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In Darkness, Chained

Chapter Text

The Queendom of Yclau espouses ideals of egalitarianism and encourages humane treatment of commoners and criminals. It is the birthplace of various reform movements. However, Yclau struggles with class divisions that are reflected in its punitive justice system. Yclau folk are believers in eternal rebirth, a concept that foreigners find puzzling.

In the Queendom of Yclau lies an underground royal prison that embraces the worst of the past and the best of the future. The Eternal Dungeon is old-fashioned in its equipment and ahead of its time in its treatment of prisoners, seeking to put their best welfare above all else. Torture is part of the process of assisting the prisoners.

http://duskpeterson.com/eternaldungeon/index.htm



Elsdon Taylor peered through the slot in the door at his new prisoner. If he had not chanced to meet him or her upon entry to The Eternal Dungeon he liked to study them for a few moments before reviewing the documents and entering the cell. He liked to "read" his prisoners before seeing what others had to say about them.

He swore an oath under his breath.

Turning to his guard he said, "I need to see Mr. Smith." Pause. "I knew this prisoner ... before."

~oo(0)oo~

Beneath his hood, Layle Smith gave a heavy sigh. Mr. Brown was still recovering from that case of bloody flux that had nearly killed him, Mr. Hickmann had a full load, Mr. Moore had a full load, Mr. Murdock's last case had so stressed him that he had started to break down physically (Mr. Bergsen insisted he take no less than two weeks rest), Mistress Birdesmond was still recovering both physically and emotionally from her latest miscarriage, not that she would be questioning a male prisoner, but that it put additional strain on Mr. Chapman, who already had a full caseload, and now this.

"How well did you know him on the outside?" He asked, flipping his face cloth up.

"Well enough, Layle." Slight note of annoyance. Elsdon chewed his lip in thought for a moment and added, "If it's any help, I think he should see the healer, first. He's got a black-eye and a knot on his jaw that I don't like the looks of. There might be other injuries under his clothes."

Layle glanced at the documents before him. "It says that he was anything but a model prisoner during his two days at Parkside."

Elsdon's lips quirked at a memory. "From my memories of Parkside, I can say that that's entirely in keeping with what I remember of Mr. Skyler."

"Hot tempered, then?"

Elsdon tilted his head in thought. "Not really, but if provoked? I never saw him start a fight, but I did see him finish a few."

Layle digested that. "Very well, then. First the healer. I don't like to let a prisoner sit without searching for long at all, but in this case it perhaps it can't be helped."

~oo(0)oo~

"Mr. Skyler, I'm Mr. Bergsen, the healer."

A nod of acknowledgment, but otherwise no reply.

Sigh. One of these kind .... "Disrobe," Bergsen said. "I haven't got all day."

A sullen stare met his request.

Inwardly Bergsen rolled his eyes. "This isn't a prelude to rape, if that's what you're thinking. The High Seeker is concerned, based on those bruises on your face -- don't like the look of that split lip myself -- that you've got other injuries, and I'll need to assess your condition before this goes any further."

More sullen silence.

"Mr. Skyler, the Seekers are barred from laying hand on you without a writ. The guards, on the other hand, may touch you with cause. I can touch you with cause. Disrobe, or, I assure you, I shall not hesitate to have you restrained while I use a shears to remove your shirt and trousers."

The prisoner gave a huffy sigh and somewhat stiffly removed his clothes down to his groin cloth.

"Oh my," Bergsen gasped. "Boot to the ribs, I take it?"

"More than one," Skyler said dryly. "And yes," he sucked in a deep lung full of air and expelled it in a forceful rush, "I can breathe in and out well enough."

"Turn around, I want to see ..." his voice trailed off.

"Enjoying the view?"

"In the sense that I seldom see a man in such superb physical shape, yes. You could be modeling in an art class or for apprentice healers learning anatomy. That black and blue mass over your kidneys? Any blood in your water?"

"No."

Bergsen clucked his tongue in thought. "Those muscles you've worked to put on turned out to be good for more than just your looks, then. Turn 'round, show me your teeth. Open your mouth," he gently held the tongue down with a small wooden depressor, "Any undue bleeding? Soreness that's gotten worse? Loose teeth that aren't starting to tighten back?"

"Naauhg."

Bergsen withdrew the depressor. "Mr. Skyler, I need to ask you a difficult question, and I need you to be absolutely honest with me. Were you -- did anyone force themselves upon you?"

A quirk of the lips followed by a wince of pain. "No, Mr. Bergsen, I can assure you that nobody forced themselves upon me."

"This beating, was it guards or a fight with prisoners?"

"I don't suppose it would do any good to say that I'm innocent."

Bergsen harrumphed. "To me, no. To the Seekers … perhaps."

"Then, I can categorically state that no guard at Parkside laid a hand on me, except to move me along my way."

"Very well. You can dress. I can give you a salve now -- help that lip of yours. I'll be back later with some liniment and couple of basins of hot water. For the next few days, I'll be by with more of the same. You need to move and stretch as much as you can. It will ... it will only be worse for you later if you heal up stiff."

"I understand."

Mr. Bergsen paused in the doorway. "Mr. Skyler, do you play solitaire?"

"Yes. Why?"

"I'll bring a deck of cards, then, when I return. No Seeker's going to be seeing you for at least a week. It's ... it's not good for your mind to be entirely idle, not in a place like this."

~oo(0)oo~

"A week?!" Layle gasped.

"Possibly even two, depending on how he heals." Mr. Bergsen glared, daring Layle to challenge him. "I've a care plan here." He produced a document. "All of it necessary." Another glare.

"It must have been some beating, then." Layle began reading the care plan.

"I've seen worse. He's got a very athletic body, it's what allowed him to take the punishment without lasting damage to anything vital. But in his current state, if you were to flog him you would do more harm than good."

Not that Mr. Bergsen ever thought they did any good by flogging, period.

"One other thing, Mr. Smith --" Mr. Bergsen cleared his throat.

Layle paused in his reading of the care plan and looked up.

"The scars are old and somewhat faded, but Mr. Skyler has been flogged before."

Layle sighed as the door closed. He hated to leave a prisoner sitting that long un-searched in a cell, but in week or two, surely someone's schedule would clear.

~oo(0)oo~

As luck would have it, his schedule cleared first.

He studied the file before him.

Durian Skyler. Harrogate school, Dockside, until the age of 14. Indifferent marks, punished several times for fighting and falling asleep in class. Most recently a footman in service to Brendant Starsmore, Earl of Iceal, son of Ragnel Starsmore, Duke of The Lakelands, and first cousin to Her Majesty, the Queen. Statement from Isolde, Countess Iceal, stating that Skyler shoved Lady Nieve Starsmore down a flight of stairs, resulting in the child's death, and that he had also struck the Countess in the face during the ensuing fracas.

Ah ... Lady Nieve had been somewhere in the line of succession. That would explain Skyler's extremely brief stay at Parkside -- no longer than it took to get the Countess' statement and collect other relevant documents -- and why he had not been searched while there.

The Eternal Dungeon, and only the Eternal Dungeon conducted searchings concerning a crime involving the crown.

He poured himself a cup of rosemary and chamomile tea in an effort to ward off the headache he felt knotting up at the base of his skull. It didn't work half so well as he hoped.

~oo(0)oo~

After explaining the rules to the prisoner he decided to open with a fairly direct line of questioning.

"Tell me about the Earl."

"Anything in particular?...sir."

His honorific added just at the last moment. Skyler would test the rules no later than their third session.

"Your opinion of him, Mr. Skyler."

Long pause. Then, in a matter-of-fact tone of voice: "He's pleasant enough at first, sir, but it doesn't take long to discover he's a weak-willed rake and a wastrel."

Too easy. Glib. And yet, the truth. Layle felt a moment of despair that Skyler would not crack or be trapped into breaking easily or quickly, then ruthlessly pushed it aside. Skyler's needs came first, not whatever inconveniences he caused for his Seeker.

In a slightly too light tone of voice Layle asked, "And the Countess?"

Skyler's jaw visibly clenched. Then, in a very tight voice he asked, "Exactly how much honesty do you want in your answer, Mr. Smith?"

Putting a smile he did not feel into his words, Layle replied, "Don't hold back on my account."

"I hate that swyving cunt." A whisper as sharp as a whipcrack.

"The Lady Nieve?"

Brittle smile. "I'll decline to answer that today." Pause. "Your rules, not mine ... Mr. Smith."

"Yes. The rules." Layle paced a few moments then asked, "And how do you feel about rules, Mr. Skyler?"

Skyler cast his eyes downward in thought for some time then said, "It depends. Rules can be useful tools or they can be impediments."

"And your schoolmasters and workmasters?"

"Heh. Same as rules, sir. Some of my schoolmasters I didn't mind, some I did. I don't have problems with orders from someone who's earned my respect, if that's what you're asking."

"The Earl and the Countess?"

Something flickered across Skyler's face but was gone before Layle could parse it. At times like this he cursed the somewhat dim and flickering lighting of the cells. "I don't respect them. Not at all."

"And the child?" Layle pressed, knowing that he would not get a useful answer, but still needing to probe.

"She never gave me orders. Obviously I wasn't her nanny, and no, I wasn't sweet on her nanny, either."

"But did you respect her? She did rank you, after all."

Skyler steepled his fingers, and, looking at Layle over the top of them, said, "Three year old girls are respected? Really?"

"Sarcasm does not become you, Mr. Skyler."

"And neither does any shade of purple, Mr. Smith."

"Thank you, Mr. Skyler, I think that will be enough for now."

 

~oo(0)oo~

Trying to remain as detached and professional as the circumstances and permitted, Layle Smith studied the face of the man before him.

Pale skin, smooth, unblemished skin with a sallow undertone where the last remnants of his bruising lingered. Strong, square jaw in need of a shave, tawny brown stubble, the color matching his hair. Sharp cheekbones. Long, slightly aquiline nose. He had clear hazel eyes, and other than a certain tightness from pain around their edges --

(A quick intake of breath, "Two."

The lash sang through the air == hwwa== and landed ==qeet!

Slight involuntary hiss of breath.)

-- his face and eyes betrayed nothing. In fact, he wore the sort of look Layle noticed on the faces of the guards (the better players) when they sat down to a game of cards.

"Three". ==hwaaqeet!==

A touch too hard, that blow. He would have to speak to Mr. Urman about --

"Mr. Smith, may I ask a question?" Skyler whispered. Before Layle could answer, he continued, "Would you like it better if I moaned?"

"What?" Layle asked before catching himself.

"Would you prefer pleasure, sir," (soft and breathy) "or pain?" (short and sharp).

Only a deep breath and iron discipline kept Layle's knees locked as the heat already pooled low in his groin turned to a throb.

And all the while not the slightest hint of emotion colored the prisoner's face. Not contempt, not triumph, not amusement. It remained as blank and smooth as river polished stone. His eyes looked as clear and glassy as a doll's eyes.

"Mr. Skyler," Layle said after several moments of consideration. "I am afraid I shall have to recuse myself as your Seeker. Another will be assigned to you in short order."

"No need to rush on my account." Sardonic humor colored the words.

Layle paused in the doorway. "These cells are not a place to linger," he said softly.

The look in the prisoner's eyes went agate hard. "Says you. I'll go when I've made my peace with the way of things and not before."

~oo(0)oo~

Oh this is not good, Weldon Chapman thought, seating himself opposite the High Seeker. It should not have been possible, one would think, to glower through a hood, but somehow Layle succeeded.

"May I inquire about Mistress Birdesmond?" Layle's voice was mild, polite, at odds with the thunderclouds that Weldon could all but see forming over the High Seeker.

"She is well, thank you." Weldon was looking forward to spending time with her, now that his work load had reduced.

Layle let out a long breath and folded his hands atop the documents on the blotter.

Oh, this was really, really bad. Weldon decided to take a page out of Mr. Taylor's playbook. "What's the prisoner like?"

Layle blinked in shock. "Which one?"

"The one you are about to assign me."

"You must understand, Mr. Chapman, the severity of my regret, but yes, I am assigning you another prisoner, Mr. Skyler. I know that these past months have not been easy for you and Mistress Birdesmond, but --"

Weldon wanted to shriek in frustration. He wanted to smash his writing board to the floor and ask why the bloody blazes now of all times. What he said was, "We all understand that the prisoner comes first."

"Mr. Skyler is a very ... insightful man, Mr. Chapman. On my second day questioning him, he discovered something about me and was prepared to continue to use it to manipulate me."

"Mr. Smith, if Mr. Skyler is as you say, is there a reason Mr. Taylor isn't searching him? It's not that I'm trying to shirk, but we both know he's very skilled when it comes to prisoners like that."

"Mr. Skyler was initially assigned to Mr. Taylor," Layle replied coolly, "but he knew him from his previous life, well enough that he felt he could not do a proper job as his Seeker."

"Oh."

"I do not envy you this task, Mr. Chapman, on the other hand, I feel you have different personal qualities that render you equally well suited to it." A note of warmth crept into Layle's voice, "You are as persistent as the tides."

And about as straightforward. "Alright," said Weldon. "Let me see his file. I shall start in the morning."

Layle held it out, then hesitated a moment, "I would suggest you be exceptionally circumspect in what you say to Mistress Birdesmond about this prisoner. The case in question concerns the murder of a small child."

Chapter Text

Layle Smith had completely failed to mention that the prisoner was a handsome man, above average height and athletic in build. His face didn't have Mr. Taylor's ethereal qualities, it was too masculine for that, but, Mr. Skyler looked and moved the way that Weldon had always wanted to look and move, and at times like this Weldon felt grateful for the Seeker's hood which hid what he felt were common and somewhat coarse features.

Then again, a distinct possibility existed that Mr. Skyler was accustomed to using his good looks to glide through life. Something that would not avail him here.

"Mr. Boyd, if you would open the door? Mr. Dawson," he spoke to his new junior day guard, "if you would observe?"

The prisoner rose from his game of solitaire when Weldon entered.

Without preamble Weldon said, "Mr. Skyler, I am Mr. Chapman, your new Seeker. I trust that Mr. Smith explained the rules to you. Do you need a refresher, or have any points you'd like clarified?"

Skyler, who had given him a direct gaze all the while, looked him head to toe three times before saying, "No, Mr. Chapman, I do not."

Weldon paced for a moment, considering his next question. He decided to test the waters before plunging in. "Has Mr. Bergsen been by?"

"Yes, sir, he has."

"Your back is healing?"

"Yes -- care to see?" Skyler put his hands to the lowest button on his shirt and began working it.

Interesting. A prisoner volunteering to disrobe. Weldon filed that thought away for further consideration while he said, "Not necessary, Mr. Skyler. Your and Mr. Bergsen's words are sufficient."

He paced in an arc, back and forth, never taking his eyes off Skyler, who, in turn never took his eyes off of him, except for a few brief flicks over to Mr. Boyd, which seemed more about making sure that Mr. Boyd had not moved than anything else. Skyler's gaze at him, however, was all about taking the measure of a man.

Weldon stopped and crossed his arms before asking, "Do I frighten you, Mr. Skyler?"

Snort of laughter. "What do you think?"

"We aren't on about what I think, not at the moment."

Skyler's lips quirked in sardonic amusement, and he scratched idly at the beard forming along his jaw before saying, "I think you unnerve me about as much as I unnerve you. That's why you're spending so much time sizing me up. I've half a mind to take a few circles around you myself."

"You well know why I can't allow that." Pause. "You're a very ... observant man, Mr. Skyler. So, here we are, two stripey cats staring each other down. Now, you can guess how and why I do this. But you? You're a very cool man about it, Mr. Skyler. Do you mind telling me where you got the knack?"

Skyler blinked at the question, frowned thoughtfully for several seconds, then said, "All my life really. Do you play cards, Mr. Chapman?"

"From time to time, yes. More chess or bones though."

"Works for bones, too. I played a lot of bones and cards growing up. It taught me how --" Skyler shut his mouth abruptly.

"How good are you, Mr. Skyler?" Weldon rubbed at his eye through the hole in his face cloth.

A look of pained frustration at having said too much flicked across Skyler's brow. With great reluctance he answered, "I am good, Mr. Chapman. Very good."

"I take it you have your gaming face on, then."

Skyler sucked in a deep breath, puffed it out, and said, "Considering the stakes of this game? Barring the occasional slip, I do. How could I not?"

Weldon called to Dawson, asking him to bring the prisoner's file in. He opened it, glanced at the contents, and said, "The problem is, Mr. Skyler, you cannot bluff your way out of this one, I know your hand and I call."

Skyler studied the ceiling, idly stroking his chin; he made as if to sit down, but caught himself when Weldon cleared his throat. Looking back at Weldon, in a soft, thought-filled voice he replied, "No, Mr. Chapman, what you have in your hands are the cards the dealer put on the table, there's more room for bluffing than you think, and you can call all you like, but the rules say the game doesn't end until I decide to fold.

"And that will only happen when I'm ready and not before."

~oo(0)oo~

"I'm thankful our willingness to suffer for our prisoners does not include having to endure headaches brought on by strain," Weldon said as he reached for the cup of tea Mr. Bergsen had prepared for him. "Sweet Blood, that's vile! What's in it?" He looked at the cup somewhat dubiously.

"It's the same thing I've given Mr. Skyler," Mr. Bergsen said blandly. "Tincture of willow bark in a base of rosemary and lavender, only he takes it with no complaint." Having gotten his barb in, Bergsen continued, "I could give you something based on poppy's milk or sweetsleep later, but --"

"But I'm about to go on duty." Weldon took another gulp of the rather sharp brew. "I appreciate you getting up this early. By the by, my night guard also reports that Mr. Skyler has been grinding his teeth a lot in his sleep."

The healer frowned thoughtfully. "Quite common for people under strain. Has Mr. Skyler complained of pain?"

"To me? No."

"If it is hurting him enough to make mention, I can't do much beyond some of this morning and night, and perhaps a leather mouthpiece at night -- but those aren't exactly pleasant." Pause. "I'll give him sweetsleep only if it's essential."

"Risk of habit?"

Mr. Bergsen gave him a level look. "Not so much. Sweetsleep makes you sleep, but you don't dream, not properly. A few nights is fine, but strange as this may sound, the Mind Healers are absolutely correct that dreaming plays an important part in the role of mind health. The prisoners here are fragile enough, and I don't want to do anything that would further unbalance them."

Weldon rubbed at his temples through his hood. "It's obviously tormenting him. If only I could get him to see, to understand that through confession --"

"He'll go straight to the gallows?" Mr. Bergsen spoke in a frosty tone. "Some people, as we both well know, endure years, decades even, in considerable pain. That life, wretched as it is, is sweet enough that they choose to endure."

"Then I must be the tides," Weldon muttered under his breath.

"What?"

"When he assigned me to Mr. Skyler, the High Seeker compared me to the tides. And so I must be like the tides, ebbing and flowing, the waves washing, wearing even the hardest rock, reducing it to sand."

"I see," said Mr. Bergsen, packing his satchel.

Weldon grimaced and forced himself to down the rest of his cup. "Thank you, Mr. Bergsen. How long before this begins to work?"

~oo(0)oo~

Weldon finally began to feel better as he strode down the corridor, flanked by Mr. Boyd.

"Anything of note, Mr. Dawson?" He asked in a sharp voice, snapping his junior guard, who had been staring through the slot in apparent rapt fascination, back to attention.

"Oh, um. No." Dawson started. "Mr. Skyler is just doing his morning exercises."

"He has a routine?" Dawson had not made mention of such. Weldon glared at him reproachfully.

"Yes. Press ups, stomach curls, squat jumps, spring jacks, that sort of thing." Pause. Then, in a smaller voice, "He also does stretches. He's very … limber." A faint blush stained Dawson's cheeks. "I'm sorry, Sir, I should have made mention before. I wasn't thinking."

Weldon simply gave him another cold look and motioned for him to unbolt the door.

As he stepped in, he saw Mr. Skyler go from a most peculiar position indeed -- shoulders and neck pressed to the floor, back bent, legs kicked over his head -- to upright on his feet in what seemed like a single fluid motion. A maneuver worthy of a circus tumbler.

He wore only his groin cloth.

"Get dressed, Mr. Skyler."

Skyler blotted the worst of the sheen of sweat from his body with his wash rag. "I'm sorry, Mr. Chapman, but you usually don't come this time of day," he said, drawing on his trousers and shirt. "And I probably have as good a chance of getting a clean set of clothes as I have of getting a clip and shave."

"I can order some fresh clothing sent down. You are getting a touch ripe."

"I do the best I can with soap and basin. I appreciate it Mr. Chapman, I do." He buttoned the last button of what had once been a nice shirt. "So, what shall we talk about today?'

"The Earl died." The Eternal Dungeon seldom allowed prisoners to have news about events in the outside world, but in this case, the Codifier and the High Seeker concurred that Skyler had a right to know.

Skyler blinked. "How?"

"When word reached him of the murder of his daughter, he cut short his Holiday, and was returning by train when the bridge at Skirling gap collapsed."

The prisoner gave a bark of laughter but quickly stifled it.

"Mr. Skyler!" Weldon could not keep the shock and anger from his voice. "Over two hundred people perished! And now the Countess, in addition to having to mourn the loss of her child, must mourn the loss of her husband, and the Duke mourns the loss of his son."

Skyler looked chastened for a moment and said, "I am sorry about that loss of life. I am … sorry that the Earl died. I don't - didn't have any particular affection for him, but I bore him no ill will.

"But the Countess? Sorry, the now Dowager Countess? His Grace never liked her. I think she's about to find her ability to salve her wounds by means of bank drafts considerably curtailed. And yes, I confess that fills me with … the Vovimians have a word for it, it translates as 'destruction joy', and that's how I am right now, sir. I am filled with destruction joy when I think of that."

Weldon leaned forward and asked, voice low and hard, "And were you filled with this same destruction joy when you pushed the Lady Nieve down the stairs?"

Skyler closed his eyes. When he opened them, the now all too familiar "game face" slid into place. "You know I don't answer questions about Lady Nieve's murder."

"So you admit it was murder."

"Absolutely." As cool as a pond rimed with autumn frosts.

"Have you no shred of compassion?"

Same utterly bland voice, utterly blank face. "Where the Dowager is concerned, I feel none of the more noble human emotions whatsoever." Skyler gave the faintest smile as he continued, "You know how this is, Mr. Chapman. I'll put the noose around my neck when I'm ready, and not before."

Weldon stepped in even closer and whispered softly, "But I can help you make that peace, Mr. Skyler."

A look of profound sadness crept into Skyler's eyes. "No, Mr. Chapman, I assure you, you cannot."

Chapter Text

Weldon sat down in the chair in the Seekers lounge rather harder than he meant to, clipping the one of the legs of the table with his knee, causing Layle's and Mr. Taylor's drinks to slosh alarmingly in their glasses. "Were I a drinking man," he groaned, "I'd be ordering a double measure of spirits."

Layle said nothing, but the look in his eyes indicated that Weldon should continue.

"You know how it is. Refuses to answer the key questions, answers all the indirect ones truthfully, yet somehow says nothing."

Layle's eyes flicked over to Mr. Taylor (whose eyes twinkled in reply) and said, "Yes, I have some familiarity with the feeling."

"It's as if, in spite of everything, on some fundamental level, Mr. Skyler cannot bring himself to trust me."

"I think I might be able to help with that," Mr. Taylor spoke softly. "Back when I knew him, Mr. Skyler was accused of stealing a gold pocket watch. A theft I knew he hadn't committed. The accusation was so nakedly false that --" his eyes glowed with anger at the memory. "I tried to vouch for Mr. Skyler. It made no difference," he finished in a disgusted sigh.

"We spoke briefly again, after. He thanked me for trying. But I also gathered the distinct impression that Mr. Skyler had had several such experiences in his life -- where those he looked up to, or were superiors for whom he had to show respect, betrayed his trust in one way or another."

Weldon raised his eyebrows. "I … see."

Mr. Taylor glanced at the clock. "My shift is about to start. I have to go now."

"Thank you, Mr. Taylor, this is indeed helpful."

"If you have other questions, I'll try as much as I can to help." He rose and turned to go.

Layle held Weldon's eyes for another moment before he rose and followed Mr. Taylor.

~oo(0)oo~

This time Mr. Dawson did not need to be startled out of tearing his eyes away from the view slot on the door. As soon as Weldon and Mr. Boyd appeared in the hallway, he all but ran to them; his grey eyes seemed huge in the lamplight, making him look much younger than his 24 years.

"Yes, Mr. Dawson?" Weldon asked, concerned. Despite the occasional mistake brought on by youth and inexperience, Dawson had shown himself to remain calm and level-headed under pressure. Seeing him so visibly flustered did not bode well.

"Mr. Chapman, the prisoner is -- " Dawson blushed and gestured obscenely.

Sweet blood, is that all? "Pleasuring himself," Weldon replied blandly.

Dawson nodded.

"Not for much longer, he's not," Boyd dryly remarked. To Dawson he said, "It happens from time to time. The first few times you see it … well, it's an attempt to shock Seekers and guards. But if I had two bits for every time I've seen --"

"You'd have enough for a pint, maybe two." Weldon could not resist indulging himself in a bit of humor.

~oo(0)oo~

"We've seen this before," Weldon said in an arid tone as he strode into the cell.

But Skyler neither stopped his stroking, nor did he rise from his kneeling position. In fact, he showed every indication of liking the audience. The expression on his face lay somewhere in between saucy and smoldering.

Clearing his throat, Weldon said caustically, "Well, Mr. Skyler, we do have a very effective cure for that itch you are so frantically scratching. Mr. Dawson, " he indicated the wall with a nod of his head, " if you would unlock the ring? Mr. Boyd, if you would do the honors?" Out of the corner of his eye, Weldon saw him start uncoiling his whip. "Mr. Skyler, I would suggest your smallclothes if nothing else, and the longer you hesitate, the more … undivided attention … you earn."

That artificially calm look washed across Skyler's face as he rose, pulled his groin cloth on, and without further word walked to the whipping ring and let Dawson bind him fast.

Weldon took his position and said, "Mr. Smith had you disciplined on your second day with him. This being your second offense, the punishment is more severe." Glancing at Boyd he said, "Twenty medium lashes."

Skyler's cultured impassiveness had completely melted by the seventh blow. In increasingly shaky, sobbing breaths, he counted out the remaining strokes. At one point, towards the end he sagged and swayed so severely in his bonds that Weldon thought he might have to summon Bergsen to revive him, but Skyler, hanging limply in his bonds, tears of pain soaking his beard and dripping off his chin, said that he just needed "an eight-count".

When it was over, the guards as gently as possible laid Skyler face down on the sleeping bench, and Weldon knelt next to him, saying, "You bore that well, Mr. Skyler. However, I trust you won't make the same mistake again."

Skyler tried to give him a grin, but pain turned it into a rictus. Between clenched teeth he choked out, "I assure you, Mr. Chapman, it was no mistake."

Weldon rose and said, "Mr. Dawson, fetch Mr. Bergsen."

As soon as Mr. Bergsen had dressed Skyler's wounds and dosed him with poppy's milk -- glaring all the while at Weldon, daring him to object -- Weldon turned to his guards and said, "We need to speak with the High Seeker at once."

~oo(0)oo~

"And it is as Mr. Chapman says? The prisoner … orchestrated his punishment? It wasn't a simple testing of the rules?" Layle studied the two guards before him.

"No, Sir, it was not. I'm … no Seeker but there was something calculated about this." Mr. Boyd said. Cool, calm, and collected.

Mr. Dawson, visibly uneasy, but his posture not indicating anything evasive, simply nodded in agreement.

Layle closed his eyes in thought. "Very well. Send Mr. Chapman back in."

"Well?" Mr. Chapman asked as soon as he sat.

Layle leaned back as much as his chair allowed. "We need to consult the Codifier about this. The rules about punishment exist for a reason, but when a prisoner begins twisting them to his own ends like this, and this adroitly … it's a problem."

~oo(0)oo~

"And what do you want from me?" The Codifier asked.

Weldon took a deep breath and with a calm he did not entirely feel, said, "The code says I must whip Mr. Skyler for his repeated insolence, even though I know he's using the letter of the Code to undermine the intent of the Code and force a lengthy break in his searching. But if I had permission to punish him for his insolence at my discretion, he would no longer be able to use such behavior to guarantee that matters proceed at his pace."

The Codifier drummed his fingers idly on his blotter and said, "How long does the prisoner need for full healing?"

Mr. Bergsen answered in his usual querulous manner, "From a beating like this? Two weeks. No -- three."

"Well …" the Codifier leaned forward in his chair. "This is what we shall do. The prisoner shall have his three weeks for full healing. You may visit him and inquire after his needs during these three weeks, Mr. Chapman, but no searching. After he heals, yes, you shall have your discretion. I shall draft the writ and explain its terms to you and Mr. Smith when I've finished. Good day, gentlemen."

~oo(0)oo~

To his credit, Skyler climbed slowly and stiffly from his bed when Weldon entered the cell late the next day.

"Mr. Chapman? Mr. Bergsen says you are not allowed to search me." His voice contained a note of uncertainty.

"I am not here to search you, Mr. Skyler, and because of your condition, you may lie back down."

The wariness had not completely left Skyler's gaze when he said, "No. I was planning to stand and move soon any way. It's much better if I do."

"I shall not be searching you, but I am going to give Mr. Dawson some release time to spend with you. He will not be permitted to ask you any questions related to your searching, but I suggest that you talk with him. It's not good for your mind for you to be deprived of contact for an extended period of time. He will, of course, report back to me on anything he thinks is important, but other than that, your conversations are your own."

Skyler blinked as he digested the information. "I … understand, Mr. Chapman." He took a few steps and attempted to swing his arms, and promptly blanched from the pain.

Weldon gave a rueful smile underneath his hood. "Is there anything else I can do for you? Anything you need?"

Chewing his lip nervously, Skyler hesitated before saying, "I would like a Diviner's Deck, if possible. I don't need all 78 cards, just the 22 keys. Or, if you can't find one, if I could have some heavy paper and some ink, I can make my own."

"You follow the old ways, then?" Weldon could not keep the surprise entirely out of his voice.

"The old ways are not entirely incompatible with our religion's teachings about the soul and rebirth."

Weldon had never really given much thought to the matter of the old ways, except to dismiss them as superstition. "Very well," he said after some consideration, "I will see what I can do."

~oo(0)oo~

The next day, to Fletcher Dawson's surprise when he peered through the view slot, he found Skyler out of bed and doing some of his morning exercises and stretches. He rapped on the door and entered. "Mr. Chapman said to bring you this." He set a box and a lighted lantern down mid way on the floor and stepped back.

Skyler strode over, slowly and stiffly picked up the lantern and said, "Hmmph. Horn, not glass. They really do think of everything here."

"We don't want suicides."

Skyler shot him a wry look as he knelt to examine the contents of the box and said, "Doesn't it all end in suicide in these cells? The only path out these doors pretty much leads straight to the gallows."

Fletcher chose not to mention that sometimes (but very rarely) prisoners were found innocent. He didn't want to give Skyler unreasonable hope. The innocent were swiftly found out in the Eternal Dungeon, and Skyler ... well, he had never once brought up the topic of innocence. In answer to Skyler's statement he said, "It's not suicide. It's going for rebirth. It's different."

"Really?" Skyler snorted contemptuously. "Seems more like a matter of what's, for whatever arbitrary reason, sanctioned. A matter of accepted forms. One's got the seal of approval, but the other, accomplishing the same thing, does not."

"It's different," Fletcher replied, frustrated. "Your soul is ready to be reborn, so of course you've got to cast the flesh off to start your new life. It's -- I'm not explaining it right. Mr. Chapman is much better --"

"Oh I'm sure he is."

Fletcher rolled his eyes and continued, "Mr. Chapman is much better than I am. It makes sense when he tells you about it."

Skyler nodded, but Fletcher could see that it was just to placate him. He sighed.

During the conversation, Skyler had emptied the box of its contents: a stack of ivory colored card stock, a pencil, a bottle of indelible ink, several brushes of various sizes, a lap desk, a bowl, a palette, and a small case of watercolors -- the kind typically given to young primary school children, all of the pigments non poisonous.

"Mr. Chapman thought it might be good for your mind you to have this stuff."

Skyler said, "It's a lot more than I asked for, actually. Thank Mr. Chapman for me. " He reached towards the supplies, then froze. "Is it alright if I sit down and get started?"

"You may. I -" Fletcher stumbled over the next words. "May I stay?"

"Sure."

Skyler picked up the lantern and set it on the sleeping bench, put a sheet of the cardstock on the lap desk, picked up the pencil, paused thoughtfully, then sat on the floor to work.

"What are you making?" Fletcher asked from his place by the door after the silence stretched too long.

"The 22 keys of a Diviner's Deck." Skyler did not look up from his drawing.

Oh. "I guess that's why all of this talk about rebirth has no effect on you."

"Something like that. I don't have quite the orthodox view on such things." A smile tugged at the edge of Skyler's mouth.

After a few more minutes of work he said, "Sit down, Mr. Dawson."

"It's not permitted."

"I'm going to get a kink in my neck if I have to look up at you, and I'm in enough pain already." His voice hardened. "So sit down or leave."

"Mr. Chapman's going to have my hide if I get caught." Fletcher slowly sank down.

"If Mr. Chapman has you disciplined for giving in to a reasonable request from a prisoner, I shall lose any respect I have for the man."

Fletcher studied Skyler for several moments. In the past weeks he had seen a lot of this prisoner engage in a great deal of manipulative behavior, but somehow -- he couldn't quite put his finger on it -- he thought that Skyler actually meant it. "You're serious, aren't you?"

"Yup."

Afraid that Skyler might turn the conversation to the topic of Mr. Chapman and the other Seekers, Fletcher decided to take the topic back to this Diviner's Deck of Mr. Skyler's.

"So, what are you drawing, exactly?"

"I am drawing the first of the 22. The Magician. Which, amongst other things, represents the path of creation. Seems like the right place to start, no?"

~oo(0)oo~

"So, do you believe that these cards can really tell you the future?"

Skyler gave him a crooked smile and said, "After a fashion. They also tell you your past and your present."

"But don't you know your past and present, I mean --"

"What did you learn from them? What might you learn from your future?" At Fletcher's baffled look, Skyler continued, "What they are is a tool for contemplation. About yourself, about others. But there's something that anybody who uses the keys needs to realize -- they enlighten as much as they deceive."

Fletcher shrugged. This was all bunk anyway as far as he was concerned. "So, are you going to do a reading for yourself?"

"I will, when the time is right." Skyler sighed and scratched idly at his beard. "What I wouldn't give for a shave," he muttered under his breath before continuing," The problem with doing readings for yourself is you must not 'force' the cards. That is, you need to take a look at yourself and be honest about what you see reflected there, what the cards are trying to tell you to see. You need to look at all of it, not just what you want to see. And as you probably well know, Mr. Dawson, there's an awful lot of self-deception in the world." Skyler shuffled the cards. "How about we start with a simple Drawing of Three for you?"

"I - I…" Fletcher felt uneasy.

"What will it hurt? It's all just superstition to you, right?"

Fletcher took in a deep breath, held it, blew it out. "Okay. Do it."

"The Drawing of Three is a simple reading for past, present, and future. Take three cards and lay them face down on the floor."

Fletcher knelt and drew the cards, then sat down opposite Skyler. It was the first time he had done so without being asked to do so first. He somehow suspected that Skyler would not do his reading until he sat. But he was still careful to stay out of arm's reach.

"Ready?"

He nodded.

"Your past." Skyler flipped the first card. "Four -- the Emperor. A path of power and domination, but whereas the Empress achieves rule by persuasion, seduction, and splendor, the Emperor is rule through majesty, domination, and subjection. The Emperor is symbolic of control of both self and other through the imposition and enforcement of rules and law.

"It is also a path of loyalty and submission. And, where a group is concerned, a path of initiation through following rules, whereby a person is transformed into a member of an order or a group through understanding and following its laws."

"Like when I was accepted as a trainee … and completed my training as a guard here." Fletcher mused, biting his lip in thought.

"Quite possibly. Although, there could be other, equally right answers. Remember what I said about how these keys both enlighten and deceive. Don't limit yourself to only one possibility." Skyler turned the next card and gasped, "Fifteen -- the Sphinx. A path of desire and unfettered instincts. Regression of self, abandonment of restraint, and stagnation in self-indulgence. But … yet the self discovers previously hidden desires and strengths.

"Also, the dream turned nightmare, the fall from grace, and the pursuit of eloquence and commerce.

"The Sphinx also symbolizes the original adversary, whose piercing questions lead the mind to question assumed truths and thus leads the self to a deeper understanding of the self and the mysteries of the world." Pause. "No quick answer for this, then?"

Feeling somewhat sick, Fletcher could only shake his head.

"Confronting a truth about yourself you'd rather not? Swaying a bit as your world shifts on its axis? Something you'd like to tell me about a torrid affair with a girl in the kitchens?"

Praying that Skyler (or worse yet, Mr. Chapman) would not see, Fletcher blurted, "There's no kitchen girl."

"I think you are beginning to see why this is much more serious than just parlor tricks."

Fletcher nodded gravely.

"Your future --" Fletcher almost leaned over to stay Skyler's hand, but he was breaking the rules enough by his proximity and by sitting, no need to compound the error through touching. " -- ah, Six. The Lovers. A path of union, of self and other, not through worship, rulership, or dominion, but through harmony, compassion, fellowship, or even love.

"A path of choice in that you shape the world through choosing another person to share yourself with, even if only briefly." Skyler smiled. "Looks like happier days are ahead for you, Mr. Dawson."

"I can only hope. My last relationship, it ended badly."

Skyler shrugged. "Who should we do next?"

"You."

With a voice like a splash of ice water, Skyler said, "I told you, when I'm ready, and not before."

"Sorry --I …" Fletcher shifted uneasily for a few moments then said, "Oh, let's do someone big -- the High Seeker. Let's do Mr. Smith."

Skyler shuffled the deck again and placed the cards. "Nine -- Justice. The path, obviously, of judgment. The search for fair evaluation and fair verdicts, balance and equilibrium.

"Achievement of verdicts through the application of the senses, inner judgment, and guidance of conscience.

"Also, the path of self-judgment. Examination of one's upholding of one's own behavioral codes, determination of guilt, but not strictly guilt in the sense of the law, more the sense of the soul. Recognition of transgressions against self and other."

He turned the next card. "Seventeen -- the Stars. A path of solace and hope. Often through divine inspiration or dreams.

"Also a path of grace and beauty, as the self begins to reflect in the material world the secrets learned through the world of dreams and from the divine.

"Finally, a path of cleansing and purification. A step on the road to immortality and ascension as the soul begins to perceive the transcendence of the material world, and how to enter the divine."

"His future. The Fool. The card with no number. The key that is a representation the things that cannot fit into any rational system, a path of the irrational and unconscious self.

"If the 21 other keys can be said to represent a macrocosm, then the Fool is a symbol of the microcosm.

"The Fool is both the first and last card in some ways reading the Diviner's Deck. It is self on the outside. Self on the fringe of things, self even outside of self. Multiplicity, incoherence, madness, paradox, so, above all, the Fool is both the man and the sacred child inside the man.

"Generally speaking, the revelations of the Fool are the things that only come through hard won experience. It is the doubt of the master at his peak. It is recognition of self as pawn, even while one laughs at the great cosmic jest." He paused and scratched at his beard. "Well, you know Mr. Smith better than I. Does any of this seem to apply?"

"I think," Fletcher said slowly, "that it's about as good an assessment of Mr. Smith, as any we're ever likely to get." He climbed somewhat shakily to his feet and stepped back. "Are there other … ways to do this?"

"Oh yes, Skyler said, reshuffling the deck. "The Fool's Road, The Crown and Anchor, The Tree of Life. All much more complex than The Drawing of Three. And in some systems of interpretation it matters if the cards are inverted or not."

"I … I think I'll go now." Fletcher snorted ruefully, "You've given me a lot to think about."

Skyler raked a few of his errant locks aside, but didn't look up as he said, "I think I'll start probing my past and examining the roads that lead me here."

Chapter Text

"Anything you think I might want to know?" Weldon asked his junior guard.

Dawson flushed slightly before saying, "He … um … he's asked me to rub some of that ointment the healer gave him on his shoulders and upper back."

"And did you?"

"No. I was … afraid he'd go for my dagger or something."

A wise move. But not all of the story. "Has he acted in a shifty manner?" While neither Seeker nor guards could afford entirely let their guards down around a prisoner, experience (and instinct) generally gave them an idea of who could be trusted a hairsbreadth more than others. So far Skyler had shown no signs of rage or violence, well, none directed towards anybody who worked at the Eternal Dungeon. So far.

"No Sir, it just seemed …."

"Aaaand?" Weldon leaned forward and dropped his voice a bit. When no answer seemed forthcoming, he continued, "Mr. Dawson, kindly do not attempt to dissemble or be evasive with me. I do have some skill as a Seeker. You want to say something more, yet you're not. For the prisoner's good as well your own, do enlighten me."

"Sir," Dawson tugged nervously at his collar. "we both know that the prisoner is perceptive and manipulative. I --" he blushed furiously and stumbled over his words, "I didn't want -- I was afraid the prisoner was attempting a seduction, or that he might later claim that I had … you know."

Weldon frowned in thought. "Is there any danger of seduction, Mr. Dawson? Not that I'm doubting your overall judgment and common sense."

"No sir." Dawson said quickly. There is not." He straightened up, looked Weldon full in the face and said, "Mr. Skyler is handsome and charming, but I know better than to entertain notions like that."

Weldon sipped some tea through the tube at the side of his cup and said, "Good. What else?"

"Well, this is going to sound strange, and really, I'm not letting my guard down, but I feel as if I'm seeing another side to Mr. Skyler, a bit of the real him. That is, what he's like when he's not being sly or excessively careful in choosing his words.

"He's also teaching me about the Diviner's Deck and it's fascinating. The reading he did of me, well, it's given me a lot to think about. And, I'm not trying to presume to be a Seeker, but I think he's using the cards to look at himself, and his acts, and is trying to come to terms with his life and what he's done. It's almost as if he's going to break himself."

"Thank you, Mr. Dawson." Weldon put a touch of approving smile in his voice.

It was not unknown for prisoners, especially very reserved prisoners, to effect a sort of self-breaking after requesting and reading works of literature or philosophy. The final breaking of course came with the aid of a Seeker, but initial crack came from the prisoner him or herself.

Which reminded him. He needed to visit Mr. Skyler soon.

~oo(0)oo~

"Mr. Dawson reports that you have put the art supplies to use and made yourself a deck that suits your needs. Is there anything else I can request for you?"

"Mr. Chapman, do you think you could get me a few books? There's a notoriously complex reading I'd like to do, and to get the most out of it, I'd like to have a few books to consult about theory and interpretation."

Weldon did not say so, but he could request books out of the royal libraries if need be. He withdrew a card and pencil from his shirt pocket. "Ready when you are."

"Smylie's The Book of Dooms, Anatra's Fruit From the Tree of Life, Mews's Wheelwright of Fortune and Piercing the Veil, if you can."

"Anything else?"

"Yes. May I do a Drawing of Three for you? I mean, I'm planning to do one anyway, but would you like to be in the room?"

Weldon's first instinct was to refuse, but upon reconsideration he changed his mind. This might give him further insight on how to deal with Skyler and might help build a precious bit of trust. "Yes, you may. And yes, you may sit or kneel to place and read the cards."

"Thank you." Skyler shuffled the deck and placed the cards. "The first card is your past." He flipped it, revealing a woman, presumably one of the Fates, holding a scythe. "Thirteen -- Death. Now, as you obviously know, you're still alive. Death can be just that -- death. Death of a loved one, or even your own eventual demise.

"But at its heart, Death is the path of transformations, and there's no bigger transformation than casting off the flesh.

"Death is also a path of destruction, but destruction is also an act of transformation. Destruction is a key part of transformation, evolution, or rebirth. As when the caterpillar goes into the chrysalis to become a butterfly, or as fragrant fireweed springs from the ashes.

"Ultimately, Death is a necessary step for the growing of new things, or the birth of a new self."

Weldon could think of several places in his life where this could apply. It was all vague and he said so.

"But the point is perhaps to make you meditate on all the places this applies, to examine their meanings, and how they shaped you, and, perhaps, as a harbinger of the fact that all is cyclical. The Mr. Chapman who stands before me will probably die several more times in this life -- if he's lucky."

Weldon declined to remark that perhaps he should meditate on his own need for transformation and rebirth as Skyler flipped the next card, a remark that would have come too close to the topic of Skyler's currently postponed searching.

"Your present. Eight -- The Sword."

Weldon lost most of the thread of Skyler's speech, caught up in the simple, bold, and striking painting on the card, the way the red and yellow played against softer silvery grey blues. The simple, yet skillfully placed lines that made up the shape of the horses and their charioteer, whose drawn sword gave the card its name.

" … ultimately a path of contest, in which the self, through skill and self-control seeks to prove itself and achieve victory. The self seeks to manifest and interpret its skills in relation to the world."

Skyler flipped the last card. "Your future. Five -- The Great Priest. The path of reason and intelligence used to determine moral law and shape society.

"This is also the path of tradition, wherein duty and conscience dictate the behavior of the self, not desire. But not a blind following of tradition, but awareness of what has gone before, a study of laws and the structure of society.

"Rule through reason and law rather than the use of force or charm. Reason and intellect as forces of persuasion.

"Finally, life of the mind, the accumulation and interpretation of information, and rigors of discourse and debate."

Weldon shrugged. "Interesting, considering I've never been considered that much of an intellectual. That's more of the High Seeker's or Mr. Taylor's field."

"Well, " Skyler replied calmly, "perhaps if I did a more detailed reading for your future, you might see the Death card crop up again, and the Mr. Chapman who thinks he has no skill in those endeavors might become something else."

"Perhaps." Weldon mused, then bade Skyler a good evening and left.

~oo(0)oo~

"Who are you reading for today?" Fletcher asked as he watched Skyler lay out a Drawing of Three.

"Myself."

Fletcher gaped in shock, and said, "But, it's just --"

Skyler gave him an indulgent smile. "I told you I'd do a reading for myself when I was ready. I am. I've explored my past at length, now I'm ready to start looking at the other parts of the picture." He flipped the first card. "My past --"

Skyler had never done a reading for himself with Fletcher in the room. It was ... intimate somehow. Fletcher felt strangely honored.

"Three -- The Empress. A path of sovereignty and rulership over self and other. The first path of control. The power of persuasion, as the self seeks to exercise control over connections with others.

"It is also a path of splendor, beauty, and generation. Yet through beauty and splendor, can be found vanity and seduction.

"Oddly appropriate, to sum the whole thing up." Skyler snorted with laughter at some joke only he knew.

"My present. Sixteen -- The Riven Tower. The path of pride, vanity, and overconfidence in which the self through its own activity, is lead to danger and disaster.

"The Path of sudden overthrow and subversion of the natural order of things. The path of horror, confusion, and disordering of the mind, spirit, and body.

"A road of dark and destructive forces: war, disease, pestilence, drought, earthquakes, fire. All of the efforts of man to control themselves and the world around them are laid bare and exposed as illusion. The veneer of civilization is stripped away and man's heart of darkness is revealed. Din, discord, and calamitous ruin."

Fletcher held his tongue.

Skyler reached for the last card, hesitated, drew in a deep breath and expelled it in an explosive rush. "My future. Twelve -- The Hanged Man. The desire for transcendence in the wake of the failure of the self to dominate the material world.

"A path wherein the self is freed from the mundane world, and sees its surroundings for the first time, but transcends them and perceives the truths of the world beyond.

"A path of self-sacrifice, mysticism, illumination, mastery of the otherworldly self."

"Look," Fletcher began softly, "I -- I'm not that good with words most of the time, but .... But. We're all walking in the same direction, right? Except that you get the gift of knowing when you're going to go and knowing that it's going to be quick and you'll be dead before you can feel the pain.

"Right now, there's this maid in the Outer Dungeon, Mouse, and she just got word that her youngest brother, a boy of 16, just got bit by a foam-mouthed mad dog. Right now he's lying in bed, knowing that it's coming, and that it's going to be agony.

"Or like one of my schoolmates, he liked to watch buildings going up, or pipes being laid in at dig sites. And that's what he ended up in, buildings. So he's at the worksite, talking with the workmaster for the bricklayers, when a bit of scaffolding snaps and it comes down on them, and when they dig him out, he's pulp.

"So, there's no dignity in any of that. But you, Skyler, you get to know and you get to prepare, and when that drop happens, it's got dignity to it. Respect.

"Yes, we would all like to go quietly in our sleep, but there are some incredibly bad ways to go, and what will happen to you? It's not one of them."

Skyler gave him a long, level look and said, "That may all be true, Mr. Dawson, but it's no easy thing to make yourself walk to the end and ... step over."

Fletcher raked a hand through his hair. "I'm not trying to say that it's easy." He groaned. "I'm not saying this right. I'm not like a Seeker, or like you. I'm sorry I even opened my mouth, " he finished lamely.

"You meant well, Mr. Dawson, " Skyler said not unkindly. "I'm not so ... bent ... that I can't understand that goodness that motivated what you said."

The door opened and Mr. Chapman entered, bearing an armload of books. Both of them shot to their feet.

"More of these readings, I see," he said, glancing at the cards on the floor.

Skyler said nothing.

The lights of the furnace behind the glass flickered and flared.

Fletcher sensed some sort of game being played, but couldn't quite put his finger on it.

"The books you requested." Mr. Chapman finally said.

"Thank you, Mr. Chapman, they ... I am hoping they will lead to me coming to terms, to better understanding the paths I must tred."

Mr. Chapman nodded slowly and left.

As soon as the door closed, Fletcher let out a breath he had not realized he had been holding. Bloody blades, but it unnerved him to watch Skyler's demeanor change so markedly in Mr. Chapman's presence. "So. Books," he said, to break the silence.

"Yes, " Skyler said, Mr. Chapman seemingly forgotten. "I want to do a reading called the Tree of Life. It's complicated." He started leafing through the stack of books, setting them aside on his bed shelf as he spoke, "it's based on another Diviner's tool also called the Tree of Life, and when you marry the deck to it, the potential is...." He sighed. "I'll be able to explain it better to you when I do your reading, but I wanted to refresh myself on the details of uniting the two --" He froze when he came to the last book.

It clattered to the floor, and a moment later Skyler fell to his knees beside it. He glanced up, and for a moment, Fletcher saw a cascade of emotions crash across his face, but chief amongst them was the horror of betrayal. Skyler buried his face in his hands and Fletcher thought he heard a stifled sob. Then Skyler looked up and that all too familiar "game of cards" look had returned to his face.

But Skyler could not entirely quell the tremor of icy rage in his voice when he spoke: "Mr. Dawson, would you please be so kind as to fetch Mr. Chapman to me?"

~oo(0)oo~

With a certain amount of curiosity (and hope -- Dawson's tone of voice indicated that something important had just happened) Weldon re-entered Skyler's cell, flanked by Mr. Boyd and Mr. Dawson, while Mr. Symmonds, a trainee guard, remained outside.

Skyler stood stiffly by the bed shelf, a red book clutched tightly to his chest. "I'm ready to tell you what you want to hear." His calm voice belied the seething fury in his eyes.

"Mr. Boyd," Weldon said over his shoulder, "Mr. Skyler is prepared to make his statement." But it was mere formality, for as soon as Skyler had spoken, Boyd had stepped to the door to ask for the writing board and pencils. As soon as he heard Boyd fasten the paper in place, Weldon said, "Mr. Skyler, you may begin."

"Right, then," Skyler hugged the red book even more tightly to his chest and said, "I pushed Nieve down the stairs. There you go."

"Mr. Skyler --" Weldon began, shocked to the core of his being by what he had just heard, and the way in which such a monstrous statement had been delivered.

Skyler cut him off. "Isn't that what you've been waiting to hear me say?!" He all but spat the words. "I just … just --" his lip quivered for several seconds as he closed his eyes and forced his composure back into place. Meeting Weldon's eyes once again, Skyler whispered brokenly, "Just tell me your price Mr. Chapman. I mean, it's not as if you need gold quite the same way most men do. All your needs are provided for, and although I don't think the life of a Seeker permits many expensive luxuries, I could be wrong. For all I know you have palatial apartments, and -- or did she say she could offer you your freedom? Do this one thing for her and there'd be new papers, a new life waiting for you, that you could slip away somehow and start all over. Was that it?"

It took a few moments for the completely baffled Weldon to find his voice again. He had dealt with prisoners who had built up such a web of justifications for their acts that they needed considerable help in destroying their self-deceptions so that they could see and understand the reality of what they had done, rediscover the truth, really. Mr. Skyler was not one of these. There were also prisoners who had such feelings of love or loyalty for another that they were willing to die in the place of that person, and needed to be shown that their actions, though meant for noble reasons, ultimately caused more harm than help, and were misguided. Mr. Skyler had no such person to cover for. But instead of what he should have asked, what he meant to ask, "Mr. Skyler, what are you talking about?!" burst forth from Weldon's mouth.

"Oh sweet blood! Can we just stop this pretense? Can you just please be honest with me about this one thing?!" Skyler shrieked.

The situation was spinning out of control. In an effort to bring it back on track, to get to the heart of the matter of how the Lady Nieve had really died, Weldon pitched his voice low and firm. "Mr. Skyler --"

"No! No more lies. No more games! I fold, Mr. Chapman, it's over. She wins! The whole bloody cursed lot of you win! Just tell me, please!" Skyler slammed the book to the floor, almost shattering the binding with the force of his violence.

Weldon glanced at the book. In the dim light provided by the one lantern Boyd had brought in and the red-orange glow of the flames dancing behind the wall, he recognized the Vomimian alphabet, and thought he could make out the word "sacred". Carefully, never taking his eyes off of the visibly distraught Skyler -- shaking, jaw clenched, fists knotted into his hair -- Weldon crouched and reached for the book.

"Careful, Mr. Chapman," Boyd cautioned, writing board set aside, as he stepped forward, hand on his whip.

"I am fine, Mr. Boyd, thank you."

The Sacred Cycle. But why would a book that had something to do with Vovimian religion cause such a reaction in Skyler, a man likely barely literate in the language to begin with? "Would you like to tell me more about this book?" Weldon asked calmly, hoping to gain some enlightenment and regain control of the situation.

"I pushed her down the stairs. What more do you want? Just please, please, please tell me how she got to you," Skyler said, ignoring Weldon's question. Pacing back and forth he began muttering to himself. "I should have known. I should have known. Stupid, stupid, stupid."

He was working himself into hysterics. In an effort to calm his frenzy and get Skyler to say something that made sense, Weldon stepped forward and said, "Mr. Skyler, I don't understand." He indicated the book. "This book --"

"I gave you a chance, Mr. Chapman, I gave you a chance and still you mock me," Skyler hissed.

Too late Weldon saw that his prisoner had closed the gap.

"Mr. Chapman!" Boyd shouted in warning.

Weldon staggered back from the force of the blow, ears ringing, vision fading to black and white, mouth flooding with the molten copper taste of blood. Dazed, blinking through tear-flooded eyes, he saw Skyler catch Boyd's whip on his upraised forearm, then rapidly snap his arm down and back, tearing the whip from Boyd's hand. Using the butt, Skyler knocked the dagger from Boyd's hand, then struck him savagely to the floor.

Blood pouring from his throbbing mouth, Weldon sucked in a ragged gasp and screamed for the guards.

Chapter Text

Attempting to finish documentwork while holding a cool wet rag to the swollen lip under one's hood was a losing proposition, Weldon decided. With a tired groan, he shoved the files away and pulled his cup of tea a bit closer. In a little bit he would rise, take the potion Mr. Bergsen had prepared for him, stumble down the corridor to his apartment, pull the blankets over his head and let sleep take him.

No, check that. He would need to allow a little time for Mistress Birdesmond to fuss over him, and then he could go to bed. Unbidden, the image of his wife's gentle smile popped into Weldon's head, and reflexively his lips crooked into a smile of their own, causing him to wince. Still, he did look forward to having his head cradled in her lap, or against her bosom while she stroked his forehead and murmured soothingly.

So distracted was he by that thought that he did not see the High Seeker and Mr. Taylor until he heard the noise of them drawing back the other chairs at his table. As soon as they were seated, as if on cue, the tables nearest them emptied.

"How is your prisoner?" As always, Mr. Smith got straight to the heart of the matter.

"Bound and sedated." Though he could not see it, Weldon knew that beneath his hood, Mr. Smith had arched an eyebrow. The knuckles on Mr. Taylor's hand whitened around his cup.

Weldon let out a heavy sigh. "Mr. Bergsen's idea, not mine. Mr. Skyler thrashed so violently in his restraints that Mr. Bergsen feared he might do himself injury. Also," he paused to dip the cloth once more, talking had considerably revived the throbbing in his jaw, "we both of us feared for the prisoner's state of mind."

"Explain."

"The prisoner gave a confession -- one which I do not believe -- and then .... He seems to think there is some manner of conspiracy against him, and it ties somehow" Weldon shifted through his satchel, "to this book." He slid it across the table.

"Oh!" said Mr. Taylor, "That's a book I requested. I was a touch disappointed when it didn't show up this morning with the rest of the books from the library."

"Hmm ... I must have accidentally picked it up when I grabbed the ones for Mr. Skyler." Weldon shifted in his chair, attempting to find a slightly more comfortable position. "I was trying to get Mr. Skyler to say something sensible when he struck me and then disarmed and attacked Mr. Boyd --"

"How is Mr. Boyd?" the High Seeker asked coolly.

"He will recover. It was the whip Mr. Skyler wrested from him. He struck Mr. Boyd with the handle, knocking him to the floor."

"Well," Mr. Taylor said, "it was a very good thing that he didn't get his hands on a dagger. As I recall, Du - Mr. Skyler was a tiger in the salle."

Weldon shook his head, puzzled. "Mr. Taylor," he asked, "you used to go fencing with your footman?" He didn't know much about the day-to-day lives of the moneyed classes, but that struck him as distinctly odd.

Mr. Taylor gave him a peculiar look in reply and said, "Footman? Mr. Skyler never worked for my family. And he was never anybody's servant, not that I know of."

"What? It says right here --" Weldon reached for the prisoner's file, but, clumsy with fatigue and pain, managed to knock his cup of tea over, sloshing its contents across the report that had come from Parkside Prison, causing the ink to run. Hastily, swearing under his breath, Weldon drew his kerchief and blotted at it, not to much avail. Inwardly he groaned. Whatever had possessed the clerk at Parkside to use non-waterfast ink? Official documents were always supposed to be prepared in indelible ink, precisely because of events like this. "Well, I see we'll have to send to Parkside for a correctly prepared copy. At any rate, Mr. Taylor, it said that Durian Skyler was a footman in the employ of the Earl of Iceal --"

"What?! That -- that just doesn't make sense!" Mr. Taylor shook his head violently. "He wasn't the Earl's servant, he was the Earl's natural son, and if he had gone to work for his father, he would never have been put in that sort of position, not after the way he'd been acknowledged." Mr. Taylor's blue eyes bored into his across the table, "Mr. Chapman, Durian Skyler was a classmate of mine."

"You went to Harrowgate in Dockside?" Weldon said before thinking.

"No. Mr. Skyler might have, I don't know anything about his life before we met. But he also went to my school, Keystone Academy, in Parkside." Pause. "At least for about three terms he did."

"There's no mention of that at all in the files I received."

"Oh. Well, it was very awkward for him. He was 17, almost 18, in a class of 16 year olds. He'd only recently been taken in by his father, and ... I'm afraid a lot of my schoolmates were not nice to him. Many girls -- those that didn't think he was beneath them -- found him quite fetching, which made many of the boys jealous.

"All sorts of rumors swirled around him when he first came, he never would say much about himself or his family, and it got worse after our class to a visit to the Queen's national gallery during the Hawthorn Blossom Festival. One of the paintings on display was a portrait of the Duke of the Lakelands and his son, the Earl of Iceal, from about 25 years ago. Mr. Skyler's resemblance to his father was quite uncanny. Almost like looking in a mirror. And everybody at school knew from that point on that he was a bastard. I felt so sorry for him.

"We got to be friendly after that. He might have been behind in all his other studies, but he got placed in the most advanced Vovimian class, and he helped me with my homework and I helped him with his history.

"And then one of our schoolmasters accused him of stealing that watch ...." Mr. Taylor's voice trailed off.

Weldon had no idea what to say to any of this, and was saved by Mr. Smith pushing back from the table and saying, "I think we shall have to fetch fresh copies of Mr. Skyler's records immediately --"

"It's early evening, the clerks have gone for the night. We can't get anything before morning," Weldon said.

He could tell by the look in Mr. Smith's eye that the man smiled coldly beneath his hood. "On my writ we will. Even if the prisonmaster has to copy the documents himself, we will have an official copy before morning," he said in a voice that sent a shudder down Weldon's spine. "And, as soon as Mr. Skyler is able, we need to speak with him." Pause. "I shall also send a runner to the Codifier's house. The ... discrepancies in Mr. Skyler's records trouble me greatly." He turned, paused, and said almost under his breath, "I very much fear that we have been searching the wrong person these several weeks."

~oo(0)oo~

"Mr. Chapman, may I have a word with your prisoner?" Elsdon asked. Highly unusual, but necessary since the first thing Skyler did when Mr. Chapman entered his cell was turn his back to them as much as his restraints allowed, in addition to turning his head completely away. According to Mr. Bergsen, Skyler had also refused water upon awakening, a worrying sign. "I know I cannot search him," Elsdon continued, "but perhaps I can reach him, make him understand."

Mr. Chapman shrugged and gestured to Mr. Dawson to open the cell.

As soon as Elsdon started to move, Layle's hand stayed him. "What was Mr. Skyler to you?" he asked, eyes glittering in the lamplight.

Elsdon sighed softly and smiled wistfully under his hood. "Layle, remember when I told you that a boy at school had once told me I was beautiful?"

The light shifted in the High Seeker's eyes.

Elsdon swallowed hard and said in a papery voice, "Durian Skyler was that boy."

Layle nodded solemnly and released him. Elsdon entered the cell, Layle and Mr. Chapman close behind him.

"Mr. Skyler, I am Mr. Taylor." Pause. "Would you please look at me?" Elsdon moved closer, kneeling beside the bed shelf. "Please, Durian," he whispered.

The use of the familiar got a response. Skyler looked at him and said in a cracked voice, "What, are you my new Seeker, then? I've nothing to say to you." His face bore a bruise along the cheek and several scratches from his fight.

The rules be damned, the prisoner comes first, Elsdon thought as he flipped the front part of his hood up. Ignoring the shocked sounds behind him, he asked, "Do you remember me?"

Durian's eyes grew huge and he opened and shut his mouth soundlessly several times before he finally whispered, "I-I haven't gone mad, have I? You ... is it really you?"

"Yes, Durian, it's me."

"H-how?"

"We can talk about that later." Elsdon looked him in the eye and asked, "Do you trust me?"

"Yes."

"And if I have you unbound and fetch water to you, will you answer Mr. Chapman's questions?"

Long pause.

"Please, Durian," Elsdon entreated his old schoolmate. "Mr. Chapman has never done me, or anybody I know a deliberate wrong. I've seen him face the consequences of the truth, no matter how unpleasant it was personally for him. I trust him. So should you."

"It can't be you?"

Elsdon smiled. "Not without several hours of documentwork, and I fear time is important here."

Durian gave a weak laugh.

"I can be in the room if you like."

"Yes, I'd like that."

Elsdon gave him one last reassuring smile, flipped his face cloth down, and stood back.

As soon as Skyler was unbound he insisted on standing. As soon as he finished a cup of water, Mr. Chapman stepped closer, but not too close; Elsdon had to give him credit for that.

"Mr. Skyler, how did the Lady Nieve die?"

"The Countess -- no, it's Dowager Countess now, isn't it? -- the Dowager pushed her down the stairs."

"What lead up to it?"

"How far back do you want me to go?"

"As far back as you feel is necessary," Mr. Chapman spoke in his most reassuring tone.

"Right. The Dowager. I've never liked her. I rarely spoke to the Earl about anything, least of all how he conducted his affairs, but when Julot, sorry, after the Countess Julot, Nieve's mother, died giving birth to a stillborn son -- you do know that the Dowager was not Nieve's birth mother, correct?"

"It's a detail she has never happened to mention in the several many letters she's written to myself, the Queen, and several prominent magistrates." Layle's voice was a touch cooler than its usual frost.

Skyler chuckled ruefully. "I didn't like her from the moment I met her. I actually made a point of speaking to the Earl and telling him he'd be better to wed the scullery maid than the Dowager.

"The woman spends money like ... I don't quite have a word for the way this woman can spend. The Earl was marrying her partly because the Duke was pressing him. A granddaughter was not enough, you see. He wanted a grandson, a legitimate grandson, to carry on the family name. The fact that the Duke could barely stand the Dowager was of no moment. She was of the right peerage and willing to marry a notorious rake. And the Dowager, she didn't mind a husband who strayed, so long as she had plenty of money to indulge her whims.

"The night it happened, the Earl was away on his shooting trip, most of the servants, except for a select few that were her creatures had been sent away on errands or given the night off. I was supposed to be gone for the evening, but my plans changed, so I returned home.

"I came in through the side entrance, not the main foyer, so she didn't see me until it was too late. She grabbed -- she grabbed little Nieve and just --" Skyler drew in a shuddery hiccupping breath, "threw her down the stairs.

"Sweet blood, I can hear her screaming still, but she wasn't screaming when she hit bottom. I ran to her and she - she drew in this little breath and was gone, and I froze and the Dowager comes screaming down the stairs, screaming the house down, screaming that I did it. I fought as hard as I could, but in the end I was hauled off to Parkside.

Skyler swallowed hard. "I think the original plan was to say that it was all an accident, but I had the worst timing."

Aghast, Mr. Chapman said, "Mr. Skyler, why didn't you just say all of this before?"

"Because, Mr. Chapman, what was I to think when I show up here and discover that I'm a footman who murdered that precious little girl, that the statements I made at Parkside somehow never made it over with me? I'm a bastard, Mr. Chapman. I've always lived in a world where I've started out with a black mark on my record, and frankly, the way I grew up? Everybody had a price. The fix was in. She had gotten to and bribed people at Parkside.

"I was playing for time, hoping that the Earl would notice my absence and investigate, or that my friends and acquaintances, or even my father's solicitor might. Either they haven't noticed or they have been thwarted. I like to think it's the latter." He paused and smiled wryly. "Not that the former is much better."

"And the book?" Mr. Chapman asked. "I speak and read Vovimian adequately, but I have been assured by those who would know that one has to speak Vovimian extremely well to tackle their sacred drama, to fully appreciate the nuance and word play in it."

"I ... in childhood, at my mother's house, I knew a lot of Vovimians. My mother's bouncer, Zarthras, he was from central Vovim. I've known him since I could walk. He always spoke to me in Vovimian. I'm told my Yclau accent isn't that pronounced.

"After I left formal education, I chanced to come across an old acquaintance from my mother's, a scholar. We talked and I found out he was working on a commentary about The Sacred Cycle, comparing some of its themes to the old worship of the Fates. We got to talking and I agreed I would help him with translation and research, and he taught me about the Diviner's Deck. The Dowager knew I was working on a project involving this book, so that's why I thought --"

Elsdon had to chuckle softly under his hood. Oh the horrible irony.

"Yes, I completely understand," Mr. Chapman said, a note of dark amusement also colored his voice. "One other thing, just my curiosity, but where exactly was your mother's tavern located?"

"It ... um ... my mother didn't exactly own a tavern. But to answer your question, her business was at the edge of Dockside, near Spitalfields."

"Not a tavern? But you say she had a bouncer?"

"Mr. Chapman," Layle cut in, "I think I can surmise the nature of the establishment that Mistress Skyler owned, and I think that Mr. Skyler, who is a very shrewd observer and judge of character, might be trying to save us all some discomfort by being circumspect."

Skyler chuckled, scratching at the beard on his chin. "Oh, in that case, Mr. Smith, I'll just come right out and explain it in black and white. My mother owned a very fine brothel, and when I was old enough, I became part of her stables. So, you see I'm a bastard and a whore."

"The source of the scars on your back before you came here?" Layle asked in a voice so flat that it gave Elsdon goosebumps.

"Yes."

"Do ... you like pain?" Mr. Chapman asked in a shocked whisper.

"For fifty percent of what indulging that particular taste cost? You'd like it too, Mr. Chapman. Even though some of the clients can get carried away."

"Far be it from me to tell one of my Seekers his business, but I think that he can agree, we've learned what we need to learn tonight." Layle smoothly cut in. "Mr. Skyler, as soon as I speak with the Codifier, we'll be transferring you to guest quarters. We have the meat of what we need, but may need to ask a few follow up questions. After that? We will help you make the necessary arrangements."

Elsdon stepped forward and spoke quietly, "I'm so sorry you had to go through all of this, Durian. I'll see if I can have a hot bath waiting for you in the guest quarters."

"Thank you." Then, in a brittle voice, Durian said, "Does that change your opinion of me, pretty Elsdon, knowing what I used to do? Would you have still put in a good word for me if you had known back then?"

"There are worse things than that, Durian," Elsdon replied, putting the Seeker into his voice. "I got here by way of murder."

~oo(0)oo~

"So, murder, then?" the now clean-shaven Skyler -- Fletcher could not yet bring himself to think of him in the familiar -- asked the Seeker who had just joined them in the guest quarters where Skyler was saying.

"Yes," Mr. Taylor said calmly, lifting his face cloth.

Fletcher knew that Elsdon Taylor had come to the Eternal Dungeon as a murderer. Everybody who worked there did. It just wasn't something one asked him about, not directly.

Also, it was the first time Fletcher had seen Mr. Taylor's face, and Fletcher had to agree, it was beautiful. It made it hard to believe that he had …. It was a good thing he kept it hidden under that hood -- no hardened criminal would ever break if searched by a man who looked like something out of a painting. And, bloody blades, his looks robbed Mr. Taylor of at least five years.

"Well?" Skyler pressed, arching an eyebrow. Fletcher would never dream of taking that sort of tone with a Seeker, but Skyler was nothing if not audacious.

To his surprise, Mr. Taylor lounged against the room's only table and said in a voice as calm as a meadow on a cool morning, "This for that -- of course. Mr. Dawson will be hearing it all?"

Skyler looked at him and then at Mr. Taylor and said, "In some ways, he knows me better than almost anybody."

Mr. Taylor crossed his arms and said, "Well, Mr. Dawson won't be hearing anything about me he probably hasn't already heard. " Then he fixed his piercing blue eyes on Fletcher, who repressed the urge to squirm, and continued, "He'll just be hearing it from the source this time."

"Have at it then." Skyler leaned back on the bed, tucking his arms behind his head, mussing his hair -- still in need of a trim -- but at least clean and shiny, and until a moment ago, neatly combed.

"Tell me about your mother -- did your father know about you before?"

A standard Seeker technique, having the prisoner start with the history of home and family.

"My father knew about me, he just didn't care much. My mother left him shortly before he came down with breakbone fever, and that's when she found out she was expecting. The Earl talked his Grace into writing a bank draft of the size expected to see us settled in genteel poverty for the rest of our lives.

"Of course, my mother was having none of that. The Earl had met her in a house, that was the life she had come from, so she returned to it. Took the money and invested it in her own establishment.

"Your turn. What happened?"

"I flew in to a rage and let out years of pent up anger. Unfortunately, I directed it at my sister, Sara."

"What? Why?!"

"It's my turn now. Did your mother force you into working for her?"

Skyler snorted. "Sweet blood, no. I asked."

Fletcher gaped in shock, and though Mr. Taylor had much better control over his expression, Fletcher could tell that the answer had taken him by surprise.

"I had been subtly groomed for it, for years. Some of my earliest memories are of serving wine in the card room, and being taught how to deal, and play, and spot a cheat, and to cheat without being caught. And there was always somebody speaking Vovimian to me -- she did have a large Vovimian clientele. I have always been athletic. The clothes and comportment I picked up from always being around people who dressed and acted that way.

"When I turned 12, started having those first stirrings, I went to her and asked about --"

"What did she do?" Fletcher cut in, unable to contain himself.

Skyler snorted with laughter and said, "She made me wait a few months while she found the right client, and then she sold my first night for a fortune."

"Buy why?" Fletcher pressed, both appalled and burning with curiosity.

"Because, to me, Mr. Dawson, it was just a trade. I'd grown up around it all my life. And I wanted the money. What 13 year old boy doesn't want his pocket change? Well, I had more than pocket change. And, if I did my job especially well, my customers gave me something extra on top of what I'd already earned. So I had money enough for anything I wanted --"

Fletcher gasped.

"Oh please don't tell me you're going to go on about the purity of our souls and the beauty of marriage, and how we're supposed find a love mate and not sully such a beautiful thing with filthy old commerce. Because that doesn't help anybody much when they're between love mates and hungry for a touch, or if they've got a wish their love mate or wife just thinks is unseemly, or even if you're a rake who doesn't want any emotional commitment, just wants his pleasure now. There's a variety of needs, and whoring takes care of them."

"Um, no." Stomach aflutter, Fletcher shut his mouth before he said the wrong thing and embarrassed himself further.

"And it didn't bother you, you being a boy, and their being men?" Mr. Taylor asked, his voice guarded.

"That's two in a row from you, Elsdon, but I'm feeling generous," Skyler rolled, lounging on his side. A pose that highlighted his sleek, yet powerful body, and seemed both languid and yet carefully practiced. "They were considerably less fumblesome than the boys at Harrowgate.

"Also, in Vovim, men being with men is sharply frowned upon. In their society it's supposed to be a man and a youth. Not that there weren't a few Yclau men who just flat out prefer adolescents, or those men who wanted to fantasy play and relive their youth. But mostly, it was Vovimian men, pleased, I might add, that I could converse with them in their native tongue."

"Your turn, then," Mr. Taylor said. "You want to know what lead to all that pent up anger that I loosed on Sara, don't you?"

"Yes."

"My father. My father could be a very cruel man. Only in his case, the cruelty was bound up in his love for me. It's very complex. I'm only now starting to sort it all out." Mr. Taylor drew a deep breath and studied his hands for several moments, and Fletcher shifted uneasily in his seat; it wasn't right, seeing a Seeker so unsure and unsettled. He thought about excusing himself.

"I could never be quite sure what set my father off," Mr. Taylor said. "I looked for it, tried to find some warning sign. But I could never figure out what it was that set him off. Sometimes, it would be a wrong doing on my part, but it also happened on several occasions when Sara and I had spent a fun day in the park, and many times I was reading quietly in my room or in the parlor when my father would come in, put his hand on my shoulder, and it would end with me being bound and beaten."

"I take it this was more than his hand or a taste of a willow switch?" A certain calculating light had entered Skyler's eyes. Fletcher could almost see the wheels turning in his mind.

"That makes two questions. And unlike you, I am not generous." Fletcher could hear the smirk in Mr. Taylor's voice.

Skyler rolled his eyes and pfft! at him. "Ask."

"How did your father come back into your life?"

"Ah, " Skyler sat up cross legged in bed, steepling his hands, "That would be the Lady Julot Faraday." His voice took on an airy note as he continued, See, the Earl was getting into his mature years, and his father reminded him that the heir to the dukedom needed to marry and produce a legitimate child. He encouraged the Earl to find a nice young lady of the right class.

"Somehow, he and Julot crossed paths and caught each other's eye. She, barely 20, in the full bloom of youth with dark brown hair and merry brown eyes, not yet jaded and cynical like most everybody he knew. She had all these ideals. And I think he genuinely liked that in her, at least for a time.

"She, for her part, was taken with the idea of reforming so notorious a rake and starting a happy family with him.

"After a bare minimum of courtship, just enough to get married, really, they wed, both of them madly in love with the idea of their romance, passionately committed to their notions of who the other was.

"Shortly after, Julot discovered my existence and decided that she must rescue her husband's poor abandoned little lamb from his life of respectable poverty, that he should finally know his father's love, and have an education and introduction into those areas of society befitting his station.

Skyler chortled bitterly. "When she discovered I had left school at 14 and was working full time in my mother's house? Oh sweet blood, the horror!" he simpered. "So, you see, it was her earnestly meant, but utterly impractical ideals of kindness, generosity, and family that ultimately did me such a damn bad turn."

"Did she have you put in Mr. Taylor's school?" Fletcher cut in.

"Yes. She thought that a private tutor would do me more harm than good. How would I meet and make my connections amongst the Barons of Business and the Counts of Capital unless I knew them from my school days? You see, I was never going to be fully accepted amongst the nobility, me being a bastard and all, and I would need to work for a living because I could not live off my father's largesse forever.

"Julot, having never spent much time amongst the business classes, save for those sons and daughters whose minds, motives, and ideals were as pure and progressive as hers, never fully conceived of the extent to which their class is just as exclusionary and closed as the nobility. I knew nothing of industry, or finance, or of the military. I didn't fit with them any more than I fit with the peerage."

"It must have been very hard on you," Mr. Taylor said in gentle voice, "being taken from a place where you belonged, had friends and family, only to find yourself thrust into place where you knew nobody and all the rules were different."

Skyler gave a heartbreaking smile. "When I told you you were beautiful, Elsdon, I wasn't just talking about your face."

"You … you loved me," Mr. Taylor whispered, stricken.

"Yes. Yes, I think I did." Skyler paused. "Don't worry. I know when a ship has sailed."

Several moments passed before Mr. Taylor gently prodded. "It's your turn."

Skyler stroked his chin in thought. "If you could change your past, would you?"

What flickered in Mr. Taylor's eyes for a split second (before his normal seekerly composure returned) chilled the marrow in Fletcher's bones. "You certainly do play for high stakes." He folded his hands in thought. "Which would I choose? The life of my sister, very dear to me, versus the importance of what is done here and the good it ultimately brings not only to an individual, but to the realm."

"What about your own happiness?"

Mr. Taylor gave sad smile and replied, "That never entered the equation, Durian."

Skyler's face filled with skepticism.

"I assure you," Mr. Taylor continued in a supremely seekerly tone of voice, "that I can, that I have, and that I will, set aside anything, no matter how much happiness it brings me, in the name of putting the prisoner's good first. I would not be what I am, who I am, if I could not.

"But back to your question. I do not know. How do I balance the life of Sara, the things she might have done, the mother she might have been, the man I might have been, and the things I might have done, versus the good I do every day?

"My heart still says, yes, do anything to bring Sara back to life! But my mind? Well, it raises all those troublesome questions about the greater good and tries to weigh the known against the unknown, the unknowable.

"So, believe me, Durian, when I tell you -- I. Do. Not. Know."

Skyler nodded and said, "I do. I ask myself a similar question from time to time." A look of pain washed over his face when he realized the opening he had just left.

"I'm going to avoid asking the obvious for now." Mr. Taylor's voice held a note of deceptively gentle amusement.

"Thank you."

"Don't thank me just yet. I reserve the right to play that card. The Lady Julot. What was your relationship with her like?"

Skyler closed his eyes, drew a long breath, pushed it out, and finally said, "We were never -- we reached an understanding of sorts after awhile.

"She was only a few years older than me, trapped in an unhappy marriage. And for all that her do-good meddling complicated my life, I'm not such a cad that I couldn't understand that she had meant well. That her intentions were good, that she really thought she was doing me a kindness.

"And now she found herself in a situation where all of her kindness and good intentions availed her little. A gilded cage is still a cage -- we had that in common.

"Eventually, I became a kind of confidant. Mostly because she had nobody else to turn to, nobody else who wouldn't pass some sort of judgment, or tell her to try harder, or some such rot. I listened to her, and if I had some advice that might actually do something, I gave it. Other than that, I kept my mouth shut, which she appreciated muchly."

"I see," Mr. Taylor replied, and Fletcher could see it behind his eyes. Mr. Taylor was on the cusp of something big, and Fletcher thought he knew what it was. He bit his knuckles in an effort to not open his mouth and spoil it.

An act that did not go unnoticed by either man.

"Something to say --"

"Did you want --"

Both of them paused and gave an amused chuckle.

With a gesture Skyler deferred to Mr. Taylor, who asked, "Something to say, Mr. Dawson?"

Fletcher felt his face flame. "No. Yes. But I won't. I don't want to -- I'm no good at being seekerly, not like the both of you."

"I am not in the least bit seekerly," Skyler replied. "I may have a knack for reading a person like a Seeker, but I'm a selfish bastard, and I know I couldn't always put my prisoner first.

"And, despite being a deft hand with a whip, I'd make a horrible guard, constantly interrupting whatever Seeker I worked with, blurting out my own questions."

Mr. Taylor gave an amused snort at that.

"And now I feel as if I've just said the wrong thing again, anyway," Fletcher muttered.

"Don't let it bother you." Skyler said quietly. "There are far worse indiscretions, and besides, you've got virtues in proportion to your flaws, Mr. Dawson. Many don't."

"I am curious, though," Mr. Taylor said. "What is your question?"

"Oh, very well." Fletcher drew in a deep breath. "Were you lovers?"

"In the sense of being in love with her? Never." Skyler's answer came crisply and a hair too quickly. He looked at Mr. Taylor. "My question. And how did your love mate feel when you chose a prisoner over him?"

"How did you --??"

"Really, Elsdon, you're very good, but I'm better. Years of playing cards for money has a way of doing that."

Mr. Taylor shook his head at being found out then replied, "He was proud of me. He knew how … that it was the hardest thing I had ever done." Pause. "Had I chosen any other way, that bond would have ended."

"Ah, so it's conditional, then."

"Dangerously close to two questions, there. But yes. But I truly believe that all relationships are conditional, even when people say they are not, think they are not. It's a case of not having yet hit the right conditions."

"That's … a very calculating attitude."

"True. And born of my experiences." The statement hung in the air for a moment before Mr. Taylor drew a breath and continued, "Mr. Dawson inspires me. You say you were never in love with the Lady Julot, but your answer lied by telling the truth. You were … intimate with her, were you not?"

Skyler closed his eyes."Yes."

A long silence followed, during which Mr. Taylor locked eyes with Skyler in a battle of wills. At last, Skyler acquiesced. "I'll go ahead and answer the question I know you'll ask on your next turn. Lady N--" he drew a deep, shuddery breath. "Nieve was my daughter."

Chapter Text

Skyler didn't stop there. Before Fletcher or Mr. Taylor could speak, he continued, words pouring out of him in a torrent, "I'd throw myself down those steps in a heartbeat if it meant that she could live again. All the happiness in my life is nothing compared to what I'd feel if I knew she could have all her tomorrows back.

"It was an arrangement. A gift I could give to Lady Julot, a way to pay her back for what she had wanted to do for me. I knew how desperately she wanted to have a child. I knew how much easier it would make other aspects of her life if she did.

"I took her aside and explained to her the facts of the matter, that the Earl was very likely sterile. That after that attack of breakbone fever, he had no issue, despite spreading his seed far and wide.

"She thought about it for two weeks before she decided to say yes to my offer. And it was stud service, pure and simple. She was a beautiful woman, but my … interests tend to point me in other directions.

"She swiftly conceived and I thought little enough of what we had done until Nieve was born.

"Sweet Blood, I cannot explain why, but I loved that little girl from the moment I entered the nursery on a whim and decided to pick her up. There's no hell quite like having to reign in one's most natural affections. But I had to be careful in how much I showed her. After all, how much interest would a much older bastard half-brother have in a tiny infant such as herself? I limited myself to occasional visits to the nursery, or whenever Lady Julot happened to have her along.

"The Earl --" Skyler all but spat the word, "showed her about as much devotion as he would for a fine new horse, or some other exotic amusing toy. How I wanted to grab him and shake him and wake him up to this amazing new person, his own flesh and blood, with a whole life ahead of her. But --"

"He wanted a male heir," Mr. Taylor said.

"The Duke, too. Girl wasn't quite enough. No, they wanted a boy to carry on the Starsmore name. So yes, since the first attempt had gone so well, Lady Julot approached me. This time, both she and my son died. But I still had little Nieve at least, and I spent every moment I could with her.

"It amused the Duke, at least, that I did dote on my little sister. But, ah well, now that the world knew that the Earl was not shooting blanks, he must marry again." Skyler gave a dry smile. "The Duke and I both despised his next choice. One of the few meaningful conversations we've ever had with each other."

A long silence fell. Finally Skyler said, "It's my turn for a question. What now?"

Mr. Taylor chortled mirthlessly. "There will be arrests and trials. Beyond that? I haven't the faintest notion."

"Perhaps you should consult your deck, Mr. Skyler, do a Drawing of Three to get your bearings." Fletcher suggested.

Skyler's lips quirked in a bitter smile. "I somehow think that the past would be the Riven Tower, while my present is Death, and the Future would be the Fool."

"Perhaps you should proceed as if those were your draw, then." Fletcher replied.

Skyler's eyebrows quirked in thought. "Not bad advice, Mr. Dawson. Not bad advice at all."

~oo(0)oo~

"Mr. Smith says I am to stay here until the last of the conspirators in this … wretched little drama is apprehended." Durian hugged his knees close to his chest.

Elsdon nodded. "To return to a topic from a few days ago, have you made any plans for after?"

"No. Not at present. I haven't thought much beyond getting a proper shave from a barber and a haircut and I hope I can get my old clothes back. I have no idea what she did with them -- probably had them sold or gave them to the staff." Though Mouse from the outer dungeon had brushed his jacket and washed and pressed his shirt and trousers, they were now so worn and shabby that they no longer suited a man of Durian's station.

"Will you return to your mother's?" Elsdon asked, keeping his tone light.

Durian rested his cheek on top of his knees. A peculiar thing, Elsdon thought, because it was typical of the very young to sit that way, but no child had ever had such old and haunted looking eyes. " I … maybe. She would take me in if I came to her door.

"The problem is, she no longer lives in this city. Part of the Earl's acknowledgement of my existence was paying her a considerable sum of money to move to the other side of the Queendom and not return, nor to contact me. I've only the vaguest idea of how to find her."

"Not his Grace?"

Durian turned his head and rested the opposite cheek on his knees. "No, I've no reason to think he'll take me in. We are nothing to each other, he's made that clear on many occasions. He will be glad to be rid of me, I think." His gaze turned inward. "I suppose he'll have to remarry. Men have been known to sire children late in life."

Elsdon snorted. "He's three score years and ten."

"And he'll live, what, another 10 or so? Heir or no heir, when he goes, his next wife will
not be entirely devoid of youth, and she'll have an immense fortune to keep her warm at night. A few years of having to put up with his rickety attentions is a small price to pay."

"You've a very cynical attitude," Elsdon said sadly.

Durian laughed. "If I didn't, given what I've known, I'd be either a saint or an imbecile.

"Mother will take me in, of course. But, honestly, my days of working her house have passed -- if she even has a house these days. Perhaps I should start a house of my own."

Elsdon gasped.

"What?"

"Oh, it's just that I thought …"

"That I'd had some profound and ennobling experience while here?" Durian snorted but not entirely unkindly. "Remember, I said that you were the one with the beautiful soul. Besides, I know but two trades -- whoring and being a rich by-blow and I don't think the latter's an option anymore."

~oo(0)oo~

As luck would have it, Fletcher happened to be returning from an afternoon spent visiting his parents when members of the Queen's Personal Guard walked the opposite direction, towards a carriage, escorting Skyler, clad in a sober, well-cut suit of fine material, the style of which only heightened his striking good looks. He carried a small leather satchel.

Fletcher paused and smiled weakly as he waved at Skyler. No time for a proper farewell. Ah well.

"Hold on a moment," Skyler said to the guards. "Mr. Dawson, I've something for you." Skyler reached into his satchel. "I'd like you to have these." He produced his Diviner's Deck. "I shall miss reading the cards with you."

Fletcher gave a full smile. "And I shall miss talking with you about these readings. Where are you off to?" He clutched the cards close as his heart beat double time.

Skyler chortled. "Summons from the Queen. His Grace had a suit sent. Beyond that, I dare not hazard a guess." He paused and his countenance darkened. "I suppose I will see you at the trial?"

"Perhaps." Fletcher shrugged. "Only if the Magistrates and the Eternal Dungeon think my statements of any importance."

"They might. Well, at any rate, I must go now. One does not keep the Queen waiting."

No, one does not, Fletcher mused as Skyler stepped into the waiting carriage.

That night he carefully wrapped the cards in one of the fine linen handkerchiefs his sister had given him when he had gotten his position at the Eternal Dungeon and tucked them into the box of keepsakes he kept in his foot locker.

In a few years he might even be able to laugh at himself and the misguided schoolboy dreamings he had indulged himself in regarding this particular prisoner.

He'd managed not to shame himself in front of Mr. Chapman. That's what counted.

~oo(0)oo~

The pressmen gave it all sorts of extravagant, or in some cases, even lurid names: Murder Royale; Dowager Countess of Cruelty; Ice-hearted Iceal; and Murder by Seeker.

That last one irked Weldon the most. It really ought to have read Attempted Murder by Seeker.

He came up with his own names for the affair: The busiest workload the Eternal Dungeon's had in a dog's age; The case where I was both a witness to the crime and a weapon used in the attempt; The case where a Diviner's Deck with art worthy of a museum ended up being entered as an exhibit; The one where the prisoner managed to get spit through the eyehole of Layle Smith's hood.

But those were the names he came up with during the rare moments of levity that came during the month that followed. Mostly, he thought of it as the case that caused Birdesmond to pace for hours on end, the case that caused her to clench and grind her teeth so much that her jaws ached for days, limiting her ability to eat, and eventually driving her to seek relief from the Healer. He also knew it as the case that robbed him of the smell and feel of her body lying next to his in bed, the sound of her even breath soothing his cares away, because she slept only fitfully -- when she slept at all. (The sound of her pacing, rhythmic though it was, did not soothe Weldon at all. )

When she had passed her apprenticeship, it was agreed that Birdesmond would search all female prisoners brought to the Eternal Dungeon. Normally this meant she had a light workload, women only rarely committed the sorts of crime that merited the most serious punishments. The initial round of arrests saw five women placed in the breaking cells. And, since it was a case involving the highest levels of the peerage, those in the line of succession, only the Eternal Dungeon could conduct the searchings.

The first three Birdesmond broke within the day she questioned them. Their ties to the Dowager Countess were lesser, and one of them, a chambermaid, had held her tongue about the murder and subsequent deceits only because of threats against her family. (Her brother, a glazer, had his arm broken and his face slashed by "random" street toughs the day after Lady Nieve's murder as a demonstration of the Dowager's intent and her reach.)

The Dowager, on the other hand …. He and Birdesmond had conversed several times on the matter of those people so flawed in their souls that they lacked a moral lodestone and were thus incapable of remorse (beyond remorse for having been caught) because they lacked the capacity to empathize, to understand.

"I fear she may be one of those rare individuals," Birdesmond said as she paced away the dinner hour. "I fear I may be looking into the abyss, seeking for something that is simply not there."

Weldon sighed heavily, set his plate and cup aside, and, as she passed, reached out and took her elegant little hand into his much larger and more crudely made one. "You are a person of rare insight," he said quietly, "and I do not doubt for a moment that if the Dowager were truly one of those sorts of people you would have discerned it within your first searchings."

Birdesmond gave a small smile in reply. The only one Weldon saw grace her face during these weeks.

A day or so later as they sat down to tea with bread and butter, Birdesmond blotted her lips with the napkin and said, "I believe I have discovered the problem with the Dowager's moral framework: the rules have only rarely been applied to her. That is to say, I have reason to believe this is the first time in her life she's been held to the same standards as anybody else and faced serious consequences for an act of wrongdoing."

Weldon took a long draught of his tea. "I fear I've met the kind before." Indeed, he'd known a few individuals like that all too well during his life in the lighted world.

"I just -- I just --" Birdesmond looked as if she would rise and start pacing again, so Weldon looked meaningfully at the plate. She hadn't eaten right in weeks and needed to keep her strength up. She picked up her slice of bread and buttered it in three efficient strokes. "I almost find myself at a loss trying to imagine a life in which, because of my looks, money, and place in society, the normal rules and standards have only inconsistently been applied to me.

"For any of her shortcomings, excuses were always made, shifting the blame to somebody else. Poor performance in her studies? Why, clearly the fault of an incompetent schoolmaster and not a failure to apply herself. Late or absent from an event? Clearly the fault of her social secretary or of the throngs on the street. Wanton damage done to an expensive piece at the hatmakers? Smoothed over by her father's promise of patronage.

"Anything she's wanted in life, material or action, has had a price, either in cash, or in a disregarding or bending of the rules in an effort to curry her favor.

"Her entire life she's learned she's the only person whose wants, wishes, or feelings matter!" Birdesmond bit into her bread and chewed vigorously.

People like the Dowager were the reason the Commoner's Guild had gained traction. As a traditionalist, Weldon had mixed feelings about the new guild. But, in the absence of any other mechanism of enforcement, how else were the upper classes to be reminded of their obligations to the rest of society? He said nothing as he swallowed the last of his tea. The Commoner's Guild was a thing of the lighted world and its ways, and there were problems enough just in the Inner Dungeon.

Not the least of which concerned the workloads on his fellow Seekers given that on the recommendation of the Queen, the Codifier, and the Magistrates, Weldon had not been assigned a new prisoner and would not be assigned a new prisoner, not even one whose crimes were entirely unconnected to the Dowager's machinations, until the Dowager had been tried and sentenced. In the interim, he (and his guards) had been assigned documentwork.

He itched to feel useful again.

~oo(0)oo~

The unprecedented nature of the case lead to a new location and new arrangements for the trials. The usual judging chambers simply could not contain all of the prisoners, Seekers, and witnesses (some of whom had already been convicted for their crimes), not to mention the members of the public who would be permitted to attend the final judging.

In the end, the Royal Theatre was chosen as the venue, an act that caused a certain amount of dark amusement amongst the Seekers. Upon hearing the news, Mr. Taylor remarked that for once, Yclau would give Vovim a run for her money in the field of drama, an observation that caused more than a few snorts of amusement. Mr. Smith replied that Vovimian drama was sacred and that he was hard pressed to think of anything more profane than the events responsible for the pending adjudication.

Privately, Weldon agreed with them both.

Chapter Text

"Have you done any readings?" Skyler asked Dawson as soon as he was ushered into the small room where the witnesses would wait prior to being called, yet another change from the usual manner of things.

Dawson flushed faintly and cast his eyes down before speaking softly, "No … I made mention of the deck to Mr. Chapman --" and here his eyes flicked to Weldon "and a few days later I was asked by the High Seeker to turn it over as an exhibit for the trial."

The soldier standing watch gave them a warning look, but held his tongue. The witnesses were not supposed to discuss the case amongst themselves before their testimony.

A frown marred Skyler's handsome face. He looked at Weldon and said, "I trust it will be returned? I meant for Mr. Dawson to have it."

Weldon shrugged. "I do not know. I see no reason why it shouldn't be, though, technically speaking, the Eternal Dungeon retains all property and effects left by prisoners."

Skyler's mouth pressed into a thin white line. "It wasn't left. It was given." He bit the words off.

"I am unsure what happens with the evidence and exhibits after a trial. " Weldon sighed inwardly. "I shall ask the High Seeker for its return."

Mr. Boyd said nothing as he idly walked around the room, absently smoothing his impeccable uniform.

"You -- you're looking very nice these days," Dawson said then blushed deep red as he realized the statement called attention to the state of Skyler during his time in the Eternal Dungeon. "I'm s-sorry. I … always manage to find a way to say the wrong thing."

Skyler, however, took Dawson's words in the sprit in which he had intended them, and with an easy smile (one which only increased his good looks) replied, "Thank you, Mr. Dawson. You're looking well yourself. How have you been?"

Weldon used the opportunity to study Skyler. He had never before seen him in a casual, relaxed, or unguarded moment, not that these circumstances were completely ordinary, but here Skyler had nothing to be gained by schooling his face to neutrality, his body to stillness, and choosing his words with extraordinary carefulness. Weldon was seeing a side of Skyler he had only previously guessed at.

Dawson laughed ruefully. "It's been a month of document work, drills, and training."

"I've seen enough indelible ink to last me a lifetime," Mr. Boyd groaned in agreement before he returned to his aimless circuit of the room.

At Skyler's confused expression, Weldon said, "Being that the three of us are both witnesses and accessories to the crime, we have not been permitted to undertake the searchings related to it, nor have we been permitted to work with other prisoners for fear that they might volunteer knowledge of the crime gained through hearsay or the words of the pressmen, and influence our testimony today."

"That's rubbish, your not being able to search other prisoners. You've already documented everything relevant."

Boyd flashed a thin smile. "There weren't that many prisoners in the Eternal Dungeon this past month unconnected to this affair, so it's not like it would've lessened the workload much."

Skyler's answering smile was equally thin. "And you don't switch Seekers for searches in progress."

"Not unless necessary," Weldon replied grimly.

Skyler pursed his lips in thought and smoothed his cravat. It was of dove-grey silk with navy blue pinstripes, pinned with a single pea-sized black pearl surrounded by black opals in a golden matrix. A touch of the peacock, the pin, but tastefully so. The same aesthetic showed in his charcoal colored suit, fashionable, cut to flatter, of the highest quality fabric, but not flashy or faddish. The elegance of his appearance bespoke establishment, the sort with nothing to prove.

These were not the clothes of a man living in tenuous circumstances, or of a man dependent on patronage.

Not only was Skyler's face clean shaven, but it was the sort of perfect shave that Weldon remembered seeing only at the barber's shop in his days before his vow -- the sort of shave another man does for you. His hair was neatly clipped, and his hands had been tended to, the skin looked smooth and soft, the nails buffed.

Weldon had not seen exactly how Skyler dressed and groomed before he came to the Eternal Dungeon, and yet he felt somehow that Skyler had come up in the world since.

~oo(0)oo~

Though he knew that his reports met all the standards for completeness and attention to detail, it seemed strange to Weldon to hear his words being read back to him by Layle Smith and realize all the things not recorded, the things he had experienced that had gone unsaid. Nowhere in his recording of his searching of Durian Skyler, of the actions he'd taken, of his assessment of Skyler's mental state, of the steps he had taken to treat Skyler with as much care as possible, given the need to find the truth, was there any notation of his thoughts about having a reading done for him, of the meditations and ruminations he had done on long sleepless nights about his life and what it meant. Or, of how it shook him to the core (and filled him with icy rage) that he had almost been an instrument of murder, but for his own skills, and a few checks built into the system, and, well, the whims of fate.

Layle's voice called him back into the present. The Eternal Dungeon had submitted the Diviner's Deck as an exhibit. "And what purpose did the creation of this serve?"

"Art is a powerful tool. Sometimes, people will reveal through the arts that which they would not otherwise say. It can be soothing, too, to create art. Searchings and breakings are a delicate process and we must have some care, lest there be a ..." he searched for the right word, "a shattering. The goal of a Seeker is to uncover the truth, and a shattering prevents that.

"I thought that indulging Mr. Skyler might lead to an uncovering. The drawings he created might contain revelations, and his use of the cards might provide me with further clues." He swallowed hard. "Mr. Dawson thought he might be using them to perform a sort of self breaking. His true purpose, I realize now, was different."

"And that was?" Layle asked.

"He was using them as a tool to help himself come to terms with the injustice of the situation."

Layle turned to the Magistrate and said, "Sir, any person who studies those cards carefully will see that the illustrations on them provide testimony, eloquent in its own way, of the state of Mr. Skyler's mind. I would ask you to take a look at ..."

As Layle brought forth a card, Weldon took the opportunity to better study the faces in the crowd. It was the largest assemblage at a judging he had ever seen. There were sections for the leading pressmen and (carefully screened) members of the populace who had garnered seats by means of a lottery. The seats reserved for the representatives of the Eternal Dungeon were filled. The section reserved for the peerage stood mostly empty; the Queen had not attended today's proceedings. In fact, the only person in that section was a stone faced man that Weldon surmised must be Skyler's grandfather, the Duke of the Lakelands, given his presence in a chair very close to the one reserved for the Queen. From there his eye drifted to the section reserved for the prisoners, looking pale and grim, as was typical for anybody undergoing the least pleasant portion of their lives prior to rebirth: facing the full truth in public, and so coming to a fuller understanding of their transgressions. Weldon wondered which of the several wan, pink-eyed women was the one who had orchestrated all this heartache and pain.

~oo(0)oo~

"One final question before you are released. In your statement you say that Mr. Skyler confessed to the murder and yet you did not believe this confession." Layle paused for a moment before asking, "Why?"

Weldon grinned beneath his face cloth. "One does not become a Seeker without some skill at reading people and sussing out the truth. This was quite possibly the single most naked and pathetic lie I've heard in my entire career as a Seeker."

~oo(0)oo~

His testimony finished, Weldon made his way to the chair reserved for him amongst the Eternal Dungeon's representatives. Boyd was the next witness called to the stand and his testimony mostly confirmed what Weldon had already said; a formality, but in this case, a necessary formality.

To Weldon's relief Dawson did not get tongue tangled under questioning by the High Seeker, nor did he manage to state any truths in an unfortunately blunt manner. Layle, mercifully, stuck strictly to Dawson's document work and things proceeded predictably until the very end.

"Can I just say one more thing?" Dawson blurted in the instant before his dismissal.

Both the High Seeker and the Magistrate froze for a moment. The Magistrate nodded at Layle, who said, "Go ahead."

"It's just ..." Dawson sucked in a deep breath, but what emerged from his mouth was not the sort of word torrent Weldon feared. Rather, in a calm and measured voice, Dawson continued, "I've seen people racked, Sir, and since I've worked in the Inner Dungeon, I've seen Mr. Chapman get people to admit to some deeply unpleasant truths -- things they've done, things they didn't want to know about themselves -- but I've never seen anybody in agony like Mr. Skyler was when he thought we were in on it. Never. And I hope I never see anything like it again."

A long pause fell over the courtroom before Layle spoke, his voice as cool as a marble slab, "We should all hope so, Mr. Dawson."

~oo(0)oo~

A hush fell over the already quiet room when the doors opened and Durian Skyler strode down the central aisle in all his pale, perfect elegance. He kept his eyes fixed firmly forward, looking neither right nor left until he took his place next to the magistrate's bench. Unlike Dawson and Boyd before him, his eyes did not scan the various groups of people seated in the theatre, but went straight to the section roped off for the prisoners.

Weldon knew when he had spotted her, the spider who had woven this web of misery, for a bolt of pure loathing and naked rage flashed across his face as quickly as a lightning strike. In the next instant, however, that cool, implacably calm mask slid into place.

As he looked over at the prisoners, which he could only see from above and behind, Weldon noticed that one of them, a woman with glossy, toffee colored hair worn pulled back in a severe bun had ducked her head and buried her face in her hands.

Here, then, was the Dowager.

~oo(0)oo~

Layle had seen marble busts which displayed more emotion than the face of the man before him. He began, "One of the things your Seeker, Mr. Chapman, noted about you is that you are an exceptional reader of people."

The barest hint of a smile quirked the edge of Skyler's mouth, as if he were weighing several possible responses before settling on, "His words, not mine."

"From my own brief tenure as your Seeker, I must concur with his additional observations that you are manipulative --"

Skyler cut in, "I merely played the hand delt me, Mr. Smith. That is all."

Far from being perturbed by the interruption, Layle smiled beneath his mask. "And you played it very well. You, are, amongst other things, a proficient cardsman. For the most part, your face, voice, and body show us only what you want us to see. Why, then, are we to believe you?

The crack appeared in Skyler's eyes before they went back to their slatey demeanor. "Believe me or not, Mr. Smith, but the facts of the matter speak for themselves."

"Ah, the facts of the matter. 'The truth shall set you free.'" He changed his voice from something smooth and almost airy to cold and stony, "But in your case, as your records and searching reveal, the truth isn't very pleasant, is it?"

Skyler's grin was almost sickly. "No. But it's what we're here for today, isn't it? The awful truth."

~oo(0)oo~

The Magistrate dismissed them for the day after following Mr. Skyler's testimony. Tomorrow would come the statements of the prisoners and the seekers who had broken them. The Queen would be in attendance.

A few feet down the hall, separated from the rest of the seekers, guards, and even a few of the outer dungeon workers, he noticed Mr. Dawson and Mr. Skyler in a quiet but intense conversation.

Elsdon swept up to him, glanced over at the pair, and said, "A difficult day in court."

Layle tore his gaze away from the two men and replied, "Tomorrow will be no easier on him."

Elsdon mmmd softly. "If he attends."

"He will." Layle smiled grimly beneath his mask. "The Queen is coming."

"I hear talk that the Queen plans to declare Durian legitimate and that the Duke plans to adopt him."

Layle kept his voice flat. "Those are not the sorts of thing she discusses with me when we have spoken about this case."

"It would be a very mixed blessing if she does," Elsdon said quietly, glancing over at the pair who were still deep in conversation. "High society will never fully accept him, and he's not of the middle classes, nor a commoner. And yet, he'll be further penalized if he doesn't attempt to take his place amongst them. He'll be trading one prison for another."

Layle mulled Elsdon's words over before replying, "You may be right, but somehow, I think that Mr. Skyler's talents will enable him to carve out his own unique place." After all, you and I did.

~oo(0)oo~

Double the amount of guards were present at the next day's session and only partly because of the Queen. A large throng of people had gathered outside the palace in the wake of the morning papers sensational coverage of yesterday's proceedings.

After Layle had finished questioning his final prisoner, the clerk who had forged the documents from Parkside Prison, and saw the man lead off to start his seven years of imprisonment, he made his way not to the section reserved for the Eternal Dungeon, but to the seat reserved for him at the Queen's left hand.

Her dress was of an unusually severe cut and she wore her hair pulled tightly back. Layle had never seen her look so forbidding.

To her right sat the Duke, dressed as starkly as the Queen, and next to him sat Mr. Skyler, whose face, as usual, betrayed no hint of his inner thoughts or feelings, but who was so pale that Layle wondered if he would be unwell.

The next witnesses were two that Elsdon had searched, the manservants who had beaten Mr. Skyler nearly insensate prior to his being taken to Parkside Prison. One of them had also confessed to having acted on orders from the Dowager and "made good" her threat against the family of the servant who had only newly joined the household. For their part in the conspiracy, the Dowager had gifted them with jewelry which they'd pawned for a sum equal to two year's wages and several articles of clothing from Mr. Skyler's wardrobe. The magistrate sentenced them to 10 and 12 years confinement respectively.

The process repeated itself seven more times over the course of the day: the prisoner took the stand, the Seeker presented the documents of the searching, questions were asked to clarify or elaborate key points, the magistrate reviewed the facts and pronounced sentence, and the prisoner was escorted away, until the prisoner's dock contained only one person -- the Dowager.

To her credit, and doubtless no little amount of starch in her blouse, Mistress Birdesmond looked crisp and unwilted, despite the fact that the last four prisoners called had been hers. The only real evidence that she'd been on her feet and talking for some time was a hint of strain in her voice and a few loose hairs peeking out of the gap between her facecloth and the rest of her hood.

Glancing to the side, Layle noticed that the Queen's expression, which had grown darker as the day progressed, now resembled a thunderhead about to let loose. Her Majesty was one of the smartest and ablest people Layle had ever met, and life had taught her discretion and restraint. She was not by her nature a manipulative person given to putting on shows. He wondered if she realized exactly how much of her displeasure she revealed at the moment.

From his seat Layle could not see Mr. Skyler's face, not without obvious leaning and looking, but he saw Mr. Skyler's legs shuffle and heard a muted male voice (probably the Duke's) ask if he felt well.

As she took the prisoner's chair, the Dowager wore an expression that Layle had seen many a time on the faces of prisoners whom he had broken -- a sort of grim relief. Grimness because they still had this last gauntlet to run, but relief because they no longer carried the burden of dark secrets and also because one way or another, it would soon be over.

The statement, when Mistress Birdesmond introduced it and reviewed it, caused more than one muffled gasp in the room. The Dowager ducked her head in shame several times as the depths to which she had sunk were revealed to all.

When Mistress Birdesmond finished her questioning and review of the documents, the magistrate rendered his verdicts. To the charge of impeding the Queen's justice: guilty. To the charge of attempted murder: guilty. To the charge of murder: guilty. To the charge of treason: guilty. He then produced a warrant bearing the royal seal which said that in the event of a guilty verdict to the charge of treason, Dowager Countess Isolde was hereby stripped of title, rank, and the privileges pertaining there unto.

Layle heard the Queen make a small pleased noise as the magistrate read her writ. The former Dowager looked as if she might be sick, but swiftly recovered. It was an unusual act, stripping a member of the peerage of their title and rank, and one which made very clear the extent of the royal wrath. By custom, a member of the peerage could choose their means of execution, and their mortal remains could be disposed of in a manner and place of their choosing.

The Magistrate continued, "Mistress Isolde, for the crimes of treason and murder you will be taken to the gallows and hanged by the neck until dead."

Mistress Isolde swallowed hard upon hearing her sentence, but within a moment her look of almost serenity returned. Layle surmised that Mistress Birdesmond, ever through, must have discussed this possibility with her and explained the process, including what would happen to her ashes.

Setting his papers aside, the magistrate rubbed tiredly at his eyes and asked, "Mistress Isolde, do you have any questions or statement you'd like to make?"

Mistress Isolde fidgeted for a moment, hands smoothing over her hair (neatly bound in a crown of braids) before she said in a choked voice that most had to strain to hear. "I have wronged a great many people, but two more than any other, and that weighs most heavy on me. I --" she swallowed and continued in a slightly stronger voice, "I would ask forgiveness of my Queen and also of you, Durian, as I go to my rebirth."

The Queen nodded once, stiffly, and in a voice tight with strain, uttered a clipped, "It is done."

All eyes then fell on Mr. Skyler, and as the silence in the room grew heavy, he staggered to his feet, face ashen, turned and bowed deeply to the Queen and said to her, voice loud and clear, "Not even by your command," before he made his way to the aisle on shaky legs, the Duke hissing something at him as he went. The Duke started to rise, but the Queen stayed him with a hand on his forearm.

"Ragenel, let him be,” She murmured. “Better for everybody that he be honest than put on a polite lie."

On the stand, Mistress Isolde's face crumpled and she buried her head in her hands and sobbed.
The sound of her tears caused a hitch in Durian Skyler's stride, but he did not stop or turn around.

~oo(0)oo~

He found them in an alcove in a side hallway a few minutes after the magistrate declared the judging closed. Elsdon and Mr. Dawson had both shot towards the door the moment Mr. Skyler had made his exit. Layle, on the other hand had to act as befitted his office and exchanged a few formalities with the Queen while the Duke stood to the side and wore a face so sour it looked as if he'd eaten raw quinces, but at last Layle was free to make his way to the door and ask if anybody had seen Mr. Dawson. (There was no point in asking after Elsdon -- except for Mistress Birdesmond, torturers all looked the same to anybody who didn't work in the Eternal Dungeon; they only saw the hood.)

Weldon shadowed him as he strode down the hall.

Skyler sprawled on a small bench, leaning against the wall, eyes glazed. Elsdon had taken a knee before him and held Skyler's hand in his, entreating him. Mr. Dawson stood stiffly to the side, arms folded, hands tucked tightly in, his mouth a hard white line of worry.

Upon hearing approaching footfalls, all three of them turned and looked, and Mr. Skyler chortled bitterly, his mouth twisting into a crooked smile. "You're all gathered here now," he said. "You who know me best by seeing me at my worst."

Elsdon said nothing, just squeezed Skyler's hand gently.

"She's going to declare me legitimate," Skyler said. "I'm not sure why."

Layle spoke. "I think, as you get to know her better, you will see that our Queen is a woman of great perception when it comes to questions of character."

Skyler lifted his eyebrows in question.

"She would not have thrust this upon you if she did not think you could handle the burden."

Skyler smiled thinly. "I hate her, you know -- Isolde, not the Queen." In the silence that descended, he continued, "I walked into that dungeon hating her, and I came out of that dungeon hating her, and now that she's going to the gallows, I still hate her.

"Only now, I envy her. She's going to her rebirth with a clean conscience. You saw her. She's free, at ease, troubled only by the fact I will not forgive her, and I'm glad of that. But her suffering will soon be over. And me? I might as well still be in the Eternal Dungeon for all the freedom I have. I very much fear that I will spend the rest of my life like this --" he tapped his heart "-- in darkness, chained."

Elsdon cupped both Skyler's hands in his. "I forgave my father. But it took time." He swallowed. "Quite some time. When you are ready, when the time I right, I am sure you will find the key."

Skyler smiled gently and looked almost as if he wanted to reach out and ruffle Elsdon's hair. "You always do try to see the best in people." He sat up straighter and smoothed his pant legs. "But I am keeping you all and we both have obligations to attend to."

Mr. Fletcher hung back a moment. "Does this mean I should call you My Lord if I see you again, Mr. Skyler?" he asked, voice too-light.

"Mr. Daw -- Fletcher, please don't ever address me that way. In fact --" Skyler's voice took on a warmer tone, "I'd rather you called me by my given name. We do know each other very well, after all."

"Correction," Mr. Dawson said, but not unkindly, "I know you very well, but you cannot say the same about me."

Skyler laughed. "Point."

Weldon paused and waited for his junior guard, looking steadily at him until, cheeks pinkening, Mr. Dawson scurried to join them.

~oo(0)oo~

"Do you think he'll ever forgive her?" Elsdon asked a few days later as he seated himself at the table in their quarters. He drew off his hood and set it aside, rubbing tiredly at his eyes and face.

Layle replied, "We can always hope." He studied the deck of cards before him. The Eternal Dungeon had entered it as an exhibit during the trial. He flipped one over, and another, and another, until he had most of the deck laid out before him. "He's got an almost Vovimian sensibility."

"They are stunning," Elsdon agreed. "Do you think he would've done a good job on the Sacred Cycle, then?"

"Nobody not born and raised in Vovim could do justice to a translation of the Sacred Cycle, but the simple act of taking it out of Vovimian and into Yclau changes it, too. Many shades of meaning, important shades of meaning, are lost when Vovimian is put into Yclau."

"And the other way 'round, too," Elsdon countered. "Those really are beautiful. They should be curated, put in a gallery for all to see."

Layle mmm'd at that. On the one hand, he agreed with Elsdon that the cards contained art as fine as any he had seen, but on the other hand, putting them in a gallery would have them gawked at by people who'd view them as a curio, worth seeing only because they'd been created by a prisoner of the Eternal Dungeon, nothing more, and that didn't sit well with him. "By way of Weldon Chapman, I hear that they were given to Mr. Dawson as a gift and he'd very much like to have them back. By way of the Codifier, I hear that their creator would also like them to go back to Mr. Dawson."

"Will you?"

"They do us nothing down here, and I gather they are precious to Mr. Dawson. He only reluctantly turned them over to us and he has asked after them." He paused. "But so has Mistress Birdesmond." Layle indicated a piece of paper, "She has talked to Weldon about them and would like to study them and see how they might be adapted for use in searchings. She has several ideas."

Elsdon's eyebrows shot up. "Really?"

"Here." Layle handed the paper over. "I have reason think she might be on to the core of a methodology."

Chapter Text

He seated himself in the lobby and waited. People looked at him, some even stared, but nobody pointed or spoke in a whisper meant to carry. (They spoke of him in voices meant only for their companions' ears. He supposed it was a sign of progress.)

At last Fletcher stepped through the doorway, dressed in a smart tweed suit, scarf, and hat. Except for his bearing, and the way in which his eyes coolly slid over his surroundings, observing, cataloging everything, dismissing nothing, he looked nothing like a guard. He blinked slightly when Durian stood to greet him.

"Thank you for coming," Durian said quietly.

Fletcher shrugged.

"I know you get but one completely free day a month. I appreciate you spending it with me."

As the waiter led them towards a private dining salon, Fletcher said, "I was surprised and happy to receive your letter. It's a real pleasure to spend time with you."

When they took their seats, Fletcher studied their surroundings before he picked up the menu. "I've never seen a restaurant like this."

The Golden Calf was one of the oldest restaurants in the capital city of Yclau and had its origins as a coffeehouse which catered to the mercantile classes and their factors. Though the menu, the quality of the decor, and the clientele had changed over the centuries, its unique curtained booths and private dining rooms had never gone away, and many deals were still struck in them over the course of an extended luncheon or dinner.

"It seems to me," Durian said as the main course arrived, "that you know so much about me, but I know next to nothing about you."

Fletcher's eyes locked with his for an instant, darted away, and then came back. "What's to say? Mine's a completely ordinary sort of life. My mother's an apothecary, my father sells freight insurance. I have two sisters, twins, and a brother. I came in the middle, three years after my sisters, two years before my brother. I went to school and was neither the best nor the worst, and I was sweet on a girl, but she left me for another. My job's the most exciting thing about me, and really, it's just steady on and orderly work."

Durian snorted.

"No, really. You would not believe the monotony, and yet you've got to be tip top all the time. It's long stretches of roteness punctuated by a few seconds of alarm." He speared a chunk of his fish. "And then there's the documentwork." As he chewed and swallowed, his eyes flicked up to the ceiling in thought before snapping down and boring into Durian's. "You were the most interesting thing that's ever happened to me there."

"And more's the pity."

"Oh, I think not." Fletcher blushed at his forwardness and snapped his mouth shut. Durian turned the conversation back to more mundane topics until the dessert course arrived and kept his table manners only just inside the bounds of propriety as he savored his almond custard, slowly sucking each bite off the spoon, and, if a little tongue happened to flick out? Well then.

Fletcher, of course, with his stiff middle class manners, said nothing, but the way his eyes darted around the room in their efforts to not stare at the show Durian put on for his benefit told Durian what he needed to know.

When the waiter cleared their plates and brought coffee, and Fletcher had not budged an inch but clung to his rigid propriety, Durian decided to play a different card. The direct approach. "What do you want with me?"

Fletcher groaned and buried his face in his hands before dragging them through his hair, destroying his careful parting and combing (not that Durian minded, Fletcher could use a bit of dishevelment) "Am I that obvious?"

Durian looked him straight in the eye and said softly, "Not at all. I'm just that good."

"Because I would never hear the end of it at work if --"

Durian shot his hand out and took Fletcher's into his, studying its blunt nailed solidness, stroking his thumb across the back of the knuckles. "You haven't been making a great mooning fool of yourself. You'd be a good cardsman if you liked. And," he swallowed hard, "I wouldn't have asked that question if I didn't want to know the answer."

Fletcher closed his eyes and Durian saw only the barest hints of the struggle going on inside. Fletcher reversed the grip, taking Durian's hand into his, gripping it firmly, almost too tight. "I ..." he began, "I would like ..."

"Out with it."

Fletcher's eyes snapped open and Durian felt a shiver race up his spine at what he saw in their dark depths. All middle class propriety had vanished. In a low, heavy tone, Fletcher hissed, "I want you on your knees, sucking me good and hard, and then, when I'm ready, I want to fuck you so hard it takes you a while to stop feeling it, and even longer to forget about it -- to forget me."

Durian smiled inside. "Something where it's all about you, and what you want."

Fletcher closed his eyes and shivered. "Yes," he finally confessed.

"Good. I can do that." Durian replied. At Fletcher's startled expression, he continued, "Because for the past season, it's been all about me, and what's best for me, and my wishes -- or so I've been told -- and I'm sick of it."

Fletcher jerked back, taking his hand, "But --"

Durian's eyes bored into his, "Oh yes we can. We will. Tonight. And it's going to be everything you dreamed it would be."


While it is true we have no personal written testimony of a prisoner's time in the Eternal Dungeon, we do, in one extraordinary case, have art created by a prisoner, Durian Skyler, (later Baron Clepford) during his time there. Though one can read newspaper accounts of the Skyler case, which include excerpts of his testimony to the magistrate, he refused all questions about his ordeal, in one case famously telling a pressman "The facts of my life, the facts of this whole sordid affair are now a matter of public record. My emotions, however, are not for public consumption. They are mine, sir, and private." His surviving correspondence only makes brief references to his experiences, and he and his companion, Fletcher Dawson, kept no diaries that we know of. The 22 Diviner's Deck Keys he created, on the other hand, remind us that Art is a powerful tool and that sometimes, people will reveal through the arts that which they would not, or could not, otherwise say.

In addition to that masterwork, Baron Clepford went on to have a long career as an illustrator, engraver, painter, and even acted as a statesman of sorts, using his fame and artistic talents to bridge gaps and end schisms where the other, more usual methods of diplomacy had failed. His works, including the surviving Keys, are galleried around the world.

But Baron Clepford's first masterpiece is remarkable in another way, too. It became the inspiration for the first set of image association cards used by Seekers, and then by Mind-Healers, and now, in contemporary iterations by mental health professionals of several classes, to gain insight to a subject's psyche and motivations.

--- Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon