The year 364, the seventh month. (The year 1883 Barley by the Old
He always felt pain after touching the Shining Ones. It was not that they burned him with heat, although they glowed brighter than the hot-white heat of the greatest furnace in the world. No, the pain he felt was the pain of touching something indescribably cold, like the middle of an iceberg, or perhaps the chill sparkle that lay within the most beautiful diamond in the Queen's treasury.
Now he could feel himself trembling. He had deliberately – deliberately – laid his hand upon a Shining One for ten whole seconds. And not for duty's sake; if that had been the case, he knew, the pain would have been bearable. It might have kept him awake half the night, nursing his wounded hand, but no sacrifice was too great for the Shining Ones, and he knew that his duty to them required that he touch them – that he touch them, grasp them, perhaps even bind and beat them if necessary, though the last act always left him half dead from the pain.
This time, though . . . He turned to look at Clifford Crofford, quietly sitting in a chair as he sipped his tea.
Clifford noticed him watching and smiled. The smile came close to blinding Barrett Boyd. He always had to be careful not to look directly at Clifford, for the young man shone more brightly than any of the other Shining Ones.
"More tea?" Barrett asked. He was skilled by now at making innocuous remarks in the presence of the Shining Ones. Nobody had even guessed that he knew what they were.
"Thank you, sir." Clifford continued to smile up at him. Deep within the enveloping cocoon of diamond-bright light, Clifford looked like an ordinary young man – a little plain-faced, perhaps. But his eyes sparkled with all the colors of the rainbow, like jewels.
As always, Barrett had to forcibly stop himself from falling onto his knees, to do homage. "Sugar?" he said. The grains of sugar, each a little prism in itself, were dull slags compared to the Shining Ones, but he offered this Shining One all that he could.
"If I could have some milk . . ." Clifford said tentatively.
He made no reply – his throat was tight at the prospect of assisting one of the Shining Ones – but instead leaned over and pulled open the door of the small icebox that was placed in his room, by virtue of his position as a senior guard in the Eternal Dungeon.
Clifford, a junior guard, possessed no icebox. Oh, the ironies of this world.
The time he spent retrieving the bottle and pouring its milk into a pitcher allowed him to recover from the dazzle in his eyes. During the first weeks after the change, it had taken him a while to learn how to look upon the Shining Ones. Never directly – that would be both dangerous and disrespectful. But if he looked just to the side of them, he would see all that he needed to see. And his duty required that he watch them, for the Shining Ones were here because, in most cases, they had committed crimes. Only with the help they received in this dungeon would they be able to admit to themselves and to others that they had done wrong.
He still believed that, despite the whip-scars on his back.
"Biscuits?" he asked Clifford as he placed the pitcher of milk at a safe distance from the junior guard. Even this close, he could feel the cold brightness stroking him, like arctic wind – pure, untouchable.
The gratitude in Clifford's voice was so great that it nearly set him trembling again. He sternly reined in his feelings. He had learned to do so with the Shining Ones, during those early weeks. True service, true homage, required that he serve the best interests of the Shining Ones – which, paradoxically, meant keeping them captive. On the one occasion he had forgotten this – when a seemingly innocent Shining One had asked his help to escape the power of an abusive Seeker-in-Training – he had let himself be fooled into forgetting what he should never have forgotten: the Shining Ones were here because they were damaged. They were damaged by their own misdeeds – all but the very few who were innocent, and in most cases the innocent few were identified quickly by their Seekers. The guilty ones, the ones who had committed murder or rape, required special care – in some cases, stern measures – in order to heal to their full brightness.
He had seen that healing happen. He had seen the dim light of broken Shining Ones grow brighter and brighter.
But none shone so brightly as Clifford Crofford, who had never done any serious wrong, except to demand of Barrett a type of love he could no longer give.
"Sir . . ."
"Yes?" He stood with the plate of biscuits in his hand, feeling foolish. Whenever he felt foolish – he knew from other people's testimony – his expression grew truculent.
Clifford dipped his eyes. Oh, sweet blood, Barrett had scared the younger guard again. It was so easy to do that. But this time he did not have to figure out, fruitlessly, how to mend the damage he had done, for Clifford said, "I was wondering . . . would it be all right for me to call you Barrett? When we're in private like this?"
He stood still, uncertain what Clifford's words portended. Finally he said, in a voice that was flat because he was trying to control his own fear that matters had gone wrong again, "I don't want you to mistake why you're here."
Clifford quickly shook his head. "No, sir. I know you're not inviting me into your bed. But we can be work partners, can't we? We can work together to help the prisoners?"
He felt relief strike him. He wished he could find a way to say, "You are more precious to me than any of the other Shining Ones." But that would dishonor the other Shining Ones, and he could not dishonor such beauty. Instead he said, still flatly, "You don't need to do this. It's not part of your duties." What exactly Clifford's true duties were, Barrett wasn't sure of. The young man was a guard, and he acted as though he wanted to be a guard. That must mean something.
"But I want to, sir!" Clifford nearly spilled his tea in his effort to make his point. "To be able to work with you again – to help you fight to protect the prisoners against abuse . . ." He took a deep breath and said more steadily, "I want that more than anything else in my life."
He had to turn away then. He was afraid that he would drop the biscuits. One of the Shining Ones wanted him . . . wanted him badly. And after all the times he had hurt Clifford. Sweet blood – what had he done in his previous life, that he should be granted such a gift?
"Sir?" Clifford's voice was tentative again. "Did I say something wrong?"
Blast and blast and blast. Would he never cease hurting Clifford?
It would have been easier if he could have told Clifford the truth. If he could have said, "Everyone believes that my brain was changed, and it's true. Ever since this dungeon's High Seeker nearly beat me to death for shielding a prisoner against his cruelty, I've seen the prisoners here in a way that no one else sees them. I've seen the light that shines within them, as bright as a sun. I've seen how wondrous they are, and how fragile at the same time. I've dedicated my life to serving them in the only way I know how. . . . And I am dedicated to you as well. You are the only one, besides the prisoners, who shines with that deep, bold light. I am your servant, now and forever. I'll give you anything that I can – anything that will please you. Anything but the love of a love-mate, for if I touched you for more than a few seconds, I would die of the exquisite pain.'"
He had always possessed enough sense not to say that to Clifford or
anyone else. Always, from the first few weeks of his awakening.
It had taken him time to notice Clifford, afterwards.
During the first few weeks after the 101 strokes, his only awareness had been of pain and anger. He knew dimly that the anger was not merely for his own sake. Others here had suffered needlessly. Others here needed to be protected. His own pain had come from an attempt to protect. No one here was to be trusted, except those he had sought to protect.
His first sight of a prisoner after he rose from his sickbed nearly blinded him. Leaving his male nurse nodding off to sleep, he had departed the healer's surgery and had curiously explored one of the dungeon corridors. Several dark figures that he passed tried to speak to him; he ignored them. He was more interested in the iron doors that led off the corridor. He sensed that treasure lay behind those doors, but he couldn't envision what that treasure might be.
A door opened, and through it came the sun.
He threw himself to his knees. The dark figures, mistaking the cause, tried to pull him up with their coffin-cold hands, but he threw them off, blind with the glory of what he had seen. He heard someone say, "Take the prisoner away." That was how he knew what he had seen.
He let the dark figures persuade him back to his sickbed. He needed time to think. As the days passed, he took more and more illicit forays through the Eternal Dungeon, both the inner dungeon where the prisoners and Seekers were kept and the outer dungeon where laborers worked and guards lived. He was aware of carefully swept floors, neatly painted walls, entranceways to further corridors. But it was always the iron doors that fascinated him. He waited one day, in the shadow of a corner, to see whether it would happen again.
It did. The door opened. This time, the Shining One did not emerge. He was bound to the wall, being beaten by a dark figure.
Barrett's first impulse was to kill the dark figure. But he was still weak in body, and he remembered the consequences of the last time he had tried to help one of the Shining Ones. He would not survive another 101 strokes. Should he sacrifice himself for the Shining Ones now, or should he wait for a more important occasion to do so? He forced himself to return to the surgery and think.
The next day, the High Seeker visited. There had been many dark figures calling upon his sickbed, among them a junior Seeker named Elsdon Taylor, who claimed that Barrett had worked under him in the past. Barrett ignored them all. But Barrett knew who this latest visitor was. He was the man who had laid raw stripes across Barrett's back.
For an attempted murderer, the High Seeker seemed exceedingly mild-mannered. He suggested that, if Barrett was well enough to rise from his bed on occasion, he might wish to visit the dungeon's library in order to educate himself about the world in which he lived.
It was good advice, despite the source. The next day, Barrett went to the library, accompanied by his nurse. Barrett's primary purpose for the visit was to learn what the Shining Ones were. It was already clear to him that he was the only man in the dungeon who could see the prisoners as they truly were.
If he told other people what he had seen, perhaps they would think he had gone mad; perhaps he would be locked up in an asylum. During the previous week, a mind healer had carefully quizzed him to check if the 101-stroke beating had damaged his brain, which left Barrett momentarily uncertain whether he was actually seeing what he thought he saw.
Fortunately, the library revealed the truth. Barrett spent every waking hour there for weeks, chasing threads, until he found what he was seeking, in the very oldest books.
The ancient ones had known the Shining Ones.
It was there, in passage after passage – not only in the love poems that the translators condescended to translate into the modern tongue, because they considered light to be a metaphor for love, but in the untranslated writings as well. The references occurred most often in the speeches made by slaves to their masters – for the ancient slaves, it seemed, were particularly skilled in seeing the sweet light that surrounded their masters. They were valued for this reason; the masters spoke proudly of their slaves' gift for seeing their true worth.
But the untranslated writings said that in older days – in days so old that no books existed from that time – everyone had seen every other man, woman, and child as a Shining One. All of humanity had shone in those days, and everyone had received the gift to see the light.
Humanity had grown blind over the centuries. First the masters had lost the gift for seeing the light of their slaves, and then the slaves had lost the sight-gift as well. It had been centuries since any poet had spoken of the Shining Ones.
Until now. Now, if Barrett had possessed the gift for writing like a poet, he could have flooded the world with new images of what it meant to be granted the gift to see the Shining Ones.
He spent five weeks seeking the Shining Ones in the books, then three weeks learning all he could about the Shining Ones, before it occurred to him that it was odd he knew how to read three languages, since he did not remember ever learning to read at all.
In fact – odder still – he had no memories earlier than waking up in the healer's surgery with his back burning with stripes of agony.
He made a few attempts to pass beyond that memory. He was able to reach the point where the flames began; going beyond that moment was too difficult. All that he could gather was that he had been a dungeon guard in the past, that he had been punished for protecting his prisoner in a way that went against the High Seeker's rules, and that he had not cared as much about prisoners in the past.
He dismissed then all interest in his previous life. If he had not cared about the Shining Ones in those days – if he had not worshipped in their presence – then he was not what he was now: a man whose mission in life was to serve the Shining Ones.
The following day, Elsdon Taylor arrived at the surgery again. He said nothing. But he left a copy of a small black volume at Barrett's bedside. Reading the book, which was entitled the Code of Seeking, Barrett began to sense how he might be able to serve the Shining Ones.
He heard Clifford draw a breath to speak, then fall silent. Barrett belatedly realized that Clifford was still waiting to hear whether he had done anything wrong. Blast again. There seemed no end to his thoughtlessness toward the junior guard. He was about to turn around and say, "No" – that being the only reply he could think of – but at that moment there was a rap at his door.
He quickly checked the clock on the wall. It was still the dawn shift. He and Clifford weren't due on duty for another hour. He took two steps over and flung the door open to a corridor in the outer dungeon. "What?"
Mr. Newman – the junior guard working under him that month – took a step backwards. Well, perhaps Barrett had been a bit abrupt. It was so hard not to be angry at the men in the dungeon who were blind to the light of the Shining Ones. They did follow the Code of Seeking – he tried to remind himself of that. They followed the Code, that document which recognized the supreme value of the prisoners' souls.
And of all the men who had contributed words to the Code of Seeking, the dungeon's High Seeker, Layle Smith, had contributed the most. There was irony for you.
"Er, the Record-keeper asked me to give you this note, Mr. B-boyd." The junior guard stammered in his nervousness. "There are shift changes as a result of—"
He snatched the note and slammed the door in the guard's face. He shouldn't have done that, he supposed. Mr. Newman was a decent enough guard, and he hadn't given Barrett any trouble. But sweet blood, how could Barrett have any respect for men who failed to recognize the full beauty of the Shining Ones? Especially when many of them whispered behind Barrett's back that his mind had been irreparably damaged when the High Seeker nearly beat him to death four years before?
However much Barrett hated the High Seeker – and his hatred for the High Seeker was deeper and more implacable than for any other dark figure – he knew that he owed the High Seeker a great debt for the change in Barrett's vision that had followed the beating. The High Seeker wouldn't have understood. Despite the passionate words of service toward prisoners that the dungeon's head torturer had written in the Code of Seeking, in conversation he gave no sign of knowing that his prisoners were much greater men than he or any other Seeker.
Barrett was surrounded by fools: Seekers and guards who cared for the greatest treasure in the world, and who failed to realize it. He alone, the man whose mind had been altered to see what the ancients had seen, knew that nothing in this world was so important as the prisoners—
He turned slowly. Clifford was still there: one of the Shining Ones, sitting in Barrett's parlor, with Barrett's teacup in his hand. Sweet blood. Barrett resisted the impulse to swallow, like a young boy who is suddenly called upon to host royalty.
"I'll leave if you want me to." Clifford spoke in a small voice.
Bloody blades. He should send Clifford away. Every word Barrett spoke, every action he took, ended up making Clifford suffer. But he heard himself say, "No."
Clifford looked down. He, the Shining One, lowered his eyes in Barrett's presence. This was intolerable. How could Barrett find a way to convey to Clifford what he was?
For it was clear that Clifford had no idea that he was a Shining One. Neither he nor any of the prisoners had guessed about themselves. And how could Barrett tell them, without being bound and sent to a house for lunatics?
Clifford said in a hesitant voice, "I've been wrong, I know. I thought that the only way we could be together was . . . like before. I'm sorry. I missed seeing what you really wanted: for me to work under you, helping you with the prisoners."
What he wanted was to throw himself on his knees before the Shining One and beg forgiveness for all the harm he had done to Clifford. He tried again to find the right words. "I . . . need you."
Clifford's face flashed up, like the brilliant flash of a kingfisher's wing. His smile was so bright that it made Barrett dizzy. "Do you?" Clifford asked, his voice filled with hope.
For once, it seemed, Barrett had said the right thing. "Yes," he replied, fumbling for some excuse that would explain his hunger to stand within Clifford's light – to feel the junior guard's light take away some of his own despicable darkness. "I'm not good at judging character. You are. You can tell me who to trust."
He felt relief again as Clifford's expression took on the look he had seen on the younger guard's face on all-too-rare occasions: the look of a Shining One who accepts the burden of his gift. For that was Clifford's great gift: not the ability to recognize the presence of other Shining Ones, but the ability to tell which of the dark figures in the dungeon could be trusted. Clifford trusted Barrett – that was extraordinary and wonderful and filled Barrett with hope that he could somehow make himself worthy of the honor of Clifford's love. But Clifford also knew who else to trust, among the dark figures of the dungeon, and it was true that Barrett very much needed that knowledge.
"Such as Mr. Taylor?" Clifford suggested.
"Yes," he replied, relief buoying him up now. "I wasn't sure whether he could be trusted."
"Oh, yes," said Clifford firmly. "You've seen how committed he is to changing the methods by which prisoners here are searched for their crimes. Mind you, we all make mistakes, but Elsdon Taylor makes fewer mistakes than most people do, don't you think?"
A Shining One valuing his opinion. It was almost too much to bear. "Will he be willing to speak with me again?"
Clifford laughed. It was a sound like bells ringing in the pureness of the arctic winter. "You haven't been paying much attention to him, have you? He has been trying with all his might to heal the breach with you."
"Has he?" Barrett hadn't noticed. He hadn't thought it important, how Mr. Taylor regarded him. But Clifford thought it was important, so it must be. "There are others?"
"Oh, yes." Clifford leaned forward, his teacup forgotten as he stared up earnestly at Barrett, who was still standing. "Barrett – Mr. Boyd, I mean – you have many friends here. Some of them have despaired that you'd ever return their friendship again, but not all have. They want to be friends still—"
"Do you think they might be trained to care about the prisoners?" That was all that mattered – not whether they wanted his friendship.
Clifford closed his eyes momentarily. Then he set aside his teacup on the small parlor-table in front of him and said carefully and deliberately, "Sir, you're not the only man in this dungeon who cares about the prisoners. I think you sometimes forget that."
He dropped his gaze. He wasn't sure why the Shining One was scolding him; surely Clifford must see that Barrett valued the prisoners more than anyone else here did. But if the Shining One was displeased with him, it was because he had done something wrong. The Shining Ones in the cells, the damaged ones, were too badly hurt in most cases to be able to tell right from wrong, but Clifford was a different matter. Barrett felt Clifford's displeasure like the cold heat of snow.
And then the heat turned to burning ice as Clifford reached up and took his hand. "Barrett—"
He snatched his hand back. "Don't touch me!" Waves of nausea rocked him as his hand – already pained from when he had touched Clifford earlier – blazed anew. Sweet blood, it was his dagger hand. Would he even be able to do service to the Shining Ones in their cells tomorrow?
He wasn't sure what look his expression held, but it was evidently the wrong expression, because Clifford, who had risen in alarm, took a step back, as Mr. Newman had. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to— I'll keep my actions professional from now on. Please don't be angry—"
This was utterly unbearable. He must tell Clifford the truth, no matter what the consequences for himself. Clifford was a Shining One, a whole man, undamaged, and it was wrong for Barrett, a dark figure, to hide the truth from him – even more wrong to let Clifford suffer from lack of understanding.
He must let Clifford know what he was. He must let Clifford know that
he was infinitely higher than Barrett would ever be.
He had been surprised when the High Seeker hired him to be a guard again.
Barrett supposed that the High Seeker had done this to prevent further scandal. Barrett knew by now, six months after his beating, that the High Seeker had violated portions of his own Code of Seeking in giving Barrett such a harsh punishment. Whatever the reason for the High Seeker's change of heart, Barrett entered joyfully into his new service to the Shining Ones. The dark figures he ignored, except when his duty required him to take notice of them.
It was hard enough, learning the rules of his job, figuring out ways to follow the dungeon regulations without harming the prisoners. The Code of Seeking gave him ideas, and he had been officially excused from the duty of helping to rack prisoners in order to elicit confessions. Beatings were given to prisoners only for disciplinary reasons; guards and Seekers were under similar discipline, so Barrett grew accustomed to adhering to that portion of the Code. Most of his work time, he found, was spent watching Seekers carefully and skillfully converse with the prisoners, firstly to determine whether the prisoners were guilty, and then to help the prisoners who were guilty face up to what they had done. All the beauty of the Code of Seeking lay in those conversations, which were aimed, not merely at confessions of guilt, but at renewing the souls of the prisoners. The guilty prisoners who successfully reached the end of that process were invariably better men for it. With the patient, painstaking assistance of their Seekers, these prisoners had reshaped themselves until they became men who cared about the welfare of others, and who were willing to take responsibility for their past misdeeds.
And as the months passed by, it became clear that the dungeon was on the verge of a change for the better, with the possibility of an end to many of the abuses against the prisoners. Barrett's own punishment had helped to bring about that revolution, he gathered.
It was more than three years after his beating, and two-and-a-half years after he returned to work, when a dark figure stopped him in the corridor one day and said, "Mr. Boyd, why won't you ever look at me? Have you forgotten that we're love-mates?"
He would have walked on. He had vague memories of ignoring this dark figure before. The dark figure had first come to him at the healer's surgery, he recalled, speaking softly and shedding tears. It was nothing to do with him. He had turned his head away.
But now the dark figure said earnestly, "We pledged our love to each other. Even if you no longer love me . . . I still love you, sir. I'll always love you, no matter what. I want you to know that."
He travelled on to his destination then. But the words stayed with him, and that night, for the first time in three years, he made another attempt to pass through the veil of pain that shielded him from the past.
He saw little beyond that veil. Only himself, holding Clifford Crofford in his arms as he said with deep earnestness, "I love you. I want you to keep that thought present in your mind. Remember that I love you and will always love you."
So the dark figure had spoken the truth. It was very puzzling. Why should Barrett care about the welfare of a dark figure, much less make a sacred pledge of love to it?
He began to watch Mr. Crofford carefully, covertly, trying to make sense of what had happened. And the more he did so, the more that the young man began to shine like a treasure-house of jewels in the morning sky.
Puzzled, he sought answers again in the dungeon library.
What he read there did not solve the mystery of the unexpected shining, but it reassured him about the younger guard's unexpected declaration.
The books made Clifford Crofford's interest clear to Barrett. The custom he read about had lasted for centuries. It had originated in the Old World in ancient times, and then had been transferred to the New World when the New World was discovered and settled in ancient times.
The custom was simple: when a young man had passed into his journeyman years and had thereby reached the eve of manhood, a somewhat older man – a friend of the family, usually – would be assigned the task of gently guiding and educating the youth in the duties of his manhood. The guidance was on many levels, but the most important education took place in bed, when the youth was taught the art of lovemaking.
This guardianship, as it was termed, might last several years, or it might last no more than a year. But it always ended the same way: the older man would begin courting women in order to marry, while the younger man, now grown fully into his manhood, would eventually become guardian for a youth before marrying in his own turn.
It was a carefully crafted custom which ensured that no man entered his manhood and his marriage bed without understanding the duties required of him. The guardianship might go wrong, in the manner that marriages went wrong. There were even wholesale dissenters to the custom, who argued that men should share their beds with no one except their wives. But the custom of guardianship had lasted for thousands of years and seemed likely to last for thousands more.
Until he read this, Barrett had possessed no particular interest in the gossip of the dungeon, though he knew that the gossip about him flowed particularly thickly. That had nothing to do with his duties. But now he began to eavesdrop on the gossip, much of which consisted of speculation as to why the High Seeker had permitted a mind-damaged man to work as a dungeon guard.
Barrett patiently waited until that uninteresting topic had been discussed to death. Eventually, he heard the information he needed, tossed forth casually, briefly. According to the gossipmongers, Barrett had shown interest in women in the old days, before his punishment.
That was everything he needed to know. It was obvious from Clifford Crofford's age – he was now twenty-six – that Clifford no longer needed a guardian. And if Barrett – now thirty-six – had begun to court women before his punishment, then he must have been starting the transition period during which Clifford would turn his attention to a younger man. Probably, only Clifford's clear concern about the effects of Barrett's punishment had delayed the switch.
Barrett no longer had any interest in marrying – what use would a wife be to his mission? – but it was obviously his duty to release Clifford so that the younger guard could continue the natural progression of life events that most men undertook. All that Barrett need do was make clear that he no longer held interest in Clifford, and then Clifford would become guardian to a youth for a few years before marrying.
Barrett tried. And tried and tried. However gruff Barrett acted, however cold in manner, Clifford simply refused to go away. And as time went on and Clifford's shining grew blinding, Barrett could feel his own thoughts travelling in an unexpected direction.
He wanted to stay with Clifford. He wanted to serve the younger man till his death.
Clifford was silent a while after Barrett spoke. He slowly paged through the modern editions that Barrett had bought of the ancient books, describing the Shining Ones. Barrett spent that time examining Clifford's face, as he might examine the heart of a flame. There were lines on that face which had not been there even a year ago. Clifford was growing older. His twenty-seventh birthday would take place soon.
How many months did they have left together? How many weeks? And what would Barrett do after Clifford left?
They would still work together – that was something. Clifford had seconded Barrett's request during the previous shift that they be assigned permanent duties alongside each other. But there would be no more knocks on Barrett's door, no more shy glances from Clifford, no more efforts by the younger guard to spend as much time as possible with Barrett. All that would be gone.
Barrett forced himself to pay attention to Clifford again. At least he could give the young guard this much: a parting gift of his guardianship. A gift of trust – a willingness to believe that Clifford would not betray Barrett's secret to the dark figures who would bind and imprison him if they knew what he saw.
Clifford finally raised his eyes from the books on the parlor-table. In a voice filled with as much awe as though he were witnessing the sacred cycle of death, transformation, and rebirth, he said, "You've experienced it too."
A thrill went through Barrett's body, as if he had touched a Shining One and felt only the light, not the accompanying pain. "You've seen them?" His voice was rough with anxiousness over whether he had misunderstood. "You've seen the Shining Ones?"
Clifford smiled then. "Not like you have. Not with my eyes. But when I'm in the presence of the Shining One, I feel it the way you've described: I feel joy and wonder and a desire to fall down on my knees and worship."
He had never guessed. In all this time, he had never guessed that the Shining Ones could recognize each other. Yet it was so obvious, now that he knew. They were above him. Of course they could see the light that surrounded their fellow Shining Ones. And it didn't pain them to touch one another. Barrett had witnessed Clifford touching prisoners time and again, with no sign that Clifford received pain.
"Only one, though," added Clifford.
"One?" He frowned, trying to understand.
"Only one Shining One," Clifford explained. "I can't see the others, the way you can."
"Only one?" But there were thousands upon thousands of Shining Ones in the world – as many Shining Ones as there were prisoners. Barrett had seen hundreds of them in his work. How could Clifford have missed seeing the others?
"Yes, one." Clifford continued to smile. "You."
The disappointment was so abrupt and acute that it was like falling off a cliff and smashing to the ground. A moment passed before he could gain his breath back. Then he said, yet more gruffly, "No. You don't understand. I'm a dark figure."
Clifford actually laughed then. The laughter launched from the light like a shooting star. "Barrett, don't you see? It's right there in the books that you showed me. We're all Shining Ones – you, me, the prisoners, everyone else in this dungeon. Everyone in the world. Anyone who has fallen in love knows what it's like to be devoted to another man or woman – to feel the glow from their light. But you're one of the few men in modern times who has been able to see many Shining Ones. You have a gift, a precious gift."
Just as he had always thought. And now Clifford Crofford, one of the Shining Ones, was standing alongside Barrett, against the venomously poison-tongued guards and Seekers, who thought that Barrett's mind was damaged.
He had to swallow hard. He felt himself close to tears. He said, his voice still rough, "So there are other Shining Ones?"
"Of course there are." Clifford's voice had turned gentle. "Can't you tell that from what the Code of Seeking says? 'For the Seekers too are prisoners' – that's the second line of the Code. The Seekers are prisoners, by royal law; they've taken an oath to remain captive in the Eternal Dungeon in order to devote their entire lives to helping the prisoners who are brought here. And the rest of us . . . Well, maybe we don't shine to the same degree as the Seekers do. But we do try to help. And if you and the Code are right – if even the worst murderers and rapists in the world are worthy of service – then that means everyone must be a Shining One. Can't you see?"
He shook his head, not to deny what Clifford said, but because he could not grasp the full import of those words. All those dark figures? All of them Shining Ones? But he could not see any light from the dark figures . . .
Just as none of the other dark figures could see the prisoners' light.
Leaning his elbows upon the low parlor-table between himself and Barrett, Clifford said, "It's been so hard for me to explain to people why I can't leave you. But it's just like you describe. You're wondrous to me. I know it's not because I've blinded myself to the dark side of you. My mother warned me about that when I first fell in love. She said that love was a splendid thing that could help us to see the good in others . . . but we must never forget that men and women are multifaceted, like a kaleidoscope that sometimes shows light and sometimes dark. If we don't remember that the person we're devoted to has his dark side—"
"Like the prisoners," said Barrett slowly.
"Yes." Clifford sat back in his chair, with a flounce that seemed to signify satisfaction. "Like that. We have to remember that prisoners are a mixture of good and bad. And we have to remember the same about people we fall in love with, or we aren't truly in love with them. We're only in love with part of them."
Barrett stared at Clifford. Dark. He had first seen Clifford as dark. He had set that memory aside when Clifford began to glow.
And thereby had set aside part of Clifford himself.
"Why—?" He had to swallow before he could begin again; his throat had grown dry. "Why can I see certain men as Shining Ones, but not the others?"
Clifford chewed on his nail for a moment, apparently in thought. Barrett made himself think about that nail-chewing. Nail-chewing was a bad habit. Therefore, one of the Shining Ones had a bad habit. A darkness.
The glow around Clifford did not diminish. But some awareness inside Barrett expanded.
"Here's what I think," said Clifford finally, curling up his legs on the chair in a manner more relaxed than Barrett had ever seen him. "On the night that the High Seeker punished you, you must have been thinking about the prisoners. The prisoner you helped, and the prisoners who might be helped in the future. They were on your mind when – when your vision changed. And so you were able to see them afterwards the way they really are, within the darkness of their deeds. . . . I don't know why you see me that way. Perhaps it's because you were in love with me, once?"
His voice ended on a forlorn little note that tore at Barrett's innards. Barrett said, "I know that you love me. You have told me so. But now that you are going to marry—"
He stopped, not because of anything Clifford said, but because of the astonishment on the young guard's face. "Barrett," said Clifford painstakingly, "you're misremembering. I was already married – or rather, I would have been married, except that my fiancée died on the eve of our wedding. After that . . . Well, I grieved a great deal. I still recall Fae with a lot of fondness. But then you came into my life, and my grief healed. I knew that I'd never be unhappy that way again. Because you told me you'd always love me, and we're in the Eternal Dungeon, where men can mate for life—"
He overturned a stool, backing up. Clifford gave a cry and reached out toward him, then hastily drew his hand back. Barrett found that he was continuing to back away slowly, as though facing a weaponed prisoner. "For life?" His voice sounded angry. He didn't mean it to sound angry. He was confused, that was all.
Clifford immediately dipped his eyes, but he seemed to have gained some sort of strength from their previous conversation, for he said breathlessly, "Yes. That's how I love you. For life. I know that it's different for you, since the beating—"
"I thought I was your guardian." His voice was harsh.
"Oh." Clifford looked up then, giving him a weak, washed-out smile. "No. I mean, No, that's not what we pledged to each other, back in the old days. I don't need a guardian, and I'm not planning to ask a woman to marry me again, or to ask any other man to be my love-mate. It's not that I couldn't love anyone else besides you, it's just . . . Well, we're partners. I don't want to do anything that would hurt you. I love you. I can't change that, I'm afraid." The note of apology was clear in his voice.
This was insufferable. It was as bad as when Clifford had failed to recognize that he was a Shining One. Barrett still felt the danger beating at him, like a whip, but he forced himself to walk forward and say, "I don't want it to end."
"It?" Clifford looked up at Barrett, his eyes clear and bright.
"Us." Whatever "us" was. He still wasn't sure. "But . . . I can't be your love-mate. It's too painful to touch your body. You burn me."
To his surprise – when would he stop underestimating Clifford? – the guard nodded. "I know," he said calmly. "I guessed. Or rather, Elsdon Taylor guessed, and he told me. I'm so sorry, Barrett. All those times when I touched you, and when I persuaded you to try to touch me . . ."
"It's all right," he said hastily. Clifford looked as though he were on the verge of tears now. "It doesn't matter. It was something I wanted to try. To see whether I could do it."
His expression calming, Clifford nodded as though he understood. "Trying to expand your boundaries. Yes, I know. After I realized I was hurting you, I went to the healer. He was willing to talk to me about you, since we're still registered as love-mates in the Codifier's office. The healer said that you would be testing your boundaries, seeing whether you could break any of them. Seeing how far you could go. And some things you could change, he thought. He thinks some of your memories might come back as the pain from your punishment recedes in your mind. But other things may not change, he thinks."
It had not occurred to him to pay any attention to what the healer said, during his weeks in the surgery. The healer was a dark figure. If he hadn't been, then Barrett would have been tormented by the many times the healer touched him, dressing his wounds with the coffin-cold hands that dark figures always possessed.
Cold hands? Cold, like icy heat?
Confused by the knowledge that the healer must be a Shining One too, Barrett said, "He knows that my vision changed?"
Clifford hesitated, then nodded. "He doesn't know about your seeing the Shining Ones, I think. But he knows that your mind is . . . different."
Different. Clifford's voice was tentative, as though he were using the word "different" as a replacement for the word that the healer had actually used.
Barrett knew what that word must have been.
He began to pace the room, restless. The healer was a Shining One. So were the others in this dungeon. That didn't necessarily mean that the healer spoke the truth. The prisoners often lied. But he wasn't a dark figure, entirely. He had spoken words that Barrett should have listened to.
There was a question Barrett needed to ask, right now, to the one man in the world he was completely sure he could trust. And he was frozen with fear at the thought of asking that question.
The question might not have remained in his mind, after all these years, if it had not been for the dream. The dream that he awoke screaming from, at least once a week. The dream of stripes of flame against his back.
He always screamed. Always. Not only here, in the waking world, but in his dream. Because of that, it was hard to hear in the dream what others were saying, especially at the end, where the voices faded into nothingness. But there was one voice, toward the end of that fading, which had seemed to be concerned. Because of that concern, Barrett had tried over the years to decipher what the voice had said.
The voice of a healer.
Stop the beating, the voice had said in the dream. For love of the Code, stop the beating. Don't you see he's fainted? Stop the beating, I say. You must release him. He's hanging from the whipping post. He can't breathe that way. His mind is—
The final word he was not sure about. Not entirely. But he thought the final word might be "dying."
He stopped his pacing. He faced Clifford, as he might have faced a firing squad. He asked, "Was my mind damaged by the punishment?"
Clifford leaned forward. There was compassion on his face. He said softly,
He visited the lighted world once. Just once.
It was after he had begun his wanderings around the dungeon and after he visited the library, but shortly before he read the Code of Seeking. He found it quite easy to escape the dungeon. He simply slipped into the clothes laid aside for when he should be well enough to leave the surgery permanently, walked through the dungeon until he found an exit, and then walked through the exit. There was a young guard at the door, in training from the looks of his uniform, but he glanced at Barrett's uniform with its high-ranked epaulets and then looked indifferently aside.
The exit led to a large expanse of lawn and woods, surrounded by a wall. There was a gate in the wall. He went up to it, and again, he found his uniform to have magic powers: the guards there opened the gate, bowing to him.
Not until he was through the gate, and was standing next to a dark highway, did he look back. Beyond the gate, beyond the lawn and woods, stood a hill with a door in it. On top of the hill was a palace.
He thought about this a moment, recalling a phrase that he had heard one of the dark figures speak: "royal dungeon." Then he shrugged and turned away.
He stood in a vast valley, with mountains before and behind him. It was night-time. No one was journeying on the highway. But moonlight shone on the world, and he could see that the highway led to glowing lights. He walked toward the lights.
When he reached them, he had a surprise. He knew by now what a dungeon was. It was where men tortured prisoners in order to learn what crimes they had committed. He also knew, in some dim part of his mind, that dungeons existed in the middle centuries. A few of the library books he had encountered appeared to be tales of wonder, speaking of a world of the future, but he had ignored them. They had nothing to do with himself, who lived in the middle centuries.
The city to which he came proved him to be shockingly wrong. Despite the lateness of the hour, there was still transport on the street: not merely horse-drawn carts but horse-drawn cabs and horse-drawn omnibuses and even a steam-powered streetcar that zipped down the road on rails.
If these were the middle centuries, they had undergone a most marvellous transformation. Barrett walked slowly down the main street, examining the evidence. He passed a train station, a telegraph office, and a group of women loudly asserting their right to shut down a saloon. Disturbed, he turned onto a side street.
The city was quieter here. He passed houses that he instinctively knew were built in the style of the middle centuries. But the houses looked quite old. He paused in front of one of the houses, no different from the rest, except that it had a circle sculpted over the lintel.
A circle. That was the symbol of faith in this queendom. It signified rebirth. Where had he learned that?
Staring at the circle, he tried to make sense of what he had seen, his mind returning to the Eternal Dungeon's oddly flameless lamps, which he now realized must be fired by electricity. Evidently he was not living in the middle centuries. He was living in a time much later, the time that the books of wonder had spoken about, when men were civilized and had rejected the atrocities of the past.
That had terrible implications. For it meant that the dark figures in the Eternal Dungeon were not torturing the prisoners because they lived in the middle centuries, at a time when dungeons were new and innovative. The dark figures were torturing because they had deliberately chosen to continue doing so.
He was still taking this in when a door opened and a dark figure ran toward him, crying out.
He stepped back. He would have looked around for a weapon with which to protect himself, except that he recognized in time that the dark figure was a woman. He mustn't hurt a woman. He wasn't sure why, but the instruction was there, clear in his mind.
He could already feel the cold heat of her presence when a dark figure who had been running behind her grabbed her, pulling her back. The dark figure, who was wearing the white suit of a cleric, said something briefly to the woman, who was crying for some unaccountable reason. Then the dark figure turned to Barrett and began to speak to Barrett, very slowly and very quietly.
Barrett turned away. He had seen and learned what he needed to know. It was important that he return to the Eternal Dungeon and figure out a way to protect the Shining Ones from the danger they were in.
He walked back to the palace. Behind him, for some time, he could hear the woman crying, while her dark companion called out to Barrett.
Barrett bowed his head. There was nothing more to be said. His fate had been decreed.
He had no doubt that Clifford was right. The other dungeon dwellers might be lying or misled, but not Clifford. Clifford had been his love-mate. Clifford was manifestly a man of great honor. Clifford would never lie to him, and he would not make this pronouncement unless he was certain of what he said.
For a flicker of a moment, Barrett wondered what he had been like, before he went mad. Then he wondered why Clifford had continued to love a madman.
Perhaps he hadn't. Perhaps Barrett had misunderstood everything that Clifford had said in this conversation. Madmen couldn't think properly – everyone knew that.
It was like having the floor abruptly removed from under his feet. Was anything he thought real actually in existence? Was he even having this conversation? Perhaps he only thought he was. Perhaps he was already locked away in an asylum, dreaming the impossible: that someone still cared about him.
He forced down the panic. If this was a dream, maybe it would reveal to him what he should do. Dreams were like that, sometimes. If it wasn't a dream . . . If Clifford was really speaking, then Clifford was waiting for a response, concern crystalline upon his face.
Barrett tried to think what response he should give – what he should do next. He was a madman. Madmen were locked away for their own good, and for the safety of others around them. Why wasn't he in an asylum? Why was he allowed to work with the prisoners?
He could find no answers to that question. But what he should do was now clear. He knew he was a danger; he knew what he must do to remove the danger . . . from the prisoners, and from Clifford.
The words choked him as he spoke them. "How do I give myself over to an asylum?"
He heard Clifford gasp. At that moment, the lights went out.
It seemed appropriate, though he knew that it was merely one of the dungeon's periodic blackouts. The electricity in the dungeon had a tendency to black out briefly, usually when the High Seeker walked too near the electrical circuits. The High Seeker and the modern world did not go well together, as Barrett had long since observed.
The 101 strokes would have been enough to tell Barrett that. The High Seeker was still living in an era when men thought they could transform a prisoner into a better man by torturing him into obedience. The rest of the world had moved beyond that old falsehood, but the High Seeker could not recognize that.
These thoughts helped to calm Barrett. He must follow his duty, no matter how much suffering it caused him. And perhaps it would not be as bad as he thought. The patients in asylums were prisoners; perhaps they were Shining Ones too. Perhaps Barrett would be able to help them, even though he was a prisoner as well.
But to leave Clifford behind, to never see him again . . .
There was a scratch of a match, and a flame flickered. Barrett couldn't figure out for a moment how Clifford had found the matches and candle in the dark. This was the first time that Barrett had permitted Clifford to step over his threshold.
No, not the first time, Barrett reminded himself. Clifford had been his love-mate, long ago. Barrett had probably invited the other guard into his room in those days.
How much had it hurt Clifford to watch his love-mate go mad? Perhaps it was best, after all, that Barrett and Clifford go their separate ways. The separation would bring unending pain to Barrett, but it would help to heal Clifford.
Clifford had brought the candle over to the table between them. His gaze was focussed upon Barrett as he set down the candle. Wax dripped onto the candle-holder, momentarily sparking into light. In the halo of the candlelight, Clifford glowed more than ever.
Clifford sat down and placed his hands upon the table, as though taking Barrett's hands in his. "My love," he said quietly, "I never meant to imply that you should be locked up. I would fight against any man who tried to do that to you."
Barrett waited, confused, but certain that Clifford would provide understanding. Clifford always did.
Clifford seemed to be struggling for words. "You're not a madman – not in any full sense of the word. And you're not a danger to anyone. If you were, you'd never have been permitted to work with the prisoners. The High Seeker would have sent you away."
That made sense. However firm the High Seeker might be in his belief that prisoners should be tormented for their own good, he was equally firm that the Code of Seeking should never be broken. Barrett – who had once broken the Code in order to save a prisoner from greater harm – had 101 scars on his back which testified to the High Seeker's love of the Code.
And the Code, by and large, brought good to the prisoners. Most of the Code of Seeking was not concerned with torture; it was about the importance of helping the prisoners to become better men, and about the personal sacrifices which Seekers and guards must make to help bring about this transformation.
He voiced the question he'd had before: "Why am I allowed to work with the prisoners? Even if I'm not completely mad, even if I don't bring harm to the prisoners, surely nobody would hire a mind-damaged man as a guard." Yet the High Seeker had done so. And the High Seeker – even his enemies conceded – was a very intelligent man.
Clifford cocked his head, as though he were a schoolmaster considering how best to train a pupil. "Do you know what to do if a prisoner tries to break free at the moment that his Seeker enters the cell?"
"Yes, of course I—" He stopped short, struck by the strangeness of his answer. Yet it was true. Just as he knew how to read, without any memory of how he learned to read, he also knew how to care for prisoners. That knowledge was within him, despite his inability to remember how he had acquired that knowledge.
"Barrett, you're better at being a guard than before," Clifford said, passion returning to his voice. "Everyone says so, even the guards who doubted at first that you could do your duties. You've had twice as many commendations in the four years since your punishment than you were given in the many years before that. I don't know why."
Barrett thought he knew why. He cared about the prisoners – cared more about them than he had in the past, because he knew that they were the Shining Ones. Caring more about them, he made a greater effort to care properly for them.
He tried to explain this, and Clifford nodded. "I thought it might be something like that. It has happened before in this dungeon, you know. There's another very skilled man here who's mind-damaged."
It took him only a second to realize what Clifford meant. The case was notorious. "The High Seeker?"
Clifford nodded vigorously. "He was quite ill some years ago, Barrett – more ill in the mind than you've ever been. People say that, even now, his mind isn't quite like normal men's. But I've heard Mr. Taylor say that this is the reason for the High Seeker's genius. It's because he thinks differently from the rest of us that the High Seeker has greater insight into the Code."
Elsdon Taylor would know; he was the High Seeker's love-mate. Barrett stopped himself from the impulse to begin pacing again. He would not let himself give in to the impulse – which he was dimly beginning to guess arose from the 101-stroke beating – to back away from danger, to stay as far away as possible from other human beings.
No. Never again. What Clifford had to tell Barrett was too important to ignore.
"Here's how the healer explained it to me." Clifford's voice was eager as he leaned forward. "He said to imagine a man of great courage and conviction. A man who has retained his intelligence and his strength of will through a terrible experience, like war. Because of the wounds he suffered, he has lost many of his memories. The memories will likely come back, over time. For now he can't remember his past, but he still has those memories inside him, so he can act instinctively. He can read, he can take care of himself, he can even guard prisoners. He can draw upon the knowledge of his past. He's not a child; he's a full-grown man with years of experience at the tap."
Barrett sank down into the chair opposite Clifford, who was absorbed in his tale. The room began to glow brighter. Clifford, glancing at the returning electric light, leaned over and blew out the candle. Then he continued.
"He's an intelligent man, knowledgeable, but damage to his brain has affected his vision. It's as though he walks through a fog, seeing objects blurry, without sharp lines. He can pass a street-lamp, and all that he sees is a tall pole surrounded by a white glow. That's the image which the healer used: a glowing figure, shining in the dark."
Barrett stirred in his seat, but Clifford was hurrying on with his tale.
"Even with damaged vision, the man has his intelligence and his training. He can draw upon both to do his work – his long-time work, where he has lots of experience. He usually knows instinctively what to do."
Barrett cleared his throat. "What if he encounters something for which he doesn't have previous experience?"
"I'm coming to that point," said Clifford quickly. "The healer told me: Suppose that this man, the man dwelling in a fog that encloses him, visits the palace above this dungeon. He walks into the throne room. He has no memory of being there before, and since visiting the throne room wasn't part of his daily life before his vision changed, he can't tap into the experience that he uses to do his professional work. All he sees is a golden glow, where the throne is. The healer asked me: How does he determine what that glow is?"
The Shining Ones. The healer was talking about the Shining Ones, though he did not realize it. Barrett said slowly, "The man finds books to tell him what he has seen. And . . . he tries to touch the throne, if he can. If the throne could talk, he'd ask it questions. If it can't . . . he'll ask someone who knows." He looked at Clifford.
Clifford nodded. "That's what the healer said: he said you're intelligent and curious and passionate about the prisoners. You'd figure out what the foggy objects were, even if you couldn't see them properly. . . . But Barrett, I think he missed something. Something important. It's not that the fog distorts the objects. It just enables the man to see objects in a different way. To a certain extent, it limits his vision. But in another sense . . . The man can see the glow. He can see the beauty that is hidden from the rest of us. And he can tell us what that's like. We can learn from the man, just as he learns from us." Clifford smiled. "Don't you see? Your vision isn't just damaged. You're gifted too, in a similar way to the High Seeker. You do need help to understand how we see things. They say that the High Seeker rarely strays from Elsdon Taylor's side during his off-duty hours; he needs Mr. Taylor's guidance. But I'll bet you the highest wager possible that Mr. Taylor wants to hear about the High Seeker's visions. The visions that only the High Seeker has seen."
Barrett spent several minutes thinking. This was too important a matter on which to make impulsive decisions. But he could understand now why he had been re-hired. Perhaps partly due to the High Seeker's feelings of guilt over what he had done – but perhaps also because, having had his own mind damaged, the High Seeker guessed what gifts could arise.
It was hard to say the next words. He didn't want to diminish Clifford's faith in him. But if they were to work together, Clifford must be made aware of his partner's limitations. Barrett said, "It's hard for me sometimes to understand what others want of me. And . . . it's hard for me to talk to them." Because they were dark figures. He had no problems talking to Clifford or to the prisoners.
But if Clifford was right, the dark figures were not really dark. He should learn to communicate with them.
"I know," said Clifford softly. "I don't mind helping you. I'd like to."
Barrett considered the matter, trying to decide what he should do next. Communicate. That was clearly the next step. Whether or not he ever saw the dark figures as Shining Ones, he knew now what they were. He must give them whatever would assist them. Clifford seemed to think that it would help if he talked to them.
"Mr. Taylor," said Clifford, apparently following Barrett's line of thought. "I think you should talk to him first. He has made a lot of attempts to communicate with you."
Yes, he had, from the time that Barrett first awoke in the surgery. Barrett frowned, trying to think how he should approach the junior Seeker.
"Is there anyone else you haven't talked to?" Clifford prodded.
Well, the entire dungeon. But as Barrett opened his mouth to speak, he heard himself say, "My parents."
Clifford's breath hitched. He leaned forward. "You haven't visited your home since the punishment?"
Barrett sat still, barely breathing, seeing in his mind's eye a house built in the middle centuries, with a circle carved over its lintel. A woman cried. A cleric called to him. . . . "I went there once. I didn't talk to my parents."
Clifford nodded slowly. "I'll come home with you, if you like. I've always wanted to meet your parents. You told me, a long time ago, that you'd introduce me to them, the first chance you had."
Barrett hesitated, but the words needed to be said. "That was when we were love-mates. I can't be your love-mate."
"I realize that," Clifford said swiftly. "It doesn't matter. We'll be work partners, once our transfers are approved. And we're already mates."
Mates? That was an odd word to use. "Love-mate" denoted partners in lovemaking, but "mate" was the commoner word for "friend." Yet from the manner in which Clifford was leaning forward to look at Barrett, it seemed he was suggesting something more than ordinary friendship.
Barrett said hesitantly, "I don't want to prevent you from finding a new love-mate or wife—"
"Of course not." Clifford's smile was reassuringly quick. "I told you before: it's not that I can't love anyone else. Lots of men in this dungeon share their love with more than one person. I just haven't wanted to lose my ties with you or hurt you."
"But if your new love thought I was in the way—"
"They wouldn't." Clifford lifted his chin. "If they did, I'd never ask them to share their love with me. We're mates, Barrett. Nothing can change that."
Mates. Something more than ordinary friends. But something that didn't require Barrett to give more than he could. A partnership, based on mutual commitment and devotion . . . not only to each other, but to their sacred work.
Barrett decided he liked the word "mate." He smiled.
For a second, Clifford looked so startled that Barrett wondered what he had done.
Then he realized. He didn't smile anymore. He hadn't smiled, ever, as far back as his memory went.
Perhaps it was time to extend his memory further back.
The note that Mr. Newman had delivered told Barrett that he and Clifford were assigned guard duty together that day. This was a surprise – that their request to work together had been approved so quickly. When he and Clifford finally parted after the day shift, exhausted but joyful at working together again, Barrett returned to his bed and fell asleep at once.
While asleep, he dreamt of the first time he and Clifford Crofford met.
Twenty years old. Plain-looking. Painfully shy. Not the sort of journeyman that Barrett would have looked at twice if they'd met socially; he preferred boldness.
But the young man was clearly dedicated to his new work. Barrett liked that. He took the trouble to break through the barriers of the guard-in-training's shyness, and he even introduced him to other guards in the dungeon.
On Mr. Crofford's first day of duty, Barrett arrived at his usual time, two hours before his official shift, to find that the young man was already awaiting him in front of the prisoner's cell.
"Who is the prisoner?" Mr. Crofford asked after Barrett had dismissed the previous shift's guards.
Barrett smiled. Guards were always like that when they first arrived in the dungeon: passionate about the prisoners. The excitement wore off after a while. "You'll find out soon enough."
Barrett expected Mr. Crofford to ask next, "What crime has he committed?" It was the obvious question.
But he didn't. With eyes widened so large that they made him appear even younger than he was, Mr. Crofford stared at the door. He whispered, "I hope we're able to set him free."
Barrett turned to look at the door. He was aware suddenly, as he had not been for many years, that a man lay behind that door. A man vicious or frightened or pleading or courageous. A man preparing to face his torturer.
Barrett looked again at Clifford Crofford. The passion was still there, shining upon him.
When the knock came that evening, Barrett was tempted to put his pillow over his head and ignore it.
He was still very tired. Thanks to the recent disruptions in the dungeon, he had been forced to work into the early hours of the night shift. And not much time had passed since he fell asleep; he knew that, without having to check the clock in his room. It must still be the night shift.
What awakened him, in the end, was not the repeated knock, but the memory of what day this was. It was the day when he began to wake up. It was the day when he began to be reborn, so many years after his mind died under the cruel lash of the High Seeker.
He lay for a moment, testing his awareness. He could remember every word that Clifford had spoken that morning. He could even remember words that his fellow guards had spoken to him during the previous shift. He had made an effort to listen to the guards, knowing as he did that they were more than the dark figures they appeared to be.
The knock came again. It must be Clifford; everyone working in the dungeon knew that Barrett was asleep after an over-long shift. He rolled out of bed, reaching for his lounging robe. In the past, on the occasions when Clifford came knocking at his door, Barrett would have taken care to dress in the most formal manner possible, donning his uniform and weapons.
While leaving Clifford waiting all that time in the corridor? That had not been considerate, Barrett decided, hastily tying the belt of his robe. Besides, the two of them had entered into a new depth of intimacy. They were mates. Mates could see each other half-dressed.
Barrett no longer feared that Clifford would misunderstand his reason for greeting the other guard half-dressed.
It was not Clifford, though.
Barrett's first impulse was to slam the door shut. He was not on duty. Whatever the dark figure had to say, it could wait till a time when Barrett was fully rested.
But he paused as he took hold of the door to slam it shut. This dark figure had never come here before – not within Barrett's memory. Therefore, the dark figure had come here for some special reason. Perhaps Barrett's request to work alongside Clifford had raised the dark figure's interest.
And perhaps his concern? That was a new thought: that others, besides Clifford, might be concerned about Barrett's welfare. For a second, memories flitted in and out of his mind, like bats in the night: A dark figure with him in the surgery. A dark figure sitting silently by his bedside, hour after hour, as Barrett slowly healed.
The dark figure said softly, "I did not mean to disturb you, Mr. Boyd."
He wished that Clifford were here. Clifford would know what to do. But Clifford had called Barrett his mate, and Barrett knew what that meant. They were equals. He might need Clifford's help – he badly needed Clifford's help – but he was under an obligation to try difficult tasks on his own, rather than simply depend on Clifford's assistance all the time.
So he tried. He knew better than to head deliberately toward the memories; that would lead him only into pain. But now he also knew better than to ignore the memories. So he stood there, utterly quiet, and let the memories come to him if they wished.
One memory appeared. It was very brief and not terribly enlightening. He was walking down one of the corridors in the dungeon. The dark figure was walking beside him, speaking about a newly arrived prisoner.
That was all. The conversation meant nothing. But Barrett remembered also what he had felt, listening to the dark figure: Interest. Concern.
His vision cleared. The figure before him was still dark. He would always be dark, Barrett suspected. The darkness lay between them.
The decision, in the end, was quite easy. He took a firmer grasp of the door. He took a step back. He spoke with courtesy.
"Please come in, High Seeker."