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Broadside (Forge #2)

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The year 375, the sixth month. (The year 1886 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)

The boy on the table was beginning to cry now. "Please!" he pleaded in the old tongue. "Please, I've told you everything I know . . ."

"Shh." Layle smoothed his hand down the boy's back. "I must do this; it's my duty. I'll be as brief as I can."

This was something less than the truth, he reflected as he paused to check that the boy's ankles were still firmly tied to the legs of the table, spreading him open for Layle's use. The rules of the Hidden Dungeon – what few rules there were – were strict. All men and women brought here as prisoners must be tortured unless they freely offered the information required of them. All prisoners arrested for treason against the King of Vovim must be tortured and raped, regardless of whether they freely offered their confessions. This would allow the King to display their mutilated bodies afterwards, as a warning to those of his subjects who might be tempted to commit treason. Every now and then, one of the prisoners thus displayed had proved innocent of treason. But in the view of the King and his appointed torturers, this was a minor mishap in an otherwise smoothly run dungeon.

Those were the rules; beyond that, the torturers were free to gift their prisoners with as much mercy or hell as seemed warranted. The youngest, most vulnerable prisoners – those under the age of twenty-one, Vovim's age of majority – usually received mercy. At worst, they would receive rape at the hands of any torturer who had an interest in young flesh, sometimes not even that. Only on the rarest occasions were children tortured, unless they had been accused of treason.

The boy whom Layle had placed on the table had not been accused of treason. And he was young, as young as Layle himself. He had been given into Layle's hands, despite the fact that Layle had been an apprentice torturer for only a few weeks, because Layle was one of the few torturers here who knew the old tongue, and the boy did not know how to voice the Common Speech of the Kingdom of Vovim. Master Aeden had told Layle that his young apprentice could take whatever steps were needed to obtain the required information. The imprisoned boy had committed no crime; he was simply suspected to be a witness to a murder. From the fear he exhibited at finding himself in Vovim's notorious royal dungeon, it would not be long before he offered up his witness.

It had taken a little longer than Master Aeden had anticipated. Layle had tortured the boy as slowly as he could, so as to draw out the pleasure he received at the boy's torment. Then, the witness having been given, Layle made preparations to rape the boy.

"I don't know anything more than I've told you," the boy sobbed again, straining to free his hands from his manacles. The hands were bound fast behind his back; he was stomach-down on the table, his groin hanging over the edge.

"Shh." Layle slid his hand around one thigh, saying softly, "It will be over soon, I promise you. I wouldn't do this if my duty didn't require it of me. If you relax, it will be easier for you. It will hurt less. Perhaps . . . you will even enjoy it."

He heard the boy's breath stop as Layle's hand stroked the boy's back lightly. Layle waited, licking his lips in anticipation. Only a few more minutes of this, and he was sure he could make the boy enjoy his own rape. For as long as Layle permitted him to. Then, when Layle began to hurt his victim, the boy's anguish would be all the greater.

The boy gave a whimper – of pain, perhaps. Layle felt his desire swell at thought of that pain. Then he heard the faint sound of a door opening. The sound was very faint; the torturers of the Hidden Dungeon knew better than to enter loudly into a torture cell when another torturer was hard at work.

He turned his head, wondering whether he would see Master Aeden. He was not entirely sure whether the master torturer would approve of the steps he had taken with this prisoner, and that worried him. He wanted Master Aeden's approval. He privately thought his master was too soft with his prisoners, but perhaps that helped to offset Layle's own desires. It had not been so long ago, Layle reminded himself, that he had been a criminal. Master Aeden, however overly gentle that torturer might be, was still a surer guide for Layle than his own instincts.

It was not Master Aeden. It was Millard, fresh from his own prisoner, it seemed, for blood stained his shirt. Millard was old enough to question prisoners on his own; Master Aeden only gave him token supervision these days. Layle suspected that Master Aeden would have dispensed even with that, if his duty had permitted it. Millard was so vicious with his prisoners that he frightened some of the older torturers.

Millard was looking upon him with contempt. He was good at hiding his expressions when he needed to fool prisoners, but he did not hide his scorn at finding Layle with a tortured boy on the table, readied for rape.

Layle did not stir from where he was; nor did he remove his hand from where it was stroking the boy. "You did this to a man yesterday," he reminded Millard in the Common Speech, knowing that his prisoner could not understand the conversation. "It's better to do it to a boy than to a man. A man feels more shame."

He had never been able to resist talking back to his elders. Millard's mouth quirked. "That depends on the man, I imagine." Then he tossed his head, as though the remark had slipped from him against his will. His hair spun behind him, ruddy in the lamplight. "Bedding a boy is one thing. Torturing him, however . . . Well, I suppose you must have your enjoyment, Layle Smith, since you'll be High Master over us all one day." His voice had turned from contempt to disgust; he spoke the apprentice's assumed name with mockery.

The boy was crying now, torn between pleasure and the determination not to feel pleasure at the hands of his torturer. Layle continued to stroke him in an automatic manner, his eyes fixed on Millard, who assuredly had no right to offer lectures to anyone about how to serve Mercy.

Millard was the one who broke his gaze first, turning his eyes away. "Master Aeden wants to see us both," he said abruptly. "Something about a play." He leaned against the doorway, his hip swaying, then appeared to notice in the same moment what he had done, for he abruptly straightened. "Something about play-acting Mercy," he added, his lips twisting in frank mockery now. "Would you care to volunteer for the role?"

Layle did not bother to reply. After a minute, Millard shrugged. With a final, contemptuous look, he left Layle alone with his victim.

Layle pulled back from the boy, ignoring his sobs. He felt uneasy, and he could not figure out why. Not because of the boy; he knew that much. Something about his conversation with Millard touched upon things that were wrong: wrong with Millard and – in a different way – wrong with himself. He needed time to sort out what those wrongs were.

He set his clothes back in order, then walked toward the door, ignoring the piercing screams of the boy who was now convinced that he would be left to die on the table. Two wrongs to figure out. It was easier to think about Millard's wrongness than his own. When had Layle sensed something was wrong? When Millard leaned against the door? No. That had been the second moment of his uneasiness. The first had come earlier, from something Millard had said. . . .

He pushed open the door and let it swing shut behind him, not bothering to lock in his bound victim. He could still hear the boy's screams as he walked down the corridor, lost in thought. A door in front of him opened; a man emerged.

He was carrying a pitcher full of water, with a towel draped over his arm. "Forge!" said the man. "Sweet blood, man, what a day this has been. Gillian and I lost our usual child-minder—"

"Excuse me," said Toler as he walked past Dearborn Broaddus without pausing. He slammed the door of the lower-storey water closet behind him. Then he leaned against the door, trying to still his trembling.

This was not good, he knew. It was not good at all that his dark dreamings had returned to him.

He heard his breath rasp in his throat. He raised his arm to wipe the sweat off his forehead there. Outside the bathroom, he could hear the usual sounds of the commoner district of Yclau's capital: horse-hooves, the rattle of wheels on the road, conversations from passersby. The scream that rang in his ears must come from the dreaming.

The water closet was dark, lit only by a glazed window that shed a minimal amount of light on the toilet, wiping rags, and water basin. He turned to the basin and scooped up the water lying there, throwing it over his face. His hands were still shaking.

How many years had it been since he had experienced a dark dreaming against his will? Ten years, perhaps? The last one he remembered had occurred during the terrible period when he and Elsdon were theoretically reconciled after the rebellion of the New School of Seekers in the Eternal Dungeon, but before the High Seeker named Layle Smith – as Toler had been back then – had found a way to trust Elsdon again. It had been around that time that he and Elsdon had conceived the idea of starting a theater in the Eternal Dungeon. Such theaters were common in Vovimian prisons, but this was the first such prison theater in the Queendom of Yclau.

Even within the overly cramped confines of Yclau theater tradition – set scripts with previously prepared lines – he had found a release in acting, a safe place for him to enter into his dark dreamings in public. Since that time he had experienced no dreamings against his will; he had not been pulled helplessly into the darkness of imaginary dungeons where he tortured victims.

He threw more water onto his face and reached for the towel. At least he had been pulled into a memory this time, not an imagining. He remembered clearly that day on which Millard had interrupted him in his work as one of the King's Torturers in what would become known as the Hidden Dungeon of Vovim. It had been as much a turning point in his life as Master Aeden's decision to transform him from a criminal into a torturer. Master Aeden had accomplished his hard task by alternating beatings with gentle words to Toler, making clear to him that Toler was no longer free to follow his own pleasure but must follow his duty as one of the King's agents. He had received a beating for that prisoner, Toler remembered – not because he had been more harsh with the boy than Master Aeden would have liked, but because Toler had wasted time with a prisoner who could have been broken quickly through a few strict words.

The beating had left an impression on Toler, the look of contempt from Millard an even greater impression. Toler had realized on that day that he was better than any of the other torturers in the Hidden Dungeon – better and also worse than any of them. Better because, at age fifteen, he already possessed the ability to break virtually any prisoner placed in his hands. Worse because even Millard, vicious as he was, held contempt for the boy who had been renamed Layle Smith, because of the way Toler treated his prisoners. The uneasiness Toler had begun to feel that day would grow as the months passed, until he was broken and transformed into a different sort of torturer, one who was willing to suffer for his prisoners.

And then he had fled to the Eternal Dungeon. But his dark desire had accompanied him to the Queendom of Yclau, never leaving him, always ready to wreak havoc like a dangerous apprentice who must be carefully watched.

Broaddus had left a cup in the water closet; it was filled with water. Toler gulped it down to try to ease the dryness in his throat. His ears still rang with the screams of the boy in his memory. The sacred plays of Vovim told of how the High Master of hell, being a torture-god, drove mad his victims by the simple act of forcing them to remember their evil deeds. Toler had proof that this tale was true; he had gone mad twice in his lifetime. The fact that he had not spent his entire life in madness was evidence to him that Mercy had accepted his offer of service. The gods knew that he deserved madness and worse for what he had done to his prisoners in the years before he fled to the Eternal Dungeon. Perhaps this unexpected dreaming was nothing more than a lingering punishment for how he had treated his victims back then. Perhaps he was being overly panicky in attributing it to the possibility that he would return to madness.

Enough ballads were sung about the Mad High Seeker. Toler would not allow himself to add more tales to that repertoire.