Work Header

A Prisoner Has Need (Transformation #3)

Chapter Text

The year 358, the sixth month. (The year 1881 Barley by the Old Calendar.)

The mental illness of the Eternal Dungeon's first High Seeker has become the stuff of song and legend, with many a mother telling her child scare-tales about the "Mad Torturer." Yet the earliest songs, along with documents from the first High Seeker's time, treat with sympathy Layle Smith's lifelong battle with mental illness. Some contemporary witnesses even suggested that his talents as High Seeker derived directly from that struggle.

We are fortunate to possess Layle Smith's own account of the most serious phase of his illness, which occurred toward the end of his thirty-fourth year, and which is known to historians as the First Madness of 356. (The Second Madness occurred in the following year, 357, and did not reach the same heights of crisis.)

Layle Smith's account takes the form of a letter to the palace healer, who had evidently heard of the case and wished to know the details so that he could treat patients who were similarly afflicted. Because of the importance of this letter, I am quoting it in full. The second sentence of the letter contains the most complete description that we possess of the nature of Layle Smith's illness.

I do not know whether anything I tell you will be of assistance,
since the circumstances of my breaking were unusual. I understand that
you have been in touch with Mr. Bergsen [the Eternal Dungeon's healer],
so you will know that the cause of my mind-breaking was certain dreamings
that consisted of memories of deeds I committed during the unfortunate
years of my youth, combined with my own imaginings. I have been in consultation
with Mr. Bergsen concerning these dreamings since the time I first came
to the Eternal Dungeon, but my concern was initially ethical rather than
medical, for the dreamings did not become entirely uncontrollable until
the time of my breaking.

The change in my dreamings came about because of a regrettable coincidence of circumstances. Certain orders I had given as High Seeker, and the consequences of those orders, caused me to fear that I would act on my dreamings. Soon afterwards, at my foolish request, I was temporarily released from my regular duties, which had always provided the main alternative to my dreamings. The dreamings began to play more and more a central role in my life, both because they provided a pleasant way for me to retreat from the pain of my fear, and also because I mistakenly believed that it was best for me to retreat into my dreamings rather than run the risk of acting out my imaginings in real life.

Too late I came to realize that I had lost the ability to even partially control the dreamings – they came and went as they would. As time continued, I began to be sucked into the dreamings more and more. It was like being sucked into a strong current that threatens to drown one. Despite the best efforts of those who cared for me, I was not strong enough to be able to defy this current. I therefore placed a formal request with the Codifier [the official who had supervision over the dungeon workers in ethical matters] that I should be released from my oath to be a Seeker, since I believed that my mind had so far deteriorated that I was a danger to the dungeon inhabitants. He refused my request, instead binding me into the care of Mr. Taylor [Elsdon Taylor, a Seeker who was evidently sharing Layle Smith's living quarters at that time].

The crisis came when the dreamings took over me entirely. I am told that, for a period of two nights and a day, I neither ate nor slept nor responded to any word or touch but simply stared blankly, lost in the dreamworld I had created.

I must tell you that it is entirely due to the efforts and skill of Mr. Taylor that I was not lost altogether. Despite the fact that he was committed at that time to assisting a difficult prisoner who was reaching the end of his searching, Mr. Taylor cared for me tirelessly during my breaking, allowing himself virtually no sleep as the seriousness of my illness increased. During the period of the crisis, I remember finding myself lost in the sweetly nightmarish world of my imaginings, knowing that I was trapped but unable to make my way past the guards who barred the doors in my dreaming. Then I began to hear a voice say over and over to me, "A prisoner has need of you. A prisoner has need of you." My vision of the real world returned, and I saw that Mr. Taylor was the person speaking.

If he had tried to plead or argue with me at that point, I think that I would have slipped back forever into the dreaming. Instead he told me, in a quite matter-of-fact manner, that I must ready myself to go to a prisoner's trial. I did this, believing, in my madness, that the prisoner was my own and that I was duty-bound to provide witness at his trial.

I went to the trial, accompanied both by Mr. Taylor and by Mr. Chapman [Weldon Chapman, a Seeker], who had been present during much of my illness. Of course, the prisoner in question was Mr. Taylor's. I sat with Mr. Chapman in the back of the judging room, listening to Mr. Taylor do his best to rescue the prisoner from the death sentence. (Alas, he was unsuccessful.)

It is hard to describe what happened next. It is not that my mind began to reason; I was too far into the madness for that. Rather, it was as though I remembered things I had forgotten. It came to me as I listened to Mr. Taylor that he was carrying out a duty I was neglecting. I realized that prisoners like the one he was assisting required my help too, and that it made no difference how seductively beautiful my terrible dreamings were to me. My duty required me to be in the real world of the Eternal Dungeon.

After the trial, Mr. Taylor and I were able to meet privately. He told me that, with the end of his obligation to his previous prisoner, we could now work together on another prisoner as soon as I was ready to return to my duties. This news helped to bring me back to myself, and it was then that I first began to speak and to engage in other normal activities. But I believe that my return from madness occurred in the judging room, when I remembered that a Seeker must be willing to suffer for the prisoners.

I have not quoted this letter for the information it provides on Layle Smith's mental illness (since he is frustratingly vague on the full nature of his illness). Rather, I have quoted it because, more than any document besides Layle Smith's revision of the Code of Seeking, the letter gives insight into the High Seeker's nature and the nature of the men and women who worked alongside him during the Golden Age of the Eternal Dungeon.

Any student of psychology who is reading this book will recognize the final words of Layle Smith's letter, since they are the opening words (with appropriate changes in terminology) of the Code of Psychology. Like Layle Smith, every psychologist today knows that he must be willing to suffer for his patients.

Yet words that appear earlier in Layle Smith's letter are of equal significance: "A prisoner has need of you." These words, which gave Layle Smith the strength to begin to pull away from his madness, explain why he and the other Seekers went to such lengths to help the Eternal Dungeon's prisoners. It was this fundamental belief that the prisoners had need of the Seekers which led many Seekers to pass beyond professional duty in assisting prisoners, and to make their assistance personal in nature.

The Eternal Dungeon's documents record many examples of this personal assistance. . . .

—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.


Weldon Chapman stood in the midst of the tiny room, playing with the toy.

The "room" was nothing more than an alcove that had been separated from the main living area by means of a curtain. Within this tiny alcove, everything had been done to make the environment pleasant for a young child. There were stuffed animals, such as the lion cub that Weldon was fingering, cup-balls and rattles and a swinging horse and other such toys suitable for the cramped confines of the Eternal Dungeon. There were even books and board games appropriate for when the child grew older. Weldon stroked the battered fur of the lion cub and felt the pain within him grow.

It was annoying, therefore, to hear a knock at the door. Sighing, Weldon flipped down the face-cloth of the hood that marked him as a Seeker, then pulled open the curtain and took the few steps necessary to reach the main door of his small living cell.

"Well?" he said sharply to the man standing there.

The man, who was about twenty years in age, took an involuntary step backwards, as though he expected Weldon to order him to be lashed. He was wearing the grey-and-red uniform of a guard-in-training, and he was armed for duty, with a whip and dagger at his hips. He said quickly, "I'm sorry to disturb you, sir."

"Not at all, Mr. Crofford. I apologize for being brusque." His soothing tone came automatically, the product of years of experience with prisoners who could be broken more easily by gentle means than by harsh ones.

The guard licked his lips with a nervous twitch and held up a stack of papers pinned neatly to a board. "I brought you this, sir. We have a new prisoner, and I thought you'd want to read his records before your shift began."

"Thank you, Mr. Crofford." His voice was warmer this time. It was indeed an advantage to be able to have several hours to make sense of the frequently impenetrable prose of a prisoner's legal and medical records. "I appreciate your taking the time to bring me this. You're already on duty, I take it?"

"Yes, sir. I have so much to learn that I thought I would get a few hours' start on my studies today."

He was shuffling his feet like a schoolboy. Weldon found himself smiling even as the pain within him increased. He held open the door wide, saying, "Would you care to come in for a few minutes? I was just making myself some tea."

"Thank you, sir; I'd like that," Mr. Crofford replied with such promptness that Weldon gave the guard a long look as the man walked past him. The guard entered the apartment cautiously, his eyes flicking from wall to wall as though expecting to see chains holding dangling bodies. Then he caught sight of the alcove, with its curtain still pulled back. "Oh, I had a cub like that when I was a boy!" he cried. "May I see it?"

He was through the curtain before Weldon could say anything, his hand reaching toward the cub. At the last minute, though, the guard glanced over at the Seeker, and what he saw there made him turn pale and snatch his hand back as though he had been about to touch a hot oven.

"I'm sorry, sir," he said quickly. "I shouldn't be touching your belongings. This looks quite old and valuable."

"Old, yes, but valuable only to me." Weldon walked over and let his fingers glide over the bedraggled fur. "This belonged to me when I was a child. It was the only object I brought with me when I came to live in the Eternal Dungeon."

The guard was looking around the alcove now, gazing at the toys, the decorations, and the cradle. "This is very nice, sir. Did you put this together yourself, or was this created by Mistress Birdesmond?"

"We both worked on it." He was finding it increasingly hard to speak; his throat had tightened. He said, more gruffly than he would have liked, "Come, let's have our tea before it grows cold."

The tea was bubbling in a pot over the small stove that was one of his privileges as a married Seeker whose living quarters had originally been part of the outer dungeon, before a second door was cut through the wall to the inner dungeon. He and Birdesmond took their meals in the dungeon's dining hall only when they wanted company. He ladled out the tea for the guard, and then invited Mr. Crofford to seat himself in a nearby chair.

"Now, what's on your mind, Mr. Crofford?" he asked as he picked up his own cup of tea.

The guard's eyes widened; then the man smiled for the first time. "I suppose it's no good to keep thoughts secret from a Seeker."

"Certainly not when you come to his quarters with the express purpose of questioning him. Do you have questions about your duties?"

"Not my duties so much as my living arrangements. I asked Mr. Boyd, since he's supervising my training. He didn't know the answer and told me to go see Mr. Daniels. I suppose I should be asking him instead of bothering you, but . . ."

Weldon gave a chuckle as he waved his hand over his tea in an effort to cool it. "Personally, I send letters to Mr. Daniels. Or smoke signals. Anything to keep me from having to walk into the dragon's den."

Mr. Crofford laughed, his body relaxing. "I know I shouldn't be afraid of the Codifier, but . . . Well, it's easier to ask you questions. You remind me of my father."

After a moment, Mr. Crofford put his cup of tea down and said, "I'm sorry, sir; I didn't mean to offend you. Would you prefer that I leave?"

"Take no mind of me. I just had a hard time sleeping last night." Weldon did his best to smile at the guard. "What is your question?"

"It's about children, sir."

After another moment, the guard rose from his seat. "Sir, I can see I have caught you at a bad time. I should let you—"

"No, no, sit. What were you going to do, bother the High Seeker with your questions? You're working under me at the moment; it's your duty to come to me with any questions Mr. Boyd can't answer. Are you wondering whether, if you marry, you'll be permitted to raise children in the dungeon?"

Mr. Crofford nodded. "Yes, sir. I'm engaged to be married; my fiancée works in the outer dungeon. I was wondering about children, and so was a friend of mine who already has a couple of daughters and is thinking of applying for a job in the outer dungeon. I'd assumed that we wouldn't be permitted to raise children here, but since my arrival, I've seen a number of children in the outer dungeon."

"I see." He did his best to keep his voice steady. The fates knew that he had enough experience at that in his work. "Well, Mr. Crofford, the answer is different, depending on whether we're talking about you or your friend. The Codifier occasionally allows dungeon residents to raise children born in the Eternal Dungeon, provided that the parents of the children have already committed themselves to remaining residents here for a number of years. In your case, I think the Codifier would want to wait some time for an indication that your work here was more than passing employment. In the case of your friend, I'm afraid that he would not be permitted to bring his daughters to the dungeon. We had a very hard struggle deciding whether any children at all should be exposed to the dark and bloody atmosphere of the Eternal Dungeon. The Codifier's final decision was that children born in the dungeon might be able to adjust to conditions here, but that it would be wrong to bring in children who had been raised in the lighted world."

"I see," said Mr. Crofford. "So it's possible that, with the Codifier's permission, my fiancée and I would be permitted to raise our children born here, but children couldn't come here from the outside. We couldn't adopt any children, for example."

"Precisely." He wondered that his voice sounded so calm. It was a tribute to the training he had received over the years. "If you have no other questions, Mr. Crofford . . ."

The guard hastily abandoned his tea cup again and rose, saying, "I appreciate your taking the time, sir. I understand the Codifier's conclusions in this matter – though I admit it makes me curious as to whether he knows about the new prisoner."

"The new prisoner?" Weldon frowned. "Why, is the prisoner a mother who is anxious at being separated from her children?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, sir. I forgot that you hadn't seen the prisoner yet. Here . . ." He handed Weldon the board of papers, pointing to the first line of the first page.

Weldon knew the precise moment at which his self-control shattered. Mr. Crofford took on a look of alarm akin to that of a child who turns the corner and sees a dangerous dog in his path. "Sir, I – I should go—" he stammered breathlessly.

"Yes," said Weldon. And then, his years of training rescuing him once more: "Thank you, Mr. Crofford. I appreciate your assistance. It is important for me to know when the prisoner has special needs."


"Feel this," the High Seeker said sharply, handing the strap to the blacksmith and then pulling on the wheel until the notch in the wheel clicked into its next position.

"Hmm." The blacksmith held the strap for a moment before letting it go and saying, "It's perhaps a wee bit tighter than it should be. You have to expect a touch of variation from machine to machine, though. Making these is an art, not a science."

"We can't afford to have that much variation," the High Seeker said, his voice still sharp. "This is a life matter. We nearly had a prisoner die yesterday when the Seeker searching him took the wheel up to level five – up to what should have been level five – and the prisoner had an attack of the heart because his body wasn't prepared for the strain."

The blacksmith, who had gone down onto his hands and knees to examine the complex system of cogs and pulleys that led from the wheel to the strappings, stood up and dusted off his hands on his trousers, saying, "I'll do my best, sir. I can't make any promises, though."

"Ah." The High Seeker looked at the man for a moment. All that could be seen of his expression through the hood were dark green eyes, which had turned cool. Then he said, in a less heated manner, "Well, no matter. You can tell us whether we're close enough to the tension we need when we test it on you."

The blacksmith, who had been on the point of turning away, stiffened suddenly, as though he had been stabbed in the back. "Now, wait a minute," he said. "I just work to make these old machines run. Any testing you do will have to be on someone else."

"But you're an artist, you say. I know artists – you'll want to make sure for yourself that your work of art is at its highest perfection. Don't worry, sir." The High Seeker's voice took on a soothing tone. "The rack won't do you any harm if, as you say, it has only a 'touch of variation.'"

The blacksmith's breath was rapid now. He wiped his hands against his trousers again, and it could be seen that the hands were trembling. "Sir, there's no need for such tests. I'll bring my brother in to help – he works in a clock manufactory and has experience working with notched wheels like this. I'm sure that, between the two of us, we can get this one working right."

"We'll see," the High Seeker said in a noncommittal manner, and gave a gesture of dismissal. The blacksmith, retreating rapidly, nearly barrelled into Weldon, who had been standing in the doorway to the rack room during this exchange.

Weldon waited until the blacksmith was gone and the door had closed before pulling up his face-cloth to reveal his grin. "I can't believe you made him credit that. He must know that the Codifier would never allow it."

Layle Smith raised his own face-cloth; he too was smiling. "Oh, but the Mad Torturer is capable of anything. These days, prisoners begin babbling from the moment they hear my name spoken in the entry hall. I'm ready to recommend to the Codifier that all Seekers be required to undergo a spell of madness, so that all of you can have an equally daunting effect on your prisoners."

Weldon's grin had faded at the moment of the High Seeker's first words. He said quietly, "I'm glad you're able to joke about it now, Layle. It couldn't have been easy retaking your supervisory duties, knowing as you did that everyone here had witnessed your illness. Both phases of your illness."

"My reputation has always been dark." Layle knelt down to take a closer look at the wheel notches, saying, "Did I ever tell you about the aekae, Weldon?"

"Aekae? That's a Vovimian word, isn't it?"

Layle nodded as he fingered the notches. "Yes, from the old tongue, which is only spoken in southern Vovim now. The Common Speech has eliminated it everywhere else; I know scraps of the old tongue only because one of my fellow street-thieves was from southern Vovim. But bits of the old tongue survive within Vovim's ancient institutions. The aekae are quite ancient indeed. They're the holy men of Vovim: wandering prophets who denounce the rich and powerful for their evil deeds."

Weldon raised his eyebrows. "And how long do they survive to do this before they're handed over to Vovim's torturers?"

"That's the oddest part about it, Weldon. Amongst all the rebels and revolutionaries being racked in the dungeon of Vovim's King, the aekae alone are able to make their thunderous accusations with immunity to punishment. Mind you, they do live a hard life. They're men without property and live a threadbare experience, walking barefoot from town to town and eating food no better than pebbles. As you can imagine, only the poorest Vovimians take up such a life, those who are already accustomed to hardship. Yet the aekae hold greater power than anyone in the kingdom except the King himself, since they're the only men who can speak freely."

"And what do they speak about?"

"The gnawing of the torture-god's teeth, mainly." Layle straightened up. "Evil men being gnawed in punishment of their iniquities, men being beaten and branded and racked without cease, torture that is eternal in more than a figurative manner." He looked over at Weldon, who was struggling to control his expression, and said quietly, "Yes, the Vovimian religion is unpleasant in certain ways. The Vovimians have no such belief in rebirth as we do. They believe that a person gets only one chance to prove himself, and then he receives eternally his reward for that single life, in the form of unending joy or unending pain."

Weldon walked over to finger the straps of the rack. "I begin to see why you put such great effort into transforming prisoners' characters before they are executed."

Layle gave half a smile. "I suppose there's a bit of that childhood fear within me – a fear that any prisoner who goes to his death unreformed will lie on a rack like this forever. But that's not why I'm telling the tale. I wanted to point out how strange and wondrous it is that such good, holy men could arise out of so evil a vision of justice. It makes me believe that what we do here truly does transform evil into good."

"I see." Weldon pulled the wheel into the second notch, holding tight the strap as he did so. After a moment he let it fall, saying, "And so your madness was an evil that has brought about good."

Layle chuckled lightly. "Weldon, when I'm talking with you I cease to wonder why the Record-keeper gets headaches trying to keep you supplied with prisoners, since you break each one so quickly. Yes, that's the point of what I'm saying. My reputation matters little to me, but whether I am effective in my work matters a great deal. The darker my reputation, the more likely it is that hardened prisoners will take me seriously."

"It could not have been easy for you, though."

In the moment after Weldon spoke, he could have torn his tongue out. Been easy to undergo two spells of madness? He wondered whether, if he banged his head against the wall a few times, it would begin to function properly.

Layle simply gave a slight smile and said, "Far harder for Elsdon, I think. To be exposed to the worst of me . . . It still amazes me that he is willing to stay with me. The pain for him must have been intense."

"Well," said Weldon, groping for words of comfort and finding them in the Code of Seeking. "It's much as you said before about good coming from evil. Great pain, willingly undertaken, is necessary for rebirth."

"Yes," said Layle, running his hand over the wheel of the rack. "So I told the Record-keeper when he asked me whether he should assign our latest prisoner to someone besides you."

Weldon felt as though he had been examining a guard's dagger, and the blade had suddenly moved in his hand, turned round, and slid neatly into his heart. Bereft of words, he contented himself with glaring at the High Seeker.

Layle's expression was sympathetic as he turned to face the man he had been searching. "Weldon, if there were any other Seeker I could assign this prisoner to, I would. But you have better knowledge than any of the others of juvenile cases, and you speak good Vovimian. You're the best qualified Seeker to handle this prisoner."

"Not quite," Weldon replied crisply. "One Seeker in this dungeon is far more qualified than I am to handle Vovimian prisoners."

The High Seeker abruptly turned his attention back to the rack. Weldon refused to break the silence. After a minute, Layle said in a distant manner, "I'm on healing leave."

"By your own choice. The healer has granted you permission to return to work. Layle, I can understand your hesitation at returning to the heart of your old work, but it's been two years now since you searched any prisoners. You can't depend on the Codifier to wait forever."

"Yes," said Layle, still staring at the rack. "So Elsdon tells me. Every night, repeatedly. Do I need to hold this argument with you as well?"

Weldon watched Layle brush the rim of the wheel lightly, as though it were the skin of his beloved. It was a gesture that Weldon himself could never have made. He knew himself to be good at his job, and he received satisfaction from the times that he was able to help a prisoner to the rebirth of his soul. But if the Codifier were to come to him and say, "We do not wish you to work as a Seeker any more," Weldon knew, with all honesty, that his reaction would be relief. He had done good work in this dungeon, but he would not mind retiring from that work.

Most Seekers felt as he did; their work was a job, nothing more. But a few Seekers . . . Not long after Weldon arrived at the dungeon, a Seeker had been permanently injured by a prisoner and was forced to enter into retirement. The Seeker had taken his own life soon afterwards.

The event had been shocking partly because it was so rare: the Yclau religion taught that self-slayers endangered the chances for their rebirth into a new life. Weldon was grateful for that particular article of religion. If it had not existed, prisoner suicides would be far more common.

But the Vovimian religion, he gathered, had less to say against self-slaying. He stole another look at Layle. The High Seeker had not yet tried to take his life, not even in the worst of his madness. That knowledge ought to be enough to reassure Weldon. But if the Codifier decided that the dungeon could no longer afford to humor a Seeker who refused to search prisoners . . .

"There's no choice," said Layle suddenly. "The rack will have to be tested. Otherwise I won't be able to tell the blacksmith which portions of the wheel need to be fixed."

Weldon decided that Layle was right; it was high time the subject was changed. "I'll do it," he said.

Layle shook his head. He had already moved over to the bench at the back of the room and was sitting upon it, loosening his belt. "No, it needs to be me. Besides, the breakdown is undoubtedly my fault. Machines have a tendency to malfunction when I'm in the same room as them. It's as though they sense my origins." His voice had turned wry.

"Returning to that subject," Weldon said, "the prisoner's records say that both he and the victim are Vovimian. Why are we handling this case? Don't the Vovimians usually demand extradition of the accused in such cases?"

"Usually they do," Layle replied, reaching down to unlace his boots. "This time, the victim's next of kin requested that the Queen's magistrates judge the case. He claims he wishes to have the prisoner swiftly exonerated, should he be innocent, but it seems more likely to me that the kinsman is simply thirsty for immediate revenge upon the murderer."

"And the prisoner . . ." Weldon knelt down to pull off Layle's boots. "The papers said only that he was underage. I was left wondering whether he might be underage by Vovimian standards rather than Yclau. Nineteen, perhaps, or twenty . . ."

He hoped his voice did not sound too eager. Layle shook his head, though. "Twelve," the High Seeker replied.

Weldon swore briefly but pungently. "For love of the Code, I wish the Vovimians had kept this prisoner to themselves."

"You wouldn't speak such words if you'd worked in Vovim," Layle said softly, rising to his feet. "A boy that age would be lucky if his torturers merely racked and executed him. More likely he'd be passed around from torturer to torturer until he became too old to entertain them."

Weldon swore again as he stood up. "Layle, it's hard for me to understand how a land like that could have produced a civilized man like you."

Layle smiled as he undid the top knots of his shirt. "That's kindly expressed. Most people who learn where I was born say, 'Ah, that explains it.'" He pushed up his sleeves.

Watching him, Weldon said, "Best keep those down, unless you want me to search out the wrist cushions."

"No, I mustn't have anything between me and the strappings. I need to feel the strain in as precise a manner as possible."

Weldon gave a sharp laugh as the High Seeker climbed onto the rack. "As though there were any danger that you wouldn't. Are you sure you don't want me to do this instead?"

"Quite sure." Layle lay down upon the wooden back of the rack and laid his hands high above his head.

Weldon reached forward and began to bind the strappings around Layle's wrists. "What can you tell me about Vovim that can help me in this matter?"

"Not a great deal. Both the prisoner and the victim were from southern Vovim, which is a world to itself. I told you that the old tongue is spoken there—" He stopped, his breath sucking in momentarily as Weldon pulled the straps taut around his wrists.

Weldon peered down at him. "Too tight?"

"Is that how tight you have your guards pull them for prisoners?"

"For someone of your body weight, yes."

"Then it's not too tight. As for southern Vovim . . . I told you they still speak the old tongue there. That's reflective of their culture as a whole. They're very backwards there, retaining customs long forgotten in the rest of Vovim. You know the image that outsiders hold of the Eternal Dungeon?"

"Torturers cackling with delight as they rack and rape the prisoners – the ones they don't turn into bed-slaves or put to work mining in dark pits." Weldon finished tightening the ankle straps. "I always thought that was a fair description of Vovim's dungeon and prisons."

"Not entirely, but it gives you the flavor for southern Vovim. Oh, I'm not saying that every custom there is bad. Certainly there are many good and conscientious people living in southern Vovim. But they hold onto customs that more civilized parts of the world have long since abandoned. The divide between elite and commoner is much stronger there, which is even reflected in the language. The southern Vovimians treat with greater seriousness any form of disloyalty."

"So is this a case of a commoner killing an elite, or the other way round?"

"Neither, it appears. It's a case of a son killing his father." The High Seeker's voice was more strained, for the main strap had just been tightened around his waist. "Take me up to level one and hold me there for a while," he told Weldon. "But wait – first let me tell you more about this case. . . ."


Since the prisoner's legal and medical records remained back in Vovim, most of the information on his background had been obtained from the victim's eldest son, Grove Hallam, who was thirty years of age and who had worked as a Vovimian liaison within the Yclau palace since he came of age at twenty-one. Though clearly shocked by his father's death, he had cooperated fully with the Queen's soldiers and had appeared to the soldiers to bear no grudge toward his younger brother. Indeed, he claimed that he knew of the prisoner only through his father's references to the boy in his letters.

The prisoner's birth-parents, it seemed, had worked for the elder Mr. Hallam for many years. Grove Hallam had met the prisoner's birth-father once and had received the impression that the man was strongly attached to his wife. Mr. Grove (as he was called by Vovimian custom, in order to distinguish him from his father) had not been aware at the time that the couple had a son.

From his father's letters, Mr. Grove had gathered the impression that the prisoner was, at the time of the murder, twelve years of age. Mr. Grove himself had taken up his present position at the Yclau palace when the boy was three, so he had never met the prisoner. Four years after Mr. Grove left his home, the boy's father – who had been widowed at the time of the prisoner's birth – had died in an estate accident. Mr. Hallam had taken the prisoner as his chau, a word that the palace translator, when consulted, said meant literally "dear one." A loose translation would be "adopted son."

Mr. Grove had gone on to say that his father was quite fond of the boy and often mentioned him in his letters. A few months before, Mr. Hallam had written Mr. Grove, saying that he planned to take his chau with him on this, his first ambassadorial mission to Yclau, and that he was sure Mr. Grove would understand why, once he had met the boy. Unhappily, though, Mr. Grove had been busy with work since his father's arrival at the palace and had not had a chance to meet with his father or the prisoner before Mr. Hallam's death.

That was all the evidence Mr. Grove could supply on the matter, except to say that the prisoner's name was Zenas. When asked whether he knew the prisoner's last name, Mr. Grove had simply stated that, since the boy was a member of his father's household, the prisoner naturally shared the same paternal name as Mr. Grove did.

The remainder of the evidence came from the residents of the palace who had seen the ambassador and his adopted son together. All of them confirmed that Mr. Hallam seemed quite fond of the boy. The boy in turn seemed fond of his father, often smiling at him and taking his hand. The two of them, when together, had spoken in the old tongue, and the prisoner had remained respectfully silent when his father was speaking to anyone else. He would watch his father, and at the slightest gesture would come forward and sit close to him, so that the ambassador could place his arm around him.

On the night of the killing, Mr. Hallam and the prisoner were seated in the dining hall of the palace when word was brought that Yclau's Queen must delay the beginnings of her negotiations with the Vovimian ambassador, since unexpected trouble had arisen in one of her provinces. Mr. Hallam did not seem upset at this news. Instead he said in Vovimian, "Ah, well, this gives me more time to spend with my chau." He smiled at his son, who smiled back, seemingly pleased by the news.

Another hour passed. The ambassador and his youngest son, who were seated at a table of their own, spoke quietly together, with the prisoner resting his hand with apparent affection upon his father's. At one point he laughed and raised his father's hand to kiss it. Both the man and the boy seemed in bright spirits, with no tension in their expressions. All of the witnesses were agreed to that.

The servers were just coming forward to clear the table when suddenly, without warning, the prisoner picked up his knife and lunged at the ambassador. Since the Queen's soldiers preferred not to supply palace guests with assassination weapons, the knife was of the dull sort, yet such was the force of the prisoner's thrust that he penetrated his father's throat with the knife. The ambassador fell to the ground, clutching at his throat as the blood poured out, but the prisoner simply knelt beside him and continued to stab, "coldly and methodically," as one witness put it. Another witness described the prisoner's expression as "icy." By the time the soldiers reached the table, the prisoner had stabbed his father a dozen times, and the ambassador was dead.

The prisoner had not resisted arrest, but he had ignored all questions put to him by the soldiers. Eventually the soldiers removed him from the scene. Upon the advice of the Queen, who had been among the witnesses to the murder, the soldiers had taken the prisoner to the Eternal Dungeon. There, it was popularly believed, no man, woman, or child could withstand the dark skills of the Seekers.


"Five," said Weldon.

No reply came; Weldon peered over the wheel he had just turned to look at the High Seeker. Layle was lying with his eyes closed, his chest moving shallowly but rapidly. His black shirt and trousers were soaked with sweat; the skin showing under the opened part of his shirt was drained of all blood.

Weldon leaned forward and placed his fingers for a moment over the big vein in Layle's neck. Satisfied with what he felt, he let the hand drop and asked, "Shall I take you down?"

"Two minutes." The High Seeker's whisper could barely be heard.

In the corner, the water dripped down within a water-clock. Weldon glanced at the clock and began to count the drops: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight . . . Before him he could hear the shallow gasp as Layle struggled to take in breath.

At the ninetieth drop – with a minute-and-a-half passed – Weldon took another look at the High Seeker. Without asking permission, he turned the wheel backwards. He did so slowly, letting the body adjust to each lower notch until the wheel had gone back past its original point and the straps were slack upon the rack.

Layle's chest was heaving now, but he neither moved nor opened his eyes. Weldon leaned over and asked quietly, "Shall I fetch Elsdon? Or Mr. Bergsen?"

"Elsdon is on night-leave. Don't disturb him." Layle was still speaking no higher than a whisper.

"The healer, then."

Layle made no reply; his lips moved in assent. Weldon placed his hand upon Layle's limp hand and said softly, "Don't try to move. I'll have a guard send word to him."

One hour later, Mr. Bergsen had grudgingly assented to allow Layle to be carried to the bench and propped up in the corner of the rack room. Holding up one of Layle's limp limbs, the healer growled, "Bloody fool. I told you after last time to stop using yourself as a testing ground for malfunctioning racks. You're lucky you didn't snap any sinews."

Layle said nothing. His eyes were still closed. Weldon, who was sitting beside him to keep him from sliding off the bench, asked, "How far off alignment was it?"

"Half a level on the first four notches," Layle said in a voice that was somewhat more than a whisper. "The last notch is completely broken. You must have taken me up to twelve."

Weldon swore under his breath. Releasing Layle, the healer said, "Complete bed-rest for the next month. I don't even want you out of bed to use the chamber-pot. And since you'll ignore everything I've just said, at least try to stay seated in chairs for the next couple of weeks."

Layle opened his eyes and gave a weak smile. "A realistic healer is a blessing."

"Mr. Smith, if I were an idealist, I wouldn't be working in a place like this." Mr. Bergsen stood up, reaching for his work-bag. "I'll be submitting my report on your injuries to the Codifier. I know that you'll listen to him, at least."

Layle sighed. "I'll confine myself to documentwork for the next couple of weeks. Thank you for your care, Mr. Bergsen."

The healer grunted, grumbled something under his breath about Seekers who treat prisoners better than they treat themselves, and left the rack room. Weldon leaned forward and said, "Elsdon will put me on that rack and will chisel out the notches till I'm at twenty if I don't call him now."

"In a while," said Layle faintly. "We hadn't finished talking about your new prisoner."

Weldon forced himself to relax back against the rough stone wall behind the bench. From the corridor outside came the sound of chatter as several guards made their way toward the exit nearest the rack rooms. One of the guards at the exit challenged them, a peremptory sound. Then came deep silence. Even without the brief interruption of a guard who had come into the room to turn the water-clock, Weldon knew that this must be some time during the dawn shift. At dusk and dawn, all Seekers and most guards were released from their work, in order to allow the day and night shifts a chance to socialize briefly. The only men left on duty were a skeleton crew of guards to ensure that the prisoners did not get up to mischief in their cells. A prime time, one foreign torturer had sourly commented during his visit, for a prisoner breakout.

Except that few prisoners had ever sought to escape from the Eternal Dungeon. Perhaps this was because, at any given time, up to two-thirds of the prisoners were cooperating with their Seekers.

Weldon put aside such hopes. It seemed to be his curse to be assigned uncooperative prisoners. He waited until the guard was gone, and then asked, "Do you think that Mr. Grove will petition for extradition if he is dissatisfied with the magistrate's judgment?" he asked.

"Most likely," Layle replied. His voice was stronger now, and he had ceased to lean on Weldon so heavily. "If the prisoner is released by the magistrate, Mr. Grove will probably try to use international law to snatch the prisoner back to Vovim. If the prisoner receives a prison sentence, Mr. Grove may bide his time until the prisoner is released and then make his move. As a rule, Vovimians are willing to accept Yclau justice only so long as it coincides with their own view of justice. If that happens, the matter will be out of our hands – it will be for our Queen to negotiate with their King. There remains the question of the magistrate's sentence, though."

Weldon thought a moment before saying, "A judgment of innocence is unlikely?"

"In this case? I would think the odds were far against it. Since Mr. Hallam bore no weapon and showed no special interest in turning silverware into weapons, his son would be hard pressed to prove that an immediate threat existed against his life or the lives of others nearby."

"He might be able to prove that a long-term threat existed," suggested Weldon. "If so, the magistrate could find the prisoner guilty of defensive murder and sentence him to imprisonment."

Layle nodded. He and Weldon had held this type of conversation on many occasions. They could do little for prisoners who refused to repent of their crimes except to ensure that their trials and executions were swift. But part of the job of a Seeker – much to the dismay of the magistrates – was to find the best way to save their repentant prisoners from the worst punishment, given their prisoners' particular circumstances. Since the only prisoners sent to the Eternal Dungeon were those accused of death crimes, this required considerable skill on the part of the Seekers.

"If the prisoner is found guilty of defensive murder, then the lesser prisons will have to deal with him," said Layle. "Once again, the problem will be outside our province."

Weldon nodded. By tradition, the Eternal Dungeon never interfered if a prisoner was freed, transferred, or sentenced to imprisonment. In only one case would a prisoner's Seeker interfere with the process of justice.

"Death, then," said Weldon. "It's early to ask this, but if my prisoner is sentenced to execution, do you believe the dungeon should intervene?"

"That is—" The High Seeker stopped suddenly. Weldon strained to hear or see what Layle was hearing or seeing, but all he heard was a soft thump further down the dungeon, and all he saw was a very faint vibration upon the rack.

"Mr. Chapman," said Layle, "you are on duty."

"Yes, sir." He pulled his face-cloth down, purely out of symbolism; the Code did not require that two Seekers speaking in private hide their faces from one another. He was inwardly wondering how Layle invariably knew, without glancing at a clock, that a new shift had begun. It was as though Layle was the heart of the dungeon.

Which, in fact, he was, if not in a literal sense.

"That is something I wish to speak about to you, Mr. Chapman," Layle said, with only the change to formality indicating that there had been any pause in the conversation. "I had planned to send a note about this to all of the Seekers today, but I may be delayed a bit in doing so."

Weldon glanced down at Layle's limp hands and nodded. "Your note concerns something that pertains to my prisoner?" he asked.

"And pertains to many future prisoners, but yours is most likely to come to trial first. You know that the Eternal Dungeon's custom is to offer refuge to prisoners whom we believe have been unjustly sentenced to death."

Weldon gave a grim smile under his hood. "Since Elsdon Taylor was a fortunate recipient of such an offer, none of us is likely to forget. Why do you mention this?"

"Because," said Layle softly, "the magistrates have finally tired of this custom."

There was a pause. Then Weldon said, "Oh, dear."

"Yes. Matters have been heading this way for a number of years. More and more magistrates have been asking that the dungeon's claim of a particular prisoner be overruled by the Queen, and the Royal Secretary has complained that the Queen is overloaded with work at deciding such cases. Now the Magisterial Guild has entered a formal request that the Eternal Dungeon be barred from claiming prisoners who have been duly sentenced to execution."

Weldon leaned forward, forgetting that he was a prop for the High Seeker. Fortunately, Layle stayed in place. "Yclau law permits us to make such a claim," Weldon said.

"In certain narrow circumstances. But the dungeon, out of compassion for its newly reborn prisoners, has gone beyond the narrow confines of the law on numerous occasions. The Queen has ruled that, while she will continue to permit claims in cases where the law specifies such claims are allowed, she will overrule all claims that are outside the bounds of the law. She has also made clear to me that she does not wish to be bothered with such matters in the future. She has commanded me to order the Seekers to claim prisoners only in cases where the magistrates agree that the law permits it."

Weldon was silent a minute before leaning back to allow Layle his prop once more. "Will you abide by her command?" he asked softly.

"I will." Layle's reply was crisp. "The dungeon's custom of offering refuge is just that, a custom. The Code does not require it."

Weldon did not know whether to be disappointed or relieved. Layle's decision meant the unnecessary death of countless prisoners in the future: men and women who, having recognized the error of their ways, might have contributed more to Yclau society by their lives than by their deaths.

But for Layle to defy the Queen could have been just as serious a matter. It had happened before, with Layle's predecessors. Seven times in the Eternal Dungeon's history had the Queen of Yclau issued a command that went against the Code of Seeking. On all seven occasions the Seekers had united in defying the Queen. Since the Seekers were, in theory at least, the Queen's employees, defying the order of the Queen or her magistrates could have meant treason trials and death for every Seeker in the dungeon.

Fortunately, in each generation, the dungeon's Codifier had intervened and negotiated a peaceful solution. But the Eternal Dungeon continued to live in fear that the day would come when the Queen would outlaw the Code of Seeking, the book that every Seeker was vowed to uphold.

"You understand that this order applies to your present prisoner?" Layle said.

"Yes, sir. I will not claim him unless the magistrate permits me to do so." On reflection, Weldon decided that he was disappointed. Layle was known for creatively pressing the boundaries of his art; surely, Weldon thought, the High Seeker could have found a better way to handle this crisis.

As usual, he underestimated the High Seeker. Layle nodded, satisfied at Weldon's response, and said, "The magistrates have good reason to be angry. On the one hand, they have Vovimians and other foreigners overruling their judgments. On the other hand, they have the Eternal Dungeon overruling their sentences. It's little wonder that they should want back some of the power with which they are supposedly invested. If we permit the magistrates to have their way on this, I believe it may be possible to find a lawful solution that satisfies the magistrates' desire to see criminals punished for their ill deeds, as well as the Eternal Dungeon's desire to recognize that reborn prisoners have already passed through a death of their old souls, so that they need not also pass through a death of their bodies."

"Not to mention," said Weldon, "the cases where the magistrates are quite simply wrong in their judgment of the prisoners. Which reminds me; I'll fetch Elsdon for you now." He rose from his seat.

But Layle beckoned him back with a hand that Weldon could have sworn was unable to move. "Shortly," said the High Seeker, continuing to successfully hide whatever pain he was in. "I have one more matter to discuss with you before you attend to your prisoner. It concerns Mistress Birdesmond."

Weldon felt a shaft of pain enter him and strove to ignore it. "Sir," he acknowledged the order, still standing half-turned.

"You know that Mistress Birdesmond has been in discussion with Mr. Daniels and myself concerning the completion of her training. Specifically, we have been discussing whether she should enter the final trials."

"Yes, sir." Weldon forced himself to stand motionless, glad that his hood masked his face. If Layle could hide all the pain he was feeling, then surely Weldon could manage it as well. He kept his voice level as he said, "Mistress Birdesmond and I have been in disagreement over that."

Layle raised his eyebrows. "Because you do not wish to beat and rack your wife?"

Weldon wished that Layle would stop treating him as he did his prisoners. Weldon always ended up feeling bruised after such sessions. "No, sir," he said steadily. "Mistress Birdesmond is a Seeker-in-Training, and I am in charge of her training. I realize that places certain unpleasant duties upon both of us. My reason for objecting to her desire to undergo the standard trials of a Seeker is that she is a woman. The Code forbids the torture of women."

Layle nodded. "The Codifier and I are in agreement with you, you will be glad to hear. Since Mistress Birdesmond is assigned only to female prisoners, and since her prisoners will not be tortured, we believe it would be a shallow symbol for her to be tortured, as the Seekers who search male prisoners are at the end of their training. However, we believe that Mistress Birdesmond is correct in wanting to undergo a trial which will allow her to share the physical pain that some of her prisoners bear. We have therefore decided that, under supervision of the healer, she may undertake a fast as her trial, in order to share the suffering of prisoners who seek to starve themselves."

Weldon winced. Three of his past prisoners had successfully killed themselves through such means, this being the easiest way to commit suicide in any Yclau dungeon or prison, since both the Yclau religion and the Code of Seeking forbade the forcing of food or water on the ill. He made himself say, "That appears to be an appropriate trial, sir."

"Then I would appreciate it if you would convey our decision to Mistress Birdesmond the next time you and she exchange letters."

Weldon was tempted to simply nod and leave. But he was talking to the High Seeker, for whom any lie was as clear as the noonday sun. "I will write to her, sir. But I'm not sure whether she's receiving my letters."

"Oh?" Layle responded in the pale, vaguely interested voice he used when prisoners were delivering much-needed information.

Weldon resisted an impulse to kick him. "Sir," he said in a controlled voice, "if you wanted to know how matters stood between Mistress Birdesmond and me, why didn't you just ask?"

"It seemed impolite to do so," Layle replied mildly. "She has not written, then?"


"No doubt she has been busy with her family."

"No doubt," Weldon said heavily.

Time paused as Weldon waited to see whether Layle had any words of comfort to offer. The High Seeker usually knew the right thing to say. But after a moment, Layle's eyes closed, and Weldon realized why it was that Layle had nothing to say.

"Mr. Chapman," said the High Seeker in a slow voice, "I would very much appreciate it—"

"I'll get him right away, sir," Weldon said and hurried from the room to fetch Elsdon Taylor, with whom Layle need not hide his pain.