Actions

Work Header

Hidden (The Balance #3)

Work Text:

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

Much thought has been given by psychologists to the vexed question of how a child's gender and sexuality are formed. The predominant theory in our times is that the child's impulses toward particular gender behavior and sexual behavior are not fully formed until he or she takes on his or her first romantic partner. At that time, most psychologists believe, the training that the less experienced partner receives under the aegis of the more experienced partner serves to seal his or her future. In extreme cases, the person's sexuality may be so narrowed that he or she can only be attracted thereafter to a single gender.

This is the predominant theory; but many other ideas have been advanced over the centuries. Perhaps the oddest comes from a fourth-century manuscript – not originally intended as a psychological document – whose author theorizes that one's gender and sexuality are determined, not by one's first romantic partner, but by one's parents.

We may be tempted to dismiss such a theory as the ravings of a sexual deviant. Indeed, even by the standards of his own society, the author was out of the ordinary . . .

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.

o—o—o
o—o—o

Day 3: One hundred lashes today. At least, it was supposed to be one hundred lashes, but my darling torturer (I call him that to annoy him) was fooled when I pretended to faint after the fifteenth lash. He didn't even order the guards in the corridor to poke me back to wakefulness with their bayonets. Makes me ashamed to acknowledge that we belong to the same profession.

Afterwards he complied with my request for pencil and ledger-book. He even sharpened the pencil for me with his dagger. Idiot, idiot, idiot. Doesn't he realize what could be done to him if anyone finds out he's giving special favors to me?

Why am I surrounded by incompetents? This dungeon is filled with torturers who bungle simple rackings, burn themselves on their own pokers, and grow enamored with their prisoners and help them escape. I'm glad Toler isn't here to witness this.

Day 4: Another attempt at the hundred lashes, another bluffed faint. This time my darling torturer brought water to me. Any hopes I'd had, though, that he would dash it in my face were frustrated when I discovered that he was planning to give me water to assuage my thirst. I would have screamed at him, but I was too busy gulping down the water. It's been four days since I was allowed to eat or drink.

I reminded him of his duty afterwards, though. He looked hurt, and then slapped me to the ground. There might be some hope for him yet.

Day 18: The gap in time is because we actually managed to finish the hundred lashes. Instead of immediately following up on his advantage, though, my darling torturer allowed me time to heal. I might as well admit that he's a loss and resign myself to being in the care of the kindest, gentlest torturer who has ever performed in the Hidden Dungeon.

Curse it, no. He will not disgrace me like this. I'll see him dead first.

Day 19: Gave my darling torturer a small lecture yesterday about the duty of a torturer to his art. It seems to have done him good; he used the poker on me afterwards. I'm still able to write, which means he was too soft on me. I wish I could figure out how to reach him.

In the meantime, I can continue keeping this record, which I expect will be invaluable to future generations of the King's Torturers. This must be the first time in history that a prisoner has recorded his reactions while being tortured to death.

Day 20: More of the poker. My darling torturer doesn't seem to have the ability to vary his performances. He hasn't even raped me yet.

I reminded him of this – oh gods, why must I spoon-feed the men here as though they were small children? He growled, "You'd like that too much," which was quite a satisfactory answer.

I gave him a simpering smile and said, "Not quite, my darling. I'm always the husband."

This wasn't as truthful an answer as I could have given, and I'm thankful that Master Aeden is no longer around. He would undoubtedly have been assigned the production of my slow death, and he would have caught me out on that lie at once. I forget how many times I tried to slip into my old master's bed – eight? nine? "I won't sleep with my apprentices," he always told me.

Cursed man. He failed to tell me that he wouldn't sleep with men either. "That sort of thing isn't proper," he told me on the day I became a master torturer and triumphantly came to his living cell, expecting to receive my just reward. "A man's job is to serve as husband – to a woman if he's properly made, or if need be, to a boy in one of the brothels. You're not going to disgrace yourself by acting as wife to me, and I can assure you that I have no intention of acting as husband to you. You must follow in the footsteps of your father and learn to be a husband."

Oh, so easy for him to say. He hadn't grown up with a mother who proudly told the world how my father was master of our house, and then proceeded to make most of the household decisions on his behalf. Cursed woman. I wish she were still alive so that I could place her on the rack. I suppose it's too much to hope that the torture-god is taking care of that for me.

Why am I thinking about such things? I hope this isn't a sign that my mind is starting to go. I need to stay alert till the end, for the sake of this record.

Day 21: The leg locks today. Gods. Now I know why my prisoners always lost their voices screaming.

Day 40: He has let me heal again. I'm beginning to have the terrible feeling that he's acting under orders. How long has it been since the Hidden Dungeon received orders that a prisoner be tortured for years? It hasn't happened in my lifetime anyway. But it would be just like him to choose me for the honor.

Self-sucking, foul-breathed, brainless man with not a single speck of art in his soul . . .

Oh, why do I bother? If I recited a thousand curses, it would only be to repeat what the whole world knows. Why didn't I seize power when I had the chance? It was what my men expected me to do. And then, when I didn't, they decided that I was what I presented myself to the world as being: the King's lackey, a girlish, cowardly, idiotic man.

They may have been right.

Day 42: I had to have another little talk with my darling torturer: he has been letting too much time go before my next torture. He promised to bring me into the rack room tomorrow, to use the instruments there.

That sounded more like what I'd expect from one of my men. I tested him, saying, "Please don't use the hook on me. I want my hands to be well enough to write in my ledger."

He hit me then. And kicked me. And told me he'd be the one to decide my fate, and I'd better keep my mouth shut if I wanted any teeth left.

It was all so artificial – none of it was from the heart. What a shame. I would swear that my darling torturer has fire in him; I would never have let him work for me if he hadn't had promise. I can't imagine where that fire is going. To the brothel boys, I suppose.

When I suggested this, though, he turned red. "I don't hold with making boys into wives," he said. "They'll be men some day."

"Well," I suggested, letting my hand linger on him, "you could let them be the husbands. I'd help you train for that."

His kicks then were much more convincing. Really, he has the potential in him to be a true artist, if he would only put his mind to his work.

Day 43: Not the hook. The claw. Gods help me.

Day 58: My worst fears are confirmed. My darling torturer admitted today that he is under orders to keep me alive as long as possible.

I'm ashamed to admit that I tried to subvert him. I'm glad to report that he refused to be subverted. "It's the King's orders," he said. "It's as much as my life is worth to disobey him."

"Shall I tell you what I think of the King's orders?" I asked, and proceeded to do so. I have no real hope, though, that he'll report my words to the King. He undoubtedly wants to stay as far away from the royal personage as he can. Wise man.

Day 64: He still hasn't raped me. I can't figure out whether I'm disappointed.

I don't know why it keeps running through my mind that I'm to die a virgin. The torture-god knows that, from a certain perspective, I lost my virginity long ago. With a sweet, frail prisoner who screamed when I took him – I've never forgotten him. A shame that I had to strangle that one.

I don't think anyone, not even Master Aeden, guessed what it was that I really wanted. Master Aeden thought I'd be happy enough once I started raping prisoners, and I let him think that. True, it was a pleasure to practice my art, especially as I came to know how skilled I was in this role. That ought to have been enough.

Toler knew, curse him. Toler, "Layle Smith" as he now calls himself, that traitor who betrayed the King of Vovim and took charge of the dungeon in the Queendom of Yclau. Intelligent man, though I would have chosen a different country to flee to: nobody in that barbaric land besides Toler knows that torture can be an art.

Anyway, he guessed. Came to me one night eighteen months after he started his apprenticeship under Master Aeden, and told me – me, Journeyman Millard – that he believed I had not yet been fully trained, because I did not know what it was like to be a prisoner.

"I can show you," he said in that cold-blooded manner of his. "I can rape you."

I threw him against the wall. Most foolish thing I ever did. Not simply because it was like throwing a cold, deadly viper against the wall – I was lucky to escape alive from that encounter. No, it was foolish because it was the only chance I'd ever had and would ever have.

Until him. But that doesn't truly count.

Day 65: My darling torturer tried a little flaying on me today. He took it ill when I attempted to show him how he could improve his technique.

He still hasn't crippled my hands. I ought to reprove him for that: he should know that, if a prisoner begs to have a certain part of the body preserved, it's the torturer's duty to destroy that part of the body. I'm losing interest in training him, though. My mind is on how I can end this. I wish I hadn't been so effective in finding ways to prevent prisoners from killing themselves.

I thought of death after that first night with him. Then I decided that, if I were any sort of man, I would have killed myself on the day he named me High Master of his dungeon. Or at the moment I decided to go to his bedroom to keep him sweet. Yes, that act preserved my life for nine years, far longer than any other High Master survived. I was able to keep him convinced that I had no ambitions, that I wasn't any threat to his throne.

But at what a price. It wasn't simply knowing what my men and the rest of the world thought of me. It was knowing what I thought of myself. I would lie awake at night, after it was over, and remember the dreams I had had when I was young, of lying on silken sheets covered with rose petals, as my new husband took my maidenhead.

Here is where such ill-made dreams had brought me: to having what remained of my manhood stripped from me, as the world watched.

I could comfort myself in those days that my work remained. Whatever the others thought of me, my prisoners still knew that I had power over them. I could take them, I could break them, I could make them regret they'd ever met me.

All that is gone. What am I now?

Day 66: He says he'll rape me tomorrow. Thank the gods. However long I linger in death, at least I'll die knowing that someone besides him has taken me.

Day 67: Curse. Curse. He lied. It was the rack. Oh, gods, I cannot continue this. How can I find a way to die?

Day 68: I begged him to kill me today. I have been reduced to that.

It took me an hour to write the two sentences above. I don't expect I'll be able to continue this record. I fail at this as at all else.

Day 89: He healed me again. I forgot. I am not to be allowed to die.

He is better at his art than I had thought. He knows how to raise hope, only to dash it again. I told him so; he deserves the praise. He said nothing. I wish I had Toler's ability to read the thoughts of other men. If I could anticipate which instrument he was going to use on me next, I might be able to figure out a way to make him kill me.

Day 94: Gods. Gods. Gods. Every offering I ever made, every prisoner I ever sacrificed to the torture-god, was worth it.

I am to be allowed to die. My darling torturer – who is not quite so wise as I'd thought – went to the King and told him what I'd said about him. Or words to that effect; I don't think my torturer remembered the exact wording after all this time.

Amazingly, he survived. The King, it seems, was too furious at me to execute the messenger. Acting on his usual stupid impulses, he ordered my immediate death rather than letting me linger on as I deserved. There are advantages to serving a king who has the mind of a child.

I quizzed my darling torturer carefully to be sure that he understood his duties. He must seal the wound with the brand immediately after cutting me: otherwise, I will die on the castration table and not be available for the horses. And when he ties me to the horses, it must be tight. The King will not be pleased if the knots give way when the horses begin pulling, and I'm left alive and whole rather than rent asunder.

I don't think he was listening properly – he kept turning green. Well, I must be fair; I felt a bit queasy too when I performed my first royal execution. And believe me, there is little in this dungeon that makes me queasy.

Day 95: A slight delay: one of the royal horses has gone lame and must be replaced. I wish this were over with. I'm beginning to think about what it will be like.

I'm determined to do this right, if I've done nothing else right in my life. When they take me to the castration shed, I will not whimper and whine and look like the man I have been for the past nine years – like the man I have been my whole life, if I would be honest with myself. I will be the man my father should have been: strong and full of courage. I will not bargain for my life, I will not plead for mercy. Nor will I plead for Mercy. I'm sure She gave up on me long ago. It will be her Brother who welcomes me into afterdeath, and I am determined to show the torture-god that I have the skills to continue my art in his dungeon.

For if he declines my services and sends me instead to the cells of hell . . .

I can do this. I can be what Master Aeden wanted me to be. I will be cursed if Toler hears that I ended my life grovelling. He knows my weaknesses already; let him know my strengths.

Day 96: Tonight. It's to be tonight.

I asked my darling torturer to preserve this volume after my death, for the sake of future generations of torturers. He refused. Here I've been waiting for him to become a true artist, and he chooses the worst possible moment to comply.

I hope he is equally competent with the knife. I've seen messy castrations, and I—

o—o—o

Oh, gods. I cannot do this. I cannot. Mercy, remember me.

o—o—o

They are coming. Curse my mother again. If it had not been for her, I would have the courage to do this. I am sure of it. May I meet her in the hell-cell where I am placed.

o—o—o

May the torture-god of hell take my darling torturer and flay him until his bones have been scraped clean, and then break those bones into a thousand pieces.

He spared my life! I'm too angry to write more.

Day 148: I finally managed to cool my fury enough today to ask my darling torturer where we are.

"Yclau," he said.

This is the limit. I must find a way to kill him.

Day 157: The cottage is on the outskirts of a city, I think. The capital city, perhaps? If so, we must be near Toler's dungeon. I wonder whether he has heard yet of my death.

I let my darling torturer tell me about it tonight, after I had ascertained that I had enough patience to keep from throttling him. It was quite simple, really. He showed the King my bloody body and told him I'd died under the cutting. Apparently, the King turned so green that he didn't even notice I was still breathing.

His guards noticed, I'm sure. But the King had decided I was dead, and you don't contradict the wishes of the King. My body was testimony to that.

I told him, "My darling, you were too sweet. And to have gone to the trouble to make my death look so authentic."

He turned pink then. "I had to cut you," he said in a low voice. "The King isn't such a fool that he couldn't tell the difference between a castrate and a whole man."

I wonder. I'm having a hard time telling the difference myself. Oh, there's the pain, of course – I hate to think how many months it will be before that is gone. And there are obvious results – no rose-petalled sheets in my future. But I would have expected that the change from being a man to becoming a half-man would be greater than it has been.

Unless I was a half-man all along.

Day 161: I found myself staring out the window today at the women passing by. When I was young, I used to hate my mother for not giving birth to a girl. Now, though, I suspect that I would have been just as unhappy that way: I would have been a boyish girl, play-acting at torture and being shunned by the other girls.

I don't miss the torture, oddly enough. I ought to – it was my art, and without it, I'm nothing. Nothing lies ahead of me in life, and nothing dwells behind me that is worth thinking about – except the knowledge that I did not plead on my way to the castration shed. I hope Toler heard that.

It's not too late to kill myself. This would be a good time to end matters.

Day 169: It really is a lovely cottage. I asked my darling torturer how he could afford to buy it.

"It was a present from the King," he told me. "He rewarded me with gold, and with my freedom from the dungeon, in thanks for services rendered."

I didn't bother to ask him how he managed to smuggle my unconscious body to the border. Did he have help from some of my other men? I don't suppose there's any hope that I left behind a single torturer who was worthy of his calling. The only worthy successor to me lives in this city, in the dungeon he runs.

I wonder whether he had as much contempt for me as the others did. I suppose I'll never know.

Gods, I'm tired. I could sleep forever.

Day 177: I decided today that, if I truly did not have the courage to kill myself, I must at least make a show at being what I never was: a man, capable of caring for myself. I told my darling torturer that I was planning to look for a job.

"A job?" he said, staring at me as though I'd proposed hiring myself out to a boy brothel. Perhaps he thought that was what I had in mind.

I gave him another of those simpering smiles I perfected nine years ago, and which I haven't been able to rid myself of. "Work, my darling. Money. Your gift from the King won't last us forever. —Unless," it occurred to me suddenly, "you've been waiting for me to move out?"

I don't know why the pause that followed seemed so long. I suppose it was simply that there was nothing else left for me to lose. I was no good at facing the end: I'd already acknowledged that to myself.

He had turned pink again. "There's no need for that," he said. "I mean . . . You shouldn't do outside work any more. Not with you changed like you are. It's not proper for you to . . . It was proper in the past, but now . . ."

Gods help me, I don't know why I ever thought myself competent in my art. It took me three whole minutes of listening to him babble before it finally came home to me what he was saying.

When I realized, I suddenly remembered the smile that had been there before I taught myself to simper. "My darling," I said, "you don't mean to say you've grown enamored with me?"

He turned yet more pink, but stood rooted as I walked forward. Nor did he pull away when I put my arms around his waist.

"Blue," I purred. "I shall wear a blue gown for you. It matches your eyes."

He swallowed heavily, and when he spoke, his voice was husky. "There's no need to go that far," he said. "I just want you to understand . . . I'm the husband."

"My darling, I wouldn't have it any other way," I said, slouching myself so that it would be less obvious that I was the taller one.

It would have been more accurate to say I couldn't have it any other way. But there was truth to what I said, though I did not yet wholly realize it – gods, looking back on my entries in this ledger, I ought to have realized it. The knowledge that had been hidden from me didn't fully emerge, though, until this evening, when I was sitting on my darling's lap, feeding him the food I'd cooked, as I had in all my childhood imaginings. As I fed him, I told him of my other childhood imagining, of what it would be like on my wedding night.

By the time I was through, I'd put him in such a state that there was no question of my being given rose-petalled sheets: he simply thrust me to the floor and took me there. Thank the gods I'd had enough foresight to serve butter with the dinner.

Afterwards, he apologized at length, telling me he'd give me everything I'd asked for, and more. I told him not to think of it again – that knowing he wanted me was better than all the silken sheets in the world.

It was true too. I realize now that, during all these years, I've never imagined myself being taken except by slow, stolid Master Aeden (who didn't want me) or by cold, calculating Toler (who didn't really want me either). To be taken by a man who truly wanted me, and who is as hot and forceful in bed as myself . . . My toes tingle now, just to think of it. Why didn't I ever realize that a man's nerve endings can still function when his manhood has been taken from him? I would have recommended to the King long ago that castrations be replaced with flayings.

Day 200: This is the last page of my ledger, but it hardly matters: for days, I have been too busy to write. I never imagined that taking care of a house could be an art.

My darling has been ever so helpful, offering to work extra hours at the manufactory so that he can buy me cloth for curtains and promising to get me a cat so that I can be rid of the mice in my kitchen. I told him not to bother with the last, that I had my own way of dealing with mice. I don't want to lose my hand entirely at my old profession.

I've decided to tear out the final pages of this ledger and have my darling send the remainder of the account, up to the time of my execution, to Yclau's dungeon. It may help Toler with his work. If he sheds an uncharacteristic tear or two upon reading of my death, it will be as much as he deserves, for not taking me after I threw him against the wall so long ago. But I suppose all has worked out for the best: if I had become Toler's wife when he made his offer, Toler would not have become master of his own dungeon, and I would not be where I am today. Where I belong at last.

My darling is so very sweet. He let me help him with repairing the chimney yesterday, and didn't say a word when I carried the heaviest loads. And last night in bed . . . Well, as I told him, a true husband is one who is artistic enough to master from below, now and then.

Dear mother. She would be so proud if she knew that I've followed in her footsteps.

o—o—o
o—o—o

. . . Indeed, even by the standards of his own society, the author was out of the ordinary, though from our perspective, his oddity lies in the fact that he tried to conform himself to the behavioral standards of his society rather than recognize the essential flaws in his society's concepts of gender and sexuality. This has led psychologists who have examined the manuscript to put forward a new theory: that one's gender and sexuality are determined, not by other individuals in one's life, but rather by a person's attempts to shape his or her inborn impulses into a socially acceptable pattern.

One may ask what all this has to do with the Eternal Dungeon, for though the manuscript in question was found in the archives of the Eternal Dungeon, its origins evidently lie in Vovim. What is interesting about the manuscript, from the point of view of historians of the Yclau dungeon, is that it is the only document found in that dungeon which makes explicit references to sexuality. Occasional references to gender can be found in documents describing the early hiring of women as inner dungeon workers, but the inhabitants of the Eternal Dungeon seem to have been singularly uninterested in the topic of sexuality – or at least considered this to be a highly private matter.

A historian may be tempted to judge from the dungeon's silence about sexuality – its lack of agonized and self-deprecating memoirs, such as can be found in Vovim during this period – that the Golden Age of the Eternal Dungeon was also the Golden Age of sexuality in Yclau. But perhaps that would be taking a step too far, for what is kept hidden is not always hidden for reasons of pride. It may be that, in the lonely and anxious scribblings of a Vovimian struggling to come to terms with his gender and sexuality, we have seen that era at its best.

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.