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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.

Chapter Text

Now, having been forced to spend a full week gaining the confidence of his fellow stokers before he began asking the necessary questions, he felt time slipping away from him. He should proceed rapidly, he knew. Having established that Elsdon Taylor welcomed his arrival, Yeslin should provide a brief, unemotional explanation of his presence in the dungeon and proceed with his mission.

He knew what he should do. What he was actually doing was clinging to Elsdon as though his older brother were a life-raft.

"Did I scare you?" asked Elsdon, speaking softly to Yeslin, who had buried his head upon the Seeker's shoulder. "I'm sorry; I forget sometimes the effect that my uniform has upon people. I was just so startled and pleased to see you again— Yeslin, are you crying?" The Seeker pulled back, holding Yeslin at arm's length.

Yeslin shook his head, though he could not deny the evidence of the moisture running from his eyes. He could feel himself shaking. He should have expected this, he knew. How could he hope to accomplish his goals if he didn't anticipate his weaknesses?

"Yeslin?" said Elsdon. He sounded very young and uncertain, yet at the same time his inquiry had an underlying tone of authority. That was the paradox of Yeslin's brother: a man shaped by brutal misuse in his childhood years, who had somehow come to terms with that misuse, though in a manner that Yeslin himself would not have chosen.

Yeslin wiped the moisture from his face. "Belle died," he said, as though this would explain everything.

It took Elsdon only a moment to recognize the name and react with sympathy. "Your youngest sister?"

He nodded. Belle was his birth-sister, born of a family he had fled from five years ago, but still . . . she had been his favorite.

"Your parents . . ." Elsdon paused delicately.

"The verdict was death from neglect." Yeslin's voice finally turned as unemotional as he had planned it to be, upon this meeting. "They both received brief prison terms. They'll be released in a year or two. But my other sisters and brothers . . . Scattered, sent to elite households that were willing to take them in as apprentice servants. I tried to find out where they'd been delivered, but the court clerk wouldn't tell me. He did say that my youngest brother, who was only a babe, was adopted by an elite family who took a liking to him." He shrugged. "The clerk could have been lying to me, to make me go away."

"Oh, Yeslin." Elsdon's voice had turned soft again. "All this, on top of our father's death. And I . . ."

He nodded, glad that he didn't have to explain. His birth-parents imprisoned, his birth-siblings sent away, his new father dead from a lingering illness . . . The only family that had been left to him had been Elsdon Taylor. And Elsdon, for a time, had seemed as inaccessible as the rest.

"Did you manage to persuade the Codifier to change his mind?" asked Elsdon, reaching over to turn up the light on an oil lamp bracketed to the wall. Paradoxically, given that he would spend the rest of his life in a dungeon, Elsdon had poor night vision.

Yeslin shook his head. The Codifier, the dungeon official who determined how the Code of Seeking should be interpreted, had decided two years ago that the Code's clause permitting Seekers to be visited by close family members applied only to blood relatives. "No," he said, "I took the more direct route of entrance." He stepped back and swept his hand across his body, indicating his uniform.

Elsdon stared and then laughed. "Oh, Yeslin – a stoker? What a step down for you!"

His mouth quirked in a humorless manner. "Not really."

"I'm sorry; I didn't mean to demean your commoner origins." Elsdon, as always, was quick to apologize for offense. "But for you to work as a stoker these days . . . Yeslin, I'm sorry you had to go to such lengths to reach me. I did write to you, after my two months of mourning for Father were over. I've written to you several times in the past year, actually. Each time, I've received a note back from Manfred – you kept him as your valet, I take it? – telling me that the master of the house would respond to me when he had the time." There was a light query in Elsdon's voice – nothing more than that.

Yeslin had not forgotten Elsdon's skill at pulling out the information he wanted, with no more than a light query. There was no need in this case, though. He quietly gave Elsdon the information he wanted: "I wonder whether that message came from Manfred . . . or from the master of the house."

It took Elsdon only an instant to understand – yes, he did indeed have the talent of a Seeker – and then his brother stepped back, as though he had been struck. "No."

Yeslin shrugged. His own shock at the treachery – which had been acute at the time – had faded as the months passed, his mind occupied with the far more urgent problem of how to survive.

"Yeslin, no!" The Seeker shook his head, his fine, gold-touched hair shimmering in the lamp-light. "This can't be! Father wrote to me before his death that he'd adopted you, that he'd made you his sole heir . . ."

"He did," Yeslin agreed. "He did what you asked him to do . . . but in his own fashion. He had his half-brother draw up the documents, and he had Manfred sign as witness. Oddly enough," he added, the irony thick on his tongue, "neither Mr. Pevsner nor his new valet Manfred recalled afterwards seeing such documents. And since Father gave the only copies of the documents into their custody . . ."

Elsdon smashed his hand into the steam engine.

The Seeker had aimed carefully – not for the hard steel that would have broken his hand, but for the flexible accordion cloth. The cloth was evidently thick enough to stand mistreatment, for the steam engine gave no more than a slight wheeze at this attack.

As for Yeslin, he had taken several steps backwards. He had not forgotten what event had preceded Elsdon's own entrance into the Eternal Dungeon.

"Sorry," murmured Elsdon, the former murderer, cradling his hurt hand. "I didn't mean to give way to my emotions like that. It's just . . . Yeslin, I'll give witness for you. I didn't keep Father's letter – I regret that now – but I'll give court witness against Uncle Harden, describing the letter's contents. I'm permitted to do so, in important cases. With a Seeker's witness—"

"With a Seeker's witness, but no physical proof of the documents, it would only take four or five years for the case to wind its way through the courts," Yeslin said wearily. "And I'd have to spend those five years proving to each magistrate that I'm worthy to be a member of the elite. At the end of those five years . . . what sort of man would I be?"

His hurt hand forgotten, Elsdon straightened, his eyes scanning Yeslin, as though seeing him for the first time. Finally the well-born Seeker said, "You make it sound like a tragedy, to be high in rank and wealth."

Yeslin shrugged. "Not for you, perhaps. I know that you do your best to help the commoners." Elsdon Taylor's best, Yeslin believed, fell far short of what it could be, but there was no point in attacking the efforts of the kindest torturer in the Queen's dungeon. Yeslin would save his attacks for other members of the elite: men who made no effort to help the commoners who labored for them.

"I thought that you were going to use Father's wealth to help the commoners – wasn't that your plan?" Elsdon's quiet stillness remained. Yeslin began to feel uncomfortable. It was going to be difficult, telling his brother enough about his goals, but not too much.

"It was," Yeslin acknowledged. "But even before Father died and his half-brother stole my inheritance, I'd begun to question whether that was the right route to my goals. Listen, Elsdon," he said, feeling once again the strangeness of addressing such an elite man by his first name. "What you did for me – that meant everything to me. It allowed me to stay by Father's side during the final months of his life. It allowed me to have you as my brother. I'll forever be grateful for that." He was able to infuse his voice with genuine warmth as he spoke. He still remembered clearly his first meeting with Elsdon Taylor, three years before, when Elsdon had persuaded his father to adopt the street-lad that the older man had been caring for.

At the time, it had seemed that Yeslin's street days were over. And as time went on, that began to make him uncomfortable.

He struggled now to explain. "I want to assist the commoners. I want to create our queendom's first guild of commoners, to help the laborers of this nation fight their employers for their rights. But how can I do that, if I'm one of the elite myself? I've known since my birth what it means to be cold and hungry and struggling to survive. But if I spent five years living in a posh house, waited upon by servants and receiving money from the sweating labor of my manufactory workers . . . what would I have in common then with the men and women I'm seeking to help? No, Elsdon, Mr. Pevsner did me a favor when he stole our father's house and manufactory from me. Much as I hate the discomforts of commoner life, it's the only life I should live, if I'm to be of any use to my fellow commoners."

He paused, out of breath. Beyond him, the steam engine puffed noisily, its twin accordions moving up and down. The noise drowned out any sound from the rest of the dungeon; it was as though he and Elsdon were alone, in their own universe.

Elsdon was smiling now – a sad little smile. "Oh, Yeslin," he said, "I had nearly forgotten how high your honor is. I still think that, in five years' time, you'll regret the loss of that fortune – you'll regret the loss of the use that your guild could have made of such wealth. But I've no doubt – none whatsoever – that you'll find your way to your goals some day, however hard the road may be that you scrabble your way upon."

It was difficult for him not to say, "I've reached the doorway to my goals, and you're going to help me open the door." He wanted so much to be honest with his brother.

But when all was said and done, his brother was a member of the elite. He was the Queen's agent, duty-bound to break the wills of criminals. And though Elsdon himself did not possess the power to arrest criminals, it was best not to reveal to him how very close Yeslin was to committing his first crime.

"But enough." Elsdon stepped forward and slapped him on the back, in a brotherly manner. "This isn't the right place to talk; someone is likely to walk in on us while I'm naked-faced." He made it sound as though his entire body was nude. "How did you know it was me, anyway? I was fully hooded and facing away from you when you first entered this room."

Yeslin pointed silently. Elsdon glanced in the direction he was pointing and laughed. "Oh, I see. Not just a Seeker. A Seeker looking at a machine. Yes, I'm afraid I still have a weakness for mechanical devices, but you have to admit that this one is well worth staring it. We call it the Lungs," he clarified as Yeslin raised his eyebrows. "It draws in good air to the dungeon, and pushes out bad air."

Yeslin suddenly felt as though someone was standing on his throat, choking him. It had not occurred to him that the inhabitants of the Eternal Dungeon would need an artificial system of air circulation in order to survive. But this was a cave, he reminded himself. Despite the artificial walls, the Eternal Dungeon was entirely located within a vast network of caverns beneath the Queen's palace.

What sort of living quarters would elite torturers build for themselves in a cave? It was an interesting question.

"We can go back to my rooms to talk," said Elsdon, as though he sensed Yeslin's curiosity. "We'll have privacy there."

Yeslin cleared his throat. "Don't you . . . share your rooms?"

He had the privilege, then, of seeing a Seeker blush. "Oh," said Elsdon. "So you've heard."

"Yes, though not from you." Yeslin raised his eyebrows again.

The blush deepened. "I'm sorry, Yeslin. I would have told you before if I could have, but some things I'm not supposed to talk about with people from the lighted world."

"Well, I'm here now," he pointed out. He hoped that the nonchalance of his tone passed muster with his keen-eyed brother.

Evidently it did; Elsdon nodded as he pulled down his face-cloth and reached for the door-knob. "So you are! And you'll have signed your oath of silence, so I can talk freely to you. Yes, I'm love-mate to Layle Smith – the High Seeker, that is. Do you remember me telling you, when I visited Father, how worried I was about a Seeker who was ill? That was when Layle was quite ill – well, anyone in the dungeon could tell you . . ."

They proceeded down the corridor, Elsdon chatting in a quite matter-of-fact manner about the terrible aspects of the High Seeker's illness. Twice they passed servants lugging mops and buckets. Elsdon didn't bother to lower his voice, so Yeslin surmised that the High Seeker's madness – Elsdon didn't use that word, but there was no other way to interpret his description – was common knowledge in the Eternal Dungeon.

Yeslin remembered the rumor he had heard, oh so long ago, that a Seeker had gone mad. It had only been a rumor, with no proof behind it. But if people in the lighted world had known the truth, that the Eternal Dungeon was being run by a madman . . .

"Layle is much better these days," Elsdon concluded. "He's been back at work, searching prisoners, for nearly a year now."

Yeslin winced. Fortunately, Elsdon failed to notice. He had turned to place a key in one of the unmarked doors along the eastern side of the corridor. "Here we are," Elsdon said as he opened the door. He gestured Yeslin inside and began his tour.

Yeslin was impressed with Elsdon's apartment – genuinely impressed.

The bedroom – which Elsdon assured him was the largest bedroom possessed by any Seeker, since it also belonged to the High Seeker – was barely the width and breadth of three doorways. Into this space was jammed a double-sized bed, a single night-stand with toiletry items within, and a single chest for undergarments and one change of clothing. Nothing more. Only two lamps and a face-mirror adorned the wall; the mirror had a dull iron frame.

There was no water closet in the apartment. Yeslin found a chamber-pot beneath the bed. A circular iron tub offered a place for bathing.

The rest of the apartment was a single room, scarcely larger than the bedroom. There was no dining area, merely a kitchen area without a stove – the apartment held no source of heat – and a few bins with dry food in them. A counter, such as might have been found in any workshop, was the sole table in the place, and two high stools served as its chairs.

The adjoining parlor was somewhat more luxuriously furnished, but here too the furnishings seemed purely practical: a desk piled high with papers, shelves filled with the type of books that Seekers might require in their work (after one glance at a volume, Yeslin winced and left the books alone), a chair for the desk, an armchair, and a padded bench – just the number of seats needed by two Seekers hosting two guests. The tea table – which was piled high with books and mugs and other such items – seemed like the heights of luxury.

"What do you think?" Elsdon asked, smiling.

Yeslin was not yet ready to voice his full thoughts, so he said, "It's quite a change for you."

Elsdon's smile deepened. "I've grown used to it. Truth to tell, if I returned to our old house, with its dozens of rooms and hundreds of pieces of furniture, all gilded and finely carved, I wouldn't be sure what to do with it all. . . . It's harder for the High Seeker. He finds it too cramped."

"He had greater riches than you, before?" Yeslin picked up a wheel that was leaning incongruously against the wall, then hastily put it down again as he recognized what it was: the wheel of a rack.

Elsdon laughed. "Hardly. He dislikes being away from the open sky. As a child, he slept on the streets."

"Oh?"

Yeslin's comment could not have emerged in as disinterested a fashion as he would have liked, for Elsdon laughed again. "You're curious about him."

Yeslin gave a bit of a smile back. "Isn't everyone? There are so many tales about him. Some say he's the bastard son of the queen, others that he's a murderer . . ."

Elsdon's smile faded. "I'll tell you the truth later. For now . . . You didn't say what you thought of my living quarters."

Yeslin was beginning to have the uneasy feeling that Elsdon would prove to be a formidable . . . No, he couldn't call his own, affectionate brother an enemy. But Elsdon would prove a barrier, there was no doubt of that.

He looked again at the apartment. Storage bins to be filled, pitchers awaiting water, a chamber-pot under the bed . . . He asked, "Who cleans the chamber-pots?"

"Why, a maid, of course," Elsdon replied easily.

"And the tub? Is it filled by a maid?"

Elsdon hesitated for the first time. "I think a manservant brings in the water for that."

He bit his tongue in time to keep from saying, "You think? Haven't you ever noticed?" Instead, he asked, "What about the food? Is that delivered by the same servants? Or by other servants?"

"Yeslin." Elsdon's voice had grown quiet again. "What are you trying to say?"

"I was just wondering, sir," he said, keeping his own voice quiet, "whether you have fewer servants now than you did as a boy."

There was a long silence, long enough that Yeslin felt the instinct to go down on one knee – the safest response, he had long ago learned, when in the presence of an angry member of the elite. From outside came the sound of the day-shift stokers shoveling coal into the furnaces that warmed the prisoners' cells.

Then, unexpectedly, Elsdon smiled. "I think you should meet Mr. Chapman," he said.

o—o—o

Despite his carefully laid groundwork, it took Yeslin another day to discover the point of vulnerability among the stokers.

The problem – the ironic problem – was that he had chosen to start his mission with what turned out to be the most satisfied laborers in the history of the Queendom of Yclau. The stokers seemed pleased with all aspects of their work: their tasks, their equipment, and their pay. Their nominal superintendent confined his duties to training new stokers; most of their instructions came from the High Seeker, who would issue his orders by quietly offering suggestions on how the stokers' work could be done better. The "suggestions" invariably turned out to be good ones.

Even those aspects of the work that the stokers disliked – the hours, the closed confines of the dungeon, the food that they occasionally bought from the dining hall – they were not inclined to blame on the Seekers. "The Seekers, they have the same hours, same dungeon, same food as us," said Curt. "They have it worse than us – they're not allowed to leave the dungeon for even a bit of fresh air." And everyone nodded.

Finally, in desperation, Yeslin homed in on what he would never have thought of as a grievance: the fact that the stokers loved their current jobs so much that they didn't want to leave their employers.

"What's this 'lectrifying anyhow?" growled Wade as he leaned over to scoop another shovelful of coal into his portion of the corridor-long furnace. It was the first hour of their work-night, so the stokers had shifted over to the western furnaces, across the dungeon from where the Seekers slept.

"You know about that, Wade," replied Jerry. "We all learned about it in school."

Wade mumbled something inarticulate. Yeslin, who knew that the First District was the only part of the Queendom of Yclau that still did not supply education to its commoners, straightened up his aching back and said, "Electricity is like lightning. Lightning in a bottle. Works as good as coal or gas at supplying heat and light, and makes less mess."

"Oh, aye?" Wade sounded skeptical. "Well, 'twill make one fucking mess to tear up all this dungeon to put in that 'lectrifying stuff."

"Watch your language, Wade." Leo frowned as he hit a nasty bit in his coal pile. "The High Seeker might hear you. You know how he hates cussing."

Everyone looked over their shoulders. Any mention of the High Seeker invariably had that effect.

"He won't come here today," said Curt confidently . . . or perhaps with a bit of bravado. "He's taken leave this month. I heard he's in mourning."

Wade snorted. "Who'd he be in mourning for? He ain't got no family. Ain't got no friends neither, far as I can see."

"There's Elsdon Taylor—"

"Who's alive," interjected Jerry.

"So far." Wade flung more coal through the yawning doorway of the furnace. Faintly behind the flames of his own portion of the furnace, Yeslin could see the thick, frosted glass bricks that separated the furnace from the prisoners' cells. He wondered whether the prisoners could hear this conversation, and what they made of it.

He set aside all temptation to question Wade about what danger the High Seeker might pose to Elsdon; Yeslin had already heard the dungeon rumors of what took place in the High Seeker's bedroom and had determined they were just that, rumors. So far, Elsdon had remained discreet about the exact nature of his entanglement with Layle Smith, but he did not show any signs of being misused. Yeslin certainly knew what signs to look for.

No, the High Seeker's destruction of Elsdon was likely to take a more subtle form, if these stokers were any indication of Layle Smith's usual methodology. Yeslin wondered what means the High Seeker had used to persuade the stokers that working in a dungeon of torture was a privilege.

He tried again. "The boss men did that at Miller's Rubber Stamp Manufactory. Put in new, electrified equipment, hired men from the Electricians' Guild to run it, and threw out all the laborers. Some of the fellows there had worked at the manufactory forty, fifty years, but that's all the thanks they got."

All around him, the stokers frowned. He'd touched the heart of their vulnerability, he judged.

Continuing with his pre-prepared speech, he said, "They wanted to try something like that in the Mippite manufactories too, but the Mippite laborers fought back. Not with weapons," he added hastily, seeing Leo frown again. "With courage and wit. First word the commoners had that the boss men were planning to replace them with new equipment and new men, they sat down on the job. Thousands of them, all over the Magisterial Republic of Mip. The boss men, they were forced to rethink their plans."

The stokers exchanged glances. Finally Jerry broke the silence. "Thousands of them? All at once? How'd that many men decide to act together like that?"

"Because they acted like a guild." Yeslin took out his handkerchief, wiped his hands clean, and pulled the paper bag out of his trousers pocket. He held up one of the cloth badges for the stokers to see. "So can we."

The stokers slowly drifted together, staring at the badge, with its neatly woven words: "Commoners' Guild, Chapter 1."

Chapter Text

"What the bloody—?"

Yeslin felt Elsdon's hand grasp his arm, holding him as tightly as an arresting soldier might. Yeslin's heart skipped a beat, but Elsdon released him almost immediately, reaching down to pick up the item in the outer-dungeon corridor that Yeslin had stumbled over.

It was a stuffed bunny rabbit. A pink stuffed bunny rabbit.

"Finlay's," said Elsdon, examining it with the same care that he might use in examining a murder weapon. "Or possibly Zenas's. He still plays with toys, even though he's nearly fourteen now."

Yeslin stared at Elsdon with horror. "You torture children?"

Elsdon winced. "Not often; most of the underage prisoners are searched by other Seekers. Zenas is Weldon Chapman's son. I'll introduce you, if there's time."

There was not time. They reached Mr. Chapman's living quarters – accessible from both the outer dungeon and the inner dungeon – just as the older Seeker was about to leave for his day shift. He paused a few minutes, though, to speak with Elsdon's "kinsman, who has taken employment here as a stoker." This was the introduction that Elsdon and Yeslin had agreed upon, not wishing to provoke the Codifier with news that Elsdon's brother had managed to find an alternative route into the dungeon. Every elite family had a bastard commoner or two, usually kept well hidden.

Mr. Chapman greeted Elsdon's commoner kinsman more civilly than Yeslin would have expected. The reason for this became clear within seconds.

"—say hello to the fellows for me," concluded Mr. Chapman. "I don't think any of them worked alongside me – it's been a while – but I like to think of them, now and then. . . . Elsdon, I'm sorry, but I must go. I'm busier than usual—"

"Because of Layle's absence. Yes, I know. Thank you, Weldon." The two Seekers shook arms in farewell.

Picking his way across the toy-strewn floor of Weldon Chapman's quarters, Yeslin waited until they were in the empty corridor which led from the Seekers' common room to the Lungs. Then he said softly, "Mr. Chapman lives only a few yards from where the stokers work. Yet he can't greet them himself?"

Elsdon was silent a minute before saying, "He doesn't talk much about it, but I don't think his time among the stokers was happy. There was some sort of friction . . . Perhaps it was merely because the other stokers sensed that he was destined for a better life." He caught Yeslin's look and laughed. "Oh, you know what I mean. I don't wish to imply that a stoker is any less worthy than a Seeker."

Yeslin decided that it would be wisest not to comment upon this remark. Instead, he asked, "Does it happen often?"

"For a commoner to become a Seeker? No, Weldon is the only one, and only because Layle recognized the greatness of Weldon's soul, at the time that Weldon was working as a guard."

Yeslin thought about this as they walked down the corridor. This part of the inner dungeon was mainly made up of janitorial closets; maids and manservants rummaged in the closets, pulling out items in preparation for their work during the day shift. The smell of the furnaces came closer; the day-shift stokers were evidently already at work.

"Are many guards . . . ?"

Elsdon shook his head. "Mind you, it's not unusual for guards – and even a handful of Seekers – to be mid-class. I know that Layle has been concerned that the Seekers and guards fail to fully represent the variety of ranks in the lighted world; he has made a deliberate effort to encourage applications from mid-class men. As for recruiting commoners . . ." Elsdon laid his hand on Yeslin's shoulder; his smile, hidden under his hood, was clear in his voice as he said, "Maybe your new guild will be able to help us with that."

Still bonded in that manner, he and Elsdon turned the corner, their quiet conversation momentarily paused by the loud whoosh of the Lungs. Ahead of them, coal-smoke fogged the corridor, sucked upwards, as Elsdon had explained the previous day, into vents that carried them back to the Lungs. Even with the ventilation system working, it was difficult to breathe as they passed the sweating stokers. Yeslin wondered why it was that the stokers' workplace lay so close to the Seekers' living quarters. Was it only so that the Seekers could benefit from the furnace-warmth in the corridor? Or was it because the Seekers wished to keep a close ear to the conversations of the muscular men who labored for them? Certainly Yeslin dared not do anything but nod in a friendly fashion as they passed the day-shift stokers, whom he did not yet know.

They reached a crossroads in the corridor. Directly ahead lay the dungeon healers' office – Yeslin wondered whether anyone had considered the irony of a healer practicing his profession in a dungeon of torture – while the corridor to the right of them led to the outer dungeon, where most of the laborers lived and worked. To the left, though . . .

"I'll have to leave you here," Elsdon said, releasing Yeslin from his grip. "I need to check something in one of the rack rooms."

Yeslin felt all the hairs on his body rise up. "I'll come with you," he suggested.

Elsdon shook his head. "That's not possible. The Code only permits the Codifier, Seekers, guards, and occasional family members to enter the prisoners' breaking cells."

"But you're visiting a rack room, you said." Yeslin tilted his head, contemplating Elsdon, who had hesitated in his reply. "The Lungs in this dungeon are impressive. I'd like to see whether the racks are equally impressive."

As he'd guessed would happen, this appeal to Elsdon's mechanical interests did its work. "All right," said Elsdon with a light chuckle. "Just for a minute. If anyone notices you're there, I'll take the blame."

They passed a set of guards, who glanced at them with only mild curiosity; Yeslin had passed this way before, accompanying some of the stokers to an informal week's-end prayer meeting in the dungeon's crematorium – a ghastly place, where dozens of candles burned for executed prisoners. Now Elsdon turned toward the entrance to the crematorium, but almost immediately he stopped, slipping into a nearby room. Yeslin glanced automatically toward the other end of the corridor, where guards stood posted outside cells. Nobody was looking his way, though, so he followed Elsdon in and closed the door.

He wished, immediately afterwards, that he had not done so. Elsdon, now naked-faced, was in the midst of lighting the sole lamp in the room, but even with the lamp lit, shadows crouched like wolves in the corners, dipping in and out of objects along the walls that Yeslin recognized as being instruments of torture. Evidently, more than just racking was done in this room. His gorge rose as he contemplated all that the Seekers did here.

"Isn't she beautiful?"

Yeslin tore his gaze away from the objects on the wall that tore and crushed and gouged. Elsdon was standing next to a long table, headed by a wheel. Yeslin slowly approached it. He had to admit that, for an instrument of torture, it had a frightening elegant look about it: polished wood, gleaming copper, and the curlicue decoration that Yeslin associated with the first century. "This is remarkable," he said, the most honest comment he could offer.

Elsdon nodded without raising his eyes. "She looks like an antique, doesn't she? She's imported from Vovim. Layle told me that he can't stand to work with Yclau racks – they lack soul."

"Ah." The bed of the rack was made of metal. Yeslin scratched at a black bit on the bed and then examined it. Dried blood. "Why do you call it a she?"

"Oh." Elsdon looked embarrassed for the first time. "I got into the habit when I was racked in Vovim. The racks there are in the shape of women."

Yeslin looked sharply at his brother. He knew that Elsdon had been held in Vovim's royal dungeon when his diplomatic mission for the Queen went badly awry, but the thought of Elsdon being embraced by a metal woman who tore at his bones and sinews . . . It did not bear thinking about. No wonder Elsdon considered Layle Smith to be a pleasant love-mate.

Yeslin looked again at the blood. "Do many prisoners die here?"

"Oh, no – not if we can prevent it." Elsdon laughed at his puzzled look. "We're not here to execute prisoners, Yeslin. That's the hangman's job. We're here to obtain confessions. Look, I'll explain how this works—"

And he did, going underneath the rack at one point in order to show off its workings. Watching, Yeslin began to wonder when he would be requested to take off his clothes and serve as the rack's demonstration victim.

Part of him, cold and calculating, was taking inner notes. The rest of him couldn't bear what he was hearing. Finally he burst out, "Elsdon, how can you do this? How can you seek to transform men's souls by tearing apart their bodies?"

Elsdon, who had been kneeling down to explain how the wheel controlled the tightening of the manacles, looked up. For the first time he seemed hesitant. At last he said, "It's rather complicated, Yeslin. I don't think you'll understand until you've belonged to the dungeon a while."

Yeslin did not bother to explain how short his visit to the dungeon was likely to be. "I ought to know about such matters, even if I live in the lighted world."

Sighing as he dusted off his hands and rose to his feet, Elsdon said, "Don't let it worry you, Yeslin. It has nothing to do with you."

Yeslin turned, looked for something harmless to throw – there was nothing harmless in that room – and contented himself with beating upon the wall with his fists.

"Stop it." Elsdon's grip was firmer than before as he pulled Yeslin away from the wall. "You'll hurt yourself. Yeslin, what's wrong with you?"

"Nothing to do with me. Nothing to do with me. Elsdon, this place has everything to do with me!"

Elsdon's brow was creased with faint puzzlement. "Why? Are you considering applying to become a guard, the way Weldon did?"

"Sweet—" Yeslin choked away the oath. "Elsdon, look at me. Look at me. I'm a commoner. How much of this queendom is made up of commoners?"

"I'm not sure—"

"One-third of the people in the Queendom of Yclau are commoners. The rest are mid-class or elite. Now, how many of the prisoners in this queendom are commoners?"

Elsdon was wise enough to keep quiet this time.

Yeslin cried, "Ninety-five percent! People say that it's because commoners are all thieves and murderers, but the true reason is that mid-class men and elite men are rarely arrested. They have the money to bribe soldiers, they have the position of power to prevent an arrest. Commoners don't. We're the ones who end up in places like this."

"Yes, I know."

Elsdon said nothing more, but after a moment, Yeslin felt his cheeks flush. "I'm sorry. I'd forgotten that you were a prisoner here. Were you racked?"

"No," said Elsdon steadily. "I was barely tortured at all. And I'm not going to pretend I understand the fear that the typical commoner prisoner undergoes, finding himself powerless in the hands of the elite. But Yeslin . . . are you trying to tell me that you've committed a crime?"

"No." Not quite yet. "It doesn't matter whether I do. I'm founding a guild for commoners. Don't you understand what that means? I'm going to be encouraging commoners to fight against the elite – to fight even against the mid-class. How long do you think it will be before the elite think up some excuse to arrest me?"

Elsdon remained silent for some time. Then he said softly, "The Queen is a wise and discerning woman. I've met her."

"So perhaps I won't end up here, in the Eternal Dungeon. But if you're wrong . . . if I end up in this place . . . are you prepared to hold to the belief that I'll be transformed by torture, if you're the one torturing me?"

His throat felt raw; his soul felt scathed. Elsdon's face was not quite blank, but it somehow had leached away all revealing emotion. The Seeker looked very much like he had on the day when he searched Harden Pevsner in an attempt to discover how his uncle was treating Yeslin.

Finally Elsdon said, "If you don't like being in this rack room, we can leave."

Yeslin let out his breath slowly, reminding himself that he was attacking the wrong man. Elsdon was not to blame for how this dungeon was run. This room had been decorated by a man who had decided that prisoners should be tortured on beautiful racks.

"No," Yeslin said. "I want to understand. Can you tell me what happens when the prisoners reach the highest level of racking?"

Elsdon did not look eager to continue that part of the conversation, but with a little prodding, he supplied the information. And as he did so, the balladeer within Yeslin coolly resumed his notes, proceeding to rack the prisoner inside Yeslin's mind.

o—o—o

"If we tell the High Seeker we don't want to do things the way he wants things done, he'll tie us to one of his racks and stretch us till we're a mile long."

Everyone nodded in agreement to what Wade said. Yeslin sat quietly on his upturned meal pail in the minutes after the stokers finished their midnight meals; they'd all agreed that such delicate conversations should take place in the outer dungeon, where some of the senior stokers lived, rather than in the inner dungeon, where the Seekers lived and worked.

He waited to see whether anyone else would speak, then said reasonably, "Well, we don't have to approach the High Seeker, do we? He's in mourning in a room below the crematorium this month. Who's in charge while he's gone? The Codifier?"

This suggestion brought about a collective groan. "Just slit my throat," suggested Jerry, fingering his guild badge, which all the night-shift stokers wore now. "Sooner that, than face the dragon in his lair."

"Ah." Yeslin set aside that idea. He supposed he should have guessed that the Codifier was fierce, from the manner in which the man had reacted to Elsdon Taylor's plea three years before that his adopted brother be permitted to visit the dungeon. "Well, then, who else could we approach? Who is senior enough to help determine policy in the dungeon, but isn't likely to eat us for dinner?" He took a bite of his sandwich. He had made it himself; as a bachelor, he had learned long ago to take on any needed task at home.

There was a short spell of silence before Curt said hesitantly, "Mr. Chapman."

"Weldon Chapman, of course!" Leo clapped his hand upon his thigh. "He's day supervisor of the Eternal Dungeon; he takes over the High Seeker's duties when Layle Smith is away. He's boss man to us this month."

"And he was a stoker like us, once," added Jerry eagerly. "He'll understand why we want to keep our jobs here."

"Mr. Chapman, then." Yeslin felt a thrill in his chest; they were coming closer now to his first victory. "Here's how we'll do it. . . ."

Chapter Text

The ballad was going badly.

Yeslin had envisioned clearly what he intended to create. The classic ballad structure was four stanzas, followed by a fifth stanza, called the "strangeness," which twisted the ballad into a surprise ending.

He wanted to create a new type of ballad, in which the strangeness was doubled by adding a sixth verse. The listeners would be surprised . . . and then they would be surprised a second time.

The trouble was that there was no surprise yet in his ballad.

He had chosen a famous song for his experiment: "The Ballad of the Dying Prisoner." It was famous because there were so many versions of it: every great balladeer had created a variation upon it. To create a new and exciting variant on this ballad was practically a prerequisite for demonstrating one's talents as a balladeer.

The ballad was usually set in an unnamed prison, but Yeslin had chosen to spice it by placing it in a named prison: The Eternal Dungeon. His hero, of course, was a commoner prisoner, and the villain was that notorious torturer, the High Seeker. The ballad mocked the High Seeker's pitiful efforts to break the will of the commoner by means of torture. In the end, the prisoner died, but not before having a good laugh at the High Seeker's expense.

The ballad was too straightforward. That was its problem. Everything else about it was right: the contrast between good and evil, the stirring depiction of the strength of commoners against the oppressive elite, and above all, the details he now possessed of how the Eternal Dungeon's prisoners were torn apart on the rack, both physically and mentally.

He hesitated, pen in hand, and then, with great reluctance, he added a new character: a young Seeker, naive and well-meaning, who was corrupted by the High Seeker into believing that torture was the proper means by which to convince prisoners that they have done wrong.

He wrote another version of the ballad and then covered his face with his hands. He could feel the solidity beneath his elbows of the desk in the High Seeker's living quarters. How, Yeslin wondered, would the High Seeker's love-mate react when he learned that he was now a villain in a ballad?

Finally, Yeslin pushed himself away from the desk and rose from the wooden chair. Through the wall, faintly, he could hear the chatting of the day-shift stokers as they worked. He supposed that he ought to approach them now and recruit them into his guild. He had many hours in which to do so; the day shift had only just begun. Or he could return to the boarding house where he roomed, in order to receive some much-needed sleep. Elsdon, learning that Yeslin was trying to write ballads in a crowded and noisy dormitory for young men, had promptly offered him use of the desk that the High Seeker and his love-mate shared, along with a key to lock up after he was finished. The High Seeker's own key, Yeslin gathered. He wondered what Layle Smith would say about that, once he returned from mourning. The least Yeslin could do was not press matters by falling asleep on the High Seeker's bed.

He slumped down in the parlor's armchair and stared up at the ceiling. Would Elsdon ever forgive Yeslin for what he was about to do? Despite his choice of career, Elsdon retained a great deal of honor – could he understand that Yeslin's own honor drove him to oppose what was done to prisoners in the Eternal Dungeon? Would the introduction of that new character be the wedge that drove apart the brothers? It was like finding himself pulled resisting into a nightmarish ballad.

He continued staring at the ceiling, watching it grow dark. Eventually he realized he was asleep, and awoke.

It was then that he saw Elsdon, sitting in the desk chair, holding the ballad and waiting for Yeslin to awake.

Yeslin moved slowly, rubbing his stiff neck as he straightened in the chair. He could still hear the day-shift stokers talking outside. He hadn't overslept, then.

"You're home early," Yeslin commented, unable to take his eyes off the ballad in Elsdon's hands.

"I finished early with my current prisoner. Ordinarily, I would have done documentwork until I was assigned a new prisoner, but Weldon Chapman informed me that there was some trouble brewing amidst the stokers. He asked me whether I knew anything about it." Naked-faced, Elsdon gave a grimace of a smile. "He was kind enough not to say, 'We had no problems with the stokers until your kinsman arrived.' But he told me I could take the rest of the night off." Elsdon's hand tightened on the ballad. "Yeslin, how could you?"

Toeing his way gently upon this briar-strewn path, Yeslin said, "You knew that I planned to recruit workers to my guild."

"I wasn't referring to that – though you might have had the mercy to let me know that you'd already started your recruiting. I was referring to this." Elsdon held up the ballad. "Yeslin, I told you about the procedures in the rack room in confidence! How could you betray my trust in you? More importantly, how could you plot to break your oath of silence?"

Yeslin sighed. "I took no oath."

Elsdon waited. He was mighty good at waiting for prisoners to confess their crimes, Yeslin recalled.

So Yeslin explained, very briefly, what had happened in the majordomo's room. By the time he finished, Elsdon's expression had turned wry.

"Careless of Mistress Moore," he commented. "There's a reason why we require witnessed oaths. Very well – I'm sorry I unjustly accused you of oath-breaking. But the rest of this . . ." He looked down at the ballad. "Yeslin, is that really how you see us? As witless or black at heart? And even if you do, is a tale this simple likely to win you any listeners?"

He was taken aback. The last thing he had expected from Elsdon at this juncture was literary criticism.

Elsdon saw his surprise and gave a small smile. "I know Layle. He was born in Vovim, you see – the land of the artists. And so I know that what would bother him most about this ballad isn't that it reveals the secrets of the Eternal Dungeon. What would bother him most is that it's false."

Yeslin frowned. He made an instinctive move to take hold of the ballad again, in order to reread it; Elsdon's fingers tightened on the ballad, so Yeslin let his hand fall. Instead he said, "You were the one who supplied the details of how prisoners are searched."

"Some prisoners, yes. If you think we place most prisoners here on the rack . . . It doesn't matter. The falseness lies in your portrayal of the characters. Why, your hero doesn't have a single blemish! No man or woman I've met in my life, no matter how innocent, has been that pure. Your ballad is as much a caricature of commoners as it is of Seekers."

Elsdon Taylor – Yeslin reflected, not for the first time – was very good at his work. Yeslin steeled himself to fight back. "Perhaps. I'll consider whether the ballad should be rewritten. But the fact remains that the lighted world needs to know what goes on in this dungeon. It needs to know the methods you use to break prisoners."

"You can't reveal that, Yeslin," Elsdon said steadily, sitting quietly on the wooden chair. "You can't reveal facts that we need kept secret in order to do our jobs." He pointed at the ballad. "Here, in the fourth stanza, you reveal that the racks aren't designed to kill prisoners. Don't you realize that most of the prisoners we break on the rack are broken out of simple fear that they will die, horribly maimed, if they don't confess? If you reveal that the rack is merely designed to give pain and fear, not to kill, then we will have less chance of obtaining confessions—"

"Seeker," said Yeslin, his voice turning cold, "that is your problem, not mine. I'm not going to write a ballad that allows you to torture your prisoners well. I don't believe that torture is ever right. You should understand why . . . from what Father did to you."

There was a gap in the conversation. Outside, the cheerful stokers were laughing at some shared joke. Faintly beyond them, Yeslin could hear a prisoner screaming.

Elsdon was quiet again when he replied. "What Father did to me, all those years ago, isn't the same as what I do to my prisoners. I know that's hard for you to understand, because you've never witnessed the transformation of a prisoner."

"Nay?" He tilted his head, allowing his voice to fall back into dialect. "Well, it may be that one day you'll have the chance to practice your 'transformation' on me, in the rack room. But not today, mate. If you'll give me my ballad, I'll be on my way."

"No," said Elsdon softly. "You won't be. I can't let you go."

He felt a chill trickle across his skin then. It took him a moment before he could say, "I thought you told me that you don't possess the power to make arrests."

"I told you the truth. Yeslin, please listen to me." Elsdon leaned forward, earnestness written across his face. "You're in danger of falling into the same error our father did: of seeing evil where none exists. Why do you think so many abuses have occurred in prisons? Because the prison workers convinced themselves beforehand that the men and women they questioned were guilty." Elsdon leaned back in his chair, pointing with his free hand to the ballad. "Whatever you may think, balladeer, I'm not your enemy. Neither is the High Seeker. But if you think we are, can I at least convince you to depict us as something more than caricatures?"

He looked down at the ballad, uneasiness spreading inside him. "What did you have in mind?"

"I'm not sure. . . ." Elsdon frowned, his face screwed up in concentration, looking so much like his father at that moment that Yeslin felt his breath taken away.

He could leave, he knew. He could reconstruct the ballad outside the dungeon, send word to the stokers of what had happened to him. That would be wisest, rather than allow Elsdon time to hand him over to the High Seeker. Layle Smith, Yeslin was quite sure, would have no qualms about strapping Yeslin to a rack, regardless of what powers of arrest the High Seeker did or did not possess.

But Yeslin knew how much he owed to Elsdon. Not only for the adoption, but for what might have come before that.

It was Elsdon, not Yeslin, who had endured years of misuse at Auburn Taylor's hands. It was Elsdon whose shocking murder and imprisonment had convinced his father to try a different type of upbringing with the street-lad that he had brought home soon afterwards. If it had not been for Elsdon, and the suffering he had undergone, Yeslin might have endured as much pain in the hands of his new father as he had endured at the hands of his birth-parents.

He owed it to Elsdon to listen. So he waited tensely, like a soldier standing under a truce flag, awaiting terms of peace from an opposing enemy.

"I'll have to ask the Codifier for permission," murmured Elsdon.

"Sorry?" said Yeslin, not at all reassured by these words.

Elsdon shook himself, as though awakening from sleep. "I didn't mean to mumble. It's just . . . Yeslin, what if I gave you another ballad? A true ballad, about a real prisoner and about the real Seeker who searched him?"

Yeslin felt his heart plummet. He had hoped for better than this from Elsdon. "A prisoner who was freed by the Seekers, you mean?"

"No," said Elsdon softly, and for the first time pain laced his voice. "No, he died. I wish I could have helped him more than I did. In the end, it was he who helped me."

o—o—o

"It didn't work."

Wade, who had drawn the short straw to be the guild member who approached Mr. Chapman with the guild's demands, stood frowning in their agreed meeting-spot: the little cubby-hole in the outer dungeon where the stokers ate their meals. The other stokers exchanged looks. Finally Leo voiced what they all were thinking: "You sure you done it right, man? Did you say it the way we all agreed?"

"You think I'm a fool?" flung back Wade. Wisely not awaiting an answer, he added, "I told him all about the strike in Mip: how the commoners sat down on the job, thousands of them, and the power company couldn't produce no power, and the new men wasn't trained yet, and the new equipment wasn't there yet, and the power company was losing money hand over fist each hour that the commoners struck, so the company had no choice but to make contracts with the guild members that let them keep their jobs." Wade wiped his hand across his brow. "Master Chapman, he just stood there with that mild little smile of his. Then he said, 'How many Mippite commoners did you say made these demands?'

"'Thousands!' I told him.

"'Thousands,' he repeated. 'I suppose there must be thousands of stokers in Yclau.'

"Well, I didn't rightly know what he was getting at, but I said, 'Yeah, there must be.'

"And he just tilted his head, like I was a prisoner he was breaking on the rack, and he said, 'How many of these thousands of stokers are members of your new guild?'"

Wade paused. This time it was Jerry who broke the silence; he stood up and threw his pail across the room. It landed against the wall with a crash. The other stokers had begun to curse.

Curt looked from one man to another. "I don't see."

"Take your blinders off, lad," said Leo gruffly. "Even Wade can add it up. Thousands of stokers in Yclau . . . and only a dozen of us promising to sit down on the job if we don't get our way. The Seekers will bring in outside stokers to take over our jobs."

"Fuck, they don't even have to do that." Wade sat down on his pail and ran a weary hand through his hair. "Master Chapman, he said he'd split up the day-shift stokers, have half of them take over our jobs for the time being. Guess he means he'd make them work twice as hard, then fire them all when this 'lectrifying comes round."

"And him a stoker," said Curt bitterly.

"He's not a stoker now," said Yeslin. "He has become one of the elite."

It was a mistake to draw attention to himself at that point, he reflected afterwards. In the next moment, every glare in the cubby-hole was directed at him.

"Aye?" growled Leo. "And did you anticipate this happening, Master Yeslin?"

Being called "master" stung; it was the old-fashioned pronunciation for the word that once meant "slave-master."

He straightened up his back but did not rise to his feet from where he sat on his own stool. If he needed to be standing to keep control over these men, then he didn't have the qualities needed to be a guild leader.

"It's called strike-breaking," he explained to the fist-furled men frowning down at him. "I knew that it could happen, yes. It was a possibility. We'll have to take steps to stop the strike-breakers, so that our strike will be successful—"

"No!"

Wade's sharp word caused everyone to swing round to look at the First District stoker. He too was remaining sitting on his pail, not bothering to stand.

"Nay?" said Jerry. "What's the matter, Wade, you got a queasy stomach? Or maybe you don't want to fight against your masters?"

"First District men never do," said Leo dismissively and turned his back on Wade, returning his wrath to Yeslin. "You got a better plan, you'd best cough it up, lad, 'cause now's the time—"

"I said, No." Wade's voice was quieter this time, yet somehow firmer. It drew all eyes to his direction. Yeslin found himself rising to his feet to see the First District stoker better.

Wade waited until everyone was looking at him, then said simply, "Ain't none of you going to speak up for the prisoners?"

A short, painful silence followed, which everyone else seemed to interpret better than Yeslin did. There were hunched shoulders, looks of guilt exchanged. Finally Jerry said, in a gruff voice, "You agreed to the strike too."

"Then I was a fool!" shot back Wade. "We sit down on the job, and who's going to suffer? Not the Seekers – they're used to sleeping without heat in their cells, and they got their oil-lamps for light. So who's going to suffer?" He looked around at the other stokers.

It was left to Yeslin to slowly reach the conclusion that the other men had already reached. "The prisoners," he said in a small voice.

"Yeah, boy, the prisoners." Wade didn't even bother to look in the direction of the outsider troublemaker who had taken so long to realize this; he was reserving his frowns for the others. "We all knew that. So why were we so all-fired eager to keep our jobs? 'Cause we don't care what happens to those commoners in the cells? We don't care if they sit there shivering in the dark?"

"Mr. Chapman will have the day-stokers care for them—" started Curt.

"We know that now!" shouted Wade. "We didn't know that then. We didn't know that when we went to Master Chapman, demanding our rights. Well, here's what I think of our rights. Hand me a light, Jer." Jerry silently pulled out his tobacco box, which he kept pocketed during his visits to the Eternal Dungeon, and waited until Wade had used his penknife to snap the threads holding his guild badge to his shirt. Then Jerry handed him the match, and they all watched as Wade lit his guild badge, waited until it was well burnt, then let it fall to the floor, where he ground it underfoot.

"That's what I think of your guild and its lighted-world notions of commoners' rights," Wade told Yeslin. "You don't care 'bout the commoners. You only care 'bout your fucking guild. Well, I don't know about you boys," he said, addressing the remaining stokers, "but me, I'm willing to suffer for the sake of the prisoners." He picked up his shovel and stalked out of the room.

There was a small silence as Yeslin stared at where he had been, the final words of Wade's speech – so very different from the way the man usually spoke – still ringing in his ears. Finally Yeslin heard himself say, "Where did that come from?"

Leo shot him a look and snorted. Jerry, more kindly, laid a hand on Yeslin's shoulder. "You wouldn't know," he said. "You haven't been here long enough, aye?"

"I'm ready to get back to work," Curt declared. "Anyone coming with me?"

There were general nods of agreement as the men picked up their shovels and stowed away their pails. Within a couple of minutes, they were all gone, leaving Yeslin staring at the empty room.

Chapter Text

They worked out the ballad, line by painful line, Yeslin composing the first draft, Elsdon striking out lines that revealed too much. At last, with thinly disguised exasperation, Elsdon showed Yeslin the Code of Seeking – not the public edition, which Yeslin had only glanced at so far, but the Seekers' edition, which contained the Seekers' secrets for how to break a prisoner.

"Those passages are off-limits," Elsdon said flatly. Then he went away, only to return a short while later to report that the Codifier had ruled that Seekers could provide information to balladeers who wished to memorialize dead prisoners, provided that no dungeon secrets were revealed in the process.

Yeslin read the Seekers' edition of the Code of Seeking as he might have read a ballad telling of a great scandal. The secret passages were an appalling companion to the high, idealistic passages of the public portion of the Code. They described, with dark bluntness, how to create excruciating, mind-breaking pain without killing a prisoner. They described the signs of imminent death. They described how much blood a man might lose while still remaining conscious enough to offer his confession.

Yeslin wondered how Elsdon had managed to reconcile those passages with his conscience. Had he used the same technique his abusive father had used, of telling himself that pain was in the best interests of the prisoner?

Yeslin didn't ask, for he was caught in wonder at seeing his own ballad reshape into something new and unexpected.

In place of the angry, confrontational, battle-stance ballad he had originally written, with the Seekers as hardened enemies of the commoners, came a different tale: the sad story of a prisoner dying for the sake of a well-meaning Seeker who, to the end, remained oblivious to what he had done.

Yeslin saw more in the tale than Elsdon evidently did as his brother recounted his memory of the episode. Yeslin recognized how Elsdon's prisoner had been puzzled and frustrated by Elsdon's insistence on placing the Code above all considerations of human decency. Yeslin realized also how the prisoner's respect for Elsdon had risen as the prisoner understood that his Seeker was prepared to apply this appalling principle even to his own life – that he was ready to let his own beloved mate die, rather than break the Code. Indeed, the Seeker's love-mate was prepared to sacrifice himself for the same reason.

"I don't understand why you've included so many lines about me," Elsdon said, reading over Yeslin's shoulder. "The High Seeker is the important figure in this tale. My prisoner gave his confession so that I would be freed to care for the High Seeker when he was ill."

"People like a love story," was Yeslin's only response. He was not surprised to witness Elsdon's humility – Elsdon's inability to realize that his own greatness had played a role in the prisoner's decision. Yeslin used all his skill to portray that greatness in his ballad – to change the Seekers of his ballad from cardboard figures in a puppet show into great men, though highly flawed, striving for transformation and falling well short of their goal, because of their blindness to what they did when they tied men to racks.

In a word, he had learned to write tragedy. And tragedy, he was discovering as he built up a portrait of Layle Smith's greatness, was a far more satisfying form of balladry than petty mockery.

He had held no hope before now that any of the elite would listen to his ballads and learn from them. Now, watching Elsdon read the ballad with absorbed interest, Yeslin began to conceive of a new path in life – a path that might delay his arrest until he had accomplished at least a portion of what he needed to do.

"This is good," said Elsdon, fingering the paper. "You've done a really fine job of capturing what the High Seeker is like – that mixture of terrifying darkness and boundless generosity. And my prisoner . . . somehow you've managed to capture Mr. Little's personality too, even though you never met him either. I still don't understand why you bothered to include more than a line or two about me, but Yeslin . . . this is very good. I'm no judge of ballads, but I think people will sing this, and will pass on the song."

"You're pleased?" He stole a look at Elsdon, hooded as always, though with his face-cloth up in the privacy of his own living quarters.

Elsdon nodded, not looking up from the words Yeslin had written. "Shortly before he died, Mr. Little told me that he was sure he would be forgotten after he died – that only elite men like me appeared in history books. But this . . ." He waved his hand toward the page.

"Some of the ballads are older than the oldest books," Yeslin said. "You can tell that, by listening to the words."

He looked more closely at his brother. It had taken them three days to create the ballad. Yeslin, alternating between ballad-writing and stoking, had received little sleep during that period. Elsdon, alternating between ballad-writing and questioning a new prisoner, had received even less.

Elsdon looked haggard now; the skin below his eyes was black, and the rest of his face was grey with exhaustion. Gazing at his brother, Yeslin found himself wondering whether Elsdon's fatigue came from more than lack of sleep.

"Elsdon," he said slowly, "I have a question. You criticized my earlier ballad because it revealed secrets about the Eternal Dungeon that you felt needed to be kept, and you criticized it because it caricatured the Seekers and commoners . . . but you didn't criticize it for attacking the idea that torture should be a means of questioning men who are accused of a crime."

Elsdon did not raise his eyes; his gaze seemed attached to Yeslin's latest ballad.

Yeslin carefully extracted the ballad from Elsdon's hand, forcing the Seeker to look up. "Brother," said Yeslin, "are you a troublemaker too?"

He expected Elsdon to smile, but the Seeker merely cocked his head, considering the question. Finally Elsdon said, "I don't know. I've never considered myself as such. But ever since you arrived, asking your questions and singing your songs . . . The trouble with ballads," he added in a frustrated voice, "is that they make you think."

Yeslin laughed then, and after a moment, Elsdon's mouth relented into a quirk of a smile. "Here," said the Seeker, pulling some papers from his trousers pocket and handing them to Yeslin. "These are for you."

He looked at them. The first was a note indicating that his employment at the Eternal Dungeon would not be renewed, since Mr. Harden Pevsner, newly returned from overseas, had declined to offer Yeslin Bainbridge a positive recommendation. The other stated that, since there appeared to be an error in the documentwork of his oath of silence, he would be required to renew his oath before leaving, in the presence of a witness.

Yeslin frowned at the latter document. "You told the majordomo what I'd done?" He could not prevent himself from sounding accusing. After all the trouble he had gone to in order to keep the dungeon's secrets . . .

Elsdon appeared reluctant to answer. Yeslin made a growling noise in his throat. Finally, with a sigh, Elsdon pulled a third document out of his pocket.

Yeslin glanced at it and felt his throat close in. It was an order for his arrest.

Elsdon silently took the order back and tore it to pieces. After a moment's thought, Yeslin supplied him with a match. They placed the paper in the iron tub and lit it.

The burning gave Yeslin time to think. "You stopped her from passing on the order?"

"The messenger lad bragged about what he had done when he made his next delivery to Mistress Moore," said Elsdon, his gaze focussed on the tiny flame within the sink. "We don't arrest for many offenses in the Eternal Dungeon, but the Codifier takes very seriously any assistance in the forgery of signatures in signed oaths."

"Oh, Elsdon." Yeslin could think of nothing to do except embrace the Seeker in loving gratitude. And in the end, he realized that this gesture summarized all that lay between himself and his brother.

o—o—o

"Sorry you're going," said Leo gruffly as he shook Yeslin's arm. "You're a good man. Meant well. Just hadn't been here long enough to understand our ways."

"Aye," agreed Jerry. "Our fault, being fools enough to follow your advice, when you hadn't been here long enough to understand how we do things here. Not your fault."

Yeslin managed to keep a smile plastered on his face. "I think I understand a little more now." He held up a copy of the Code of Seeking – the public version – that Elsdon was letting him keep. After he had left Elsdon at noon, to permit his brother a few hours of sleep, Yeslin had not returned to the lighted world, where his own bed lay. Instead, he had spent the afternoon in the stokers' cubby-hole, reading the book over and over, especially the first words of the Code: "A Seeker must be willing to suffer for the prisoners."

Elite words, written for elite men. Yet somehow the words – and the sentiments behind them – had buried themselves in the hearts of the laborers who helped run this dungeon of torture. And as he read further, Yeslin began to see how Layle Smith – the High Seeker who had spent his childhood living on the streets – had taken what he learned there and had given his knowledge back as a gift to the commoner prisoners.

Now, feeling bitter regret that he would not have the opportunity to meet Elsdon's complexly-motivated love-mate, Yeslin shook yet another friendly arm in farewell, saying, "You're right: I would have had to be here a while to understand. But you men, you stokers who have worked in this dungeon for years . . ." He hesitated, wondering how to voice his thoughts.

There was a cough. Everyone in the cubby-hole looked round to where Wade stood, hands shoved deep in his pockets, shoulders hunched.

"Where you been, man?" demanded Leo. "We haven't seen so much as your soul since yesterday! Yeslin here, he did your evening's work for you." Leo pointed his thumb.

Wade shrugged. "I been with Master Chapman."

Yeslin felt his heart beat hard in his throat. The other stokers, slower to understand, shrugged. Leo said, "That doesn't excuse you from letting other men do your work—"

"He's keeping us on."

Leo paused. "What'd you say?"

Wade grinned, placing a piece of straw between his teeth. "He's keeping us on. All of us. Whether this dungeon gets 'lectrified or not, he says we can keep our jobs here."

There was a stunned silence; nobody seemed to know what to say. Finally Curt voiced the general sentiment: "You been tippling at the healer's emergency supply of rum, Wade?"

Wade chuckled. "Feels like I have, yeah." He stepped into the room, closing the door behind him. "See, I been thinking all day, 'stead of sleeping. Shouldn't be like 'on this hand' and 'on this other hand.' Shouldn't be a choice between us staying and the prisoners suffering. So I went to Master Chapman tonight, and I said to him, 'When you get rid of the stokers, I want to stay on as a janitor.'"

Leo frowned. "Janitor's job doesn't pay much."

"That's what Master Chapman said." Wade nodded. "He asked me whether money didn't matter to me. I said, 'Sure, it matters. I'm saving up for my marriage. My girl, she's going to be right tetched to hear it's going to take me a year more to save 'fore we can marry. But that don't matter,' I told him. 'I'm willing to suffer for the prisoners.'"

Yeslin cleared his throat, though he could still feel his heart beating hard in it. "And what did he say to that?"

"Well, that's the strange thing," said Wade, hunching his shoulders again. "He didn't say nothing at first. Just looked at me, till I was wondering if I'd done something wrong, and he was going to take me off to one of those breaking cells. Then he asked me whether I was the only one thought that way. Among the stokers, he meant. And I said, 'Bloody blades, no! All the fellows think that. We all decided it would be wrong to strike, 'cause we didn't want the prisoners hurting.' Didn't tell him 'bout you," he added to Yeslin. "Didn't want to get you in trouble."

Several of the stokers turned aside to hide their smiles. Jerry made an ill-kept attempt to smother a snicker. Yeslin, feeling his cheeks burn, gave a sheepish smile. "Thank you," he said. "But what did Mr. Chapman say after that?"

"Oh!" said Wade. "That was when it got right strange. He apologized! Said he hadn't realized before that we cared so much 'bout the prisoners. Said, when he was a stoker, he was the only one who cared – that the other stokers mocked him for caring 'bout the prisoners, and so did the other guards, when he 'came a guard." Wade shrugged. "I said, 'That was 'fore Layle Smith came 'long, wasn't it?' And he just sort of looked at me, and finally he said, 'Mr. Smith was still junior-ranked then. He couldn't do much to change dungeon policy. But he gave me a helping hand when I needed it, because he saw how much I cared for the prisoners. As for myself, I'm very pleased to have the opportunity to do the same for you and your mates.' And that's when he shook my arm and told me he'd make sure we all kept our jobs, one way or 'nother."

This time the silence was broken, not by Leo or by Jerry or by any of the other long-time stokers, but by Yeslin, shouting and jumping and pumping his fists in the air.

"Don't know what you're getting so excited about," said Leo, staring at Yeslin as though he were the one who'd been tippling at the bottle. "We did things all different than what you'd planned."

"But that's just it," said Yeslin, getting his breath back. The other stokers were beginning to slap each other on their backs, finally grasping that their future employment was ensured, and without the prisoners paying the price for that employment. "You found the right way to help each other, and to help other commoners. You found your way. That's what I wanted all along, for you to start thinking about how to stand up for your rights, in the way that suited you best. I needed you fellows to be able to take over the guild chapter, once I was gone. —Here," he added, struggling with his penknife to tear off his badge, which said, "Commoners' Guild, Chapter 1: Leader." "I was going to give this to you, Leo, when I left, but I guess you won't mind if it goes to someone else instead." He offered the badge to Wade.

Wade looked at the badge uncertainly, then at the others. There were slow nods from the other men – nods of thought and assent. Finally Wade's expression cleared, and he picked up the badge. "Yeah, boy," he said. "Maybe we'll teach you commoners in the lighted world a thing or two."

"Maybe you will," replied Yeslin with a smile and a salute. He turned to go.

And that was when the true strangeness arrived.

Chapter Text

Wade stood blocking the closed door. He made no effort to move away. His gaze flicked over Yeslin's shoulder. Hearing steps behind him, Yeslin turned to see that the stokers had all gathered close to him. They were frowning.

Yeslin cleared his throat. "Is something wrong?"

Leo gestured with his hand. "Just hand it over, lad."

"Hand what over?" Yeslin felt sweat begin to trickle down his back.

"You know what we want," said Jerry, who had taken out his penknife and was playing with the blades. "The ballad. Give it here."

Yeslin's expression must have been amusing to watch, for Curt's frown broke into a grin. "What, you think we're all fools?"

"Evidently not," said Yeslin, trying to estimate his chances for survival.

"'Evidently not,'" mimicked Wade from behind him. "You still got that elite way of saying things."

"And you still got that elite way of thinking." Leo shook his head, looking more sad than angry. "Lad, let me give you a hint that will do you good in your life: We commoners, all of us, think things through together. We make our decisions together. Now, it doesn't take much thought to figure that, if you took all the trouble you did to come down to this dungeon, it was because you wanted to find out what was going on here and tell the lighted world. You wanted to sing the lighted world a ballad. That right? You going to break your oath of silence?"

Yeslin cleared his throat. "Not exactly."

Curt shrugged. "He probably thinks the oath is less important than the ballad."

"Aye, well." Jerry scratched the back of his neck. "We all thought that once. And maybe you could sing a ballad that wouldn't be bad, that wouldn't hurt the prisoners. But you didn't ask for our help!"

"You didn't ask for our help," Leo agreed. "You just made that decision on your own, the way elite men do. That's your trouble, lad. You're not thinking yet like commoners do."

The truth was a good deal more complicated than the stokers realized, Yeslin knew. Yeslin's distrust – his deep distrust of allowing other folk control over his decisions – came not from his time with the elite, but from his years of being misused at the hands of his birth-parents. Yet perhaps there was a seed of truth to what the stokers thought. Perhaps Yeslin had begun to think of "leadership" the way that the elite did: he had thought that leadership consisted of a man imposing his will on men and women below him.

"You're right," he acknowledged. "I haven't been much of a leader to you. But I'll be better after this, since I was smart enough to pick the best place in the Queendom of Yclau to start my guild: a place where commoners really look out for one another." He let his gaze fall on all of the stokers present, whose expressions had turned embarrassed.

Still standing behind him, Wade said, "That's all talk. You give us the ballad, boy."

He laughed lightly, pulling the written ballad from his trousers pocket. Like any good balladeer, he already had the ballad memorized and could recite it from heart if the stokers chose to tear it up. But if they chose to tear it up, then it wasn't the correct ballad to sing in any case.

"All right," he said, turning to hand the ballad to the guild's chapter leader. "Let me know whether I've sung this wrong. But in the meantime, I want to tell you about another ballad I have in mind. It's about a group of stokers who were willing to suffer for the sake of the prisoners. . . ."

o—o—o
o—o—o

. . . We may never know what caused the young Seeker to depart from the shadow of his mentor, but if we examine closely the wording of Elsdon Taylor's initial protests in the year 360, we can see that he must have had some sort of contact with the Commoners' Guild.

The mystery is how such contact was made. In 360, the now-world-famous guild had barely begun. Textbooks proclaim its earliest activities to have taken place late in the sixth month of 360, when a series of protests and strikes by commoners threatened to tear apart the heart of Yclau's capital. Even the guild's young founder, Yeslin Bainbridge, expressed surprise at how his ideas spread like wildfire among the queendom's commoners. (See Appendix F, "The Ballad of the Dying Prisoner – Bainbridge 360:1," and Appendix G, "The Ballad of the Stokers – Bainbridge 360:2.")

But how could those revolutionary notions have taken hold of Elsdon Taylor, at almost the exact same moment? How could a torturer, who had spent all his life as a member of the aristocracy, embrace within a handful of days a message that was aimed at the working class?

Various attempts by historians to link the names of Yeslin Bainbridge and Elsdon Taylor have failed; Elsdon Taylor entered the Eternal Dungeon when Yeslin Bainbridge was a mere fourteen years old, and we know almost nothing about the childhood and youth of either of these important historical figures. If the men ever had contact with each other in later years, they were both exceedingly discreet about that contact. The idea that Yeslin Bainbridge should have started his guild by visiting Elsdon Taylor, while a dramatic notion, has no grounding in historical evidence.

Until now the mystery of Elsdon Taylor's shift in balance has remained unresolved. But a new document, discovered by this author in the royal archives, sheds light on the matter. It is a request from the Eternal Dungeon's day supervisor, Weldon Chapman, for the retraining of all the dungeon's stokers, in order to permit them to run the electrically powered furnaces that were about to be installed. Such a request for laborers' retraining had never been made in the Eternal Dungeon . . . until the date of the document, the sixth month of 360.

Did Yeslin Bainbridge somehow manage to make contact with the dungeon's stokers? Or did those stokers witness the earliest outbreaks of commoner fervor and decide on their own initiative to take action to better their lives? Whatever the cause may have been, the stirrings among the stokers, who worked just outside the Seekers' living cells, must have been witnessed by Elsdon Taylor. Perhaps the stokers' desire to improve their work conditions helped to bring to the surface some doubts that Elsdon Taylor had long held concerning his own work.

All this is speculation, perhaps no more fruitful than the speculation about Elsdon Taylor's bedroom activities. What is not speculation – what is firm historical fact – is that the stokers, as well as many other commoners, would play a quiet but highly significant role in the upcoming conflict within the Eternal Dungeon.

I must turn now – reluctantly, because of the painful nature of that conflict – to the internal war that erupted in the Eternal Dungeon in the year 360. But before doing so, I would like us to pause and look back at the peaceful period which preceded that war. Layle Smith had healed, as much as he ever would, from the effects of his madness. He was at peace with himself and with his friends in the Eternal Dungeon: Elsdon Taylor and Weldon Chapman. He had received renewed indication of his senior night guard's faithfulness. He had persuaded his old friend, the High Master of the Hidden Dungeon, to make reforms in that dungeon. He had returned to his satisfying work of assisting prisoners to recognize the gravity of their crimes.

We can only imagine the shock he must have experienced from the events that followed. What we do know – for all the evidence before us demonstrates this – is that the peace and love which Layle Smith stored within himself during the year before the conflict broke out would remain deep within him, until the appropriate moment would come for him to share it with others.

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.

o—o—o
o—o—o
o—o—o

Chapter Text

Truth and Lies

I can safely say that this story was more difficult for me to research than any other I have written. Not only for emotional reasons but because, at the time I researched the novella (from 2003 to 2004), fewer historical texts existed online, so it wasn't easy for me to locate information about the exact details of what took place when prisoners were racked.

I was therefore working from only a handful of primary sources: William Lithgow's account of his racking in 1620 (reprinted in J. Bronowski's The Ascent of Man), John Gerard's account of being hung from manacles around his wrists in 1597 (reprinted in Eyewitness to History, edited by John Carey), and one or two other accounts I no longer recall.

The most striking aspect of Father Gerard's account is his repeated assertion that his torturers felt pity for him. The account is filled with passages like this:
 

My [warder] brought me back to my room. His eyes seemed swollen with tears. . . . Personally, I believe [the Governor of the Tower of London ordered my release because] he was moved by compassion, for some time after my escape a gentleman of position told me that he had heard Sir Richard Berkeley, this same Lieutenant, say that he had freely resigned his office because he no longer wished to be an instrument in such torture of innocent men.


Similar tales are told of other torturers during that time. Even allowing for dramatic exaggeration, it does appear that the literary trope of the Kind-hearted Torturer has some basis in fact. I think it's unlikely, though, that any torturers went as far as Layle Smith did in an attempt to assist his prisoner.
 

Barbarians & Hidden

"Barbarians" and "Hidden" owe their existence to Anne Blue, who asked that I write an Eternal Dungeon story for her CD-zine, MAS-Zine. I gave her two. Their publication was accompanied by the following author's note:
 

 The editor of MAS-Zine has asked me to mention how I got the idea for "Hidden." As a teenager I saw a zoo exhibit that told how a specialist had been bitten by a snake that he thought to be nonvenomous but turned out not to be. Under such circumstances, I would have been screaming and sobbing. However, the exhibit stated that the snake specialist spent his dying moments recording his symptoms.

 Alas, while checking on this story to write this note, I've discovered that the actual story is not quite so colorful as I recalled it: the herpetologist in question (Karl P. Schmidt, who died in Chicago in 1957) did not realize he was dying. However, there are many other cases in history of people carefully recording the circumstances of their death for the sake of posterity - for example, the diary of Robert Falcon Scott on his failed expedition to Antarctica (http://gutenberg.org/ebooks/6721). It was while I was thinking about what sort of person it would take to be able to keep his mind on his duties while dying that the idea for "Hidden" popped into my head.


Death Watch

To any scholar wishing to spend a few years researching the primary sources of an obscure topic, I suggest that they tackle the history of fisting (placing a hand or arm inside an anus or vagina). From the scant sources I've been able to track down, it appears to me that fisting was a rare sexual activity before the twentieth century, but not entirely unknown.

The 1880s (when this story is set) is the decade when some physicians began to wash their hands before surgery, a practice that remained controversial for a number of years.
 

Balladeer

There is a passing reference in this story to a strike at Miller's Rubber Stamp Manufactory. This story is set in the alternate-universe equivalent of 1881, in the alternate-universe equivalent of Luray, Virginia (site of a certain famous set of limestone caves). According to Chataigne's Virginia Gazetteer and Classified Business Directory, 1884-1885, J. F. Miller & Co. ran a rubber stamp manufactory in Luray at that time. I know nothing about the business beyond that fact.

With much publicity, electric lights were introduced to Luray Caverns in 1881. This is sheer, happy coincidence; the date of the Eternal Dungeon's electrification was determined by events in prior stories.

In Britain, the 1880s was the decade when unions of unskilled laborers began to be popular. (In the United States, these unions started slightly earlier.) Before then, the uniting of workers had occurred mainly in guilds and craft unions, whose membership was confined to a select number of skilled workers.