He was the flame, and his love-mate was the kindling. To say they were mismatched was an understatement. He knew that it was only a matter of time before their relationship was tested.
Layle had simply not expected the test to be a pile of dirty dishes.
They both stared at the heap of plates, saucers, cups, glasses, and silverware that were covered with congealed food. The heap represented their meals during the past two days, as both Layle Smith and Elsdon Taylor had bolted food in between questioning their prisoner in one of the breaking cells of the Eternal Dungeon. The heap of dishes lay on the floor in the middle of their sitting room.
Layle was not used to seeing dirty dishes in his living quarters – his "living cell," in the dungeon parlance. Dirty dishes – like dirty towels, dirty clothes, and anything else filthy – was usually spirited away while he was at his work.
Layle was legally a prisoner within the dungeon and within the small portion of the palace above that he was permitted to visit. All Seekers were classified as prisoners, so that they would not develop dangerous attitudes of superiority over the prisoners whose souls they sought to transform. Yet Layle, who was High Seeker of the queendom's royal prison, had the reputation as being the most skilled prison-worker in the world. Elsdon Taylor, who was reaching the end of his period as a Seeker-in-Training, had begun to show his own talent in the breaking cell. Men like them were not expected to clean dishes.
Men like them were not expected to know how to clean dishes.
"Er . . . I don't suppose you ever learned how to wash dishes, did you?" asked Elsdon in a dubious voice.
Layle switched his gaze over to his younger love-mate. They'd only been together for seven months; Layle was still delving into the complexities of Elsdon. Sometimes Layle suspected that his delving would take a lifetime. Still, Layle would not have expected Elsdon – who was currently questioning an alleged murderer in the calmest of manners – to be intimidated by a pile of kitchenware.
"Didn't you?" Layle challenged. "You were in charge of running your father's household."
"We had servants!" protested Elsdon.
Layle should think so; Elsdon's lineage could be traced back to the fourth daughter of one of the queendom's previous monarchs. "But you supervised them."
"For love of the Code, Layle, I didn't stand over them in the kitchen while they carried out their duties! My mother did that sometimes, before she died, but—" Breathing heavily now, Elsdon looked at Layle. "What about you? You told me last week that you grew up poor."
"My parents died when I was young." Layle frowned; his past was not something he wished to discuss with Elsdon. "After that . . . Well, I was not in any position to observe housework." He had been living on the streets as he committed crimes, at first because it was the only manner in which he could obtain food, and then—
He forced his mind back to the present, as though it were a prisoner who had sought to escape. That was the past. There was no reason that he should discuss his past with Elsdon. Layle added, "Dishwashing must be simple. We don't hire the outer-dungeon laborers for their skill in thinking."
Elsdon scraped at one of the plates with his fingernail. The food stayed solidly put. "How long is this strike likely to last?"
"It's not officially a strike." Layle tried to keep his voice patient, though he had spent much of the morning explaining this fact to everyone, from the dungeon's Codifier to the Queen herself. The Queen, who had no patience with strikes, had suggested replacing the troublesome dishwashers with young women who knew their proper place. Layle, who understood better than the Queen how difficult it was for commoners to survive in a world of hostile employers, had begged permission to handle the matter in his own fashion. He had come home, expecting to be able to have a couple of hours before bed to deal with the problem—
Only to find himself confronted with this blasted pile of dishes.
"We could leave the dishes till tomorrow," suggested Elsdon. "Perhaps the strike-that's-not-a-strike will be resolved by then."
Layle imagined letting the dishes pile up. Then he imagined all of the Seekers letting their dishes pile up, and what that would mean for the young dishwashers once they returned to work. He shook his head. "We don't want to put that extra burden of labor upon the dishwashers. They seem to be sensible young women." They had shown their sensibleness by selecting a male laborer from the outer dungeon to present their petition to the High Seeker. Layle did not think he could have coped with the added burden of an enticing female representative. All females were, by definition, enticing. "They've sworn to me that they very much desire to continue working for the Eternal Dungeon, and they've shown their faithfulness by volunteering to do other labor in the dungeon while I consider their petition."
Elsdon picked up the piece of paper from the rough work counter that served as a table for their meals. He frowned as he perused the petition. "'Modern fixtures in the dungeon's kitchen—' That seems a reasonable request."
To Elsdon, perhaps; Layle had already gathered that Elsdon had a boyish interest in inventions. Layle explained carefully, "There is a reason that the workers in this dungeon use older tools, such as daggers rather than revolvers. It serves to keep us rooted in the traditions of the past, so that we do not forget the time when the Code of Seeking was first created."
Elsdon glanced toward the slim volume that regulated their lives as Seekers. "But the Code of Seeking was revolutionary for its time, wasn't it? It required the dungeon's workers to put the best interests of their prisoners first; that departed from centuries of tradition in prison practice. Even your revision of it broke away from past versions of the Code. I would have thought you would welcome modern inventions into the dungeon."
Layle wondered whether he should explain to Elsdon how often modern inventions fell apart when Layle came near them. But no, they were straying from the subject at hand. "First we have to deal with these dishes," he pointed out.
Elsdon sighed and stared again at the plates, saucers, cups, glasses, and silverware. "It can't be so very hard. All we need is water, surely."
They both looked toward their bedroom. Sitting upon the night-stand next to the bed was a pitcher of water, fresh from being refilled by a maid while they were at work. Under the pitcher lay a small basin. The living cells of the Seekers contained no wash-stands, much less pumps or faucets. Layle had never seen the point of them; the pitcher and basin supplied water just as well as modern plumbing.
Nor was there any sink in the tiny area of the living cell that Layle referred to as their "kitchen." Storage bins to house nuts and fruit for snacking during their leisure hours, yes, but why should there be a sink? He and his love-mate didn't prepare food for themselves.
"We could use the water in the pitcher," Elsdon suggested.
"And pour it where?" asked Layle, looking around as though he expected a sink to pop up at any moment. "That basin is too small for the plates."
"There's our washtub. . . ."
Layle snorted. "I am not going to clean dishes in a tub where we bathe weekly. The kitchen must have some sort of container in which we can wash dishes. We simply need a maid to fetch it for us."
There was a pointed pause. Even Elsdon, who did not know the details of Layle's fraught past, was aware by now of Layle's nervousness around women.
Finally Elsdon said, "I'll find the maid."
This was ridiculous. Layle was a Seeker. He dealt daily with prisoners accused of heinous murder and rape. For the Queen's love, he ought to be able to deal with a giggling girl.
"I'll do it," he said grimly in the same manner that he might announce he was about to venture into hell.
Fortunately, he did not have to venture so far as the outer dungeon. He avoided the outer dungeon as much as possible – not because he failed to value the work done by the outer-dungeon laborers, who fed and clothed and did cleaning for the dungeon's prisoners, including the Seekers.
No, the problem was that there were so many blasted women working in the outer dungeon. Layle liked to think he had developed enough strength of will that he would not assault his prisoners, who were all male these days. He was not so sure of his ability to withstand the enticements of beautiful women.
"So you chose me because you're less attracted to me?" Elsdon had said when Layle had hinted to him why he would prefer that he and Elsdon not take their meals in the dining hall, as some Seekers did.
Fortunately, Elsdon had sounded amused. He had his own history with girls, Layle had gathered, though Elsdon's history was confined to schoolyard kisses. In the ordinary way of things, Layle supposed both he and Elsdon would have acted in the manner that Yclau men normally did: they both would have slept with a man during their early years of adulthood in order to learn the mysteries of lovemaking; then they both would have married a woman and settled down to domestic life. "Be cared for by a man, then care for a woman" was a custom that went back to Yclau's antiquity, when the queendom had first been discovered by explorers from the Old World.
But Seekers were forbidden to marry and had developed their own customs. Which was just as well, since Layle's first thought, upon sighting the maid in the corridor, was that she would look very tasty if flung against a wall and passionately kissed.
He sucked in a deep breath and held it. A mere three weeks had passed since he had returned to work after being suspended, following a momentary loss of temper with one of his prisoners. He would not test his superiors' patience by assaulting one of his own laborers.
Besides which, he had a young man in his living cell who was quite happy to be flung against a wall and passionately kissed, any time that Layle wanted. Remembering this, Layle felt the ground steady under his feet. He hailed the maid.
She came to him with heartbreaking trust, smiling up at him. "High Seeker? How can I be helping you?"
By not smiling at him that way. His voice was gruff as he replied, "My roommate and I have dishes to wash. I require a container in which to wash them."
"Aye, sir. Anything else?"
He shook his head, eager to get her gone. He retreated to his cell as quickly as his dignity would permit.
He found Elsdon busy with an abacus.
Layle gaped. It was not that he was unaware that Elsdon possessed an abacus. When Layle had asked Elsdon what he most missed from the many belongings that he had left behind in his childhood home, Elsdon had promptly replied, "A calculating machine." After giving some thought to this unexpected answer, Layle had presented Elsdon with an abacus as a New Year's present.
But Layle had not expected Elsdon to use the abacus to count dishes.
"What are you doing?" Layle asked sharply.
Unruffled, Elsdon replied, "Calculating liquid capacity. Layle, we don't have nearly enough water in that pitcher to clean all these dishes. We'll need more water."
Layle sighed. "I'll have the maid fetch it when she comes. I suppose that's why she asked me whether I needed anything more."
"You didn't ask her what she meant?" As he spoke, Elsdon looked up from the numbers he was scribbling onto the paper on the desk.
"I am not going to act like an ignorant schoolboy with one of my subordinates," Layle said briefly.
Elsdon dimpled. "Yes, you're quite good at projecting authority and knowledge. You're not so good at admitting your weaknesses to others."
Which was why Layle was striving so strenuously to avoid telling Elsdon of his past. Feeling uneasiness touch him, Layle said, "You were really able to figure out all that with an abacus?" As machines went, an abacus was fairly harmless. At any rate, it hadn't broken when Layle wrapped it in gift-paper.
"Yes, it's easy, see?" Elsdon proceeded to rattle off a list of esoteric math steps. Layle spent the time contemplating Elsdon's fine golden hair, his snow-pale skin, his eyes the color of a dawn sky, and his lips that seemed too red to be natural. Layle never tired of the sight of Elsdon, any more than he tired of touching that smooth skin.
Perhaps fortunately for the dishes, Layle's thoughts on what he would like to do with that skin were interrupted by a tap on the door. Layle went over to the bookcase and pretended to stare at the books while Elsdon answered the door. All of the books belonged to Layle; Elsdon had not yet spent the small allowance he received as a Seeker on anything but gifts for Layle. Layle frowned, wondering why it had not occurred to him before to buy books that Elsdon would enjoy reading. Absorbed in this thought, Layle ignored the soft-voiced conversation between Elsdon and the maid.
Once the door closed again, Layle turned around. Sitting on the floor was a washtub.
"Excuse me?" said Layle in the dark voice he used toward misbehaving subordinates.
Elsdon laughed. He was on his knees, examining the washtub, which was made of wood rather than iron. "It's not for bathing or for washing clothes. It's for washing dishes. The maid told me that the outer-dungeon sinks are very shallow, designed for cleaning fish, not holding water. The dishwashers must place washtubs in the sinks in order to hold the dishes and water. The sinks are a century old, the maid said; they were created at a time before modern plumbing."
To Layle's mind, that was part of the attractiveness of the outer-dungeon kitchen. He had ceded to the Cook's querulous demands for a coal stove to replace the wood stove. But just a few yards away from the entrance to the outer dungeon, there was a perfectly decent well. There was no reason why the outer-dungeon laborers shouldn't fetch well-water whenever they needed it. The lack of modern plumbing provided the kitchen with a homey, old-fashioned atmosphere that the outer-dungeon laborers ought to appreciate, since many of them lived in the city's slums, grimy with the detrimental effects of Yclau's industrial revolution.
Still . . . "We need water, you told her?" Layle said.
"Yes, but she says we can easily fetch it ourselves. One of the outer-dungeon laborers has placed pails of water in the Seekers' common room, for any Seekers who need them for their dishwashing."
The outer-dungeon laborers were known for their initiative. Layle encouraged their enterprise. "Let's go, then," said Layle, striding toward the door. "I want this dishwashing over with, so that I can devote my attention to the far more important task of figuring out how to explain to the dishwashers that their petition is unreasonable."
Twenty minutes later, he and Elsdon collapsed onto the floor next to the washtub. They both glared at the washtub.
"How many pails of water did it take to fill that tub?" asked Layle between gasps. "No, never mind," he added as Elsdon began to reach up toward the abacus on the desk above him. "It was too many; that's all that matters. What's the next step?"
"I suppose we put the washtub on the counter."
They both looked at the work counter. It was several yards away. It was several feet off the ground.
"Or we could leave the washtub here," Elsdon amended.
Layle sighed. "We're going to look like washerwomen, scrubbing on our knees. All right, let's fetch the kitchenware and be finished."
They had failed to take into account the fact that the dishes would fill up space currently occupied by the water. After a hurried discussion, Elsdon emptied the contents of the water pitcher into one of the pails; then they began the laborious task of filling the pitcher with the water in the washtub and pouring the water into pails, over and over.
"That's enough," said Elsdon, wiping the sweat off his brow with his sleeve. "I ought to have measured the dimensions of the washtub first—"
"Enough measuring. We put the dishes in the water, they're clean, and we're done with this."
It did not prove that easy.
"Layle, the water's turning greasy," said Elsdon with horror. "It's making all of the dishes greasy."
"And the food isn't coming off." Layle frowned, considering the problem. Dishes, he was learning, were far more difficult to deal with than prisoners. "Perhaps we need soap." Soap they had aplenty, thanks to what the dungeon's healer described as Layle's "compulsion" for clean hands. Layle had spent more years of his childhood than he liked to remember with dirt on his hands and face. He was fond of a bit of soap and water at the end of a hard night's work.
Elsdon reached inside the washtub. "The water is awfully cold. It must have been fetched from outside recently. Will the soap melt?"
No, blast it. Layle always took care to wash in lukewarm water. "We could wait for the water to warm."
"Layle, I'm rather tired." Elsdon's spoke in a matter-of-fact manner, but Layle took note of the dark circles under his eyes. The first few weeks as a Seeker were inevitably the worst, and the current prisoner, whom Elsdon was searching under Layle's supervision, was providing unrelenting trouble for the Seeker-in-Training.
Layle gave the matter some thought. Seekers' living cells held no stoves – a deliberate policy aimed at increasing the Seekers' knowledge that they were prisoners. Here in the underground dungeon, it never became cold enough for Seekers to be harmed by the lack of manmade warmth.
There was a furnace just across the hall, though, which heated the prisoners' cells. "Perhaps we could heat water in the furnace."
"Or on the stove in the outer-dungeon kitchen," Elsdon suggested.
Layle considered this notion. There was only one stove in the outer-dungeon kitchen; the Cook had complained loudly about that, pointing out that she and her assistants prepared meals for hundreds of prison workers. One coal stove was enough, as far as Layle was concerned.
But one coal stove would take a long time to heat pails of water, and the furnace was likewise not a good solution; he and Elsdon would be likely to burn themselves if a coal snapped onto them while they were hanging over the furnace. "The palace has running water, I believe – both cold and hot. Have the maid fetch us some hot water from the palace."
"A wonderful idea, love." Invigorated by the approach of a quick solution, Elsdon bounced to his feet and headed for the door.
He returned within seconds. "The maid says the outer-dungeon laborers aren't permitted to use the palace faucets. She needs a note of permission."
Sighing, Layle got up and fetched the pen and paper. Blasted documentwork; he never seemed to be free of it.
There was a pause as the maid sought the water. Layle and Elsdon spent the time taking the dishes out of the water. The dishes dripped greasily all over the wooden floor. Then Layle and Elsdon emptied the greasy water into the pails, which required them to dip the pitcher into the water, over and over.
They had just finished, and Layle was considering whether to change out of his now hopelessly soiled uniform, when the maid returned. This time Layle did not have to pretend to be interested in the books; the maid's visit was confined to a swift conversation with Elsdon at the door.
When Elsdon closed the door and turned around, Layle knew there was trouble. "She couldn't obtain the hot water?"
Elsdon sighed. "She obtained it. She placed it for us in pails, in the common room."
Twenty minutes later, they collapsed once more onto the floor. "I can't believe," said Elsdon between gasps, "that maids do this all day long."
"They must have a cart." Layle glanced in the direction of the dishwashers' petition. There had been mention in it of a need for transport of dishes and water.
"Soap," reminded Elsdon.
"I'll fetch it. You put the dishes in and then pour in the water. We don't want to underestimate again how much room we require for the water."
Elsdon nodded as Layle raised his body – raised his aching body – and went to the bedroom.
Layle kept a large supply of wrapped soap in his clothes chest. He spent a minute trying to calculate how much he needed, then decided that an abacus was required for that sort of exercise. He was more worried about the grease. Would the soap be enough to prevent the water from becoming greasy again? Wasn't soap a type of grease? Layle's knowledge of soap-making was limited, but he had a vague recollection that it involved grease and lye.
A loud crack occurred. It sounded like a gunshot.
Within the next breath, Layle was in the sitting room, swinging up his clenched fist in a determined effort to fell the assassin with a bar of soap. He discovered Elsdon sitting alone, staring incredulously at the washtub.
Elsdon looked up at Layle and said, "Did you know that, if you pour hot water onto glasses, they break?"
It took a good deal of work to extract all the broken glass from the washtub. By the time they were finished, Layle had been forced to fetch the first-aid kit from his chest to bandage them both.
"I hope that the greasy water won't harm this," Elsdon said with concern, staring not at his own wound but at Layle's.
Layle sighed. "This is ridiculous. We're acting like novice Seekers, trying to search a prisoner without bothering to request proper training. We need to learn from more experienced people how to do this." He considered the possibility of consulting the dishwashers. He winced.
"I know what to do!" Ebullient with the energy of youth, Elsdon leapt to his feet. "Wait here."
Layle did so, contemplating with disgust the greasy water. They were running out of empty pails.
It was several minutes before Elsdon returned. When he did, he was holding a book.
Layle stared at him with disbelief. "There are books on how to wash dishes?"
"Not just dishes." Flinging himself down onto his knees beside Layle – a gesture that caused Layle's groin to immediately grow hot – Elsdon opened the book to the title page. "'Household Discoveries: An Encyclopaedia of Practical Recipes and Processes.'" He smiled at Layle. "I thought 'discoveries' was an appropriate word."
"I prefer the word 'practical.'" Layle's tone was husky. He was trying to ignore the warmth at his groin, telling himself that now was certainly not the moment to tear off all of Elsdon's clothes and throw him to the floor.
If nothing else, there were too many pails in the way.
Turning to a chapter, Elsdon read aloud, "'There is no single operation of housekeeping in which system will save so much time as in dishwashing. System is only force of habit and soon becomes second nature—'"
"I have no intention of acquiring the habit of dishwashing," Layle said firmly. "Skip to where the author gives the instructions."
"What, you don't want me to read the passage for 'intelligent housewives'?" Elsdon grinned, reminding Layle that the young man, having lived all his life in the Queendom of Yclau, would associate dishwashing with womanly work. Layle, a native of the neighboring kingdom, had a somewhat more flexible attitude toward what work was proper for men. But this was not something he could discuss with Elsdon.
Blast it, why did his thoughts keep revolving around secrets? Layle turned his attention back to Elsdon as the young Seeker read aloud, "'Wash the cooking utensils—' We don't have those to deal with, thank goodness. 'After the meal is finished, and before clearing the table, prepare a place in the kitchen to receive the soiled dishes.'"
"A little late for that advice," Layle remarked dryly.
"'Scrape off all bits of food into one dish, using preferably a good scraper of sheet rubber,'" Elsdon read.
Layle did not need to look around to know that they lacked sheet rubber. "Go on."
"'If greasy dishes are not scraped, the dishwater will become too foul, and it will be difficult to wash or wipe the dishes clean. If a little lye is scattered over very greasy dishes, it will cleanse them readily by partially transforming the grease into soap.'"
So he had been right about the lye. It was a shame they had no lye. "Let's try scraping off the food with the silverware," Layle suggested.
They ended up scraping everything into the last empty pail, on the theory that they'd eventually need to clean every plate. The grease on the dishes continued to give them a great deal of trouble; finally Elsdon fetched their clean handkerchiefs, which were not in the least bit clean once he and Layle had finished wiping off the grease.
"I think we're supposed to have dishcloths for cleaning, aren't we?" Elsdon said uncertainly. "I remember my mother discussing dishcloths with our kitchen servants—"
Layle had a similar memory. In his mind's eye, he stood beside his mother as she scrubbed dishes in hot water and spoke to him—
"We will tear up our bloody uniforms if we have to," snapped Layle. "What's next?"
"'Sort the dishes and stack them up in an orderly way, with the smallest articles on top; place the glass, small china articles, silver, and other delicate pieces together; next, cups and saucers, sauce dishes and the like, and finally plates, platters, and large objects.'"
"Bloody blades." Layle rolled his eyes, his reaction not only to the instructions but to the gleam in Elsdon's eyes. Elsdon loved orderly patterns.
Layle let Elsdon enjoy himself for the next few minutes, building the architectural structure in the washtub. Finally, reluctantly, Elsdon returned to the book. "'Load these lots on a large tray in the above order, carry them to the kitchen, and keep them separate until they are washed—'"
"What?" shouted Layle in outrage and snatched the book from Elsdon to consult it.
There followed a disagreeable interval in which Elsdon deconstructed his architecture while Layle grumbled about authors who didn't provide proper instructions. At last Elsdon began reading from the book again. "'Lay a newspaper or piece of wrapping paper over a large pan, scrape all the garbage into that, and if possible burn it in the range.'"
"We don't have a range," said Layle shortly.
"'Or use a small garbage burner.'"
"We don't have a garbage burner."
"'Or obtain a good, odorless garbage can—'"
"We don't have a garbage can!" Layle thundered.
The skin next to his eyes beginning to crease in a manner that suggested he was losing his patience with Layle, Elsdon said carefully, "We have the furnace."
"Fine." Layle's reply was brief to the point of rudeness. "Get rid of the food that way. And get rid of those bloody shards of glass," he added as Elsdon stood up. "I'm going to change out of this greasy uniform."
Elsdon looked as though he would have liked to say something, but he pressed his lips together and nodded.
Layle took his time in the bedroom, cleaning himself as best as he could before donning his spare uniform. The soap was not very good at removing the grease from his hands and arms. He was in a thoroughly foul mood by the time he returned to the living cell and found Elsdon sitting cross-legged beside the washtub, perusing the book. "Well?" Layle barked at him.
Without looking up, Elsdon read, "'Keep at hand a grease bottle in which to preserve scraps of grease.'"
Glancing toward the furnace that was now burning the scraps of grease, Layle proceeded to excoriate the author of the book. It took all of his training to prevent himself from adding a few Vovimian oaths that condemned the author to endless torture in hell.
But of course Layle could not do that. Elsdon didn't know that Layle had ever lived in Vovim.
As though Layle had not spoken, Elsdon continued to stare at the book, reading, "'Sprinkle a little lye on the most greasy utensils—'"
"We have no bloody lye!"
Elsdon slammed the book shut.
Layle was startled into silence, not only by the gesture, but by the look that Elsdon gave him. It was a look that Elsdon had not given Layle since the young man mistakenly reached the conclusion that Layle had been abusing the Eternal Dungeon's prisoners.
It was the look that a killer gives, in the moment before he kills.
"High Seeker," Elsdon said in a very soft voice, "I would appreciate it if you wouldn't shout and curse at me."
After pausing a second to regain his breath, Layle knelt down. He took care not to touch Elsdon. "My dear, I'm sorry. I let my temper get the best of me. Please forgive me for my unmannerly behavior."
It took a minute, but the killer's look faded gradually. Elsdon reached out, touched Layle's hand briefly, and then returned his attention to the book. Shaken by how quickly their dishwashing session had turned into a love-mates' quarrel, Layle switched himself into the mode he adopted in the breaking cells: that of a dispassionate Seeker, thinking only of the welfare of his prisoner.
It was not a mode he usually needed to adopt with Elsdon, here in this cell. Indeed, it was usually Elsdon who provided the comfort, Elsdon who thought of Layle's welfare. Layle only permitted this because he was sure that his own thoughts would not stray from gratitude toward Elsdon's generosity in accepting Layle as his love-mate.
What had caused Layle to stray from such thoughts today? Surely not the dishes.
Elsdon read aloud, "'Save the tea leaves for—' No, we threw those out as well. 'Next prepare suds with soap or any washing compound.'"
"I'll do that," said Layle, thankful of the opportunity to atone for his terrible misstep. For love of the gods, he had shouted at a young man who had escaped from abuse at his father's hands less than a year ago – escaped through an insane moment of furious assault. What had Layle been thinking?
"It says next to wash the silver, glass, and delicate china in hot suds," reported Elsdon.
"We don't have silver or delicate china," Layle pointed out, glancing at the kitchenware. Seekers were served in the same manner as prisoners, with plates and cups and saucers made of pottery and "silverware" made of tin. The closest that the inner dungeon came to fine dining ware was the glasses, which only Seekers were permitted to use—
Layle's thoughts stopped on those glasses. "We still have a couple of unbroken glasses. How are we going to keep them from breaking?"
Elsdon put his fist on his chin and contemplated the matter. The incipient killer was nowhere to be seen. Now Elsdon had the look that Layle had begun to recognize during the last few weeks.
The look of an engineer solving a problem.
"The other glasses cracked because they were heated too quickly," said Elsdon slowly. "If we introduce the heat to the remaining glasses very gradually . . . We could lay them on their sides and gradually fill the tub with hot water. We're supposed to put the glass and china in a wire basket," Elsdon added, glancing down at the book.
Layle filled his lungs with air and then clamped his mouth shut.
Elsdon looked over at him. Suddenly his smile was back. "I just don't like you shouting and cursing at me, Layle. You don't need to suppress your indignation. And you don't need to keep kneeling."
He had forgotten his posture. He had knelt longer than this, back in Vovim . . . He quickly switched to a sitting position on the floor. "What do the rest of the instructions say?"
Elsdon consulted the text. "We're supposed to clean the cups and saucers next, place them in a drainer, and then put the plates in. There are instructions for cleaning roasters, gridirons, pots, and kettles. We don't have to worry about those, which is fortunate, because the ironware needs lye for cleaning."
Layle was already rolling up his sleeves. "That sounds straightforward. Let's do this."
There was not enough room in the washtub for both of them to wash dishes at once, so Layle cleaned the dishes while Elsdon placed towels on the work counter in order to drain the water from the drying dishes. Then Elsdon amused himself by reading aloud the book's recommendations of how to create a "modern kitchen."
"'A closet under the sink is not advisable,'" he read. "'It is better to have the plumbing exposed—'"
"The Eternal Dungeon doesn't have plumbing." Layle wrung out the towel he'd been using as a dishcloth. Despite Layle's best efforts, his spare uniform had turned filthy with grease.
"No." Elsdon's gaze drifted over to the pails. "The dishwashers have to wash thousands of dishes each day. How much water do you suppose that is?"
There was no time to reply; another knock came at the door.
With his hands dripping, Layle straightened his hopelessly aching back in order to rise to his feet. He went over to take Elsdon's place at the counter, turning his back to the door. On the polished metal of the storage bins, he could see the reflection of the maid as she poked her head into the room, not waiting for Elsdon to answer the door. "All finished, then, are you?"
"Very nearly," replied Elsdon, ever polite to intruders. "Thank you for your help."
"Oh, it's no trouble at all, sir. If the High Seeker will just be returning the pails and washtub to the kitchen when you and he are through, sir. I'll need them, the next time I wash your dishes." The "maid" shut the door, just as Layle whirled around.
He and Elsdon stared at each other for a moment. Then they fell into helpless laughter.
"Did I ever tell you," said Layle when he had caught his breath again, "that my record for successfully breaking lady prisoners is woefully low? Women always seem to be skilled at fooling me."
Elsdon briefly grinned as Layle returned to kneel next to the washtub, but then he said in a reflective voice, "It must be terribly cold outside. The palace corridor was freezing when I went to borrow the book from the Queen's library. No wonder the water was cold when it first arrived. How many times a day do you suppose she and the other dishwashers have to go outside to fetch enough water to clean thousands of dishes?"
"You can stop that," said Layle, setting aside the homemade dishcloth.
"Can I?" Cocking his head, Elsdon contemplated Layle.
"Yes. I'll order the dungeon kitchen to be refitted with modern fixtures. Cold and hot running water, new sinks, new coal stoves—"
"I hear that gas stoves are on the market now." The engineer expression had returned to Elsdon's face.
Layle sighed. "I'll authorize the purchase of any modern invention that the kitchen workers advise. That's not the problem."
The problem was that Layle had lost his temper with Elsdon. And this wasn't the first time he had found himself distracted during conversations with his love-mate. It had been happening increasingly frequently in recent weeks. Why, why, why? Why was Layle making the most basic mistakes with the man whom he loved more than anyone else alive?
"You never told me," said Elsdon as he began to stack the dry dishes. "Why didn't you have the opportunity to observe housework after your parents died?"
Oh, sweet blood. That was why.
Layle raised his hands from the water in the washtub, now empty of dishes. It was the simplest question in the world. What had he done after his parents died?
It was the simplest question, and the simple answer was that Layle had committed fourteen murders and the rape of a young woman by age fifteen. At which point, as "punishment" for his crimes, he had been assigned the work of an apprentice torturer in the Kingdom of Vovim's notoriously abusive dungeon.
He could not tell Elsdon that. He could not. The time for such confessions was long past.
And because he could not tell Elsdon, there were gaps in their conversations. Gap after bloody gap, every single day, when Layle must deflect Elsdon's questions or lie outright to him.
No wonder, then, that Layle was distracted from his conversations with Elsdon, constantly making mistakes. The only wonder was that Elsdon had not yet guessed he had pledged his love to a perpetual deceiver.
But of course Elsdon would not have guessed. He trusted Layle.
"Love?" It was Elsdon, kneeling beside Layle, lifting Layle's chin. Layle had forgotten that his face was in view; the tears on his cheeks must have been clearly visible to Elsdon. "What's wrong, Layle? Did your parents' death hurt that much?"
"Yes." That was an easy answer to make – a truthful answer, for while he did not remember his father, his mother's death had been the greatest shock of his life, until he met Elsdon and realized what the young man would mean to him.
Layle owed too much to Elsdon to let this continue. Somehow, in some manner, Layle must find a way to confess his deceit without hurting Elsdon.
The only question was how. Layle stared at the clean dishes on the counter, all laid out in neat patterns.
"When you are in hot water, sometimes the only solution is to begin again," his mother had once said, when he was very young and was standing beside her as she scrubbed dishes in hot water. "Tear down the old, destructive pattern and build a new one."
He had been too young to understand – too young and too deeply selfish. But his mother had gifted him with that wisdom, trusting that someday he would grow into a man who would understand her wisdom, and would act upon it.
"I think," Layle said slowly, "I am angry about the dishes because I miss my mother."
He heard Elsdon suck in his breath; then Elsdon placed his arm around Layle's back. "I suppose it's the same with me," Elsdon said softly. "Not because my mother washed dishes, but I remember her supervising the kitchen-servants before she died."
Before Elsdon's father pushed her to her death, Elsdon meant. Layle turned his head; his lips met Elsdon's. Layle and his love-mate were mismatched in so many ways, yet they both shared the experience of scarred childhoods. Perhaps it would not be so hard after all to tell Elsdon of Layle's own disastrous loss of the straight path, during his youth.
He would need time to decide how to tell the tale. Time and much thought, for Layle was determined to never again let Elsdon's welfare stray from his thoughts.