He saw his master's boat long before it arrived, skimming over the afternoon-bright waters of the Bay. The closer the lithe vessel approache[Excerpt:]
He saw his master's boat long before it arrived, skimming over the afternoon-bright waters of the Bay. The closer the lithe vessel approached, the deeper the sun dipped in the sky, and the more the grey clouds huddled together like cloaked guests awaiting the start of a dinner party. Meredith began to worry that Master Carr would arrive so late in the day that he and Meredith would be trapped there overnight, with a storm approaching. Then Meredith recalled that a house awaited them, with four walls and a roof to shut out the wind and the water – a haven on an island that he had always considered a haven, since the time he left it as a child.
The Bay, which sliced like a knife between the two shores of the Dozen Landsteads, was already growing choppy from the upcoming storm by the time that the skipjack anchored, a few yards from shore. By that time, Meredith was hiding in a grove of loblolly pines, so he did not see the yawl carry Carr from the skipjack to the island. However, he did hear the uncultured voice of a servant say, "You sure you don't want us to come back, sir? Looks like a rough place to stay the night, and there's a blow coming in on the tide."
Meredith did not hear Carr's reply, but it must have been reassuring, for when he peeked out again, he saw that the little yawl was being hauled aboard the skipjack, while Carr stood on the shell-strewn beach, his back to Meredith, his hand waving farewell to the crew who had brought him to the island.
The anchor came up, the rising wind bellowed the sails full, and the crew began the painful job of turning the skipjack and tacking their way back to the Western Shore from whence they had come. They would be eager to return home, Meredith knew, for tonight was the final day of the festival week of Spring Manhood, when servants would feast in honor of their masters.
Meredith had never attended such a feast, either as a master or as a servant. He never would, he knew. He would be embarrassed to be toasted by servants who believed him to be a master, and as for receiving the joy of toasting his own master . . . It was enough that he finally had a master, after so many years spent masquerading as one.
Or so he told himself.
Pushing aside all lingering longings to live the life of an ordinary servant, Meredith waited until the skipjack was well away. Then he walked forward to join Carr, who was standing erect on the beach, watching the slender, long-necked boat depart. Meredith reached Carr just in time to catch hold of his secret master, as the heir to the High Mastership of the Second Landstead dropped to his knees and began to wretch.
Alarmed, Meredith turned automatically back to his liege-service training, holding Carr's forehead steady while wrapping his arm around his master's back. As soon as the last of the vile black-green liquid was no longer pouring from Carr's mouth, Meredith ascertained that his master remained steady on his knees. Then Meredith released Carr, searched the pockets of his own jacket, and offered the heir what he could: a clean handkerchief and a small canteen of water.
Carr accepted both, though he drank only a single gulp of water before returning the canteen to Meredith. "Thank you," he said in a faint voice, forever polite.
"Sir, are you well? Shall I signal your boat to return?" Meredith turned his eye toward the horizon. The skipjack was probably too far now to sight any signal, but at this hour, when watermen made their way home to nearby Hoopers Island, many fishing boats would be travelling alongside this western beach of Barren Island, for the eastern channel between Barren Island and Hoopers Island was too shallow for navigation. Meredith could flag down one of the boats; or if his signal-flags were ignored, the house that awaited them still had signal-fires stored in its cellar.
But Carr was shaking his head. "I'm all right. It was a bad crossing."
Meredith looked again at the waves, blood-red now from the setting sun. The waves furrowed the Bay, as though a great plow had been drawn across it. On the horizon, the skipjack bobbed its way across the furrows.
He had entirely forgotten, over all these past, joyful weeks, a passing remark that Master M Carruthers had made one day, early in their acquaintance. "I tend to get seasick," Carr had said in the midst of a recital of the boat-mastering skills he planned to acquire during the coming holiday from school.
Carr tended to get seasick; and yet he had travelled here upon Meredith's invitation, on a stormy afternoon, rather than return to their boarding school on Hoopers Island on any calm day he could have chosen.
"I think I'll walk back to school," Carr added with a touch of his usual dry humor as he rose slowly to his feet.
He was quite serious, Meredith realized. At low tide, the channel between Barrens Island and Hoopers Island was shallow enough that it could be waded, albeit at the expense of wet trousers. It was by no means the sort of activity that the heir to a landstead should undertake. Yet it was clear that Carr preferred wading like a servant to taking another boat over the water.
Appalled now at his own insensitivity and lack of foresight, Meredith said, "Master Carr, if you prefer, I would be glad to have you stay overnight at my old house. It has two bedrooms," he added as Carr turned to look at him. He did not want his master to think that he was acting like one of those servants in boys' comics, seeking to seduce his master. Aside from the single kiss that Carr had granted him on the night of their pledges to each other, light touches on the arm were all that Carr had given him so far. Meredith was still glorying in having a master who showed him any affection at all; he did not wish to endanger his service by demanding more.
Now there was a slight quirk at the edge of Carr's mouth. "A dry bed on steady ground would do a good deal to heal my stomach, I'll confess. Is your house far?"
"Just a mile from here, sir, on the eastern beach of the island. If it should please you to come this way . . ."
His original plan, born during the anxious minutes spent awaiting the start of his entrance exam for university, had been to show Carr his childhood. To take Carr to see the old haunts of his early boyhood, where he had lived before he began his terrible, painful years as a bullied schoolboy. Here on this island were the hidden havens of animals that he had found and secretly watched during those early, happy years, living alone on Barren Island with his father, keeper of the navigation beacons on the island.
Now his father was gone, learning to be a sailor in the Dozen Landsteads's Oyster Navy, which enforced the oyster laws. The lamphouse where his father had lived for the last seven years, and where Meredith had stayed during school holidays, had been given over to another lamphouse keeper. All that remained of Meredith's childhood, aside from the school where he had too many painful memories, was this island and the cozy little house where he and his father had once lived.
"It isn't very big," he explained now as he and Carr made their way around the edges of a salt marsh. "Father bought it when he first rose to the rank of master. It only has a single storey, plus an attic. It had room enough for him and my mother and one or two children. Father's liege-master loaned him the money—"
"And your father paid back the loan?" Carr paused as Meredith went forward to raise a needle-spiky branch out of his way.
"Yes, sir. He paid back Captain Pembroke long ago. My father has enough money saved now that he could buy a larger house . . . but after my mother died, there were no more children, just me, and I'll be going to university next autumn. If I'm accepted," he added with a pang of worry. He was a good student, but until recently he had assumed that he would be attending the university of his own landstead, the Third Landstead University. The university he had actually applied for had different examination questions than he had anticipated; he was still not sure whether he had passed the exam.
And if he had not . . .
Uncharacteristically – for Carr was always quick to pick up on Meredith's worries and to find ways to reassure him – Carr said merely, "Are you sure that the house will still be in good condition? It has been many years."
"Oh, yes, master," Meredith replied quickly. "Nobody comes here anymore, so there would be no thefts."
Carr raised his eyebrows. "Not even hunters?" He waved toward a long-billed willet, half-hidden in the cordgrass.
"Not these days, sir. Back in my father's childhood, it was different, because of the least terns."
Carr creased his forehead. "The least what?"
It surprised Meredith still when his master, so skilled in talk of government and politics, would reveal himself ignorant of the wildlife that had surrounded him for years. "A seabird, sir. It looks a bit like a gull, but it's smaller, with a forked tail. It likes to nest in open spaces such as beaches, so it was easy prey for the hunters, who would sell the least terns' feathers to the millineries – feathered hats are very popular among the women. My father said that, when he was a child, the beaches on Barren Island used to be entirely white-and-grey like shadowed snow, so many least terns nested there."
He paused; Carr's eyes had wandered away from him. Meredith said quickly, "I'm sorry, master. It was of no importance. I apologize for having bored you with such matters."
His throat ached as he spoke. It had always been like this with Captain Pembroke's son too. Young Master Pembroke could tolerate very little of Meredith's chattering about the island's wildlife. Why, in the name of all that was sacred, was Meredith making the same mistake with Master Carr?
Carr shook his head slowly, as though barely hearing what Meredith had said. "No, I—" Carr stopped mid-sentence, leaning against the scaly trunk of a loblolly. There was sweat on his forehead.
Concerned, Meredith asked, "Master, do you wish to make use of me by taking my arm?"
Carr gave a weak smile then. "Meredith, I can think of many ways in which I wish to make use of you, but treating you as a cane is not one of them. Lead on, liegeman."
Meredith quickened his pace; the sky was growing dark, and he did not wish him and Carr to be lost in the pine-shadowed marshland overnight. As a child, he had spent many an evening sitting beside the pond near his house – really a tidal pool – listening to the mysterious sounds of leopard frogs, muskrats, snapping turtles, fiddler crabs, herons, and marsh wrens. His father had permitted this, once he had ascertained that Meredith carried an almost magical ability to calm any animal that initially considered him a threat.
But that was many years ago, and from what Meredith had already seen during their crossing of Barren Island, the island had changed over the years. This had been a brackish pond in the old days, a mixture of freshwater and salt, but now it was entirely a saltwater marsh; he could tell that from the change in plants. The cattails he remembered had disappeared, replaced by cordgrass. There were fewer animals too; the harsher conditions of the salt marsh had driven most of them away.
It was odd; he wondered how it had happened. Then he remembered (on the edge of his memory, like a smudge of land on the horizon of the Bay) the reason that he and his father had lived alone on an island where once hundreds of people had lived.
It had occurred around the time of his birth, the final abandonment of Barren Island. His haven, as he had always regarded it, had ceased to be liveable for most of the inhabitants, who had built their houses close to the channel between Barren Island and Hoopers Island. The water had crept in, inch by inch every year, and then acre by acre. The channel that had once been ankle-high at low tide now rose far higher than that. Barren Island had begun to submerge as the waters rose, eating away at the houses and farmland.
That was eighteen years ago. Meredith's chest felt suddenly painful, as though it had been hit by an oar. He knew – he thought he knew – what they would see when they emerged from the trees.
It took Carr a long time to speak when they reached the beach. Finally he said, "Well, perhaps wading across to Hoopers Island would not be so wise an idea after all. The water seems to have risen somewhat."
Meredith could not speak. He was Carr's liegeman. Indeed, he was Carr's servant, by choice rather than by official rank. He had dual reason to ensure the comfort and safety of the young man standing beside him.
Instead, he had invited his seasick master over stormy waves to visit an abandoned island and stay at a house that was crumbling into ruins. . . ....more
[Excerpt (with spoilers for the first volume of The Eternal Dungeon:]
(view spoiler)[He had awoken, on that day after, to find himself lying alone in b[Excerpt (with spoilers for the first volume of The Eternal Dungeon:]
(view spoiler)[He had awoken, on that day after, to find himself lying alone in bed.
He discovered this with a quick grope of the hands over the bedcovers, without opening his eyes. As High Seeker, he was one of the Seekers entitled to a double bed, though he had slept alone until the day before. Now, it appeared, the previous pattern would continue.
He refused to open his eyes. It had all been a dreaming, then: the promise of everlasting love, the passion that had followed upon that promise, the warmth of Elsdon's body – and more importantly, the warmth of his companionship. Layle had expected it to happen one day: his dreamings had become so real that he had begun to believe them.
He refused to open his eyes. He was afraid that, if he did, he would see something that would force him to confront a far worse possibility: that he had indeed slept with Elsdon, and that Elsdon had crept away while he slept, irreparably damaged by their brief joining.
The covers of the bed were scratchy wool – more scratchy than they needed to be. A form of asceticism, a penance for what he had done in the past and what, from time to time, despite all his will, he continued to do. He lay on his back, his eyes closed, trying to force himself to rise. Time could be of the essence in healing Elsdon – if there was still any chance of healing the young Seeker whom he had hurt so badly so many times now. Perhaps it would be best to let others take over the task he had failed at. . . .
The bedsprings creaked.
He reacted automatically, which meant he reacted violently. Reaching toward the only loose object at hand – the night-table next to the bed – he grasped it by its leg, wrenched it from the floor, and had begun to swing it toward the intruder before he checked himself in time.
He opened his eyes. Elsdon, fully clothed and hooded but with his face-cloth raised, sat beside him. He looked, Layle realized with amazement, more amused than fearful.
"By all that is sacred," Elsdon said, speaking the mildest of oaths, "is this how you always greet your love-mates upon awakening?"
Layle slowly lowered the night-table, feeling the blood thunder within his body. "I've never had a love-mate before who slept with me."
"I can see why, if this is how you wake from your sleep."
Layle slowly raised himself into a sitting position. Elsdon was still smiling, he noted with growing incredulity. The Seeker-in-Training had made a joke about the fact that Layle was a killer born.
Perhaps he was still sleeping. He rubbed his eyes.
"I'm sorry to wake you," said Elsdon softly, "but Mr. Chapman told me yesterday that I should report to him at the beginning of today's night shift. That's not long from now." He glanced in the direction of the water-clock in the corner of the room.
Layle did not need to glance that way. He knew the sounds of the dungeon like a mother knows the sounds of her baby. It said something about his state of mind that he had slept all the way into the brief dusk period between the day and night shifts.
"I have to report as well," said Layle. He began to reach toward the night-table, realized that he had toppled all the objects on it onto the floor, and reached down to fish his hood off the ground. "I need to appear in the dragon's lair."
"Oh." Elsdon stood and watched as Layle settled the frame holding the hood onto his head, then smoothed down the cloth that hid the sides and back of his head and neck. "Will that be bad for you? I mean, I know the Codifier isn't the most patient man . . ."
"Bad?" Layle raised his eyebrows as he placed onto the night-table the Code of Seeking, one of the objects he had tumbled onto the floor. "Bad is meeting you in the corridor and hearing you threaten to send me to the hangman. Being lectured by the Codifier about my lack of control is easy by comparison."
There was a moment's silence, and then Elsdon burst into laughter. He tossed Layle the shirt he had been groping for, one of the many articles of clothing that had ended up strewn on the floor the previous night. Layle was still wearing his trousers – an old habit, for he had never stripped himself fully when raping prisoners in the Hidden Dungeon. Remaining partially clothed allowed a Vovimian torturer to make his prisoner feel vulnerable in his or her nakedness. As Layle stood up and tried to brush out the creases in his trousers, he wondered how long it would be before he could break himself of such old habits. Or whether it was even possible to do so.
"I'm sorry." Elsdon smiled at him. "I'm sure you know that. I badly misjudged you."
He felt worry touch him then, like a knife. "You didn't misjudge me. I'm as dangerous as you surmised, and I've done in the past what you thought I was doing in the present."
"Then I misjudged myself. Layle . . . I remembered yesterday how I killed my sister."
In the midst of tying his shirt closed – the shirt was mussed, but the Codifier wouldn't care – Layle grew still. He searched Elsdon's face, trying to read the pain behind it.
He had known that this would happen eventually. During the past three months, as Elsdon underwent his transition from prisoner to Seeker-in-Training, the young man had gone from the extreme of believing that he was entirely to blame for his kin-murder to the other extreme of believing that he was entirely blameless for the murder. Of course, he might have been entirely blameless, but his loss of memory suggested otherwise. Prisoners did not forget bloody crimes they had committed unless they were trying to hide truths from themselves.
Now the danger existed that Elsdon would return to his old self-hatred. Layle said carefully, "Murders rarely take place for only one reason."
Elsdon sighed. "Layle, I know that. I know I wouldn't have murdered Sara if my father hadn't bound and beaten me harshly for years. But I also know now that . . . I had a choice. There was a moment when I could have stopped myself from killing Sara, and I didn't do so." He turned his face, staring in the direction of the unlit sitting chamber. "It makes me wonder whether I am worthy to be a Seeker."
Layle stepped forward then and took Elsdon lightly by both shoulders, forcing the young man to face him. "None of us are completely worthy to hold the power we do, myself least of all. Whatever you have done is small in comparison to what I have done in the past – believe me when I say that." As Elsdon opened his mouth to ask questions Layle had no desire to answer, Layle rushed on: "We are the lucky ones."
"Lucky ones?" With his brows drawn low, Elsdon frowned.
Layle nodded. "Weldon Chapman and other Seekers like him who have committed no abuses in their past – they are the ones who find it hardest to remind themselves that they are no better than the prisoners. It's a constant temptation we face as Seekers: to think ourselves superior to the men and women we search. You and I have all the reminder we need that this is not so."
Elsdon's expression grew intense as he thought this through. Layle had to resist the impulse to run his thumb down the skin of Elsdon's flawless cheek, as smooth and pale and perfect as an ivory carving. He was still absorbing with wonder the knowledge that, after so many years of hard-fought restraint, he could now permit himself to touch someone he desired.
Elsdon said, "I don't think that's going to be enough to remind me of how fortunate I am. Layle, I ought to be dead. I would have died at the hangman's noose if you hadn't rescued me. And yet, for the past two days, I've been doing my best to destroy you."
"You had what seemed to be good reason. You believed I was abusing this dungeon's prisoners."
Elsdon shook his head so vigorously that his wheat-gold hair peered out from beneath his hood. "It wasn't only that. If you had committed crimes, then I should have treated you like any prisoner should be treated – I should have been concerned about the well-being of your soul. But I wasn't. It's as you said before: I was arrogant. I wanted to think myself superior to you. Even the knowledge that I had committed kin-murder didn't prevent me from lording myself over you."
Layle said nothing. It was clear enough to him that it was no accident that Elsdon had transferred his affection and his obedience from a father who abused his son to a High Seeker who had darkness dwelling in his soul. It was clear enough also why Elsdon had reacted with vehement hatred when he suspected the High Seeker of using his power to abuse his prisoners. Elsdon's father, who had caused him so much suffering, was far away. Layle was near at hand.
That much was clear; the surprise was that, in the space of a very short time, Elsdon had been able to forgive Layle – had symbolically forgiven his father for all the pain he had undergone at that wretched man's hands. Where had Elsdon found the strength to do that, and where had he found the wisdom to realize the danger he posed to prisoners? Layle was still trying to puzzle that out.
Elsdon said in a low voice, "Layle, you're High Seeker, and everyone says you're the most gifted prison worker in the world. How do you prevent yourself from feeling superior to the prisoners?"
"I remember my dreamings."
Elsdon was silent for a minute. From the corridor came the sound of voices: guards and Seekers from the night shift, making their way to work. Layle did not move. His primary duty lay here, with his former prisoner.
When it became clear that Elsdon would not reply, Layle said quietly, "My dreamings are all I need to remind me that, without a great deal of mercy from people I have known over the years, I would be a justly executed prisoner rather than a man who receives the privilege of helping prisoners to their transformation and rebirth. You will find your own method of retaining gratitude for your good fortune. All of us who become Seekers develop a method to keep this thought in mind."
"The hangman's noose." Elsdon's voice was level. "I have to find a way to keep that image in my mind." . . . (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
He came down the mountain one early summer afternoon, toward the end of what had not yet been dubbed the Hydrogen War. He was just in time t
He came down the mountain one early summer afternoon, toward the end of what had not yet been dubbed the Hydrogen War. He was just in time to catch the climax of the war.
His goal was to find a replacement for Melinda. Not that he believed he could. He had read the newsfiches. Yet he retained faint hope that someone like Melinda still existed and might want to be his companion.
Jet-cars passed him repeatedly. He ducked every time that happened, envisioning the car's riders staring down at him, even though the skyway was as high above him as the skyhomes that soared on their slender stalks. He had lived in such a home, once.
The groundhomes, where the poorer folk dwelt, worried him more. He sidled through the countryside, skirting the city of Cumberland at the foot of the mountain. Just as he was congratulating himself on his successful effort to avoid being seen, he rounded a forest and found himself facing a person.
He stepped back, intending to flee. But he could not, for the person was an old lady, and she was lying on the ground.
"Well, there you are," she said in a cheerful fashion, as though she had been awaiting him. "I figured that someone would find me eventually. It's this hip of mine. Makes it difficult for me to pick myself up when I fall. Will you lend me your arm?"
He'd as soon have cut off his arm and left it to do the work on its own. But he couldn't abandon her. With his heart thumping, he approached, taking care not to look her in the eye. He helped her up. It was like helping Melinda up after she had taken a spill, he told himself.
"Thank you very much, young man," the old lady said briskly when she was on her feet. "I used to have a cat who would squall something fierce when I fell down; she always attracted the attention of the neighbors. But last year . . . I still can't understand it. Why they killed all the pets, I mean," she added, as though it weren't obvious what she meant. "The Vovimians claimed their sonic weapons were intended to kill the dogs in the Yclau army, but to kill every pet in the Midcoast nations. . . . But here I am, chattering away." She smiled and offered her arm to shake. "I'm Mrs. William Allegany. You are . . . ?"
He said nothing. He couldn't have spoken, even if he were normal. Every pet, she'd said. Every pet in the four nations along the Midcoast of the Northern Continent.
He couldn't travel outside the Midcoast. He had no passport. Maybe he could buy an imported dog?
Mrs. Allegany's smile faded as it became clear he would not shake her arm. He should leave now, before matters worsened. Instead, he fumbled with a piece of paper from his pocket. He dropped it. Just an accident, that was all.
"Oh, dear." Mrs. Allegany looked down, then reached over with a gardening fork she had apparently been using to weed before she fell. She spiked the paper with it. "I can't bend down these days," she said with a smile. "Arthritis, you know. Is this yours? Or is it for me?"
He stared up at where the skyway remained thick with jet-cars. The paper was nothing to do with him. It had left him; it was no longer his.
But as he heard the paper rustle in her hands, he knew what it said.
Hello! My name is Melinda. I'm Phillip Schafer's service dog. Due to social neurosis, my master is unable to communicate directly with you. However, he can give messages to me, and I can give them to you. You don't need to write a message back. Just speak to me, and he will overhear what you say. Thank you! I'm so happy to meet you!
Mrs. Allegany raised her gaze from the paper, but only as far as Phillip's hands. He was holding now the collar, with Melinda's name upon it.
"I'm so sorry for your loss," Mrs. Allegany said softly.
Phillip looked down at the dog collar, feeling tears prickle his eyes.
Having said this, Bat tossed another shovelful of dirt to the side and paused to wipe his brow free of swe[Excerpt:]
"Well, I've surely been schooled."
Having said this, Bat tossed another shovelful of dirt to the side and paused to wipe his brow free of sweat. The midsummer morning was clear, with not a cloud in the sky to provide them with shade. The trench they were digging remained too shallow at this point to throw shadows.
"Oh my blessed, you're right about that." Frank took up the refrain as his pickaxe chiselled another rock. "When I get my first job out there, and the master asks me what schooling I received here, I'll say, 'Why, sir, I was learned to break rocks.'"
Frank rarely voiced bitterness; that he did so now was a sign of how exhausted the boys were. Bat looked wearily over at the pails of water that Trusty had taken care to place near the boys. The water would last till sunset. He wasn't sure he would.
Bending down to scoop up a bucket of mud, Emmanuel said, "Might as well be in the Men's Penitentiary. Makes no difference to the work we do."
"Two thousand nine hundred feet long," Joe added as he reached down to lift Frank's broken rock into the wheelbarrow. "That's what the Super said the tunnel will be. Two thousand nine hundred feet times seventeen feet is—"
"Stop showing off." Emmanuel took a halfhearted swipe at him, then turned and shouted, "Hoi! Leave him alone!"
Bat turned to look. White-faced as he struggled to push another wheelbarrow full of dirt and mud and rock up the incline to the campus lawn, Mordecai was being blocked by one of the boys who worked in the main dormitory of Family Cottage Trustworthy – the "Big Dorm," as everyone called it now. Several of the other boys, who were assigned to take charge of the wheelbarrow once Mordecai reached the lawn, were laughing at the young boy's efforts to get past the barrier.
"We got to come over there and paste you?" demanded Joe.
Bat looked uneasily at where Trusty stood on the lawn. The young man was deep in conversation with the Superintendent, but it was unlikely he had missed hearing Joe's threat. For now, though, he seemed contented to let the quarrelling boys settle themselves.
The boys in the Big Dorm looked inclined to fight, if only to defend their honor, but at that moment Slow, with impeccable timing, returned from using the toilet in their cottage. He took one look at Mordecai and said, "Aw, that's too heavy for you. Let me help. We better help, right?" He turned toward the boys who had been teasing Mordecai. "Because we're big and he's little."
With the situation voiced in that stark fashion, the boys of the Big Dorm shrugged and moved forward to relieve Mordecai of the wheelbarrow. As they did so, Mordecai began to fall to his knees. Slow caught him and carefully escorted him back to where another packed wheelbarrow awaited him.
The boys of the Big Dorm took a second look at the small group digging the trench for the steam pipes, then evidently decided not to pursue the matter further. It was well known by now that the boys in the Little Dorm – as they'd been dubbed – were close pals who always protected one another. Separated at night from the other boys of Family Cottage Trustworthy, they formed their own little community, like a family within a family.
Bat watched Mordecai with concern as the young boy paused to lean against a boulder, panting. His legs were shaking. Joe, however, had turned his attention back to the work at hand. He said, "We got Comrade Carruthers to thank for this, you know. He gave the money for the steam plant."
Restored to his usual good humor by the pause in labor, Frank said, "At least we won't be cold at night."
"I'd never let you get cold, honey boy." Joe flung this observation over his shoulder as he bent down to scoop up more mud.
Emmanuel gave a snort then, and Bat and Slow exchanged smiles. Everyone in the Little Dorm knew that Joe had taken to sneaking into Frank's bed after lights were out. Even Trusty knew, because he'd caught them sleeping peacefully together one morning. Since it was clear that both boys were where they wanted to be, and since they were both fully clothed in their underwear, Trusty had confined himself to telling them that they'd best not take the matter any further than they had, or they'd be in trouble with the Night Watchman.
He had left them in an agony of curiosity as to what happened "further."
Bat had been amused. One week, not long before he was arrested, a childhood playmate of his had invited him to tea with her mother. The mother had proceeded to explain to him – with drawings, no less – what constituted "further" when it came to boys and girls, with an added explanation that he mustn't go too far with any girl he wasn't marrying. Then she had shooed them out of the room, saying, "Bat, you can go to Sally's bedroom now. I'm sure you two want to play." And they had.
Now, leaning against his shovel, Bat spared a thought of regret for Sally. She was so pretty that she'd likely be married by the time he got out of prison. In the meantime . . . His gaze wandered over to Emmanuel, who had removed his jacket and shirt to work, revealing from his physique that he was well on his way to manhood. Bat figured that, if he turned up at Emmanuel's bedside one night, Emmanuel would likely invite him under the sheets, in his easygoing fashion. They could go a lot further than Joe and Frank had. Bat knew by now that such arrangements were common in the House of Transformation, though always risky in family cottages not placed under Trusty's benevolent rule. The Superintendent, a widower who had no doubt served his liege-master in bed during his youth, had taken it into his head that the inmates' bed-play was "filthy."
Bat forced his weary limbs back to work. He liked Emmanuel, as he liked all the boys in the Little Dorm, but he had no interest in establishing the sorts of ties that might bind him here when the time came for him to leave. He'd declared that to Trusty on the first day, and he hadn't changed his mind since then. This place was a prison, not a home; he'd wait till he was out of here before joining himself with anyone else in love.
He'd missed part of the conversation; Emmanuel was saying, ". . . Most of the farms around here belong to him. The farmers are his tenants. No wonder he wants to place us out with the farmers. We're free labor to him, even when we're paroled."
Bat cast another quick glance in the direction of Trusty. Trusty had moved his conversation with the Superintendent a few yards from the trench, no doubt to prevent the Super from overhearing this conversation.
"Is the House of Transformation's farmer the Super's tenant?" asked Frank.
Emmanuel shrugged as he knelt down in the mud with his bucket. "Might as well be. He's married to Super's daughter. —Hoi, watch out." This was to Mordecai who was in danger of staggering in front of Frank's pickaxe, having returned from delivering his latest load.
Bat caught hold of Mordecai as Joe said, "I heard the farmer and his wife can't have children, even though they've been trying for years."
The other boys exchanged looks, but nobody voiced any doubts. Joe was always up to date on the campus gossip.
"But she's pretty!" cried Slow, who had not quite mastered yet the rules for how children were produced.
"She surely is," said Joe appreciatively as he paused to take out his matches, first glancing around to ensure that none of the boys from the Big Dorm were watching. Super and Trusty remained absorbed in their conversation. Slow went over to help Mordecai push the wheelbarrow up the incline.
A question had been forming in Bat's mind for several weeks. Now, with Mordecai gone, Bat blurted out the question: "Joe, did you have anything to do with that ferry fire that killed Mordecai's parents?"
Frank looked shocked. From the expression on Emmanuel's face, Bat surmised that this possibility had occurred to him too.
Joe simply gave Bat a sour look. "There were folks on that ferry. Not just men and women – kids too. I'm not a murderer."
"His master's boat was empty," Frank said in quick support.
"So why'd you set it on fire?" asked Emmanuel with mild curiosity. "'Cause you hated your master?"
"That fire?" Joe gave a wicked smile. "That fire was fun." He pulled out his box of cigarettes.
Emmanuel snorted again as he paused to drink another full dipper of water from one of the pails. Bat paused too. As Slow and Mordecai returned, Frank tossed dippers to them while Joe tamped down the end of his cigarette. Cigarettes were the most precious contraband on campus; inmates who were forcibly returned from parole would sneak back boxes of cigarettes and sell them for favors. Emmanuel, who received gifts of fruit from his mother through the mail, regularly exchanged the fruit for cigarettes that he gave to Joe. Emmanuel figured – probably correctly, Bat thought as he watched Joe lovingly strike a match – that this was the safest way to channel Joe's worship of fire.
"Can I try one?" asked Frank, staring at the cigarette.
"You ain't getting hooked on one of those coffin nails, boy," said Emmanuel as he placed Frank into a headlock. Joe laughed as Frank twisted free and thrust Emmanuel against the shallow wall of the trench. Newly returned, Slow pulled Mordecai to safety as the struggling boys thrust dirt all over the place. Bat dived to save the pails of water.
"All right, that's enough." It was Trusty's voice. The result of his arrival was striking. Frank immediately released Emmanuel. Bat rose to his feet, brushing dirt out of his hair and grabbing for his shovel. And Joe slipped the matchbox back into his drawers as he swept the lit cigarette behind his back.
"You're all here to work, not fight," Trusty told them. "Drink your water and get back to digging. Give me that." He held out his palm.
With a sigh, Joe handed him the cigarette. Trusty ground it underfoot as he said, "Matches too."
For a moment, it looked as though Joe would turn stubborn. Trusty tilted his head to one side. "You planning to eat supper tonight?"
The threat of the missed meal did its trick. With a deep heave of breath such as a martyred slave might emit, Joe took out the matches and handed them to Trusty. Slow had been looking exceedingly nervous during this conversation, but there was really no reason. Trusty never beat the boys in his care. At most, he'd tell the Super that a misbehaving boy deserved to be lowered by a merit-grade, but that rarely happened. Trusty anticipated and caught problems early on, before they had time to worsen, perhaps because he was an inmate himself.
Trusty treated the matches with the same contempt as the cigarette, dowsing them in a pail that held a bare inch of water. Emmanuel raised his eyebrows. The Watchman, they all knew, would confiscate matches and cigarettes from boys, and then he'd sell the contraband to journeymen who were being released from prison with a few coins in their pocket. Trusty could not fail to know that he was destroying a healthy profit for himself.
"Back to work," Trusty instructed; then he beckoned to Bat. Bat set down his shovel and came forward, ignoring the looks that the other boys gave him – the looks that the other boys always gave him when Trusty took him aside for a lecture. Without any word ever spoken between them, Trusty had established himself as Bat's private mentor, giving him a quiet word on the side whenever Bat began to stray from the straight path.
Bat wondered what he had done this time. He'd been trying for weeks to behave properly, though it wasn't easy, especially on week's end, when the cleric from the local chapel would stand in the transformatory chapel, thundering down his denunciations of the boys' evil ways. Afterwards, on the campus lawn, there would be drill inspection by the Superintendent, which was even harder to take, for the Super invariably had an "encouraging" word for each well-behaved family cottage about how far the boys had come from their days of ill repute. Bat sometimes suspected that the journeymen kept their family cottages in everlasting turmoil simply in order to avoid these speeches.
He and Trusty passed the boys in the Big Dorm and came out of the trench. The sun blazed like flames from a house-fire. Trusty, who was wearing a straw hat like those worn by all the inmates who did outside work, took it off to fan himself, one of the few times he had ever hinted that he suffered as badly as his fellow inmates.
Trusty looked tired. Bat had heard him get up during the middle of the night when he was fetched by the Watchman to fix some plumbing problem that had developed with the Super's toilet. He often did chores like that around the campus; Bat had overheard the Superintendent refer to him as "my man-of-all-work."
Now Trusty said, "Your transfer has come through. You start tomorrow morning."
He couldn't help hopping on his toes with joy. "At the campus farm? What about the other boys?"
"Harry is being transferred to the stables. The rest of the Little Dorm stays in the broom manufactory."
His spirits abruptly fell. He looked back at the boys. Emmanuel, Slow, Frank, and Joe were all laughing over a joke, but Mordecai, who was trying to turn the wheelbarrow around, looked as though he was about to pass out.
"Say, can't he be left off this work?" As he spoke, Bat pointed at the younger boy. "He's not made for this. He's a domestic, and he's too young to be hauling rocks anyhow. Even working the fields would be better for him than this."
Trusty took his time in answering. Finally he said, "You prepared to let him take the farm job in your place?"
The words fell like chunks of hot lead, searing through his insides. He looked back at the trench. Two thousand nine hundred feet, Joe had said. The tunnel would take months to dig. Months of shovelling in the blazing sun. . . ....more
She was a newlywed. She was also a Seeker, duty-bound to search the Eternal Dungeon's female prisoners for their crimes. In the view of many[Excerpt:]
She was a newlywed. She was also a Seeker, duty-bound to search the Eternal Dungeon's female prisoners for their crimes. In the view of many men, she knew, that made her unwomanly. Birdesmond Manx Chapman was determined that her husband not be one of them.
Weldon Chapman, the mild-mannered Seeker whom she had married, had said nothing to her that indicated he had any doubts about their recent marriage. But he had mentioned, from time to time, the life he had lived as a young man with his beloved parents. His mother's cooking played a prominent role in such tales.
So she decided to cook him a meal in honor of their first year together. That seemed a simple enough exercise. The Record-keeper of the Queendom of Yclau's royal prison, charged with finding living quarters for the Eternal Dungeon's first married Seeker couple, had thrown all caution to the wind and assigned them a large two-bedroom apartment, complete with a full-scale kitchen. All she needed to gather were the ingredients for the meal.
This she tried to explain on one summer morning, standing by the outer dungeon's exit while confronting two guards who had their daggers pointed at her.
"But I'm simply going shopping!" she protested.
"I'm sorry, ma'am." The senior guard's voice was grim. "No Seekers are permitted to leave this dungeon without permission from the Codifier."
"It's in the oath you took," the junior guard contributed helpfully.
She knew all about the oath. She had fought her way bitterly to the point where the Eternal Dungeon would allow her to take a Seeker's oath of eternal confinement. It had simply not occurred to her that the dungeon authorities would interpret the oath so literally as to prevent her from carrying out her wifely duties.
It was typical of the sort of trials she had encountered since becoming a Seeker. She had thought that the Record-keeper would pass out when she mentioned her need for certain monthly supplies used by nearly all women her age.
"Perhaps the Cook can be of help to you," suggested the senior guard, who had not yet lowered his dagger. "She's in charge of food supplies in the dungeon."
The Cook was manifestly not inclined to be of any help whatsoever. . . ....more
At that moment, the door opened. A light spring breeze, fresh with the smell of Bay water, entered the store, along with a waterman, unmista[Excerpt:]
At that moment, the door opened. A light spring breeze, fresh with the smell of Bay water, entered the store, along with a waterman, unmistakable in his oilskin hat and coat and boots. Simmons caught a flash of the man's rank-mark on the back of his right wrist as he removed his glove: black.
The servant wasted no time in the doorway; he limped forward as Simmons's uncle said, "Ah, Sol. I'm glad to see you up and about. How's that leg of yours doing?"
"None too good." The servant's reply was so brief, and without proper salutation, that Simmons might have thought the waterman rude, but he noticed that the man had carefully removed his hat the moment that the owner of the general store spoke.
His uncle, at any rate, seemed to treat his remark as inoffensive. "I'm sorry about that – very sorry indeed. But you've found a new captain, I hear? How have the oysters been this winter?"
Sol shook his head as he removed a list from within his coat. "None too good neither. Way I figure, all the right good ones've been stole by those dredgers from the Western Shore."
His uncle sighed. "It's very sad, very sad indeed that there's such animosity between our landstead and the Second Landstead. That their boats should take oysters from our own territory . . . Ah, well, oyster season is over. And Captain Harvey is doing well, I suppose, if he could afford to hire you as his new man."
Sol shrugged as he laid the list on a lard barrel next to Simmons's uncle. "Needed couple more servants for his boat. He's still short a man. Come autumn, he'll be looking for more watermen."
"Really? He needs more crew, with all the watermen on this island?" Simmons's uncle took the list and peered at it through his spectacles.
"'Deed he do. He's like to hire a full-grown man, but an oyster-shucking boy would do." Sol's gaze wandered over to Simmons. After a moment, Simmons realized why, and he felt his face grow flush.
Travelling from the capital to Hoopers Island had been no problem; Simmons had simply hired a boat with most of the remaining money his father had given him for the brief period during which he would still need his family's income, before his liege-master should begin paying him. But Simmons's belongings had been a greater problem. He had not anticipated having to move them further than the bedroom that had long awaited him in the house of his liege-master's father.
With his plans turned awry, he had been forced to dispose of all but his most precious goods. Fortunately, school term had only just ended; he had been able to give many of his belongings to the servant who had tended his study-bedroom at Capital School.
His trunks, he had sent down to Hoopers Island by road. He had taken care to hire an automobile, naively believing that, with such a swift means of transportation, his trunks would be awaiting him when he arrived by boat.
His uncle had smothered a laugh when he heard this, then had patiently explained that most of the marshy roads between the capital and Hoopers Island were not yet paved. The roads on Hoopers Island were. The pavement consisted of logs and oyster shells.
Feeling very much an ignorant townboy, and envisioning the automobile wallowing in the mud – or even sinking without a trace in the marshes – Simmons had made do as best he could. His uncle, a portly man, had no clothes that would fit the new arrival, and his uncle's apprentice was several sizes too small. So Simmons – by now grateful for anything that would cover his body – had borrowed clothing from his uncle's manservant, a waterman who spent most of his days making deliveries by boat.
His uncle, looking up from the list and seeing Sol's gaze upon Simmons, seemed to realize the mistake that the waterman had made. Characteristically, he did not reprimand the erring servant. Placing his arm across Simmons's shoulder, he said, "This is my nephew, Jasper Simmons. His journeymanship birthday is coming next month, so he's staying with us this month while he decides which master he wishes to pledge his liege-service to."
Sol did not embarrass Simmons by asking, "Why did you wait till now?" But neither did he dip his eyes, as any well-trained servant would ordinarily do under such circumstances. All that he said was, "Right glad to meet you . . . sir."
The slight pause could have been taken any number of ways, but Simmons, staring into the waterman's eyes, suddenly realized that this was a servant who rarely addressed masters as sir.
Smiling at the special courtesy he had just been granted, Simmons said, "I'm glad to meet you as well, Servant Sol."
Then, and only then, did the waterman dip his eyes. And Simmons realized that he had been granted a deep courtesy indeed. Simmons wondered what, by all that was sacred, he had done to earn such honor.
His uncle squeezed Simmons's arm in some sort of silent accolade. "I won't keep you, Sol; I know you're busy. Some of these items will have to be wrapped. Your boat-master still docks at Back Creek? I'll have my apprentice bring the goods over, then."
"Master Simmons." Sol's slight nod of farewell encompassed both uncle and nephew; then he turned away.
At the doorway, he paused. Another man had just arrived, wearing a wool coat against the spring chill. He made some brief greeting, and Sol, hearing the man's refined accent, carefully stepped to one side to let the master enter.
"That's a good man," said Simmons's uncle softly as the door shut behind Sol. "A very good man. I'm glad you didn't take offense at his mistake."
"Why should I?" Simmons laughed as he turned to his uncle, but he kept his voice low as well, so as not to disturb the newly arrived master, who was now at the other end of the store, fingering a bottle of morphine.
His uncle raised his eyebrows. "Some masters would be very offended indeed to be mistaken for a servant."
"Oh, but I look like a servant at the moment." Simmons stared down at his shabby clothing. "It's not his fault. I suppose I ought really to change out of these, lest I mislead—"
A bell, higher in pitch than a fog-bell, interrupted his speech. His uncle glanced out the window facing the water and said, "Postal boat. It's early today."
"Shall I help you bring in the mail, Uncle?" asked Simmons.
"No, no, my lad. You stay here and tend the customers." His third-ranked uncle patted Simmons's shoulder somewhat awkwardly.
Simmons could understand why. He was still becoming used to it himself, his rise in rank. At school, he had always held the awkward position of being the son of a third-ranked master who was very, very rich. Now, after many years, the Third Landstead's House of Government had eased the lack of alignment between their family's wealth and rank by granting to Simmons's father the title of Envoy Extraordinary, assigning him duties in an overseas nation in the Old World and raising him to second rank.
Until that time, as a third-ranked lad, Simmons's choices were clear: as a journeyman, he could train under his father, under a third-ranked master, or under a second-ranked master – not under a first-ranked master, as he futilely tried to point out to his first-ranked schoolfellow Eugene on many occasions.
But now Simmons was second-ranked. He could train under a first-ranked master. He could even pledge his liege-loyalty to that master.
"I told you it would work out," Eugene had squealed, hugging the older boy on the day that Simmons received the news of his eligibility to be Eugene's liegeman. And Simmons had hugged Eugene back, stunned and joyful at this turn of events.
But it had not worked out – not in the end. . . ....more
"Nine courses," Elsdon reported with satisfaction as he watched a maid set down a platter filled with rockfish, a delicacy brought in from t[Excerpt:]
"Nine courses," Elsdon reported with satisfaction as he watched a maid set down a platter filled with rockfish, a delicacy brought in from the bay at the other end of Yclau, no doubt at great expense, judging from the fish's freshness. Nearby, one of the menservants was setting down a tureen of calf's head soup – on feast days, all courses were placed on the table at once – while another manservant decanted a rare wine from the newly independent Magisterial Republic of Mip.
"Yes. And when you were a child?" Layle was adept by now at knowing when Elsdon was avoiding questions. It was a skill he had acquired when Elsdon was still his prisoner.
Elsdon sighed, but his response was immediate, not even waiting for the servants to withdraw. "Whatever other faults my father had, he wasn't a skinflint. We were well-fed on the Commoners' Festival. . . . Sara and I," he clarified, as though it were not immediately obvious which name he was avoiding. Layle only wished he could be of more help to Elsdon as the junior Seeker painfully readjusted his perspective upon his father, whom Elsdon had adored as a child.
Now Layle waited, as he would wait for a prisoner to volunteer information. He was pursuing the conversation – which might or might not bear fruit – largely in order to take his mind off the enticing smell of the so-called Yclau ham, a cured ham that originated in the rural provinces of Yclau that surrounded the capital. It had just been placed on the table by a good-looking maid, but Layle could no more touch the ham than the maid. One of the many disadvantages of being a Seeker was that, while it was not entirely impossible to eat with one's hood on, it was a good deal easier to wait until one was in private and could raise the face-cloth. He and Elsdon would not be able to eat their dinner until the servants – who seemed to be taking their blasted time about it – had finished loading the table with culinary treasures.
"I suppose I took it for granted back then," Elsdon confessed. "Delicious food, all the time. It's different when you can only feast twice a year."
Layle nodded. The Commoners' Festival at the beginning of winter and the Lords' Festival in the spring were the only two days of the year on which the Seekers were permitted to break away from the dungeon's bland diet, designed to keep prisoners alive but not to coddle them.
"And what about you?" Elsdon asked.
Elsdon had timed his question tactfully, for a moment when all the servants had withdrawn. Layle paused a few seconds to ascertain that nobody stood near the door. His ears having assured him of this, he replied, "I never knew of the Commoners' Festival till I came to live in this queendom. I've heard since then that some Vovimians celebrate the traditional Yclau holidays, but when I was growing up in east Vovim, the holiday for feasting and for giving presents to the poor was Mercy's Feast."
"Your goddess's festival?" Elsdon rested his hooded chin on his fists, clearly interested. "One of the girls at my school was originally from Vovim. Her family celebrated the traditional Vovimian festivals. Mercy's Feast is at midsummer, isn't it? Did your servants prepare feasts for you?"
During the first few weeks after the 101 strokes, his only awareness had been of pain and anger. He knew dimly that the anger was not merely[Excerpt:]
During the first few weeks after the 101 strokes, his only awareness had been of pain and anger. He knew dimly that the anger was not merely for his own sake. Others here had suffered needlessly. Others here needed to be protected. His own pain had come from an attempt to protect. No one here was to be trusted, except those he had sought to protect.
His first sight of a prisoner after he rose from his sickbed nearly blinded him. Leaving his male nurse nodding off to sleep, he had departed the healer's surgery and had curiously explored one of the dungeon corridors. Several dark figures that he passed tried to speak to him; he ignored them. He was more interested in the iron doors that led off the corridor. He sensed that treasure lay behind those doors, but he couldn't envision what that treasure might be.
A door opened, and through it came the sun.
He threw himself to his knees. The dark figures, mistaking the cause, tried to pull him up with their coffin-cold hands, but he threw them off, blind with the glory of what he had seen. He heard someone say, "Take the prisoner away." That was how he knew what he had seen.
He let the dark figures persuade him back to his sickbed. He needed time to think. As the days passed, he took more and more illicit forays through the Eternal Dungeon, both the inner dungeon where the prisoners and Seekers were kept and the outer dungeon where laborers worked and guards lived. He was aware of carefully swept floors, neatly painted walls, entranceways to further corridors. But it was always the iron doors that fascinated him. He waited one day, in the shadow of a corner, to see whether it would happen again.
It did. The door opened. This time, the Shining One did not emerge. He was bound to the wall, being beaten by a dark figure.
Barrett's first impulse was to kill the dark figure. But he was still weak in body, and he remembered the consequences of the last time he had tried to help one of the Shining Ones. He would not survive another 101 strokes. Should he sacrifice himself for the Shining Ones now, or should he wait for a more important occasion to do so? He forced himself to return to the surgery and think.
The next day, the High Seeker visited. There had been many dark figures calling upon his sickbed, among them a junior Seeker named Elsdon Taylor, who claimed that Barrett had worked under him in the past. Barrett ignored them all. But Barrett knew who this latest visitor was. He was the man who had laid raw stripes across Barrett's back.
For an attempted murderer, the High Seeker seemed exceedingly mild-mannered. He suggested that, if Barrett was well enough to rise from his bed on occasion, he might wish to visit the dungeon's library in order to educate himself about the world in which he lived.
It was good advice, despite the source. The next day, Barrett went to the library, accompanied by his nurse. Barrett's primary purpose for the visit was to learn what the Shining Ones were. It was already clear to him that he was the only man in the dungeon who could see the prisoners as they truly were.
If he told other people what he had seen, perhaps they would think he had gone mad; perhaps he would be locked up in an asylum. During the previous week, a mind healer had carefully quizzed him to check if the 101-stroke beating had damaged his brain, which left Barrett momentarily uncertain whether he was actually seeing what he thought he saw.
Fortunately, the library revealed the truth. He spent every waking hour there for weeks, chasing threads, until he found what he was seeking, in the very oldest books.
The ancient ones had known the Shining Ones....more
It was the beginning of the sixteenth century, and the world was changing. Ships sailed the ocean, exploring the Old World that had been lef[Excerpt:]
It was the beginning of the sixteenth century, and the world was changing. Ships sailed the ocean, exploring the Old World that had been left behind long ago, in ancient times. A new faith swept the nations of the New World with fervor, promising the possibility of rebirth, not only in a future lifetime, but now. And in a small, sunny room of his castle that grew stifling hot in the summertime, High Master Fernao experimented with new ways in which to create sculptures.
Pip, his piece, stood for hours on end in the sculpting room, occasionally turning his eyes to glance through the window. Outside, fishing boats skimmed the waters of the Bay as they came to port at Solomons Island, offshore from where the High Master's castle stood. He could smell the scent of crabs as they scrabbled in their cages, desperately trying to escape their fate as they were unloaded onto the docks. He could watch as the fishermen secured their captives.
But he preferred to watch his master at work. While Pip stood in the heat, sweating and itching, High Master Fernao would carefully sculpt the cooling wax, revealing what lay within the wax. Slowly, ever so slowly, a face would emerge: a strong face, set with eyes that sought something beyond the horizon.
The face never smiled. Pip had watched the High Master try to sculpt smiles – had followed the High Master's orders to smile – but the smile was never quite right. . . ....more
"It would have to be a bloody big protest to get the attention of all those people." D. spoke lightly.
Zenas shifted restlessly in his seat[Excerpt:]
"It would have to be a bloody big protest to get the attention of all those people." D. spoke lightly.
Zenas shifted restlessly in his seat on the floor. D. had spoken in a seemingly careless manner, but from his expression, and from the expressions of the others in this living cell, it was obvious that everyone knew what was being proposed.
Finally, Birdesmond said, "We knew we'd reach this stage in the end. I wasn't willing to take chances if our sacrifices would be useless, but . . . Yes, now is the moment to move."
"Surely you're not in danger, ma'am?" said Clifford. "You've never tortured any of your prisoners. You're not allowed to, by the dungeon rules on searching female prisoners."
Birdesmond gave a faint smile. "But I am a leader of the New School. If the New School makes its final move, the High Seeker will know which of us are to blame."
"Well, it's about bloody time, that's all I can say," growled D. "Some of the other guards who belong to the New School, the ones we represent - they've been asking me how long we planned to drag our feet before we did the obvious."
"Language, please," Elsdon reprimanded automatically. "Do you mean that the other members of the New School would be willing to assist with this?"
"The ones with guts will," inserted Clifford. "Look, I don't want to sound stupid, but I just want us to be clear: We're talking about refusing to torture prisoners, aren't we?"
Barrett said, "Hangman."
"Yes," agreed Birdesmond softly. "The Code's penalty for Seekers and guards who refuse to carry out the prescribed methods of searching prisoners is execution."
"Ready to be hanged, Cliff?" As he spoke, D. gave a gruesome grin. ...more
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
The narrow breaking cell was warmer than the corridor. Although the Eternal Dungeon, with due caution toward the ingenuity of its prisoners, rExcerpt:
The narrow breaking cell was warmer than the corridor. Although the Eternal Dungeon, with due caution toward the ingenuity of its prisoners, refused to place stoves within the breaking cells, the prisoners were kept in relative comfort. The ceiling held electric lights behind unbreakable glass, while a vertical hypocaust blasted warm air through the old furnaces, located behind glass blocks along the short end wall of each cell. The old stone ledges in the cells were in the process of being replaced by tall beds that matched the size and shape of beds in the Seekers' living quarters; this particular cell had already made the change. In this redesigned breaking cell, there was also a washstand, a small shelf beneath it for toiletry articles, and a shelf on the wall on which were placed a copy of the Code of Seeking and the prisoner's choice of a prayer book. There were even plans to add a toilet and running water to every breaking cell. In design, the prisoners' cells of the Eternal Dungeon offered the appearance of being quite modern.
Vito could well guess why the High Seeker had sought to disguise, through superficial changes, the antique cruelty of the dungeon. Inconspicuous against the long wall was the whipping ring, while the dungeon racks were kept in separate rooms, never shown to dungeon visitors, other than the prisoners.
The prisoner in this cell was hard to see, for he had somehow managed to cram himself under the tall bed. He was sitting on the hard floor, his arms wrapped around his legs, his face pressed against his knees, his body rocking back and forth.
Vito paused at the entrance, hearing the cell door lock behind him. Then he cleared his throat. "Mr. Gurth?"
The rocking continued, unabated.
He tried again. "Edwin Gurth?"
A face looked up cautiously. It was young. It said nothing.
Vito did not make the mistake of walking forward to take a closer look at the prisoner. Seekers died that way. "Sir, will you stand up, please?"
He expected, at best, a cautious rising; instead, the prisoner scrambled quickly out from under the bed, leapt to his feet, and stood rigidly at attention. Fear was stark upon his face.
So much for the guards' assessment of this being a dangerous prisoner. Vito lowered his voice accordingly. "Mr. Gurth, I am your Seeker—"
"Seeker?" The prisoner's face took on a look of bewilderment. "Seeker? Am I in the Eternal Dungeon?"
Once again, Vito paused, taking in the prisoner's appearance. Prisoners in the Eternal Dungeon were permitted to keep their own clothes, other than their jacket and vest. This prisoner's shirt and trousers were manifestly commoners' clothing, yet his accent, unexpectedly, was that of a mid-class man. Perhaps he or his family had received a downturn of fortune. Vito thought again of the book sitting unopened in his own living cell.
"Yes, Mr. Gurth. Were you not informed at the time of your arrest that you would be brought here?"
He was prepared for anything at this point, but even so, the prisoner's response took him off-guard. A look of shock blasted across the young man's face, like a storm-wave. The prisoner fell to his knees. "Oh, no!" he cried. "Is Gurth in trouble again?" ...more
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.