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Tops and Sops (Rebirth #6)

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

Over the past few decades, historians have gradually become aware of the danger of treating as solid fact any statement produced by an elite group of writers. A typical example of this problem arises in research done on the Thousand Years' War between Yclau and Vovim. Most of the writings that have survived come from soldiers of Yclau, who paint a picture of the Yclau people acting with charity and graciousness toward the prisoners they took during that war. There seems little doubt that the Yclau soldiers who expressed this sentiment were sincere in their belief that they showed compassion toward a vicious and ungrateful enemy.

Yet because of the length of the war and the consequent volume of material surviving from it, a few narratives by the primarily illiterate Vovimian soldiers have survived, and these soldiers paint a very different picture, speaking of the abuse they underwent at Yclau hands.

Some historians, citing such examples, claim that elite writings should never be trusted, and that when only the elite provide accounts of what happened, the truth will be forever lost to history. This seems a simplification of a more complex historical rule, which is that all writers, both elite and commoner, provide accounts written from their own narrow perspective, so that the truth must be pieced together patiently by the historian, who in turn must be aware of his own biases.

One of the great regrets of every historian studying the Golden Age of the Eternal Dungeon is that no "commoner" accounts have survived from that period. Every surviving writing from that time comes from the "elite," the men and women who ran the dungeon, including former prisoners who joined the elite. In no case do we have accounts from the commoners, the prisoners who were not offered the opportunity to help run the dungeon. Most of the Eternal Dungeon's prisoners were executed, while the few that were found innocent of their crimes and released into the "lighted world" were evidently so shaken by their experiences in the dungeon that they did not commit their memories to paper.

This being the case, historians must treat with skepticism the idealistic words recorded by long-term residents of the Eternal Dungeon, such as the Seekers. It seems likely that many of the prisoners had a very different perspective on how those ideals were put into practice.

It is sobering for historians to realize how many tales by prisoners will never be known. For example, a ledger has survived from the period of Layle Smith's High Seekership which contains a list that continues for many pages. The list consists of thousands of names . . .

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
 

CHAPTER ONE

There's only one thing I despise more than sops, and that's tops.

Sops are bad enough. I've had to work with too many of them; they go around talking about flowers and beautiful light and how nice the world would be if everybody was kind to each other. Meanwhile, I'm lugging a fifty-pound barrow of rocks and thinking to myself that the world would be better off if midwives examined every baby at birth and killed the ones who are sops. After all, we swat annoying flies.

Tops are worse, there's no doubt of that. While the sops are singing on about joy and love, the top is screaming in your ear that you'd better move your bloody bum faster or he'll smash your face in. He means it too. I think I was about eight when I realized that the world is one giant prison with us bottoms as the prisoners, and the tops as our guards and torturers. Seemed obvious to me that the only thing to do was for the bottoms to make a well-planned attack on the tops and tumble their bodies into the midden where they deserve to lie. By the time I was twenty, though, I'd given up on convincing anyone else of this obvious fact, and there's no point in trying to run a revolution on your own. That only gets you into trouble.

It's a pity I didn't remember that on the night I put a dagger into Mendel's chest.

Mendel was one of the "guards," by which I mean that he was a bloke who could have lived his life as a bottom, but instead chose to help the tops keep the rest of us imprisoned. A bloodsucking leech, in other words, and this one sure sucked the blood out of all of us at the quarry. I could put up with it where I was concerned – I've put up with a lot in my day – but when he beat bloody some poor boy who stumbled and dropped his load, that was too much. If there's one conviction I hold in life – aye, I do have a conviction, despite popular belief – it's that you have to look out for your mates. That's what gets me about the tops: they don't care about people, just about getting business done. I expect that Mendel would have sold his best mate if he'd thought the profits would help the quarry.

At any rate, I explain all this so that you can understand why, on the night they brought me to the Eternal Dungeon, I wasn't exactly filled with joy when I caught sight of two hooded men leaning over a table, in soft conversation with each other.

I knew what they were, of course. Every child in our queendom is brought up on stories of the faceless Seekers, the head tops of the Eternal Dungeon. Torturers of highest skill, they're said to be, who will crush a prisoner to dust and then trample on the dust while cheerfully singing.

Mothers will say anything to get their kids to shut up. I'd taken the trouble to ascertain the truth about the Seekers myself, during the three weeks I'd been at Alleyway Prison. There was a guard there who'd worked at the Eternal Dungeon in some exalted position like latrine scraper, and he'd heard information he shouldn't have heard, which he was quite eager to share with any prisoner who showed an interest. Not only a top, but a top who was a sop – bloody blades, I seem to spend my life surrounded by such people.

Anyway, what he'd told me was encouraging, but I wasn't prepared to discount the scare-tales of my childhood. If nothing else, I could see before me a ceiling-high slate tablet covered with prisoners' names, and a goodly number of those names were crossed out. I knew what that meant.

The first Seeker who looked up from the conversation – it's hard to tell these hooded men apart, but this one had green eyes – looked at me in such a glacial manner that I was prepared for a moment to believe every story I'd ever heard about the Eternal Dungeon, including the one about how Seekers hold parties when they're racking prisoners.

Then the second Seeker looked up, and my doubts vanished. I don't know why. There wasn't much to see within the hood's eye-holes – just an ordinary pair of blue eyes, looking at me steadily. I had a puppy once who used to look at me that way. It wasn't so much the Seeker's eyes as the way he held himself that alerted me to the fact that this was a different sort of man than the green-eyed Seeker. There was a certain reserve, a bit of hesitancy – it's hard to describe, but I've met enough tops to know which ones can be pushed and which can't. This was a top who could be pushed.

All the while I was thinking this, a conversation was going on between my guards and a little bald man sitting at the desk that the Seekers were standing next to. I didn't pay him any mind; I could tell at a glance that he was another of those bottoms who had become a bloodsucker. After a while, the bald man turned his head and said something to the green-eyed Seeker, who didn't reply. He simply shifted his gaze toward the other Seeker.

There was a moment's pause as the second Seeker flicked a glance my way. Then he said to the green-eyed Seeker, "Certainly, sir. I'd be glad to take care of this prisoner."

Sweet blood, they were making babies into Seekers. I might not have been able to see the youth's face, but there was no mistaking the nature of his voice: he must have been a good twenty years younger than me. This was going to be the easiest escape in the history of the Eternal Dungeon. Stranger though I am to soppish sentiments, I felt a momentary sensation of floating.

Then they put a hood over my head. I'm not sure who "they" were; it wasn't my original guards, who would have known better. Naturally, I let out a yell that must have deafened anyone standing too close, and I butted my head into the stomach of the man who'd put the hood on me. Aimed well, too; I heard his grunt of pain. I tried kicking to see whether that would do any good. My arms were useless, since they'd been bound, but I figured that, if the hangman was anywhere near, I had a good chance at crippling his legs and delaying the execution.

I got a whiplash across the back for my troubles; that told me that at least some of the stories about the Eternal Dungeon were true. It took my breath away for a minute. While I was recovering, I heard a voice say, "Please calm yourself, sir. No one is trying to harm you; we are simply preparing you for your journey to your cell. The hood will be removed once you're there."

It was the youth, of course; nobody else in that room would have made such a pretty speech to a fractious prisoner. For a moment I was filled only with sourness of spirit. Courteous tops affect me that way – they'll say "please" and "thank you" and then bring a staff down on your head if you're working too slow. I prefer a top like Mendel who doesn't hide his cruelty behind laces and bows.

Still, it didn't take me long to realize that this could be an advantage to me. After all, my plan required that I have a Seeker who was willing to listen to me, and this one evidently was the listening sort. I let the dungeon guards take hold of me – I could identify the one whose stomach I'd butted, because his grip on me was unnecessarily tight – and then I was marched out of the room.

I didn't hear my original guards say anything friendly like, "Good luck." They were probably hoping I'd be put on the rack my first day.

Well, the dungeon guards put me in a big, bare cell whose only concession to comfort was the chamber-pot in the corner. I've lived in worse. At least this place seemed tightly enough sealed that the rats wouldn't run over me at night. The cell was well lit and warm too; I had no complaints. Not that it would have made any difference if I had.

After the guards left – once they'd removed my bonds and hood, I'd seen there were two of them – I took a few minutes to ascertain that the only way out of the cell was through the door by which I'd entered. I didn't much care for the idea of exiting in that manner. I could guess that the guards were waiting outside, and I'd had a look at the guard whose stomach I'd butted; he was a big, burly, unsmiling man. I guessed that I was lucky to have gotten away with no more than a single lash.

No, my best hope for escape lay with the youth who had foolishly taken me on as a challenge. I lay down on the bed-shelf (it even had a pillow and mattress and blankets; the guards at Alleyway Prison would have called this place soft) and awaited my rescuer.

When he came, he entered the cell so unobtrusively that I didn't even notice that the door had opened and closed. He didn't throw anything at me or shout, simply waited for me to take notice of him. Then he said, "Good evening, Mr. Little. I'm Mr. Taylor, your Seeker. I trust that your back is feeling well?"

He spoke in a cool voice; I guessed that he was trying to imitate someone, probably another Seeker he admired. I decided it was time to see how far this youngling could be pushed. I continued to lie where I was, propped up on one elbow, and grinned at him, saying, "My back's fine. My boots need cleaning, though. Good thing you're here."

He stiffened, which told me a lot. A sheltered youth, probably brought up by some namby-pamby top who shielded him from the harsh realities of the world. If the youth's father beat his bottoms, he wouldn't tell the youth, so the youth lived with the illusion that the world was soft and sweet. A sop, in other words. Well, it hardly needed that to make me despise this Seeker.

"Mr. Little," he said, in that same cool manner that told me he was continuing to imitate whichever Seeker he hero-worshipped, "I'm sorry that I failed to make clear to you the rules under which I will be conducting your searching. One of these rules is that you and I must treat each other with mutual courtesy: you must stand in my presence and address me as Mr. Taylor or sir . . ."

I'd heard enough. I could guess just how far the "mutual" part of that courtesy went; I'd be expected to grovel and fawn, while the youth would act the part of the top. "Oh, lick my boots," I growled. "Or better yet, go lick the boots of that green-eyed Seeker."

He stiffened again. I seemed to be doing well with my assaults today. I wondered whether anyone else knew that he worshipped the green-eyed Seeker, or whether I'd just uncovered his utmost secret.

I waited for him to reply with more flowery speeches, but he didn't say anything. Instead he went to the door, knocked on it, and spoke briefly to one of the guards there. A moment later, both guards entered the cell. The burly one was taking the whip from his belt and unwinding it.

I didn't like the looks of this. I took a sharp glance at the door, but the second guard had locked it behind him, and I guessed that I wouldn't be able to wrest the key from either of the guards. I already knew, from the fact that the youth had knocked at the door, that he possessed no key. A wise precaution, that – I could have stolen the key from this baby in the space of a single water-drop. But that left me with no option but to strip myself of my shirt, as the youth quietly instructed me to do.

I'll spare you the details of what followed. The youth described it as "twenty medium lashes" – I don't know about the "medium" part, but it was certainly twenty lashes. It was hardly the worst beating I've had in my time, even though the burly guard put all his pleasure into it, so much so that the youth interrupted at one point to caution the guard to go lighter. There are advantages to having a sop as your Seeker.

By the end, though, I'd concluded that this one wasn't quite as much of a sop as I'd thought. Mind you, he followed up the beating by giving me a little speech about "this regretful incident" and "trust it won't be necessary again," and all the polite sentiments put forward by tops who are vaguely aware they're vile monsters. But he didn't say that he was sorry or look in the least bit disconcerted by the yells of agony I took care to emit. I concluded that he'd had a little more experience than I'd thought. Maybe he'd seen his father's bottoms being beaten after all.

Thankfully, he kept his speech short; I've met tops who will force you to stand for an hour or more after they've taken their belt to you. This one left the cell after a few minutes, saying that he'd visit again the next day. The guards followed after him, though the burly one paused at the door to gloat at my wounds. He did it silently; I'd guessed already that the Seekers had their guards well controlled.

No doubt they wanted to reserve the fun of torture for themselves.

o—o—o

By the time my Seeker arrived the next day, I was ready for him. Having learned how far I could push the youth – by the nasty experience of having pushed him too far – I was eager to put my plan into action. So I retreated a bit. I didn't act like I'd repented, which would have ruined my scheme, but I acted as though I had been cowed into cooperating at least a bit.

He bought it, of course. I got to listen to him give another flowery speech about my rights as a prisoner – I didn't pay much attention to it, except for the part about how the guards could only punish me upon his orders. Then we got down to serious business.

I'll say this for the youth: he was well trained. He didn't make any attempt to ask me questions about the murder. Instead he asked me a lot of nosy questions about my childhood and my mates and my work. Since it didn't seem to matter what I said – I think he would have been happy if I'd recited the names of the border rivers – I kept myself from falling asleep with boredom by telling him what conditions were like at the quarry. I needed to do this anyway, of course, to establish the number of people who had motives to kill Mendel, and I was especially careful to invent motives for Deems, a foul worm who claimed to be a bottom but was always running to the tops to tell them of mistakes the rest of us had made.

Slandering Deems was pleasureful fun, of course, but I was surprised at how much enjoyment I received from reciting the ill deeds of Mendel and describing the results of that stink-pile's maliciousness upon our work conditions. Even when I killed him, I hadn't known I hated him that much.

When I was through, the youth said, "It sounds as though Mendel was a vicious man."

I waited, but he said nothing more. No "But he was probably a good man at heart." No "Even the evil deserve to live." No "It doesn't matter how badly he treated you; he deserved your respect." I was beginning to find this youth a bit disconcerting.

I decided to take a detour from the path I'd been forging. "Some of my mates were saying that, in a just world, Mendel's murderer would be rewarded for getting rid of such loathsomeness."

His reply was quiet. "The wicked receive praise while the innocent suffer. That's the way of the world."

I stared at him for a moment, but there was no mistaking the sincerity in his voice. I was obviously going to have to reassess the unworldliness of this youth.

"So you agree with my mates that Mendel should have been murdered?" I said.

"It seems to me," he said slowly, "that your friends are looking at the matter from the wrong side round. The question isn't whether the evil men of this world should receive punishment. The question is what happens to the hearts of men who decide to inflict such punishment on their own, in time of anger. It's quite possible, you know, to become as evil as the wickedness you're punishing."

I should have expected such twisted logic from a top; they can make the beating of a small child sound sensible. I shrugged and said, "Maybe. I'll have to think about that."

I gave it two more days. I figured that was long enough to pretend that I'd been eaten away with guilt by the youth's words. On the second day, when I heard him opening the cell door, I began emitting groans and wrapped myself into a ball. I didn't dare try crying; I wasn't that good at this game.

"I did it," I said when he'd made the proper enquiries. "I persuaded Deems to kill Mendel. I thought at the time I was doing the right thing, but . . . Oh, Mr. Taylor, you were right. Everything that was evil in Mendel I've become."

The youth didn't reply immediately. That bloody hood of his made it difficult for me to tell how my confession was going over with him; he just looked at me steadily with those puppy eyes. Then he said, "I'm glad most prisoners aren't as good at acting as you are."

I didn't do anything stupid like suck in my breath. I looked at him in a vague manner, as though not taking in what he was saying.

He sighed and gestured for me to rise. I decided not to take the chance that he'd call the guards back in. Unwinding myself from a ball, I stood against the wall, hunching myself as though from shame.

He sighed again and said, "You've been instructed by someone. A former worker of the Eternal Dungeon, or a prisoner who was allowed to go free. Your instructor told you that you should confess to a crime – preferably a lesser crime than you'd actually committed – and that you should express repentance. He said that, if you did this, your Seeker would do all he could to get any death sentence you might be given commuted to eternal confinement within the dungeon. Your instructor further told you that this 'confinement' would simply mean that you could not leave the Eternal Dungeon. You would be permitted to work here at any job you were suited for, in the same manner as though you lived in the lighted world."

Well, the youth was no fool; I'd already guessed that. That didn't make it any more pleasant for me to learn how intelligent he was. I tried again. "Is that true?" I said, letting my face transform into hope. "Is it possible I can receive mercy for my terrible crime?"

I must have gone a bit over the peak, for something in the youth's eyes ceased to look like the puppy I'd owned and began to look more like the vicious hound next door, who tore my leg to pieces when I was ten. He turned and went to the cell door.

I sighed and began peeling off my shirt. When the youth returned with the guards, his voice was cool, which I found even more disconcerting than the change in his eyes. I didn't think the coolness was due to imitation this time.

"You're a good actor," he said. "Unfortunately, your timing was off. I've been broken; I know that transformation of character doesn't occur that quickly. Would that it did."

Then his voice went as glacial as the green-eyed Seeker's look. "Sixty hard lashes," he said. "And the next time this happens, I'll put you on the rack. Do you understand me, Mr. Little?"

I understood him all right. He was a man like Mendel, posing as a sop. Those are the most dangerous sort.