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Love and Betrayal (Rebirth #2)

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"He was a sadist," said Elsdon Taylor. "That's the only word I can use to describe him."

Layle Smith made no immediate reply to the words of the young man sitting before him. The two men were in an apartment, spacious by the standards of the Eternal Dungeon, which meant that the living quarters were smaller than many of the dungeon's breaking cells. Crammed into this tiny area was a kitchen and sitting room, the latter with bookcases on all three of its walls. The only gap in the reading matter came at the point where three doors led to the outer dungeon, inner dungeon, and bedroom.

Reaching over for a pitcher on the table he was standing beside, the High Seeker asked, "Do you use the word 'sadist' in its restricted sense?"

"You mean, do I think my father derived sexual pleasure from beating me?" Elsdon, curled up within a soft-cushioned chair, gave a weary shrug. "I couldn't say. I suppose it wouldn't surprise me if he had. He was that sort of man – cruel beyond words, and always convincing himself that his cruelty was a form of love."

Layle paused to wipe up a spill. Without looking Elsdon's way, he said, "If your father had found someone with whom he could direct his violent impulses in a manner that brought happiness to the other person, would that have made a difference to you?"

Elsdon gave a sharp laugh as he reached out to take the cup Layle offered him. "Do you mean, would I think more kindly toward him if he'd only beaten masochists? No, to tell the truth, I'd have despised him more if he'd corrupted anyone into enjoying his sickening pleasure. . . . Ow! Are you trying to torture me?"

Layle smiled then, saying, "I'm off duty. It helps if you don't try to poke that in your eye."

"It helps if you give me a cup I can actually drink out of." Elsdon eyed with suspicion the hollow reed attached to the inside of the cup. "What's the purpose of this, Layle? Aside from blinding your guests, I mean."

"Try closing your hood, and you'll see."

Elsdon reached up and fumbled for a moment with the hood on his head. It had taken him some time to grow used to the feel of the black cloth and to be able to locate with ease the edge of the flap that must cover the face when a Seeker was in public. Now he found the flap that lay atop his head and pulled it down, feeling the tingle of half suffocation that always occurred when the hood hung over his nose and mouth. Only his eyes were free of the cloth: he looked over to see that Layle was smiling again. "Now try to drink," the High Seeker suggested.

Elsdon lifted the cup . . . and immediately lowered it. "Oh," he said, scrutinizing the cup thoughtfully. He carefully turned the cup so that the reed was next to his face and slipped the reed under his hood. It took him a second to adjust to the feel of the reed in his mouth; then he tentatively sucked at the liquid.

"Very clever," he said finally, pulling up his face-cloth. "I trust I won't have to drink this way too often?"

Layle chuckled. "It's helpful when you're in public parts of the outer dungeon, but when you're at home or visiting friends . . . No, it's possible to relax then." He handed Elsdon a second cup, this one without the reed.

Elsdon raised the cup to his lips . . . and sighed as a knock sounded upon the door leading to the inner dungeon. Layle chuckled again, reaching up to lower his face-cloth. "Excuse me," he said.

Following the High Seeker's example, Elsdon flipped down the front of his hood before standing to wander over to the bookcase. He examined the titles there: Racks, A Manual for Woodworkers; Pain and Punishment in Our Queendom's Prisons; Spikes and Their Usage; One Hundred Techniques for Breaking a Prisoner; Man's Cruelty to Man . . . After a while Elsdon winced. Pulling down the volume on cruelty, he began to leaf through it.

Behind him, a voice said without preliminary, "Mr. Chapman wants a reply to this message."

There was a short pause, and then the High Seeker replied, "Tell him to proceed for now. I'll discuss the matter with him tomorrow evening. . . . Was there anything else you wanted?"

Elsdon turned in time to see the messenger – who was a guard about Elsdon's own age – shift from one foot to the other. "Well, Mr. Smith, it's about my schedule of duties."

"Yes?" Layle's voice gave no encouragement to the speaker.

"I'm scheduled to work the day shift, but every other day, it seems, I'm being asked to work evenings! It's just not fair – my private life is suffering because of it."

Layle said, with no emotion to his voice, "If you believe that your rights as a guard have been violated in any manner, you should take your concern to the Codifier."

"It's not a question of rights, Mr. Smith; it's a matter of justice. You see, I have a friend in the outer dungeon, and I'm always having to break off arrangements I've made to meet—"

"Mr. Gerson." Layle's voice was now cold. "If this is not a matter of Code-breaking, then I suggest that we discuss it when I am on duty. In the meantime, you might consider whether you have joined the right profession. People in our work will always be called upon to sacrifice portions of their private life for the sake of their duty."

There was a silence; the guard's face appeared set in stone. After a moment Mr. Gerson said stiffly, "I'll speak with you later about this, then. Oh, hello, Taylor!" For the first time, the guard took note of the second inhabitant of the room.

"Mr. Gerson." Layle's voice had turned as glacial as popular rumor held the Eternal Dungeon to be. "If a Seeker indicates to you that he is willing to be addressed informally by you during your leisure hours, that is a private matter. But whilst you are on duty, you will treat all of the inner dungeon inhabitants – Seekers, guards, and prisoners – with the formality that your work demands."

Mr. Gerson's face returned to stone. "Yes, sir. Good night."

"Good night." Layle turned, letting the door swing shut behind him. Before the door closed, Elsdon received the privilege of seeing a guard thumb his nose at the High Seeker. Mr. Gerson grinned at him, and Elsdon bit his lip to keep from laughing. Then the door shut with a soft thump.

"A typical quiet evening," remarked Layle, pulling up his hood flap as he returned to Elsdon's side.

"You're never off duty, are you?" Elsdon said as he raised his own face-cloth.

"Only in my dreamings. What's that you're looking at?"

Holding up the book so that Layle could see the title, Elsdon read aloud, "'In those cruel days of yesteryear, the men who ran the dungeon of our land were so filled with sadistic brutality that it is said that no female prisoner emerged from the dungeon with her virtue intact, and no youth remained unmolested. . . .' How can you bear to read such depressing books?"

"Among other things, they provide cautionary tales." Layle's gaze was running across the bookshelves. "I learn from these books what tragedies can be committed by Seekers if they do not show proper restraint. After all, we all enjoy our work in some fashion, or we would not choose to become Seekers." His gaze rested upon Elsdon.

Elsdon shut the book and returned it to the shelf before saying, "You mean I'm like my father."

"We established at the time of your imprisonment that you were not. I would not have allowed you to take the hood of a Seeker-in-Training if I thought you would again use your impulses toward violence for evil."

Elsdon shook his head. "That's not all that distinguishes me from my father. My father enjoyed my pain – whether or not he received a sexual thrill from it, he certainly obtained some kind of pleasure from it. I don't enjoy seeing prisoners in pain. Yes, I have a desire for violence, but the actual act of hurting another person sickens me. Murdering Sara . . . I still haven't been able to stop myself from vomiting when I think of what I did. I agreed to become a Seeker because I believe you're right that if I find an acceptable outlet for my violent desires – ordering punishments only when it would be in the best interests of the prisoner to receive pain – that will stop me from losing control of myself again. But I'll never enjoy other people's sufferings. You mustn't think I'm a monster like that."

After the silence had lengthened to the point of snapping like a racked man's sinews, Elsdon said, "Don't you believe me?"

"Of course I do." Layle's voice was matter-of-fact. "And I'm grateful to you for sharing your views on this matter. . . . We've spoken enough on this topic, I think. Have a seat."

Elsdon obeyed his gesture. Layle leaned back against the bookcase, letting his arm rest along one of the shelves holding the darkly titled volumes. "Now, then, you've met most of the guards and Seekers by now. It's not often that you'll work alongside another Seeker, except during your training period, so it's most important that you maintain good relations with the guards. I've found that formal relations work best."

Elsdon frowned as he picked at a stray thread in the chair. "Are you criticizing my friendship with Garrett?"

"Not at all; I'm delighted that Mr. Gerson has found a steady-minded companion. I just feel I ought to remind you about the Code's ruling on the matter of Seekers taking love-mates."

Elsdon's frown deepened; he pushed himself forward to the edge of the seat. "Look," he said, "there's nothing like that between Garrett and me – in fact, he already has a love-mate. But if there were . . . I can understand the rule forbidding Seekers from marrying, since their children would need to be raised in the Dungeon, but I don't understand the rule forbidding love-bonds, especially between Seekers and guards."

"There's a simple reason for that rule: Seekers take a lifelong oath to remain in the dungeon. Guards do not. Our experience over the decades has taught us that allowing love-bonds between oath-yoked men and non-oath-yoked men or women creates too great a strain in the dungeon. Too many guards and outer dungeon inhabitants have chosen to remain in the Eternal Dungeon long after they should have left, and too many Seekers have sought to be released from their oaths. I trust you do remember," Layle added lightly, "that the Code permits Seekers to become love-mates to each other."

For a moment, Elsdon could not speak. His heart was pounding so hard that he was convinced that he must be blushing from hairtip to toenail. Finally he said, "Yes, I remember. Are there any rules governing that?"

He tried to keep his voice cool and professional. He could not tell from Layle's expression whether he succeeded. The High Seeker said only, "You will be expected to notify the Codifier if you enter into a love-bond with another Seeker, however brief; the Codifier needs to be aware of such facts when judging disciplinary matters. Other than that, there are no regulations that affect you presently. Some of the senior Seekers, who have supervisory duties over junior Seekers and Seekers-in-Training, prefer not to enter into bonds with Seekers who work under them. This custom has not yet been Codified, but it is one that I recommend."

Elsdon stared at him. "But that means that you—"

He stopped himself at the edge of the cliff and drew back hastily, saying, "I mean, what about the Codifier? He supervises all of the Seekers in the dungeon. Does that mean he's not permitted to take a love-mate here?"

Layle ran a finger across the edge of the bookshelf, inspected the dust upon his fingertip, and said, "As it happens, the Codifier was married and widowed before coming to the Eternal Dungeon. He wishes to remain unmated, out of honor to his dead wife."

"Oh, I see. And do you—?"

The remaining words died within Elsdon's mouth as he caught sight of Layle's face. The High Seeker gestured to Elsdon to stand, saying, "We've spoken enough tonight, I think. We can continue our discussion next time."

"But I wanted to ask you—"

"Next time will be the best time for questions." Layle's voice was cool. He turned his back upon Elsdon and began shifting the books upon the shelf.

Elsdon stared at him, but the High Seeker did not turn. After a moment, Elsdon said awkwardly, "Well . . . I'll come again tomorrow . . . That is, if I may, sir."

The High Seeker said nothing, and Elsdon, feeling himself grow chill, reached up and pulled down the flap that hid his face on formal occasions. He turned toward the door.

His hand was upon the latch when he felt a touch on the sleeve; he looked to see Layle standing behind him, naked-faced. In his outstretched palm lay a key.

"For you," the High Seeker said. "In case I should be away from my cell when you call next. Feel free to await me here."

He placed the key into Elsdon's hand and then, without another word, returned to the bookshelf and began browsing through the volumes there.

o—o—o

"He's like that," said Elsdon Taylor. "One moment he'll be treating me as though he hates me, and the next he'll be giving me the key to his quarters. He's as changeable as a winter wind. I suppose that's what makes him so good with the prisoners – they can't predict how he'll act. I'm looking forward to seeing him at work—"

"You're in love with him, aren't you?" Garrett Gerson said.

He had the satisfaction of seeing the Seeker-in-Training blush bright red. Rarely could he catch Taylor out like this; on most occasions, the young man seemed as imperturbable as an ancient magistrate. Garrett, three years older than Elsdon Taylor, considered him a challenge.

Taylor swallowed heavily and said in a soft voice, "Is it so obvious?"

"'Mr. Smith thinks that racks are overrated as instruments of breaking.' 'Mr. Smith thinks that every Seeker should hold the Code in memory.' 'Mr. Smith thinks that I should part my hair on the right.' Yes, it's obvious."

Taylor smiled at Garrett's mocking rendition of his voice, but he furrowed his brow as he said, "I hope that the High Seeker hasn't guessed."

Garrett gave the other young man the expression he reserved for when Taylor was being particularly obtuse. Taylor sighed and added, "Oh, I suppose he must have. It's hideously embarrassing. 'High Seeker rescues young man from certain death, and the young man promptly falls in love with the High Seeker' – it must have happened to him a million times. He's being very polite in not mentioning it."

Garrett took a longer look at the Seeker-in-Training before him. The other youth was not far away – he could not be, in the cramped quarters that were allotted to guards. Garrett had been to Taylor's "cell," as the Seekers' private quarters were called because all Seekers took an oath to remain eternally confined within the dungeon. Taylor's so-named cell was twice the size of Garrett's quarters, even though Taylor was newly arrived and Garrett had worked at the dungeon for two years. It was yet another example of the lack of fairness he faced in his daily life.

Such injustices usually caused him to pick his words carefully when around Seekers, but now genuine curiosity caused him to ask, "What do you see in the man?"

"In the High Seeker?" Taylor stared at him with the same astonishment that a dog might show if asked to explain why he brought bones to his master. Garrett was hard pressed not to laugh, but he remained bland in expression, and after a moment Taylor said, "Sweet blood, Garrett, what's not to admire in Layle Smith?"

It irritated Garrett how Taylor insisted upon using his first name, as though they were still boys in school. It annoyed him almost as much as the High Seeker's obsession with having everyone address one another by formal titles. "I'm not sure he's so pure as all that," Garrett said, trying to figure out a gentle way to bring sense into Taylor's naive worldview. "I've heard stories about Smith from some of the other guards—"

"Mr. Smith doesn't approve of listening to gossip," Taylor said stiffly.

Garrett could guess the reasons why Layle Smith would disapprove of gossip, but he cursed himself inwardly. It was so hard keeping within the good graces of Taylor, and sometimes he asked himself why he made the effort. It wasn't as though Taylor cared about Garrett's misfortunes.

Well, Garrett thought, let the boy learn the truth through hard trial. He backtracked rapidly, saying, "I suppose you're right. So what do you admire most about the High Seeker?"

"The Code, of course," Taylor answered promptly.

Garrett, who had spent many a night contemplating how he could destroy every copy of the Eternal Dungeon's Code of Seeking, struggled to keep from grimacing. "He didn't invent the Code, you know," he pointed out. "It's as old as the Eternal Dungeon."

"Yes, but he wrote the present revision of it. Even the parts that aren't directly his are his in the sense that he decided to keep them from the previous versions. At the beginning of the Code, for example . . . Where's your copy?"

Garrett sighed, stood up, and went over to the end of his quarters that served as a bedroom, though a curtain was the only indicator of where the bedroom began and the sitting room ended. After rummaging for several minutes, he found the slim black volume underneath a pile of unwashed clothes.

He could tell from the tightness of Taylor's lips that the other youth did not approve of Garrett's handling of the Code of Seeking. But the Seeker-in-Training simply took the volume into his hand and opened it to the first page of text.

"'A Seeker must be willing to suffer for the prisoners,'" he read aloud. "That's from the first version of the Code – it's also in the oath Seekers take. But the next sentence is Mr. Smith's . . ."

He rambled on. Garrett paid no attention to what he said, focussing his thoughts on Taylor's finely curved cheekbones, his rich white skin, and the glossy hair peeking out from his hood. Boys and men had never appealed to Garrett in that way, but he found it amusing that Taylor was utterly unaware of how much power he held over most of the men and women around him, simply by virtue of his looks.

Which led Garrett's thoughts back to the High Seeker. Taylor was saying, "I counted them once. There are two hundred and seventeen of them – two hundred and seventeen rules preventing Seekers from misusing their power over prisoners. Most of the rules didn't appear in the previous versions of the Code – they were Layle Smith's contribution. How could I not admire a man like that?"

"So why don't you let him bed you?" Garrett asked mildly.

He had the deep pleasure of watching Taylor blush for the second time that evening. "Don't mock me," the Seeker-in-Training muttered.

"Mock you?" Garrett tried to make himself sound as though such an idea would never occur to him. He was brought back to the ground by the sharp look that Taylor gave him. It was easy to forget, amidst all of Taylor's innocence, that Taylor was a Seeker-in-Training and had obtained that title for good reason. Though Taylor was still new to his role, he was not a simpleton; he could not be fooled in all respects.

Garrett shrugged and said, in the voice he used when he needed to placate his own Seeker, "I didn't think you'd take my words as mockery. Why shouldn't you go to bed with the High Seeker?"

"Oh, bloody blades, Garrett." Taylor's voice held an uncommon note of exasperation. "We're talking about the High Seeker."

"You don't like being bedded by men?" Garrett was finding this art of teasing Taylor through innocent questions to be the most diverting game he had ever played.

Taylor stared at him blankly.

"Vovimian men don't let themselves be bedded by other men." Garrett enjoyed the rare occasions on which he was able to teach Taylor something he didn't already know. "A Vovimian man would only bed another man if he was raping him."

"Vovimians also beat their children."

Anger roughening Taylor's voice caused Garrett to stiffen, as he might have done if a stick in his hand had suddenly turned into a poisonous snake. Taylor caught the movement and gave a half-smile. "Sorry," he said. "I just meant that I don't take barbarians as my standard of behavior. No, of course I don't mind the idea of going to bed with another man. But we're talking about Layle Smith. The High Seeker. The man who is a legend among prison workers. And I'm just a Seeker-in-Training, with no experience at anything but murder."

His voice was matter-of-fact as he spoke. Garrett felt the temptation he often did, to begin probing Taylor about his kin-murder so that he could see what blood and guts spilled out of the Seeker-in-Training. But he suppressed the desire, saying, "Perhaps that's what he wants."

Taylor stared at him blankly again.

Garrett sighed and leaned forward, gracing Taylor with his worldly-wise expression. "Some men like that," he explained carefully. "They like going to bed with someone less experienced than themselves, someone who's younger. They go cock-high at the idea of bedding a virgin."

To his disappointment, Taylor didn't blush again. Garrett considered whether to explain to Taylor how he had come by this information, but decided that it was no business of Taylor's. Besides, for all Garrett knew, the Queen's Secretary might have recommended him for work at the Eternal Dungeon in any case.

He could see Taylor musing upon this new thought, and he pressed his advantage, saying, "I'll wager that, if you asked him to go to bed with you, he would."

"Wager?" Taylor asked absentmindedly, obviously trying to put his tongue around an unfamiliar word.

In an instant, all of the advantage Garrett had gained during this meeting was swept away. A single word could do that.

He cursed himself inwardly, by all the curses he knew that Taylor had never heard. Bad enough that Garrett should have the disadvantage of his background, but why did his speech have to betray his origins at the worst possible moments? He tried to imagine this soft-bred Seeker-in-Training standing in a common-folks' betting room, watching his father wager away all his earnings, leaving his son to struggle his way out of poverty . . .

No, Taylor would never understand what ordinary folk went through. Let him worry his head over trivialities such as whether the High Seeker would be interested in him. Garrett could have told him the answer in an instant, but he wasn't about to impart information to a Seeker.

Not without payment.