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Truth and Lies (The Balance #1)

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=== The Balance ===
 

According as it is with the laws that belong to the present life, so shall the Judge act with most just deed towards the man of the Lie and the man of the Right, and him whose false things and good things balance.

Avesta: Yasna 33 (translated by L. H. Mills).


The Balance 1
TRUTH AND LIES

The year 359, the fourth month. (The year 1881 Clover by the Old Calendar.)
 

Historical accounts of the Eternal Dungeon usually skip directly from its most exciting event – the madness of its first High Seeker – to its second most exciting event, an incident that would change the nature of the centuries-old dungeon and revolutionize forever our nation's treatment of prisoners and other societal misfits. This is a shame, for it is a clear that the second event owed a great deal to the first.

It is necessary in this volume, therefore, to linger upon small episodes that, at the time, must have seemed insignificant. The first of these, of course, is the return of Layle Smith to his prisoners.

The documents of the Eternal Dungeon, while frustratingly vague about the nature of the High Seeker's madness, do give us detailed information about the first searching Layle Smith undertook three years later, when he finally returned fully to his duties. We learn from these documents that, although the High Seeker had planned to return to searching prisoners, the exact timing of his return was forced on him by circumstances.

Moreover, the circumstances in question were not ideal. Elsdon Taylor, the Seeker who had cared for Layle Smith during his illness, had recently entered into spiritual isolation in the dungeon's crematorium in order to mourn the death of his father. He was therefore unavailable to serve as a chaperone to Layle Smith, as he had throughout the most serious phase of the High Seeker's mental illness.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the greatest number of documents from this period reveal the anxiety of witnesses as to whether Layle Smith would lose control again. The danger seemed particularly strong, given the crime the prisoner had committed . . .

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
 

CHAPTER ONE

When Seward Sobel was nineteen years old, he visited a diviner. Not many people in the queendom of Yclau still worshipped the fates, and those who did had an evil reputation. Seward was not bothered by such matters; he arrived as a skeptic and expected to remain so.

His friends – fellow members of the Queen's guard – had already emerged from the tent one by one, chortling over the unlikely futures that had been divined for them. Seward entered the tent grinning. His grin faded, though, as he saw the surroundings.

The surroundings were not horrific; rather, they were pitiful. He had seen etchings of the diviners' rooms in ancient days: peacock feathers spread over life-sized statues of the fates, with magnificent piles of food at the feet of the fates to show the worshippers' love.

The diviner was a very old woman, dressed in a gown that had long since passed the stage of being a rag. She had decorated the tent as best she could with reminders of her religion's glorious past: instead of peacock feathers, there were sparrow feathers; instead of life-sized statues, there were misshapen branches crudely carved into objects that had little resemblance to the divine, except in the eyes of the creator.

At the feet of the carvings were offerings to the fates: a bowl of fruit that too obviously could have served as the diviner's daily meal, and five objects that had been tossed there by Seward's laughing friends: a bootlace, a squashed penny, a used handkerchief, a toothpick, and a tract on the Yclau religion of transformation and rebirth that had replaced the worship of the fates.

It was perhaps a sign of Seward's difference from his friends – or rather, his potential difference – that his first instinct was to flee the tent in shame. The diviner had already seen him, though; she beckoned him forward with a forceful gesture. He came to her unwillingly, confessing with a stammer that he had brought no offering.

The diviner looked at him with canny eyes. "The fates require no gifts," she said. "They are immortal, without need for human trappings. They accept our offerings for our own sake, so that our souls may be better prepared to face the truth of the life they have established for us."

She gave him his divining then. It was a simple one: "Your goal is high. It will bring you pain."

He would have laughed as his friends had, but something held him back. "I've already gone beyond my goal," he said politely. "My only goal was to be a guard in some capacity, and I've been granted the high honor of serving as a guard at the Queen's palace."

The diviner stared him steadily in the eye. "The fates do not lie," she said.

He left then, promising to bring an offering the next day, but when he arrived the following morning, carrying a basket overflowing with food from the Queen's own kitchen, he found that the tent was gone. He never saw the diviner again, and his offering to the fates went unfulfilled.

He changed after that, all his friends agreed. He laughed just as much as before, and he joined in the games of the young men who worked in the palace. No one could accuse him of growing soberly pious, much less cracked in the head. But every now and then, when a death-sentence prisoner passed him, bound for the terrible fates found in the Eternal Dungeon beneath the palace, he would stop speaking abruptly, and his gaze would follow the prisoner, as though he and the prisoner were one.

o—o—o

"War crimes?" said Seward. "That's an unusual charge, isn't it?"

He was standing in the entry hall of the Eternal Dungeon, next to Mr. Boyd, senior day guard for Weldon Chapman, a Seeker who took the day shift. Although they had both worked in the dungeon for many years, Seward rarely had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Boyd, since Seward, as a senior night guard, undertook his duties while his own Seeker searched prisoners, during the night shift.

Or so went the theory. Seward glanced over at the High Seeker, who had just come on duty for the night. After this brief visit to the entry hall, Seward knew, the High Seeker's entire night shift would be spent shut away in his office, signing documentwork. He would only emerge once the return of the bats to the underground dungeon signalled the beginning of dawn.

There was a time, Seward thought with a touch of unusual bitterness, when the prisoners of the Eternal Dungeon sought to hide themselves from the much-feared High Seeker. Now the opposite seemed to be true.

He turned back to Mr. Boyd – Seward had never learned the other guard's first name, and in the formal setting of the Eternal Dungeon this hardly mattered. The younger guard was saying as he flipped a page, "He has led five unauthorized raids on enemy villages during the past year. He keeps saying that he's forced into the raids by circumstances, and his men back him, but the high command finally got tired of his excuses. They figured we'd have the best chance of finding out the truth."

"He's an officer, then?" Seward, through long habit, averted his eyes from the documentwork on Weldon Chapman's new prisoner. He could depend on Mr. Boyd not to offer him private information on the prisoner.

"A lesser officer. He received his rank last year, and no doubt the man who promoted him is regretting it now. You know, the army really ought to hire a Seeker to make all their decisions for them. It would save them the trouble of having to withdraw from making bad judgments."

Seward smiled but said, "Seekers aren't infallible."

"No." Mr. Boyd's gaze drifted away from him. Seward could guess that he was staring at the rigid-backed figure of the High Seeker. Then Mr. Boyd snapped shut the documents box and said, "I'm less worried about Seekers' fallibility than about guards' fallibility. You know that we have a new junior guard in training, Mr. Sobel."

Seward nodded, straddling a chair with an inward sigh of satisfaction at relieving his aching feet. For most of the past three years he had done documentwork during his shift, released from his usual duties by the High Seeker's illness. But the tedium of tying papers with ribbons and filing them in the appropriate boxes had finally become so great that he had asked and been granted permission to take Mr. Boyd's duties for one day, in order to allow the other guard an opportunity to visit his parents during the daytime.

"Mr. Meakem," Seward replied. "I had a chance to talk with him briefly when he came on duty. He seems eager to be of use."

"They all are, till they see what the job entails," Mr. Boyd said sourly. He had just arrived back from his visit to the lighted world, and he was still dressed in a plum-colored suit, which made him stand out amidst the grey-uniformed guards milling about in the entry hall. "Mr. Chapman has had eight junior guards leave him since the departure of Gerson. It's as though Gerson jinxed the role of junior guard for every man that followed."

"I'm sure Mr. Urman will be able to keep him in hand," said Seward, referring to the High Seeker's junior night guard, who was presently training to become senior night guard for Weldon Chapman. Seward's gaze had wandered away again, toward the High Seeker, who was now in discussion with Mr. Chapman, no doubt about the Seeker's new prisoner. Seward supposed he should at least be glad that the High Seeker was now willing to assist other Seekers with problematic prisoners – that had not been the case until recently. If his willingness to assist other Seekers meant that his own guards spent more months in idleness . . . Well, Seward had known that his time in this dungeon would not be pure pleasure.

After all, he could have arrived here as a prisoner.

He felt a jerk of the heart, as he often did when this thought came to him. When he looked back at Mr. Boyd, he saw that the younger guard was frowning, apparently aware that Seward's thoughts were not on their conversation. Seeking to mend the tear he had made in their discussion, Seward said, "Mr. Urman is a competent guard."

"When his mind's on his work." Mr. Boyd, easy at forgiveness, gave a smile. "His thoughts are on the girl he's courting these days. You know how men are who are women-tied."

Seward gave a smile to show he appreciated the joke aimed at himself; then his eyes drifted back to the High Seeker. Seward's wife – whose gifts lay in compassion rather than insight – had nonetheless told him, "The High Seeker needs to return to searching his own prisoners." If his wife could see that – if the entire dungeon could see it – why couldn't the High Seeker?

"I suppose it's harder if you're him."

Seward turned back toward Mr. Boyd, startled. "Who?"

Mr. Boyd laughed and jerked his thumb toward the High Seeker. "Who else? The man whose shadow you are. The man you've been thinking about the whole time we've been talking. It must be hard for him to return his mind to work, when it's been off— Where do you suppose his mind has been? Off at hell?"

Seward thought it was more likely that the High Seeker's mind had been trapped in a dungeon that was the opposite of everything he had been trying to make the Eternal Dungeon into, but he said nothing of this. The High Seeker was crippled by enough gossip without having his senior night guard join in the game. Indeed, it was hardly surprising that the High Seeker hesitated to return to work. The eyes of everyone in this dungeon would be upon him – it could be fairly said that the eyes of the entire world would be upon him, such was the extent of his reputation. Failure with his first prisoner after his illness could mean the end of his career.

"I'll talk with you later," Seward said to Mr. Boyd, barely taking in the other guard's look of sympathetic understanding as he stepped away and began to walk across the entry hall to the hooded man who mastered the Eternal Dungeon.

Few obstacles stood in his way. The entry hall was a high, broad cavern that contained little except tables and chairs pushed against the walls, where they could easily be hidden by the shadows if a prisoner entered the hall. Now, though, the perimeter of the hall was bright with lamplight and the chatter of guards awaiting new prisoners. Seward found himself thinking of Mr. Urman, whose training would be completed soon and who would be transferred into the care of Weldon Chapman. Six months before, Mr. Urman had told Seward that he could no longer stand the idleness and would seek a transfer. Seward had rounded upon him with all the fury of a mother wolf protecting her children, but it had made no difference. It had been a full year since the High Seeker's day guards had resigned, and the Codifier had not bothered to replace them. It was doubtful that anyone would have taken their positions.

At the time of Layle Smith's madness, the dungeon inhabitants had been united behind their High Seeker, doing everything they could to keep his mind from destructing. Yet fame is fickle: as it became less and less certain that the High Seeker would recover the powers that had won him renown throughout the world, the dungeon dwellers had gradually turned away from him in indifference or disgust. So few remained loyal to Layle Smith now: the High Seeker's companion Elsdon Taylor, two or three of the junior Seekers who modelled themselves after him, and a handful of senior members of the dungeon who had worked alongside him for many years.

And the High Seeker's shadow, Seward Sobel, who had been with Layle Smith since the beginning.

The High Seeker was in the midst of turning away from Weldon Chapman when Seward reached him. Seward found his gaze lingering upon his Seeker, looking for changes from the old times. He had seen the High Seeker little more than any other dungeon dwellers had during the time of his illness; Layle Smith had asked for assistance during that period from Elsdon Taylor and Weldon Chapman, but from no one else. Seward wondered whether the same man he had known lay behind the closed face-cloth of the hood, or whether the High Seeker had been irremediably altered during his absence.

The High Seeker's eyes, always cool, raked over Seward as though his senior night guard were a prisoner worthy of being racked. "Yes, Mr. Sobel," he said. "Did you have something you wished to say to me?"

Mr. Sobel was touched by the slight sickness he had felt in his stomach ever since the early days, when his attempts to reach out to a young Seeker in friendship had been rebuffed with a coldness like midwinter wind. He opened his mouth to reply, and then realized, too late, that he had not come prepared with any excuse for speaking to the High Seeker.

Twenty-one years they had worked together, and he still needed an excuse to talk to Layle Smith. He thought this, and thought also of the time of absence when he had lingered each long night in the entry hall, far beyond the time when his shift officially ended, waiting for Layle Smith to call for his services.

Now the High Seeker's eyes were growing narrow through the holes in his hood. Seward began to open his mouth again to make some excuse for his presence when a faint scream cut through his thoughts.

The chatter in the entry hall died in an instant, as though sliced clean with a blade. For a heart's breath, everyone stared at the door that led to the prisoners' cells. Screams were a daily occurrence at the Eternal Dungeon; what had caught everyone's attention was the fact that the scream had cut off abruptly. Out of the corner of his eye, Seward saw the High Seeker's hand go to the side of his belt, as though he expected to find something there.

And then the silence was broken by a whistle – a high, hard whistle that shot through the air like a cannonball. And Seward was running, running as hard as he had ever run since the day in his youth when he saw a revolver in the hand of a man who had murder in his eyes, and whose gaze was turned toward the royal princess.

He ran as he had not run for twenty-six years: but the High Seeker reached the door before him.