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Balladeer (The Balance #5)

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The year 360, the sixth month. (The year 1881 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
 

Historians have paid so much attention to Layle Smith, the High Seeker of the Eternal Dungeon, that little has been written about his companions. In particular, historians have neglected the man who was, by all accounts, the High Seeker's most intimate companion: Elsdon Taylor.

I leave aside the endless – and frequently distasteful – speculation concerning the nature of the relationship between Layle Smith and Elsdon Taylor. That the two Seekers held strong affection for each other is all we can know for certain, and all that we need know. There is no reason for historians to be forever flinging open the bedroom doors of their research subjects.

So obsessed have historians proved to be with matters of sex that it has not occurred to any of them to ask a very simple question: Why, in the year 360, did Elsdon Taylor begin to hold opinions that were opposed to the opinions held by every other torturer in the Eternal Dungeon, especially the views of the High Seeker?

Elsdon Taylor, after all, had been rescued from death by the High Seeker. He had been trained by the man, shared living quarters with him, nursed him through his illnesses. And yet, at a time when no other torturer in the Queendom of Yclau questioned the conditions of his work, Elsdon Taylor abruptly underwent a startling transformation in his beliefs.

We may never know what caused the young Seeker to depart from the shadow of his mentor . . .

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.
 

CHAPTER ONE

Leaning on the wooden handle of his iron shovel, Yeslin Bainbridge gasped for breath as he wiped the back of his blistered hand across his forehead. The hand came away slick with sweat. His chest was covered with sweat too, fierce with fire from the furnace before him. He would have liked to take off his shirt – he had enough sense not to wear an undervest on a job like this – but the Boss Man wouldn't permit it.

Or so he'd been told. The Boss Man hadn't shown his face yet. Nor would he, Yeslin had been made to understand. Only his voice.

"Hey, boy, why you stopping?" asked Wade, not pausing in his own stoking. "You think this is one of those picnics you masters hold?"

Wade had pitched his voice to be heard all down the corridor; the other stokers laughed. Yeslin could see them clearly in the furnace light: a dozen men of varying builds and ethnicities, but all young enough to shovel coal for hours . . . till they reached the age where their backs gave out and their throats wheezed from the accumulated dust of the coals.

Yeslin was the youngest of them, just nineteen. That placed certain challenges in his path.

He straightened up. He was not full of muscle, but he made up for it – he had been told in the past – by the expression that came onto his face when he confronted a bully.

It had taken him many months to learn to adopt that expression when he himself was being bullied. It had been his brother who had taught him that meekly accepting being bullied was as bad as encouraging another man to be a bully. His brother, he had found during the past three years, had good instincts in such matters.

"Oh, aye?" he said. He could not do anything about his accent, which had been beaten into him by a schoolmaster who had higher aspirations for him than his drunken birth-parents did, but he knew how to speak the local dialect, and would do so when the occasion warranted it. "So tell me, which am I? A commoner? If so, this is a matter for fists, ain't it? Or am I one of the elite? If so, speak respect to your better, lad."

Laughter came from the other stokers. Ward looked confused and a little frightened. Yeslin had guessed that this approach would have that effect. Wade was from the First District, where speaking disrespectfully to a man of the higher class was a killing matter. It must be a continuous trial to him to live in the capital of Yclau, where matters of rank were determined by speech and the cut of a man's suit. Someone like Yeslin, who spoke as though he were mid-class, yet wore the clothes of a laborer . . . No wonder Wade was angry to be working alongside him. No wonder the little jibes.

Suddenly filled with sympathy for the man, Yeslin reached over and slapped him on the back. "Nay, mate, I'm only making mock. Don't blame me for the accent I had beaten into me."

Wade's expression cleared. "Yeah, boy. Can't blame a man for following the orders of his betters."

This gave him the opening he wanted. "I suppose that it's easier to follow the orders of certain torturers, rather than the orders of other torturers. What I mean to say is, there are reasonable bosses, and then there is the other type—"

"Seekers," said Leo with a frown. A brawny man, he looked like the elite's caricatures of idiot commoners. Yeslin had already marked him as the quickest-minded man among the stokers. "They're called Seekers, not torturers. They seek the truth about the crimes that the prisoners have committed."

"So they claim," countered Yeslin, but this observation prompted so many frowns that he changed tactics. "You've seen this for yourself?"

Curt, a sandy-haired youth, said, "We don't need to. We got the Code of Seeking."

He pretended ignorance. "What's that?"

"Here." Leo reached into the breast pocket of his shirt, pulled out a slender object that was no bigger than the man's hand, and tossed it toward Yeslin.

Yeslin caught the object automatically with his free hand and stared down at it. He would have feigned astonishment at this point if he had not been so busy being genuinely astonished. A book. Written by the elite. In the breast pocket of a stoker.

All around him now was laughter. "Catching him off-guard, you are, Leo. He didn't look for that." "Guess he thinks none of us can read. Those fellows in the lighted world – they think they're better than us." "Aye, they don't understand us up there."

"Nay, I figured on you knowing your letters." Yeslin held up the book on his palm. "But bosses giving out free books to their laborers – now, that's something to ballad about."

He had said the wrong thing; he knew that, the moment he spoke. The laughter and smiles disappeared; the men exchanged glances.

It was Leo who replied, in a gruff voice, "We don't gossip about our work to the lighted world. You think you're going to gossip, well . . ." He exchanged looks with the others. The stokers had been drifting together during this conversation, no longer strung like beads along the long, narrow corridor on which the dungeon's furnaces were located. Now they began to shift together, massing into one group, in a manner that Yeslin needed no interpreter to understand.

He said quickly, "I'm no gossip." No gossip indeed. He was something more important than that, but it would take time to explain himself to the stokers.

"Aye?" Wade's eyes were narrowed. "Who are you, then? You ask a lot of questions. You don't answer none."

So he told them. No names, but he told them about his family, and about his new family after that, and how all that had ended. By the time he was through, the men were all relaxed again.

"Aye, well." Leo scratched his head. Being an indoor worker, he was capless, wearing the rough denim uniform issued to all the dungeon's stokers. From what little Yeslin had seen, the dungeon's elite didn't dress much better. "The fates will do that to a man: take him up to the heights, then drop him again. 'Least you're not all sour about it."

"Nay," Yeslin replied, scooping up more coal with his shovel. "These things happen. 'Tis probably for the best. I wouldn't want to be one of them."

He expected emphatic nods, even if some of those nods came from hypocrites who would gladly have embraced the wealth of the world if chance wandered their way. What he received instead was indifferent shrugs.

This was going to be more difficult than he'd anticipated.

He tried again. "So the tor— The Seekers. They treat us well?"

There were uneasy looks then, among the stokers. Leo said quickly, "Well enough."

"Oh, come now, Leo," said Jerry, a married man who was inclined to talk at length about his six young ones. "Be honest. You're as worried as the rest of us."

"Worried?" Yeslin raised his eyebrows.

"'Bout our jobs," said Curt. "There's talk of 'lectrifying the whole dungeon – of doing away with the coal furnaces. Doing away with our jobs."

"It's all rumor," said Leo with a growl.

"What are you going to do if it's true?" asked Yeslin.

Wade shrugged. "Look for other stoking jobs, in the lighted world. What else can we do?"

"Well . . ." said Yeslin slowly.

But Leo cut him off. "Listen!"

Everyone stood still. Away down toward the end of the corridor came a sound, indefinable at first, then growing louder, like the rustling of a thousand pieces of paper in a clerk's office.

"Work's done for the night." Leo tossed his shovel aside. "The day shift will be coming 'long in an hour or two. Let's go eat."

He had not learned what he needed to know. To steal time, he pretended that his boot had come untied. Kneeling down, he said, "Boss Man gives decent hours. Only eight hours of work."

Wade snorted. "In the summer. Come winter, it's fourteen hours."

"We follow the sun," Curt explained, bringing out a face-cloth from his trousers pocket to wipe the coal dust from his face. "Those were bats you heard, returning at dawn to the cave this dungeon lies in. In the summer, they come home soon. In the winter, they seem to stay forever in the lighted world."

"Seekers and guards, they follow the same hours." Leo frowned down at Yeslin, who was continuing to fiddle with his bootstring.

"Aye?" said Yeslin, taking care not to raise his eyes. "Well, that sort of schedule must be easier for the young Seekers than the old Seekers. Or do they have young Seekers?"

"Oh, aye," said Curt, walking blithely into the lure. "Youngest one is twenty-three. That's Mr. Taylor."

His fingers tightened on the bootstring, to the point where he almost cut himself. "Aye? Don't think I've seen him. Does he live in the dungeon?"

That prompted more laughter from the stokers. "All the Seekers live in the dungeon," said Jerry, his voice kindly. "None of them leave here. Least of all Mr. Taylor. He's the High Seeker's love-mate—"

"That's enough!" Leo's voice turned sharp. "The High Seeker, he won't stand for gossip, and neither do we. That's our pride, or have all you forgotten that?"

There was a murmur of acknowledgment from the other stokers. They looked shame-faced now, especially Jerry. Leo turned his attention back to Yeslin. "You're the worst man at boot-tying that I've ever seen in my life. You need a hand there?"

"I've broken the string." This was true enough; Jerry's remark had caused Yeslin to suddenly jerk his hand. "No worries; I got an extra string in my pocket. You go ahead. I'll catch up."

"Don't linger," Leo warned. "Boss Man don't like us staying in the inner dungeon after our work is through. Okay, lads—" He slammed closed the door to Yeslin's furnace and turned to the others. "Let's get our meal pails open, and see what we've got, and then steal from Jerry's pail."

Jerry yelped. Laughing, Ward said, "Well, if you will marry the best cook in the Alleyway district . . ."

They all closed their furnace doors and retreated toward the north end of the corridor, disappearing from view as they turned the corner. Yeslin waited until they were all gone before replacing the string, as swiftly as he could. Then he stood up. His heart was still beating hard.

The corridor he stood in was very dark. With the furnace doors closed, the only light came from half a dozen oil lamps bracketed to the walls. The lamps were fitfully sputtering.

He tossed a coin in his mind and began walking slowly south, in the direction of the bats. There were doors all along the eastern side of the corridor, opposite to the furnaces, but none of the doors were marked in any way. He tried the knob of one of the doors, but it was locked.

He reached the last of the furnaces and paused, uncertain. A further stretch of corridor lay ahead of him, but the doors on the eastern side had ended. Was it worth travelling on and risking meeting one of the Eternal Dungeon's notoriously skilled guards?

It was at that moment that the Seeker entered the corridor from the west.

Yeslin received only a glimpse of him, for the Seeker immediately turned right, in the direction of the southern end of the corridor, and then disappeared through another western doorway. All that Yeslin caught was an impression of black. Black boots, black trousers, black shirt, and, of course, the mark of a Seeker: the black hood that hid a Seeker's entire head.

Yeslin stood irresolute for a moment more. The Seeker he had seen could not be the High Seeker; he knew that much. But tangling with torturers of any rank seemed the ultimate in danger. Moreover, what likelihood was there that the Seeker would give Yeslin the information he needed? These men were trained to extract information, through horrific means; Yeslin doubted that their training extended to giving out information to a passing stranger.

He thought this and felt his feet carry him forward. He realized afterwards that what carried him forward was not any conscious thought, but a sound: the very faint sound of machinery.

The sound of machinery grew louder as he approached the doorway that the Seeker had entered. Yeslin paused at the threshold, and not only because of the danger which the Seeker represented. He was pausing in awe of what lay beyond that doorway.

It was a steam engine – his ears had already told him that – but it was the biggest steam engine he had ever seen in his life. It was rigged up with what Yeslin could only describe as a giant's accordion. Two accordions, one squeezing down at the same moment that the other accordion released itself with a whoosh. Squish and release, squish and release – the two accordions worked in harmony with each other as the great steam engine that ran them pushed its rod-arms backwards and forwards.

Standing in front of them, with his back to the doorway, was the Seeker. The sound of the steam engine had evidently hidden the sound of Yeslin's footsteps, for the Seeker did not turn around as Yeslin entered the room. The torturer had his head tilted back, in evident contemplation of the machinery. Yeslin could imagine a Seeker being fascinated by the workings of a rack or another instrument of torture, but a Seeker who seemed wholly absorbed at the sight of less destructive machinery . . .

Yeslin closed the door. The Seeker's back stiffened. Then the Seeker turned. Yeslin could see nothing except his eyes, which were a deep blue.

"Mr. Taylor?" Yeslin heard that his own voice was shaking.

For a moment, the Seeker remained still, leaving Yeslin in an agony of certainty that he had misidentified the man. Then the Seeker raised his hands, pulling up the portion of his hood that hid his face.

It was indeed Elsdon Taylor. He looked tired, but no more so than the last time Yeslin had seen him. His face remained youthful.

"Yeslin Bainbridge." Elsdon Taylor's voice was incredulous. "How in the name of all that is sacred did you get in here?"

The dipping of his eyes was automatic. He did manage to keep from going down on one knee. But it had been three years since he had last met Elsdon Taylor, so very briefly, and though they had exchanged letters since then, he had not been able to communicate with the Seeker for the past fourteen months. Men can change a great deal in the space of fourteen months, particularly when they spend their nights torturing prisoners. . . .

"Yeslin." There was an indefinable shift in Elsdon Taylor's voice which caused Yeslin to look up. The Seeker was smiling now. He opened his arms. "Sweet one."

Yeslin came forward to accept the embrace of his brother.

o—o—o

One week before, Yeslin had stood in the office of the outer dungeon's majordomo, striving to appear to be an ordinary commoner.

"Hmm," said the majordomo, staring at a sheet of paper. "It says here on your application that you can supply a reference from Harden Pevsner. You served in his household?"

"Yes, ma'am," he replied. He had indeed served in Mr. Pevsner's household, though the household had not belonged to Mr. Pevsner, and Yeslin would have cut his own throat before offering service to the man.

The majordomo wrote something down. Her presence, in a position of such high rank, had been a surprise to Yeslin – he had gathered, from passing remarks made by his brother, that the High Seeker was less than enthusiastic about the presence of female workers in his dungeon. But of course this was the outer dungeon; no doubt few Seekers ventured into the area where the dungeon's commoner laborers worked and lived.

He had worried about that, in the days leading up to his application for employment here.

"Well," said the majordomo, setting aside her pen, "I have contacted this address and have been told by his valet that Mr. Pevsner is not available at the moment to verify former servants' credentials. He is overseas doing business, as I understand it."

Yeslin had understood that as well; hence the timing of his presence here. Sitting motionless on the bench in front of the majordomo's desk, he strove to look concerned, rather than relieved.

"However," added the majordomo, reaching for a different piece of paper on her desk, "given that the manufactory where you last worked has verified that you are a hard worker, we can give you provisional employment here for the time being. As it happens, we are short a stoker in the inner dungeon."

His breath froze. He had not expected such good fortune. The majordomo noticed his reaction and drew the wrong conclusion. Smiling grimly, she said, "Don't worry. It's been at least a century since one of our Seekers mistook a laborer for an escaped prisoner and broke him on the rack."

It was impossible to tell whether she was joking. Yeslin gave a nervous laugh, not at all faked.

The majordomo nodded, as though he had passed some sort of test of courage. "You'll be on the night shift. I take it this isn't work you've done in the past?"

"No, ma'am." It was a relief to be able to answer one of her questions honestly. "I'll be glad to learn the work, however."

"Hmm." She contemplated him, chin on fingers, as though he were a prisoner being sorted to the right cell. He felt his chest grow heavy, but all that she said was, "Why the Eternal Dungeon?"

"Why did I apply for work here?" he responded, speaking slowly, though he already had an answer prepared for that obvious question. "Knew someone who once worked here, ma'am. He made it sound like this was a right good place for laborers. Fair bosses, decent wages." He shrugged. "Not many jobs out there these days."

This was the truth also, and her nod showed that she was aware of the fact. "Here," she said, pushing forward the paper. "You can read, I assume? We require a written oath from all our workers. The oath binds you from revealing to anyone in the lighted world what you have seen in this place. The penalties for breaking the oath— Yes, what is it?" Her voice turned sharp.

Pausing from reading the truly grim penalties promised to oath-breakers (May my soul dwell forever in the prison of afterdeath . . .), Yeslin looked over his shoulder. A youth a few years younger than himself stood in the doorway to the stairwell which lead up to the grounds of the royal palace above the dungeon. Chewing on a wad that made his cheek bulge, the youth had the peaked cap of a messenger lad. He held up a box wrapped in brown paper. "Delivery for the dungeon," he said.

"All right, I'll take it." The majordomo reached out her hand.

"Uh-uh-uh," scolded the messenger lad, clutching the box close to his body while handing forth a piece of paper. "'Tis from the Capital City Bank. From the president of the bank. Wants the High Seeker's signature, he does. Otherwise, no delivery." The messenger lad leaned against the doorpost, looking smug.

The majordomo darted him with a look which suggested that smug messenger lads ended up in breaking cells. The messenger lad merely grinned. Sighing, the majordomo rose to her feet, her hand sweeping her skirt free of the desk as she took the paper from the messenger lad. Yeslin hastily rose to his feet too; his father had held decided opinions concerning the proper respect due to women. Besides, she was of the elite.

"Wait here," she instructed Yeslin, and then, to the messenger lad: "No tobacco in the dungeon." Then she swept out of the room, her skirt rustling across the stone floor.

The messenger lad spat tobacco juice on the floor in celebration of her departure, then resumed his chewing of the tobacco wad. Yeslin glanced down at the oath again. No civil penalties were listed, but even so . . . May I be denied all opportunity for rebirth.

He looked over at the messenger lad, who had a crayon out and was scribbling graffiti on the doorpost. Yeslin felt a smile tease its way onto his face. He caught the messenger lad's eye, gestured with his head toward the oath, and held up the majordomo's pen.

It took the messenger lad a moment to understand; then he grinned again. "What's it worth to you?" he asked.

Yeslin silently withdrew a coin from his pocket – his only remaining coin – and offered it. The messenger lad sniffed disdainfully at the sight of it, but he came forward and began to take it. Yeslin – long wise to the ways of the world – held it back and offered the pen again. The messenger lad laughed then, taking the pen from Yeslin's hand. "What's your name?" he asked.

Yeslin told him. The messenger lad had no sooner scribbled the name onto the paper and returned the pen to the desk than the majordomo returned.

"Here you are," she said, offering the delivery paper back to the lad. "I met the High Seeker in the corridor, and though he was in a rush, he was kind enough to sign your paper. He asked, however, that you convey to your employer that signing delivery documents is not one of the duties of the High Seeker, and that all future deliveries should be directed to the care of the dungeon's Record-keeper."

"Hold a tick." The messenger snatched the paper from her hand and pretended to scrutinize it with narrowed eyes.

"Hmm," said the majordomo as she caught sight of the signed oath on her desk. "You should have waited to sign the oath in my presence, Mr. Bainbridge. Never mind. Take this" – she scribbled a quick note and handed it to Yeslin – "to Mr. Blumer, at the end of the corridor. He is superintendent of the stokers. He'll explain your duties to you. —All right, my lad, let's have that package." Her voice turned brisk with impatience.

The messenger lad shot Yeslin a look. Yeslin turned and pointed toward the doorway into the outer dungeon. "This way, ma'am?"

"Yes, yes." The majordomo turned her head in the direction of the door that Yeslin was pointing toward, momentarily distracted. Yeslin quickly tossed the coin into the messenger lad's waiting hands. The lad promptly pocketed it. He gave Yeslin a knowing grin, then stepped forward to deliver the package as the majordomo turned back round.

Yeslin glanced at the note in his hand as he stepped through the doorway. Employment for two weeks, extension provisional upon a positive recommendation from Mr. Harden Pevsner.

Two weeks. He would have to hope that this would be enough time.