The year 358, the eighth month. (The year 1881 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
She was a newlywed. She was also a Seeker, duty-bound to search the Eternal Dungeon's female prisoners for their crimes. In the view of many men, she knew, that made her unwomanly. Birdesmond Manx Chapman was determined that her husband not be one of them.
Weldon Chapman, the mild-mannered Seeker whom she had married, had said nothing to her that indicated he had any doubts about their recent marriage. But he had mentioned, from time to time, the life he had lived as a young man with his beloved parents. His mother's cooking played a prominent role in such tales.
So she decided to cook him a meal in honor of their first year together. That seemed a simple enough exercise. The Record-keeper of the Queendom of Yclau's royal prison, charged with finding living quarters for the Eternal Dungeon's first married Seeker couple, had thrown all caution to the wind and assigned them a large two-bedroom apartment, complete with a full-scale kitchen. All she needed to gather were the ingredients for the meal.
This she tried to explain on one summer morning, standing by the outer dungeon's exit while confronting two guards who had their daggers pointed at her.
"But I'm simply going shopping!" she protested.
"I'm sorry, ma'am." The senior guard's voice was grim. "No Seekers are permitted to leave this dungeon without permission from the Codifier."
"It's in the oath you took," the junior guard contributed helpfully.
She knew all about the oath. She had fought her way bitterly to the point where the Eternal Dungeon would allow her to take a Seeker's oath of eternal confinement. It had simply not occurred to her that the dungeon authorities would interpret the oath so literally as to prevent her from carrying out her wifely duties.
It was typical of the sort of trials she had encountered since becoming a Seeker. She had thought that the Record-keeper would pass out when she mentioned her need for certain monthly supplies used by nearly all women her age.
"Perhaps the Cook can be of help to you," suggested the senior guard, who had not yet lowered his dagger. "She's in charge of food supplies in the dungeon."
The Cook was manifestly not inclined to be of any help whatsoever.
"Now, don't you worry, ma'am or sir or whatever you're calling yourself," said the stout woman in a syrupy voice. "We take care of all meals for the Seekers. You needn't lift a finger."
"But I wish to lift a finger," she said as firmly as she could, though she felt awkward. Every laborer in the entire kitchen had stopped work the moment she entered the room. There were now gaping at her. She gathered she was the first Seeker ever to enter the kitchen.
"Now, now." The Cook went so far as to pat her arm. "I understand. It must be hard, taking on a man's work. But it's as much as my life is worth to give you any supplies from the pantries and icebox, sir or ma'am. I'm accountable for them to the Record-keeper. The High Seeker would hang me high if I gave away so much as a grain of wheat without permission. Perhaps," she added slyly, "you could ask the High Seeker for permission yourself."
That caused all of the kitchen-workers to snicker behind their hands. Everyone had heard of the fraught employment interview between the High Seeker and the dungeon's new lady Seeker.
As it happened, Layle Smith was still recovering from a mind illness which had started the previous year, not coincidentally around the time that Birdesmond was hired as a Seeker. The High Seeker was well enough, she had heard, that the Record-keeper was now consulting with him concerning keeping the Seekers supplied properly with food and clothing. But she would by no means risk harming his health by speaking directly to him.
Instead, she spoke to Elsdon Taylor.
The High Seeker's love-mate shook his head, however, when she had finished speaking. "Birdesmond, it would be risky to mention your name to him. Only the fact that you are still on mourning leave is allowing Layle to ignore that you live in this dungeon. Haven't you noticed how he lets his gaze slide past you whenever you chance to meet each other in the corridors?"
She had, of course. Sighing, she said, "I can't bother the Codifier about so trivial a matter. Nor Mr. Partridge," she added grimly. Mr. Partridge was the senior Seeker who was taking Weldon's place as second-in-command of the Seekers while Weldon carried out the High Seeker's duties. Mr. Partridge had decided opinions concerning the unsuitability of hiring a woman to be a Seeker.
Elsdon nodded sympathetically. She had been acquaintances with her fellow junior Seeker for only a few weeks, but Elsdon had proved to be most helpful at the time of her infant son's death. Elsdon had arranged with the Codifier to allow her leave so that she could return home to have her son's ashes buried in her family's tomb. Since that time, Birdesmond had come to realize why Weldon valued Elsdon's friendship so greatly.
"I really don't know what to suggest, Birdesmond," Elsdon said now. "I doubt the issue has ever arisen before."
"Do none of the Seekers make their own meals?" she demanded.
He gave an apologetic shrug. The two of them were sitting in Birdesmond's living cell while her newly adopted son, Zenas, drew pictures with the young son of the High Seeker's senior-most guard. The two boys were giggling over a drawing that depicted the haughty Record-keeper, whom Birdesmond had not bothered to approach, knowing what his answer would be.
"Well, we're all men," Elsdon said. "I probably know as much as any man does about such matters, because I supervised my father's household, which meant approving our cook's list of shopping supplies. But where she sent her kitchen-girls to shop, I couldn't say. I left that up to our cook's discretion."
"And I can't go shopping in the city markets," Birdesmond concluded with a sigh. "Perhaps the palace—"
But Elsdon was already shaking his head. "Layle is quite firm about that, I'm afraid. No Seeker is permitted to visit the palace, other than the small stretch of corridor between here and the magistrates' judging rooms."
A corridor which held nothing but a library. She couldn't serve Weldon a meal of leather-bound books. Feeling weary, she rose to her feet. "I'll think of something. There must be a way for me to obtain ingredients for a meal."
She knew in her heart that her frantic desire to cook a meal had to do with what had taken place on her wedding night.
Her musings on this were interrupted by Weldon's arrival at the master bedroom in their "living cell," as Seekers termed their apartments. He was in his shirt and drawers, rubbing dry his hair, having just completed his week's-end bathing. "I saved the water for you," he said.
She grimaced, glancing beyond him at the round iron tub sitting in the middle of their parlor. Some of the sacrifices she had undergone to become a Seeker were more distasteful than others. "I'll bathe tomorrow," she said. When there was some hope that the water would still be warm out of the maid's pitcher. "My chain is snagged on my collar. Will you loosen it for me?"
He came forward quickly, eager as always to help. It took him a moment to free the chain that held the locket she wore as a traditional indicator that she was married. The dungeon's Codifier – himself a widower who wore a marriage watch to work – had ruled that it was acceptable for her to wear the locket on duty, provided that it remained hidden under the plain uniform she wore as a Seeker. It was the uniform of a female prisoner; similarly, all of the male Seekers wore the uniform of a male prisoner, as a visible symbol of the oaths they had made to live as much as possible like their prisoners.
Weldon stepped back with the chain and locket in hand. She turned her head to look at him. Even after all these months, she instinctively expected to see a familiar sight: the expression of a man who has touched the neck of a beautiful woman and who longs for greater intimacy.
What she saw was Weldon's polite smile. "I'll put this away beside my watch, shall I?" he offered.
She nodded, turning toward the mirror before he should see the look in her eyes. Her throat ached as she reached for her brush. Behind her, Weldon was whistling lightly as he plumped the pillows, not even bothering to watch while she pulled out her hairpins and let her long, full hair cascade to her waist.
It had happened on her wedding night too. It had been a shock. For as far back as she could remember, boys and men had stared at her with longing and sometimes outright lust. She had spent years avoiding snatching hands, hoping to find a man who loved her for more than her beautiful body. When she had finally met a man who not only loved her mind but was incapable of being attracted to her body – who was not attracted to any woman or man at all – her reaction had been delight.
She had married Weldon for love, not passion. Passion she could obtain alone, thanks to Weldon's insistence that she consult with the dungeon's healer before their marriage. The healer, after checking with his wise spinster sister, had told Birdesmond facts about her own body that she had never known. She was receiving a great deal of satisfaction from learning the pleasure that she could release from her body. That she could not share this pleasure with Weldon was a minor sorrow, one that gave her little pain. Indeed, on the one occasion when Weldon had forced himself to "love" her in the traditional sense – when he had begotten upon her the child they both wanted but who had died soon after birth – the encounter had been so awkward and so horrifically demanding upon Weldon that she was no more eager than Weldon to repeat that particular act.
Yet still . . .
It had been on her wedding night, when she slipped out of her daytime clothes in order to don her nightgown, that she had first understood. She had glanced at Weldon, and his look had been of polite interest at seeing a naked woman for the first time. Nothing more. No longing, much less a desire to clasp her in his arms.
It had spun her world in a circle. She had not realized until then how much her self-confidence was wrapped up in the knowledge that she was a beautiful woman who could attract men.
If Weldon did not value her for her beauty . . . what value did she have to offer him?
It was a few days later that Weldon first mentioned his mother's skills at keeping house.
In the end, oddly enough, it was Zenas who provided the solution.
It had never entered her mind to consult a twelve-year-old boy who was still struggling to learn their queendom's language. She had forgotten, though, that while Zenas could not yet speak the Yclau tongue, he had proceeded far enough to understand it. And so her endless talk of food – with Elsdon, with the maids, with anyone whom she thought might help her with her quandary – bore fruit by the end of the summer, in a manner that she could not have expected.
"This might interest you, sir." It was the voice of Seward Sobel, the senior-most guard in the dungeon. Knowing whom he must be addressing, Birdesmond did her best to remain quiet and inconspicuous, though it hardly seemed worth the effort. When she cautiously turned her head, she saw that the High Seeker was continuing to do his very best to ignore her existence.
There was a rustle as Mr. Sobel handed Mr. Smith a piece of paper. Then the High Seeker said, "My goodness."
Nearby, heads rose all around the dungeon's entry hall as the guards who were seated at tables took sudden interest in the conversation. The High Seeker was almost never surprised.
Mr. Sobel simply chuckled. "I thought you'd like it, sir. My son drew it."
"Indeed. His talent is as precocious as always. But where did he get the props?" The High Seeker raised the piece of paper toward his face, evidently in an attempt to see it better in the dim light of the entry hall. Realizing that the High Seeker's interest was purely aesthetic, the eavesdropping guards lost interest and returned to their murmured conversations over the official documents they were filling out.
"He worked from sketches provided to him by Mr. Chapman's son," the High Seeker's senior night guard replied. "Is his rendition accurate, then?"
"I assume so." Now there was a note of mournfulness in Layle Smith's voice. "I haven't tasted these dishes for over twenty years. They are not served in this queendom."
The guards' conversation stopped. The guards looked up cautiously – almost fearfully – as the High Seeker appeared to muse with relish upon his exceedingly dark years as a young torturer in the vile Hidden Dungeon of the neighboring Kingdom of Vovim.
Mr. Sobel's voice remained steady as he said, "That's a great shame, sir. I'd forgotten that Seekers must eat the same food as the other prisoners do. Couldn't you order the Cook to prepare an occasional Vovimian-style meal? We have a couple of immigrant prisoners at the moment who would surely enjoy a taste of their native food."
"I'm not sure . . ." said the High Seeker slowly.
"A splendid idea," said Weldon, joining the conversation as he came into the entry hall. "Sir, you know that none of us Seekers have any objection to sharing our prisoners' conditions, including eating the same food they do. We are prisoners too, by our oaths. But it has often struck me that there is not enough variety to the prisoners' meals. Perhaps you could order a few east Vovimian dishes for any prisoners or Seekers who care for such food."
Several of the eavesdropping guards rolled their eyes. The food of the High Seeker's native province in Vovim was notoriously spicy, not at all to the taste of most people in the Queendom of Yclau.
The High Seeker made no immediate reply. Inserting himself back into the conversation, Mr. Sobel said, "It seems a shame, sir, that Mr. Weldon's young son, being so recently removed from his native kingdom and forced to undergo a lengthy prison sentence here, should be wholly deprived of his native dishes."
"He is from southern Vovim," said the High Seeker. "Not east Vovim. And I doubt that our Cook knows how to prepare such foreign cookery."
It was time, Birdesmond decided, that she lent her aid to the evident strivings of the High Seeker's senior night guard to see that his employer was properly fed. Waiting until her husband was beckoned away by the Record-keeper, she stood up. Keeping her gaze carefully away from the High Seeker, she walked forward as she said, "Mr. Sobel, I couldn't help overhearing your last remark. You are quite correct. I don't know whether your son has mentioned this to you, but my son has been sketching pictures of Vovimian food, over and over. I'm sure this is Zenas's attempt to make clear to us that he misses the food of his native land. I doubt that it would make much difference to him whether he was served southern Vovimian food or east Vovimian food; he must have been exposed to all the provincial Vovimian dishes during his childhood. But since east Vovimian ingredients are more easily imported, perhaps the dungeon kitchens could obtain them for me. I would be glad to prepare the meals myself, for our family. And if I should happen to have any leftovers," she added carelessly, "I will deliver the food to you, so that the leftovers can be distributed appropriately."
"You maneuver magnificently," Elsdon said with admiration when she reported the conversation to him later. "Faced with such skill, I doubt a single guilty prisoner of yours will be able to hold back her confession. Don't worry; Seward Sobel will certainly leave some of the leftovers at our living cell, and I'll make sure that Layle eats them. He approved the arrangement?"
"With a certain amount of pressure from Mr. Sobel," Birdesmond replied. "Yes, I'm magnificently clever. At least, I thought so till I realized something afterwards."
"And that is?" said Elsdon, running his gaze over Birdesmond's first efforts at a Vovimian meal, which she had just finished cooking.
She threw her hands in the air, despairing. "Elsdon, I have no idea whether Weldon likes Vovimian food!"
"Well?" she said.
She waited tensely, seated at the table in their living cell. As always, the living cell had been immaculately swept, dusted, and otherwise cleaned by the Eternal Dungeon's brigade of maids and menservants. The laborers left nothing for her to do for Weldon. Even the Cook, who ordinarily prepared meals for Birdesmond and Weldon, had protested at being deprived of her task. But the Cook had her orders from the High Seeker.
"It's a bit spicy," said Weldon in his mild voice as he reached toward his glass of water. "Still, it's a change of pace. Is the Cook going all foreign on us now?"
She felt the disappointment in her stomach, like a cold rock. She tried to keep her voice light as she replied, "I cooked it. I'm sorry it's not to your taste."
He spilled the water.
It ran over the edge of the table, onto his trousers. Weldon appeared not to notice. He was staring at Birdesmond. "Cooked it? When did you find the time for that? Your leave is over; you've been working fourteen-hour shifts all week!"
"I rose before dawn, while you were asleep," she confessed, covering her mouth to hide her yawn.
He sounded genuinely bewildered. She said, "I thought you'd like a home-cooked meal. You told me about your mother—"
He grabbed her then. Swept her onto his lap, clasped her in his arms, and kissed her with an eagerness that left her breathless with surprise. When he finally pulled back, he said in a trembling voice, "Birdie, I never intended . . . My mother cared for me and my father full-time. She didn't have prisoners to care for as well. You work hard all day with your prisoners, using your skill on them as you used your skill on me, to help me accept that my lack of carnal desire is no fault, nothing to be ashamed of. For you to work so hard, and then for you to come home and slave over a dinner for me . . ."
"It is my pleasure." Warmed thoroughly by his words, she wrapped her arms around him. Nearby, Zenas, who had finished his meal earlier, played quietly in the corner, taking no interest in his parents' conversation. Thinking of all her weeks of worry – all her concern that Weldon would not value her unless she cooked him this meal – she laughed.
Weldon smiled and kissed her lightly. "Next time, I'll make the meal. I don't know how to cook, but surely I can learn—"
"By no means," she said, fingering the chain around her neck. "You're higher-ranked; you're busier than I. Besides," she added as Weldon looked ready to protest, "I trust you won't deny me the opportunity to exercise my womanly skills."
In the corner of the room, Zenas made a noise. It sounded suspiciously like a giggle.