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Hell's Messenger

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Hell's Messenger #1
TRIAL
 

The year 400, the third month. (The year 1895 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
 

The dangerous and desperate criminal is often only the hero
gone wrong.

—Thomas Mott Osborne: Society and Prisons (1916).


CHAPTER ONE

Hell's thunder reached up from the horizon to the sky, touched Mercy's clouds, and lit them ablaze with light. The pre-dawn glow, struggling to penetrate the thick mist covering the mountains and foothills, was overwhelmed by the shining splendor of the golden clouds above.

Tyrrell, who had no special fondness these days for the goddess Mercy or any of her earthly representatives, did his best to shrug his uniform so that his collar shielded him from the rain pouring down his back. This exercise wasn't easy, since his hands were cuffed behind his back. He glanced over at Oslo, who was frowning at the narrow, barred gate in front of them.

"Is this a new kind of torture?" Tyrrell asked. "Making me drown in the rain?"

"Shut your mouth, Tyrrell," said Oslo, but in an absentminded manner, as though his thoughts were elsewhere. Perhaps they were on the rain, which had turned his dark blue uniform as black as the thunderclouds. On the other side of Tyrrell, Bailey shook his head to free some of the spray from it. The spray shot onto Tyrrell.

"We should have waited in the wagon," Bailey said to Oslo. "I told you that."

Tyrrell looked longingly at the patrol wagon, whose horses were hitched under an overhang further down the wall. But Oslo shook his head as he reached up with his free hand to wipe his nose. "Bailey, when they open that gate, they'll keep it open for exactly half a minute, and if we're not in by then, we'll have lost our chance till noontime."

"Rather exacting, aren't they?" commented Bailey, then sneezed. More spray landed on Tyrrell, who glared at the young guard. Bailey ignored him.

"No more than we are." Oslo glanced over to the right, where the sun was turning the eastern horizon a pink-orange. "It shouldn't be long now."

Tyrrell gave up the struggle to close the gap between his back and his shirt; his entire body was wet now. "At least if I die of chill-fever, you'll be dead as well," he muttered, and was rewarded with a kick on the shins from Oslo that left him hopping on one leg. Bailey took a stronger grip on Tyrrell's arm, as though he expected him to try to escape.

Just where Bailey expected his prisoner to escape to, Tyrrell didn't know. Tyrrell looked every which way, but all that he could see, besides the glint of a pool of water through trees nearby, were mountains, bare of humans and probably filled with wild animals that would maul him if he ran away. Oslo had cheerfully pointed this out to him when they first arrived.

Now Oslo was far from cheerful. He gazed up at the wall, as though hoping somebody would look out and notice them. Since the wall held no windows, that seemed unlikely. It was made of white concrete, and other than a drainpipe or two, it was as sheer as the cliffs. It rose four storeys high and was capped, incongruously, with an elegant, Vovimian-style glass dome. No light travelled through the dome from inside.

Another lightning bolt jolted up from the ground, so close by that Bailey jumped. Oslo, a more seasoned guard, merely looked annoyed. He took out his annoyance by digging his nails into Tyrrell's arm. Tyrrell, a seasoned prisoner, did not bother to protest this small maliciousness. Instead he looked again at the enormous expanse of wall they were facing, trying to calculate how many cells lay inside. Until the day before, he had lived in Mercy Life Prison, which had six levels. There was room in that life prison for roughly fifty prisoners on each of the five storeys that held cells, not counting the punishment cells in the frigid basement. Close to two hundred and fifty prisoners in total, as Tyrrell had long known from his careful memorization of the names of prisoners and guards.

This white lump of a prison in front of him wasn't as high, but it was so broad that it looked as though it could easily house a thousand prisoners, depending on how much of the prison was taken up with cells. Tyrrell wrinkled his nose, trying to rid himself of a raindrop that was tickling him, and trying to think through the clashes of thunder echoing against the mountainsides. He wondered whether he could endure another assignment in the laundering room, if that turned out to be his work here. There were bound to be more uniforms to wash at this place.

Not that he had any choice in the matter. He sighed and tried to loosen his handcuffs for the hundredth time on the trip, which earned him a hard knock on the head from the hilt of Oslo's dagger. Tyrrell went still immediately, knowing from experience that he was pressing Oslo's temper too far. It wasn't as though he would get more than a few yards if he managed to wriggle away, hands free or not. Oslo was carrying a whip, and Bailey a revolver. Tyrrell feared the whip more than the revolver, having been the recipient of its bite on too many occasions.

Thunder clapped in his ear, followed by bells. At first he thought the ringing came from inside his throbbing head; then he realized that it was emerging from the darkness behind the gate. "Here we go," muttered Oslo. "Get ready to move quickly."

The gate in front of them, narrow though it was, stood a full storey high. Tyrrell watched with fascination as the gate began to slide to the side, seemingly without assistance from human hands. He had heard that this prison had the most sophisticated machinery of any prison in the entire nation of Mip, since it was situated not far from their nation's border with the queendom of Yclau, whose engineers were famed throughout the world. Glancing at Bailey, he saw that the young guard was watching the gate's progress, his mouth open. He came from a provincial village and had probably never seen a piece of large machinery in his life. Tyrrell had grown up on the streets of the Mippite capital . . . but that was twenty years ago, and even the electric trolley bus they had passed on their journey here had given him a thrill of excitement. So much had changed since he entered Mercy Prison.

And now he was leaving the world again, most likely for the last time. He looked around again at the wet, mountainous landscape.

"Now!" said Oslo, and he began pulling Tyrrell forward, heedless as to whether his prisoner could keep up. Bailey was trotting on his other side, trying to reach the gate that had opened barely the width of two men. As they came near, the gate began to close. Cursing, Oslo shoved Tyrrell through the gate. Tyrrell stumbled and fell flat on his face.

Since his hands were cuffed behind him, this hurt as much as though Hell's torturers had decided to smash in his face. He lay on the cold concrete in the darkness, cursing in an indiscriminate manner that embraced every guard he had possessed the misfortune to be serviced by. The chill of the ground, combined with his wetness, had set him shivering, and he could taste blood in his mouth where his teeth had caught his cheek as he fell. In an automatic manner, he checked his teeth. They were all there, except for the four he had lost over the years, courtesy of past guards.

The ringing stopped, except for its echo. He received a boot-thump against his thigh, which told him that Oslo had made it inside and had heard the nature of his cursing. He switched the cursing over to a more specific target and received a harder kick against his ribs. He had enough sense then to bite his lip shut.

"I keep the Boundaries," he whispered to himself, and instantly felt better. He allowed Bailey to pull him onto his feet, and as he did so, he realized that laughter echoed in the dark room. The laughter did not come from either of his guards.

He raised his head. He was in a large, high-ceilinged room. That much he could tell from the echoes and from the fact that he could not see the ceiling. Most of the room was lightless. But in the left-hand corner ahead of him, on a balcony about where he would expect a ceiling to be, sat two men lit by wall-lamps. Both wore dark blue uniforms, and both had their boots resting in a leisurely manner on the low, barred railing of the balcony. Both had rifles in their laps, and both rifles were pointed straight at Tyrrell.

Tyrrell felt his empty stomach lurch. One of the men who had been laughing called across the room, "Mercy's man! What gift do you bring us today?"

"Compassion's man!" Oslo called back in a casual manner that suggested he was acquainted with the other guard. "I have a prisoner transfer for you. Fresh meat for the banquet."

The rifle-bearing guards seemed to appreciate this small witticism more than Tyrrell thought it merited; they hooted with laughter. "Tenderizing the meat, are you?" asked the second guard, who held a cigarette between his lips.

"Oh, believe me," said Oslo, grinning, "I've poked the meat quite thoroughly to make sure it's well done."

Tyrrell rolled his eyes. Even Bailey winced at Oslo's poor wit.

The first guard lifted his rifle and set it aside. "Ah, what a pity we will not be able to feast at length on him at our banquet. But we are somewhat gentler on our prisoners than you are at Mercy Prison. How many fuckings a year do you service each of your prisoners with? One hundred? Two hundred?"

"We're working on raising the number." Oslo's voice held nothing but amusement.

"Whereas we are unlikely to see your prisoner more than once or twice this year . . . if that much." The first guard pulled his boots off the railing and leaned over the railing, remaining in his chair as he scrutinized the scene before him. The wavering light of the gas-lamps on the balcony wall moved shadows across his face, which was thoughtful. "Hard to say from this distance," concluded the guard finally. "Why the transfer?"

"Your Keeper knows. You can probably guess. His name's Tyrrell."

The second guard, who had removed his cigarette from his lips in order to tap it over a spittoon nearby, went suddenly still. The first guard raised an appreciative eyebrow. "Oh-ho!" he said softly. "So that's the way of it. I was wondering how long it would be before Mercy's Keeper lost patience with those riot-rousers he's been housing. What happened to the others?"

Oslo shrugged. "We'll know when we get back. The first decision our Keeper made was to arrange this transfer. Your Keeper seemed willing to take him in."

The first guard shrugged as he leaned back in his chair. "Our Keeper," he said, "has all sorts of grandiose plans for this prison, though whether any of them will come to fruit is another matter. I suppose that servicing riot-rousers is part of his plan. Will you break your fast with us? Starke likes to arrive early for his gunner duty . . ." He gestured toward the second guard. "But I prefer to extend my dawn break as long as possible. You're welcome to join me in the guards' dining hall. The night watch will be coming off-duty soon, and I can introduce you."

"Yes," muttered Bailey through gritted teeth. "Warmth. Yes."

Oslo ignored him. "Good food wouldn't go amiss," he said, smiling. "And I hear that Compassion Life Prison is famed for that."

More hoots of appreciative laughter erupted from the first guard, though the second was busy drawing a long lungful of smoke from his cigarette and scrutinizing Tyrrell with an expression he could not read.

"We promise to feed you only the best," replied the first guard, getting to his feet and reaching toward a hand-sized lever set within a small, red hatch on the wall. "Come to the dining hall when you've delivered your charge. You remember the way, I'm sure."

"I hope I do," said Oslo, beginning to tug Tyrrell forward into the darkness, "but everything may be changed here, from what I hear. Your Keeper seems to want to turn things upside down."

"We'll see," said the second guard as his eyes followed Tyrrell's progress. His voice was barely audible, and his expression was hidden behind a puff of smoke. "We'll see. . . ."

They made their way through the blackness; Oslo was heading toward an invisible goal with unhesitating steps, while Bailey was muttering something about the difficulty of locating targets in the dark. Then the younger guard whispered, "Do you think you should have said what you did about the fuckings, Oslo? If people outside Mercy Prison know . . ."

"Bailey, everyone in the life prisons knows what we do to our prisoners." Oslo, who didn't bother to lower his voice, sounded as though he were about to laugh. "In fact, everyone in the Magisterial Republic of Mip knows. It's been reported in the newspapers for years. Do you think anyone cares? The magistrates showed how little they cared last month. Watch your ears."

Following this mysterious remark, there came behind them the unmistakable sound of a lever clicking upward into place. Then the air screamed.

Tyrrell stopped dead; he would have covered his ears with his hands if he could have figured out how to escape from his handcuffs. The loud bell before had been a soft whisper compared to the grating, high-pitched wail of this siren. Tyrrell had never heard anything like it. He supposed it was what would result if a twenty-foot giant blew a mighty whistle.

Oslo shouted to Bailey over the alarm, "A hard target to miss!"

At first Tyrrell thought he was referring to the noise that was about to deafen him. Then he realized that the wall in front of them was parting.

The wall had doors, but such doors as Tyrrell had never seen. They were fully a foot thick, made of a dark material that Tyrrell could not identify in the dim light of the passage beyond. Some sort of metal, he thought as he saw the light glide across the moving gates. The gates were sliding back into the walls next to them, as though they were flat keys entering slots. They moved smoothly, but with a rumble which suggested that only the machinery which was moving them could have parted them.

The passage beyond was grey with dawn-light. A few dim gas-lamps sparkled against the walls, giving evidence that the prison had not been entirely unlit during the night. The ceiling above glittered grey – metal again, it seemed. At the end of the passage there seemed to be an open space. What lay on either side of the open space, Tyrrell could not see.

Tyrrell caught a flicker of movement and saw that the second guard they had been speaking with – the man named Starke – had just brushed past Oslo, carrying his rifle slung across his back. He said nothing, but passed through the passage between the metal doors, and then turned right and disappeared through a doorway in the passage.

The air stopped screaming, as though it had tired of giving its warning. The heavy metal doors remained open. Oslo said, his voice thick with amusement, "Bailey, you're drooling all over the floor."

Tyrrell turned his head in time to see Bailey snap his mouth shut. The young guard continued to stare with wonder at the mighty entrance. "How could they build anything this big?" he murmured.

"They're riot doors," said Oslo in a matter-of-fact manner. "If the prisoners try to escape, Compassion's Keeper levers the doors shut, using a special riot key. He has the only keys to the inside lever, and once the doors are shut during a riot, they can only be opened from the outside. As the last lot of prisoners learned who tried to escape here," he added lightly, and then he blinked rapidly.

Tyrrell was blinking too. The passage in front of them, as well as the area beyond, had suddenly turned bright, as though a fire had sprung forth. Looking up, Tyrrell saw that the light came from glass globes hanging from the ceiling. Not gas-lamps, he thought in some confusion, trying to focus his eyes on the odd loop of sun-bright wire inside one of the globes.

"Landry!" Oslo called out. "You've been electrified!"

"Only the best in this prison, I told you," called back the first guard. "Do enter, Oslo. These doors aren't supposed to stay open after dawn – Keeper's orders."

"My apologies, Landry," said Oslo, in the polite manner he always used toward his fellow guards – as opposed to subhuman creatures, such as his prisoners. He pulled Tyrrell forward in the direction of the doorway that the second guard had passed through. Bailey was gaping at the electric lights now.

So was Tyrrell. He had heard of such things from recent prisoners at Mercy, but Mercy Prison was very out of date, still lighting itself through fire pits and oil lamps. Despite the tales he'd heard of fantastic machinery at Compassion Prison, Tyrrell had unconsciously assumed, from all that he had heard about conditions at Compassion, that this prison would be similarly backwards, embodying the barbarisms of the past. Mechanical doors and electric lights did not fit his vision of an old-fashioned prison.

Behind them, the doors began to rumble closed, without the siren that had heralded their opening. He and his escorts had followed Starke's path, entering a stairwell; Oslo was leading them at a rapid pace up the solid metalwork steps. They emerged finally onto a balcony that was also made of metal. Tyrrell glimpsed above the area to the left of him the great glass dome he had seen from the outside. The dome was high up, and Tyrrell had a dizzying moment of revelation when he realized that the room in which this balcony was located was four storeys high.

Then Oslo turned him around and shoved him through a doorway, saying to someone beyond him, "A new prisoner for you, Medinger."

Chapter Text

"Open your mouth, please."

Tyrrell opened his mouth wide, expecting the healer to slide in a jaw-breaking mouth-holder to keep him from clamping down with his teeth. Instead, in a fearless fashion, the healer merely inserted two fingers, probed around inside his mouth for a minute, and then withdrew the fingers, saying, "Drink this, please."

He swallowed the thimbleful of medicine the healer gave him, wondering what foul substances he was being poisoned with, but not having enough curiosity to ask. He was more interested in the view against the opposite wall, showing a row of all the work-plaques that the healer had acquired over the past forty or so years. A black-bordered plaque near the beginning of the row caught his eye; it held the Yclau royal seal.

"You worked in the Eternal Dungeon?" he said, intrigued.

"Yes," replied the healer, in so flat a voice that Tyrrell shut his mouth quickly. He glanced at the other plaques. Drug sanitarium work, mainly, judging from the plants pictured in the seals. Apparently the role of dungeon healer hadn't suited his healer. He wondered what had snagged the healer to this prison.

The healer – FitzGerald was the name, he'd been tersely told upon arrival – pulled his left eyelids open, shone a light in his eye for reasons known only to the Guild of Healers, and then set the electrical lantern aside. "Stomach down on the table, please. Legs hanging over. Pull your drawers down."

Tyrrell, who was already dressed in nothing but his lower drawers, felt a blush cover him. He glanced to the side, where a window and a windowed door overlooked the balcony. Beyond the balcony he could see nothing except a black wall that he had barely glimpsed on the way here, but standing just outside the door was Medinger, a guard apparently half of Tyrrell's age, who had brought him here. The guard was offering Tyrrell and the healer a certain amount of privacy by facing the black wall, but now and then he would glance inside the surgery to see that all was well.

Tyrrell waited for the moment when FitzGerald had turned away toward the sink; then he hopped off the table, pulled down his drawers a few inches, and leaned over. He had first endured a body search on the day he entered Mercy Prison, when a cache of wrapped sweetweed was removed from a place in his body that he had been sure nobody would search. Those had been his days of naiveté. Since then, he had been searched there many times, but never before by a woman. The thought made him faintly excited.

FitzGerald – she hadn't told him what title she preferred – returned to him. Without hesitation, she pushed her finger in. Part of Tyrrell, the part presently mashed against the table, decided that it liked this new method of body search very much. He winced against the pain of the confinement of his growing flesh, and then let himself enjoy the probing finger. It wasn't often he received such enjoyment. In fact, it had been over twenty years since he had last enjoyed himself like this.

In the old days, he had laid and been laid by anything that moved, save the alley cats. Twenty years of rapes at Mercy had diminished his interest in men, but not his fantasies about women. Alas, Mip had not gone as far as neighboring Yclau in employing female prison workers. This was the first woman he had spoken to since he entered Mercy.

The examination ended, to the regret of Tyrrell and the part of himself that was worming itself up his belly. "You may dress yourself again," FitzGerald said, and a moment later he heard the sound of water. Not water pouring from a pitcher; this prison actually had running water. Tyrrell wondered whether he could hope that his level of the prison would possess a flushing toilet.

Tyrrell straightened up, pulled up his drawers, sat back down on the table, and did his best to cover his lap with his hands. If FitzGerald noticed any change upon her return, she was too professional to mention the fact. "Now, then," she said, "any family illnesses?"

"Not that I know of," he replied. This was the literal truth. He hoped that the healer wouldn't quiz him on what the likelihood was that he knew anything about his family's medical history.

"Any long-term illnesses yourself? Heart problems? Anything of that sort?" The healer leaned over and placed her hand against his heart. Her hand was tickling his nipple now, which caused the part of him he was trying to keep hidden to leap with eagerness.

"Nothing to moan about," he replied. He was trying not to stare down at her breasts, which appeared ample from what he could tell through the stiff layers of calico. Her hair was in a severe bun, but silver wisps floated down to her neck. Which was wrinkled, he reminded himself. True, she had good face-bones, which gave her a neat profile, but in his street days he would have passed by this old woman with no other thought than whether she was likely to be carrying a purse.

He saw FitzGerald watching him, and he wondered whether he had missed a question. He added hastily, "I have toothaches sometimes."

"Mm." She fished in his mouth a moment; this time he was aware of her fingers brushing his lips. He resisted the urge to suck on her fingers. "Well, there's nothing I can do about that, I'm afraid," she said, exploring the gaps between his teeth. "That's outside my specialization. I'd hoped to get a tooth-healer in to help me once a month, but our Keeper says he can't extend the prison budget that far."

From what Tyrrell had heard about her Keeper, he was surprised the man even bothered to employ a healer, much less a competent one. He made what he hoped was a sympathetic noise as FitzGerald's fingers withdrew. She went over to the sink again, leaning over. Tyrrell decided that he really ought not to be taking such an interest in her tailside, and he turned his gaze toward the window. Medinger was staring in, his eyes narrowed. Wondering how much the guard had seen, Tyrrell quickly shifted his gaze toward the glass cupboards hanging from the walls, all filled with colored bottles and bandages and nasty-looking instruments like saws and syringes. The syringes made him pause. He glanced back at the bottles.

FitzGerald said as she turned around, wiping her hands on a cloth, "Try eating more meat. Soft meat, well-done. That should be easier for you to chew."

"I'll try," he agreed. He hadn't seen meat since the day he was arrested, but he supposed that it was just possible that a guard, as a matter of whim, might share his meal with his prisoner. "You certainly have a lot of bottles," Tyrrell said, his gaze distracted to the cupboards once more.

"The medicinal sweetweed is in my locked dispensary," said the healer. "At home, miles from here."

He was glad, for once, for the color of his skin; he felt the blush cover him from forehead to big toes. He looked back to see that FitzGerald's mouth was twitching.

He allowed himself to smile at her. "Am I that obvious?"

"To a trained eye." She had succeeded in suppressing her own smile. Stepping forward, she pulled back his left eyelids again. "How long did you ingest it?"

He hesitated, not wishing to relive old days, but his prison record lay open on the table, next to him. She could find out from that the general story, if not the details. "Fifteen years," he said. "From the time I was seven."

She raised her eyebrows at that. "You started young."

"My street tribe sold it to raise money for food," he explained. "Sweetweed was legal in those days, in small doses. I only chewed on it as a child. The older boys warned me not to do more. But then I came of age and . . . Well, I decided to ignore their advice."

"Drink or syringe?" she asked in a matter-of-fact manner as she leaned over to write something in his record.

"Drink at first. Syringe toward the end. I was only on it full-dose for a year."

The year in which he had committed the crimes for which he was imprisoned, but he did not have to tell her that. He could see that she had calculated dates in her head and was writing the appropriate one down. "And the remaining three years?"

"I was in holding, awaiting trial and then appealing conviction. I wasn't supposed to be allowed drugs then, but . . . Well, it's not hard to smuggle things into a holding prison." Particularly not with the help of guards who didn't want the bother of dealing with a crashing sweetweed addict.

"Hmm." FitzGerald scribbled something more. "Voluntary withdrawal or forcible?"

"Forcible. I was sent to Mercy Prison after that, when I was twenty-two." Where prisoners never received goods from the outside. Never. Whatever you brought with you were the last belongings you would have for your life. Tyrrell had not thought to bring anything with him except enough sweetweed to last him a couple of weeks. That had been taken from him upon his arrival.

He hoped FitzGerald would not ask him the details of what had followed; it made him sweat still to think of it. All she said, though, was, "Any flashbacks?"

There wasn't anything he could keep from her, it seemed. "Occasionally," he admitted. "When I'm under special stress. It's nothing I can't deal with."

She straightened up, nodding. "Well, you were lucky. Only one year, when you were young; enough time to catch you, but not enough time to permanently damage you. You would have been permitted entrance to a drug sanitarium if you had applied."

They had offered him that option at the time he was appealing his conviction. Sometimes he banged his head against the wall to think that he had not taken the offer. "I would still have been locked up," he pointed out.

"With greater freedom inside," she replied. "As I'm sure I don't have to tell you." She glanced at his record again – the portion of it describing his crimes – and then frowned and carefully closed the ledger book. He sighed. He hadn't held any great hope of a transfer to a sanitarium, not with his record. He might have had some luck, at his trial, of convincing his magistrate that he wasn't the sort to commit violent crimes except under the influence of sweetweed. It was true, after all. But he had opted for a lie at his trial, and that had doomed him to where he was.

That was twenty years ago. No point in dwelling on it now, he reminded himself, and he resolutely returned his mind to a more pleasant subject. Namely, the manner in which FitzGerald's ankles showed from under her skirt whenever she bent over.

"Well, that's all, I think," she said as she carefully wiped her hands clean after yet another washing. "Except for your anal tract." She saw his blank look and added, "Your fucking hole."

This time he was sure his blush must be noticeable. He had gradually weaned himself from the gutter talk of his childhood, mainly in order to be a good influence on Merrick, who hadn't talked that way before he arrived at Mercy, but who had picked up the language with frightening fluency. Never before had Tyrrell heard a woman speak such words. It was the first time in his life that he had ever felt sheltered.

He made a rumbling noise in his throat to indicate that he understood and pressed his hands harder against the part of him that greatly enjoyed this turn of conversation.

"Your last healer," remarked FitzGerald, opening the prison record again, "was a bit spotty in providing details about your medical examinations with him. Do you mind if I ask a few questions?"

His last healer had examined him exactly once, on the day he arrived at Mercy. Mercy's healer was drunk at the time. From what Tyrrell had been told later by other prisoners, Mercy's healer was always drunk. Since Mercy's Keeper saw little need to call on the healer's services, this arrangement worked out nicely for both of them. The prisoners learned to heal their own wounds or to beg the services of sympathetic guards. There had been a few of those at Mercy when Tyrrell left. Perhaps fewer now.

He made another sound of agreement in his throat, and she asked, "How long have you had the dose?"

This time he did not need to wait for the translation; he knew what she meant. "About eight years."

"You learned this in a medical examination?"

He nodded. The examination had been done by Merrick, who possessed an alarmingly long catalogue of his own sexual diseases and was therefore the expert among the prisoners of Mercy's second level on how to cure or endure such illnesses. In Tyrrell's case, alas, "endure" was the prognosis, but at least the disease had become no worse.

"And do you inform your bed partners of this?" she asked.

He caught himself in time from laughing. He imagined himself saying to Oslo, "Excuse me, but are you aware that you're about to rape a man with a sexual disease?"

"My partners know of the dangers," he assured her. "Most of them wear sheaths."

She nodded. "And do you?"

This set him to silence for a minute. There had never been any moments of temptation during his years in prison, except with Merrick. Merrick, though, had less interest in sex than any man that Tyrrell had ever known. Given the guards that Merrick had been assigned, Tyrrell could understand why. In any case, Tyrrell had been less interested in Merrick's body than in his company, and once he had achieved the company, it had seemed no great matter that Merrick possessed no desire for bed-sports. And from that point forward, Tyrrell and Merrick had both been so busy that Tyrrell had rarely thought of what it might be like to lie in bed with someone whose company he actually sought.

"I'm always on bottom," he said, this being the easiest way to summarize the matter.

She nodded. "Well, if you should ever do direct anal or direct oral – if you're ever on top," she translated as he blinked, "you needn't worry about a sheath for your partner's sake, for the dose has stopped spreading. But it would be wise for you to take the precaution for your own sake. Prison diseases are rife, I'm afraid."

"Ah." He tried to envision asking a guard to give him a sheath, and failed.

She seemed to be good at reading minds, for she added, "You'll find a medical supply kit in your cell. It's kept well stocked with anything you will need for lesser medical problems: sheaths, bandages, splints, and so on. For more serious problems – chest pains, for example – please don't hesitate to come to me. That's where my service lies."

She said the word without any accompanying look of irony, which he found reassuring. He hesitated, though. "How will I let you know of my injuries?"

"Just alert a guard."

He managed to keep from rolling his eyes. Cursed females and their innocence of the world. Or perhaps all healers were that way; he wouldn't know. He tried his best to explain. "If I'm injured," he said carefully, "my guard may be reluctant to see me healed, if he feels I deserve the injury."

She was standing now with her tailside against the drawers next to the sink, her arms folded against the calico cloth and brightly colored buttons, and her boot toes poking out from beneath the skirt. With her gaze steady on him, she said, "I don't think you need worry much about injuries from your guards. If you receive any injuries from other people here, they're more likely to come from your fellow prisoners."

This was news he did not want to hear. Not about his lack of injuries from guards, which was information he didn't believe for a minute. Rather, she had just confirmed his worst fears about Compassion Prison.

Merrick had warned him. A guard, he said, had told him that Compassion's prisoners had more to fear from their fellow prisoners than from their guards. Given the level of viciousness shown by the average life-prison guard, this was hard to believe. Yet Merrick could only have learned this from one source, and that source, Tyrrell thought gloomily, would know very well indeed what conditions were like in Compassion Prison.

"Any questions?" she asked him.

He shook his head, too miserable to think of any health matters he might want to ask about, though this was the last time he expected to see a healer for the rest of his life.

"Fine," she said, walking over to him. She unwrapped the bandage she had placed around his arm earlier when she syringed him several times for unspecified illnesses he either had or could expect to have in the future. He thought about that medical supply kit and suppressed a bitter laugh. If any such kit existed, it had no doubt been stolen long ago by his guard. He would just have to hope that he was assigned a cell-mate who was skilled at tending injuries.

Or should he be hoping for a cell-mate after all, given the news he had just been burdened with?

His gaze wandered past FitzGerald to the chest of drawers. He wondered suddenly what was inside those drawers. Glancing over at the healer, he saw that she had retreated to the end of the room to write up some notes about him. Medinger was looking the other way.

A minute later, Tyrrell began to scramble into his clothes, looking around the surgery for anything else that might be helpful. He could see nothing that appeared interesting, other than a black metal box on the wall. This was open, however, and he saw that it held nothing but lines of metal coil that travelled up against the wall. His eyes narrowed, remembering old days of cutting thief alarms before he entered the houses. He had been rather good at that, and it had been a much more enjoyable activity than cutting the throats of the victims he robbed.

This thread of thought was snapped by the entrance of Medinger, who asked, "Are you finished with the prisoner, ma'am?"

She gave a wave over her shoulder with a hand, apparently indicating that she was much too busy to bother herself with such trivialities as saying farewell to a patient.

Medinger nodded, turned to look at Tyrrell, and in the next moment, Tyrrell found himself stomach-down on the examination table.

Medinger located the object in his pocket within seconds. The guard extracted it, checked to see that nothing else remained elsewhere in his prisoner's trousers or shirt, and then hauled Tyrrell up. After checking Tyrrell's chest and his groin – which had grown soft during the second body search – Medinger twirled him around in one swift movement, jerking his wrists back into a single-handled hold. "Ma'am," said the guard, "I think this belongs to you."

FitzGerald turned around and started as she caught sight of the scalpel in Medinger's hand. "Oh, dear," she said. "I'm most deeply sorry."

"Not your fault, ma'am," said the guard, with no recrimination in his voice. "It's my job, not yours, to take care of such matters. Are you finished with him, then?"

"Yes, I am." Her eyes grew cooler as she looked at Tyrrell, and he had the terrible feeling that the next patient who walked through her door would receive a less kindly welcome than he had received.

He felt a familiar sickness of guilt in his stomach. With Merrick around, he wouldn't have made this mistake – not because Merrick was better than himself, but because Merrick was so much worse than himself that Tyrrell had spent much of his time trying to be a model prisoner, so as not to drag Merrick down further. Now he no longer had Merrick as his anchor, the man whose presence had kept him within the Boundaries of Behavior for fifteen years.

He was horribly afraid that he had just witnessed a foreshadow of what he would become at Compassion.

Chapter Text

His thoughts on the way to the healer's surgery had been so absorbed with what the gunners said that he had scarcely paid any mind to his surroundings. Now, retracing the same path as Medinger led him along the balcony, he tried to see what lay in front of the black wall to the left, but the young guard would not allow him to get close enough to the balcony railing to look down. The wall itself, Tyrrell saw as he tilted his neck back, was a storey short of the prison's ceiling. The dome hovered over the area behind the black wall, spilling light down into whatever lay there. Almost immediately adjacent to the wall hung what Tyrrell took at first to be banner chains, but they were far too thick for that; they looked as though they could have lifted a small building. He traced them down the side of the wall, but what they led to was hidden behind the intricate metalwork that covered the side of the balcony.

Medinger was hustling him along so quickly that Tyrrell was able to catch no more than glimpses of the rooms on the right side that they were passing. Those appeared to be the work-rooms of the prison, though no prisoners were there now. He saw stacked barrels and crates stencilled with words; most likely these rooms were storage places adjacent to the prison kitchen. There seemed to be an overwhelming number of barrels, and Tyrrell wondered again how many cells this prison held. However many there were, it appeared likely they were behind the black wall.

He and Medinger passed another door, closed. Tyrrell heard faint beeping and guessed that this must be the coding room. It was odd to have it so close to where prisoners worked; Tyrrell was sure he was not the only prisoner who had desperately desired communication with the outside world. The location of a telegraph room was something to remember. . . . He shook his head. Already his mind was plotting, though he hadn't yet been here for an hour. Compassion doubtless had its own leaders among the prisoners, and they would not take kindly to him arriving with a list of rules he thought the prisoners should follow.

"You're the new man," he muttered to himself. "You're untried."

He forced himself not to let his thoughts dwell on what form that trial might take.

He and Medinger were now approaching the final stretch of the balcony, which ended at an eastern wall. In his old days, Tyrrell had sized up many a house; now he made quick calculations in his mind, based on what he had seen from the outside, and concluded that Compassion Prison must have a second wing next to this one, perhaps where other prisoners were housed. Or maybe the guards? It was a fair distance from here to the nearest town, so perhaps all of the guards lived at Compassion. Tyrrell had vague memories of Merrick telling him that the family of Compassion's Keeper lived within the prison.

He managed to bow his head enough to see that, on the ground floor, no doors cut through the eastern wall that they were approaching. Ahead of them on the balcony stood a single door; if any exit existed from this part of the prison to the adjoining part, other than through the riot doors, it must lie through this door. He felt himself give a wry smile. Already he was planning his escape. Well, that was the favorite pastime of Mercy prisoners, and it would do him no harm to maintain such illusions here, even though he knew, from prison gossip, that no prisoner had ever succeeded in escaping Compassion.

But if he did, and if the town nearby sold sweetweed . . .

This temptation was so unpleasant that he felt relief when they passed the stairwell from which Oslo had originally brought him. Tyrrell reached the door against the wall. Medinger opened it with his free hand and then pushed his prisoner lightly through, his hand still firmly grasping Tyrrell's wrists. Tyrrell caught a quick glimpse of the place where Oslo had handed him over to Medinger: a small anteroom containing a cot, a washstand, a chair, and a desk, with appropriate writing implements. Two doors lay on the far wall; Medinger opened the right one and pushed Tyrrell through, finally releasing his wrists.

The room was bright with those ever-fascinating electrified lights. Tyrrell blinked a moment, looking around as he took several steps forward. It seemed too much to hope that this was his new cell. That was a real bed over there, neatly covered with a brightly woven wool blanket. It had an actual pillow, an implement that Tyrrell hadn't ever used himself, except on one occasion when he was so sweetweed-bleary after a theft-murder that he had fallen asleep on his victim's bed and had awoken five hours later to find patrol soldiers surrounding him. He had resented being taken from that pillow, he remembered.

There was a sink too, with enamel spigots, and a door to the south side, which Tyrrell fervently hoped led to a toilet, as he had spent too many years of his life squatting over gutters or trash-holes. There was even fruit in a wicker basket; Tyrrell's mouth watered at the sight. He had tasted fruit four times a year at Mercy and more rarely than that in his earlier days. Since winter had only just finished in Mip, Tyrrell supposed that this fuzzy-skinned fruit must have been imported, at great expense, from one of the small nations located south of Yclau.

A bookcase lay opposite the sink, which Tyrrell dismissed with initial disinterest until it occurred to him that the books might contain pictures. His mother, perhaps because of her heritage, had been fond of drawings and had torn pictures out of penny magazines in order to tack them onto her walls.

The room even had a rug. No winter-cold floors, ever again.

He heard a tell-tale clink of metal and looked behind him in time to see Medinger lock the door behind them.

He felt his pulse race hard and had to make an effort to remain still. The last thing he wanted was to spend this morning the way he had spent the previous night; Oslo, who been his personal guard for fifteen years, had taken a few last dips into Tyrrell during their trip here. Tyrrell was only surprised that FitzGerald had missed the signs of that departing gift when she did her body search.

He wanted to fight off what was coming, but he could not afford to anger his new guard, not when there remained any hope that he would receive the privilege of being housed in such a luxurious cell. Besides, he told himself sternly, he had the Boundaries to consider.

Medinger, though, took no notice of him. Pocketing the keys, he turned to a doorway to the left of the one they had come through, which Tyrrell had missed seeing as they walked in. The guard passed through this doorway and closed the door behind him.

Tyrrell immediately went over and tested all the doors, which turned out to be locked. Then he eyed the fruit. He was tempted to gobble it down before Medinger returned. But this place might be Medinger's own room, and touching a guard's belongings was a very bad idea, as Tyrrell had learned shortly before he received his first beating at Mercy. Theft was not a career worth continuing at Mercy Prison; the rewards were not high enough to compensate for the penalties of being discovered.

Instead he sat down on the rug, next to the bookcase, and began to inspect the spines of the books. The spines told him nothing, alas, so he took one of the books out of the case and began flipping through it. Toward the beginning of the book, opposite the title page, he found a plate showing an etching. The etching was of an enormous, black, cubicle building on a hill overlooking a large pool of water. Tyrrell recognized the hill and the pool of water without any difficulty; he frowned as he tried to make sense of the black building that had apparently existed here before Compassion Prison was built. A previous prison, perhaps? The walls did not appear to possess any windows.

His mind wandered away from the picture, like an unwatched prisoner. He remembered the Vovimian-style dome and the machinery that had surely been supplied by Yclau engineers. He was close to both borders here: the Kingdom of Vovim was to the southwest, while the queendom of Yclau lay to the south. He could have guessed that, from the fact so many people at this prison had patronymics.

Like most Mippites, Tyrrell had grown up without a patronym; like most Mippites, he had adopted a second name upon manhood, based on his profession. Tyrrell Cutter, he was dubbed by the boys in his street tribe, a reference to the fact that he was a cutpurse rather than a reference to how he would later end his victims' lives.

Patronymics were uncommon among Mippites; folk with patronymics usually had foreign blood or had social pretensions linked to the richer nations neighboring them. FitzGerald was clearly an Yclau immigrant; her pale skin and accent revealed that. Medinger . . . Tyrrell was less sure about him. He was probably of mixed ancestry, like most Mippites whose families had lived here for more than one generation but who came from a family that did not try to disguise its foreign origins. Tyrrell frowned, remembering a guard he had once known who possessed a patronymic but never used it. A sign of foreign blood that he was ashamed of? Tyrrell could not remember. It had been long ago, and the man in question had seemed likely to leave the guards. . . .

A cough startled Tyrrell into dropping the book onto the rug. He looked up and saw Medinger at the doorway, looming over him. For a moment, Tyrrell sat frozen, visions of a leaded whip slinking painfully through his mind. But Medinger simply jerked his head toward the doorway he had come through. Tyrrell quickly reshelved the volume he had been looking at, rose, and followed the guard's order to walk through the doorway.

The room he entered was an office, the same depth as the room he had just left. It had a cot and chair and desk, as well as a wooden filing cabinet that reached toward the ceiling, and a very uncomfortable-looking high stool opposite the desk. The walls were painted the same dull grey as Tyrrell had seen in the surgery, and there was no rug on this floor. There was no door on the far wall either, Tyrrell noticed.

The items on the desk were arranged in so painfully exact a manner as to suggest that the man who had placed them there was an extremely methodical thinker. He was busy now, writing in a ledger-book in a neat, crisp, almost cramped handwriting. He wore a midnight blue cap with the emblem of the magisterial seats etched upon its metal brim. The brim shadowed his face, though Tyrrell recognized the thin, flat line of the mouth from the two occasions during his life on which he had seen Compassion's Keeper from a distance. It did not appear, from the shape of that mouth, as though this prison's Keeper had acquired any more generosity or humor than he had possessed in those days.

He did not look up immediately as Tyrrell entered. Tyrrell stood in front of the desk, trying to decide what to do with his hands. His Mercy uniform possessed no pockets. Crossing his arms might be regarded as a sign of insolence; placing his hands behind him might be regarded as a sign of weakness. He settled for standing stiffly with his hands by his side, as a pupil might before his schoolmaster. The door he had come through clicked shut behind him, and then he heard the step of Medinger.

The guard coughed softly from immediately behind Tyrrell. "Sir, here is the prisoner," he said in a quiet voice, as though fearing he would cause an eruption if he spoke loudly.

Compassion's Keeper put down his pen then and looked up. His eyebrows matched his mouth in straightness, and his eyes had a touch of coolness to them. Those eyes were dark grey, suggesting that he might have a drop or two of Vovimian blood in him. But the tightness of his movements as he folded one hand over the other on the desk seemed more Yclau in its efficiency than Vovimian, and the directness of his gaze was Mippite through and through.

Tyrrell somehow managed to find his voice. "Tom!" he cried. "When did you become—?"

From behind him, a boot jerked his legs apart and then found its home, with unexpected suddenness, inside Tyrrell's crotch. Tyrrell fell like a sack of grain, clutching his baubles. Above him, Medinger's voice said, "You will address the Keeper as sir."

If he said anything more, Tyrrell didn't hear; he was gasping, moaning, struggling not to sob. He had been booted in the crotch more than once by his guards, but never with so little warning. Biting his lip, he concentrated his effort on relaxing, absorbing the pain, accepting it into his body, feeling it melt into his bones.

A conversation was taking place above him; it ended, and a moment later Tyrrell heard Medinger's footsteps recede. A door clicked open and shut. He didn't open his eyes. Now that the pain was diminishing, he was trying to guess what the man above him would do. If it were the man Tyrrell thought it was, the man would help Tyrrell to his feet.

The man did not move from behind his desk. Tyrrell had a vision of him calmly scribbling more notes while his prisoner writhed on the floor. Keeping his eyes squeezed shut, Tyrrell tried to think. A twin brother? That seemed the most likely explanation. Or perhaps Tyrrell had simply mistaken the father for his son. Merrick's former guard, Tom, had looked very much like his father, Tyrrell knew.

He heard the screech of a chair drawing back, and then footsteps coming around the desk. Kicks might be next. He drew his legs closer in to protect his privates, though he felt that this was a belated operation.

The footsteps stopped. A voice said quietly, "Stand up, please."

The "please" was reassuring; the command was not. At the very least, Tom would have enquired after his health. Yet, curse it, the man sounded like Tom. A twin brother was beginning to seem more and more likely. A twin brother spawned by the High Master of hell.

He managed to scramble onto his knees and then onto his feet before raising his eyes. The man standing a body's length from him was definitely not the father. This was a much younger man, perhaps five years younger than Tyrrell. His right hand was resting on the dagger that hung sheathed at his belt, and his left hand on a coiled whip hung on the opposite side of his belt. Under his cap, he had dark brown hair, almost black. Probably of Vovimian ancestry, then. Tyrrell would just have to hope that Compassion's Keeper wasn't descended from southern Vovimians. Despite the emancipation laws, it was said that quite a few men in that province still owned slaves.

The Keeper looked at him, gaze straight, for a minute more. Tyrrell dared not look away. Then the Keeper said in a soft voice, "Are you all right, Tyrrell?"

Tyrrell's breath came out in a gasp. He hadn't realized he was holding it. "I was somewhat better before I entered this room," he said as he attempted a wobbly smile.

The Keeper did not smile back. "Medinger was trying to help you."

"How, by smashing in my baubles?" The words slipped out of him. Tom was the sort of guard who had always encouraged honesty.

Compassion's Keeper did not speak for a minute. Tom did look very like his father, especially at moments like this, when he was so solemn. But there was no cruelty in his eyes, and he had always been a guard to think carefully before he spoke.

Finally he said, "That too. I am addressed as sir, or by my title, and Medinger considered it important for you to understand that. But in the main, he helped you by disarming you before you entered here. If you had come into my office with a hidden weapon, I would have had to use the leaded whip."

Tyrrell's smile disappeared. His capacity to stand nearly did as well. He had seen Tom use the leaded whip. It was the only time in his life that he had ever witnessed Merrick go pale – and Merrick had not been the one being beaten. Tyrrell himself had been sick afterwards, and it was not as though he was unused to witnessing floggings. The flogging that Tom had given, however . . . It had been the most ruthless, efficient punishment that Tyrrell had ever been unfortunate enough to watch during his years as a prisoner.

Perhaps not an evil twin then. Perhaps Tom had simply come fully into what he was beginning to be fifteen years before, when he had served for seven weeks at Mercy Prison.

"I'm sorry . . . sir," Tyrrell said in a faint voice.

The word felt strange on his tongue; he had never called anyone sir before. Not his guards over the years, who fortunately had never demanded it. Nor Mercy's Keeper, who seemed vaguely surprised that prisoners were capable of doing anything other than assaulting guards, much less addressing him politely. Tyrrell had certainly not addressed as sir the magistrates who determined his sentence.

But he had seen Tom use the leaded whip. That seemed reason enough to call him whatever he wished.

Tom looked at him a while longer. His silences were beginning to seem ominous. Suddenly he smiled. "I didn't have you brought here for a flogging, Tyrrell. Please, have a seat."

He gestured toward the stool. Tyrrell hesitated, but the smile seemed genuine; it was the easy, friendly smile that Tyrrell remembered from fifteen years ago. Slowly, Tyrrell pulled himself up onto the stool, yelped slightly, and then scooted forward so that his abused baubles would hang free. The stool was tall enough that he had to rest his feet on the rungs. Perched on the edge of its seat, he felt like a small bird roosting. Within sight of a carnivorous cat, he added mentally, still trying to reconcile the smile with the threat.

Compassion's Keeper was standing where he had been before, immediately in front of the desk, which placed him two bodies' length from Tyrrell. From this distance he said, "Thomas Keeper. I'm not sure whether we were ever formally introduced."

"Tyrrell, sir, as you know." Tyrrell eyed the other man with curiosity as Compassion's Keeper reached to the side to pick up a ledger with a midnight blue cover, which Tyrrell knew must be his prison record, since Medinger had taken it back from FitzGerald. As far as Tyrrell knew, he had never been formally introduced to Merrick's guard; there weren't many guards who would take the trouble even to informally introduce themselves. It made no difference, though, for if Tom Keeper had introduced himself fifteen years before, it would have been under a different name. It appeared that, upon taking his present post, Merrick's old guard had not only adopted a new title but had adopted a new family name as well. Apparently he was no more fond now than he had been in past years of his patronymic. Which was a good sign, considering that his father had been the previous, brutal Keeper of Compassion Prison.

Tyrrell heard himself say, "May I ask how long you've been Keeper, sir?"

"Six months," Tom Keeper replied, not looking up from Tyrrell's records, which he was slowly leafing through. "Unofficially, that is. The magisterial seats have not yet confirmed my title. My father was officially Keeper until a month ago, but he grew weary of waiting for the magistrates to confirm me, so he retired in an effort to encourage them to make up their minds. He no longer lives in Mip," he added, as though this information was of importance. "He and the rest of my family have moved to Vovim, where my mother has distant relatives. She has wanted to move there for many years, since she is a lover of the arts."

Keeper fell silent, pausing to read a page, and Tyrrell took the opportunity to scrutinize his appearance further. Vovimian on his mother's side . . . The Yclau blood must come from his father's side, then. The gold chain that was riding on his neck, just above his stiff collar, told clearly that he was well-born. Tyrrell guessed that Keeper must belong to one of the high-born families who had ruled Mip until the nation gained its freedom from Yclau forty-five years before. Most of those families acted as though they still ruled Mip; one could invariably identify members of them by the manner in which they projected a sense of power.

Keeper fairly reeked of that quality. Tyrrell's memories were of a shy young guard who only occasionally provided glimpses of the slicing blade beneath his gentleness. Merrick's guard seemed to have shed his shyness as though it were a cocoon; now the blade was all too apparent, in the manner in which he spoke and in each carefully controlled gesture.

Tyrrell shifted uneasily on his stool, eyeing the whip coiled on the left side of Keeper's belt. It was sleek and black. The infamous black whip of Compassion Prison was said to have a destructive potential that was second only to the leaded whip, which was nothing other than a black whip with bits of lead tied to it. None of the other guards here that Tyrrell had seen bore a whip. He vaguely remembered hearing that the black whip was so hard to control that it was used only for punishment by guards at Compassion, not as a means of defense.

Which meant, of course, that any guard wearing the black whip must be skilled to a high degree at using it.

Tyrrell passed his hand behind his neck, where sweat was beginning to form. He wasn't thinking anything he didn't already know, he reminded himself. For the moment, at least, Keeper was showing no inclination to make use of his flogging skill. He was carefully perusing a page of the ledger, the right sleeve of his dark blue uniform making a soft sigh as it brushed over the paper. His right hand paused, and then travelled down to tap a code upon the hilt of his belt-dagger. Tyrrell waited, resisting the urge to wipe off newly formed sweat.

Keeper looked up finally. He had been slender in the old days, and still was, but his face had filled out and taken on the lines of middle age. Only his eyes still held a certain youthfulness. "Well," he said in the same quiet voice as before, "your records are good, as far as life prisoners' records usually go. Some episodes of violence against guards during the first year, when you were recovering from your addiction to sweetweed. After that, nothing more than a few fist-fights with other prisoners. You were flogged on a handful of occasions for theft, and on several other occasions for lying – all minor offenses, dealt with by your personal guards. Your record for the past fifteen years is spotless." He looked down and turned a page. "Until the past month."

Tyrrell waited, feeling something hard grow in his throat. He tried swallowing, which made the ball in his throat throb painfully.

Keeper's hand was still tapping an unknown code on his dagger hilt; his eyes had returned to the ledger. "'Prisoner's record for the third month of the year 400,'" he read aloud. "'Conspiracy to disrupt the peace. Smuggling to persons outside the prison. False witness on a court document. Communication with prisoners on other levels of the prison' – that's a high charge." Keeper took his hand off the dagger hilt only long enough to turn a page. '''Persuasion of guards to disobey orders. Persuasion of fellow prisoners to disrupt the peace. Sentenced to sixty lashes of the leaded whip. Sentence commuted to a transfer to Compassion Life Prison.'" Keeper raised his eyebrows. "That's the first time I've ever heard a transfer to this prison described as a commutation. We'll assume that particular phrasing was meant as a joke." He clapped the ledger shut with one hand and looked up at Tyrrell, who was thinking that it made no difference that he'd been drenched by rain earlier. His uniform was now soaked as thoroughly from sweat as from the rain.

Keeper placed the ledger back onto the desk and began to walk slowly forward, his hand on his hilt. Without needing the order, Tyrrell rose from the stool and stood stiffly beside it, resisting the impulse to retreat backwards to the wall behind him. He tried to read Keeper's expression but failed, even though the electric lamp above them threw bright light upon the scene.

When Keeper reached Tyrrell, he put his hand out. Tyrrell kept himself utterly still as Keeper ran his hand through his prisoner's rain-soaked hair. Tyrrell wondered whether he was checking for lice. FitzGerald had already done that and had been surprised that he had none, which had told Tyrrell more than he wanted to know about conditions in the prison cells here.

Keeper's hand continued down the back of Tyrrell's head and over his neck hairs. Tyrrell felt his skin prickle. With any other guard, he would know what this was leading to, but this guard—

Keeper grabbed the back of his collar, jerked him around, and shoved him face-first against the wall.

Tyrrell's hands, which were still free, went automatically forward to save the rest of his body from being smashed against the cold stones; then he froze. Keeper kicked apart his legs with practiced ease. With his left hand still holding Tyrrell's collar, he reached around the front of Tyrrell. Tyrrell's head was already lowered; he saw the dagger in Keeper's hand.

He had to close his eyes then. It wasn't merely fear that made him do so; it was the automatic surge of fight-power into his muscles. If he let that take charge of him, the next thing he knew, he would be trying to punch Keeper. Which would be a disastrous decision, for more than one reason.

Keeper's dagger pricked the front of his shins in a light warning. Tyrrell dragged his feet backwards so that the weight of his body was now against the wall. His arms were cradling his head, but Keeper made no move to change this. Instead, having placed his prisoner in the position he wanted, Keeper sheathed his dagger in a whisper of metal against leather that Tyrrell could have identified in his sleep.

Then he reached for Tyrrell's trouser buttons.

Tyrrell's hands balled into fists; his muscles had taken on a life of their own and were flexed for battle. He forced himself to breathe slowly. Usually he was better prepared, but this was the one thing he had not anticipated would happen in this office. He had been quite sure that Tom Keeper didn't molest his prisoners; Merrick had implied that, more than once. But that had been fifteen years ago, he reminded himself. . . .

Keeper had pushed back the flap of Tyrrell's trousers; his hand was now exploring the flap of Tyrrell's drawers. Heat was surging through Tyrrell's body, and the heat had nothing to do with embarrassment or lust. He took another deep breath.

I keep the Boundaries, he reminded himself. I attack no one, even in self-defense. I take no one unwilling—

He realized suddenly that he was whispering the words, and he bit his lip shut. The hand exploring his groin had paused. Opening his eyes, he saw Keeper standing beside him, scrutinizing his face.

There was a breathless moment in which Tyrrell's fists refused to unclench themselves, despite his awareness of the whip at Keeper's belt. Then Keeper took several steps back. He said, in a manner almost conversational, "You'll find your new uniform next to the door."

Tyrrell turned his head to look. There, on a chair next to the door through which he had entered, was a neat stack of clothes – grey clothes, he realized with a start. He wondered whether this meant he had risen in rank, in the eyes of his new Keeper.

He pushed himself away from the wall and took a step toward the chair, eager to retreat from the scene that had just occurred, but was halted by the voice of Keeper saying quietly, "You may leave your other clothes on my desk."

His gaze flew to Keeper. The man was giving a very good impression of being interested only in a bright red box with a gold lock, which hung upon the back wall of his office. Tyrrell was not fooled. No guard worth his pay ever let a prisoner out of his sight when that prisoner was in the same room.

Tyrrell was grateful to him for the pretense, though there was no need. Tyrrell had stripped himself many times under a guard's eye, under far worse circumstances than the one he appeared to be in at the moment. He crouched down and unhooked the buttons on his boots – not an easy task, without a button-hook, but Mercy's prisoners weren't permitted boot-laces, lest they try to end their own lives with them.

They were at least permitted belts. Tyrrell undid his belt and gave the usual sigh of relief at the loosening of the pressure around his waist. His flap buttons were still undone; his trousers slid off easily.

Next came the buttons on his shirt. Like his trousers, his shirt was striped bright red, a humiliating sign of his status as a second-level prisoner at Mercy. Third-level prisoners wore all-white, while the prisoners on the top three levels were permitted to wear sober grey. Tyrrell had started on the fourth level of Mercy, but he had plunged downwards on the week that his crash began from the sweetweed. Once you were sent down to the second level at Mercy, you remained down, almost always. That had ceased to bother Tyrrell once he had gained Merrick's friendship.

Nothing was left after that except for his half-stockings and drawers. Mercy's prisoners did not wear undervests, and Tyrrell had lost his jacket and vest to a vengeful guard about five years past. It had not been replaced, naturally.

Now, having deposited his clothes on the desk, he went over to his new uniform and fingered it. The cloth of the trousers and shirt and jacket and vest was thick and soft, the cloth of the pure white drawers and undervest and half-stockings even more so. The leather belt shone as though it were new. When he donned the uniform, he found that it fit him. His measurements would be in his prison record, he supposed. He noticed, with some concern, that he had not been given boots. He hoped that did not mean he would be barefoot from this point forth. Mercy was heated, after a certain fashion, but even so, its floors could be frigid in cold weather, as he had learned on the first occasion that a guard had decided to punish him by making him lie naked on the winter floor.

He looked over at Keeper again. The guard was sitting behind his desk now, carefully inspecting Tyrrell's old uniform: pockets, linings, every inch of the cloth. He seemed wholly absorbed in his task.

Tyrrell cleared his throat. Without looking up, Keeper said, "You have a question?"

"Yes, sir. I was wondering . . . What you did before . . ." He faltered.

"You were wondering at the purpose of my inspection?" Keeper looked up finally, though his fingers continued to work their way along the trouser cuff.

Tyrrell nodded.

"Two reasons," said Keeper. "I needed to be sure that you weren't carrying any more weapons; Mr. Medinger is not always as thorough as he could be in his inspections of groins. My second reason . . . I wished to see how much control you had over yourself. You were still engaging in fights with other prisoners during my time as a guard at Mercy."

Tyrrell felt his hands form into fists; he quickly loosened them. He said, in what he hoped was a steady voice, "Did I pass your inspection, sir?"

Keeper suddenly flashed him a smile. "You did better than I would have done under such circumstances. Your self-control is admirable. I hope you managed to teach Merrick—"

Compassion's Keeper stopped suddenly. His fingers, which had been travelling along the cuff of the trouser, stopped also. As Tyrrell held his breath, Keeper's hand disappeared below the line of the desk; when it re-emerged, Keeper's dagger lay in his hand, unsheathed.

He used it to snap the threads binding the cuff closed. There weren't many threads to cut. Tyrrell knew that, because he had been the one to sew them, borrowing thread and needle from a Boundaries-bound guard, one who trusted him enough not to require to know why he needed such implements.

Now Keeper extracted from the cuff the small piece of paper hidden there and unfolded it on his desk. For half a minute he did not speak, as Tyrrell's heart raced pell-mell. Then he said, "Merrick wrote this."

"Sir?" Oh, this was worse than he had anticipated; it hadn't occurred to him that anyone besides himself would be forced to answer for the presence of this paper. But then, Keeper must know he couldn't have written it himself. He should have thought . . .

"I recognize his handwriting. I loaned him some books when I was his guard, as well as paper and pencil, and he scribbled all sorts of notes in the page margins – obscenities, mainly. I still have the books." Keeper folded the paper carefully closed, and then looked up. "Do you mind if I borrow this for a day or two? I'll see that it's returned to you after that time."

Of all the things he had imagined might happen to him at Compassion, this was not one of them. The only thing he could think to say was the truth. "You can keep it, sir. It's for you."

"Me?" For the first time, Keeper looked startled.

Despite himself, Tyrrell felt his face stretch into a grin. "We placed it there for you, sir. We didn't know that you were Compassion's Keeper now, but Merrick said that, if he or I or both of us were transferred here, you'd do your best to see that you were made our guard. And he said you were too skilled a guard not to inspect the clothes of any new prisoner. So we put the paper there, where you would find it."

After a moment, a puff of laughter escaped Keeper; he quickly leaned forward to rest his chin on his hand, so that he could hide his smile. Tyrrell continued to grin.

They had planned this, he and Merrick, back when they had begun to imagine what would happen if their revolution failed. The worst that could be done to them, they had both agreed, was that they would be sent to Compassion Prison. No worse punishment could be given to Mercy's prisoners; the Magisterial Republic of Mip had outlawed the death penalty at the time it gained its independence from Yclau.

Exile to Compassion had been a real possibility, and it had been Merrick who had pointed out that such exile could have its benefits. Tyrrell had been skeptical; Tom had only been Merrick's guard for a short time, so how could Merrick be so sure that he would treat their revolutionary activities with sympathy? Yet Merrick had insisted that the gamble was worth taking.

"Easy enough for you to say," Tyrrell had grumbled at the time. "You've tasted the leaded whip before. This will be my first time, if you're wrong."

Now he felt his muscles relax as he said, "You must have seen these before, sir."

"Oh, yes. Mercy's Keeper sent a copy of them to all the life prisons fifteen years ago, as a warning to the rest of us of the sort of seditious activities that might arise amongst our prisoners. He obviously knew little about Compassion, or he wouldn't have bothered to send a copy here. So I've seen the words before . . . but it's a very different thing to receive them from the men who actually constructed the Boundaries of Behavior."

Feeling bold now, Tyrrell said, "Merrick told me that you were the one who created them."

"Did he?" Keeper unfolded the paper again and glanced at what lay there. "Some of what he and I discussed may have served as inspiration, perhaps. But the concreteness of the rules, the high-spirited manner in which they are worded . . . No, the world owes that to you and Merrick. Thank you for honoring me with this."

Tyrrell could not think of what to reply. He silently pulled his jacket closed, fumbling with the buttons; after twenty years, he still was not comfortable with using buttons, rather than the ribbons that had bound closed the shirts and trousers of his childhood and youth. The life prisons, though, preferred buttons to ribbons that might be torn off, tied together, and used to allow a prisoner to escape. Tyrrell had never bothered to point out to the guards that a prisoner who swallowed a handful of buttons was just as likely to die as a prisoner who hanged himself.

He winced as he thought of the early days, soon after he emerged from the shock of his crashing, when he had considered killing himself. The nightly rapes, the arbitrary punishments . . . Sometimes he wondered how he had made it through those years with his sanity intact.

Not that much had changed after he and Merrick had allied themselves to spread word of the Boundaries of Behavior. Life had improved for the prisoners of any guards who chose to adhere to the Boundaries, but Mercy's Keeper, in an act of petty revenge, had permanently assigned Oslo to guard Tyrrell. Tyrrell had spent many a night on his hands and knees, wondering why his mother had been so insistent that self-slaying went against the gods' will. As far as he could tell from his memory of the sacred dramas, the gods had never had anything to say on this topic.

Perhaps his mother had simply been trying to prevent him from following in his father's footsteps.

It had been the thought of his father – of how that mood-driven man had allowed poverty to conquer his will to live and had left his wife and son and infant daughter bereft of money and hope – that had prevented Tyrrell from taking the same path. With gritted teeth, he had endured Oslo's nightly plowings – sometimes thrice-nightly plowings – and had vowed to continue to help the other prisoners, having failed to find a way, as a young boy, to help his mother and sister.

And now it would all begin again. Clenching his teeth as he pulled on the last of his clothes, Tyrrell felt his jaw ache. Whether or not he could find a way to help Compassion's prisoners, he would not allow himself to undergo what he had undergone with Oslo. He would kill his guard first . . . and any prisoner who tried to take him.

At this thought – not at all in keeping with the image of peace that he tried to project as a Boundaries-bound prisoner – he jerked with guilt. Looking over at Compassion's Keeper, he found that Keeper's eye was on him. He jerked again, this time in fear. Tom Keeper was much too gifted at reading prisoners' thoughts.

Whatever Keeper might have read in Tyrrell's expression, all that he said was, "You may retain your current boots. We're short of supplies at the moment."

"Budget cuts, sir?" replied Tyrrell automatically as he retrieved that article of clothing, sat on the floor, and slipped on his old boots. He had trained himself to respond sympathetically to the endless whinings of Mercy's Keeper.

"Our budget was never high to begin with. Most of it goes to food, and the cost of feeding the prisoners has risen in recent years . . . though not as much as it should." Keeper frowned.

Tyrrell paused while buttoning his boots. "What do you mean, sir?"

Keeper scrutinized him, his expression shaded. Not liking to meet that gaze in a way that might be interpreted as defiance, Tyrrell took the opportunity to glance around the room again. No door here through the eastern wall, no door through that wall in the adjoining room. . . . Even if the guards' sleeping quarters lay east, in an adjoining wing, the mighty doors he had entered through appeared to be the only exit from this part of the prison. He had heard long ago of Compassion's infamous riot doors, built after the Riot of 385 had resulted in the deaths of nearly every guard at Compassion. The prisoners had paid the price for that riot, but Tyrrell had heard that Keeper's father, unwilling to trust that the lesson would stick, had proposed the creation of riot doors, stationed beyond the regular prison gate. They certainly seemed a formidable barrier.

For every door, though, there is a key. Tyrrell glanced again at the red box on the wall, with its gold lock and hinged panel. The box could simply be a wire-hatch, of course – a hatch holding electricity wires that could be spliced by repairmen. On the other hand, it bore a strong resemblance to the hatch that had held the lever that opened the riot doors from the outside. It would make sense that the lever's interior counterpart would be placed in the office of Compassion's Keeper.

Tyrrell imagined himself trying to get past Keeper's whip to pull down the lever, and he shook his head ruefully. He returned his attention to Tom Keeper.

If the man in primary charge of prison security was concerned by Tyrrell's wandering gaze, he said nothing. Instead, he rose from behind his desk and gestured. Tyrrell hastily finished hooking the boot-buttons and came over to join him, halting an arm's length from Keeper.

Keeper gestured again. He had half-turned to pull over the ledger-book that he had been writing upon when Tyrrell arrived. Tyrrell, coming reluctantly within arm's reach of the guard, looked down and saw a list of numbers.

"You can read numbers?" Keeper asked, glancing at him.

"Yes, sir." His mother had been able to teach him that much before she died.

Keeper pointed to the top of the list of numbers. "What happened before my appointment as Keeper I'm uncertain of; the records from my father's period as Keeper are missing." He was successful in exiling any note of irony from his voice. "However, when I became Keeper, I made an estimate of the number of prisoners, based on how many barrels of waste product were produced daily by the prisoners."

Tyrrell felt a moment of pity for whichever guard had been assigned the task of collecting the evidence. It seemed an odd way to conduct a census. If Compassion's records were in such disarray that its new Keeper didn't know off the top of his head how many men the prison housed, why had he not simply counted the prisoners? At Mercy, each prisoner was counted when he arrived at his workplace within the prison and when he emerged at the end of the shift; the numbers had to match, or the guards would be immediately sent on a search for the missing prisoner.

"This is the number I estimated," Keeper reported, his finger still on the figure at the top of the list. "I may be off by a few dozens . . ." Tyrrell blinked as Keeper concluded, ". . . but the number is accurate within a hundred prisoners, I believe. This" – his finger moved down to the next number – "is the number of prisoners who have been admitted into Compassion since my arrival."

Tyrrell blinked again. "You must have a large amount of space for housing prisoners, sir."

"Not as large as the other Keepers like to think." This time Tom Keeper did not succeed in keeping irony out of his voice. "We receive the leavings from the other life prisons; whenever another prison can't manage a prisoner, they send him to us. Mind you, their estimates of a prisoner's recalcitrance are often in error," he added with a glance at Tyrrell.

Tyrrell grinned. "No need to be tactful, sir. My mother often said I was so stubborn that I could give lessons to mules."

Keeper gave a soft laugh. "My father has made similar remarks about me over the years. Stubbornness is not, in itself, a bad quality; it is simply a matter of using that stubbornness in the proper manner. But I digress." He turned his attention back to the ledger-book as his finger drifted down to the third row of numerals. "This is the number of prisoners whose bodies have ended up in our crematorium since I became Keeper."

Tyrrell scrutinized this number carefully but could see nothing wrong with it. It was high, by the standards of mid-class life and elite life, but not high by the standards Tyrrell had grown up with. Disease and wounds took their toll in the life prisons, as they did on the streets of Mip's capital. At least the life prisoners, unlike Mip's poor, could depend on being provided with adequate amounts of food, clothing, and shelter.

Tyrrell straightened up from staring at the book. "And the number below it, sir?"

"A second census, conducted by me a fortnight ago; again, I used waste products to make my estimate, so even if my exact figures are wrong, the proportion between this number and the first one should be correct."

Tyrrell frowned as he bent forward again. Even without Keeper's total number carefully noted on the bottom, Tyrrell could tell that the three numbers did not match up. If the figures were right, far fewer prisoners lived in Compassion than could be accounted for by the number of deaths that had occurred in the past six months. Tyrrell pointed at the page. "Sir, if your estimates for the number of living prisoners are wrong . . ."

"Then that could account for the missing prisoners. Yes. I hope that is the explanation."

Keeper's expression had grown bleak. He stared down at the ledger-book, lightly brushing with his finger the figure for the number of deaths.

Tyrrell looked at that figure again, then at Keeper. "You think the number of deaths is higher than that?"

"I fear so." Keeper's voice was quiet. "Tyrrell, you know, I am sure, that Compassion has a reputation for prisoner-to-prisoner violence."

There seemed no adequate response Tyrrell could make to this observation. "Yes, sir."

"That reputation is well earned. When I briefly took charge of the prisoners fifteen years ago, at the time that this prison was being renovated following the riots, the prisoners were little more than savages. They preyed on each other, the strong assaulting the weak. Some of the higher-minded prisoners, I will admit, protected their favorite prisoners – but those favorites paid the price of protection by becoming slaves to the men who protected them."

Tyrrell decided that he would not make a very good impression on Compassion's Keeper if he retched the contents of his stomach onto Keeper's desk. "And now, sir?"

"That is the question I want an answer to. How many prisoners are dying at the hands of other prisoners? Have the surviving prisoners been destroying the dead prisoners' corpses in an effort to cover up how many murders take place in Compassion Prison? The night guards have reported seeing smoke rise from within Compassion, and they say that the smoke sometimes smells like burnt meat. Although the prisoners are not permitted matches or old-fashioned flint-boxes, they may be finding another way to burn the corpses. Healer FitzGerald is dubious of this idea; she has charge over our crematorium here, and she says that burning bodies to cinders is not as easy as one might think. Yet the possibility continues to prey at my mind."

Keeper's voice was soft and strained now. For a brief moment, Tyrrell thought he glimpsed the shy youth that the guard had once been. Then Keeper turned toward Tyrrell his eyes – steady and hard as the riot doors – and the illusion was mangled.

Tyrrell found his tongue finally. "Sir," he said, "there is much here that I don't understand. If you're not sure of how many prisoners there are, why don't you simply count each one in his cell?"

"We have only one day-cell here, Tyrrell."

Tyrrell winced. He had hoped that this particular rumor about Compassion would prove to be wrong. "I don't suppose that it's easy to count prisoners from outside the day-cell, if they're all crammed together. Even so, you could count them when they emerge from their night-cells to go to their workplaces—"

"They are not assigned work tasks. It has always been the tradition at Compassion to hire laborers to do what work is needed to keep this prison running. Indeed, food preparation is considered so important a task that it is handled by the guards."

Tyrrell tried to decide whether this was good news or bad. He had countless burn marks on his hands from his years spent sweating away at hard tasks in Mercy's laundering room . . . but if he had spent those hours idle in his cell, he might have gone mad long ago. And he did not like to think what amusements Compassion's prisoners might choose to fill their idle hours.

He set aside the question as less vital than the ones that were tickling his mind. "But sir, whenever your guards enter the day-cell or the night-cells, they could count the prisoners. And the night guards could investigate the source of the fire, whenever it occurs."

"That is forbidden. Prison regulations, as set down by my father after the renovation of Compassion, do not permit guards to enter Compassion Prison, except under carefully defined circumstances, for brief periods. Because my appointment has not yet been confirmed, I do not yet have the power to change those regulations."

Tyrrell stared at Keeper. "You mean that the guards are never allowed to enter the prisoners' cells?"

"I mean that they are not allowed to enter Compassion Prison."

In the long silence that followed, Tyrrell could hear the muffled sound of someone moving around the anteroom between Keeper's office and the balcony. Medinger, he supposed; that must be where that guard did his own work.

Finally Tyrrell said, "I thought that this was Compassion Prison, sir."

Keeper shook his head as he closed the ledger-book and pushed it back to its previous location. "These are only the outbuildings of the prison. Originally, they were used as places for storage of prison goods, while the guards and laborers of the prison lived on the second and third floors of the prison. The guards' work quarters were next to the prisoners' cells, on the first storey of Compassion. At the time of this prison's renovation, though, the courtyard of the outbuildings was roofed over, and the guards' work quarters were moved here, to prevent the guards from having intimate contact with the prisoners. A new wing, just to the east of this one, provides living quarters for the guards and the laborers, as well as the mechanics who are now needed to keep Compassion's machinery running. The motive that my father put forth to the magisterial seats for removing the guards from within the prison was that it would keep the guards from misusing their power over the prisoners. But of course the main motive was to prevent the prisoners from having access to the guards, lest a repeat occur of the Riot of 385."

"Then where—?" He halted abruptly, seeing in his mind's eye the black stone building in the etching, next to the pool of water.

Keeper said nothing; he simply took Tyrrell by the elbow, steering him through the main office door – past Medinger at his desk in the anteroom – and then through the door to the balcony. When they reached the balcony railing, he released Tyrrell and pointed.

Tyrrell already had his eyes turned that way. The three-storey black wall he had seen before could now be recognized clearly as a cube-shaped building, scarcely smaller than the outbuildings that surrounded it. It looked as though it could house a small army.

"There," said Tom Keeper. "That is Compassion Life Prison."

Chapter Text

Tyrrell leaned his forearms against the balcony railing. From this vantage point, at the short, eastern end of the rectangle of outbuildings, he could not see whether the prison lay flush with the west wall of the outbuildings. Probably not, if the outbuildings had been built to surround the prison. So two barriers now lay between the prisoners and freedom: the prison walls and the walls of the outbuildings. And the walls of the outbuildings could only be penetrated, it appeared, through a lever in the office of Compassion's Keeper.

Tom Keeper's father had been fiendishly clever in directing the reconstruction of the prison, Tyrrell had to admit. Still, so had many of the men who had created the thief alarms that Tyrrell had disabled during his years of work. Tyrrell put his professional mind to the problem. The lever was too far away from the riot doors to directly activate a system of gears; most likely it was activating an electrical line that ran to the gears. Tyrrell had encountered a few of those during his year as a thief; electric alarms had recently become fashionable in the richer houses of Mip's capital. They were childishly simple to disable. All that you had to do was find the electrical hatch – which was always placed outside the houses, for reasons known only to the gods – and then identify which switch turned the alarm line on and off. That had taken Tyrrell some work at the beginning. You couldn't just flip any switch, because you might end up turning off the house's lights at the very moment that the householder had risen from bed to use his water-closet. But alarms usually had a line of their own, and the city's alarm manufacturer – blessed be his name – used the same color coding each time for this line. Once Tyrrell had figured this out, it had taken him only seconds to disable any alarm he encountered.

So he needed to find the electrical hatch. If the hatch was in the entryway or in the adjoining wing, then his luck was out. But it would make more sense to place such a hatch in the outbuildings, in case any problems arose with the lever that needed to be corrected by the guards.

He thought of the hatch in the healer's office.

His mind had skittered away from the subject at hand; he only returned to the present when Keeper said, "We guards can see into the prison through its barred gate, but not far. Essentially, the prisoners have been in charge of Compassion Prison since the time of the renovation. We feed them, and we remove waste products; we give them other vital supplies, such as medicine. We keep them clothed and warm, and we supply them with water. Other than that, what happens in the prison is determined by the prisoners."

Tyrrell turned his gaze toward Keeper. The guard had his vision focussed upon the prison; he was making no effort to watch Tyrrell to see whether he would escape. Even without the riot doors in place, Tyrrell guessed he would not get far if he tried to run – not with Keeper's hand lightly stroking the curled whip at his belt. "That was part of your father's plan, sir?"

Keeper nodded without moving his gaze from the prison. "When I was young, I and my sisters used to act out the sacred dramas of Vovim that our mother read to us. My father came across us one day when I was play-acting that I was hell's High Master. I was telling my sisters – who were playing quailing prisoners – how the most terrible punishments of hell occurred in hell's holding cell, where prisoners were permitted to prey upon fellow prisoners.

"I don't think my father ever forgot that speech. To a certain extent, he was merely following long-standing tradition at Compassion. Prisoners were granted separate sleeping cells before the renovation, and the renovation did not change that. But in the daytime, for many centuries, prisoners were placed in a single living cell, so that they could be easily watched by a skeleton crew of guards. The guards made little effort to interfere with the prisoners' activities. Now we have no way to interfere if we want to – we are not permitted to set foot in Compassion."

Tyrrell fingered the smooth metal railing for a minute, saying nothing. The cool of the early morning had disappeared; now the air was growing warmer – warm enough to make Tyrrell sweat. If this was what it was like in springtime, he hated to think what summer would be like in this windowless place, when he was stuffed into a single cell with many other prisoners. The heat must be unbearable.

And yet Tom Keeper spoke as though he were a prisoner, because he was unable to enter Compassion whenever he wished. Tyrrell felt a momentary stab of annoyance, followed by pity. Even the best guards, he had found, were unable to truly understand what life was like for a prisoner. They did their best; the ones with empathy could understand a great deal. But none of them could fully understand what it was like to have your each and every action determined by forces beyond your control. They thought they understood, which was why Tyrrell felt pity for them. The well-meaning fools of the world should always be pitied, his mother had taught him.

Keeper, though, was a keener-minded fool than most guards, so Tyrrell ventured to say, "That must make life difficult for many of the prisoners, sir – not having access to the guards when they need them."

"Life is harsh for many of the lads there, yes."

Tyrrell frowned, glancing back at the black walls of the prison. "Are juveniles permitted in the prison, then?" It seemed unlikely; Mip had long ago established separate juvenile prisons to protect its weakest prisoners. And Tyrrell had never heard of a juvenile being sentenced to life imprisonment.

"Not for many centuries," Keeper replied. He had left off fingering his whip and was now drumming his fingers on the railing, the only indication he offered that this conversation was causing tension in him. "Many of Compassion's customs developed during that early period, though, when this prison was under Vovimian control. Tyrrell, do you know of the Vovimian custom of men and lads?"

"I may have heard of it," he replied cautiously. His reply was an automatic one that he had developed toward any probing to see how knowledgeable he was in Vovimian ways. His bister-brown skin told too clearly where his ancestry lay; though nearly every Mippite citizen had a blend of Vovimian and Yclau blood, scorn still abounded by Mippites toward the descendants of southern Vovim, the most backwards of Vovim's provinces. After having explained countless times in his boyhood that the southern Vovimians held a position of high power in their native kingdom, Tyrrell had finally surrendered to necessity and had fallen back on faking ignorance in response to any question posed to him about Vovimian ways.

In actuality, there was no question as to whether he had heard of the custom of men and lads; his mother had talked of it almost nightly after her husband's death, urging Tyrrell to find a good man to care for him when he was old enough. She had died long before Tyrrell was old enough to be of interest to any but the most unscrupulous Vovimian-born men, and by the time he entered into his youth, he was cared for by his street tribe and had no need to offer his body to any man in exchange for that man's protection.

He could see, though, why such a custom would find a place in a life prison. "Is that what you meant, sir, when you said earlier that some of the prisoners here are enslaved by other prisoners?"

Keeper was slow in responding. He had not turned his eyes toward Tyrrell since they reached the balcony. "I simplified matters when I said that. It is hard to explain the custom of men and lads to people who are unfamiliar with it, especially since that custom has come close to dying out in Vovim. My mother's brother was a man's lad when he was young; that's the only reason I knew of the custom before my father became a guard here at Compassion. To be a man's lad is . . ." He hesitated.

Tyrrell decided to save him from further quandary over how to explain matters. "It's different for each man and lad, I've heard. It can be anything from outright rape to a willing offer of service."

"Yes." Keeper drummed his fingers on the railing for another minute before adding, "The same variety occurs in Compassion, except that, here, being a lad has nothing to do with age. We no longer take juvenile prisoners, and some of the so-called lads here are older than the men they serve. Yet the basic custom – one prisoner offering his service to another in exchange for the other prisoner's protection – has survived. Some of Compassion's men take their responsibilities seriously, seeking to nurture and strengthen their lads. Others simply use their lads' labor, heedless to the lads' welfare."

"And some simply rape their lads?" Tyrrell said. He did not like the direction this conversation was taking; images of Oslo were beginning to crowd into his mind. Oslo sometimes talked in that manner, as though his rapes were a way to protect Tyrrell.

Again Keeper was slow in responding. "Yes and no. The structure of life in Compassion is so complex that I'm not sure I've ever fully grasped it. I tried to have one of the prisoners explain it to me in the past, but I felt like a rustic farmer trying to figure out, from descriptions by a city resident, what these new-fangled objects called sky-scrapers are. But the problem here is that the customs at Compassion are very old, and I grew up in the modern world. To a certain degree, I understand the customs, since I lived in Compassion Prison when I was a boy; my father was privileged with family quarters there after he became Keeper, and I later served within the prison as a guard, until the Riot of 385. But after all these years, much about Compassion is still a mystery to me."

Tyrrell thought to himself that he had never heard a guard give such a brave speech. Every guard he had met was ignorant of prisoners' conditions, but few would admit this to themselves, and none that he knew of would admit their ignorance in so frank a manner to a prisoner. "Perhaps, sir, you could enlighten yourself further by talking more to that prisoner. Even rustic farmers can grasp the nature of sky-scrapers if the speaker is skilled enough."

Again, Keeper was slow in responding, and his expression was difficult to read. His fingers had stopped drumming, though. Finally he said, "That prisoner proved not to be a reliable source of information, in many respects. In any case, he is no longer willing to supply me with the information I need."

"Well," said Tyrrell, "with the prison as large as it is, I suppose that you need only choose another prisoner to help you."

Keeper said nothing, but now, for the first time, he turned his eyes toward Tyrrell. He waited.

This time it was Tyrrell's turn to be silent. Avoiding Keeper's eye, he looked down at the floor below. It was made of wood, a striking contrast to the stone floors of Mercy Prison. New-come prisoners to Mercy sometimes thought that they need only pry up flagstones to burrow their way out of their cells, but they soon found that nothing lay below the flagstones but steel bars holding up the prison, and a thin plaster. More than one newcomer had fallen through that plaster, only to discover himself in the cell on the level below him. He had acquired nothing for his pains except bruises and perhaps a set of broken legs. None of the cells at Mercy were placed at ground level; even the first-level punishment cells were in the basement, with locked storage rooms above them.

But here at Compassion, where prisoners could evidently wander where they wished within the prison . . .

"Why me?" Tyrrell asked to cover his actual thoughts.

"Merrick trusts you."

It was an answer of sorts, though Tyrrell wondered how Keeper knew of Merrick's skill at identifying which prisoners and guards could be trusted. Certainly Merrick had shown no signs of that skill at the time that Tom Keeper had served as his guard; in those days, Merrick had been an acid-mouthed loner, inclined to make poisonous remarks that tested everyone's patience with him.

Then Tom Keeper had practiced with him the Boundaries of Behavior, and Merrick had become a very different man. Tyrrell supposed that news about Merrick's change in character must have been travelling around the life prisons for these past fifteen years.

He looked down at the ground again. From where he stood, a storey up, he could see that the wooden floor was riddled with holes, as though a very large termite had been at work with it. Staring at the pattern of the holes – which formed lines criss-crossing each other – Tyrrell wondered whether armed guards who were visiting from the holding prisons had been using the floor for target practice.

He felt very much as though he had just been selected as the object for such practice. There was a word for what Keeper wanted him to do, and it was not a pleasant one.

This time, Keeper appeared to sense Tyrrell's thoughts, for he said softly, "I'm not asking you to be a stool pigeon. If any prisoners are making plans to escape or otherwise to subvert matters within the prison, you needn't tell me that. All I need to know is how badly matters are going for the more vulnerable prisoners within Compassion. I was under the impression," he added slowly, "that you were in the habit of supplying such information."

Tyrrell turned this thought over in his mind. It was true that, for the past fifteen years, much of the work that he and Merrick had undertaken was to alert Mercy's Keeper to abuses taking place within his prison. It was never a matter of trying to convince that man that such abuses took place; rather, their struggle had been to convince Mercy's Keeper to get out of his lounging chair and stop the abuses. Mercy's Keeper was not so much a cruel man as an exceedingly lazy one; it took a great deal of work on the part of Merrick and Tyrrell to persuade him to pick up his pen to sign an order.

Tom Keeper, on the other hand . . . There was no doubt in Tyrrell's mind that Keeper would act to stop abuse if he knew of it. This time, though, Tyrrell would not be reporting on abusive guards but on abusive prisoners. And whatever Keeper might wish to call this, Tyrrell's fellow prisoners were likely to put an ugly name to such an act.

"I realize that I am asking a great deal of you." Keeper's voice was still soft. "I've reached the point of desperation, though. Every few days, smoke rises from within the prison. There may be murders within there weekly, twice weekly, thrice weekly. . . . Merrick warned me long ago that I could do no good for the prisoners if I broke prison regulations; that would simply result in my dismissal as a guard. So I cannot break the regulation forbidding me from entering Compassion Prison – not while there remains a chance that I will be confirmed as Keeper and be given the power to put an end to that regulation. Yet in the meantime, the murders continue. I must find a way to put a stop to the killings and to any other needless suffering that the lads are undergoing."

Keeper's fingers had not returned to drumming; instead his hands were in fists. His tendons stood out on his neck; his jaw was set. There was an icy quality to his eyes that made Tyrrell's stomach clench, even though he knew that he was not the object of Keeper's anger.

He had seen brief shards of that anger a few times in the past, when Tom Keeper witnessed cruelty by his fellow guards. It was not a matter of prisoner versus guard, Tyrrell realized suddenly; Keeper did not care whether a man who committed abuse wore the uniform of a prisoner or of a guard. He would be just as inclined to give the leaded whip to any guard who practiced cruelty as he would to any prisoner who did so.

"Sir," Tyrrell heard himself say, "I don't know whether the customs among Compassion's prisoners will permit this, but if I can be of service to you, I will try to help."

The anger died in Keeper's eyes, replaced by something else that Tyrrell could not identify. Keeper searched Tyrrell's face, and then said, in a voice as emotionless as a corpse, "You will have time to consider this matter at length. I wouldn't ask you to provide service to me immediately."

Tyrrell nodded. He was already regretting his impetuous offer. If guards never entered Compassion Prison, and if prisoners never left the prison, then how was he to provide Tom Keeper with the information he wanted, without this offering of information being witnessed by a dozen prisoners who would probably beat him bloody for consorting with the enemy? For in any prison, guards were considered the enemy of prisoners. It had taken Tyrrell and Merrick more work than he liked to think of to convince Mercy's prisoners that guards could sometimes be their allies.

Well, if Keeper wanted service from Tyrrell, he needed to learn that Tyrrell did not offer service without requiring due payment. What Tyrrell wanted right now was information, and Keeper might be able to supply such information.

"Sir," he said carefully, "do the prisoners enter into tribes? And if so, how do I qualify to become a member of a tribe?"

He did not ask how he would qualify to become a "man." In any tribe that divided its members into first-class citizens and second-class citizens, Tyrrell was certain to be named a second-class citizen. Whichever god or goddess had decided that he would be born of small stature had determined that. Tyrrell had picked his own street tribe with care; it was one of the few tribes in Mip's capital that did not rank its members. Once he had qualified for the tribe, he was potentially the equal of any other boy there, though in his early years he had been one of the "young 'uns" who had to be taught the ropes.

Keeper frowned, and for a moment, Tyrrell feared that he had gone too far in questioning the guard. But it appeared that Keeper's frown was merely at his own ignorance, for he replied, "I'm not sure. The prisoner who provided me with information spoke of his 'tribe' within Compassion, but he may merely have been using terminology with which he was familiar. What I do know – for this happens at the prison gate, where guards can witness it – is that you will be offered a trial when you first arrive."

"A trial?" Tyrrell's heart pulsed; the word was too close to the one he knew to prevent hope.

"You will be asked, in some manner or another, whether you are a man or a lad. If you state that you are a man, you will be given the opportunity to prove that you have the ability to protect a lad. I fear," he added somewhat apologetically, "that the trial is a physical one."

Tyrrell smiled. He might or might not be able to pass a physical test – some tribes required weight-lifting or other trials that Tyrrell was bound to fail at – but at least it was a chance. He would not be automatically ranked; he would be given a chance to prove himself.

Correctly reading his smile, Keeper said, "You prefer, then, to take on the responsibilities of a man?"

There was a note to his voice that Tyrrell could not quite read, so Tyrrell picked his way carefully to an answer. "I imagine I'd be happy enough to be lad to the right man. But you know, sir, what little choice lads usually have in such matters. I'd rather be a man than be forced to serve a man who misused me."

After a moment, Keeper nodded. "You will have time to make your decision about this as well. Rank is not immutable in Compassion, I am told, and it holds complexities beyond which I've described . . . but it would be better to have you see for yourself, for I'm sure I would give a muddled description of such matters, knowing them only second-hand. Shall we go?"

His light invitation caused Tyrrell's throat walls to collapse, like a cave-in. Trying to swallow, Tyrrell swung his eyes toward a passageway on the ground floor, to the left of him, which he knew led back to the riot doors. This might be his last chance . . .

But Keeper was standing next to him, and Tom Keeper's "requests" were not to be trifled with. Tyrrell tried again to swallow and found that his mouth had grown dry. He could not seem to push himself away from the railing.

Quite low, Keeper said, "The last Boundary of Behavior states, 'I am willing to suffer for the sake of the prisoners.'"

Yes, it did. Merrick had added that Boundary; he had said that he had read the line somewhere. It was the Boundary that Boundaries-bound prisoners and guards were most inclined to ignore, but it was – Merrick had insisted one day when he was in so much pain from a beating that his tongue seemed to have taken on a life of its own – the foundation for all the other Boundaries.

Tyrrell said nothing, and Keeper added, as though coaxing a nervous horse into its stall, "Tyrrell, I'm not merely sending you in there to gain information for me. If you decide that you don't wish to serve me, that will be your privilege. But I know that Merrick would not have paired himself with anyone less gifted than himself, and I've heard the reports emerging from Mercy Prison – both the official ones and the unofficial ones. If any prisoner has the ability to bring an end to the abuse at Compassion, it's you."

Tyrrell ran his hand over the stubble on his cheek, wondering when – if ever – he would have another opportunity to be shaved. "I've just spent fifteen years trying to do that at Mercy, and now you want me to start over from the beginning?"

Keeper raised his right eyebrow. "Whether or not I did, you would, wouldn't you?"

He thought about this, and thought too about all the plans that had been running through his mind for escape – mind games, he now recognized, to keep himself from acknowledging what he was most likely to do in Compassion Prison. Finally he said, "It depends. If I do, will Compassion's Keeper throw me into a punishment cell?"

Tom Keeper laughed then – an outright laugh unlike his previous soft smotherings. "Come," he said, steering Tyrrell away from the balcony. "Let's get you settled in your new home."

Chapter Text

The prison was still night-quiet as they approached it from the balcony. Tyrrell, who usually began each day by awakening to the sound of prisoners moaning in pain – or awakening from his own guard eliciting such pain – wondered whether the abusive prisoners here were more merciful or whether they simply gagged their victims. Or perhaps, he thought, eyeing again the black wall of the prison, no sounds emerged from Compassion.

They passed the same doorways that he and Medinger had passed before: the coding-room, the store-rooms, the healer's surgery with its plate-glass window. Medinger stood in the latter room, having somehow made his way past Tyrrell and Keeper during their discussion; he was in the midst of conversation with FitzGerald, and paused only to tip his cap at Tom Keeper.

Keeper tipped his cap back. He had not touched Tyrrell during the lengthy trip along the balcony, nor had he spoken, a fact for which Tyrrell was grateful. His stomach was roiling, anticipating both the trial and what lay beyond his success or failure.

He wished now that he had quizzed Keeper on what sort of physical test he would undergo, but there was no time left; they were approaching the west wall of the outbuildings. Dimly, Tyrrell could hear conversation and laughter coming from somewhere on the ground level, but the source of the light chatter was hidden to him.

They approached a waist-high gate barring their way from the end of the balcony. Beyond it, the balcony curved in a semi-circle, jutting out from the westernmost end of the south wall. Just beyond the gate, to the right, was a staircase leading down to the ground floor. From where he stood, Tyrrell could see that a second staircase lay on the far end of the balcony, where the balcony met the west wall. Altogether, the semi-circular balcony and its flanking staircases looked like a rock crab, with its foremost claws curled around the front of its body.

In between, in the area that jutted out, was a gunners' post, similar to the one he had seen in the entry hall. Here, though, the guns stood fixed upon tripods, untouched by human hands. The tripods were attached to a thick, curving, waist-high wall which replaced the open balcony railing that had hitherto been the only barrier between the balcony and what lay beyond. In front of the wall, absorbed in a book, sat the second rifleman whom Tyrrell had seen upon his arrival.

He was still smoking his cigarette, letting the ashes fall in an absentminded manner to the floor. He was leaning back in his chair, and his feet were resting upon a box that lay next to the wall holding the guns. The rifle he had carried before was propped against the wall, pointing upwards.

Keeper, having escorted Tyrrell silently through the gate, gestured to him to pause. Tyrrell did so, watching with interest as Keeper walked up behind the other guard. The guard showed no sign that he was aware of Keeper's presence.

"Feet off the ammunition boxes, Mr. Starke."

The guard jerked around at the sound of Keeper's voice. "What?"

"Feet off the boxes. Put away the book. Extinguish your cigarette. Place your rifle in the proper position. Put on your cap. Sit up straight. Have you carried out your morning check of your gun yet?"

"Not yet." Starke was moving almost as quickly as he was given orders. Tyrrell caught a passing glimpse of the black volume as the guard shoved it on top of the box that his feet had just vacated. "I thought, since the day watch hasn't begun yet—"

"Your watch begins the minute you walk into the outbuildings' entry hall. A quarter day's pay for neglecting your morning check. Another quarter day's pay for smoking on duty. And yet another quarter day's pay for not staying on the alert. If I'd been a prisoner, you'd be dead now."

"The prisoners are locked in for the night," Starke responded, gesturing with his chin as he laid his loose rifle onto a set of boxes next to his chair.

As he gestured, Tyrrell noticed for the first time what the gunners' post looked down upon. The mighty chains he had seen earlier in the day extended upwards from a great shield-wall, one that hid the portion of the prison wall that was closest to the gunners' post. The shield, which was the same height as the balcony, looked as thick and massive as the riot doors.

"A prisoner is standing a short distance from you," Keeper replied, "one who was committed to prison for cutting throats. Never assume that all the prisoners are locked within Compassion, Mr. Starke. On the day you make such an assumption, it's likely you'll die."

Starke said nothing. He picked up the loose rifle, pulled down the stock, and peered into the chamber. Curious, Tyrrell took a few steps over to get a better look at the second of the two rifles that were resting on the wall. He had never seen guns on tripods before, though they reminded him vaguely of the pictures he had seen of the great wheeled cannons that had been commonly used in the Vovimian civil war during his childhood. He supposed the principle was the same: it was easier to control the gun if it was settled in place rather than being held by a man.

He stared down. He could not see any sign that the rifles on the tripods were different from the rifle in Starke's hand, but he was no expert in such matters. The boys in his tribe had never carried guns – indeed, they had been contemptuous of the Gutterway tribe, who dealt a black market in firearms, and who were not averse to using such weapons against rival tribes. Even as a child, Tyrrell had been able to guess that his tribe's contempt was largely a cover for fear of their deadly rivals. Knives were no match for a gun.

He had seen a few more guns since that time, in the holding prison he was kept at between his trials. Firearms were rare in Mip, however. The Yclau, having come to understand the error of selling weapons to their enemy Vovim, now refused to sell weapons to their ally Mip. The Mippites, members of a relatively new nation, did not have the technology to produce their own guns, so what few firearms trickled into the republic were channelled into the army. Prison guards, unless they were assigned special duties, were expected to make do with their whips, their daggers, and their wits.

Tyrrell wondered why Compassion was so very different in this regard. He ran his eye over an opening at the bottom of the rifle, trying to make sense of the gun's presence.

Nearby, Keeper was saying, "Where is Mr. Landry?"

There was a pause before Starke said, "On his dawn break. He was providing orientation to the Mercy guards who arrived this morning—"

"His dawn break was over long ago; he's due for duty now."

"Shall I fetch him?" Starke reached for the black volume, as though eager to depart his post.

"You are on duty as well." Keeper's voice was so sharp that Starke immediately sank down in his seat. Keeper leaned forward and said something in a low voice, evidently not intended to carry. Tyrrell, who was close enough to the wall now that he could hear Keeper's cool threat, concentrated his attention on the gun. It was beautiful, in an odd sort of way: the long, two-cylindered barrel; the sight-pieces poking up their heads at front and back; the shiny, dark wood of the stock. He reached his hand out to see whether the wood was smooth to the touch.

A whiplash, cracking down, barely missed his hand. He stumbled back, his heart pounding, and then turned as he heard footsteps thundering forward.

It was Medinger. The guard leapt over the barrier of the gate as though it were a turnstile and took hold of Tyrrell, grasping him hard. "Has the prisoner caused trouble, sir?" he asked Keeper.

Keeper was busy coiling up the whip in his hand. He glanced briefly at Tyrrell, who was staring at the whip, feeling sweat trickle down his face. "No," said Keeper quietly. "The error was mine. I failed to make clear to the prisoner that he was not to step within the gunners' post. Tyrrell, I trust you are well?"

He managed to nod. Starke gave Keeper a sharp look, as though he had said something significant.

Medinger showed no sign of wishing to slacken his tight grip. "Shall I take him downstairs, sir? It's almost time for the day watch to begin."

"Yes. —No, wait." Frowning, Keeper leaned forward to look over the wall, holding onto the brim of his cap as he did so. Tyrrell could hear the chatter and laughter continuing, as though nobody below had noticed the whip-crack from the gunners' post.

Keeper's eyes met Medinger's. "Yes," he said. "Take him down the stairs. Slowly."

"Sir." Medinger promptly steered Tyrrell toward the stairs to the right of the gunners' post. Keeper had already moved swiftly to the stairs to the left.

The metal stairway that Medinger guided Tyrrell to was gently curved like the semi-circle above; it reminded Tyrrell of the beginning stage of an elegant spiral staircase he had once seen at a department store he had thefted from. As Tyrrell made his way down the steps, he began to see that the gunners' post was positioned over a hollow area beneath the semi-circular balcony. Guards were standing or sitting in that area, which was lit by electric lights in the ceiling that also formed the floor of the gunners' post. None of the guards appeared to be armed, except with daggers. The back of this lower guard-post held seats, and even a table. Sitting at the table, a couple of guards were playing cards.

None of them noticed Tyrrell and Medinger. Neither did they notice Keeper, who was descending quietly on their other side. Tyrrell tensed as he noticed that Keeper still had his whip in hand, but in the next moment, as Keeper reached the ground, Tyrrell realized that the whip was not aimed toward him.

The lash landed full upon the card-table, sending cards and money spraying in the air. One of the men who had been at the table tumbled from his chair, shouting with surprise; the other man leapt to his feet and turned to face Keeper, who was standing within easy reach of the men. At that moment, Medinger, evidently understanding the message that his Keeper wished to convey, sent his dagger flying to nick the arm of the guard who had just risen from the floor and was stumbling backwards. The guard turned around, fury in his face, but before he could step forward, Keeper said quietly, "Surrounded on both sides by your captors, gentlemen. At least two of you, possibly more, would be dead by now if Mr. Medinger and I were escaped prisoners. Mr. Pugh, what is the meaning of this?"

"We're off-duty, Keeper." The man who had leapt to his feet from the card-table gestured, and the man who had been nicked with the whip, still looking furious, came forward to gather up the scattered proceeds of the game.

"Mr. Pugh, I should not need to remind the supervisor of the day watch that you are never fully off-duty when you enter the outbuildings. Nor should I need to remind you that gambling by guards is strictly forbidden throughout the life prisons. I'll see you in my office later. —Mr. Niesely."

"Eh? I mean, Yes, sir?" The nicked guard paused from where he was pocketing the game money.

"Your ill-gotten gains are confiscated. Consider yourself lucky if I don't dock your pay as well. The rest of you . . ." Keeper turned his gaze upon the other guards. He was still holding his whip, and it became clear that the other guards were acutely conscious of this fact. Several of them shifted from foot to foot, like small boys caught playing marbles by their schoolteacher.

"Mr. Itzol," said Keeper, "I am gratified to see that you and Mr. Goff are still standing to duty, but I would remind you that the custom which permits on-duty night guards to socialize with off-duty day guards is a privilege, not a right. Mr. Pugh outranks you, so you are not responsible for the behavior of him or his men, but you are in charge of the night watch, and I do not expect to see a scene like this go unreported to me."

"I'm very sorry, sir." Unlike the other guards, Itzol sounded genuinely regretful, rather than defensive.

Keeper nodded, evidently in acknowledgment of the tone of the apology. "As for those of you on the day watch, there is work to be done. Mr. Pugh, was this week's food supply delivered this morning?"

"Starke is in charge of the initial check," Pugh replied. He was watching with a frown as Niesely handed Keeper the money from the game.

"The delivery hasn't arrived yet," Starke called down from the post above as he rested his forearms on the wall there, leaning over. He was smiling, clearly amused by what had taken place. "The merchants have been late recently. We still have plenty of food in storage, though."

"Mr. Pugh, see that you make clear to the merchants' delivery lads that timeliness is of the utmost importance to this prison. If a winter snowstorm should cut travel between ourselves and the nearest town, we would not have enough food on hand to feed the prisoners for more than a week or two unless delivery times are met with regularity. Mr. Itzol, you and Mr. Goff are relieved from your watch-duty; I'll let you out of the riot doors shortly. Mr. Black, I'd like to know what progress the mechanics made on the repair of the waste disposal unit yesterday . . ."

The instructions streamed forward, as effortlessly as a tumbling brook. Day guards snapped to attention as they were addressed, and hurried off to carry out their assigned duties. The night guards wandered away, heading in a leisurely manner toward the riot doors. Niesely, taking a deep breath after he had dragged the table to the side, broke into Keeper's flow to say, "Almost time, sir."

Even as he spoke, light suddenly sprang up. Tyrrell lifted his head: from here he could see the dome, which arched over the prison in front of them, but the sky beyond the dome was still dark grey with dawn-smudged clouds. Instead, the light was coming from the ceiling holding the dome, from beams of electric lights that were as powerful as the searchlights recently installed in the yard of Mercy Prison. These lights, however, were fixed in place. The lights turned the area between the prison and the guards' posts as bright as a stage. As he turned his eyes away from the brilliant lights, Tyrrell noticed metal glittering at the top of the prison walls: a barbed-wire fence made up of so many intertwined strands that it reached the full storey between the prison and the ceiling above it.

"Mr. Starke."

Starke raised a hand in acknowledgment of whatever order Keeper had given and rose from his post. As he walked back from the edge of the balcony, he was gradually hidden by the wall, but in the next moment there was an audible click, and then a rumble began, such as a giant might make if it decided to dance.

Tyrrell turned his head just in time to see the mighty shield in front of the prison lift from the ground, as though it were no more than a piece of paper that the giant's child had chosen to raise. The great iron chains creaked as they were drawn upwards by some mechanical device hidden high above, in the ceiling area holding the lights. As the barrier slowly rose, what lay behind it came into view.

It was merely a door with open bars, such as Tyrrell had known in the cells of Mercy, but the bars criss-crossed each other, and the door was so long as to be a gate. It spanned the full area that the shield had taken up – the length of many men. And many men indeed were behind the bars.

They were crammed together next to the gate: some sleeping on the ground, others standing and stretching and yawning. A few men were walking around, while others were chatting together. None of them took any particular notice of the rise of the shield-wall; it was as though they hadn't yet realized they had an audience.

Most of them were stripped. Some wore nothing but trousers and undervests and boots; others had no more than drawers to cover their lower bodies. Incongruously, other men were dressed in prison uniforms, with or without jackets and vests. A quick glance told Tyrrell that this was not by accident, for the clothed men were almost invariably talking to men wearing fewer clothes, and in some cases the lesser-clothed men were on their knees as they listened.

"At least figuring out rank here won't be hard," Tyrrell muttered under his breath, and then paused in his thoughts as he noticed a man in his twenties, who was standing next to the bars. The man's auburn hair was longer than shoulder-length, cut roughly and pulled back into a knot behind his neck. His skin was light brown, but it seemed to shine with a golden pattern under the light: pictures of whorling vines twisted their way around the muscles of his arms and his thighs, across his hairless chest and abdomen, into the area of his groin.

He was naked. In fact, he was being serviced by the mouth of a younger man who knelt at his feet. It appeared that neither of them would take any more notice of the other prisoners than the other prisoners were taking of them.

Then the golden man, turning his head slightly, saw Keeper. His back went rigid. Pulling himself away from the prisoner at his feet, he turned and faced Keeper full on, his hands now formed in fists at his side. His whammer pointed outwards, like an Ammippian's cocked arrow.

At that moment, others in the prison noticed Keeper. There was a general rush for the barred gate, so swift that Tyrrell nearly stepped backwards. But the bars held true.

"Murderer!" one man shouted at Keeper. And, "How many of us must die before you take notice?" screamed another. Within seconds, the voices were too loud and shrill to be heard individually.

Keeper took a step toward the prison. The guard named Niesely grabbed his arm and said something rapidly. Keeper's response could be heard through the hubbub: "Thank you for your warning, Mr. Niesely, but I'm well aware of where the line lies, since I painted it there myself." He took three more steps forward, and then halted.

Tyrrell's gaze fell to the floor. There on the wooden floor was a thin red line, like a border between two nations. In the next moment, he realized the purpose of the line when something came flying through the air in the direction of Keeper. It fell just short of the line, landed with a thump, and rolled forward another yard before halting. It was a fragment of a blackened bone.

More objects flew through the air, but not many; apparently most of the prisoners knew well enough the futility of trying to attack Keeper this way. Keeper stood solid, his body turned in the direction of the golden man, who had not moved in all this time, though his whammer's potency had flagged. Finally, in a lull between the shouts, Keeper raised his voice.

"Gentlemen," he said, "and gentlelads. I cannot respond to your complaints if I cannot hear what you are saying. Kindly allow your true men to speak on your behalf. Mr. Farnam?"

A short, middle-aged, balding man, somewhat stout and with round spectacles, stood at the front of the crowd. He wore a dark green necklet of cloth that lay against the buttoned jacket of his uniform, and he was holding in hand a dark green ledger book. He gestured with his hand, and the prisoners nearest to him stopped shouting. The other prisoners gradually grew quiet.

Farnam said, "We're in need of medical supplies."

"The medical kit is replenished at the beginning of each month," Keeper responded.

"We ran out of supplies days ago; there are many more of us here now than there were ten years ago, when the current quota for medical supplies was determined. There are men and lads in here who will die before the beginning of next month if they must wait that long."

"There is no need to engage in hyperbole, Mr. Farnam; I take your point. Mr. Medinger, I want you to check with Healer FitzGerald concerning the proper amount of medical supplies for the prison's current population."

"It's going to cost," Pugh warned. "The prison budget is already stretched to its limit."

"I'm aware of that fact, Mr. Pugh, but one of our duties as guards is to care for the life prisoners' health. We'll have to make monetary cuts in other areas."

"No pay elevations this year, I'm guessing," muttered Niesely, which earned him a sharp look from Keeper.

"Bandages will do us no good if we're without heat again next winter." The speaker was in his fifties and was a southern Vovimian, judging from his accent and his appearance; he wore a gaudy orange necklet against his vest, which contrasted well with his dark brown skin. He was casually kneading the hair of a prisoner who was sitting at his feet. "When are you going to keep your promise to fix the heaters, Keeper?"

"I've had an application in for repairs for the past six months, Mr. Valdis. I'm confident the magisterial seats will arrange for repairs before next winter—"

Shouts rose again, mainly cries of "Liar!" An elderly, light-skinned man wearing a black necklet turned his back on the proceedings, evidently scorning to talk with Keeper. Keeper began to speak, and then hesitated. His gaze travelled over to the naked golden man.

"Ahiga." Keeper's voice was quieter than it had been before, and Tyrrell noticed that, for the first time, Merrick's former guard did not use a title when addressing another person. "What have you to say?"

"Nothing that I haven't said to you a thousand times over a thousand times." The fury in the golden man's voice was barely contained. He had an odd accent, neither Yclau nor Vovimian, nor of any other tongue that Tyrrell recognized. "We suffer and we die while you make promises – always promises, always requests for our patience. When will you come in here and see for yourself what matters are like among those you claim to care for? Or have you not enough manhood for that?"

The prisoner still kneeling next to Ahiga flinched, as though he had sensed a hard blow. Keeper himself was silent for a long moment as prisoners and guards alike exchanged looks. Finally he said, in a voice so quiet that it barely reached Tyrrell, "Regulations do not permit me to enter Compassion except during a claiming, as you well know, Ahiga. And these days there is no one for me to claim."

Ahiga gave a derisive snort. "And did you enter to claim when the opportunity was given you? Oh, Keeper, I could almost sorrow for you if it were not that others pay for your willful blindness." He gestured toward the bone that had been thrown earlier. With a jump in the heart, Tyrrell realized that the bone was the facial fragment of a human skull.

Keeper did not appear to notice this. He opened his mouth, but what he might have said in response was swallowed up by the roar of agreement that arose from the prisoners. This time, Keeper did not try to stop the cacophony. Instead, he hand-gestured to Medinger, and then turned to say something to Pugh. Pugh shook his head and pointed upwards toward the unmanned gun on the wall above.

Keeper nodded. Then he leapt lightly for the stairs, taking them two at a time as he returned to the balcony. He disappeared from view briefly behind the wall above; when he came into view again, he was busy shrugging off his jacket, which he neatly arranged on the back of the chair behind the unmanned gun. Then he sat down, so that most of his chest was hidden behind the wall. He pulled down the stock, peered into the chamber, pushed the stock back into place, and reached down, disappearing briefly behind the wall. When he emerged again, he was holding a black magazine box in his hand. He shoved this into the opening at the bottom of the gun, inspected the chamber again, closed the stock, flicked a switch, and pivoted the gun on its tripod, so that it pointed toward the floor to the north of the guards' post. A gun-shot followed, faint under the shouting. Keeper pulled the gun back into its earlier position, inspected the chamber yet a third time, flicked the switch, and then smoothly turned the gun so that it was pointed toward the end of the prison gate that was closest to Medinger and Tyrrell.

He gave a slight nod toward Starke, who rose from his seat and disappeared from view. A moment later, the giant's whistle began – the same cruelly loud siren that had heralded the opening of the riot doors.

This time, Tyrrell did not have to endure their full force. "Put your hands over your ears!" Medinger shouted to him, and then shifted his grip on Tyrrell in order to permit his prisoner to do so. It occurred to Tyrrell to wonder, as he clamped his palms over his ears, what Medinger would think of the Boundaries of Behavior.

The prison gate, moving westward, slid slowly to the side a couple of feet, and then stopped. None of the prisoners appeared eager to approach the narrow gap except for one monkey-faced prisoner, who seemed for a moment as though he were about to slide his way out.

Over the siren, with sudden ferocity, came the sound of gunfire. Not one gun, not two – a couple dozen guns firing at once. Tyrrell, jumping back so hard against Medinger that he nearly toppled the guard, saw with disbelief that a neat row of bullet-holes had just appeared in the floor-boards directly in front of the open portion of the gate. The wood there was so riddled with such holes that there barely seemed to be any floor left.

At the same moment, as the siren ended, there came a cry from within the prison. The monkey-faced prisoner scrambled backwards, seemingly frightened rather than hurt; then there was a short silence.

Tyrrell turned his head. Starke was still missing from the gunners' post; only one man sat there, and he was leaning forward in an expectant manner. "Gentlemen?" said Keeper, his voice cautiously curious.

Half a minute passed before Farnam appeared at the bars, close to the gap. "One of the bullets ricocheted off a bar," he reported. "It hit an unclaimed lad. Shallow wound on the leg; he's still standing."

"I'll see that your medical kit is replenished today, then," Keeper responded. From where he stood in the prison, unmoved, Ahiga gave a loud snort, as though Keeper had made a dark jest. Keeper paid no attention to that; instead, he flicked a brief glance at Medinger and Tyrrell before returning his attention to the gap he was guarding. Starke had just slipped back into his seat and taken hold of his own gun.

As though it were needed. "What in Hell's name was that?" muttered Tyrrell.

He expected no reply, but Medinger said, "Machine rifle. It's an experimental model made by the Yclau. The Vovimians got their mitts on a shipment of the rifles – don't ask how – and resold a handful of them to us last year, for a pretty penny. The rifles deliver bullets in rapid sequence." He released Tyrrell's arms and gave him a nudge between the shoulder-blades. "Go on. He had the gate opened for you."

Aghast, Tyrrell looked back at Keeper. Keeper's hand was still steady upon the gun; it was still pointed toward the opening. Keeper didn't look his way.

Medinger gave a humorless chuckle. "He's not accustomed to killing prisoners before they've entered Compassion. Just stay out of the path of his fire until the last moment, and get inside as quickly as possible once you reach there."

"And pray that I'll be granted rest in heaven," Tyrrell muttered, but Medinger gave him another nudge, harder this time, and Tyrrell stumbled forward.

He was conscious of many eyes upon him. The guards had fallen still at the sound of the gun's cry at the same moment that the prisoners had; both groups were waiting in as deadly a silence as an execution party. Tyrrell just managed to keep himself from looking up again at the gunners above. After far too long a time, he crossed the yards between the lower guards' post and the gap in the prison gate. Without looking back, he slid his way through the narrow opening.

The gate began to rumble closed almost immediately; Starke must have retreated from his seat again and had his hand on whatever switch controlled the gate. Tyrrell, moving carefully aside from where the bullets were most likely to land, did not think about the closing gate. He was too busy staring at the prison ceiling.

Or rather, the lack of a prison ceiling. The prison, three storeys in height, had only one floor, the ground floor. The walls rose high, naked of any barrier along the way, though certain stones jutting out suggested that – as Keeper had hinted – the prison had once been designed in an ordinary manner, to accommodate three levels. Above them all was nothing but open air; the roof was missing. The dome, still grey with thunderclouds, hung over the prison like a canopy.

The gate crashed closed, and it occurred to Tyrrell to look downwards. He could see no sign of whatever inner walls hid the sleeping cells that Keeper had spoken of; the prison appeared from this perspective to be one giant room, packed to capacity by prisoners of varying ages and states of undress.

All the prisoners that he could see were looking at him.

Standing out, slightly apart from the others, were the four men with necklets – the "true men," Keeper had called them. Ahiga, seeing Tyrrell's eye light upon him, gave a smile. It was not a friendly smile.

"Well, well," he said softly. "So a new lad has come among us."

Chapter Text

His back to the gate, Tyrrell looked slowly around the semi-circle of prisoners crowding in upon him. He felt as though he were surrounded by all the provinces within Mip, Vovim, and Yclau combined. Prisoners of every possible shape and color stood before him; Tyrrell and Valdis were hardly the only men there of southern Vovimian ancestry. There were scrawny men, muscled men, men with the hawk noses of one of Vovim's northeastern provinces, men with the pale skin of Yclau, men with the red hair common among Mippites whose ancestors had raped Ammippian tribeswomen, men whose tightly curled hair suggested that they came from places further south than even Vovim's southern province.

None of them looked at all pleased to see Tyrrell. They were waiting expectantly, to see how he reacted to Ahiga's remark.

Tyrrell was grateful then for the warning that Keeper had given him. Without that warning, he would likely have ignored the word "lad" in Ahiga's greeting. He was used to being jibed for being the height of a youth; he had learned to ignore such idle insults.

But this greeting was meant, not to insult, but to assess.

"I'm not a lad," he responded in as forceful a manner as he could. "I'm a man."

Ahiga's cold smile remained frozen in place. "Prove it."

Tyrrell did not wait to see whether Ahiga would follow this up with an invitation for the new prisoner to lift weights. Quickly, Tyrrell said, "Send out your best man against me."

The prisoners burst into laughter.

They laughed a hundred different ways: in the hee-haw imitation mule-noise of Yclau's commoners, in the belly-shaking laughter of Mip's elite, in the giggles of Vovim's mid-class, and in dozens of other varieties. One prisoner was so overcome with hilarity that he lay down on his stomach and wept.

The true man Farnam smiled along with the rest, but he said, in a voice that sounded kindly, "That's not how custom works here, stranger. You are the challenger; you must choose the man you wish to overcome."

Tyrrell took another quick look around as the laughter trailed to a halt. It was tempting to choose Ahiga or Valdis or one of the other tall men there, in order to settle the question of his rank once and for all, but he knew his limitations. Farnam was a more likely target, but Tyrrell knew of street tribes that would tear apart any boy who made the mistake of challenging one of their leaders. Besides, Farnam, with his clerk's glasses, did not look as though he had ever fought a man in his life. Tyrrell needed to demonstrate his prowess in fighting, not his ability to swat a fly.

His eye fell upon a prisoner standing beside Farnam. He was a youth, close to twenty years of age, with hard muscles and a sassy smile. He was about the same height as Tyrrell. "You," Tyrrell said, pointing.

The laughter this time would have taken off the roof, if the prison had possessed a roof. With a wide grin, the youth waited until the noise had died down enough for him to say, "I am not a man; I am a lad." He held up his left wrist, which was encircled with the same dark green cloth as encircled Farnam's neck. "But I will fight you anyway, for I think you are no man, but a lad. With your permission, sir?" He looked over at Farnam.

Farnam, who continued to smile, gave a brief nod. Someone with a Vovimian accent called out, "Smash in his baubles, Davidson!"

"Does he have any?" the youth shouted back as he pulled off his shirt, leaving on his undervest. More hoots of laughter rose toward the dome. Tyrrell, taking off his own jacket, vest, and shirt, reflected that he had been wrong about clothing signifying rank here, for the youth possessed trousers and a shirt, while Ahiga was at that moment re-clothing himself with nothing more than an old-fashioned groin-cloth.

Then his mind was focussed on the fight to come. He took another look at Davidson, surreptitiously this time, as he dropped his jacket and vest and shirt to the ground. The youth had scars on his arms – more scars on his right arm than his left, so that was the side he favored. His feet were bare, allowing him to grip the ground easily. He spoke good Mippite, but his accent and reddish-brown skin was that of Vovim's north-central province.

The youth would know Mippite fist-fighting, then, and most likely would also know Vovimian wrestling. Tyrrell prayed to the gods that the youth had not been trained in Yclau scuttling.

Tyrrell took a moment to send a more careful prayer below, to the god who might or might not wish to take custody of his body if he lost this fight; then he sent a second prayer above to Mercy and added a third, hasty prayer to his patron god, Tyrone, lord over the poor and friendless.

Then he had no thoughts but to keep his gaze on Davidson's eyes as the youth approached.

They circled each other first, crouching, as the other prisoners backed up to give them room for their battle. Tyrrell was dimly aware, as his body turned to face the bars, that he had audiences in both directions; though he did not take his eyes off Davidson, he could hear the guards making wagers on the outcome of this fight. The wagers were mainly in favor of Davidson, though he heard Medinger add one in favor of him.

He was so heartened by this sign of confidence in him that he nearly missed Davidson's attack when it came. It was a leap into the air and a kick – a movement favored, not by Mippite fist-fighters or Vovimian wrestlers, but by the kick artists of one of the western nations. Tyrrell ducked to the ground and rolled just in time to avoid being kicked in the head.

That told him what sort of rules he was working under. No above-the-belt maneuvers would work in this case; he was fighting for his life. He recovered again before Davidson had a chance to leap for a second kick, but he did not bother to rise. As prisoners and guards alike hooted derisively, he lay motionless, his legs sprawled, as though he were stunned. Smiling, Davidson walked toward him. . . .

Several of the prisoners, more alert to danger than Davidson was, shouted warnings, but it was too late. As Davidson came within range, Tyrrell suddenly brought his legs together in the scissors movement favored by Yclau scuttlers, who liked to have their opponents on the ground before stabbing them.

Startled, Davidson tripped and fell. Tyrrell leapt onto the youth's chest, wishing that he had a scuttler's knife with which to end this quickly, and without further harm. A knife at the throat was sufficient incentive to make an opponent surrender; as it was, Tyrrell would have to end this in a more nasty manner.

He closed his hands around the youth's neck.

Davidson tried to buck him off, of course, but it was no use. His arms were trapped by Tyrrell's legs, and Tyrrell had seated himself high enough on the youth's chest that Davidson's knees could not reach him. He pressed hard on the youth's windpipe, watching Davidson's face turn white, and then red.

There was shouting all around him, though no one interfered. He thought he heard Ahiga's voice say coldly, "Let him speak," though Tyrrell was not sure whether the directive was aimed at himself, another prisoner, or the young man beginning to turn purple under his hands.

But at that moment, without warning, he heard Merrick's voice in his head. The memory of Merrick said, "I attack no one, even in self-defense."

Tyrrell stumbled to his feet, his skin turning cold as the blood drained from it. On the ground, Davidson rolled to his side, his breath rasping as he drew in great gulps of air. The crowd had grown silent.

Finally, Davidson gasped out, "I surrender!"

"Do you accept his surrender?" Ahiga's voice was as cold as before.

Tyrrell nodded, unable to speak. He was afraid he would vomit. It had been fifteen years since he had last fought another man – fifteen years since he had adopted the Boundaries of Behavior. How could he have forgotten the rules he abided by? Was he so weak a man that a single threat to his life would make him forget the tenets of his life's work?

"Good," said Valdis flatly. "Because, if you had killed him, we would have killed you."

It took him a moment to connect what Valdis had said with Ahiga's previous question. He stared blankly at the true man, and then turned his eye toward Farnam, who had come forward to help Davidson to his feet. Farnam, meeting his gaze, said quietly, "We have no need here for ruthless killers – no need for men who will create harm beyond that which is needed to defend themselves and their lads. If you were such a man, you would be a danger to us, and we would kill you at once."

Tyrrell reached behind himself to wipe sweat off the back of his neck. "You must kill a lot of new prisoners."

There was more laughter, but it did not appear to be directed against Tyrrell this time. Valdis shrugged. "Not so many as you might think. Most murderers murder for a reason. And not all of us here are murderers." He gave a feral grin as he kneaded the hair of the prisoner beside him.

"What say you, then?" asked Farnam, who now had Davidson within the cradle of his arm. "Has he proved himself, Walker?" He looked over at the true man with the black necklet, who had not yet spoken. Walker shook his head.

"He took Davidson by surprise," Valdis declared. "Let's see whether he can defend himself again, now that we know his methods."

Ahiga said quietly, "We know that he will not kill without need. We must know more than that."

"I agree," Farnam said briskly. "Stranger, this time you must meet a contender of our choosing."

Tyrrell took a deep breath, feeling the warm morning air fill him. "No."

The prisoners murmured amongst themselves. Walker's eyes narrowed. Valdis's voice was light as he said, "No? You are only man enough to fight in one battle?"

Tyrrell's fists tightened as the laughter returned. He forced himself to respond, "I can't fight anyone, even in self-defense. I've taken a vow not to."

Valdis raised his eyebrows. Ahiga said in his cold voice, "You have already broken that vow, I think."

Before Tyrrell could figure out how to respond to this accurate assessment, Farnam said, "Stranger, many of us arrived here with no intention of fighting. We did not wish to add to the lawlessness of this place. But in Compassion, to fight is not a matter of lawlessness but of law. Our tribe's customs require that any prisoner who claims manhood have the ability and willingness to fight for his lads. You are being tested, not for your ability to defend yourself, but for your ability to defend your lads. Surely whatever seat or nation you come from permits you to fight to defend others who are being harmed."

Tyrrell did not respond for a moment. The answer to Farnam's query was a complex one. It was true that the Boundaries of Behavior made exceptions to the rule against fighting. Guards were allowed to fight prisoners in self-defense or to defend others, because part of their duty as guards was to keep the prisoners in order. A prisoner who witnessed another prisoner trapped in a life-threatening situation could and should defend that prisoner's life.

But that was as far as the Boundaries went. He and Merrick had held long conversations about this late at night, after their respective guards had left them, battered and penetrated. There was nothing that Merrick would have liked better than to break the jaw of any guard who touched him, and there was nothing that Tyrrell would have liked better than to defend any prisoner who was being cruelly beaten by his guard, simply for the guard's pleasure.

But he and Merrick had known the consequences if they extended the Boundaries that far. The Boundaries had been established, not out of any idealistic belief in the shamefulness of fighting, but because fighting in their situation did no good. The guards were already convinced that the prisoners were violent men who deserved unremitting punishment; fighting, even to defend themselves or other prisoners, only confirmed that impression.

It was by refusing to fight in situations where any man might be forgiven for fighting that Tyrrell and Merrick and the other Boundaries-bound prisoners had been able to convince some of the guards that, whatever their crimes might have been in the past, they were now law-abiding men who deserved decent treatment.

That was the situation at Mercy. But the situation at Compassion appeared to be very different. If Keeper was right, little contact took place here between the guards and prisoners; what mattered here was not how the guards regarded Tyrrell, but how his fellow prisoners did. And if Farnam spoke truthfully, the tribal customs here made fighting lawful. To not raise his fists to defend another tribal member would be as shameful an act as not defending a member of his old street tribe.

He said hesitantly, "There are rules here which govern fighting?"

"Yes." Ahiga's voice was flat. "We do not permit battles to take place that would threaten the tribal unity. If a man's lad is threatened, the man must defend him, but a lad or man who fights to have a greater share of the food than he has been granted, or who seeks to break our customs in some other way, is under my belt, at my word."

Since Ahiga had no belt, it took Tyrrell a moment to translate what he had said. He looked back at Farnam. "And all of you agree to this?"

Farnam nodded. "Ahiga has charge over discipline in this prison, but the rules for discipline are decided by the true men together. Nor are our rules arbitrary; we do not seek to interfere with the relation between any man and his claimed lad or an unclaimed lad. We merely seek to keep this prison from degenerating into anarchy."

Valdis yawned loudly. "I was pulled out of my warm bed to listen to all this chatter? Enough; make up your mind, runt. Are you a man or a lad?"

Heat covered Tyrrell's face, but he answered evenly, after due consideration. "A man. And if the laws of this place require me to prove that, I will. Send me your challenger."

"Done." Valdis turned to speak to someone over his shoulder. "Hernandez, do your duty to me by wiping this runt's face on the floor. I want to get back to my bed for a quick taking before mealtime. —Eh, lad?" He turned his attention to the prisoner sitting at his feet, twisting the prisoner's hair so that the lad was compelled to look up at him. The lad gave him a smile that seemed forced.

Tyrrell scarcely noticed. His eye was on a prisoner who had just elbowed his way past several other prisoners. He was wearing trousers, a shirt, and a vest, and while he had an orange-colored band on his left wrist, he was also wearing a white necklet. He was about a foot and a half higher than Tyrrell, and his shoulders seemed twice as broad; he had a chest to match. He was cracking his knuckles, one against the other.

He stared down at Tyrrell, contempt on his face. "Frightened, runt?" he said in a deep voice.

"Frightened?" responded Tyrrell. "No, not frightened; terrified. You're three times my weight."

The laughter this time had no mockery to it. Glancing around the crowd quickly, Tyrrell guessed that he had reached the stage in the trial where the tribe would just as soon take him as a member as throw him out. Even Davidson appeared to bear Tyrrell no ill will; he was watching the proceedings with a frown of concern.

Hernandez gave a broad smile. "Don't worry," he said. "This won't take long."

He was right; it took only ten seconds for him to flatten Tyrrell on the ground, stomach-down. As Tyrrell struggled to breathe under the weight of his opponent's body, Hernandez twisted his arm behind him. "Surrender," said Hernandez.

"No." His voice was muffled; he could still barely breathe. Then he gasped as a sharp pain racked his body.

"Surrender," repeated Hernandez in a voice that almost seemed good-humored. "If you don't, I'll break your arm."

Sweat sprang onto Tyrrell's forehead. Broken limbs could lead to death at Mercy, where the healer was too drunk to know how to splint a limb. Here at Compassion, the chances of dying from an untreated bone-breaking must be even greater, with the healer far away in her office.

"Surrender and name yourself a lad," suggested Hernandez, twisting Tyrrell's arm as though it were a corkscrew. "There's still time."

Death, or rape for the next thirty or so years – what a splendid choice. "No," Tyrrell said, his voice choking on the word. "I'm a man."

"Enough." Valdis sounded bored. "My bed is growing cold. Let him up, Hernandez; I say he's a man."

Tyrrell's arm was released; the weight was lifted from him. He remained panting on the ground, dimly grasping the nature of the final test that had been offered to him.

"Walker?" Farnam's voice had the briskness of a clerk taking a tally. Tyrrell turned his head in time to see Walker nod slowly.

"He can defend his lad, and he will defend his manhood to the point of breaking." Farnam summed up the situation tersely. "I say he's a man. Ahiga?"

Tyrrell managed to pull himself into a sitting position. He had time enough to do so before the next response; Ahiga made no quick reply. Finally the golden man said, "He is a man. Whether he will stay a man . . . that I am not sure of." He looked down at Tyrrell. "Welcome to the Tribe of Compassion Prison, little man."

Tyrrell rose to his feet. His arm still throbbed with pain, but his greater concern at the moment was keeping himself from punching Ahiga in the stomach. He said, "Call me little again, and you'll face a challenge from me."

He half expected laughter; instead, several prisoners gasped. The young prisoner kneeling at Ahiga's feet glanced swiftly up at him.

Ahiga looked over Tyrrell as though he were a beetle that might need to be stomped upon. After a long moment, he replied, "A suggestion for you, new man: Learn our ways before you offer challenges. You will save yourself sorrow if you do." He turned his head and murmured something to the prisoner standing beside him. The prisoner, who had the pale yellow complexion found in Vovim's northwestern province, nodded in response to whatever was said.

Then Ahiga and the other prisoner were hidden by the crowd. The remaining prisoners had begun to turn away, now that the trial had ended. Farnam and Valdis and Walker all disappeared, along with their lads; none of the other prisoners approached Tyrrell or even looked his way. They brushed past him as though he were a motionless pillar.

Tyrrell looked down to see whether his jacket and vest and shirt were being trampled by the passersby. Then he cursed, glancing quickly around at the crowd. There was no sign of which prisoner had stolen his clothes, and he doubted that he would be able to guess, even if he encountered the prisoner face to face. One prison uniform looks much like another.

"A lovely start to the day," Tyrrell muttered to himself. So far on this day, he had been hit and kicked by Oslo, poked by FitzGerald, dragged to and fro by Medinger, scared nearly out of his wits by Tom Keeper, mocked by guards and prisoners alike, battered by a fellow prisoner, and ignored thereafter by everyone.

And now half his clothes had been stolen. It did not appear that he was going to enjoy his time at Compassion Prison any more than he had enjoyed the past twenty years at Mercy. He turned away.

At that moment, facing the bars, he saw that he was wrong. Though most of the guards had their backs to him as they paid Medinger for their failed gamble, one guard continued to look down at Tyrrell, from where he stood on the balcony. As Tyrrell watched, the guard lifted his cap.

Having no cap with which to return the salute, Tyrrell smiled and offered a discreet little wave of his hand to Tom Keeper. He felt his spirits lift as he returned his attention to the other prisoners. He was in the worst prison in all of Mip, and would remain here until his death. But he had won his manhood, and one man, at least, understood how great an achievement that was.

Chapter Text

Hell's Messenger #2
TOUR

The year 400, the third month. (The year 1895 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
 

"I can conceive no more terribly disintegrating moral experience
than that of being a keeper over convicts. However much I pity the prisoners,
I think that spiritually their position is far preferable to that of their
guards."

—Thomas Mott Osborne: Within Prison Walls (1914).


CHAPTER ONE

Seven years of living in poverty-stricken anonymity with his family. Eleven years as the member of a street tribe for boys in Mip's capital – being a dirty little rat that nobody except other tribe members took notice of. One year as a drug-hazed thief, cutting victims' throats. That brought him unwelcome notice from the authorities, who – after three years of court wrangles – tossed him into Mercy Life Prison, where he again faded into anonymity, surviving, as best he could, harsh treatment by his guards for the next five years. Then fifteen years spent with the spotlight of fame upon him, as he and his fellow prisoner Merrick sought to change conditions at Mercy.

And now he was back to being unnoticed.

On reflection – thought Tyrrell, as he looked around at the prisoners walking back and forth in the single, enormous cell of Compassion Life Prison – he was glad for the change. He had never liked being the center of attention at Mercy; being noticed at a life prison always brought the wrong sort of attention. With any luck, here at Compassion he could fade back into anonymity and live a quiet life.

And damnation to hell to Tom Keeper, who wanted him to help change conditions at Compassion Prison.

He looked back over his shoulder, but Compassion's Keeper – Tom Keeper, whom Tyrrell had first met fifteen years before, when Keeper was a young guard visiting Mercy – had disappeared from the balcony of the outbuildings overlooking Compassion Prison. Keeper had already witnessed the important part of the proceedings: Tyrrell's claiming of his manhood, and the trial he underwent to prove his manhood to the other prisoners.

So now Tyrrell was a man, rather than a so-called "lad" – that is, a prisoner who must serve another prisoner. Tyrrell had had enough of serving guards in bed for twenty years; it was a relief to know that he would not have to serve any prisoners here. The only question, he thought as he looked again at the prisoners ignoring him, was what he should do with his newfound manhood.

Though thunderclouds continued to loom above, with occasional lightning brightening the sky, the prison was now filled with dim light falling through the glass dome four storeys above, part of the roof that sheltered the outbuildings surrounding Compassion Prison. Light shone through where the prison's roof and ceilings had once been, the light unimpeded by anything except an iron beam spanning the base of the dome. Tyrrell still could not understand why this prison was roofless, and he ran a professional eye over the wall nearest him. Climbing three storeys was a trick he did not relish, but he thought he could do it here: stonework jutted out or was broken in, providing hand-holds. Three storeys up, and then three storeys down, and it would be easy enough to sneak past the guards, since they appeared to stay clustered in front of the prison entrance, under the gunners' post that stood between the prison and the closest of the outbuildings. Then all he need do was sneak into Keeper's office and pull down the lever that opened the riot doors between the outbuildings and the outside world—

No, smash that thought; he had no desire to come within range of Keeper's skilled whip. A better plan would be to investigate the electrical hatch in the healer's surgery and see whether he could manipulate the wires there that he suspected would open the riot doors.

Unfortunately, the surgery was far too close to the gunners' post. He frowned, trying to figure out the best way to get onto the balcony outside the surgery.

"Sir. . . . Sir."

It took him a moment to notice the voice; then he slowly turned around. Near him, standing still amidst the hustle and bustle of prisoners going to and fro, was a prisoner who was perhaps a decade older than Tyrrell, about fifty. He had the olive-brown skin and accent of an eastern Vovimian, which could mean that he was a recent immigrant, or could mean that his family had lived in the Magisterial Republic of Mip for centuries. Mip, now an independent nation, still bore the mark of its past, when it had been tugged back and forth by the Kingdom of Vovim and the Queendom of Yclau, like a bone being fought over.

The prisoner wore a shirt and trousers, which made him better dressed than Tyrrell, who remained shirtless, but around the prisoner's left wrist was the band of cloth that Tyrrell had learned to associate with this prison's lads. Tyrrell tried to see what color it was – he had a growing theory that the color of a lad's band showed which man he served – but at that moment, the prisoner moved his left arm, placing it behind his back as he locked his left hand behind his right elbow, as servants do before their betters. He looked Tyrrell straight in the eye.

Tyrrell resisted an impulse to glance over his shoulder to see who was standing behind him. "Were you talking to me?" he asked cautiously.

"Yes, sir. My man, Hosobuchi, wishes to speak with you. Will you be coming?"

He spoke excellent Mippite, that tongue which had served as a trade language for many centuries between Yclau and Vovim. Tyrrell, who was bilingual, thought he could detect the faint shadow of another tongue behind the Mippite. This fact was less important than the lad's gesture with his free hand, which was toward a pale-skinned, black-haired man sitting on an upended pail by the nearby wall to the east of the prison gate – that is, to the left of Tyrrell, who was still standing with his back to the prison's great gate, the only break in the southern wall. The man was facing the gate, in Tyrrell's direction; Tyrrell recognized him as the prisoner who had conversed shortly before with Ahiga, one of the four "true men" who served as leaders among the prisoners. From where he stood, Tyrrell could see, white against the grey vest of his prison uniform, Hosobuchi's necklet, which Tyrrell had come to associate with prisoners who claimed to be "men."

Or was it? One of the challengers whom Tyrrell had faced upon his arrival had worn both a necklet and a wristlet. Confused, Tyrrell simply nodded in response to the lad's question and followed the lad back to where Hosobuchi sat on his pail. In a prison that appeared to hold no furniture, he looked like a king on his throne.

As Tyrrell came closer, he saw that Hosobuchi was not alone. Sitting cross-legged on the floor at his right hand was a young prisoner whom Tyrrell had last seen servicing Ahiga with his mouth. Hosobuchi had his arm around the lad's shoulders, though he removed it as Tyrrell and his escort came forward.

"Sir, I bring you the new man." The older lad's voice was deferential.

"Thank you, Pickens." Hosobuchi gestured with his hand, and the lad, Pickens, seated himself to the left hand of his man, not so close to Hosobuchi as the other lad was.

This left Tyrrell standing awkwardly in front of Hosobuchi, wondering what he should say and do. Hosobuchi rescued him by saying, "Welcome, stranger. We are glad to make your acquaintance."

Tyrrell hoped that the "we" was not intended to be a royal "we." He took another look at the necklet. All the true men had worn solidly colored necklets; was Hosobuchi's white necklet intended to indicate lesser or greater rank? Tyrrell took a chance and said, "Glad to meet you as well. I feel a bit lost at the moment."

Hosobuchi smiled. He was about half the age of Pickens, in his mid-twenties, and except for his lighter skin, he looked much like Tyrrell's second challenger: broad-chested, with muscles that showed up, even under his shirt-sleeves. Tyrrell had yet to see any prisoner wearing his jacket, other than the true men.

"I can well imagine," Hosobuchi replied. His grammar was cultured, and his accent matched his appearance, being that of Vovim's northwestern province. The lad to his left appeared, from the shape of his eyes, to be from the same province, an impression that was confirmed in the same moment as Hosobuchi turned to him and spoke briefly in a Vovimian provincial dialect, too rapidly for Tyrrell to follow. The lad rose quickly to his feet and scampered off; a minute later, he was back, holding a small crate, which he upended and placed carefully behind Tyrrell. Taking the hint, Tyrrell sat down, and then wondered whether he should have awaited Hosobuchi's permission to do so.

The man did not seem offended, though. "If you have any questions about life here," he said, "I would be glad to try to answer them."

Tyrrell chewed on his lip, trying to think where to start. As he did so, he glanced round the parts of the prison he could see from where he sat: the area behind Hosobuchi, leading to the back of the prison, and the area to the left of Hosobuchi, leading to the east wall. Both those walls were far away in this enormous building.

There was more room for prisoners here than he had initially thought; the crowd around him at the gate had evidently been just that – a crowd gathered to see the newcomer. Now the prisoners had spread out, and plenty of room lay between them and Hosobuchi's small gathering. The empty floor between was made of bullet-riddled wooden planks, Tyrrell noticed. He wondered what he would see if he lifted one of those planks. A concrete foundation? A locked cellar? Or dirt that could be burrowed through?

Above, the lightning continued to roar and crack, like an angry guard with his whip. As far as Tyrrell could tell, the light from the sky supplied the only illumination in this place. Although the guards had furniture and electric lamplight, here in the prison there were no light fixtures, no fire-pits, no places to sit other than the odd bucket or crate, and certainly none of the sleeping cells that Keeper had promised. Perhaps they were further on in the prison, beyond view?

Frowning, Tyrrell returned his mind to Hosobuchi's offer. Finally he said, "When the golden man – Ahiga – called me a little man, what did he mean?"

Hosobuchi smiled, as a schoolmaster smiles when his pupil asks the right question. "He was addressing you by the title of your rank. You are a little man, a man who has not yet claimed a lad. When you claim a lad or two" – his hands went out to rest on the shoulders of the lads at his sides – "you will become a greater man."

Tyrrell frowned again. Despite the nature of his trial, the idea of caring for a lad had not occurred to him. Seeking to avoid that subject, he said, "Claim . . . I've heard that word several times. It means . . . to take a lad?" He used the polite euphemism, though he knew the gutter terms – the Yclau term and the Vovimian term and many, many Mippite terms – if Hosobuchi should need a translation. Where gutter language was concerned, Tyrrell was trilingual.

Hosobuchi seemed to understand him, though. He said, "That will be a matter for you to decide. A claiming is not the same thing as a taking – it is merely an exchanged promise between man and lad of protection and service. If you wish to have the lad serve you in your bed, he will. If you do not, he will not."

The younger lad said something softly in his native dialect that made Hosobuchi smile again. The greater man added, "Shuji reminds me that the lad may make his preference known at the time that you claim him . . . but the decision will be yours." His left hand – perhaps by accident, perhaps not – began to stroke the side of Shuji's neck.

Tyrrell felt a momentary wave of sickness, and then sternly reminded himself not to make assumptions. He knew nothing of what lay between Hosobuchi and his lads; for all he knew, the lads might have been panting to serve the greater man in his bed. Certainly Hosobuchi had the sort of looks which could attract that kind of yearning.

"And unclaimed lads?" Tyrrell said. "Are there many of them here?"

Shuji fell into a peal of laughter, which he quickly controlled as Hosobuchi sent him a warning look. Pickens, who was sitting passively under his man's hand, covered his mouth with his palm.

More polite, Hosobuchi simply said as he lifted his hands from his lads' shoulders, "Unclaimed lads are the greatest group among us; there are far more lads than men here."

"And men only take one or two lads?"

"If they are wise. A greater man is greater in rank than a lesser man because it takes more strength to care for a lad. One lad is hard, two lads are harder. I've known some men to try to take three or four lads, but they didn't last long. Only a true man has the strength to care for many lads."

"And a true man is . . . ?" Tyrrell eyed Hosobuchi, feeling uneasy. Apparently, this prison was as stratified as Vovimian society was said to be. Unclaimed lads, and then claimed lads, and then lesser men, and then greater men, and the greater men themselves were divided into those who took one lad or two lads. Which meant, Tyrrell realized, that this man with the schoolmaster's voice was very high in rank indeed. Tyrrell wondered at what point he would be expected to offer the proper grovelling.

"Hosobuchi."

The voice came out of nowhere. Before Tyrrell had time to look to his left and identify the speaker, Hosobuchi – with a swiftness that would have done credit to an Ammippian hound on the hunt – slid off the pail and fell to his knees.

The man he knelt before – Ahiga of the golden tattoos – simply looked down at him. Close up, it could be seen that Ahiga was roughly the same age as Hosobuchi; he was easily the youngest of the true men. He was dressed as he had been before, in a groin-cloth and yellow necklet, but hanging round his neck now was a leather strap holding a sheathed dagger. In an automatic manner, Tyrrell glanced back toward the gate to see whether the guards had noticed this flagrant violation of life-prison rules, but the other prisoners screened his view of the guards.

He returned his attention to the scene before him. Hosobuchi had not stirred so much as a finger since kneeling; his head was bowed. His left arm was behind his back, allowing his left hand to grip his right arm. His left sleeve, creeping up, revealed a hidden wristlet, yellow in color . . . and in that moment, Tyrrell finally understood the meaning of the necklet-wristlet combination.

Ahiga said, "Introduce."

Hosobuchi raised his head then and half-turned his torso to gesture toward Tyrrell. "Sir, this is the new man. I am sorry, I do not yet know his name or previous home."

"I gave you little time in which to question him," Ahiga replied judiciously. "Sit."

"Thank you, sir." Hosobuchi retreated. Tyrrell would not have been surprised to see him sit at Ahiga's feet, but the greater man simply returned to the pail where he had been sitting before.

Pickens, Tyrrell noticed, had not moved throughout this exchange, but Shuji had subtly nudged himself over so that he was exactly halfway between Ahiga and his man.

Ahiga paid attention to none of them. He had turned his scrutiny to Tyrrell and was looking him up and down, like a butcher measuring the quality of a slab of beef. Without moving his gaze from Tyrrell, he asked, "What talk have you had, Hosobuchi?"

"We've been discussing rank," the greater man replied. "I was just about to explain to him what a true man is, sir."

Ahiga gave a soft snort, a response that early Mippite settlers had adopted from the Ammippian tribal folk – it meant something between "Ah" and "Well, well." After another moment, he said, "A true man is as you see, new man. He is a man to whom another man has pledged his service. Hosobuchi is my claimed man – he is lad to me and man to everyone else. And must be treated as such."

His voice was stern. Tyrrell, who was used to dealing with paranoid guards who assumed that he would knife them at any given opportunity, simply said, "And to other men you are . . . ? I mean, am I required to call you sir?"

Ahiga gave him a look then like a butcher about to cut into his beef. "No," he said, "it is not required. It is considered of courtesy, though, to show appropriate respect." His gaze travelled slowly down the length of Tyrrell, ending at the crate on which he sat.

After a moment, Tyrrell heard the hint and rose to his feet, moving away from the crate. Without a word, Ahiga took his place, stretching out his legs. He gave another snort, and without looking Tyrrell's way, he said, "That is good. I have been on my feet most of the night."

"Did this week's night watch-hounds have trouble they couldn't handle, sir?" asked Hosobuchi.

"Trouble, yes, and it was a matter for me alone to deal with. —Casey was raped last night." With the final sentence, he switched suddenly, effortlessly, to the King's tongue – the common speech of Vovim's provinces.

"I'm sorry to hear that, sir," Hosobuchi replied in the same language, frowning. "There was no punishment or announcement of a challenge this morning – did you kill the offender last night?" His voice was casual, as though discussing the contents of a newspaper's social column.

Ahiga's voice turned soft. "It was not possible for me to do so."

There was a long pause while Shuji and Pickens exchanged looks. Then Hosobuchi said, equally softly, "Ah."

Ahiga shrugged. "We talked to him, the three of us – we reminded him of what could happen to the tribe if he forced one of us to challenge him. He could see the danger as well as we could; I think he will not trouble any of our lads from this day forth. For if one true man kills another—"

"Sir!" Pickens's voice was sharp as he spoke in the King's tongue. "The new man is knowing Vovimian!"

Swift as an Ammippian arrow, Ahiga's gaze moved over to Tyrrell, who had been doing his best, throughout this conversation, to keep his expression bland. "You know that tongue?"

Tyrrell hesitated before nodding.

"Brown-skinned men often do, sir," Hosobuchi murmured.

"Do they?" said Ahiga. "I had not realized."

Tyrrell glanced over at Hosobuchi to see how he would take this clearly sarcastic reply; if there was one thing every Mippite knew, it was that dark brown skin meant southern Vovimian ancestry. But the greater man seemed not to be disturbed by Ahiga's response. Ahiga said sharply, "Look at me, new man. You are not to tell anyone of what I said. This is not a gossip."

Tyrrell had found, over the years, that his stubbornness tended to surface at the wrong moments. Perhaps it surfaced at this moment because he was tiring of Ahiga's harshness. He stared back at the true man and asked, "Do you have the right to give orders to unclaimed men?"

"Yes." It was Hosobuchi who replied. "Not in any matter between you and a lad you claim – no other man will interfere with you there. But in matters that affect the tribe as a whole, Ahiga may give orders."

Tyrrell was also tired of being made to look foolish. "Fine," he said to Ahiga. "I follow your orders not to gossip, I give up my seat to you, and I spare your tender ego, acknowledging your highly exalted position here by calling you sir. Is there any other custom I should know about, O Mighty One?"

He waited, with pounding heart, to see whether Ahiga would draw his dagger.

Ahiga fell off the crate, screaming with laughter.

It was an unearthly noise, like an Ammippian's war whooping; all of the prisoners nearby, who had showed no interest in the conversation till now, stopped to stare. Smiling broadly, Hosobuchi helped his man back onto the crate as Ahiga continued to scream with laughter.

When he had finally managed to wipe away his laughter and had dimmed his expression to a small smile, Ahiga said to Tyrrell, "You will be entertainment. You will be drama. You will not be dull."

"So I've been told in the past," Tyrrell said dryly, but he could not keep from smiling. The watching prisoners were also smiling.

"Spirits be kind to me, you must have been a handful to your past masters – no wonder you were sent to life prison," Ahiga continued, wiping away the tears that laughter had brought. "What name have you, and where do you come from?"

"The streets of our capital, originally," Tyrrell replied, "but I've spent the past two decades in Mercy Life Prison. My name is Tyrrell."

Ahiga's smile disappeared.

Tyrrell glanced again at the others present. Hosobuchi and his lads were exchanging looks. The other prisoners who were listening exchanged looks too. Tyrrell cleared his throat before saying, "Word has reached here of me, then?"

"Oh, yes, indeed," murmured Hosobuchi.

"The guards have talked of little else for the past fifteen years," inserted Pickens. "They've been taking wagers on how long it would be before you were transferred here."

"So you guessed that I would be coming." Tyrrell looked back at Ahiga.

"It has been discussed." Ahiga had wiped his face clean of all expression. After another minute, he said, "I told in error some time back. It is not simply the claiming of another man that makes one a true man. The other true men must agree that he is a man who is worthy to be raised to that rank. If he is not considered such . . . Well, he is a threat. And it is not good to be considered a threat to true men."

"Oh?" Tyrrell tried to sound suitably impressed, though he wondered why Ahiga felt the need to go to such lengths to establish that he had been judged worthy of his rank. He suspected that Ahiga must be one of those men who had received high rank so early in life that they forever after felt the need to defend their qualifications.

"Yes." Ahiga stared at him, apparently waiting for a more appropriate response. After half a minute of silence had passed, Hosobuchi coughed and said, "Perhaps, sir, the new man – Tyrrell is the name you wish to use here? – would like to know more about the appropriate ways in which to rise in rank."

"Or perhaps he simply wishes to know more about true men." There was a challenge in Ahiga's voice that Tyrrell could not interpret.

Tyrrell hesitated, trying to figure out which path Hosobuchi was seeking to guide him onto, and then gave in to curiosity. "Well, I'm still a bit confused about what it means to be a true man. You've claimed Hosobuchi – does that mean that his lads are your lads as well?"

Ahiga immediately turned his gaze toward Pickens. "Lad, bring me water," he said.

Pickens made no response; he simply looked at Hosobuchi. Hosobuchi told him, "No." Then he said to Ahiga, "Sir, if you're thirsty, I'll be glad to fetch you water."

"You see?" With both hands, Ahiga gestured toward the greater man and his lad. "Unless it is a matter that affects the whole tribe, I cannot give orders to Pickens."

"Nor to Shuji?" Tyrrell had his eye on the younger lad, whose gaze had scarcely wavered from Ahiga from the moment that the true man first arrived.

"Shuji." Ahiga looked down at the lad. At his word, Shuji scooted over and rested his forearm on the true man's lap. Ahiga ran his hand down the lad's back, saying, "Shuji is . . ."

"A complication," Hosobuchi suggested with a smile.

"Yes. That is the word I hunted. Shuji is a complication." Ahiga withdrew his hand and gestured the lad back to his previous place. "It is best to leave him aside. He is a special case. In most cases, neither I nor the other true men can give orders to our claimed men's lads. Nor can we give orders to our claimed men on how to treat their lads."

"I often seek your guidance, though, sir," Hosobuchi reminded him.

Ahiga's small smile returned. "And I yours. I need your advice on matters relating to this conversation. It is a private talk."

At this pointed remark, the prisoners who had been eavesdropping began to withdraw. Shuji did not move from his place. Pickens, however, rose to his feet, saying to Hosobuchi, "Sir, shall I be showing the new man the rest of the prison?"

"A good thought." Hosobuchi nodded in approval. "Tyrrell, is there any place you would especially like to see?"

Tyrrell thought a moment, and then asked, "Where do I take a piss?"

Shuji spluttered into his hand. Ahiga merely looked puzzled, as though he did not understand what Tyrrell had said. Smiling again, Hosobuchi said something in a tongue that Tyrrell did not recognize. Ahiga snorted.

"So," the true man said to Tyrrell, "this is your – what do they call it – your big business?"

"I've been on the road half the night," Tyrrell said, regretting the defensiveness of his words even as he spoke. "None of the guards here thought to give me a chance to relieve myself – not even Keeper."

Ahiga's brows arched. "He would not. His mind's thoughts are too high for sordid matters of the flesh. Well, go." He waved Tyrrell away, like a man waving away a pestering fly.

Chapter Text

Dismissed from the true man's presence, Tyrrell turned uncertainly toward Pickens, who said, "If you will come this way, sir . . ." He gestured with his right hand. His words were polite, and his left arm was once more behind his back in servant fashion, but his tone somehow lacked the degree of deference that he had shown toward Hosobuchi.

Tyrrell stepped forward in the direction that Pickens had indicated. They had been conversing against the western wall, near the gate at the southwestern end of the prison; Compassion was so filled with prisoners that Tyrrell could only see the northern and eastern walls by tilting his head. The view was unbroken between himself and those walls. If any sleeping cells existed in this place, he concluded, they must be far away.

With a keener eye for rank than he had possessed before his conversation with Hosobuchi and Ahiga, he saw that most of the prisoners passing him were lads, with no wristlets to indicate that a man had claimed them. These lads were bare-footed and were stripped down to their lower drawers; Ahiga's costume, it seemed, was a matter of eccentric preference rather than rank.

The claimed lads were dressed in trousers and shirts, and all had wristlets of green or orange or yellow or black or white. When Tyrrell asked Pickens about this, the lad said, "If they have a white wristlet, it shows that they have been claimed by a greater man, sir. A lad wears the same color wristlet as his man's necklet. The men and lads with colored wristlets have been claimed by true men."

Tyrrell had been forced to twist round to ask Pickens this question; the lad was trailing behind Tyrrell. Now Tyrrell turned to look again at the men passing him. Most of them, he noticed, were wearing wristlets.

"There aren't many unclaimed men here?" He looked back over his shoulder at Pickens.

Pickens was silent a moment, as though assessing the meaning of Tyrrell's question, and then said, "The difference between claimed and unclaimed is not great for a man, sir. Unless a man serves as First Lad to a true man – as my man does to Ahiga – the true man will not normally require him to serve in matters where a lad would do. Usually, to be a claimed man means simply that you serve the tribe within the division of tribal work that your true man supervises. If you are an unclaimed man, you make your choice where to serve from day to day, but most men find that they prefer to fix their service— Sir, watch out!"

The warning came too late; Tyrrell tripped and fell sprawling over a man and lad who were lying on the ground, under one blanket.

Tyrrell barely managed to take in their rank before the man leapt to his feet, bawling curses and swinging his fist. Scrambling to his feet, Tyrrell ducked the swing, but in the next moment found himself trapped within the grip of the man's lad. The man pulled back his fist again.

"Wirsing!" shouted Pickens at the top of his lungs.

Tyrrell's assailant hesitated. Before Tyrrell had time to decipher the meaning of Pickens's call, a small prisoner – smaller even than Tyrrell – appeared at Pickens's side.

"I'm not on duty this morning," he said, frowning up at Pickens.

"I'm sorry, sir; I couldn't remember which men and lads had watch-hound duty this morning. Shall I fetch Ahiga?"

The small man – he wore a white necklet and yellow wristlet – shook his head. "And risk getting my ears torn off for bothering him with trivial matters? Thank you, but no. —What's the problem here?" He turned his attention to Tyrrell's assailant.

The assailant explained rapidly, his lad supporting his word at appropriate intervals. Wirsing listened patiently, and then turned his attention to Tyrrell. "Well?"

Tyrrell hesitated, but the assailant's account had been essentially correct, if a bit exaggerated about the amount of harm he had undergone. "He's right. I wasn't looking where I was going, and I fell on top of them."

"It's my fault, sir," added Pickens. "I distracted him from looking where he was going."

Wirsing sighed. "You do like to complicate things, Pickens. Hell's balls." He put his fingers to his forehead, as though his head hurt.

The assailant's lad whispered something into his man's ear. The man nodded slowly before saying to Wirsing, "Nobody's at fault. I withdraw my complaint."

"Thank the goddess that she granted a small amount of wisdom to mankind." Wirsing addressed this remark toward the dome. "Very well, I rule that nobody is at fault. But you" – he pointed at the assailant – "call for a watch-hound's judgment next time. Your lad wasn't in danger, so it was a matter for the hounds. You" – he pointed at Tyrrell – "keep your eye on where you're going. Stepping on top of someone can earn you a lashing from the watch-hounds . . . and you won't endear yourself to Ahiga if you let his First Lad's lad take a lashing on your behalf."

Tyrrell looked over at Pickens. Pickens avoided his eye. Tyrrell said to Wirsing, "I didn't mean to let him—"

"Save your speeches," said the small man. "Just follow our customs, and you won't encounter any of Ahiga's watch-hounds again. —Lad, let's go find this morning's hounds and learn why they're slacking. They should have heard Pickens yelling and been here by now."

"Yes, sir." A prisoner who looked as though he could have been a strongman in a circus stepped aside to let Wirsing pass, pausing only to give Tyrrell and his assailant warning glares. Tyrrell looked hesitantly over at his assailant, but the other man had already turned away and was giving orders to his lad to pick up the blanket on the ground. The lad, Tyrrell noticed with curiosity, had no wristlet.

"Unclaimed," Pickens said when Tyrrell asked in an undertone. "Judging from his behavior there, I'd guess that he's trying to convince Delgado to claim him. He has a good chance; Delgado has been searching for a Second Lad. —Watch your step, sir; quite a few folks here sleep in till breakfast, if they don't have early-morning duties."

Tyrrell had to twist once more to look at him. Pickens was speaking in a matter-of-fact manner, as though he had not just risked a beating in order to defend a stranger. Tyrrell tried to think of a way to thank him, but every speech of thanks he thought of was that of a man thanking someone's servant for service well rendered. And he suddenly knew that this was not a speech he wished to give – not to Pickens, at any rate.

He stopped at mid-pace. The paths of the other prisoners flowed fluidly about him, as though he were a rock in a stream. The conversations around him were taking place in a dozen different languages: Mippite, as well as Yclau, various dialects of Vovimian, and other foreign tongues. The voices were casual, like clerks getting a bank ready in the morning before it opened to the public.

Tyrrell tried to sound equally casual as he spoke. "Ahiga told me that I don't need to call him sir."

"Yes, sir?" Upon pausing, Pickens had placed his arm servant-wise behind his back.

"And what about you? Does Hosobuchi require you to call other men sir?"

A pause, and then, "No, sir."

"Then why, for all of Hell's fingers and toes and tongues, are you calling me sir?"

Another pause, long enough to make Tyrrell regret having cursed. He well remembered what it was like to have a guard ask him a question that he was not sure whether to answer honestly. Pickens must be choosing his words carefully now.

Finally the lad said, "Out of respect for your manhood, sir. Some men appreciate being addressed so . . . especially if they are new to their manhood."

Tyrrell sighed heavily. "Look," he said, "I've just come from a prison where there are no ranks. Do you understand? The guards at Mercy Prison rank us according to the danger they think we pose to them, but otherwise we're all fellow men – no lads, no claimed or unclaimed, nothing to make us different from each other. Even our ranks in the outside world don't count. Now, I don't doubt," he added rapidly as Pickens began to speak, "that I'll grow used to your customs in time. But just now, I don't need anyone sirring me. I'm in need of— Well, I don't have any mates in this place."

He had a moment of uncertainty, wondering whether he had gone too far. How in Hell's name did one make a proposal of friendship to a servant, anyway? He'd never had a servant. But that moment passed as a smile slowly entered Pickens's face. The lad offered his arm.

Sighing audibly with relief, Tyrrell shook his new mate's arm. "I'm Tyrrell," he reintroduced himself.

"Dick Pickens," the lad replied as he released Tyrrell's arm, "but you can just call me Pickens. Everyone here uses last names, except for folks like Shuji, whose last names are unpronounceable to anyone who doesn't speak their tongue. And of course Ahiga – he doesn't have a last name, only a lineage. Would you rather be addressed by your first name or your last?"

"My first," Tyrrell said quickly. Then, as Pickens raised his eyebrows, he added in an undertone, "My career name is Cutter."

"Ah." Pickens smiled again. "Well, we have a few prisoners here with names like Bandit and Scuttler – but yes, I can see why you'd prefer to leave your name in the past. My own dear, departed parents were gracious enough to leave me with a harmless east Vovimian name. —But you'll be knowing that, I have mind?"

He switched, in the final sentence, to the Riverbend dialect of the Vovimian tongue – a dialect that had its origins in the area south of the Vovimian capital. In the past decade, that area, which had traditionally been farmland, had become the site of manufactories and had been incorporated into the capital. Increasingly, commoners flocked there in search of work at the new manufactories, since the old farms were being driven out of business by Yclau's superior farming technology. At the same time, aristocrats who had lived in Riverbend for generations had moved away, so that the Riverbend dialect was increasingly regarded as a commoner dialect.

Tyrrell had heard as much from new prisoners arriving at Mercy, and once or twice had met an olive-skinned east Vovimian who was familiar with the dialect, having lived in Vovim's capital. Tyrrell had always pretended to be ignorant of any dialect of Vovim, though. He did not want to call people's attention to the fact that his parents were from that land.

But here, where he was surrounded by men speaking a dozen tongues and wearing a hundred shades of skin color, it seemed safe enough to confess to his linguistic origins . . . which, as it happened, were that of Riverbend. His parents, who were commoners, had moved from Riverbend when it was still a rural district and had no stigma attached to it, and so they had not bothered to alter their mode of speech when they started their lives anew in Mip. Tyrrell had grown up fluent in the Riverbend dialect.

"Aye," he replied, feeling self-conscious as he spoke the dialect for the first time in many years. "My barbaric birth is written all over my skin, I fear."

Pickens gave an easy laugh. "Best not to be saying that around Valdis; he'll yield you a long speech about how Vovim wouldn't exist if his people from the south hadn't been bringing the glories of civilization as a giving to the neighboring tribes and tamed them into something worth saving. . . . Emigrant, aye?"

"My parents were," Tyrrell replied. "I grew up in Mip's capital, as I gave tale to Ahiga."

Pickens nodded. "I too. Butchers' District. And you?"

"Sewer District. My parents were aiming to move out to the countryside as soon as they could find a farm to work on, but . . . Well, my dad died when I was four, and my mam when I was seven."

"Any older bros or sisses to be caring for you?" Pickens's expression was sober now.

"Nay; I was the first-birthed. I had a younger sis, of age three. I tried to care for her myself, but . . ." He took a deep breath, feeling the warm air fill his throat, which was now tight with memory. "After, I came to know I'd die too if I didn't go and find some folk to care for me. So I went and joined a street tribe."

Pickens, who had been swinging his arms slightly during this recital, suddenly went very still. "Sewer District. You were of the Rat-tail Tribe?"

"Aye," replied Tyrrell slowly. Then, taking in what Pickens had said before: "Where did you say you come from?"

Pickens raised his chin, pride written across his face. "The Butchers' District. I was initiated into the Gutterway Tribe thirty-five years past."

Tyrrell felt the blood beat across his skin. He stifled a wild impulse to yelp for help from Ahiga's watch-hounds. No doubt they would laugh in his face; tribal rivalries were a matter of youth against youth, and any man who chose to retain loyalty to his tribe in later years could expect to fight bitter battles.

But not with the Gutterway Tribe – not if they hoped to live to the end of their natural lives. Gods help him. Tyrrell automatically flicked his eye over Pickens's body, trying to tell whether the lad was carrying a hidden revolver.

Suddenly Pickens laughed and placed his right hand upon Tyrrell's shoulder. "If we'd met each other on the streets of the capital, for sure we'd be trying to stab each other's hearts – but here, thank the gods, we're all one tribe, and Ahiga would have our flesh for feasting if we tried to have battle for old times' sake. —Come, we still have some ways to go."

Fairly gasping with relief, Tyrrell allowed himself to be steered through the crowd, which was thicker than before. More prisoners, it appeared, had risen from their beds in the intervening time. "No tribal scuttling here, then?"

"Nay, none." Pickens's voice was flat. "We can't afford to have battle at each other; we've a worse rival to battle." He pointed with his thumb toward the gate.

Tyrrell nodded, but could not forebear saying, "I've met guards who were on our side."

"Oh, aye?" Pickens's tone was politely disbelieving. "Well, there are guards who are better than others, for sure. If I was to go and plead for supplies to keep from dying, I'd hope that Medinger was around. But even he would likely pay no mind to my pleas."

It would be safest, Tyrrell decided, to move on to another subject. It had taken him and Merrick a long, hard struggle to persuade Mercy's prisoners to trust the guards who were their allies – and Tyrrell was not sure whether the prisoners here had any allies. Even Tom Keeper remained an uncertainty.

So instead Tyrrell said, keeping to the safe subject of origins, "You're from east Vovim originally?"

"My great-grandparents were, aye. I spent, oh, about five years of my childhood living with kin in Vovim's capital, which is why I speak as I do. My parents went and made sure I had knowing of every detail of my heritage; I think they were waiting the day that Vovim would gain again power over Mip." He grinned at Tyrrell. "After a fifteen-year of catching tale of what a glorious heritage I was upholding, I got sick of it all and went and joined my local street tribe, so as I could be among the underdogs." He shrugged. "Learned sacks of good lessons there about sticking with your mates, being loyal no matter what . . . but got arrested for gunrunning when I was seventeen, and for armed robbery when I was twenty-eight. Served at holding prisons twice; third time I got arrested, the magistrate stuck me in here, to learn me a higher lesson."

"Sounds fair," Tyrrell said cautiously.

"Oh, aye, 'twas fair enough; I was a career criminal. Trouble is, the third offense wasn't intended by me. . . . But that's not worth being on about." He shook his body, like a dog shaking off unpleasant water. "Some fellows here, they don't deserve to be in prison. Shuji, for one."

"He's a northwesterner?" Tyrrell curved his path round a group of claimed lads who were sitting on the floor, playing with what appeared to be home-made dice, carved out of bone.

"Aye, him and Hosobuchi. When Shuji first went and came here, he knew not a word of Mippite, and his provincial accent was so thick that not even the Vovimians here could understand him. Hosobuchi was the only one who could give speech with him."

Tyrrell looked curiously over at Pickens, who was striding beside him. "How did he give tale at his trial, then? Through counsel?"

Pickens's mouth thinned. "Give tale? What makes you think the magistrates cared about his side of the tale?"

Tyrrell felt a familiar weight in his chest. "Grand magistracy? No presence of the defender?"

"Aye. He was convicted without ever having knowing of what his crime was or who his accusers were – or maybe the guards gave tale of that to him; he wouldn't be knowing. First thing he had knowing about all this was when he was dragged out of his bed by the local patrol soldiers. He lived with his parents; they urged him to go with the soldiers, quiet-like. His parents were great folks for following the law. So he did as the soldiers ordered, and spent a month in a holding prison, and then was sent here. He near-like burst into tears when he learned that Hosobuchi had knowing of his tongue. First thing he went and asked was when he would get a chance to be seeing his family. Hosobuchi, he was the one who had to break the news to Shuji that he'd never be seeing his family again – that he was in prison here for life."

"That was the moment for tears, I'd figure," Tyrrell said quietly. The familiar ache continued. Even taking into account the natural tendency of criminals to deny their guilt, Tyrrell had known far too many prisoners at Mercy who had been jailed for crimes they had committed through no fault of their own, or who were innocent of their accused crime. This tale, though, was the worst he had heard yet.

Pickens shook his head. "Not Shuji. Not him. He grew all pale at first, like as though he would faint. I was wondering what he would say – I had enough knowing of Hosobuchi's tongue by then to follow the tale. Then he was saying, in a voice very breathless, 'I thank you, sir, for the great kindness you have shown in explaining this to me. If I may be of service to you in any way, I hope that you will let me know.'"

Tyrrell gave a swift look at Pickens. "Did he understand what he was offering?"

"Nay. He's a northwesterner; politeness was bred into him when he was in his cradle. Beyond that, he is gentle by nature; he craves ever to help others. . . . Hosobuchi claimed him on the spot. He gave tale to me in private that he wasn't going to let a sweet lad like that abide a single night unclaimed. He felt great love for the lad, from the very start."

Tyrrell tried to read Pickens's face; the lad was staring straight ahead in his path, not watching Tyrrell. "You're fond of Shuji too, I have mind."

"A bit too fond, it may be." Before Tyrrell could ask him what he meant, Pickens pointed to an upcoming step. "Mark this. Here lies the boundary 'tween the space for the unclaimed lads and the space for the little men."

Tyrrell paused to look, scanning with his eye all the ground that he could see. The wooden floor stopped shortly before the boundary; the boundary-step was made of stone, and it appeared to run the full length of the prison, from one wall to the other. Oddly enough, the step went down into the flagstoned little men's territory, rather than up. "What did this signify, originally?" he asked.

"The divider 'tween the space for the unclaimed lads and the space for the little men," Pickens repeated patiently. Then, seeing Tyrrell stare, he added with a laugh, "Our customs here are centuries old, man. Those customs, they've long since been accepted by the guards. When this prison was designed over, in the year '85, it was designed to divide the ranks. The guards," he added dryly, "had their own reasons for craving that."

Tyrrell's mind was preoccupied with other matters. "You mean I shouldn't be walking in this area near the gate at all?"

"Oh, it's safe for you to go into a lower-ranked space. And during the day, most times, no watch-hound will harm you if you enter a higher-ranked space. But come nightfall, you'd best stay out of higher-ranked spaces till morn, if you don't want trouble to fall. Even the gate area can be a danger at dusk."

Tyrrell frowned. "What about claimed lads? Where is their place?"

"Why, over there." Pickens pointed toward the back of the prison. "In the area 'tween the little men's space and the true men's space. We share the same area as the greater men."

Tyrrell stared at Pickens. "You're in a higher-ranked area than the little men?"

Pickens smiled at him. "A claimed lad has been claimed," he said softly. "He has shown that some folk craves him here. A little man has no lad – he has not yet shown that he is craved here by any folk."

Tyrrell was silent a moment before saying, "It may be that I should have been the one asking if it was all right not to call you sir."

Pickens laughed and clapped an arm round Tyrrell's back, steering him toward the eastern wall as they followed the line of the step. "Nay, I have enough Mippite blood in me that I some days find all this ranking business to be wearisome. I'm glad to be meeting a man who cares not what my rank is. As for the other claimed lads . . . Well, you're still a man and deserving of respect for that reason. If any claimed lad be ever insolent to you, just ask him if he craves his words said again to his man. That will sober him quick-like. —There's our goal."

Tyrrell, who had been about to ask what deeds a man did to deserve such respect, looked where Pickens pointed.

o—o—o

A few minutes later, they reached their goal: a roofed structure. It was not much higher than Pickens, who was of average height, which was why Tyrrell had not sighted it behind the crowd. It was rough-boarded, with cylindrical wooden rods sticking off the edges of the roof. As Tyrrell approached the structure, he saw that the boards were actually divided from one another in rectangles and that letters were stencilled onto each rectangle.

He stared at Pickens. "Food crates? Like the ones wholesalers use?"

Pickens nodded. "We stacked them, one on top the other, to shape the walls. The beams, they're just there to hold up the roofing material."

"Where did you get the beams?"

"Cell bars."

"What?"

Pickens laughed at his expression. "The cell bars of the old prison, before the designing over – they were so old that they were made of wood. That's one reason the prison was designed over; the guards, they tired of prisoners boring and sawing their way out of the cells."

Shaking his head at the thought of wooden cell bars, Tyrrell squinted as he looked at the material atop the bars, which was hanging off the eaves. "Straw?"

"Came with the crates, as packing material. We don't often get straw, and some of the fellows, they wanted to use it to make straw mattresses. But Farnam said, Nay, we couldn't afford the loss of that many blankets to make the mattresses. 'Sides, the stench at this end of the prison was something awful back then."

Tyrrell could well imagine. Even with walls and a roof, the area around the privy smelled like his cell at Mercy had on one week when a vengeful guard had taken away the lid to the pit he used to relieve himself. "You've got no separate sleeping cells here, then? No places where the prisoners could be relieving themselves in private?"

"Used to," replied Pickens laconically. Then, as Tyrrell looked his way, he added, "We tore down the sleeping cells, winter last. Their walls were shaped of wood."

It took Tyrrell a minute to understand; then he said, in as light a voice as he could manage, "Gets a bit cold here during the winter, aye?"

"It does when we've no working furnace." For the first time, there was a darker note to Pickens's voice. "Under these flagstones are the wonders of modern technology: tubes that are figured on working like an old-fashioned hypocaust, making heat come up through the floor to the prisoners. They worked, most times, till winter last. Then they broke down, round the time of the Commoners' Autumn Festival."

Tyrrell had a moment to wonder how the prisoners celebrated an Yclau festival that required the use of frost; then he understood and shivered. "Gods above and below," he murmured.

Pickens shrugged. "Winter, it's always a bad season; this year just made more plain who the survivors would be. We're lucky to be in the foothills; that stayed the temperatures milder than they would be if we were in the high mountains. As it was, around a third of the tribe died 'fore spring."

Tyrrell was silent, thinking of the ledger book in Tom Keeper's office, with its numbers that did not add up. Finally he said, "Did you tell the guards? Tom Keeper might have been willing to listen to you."

"Keeper?" Pickens's voice grew darker still. "You've seen how much mind Keeper pays to what we give tale. Farnam's lad Davidson slung a bit of human skull at Keeper this morn – he'll draw punishment from Farnam for that, but 'twas his desperate try to make Keeper see what is happening. And did Keeper or the other guards care? The skull is still out there; they pay it no mind. —See now, this is a nasty subject. Let's get you past the others here."

He pointed, and Tyrrell noticed for the first time that a queue of prisoners was waiting to use the privy – two queues to two doors, one at the end of the privy in the area of the unclaimed lads and one at the end of the privy in the area of the little men. The queue for the little men was considerably shorter than that of the unclaimed lads – only a couple of dozen men – but Pickens, stepping down into that area, ignored all these men. He went straight to the front of the queue, where a big, brawny prisoner was standing in front of a door, his arms folded. He wore a yellow wristlet.

He looked at Tyrrell without moving. Pickens said in Mippite, "New man, just arrived; hasn't had a chance to use a pot for a while. Hosobuchi told me to bring him here."

The brawny man stepped aside, saying only, "Number eleven."

Pickens took hold of the door – it was leaning against the crates, unhinged – and pulled it wide enough open to allow Tyrrell and himself entrance.

The smell inside nearly made Tyrrell wretch, and it was not as though he was unfamiliar with nasty smells. His family had lived next to a garbage dump when he was young. This room smelt like the inside of a dump, though. He glanced round as his eyes adjusted to the dim interior, lit only by cracks of light falling through the straw. He thought there were shapes in the darkness, but they were too faint for him to see clearly. The sounds around him, though, told him that this was a communal privy.

Taking firm hold of Tyrrell's arm, Pickens began walking alongside the wall of the privy, muttering numbers under his breath as the two of them passed each indistinct shape. Tyrrell ran his hand along the right side as they went, discovering that the crates' tops had been removed before the crates were used as building material, so that what had once been crate-sides now stuck out like shelves against the wall.

Finally Pickens paused and fumbled his way toward the east wall.

"Ow!" came a voice from directly in front of them. "I'm not through!"

"Is this number eleven?" Pickens asked.

"I don't know," the voice replied, sulky. "I took the first one that was free."

Pickens sighed. "How have you managed to live this long without being batted over the head by one of Ahiga's watch-hounds? You're a lad, aren't you? Who's your man?"

A silence, and then, in a considerably subdued manner: "I don't have one."

"Name?" Pickens's voice was brisk.

A much longer pause, and then, in a very small voice: "Boyle, sir. Pete Boyle."

"I'm not a man; I'm Hosobuchi's lad, and if I find you taking someone else's spot again, I'll tell my man. You've made a man wait his proper turn."

"I'm sorry." The voice had turned from subdued to fearful. "It won't happen again, I promise. It's all yours now—"

A figure started to stumble past Tyrrell; Pickens reached out and grabbed him. The lad stood still at once. Tyrrell could hear his breath clearly; it was half-sobbing.

"Be sure to clean yourself before you leave." Pickens's voice was no longer stern. "You don't want to take any chances."

"Yes. Thank you. Yes." The lad, released, sped away.

"Regrets for the delay," Pickens said to Tyrrell, switching back to the Riverbend dialect. "I'm a watch-hound; I have to pay mind to these things. Now, then, if you'll slide your foot forward-like, you'll be finding a crate. . . ."

Following Pickens's instructions, Tyrrell located the crate, stood on it, found the barrel in front of it with his hand, and relieved himself into the barrel. It was odd, doing this blind, but he could tell from the nearby tinkle that he had hit his target. Judging from the sound, the barrel was close to being full.

"You need to squat?" Pickens enquired. "There's another barrel next to this one for that sort of thing. A couple of boards are on top of the barrel – smooth-planed, so there's no worry about splinters. Just sit with the gap in the middle."

Upon reflection, Tyrrell decided that he did indeed need to sit. He spent the time looking round him. His eyes had adjusted enough to see that there was a long line of barrels and prisoners in this privy. A few prisoners glanced his way, but most kept their attention centered on their own business. He could guess, from what he knew of Mercy's prisoners, that many of the prisoners here found this communal experience to be highly humiliating.

Tyrrell had spent most of his childhood with no privy but the gutter; he had found the covered pit in his cells at Mercy to be luxurious by comparison. Having boards to sit on was like being handed the keys to the water closet used by the magisterial seats.

He said as much to Pickens, who chuckled. "You're well suited to survive here. Commoners are, most times. It's the prisoners who used to be living a mid-class life, like Farnam, that find it hardest to make the change. —Hoi, Nava'i, we crave paper here." This was spoken in the Riverbend dialect to a prisoner walking down the privy slowly. A crack of light falling on his hand revealed his wristlet to be dark green, the same color that the true man Farnam wore.

"See now, we're short," the lad replied in the same tongue.

"We're ever short. You drawing miser learning from Farnam?"

Nava'i snorted, handed something to Pickens, and continued on.

"Here you go," Pickens said, holding out the objects he had been handed. "Genuine, Compassion toilet-paper. I'll wager you don't get anything this fancy at Mercy."

Tyrrell took the strips of paper from him and fingered them. "Strips of newsie?" he guessed.

"Aye. No newsprint on them, though – the guards don't want to go and chance us having knowing of what happens in the world. The paper, it's used as packing material for the crates."

"I have mind you'd want to use them for writing," Tyrrell said as he stood up and wiped himself.

"Oh, for sure, it's like a blow of the belt to Farnam to have to give them up for such low uses. But he gives tale he'd rather see writing paper go to waste than chance another epidemic."

Tyrrell, who was in the midst of tossing the dirtied paper into the barrel, went still. "Have many of those?"

"Used to have one or two a year, till Farnam took over. His wife, she had studied nursing books in preparation for having kiddies; he had all sorts of notions for keeping sickness from spreading here. In the old days, we used corn cobs over and over to wipe ourselves, sharing the cobs; Farnam took one look at that custom and near-like screeched. Gave tale it was a sure way to spread sickness from one fellow to the next. So now we follow his rules, and we most times never have sickness spread. I'm figuring it's different at Mercy. Do you have many sicknesses there?"

As he spoke, Pickens adjusted the boards of the barrel. Tyrrell, having wiped his hands clean on one of the newspapers, paused from buckling his belt. He could not see Pickens's face in the dark; the lad's tone had been casual. After a minute, Tyrrell said, "'Tis not bad there. Any folk with consumption or some other sickness that could be caught is placed alone. Isolated," he said, using the Mippite word, so as to be clear. "Worst problem we've had is with sex sicknesses. I have the dose . . . but the healer here, she gives tale I'm past where I could be passing it to any other folk."

"Ah." The relief in Pickens's voice was clear as he took hold of Tyrrell and steered him toward the second entrance.

Tyrrell waited until they had reached that entrance – where the door was wide open, allowing light to shine in – before he turned to look at Pickens. "You're Ahiga's watch-hound."

Pickens's face twisted into a grim sort of smile. "Regrets for that," he said softly. "My first loyalties, they're to Hosobuchi and Shuji and the tribe. You've got to understand that."

"Right. I do. What would have happened to me if you'd gone and learned I had a bad sickness that could be caught?"

Pickens did not say a word; he simply drew his finger across his throat.

Tyrrell swallowed hard. "I had mind Mercy Prison was a tough place, but we don't kill invalids there."

Pickens shrugged. "'Tis a matter of kill, or die ourselves. Sickness runs quick-like in a prison with one cell. I'll give tale to Farnam about you having the dose, but he won't do more than make a kind question about how much pain you're in. A sickness that won't spread isn't a threat to the tribe."

As he spoke, he gestured Tyrrell toward Farnam's lad Nava'i, who was standing by the doorway. The lad told Tyrrell in Mippite, "Please hold your hands here, sir."

Tyrrell obediently placed his hands face-up over a pail, filled with dirty water, which was sitting on an upended crate. Taking a pitcher, Nava'i poured a brown, foul-smelling liquid into Tyrrell's cupped palms. Then, with a second pitcher, Nava'i carefully poured a bit of lukewarm water onto Tyrrell's hands. "Lather up, sir."

Tyrrell did so vigorously, though the soap bit into his hands, being grainy. "The guards give us soap?" he said to Pickens.

The serving lad bowed over in laughter, nearly dropping his pitcher. Grinning, Pickens said, "It's home-made. All it takes to make soap is wood ashes and fat. We're yet using up the ashes from last winter."

Tyrrell thought about this as the lad poured another bit of water over his hands to wash away the lather. Fat implied meat; so did the bone dice that the claimed lads had been playing with earlier. If the prisoners here were allowed meat, could that explain the meat-scented smoke that the guards had noticed? Perhaps the prisoners cooked the meat further in order to extract drippings of fat from it.

"More luxuries," Tyrrell commented, as he wiped his hands dry on his trousers and followed Pickens outside to where the unclaimed lads were waiting their turn, some shifting impatiently from foot to foot.

"More necessities," Pickens corrected him. "It's part of Farnam's plan to cut back on sickness. There was sacks of fighting over his notion for hand-washing, back when he first had mind to it; the other true men gave tale we couldn't spare the water."

Tyrrell's head jerked round to look at Pickens. "You're short of water here, some days?"

He could hear the strain in his voice as he asked his question. One of the few good things that could be said about Mercy Life Prison was that its prisoners never went short of water. The Yclau engineers who had built the prison had diverted water from a local creek, pumped it up to the highest level of the prison, and then allowed the water to stream down, in a small trickle, along the back wall of every cell. The water system was so well fashioned that it had never broken down.

But it did not extend as far as the punishment cells. Prisoners in the punishment cells were only allowed one gill of water every twenty-four hours. By the end of the single month that Tyrrell had spent there, in his final days at Mercy, he had thought that he would go mad from thirst.

"Not to worry," Pickens said, placing his hand on Tyrrell's back as he changed their path to go north. "We draw rainfall every few days. —But giving tale of sicknesses, we should have that scratch seen to." He pointed to Tyrrell's left arm.

Tyrrell forgot the question he had been about to ask – what the rainfall had to do with drinking water inside the prison – and looked down at his arm. A long scratch, black with dried blood, went halfway up his forearm. He had not noticed it before; the dull throbbing of pain was something he was used to.

"Medical kit," Pickens said succinctly. "Iodine, and then a clean bandage. If that cut gets infected, it could turn into something ugly that could kill you."

Tyrrell knew that, of course, and could name three prisoners who had died that way at Mercy. The only wonder here was that Pickens thought there might be a remedy.

"Must have happened in the challenge," Tyrrell said as he turned to follow Pickens through the crowd, toward the back of the prison. "I'm glad that's all over with, anyhow."

Pickens laughed. "Well, 'tis over 'less another man has mind to challenge you for your lad . . . but that kind of event doesn't fall very much. The men have more than enough lads to claim."

Tyrrell thought about this as they wound their way round an unclaimed man who was kneeling to carefully fold a blanket. "Shuji . . . he was claimed by Hosobuchi. But Ahiga seems to— Well, he treats Shuji like as though he owns the lad."

"Oh, Shuji is a complication," Pickens said cheerfully. "Hosobuchi claimed him, but Ahiga, he craved Shuji too. So Hosobuchi shares him with Ahiga."

Tyrrell felt an unpleasant lurching in his stomach. "Is that usual?"

"For two men to go and share a lad? It falls now and then, when two men crave the same lad but they don't want to give battle to each other. What complicated matters here was that Hosobuchi is Ahiga's claimed man. That means that Hosobuchi and Shuji are fellow lads to Ahiga, as well as being man and lad to each other. 'Tisn't supposed to work that way. There were sacks of words 'tween Ahiga and Hosobuchi, and sacks of arguments 'tween the true men, 'fore Ahiga claimed Shuji and took him to his bed."

"And coming among all these arguments," Tyrrell said, "did anyone have mind to ask Shuji what he craved?"

He was not surprised that Pickens halted and turned to stare. Tyrrell could hear the anger in his own voice. Twenty years he had been imprisoned at Mercy, and still he had never been able to make himself accept certain aspects of life prison that other prisoners had grown to consider normal. Merrick was one of the few prisoners who understood why Tyrrell considered it so terribly important to remain angry over the rapes. If Tyrrell ever let himself become dulled to what was happening, as Merrick had at one point . . . If he ever accepted that other men had the right to take someone unwilling . . .

"'Tisn't a small matter to me," he said to Pickens, seeking to wipe away the look of puzzlement on the lad's face. "I was sent here to Compassion because I have mind that it's wrong to take any folk unwilling. I gave battle against the rapists at Mercy for fifteen years. If lads like Shuji are taken unwilling here, I'll give battle against their rapists as well."

Pickens did not reply for a moment. Under the shadow of the thunder-clouds, his olive-brown skin was almost grey, his brown hair almost black. Finally he said, "Ahiga is right. You should learn our customs 'fore you issue challenges."

Tyrrell felt the rebuke like a blow of the hand on the cheek. Before he could think of what to say, Pickens had taken his arm again and was guiding him toward the back of the prison.

"I can't promise that you'll be liking everything you find here," the lad said. "There's sacks I dislike here. But I can promise you that matters at Compassion are more complicated than they are seeming at the surface. You need to dive deep into our world, Tyrrell of Mercy. Then you'll be knowing enough that you can give tale to us what we're doing wrong."

Chapter Text

The back of the prison was much like the front, except for the lack of a gate. Where the gate would have been was instead what Tyrrell had been seeking: sleeping cells.

It was Pickens who explained what they were. He had passed beyond the awkwardness of their earlier confrontation by simply pretending that it had not occurred, instead pointing out the sights as though he were a guide for a Mippite doing the Grand Tour of Vovim and Yclau.

"Over there," he said, switching to the Mippite tongue and taking on the tones of a haughty guide, "is the second latrine area. Note the beautiful pattern of the packing-crate woodwork. This privy is for the exclusive use of the greater men and their lads; naturally, it has inside it chandeliers and valuable rugs and all such amenities as one might expect for the elite members of this prison."

"More barrels?" enquired Tyrrell, looking at the privy, which appeared no different from the one that straddled the areas for the little men and the unclaimed lads.

"More barrels," confirmed Pickens. Then, returning to his tour: "Mind the step up, dear gentleman; we are now entering the greater men's area. See the fine Vovimian carvings, the exquisite Yclau architecture, the comfortable sleeping cells."

Tyrrell glanced around and saw only the sleeping cells. The row, perhaps containing half a dozen cells, was in the northwest corner of the prison. Tyrrell decided that the entrance to them must be from the northern side, for only a featureless wall faced south, toward the far-off prison gate. The wall was made of wood.

"I had mind you gave tale these were all torn down," Tyrrell said.

Pickens shrugged. "All but the true men's cells. They would have been burned too if we hadn't gone and found another fuel supply. As it is" – he swept his arm around, switching back to Mippite – "see what enchanting cottages we have built to replace our old cells."

Tyrrell scanned the sight ahead of him wordlessly. The greater men's area, unlike the rest of the prison, was scattered with little shelters: tiny huts made of packing crates, with roofs no higher than a man's waist; tents built with more of the wooden bars, covered by leather; other tents fashioned out of rags so thin that they could be seen through.

"Good thing it never rains here," said Tyrrell, looking dubiously at one tent they were passing, which was stitched together roughly with what looked like string.

Pickens grinned as though Tyrrell had made a joke. "The skin tents are waterproof, most times – but nay, I wouldn't be wanting to shelter in any of them when rain was falling. Lying on moist ground, that's bad enough. —Here we are," he added, before Tyrrell could ask him what he meant. "We have now come, gentleman, to the surgery of Compassion's healer. Please wipe your boots on the mat and take your place in the healer's elegant waiting room."

In fact, there was nobody waiting to use the medical kit, unless one counted the watch-hound. Tyrrell had no doubts as to what the lad was; he was holding upright a spear fashioned out of one of the old cell-door bars; the top of the bar had been whittled to a wicked-looking point. The hound scrutinized Tyrrell, but did not try to stop either him or Pickens as they approached the kit.

A neckletted man was sitting on a three-legged stool beside the kit, darning a sock with a bone-needle. He was leaning his back against the west wall, but as he caught sight of them approaching, he put down the sock and rose to his feet.

"Good morning," he said to both of them.

"Good morning," Pickens replied in Mippite. "Ngugi, this new man has gotten cut in a challenge. Can he tend himself with your supplies?"

Ngugi – who appeared from his mild-brown skin to have ancestors from one of the small northeastern provinces of Vovim – gave a derisive sniff as Tyrrell showed him his arm. "I've had to turn away three greater men this morning who wanted medicine for their ill lads, and you expect first aid for a little scratch like that?"

His remark was aimed at Tyrrell, but Pickens was the one who said, "No supplies left?"

"See for yourself." Ngugi waved his hand at the coffin-sized crate beside him. Leaning over, Tyrrell could see nothing more than a few scattered tins, empty, as well as a dirty sock that seemed to have wandered into the kit.

"Ah, well," said Pickens. "It will be filled soon, perhaps. Keeper promised Farnam a new kit this morning."

Ngugi – who wore a green wristlet showing that he was Farnam's claimed man – sniffed again. "I'll believe that when it appears."

"Thank you anyway," Pickens replied.

"I'm sorry I couldn't help you, sir." Ngugi did not look Tyrrell's way as he spoke; his attention remained focussed on Pickens.

Pickens nodded. "I hope all is well with you and your lad?"

"Quite well, sir; thank you for asking." Ngugi waited until Pickens had stepped away, and then he sat down again, picking up the needle and sock from where he had laid them.

They had walked several yards away, in the direction of the back of the prison, before Tyrrell found his voice again. "He's a man, and you're a lad. So why does he call you 'sir'?"

Pickens flicked a glance at him briefly before turning his gaze toward their path. "Out of courtesy. He was once my Second Lad."

Tyrrell did not realize he had stopped until Pickens turned to look at him. The lad remained silent, waiting.

Tyrrell could think of nothing to say but the obvious. "You were once a man?"

Pickens nodded.

"How . . . ?" The word escaped Tyrrell before he could call it back, and he could have cursed himself. It was one of the strictest customs among life prisoners: you never asked anyone what he had done that had caused him to be punished. A prisoner might volunteer such information, as Pickens had done earlier when he spoke of his crimes, but you never quizzed him about why he had been imprisoned, beaten, thrown into a punishment cell, had had his prison status lowered, or had undergone any other type of penalty.

The tendons in Pickens's neck stood out, but he answered in a level voice, "I murdered my First Lad."

Tyrrell was still a moment before saying, "I'm figuring 'twas manslaughter, not murder."

Pickens gave one of his grim little smiles. "It may be. Comes to the same thing in the end."

"Not in the eyes of the gods," Tyrrell replied firmly. And then, as Pickens tried to speak, Tyrrell added quickly, "None of my business. I shouldn't have asked."

Pickens sighed. The tendons in his neck relaxed. He put his arm round Tyrrell's back and began to guide him forward slowly. "It doesn't matter," he said. "Any folk here could tell you, and they will, in time. I'd sooner tell you myself."

o—o—o

Dick Pickens had been accepted into the Tribe of Compassion Prison without any trouble – had in fact been the prisoner who had first suggested that the loose alliance which was forming between Compassion's prisoners be named a tribe. The name helped to shape and coalesce the alliance, which until that time had been shaped only by the personality of Valdis.

Valdis was the first true man – the first man to gain the loyal service of other prisoners who claimed to be men. He had gained this status by the simple act of being the only man in Compassion Prison to survive the Riot of 385. He, and a couple dozen lads who now served him, were the only prisoners who remembered the time-honored customs of Compassion Prison and could therefore pass those customs on to newcomers who were seeking some sort of solidity to brace them against their change of fortune. The custom of man and lad provided them with that solidity, and Valdis was successful in persuading the new prisoners that his status as a "true man," as he coined the term, was simply an extension of the older ways.

For three years, Valdis was the only true man. Though he discovered, from hard experience, that he could not claim every man and lad who entered the prison, he did at least gain the cooperation of the unclaimed men and their lads, since it was clear that Valdis was the only prisoner there who possessed the knowledge they needed to survive Compassion's harsh conditions.

In 388, however, Valdis tired of being the man in charge of a certain prison custom and therefore sought someone to replace him. Unfortunately, the only man willing to take on these duties was Walker, a taciturn, pious prisoner who had no intention of allowing Valdis to claim him.

Strenuous negotiations followed; at the end of them, Valdis declared Walker his fellow true man, with separate duties from his own. The two true men would make decisions together on any matter that affected both their duties.

This was the situation as it stood in 389, when Pickens entered Compassion Prison.

His life, until that time, had been one of little merit. At age fifteen, he had discovered that he had "battle madness," a condition which early Vovimian settlers had noted in Ammippians: the native tribesmen would use ritual and sweetweed to whip themselves into such a state of frenzy that they were deadly to their enemies. Afterwards, the tribesmen would have no memory of the deeds they had committed while in their madness; it would come as a pleasant surprise to them to learn how many of their enemy they had slaughtered.

In Pickens's case, no ritual or drugs were needed; on the occasions on which he fought, battle madness almost invariably overcame him. His street tribe was pleased to see how well he fought . . . until the day at age seventeen when he and a fellow tribesboy quarrelled.

His fellow tribesboy – a sixteen-year-old – ended up crippled. Pickens was unceremoniously thrown out of the tribe. Bitter at his tribe for turning on him so abruptly, he took revenge by stealing the rifles in their latest shipment and selling the rifles himself.

Unfortunately, this brought him under the notice of the local patrol soldiers, who were prepared to wink an eye at gunrunning by the street tribe that paid them bribes, but were not prepared to allow an individual boy to commit such a crime. Pickens was sent to the magistrates and sentenced to holding prison for five years.

In those days, the Silent System still held sway in some of the holding prisons; Pickens was locked away in a separate cell at night and forbidden from conversing with the prisoners that he worked with during the daytime. The system prevented Pickens from entering into fights with the other prisoners; it did not prevent him receiving valuable information from them. Through whispers and sign-language and coded messages tapped on walls, he was instructed by hardened convicts on how to be successful on the next occasion on which he committed a crime.

The advice was good. Upon being released, Pickens launched into his new profession, that of a burglar, and was so successful for the next six years that he gained a name for himself in the crime world of Mip City, the capital of the republic.

Then came a second arrest. This time Pickens's sentence was for ten years. By then, the Silent System had been lifted in most holding prisons. Pickens took full advantage of that fact and quizzed every prisoner he could on their successes and failures as criminals. Unlike the other prisoners, he had no interest in wasting his time by bemoaning the harsh prison conditions, much less getting into fights with guards and prisoners. He considered his time in holding prison to be an educational opportunity. He was determined that, when he was released from prison, he would be the best burglar in the world, one who went entirely undetected. When he was finally released, in 388, he entered the world with a heart singing with joy.

So skilled had he become at his chosen profession that he might indeed have accomplished his high goals, if he had not met one day the former leader of his old tribe, who mocked him for his arrests.

By the time the battle madness lifted from Pickens, the other man was dead and Pickens was under arrest once more. The magistrate who judged him took one look at his record and declared that he had committed premeditated murder. The sentence for premeditated murder, as every Mippite child knew, was life imprisonment.

There was a delay of two months before Pickens was sent to Compassion Prison – a delay arranged by the gods, Pickens decided later, for the chaplain at his holding prison, unlike the previous chaplains Pickens had known, was a man of sincere devotion to the Yclau doctrine of transformation and rebirth. He had also educated himself, in a sympathetic manner, concerning the religious beliefs of the prisoners he tended who were of Vovimian extract. Every day he visited Pickens, seeking to prepare the prisoner's soul for his new life. Pickens, who had spurned the Vovimian faith on the same day that he spurned his Vovimian parents, simply tolerated the chaplain's visits at first, reading the sacred plays that the chaplain left in his cell, only because he had nothing else to do.

He had long-ago memories of the plays as lessons from his parents to do good and live up to his Vovimian heritage. He found that his memories were wrong; Vovim's sacred plays were not centered on well-behaved gods, but on Hell, a god who stole and kidnapped and murdered and even entered into what Pickens immediately recognized as battle madness. Hell justified his deeds through the same bitter words of revenge with which Pickens had justified his misdeeds; he boasted of the harm he had caused to others. The sacred playwrights, with subtle ingenuity, made clear the falseness of Hell's claim to greatness, portraying him as a mean, lowly creature who only occasionally rose above his misdeeds to become a mighty deity.

One day – while reading the play in which Hell tried to kill his sister Mercy and found himself unable, through pity, to complete the act – Pickens dissolved into tears. By the time the chaplain arrived, six hours later, Pickens was ready to listen to what the man had to say about how his life might be renewed.

The chaplain girded him with spiritual armor that was heavier than Pickens actually needed. Compassion Prison, by 389, was a very different place than it had been before the riot, or even during the weeks immediately following the riot. Partly this was due to the influence of the guard who had taken temporary charge of the prison while Compassion's Keeper was supervising the renovation; partly also it was due to Valdis's determination not to let a second riot occur. He and Walker kept as tight a control over the other prisoners as Compassion's customs allowed them. The true men did not interfere with the relations between man and lad, but they made sure that each new prisoner understood that the prisoners' unified survival was what mattered most.

Fresh with determination to make a better life for himself, Pickens fit well into this regime. Within a week, he had lads clamoring to serve him. He waited three months before picking his First Lad, and then waited another two months before picking his Second Lad. In the meantime, he made himself useful by offering suggestions for improvements to the prison: that a careful count should be kept on supplies, so that prisoners would not be caught short; that valuable items, such as the medical kit, should be placed under the care of trusted prisoners; and that a formal trial of strength should be instituted for new prisoners claiming to be men, similar to the trial of strength that his street tribe had required of anyone wishing to join the tribe. This would prevent lads from pledging themselves to prisoners who did not have the strength to defend them.

Pickens himself did not undergo a trial upon his arrival, and he was so well liked that he faced no challenges from other men. In retrospect, he would recognize the fatal significance of this.

Years passed. Valdis, growing bored with counting and divvying the supplies, assigned the task to one of his claimed men, Farnam, and raised Farnam's rank accordingly. An unclaimed greater man, Ahiga, began to attract attention for his talent in settling quarrels between other prisoners without bloodshed; in due time, Valdis would take advantage of this talent in order to hand over to Ahiga all matters related to discipline. Valdis himself would jealously guard the remaining task, the one he considered most vital: giving the prisoners enough opportunity to fight each other that they would never again be tempted to fight the guards in a useless riot.

Seven years before Ahiga rose in rank, though, Pickens's own life took a turn for the worse.

It started in such a simple manner one day in 992: a quarrel between himself and his First Lad over where they should sleep at night. Pickens's First Lad, Rios, favored a position that was over a flagstone that was particularly warm on winter nights; Pickens preferred a more isolated location. He ordered Rios to move the blankets; Rios refused. Pickens, in a decision that would forever after give him anguish, decided not to punish Rios for his insubordination. Instead, Pickens tried to reason with his lad.

Their voices were soon raised high enough to draw attention from onlookers. Nobody interfered with the verbal battle, though. There were no watch-hounds in those days, and even if there had been, they could not have intervened. There had been questions, at the time that Compassion Prison had been renovated, over how much power men should have over the lads – questions raised by the guard who had charge over the prison. Valdis himself had no doubts on the matter. A man's job was to give orders; a lad's job was to obey. Valdis had declared, and the other true men had confirmed, that a man might treat his own lad, or unclaimed lads, in any fashion he wished, short of abuse that would leave the lad crippled or dead.

The last, offhand caveat had been inserted with reason. Valdis still remembered the old days, when murders had been common among prisoners, and he had no intention of allowing valuable lads to be arbitrarily disposed of. Pickens had no such memories. To him, the caveat was simply common sense, not worth thinking about. Perhaps it was his lack of awareness of such a possibility that explained what happened next. Pickens himself only knew that his final memory was of Ngugi crying, "Sir, no!" as Pickens flicked open his pocketknife.

In those days, greater men and little men were allowed to carry any weapons they had smuggled into the prison, without seeking formal permission from the true men. The custom was changed as the result of what happened that day.

The true men's judgment was swift. Stunned by what he had done, Pickens offered no defense, but Ngugi, who knew of his past, explained about the battle madness and swore, amidst his tears, that Pickens had never treated either of his lads harshly until that day. The true men accordingly ruled that the killing had been unintentional . . . but this made no difference to their sentence. Pickens had crippled a fellow tribesboy in his youth, had shot dead a former member of his tribe, and had now stabbed to death his own lad. With his uncontrollable battle madness, Pickens was a danger to the tribe. He must be eliminated.

It was at this moment, as Valdis was drawing from his back the weapon of execution, that Hosobuchi stepped forward.

Pickens knew him only distantly. Having offered a few words of advice to Hosobuchi upon the little man's arrival at the prison, Pickens had found the little man to be properly deferential when speaking to a man of greater rank. Pickens had given him no further thought, except to note that Hosobuchi seemed to be exceedingly picky when it came to choosing lads; after a full year at the prison, he was still ranked as a little man.

Now Hosobuchi offered a proposal. If the problem lay in Pickens being a man who lacked control, then there was a simple solution: give him over to someone who would control him. Hosobuchi would strip Pickens of his manhood, take him as his lad, and ensure that Pickens never again endangered another tribeslad or tribesman. If Hosobuchi failed to exert proper control, so that Pickens crippled or killed any tribesfellow, Hosobuchi himself was willing to pay the penalty of death.

The three true men, Valdis and Walker and Farnam, did not take long to make their decision. None of them actually wanted Pickens dead; he was too valuable for that. They gave permission for the arrangement, provided that Hosobuchi was indeed willing to pay the penalty if Pickens misbehaved again.

It was left to Pickens himself to decide whether he preferred death or the stripping of his manhood.

Chapter Text

"A necklet," said Pickens to the lad sitting cross-legged on the platform. "And cloth for a bandage, if you can spare it."

The lad – a middle-aged prisoner with the cream-white complexion of an Yclau – did not look up from his work of carefully undoing the seam of a tattered pair of trousers. "What color wristlet?"

"No wristlet. He's just arrived."

"So? He'll probably be claimed by the end of the day. I'm tired of having to issue clothing twice over." As he spoke, the lad wound the thread he had unseamed onto a long, thin bone.

Pickens hesitated and glanced at Tyrrell. Tyrrell said firmly, "No."

At the sound of his voice, the lad looked up. He did not look at Tyrrell, though; he stared into the space between Pickens and Tyrrell. "No offense, sir. It's just that we get several new prisoners arriving each week. It makes for a lot of work."

Tyrrell hesitated, uncertain to whom the remark was addressed, but Pickens was looking at him, so he replied, "Sorry about the extra burden on you."

The lad flashed him a smile then, turning his face toward Tyrrell – yet still his eyes did not seem to quite focus on Tyrrell. "A man who apologizes to lads – now that's a creature I rarely meet. You'll be able to take your pick of unclaimed lads, I'm guessing. Just wait a minute, sir, and I'll get you your supplies." He laid aside the trousers and placed the awl delicately atop it, then rose to his feet with the aid of what looked like a barrel hoop. Skidding it lightly across the ground, he turned and made his way toward the back of the platform, where stacks of cloth lay, guarded by several watch-hounds.

"Blind?" murmured Tyrrell to Pickens as soon as the lad was out of earshot.

Pickens nodded. "One of the guards yielded him the Damnation – a slow case, so Walker wasn't craving to claim him. Farnam claimed him instead; he doesn't take any of his lads in bedplay, 'cause he still feels bound by his marriage vow. He was quite stubborn about refusing to be taken at the time he was a claimed man – I have mind that's the reason Valdis was liking him enough to raise him to the rank of true man. Valdis, he's a man who respects anyone who stays to his oaths, even under suffering."

Tyrrell did not like to think of what suffering Farnam had been forced to undergo at Valdis's hands to protect his marriage vow. Instead he said, "So there wasn't any question of this lad being executed, though he has a sex sickness that could be passed on?"

"Nay, not if one of the men was willing to claim him. A lad, see, is under the rule of his man. If he goes and brings danger to the tribe, and it is shown that the danger could have been avoided if his man had acted proper-like, then it is the man who is punished, not the lad."

Tyrrell was silent a minute, eyeing the large, semi-circular platform that was filled with various objects and workers. Most of the workers were sitting, which was why he had not noticed the platform from afar. Ringing the platform, though, was a veritable army of spear-laden watch-hounds, keeping most prisoners at a healthy distance from the platform.

Pickens had sailed them past this barrier with no more than a word, just as he had easily bypassed the queue at the privy. "There are advantages to being the First Lad of Ahiga's First Lad," he had said when Tyrrell asked.

Now Tyrrell said, "No wonder you went and defended Hosobuchi when I spoke bad against him 'fore."

Pickens nodded as he watched two prisoners carefully cut cloth with what looked like a home-made knife, made out of a battered tin. "He has risked his life for me every day for the past eight years – and he has done more than that. I thought, when he claimed me, that he would simply stay me from having battle, but he said that the day might come when I needed to have battle, so he would ready me for that."

"Is that why you're a watch-hound?" Tyrrell asked as he stepped back to let pass a group of prisoners who were carrying a rolled-up piece of leather, about half a dozen feet long.

Pickens nodded again. "Ahiga started the watch-hounds three years past; he was still a greater man then, but the battles 'tween prisoners over food, they were drawing out of control, and so the true men gave him permission to start a patrol that would have the power to halt any activities that threatened the tribe. Hosobuchi, he applied right away for the three of us – him and me and Shuji – to be watch-hounds together. Every now and then, that means we must use our fists to stop a fight . . . but I'm only allowed to do that when Hosobuchi is there, keeping eye on me."

"That's why you didn't interfere when that other prisoner attacked me 'fore," Tyrrell suggested.

"Aye. Hosobuchi would have my tailside raw if I battled without him at my side. The moment he sees me start the first act of entering my battle madness, he draws me out of the battle – and that's danger in itself for him, as you'd be knowing if you'd seen me in my madness. But ever I've managed to obey his orders, and little by little, I've grown stronger. My battle madness most times never falls these days." Pickens's voice grew lower, so that Tyrrell had to lean toward him to hear. "Hosobuchi says that, when I am ready, he will yield back to me my manhood. The true men have already agreed to let that, if my man judges I am cured."

Tyrrell looked over at him, frowning. "Eight years you've been his lad, you were giving tale?"

"Aye." Pickens seemed hesitant suddenly. "If I was the judge, I'd have mind I was ready – but it is for Hosobuchi to judge, and he says it should be more time. It will be soon, he promises."

Tyrrell had a moment to wonder how long Hosobuchi had been promising that Pickens would be released "soon"; then the blind lad was back, holding over his left arm a pile of cloth that Pickens hastily took from him.

"Here you are," the blind lad said. "One necklet, a cloth for bandaging – we'll want that back when you're through with it – and a blanket, but we'll keep the blanket for you till evening. What are your initials and birth year, so I can sew them on your blanket?"

Tyrrell told him, running his eye over the blanket as he did so. It was not as fine as the thick blankets he had been issued at Mercy Prison; in fact, it looked as though it was made of rags sewn together.

"No real blankets here?" he said to Pickens, speaking in Mippite out of courtesy to the blind lad standing nearby.

Pickens shrugged. "At the time that the prison renovation was finished, we were given eight hundred blankets – two for each prisoner, with plenty of spares left over. Most of the original blankets have worn out or been made into cloaks for the winter. The ones that remain go to the true men or the greater men."

Or their lads, Tyrrell thought, but had sense enough not to say so aloud. The blind lad asked Pickens, "What is he wearing?"

"What he should be," Pickens replied. "Shuji delivered his extra clothing to one of the other tailors earlier."

Tyrrell turned toward Pickens, breathless with astonishment. "Shuji was the one who stole my shirt and vest and jacket after the trial?"

"Requisitioned them," the blind lad corrected. "All clothing belongs to the tribe; Farnam issues it out in accordance with rank. You're a little man, so you're entitled to underclothing, boots, and trousers. When you rise to the rank of greater man, you'll get a shirt and vest as well."

Eyeing the lad's shirt, Tyrrell thought that nothing could have made clearer his lesser status in relation to the claimed lads. "And what about in winter?"

"Aye, well, that's the question, ain't it?" A note of dryness entered into the lad's voice. "Farnam is determined that every man and his lads should have cloaks next winter – but how he's going to manage this, with new prisoners arriving practically every day, I don't know."

"The guards should supply us with clothing we need," Tyrrell said.

"Of course they should. They should also supply us with a working heater. But prison regulations say that prisoners don't need overcoats because the prisoners here never go outside, and everyone knows that the prison is well-heated, see? So the prisoners don't need overcoats."

"Of course," said Tyrrell solemnly. "The logic can't be argued against. This place being so well-heated, they'll probably take our clothes from us before long. Why should they waste their budget on items for the prisoners? The money could be put to far better use elsewhere."

The lad burst into laughter. Pickens grinned, saying, "You're a quick learner; not many new prisoners figure out so swiftly the contorted logic of the guards."

"They would if they'd ever dealt with Mercy's Keeper." Tyrrell sighed. "Well, having no shirt isn't going to be a problem for me on a day like this."

"It'll be a bit chillier at night, but yes, you'll be comfortable enough during the spring days," Pickens replied. "Fact is, come summer, some of the greater men will strip down till they're nearly as naked as Ahiga; it can be stifling in here, round about the time of Mercy's Feast. —Thank you, Les, and here's the blanket for you to initial. Here's the bandage, Tyrrell – but no, don't put it on yet. We should sterilize it first. Come over this way."

He beckoned, so Tyrrell followed him along the platform, weaving his way amidst prisoners. All wore the green wristlet that marked them as Farnam's men and lads, and they were all sitting or kneeling as they cut and sewed cloth. The platform stood against the northern wall of the prison, but Tyrrell and Pickens were still quite close to the true men's sleeping cells in the northwest corner. As Tyrrell glanced back toward the cells, he saw Ahiga and Hosobuchi disappear behind the cells, into the area between the cells and the northern wall.

"Ahiga . . ." Tyrrell said reflectively to Pickens, switching back to the Riverbend dialect. "Pickens, you're from east Vovim; Hosobuchi and Shuji are from northwestern Vovim. Is Ahiga from one of the countries to the far west of us? I can't figure his accent."

Pickens paused and stared at Tyrrell. "You mean you're not knowing?"

"How should I be knowing? He didn't give tale as to where he was from."

"And you couldn't figure from his clothing? His tattoos? His naming of the patrol as watch-hounds? The fact that he didn't come to know from your appearance that you were Vovimian?" Then, as Tyrrell stared blankly at him, Pickens added gently, "He is Ammippian."

Tyrrell's heart dropped into his guts.

He spun round on his heel, staring at where Ahiga had been a moment before. Ammippian. Tyrrell had met an Ammippian, and he had not known it. Gods help him, he had even insulted the man.

He swallowed the hardness in his throat. "Do you think," he said in a small voice, "that if I crawled on my belly to him, he might forgive me?"

Pickens laughed in an easy manner as he placed his hand on Tyrrell's shoulder. "Don't worry. That was the moment, I have mind, when he began to be liking you in truth. You saw how he laughed."

"He's proud," Tyrrell said, still in his smallest voice. "He must be. Ammippians always are."

"Oh, aye, he's proud. So would you be if half the people you lived with called you a dirty, barbaric— Well, the prisoners here drop the rest of the usual insult, but you see how it is for him."

"'Dirty, barbaric cannibal,' murmured Tyrrell. "Would anyone here call him that?"

"Oh, aye. You and I and the other past street-tribe lads – we revere the Ammippians, 'cause we patterned our tribes after the Ammippian tribe. But to the average Mippite, the Ammippians are just uncouth natives who tried to slaughter the early settlers and remain yet half-civilized."

"We drew from them their land," said Tyrrell, frowning. "All of Mip, 'twas theirs 'fore we came."

Pickens shrugged. "You can argue till your breath is gone with some folk whose notion of the Ammippians comes from dime-novel tales of heartless warriors slaughtering innocent kiddies in their beds. Ahiga, he's had a hard time of it from the start of the first act. Valdis stood by him, nearly from the time he arrived – Valdis, he's used to being called a barbarian too – but few others would. Even Hosobuchi confesses that it took him time to see Ahiga's better side. Now Ahiga is respected well . . . but ever there is some idiot whispering 'hind his back that he doesn't deserve his rank. It makes him touchy when he has mind that some folk doesn't respect what he's done."

Tyrrell managed to tear his gaze away from the true men's sleeping cells. "So why did he laugh when I made mock at him?"

Pickens smiled. "'Cause you were more amusing than you had knowing. That 'Mighty One,' who protects his 'highly exalted position' for the sake of his 'tender ego' . . . he was an unclaimed lad for nine years."

Tyrrell was still a moment, and then let out his breath slowly. "Nine years."

"Aye. He survived longer as an unclaimed lad than any folk else I know of. Most times the lads who survive long are claimed, and the gods are knowing that Ahiga had offers enough after the first four or six years, when it became plain how strong of will and body he was. But he . . . Well, have you ever met a life prisoner who has mind he deserves more punishment than he has drawn from the magistrates?"

Tyrrell nodded slowly. Merrick was that way, he suspected; Merrick had always skidded away from the topic of his own painful life at Mercy, even as he worked ceaselessly to improve the lives of other prisoners. "Ahiga's crime was a bad one, then?" he said to Pickens.

Pickens shrugged again. "Hosobuchi and Shuji may have knowing. I don't. Oh, there are prisoners here who give tale they know – who say they read about his trial in the newsies. But I won't know they give tale for sure 'less I hear the words from Ahiga himself." He turned away abruptly. "A sterile bandage first. I crave to introduce you to the water-steward anyhow."

o—o—o

The water-steward turned out to be another of Farnam's claimed men, sitting on a crate next to a dozen barrels. He screwed up his face as he saw Pickens and Tyrrell approaching. "Nothing," he said.

"Are you sure?" Pickens said as he tapped one of the barrels lightly.

"It's been five days. What do you expect?"

"Oh, well," said Pickens, giving up on the barrel. "We'll have more this morning, no doubt." He glanced up at the dome, where the lightning and thunder had given way to the soft pitter-patter of rain, as though a cluster of kittens were playing on the roof.

The water-steward sniffed derisively. "The guards won't remember."

"Keeper will remind them. He always does. He's probably planning meal delivery first."

"There won't be any water left by then," insisted the water-steward, who seemed determined to predict the worst.

Pickens ignored him. He had reached over to pick up from the ground something that looked at first like a balloon. When it was raised, though, Tyrrell saw that it was in fact a filled bladder – a pig's bladder, he supposed. He was no country dweller, but as a boy, he had watched the city butchers at their work whenever they didn't chase him away.

"That for you or for him?" the water-steward asked suspiciously.

"Him," Pickens responded.

The water-steward gave a high whistle, and a moment later, swift as a swallow, a watch-hound was on the spot. "Trouble?" he said, looking down at the water-steward.

"Probably not," the water-steward replied. He reached out his hand. "Give it back. If it was for you, I'd let it pass, but I'm not letting a little man have the true men's supply."

Pickens did not respond; he was holding the bladder up toward the dome, examining it closely. The watch-hound's hand shifted on his spear as he scrutinized Pickens. Tyrrell said, "Er . . . Pickens, maybe you should give back the water."

"Just a minute." Pickens finished his inspection and looked down at the water-steward. "Who filled these bladders? You? They're at least two gills short of the top. Where has the extra water been going?"

The water-steward blanched. The hound's hand shifted on the spear again; now he was scrutinizing the water-steward.

"Evaporation," suggested the water-steward.

"In a bladder tied shut? I think not." Pickens said to the hound, "Hold him. Farnam needs to hear of this. —Tyrrell, will you come with me?"

"Of course," said Tyrrell. He had no desire to stay around the water-steward, who now had an anguished look on his face. Trotting beside Pickens as the lad made his way swiftly across the platform, Tyrrell said in an undertone, "Would he be drinking the water himself? Or yielding it to other folk, for a bribe?"

Pickens shook his head. "Probably just being careless-like when he fills the bladders – but Farnam is an exacting man, and he hates carelessness. Hold here."

Tyrrell waited as instructed, watching Pickens approach Farnam, who was standing in front of what appeared to be a large, clay oven, built in a semi-circle like one of the mid-century train stations. A prisoner was on his hands and knees, carefully sweeping a copious amount of ashes out of the oven onto a pan made of a white material that Tyrrell supposed must be another of this prison's ubiquitous bones. Whatever else might be said of the prison guards, Tyrrell thought to himself, it could not be said that they were stinting in their supply of meat.

From all appearances, Farnam seemed to be taking Pickens's report with calmness. He said a few words and then returned his attention to the prisoner who was cleaning the oven. Pickens strode back to Tyrrell.

"No serious result," he reported. "Farnam, he agreed 'twas probably carelessness. We'll let go the water-steward from his misery."

By the time they returned to the water-barrels, the water-steward was standing stiffly beside them, his face drained of blood. Pickens said briefly, "Ten lashes, and you'll have a chance to defend yourself first. But Farnam can't be bothered with that now. He says he very much hopes that nobody will be bothering him for the rest of the day with reports of water mismeasurements."

The water-steward licked his lips. "They won't," he said briefly. And then, unexpectedly, "Thank you for taking this to Farnam rather than to Ahiga."

Pickens nodded and walked past him as the hound wandered away. Tyrrell, trying hard to keep up with him, asked, "What was he meaning?"

"Reporting him to Ahiga would have meant I was accusing him of stealing the water," Pickens explained, slowing his pace to match Tyrrell's. "The penalty for stealing water is a high one."

"And that was a light penalty?" Tyrrell said, raising his eyebrows.

"Oh, aye. As light as a man could expect. If he was one of the lads, mind, he'd get a swat or three on the backside, 'less it was for a very serious thing, like attacking a man." Pickens gave him a smile. "We lads have it better than you men, when it comes to punishments. . . . Well, that's over with anyhow. Let's go and get your bandage washed. Farnam gave tale I could stay this, as a reward." He held up the bladder.

Tyrrell eyed him for a moment before saying, "Do you do that sort of thing sacks?"

"Turn stoolie so that I can be rewarded with supplies?" Pickens responded cheerfully. "Nay, almost never – you get a name for being a stool pigeon here, and folks are like to tear you into such tiny pieces that even a rat wouldn't crave to munch you. But carelessness by a water-steward is a serious thing that must be reported anyhow. So, two targets with one arrow. Here we are."

Tyrrell was left musing on two thoughts as they approached a couple of lads scrubbing the inside of an iron pot. One was that it was odd to be in a place where a stool pigeon was a prisoner who gave information to a higher-ranked prisoner. The other was that, if anyone here learned that Compassion's Keeper had assigned Tyrrell the task of being a stool pigeon in the traditional sense – reporting the prisoners' secrets to the Keeper – his life was not likely to last long.

And really, he thought, there was nothing to report. He had seen no signs so far that, as Keeper thought, the prisoners were gleefully killing each other in such quantities that their absence would be noticeable. Quite the opposite; this was the most orderly prison he had ever seen, and the prisoners here were the most fair-minded folk he had ever met. Leaving aside the matter of the missing overcoats – which might very well be resolved if the heater was fixed before the next winter – it appeared to him that he had a much better chance of surviving here than he had possessed in some of the holding prisons he had been unfortunate enough to dwell in.

None of this fit with Compassion's reputation as the worst prison in Mip. It was all very puzzling.

A few minutes later, Pickens used a pair of home-made tongs – constructed, for once, out of metal rather than bone – to carefully lift the linen bandaging material out of the water in which he had boiled it. "Germs all scared away, I hope," he said. "Now, let it just cool a minute in this relatively germ-free air – at least we aren't near the privies – and the bandage will be up for use."

The air was in fact far less stifling than any air that Tyrrell had breathed at Mercy; he supposed that must be due to the rooflessness of the prison, as well as the size of the courtyard surrounding it. "Pickens," he said, "how did this prison lose its roof? Was it made of wood also?"

"Oh, we've had no roof since the renovation," Pickens replied. "The renovators, they tore off the roof, and they tore out the second and third storeys where the guards used to live. But they left us a nice, handy staircase to the top of the prison, just in case we were wanting to explore it."

"Fried meat, that's the best kind." One of the youthful lads tending the iron pot spoke in the Riverbend dialect. His unexpected remark caused both him and his friend to burst into laughter.

Pickens screwed up his face in disgust. "If you have mind such things are for making mock, you can go and serve Walker."

This sobered the lads quickly. Tyrrell, glancing up again at the walls of the prison, said, "You can't get past the barbed wire there?"

"Oh, the barbed wire is no problem. Just clip it, and you're through." Pickens waved the cloth in the air for a moment. "First prisoner who tried that – it was one of Valdis's lads, following his man's orders – died screaming. 'Tis electric wire, hot enough to fry anyone who touches it. Some of the other prisoners craved to figure a way to cut the wire and scramble down the three-storey wall, but Valdis gave tale the guards had no doubt laid more electric traps at the bottom of the prison walls. He had the staircase drawn down so that no folk would try to escape that way."

"What about digging under the floor?" Tyrrell asked. His interest was more than idle; he and Merrick had spent long hours trying to figure out a way to escape from Mercy, though their own motive had not been to escape recapture but somehow to alert the world to the atrocities taking place within the prison.

"Hold back." Pickens carefully wrapped the bandage around Tyrrell's forearm, tying the ends neatly, as though he had been trained as a Boy Seeker. "There you go; that should yield your gash a chance to heal. Come over to the edge of the platform now."

Tyrrell followed Pickens to the curved edge of the semi-circular platform, jumped down when his companion did, and watched as Pickens carefully looked over the floor. The lad finally found a flagstone that suited him, knelt down, and began prying it up.

A few of the passing prisoners glanced his way, but nobody seemed to take any special notice of an activity that, if it had occurred in Mercy, would have had every guard in the place rushing forward to capture the escaping prisoner. The guards here were nowhere in sight. The gate to the courtyard where they stood watch was far away, at the southwestern end of the prison, well out of sight of the platform. At best, the guards might have been able to see the true men's cells at this end of the prison, but the gate was really too far away to allow for that. All that the guards could see were the prisoners who stood closest to the gate, in the unclaimed lads' area.

Tyrrell, who had spent twenty years doing everything from defecation to whacking his whammer in the full view of Mercy's guards, was feeling extreme pleasure at being out of sight of Compassion's guards. True, everything he did here would be witnessed by other prisoners – including Ahiga's watch-hounds – but that was a very different thing from being watched by a guard who might decide that Tyrrell needed "help" in his whacking session.

Pickens pulled the flagstone back with a grunt. Tyrrell reached forward to help him lay the heavy stone back on the floor. Then they both peered into the hole.

The light from the dome had brightened; glancing up, Tyrrell could see a rainbow forming from the sunlight shining through the soft rain. What lay in the hole was clear in the light, for the hole went down no more than half a foot before it hit a barrier. Crammed into that space was a maze of metal tubes. Tyrrell began to reach out to touch one, and then hesitated, remembering Pickens's earlier tale of the electric wire.

"They're safe to touch," Pickens assured him, reaching out to stroke the metal. "They're part of the heating system – red hot when the heating is working, but cold now. As for the floor beneath it—" He reached down and rapped his knuckles on it. "Solid rock. That's the foundation on which Compassion is built. With the proper tools we might be able to cut our way past the heating tubes and blast through the rock, but even Valdis, clever as he is, hasn't yet found a way to do that. The gods know that enough prisoners have tried to figure a way, over the years." He carefully laid the flagstone back in its place. "Just one more task now – getting you assigned your meal rations – and then we'll be through here."

The meal rations, it turned out, were assigned by Farnam's Second Lad, Magnus, who called over two of his own lads to inspect and memorize Tyrrell's face. Feeling uncomfortable under the scrutiny, Tyrrell asked, "Do you have the faces of every prisoner memorized?"

"Every greater man and little man and claimed lad," responded the meal-rationer, waving his lads away as he carefully noted Tyrrell's name on a piece of blank newspaper with a bit of charcoal. "Anyone we don't recognize must be an unclaimed lad. You should put on your necklet," he added. "My lads don't take note of such things – it would be easy enough for a claimed lad to loan his wristlet to an unclaimed lad so that the unclaimed lad could steal rations that didn't belong to him – but sometimes the water-steward will stop prisoners from collecting water if they're not properly marked."

Tyrrell looked down at the white necklet he was still holding in his hand. It appeared to be made of old undergarments that had been cut into a long strip, and then twisted to form a thick string. The string was not yet knotted to form a circle.

"Is there a special way to do this?" he asked Pickens, remembering his days of initiation with his street tribe.

"You, you're an unclaimed man, so it's for you to decide," Pickens responded, switching back to the Riverbend dialect and pulling him aside from the meal-rationer, who had returned to his work of counting a group of sacks. "You can put it on yourself, if you crave. Some unclaimed men ask a true man to don them; others ask a mate or their sponsor."

"Sponsor?" said Tyrrell.

"For your initiation ceremony. You've been accepted as a man, but you have to be initiated yet into the tribe. That will fall . . . Oh, the next time we have a banquet. Franklin," he said turning to a lad of about sixty who was carefully scrubbing a metal skillet, "when do we hold our next banquet?"

"You making me an offer?" the lad replied as Tyrrell winced; he had caught the sexual pun at the same moment the lad did.

"Don't be coarse. When will the tribe be holding its next banquet?"

"Walker delivered Wendell's clothes to the tailors today." The lad did not look up as he replied. "Maybe tomorrow or the next day? You'd have to ask Walker."

There was a long silence, during which Tyrrell glanced to the space beyond the east end of the platform. Milling around in that space were a number of prisoners, mostly older prisoners, who wore the black necklet marking them as Walker's claimed men and lads. Every now and then Tyrrell caught a glimpse of Walker himself – an old man with a grim expression and a stiff carriage – but the true man never seemed to emerge from the midst of his tight band of followers.

"Tyrrell, I need to give tale to Walker," murmured Pickens. "Nay, abide here," he added, motioning Tyrrell back with his hand. "Walker, he isn't liking any folk to enter his territory without necessity."

Tyrrell watched as Pickens walked the remaining yards to Walker's "territory." The lad was challenged at the edge of that area, not by a watch-hound, but by one of Walker's men. The challenge took far longer than it had when Pickens had approached the heavily guarded platform where the tribe's supplies were kept, but in the end he was allowed through. He disappeared into the midst of Walker's men and lads.

Tyrrell turned his attention back to the rest of the prison. Nearly everyone on the platform seemed to be wearing a green wristlet. So Farnam's men and lads were here, Walker's men and lads were in the northeast corner of the prison, and Ahiga's men and lads were scattered about, keeping patrol over the prisoners. That left the fourth true man, Valdis, whom Tyrrell hadn't seen since his own challenge at the prison gates. He supposed the true man must be in his sleeping cell, continuing to drill the lad who had seemed so unhappy to share his bed. Tyrrell grimaced.

Pickens returned several minutes later. "Regrets," he said. "I craved to have a chance to say goodbye to Wendell. He's close on dying now."

"A mate of yours?" Tyrrell said quietly.

Pickens shook his head. "One of Walker's lads – just arrived a fortnight ago. He tried to claim manhood, made the mistake of challenging Valdis, and ended up as an unclaimed lad with a broken leg. Ngugi splinted the leg as best he could – despite all his chatter of ranks, he mends unclaimed lads when the injury is serious – but there was damage inside he couldn't repair. Gangrene set in."

Tyrrell winced. "No chance of getting Healer FitzGerald to look at him? That's what she's hired for, supposed-like."

Pickens shook his head as he guided Tyrrell away from the platform. "There've been— Oh, it may be a dozen cases where the guards let an ill prisoner be yielded over to FitzGerald. They were all lads of the true men; the true men have a certain influence with the guards. It may be a greater man would have a chance in persuading the guards to open the gates. But an unclaimed lad . . . Nay, unclaimed lads are released temporary-like from this prison for just one reason, and a deadly wound isn't that reason."

"But he's Walker's lad now, you gave tale. Couldn't Walker intervene for him?"

Pickens glanced over at Tyrrell, and then away. "Walker is knowing only one way to help a dying lad. You'll understand better when you are getting to know him. —Come now, let's go and find Hosobuchi. He'll be wondering why I've been gone for so long, and you'll crave to be in the little men's area when meal delivery starts."

Chapter Text

Meal delivery, as it happened, did not occur until noon.

Long before then, the thunderclouds had scattered, the rain had left, and the prisoners were gazing uneasily up at the dome, which showed only blue sky. Pickens said nothing about this, but when he handed Tyrrell the bladder with its remaining water, he advised, "Guard this well, and drink from it sparsely. Days may pass before water delivery comes again."

Tyrrell took the water from him. "What about at meal-time? Do we get water then?"

Pickens shook his head. "The food will offset our thirst a bit – but the other side of it is that the food is often packed in salty liquids. So don't let anyone touch your water container. . . . I must go; Hosobuchi is beckoning me."

He slipped away then, before Tyrrell could ask him whether it would be safest to put on his necklet now. He looked at the white band in his hands, shrugged, and looped it round his belt for safe-keeping.

As it happened, he did not have to fight to protect his water. No prisoners came near him, and when he attempted to start conversations with a few, they were so vague in their responses, barely looking at him, that he removed himself from their presence. He could guess why most of the other prisoners were keeping their distance from him. He had passed his trial but had not yet undergone his initiation; that apparently gave him a half-in, half-out status in the tribe. He would be fed and watered, but nothing more, until he was initiated – whatever form that initiation might take.

He would have liked to have remained in the company of Pickens, who had been given permission by his man to show the newcomer the tribal ways, but Pickens had apparently returned to the greater men's area, and Tyrrell was reluctant to pass into that area on his own. Instead, he wandered around the little men's area, which was bare of the tents and huts that littered the greater men's area. Placed between the high steps leading to the two areas that bordered it, the little men's area looked like the bed of a river that had dried up.

It had considerably fewer features than a dry bed. He passed occasional clusters of little men talking to one another, and every now and then a little man who was deep in conversation with an unclaimed lad, but otherwise, most of the daytime activities at this prison appeared to take place on or around the platform at the far end of the prison.

The unclaimed lads' area was still swarming with prisoners, though, and when he stepped over the border into that area, he discovered that he was considerably less invisible there.

The first time he brushed against an unclaimed lad, whom he vaguely remembered seeing watch his trial, the lad turned, took note of him, and jumped back about a yard. The lads he had been talking to laughed at his reaction, but somewhat nervously, eyeing Tyrrell, and when Tyrrell had passed, he looked back and saw that they were watching him and whispering to each other.

Word spread fast after that, for every lad he met seemed to know who he was, even though he was not yet wearing his necklet. All of them withdrew from his path as he came near them, some turning thin-lipped at the sight of him.

He tried smiling at a few of them, and for a while this only seemed to make matters worse; one lad actually fled when Tyrrell turned his smile on the lad. Gradually, though, as he continued to walk through the area without trying to approach any of the lads, a few of them began to smile back, somewhat tentatively. Others scrutinized him carefully, as though assessing him.

He could guess why. "When you claim a lad," Hosobuchi had said. Not "if" – when. All of these lads must assume that he, a little man, was here to check out the stock – to see whether there was a lad here worth claiming.

Actually, his goal was not the lads but the gate. He finally reached there; ignoring the lads who were still peering at him curiously, he leaned against the bars.

In addition to the vertical bars, there were horizontal ones, running the full length of the gate. He rested his chin upon one of these, examining the scene before him. It had not changed much since he had entered the prison earlier that morning. Tom Keeper and his assistant guard, Medinger, were nowhere in sight, but the two riflemen, Starke and Landry, had made their way down from the gunners' posts and were chatting casually with the other guards in the area sheltered by the balcony. The guards were all sitting, and they seemed to have nothing to do except talk, now that Keeper had put an end to their illicit card game. Indeed, none of the guards bothered to look in the direction of the prisoners they were supposed to be guarding.

Which was a shame, in a way, because the object of their conversation was standing there, listening to them.

"They should have killed him," said Landry, who was sharpening his dagger-blade with a whetstone. "The magisterial seats have just this month made the death penalty legal again. They should have shot him and had done with him."

"Why bother?" rejoined Pugh, the head of the day watch. "He's as good as dead here."

"Symbolically or literally?" asked another guard.

"Oh, symbolically, of course. He passed his trial; he has as much a chance as any man there of living to the end of his natural life."

"How good a chance is that, do you suppose?" Niesely asked as he flipped a coin up and down in his hand, as though he were a gambler at a hound-race. "Keeper keeps hinting that the prisoners are dying like mayflies in there."

Landry snorted. "Tom Keeper is soft where prisoners are concerned. He always was."

"He might be right, though." Niesely kicked something with his foot, which Tyrrell recognized after a moment as the fragment of the human skull that young Davidson had thrown at Keeper. "Do you think we ought to show him this?"

"He was right there when the prisoners tossed it out. He must have seen it. I suppose we should give it over to FitzGerald so that she can put it in the crematorium." Pugh did not move as he spoke.

"If the prisoners are killing each other daily, all the better," said Landry, yawning. "That's why Keeper's father put them together in one cell and withdrew the guards, remember? It's a just punishment. The prisoners murdered innocent folks, so they're put in a place where they can murder each other."

"There are rapists in there as well," Starke pointed out, fingering an unlit cigarette.

"So? They can rape each other before they murder. Not that we have to give them any instructions in that."

"No, I don't imagine that you do." Starke reached over and struck a match against the sole of his boot.

There was a small silence before Landry asked, "And what do you call what you do with your lads?"

Starke lit his cigarette and blew out a long stream of smoke before saying, "Purchase of services, I suppose. I pay them well for their services, and I treat them well."

"And they have as much choice about serving you as a Vovimian whore does." Landry snorted. "I don't see any difference between what you do and what we do."

"Perhaps the difference," said Medinger, coming down the left-hand stairs from the balcony, "is not between prostitution and rape, but between willingness and unwillingness. Starke is right – there's no moral difference between what you do to your lads and what the rapists in there did to their crime victims."

This remark was greeted by hoots of laughter. "Medinger," said Niesely, wiping away tears, "you're like one of those celibate prophets, predicting doom and gloom upon any human being that would dare to feel lust for another human being."

"You're not exactly in a position to give lectures on this topic," Pugh agreed. "Besides, we're talking about convicts, not innocent victims. Their right to freedom was stripped from them at the time they were judged guilty of their crimes. We at least grant them the right to decide who in their midst deserves further punishment."

Medinger frowned as he reached the bottom of the steps. "Is that how you see yourself, Pugh? As a torturer carrying out judicial punishment?"

"You're talking nonsense, Medinger." Niesely shook his head. "A little tickle-and-poke isn't torture. Now, what those prisoners have done to us . . ."

"Yes," said Starke abruptly. "Let's keep matters straight in our heads. If we're soft on the prisoners, the way Tom Keeper wants us to be, all we'll get is another riot. Believe you me, we do not want another riot." And with that, he put down his cigarette, removed the clasp on his collar, and pulled his shirt down far enough that everyone present could see the ugly scar that ran between his neck and shoulder.

There was another silence before Niesely said, "It's a bloody miracle you survived that blow with only a broken collarbone."

"It's a bloody miracle I survived the riot at all." Starke re-clasped his collar and reached over to pick up his cigarette. "So let's have respect for the six dozen guards who didn't survive, please. We can at least learn from the hard lesson they were taught."

"The riot couldn't have been that bad," one of the guards protested. "A dozen guards survived."

"All of them were away from the prison at the time," Starke replied.

"Except for you," Medinger corrected him. "Out of curiosity, where was Mr. Keeper and his father when the riot happened?"

"At Mercy Prison." Starke shrugged. "Tom was transferred to guard duty there for a couple of months; his father went with him to ensure that the transfer was smooth. By the time his father got back to Compassion, the guards were dead and the remaining prisoners were locked down."

"And stayed locked down, till Tom's father was sure it was safe to send in his remaining guards," Pugh added. "You newer men have no idea what it was like to go in there after the prison doors were unlocked. The murdered guards' corpses were stinking to high heaven by then."

"What about the prisoners' corpses?" Medinger asked quietly.

"The survivors burned them; we found the bones afterwards. The prisoners could have done the same for the guards' bodies, but when did prisoners ever show respect for a guard?" Pugh stood up abruptly. "I suppose we'd better feed this lot, or Keeper will be putting demerits on all our records. Starke, you write up the records of what we bring out; then you and Landry can take your positions at the guns. The rest of you, help me to fetch the barrels and crates."

"We sweat, while the prisoners who killed our predecessors lounge at their leisure," grumbled Niesely as he stood up. "That's justice for you."

"Nearly all of those prisoners died during or after the riot," Medinger protested, but nobody paid attention to his words as they stood up.

Only Landry, stretching his arms wide, said, "And gods help us, now we're burdened with a prisoner who is likely to start another riot. What was Mercy's Keeper thinking, sending him to us?"

"More's the question, what was Compassion's Keeper thinking, accepting him into this prison?" Starke shrugged as he stubbed out his cigarette. "Well, Tom has always had a mind of his own. I suppose he considers this transfer to be one of his many experiments in transformation and rebirth."

"When he'll have no contact with Tyrrell hereafter? Don't talk nonsense."

"He couldn't know that till Tyrrell had passed his trial. . . ."

The rest of the argument could not be heard, for all of the guards had moved away from their post, other than one guard who was sitting on the ground with his legs stretched out and his head bowed with sleep.

o—o—o

A dozen of Farnam's men stood poised, like runners at the starting blocks of the Tri-National Race. Their backs were guarded by Ahiga's watch-hounds, who had pushed the unclaimed lads away from the area nearest the gate. The runners were facing the gate; all the remaining day watch-hounds were guarding the west wall, where a cluster of Farnam's men and lads were setting up crude tables: broad pieces of leather stitched together were stretched taut between chest-high barrels. Farnam walked amidst them, quietly issuing orders as he went.

Standing on the northern border of the little men's area, Tyrrell looked behind himself. Everyone he could see in the little men's area was a little man, except for the prisoner standing next to him. "Shouldn't you be in the greater men's area, with Hosobuchi?" he asked Pickens.

Pickens shook his head; he had his eye on the runners. "My man told me to abide with you, in case there are any problems with you being yielded your rations on the first day. Shuji will draw the rations for Hosobuchi and me and himself."

"One representative per household?" Tyrrell joked.

"Something like that. The queues get too crowded if every folk who's entitled to a meal comes up to draw his own."

Tyrrell frowned. "And who's entitled to a meal?"

"At the moment, all of the prisoners. We've only had one prisoner ousted recently, and he—"

Pickens's voice was cut off by the scream of the gate alarm. Resisting the impulse to cover his ears, Tyrrell turned just in time to see the runners take off, moving as swiftly as though they were pursued by prey. Their goal, quite clearly, was the barrels and crates that had been placed immediately in front of the gate by the guards.

"They only have two minutes to draw them inside," Pickens shouted in his ear. "After that, the gate closes, and any folk left outside is shot."

"Two minutes?" cried Tyrrell, aghast. "There are two dozen crates and barrels out there!"

Two minutes later, the gate slid soundlessly closed. In the gunners' post, Starke and Landry, who had kept their machine rifles trained on the runners while the gate was open, relaxed in their seats. The runners, who had wrestled and rolled and tossed and heaved every one of the barrels and crates inside the prison during the allotted time, collapsed against the gate bars or on the floor. Ahiga, who was standing with the watch-hounds, barked something to his hounds, who parted to let through a couple of lads, each bearing a water bladder. The lads went from prisoner to prisoner, giving each runner a mouthful of water. The runners, pulling themselves together, disappeared into the crowd.

The rest of Farnam's food deliverers had already started to come forward from the west wall; the barrels and crates were being opened, with not a little difficulty, since Farnam's men and lads possessed no hammers or pliers with which to remove the nails. But with the aid of some of the home-made knives and a few pocketknives that must have been smuggled in by canny prisoners, the men and lads managed to pry open the lids. They carried the contents over to the waiting tables and began spreading them out.

Tyrrell had expected to see bags of potatoes and beans and flour and maize. The diet in Mip's prisons was monotonously the same, as far as he could tell from his time at Mercy and various holding prisons. Instead, what emerged from the crates were tins. Hundreds of quart-sized food tins, as though Compassion Life Prison had been transformed into a grocer's.

Pickens shrugged when Tyrrell asked. "Costs less for the magisterial seats," he said. "The food is packed closer together like, so the shipping costs are lower. Everything comes from the city, so it's got to be drawn out by train or canal-boat."

"That's quite a ways to ship food," Tyrrell said. "I'm figuring that the tins also stay back spoilage."

The little man standing nearest to Tyrrell burst suddenly into laughter. As Tyrrell looked uneasily his way, Pickens grinned. In the King's tongue, the shared dialect spoken by nearly all Vovimians, he said to the little man, "Don't laugh – you were once new and naive too."

"Not that naive," said the little man, wiping away tears of laughter as he looked at Tyrrell. "Haven't you heard of the fine services provided by the Sweet-tooth Company?"

Tyrrell swore under his breath briefly. "Surely the magisterial seats wouldn't use that company for their food source. They're in the midst of trying to get the company shut down – even within the confines of Mercy, we heard about that."

"Compassion's Keeper decides which food company to use," Pickens replied. "And he doesn't buy it directly from those vultures, of course; he buys it from the wholesalers, whose names aren't likely to catch the interest of the magisterial seats when he sends in his reports."

Tyrrell felt a growing sickness in his stomach that had nothing to do with his anticipation of the upcoming meal. "Tom Keeper chose that company?"

"His father did. Keeper hasn't been in any rush to change wholesalers, though."

"Let's be fair to the man," inserted the little man. "He's so new to his job that he may not even have thought to check the food situation yet."

"Oh, for love of the gods, Quigley," Pickens said mildly as Farnam's men began to carefully open the tins with their knives, now that the tables were stacked to the brim with tins bearing no label. "Who hasn't heard of the Sweet-tooth Scandal? Commoner children dropping dead from food poisoning – it was in all the newsies."

Quigley shrugged. "Maybe he doesn't read the newspapers. He's led a fairly insulated life, you know – has lived in this prison since age twelve, when his father became Keeper. Back when he had temporary control of the prisoners – in 385 and 386, while his father was busy supervising our prison's renovation – Tom Keeper sometimes said things that made me think he was as naive to evil practices in a prison as a new man. —No offense." He flashed a smile at Tyrrell.

"None taken," replied Tyrrell. "But that's just a mask he wears, you know. My cell-mate back at Mercy, who had him as a guard – he said he thought that Thomas was an innocent, right up till the moment that he realized how Thomas had subtly guided him into transformation and rebirth."

"'Thomas'?" Quigley raised his eyebrows. "You call our Keeper by his first name? His full first name, not just his use-nick?"

Tyrrell felt a stab of fear that was not allayed by the way that Pickens furrowed his brow. He said quickly, "My cell-mate did. Merrick has always been insubordinate."

"Merrick?" said Quigley. And then, looking at Pickens, "He's Tyrrell?"

"The new man, as I said," Pickens replied softly.

"Ah." Quigley's eyes suddenly went vague. "Got to go – I see a mate of mine over there." He moved into the crowd.

Tyrrell looked over at Pickens. Switching back to the Riverbend dialect, he said, "I'm figuring that, after my initiation, I will halt at being a leper?"

Pickens laughed as he clapped Tyrrell on the back. "Aye, you'll be a full member then. Till then, you can expect a bit of shyness from the tribe's members. Your repute has come 'fore you, you know."

Tyrrell frowned, wondering what dark tales had been circulating about him; then he returned his attention to the tables. The opening of the tins seemed to be an enormous job, and the lads who were doing the opening appeared to be in no great hurry about it. They examined the tins in a leisurely manner, inspected the contents for a minute or so, chatted amongst themselves . . .

"They'd get the sack from any manufactory," Tyrrell muttered.

"What?" said Pickens. "Oh, you mean the time they're drawing out. Nay, that's part of the process – they're inspecting the food. Would you be craving to go near and see?"

Tyrrell nodded, and Pickens began worming their way past a queue that was forming of the little men. Several of the little men growled complaints, but they gave way when they saw who Tyrrell was accompanied by.

The watch-hounds holding the queue back, though, were not as easily swayed, and for the first time, Pickens's status as Hosobuchi's lad got him nowhere. "Not without a true man's permission," said one of the hounds. "Sorry, Pickens, but that's standing orders from Ahiga."

Pickens nodded, apparently compliant, and then shouted, "Farnam! May I speak with you, sir?"

Farnam was in the midst of talking to his lad Davidson, who was sitting cross-legged on an upended crate, fussing with something in his lap. The true man's head went up at once; he glanced at Pickens, said something to Davidson, and then walked over to where Pickens and Tyrrell stood.

"Ah," he said to Tyrrell, when Pickens had explained. "You have an interest in food inspections, do you? Did you work in the industry, before?"

Tyrrell shook his head. "I was – er – alternatively employed."

"Indeed." Farnam looked him up and down. "Hired?"

"No." Tyrrell was beginning to feel uncomfortable; he was not used to having a fellow prisoner quiz him about his past. "On my own. House thefts – before that, purse-snatching for my tribe."

Farnam tilted his head. "Have a mind for figures, do you?"

"Just enough to count the cash. I never learned beyond simple arithmetic."

Farnam nodded. "Well, I imagine that your time at Mercy allowed you to acquire organizational skills. We might be able to make use of that. —Yes, Samuels, what is it?"

"The lads are reporting that half the tins they open contain fish, sir."

"Blood—" Farnam cut off the oath before it was through. "All right, let's go see how bad the situation is. —You can let them through," he added to the watch-hounds.

Tyrrell waited until they were beyond the hounds before he asked, in an undertone, "What in Hell's name was that all about?"

"He was checking your skills to see whether you'd be of any use to him," Pickens replied. He was turning them north, walking in the direction of the greater men's area. "See now, you'll have to work for one of the true men here – if you don't work, you don't eat. Since you're unclaimed, you can go and choose who you crave to work for, and you can change your choice whenever you crave. Farnam is a good man to work for; I chose him sacks of times when I was an unclaimed man."

"But you prefer Ahiga," Tyrrell suggested.

Pickens shrugged. "Hosobuchi is claimed by Ahiga, so that's who we work for. But if I had a choice . . . Aye, I think I'd work for Ahiga anyhow. He has a repute for being fierce with discipline – that's why he's in charge of prison discipline – but he's good at challenging men and lads up to the limits of their skills."

"What about Valdis?" Tyrrell asked as they walked slowly toward the tables.

Pickens shrugged again. "Depends on what work you're looking for. If you crave to be a wood-worker, or if you're liking to craft weapons, he's the one to turn to. Don't get any notions that you'll be able to use the weapons for always, though; he guards them jealous-like. Ahiga's hounds spend sacks more time with their spears than Valdis's men and lads do with his weapons."

Tyrrell grunted. Blades reminded him of his past murders, so the idea of working to create more deadly instruments did not appeal to him. "What about Walker? Is he a good man to work for?"

"Walker. . . ." Pickens's gaze wandered away. "Again, it depends on what work you crave to do. See now, let's be going over to this table; the debates there seem to be jumping."

Two lads, hunched over a pile of tins that lay on a leather-covered barrel, were heatedly engaged in a discussion over a particular tin.

"It's concave, I tell you," said one.

"Bloody idiot," returned the other one scornfully. "Of course it's concave if you hold it up to the light at an angle like that. It's perfectly shaped."

"It's concave. It should go in the P pile."

His opponent picked up the open tin, sniffed it, and screwed up his nose in disgust. "Copper. It goes in the A pile."

"P. The peas may have been colored through copper, but they're spoiled as well—"

"Sweet blood, lad, do you want every unclaimed lad here to die of starvation?"

"Better that, than to have them die of cramps in their bellies," said the first speaker doggedly.

"Well, we'll ask Farnam."

"Farnam doesn't like to be bothered with such things."

"We'll ask our man, then. In the name of the High Master of hell, why do you squabble over every little—?" He stopped abruptly as he saw the prisoner standing next to him. "Yes, sir?"

"Pickens," Hosobuchi's lad corrected softly.

The sorter gave him half a smile. "Pickens. Yes. Give me another eight years, and I'll remember your current rank. —Look, take this tin over to our man and ask him whether he wants the taster to check it," he said to the other sorter.

"He'll say yes; he always says yes," the lad grumbled, but he did as he was told.

His work partner heaved a sigh. "Sometimes I wish I was a Second Lad rather than First. How do you wrestle Shuji into doing what you want, Pickens?"

Pickens shrugged as he rested his leg on a crate, draping his arm over his thigh. "The case has never come up. I don't give orders to Shuji, and even if I did, there wouldn't be any arguments from him."

"First Lad?" said Tyrrell to Pickens. "You've used that term several times."

"It means I'm the first lad Hosobuchi claimed," Pickens explained. "Shuji is Second Lad, the second he claimed. Some men – such as the true men, who claim lots of prisoners – rank their first two lads, so that the First and Second Lads have more power than the others."

"It just makes for more quarrelling, that's all I say," said the sorter, shaking his head as he picked up another tin. "Look at the way Farnam picked an unclaimed lad to be his new First Lad, after his previous First Lad died. So now Davidson is the highest-ranked lad in Farnam's division, while Magnus – who has served Farnam for five years – is stuck as Second Lad."

"Not to disparage your man's talents, but Magnus doesn't have a head for numbers, the way Davidson does." As he spoke, Pickens reached forward to neaten a stack of tins. "Anyway, Magnus doesn't seem upset."

"No, my man has a soft heart – otherwise he wouldn't have claimed four lads. He certainly wouldn't have claimed me." The sorter grinned. "What does Hosobuchi need, Pickens? Or are you here for yourself?"

"This man is interested in your testing." Pickens waved his hand toward Tyrrell.

The sorter glanced at his belt, where the necklet was hanging, and then up at his undervest, before settling his gaze on Tyrrell's face. "My apologies, sir; I didn't notice what you were, or I wouldn't have kept you waiting. How can I help you?"

"How do you test the tins?" Tyrrell asked, experiencing the same uneasiness he had undergone when Pickens addressed him as sir. He felt as though he were impersonating an army officer.

"Oh, it's easy, sir." The sorter lifted a tin toward the light. "First thing I do, before I open the tin, is see whether it's shaped concave or has any pinprick-sized holes in it. If it does, chances are good that it has gas in it from spoiled food. If the tin looks undamaged, I open it and listen for hissing gas escaping." He did this, leaning down so that his ear was close to the tin when he cut into it. "No gas here. So then I examine the contents. . . ." With his razor-sharp knife, he swiftly cut the tin open, bent back the lid, and peered into the tin. "Salmon, nice and pink. Looks like it's just been fetched from the ocean."

"So the contents are safe?"

"No, they're tainted. Fish this pink must have been colored, and the packers use color to disguise when something's wrong with the food. Now comes the tricky bit: I have to figure out whether the food is spoiled, or merely adulterated with some unappetizing substance, like borax." He sniffed the tin and screwed up his nose. "Spoiled. Fish nearly always is. See?" He held the tin up.

Tyrrell tentatively sniffed the contents. "It just smells like fish to me."

"Farnam won't put you to work as a sorter, then," inserted Pickens. "You have a nose like a dog," he told the sorter.

The sorter grinned. "We all do. They should call us Farnam's watch-hounds." He took the tin back from Tyrrell, closed the lid, and carefully incised the letter P onto its lid with his knife. "P means poisoned," he explained to Tyrrell. "Those get thrown out with the waste, because otherwise we'd chance having a dozen people die from bellyaches each day, like we did in the old days. A means Adulterated – those are given to the unclaimed lads. It's poor fare, not much nutrition in it, but it won't kill them . . . not right away, at any rate. G means Good – the men and their lads get those tins."

Tyrrell turned his head toward the unclaimed lads' area, where the majority of prisoners were standing. "Not much good food comes into this prison, then."

"Precious little," said the sorter. "And the difference between good food and bad can be hard to detect. We do our best to catch the deadly ones, but if we declare too many tins as poisoned, the unclaimed lads will die of starvation, because they won't have enough to eat."

"Couldn't the men give the unclaimed lads part of their share?" Tyrrell asked.

Looking puzzled, the lad turned his attention to Pickens. "He's new?"

"Just arrived," Pickens replied.

"Ah." The lad's eyes took on that by-now-familiar expression of vagueness. "Well, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do. . . ."

"Of course," said Pickens, and he pulled Tyrrell away from the table.

They walked south, back into the little men's area, where Magnus's other two lads were frowning over their pile of tins. More lads darted to and fro, delivering piles of tins between the various tables, while Farnam's claimed men walked among them, scrutinizing the proceedings. Magnus, seeing Pickens, gave him a friendly wave of the hand.

Pickens waved back, and then slipped something into Tyrrell's hand. "Here. A souvenir from this part of the tour."

Tyrrell glanced down at the gift. It was a tin, its lid returned to the closed position and carefully marked with the letter G. He looked over at Pickens, who was blithely whistling off-tune as they passed a group of lads who were on their knees, pulling sacks out of a crate.

"Gods above and below," said Tyrrell. "I would have snagged you with joy as my work partner in the old days."

Pickens laughed, and then grabbed the tin from Tyrrell and swiftly tossed it into the hand of Magnus's Second Lad, who was passing them. "Here you go," he said to the Second Lad, who stared at the tin with consternation. "This dropped off your table."

"Dropped." The lad frowned at Pickens. "Dropped, you say. Pickens, I thought you were a reformed lad."

Pickens merely laughed again. "Farnam shouldn't let anyone past the watch-hounds during meal-time; I've told him that before. Maybe he'll listen to me this time."

The lad shook his head. "I'll deliver him the message – but don't be surprised if he asks Hosobuchi to batter your backside red."

"Better a battering, than that half the surplus should go missing. I'm not the only trained burglar here, you know." Pickens pulled Tyrrell past the lad, who continued to shake his head, as though contemplating the evils of the world.

Tyrrell asked in an undertone, "Could you in truth steal half the surplus?"

"Oh, enough to have me well filled, for sure." Pickens continued to sound cheerful. "Mind, I'd break the heart of the chaplain who transformed me. And Hosobuchi, he'd have the pleasant task of deciding whether to let me be killed or to have himself executed in my place when I was sentenced to death for stealing food from the tribe. But . . . well, neither of them would ever have knowing of it, 'cause I'd be the one doing the stealing."

"And you're never caught," Tyrrell said.

Pickens smiled at him. "I'm figuring I sound arrogant."

"Nay, no more so than any other skilled professional. Then what stays you back? Loyalty to Hosobuchi?"

"And to the tribe. And knowing of the fact that, if I stole another prisoner's meal, he'd go hungry, and if I did this enough, some folk would die. I've no stomach for murder, Tyrrell."

Pickens's smile had disappeared. Tyrrell was silent a while, thinking of Pickens's dead lad. Finally he said, "If you're feeling that way, why don't you share your food with an unclaimed lad who might starve otherwise?"

"Numbers."

"Numbers?" Tyrrell turned his head to try to see Pickens's face better, but they were passing, in that moment, under the shadow of the beam that crossed the base of the dome – for decorative reason, Tyrrell guessed. Perhaps the beam was part of the original prison construction.

"Cold, firm numbers. See now, I'll let our numbers lad explain."

Pickens waved his hand toward Davidson, who was still sitting on a crate. As they came closer, Tyrrell saw that the object he was holding in his lap was the little green ledger book that Tyrrell had noticed Farnam carrying upon their first meeting. Davidson was frowning down at the book, his mouth puckered as he sucked on the tip of a bone, slender as an eyebrow, which ended in a dark tuft of stiff hair – a paint-brush, Tyrrell realized as he saw the small glass bottle at Davidson's side, filled with black liquid.

Pickens came to a halt suddenly and held Tyrrell still. For a long moment, neither of them moved; neither did the youthful lad, staring intently at the book. Then, moving slowly as though in a reverie, the lad dipped his brush into the ink without moving his eye from the paper. Running the brush over the lip of the bottle to free the brush of extra ink, he mouthed a word soundlessly. Quickly, he brought the brush over to the paper and wrote something down.

Then he sighed and stretched, as though he were an athlete who had just run a long-distance race.

He caught sight of Pickens almost immediately and smiled; his smile faded as he noticed Tyrrell. Tyrrell would just as soon have turned round then, but Pickens still had hold of him.

The older lad asked, "How's the numbers?"

Davidson gave a quirk of a smile. "There I was, wasting time trying to figure out a way to smuggle a pocketknife into this prison to protect myself, when I should have spent the time figuring out how to smuggle in a slide rule instead."

"You could have declared yourself a man. You have the fighting skills that would have allowed you to pass your trial."

Davidson shrugged as he laid aside the brush. "My father owned the biggest accounting house in north-central Vovim, before we moved to Mip. I never knew a day, growing up, when he was not pained from ulcers. Me, I prefer following orders to holding other people's lives in my hands."

"So now you're Farnam's First Lad."

Davidson grimaced. "Not my choice of rank, you may be sure. But I am the only one, besides my man, who has any of the logarithmic tables memorized. He is having me write them down after lock-down time each evening, in case anything happens to both of us."

Pickens snorted. "As though the rest of us would know what to do with a loga-whatever. The magisterial seats should send us more upper-school graduates."

Davidson shrugged again. He was sucking absentmindedly on his ink-stained thumb, casting occasional, cautious glances at Tyrrell.

Pickens turned his attention to Tyrrell. "You're lucky you decided not to kill him during your trial. Walker would undoubtedly have given you a long and painful death if you'd strangled such a valuable lad."

"Not Farnam?" said Tyrrell.

"Not Farnam. He'd have died of excessive guilt."

Davidson nodded. "He is angry at himself now for letting me risk myself. I told him: If he keeps me like one of Valdis's lads, as though I were a caged pet, then I will whither away and die. Even a lad needs to prove himself, now and then." His gaze flicked over to Tyrrell again, settling on his right arm. "I hope you are feeling well, sir."

Tyrrell held up his bandaged arm. "This probably came from the second challenge, not from when I challenged you. I was a bloody idiot to do that. I don't suppose you'd be willing to teach me that kick you nearly took my head off with?"

Davidson smiled suddenly, the thumb emerging from his mouth. "It was just a feint, sir – I would not kick the head of a fellow prisoner, whether man or lad. But if you would like to meet me on the challenge ground some day, I will teach you how to do that – as a fake challenge, sir, you understand. Valdis has asked Farnam to have me give lessons in attack and defense whenever my man has no need for me."

"The challenge ground?" Tyrrell looked at Pickens.

"That's Valdis's territory. I'll show you later. —So how go the numbers?"

Davidson shrugged. "Well enough for now. Disastrous if the guards keep sending in as many new prisoners as they have since Tom Keeper took charge. By the end of next month, we should be close to the amount of prisoners we had before last winter started."

"Sweet blood," Pickens said softly. "How soon?"

"Summer, maybe – not long after Mercy's Feast. Autumn, if we cut back on everyone's food allowances now. Farnam has not yet made the decision."

"What do you mean, 'How soon'?" asked Tyrrell.

"How soon we run out of food," Pickens replied. "Davidson, Tyrrell wanted to know why I don't simply share my food with an unclaimed lad who is hungry. Explain to him how you figure your numbers."

Davidson gave a mirthless laugh as he turned his eyes toward Tyrrell. "One unclaimed lad? Sir, all the unclaimed lads in this prison will be on the edge of starvation by Mercy's Feast, and none of the rest of us will be feasting, except to mark their deaths. See here—" He pointed to his ledger book, and Tyrrell came closer to look. As he leaned forward, he caught a greasy whiff of the ink from the bottle nearby and felt memory touch him. His parents had also written in the old-fashioned manner of Vovim, with a brush rather than a pen. Tyrrell had learned his numbers from his mother that way, as well as the Vovimian alphabet. The alphabet had been of no use to him in Mip, and he had soon forgotten it, but Mippites used the same numerals as the Vovimian settlers had originally established. Without being able to read numbers on coins and bills, Tyrrell never would have survived as a cut-purse, a skill his street tribe badly needed, since not every member of his tribe of homeless boys could find a job selling newspapers or guarding food carts or other such positions suitable for underage boys.

He brushed his right index finger lightly across the lip of the bottle, and his finger immediately turned black. He began to raise it to suck the ink off, but Pickens caught hold of his arm. "Don't," he said.

"It's only grease and soot," Tyrrell protested. "That is, if it's made the traditional Vovimian way. It won't kill me."

But he was distracted from the argument by Davidson, who pointed to the ledger book. "See, sir, this is the number of tins we receive each day. It goes gradually up each year, but not enough. At the moment, we are being given enough food to provide a full three meals for about fifteen hundred prisoners – if we had only fifteen hundred prisoners."

"Which we don't," Pickens added.

"Which we do not. Here is the number of prisoners we actually have – it fluctuates each week, going up and down, depending on how many prisoners come in and how many die. Mostly, it goes up. This number" – Davidson turned several pages and pointed to the end of a long line of numbers – "is how much edible food we have on any given day. That number goes up and down wildly; Farnam cannot easily predict it, though he tries. All he can easily keep track of is this: the amount of food we have in storage. Any time we are given a surplus of food – which is mainly in spring, when the number of prisoners is low – he puts food aside in storage—"

"Storage?" said Tyrrell, looking at Pickens.

"The armory," said Pickens. "It's in one of the true men's cells. I doubt even I could steal anything from there. You come near the true men's cells without permission, and one of Ahiga's watch-hounds will spear your guts. At night, Valdis and his most trusted lads sleep in the armory."

"Truly, I can testify with blood before my god's claws, there is never much food in there," said Davidson. "If there was any sizeable amount, how could it fit into a single cell? We use the surplus on the days when there is not enough food to feed us all, so we are always using it up. So there is barely any surplus, and as the year goes on, the number of prisoners goes up, and we have to cut back on how much food each person gets—"

"So we all get hungrier and hungrier," concluded Pickens. "And at a certain point, we get so hungry that lads start dying."

"Lads." Tyrrell looked sharply at him. "Only lads? Not men?"

"Unclaimed lads," Davidson inserted. "When the first death from starvation is close to occurring – it could be to anyone, but chances are good that it will happen to an unclaimed lad – then we have to stop accepting members into the tribe. We cannot afford to feed any more prisoners, so the newest prisoners are automatically named unclaimed lads without tribal rights. And if we run short of surplus before then . . ."

"Oustings?" Tyrrell guessed.

Pickens nodded. "By lottery. The lads who pick the black straw are ousted from the tribe, so that the rest of us can survive."

"Lads again," Tyrrell said. "Unclaimed lads? Why are they the only ones ousted? And why do they get the worst food?"

Davidson's face suddenly took on a bleak expression. He ducked his head, and Tyrrell remembered then that he had only recently ceased to be an unclaimed lad.

Pickens reached over and placed his hand lightly on Davidson's head. "Suppose that this lad died – this lad whose head for numbers is one of the things that keeps the rest of us alive. What would happen to the rest of us?"

"So Farnam claimed him," Tyrrell said slowly.

"Farnam claimed him. That is how a man shares his food: he claims a lad and gives part of his share of the food to his lad. Any food I receive is not mine – it is Hosobuchi's, which I am free to share with Shuji if my fellow lad should have need of it, but with no one else. Every claimed lad has been judged by his man to have some quality worth saving – some quality that helps keep the rest of us alive."

"And every man?" Tyrrell felt his throat tighten. "Nobody chose me – I declared myself a man."

"And proved that you had the ability to fight to keep a claimed lad safe. Back in the earlier days of Compassion, before the true men put order to these matters, the guards threw the food into this cell, and a man would have to fight the other men to get food for himself and for his lad or lads. The lads who had strong men would survive. The lads who didn't would die. . . . These days, Farnam's men and lads distribute the food and other supplies in a fair manner, and Ahiga's hounds keep order – but you will still need to protect your lad if you are to retain your manhood." Pickens shrugged. "I'll be frank: there are some men and claimed lads that I would gladly see ousted from the tribe. Our system isn't perfect. But for the most part, the prisoners who have the greatest value to us – the ones who have the ability to keep the tribe alive and peaceful – are the ones who get the best share of the food. The ones who don't . . . Ask our Keeper why they should have to die. He's the one who knows the answer."

Pickens's voice had turned suddenly dark, as though he saw, in that moment, thousands upon thousands of dying lads sprawled upon the ground.

Chapter Text

Tyrrell was silent a while as they continued to stroll toward the prison gate, passing more tables as they went. Some of the sorters had finished their work and had given way to other lads, who were beginning to pour out the liquid from the tins into jars.

Seeing where Tyrrell looked, Pickens said, "We store the liquid separate-like; it's part of the surplus, and it helps too in cooking, when we hold a banquet."

"Pickens, how has any folk here managed to survive so long? These are killing conditions!"

Pickens shrugged. "Things have turned worse since Keeper drew power last autumn. Under his father, we got sacks of adulterated tins, which is why Farnam set up this system of testing and tasting. But it wasn't till Keeper stepped up in rank that most of the food 'came not fit to eat. That's one reason why there were so many deaths last winter."

"He may not be knowing. Some folk should give tale to him."

"Ahiga gave tale to him." Pickens's reply was terse. "If he won't catch tale to Ahiga, he won't catch tale to any folk. —Ah, what do we have here?" His voice softened suddenly.

Tyrrell stopped just in time from making another disastrous tumble over someone on the floor. Several prisoners were kneeling as they unpacked a crate filled with dry goods. Farnam, coming up alongside them, gave a curt nod to Pickens and Tyrrell before asking the kneeling prisoners, "Anything useful?"

"Sir, it's salt!" The lad who spoke held up a bag and smiled broadly. "Salt and flour and coffee."

"Riches indeed." Farnam offered a brief smile to the lad and then raised his voice. "What's the occasion, Pugh? Has Mercy's messenger made an appearance in this prison at last?"

Most of the guards, whom Tyrrell could just see through the gate several yards away, laughed heartily. Pugh said in an indifferent voice, "A gift from your Keeper, in honor of the Lords' Spring Festival. He thought you might want to have it a couple of days early, in order to make preparations."

"Our thanks to the Keeper!" Farnam cried back. "Qualified," he added in an undertone, "until we see what we've actually been given. Samuels?"

The claimed man who had approached Farnam earlier had now opened the bag of coffee. Fingering the contents, he shrugged. "No worse than what we received for the Commoners' Autumn Festival. Coffee mixed in with dried peas, it looks like."

"Sort a sample, and then give it the water test," Farnam ordered. "What about the flour?"

A lad who had been inspecting a knee-high flour bag sat back on his heels, his face filled with disgust. "Not much there, sir. Adulterated with lye, it looks like, and so old that it's filled with maggots."

"Check the other bags; they may be better. Garcia, let's look at the final riches."

The initial speaker eagerly tore open the salt bag, using his teeth. Everyone leaned forward, Tyrrell included.

Pickens was the one who broke the silence. "Well, well, it looks as though the Sweet-tooth Company owns a cat."

"And it looks as though the company keeps its salt in open barrels." Farnam carefully closed the bag, shutting out the yellowed salt, with the brown objects atop it. "Never mind, there may be something salvageable here." He paused to briefly place his hand on the head of the lad, who was staring at the floor, struggling to hold back tears. "Even without our Keeper's 'gifts,' we'll have a good banquet, I'm sure. Garcia, are those potatoes I see?"

The lad, reviving, dove his hands into the packing crate and was soon excitedly reporting that no more than half the potatoes were spoiled – maybe even two-thirds were edible. . . .

Pickens and Tyrrell passed on. Tyrrell, watching Farnam's lads carefully pick out dead maggots from the flour, was increasingly sure that he would not have the stomach to eat his late breakfast. When he stated this to Pickens, though, the lad simply said cheerfully, "Ungrateful idiot. You've no notion what luck in your path you've had. Here, let me introduce you to our taster."

o—o—o

It took them a while to reach the taster; Pickens kept pausing, fingering the tins on every table, and earning himself glares from any lad or man who remembered what his profession was. When Magnus finally shooed him off, Pickens grinned and said to Tyrrell, "Point fully made, I have mind. Let's finish up here."

The taster, it turned out, was a lad in his thirties, lounging on a chair, with his feet propped up on a crate. It was the first chair Tyrrell had seen in the place; it had a seat, not of the ubiquitous leather, but of cloth stretched between a cross-frame of wooden rods. The taster had his hands crossed over his belly; he was contemplating the sky. As Pickens and Tyrrell came forward, he glanced at them out of the corner of his eye, and then moved his foot enough to shove the crate in Tyrrell's direction. Then he returned to watching the sky.

At Pickens's gesture, Tyrrell seated himself. Glancing at the ground next to the taster, Pickens said, "No work for you today?"

"Say, tell me, what does a lad need to do to get fed around this place?" asked the taster, staring upwards. "I'm about to wither away from starvation."

Tyrrell doubted it; the taster had the biggest belly of anyone he had seen there. Pickens frowned, saying, "Are you all right, Czupak? You look as though you're swelled up with gas."

The taster patted his belly with apparent satisfaction. "It's all this rich food they give me. —When are you going to feed me next? I'm famished!" he shouted to the sorters nearest him.

The sorters emitted laughter that sounded forced, but made no reply. Czupak, looking over at Pickens for the first time, shook his head. "I'll be dead before they feed me. I tell you, it's enough to make me take up thieving."

Before Pickens could reply, Farnam's claimed man Samuels appeared. He held a tin in his hand, from which the smell of coffee drifted up.

"For you," he told the taster. "We've sorted a sample by eye, we've done the water test on it – all the contents floated – and we've brewed the beans. Farnam says it's your turn now."

Without bothering to stand or even to sit upright, the taster took the coffee from the man. Without hesitation, he plunged his hand into the tin. After a second, he said, "There's debris on the bottom. Sort it some more."

"It's just a few dried peas. We can't catch all of them."

"Dried peas don't feel like this. Sort it."

Samuels looked annoyed. "Have you forgotten your rank, Czupak? It's Farnam's orders. Do as you're told."

The lad sat upright finally. Looking at Pickens, he sighed in a melodramatic manner, saying, "Uncle Ivan gives them his educated opinion, but do they listen? Of course not. Well, cheers." He raised the glass in a toast to the sky and then swallowed the contents of the tin in one gulp.

And began to choke. Pickens, whose brows had remained furrowed throughout this exchange, promptly stepped forward and whapped him several times on the back. This seemed to do its work; after a moment, Czupak waved him back and said to Samuels in a breathless manner, "Pebbles. Pointy pebbles, judging from the ones I swallowed. Sort the coffee beans again."

Looking considerably more subdued than before, Samuels took the tin back and departed without a word. The taster, whose face had turned pale, returned to his previous position, with his hands folded over his belly. Tyrrell saw that his fingers were white-knuckled now.

"Best job in the prison," he said to the sky. "Unlimited food, served right to me. I don't know why I'm so lucky."

"Had much of that unlimited food today?" Pickens asked quietly.

"Oh, bites from about three dozen tins. Two-thirds of the tins were fine; I said they could be used. The other third . . . Well, they'll settle in my stomach eventually." He patted his belly, smiling. Suddenly, without warning, he looked at Tyrrell. "You're the new man, aren't you? The one who's been leading the fight against the guards at Mercy?"

"Er . . . yes." Tyrrell was so disconcerted by this sudden acknowledgment of his existence that he forgot to give his usual defense of the Boundaries-bound guards. He was even more disconcerted when the lad rose from his seat and bowed.

"If I may, I'd like to shake arms with you, sir," he said, "in case I don't get a chance to later. I'm very pleased to have had the opportunity to meet you."

Tyrrell drew himself slowly to his feet and shook arms with the taster. Czupak's eyes bothered him; they looked bloodshot, as though he did not receive much sleep. But Czupak smiled as though his days were spent in blithe laziness.

"We'll let you get back to your work," Pickens said, rescuing Tyrrell from his awkward silence.

"Ah, yes, my work." The taster lay down again, wincing as he did so. "Just think of it, Pickens – while you and the other lads are slaving away till eventide, I'll be idly playing dice all afternoon. Don't you wish you were me?"

"No," said Pickens bluntly.

The taster smiled at him, showing no sign of offense. "Do you know, everyone says that? They just don't appreciate the advantages of honor and glory over— Well, well, is that wonderful banquet for me? Give it to me quickly, lad, before I grow faint with hunger." He gestured to the lad standing hesitantly nearby, holding a tin.

Pickens steered Tyrrell away, past a table where the lads were beginning to dish the food out of the quart-sized tins into smaller, palm-sized tins. Tyrrell glanced back at the taster, who was carefully sampling the tin he had been given, which was clearly marked with the letter P.

"Honor and glory over life?" he murmured to Pickens.

Pickens nodded.

"How long . . . ?" Tyrrell found he could not finish the sentence.

Pickens shrugged. "His predecessor lasted eight months . . . but that was 'fore the situation with the food got worse. Farnam has been having mind whether to make the job a three-month assignment for each taster. The trouble is, tasting is a job that a lad grows more skilled at, the longer he works at it. Ivan Czupak is the best taster we've had; he can tell the difference 'tween adulterated food and spoiled food nine times out of ten. For the sake of the tribe, it may be that Farnam will have to keep Czupak at his job."

Tyrrell swallowed around the aching lump in his throat. "Did Farnam order him to become a taster?"

"Oh, no, he won the job by a straw-draw. The other lads competing were hot in heart at losing." Pickens gave a quirk of a smile at Tyrrell's dumbfounded expression. "It's a thing of high honor to be named taster – Czupak has the most dangerous job in this prison. Tasters are ten times more like to die than Ahiga's watch-hounds. To be frank," he said, putting his arm around Tyrrell's back as they reached the protective barrier of the hounds guarding the food, "I wouldn't have the courage."

o—o—o

"Bring the tin back when you're through eating," said Magnus, handing Tyrrell his share of the rations. "If you don't, Ahiga's watch-hounds will break your neck."

Tyrrell decided not to ask whether Magnus meant that literally. "Thank you," he replied, taking the tin and casting a worried glance at the jagged edges where the tin had been cut open. He had seen the claimed lads being handed bone spoons as they were given the rations for their men, but evidently his own rank did not allow for such luxuries. He would somehow have to figure out a way to eat the food without slicing his fingers open.

Not, he thought gloomily, that he had any desire for his meal. Staring down at the peas, which looked suspiciously green to him, he thought longingly of Mercy's grainy gruel, tasteless beans, and undrinkable coffee. He had never thought to be thankful at Mercy that his food was merely unappetizing, not deadly.

Stepping out of the queue, he looked around for Pickens, but the lad was nowhere in sight. Pickens had waited only long enough to see that Magnus, who knew Tyrrell, was handing out the little men's rations; then he had disappeared into the greater men's area. Now Tyrrell slowly made his way through the little men's area, searching for a place to sit. Various crates were scattered throughout the area, but they all seemed to be taken by little men who avoided his eye. Finally he sat down cross-legged on the ground, first checking to see that he was not sitting on anything as nasty as his food. The floor was surprisingly clean and felt pleasantly warm under the early afternoon sun. Ignoring the legs striding back and forth beside him, Tyrrell closed his eyes for a moment and savored the feel of sunlight on his skin.

He had never known sunlight at Mercy; he received no prison-yard privileges there, and the prison building had no windows, only ventilation slits that worked barely well enough to bring in stale air. The air here was fresh, and the prisoners here smelled no worse than at Mercy. Tyrrell wondered why that was the case; if water was rationed here, then surely they would not be able to bathe?

He shrugged this thought aside and focussed his attention on the smells. Amidst the pungent odor of prisoners, he could smell something more unpleasant. Not the privy smell; that he would have recognized. This odor reminded him of the awful time in his childhood when he had sucked upon a penny and vomited from the taste. . . .

He opened his eyes and looked down at the suspiciously green peas. Oh. Of course.

Pickens appeared suddenly, crouching down at his side. "What's wrong? Is your food spoiled?"

"Adulterated with copper, I have mind," Tyrrell said gloomily.

"Oh, well, that will fall at times when you're a little man – if Farnam's men and lads don't have enough G food to yield, you'll draw some of the A food. One or three tins like that won't hurt you."

Tyrrell carefully placed the tin on the ground. "I'll hold for my supper, thanks."

Pickens said nothing, merely raised his eyebrows.

Tyrrell felt a by-now-familiar clenching in his chest. "No supper?"

Pickens ran his index finger lightly round the outside of the tin. "How many meals a day did they yield you at Mercy?"

"Three. Gruel and coffee at breakfast, potatoes and beans and maizebread at lunch . . ." His voice trailed off as he watched Pickens finger the tin. "Yield me back my food, you thief. I'm hungry after all."

Pickens laughed, shoving the tin in his direction. "Don't worry, I've never stolen from mates. Some fellows here would, though. Best to munch your food now."

Tyrrell did so, dealing with the problem of the jagged edges by simply pouring the contents of the tin into his mouth. As he searched the tin with his eye to see whether he had missed any peas, he said, "You've eaten already?"

"Nay, Shuji is holding my food for now."

"I had mind that was what you went to fetch."

Pickens shook his head. He was still crouched beside Tyrrell rather than sitting, the position of a street-lad who is ever alert to attack. "I went to see Farnam. Something is wrong with Czupak, for sure; no folk in this prison ever gain pounds. Even Farnam has lost weight here, and he's the sort that gains weight if he so much as sniffs a grain of maizemeal."

"What did Farnam give tale to you?"

"That he'd check on Czupak when he had a chance. —You missed a bit there." He pointed at the tin.

"Thanks." Tyrrell managed to scoop out a tiny fragment of a pea without cutting himself. "I can't believe that every folk survive here on these types of rations."

"Oh, you'll get a bigger share of the rations once you're a greater man," Pickens responded. "But aye, it's a miracle any of us are alive."

"Starke gave tale of that too, about him surviving the riot here."

Pickens let his breath escape between his teeth. "He would. Bloody, self-centered bastard." He spoke without any particular heat in his voice. "Better yield your tin back now, or Magnus will send his lads looking for you. He has a perfect memory for who has turned in their tin. —No, hold, let me look at it first." He forestalled Tyrrell from rising, taking the tin into his hand. Holding up the tin to the light, he scrutinized its interior carefully, like a jeweller examining a setting. "You missed a bit again. 'Tis hidden just under the shadow of that jagged edge there."

Tyrrell swore under his breath before saying, "You've got eyes like a cat."

"After a thousand nights spent burgling dark houses? I've got eyes like an Ammippian. If you crave practice in night-prowling, try robbing the houses near the residences of the magisterial seats. Best-watched part of the city, with patrol soldiers that could see a pinprick of light at a window, and oh gods above and below, you won't crave to fall into the hands of the captain of the patrol. A terror out of Hell's dominion, he is, as like to hang you on the spot as he is to arrest you, and he doesn't waste time checking to see if you're innocent 'fore he orders his men to pin you to the ground while he kicks his big boots into your stomach . . ."

Tyrrell let his mind wander away from this pleasant recital, which matched his own memories of Mip City's patrol soldiers. His thoughts were on other matters.

The food had by now been distributed to all except some of the unclaimed lads – their queues were much longer than the queues of the men and claimed lads – yet all of the different ranks, he saw, were remaining within their own spaces. Nothing seemed to keep the little men separate from the greater men other than their own will-power, but the cause of the unclaimed lads' lack of mobility was clear enough: Ahiga's watch-hounds were stationed at the southern edge of the little men's territory, spaced at regular intervals, turning their heads to and fro as they scrutinized the unclaimed lads.

The lads ignored their guards. Except for the ones still queued, they were all sitting on the floor; there were no crates for seats in the unclaimed lads' territory. The lads were clustered in small groups of three, four – no more than ten at a time. They all seemed absorbed in their food and their low chatter, but every now and then, one of the lads would abruptly rise and move over to join another group. There seemed to be no set pattern to this rising and joining, yet somehow, within the space of a very short time, the groups had shifted, so that each group had a new member whom it had not possessed before.

Tyrrell cast another glance at the watch-hounds, wondering whether they recognized what he recognized. Possibly not; even he would have been ignorant of what was happening if it were not that he had undertaken the same sleight of hand, back at Mercy.

Large gatherings to discuss matters of conspiracy were dangerous; he and Merrick had known that from the start. So they never permitted large gatherings. The prisoners would talk with their cell-mates, and then, while at their work, one of the cell-mates would find an opportunity to talk to a prisoner who was housed in another cell, who would convey what he learned to his own cell-mates. . . . Messages could be passed on surprisingly quickly in this manner, without the guards ever suspecting.

Of course, once some of the guards had pledged themselves to keep the Boundaries of Behavior, communication had travelled far more quickly; those guards could easily pass on messages without anyone having the power to stop them. But in the early years, all suggestions concerning enforcement and changes to the Boundaries had been made at the level of two or three men: the number of men in each cell. Their suggestions would be passed on to other prisoners, who would either express their approval or else reject the ideas, until, by the time that the suggestions reached Tyrrell and Merrick, the two of them would have a good idea of what the consensus was of the Boundaries-bound prisoners, and could use that information to help them make the final decision.

Now almost entirely oblivious to Pickens's chatter about the best way to burgle a house that has an armed guard, Tyrrell laid his chin upon his knee, trying to still his look of growing interest into an expression more idle. Where were the lads taking their information? That was the question. If they timed their communications well enough, nobody should be able to guess their final destination, for some of those message-carriers were false trails – prisoners heading back and forth between groups that had long since made their decision. Yet one of the groups here must hold the leader or leaders, who were waiting to learn the thoughts of the lads they led.

After a while, Tyrrell focussed his attention on a group of three lads who were neither sending nor receiving information. They were close enough that he could hear their conversation, which was about korfball champions. All three lads seemed to be blithely unaware of the lower-voiced conversations taking place around them.

One of the lads Tyrrell recognized immediately: he was the monkey-faced prisoner who had tried to escape Compassion Prison upon Tyrrell's arrival. The lad had big, deep-set eyes, a button nose that nearly collided with his mouth, and what would have been a beard if it had not been so patchy and if it had not extended into unexpected regions of his face: one tuft of hair extended over the bridge of his nose. His disagreeable looks were matched by the sobriety of his expression. He was sprawled on his stomach, listening silently to the other lads; he looked to be about Tyrrell's age.

The other two lads were younger, in their twenties. They seemed as mismatched as a music-hall routine. One, with not a hair out of place, and with what remained of a pair of eyeglasses – the right lens was missing – looked as though he would have been at home in a university library, though korfball was more often played by commoners. The resemblance to Farnam was striking, but this lad was thinner – much, much thinner, with bones that stared out from his body. He rarely smiled, and his voice was always level, even when his thoughts on korfball champions were expressed forcefully. He had red hair, but there was no fire to his words, simply the type of deliberate, measured speech that a professor might use in a classroom.

The other lad was quite different. His hair was scruffy, his drawers sagged in odd places, and he had a very dirty cloth round one of his legs. Though the red-headed lad sat still, never moving his hands as he talked, the dark-haired lad next to him was continually moving: shifting, pounding his fists on the floor, exploding into gesticulations to make his points, his voice rising and lowering to mark the progress of the conversation, and all the while his bare feet drummed the floor, as though he were a soldier on the march.

All three lads were so absorbed in the conversation that they seemed to have forgotten about their food, though they cradled the tins with instinctive protection. The red-headed lad had just said something that raised a smile from the monkey-faced lad, when suddenly the red-headed lad's head whipped around. He stared into the little men's section.

For a moment, Tyrrell thought the lad had noticed his interest. Then Tyrrell saw what the lad had seen: watch-hounds were approaching the unclaimed lads' territory. They were carrying more of the wooden spears that were fashioned out of the old cell-door bars – two to each man. These hounds were new, making their way through the little men's territory first, as the little men gradually fell silent, watching them pass. As the new hounds passed the hounds already on guard at the border of the unclaimed lads' territory, they handed each territory guard their extra spear, which each territory guard, with the smoothness of long practice, twirled down till it was facing the lads. More guards took up positions at the edge of the territory, until the boundary between the unclaimed lads and the little men looked like a row of porcupine quills.

"Uh-oh." Pickens, who had fallen silent a moment before, spoke quietly.

"Trouble?" said Tyrrell, his voice hushed.

"Aye. Regrets; I must go." Pickens rose to his feet. Hosobuchi had paused nearby and was gesturing to him; the claimed lad hurried over to his man's side. Shuji was there as well, and so was Ahiga. The true man's hand was bare of any spear; instead, he had taken his dagger from the sheath around his neck and was holding it lightly in his palm, in a casual manner that spoke of long experience with blades.

Tyrrell slowly rose to his feet to see better. All around the unclaimed lads' territory, prisoners were standing up, some looking bewildered, some frightened, some angry, some merely grim. The red-headed lad was on his feet now; Tyrrell could not read the expression in his face, but he caught the urgency of his tone as the lad turned to speak to his companions.

The monkey-faced lad, who had scrambled to his feet also, nodded and swiftly drew away to stand with a nearby group. The dark-haired lad, though he had risen, was furiously arguing against whatever the red-headed lad was telling him.

Their argument was cut short by a high-pitched moan; it came from deep within the unclaimed lads' territory. The dark-haired lad pivoted on his heel to look, as did many of the unclaimed lads.

The red-headed lad did not even glance in the direction of the moan. His eye was on Ahiga, who had turned to say something to Hosobuchi. Hosobuchi nodded and then spoke briefly to his two lads. Pickens and Shuji immediately departed in opposite directions, disappearing into the crowd of little men who were gathering with curiosity at the southern edge of their territory. A minute later, Hosobuchi's lads reappeared, stepping into the unclaimed lads' territory at several yards apart from each other. They had spears in their hands now. Ignoring the unclaimed lads who shrank away at their approach, Pickens and Shuji began to circle round, heading toward a middle point in a semi-circle—

—and at that moment, Tyrrell realized whose escape they had been sent behind to block.

From the right-left flicker of the red-headed lad's eyes, Tyrrell guessed that the lad knew too, but he never moved. His gaze returned to Ahiga, who was carefully surveying all that was taking place within the territory. Another moan broke out; this one sounded like the cry of a mourning dove. Nearby, several of the hounds were beginning to scuffle with a lad who was shouting obscenities at them, but Ahiga, after glancing their way, seemed satisfied that they had the matter at hand. With his dagger-hilt still pressed in his palm, he stepped into the unclaimed lads' territory. Hosobuchi followed, one step behind him, on his right.

The red-headed lad remained motionless as they came forward. The dark-haired lad fell silent; he had his arm round the red-headed lad's waist, and his mouth was moving silently, though whether with prayers or with curses, Tyrrell could not tell.

Ahiga came to a halt in front of the two lads. He was the same age as them, but was half a head taller than the red-headed lad, who had to tilt his head to look up at the true man. Tyrrell still could not tell from his expression what the lad was thinking.

"Jahnsen," said Ahiga, "you know why I am here."

His voice was soft, but could be clearly heard, for all of the lads in the surrounding groups, who had been muttering amidst themselves, had fallen silent when the true man stepped into their territory.

The red-headed lad lifted his eyebrows. "To return to your home?"

A couple of the lads nearby gave nervous laughs, quickly stifled. Ahiga ignored them. He said, "You have been accused of granting to Price food, in the days after he was ousted from the tribe."

"Was he ousted from our tribe?" Jahnsen's voice was both courteous and cold. "I had not heard that."

His speech seemed to have some inner meaning, for several of the listening lads clapped hands over their mouths, and the dark-haired lad stirred next to him, looking uneasy.

Unperturbed, Ahiga said, "He was ousted from the Tribe of Compassion Prison on week's end, for conspiracy against the true men – he planned to kill us and distribute the surplus food in the armory to the unclaimed lads. Do you deny that you know this?"

Jahnsen's gaze did not waver from Ahiga's face. "I deny that I conspired to use force against anyone. I have no wish to see any man or lad harmed. Who accuses me?"

Ahiga turned slightly, beckoning with his hand. Tyrrell felt something brush by him, and turned in time to see two watch-hounds step forward, escorting a prisoner. Tyrrell caught a glimpse of the man's face as he passed; it looked as empty as the face of a ghost.

For the first time, an expression appeared on Jahnsen's face; his lips thinned, and his eyes grew hard. He looked back at Ahiga, who said, "Price asked Walker to claim him last night. The true men granted him pardon, on condition that he reveal who helped him in his plans to overturn the rule of the true men. You deny that you helped him?"

"I deny it." Jahnsen's voice had turned brittle. "I was asked to help, and I refused. He wanted to be a true man to the unclaimed lads. I didn't think he was the sort of which true men are made." His gaze travelled over to the prisoner. The contempt was clear in his voice as he said, "It seems I was right."

The prisoner did not stir. Ahiga waved with his hand; the escorts turned and half-dragged Price back the way he had come. As they did so, Tyrrell saw the prisoner's empty face again, and he frowned. The vacant eyes, the slack muscles in his face, the drool at the edges of his mouth . . . Not sweetweed, no; sweetweed heightened the senses and the body's responses. But someone, Tyrrell was willing to swear, had been feeding this lad drugs of some sort.

Ahiga said, with all the formality of a patient magistrate, "You deny helping him in his plans to kill us. Do you deny feeding him once he was ousted from the tribe?"

Jahnsen's steady gaze had returned to the true man. "I wouldn't let a dog die of starvation."

"You know the penalty for feeding an ousted prisoner," Ahiga said.

"No!" It was the dark-haired lad, stepping forward, his face twisted in agony. "No, it's my fault! It's my food he gave to Price—"

"Be quiet!" Jahnsen reached forward and grabbed the dark-haired lad's arm.

"Yes, it is quiet you need be," Ahiga agreed. "Or is it that you want Jahnsen to be charged with two offenses – one for giving the food, and one for giving the food of another lad?"

The dark-haired lad let himself be pulled back by the other, his face now filled with uncertainty. Jahnsen waited only long enough to ascertain that his companion would not speak again; then he said to Ahiga, "It was my own tins that I gave."

"And you knew the penalty?" Again, Ahiga sounded like a patient magistrate, exploring all possible avenues of innocence.

For a minute, Jahnsen was silent; all that could be heard, other than the moans and shouts and sobs elsewhere in the unclaimed lads' territory, was the muffled sound that the dark-haired lad made as he turned and pressed his mouth against Jahnsen's shoulder.

Then Jahnsen gave a quirk of a smile. He held out the tin, with its contents still untouched.

Ahiga took it from him with his left hand. "You accept the punishment," he said, like a magistrate finishing a case.

"I don't want to fight you, Ahiga." The lad's voice was quiet, and his smile remained, but it did not touch his eyes.

"And the fact that you do not wish to fight the true men makes a difference here, among the other lads. I have not forgotten that." He swiftly sheathed his blade with his right hand. "Three days' ousting."

Jahnsen's smile disappeared; he looked as astonished as though he had just been plunged into ice-cold water.

The dark-haired lad, raising his face from the other lad's shoulder, looked equally dumbfounded. "Three days? Only three days? Not a permanent ousting?"

"Three days," Ahiga confirmed. "We are likely to be watered by the guards before the end of those days, so your thirst till then will be no greater than the other lads'. No food, though. No food, no medicine, no blanket, no clothes – no tribal comfort."

"Soap?" The dark-haired lad had recovered quickly; Tyrrell could imagine him as a grocer in a store, driving a hard bargain with a customer.

For the first time, the suggestion of a smile appeared on Ahiga's face. "Soap he shall have, or I must face the wrath of Farnam for allowing ousted prisoners to spread sickness. But no food." He began to turn away.

"Ahiga." Jahnsen's voice had grown very quiet; his face was unrevealing once more. As the true man turned back, Jahnsen said, "I would do the same again, if the chance was offered to me."

"Would you, now?" Ahiga cocked his head to one side. "And what say you if I told you that, the next time you did this, I would oust, not you, but your mate?" He flicked his fingers toward the dark-haired lad, as though scattering seeds.

Jahnsen did not speak. Ahiga glanced at the dark-haired lad and said, "The same for you. Do not feed Jahnsen or the permanently ousted lads" – he spread his hands in the direction of the parts of the territory from which the other sounds were coming – "if you do not want Jahnsen ousted, and ousted for the final time. —Yes, what is it?" He turned to look at a claimed lad who had just skidded to a halt next to him.

"My man's pardon, sir." The lad gulped in air, his chest heaving. "We've had some trouble with Edwards. He didn't take the news of his ousting well."

Ahiga frowned. "How did he take it?"

"He had a pocketknife hidden in the waistband of his drawers, sir. He tried to put it through my man's heart."

Ahiga closed his eyes. "That was . . . not wise of him." Opening his eyes, he said to the lad, "Go to Walker. Tell him that, as he had predicted, his services to the tribe are needed. —Hosobuchi," he said as the panting lad scurried off in the direction of the back of the prison. "See that all is settled here, and then have my hounds gather the unclaimed lads and take them to the platform. —Who are you?"

His abrupt question was addressed to the monkey-faced lad, who had been sliding unobtrusively forward, in the direction of his two companions. The monkey-faced lad froze in his tracks, like a rat sighted while taking meal from a sack.

"He's Babaqi," Jahnsen replied. "He was committed to this prison two months ago. You've spoken to him before."

"You make no sense." Ahiga's voice was brusque. "I would remember such a face as that. He is known to you? Both of you?" He turned his gaze to and fro between the two lads.

The dark-haired lad said nothing. Jahnsen said quietly, "He has become our friend."

"Good. Then I must question him to see what he knows of this. —Come with me." He gestured toward the monkey-faced lad – an impatient gesture. The monkey-faced lad looked hesitantly at Jahnsen, who gave a barely perceptible nod; then Babaqi allowed himself to be pulled away by Ahiga.

At the last moment, Ahiga – in a careless manner, as though he did not notice what he was doing – tossed the tin Jahnsen had given him into the hands of the dark-haired lad.

The dark-haired lad stared at the tin with astonishment. Jahnsen smiled for the first time since Ahiga's arrival; then his smile faded as Hosobuchi said something to him. With his face once more expressionless, Jahnsen pulled off his drawers and handed them to the greater man. As he did so, his eye wandered beyond Hosobuchi, beyond the watch-hounds guarding the perimeter, and lit upon Tyrrell, who was still standing silently, watching the scene.

For a brief moment, the lad's eye lingered on Tyrrell; then he looked away, the crowd moved, and Tyrrell lost sight of him.

Chapter Text

Within a short time, the crowd had shifted considerably. Unclaimed lads were shepherded by the watch-hounds out of their territory, in the direction of the back of the prison. A handful of the lads, like Jahnsen, were now naked; their expressions ranged from stoicism to despair. None of the unclaimed lads, Tyrrell gathered, were being given any choice as to their destination; they were prodded along by the hounds.

Many of the little men had begun to drift toward the back of the prison as well. Tyrrell hesitated, uncertain whether he wanted to see whatever spectacle was being prepared there. Then, with relief, he caught sight of Pickens coming toward him.

Pickens had shed his spear somewhere along the way, and with it his gravity; he was smiling again. When he reached Tyrrell, he gestured toward Ahiga, who had taken the monkey-faced lad aside and was quietly quizzing him. "Well?" Pickens said.

It took Tyrrell a moment to formulate his reply. "The prisoner is drawn to the courtroom. He is given knowing of the charges against him and is allowed the chance to meet the person who accused him of his crimes. He is yielded the chance to defend himself. He denies one of the charges, and his denial is trusted. He is asked whether the second charge is true. He is asked whether he had knowing that he was breaking the law. When he confesses his guilt, his yielding to the magistrate and his good name in the tribe are taken into account, and he is yielded a light sentence." Tyrrell shook his head slowly. "Pickens, I wasn't knowing that any magistrates that fair yet existed."

Pickens grinned. "Ahiga is a wonder, isn't he? Now you have knowing why I'm liking to work for him." His grin faded, and he cocked his head. "You don't look happy."

"I'm not," said Tyrrell bluntly. "Where I come from, feeding a starving person isn't a crime. 'Tis for sure not a death-sentence crime."

Pickens started to reply; then he fell silent. The area where they stood was now much emptier than before. Only a few little men lingered, along with Farnam's men and lads, who were carefully cleaning up from the day's rationing, watched over by a handful of the watch-hounds. One of Farnam's men appeared at Tyrrell's elbow and, without a word, plucked the empty tin from his hand.

The prison had grown very quiet; the only sound nearby was of Ahiga, continuing to interrogate the unclaimed lad in an undertone. Finally Pickens said, "I'll tell the tale this way. Figure that you were a member of a street tribe. You had pledged to place the best interests of the tribe above all else – above your own life and the lives of any single one of your brothers in the tribe. And then figure that you were all starving for lack of food. Figure that one of your fellow lads plotted to kill the tribe leaders and yield the food to his mates. His plot was discovered, and he was ousted from the tribe. Then you discovered that some of the remaining lads in the tribe were feeding this lad, yielding him the chance to plot new conspiracies against the tribe. What would your leaders do to the lads who had helped the conspirator?"

Tyrrell was silent a long time before saying, "They would kill the lads."

Pickens nodded. "And not even that was done to the lads here. They were simply ousted."

"But if they're permanently ousted, they'll starve—"

"Only if they're stiff-necked with pride," Pickens said flatly. "Edwards was a fool. If he'd gone to the true men, knelt down, admitted his guilt, promised never to break tribal customs again, and pleaded with them to let him back into the tribe, chances are that they would have turned the turtle over on their sentence. They did that last night, with Price. That's why the true men almost never pass a sentence of execution. Only if a tribal member is a right-away danger, as I was, will they call for right-away death."

"But Edwards only panicked when he was ousted. If the true men didn't punish him further—"

"He was a lad. He attacked a man. Any lad who attacks a man is sent to death. Edwards had knowing of that as well as the rest of us lads do."

Tyrrell fell silent; he could not bring his mind beyond the past tense in the words that Pickens had spoken. Finally he said, "He'll draw death, then."

"Aye. The execution is now. You won't crave to watch," he added, though Tyrrell had not moved. "Walker's executions are . . . not pleasant."

Tyrrell felt the walls of his throat touch each other. "I had mind you gave tale 'fore that Valdis was the tribe's executioner."

Pickens shrugged. His gaze had wandered away to Ahiga, who seemed in no hurry to release the lad from the bondage of their conversation. "I'd have drawn a quick death from Valdis, 'cause I hadn't meant to kill my lad. In a case where a lad deliberately tries to kill a man, though . . ."

"How?" Tyrrell said finally. He didn't really want to know, but he felt he must know.

"Strangling. Walker takes his time about it."

"Mercy save us." Tyrrell looked away, trying to regain control of his stomach. It was the bad food he had eaten, he told himself, and knew himself to be a liar. Looking back at Pickens, he said, in a tone that tried to be light, "What was Walker in his old life, a butcher?"

Pickens shook his head, returning his gaze to Tyrrell. "Pathologist."

"Pathologist!" Tyrrell stared at Pickens. "What in Hell's name is a pathologist doing in prison? What did he do, kill the men whose corpses he looked at for signs of murder?"

Pickens's mouth twisted into something that was not quite a smile. "I wouldn't be surprised. But the only crime he was charged with was assassination."

"Assassination." Tyrrell continued to stare at Pickens. "Who did he assassinate?"

"The Mippite ambassador to Yclau. . . . Ah, you've caught tale of him, then," he added, seeing Tyrrell's expression change.

"I have mind I've done so," said Tyrrell slowly. "It fell after I was put down in prison, so I only caught tale of snippets. It was a deport case, wasn't it? The crime, it took place in Yclau territory, but their Queen let our magisterial seats try the prisoner in Mip's high court. I caught tale that the assassin was an Yclau religious fanatic."

"That's Walker – as fanatical as they come. He has mind that, when some folk is straying from the truth, that person must be 'helped' into transformation and rebirth. The Mippite ambassador didn't trust in rebirth after death, so Walker 'helped' him into rebirth with the aid of a Thunderer pistol."

"Damnation to all mankind." The situation seemed to demand no less a powerful oath than this. "How did a man of that kind grow to be a leader among Compassion's prisoners?"

"In truth?" Pickens's voice went soft. "I have mind Valdis is afraid of him. There's a tale going round that, early on, Valdis ordered one of his claimed men to challenge Walker. The man had orders to kill Walker during the challenge. Before the man yet had the chance to issue his challenge, he died of cramps in the belly. No folk has tried to challenge Walker since then."

"Cramps in the belly." He was beginning to feel very dull-headed, repeating every sentence that Pickens spoke, but he was having a hard time grasping the enormity of the situation.

Pickens' gaze wandered into space. "Pathologists," he said, "must have a good knowing of poisons."

After a minute more, Tyrrell said, "Pickens, this is terrible. The tribe can't have a man of that kind leading them."

Pickens came out of his reverie and shrugged. "It's not as bad a picture as I've sketched it. Valdis was clever when he placed Walker in charge of the dying and the dead. Walker is as happy as a puppy in a mud puddle these days. He gets the chance to lecture the dying about how they'll be reborn after death – and for some of the dying prisoners here, 'tis a comfort to them to catch tale of such words. Walker, he has grown to be like a chaplain to us."

"So he doesn't murder any more," said Tyrrell with relief.

Pickens licked his lips with a quick flick of the tongue. "Well, every now and then, some lad who has been yielding the true men problems dies during the night. Doesn't fall very often, and 'tis only ever an unclaimed lad—"

Pickens halted. He could not have spoken further, for over the silence in the prison had risen a long, ragged, wordless scream.

It ended abruptly, mangled into silence by some greater force. Tyrrell, who had whirled round in the direction of the scream, tore his gaze away from the sight of the prison's back wall, long enough to look round him. The few men and lads who had not crowded up to the true men's platform had gone still; all of them were looking toward the back of the prison. Even Ahiga had fallen silent; his fingers bit into the flesh of the monkey-faced lad's arm. The monkey-faced lad was breathing quickly and shallowly, as though the fingers had cut him like a knife, but his face was turned away from Ahiga, toward the sound of the scream.

The silence lengthened. One minute passed, and then two; Tyrrell counted the seconds under his breath. The only sound now came from the front of the prison, where an occasional laugh from a guard could be heard.

When three minutes had passed, Tyrrell whispered to Pickens, "It must be over by now."

Pickens shook his head without looking Tyrrell's way.

Twelve full minutes passed before a collective sigh came from the onlookers at the back of the prison, like the sound of a long-awaited wave hitting a cliff. Using his undervest sleeve to wipe the sweat off his face, Tyrrell tried to think of something to say. Pickens seemed no more inclined to talk than Tyrrell did; he was toeing the ground with his dusty boot, avoiding Tyrrell's eye.

Men began to drift back into the little men's area. Some of them were smiling and laughing. Tyrrell was not surprised. He had seen the same thing happen during public whippings at Mercy. In any prison filled with violent men, some prisoners would enjoy watching another prisoner suffer. Yet more men would try to cover their discomfort with dark jokes. Tyrrell had told more than a few of those jokes in his own time.

He could not do so now. His mind was still filled with what he had not seen: Edwards, struggling to breathe, his throat contracting under Walker's hands; then a little easing of the hangman's noose, a little air let in, a sliver of life to extend the suffering before the noose tightened once more. . . .

There was a rustle of movement, and then the crowd parted, making way for Walker, who held the dead lad in his arms.

Walker's face was as bleak as though his own son had died. Behind him, their left wrists encircled with the black cloth of their service, came Walker's men and lads, chanting softly – so softly that their death prayers were nearly swallowed by the chatter of the prisoners nearby.

Frowning, Pickens caught hold of an unclaimed lad who was passing by. Tyrrell did not hear the question he asked, but the lad replied tersely, "He wouldn't give permission. Selfish bastard."

"Perhaps his faith forbade it," Pickens suggested.

"He was an atheist." The lad jerked his arm away from Pickens and walked toward the unclaimed lads' area.

Tyrrell asked, "Is he blaming Edwards for something?"

Pickens shrugged. "He's hot in heart at the true men, I'd be figuring, but he can't give tale to that anger, so he's throwing it out on Edwards."

"But what in the names of the gods above and below is he hot in heart at? How was Edwards selfish?"

Pickens merely shook his head. His eye was on Walker and his band of men and lads, who had reached the gate. The unclaimed lads' territory was still relatively empty; Tyrrell could just see the figures of the guards rising to their feet.

Pugh called, "Bring out the used barrels and crates too. We're not going to open this gate twice this afternoon. —Niesely, tell FitzGerald we've a body for her crematorium. Cause of death?" he asked Walker in a perfunctory manner.

"He stopped breathing." The respondent was Valdis, who had made his way up to the gate; his voice was colorless. Nearby, Farnam was issuing orders to the men who had served as runners earlier in the day. Ahiga, who had released the monkey-faced lad from his scrutiny, gave a high-pitched whistle, and within seconds, he was surrounded by watch-hounds.

In due time, the corpse was placed outside the gate. As Niesely disappeared from view with the corpse in his arms, Pugh came forward to inspect the barrels and crates. "You're one barrel short," he announced after a bit.

"We need it to piss our tinklings." Valdis was leaning sideways against the metal bars of the gate, his arms folded, as though he were a street-lad idling on a corner.

"So? Once the barrel is filled with urine, you're supposed to deliver it to us for disposal. The numbers don't add up, Valdis."

Valdis shrugged and looked at Ahiga, as though handing the argument over to him. Farnam and Walker had both retreated to the back of the prison, talking in low voices as they went.

Ahiga said, "If you feed us more food, then it may happen we'll give you more urine."

The prisoners around him chortled. Pugh merely said in a bored voice, "Spare the poor-suffering-me speeches for your victims, Ahiga. Send out the barrel."

"Or you'll do what? Come in here and get it? I think you have not the manhood for that, Pugh." The contempt in Ahiga's voice was plain.

Pugh looked up from where he was inspecting the empty tins in one of the barrels. There was no anger in his eyes, merely the sort of bored irritation that a man might have if he found himself pestered by a fly. "Is that your lad beside you, Ahiga? He's a nice-looking lad – wouldn't you say so, men?"

Ahiga stiffened. The guards all murmured agreement with Pugh's words. Starke, sitting at the gunners' post with a cigarette drooping from one corner of his mouth, said, "Very nice." As he spoke, he turned the machine rifle so that it was pointed straight at Shuji.

From where he stood, several yards behind them both, Tyrrell could not see Shuji's expression, but he saw how Ahiga's arm immediately went round the lad, as though the lad needed support. A small smile played across Pugh's face, and then disappeared, as though it had never been there.

His voice raw, Ahiga said, "Some day you will die when playing such games, Pugh. I swear it by my ancestors' spirits."

Pugh turned his attention back to the barrels. "Spare me your empty Ammippian boasts, cannibal. Just give me the barrel."

For a moment more, Ahiga stood motionless. Pickens, who was still standing beside Tyrrell, muttered something under his breath that sounded like a vow of death to Hell. Then Ahiga turned his head and barked an order. A couple of the runners immediately raced toward the privy.

"What is all that about?" Tyrrell muttered to Pickens. "Do we crave extra barrels for their wood? Or for their metal hoops?"

"That too," said Pickens in an equally low voice. "But in the main we crave barrels to store tinklings. We stay part of the tinklings back and use it to tan leather."

"Couldn't Ahiga just give tale to that? There's no danger to prisoners tanning leather, is there?"

Pickens gave him a long look.

Tyrrell grimaced. "I'm being naive, aye?"

"Not naive; you just don't have knowing enough yet. You're but yet new here." Pickens gently turned Tyrrell so that he was facing the back of the prison. "See now, I must check whether Hosobuchi has any tasks for me this afternoon. If not, I'll show you the rest of Farnam's workplaces, in case you crave to work for him."

"What sort of work do you do most times?" Tyrrell asked as they walked back.

"Night patrol, half the month. I have day duties the other two weeks of the month – this week, as it chances. Otherwise, I'd be asleep at this time of the day."

Tyrrell looked dubiously round at the crowded prison. "I'm surprised the other prisoners don't trample on you."

Pickens smiled. "They'd end up trampling on Hosobuchi as well, and then they'd be challenged by Ahiga. Nobody craves to be challenged by Ahiga."

"Pickens," Tyrrell said slowly, "about that knife Ahiga carries . . ."

But his words were cut off as the prison gate screamed its alarm. Pickens twisted around. As Tyrrell turned his head, he saw that the gate was opening for the fourth time that day.

"What is it?" he shouted in Pickens's ear.

"New prisoner," Pickens shouted back. "Must be – they'd never open the gate otherwise. Crave to come and see the trial?"

"Er . . ." Tyrrell did not speak for a moment. His eye was on a figure that he could just glimpse on the balcony overlooking the prison gate. The figure had a midnight blue cap with a metal brim that shimmered under the electric lights. Upon the brim was etched the emblem of the magisterial seats. But even as Tyrrell caught sight of this, the figure turned and walked away, in the direction of the east end of the prison.

"Nay," said Tyrrell, watching Tom Keeper's departure. "Nay, I don't have mind I'll watch."

o—o—o

Evening lay across Compassion Prison like a blanket. The sun had shifted out of view long ago; now the prison was lit only by the darkening sky – as deep a blue as the guards' uniforms – and by the harsh electric light that poured in through the gate.

Standing at the gate, Tyrrell cast a quick look at the three lads near him. None of them were taking any notice of his presence. They seemed as absorbed in conversation as they had been earlier in the day, and from the lightness of their manner, one would think that nothing had occurred to disrupt the day. The only sign of discomfort was the goose-pimples on Jahnsen's naked skin as the evening cool seeped into the prison.

Jahnsen's thoughts, though, seemed to be on a different matter entirely.

"You shouldn't have put a dirty cloth on your leg, Olumbo," he said. "It will only make it worse."

The dark-haired lad glanced down at the rag. "It doesn't matter. The bullet only grazed me."

"Let me see." The monkey-faced lad, Babaqi, fell down on his knees and began carefully unwrapping the rag.

As he did so, Olumbo asked him, "What did Ahiga want to question you about, Babaqi? That's the fourth time he's pulled you aside since you arrived."

Babaqi shrugged. "Nothing, really. He keeps forgetting that he's already interrogated me."

Jahnsen frowned. "Ahiga isn't the sort to forget people."

"Why should he remember me? I'm not important to him."

The fierceness of Babaqi's reply caused the other two lads to exchange looks. Scrutinizing Olumbo's wound, Babaqi added, "Your leg looks all right."

"As I said." Olumbo waved his hand in a careless manner, turning the conversation back to the place where it had been before. "Anyway, where could I get a clean bandage from?"

"From Ngugi," Jahnsen replied. "He'll give one to an unclaimed lad, if you ask nicely. A new medicine kit was brought in with today's rations – I saw it."

Olumbo shrugged, turning his attention to the guards as he tapped his fingers on the bars. "Maybe in three days, when our ousting is done."

There was a small silence. Babaqi started to say something, and then ducked his head, tying the bandage back on.

Jahnsen said, "It could be a matter of life or death—"

"So's our vow. Let's not argue. You know you'd do the same if it was me who'd been ousted." Olumbo gripped the bars of the gate, frowning as he stared out at the guards. "Gods, I hope I'm not picked again. I've drawn a black straw three times this week; the odds are against me."

"Maybe one of us will get Starke," suggested Babaqi, rising to his feet. "I've heard that he gives his lads supper beforehand. And he gives you silver pot-herb to chew so that it doesn't hurt as much when he enters, and he never hits you or yells at you, and he lets you sleep in the bed afterwards—"

"I had Starke once." Jahnsen leaned his forehead against his forearm, which was resting on one of the crossbars of the gate; his face was hidden from view. "The first man I ever had, two days after my arrival here. When I told him I was a virgin and begged him not to rape me, he gave me a long speech about how beautiful lovemaking is, and how I shouldn't be ashamed of my desires. . . . I'd much rather have Landry. I prefer brutality that doesn't disguise itself as something else."

"Well, you won't have Starke again." Olumbo slammed his hands against the bars as he turned away from the gate. "He never picks the same lad twice."

"I'd still rather have him," Babaqi argued. "At least he tells you what he wants you to do. Some of the guards try to make you guess, I've heard. That's much too confusing."

Olumbo flashed him a smile. "You won't have any of the guards, the way you're going. Two months here, and you haven't drawn the black straw once."

Babaqi ducked his head again, biting his lip. Without moving his gaze, Jahnsen said, "Don't prick him, Olumbo. He hasn't been claimed by a guard yet, but he's eating the same food we are, wearing the same clothes we are. His chances of surviving in this prison are no better than ours."

"I ate better than you did today," Babaqi said in a small voice. "I shouldn't have eaten from that extra tin. Ahiga gave it to Olumbo, not me."

"And Olumbo gave it to you. It's only a three-day ousting, Babaqi. Olumbo and I won't starve." Jahnsen finally pushed himself back from the gate. "Hark, here comes Hell's messenger."

Tyrrell turned to look. Walker, trailed by a number of his men and lads, was making his way slowly through the unclaimed lads' territory, pausing in front of each lad and offering him something. Afterwards, he would either pass immediately on to a new lad, or else he would push the lad, not gently, in the direction of the gate. The lads would go in the direction they were pushed, either grumbling or silent.

Looking around, Tyrrell saw that an exodus had taken place by the area of the gate; the only lads there now, other than the three next to him, were the ones that were being pushed there by Walker.

Neither Jahnsen nor Olumbo moved from their spot. Babaqi looked as though he wanted to, but at that moment Walker sighted him and came forward. He silently offered Babaqi his fist.

Babaqi carefully drew one of the straws from the proffered fist. The hidden part of the straw was the same color as the rest. Babaqi breathed out a long sigh.

"Your luck holds," commented Olumbo and reached out to take his own straw. It emerged from the fist; its hidden part was dusty black.

"Fuck!" shouted Olumbo, stomping his right foot. "Drill! Hell-damn!"

Frowning, Walker gave him an unnecessary shove that forced him up against the bars. Then the true man turned to Jahnsen.

Jahnsen looked at Walker's fist without moving. "I'm ousted," he said. "I'm not a member of the Tribe of Compassion Prison at the moment, according to Ahiga. Why should I follow tribal customs while I'm ousted?"

Walker said nothing; his fist did not waver. His men and lads stood silently behind him, wristlets as black as dried blood.

After a while, Jahnsen gave a quirk of a smile. "Oh, well. Better that I draw the black straw than that a new lad should. At least I already know what all the guards like." He pulled a straw. It emerged black. Jahnsen turned back toward the gate without speaking.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck." Olumbo did not appear to be the sort to take misfortune well; he was slapping his hands over and over against the crossbar. "I've already been claimed twice this month. I'm hell-damned if I'm going to let myself be claimed again."

"It's your good looks," suggested Babaqi with an uneasy laugh. "It makes you irresistible."

"Well, then, you'll never—"

Olumbo broke off abruptly. Jahnsen said "Comrade" softly to him, but it was too late. Babaqi's skin – of an indeterminate light brown shade that suggested he was of mixed blood – had flooded red. The monkey-faced lad turned his face away; his chin was quivering.

"That was really, really, really stupid of me," said Olumbo slowly. "Babaqi, I'm sorry."

"It's all right." Babaqi's voice shook. "I know I'll never be claimed. I mean, who would want me anyway? I don't have any gifts, not like Davidson."

Jahnsen placed his arm across the shoulders of his fellow lad. "You have a warm heart," he said quietly. "You'll find a man who values that."

Babaqi wiped his nose with the back of his hand. "The odds are against me, anyway. How many of us are there? One thousand? Two? And there are so few men to claim us. You've been here for years, and you're still unclaimed—"

"By my own choice. I've had offers." Jahnsen released Babaqi and gave him a gentle push. "You'd better get out of view. It's almost time for the claiming, and you know that the guards don't care whether you have a black straw or not. They'd even claim a man, if he was standing in front of the gate at claiming time." For the briefest of seconds, his glance flicked toward Tyrrell; then Jahnsen turned back toward the gate.

Taking the hint, Tyrrell turned away. He did not follow Babaqi, though, who was making his way toward the back of the unclaimed lads' area, beyond where Ahiga's watch-hounds were beginning to gather a few yards away. Instead, Tyrrell stepped into the small area just to the right of the gate, where a final bit of the south wall met the west wall. The south wall protected him from the guards' sight, but he could still see the lads gathering at the gate, some continuing to clutch their black straws.

The cluster of hounds was beginning to settle into a line now – a line that curved in a semi-circle around the area nearest the gate, with each end of the line meeting a wall. The hounds had spears in hand, but they appeared relaxed, as though they were not expecting any trouble. Several of them were chatting with the unclaimed lads who had drawn unmarked straws and who were now watching the proceedings from a safe distance, behind the hounds.

A head poked through the crowd there: Pickens, who had left Tyrrell earlier in order to make one of his periodic checks as to whether Hosobuchi required his service. He glanced briefly toward the gate but evidently did not see Tyrrell in the shadowed corner next to the gate, for he turned away.

Tyrrell was beginning to feel as though he had entered a magazine chamber in the moment before someone dropped a match on the gunpowder. He took a step away from the corner and then froze as Olumbo said, "Here they go. Pray to the gods that they don't want us."

The lads standing at the gate, who had been exchanging words, fell silent. There were about two dozen of them – just enough to make a tight line across the length of the wide gate. Tyrrell moved closer into his corner, until all the lads merged in his sight, and then he peered cautiously around the corner toward the guards.

The guards were in the midst of standing up, stretching themselves. Tossing a cigarette onto the floor and grinding it under his heel, Starke said, "I'm off."

"After the claiming," Pugh replied tersely.

"Keeper's expecting me."

"Not this evening; he's leaving for town in a while. He gave me the key." Pugh took something out of his vest pocket; it glittered in the light before Pugh placed it back in his vest.

Starke pulled a silver case out from the inside of his jacket, opened it, pulled out a wrapped object no bigger than a knuckle, and tapped the object on the case before saying, "So let me through the riot doors now. It's not my turn for a claiming."

"I need you at the guns. —Don't waste my time arguing, Starke," Pugh added as the other guard opened his mouth. "You're off-duty early only on the days when Keeper says you are."

Starke shrugged and returned the object to its silver case. He slipped the case back into his jacket.

"Keeper's lad," said Niesely with something approaching a whine. "How do you enjoy serving your man?"

Starke glanced at Niesely, then away. "Pugh, how in Hell's name do some of these guards get hired? They wouldn't have lasted five seconds doing prison duty here in the years before the riot."

"Conceited and spoiled," agreed Landry. He had already made his way up to the gunners' post and was leaning over the parapet. "They spend all day chatting about polo championships, and they think they've done a day's work."

Niesely's face had turned white. "Look at me when you insult me, Starke," he said in a rough voice.

"Why bother?" Starke replied, walking toward the stairway to the right of the guards' post. "Pugh, keep him out of my path, will you? I have enough problems without having ninnies nagging at me."

"You—!" Niesely took a step toward Starke, but was hauled up short by Pugh, who grabbed his collar.

"No fighting," Pugh said.

"You heard what he called me!" Twisting free, Niesely turned toward Pugh, his hands clenched by his sides.

"I heard. And he's right; you're being a ninny. 'Keeper's lad' indeed." Pugh's voice lost its usual tone of indifference. "I wish that just once you'd think twice before speaking – or at least learn to count."

"Learn to count?" Niesely was appearing uneasy now.

"Count years," inserted one of the other guards. "Tom Keeper was twelve when he first came to Compassion. Starke is five years older than him. Who do you think it was that taught Keeper to shoot, when he was a boy? Or to use a whip and a dagger? —Starke's right, Pugh. These newer guards have mush for minds."

There was a grumbling among most of the guards – the newer guards, at a guess. Pugh shrugged. "I don't have charge over hirings. I make do with what I'm given." He looked over at Niesely.

After a moment, Niesely opted to give a rueful smile. "All right, I can't count. But what's with all those visits to Keeper's office? Tell me that."

"Starke?" Pugh raised his head to look at the other guard, who had just reached his post. "Niesely wants to trade with you. He wants to spend time with Keeper."

"He's welcome to take my place," said Starke, who was busy loading bullets into a spare magazine. "Fifty lines. Make sure you have them memorized by tomorrow evening."

"Fifty lines?" Niesely squinted up at Starke, suspicion written across his face.

"From the Eternal Dungeon's ethical code." Starke paused to pick up and wave a black volume. "He's having me memorize the whole bloody book – eighty pages in all. So, do you want to be Keeper's favored lad, Niesely? That's how he treats guards with 'potential,' as he puts it." Starke swung into his seat. "I'm sick of this. Let's get the claiming over with."

"I agree." Pugh spoke briskly. "Medinger?" He looked up at the balcony, where Medinger had just walked into view.

"Pass," replied the guard, leaning onto the balcony railing.

There was light laughter from the other guards. One of them said, "And you'll keep passing till the magisterial seats send us female prisoners."

"I know that you're not interested in claiming a lad," Pugh said in an annoyed voice. "You're not eligible, anyway. I'm asking about Keeper. It's his turn."

Medinger shook his head. "Our Keeper is passing as well. He's already left for town – didn't you hear the riot doors ring the alarm half an hour ago? He left when I came in from the auxiliary wing."

"What in Hell's name is wrong with Tom Keeper?" asked one of the guards, to nobody in particular. "Is he planning to act like a lovelorn man for the rest of his life?"

"He'll recover," said Pugh. "Whose turn is it next?"

"Yours, as you very well know," said Landry. "I don't think you've forgotten that you're second in rank here."

"Maybe we should wait until the rest of the night watch arrives," suggested another guard.

"They're not eligible to claim," said someone else. "They're on duty during claiming hours."

"Yes, but they always seem to arrive for duty at the same moment that the lad is brought out for his claiming. If we waited till they entered the outbuildings, then we wouldn't have the riot doors screeching just when the taking starts. The first few minutes are always the best."

"If you think I'm going to take a lad in front of you lot, you're mad," rejoined Pugh. "I don't put on performances. Medinger, is the claiming room clean? It was a pigsty the last time I used it."

"Bed-sheets were changed today," said Medinger, his voice clipped short. "New toiletries as well. And Keeper told me to remind everyone that this prison's regulations require the use of a sheath whenever there is penetration—"

The rest of what he said was lost in loud laughter that came from the other guards. His voice rising above the others, Landry said, "Fifteen drilling years he's been going on about that. It's like living with a schoolmarm."

"Oh?" said Medinger. "Well, you're welcome to drill naked if you like, Landry. What's the name of that lad whom Chambers gave the Damnation to, a few weeks before Chambers died?"

The laughter cut off abruptly. Starke, who had lit another cigarette, smiled as he said, "Medinger, you're wasted as Keeper's orderly. You should be in the army. They need soldiers who can shoot straight into the belly."

"The issue is moot." Pugh's voice had returned to his usual tone of boredom. "I always use a sheath. I wouldn't trust myself inside one of those filthy lads otherwise. Landry, are you and Starke ready?"

"Ready and willing," replied Landry, pulling himself back from the parapet in order to take hold of his machine rifle.

"Medinger, take charge of the switch."

Medinger remained motionless. "I'm on the night watch. I don't take orders from you, Pugh."

Pugh muttered something under his breath, and then said, "Niesely."

"On my way." Niesely mounted the right-hand stairway, taking two steps at a time. Pugh turned his head toward the gate.

Tyrrell ducked back in the brief second before Pugh's gaze swung in his direction. He looked over at the unclaimed lads. He could only see the one closest to him, an older lad with lines of experience on his face. The lad's expression was set, but his hands were white-knuckled on the bars.

"You." It was Pugh's voice, flat. "The one with the rag on your leg."

"No!"

Olumbo's shout of rage was overwhelmed by the scream of the gate alarm. The other lads scurried back, leaving an open space next to the gate that was filled now only with two prisoners: Olumbo, who was shaking his head over and over, and Jahnsen, who had his hands on Olumbo's arms as he spoke to the other lad.

Whatever he was saying, it was not reaching his mate. "No!" shouted Olumbo, so loudly that he could be heard over the alarm. "I won't do it again! Not with Pugh!" He pulled himself away from Jahnsen at the same moment that the alarm ended, taking a dozen rapid steps away from the gate.

"Wild lad!" The shout came from Ahiga, somewhere beyond Tyrrell's view. "All back! All ba—!"

The rest of his words were broken off by the sound of machine-rifle fire as bullets blazed thick into the prison.

Tyrrell, who had just been craning his neck round the corner to see how Pugh was taking the rejection, flung himself back against the west wall of the prison, his heart pounding against his chest like a bully. There were shouts and screams from the lads who had not moved quickly enough at the sound of Ahiga's warning. Jahnsen, who was closest to the gate, hurled himself rolling to the side, narrowly avoiding the spate of bullets. A second round of firing began, which Tyrrell suspected would have sliced Jahnsen open, but in the short space before the bullets thundered forth, Ahiga ran forward, pulled the lad off the ground, and flung him into the arms of Hosobuchi, who was waiting nearby. Hosobuchi dragged Jahnsen back to the line of watch-hounds just as Ahiga dived for safety.

The bullets churned up sawdust where Ahiga had been a moment before. There was another scream, and a lad who was in the mob that was struggling to reach safety suddenly tripped. Or so Tyrrell thought, but once down, the lad remained down, motionless.

The other lads had reached safety now – all but Olumbo. While the watch-hounds had allowed the other unclaimed lads to surge past them, they were holding Olumbo back at spear-point. Ahiga shouted something, and the hounds stepped back in unison for a yard or two, taking Olumbo past the point where old bullet-holes riddled the floor. Beyond that point, though, Olumbo was not permitted to go.

"Enough, lad." The voice was Valdis's, and it was cold. "You've caused enough fuss. Let Pugh have you."

"No!" There were sobs in Olumbo's voice now. Over at the east end of the gate, Jahnsen was struggling in Hosobuchi's arms, evidently trying to reach his mate, but the greater man held him fast.

"They're coming," someone said. "Mercy save him."

"Tyrrell!" said Ahiga sharply. "Come over here, man. You are not in the right place to be."

"I'd figured that out on my own," muttered Tyrrell, but he did not move. Poking his head around the corner again to check whether the gunfire was over, he had seen a sight he liked not at all: Starke and Landry coming down the stairs with rifles in hand – not the machine rifles, for these rifles had fixed bayonets. There was no way that Tyrrell was going to run across that empty stretch of ground now and chance being seen by the trigger-loving gunners.

Olumbo looked over his shoulder. Seeing what was coming, he made another, futile effort to race past the hounds. They continued to block his path with their spears.

"Olumbo, you are placing in danger the tribe." The calmness in Ahiga's voice contrasted starkly with the restlessness of the prisoners. A number of them evidently shared Ahiga's assessment of the situation, for most of the onlookers had moved further back, leaving only the watch-hounds, the true men, Jahnsen, and a handful of men and lads who were apparently too interested in the outcome of this contest to fear the firepower of the oncoming guns.

"Fight them!" screamed Olumbo at the top of his lungs at the hounds. "Don't fight me, fight the guards!"

"They have guns, we do not." Ahiga's voice turned as cold as Valdis's had been. "One lad has already been shot because of your cowardice. Would you have other tribe members suffer too?"

With a loud sob, Olumbo flung himself away from the hounds. He started toward the gate, and then, like Ahiga, he dived, just missing the bullets that buried themselves in the prison floor.

"By all that is sacred, Starke." Pugh sounded mildly annoyed. "Watch your aim. I don't want to spend the night with a lad who's been plugged full of holes."

"Warning shots aren't as easy to aim as you might think, Pugh." Starke's reply was matter-of-fact.

"So I gather. Who's responsible for that lad who's bleeding over there?"

"Me." Landry sounded miffed. "You can put the demerits on my report afterwards. We've got a wide-open gate here. Pull in your lad so that we can get the gate closed."

His words were spoken low enough that Tyrrell suspected that the only witness to them was himself . . . and Olumbo, whose shoulder was now pressed hard against Tyrrell's, sharing his corner. Tyrrell dared not look his way; his eye was on the open gate. From the sound of the voices, the guards were coming closer.

"The lad is just inside the gate, Pugh." It was Starke; his voice had gone quieter. "He's going to try to slip out the minute we enter."

"Medinger!" Pugh called.

"I'm not on your watch." Medinger's tone of disgust was clear, even though his voice came faint from the balcony.

"You are now; I have control over the prison when Keeper is away. Take Starke's post. Shoot any prisoner who tries to escape."

Silence followed. Tyrrell risked a look at Olumbo; the lad's eyes were closed, and his face was tilted toward heaven. He was whispering prayers under his breath.

"All right, I'm ready." Medinger's voice held the scorn of a man required to undertake a distasteful duty.

"Is the change lever off the safe position?" asked Pugh.

"Pugh, I'm certified as a gunner. You aren't. Don't try to teach me my job." The disgust in Medinger's voice deepened.

"Olumbo!" From across the prison, Jahnsen's voice came soft. "They're still several yards away. Just put your hands behind your head and step forward. They won't hurt you if you surrender."

Olumbo shook his head. Tears were streaming down his sweat-covered face now, like water over the dark earth of a stream-bed, and every breath he took shuddered. Looking at him, Tyrrell said in a low tone, "Er . . . Is there anything I can do to help?"

At that moment, the electric lights, following whatever timer had turned them on at dawn, suddenly went out, leaving the prison lit only by dusk-light and by the faint lights from under the guards' post. Olumbo's pupils, widening enormously within his eyes, seemed to take Tyrrell in for the first time. After a moment, he said in a shaking voice, "Stay out of the way, sir. This is between me and Pugh."

"And two bloody great guns," Tyrrell pointed out, but Olumbo was no longer listening. He was breathing heavily now, like a stag brought to bay by hounds, and his eyes were darting back and forth.

Suddenly he seemed to make up his mind. Ignoring the open gate, he turned and ran straight back, following the line of the wall, in the direction of the not-quite-closed semi-circle of watch-hounds.

"Turn him!" shouted Ahiga. The nearest hounds, who had seemed too startled to move a moment before, immediately flung themselves sideways to block the lad's path. Nearly impaling himself on one of the spears, Olumbo turned his path toward the right, ran a few yards, and tried again, but once more the spears barred his way.

The rest of Tyrrell's vision of the hunt was blocked, for at that moment, a bayoneted rifle, turning round the corner, found its resting place on his breastbone.

He ceased to breathe. Making his way round the corner in the wake of his gun, Starke gave Tyrrell a pleasant smile. "Well, well," he said softly. "So your reputation is correct. You do seem to have a talent for getting involved in trouble-making."

"Starke!" Pugh's voice was sharp as he stepped through the gate, followed closely by Landry. "Leave that prisoner alone. The lad's over on this side."

"And Tyrrell Cutter will be behind your back the moment you walk toward the lad," Starke said. "Permission to put my bayonet through his guts, so he won't bother you?"

Tyrrell's body turned so chilled that it was as though he had just been buried in a stone-cold tomb. Glancing over his shoulder, Pugh said, "Starke, you pick the strangest moments to engage in light-hearted play. We're inside Compassion Prison. Remember what that means. And remember that I've given you an order."

"Yes, sir." Starke withdrew his bayonet . . . slowly, drawing it up the line of Tyrrell's chest. Tyrrell heard the cloth of his undervest tear under the blade; the blade burnt his skin as though it were a torch. "You needn't worry, Pugh. This prisoner won't bother us. Will you?" he said softly, his bayonet now touching Tyrrell's throat.

Tyrrell could not breathe, much less speak. Starke gave a nod, apparently of satisfaction, and withdrew his rifle, turning to join Pugh. Tyrrell began to take a step forward – not to attack Starke, but to get the hell out of this situation. Just in time, he remembered Medinger at the machine rifle, ready to press his finger to the trigger the moment he saw any prisoner next to the gate. Tyrrell carefully flattened himself back into the corner and waited.

Olumbo had by now run halfway round the semi-circle, seeking fruitlessly an opening in the spear-pointed barrier. Jahnsen, who was standing near the south wall, continued to struggle to free himself from Hosobuchi's grip. Farnam stood in the northern portion of the semi-circle, in urgent consultation with Ngugi, who tried to take a step toward the lad lying motionless on the empty ground. He halted abruptly when Starke, catching up with the other two guards, turned his rifle toward the claimed man in a warning manner. His face grim, Farnam pulled Ngugi back to safety.

The gunners had fallen back somewhat from Pugh, their rifles moving slowly to point around the semi-circle, though none of the prisoners watching appeared inclined to interfere. Pugh had now stepped within a couple of yards of Olumbo, who had his back to the guards; Pugh's hand fell to his belt. Tyrrell wondered fleetingly whether the day-watch supervisor was planning to use his dagger against Olumbo, but it was Pugh's left hand that had moved, and it was Pugh's left hand that flung a lash in a crack that echoed through the prison.

Olumbo screamed as the whip met his bare flesh. The watch-hound in front of him took a hasty step back as the unclaimed lad toppled to the ground.

Olumbo struggled to rise onto his hands and knees. The lash, blurring through air, landed on his back again; this time Olumbo managed to swallow his scream into a grunt. His body, turned by the force of the lash, toppled over, leaving him on his back, his front vulnerable. Pugh raised his whip.

"No," whispered Tyrrell, his heart pounding hard. "Mercy above, no." Without thinking, he took a step toward the guards. Starke, who seemed to have the eyes of a raptor, swung round immediately to aim his rifle at Tyrrell.

At that moment, a scream, beyond which Tyrrell had heard for fifteen years, split the air. The last time he had heard that scream was on the only occasion on which a Mercy guard had landed his lash on the front torso of a prisoner.

The scream ended in sobs – dull sobs, as though Olumbo were barely conscious. In his horribly indifferent tone, Pugh said, "Stand up."

For a moment, the lad remained motionless on the ground, and Pugh's hand tightened on his whip. Then the hound nearest Olumbo, who had been watching Ahiga all this while, handed his spear to the hound next to him and knelt down to help Olumbo to his feet. Even from where Tyrrell stood, he could see the blood dripping from the whip-line, which travelled full across Olumbo's chest, slicing the right nipple.

Olumbo stumbled as the hound released him, almost falling to his knees. The cloth around his leg had slipped off, and the wound-line of Keeper's ricocheted bullet could be seen clearly. Pugh asked, "Are you going to give me any more trouble?"

Olumbo did not immediately reply. Sobs were still travelling out of his throat, yet his hands tightened into fists, as though he were planning to throw himself against Pugh in a final battle. Pugh, who had been about to coil up the whip, simply let the length of the lash fall to the ground. He began to pull back his arm.

"I surrender, sir." Olumbo's voice, barely audible, trembled upon the words.

Pugh said nothing; he merely beckoned the gunners forward. His eyes narrowed, Starke was still turning his rifle this way and that, as though he expected an attack at any moment. Landry, though, came forward and grasped Olumbo's arm, so tightly that the lad gasped. Landry pulled the lad forward, following in Pugh's wake as Olumbo stumbled his way across the floor.

Tyrrell had flattened himself against the west wall again, but neither the guards nor their victim took any notice of him. The moment they were through the gate, the gate began to rumble closed; Medinger had evidently had his hand on the switch.

Even before the gate had fully closed, Ngugi began to run fearlessly forward. Farnam was at his heels; the two of them dropped to their knees beside the lad lying face-down on the ground. After a short inspection, Ngugi shook his head and sat back on his heels.

Farnam slowly rose to his feet. Pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, he sighed and said to the onlookers, "Does anyone know what his preference was?"

"Conrad was uninitiated." Now released by Hosobuchi, Jahnsen remained motionless. "He only arrived here five days ago."

Farnam sighed again. "Very well; we'll give his body over to the guards in the morning. Walker, you can care for the lad in the meantime. . . ."

Tyrrell glanced round the corner, peering through the bars. Pugh and his lad-for-the-night were nowhere in sight; Landry was shouting something after them about how Pugh should be sure to let the day watch out of the outbuildings before taking his pleasure. A small bell chimed in the distance, like a grandfather clock. A guard said, "Here's the night watch come, right at claiming time. I swear, they time their arrival each evening to interrupt our fun."

"There's nothing to look at anyway," Landry responded grumpily.

Starke said nothing; he had taken both his rifle and Landry's, and now he moved eastward toward the riot doors, though the other guards remained at their post, evidently awaiting the night guards' arrival.

"Lock-down, Medinger!" Pugh shouted distantly.

There was no response from Medinger, but a familiar groaning clank began. After a minute, the great shield-wall that Tyrrell had seen that morning lowered itself down until it landed in front of the gate with a thud that vibrated under Tyrrell's feet.

Faintly, Tyrrell heard the sound of the riot doors' alarm, but it was a whisper in the distance, travelling down from the top of the prison, and the guards' voices had disappeared altogether. With the shield lowered, the light from the guards' post was lost; the prison turned dusk-dark, grey as a corpse's binding cloth.

Tyrrell turned back and saw that most of the watch-hounds had moved away. Unclaimed lads were beginning to drift back into the space they had occupied before, some of them silently watching, at a suitable distance, as one of Walker's men placed the dead lad in the true man's arms. The watch-hound who had first blocked Olumbo's flight to safety, and then had helped Olumbo to his feet when he fell, was watching the proceedings; he glanced up as Tyrrell came over to stand beside him.

All that Tyrrell could think to say was, "Why?"

"Why didn't we have battle at the guards?" As he spoke, Pickens returned his gaze to Walker, who was now carrying the lad's corpse toward the back of the prison in the stately rhythm of a funeral march.

"Nay, I know the answer to that. I've seen one member of your old tribe hold back my entire tribe – and he had only a revolver, not a machine rifle. But why didn't you help the lad escape to the back of the prison? The guards were nervous about just entering this far into the prison; if you'd hidden the lad further back . . ."

"Do you crave in truth to be knowing the answer to that?" The claimed lad turned away finally from Walker's procession, which had been swallowed out of sight by the crowd.

"Aye."

"Two dozen prisoners drawn from here. They were lined up outside and ordered to be shot in the heads at point-blank range, each killing with a minute's notice, so that we would have time to surrender the lad. . . . We surrendered the lad after the eighth prisoner died; the ninth victim would have been Valdis's Second Lad. After that, none of us were yielded any food for a week; another dozen prisoners, who had already been close on starvation, died during that time. Since then, Ahiga hasn't let any wild lad escape to the back of the prison."

Tyrrell was silent a long while before he said, "Mercy's guards, they never let any prisoner die, not if he can be stayed alive by any means. I'm figuring 'tis different here."

"Aye, 'tis different here." Pickens's voice sounded dull; he kneaded the back of his neck, as though it ached. "Mind, this was during Keeper's father's time; Tom Keeper himself seems to be liking to have his prisoners alive for as long as it may be. But yet, if we stayed a lad back, Keeper would punish us, for sure; he used to punish his own lad, whenever the lad refused to be claimed."

Tyrrell could not speak in the next moment; his stomach had suddenly roiled up as though a storm had set sea waves stirring within it. Finally he said, "Near this time?"

"Nay, this was a ways back. He hasn't claimed a lad since . . . Oh, with one exception, it was well before my time."

"The folly of youth, it may be?" Tyrrell knew that his voice sounded strained, even before Pickens turned to give him a puzzled look.

"You've been having battle in defense of Keeper since you arrived," the lad said. "You were knowing him well at Mercy, I have mind?"

"Nay, only by repute," Tyrrell was able to say truthfully. "He had a good repute in those days. Never raped a prisoner, rarely beat a prisoner . . ."

Pickens shrugged, evidently losing interest. "It doesn't matter whether you kill a man yourself, if you let others under your hire do it."

"Aye," said Tyrrell, slowly and heavily. "Aye."

He let Pickens guide him toward the step dividing the unclaimed lads' territory from the little men's territory. As he did so, though, he turned his head to look at a lad they were approaching.

Jahnsen showed no sign that anything had passed during the final minutes of the day; he was sitting on the floor cross-legged, fingering something in his lap in a nonchalant manner. As Tyrrell stepped past him, though, the lad looked up, and his gaze met Tyrrell's as though he expected the little man to speak.

Then Pickens's hand on Tyrrell's back took them past the unclaimed lad. Jahnsen looked down at his lap again, fingering the bloody cloth that Olumbo had worn.

Chapter Text

Hell's Messenger #3
INITIATION

The year 400, the third month. (The year 1895 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
 

"Do you know what the League [a system of self-government by
prisoners] has done? Let me tell you. It has started the [prisoners] discussing
the right and wrongs of things, every day, from one end of the yard to
the other."

—A prisoner at Sing Sing Prison, as quoted by Thomas Mott Osborne: Society and Prisons (1916).


CHAPTER ONE

On the night after his fellow prisoner Olumbo was forced to submit to one of the rapist-guards, Tyrrell had trouble sleeping. This was undoubtedly what saved him.

He lay awake for a long time, staring up at the beam that crossed the base of the dome over the prison, his thoughts wandering. It was not the hard, cold floor he slept on that kept him awake. Nor was he kept awake by the many sounds surrounding him in the single cell of Compassion Life Prison: snores, soft sobs, breathy laughs, and the occasional, muffled sound of a prisoner being drilled. All this he was familiar with from his twenty years in Mercy Life Prison.

What kept him awake instead was an attempt to make sense of what he had seen during his first day at Compassion.

He was no longer worried that his role at Compassion would be to play stool-pigeon. It seemed unlikely now that he would ever be able to give a report to Tom Keeper. Compassion's Keeper must have gambled on Tyrrell losing his bid to become a "man" in the tribe of Compassion's prisoners. If Tyrrell had been declared a "lad," a prisoner who served the "men" and guards of Compassion, Keeper could have pretended to claim him in order to exchange words with him. But as a man, Tyrrell would never leave the walls of the prison where no guard came except to claim a lad, and he could think of no way to converse with Keeper from where he was. Keeper dared not come within more than shouting distance of the prison, given the prisoners' anger against him.

And was the prisoners' anger justified? Tyrrell frowned, moving to his side in an attempt to find a more comfortable sleeping position. With only one blanket and no shirt, he had not had many options for bedding. He had finally taken off his trousers and leather boots, rolled his trousers round the boots, and used the soft portion of the resulting cushion as a head-pillow. Then he rolled himself up in the blanket. His precious water bladder he kept within the blanket.

Lack of water, lack of food, lack of medicine, lack of heat, lack of clothing, lack of sleeping cells . . . Decent order and sanitary conditions only because of the efforts of the "true men" who led their fellow prisoners. Most importantly, an appalling mortality rate directly caused by the conditions that the prisoners were placed under.

Did Keeper know all this? If he did, why bother to tell Tyrrell that he wanted to help the prisoners, when Tyrrell would learn the truth the moment he entered the prison?

No, the more he thought about it, the more he was sure that Keeper was ignorant of what was taking place here. Tyrrell thought again of the human skull fragment, flung at Keeper by one of the prisoners, and ignored by Keeper. Tyrrell felt the uneasiness grow within him.

He sighed as he curled up his blanketed legs against his body in an attempt to stay warm against the early spring chill. The gods knew that he had more than Keeper to worry about. There was the matter of the conspiracy among the unclaimed lads, the lads who had not been claimed by a "man," though they might be claimed by any guard who lusted after them. Tyrrell had lost all doubts he might have had about the existence of a conspiracy at the moment he had heard Jahnsen address his mate Olumbo as "comrade."

Comrade. Probably the word was harmless enough to use in public here. A companion, a mate, a friend . . . that was all the word meant to most people.

But Tyrrell's father had been a member of the Commoners' Guild, back in the days when the guild was still illegal in the Magisterial Republic of Mip. It was from his father that Tyrrell had received his first lessons in how to conduct an underground movement – lessons that he would eventually put to use at Mercy Prison. And so Tyrrell knew that, in the old days, "comrade" had been the word that members of the Commoners' Guild used to identify each other. "Fellow soldier," the word meant to guild members – soldiers in the fight against the elite.

Therefore, Jahnsen conceived of himself and of at least one other unclaimed lad – Olumbo – as being in a fight against the elite. Against the guards who raped the unclaimed lads? If so, why were the unclaimed lads hiding their battle from the men and their claimed lads?

Tyrrell moved restlessly onto his back, not bothering to extract his arms from the blankets. He stroked the water bladder with the fingers of his right hand as he tried to think. He remembered the conversation between Jahnsen and Ahiga, and he recalled Ahiga's careful questioning afterwards of Babaqi, friend to Jahnsen and Olumbo. Ahiga was the true man in charge of prison discipline – had he guessed at the existence of a conspiracy? It was hard to believe that an Ammippian, a member of a race that was trained at hunting from early childhood, should have missed something that was obvious enough to catch Tyrrell's eye. But if Ahiga knew of the conspiracy, what sort of subtle game was he playing with Jahnsen? For if he knew of the conspiracy and disapproved of it, he could easily arrest the leaders and oust them from the prisoners' tribe. Since the tribe divvied up all the food that the prisoners were given, the leaders of the unclaimed lads would die of starvation. Ahiga could even order the conspirators' immediate executions if he considered them dangerous enough. Instead, he seemed to be waiting. Waiting for what?

Tyrrell bit his lip, trying to ignore the sounds of some prisoner nearby beginning to gasp as he neared the zenith of his desire. Tyrrell knew that he was avoiding the real question: the question of what sort of game Tom Keeper was playing. For whether or not Keeper knew about conditions inside the prison he supervised, he certainly knew about conditions outside the prison. He knew of the brutal fashion in which his guards treated the prisoners. If rumor was correct, he had brutalized prisoners himself, in the past.

How could a man who had inspired the Boundaries of Behavior that Tyrrell had helped to promote at Mercy Prison, and who still appeared to revere them, countenance such acts? In the old days, perhaps, being young and knowing little of civilized customs in the outside world, he had allowed himself to be tempted into following the older guards' lead; once he had realized his mistake, perhaps he had been unable to persuade the other guards to abandon Compassion's time-honored customs. But now that he held the power of a Keeper, he could easily arrest the abusive guards and turn them over to the magistrates for punishment. Instead, he seemed to be waiting. Waiting for what?

At that moment, with only a whisper of a sound to provide warning, another prisoner pounced on Tyrrell.

o—o—o

Cursing, Tyrrell struggled to escape his bonds – the bonds not merely of his attacker, who was sprawled across Tyrrell's torso, but of the blanket Tyrrell had carelessly wrapped around himself. Fortunately, it seemed that the attacker could not do whatever he planned to do while Tyrrell was on his back. The attacker rose momentarily to try to push Tyrrell onto his stomach, and Tyrrell used that moment to push down the blankets and strike out with his fists.

His legs were still tangled in the blankets, but it made no difference; his fists lashed hard against the attacker's chest. The attacker, whimpering in pain, scurried away.

Tyrrell spent precious moments pulling himself out of the remaining cocoon of his blankets, and then stood up, looking around. He could see no movement in the little men's area where he himself slept, and the only movement in the greater men's area came from a couple of Ahiga's watch-hounds, patrolling with spears in hand. In the unclaimed lads' area, though, he caught sight of a flicker of movement, too far away to identify.

He sat down slowly. As he did so, he felt wetness touch his tailside. Reaching out, he discovered that the attacker, when he brought his weight down on Tyrrell, had evidently ripped open the water bladder in the process. All the water was spilled now.

Tyrrell cursed briefly, and then he picked up his blanket to inspect it. Much of it was wet now. Sighing, Tyrrell slipped his trousers back on, along with his boots, and sat waiting. Some instinct, honed by years of attacks by guards at Mercy Prison, told him that it would be better not to fall asleep yet.

The next attack came a quarter hour later. He had time enough to see that the second attacker also came from the unclaimed lads' territory; then he was rolling over the wet ground with his attacker, trying to get a grip on the lad.

This attacker had greater stamina and courage than the first, but he too retreated in due time. Panting, Tyrrell looked around. He could see no sign of any movement in the prison, except from Ahiga's watch-hounds. It was time, he decided, to let his pride rest and seek help.

It was not hard to attract the attention of the nearest watch-hound; the moment Tyrrell stepped over the border into the greater men's area, the spear-bearing hound came forward to intercept him. "Stay in your own area, please, sir," said the hound in a voice that made clear he was passing on an order rather than issuing a request.

"I'm having some problems with lads attacking me," Tyrrell admitted, massaging the back of his neck, which still had a bad crick in it from the latest attack.

The hound looked him up and down before saying, "Yes, I imagine that you are. Do you need a fellow lad to help you, then?"

Snickers broke out. Looking about, Tyrrell saw that the nearby men and claimed lads – whom he had assumed had slept through the attacks – were watching him, many of them grinning. Tyrrell felt his entire body grow hot.

"No," he replied tersely to the hound. "I can handle it myself."

The hound nodded, adding, in a voice that sounded not unsympathetic, "Good luck, sir."

"I could use more than luck," Tyrrell muttered under his breath as he turned away. "I could use that bloody big spear you're holding."

A dozen more attacks came before dawn. By then, his body was a mass of bruises, his throat was as dry as a wasteland, and he had stopped trying to suppress his sobs. The only image his mind retained of the final attack was of the attacker's stinking whammer entering his mouth as his attacker said – with a sob that might have come from Tyrrell himself – "Surrender! Surrender! Surrender!"

o—o—o

He slept until late morning. When he finally awoke, he felt as though he had fallen four stories, from the top of the dome.

Someone had taken his blanket away while he slept – presumably the claimed lads who kept watch over the prisons' blankets during the daytime. Tyrrell managed to drag himself up and stumble to the privy. He had to wait twenty minutes in the queue before he could enter the privy; he spent that time examining his body. Every inch of his legs and arms and torso seemed to be covered with blue and black bruises; he supposed he was lucky that he had received no internal injuries during the night. But if he had to undergo this every night . . .

Nava'i was on duty; when Tyrrell begged a bit of water from him to drink, he gave Tyrrell a long look and then handed him the pitcher of water used for washing hands. "Don't tell Farnam," he said.

Tyrrell took no more than a mouthful; the water was so foul that he spit it out, but it served to wash out the taste of his final attacker. Feeling somewhat better, he went in search of Pickens.

He found his new mate Pickens with Hosobuchi, and with Hosobuchi's younger lad, Shuji. The man and his two claimed lads were sitting at the west end of the greater men's territory, sharing a single water bladder between the three of them. Tyrrell tried not to look too hard at the bladder as he sat down beside them. Or rather, he semi-collapsed; his legs were beginning to feel wobbly under the strain of his pain.

"Had a good night's rest?" enquired Hosobuchi.

Tyrrell narrowed his eyes with suspicion. The greater man could not have possibly missed the signs of attack on his body. "I've had better. Thirteen lads – no, fourteen – tried to rape me last night."

"Did any of them succeed?" Hosobuchi turned his head as he took the bladder from Shuji.

Shuji seemed to be focussing his attention on the bladder; Pickens was staring at the dome. Tyrrell ran his eyes for a long time over all three of them before he said, "One. The last."

"And did you surrender to him?" Hosobuchi's mouth was hidden behind the bladder now, but his eyes were watchful as he awaited Tyrrell's answer.

"No." Tyrrell tried to make his answer firm; it only sounded grating. "I didn't surrender to him. I didn't surrender to any of them."

Hosobuchi's gaze flicked over to Pickens as he handed the bladder to the lad. Pickens, turning his attention away from the dome, gave a slight nod.

The significance of the exchange was not missed by Tyrrell. "You watched?" he said to Pickens, his voice filled with horror. "You watched and did nothing?"

"He watched on my orders," responded Hosobuchi before Pickens could speak. "There needed to be an official witness. And as for the fact that he did nothing . . . If you had needed someone to help defend you, then you would have been no man. Is that what you wanted?"

Tyrrell narrowed his eyes again as he looked at Hosobuchi. "I lost the last fight. Does that mean I lost my manhood?"

"You won the last fight," Hosobuchi corrected gently. "You refused to surrender. A man who surrenders is no man. A man who is overcome in body by the end of a hard night's fighting . . ." He shrugged. "That can happen to the best of us. Who was the lad who succeeded in raping you?"

Tyrrell frowned, allowing his mind to drift back to unpleasant memories. "The monkey-faced lad."

"Babaqi," Pickens inserted. "It wasn't much of a rape. He was still soft when he entered Tyrrell."

"Ah, Babaqi." Hosobuchi, who was sitting on his usual metal pail, stretched his legs out in a leisurely manner. "He has become increasingly desperate as he has realized how small his chances are of being claimed. I would claim him myself, if I could afford to."

"You and your stray puppies." Pickens smiled. "Sir, if you claimed every lad who needed you, you'd be dividing our rations into a thousand parts."

"Which would not be fair to my present lads. So I must content myself with feeding the two of you." Hosobuchi smiled, but his smile was directed at Shuji. Pickens's smile faded.

Tyrrell turned his head back and forth, following the conversation. "I must be missing something here. What does me being raped have to do with a lad being claimed?"

"It is simple," said Hosobuchi, and once again Tyrrell could sense the schoolmaster in him. "A prisoner, once he has been declared a lad, has a limited number of ways to rise in rank. He may be claimed, and thus become a man's claimed lad. If he is claimed, his man may eventually decide that the lad has risen to his own manhood. Or the lad may fight a man and win that man's manhood from him."

"I thought you said that it was death for a lad to attack a man," Tyrrell said to Pickens.

"Normally it is," said Hosobuchi, as though Tyrrell had addressed him. "But you are not yet initiated as a member of the tribe. It is not death for a lad to attack someone from outside the tribe. By tradition, on his first night's arrival, a new man must prove the worthiness of his manhood by refusing to surrender it to any claimants of it. If you had surrendered to Babaqi, you would have lost your manhood, and he would have received your manhood through your surrender." Hosobuchi shrugged again. "Babaqi does not have the courage to be a man. He showed that at his trial of strength, when he first arrived at this prison. It was foolish of him to try again."

"But understandable, sir," inserted Pickens.

"But understandable. So . . ." Hosobuchi rose to his feet; as he did so, Pickens and Shuji quickly followed suit. "You remain a man, and I doubt you will have any unwelcome visitors tonight, having declined to surrender to the one lad who succeeded in raping you after you had grown too tired to hold off your attackers. And within the next day or so, you will be initiated. After that, you will be safe – except from a challenge from another man, of course, but none of us is safe from that. So it is just a matter now of the punishment."

"Punishment?" Tyrrell was caught so off-guard that for a moment he thought he was about to be punished for allowing himself to be raped.

"Of Babaqi," Hosobuchi explained. "The other lads you may punish as well, if you wish, but . . ."

"Must I punish him?"

There was a long silence as Shuji and Pickens exchanged looks. Hosobuchi's expression had turned impenetrable.

Picking his way carefully, Tyrrell added, "I don't believe in unnecessary punishment. It seems to me that Babaqi has been punished already, by trying and failing to rise in rank."

"Ah." Hosobuchi's muscles relaxed. "Your generous spirit is a credit to you. But I fear that your rape was witnessed by more than one prisoner here, and if you do not punish the lad who came so close to taking your manhood from you . . ."

". . . then I am no man." Tyrrell rose slowly to his feet. His body was still aching, and now the aching came from more than the punches and kicks he had received on the previous night. "All right. If I must. But he's not likely to stand still for the punishment."

"We shall see. Come." Hosobuchi turned and began leading the way toward the front of the prison. Leaning down, Shuji snatched the handle of the upturned pail that Hosobuchi had been sitting on. Pickens silently handed Tyrrell the water bladder he had been sharing with the others.

Tyrrell looked down at it. "Are you allowed to yield this to me?" he asked, switching mid-sentence to the Riverbend dialect they shared. He kept his voice low in hopes that other prisoners from the Riverbend district would not overhear.

"Aye; Hosobuchi already yielded me permission. 'Tis thirsty work, having battle for your manhood, and I gave tale to him how you lost your own water last night." Pickens waited until Tyrrell had swallowed a mouthful and handed the bladder back before he put his arm round Tyrrell's shoulders and began gently pushing him in the direction that Hosobuchi had taken. In a voice as soft as Tyrrell's had been, he asked, "Will this conflict with your vow?"

Tyrrell turned his head to look at Pickens. "How were you knowing what I had in mind?"

Pickens shrugged; his gaze was on Hosobuchi's back as the greater man paused to talk to an unclaimed lad who had been making his way toward the back of the prison. The lad listened to what Hosobuchi said and then pointed toward the prison gate. "'Twasn't hard to figure. You'd refused to have battle at your trial because of a vow. I'd wondered if that would halt you last night from having battle against your attackers."

Tyrrell grimaced. "I'm 'coming too used to the customs here, I have mind. It didn't even occur to me till after the second attacker. When it did . . . That's why I went to the watch-hound. It's what we're supposed to do in Mercy when we're attacked, those of us who keep the Boundaries: we're supposed to alert others that we're in trouble rather than have battle ourselves."

"Boundaries?" Pickens picked up on the word. "The Boundaries of Behavior? Is that what this is about?"

"You have knowing of the Boundaries?" Tyrrell asked, curious.

"Oh, aye, a mote. The guards, they chat of the Boundaries sometimes. I'm knowing that the Boundaries have something to do with the war you've been running against the guards at Mercy. Do these Boundaries halt you from having battle against your allies, your fellow prisoners? Is that why you don't want to punish Babaqi?"

Tyrrell remained silent as they passed over the boundary step into the little men's territory. Farnam's men and lads were beginning to carry out the barrel-tables, in preparation for the meal delivery, and Ahiga's watch-hounds were beginning to drift into place. The sun beat down on the prison floor, with the dome's beam casting its shadow across some of the prisoners.

Finally Tyrrell said, "It has never come up before; no prisoner at Mercy ever has the chance to punish another prisoner – not without drawing the wrath of the guards down on us. But the Boundaries-bound guards—"

"The what?" Pickens's voice held disbelief.

"The Boundaries-bound guards," Tyrrell repeated. "The ones who keep the Boundaries, who don't harm the prisoners past the bounds that are necessary in truth to keep the prison functioning—"

"Mercy save us." Pickens laughed. "You turn the turtle over at Mercy Prison. Here our guards are the enemy."

"Some of the guards there are too." Tyrrell felt his stomach twist as he thought of the guard who had betrayed him and Merrick – the guard who was the reason he had been transferred to Compassion. "And some of the prisoners are our enemy. You can't tell which side some folk is on, based on the uniform he wears."

Pickens shook his head, his face framing a smile of polite disbelief. "You were giving tale about these guards, the ones who claim they're helping you . . ."

"We had to revise the Boundaries when guards started the first act at vowing to keep the Boundaries," Tyrrell explained. "We couldn't be asking them to do deeds that would go against the duties that guards at any prison would have, no matter how well ordered the prison. So we had mind that it wasn't a violation of the Boundaries for a guard to discipline a prisoner who had broken the rules of the prison."

"And you figure that applies here."

"I'm not knowing," said Tyrrell slowly. "It sounds to me as if Babaqi was following your rules too by attacking me."

Pickens squeezed Tyrrell's arm with his hand resting on Tyrrell's shoulder. "Mate, you're plainly a man for having mind, and I like that about you, but you've put from your mind one thing: You're in Compassion now. Whatever rules you may have had in Mercy, those don't apply here. We got our own customs, our own ways of surviving the guards' treatment. So just learn yourself our ways and put from mind the rest, aye?"

Tyrrell said nothing. They had reached the unclaimed lads' territory by now, the largest of the three territories within Compassion Prison. Shuji had scurried ahead to talk to Hosobuchi, who was ignoring the curious glances of the unclaimed lads that they passed. Tyrrell, hidden in the wake of Hosobuchi and Shuji, went largely unnoticed, though several of the unclaimed lads glanced at Pickens and then quickly away again.

Correctly interpreting Tyrrell's silence, Pickens said, "I'm not meaning to give tale that we're not interested in the Boundaries. It may be there's something in them we can use against the guards. Why don't you pick a good moment and then give tale to the true men about your Boundaries? They're ever looking for suggestions of how they can run the prison best."

"I'm not sure that you understand," said Tyrrell slowly.  "The Boundaries aren't mainly rules for having battle at guards or for running a prison smooth-like."

"What are they, then?" Pickens raised his eyebrows.

"At start," said Tyrrell, "they were a vow 'tween my cell-mate Merrick and me to stay us from throttling each other."

Pickens stared at Tyrrell, and then he hooted and thumped Tyrrell between the shoulder-blades. "Man, Ahiga is right. You will be entertainment. See now, we're lagging 'hind." He took hold of the back of Tyrrell's collar and propelled him forward.

Ahead, Hosobuchi had paused to lean over a couple of unclaimed lads who were sitting with their backs to the west wall. Coming closer, Tyrrell paused in his tracks; the lads sitting on the ground were Jahnsen and Olumbo, who had evidently been returned from his night of being raped. He remained stripped of his clothes; Johnsen was also naked from Ahiga's discipline of him the previous day. Jahnsen had his arm around his mate, whose head was resting on Jahnsen's shoulder. The weal of the guard's lash on Olumbo's chest was purple-red, and there were dark bruises on his face that had not been there the evening before.

Olumbo said, without looking up, "Ahiga already gave us our punishment."

"I know." Hosobuchi's voice was quiet. "This is on another matter. Walker has decided that, since Conrad had planned to join the tribe, he should be memorialized at the next banquet. The true man asked me to enquire of you as to whether you wish to chant the prayers."

Conrad, Tyrrell recalled, was the unclaimed lad who had died from the guards' gunfire when Olumbo had tried to flee their claiming of him. Olumbo pressed his lips hard against each other, but not hard enough to hold back the quiver of his chin. He nodded.

Hosobuchi straightened up. "So. Have you seen Ngugi this morning?"

"First thing we did, when Pugh returned Olumbo," replied Jahnsen. "Ngugi says that Farnam doesn't permit him to treat wild lads, unless they will die from their wounds."

"I see." Hosobuchi's voice was too level to permit Tyrrell to guess whether he approved of this policy. "Well, lash-marks generally heal without special care. Where is Babaqi?"

Olumbo stirred within Jahnsen's arms, looking up finally. Jahnsen said, "Around and about. Why do you ask?"

"He disturbed a new man last night."

This caused a sudden revival in Olumbo, who thumped his fists against the floor, though whether in frustration or triumph was not clear.

Jahnsen glanced at Olumbo and then carefully helped him to his feet, saying, "He's by the gate. We'll come with you."

"'We'll come with you if we may, sir,'" Pickens corrected.

Jahnsen looked at him but said nothing.

"Come if you wish," responded Hosobuchi, and he turned his path toward the gate again.

Pickens tried to jostle in front of the two unclaimed lads, to prevent them from going ahead of him, but Tyrrell lagged behind, and Pickens stepped back to accompany him. In an undertone, Tyrrell asked, "What was he meaning when he gave tale, 'Ahiga gave us our punishment'?"

Wordlessly, Pickens pointed to the two lads walking ahead. Whatever punishment Olumbo had received from Ahiga was hidden underneath the weals and bruises he had received at the hands of the guard Pugh, but the faint red marks of a strap could be seen on Jahnsen's tailside.

"Couldn't have been much of a beating if they're sitting after," Pickens commented. "Ahiga, he tends to be gentle with wild lads, if he has mind they won't repeat their misdeed."

Tyrrell bit back any commentary on Ahiga's policy of punishing prisoners who had tried to prevent themselves from being raped by the guards. Instead he asked, "But why Jahnsen? He tried to halt Olumbo from fleeing yesterday."

"Jahnsen?" Pickens looked blankly at him for a moment. "Oh, the other lad. You're smarter at minding names than I am. Well, I'm sure Ahiga had a reason. . . . Oh, aye, I mind now. Those two are mate-pledged."

Tyrrell turned his head to stare at Pickens. "You're making mock."

"I mock not. Our customs here are so old that, I vow, the gods must have founded some of them when they created the world."

"But mate-pledged . . . There hasn't been a mate-pledge for centuries."

Pickens shrugged. "Vovimians were still mate-pledging when they built this prison. A few of the little men mate-pledge each other, but in the main, 'tis a custom among unclaimed lads. Hosobuchi doesn't approve of it; he gives tale it stays back lads from turning their affections to the proper place – that is, to men."

"'Tis just a pledge of mateship," protested Tyrrell, feeling, as he spoke, that he was not doing justice to an oath that required two friends to share each other's fortunes and misfortunes. "Anyhow, Ahiga must be willing to let them be mate-pledged, if he beat them both for what Olumbo did."

Pickens shrugged. "It may be he just thought that Johnson . . . Hell's balls, what's the lad's name again?"

"Jahnsen."

"I can never keep track of all these unclaimed lads. Jahnsen is the one who yielded food to Price when Price was ousted from the tribe, aye? Well, Jahnsen is smarter behaved than Olumbo, I seem to mind, but none of the unclaimed lads are as well behaved as claimed lads – they can't be, since they're not in service to any folk. So it may be that Ahiga had mind Jahnsen should get a lesson in obedience too."

They made their way gradually through the crowd of unclaimed lads. The spring air was cooler today; Tyrrell rubbed his arms. Clad only with his undervest, he wondered how Jahnsen had been able to bear a night without any clothing at all. The talk around Tyrrell was soft, perhaps a concession to the fact that many unclaimed lads were still sleeping. Or perhaps for other reasons; eyes followed him silently until he looked their way, and then they would drop aside swiftly.

Hosobuchi was receiving less scrutiny; the unclaimed lads merely parted their path to make way for the greater man. The soft talk grew yet softer, though, as Hosobuchi's goal became clear.

Babaqi was standing at the gate, with his back to the rest of the prison. Beyond him, the day guards had settled down to a light meal, eating their food off silver plates that glinted under the morning sun, and drinking from silver mugs that they raised in cheery toasts to each other from time to time. Starke was sitting with a book in his lap, occasionally pausing to sip from his mug. Landry was poring forth ribald tales about his exploits with his lads, egged on by Niesely and a few of the other guards. Pugh, the guards' day-watch supervisor, simply looked bored.

Their own small party reached Babaqi without being noticed. Hosobuchi tapped him on the shoulder. Babaqi turned, looking blankly at the greater man.

Any doubts Tyrrell might have held, though, as to whether he had identified the right assailant were demolished in the next moment, as the monkey-faced lad caught sight of him. Babaqi flung himself back against the bars, as though he had just rounded the corner and seen a tiger escaped from the zoological garden.

"Babaqi," said Hosobuchi, "this man accuses you of assaulting him last night. Does he speak the truth?"

Babaqi did not so much as turn his head to look at the greater man; his gaze was fixed upon Tyrrell, his eyes were wide, and his breath was short. After a moment, he gave a jerk of a nod.

Hosobuchi turned away and gestured toward the lad with his chin. Without need for further orders, Shuji and Pickens came forward and pulled Babaqi round so that he faced the bars again. Then they forced him to his knees.

They knelt on either side of him, pulling out his arms so that he was stretched taut, his arms as straight as a telegraph wire against the bars. This position forced his face hard against the crisscrossed bars. His tailside jutted out, leaving his back on a slanted plane.

The guards had noticed now. They stood up, nudging each other, and one of the guards rubbed his hands together in apparent pleasure. Landry smiled broadly.

Drawing his belt from his trousers, Tyrrell felt sick. Bad enough that he had to do this; the last thing he wanted was a gleeful audience. At least – he thought as he glanced backwards – none of the unclaimed lads here seemed in any way pleased by this turn of events.

"How many?" he asked Hosobuchi.

"That is for you to decide," the greater man replied. "Not more than thirty, I would advise—"

"Ten," Tyrrell said quickly. Then, as Hosobuchi raised his eyebrows, Tyrrell added, "He was honest about what he did. I believe that honesty should be rewarded."

Hosobuchi simply nodded, and so Tyrrell turned his attention back to the problem. He knew how to perform a beating, of course. In the street tribe he had belonged to in his childhood, all of the older lads had been charged with disciplining the younger lads for misdeeds. Although Tyrrell had never paid much attention to the judging and sentencing portions of this procedure, he had been willing enough to swing his belt when requested.

That had been a quarter of a century ago, before he had undergone a series of harsh beatings at Mercy Prison that had left him barely alive. He swallowed, trying to cure his dry mouth.

"I've never beaten a back from above before," he said, seeking delay through his words.

Still holding the prisoner in place, Pickens was unable to hide his smile. Ever polite, Hosobuchi merely replied, "He is a lad; therefore, he receives his beatings on the bottom."

"Ah." Tyrrell felt a measure of relief. Tailsides were better padded than backs, and Babaqi was wearing drawers. Tyrrell thought he could make this a light beating, without eliciting any doubts from onlookers as to his so-called manhood.

The gate area of the prison had grown very quiet now, other than the jeers from guards who were casting doubts on his ability to perform a simple beating. He could see Jahnsen and Olumbo standing further down along the bars; Olumbo was watching Babaqi with a frown, but Jahnsen had his steady eye on Tyrrell. The electric lamps outside the prison cast harsh light upon Babaqi's back, which showed no sign of ever having been beaten. Perhaps the signs of previous beatings were hidden under his drawers, Tyrrell told himself.

A sound was emerging from Babaqi's mouth now – not quite a sob, but the throb of a sob trapped in his throat. Pickens shot Tyrrell a frown that said clearly, "Get on with it."

Tyrrell took in a deep breath, cast a final glance to be sure that he knew where Babaqi's clothed baubles were jutting out, and whistled the strap down to land above the baubles.

He had intended it to be a light beating, but Babaqi cried out in pain from the first stroke. The guards jeered further, now at Babaqi's cowardice. On the second stroke, the lad managed to keep his lips shut, but Tyrrell could hear the sob struggling to emerge from his throat. Jahnsen's eye never wavered from Tyrrell.

Tyrrell was soaked in sweat by the time he finished. Babaqi was openly crying now; the moment that Pickens and Shuji released him, he leaned his right forearm onto the gate and buried his face in the crook of his arm, clearly trying to smother his weeping. Jahnsen and Olumbo moved forward, Jahnsen's gaze finally having turned toward his friend.

Tyrrell rubbed the sweat off his face with his arm, unconsciously mirroring Babaqi's gesture; then he stepped toward the lad, wondering whether there was anything he could say that would improve matters. Babaqi's rape, which had filled Tyrrell's heart with horror this morning, had turned his heart now to horrible pity. Faced with the alternative of the slow starvation that unclaimed lads faced, might he not have done the same as this lad had?

He was arrested by Pickens's hand on his arm, which held him fast. "Let's be going," said the claimed lad. Hosobuchi and Shuji had already stepped away; Shuji was busy picking up the pail he had set down when he went forward to hold Babaqi, while Hosobuchi was taking the opportunity to exchange a word with an unclaimed lad who was standing stiffly at attention.

"But—"

Tyrrell had no time to say more than that; Pickens wrenched him round and pulled him forcibly away from the gate. "Best not," the lad said. "Leave him to his mates. They'll be knowing how to care for him. —Halt a tick." Responding to some gesture or expression from Hosobuchi, Pickens released Tyrrell and headed toward his man. Tyrrell looked back at the gate. Olumbo now had his arms around Babaqi as the punished lad sobbed onto his shoulder. Jahnsen crouched nearby, talking softly. Tyrrell caught the word "comrade."

Biting his lower lip with uncertainty, Tyrrell looked back at Pickens just as the claimed lad reached his man. Hosobuchi spoke not a word; he simply took hold of Pickens's left arm with his left hand, swung the lad around to face in the same direction that he did, and whipped his right palm down onto Pickens's tailside. The palm landed with a crack so loud that several of the nearby unclaimed lads jumped in their places.

In the silence that followed, Hosobuchi released his lad. Tyrrell caught a quick glimpse of Pickens's face, screwed up in pain; then the lad turned and fell to his knees in front of his man. His left arm was placed servantwise behind his back before his knees even reached the floor.

He remained motionless for the next few minutes, his back straight, his head bowed, as Hosobuchi poured down hard words upon him like hail. The unclaimed lads had returned to their conversations, evidently feeling that this punishment, unlike Babaqi's, was none of their business, but amidst their light chatter, Tyrrell caught an occasional phrase emerging sharply from the greater man's mouth.

". . . even if he has granted you the honor of his . . ." ". . . are to treat him accordingly . . ." ". . . not the sort of behavior I expect from my . . ." ". . . come even close to doing this again, I'll use my belt . . ." ". . . endangered both our lives . . ."

Finally it was over. Without looking up, Pickens offered a response, much shorter than his man's reprimand had been. Tyrrell could not hear what words he spoke, but they were evidently the right ones, for Hosobuchi pulled him up from the ground, lifted his chin, said something softly, and then sent the lad on his way with a light tap of the hand on his tailside.

The tap, though it appeared not to be meant as punishment, caused Pickens's face to screw up again, but he made no word or gesture of protest, simply walking back to where Tyrrell awaited him.

"You all right?" This was the most innocuous enquiry Tyrrell could think to make.

"Oh, aye." Pickens kneaded the back of his neck, avoiding Tyrrell's eyes. "See now, sir, I've just drawn a well-earned rebuke for using force on a man."

Tyrrell was so disconcerted by Pickens's use of his title that it took him a moment to understand what the lad had said; then he felt his face grow warm. He said quickly, "I didn't mind."

Pickens's kneading hand paused; he looked over at Tyrrell and raised an eyebrow.

"I mean you were right," Tyrrell clarified. "I should have left Babaqi to his mates. No harm done."

"But, sir—"

"I gave tale, 'No harm done.'" Tyrrell strove desperately to return matters to normal. "Put it from your mind, mate."

Pickens's hand slowly fell to his side. After a moment, he nodded, apparently in agreement.

With relief, Tyrrell said, "Hosobuchi, he's rather strict with you, aye? I caught tale of a mote of what he gave tale to you. What did he mean, 'You endangered both our lives'?"

Pickens shrugged. He joined Tyrrell in walking toward the back of the prison but was careful this time, Tyrrell noticed, not to touch the man walking beside him. "Just what he gave tale. If you'd chosen to report me to the true men, and they'd judged that what I did was an attack against you, they could have ordered my execution, or Hosobuchi's."

Tyrrell stared at Pickens. "Mate, I'd never do that to you."

Pickens gave a half smile, glancing over at Tyrrell. He finally placed his hand lightly on Tyrrell's back. "Nay, I have knowing you wouldn't. But what I did to you, I might do to another man, in a moment when I was careless-like. The problem with Hosobuchi," he added, his smile twisting into wryness, "is that, when he tells me I'm wrong, I ever am."

Chapter Text

A hide – perhaps from a deer, for it was that large – was being dipped into a barrel filled with urine. Nearby, lads finished scraping another hide with a honed bone, then handed the hide to a group of little men, who promptly plopped it into a vat that was filled with water and prisoners' dung. Without any ceremony about it, several unclaimed lads, with their drawers pulled up high on their thighs, stepped into the filthy mess and began walking in circles in the vat, kneading the hides.

Tyrrell stood watching, tears streaming continuously from his eyes. He had taken off his undervest and was using it to shield his nose and mouth, but it made no difference; the bitter odors were too powerful. It was like standing in a heap of raw onions.

"How can you abide this?" he asked Pickens.

Pickens shrugged; apparently immune to the odors, he was looking round at the workers with an unconcerned expression on his face. "It's not as bad at the other end of the prison, if you crave to go be with the unclaimed lads."

"It's bad there too. I vow, even the guards could smell this, far away though they are."

"Aye, they do," replied Pickens cheerfully, stepping aside to let through a lad carrying a basket of wood shavings. The lad deposted the basket next to a man who was using shavings to weave a new basket. Next to him, the blind prisoner Lester had tacked down strips of cloth on a board with a few of the prison's ubiquitous bones, these ones in the shape of nails; he was weaving the strips crosswise with more strips.

"And what do they have mind makes the smell?" asked Tyrrell, curious.

"Our stink."

"Eh?"

"The stink of our bodies. The stink of our sleeping places. We're all pigs, you are knowing, so we crave to live in pig-styes." He laughed at Tyrrell's expression. "There is good to come from the guards having so low a notion of us. They don't trust we have the brains to do this sort of thing."

Shaking his head, Tyrrell looked again at the scene. A bevy of prisoners were huddled around a new shelter that was going up. Its base was a broad board; its roof was an umbrella, presumably one of the articles left behind by the guards who no longer lived within the prison. As Tyrrell watched, one of the prisoners bound the handle of the umbrella to a stake that had already been pounded into the wood; he appeared to be using sinews as his binding material. More sinews had been attached to the end-tips of the umbrella ribs; the far ends of the sinews were tied to additional stakes. Already another prisoner was beginning to drape fabric over the sinew-lines. The total effect was like that of a circus tent.

"There must be sacks of farm lads here," he murmured.

"Eh?" Pickens, who had been leaning forward to watch the tanning, turned his attention back to Tyrrell.

Tyrrell waved his hand at the work taking place round him. "My dad and mam came from the countryside, but they never learned me a mote about things like this. The prisoners here who came from the countryside learned everyone else all this, aye?"

"Oh, nay, nay. Well, once in a day they will – Ahiga, he knew something about tanning and bone-carving and the like, his dad's dad having been a hunter before all the Ammippians were shut up in their reservations. But even Ahiga didn't have much knowing. And the few country folk among us give tale we don't have the things they used to use as material and tools. No willow to make baskets, no birch twigs to make besoms, no potter's wheel or blacksmith's forge, and precious few carpenter's tools. . . . So the country folk can offer no help. The rest of us, we come from the city. I am knowing how to skin a rat, that's all."

Tyrrell's forehead puckered with puzzlement as he struggled back into his undervest. "Then where did the prisoners get their knowing of how to do all this?"

"From our sacred book," Pickens replied promptly. He laughed again at Tyrrell's expression. "Best be showing you. Hoi, DuBois!" Switching to the Mippite tongue, he waved his hand at a lad passing by – the one whose hair Valdis had kneaded during Tyrrell's trial. "The new man here wants to see our sacred book."

The lad – who was barely over his majority, judging from his appearance – looked Pickens up and down. "You must be making mock. Nobody goes into the armory except the true men and their First and Second Lads."

"You could bring it out."

"I could place my hand in a cobra's mouth. Do you know what Valdis would do to me if I—?"

"Then ask him," Pickens said impatiently. "Come now, DuBois, this is the new man. The one from Mercy." He gestured toward Tyrrell.

DuBois's lips thinned, but after a moment he nodded and walked away, in the direction of the true men's cells. Tyrrell said, "I don't want to make trouble."

Pickens grinned at him. "How many times did you give tale of that at Mercy?"

Tyrrell was caught off-guard; after a moment he laughed. "Too many times."

"DuBois, he's just being snobby, craving us to give mind again that he's Valdis's Second Lad. Farnam's workers check the book sacks of times – in truth, Farnam is having Davidson shape a second copy, so as the original doesn't get worn out. . . . We'd best go over to the true men's cells. Valdis won't crave the book being taken far from there."

As they walked forward, they passed some prisoners who were putting the finishing touches on what, to Tyrrell's uneducated eye, looked like an Ammippian wigwam. Tyrrell watched a lad step onto an upturned pail, holding a second pail full of dry cornstalks, which he began to use as roofing material.

They came near to the true men's cells – too near, as Tyrrell discovered when the deadly prick of a watch-hound's spear suddenly touched his throat.

He stood very still. Pickens, ooking back over his shoulder, said, "Hoi! He's with me!"

The spear didn't lift. Staring into the level gaze of the hound, Tyrrell felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise.

Pickens muttered something under his breath about overly officious hounds. Then he dropped back, beckoning Tyrrell away from the true men's cells. Tyrrell took a step back, his eye on the hound; the spear did not follow. When Tyrrell had backed away three yards, the hound lowered his spear, but he kept his narrowed eyes on Tyrrell.

Tyrrell cleared his throat. "I had mind you said that lads couldn't attack men."

Pickens followed his gaze to the hound. "Aye, well, we watch-hounds are an exception, when we're on duty. Regrets about that; Ahiga must have widened the boundary area near the door."

Facing the southern wall of the small set of sleeping cells where the true men slept, Tyrrell could see the door from where he stood; it was flanked on both sides by hounds, and more hounds were spaced at intervals round the cells. "But you can go in yourself?"

"Oh, aye, 'cause on the nights that Hosobuchi lies with Ahiga, he'll take Shuji and me in with him, 'less he can find another greater man to watch over us."

Tyrrell raised his eyebrows. "You're there when Ahiga beds Hosobuchi? That must be . . . interesting."

Pickens laughed. "Ahiga only lies with him; he doesn't drill him. I don't have mind he drills any folk 'cept Shuji, in truth. Some men are like that; even if they claim more than one lad, they only take a single lad."

"But Hosobuchi takes more than one?" Tyrrell picked his way carefully around the topic.

"Oh, aye, he drills both Shuji and me. —See now, here comes our sacred book."

DuBois had just emerged from the true men's cells, closing the door too quickly for Tyrrell to see what lay beyond. The walls of the cells were indeed made of wood, as Pickens had indicated previously, and they seemed not to have any ventilation slits along the long side facing east. Tyrrell wondered whether the cells were bereft of a ceiling, like the rest of the prison, but that did not explain how they had received their air before the roof was removed during the renovation of the prison. Maybe the cells had only barred doors? At Mercy, prisoners' cells had a second, solid door that could be closed if the guard wished to "interrogate" the prisoner in private, but perhaps most of the guards here hadn't been so shy about letting other guards watch them when they raped prisoners.

DuBois had stopped short of the encircling cradle of hounds. "You can look," he told Tyrrell. "Valdis says you can't touch." He held up the book so that its cover was facing Tyrrell.

Tyrrell stared at the brightly colored images on the cover. They showed young lads engaged in a variety of activities: creating houses, sewing leather, spreading a bedroll, bandaging a wound, starting a fire with a bow and drill, cooking with an iron pot over a fireplace . . .

Suddenly Tyrrell realized what he was looking at and bent over double, laughing so loudly that he caught the attention of nearby men and lads, who stared at him. When he finally managed to straighten up, Tyrrell saw that DuBois had departed with the book. Pickens was grinning.

"Read it, have you?" Pickens said.

"I've seen it," replied Tyrrell, managing to swallow his laughter into hiccups. "One of the other lads in my street tribe, he had a copy. He used to be reading passages in it to us. We used it as a guide when shaping our shelters."

Pickens continued to grin. "I'm sure the writer of The Mippite Boys' Handy Book has no idea how handy his tips for kiddie-play have been to street tribes over the years. Here in Compassion, we worship him as Mercy's messenger. If it hadn't been for him, we wouldn't have knowing of how to make soap or how to do a thousand other tasks that need doing."

"But do you have the materials to do the sorts of things he describes?" Tyrrell asked, trying to swallow his hiccups.

"Oh, aye, some days. He aimed his book at city lads, after all, and we're in a sort of city. No trees, but we have packing-crate wood; no flint-stones, but we have old bits of china, left 'hind after the renovation. Works as well as flint does in creating a spark for fire, or so Mercy's messenger gives tale to us, and turns out he's right. If ever I escape here," Pickens said meditatively, "first thing I'll do is go and throw myself at the feet of the man who wrote this and yield to be his servant for life."

Tyrrell, filled with a vision of thousands of prisoners crowding into the house of a bewildered children's author, had to sit down on the floor this time; his laughter had grown that uncontrollable.

The sound of a sharp cry nearby caused him to leap to his feet in an automatic manner. He and Pickens turned swiftly to look toward the cry.

Nearby a lad, with a white wristlet indicating he was claimed by a greater man, wrestled in the arms of a neckletted burly man whose orange wristlet showed that he served under Valdis. The burly man was groping under the lad's clothing, a satisfied smile on his face.

Other men and lads were watching now, some with uneasy expressions on their face, but nobody interfered. Tyrrell took a step forward, but Pickens restrained him. "No. Look, his man is coming."

In the next moment, a wiry young man, half the age of his lad, stormed forward, his fists clenched, and shouted, "Let him go, Garrettson!"

Garrettson grinned, baring his teeth in a feral manner. "Make me."

The young man hesitated. It was just a bare hesitation, but in the next moment, he found a spearhead against his chest.

A second spear, held by the diminutive watch-hound Wirsing, whom Tyrrell had met on his first day, was pressed against Garrettson's chest. Wirsing said crisply, "Enough. Herchweiler, Garrettson has offered his challenge. Either accept or decline it. If there's any more shouting and fist-forming, I'll hand both of you over to Ahiga for breaking the peace."

Again the young man hesitated. Garrettson, who had not removed his hands from Herchweiler's lad, grinned ever more widely. Herchweiler's gaze fell upon his lad, who was staring bleakly at him.

"All right," Garrettson replied in a voice that sounded strangled. "I accept the challenge."

There was scattered applause from the onlookers. "Come on!" said Pickens, elbowing Tyrrell in the ribs. "Let's go!"

"Go where?" Tyrrell asked, unable to tear his eyes away from the hesitant young man and his bleak-eyed lad, who had finally been released by the aggressor.

"To the challenge ground, of course." Pickens pointed to the northwest corner of the prison. "This ought to be worth watching."

o—o—o

The sound of cheers and jeers rose faintly like haze on a hot day. As Tyrrell and Pickens neared the northwest corner of the prison – an area hidden beyond the true men's cells – the spectators' shouts grew louder. Tyrrell could see now that a queue stretched out from the hidden corner, carefully supervised by a couple of watch-hounds. Near the end of that queue – sitting at a crate, like a ticket-master at his desk – was Valdis.

He was checking Farnam's green ledger-book, which was proffered to him by Farnam's math-wizard lad, Davidson. Davidson raised his head to smile at Tyrrell and Pickens as they approached, but Valdis did not so much as jiggle his gaze from the ledger-book. "No," he said.

Tyrrell assumed that he was addressing Davidson, but Pickens sighed. "Sir, Hosobuchi said—"

"Am I taking orders now from a greater man? I said no. I have limited space, and you've already attended two challenges this week. New prisoners aren't permitted to attend challenges at all, until they're initiated." He switched his attention to Davidson. "This includes yesterday's figures?"

Davidson nodded.

"Sir," Pickens persisted, "Ahiga says—"

"This is my province. If Ahiga has problems with the way I conduct my business, he'll speak to me directly. Now get out of the way; you're holding up traffic like a broken-down buggy on a tram line. —Tokens for you and your lads?" He addressed the greater man standing behind Pickens. The man, who was accompanied by his lads, nodded. Valdis reached out his hand; in it were three square tokens, neatly whittled from wood. "These are the last for this morning's challenges. Enjoy yourself."

"Thank you, sir." The greater man gestured to one of his lads to collect the tokens; then the three departed in the direction of the queue.

"Valdis—" Pickens pled, but the true man turned curtly away from him, addressing Davidson.

"Tell Farnam I agree with him: we can't spare the Keeper's gift, this early in the year. Maybe we can use the potatoes at the next banquet, since Farnam says they're sprouting. The rest we'll store with the surplus till greater need arises."

"Sir, with respect, my man fears that the flour will acquire more maggots during the spring heat." Davidson's voice was low.

Valdis sighed loudly. "Hell and Mercy. Very well – I'm finished here, so I'll come discuss it with him. Has he started setting up for the noontime meal yet?" He stood up and strode in the direction of the platform, where a couple of Farnam's men were opening the oven to check inside. Walker, whom Tyrrell had rarely seen outside of the northeast corner where the laconic true man tended the dying, was standing nearby.

"Blast," said Pickens mildly. "Valdis must be in a foul mood for some reason. He's usually more rational than that."

"It's all right," Tyrrell assured him. "I can wait until I'm initiated."

"But I'll be back on regular duty with the watch-hounds then, so I won't be there to explain what you see." Pickens looked around, and his eyes lit up. "Ah. You see that man?"

"All too well," Tyrrell replied grimly. The man to whom Pickens was pointing was Hernandez, the claimed man who served as Valdis's First Lad, and who had nearly broken Tyrrell's arm during his trial for manhood.

"Give tale to him," Pickens instructed.

"What about?" Tyrrell could hear the perplexity in his own voice.

"Anything. You're a man – have a nice man-to-man chatter with him. Near three minutes long."

Still mystified, Tyrrell approached Hernandez, while Pickens lingered behind. The great, bulky figure of Hernandez was currently shoving back a lad who had been pushing against the lad in front of him in the queue, in his eagerness to enter the challenge ground. "One at a time," Hernandez growled in his deep, bear-like voice.

Reaching him, Tyrrell cleared his throat. Hernandez swung around immediately, looming over Tyrrell. Then, as Tyrrell waited for the great beast above to swipe him away with a careless, deadly hand, Hernandez gave a broad smile. "Good afternoon," he said.

"Good afternoon," Tyrrell replied, reflecting to himself, yet again, that he did not have Merrick's gift for judging character. "I just wanted to thank you."

"Thank me? For what?" Hernandez lifted his craggy eyebrows as he simultaneously kicked an unclaimed man who was trying to force his way to the front of the queue. The man fell to the ground, howling. Hernandez took no notice.

"Er . . ." Tyrrell stared down at the howling man. "For not squashing me like a fly during my trial."

Hernandez roared with laughter as a couple of onlookers helped the injured man – who was now whimpering – to his feet. The injured man limped back into his place in the queue. "You're hardly a fly. You're a scrappy little fighter. Learned to fight on the streets, did you?"

"Rat-tail Tribe," Tyrrell said, unable to hide the note of pride as he spoke his old street-tribe's name. "I was just one of many lads in my tribe, of course. Did you lead a tribe?"

Hernandez gave another laugh. "Hardly. I learned to fight in the wrestling ring of the Young Men's Rebirth Association. It provided a pleasant contrast to university lectures."

"University lectures?" He stared at Hernandez.

The First Lad grinned as he slapped back a man who was trying to cut into the queue. The claimed man fell hard to the floor and stayed still, apparently unconscious. "Mip City University. Graduate assistant; I was studying for my doctoral degree when I went a bit too far in a fight with a fellow student over whether I cheated on tests. I really didn't mean to knock his head in," he added, a clear note of regret in his voice.

Tyrrell continued to gawp at Hernandez as a small crowd gathered around the unconscious man.

Hernandez chuckled. "I adore living in a republic whose language has no indicator of class divisions. You'd never guess, would you, that I'd been at university? Or that my man Valdis used to earn his living by collecting rubbish? I sometimes think the only usefulness of this prison is that it allows us all to find our natural levels."

"Yes, well . . ." As the unconscious man was carried away, Tyrrell was distracted by the sight of Pickens waving at him from near the platform. "I enjoyed our discussion. Not many folks are willing to talk with me, at this point."

"Ah. Well." Hernandez scratched the side of his nose, looking embarrassed. "First-century initiation rites. I was studying for a certificate in anthropology, did I mention? This place is like a treasure trove to me – so many ancient customs to watch." He turned his head in response to a rise in the shouting in the northwest corner. "Sorry, I must go. The previous challenge is ending, and I'm due to referee the next challenge."

A minute later, Tyrrell said incredulously to Pickens, "Anthropology? Doctoral student? Does he figure on me trusting that?"

Pickens grinned. "All true, I'm fearing. Ask him to give tale to you some time of his research paper on Landsteader master/servant etiquette. Mind, Hernandez is going to be a very bruised doctoral student soon." He held up his hand. In it was a set of keys. They looked like cell keys.

"What is that?" asked Tyrrell blankly.

"Our token into the challenge ground. Come on!" With a hop, Pickens leaped onto the platform.

Tyrrell followed. As they came closer to the center of the platform, Tyrrell could see that it had been emptied of its usual hive of busy workers. Only a few of Farnam's lads continued to clean out the oven, under the careful eye of Walker. Farnam had withdrawn to the side to hold a low-voiced discussion with Valdis. The fourth true man, Ahiga, had made his way into that area as well, but he seemed to be in a contemplative mood, for his eyes were closed and he was humming.

Tyrrell came close enough to see and hear this, before a watch-hound pushed him and Pickens back.

"It's for your own sake," the watch-hound replied when Pickens protested. "You know that Walker would bite your throat out if you came nearby on anything other than vital business, when he's supervising the cleaning."

Pickens sighed. "Well, could you deliver a message to Valdis for me? Tell him that I found something of his."

"Oh, sweet blood." The watch-hound rolled his eyes, but retreated to deliver the message while a nearby watch-hound kept a careful eye on Pickens and Tyrrell.

A minute later, Valdis strode forward to where they were standing. His hands were in fists. "Do I have to spank you myself to keep you from pestering me?" he demanded to Pickens.

Pickens said nothing; he merely held up the keys. He was not quite successful in hiding his grin.

After a frozen moment, Valdis snatched the keys, proceeded to count them, and then bellowed into the sky, "Hernandez!"

Heads turned. Farnam, who had moved over to speak to Davidson, started in his place. Ahiga slitted his eyes open for a brief second before closing them again. Walker glowered, but apparently he was not in the habit of tearing out the throats of his fellow true men, for he soon returned his attention to the oven-cleaning.

Hernandez broke the four-minute mile as he crossed the area between the challenge ground and the platform. "You wish my service, sir?" he asked, panting.

Grim-faced, Valdis held up the keys.

Hernandez stared; then he gave Pickens a deadly glare. Pickens merely grinned openly. Fortunately, Hernandez did not look in the direction of Tyrrell. He was too busy turning his gaze back toward Valdis, who was drumming his fingers on the keys.

"Sir, I don't know how he—"

Valdis cut him off, like a blade slicing into a neck. "How many times have I told you that this prison is filled to the brim with thieves? How many times have I instructed you that you must carry the keys to the cells and armory well concealed, or we'll come back to the armory one day and discover that half the surplus has gone missing? Yes, and the weapons too."

"Don't blame him, Valdis," Pickens said cheerfully. "I could pick the pockets of the Queen of Yclau, if I chose."

Valdis gave him a look that said, "I will deal with you presently," and then turned his attention back to Hernandez, who was looking increasingly wilted.

"I very much regret my negligence, sir." Hernandez's voice was low this time. "I will endeavor to serve you more faithfully in the future."

"Flowery language." Valdis addressed the sky. "He always gives me flowery language when he has mucked up." He tossed the keys back into Hernandez's hands. "My cell, at claiming time. You can spend the afternoon carving a switch for yourself."

"Yes, sir." Too subdued now to even spare a venomous glance at Pickens, Hernandez retreated, clutching the keys. Valdis turned his eyes toward Pickens and his broad smile.

"Three," Valdis said in a pleasant voice.

"Three?" Pickens's smile didn't waver.

"Three thefts in the past day. First, you blamed the water-steward for loss as a scheme to get extra water for your new mate. Second, you stole a can of food after you'd bluffed your way past the watch-hounds. And now this. . . . What, did you think we true men don't keep track of such things?" he added as Pickens's smile dropped off. "Ahiga has been trying to decide whether to mention this matter to your man, or simply to treat it as a matter of tribal discipline and beat you himself."

There was no reply. Looking over at Pickens, Tyrrell saw that his mate stood now in service position, left hand locked behind right elbow. His head was bowed. Tyrrell looked quickly back at Valdis and said, "It's my fault. He did it for my sake, and I was his confederate in the pickpocketing."

Valdis didn't bother to look in Tyrrell's direction. He said to Pickens, "Apparently I can add to your crimes that you've corrupted a new prisoner."

Pickens said nothing, but the ball in his throat bobbed as he swallowed.

His professional pride touched, Tyrrell said, "I'm a thief myself. I don't need anyone teaching me how to distract a theft victim." Then, as Valdis finally turned dark, vengeful eyes toward him, Tyrrell added hastily, "See here, everything that Pickens did has benefitted the tribe. Farnam knows now to keep a closer eye on his water-steward. Ahiga knows to order his watch-hounds not to let anyone except Farnam's men and lads past the barrier when food preparations are taking place. And you know that your First Lad wasn't keeping as careful a watch as he should have on your keys. Can't you be grateful for the benefits which the tribe has received, and ignore any ill motives that Pickens might have had for his deeds?"

Valdis looked at him reflectively, through half-closed lids. Finally he said, "I was told that you had a silver tongue, Tyrrell of Mercy. I see that it's true."

Tyrrell was confused for a moment before he realized that Ahiga would naturally have mentioned his arrival at the prison to the other true men. At a loss for an adequate response, he said, "My family was from southern Vovim, originally. Children are taught to speak properly there."

Valdis snorted. "That you're my countryman is supposed to endear you to me? Tell me this, riot-rouser: What benefit to the tribe is supposed to come from Pickens using devious methods to get you inside the challenge ground?"

Tyrrell hesitated, looking at Pickens, but received no help there; the lad was still contemplating the ground at his feet. Finally Tyrrell said, with the utmost of hesitation, "That's for you to decide, sir."

He had said the right thing. Valdis the rubbish-collector clearly liked being addressed as "sir"; the true man straightened his back. He snapped at Pickens, "What did Ahiga say? No lies now."

"To show Tyrrell every part of the prison, and to answer all questions he has, so that he can find his proper place in the order of things here." Pickens's voice was toneless.

Valdis grunted. "Next time you steal anyone's property, Pickens, I'll pull you up before the true men's council and discuss whether your continued existence is more trouble than it's worth. —Here." He took a couple of tokens out of his vest pocket and tossed them into Tyrrell's hands. "Learn your proper place here – the sooner the better, as far as all of us are concerned. —Yes, yes, I'm coming." He waved at Farnam, who evidently wished to continue their interrupted conversation.

Pickens waited until he and Tyrrell had both jumped off the platform before he released himself from service position and grinned. "That wasn't near on as bad as it might have been," he said cheerfully. "Thank Mercy that Valdis didn't have mind to give tale to Hosobuchi of what I'd done. Were you taking note of the moment when I picked Hernandez's pocket, Tyrrell? Past confederates have given tale to me that I'm so skilled that not even they see—"

"Pickens." The word ground out of Tyrrell's throat like milled grain. "Don't you ever use me again to break the rules of this prison. I mean it."

He had swung himself around to face Pickens. The lad's eyes widened, then narrowed. After a moment, Pickens said in a dead-level voice, "I was wondering when you would assert your manhood against me."

Astonished, Tyrrell stammered, "I didn't— I mean, I didn't crave to—"

"Nay, nay." Pickens waved a hand to cut him off; he looked suddenly weary. "You're right. Tisn't a matter of man versus lad. 'Tis is a matter of how mates treat each other." He looked down at the ground, and for a while the only nearby sound came from the men and lads chatting in the rapidly diminishing queue for the challenge ground. Finally Pickens raised his head; his eyes looked like two wounds in his face. "I'll have to give tale to Hosobuchi of what I did."

Tyrrell responded hesitantly, "Will he punish you?"

"No more than I deserve to be punished. With luck, the punishment will give mind to me not to do this again." Pickens grimaced. "I try and I try, and yet, eight years into service under Hosobuchi, I still let my demon take me over."

"Nay, mate, 'tisn't a matter of your battle madness." Tyrrell was thoroughly alarmed now by Pickens's expression. "You weren't going and harming any folk. You gave back the stolen goods straight away. And your motives were good; you just didn't have mind what you were doing. We all make mistakes."

Pickens cocked his head, giving a crooked, sober smile. "Forgive?"

"Forgive," Tyrrell replied firmly, and offered his hand. They touched palms, in the Mippite style of taking an oath, thereby renewing their bond of friendship.

After all, Tyrrell reflected to himself as they turned again toward the challenge ground, he had been as forgetful as Pickens. It had not occurred to him until Valdis spoke the word "riot-rouser" that the true men might be less than enthusiastic to welcome a prisoner whose activities had caused a goodly portion of the best-behaved prisoners in Mercy to end up in the punishment cells, charged with sedition.

Chapter Text

The challenge ground was not at all as Tyrrell expected it to be.

"Pickens," Tyrrell said slowly as he turned in watch the activities taking place at the back of the challenge ground, "this is a manufactory."

"Aye." Pickens grinned as he reached over to toss to its owner a spindle that had fallen to the ground. Nearby, an old-fashioned spinning jenny – made, it appeared, with a buggy wheel – flashed and blurred as it was used by one of Valdis's men. The yarn it produced was being woven almost as fast on a nearby loom.

Nor was the source of these instruments of creation hard to locate. Nearby, Valdis's lads were hard at work with hammers, nails, pliers, saws, and other tools. The lads were mending crate-wood furniture, pounding tins into the shapes of knives, and creating tents out of leather and sinewy thread and old cell-bar poles.

"This is fantastic," Tyrrell said. "I'd not trust it to exist if I didn't see it. Is there anything Valdis's men and lads can't make?"

He turned his head to look around further back, beyond the crowd that had gathered in the empty center of the challenge ground. The air was hazy with sawdust, for nearby, a couple of prisoners were sawing a plank laid atop two wooden horses. Their saw sliced through the name of a famous Mippite grocer, showing that the plank had originally come from a packing crate.

More crates were stacked in the back of the challenge ground, all of them filled with homemade tools, such as tin-can knives. A little man climbed to the top of the crates, using two thick poles that had been notched to provide footage. Nearby, another little man was using a bone knife to whittle a piece of wood into the shape of a nail. The lad whom Tyrrell had noticed before, the one with the basket of shavings, returned with the newly made basket and began scooping up the shavings settling at the feet of the whittler, missing not a single shaving. Next to him, a lad straightened the teeth of a saw with wooden pliers before handing the saw to a man who was waiting patiently for it.

In front of all this woodworking were the metalworkers. As Tyrrell watched, a greater man used a slender metal bar and a wooden mallet to poke holes into a large tin can, while one of his lads held the tin firmly by a wire handle that had already been attached to two of the holes. The purpose of the can was clear enough from the activities of the man's second lad: he was pounding metal nails into a circular wooden board, checking occasionally that the nails were far enough apart to hold a candle. As the man completed the task of punching light-holes into the can, the second lad silently handed him the candle-holder. There was a breathless moment as all three prisoners watched to ascertain that the candle and its holder would fit into the metal lantern; then all three smiled, and the man gave nods of approval to his lads.

Pickens laughed as he waved a greeting at a lad who was making a coiled bowl out of what appeared to be – of all things – flour and water. "If you crave to catch a long tale of woe, ask Valdis of his trying to create a forge. Or ask him of the hot-air balloon."

"Balloon?" Tyrrell eyed Pickens skeptically. "What for? To send prisoners on a journey to spy on their guards?"

Pickens punched Tyrrell – or began to, but he carefully pulled his punch at the last moment. "Nay, for messages. Valdis thought if he could take these" – he pointed to the water-bladder looped to his belt – "and fill them with hot air, he could send them sailing out of the prison with messages tied to them, telling the outside world of conditions here. The pressmen would catch tale of of it, they'd go and write stories of this oddity, and hurrah! Better food, better privies, and it may be even a cot or two."

"I'm figuring this was all before The Commoners' Chronicle published its scandal story on the evil prisoners of Mercy," Tyrrell said dryly. "Anyhow, there's no way to get balloons out of this prison, 'less Valdis has figured a way to smash a hole through that." He pointed to the dome that hovered the height of four storeys above the prison floor.

"Farnam vetoed the plan because he gave tale that the tribe couldn't afford the loss of the bladders," Pickens responded. "As for the dome— Hoi, Nava'i! What's the odds for the next challenge?"

"Forty-six to one." Nava'i, the lad from the Riverside district who worked in one of the prison privies, came over to stand by them; he was holding what appeared to be an old-fashioned wax tablet. "You're not going to win much off this challenge, I'm fearing."

"Nonsense. I'm betting two duties on Herchweiler." Pickens leaned over to write his initials and the number two on the wax tablet.

Nava'i looked him up and down. "It's forty-six to one against Herchweiler. Are you mad?"

"Probably." Pickens gave a smile that fell short of his eyes. "Either that, or I always bet in favor of men who have that much to lose."

There was a small silence, pregnant with some mysterious significance, and then Nava'i coughed and said, "Right. Two duties it is. No other bets?" His gaze flickered briefly toward Tyrrell, then away.

"I've not got any money," Tyrrell said.

"The betting isn't done through money," Pickens explained. "'Tis duty time. Ahiga and Walker and Valdis let their men and lads bet their duty time at the challenge ground. The losers have to draw the duty time of the winners, on what would otherwise be their days off. Farnam still forbids duty-time betting, doesn't he?" he asked Nava'i.

"Aye." Nava'i kept a careful eye on the tablet as he spoke. "Is he planning to ask Farnam to claim him, then?"

He had addressed the question to Pickens, but Tyrrell quickly shook his head. "I'm not interested in being a claimed man. Pickens gave tale I could work for anyone I wanted, if I'm unclaimed. I was going to ask Farnam whether he was needing more help in the privies."

Nava'i's head jerked up. After a moment, he said, "We ever need help in the privies. Nobody volunteers for that work."

Tyrrell shrugged. "'Tis work I've done in the past, at Mercy Prison – cleaning the guards' toilets, as well as my own. I had mind I might as well do work where the tribe needs it most."

Nava'i did not speak for a moment. All around them, lathes whirred, hammers pounded, spindles spun. Finally Nava'i said, "Figure you'll gather loyalty that way, do you?"

"Nava'i." Pickens's voice was soft in warning.

"Regrets." Nava'i turned his attention back to the wax tablet.

Clearly this topic – whatever it might be – was one that Pickens wished to change. Tyrrell strove to think of a new subject and finally said, "What about the oven? Was that built by Valdis's men and lads, or by Farnam's?"

"Neither." Nava'i looked up from the wax tablet. "The guards built it."

"For us?" He should not sound so surprised, he supposed; it was the duty of the guards to look after the prisoners' basic needs. Cooking raw food was as basic a need as he could imagine.

Pickens laughed. "Nay, for themselves. That platform, it used to be the guards' platform, back in the days when the guards lived inside Compassion Prison."

Nava'i nodded. "'Fore our time, for sure.
'Fore every folk's time, 'cept Valdis and a few of his lads – most of them are dead by now. But till last winter, when we had to tear down the wooden cells for fuel, we still had the same layout on this level as in the old days. The sleeping cells stood up against the walls of the prison; the only ones left now are the true men's cells." He pointed to the small set of cells in the northwest corner, a little further down the west wall from the challenge ground. "And the middle of the prison, that was a giant day cell, sunk down 'neath the floor of the rest of the prison. The platform is all that's left of the original prison floor. The guards used to stand watch there."

"Eating banquets." Pickens's mouth smeared a snarl.

"Aye, eating whatever they hunted on their days off . . . mainly deer, which is why the oven and the grill inside it are so big." Nava'i added, with a slight note of pride, "We could build our own oven. We have knowing how, by now. But we like this one, 'cause we don't have much fuel, and this oven is made for slow cooking. Light some barrel-wood in there and wait twenty-four hours for the meat to roast. Tastier that way too," he added reflectively.

"Oh, Nava'i." Pickens frowned at him.

Farnam's lad shrugged. "Taste matters, Pickens. You don't want prisoners with weak stomachs to go and throw up their banquet meal, do you?" He glanced around. "Challenge is near to start. I'd best collect the remaining bets."

o—o—o

Without need for any signal, the prisoners who had been milling about idly in the challenge ground began to draw back, leaving a circular area clear in their midst. Into this area strode Hernandez, announcing, "Last bets! Last bets before I announce the contenders." He turned his head, and into the ring, stripped to his waist, trotted Garrettson, grinning and shaking his forearms in the air, like a prizefighter. The crowd roared.

He was followed – with a considerably more subdued response from the crowd – by Herchweiler, who was accompanied by his middle-aged lad, both of them looking unhappy. Hernandez shouted, "Final bets! Place your final bets now!"

The bets came fast and thick from the crowd as Nava'i stood nearby, jotting them down. "Three duties on Garrettson!" "Five duties on Garrettson!" "Half a duty on Garrettson!" "One week off from work for the winner."

Everyone turned their head to look at the last speaker. Entering the ring was Valdis, followed by Farnam.

Hernandez said hesitantly, "Sir, do you wish to referee this match?"

Valdis shook his head. "No point. It'll be over in an eye's wink." He turned his attention to Garrettson, who was still wearing the orange necklet that proclaimed him to be Valdis's claimed man. In a dry voice, Valdis said, "Try not to kill him. I can't afford to lose you."

The crowd laughed uneasily. Garrettson smiled. "Yes, sir. Any other instructions?"

"Didn't you just hear me say 'no point'?" Valdis turned toward the true man beside him. "Farnam? Are Walker and Ahiga coming?"

"Walker is busy with the oven," Farnam responded in his quiet voice. "Ahiga says the same as you do: No point. —Herchweiler," he added, "are you sure you want to go through with this challenge? You could negotiate to give your lad over to Garrettson, and I'd let you serve me as my little man."

Herchweiler hesitated, looking over at his lad. The lad shook his head briefly, mutely. Herchweiler said to Farnam, "He's my lad. Nobody is going to take him from me."

There was a general outcry of hooting and jeering. Even Tyrrell could hear the wavering in Herchweiler's voice. Farnam said nothing; he merely stepped back to the edge of the ring, accompanied by Valdis.

Hernandez waited until the true men were settled in their places before he shouted, "Bets are completed! Gentlemen and gentlelads, I bring you Herchweiler, a greater man claimed by Farnman, who has been challenged by Garrettson, a little man claimed by Valdis. Herchweiler fights for his honor, his lad, and, I think it's fair to say, his manhood. Gentlemen." He turned his attention to the contenders. "You both know the rules. Herchweiler, you have been challenged, so you have the choice. With weapons or without?"

Herchweiler appeared to consider the question. Under the cover of the crowd's chatter, Tyrrell asked Pickens, "What weapons are permitted?"

"Nothing lethal," Pickens replied. "Knucklebusters, poles, quirts, lassos . . . It makes for a better show, but there's always a risk of accidentally breaking the rules, if you use weapons."

Herchweiler appeared to have reached the same conclusion, for he said, "Without. I don't want to hurt him too much." It was an attempt at levity, but the crowd responded with jeers.

"Without weapons!" cried Hernandez. "Lad, stand back," he told Hernandez's lad, who was continuing to hover uncertainly beside his man. "Well back, if you please."

"Over here," encouraged Pickens, beckoning. "We'll watch the challenge together." As Herchweiler's lad came over to stand beside him, Pickens put his arm over the lad's shoulder and murmured a question in his ear.

The lad shook his head and responded softly, "My man might win." But his voice was strained.

As Valdis had predicted, the challenge was over in an eye's wink. In an eerie recreation of Tyrrell's trial when he first arrived at Compassion Prison, Herchweiler was soon on his stomach, with Garrettson kneeling atop him. But instead of twisting Herchweiler's arm, Garrettson chose to wrap his arm around Herchweiler's neck and pull it back, in a manner that seemed calculated to snap the neck.

What he said to Herchweiler could not be heard over the crowd's shouting, but the response by Herchweiler was clear and high-pitched: "I surrender! I surrender! Sweet blood, please don't kill me!"

Garrettson let Herchweiler go so fast that the greater man's head thunked on the floor. Leaping to his feet, Garrettson pranced about the ring, thrusting his fists toward the sky as the crowd thumped its feet in applause. Hernandez went down on one knee briefly to check on Herchweiler, who remained lying motionless on the ground. Then, evidently reassured by what he saw, he went over to Garrettson and managed to catch hold of him. The referee raised his own hands and clasped Garrettson's in the universal sign of victory, crying out, "The winner, in his honor, is Garrettson!"

The crowd shouted its approval. Tyrrell cast a look at Herchweiler's lad. He was covered with sweat, though the day was cool; his mouth moved in unspoken words; and his gaze was fastened on Herchweiler, who remained motionless on the ground.

Hernandez released Garrettson and waved the crowd to relative silence, simultaneously beckoning to Herchweiler's lad. Pickens nudged the lad forward; his own expression was grim.

Hernandez took hold of the lad's hand. "By the customs within our prison," he said to the crowd, "no lad can be claimed against his will—"

"Except by guards!" someone shouted. The crowd hissed in response. Glaring at the interruption, Hernandez underlined, "By the customs within our prison, no lad can be claimed against his will. Therefore, you face a choice, lad." He addressed himself to the prisoner whose hand he was holding. "Do you wish to remain with Herchweiler, trusting in his protection?"

The lad looked over at Herchweiler, who had finally raised himself into a sitting position, his arm resting wearily across his upraised knee. Their eyes met. For a moment, the lad remained still as the crowd hushed.

Then, without a word spoken, the lad shook himself free of Hernandez. He walked over to Garrettson.

The crowd went wild with excitement, jumping up and down. As a result, Tyrrell was unable to hear what the lad said as he knelt down before Garrettson, his left arm already in service position. Nor did he hear the brief exchange that took place between the two in the next minute. But Tyrrell saw quite clearly how it ended: the lad bent forward and kissed both of Garrettson's knees, and then his groin.

The crowd appeared ready to tear down the walls of the prison; Tyrrell hadn't witnessed such excitement since the Tri-National Match of '76, when the Queendom of Yclau had lost out to the Magisterial Republic of Mip. With a triumphant cry, Garrettson tore off the green wristlet from the lad's wrist, throwing it toward Herchweiler. Then, with great ceremony, he took his own necklet off, untied it, carefully ripped it lengthwise, and wrapped one-half of the orange necklet around the lad's wrist, turning it into the wristlet of his claiming.

Tyrrell looked to see how Herchweiler was taking all this. The greater man was staring down at the green wristlet at his feet, almost blindly. Slowly he reached out to touch it.

A foot descended onto it.

The crowd stopped shouting at once, but even so, Tyrrell could not hear the words that Farnam spoke to his claimed man. The tone of them was clear, though, from Farnam's icy expression. Herchweiler's head drooped; he nodded once. Farnam released the wristlet – the half-necklet of Herchweiler's claiming – from under his boot.

Herchweiler picked it up. He took off his necklet – the green necklet that the lad's green wristlet must have come from – and wrapped the two long cloths together. Then, without looking up, he handed both to Farnam.

Farnam departed without a word. Valdis was busy thumping Garrettson on the back as the former little man embraced his new lad.

The lad did not look back. Nobody except Tyrrell was looking now at Herchweiler, who remained sitting on the ground, staring down, stripped of the necklet which marked him as a man.

o—o—o

Tyrrell remained wordless a long while after the challenge ended. The crowd had dispersed, chatting lightly about what they had seen – all but a group of prisoners who had gone up to Garrettson to congratulate him on his victory. Nobody approached Herchweiler, who stayed sitting on the challenge ground, wiping off blood with a handkerchief as his eye strayed to his former lad, clinging to Garrettson's side.

Finally, as Tyrrell and Pickens left the challenge ground, Tyrrell said, "So might is all-important in Compassion Prison. A man who has no brawn loses his lad."

Pickens clapped him on the shoulder. "Nay, man, you've missed the point. Were you not seeing what was taking place there? You've gone and done it yourself."

Tyrrell slowly looked over at Pickens. "A trial?"

"The real thing, rather than a ritual." Pickens raised his hand briefly to greet a passing claimed lad who was a watch-hound. "Your trial of endurance when you were first arriving here – that was just a preliminary round, to show whether you had the strength to endure a challenge. Mind," he added as they stepped down the boundary step into the little men's territory, "you made a good enough showing that it may be that no one will challenge you, once you've claimed a lad or two. But if any folk were figuring on weaknesses in you, they'd be bound to go after your lad."

"And then my lad would abandon me?" Tyrrell said incredulously. "Pickens, Herchweiler risked having his neck snapped for his lad's sake! He's not deserving to be treated in a faithless manner by his lad."

Pickens sighed, nudging aside an abandoned crate in the little men's territory. "You're still not seeing it. Not your fault; you weren't present for Herchweiler's first four challenges."

Tyrrell stopped in his tracks. "He has been challenged 'fore?"

"Aye, this is the fifth challenge. And each time the result has been the same: he has panicked. Tyrrell, Herchweiler wouldn't have had his neck snapped; Garrettson would have forfeited his own life if that had fallen. Killing or maiming or broken bones aren't permitted on the challenge ground; every folk knows that. It's not physical strength that's being challenged." He looked over at Tyrrell, waiting.

"Endurance," Tyrrell replied slowly. "You had tale of it a moment ago."

Pickens nodded as he started walking again. "Endurance and courage, as in the trial you went through to draw your manhood. You didn't win that trial 'cause you were the victor in strength. You won 'cause you refused to surrender. Lads surrender; men refuse to surrender themselves, even when their challenger has the upper hand."

Tyrrell considered this as they made their way through the crowd of little men who were beginning to relax on the ground or on crates or buckets, resting briefly before they began work again. "Five times, you give tale?"

"Five times challenged, and each time Herchweiler surrendered to the other man. You can't say Schultz wasn't patient with his man. Give mind again: a challenge, it happens when a lad is being taken from his man. That poor lad has suffered groin-gropings and bruises for six weeks now, while Herchweiler has gone and done nothing but panic on the challenge ground." The contempt in Pickens's voice was clear.

Tyrrell looked at him sharply. "So you think Schultz shaped the right choice in choosing Garrettson as his man?"

"Nay, I didn't have meaning of that. There are ways to lay claim on another man's lad that don't result in his lad crying from fear and pain. A little whisper of 'I'd be a better man for you' would have won the same goal. But Garrettson wasn't merely craving Herchweiler's lad; he craved to see Helmet stripped of his manhood on the challenge ground. So Garrettson let Schultz suffer, and I doubt he'll treat Schultz any better, now that Schultz is his lad."

Tyrrell had stopped again; his heart was beating in his throat. "So Herchweiler is no longer a man? You can lose your manhood if your lad leaves you?"

Pickens shrugged. "Depends how it happens. No folk is going to fault a man whose lad asks to be released from his vow of service 'cause he has found a man he favors better. But if a lad leaves a man 'cause he questions his man's manhood, and if the man has let himself surrender, with others watching, and if he acts so much without honor during the challenge fight that his own man lets go his claim . . . Aye, there's not much hope for Herchweiler now. 'Less he can be finding another lad who's willing to confirm Herchweiler's manhood by pledging his service, Helmet will be an unclaimed lad by week's end. No need for a declaration by the true men; every folk saw, or will catch tale, what happened on the challenge ground, and Herchweiler will be treated accordingly by every folk who meets him."

Tyrrell looked slowly around at the little men's territory, where men without lads chatted and laughed and rubbed weary eyes. "Little wonder some men never choose lads," he said quietly. "It sounds as if a man would be better off without a lad to be challenged for."

"Nay, nay." Pickens's voice was soft now. "Never give tale of that, mate. To hold a lad in your arms at night, and to know that, thanks to you, he has a full stomach and is safe from the filthy hands of rapists . . . There's nothing like it, Tyrrell. You don't want to deny yourself that honor."

Tyrrell was silent, thinking of the "honor" that had been stripped from Pickens when he killed his First Lad in fury of temper and was forced to become lad to Hosobuchi in order to save himself from execution by the true men. Perhaps Pickens thought of this tragic episode as well and was discomforted by the thought, for he slapped Tyrrell on the back, saying cheerfully, "Go looking for a lad, mate! I'm willing to wager you'll have one within the week."

"Six months."

They both jumped in place, then turned to look at the speaker. Ahiga was standing within inches of them, honing his blade with a bit of stone that looked as though it had once belonged to the prison walls.

"Sir?" Pickens's left hand had gone behind his right elbow, and he stood at attention.

Ahiga did not look up from his task. "Six months. No less. It will take time and temperament and testing for you to know this place, man. Do not rush to take others under your protection until you know what protection against, they need." He sheathed his honed blade, turned his back, and walked away without a word.

Tyrrell looked at Pickens. "He likes to spout pithy little bits of advice, aye?"

Pickens laughed as he released his hand from service position. "Aye, he does. You'll get used to him." He raised his head, watching the progress of Davidson, who was walking to the back of the prison's great cell. "Claiming time."

"You can read the shadows?" Tyrrell looked around, taking in the fact that the light in the prison had grown dimmer.

"Aye, that and the fact that Davidson is gone." Pickens pointed his thumb at the departing lad. "He's one of the few claimed lads who stays ties with his old mates among the unclaimed lads. Farnam lets Davidson visit his mates when Farnam has no work for him, but Davidson is under strict orders to come back to the true men's cells at claiming time. Farnam, he isn't going to risk having that lad near the gates when the guards claim their prize for the night."

Tyrrell raised his eyebrows as he watched unclaimed lads drifting away from the gate area. He knew what must be taking place now: Walker going amongst the unclaimed lads, forcing them to draw straws to determine which lads would be standing near the gate when the guards' claiming took place. "Claimed lads – lads who have men protecting them in this prison – can be claimed by the guards?"

"Any folk can be claimed by the guards." Pickens's voice took on a tone of disgust. "Mind, I doubt the guards would hold a claim on a true man's lad; they respect the authority of the true men, to a certain extent. But 'twould mean Farnam having to beg Davidson back, which would be a humiliation for him and a terror for Davidson. So any man worth his necklet will stay his lads away from the gate at claiming time." He turned, and with an easy hand he caught his watch-hound spear as Shuji tossed it to him.

"Work again?" Tyrrell guessed.

Pickens nodded. "That's right," he said, switching to the Mippite tongue, no doubt for the sake of Shuji, who spoke a different dialect of Vovimian than Pickens and Tyrrell did. "Hosobuchi has been letting me off watch-hound duty since you came, so that you'd have someone to show you our ways, but I can't escape from claiming-time duty when my turn comes. Want to go and watch? It's considered the evening entertainment by some men."

Tyrrell looked over to the area near the gate, where watch-hounds were beginning to encircle the allotted lads, and curious men were beginning to gather to watch. He said carefully in Mippite, "I would sooner cut my own throat and offer my guts for the gods' feeding than treat the rape of lads as entertainment."

Several of the nearby prisoners stared. A little man who had been about to step into the unclaimed lads' territory – it was Quigley, the little man who had spoken to Tyrrell about the Sweet-tooth Company on his first day – stopped abruptly, looking over at Tyrrell. His olive skin flushed. After a moment of indecision, Quigley turned and walked in the opposite direction.

Pickens whapped Tyrrell on the back so hard that he staggered. "Man," the lad said, "I knew there was a reason I named you as my mate."