Vito had been surprised and saddened to learn that no devotional services were held in the dungeon. There was not even a chapel – just the crematorium and a vigil chamber far below it, where Seekers mourned loved ones who had died. The rituals governing such vigils were ancient and moving, but they were rarely undertaken, since they required Seekers to absent themselves from work for a full month.
The closest that the Eternal Dungeon came to a devotional service was the care of newly dead prisoners. The bodies of executed prisoners were returned to the dungeon and watched over in the crematorium by one of the guards who had assisted with the prisoner's searching. At the end of a shift's watch, the body was discreetly removed to another part of the dungeon, where it was cremated; then the ashes were returned to the crematorium, where they were scattered in the death pit by the guard, who sang prayers for the newly reborn.
All this was moving too: the desire for the Eternal Dungeon to care even for the executed, the optimism that convicted criminals would be reborn into a new life. Yet it seemed to Vito that all this emphasis on the dead did not encompass the full magnitude of the Yclau faith. Rebirth was not merely about mourning the dead; it was about living one's life anew.
He mentioned this at the weekly dominoes game, which on this occasion was attended only by junior guards. Vito usually stayed quiet during such games; gambling with money was forbidden in the Eternal Dungeon, so he need only lay down his tiles at the appropriate moments. Every now and then, if the opportunity presented itself during the guards' conversations, he would ask a question pertaining to his work. Even junior guards knew more than he did about how the Eternal Dungeon ran.
When he asked about the services, he found a ready audience for his concern. "It's a shame, a real shame," said one guard who was trying to decide whether to apply for senior rank. "When I was a boy, I used to skip chapel every chance I could. But now it's different. My wife pointed out that, if I lived in the dungeon with my family, as senior guards do, she and I and our children would no longer be able to attend chapel. It's the main thing that has been holding me back from applying for seniority."
"I heard that, back in the time of the old High Torturer, devotional services were held in the crematorium every dawn and dusk," inserted another guard.
"Surely we could get permission to revive that custom, couldn't we?" suggested Vito.
After much discussion, they agreed to hold services at dawn. Many Seekers remained on duty then, and the senior guards who had been released from guarding prisoners would be holding their daily meeting in the guardroom, which was closed at that time to junior guards.
"But perhaps this would interfere with your schedule, sir, if you're returned to Seeker duties?" suggested a guard to Vito, solicitously.
Vito smiled. "I don't work overtime. I'm not ambitious."
There was a mysterious exchange of looks between the guards.
The first service went well. With Elsdon's assistance, Vito had obtained a copy of the dungeon's devotional book, which was based upon the Code of Seeking, interlaced with traditional prayers and Sayings. The devotional book was still used on special occasions, so Vito was the only man present who stumbled through the words of the service.
A little more disconcerting was the fact that the junior guards asked Vito to provide the commentary. Yclau services didn't have sermons, or even priests, in the usual meaning of the word – just a cleric who explained any portions of the ancient prayers and Sayings whose meaning had become obscure over the centuries. But when a cleric was not present to undertake this task, it was common for especially respected members of the gathering to be asked to speak a few words about the prayers and Sayings of the day.
Vito had always been a quiet man, and he considered himself to be unpolished in his speech – not like the High Seeker, who had all the eloquence of a Vovimian stage-player. However, Vito's higher rank evidently made him the guards' choice for a commentator, and so he had done his best, stumbling out a few sentences about the man whose role he was rehearsing. "We usually think of the first man who was reborn as being the one who sacrificed himself," Vito said. "He stabbed himself in order to escape from the changeless world of afterdeath, but in doing so, he believed that his soul would die and he would lose his immortality. That was courage indeed. But I've been thinking about his friend, the one who stayed behind in the world of afterdeath. He witnessed the transformation and rebirth of the first man, so why did the friend choose to stay in afterdeath? Why didn't he take the path that the first man did?"
The guards were silent, awaiting an answer.
Vito shrugged. "I really don't know. I'm not a visionary or a prophet. But it occurred to me that perhaps the friend stayed behind for the same reason that we choose to work in this dungeon: to help dying men to enter into their transformation and rebirth. Perhaps the friend made his own sacrifice in that way."
On the second morning, word had evidently spread of the service. Not only did more junior guards show up, but also laborers from the outer dungeon; the crematorium was the only portion of the inner dungeon that many of them were permitted to visit. Again, Vito was the most senior member present; again, he was asked to make the commentary. Remembering a conversation he'd held with Elsdon's maid on a day when he arrived early at Elsdon's living cell and found her cleaning there, he mentioned the important role that the outer dungeon had played in the New School's battle to reform the dungeon. He linked this with the subtle but powerful role played by the ancient author of the Sayings in the devotional book, who had lived his life in service.
The crematorium was very crowded the third day, for many of the junior Seekers were in attendance. While delighted to see that the other junior members of the dungeon enjoyed the services as much as he did, Vito found himself wondering whether it would be too ambitious at this stage to hold services at dusk as well, as a way to accommodate more people. Because of his musings on this matter, it wasn't until he was requested to come forward to speak the commentary that he realized that the crowding was caused partly by the presence of all the senior Seekers.
Including the High Seeker, waiting with cold eyes for Vito to speak.
Vito was struck dumb. Standing there at the makeshift lectern that he and the junior guards had constructed, he wondered what, in the name of all that was sacred, he could say that the senior members of the dungeon hadn't heard frequently before. It seemed hubristic for him to be standing here, rather than, say, Weldon Chapman, who was positioned near the doors, lightly touching the hand of his wife.
The sight of Birdesmond loosened Vito's tongue, though. He pointed out to the worshippers that the Sayings and earliest prayers of Yclau faith held no reference to women; likewise, the political and social structure of Yclau originally held no place for women. Not until the twelfth century, by the Old Calendar, had Yclau come to realize the importance of women, and at that point, leading the rest of the world with its progressiveness, it had chosen a woman as its ruler.
"We are a queendom," said Vito, "because we were unafraid to transform ourselves. I pray that I will always have the courage to do what is right, even if it is not always what was done in the past. I hope you will join me in this prayer."
Then he stepped down from the lectern. His entire body was shaking.
"Well, what did you expect?" asked Elsdon afterwards in an infuriatingly calm manner. "After just two commentaries, you had hundreds of members of the dungeon attending devotionals. Of course the High Seeker and the other senior Seekers wanted to see what magic spell you had cast upon the rest of the dungeon."
"Elsdon, it wasn't like that!" protested Vito. "People came because there hadn't been devotional services for many years. I was only asked to speak because I was the senior-most member present—"
Cocking his head to one side, Elsdon said, "So you haven't heard about the petition?"
Vito waited a moment to let Elsdon's maid depart from where she had been dusting the parlor. She smiled at him as she left. Then Vito said, "Petition?"
"The junior guards that you play dominoes games with," said Elsdon patiently, "have submitted a petition to the Codifier that you should be made a full Seeker. They've made clear that any one of them would be willing to work under you."
After a moment, Elsdon reached forward and gently nudged Vito's jaw closed. "You didn't realize that you'd made such an impression on them?"
"Elsdon, I . . . No, this is impossible. I've barely spoken to them. And when I have, it has only been to ask ignorant questions."
Elsdon smiled. "So I'd heard."
Vito sighed as he flung himself into the armchair. "You make me feel as though I'm in my training days as a novice guard. What am I missing?"
Elsdon sat on the wooden arm of the desk chair nearby. "How long do you think it's been since a Seeker asked guards – junior guards – to answer his ignorant questions?"
Vito frowned. "Surely it's not unusual for inexperienced Seekers to ask advice from guards. The High Seeker encouraged me to do so during my first training as a Seeker-in-Training."
"Oh, yes, it happens quite often. Most of us are a bit more subtle about it, though." Elsdon flashed a smile at Vito. "See, if I were to ask my guards for advice, I'd turn to Mr. Urman – my senior guard, mind, who is officially above my rank – and would say something like this: 'Now, tell me: How would you handle this, Mr. Urman?' Making it seem as though I was quizzing Mr. Urman on his skills, you see. Whereas you talked to these guards – these junior guards, who are below you in rank – and made remarks such as, 'I really have no idea how to handle a prisoner who is persistently obscene. What in the name of all that is sacred should I do? Have any of you encountered cases like this? Do you have advice for me?'" Still smiling, Elsdon reached over to place his own copy of the devotional book on the desk. "I think they find your straightforward appeal to be refreshing."
After a minute, Vito said, "Very well, that explains the presence of the junior members of the dungeon at the services, as well as the outer-dungeon laborers, I suppose. But why the senior members? Surely the High Seeker wouldn't leave his usual duties simply out of curiosity to hear one of my commentaries."
"He might," said Elsdon, "if he thought that a certain Seeker-in-Training was becoming a dangerous rival."
There was a long silence before Vito said, "Surely not."
Elsdon sighed as he slid down into the seat of the desk chair. "Vito, you're a foil to the High Seeker. He issues orders; you ask questions. He gives speeches to his Seekers and guards; you stay silent, listening. He projects power; you project . . . something else entirely. I'm not sure I can put it into words except to say that I have never, during my decade in this dungeon, encountered a Seeker who spent as much time as you do asking advice."
Vito shrugged. "I didn't do so last time. That was my mistake. I'm not going to let myself make the same mistake this time. In any case, I don't see how that makes me a rival to the High Seeker's authority. I should think it would make me just the opposite."
"Perhaps it would," said Elsdon quietly, "if it weren't for the fact that those commentaries are revealing you to be much less the fool than your requests for advice suggest you are. And don't pretend you have no idea what I'm talking about, fellow player."
Vito finally said, "I could use a drink."
Elsdon smiled again. "I'll give you tea. That's what us prisoners drink."