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?"
"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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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, whose familiar landmarks lay buried in the snow. For once, there was no sound of trains nearby; the snow had stopped them.
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 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 up 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 Davis 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.
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."
He stood still after she left, trying to figure out what to do next.
Even if the trains hadn't been stopped by the snow, he would not have taken that transport; there was too great a risk that soldiers would be awaiting him at the station. If he could reach the mountains . . . But to go there immediately would be to risk being caught on foot. He needed a place where he could hole up until the search for him had abated.
And quite clearly, that place could not be his tenement; that hiding place had already been compromised long ago, thanks to Bainbridge's visit. He thought again of the bank check. Faintly impressed upon the check was the indentation of his own signature; the check number was the next one he would have used, in his stack of checks. Someone had managed to foil the lock on his desk, steal his checkbook, and use that indentation of his previous signature in order to forge his bail money.
But why? If the Queen wanted to capture him, why order her spy to release him? Was the spy working on his own initiative? Did he hope that Layle Smith would lead him to some criminal gathering of the guild?
Toler held his breath, but he could sense nothing in the night except himself and the sleeping inhabitants of the nearby houses. Perhaps he had managed to elude the spy by taking an unexpected route home. Which meant that, above all, he must not return home. Nothing awaited him there except danger—
Then he closed his eyes. He had forgotten. And having remembered, he could not turn the thought from his mind.
Mistress Char. She might have gone to his home in order to await his safe return.
How he managed to scramble uphill he never remembered afterwards. He was too busy thinking of what might happen to the charwoman, facing danger alone.
By the time he reached Broaddus Avenue, he was panting. He forced himself to circle his tenement building first. There was no sign of light in any of the shuttered windows of the tenement. He could hear no sound upstairs.
Finally, he went inside and made his way upstairs swiftly, avoiding the steps that creaked. When he reached the door, he found that it was locked, though whether by himself or someone else, he could not know. He eased his way in, then did the quickest search he had ever done of his tenement.
To his immense relief, all was well in the sitting room and the kitchen. There was no sign that Mistress Char had entered those rooms, much less that there had been a struggle. A careful inspection told him that no spy had been perusing his latest library books.
That left his bedroom. While Mistress Char would never have entered there when he was not present, he knew that the spy had. And he did not yet know whether the spy had returned there after delivering the bail money.
For the first time since the incident with the matchstick, he dearly wished he had a weapon in hand. After considering possibilities, he decided that the first thing he must do, if no obvious danger could be seen when he opened the door, was to unlock his desk. In his desk lay the checkbook; in his desk also lay the butterfly knife he used as a letter opener. It was a very sharp knife, and he might need it.
By the time he reached the desk, he had not yet allowed his mind to travel so far as to figure out what to do with a very sharp knife he was oath-bound not to use on any human being. Instead, his thoughts were absorbed in his task of getting the drawer open. It rolled open to show the checkbook, with one check missing, and the knife in its usual place.
It was at this point he realized that he ought not to have been able to see anything in the desk drawer.
He whirled round. The lamp – the lamp that had not been lit when he looked up at the windows a short time before – was glowing upon his its wall-bracket. Below it, in a mound, was the body of Mistress Char. She was lying stomach-down. What he could see of her was naked.
His heart pounding, he stepped forward, keeping his ear attuned for danger elsewhere. "Mistress Char?" he said softly.
Her only response was sobs. He had come close enough now to see that her wrists and ankles were tied to the bedposts. Flung over her with apparent haste was the bedsheet, so that the only parts of her body that showed were her naked ankles, her naked arms, and her hair, which had fallen down from its usual untidy bun. The hair flowed over the top of the sheet.
He crouched down next to the bed, still straining his ear for anyone who might remain in the room. "Mistress Char, it is Forge," he told her softly. "What happened?"
Nothing except sobs, and something strangled that might have held the word "captured" in it. Seeking to comfort her, he ran his hand over her hair, which shone like blood in the lamplight, touched only on the edges by grey.
Barely aware of what he was saying now, he said, "Lie still. I will free you at once."
He returned to the desk, then stared blankly down at the knife there. After a moment, he moved away, drawn toward the etching upon his wardrobe.
One of the tacks with which he had pinned the etching was beginning to ease its way out. With his thoughts still scattered to the winds, he braced his left hand near the top of the wardrobe door while his right hand reached out to push the tack back in.
He heard a creak.
He froze in the act of reinserting the tack, his hands forming into fists. He could hear nothing more behind him; he knew there would be nothing more to hear until it was too late. He began to raise his left hand; then he froze again. The blade slid across his flesh like a worm slithering through mud, settling upon his belly, its edge lightly touching his skin.
He could not breathe. This was partly due to the fact he had forgotten how to breathe. It was mainly due to the fact that an arm was now fastened round his neck, pulling him back against the warm bulk behind him. He tried to swallow. The arm around his throat – hard muscle enclosed by soft flesh – enveloped him, smothering all attempts at movement. The blade bit at his skin.
He could see nothing; his head was now leaning back on a shoulder, his face pointed toward the dark ceiling. His hands were still outstretched, touching the wardrobe; he tried to move them and received a warning prick from the knife. He could see the knife in his mind's eye, covered with Elsdon's blood.
In any other circumstances, he would have fought, no matter how futile the battle. But he knew what circumstances he was in now, and he knew that greater safety lay in staying passive.
He remained still, his chest beginning to heave in a useless attempt to take in air. After a few seconds, the arm around his throat eased enough to allow passage of breath. He gulped in air as the hunter waited, the knife still keen against Toler's belly.
Toler said finally, "It was a long time ago."
"Did you think you'd be forgotten amidst the turmoil of war? Vovimians have long memories, Toler Forge."
A man's voice, Toler thought. A man's voice driven high by old age. Toler felt no shock; he had known from the moment he ran his hand down the charwoman's body that his char was a man. And he had begun to guess in the same moment who the man must be.
That would have been the moment, if any, to overpower the hunter. Instead, Toler had meekly stepped away from the unlocked desk and allowed the hunter access to the knife. What had he been thinking? He had known what danger he was in; he had known what was likely to happen if this man was given the opportunity to bind him.
"The King—" Toler's voice was choked less by the hunter's throttling hold than by his own emotions.
"The King isn't here." The hunter's voice was light – light and high. Otherwise, his voice was bland; it held no accent or distinction of phrase to indicate which province of Vovim he came from. The hunter was still taking care to hide his identity, as all good hunters did. A hunter could never know whether his murder would be interrupted in an untimely manner.
"Fortunately for me, the King isn't here," the hunter said. "If he was, he might foolishly order your immediate death. As it is, I'm free to play with you."
The knife moved, sliding its way over the thin barrier of Toler's shirt until it reached bare skin near the throat. It paused there.
"As you played with the mouse?" Toler replied, trying to hear his own voice over the pounding of his heart.
"Exactly," purred the hunter. He began sliding the knife again, its edge biting into Toler's skin, but not so deeply as to draw blood. Toler felt the shirt lift slightly from his body; then the hunter jerked the knife, breaking the first binding tie. In his mind, Toler could hear the scream of the mouse in its torment, in the moments before Toler's footsteps alerted the char to his arrival and put an end to the mouse's agony.
Toler tried to steady his breath to a rate that would allow him to think. It was not easy. The hunter's arm felt like a thick-roped noose around his throat, his spine was bent backwards across the hunter's belly, and his arms were still outstretched. He tried to move them again, and again received a warning prick.
"My arms are tired," Toler commented as the knife slid its way under the second knot.
"Good." The hunter's purr was louder this time. "Keep your hands there, where I can see them. Don't move any part of you that you want to remain attached to the rest of your body."
Toler was silent a minute, feeling the slide of the blade across his chest. The blade had not yet drawn blood. There was no need for blood, he realized. His back was now aching as effectively as if he had been bound to the rim of a wheel, while his arms were growing heavy with the pain of having to keep them still. His hands remained curled into fists; he uncurled his left hand to see whether flattening his palm against the wardrobe would help. It did not.
"Stillness torture" was what they called it in the Hidden Dungeon. You forced the prisoner into an awkward position and then ordered him to hold that position, on penalty of greater pain. Even the Eternal Dungeon practiced a mild form of stillness torture, requiring the prisoners to stand on their feet for hours at a time. In the Eternal Dungeon, however, the Seekers were required to stand for the same hours as the prisoner.
Toler found himself wondering how much discomfort his hunter must be feeling, having Toler's back pressed against his chest and belly. Tentatively, Toler tried releasing part of his weight back onto the hunter. A moment later his breath hissed in, and he felt blood trickle down from the spot on his chest where the hunter had twisted the knife so that it cut him.
"Don't," the hunter said tersely. "Don't try to make me topple from your weight, or try to grab my baubles with your hand, or any of the other clever maneuvers you're considering. I know them all."
Toler did not doubt that. He remained still again as the knife returned to its previous position, edge against flesh, and slid down to the next knot.
"You wouldn't play with me without a purpose," Toler said. "What do you want from me?"
"Information," the hunter said. "I want to know your dreams."
The last of the knots was sliced open. Toler felt the coolness of the air upon his chest where the shirt now lay agape. In the next moment he nearly fell as the hunter abruptly stepped back, releasing his neck-hold. Before Toler could take advantage of this, the hunter had grabbed his collar and pushed his neck forward, so that his head now looked down toward the floor. The blade bit into his belly, forcing him to pull his legs backwards to avoid being cut. He was off-balance now, leaning forward with the weight of his body upon his arms, the hunter controlling him with the blade and with the hand on his shirt collar, as though the shirt were a leash.
"Don't try to kick," the hunter warned. "Don't try to move in any way. I'm rather nervous tonight, and I might slice into your body if I notice you twitch."
Toler, who had been trying to move his left hand higher, took the hint and remained where he was, a statue. Like a sculptor, the hunter ran the flat of his blade over Toler's body. The kiss of cold metal caused Toler's nipples to tighten, his baubles to draw closer to his body. The blade continued to slide across his torso: over his chest, across the delicate skin of his armpits, down the ridges of scars left long ago by the cut of a lash. The blade paused to explore other scars, long forgotten: burns and pincered flesh and gouges from a screw. The blade seemed to know them all, as though they were familiar friends.
"Tell me about your dreams," the hunter whispered as his knife explored the soft flesh of Toler's throat. "Tell me what you long for at night. Is it this? To touch fear into men's souls? To break them with a blade?"
He felt himself stiffen as he recognized the new threat. "No," he said firmly.
"No?" The hunter's voice was light, mocking; the tip of his blade explored the lobe of Toler's right ear.
"No," repeated Toler. "I don't dream of the Hidden Dungeon. Or when I do, it's a nightmare. I won't return to work there. You can tell the King that."
The hunter's soft chuckle sent unpleasant ripples of coldness over Toler's flesh. "I told you already: I've received no orders from the King. Unfortunately for you." His blade moved downward, downward, in the direction that it had gone before.
Toler was careful not to move as the blade reached the limits of his chest and touched the edge of his trousers. This hunter, he thought, was dangerous enough as the King's agent. Without the King's hand to restrain him, the gods alone knew how far he would go. And Toler was bound, not by his fear of the knife, but by his awareness of what would happen if he tried to fight against this man.
"You're being surprisingly cooperative," the hunter commented as the flat of his knife explored the cloth that lay below Toler's waist. "I would have expected you to fight me by now."
"If I fight you, one of us will die," Toler replied flatly.
The hunter laughed softly. "And since that one would be me, I appreciate your restraint. Except you have no choice, do you? You promised your dying love-mate that you wouldn't kill anyone. And you made no exceptions for self-defense. Fortunately for me."
The knife lifted suddenly; the hunter's knife-hand jerked his belt open. The trousers remained in place in a dutiful fashion. The knife returned as swiftly as it had come, sliding into the flap to cut the knots at the corners. Toler could feel the coolness of the blade against his groin now.
"So you don't dream of the Hidden Dungeon," the hunter said. "What is it you desire, then? What do you dream of at night? The Eternal Dungeon? Do you dream of searching prisoners there, holding them in your power, watching them bound, knowing they are helpless to your will?"
His whammer, which until this moment had been slumbering peacefully and taking no notice of the blade nearby, suddenly perked its head up. Toler bit his lip to keep from cursing aloud. The hunter chuckled and ran a finger lightly over the shaft of the stretching whammer, as though in greeting. Then the knife moved again, retracing its way up to Toler's belly. It paused at the indentation in the middle of the belly and considered it with its sharp point, poised to plunge. Toler's whammer suddenly wilted, as though trying to hide itself. Toler heard his own breath, heavy in the silence of the night.
He had always disliked mutilation, even when he worked in the Hidden Dungeon; it had seemed wrong somehow to destroy any bodily beauty which the gods had created. But he had dutifully learned all the ways to torture, even those he disliked. This way had been a favorite among some of the dungeon's torturers, including the young torturer who taught him the method. You sliced into the belly very carefully, in such a manner as to minimize bleeding. Then you carefully pulled out the prisoner's guts, unraveling them as though they were a ball of string. Then you played with the string. If the torture was performed carefully, the prisoner could dwell in his agony for hours, until the torturer grew bored enough to dispatch him.
"Answer my question, Forge." The hunter's voice had grown hard. "What do you dream of?"
There was no reason why he should not answer, and every reason to extend this conversation as long as possible. He had not yet figured out what it was the hunter wanted; until he did, he could not be sure of what he should do. He held his breath, the answer on his tongue.
The knife moved. It travelled to his back; he heard the rent as it tore through his collar and through his sleeves, leaving cloth to fall to the ground. A moment later, the hunter's free hand reached down and yanked his trousers off his hips. "Step out," the hunter ordered.
Toler was occupied during the next minute in finding a way to step out of his trousers without moving in such a way as to make the hunter more nervous than he already was. Toler used the time to think. He had half the answer he needed now of what the hunter wanted. It was an answer that made sense. But he still did not know the most important part of why he stood here, naked in a winter-cold room, as the blade passed over his skin once more.
He could feel the heat from the hunter's body, though the man had not yet pressed his groin against Toler's backside. Perhaps he had not yet positioned Toler to his liking. Even as Toler thought this, the hunter said. "Spread your legs. . . . More. . . . Still more."
He moved his legs again, less because of the hunter's order than because the knife was pricking the inside of his thighs. If he spread his legs any more, he would not be able to reach the top of the wardrobe. His arms ached for the rest he could receive if he clung to the top of the wardrobe. He said, conversationally, "I thought your skill was greater than that. Do you depend on painful positions to do your work for you?"
The hunter paused in his pricking and chuckled again, seemingly unoffended by the question. "At times. At other times, no. What is it that you dream of, Forge? Friendship? Companionship? Perhaps you will be content with the friends you have made in the Commoners' Guild. Or those who think they are your friends. Imagine how surprised they would be if they visited a certain vault in the Commoners' Bank and discovered what lay there."
It was a dagger into the belly. He swallowed hard, thinking to himself that this was his own fault, for questioning the hunter's abilities. The hunter continued relentlessly, "You pose as a commoner, a highborn man fallen upon hard times. A spell in prison, isn't that what you told Gaugash? Imagine what she would think if she knew that you possess more money than most of this queendom's lords. All that money, kept to yourself while the Commoners' Guild sweats and starves for lack of funds."
"I've given donations," Toler heard himself say.
"Oh, yes, the typewriters. I thought they were a nice touch. That's one of the few pieces of machinery you allowed in the Eternal Dungeon, wasn't it? You had a tendency to break all other forms of machinery. And so the Eternal Dungeon remained stuck in the previous century, because its High Seeker couldn't bear to live in the present century. Or am I maligning you?"
He was silent. The hunter's knife touched the inside of one of his thighs, delicately scraping the skin there. The hunter said, "And then, when you finally got up the courage to do the right thing and leave the dungeon, you stumbled again. The Queen gave you all that money for your years of loyal service, and what do you do with it? You hide it in a bank vault, you hide yourself in a commoner district, you try to pretend you were never the High Seeker. Because, of course, if you gave all your money to the Commoners' Guild, then someone might learn who the donor was, and so a hunter might find you. And you couldn't have that, could you? You couldn't risk your life for the commoners."
His eyes were closed; he felt the blade touch his flesh, prick his soul. He said, "Tell me what you want."
"An answer to my question. What is it you dream of?"
The blade paused as it touched his baubles. "Ah, yes. Your love-mate." The hunter's voice was mocking. "Such a sweet young man. And you loved him."
"Yes. Did you kill him?"
The hunter was silent a minute. Toler felt the rigidness of his own body, the muscles poised to act, depending on the answer he received and on whether he believed that answer. He was still bent over, his arms carrying his weight against the wardrobe, but it made no difference. He might as well have been facing the hunter, his whip in hand.
"No." The hunter's voice was abrupt. "The Queen's men saved me that trouble. Oh, I admit that the thought travelled through my mind to sprinkle some poison onto a sweet and send it to your love-mate. I even visited the outer dungeon with plans to do so. It would have been an easy way to flush you out of that dungeon where you'd hidden yourself. But his death would have upset you. And that . . . would not have been good."
There was a peculiar key to the hunter's voice, one that had not been there before. Toler took due notice of it; he remained still. After a minute, the knife withdrew, then returned a moment later to the back of Toler's baubles, its flat curving its way across the skin, sliding up to the base. There it paused, the edge of the blade now touching the back of Toler's legs and the skin of Toler's sac. Toler felt his heart begin to race again.
"Why do you dream of him?" the hunter asked as he slid his free hand down to take firm hold of Toler's whammer. "What did Elsdon Taylor give you that you can't find any more, either in the Eternal Dungeon or in the lighted world? What was so special about this love-mate of yours?"
He said nothing. His baubles were crowded as close to his body as they could be, desperately trying to escape from the knife behind them. The knife continued to touch the edge of their sac, lightly. With the hunter's hand imprisoning his whammer, there was no easy way for Toler to move forward to escape the blade.
"You're being very stubborn," the hunter commented. "Shall I make you into a half-man? That's what the Yclau call it, is it not? Half a man, no longer whole – a freak, a monstrosity, an unnatural being, a pervert . . ."
Toler was beginning to wish that he had not left his library books lying around the tenement; the hunter seemed to have perused the news clipping on eunuchs from beginning to end. He stood utterly still, trying to think. He had let things go too far, he knew. He could wrench himself free from this position, but only at the cost of grievous injury. And the hunter faced no better a choice. By the rules the hunter had been taught, Toler must answer his question or suffer the penalty threatened. One way or another, blood was about to flow.
"Half a man," the hunter whispered. "Can you imagine what that will be like, Forge? Living half in the world you have known, half outside it, never accepted by those around you, having nowhere else to go. The women will not claim you as their own; the men will scorn you. And as for the law . . . Did you know there was a case last year where a eunuch was arrested for irregular behavior? The magistrate couldn't decide whether the prisoner should be hanged for acting in too manly a manner or hanged for acting in too womanly a manner. So he simply hanged the eunuch, just to be safe. . . . Oh, but I am telling you what you already know, aren't I?"
Toler said nothing. He had in his eye an image of the prisoner standing in the judging room, desperately trying to surmise from the magistrate's words how the magistrate wished him to act. The High Seeker stood beside his prisoner, pleading for the eunuch's life but unable to offer any reason by Yclau law why the monstrosity beside him should be allowed to live.
"Of course you could flee to Vovim," the hunter continued. "Assuming that you weren't caught by the border guards, assuming that you weren't recognized as Layle Smith and dragged in chains to the Hidden Dungeon. You could live as a half-man in Vovim. Though it would be no better for you there than in Yclau, unless someone was willing to make you their wife. Do you have anyone like that, Forge? Do you have anyone who would take care of you if you had need of them?"
"No," he whispered. It was a question he could easily answer.
The knife pressed harder against him. The blade felt like a shard of ice against his skin. "Answer my question, Forge," said the hunter's light voice. "I don't want to hurt you."
This was undoubtedly the truth, Toler reflected. If nothing else, the hunter must know what would follow if he harmed Toler Forge.
Again Toler tried to think through the bite of the knife, the strain of his arms, the ache of his bowed neck. What difference did it make if he answered the question? He had refused over the years to speak publicly of his bond with Elsdon, only because he disliked gossip. One thing he could be certain of was that the hunter would not be passing on this story to others. No ballads would be revised to tell the truth about the Mad High Seeker and his love-mate. Nor had Elsdon ever bound him to silence in this matter. It would have been easy enough for Elsdon to do so if the younger man had wished.
"He broke me," said Toler.
Silence. All that could be heard was the faint clop of hooves on the otherwise empty street. Then the knife withdrew, and Toler's whammer was released.
"You surprise me," said the hunter. "I would have thought it was the other way round."
"It was that too." He struggled to explain that which Elsdon and himself had never needed to speak of. "I broke him, and he broke me. I searched him, and he searched me. We transformed each other. We were bound to each other's will. I knew how to force him to confess his deepest faults, and he knew how to do the same to me."
"How interesting." The hunter's voice was reflective. "He must have been very strong indeed in order to breach those walls you hide behind. And yet if you broke him . . . He was vulnerable. While also strong. An interesting combination. One might say it was a unique combination."
Toler said nothing. The knife was not touching him now, but he did not move. He was waiting to see what the hunter did with this information. If the hunter chose to use this as a weapon against Toler, he knew that the wound he received would be very deep indeed. He was not sure whether he could survive it.
"Show me," the hunter said abruptly.
"Show me how you searched him. Show me how you broke him. I want to see how skilled you are at breaking a man through words."
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "This is an awkward position in which to search someone," he pointed out.
The hunter chuckled softly. "So it is. Consider it a challenge, Forge." His knife touched Toler's skin again.
Strong yet vulnerable, Toler thought. Well, if that was what the hunter wanted from him, he could certainly supply it. He deepened his voice, as he always did in the presence of prisoners, even when his desire did not drive him in that fashion. "Have you murdered anyone before tonight?"
The hunter laughed. It was more than a chuckle this time; it was full-fledged amusement. "Need you ask?" he said. "Thousands of souls have entered into afterdeath because of me."
"I didn't ask whether you'd killed anyone on the King's orders," Toler said. "I asked whether you'd murdered anyone."
"Oh, that too." The hunter's amusement remained high.
"Who was he?"
"How do you know there was only one? And how do you know it was a he? It might have been a she. Or it might have been an it. A small child, perhaps – too young to understand what death was till my knife entered its throat."
"Who was the man you killed?" He kept his voice level; he had too much experience in this to do otherwise.
"You're not listening to me, Forge." The amusement was tinged with irritation now.
"I'm listening. And I know what you're capable of. Be so kind as to answer my question, sir."
The switch to a polite mode of speech was automatic. Some of his prisoners over the years had thought his politeness was mockery. He had been content to let them think so if it helped to bring about their breaking. In fact, there was a much simpler explanation to his mode of address than mockery. His mother had taught him to be polite to everyone. It was a lesson he had found difficult to discard, even in his worst years.
The knife danced upon his skin as the hunter considered his question. Then the hunter said, "Names would mean nothing to you."
This was doubtless true, so he contented himself with asking, "Why did you murder him?"
"Why do I murder? Revenge, of course." The hunter's voice was as sleek as a cat's. "I told you before, Forge: Vovimians have long memories." The blade slid over his skin, stroking.
"Then you should remember the circumstances that led you to commit the murder. Did you care for the person whose life you avenged?"
The hunter chuckled as his knife slid over the hairs of Toler's chest, slicing as they went. "My dear Forge, you make unwarranted assumptions. You don't know whether I committed the murder for a wrong done against myself."
"I know now. If that were the case, you would simply have laughed at me, not tried to deny my question."
The knife paused. When the hunter said nothing further, Toler repeated, "Did you care for the person whose life you avenged?"
"Does it matter?" The hunter tried to make his reply light, but anger underlay it, like swift waters of a dangerous current.
It mattered a great deal to Toler whether the hunter had cared enough for another person to murder for his sake. But he sensed he had gone as far as he could in the searching. If he were back in the Eternal Dungeon, he could use threats against his prisoner to frighten the prisoner into further cooperation. But not with this man – not with a knife held against Forge's body.
He had too little information still – not enough facts with which to tell whether the theory forming in his mind was true. And if he acted, and if he found his theory was wrong . . . He had sworn to Elsdon that he would not kill anyone. It would be his death if he guessed wrong and acted in accordance with that wrong guess.
The hunter was waiting. Toler had to take the chance. If he was wrong, he would pay the penalty. But if he was right . . . The only way out of this imprisonment was if he was right. And if he did as the hunter wanted.
He changed his voice, turning it to scorn. "No answer? I thought not. You say you want me to search you, but you don't have the courage to allow yourself to be searched. I knew from the start that there was no man left beneath that gown."
The hunter shoved him against the wardrobe.
Toler had not known for certain how the hunter would react, but he had possessed enough time to turn his face to prevent his nose from being broken against the hard wood. His arms were equally fortunate; his left arm went flying up high, while the right arm fell to his side. Just as he wanted them.
He could feel the hunter's stomach pressing him hard against the wardrobe, squeezing out his breath. He had only seconds left; any moment now, the hunter would guess what he was trying to do. He opened his right fist and drove the tack there into the hunter's thigh.
The hunter grunted but did not let go of him; he was too well trained for that. Toler did not care. The only purpose of the tack was to distract the hunter from the fact that Toler's left hand was now groping the top of the wardrobe, seeking what lay there. His hand closed upon the handle of the whip.
His former junior night guard had presented the whip to Layle Smith as a leave-gift in a somewhat defensive manner. The whip was not beautiful and long. It was short and inelegant, the standard make of the whips that had once been used to beat prisoners in the confined spaces of the Eternal Dungeon's cells. It was clear that Mr. Urman was not sure whether Layle Smith would understand the significance of his present.
He had understood. By tradition, the Eternal Dungeon's guards wore only one whip from the time they entered the dungeon to the time they left it – or, in Mr. Urman's case, until the time he rose to the rank of Seeker. A whip might be mended so many times that it was essentially a new whip, but it was never replaced. The first occasion on which the High Seeker had seen Mr. Urman wield this particular whip was when a young prisoner had arrived at the Eternal Dungeon; the High Seeker, mistaking the prisoner's ignorance for obstinacy, had ordered the prisoner to be beaten. In a manner of speaking, this whip was the first means by which Layle Smith had ever touched Elsdon Taylor.
It was a gruesome reminder of how his relationship with Elsdon had begun, but he had accepted the whip, both because he did not wish to harm Mr. Urman's feelings and because he had held the faint thought that a whip might come in handy. He had been right about that.
It was an impossible angle at which to bring down a whip: straight down, then to the side, with enough momentum to be more than a mere tap on the skin – all this with his left hand, backwards, and without being able to see what he was doing.
It was as easy for Toler as playing the boys' game of Torturer and Prisoner. He knew the impact of the blow, not only from the sound it made, and not only from the hiss of the hunter's breath, but from the fact that the hunter's body dug suddenly further into him, pushed forward by the impact of the lash. Toler pulled the whip back in such a manner that the hunter could see that Toler was about to land a second blow.
The hunter twisted in an effort to grab Toler's arm and to avoid the next lash. It was all Toler needed. In the next moment he had slid out from the trap of the hunter's body and had swirled free, with space to pull back the whip for a hard blow.
The hunter was no fool. Even before Toler came to a standstill, the hunter had already turned away, no doubt as a preliminary for rushing to the door. Toler was not surprised. He had been the most skilled torturer in the Hidden Dungeon, and the whip was his weapon of choice. The hunter knew that.
Toler caught the hunter's hair. The hunter gave a yelp as Toler hauled him back; then he began to turn. Toler knew why. The knife was still in the hunter's right hand.
Toler did not want to use the whip against the hunter's blade-hand; he had broken men's wrists that way in the past. Instead, with the smoothness of long experience, he caught the end of the whip's lash with his left hand, then brought the resulting loop down over the hunter's head.
The hunter went suddenly still, even before the noose of the whip touched his neck. "Knife," Toler reminded him gently. The hunter, caught by hair and neck, let the knife fall to the floor.
Toler let the noose lay slack around the hunter's neck; it was far too easy to strangle a prisoner accidentally, as he had learned during his days in the Hidden Dungeon. Keeping a firm grip on the hunter's hair, Toler nudged the hunter forward with his knee, in the direction he wanted them to go.
They gathered speed as they went, Toler keeping an eye on the side of the desk, judging distances. At the last moment, he realized that he had misjudged the desk's height. Quickly he flicked open the halter around the hunter's throat and let free the hunter's hair.
The hunter must have seen the danger he was in too. He gave a little jump as they reached the desk and thus prevented his groin from being smashed into the edge of the desk. He landed atop the desk with a loud thump.
The desk groaned but stood the test. Toler had a moment to be grateful for his landlord's unfashionable taste in furniture. Then he was hurrying to the front of the desk in order to secure the hunter, who had risen up onto his elbows and looked as though he were going to slide back off the desk.
Toler flipped the whip-handle round in his hand and brought it down upon the hunter's shoulder. It was a mere tap, as far as such matters went, but it was sufficient to send the hunter crashing down onto the desk once more. Toler laid the handle of the whip across the back of the hunter's neck in warning.
"If you try to rise again," he said quietly, "I will use the lash. And if I use the lash, it will be with sufficient force to cut through your hair and into your skin. Please do not require that of me, Mistress Char."
He had meant the final words to be mildly mocking, but they did not come out that way. Something to do with the fact that his right hand was touching the soft silk of the hunter's hair, no doubt. He waited until it was clear that the hunter would not test the threat; then he said, "Wrists."
He bound the hunter's wrists and forearms behind the man's back with the hunter's own hair. It was a tricky operation, pulling the hair tight enough that the hunter would not try to flail about, but slack enough that the hunter would not be in constant pain from having his hair tugged at its roots. When Toler was finished, he stepped back from the desk to examine the results. The hair he had not used in the binding fell over the hunter's face, hiding all but his eyes, which were closed. The hunter was naked; instead of dressing, he had spent that time stealing Toler's knife. His body was just as pudgy as Toler had imagined it to be under the charwoman's gown.
Homewife's body, Toler thought. It made no difference. The appearance of the men and women whom Toler bedded never made any difference to Toler's dark desire. That the hunter's hair was long and silk-soft and the color of sunset on water was as irrelevant as Elsdon's beauty had been. All that Toler's dark desire required was submission.
Toler circled slowly back to the side of the desk, his whip still firmly in hand, his gaze running over the bound figure before him. As he passed beyond the hunter's sight, Toler took the opportunity to trail his hand over the front of his own torso. There were numerous scrapes on it from the knife, but only one wound; the wound was so shallow that it had already scabbed over. The injuries which Toler had inflicted upon the hunter during the past few minutes were no doubt greater than the ones which the hunter had inflicted upon Toler.
He leaned forward, pressing the hard shaft of his whammer against the hunter. Dangling over the desk, the hunter's groin was a couple of inches higher than his own; Toler's shaft nudged the crack of the man's backside and the slight gap between his hanging legs. The hunter's breath was heavy, though whether in response to what had happened or in anticipation of what was to come, Toler did not know. Toler slid his hands over the upper arms of the hunter, feeling the tenseness there. He reached the top of the torso and began to run his hands down the hunter's body, seeking the marks he had made.
Almost immediately he encountered a cloth; it was hidden in the shadow of the left side of the hunter's body, which was against the wall. Toler traced the cloth carefully; it ran under the armpit at an angle. Toler muttered a soft curse. The whiplash he had aimed at his charwoman's captor had penetrated the hunter's gown at the arm. This was the penalty Toler paid for not keeping in practice with his whip.
His hands explored lower, sliding through the satiny curtain of the hunter's hair to find the back hidden behind. Yes, there it was – the lash he had landed. This one was better controlled; he had not broken the skin, though a nasty welt had puffed up. With the mind of a Seeker, he found himself wondering what he had on hand in the tenement that would ease his prisoner's pain. Then he set his mind back to the task at hand.
His hands emerged from the hair and travelled downward, over buttocks, over thighs. He trailed his right hand across the side of the hunter's right thigh. The tack was still there, embedded like a thorn in the flesh. He plucked it out, rubbed it free of blood between thumb and forefinger, and held the tack up to the light. The lamp cast just enough light for him to see the glittering metal.
He let out his breath in a sigh of relief. Master Aeden would have returned from the dead to flay him if Toler had used a rusted instrument to torture a prisoner. Lockjaw was not one of the approved methods of execution in the Hidden Dungeon.
He tossed the tack aside and let the handle of his whip explore the crack between the hunter's buttocks. The hunter's muscles tensed further under Toler's right hand, but otherwise the hunter did not move. The man still had not spoken or made any sound, other than his heavy breathing.
Toler let the whip trail away until it rested against the hunter's left thigh, reminding the hunter that Toler was still armed. He pressed his upright whammer against the hunter once more, exploring with his right hand. There was just enough of a gap between the desk and the hunter's legs to give him access to the groin. That was fortunate. He needed to be sure of one thing before he plundered his bound victim.
His hand reached its goal and encountered only softness.
For a moment Toler froze, caught in the horror of a player who discovers, in the midst of his play-acting, that the play is real. His dark desire, which had no conscience, leapt with eagerness at the thought. He bit his lip, trying to break past the pleasure coursing through him to figure out how to mend what he had done.
His fingers, wiser than himself, explored further. And found nothing.
It shot into him then, a second dagger in the belly, far worse than the first. The pain burned through him, twisting his guts as it had on the day of Elsdon's death. His throat made a protesting sound, as though hoping that this too would prove to be a play. In his mind, he could hear a despairing scream. He could do nothing to stop it.
High Master of hell, he pleaded inwardly. God of torture, if I have ever served you, release me from this rack.
He received no answer but darkness.
What brought him back to himself in the end was the tenseness of the muscles under him – the waiting tenseness. The hunter's heavy breath had stopped, as though it too were waiting. Toler dropped the whip to the floor with a thud. The hunter remained motionless. Toler moved back from the bound figure, slowly rounded the corner of the desk. He knelt down beside the desk, so that his head was level with the hunter's. The hunter's eyes looked back at him. Toler could see fear in them, and defiance.
He reached up and touched the hunter's brow, pushing back hair so that he could watch the eyes better. "Just tell me you want this," he said softly. "That's all I need to know."
The hunter's eyes closed. After a minute he replied in a tight whisper, "Gods, yes."
Toler let his hand linger on the hunter's forehead for a moment more; then he withdrew his hand and stood. In a different voice, a deeper one, he said, "Press your legs together."
As he reached the back of the desk again, he took a second to slick himself, as best he could. He was unprepared in this, as in all else. He could not risk the possibility of doing further damage to the hunter, so he spent a moment judging the right angle. Then he plunged his whammer between the hunter's thighs.
He heard the gasp of surprise from the hunter only dimly; all his concentration was on what he was doing. He did not need to call images to mind to drive his desire high; he had already seen and felt everything that his dark desire could want. Instead he focussed his thoughts on the tightness of the flesh surrounding him, on the muscles under his hands, on the hunter's breathing. It was the first time in decades that he had bedded anyone besides Elsdon. He had even fewer clues than he had possessed with Elsdon as to whether matters were proceeding correctly.
It was not enough. The plunder was not enough for him, and he sensed that it was not enough for the victim on the desk, though the hunter gasped and groaned and made all such sounds as were appropriate for someone in his role. He was playing the role as well as he could, as was Toler, but it was still a play. And suddenly Toler knew that this play-acting would satisfy neither of them.
He pulled back abruptly, ignoring the needs of his whammer, which yearned toward the warmth it had left. Swiftly and deftly he unbound the hunter, then pulled him to his feet.
"On the bed," he said, standing behind the hunter and speaking into his ear. "On your stomach. Now."
He did not wait to see whether his order was obeyed. He turned round and walked back to the wardrobe, rummaging through the objects on the high shelf inside it. It took him a moment to find what he needed: a little bottle containing the lovemaking lotion he and Elsdon had been using the week that Elsdon was murdered.
He had brought it with him to the lighted world with the thought that he might use it one day to comfort himself with thoughts of Elsdon as he pleasured himself. But he had not touched himself in that way since Elsdon's death. Now he walked toward the bed, bottle hidden in hand, taking in the sight before him.
The hunter had placed himself in the same position he had been in when Toler first entered the room: arms and legs outstretched to the corners of the bed, face turned toward the wall. This time, though, the bedsheet had been pulled off; Toler could see that the hunter's hips were raised by a pillow under his groin. Toler's mouth quirked. It was just as well, he thought, that the play had ended. It was becoming increasingly difficult to pretend that this was a rape.
He sat down on the edge of the bed, then moved himself slightly to feel what he had sat upon. His whip, placed there by the hunter. His thigh, which was touching the hunter's arm, felt the tension there.
He fingered the whip, caught now in the past. He had only vague memories of the night on which Elsdon had offered himself up to his love-mate to be beaten, in hopes of bringing Layle Smith back from his madness. He had rejected the offer then, preferring madness to harming Elsdon. Yet he could still remember the shiver that had gone through Elsdon when he touched the young man with his hand. He wondered whether that part of their tale had made its way into the ballads or whether, as seemed more likely, the hunter was simply offering Toler what he thought Toler wanted.
He had waited too long to respond. The hunter said in an angry and urgent voice, "Hell-damn you, do it!"
Toler noticed that the hunter was no longer seeking to hide his accent, which was that of east Vovim. The time for play-acting was over, Toler thought, and he let the whip fall to the ground.
He put his hand out, stroking the hunter's hair. "You forget," he said softly. "I was trained to break prisoners by word alone. That is where my greatest strength lies."
The hunter made no reply. Toler traced the curve of his back, the fullness of his buttocks, before he returned his hand to the hunter's head. "Have you done this before?" he asked.
He smoothed the hair down upon the hunter's cheek, waiting. Finally the hunter said, "Yes."
"With the person you cared for?" Toler traced the line of the cheek, the hollow about the eye, the bridge of the nose.
"Yes." The voice was a whisper this time.
"And did they care for you?" Toler trickled his fingers over the hunter's lips; then he traced his way up to an earlobe.
No voice answered this time, but he felt the head jerk in a nod. He leaned forward and kissed the hunter's cheek, tasting the bitter paint the hunter had used to disguise himself – tasting also the bitter tears coursing down the hunter's face. "Then you know what I want," Toler whispered. "Yield your soul to me."
He waited, looking down at the hunter's face, dim in the flickering light of the lamp. The hunter's eyes were screwed shut. After a minute, the hunter's mouth moved. "I—"
He broke off. Toler waited again, placing lotion on his whammer. With his other hand, he stroking the hunter's cheek. After several more minutes, the hunter said, "I . . . may have been precipitate in my murder."
Toler's fingers halted upon the hunter's cheek; this was not the answer he had expected. Bending forward, he kissed the hunter a second time. "Good," he murmured. "That was a good start." He slid his body onto his bed-mate's.
He took the hunter hard, as his bed-mate had wanted, but between thrusts he whispered softness into the hunter's ears – only such words as the hunter could easily believe. Toler thought he could have spent all night finding ways to describe the beauty of the hunter's hair.
When it was over – when his part of the matter was over – he raised himself up unsteadily and felt his head swim. He reached blindly for a handhold. Finding none, he toppled from the bed.
Strong arms caught him. Strong arms laid him down onto the hard floor. Strong arms cradled his head, waiting. He opened his eyes finally and saw that the hunter was lying beside him, propped up on his elbow. He was staring down at Toler. From the look in the hunter's eyes, Toler could tell that the hunter had not yet found what he was seeking.
Toler covered his own eyes with the back of his hand. It was to be his fate, it seemed, always to be paired with bed-mates whose appetites lasted longer than his own. With a groan, he raised himself up and rolled over onto the hunter's stomach.
It was like sprawling atop a hill, and he doubted that the hunter was any more comfortable than he, but he could tell from the hunter's changed expression that this minor discomfort made no difference.
"All right," Toler said, his voice sounding grim even to himself. "I've given you what you wanted. Now let me show you what Elsdon taught me."
He laid his lips down onto the soft, vulnerable flesh of the hunter's throat. He felt the hunter tense and then, after a moment, slowly relax. Toler's desire, which had been lying in sated quiescence, suddenly leapt awake.
Yeslin's ballads had been right about what took place in the bed of the High Seeker and his love-mate. The ballads had also been wrong.
It had begun with whips and chains – that much was true. Not real whips, but imaginary ones – dreamings the High Seeker used in a desperate attempt to overcome the immutable fact that he was a sadist. He could not feel desire for another person unless that person suffered and submitted to him. And so, in the High Seeker's mind, Elsdon Taylor underwent torment at the High Seeker's hands.
The real Elsdon Taylor, of course, he did not harm. It was a tension between them from the start: Layle Smith lost in his dreamings, Elsdon Taylor accepting the High Seeker's lovemaking without knowing what those dreamings were. In the end, the tension could not be maintained: the High Seeker broke into madness, and when he emerged, a new way had to be found to bond him and Elsdon in love.
They found such a way in the traditions of Layle Smith's people. Night after night, they play-acted together. In some of the plays, the High Seeker was a torturer, tormenting Elsdon until the other man's love broke him and transformed him. In other plays, the ones Layle Smith preferred, the High Seeker rescued Elsdon from pain and brought him the comfort he needed to heal. The fact that the High Seeker's desire derived from Elsdon's imaginary pain rather than his imaginary healing was a matter that neither he nor Elsdon spoke of. They had reached the compromise they needed to maintain their love. Or so they thought.
He remembered clearly the day matters had changed between them again. It had occurred ten years ago, during a lovemaking session on the evening that he decided to give his dungeon over to the care of Vito de Vere when he retired. Over Elsdon's protests, Layle had been giving his love-mate pleasure with his mouth while keeping his mind clear of all thought of any pain Elsdon might experience. It meant, of course, that his own body received no pleasure, but that mattered little to him compared to the joy he received from hearing Elsdon make satisfied sounds.
Amidst them all had come a whimper. A very slight whimper and slight tension as Layle, caught up in his lovemaking, leaned too hard on Elsdon's body, triggering Elsdon's memories of the abuse he had undergone at his father's hands. The whimper and tension were over within a second; a moment later, Elsdon relaxed and sighed with pleasure.
And at that moment – not during the moment of pain, but afterwards – time slowed.
Elsdon knew immediately that something had happened, from the momentary freezing of his love-mate. He pulled himself up, and for the next few minutes, he and Layle tried together to figure out what had happened. That Layle Smith's dark desire had slowed time in the same fashion that it did when Layle touched a whip – that much made sense. But that it should have happened after the moment of pain made no sense.
"It was when you relaxed," Layle had said. "It was when you gave yourself up to me. It was when you surrendered—" He stopped suddenly, and his eyes met Elsdon's.
"Try again," Elsdon suggested in a whisper.
They did, and it happened again. Layle kept his mind cleared of all thoughts of Elsdon in pain, and Elsdon's momentary tension came and went without the dark desire taking any notice. But the moment that Elsdon relaxed – the moment that he allowed himself to be vulnerable in the presence of the man who possessed such skill to hurt him – the High Seeker's dark desire leapt with a ferocity it had only shown hitherto when Layle Smith took up a whip to tear apart the body of another living being.
Surrender. Submission. After all these years, his dark desire was now content with small signs of submission; it no longer required any thought of the pain that led to that submission. Surrender, not pain, had become the food for the High Seeker's desire.
And the irony of it all, Layle discovered when he talked further with Elsdon about this, was that it was the same for his love-mate. Elsdon loved the High Seeker for his strength, but he also loved the High Seeker for his vulnerability, his willingness to lay himself bare to Elsdon's skill as a Seeker. Both loves fired Elsdon's desire when in bed. After fifteen years, their very different desires had found a meeting place: a home where they could be together, the younger man who could not abide abuse and the older man whose dark desire dreamt of abuse.
Submission in love. Utter submission, utter vulnerability, utter nakedness.
Toler could tell that, whatever it was that the hunter had given to the person he cared for, he had not thought to give this nakedness. Time and again, Toler touched some vulnerable part of the hunter's body, and the hunter tensed, apparently believing that Toler would withdraw from the sensitive place. Time and again, Toler softly peeled back the hunter's tense body, as he might peel back the body of a kitten who had curled into a frightened ball. He could feel the hunter's heart pounding, driven hard by the fear of what Toler was doing. With the gentle ruthlessness that Elsdon had taught him, Toler continued to peel away the hunter's barriers by touch and kiss.
When he reached the most vulnerable spot of all, the place where he knew that the hunter would least want to be touched, he proceeded slowly. He kissed first the soft part that remained, like a door in front of a stolen treasure. Then he opened the door and rained the softest of kisses down at where the treasure had lain. The hunter's hand, which was holding his, clutched him over and over; Toler guessed that this place was sensitive, not only to the hunter's heart, but also to his body. He increased the kisses very slowly, giving the hunter time to adjust to his greater demand, until finally the hunter was ready, and Toler could lick the scarred skin.
The hunter expelled a great cry; he was trembling now, body and soul, but he did not pull back. After a long while in which Toler's own desire rose to its peak, climaxed, and then fell, the hunter gasped, "I thought . . . you didn't . . . like the love ballads."
He raised himself, weary and joyful, and climbed up the hill of the hunter's belly to reach its crest. "The love ballads were wonderful," he said and planted a kiss on the button poking up there. He slid his body further over the hill, adding, "And the book of torture was appropriate too." He kissed the hunter's throat again, then slithered forward until he was face-to-face with his bed-mate.
"I misunderstood," he said. "I thought I had to choose between the two. I can't do that. I can't deny half of what I am."
"Nor I," the hunter replied in a shaking voice.
Toler leaned forward and kissed the hunter's left eyelid. "I will search you." He kissed the right eyelid. "I will break you." He raised himself again to look into the hunter's grey eyes. "But I will never seek to destroy the heart of you, my dear. I swear that, by the name of the High Master of the domains below."
He leaned forward and claimed Millard's mouth.
Toler Forge sat on the left side of the sofa, sipping his hot cocoa – very thick, in the east Vovimian style. He watched the snow of the new year drift down in broad, lazy flakes that lay like sugar on the alley pavement. The latest snow was pristine, untouched by any footsteps. Outside the alleyway, the usual pre-dawn clatter of cart-wheels and horse-hooves had become muffled by the snow. Toler lifted his head to look up at the night clouds, glowing from the city lights. A snowflake, light as a petal, landed on his nose.
He turned his head. High Master Millard, former head torturer of the Hidden Dungeon, whose soft, slicing words and dark laughter had caused more terror in his prisoners than the instruments of torture he used on them, sat on the other half of the sofa upon the fire escape, braiding his hair. Like Toler, he was half-buried in blankets; upon his shoulders lay his shawl, but underneath it was a man's suit. Thinking of what lay ahead of them on that day, Toler had hesitantly suggested, when the time came for them to reclothe themselves, that Millard borrow Toler's extra suit, the one that had proved too large for Toler. Toler had been mildly surprised when Millard readily acquiesced, and then surprised again when Millard summarily shoved him out of his own bedroom. The former High Master had emerged from the room half an hour later, his suit immaculately ordered, his face wiped clean of paint, and his hair tied back from his face with a bright red bow.
Now Millard seemed to be concentrating all his efforts on achieving the difficult five-fold braid taught to Vovimian women. Toler asked, "Why didn't you simply come to me and tell me what you wanted?"
"Darling, really." Millard cast him the same exasperated look he had used back in the days when Toler was a young apprentice, still making errors at his new profession. "You used to have a quicker mind than that. I'm a eunuch, Toler. I'm an unlawful immigrant, in exile from my native land. The only man who knew my true identity died four years ago." He finished the tiny braid of one portion of his hair and pulled a slender red ribbon out of his suit pocket. Carefully tying the braid, he added, "And you, being what you are, would have guessed all this within an hour of our meeting. I really did not want to have to throw you against a wall again for offering to take me out of pity."
"It wasn't just pity last time," Toler replied as he paused from appreciating his Vovimian-style cocoa. He was realizing that, during all his years of living in Yclau, he had never tasted a really decent cup of cocoa.
Millard's fingers paused from tying the bow, and then completed their work. Without looking Toler's way, Millard said, "Well, yes, you always liked my hair. I think we've established that tonight."
Toler made no immediate reply. Millard's greatest failing as a torturer – other than the fact that he abused his prisoners – had always been that he undervalued himself. In that respect, he and Toler were alike.
Finally Toler said, "I understand about the book of torture and the book of love ballads – you were offering me a choice. But why the broadside?"
Millard tossed down the braid as though throwing a dish-towel on the floor. "Well, honestly, Toler, you're the most frustrating creature. I'd thought to myself, 'All I need to do is to lure him into reading a nice juicy passage about a rape on the rack, and once he's all hot from that, I'll throw myself at him.' And then you pitched the book off the fire escape. So I thought, 'Aha! All those years with that soft-hearted young man of his have turned his tastes. He's for kisses and caresses these days.' So I gave you the ballads, hoping they would put you in the right mood. And you tossed those into the fire. So then I didn't know what to think." He pulled up the lock of hair he had begun to braid, scrutinized it carefully in the dim light, shook his head, unbraided the lock, and began again. "The best I could figure was that you didn't like being forced into a corner. So I thought, 'I'll arrange to place myself in danger. Then, if Toler Forge is the man he used to be, he'll lash my abductor in two. And if he's gone all cuddly, he'll kiss my wounds to make them better.' When you took hold of the whip at the protest, I thought I had my answer."
"So you came home and tied yourself to my bed so that I would rape you."
Millard raised his eyebrows without turning his gaze from the braid. "You can hardly call it rape if both parties want it."
"You seduced me."
There was a purr in Millard's voice as he replied, "You know I've never been a nice person."
Toler thought this was the greatest understatement Millard had ever made. He let the matter go for the moment, replying, "You were taking a chance."
"Darling, don't think I didn't know that. Those damnable whiplashes of yours still hurt like claw-marks on the flesh. And the whiplash to my pride is even worse. How did you guess so quickly who I was? My voice and appearance have changed considerably since we last met. Was it my hair?"
"Partly," Toler replied. "I know your technique with prisoners. And assassins usually bring their own murder weapons."
There was a pause, and then Millard began to curse, slowly and thoroughly, as he had back in the days when the young apprentice he was helping to train proved to be more skilled than himself.
Toler could not keep from smiling as he drained the last of his cocoa. Millard, pausing to undo a knot he had fashioned in his hair, said, "And after all that, you turned out to be just as confusing as during the hunt. What kind of torturer begins the rape by lashing his victim, and then ends the session by planting dozens of soft kisses on his victim?"
"I did," Toler said softly, "back in the days when I worked in the Hidden Dungeon."
Millard seemed not at all nonplussed by this remark. "Darling, you don't have to tell me that. When I left the Hidden Dungeon, the torturers were still speaking with awe of your ability to seduce prisoners. But I've seen you at work, Toler Forge. I know the difference between when you are play-acting and when you are in earnest. So which are you, a torturer or a love-mate?"
He heard the question underlying the question. He hesitated, and then answered only the surface question. "Both. Neither. Which are you, a man or a woman?"
Millard suddenly settled against Toler's shoulder; Toler set his empty cup upon the windowsill, as a sufficient excuse to take Millard into the crook of his arm. "Both," Millard replied, his gaze upon the snowflakes falling onto his face. "Neither. Well, if that's how it is, then I suppose I can accept that. If my acceptance should be necessary."
Toler dipped his head to look down at Millard's face. The face was fuller now than it had been when the torturer was young, and it was filled with wrinkles that had not been there the last time they had met, sixteen years before. Other than that, Millard's face was the same: the calculating eyes, the mocking mouth, and something behind them both that cried like a small child.
Toler said softly, "I meant what I said, you know. I will search you."
"And you will break me. Yes, I know. I'm destined to become yet another of those pathetic prisoners of yours, sobbing out confessions and begging forgiveness for my terrible deeds. Well, if that's the price I must pay for your company, so be it."
Again, the question; again, Toler was slow to answer. Too slow; a moment later, Millard had pulled away from him and returned to working on his braid. With his gaze fixed on his silver-red hair, the former High Master said, "You were always skilled at making deals. So what do you want in exchange for the pleasure of breaking me? What do you want me to search you for?"
He thought a moment, feeling the soft flakes land upon his chilled face. "I want you to drive me out of my hiding," he responded finally. "Elsdon always said that was my great danger: that I tried to stay hidden within myself, apart from other people, accepting nothing from them – no help, no love. He spent nearly twenty years coaxing me out of the prison I had built around myself. Yet the moment he died, I built a stronger prison, one where I wouldn't have to talk to other people. I need your help in breaking down those walls and keeping them down."
The last words were a partial answer to Millard's question. He knew from Millard's sigh that the other torturer had received the message. Being who he was, though, Millard tried to pretend that the sigh was of frustration.
"Let me see if I have this deal understood," Millard said. "I give you the great enjoyment of transforming me into one of those goody-good people who sheds tears at the thought of rape and abuse. In exchange for this, I do the hard work of keeping you from being the stubborn loner you've been since you were a child. Do I understand you correctly?"
"You do," replied Toler. "And you can begin by telling me the truth. Not the partial truth, the whole truth. If you wanted to have me rescue you, all that you would have needed to do was arrange to enter into a tussle with a passing soldier on this street. What is the real reason you sent me to the Commoners' Guild?"
Millard gave another sigh. This time it sounded genuinely frustrated. "Toler, we are supposed to be having a pleasant, leisurely rest to chat about old times. It's bad enough that you put us out on this ice-cold fire escape without you adding torture to the mix."
"You were the one who—" He stopped, just short of the trap Millard had prepared.
A smile touched Millard's lips. Abandoning the hair, he reached back to the windowsill and picked up the cigarette lying in a tray there and brought it to his lips. He slowly breathed in the smoke before commenting, "You're no easier to distract into a fight now than you were when you were a boy."
Toler did not bother to reply. Their presence on the fire escape, as he had nearly been lured into mentioning, was Millard's idea. So was the notion of lugging the sofa out onto the fire escape. Judging from the way Millard hefted the sofa through the window into Toler's waiting hands, Millard had not lost all of the bodily strength he had possessed when he was High Master. Judging from the manner in which he won the argument over where they should hold their conversation, he had lost none of his strength of spirit.
Why they were sitting outside on one of the coldest days of the year, Toler had no idea, but Millard had always been eccentric. It was part of his genius as a torturer. He was an artist at breaking prisoners: he would follow odd paths, odd enough to confuse his prisoner into bewilderment as to what their destiny was. By the time that Millard had finished winding his way through the maze, the prisoner was usually so exhausted that he would yield up his confession without need for physical torture. This was always irritating to Millard, who enjoyed physical torture. That the Vovimian torturer placed the demands of his art above his pleasure was one of the signs Toler had received long ago that there was more to Millard than the world thought.
Now Millard blew out a stream of smoke and said, in a changed voice, "Very well, I admit I've become one of those soft-hearted altruists I always despised. So would you, if you'd had to cut out as many bandages for children as I have during the past four years."
"You never liked torturing children," Toler commented.
"No." There was no amusement in Millard's voice now; it was dark to the point of harshness. "Though I might have made an exception for you, back when you were luring everyone around you into loving you, and then using their love as a weapon against them. That was reasonable enough, when practiced against prisoners, but I was one of the few torturers in the Hidden Dungeon who had the sense not to walk into your trap. Do you have any idea, Toler, how many hearts you left broken in the Hidden Dungeon when you made your blithe way to Yclau?"
He was silent a minute, staring at the shadowed snow below and thinking of how close he had come to returning to what Toler Forge had been like as a child. If Millard had not pushed him out of his prison . . . He reached over and took the cigarette from Millard. It was the first time he had ever smoked, and he found that it was not to his taste. He placed the cigarette back on its tray, saying, "No. I'm afraid I was quite oblivious to that sort of thing until Elsdon opened my eyes to how many people I was hurting through my coldness. I'm sorry. And thank you again for agreeing to search me."
Millard gave a short laugh, apparently without intention, for he turned his face away toward the end of the alley. After a while, he said, "Not children. I draw the line there. That's the only reason I helped Master Aeden cover up the fact that you hadn't been executed, you know. I didn't think you should have been tortured in the first place."
Toler decided he had best turn that topic aside. "Millard, what about the men and women? Are you fighting only for the commoners' children, or do the others matter to you as well?"
Millard said nothing. After a while his face turned back. Millard reached for the lock of hair he had abandoned and began braiding it again.
Toler said, "The person you loved was a commoner."
"How did you meet this person?"
"He was my torturer, darling. He castrated me."
Whatever expression Toler's face held in the next moment must have been comical, for Millard glanced at him and burst into tears of laughter. The former High Master fished into his pocket for a handkerchief, pulling out a dozen red ribbons at the same time and spilling them onto his lap. He wiped his face free of tears and pocketed the handkerchief and ribbons before saying, "Darling, a certain innocence still clings to you after all these years, which I find utterly charming. How else do you think I could have escaped Vovim? The King wouldn't have been likely to accept a simple statement from my torturer that I'd died while being prepared for execution. If the King saw my bloodied body, though, and the torturer dangled my baubles in front of the King's nose . . ."
Unexpectedly, Toler found laughter welling up within him at this image. Having met the King, he could well imagine what the King's reaction would have been. Millard glanced at him, his lips twisted in dark amusement.
"Oh, yes," Millard said. "The King puked like the royal baby he is. Then he threatened to execute everyone who had witnessed him vomiting. None of his guards seemed inclined after that to point out to him that I was still breathing. Or so my darling torturer told me afterwards; I was mercifully oblivious at that moment."
"So your torturer helped you escape to Yclau? And stayed here with you?"
"Of course he did. He was madly in love with me. He couldn't admit it to himself before my castration, of course, because he didn't approve of men loving men. But when my body finally matched what my soul had been all along . . ." Millard finished the braid and tied a ribbon upon it with a flourish.
Watching him, Toler said, "So you do not regret it."
Millard picked up the cigarette and dragged smoke from it before replying. "Toler, there are a great many things I regret about that particular episode. If nothing else, I would have liked to have demonstrated to my darling why I found it so pleasurable when he took me. But all things considered . . . No, I have no regrets. I would rather be bauble-less and free than still serving that idiot King in a dungeon where nothing worked properly because I had to hide any effective methods for keeping my men from torturing the prisoners to death before the prisoners had been given an opportunity to offer their confessions." He tapped ash from his cigarette onto the snow covering the floor of the fire escape. "It was just too frustrating, Toler – you have no idea how bad it became toward the end. Master Aeden would have been ashamed to serve in such a place. It was like watching a great theatrical company reduced to performing in the far reaches of the provinces, where only stupid farmers stare blankly as the play-actors exert their best artistry. I simply couldn't bear it any more. Being castrated was a mercy by comparison."
Toler was slow to reply; his mind was beginning to move on unexpected paths, through alleys he had not known existed. Millard always had that effect on him. Finally Toler said, "So you and your torturer became love-mates."
"No, Toler, we became husband and wife. My darling always acted with honor."
His gaze snapped over to Millard; Millard smiled sweetly back at him. After a minute, Toler asked, "Is your husband the one who decided you should wear women's clothes?"
Millard shook his head. "No, he liked me just as I am: half man, half woman. It was my idea to wear those clothes whenever I left the house. It was the neighbors, you see. These wretched Yclau have no tradition of men taking male wives; the neighbors would have raised a fuss if they had guessed the truth. And I was hell-damned if, after a decade of hiding important information from the King, I was going to hide from the world that I was my darling's wife. I told him, 'I play-acted for years that I was a man, and I managed to convince most people who knew me. Let's see whether I can do as good a job at play-acting I'm a woman.'"
"You succeeded quite well," Toler commented. "I don't think it was entirely play-acting."
Millard smiled again as he shifted the cigarette in his mouth in order to make room for the tips of the braids that he placed at the other corner of his mouth. Mumbling around his burden, he reached back to catch another lock of hair as he said, "No, of course not. It was all true." He let the braids fall free of his mouth and added, "Half true. It was half of what I am. But I do like to think that I play both halves well. If you should have need of a housekeeper, Mr. Forge, I'm one of the best in the city."
It was the question again, firmer this time, as Millard probed him in the subtle fashion he had once probed prisoners. Toler was not yet ready to answer. Instead he said, "Your husband died."
The smile on Millard's mouth, effectively masking any anxiety he might have over Toler's answer, disappeared at once. Letting his half-finished cigarette fall to the ground, as though Layle's rejection of the cigarette had spoiled Millard's own interest in the tobacco, Millard pressed his lips thin. "Yes," he said.
"He was murdered?"
"In a manner of speaking. He worked at the Luray Shirtwaist Company."
Toler sat momentarily motionless. Then he reached over and took Millard's hand. It was cold. "That must have been a shock," Toler said quietly.
"It was." Millard's face had turned upward; snow fell on his cheeks and melted, trailing glistening water. "We had only been married for a dozen years. I had expected to spend the rest of my life with him."
Something about Toler's tone caused Millard to look his way. For a moment their gazes remained linked; then Millard leaned forward. Toler took him into his arm again.
Presently, Toler said, "So you set out to avenge your husband's death. And the children's deaths too, perhaps?"
"The manufactory owner was easy to kill," Millard said softly. "Far too easy. After it was through, nothing changed except that a new owner arrived and returned the manufactory to what it had been before the fire. . . . You were right, darling; murdering that murderer accomplished nothing. I knew that the Queen's law would not bring the murderer to justice, but I found I couldn't bring justice either. No single person could."
"So you turned to the Commoners' Guild for help in your fight."
Millard shrugged, a warm movement within Toler's arm. "I went to them originally about a job. I thought the Commoners' Guild might be able to find me work cleaning homes."
Toler's mind suddenly snapped into place, as it had in the days when he was searching prisoners. He said slowly, "You've been cleaning my tenement every day for seven months."
"Yes, darling. Do you like the results?"
"You weren't sent here by my landlord."
"No." Millard sounded amused.
"How have you been paying for your home and food all this time?"
"My home?" The dark humor in Millard's voice deepened.
Toler's gaze drifted over to the remains of the lean-to, covered with snow. He felt pain stab his heart. "Oh, Millard," he whispered.
Millard gave a throaty chuckle. "Now, darling, don't start cooing over the homeless kitten. Our beds at the Hidden Dungeon weren't much better, as you'll recall. And you were nicely generous in leaving out choice little bits of food for me. I must admit, though, that I'm glad we reached the point of talking before winter set in. My bed looks a bit soggy from here."
Millard sounded as cheerful as he had been when they spoke inside Toler's warm rooms. Toler realized that sitting in the freezing cold under several blankets on a soft sofa must be a luxury to Millard after all these months of sleeping on the pavement.
He decided it was time he gave Millard at least a little reassurance. He kissed Millard's hair and said, "I could use someone to care for me, yes. At the very least. Is that what you were aiming for all these months?"
"A new housekeeping position?" Millard was successful in maintaining the lightness of his tone, though Toler could feel the tension in his muscles. Millard did not yet believe what Toler had just said, Toler realized. He could not blame Millard for this. Toler had made too many broken promises to his prisoners in the Hidden Dungeon; Millard knew his old technique of raising a prisoner's hopes as a means to increase his later pain.
"A warm place to stay," Toler amended, trying to narrow his vision of the future to a point that Millard would accept. "You should have known I would offer that much to a fellow exile."
He felt a minute relaxation in Millard's muscles. Millard said, "Well, I can pay half the rent once I'm able to find a job, of course. Locating roommates who won't scream when I take off my gown has been my greater problem, I'll admit. And paying for a full set of rooms on my own . . . Things have been a bit difficult since my husband died."
Toler decided that Millard had just surpassed himself in making the greatest understatement of his life. Toler said, "So you decided to flush me out of the Eternal Dungeon."
He knew, even as he spoke, that he was retracing old ground. He had already been told the answer to this question. But it was too important a question to ask only once. He owed it to Elsdon's soul to be absolutely sure.
Millard's hand froze on the lock of hair he was braiding. After a minute, he said, his voice serious again, "If you want proof, I can offer you none, except that I trust I would not make my murders as easy to trace as the Queen's men did. But no, darling; I decided during my visit to the Eternal Dungeon four years ago not to kill your love-mate. I concluded that one broken-hearted head torturer was quite enough for this queendom."
Millard said nothing more. Toler, resting his cheek against the top of Millard's head, could guess the rest: Millard's struggle to keep from giving in to the temptation to murder Elsdon. His decision to leave Toler to his happiness with his love-mate. And the forlorn years that followed as Millard strove to survive alone. Millard could not return to Vovim, where his life would be forfeit if he were recognized at the border. Nor could he tell anyone in Yclau the truth about himself, lest they be so shocked at this half-man that they reported him to the soldiers. If Millard was arrested, he might be condemned in a judging room for irregular behavior; if it was discovered that he was an unlawful immigrant, he might be returned to the waiting arms of the King's soldiers. Either way, discovery meant death.
Suddenly the prison that Toler had made for himself seemed like a child's game: a boy playing at Torturer and Prisoner without knowing what true torture was. Unable to speak, he stroked Millard's hair back from the other man's brow until Millard finally said, "You gave me the shock of a lifetime, darling, when I saw you walking down Main Street last winter."
"You didn't think to approach me?"
"Well, yes, I did. At that particular moment, though, the shop-girl I'd been chatting with began humming a little ditty about the Mad High Seeker. I thought it politic to wait."
Toler gave a low laugh. "And when you discovered the real reason why I had left the Eternal Dungeon . . ."
"Well, I was sorry for you, of course." Millard's voice was matter-of-fact. "Such a sweet young man he seemed when I met him in Vovim – did he stay sweet till the end?"
Millard sighed, as though in response to the tragic climax of a beautiful ballad. "I hesitated to intrude on your memories. But what I wanted from you was so small in comparison to what you had given your young man, I really could not believe you would begrudge it to me."
"A mock rape, darling. Something better to remember you by than me slamming you against the wall."
His whammer jumped at the memory. Only when he saw Millard's amused look did he realize that the other torturer had mentioned this episode deliberately.
"Tease." He ran his fingers through Millard's hair, taking care not to disturb the braids. Toler's eyes were lifted toward the sky, which was beginning to grow pink with the dawn's light. "Well, all worked out in the end; we can set that aside. What matters is now. I'm afraid, my dear, that we won't be safe in this place for long."
He explained then about the newspaper photograph. By the time Toler was finished, Millard had sat up straight, tied his braids into a bun at his nape, and was inspecting the pockets of his borrowed suit. Toler was not particularly surprised when Millard brought out Toler's knife from his pocket.
"These are the Queen's soldiers," Toler reminded him. "You can't fight them with a pocketknife."
"Not me," said Millard, and offered him the knife.
Well, that was certainly a surprise.
It was never wise to underestimate Millard. Upon reflection, Toler realized that Millard would not have surrendered quite so quickly if the High Master hadn't already begun some self-breaking. Toler took the knife in hand, regarding it with distaste. The knife, as well as the whips he had used during the past day, represented the life he had led till now.
Elsdon had been right. It was time for a change.
Toler dropped the knife in the snow that was accumulating at their feet. Millard smiled, as though he had been expecting as much. But all that Millard said was, "Where can we go where we'll be safe? We won't be able to make it out of the city easily; the outskirts are too far to travel by foot, and the Queen's soldiers will be checking the trams from the moment the newspaper reaches the Queen's ministers. If I hadn't delayed you tonight—"
"—I'd be fleeing to a lifetime alone. A far worse fate than death, as far as I'm concerned." Toler thought for a minute. The snow was lessening, but enough lay on the ground to mark foot-tracks. The soldiers would most likely lose their tracks in the muddy slush of the streets, but even so, he and Millard had best seek refuge in a place where the door would be protected against intruders. Toler asked suddenly, "Do you remember the newspaper clipping you so carefully left in a book for me, on eunuchs?"
"Of course I do, darling." Millard sounded amused again. "You can't say I didn't give you fair warning."
"The healer who wrote that article used to be the Eternal Dungeon's healer."
"You don't give much credit to the King's agents if you think I don't know that."
There was an uncomfortable little pause. The King's agents were not in the habit of divulging their information to the Hidden Dungeon. So the only way in which Millard could have heard an agent's spying report was if he had been with Vovim's King at the time the report was made . . . most likely sitting at the King's feet or on his lap or in any of the other demeaning positions by which Millard had desperately and futilely sought to convince the suspicious King that the High Master was no threat to his throne.
Leaving that thought unspoken, Toler said, "He'll give us refuge. I am sure of that. The Queen's soldiers can't break into the office of a healer without a writ from the Queen herself. And I doubt she'd go so far as to invade the privacy of a well-respected healer – not when all important events that occur to healers are trumpeted publicly by the Guild of Healers. She wouldn't want attention called to the fact that she's searching for me."
Millard reached back and absentmindedly twirled around his index finger the end of one braid, which had fallen loose from its bun. "But the soldiers would try to persuade him to let them in. Can this healer of yours stand up to all the pressure exerted by a unit of the Queen's elite?"
"Mr. Bergsen," said Toler dryly, "would willingly face down the entire Yclau army. He delights in defying authority."
"Then I shall be delighted to meet him," responded Millard with a purr.
Toler suppressed a smile. It would be interesting to see how Mr. Bergsen – one of the firmest opponents to torture whom Toler knew – reacted to being asked to hide the former High Master of the most notorious dungeon of the world. Given what Mr. Bergsen knew of Millard's efforts to reform that dungeon, Toler suspected that he and Millard would be ushered into the healer's finest guest room.
And while there, perhaps Toler could persuade Millard to allow himself to be examined by the healer. If anyone could alleviate the pain that Millard clearly continued to experience from his castration, Mr. Bergsen could. Toler had not chosen Mr. Bergsen as a refuge-keeper at random.
"But afterwards?" Millard persisted. "You've been seen by too many people; you'll be recognized if you re-settle in this city. Do you have in mind an Yclau town? Or the countryside?"
Toler shook his head. "You and I have strayed far enough from our roots. I think it is time we return to our native home."
Millard appeared to ponder this, chewing on the end of his braid as the side of his mouth turned up in a small smile that revealed his reaction. "I thought you considered yourself Yclau now."
"I always will be, if only through my memory of Elsdon. But Elsdon often told me that I was as much Vovimian as Yclau. And Vovim is the last place that the Queen will think to search for me. She knows that the King of Vovim has a price on my head."
"And mine, if he learns I'm alive. How do you propose to sneak us over the border?" Millard's breath had quickened; he had always enjoyed intrigue.
Toler reached out to touch a single snowflake drifting down from Mercy's realm. It melted from the heat of his finger. "The solution is simple. Players don't have to give their identities at the border. The world's borders are open to them."
"My dear," said Millard, leaning back to look better at him, "you have the fiendish mind of hell's High Master, if you don't mind my saying so. But my own play-acting skills are somewhat rusty. The guards may not believe us to be players."
"Oh, but they will, since we'll be met at the border by one of the aekae."
A pause of a heartbeat as an early-morning tram's hoofbeats passed nearby. Snow was beginning to fall again in thick flakes. Then Millard said, "Zenas?"
"You know of him?"
"I could hardly have missed hearing of him in the past decade; that young prophet's denunciations of tyranny have been the burr under the King's seat. And he is rumored to have spent time in the Eternal Dungeon."
"He is the adopted son of Weldon Chapman, a Seeker with whom I was corresponding earlier this year. As you know," he added, glancing at his smirking companion, "since you inspected the contents of my desk on the first day you were here. At any rate, Weldon told me how to contact Zenas, and Zenas would be willing to help us, I believe. If we receive the imprimatur of one of the gods' prophets, the border guards wouldn't dare bar our way, or even enquire as to our identities. Besides, we will need Zenas's help once we cross the border."
"To become prophets?" From the way in which Millard was tilting his head, Toler gathered that Millard wouldn't put it past him to make such a suggestion at this point.
"In a fashion. We are players, after all."
There was a long silence. Toler heard a door thump through the thin wall behind them: one of the other tenants, leaving for work. The dawn sky was brighter now.
"Darling," said Millard in a voice as sweet and dark as molasses, "you are holding back on me. These aren't the plans of a single minute. When did you think of this?"
Toler cast his mind back. "Fifteen years ago, I suppose. Elsdon and I talked then about ways to spread the message of a dreaming we had been sent. The previous year, the first seed was cast, from the dreaming itself."
"Ah." Relief was clear in Millard's voice. Human connivances he distrusted, but a message from the gods he could understand. "What sort of dreaming? I don't suppose that the Eternal Dungeon had any prophets for you to consult to be sure that you were interpreting your dreaming correctly."
"Only Zenas, and he agreed with my interpretation when I told him of the dreaming, after he came of age." Toler explained then, as quickly as he could; he was beginning to worry about how bright the sky was growing. But there was no use in rushing Millard. If Millard did not agree to exactly what Toler was planning, the former High Master was quite capable of doing something disastrously wrong, such as using his sharp tongue against the first patrol soldier who cast an uncertain look at them.
"I do like it when hell's High Master gives unequivocal orders," Millard said with satisfaction when Toler had ended. "My dreams are so very muddled compared to the dreaming you and Elsdon were sent. But the orders were for you, your love-mate, and our dear Master Aeden, who I am quite relieved is not now dwelling upon my failure to protect him against your murderous blade. . . . I wasn't in your dreaming."
Toler hesitated, wondering how he could explain his interpretation of the look of secrecy that Elsdon and Millard had shared in his recent dreaming. But Millard completed his unspoken thought by saying, "Still, I suppose that, since your love-mate was unable to play his role, his understudy must step in." He glanced swiftly at Toler, apparently uncertain whether Toler would care for this metaphor.
Toler nodded. "Elsdon said something like that to me when I was mourning your death. He quoted the sacred plays, about how the living must complete the unfinished tasks of the dead."
Millard gave a low chuckle. "He would have made a lovely Mercy. But me . . . Darling, what are you thinking of, casting me as Mercy?"
"I'm thinking that Mercy is both a woman and a boy," Toler said softly. "Who better to play her than you?"
"Ah. There is that, I suppose. And you would make a splendid High Master of hell."
"So I've been told, many times," Toler said dryly. As Millard laughed, Toler added, "We could hire extras to play the lesser roles – or even follow the fashion of the older plays and hire only a chorus. Of children," he added, simply in order to see Millard's face brighten. Toler could well imagine the joy it would give Millard to serve as stage-master to a group of young children. Invigorated by Millard's delight, Toler continued: "What we played would be both old and new. Millard, if you help me to create new sacred plays about the vision of hell that was sent to me, you would be helping Vovim's commoner prisoners . . . including the children who are imprisoned in Vovim."
"I can see that well enough, 'Layle Smith,'" Millard said briskly. "If your dreaming is indeed sent by the god of hell – and I'm not doubting your word, darling – then the entire Vovimian penal system needs to be reworked to adhere to the god's own practices. Your own practices, since you persuaded the god to change his ways. And it hasn't escaped my notice that play-acting a torturer will likely keep you from entering into madness again. So yes, it all fits nicely together. But let's be practical: Where can we start our play-acting careers? With no past experience – other than our dungeon play-acting, which we can hardly trot out in our credentials – we'll be barred from the city theaters."
"I know. I have in mind a provincial theater. An ancient one," he added as Millard groaned. "Located at an east Vovimian town: Chambersburg. You may remember it."
"Darling, unlike you, I never received visiting privileges to travel outside the Hidden Dungeon. Well, only once, and I was tracking you on that occasion. And so I do have a vivid memory of that town: it's where you made your escape from, nearly four decades ago. It's close to the border, as I recall."
"Within a short train ride. It's located in the area presently claimed by the rebel army; we wouldn't be putting Zenas at much risk if he met us at the border. And if Zenas is willing to meet us there, then he won't need to travel out of his way to introduce us to the town leaders as touring players who are seeking to establish a theatrical company in their town."
"Mm." Millard leaned back, staring at the sky. His eyes appeared blank, but Toler, knowing how his mind worked, suspected he was assessing the danger represented by that brightening sky.
Millard still wasn't to be rushed, though. "If it's a provincial theater, and if we're to play Mercy and her brother, there will be questions about whether we're playing those roles in bed as well. And the provincials are so very old-fashioned in their ways. They're likely to fling us out of town if they think we are living immoral lives."
"I know. That's why it would be best if we were old-fashioned too."
Three full minutes passed before Millard spoke again. Toler spent that time watching Millard's face, which had drained of blood. Millard's eyes remained staring at the sky.
Finally the former High Master said, "You never married Elsdon."
"I didn't need to; he was Yclau. We loved each other in the Yclau fashion, which doesn't require marriage between male love-mates. But you and I are Vovimian, both by blood and by our shared culture. If I take you to my bed again, I will have you as my wife."
Millard looked over at him. "What a forceful way you have of proposing, darling. Is that what you're seeking? A submissive wife?"
Toler tried to reply, but in the next moment, he found himself wrestled down in the seat, pinned by Millard's weight and mouth-bound by Millard's lips and tongue. The tongue explored his mouth fully for a minute as Toler allowed himself the luxury of feeling Millard's heaviness settle upon the length of his torso and over his growing whammer. Then he heaved Millard off him, slid out, caught Millard, and flipped him onto his back with ease.
Millard smiled as Toler settled upon him. "Your body was always stronger and quicker than mine, even in the old days. You could have done that in an instant, rather than wait a full minute. . . . You surprise me, darling. You want more than just submission?"
"You agreed to search me," Toler, now breathless, managed to reply.
"So I did; I should have remembered that. —Well," said Millard briskly as Toler pulled him back up into a sitting position, "enough of your malingering, High Seeker. The soldiers will be searching for you at any moment, and I have no intention of being widowed for the second time in four years. Come with me, and I'll show you how to slip ever so quietly from this place."
"I'm depending on it," he replied, which made Millard laugh.
"I need teach you nothing about moving slyly," Millard said as he knelt up to grasp the windowsill. "Nor of the joys of submitting to your submissive wife, it seems. Lead me on our way, darling," he said, and his voice turned so serious that Toler knew that Millard meant what he said. Toler slipped through the window first, turned, and offered Millard his hand.
They made their way into the tenement, only in order to gather what food they could hastily conceal in their pockets. A few minutes later they were gone, leaving behind a fading picture of hell redeemed, as outside on the streets, Jackie Davis cried, "Read! Read! The Mad High Seeker is sighted, fighting for Yclau's commoners! Vovim's King is executed after his army falls to the rebels! Prisoners in the Hidden Dungeon are liberated!"
He told them what he wanted when he arrived. It took all his courage to do so, but to his surprise, they were not angry. They closed the door to his breaking cell, and there he waited.
It was a long wait. He could hear other prisoners calling out and sobbing, some for days on end. Some for years on end, it seemed. He wasn't sure how much time passed. It was dreary beyond imagining, waking each morning to find himself alone again, with no sign that anyone remembered he was there. Sometimes he thought he would go mad from the loneliness. He waited.
One day, he heard a familiar voice. Pressing his ear against the wall, he was just able to make out words that could only belong to Millard. From the snatches of conversation he heard, he gathered that Millard had been offered a permanent position searching prisoners here, and that the former High Master of the Hidden Dungeon had accepted that offer.
He smiled at that news. He could well imagine that Millard, for whom torture was an art, would welcome the opportunity to remain in an eternal dungeon, searching prisoners for the crimes they had committed during their lives, even if the only breaking permitted was that of words. He found himself wondering, though, what Millard saw as he did his work. A cell in the torture-god's hell? Did every human being who passed through here, or chose to stay here, see the transitional world of afterdeath in the images their society had taught them? He supposed it meant something that he envisioned this place as the Eternal Dungeon.
Aching dreariness continued, like a long, slow racking. He knew that he could hammer at the door and demand to have his searching done now. He waited. He waited. He waited.
The door opened. He rose slowly to his feet, his breath caught in his throat. The man who entered the cell was naked-faced, and he was smiling.
Still breathless, he found words finally. "I was afraid you had left long ago."
The man who had entered the cell shook his head. "It took me twenty years to arrive here, and after I arrived, I was delayed further. They offered me a position here, searching prisoners."
"They offered the same to me. What did you tell them?"
The other man said simply, "That I wanted to remain with you."
He smiled then and began to step forward. Then he took in the clothes that the other man was wearing: the dark shirt and trousers, the hood with its face-cloth flung back. He said slowly, "I haven't been searched yet."
"Nor have I," the other man replied. The other man came close, so close that his heat could be felt. The coldness that had once been in his eyes was gone.
"Mr. Taylor," Layle Smith said softly to Elsdon, "I am your Seeker."