgewick's. Finally the other guard shrugged. "In a roundabout way. It's the easiest way to impress upon your prisoner who's the boss-man. Some guards prefer to use their daggers and whips to show this; maybe that will be your way, if you're good with weapons."

Ulick carefully folded his handkerchief and returned it to his jacket pocket. "You know," he said, "with every word you speak, I'm beginning to get a clearer notion of what those Boundaries of Behavior must have consisted of."

For a moment, he thought he had broken past the other guard's defenses. Then the sound of squeaking hinges screeched across the fire-pit as the solid cell door on Ulick's side of the level opened. The second of the day guards emerged, in the midst of tucking his shirt-tails into his trousers. Behind him in the cell, someone sobbed.

Denley glanced at the day guard, then looked back at Ulick. His voice grew stiff. "Well, I wouldn't know about that," he said. "That was all a long time ago for me."

o—o—o

The fire in the pit was beginning to die down to glowing coals. After consulting with Denley – who had seemed indifferent to such matters – Ulick had replenished the fire twice from a log pile nearby and had stoked the fire several times. Now it hardly seemed worth the effort to renew the flames, for the accumulated heat from the fire-pits below had brought the sixth level so close to the warmth of a midsummer's day that Ulick would have been tempted to discard his jacket, had he not been trained against such informality while on duty.

Denley – who had taken off his jacket hours ago – had disappeared for the fourth time down the stairs to the guardroom. His visits there lasted considerably longer than a quarter of an hour, but Ulick had made no protest, for being alone gave him time to think. The gods above and below knew that he needed to think.

Rufus was the obvious suspect. As Merrick's own guard, he would have ample opportunity to communicate with his prisoner. And his evident renown for mistreating his prisoners could easily be a cloak to disguise the fact that he was actually helping to lead the battle to preserve the Boundaries of Behavior.

Yet the same could be said for Vere. "Mad," Oslo had declared him, and Ulick would have been inclined to agree, except that Vere's conversation was just a little too sane for that of a madman. And even if the guard were as insane as he was rumored, would that necessarily be a barrier? If Merrick was so desperate for assistance as to have sought the help of Sedgewick, then he would hardly be likely to turn down an offer of help from the guard who held the keys to the prison's armory.

Oslo . . . He was the mystery of the equation. He publicly disdained other guards for their treatment of prisoners, yet he evidently raped his own prisoners with glee. Or was he gleeful? Could his disdain be the truth, and his supposed rapes an elaborate cover-up for that truth?

Denley – a coward seeking to compound his folly by going against what little conscience he had – was the least likely suspect for the brave leader of a revolution. By all the laws of sensationalist dime-novels, that meant he was the leader.

Ulick sighed as he took up a lantern and began to inspect, for the dozenth time that night, the nooks and crannies of the level that he had not been ordered to inspect. Anyone in the prison might be Merrick's hidden ally. The mysterious man hiding behind the scenes might be Keane or one of the guards whom Ulick had not yet met. Or perhaps Sedgewick was wrong, and Merrick's ally was a prisoner. Gods, for all Ulick knew, Mercy's Keeper might be at the center of all this.

Maybe Sedgewick himself was the goddess Mercy, in disguise.

Ulick entertained himself for a while with the image of Sedgewick in a ball-gown, trying to murder Ulick, then tripping over his gown and falling off the balcony. Soon, however, Ulick's thoughts grew sober. The only thing that his various suspects were agreed upon was that Sedgewick's double treachery had earned him the title of most hated man in the prison. Scarcely more popular was Denley, with one treachery to his name. Even Oslo and Vere and Rufus came in for their share of criticism. Evidently, backbiting between guards was a favorite pastime here, so that guards were eager to discover some reason to condemn their colleagues.

Ulick sighed. His sole hope, it seemed, was to discover that Merrick's ally was a prisoner. Then Ulick would only be hated by the prisoners when he informed on the man, not by his fellow guards.

He paused to scratch the night-bristle on his chin, wondering whether he ought to let his beard grow. The Keeper at Ulick's previous prison had always insisted that his guards remain clean-shaven, in military fashion, but a military look was quite clearly not the style in this prison. Sedgewick was the only entirely clean-shaven guard whom Ulick had met here . . . and he had a certain military air about him, now that Ulick came to think of it. As though he were commanding a vast army with each twitch of his finger.

Bending over to cast his lamplight into a dark corner, Ulick found himself pausing. Sedgewick had told him that Merrick's goal was to persuade the guards to treat their prisoners with undue softness. Yet Denley was under the impression that Sedgewick believed Merrick's goal was to obtain pardons for the prisoners. Not incompatible goals, yet Ulick couldn't help but wonder whether these different tales were a sign of Sedgewick's deviousness. Perhaps Sedgewick was telling different tales to different guards, and then listening to see which of the guards he talked to gossiped about what he had said to them. Perhaps he was using his tales as a way to manipulate the guards in this prison.

Perhaps Merrick's goal was entirely different from what Sedgewick claimed.

Ulick sighed. His problem was that he lacked information. He could think of only one place in which to gain information – one place where Sedgewick almost certainly would not learn that Ulick was checking his story.

And that one place was the place in the prison where Ulick least wanted to go.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FOUR

Locating the right prisoner in the infirmary turned out to be easy. All that Ulick had to do was visit the fifth level at a time when it was empty of all guards, knock on each cell door, make a quiet enquiry in the three languages he knew, and harden his heart against the entreaties for release.

He had heard many such supplications during his years as a guard, of course. Most of them came from men who would have had no hesitation in returning to their criminal ways if released. Ulick found, however, that it was different to listen to pleas from men gasping so hoarsely that their voices were little more than a death rattle. It was yet another level of difference to listen to pleas from a prisoner who barely managed to stop his endless screams of pain.

The cell that Ulick had been seeking was quiet. The man behind the door did not plead for release; indeed, he seemed reluctant to speak at all. He confirmed, however, that he had communicated with another guard since his arrival on the fifth level. With even greater hesitation, he supplied the name.

Ulick's first impression, upon slipping into the prisoner's cell, was that he had just walked into a packing factory that dealt in month-old meat. The air stank so much that Ulick immediately placed his handkerchief over his mouth and nose. The room was also completely dark; the cell's only door was solid, with no opening except for a hinged panel that was currently locked from the outside. The sole light in the cell – and the sole source of air, it seemed – came from the slender gap between the floor and the door.

"You should have drawn a lamp into this cell." The prisoner's voice was reassuringly far away.

"Is your lamp not working?" Ulick asked. His left hand was keeping the handkerchief over his face, while his right drew his blade, in case he should need it. He wondered whether he should reopen the door to let in more light – and perhaps some fresh air – but dismissed the idea. No doubt the prisoner was hoping for that, and would try to make his escape when that happened.

Besides, there was always the chance that Sedgewick would walk past the fifth level.

"Lamp?" The prisoner sounded amused.

Ulick was silent a moment, weighing the statement against what he already knew about Mercy Prison. Then he put his handkerchief-covered hand behind him, groped for the door handle, and opened the door wide.

The prisoner was at the far end of the cell. He was a big man, northwestern Vovimian in ancestry by the looks of him, but his accent had already revealed that he came from the Riverbend district of Vovim's capital, where many commoners settled. He was clutching a tin cup in his hand.

His tallness was not matched by bulk. "The wasting disease," they called it, and Ulick, without having to ask, could guess that this man had tuberculosis. Ulick recognized the signs, for his niece had died of the disease at age eight. Any class might be afflicted by TB, though commoners, living in their crowded tenements, were the group most likely to catch the contagion. Commoners and prisoners.

Bones sticking out from flesh that had wasted away, the shine of fever on the forehead, a rasping breath, and in the next moment, a cough that racked the prisoner's body. Ulick wondered how far along he was in the disease.

However far he was, this wasn't the place where he would recover. Ulick looked over the stark cell silently. The cell held no lights. It was the same as the other cells he had seen at Mercy: a hard bed-shelf, water trickling down the wall to a cesspit, three blankets . . . No, two. The prisoner was wearing one.

"Where are your clothes?" Ulick asked.

The prisoner jerked his chin. "Hanging on the door 'hind you. I sweat at night. I hang my clothes up to dry in the day. Some days they're dry 'fore I go to bed again."

Ulick knew better than to look behind him. He still had his dagger out and was wondering whether he should remove the handkerchief from his face and take hold of his whip; this prisoner, ill though he was, looked as though he could disarm Ulick if he came close enough. But the air remained fetid; letting himself breathe in the prisoner's fumes might be as mortal as failing to hold him back from an attack.

"Have you asked for an extra set of clothing?" Ulick enquired, his voice muffled by the handkerchief.

The prisoner gave a slight smile. "Asked who?"

"The guards who tend you."

"They deliver food. They draw from this cell my slops, through that panel there. That's all. They never give tale to me. They never catch tale to words I speak." The prisoner's voice was matter-of-fact.

"Your medicine . . ." Even as he spoke, Ulick knew the answer.

The prisoner shrugged. "Haven't seen the prison's sawbones since the day he had me thrown in this place. He was drunk when I saw him." He paused to cough into his cup, holding it carefully over his mouth.

Ulick waited until the prisoner was finished, partly to give himself time to cool the slow burn of anger that kindled through him. He had met prison healers like that, but at any decently run prison, they lost their jobs soon. Ulick said, "You were visited by Sedgewick."

"Once. Just once. He'd given tale to me 'fore, but that was the only time he opened the door. It didn't occur to me to ask him for anything. I was too busy trying to figure out how to punch him." He smiled at Ulick's expression. "See now, when he tapped messages to me from the next cell, he'd given me to have mind he was a fellow prisoner. Learning he was a guard – that was a shock. He's sly, that one."

This was hardly news to Ulick. As the prisoner coughed again into his cup, Ulick glanced around the cell. Dark, damp, stifling . . . Exactly the opposite conditions that consumptives were supposed to live in, if they were to have any hope of recovery. This place was no better than an execution chamber.

"What did he want from you?" Ulick asked when the prisoner had caught his breath again.

Wariness entered the prisoner's eyes. "Why are you craving to know?"

"I'm working for him now – or rather, I'm working for Mercy's Keeper, but Sedgewick is the one supervising me."

"Ah." Suddenly the prisoner's expression went blank, as though a pall had been thrown over it. "He's alive, then?"

Ulick stared. "Didn't you know?"

The prisoner shrugged. "He stopped coming, all sudden-like. I had mind it might be he'd lost his job, or even died."

"When did this happen?"

"I'm not knowing. What time of the year is it? It was just started fall when I arrived. Is it yet winter?"

"No," Ulick said slowly. "No, the year has turned to spring."

The pause that followed was so still that Ulick could hear the trickle of water in the cell, underlying the cries and moans from the prisoners elsewhere on this level.

"He's in truth working for Mercy's Keeper 'gain?" said the prisoner.

"Yes." Ulick said nothing more. He had no proof to offer that his tale was true – no proof beyond what his father had always said was his best asset, namely his honest face.

The prisoner looked troubled for the first time, chewing his lip. He was quite young, Ulick suddenly realized – more than a decade younger than Ulick.

"I'm sorry," Ulick said. "I ought not to be searching you for information on matters you are honor-bound to remain quiet about."

The prisoner gave a slight shrug. "'Tisn't a thing of honor. He never made me swear to keep quiet about his visits. He wouldn't have had mind any folk would ever come visiting me, see?" He chewed on his lip a moment more before saying, "He didn't send you here?"

"No."

The prisoner's mouth twisted. "Then he's dead or he's sacked or you're telling the truth, and he's not caring 'bout me. If ever he did."

"What did he care about, then?" Ulick asked softly.

"This." As he spoke, the prisoner moved, as swift as a thrown dagger.

Ulick was startled into silence. The prisoner, having pulled back the blanket to reveal what lay beneath the bed-shelf, retreated as far away as possible. Ulick moved forward slowly, half an eye on the prisoner, half on what had lain hidden beneath the blankets.

He had to kneel down to be sure. He pulled out the chest, opened it, picked up one of the objects lying inside, and unwrapped the oiled cloth around it.

A revolver glistened in his hand.

He had last seen a revolver two days before, when he had handed in his own gun to the armory of the holding prison where he had worked. The gun had been carefully inspected, photographed, shown to the prison's Keeper, recorded in a ledger, tagged, locked in a gun chest, and placed in the armory's safe. Then – and only then – was Ulick granted a receipt showing that he had returned this precious item.

The rest of the chest in this infirmary cell was filled with revolvers, as well as cartridges. The revolvers were of different makes, but they all took the same size cartridges, Ulick noted.

The prisoner, whom Ulick had nearly forgotten, said, "I never had mind I'd be guarding a treasure like Yclau's crown jewels."

Ulick counted silently. There were as many guns here as were likely to be seen in all of Mip's prisons combined. "Did he bring these here in the chest?"

"Nay. He was drawing the chest in first; then he handed me the guns through the food slot, one at a time. Whenever he did take a day off from work, next day he would draw one of those little jewels in here."

Ulick carefully closed the chest and looked up at the prisoner, who was still standing on the other side of the cell. "He stored the ammunition here too. You could have used one of these guns to fight your way out."

The prisoner shrugged. "To start the first act, I'd've had to have battle against him. And he gave tale these were important. Learned me they could help the other prisoners. Called me their guardian."

Ulick slowly rose to his feet and looked down at the chest, no longer bothering to keep his eye on the prisoner. A chest's worth of guns. So many guns that they could not have been bought legally . . . even assuming that private ownership of guns was legal in Mip. No, these guns had come from Mip's gun-runners. And the gun-runners – Ulick knew from having attended a trial or two of them – charged a small fortune for each gun they smuggled into the republic.

The crown jewels indeed. Sedgewick could spend his life in prison for such a crime.

"No wonder he left them here," Ulick murmured.

The prisoner came into sight. He was nodding. "Aye. That's what I was figuring. Smuggling guns into a prison, that's one thing. Smuggling them out again . . . He gave tale that the guards at the gates, they inspect everyone that leaves, even the other guards. Once he'd gone and brought the guns in here, he had to leave them here . . . or use them."

"He hasn't been back, though."

"Nay. I'm figuring he had knowing it would be safer to stay away. No one will ever enter here – not till I'm gone."

Ulick turned his head to look at the prisoner. The man was staring, not at Ulick, but at the guns.

Ulick asked, "What will you do, now that he has abandoned you?"

The prisoner continued to stare at the guns. "I'm not knowing. You have mind he was right? That these could help the other prisoners?"

"I don't know. I don't know what his plan was."

The prisoner gave a shrug and moved back. "Not my choice, anyhow. You're working for Mercy's Keeper. I'm figuring you'll tell him."

Ulick looked at the guns. Sedgewick's life lay in his hands.

And so did the prisoners'.

He knew what would happen if he reported the cache to Mercy's Keeper. This was too big a find to be dealt with by Mercy Prison alone. With firearms found in a prisoner's cell, the magisterial seats' riot soldiers would be brought in, and every prisoner would be questioned to learn what he knew of the guns. The riot soldiers had a reputation for extreme harshness when handling prisoners.

Especially a prisoner whose cell had been used to store the guns.

"I want to find out what his plan was," Ulick murmured. "Not a prison break-out, surely. That would be too crude for him. And he was fighting in a suit that would have affected the prisoners in all the life prisons. How do these guns fit in with his plan?" He turned his head to look at the prisoner. "Did he talk to you about the Boundaries of Behavior?"

Suddenly the caution was back in the prisoner's eyes. "Aye."

"He told you what they were?"

The prisoner was silent.

After a minute, Ulick knelt down, quietly closed the chest, and pulled the blanket down to hide it. "You're still their guardian," he told the prisoner as he stood. "I need to find out more before I decide what to do. Keep your eye on these."

"For sure, I'll be here as long as you're liking." There was amusement in the prisoner's voice now.

Ulick, on the point of stepping out the door, looked back at the prisoner. The man stood where he had been at the beginning of the conversation, covered in a blanket, holding his cup.

Ulick said, "My brother owns several shares in a pharmaceutical store. I'll see whether I can get you some medicine."

The prisoner tilted his head to one side, regarding Ulick. "Sedgewick finds you're coming here, he'll tear your body to ribbons."

"He has other plans for me." Ulick turned away.

"Hoi!" called the prisoner. As Ulick looked back, the prisoner frowned. "You gave tale you're working for Mercy's Keeper. But you're drawing me drugs, and you're hiding this." He gestured in the direction of the chest. "Whose side are you on, anyhow?"

Ulick said quietly, "I'll bring you the medicine as soon as I can. May your gods watch over you."

He left the prisoner in the dark, damp, stifling cell and made his way off the fifth level, his heart pounding as though he had just been thrown off a cliff.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FIVE

Ulick stood on duty, trying to ignore his pressing bladder.

It was not as though he lacked things to think about on this second night of duty. The previous afternoon, he had requested the keys to the disciplinary cells from Rufus. Rufus had undergone a bad night with Merrick, or so he claimed, and Ulick was so weary from having spent the entire day awake – his visit to the fifth-level prisoner had been during the morning – that a third of an hour had passed before it occurred to Ulick to wonder why Rufus would have spent the night with Merrick.

He bit his tongue to keep from asking, and listened to Rufus complain at length about Merrick's habit of snoring. Finally, Rufus handed over the keys. "Need help finding your way?" the guard asked.

"Is there a door to the cellar that bypasses the balcony?" Ulick rejoined.

Fortunately, Rufus was still too preoccupied with grumbles about Merrick to ask questions. "Out in the prison yard. You can enter there in the daytime; come evening, the yard is locked."

Ulick thanked him and made his way outside to the yard, a bleak stretch of asphaltum with high walls. He found the door to the cellar easily enough and entered the cellar without any trouble. As he began to explore, he saw at once that all of the disciplinary cells had barred windows near the ceiling, which let in a bit of light.

None of windows held either glass or shutters. The winter winds swirled in the corners of the cell, where ice formed. Other than straw on the flagstones, there was nothing in the disciplinary cells: no beds, no blankets.

"They're disciplinary cells," Denley said blankly when Ulick met him in the guardroom later, preparing for their shift. "Did you expect them to be decorated with chandeliers?"

"Has anyone ever died from the cold there?" Ulick asked.

Denley shrugged as he turned away. "Mercy's Keeper doesn't send many prisoners down there. Usually, the threat of the disciplinary cells is enough to break a recalcitrant prisoner."

He had not answered the question, Ulick noticed.

Now, five hours later, Ulick stepped forward to poke the fire that, once again, Denley had not bothered to feed before disappearing down the stairs to the guardroom.

Ulick's thoughts were not on the disciplinary cells, but on the guns. He saw them again in his mind's eye, gleaming black in the firelight. The crown jewels of Mercy Prison. The untended treasure.

He heard a step and turned around. Oslo had just entered the sixth level; he was yawning.

"I thought you slept during the night shift," said Ulick. "The time must be well after midnight."

Oslo smiled. His jacket and vest were unbuttoned; his shirt was rumpled; his breath was sweet with wine. "I was checking on one of my prisoners. And before that, I made the mistake of winning a dice game with Sedgewick."

"Mistake?" said Ulick, eyeing the rumpled shirt and wondering what form Oslo's "checking" had taken.

"I'm usually not that careless. I made a quick exit from the guardroom before Sedgewick should decide to deliver a threat to me. He always feels obliged to fulfill his promises." Oslo glanced around. "Where's Denley? In the guardroom again?"

"I don't know," said Ulick dryly. "I haven't seen him since the shift started."

Oslo shook his head. "Idiot. I left him losing his money to Sedgewick. That was at least two hours ago; he should know better. Sooner or later, Sedge will remember that Denley's supposed to be on duty and will decide to deliver a reprimand."

The two men considered this possibility for a moment; then they simultaneously winced.

"Oslo," said Ulick, seeing an opportunity to breach the subject on his mind, "is Sedgewick Staunton rich?"

Oslo, who had just brought a flask out of his pocket and was sipping from it, began to choke. Ulick clapped him on the back till he recovered.

"Sweet blood, what makes you think that?" asked Oslo, wiping the spilled wine from his mouth.

"He's not, then?"

"One rumor has it he was a street-boy when he was young, and that he rose in life by murdering a banker and using the money to set himself up as mid-class. Another rumor has it that his parents were commoners who earned their honest way to the mid-class before they died of heartbreak when they saw what a wolf they'd raised. Either way, Sedge has never been rich. If you listen carefully, you can hear what's left of his commoner accent."

"But since he became a guard . . ."

Oslo snorted. "I don't know what sort of salaries you get paid in the holding prisons, but even first-ranked guards here are paid less than schoolteachers. If you saved every bit of money and spent nothing on luxuries— Well, come to think of it, I can see Sedgewick doing that. He wins fairly often at dice games – and not just because it's dangerous to lose to him – and yet he never spends money on anything but room and board, as far as I can tell. His sole source of entertainment is free: his prisoners. If he invested the money wisely, he might have accumulated a fair amount of stash after all these years. So yes, I suppose he could be well off by now. Why do you ask?"

Ulick shook his head. The image that had existed in his mind – of Sedgewick committing a spectacular bank robbery in order to gain money for the guns – had been replaced, as Oslo spoke, by an image of Sedgewick carefully hoarding his money like a miser . . . and then spending it all for the sake of the prisoners.

I will not recount for you the tedious story, Sedgewick had said. Little wonder that Sedgewick Staunton was so determined to crush the Boundaries-bound men in this prison. He had spent his fortune on a treasure for them that he could now neither use nor remove from the prison.

Ulick's mind drifted back to the untended treasure.

A sound of jabbering broke through his reverie. Turning, he found that the seemingly meaningless jabber came from the prisoner he had seen on his first night here: the one who had railed at his cell-mate.

He was railing again, and again his cell-mate was ignoring him. But this time the prisoner was railing at the wall.

Ulick watched for a long while as the prisoner screamed and then spit at the wall. Thoughts shaped themselves in Ulick's mind, like vapor turning solid. Then his gaze drifted over to the other prisoner he had seen on the first night, the one who had been reading a book.

The prisoner was still reading a book. He was reading it even though the light was too dim for him to be able to see.

Ulick turned to look at Oslo, who was drinking in an unconcerned manner from his flask. "This level is the prison's asylum?"

Oslo raised his eyebrows. "You didn't figure that out till now?"

Ulick looked back at the prisoners, calculating in his mind. Six levels of cells. One level of the prison consisted of disciplinary cells that were cold enough to kill the prisoners. On the next three levels, the prisoners were routinely beaten and raped. The fifth level housed men who were ill, dying without care or comfort. The highest level of all housed the insane – and from the looks of it, none of these men received any special care either.

"This prison is six levels of hell," Ulick murmured.

After a moment, he turned his head again. Oslo had apparently not heard his remark; the other guard was scrutinizing the jabbering prisoner's sleeping cell-mate, whose blankets had fallen back far enough to show his naked torso. "Do you need a break for a call of nature?" Oslo asked, keeping his eye on the prisoner.

"I do, yes."

"Then go ahead. I'll cover for you while you're gone." He turned to smile at Ulick. "Don't worry. Unlike Denley, I remember to take care of the prisoners."

"All right," said Ulick slowly. "I'll accept that offer . . . on one condition."

"Which is?"

"Keep out of the cells." His tone was flat, uncompromising.

Oslo's smile never wavered. But in his eyes flashed that darkness which Ulick had seen before, and which he now knew that far too many prisoners had seen, when they were alone in a cell with Oslo.

All that Oslo said was, "As you wish. But you're not going to make many friends at this prison if you take that attitude."

"Does that matter?" he asked simply, and reaching forward, he extracted from Oslo's jacket the guard's keys to the cells.

o—o—o

The guardroom took up much of the fourth level, curving round from the prison's main staircase to its back staircase, so that the guards need not travel through the fourth level to reach the guardroom, if they did not wish to.

The dice game was still underway when Ulick arrived. Denley and Sedgewick were the only players, but Rufus was standing nearby, jeering Denley, and a number of other day guards watched the contest with interest. There was no sign here of Vere – nor, for that matter, of the briefly glimpsed Bailey. Keane and the other married guards were presumably snug in their beds outside the prison.

Ulick walked past the game, unacknowledged and apparently unnoticed by the players and onlookers. The guards' water closet was in the back of the guardroom; Ulick used one of the urinals there and washed his hands. Then, on impulse, he slipped through the door leading to the prisoners' washroom.

There were no urinals here; Ulick had learned that, for prisoners, sanitation consisted of the cesspit in the floors of their cells. The guards complained of this as much as the prisoners did, since the pits – which were supposed to empty into a great waste barrel below – continually clogged and had to be cleaned by the prisoners, under the careful supervision of the guards.

Once a week, however, the prisoners were brought to the washroom to be showered and shaved. Each level had its own washroom, other than the fifth and sixth levels, where no provisions appeared to be made for the cleaning of the prisoners.

On the fourth level, half a dozen showers stood empty and dark. Ulick, who had snatched up a lantern from the water closet, made his way down the row of showers as the shadows leapt and withdrew at his approach.

Each shower was large, with room enough for a chair that was presumably placed where the supervising guard sat. Next to the chair were the shower controls, marked "hot," "warm," "cold," and "ice cold." Ulick looked at the last control for a long moment, then turned his attention to the other end of the shower.

There, on the wall directly under the showerhead, were chains and manacles.

He stood for a while, fingering the manacles, imagining what it felt like to be held there while the ice-cold water drenched him. Then he shook his head and moved away. Sympathy with prisoners was all very well, but empathy could cause him to lose his objectivity. The prisoners here weren't innocent victims; they were violent men who had raped and murdered. Merrick himself – Ulick had learned from the guards' talk – was rumored to have killed a young child in his own family. Men like that could rarely be controlled by soft words alone.

But torture?

He leaned against the cold metal of the showers, his eyes closed. He had spoken to Vere about floggings, more out of a desire to gauge the other guard's views than out of any real opposition to the act he was discussing. Floggings for punishment took place in every prison in Mip; so did confinement to solitary, underground cells for punishment. Even rape by guards was not unknown in the holding prisons, though it was not considered an acceptable mode of discipline, since guards in the holding prisons were bound by the legal prohibitions against rape.

But if they had not been . . .

He was in danger of seeing the guards here as something utterly separate from himself: a species different from his own type. But if this had been the first prison he had ever worked in – or if, like Oslo, he had worked in the past in other life prisons – would he find anything strange about the practices here?

Had he ever found anything strange in the past years, when he had flogged prisoners, and confined them to dark disciplinary cells, and treated them worse than beasts in a zoo are treated?

"Mercy Life Prison," he murmured, "you're making me question whether I am in the right profession."

He forced himself to analyze the problem. The problem, he now saw, lay in the regulations that the guards followed. Every prison in the world attracted unscrupulous men who wished to practice their cruelty through becoming guards, but in the better prisons, their cruelty was leashed by rules.

Ulick had always considered himself to have worked in the better prisons. Now, with faint memories of news articles about international criticism of Mip's prison system, he began to wonder whether he had ever worked in a well-run prison at all. But there was no doubt that Mercy Prison was the worst prison he had ever served at, and from what he had heard from guards who had served at other life prisons, Mercy was actually one of the better life prisons. The tales that Oslo had told Ulick about his work at Compassion Life Prison had made the hair on the back of Ulick's neck stand up straight. However poorly the holding prisons might be run, the guards there were at least required to leash their baser desires in a minimal fashion.

All that you need know about the Boundaries – the so-called ethical rules which Merrick and Tyrrell plotted together – is that they are considered to be a danger to the smooth running of Mercy Life Prison.

As his mind swam with the image of Sedgewick holding him over the balcony rail, Ulick pushed himself away from the wall. He hesitated, looking toward the door that led back to the water closet and then the guardroom; the faintly-heard voices permeating those doors sounded merry. He had no desire to walk past that blithe cheerfulness. Instead, after dousing his light and setting aside the lantern, he groped his way to the door.

It opened, to his surprise, onto the back stairs.

He stared for a minute before he realized that, in all likelihood, the door had been placed there to allow guards easy access to the water closet beyond the washroom. He looked up. Darkness. Then he looked down. The stairway was dim, but he thought he could see a faint shimmer of light coming from below. He made his way cautiously down, intending to cut back onto the main staircase once he reached the second level.

Then he saw the source of the light.

It was a very dim light, white and wavering, like a sun-lit blossom shuddering in the wind. It came from just around the curve of the stairway, and holding it – holding the lantern that embraced the lit candle – was Merrick. He was speaking to someone just beyond Ulick's view.

Ulick checked his first impulse, which was to leap forward and capture Merrick. Make any sound or sudden movement, and Ulick would doubtlessly lose sight of Merrick's companion. And there seemed little doubt as to the nature of Merrick's conversation: it was low-voiced, too low for Ulick to make out individual words, but Merrick was relaxed in his tone and posture. He must be talking with a confidant – most likely, his co-conspirator.

Ulick pressed himself against the interior wall of the stairwell, trying to creep forward far enough to see Merrick's companion. But at that moment, a decision was apparently made; Merrick began to trot down the steps.

Ulick followed. Without pausing, Merrick passed the landing to the third level, as well as the landing to the second level. His companion remained beyond Ulick's view, though Ulick could hear the man's steps, faint like a shadow in the night. The candlelight bounced and wavered against the walls, sliding its way down the stairwell.

Merrick reached the exit gates leading out of the prison. Ulick tensed, but Merrick merely moved more cautiously. When he reached the gates, Ulick saw why Merrick had been able to move at all: both the guards of the outermost gate were asleep at their posts.

Plied with drink? Ulick paused long enough to sniff at the bottle of one of the guards. He thought he faintly smelt the distinctive scent of paraldehyde. He set down the bottle and glanced through the gate: the guards at the other two gates were still on duty, though they were so busy chatting that they had not yet noticed that their fellow guards were asleep.

Or perhaps they did not care. Ulick detached the key-rings from the belts of the drunken guards. They keys were in plain sight, yet Merrick had not paused to steal them; nor had the man who gave the drugged beer to the first set of guards attempted to drug the second and third sets. Escape was not in the plans, then. Merrick and his co-conspirator simply did not wish to be noticed as they made their way down to the first level.

Ulick hurried to catch up. It was therefore not until he reached the doorway to the first level that he remembered what lay there.

The ground ahead was swallowed up by the darkness within the hall. All that could be seen, faint now, was the flicker-light of the lantern and the faint outline of Merrick's body. Ulick could not see the other man, but Merrick's voice drifted back like a whisper in the wind. The conversation between the two leaders was continuing. Their goal, quite obviously, was to reach the cellar.

And between them and Ulick lay the iron balcony.

He could not see the balcony. He could not see the railing, nor the small holes in the wrought iron that, in his imagination, grew large enough to swallow him up. No light lay ahead of him except that one faint, bobbing lantern.

He considered his choices. He could retreat – go in search of light or of help. But by the time he returned, Merrick and his co-conspirator might have finished their secret conversation.

Or he could pretend he had never seen them talking. That choice was very appealing.

He took a deep breath and stepped onto the balcony.

The ground beneath his feet did not give way. He shuffled forward until he found the railing; then, gripping it firmly, he began to slide his feet forward. Left boot. Right boot. Left boot. Right boot.

He could still envision the consequences if he stepped the wrong way: if he stepped too far to the left, so that he fell over the railing; if he stepped too far to the right, so that he bounced off the wall and fell over the railing; if he stepped straight ahead and tripped over some unseen obstacle, so that he fell over the railing.

And then there was the fear, which he could not shake, that the balcony was riddled with holes. Gaping holes, awaiting him, so that his next step would be into air, and there would be a final, screaming moment before his body was crushed on the floor below the balcony.

The light ahead disappeared. He was left in total darkness.

His legs, trembling now like that of a child learning to walk, bent; he knelt down on the balcony, gasping for air, feeling his heart jumping in his rib-cage. Its pounding was the only sound in the hall. He had no light to guide him, no sound. Perhaps he should crawl back the way he had come? He must be closer to where he had been than to where he had intended to go.

At that moment, as he groped slick-palmed for the path behind him, an image rose unbidden in his mind: the image of a dying man, shut away to rot, asking, "Whose side are you on?"

He found that he had risen to his feet. He sought out the railing again; then, gripping it firmly, he stepped forward once more.

It seemed a lifetime and three rebirths before he reached the end of the balcony. He stood a moment at the doorway there, gulping down air and feeling the sweat turn cold upon his skin in the winter air. He swallowed the sickness in his mouth; then, determined but shaky, he began to climb down the steps before him, continuing his search for Merrick and his co-conspirator.

o—o—o

The cellar smelled of earth and human waste. The recessed cell-doors were solid, except for barred windows, through which fell patches of moonlight.

Standing near one such recessed doorway, at the far end of the corridor, was Merrick. His back was to Ulick; he was leaning against the doorjamb, his head half-turned in the direction of the cell. The moonlit patch in which he stood was much larger than the rest; Ulick guessed that the door must be fully open. The sound of Merrick's voice was faint as he spoke.

The co-conspirator was nowhere in sight. Cautiously, Ulick made his way down the corridor, confident that, in the event that Merrick began to turn, Ulick could duck quickly into one of the recessed doorways, which would hide him from sight.

The closer he came, the more clearly he could see Merrick, his candy-cane-striped uniform bright in the moonlight, his unkempt hair glossy, his posture relaxed. The words he spoke were becoming clearer, clearer . . . Ulick, stepping soundlessly along the pavement, strove to hear.
 

Poke the prisoner,
Poke the guard,
See who squeaks
Loud and hard. . . .


A nursery rhyme. Merrick, his head turned toward the hidden cell, was reciting a nursery rhyme.

Ulick froze, recognizing finally the significance of the recessed doorways. It was too late, though; as he turned his head, he saw a flicker of dark cloth and the gleam of a blade. He had just enough time to see the face of Merrick's co-conspirator; then the blade-hilt hit him on the head, and he went down into the sparking darkness.

o—o—o

He had one of those dreams in which the dreamer is paralyzed, unable to flee, unable even to move his legs. He awoke to find that the dream was real.

He was sitting slumped in the corner of a moonlit cell, the smell of human waste stronger than ever. His ankles were bound together; his hands were likewise tied together, behind his back. The first thing he saw, when he opened his eyes, was the lantern, its candle-fire now motionless. Then he raised his eyes and saw the blade, pointed toward him.

Merrick, sounding highly irritated, said, "You bloody idiot!"

He was inclined to agree. His head ached from the blow, his stomach continued to clench from the sickness of his journey across the balcony, and the rest of his body . . . He did not move his eyes from the unwavering blade.

Sighing heavily, Merrick said, "Look, just swear that you won't say anything about this to anyone. If you make that oath, by whatever you hold most sacred, we'll let you go."

He moved his eyes finally, not to Merrick, who was sitting cross-legged in front of him, but up to the face of the man standing behind Merrick, holding the blade. The man's face was dark in the shadows, but the faint outlines of a cold expression could be seen.

Ulick finally found his voice. "Are those the choices you offer me? If I refuse to remain silent, you'll kill me . . . won't you?" He addressed his question to the silent bladesman, who did not bother to deny the accusation. "And if I remain silent . . . if Mercy's Keeper discovers that I've withheld information about you . . . I'll die anyway, won't I? Either way, trust will have been broken."

Again, the bladesman did not bother to reply. More tellingly, Merrick was chewing worriedly at his lip.

Ulick heard a memory whisper in his mind: You'll learn what happens to traitors.

The anger in him boiled over: the anger he rarely allowed to surface, because it could so easily cause him to fail his duty. "If this is what you call the Boundaries of Behavior, then kill me," he said flatly. "I'd rather die than be tainted by association with men like you."

The blade, cold as moonlight, hovered in the air. Then the bladesman crouched down and placed the dagger in Merrick's hand.

Merrick looked stunned. The bladesman leaned forward and murmured something in Merrick's ear; then he picked up the lantern, rose from his crouching position, and made his way to the door. He closed the door carefully behind him.

Ulick turned his attention back to Merrick, who was contemplating the blade in a manner that Ulick liked not one whit. "What did he say?"

Without a word, Merrick took hold of Ulick's arm and shoved him around. The dagger touched his back.

"He said," replied Merrick, "that you are right." There was a pause as Merrick sliced through the rope binding Ulick's wrists. "He said that we can't claim to keep the Boundaries if we use unlawful force against you to keep you quiet." He pushed Ulick back to his previous position and sliced through the rope binding his ankles. "Go, then," Merrick added, the anger and the frustration clear in his voice. "You're free to do what you want. Just remember that you're holding all of us in your hands. Not only those of us who keep the Boundaries, but every prisoner in every life prison in Mip. Our fate depends upon your decision." He stood up and turned abruptly away from Ulick, as though in disgust.

Ulick slowly rose to his feet. The dagger had nicked his wrist; he rubbed the blood off absentmindedly. Merrick did not turn back. Ulick made his way to the door, opened it, slid into the moonlit corridor, and closed the door.

The bladesman was nowhere to be seen, but faintly nearby, above a stairway leading up to the hall, came the sound of bootsteps treading upon iron. Then there was the faint creak of a door opening and closing. Then no sound at all.

Ulick turned his attention back to the cell, staring through the door-panel. Merrick was again contemplating the dagger. He made a sound halfway between a grunt and a whimper and threw the dagger through the high, barred window that faced the prison yard.

It landed with a clatter and a screech as it skidded on the pavement. Merrick had already turned away. His face was in his hands; he muttered something indistinct that sounded like a curse to the gods, or a plea.

Ulick stood alone in the corridor, just a few yards from the door leading to the Keeper's office. He had a moment to remember that, when he was kneeling on the pitch-black balcony, what had come to his mind was not the memory of his duty to Mercy's Keeper, but his memory of the lonely prisoner on the fifth level, waiting to see what Ulick would do.

Curiosity was a dangerous thing. It could take you into dark places you never intended to enter.

Merrick's head jerked up as the cell door opened. The surprise and wariness in his expression told Ulick everything he needed to know about whether this was a planned lure.

He closed the door behind him. "Recite to me the Boundaries of Behavior," he told Merrick in a low voice. "If they're what I think they are, I'll help you to keep them."

Chapter Text

Mercy's Prisoner
EPILOGUE

The year 400, the third month. (The year 1895 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
 

The bladesman whom Ulick had discovered with Merrick stood in his room, gazing through the slit of his window toward the dawn-grey horizon.

His view was partially blocked by the houses here in the southern portion of Mip City and by the high wall surrounding the prison. He thought he could barely see the mountains to the west, but no doubt that was wishful thinking on his part. The pre-dawn sky was too dark.

He felt a familiar pain cutting through him, the pain of loss. He was used to pain by now. It accompanied him every day like a small child that refuses to be parted from its parent: the harsh pain of frustrated lust, the dull pain of hatred from those around him, and the biting pain of loss. Always the pain of loss, of what he had given up in the moment that he decided to keep the Boundaries of Behavior.

And now there was another loss: the loss of guidance that he sorely needed at this stage. Well, pain was to be his lot in life, it seemed. The only question was whether the loss of guidance would prove to be the final blow in his already beleaguered battle.

He set aside such thoughts. He was more fortunate than anyone could imagine, he knew. Compensations had entered his life: gifts which he in no way deserved and which he accepted only because they gave him needed strength to finish this battle. His prisoner was one gift – a bewilderingly unexpected gift, one that still made his mind reel if he thought too hard on the matter.

And Merrick was the other gift. He felt a smile touch his face. A strange sort of gift, and one that was easier to understand. Merrick barely trusted him, and only a strong amount of self-control, he guessed, kept Merrick from trying to strangle him every time they met. But he was necessary to Merrick, just as Merrick was necessary to him. Neither of them could achieve their goal without the other.

And when the goal was achieved . . . He set that thought aside as well. It would do his state of mind no good to dwell on such events. He needed clarity of mind and concentration of purpose, for he was holding the fate of every life prisoner in Mip in his hands.

He heard a step on his threshold, and the sound of a door opening, closing, and latching. Without looking around, he said, "All's well?"

Merrick entered the edge of his vision. He looked, as always, as though he'd been chewing on ice-cubes and not liking the results. "You bloody know-all," he said. "I suppose you planned this as a lure from the start."

"It was a risk." He kept his gaze directed toward the horizon. "Not the worst risk we'll take before the end; it was clear he transferred here out of curiosity to know the Boundaries. He's with us?"

"He's with us." Merrick tilted his head. "Just to satisfy my curiosity, what would you have done if Ulick had resisted the lure?"

"I don't know," he replied honestly. "I had to show him a true test of the Boundaries. He's so quick-witted that he would have sensed it if I'd played him a false game."

Merrick's mouth twisted. "A high-risk gamble. You remind me of another guard I know. Well, we'll need Ulick's quick wits, as well as his gift for silence." He counted on his fingers. "Ulick on the sixth level, Gustav on the fifth, Llewellyn on the fourth, you and me covering the third and second. We have men on each level now that we can trust . . . Or in your case, half-trust." He smiled as he spoke, but there was no smile in his eyes, and his words were no joke. "Compassion. What about it?"

He continued to gaze out the window. He could almost smell the canal-water, so many miles away – could almost see a blue heron arising from water nearby. "Compassion Prison is no longer in our Alliance. I daren't communicate with that prison; I'm being too closely watched."

Merrick sighed heavily. "You're sure?"

"Quite sure. Our Keeper has begun to inspect any mail sent to me."

Merrick swore pungently. "He has that power only because you live in the prison. You could move to the city."

"Not now. Events will move too swiftly after this." Merrick raised an eyebrow, and he added, "The Keeper's Wolf will make life more and more miserable for the prisoners here. At the same time, you and I will make life more and more miserable for the guards who break the Boundaries. Eventually, a crack will come, and then a shattering. We need to be ready for that."

"We should be coordinating our plans with Compassion—"

"We should be receiving commendations from the magisterial seats for our service to justice. Stop using mush for brains." He allowed contempt to enter his voice. He could still permit himself occasional small pleasures like this, when Merrick showed danger of wandering off into the hazy land of his fantasies. Merrick's ability to imagine the impossible was his greatest strength as well as his greatest weakness. It was the reason why Merrick had been singularly successful as a murderer and singularly unsuccessful at covering up his murder. He needed Merrick's imagination when it came time to envision new possibilities, but he needed Merrick grounded in reality when it came time to accept the limitations under which they worked.

Merrick stiffened, and for a bare moment the Boundaries of Behavior hung in balance. Then Merrick relaxed his body with a visible effort. He gave a shrug, as though indifferent to what had been said, and remarked, "It doesn't matter. Tyrrell will take care of things at Compassion."

"You have great faith in him." It was a question; he had never become well enough acquainted with Merrick's former co-conspirator to judge his character.

Merrick laughed briefly. "If you stripped Tyrrell naked and imprisoned him within an iceberg, he'd find a way to melt the ice. Don't worry about Compassion. Tell me what we're going to do here."

He turned away from the window finally, deliberately turning his back on what was now beyond his reach when he needed it most. "What we're going to do," he said, "is melt an iceberg." And then he explained as much as Merrick needed to know.

Merrick's eyes widened as he spoke. That was another small pleasure: that he could still disconcert Merrick, after all this time. He wondered again why he was allowed such pleasures, given how little he merited them.

Then he set that thought aside as well, with firmness. He knew that no divine being was ordering matters here. Nothing would happen, no changes would take place in the merciless world of Mercy Prison, unless he and Merrick took what small talents they had and braved the consequences if they failed.

Mercy's prisoner. He would be lucky if that was all which awaited him in the end. The consequences if they won victory . . .

He surrendered his thoughts to all that mattered – the Alliance's high goals – as the rising sun began to shimmer on the pool of water near Compassion Life Prison.

Chapter Text

Mercy's Prisoner
HISTORICAL NOTE

The Life Prison series is inspired by conditions in prisons between 1880 and 1920 in North America and Britain. A bibliography for the prison portion of the series is available here:

duskpeterson.com/toughs/bibliography/masculinity/#prisons

This series is part of Turn-of-the-Century Toughs, a cycle of historical speculative novels which are inspired by turn-of-the-century life in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States of America. The Magisterial Republic of Mip, where Mercy Life Prison is located, is an imaginary nation based upon the geography and history of the central and western counties of the State of Maryland (from Carroll and Howard Counties to Garrett County). Mip City – the republic's capital, where Mercy Prison is located – is based on a somewhat more urbanized version of Frederick, Maryland, a lovely eighteenth-century city whose main claim to fame is that it was the location of various activities during the American Civil War. Mercy Prison itself I've placed in the section of Frederick which, in our own world, is occupied by the Maryland School for the Deaf. During the French and Indian War of the mid-eighteenth century, military barracks (which still exist) were built on that land. The barracks were later used as a prison.

The actual shape of Mercy Prison is my own invention. A circular prison layout similar to Mercy's – a "Panopticon" – was proposed by social reformer Jeremy Bentham in 1785. As a result of the influence of the reformist Eastern State Penitentiary (1829) in Pennsylvania, a wagon-wheel layout became popular for American prisons. I've retained the simple circular design because it fits best with the belief by some Mippites in the cycle of rebirth – and also, not incidentally, because it allows for better drama. Other alterations I've made to nineteenth-century prison life– such as banning firearms – were also for the sake of heightening drama.

However, some of the nastiest bits in this volume – such as the cold-water treatment, routine flogging, stark punishment cells, regulations requiring prisoners to remain silent, and high rates of insanity and mortality – are, unfortunately, historically accurate. Nineteenth-century prison-workers experimented with various methods of keeping prisoners quiet and obedient; many of these methods were originally aimed at promoting repentance in the prisoners. It is heartbreaking to read how the idealistic practices of early reformers came to be regarded as abusive practices that had to be overturned by a new generation of guards and prison-keepers. By the time that Mercy's Prisoner is set, in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, this second wave of reform had begun.

It is exceedingly difficult to locate information on the sexual practices of prisoners and guards during this period, because censorship reigned in prison literature. As far as I can tell from the scant sources, although nonsexual abuse by guards occurred often, there does not appear to have been much sexual abuse by guards; in that regards, I have parted strongly from the historical record. Homosexuality between prisoners certainly occurred. It is difficult to tell how much of it was willing, because it was treated as a vice by nineteenth-century writers of books on prison life. By the 1910s, homosexuality among prisoners was so common in American prisons that a prison warden, Thomas Mott Osborne, was forced to clarify a remark he made to the public that homosexuality would "always" happen in prisons.

In the Life Prison series, homosexuality plays a somewhat different role than in our world, since bisexuality is mainstream and legal in Mip. What remains true in Mercy Life Prison is the statement made by John N. Reynolds, a former prisoner in the United States: "In the darkness and silence . . . hardened [men] debase and mistreat themselves and sometimes [others]."

Reynolds, whose memoir The Twin Hells: A Thrilling Narrative of Life in the Kansas and Missouri Penitentiaries was published in 1890, goes on to say: "It is believed by the writer that if the people of [this state] knew under what circumstances men in the prison were compelled to work, there would be a general indignation, which would soon be expressed through the proper channels, and which might lead to a proper solution of the difficulty." The rest of the Life Prison series will explore whether that statement is true in Mip.
 

Men and Lads

All of the locations mentioned in this story are inspired by real locations in Washington County in the western part of the State of Maryland (although Indian Springs has undergone a metamorphosis into Ammippian Springs, and Fort Frederick has a new function as Compassion Life Prison). I've done my best to recreate what life was like in Washington County in 1892, with occasional small liberties. My bibliography and links at my blog to photos of the locations can be found in the "Maps and series resources" section at:

duskpeterson.com/lifeprison

The National Turnpike, also called the National Road, was the first federally-funded road, extending from Maryland to Illinois. The portion of the road that runs past Indian Springs was built through private funds. As the story indicates, the road declined in the late nineteenth century, due to competition from the railroad, but it revived in the twentieth century when automobile trips became the great American pastime. Indian Springs remains a quiet little cluster of houses, with a general store.

The railroad in this story is based on the Western Maryland Railway, originally called the Western Maryland Railroad (WM). More precisely, it is based on the Potomac Valley Railroad, which was owned by the WM in the 1890s. That railroad, which ran from Williamsport, Maryland, to Cherry Run, West Virginia, opened in August 1892, with passenger trains running a month later than the opening. It followed the route described in this story, connecting with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) in Cherry Run. The track from Williamsport Junction to Cherry Run is still used by freight trains, though the track through the town of Williamsport itself lies abandoned. The train trestle mentioned in the story is near McCoys Ferry; it remains in use. Big Pool now marks the beginning of the Western Maryland Rail Trail; hikers can follow the trail west to Hancock. Further west, in Cumberland, visitors can take a ride on a steam train of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad.

The canal in this story is inspired by the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O). A flood in 1889 – from the same storm that destroyed Johnstown, Pennsylvania – temporarily closed the C&O Canal. The canal was bought by its rival, the B&O Railroad, but contrary to what cynics might have predicted, the B&O proved to be a kind master. The canal reopened eighteen months after the flood and remained in business until further flooding in 1924 shut it down permanently. The canal is now a National Historical Park. Visitors can travel the towpath from Williamsport (whose aqueduct, warehouse, and turning basin remain, just yards from the abandoned railroad tracks) to Big Pool, encountering along the way the path to Fort Frederick.

My information on freight-hopping and tramps (or hoboes; no strong distinction existed between those two categories of wanderers in 1892) is taken primarily from the writings of tramps from the 1890s: William Aspinwall, Josiah Flynt, Walter Augustus Wyckoff, William Henry Davies, and Jack London. In addition, I gathered facts from modern freight-hoppers who have posted online videos of their experiences, and from modern scholars and fans of hoboes and trains. In particular, I would like to express my debt to Jeremy Cooper, whose website, Western Maryland Railway West Sub (wmwestsub.com) provides a detailed account of the stations along my characters' journey, complete with historical and modern photos. With the help of his site, I was able to plan ahead of time which parts of Western Maryland to visit while researching this story.

The dangers faced by tramps were well attested to in turn-of-the-century literature written by the tramps themselves. Jack London, who "beat" his way east as a teenage tramp, later wrote an essay entitled "Rods and Gunnels" in which he offered a detailed description of one manner in which he journeyed:
 

I sit down on the cross-rod, back resting against the side of the truck, one shoulder against the cross-partition, the other shoulder within a couple of inches of the whirling wheel. My legs are disposed along the rod to where my feet rest on it at the opposite end within an inch or so of the other wheel. More than once I have had a wheel rasp against my shoe or whizz greasily on my shoulder. Six or eight inches beneath me are the ties, bounding along at thirty, forty, or fifty miles an hour, and all in the world between is a slender swaying rod as thick as a man's first finger. Dirt and gravel are flying, the car is bounding overhead, the earth flashing away beneath, there is clank and clash, and rumble and roar, and . . . this is "riding the rods."


A more matter-of-fact account of tramp travel appears in his diary entry for April 9, 1894, when he rode a "special" train, probably on the roof of one of its cars: "A spark caught fire in my overcoat & smoldering away suddenly burst into flames. The train was going 40 miles an hour and it was quite a job to put it out. My overcoat & coat were ruined. I rode the bumpers [i.e. the coupling gear between two cars] the rest of the way."

The physical dangers of freight-hopping were shared by all tramps. But young tramps like London faced special problems. In an undated letter that was probably written in the 1890s, William Aspinwall told Professor John J. McCook: "They [a gang of tramps] do not hesitate as I am told by Hobos to commit any kind of crime. . . . I was told a young boy probably 16 or 18 y old from Kalamazoo, Mich hapened to jump into a box car to beat his way and there was a number of the above Gang in the Car. They striped the young fellow of everything but his Pants & Shirt, Committed sodomy on his person and then threw the fellow out while the train was running at full speed." However, as Harry McClintock indicated, teenage tramps also received more friendly help from some of the older tramps they met.

Not surprisingly, turn-of-the-century tramp literature had a great deal to say about policemen, jailers, and prisons. Indeed, much of the later version of Big Rock Candy Mountain contains references to these topics of perennial interest to tramps and hoboes: the song speaks of bulls (railroad policemen), brakemen (whose duties included expelling free riders), and jails. The writings at the turn of the century reveal that tramps had a love-hate relationship with railroad workers: some railroad workers would provide help to the tramp, while others would blackmail or even murder tramps.

Prison literature from that time shows the same ambiguity in prisoners' relations with guards. Guards could be the prisoners' salvations or their source of unending torment. The choice was made by the guards themselves.