The year 359, the sixth month. (The year 1881 Clover by the Old Calendar.)
Countless books, paintings, and films have been produced about Vovim's torture-god. Hell, it seems, provides endless fascination, even for a generation that doubts the god's existence.
As a result of this current cult, historians often forget that Vovim never possessed a monotheistic religion. Its religion was polytheistic – or, to be more precise, duotheistic, with a host of lesser gods. Hell certainly played a central role in Vovim's religion in the fourth century, but so did Mercy.
The torture-god is so strongly identified in the popular mind with Vovim's old dungeon of torture that one historian has gone as far to say that Vovim's Hidden Dungeon was devoted to the service of Hell, while the Eternal Dungeon in neighboring Yclau was devoted to the service of Mercy . . .
—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
The King of Vovim sat on his throne, his cloak flowing onto the floor in a regal manner. He did not deign to look at his guest, but stared upward at the gilded dome of his throne room, shining bright in the afternoon sunlight streaming through the high windows.
"Twenty-four years ago," he said, "one of the master torturers at my dungeon took an apprentice. The boy was nothing before he came to the dungeon – nameless, having accomplished no deed in his life that would attract others' attention. But the man who apprenticed him thought he had potential to serve the King. The boy certainly appeared to have some small capacity in the art of searching prisoners. Then, at the end of three years, when he had scarcely started his journeymanship, the boy ran away. Broke his oath to serve the King and fled to the land of Yclau, our enemy in war!"
The guards, standing at stiff attention on both sides of the King and on the perimeter of the vast room, winced at the sound of the King's roar. A couple of them shuffled uneasily, as though they were accustomed to seeing unpleasant sights follow from such a roar. The King, though, followed his scream by flopping back into his throne and saying, "Milly, I want more of those tomatoes. The sweet ones."
"Of course, sire!" The man lounging at the feet of the King put down his glass and reached with eager hand to the platter resting on the floor beside him. Crouching on his knees like a dog begging for food, he carefully placed the tiny tomatoes, one by one, into the King's open mouth, pausing only as the King swallowed.
The King waved away the last of the tomatoes, and the man returned to the ground, raising his glass and letting the liquid in it swirl about in a playful manner. Taking no further notice of him, the King said, "This traitor – Layle Smith was his name – proceeded to tell poisonous lies to the world, claiming that Yclau's Eternal Dungeon was better than any other dungeon in the world. Not surprisingly, his flattery worked. In due time, he was appointed High Master of that dungeon – 'High Seeker,' as he styled himself. He let people call him the greatest torturer in the world, though any gifts he might have possessed he had stolen from my dungeon. Then, three years ago, he made a mistake. It was a very great mistake, wasn't it, Milly?"
"Oh, the High Seeker excels at mistakes, sire!"
"Be quiet, Milly – I didn't ask your views on the High Seeker."
The man kissed the knee of the King in an apparent attempt to placate him. The King ruffled his hair, causing the man to give a simpering smile. "Where was I?" asked the King.
"You were speaking of that horrible traitor before I rudely interrupted you," the man said, picking at the food on the platter, his mind now apparently absorbed in a decision over which of the delicacies to choose.
"Oh, yes. Well, the traitor, Layle Smith, made the mistake of persuading the Queen of Yclau to send one of the Eternal Dungeon's junior Seekers to Vovim, to deliver her message to me concerning peace talks. The Seeker in question, a man by the name of Taylor, was actually Layle Smith's love-mate – can you believe that? He risked his own love-mate! Naturally, I had the junior Seeker arrested—"
Several of the guards shuffled in their place, exchanging glances. The man at the King's feet quickly looked up and said, "Forgive me for my audacity in interrupting, sire. I believe you meant to say that a traitor torturer in your dungeon kidnapped the ambassador, unbeknownst to you."
"Of course." The King accepted this translation with ease, then reached out and hit the man hard in the head. The guard nearest the man gripped his rifle tight, as though fearing he would need to make use of it. But the man reacted neither with sign of pain nor with anger. He simply hung his head like a puppy who has received just punishment.
"That was your fault, High Master," the King told the man. "You should have known you had a traitor in your dungeon."
"You are too good to me, sire." The head torturer of Vovim's Hidden Dungeon did not raise his face. "The times you have forgiven me are far too great to count. I don't understand why I have so much difficulty controlling the torturers under my care. For some reason, my men don't seem to respect me."
There was an audible snigger from the guard nearest the High Master. Several guards shifted their hands over their mouths in an evident attempt to hide their smiles.
The King did not attempt to hide his. He laughed openly and ruffled the torturer's hair again. "Grow up to be a man, and maybe they'll respect you, Milly."
The High Master, who looked to be twenty years older than the King, reacted to this remark by kissing the King's knee again. The King gave another laugh and said, "Now, what was my tale? Oh, yes; Layle Smith's love-mate, Taylor, was kidnapped to the Hidden Dungeon. He was tortured, of course – and raped also, I believe?"
"Most certainly, sire." The High Master, whose face had been hidden by his long hair since the blow, looked up at the King, smiling. "Even a traitor torturer would not neglect to fulfill his duties to you."
"You train them well," the King said offhandedly, and the High Master beamed, as though he were a small child who had been praised. "At any rate," the King said, "Layle Smith's love-mate would have died there, except that I received word from the United Order of Prisons, which was meeting in Vovim at that time, that Taylor was being held in the Hidden Dungeon. The conference delegates asked permission to send a raiding party to the dungeon, led by the Yclau delegate." The King shrugged. "I gave them permission. In my mercy. Of course, any love-mate of that traitor apprentice deserved a lingering death, but I wanted the world to see that Layle Smith's claims were wrong. The Hidden Dungeon, not the Eternal Dungeon, is the most civilized dungeon in the world."
Several of the guards apparently decided it was safest at this point to burst into applause; they did this the Vovimian way, by jumping up and down. The King smiled at them indulgently.
Then, without warning, he was on his feet, kicking aside the platter and splattering wine onto the legs of his guest. The King took no notice of him.
"It was all a trick!" the royal personage screamed. "The Yclau delegate was Layle Smith himself, disguised as a guard, returning to Vovim in defiance of my death sentence upon him! He took his love-mate back to Yclau and claimed I was the one who ordered the man's torture! He made me look like a fool!"
The guards stared at the dome, at the floor, at the guest . . . anywhere but in the direction of their furious monarch. The High Master apparently did not consider such cautionary measures to be strong enough – he had fallen to his hands and knees and was kissing the King's feet. "Please, sire," he begged, "do not allow that ugly traitor to disturb you. He is not worth more than a wave of your hand to order his death."
The King considered this as the red in his face receded. Then he chuckled and reached down to pet his High Master. "I suppose so. Milly, I'd like some more of those tomatoes."
"I have been selfish and eaten the rest," the High Master said, his gaze flicking away from the tomato that the King had stomped underfoot. "I can give you some nice sweet-pastries, though."
"Oh, very well." The King flopped back onto his throne, pouting petulantly.
The High Master carefully gathered up one of the untrampled sweet-pastries and fed it into the mouth of the King, and then just as carefully wiped the King's mouth with his fingers. Afterwards, he transferred those fingers to his own mouth, which caused the King to smile.
Now thoroughly returned to good humor, the King turned his attention to his guest, who had been standing motionless throughout this recital. "How very nice it is," the King said with a dark smile, "to finally meet you, Taylor."
Elsdon Taylor did not reply. He felt chilled to his innermost flesh, and it was not merely because cold manacles bound his wrists behind him, nor that he stood naked in the King's throne room. The chill had grown upon him as he watched the King throw his tantrums.
Another onlooker, perhaps, might have thought that the King's behavior was nothing more than the spoiled antics of young royalty. But Elsdon, who had not yet reached the King's age, knew that it was more than that. A mad King, the High Seeker's voice whispered in Elsdon's memory, and the junior Seeker shivered.
The King had paused to allow the crouching High Master to feed him more pastries. Now he looked up and said to Elsdon, "So why did you try to creep across my border? Tell me that!"
"Sire," Elsdon said, in the even tone he used with prisoners who persisted in dreaming the world into the shape of their own fancy, "I apologize for correcting you on this point, but I did not creep over the border. I applied for entrance at the border, in a lawful fashion, and once I had been granted that entrance, your border soldiers arrested me—"
"I say you crept over my border!" The King threw a pastry hard upon the ground, narrowly missing his High Master. "You came here as a criminal, to assassinate me! Or to commit some other crime. Isn't that right, Milly?"
"Oh, he has certainly committed some crime, sire." The High Master paused from licking his fingers. "We will discover what that crime is when I question him."
The guard nearest the King turned his snigger into a cough this time. The High Master took no notice of him, but bent down and began licking at the crumbs upon the platter, as though he were a dog.
This sight put the King back into an amiable mood. He nudged the High Master with his foot, in the same manner that a man might stroke a beloved pet. "What crime have you committed?" he asked Elsdon, his voice quick with curiosity.
Elsdon had to pause to formulate his reply. He had thought it would be easy, communicating with the King – the fates knew that he had searched many difficult prisoners since becoming a Seeker. But with his prisoners he had always been the one in power, the person who could turn the conversation onto a new path if needed. This experience of being powerless, and of trying to transform a man who held his life dangling over a pit, brought back all the worst memories of his life. Of which the worst, no doubt, was the time he had spent in the Hidden Dungeon.
And would spend again, judging from the smirks that the High Master was sending his way at periodic intervals.
Elsdon tried to cleanse his mind by thinking of the beauty around him: the great dome above, with its golden pattern of stars and comets; the white marble pillars veined in deep red that the soldiers stood against, which were capped with carvings of men and women on theater stages. This was Vovim, as much as the mad King and the fool at his feet, who was now lapping with his tongue. If only Elsdon could reach the good that lay within his love-mate's native land, then his mission might be accomplished.
He tried again. "Sire, I have no wish to do you harm – on the contrary, I have come in the hope of providing you with assistance you need. We heard in the Eternal Dungeon that you have decided to withdraw from the promise you made to the United Order of Prisons three years ago, to reform Vovim's dungeon and prisons. I believe I can show you the advantages—"
"I broke no promises!" The King had risen his feet again. The guards around the room were wincing once more from his screams and casting dubious looks at Elsdon, as though they did not expect him to survive this exchange.
The picture of a royal figure making a humble prisoner cower was broken in the next moment as the King stamped his foot and said, "I never break my promises! The people who say that lie! Tell them, Milly!"
The High Master rose from the ground in a languorous movement, as though he were a slovenly woman rising from her bed. He was smiling. "Oh, sire, anyone who says that does not know you as I do. You have never broken your promise of favor to me, and you never will – I know that, and this man is a fool if he thinks otherwise."
"I want him punished!" The King was pouting again. "Do you hear me, Milly? I want him punished for what he said!"
The High Master came forward to stand in front of Elsdon. The smile did not leave his face as he reached forward and lightly touched one of Elsdon's nipples, which was hard in the cool air. Elsdon stood motionless, barely breathing as the High Master traced his finger down his prisoner's chest, and then lower.
"It will be my pleasure," the High Master purred, "to punish him for you, sire."
The King was leaning forward, trying to see what the High Master was doing. "You like the idea of punishing him?" he asked, and his voice held no eagerness, only suspicion.
The High Master's smile did not waver as he stepped back. "Of course, sire. Even the most disagreeable tasks I undertake with joy, knowing that I am serving you."
The King relaxed back into his throne; several of the guards emitted sighs of relief. The High Master returned to his place and began picking crumbs off the floor, one by one, as though he were an ant collecting grains of sand.
"Sire," Elsdon said in a more breathless voice than before, "I did not mean to condemn any motives you had for acting as you did. No doubt you had poor advisors." He could not forebear from shooting a glance at the High Master, who smiled sweetly back at him. Elsdon felt his heart continue to thump loud, as it had from the moment the High Master had touched him. He managed to rip his gaze away and add, "My only desire is to offer you whatever help you require in determining the future of Vovim's dungeon and prisons. I have brought with me a book that tells of Yclau's experience in such matters—"
"Oh, a book!" The High Master began to pat around his clothes, looking for something. It appeared that the search would take a lifetime, for the man was wearing a garment of loose fabric that looked vaguely like a shirt and trousers, but in the right light might have looked instead like a woman's dress. He cast his hand within this fold and that crevice until, with a shrill cry of triumph such as a child might have produced, he pulled from one of the folds a book with a black cover and gold letters stamped upon it.
He held the volume high, so that the guards at the far end of the room craned their necks to see it. "Is this the book you mean, Seeker?" His voice purred again, soft and vicious.
"What is that?" the King demanded. "Let me see it!"
"Of course, sire!" The High Master tossed the book into the King's lap as though it were a toy to be played with. The King snatched the book up and opened it, but frowned.
"These aren't words!" he said. "They aren't like any of the words I was taught by my tutor!"
The guards flanking the King exchanged brief, anxious looks, as though concerned that their ruler had lost what little ability he had for his work. The High Master simply laughed, though, saying, "It's written in Yclau! Would you believe it, sire? He brought us a book written in his own language, expecting us to know his barbaric tongue!"
The King's laughter was enthusiastically taken up by all of the guards, who seemed to find this idea to be the height of amusement. The High Master, with another limp movement, pulled the book from the King's lap and began turning it this way and that, as though trying to figure out which direction the book should be placed in. His antics were not lost on the King, who nearly slid from his throne in hysteria as the High Master held the book from one corner, between thumb and index finger, licking his lips in apparent uncertainty as to what method he should take to tackle the mystery before him.
The guards' laughter, it was now clear, was aimed at the High Master. The High Master showed no sign that he was aware of this. He surrendered his battle with a sigh of exasperation and looked over at Elsdon with a pout that imitated the King's. "You know what it says!" he declared. "You tell us! What does it say here, on the first page?"
"The first words of the Code of Seeking," Elsdon said quietly, "are, 'A Seeker must be willing to suffer for the prisoners.'"
He could not have spoken further if he had wished; the King's laughter was so great this time that the Vovimian ruler was having to claw at the arms of his throne to keep upright. Several of the guards looked as though they were having to use their rifles as staffs to keep from falling over in their hilarity.
The High Master appeared to have a more serene sense of humor. Or perhaps it was simply that he was a torturer, and he hated to waste any opportunity. With a small smile, he carelessly tore from the book a page, crumpled it into a ball, and stuffed it into his mouth, chewing with an exaggerated movement of the jaw.
Elsdon was already suffused with heat from the laughter around him. Now he felt a flame of rage enter him which was so great that it took all his loyalty to the Seekers' Code to keep him from stepping forward and kicking the High Master in his face. He closed his eyes and tried to breathe in slowly. It was only the title page, he told himself. He is not destroying the Code. And even if he tried to destroy the book, he could not destroy the Code itself. The Code lies within the hearts of men; it is not dependent on ink and paper for its existence.
He heard the High Master say, "Sire, he's right! The Yclau do have something to teach us! They can send us lots of these books, and we can use them to solve our land's famine problem!"
"Or we could use them in our water closets," the King replied, entering into the spirit of the game. "We need some good paper with which to clean our toilets. And maybe we could persuade Yclau's High Seeker to come and clean the toilets for us—"
"Oh!" The High Master's squeal stilled the laughter around the room. "Sire, I almost forgot! I have the most wonderful news for you!"
Elsdon opened his eyes in time to see several of the guards give one another knowing looks. Whatever this news was, it appeared that the other members of the palace household already knew it, and they were simply waiting for the right person to present it to the King. Elsdon supposed that not many Vovimians cared to serve the King closely, given his changeable moods.
Besides, Elsdon thought, his chest tightening as the High Master sent another stinging smile his way, it appeared that it was the High Master's privilege to present this particular news.
"What? What? Tell me!" said the King eagerly.
"You needn't worry about extending an invitation to the High Seeker to clean toilets," the High Master said in his purring voice. "He won't be able to respond to the invitation. Sire, he has gone mad!"
There was a pause, and then the King said in a disappointed voice, "What, again?"
"Oh, but this is better than last time, sire." The High Master shot another glance at Elsdon, who was standing as frozen as a prisoner of hell, encased in ice. "You see, the Yclau hold to the odd custom of not forcing food and water upon the ill – they say that it is every person's right to decide when he should enter into his rebirth." The word was spoken with such contempt that the King chuckled and petted the High Master, as though soothing a yipping dog. The High Master smiled under the King's touch and added, "Last time Layle Smith went into madness, he was incapable of giving himself food or drink – he only survived because his love-mate was by his side and was able to pull him back from madness. This time . . ." He looked over at Elsdon, his grey eyes glittering like children's play-pebbles.
The King gave a sharp, delighted laugh. "You're certain of this?" he asked the High Master. "It isn't simply a rumor?"
The High Master shrugged. "If Layle Smith has died, the Eternal Dungeon wouldn't be likely to admit it. That is, if the High Seeker has left anyone alive in his dungeon by now." He gave Elsdon one of his claw-sharp smiles. "But certainly Layle Smith has gone mad again – the Queen has placed the Yclau palace in mourning, as she did last time. No less than a dozen of your loyal servants rushed to Vovim with this news, each not knowing of the others' coming. They began to arrive at the palace this morning, at dawn."
The King, grinning, looked over at Elsdon, still standing silent. "Well, Seeker?" he said. "Shall I send you back to the Eternal Dungeon so that you can bury your love-mate's ashes?"
His voice felt hollow in his throat; his limbs were beginning to shake, and he feared that his knees would give way in the next moment. He tried not to think of this. He was a Seeker. Thoughts of his duty must come first.
The King's grin disappeared; his eyes narrowed. "No? You don't want to go back to Yclau after what has happened?"
"Sire . . ." It was a struggle to think, even to breathe. He gave up the effort to mold his words into courtly language and said simply, "I want more than anything to go back to the Eternal Dungeon, to find out— To help if I can. But my oath as a Seeker requires me to remain here, continuing my mission."
He did not see how the King reacted; his gaze was snagged by the High Master leaning forward. Elsdon had not taken full notice of the torturer's appearance upon their first meeting. Indeed, he had mistaken the man for a lowly courtier. Now, though, Elsdon found it hard to pull his eyes away. The High Master looked to be slightly older than the High Seeker, perhaps in his forties. His hair, in contradiction to Vovimian fashion for men, fell nearly to his waist; it was the color of rust. He had the high cheekbones common among some Vovimians, and pale skin.
And his grey eyes were, for a brief moment, as impenetrable as a rock.
Then the High Master shrugged, apparently turning aside from whatever thought had prompted this scrutiny of the junior Seeker. He moved his gaze to the King and cried, "Please don't let my prisoner go, sire – please! I'm planning such fun for him. He wants to show us how much worse Vovim's torturers are than Yclau's torturers – sorry, Yclau's Seekers." The sarcasm in his voice fairly flooded the room. "I can show him otherwise, sire. I can prove to him that Vovim's torturers are the best in the world."
The King reached over and ruffled the High Master's hair. "Of course you can, Milly," he said soothingly. "You're an excellent torturer – that's why I made you High Master. But perhaps you should turn the prisoner over to one of your torturers, hmm? We had trouble breaking this man last time, and I want to make sure that he undergoes the best treatment this time."
The High Master hung his head and thrust his lip out, then squealed again, slapping his palms upon the floor in excitement. "I know, sire! I know what will hurt him!"
As the King looked down with the amusement of a father watching his son at play, the High Master retrieved from the floor his abandoned wine glass. He swirled the red liquid in it for a moment, holding the glass up to catch the sun's rays, which were beginning to slant into dusk. Then he picked up the book still lying open on his lap, lifted it into the air, and held the glass above it. Directing another biting smile at Elsdon, he began slowly to tip the wine-filled glass.
From behind Elsdon came a cough. "High Master," said a voice that Elsdon recognized as belonging to one of the High Master's personal guards, who had escorted Elsdon to this room.
"I'm bu-u-usy," said the High Master in a sing-song voice, without lifting his eyes from the drama of the wine glass.
"Excuse me, High Master, but—"
The High Master sighed and looked up at the King. "He won't listen to me. None of them will listen to me. Why won't my men obey me?"
The King smiled but did not pet his High Master this time; he was watching, enthralled, as the wine neared the point of its fall. "What do you want?" he asked, without looking at the guard.
"Sire, Master Toler is waiting outside."
The wine glass crashed to the floor.
The wine did not touch the book as it fell. The High Master's hand had jerked at the last moment, causing the glass to smash at the King's feet, scattering shards and liquid all over the regal cloak. The King squeaked with disgust, raising his feet to avoid the liquid rolling about the ground.
The High Master took no notice. "Toler?" he said abruptly to the guard. "Toler Forge?"
"I don't know, High Master – he only gave his name of masterhood. He says that he is passing through these parts and will not be able to stay for long. He says that if you wish to give him any message before he leaves—"
"Milly!" cried the King, placing his booted heels on the throne in an attempt to avoid the mess. "Milly, it's all messy here! I want it cleaned!"
"Of course, sire." The High Master sprang to his feet in a movement quicker than he had shown until that time. "I'll check to see whether any cleaning servants are in the hallway."
He moved past Elsdon, who resisted the temptation to look backwards to check whether the newcomer could be seen through the doors. His greater concern was being left alone with the King.
"I have glass all over my cloak!" cried the King, looking at the guard nearest him. "Do something!"
With clear reluctance, the guard moved forward and tried to push the glass away with the tip of his bayonet. A moment later, there was a ripping sound as the tail of the cloak fell to the floor.
"Idiot!" cried the King, slapping him back. "Brains of an Yclau! You'll die between horses for this! Do you hear that?" he asked the other guard. "He's to die between horses."
"Yes, sire," said the second guard in a colorless voice. The first guard stepped back into his original place; his hands were white-knuckled around the rifle as he resumed his stiff stance.
The King looked around for further help. Unfortunately, the first person he saw was Elsdon.
"You!" he said. "Pick up those pieces of glass! Now!"
"Sire," Elsdon said, in a voice that had calmed many a hysterical prisoner, "I'd like to help, but as my hands are bound behind my back—"
"Don't you refuse me!" The King scrambled onto his feet, teetering atop the throne as though he were a small boy balancing himself on a log. "How dare you refuse me! You'll die between the horses too! Slowly! After you've been skinned alive!"
Elsdon felt his mouth dry in an instant. He knew that, in this land, such threats were not exaggerated imagery. "Sire—"
The word choked in his mouth as a blow across his back sent him to his knees.
Behind him a cold voice, speaking in a thick provincial accent, said, "When the King gives an order, you do not argue with him. Obey."
He could not breathe. The blow had nearly driven him flat onto the ground. After a moment he managed to choke out, "How—?"
A second blow sent his face to the ground, inches from the glass. The cold voice said, "With your mouth, swine. That's all your mouth is good for."
He managed to pick his head off the floor, though he was trembling so hard that he was sure he would lose consciousness in the next moment. With what little wits he had left, he searched the ground with his eyes until he found a large shard of glass within reach. Carefully, he bent down.
He managed to lift the pointed edge of it with his teeth; then he twisted his torso in order to place the glass equally carefully on the ground next to him. Beside him, he heard a loud sigh.
"This will take forever!" cried the High Master. "Sire, permit me." He flounced down onto the ground and, ignoring the glass, he began using the loose end of his shirt to wipe up the wine.
The King took no notice of him; he was staring over Elsdon's head. "Who are you?" he asked.
"Oh!" The High Master looked up from his task, his face brightening. "I forgot introductions! Sire, with your permission, I'd like to present Master Toler, who is the finest torturer ever to have passed through the Hidden Dungeon."
The King snorted. "I thought the High Seeker claimed that honor."
"Oh, he claims it . . ." The High Master smiled as he bent toward the floor again.
From behind Elsdon, the cold voice said, "It is an honor to meet you, sire – many is the day when I wished I had been able to enter your presence. I had not thought to receive such grace during my brief visit through this part of your kingdom."
"I don't know you," was the King's reply to this courteous speech. "Why don't I know him, Milly? If he's the best torturer in Vovim – which means he's the best torturer in the world – then he ought still to be working in my dungeon!"
The High Master, perhaps wisely, used this moment to rub his nose. The fact that the cloth he used was the wine-drenched shirt-tail appeared not to bother him. The cold voice said, "Your graciousness is as high as that of your father, sire. Some years ago, my father died; since I was my father's only son, your majestic father ordered me to return to my home, so that I could protect and support my mother and sisters. Since that time, I have worked in one of your provincial prisons. It is a smaller role than I had planned to take in my life, but I content myself with the knowledge that I am following the wishes of your father."
"Oh." The King appeared to be satisfied by this explanation. He was still standing atop the throne. Now, as his High Master finished wiping up the mess, the King sat down again, but he left his heels upon the chair, squeezing his legs tight to his chest as though he were six rather than twenty-six.
"I hope that you will forgive me for my boldness in correcting a prisoner before obtaining your leave, sire," the master torturer said. "I could not bear to hear a barbarian address you in such a fashion."
The King waved his hand in a careless manner. "You have my leave to punish him in whatever manner you wish. He has been difficult since he entered into my presence – isn't that right, Milly?"
"Most difficult, sire," said the High Master as he returned his attention to the abandoned platter, picking glass out of it. "He is much in need of the hand of an experienced torturer such as Master Toler."
"Thank you, High Master. You are most gracious, sire. . . . Up, swine."
The increased coldness of the master torturer's voice sent chills into Elsdon's stomach. He scrambled to his feet; then, fearing what he would see, he turned his head to look at the torturer standing beside him.
The man was dressed formally, in the manner of Vovimian torturers: boots tipped with steel, tight black trousers, and an equally tight black shirt whose sleeves were tied above the elbows. His left hip was empty of any weapon, but in his right hand – Elsdon noted without surprise – was a sleek whip. Flung back over his shoulders was an elegant cloak of dusk blue, while at his throat was the only informal touch, a torque with rustic carvings of sharp blades and, in the center, a bound, writhing prisoner.
He looked much like the torturers Elsdon had seen in the Hidden Dungeon three years before, except for two things: his gloves were made of leather rather than chain-mail, and his face was covered entirely with a veil of black gauze, hiding all but the dimmest impression of his features.
The King, catching up with the obvious, appeared to notice this at the same moment. He asked sharply, "Why do you wear the veil of the prophets?"
"I will gladly remove it if it offends you, sire," Master Toler replied. He had not looked in the direction of Elsdon since the junior Seeker had risen to his feet; his face was turned toward the King. "Under ordinary circumstances I am not permitted to open my veil except in the moments before I perform executions. It is a long custom of the torturers in my province to garb ourselves like the prophets, as a sign that we serve the torture-god, whose earthly representative is yourself."
The King wriggled with pleasure at this statement, but he continued to frown, saying, "I'm not sure I like it. It looks too much like those hoods that Seekers wear."
"Of course it does, sire." Master Toler, without making his voice any warmer, somehow managed to convey a light tone. "How could it not, since they stole the idea from us?"
His statement caused a murmur to dance amidst the guards, who until this point had been eyeing the master torturer's whip suspiciously. Apparently they were not accustomed to permitting armed men into this room. Only the High Master seemed unsurprised by – or perhaps uninterested in – Master Toler's statement. He had returned to nibbling from the platter.
The King leaned forward enthusiastically, crossing his legs. "Have they stolen other things from us?"
"Sire, I needn't remind you who masters the Eternal Dungeon. How could a man like that – an oath-breaker to his King, a traitor to his kingdom – resist the temptation to steal? Yclau has always stolen from Vovim, but the High Seeker has increased this custom tenfold. As this prisoner" – he turned his face toward Elsdon at last – "no doubt knows."
"He's the High Seeker's love-mate," the King explained, as though avid to exchange gossip with the master torturer.
"Ah. Well, then, no doubt he has encouraged the High Seeker to commit his thefts. The arrogance of the Yclau knows no bounds."
The High Master looked up from the platter then, saying, "I'm not sure that the Yclau are the most arrogant persons in the world. I believe that honor goes to Layle Smith."
"He made me look a fool!" Without warning, the King was screaming again. Even the High Master winced this time at the sound of this siren.
Master Toler, though, appeared to take the change of mood in stride. "I have heard of that unhappy episode," he said. "Your patience with the Yclau after such wickedness is most remarkable."
"You talk about the Yclau again," complained the High Master. "But it is Layle Smith who affronted the King! The man's crimes are too countless to number: he offers his services to an enemy ruler, he speaks ill words against the Hidden Dungeon, he murders one of my torturers—"
"What?" The King's scream was higher-pitched this time; Elsdon saw the windows of the throne room vibrate. "When did this happen? Who was murdered?"
The High Master looked as though he would have liked to have gulped his words back. But showing more resolution than he had up till this time, he said, "It was the man who tortured Taylor three years ago. You had ordered his execution in any case, since he was thought to be responsible for the kidnapping, so I didn't think—"
"You didn't think!" The King was on his feet now, kicking the High Master. "You didn't think to tell me Layle Smith had murdered one of my torturers? Villain! Traitor!"
The King's foremost guard, clearly relieved that this episode was distracting the King from memories of a cut cloak, beckoned to a pair of guards standing by the wall; they stepped forward. At that moment, though, the High Master flung himself prostrate on the ground, wrapped his arms around the King's ankles, and began sobbing hysterically.
"Kill me, sire!" he begged. "Have my body torn apart by your royal horses! I have failed you, I have failed you, I deserve the worst and most painful death—"
Several of the guards snickered. The remainder stared down at the grovelling High Master with contempt clear in their expressions. The King, after trying several emotions upon his face, settled for condescension. He reached down and patted the High Master on the head.
"There, there," he said to the snivelling man. "I know that you meant well, Milly. I forgive you. Now, sit up straight – you want to make a good impression on Master Toler."
The High Master slowly pulled himself into a sitting position. The King, with a gesture meant to convey graciousness, indicated that he could have the privilege of laying his head upon the royal lap. The High Master did so, placing his arms around the King's legs, as though seeking continued support. He turned his head, and in his face was a blankness, as though he were indeed awaiting Master Toler's judgment.
Master Toler did not disappoint him. "The great have no need to go out of their way to adopt dignified poses, sire," he said. "Their dignity lies in the work that they do, and your High Master is a supreme example of that."
Several of the guards snickered at this backhanded compliment, but the faintest of smiles appeared on the High Master's face. When he spoke, though, his voice was peevish. "I should have killed him," he said. "I should have been there to protect the man Layle Smith murdered, and I should have killed the High Seeker. The man who was murdered had trained me, you see," he explained to the King, raising his head.
The King stroked the High Master's hair without commenting. It was Master Toler who said, "A worthy thought, High Master. Any man who would betray his master – as Layle Smith did by murdering your torturer – deserves death a thousand times over. If the High Seeker were in my hands, I would make him realize that."
"Would you?" asked the High Master in a soft voice, like a child begging a treat.
"I would. Of course, if the man had a conscience, there would be no need for action on my part – the flaying of guilt is greater than any flaying performed by a torturer. But since the man is cold of heart, it is unlikely that any words spoken by a Vovimian could reach him."
The High Master closed his eyes, as though contemplating this information. Or perhaps it was simply time for his afternoon nap. The King yawned, apparently of the same mind; then his eye strayed over to Elsdon, who had been trying his best to glimpse through the veil whether Master Toler's eyes were as cold as his voice.
"What about him?" the King asked. "He should be punished. For his arrogance. And for stealing something. He stole something, didn't he?" He prodded the head of the High Master, who looked up at him with heavy-lidded eyes.
"Certainly the Yclau have stolen something," said Master Toler. "They have stolen something invaluable to you, sire, and have presented it to the world as their own. They have received praise for what you alone ought to receive praise for. They have stolen your fame and your honor."
"Have they really?" This news clearly delighted the King. "What have they stolen? Can we get it back?"
"In a sense, we have never truly lost what they took, though it is in my province that the treasure Layle Smith stole is best known. High Master, if I might have your permission . . ." He inclined his head toward the man curled around the feet of the King. The High Master nodded, looking somewhat more interested than before.
"What are you going to do?" asked the King, thumping the arms of his throne in his enthusiasm.
"What you most desire, sire. I am going to torture the prisoner. And thereby I will show what treasure the Yclau barbarians have stolen from us." He turned his face toward Elsdon, and Elsdon felt the chill enter his heart.