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You know the tales in the dime novels about prison riots? About how the prisoners are punished by being locked down in isolated disciplinary cells? No glimpses of the outside world, no meal gatherings in dining halls, no friendly snowball fights between pals, no treats from the outside world? A prisoner or two going insane from their temporary isolation?

Well, that's what it's like at Mercy Life Prison. For life.

So you can imagine my reaction when I learned that our guards were planning to turn the Commoners' Festival into a month-long celebration, from first frost till Hell's Fast at midwinter.

Not for us commoners, of course. For themselves. It was like waving a wintergreen stick in the face of a starving man, then slowly sucking it in front of him, smiling smugly.

"It's not even their fucking festival!" I raged when the news reached us. "They're not bloody commoners!"

Tyrrell gave me a reproachful look. Tyrrell is awfully good at reproachful looks, I'd learned that year. He had given me an exquisitely reproachful look on the day I pretended it wasn't my turn to clean our cell's cesspit.

Mind you, he had a point. Not only about the cesspit, but about my foul language. We'd made an agreement. No foul language. No shouting at each other. No beating each other up. A half dozen pledges in all – we'd just started back then to compile our list.

The worst part? I'd been the one who'd had the idea of us abiding by boundaries of behavior. There are some days when I'm just too smart for my own good.

This wasn't one of those days. I did what I should have done before, which was glance beyond the bars of our cell door to check whether anyone was listening. Fortunately, all the prisoners in the nearby cells seemed absorbed in getting ready for bed. Even more fortunately, my guard wasn't within earshot.

I contented myself with a mutter: "Not their festival."

Tyrrell didn't say anything this time or give me any looks. He can be tactful, on occasion.

I grinned reluctantly. "You can say it. It's not my festival either."

I kept my voice low. Tyrrell was the only man in the prison who knew that I'd been mid-class, once. Or rather, he was the only prisoner who knew. I wouldn't put it past my guard to dig through my arrest records, seeking out juicy bits to torment me with.

"You never had a chance to celebrate the Commoners' Festival, Merrick?" Tyrrell was all sympathy.

That's the problem with Tyrrell: he's all sympathy, all the time. It took me a while to figure this out about him – that his shows of sympathy weren't his attempts to make mock at men. He actually cares. I'd heard him sympathize about a bruised thumb suffered by his own guard, who had gotten the bruise while hitting Tyrrell in the face, just for fun. Tyrrell meant his sympathy, too.

I've always had the reputation for being the most insane man in Mercy Life Prison. All I can say is, Tyrrell has me beat by a mile.

His sympathy works, though, much better than my snarling and fighting did in the old days. I could feel myself relax as I said, "Oh, we did celebrate the festival. All the children in our part of the countryside did, so my parents didn't want us to feel left out. They used to slip wintergreen under our pillows on the night of the festival."

"Wintergreen? You mean the striped candy stick?" The whites of Tyrrell's eyes widened, stark against his dark skin. I didn't even know whether my cell-mate had ever celebrated the Commoners' Festival, him having had parents who immigrated to our republic from the Kingdom of Vovim. But Tyrrell has a sweet tooth, which is a definite disadvantage in a prison where the only thing sweet is the moldy apples we're given once a year, on Mercy's Feast at midsummer.

I nodded, caught up in my memories now. These days, I tried to set my memories aside. Most of the good memories concerned my murder, and I was beginning to realize that the murder hadn't been as pleasant for my victim as it was for me. That growing knowledge was painfully sharp.

My childhood wasn't usually much better a matter to dwell upon, but I could still recall the thrill of wakening to see frost on the window ledge. Then I'd plunge my hand beneath my pillow and find the hard stick of candy awaiting me.

"It sparked when you bit into it," I remembered as I spoke these memories aloud. "It was like festival fireworks."

Tyrrell sighed, contented. He is fully capable of receiving happiness from just hearing of another man's happiness. I told you, there's something not quite right about him.

"I wouldn't be surprised if these guards munch wintergreen in front of us." I'd remembered now why I was enraged. "For an entire month. What have they done to deserve a celebration?" I glared at the guards who were hanging greenery on the walls outside our cell. Fortunately, they didn't notice me glaring. Very fortunately. One of them was my guard.

"What have we done to deserve it?" Tyrrell said, which was the most sensible remark he'd spoken all evening. His words stopped my grousing.

The problem is, this conversation took place seven months after Thomas left Mercy.

In the old days, my evening would have been simple enough. I'd have gotten enraged, I'd have made everyone around me miserable, I'd have received a hard beating from whatever guard I had that year, and I'd have sulked my way to sleep, hating the world.

Then Thomas came into my life, and that sort of behavior was no longer possible for me.

I felt an aching inside. The wound of the loss was still too new. I could imagine how Thomas would have handled the declaration that the guards were celebrating the Commoners' Festival. He would have sneaked to me his own food from the feast – maybe even slipped a wintergreen stick under my pillow. Maybe given me a kiss or two to celebrate the arrival of winter.

Or maybe not. Because I knew well enough that he'd only shared my bed on our final night together because he was officially no longer my guard. He had his own boundaries of behavior, which is why I'm now locked down for the rest of my life, bound by an oath I made to Tyrrell.

"Missing Tom?" Tyrrell asked softly. He knew the signs, by now.

I shrugged with pretended indifference, turning to make my bed. Making one's bed, in Mercy Life Prison, consists of placing one thin, scratchy blanket on a rocky bedshelf, then bundling up the other blanket into a lumpy ball that serves as a pillow.

Outside, the guards who were coming on duty – including Tyrrell's guard, who watched over our cell at night – were shouting festival greetings to the guards going off duty. The new arrivals had snow clinging to their duty cloaks. Tonight wasn't just the first frost of the year – it was the first snow.

Not that I'd get to see it. I was on the second level of Mercy Life Prison. No yard privileges for me. No privileges of any sort. But Tyrrell was right. We didn't deserve a celebration, after the crimes we'd committed. And even if we did, how can you celebrate a festival of good cheer when you're locked in a cell?

"Wish I could throw a snowball," said Tyrrell.

There was a yearning in his voice that made me turn and look at him. He was staring at the snow that was rapidly melting upon the cloak of his guard. I calculated years in my mind. Five years at Mercy, three years before that in holding prisons . . . Tyrrell would have been nineteen when he last played in the snow – barely more than a boy.

I forgot sometimes that other prisoners were suffering here too. That was one reason why I missed Thomas. He had a gift for making me see things like that.

I cleared my throat. "Maybe I could find a way to sneak you out to the yard." I kept my voice to a whisper. My guard was closer now.

Tyrrell gave a light laugh, dismissing the matter; then he suddenly grew still. Not from pain or fear – it had taken me several months to figure that out about him. No, when Tyrrell stands stock still, he has an idea running through his head.

One that I usually regret hearing about. I said hastily, "We should get to bed—"

"It's the festival season," he said. I don't think he even knew he was interrupting me. "A time for gifts."

I snorted. "What are you expecting, that the guards will give us wintergreen candy? Every day for the next month will be the same as it always is. None of the guards will be giving gifts."

"Not them." Tyrrell's expression was beatific now. "Us."


If you think I managed to argue him out of his ludicrous idea, that's just a sign you've never shared a cell with Tyrrell.

Mind you, his very ludicrousness was one of the reasons I'd asked to share a cell with him. Of all the men on the second level of Mercy, Tyrrell comes closest to being like Thomas. But whereas Thomas was so subtle that you didn't know you'd given up being a murderer till he allowed you to recognize how he'd transformed you, Tyrrell has all the subtlety of a steamroller about to flatten you.

So that's how it came to be that, the next day, I found myself in the laundering room where I worked daily, taking swift glances at the open door to see whether the guards were watching.

I'm sure that, if Tyrrell had been there, he'd have been hoping the guards were watching. He had the nonsensical notion that we could persuade some of the guards to follow these boundaries that he and I had come up with. My own notion was just a tad bit less ridiculous. I thought that, if we behaved well, the guards would be less likely to beat us up. It seemed worth a try.

But what Tyrrell had in mind for this occasion didn't exactly fit the guards' definition of "behave well." Mercy's guards don't like prisoners doing unexpected things. To do the guards justice, "unexpected things" by prisoners usually involve hidden knives.

So I made well sure that the guards weren't watching or listening. Then double sure, because one of the guards was my own.

Tyrrell wasn't here to help. He'd been transferred to meal-delivery duty after we became cell-mates that year. Mercy's guards don't like the idea of cell-mates spending all day together, conspiring. Too late, in our case.

I looked around to see which of the prisoners in the laundering room seemed to be having the worst trouble. He wasn't hard to spot. It was that little old man – Tyrrell is better than me at keeping track of names – who'd arrived at Mercy the previous month. I don't know what the old fellow had done to get here; maybe dropped a chewing-gum wrapper on an elite man's foot. This old fellow was as harmless as a lamb suckling its dam. Right now, he was struggling to pour a pot of boiling hot water into the laundering tub.

I hurried over to him. "Here," I said, my voice gruffer than I'd have liked. "Let me help—"

He screeched then. Screeched and let the pot go. The hot water splashed to the floor, barely missing me. It didn't miss my guard, who had just reached the scene.

How I escaped one hundred strokes of the leaded whip for that, I'll never know. As it was, I spent the evening moaning stomach-down on my bed and cursing Tyrrell for his bright notions.

He murmured sympathies, doing what he could to heal my whip-lacerated back, which wasn't much, since we lacked bandages, creams, and clean water.

Finally he said, "It's my fault. I should have realized you'd frighten folks if you abruptly offered to help. Most of the prisoners here have only known you as a vicious, vile man . . . and the ones who haven't, hear what you are once they arrive."

"My thanks," I said sourly, which made Tyrrell laugh. He handed me a piece of maize bread – his own bread, from his sparse dinner, which shut me up. That is Tyrrell all over: giving his dinner to a cell-mate who curses him.

He had even named me as his pal. I've never been able to figure out why.

"You'll have to be friendly first," he said. "Get them used to the idea that you're the kind of man who would give gifts."

I just rolled my eyes. I could see what sort of month it was going to be.


Oddly enough, though, it worked. Oh, not with everyone – as Tyrrell had rightly said, I had my reputation. Some of the prisoners suspected me of the worst. Some of the other prisoners thought it farcically funny to see me "prancing around like the goddess Mercy," as one wit put it. And some prisoners simply saw my change in behavior as a sign that I was now an easy mark for their own viciousness.

But some . . . I guess there were more prisoners like Tyrrell than I'd recognized. I got used to expressions burning with gratitude when I did simple little things, like handing a fellow the soap that was out of his reach.

It was sort of nice, being known for something other than my ability to break a guard's back. I was starting to grasp why Tyrrell thought so highly of gift-giving. In fact, when he began to suggest ways for us to give gifts without the other prisoners knowing who the gift-giver was, I entered eagerly into his plans.

So all would have been well, if it hadn't been for my guard.


You have to understand: the only reason we'd gotten away so far with all this is that the average guard at Mercy Life Prison isn't known for his brains. If he had any brains, he wouldn't work in a prison that is as chaotically run as Mercy is. As Thomas once rightly said, there is no harmony to a prison without boundaries. Violence breaks out at random, and not only from the prisoners. What Mercy mainly attracts is guards who like being paid to be bullies.

Or who make violence their vocation. Which brings me to my guard, Sedgewick.

Alas, Sedgewick doesn't lack brains – just the opposite. But I hadn't had many problems since Sedgewick became my guard that spring. We'd come to an agreement early on, or at least I thought we had. I behaved myself, and he took his nasty little desires elsewhere. I don't know where to – torturing helpless kittens, probably. But he wasn't giving me any of the trouble I'd expected.

By now, though, word had gotten around of what Tyrrell and I were doing. I don't suppose Tyrrell bragged about our vowed boundaries in the presence of guards; he had a reasonable amount of self-preservation. But a few other prisoners had seen what we were doing and had decided they liked it. Not just the boundaries of behavior, which Tyrrell had been explaining to every interested prisoner – the festive gift-giving too. Pretty soon, it was hard for any prisoner to pick up a heavy object without three prisoners immediately arriving at his sides and offering to carry the object for him.

I think some of the guards were amused at our antics. Sedgewick had quite a different reaction.

I woke up on midwinter eve's night, at the end of the last day of Mercy Prison's extended festival. I'd watched the guards take down the greenery earlier that evening, and I'd felt a little miserable, with the festival over. Hell's Fast had begun – the bleakest time of the year. It brought back memories of the previous winter, when I'd first met Thomas.

Now I was lying stomach-down, shivering from the cold, with my cheek pressing hard against a particularly nasty lump in my "pillow." As I opened my eyes, I caught only the faintest glimpse of a hand moving away from my face, but I recognized the hand. That was enough to make me screech.

There are stupider things I could have done, such as put my head in the jaws of a lion at the zoological park. By the time I came to my senses, Sedgewick was atop my back, pressing me against my stone bed.

I was clothed, he was clothed, and I didn't expect that to last for long. I stayed still, except for my shivering, which had a different cause now. He chuckled as he breathed into my ear, which caused every hair on my body to rise. He said, as sweetly as he always does when he is about to create havoc, "Why don't you tell me about these boundaries of yours."

It wasn't a question. I shot a look at Tyrrell. My cell-mate had the blessed ability to sleep through some of his own guard's nighttime assaults upon him. So I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to see Tyrrell snoring away, oblivious of the ravishing that was about to take place on my side of the cell.

I made an attempt to demur, which was like placing my neck neatly against the lion's teeth. "I haven't any idea what you're talking about."

He pinched me. I don't know what you envision when I say that. Sedgewick's pinches are like being stabbed with a red-hot knife.

"Try again." His voice was flat; he was through toying with me.

I attempted to steady my breath. Tyrrell and I had never discussed what we would do if we were questioned by the guards about our boundaries of behavior, as we inevitably would be. I suppose he thought we should hold out as long as we could before confessing to our conspiracy.

Me, I was envisioning all the things that Sedgewick could do to my body if he decided to get creative. I babbled out to him our growing list of boundaries.

Sedgewick had only one question: "These boundaries are for the prisoners?"

I hesitated. Like I said, Tyrrell had this strange notion that guards could be persuaded to swear the oath to follow the boundaries of behavior. I thought that was preposterous. The best we could hope for was that our own good behavior would persuade the guards that we weren't worth assaulting.

Like we'd persuaded Sedgewick? I sighed. "It's not like any guards would want to sign up for this."

"The way you've phrased the boundaries? I should think not. You've made it impossible for guards to do their duty if they take that oath. Guards are required to keep order in this prison, and that sometimes means using our whips, when a prisoner misbehaves."

Some people think I'm the most insane man in Mercy Life Prison. Others say Tyrrell is. Sedgewick, though, has both of us outshone.

I mean, he had his hard shaft digging against the crack of my buttocks throughout this conversation. He wanted me, bad. And he was giving me a tip on how to improve our boundaries of behavior, so that he and other guards could stay within those boundaries.

"Could use a little refining," I admitted weakly.

"Work on it." He slid off me, slapping me hard on the ass. I took it that his final words weren't just a polite suggestion.

After he left, I lay there for a while, trying to make sense of what had just happened – trying also to figure out why thoughts of friendly snowball fights and good cheer kept drifting through my head.

That's why it took me three whole hours to realize that the lump which Sedgewick had left under my pillow was a stick of wintergreen candy.