The year 393, the eleventh month. (The year 1892 Fallow by the Old
The Magisterial Republic of Mip was an egalitarian nation, founded in the years before egalitarianism became a political byword. Tugged back and forth for centuries by kings and queens and lords of neighboring nations, Mip, upon its declaration of independence, had disavowed all further attempts by the elite to take possession of its government. In the justice courts of Mip, all were equal, no matter what their rank in life. Indeed, peerage titles had been abolished altogether – though, out of courtesy, Mip recognized the right of peers to continue to use the titles that had no legal force. In the eyes of the law, every man in Mip was no better, and no worse, than his fellow man.
Unless, of course, he was Aldred Starke, heir apparent to the Duke of Howard.
Starke paused in the entryway to Compassion Life Prison in order to pull out a silver case from the inner pocket of his uniform. Compassion being a place where older customs lingered long, most of the other guards favored pipes or cigars, but Starke did not need the added disadvantage of appearing old-fashioned in his smoking habits. He smoked a cigarette.
The remainder of the guards from the day watch were leaving now, chatting about the hotel at Ammippian Springs, where they planned to sup together. "Where are you men headed, Landry?" Starke asked in a pointed manner.
"Good evening, Lord Aldred," the other guard replied in an equally pointed manner, and then turned to answer a question from Pugh, the day supervisor.
Pugh never used Starke's title. But then, Pugh never used any titles, not even when addressing the Assistant Keeper. So he was no sign of help.
With a sigh, Starke brought out his mechanical lighter – a present on the Lords' Spring Festival from Tom, who had a gift for obtaining experimental technology. Starke struck his new-style lighter and placed it against his new-style cigarette, and watched the other guards disappear through the exit to the prison, ignoring him.
The guards at the gunners' post – who could not, in point of fact, shoot a gun, since the magisterial seats had not yet assigned firearms to the prison – chatted with each other in a leisurely fashion. Their job was simply to open and close the main gate into the prison complex, and now that the day watch was away for the evening, Starke thought gloomily, Landry and the others would be having a fine old time in town till late at night.
As for himself, he would be doing the same thing he always did in the evening: going to the shooting gallery and engaging in practice fire with his old army pistol. Alone.
He sighed again as he turned. Tom had become ever-obsessed with formality in recent years; the days were long gone when he had introduced himself to everyone by his given name. Starke, though, was off-duty, and he was blasted out of any chance of rebirth if he was going to call Tom by his title on his own off-duty hours. "What is it, Tom?"
The Assistant Keeper winced slightly, in the manner he always did these days when someone addressed him by his given name. This meant he ended up wincing throughout most of the day. The other guards made fun of him behind his back, but Starke still held enough tenderness toward the young boy he had once trained that he had never told Tom this.
Tom beckoned him over. The Assistant Keeper was standing under a lamp near the prison's riot doors, examining some papers in his hand – blueprints, Starke saw. Starke's interest quickened as he sighted what object had been sketched onto the blueprints.
Tom handed over the blueprints silently. After a minute, Starke said, "Yclau design?"
"Yes. The engineers in the Queendom of Yclau are formidably ahead of our engineers in their work. But this information came to us by way of the Kingdom of Vovim."
"I see that Vovim's spies haven't slackened in their skills." Starke ran a finger lightly over the barrel of the rifle on the page. "Beautiful work – they remind me of the rifles I used for hunting as a boy. I wish we could afford these."
"We couldn't afford these at any price. They're machine rifles." Tom kept his voice low – too low to be heard by the nearby chatting guards.
Starke nearly dropped the blueprints. "You must be making mock."
"Not at all." Tom showed him the seal he had broken on the envelope. It was the seal of the magisterial seats. "Not for publication, Mr. Starke. Only a handful of men in the world know that the Yclau are secretly designing a new type of machine rifle."
He would have thought that Tom was trying to curry favor with him, except that Tom wasn't that type. So he simply said, "I'll keep mum. Are these built yet? And is there any chance our army will be able to get ahold of them?" Starke had never seen machine rifles in operation, but he had heard of the destruction they had caused during the final years of the Thousand Years' War.
Those had been lumbering machines, difficult to move and operate, requiring an extra man to feed the ammunition. But this new design . . . Sweet blood, it looked as light as an ordinary rifle, and it was fed, not by an ammunition belt, but by magazine boxes.
The perfect gun to carry into battle . . . or to hold back murderous prisoners.
Tom shook his head. He was twenty-eight, four years younger than Starke, but he always had a certain gravity about his manner that made him look older – at least, he seemed that way to men who hadn't seen him in his bath, squealing as he played with a wooden duck decoy. That had happened when Tom was twelve, but it was an image impossible to forget.
Now Tom said, "Yclau won't sell arms to us. But in lieu of machine rifles . . ." He passed the accompanying letter to Starke.
Starke's eyebrows shot up as he scanned the missive. "To us? These are the same magisterial seats who have told us time and again that it's perfectly possible for twenty guards to control a thousand prisoners, using nothing but whips and daggers?"
Tom smiled. "They changed their minds."
Starke eyed him. Whenever Tom grew cagey with information, it was a sure sign that he had been involved in the event. No doubt he had sent letter after letter to the magisterial seats, arguing in favor of better weapons.
"Well," said Starke, folding up the letter, "at least we'll be able to use ordinary rifles. That will help with guarding the entryway." He pointed to the gunners' post.
"And even more with the prison itself." Tom took the letter from him, placed it and the blueprint back into the envelope, and carefully tucked the envelope into the inner pocket of his jacket. "If those prisoners ever decide to try to make a mass dash through the prison gate when we open it . . . Well, may the gods help us. Regretfully, we would need gunfire to hold them back."
The "regretful" part of the statement, Starke knew, did not have to do with the guards' lack of defense against the vicious prisoners. Tom always had a soft spot where convicts were concerned. Starke had given up trying to point out to Tom the folly of having a gushy heart toward men who had been sent to prison for life for their premeditated murders and rapes. "Where will you place the second gunners' post? Above the guards' post?"
Tom nodded. "The balcony opposite the prison gate will provide the best view for the gunners . . . if we can obtain the gunners. What worries me, Mr. Starke, is not whether we will get the rifles; my worry is who will man the gunners' posts."
"Ah." Starke reflected that Tom had a gift for pinpointing troubles. "How many guards are certified for gunnery duty?"
"You. Me. Mr. Landry. And our Keeper, of course, but he can't be expected to take gunnery duty. Nor can I, most days, because of my extra duties as Assistant Keeper." Tom shook his head. "Mr. Starke, we cannot protect this prison with only two active gunners. We need more guards who are certified to man firearms."
Starke made no reply. He knew that Tom was already aware that the best place in Mip to find certified gunners was in the Mippite army. Tom also knew how slim his chances were of persuading any soldiers to transfer their talents to a life prison. The army despised the life prisons, considering them a never-ending source of trouble, since it was the soldiers who were called upon to round up escaped prisoners and put down riots.
At Compassion Prison, only two guards were former soldiers. One was Landry, who was rumored to have requested a transfer from the army in order to escape incipient charges regarding his conduct with a neighborhood girl. The other soldier was Starke. Starke knew well enough why he had originally transferred to Compassion: out of curiosity to see why, by all that was sacred, the life prisons couldn't keep their prisoners under better control.
What puzzled him was why he was still here at Compassion, sixteen years later.
Tom asked, "Is all well, Mr. Starke?"
He looked up to see Tom watching him in a seemingly idle fashion. Starke felt himself flush. He should know better than to let his mind wander to his difficulties. Tom was too bloody skilled at ascertaining other people's thoughts.
Starke ran his hand through his hair, pushing back his uniform's cap as he did so. "Could be better," he admitted.
"Still having problems with the other guards?" Tom asked sympathetically.
He had never been able to figure out whether Tom's sympathy at such moments was genuine, or whether Tom was simply highly skilled at drawing out confessions. Both, perhaps. He heard himself burst out, "Sixteen years I've been here – sixteen! I've been here longer than most of the other guards. And they all treat me as though I'm green, as though I just walked through the door yesterday. They call each other by their last names – but me, I'm always 'Lord' this and 'Lord' that. They won't even shake my arm in greeting—"
"Have you ever offered them your arm?"
Stopped in mid-flow, he stared at Tom, trying to recapture his thoughts. "What?"
Tom sighed as he glanced toward the outbuildings' riot doors, which the day watch hadn't bothered to close. "Mr. Starke," he said, "we're all products of our upbringing. From an early age, my father expected me to become Keeper of Compassion Prison one day. He trained me accordingly. I try my best to be gentle with the prisoners, yet I know that, despite all my efforts, I often project dictatorial power and absolute control—"
Starke bit his lip, trying very hard not to laugh.
"—and I'm not always aware of when I behave inappropriately. Neither are you."
Laughter drained from him. "What do you mean?"
From nearby came a shout. Tom turned quickly toward the open riot doors, waved an arm, and cried out, "I'll be right there, sir!" He turned back to Starke. "I must go; our Keeper wishes to speak with me. Mr. Starke, will you do something for me, as a personal favor?"
He gave a noncommittal grunt as he dropped his cigarette stub to the floor and ground it underfoot. He knew what Tom's favors were like.
"Do you recall the gentleman you escorted in this afternoon?" Tom persisted.
It took him a moment to figure out what Tom was talking about. Only Tom could transform a slobbish little rotter into a gentleman. "You mean that young vagabond who came begging for work? Pugh gave him a clip on the ear for being a pest, and nearly did the same to me, for letting the lad into the prison complex."
Tom nodded. "I'm grateful to you for having taken the trouble to assist him. I've hired him as my servant."
He stared, wondering whether he had misheard.
Tom gave a slight smile. "I'm afraid it will take me some time to persuade my father to hire him officially. He's of foreign blood, and my father dislikes hiring foreigners. In the meantime, though, I can keep him usefully occupied, paying him from my own wages. He's in my rooms now. Will you show him around the sleeping wing and the outbuildings, Mr. Starke? I don't want him to feel lost on his first day of work, and you're good with servants. —Yes, sir, I'm coming now!" This was in response to another shout, sharper, from the balcony of the outbuildings. Tom turned and squeezed Starke's arm briefly. "Thank you, Mr. Starke. I appreciate your help."
Then Tom was past the riot doors, before Starke could point out that he had not agreed to do anything.
Sighing, Starke reached over and pulled down the lever that closed the riot doors. If he let himself think about it, he knew perfectly well why he was still at Compassion Prison, sixteen years after he first came here, and eight years after the terrible events of the Riot of '85.
One day, Tom would be Compassion's Keeper. Starke was intensely curious
as to what would happen on that day.
He found the new servant in Tom's bedroom, fingering an amulet Tom often wore. The moment that Starke entered the room, the servant dropped the amulet and cried, "I wasn't stealing it, mister! Honest!"
That told Starke all he needed to know about what sort of work the servant had done in the past. He eyed the servant's distasteful appearance. Dirty dungaree overalls, unkempt hair, and a body barely a day over seventeen, if Starke was any judge of such matters. Old enough to work in the prison system, but that was all that could be said of this lad. What was Tom thinking, hiring a scruffy ratling to work in a life prison?
Still, perhaps the servant could do little harm, confined to the sleeping wing. Starke said tersely, in his usual manner of introducing himself, "I'm Lord Aldred Starke."
"Lord Starke?" The servant stared wide-eyed at him, as though the King of Vovim had just walked into the room.
He was not, in fact, Lord Starke, being the younger son of the late Duke of Howard, but it hardly seemed worth his while to point this out. He had already identified, from the lad's accent, which nation he came from: the Dozen Landsteads. That neighboring nation was notorious for its rigid class system. The lad had undoubtedly been trained since childhood to bow and scrape before his betters.
Good. Tom's servant already knew his proper position here, then. "The Assistant Keeper asked me to show you your duties," Starke added. "Your name?"
"I'm Dick . . . Medinger, my lord." The servant lowered his eyes, his left hand awkwardly scrabbling behind his back until it had reached service position, cupping the inside of his right elbow.
Starke wondered whether the lad had made up that family name on the spot. It certainly didn't sound like a servant's name. "You're from a service family?" he probed.
"Yes, my lord. We came from the Eighth Landstead." The servant seemed on easier ground here.
Medinger hesitated. "My parents are dead, my lord. I've been riding the rails for the past five years."
Worse and worse. For goodness' sake, what was Starke to do with a lad like this? Criminal background, no service training during his apprentice years, idling his time among tramps on the railroads . . . It was as though Tom had spent a month picking the worst possible candidate for employment.
Starke suppressed a sigh. He had been taught, from a very early age, to treat servants gently, unless they required discipline. No doubt that eventuality would occur in about five minutes' time. In the meanwhile, he would try to be patient.
But he wasn't going to spend his entire evening giving this servant the intensive training he would need in order to provide service for his new employer. Tom would have to take care of that. Starke asked, "Are those the best clothes you own?"
The servant looked down at his overalls. "They're the only clothes I own, my lord."
Starke suppressed another sigh. "Come with me. You can use the servants' bath."
The lad looked better an hour later, freshly washed and with his hair combed. Starke accepted back the comb he had loaned Medinger; then he dropped the comb in his bedroom's rubbish can. It was doubtless infested with lice now.
Medinger had already possessed sense enough to throw away his old clothes. Now he was wearing Starke's. Starke had first been hired as a prison guard when he was nearly Medinger's age; he had never found the time or energy to throw out the civilian clothes of his journeyman years. The clothes fit Medinger well enough, though it was now more obvious than ever that the servant had been underfed for some time.
The servants' kitchen next, then; Starke took the lad there and watched him gobble down the cold remains of supper. The other servants were absent, either asleep or busy working, depending on which shift they were on.
"We have two guard-shifts," Starke explained as he finished showing Medinger the servants' water closet. "Day watch and night watch. Therefore, somebody is sleeping in this wing at most times of the day and night. Remember that, and don't make any noise when you're awake."
As though to give the lie to this statement, there was a great bang at the end of the corridor. Medinger jumped, whirling around with a swiftness that would have done him proud, had he been a guard. Starke simply lit another cigarette.
After a couple of minutes, a guard emerged from behind the door at the end of the corridor. His revolver was still smoking. "Hello, Landry," Starke said.
Landry glanced briefly at him before turning his attention to his revolver's safety bolt.
Starke tried again. "Short night out?"
For once, Landry was willing to reply. "It's my claiming night," he responded, not looking up from the revolver. "I decided I'd have supper and a quick shoot before starting the claiming." As he came abreast of them, he glanced briefly at Medinger, then evidently decided the lad was not worth looking at.
Paradoxically, this annoyed Starke. Planting himself in Landry's path, he said, "This is Medinger. He's new here."
"Another of your servants, Lord Aldred?" The sneer was clear in Landry's voice.
This was manifestly unfair, since Starke, like all the other guards, made use only of the servants that were employed by Compassion's Keeper. "The Assistant Keeper's," Starke replied tersely.
"What in Hell's name does Tom need a personal servant for?" Landry looked Medinger over, gave him a vague pat on the head as though he were a stray dog that had wandered in, and pushed his way past Starke without another word.
Starke looked down at Medinger. The servant's eyes had narrowed. The lad said in a brittle voice, "That's one of the guards?"
"Yes." Starke wondered what lay behind the servant's hostility, then inwardly shrugged. Not his problem. If the servant became unruly, Tom could discipline him.
Besides, that condescending pat on the head would have frayed Starke's own temper. Certainly his temper was already frayed by how Landry and the other guards treated him. With this thought in mind, and with some small notion of making up to the servant for the disdainful manner in which he had been treated by Landry, Starke asked, "Would you like to see the shooting gallery?"
Immediately, Medinger's expression was one of eagerness. "May I?"
In reply, Starke gave him two of the keys on his chain. "Go back to my bedroom and use the first key to open the door. My pistol is in a locked trunk next to the bed. Use this second key for the trunk. Fetch the pistol and ammunition box inside the trunk; I'll be in the gallery."
When he arrived back, Medinger seemed duly impressed by the austerity of the shooting gallery. The room had been ordered in its arrangement by Tom, of course. It consisted of an earthen bank at the end of one long, doorless corridor. The corridor was marked at intervals to show the distance from the cardboard target, which was held firmly in place by what looked, to the uneducated eye, like an easel.
Landry had not bothered to put in a fresh target. Remaining at the far end of the gallery, Starke sent the servant to remedy this while he himself carefully checked that the magazine of his gun was full. The idea of keeping a gun unloaded while living next to a prison filled with violent men would have struck him as ludicrous. At night, he slept with the pistol under his pillow. He never forgot to take the pistol with him on his claiming nights.
Medinger returned, panting from his exertions in bringing Landry's target to Starke, like a dog bringing a bone to its master. "Did you want to keep this, my lord?"
He glanced idly at it. Each target was in the shape of a spiral of rebirth that spun out from a central bullseye. As usual, Landry had landed his bullets on the second and third of the tightly spiralling rings. Landry was a fair marksman. "No, set it aside," Starke replied. Then, speaking automatically in the manner in which his father had grilled him to treat servants when he was a boy, he added, "Thank you. Now come stand behind me, near the door. And you'd better put your hands over your ears. This will be loud."
After propping the used target against the wall, Medinger complied with these orders. He didn't say anything stupid like, "May I hold the gun?" or "Are you sure you know how to shoot?" or even, "I'll stand in front of you, and you see whether you can miss me." The lad was more intelligent than most of Compassion's guards, who always struck Starke as having a death wish.
He waited until Medinger was out of the way; then he brought the pistol up, two-handed, in a smooth arc that ended at the moment he pulled the trigger six times, in rapid succession.
The bullets flowed from his pistol as though eager to be away. When he had finished, he didn't bother looking at the target to see how well he had shot. He gestured to Medinger, who raced forth to change the target. The lad was back again within seconds, holding the used target and crying, "My lord, that was wonderful! I've never seen anything like that!"
He glanced up from where he was inserting a fresh magazine. Six bullets he had fired, but it was impossible to tell that, for they had all landed where he had aimed them: at the heart of the bullseye. All that could be seen was one small hole that every bullet had slipped through.
There were evenings when the bullets landed that way: straight and true and with the beauty that had once won Starke a reputation as the finest marksman in the Mippite army.
There were other evenings – far too many, lately – when Starke spent all his pent-up frustration in the claiming room, and then stared at the ceiling for several hours, lying in the claiming bed, smoking sweetweed, and thinking about his ill fortune at having become a prison guard. When he entered the shooting gallery on evenings like that, all his bullets went awry, landing no closer in than Landry's.
He was glad this was one of his good evenings. Feeling expansive in his charity, he asked, "Would you like to shoot a round?"
Medinger's eyes widened. Smiling, Starke handed him the gun as he said, "Careful – it's loaded and ready to shoot. Don't point it toward either of us, and keep your finger away from the trigger until you're ready to shoot." He made sure the lad was following instructions; then he turned to set aside the box that had held the extra ammunition.
The gun fired six times, in rapid succession.
Starke whirled round. "I didn't say that you could shoot yet," he announced in the awful voice he reserved for prisoners who failed to obey his commands.
White-faced, Medinger handed the empty pistol back to him. "I'm sorry, my lord. I mistook your wishes."
"In prison work, mistakes can result in death. You're not to touch that gun again – do you understand?"
Medinger nodded, his expression bleak. Impatiently, Starke gestured to the servant to change the target. Starke inspected the pistol carefully, then reloaded it a second time and slid forward the safety bolt. By the time he was finished, Medinger had returned. The lad placed the used target on top of the other targets.
Starke glanced at it, then away, making no comment. Medinger's expression fell further.
Starke handed him the empty ammunition box. "Put this back in place, and I'll take you over to the outbuildings. Be quick about it."
Medinger murmured an acknowledgment, and then he backed out of the room hastily. Starke waited until he was gone before looking at the target again.
Six bullets. Five had landed on the first ring. The sixth had landed on the bullseye.
After a minute more, he slipped the pistol into his jacket pocket and left the shooting gallery. Not his problem. Tom would have to figure out how to deal with a servant who had the ability to kill him.
Starke did, however, take care to quiz the lad as they travelled into the entryway that joined the two wings. "You've used a gun before?"
Medinger paled. Starke was not surprised. Firearms were rare and valuable in Mip, which had no arms manufactories of its own. If a penniless tramp possessed a gun, it was because he had stolen one. Starke waited to see whether the servant would be honest about his malefaction.
Finally Medinger said in a low voice, "It was loaned to me, my lord."
"Loaned" was the usual word used by thieves. "By whom?" Starke demanded as he made his way toward the lever beside the riot doors.
"A brakey, my lord – a brakeman on the Western Mippite Railroad. One of the nice ones. He had an old revolver, which he no longer used, because it was a black-powder model. He let me borrow it; he was worried that, otherwise, I wouldn't be able to defend myself against any men I met who were . . . unscrupulous."
Starke paused with his hand on the lever. "Unscrupulous" was a rather long word for an illiterate servant to use. "Do you still have the gun?"
"No, my lord. I decided I didn't want it, after the first time I used it. I gave it back."
"You didn't like shooting human flesh?" Intrigued by the story, Starke let his hand drop from the lever.
Medinger looked surprised. "I don't mind defending myself, my lord. But the brakey didn't have time to train me to use the revolver, other than how to load and point and safety-lock it. I tried reading the training manual—"
"You can read?"
Medinger lowered his eyes, as though he had been accused of another crime. "Yes, my lord. I taught myself to read and write. But the manual was written for men who had already used guns in the past, so I couldn't understand much of it. I nearly killed the first man I used the revolver against. I decided I'd rather not use a weapon that powerful, without proper training."
Interesting indeed. Starke had never before met a man who, when handed a gun, voluntarily set it aside. "So you've been undefended since then?"
Medinger hesitated, just a fraction of a second too long. Starke silently held out his hand. Carefully, Medinger pulled the weapon from out of his trousers pocket and handed it to Starke.
The weapon was nothing to worry about, though – merely a boy's pocket knife. Starke glanced at it only briefly before slipping it into his own pocket. Medinger made a noise in his throat, quickly aborted.
"Servants aren't allowed to carry weapons," Starke informed him. "Anyway, you won't need one, in the sleeping wing."
"What about when I enter the prison, my lord?" Medinger gestured toward the riot doors.
So that was where the lad's dreams lay. Best to nip such fancies in the bud, Starke decided. "You won't be entering the prison. And this will be your last time visiting the outbuildings surrounding the prison." Why Tom wanted his new servant to visit the outbuildings, Starke could not imagine. Only a few experienced, older servants were permitted to enter there, in order to mop the floors and do other such tasks as were too menial for the guards. Perhaps Tom merely wanted to slake the lad's curiosity. Or perhaps, Starke reflected contemplatively as he took hold of the lever again, Tom thought his new lad might one day rise to the upper levels of service.
Starke pulled the lever.
Unwary visitors to Compassion Prison, witnessing the riot doors in use, invariably reacted in the same fashion, though with small differences. They jumped. They gasped. They staggered back. They gave little screams.
And that was only from the sound of the alarm. As the alarm shrilled out its warning in a deafening tone, the great, metal doors thundered, sliding back on the strongest, most advanced rollers that existed in Mip. It was like seeing a mountain unexpectedly bellow and split open.
Medinger simply placed his hands over his ears. Perhaps he had grown inured to mechanical wonders while hopping trains run by noisy locomotives. At any rate, Starke spared no further glances at him. He was busy training his pistol at the growing gap in the doorway.
Some guards at Compassion Prison thought it was amusing, when they knew that Starke was opening the riot doors, to place themselves in the gap, put their thumbs against their noses, and waggle their fingers, cheerfully calling, "Shoot me!" Those were the guards with the death wishes. The more intelligent guards – the ones who had watched Starke shoot and had grasped his ability to kill with a single shot – made no attempts to disguise themselves as escaping prisoners when Starke opened the riot doors.
Nobody was there today. Starke waited until the doors were fully open before he slipped the pistol into his jacket pocket and waved the servant forward. The lad proceeded cautiously, looking back and forth, probably expecting to see prisoners ready to pounce on him.
In fact, all that could be seen at this end of the outbuildings' courtyard was an empty floor. There was talk that the food storage rooms would eventually be extended this far, as the number of prisoners increased, but that hadn't happened yet. All that lay around the entrance to the covered courtyard was empty space. Starke knew that Tom was nervous about that empty space: he wanted a corridor leading up to the riot doors, so that prisoners who tried to escape could be more easily trapped. Tom had a very keen sense of security, having been one of the few guards who survived the Riot of '85.
Starke – the only guard surviving the Riot of '85 who had actually been on duty that night – had an even keener sense of security. The moment he was inside, he levered the riot doors closed – just in time too, for Landry, not heeding the warning of the alarm, had chosen this moment to drag his prisoner toward the claiming room. Starke hastily drew his pistol, lest the prisoner attempt an escape. Officially, Starke was only authorized to use a whip or a dagger against the prisoners, but he was not in the habit of gambling with his life.
The prisoner, though, seemed stunned at having been chosen. He and Landry disappeared into the claiming room along the wall to the right, the door clicking locked behind them. A few moments later – Landry never wasted time – the prisoner began to wail.
Putting away his pistol again, Starke looked over at the servant, who was staring at the locked door of the claiming room. Medinger asked, "Is that where the prisoners are questioned?"
Starke nearly laughed. This was almost a repeat performance of Tom's first question about the claiming room. Tom had been age twelve when his father, newly appointed as Compassion's Keeper, had delegated to Starke the duty of giving the lad a tour of the outbuildings. Tom, though, had asked, "Is that where the guards help the prisoners to transform and repent of their crimes?"
"It's guards' business," Starke replied, as he had done sixteen years before. "Don't worry yourself about it."
Tom had narrowed his eyes. That had been Starke's first hint that the Keeper's son was not quite so soft or naive as he appeared.
Medinger narrowed his eyes. He asked in a brittle voice, "Do all the guards use that room?"
Starke took a minute to fish out his cigarette case from his jacket. He was busy connecting Medinger's narrowed eyes with the narrowed eyes that the servant had shown when Landry patted him.
"Unscrupulous men," Medinger had said before. No, not nearly as naive as he appeared.
Starke put a cigarette in his mouth, unlit. "Most of them," he replied. Tom abhorred the use of the claiming room. It was one of the many matters that he had fought his father about, though Starke privately considered this to be one of Tom's more useless campaigns. The claiming room, and its predecessors, had been in use at Compassion Prison for centuries. The claiming room had long since proved its worth in keeping certain types of prisoners sufficiently cowed that they made no attempt to attack the guards.
Medinger turned his head. His narrowed gaze fixed itself on Starke. "Do you use it?"
He was ready for the question. "All the prisoners I deal with are willing to obey me, without need for punishment."
Medinger's gaze narrowed further. "How do you know which prisoners will obey you?"
"I know." He left it at that. As he had said before, the claiming room was guards' business – a matter that the guards never spoke about to outsiders, who might misunderstand Compassion's centuries-old customs. Really, Starke thought with disgust as he put the unlit cigarette back in the case and pocketed it, Tom had no business ordering him to bring a tramp-turned-servant to the outbuildings. The lad would probably gossip about what he'd seen to all the other tramps he knew.
"Any questions?" Starke asked sharply.
It could hardly be expected that the lad would have questions; Starke had shown him nothing. Not the storage rooms, not the coding room, not the healer's surgery, which had lain empty since the last healer resigned in dismay at his work conditions. Medinger, though, looked quickly around the courtyard that was lined with the outbuildings. "Where are the prisoners' cells?"
"There." He pointed to the prison: high walls of solid black stone stood in the midst of the wooden outbuildings surrounding it. "Don't go near the prison. The guards' post is opposite the prison gate."
Medinger looked at the distant post where Tom now stood, and then at the balcony immediately above it. "You could place sharpshooters on that balcony, to keep the prisoners from escaping," Medinger remarked.
"We could," he said, mildly surprised that the lad would show so much foresight. "Come on, now. I'll take you to the head servant; he can give you any extra training you need." He wanted the lad out of here, before he should notice that the prisoner in the claiming room had stopped screaming. Landry was always quick and ruthless. Starke hoped he hadn't gone too far this time with his claimed prisoner. Corpses had to be explained to the magisterial seats.
Starke turned toward the riot doors. He could hear, like a heavy foot that grinds into the dust, the silence in the claiming room behind him. To his right, the servant had turned away, in a yearning fashion, toward the prison. The guards' post was out of sight now. Starke could imagine Tom overhearing his thought about the corpses and frowning in disapproval.
Tom said that the prisoners should be treated in a humane fashion. No doubt he was right . . . in theory. But Starke would still wake up in a sweat some nights, his heart pounding, as he emerged from his memory-nightmare of standing with a broken collarbone, sobbing, telling himself that he was sobbing from the pain of his injury, and not because he was witnessing the violent death of all his friends.
The prisoners had slaughtered guards beyond measure during the Riot of 385. They had been like beasts of prey that night, ravenous for blood. Tom was right: the prisoners could be better than that. But you couldn't improve their characters by treating them softly. The prisoners killed anyone in whom they sensed weakness.
If the claiming room helped, in its small way, to make clear to the prisoners which men held the power in the prison, it should continue in use. The guards must make clear to the prisoners where their proper place lay within the prison.
In that respect, prisoners were like servants.
Starke paused to select the correct key from his ring. The riot doors screamed open as he turned the key in the lock. Tom insisted that the lever to the riot doors, on the outbuildings' side, be accessible only through a key. Tom was a good man, where safety was concerned, Starke thought as he slipped his keys back into his pocket and touched the pistol there. If Tom would just stick to protecting his guards—
Two hundred pounds of furious prisoner landed upon Starke.
He was on his back now, with the prisoner atop him. If he'd been quicker-witted, he would have drawn his pistol and thrust its barrel against the prisoner's face. Now, though, Starke's hand remained in his pocket. He dared not move. The prisoner who sat upon Starke's chest had his fist curled around the hilt of a guard's dagger. The point of the dagger was at Starke's throat.
The prisoner gave a toothy grin; his eyes had a wild look to them. "Say hello to the underworld's High Master for me," he told Starke.
Starke had often reflected over the years that the penchant for murderers to give little speeches before they committed their murders – a penchant much encouraged by the authors of shilling-shocker stories – had its drawbacks for the murderer. Now he saw the wisdom of his reflection, for in the next second, a blur of snarling energy attacked the prisoner, catching the man off-guard.
The prisoner toppled. The snarling attacker wrestled with him. The prisoner cursed. Both the snarls and the curses were faint under the sound of the riot doors' continued alarm as the doors drew back.
Starke tried to rise. His head immediately swam in darkness; he collapsed back to the ground. It seemed that having two hundred pounds of prisoner shove you back-first onto the floor was not good for one's head, nor for one's spine. Nearby, the snarls and curses continued amidst fists and kicks and rolling bodies.
Somehow, ignoring the piercing pain down his back, he managed to stagger to his feet. The world around him was going in and out of focus, like a badly run zoetrope. He took two steps, three, four. The rolling bodies were still now, as were the curses. The snarling continued.
His hand, shaking, took the pistol out of his pocket. He aimed the gun. He heard himself say, "You can greet Hell yourself."
He never knew whether he would have pulled the trigger. In the next moment, they arrived, shouting – all of the night watch, led by the Assistant Keeper: Tom, whose acute hearing could detect an attack under the sound of a deafening alarm. Compassion's Keeper was there too, leaning over the balcony rail to see what was happening. And Landry, dishevelled and bewildered, had run out of the claiming room and was now staring at Starke with an expression half-sympathetic and half-admiring, which would have been quite gratifying under different circumstances.
Medinger, seeing that the situation was well in hand, had backed away. The prisoner was staring up at Starke in terror, sweat covering his face. Starke's finger was on the trigger; he had somehow slid away the safety bolt in the past minute.
He could feel Tom's eye upon him.
He handed Tom the pistol. He couldn't think of what else to do. The guards around him – whose expressions matched Landry's – were blurring at the edges, growing darker.
He heard someone shout, "Watch out!" And then he felt arms around him – strong, young arms – and a voice saying, "I have you, my lord. I'm here."
Cool water trickled onto Starke's forehead. Light flickered beyond his eyelids. He was aware of a deep, agonizing humiliation.
He opened his eyes. He was lying on the bed in his own room, with a wet towel over his forehead. Sitting on a chair beside the bed was Tom.
The Assistant Keeper leaned forward. "Are you all right, Aldred?"
Starke wondered whether he was dying. Tom so rarely used his given name. But no, the humiliation was still there. "I fainted."
"You were overcome by the power of the prisoner's attack." As always, Tom was tactful. "Are you well enough to tell me what happened?"
He turned his head, looking around his room. It was empty, except for Tom. "Where . . . ?"
Tom mistook his question. "The prisoner has been punished and is safely back in his cell, thanks to you. Landry – who is currently in the Keeper's office, doing his best to excuse himself – fell asleep after the claiming. The prisoner stole Landry's dagger and keys and made his way out of the claiming room, heading toward the riot doors, through which he planned to escape. Unhappily for him, you were barring his way out. So he attacked you, hoping to persuade you to open the main prison-complex doors for him . . . or perhaps to hold you hostage so that other guards would do so. I'm afraid the prisoner wasn't quite as articulate after his punishment as I would have liked; I should have questioned him beforehand. The only other witness was young Medinger, who told us that you used your pistol to force the prisoner's submission. Do you remember anything else we should know?" Tom's voice was mildly inquisitive.
He shut his eyes. The prisoner had escaped. Starke had pointed his pistol at the prisoner's head. The prisoner was back in prison. That was all that really mattered, wasn't it? The rest was irrelevant. If he said anything more, the humiliation would only grow worse.
He heard himself say, "I didn't do it."
"Mr. Starke?" Tom had returned to his blasted formality.
He opened his eyes and looked at Tom, who was waiting patiently for him to speak. "I didn't capture the prisoner. And he didn't try to hold me hostage. He lied to you. He planned to stab my throat in order to obtain my gun. He would have succeeded, except that Medinger attacked him, bare-handed, and wrestled him into submission. The prisoner had already surrendered by the time I pointed my pistol at him."
Tom said nothing. He simply smiled.
Starke let out his breath. "You knew."
"That Medinger saved your life? No. He was too modest to tell me – or perhaps he simply holds you in such high esteem that he assumed you must have been responsible for the capture. So I didn't know what had happened . . . but I knew that I could depend on you to tell me."
Tom could flay the skin off a murderous prisoner's back with his whip, without breaking a sweat. Everyone knew that. Starke wondered how many of the other guards had grasped that Tom could do the same to a man's soul, through just a few words.
Tom was saying, "We're going to have to make some changes to this prison's security. My father is talking of moving the claiming room to a place where the night watch can keep their eye on it, and I plan to propose that we move that lever far away from the riot doors. As for your pistol—"
"He's your gunner."
Tom raised his eyebrows. "Excuse me?"
Starke propped himself onto one elbow. The humiliation was flaying him, just as he had known it would do, but to a much deeper degree. "Medinger. He knows how to shoot. He has never been trained in firearms, yet he's almost as good a marksman as you or I were at his age. And he taught himself how to read and write. He's bright, and he's quick as a whip on his feet. He could be trained to become a guard. He could be one of the gunners you're seeking."
Again, Tom said nothing. He simply smiled.
"You bastard-of-a-slave." Starke considered throwing something at Tom, then decided that he really couldn't go that far with an Assistant Keeper. "You knew all along."
"That he was a gunner? No. I suspected that he had the potential to rise higher in life than mopping floors. But he was too shy with me; I couldn't extract the information I needed. You're good with servants. I knew that you would be able to discover what I needed to know."
Trust was Tom's whip – he trusted Starke, and that placed certain obligations on Starke. Starke wasn't sure he wanted to know yet what obligations he held toward Tom.
"Yes, Assistant Keeper," he replied, and was rewarded by Tom's smile.
Medinger was in Tom's bedroom when Starke arrived there. The lad was looking more useless and out of place than ever. He was sitting on a chair, but he jumped up as soon as Starke arrived. "Are you all right, my lord?" he asked, his voice filled with concern.
Starke eyed him silently for a minute. The Assistant Keeper, he was thinking, rarely took action for only one reason. Tom had wanted Starke to find out something important about Medinger . . . but more than likely, Tom had wanted Medinger to find out something important about Starke.
Well, Starke might as well give the lad something interesting to report. "I made a mistake," he said.
"My lord?" Medinger's eyes widened. No doubt he thought the mistake lay with himself.
"In introducing myself." He held out his forearm in greeting. "I'm Aldred Starke. Just call me Starke."