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In Training (Rebirth #4)

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Rebirth #4
IN TRAINING

The year 356, the fourth month. (The year 1880 Clover by the Old Calendar.)
 

It is commonly understood by historians that facts which may seem obvious to other societies and times are often obscure to people living in a particular society and time. No doubt this is as true of our own society as it has been of others, which is why the study of history provides a powerful lesson in the danger of accepting the ethical values of one's culture without due examination.

An example of this human failure to recognize societal evils can be found in the fifth revision of the Eternal Dungeon's Code of Seeking. The revision's author, Layle Smith, was without doubt the most foresightful man to hold the title of High Seeker – a man who was able to recognize certain abusive patterns in the handling of criminals in his time, and who could suggest new methods for bringing about justice.

Yet any modern reader of the fifth revision – particularly those of us who work in psychology and owe so much to this pioneering volume on methods of character reform – will recognize that, by introducing new methods to correct past abuses, Layle Smith and his contemporaries opened the door for new abuses – abuses that, in their own way, were just as terrible as those that had taken place before.

History provides such a dark record of humans' blindness that it is refreshing to be able to report that many of the abuses which became possible following the publication of the fifth revision were accounted for and corrected in the sixth revision, which was published two decades later. Unfortunately, we no longer possess the name of the sixth revision's insightful author, nor do we know what events shaped his views. . . .

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
 

CHAPTER ONE

"What do you want me to do?"

The two men stood in the bedroom. It was morning, but the lamps in the windowless chamber flickered low, for this was the time of rest for them both – the time when their night duties ended and their pleasure began. A signal of this fact could be found in their hoods, which lay, not upon their heads as at all other times, but together in a pile next to the bed.

Layle reached out and smoothed down Elsdon's hair before saying in a low voice, "What do you wish to do?"

Elsdon shook his head. "Love, we've been through this before. What you can enjoy is much narrower than what I can enjoy. It's for you to choose what takes place."

Layle pulled back a stray hair from his love-mate's eyes with a soft stroke of the thumb. "And if I should choose wrong?"

Elsdon laughed. "Layle, you're the High Seeker! If you can guess from the posture of a prisoner you've just met whether you should give him five lashes or ten, you can certainly tell if I dislike something you do."

The High Seeker gave a faint smile but did not respond for a moment, either in word or gesture. His only concession to the informality of the moment, thus far, had been the removal of his hood. He, like the younger man, remained fully clothed in the black uniform of a Seeker.

After a long moment, he leaned over and kissed his love-mate's lips lightly. "I'd like you to take off your clothes, Elsdon."

The hint of a dimple appeared in Elsdon's cheek. "I think I can handle that difficult task. And?"

"Lie down on the bed, on your back. Stay passive, as though you were weary with sleep. Keep your eyes closed, and don't try to respond to anything I do."

Elsdon nodded as though he had just received a new piece of training in his work, then stepped back, his hand already rising to the fastenings on his shirt. Layle watched him strip, moving nothing but his dark green eyes, which slid over Elsdon's body like warm air. Feeling himself begin to shiver with pleasure, Elsdon quickly lay down upon the bed, placing his head on the pillow and closing his eyes.

Moments passed. Faintly through the walls came the sound of people walking through the underground corridors of the Eternal Dungeon, making their way between work and the small living quarters allotted to them. Elsdon, sharing the spacious living quarters of the High Seeker, was luckier than most – in many ways, he thought to himself. A smile crossed his lips.

A light footfall sounded beside him. Involuntarily, Elsdon opened his eyes. Layle was standing beside the bed now. His shirt and his trouser flap were unfastened, but other than that he remained fully clothed – indeed, he had placed his hood back onto his head. Elsdon's gaze began to slide away from the hood, but he remembered in time that Layle could read him too well, and he forced himself to look back. The hood fell like black water down to the shoulders. The face-cloth was raised.

Seeing that, Elsdon felt warmth go through him. It would be much easier for Layle, he knew, if the cloth were down, but the High Seeker knew that it would be correspondingly more difficult for Elsdon to see him in the full uniform of an on-duty Seeker. As always, Layle put the best interests of his prisoner first.

The High Seeker reached forward and tugged at the pillow under Elsdon's head. Forgetting for a moment the instruction to remain limp, Elsdon raised his head, but Layle simply lifted his love-mate's back slightly, pushing the pillow down so that it was under Elsdon's shoulders and neck. Elsdon lay back, his neck now arched so that his head pointed backwards, toward the bars at the head of the bed. He reached up with both hands and took hold of one of the bars, pressing his wrists together as though they were attached to one another. "Shall I position myself like this?" he asked.

"If you wish." Layle's voice had grown colorless, as it often did when he was at his work.

"You could tie me with your belt—"

"No!"

Elsdon had been staring at the bars of the bed. With effort, he lifted his head high enough to be able to see the High Seeker. Layle reached out and brushed the hair back from his eyes, saying gently, "My dear, I know you better than you know yourself. If I were to restrain you in any way – whether with bindings or with a blindfold – it would bring back the memories, and you would suffer. Please cease making that offer to me. —And please cease talking," he added as Elsdon opened his mouth. "It makes it difficult for me to concentrate."

"I'm sorry." Elsdon sank back against the pillow, his neck arching once more. He could see nothing more than the bars. He closed his eyes.

Presently he felt a weight upon him, pressing him down. A momentary spark of panic ate at him; then he forced himself to relax. If he showed the slightest sign of reluctance, Layle would withdraw, as he had done in the past. That fact in itself served to throw back Elsdon's fear, as did the knowledge that he remained free to move his limbs at any moment. Layle did indeed know him; that was what made this dangerous exercise safe.

Layle's body pressed heavier upon him as the High Seeker leaned forward to kiss him. Without preliminary, Layle thrust his tongue into Elsdon's mouth. The soft brush of the High Seeker's hood stroked Elsdon's face. He did his best to remain still, despite this and the plunging tongue.

The tongue withdrew; Layle lifted himself somewhat off Elsdon's body. Then, unexpected in its softness, his lips touched the hollow of Elsdon's neck.

Elsdon drew his breath in sharply as his back arched. Then he froze, wondering whether he had destroyed the illusion that Layle was building. He had not; he felt Layle's response immediately, in the form of hardness pressing against his loins. His own desire correspondingly grew, and he allowed himself to moan when the next kiss came, even though it was on a distinctly prosaic part of his body, his left shoulder.

The next kiss was on the right shoulder, but before Elsdon's desire could wane, Layle's lips journeyed down to the soft skin near the pit of his arm. Elsdon writhed a moment. He felt Layle's hand clasp him hard, pushing him back down onto the bed. There was a moment of uncertainty while his mind strove to decide how to react to this; then he felt Layle's lips upon his left armpit, and the matter was settled.

He tensed slightly, guessing where the next kiss would come, but Layle made no immediate attack upon his nipples. Instead he kissed the skin above the nipples, teasing at the hair there with his teeth, and thrusting his tongue out once more to probe at the skin. His mouth began to suck, pulling the skin toward him. Then the weight lifted abruptly off Elsdon.

A moment later Elsdon felt his legs being separated. Before he had time to worry about what this signified, he felt Layle's mouth upon his thighs, kissing and licking and sucking above each knee. The mouth wandered again, this time into the hollow created by his parted legs, onto the softness of the inner thighs. The top of Layle's hood brushed him higher up. He emitted a whimper.

As though in response, Layle's head retreated. A moment later, the weight lowered down upon him again, carefully slow, and then – with a frustrating avoidance of where Elsdon wanted them most – Layle's lips touched just beneath his nipples.

Layle's mouth proceeded that way for some time, circling its way around the goal in such an agonizingly slow manner that, when the groin was finally reached, Elsdon could not contain himself for long. He cried out, lashing beneath Layle as though he were a leaf being tossed in a storm. Dimly he hoped that he was not destroying the moment for Layle.

It appeared not. When he reached out his hands to the High Seeker, he discovered there was nothing left for him to do except to take Layle into his arms. His love-mate was trembling, as he always did after these sessions. Elsdon spent several minutes soothing him with his hands, as though he were holding a frightened child.

When Layle's shaking finally ceased, Elsdon kissed the top of his head and said, "What were you thinking?"

He felt Layle stiffen, but the High Seeker did not respond. He remained where he was, his head resting upon Elsdon's shoulder, his hand clasped tight around Elsdon's hand.

Elsdon sighed and pulled back, forcing Layle to raise his head. Layle's eyes looked dazed, as though he were a prisoner who had just received a hard beating. It took a moment before his gaze focussed itself.

"Love," Elsdon said firmly, "this won't do. Whatever nightmares you have within you, they can't be as bad as the nightmares I'm beginning to imagine because you won't tell me your dreamings. Nothing you tell me could hurt me as much as you think . . . unless you have taken to dreaming you're my father."

At that, Layle's expression cleared. He leaned forward to kiss Elsdon's lips. "No," he said. "Never that, I promise you."

"Then tell me. You've shared everything else with me; why not this?"

The High Seeker was silent a moment, then pulled off his hood, tossing it onto the floor next to Elsdon's hood. "Not everything. There are aspects of me we've never discussed."

Elsdon waited, but Layle did not speak further, so Elsdon finally said, "Where was I, on the rack?"

The High Seeker's eyes closed, and he gave out a heavy sigh. He removed his hand from Elsdon's. After a moment he opened his eyes and began to speak, keeping his gaze upon the other Seeker. Elsdon recognized the look; it was the scrutiny Layle reserved for prisoners when he was having them beaten.

"You were on the rack," he said quietly. "Already stretched – you were up to level eight. You were beginning to gasp from the constriction of your chest and your consequent difficulty in breathing. You were naked; I was standing at the head of the rack, half-dressed. I leaned forward and began to lick and suck your wounds – the black marks left upon you by the hot poker I had used on you earlier. You moaned as I tortured you with my tongue, but you had reached the point of breaking, and you were too weary to respond in any other manner. I licked all of your wounds, increasing the pain throughout your body. Then I thrust myself into you – first forcing myself into your mouth, so deep that you choked and lost all ability to breathe. I held myself against you for a time that way, watching you begin to strangle from lack of air. Then, when I was satisfied, I withdrew and went to the other end of the rack. I thrust myself into you once more, and this time the pain was so great that you began to scream. You continued screaming as I pounded you over and over, my excitement heightened by the evidence of your agony—"

He stopped abruptly. Elsdon knew why; he could feel the pressure building from Layle's groin. He pretended not to notice, though. After a while he asked, "How did you enter me?"

"In the mouth and—"

"No, I mean how? If I was lying on the rack, my face would have been pointed toward the ceiling – unless you took the trouble to place a pillow under my neck. I suppose you could take me if I was lying flat, but it would be awkward – racks aren't designed to hold two bodies at once. And I can't imagine how you would gain entrance to me at the other end of the rack – unless you turned me over first?"

Layle's expression, by the time he finished this speech, was such a wonder that Elsdon burst out laughing. Reaching forward with his hand, he pushed back the High Seeker's hair from his eyes. "Well, what did you expect me to say, Layle? 'By all the rules of the Code, I'm in bed with a sadist! What a terrible revelation!' You didn't tell me anything I don't already know."

"Knowing that I have these dreamings is one thing," Layle said in a tight voice. "Hearing how I'm imagining you is quite another."

Elsdon gave a half-smile. "Well, I'll confess I'm glad I didn't know at the time; I can't think of anything that would have been more effective at dampening my desire. But hearing it now . . . Would you like to know what I was thinking while you were dreaming all this?"

The hood covered Layle's face once more. Not the cloth hood lying abandoned upon the floor, though. This was a hood that Elsdon had seen many times since Layle first raised his face-cloth to him: a mask that wiped all expression from the High Seeker's eyes and mouth. Layle nodded, a slight jerk of the head.

"I dreamt I was bound to my old bed," Elsdon softly.

He kept his eyes fixed upon Layle, but no expression entered into Layle's eyes. Only the tendons in his neck grew more pronounced.

"I was bound and I was gagged; my throat was raw from screaming all night," Elsdon said, still softly, as though to an animal that might bolt unexpectedly. "I had been struggling for hours to escape, and my wrists and ankles were bleeding. Then I heard a soft step nearby, and I knew that it was my father, come to check upon me – come to receive what mind-sick pleasure he always received from seeing me in pain. He lifted my blindfold, and I saw that it was you."

Still no change came to Layle's face, though his eyes were veiled with liquid light now.

"And then," said Elsdon, taking Layle's hand, "you cut my bonds, and helped me to sit up, and washed and dressed my wounds. You fed me honey to heal the soreness in my throat, and afterwards you placed your cloak around me and held me in your warmth until I had finished crying, and felt at peace."

Layle's eyes closed, but not in time to prevent the loss of one of the tears that had been veiling his eyes. It slipped between his lashes and trailed its way around the curve of his high cheekbone. He said in a voice that was muffled, "How can you trust me so?"

"Because you've given me every reason to trust you," Elsdon replied, his thumb stroking the back of Layle's hand. "You've always been honest with me, Layle, and I know I'm safe with you. You'd never do anything that would hurt me—"

He stopped; Layle had abruptly turned and flung himself off the bed.

The bedroom shared by the High Seeker and his Seeker-in-Training was commodious by the Eternal Dungeon's standards, which meant that it was hardly larger than a water closet. The three strides Layle had taken from the bed had brought him up against the wall, undecorated but for the lamp sputtering above him. He was still for a moment; then, without looking Elsdon's way, he reached up toward the lamp.

Elsdon, whose own quickness of movement could not match Layle's, made his way out of bed and came to stand behind the High Seeker. "Layle, what is it?" he asked quietly. "You're upset about more than our conversation. You've been this way all day, since you came back from seeing the Queen. Did you receive ill news from her?"

Layle finished quenching the dying flame with his fingers. Without turning his head, he said, "Another ambassador to Vovim has been lost."

Elsdon uttered a soft oath under his breath. "He has been imprisoned by the Vovimians?"

"The Queen assumes so. As on the previous occasion, the King of Vovim expressed astonishment that our ambassador did not reach the palace, and he attributed the ambassador's loss to outlaws who roam the barren battlefield on both sides of the border. He has promised to send soldiers to search for our ambassador—"

"Who will find nothing, because the ambassador lies chained in the King's custody." Elsdon momentarily pressed his fists hard against his eyes, as though to wipe away the images in his mind. "The King begged us to send an ambassador to negotiate a peace between our two countries – he begged us twice. Is he mad?"

"Unfortunately, yes." Layle turned finally. Even in the dimness of the remaining light in the room, the tension in his muscles stood out stark. "A sane ruler we could bargain with. But Vovim's King is quite capable of begging us sincerely to send an ambassador one month, and then deciding the next month that our ambassador is a threat to his land and must be eliminated."

Elsdon shook his head slowly, like a man awakening from a nightmare. "Vovim has lost more in this war than Yclau has; east Vovim has been torn to rags by our border defenses. Why do the Vovimian people permit a madman to rule them?"

"Because it would be dangerous to oppose him. Besides" – the High Seeker's voice grew dry – "by Vovimian standards, he is one of the better rulers they have had."

"Barbarians!" Elsdon spat out the word, as though it were venom poisoning his mouth. Then, catching a slight change in Layle's expression, he added, "You called them that yourself, when I asked you about them last year."

"As I recall, we were discussing the King's Torturers." Layle stepped past Elsdon and bent to retrieve his hood from the floor. "Most of the people of Vovim are certainly ignorant in matters known by other countries of the world, but they are not uncultured. The Vovimian language, for example, is so complex that it cannot be fully mastered by anyone except a native."

"I ought to have remembered that," Elsdon said ruefully as Layle adjusted his hood upon his head, leaving his face-cloth lifted. "I had headaches enough trying to learn it."

"I've seen your school records: you received top marks in that subject, and I've no doubt you could make yourself easily understood to a Vovimian. But it would be wrong to underestimate the Vovimians. If nothing else, their Hidden Dungeon is the only dungeon in the world that comes close to rivalling the Eternal Dungeon in its success in breaking prisoners."

Elsdon was silent for a minute. He was watching Layle smooth down the cloth hiding the sides and back of his head, and he was wondering at the meaning of this gesture. Though popular rumor held it that Seekers slept in their hoods, even Layle, wedded though he was to formality, had never gone that far. Ordinarily, at this time of day, he and Elsdon would be lying bareheaded in their bed, preparing to sleep, but now the High Seeker was fastening his shirt and reaching for his belt.

To fill the silence, Elsdon said, "Do you think that's where the ambassadors have been sent? To the Hidden Dungeon?"

"That was the question our Queen asked me after the first ambassador was captured. I told her it was likely; the King wouldn't bother to hand a prisoner over to a lesser prison if he believed the man to be guilty of high crimes. Only the King's Torturers are qualified to handle prisoners in such cases. I advised the Queen to send spies to Vovim to learn what they could."

"They evidently didn't learn enough." Elsdon's voice was tinged with bitterness. "Otherwise, the Queen wouldn't have sent a second ambassador."

Layle stepped toward the bedroom door. "The Queen has a keen mind. It's often hard to say why she acts as she does."

"Well," said Elsdon, catching up with Layle, "at least she has learned her lesson now. We won't lose any more ambassadors to the barbar— To the Vovimians."

Layle glanced back at Elsdon. He said nothing.

Elsdon felt winded, as though he had been thrust to a high level on the rack. He cried, "Layle, no! You can't mean that the Queen is sending another ambassador to Vovim."

"The alternative is more war," Layle said quietly, "and neither of our countries can afford that. If sending a third ambassador could make it possible to save thousands of lives, the Queen considers it worth the gamble."

"Sweet blood," Elsdon swore softly, "I pity the poor man she sends next. —Unless I was wrong about the King's Torturers as well? Is the Hidden Dungeon less barbaric than I'd thought?"

Layle had paused in front of the bookshelves lining the sitting room. Elsdon saw that he was looking at the spines of the books on foreign prisons and dungeons. After a space of time, the High Seeker said in a very soft voice, "The Hidden Dungeon is without a doubt home to the most barbaric, merciless, and depraved torturers in the world."

Elsdon, standing by the door that led to the inner dungeon, was silent a moment. Then he said, "I thought that about the Eternal Dungeon too, until I came here."

"Whatever nightmares you imagined about the Seekers would pale in comparison to what the King's Torturers are like. In every other dungeon of the world, even the least civilized, restraints are placed upon the torturers – primitive rules by the standards of the Code of Seeking, but rules nonetheless. In Vovim's Hidden Dungeon, no such rules exist. The torturers are simply ordered to obtain confessions. The more thorough the confession, the greater their reward. No reward is given if the torturer reports that the prisoner is innocent; on the contrary, such a torturer risks finding himself executed alongside the prisoner. Once the men of conscience have been weeded out from among the King's Torturers, you can imagine what sort of men are left to search the prisoners." Layle turned. In his hand was an open book, and upon its pages lay drawings of dozens of instruments of torture. The heading below the illustration read, "A partial collection of Vovimian instruments."

Elsdon lifted his gaze from the page and emitted a long sigh. "And our ambassadors lie in those men's hands. Can't the Queen send soldiers to rescue them? She has sent raiders over the border before."

"It would help if she knew where to send them." Layle's voice turned dry once more.

Elsdon bit his lip. "Vovim's dungeon really is hidden, then? How could it remain so, after all these centuries?"

"It has not always been hidden." Layle let the book drop from his hand onto a table nearby. It hit the table with a thud, nearly obscuring the slim black volume below it. "At one time, Vovim's dungeon was as easy to find as its many prisons. Elsdon, if you woke from your sleep and found that our dungeon was filled with dozens of Yclau folk who had fought their way past the daggers and whips of our guards to raid the dungeon and rescue their relations – even the relations who had committed crimes against them – what would you conclude?"

"That our treatment of prisoners was so terrible that even the victims of our prisoners would brave death to save the prisoners from us." Elsdon's voice was quiet.

Layle nodded without shifting his eyes from Elsdon. "Twenty years ago, Vovim's dungeon underwent such a raid; many guards and a number of torturers and their apprentices and journeymen were killed by the raiders. The King was not pleased. Afterwards, he took measures to ensure that this would not happen again. Tell me, what is the distinguishing feature of Vovim's lesser prisons?"

Elsdon suddenly became aware, as he had not been before, that he was naked. He wished desperately that he had followed Layle's lead and at least put his hood back on. It was clear from Layle's tone that, in his usual abrupt manner, he had switched from treating Elsdon as his love-mate to treating him as a Seeker-in-Training. Stiffening himself, and trying not to think what an absurd figure he must appear to be, Elsdon said, "They can't be distinguished from one another. All of the prisons have an identical layout and identical equipment."

Layle nodded, in the same manner as he always did when Elsdon correctly recited back his lessons. "That is a reflection of Vovim's culture, which values conformity over independence of mind. Can you remember any other important fact about Vovimian prisons?"

Elsdon had to think a while before he replied, "Except for the keeper of each prison, Vovimian prison workers don't receive permanent assignments. They are constantly transferred from prison to prison, lest they become too attached to any long-term prisoners."

"That provided the King with the solution he needed," said Layle. "Following the advice that one of his senior torturers gave him, he hid his dungeon where it could not be found. Every few months, during one of the periodic transfers, all of the workers of one of the lesser dungeons are replaced by new workers. These new workers are, as it happens, the King's Torturers, but neither the prison's long-term prisoners nor anyone from the surrounding town and countryside are aware of this fact. Only the keeper of the prison knows, and if he should tell anyone that his prison has become the Hidden Dungeon, he knows well that his life will be short. And so the King's Torturers are able to do their work on any prisoners the King sends them, unmolested by the prisoners' relations, who have no idea where their kinfolk have been sent. After a few months, another transfer takes place, the prison that has been the Hidden Dungeon returns to its old purpose, and the Hidden Dungeon finds a new home."

"And so the ambassadors could be anywhere in Vovim's hundreds of prisons," Elsdon concluded.

Layle's gaze remained fastened on the book of torture upon the table – or perhaps it was on the black volume that lay at the bottom of the pile. "I told the Queen that I thought there was little hope that the first ambassador was still alive after all this time, and the second is likely to be dead before her soldiers can reach him. Even the slowest of the King's Torturers takes no more than three weeks to finish his job, and the second ambassador disappeared a fortnight ago. What I've been able to tell her of the Hidden Dungeon has concerned her, though – that, and the information she has obtained from the upcoming prison conference."

Elsdon's eyes widened at this statement. "The Queen is interested in prison reform?"

Layle lifted his gaze then and gave a faint smile. "She is a native of Yclau. The prison reform movement began in this country – in this very dungeon – and our Code continues to pave the path for other dungeons and lesser prisons. If, as we hope, the United Order of Prisons decides next month to adopt the Code of Seeking as its standard by which to reform each country's prison manuals—"

"Then Yclau will have more power over other lands. Of course." Elsdon passed his hand over his forehead. Thoughts of political manipulation always strained him, and he was only able to follow Layle this far because he had spent the past year witnessing the High Seeker's deft maneuvers to avoid being trapped in the political schemes that wound their devious way around anyone with his power. "So," said Elsdon slowly, "the Queen wants prison reform extended, not only to the member countries of the United Order of Prisons, but even to Vovim, because that will allow our queendom to have more power over the Vovimians. That may help to bring us victory in the war with Vovim."

"And will bring more humane conditions to the Vovimian prisoners," Layle said quietly. "The Queen is not unmindful of that aspect of the matter; it has been in her thoughts for many years. But this is a particularly apt time for her to pursue the subject. Vovim's King, though he will not allow his prison workers to join the United Order of Prisons, has agreed to host next month's international prison conference, in hopes of convincing the world that Vovim is a civilized country."

"So the Queen will use the two ambassadors' abductions as an excuse to have her third ambassador demand reform in the Vovimian prisons. Yes, I see." Elsdon decided that Layle was right: the Queen was too keen-minded a woman to second-guess. He stared at the black volume under Layle's fingers for a moment. Then his head jerked up.

"But, Layle," he said breathlessly, "if the ambassador is to speak to Vovim's King about prison reform, he must know something on the subject."

Layle said nothing. His expression was so featureless that his face-cloth might as well have been in place.

Elsdon felt a shiver rustle the hairs on his skin, and he knew that it was not due to the fact that he was standing naked in a cave that kept a year-round autumn cool. He had grown used to the climate easily, having been raised in a household where he was not permitted a fire in his bedroom. The chill came from the look in Layle's eyes.

"You're the new ambassador," Elsdon said flatly.

Layle's eyes remained as cool as before. "No. You are."

Elsdon felt the air hit the back of his throat; he released it more slowly. Over the pounding of his heart, he said, in as light a manner as he could manage, "So when do I leave?"

Layle's eyes closed. His hand gripped convulsively the black cover of the Code of Seeking; so tight was his grip that the book threatened to bend under his grasp.

Elsdon moved forward quickly and laid his hand upon Layle's. "Love," he said softly, "there's nothing to worry about. I know that the Queen wouldn't have thought to choose me, a Seeker-in-Training. You must have recommended me to her. And I know that you wouldn't send me or any other Seeker unless it was safe. You'd go yourself."

Layle pulled himself back slowly from Elsdon's touch. For a moment more he stared down at the copy of the Code; then that too he released. His gaze rose to Elsdon's.

"I volunteered to go," he said in a rigid voice. "The Queen would not permit me."

Elsdon paused before saying, "I can see that she couldn't spare her High Seeker—"

"She would spare her own heir if need called for it. She will not send me to Vovim because, eighteen years ago, a sentence of death was placed against me there when I fled for refuge to Yclau, thus breaking my oath of loyalty as the King's Torturer."

o—o—o

His mother had been a gentle-born Yclau woman who had held the misfortune to live in west Yclau during the years when Vovimian raiders spilled over the border most frequently. She was nineteen when the spoilers took her town, killing the inhabitants and bringing back with them the riches of the town: coins and jewels and young women.

She was luckier than most. Her rapist did not share her with the other soldiers, and when a truce was called the following year, he did not abandon her in the wasteland of the battlefield but instead took her home with him, going so far as to install her in a small cottage he owned near his house. He visited her there at intervals, until he died from lingering wounds in the fourth year of the truce.

The soldier's widow promptly threw the young Yclau woman out of the cottage, leaving her with barely the clothes on her back. Many miles of foot travel lay between that town in east Vovim to the Yclau village she had come from, and the young woman had no kin left to welcome her home. Apparently, though, she gave no thought to returning to Yclau, for by that time she had given birth to a mixed-blood child.

The boy soon lost all memory of his father. Thanks to his mother, he spoke flawless Yclau, but thanks in part to his father, he spoke equally flawless Vovimian. He grew up thinking of himself as Vovimian while he played among the children of his east Vovimian town, acquiring their ways of thought.

When he was ten his mother died, worn down by the struggle of working to keep herself and her son alive. Her last words were instructions to her son on how to reach the Yclau border safely, but he paid no heed. Instead, he took the path that many Vovimian orphans did: he joined a band of street children.

The children kept themselves alive through petty thefts. Their newest recruit impressed them early on with his daring and resolution in such raids. But the time came – perhaps inevitably – when he and the other members of the band quarrelled over how severe their measures should be in conducting the thefts. He was thrown out of the band at age twelve and forced to make his own way in the world until, three years later, one of the King's Torturers took interest in him and decided to make the boy his apprentice.