The following evening, Vito strode toward his prisoner's cell, feeling refreshed.
He had spent most of the intervening time in a pleasant manner. The interview with the Codifier had been surprisingly brief; the Codifier had done no more than consult with the dungeon's healer before approving Vito's request. Afterwards, Vito had fetched water for his bath; prisoners such as himself were not permitted such luxuries as running water. Once he had bathed, he had fallen asleep until well past noon.
His dinner meal, waiting on the table in his cell, was a cold salad; evidently Mr. Sobel had anticipated Vito's need for lengthy sleep. After dressing, Vito had attended the new early-afternoon devotionals in the crematorium, which were conducted by the outer-dungeon laborers.
It was a relief not to be asked to offer the commentary. The outer dungeon used a different prayer book than the inner dungeon did: one of the devotionals popular in the lighted world above. Whereas the inner-dungeon devotional, understandably, had a great deal to say about death and rebirth, the outer-dungeon devotional was mainly about everyday life: working and eating and playing and making love. Vito emerged from the service in a reflective mood.
His next stop was Mr. Urman's living quarters. He had chosen Mr. Urman with care, for Vito had no doubt that any Seeker or guard in the dungeon would be intelligent enough to guess what he was planning. Mr. Urman, however, was reputed to be the most rebellious of the dungeon's rebels.
He expected to find Mr. Urman rooming with Mr. Crofford. To Vito's surprise, one of the junior guards redirected Vito when he received no answer at Mr. Crofford's door. "Mr. Crofford only lives with Mr. Urman on week's ends," the guard replied to Vito's enquiry. "The rest of the time he rooms with Mr. Boyd. I've heard that Mr. Urman has applied for a suite for the three of them."
This left Vito amused at the many permutations which love-bonds took in the Eternal Dungeon. Following the junior guard's instructions, Vito found that Mr. Urman – raised in rank the previous year to be Elsdon's senior night guard – was housed in what surely must be the worst room in the entire dungeon: it was located directly next to the outer-dungeon room where garbage was stored, and was within earshot of the busy dining hall. Given that the Record-keeper was in charge of assigning living quarters to Seekers and any guards who chose to live in the dungeon, Mr. Urman's location spoke eloquently regarding the guard's lack of popularity with the authorities of the Eternal Dungeon.
Mr. Urman seemed cheerful about his location. "Saves me a long trek to breakfast," he said, hastily pushing a pile of dirty laundry off an armchair so that Vito could sit down. "And the dining hall's the best place for gossip. These days, most of the gossip is about me."
Vito was quite aware of that fact. Mr. Urman's petition to become a Seeker continued to be discussed – usually with raised voices – throughout the dungeon, drawing attention away from Vito, at dangerous cost to Mr. Urman.
Knowing that Mr. Urman could have timed his petition for a more discreet moment to himself, Vito enquired after the senior guard's progress with the petition.
"Well, they haven't said no." Mr. Urman flopped himself down on the floor; the other pieces of furniture were covered with an overflow of dirty cups and bowls. "Mr. Smith told me they'd give me an answer within the next few days. Apparently, he and the Codifier have been busy with some other crisis in the dungeon."
Yes, indeed. "I hope this delay is not too worrying to Mr. Crofford? He's your love-mate, is he not?"
He had practiced beforehand how to raise the topic in a subtle manner. Apparently, though, Mr. Urman was well-qualified to be petitioning for Seeker status, for after a moment while the senior guard gazed at Vito with narrowed eyes, Mr. Urman got up, disappeared behind the curtained area that constituted his bedroom, and then re-emerged with a small object in his hand. "This what you want?"
Vito stared at it, not reaching forward. It was occurring to him, far too belatedly, that any trouble he got himself into tonight might rebound upon Mr. Urman, for supplying him with the needed equipment. "I'm not sure—"
Mr. Urman tossed it into his hands. "You're not going to be such a bloody fool as to proceed without it, I hope. There've been bets going on in the dungeon for a week now as to whether you'd do this. I have a large wager in favor of you." Mr. Urman grinned.
Vito felt himself turn scarlet. "Will you be providing commentary on my performance?"
Mr. Urman's grin disappeared. "You're doing this for the prisoner's sake?"
"Then no. I don't gossip about what Seekers do to help prisoners. Ever." Mr. Urman's voice was flat.
Vito had heard as much from Elsdon. Reassured, Vito pocketed Mr. Urman's gift, saying, "I won't be going there as a Seeker tonight, you know."
"I should bloody well hope not," was Mr. Urman's only reply.
Emerging from Mr. Urman's living quarters, Vito was touched by the thought of all the people in this dungeon who held faith in him. Mr. Urman, risking his dream of becoming a Seeker. Elsdon, who had spent countless hours in discussion with Vito about his prisoner. Birdesmond, sacrificing her day off in order to help with Vito's prisoner. The dungeon's healer, Mr. Bergsen, who had approved Vito's request with such alacrity as to suggest that the more obvious aspect of Vito's unorthodox plan was already in his mind.
Which left only two men to offer their approval or to put an end to Vito's last hopes. Vito drew in a deep breath as he took the final steps down the corridor to where Mr. Boyd and Mr. Crofford silently awaited him.
From the junior guard at Mr. Crofford's door – who was friendly enough to give the Seeker-in-Training due warning – Vito had learned that the news had spread far and wide in the dungeon that he had abandoned his prisoner. "Tossed him to the lions in order to retain your position as Seeker," the junior guard had said with an apologetic look. "I'm sorry, sir, but nobody can think why else you would have recused yourself from this case."
Now, as Vito approached the prisoner's cell, he wondered whether Mr. Boyd or Mr. Crofford had spread the news. Although Layle Smith had evidently not publicized the fact that Vito was suspended from his duties, the prisoner's records would show that Vito had refused to accept Edwin Orville Gurth's stories. Did Vito's guards think he had made the prisoner look guilty, simply in order to curry favor with the High Seeker? Could they possibly understand that Vito had been forced to choose between his love of Edwin Orville Gurth and his love of the Code?
Taking care to move slowly – the guards were no doubt under orders from the High Seeker to keep Vito away from the cell at all costs – Vito pulled from his pocket the piece of paper that the Codifier had given him the previous night. "I have permission from the Codifier to visit the prisoner."
"Yes, sir." Mr. Boyd did not so much as glance at the paper. "Mr. Smith told us you would be doing so. He gave us orders to admit you, two days ago."
Two days ago?
Vito was left holding the piece of paper, feeling exceedingly foolish. It was little comfort to know that he was hardly the first man to have been made a fool of by the High Seeker.
"Kindly take special note of the final paragraphs of the ninth chapter," the High Seeker had said. The paragraphs that contained the sentence which would allow Vito access once more to his prisoner.
Feeling uneasy now – just how much had that blasted High Seeker guessed about what Vito would plan to do? – Vito pocketed the paper and cleared his throat. This was the tricky part. "I will be with the prisoner for some time. There is no need for you to remain on duty."
The guards exchanged glances. It was a wonder they didn't arrest him on the spot. Vito knew when the last occasion was that an inner-dungeon worker had sent away a guard from the prisoner he was watching over.
Mr. Boyd had done that five years ago . . . shortly before he gave his prisoner a dagger with which to kill himself, in order to save the prisoner from a more painful death.
Uncomfortably aware of the object that lay heavy in his pocket, Vito waited. And then stiffened as Mr. Crofford reached for his dagger.
Except that it was not his dagger he touched. Ignoring the weapons at his belt, Mr. Crofford drew a tiny tin from his pocket and handed it to Vito. Vito raised the lid of the tin and stared at the object there, mystified.
Mr. Crofford cleared his throat. "The healer uses it. When he's visiting prisoners."
It took Vito another moment to understand. Then he raised his gaze from the tin. "Mr. Crofford, this goes against your duty." As would abandoning his post, but Vito need not press that obvious point.
Mr. Crofford shook his head. "Sir, the Code of Seeking requires that junior guards watch through the hole any time that someone enters the prison cell if the junior guard should deem it necessary. Mr. Boyd and I already discussed this together. We agree that a watch isn't necessary in this case."
"Though quietness on your part would be helpful." Mr. Boyd's expression was as sober as always. There was no telling whether he had chosen this moment to indulge in dark humor.
Vito looked from one guard to the other. Clifford Crofford, Barrett Boyd, D. Urman, David Bergsen, Birdesmond Chapman, Elsdon Taylor. . . . All six of the remaining leaders of the New School trusted Vito unreservedly. And these two had the most to lose by doing so.
"Mr. Crofford," Vito said, "I understand that you and Mr. Boyd have requested reassignment."
"Not because of you, sir," responded Mr. Crofford swiftly. "We had hoped, when we were given our current assignment of substitute guards, that we would be able to work together. But more often than not, one of us is asked to substitute for a sick guard, while the other is assigned different duties. We'd prefer to work together."
And Mr. Boyd no doubt had difficulty finding a Seeker who was willing to work with him, being considered as much a challenge to his Seekers as Mr. Urman was. Vito had been thinking about that for several days.
Now he asked, "If I should become a full Seeker, would the two of you consider a permanent assignment as my night guards?"
Too late, he realized that his offer, under the current circumstances, could too easily be regarded as a bribe. Mr. Crofford had already turned his head toward Mr. Boyd, his expression full of anticipation.
Mr. Boyd was not so impulsive. But his response, when it came, was even more impressive than Mr. Crofford's eagerness. "Yes, sir. It would be an honor."
"The honor is mine," replied Vito quietly. "If I might enter the cell now . . ."
He was careful not to phrase the request as an order. As he had told Mr. Urman, he was not here as a Seeker.
He took a quick glance to the side. The nearby cells were evidently unpopulated at the moment; no guards stood there. Any guards who might have noticed him in conversation with Mr. Crofford and Mr. Boyd had apparently lost interest; nobody was looking his way. He turned his attention back to his own guards. Mr. Crofford waited until Mr. Boyd had pulled his whip from his belt. The final night before a trial heightened the danger that a prisoner would attempt to escape. Then Mr. Crofford unlocked the door, his own hand hovering over the dagger on his belt.
But there was no need for such precautions; the prisoner was lounging quietly on his bed, staring at the wall. Vito, who had already popped into his mouth the gum which Mr. Crofford had given him, took a few chews before turning to face the door that had just closed behind him. Hastily, he sealed the watch-hole with the chewed gum, in the manner that the healer did when he desired private time with his patient.
Then Vito turned swiftly back. Keeping his back turned on this particular prisoner, for any length of time, seemed undesirable.
Although he must have heard the cell door open and close, Edwin Orville Gurth did not bother to look in Vito's direction. "You're too late," he said. "They're going to kill me tomorrow."
"I know you're likely to die," said Vito. "That's why I'm here."
He remained with his back to the door, keeping his voice quiet, as Mr. Boyd had requested. It was not wrong for Vito to be here. He had the Codifier's permission – and, implicitly, the permission of the High Seeker. But it was best that the rest of the dungeon not know he was here. They might guess his purpose in visiting the condemned prisoner.
Gurth – Vito knew it was Gurth, from various small clues he picked up immediately these days – did not reply. His gaze remained fixed on the wall.
Vito walked slowly forward, saying, "There is a passage in the Code of Seeking – I don't think it's much remembered or invoked. But it says that, in any case where a prisoner's execution is almost certain, he is permitted a visit in this dungeon from his closest kinsman."
Gurth snorted. "So you lied to them, telling them you're my kinsman."
"I am your kinsman," Vito replied softly. "I'm your love-mate."
No response except another snort from Gurth. Vito had reached within grabbing distance of Gurth now. Pausing, he looked down at the prisoner, who resolutely ignored him. Vito asked, "Do you want me to leave?"
A long pause. Vito kept his breath shallow.
"I'm bored," said Gurth finally. "That idiot Or isn't talking to me. I think he's gone permanently to ground, the snivelling little coward. You might as well stay. You're more interesting than the wall."
"Thank you for the compliment," said Vito dryly, and sat down.
That got Gurth's attention – not the sitting down, but the comment. Drawing his feet up and swinging into a sitting position facing the door, Gurth said, "Sarcasm. I didn't know you were capable of that."
"Not during my work hours. But I'm here tonight as your kinsman, not as a Seeker. I can say and do whatever I bloody like."
Gurth stole a quick look at him before returning his attention to the door. "So you aren't some sort of Vovimian god, precious and pure."
"If I were pure, Or would never have succeeded in seducing me," Vito pointed out. He snatched the pillow from behind Gurth's back, tossed it onto the floor, reached over to the small bookshelf on the wall, tossed the book there onto the pillow, and turned it into a footstool for his boots. Layle Smith would have had a fit, witnessing this. It was the fifth revision of the Code that Vito was dirtying his boots on; Vito felt perfectly contented to maltreat Layle Smith's concept of rebirth, now that a better one existed in this dungeon.
Gurth scrutinized him with narrowed eyes. "I'd heard rumors, in the lighted world, that the High Seeker was trying to keep you out of this dungeon because you were a troublemaker. I never believed the rumors."
Vito stretched, placing his hands behind his neck. He stared at the ceiling.
"So when are you going to fuck me?"
Vito started out of his relaxed position. Gurth laughed.
"What?" said Vito weakly.
Gurth reached over. Before Vito could jerk away, Gurth snatched from Vito's pocket the bottle that D. Urman had given Vito.
"'Lily's Lovemaking Lotion,'" Gurth read aloud, holding the glass bottle up and sniffing it. "Oo, it smells of lavender. Is that your favorite scent with your boys, Seeker?"
Vito resisted the impulse to snatch the bottle back. Instead, he forced himself to return to his previous position. "I like to be prepared for all possibilities. . . . I'm bloody hungry. When do we get fed?"
"Well, this is new," said Gurth, and reached for a hard-boiled egg.
The second hour of the night shift, beginning on the ninth day. On the night before a probable execution, the prisoner was permitted to choose his own dinner, within the wide scope of what was offered by the cooks in the palace above the dungeon. Gurth, as it turned out, wanted picnic food.
"Never went to any picnics," he explained as he paused from guzzling an amber bottle of ginger beer. "My dad was my master of the small school he started. The school held an annual picnic . . . but only students who received good marks were permitted to attend. No good marks for me – I insisted on speaking commoner, aye?" Gurth switched effortlessly to his native tongue, the commoner accent and dialect of western Yclau.
"As did your mother," Vito pointed out, reaching for a piece of cheese. He was sitting with his left boot resting on his right thigh. It was the closest he could get to demonstrating informality. If he had still been a guard in the lighted world, he could have removed his jacket and vest and scarf, but Seekers wore the same clothes as prisoners – or rather, the same clothes as their fellow prisoners. Shirt, trousers, suspenders or belt, undergarments, boots. The only difference between the Seekers and the other prisoners was that Seekers were not searched for weapons.
Vito's hidden weapon lay under the bed, where Gurth had swept it when Mr. Crofford arrived with the dinner. Apparently, getting Vito into trouble wasn't Gurth's plan tonight.
Gurth snorted. "You think my dad wanted to be reminded of that? I heard it a hundred times: his justification for why he fucked my mam, a whore. He was even married at the time, did you know? I always suspected his wife found out and died of heartbreak. He figured that the way for him to be showing his penance was to turn me, a whore's bastard, into a proper gent. Only I didn't cooperate." He tentatively took a bite of the sandwich. "What is this?"
"Ham salad," Vito informed him. "What about the school run by the orphanage? You had good marks there; it was in your records."
Gurth shrugged. "I guess Or attended those picnics. He could tell you what they were like."
The two of them were silent for a while after that, sampling the fares. Outside, faintly, came the sound of a prisoner screaming. Too close to be the rack rooms; it must be due to a beating – one of the last beatings, for the sixth revision would be issued soon. Vito inwardly thanked Elsdon's foresight. It would not have occurred to Vito, had he been in charge of the revision of the Code of Seeking, to prevent the Seekers from beating their prisoners. The United Order of Prisons permitted disciplinary punishment, every workplace and educational institution in Yclau permitted it, and the right to discipline one's children was enshrined in Yclau law – a large part of the reason why Elsdon's father had succeeded in brutally abusing his son for years, and why Gurth/Or had been unable to interest anyone in his father's own brutal beatings until he falsely accused his father of rape.
Vito had possessed time, during his multiple rereadings of the sixth revision, to be able to imagine what the Eternal Dungeon would be like without any physical punishment whatsoever. It would make the guards' lives harder, there was no doubt; they would only be permitted to use weapons briefly to stop attacks by prisoners.
But in the long run . . . Vito looked at Gurth out of the corner of his eye, imagining a world in which Gurth's father was not permitted to beat him, the teachers at his orphanage were not permitted to beat him, the guards at his reform school were not permitted to beat him.
How much had Edwin Orville Gurth been shaped by the beatings he received, beatings he could only stop if he was sly or violent? If he had encountered, during his arrest two years before, a prison where no beatings took place, where not even the sadistic High Seeker was permitted to order a prisoner lashed, how might that have shaken Edwin Orville Gurth's view of what he must do to survive?
Oblivious to the chance that had slipped past him, Gurth said, "This is good. I suppose you eat posh like this, all the time?"
Vito nearly choked on his bread and butter. The last time they had met in the lighted world, Gurth had offered Vito caviar amidst the banquet of elegant foods Gurth could afford to buy from his ill-gained earnings. Apparently, "eating posh" had a different meaning for a young man who had been denied an ordinary childhood.
"Not now," replied Vito, forcing his mind back to the present. He was falling into his old, bad habit of letting his thoughts overwhelm his awareness of his surroundings. On this night of all nights, he mustn't let that happen. "Seekers eat the same food as prisoners do. We don't get feasts like this. Before I became a Seeker . . . Yes, I suppose I was lucky. At my primary school, one of the pupils was a recent immigrant from the Dozen Landsteads. The headmaster wanted to show that he was tolerant of foreigners' cultures and faiths, so he gave us holidays on every holiday that the Landsteader boy celebrated. We had dozens of holidays that year; we boys usually went on picnics."
Gurth paused in the midst of cramming gingerbread into his bulging mouth. He mumbled round the dessert, "Landsteaders have the same faith as the Yclau do. And they celebrate fewer holidays than we do."
"Yes," said Vito. He waited.
Fortunately, Gurth had swallowed the gingerbread before understanding came. He whooped with laughter. "Did the headmaster ever find out?"
Vito grinned. "At the end of the year. He was ready to cane the lot of us for stringing him along. Then one of the pupils – a lad with darker skin than the rest – piped up and said that his family now followed the holy days of their Vovimian ancestors, and he'd come to school with a long list of deity days that his parents wished the school to celebrate. . . . After that speech, the pupils were laughing so hard that the headmaster realized it was easier to join into the laughter than to punish us. But our school was patriotic after that, only celebrating Yclau holidays."
"And who was the dark-skinned pupil who held back the caning, eh?" Gurth poked Vito, the first time he'd touched Vito since the Seeker's arrival. Vito smiled, letting his silence be the reply. He reached for another sandwich.
As a matter of fact, the picnics back then had been a lot less pleasant for Vito than Gurth probably imagined. From the time that he learned of the Eternal Dungeon's atrocities, at age ten, Vito had known that he would be returning to this dungeon to fight the torturers. Knowing that, he had made no effort to acquire friends, either in school or in training academy or in the many prisons where he had worked, accumulating the credentials he needed to apply for work at the Eternal Dungeon. Friendly acquaintances, yes. People of whom he was fond, yes. But nobody with whom he might share the secrets of his soul.
Only now, belatedly, was he realizing that he lacked a certain skill which he needed in order to be a Seeker: the skill to befriend his fellow prison-workers, and on rare occasions like this, to befriend his prisoner.
With the exception of his relations with his fellow rebels, Elsdon and Birdesmond, Vito had no idea how to be social. He only knew how to pretend to be social, in order to break a prisoner. In that respect, Mr. Crofford had been quite wrong about him: Vito's words to prisoners might be truthful, but his friendliness was a mask he could take on or off.
Tonight he could not wear a mask. So he was doing his best, taking his cues from Gurth – who, whatever his other faults were, had evidently learned how to make friends.
"I don't know how to do this," Vito heard himself confessing. "I have no skills at being convivial."
"Aye?" Gurth seemed unsurprised by this confession. "Well, it's like anything else in life – you gotta work at it. I ain't that good myself, see? It's Or who does that, in the main. See now, he had friends flocking to him at the orphanage. All he had to do was be pretty and vulnerable . . . At the orphanage, there was only two ways to survive. First, be so fragile that none could bear to hit you. Second, be so tough that you hit first."
"You and Or must have done well at the orphanage," Vito observed quietly.
"Oh, aye." Gurth paused to munch on a chunk of cheese. His commoner dialect was growing more pronounced by the moment. "That's when we learned to work our act, aye? 'Fore that, it wasn't much use for Or to show up. My dad, he wasn't one to take notice of pleas for mercy. Then Or got the notion of going to the patrol soldiers – he's a bright one, he is – and after that, we worked it out together. When we needed to be fragile, he'd be fragile. And when we needed to be tough, I'd be tough. Sometimes Or would have to lure a bully into unwariness; then I'd step in. It always worked. You'd think that folk would have figured out, after a while. But nobody who'd seen Or would ever believe the bullies when they said I'd roughed them up." Gurth smiled with evident satisfaction.
"That must have been hard for you." Vito carefully laid aside his bottle of ginger beer.
"Hard?" Gurth stared at him. "Didn't you hear what I said, Seeker? It was easy. Or and I had our act done up in a ribbon and bow before we'd turned twelve."
"Oh, yes, I can see that," Vito replied. "But your act depended on everyone loving Or and hating you. As though Or were sweet and pure, while you were evil all through. Neither of you is entirely what people think, but you took on the role of the bad boy, so you received all the hatred. It must have grated on you to watch Or receive all the praise and loving."
Gurth actually growled. With his eyebrows drawn low, like a tiger ready to pounce, he said, "If you're trying to make me fight Or, it won't work, Seeker. We're a team. We work together."
"I don't doubt that." Vito leaned back, letting his gaze drift up to the ceiling. "And there are certainly aspects of Or that are lovable. It's no wonder I fell in love with him. But do you know why I kissed him last time? Not because I was in love with him. It was because I'd fallen in love with both of you. . . . Has that ever happened to you before?"
No reply. Outside the cell, the silence was deep and dark. Vito wondered how much time had passed since their feast began. Was it the third hour of the night shift yet? How close were they to midnight? How many hours until the execution?
"All right," said Gurth.
Vito looked over at him. Gurth's gaze was fixed on the door. Vito said, "All right?"
"You can fuck me. Might as well. It's going to be a long night."
"Not so fast," said Vito.
Gurth paused in the process of untying Vito's trousers. "You want to be the one to touch me, sir?" Then he scowled. The "sir" had obviously slipped out, a reminder of past years when he had been a prostitute, rather than running a House of prostitution.
"I just don't want to go so fast," repeated Vito patiently. "We're making love, not fucking."
Gurth shrugged, though he let go of Vito's trousers. "Same thing, ain't it? I can't believe you waited a week to do this. Is it because I'm a whore?"
Vito leaned forward to lick Gurth's collarbone. Despite his words to Gurth, he was as hot and hard as an iron rod fresh-made from a manufactory; it was taking all his effort to keep from flinging Gurth back and driving himself deep into his bed-partner.
But he was keenly aware that Gurth was a whore. A young man who had been trained to please, regardless as to whether he received any pleasure in return.
Vito pressed his groin against Gurth's as he kissed the young man. He could feel a hardness pressing back. Yes, Gurth was receiving pleasure from their lovemaking. But what sort of pleasure?
The pleasure of enticing a Seeker into his bed?
Emerging for air, Vito said, "I'd be a hypocrite if I rejected you for that reason. I've been visiting brothels since I came of age."
A pause. Vito pulled back to see Gurth's expression. The prisoner's eyes were narrowed – not hostile, but scrutinizing. "Truth?"
"Yes, it's true." Vito leaned back but kept hold of Gurth's hand, running his fingers lightly over the back of the hand. "Father recommended I do so because he judged I was hot-blooded. He said that, if I didn't find a proper outlet for my hot-bloodedness, I'd end up married too early or, worse, I'd ruin a good girl's prospects for marriage. He even gave me the money for my first visit. . . . He did tell me I must only visit the government-licensed brothels, the ones inspected for decent conditions."
Gurth snorted. "Explains why you never showed up at mine. What did your dad say about you falling for me?"
"We had a few words about it," admitted Vito. Gurth's hand was less tense than before; Vito read that news under his own fingers.
"I had to remind him of the date of his marriage to my mother."
It took Gurth only a second to understand; then he hooted with laughter. "Too close to the date of your birth?"
Vito smiled. "Much too close. My father knows all about hot-bloodedness."
They were silent for a while as they explored each other's upper bodies. Gurth followed Vito's lead in which parts of the body to touch, though he proved to have a most creative imagination as to the manner in which to touch. Vito's breath kept catching in his throat.
"Hard to imagine you fucking a whore," Gurth mumbled from partway down Vito's chest.
"Making love," Vito corrected, digging his fingernails into his hands in reaction to what Gurth was doing.
"They were whores."
"Doesn't mean I wasn't fond of them," Vito said. Gurth raised his head, and Vito just managed to hold back a groan. Trying to clear his mind, he added, "One young woman I spent time with wanted to leave her brothel. She was expecting. She didn't have enough money saved to buy out her contract, though. I paid the remainder of the fee for her training and helped her to establish her new home."
"But didn't marry her?" Sprawled lazily across Vito, half on the bed-shelf and half off, Gurth leaned his cheek upon his fist, clearly more interested in what Vito was saying than in continuing the exquisite torture with which he had been pleasuring Vito.
"The baby wasn't mine. I helped her track down the father. He didn't take much convincing to marry her, once he'd seen his young son."
Gurth's eyes narrowed again. Too late, Vito recalled another prostitute's son who had been claimed by his father, to disastrous effect.
But all that Gurth said, in the lightest of tones, was, "Lucky gal. Why'd you do all that for her?"
"I told you. I was fond of her. We'd spent a lot of time making love."
Gurth's fingers traced the path of where his lips and teeth had been. This time Vito couldn't hold back a groan, but when he looked over at Gurth, the young man seemed preoccupied in thought.
Gurth said abruptly, "So show me what this lovemaking business is about."
"Slow down," said Vito.
Gurth cursed, not under his breath. Then he said in a rough voice, "I'm not a girl."
Amused, Vito replied, "I never thought you were."
Drawing in a breath, Gurth flung himself off Vito. Under the electric lamplight from the ceiling, his sweat stood out in golden beads upon his skin. "A tip," he said. "Girls like it slow. Boys like it fast. You wouldn't know that, only going to the respectable brothels, where they don't offer boys."
"True," Vito agreed. He was feeling more relaxed than before, not only because he had spent the past quarter hour examining Gurth's body with his tongue, but also because he was beginning to tap into his old training as a patrol soldier and guard. Patience. Patience was the key to reaching a prisoner.
"So stop acting like I'm a bloody girl-whore!" Gurth exploded.
"You're not a girl." Vito turned on his side, appreciating the view of Gurth's naked, heaving chest. "Neither was my roommate at training academy."
Gurth's anger abruptly departed, replaced by raised eyebrows. "Ain't that illegal? Even for gents like you? I know they must have special rules here in the dungeon, if those ballads about the High Seeker and his love-mate are true, but up in the lighted world . . . That's the reason I had to figure out another career for myself: I was coming close on eighteen, and I'd have been the one clapped into jail, if I'd let a client bed me after I came of age. Was that only 'cause I'm a commoner?"
"The lighted world's law against full-grown men bedding other men applies to most of the elite as well," Vito assured him. Reaching into his trousers, he pulled out a clean handkerchief and began to dry off Gurth. "Fortunately, neither Ned nor I realized that till the final week of academy, when our law instructor covered the crimes of perversion."
Gurth snorted forth a laugh. "You didn't turn yourselves in?"
"There's a limit to my idealism," said Vito dryly. He was watching Gurth carefully for any sign that he would make use of the information he had just been given. As a Seeker-in-Training, Vito could not be charged with breaking civil law except by the Codifier, who was unlikely to be concerned by a youthful peccadillo that was entirely lawful under the Eternal Dungeon's separate law system. But Gurth could not know that; from Gurth's point of view, Vito had just handed him another bargaining chip for release.
He must have been watching Gurth a bit too closely, for the young man snorted again. "Your secret's safe," he said. "Whatever else I do, I don't turn in fellow criminals to the coppers – not unless the criminals are holding me captive. And you ain't here as a Seeker, you said."
"I can't be. I couldn't do this as a Seeker." He ran his hands lightly over the bulge in Gurth's trousers.
This time, it was Gurth who groaned. "For the Queen's love, just fuck me!"
"I know all about quick fucks," said Vito, tracing the outline of Gurth's shaft with his fingers. "That's not what we're doing tonight. We're getting to know each other slowly."
Gurth's chest was heaving again. "Bloody blades. You're killing me slowly. That's your plan, ain't it? Make me die of blue balls, and then I won't have to face the hangman in the morning."
The word "hangman" sent a bullet of pain through Vito, but he kept his voice even as he said, "How many times can you do it in one night?"
Gurth shrugged. "As many times as the client wants."
"While enjoying yourself," Vito clarified.
"Oh." Gurth was silent a minute, evidently never having thought over this question. "At this slow pace? Half a dozen times, maybe. I recover quick."
Vito's fingers reached the knot in Gurth's trousers. He pulled it loose. "So I'll give you a release now. Then we can continue."
Gurth's gaze turned down, watching Vito uncover what lay under the trousers, which was not drawers, but bare skin. "What about you?"
Vito smiled. "I have stamina. You may have noticed that."
"If you bite me down there, I'll strangle you."
Vito tilted his head to see Gurth, who had propped his head up with his pillows in order to watch Vito. They'd reached the point where the narrow bed-shelf – never intended for such gymnastics – was too cramped. They were having to make do with the hard floor, softened only by the blankets and pillows from Gurth's bed-shelf.
"Why should I bite you?" asked Vito in a mildly curious voice, though he suspected that behind Gurth's question lay a tale too dark to be recounted.
"I don't know. I can't figure out why you're doing this. Clients don't."
"I'm not a client," Vito pointed out, straightening up with a wince at the cramp in his back. He wondered whether it was past midnight yet. He'd lost track of time. "Didn't you ever have a client who preferred to be on bottom?"
"Not in a brothel famed for stocking the young 'uns," Gurth replied scornfully. "That's not what such clients are looking for."
Vito reached out, groped, and found what he was seeking. "Here," he said, offering the bottle.
Gurth sat up as he took the bottle in hand. "About time. You want me to shine you up?" Already, he was squirting the lovemaking liquid onto his palm.
Vito shook his head. He stripped off the remainder of his clothing – and the remainder of his honor, as his father would have said, except that Vito had discarded this particular form of "honor" in his student days. "Shine yourself up. You're on top." He turned to position himself, but not before he saw the shock in Gurth's face.
It must be very late. There was a certain stillness that came upon the Eternal Dungeon in the pre-dawn hours. The torturers and guards and prisoners were all tired, after many hours in which the prisoners were searched for their crimes. And unlike during the day shift, there were no interruptions from the outside world. In the old days, Elsdon had told Vito, the stokers had worked day and night to keep the furnaces burning, while the kitchen laborers had begun bringing breakfasts into the inner dungeon before dawn, so that guards could distribute the meals to the prisoners at the end of the night shift.
Modern inventions had put an end to the stokers' night-work, while the High Seeker had put an end to the kitchen laborers' night-work. Now breakfasts were served, not at dawn, but at the beginning of the day shift, two hours later. Food for the middle of the night shift was prepared on the previous day, so as to allow all outer-dungeon laborers the opportunity to rest eight hours. Meanwhile, the palace workers – the ones who actually lived in the palace – slept peacefully in their beds. The Eternal Dungeon was left alone during the drowsy hours before dawn.
The unfortunate result of this – Vito reflected, resting his cheek upon his forearm – was that any prisoner due for a trial were left with many quiet hours in which to contemplate the aftermath of that trial.
Vito turned his eyes toward Gurth, who was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling. Both of them were too tired by now to contemplate continuing their vigorous exercise, even though Vito thought that, toward the end, Gurth had begun to grasp the difference between fucking and making love.
Without moving his gaze from the ceiling, Gurth said, "I'm bloody scared of dying."
"I would be too," said Vito quietly. He did not make the mistake of touching Gurth, though he longed to pull the young man into his arms.
Gurth shrugged. "Don't know why. I've been expecting this to happen ever since age eleven, when the coppers grilled me to see whether I was trying to smear my dad's good name. Each time I found myself in trouble, over the years, I'd think, 'This is it. This is when it all ends.' And I'd got to find some way to trick death away. . . . When they brought me to the Eternal Dungeon last year, I thought I'd run out of tricks."
Vito said nothing. He felt his mind return to those early days of Edwin Orville Gurth's imprisonment – the long days of silence, while Gurth/Or desperately tried to think of a way to escape death, and Vito waited for his prisoner to speak, like a cat ready to pounce on a rat, the moment it moves.
It was an evocative image: Vito as villain, the prisoner as victim. But even as Vito thought this, an image drifted into his mind – an image that he must have been trying to avoid all this time.
A young prostitute, on the wrong side of the dividing line between girlhood and womanhood. The girl knelt to take Gurth into her mouth. Minutes later, dismissed casually by her employer, the girl hurried from Gurth's room, fear in her eyes. Then, hidden from sight, the girl began to cry.
"Fuck!" Gurth jerked around to lie facing Vito; his face had gone red with anger. "Get inside me. Make love to me. Make me forget."
Vito complied, not asking whether Gurth wanted to forget the future, or whether he wanted to erase the past.
They must have slept afterwards. The next thing Vito knew was a rap on the door.
He sat up. Beside him, Gurth had begun to stir. The rap came again. Too fatigued to recall that neither he nor Gurth wore any clothes, Vito said, "Enter."
The door opened. Mr. Boyd entered and set down a tray without looking toward their end of the cell. Beyond him, Mr. Crofford's body blocked the slight gap in the doorway. Mr. Crofford's gaze, after the first second, was fixed on the far wall. "Excuse me, Mr. Gurth," he said as though Vito were absent. "Here is your breakfast. After you break your fast, we will be taking you to the magistrate's court."
As the door closed behind the guards, Vito turned to look at Gurth. Gurth was looking, not at Mr. Crofford or at the ceiling, but at Vito. For a moment, they neither moved nor spoke.
Then, without need for words, they clasped each other tightly, kissing so hard that it was as though they were trying to bury themselves in each other.
Gurth was the one who broke the kiss first, though not by his own will. The men at his sides had begun to drag him backwards. Vito had to tamp down a wild impulse to grasp Gurth back.
Gurth's gaze remained fixed on Vito, all the way to the platform. It was Vito who saw the hangman's assistants step forward to pinion Gurth's arms and legs and to secure the hood over his head. Gurth's hands had already been tied behind him, before the magistrate's guards brought him here.
The hangman was a short, rotund man. Vito had invited him to luncheon one day the previous year, feeling instinctively that, if he was going to end up on that platform, as the High Seeker appeared to wish, it would be easier to be hanged by a man who was not entirely a stranger.
The hangman, in his leisure hours, was merry and bright and told atrocious jokes – none of them, fortunately, about his work. Now he was properly sober as he adjusted the knot of the noose behind Gurth's left ear. Seeing that the hangman and his assistants had the matter well in hand, the magistrate's guards left the room, letting the door slap closed behind them.
Gurth had been still until now, not even protesting when the eyeless hood that blinded him was placed over his head. But at the sound of the door closing, he jerked violently. Turning his head in the direction of the door, he cried with the anguish of an abandoned child: "Vito!"
"I'm here, my love." Vito kept his voice steady, though his heart throbbed so hard that he felt as though it was hammering his bones to liquid. "I'm staying here, I promise. I'll stay here till—"
The hangman threw the switch. The trap door opened under Gurth's feet, and he fell through the platform to the cellar beneath. The rope jerked. At the same moment came the unmistakable sound of a crack. Then the rope swayed slowly back and forth, with no vibration upon it.
Time passed; an eternity, it seemed. Finally the rope slowed to a stop. The hangman looked briefly down the hole before nodding, satisfied. At his signal, the assistants took hold of the crank to the wheel which pulled the rope upwards. Slowly, inch by inch, the body jerked back into view. The hooded head lay at an odd angle, like a doll that has been violently dashed to the floor.
The body was laid carefully down on the platform. The hangman's assistants blocked the proceedings as they knelt in front of the body. The magistrates' healer had moved forward, with the tubes of his stethoscope already in his ears. His inspection of the body was thorough; not until five minutes later did he rise to his feet, sign a book that the hangman offered to him, and leave the room in the same direction as the guards. The hangman scribbled a few notes in the book while his assistants worked; then he glanced up, looking across the room.
After a moment, he said something in a low voice to his assistants. They rose quickly, exiting through a door behind the platform. The hangman beckoned.
Vito came forward, feeling as though his entire body was pushing its way through filthy sludge. The sludge choked his throat. The hangman said quietly, "I can give you a few minutes alone, if you would like."
Vito managed to nod. He did not hear the hangman leave.
After a while, he knelt down. The assistants had removed the noose, but Vito knew better than to raise the hood and look at the face. He took Gurth's hand, which was now untied. The hand was still warm.
"I'm sorry," Vito said to the limp hand. "I'm sorry."
He was not sure how long he repeated the apology. Many minutes, he thought. But in time he became aware of something – not a sound, but a presence. He jerked his head around.
The High Seeker stood near the door to the corridor, forgotten in the shadows. Layle Smith said nothing, simply holding the Eternal Dungeon's Seeker-in-Training in his gaze as Vito continued to kneel beside his dead love-mate, tears streaming down Vito's face.
Finally, the High Seeker turned and slipped out of the room.