The year 365, the third month. (The year 1884 Clover by the Old Calendar.)
The most common error made by historians writing about the Golden Age of the Eternal Dungeon is to underestimate the depth of sacrifice required by the Seekers and guards who routinely made life-and-death decisions. It has often been suggested that the Seekers gave no more thought to their prisoners' fates than a military doctor does when deciding whether to amputate on the field.
Only someone who has never done medical work would consider this to settle the matter. The fact is that, while an emergency may require vital decisions to be made quickly by those of us in the healing arts, the ramifications of those decisions remain in our minds for many years afterwards.
During the crisis of 364, Layle Smith made the decision to appoint a junior Seeker, Elsdon Taylor, to revise the Code of Seeking, the book that outlined the process of questioning prisoners and explained the ethical and spiritual reasons for the process. While the decision had to be made quickly, we may be sure that the High Seeker did not make the decision lightly. By tradition, the man appointed to revise the Code of Seeking in each generation also became the succeeding leader of the dungeon – the "High Seeker," as Layle Smith had dubbed his own title.
We know, from the accounts of Weldon Chapman and others, that Elsdon Taylor was on intimate terms with Layle Smith; some historians have even suggested that the two Seekers were sexually intimate. Although no evidence exists to back this speculation, certainly the frequency with which the High Seeker mentions Elsdon Taylor in his letters suggests that a close personal tie existed. This must have placed special strain on Layle Smith when it came time to appoint his successor . . .
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
Day One, Dusk Shift
"Please," he said, "I beg of you, my dearest one: Do not leave me. This happy haven, this shielding shelter, will all be bleak and black as burnt wood if you should leave me. Do not go; I cannot bear it—"
His words dissolved into laughter.
It took a moment for Vito to control his laughter. Elsdon Taylor, the "dear one" whom Vito's character had been addressing, waited patiently for his fellow player to return to his senses. Wiping tears from his cheeks, Vito gulped down a final giggle as he said, "I'm sorry, Elsdon, but truly, those are the most melodramatic lines I've heard in any theater production. Couldn't you buy a better script for the Transformation Players' debut performance?"
Elsdon simply smiled, stepping away from the wooden panel at the side of the room facing the inner dungeon. The panel, which had been painted by Mr. Sobel's talented young son, depicted a beautiful landscape of grass and shade trees, with sunlight shafting down onto the nearby sparkling bay. Vito, who had spent much of his childhood in a setting very like that, felt a brief pang of homesickness. He'd received a letter from his father a few weeks before, saying that a friend of Vito's had stopped by his parents' home, hoping to see Vito. The friend had left his name as Ned, which was the name of Vito's old academy roommate. "A nice, polite young man," said his father, obviously striving to provide Vito with incentive to return home.
Vito shook his head inwardly. In the past, he would have enjoyed seeing an old classmate – that one in particular. He would also have enjoyed seeing his parents, with whom he enjoyed good relations.
But not now. All his greatest efforts, these days, were aimed toward never again returning to his family home.
"Perhaps we should have our breakfast," Elsdon suggested. "I'll be on duty soon." He waved his hand in the direction of the inner-dungeon corridor. Faintly, Vito could hear guards chatting with one another as they came off duty at the end of the day shift. A few Seekers' voices could be heard mixed among them – distinguishable by those men's greater gravity and formality – but most of the senior Seekers, and a good many junior Seekers, remained at their posts, continuing to question prisoners throughout the dusk shift when they were ostensibly off duty.
It was said in the Eternal Dungeon that the degree of a Seeker's ambition could be measured by how often he worked during the dusk and dawn shifts that were intended as leisure periods between work and sleep. Vito cast a covert look at Elsdon, who appeared to be in no great hurry to return to his current work of revising the Code; he was pulling food from the bins in the little kitchen area at the far end of the room. Vito supposed that Elsdon, unlike the other Seekers, did not have to worry about attracting the attention of the High Seeker through his diligence at work.
"Would you like me to send for civilian food for you from the palace?" asked Elsdon. "I'm afraid this is poor fare, compared to what you could get in the lighted world."
"Is that meant to be a test?" As he came forward to sit at the rough wooden work counter that separated the parlor from the kitchen, Vito smiled. "Prisoners' food is good enough for me. It seems to have improved since the last time I was in the dungeon."
Elsdon Taylor – who had been imprisoned in the dungeon for ten years now – nodded in a matter-of-fact fashion. "That's the result of Mr. Bergsen's unique prison reform. He bullied the High Seeker into using the money that was left over from the electrical renovations to establish a fund that would allow better food for the prisoners. Needless to say, many of us prisoners were willing to back the healer in his campaign." Elsdon grinned as he crouched down to pull a glass bottle of milk from the hip-high ice-box.
"The Seekers, you mean?" Vito wiggled around the high stool he was sitting on, trying to establish a comfortable position. He had never considered himself to live a life of luxury, having worked in prisons since he came of age, but the utilitarian furniture and bland food that was given to the Seekers had made him keenly aware of what a privileged life he had lived until this time. "Even oatmeal for breakfast for the next fifty years won't scare me away from taking my oath as a Seeker. Though it appears," he added, "that I have something better to look forward to." Bacon sizzled as Elsdon placed an iron pan onto one of the little stoves that had warmed many Seekers' living cells since the time of the dungeon's renovation.
Elsdon nodded as he broke an egg into a second pan. "Thanks to Mr. Bergsen, yes. He says that the rest of us in the New School can worry about such trifling matters as uniforms and regulations of speech. His concern is merely to keep the prisoners alive and healthy."
"Till most of them are hanged," said Vito, an unusual note of bitterness touching him. Two months he had been waiting in this dungeon for word from the palace above. It seemed like a year.
"But fewer than in the past, I hope." Elsdon reached over to hand Vito a loaf of bread and a knife. As Vito obediently began slicing the loaf on the counter, Elsdon said, as though his mind were elsewhere, "I'm a bit worried whether we'll be ready for our performance in time. We only have ten more days of rehearsals."
"You ought to have started without me, at the beginning of the year," Vito suggested, laying aside the knife and coming round to Elsdon's side of the counter. He knew where the plates and cups and ironware were stored; he had breakfasted here every day since his return to the dungeon, officially as a guest to Mr. Bergsen.
In reality, his presence there was a devious move by the so-called New School to intensify the pressure upon the Queen to overrule the decision of the High Seeker to dismiss Vito from his quest to be a Seeker. One of the disadvantages that Vito had faced from the start of his lawsuit against the Eternal Dungeon was that, a quiet man by nature, he had not made many attempts during his previous training to get to know the other inhabitants of the Eternal Dungeon. As a result, to most Seekers and guards he was merely an abstract symbol of the New School's desire to bring about reform in the dungeon.
The leaders of the New School had set about to change that. The dungeon's healer, Mr. Bergsen – the only permanent resident of the inner dungeon who was not a prisoner and who could therefore invite guests as he wished – was presently housing Vito on the extra cot in his bedroom and introducing Vito to every man and woman who entered his surgery. Mistress Birdesmond Chapman, another of the New School's leaders, was hosting dinner parties every week's break, at which Vito was the chief guest. Mr. Sobel – the High Seeker's senior-most guard, who was not a member of the New School, but who was a friend to Elsdon – had invited Vito to participate in the guards' weekly domino games. Vito had done this, losing quite badly, much to the delight of the increasingly friendly guards.
Mr. Urman – senior night guard to Elsdon Taylor – upon hearing of Elsdon's concern that the High Seeker and Codifier would find some way to expel Vito from Mr. Bergsen's quarters, was said to have grunted and stated, "I can fix that." Which he did, most magnificently, by submitting with public fanfare an application to be a Seeker.
Within an hour, the entire Eternal Dungeon was in an uproar over the news that the dungeon's most trouble-making guard within living memory was aspiring to join the elite. The High Seeker and the Codifier were kept so busy answering questions – mainly indignant enquiries from Seekers who had possessed the misfortune to work with Mr. Urman – that official attention had entirely turned away from Vito.
That would change in ten days when Vito took the stage to play-act in the very first performance ever, in the history of the Queendom of Yclau, of a prison theatrical company.
"Do you truly think that the prisoners will be reformed by watching us act out a play? Even a play that's about transformation?" Vito asked Elsdon as he placed the plates on the counter. He had been disconcerted when he discovered that the play which Elsdon had chosen was not one of the light modern comedies that were so popular in Yclau. Instead, the play dramatized the most sacred event in Yclau's faith: the long-ago decision of a soul, dwelling in pleasant afterdeath, to choose the pain of oblivion, followed unexpectedly by that soul's rebirth into a new body. Sweet Blood was the name of the play – the very title a sacred oath.
"Just by watching the play?" replied Elsdon as he poured dried berries into a serving bowl. "Probably not. But the High Seeker's plan is to invite some of the prisoners – those who are likely to take many days to break – to perform in a play the following fortnight."
Vito, who had been in the midst of pouring water into the cups, nearly spilled the entire pitcher onto the counter. "As Vovimian prisoners do? And you really believe that such a performance would make a difference to any civilized Yclau man?"
"It did to me." Elsdon turned to scoop the eggs from the pan.
Vito bit his tongue to keep from speaking further. He had forgotten – it was so easy to forget – that Elsdon had twice been imprisoned in the neighboring Kingdom of Vovim. Vito was one of the few people who knew that, on the second occasion, Elsdon had performed in a play that, in accordance with Vovimian theatrical customs, should have ended with his death as a condemned prisoner. Only a timely rescue by the High Seeker had prevented Elsdon from ending his life, not in an execution cell, but on a stage in front of hundreds of avid theatergoers.
"You're surely not going to execute prisoners on stage here," Vito protested. "That would be barbaric!"
Elsdon cast him a look that Vito could not interpret, but simply replied, "The Eternal Dungeon isn't in charge of executions; that's handled by the Queen's magistracy. No, our hope is to reach the type of prisoner who is unwilling to speak to his Seeker. Whether he's innocent or guilty of the crimes he is charged with committing, we hope that the very act of rehearsing plays alongside his Seeker will establish a level of trust between the prisoner and his Seeker which will encourage the prisoner to speak more freely – and perhaps, if he is guilty of a crime, to give the man greater consideration as to how he has led his life." As he spoke, Elsdon finished setting the food onto the counter: eggs and bacon and bread and fruit and milk. No salt, no sugar, not even butter and jam and coffee. The meal was bleak compared to what Vito was accustomed to.
He attacked his meal with gusto. "The plays were your idea," he suggested.
Elsdon shook his head as he sat down and cut into his bacon. "Layle's. He's native-born Vovimian, after all."
"Ah." It seemed best to change the subject. Turning his gaze in an attempt to find an object for conversation, Vito caught sight of a pile of papers sitting at the end of the counter. He picked them up, glanced at the first page, and raised his eyebrows. "So the sixth revision has reached galley stage."
Elsdon smiled. "Yes. All we're waiting for now is the Queen's final approval; then we can go to press and release the new Code of Seeking."
Vito noticed something – a slight waver in tone that did not match Elsdon's smile – and put the galley proofs down slowly. "You don't think the Queen will approve your revision?"
Elsdon's smile disappeared. "Vito, I don't know. I hope so. The previous Queen had indicated she would approve the revision; I'd taken care to involve her at all stages of the drafting. But the new Queen . . . She's said to be a harsher woman than her mother was. And I've never had the opportunity to speak with her. So everything depends on whether the High Seeker can persuade her to accept the revision."
Vito's heart was thundering now; he had to swallow a mouthful of milk to coat his dry throat. "That can't be good news."
"That Layle is our advocate to the Queen for the sixth revision? Vito, nobody in this dungeon wants to return to the civil war that split the dungeon workers into rival camps for years – not the High Seeker, not the Codifier, and certainly not the New School, which is demanding this revision. Even the Old School has accepted the revision's necessity. If the Queen refuses to let the revision be passed, the lack of consensus between this dungeon's workers over how to search prisoners will tear apart the dungeon again. Next time, the Eternal Dungeon might not survive."
Elsdon's voice was strained. Vito reached out and placed a palm over his friend's hand. He said softly, "We're transforming the dungeon. Transformation is always painful. The first man who transformed himself had to thrust a dagger into his own heart."
"And his beloved friend was forced to watch. Yes, I know." Elsdon reached for his milk. "I'm just not sure how much more pain Layle can take."
It was typical of Elsdon, Vito thought with an inward sigh, that in the final stage of a five-year struggle to prevent the dungeon's prisoners from being mangled by torturers, Elsdon's chief concern would be to appease the worst of those torturers.
Layle Smith, High Seeker of the Eternal Dungeon, leader of the Old School. And Vito's greatest enemy.
Picking up the galleys again, Vito tried to turn his thoughts away from the deadly Vovimian torturer who was doing his best to keep Vito from becoming a Seeker. Glancing at a random page, Vito raised his eyebrows again, saying, "You've abolished the whippings."
"I had to, Vito," Elsdon said, with a practiced patience which suggested he'd been forced to argue this point on many past occasions. "I'm certainly not saying it's wrong for the Seekers to order the sort of disciplinary beating that any schoolmaster would order for an unruly schoolboy. Even the United Order of Prisons doesn't argue that, in its international code of prison ethics. But the Eternal Dungeon is emerging from many decades of depraved deeds; here, whipping prisoners could too easily be turned into abuse. All that the Seeker need do is whisper a few questions to his prisoner while the man is being beaten—"
"—and the Eternal Dungeon will have returned to the practice of questioning its prisoners under torture. Yes, I see. Well, I can't say that I'd be sorry to be relieved of the burden of ordering beatings. There are doubtless other ways in which Seekers can keep control over prisoners; this will give us the opportunity to develop them." Vito turned another page and felt shock jolt through him. He raised a startled gaze to the Seeker on the other side of the counter. "Elsdon, on the next page you've permitted the whippings to continue. You've permitted the rackings to continue."
Elsdon gave a wry smile which suggested that this had also been a matter he had been forced to defend at length. "And you can imagine how happy I am about that. Vito, I'm not supposed to be discussing this with you. Only senior members of the Eternal Dungeon are permitted to see and discuss the early drafts."
"How convenient, since you and your senior night guard are the only senior Seeker and guard who belong to the New School." Vito leaned over the counter, gripping it with his hands. "Elsdon, please tell me you haven't—"
And then he stopped abruptly, realizing the accusation he was about to make to his oldest friend.
"Betrayed the principles of the New School?" The weariness on Elsdon's face suggested that he'd received this accusation countless times.
"Sweet blood," said Vito reverently as he passed a hand over his face. He was naked-faced, of course, being dressed in civilian clothes. Elsdon too was naked-faced, and had been so for many months, even when searching prisoners: a visible symbol of his refusal to torture prisoners. Officially, that refusal meant he was breaking the Code. Until the sixth revision was approved by the Queen, Elsdon would continue to risk being arrested and executed for disobedience to the Code's requirement that he torture certain prisoners.
"Elsdon, I'm sorry," said Vito with heartfelt sorrow, reaching over to take hold of his friend's hand once more. "It was faithless of me to doubt you."
Elsdon gave him a wan smile. "I'm used to it, Vito. Even Seward Sobel thought I'd allied myself with the Old School, till I was able to explain to him the reason I wrote the sixth revision the way I did. I hope I'll be able to explain myself to you before long." Loosening himself from Vito's hand, Elsdon reached over to take Vito's empty plate from him.
"You expect the Queen's decision soon?" Vito suggested, forcing himself to set aside his lingering concern about the passage he'd glimpsed in the revision.
Elsdon shook his head. Taking both plates to the sink, he said, "I've no idea how long it will be before the Queen decides to approve or reject the new Code. But I've won a concession from the High Seeker. You'll recall that Seekers-in-Training aren't true Seekers until the time that the red strip of cloth on their hood is removed and they make their oath to be eternally confined within the dungeon. So Layle has agreed to allow forthcoming Seekers-in-Training to be governed, not by the current Code of Seeking, but by my revision of it. You'll see the Code before any other junior member of this dungeon does." He smiled over his shoulder at Vito.
"Optimist." Vito smiled back, relieved that Elsdon was so quick to forgive him for his appalling behavior.
Would that Layle Smith shared Elsdon's quality of mercy.
"Do you need help with the dishes?" asked Vito.
Elsdon shook his head. "The maid will take care of it."
"Layle Smith is allowing women into his living cell now?" said Vito, going over to look at the bookcase against the wall next to the outer dungeon. Most of the books on theater culture, Vito realized with a small shock, probably belonged to Layle, rather than to Elsdon, whose literary tastes ran more toward mechanical manuals. "Truly, this dungeon is entering into reform if the High Seeker has condescended to allow such lowly beings into his—"
Behind Vito, there was a bang. Two bangs. Vito whirled around.
It was Layle Smith, of course, opening the door and closing it behind him. Nobody else – perhaps not even Elsdon Taylor, who lived there – would dare to abruptly enter the High Seeker's living quarters. There were rumors that, in his early years, Layle Smith had broken the wrist of a guard who tapped him on the shoulder unexpectedly.
The High Seeker wore the same uniform that Elsdon did, with one great difference: his face-cloth was down. It always remained down, Vito had been given to understand, even in the presence of Seward Sobel, who had served as senior night guard to Layle Smith for twenty-seven years. Aside from the healer, whose work required him to examine naked men, only two men in the dungeon existed to whom the High Seeker would reveal his face: his close friend, Weldon Chapman, and his love-mate.
As always, Elsdon looked as though he would like to rush up to the High Seeker and greet him with a passionate kiss. But taking due note of the time – the High Seeker was normally required to work through the dusk and dawn shifts – Elsdon instead said in a professional manner, "Sir? May I help you with something?"
"I have news." The High Seeker's posture was rigid; so was his voice. There was nothing in his tone to indicate that the man he was addressing had shared his bed for ten years. "Mr. and Mistress Chapman have received a letter."
"From Vovim?" Elsdon stood up abruptly from where he had been crouching down to examine the stage scenery. "Then Zenas made it safely over the border?"
"No. He was arrested."
Vito felt a sharp pain in his chest, more from Elsdon's expression than from the news itself. He had only met the adopted son of Birdesmond Chapman and her fellow Seeker husband on a handful of occasions, and he had never held a conversation with the lad; until recently, Zenas had known only the native tongue of the province of Vovim in which he had been born. Elsdon had told Vito the whole story, however: how Zenas had been enslaved and mauled and molested by his father's murderer and had ultimately killed his slave-master in a desperate attempt to save his own life. He was twelve years old at the time. In what Vito considered to be an apt example of the lack of justice in the Queendom of Yclau, the boy had been delivered over to the Eternal Dungeon's torturers. Fortunately, it had been Weldon Chapman who questioned the lad, not Layle Smith, who would doubtless have stretched young Zenas on the rack, if only for the pleasure of seeing the youth in agony.
Elsdon, who remained terribly oblivious to the darker aspects of his love-mate, rose to his feet, crying, "Oh, no! For his defensive killing?"
"For his murder of the Vovimian ambassador, yes," the High Seeker responded. He had yet to look in Vito's direction. Vito was sure this was not because Layle Smith failed to be aware of Vito's presence.
Elsdon's fists were furled, his face pale. "Can the Eternal Dungeon help him in any way? Sir, it's unthinkable that Zenas should die for what he did! He already served out his sentence of six years' confinement in this dungeon. And he went home to try to help his own people. . . ."
Vito waited. Something about the High Seeker's stance told him that more was coming. It was just like Layle Smith, Vito thought sourly, to place his love-mate in unnecessary agony by prolonging the tale.
"And so he shall," said the High Seeker coolly. "Zenas invoked the gods' sanctuary, pledging to enter into lifelong poverty in order to serve the gods as penance for his crime. The border guards were pious men; they brought Zenas to a group of nearby aekae, who questioned Zenas and then declared him to be one of their own, veiling him as a fellow prophet. As a prophet of the gods, Zenas is immune to the King's punishments."
"And will now live in divine poverty for the rest of his life," Elsdon said softly. "Layle . . . do you think Zenas wanted this to happen?"
Vito blinked. It would not have occurred to him that this was the point of Layle Smith's seemingly unnecessary drama.
"Given the number of questions that Zenas asked me about the aekae during the months before he left?" the High Seeker replied dryly. "Frankly, I'm surprised he didn't veil himself during his final weeks in the dungeon. He must have kept his face naked here for the sake of his parents."
It took Vito a moment to understand what Layle Smith meant. Thanks to Elsdon Taylor's reform, the dungeon was now officially divided into two types of Seekers: the Old School Seekers, who followed the dungeon's traditional manner of breaking prisoners through questioning and torture, and the New School Seekers, who had pledged to search prisoners through questioning alone. The former wore hoods with face-cloths covering their faces; the latter wore hoods without face-cloths.
Both of Zenas's parents were naked-faced. Vito gathered that this had required a certain wrestling of conscience for Weldon Chapman, given his close relations with Layle Smith, but in the end he had sided with his wife, who, along with Elsdon and other dungeon-workers, had forced reform upon the High Seeker.
"Naked-faced" was now the Eternal Dungeon's shorthand way of saying "reformed." And so Zenas – who had returned to his native land in the hope of reforming the hearts and minds of Vovimians who forced men and women into captivity – had remained naked-faced until he was over the border, dwelling in a country where torturers did not hide their faces.
"There is news." For a moment, it seemed that the High Seeker was repeating himself. Then Vito jumped in place as he discovered that Layle Smith had turned his eyes in Vito's direction. The High Seeker had a tendency to do that, blast him.
"Yes, Mr. Smith?" He tried to keep his voice calm, though his pulse was racing.
"From the Queen. She has decided that she cannot be bothered with all the fuss over you. She has ordered the Eternal Dungeon to grant you a second chance at your training."
He felt all the breath leave him. "Then I am a Seeker again?"
"You are a Seeker-in-Training, Mr. de Vere. Whether you remain a Seeker will be determined by your behavior during your training. You will recommence your training at the point where you left off."
Vito cursed inwardly. Of course this was how Layle Smith would arrange matters: so that he continued to have the power to dismiss Vito from his dungeon.
But matters were different in the dungeon than they had been seventeen months before, Vito reminded himself. Now Vito was subject, not to the fifth revision of the Code of Seeking, which required him to torture certain prisoners, but to Elsdon's far more merciful sixth revision. As long as Vito remained naked-faced, he could follow Elsdon's version of the Code, rather than Layle Smith's.
"I appreciate learning of this news, High Seeker," Vito replied stiffly. "I am glad to have this opportunity to demonstrate my loyalty to the Code of Seeking. Please give to the Queen my heartfelt thanks for this second chance. . . . Am I to return to work soon?"
"Tomorrow evening," the High Seeker replied dispassionately. "A prisoner who was brought to the dungeon some time ago has been set aside for you in Breaking Cell 1. Your uniform has been delivered to a living cell that the Record-keeper has assigned to you. You will have the cell to yourself for a while. Your roommate is in the infirmary; he was attacked by a different prisoner and is not expected to live. He is naked-faced," the High Seeker added, as though in explanation. "You have been assigned guards for both shifts. You may begin searching the prisoner at the beginning of tomorrow's night shift. I have the prisoner's arrest records here, though I doubt you'll find much in them that is of use to you."
That stung. Vito's last disastrous searching of a prisoner – which had culminated with him falling in love with his prisoner and unwittingly helping the unscrupulous criminal to escape justice – had started with Vito's stubborn refusal to read the arrest records of Edwin Orville Gurth. Everything had deteriorated from that point onwards.
"I will do my best to familiarize myself with the prisoner's case," he told the High Seeker, still stiffly, as he took the blue volume from him.
"Try not to be too familiar, if you please." With that light and inexplicable remark, the High Seeker left his living cell, shutting the door behind him.
Vito stared at the door, bewildered. Then some instinct made him look down at his prisoner's arrest records. His breath rushed in.
"What is it?" Elsdon, who had remained silent but smiling throughout the conversation, came forward to place his hand on Vito's back.
Vito showed him the blue volume. Elsdon's light-skinned face grew paler. He jerked his gaze up to stare wordlessly at Vito.
Vito gave a bitter laugh. "Do you have any doubts left," he asked as he tucked the volume under his arm, "as to whether this will be a fair test?"