"Don't hate me," pleaded Or.
"I don't hate you," replied Vito automatically. He was trying his best to remain calm. He had sensed this confession was coming. He just wasn't sure yet how deeply in trouble Or had buried himself . . . and Gurth. "Just tell me how it happened."
"I'm not sure . . ." Or's voice wavered as his eyes blinked rapidly. He appeared to be on the point of tears. He blurted out, "Can I hold your hand while I tell you?"
"No." Vito tried to keep his voice brisk and professional.
Or reacted by cringing. "I'm sorry! I don't want to harm you . . ."
"I did what I always do – whatever is needed to survive – but I didn't particularly relish the idea of you dangling from a hangman's rope." Gurth's voice, from the past.
Vito gentled his voice. Whatever Or's motives, whatever his goals, there was no question that the young man was genuinely drawn toward Vito. Vito had evidence enough of that. "Or, you know I care for you. But I'm here as your Seeker. The Code of Seeking is very clear about this. Seekers must not touch their prisoners . . ."
His voice trailed off. He had forgotten to ask Elsdon about this. Had the sixth revision changed that particular rule?
Vito tried to clear his head. Regardless of what the sixth revision said, he could not afford to be seen touching his prisoner . . . and Mr. Crofford would assuredly see if Vito touched his prisoner. Even if Mr. Crofford had taken a momentary break from his watch after all these hours, the change in Edwin Orville Gurth's voice – from aggression and hostility to pleading and affection – would have alerted both guards outside to the fact that Or had arrived.
Or, who had seduced Vito the previous year.
Vito stiffened his stance. He said coolly, "We're here to discuss what happened when John Ambrewster died. When did you arrive that day?"
Tears still pearling upon his eyelashes, Or stared at him. "I'm not sure. I don't know what happened before I woke up. It was like the other times. I just . . . appeared."
Vito felt a prickling along his back, the way he had on the first occasion when Or had spoken to him. Sometimes he forgot that Edwin Orville Gurth was a wonder: a young man who had split into two. Vito made a note to himself that he should discuss this case with the dungeon's healer, as he had neglected to do during the previous year.
Nodding encouragingly, Vito asked, "What did you see first?"
"A man." Or's voice was hushed. "A big man. It seemed like he was twice as big as me. His face was hard and cruel."
So it was. Vito had seen a photograph of Ambrewster, taken when the man was arrested early during his career, on suspicion of poisoning a rival businessman.
"He was holding a knife," Or continued. "I thought it was a meat knife at first. I thought he was eating a meal. But then he noticed I was awake, and he whipped the knife under the table. I heard it fall on the rug. He said, 'So you're awake again? I thought all that wine we drank made you nod off.' As he spoke, he moved something behind the table-lamp. A bottle."
"Did you see what type of bottle it was?"
Or appeared to consider the question for a moment, gnawing his thumb in an oddly mirrored gesture to Gurth's nervousness. "It looked like a drugstore bottle. I saw a bit of the label as he moved it. Tinctura opii . . . I'm not sure what the rest said."
"Crocata," supplied Vito. "It was laudanum."
Or's eyes widened again. "Did he put Gurth to sleep?"
"Possibly." If so, it was hardly the first time Vito had encountered this practice. Vito thrust that thought aside. "Where were you during this conversation?"
"In an armchair," Or replied promptly. "I was all slumped down. The way he looked at me . . . I didn't know who he was or why he was there, but something seemed wrong."
Or's breath was coming more rapidly now. The tears were threatening again. Silently, Vito took out his handkerchief and stepped forward close enough to place it on the bed, within reach of Or. Vito was permitted to do that much for his prisoner, at least.
Or showed no indication of wanting to use this opportunity to attack Vito. He was struggling for breath as he said, "Last year, I told you that I intruded on Gurth when he was asleep. But you thought Gurth intruded on me. That he got us into trouble, and then he left me to deal with the trouble by myself. Do you think that's what happened this time?"
"Possibly," replied Vito. He could envision the scene: Gurth realizing that he had been drugged and using his last moments of consciousness to call forth Or, who came only when Gurth was asleep. It could not even be termed a spiteful act. If Gurth died, so would Or. Their only hope of living was for Or to take charge of Gurth's sleeping body.
"What did you say to the man?" asked Vito.
Using the handkerchief to wipe his eyelids clear of tears, Or said, "I wasn't sure what to do. I was afraid of him. I tried to make him think I was Gurth, but he guessed . . ." Or dipped his eyes. "I suppose it wasn't hard to guess. I'm so different from Gurth."
"In certain ways," said Vito.
Ignoring this comment, Or continued, "He started quizzing me. I panicked. I tried to run for the door, but he snatched me back. He laughed, saying, 'Even if you're not Gurth, you have something of Gurth's that I've wanted for a long time.' I couldn't think what he meant.
"Then he threw me on the rug."
With tears flowing fully again, Or described the nightmare that followed: his struggles to break free of the man who seemed merely amused by his efforts and who taunted him in his captivity.
"It wasn't like it was with the man who used to bed me in the place where all those girls worked," Or explained between sobs. "That man told me what to do and bound me to his bed, but he wasn't rough about it. I think he liked me. He praised me when I did something well, and he helped me enjoy it. But this man . . . He wanted to hurt me. He told me so. He told me how hard he was going to hurt me." Or's voice rose as high and hysterical as the racked prisoner's had been. Vito thought to himself that, if any of the dungeon dwellers had been concerned about what would take place in this cell, Or must be allaying their fears marvellously. He sounded exactly like any prisoner in the Eternal Dungeon who was being broken.
"He said that he'd kill me when he was through!" cried Or, shrill and sobbing. "He said he'd torture me to death!"
Vito said nothing. The climax of the story was at hand. Pinned beneath Ambrewster, Or was lying on the floor.
So was the knife.
"I was terrified," said Or. "I didn't know what to do—"
"Did you scream?" Only one scream had been reported by the witnesses – Ambrewster's.
Or shook his head. "I didn't know if anyone would hear me, of if they'd help me. This seemed to be the man's house. I just kept praying that Gurth would come back. He'd know what to do. But I—" Or was crying again between deep heaves of breath. "I didn't mean to kill him! I swear I didn't! I just meant to scare him so he'd let me go. But he was fighting me for the knife, telling me he'd flay me to death . . . I didn't mean to murder him." Or's voice fell, like a musical note at the completion of a diminuendo.
"It wasn't murder." Vito heard his voice as though it were at the end of a long tunnel.
Apparently surprised out of his tears, Or stared at Vito, blinking. "It wasn't?"
"What you just described is self-defense. To kill a man when he is making immediate threat to your own life isn't murder, much less premeditated murder. If the magistrate who judges you decides you were defending your life against an immediate threat, he'll declare you innocent and set you free."
Or continued to stare. The handkerchief in his hand was drenched with tears.
Vito reached into his other pocket and tossed his spare handkerchief onto the bed. "I know that you dislike talking to anyone besides me, Or, but without a second witness to your testimony, I can't present it in court. Will you repeat what you just said to my senior night guard, Mr. Boyd? He's a quiet man; he won't comment on what happened."
With hesitance, Or said, "I think . . . I think I've met him since I came here. He seems nice."
"Nice" was not the word that Vito would have chosen to describe Barrett Boyd, but it would do. Retreating to the front of the cell without turning his back or removing his gaze from his prisoner, Vito rapped on the door.
Mr. Boyd entered immediately, memorandum book and pen already in hand. With periodic encouragement from Vito, Or whispered his testimony while Mr. Boyd silently recorded it. There were a few changes in details from Or's previous account, but no more than might be expected from an ordinary witness with fallible memory.
As soon as the testimony had been read back by Vito and signed by Or, Vito dismissed Mr. Boyd. His mind was already skidding forward to what came next. If Gurth changed his story in response to Or's tale, that would provide reason to question the veracity of Vito's prisoner. But if Gurth and Or stuck with their stories . . .
Vito suddenly became aware that the cell was unusually silent. He pulled his thoughts back to the present and found that his prisoner was lying on the bed-shelf, curled up like a kitten.
"Or?" said Vito cautiously.
His prisoner's eyelashes fluttered. For a moment, nothing happened except that the eyes stared.
Then the prisoner leapt to his feet, so quickly that Vito instinctively took several steps back.
There was no need, though; Vito was not the object on his prisoner's mind.
"What did he say?" demanded Gurth. "Did the little brat blame me?"