The main corridor in the Eternal Dungeon was cold. It was always cold; he had never known it to be otherwise. The prisoners received the com[Excerpt.]
The main corridor in the Eternal Dungeon was cold. It was always cold; he had never known it to be otherwise. The prisoners received the comfort of heating in their cells, and presumably the Seekers did as well, though D. Urman had never lingered long enough in a Seeker's cell to find out. Guards such as himself shivered in autumnal temperatures year-round.
The corridor was also dark, lit only by a minimum of electric lamps that cast shadow-palls over the prisoner they escorted. Few guards were present in the corridor; the High Seeker had stripped the inner dungeon of all but the skeleton crew of the dusk-shift guard, forcing every other guard and Seeker to watch the coming event.
Mr. Urman – addressed that way by friend and foe alike in the stiltedly formal setting of the Eternal Dungeon – would just as soon have taken his annual leave this week. It wasn't as though he had never seen a punishment before. He had administered many himself, quelling murderous prisoners into obedience or brutalizing innocent prisoners – whatever his Seekers demanded of him, he had done. But today's punishment, everyone agreed, would be like none that the dungeon had seen for many decades. Mr. Urman wished that he had his prisoner's courage to rebel against orders.
They reached the closed door at the south end of the corridor, which lay closest to the great gates above the dungeon. The prisoner – walking unbound between his escorts – halted abruptly before the door. His breath and heartbeat were rapid; his skin was bleached clean of color. Mr. Sobel, senior night guard to the High Seeker, frowned on the other side of the prisoner. Like Mr. Urman, he had seen many a prisoner faint in his bonds. This prisoner looked as though he would not get as far as the place of his punishment before his knees gave way.
Mr. Urman thought this was eminently sensible of him. "Look," he said roughly to the prisoner, keeping his voice low enough that he would not be overheard by any of the guards they had recently walked past, "you don't have to go through with this. You can still ask for the other sentence to be passed."
Mr. Boyd's mouth twisted into something not quite a smile. He did not look in the direction of Mr. Urman; his attention was on the door. "Take the path of my late prisoner, you mean?"
"It's suicide either way!" His voice was too loud; Mr. Sobel shot him a look, and Mr. Urman quickly lowered his tone. "Mr. Boyd, you know that you're going to die either way. The High Seeker is determined to have his revenge on you for helping a prisoner escape from his cruelty. The only question is how long it will take you to die. Why let the High Seeker have his extra pleasure at your lingering death? Are you some sort of masochist?"
Mr. Sobel winced, but he made no effort to cut the conversation short. No doubt he had been making similar pleas to Mr. Boyd in the hours leading up to this moment. He and Mr. Boyd had been the closest of friends since the time that Barrett Boyd had agreed to the dubious honor of assisting Mr. Sobel to guard the High Seeker during his notorious breaking of the army officer Thatcher Owen.
Mr. Urman half expected Mr. Boyd to make some joke, perhaps in reference to Elsdon Taylor. But Mr. Boyd, staring at the door, simply said, "No."
"Then why satisfy his sadism?" Mr. Urman demanded. "For love of the Code, don't you know what kind of flogging you'll receive in there? By the time the High Seeker is through with you, your back will be nothing but strips of flesh hanging from bone, while your life's blood puddles on the—"
"Mr. Urman." Mr. Sobel's quiet voice held a distinct note of warning. Mr. Urman shut his mouth. Too late, he saw that Mr. Boyd had paled to the color of curd.
The imprisoned guard turned his face slowly toward Mr. Urman. His face was slick with sweat. His eyes seemed glazed over, like a dead man's. He said, in carefully spaced words, "If I allowed myself to be hanged quietly . . . If I allowed Layle Smith to take me discreetly away and execute me in a room far away from any eyewitness . . . How would matters change in the Eternal Dungeon?"
Mr. Urman started to speak, stopped, and tried to think of the right words to say.
"They would not change." Mr. Boyd's voice was unusually hard now. "Matters didn't change after the High Seeker murdered Mr. Ferris through a sentence of hanging. The High Seeker executed the oldest Seeker in this dungeon for a small disobedience, and nothing happened except that people here grumbled a bit for a day or two. If I allowed myself to be hanged – quickly, painlessly, privately – then the High Seeker would be free to continue on the murderous path he has chosen. Only by making this execution public – only by allowing the High Seeker to exercise his sadism on me in front of others – can I have any hope that the other inhabitants of this dungeon will be shocked into an awareness that they are being governed by a man who engages in behavior that is as vindictive and vicious as the behavior of any of the criminals we are supposed to be guarding the Queendom of Yclau against." Mr. Boyd took a deep breath before adding, "This is the only way in which I can make the High Seeker himself aware of what he has become. Mr. Urman, Layle Smith's soul is as much in danger right now as that of any unrepentant criminal."
Mr. Urman struggled for a reply, but Mr. Boyd had already turned away from him. "Let's get this over with," Mr. Boyd said in a flat voice, "while I still have enough courage left to do this."
And with those words, he opened the door and walked into his execution chamber. ...more
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)]...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
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.
I had trouble sleeping that night. I don't know why; sleep had always been my one blessing at Mercy, transporting me back to the pleasant daysExcerpt:
I had trouble sleeping that night. I don't know why; sleep had always been my one blessing at Mercy, transporting me back to the pleasant days preceding my arrest. I usually woke with a smile on my face. But tonight, tired though I was, I found myself staring up at the ceiling, hour after tedious hour, wishing there were cracks there that I could count.
Some of the prisoners had started a debate the previous year over what was most painful about Mercy. Was it the separation from family and friends? The beatings? The humiliations? The backbreaking work? The rapes? The list went on and on.
I hadn't participated in the debate, which, like all such conversations, had taken the form of shouts exchanged between the cells. There was a reason I'd been granted the luxury of a single-man cell: my last three cellmates had been prepared to murder me rather than live another moment with me. Since the death of a prisoner was not, alas, one of the many pains permitted at a life prison, Mercy's Keeper had finally dealt with the problem by giving me a cell of my own – which, of course, had been my plan all along. It was irritating to have to endure being strangled three times in order to achieve what I wanted.
Particularly since I couldn't hope that the stranglings would be successful.
Though I had no desire to become chummy with the bog-scum who inhabited this place, my own unspoken contribution to the debate was that boredom was the greatest pain. Boredom didn't come often – most days after work I was barely awake enough to do whatever my present guard required of me – but when it occurred, it was excruciating, like being flayed slowly by a dagger. I often thought that, if I were ever broken into madness, it would be through such a spell of boredom.
I say all this to explain why, when I heard the cell door being opened at lamp-lighting time, my first thought was not (as one might expect), "Oh, no, not again," but rather, "Thank the gods, something new." I rolled over onto my stomach and raised my head to look.
He was a slightly built man; I could see that at once from the outline of his shape against the fire in the pit. With my eyes still dazzled by the newly lit lamps, I couldn't immediately make out the man's face, but I could see one of his hands, gripping hard the hilt of his dagger. That grip stopped my heart for a moment, but even my wildest imagination couldn't hope that the new guard would start our acquaintance by stabbing me, so I raised my eyes to his face.
And my heart stopped once more. I jerked upright in bed, twinging an old hip wound as I did so. I had been rather foolish during my first year, testing the guards in various ways. I winced.
The guard said softly, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."
"Not at all," I said through gritted teeth as I rubbed my hip. "I'll return the favor when I can."
It took no artifice on my part to sound annoyed, though the annoyance was aimed solely at myself. This was not the guard I had been preparing myself for. I had expected a rod-mutilating monster, and what I found myself faced with was a young man.
His face came full into the light as he stepped forward. Wearing the uniform of a Compassion guard, he looked even more like his father: he had the same thin lips and the same straight eyebrows. But the eyes were empty of all coldness – indeed, of all expression of any sort – and there was no smile on his lips, cruel or otherwise.
"My name is Thomas," he said. "I'm your new guard."
I noted the use of his given name rather than his paternal name, and with the instinct of a veteran fighter I dropped and made my attack accordingly. "Ah, yes," I said. "The son of Compassion's Keeper. I can expect great deeds from you, I'm sure."
His lips grew even thinner, but that was all; it seemed that he was well used to this mode of attack. He said, as though I had not spoken, "My job is to provide service to you during your stay at this prison, and to make your stay as comfortable as is possible under your circumstances. If you have any needs, I hope you will let me know of them."
I stared at him open-mouthed for a moment, and then I gave a hoot of laughter that resounded through the entire level. The early-morning conversations across the fire-pit paused briefly, and Sedgewick, who was passing my cell, glanced in with narrowed eyes before continuing on.
"Let me – let me understand you correctly," I said, struggling to gain control of myself. "You'll give me any service I want?"
"Any service that is in accordance with the rules of your stay."
"But the only rule is that I should not be permitted escape, either through death or any other means. So you'll give me anything else?"
"If it's within reason, yes."
"Anything at all?"
"Tell me what you want, and I'll be able to give you a firm answer." His patience, I saw with delight, was wearing down.
"Fine," I said, leaning back and pulling off the blanket to reveal my body underneath. I had given up wearing clothes at bedtime several guards before. "I want you to come over here and service me on your knees." ...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. . . ."
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
"No," said Merrick flatly as he shoved his only belonging – a toothbrush given to him by his previo
They had to settle the issue of sex first.
"No," said Merrick flatly as he shoved his only belonging – a toothbrush given to him by his previous guard – under the stone bed-ledge on the other side of the cell.
Well, that was a direct enough answer. Or would have been, if Tyrrell had been the type to accept 'no' for an answer.
If he had been the type to accept 'no,' he wouldn't have spent two years persuading Merrick to become his cell-mate.
"Is it because . . ." He paused, wondering how to put this delicately. Because the Magisterial Republic of Mip had originally been colonized by the two warring nations of Yclau and Vovim, cultural clashes among Mippite citizens were inevitable. It was said that even Cecelia – the great Cecelia – had been rejected by a suitor's family, which was clearly a sign of lunacy in that family. Some of the Yclau-descended folk had strange notions about maintaining the purity of their families. Anyone ethnic or foreign or darker than a pasty shade of white was considered off-limits. That would make Tyrrell extremely off-limits. "It isn't because I was born in southern Vovim, is it?"
Merrick looked annoyed. "What, do you think I have something against players?"
Tyrrell straightened his spine. Like most emigrants from Vovim, he had acted in plays from time to time. Street plays, with no props other than broken objects dug out of the local garbage heap, but they were plays just the same. "Do you?" he responded in a challenging voice.
Merrick's mouth twisted. He was busy tightening the blankets on the bed-ledge with what seemed to Tyrrell to be unnecessary thoroughness, given that they were both about to go to bed. Unless – Tyrrell brightened at the thought – Merrick intended that they use only one bed-ledge.
After a moment, Merrick said, "The Bijou. The City Opera. The Frederick.. . ."
It turned out to be a very long recital. Tyrrell was impressed. "You've been to all the theaters in this city?"
"All the theaters in the whole of eastern Mip." Merrick mumbled the words.
"Gods preserve us – that many?"
Merrick glared at his blanket. "Does it matter? I've spent plenty of time with players. Let's move on to more important subjects."
Tyrrell hated to think what Merrick's idea was of an important subject. Probably how to strangle all the guards at Mercy Life Prison. He asked, "Is it because I'm short?"
Merrick sighed as he turned toward Tyrrell. "Look," he said, "you could be six feet tall, with dashing dark eyes, and skin a delicious shade of sepia—"
Tyrrell began to tick off in his mind which men in the prison fit this description.
"—and I still wouldn't fuck you. I'm just not interested in doing that. Not with you. Not with anyone here."
"Married?" Tyrrell asked sympathetically. So many men in the prison were, or had left behind love-mates, male or female, when they were convicted of their crimes and sent to spend the rest of their lives in Mercy Prison.
Merrick's gaze turned toward the flagstoned floor. "Hell."
"You don't have to swear at me," said Tyrrell reproachfully.
"I'm not swearing. I'm praying to Hell to rise up and kidnap you to his domain so that I won't have to continue this conversation. Look—"
And suddenly his voice was low, as low as it had been when he had finally made the amazing declaration that he would submit a formal request to his guard that he be transferred to Tyrrell's cell. So Tyrrell held his breath, because he knew that Merrick was never low-voiced – never, never, never – unless he was saying something that cost him a great deal to say.