The year 375, the eighth month. (The year 1886 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
He smelled the horses before he saw them.
The Commoners' Guild – Toler had discovered through a discreet enquiry at the Commoners' Library – was located on Court Street. But to approach the main entrance would mean walking past the courthouse and jail. Toler had never been to either location; as a Seeker, he had normally been permitted to travel only as far as the magisterial rooms in the palace. But the men running the courthouse and jail were, in their own way, representatives of the Queen. Toler would just as soon not think about the Queen while Elsdon's murder remained raw in his mind.
So he took the back way. Through a side street, and when he reached the crossroads to the alley, that was when he saw the horses: a livery stable and a carriage house.
The alley was filthy with manure. He considered the problem, then left the road and walked up the grassy hill.
He soon encountered a barrier: a wooden fence that was in the midst of being whitewashed by a servant. Toler contemplated that fence; it was low enough that he could easily step over it. But starting this visit by breaking and entering did not seem to him to be the right approach.
The servant took note of him for the first time. Doffing his cap, he opened the fence gate for Toler. Toler murmured his thanks and tipped the man. Only when Toler was past, and the man had returned to his work, did Toler notice the badge on his jacket.
It was the badge of a member of the Commoners' Guild.
Too late to correct his mistake, so Toler strode on, eyeing the men crowded around the back of the building. They were in the midst of whitewashing the brick building, which would be quite an accomplishment if it meant whitewashing the entire two-storey building, all the way up to the bell tower. As Toler came forward, they looked up at him and exchanged looks; then, to a man, they took off their caps.
He was not sure what to do, so he did what came natural – which, he realized in retrospect, was exactly the wrong thing to do. He said, "I am Mr. Forge. I have come to enquire about membership in your guild. Will you tell me, please, where I might find Mr. Gaugash?"
The guildmen did not precisely laugh – one does not laugh in the presence of one's betters – but their smirks suggested they were highly amused by this cultured introduction. Openly grinning, one of the men said, "I'm Davis. Gaugash is across the street, arranging bail for one of our members. Want to wait inside . . . sir?"
He could feel the flush cover his face. Once again, he fell back on his training. "Thank you; that is very kind. I hope I do not put you to any trouble."
Davis raised his eyebrows, as though he wasn't used to elite men conveying gratitude to him. All he said, though, was, "It's this way, sir."
Toler followed him through a back door. Inside, the building had the appearance of a school that has been suddenly abandoned: there were child-high hooks for coats in the entryway. Ahead, the front door lay open, showing that the jail was located directly across the street. Conveniently located, one might say.
Toler had no opportunity to see whether Gaugash was returning from the jail with the released guild member, for Davis led him rapidly up the stairs to the second floor. The landing was well lit from windows, revealing that the second floor was divided into rooms by accordion panels, rather than by walls. Davis pushed open one of the panels, saying, "You can wait here, sir."
Toler resisted his impulse to tip Davis. Instead he said, "Thank you for the generous gift of your time." He walked in. Davis slid the panel shut between them with a slam.
The room – Toler realized after a quick calculation – must take up half the space on the second floor. The building had four rooms in all, then – a rather cramped headquarters for so large a guild. This particular room held very little. The windows facing Court Street were shuttered; Toler could hardly blame Gaugash for shutting out sight of the jail and courthouse. At the far end of the room, facing south, was a squat stove whose pipe was attached to a chimney. At the north end of the room, against the panel, stood a blackboard stand. Immediately in front of the blackboard – next to the door, the last place one would expect to find it if this were an ordinary office – was a desk that was clearly designed for the schoolmaster. Schoolmistress, Toler corrected himself as he caught sight of a feminine-dainty heart carved into the desk by a lovesick schoolboy.
All of the pupils' desks and benches had been removed except for one bench, close to the desk. The only other object in the room was a bookcase, nestled between the windows facing east. Toler went over to the bookcase, only to find his attention snagged by the view from one of the windows.
It was a magnificent view, the guild headquarters being located on the same commanding hill as the courthouse and jail. From here, the land sharply fell down toward the creek that bisected the capital; between the buildings, Toler thought he could glimpse the creek bend that was nicknamed Love-mates' Leap. Turning his gaze hastily toward the northeast, he found himself staring at the buildings of the Alleyway district's Main Street, with the smoke from the tannery smudging the horizon. Further out were the more elegant districts, but he could not see them from here. Nor could he see the palace hill in which the Eternal Dungeon was housed; that lay west, behind the shuttered windows.
He forced himself to turn his attention to the bookcase. He could tell at once that it had not been stocked by Bainbridge, for the modest guild-leader's own books were placed prominently upon the top shelves. Then came a few books promoting the activities of the Commoners' Guild, and then—
Toler squinted, not sure he saw what he thought he saw, despite the distinctive gold lettering upon the binding. He reached out to take the book from the shelf.
And nearly dropped it as he shoved the book back onto the shelf, whirling around. His heart was thundering. It was said in the Eternal Dungeon that nothing was capable of startling the High Seeker. Presumably, those who said that had never witnessed Layle Smith when a woman walked unexpectedly into his presence.
Or even expectedly.
It had been her scent that alerted him. She wore no perfume, but the scent of a woman always told him when danger arose. Now he stood frozen, trying to make sense of what he saw. The woman was standing behind the high-backed chair of the schoolmistress's desk, her arms folded upon the back of the chair. She was bareheaded but had her gloves on; she had evidently just arrived from the outside. She was quite young.
That much Toler saw before he heard himself say to the secretary, with admirable calmness, "Excuse me, miss. I'm here to see Mr. Gaugash."
"I am Gaugash," said the woman. "Please have a seat, Mr. Forge."
He sat himself on the bench, only because he was not sure of his body's ability to keep from rushing forward and grabbing her. He was cursing Bainbridge with every curse he knew. Why had the man not warned him? Bainbridge knew very well what women did to Toler. The entire world knew, thanks to Bainbridge's ballads.
So absorbed was he in these thoughts that he missed the moment when the young woman sat down. Bainbridge's assistant, Mistress Gaugash, was far too small for the chair; she looked like a pupil who has taken over the schoolmistress's chair for sport.
"I would like to thank you for offering to assist the Commoners' Guild," she said as she removed her gloves. "We are certainly much in need of aid from the highborn, and I will be glad to outline some ways in which you can be of help to us. I am afraid, however, that the particular type of assistance you have offered is not possible. Only commoners are permitted to join the guild."
He took a deep breath. He had prepared himself for this; he knew that the Yclau accent he had learned from his mother revealed all too clearly that his mother's family was highborn. His father had been mid-class, but even if that fact had carried any weight here, he could scarcely expect Mistress Gaugash to be moved by hearing him speak in his father's Vovimian accent.
If he had chosen to make use of Bainbridge's card of introduction, that would not have permitted him entry into the guild either. The only thing that could help here was the truth – or at least part of the truth.
"I was born of the elite," he said, "but that changed when I was young. I was arrested and imprisoned when I was fifteen. I've only recently been released."
Mistress Gaugash seemed not at all impressed by this information. He supposed she was used to creative lies from the Queen's spies who tried to worm their way into the Guild. "Do you have any records to show this?" she asked politely.
Alas, he did, although the record was one he had hoped he would not have to supply. He took another deep breath.
"320-2," he said. "335-6-ARR-XCAPTHRMFV-BLCKSTP-PY-CONG-2XCON-XCAP5M-XCAPTH8M-XCAPTHTOR9M-XCAPTHTORM11M-CONG. 335-6-EX-COMM-LI-BLCKSTP. 338-10-TRANRES-EC-ED. 348-3-VOLCONG-XSAIPFM. 348-3-REMPRV3MO. 355-7-VOLCONG-XPAPM. 355-7-REMPRV6MO. 374-12-RELEC-CODED-HLTH. SC:1511682."
He had managed to impress her this time. She raised her eyebrows. "You have a remarkable memory. Could you say that again? Slowly?" She took up the pen next to her, briefly unscrewed the barrel to check that the cartridge had sufficient ink, and then began scribbling down the letters and numbers.
A couple of minutes later, she stood up and fetched the sixth revision of the Code of Seeking – the private edition, not the edition sold to the public, which would have had red lettering on its spine. How Bainbridge had managed to get his hands on the private edition, Toler could not imagine; the private edition could not be removed from the Eternal Dungeon, by law.
It took her a minute to locate the appendix with the prison codes. Then it took her many minutes more to translate what Toler had told her. Several times she paused to reread what she had written. Toler hoped that she was simply experiencing difficulty in transcribing his long list of crimes. He would have liked to have been able to shorten them; even more, he would have liked to have been able to eliminate the references to the dates on which he arrived and departed the Eternal Dungeon, which unfortunately matched the dates on which Layle Smith had arrived and departed.
However, he could not alter the code. The final numbers were a security confirmation, designed to ensure that none of the previous letters and numbers were transposed or eliminated. The security confirmation was determined by such a complex formula that even Layle Smith, who had read the prison codes of every prisoner who entered the Eternal Dungeon for the nearly thirty years of his High Seekership, could not have altered his own code without checking the tables available only in the Codifier's office. Nor could Toler provide someone else's code, for prison codes were so lengthy that he did not have any of them memorized except his own.
What his own code told he knew all too clearly.
Second month of 320: Birth (place of birth not noted). Sixth month of 335: Arrested. Charged with captivity, theft, rape, and murder of a female, virgin. Searched at Blackstone Prison under procedures applicable to youth prisoners. Confessed to guilt. Charges added as a result of confession. Charged with captivity of five males; captivity and theft of eight males; captivity, theft, and torture of nine males; and captivity, theft, torture, and murder of eleven males. Confessed to guilt. Sixth month of 335: Sentenced to execution. Sentence commuted to life imprisonment in Blackstone Prison. Tenth month of 338: Transferred and resentenced to eternal commitment in the Eternal Dungeon. Third month of 348: Voluntarily surrendered for crime and confessed to guilt. Charged with sexual assault of an incapacitated prisoner – female, married. Fourth month of 348: Sentenced to removal of privileges for three months. Seventh month of 355: Voluntarily surrendered for crime and confessed to guilt. Charged with physical assault of a prisoner – male. Seventh month of 355: Sentenced to removal of privileges for six months. Twelfth month of 374: Released from eternal commitment by the Codifier of the Eternal Dungeon, by reason of health.
The description of his criminal career was more than a little deceptive. The sexual and physical assaults he had committed during his time as High Seeker, although a monstrous breach of ethics from the point of view of himself and the Eternal Dungeon, had consisted of nothing more than a light kiss and a brief shove against the wall. Nor did the record reveal – as it was intended not to reveal – that his eternal commitment to the Eternal Dungeon had been voluntary, part of the process of becoming a Seeker. The Eternal Dungeon deliberately refused to make any legal distinction between its Seekers and its other prisoners. In this manner, the Eternal Dungeon impressed upon Seekers that, if they broke the rules of the dungeon, they would receive no better treatment than any other criminal.
That much of the record was deceptive, as was the portion of the record speaking of his execution being commuted to life imprisonment in Blackstone Prison. This was the manner in which the Codifier had initially managed to disguise to the rest of the world the fact that Layle Smith had begun his career as a torturer in Vovim's Hidden Dungeon. What was all too accurate, alas, was the list of crimes Toler had committed before he was delivered to the Hidden Dungeon.
"Well!" said Mistress Gaugash, raising her pen from the translation. "You seem to have most thoroughly acquired the qualifications to be a member of the Commoners' Guild. I congratulate you."
There was a hint of dryness to her tone. Uncertain whether he was being scolded, Toler said, "I hope that my past is not an insurmountable barrier to my membership in your guild. If you wish a guarantee of good behavior—" He hesitated, wondering who could be called upon to offer such guarantees on his behalf. Broaddus? But Toler got along with Broaddus precisely by avoiding any mention of his criminal past.
"It would be more to the point to offer a guarantee of bad behavior." There was definite dryness in Mistress Gaugash's voice now. "You do realize, I hope, that every member of this guild is in danger of arrest, simply by being a member. One would expect a man of your background to be especially wary of entanglements with the law."
He tried to imagine how the new High Seeker would react if Layle Smith was delivered to him as a prisoner. With glee, no doubt. There was no love lost on either side of their relations. "I understand, miss."
The guild leader's assistant moved restlessly in her seat. "I prefer to be addressed as Gaugash," she said, rising to her feet. As she came round to the front of the desk, Toler realized for the first time that she was wearing puffy pantaloons, like a clown – the infamous "lady-trousers" that were said to be popular among radical women who were pressing for the right to vote. The pantaloons were accompanied by only the skimpiest of skirts, covering the groin area.
He just managed to suppress a sigh as he rose to his feet out of gentlemanly courtesy. Bloody women, always taking over the roles of men. He had endured that several times in the Eternal Dungeon, though he was willing to concede that the experiment to hire lady Seekers had been a successful one. He supposed there might be some advantage here to such an experiment, though he could not envision it.
He had been trained at an early age to be polite, however. He bowed in response. She hesitated in her step, as though unused to such courtesy. Then she placed her backside against the desk— Toler managed to pull his gaze away from her legs, flimsily covered. He was not going to resume his criminal career.
She was saying, "Was there a particular aspect of the guild's work that you wished to volunteer for, Forge? We are currently pressing for shorter work hours, safer work conditions, higher wages, abolishing the blacklists, abolishing child labor, abolishing monopolies . . ."
It was a very long list; Toler had not realized that the Commoners' Guild was involved in so many enterprises. At the end of the list, he waited, to see whether she would say more. Then he asked in an undemanding manner, "The guild is not currently fighting to better the prisons? I believe I heard it had done so in years past." Dwelling deep beneath the palace, he had mainly been shielded from the raucous near-riots in the city. But of course as High Seeker he had received reports on the protests at the palace gates . . . as well as unofficial reports from Elsdon on his brother's repeated arrests during those years.
She frowned. "We understood that torture has finally been forbidden in the Eternal Dungeon – is this not so?"
"It is," he conceded, not making the mistake of offering his opinion on the folly of that change.
"Well, then . . ." She waved away the matter with one hand. When he said nothing, she added, "Our leader did mention, before he left, that he hoped the guild would do more work on prison reform in the future. But since he will be investigating conditions in Mippite prisons, I would rather await his reports."
He had to bite his tongue to keep from speaking. She was a civilian, he reminded himself. Young as she was, she had likely never been imprisoned. She did not understand how important timeliness was, where prisoners were concerned. She did not realize that a single day could make all the difference, if a prisoner was ill-used.
And it was no longer his job to reprimand and punish, but to serve in whatever capacity the guild desired him to take. That was the compromise he had reached with himself during his past six weeks of contemplating the future: to continue to fight on behalf of justice, but to do so in the capacity of a follower, not a leader.
He must not have been good at controlling his expression; it was a skill he had not needed during his decades of wearing a hood over his face. She asked slowly, "You believe otherwise?"
He did his best to explain the concern that had been upon him since reading Bainbridge's account of his time in life prison. Toler concluded, "If Mr. Bainbridge is correct, then it appears that the guards at that prison have a deliberate policy of driving prisoners to their deaths."
Her lips were pressed thin now. "That is the policy in every prison. Commoners are always fodder to the elite."
"No, madam— Gaugash, I mean." His voice was firm; this was a subject he knew well, from having pored through hundreds of charts of prison mortality over the years. "Accidental deaths occur everywhere, and certainly accidental deaths are common in poorly run prisons, where prisoners receive only the barest minimum of food and shelter, and where guards may misuse their power over the prisoners. But only in the most ill-run prisons – those in Vovim, say – is there a deliberate policy of killing prisoners. I know of only one case in the Eternal Dungeon of a Seeker who deliberately tried to force death upon his prisoners; that Seeker was charged and convicted of murder." Layle Smith had taken that case himself. It had been one of the few times in his career when he had allowed himself to feel satisfaction at the hanging of a prisoner.
Gaugash was frowning now. "So you are saying that the life prisons are especially dangerous to commoners."
"Particularly since we know so little of them," he emphasized. "Mr. Bainbridge's account is the first I have heard of any public report emerging from a life prison. If matters are as bad as he says, dozens of prisoners must be driven to their deaths each year. Thousands, if we take into account the life prisons in the country districts."
She drew in her breath sharply. Close to, it was clear that she was even younger than Toler had originally thought; she could not be older than twenty-one. Toler wondered what strange notion had come upon Bainbridge, that he would appoint a journeyman-aged girl to hold so great a post in his absence.
However, her voice was reassuringly matter-of-fact as she said, "I see. Well, then, we must indeed carve out time in the guild's schedule to protest against conditions in the life prisons. I gather that you are willing to take charge of the protests?"
He hesitated, uncertain how to respond. Then her gaze narrowed, and he realized she was setting a test for him.
"I am," he said firmly. He might as well be hung for leadership as for being a follower, he supposed. He hoped that the new High Seeker would have the grace not to question Toler himself. Thankfully, Weldon Chapman would not be called upon to undertake this duty; he was retired.
The broadness of her smile told him that he had passed her test. "Not, of course, that we would expect you to be the public face of such protests," she added. "It would be better if we picked someone from a more respectable background to represent our interests. But you may coordinate matters in the background." She pushed herself away from the desk. "I have work to do this morning, but would you care for a brief tour of our meeting spaces before we part? It will not take long, I assure you."
The tour indeed did not last long. For the headquarters of Yclau's largest guild, the building was oddly small.
"The building is not very old," commented Gaugash as she led Toler back onto the stair landing. "We bought it from the school that used to own it. They had outgrown the building in the short time since it was built. They had an offer of a larger building, and we were willing to pay cash to buy this building. It suited us to live across the street from the jail." With these ominous words, she pulled back the panel of the room opposite her own.
Nothing lay there except tools clearly intended for the renovation of the building. Toler was beginning to wonder whether the men outside were the only inhabitants of the building. He commented on the emptiness of the top floor of the headquarters, and Gaugash nodded. "It is our perennial problem," she said, closing the panel. "How to run a guild with the help of men and women who cannot afford to take time off from work, when we do not have funds to pay them. None of us receive salaries; all of us must work for our livings. I believe that Mr. Bainbridge is currently engaged in seeking work in Mip."
Toler turned his attention to Gaugash. Her accent, like Bainbridge's, was mid-class, and in defiance to commoner custom, she referred to her leader by courtesy title. It was one of the traditions that had always set the Eternal Dungeon apart – that it granted courtesy titles to all its prisoners, including its many commoner prisoners.
Toler asked delicately, "Have you known Mr. Bainbridge for long?"
"For some time," she replied in a vague manner as she led him down the stairs.
Toler thought about this, then said, "If you are a close acquaintance of his, you must know a great deal about running a guild."
Her startled look as they reached the ground floor told him that she rarely – if ever – received this comment. Then suddenly she looked tired. She replied, "I am not currently seeking a husband, but thank you."
He could think of no appropriate response to this misunderstanding except to chuckle. "I will keep that in mind," he assured her. "But my comment was genuine, I assure you. If you have known Mr. Bainbridge since you were young, it must have been like being raised in the trade."
"Somewhat like that, yes," she said, giving him a cautious look, obviously unwilling to believe that his compliment was genuine. "Though I was already something of a rebel when I first came to know Mr. and Mistress Bainbridge. They simply helped me to see that many of my troubles were shared by all commoners, and that we are all oppressed by the elite."
She paused with her hand on the door of one of the rooms downstairs, obviously waiting to see whether he would dispute this assertion. He simply nodded. He was past his boyhood folly of thinking that all elite men and women were cardboard villains, but he remained well aware of how much the lives of the elite were supported by the sweating labor of the commoners . . . not to mention the severe restrictions placed upon the commoners. It was one of the reasons he had taken care to better the lives of the Eternal Dungeon's laborers, as well as to strengthen the long-standing dungeon tradition of permitting Seekers no better lives than their prisoners enjoyed. He supposed that, in a sense, he had been raised "in the trade" as well.
He glanced inside the room that Gaugash had opened for him and saw at once that this was the room where letters – and perhaps handwritten broadsheets – were prepared. In the newer fashion of such matters, all of the secretaries at the many desks were women. Perhaps some of them, Toler reflected to himself, belonged to families who could spare them from the workplace, at least during their childbearing years.
Which left one obvious question. As the door closed, Toler said, "You have a number of young women working for you. Is it difficult for them, finding family members who will care for the children while their mothers are busy?"
She gave him a steady look before saying, "Do you object, then, to women working outside the home?"
"Not at all," he murmured, keeping his voice soft enough that he could not be heard by others. "There are many female laborers in the Eternal Dungeon. The dungeon has a nursery for their children, in order to free the mothers from finding minders for their children."
"Ah, perhaps that is how Mr. Bainbridge gained the notion, then," said Gaugash, and swept open the door to the last remaining room in the building.
The moment that the thick door opened, Toler could hear the chatter of high voices. Looking inside, he saw a room crowded with young children, including one baby who was currently lying in the arms of the only adult in the room. Toler could just barely sight the baby. It was obscured by the bulk of the baby's minder, who was leaning forward to listen to a small girl, distressed over the breaking of a toy she had been playing with.
Mistaking the surprise on Toler's face, Gaugash said, "Yes, we could do with a few more volunteers here, but we are really lucky to have Mistress Mildred. She is very good with children."
Another courtesy title, but clearly the woman in charge had earned it. For she was somehow simultaneously managing to comfort the baby, soothe the distressed girl, end an incipient quarrel among a group of boys, and direct a bit of play-acting that was taking place among most of the children, who were fighting out some long-ago battle with toy swords.
Toler cleared his throat. "Most admirable. How did you obtain her?"
"Oh, she came to us. Her case was most sad. Do you recall the Luray Shirtwaist Company fire?"
He did. News unrelated to prison matters rarely leaked into the Eternal Dungeon, but there had been suggestions at the time that charges might be filed. "The employer was accused of negligence, was he not? He locked in the girls, to prevent them from taking breaks from their work."
Gaugash nodded. She had left the nursery door open. Her gaze was travelling over the children – still too young to work, but that would change for most of them within a short while. Commoner children started work even before their apprentice years. Gaugash said, "We raised money afterwards for court fees. We hoped to bring suit against the employer and thus establish the basis for better conditions of employment elsewhere. But the employer was murdered shortly thereafter, possibly at the behest of some rival manufactory owner who did not wish to risk us winning the suit that would affect all manufactories. And so we were unable to pursue justice for the poor girls who died in the fire."
Toler said gravely, "That is a great shame. But how does this case relate to Mistress Mildred? Surely she is too old to have been one of the girls who escaped the fire."
"No, she was home at the time. She was fortunate enough to have married a man who earned just enough to allow her to stay at home . . . but not enough to establish savings."
"Ah." Toler's voice sank quieter, though there was no sign so far that Mistress Mildred had noticed the conversation. Indeed, the question was how she kept from going deaf amongst the children's chatter and cries. The play-acted battle had reached the stage of dying warriors, with their women weeping over the warriors' bodies. Toler noted with interest that some of the "warriors" were little girls, and some of the "women" were little boys. Mistress Mildred appeared to be more broad-minded in her play-casting than most Yclau whom Toler had known.
Gaugash nodded as though Toler had elaborated on his monosyllabic response. "Yes, her husband died in the fire. He was working as a guard on the ground floor; he was one of the men who tried to free the girls from their imprisonment. It was terrible for Mistress Mildred. She did not even have enough money to see him decently buried; he ended up in a pauper's grave. Their house was not yet fully paid for, so she lost her home and all her belongings. Fortunately, she had sense enough to seek out the help of the guild. We were able to find her a job cleaning houses, though I believe she is still very poor."
"And yet here she is, volunteering her time." Toler had his eye on the back of Mistress Mildred's head as she bent down to inspect one of the wounded warriors.
"Yes, it is truly remarkable," said Gaugash. Her voice had grown stronger throughout the conversation, as though feeding upon Toler's interest. "She comes here faithfully every afternoon in order to look after the children, so that their mothers can work for us. I do not know how we would manage without her. Would you like an introduction?"
Toler was saved from replying as Davis suddenly appeared. Giving Toler a wary look, he leaned over and murmured something in Gaugash's ear that Toler pretended he could not hear.
Gaugash nodded, then said to Toler, "I apologize. We've just received another attempt by the Queen's government to shut us down. That's the third time since Mr. Bainbridge was released. I must go deal with this. Does your work-master's schedule for you permit you time to work for us in the afternoons?"
"I am entirely free for your service," he said, avoiding a direct answer.
"Splendid. I will see you tomorrow afternoon, then." She swept out the front door of the building, already deep in conversation with Davis.
Toler lingered in the doorway to the nursery. Without moving from her chair, Mistress Mildred was managing to coordinate the pageant before her, like a director upon a stage. Within a short time, the ruins of the battle were picked up and the children were gathered around her, listening to a story. Then, the story finished, they lay down on the floor to nap.
Finally Toler made up his mind. Weaving his way between the sleeping children, he went to the center of the room and stood silently in front of Mistress Mildred. There was no surprise on her face as she looked up, but she seemed unable to meet his eye.
He knelt. It seemed more polite to place himself at her level. "Mistress Char," he said, "I regret most bitterly my exceeding rudeness upon our last meeting. May I dare to hope that you will forgive me and return to the most excellent work you were doing for me?"
Her hair, as always, fell in front of her face, hiding most of her expression. But after a minute, her head jerked in a nod.
Thanks to Toler's poor start, the men of the Commoners' Guild proved less easy to win over than Gaugash and Mistress Mildred. He reintroduced himself to them as Forge; they called him Mr. Forge and doffed their caps in an ostentatious manner whenever he approached.
He saw them every day as he came into the guild headquarters: an ever-changing array of men, most of them working to renovate the school building. After a while, he figured out the obvious: these men did not possess his luxury, to choose the hours in which they arrived. Each week they had to fit an hour or two into their busy schedules, in order to volunteer their time to the guild.
Some of the faces, though, turned up more often than others. Toler paid careful attention to the names which Gaugash mentioned, figured out which faces they matched, and chose with care his time of attack.
It was thus that, on one hot summer's day, he stood tiptoe on a rickety ladder, sweating as he painted the dentils and brackets of the cornice, while the guildmen below shouted merry instructions.
Painting was new to him; standing atop a rickety perch was not. He declined to mention his prior experience at housebreaking, merely accepting the men's thumps on the back when he made it safely to the ground, bones unbroken.
Then he asked Davis to join him for a drink after the day's work was done.
Davis led him to a saloon on Main Street, just round the corner from the carriage house and livery. Toler had asked Davis's recommendation of a saloon from more than mere politeness. He had never before stepped foot in such an establishment.
One of his few memories of his mother speaking of his father had been when she let slip that his father only visited her when he was drunk. His father's behavior outside the bedroom must have been courteous; Toler was quite sure he would have remembered if it had been otherwise. What took place within the bedroom, Toler's mother never said, but not once did she allow so much as a glass of wine to touch her lips.
This had made a deep impression on Toler. Even during his licentious years in the Hidden Dungeon, he had never indulged himself with drink. He had banned all drinking from the Eternal Dungeon, as soon as he had gathered enough power to do so; the combination of torture and alcohol seemed to him as dangerous as the combination of gunpowder and flame.
But he had never been above plying his intended victims with drink. Now Davis allowed Toler to buy him a jug of beer, merely raising his eyebrows when Toler requested a jug of water for himself. Toler paid for the drinks – the water cost more than the beer – and then they found a table in the corner of the saloon. After Davis had poured his third drink, Toler considered it time to ask his question.
Davis answered readily as he wiped foam off his mouth with the back of his hand. "She's a sort of unofficial foster daughter to Bainbridge. He took her in when she was in her early apprentice years – she's older than she looks, you know. I lived next door to Bainbridge in those days. I've known her since she was – well, not knee-high, but close enough."
"Orphaned?" suggested Toler.
Davis shrugged, either unable or unwilling to reply. Toler sipped his water, thinking hard. Bainbridge himself had run away from home as a boy in order to escape from unfit parents; he had lived homeless for some time before being taken in by Elsdon's father. Toler could well guess, from what he knew of Bainbridge, that the man would welcome the opportunity to offer hospitality to a parentless child, however she might have come to lose her parents. And if he loved her with the same intensity as Elsdon's father had loved Bainbridge . . .
"He must be very fond of her, to have given the entire guild over to her control," said Toler, watching Davis carefully to be sure he wasn't going too far.
Davis snorted. "A fond idiot. Giving the most important guild in the queendom into the hands of a girl? He told us his decision as he was stepping onto the train to Mip; we'd have hauled him back off that train if the danger of him staying hadn't been so great."
"I expect," said Toler judiciously, "that she leans heavily on the advice of experienced men, such as yourself."
"Oh, aye, she listens to us. There'd be a riot if she didn't." He waved away Toler's next remark. "Nay, man, I'm criticizing Bainbridge's judgment, not the girl's. She does her best, and she's a bright lass. She spent years listening in on meetings of us guild leaders; she knows what we're about. No doubt she'll figure out in time that Bainbridge ain't coming home – not for a good while – and that she needs to hand the power over to one of us." He drained his mug and reached for the jug. "In the meantime, it does us no harm to have a girl take the helm for a while. Shows we're out for peace." He squinted at Toler over his mug. "What's your story, then?"
He told Davis what he'd told Gaugash, though omitting some of the details of his crimes, as well as any mention of the Eternal Dungeon. Davis grimaced when he learned he was sharing a table with a murderer, but he only said, "'Least you're trying to make up for what you did. I expect that Gaugash has made it clear to you: we don't fight with fists or weapons. 'Justice, not violence' – that's the guild's motto. —Mind you," he leaned forward to add in a lower voice, "that's no easy motto to follow when a patrol soldier is beating you with his baton. But you stick to it, and you'll find it becomes an instinct after a while. It's habit, like anything else."
Toler was in the midst of thanking him for the advice when a man at the next table said, "Willie, your youngest is nigh falling to death, trying to catch your eye."
Davis uttered a profanity and swung round. Following his gaze, Toler saw that there was indeed a youngster jumping up and down in an attempt to wave through the high window of the saloon. A light laughter spread through the saloon; Davis's face went crimson. He slammed down his mug and hurried to the door. Toler followed.
The youngster turned out to be the ballad-loving newsboy, whom Toler had often seen around the guild headquarters, delivering messages to and from Gaugash. It had not occurred to him to wonder how the boy had come to work for the guild. Now the boy announced, "Mama says to get yourself home before you're too drunk to fix the back step of our porch, like you promised."
To Toler's relief, Davis laughed and hugged his son up to his side. "Your mama knows me too well, Jackie. Thanks for the drinks, Forge. See you tomorrow at our headquarters?"
His curiosity sated, Toler nodded. "I'll be there."
Summer slid into autumn coolness. A few of the children in the Alleyway district returned to school, but most remained at home or in manufactories, helping their parents keep the family alive. Toler passed one day the two boys he had seen in the spring. They were no longer holding hands. Their faces were smudged with smoke, and they had haggard expressions, as though taking one step after another was the most they could manage now. One of them stumbled into Toler and snapped at him, then belatedly apologized. Very belatedly. Toler, recognizing the signs, wondered how long it would take before that boy ended up in one of the lesser prisons that glorified in "reforming" youths through even harder work than was already killing those youths.
If it had not been for the uniformed schoolchildren on the streets, Toler would scarcely have noticed the change in season; his days were full now. Before dawn each day, he would go downstairs to relieve Broaddus of the watch over his wife. The children had been packed off to distant relatives for the duration. Toler was thankful for this; he doubted he could have stretched his meager domestic abilities that far. Even caring for Broaddus's wife had seemed beyond his abilities at first, but she had proved quiet and undemanding. As time went on, Toler realized he could tap into ample experience in caring for the sick. He had supervised the care of all tortured prisoners, and on a few occasions, he had taken leave in order to care for Elsdon when he was sick or after he was attacked by a prisoner— Toler tried not to think about that, instead concentrating his attention on keeping Gillian Broaddus comfortable during the hours when her husband worked.
Broaddus had managed to persuade his brother/employer to release him from afternoon duties while his wife was ill, so he always arrived back at noon. This gave Toler just enough time to pop upstairs to his own home in order to snatch a lunch-pail – always awaiting him in his kitchen, courtesy of his charwoman.
She had already left by then for her own duties at the guild headquarters. He soon arrived at the building as well, lunch-pail in hand. He could eat and read at the same time, and he had plenty to read; Gaugash had assigned him the task of interpreting the many reports sent back by Bainbridge on what the guild leader was learning about the life prisons in Mip.
The news there was not good. After an initial burst of idealism – prompted not a little by the experiments in prison reform at the Eternal Dungeon – the Mippites had gradually lost interest in what took place in their life prisons. With no prisoners emerging to offer tales of what took place inside, the inevitable decline in standards was occurring.
"It is not yet as bad here as it is in Yclau," wrote Bainbridge in a letter that Gaugash shared with Toler, "but if we do not soon bring notice to the public of what atrocities occur in the Midcoast nations' life prisons, I fear for the future of the life prisoners in all of our nations."
Toler was doubtful, himself, that any fuss made by Yclau commoners would be heeded by Mippite prison-keepers. But there seemed some slim hope that the Commoners' Guild would make a difference at home. Already the guild had accomplished much that the public had considered at one time to be impossible: the right for employees to join the Commoners' Guild, the right to strike, and most recently, an eight-hour workday. And so he continued to spend his afternoons hunting through reports sent by guild members about talk in the local saloons, which might reveal any evidence which the guild could use to demand reforms in Yclau's life prisons.
But the life prison guards in Yclau were evidently less loose-tongued than the ones with whom Bainbridge had conversed in Mip. No evidence could be found beyond Bainbridge's own testimony, which no magistrate was likely to trust.
At the end of each discouraging day, Toler wearily returned home to find a meal warming for him within the stove. These days he never saw Mistress Char, as he could not help continuing to think of Mistress Mildred. She had evidently taken the hint he had rudely offered her that summer, and so she was ordering her days in such a manner that she worked in his rooms only when he was not home. But his meals were delicious, his living space tidy, and he was more well-kept than any commoner bachelor could hope to expect.
It was gradually dawning upon him how ungrateful he had been to the blessing of the charwoman's earlier care of him. Even one winter taking care of his rooms and himself had not made him recognize her value. He had been so stunned during that time by Elsdon's death that he had allowed himself and the rooms to grow slovenly, and he had eaten little.
Now Toler was returned to the blessed state he had lived in for most of his life: being meticulously cared for by a servant. Even in his early childhood years, he had been cared for by his mother. Only for five years of his youth had he lived shabbily, on the streets. He shuddered to think of what his life would have been like now if he had not possessed money to pay for his daily needs, a landlord generous enough to provide his tenants with the services of a charwoman, and a charwoman who was energetic and skilled at her work.
Now fully grateful for what the char offered him, Toler tried leaving tips for her, but she never touched the cash. Perhaps she was adhering to the tradition that servants were merely "help" who need not receive pay beyond their wages. After some thought, Toler began to leave portions of his evening meals untouched. Those portions were always gone the next day – and not, he determined, in the rubbish bin. Possibly Mistress Char took them home to her children or grandchildren – Toler could not recollect whether Gaugash had mentioned a surviving family.
But he could not spend his entire evening thinking about how to be a proper master to the char, much as he would have liked to stick with that safe subject. Inevitably, around the time he came to bed, thoughts of Elsdon would enter his mind.
Having allowed himself to feel for others again, Toler could not hold back the pain of retiring each night to an empty bed, shared with no one. He had spent nineteen years as love-mate to Elsdon; never during that time had his joy diminished at holding such an affectionate, talented man in his arms.
Toler found himself staring one night at the etching of hell that he had tacked onto the door of the wardrobe – the etching being one of the few belongings he had brought with him from the Eternal Dungeon. Although he no longer formally prayed to the Vovimian gods – and only occasionally engaged in the morning and evening prayers of the Yclau religion – he could not discard this picture, which had meant so much to him and Elsdon.
"Did it really happen?" Elsdon mused one night, standing naked in front of the etching, which they had tacked to the wall of their bedroom. "Or did we imagine it?"
"I don't know." Layle Smith came over to join Elsdon, laying his hand lightly on the bare shoulder of his love-mate. "It was near the end of my madness. I may have dreamt it."
"But I saw it as well! The prisoners were in this drawing of Vovimian hell . . and then we play-acted that you met Master Aeden in hell, and with his help, the prisoners were released from their torture, through being reborn in the Yclau manner. And when we had finished our play, the prisoners were no longer there."
Layle's finger traced the places on the etching where he remembered seeing the prisoners before. He could see no sign that anything had ever been etched there. He said, "I tried later to locate the dealer who sold me the etching, to see whether his memory matched ours. I never found him."
"Which is odd enough, that a simple art dealer should elude the High Seeker." Elsdon shook his head as he leaned closer to the portrayal of hell, his silk-smooth skin sliding against Layle's rougher skin. "I wish we had thought to ask Millard about this."
Startled, Layle asked, "Why?" Only eight months had passed since Layle had returned from his mission to rescue Elsdon from the merciless captivity of the King of Vovim – a rescue that had been materially assisted by Millard.
"Well, he is High Master of Vovim's Hidden Dungeon, isn't he?" pointed out Elsdon in his reasonable manner. "If anyone would know whether Hell had reformed his ways, one would expect Millard to know."
One did not speak the name of the High Master of hell, except in the presence of the damned. Layle decided he would find a tactful way to mention this to Elsdon at a later date, long after this conversation was forgotten. Instead he said, "Millard is not particularly pious. He honors the High Master of hell, and he enjoys playing the High Master in plays; he and I used to compete for the role in our prison theater productions. But I have never known him to pray."
"Oh, but he is devoted to the art of torture, and isn't art a form of worship in Vovim?"
It was one of the many things that made Layle love Elsdon so much – that Elsdon had made a successful attempt to understand Layle's native land. Layle replied, "I suppose I ought to have thought of that. A missed opportunity. I could have consulted him on how we might spread word of our dreaming to Vovimians who would benefit from knowledge of their god's change of heart."
Elsdon dimpled as he turned his rich smile upon Layle. "You could invite Millard to the Eternal Dungeon, and we could act out our play for him. I'm sure you'd like to see Millard's long hair again."
Layle sighed. He did not know in what manner he had let slip the fact of his youthful yearning for Millard. Certainly he had never told Elsdon of the day that Layle had made Millard a very tentative invitation to his bed . . . in his own inimitable fashion.
Millard had reacted to Layle's threat of mock rape by throwing Layle against the wall. That had been the end of that, and so, when Layle had finally fled the Hidden Dungeon, he had done so alone.
And had eventually come to love Elsdon. Layle had no regrets about the course of his love life. He would have explained this to Elsdon . . . if Elsdon had shown even the slightest speck of normal jealousy.
Now Layle said, "I vow to Mercy, if Millard showed up, you'd likely invite him into our bed."
Elsdon dimpled again. "The Codifier would have a few words to speak against that, I believe. That sort of arrangement is only lawful in southern Vovim these days. But I'm glad if seeing him again made you happy, love."
And that was Elsdon, Toler thought to himself as his fingers began to bleed from clutching the wardrobe too hard. Elsdon Taylor was a man of generosity beyond measure. Toler would never meet his like again.
Millard had shown his own generosity during that final meeting – a generosity well hidden under his cruel acts, just as Toler himself had once allowed his cruelty to hide what he held inside. There might have been change there, incipient at the time they met. . . .
But four months after Layle Smith's conversation with Elsdon about the etching, they had received word of Millard's death. And of the nature of it.
Toler turned abruptly away from the etching. His shared dreaming with Elsdon had foretold that Layle Smith, known during his Vovimian childhood as Toler Forge, would use theater to convert the hearts of Vovimians to the more merciful concept of rebirth. In Yclau, this belief in the ability of men to transform their souls and become better men extended beyond the realm of afterdeath. That faith shaped every aspect of Yclau life, including the prison reform movement that Toler had committed himself to at an early age.
But his fellow player in that dreaming was dead. So was the only other player Toler had known who might have carried out that conversion of Vovimian hearts. Toler could not help his native land now.
But he might be able to help the Yclau commoners, if he received enough sleep on this night to be awake for tomorrow's important meeting. He headed to his bed.
First checking, as he always did, that the hidden object in his bedroom lay ready at hand.
Toler was used to meeting to decide great matters. In the Eternal Dungeon, during Layle Smith's High Seekership, such meetings took place in the entry hall, a vast cavern near the gates to the dungeon. At the time of Layle Smith's departure, the new High Seeker had been making plans to expand the Seekers' common room and create a circular seating arrangement, in order to allow for greater ease of discussion. In either case, the meetings were protected by locked doors and guards to keep out intruders.
Toler had expected meetings of the leaders of the Commoners' Guild to be held in even greater secrecy. He had not expected such meetings to take place in a busy eating house.
Looking around the crowded room, Toler admitted to himself there might be a method to the guild's apparent madness. Without trained guards, the guild would be risking eavesdroppers if its leadership held a formal meeting within the guild headquarters. Here, meeting casually for lunch, the guild leaders were the object of no one's interest. From spring to autumn, the eating house (carefully chosen, Toler had no doubt) was mainly frequented by travellers – strangers on their way through the capital, who needed a quick meal during their journeys.
The quickness of the meals benefitted the guild leaders too.
Toler glanced at the men at his table. They were attacking their food with a rapidity which suggested they expected their supervisors to tap them on the shoulders at any moment and dock their pay for lateness. Toying with his own food – it was bland compared to what his char prepared for him daily – Toler took another look at the travellers shouting friendly greetings at their fellow strangers. He doubted that the guild leaders' conversation would be noted, much less heard. He did not become blithe, however; all his training went against that. He had insisted on taking the seat facing the doorway, so that he could immediately see who entered. Gaugash had given him an odd look when he demanded that particular chair. He had not bothered to explain he was appointing himself as the guild's guard, and she had turned her attention away from him.
Clearly, she had more important matters to which to attend. The other guild leaders barely had time to cram a few bites of food into their mouths before she pushed their plates to the edge of the table.
"Hoi!" protested Stoker. He had cheerfully introduced himself to Toler as the son of the man who was leader of the first chapter of the Commoners' Guild. He had thankfully failed to notice Toler's discomfiture. Toler knew quite well that the first chapter of the Commoners' Guild consisted of the electricians – formerly stokers – of the Eternal Dungeon. Toler was well acquainted with Stoker's father.
"You said that we'd have time for our lunch," grumbled Baker. Like Stoker, he was a young man, always afire with suggestions. Gaugash handled him with as much tact as an experienced horsewoman who has been assigned an unruly stallion to ride. "If I don't eat now, I won't eat again till evening."
"I only have half an hour before I got to return to work," said Davis, who had gobbled down the rest of his lunch while the others were protesting. "Let's make this quick."
Mistress Char said nothing. She was the only woman there, besides Gaugash; ironically, the Commoners' Guild seemed not to have progressed as far as the elite Eternal Dungeon had in assigning high duties to women.
Toler was surprised that he himself was here. He knew that it was due to chance; with Bainbridge in Mip, Toler was the guild member who possessed strongest knowledge of the Queen's laws, though everyone there assumed he'd learned about laws by breaking them. And they were not entirely wrong.
Gaugash unfolded a map of the capital upon the table. Pushing his plate as far onto his lap as it would go in the cramped confines of the eating house, Toler eyed the map uneasily. Clearly, the map was intended to show all the places in Luray that the patrol soldiers of the capital had deemed off-grounds for commoner protests. Most of the map was marked in red.
After a discouraging pause, Stoker said, "You know I don't mind another stint in a prison cell if it will help the guild, but I'm beginning to wonder: What's the bloody point? We start our protest. Before we've spoken more than a speech or two, we're bundled into arrest wagons. Nobody but a few passersby even notices that we've protested."
"The Queen has the newsies under her thumb," Davis added as he lit a cigar – one of his many ways of teasing boyish Gaugash, since men usually waited till women were away from a table before lighting up. "They're scared to death her censors will shut them down."
"We don't need the newsies," countered Baker. "We got our ballads."
"Our ballads won't reach the elite," said Gaugash firmly. "Only Mr. Bainbridge's ballads are listened to by the elite, and he's not here to record our protest. We need to find a place to protest where we can't be forgotten."
"Not in the Parkside district," said Davis quickly. "Last time we tried to protest there, some hysterical nursemaids accused us of being an army attacking the elite. The magistrates gave us six months."
"Where, then?" countered Stoker, so clearly exasperated that he had set aside his lunch. "We can't protest on the grounds of our own headquarters, 'cause there's no room in the front yard, and none will see us if we protest next to the alley. If we protest in Darktown" – he pointed toward the only section of the map that was entirely free of red ink – "none will hear us except other commoners. Main Street is off-limits. The train station is off-limits. Where the bloody blades are we supposed to protest?"
"Language, Stoker," said Davis in a jovial manner. "We are in the presence of a lady." Ignoring Gaugash, he bowed his head to Mistress Char.
Toler was instinctively unhappy at the use of foul language in front of Gaugash – he suspected that the charwoman had heard her fair share of swearing in her lifetime – but he possessed enough sense not to say anything. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gaugash's lips thin.
But all that she said was, "Where we protest will be determined by what we protest. We still haven't decided that."
The door of the eating house opened, causing a swirl of cold rain to fall upon the customers nearest the door. They promptly cursed the newcomer. Toler's gaze had already switched to the man, but Toler immediately relaxed. The man looked round quickly; then he sighted their table, and his expression brightened.
"Sorry I'm late," Carpenter said as he reached them. "That blasted work-master of mine wouldn't let me leave. I got to slip out the door when he was busy with the saws. We made any decisions?"
"We'd better do so soon," added Baker, craning his neck to look out the window at the clock on the street. "Forge, what's that pet project of yours? Prison reform? We could try for that, I suppose." He sounded unenthusiastic.
"Bloody blades, Carpenter!" cried Stoker, trying to ward off the water that Carpenter was splattering onto the table, the map, and all of the guild leaders as he struggled out of his heavy coat. "Why are you wearing a big heavy coat like that, any which way?"
"Snow," replied Carpenter succinctly. "The latest edition of The Luray Review is out; the weathermen are predicting snow before week's end. Seems the Middlewest nations just sent word by telegraph that a snowstorm is blowing through, in our direction. Figured I'd better prepare now for the festival, in case the storm arrived early."
"Thank the gods, a day off from work at last." Baker sighed with relief. "Gaugash, you're going to have to put off this protest of yours. On a festival day, commoners ain't going to want to stand with placards in hand, being beaten by the patrol soldiers."
"We'll all be drinking anyway." Davis offered a wry smile.
"And building snow rings," contributed Stoker, who had not left his boyhood far behind.
"And singing ballads." As he spoke, Toler switched his gaze away from the doorway, through which a party of harmless travellers was entering, their hands filled with guidebooks and maps. "Mr. Bainbridge always said there is nothing like a ballad to stir the hearts of the obstinate."
There was a noticeable silence at the table. Then Baker gave a shout of triumph and pounded the table. No one in the eating house so much as glanced their way.
"Could we do it?" demanded Stoker eagerly. "Would it be lawful?"
"Forge would know," said Gaugash. She had been staring at him ever since he spoke. "Forge, however did you get this notion?"
"It was Mr. Bainbridge's idea," he demurred. "I merely recalled that his first ballad was said to have been sung on the occasion of the Commoners' Autumn Festival." This had happened on the same day that Elsdon, granted permission to visit his dying father, had met his new brother for the first time. It had not taken much guesswork for Toler to know that Bainbridge had been inspired to compose that particular ballad – about a dying prisoner – by speaking with Elsdon. Elsdon himself had been so moved by his initial meeting with his new brother that he had often talked of it with Layle Smith. Toler's mind had naturally drifted toward that memory, from the moment that the word "festival" entered the conversation.
Now he said slowly, "The right of commoners to celebrate the Autumn Festival is one of Yclau's oldest laws, dating back nearly to the time of the Martyr. And the courts decided in the second century that commoners must be permitted the right to sing ballads on that day. They cited the case of the Martyr singing to his master as he was killed."
"The Ballad of Loyal Faith," said Baker, his voice exultant. "A captive pledges his loyalty to the master who has imprisoned him, at the same time that he points out the injustice of his captivity and death. Davis, if we sung that, wouldn't that make our point about prison reform?" He didn't look in the direction of Gaugash as he spoke.
"There are hundreds of ballads like that," said Stoker, beginning to make a list of them on the edge of the map. "Bainbridge alone has created dozens of them. Remember? The Ballad of the Dying Prisoner. The Ballad of the Martyred Guard. The Death of the High Seeker's Love-Mate. 'He lashed with justice; his prayer was peace—'"
"Forge," said Gaugash to Toler, who was desperately trying to pull himself out of his sudden paralysis, "what about the city laws? Could we be arrested under those?"
He managed to say, "I could research the matter for you."
"Do so today, please," ordered Gaugash decisively. "We'll begin to spread the word, just in case."
"Not everyone is going to want to give up their festival day in order to hold a covert protest," Baker warned. "'Sides, we ain't decided where we're going to hold the protest. And" – he craned his neck again as he looked out the window – "I got to go. Now."
"You can't leave now," objected Stoker. "We got to solidify our plans—"
He halted. Mistress Char had leaned forward to point at the map.
After another minute, Davis said, "Surely not. We'd be arrested in a snap of the fingers."
"Nay, Mistress Mildred is right," said Baker slowly. "I remember that, back in the day when our headquarters was used as a school, the lasses and lads sometimes picnicked on that square. Must be common land."
"I can research that," said Toler, glad to be able to contribute further.
"If it's a common, then we have full right to protest there," said Gaugash, studying the location on the map, which was not marked in red. "It's perfect! Right between the jail and the courthouse – we couldn't help but be noticed by any elite visitors to the Alleyway district."
"They'll be able to sweep us straight into jail," said Stoker, but he was grinning. It was clear from the expressions of the men around the table: they all recognized that a protest held in such a location would bring the guild greater notice than before.
"We got to get the newsies to cover our protest," concluded Baker. "I'll try for that after work, aye?" He was rising to his feet, sweeping up his coat with one arm.
"Yes, go." Gaugash waved him away. "Don't lose your job; we can't afford that. Well, men, and Mistress Mildred." She turned her attention to the rest of them. "We must make this the best protest we have ever held – something to offer as a gift to Mr. Bainbridge in his exile. Stoker and Carpenter, you spread the word among the members. Davis, you and I will make the practical arrangements. Mistress Mildred, if you could arrange for the care of the members' children—"
"Maybe we should have the kids there," said Carpenter, who was married, with children. "'Tis as much a festival for the lads and lasses as for us."
Davis nodded. "It'd show we mean to be peaceful."
Toler's attention snapped away as the door opened again. For a moment, Baker's departure obscured Toler's sight of the newcomer.
Then Toler's heart plummeted. Gods aid him, it was Mr. Urman.
Layle Smith's former junior night guard did not immediately look toward their table. He was busy taking off his cap. Toler was used to seeing him in the black uniform and hood of a Seeker; D. Urman had received his promotion ten years before. Now, however, he wore a grey suit with the royal badge upon his sleeve, not unlike the guards' uniform he had once worn. Presumably, these were the "civilian clothes" that Seekers now wore outside the dungeon.
Mr. Urman looked toward their table. Catching Toler's eye upon him, he gave a brief but civil nod. Then he turned and elbowed his way to the counter.
Toler felt himself go limp with relief. There was no reason, after all, that Mr. Urman should have recognized him. Up until the day he left, Layle Smith had kept his face hidden under a full hood – this despite the fact the younger generation of Seekers, such as Mr. Urman, scorned such tradition and wore hoods that did not hide their faces from their prisoners and fellow prison workers. Although Layle Smith had worked in the same dungeon as Mr. Urman for nearly twenty years – indeed, he had trained Mr. Urman to be a guard – Mr. Urman could have no way of knowing that the man he had just nodded to was the former High Seeker.
And after all, thought Toler as he reached for his glass of water in order to fortify himself, there was nothing strange about Mr. Urman entering a commoners' eating house. Most likely, Mr. Urman was returning from a trip – perhaps to see his family – and had paused to have a quick bite to eat before he returned to his duties in the Eternal Dungeon. Although born mid-class, family troubles had caused Mr. Urman to attend a school for commoners. Toler imagined that Mr. Urman felt more comfortable in these surroundings than at an elite restaurant.
Still, it was time that Toler was going, lest his voice betray his identity to Mr. Urman, who was now chatting cheerfully with one of the eating house's female servers. Toler rose to his feet.
It was then that he realized Gaugash was watching him.
She had doubt in her eyes. Toler realized, with a clench to the throat, that she must have noticed the quick exchange of greetings between himself and a man wearing the royal badge. Perhaps she had even noticed Toler's relief.
There was no honest answer he could give her that would relieve her worries – no honest answer at all, in fact. So instead he said in a low voice, "I should go to the Commoners' Library and start my research; they may close early, in anticipation of the festival. May I escort you back to the headquarters?"
"No, thank you," she said stiffly. Then, apparently feeling her response had been ungracious, she added, "I'm returning to my rooms in any case; they're not far from here. I need to pick up a change of clothing, for it seems likely I'll be sleeping at the headquarters until this is all over. We have so much to do."
He did not at all like the idea of her sleeping alone in the headquarters at night – or worse, near men who might or might not respect her virtue. But all he could think to say was, "I suppose Mistress Mildred will be joining you?" Mistress Char had already disappeared out the door, while the guildmen were gathering up their coats and caps, continuing to exchange ideas about the upcoming protest. Toler heard Carpenter say, "—small size of the plot of land works to our advantage. We won't need to gather many protesters there to look like a big protest. And I can't see any way in which the Queen's spies could easily infiltrate us; we'll be too tightly packed."
"Won't need to, will they?" responded Davis in a practical manner. "No spies needed; all that's needed is for the jail-warden to send out his guards and round us up. But I'm doubting they'll be in the mood for arrests, it being a festival day. . . ."
Gaugash had disappeared with the map, without saying a word of farewell to Toler. He busied himself by picking up the abandoned plates and carrying them back to the counter. Mr. Urman had disappeared through the door leading to the outhouse. All around Toler, travellers spoke of the marvels of the capital of Yclau: the great palace, the elegant housing of noblemen, the breathtaking view of the university. A few of them even managed to find some kind words to say about the Alleyway district.
Toler turned away. He wished fiercely that there was some manner in which to erase from his mind the words of the ballad: "He lashed with justice; his prayer was peace."
The bastard son of a Vovimian soldier and his Yclau captive, Toler had received only a minimal schooling, under the tutelage of his mother, before her early death and his subsequent homelessness.
But a minimal schooling, in Vovim, meant knowing how to read poetry. For poetic plays – sacred or ribald or frequently both – formed the basis for shared worship and culture among Vovim's many and varied peoples. Vovimians came from many homelands in the Old World, and they disagreed on many things, but not on the clear fact that art was a path to the divine.
And so, before Toler had even been able to speak, his mother had sung Yclau ballads to him and recited snatches of Vovimian plays. When Toler began to learn his letters, his mother set him to the task of analyzing the multilayered nature of Vovimian poems and lyrics. Toler supposed his mother had been taught these skills by her captor, who loved her in his own misguided manner. But Toler had no direct memories of his father, only of his mother holding him in her lap as she taught him the sweet delights of meter and measure.
That Yeslin Bainbridge had studied Vovimian poetry was clear from his poems about the High Seeker and his love-mate. For the poems always switched to Old Style Vovimian meter whenever the High Seeker spoke or was referred to by the narrator – a subtle but effective manner of indicating the subject of that portion of the poem. As a result, Bainbridge's ballads about the High Seeker were especially layered with meaning.
Standing on the fire escape of his home that evening, watching the stars rise, Toler heard the words echo in his mind again, just as he had seen them, for one brief moment before he burned Bainbridge's book of poetry.
"He lashed with justice; his prayer was peace."
A line with innumerable meanings. These had accumulated over the centuries, for Bainbridge had borrowed the line from two sacred plays of Vovim. The first play was about the torture-god Hell, the second about his sister Mercy. "He lashed with justice" – that was Hell. "His prayer was peace" – that was Mercy, in her mortal guise as a boy.
Bainbridge had given new meanings to the words; Toler thought he could tease out these new interpretations. "He" was clearly the High Seeker, not because of the meter – which was so simple that it might have been either Vovimian Old Style or Modern Yclau – but because the poem was about the High Seeker's grief at the loss of his love-mate. The High Seeker always held a whip in Bainbridge's ballads about him; it was one of the ways in which Bainbridge identified the character. "He lashed with justice" – was that a literal lash, the whip with which the High Seeker was thought to torture his prisoners? The whip with which, on one terrible occasion, Layle Smith had actually beaten a disobedient guard so hard that the guard had nearly died?
Or was it instead a metaphorical lash, the tool by which the High Seeker, turning from a life of breaking bodies, would now bring justice to the commoners?
"His prayer was peace" – a harder phrase to analyze, for Toler did not know who "his" referred to. Was it the High Seeker's love-mate, the symbol of peace in Bainbridge's ballads, who always stepped forward to protect the prisoners and convert the High Seeker's heart? Alternatively, did "his" refer to one of the prisoners, pleading for peace from the cruel High Seeker?
Or was it instead the High Seeker, turning to his new life? One thing that Toler did know: "prayer" and "lovemaking" were the same word in the old tongue, the most ancient language spoken in Vovim. Bainbridge surely knew that when he chose the word. "His lovemaking was peace." Elsdon's love had brought Layle Smith peace. Now – according to Bainbridge – it was Toler's turn to bring peace to the commoners.
Toler looked down at the alleyway. The shabby shanty was dark tonight. Was the tramp sleeping, had he moved away, or was he simply dead? Toler decided he had better check on the tramp tomorrow, to be sure that the man wasn't ill. Tramps were commoners, after all, and it was Toler's self-assigned task to protect the commoners.
He had failed to protect Elsdon; he had failed to bring the message of rebirth to his native countrymen. He would not fail in this final task.
He looked down at his hands, at the wrinkles and pronounced blue veins. He was not an old man, but he was much older than he had been when he first met Elsdon. Too old to survive years in a harsh prison.
He had no delusions about what might happen tomorrow, and though the other guild leaders jested about their upcoming "holiday," he thought they had no delusions either. Any of them might be sent to the merciless life prisons, to live out the remainder of their lives in agony. Any of them might be sent to the Eternal Dungeon on a charge of capital crimes; even if their Seekers believed they were innocent, the less forgiving magisterial judges would likely pronounce a sentence of guilt. And in the case of Toler – still bound by his direct oath of loyalty to the Queen – a sentence of guilt meant hanging.
The irony of the High Seeker in chains was acute.
But it was not the first time he had been imprisoned, he reminded himself. Leaving aside the restrictions that had been placed upon him during his time as a prison worker, there was that brief, horrific period after his arrest as a boy. He had endured that, and learned from it, and would have learned from it even if he had died. Although Toler held no hope that he would ever see Elsdon again, Toler's faith in rebirth remained strong. Perhaps the gods, or whoever was in charge of afterdeath, would even allow him to help other souls into rebirth. He could only hope.
He closed the Code of Seeking, which he had been holding in his hands, open to the appendix of evening prayers. He could smell snow in the air. It was time he went to bed, gathering his strength for tomorrow's trial.