The "lads," the prisoners who were required to offer their service, fell silent. There were about two dozen of them – just enough to make a ti
The "lads," the prisoners who were required to offer their service, fell silent. There were about two dozen of them – just enough to make a tight line across the length of the wide gate. Tyrrell moved closer into his corner, until all the lads merged in his sight, and then he peered cautiously around the corner toward the guards.
Pugh spoke briskly. "Medinger?" He looked up at the balcony, where Medinger had just walked into view.
"Pass," replied the guard, leaning onto the balcony railing.
There was light laughter from the other guards. One of them said, "And you'll keep passing till the magisterial seats send us female prisoners."
"I know that you're not interested in claiming a lad," Pugh said in an annoyed voice. "You're not eligible, anyway. I'm asking about Keeper. It's his turn."
Medinger shook his head. "Our Keeper is passing as well. He's already left for town – didn't you hear the riot doors ring the alarm half an hour ago? He left when I came in from the auxiliary wing."
"What in Hell's name is wrong with Tom Keeper?" asked one of the guards, to nobody in particular. "Is he planning to act like a lovelorn man for the rest of his life?"
"He'll recover," said Pugh. "Whose turn is it next?"
"Yours, as you very well know," said Landry. "I don't think you've forgotten that you're second in rank here."
"Maybe we should wait until the night watch arrives," suggested another guard.
"They're not eligible to claim," said someone else. "They're on duty during claiming hours."
"Yes, but they always seem to arrive for duty at the same moment that the lad is brought out for his claiming. If we waited till they entered the outbuildings, then we wouldn't have the riot doors screeching just when the taking starts. The first few minutes are always the best."
"If you think I'm going to take a lad in front of you lot, you're mad," rejoined Pugh. "I don't put on performances. Medinger, is the claiming room clean? It was a pigsty the last time I used it."
"Bed-sheets were changed today," said Medinger, his voice clipped short. "New toiletries as well. And Keeper told me to remind everyone that this prison's regulations require the use of a sheath whenever there is penetration—"
The rest of what he said was lost in loud laughter that came from the other guards. His voice rising above the others, Landry said, "Fifteen drilling years he's been going on about that. It's like living with a schoolmarm."
"Oh?" said Medinger. "Well, you're welcome to drill naked if you like, Landry. What's the name of that lad whom Chambers gave the Damnation to, a few weeks before Chambers died?"
The laughter cut off abruptly. Starke, who had lit another cigarette, smiled as he said, "Medinger, you're wasted as Keeper's orderly. You should be in the army. They need soldiers who can shoot straight into the belly."
"The issue is moot." Pugh's voice had returned to his usual tone of boredom. "I always use a sheath. I wouldn't trust myself inside one of those filthy lads otherwise. Landry, are you and Starke ready?"
"Ready and willing," replied Landry, pulling himself back from the parapet in order to take hold of his machine rifle.
"Medinger, take charge of the switch."
Medinger remained motionless. "I'm on the night watch. I don't take orders from you, Pugh."
Pugh muttered something under his breath, and then said, "Niesely."
"On my way." Niesely mounted the right-hand stairway, taking two steps at a time. Pugh turned his head toward the gate.
Tyrrell ducked back in the brief second before Pugh's gaze swung in his direction. He looked over at the lads. He could only see the one closest to him, an older lad with lines of experience on his face. The lad's expression was set, but his hands were white-knuckled on the bars.
"You." It was Pugh's voice, flat. "The one with the rag on your leg."
The claimed lad's shout of rage was overwhelmed by the scream of the gate alarm. The other lads scurried back, leaving an open space next to the gate that was filled now only with two prisoners: the claimed lad, who was shaking his head over and over, and his mate, who had his hands on the claimed lad's arms as he spoke to the other lad.
Whatever he was saying, it was not reaching his mate. "No!" shouted the claimed lad, so loudly that he could be heard over the alarm. "I won't do it again! Not with Pugh!" He pulled himself away from his mate at the same moment that the alarm ended, taking a dozen rapid steps away from the gate.
"Wild lad!" The shout came from Ahiga, somewhere beyond Tyrrell's view. "All back! All ba—!"
The rest of his words were broken off by the sound of machine-rifle fire as bullets blazed thick into the prison.
He lay on the cold concrete in the darkness, cursing in an indiscriminate manner that embraced every guard he had possessed the misfortune toExcerpt:
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. . . ."
The common room was filled with dozens of Seekers and guards, all trying to avoid looking at the man in the back of the room.
The common room was filled with dozens of Seekers and guards, all trying to avoid looking at the man in the back of the room.
Weldon Chapman, pausing at the doorway to check that the face-cloth of his hood was properly closed, surveyed the scene. The ploys that the men in the room were using to disguise their interest were various: a cup of beer held before the face, an absorbed study of a chessboard, and of course, in the case of the Seekers, the device they used with their prisoners – they simply kept the face-cloths of their hoods down, as their duty required.
Weldon doubted that the man at the back of the room was fooled by any of this. Indeed, even Weldon, without that man's skill, could see the tension in the onlookers' bodies, the flickered glances, the tight gestures, and the occasional twitch from someone who had let his nightmares become too vivid.
Weldon sighed, and then turned his attention to the one man in the room who was making no pretense of being interested in anything except the figure in the back. As Weldon watched, Elsdon Taylor flung down the playing cards he had been holding, said something to the other junior Seekers sharing his table, and left amidst their nervous laughter.
He did not, as Weldon had expected, go straight to the man in the back; he simply lifted his hand toward that man. The man, who was resting with his face turned upward toward the sunlight that filtered through the crystalline ceiling of the common room, and who gave every appearance of being asleep, raised his hand in exchange. Around the common room, there was a visible shudder at this evidence of the High Seeker's skill.
"There is something particularly frightening about having a genius go mad."
Weldon tore his eyes away from Layle Smith in order to look over at the High Seeker's love-mate, Elsdon Taylor. The skin around Elsdon's eyes was smudged with darkness – Weldon wondered how many months it had been since Elsdon had received a full shift's sleep – but otherwise the young man looked less weighed down than he had since his present trials began.
Weldon took hope from that, and from Elsdon's dark jibe. He knew better than to worry the High Seeker's love-mate with questions, though, so he simply said, "I was trying to decide whether I should bother him with work."
Elsdon glanced over his shoulder at the man lying motionless in his chair. "Do," he said, in the same soft voice with which he had spoken before. "If anything would make him go mad again, it's having nothing to do except documentwork. If you have a challenge for him, he'd welcome it."
"He ought to be back at work with the prisoners."
Elsdon sighed. "So I tell him. So the Codifier tells him. So the Queen tells him. Honest in my heart, Weldon, if the torture-god of Layle's native land came and threatened to rack him eternally unless he returned to work, Layle would simply repeat that he is not yet ready to place the prisoners at risk."
"Mm." Weldon stared down at the papers he was holding in his hand. "Perhaps I can persuade him otherwise. Are you leaving for bed now?"
Elsdon shook his head. "Not till he does. He doesn't yet trust himself that much."
Glancing once more at the men in the common room – who were now dividing their time between casting nervous glances at the High Seeker and casting curious glances at his love-mate – Weldon thought to himself that nothing could have made more apparent to the world the seriousness of Layle Smith's illness than the fact that the High Seeker felt the need for a chaperone. The fact that no such chaperone was necessary could not be known by the others. Weldon frowned.
"What your love-mate needs," he says, "is a stiffening of the backbone. He needs to be reminded that he is not a child, and that he owes responsibilities to the dungeon he runs."
Elsdon gave a crow of such pure delight that every head in the room swivelled to look at him. Elsdon ignored them, thumping Weldon on the back. "Oh, brave one," he said. "You should have been a soldier. I'll watch the battle from a distance. From a safe distance," he added with a grin in his voice.
"Fortunate man," Weldon muttered and walked toward the man at the back.
Whether or not the High Seeker's acute hearing had picked up the gist of the conversation, Weldon could be quite sure that Layle Smith knew from Elsdon's cry of joy that an attack was about to begin. The High Seeker gave no sign that he was about to strike back. Of course, he never did. Many a prisoner had learned that, when it was too late.
The common room was a newer room in the Eternal Dungeon, built at a time when one of Layle's predecessors had grown so tired of his confinement within the bleak walls of the underground cave that he had ordered a leisure place built that would provide sunlight to the Seekers who were otherwise deprived of daylight for the remainder of the lives. Weldon, whose own vow as a Seeker had come relatively late in life, nevertheless felt his limbs relax as the warmth of the early morning sun fell upon his shoulders. It was midsummer now – he knew that from the calendar posted by the dungeon's Record-keeper for the sake of Seekers who might otherwise forget what season it was. Summertime always made Weldon remember the last time he had been in the lighted world. The joy he had felt on that final day – the knowledge that he was about to receive a privilege that any prison worker in the queendom of Yclau would have envied – had been as pure and unadulterated as the blue sky above him.
He had met Layle by that time. He sometimes wondered whether the joy he had felt at becoming a Seeker had been connected with the knowledge that he would be able to speak daily with a talented young Seeker by the name of Layle Smith.
That was thirteen years ago. Now Layle was thirty-seven, Weldon was forty-seven, and the High Seeker lay motionless in his chair, as though dead.
"Sir," Weldon said formally.
"Mr. Chapman," the High Seeker replied without opening his eyes. "Tell me, are you bothered by nightmares?"
Weldon had to stop himself from looking over at one of the men who had twitched. "Not overly much, sir," he responded. "Why?"
"I am glad to hear that. Mr. Taylor was a victim of some very bad nightmares several months ago, when my condition was more serious. Now that I am slowly healing he is, of course, feeling much better. I remain confident that the nightmares will not return . . . provided that no one is so foolish as to try to hurry my cure beyond the point for which my mind is ready."
Weldon was still a moment. Then he pulled up a chair and sat down heavily in it. "High Seeker," he said, "I wonder why the Record-keeper bothers to assign prisoners to anyone besides you. If he sent all the criminals your way, the Eternal Dungeon would have a perfect record of breaking prisoners."
He thought he saw the faintest crease of amusement at the corner of Layle Smith's eyes as the High Seeker lifted his hooded head. "Since I am not seeing prisoners at the moment, the matter is moot. You wished to speak to me about another matter?"
Weldon wordlessly gestured to the papers in his lap. Layle glanced at the name written atop them and said, "Ah, yes. The Record-keeper does like to assign you the hard cases."
"The Record-keeper," said Weldon carefully, "is under the misapprehension that, since I dwelt so many years in the lighted world, I am privy to its secrets."
"You have dealt with difficult prisoners before."
"Not prisoners who confess that they have committed a 'most terrible crime,' but refuse to state what that crime is."
"Mm." The High Seeker leaned back in his chair. His gaze had not strayed from Weldon throughout the conversation, though from where Weldon sat, he could see that Elsdon had seated himself at an empty table nearby, out of earshot, and was busy scribbling with a pen.
Weldon flipped through his own papers for a moment before he found the one he wanted, with the High Seeker's initials in the corner to indicate that he had read it. He held it up for Layle's inspection.
For the second time, the suggestion of a smile appeared in Layle's eyes. "At least she was honest. Women who apply to be Seekers usually sign only their initials, not their full names. I sent her a polite note, explaining that she did not possess the quality we desire most in a Seeker. It is what I tell nearly all of our applicants."
"She is not the best candidate to be a Seeker if she commits a crime soon after you have rejected her application."
Layle said nothing, but the smile in his eyes increased.
Weldon felt his spirits lift accordingly. "You think she is innocent of any crime? That this is a ploy to visit the Eternal Dungeon?"
"A ploy to see me. She asked for me specifically when she was delivered here by her local prison."
"So I had heard. Perhaps it would be better, then, if you took this case."
Layle's gaze shot away from the paper. His smile disappeared, like warmth dissipating with the coming of evening.
"Sir," Weldon said quietly as he placed the paper back on his lap, "I know what you want me to say. But the best interests of the prisoner come first, and having reviewed the prisoner's records, I believe that it is in her best interests to be searched by you. If I search her, nothing will happen except that she will stall and refuse to speak until you come. That would be a waste of time I could spend with a prisoner who has actually committed a crime."
Layle's eye wandered away from Weldon, skimming the crowd of men that sat drinking, playing leisure games, and talking. "No doubt you will find a way around this problem."
"But, sir, you need only spend a few minutes—"
"Sir, if you will only listen to what I have to—"
"I cannot visit your prisoner!"
Once, when Weldon was considerably younger, he had awoken screaming from a vision of being sliced in half by the High Seeker's whip. It was but a nightmare, of course; Layle Smith had not carried a whip since his arrival at the Eternal Dungeon.
This was a worse nightmare. Weldon tried without success to remember the last time he had heard the High Seeker raise his voice. He tried to reply, but could not; he tried to move, but could not. He was trapped in place as effectively as a chained prisoner by the sight of the High Seeker, one yard from him, beginning to shake.
Weldon managed to tear his gaze away to look at the rest of the room. What he saw was like a battlefield after a cannon had been shot through it. Chairs were overturned; some of the chairs' owners were standing frozen in place, but others were missing, and Weldon guessed that a stream of guards and Seekers was presently fleeing down the hallway that led from the common room to the inner dungeon. Where they thought they could flee to, Weldon could not imagine. The guards, perhaps, were seeking the main exit to the lighted world, but the Seekers had no such option open to them, being bound by their oaths to remain in the dungeon.
Other signs of terror lay before him: broken glasses, overspilled wine, and chess pieces and cards lying still upon the floor. A shadow moved behind the bar counter, and Weldon guessed that the guard taking bar-tending duty today must have ducked down, in hopes that his presence would be forgotten. From the expressions on the faces of the other guards in the room, it was clear that they would have liked to join him, while the Seekers – normally the most imperturbable of men – were turning their heads toward each other, obviously uncertain what to do.
Only one man in the room did not hesitate. As Weldon watched, Elsdon walked forward, pen and papers in hand, and knelt next to the High Seeker's chair.
For a moment, Weldon could have cursed the young man for emphasizing to Layle his infirmity. But he underestimated the junior Seeker; Elsdon held out his papers and said, "I'm sorry to interrupt, sir, but I need these initialled. Could I bother you?"
Layle took the pen from him in an automatic manner and flipped through the papers, reading them rapidly. Weldon, stealing a glance at the papers, saw that they were routine documents which could easily have waited until Layle was on duty again. He turned his gaze to Elsdon and saw that the kneeling Seeker had his eyes fixed upon Layle. For a brief moment, Weldon felt pain go through him, as cutting as a lash. Then he switched his attention back to the High Seeker.
Layle had finished initialling all the pages, and his hand was now steady. He gave back the papers and pen, saying quietly, "Thank you, Mr. Taylor."
Elsdon nodded without spoken reply, gave Weldon an impenetrable glance, and returned to his seat, where he calmly continued writing where he had left off.
Weldon could actually hear the sigh of the crowd as the men began to pick up the mess around them. Two or three guards, shamefaced, returned to the room. The bartender emerged from his hiding place holding a shattered mug, as though his only purpose in diving to the floor had been to help with the clean-up.
Layle pretended not to notice any of this. He said, in the same low voice as before, "Mr. Chapman, I trust I need not remind you of what event took place in this dungeon nine years ago, and what restriction was placed upon me following that event."
Weldon felt a hot blush cover his skin, from forehead to toes. "I am sorry, sir. It has been many years—"
"The restriction still applies. Naturally, the Codifier would permit me to visit your prisoner if he considered it necessary for the welfare of this dungeon, but I see no reason to request his permission. You have the experience necessary to break this prisoner."
"Yes, sir," Weldon murmured, casting a glance at the shambles nearby. Amidst the quiet storm of the clean-up operation, Elsdon sat like a rock, scribbling upon his papers.
Noting the direction of Weldon's gaze, Layle said, "I am afraid that Mr. Taylor has his own difficult prisoner to deal with at the moment. His prisoner has spun a web of self-deception that has tangled his soul. Regardless of whether the man has committed a crime, he requires Mr. Taylor's help."
Weldon did his best to gather his wits together, like an apprentice trying to chase down a ball of sinew-yarn that he has dropped. "Of course, sir. In any case, female prisoners are my specialty."
"I had not forgotten that. I am sure you remember this, but I will repeat the rules by which you abide: Ask the prisoner if she wants a chaperone present while you search her. If she prefers that you search her privately, be sure to have a guard keep an eye on you through the watch-hole every moment that you are inside the cell. The last thing I need is for one of my Seekers to be arrested upon a false charge of rape."
Weldon could think of nothing to reply to this, so he nodded. He found himself saying, though, "I am tempted to ask the Record-keeper to give me another prisoner."
Layle raised his eyebrows, but said only, "Well, you would have free choice. There are half a dozen prisoners awaiting Seekers at the moment."
"That many?" Weldon could not keep surprise from his voice. Usually new prisoners were assigned a Seeker immediately, since the period following their arrest was the time in which they were most vulnerable and therefore most likely to confess to any crime they might have committed.
Layle gave a brief nod. "We are rather short of Seekers at the moment, what with so many senior Seekers retiring or taking healing leave." He reached over to the table that stood between himself and Weldon and lifted his wine cup to his lips, draining it of its dregs.
Watching him, Weldon found he was cursing himself inwardly. It could not be at all easy for Layle, knowing that prisoners were languishing without Seekers while he himself, the most talented Seeker in the dungeon, was spending his days doing documentwork. Only a very strong conviction that it would be dangerous for him to go near prisoners could have kept Layle from rushing back to work and breaking all six prisoners in quick succession. The man must be in agony now, pulled between two calls of duty, and Weldon had made the matter no easier for him.
In an attempt to lighten Layle's mood, Weldon forced a chuckle and said, "Perhaps you should train my prisoner to be a Seeker after all."
Layle gave a snort of what might have been laughter, but said seriously, "Not if you put me on a Vovimian rack and set the wheel to the thirtieth level. I would rather run this dungeon with only one Seeker than allow an ill-qualified Seeker into a cell with a prisoner."
Weldon nodded slowly; he knew what Layle meant. They had both been in the Eternal Dungeon – Layle as a Seeker, Weldon as a guard – when Layle's predecessor, faced with a similar crisis of waiting prisoners, had allowed a new Seeker to take his vow of eternal confinement after only one month's training. As it turned out, the man was talented in certain respects but did not possess the quality that, as Layle had put it a while ago, "we desire most in a Seeker." And after the new Seeker had spent a week with one of the prisoners who had been waiting to be searched . . .
Changes were made after that. Strict rules were instituted, requiring a minimum of six months of training from new Seekers before they took their vows of eternal confinement. The offending Seeker, unable to be released from his oath, made matters easier for everyone by expressing a desire to spend the remainder of his life working in the outer dungeon, where he would not have contact with prisoners. Most importantly, greater precautions were taken to ensure that no prisoner would have the means to kill himself. But Weldon, who had guarded the prisoner, still visited the dungeon's crematorium every few months and lit a candle for the prisoner, hoping that the prisoner was receiving greater mercy in his new life than he had received in his old.
He still wondered whether he could have prevented the tragedy, and guilt still touched him late at night. He could only imagine the weight of guilt that Layle's predecessor must have felt until his death two years later. Weldon could well suppose that Layle, already heavily burdened with guilt over other matters, would not want to take the chance of allowing anyone to become a Seeker-in-Training unless that person had shown clearly that they possessed the quality which was absolutely necessary to a Seeker.
"Have no worries, sir," Weldon said. "I think this prisoner will be easy to handle. I will deal with her quickly and then pass on to another prisoner."
Layle's eyes touched his. They were green, like the trees Weldon had not seen in thirteen years, and their light touch was enough to bind Weldon to his place, half-risen from his seat.
Then Layle released him, turning his eyes away. "I am sure you will do your best, Mr. Chapman."
His voice was cool and dismissive. Sometimes Weldon wondered whether his memories of another voice – a voice young and uncertain, filled with hopes that would be dashed shortly thereafter – had come from his own imagination.
He nearly knelt – childhood habits died hard – but caught himself in time and nodded his farewell instead. He walked his way to the door of the common room, ignoring the stares of the men wondering what he had done to bring the High Seeker so close to madness again.