He waited until Medinger was out of the way; then he brought the pistol up, two-handed, in a smooth arc that ended at the moment he pulled the triggerHe waited until Medinger was out of the way; then he brought the pistol up, two-handed, in a smooth arc that ended at the moment he pulled the trigger six times, in rapid succession.
The bullets flowed from his pistol as though eager to be away. When he had finished, he didn't bother looking at the target to see how well he had shot. He gestured to Medinger, who raced forth to change the target. The lad was back again within seconds, holding the used target and crying, "My lord, that was wonderful! I've never seen anything like that!"
He glanced up from where he was inserting a fresh magazine. Six bullets he had fired, but it was impossible to tell that, for they had all landed where he had aimed them: at the heart of the bullseye. All that could be seen was one small hole that every bullet had slipped through.
There were evenings when the bullets landed that way: straight and true and with the beauty that had once won Starke a reputation as the finest marksman in the Mippite army.
There were other evenings – far too many, lately – when Starke spent all his pent-up frustration in the claiming room, and then stared at the ceiling for several hours, lying in the claiming bed, smoking sweetweed, and thinking about his ill fortune at having become a prison guard. When he entered the shooting gallery on evenings like that, all his bullets went awry, landing no closer in than Landry's.
He was glad this was one of his good evenings. Feeling expansive in his charity, he asked, "Would you like to shoot a round?"
Medinger's eyes widened. Smiling, Starke handed him the gun as he said, "Careful – it's loaded and ready to shoot. Don't point it toward either of us, and keep your finger away from the trigger until you're ready to shoot." He made sure the lad was following instructions; then he turned to set aside the box that had held the extra ammunition.
The gun fired six times, in rapid succession.
Starke whirled round. "I didn't say that you could shoot yet," he announced in the awful voice he reserved for prisoners who failed to obey his commands.
White-faced, Medinger handed the empty pistol back to him. "I'm sorry, my lord. I mistook your wishes."
"In prison work, mistakes can result in death. You're not to touch that gun again – do you understand?"
Medinger nodded, his expression bleak. Impatiently, Starke gestured to the servant to change the target. Starke inspected the pistol carefully, then reloaded it a second time and slid forward the safety bolt. By the time he was finished, Medinger had returned. The lad placed the used target on top of the other targets.
Starke glanced at it, then away, making no comment. Medinger's expression fell further.
Starke handed him the empty ammunition box. "Put this back in place, and I'll take you over to the outbuildings. Be quick about it."
Medinger murmured an acknowledgment, and then he backed out of the room hastily. Starke waited until he was gone before looking at the target again.
Six bullets. Five had landed on the first ring. The sixth had landed on the bullseye.
After a minute more, he slipped the pistol into his jacket pocket and left the shooting gallery. Not his problem. Tom would have to figure out how to deal with a servant who had the ability to kill him. ...more
We turned. Tice had taken shelter under a chestnut tree; his pipe glowed in the darkness of that shelter. His face was too shadow-Excerpt:
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. . . ....more
Farsight, less commonly known as Prince Clerebold, ruler of Dawnlight since the death of his father by mischance, stood on the highest, narrow
Farsight, less commonly known as Prince Clerebold, ruler of Dawnlight since the death of his father by mischance, stood on the highest, narrowest tower of his keep and looked down upon his realm. From here, far higher than the birds swooping from tree to tree, he could see clearly his people: castle dwellers walking to and fro across the drawbridge under the watchful eye of the soldiers, tradesmen bumping carts against each other in the busy streets of the town under the keep's shadow, craftsmen working in their village houses with steady concentration, commoners spreading seed in the fields under the spring sun, and, most clearly of all, the nervous soldiers near the gold-filled mountain that stood by Dawnlight's northern border with Duskedge. Within Duskedge itself, Farsight could faintly sense fear and pain, especially the prolonged agony of men held captive in a faraway castle. But the darkness that Farsight had sensed during the past weeks was quiescent, perhaps driven into sleep by the light.
Kneeling on the ledge of the crenel that provided a gap in the tower's stonework, Farsight stared down at the hundred-foot drop and murmured to himself, "If only I could see the people near me clearly. They seem so dim."
"That will be your death."
Startled, Farsight turned so suddenly that he nearly matched his father's death by pitching through the crenel into open air. Standing behind him, near the trap door leading to the winding stairs, was a man not much younger than Farsight, wearing the clothes of a commoner. He was standing so close to the prince that Farsight could see little more than mud-colored hair and eyes that matched the burnished blue sky.
"Who are you?" asked Farsight sharply, his hand moving to the gold-hilted dagger at his side. "Why are you here?"
Farsight's abrupt words seemed to startle the young man. He stepped backwards onto the trap door, stumbling as he did so. The sound of his heavy swallow followed, and the blur of his outline shifted. Narrowing his eyes to better his sight, Farsight realized, with amusement and something more, that the young man's hands had tightened nervously like those of a boy facing scrutiny.
The gesture reassured him, as did the faint sound of footsteps below the trap door, which told him that the guard was still at his post. "Why are you here?" he asked in a more moderate tone. "The guard had orders to let no one through."
"The guard?" The young man's voice was breathless and somewhat puzzled. "He wasn't at the landing when I came up. I saw him— Well, he was at one of the windows of the stairwell, fiddling with his breeches."
Farsight sighed, wondering again what sort of men he was training to be in his personal guard. He tried not to let too much of this show in his voice as he said, "That was careless of him. So – the fault is not yours, but why are you here?"
He heard the young man swallow again. "That's why. To warn you to guard yourself better."
Farsight frowned, trying to read what lay inside the young man, but he was too close. Pulling himself out from the crenel ledge, which had begun to turn warm under the morning light, the prince walked toward the eastern side of the tower, until he was as far from the young man as he could go. The young man, perhaps sensing his need, obediently stepped backwards until he was at the opposite side of the tower.
He was still too close, but Farsight could at least see now the man's features: a heavy jaw, lips too asymmetrical to attract lovers, a broken nose, a scarred temple, and blue-lit eyes bearing nothing except uncertainty. As Farsight watched, the man licked his lips anxiously.
His hand, though, was resting with practiced ease on his dagger hilt, and his cheeks were shaven – he was not a field commoner, then. "You're a soldier?" Farsight guessed aloud.
"A guard, my prince." The young man hesitated, then added, "My name is Amyas. I've been with Lord Grimbold's household until recently." With delicate timing, he allowed his hand to drop from his dagger.
Farsight felt the blood thrumming through his throat and resisted the impulse to call for his guard's protection. "You're far from home," he said. "I wouldn't have thought you'd have left Duskedge at time of war. And why call me your prince?"
"My prince, I—" Amyas faltered, staring at his mud-wrapped boots. "Because you are my prince. I was born in Dawnlight, near the border. I would have stayed here, but I couldn't find work in this land. So I went over the border and took service with Lord Grimbold, but part of our agreement was that if war broke out between our two lands, I'd be released from his service to return home."
"War broke out four months ago," Farsight observed. "That's when Royston turned his hungry eyes toward our gold-mountain near his border."
"Yes, my prince, and I left Lord Grimbold's service at that time. It occurred to me, though, that you might be in need of information, so I went to King Royston's castle and listened to the gossip there. I'd been there in the past, so no one took notice of me."
Amyas spoke with a pure simplicity, as though risking his life as a spy were the most natural activity in the world. He had a habit, Farsight noticed, of shuffling his feet on the ground, as though he were a boy who might be noticed at any moment and would need to flee the room to escape his elders' wrath.
Farsight suddenly felt very old. He smiled at Amyas and said, "So you have come to me with that information. Thank you."
Amyas looked up at him. For a moment, on the edge of his expression, something seemed on the point of breaking through. Then his eyes grew sober, and he said, "Yes, my prince. I came to warn you to guard yourself. King Royston has sent his Night Shadow to seek you."
A wind, chill from the north, travelled through the crenel behind Farsight and played like a cold blade against his back. When he could breathe once more, Farsight said, "Well. I suppose that is the easiest way for him to win this war."
Amyas took a step forward, faltered, then said in an impassioned voice, "My prince, forgive me, but— In Duskedge, I always kept to my place, so I do not wish you to think I was ill-trained there—"
Farsight managed to pull his smile back from the black pit where it had dropped. "We handle matters differently here in Dawnlight, as you'll recall from your childhood. You needn't be afraid to offer advice – I welcome your thoughts."
"Then, my prince—" Like the surge of a blade, Amyas flung the words forward: "Prince Clerebold, you're as close to death at this moment as you were when you were kneeling on that ledge! Do you know how easy it was for me to enter your presence? No guard challenged me at the drawbridge, your soldiers in the courtyard were indifferent to my presence, your courtiers gave me detailed instructions on where to find you, and your bodyguard was off making water when a man from Duskedge arrived looking for you. My prince, if I were an assassin, you'd be dead now!"
Farsight let out his breath in a long sigh and walked forward until Amyas's face blurred into the stones. "No, I wouldn't be. My guard is close by; the Night Shadow never allows himself to be seen, and he never kills anyone except his mark."
This answer appeared to disconcert the young man. A moment passed before he said, "And what if the Night Shadow decides to change its pattern for this kill? My prince—"
"Call me Farsight," the prince said mildly. "You've been too long away from home."
"Farsight . . ." Amyas fumbled with the name. "Farsight, the Night Shadow always wins. Everyone knows that. That's how Royston keeps his people in terror. And you . . . Your soldiers are the best trained in the world; Royston dare not attack you again through battle. That's why he's sending the Night Shadow. My prince, how can you have such fine soldiers at the border and such poorly trained guards at home?"
Farsight closed his eyes, released a long breath, and opened them once more to the blur that was the young man. "I'm farsighted," he said.
"My prince?" Amyas's voice was tentative.
"I'm farsighted. I can't see you unless you're far away; I can't see anyone unless they're far away. The soldiers I train at a distance – I can see them. The people I rule from a distance – I can see them. But the people I work with from day to day – I can't see them. I can't understand them, I can't know them. So I make mistakes. In some cases, mortal mistakes."
The wind rattled grit across the tower roof. Faintly from the sky above, birds called to each other, but Farsight could hear nothing more, not even the shouts of the guards on the drawbridge as they changed their watch. Below the trap door, the guard continued to shuffle in his place. By now, he must have heard Amyas's voice, but Farsight's moderate tones had apparently reassured the guard as to the nature of the interview. With exasperation, Farsight wondered whether the guard thought that Amyas had flown to the tower from one of the trees.
"Are the stories true?" Amyas's voice was subdued.
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 oneExcerpt:
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." ...more
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 "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.