I had trouble sleeping that night. I don't know why; sleep had always been my one blessing at Mercy, transporting me back to the pleasant days...moreExcerpt:
I had trouble sleeping that night. I don't know why; sleep had always been my one blessing at Mercy, transporting me back to the pleasant days preceding my arrest. I usually woke with a smile on my face. But tonight, tired though I was, I found myself staring up at the ceiling, hour after tedious hour, wishing there were cracks there that I could count.
Some of the prisoners had started a debate the previous year over what was most painful about Mercy. Was it the separation from family and friends? The beatings? The humiliations? The backbreaking work? The rapes? The list went on and on.
I hadn't participated in the debate, which, like all such conversations, had taken the form of shouts exchanged between the cells. There was a reason I'd been granted the luxury of a single-man cell: my last three cellmates had been prepared to murder me rather than live another moment with me. Since the death of a prisoner was not, alas, one of the many pains permitted at a life prison, Mercy's Keeper had finally dealt with the problem by giving me a cell of my own – which, of course, had been my plan all along. It was irritating to have to endure being strangled three times in order to achieve what I wanted.
Particularly since I couldn't hope that the stranglings would be successful.
Though I had no desire to become chummy with the bog-scum who inhabited this place, my own unspoken contribution to the debate was that boredom was the greatest pain. Boredom didn't come often – most days after work I was barely awake enough to do whatever my present guard required of me – but when it occurred, it was excruciating, like being flayed slowly by a dagger. I often thought that, if I were ever broken into madness, it would be through such a spell of boredom.
I say all this to explain why, when I heard the cell door being opened at lamp-lighting time, my first thought was not (as one might expect), "Oh, no, not again," but rather, "Thank the gods, something new." I rolled over onto my stomach and raised my head to look.
He was a slightly built man; I could see that at once from the outline of his shape against the fire in the pit. With my eyes still dazzled by the newly lit lamps, I couldn't immediately make out the man's face, but I could see one of his hands, gripping hard the hilt of his dagger. That grip stopped my heart for a moment, but even my wildest imagination couldn't hope that the new guard would start our acquaintance by stabbing me, so I raised my eyes to his face.
And my heart stopped once more. I jerked upright in bed, twinging an old hip wound as I did so. I had been rather foolish during my first year, testing the guards in various ways. I winced.
The guard said softly, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."
"Not at all," I said through gritted teeth as I rubbed my hip. "I'll return the favor when I can."
It took no artifice on my part to sound annoyed, though the annoyance was aimed solely at myself. This was not the guard I had been preparing myself for. I had expected a rod-mutilating monster, and what I found myself faced with was a young man.
His face came full into the light as he stepped forward. Wearing the uniform of a Compassion guard, he looked even more like his father: he had the same thin lips and the same straight eyebrows. But the eyes were empty of all coldness – indeed, of all expression of any sort – and there was no smile on his lips, cruel or otherwise.
"My name is Thomas," he said. "I'm your new guard."
I noted the use of his given name rather than his paternal name, and with the instinct of a veteran fighter I dropped and made my attack accordingly. "Ah, yes," I said. "The son of Compassion's Keeper. I can expect great deeds from you, I'm sure."
His lips grew even thinner, but that was all; it seemed that he was well used to this mode of attack. He said, as though I had not spoken, "My job is to provide service to you during your stay at this prison, and to make your stay as comfortable as is possible under your circumstances. If you have any needs, I hope you will let me know of them."
I stared at him open-mouthed for a moment, and then I gave a hoot of laughter that resounded through the entire level. The early-morning conversations across the fire-pit paused briefly, and Sedgewick, who was passing my cell, glanced in with narrowed eyes before continuing on.
"Let me – let me understand you correctly," I said, struggling to gain control of myself. "You'll give me any service I want?"
"Any service that is in accordance with the rules of your stay."
"But the only rule is that I should not be permitted escape, either through death or any other means. So you'll give me anything else?"
"If it's within reason, yes."
"Anything at all?"
"Tell me what you want, and I'll be able to give you a firm answer." His patience, I saw with delight, was wearing down.
"Fine," I said, leaning back and pulling off the blanket to reveal my body underneath. I had given up wearing clothes at bedtime several guards before. "I want you to come over here and service me on your knees." (less)
He lay on the cold concrete in the darkness, cursing in an indiscriminate manner that embraced every guard he had possessed the misfortune to...moreExcerpt:
He lay on the cold concrete in the darkness, cursing in an indiscriminate manner that embraced every guard he had possessed the misfortune to be serviced by. The chill of the ground, combined with his wetness, had set him shivering, and he could taste blood in his mouth where his teeth had caught his cheek as he fell. In an automatic manner, he checked his teeth. They were all there, except for the four he had lost over the years, courtesy of past guards.
He allowed Bailey to pull him onto his feet, and as he did so, he realized that laughter echoed in the dark room. The laughter did not come from either of his guards.
He raised his head. He was in a large, high-ceilinged room. That much he could tell from the echoes and from the fact that he could not see the ceiling. Most of the room was lightless. But in the left-hand corner ahead of him, on a balcony about where he would expect a ceiling to be, sat two men lit by wall-lamps. Both wore dark blue uniforms, and both had their boots resting in a leisurely manner on the low, barred railing of the balcony. Both had rifles in their laps, and both rifles were pointed straight at Tyrrell.
Tyrrell felt his empty stomach lurch. One of the men who had been laughing called across the room, "Mercy's man! What gift do you bring us today?"
"Compassion's man!" Oslo called back in a casual manner that suggested he was acquainted with the other guard. "I have a prisoner transfer for you. Fresh meat for the banquet."
The rifle-bearing guards seemed to appreciate this small witticism more than Tyrrell thought it merited; they hooted with laughter. "Tenderizing the meat, are you?" asked the second guard, who held a cigarette between his lips.
"Oh, believe me," said Oslo, grinning, "I've poked the meat quite thoroughly to make sure it's well done."
Tyrrell rolled his eyes. Even Bailey winced at Oslo's poor wit.
The first guard lifted his rifle and set it aside. "Ah, what a pity we will not be able to feast at length on him at our banquet. But we are somewhat gentler on our prisoners than you are at Mercy Prison. How many fuckings a year do you service each of your prisoners with? One hundred? Two hundred?"
"We're working on raising the number." Oslo's voice held nothing but amusement.
"Whereas we are unlikely to see your prisoner more than once or twice this year . . . if that much." The first guard pulled his boots off the railing and leaned over the railing, remaining in his chair as he scrutinized the scene before him. The wavering light of the gas-lamps on the balcony wall moved shadows across his face, which was thoughtful. "Hard to say from this distance," concluded the guard finally. "Why the transfer?"
"Your Keeper knows. You can probably guess. His name's Tyrrell."
The second guard, who had removed his cigarette from his lips in order to tap it over a spittoon nearby, went suddenly still. The first guard raised an appreciative eyebrow. "Oh-ho!" he said softly. "So that's the way of it. I was wondering how long it would be before Mercy's Keeper lost patience with those riot-rousers he's been housing. What happened to the others?"
Oslo shrugged. "We'll know when we get back. The first decision our Keeper made was to arrange this transfer. Your Keeper seemed willing to take him in."
The first guard shrugged as he leaned back in his chair. "Our Keeper," he said, "has all sorts of grandiose plans for this prison, though whether any of them will come to fruit is another matter. I suppose that servicing riot-rousers is part of his plan. Will you break your fast with us? Starke likes to arrive early for his gunner duty . . ." He gestured toward the second guard. "But I prefer to extend my dawn break as long as possible. You're welcome to join me in the guards' dining hall. The night watch will be coming off-duty soon, and I can introduce you."
"Yes," muttered Bailey through gritted teeth. "Warmth. Yes."
Oslo ignored him. "Good food wouldn't go amiss," he said, smiling. "And I hear that Compassion Life Prison is famed for that."
More hoots of appreciative laughter erupted from the first guard, though the second was busy drawing a long lungful of smoke from his cigarette and scrutinizing Tyrrell with an expression he could not read.
"We promise to feed you only the best," replied the first guard, getting to his feet and reaching toward a hand-sized lever set within a small, red hatch on the wall. "Come to the dining hall when you've delivered your charge. You remember the way, I'm sure."
"I hope I do," said Oslo, beginning to tug Tyrrell forward into the darkness, "but everything may be changed here, from what I hear. Your Keeper seems to want to turn things upside down."
"We'll see," said the second guard as his eyes followed Tyrrell's progress. His voice was barely audible, and his expression was hidden behind a puff of smoke. "We'll see. . . ."
Thomas had assumed as a child that the reason none of the other children in town would play with him was because his father was a guard at one...moreExcerpt:
Thomas had assumed as a child that the reason none of the other children in town would play with him was because his father was a guard at one of Mip's life prisons. That was reason enough, he would eventually realize.
He stared across the road at the autumn-brown fields, stripped of the last of their crops for the season. He had made his own entertainment as a child, playing by himself amidst haystacks or hunting for deer in the mountains, once Starke had taught him how to shoot. But in the same year that he learned how to shoot, he had conceived the ambition of becoming a prison guard himself. He had not realized then that he was slamming the door shut to all future hope of daily contact with the townsfolk.
And if not with the townsfolk, then with whom? The other guards either despised him or humored him. His father was displeased with Thomas's radical notions, while Thomas's mother and sisters were puzzled as to why he failed to follow the lead of his father. There was his grandmother . . . But she had died when he was eleven, the last of her line to survive. Her absence had left a small grave in his heart.
There remained the prisoners. Thomas had always possessed his father's example to dissuade him from taking that path.
He stepped off the porch of his family home, reminding himself that he was neglecting his duty. Slowly, reluctantly, he made his way back to the holding prison.
In the brief time he had been absent, he would not have been surprised to see that the new prisoner had taken control of the prison cell, stripping the "men" among the prisoners of their status of leadership. But when Thomas arrived in the attic, he found that someone had managed to rip off the top half of the new prisoner's uniform. The new prisoner was standing at the far end of the cell, sharing the space with cobwebs, as sweat glistened on his dark chest. His palms were laid flat upon a couple of the cell bars he stood against, as though he were a hunted animal seeking escape.
Indeed, it appeared that the only reason matters had not gone further than this was that the cell's men had paused to argue.
"Look, it doesn't matter which of us goes first," said Valdis in an irritated voice. "We'll all be taking him in the end. None of us is claiming him, is he?"
"Him?" Shaking his head, Horace snorted. "I'm not even sure I want to fuck his filthy body."
Walker said something in a low voice that caused Delgado to nod vigorously. "He's right. Fuck him, then rid this cell of him." He drew his finger across his neck, and the new prisoner stiffened. Whether or not he understood exactly what was being said, it was clear from his posture that he gathered the gist of the men's plans. Yet he gave no sign that he would fight in defense.
"No killings," ordered Chase in an automatic manner, but he turned to the other night guard, Blythe, and spoke in a lower voice. "He deserves a bloody long killing. Did you hear what he did before he was caught?"
"Mr. Chase, please don't swear on duty." Thomas did not need to be told what the new prisoner had done. The case had been notorious. He kept his eye on the prisoner, seeking some sign of what action the prisoner would take.
Chase simply grinned at this reprimand. "Going to claim this one, Tom? You've waited long enough."
"No one will claim him," Blythe predicted confidently. He was watching as the prisoners drew straws to determine which would conduct the initial rape. "Not in any full sense of the word."
Thomas was inclined to agree. Even the so-called "lads" – who normally showed pity for any suffering endured by their fellow servants – were casting looks of scorn at the new prisoner. "He stinks," one of them muttered. "He stinks worse than Brewster, and he doesn't have Brewster's excuse." He cast a look at Brewster, an ugly prisoner who, after three weeks in the cell, was still unclaimed by anyone except the guards . . . for whom a "claim" had nothing to do with protection. Made the toy of the guards and all the men in the prison for days on end, Brewster had withdrawn into himself; he was sitting in a ball in the corner of the prison, rocking to and fro, humming tunelessly as he stared blankly forward.
"Let's thrust the new lad headfirst into the water-barrel," another lad suggested. "That will clean him well enough."
The new prisoner's gaze had flicked over to the lads. He was now gripping the cell bars hard. Thomas – who bore the primary responsibility of seeing that none of the prisoners broke out to freedom – mentally measured the new prisoner's muscles, wondering whether he had strength enough to bash in the head of any guard entering the cell. It seemed likely. But it continued to seem unlikely that the new prisoner would use violence as a means of escape. He simply stood still, awaiting the outcome of the discussions, his chin held high and his eyes defiant.
He would not end up like Brewster, Thomas guessed. No matter what restraint the new prisoner was showing now, in the long run he would not endure the trial being set upon him. He would return to his deadly ways, and then. . . In theory, prisoners were not supposed to be allowed to kill each other. By prison custom, though, the guards stood back and allowed the prisoners themselves to deal with any rogue killers.
"He's mine," declared Valdis. "The rest of you will have to wait a minute or two." Wearing a satisfied smile, he stepped forward.
The new prisoner's gaze flicked away from Valdis. Everyone else had turned to stare, including the night guards. "Tom," Chase said, finding his tongue. "It's prison custom. We don't interfere with a claim."
"That isn't a claim." Thomas kept his eyes on the new prisoner, who was meeting them square.
"Don't be difficult, Tom." Chase sighed. "You know your father's orders: we don't enter the cell any more, except to make our own claims. Come on." He placed an avuncular hand on Thomas's shoulder. "If it makes you squeamish to watch, you can wait downstairs."
"Yes," said Thomas, and saw a telling flicker in the prisoner's eyes. "Yes, I'm going downstairs. Deliver the prisoner to my room."
Chase stared. "Tom . . ."
"I claim him." Thomas turned away. "Bring me the Ammippian." (less)
"No," said Merrick flatly as he shoved his only belonging – a toothbrush given to him by his previous guard – under the stone bed-ledge on the other side of the cell.
Well, that was a direct enough answer. Or would have been, if Tyrrell had been the type to accept 'no' for an answer.
If he had been the type to accept 'no,' he wouldn't have spent two years persuading Merrick to become his cell-mate.
"Is it because . . ." He paused, wondering how to put this delicately. Because the Magisterial Republic of Mip had originally been colonized by the two warring nations of Yclau and Vovim, cultural clashes among Mippite citizens were inevitable. It was said that even Cecelia – the great Cecelia – had been rejected by a suitor's family, which was clearly a sign of lunacy in that family. Some of the Yclau-descended folk had strange notions about maintaining the purity of their families. Anyone ethnic or foreign or darker than a pasty shade of white was considered off-limits. That would make Tyrrell extremely off-limits. "It isn't because I was born in southern Vovim, is it?"
Merrick looked annoyed. "What, do you think I have something against players?"
Tyrrell straightened his spine. Like most emigrants from Vovim, he had acted in plays from time to time. Street plays, with no props other than broken objects dug out of the local garbage heap, but they were plays just the same. "Do you?" he responded in a challenging voice.
Merrick's mouth twisted. He was busy tightening the blankets on the bed-ledge with what seemed to Tyrrell to be unnecessary thoroughness, given that they were both about to go to bed. Unless – Tyrrell brightened at the thought – Merrick intended that they use only one bed-ledge.
After a moment, Merrick said, "The Bijou. The City Opera. The Frederick.. . ."
It turned out to be a very long recital. Tyrrell was impressed. "You've been to all the theaters in this city?"
"All the theaters in the whole of eastern Mip." Merrick mumbled the words.
"Gods preserve us – that many?"
Merrick glared at his blanket. "Does it matter? I've spent plenty of time with players. Let's move on to more important subjects."
Tyrrell hated to think what Merrick's idea was of an important subject. Probably how to strangle all the guards at Mercy Life Prison. He asked, "Is it because I'm short?"
Merrick sighed as he turned toward Tyrrell. "Look," he said, "you could be six feet tall, with dashing dark eyes, and skin a delicious shade of sepia—"
Tyrrell began to tick off in his mind which men in the prison fit this description.
"—and I still wouldn't fuck you. I'm just not interested in doing that. Not with you. Not with anyone here."
"Married?" Tyrrell asked sympathetically. So many men in the prison were, or had left behind love-mates, male or female, when they were convicted of their crimes and sent to spend the rest of their lives in Mercy Prison.
Merrick's gaze turned toward the flagstoned floor. "Hell."
"You don't have to swear at me," said Tyrrell reproachfully.
"I'm not swearing. I'm praying to Hell to rise up and kidnap you to his domain so that I won't have to continue this conversation. Look—"
And suddenly his voice was low, as low as it had been when he had finally made the amazing declaration that he would submit a formal request to his guard that he be transferred to Tyrrell's cell. So Tyrrell held his breath, because he knew that Merrick was never low-voiced – never, never, never – unless he was saying something that cost him a great deal to say.
We turned. Tice had taken shelter under a chestnut tree; his pipe glowed in the darkness of that shelter. His face was too shadow-...moreExcerpt:
We turned. Tice had taken shelter under a chestnut tree; his pipe glowed in the darkness of that shelter. His face was too shadow-grey for me to read his expression.
Fairview could be blunt when necessity arose. "Tice," he said, "can we count on you in this battle?"
Tice paused to draw in a breath of smoke before replying. He was a large, stocky man – not the sort of man you'd expect to be a scout, which was how he had started his army career. Before that, he had served in the navy; most Landsteaders did, at one time or another, since all of the landsteads border the Bay. We have the finest navies in the Midcoast nations. I wish I could say the same about our armies.
It was during our naval years that Fairview and I had first met Tice. Now Tice contemplated his pipe, saying, "We go back a long ways, gentlemen."
"We do," Fairview agreed quietly.
"Back in those days, you two were just a couple of harum-scarum university lads – all full of jests and wild threats, the way boys often are. It was amusing to watch your posturing." He stroked his pipe-stem carefully. "Amusing, that is, until you sunk half my battle fleet."
We said nothing. All the tension of the landstead rivalries was present at this moment – the tension that had caused foreign nations to deny that we Landsteaders would be able to hold together our military alliance. Even our landsteads' political alliance, which had lasted nearly two thousand years, was forever on the point of breaking.
Suddenly, in the darkness under the tree, Tice's craggy face broke into a smile. "Frankly, gentlemen, if I must be on a battlefield with you again, I'd far rather be on your side. You can count on me to protect your backs."
I let out the breath I hadn't known I was holding. Fairview said lightly, "And we'll do all we can to protect you and your men. However, you've ten years' more experience than we do in the army. I hope you'll be willing to give us advice, should we need it."
Tice stepped out from under the tree, tapping his ashes to the ground and grinding them underfoot with his boot. "First piece of advice: Go to bed. It's much easier to fight a battle when you've rested. Both of you have rings under your eyes."
"Are you planning to take that advice yourself?" I challenged him.
"I wish I could." His gaze drifted eastward. "I've persuaded the General to let me scout the hill this afternoon. I only wish I had time to send scouts further east."
"A recent map would help." Fairview adjusted the angle of his helmet; the rain was beginning to lighten to a drizzle. "If the General sent up an observation balloon . . ."
"I suggested as much to the General," replied Tice.
He said nothing more, so we could both guess how his suggestion had been received. We were all silent for a minute, until the silence was interrupted by a series of booms.
We turned to look east, but it was impossible to see far in the drizzle. Fairview shook his head. "The enemy certainly has its big guns there somewhere. I wish I knew where."
"At least they aren't shelling the camp presently," said Tice. "A brief respite. Gentlemen, if you will excuse me . . . "
I waited until Tice was well out of earshot before asking in a low voice, "Do you think we can trust him?"
Fairview shrugged. "Can one ever trust an Eighth Landsteader? Tice and his men have a reputation for honor. I suppose we'll see tonight whether they live up to it."
I looked sharply at Fairview. "You think the mounted infantry will lead us into an ambush?"
"Tice does seem to have taken great care to ensure that he would be in charge of the scouting." Fairview took out a cigarette, studied it, and then threw it away with a gesture of disgust. "Now I'm as bad as the war-fiends of whom the General is always complaining. The General is right about this much: we need to trust our allies in this war. If the Dozen Landsteads fall once more to quarrelling amongst one another—"
"—we'll lose this war." I sighed heavily. "The General is leading us, Tice is scouting for us, the Mippite guns are hidden somewhere. . . . I don't like the odds we're facing."
"Think of the women and children at Fort Frederick." Fairview spoke softly. Like me, he was unmarried, and knowing him, he would not have fathered any illegitimate children. But he had been raised by his grandmother after his mother died of influenza and his father died in an earlier war between the Ninth Landstead and the Sixth and Seventh Landsteads. He had a high opinion of his grandmother and of all women and children and creatures that are in need of help.
I furrowed my brow, thinking. Fairview's estimate of women was high enough that I wondered sometimes what was preventing him from marrying. But since I lived in fear that Fairview would ask me the same question, I had never raised the topic with him. . . .(less)
The recipes weren't to my personal taste - I lost track of how many times butter was an ingredient - but I loved the interviews with Maryland farmers,...moreThe recipes weren't to my personal taste - I lost track of how many times butter was an ingredient - but I loved the interviews with Maryland farmers, restaurant owners, and watermen (and one waterwoman). I learned a lot about my own state, and even about some of the vendors at my local farmers' market.(less)
When Thomas arrived the next morning – it was my weekly day of rest from work, so I was engaging in a particularly agonizing examination of...more[Excerpt.]
When Thomas arrived the next morning – it was my weekly day of rest from work, so I was engaging in a particularly agonizing examination of the walls – I said, before he could speak, "I'm sorry about my bad temper last time. I get out of sorts occasionally."
"Not at all." His reply was cool, as were his eyes, which rested upon me heavily, like a block of ice. It came to me as I watched him that this young man, whatever his flaws might be, had received personal training from Compassion's Keeper. He could not be quite the fool he appeared to be.
I'm nothing if not flexible, as Sedgewick had pronounced on the day he tried me in a dozen different positions. I let the smile drop from my face and said in my normal voice, "Well? What brings you here?"
The coolness disappeared from his eyes, and he said, "The usual. See to your needs and all that. The dancing girls are on their way, but I'm afraid I couldn't fit the performing elephant into the stairwell."
There was a moment's silence, and then, despite myself, I burst into laughter. Thomas grinned like a boy and moved forward, keeping well away from me and resting his hand on his dagger. He inspected the rubbish hole first, then the water – going so far as to give the wall a lick – and then, satisfied, moved to the other end of the cell. "You're short a blanket," he said. "That's against regulations."
I snorted. "There aren't any regulations in the life prisons, or hadn't you noticed?"
"Well, there are customs." He was inspecting the blankets now, checking them for secreted objects. "Short-tail whip – that's the type used at Mercy. Compassion uses the black whip – longer range, harder to control. Four of the other life prisons use the straight whip – rather like a bamboo rod, but more flexible. The remainder use the bamboo rod alone. . . . Your cell could do with some tidying."
Yes, he'd been trained by a Keeper all right. I wondered whether he thought he was scaring me. "What type of bamboo rod?" I asked. "Imported or domestic? The type that splinter? We had a prisoner last year who came close to dying from the splinters alone."
"Those ought to be banned." He got up from his hands and knees from inspecting under my bed. I had retreated into the corner to allow him to do this without nervousness. As he dusted off his hands on his trousers, he said, "Mind you, if a guard does his work properly, he needn't resort to any of those." He looked over at me.
It was hard to say whether his speech was more effective as an apology or as a threat. I was beginning to think that I might have underestimated this young man.(less)