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Trap (Forge #5)

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


Toler stood by the barred window of his jail cell, contemplating his brief future.

He could not see the Queen's palace from here, nor the hill upon which it stood. But as the moon set, he could see a thin trail of smoke across its face. Smoke from the Eternal Dungeon, as another condemned criminal was sent to afterdeath.

He had no doubts as to how matters would unfold. Although he had been taken by the Queen's soldiers to the nearest convenient jail, he had overheard the arresting soldiers promise to return in the morning, in order to transfer him to the Eternal Dungeon. As Toler was taken away to the jail cell, the soldier in charge had already been signing documentwork for the transfer. All very orderly and lawful.

He had given his name as Toler Forge, but it would not be long before his other name was realized. Vito de Vere, who had visited Layle Smith during his final illness in the Eternal Dungeon, knew his face. And even if, by some strange chance, Mr. de Vere did not see the new prisoner upon his arrival, every prison worker in the Eternal Dungeon knew Layle Smith's voice, as did every magistrate of the Queen's court. The moment Toler spoke – whether it was to a prison worker or to the magistrate who would decide his fate – Toler Forge would cease to exist. Layle Smith, who had taken an oath of loyalty to his Queen, would be charged with treason, placed under trial, and sent to the gallows.

He gripped the bars, pressing his face against the icy metal, the rough cloth of jail uniform chafing his skin. His cell was as cold as the outside, where snow drifted in the wind. The sun had set during the previous hour, but the western horizon remained purple-black like a bruise. From where he stood, he could see the road that led to the Queen's palace, and to the Eternal Dungeon.

He ought to be grateful, he supposed, that he would not endure years of harsh punishment in a life prison. But if he were allowed more years of life – no matter how painful – he might have the opportunity to better the lives of commoners, as Bainbridge had done amidst his suffering. Instead, Toler's life would end in the execution room where he had so often watched prisoners being hanged. He would be gone, he hoped to rebirth, but the Toler Forge who lived now would be granted no further opportunities to help the commoners. The promise of Bainbridge's ballad would be broken. Elsdon's sacrificial death would be wasted.

"I'm sorry, my dear," he whispered. "I've failed you twice."

Footsteps sounded in the corridor. He whirled round. The footsteps stopped in front of his cell door; a moment later, the door opened. Two guards stood there, one with keys, the other with a drawn revolver.

His heart thudding in a sickly manner, he allowed the guard with the keys to handcuff his wrists behind him. Flanked by the guards, he made his way back to the entrance of the jail – where, he assumed, his transport to the Eternal Dungeon had arrived early.

But no guards in the distinctive grey uniform of the Eternal Dungeon stood in the entryway. There was only the jail's warden, standing at the counter. He glanced up at Toler and the guards as they entered; then he returned to his work of ticking off items on a checklist.

Toler took in the checklist, and the items next to it, and realized at once what was happening. He knew neither of the guards, and the warden was new to him, so he dared a question. "I am to be released?"

"For now." The warden picked up Toler's cap and set it aside, then ticked it off the list. "We don't have room for you, my lad; we're expecting a shipment of prisoners from a provincial jail tomorrow. And the Eternal Dungeon is full up with your fellow rioters, so the magistrate in charge of your case has accepted bail." As one of the guards removed the handcuffs from Toler, the warden shoved Toler's own clothes toward him. "Change in that water closet over there. Don't think that you can get away with fleeing justice. Your court date in the Queen's palace is three days from now; if you don't show up, you'll forfeit the bail, and every one of the Queen's soldiers will hunt you down."

Toler said only, "Thank you for your consideration, sir. May I know who posted bail for me?"

The warden's gaze flicked up again toward Toler; he was obviously unused to being addressed in such polite tones by prisoners. "The Commoners' Guild." He shoved a piece of paper over to Toler, marked with a date, address, and name. "You can read?"

Toler nodded.

"Be on time. You're under the jurisdiction of the Eternal Dungeon, so you'll be afforded representation without cost. You may bring your own legal counsel if you prefer." He turned away, implicitly dismissing his prisoner.

Toler took the paper, glanced at it, and struggled to hide his expression. His case had been assigned to the High Seeker.

Toler slipped the paper into the inner pocket of his jacket. He had three days left in which to help the commoners. He must make good use of that time.

o—o—o

The guild headquarters was dark by the time he arrived there, except for one dim light on the top floor.

He paused by the wooden fence around the headquarters' property, considering the problem. The doors to the building, his covert inspection had told him, were boarded up. They were plastered with notices declaring that the building had been closed earlier that night by order of the Queen, since the Commoners' Guild had been shut down due to its members' violence during a protest. Evidently, though, the Queen's soldiers had not taken sufficient care to check whether anyone remained in the building.

Now, as he depended upon the moonless night to hide him, he checked all of the downstairs windows, front and back. They were locked. He considered the problem, then made his way downhill to a storage shed that lay at the far end of the guild's property.

As he had guessed, they were all there: all of the renovation tools had been moved there after the typewriters had been delivered to the second storey of the guild headquarters. He needed only one object: the long ladder he had stood upon when painting the cornice. He carried it to the back of the building, placed it carefully, and climbed up to the second floor.

The windows there were locked too. He was forced to rap upon one of them. There was a long pause, during which an eye considered him through the gap in the curtains. Then the curtains were drawn back, and the window opened.

He climbed through and closed the window and curtains after him, but took care not to move from where he stood. That long pause had told him everything he needed to know about what sort of welcome he was about to receive.

Gaugash had returned to sit at her desk. Her hands were clenched upon each other. She appeared unharmed, though new lines of worry had added years to her face. She said in a tight voice, "Was this plot to shut down the guild the Queen's notion, Mr. Smith? Or was it your own idea to be violent at one of our protests? Is this the method by which you fill your dungeon cells?"

He stood very still, regretting that he was standing withing reach of the lamplight. He knew that, in circumstances such as this, his appearance was invariably quite cold. He said in an equally cold voice, "When the Queen discovers what I have done, chances are good that I will be hanged for treason."

Again, there was a long pause. It was drawing toward midnight now; tonight there were no raucous sounds from the commoners' saloons, nor any whistles from passing trains. The top of Gaugash's desk was empty of papers; no doubt the desk had been ransacked by the Queen's soldiers. Only one large brown envelope lay under her clenched hands.

She said, "I cannot believe you. You have lied about everything you are, starting with your name."

He shook his head quickly. "Not my name. Not most of what I told you." As doubt deepened in her eyes, he added, "I was born in Vovim. You know that from Mr. Bainbridge's ballads. The name my mother gave me was Toler Forge."

He told her the rest then, lingering upon his status in the Eternal Dungeon as a prisoner.

"It was not a legal fiction," he emphasized. "The Eternal Dungeon considers it of vital importance that Seekers share the same conditions as prisoners. Seekers wear the same clothes as prisoners, eat the same food, are confined in the dungeon under the exact same conditions as the rare prisoners who have been sentenced to life imprisonment there. Seekers cannot leave the dungeon unless they are granted special permission to travel, for the sake of their duties. On the few occasions when my duties required me to leave the dungeon, I was always accompanied by guards who were there to ensure I did not try to escape. There was even talk at one time of requiring that Seekers be bound whenever they left the dungeon, but it was decided that this would make their imprisonment too conspicuous and that the binding might excite sympathy. It was considered important that the Seekers receive the same anonymity as any other prisoner. What few privileges Seekers receive are the same as the privileges of all other life prisoners in the dungeon." Including Elsdon. Even before he became a Seeker, Elsdon had been a fellow prisoner to Layle Smith. That shared experience had helped to draw them together.

Gaugash was staring down at the relevant passage in the Code of Seeking; Toler had removed that volume from the bookcase and placed it in front of her before going over to stand stiffly by the window through which he had entered. She looked up and said hesitantly, "The ballads that Mr. Bainbridge wrote about the High Seeker . . ."

His gaze drifted above her head. "Incorrect in their details. True in their essence."

"And the last ballad of all . . ."

He had to turn his face away then. "True."

When he managed to master himself and look back at her, he saw that she had a small smile on her face. "'He lashed with justice; his prayer was peace'?" she asked softly.

He nodded slowly. "I believe that was a challenge from Mr. Bainbridge to me. I chose to take up the challenge."

She nodded, closing the Code of Seeking and setting it aside. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions." She waved a hand toward the bench.

He sat down, still stiff in his movements. "Your assumptions were natural. I ought not to have misled you."

Her smile turned wry. "I can see why you did. If you had come to me and said, 'I am the High Seeker, and I am here to help the commoners . . .' Well, that would have been too unlikely a ballad, I fear."

"A tragic ballad."

He tried to keep his tone light, but he must not have entirely succeeded, for Gaugash frowned. "Yet you are free now," she pointed out.

"Only for three days. My judging occurs then, and at that point, I will be identified as a former Seeker who has committed treason."

Gaugash began to speak before checking herself. She rose from her chair and walked over to the bookcase. Her hand slid over the covers of Yeslin Bainbridge's books of ballads. Then she seemed to make up her mind, for she turned toward Toler.

"High Seeker—" she began.

"Forge," he demurred.

"Forge, then. Mr. Bainbridge has always been most insistent that we guild members follow the law . . . except when the law would cause great injustice. If he had never broken the Queen's law, this guild would not exist, for no such guild was permitted at the time he founded it." She came over and sat down on the other end of Toler's bench. "I cannot say how your execution would affect the Eternal Dungeon. That is for you to determine. But I can tell you that your execution would be as hard a blow to the commoners as Mr. Bainbridge's would be."

Startled, he protested, "That cannot be. I am merely one guild member among many—"

"And will you be just one guild member among many when your secret is revealed?" She cocked her head, looking at him. "I grew up listening to the ballads of Mr. Bainbridge. Every commoner knows them now. That the Mad High Seeker came to the guild's aid – that would cause great excitement, if it were known. That would be a ballad come to life. But if the Mad High Seeker were hung for what he had done . . . As you say, that would be a tragic ballad. And we commoners cannot afford any more tragedies. Not after what happened today. We need hope."

"The commoners' fight will continue without me," he said, struggling with unease.

"Can you be so sure of this that you would gamble your life upon it?"

Winter wind rattled the windows. Toler was suddenly aware that the room was cold, with no stove fire to warm it. He said, "So I have worsened matters by joining the Commoners' Guild."

"You may yet better them, but not by allowing yourself to walk tamely into a court of injustice! Mr. Bainbridge did not allow himself to be unjustly sentenced a second time, you may recall. He escaped so that he might do better work for us." She patted the fabric of her lady-trousers, as a woman might pat down her skirt. "Your situation is not as serious as his; nobody knows who you are. The Queen will not bother to send soldiers to hunt you down."

The temptation was so sweet that he had to force himself to think the matter through. Gaugash knew better than he did what his death would do to the commoners. As for the Eternal Dungeon . . . For love of the Code, she was right. Given the state of warfare between the Queen and the Eternal Dungeon, the Queen could easily use the treason of a former High Seeker as the excuse she needed to revoke the Code of Seeking. The Eternal Dungeon, as it now existed, would cease to be, replaced by a dungeon where the prisoners' welfare was considered of no importance.

And with the death of the Eternal Dungeon, the entire world's prison reform movement would be threatened.

With great reluctance, he nodded. Gaugash said briskly, "Good. You'll have to go into hiding now."

He frowned, his memory tracing possible errors in this plan. The jail's warden did not know who he was; nor did his guards or the arresting soldiers. No one had guessed—

"You knew who I was," Toler said slowly. "Did you simply guess? Or did someone tell you?"

"Oh!" said Gaugash. "I nearly forgot." She bounced to her feet, like a restless young girl, and went over to the desk. When she returned, she was holding the brown envelope. "This came for you, just before the Queen's soldiers shut up these headquarters. I was the only one here at the time. I opened it in case it was an urgent communication, but I only read the opening line of the letter."

He had risen to his feet when she did; now he took the envelope from her. Judging from its size, it contained more than a letter, but he pulled out the letter first. The moment he saw the handwriting, he knew who the letter was from.


Forge, though I suppose I must now call you Layle Smith—

I cannot say I am entirely surprised. I always suspected that, if ever you shared your secrets with me, those secrets would turn out to be of a high order. So I will just say that you have offered me a good deal of insight into certain ballads I have heard over the years.

I value the time we have spent together, and so it is with great regret that I must let you know I have blown who you are. I did not do so intentionally, I assure you. Even after developing my photograph, I did not recognize what I had recorded. Nor did my brother, I believe; if he had, he would have thought twice before ordering it printed. But he recognizes a good photograph when he sees one, and he could not resist adding a bit of commoner verse to it. The combination of the photograph and the text . . . Well, you can see for yourself, and so will many other people, I have no doubt.

I have been in a stumper since that time, wondering whether I should alert my brother. It is not too late to stop the presses. But the truth is, this is the best, most important photograph I will ever take. I know it, my brother knows it, and likely even the men running the presses have recognized that by now, whether or not they have recognized the full significance of the picture. I cannot ask my brother to pull the picture from tomorrow's paper, and I doubt he would do so if I requested it. What happened today is too newsworthy.

So I am doing the only thing I can do, which is to warn you. If you manage to free yourself of the Queen's soldiers, you'd best hide yourself well, because the soldiers will be after you again, the moment that our newspaper hits the streets. I am deeply sorry. It is a foul end to our relations.

In friendship,
Dearborn Broaddus


The photograph Broaddus had taken was in the envelope, in the form of a galley proof of tomorrow's front page of The Luray Review. Across the top of the page screamed the headline: "Queen's Soldiers Break Up Riot by Thousands of Commoners." As though to give the lie to that headline, Broaddus's photograph was granted center stage upon the page. It was full of detail: the unarmed commoners fleeing the attacking soldiers, young Jackie Davis about to be struck down, old Mistress Char being manhandled by the soldier.

In front of them all, in silhouette with his back to the camera, was a man. He was wearing a cloak with its hood over his head, which made him look like popular conceptions of the Seekers. In one hand he held a whip, which he was beginning to raise. His head was turned slightly to survey the scene, as though he were trying to decide where to act first.

Below him, in bold type, was Addison Broaddus's contribution to the picture: "He lashed with justice; his prayer was peace."

Toler closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he saw that Gaugash was regarding him with troubled countenance. Silently, he handed over the galley.

She glanced at it; then her hand covered her mouth. "Oh," was all that she said.

He nodded. "I must go. I will need an early start to my flight."

She hastily gathered together the contents of the envelope and crammed them into the pocket of her lady-trousers. "Do you have a plan?"

"Not yet." He staved off his growing fear. His mind automatically journeying into well-grooved channels of politeness, he added, "May I escort you home? It is rather late to be walking alone."

For a moment, he feared he had offended her, but she nodded as she stood up. "I would enjoy a few minutes more with you," she said.

o—o—o

Outside, it had begun to sleet. Helping Gaugash down the ladder, Toler recognized for the first time the practical advantage of lady-trousers. When they reached the ground, he offered her his assistance in reaching the lighted Main Street, knowing that his own eyesight was better than most people's.

This time she accepted his arm. As they struggled through the drifts of snow, he asked a question that had been on his mind all evening: "How is Jackie?"

"Alive, thanks to you." Gaugash had her head bowed as she picked out her path with care. "I ought to have thanked you for that at once. He has only a scrape on his forehead. He insists that he's well enough to undertake his newsboy duties in the morning."

"Thank the gods," breathed Toler.

She turned her head to give him one of her considering looks. At first, he thought it was because of his oath to the Vovimian gods. Then she said, "In case it interests you . . . Davis has informed Jackie about his birth."

"Has he?" Startled, Toler nearly steered both of them onto a patch of ice; he sidestepped it at the last moment.

"Yes, Davis told me that he and his wife had been planning to inform Jackie as soon as my son was old enough to appreciate the reasons why I had given him up for adoption. But today's disaster made Davis realize that none of us may be alive in ten years' time."

"How did Jackie react to the news?" They had reached the street. Toler glanced across the street at the jail. It was unlikely that anyone could see himself and Gaugash, though; the streetlights throughout most of the city had failed in the heavy snow, leaving only the Main Street lights struggling to remain awake.

"With great excitement. He says he likes the idea of having two mams."

Toler laughed then as he turned their steps toward Main Street. Sleet landed, wet and chilly, upon their clothing. But in the sky, the stars shone bright, sending their cold light onto the capital, its familiar landmarks buried in the snow. For once, there was no sound of trains nearby; the snow had stopped them. Fortunately, Toler's flight was not that urgent; he had three days in which to figure out where to go.

With his mind still running along plans of flight, he asked, "Will you stay at home and raise him, now that the guild is shut down?"

"By no means." Gaugash's response was prompt. "He and I and the rest of us will do what we have always done: fight for justice. We'll be entering a petition in court at week's beginning, to have our guild status restored. I—"

She stopped abruptly. So did Toler.

More enterprising than wise, the lads who had shovelled snow on Main Street had piled the snow onto the sidewalk planks, which might otherwise have been kept clear. Toler took one look at the street and knew what had happened. The lads had dug down until there was only a thin layer of snow on the street. That thin layer had melted in the afternoon sunlight. Then the water had frozen with the coming of evening. Main Street was now an icy river.

The sleet was not helping. Pulling the hood of his cloak more snugly over Gaugash – he had insisted she wear it – he asked, "In which direction is your residence?" He looked doubtfully in the direction of Darktown, which was uphill.

"At the corner of Deford Avenue, near the tannery." She pointed downhill. "I rent a room at the Women's Seminary."

He shot a look at her. "Is going there safe, under these circumstances?"

Beneath the flickering streetlight, she gave him a wan smile. "One of the few advantages of being a woman in Yclau is that nobody takes you seriously. The Queen's ministers have convinced themselves that Davis is the one actually leading the guild in Mr. Bainbridge's absence; the ministers send all their correspondence to Davis. No soldiers will be waiting to arrest me."

Reassured, Toler considered the problem of the ice. He took a few steps forward. His boots slipped from under him. Gaugash grabbed him, and he managed to steady himself. "This will not do," she said, and looked over her shoulder.

Toler did not. He had already discarded the idea of spending the night in the guild headquarters; it was too tempting a target for any soldiers who wished to wreak additional damage upon the guild. "If only we had skates," he murmured.

Gaugash reached over, yanked something out of the snowbank, and held it up. "Will this do?"

A short time later, Toler and Gaugash sailed down Main Street on a sled.

Neither of them had sledded before – Gaugash because she was a girl, Toler because he had not possessed a normal boyhood. But both of them had witnessed boys sledding, and the mechanism by which to steer was not complicated. Gaugash did the steering, while Toler sat behind her, cradling her with his arms and legs to prevent her from falling off. With an effort, he managed to keep from falling off himself.

By the time they reached the creek bridge, where the ground began to level off, they were both laughing. When the ice abruptly turned to snow, and they tumbled off the sled, they simply lay on their backs, clutching their bellies in an attempt to rein in their laughter.

Lights flickered on above the shops nearby. Toler and Gaugash managed to smother their laughter then. They lay still in the shadow of the snowbank until the lights went off again.

"I'm not doing a very good job of helping to keep you hidden," commented Gaugash as he assisted her to her feet.

"That is not your job," said Toler, reaching over to brush off the snow from his trousers. Without his cloak, he was very cold now, but no colder than he had been as a homeless boy. "How far is Deford Avenue?"

The rest of the way was snow, not ice. The sleet had stopped. Holding Gaugash's arm to keep her steady, Toler was concentrating so hard on their path that he was taken by surprise when Gaugash remarked in a quiet voice, "The ballads say you are made uneasy by the presence of women."

Toler felt very strongly that this was not a conversation he should hold while walking alone with a woman at night. He glanced up at the dark windows above the stores – a reassuring reminder that he was not entirely alone – and replied, "You know the reason why, from my prison record."

"Yes," she said, "which puzzles me all the more."

"Puzzles you?" He would have liked to drop his grip on her, but they were negotiating their way over a particularly tricky patch of snow.

"That the ballads appear to be wrong."

He let go of her then and turned to face her. "Wrong?" he said blankly.

Even under the shadow of the hood, her smile was clear. "I'm used to having people be uneasy with me, Forge. It's been the case since I was quite young and chose to rebel against my parents' strictures. Very few people – especially men – have treated me in a natural fashion. Yet you do, despite your past troubles with women. I wonder why?"

He was stunned into a realization that she was right. After the shock of that first meeting, he had fallen into the habit of treating her as he would any other guild leader – with a few concessions to the obvious fact that she was not a man. He said slowly, "This surprises me as well. I have never before willingly placed myself under the authority of a woman, other than the late Queen, who treated me with great generosity . . . and one other woman, long ago."

"Ah." Her eyes searched his face. "So that is how you guessed I was a mother."

"I suppose so." Returning to his senses, he resumed his duty as escort. "She has been very much on my mind for the last few weeks. I suppose that I saw the resemblance in character." He added hastily, fearing an unintentional insult, "I do not mean to detract from the important work you have done for the guild—"

"I do believe that it is possible to be a guild leader and a mother at the same time." She sounded amused again. "But I fear I am not prepared to take on the task of mothering a man who is twice my age."

They had reached a corner from which the railroad and tannery could be seen. Just ahead was a chapel of rebirth; across the street from it, a cemetery. Gaugash had slowed to a stop. Toler struggled a moment with words. He said, "How odd."

"Odd?" Gaugash tilted her head to regard him.

"All these years, I thought my only choices were to ravish women or to treat them in the distant, civil manner due to fellow prison workers. Despite my love-mate's example, it never once occurred to me that I might regard a woman as my friend."

Her smile grew very broad. She began to take off his cloak, but he stayed her with a gesture. "Keep it, as a farewell gift."

"This is not farewell," she told him gently but firmly. "Davis and his family are staying with a second cousin, two houses past the cemetery. Go to him and tell him I ordered that you be kept in hiding. You may continue to work for the guild while we protect you."

It was an unlooked-for happiness, not the least because it would mean he would see Gaugash again. He was struck speechless.

She seemed to understand. Turning from him, she began to cross the street, heading in the direction of a building behind the church.

Just in time, he thought to say, "I will pay back the guild, you know."

Gaugash turned round in the middle of the street. "Pay us back?" she said, sounding puzzled.

"For the bail."

"But why? It is your own money."

It was then that he felt the full coldness of the night descend upon him.

o—o—o

His expression must have revealed his thoughts; she made her way quickly back to him. "It was not?" she said quietly.

"How did the money come to you?" he asked.

She searched her lady-trousers and drew a crumpled piece of paper from a pocket in her little skirt. "I planned to cash it in the morning. I thought you had arranged beforehand for your bank or a trusted associate to send it to us if you were ever in trouble."

Under the wavering lamplight, he just managed to read the words on the bank check. It was made out to Gaugash – not to the Commoners' Guild, which might well have had its money impounded by the Queen's government by now. The signature was Toler's own. At the bottom of the check, block letters said, "FOR BAIL."

Toler held the check between himself and the light in order to confirm what he already knew. Then he offered the check back to Gaugash. "Cash it, but as early in the morning as possible. It may be that my money will be removed from that account some time during the day."

She took the check from him, merely asking, "Is this bad news, then?"

"I fear so. I have become too closely hunted a prey for the guild to hide. This is indeed farewell, I sorrow to say."

"The trains aren't running tonight," she reminded him.

"I know. Do not worry about me. I eluded the King's soldiers for three years during my youth; I can escape the Queen's soldiers." He spoke with more confidence than he possessed, eager to remove his dangerous presence from her.

Perhaps his urgency conveyed itself to her. She made no further protests but merely took his hands, stood up on her toes, and kissed his cheek. "Farewell, my friend," she said. "I will be praying for you."