The year 357, the ninth month. (The year 1880 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
If one were to believe the popular ballads sung about the High Seeker, he spent the first thirty-six years of his life dealing death and destruction at every hand, reached the peak of his infamy by entering into madness (at which time, according to some of the more bizarre ballads, he proceeded to slaughter all the prisoners under his care in the Eternal Dungeon), and then, overnight, turned into a sane and happy man, spending the remainder of his life in unbroken peace.
Of course, the truth is far more complex. For all of his recorded life, Layle Smith struggled with mental illness, and just nine months after he emerged from a brief spell of utter madness, he once again found that the future of his sanity was in question.
We have more information about this second brush with madness than we do about the first. We know that its direct cause was the arrival of the first female Seeker at the Eternal Dungeon, an arrival that apparently broke the High Seeker's painfully regained mental strength and plunged him back into danger of losing his mind.
The true tale of the Eternal Dungeon, unlike the ballads written about that place, is full of unexpected twists and turns. For it was at this juncture in the history of Yclau's dungeon that a fateful meeting occurred which would change the future of the queendom of Yclau. . . .
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
The office had a waterfall. That was what most visitors found striking about the Codifier's office: it had a natural waterfall that ran down the far side of the room, collected in a pool that reflected the stalactites hanging from the ceiling like dragons' teeth, and then disappeared down some hidden hole in its depths. If you looked carefully, you could see tiny, transparent creatures swimming in the water – creatures that had lived in the underground cave for so long that they had lost all color. How they were able to see to know where to swim, no one who visited the Codifier's office had been able to figure out, for their eyes, if any, were hidden. "Hooded Seekers" they had been tagged long ago.
So most visitors were struck by the waterfall. Weldon Chapman was not. He was struck by the presence of the door.
He tried not to stare too hard at it. Most visitors to this room never guessed what it was: it looked like the door to a great bank vault, and it operated much like one, opening by means of mechanics. It was virtually the only piece of machinery, other than the racks, that was housed in the damp Eternal Dungeon, and it was a miracle that it had not rusted long ago. Yet it continued to work, and Weldon, despite himself, found his eyes drifting over to the ceiling-high water-clock in the corner of the room, which marked the hours between dawn and dusk.
Then he forced his gaze away from this as well. The doorways that led to this room were nearly as heavily guarded as the main exit from the dungeon; Weldon had passed through two sets of guards to reach here. Even so, at this time of day the office would usually be deserted but for its owner and his trusted secretary in the adjoining room. That three other men were permitted to sit here now was a measure of the Codifier's trust in them.
The presence of the eldest man was perhaps not a sign of trust but simply an acknowledgment that he, unlike the other two guests in the room, was permitted to walk through that door. His hair was greying, and he had mutton-chop whiskers, the traditional appearance of a healer. At the moment, he was frowning.
"'When will he be well?'" he repeated in a loud voice. "Bloody blades, man, shouldn't you be asking me whether he will be well?"
Weldon glanced at the Codifier. Had he received this response from any other member of the dungeon, however exalted in title, the Codifier would have promptly melted that person with a fierceness as heated as the dragon he was rumored to have once been. It seemed, however, that he accepted a healer's right to be eccentric. The Codifier's hands remained folded calmly on his desk as he said in a voice so mild that it was almost hid by the harsh whisper of the waterfall, "Will he get well, then?"
"Ask the fates!" shot back Mr. Bergsen, the dungeon's healer. "They have a better idea than I do. In all my lifetime, I've never dealt with a case this bad."
Weldon threw a worried look at the youngest guest in the room, who was staring at the water rushing its way down the wall. It was a sign of great trust that the Codifier would permit this young man to sit in this room at this time of day. Weldon doubted, though, that Elsdon Taylor had given any thought to the honor, and that in itself explained why the junior Seeker was permitted here. His mind and his heart were so manifestly bound to one person in the Eternal Dungeon that there was no chance he was even contemplating the possibilities inherent in that door.
Elsdon appeared not to have heard the healer's words. He continued to stare blankly at the waterfall.
"It would help," the Codifier suggested with just the barest hint of a dragon biting down on its meal, "if you could provide more details on the illness. Is it the same as last time?"
Mr. Bergsen shook his head. He looked angry, as any healer might be who was faced with an illness he could not cure. "The dreamings are different this time. They are all of women. We know the reason for that." He turned his face toward Weldon, his brows drawn low over his eyes.
Weldon forced himself to relax. Unlike the furious whispers he had heard amongst other dungeon inhabitants during the past six weeks, the healer's words were not an accusation; they were simply the recital of a fact known by everyone in this office. Weldon found himself thankful, though, that the dungeon's newest Seeker-in-Training had not been invited to this meeting.
"All of women," Mr. Bergsen went on. "Women being raped, or mutilated, or screaming from hooks in the ceiling – do you really want me to detail the various ways that the High Seeker has contemplated destroying women in his dreamings?"
"That will not be necessary." The Codifier's voice was brisk and businesslike, though Weldon had seen Elsdon grow tense. Perhaps he was listening after all. Or perhaps he was simply contemplating the situation.
"And his dreamings are taking over his mind, as they did last year?" the Codifier persisted.
Mr. Bergsen shook his head. "No, the High Seeker has managed to keep them at bay this time. During the daytime, at least; no man can control what his mind does at night."
The Codifier raised one thin, sand-colored eyebrow. "Then I fail to see the problem."
Mr. Bergsen looked as though he were a coal-gas balloon that had inflated too much and was in danger of bursting. "The problem? The problem? The problem, Mr. Daniels, is that it is taking every last ounce of the High Seeker's strength to push back the dreamings. He has no energy left to do the simplest tasks, whether that task be to pick up a chamber-pot or to walk across the room. He would starve to death if he didn't have others to feed him!"
The Codifier accepted this news without change of expression. He switched his gaze to the third guest in the office: the man in charge of the inner dungeon's day shift, a Seeker whose seniority was second only to the High Seeker's. "You have been helping care for the High Seeker, Mr. Chapman," he said. "Is this your assessment of the situation as well?"
"It is hard for me to tell, sir," Weldon replied. "Mr. Smith has not been able to make himself understood to anyone other than Mr. Taylor for a fortnight now. He has stopped even trying to speak to the rest of us during the past two days."
The office was silent, and Weldon wondered whether the others were thinking what he was: that the last time the High Seeker had ceased to speak, it had been a sign that he was about to be pulled into utter madness.
"Has the High Seeker said anything that it would be useful for me to know, Mr. Taylor? . . . Mr. Taylor?"
The dragon's teeth bit, with a change in the Codifier's tone. It was clear enough a warning to bring Elsdon back into awareness, but the junior Seeker barely seemed to see the Codifier as he turned his head. "Sir, please," he said. "I ought not to be here – the High Seeker may need me . . ."
He was already halfway out of his seat. Weldon stared at him, his jaw slack. It was like watching a mouse scurry over the whiskers of a carnivore. The Codifier opened his mouth, and fire emerged. "Mr. Taylor! You will seat yourself!"
Even the healer winced. Elsdon, singed, sank slowly back into his seat, but there was a stubborn look in his eyes that did not bode well for his future. Weldon remembered the rumors he had heard, during his year as a dungeon guard, that some men entered the Codifier's office and were never seen again. It was popularly thought that the Hooded Seeker Fish ate what remained of their corpses.
The Codifier waited a moment to see whether Elsdon would make any further protest. Then he said in his usual composed voice, "Mr. Chapman, I trust that the High Seeker is being cared for at this moment?"
"His senior night guard is watching over him," Weldon replied. "Mr. Sobel has helped to care for Mr. Smith on occasion in the past, when both Mr. Taylor and I were busy."
"But never when the High Seeker was so ill! Please, sir . . ."
Elsdon's body had the tension of a prisoner who has taken one look at the rack and is desperately seeking the swiftest escape. The Codifier said imperturbably, "If the Eternal Dungeon is to continue to function – and continue to assist its prisoners – then I must have the information that will allow me to make the right decisions about Mr. Smith's future in this dungeon. Kindly remember your oath, Mr. Taylor."
This silenced the junior Seeker, as nothing else could have done. He settled fully back into the chair, his hands gripping the arm-rests so tightly that his knuckles turned white. Even with the cloth of his hood covering his face, it could be seen that his expression was one of misery.
After a minute in which the Codifier gave him a pointed look, Elsdon seemed to remember that he had been asked a question, for he said wearily, "No, he . . . he is concerned about the dungeon, of course. That is what he speaks of most of all – his concern that he has once again abandoned his duties. It's no use trying to make him think about his own health; he won't center his thoughts on himself. So instead I've been trying to make him think about . . . us. Him and me."
"You're perfectly right," said Mr. Bergsen gruffly. "Make him remember his love-bond with you, and that will keep him from losing touch with this world."
The Codifier picked up a pen, rolled it between his fingers for a moment, and said, with the finality of a magistrate about to pass judgment, "Do you have anything else you wish to add, Mr. Taylor?"
Elsdon looked as though he would have liked to speak, but he said nothing. Weldon felt pity enter himself as he watched the High Seeker's love-mate. It must be like waiting to see whether your loved one would be hanged. If the Codifier ruled that the High Seeker's renewed illness and long absence from searching prisoners was grounds to remove him from his work as a Seeker . . . Every man in this room knew that it would be a sentence of death to take that from Layle Smith. Yet, as always, the best interests of the prisoners came first. And the Codifier was the man who, in the end, must decide what was in their interests. He was the prisoners' advocate.
Weldon looked over at Mr. Bergsen. A word or two from the healer that Layle showed signs of reaching the end of his illness would be all the Codifier needed to delay making a decision. But the healer glared at the fish in the pool at his feet.
The room was silent but for the rushing of water in the fall. Even the soft, steady drops of the water clock could not be heard over the fall's plunging progress.
Then Weldon heard a clank, followed by a rapid series of clicks and a groan of metal. He turned his head, his breath pressing against the back of his throat. The locking mechanism of the door, having sensed the arrival of dusk, had acted accordingly, and the mighty door was swinging open to the lighted world.
He could not tear his eyes from the scene that opened to him, though the approaching night cast grey shadows over the small portion of the world that could be seen from his seat. The mouth of the cave opened out to woodland at the foot of the cavernous mount on which the Queen's palace was housed. Though the fenced park ended not far from here, giving way to crowded city streets, he thought he could catch sight of a few brown leaves on the ground that betokened autumn. Weldon had forgotten that it was autumn. He marked his reports each day with the date, but he had forgotten that autumn meant falling leaves. He wondered what else he had forgotten about the lighted world.
Despite the magnetic pull of the outdoors scene, he found himself glancing at the others in the office. Mr. Bergsen, who lived in the Eternal Dungeon but visited the lighted world periodically, seemed unmoved by the display before him. He had taken out his notes on Layle Smith's case and was thumbing through them, as though he might find the path to Layle's sanity there. What was more surprising was that Elsdon was not looking at the view. True, he had been confined within the Eternal Dungeon for only two years, but he was twenty, at an age when such confinement cut most keenly. Yet he seemed indifferent to the spectacle before him; he had returned to contemplating the waterfall.
The Codifier put down his pen and stood up. He walked to the cave mouth. He placed his hand on the great, yard-thick door, which was so beautifully balanced on its hinges that it swung in either direction at a man's touch. Weldon held his breath, waiting to see what words the Codifier would speak before he stepped through that doorway and returned home for his night's rest.
But Mr. Daniels simply pushed the door shut. Long ago, Weldon knew, this had been the only entrance to and from the Eternal Dungeon. Though two other entrances had been cut to the cave since then, Weldon felt as though he were witnessing the end of his final chance to re-enter the lighted world.
Except that he had never planned to walk through that door. That was why he was trusted enough to sit here. That was why any Seeker might be permitted to sit here at this time of day, though no other prisoner could be trusted that far.
The Codifier did not close the door completely; he left it ajar and returned to his seat. If he was aware that the sight of the cracked door behind him was maddeningly enticing, he gave no sign of it as he looked over at Weldon. "Mr. Chapman," he said, "do you have anything to add?"
"I have a message from my Seeker-in-Training, sir," Weldon replied. "Mistress Birdesmond asked me to let you know that she is willing to take leave from her training and live in the outer dungeon for a space of time if that would be of help to the High Seeker."
Mr. Bergsen growled in his throat, though whether with approval or disapproval was not clear. Elsdon showed slight signs of being aware of his surroundings again.
"Yes," said the Codifier, pulling a piece of paper in front of him. "I have received a letter concerning that subject from Mistress Birdesmond. She assures me that she accepts the healer's assessment that she is in no danger from Mr. Smith. However, in light of the importance of the High Seeker's health to this dungeon, she has offered to abort her training as a Seeker and return to the lighted world."
Elsdon's head snapped round; Mr. Bergsen leaned forward in his seat. Weldon, feeling as though a prisoner had just brought the heavy stone of a sleeping bench down upon his head, started to speak, and then bit his lip.
It was Elsdon who broke the silence, saying, "Mr. Daniels, I do not believe that would assist the High Seeker. He is already crushed by guilt at the trouble his illness has brought to the Eternal Dungeon. If he learned that a new Seeker had left before taking her oath, simply because of his illness, then that news might be the lash that destroyed his mind."
The Codifier nodded. "In any case, I believe that it would set a poor precedent to allow the health of one Seeker to determine whether another Seeker was permitted to finish her training. Mr. Chapman, the training is proceeding well?"
"I am not the most unbiased observer, sir," Weldon said slowly, "but Mr. Smith, before this latest phase of the illness took hold of him, seemed pleased by Mistress Birdesmond's progress. He said he saw no reason why she should not complete her training."
"And leaving aside the situation with Mr. Smith's illness, Mistress Birdesmond still wishes to make her oath of eternal confinement at the end of her training period?"
"She is fully committed, sir," Weldon replied firmly.
"Hmm." The Codifier tapped his pen upon the side of his inkwell for a minute, staring down at the papers in front of him. Elsdon stirred in his seat and looked toward the door – not the yard-thick door, still tantalizingly ajar, but the door leading back to the inner dungeon and to the High Seeker's cell.
"Mr. Chapman," said the Codifier with such abruptness that everyone in the room could be heard catching their breaths. "At the time that Mistress Birdesmond began her training, she and you requested my ruling on whether Seekers might be permitted to marry one another."
Weldon had the amusement, then, of seeing Elsdon's body jerk with shock, in such a manner as Weldon had not seen the young man react since his earliest months in the dungeon. The healer looked unsurprised. Weldon and Birdesmond had already consulted him concerning certain matters to which he alone could provide the answers.
Weldon cleared his throat, which had suddenly become clogged. "Yes, sir. You said that you would need to consult with the Queen and with the High Seeker to determine whether such an action was acceptable under the Code of Seeking."
Still tapping his pen, the Codifier nodded. "I have since spoken with the Queen, and while I did not have the opportunity to speak to Mr. Smith about this before his present illness, on the day before he took leave from his supervisory duties he sent me the research notes he had prepared back in the days when he revised the Code of Seeking, giving his reasons for permitting Seekers to form love-bonds with one another. I doubt that was a coincidence." The Codifier's voice turned dry.
Weldon could see from the look in Elsdon's eyes that the junior Seeker was smiling under his hood. It was well known that the only person in the Eternal Dungeon who was more keen-eyed than the Codifier was the High Seeker. Weldon, now feeling as though the entire dungeon had walked in on him while he was kissing Birdesmond, cleared his throat again and asked, "Have you made your decision, sir?"
"The Queen and I are in firm agreement that it would be inappropriate for Mistress Birdesmond to become your love-mate." The Codifier's voice was flat. "We have always discouraged love-bonds between male and female workers in the outer dungeon, believing that such informal agreements do not provide a firm enough framework for a family, should children be conceived. However," he added as Weldon opened his mouth, "we see no such objections to a marriage. We have certain concerns that will need to be addressed, but the Queen agrees with me that the principles of the Code permit Seekers to marry one another."
Weldon felt as weak as a newborn lamb. Before he could gather his wits to thank the Codifier, Mr. Daniels asked, "And if you should have children?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Weldon saw that Mr. Bergsen was now rummaging through his work-bag, inspecting the instruments there. This was wise; the healer's face always revealed too much. Grateful that his hood hid his own naked expression, Weldon replied, "Only the fates can say whether we will have a family, sir."
"I am aware of that fact, Mr. Chapman." Suddenly the dragon's teeth were there again, shown in warning. "What I wish to know is what steps Mistress Birdesmond plans to take if she should find herself with child. Will she give suck to the infant while she is searching her prisoners?"
Elsdon did not smile this time; Weldon was grateful for that. He himself was slow to anger, a characteristic that aided him in his work with sarcastic prisoners, but he could feel the low burn of his temper. He and Birdesmond had known that she, as the first female Seeker, would bear the brunt of the ridicule that would inevitably be directed toward the first married Seekers. He had hoped, however, that this ridicule would not come from those who were in a position of authority over her.
"No, sir," replied Weldon curtly. "Mistress Birdesmond recognizes that her oath as a Seeker will require her to place the best interests of the prisoners first. She does not believe that it would be in the best interests of the prisoners for her to search them while she is with child, or before the child is weaned. Therefore, she will request healing leave during that period."
There was a deathlike silence. Weldon added, somewhat desperately, "I realize that such extended leave has little precedent—"
The Codifier seemed to have lost interest in what he was saying. He switched his gaze away and said, "Mr. Taylor?"
Turning his head, Weldon saw, with a certain ruefulness, that the junior Seeker already knew what question was on the Codifier's mind, and was musing upon it.
His consideration was brief. "Yes, sir. Since Mistress Birdesmond would have taken this step in any case, I'm sure that the High Seeker would have no objections."
"Good." The Codifier carefully laid his pen down onto the table. "Mr. Chapman, you may tell Mistress Birdesmond that I approve her earlier request for leave from her training. I will ask the Record-keeper to reassign her to a cell in the outer dungeon. Once that is done, and the appropriate rites have taken place, you are welcome to move into that cell."
Weldon realized he was gaping like one of the Hooded Seeker Fish, and he shut his mouth. Elsdon's eyes were smiling again, while the healer was openly grinning. Finally Weldon said weakly, "But sir, she has not yet made her oath."
The Codifier nodded. He was now straightening the pile of papers on his desk that required no straightening. "Under ordinary circumstances, I would require that Mistress Birdesmond have already completed her training and given her oath, but the circumstances are unusual. In all other respects, however, regulations will be abided by. Because of your seniority, you may receive three months' leave to honor your wedding, and I will grant your new wife the same amount of leave. And I would like to suggest, Mr. Chapman," the Codifier said, leaning over his desk, "that it would be extremely convenient for this dungeon if, by the end of that time, Mistress Birdesmond should find herself with child."
In the silence that followed, Weldon could hear the low whistle of wind through the open doorway. He cleared his throat before saying, "Mistress Birdesmond and I will do our best, sir."
The healer looked quickly away again, but there was a flicker in Elsdon's eyes, and Weldon realized, with a clenching of his heart, that the junior Seeker had guessed certain facts that Weldon and Birdesmond had agreed they ought not to share with the world.
Then he reminded himself that any secrets of his that Elsdon Taylor held were as tightly locked behind the junior Seeker's lips as the Eternal Dungeon's prisoners were in their cells. Weldon took a deep breath to settle himself as the Codifier opened a drawer to place his pen inside.
"Very well," Mr. Daniels said. "I will inform the Queen that a delay should be made on deciding Mr. Smith's future until it can be determined whether this change has a positive effect on his health."
Elsdon's sigh was audible. Weldon looked over at the healer, but his heart grew heavy as he saw the continued gravity on the healer's face. No guarantee of recovery, then, not even with Birdesmond gone from the inner dungeon.
The Codifier seemed to share Mr. Bergsen's assessment, for as he rose from his desk he said, "I must tell all of you that I take very seriously the fact that Mr. Smith has now been absent from his regular duties for a full year and shows no signs of ever being able to return to searching prisoners. This would be a serious enough matter if Mr. Smith were an ordinary Seeker, but this dungeon cannot continue to function without a High Seeker. I therefore regret to inform you that, if Mr. Smith does not show signs of improvement during the next few weeks, or at least signs that his condition has stabilized, I will have no choice but to advise the Queen that the High Seeker be relieved of his title and placed in retirement due to incurable illness."
Weldon could not bear to look at Elsdon to see what the junior Seeker's eyes held. Instead he rose to his feet, saying, "I'm sure your patience will be rewarded, sir."
"Hmm." The Codifier reached for the necktie hanging over a stalagmite nearby. Like the Seekers, he wore only a shirt and trousers while working – the Eternal Dungeon had developed its own distinctive uniform over the years, based upon the small amount of clothing that prisoners throughout the queendom of Yclau were permitted to wear. But unlike the Seekers, half of Mr. Daniels's time was spent in the lighted world, and now he proceeded to don the necktie, vest, coat, hat, and gloves that ordinary high-born men were burdened with.
Elsdon was already beginning to edge toward the door leading to the inner dungeon. The Codifier, confirming to himself that his vest-pocket watch had survived another day in the damp dungeon, said without looking up, "You may remain here for the present, Mr. Taylor. I will need to speak to Mr. Smith for the next half of an hour, to tell him of my decisions."
Elsdon, his hand already on the latch, said quickly, "I should be present, sir. You may not be able to understand Mr. Smith without my assistance."
"Our discussion must be private," the Codifier said, unmoved. "Mr. Smith and I have always found ways to make ourselves understood to one another."
He walked without hurry to the door, courteously holding it open so that Mr. Bergsen could pass through. The healer left, looking as unhappy as he had been when he arrived. The Codifier followed him out, but as he passed Elsdon, he slipped something out of his pocket and placed it in Elsdon's hand, accompanying it with a murmur. Elsdon made no reply to what had been said. Once more he had gone rigid, like a pup straining on its leash.
In the last minute before Mr. Daniels closed the door, he paused to look back. "Oh, Mr. Chapman," he said. "I will be leaving today by way of the entrance to the palace, since I must speak with the Queen about this matter. I would appreciate it if you would be so kind as to shut my doors when you leave."
He swept through the doorway. The guards outside, standing stiffly at alert with their weapons in readiness against any skilled prisoner who managed to escape this far, did not so much as glance at the two prisoners left in the Codifier's office as they slammed the door shut.
Weldon's gaze moved, as though wrenched unwillingly, to the great door at the back of the room. Presently he discovered that he was standing beside it. He touched the door, intending to push it shut, but instead he found himself pulling it open.
A soft breeze touched him, for the first time in thirteen years. The wind was cool, but no cooler than the cave, which maintained an autumnal temperature year-round. With the breeze came the smell of smoke from city chimneys, and the smell of earth, and the smell of leaves. He barely noticed any of this.
He had grown used to the blacks and greys and whites of the Eternal Dungeon, with the occasional somber olive or russet striking his eye like a bright banner. There were richer shades of color in the outer dungeon, where the workers from the lighted world lived, but it had been several years since Weldon had visited there; all of his friends lived in the inner dungeon. Even the Seekers' common room, though separated from most of the inner dungeon, was connected to the rest of the inner dungeon by a corridor that did not cross with any outer dungeon corridor.
Blacks and greys and whites. And before him was fire in the air, a song of brilliant golds and reds. The leaf-colors were undimmed by the dusk, for the door faced west, and the setting sun was sending its light straight through the trees of the royal park. The leaves flickered in the wind, like flames upon a log. His eyes were blind with color.
"Where's the frost?"
Weldon looked over at Elsdon, who had come to stand beside him. The junior Seeker's eyes were searching the leaf-strewn ground, as though seeking something that had been lost.
It took Weldon a moment to remember. It was not merely that his memory must go further back in time than Elsdon's; this scene stunned Weldon because he had never before seen it. Unlike the high-born young man beside him, Weldon had not grown up in a district with tree-lined avenues and cross-street parks. His memories were of cobblestone roads hugging houses made of dull slate, all of them grimy from the smoke of nearby manufactories.
There had been one year in his early childhood, though, when his mother had worked as a maid in the Parkside district, and he had accompanied her to work. "Not in the evening," he said finally. "The frost only comes in the morning, after the night has been cold."
"Oh." The disappointment was deep in Elsdon's voice. Weldon wondered what happy memories the junior Seeker connected with autumn frost. Schoolday memories, no doubt.
Weldon spent a minute more staring silently upon the picture of fire and song. Then he looked over at Elsdon, who gazed back silently. Without need for words, the two of them reached forward together and pushed the door shut.
The impact of the door's closure sent a boom through the room that caused the pool to shake and the sleeping fish to scatter. Within seconds, a series of metallic clicks could be heard – the bolts of the door, sliding into place until the internal timer should signal that the morning had begun. Weldon, staring at the door where the park had been, wondered whether he would ever see the lighted world again. He thought it unlikely. There had been talk, earlier in the year, of removing this anachronistic door and replacing it with a solid wall. The plans for construction had only been halted by the High Seeker's renewed illness.
Weldon turned away from the door. Elsdon was already staring at the other door, his fingers working against each other in a nervous fashion that he had not shown even during the most painful days of his training. Weldon glanced at the water-clock in the corner, but little time had passed since the Codifier had left.
Seeking to distract Elsdon from his worries, Weldon asked, "What is it that Mr. Daniels gave you? Or is it private?"
Elsdon gave himself a slight shake, and then forced his eyes away from the door to the inner dungeon. "A letter from the lighted world. Mr. Daniels told me that, if I should want to discuss the contents of it with him, he would be available to speak to me before he left this evening."
Weldon looked down at the letter. The envelope was hidden in the shadow of Elsdon's body; all that Weldon could see was that it was carefully bound with the twine still used by some of the older inhabitants of Yclau, who had not yet learned to trust such innovations as free-post deliverers.
"How the bloody blades did he know to say that?" asked Weldon. "He hasn't opened the letter."
Elsdon gave a slight laugh. "What difference would that make, to someone like the Codifier?" He glanced down at the letter, his face showing no interest. As he brought the envelope up into the lamplight, the address became clear: it was written in spotty ink, all in capitals, with a shaky hand. "Master Elsdon Taylor," it said. "The Eternal Dunjun."
"Do you know who that's from?" Weldon asked, his curiosity perked by the boyhood title on the envelope.
Elsdon had a faint smile in his eyes as he stared down at the twined letter. "My father's carriage-driver."
Weldon raised his eyebrows. Then, remembering that Elsdon could not easily see his expression, he raised the face-cloth of his hood. "Your father's carriage-driver writes to you here?"
Elsdon nodded as he pulled up the face-cloth of his own hood, first glancing at the door to the inner dungeon to ascertain that it was still closed. "When he heard that I'd been handed over to the Eternal Dungeon, he wrote a letter to the High Seeker, threatening to lash him with his carriage-whip if any Seeker so much as touched me."
Weldon chuckled. "It must have come as a shock to him to learn that you were unharmed."
Elsdon nodded. "I couldn't tell him the full story of what had happened, of course, but I was able to assure him that I wasn't being tortured and that I was well cared for. That was enough to satisfy him. We've exchanged a few letters since then. Not many; neither of us is skilled at letter-writing. . . . It's good to know that I still have a connection with the lighted world. However small." His gaze switched back to the letter.
Weldon said nothing. He had been present on the day that Elsdon, with a mercy that amazed the older Seeker, had remained sleepless through the entire night in order to write a letter to his father with the aim of mending matters between them.
Weldon had also been present the following afternoon when the reply arrived: it consisted of nothing but an envelope filled with the tattered remains of Elsdon's letter. From the look of the fragments, it appeared that Elsdon's father had not even tried to open his son's correspondence before tearing it to pieces.
Elsdon had not spoken of his father since that time. Weldon, whose only family ties had been severed in an equally painful manner – through the violent death of his parents – felt strong empathy for Elsdon. He was not sure which was worse: losing one's family before entering the Eternal Dungeon, or remaining connected with one's family but knowing that you could never visit their home again.
Evidently seeking to escape these memories, Elsdon said, "You've been keeping secrets from me."
Weldon forced himself to smile. "Birdesmond and I thought it best not to discuss this with anyone until we had received the Codifier's ruling. So you thought I was happily reconciled to an unbonded life?"
"Well, no," said Elsdon frankly. "I knew that you loved Birdesmond, and she you. But that you should seek to change your single bed for a double bed . . . I didn't think you would do that."
Weldon, who had been responsible for part of Elsdon's training as a Seeker, knew that the young man was capable of stunning prisoners into confessions by his simple acts of candor. He thought to himself that it was unusually tactful of Elsdon not to have said, "I didn't think you could do that."
Weldon stared at the clear-bodied fish in the pool, who were continuing to swim restlessly in the water that had been disturbed by the closure of the cave door. The fall of water nearby sent endless waves rippling through the pool, distorting the fish's images and making them seem even stranger than they really were.
Beside him, Elsdon said, "I wouldn't worry, you know." As Weldon raised his eyes to see the junior Seeker's smile, Elsdon added, "I don't think there was much of that between my parents either, but they managed to have me."
Two years before, when Weldon was awaiting an appointment in the High Seeker's office, he had been nearly scared into rebirth when the High Seeker had announced his entrance by way of slamming the door shut behind him, then throwing his document-board onto his desk with such force that the solid oak table almost crumpled to pieces. Convinced that a major disaster had befallen the Eternal Dungeon – perhaps an imminent attack by the Vovimians, perhaps a decision by the Queen to abolish the Code of Seeking – Weldon had asked Layle Smith what was wrong.
In a tight voice, the High Seeker had replied, "I am searching a prisoner who is as blunt as I am subtle."
Weldon reflected that little had changed since that time. Feeling his face burn as hot as a Flame of Rebirth, Weldon turned his attention again to the cascade of water surging down the office wall. Under the lamplight, a faint rainbow could be seen in its spray, the most color he had ever witnessed in the inner dungeon. Though perhaps he had simply not noticed other signs of color here. Birdesmond had a gift for showing him things about the Eternal Dungeon he had never seen before; perhaps he should ask her about this.
Trying to bring the conversation back to its normal state, he said, "In one respect, I regret the Codifier's decision: if I marry Birdesmond now, I will have difficulty in assisting you to care for the High Seeker. You ought not to have to carry that full burden."
"Don't worry about that." The junior Seeker's voice was quiet, but his eye had drifted toward the door. Weldon glanced at the water-clock. One-sixth of an hour remained.
Weldon said slowly, "I've been of little help to you during the past few days in any case. I wish that I could be of more use."
He felt the familiar pain that accompanied this thought, and turned aside from it at once. He had come to accept, since Birdesmond's arrival, that some deficiencies in his life could never be mended. This was only one more loss he must accept.
After a moment, he saw that Elsdon was watching him steadily. "I'm sorry, Weldon," the junior Seeker said softly. "I spoke to him again about this a few weeks ago, urging him to mend his friendship with you. But then . . . Well, then the illness grew worse."
"Don't bother him with such matters," Weldon said, his voice suddenly made gruff by emotion. "As the High Seeker would say, the past is past. All of that occurred over a decade ago; it's not worth thinking about any more."
He wondered whether the time would ever come when he believed these words. He could tell from Elsdon's expression that he had not sounded convincing, so he added, "I have other matters to worry about now, such as an impending wedding." Then, seeing Elsdon's right eyebrow shoot up, he realized belatedly that his phrasing was not the proper one for a man looking forward to his wedding night. He felt his face grow flush again. He added defensively, "We have spent these weeks in much eagerness to begin sharing our lives together. Mind you," he added in concession to that raised eyebrow, "it will be an unusual marriage."
Elsdon laughed. "I've no doubt of that. You two are unusual people. Sara always said that the people who were different from the rest of the world deserved to find each other and share friendship."
Then a pained expression entered the junior Seeker's face, as it always did when he mentioned that name. Seeing that he had turned the conversation onto the wrong road again, Weldon said hastily, "You had better open that letter now, in case it really is something you need to discuss with the Codifier. He'll be gone from the dungeon in a few minutes."
Cheered by this reminder that he would be able to return soon to his love-mate, Elsdon smiled and began the painful work of undoing the twine without knife or other blade with which to assist him. Weldon was beginning to wonder whether he ought to borrow a dagger from one of the guards outside when Elsdon managed to wrench open the end of the envelope and slide out the letter within. He unfolded it and held it up to the light.
His smile faded. A moment later his face faded, the blood draining away as though he were a man who had been pulled asunder on the rack.
"Sweet blood, no," he whispered. "Not now. Please, any time but now."