Story summary: No weapons, no allies, and no guarantees that he will survive the test.
"If you ever meet our King . . ." Master Aeden had once said.
"Yes?" he had prompted impatiently. Patience came hard to him in those early days.
Master Aeden, who had been whetting his blade, gave him a level look. "Crawl on your belly," the master torturer had said flatly. "If you're lucky, you'll survive the encounter."
Layle Smith had laughed in response. He had laughed routinely in those days to any threat of danger. Now, standing in the vestibule of the King's enemy, the Queen of Yclau, he felt his stomach clench over and over, as though Master Aeden had forced boiling water down his throat. Again.
He was weaponless. Or rather, not quite weaponless, for he knew what he was capable of doing with his body, but he bore no blade, nor any whip, nor any lead pipe with which to stun his victim, nor any rope with which to strangle the victim . . . The number of potential weapons he had deliberately laid aside was frighteningly high. He fingered the book hidden in his cloak pocket, wondering how the torturers who had written it managed to break prisoners while demonstrating such unusual restraint.
Nearby, the Queen's guards eyed him uneasily. He was used to that. He had never met a man – nor a woman, for that matter – who did not fear him within a short time of meeting him. He had the aura of the High Master of hell, Master Aeden had once said, only half mocking. Layle had felt complimented at the time. Now he wished that he had a more innocent look, for the cold fearsomeness and sly intimacy he had used to bring himself to this point had encountered an unexpected barrier.
"I will not be moved," said the man sitting at the table in front of him.
The man was middle-aged, but he looked much like the elderly High Master of what had recently come to be called the Hidden Dungeon: he had the expression of a man who has seen everything and trusts no one. His eyes barely touched Layle's as he said, "You have managed to bribe and bluster and seduce and threaten and terrify your way past a dozen sets of guards in your quest to see our Queen. Those methods will not work with me."
He winced inwardly at the man's slight emphasis on the word "our." He had a good ear for accents and had never forgotten how his Yclau mother spoke – how he himself had spoken in his early childhood, before his mother died and he was left to make his own path in the Kingdom of Vovim. He had made good use of that accent ever since his arrival in the Queendom of Yclau, passing himself off as the son of an Yclau gentlewoman. Since his mother had in fact been an Yclau gentlewoman until she was abducted to Vovim by Layle's father, this was not a hard act to play.
The Queen's secretary, still not deigning to look Layle straight in the eye, picked up a pen and said reflectively, "You are rather young to be assigned the role of an assassin. I assume that you instead have some private grievance against the Queen, which you wish to air to her ear?"
Layle's dark humor took hold of him then; he just managed to keep from laughing at the idea that he was too young to murder. "I wish only to petition her, sir. I know that she is very busy with more important business, and I would not ask for a minute or two of her time if the matter were not so urgent—"
"Take him away." The secretary gestured with one hand while beginning to write with the other. "And if he re-enters the palace grounds again, I'll have Colonel Cartwright court-martial every guard in this palace."
The two guards came toward him, but slowly, reluctantly, with their hands gripping the hilts of their ceremonial swords. Layle waited until they were too close to be able to easily release their swords; then he stomped on the foot of one of them and punched the other one in the stomach. Amidst the howls of pain, he slipped free, as easily as a fish, and ran toward the Queen's door.
He had just reached the door when he heard a click behind him. He froze, recognizing the sound. Then he turned his head slowly in the direction of the click.
The secretary was standing now, both arms outstretched as he gripped a pistol that was levelled at Layle's head. "The Queen's guards may be fools," he said, "but I am not. Lie down on your belly."
Within three minutes, Layle had been stripped of all his clothes. He remained on his stomach, his fingers interlaced behind his head as he had been instructed, while the secretary and the Queen's guards discussed what they had found in his clothing. He was spending the time trying to figure out how best to extract himself from this situation. If this had happened only a month ago, the solution would have been easy: both the guards and the secretary would be dead by now. But he dared not kill, nor even maim the men.
No matter how much pleasure that would give him.
He was still contemplating this thought, and was wishing that he had developed ways over the years to disable men in a relatively harmless manner, when he heard a voice, frigid with disapproval, say, "What is going on here?"
He lifted his head cautiously. He could not see the new arrival, for the secretary, perhaps seeking to shield the arrival's modesty, had stepped forward to block the view. His back was now to Layle. The guards, frowning with concern, hurried over to their prisoner. One put his boot hard upon Layle's back, the other his blade against the back of Layle's neck.
A moment later, the first guard was lying on the floor writhing, while the second was staring with disbelief at his hand, which was dripping blood from his own sword. Layle, who was already regretting his precipitate action, ignored the secretary's pistol, which was ground against his temple. Kneeling down, he laid the guard's sword at the arrival's feet.
"Madam," he said, bowing his head to the Queen of Yclau, "might I beg your graciousness to spare a minute or two of your time?"
The Queen's chamber was filled to the brim with guards. Layle gathered, from the looks aimed at him, that this was unusual, as was the presence of the guards' colonel, who was glaring at the young man who had managed to trick his way past the palace defenses. Layle was less worried about the colonel and the guards than he was about the Queen's secretary, who was sitting quietly to the side, his pistol resting on his thigh, and his hand resting on the pistol. From the contemplative look on the secretary's face, Layle concluded that the secretary was not prepared to hold his fire the next time Layle made an unwise move.
Layle took care not to stir his now-clothed body in any way, but inwardly he shifted his feet. He had been within the houses of the mid-class: the tradesmen he had robbed and tortured and killed, as well as the house of his father and his father's wife, and once Master Aeden had received permission to take Layle to see an old friend of his, though the conversation on that day had gone so awkwardly that the master torturer had soon departed with his apprentice. Layle only wondered that Master Aeden had attempted the reunion. Surely he must have known that everyone in the world despised torturers, even the guards who helped the torturers with their bloody tasks.
So the looks of hatred he was receiving from every man in the room touched him hardly more than a sprinkling of summer rain. It was the furniture that alarmed him. Marble tables, diamond-edged mirrors, velvet-cushioned chairs, rugs that looked as though they must have been imported from overseas, and towering above it all, the gilded throne upon which the Queen sat.
Gods above and below. The part of Layle that wasn't counting up how much money he could get if he sold the room's contents to a fence was telling him, "You have taken a step too high for your station in life."
It did him no good to remind himself that, if the tales his mother had told were true – and of course they must have been – then his grandfather had once visited this palace as a child. If his mother's father were standing here now – rather than being long dead, murdered by Layle's father – he would spit upon his bastard grandson.
"And how do you come to know this information about my enemy?" the Queen asked in a clear voice. She was a stout, handsome woman, and to complete the portrait of elegance, she was wearing her crown, as well as her gold-threaded gown that had rustled like fine chain-mail when she ascended the throne. Layle knew that she must be no more than middle-aged – her surviving daughter had barely reached apprentice age – but she looked formidably old.
He hesitated. He had decided, upon one look at the Queen, to deal with her in a reasonably honest manner. It was no more than a confirmation of what he had decided on the journey here, but it still made him uneasy, to share so much damning information about himself with a stranger. It made him even more uneasy to share his information with a crowd of strangers.
This must have showed on his face, for the Queen waved her hand. "Clear the room."
"Madam!" The colonel leapt forward. "You must not strip yourself of your protection—"
The Queen turned a cold eye upon him. "Did you say 'must not,' Colonel?"
"I— Your graciousness, I only meant to suggest—"
"Did you indeed." The Queen's tone was dismissive. "I do not recall asking for your suggestion. Clear the room."
The colonel looked despairingly at the secretary, who said quietly, "As you wish, madam. But this young man has already shown himself to be dangerous."
"He has shown himself to be dangerous to anyone who tries to prevent him from speaking to me," the Queen agreed. "All the more reason to clear the room now. I do not want to have to wait to clear the room of the corpses of incompetent guards."
The colonel spluttered. The secretary, on the other hand, looked as though he might smile. "Yes, madam. May I stay?"
"I am counting on your protection. The rest of you may go." She waved her hand again.
Within two minutes, the chamber was cleared, except for the Queen, the secretary, and Layle, who had been careful to stay motionless during the exodus. He was straining his ear to check whether anyone was eavesdropping, but there were no windows in this lamplit chamber, and the doors were far away. If he kept his voice low, it was unlikely anyone would hear him.
Not that he had any choice in the matter. He swallowed the hardness in his throat before saying, "I know what activities take place in the Hidden Dungeon, your graciousness, because I used to work there."
"Indeed." The Queen appeared not at all surprised. "Tell me what you did there, and what you did before you came there."
By the time Layle was finished, even the secretary was beginning to look uneasy. He had clicked his pistol's change lever off the safe position soon after the beginning of the recital and had come to stand within an arm's reach of Layle. Layle ignored him. He was feeling somewhat faint; the recital had taken a long time, and he had not eaten since entering Yclau, sensing, somehow, that it would not be right to commit a theft within the Queen's territory.
When he finished speaking, the Queen's only comment was, "How many people did you say you have killed?"
He thought about this before asking, "Including the ones I executed at the King's command?"
It took him a while to tot up the numbers in his head. When he gave the approximate answer – dividing the figures for men, women, and children – the Queen lifted her eyebrows. There was a small spell of silence as Layle thought about what he had just said.
Then the Queen said, "You are eighteen?"
"Yes, your graciousness. Since last winter."
"In Vovim, you are regarded as a child. Do you understand that you are considered to be of age in this queendom?"
He understood. In Vovim, the age of a murderer did not matter, but Yclau, being more tender toward youthful offenders, only permitted the execution of adult murderers. He wondered whether he would be given a chance to defend himself. The Yclau liked to boast that all of their prisoners received fair trials. "Yes, your graciousness."
"And what sort of reward do you seek for the information you have given?"
He blinked, disconcerted by the change in topic. In the silence that followed, he heard the faint strains of a badly conducted orchestra, playing somewhere in the palace. Well, he was in Yclau. The Queen's rich but ugly furnishings had already told him that every tale he had ever heard about the inartistic Yclau had been true.
His silence was not due to lack of an answer. He knew the proper reply, of course. He had rehearsed it on the way here – of how he would pour every bit of information he knew into the Queen's lap, and then, if she expressed gratitude, persuade her to make manifest her thanks.
Since she did not seem to have any immediate plans to hang him – and why should she hang someone who had just provided her with weapons against her foremost war enemy? – this was the moment at which he should began his persuasion. He would start with humility, stammering that he was unworthy of any reward, and then he would shyly admit to having had a hope— But no, he would add, it would be wrong of him to ask for anything. His only desire was to serve the Queen, in whatever way his gifts would permit. . . .
"Well?" said the Queen. She was drumming her fingers on a book in her lap. Layle stared at the book, feeling bewilderment take hold of him – the same bewilderment that had led him to flee from his highly satisfying work in Vovim's Hidden Dungeon.
"I am not worthy," he heard himself say.
"What?" the Queen leaned forward, her arm moving to cover the book.
He looked up. The bewilderment was breaking him, as it had before; he felt the jagged teeth tear at his innards. He felt the bloody pain.
"Madam," he said, trying to blink away a strange pricking at his eyes, "the only reward I deserve is to be executed, and to be tortured eternally thereafter by hell's High Master. I am not worthy of Mercy's grace."
The Queen said nothing. The secretary, his eyes narrowed, said nothing. Layle lowered his gaze to the black volume in the Queen's lap. Of course, he thought dully. Of course, those are the only words I could have spoken. What was I thinking before? That I could lie to the Queen and then ask to work in a dungeon where lies are abhorrent? That I could come to her by means of trickery and violence, and then receive the privilege to live in a place where prisoners are persuaded through honorable means to repent of their crimes? What madness made me think that someone like myself could work in the Eternal Dungeon? My very presence would taint its purity.
"I'm sorry, madam." His voice sounded angry; he hoped that she understood that his anger was at himself. "I should never have come here. I . . . I would have sent a note with that information anyway, in case what I told you could be of use to you. But I should have given myself over to the soldiers in one of your lesser prisons, so that I could receive my just punishment for my crimes."
"So that you could be tortured eternally," said the Queen softly.
He did not reply. He was envisioning, not his death, but what awaited him thereafter. He had been tortured once before. That had been hard enough, to endure pain for a brief period in the hands of one of the King's torturers. But to be tortured eternally by one of Hell's men . . . He could feel himself begin to shake. He closed his eyes, pushing back furiously the impulse to chop his hand down on the neck of the secretary – who had foolishly lowered his pistol – and make his escape.
Whatever else he did, he would not return to what he had been. Not even if it meant enduring Hell's anger.
"Secretary of mine, you are standing rather too close to this young man." The Queen's voice held a faint note of warning.
"Yes, madam." The secretary quickly stepped back. "Though if I am any judge of men, it makes no difference."
"I am glad to hear that our judgment is in accord. —Young man."
He raised his eyes, as best he could. The mysterious pricking at his eyes had increased; his eyeballs felt hot, as though someone were using pokers onto them. "Yes?" he whispered.
The Queen held up the black book. "This was the only object found on you when your body was searched. You have read it?"
He stared at the black-and-gold binding of the Eternal Dungeon's Code of Seeking. "Yes, madam."
"Do you recall that it says anything about eternal punishment?"
He began to reply, then hesitated, sensing a gap in his knowledge. Master Aeden had once said, approvingly, that Layle's desire to learn was his strongest characteristic.
The Queen rose to her feet, lifted the side of her gown in one hand and the black book in the other, and descended the steps of the throne, saying, "In Vovim, they believe in eternal punishment. In Yclau, we believe in eternal rebirth."
It was like a blow to the kidney, learning that hope lay ahead. "You mean . . . After I am dead, I could . . . In my next life, I might be given the chance . . ." He swallowed. "But that isn't fair. Not after what I did."
"It is not a matter of fair or not fair," the Queen said patiently as she came forward. "It is merely a matter of what is. If you repent of your misdeeds, and willingly undergo punishment for them, you are transformed and are reborn eternally. None of us deserve that gift. All of us are offered it."
He stared at the black book in her hand. The words she spoke had been there. They were the reason he had come here. But he had thought of those words as applying only to the prisoners that were searched by the torturers in the Eternal Dungeon. He had not considered that the words might apply to a young, abusive torturer who had fled from Vovim's corrupt royal dungeon.
"It isn't fair," he said softly. "Too many innocents suffered in order that I might slake my pleasure on their bodies. But if you say that such a reward is always given, whether fairly or not . . . Madam, I promise you, in my next life I will do better. I will be loyal to you, and to your successors, and to this Code that you permit your torturers to follow."
The Queen sighed. "'Permit.' Did you hear that?"
"I did, madam." The secretary's voice had grown grim. "It tells us far too much about what sort of orders the King of Vovim gives to his torturers."
"Yet it is no more than the truth. The Code is not my own creation, nor the creation of my predecessors. It sprang forth and has been nurtured by visionary men who dwell far closer to eternal rebirth than I do. —Young man."
He raised his eyes. His vision had blurred in a way that puzzled him; it was as though he were anticipating the final moments of his death. And yet even with all that he knew about the horrors undergone by prisoners who were strangled, he could feel hope growing within him – the hope that he might be granted the undeserved opportunity to do better in his next life.
The Queen reached forth her hand and touched his face, just in time to catch something wet and hot that was trickling down his face. "You are crying," she observed.
"I am?" he said blankly. He placed his fingers against his face and found to his consternation that what she said was true. Yet he never cried. The gods knew that he had attempted to on many occasions. Tears might have been a good weapon with which to weaken Master Aeden, when the master torturer was disciplining him. "I never cry," he said, bewildered again.
The Queen placed her royal hands upon his face, which was now flooding
with tears. "But you will," she said firmly. "Layle Smith, you will cry
again and again, before I am through with you."
The man at the desk, with a worldweary expression and with a whip at his hip, said, "I don't like this."
In the Hidden Dungeon, if the High Master said, "I don't like this," someone was sure to be bound to a whipping post before long. Layle braced himself.
The High Torturer of the Eternal Dungeon sighed as he pushed the Queen's note further back on his desk. "I don't like this," he repeated. "The Eternal Dungeon has always chosen its own. We've only had one case in recent years of the Queen pressing a candidate upon us: that was a highly skilled guard who had worked faithfully for the Queen, who had been showered with awards, and whose sense of honor was agreed to be of the highest degree. In this case . . ." He gestured toward the only other man in the room, namely Layle.
Taking care not to meet the High Torturer's gaze straight on, Layle said, "Sir, her graciousness said that you possess the right to reject me. If you do not wish me here, I will be glad to leave."
"Hmm." The High Torturer tapped his desk with a highly prosaic object, namely an unsharpened pencil. Layle, who could have named a dozen ways in which to torture a prisoner with an unsharpened pencil, kept his gaze lowered. "Yes, I see. You used that abject tone of voice, I suppose, when you were persuading the Queen that you were an innocent youth who had made a few mistakes and deserved a second chance?"
Layle offered no response. The truth was, the whole episode with the Queen was now becoming muddled in his mind; he could not have sworn, on oath to the gods, that his dark desire had not arranged his conduct during that interview. He had become all too aware, during his journey to Yclau, how little control he had over that part of himself.
"Lies, lies, and more bloody lies," said the High Torturer. "You convict yourself further every time you speak. What would it take, I wonder, to penetrate that barrier of your falsehoods and discover what dwells behind it?"
"The last man who tried that," said Layle, whose neck was beginning to develop a crick, "had to use a rack to succeed. I understand that your racks here aren't as good as the ones in Vovim, but perhaps if you placed me on a rack for three times as long as the Vovimian one, quantity would make up for quality."
The High Torturer was silent for a moment, while outside his office, shouts and laughter continued. Then he gave a soft chuckle. "You must have been a real handful for your previous work-master," he said. "What are you thinking? That I wouldn't know one of the oldest methods of breaking, namely goading a prisoner till he loses his temper and gives you what you want? —How old did you say you were?"
"Eighteen years and eight months, sir."
The High Torturer shook his head. "You must have been nurtured in deception in your cradle to have reached where you are at such a young age."
"No, sir." His response was swift, automatic.
The High Torturer, who had been about to toss the Queen's note into the rubbish, raised his eyebrows. "No?"
"Not from . . . Not at home, sir. I didn't learn deception there. That came later."
"Hmm." The High Torturer's eyes narrowed, and Layle thought to himself that he might as well write out his life story if he were going to begin volunteering information that the High Torturer could use against him. "You're an orphan, the Queen said?"
"Yes, sir." So she had not told him the full story. That was an unexpected gift from Mercy's grace.
"You were corrupted by bad company, I suppose?" The High Torturer's voice was bland.
He raised his eyes then. The office was dim, the oil lamp revealing the many expensive furnishings crammed into the small space. He met the High Torturer's gaze squarely. "Only my own, sir."
The High Torturer tapped his pencil a half dozen times before waving his hand. "All right, wait outside."
He waited to see whether any further instructions were forthcoming, but the High Torturer had already turned his attention to the book he had been reading when Layle arrived. Layle recognized the book as being the Code of Seeking. That, more than anything else, told him what sort of place he now dwelt in.
Though from the looks of it, he thought as he pushed closed the office door behind him, he wouldn't be in this place for long. Unless, of course, the High Torturer chose to lock him in a cell.
Sighing, Layle leaned back against the wall next to the High Torturer's office, closing his ears to the raucous commotion in front of him. It had come as a shock to him to discover on the previous day that the Queen had no intention of hanging him. A technicality, he was given to understand by her secretary, due to the fact that Layle's killings as an adult were not considered murder under Vovimian law, which had governed him until his arrival in Yclau.
"Which is not to say," announced the Queen, "that I am allowing your past to go unpunished. I think you will find that what you consider a reward will in fact cause far deeper pain than if I had simply hanged you."
Dimly, he was beginning to understand what she had meant. If he had been executed the previous day, repentant for his deeds of the past, his life's memory would have been severed in a short time, and he would have begun his new life with little or no memory of what he had done in the past. Here in the Eternal Dungeon, though, the constant presence of prisoners would keep sharp the memory of his previous dark deeds. And that, in turn, would keep alive the darkness within him. . . .
He forced himself to open his eyes. Many men crowded the entry hall to the Eternal Dungeon, but even through the haze of tobacco smoke, it was easy to identify which ones were the torturers. They wore black hoods over their heads – albeit with the face-cloths presently flung back – and they carried whips looped and hooked at their belts, some at the right hand and some at the left. Their high-collared jackets were made of rich silk, with gold braiding on their shoulders and with the newly fashionable frog-work fastening shut their jackets. They wore gleaming riding boots whose only purpose must be to show off their high rank, unless horses were hidden in this underground dungeon. The guards in the entry hall were easily identified too, not only because they carried daggers at their hips, but because they were less richly dressed than the torturers: their jackets were of grey worsted.
Layle frowned. He liked to think that he was a person who could see beyond outward appearances – could tell when someone dressed in haughty clothes was actually meek and on the point of breaking – but outward appearances counted a great deal in the art of torture. It seemed to him that the uniform the Eternal Dungeon's torturers wore – rich silk, as though they were high-born courtiers – clashed with the humility that the Code of Seeking enjoined upon the torturers. What was it that the Code said again? "A torturer is little more than a prisoner himself . . ." What a halfhearted way of phrasing it. The Code ought to say flatly, "Torturers are prisoners," and it ought to say so straightaway, so that anyone reading the Code would be left in no doubt, from the beginning, as to the status of this dungeon's torturers.
Or was he simply projecting his own situation onto the other torturers here?
He scanned again the entry hall, which had rocky walls and a ceiling so high that he could not see the top amidst the shadows. Yes, the torturers' clothing bothered him, and so did the fact that the face-cloths of their hoods were raised. He had read in the Code that the torturers must cover their faces when torturing their prisoners; once he had understood the reason for that, the rule had made sense. But did the authors of the Code really think that the moment of torture was the only time when a prisoner might read the mood of a torturer from his expression? If Layle was a prisoner destined to be tortured (and perhaps that is the case now, part of him whispered), he would be gleaning information about the man who searched him from the moment that he first glimpsed his torturer.
And the information he would glean from the current set of torturers . . . Layle narrowed his eyes. He was barely conscious that he had taken the stance he did when searching prisoners: his feet planted far apart, his arms crossed, his expression hard as he scrutinized his victim. He did not like what he saw.
If he were a prisoner, if he was destined to be tortured in one of the cells here, he was quite sure that none of the torturers or guards here would intimidate him. All of them looked idle and slightly bored; several were exchanging coarse jests with one another.
And that was another problem: the level of noise in the hall. Layle thought back to his own initial entrance into Vovim's royal dungeon: the dark corridors where the only sound was the scream of prisoners from behind locked doors. He did not want to turn the Eternal Dungeon into the Hidden Dungeon, but there was nothing about this brightly lit hall, filled with careless chatter and laughter, that would intimidate him if he were to be searched. On the contrary, it would lend him hope that he could escape the worst. And with hope would come a determination to fight his torturer.
He glanced over at the Record-keeper, sitting at his desk near the High Torturer's office – the only man in this room who seemed to actually have some duties. As Layle watched, a young boy, dressed in the frilly costume of a palace page, dumped a stack of papers on the Record-keeper's desk before turning and trotting back up the steps to the palace above.
"More?" said the Record-keeper, but his voice was resigned. He was a young man, not much older than Layle, but with spectacles that made him look prematurely mature. He cast a tired look at the new stack of papers and then continued work on one of the many stacks already on his desk.
Layle slid silently behind him – taking care to avoid smudging chalk on the slate-tablet on the wall behind the Record-keeper – and bowed his head so that he could see what work was being done. The Record-keeper was simply making a copy of a routine document, requesting more fuel to be delivered to the dungeon – a sad waste of his training. "Can't you get one of the apprentices to do that?" Layle asked.
The Record-keeper jerked with surprise, and then glared over his shoulder at Layle. "What are you talking about?" he asked shortly.
Layle – who had been reminding himself that he really must break his habit of creeping up on colleagues at work – opened his mouth and then shut it. This was not the Hidden Dungeon, where a third of the torturers were apprentice boys, whose idleness and arrogance could be stemmed by putting them to work at dull tasks. But if there were no apprentices . . .
"How in the names of . . . How are you going to get through all that work?" Layle just managed to catch himself in time from uttering a Vovimian oath. He made a note to himself that he must learn all of the Yclau oaths. Or was it even proper for a torturer in the Eternal Dungeon to casually swear?
The Record-keeper sighed heavily. "Who knows? The previous man in my position was sacked because he couldn't keep up with the work. No doubt I'll be turned out within a month."
He sounded glum and without hope. Layle, gazing out again upon the torturers and guards who were jesting and gossiping, felt a slow burn of anger begin in him. He could do nothing about the torturers, of course. But the other men in this hall . . .
A group of guards nearby were shouting with excitement over the results of the latest draw of their domino bones on one of the entry hall's tables. Layle supposed that there was not a group of guards anywhere in the world who would not waste their time in bones-games if given the opportunity. Layle had always received a special pleasure out of flogging such loafing guards in the Hidden Dungeon. Now he walked over to the group. Reminding himself that he was a guest here, he said in his mildest voice (which would have sent chills down the spine of anyone who knew him well), "If you've nothing else to do, why not help the Record-keeper? He's burdened with more work than he can handle."
The guards turned toward him. They were dressed in a lackadaisical manner: their jackets were unbuttoned, their old-fashioned cravats were untied, and their boots were dirty. They looked blankly at Layle till one of them put voice to the general sentiment: "Who the bloody blades are you to tell us what we should be doing?"
One of the guards, who was resting his boots on a chair as he sipped from a mug of what smelled like rum, said in a nonchalant manner, "He's right, you know."
This produced groans from the listeners. Another guard, scooping up his winnings at the bones-game, said, "Oh, sweet blood. Don't get all dutiful and goody-good on us."
The other guard simply smiled serenely as he set down his mug. "Go," he said. "Earn your pay for a change. That goes for the rest of you too." He addressed the remaining guards.
They groaned loudly, and protested, and even cursed the guard, but they went, saving their final curses for Layle. Layle watched them go, ticking off in his mind how many lashes each of them needed in order to be taken into hand. Then he turned his attention to the guard who possessed mysterious power over the others.
Like the Record-keeper, he was young, no more than a decade older than Layle, and he was somewhat less careless of his appearance than the other guards. His voice was easygoing as he said, "You're the new man that the Queen sent us, aren't you? Welcome to the Eternal Dungeon." Without lifting his boots from the chair, he offered his arm in greeting.
Layle simply looked at him. Apparently, his looks had the same power here as they did on the guards in the Hidden Dungeon, because after a moment, the guard began to look uneasy. He dropped his arm.
Layle waited another minute – timing was everything – before asking in his politest, chilliest voice, "Is it considered proper in the Eternal Dungeon for guards to introduce themselves to their superiors while remaining seated?"
Without moving from his place, the guard lifted his eyebrows. "You're not a torturer here yet. And even if you become one, it will be a considerable number of years before you're higher in rank than I am. Anyway" – he smiled, as though trying to take away the sting of his rebuke – "we're not formal, here in the Eternal Dungeon."
Layle let his gaze drift away from the guard. "Maybe that's the problem."
A new prisoner was just arriving, escorted down the stairs by visiting guards. His arms were bound behind him, and he appeared scared. Then he looked round the bright room, with its mindless chatter, and his expression transformed into hardness and a certain amount of smugness. He actually laughed when he reached the Record-keeper's desk.
Layle turned his attention back to the guard. The guard had his attention focussed on the prisoner too; another look of uncertainty had travelled over his face. He slowly looked back at Layle. Layle stood with his arms crossed, saying nothing.
The guard took his feet off the chair. He rose. Stiffly he said, "I am Seward Sobel . . . sir."
"Mr. Sobel." He was not actually sure how guards were addressed in this dungeon, but the Code seemed so preoccupied with the dignity of the prisoners that it seemed likewise appropriate for Layle to address the guards in a formal manner. "I am glad to make your acquaintance."
The guard began to reply to this, then stopped. "Excuse me, sir," he murmured. "The High Torturer has need of me."
Layle turned and saw that the High Torturer had stepped out of his office; the man was beckoning impatiently toward Seward Sobel, who slipped over to his side with a graceful glide that caused Layle to reassess him. Though, really, he told himself, he should not underestimate the powers of a guard who had the ability to break up a bones-game with minimal fuss.
He looked round the hall again. The guards he had addressed earlier were sitting at another table now, loudly complaining as they penned documents. Layle watched them for a while, but they were doing their work amidst the complaints, so he let them be. He was more concerned about the remaining guards, some of whom were beginning to mock the workers.
"How in the names of Mercy and Hell has this dungeon managed to function till now?" Layle muttered under his breath. The lack of discipline he was witnessing would have been unthinkable in the Hidden Dungeon, where the High Master was quick to lash any guard found neglecting his duties. Layle supposed that the idleness here represented the greater freedom which the Code permitted to its guards and torturers, but surely freedom need not mean anarchy.
He approached some of the guards engaged in hooting at the "duty boys," who were turning red-faced at this onslaught of public opinion against them. Sliding softly up to them, Layle said, "Surely you have better things to do than make mock at men who are—"
The rest of his words were lost amidst the loud hoots. "Get out of my way, boy." One of the guards, who was wearing civilian clothes, grinned and gave Layle a shove.
The sudden silence in the hall was so complete that Layle could hear the flutter of some sort of winged creatures on the dark ceiling above. He looked down at the mocking guard, who was now whimpering at his feet. The other guards were staring at him, as they might stare at a dog that frothed at the mouth.
Feeling a familiar sense of excitement and an unfamiliar sense of shame, Layle said quietly, "I apologize, Mr. . . ."
His victim continued to whimper at his feet. A nearby guard, white-faced, said, "That's Abraham Longmire. He's the torturer in charge of the day shift – he's second in command to the High Torturer."
Layle gathered that he had just made the worst possible enemy, but he kept his mind from the implications of that. "I apologize, Mr. Longmire. I did not mean to lose my temper like that. But you really must take care not to use force on anyone unless you are prepared for the possibility that the other person will use force in return."
"What I've been telling him for years." There was gruff respect in the voice of a torturer who had been listening in on the conversation. The nearby guards were avoiding his eye.
Layle was used to that. He glanced round. The rest of the hall was beginning to return to what it considered normal, though the conversation was more subdued than before, and a number of the men in the entry hall were casting wary glances his way. None seemed inclined to interfere with him, though the act that Layle had just committed would have gotten him bound to the High Torturer's whipping post within seconds, had he committed it in the Hidden Dungeon.
Layle thought with longing of the strict rules of the Hidden Dungeon, the hard measures taken by Master Aeden to keep his young assistant in line. Layle had been fettered there, and a good thing too, or he would have murdered a score of men before his first week in the dungeon was completed.
Now he had nothing holding him back except his desire to serve the Queen and her Code with loyalty.
Feeling sick, he leaned down and tried to help the torturer to his feet. "Are you all right, Mr. Longmire?"
"No, I'm not bloody all right, you fucking—" Mr. Longmire shoved Layle's hand back, struggling to his feet as he continued to curse. A few of the curses, as it happened, were accurate – Layle was indeed a low-born Vovimian bastard – but he did not allow that fact to be reflected on his face; he kept his expression icy.
After a while, Mr. Longmire seemed to realize that his curses were having no effect. Dusting himself off, he grumbled, "I'll see that you're beaten for this."
So the High Torturer's whipping post did come into use occasionally? That was helpful to know. Layle said simply, "I will be glad to submit myself to any punishment that the High Torturer considers necessary."
The guards were eyeing him askance now, obviously unable to figure out this young man who alternated between sudden violence and polite submission. Finally, one of them decided upon an appropriate response. "I'm bored. We might as well do documentwork while we're waiting for new prisoners to arrive."
"Good idea," said another guard, trying manfully to ignore the fact that he and the other guards had been mocking such advice a moment before. "I'll get some pens from the Record-keeper."
An hour later, the High Torturer stepped out of the Codifier's office. He barely noticed his junior night guard's quiet word of farewell as they parted company; he was busy looking round at the still entry hall, where the loudest sound was the scratching of pens. Every guard in the entry hall was sitting in front of documents; the torturers had left the hall altogether.
Finally the High Torturer made his way over to the desk of the Record-keeper and asked, "What is going on here?"
"A miracle," replied the Record-keeper. Without looking up from one of the few documents left on his desk, he pointed in the direction of Layle, who was now softly suggesting to a guard that he might want to fasten his jacket.
The High Torturer looked thoughtfully at the young Vovimian for a while before approaching him.
Layle was unsettled by the success he was having in bringing order to the entry hall. He had never tried anything like this before. Disorder had been his goal in the Hidden Dungeon. He had gone beyond the usual boyish pranks that the master torturers were accustomed to receive from their apprentices; the master torturers had learned to be exceedingly wary of Layle when he smiled up at them, even before he reached his journeyman years. Many a master torturer had awakened from what he had thought would be a spell of wine and lovemaking with a splitting headache and the realization that he had given up his wallet to his overnight visitor.
Master Aeden alone had been immune to Layle's seductions, if only because he knew what Layle's background had been prior to his arrival at the Hidden Dungeon. "You are a rapist and a murderer," Master Aeden had once said flatly to him when no one was around to listen, "and I will treat you as such until you learn to behave properly."
He wondered what Master Aeden would think to find him here, trying to teach the Eternal Dungeon's guards to behave properly. Then he cast aside all thoughts of the roughly affectionate master torturer. Layle had known, when he fled the Hidden Dungeon, that he would lose the one man in the world who was willing to remain faithful to him, despite what he was. And he had known that, after all he had done over the years, he deserved nothing less than this loss.
He was contemplating this – was thinking of how little he deserved to be standing free in this dungeon – when he heard his name and turned to see the High Torturer beckoning him. He quickly made his way over to the High Torturer, who had not waited to see whether his command was obeyed, but had immediately made his way over to a door in the rocky wall of the entry hall.
There were guards in front of the door. Layle had noted this the moment he arrived in the entry hall – he was accustomed to counting the exits in any room he entered – and he had therefore assumed that the door led to the dungeon's prison cells. But when the High Torturer, stepping unchallenged past the guards, opened the door, Layle glimpsed a neat, book-lined office not unlike the High Torturer's, except that there was a second set of guards watching over a door at the back of the room.
This much he saw before he was pricked by the daggers of the first set of guards.
Reminding himself that he was not to kill anyone in this dungeon, Layle stepped back and eyed the guards with curiosity. They appeared to hold no special animosity against him; the moment he was out of range of the door, they silently sheathed their daggers again. He noticed, however, that they had guns strapped to their right hips – the only guns he had seen in the dungeon so far.
The High Torturer, who had begun to step through the doorway, paused and said to the guards, "He's wanted inside."
"We've had no instructions, sir." The guard's voice was polite but firm. Layle made a mental note that there was at least one guard in this dungeon who knew his business.
The High Torturer sighed. "Edwins?"
An older man appeared in the frame of the doorway, holding a book. Even without seeing his ink-stained hands, Layle would have known he was a secretary; he had the look about him of a man who has been bothered at important business. "You should have requested a pass for him," he said to the High Torturer.
The High Torturer accepted this scolding silently, though with a frown. The secretary said to the guards, "He's wanted inside."
The chief guard, without moving his gaze from Layle, said, "You will strip yourself, sir."
Layle glanced at the High Torturer to see whether the guard was making mock, but the High Torturer simply said to the guard in a weary voice, "Will you at least let him past you so that he can have privacy as he strips?"
"No," replied the guard. "We've been warned about him."
Again, there appeared to be no animosity in him; his tone was businesslike. Fascinated, Layle stripped himself of his clothes, glancing once over his shoulder to see what the reaction was of the other men in the entry hall. A few of them were eyeing him – that was hardly surprising, given his age and his looks – but nobody seemed particularly surprised that he should be taking off his clothes. He gathered that this ritual was not unknown.
He and his clothes were searched with ruthless efficiency before he was permitted into the secretary's room. Then he was searched again by the second set of guards. By now thoroughly intrigued as to his destination, Layle gathered up his clothes and his dignity and stepped into the room beyond the second set of guards.
The first thing he saw was Seward Sobel, standing with his back to the door, his head bowed as he listened to someone speaking to him from the desk that he stood in front of. With his back now pricking with warning, Layle stepped closer until he could see the man behind the desk.
"Josh," said the High Torturer, coming forward as the guards closed the door behind them, "here he is. Layle, I believe that you have already met our Codifier . . ."
But Layle barely heard him; still naked, he was standing aghast, staring at the man behind the desk. He blurted out, "I thought you were the Queen's secretary!"
"I am," said the Codifier in an unperturbed fashion, folding his hands upon his desk.
The High Torturer inserted, "It is customary for the Queen's secretary to serve as our Codifier. Our current Codifier is in the process of resigning from his other duties, however, so that he can devote full time to supervising the Eternal Dungeon." From the tone in his voice, it did not appear that the High Torturer approved of this decision.
Layle, remembering belatedly that he ought to clothe himself, pulled his undervest over his head as he felt his heart sink. Of all the men in the world he should have antagonized, he had chosen the Eternal Dungeon's Codifier. The Codifier, who was appointed to enforce the Code of Seeking. The man who had greater power in this dungeon than even the High Torturer.
The man who could no doubt order his arrest the moment he believed that Layle had failed to serve the Queen with loyalty.
He had, perhaps, five minutes left before that eventuality. He decided to spend the time in a useful fashion. "Useful," in Layle's vocabulary, meant marking the exits and the weapons in this room.
There was not much here to cheer his heart. Like the entry hall, this "room" in the underground dungeon was no more than an untamed cavern; the Codifier's desk was located near a waterfall and pool. Any weapons here were artfully hidden, though Layle eyed the stalagmites hopefully for a moment before deciding they were too thick to be wrenched from the ground. One exit was behind him, too heavily guarded to be of use to him. The only other exit was what appeared to be a bank vault at the back of the room. He could take hostages—
It was at this venture that he remembered that he was here, not as a prisoner taken captive unwillingly, but as a self-confessed criminal who had agreed to any punishment that the Queen deemed necessary. Feeling his doom closing in on him, he concentrated his attention on the Queen's representative.
The Codifier appeared to enjoy lingering punishments, for he was sitting back in his chair, remaining silent as the High Torturer said, "Well, young Layle, I can't say that it's been easy to make a decision over what to do with you. Normally, any torturer who is new to this dungeon is given a period of training, during which his performance is under scrutiny. If he is judged unworthy of the traditions of the Code, he is released from his training and is usually permitted to depart from this dungeon."
"Usually," emphasized the Codifier.
"As you say, Josh," agreed the High Torturer. "We guard our secrets of searching well; if we believe that a torturer-in-training will blab those secrets to the world, he is sentenced to isolation in a life prison. We do not have that problem very often," he added dryly. "The torturers we consider to be potential dangers are never allowed to enter this dungeon."
"But in this case . . ." The Codifier delicately left the sentence unfinished.
"In your case, we have decided that you cannot be trusted with even the power of a torturer-in-training unless we are reasonably certain that you have the ability to complete your training." As he spoke, the High Torturer seated himself in the only remaining chair. "Therefore, with the agreement of the Codifier, I am setting a test for you. I will allow you to search a prisoner. You will be judged by your performance in searching that prisoner. If you pass the test, you will be accepted as a torturer-in-training, with all the accompanying supervision and discipline which comes with that position."
"Yes, sir," said Layle, whose back was not unfamiliar with the taste of a whip.
There was a pause. The waterfall gurgled, one of the guards outside spoke to somebody, the Codifier's pocket-watch ticked. Mr. Sobel, though he had stepped aside to allow the Codifier full access to the new arrival, had not yet looked at Layle. Layle waited, wondering what the others expected him to say.
The High Torturer added, "The prisoner I am giving you is an important one. We have evidence that he has committed a rape against the Queen's own niece. The evidence is enough to convict him; however, the Queen wants a full confession so that the prisoner cannot weasel out of his deeds when he is brought before the magistrate. We have instructions from the Queen to break the prisoner thoroughly, using whatever methods we deem necessary."
"Yes, sir," he replied in an easy manner. He had thought that the transition from Vovimian torturer to Yclau torturer would be more difficult than this, but evidently the High Torturer was giving him a simple case for his test. Break the prisoner. Use any methods necessary. Layle could carry out such instructions in his sleep.
The High Seeker added, "I understand that you have already met my senior-most guard, Seward Sobel."
Layle felt the desire then to slit the throats of all the men in front of him. Such an impulse was his natural reaction when he found himself in a bad position, even though he knew that he was the one who was to blame in this case.
The Codifier, the High Torturer, Mr. Longmire, Mr. Sobel . . . Gods above and below, he'd managed to anger or alienate all four of the highest-ranked men in this dungeon. He doubted he could have changed matters where the Codifier and the High Torturer were concerned, but surely he possessed enough intelligence that he could have checked who was in charge here before he began issuing indiscriminate reprimands.
Mr. Sobel had enough mercy not to laugh openly at him. The High Torturer continued, "Sobel has the authority to stop any activities you engage in. I want you to understand that. You will obey any order he gives you in the breaking cell, and if you do not, you will be placed under arrest and charged with whatever crime seems appropriate. You are not to act as you did in your previous workplace."
"Yes, sir." He wondered what the three men in front of him thought he was going to do – rape his prisoner?
Probably. They must know how breakings were conducted in the Hidden Dungeon, if only because Layle had taken such care to inform the Queen.
But did they understand that he had acted under orders in the Hidden Dungeon? That Master Aeden would have beaten him bloody – and had, on more than one occasion – if he'd deviated from those orders in the slightest? >From what Layle had seen so far, he possessed far more self-discipline than any other torturer in this dungeon.
He had enough sense not to say this. The three men were waiting again, apparently expecting him to say more, but he could not figure out what it was they wanted him to say. He had been given orders; he had promised to obey them. Did they want his baubles as surety for his promise?
He was perilously close to smiling. And then he knew, from the narrowing of the Codifier's eyes, that he had passed over that line.
But all that the Codifier said was, "You will need this." He pushed something over his desk: a black volume with gold lettering.
Layle slowly picked up the Code of Seeking. The soft leather binding felt familiar to his hand. He opened the book to its front flyleaf. Yes, there it was: the signature of the man who had owned the volume before Layle.
—his hands tighten upon the soft flesh of the neck, the prisoner's breathing stops, the body begins to flail in a useless attempt to escape death—
He opened his eyes. Or rather, he did not open his eyes, for his eyes were open already, but the dark film that had clouded them was gone, along with the visions, the smells, the touch, the feeling of the prisoner dying under his hands . . .
"Yes?" He wasn't sure who had spoken, so he kept his gaze directed toward the book, waiting a few seconds before looking up.
They were all staring at him. He wondered how long he had been gone. He carefully tucked the Code of Seeking into his jacket pocket before they should notice that his hands were shaking.
"That will be enough, I think," said the Codifier, and with these highly ambiguous words, he dismissed his audience.
Leaning against a doorpost, Mr. Sobel reached into his jacket pocket, took out a leather case, flipped it open, and pulled a long, red cylinder from the satin lining. He offered it to Layle. "Cigarette, sir?"
"No," replied Layle shortly.
Mr. Sobel lit his cigarette with the aid of an oil lamp bracketed to the corridor wall before saying, "You prefer a cigar or pipe?"
"I don't smoke." Layle had not smoked since the day, at age five, that his mother found him valiantly puffing away at one of his father's cigars and had given him such a mournful look that he had immediately tossed away the offending article.
Even his father had refrained from smoking in his mother's presence. Or so his mother had told him; he had no memory of his mother's abductor.
Mr. Sobel emitted a long breath of smoke before asking, "Not even at your last workplace, sir? I heard that smoking's permitted in the Border District prisons."
"What?" Layle frowned. He was wondering, not only what in the gods' name that Mr. Sobel was talking about, but also how long the guard was going to keep up his sarcastic manner of calling Layle "sir."
"Blackstone Prison – isn't that where you came from, sir? In the Border District?"
It took Layle a moment to remember that "Blackstone Prison" was the Hidden Dungeon's official name this month. Then he realized Mr. Sobel's mistake. "I'm from the Border District, yes," he said, in as smooth a manner as he always possessed when he lied. "Or at least" – it was best to temper one's lies with occasional truths – "my mother was from that district. I didn't work at Blackstone for long."
"Well, no, sir, you wouldn't have." Mr. Sobel smiled at him. "Which school did you attend, if I may ask?"
He needed to put an end to this right here, before Mr. Sobel realized that the Blackstone Prison that Layle had worked at was not located in the Border District of Yclau. "The best my family could afford," he said. "Which is to say, you've never heard of it. Have you been a guard at the Eternal Dungeon since leaving school?"
Suddenly the guard seemed to be taking a great interest in the smoke winding upwards from his cigarette. "No, sir. I've only worked here for five years. I was a member of the Queen's Guard before then."
A highly skilled guard who had worked faithfully for the Queen, who had been showered with awards, and whose sense of honor was agreed to be of the highest degree. . . . The High Torturer's words whispered in Layle's memory. Layle looked at Mr. Sobel with renewed interest. He said slowly, "Were you allowed to smoke in the Queen's Guard?"
Mr. Sobel's gaze flicked back to Layle. "No, sir. I only picked up that habit after arriving at the Eternal Dungeon."
Layle made no reply. After a moment, Mr. Sobel added with a smile, "Of course, the High Torturer would flay my back if I smoked while in a breaking cell. But we guards have long shifts standing outside the prisoners' cells. I'm sure you understand."
"Oh, yes," said Layle, "I understand." He understood that smoking on duty was a killing offense in the Hidden Dungeon. Not even he had been tempted to break that rule.
He was not sure how much of his contempt for the Eternal Dungeon's lax ways showed on his face, but Mr. Sobel straightened, stubbed out his cigarette, and said stiffly, "Would you like to see one of the breaking cells now, sir?"
"If you please." He turned his attention to the corridor they were standing in.
It was dull. Layle had expected that. He had known that he would not find here any of the depictions of Hell's domain that decorated Vovimian prisons, reminding prisoners of the fate that awaited them – and reminding torturers that they must obey Hell's representative, the King.
But no decorations whatsoever? No carvings on the lintels, no scrolled metalwork on the lamp brackets, no mosaics on the floor, no paintings on the ceiling? It was not as though the corridor even spoke of stark terror; its walls were painted a pleasant green. How in the names of all the gods did the torturers here manage to intimidate their prisoners in such a setting?
Perhaps the cells were more frightening. Layle waited impatiently as Mr. Sobel brought out a set of keys and used one of them to open a cell door. Then the guard stepped back, allowing Layle to enter first.
Layle had to set aside a momentary fear that he was being tricked into imprisonment. He stepped inside the cell, his eyes adjusting quickly to the darkness within.
There was nothing there. No brands, no bores, no thumbscrews, no leg-locks . . . nothing but a squat iron stove, well blackened, in the middle of the room.
He gazed upon it as he might have gazed upon the embodiment of Mercy. Here at last was what he had been seeking: a sign that the Eternal Dungeon was on a higher plane than the prisons he had known before.
Warmth. Warmth for the prisoners, humane comfort. Layle did not know of a single prison in Vovim that provided stoves for its prisoners. He stared down at the sign of mercy, asking, "Are these in all the cells?"
"All except the rack rooms and the torturers' living cells, sir."
Layle turned round slowly to look at Mr. Sobel in the dim light. "Our . . . living cells, did you say?"
"Yes, sir. That's what the torturers' apartments are called. I don't know whether you realize that the torturers here take an oath to remain eternally bound within this dungeon—"
"I know that." He turned his attention back to the stove. Comfort to the prisoners that was not offered to their torturers. And the torturers had named their own living quarters in a manner that reminded the torturers of their fellowship to the prisoners being searched. . . . Oh, gods, this was a prison like no other.
He had been right to come here. He had been very right.
He forced himself to look round at the rest of the room. Beside him, Mr. Sobel said, "I can bring in a lamp, sir. . . ."
He shook his head. "No need. I can see." Not that there was much to see. The room was empty except for a toiletry set in the corner and a stone shelf with a mattress and blankets and pillows atop it – pillows! "Is this how the cells are normally furnished?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. The prisoners are left unchained, so we don't place the instruments of torture in here, lest they use them as weapons against us. However, there's a whipping ring over there." Mr. Sobel pointed toward the end of the cell.
Layle looked at the whipping ring, high up on the wall, and then looked back at the sheets. "How many prisoners have hanged themselves from the whipping ring?"
Mr. Sobel looked disconcerted. "Ah . . . too many, sir. The High Torturer has been trying to determine a solution to that problem."
Layle nodded, began to turn away, and then found himself reaching forward to open the stove.
There was wood inside. He closed the stove and said, "How many prisoners have used the wood – or worse, flaming wood – to fight their way past the guards?"
Mr. Sobel looked even more disconcerted. "None while I've been here, sir."
"One of them will, eventually. You should figure out some way to prevent the prisoners from being able to open their stoves. Locks, perhaps."
Mr. Sobel promptly pulled out a memorandum book and pencil from his jacket, jotted down a note, and said, "I'll pass on that suggestion to the High Torturer, sir. Is there anything else you would like to see?"
"The instruments of torture," he replied, pointing out the obvious. Though he supposed that, in the Eternal Dungeon, this might not be so obvious a statement.
"They're kept in the rack rooms, sir. If you'll come this way . . ."
They made their way back into the corridor as Layle reflected that, if Mr. Sobel was being sarcastic, he was maintaining a wonderful consistency about it. Could it be that his honor was high enough to permit him to overlook Layle's initial mistake?
Layle was not used to dealing with honorable guards. The primary duty of the guards in the Hidden Dungeon had been to keep the torturers imprisoned. Layle, who had clearly possessed no desire to leave his satisfying work there, had been granted special permission to take occasional trips outside the dungeon, and since Layle was still young, Master Aeden had been permitted to accompany him. But many a torturer had tried to slip past the guards, only to be viciously wounded in the process. In the Hidden Dungeon, the guards were the only men feared more than the torturers.
Layle ran his eye along the guards standing outside the cell doors. He did not like what he saw. Most of the men were smoking; a few were sipping from flasks, and he guessed that they were not drinking water. All of them were chatting with one another, barely taking notice of the doors behind them.
"How many prisoners escape from this dungeon each year?" Layle asked abruptly.
Mr. Sobel hesitated, and then recited the figure. It was less than Layle had expected. He supposed that the torturers' humane treatment of their prisoners made a difference in how many prisoners attempted to escape. But given a determined prisoner, paired with a lax guard . . .
Suddenly Mr. Sobel paused before a guard. "Argus," he said, "stop whistling."
"Why should I?" asked the guard in an unconcerned manner.
Layle winced. But Mr. Sobel merely said, "Aside from the fact that I've given you an order, you might have the brains to remember what happened to Orton after the High Torturer heard him whistling. The High Torturer really hates whistling, Argus."
Argus's face drained to the color of curd. "I didn't know."
"Now you do. Don't make that mistake again, will you?"
Layle waited until they were halfway down the corridor before he asked, "Is this your first command position?"
Mr. Sobel looked at him out of the corner of his eyes. "Ah . . . yes, sir. Why do you ask?"
"Because you're being too soft. You should have ordered him flogged the moment he defied your orders."
"Beatings can only occur in this dungeon where the Code permits it, or where the High Torturer orders it, sir." Mr. Sobel's voice had turned expressionless.
Layle, pausing, scrabbled in his coat pocket a moment before bringing out his copy of the Code. He flipped through it till he found the section on the guards.
Mr. Sobel was correct; nowhere in the Code of Seeking were guards enjoined to punish disobedient guards who were under their control. Layle closed the book, thinking hard. It was becoming clear that the punishment of guards and torturers in this dungeon was a matter of the High Torturer's whims; whistling was severely punished, because it bothered the High Torturer, while smoking and drinking and gambling were not. Cursing was something that the High Torturer himself did. Layle asked incredulously, "Are you saying, Mr. Sobel, that you must seek permission from the High Torturer before beating a guard who spits in your face?"
Mr. Sobel hesitated before replying, "Enforcement of the Code lies in the hands of the Codifier and the High Torturer, sir. I act only under their orders in matters not covered by the Code."
Layle bit his lip before he should say something foolish. In this dungeon, questioning the wisdom of the Code must be like walking into a temple and questioning the wisdom of the sacred dramas.
He was silent for several minutes. Finally, as they reached a portion of the corridor that was dim, Layle said, "In my last workplace, the High Mas— The keeper had complete power over us. But he delegated that power, permitting the senior members of the prison to punish junior members."
Frowning, Mr. Sobel said, "I'm not sure whether some of the senior members here could be trusted with that sort of power, sir."
"Well," said Layle, giving what he thought was a reasonable response, "in that case, why should they be permitted to hold high rank?"
Mr. Sobel cast him a look, too brief to be interpreted, as he paused in front of a door. "Here we are, sir."
Layle had already figured that out. Screams were emanating from the door opposite to the one that Mr. Sobel was opening: hoarse, desperate, pleading, screams that made his body thrum in a delightful manner. He waited, heart pounding, to see what lay within the empty rack room.
Again, Mr. Sobel stepped aside to let him inside. Layle's eyes had already adjusted to the darkness of the corridor; he took a quick inventory of what lay upon the dark ceiling and walls. The instruments were plentiful: brands, bores, thumbscrews, leg-locks, and many more. A few of the instruments he had known were missing, though: no iron chair, no pulley—
—can hear that the prisoner has returned to his hoarse crying. "Please," the prisoner whispers. "Oh please, oh please, oh please. Letmedieletmedieletmedie—"
The darkness of the Hidden Dungeon's rack room faded from his eyes, leaving him staring at the darkness of the Eternal Dungeon's rack room. For a brief moment, he thought he would be sucked into the dreaming again; then he managed to wrench the rack room's door toward him, slamming it shut.
This time he could not hide his trembling. Mr. Sobel touched him lightly on the shoulder, asking, "Are you all right, sir?"
"I'm fine." He just managed to keep himself from thrusting Mr. Sobel against the wall; instead, he slipped out from under the guard's hand. "I've been travelling too much; I've barely received any sleep for the past few days." This much was the truth. "And it's well past midnight. . . ."
"Well, sir, the High Torturer has placed you on the night shift, but it takes some time to get adjusted to that." The guard's voice was sympathetic. "If you'd like to rest now, you can make an early start tomorrow evening."
"That would probably be best." In the dimness of the corridor, he surreptitiously rubbed the sweat off his palms, trying his best to ignore the scream nearby. The scream did not come from his dreaming; he need not fear it. "Where am I staying?"
Mr. Sobel hesitated before replying, "I'll show you to your room, sir."
"There's no need; I can follow your directions." The quicker he was away from observation, the better; he was perilously close to vomiting.
"It's no trouble, sir; if you'll just come this way . . ."
"Oh, by all that lies underground – I'm going to bed! Do you want to join me there?"
Shock shattered Mr. Sobel's expression. For a moment, Layle feared that the guard had recognized Layle's oath – obscure though it was – as Vovimian in origin. Then Mr. Sobel said stiffly, "Sir, I would need permission from the High Torturer—"
Recognizing his error belatedly, he cut off the response with a slicing gesture. "I wasn't serious in my offer."
Mr. Sobel began to speak, then evidently thought better of it and lowered his eyes.
Mr. Sobel's reactions – his clear distaste at what he thought Layle wanted, his willingness to obey orders, his submissive gesture – were not helping Layle in his attempt to regain control of himself. He snarled, "Well, show me the room, then, so that you can be on your way."
"I'm sorry, sir." The guard did not look up. "I'm under orders to share quarters with you."
Layle decided, after a moment's reflection, not to kill him. It was not the guard's fault if the High Torturer failed to trust Layle – and why should the High Torturer trust him? In the last few moments, Layle had received all the confirmation he needed that he was a danger to this dungeon. "Fine," he said crisply. "But I need to lie down. If you wouldn't mind . . ."
"Of course, sir." The guard's voice turned solicitous once more as he guided Layle out of the corridor, into another one, and past two separate sets of guards.
Layle waited until they had reached a different part of the dungeon – one where serving-women strode freely, much to his dismay – before he spoke the thought that had been growing in his mind. "Are guards forced to sleep with the torturers here?"
"Not forced, sir," Mr. Sobel replied quickly. "The High Torturer would never stand for that."
Layle made no reply. After a time, as they reached a side corridor that was free of traffic, Mr. Sobel added in a low voice, "It's well known among the guards that, if certain torturers ask for such favors from you, and if you refuse, it's unlikely that your career will advance in this dungeon."
Layle thought about this at length as they made their way through the endless maze of corridors. Anything to keep his mind off the women they had passed. Finally he said, "The Code of Seeking requires the torturers to assist murderers and rapists in recognizing and repenting of their misdeeds. How can any torturer guide a prisoner to true repentance for rape when the torturer himself has bullied a guard into his bed?"
He looked over at Mr. Sobel, who was staring straight ahead at some
faraway destination. Finally the guard said, without looking Layle's way,
"I'm sorry, sir. I don't have an answer to that question."
The apartment in which he was placed was divided into two rooms. His own room, he discovered with relief, had a door with a lock.
Remembering Mr. Sobel's set of keys, Layle took the added precaution of propping a chair under his doorknob. He had pledged himself not to kill anyone here, since the Code did not permit that, but he could not be sure whether Mr. Sobel felt himself to be under a similar obligation. The guard might decide that Layle remained a threat to his bed-honor.
With the door safely barred, Layle carried out his usual nightly routine of checking his bedroom for traps and poison. He did not yet know how high the murder rate was between torturers here, and until he knew, he would take no chances. He had been the most talented apprentice to enter the Hidden Dungeon in recent years; all the other youths' hands had been against him, once they had realized that he was a future contender for the position of High Torturer.
Here he would be lucky if the Codifier permitted him to clean the floors, but the other young torturers could not know that. So he searched diligently, but the bedroom was clean of all murderous items, perhaps because it ordinarily served as Mr. Sobel's bedroom. Mr. Sobel himself was spending a night on the sofa in the next room, which he had termed his parlor.
Layle surveyed the bedroom, trying to decide how to spend the next few hours. The Code of Seeking required junior torturers who were assigned to the night shift to be on-duty from the end of dusk shift to the beginning of dawn shift, other than a brief break for a midnight meal. At this time of year, in early autumn, that meant his shift lasted roughly ten hours. A further four hours – the length of the dusk shift and dawn shift combined – were set aside for meals and leisure. That left the junior torturers with a luxurious ten hours in which to sleep.
Layle required only six hours of sleep. Seeking a way to entertain himself, he brought out the Code and began browsing through it. This time he did so with a critical eye, searching for ways in which the Code could be exploited to bring about abuse.
There were many. After a while, Layle sought out a pencil in the room and began making careful notes of how an unscrupulous member of the dungeon – himself, for example – could follow the rules of the Code, yet destroy other members of the dungeon . . . including the prisoners.
He must have fallen asleep in the process. When he slept, he dreamt of his old workplace, and of what he had done there.
He awoke, shivering from cold sweat, just as he was on the point of spurting his whammer. He was so very close . . . but once awake, the image of a battered prisoner was taken from him, and he knew that he was in a place where he could not carry out such deeds.
Not because it was impossible to do so. He knew that now. He knew that he could commit every crime in the Yclau law books and get away with it here. That meant he was more of a danger to this place than he had contemplated upon his arrival.
He fell into fitful sleep again, and this time he dreamt, not of his past prisoners, but of the prisoner awaiting him in the breaking cell. He would find some excuse to send away Mr. Sobel, or else he would find a way to bribe or intimidate the guard; Mr. Sobel, who had arrived here with honor shining upon him, had clearly had his honor gradually stripped from him under the corrosive influence of his fellow workers at the Eternal Dungeon. So Layle would exploit Mr. Sobel's weakening ability to tell right from wrong, would strip the prisoner of his clothes and his defenses, would use all the instruments in the rack room on him, would end with the instrument of his own body . . .
Again he awoke in the moment before he would have spurted. His baubles ached unendurably. Shivering, he knelt down and began building a fire in the grate.
This must not continue. It had happened every night since he had left the Hidden Dungeon, with the result that he had barely received any sleep. To a certain extent, he could offset that with the training he had received to remain clear-headed when called upon to torment a prisoner for many hours. But if this continued, he would soon be falling asleep at his work.
And the dreamings when he was awake were a worse threat. How could he break the rapist of the Queen's niece if he was sucked into a dark dreaming of abuse every time that he contemplated torturing a prisoner?
He sat back on his haunches, watching the flames lick the wood, and remembering that he must wean himself from this comfort, since the torturers' living cells contained no stoves and presumably no fireplaces. The autumn-cool dungeon was considerably warmer than the winter streets he had slept on as a child; he was unlikely to die of pneumonia here, sleeping under the warm blankets.
But the coldness inside him could not be eradicated so easily. He had realized that on his way to the Queen's palace – had realized that he had established habits too deeply rooted to be weeded immediately. Even as he outwardly vowed to remain loyal to the high principles of the Code, the dark desire within him rebelled. And the form that rebellion was taking was unending images of what he had done and what he might do. Dreams when he slept; dreamings when he was awake.
And now temptations to act on those dreamings, having realized how easy it would be to continue his old life here.
"This isn't why I came here," he murmured as he stood up. "If I had wanted to continue serving Hell, I could have stayed in the Hidden Dungeon."
The charcoal glowed red, like the eyes of Hell, watching, waiting.
Since an early age, he had served the High Master of hell – whose name could only be spoken in the presence of the damned – and had been formally dedicated to the god when he reached his journeyman years. Hell was the patron god of all the torturers in the Hidden Dungeon. Layle Smith in particular had reason to be grateful to the torture-god who had granted him such great talents.
And now, by fleeing from his work for Hell's representative, the King of Vovim, Layle had broken his oath of loyalty to the god. It occurred to him that he had not prayed since he had made the decision to leave the Hidden Dungeon. How could he pray to a god he had spurned?
But there were other gods in the world. And staring down at the red eyes of Hell, Layle knew what he must do.
He raised his face and his hands toward heaven, awkwardly, having never taken this position of prayer before. He whispered, "Mercy, I do not deserve your grace—"
And then he stopped. What else, after all, could he say to the goddess Mercy?
He thought hard, for so long that his arms began to ache, but he did not lower them. Finally he added, "I broke my oath of service to your Brother . . . but I believe that you are the one who guided me to this dungeon. If I am wrong, I will accept any punishment you deem proper for my broken oath. But if I am right in believing that you sent me here for your own purposes, please show me how I may serve you."
Yes, that was good; that was a proper petition from someone in his situation. He lowered his arms, feeling relieved. He had thought himself alone in his struggles here, but if Mercy had enticed him away from his work for Hell, then she must have some plan for him. He merely had to figure out what it was.
Mr. Sobel was sitting in an armchair, absorbed in a newspaper, when Layle emerged from the bedroom near dusk, his body wrapped in a dressing gown he had found in Mr. Sobel's wardrobe. The uniformed guard did not look up as he entered.
Frowning, Layle asked, "Am I interrupting?"
"Mm?" The guard remained absorbed in the paper. "No, no – I'm just wasting time with the gossip columns."
He was reading one of the scandal sheets, Layle saw. Layle considered the situation for a brief moment; then his eye flicked round to the objects in the parlor.
A minute later, Mr. Sobel stiffened. The paper dropped from his fingers. His gaze, after a brief moment of shock, turned solid as steel.
Seeing all this in the mirror facing the two of them, Layle quickly withdrew the knife he had placed against the back of Mr. Sobel's neck. "Now am I more interesting than the newspaper?" he enquired in a mild voice.
Mr. Sobel's gaze remained like steel, but his mouth twisted into the faint shadow of a smile. "You have a rather dramatic way of making your point, sir."
"If you think I'm dramatic, you should have met my former employer. He would have had your privates chopped off after that performance."
"I'm not on duty, sir." His gaze glacial now, the guard stood and turned to face Layle.
"No, thankfully. If I'd been a prisoner, you'd be dead." Layle tossed aside the butter-knife.
The guard considered him for a long moment before asking, "How old did you say you were, sir? Eighteen?"
"Eighteen, and a bit more experienced in such matters than you are, unless you grew up in the sort of neighborhood I did."
Mr. Sobel's expression was sliding subtly into puzzlement. "You sound high-born, sir."
"It's a lengthy tale. Is that for me?" He pointed toward the uniform draped over the sofa.
Mr. Sobel did not respond for a moment. He had not yet shaved, his jacket and vest were off, and his cravat was not yet tied at his neck. He looked much like the prisoners that Layle had questioned over the years. Finally the guard replied, "Yes, sir. It arrived a little while ago. It's the uniform for a torturer-in-training . . . since there is no uniform for situations such as yours. You can have it tailored to your needs."
Layle examined the clothing, not yet permitting himself the pleasure of examining the whip beside the uniform. He could see at a glance that it was shorter than the whips he had wielded in the past, but he prided himself on being able to learn to use any instrument of torture he was given.
As for the uniform, he could see no difference between this uniform and the ones that the other torturers had been wearing, except that the black hood had a thin red strip of cloth at the hemline. Examining the loose stitching, he said, "The red shows I'm in training?"
"Yes, sir. The strip is removed once you've completed your training."
He turned to see that Mr. Sobel was regarding him quizzically. "For death, sir," replied the guard. "Because you are dying to your old life."
He managed to stop himself from asking further revealing questions about the hood. Dimly he remembered that the seal of the Queen of Yclau, which he had seen in the palace, was tri-colored. "Is that why the corridors are painted green?" he asked in what he hoped was a casual manner.
"Of course, sir. The green reminds us that our goal is the prisoners' rebirth."
Red for death, green for rebirth . . . that meant that the blue in the seal must stand for the transformation from death to rebirth. He wondered where he would see that color.
The red silk of the rest of the uniform still looked too rich to him, but now he could understand the color's symbolic purpose. Red meant death in this land, just as black meant death in Vovim. Well, at least the hood here was black. He ran his fingers over the face-cloth. The torturers in the Hidden Dungeon wore no hoods; the prisoners were forced to confront the sneering faces of their torturers. The Code's requirement that the torturers' face-cloths be lowered whenever torture took place was for humanitarian reasons, as well as a symbolic reason: the torturer's identity at such moments was supposed to be less important than the role he was playing in assisting the obstinate prisoner to rebirth.
He felt vaguely surprised that the Yclau were capable of understanding symbolism. He had already been shocked to learn – while in the midst of seducing one of the palace guards – that most people in the queendom did not attend the theater regularly, and that only the rich adorned their rooms with artwork, other than an occasional print torn from a scandal sheet. Yet somehow, against all odds, the Eternal Dungeon had retained understanding of the important part that symbolism could play in a man's life.
Without even realizing that his mind had travelled this far ahead, Layle asked, "Is there worship here?"
"Sir?" Mr. Sobel sounded puzzled again.
Layle could have cursed himself. Of course there was no worship here. The Yclau were atheists; everyone knew that. "I meant . . . if prisoners arrived here from foreign lands . . ."
"Oh." The guard's voice relaxed. "No, sir, we don't have any foreign worship services in this dungeon, though the prisoners are welcome to pray in whatever manner they wish, provided that their prayer does not break the Code. However, we do hold a daily service, during the dusk shift, for dungeon workers. Would you like to attend?"
A service for atheists? It seemed that the Eternal Dungeon would be a place of continual surprises. "Certainly," Layle responded. "Let me dress first."
Half of an hour later, his toiletry and dressing were completed, and he had rejected Mr. Sobel's offer of a ginger bun to break his fast. He knew what was proper, even if Mr. Sobel didn't; one did not eat before entering the presence of the gods.
Feeling odd in his new riding boots, which did not quite fit, he accompanied Mr. Sobel. They returned to what Mr. Sobel termed the "inner dungeon" by way of the corridors they had taken the previous night, and once again they walked through the dim stretch of corridor between the rack rooms. But they did not pause this time; their destination evidently lay at the end of the corridor, where two doors guarded an arched doorway. The doors were painted blue.
The service had already begun by the time Mr. Sobel ushered Layle inside. There were perhaps two dozen guards and torturers inside the spacious room, far fewer than Layle had seen in the entry hall. The room, like the entry hall and the Codifier's office, was untamed cave. The room was brilliant with candlelight; Layle's head swum from the smell of beeswax and smoke. In the portion of the room near the doors hung a pulley, though it did not appear to be there for the prisoners; it was attached to what appeared to be a great manhole.
The guards and torturers encircled a great fire-pit in the ground. If there was a leader here, Layle could not identify him; everyone was reciting the same words. Some men read the words from books; others appeared to have the words memorized.
Mr. Sobel pulled a book from his jacket pocket, opened it, and handed it to Layle, pointing to the appropriate line. Layle, who had never attended school, was a slow reader, but he managed to follow what was being said, for the words were familiar. They were taken from the Code of Seeking, though altered to address some unknown being who was never named. Or perhaps, he thought, concentrating hard on what was being said, the words were merely expressed hopes.
". . . that once reborn, our prisoners may renew their lives, gaining strength from what they have suffered in the past . . ."
The words were as fine as any worship liturgy Layle had attended in the past, but he thought to himself that whoever designed the service could have done more to impart drama to what occurred. He said as much to Mr. Sobel as the service ended and people left the room, again without any indication that a leader was conducting the service.
"You attend traditional chapels, do you?" Mr. Sobel smiled. "Yes, I suppose our services look dull and anarchic compared to the traditional rites, sir. The service is still being shaped; we've only been conducting it for a couple of decades now. And we're having to figure matters out on our own, because ours is the only service that bases its rite, not only on the traditional Sayings, but also on our Code of Seeking."
Everything in the service that Layle had heard he remembered reading about in the Code. Now intrigued, he said, "That must have been a difficult composition. I don't own a copy of the Sayings myself; do you have one you can lend me, so that I can refresh my memory?"
"Yes, sir," said Mr. Sobel promptly. "You'll find my copy in the topmost drawer of my bedroom bureau. You're welcome to keep it; I haven't read the Sayings for years."
"I suppose," said Layle, looking about at the candles again, "that you stopped reading them around the time you came to the Eternal Dungeon."
Mr. Sobel began to speak, then hesitated.
Layle walked over to examine the candles more closely. They were on ledges that were carved from the cave wall itself – ledge upon ledge, all the way to the domed ceiling, and nearly all of the ledges held candles, though only the lower candles were lit. "Do you attend these services, normally?" he asked.
After a while, Mr. Sobel said, "No, sir. The services are voluntary. And I work long hours—"
"I expect that this is fairly low in your priorities." He trickled his fingers over the candles, which were blue.
He had always had a talent for attacking in such a manner that the other person could not accuse him of doing so. Mr. Sobel's face had flushed red, but Layle ignored this; he was reading the hand-written labels in front of the candles. After a while he asked, "Are these the prisoners?"
Mr. Sobel said stiffly, "Yes, sir. Prayer-candles are set out for every prisoner who has been executed for his crimes. This is our Crematorium for the prisoners; you can see the ash-pit over there." He pointed to what Layle had mistaken for a manhole.
"And do you light candles for the prisoners yourself?"
A pause, and then: "No, sir. The torturers do that."
"Are the guards not permitted to light candles for their prisoners?"
This time, Mr. Sobel did not respond. When Layle looked back at him, Mr. Sobel was gazing round at the flames, as though seeing something he had not seen for a very long time.
"And what about the junior night guard?"
"Sir?" Mr. Sobel appeared more startled than this question would warrant.
"Doesn't the Code of Seeking require that both a junior guard and a senior guard be on duty at all times when a prisoner is within his cell?" Layle asked patiently as they reached the corridor where the breaking cells were located.
"Oh. Yes, sir." Mr. Sobel relaxed, having evidently decided that he was not being asked too esoteric a question. "The High Torturer has lent you his junior and senior day guards, since he is between prisoners at the moment. As for the junior night guard, I'm afraid he's unavailable – he's on leave this week from his regular duties. I can request a substitute for him, if you wish."
"Only if the Code requires that." Searching a prisoner with one eyewitness would be bad enough. Searching it with two . . . "I'd like a chance, though, to meet your regular junior—"
"Watch out!" called Mr. Sobel, halting suddenly.
There was a cry, inarticulate; then someone bellowed, "Stop him!" and shouts resounded along the corridor. Layle, his reflexes as swift as usual, hardly needed the alarm; he had already taken in the image of the furiously racing man.
Fortunately, the man was running in the wrong direction, away from the dungeon's exit. Layle waited until the man was alongside him; then he grabbed the escaped prisoner and slammed him brutally against the wall.
The prisoner's cry of pain put an end to the guards' shouting. Layle, pressing his groin against the prisoner's backside as he twisted the man's arms agonizingly behind his back, heard the prisoner sob. Layle reacted in the same sedate manner as he might have if he had heard a bride give a cry upon being entered for the first time on her wedding night. He barely noticed the stiffness at his groin; his mind was on his work.
—leans over, as though to inspect the body, and begins to bring his weight down upon the prisoner—
Shaking, he pulled himself back. "Mr. Sobel," he said, unable to hide the tremor in his voice, "please take charge of the prisoner."
"Yes, sir." Mr. Sobel was staring at him, his brow furrowed in puzzlement. Layle wondered how long he had been sucked into his dreaming. But Mr. Sobel was too much of a professional to ask questions in front of a prisoner. He grasped firmly the prisoner, who was trying to take this opportunity of transfer in order to escape again. Leaning forward, Mr. Sobel murmured something in the prisoner's ear. Whatever threat he made was evidently effective, for the prisoner went limp.
Layle was too far away to hear the threat, for he had backed as far away as possible. His heart was still pounding; his shaft was still cock-high. He had a terrible feeling that, if he approached the prisoner, his dreaming of abuse would merge with reality.
"Sir? Shall I return your prisoner to his cell?" asked Mr. Sobel.
His prisoner. Oh, gods.
"Yes, please. Thank you, Mr. Sobel." It was surprising how handy long-ago lessons in etiquette from his mother could be in situations like this; his automatic response sounded calm.
"Come with me, please." Evidently, Mr. Sobel had decided to take his cue from Layle's politeness; he was no harsher in addressing the prisoner than the circumstances demanded. He propelled the prisoner down the corridor, toward his cell, as Layle trailed behind, at a safe distance.
They were met halfway by a pair of guards who looked surprisingly unconcerned, considering that they had evidently been the men who had let the prisoner slip past them. "Sorry," said one of them, speaking to Mr. Sobel rather than Layle. Then, taking another look at the prisoner: "Are you okay?" The question was addressed to the prisoner.
The prisoner, his face screwed up in pain, made no reply.
"Nothing broken, I think," murmured Mr. Sobel. "If you would open the door to the cell, please . . ."
"How did the prisoner get past you?" Layle asked the day guard who had spoken – probably the senior day guard, since he was the elder of the two.
"Er . . . not quite certain." The senior day guard was avoiding Layle's eye. So was the junior day guard, who was steering the prisoner into the breaking cell.
Layle was left with the quite distinct impression that the day guards had deliberately released their prisoner. His lips tightened grimly. If the High Torturer wished to test a new torturer's abilities by ordering that a prisoner be released at the very moment that his torturer approached the breaking cell, that was the High Torturer's privilege. But Layle very much hoped that this was the last bit of interference he would receive from the High Torturer, until the prisoner was broken.
He glanced at the day guards, and then drew aside Mr. Sobel. "A question. Am I permitted to give orders to the High Torturer's day guards?"
"Of course, sir. They are your guards this week."
"But I'm not permitted to give orders to you."
Mr. Sobel hesitated. All around them, the corridor was settling back to its usual, disorderly self; apparently, even the attempted escape of a prisoner had not jolted the other guards into an awareness of the consequences of laxness on duty. "Sir, I believe that the High Torturer may have exaggerated somewhat for effect when he spoke to you of my role in relation to you. It's true that, as a senior guard, I have the authority to intervene if a low-ranked torturer acts in a manner that clearly endangers the prisoner's life or soul. But barring that, I am under your command."
"Good," said Layle crisply. "Will you be accompanying me inside the breaking cell?"
"That is for you to decide, sir, but I am required to take notes on your performance. Although there is a watch-hole in the door, it would be easier for me to take notes if I were inside the cell."
Layle thought about this. If Mr. Sobel had the means to spy on him while he was in the cell, it made little difference, from Layle's perspective, whether the guard stood inside or outside the cell. And he had to admit that it was something of a relief to know that Mr. Sobel would be there if anything went wrong.
He decided to say this to Mr. Sobel; he felt he owed the guard that much, after the knife-against-the-neck episode. Mr. Sobel misunderstood him, though, and said carefully, "From what I've seen of him so far, sir, this particular prisoner is unlikely to attack you."
Layle stopped himself in time from asking, "Can you guarantee that the opposite won't happen?" He was letting his nerves get to him. Just because he was plagued by these evil dreamings, that was no reason to question his ability to control himself. Control was the hallmark of a torturer; if he lost that, he lost his profession.
Turning, he dismissed the day guards, saying that he hoped to have the opportunity to talk longer with them at dawn, when they returned for their next shift. They were continuing to avoid his eye, but at least they were not insolent toward him. After they had gone, Layle waited impatiently as Mr. Sobel checked the watch-hole before opening the cell door.
The prisoner was standing toward the end of the cell, well beyond the stove. He was a man about Mr. Sobel's age, fair-haired, neat in appearance, even though he had been stripped to a prisoner's clothing: shoes, shirt, and trousers. He was wearing suspenders. Layle – who had once nearly been strangled by a desperate prisoner who thought of a creative way to use his suspenders – thought to himself that one manner in which the Code of Seeking made life especially hard for the torturers and guards was by permitting the prisoners to keep most of their clothing. He could think of a dozen places within that clothing where this prisoner could have hidden a blade. Well, he would just have to hope that the guards at the dungeon gates had searched the prisoner thoroughly. Or – since this seemed unlikely, based on the current level of achievement in this dungeon – he would have to hope that his quick reflexes would save him if the prisoner attacked.
He looked the prisoner in the eye, trying to judge his character. The prisoner returned his look, but not in a way that seemed to suggest defiance; indeed, he appeared nervous, which was hardly surprising after Layle's attack on him in the corridor.
Layle decided that, for both their sakes, it would be best to overlook that episode. He opened his mouth and realized, to his horror, that he didn't know what to say. How did a torturer in the Eternal Dungeon begin a session of searching? He could not recall that the Code had anything to say on this matter.
He tried again. "Good evening, Mr. . . ."
"Howard," Mr. Sobel murmured in Layle's ear. He was in the midst of pulling from the inside pocket of his jacket the memorandum book and pencil he had brought out the day before.
"Good evening, Mr. Howard," said Layle.
The first flicker of an expression appeared on the prisoner's face. It was gone nearly before Layle had seen it, but that one second was enough to allow him to recognize the emotion it conveyed. Layle added, "Your name is Howard, isn't it?"
"Er . . . That was the name I was born with, sir. But I usually use my foster parents' name—"
Layle waved him to a stop. He had no interest in hearing the tale of the prisoner's life. "If your name in the legal records is Howard, that is how I will address you. Mr. Howard, I am your torturer."
Mr. Howard looked less than happy at this introduction – which, Layle was prepared to admit, was not the most comforting introduction that a prisoner could receive. Nonetheless, Mr. Howard seemed to take his cue from Layle's polite greeting; he said in turn, "How do you do, sir?"
Layle thought to himself that any prisoner who began calling his torturer "sir" from the very start was exactly the sort of prisoner he liked working with. "I am well, thank you. Mr. Howard, you realize, by my title, that I have the power to torture you."
Mr. Howard flicked a glance at Mr. Sobel before returning his attention to Layle. "Yes, sir. That has been made quite clear to me."
So Mr. Sobel had already prepared the groundwork here? Layle felt a momentary irritation that the guard had not told him this. Though to be fair, Mr. Sobel must have spoken to the prisoner the previous day, before Layle's arrival. At any rate, it wouldn't hurt to repeat whatever message Mr. Sobel had given the prisoner; he could guess that Mr. Sobel had sought to impart to the prisoner the unique nature of the searching he was about to undergo. "I want you to understand, Mr. Howard: what concerns me most is not your pain, nor even your death. What concerns me most is your soul. If I must use torture to break you, I will do so. But I would prefer that matters not go that far. If you are honest with me – if you are completely truthful – then I promise I will not torture you to obtain a confession. But you must not lie to me."
The prisoner had been gradually relaxing through this speech. Now he said, "Yes, sir. That's been made quite clear to me as well."
Layle eyed him, wonder whether the prisoner was complacent because he thought Layle could be easily manipulated, or was genuinely relieved to be offered an alternative means by which to make his confession. "You have been accused of raping the Queen's niece."
"Yes, sir, I know that."
"Do you have anything to say in response to that charge?"
The prisoner hesitated before saying, "Only that I didn't do it, sir."
It was the refrain of every prisoner who had ever been placed in Layle's hands. Layle had made it himself, when he was arrested for murder. "We shall see. Tell me about yourself, Mr. Howard. What is your age?"
"Twenty-six, sir. The same age as— That is, I think I'm around the same age as your guard there."
Mr. Sobel, quite properly, said nothing. He had slipped his right hand in his pocket and was fidgeting there. Layle wondered whether Mr. Sobel was doubting whether the new torturer had the ability to tell when he was being lied to. Many men did doubt this, who hadn't previously seen Layle at his work.
Layle continued, "And your work?"
"Sir?" The prisoner looked uncertain.
"What sort of work do you do?"
The prisoner hesitated again before replying, "I am employed by the Queen."
"What sort of tasks are you assigned?"
Once more the hesitation. "I assist with any tasks my supervisor deems necessary."
"What sort of work does your supervisor—?"
"Look," said the prisoner suddenly furious, "I don't have to put up with this sort of bloody probing. Ask me about my supposed crime, or shut your trap!"
There was a long, deadly silence in which the prisoner seemed to realize what he had said. Or perhaps Layle's face was revealing a bit too much. At any rate, the prisoner's face drained of blood.
He did not immediately apologize, though. A shame, that.
"Mr. Sobel, a word with you. Mr. Howard, stay where you are. Do not move." Layle retreated to the front of the cell, keeping a careful eye on the prisoner who, for the moment, did not appear to be eager to make any sudden moves. Mr. Sobel, tucking away his memorandum book, followed Layle, then leaned forward to listen to him.
"Mr. Sobel, how many lashes do I give him?" Layle spoke softly as he pulled his looped whip from the hook on his belt. He felt on solid ground here; the Code did not merely permit but actually required the torturers to beat their prisoners if the prisoners were insolent. Layle would not be breaking his word to the prisoner; this torture was for discipline, not in order to obtain a confession. Any schoolboy who talked back to his schoolmaster in such a fashion could expect a flogging, so presumably the prisoner would recognize the nature of his error as well. Layle could not remember, though, how much of a beating the prisoners were supposed to receive.
"That's for you to decide, sir."
On the point of unrolling his whip, Layle stared. "Are you saying that I can beat him for as long as I want?"
For the first time, the guard looked uneasy. "Sir, the High Torturer trusts the good judgment of the men working under him."
The High Torturer trusted the good judgment of torturers? Gods above and below. "And the Code has nothing to say on this?"
"Only that a beating is required in situations like this, sir."
This was absurd. You placed a vulnerable prisoner in the hands of a man who, in all likelihood, had taken up the profession of torturer because he enjoyed seeing other men suffer . . .
. . . and then you placed no limits on him. None whatsoever.
"Mr. Sobel," said Layle, almost in despair now, "I am not accustomed to using my own judgment in so important a matter as this. Can you offer me any advice, based on your past experience with prisoners in this dungeon?"
He half expected the senior night guard to grow contemptuous at this confession of ignorance, but Mr. Sobel, if anything, looked relieved to have his expertise called upon. "Well, sir, I don't have a torturer's ability to judge character, but my impression is that the prisoner spoke as he did simply out of fear. I don't think he's the type to normally be insolent. So I think a light beating would be in keeping with this situation."
"You mean fewer lashes?"
"I mean beating him lightly, sir, as opposed to hard."
Layle had no idea what the difference was between a light beating and a hard beating. A beating was a beating, as far as he knew. "And how many lashes?"
"Perhaps . . . five, sir?" The guard spoke tentatively, obviously believing that Layle would overrule him with a higher number.
"Thank you, Mr. Sobel. You may bind the prisoner." Layle watched the guard approach the prisoner and murmur some sort of order to him. Layle usually performed his own bindings, but Mr. Sobel seemed to enjoy being part of the proceedings . . . even though the guard had no natural lust for pain. That was clear from the manner in which he conducted himself.
Layle had met a few men like Mr. Sobel in the Hidden Dungeon. Not many; all of them ended up refusing to obey orders eventually, so their lives did not last long. It was odd to find himself in a dungeon where a man with a sensitive conscience would not only be permitted to live but would be given high rank. Mr. Sobel's place in this dungeon – Layle thought as he slid the whip between his fingers to check for accidental knots – was indication enough that the Code of Seeking reigned supreme here.
Meanwhile, Layle needed to figure out what the difference was between a light beating and a heavy beating – a difference that would no doubt have been clear to him had he been the Yclau torturer that Mr. Sobel assumed him to be. He dared not ask the guard so revealing a question, but he considered the issue as Mr. Sobel helped the prisoner to strip himself bare. The prisoner was making no last-minute protest, though his face remained pale; he compliantly turned toward the wall and allowed Mr. Sobel to bind his wrists to the whipping ring.
Layle had been the most accomplished whipster in the Hidden Dungeon. He had beaten hundreds of prisoners. He should not feel as though he had just been pulled out of a collegiate lesson-room and thrust into a primary-school lesson. He eyed the naked prisoner, calculating where he would lay the lines of pain, trying to figure out how to keep the beating light—
—prisoner stands bound and bloody against the wall, his skin mutilated in dozens of places by the blades and brands that his torturer has used upon him. His hands are tied high above him, and he stands upon his toes, his feet barely reaching the ground. He is naked, of course—
With a shudder, he emerged from his dreaming. He awoke to see that Mr. Sobel was standing beside him and staring, not at Layle's face, but at his groin. The guard's expression was troubled.
Layle had to suppress the instinct to clap his hands over his groin, like a young boy caught for the first time with a stiff whammer. "Mr. Sobel," he heard himself say in a voice too soft to be heard by the waiting prisoner, "do you know how to flog?"
Mr. Sobel managed to tear his gaze away from Layle's groin. "Yes, sir. The High Torturer is in charge of the discipline of disobedient torturers and guards. At his command, I do all the disciplinary beatings in this dungeon."
"Then you will do this one." Layle handed him the whip.
Mr. Sobel stared at him, though he took the whip in an automatic manner. "Sir, you are the torturer . . ."
"I am delegating this duty to you. Is there anything in the Code that would prevent me from doing so?"
Mr. Sobel licked his lips nervously. "No, sir. Not that I know of. But the torturers in this dungeon usually do their own work."
"My work, Mr. Sobel, is to search the prisoner and care for his soul. I can more easily do that if my mind is not preoccupied with lesser matters, such as whether I am applying a lash properly."
His words all sounded very reasonable. He wondered whether they were in fact reasonable. All that he cared about at the moment was getting that whip out of his hand before his dreaming should return. What if he began dreaming he was killing a prisoner with the lash at the very moment that he was beating this prisoner?
No, it was unthinkable that he should beat this prisoner. As long as his dreamings continued to recur, he must refrain from torturing – refrain from even touching – any prisoner who was placed under his care.
"The torture must occur in this case," he said aloud, "but there is no reason you should not do it, since you are trained in these matters."
"Yes, sir, I see." It was difficult to tell what Mr. Sobel thought of this change in plans, but he did not seem inclined to argue further. "Shall I start now?"
"Wait." Layle looked at the prisoner again, naked against the wall. His whammer jumped as he thought of what he could do to a prisoner in that position – had in fact done to past prisoners.
Mercy preserve him. Next time he would make sure that any prisoner beaten in his presence kept his trousers on. It was just as easy to beat a half-naked prisoner, and safer too. "Keep your beating above the waist, Mr. Sobel."
"Five light lashes, as we agreed. Don't spend too much time between lashes. The quicker this is over, the better." Better for the prisoner, and better for Layle.
He could not watch this. That would be too close to his dreamings, to see the lash landing on the prisoner's naked flesh. But neither could he retreat from this cell; he was in charge here.
Cautiously, Layle approached the prisoner, who was trying to look over his shoulder. At the last minute, Layle steered himself clear of the prisoner and positioned himself further along the wall that the prisoner was bound against.
Yes, this was good. It was difficult to see the prisoner's back from this angle, but he could clearly see the prisoner's face. Faces were revealing; Layle had often regretted that he could not watch his prisoners' faces in the same moments that he was beating them.
Perhaps, then, delegating this beating to Mr. Sobel need not be an admission of defeat. Perhaps it could be a way for Layle to obtain new information.
"Shall I proceed, sir?" Mr. Sobel was well within Layle's field of view. The guard had unbuttoned his jacket, so as not to restrict the movement of his torso, and his arm was back, ready to throw the first lash. His position was textbook-excellent; Layle decided that he need not fear whether the beating would be done properly.
He turned his gaze back to the prisoner, who was staring at him, still white-faced. Layle knew that even high-born Yclau boys could be beaten in school, but perhaps this one had always done his lessons properly, for he looked as though he were going to faint at any moment. Then Layle realized that the prisoner had not overheard the earlier conversation between his torturer and guard; he did not yet know how heavy a punishment he was going to receive.
"It's all right, Mr. Howard," said Layle. "You will only receive five lashes – light lashes."
This was ridiculous. One did not comfort a prisoner at the very moment one was torturing him – not unless one was seducing the prisoner at the same time. Layle had certainly comforted many a prisoner for that reason; it had always amused him to persuade a prisoner to offer up his body voluntarily, out of a belief that his torturer loved him.
Layle was not trying to do that here . . . and yet, as a bit of color returned to the prisoner's face, he heard himself say, "Simply bear the pain, Mr. Howard, and it will be over soon. —All right, Mr. Sobel, you may begin."
He spared a quick glance at Mr. Sobel as the first lash came down. Mr. Sobel's jacket was swinging in an odd manner; his right pocket seemed weighed down by some heavy object. But the weight did not impede him; the lash landed correctly. Layle quickly turned his attention back to the prisoner.
The prisoner took three lashes without making a sound; then he broke down into tears. Layle, still following some inner instinct he had not hitherto known, held up his hand toward Mr. Sobel. The guard stopped beating the prisoner immediately.
"Mr. Howard," Layle said softly, "do you understand now how important it is for you to conduct yourself in a civil manner?"
Still struggling to contain his tears, the prisoner nodded.
"Then there's no need for the last two lashes. —Thank you, Mr. Sobel. You may release the prisoner." Layle pushed himself away from the wall. His groin was still aching from need, but it hardly seemed to matter now. He was learning that a part of himself that he had despised – the part that spoke false, soothing words to prisoners – could be used to bring genuine good to the prisoner.
If the prisoner repents, he will find his evil transforming to good. . . . The Code had spoken the truth. Until now, Layle had possessed no real proof that the Code was true; he had simply held faith that it was true.
And now his faith had borne fruit. His evil was transforming to good.
He felt humbled rather than exultant, as though he had been a minor player in a magnificent drama that brought the gods to life. He looked at the prisoner, wondering – with deep, reverent calmness – what was the next step he should take in this drama.
The prisoner, still bound to the ring, was biting his lip against the pain of the previous lashes. If Layle had been in the Hidden Dungeon, he would have used this opportunity, when the prisoner was still vulnerable, to force a confession from him. There was nothing in the Code that would have prevented Layle from doing so.
But Layle was not here primarily for a confession. His main goal was to help the prisoner recognize and repent of the misdeed he had done. A small thread of trust now bound the prisoner to Layle; Layle knew this, from all his experience of falsely wooing prisoners.
He would not break that trust by taking advantage of the prisoner. He would allow the trust to grow until the prisoner, of his own volition, offered his confession and recognized his need to offer recompense for his evil.
As Layle had done.
"Mr. Howard," Layle said quietly, "I will give you time to think now about what you have done in this cell and to think back upon anything you have done in the past that you may now regret. Once you have had time to collect yourself, we will continue our conversation. . . . Do you have a handkerchief?" He asked Mr. Howard this as Mr. Sobel released him.
Looking understandably bewildered by this approach from his torturer, the prisoner said, "No, sir. I mean, yes, but I used it early this morning, when I was waiting for you." His mouth quirked as Mr. Sobel handed him his own handkerchief. "I'm not as brave as everyone seems to think."
It was a confession, Layle reflected, that the prisoner would not have offered a few minutes before. "Tears are nothing to be ashamed of; the measure of a man lies in his deeds, not in whether he feels pain and fear. I will look forward to talking with you later."
"Thank you, sir." There was something in the prisoner's eyes that Layle could not quite identify. It was not until he reached the door that he realized what it was.
The prisoner felt pity for him.
Snow entered the Eternal Dungeon. It was stamped from boots, was shaken from mittens and scarves, and drifted down the steps from some open window in the palace above. At the bottom of the steps leading to the dungeon gates, blocks of ice were being placed on what looked like an elaborate, open-doored ice box, complete with drainage buckets, while some of the male laborers sculpted a ring made of ice.
Thunderstruck, Layle had paused to watch. Near him, a torturer grumbled, "The least they could do is let us have a festival night off from work."
"The prisoners don't have the night off," another torturer pointed out.
"It's not as though the prisoners can eat festival food," contributed a third with a laugh.
"Festival?" said Layle, turning toward Mr. Sobel, who had just emerged from the High Torturer's office after speaking privately with him.
"Yes, sir." Mr. Sobel smiled as he surveyed the scene. "Blessed New Year."
"New year?" exclaimed Layle, disconcerted. "It's the tenth month – two months short of the new year."
Mr. Sobel turned a puzzled eye toward him; then his expression cleared. "Oh, do you follow the Vovimian calendar near the border? We celebrate the old festivals here. The Commoners' Festival has begun." Then, seeing that Layle still didn't understand, he waved his hand. "The first snow of the year. The beginning of the cycle of death, transformation, and rebirth."
Layle looked over at the ringed ice sculpture again, and at the laborers carving it. An entire festival dedicated to the commoners? What a strange land Yclau was.
Yet to celebrate commoners, he reflected, was no stranger than comforting prisoners. Indeed, the two might be linked: most prisoners, in Layle's experience, were commoners. Only a few high-born prisoners – such as his current one, judging from the man's accent – had the ill luck to be arrested for a crime without being able to ease their way to freedom by way of bribes or family influence.
"Only in a land like this," he murmured, watching as some of the torturers went over to wish the laborers a blessed new year.
Disconcertingly, Mr. Sobel understood what he was saying. "Oh, yes, only in a nation like this could there have grown such concern for the prisoner and the commoner. I've heard it said that Yclau is too class-bound a society, yet we're no worse in that respect than Vovim . . . and I've never heard of any Vovimians celebrating the existence of their commoners."
"Nor the existence of their prisoners," murmured Layle. He felt something move deep within him – a feeling of longing and reverence such as he had experienced in the moment that he had finally grasped what the Code of Seeking had to offer. He turned to Mr. Sobel. "When does the festival end?"
"Traditionally, it extends from the first evening of snow until the beginning of the next evening."
Layle nodded. "Then we will let our prisoner alone for the rest of tonight. See to it, please, that he is sent appropriate food for the festival."
For a moment, Mr. Sobel simply stared at him, speechless. Then the guard said, "You are taking time off from work, sir?"
Layle shook his head. "I have no permission to do so. No, you and I will spend the rest of tonight in the rack room. I want to investigate the instruments there, and this is my opportunity to do so. But the prisoner should be permitted to celebrate so important a night and day."
"I see," said Mr. Sobel slowly. "Very well, sir. If you will wait here, I will arrange for festival food to be delivered to the prisoner."
Layle nodded without looking as Mr. Sobel departed. His gaze was fixed on a group of young guards who were pelting each other with snowballs.
In their play, they looked very young indeed – boylike. Layle tried to remember a time when he had played in the snow lightheartedly. He must have done so at some time in his life, but those days were long gone. Orphaned, he had become a thief at age ten, a murderer at age twelve, a rapist at age fifteen, and had soon after become a professional torturer.
Somewhere along the way, he had cut himself off from all amiable interactions with the rest of humanity. Only Master Aeden, stubbornly affectionate, had managed to break through Layle's barriers . . .
Master Aeden was gone forever from Layle's life. And so Layle stood here, amidst the convivial warmth of the torturers and guards and laborers who were greeting one another with arm-shakes and embraces and even kisses, and he felt the coldness of the empty space surrounding him.
The rack room had less drastic an effect on him this time. Layle thought that it must be because of what had occurred to him in the breaking cell. He looked round at the old, familiar instruments, the toys of his youth, and he knew, with an awareness he had lacked during the previous visit, that he could not use most of these deadly instruments on his prisoners.
Still following his instincts, he began to strip himself of the top half of his uniform.
Mr. Sobel, turning away from having locked the door behind them, paused. "Sir?" His voice was cautious rather than fearful, which Layle took as a good sign.
"Mr. Sobel," said Layle, tossing away his jacket and vest and shirt and undervest, "I want you to beat me."
Mr. Sobel gaped at him; then, with seeming reluctance, his gaze lowered to Layle's groin again.
Layle felt a chuckle escape him. "No, Mr. Sobel, I am not one of those men who enjoys receiving pain. You will find that out soon enough," he added dryly.
"But . . ."
"I need to understand what the difference is between a light and heavy beating. In my pride, I would have beaten the prisoner in ignorance of that difference, rather than confess to you my lack of knowledge." As Layle spoke, he turned and placed his forearms onto the cold stone wall of the rack room. "Even though you are now conducting any necessary beatings, I still must know all that you know about the use of the whip in this dungeon, so that I can supervise you properly. So I'd like you to give me a beating – first a light beating, and then a heavy one – so that I can understand what you're talking about."
"Yes, sir." Mr. Sobel's voice was subdued as he took Layle's whip in hand once more. "How many lashes, sir?"
Layle tried to think, amidst his growing fear. He had very little tolerance for harsh pain; he knew that from his time under torture by Master Aeden. On the other hand, he had a very high degree of curiosity about how instruments of torture worked. That had allowed him to hold out against Master Aeden far longer than the master torturer had expected, simply because Layle had known that, when he gave his confession, Master Aeden would cease to demonstrate on Layle's body how his instruments worked.
So Layle thought he could hold out against whatever pain Mr. Sobel inflicted on him, for the sake of the lesson he was about to receive. The only question was how many lashes would constitute a lesson.
"Twenty light lashes," he said finally. "As for the heavy lashes . . . Try twenty of those as well. We'll see whether that's enough."
"Yes, sir." Mr. Sobel sounded quite sober now, which led Layle to wonder whether he had just committed a folly. Would twenty heavy lashes bring him close to death?
He had no time to wonder, for the first lash landed.
Layle had first learned to inflict pain with a whip under the instruction of Master Aeden, with assistance from his other apprentice, who was close to journeyman age. Layle had soon exceeded both of them in skill. But the first lesson he had learned had served as the base axiom for all that followed: you lashed a prisoner as hard as you could.
Now, feeling Mr. Sobel's gradual build-up of intensity, Layle wondered how he could have accepted so foolish a proposition. He knew well enough that he could vary the intensity of how a lash landed; he had taken advantage of that fact when dispensing disciplinary beatings on wayward guards, allowing them more pain or less, depending on how well he liked them or how big a bribe they gave him. It had simply never occurred to him to do the same to the prisoners.
But now he realized that a whip was an instrument very much like the rack – one that could be used to bring small pain or large. The small pain could be short or extended, depending on what sort of pain the prisoner was most likely to break under; or one could simply build up the pain, higher and higher, to a crescendo of agony . . . and thereby allow the prisoner enough time to make his confession before the worst pain.
"Mercy," Layle gasped into his arms.
Mr. Sobel paused. "Sir?"
"Continue." It took all Layle's strength to speak that single word.
"Sir, I've finished the light beating. Are you sure that you want me to continue with the heavy beating at this point? The Code recommends a break in time between different punishments, in order to give the prisoner a chance to confess—"
"We'll continue later, then." The words were cowardly; Layle did not need an opportunity to offer a confession. But if Mr. Sobel continued, Layle was very much afraid that he would begin pleading with the guard to stop.
Besides, he reminded himself as he pushed himself shakily away from the wall, he had a prisoner to search. He was aching now, and he expected that it would be even harder to sleep tomorrow than it had been to sleep today, but he thought he was likely to make a nearly full recovery by tomorrow night. On the other hand, if Mr. Sobel had given him a heavy beating . . .
No, it was best to digest now what he had learned and save the additional lesson for later. Layle was already thinking that there was no reason why a beating should take only two forms, light and heavy. Surely there could be an intermediate state between the two? Three types of beatings multiplied by however many lashes were safe . . . It was like seeing a whole new pallet of paints that he had not known existed. Now smiling, he spared a look at Mr. Sobel.
"Thank you, Mr. Sobel; that was very educational. I understand now what you were saying. The Eternal Dungeon knows about aspects of the whip that I had not been taught at my previous workplace."
"I'm glad I could be of assistance, sir." Mr. Sobel's voice remained quiet as he rolled up his whip. He was eyeing Layle with uneasiness. Layle supposed that most men did not smile broadly in the rack room.
"You will have to teach me later how the shorter whip length affects how you swing the lash. In the meantime . . ." Layle looked round at the instruments. "I don't need these."
Mr. Sobel paused in the act of hooking his looped whip around the sheathe of his dagger; Layle made a mental note that the belts in this dungeon needed to be redesigned to allow guards to carry both daggers and whips. "Sir?" said the guard cautiously.
Layle spread his arms to indicate the instruments on the wall of the dungeon. "These are crude instruments, incapable of the level of control that you have just shown me that the whip possesses. Indeed, many of them bring too great a degree of danger of death." His eye lingered somewhat wistfully on the Swelling Globe.
"I'm not sure, sir, that all of the prisoners can be broken by the whip alone," Mr. Sobel said with obvious reluctance.
"No, the whip is too familiar an instrument to inspire fear in men who have been beaten often for disciplinary reasons," Layle agreed. "Besides, the Code decrees that the whip shall be used to dispense discipline. We need another instrument that can be used as a means to force a confession, and that will strike fear into the prisoner, yet can be controlled as well as the whip." His eye roved the room until it settled in one place. He nodded to himself, satisfied.
"Mr. Sobel," he said to the guard, whose uneasy expression was edging
into horror, perhaps because he had guessed what Layle's next words would
be. "Has anyone ever taught you to rack a prisoner?"
Another bedtime of sweet dreams of abuse, another bedtime of unmet needs. Layle, leaning over the grate in an effort to dry his sweat-soaked body, thought to himself that Mercy was proving to be as exacting a master as Hell had always been.
And without any of the rewards. Turning away abruptly from the fire – which was beginning to evoke memories of firebrands – Layle spent a moment scrounging in Mr. Sobel's bureau drawer before he located what he was seeking: the "Sayings" that Mr. Sobel had spoken about after the dusk service. Sitting down on the bed, Layle set out to compare the Sayings with the Code of Seeking.
The Sayings turned out to be a document worth reading. Layle gathered, from the book's introduction, that different volumes of the Sayings, produced in different regions, held somewhat different contents. This edition included, not only the Sayings themselves – thoughts about rebirth from a long-ago wise man – but also Yclau legislation that had stemmed from the Sayings. Much of the legislation was dead now (the footnotes told him), but the wise man's beliefs about death, transformation, and rebirth continued to live on in the queendom's system of justice. Not just the Eternal Dungeon, but all the lesser prisons of Yclau, required that prisoners be permitted an opportunity to express repentance for the crimes they had committed. All of the magistrates who judged prisoners were required to allow prisoners, or their representatives, an opportunity for defense. All of the magistrates were encouraged to seek alternatives to death sentences for prisoners who had repented and renewed themselves – had transformed and been reborn, in the parlance of the Yclau. And children were to be judged less harshly than adults, because their rebirth into a new body had only just begun, so they had not yet had time to establish a pattern of misdeeds.
Layle snorted at the latter bit of piety but turned with interest to the next section, which contained what the volume's editor termed the "myths" of the Yclau religion. These were – Layle recognized at once – the Yclau's sacred dramas.
How odd to find that the Yclau handed on their dramas, not through play-acting on a stage, but through stories told from one generation to another, until the stories were finally written down. Odder still to find himself reading sacred dramas in which the gods played no role. The central figures in the dramas were two friends – or were they love-mates? The editor refused to take sides in this long-standing argument. One man drained his own blood in order to be reborn from the world of afterdeath; the other man, weeping at the loss of his friend, assisted the first man to this death that brought renewed life. The sacrifice of both men opened the door to allow others the chance to be reborn.
One feature that the Yclau sacred dramas held in common with the Vovimian sacred dramas, Layle reflected as he sat back from his studies, was that love and strife played a central role in both. In Vovim, the dramas centered around the love and strife between Mercy and Hell. Here in Yclau, the love and strife was between the two mortals who struggled their way to a better understanding of the nature of transformation.
But much remained alien about the Yclau's dramas. The stories said that the two men had been born in the same year and held the same rank – two love-mates who were the same age and the same rank? Layle mentally filed away this information for further investigation. It would help to explain, perhaps, why Mr. Sobel was so disturbed by the activities of the torturers who exploited the guards under their control. Layle himself had only been concerned at the fact that the torturers were misusing the beloveds they ought to have been protecting, but if the Yclau sacred dramas encouraged men to take love-mates of their own rank . . . Yes, the dramas provided much material to think about.
And yet, he reflected, he had already known the dramas, the legislation, the Sayings. For turning back to the Code, he saw that every section of the Code, every sentence, every word was drawn from the religious beliefs of the Yclau. Without understanding those beliefs, he had found the Code of Seeking to be a puzzling document; now the Code seemed nothing more than a logical outcome of the Yclau religion.
Layle rested his chin on his fist, frowning. Until now, he had considered himself to be a Vovimian torturer coming to work in an Yclau dungeon. The fact that his mother was Yclau had played no role in his decision to leave Vovim, other than the fact that it meant he already knew the language here and could therefore pass himself off as Yclau.
Now, though, he was beginning to realize that it was a miracle he had managed to fool Mr. Sobel into thinking he was Yclau. The gulf between the Yclau religion and the Vovimian religion was wide . . . and what was worse, it was now clear that he could not be a torturer in the Eternal Dungeon without believing in Yclau's religious tenets.
His first impulse was to pray. To ask Mercy what he should do, to beg her to explain why she had sent him to work in a dungeon where he could not work without repudiating her. But Mercy preferred men to seek her assistance only when they had exhausted their own efforts. So he forced himself to think instead as he rose and paced the floor restlessly, like a prisoner in isolation.
Was the Yclau religion truly in opposition to the Vovimian religion? That was the crux of the matter. For in reading the Sayings, Layle had gradually become aware that the Yclau were not atheists after all. The Sayings had nothing to say, one way or the other, about the existence of the gods. It seemed to Layle that there was nothing in the Sayings that would prevent a man from believing in the gods while believing in rebirth as well.
But what of the Code? Layle remembered what Mr. Sobel had said: "The prisoners are welcome to pray in whatever manner they wish, provided that their prayer does not break the Code." Try as he might, Layle could think of nothing in the Code that would forbid him from praying to Mercy. On the contrary, she seemed admirably suited as a patron god of this dungeon.
But what of Hell?
That was the center of Layle's difficulty. He had been trained, by no less than his Yclau mother, that Hell and Mercy were inseparable – that you could not worship one without worshipping the other. Had his mother repudiated her Yclau beliefs? Or had Layle's father forced her to teach tenets to their child which she opposed herself?
No, Layle could not believe that. Unhappy though his mother had been at being abducted to a strange land and forced to live as the concubine of a married man, she had never shown any sign that she was unhappy at raising Layle as her child. And surely she would have been unhappy if her training of Layle had included falsehoods.
The bedrock of his life – the immovable foundation of his life – had always been that his mother was a good woman, that she had loved him, and that she had spoken truth to him. He could not destroy that bedrock without destroying what little good lay within him.
His mother had been Yclau, and she had worshipped Hell. Layle still could not see how the worship of a god who tortured mortals eternally could be reconciled with a belief that all mortals were offered the opportunity for transformation and rebirth. But his mother had been wiser than him. Perhaps he would simply have to wait for this part of her wisdom to reach him.
"Mercy," he murmured, "I will continue to worship you, for I know that you dwell in this dungeon. Forgive me if I do not yet understand what tribute I should pay to your Brother . . . but I hope you will reveal that truth to me in time."
He sat down and looked again at the Code and at the Sayings that had inspired the Code's creation. He was not sure what steps he should take to become a member of the Yclau religion – essentially, to become Yclau. Perhaps Mr. Sobel could tell him, if Layle could figure out a subtle enough manner in which to make an enquiry. In the meantime, it seemed to Layle that memorizing the Code of Seeking would be an appropriate way to begin.
He started to reread what had become for him his own sacred drama.
"Layle," said the High Torturer, "how are matters going with your prisoner?"
Layle and Mr. Sobel had just emerged from the evening service at the Crematorium, somewhat delayed because Mr. Sobel wished to light candles for a number of his past prisoners. Now, as Mr. Sobel dismissed the day guard from their shift of guarding the cell of Layle's prisoner, Layle turned to respond to the High Torturer, who had been grilling the day guard on some matter or another.
"Matters go well, sir," Layle replied briefly. If the High Torturer wanted details, he could ask for them.
"Any confession yet?" the High Torturer pressed him.
"Not as of yet, sir. I'm still trying to determine whether the prisoner feels remorse for what he did." This was quite true. Layle had always sought out remorse in his prisoners, because it was the easiest way to pry a confession from them. Now he simply had a new reason to do so.
"Well, step up your timing," the High Torturer said sharply. "We have other prisoners that require searching, you know."
"Yes, sir. I was wondering . . ."
"Wondering what?" The High Torturer, who had been about to speak to Mr. Sobel, turned back, frowning.
"Whether we have any more information on the prisoner than what his crime is."
The High Torturer's frown deepened. "Are you saying that you are incapable of obtaining any pertinent information yourself?"
Layle counted to ten before replying. Master Aeden had taught him this trick early in his apprentice years, when the master torturer learned that Layle's natural reaction to criticism was to strike the other person to the ground. "No, sir," he replied evenly. "But the Code of Seeking says that the torturer should take into account the prisoner's full background in determining the course of searching. If I knew the prisoner's background . . ."
"He raped the Queen's niece," snapped the High Torturer. "He was caught in the act, by the Queen herself. That's all she saw fit to tell me. If you have any more questions, you can search her."
Envisioning how the Codifier would react if he approached the Queen again, Layle remained silent. The High Torturer turned to say to Mr. Sobel, "All is ready inside. You may proceed with the searching."
For all the world, Layle thought sourly, as though Mr. Sobel were in charge of this searching. He watched as the High Torturer departed, offering a greeting as he passed Mr. Longmire, who had emerged from the breaking cell on the other side of the corridor, just as a new pair of guards arrived there.
Mr. Longmire nodded his greeting back, then said to the newly arrived guards, "Fetch me some coffee, for goodness' sake. After fourteen hours of searching, I need something to keep me awake."
"Both of us, sir?" said one of the guards doubtfully. "Your day guards are off-duty now."
"Do you think I can't handle a prisoner on my own?" Mr. Longmire flashed them a grin, and they hurried off. "You too," he said to the day guards, then: "No, wait, Argus. I want to talk to you."
Looking exceedingly uncomfortable, Argus paused on the point of departure as his fellow day guard disappeared down the corridor. Argus was fair-haired in the manner of most Yclau, with long, blond eyelashes and big eyes that made him look even younger than he was.
Layle, seeing the look that Mr. Longmire gave Argus, turned his back and pretended to be absorbed in the conversation that Mr. Sobel was holding with the High Torturer's day guards, concerning whether their prisoner was showing loss of appetite at mealtime. He could hear all that Mr. Longmire said, however, even though the torturer kept his voice low.
After a minute's consideration, Layle murmured to Mr. Sobel, "Stay here."
Mr. Sobel flicked a glance at Mr. Longmire, then looked back at Layle and nodded. He returned to his conversation with the day guards, raising his voice.
Mr. Longmire broke off his low-voiced conversation as Layle approached. "What do you want?" he asked sharply.
"Whatever he's getting." Layle directed his smile at Mr. Longmire, leaning his hip, in a sinuous fashion, against the wall. He hooked his thumbs over his belt and let the remaining fingers trail, in an obvious manner, across the hard lump in his trousers.
After a moment, Mr. Longmire dismissed Argus with a jerk of the thumb. Argus left, relief clear on his face. Mr. Longmire seemed not to notice his departure; his gaze was fixed on Layle's groin. "You approach me like this, after what you did to me in the entry hall?" he said. "You're a bold one."
Layle continued to smile at him as he reached up to release the top two knots of his shirt. "I have to be, when there's competition."
Mr. Longmire gave a bark of laughter. "Argus? He's no competition."
"Doesn't he want you, then? Foolish boy. Perhaps, though, he's toying with you in hopes that you'll grant him favors. I know his type." Layle allowed his voice to grow contemptuous.
Mr. Longmire glanced toward Layle's guards, who were continuing to discuss the prisoner's dietary habits. Then he shrugged. "They always want something. I'm usually generous in return."
Layle's smile deepened. In the same sweet, coaxing voice he had used before, he said, "I won't need bribes."
"Won't you, now?" Mr. Longmire gave his body a lingering look. "Too bad you're on the night shift."
"Maybe I'll have the day shift eventually. In the meantime, you can always persuade Argus to keep you warm."
This time, Mr. Longmire did not even look in the direction of Layle's guards as he grinned. "No doubt. But I'll see that your shift is changed – you can count on that."
"I'll look forward to it." Rolling his hips like water, Layle walked back to his guards. Mr. Longmire, evidently forgetting that he was supposed to be guarding his prisoner, strode down the corridor toward the entry hall, casting a glance or two at Layle. Layle took care to smile at him until the other torturer was out of sight.
Then his smile disappeared with the swiftness of an execution knife. He turned. Mr. Sobel had already sent the day guards on their way; he looked soberly at Layle.
"You heard?" said Layle.
"Every word," replied Mr. Sobel quietly.
"But you already knew." Layle spoke flatly.
Mr. Sobel shook his head. "Not for certain. I had suspicions . . . but I'm so high-ranked that the other guards have been reluctant to name names to me."
"Nobody likes a tell-tale," Layle agreed. He wondered briefly what Mr. Sobel would do with this new-found knowledge; then he dismissed the matter from his mind. He had other concerns. He was still cock-high from the thought of his seduction, which was not the way in which he wanted to enter a breaking cell.
Well, it was unlikely this would be the last time he would have to question a prisoner while his shaft was stiff with need. Taking a deep breath, he gestured to Mr. Sobel to open the cell door.
The second night of searching was going no better than the first. As Mr. Sobel studiously took notes and occasionally slipped his right hand into his pocket, Layle tried to figure out how, by all the minor deities, he was supposed to establish trust with the prisoner at the same time that he grilled the prisoner for information.
Layle knew now what it was that the prisoner was hiding from him: the nature of his employment. But Layle did not yet know in what way Mr. Howard's employment had played a role in his rape of the Queen's niece.
In the meantime, the prisoner was being tediously honest.
"What sort of work do you do?"
"I am employed by the Queen."
"What sort of tasks are you assigned?"
"I assist with any tasks my supervisor deems necessary."
"What sort of work does your supervisor do?"
"He is employed by the Queen."
By the end of the morning, Layle was resorting to a game of Thirty-three Questions.
"Are you a courtier?"
"I don't know the law that well."
"But are you a courtier?"
"Are you a healer?"
"I swoon at the sight of bad injuries."
"But are you a healer?"
"I've never joined the Guild of Healers."
"Answer my question yes or no. Are you a healer?"
"Are you a soldier?"
"Do you mean in the army?"
"I mean any type of soldier."
"I've never been called that."
Scenting blood, Layle said, "But you're classified as part of the military? Are you one of the Queen's Guard?"
"Sweet blood, no." The prisoner sounded amused. "I've never held that type of privilege."
"No idle oaths, please, Mr. Howard."
"I'm sorry, sir."
Layle thought about the amusement. Could it be that, despite his high-born accent, Mr. Howard had been given a low-ranked job? "Does your work involve cleaning rooms?"
"Not thus far." The amusement in the prisoner's voice increased. The scent of blood faded from Layle's nostrils.
He said, "You realize that, if you continue to obstruct me, I can resort to harsher methods."
Mr. Howard raised his eyebrows. "I shouldn't think that would be necessary, sir. I'm replying to your questions honestly."
His tone said, as plain as can be, "Resort to brute force if you must. That will show how poor you are at this game of wits we're playing."
Layle said nothing. After a moment, the prisoner turned a bit pale, and Layle realized that his own face was revealing too much of what he desired to do to the prisoner.
"Sir, I won't lie to you." The prisoner's breath was too rapid. "Please understand, I'll answer honestly any questions you ask."
And Layle had promised that, if the prisoner was honest, there would be no torture. Very well; he would keep his promise. "Let us continue discussing the military, Mr. Howard. . . ."
"Is this yours, sir?"
They had returned to the apartment after Mr. Sobel gave his daily report to the High Torturer. Layle had been ready to toss himself immediately into bed. He had never realized how exhausting it could be to search a prisoner when you did not permit yourself the pleasure of torturing him.
But Mr. Sobel had needed to enter Layle's bedroom first in order to retrieve a clean shirt for himself. Now he emerged from the bedroom, holding up the Code of Seeking, its pages open. Layle stared blankly at the book in the guard's hand until he recalled the marginal notes he had made of all the ways in which he could break the Code.
He lifted his eyes to Mr. Sobel's face. The guard's expression was so thoroughly stripped of identifiable emotion that Layle began to think that Mr. Sobel would be the perfect, unbreakable prisoner; Layle could never tell what he was thinking.
"Yes," Layle replied tersely. He would not seek to justify what he had done. After all, he could have glibly lied about his motives for the notes if he were indeed the intended abuser that he appeared to be.
Mr. Sobel looked down at the volume. "You seem to have a thorough understanding of the Code, sir." His voice was as burnished of emotion as his face.
"Hardly," replied Layle. "I make new discoveries every time I read it."
"Oh, dear," said Mr. Sobel in so plaintive a voice that Layle laughed.
"I don't consider it to be a useless document," he assured Mr. Sobel as he rested his hand on the back of a chair where Mr. Sobel had laid his jacket.
"I hope not, sir," said Mr. Sobel, looking down at the book and wincing at whatever note he read there. "You seem to have a talent for pinpointing weaknesses."
"It's part of the job of a torturer," Layle pointed out.
"You have more a talent for that than other torturers I've known." Mr. Sobel carefully laid the volume aside.
Layle made no reply. He knew that he was more skilled than other torturers his age; older torturers had told him that. He had never seen the point of exhibiting false modesty.
Though he was beginning to understand the nature of true humility. Remembering this, he asked, "Do you have any suggestions for additional notes?"
"Perhaps a few, sir." Mr. Sobel sounded troubled, as well he might. He seemed to be struggling for words; but at that moment, there was a knock on the door. "Excuse me, sir."
Taking the hint, Layle returned to his bedroom, with Code in hand, and closed the door. He contemplated barring the door again but changed his mind. Whoever else in this dungeon might be a danger to him, he doubted now that Mr. Sobel was. If anything, Layle was the danger to Mr. Sobel: he was bringing turmoil to the guard's peace of mind.
Some things never changed. Setting aside thoughts of all the trouble he had brought to Master Aeden, Layle lay down on his bed, still fully clothed, and contemplated the ceiling. He supposed that there were some men – Mr. Sobel might be among them – who felt their world crack and crumble if something good that they followed was shown to be flawed. While Layle had not initially set out to find flaws in the Code, he was not particularly surprised to find them. Even the gods made mistakes; the sacred dramas revealed that. The only question facing him was how to put these mistakes to rights.
And in order to know that, he needed more information than he currently possessed about the state of the dungeon.
All this while, he was vaguely aware of a conversation taking place in Mr. Sobel's parlor. With his acute hearing, Layle caught a word or two of what was said: "arrest" and then "release" and then "junior night guard." And then there was the sound of a door closing, followed by silence.
And more silence.
Too much silence, Layle thought. He rose from his bed, trod soft-footed over to the bedroom door, and listened. Nothing; no scrape of a chair, no sound of a breath. He eased the door open with the same silence that he had used in the years when he was a thief.
The parlor was empty.
The only sign of Mr. Sobel was his jacket; evidently, he had left with such haste that he had forgotten that article of clothing. Layle first bolted closed the door to the corridor; then he eased his fingers into the right-hand pocket of the jacket, taking care not to move any of the contents there.
It turned out there was only one item in the pocket. He slid it out far enough to be sure of what he felt.
Mr. Sobel had been carrying the Codifier's pistol.
They heard the sound of Mr. Sobel's voice outside the door, saying something to his junior night guard. The High Torturer rose from his seat. The Codifier waited, fire in his eyes.
The two guards entered, escorting the prisoner. He was as they had taken him, still in the uniform of a torturer. The junior night guard had a tight grip on him, though there was no sign that the prisoner had resisted arrest.
The High Torturer waited until the door to the Codifier's secretary's office was closed before speaking. "Do you know why you're here?"
"No." Longmire gave a smile that did not quite touch his eyes. "But
I think I know how this will end."
Midnight was well past by the time that Layle returned to Mr. Sobel's rooms, but the guard was still absent. Grateful for that fact, Layle snatched himself a snack from Mr. Sobel's stash of edibles, then went into the bedroom in order to change out of his clothes.
For the past eight hours he had worn, not the uniform he had been issued, but the black shirt, black trousers, and scuffed work-boots he had worn during his flight from Vovim. He had worried at first that he would be mistaken within this dungeon for an escaped prisoner, but he had passed unnoticed; the normal clothing of a prisoner was no different from the normal clothing of many commoner laborers.
And that was what he had been for the past eight hours. A commoner, newly emigrated from Vovim and still speaking in a thick accent, who had moved boxes, split logs, blackened stoves, and undertaken many other menial tasks. All the laborers in the outer dungeon had seemed willing to accept his story of what he was; Layle had mentally added lax security in the outer dungeon to his long list of the Code's failings.
The hardest part had not been passing himself off as a commoner – after all, that was how he had started life. Rather, the hardest part had been working in the same rooms where serving-women passed to and fro. He could not say why women were a special temptation to him. As far as he knew, he had started off as a normal boy, attracted equally to males and females. But the scarcity of females in the Hidden Dungeon had perhaps heightened his appetite for womanly flesh. All he knew was that, by the time he grew old enough to want to explore brothels, his first choice had been the women's brothels.
But not his last choice. Layle reminded himself that, short of committing rape or torture upon them, he could not hope to receive satisfaction with any of the women in this dungeon – nor any of the men or youths, for that matter. The limits of his ability to satisfy his desires were a firmer boundary than the border between Vovim and Yclau. In a word, he could not spurt his whammer unless he was raping or torturing his victim.
No, pleasures of the flesh would be denied to him from this point forth; he firmly turned his thoughts from such matters, not allowing himself to feel the old, odd yearning for an exchange of love. He had more important matters to think about than carnal pleasures.
The outer dungeon, where a few of the guards lived and where the laborers worked, was as rife with corruption as the inner dungeon. Layle had witnessed backbiting, bribes, blackmail, and every other vice imaginable.
Yet overlaying it all, just as in the inner dungeon, there was a sense among the laborers that they dwelt in a special place, with special rules. Nobody had had a bad word to say against the Code of Seeking, though everyone seemed to think that it was impossible to follow completely the Code's ideals.
Layle had gradually come to the conclusion that part of the problem lay with the High Torturer. The laborers respected the High Torturer. According to them, he overlooked peccadilloes, and even ignored large misdeeds, provided that those misdeeds were not flagrantly waved in his face. He was a tolerant employer, a good man to work for . . . though Layle caught whispers suggesting that the High Torturer's tolerance had its limits, and that it was exceedingly unwise to anger the High Torturer.
Layle, sitting in bed and flipping his way through the Code, could see how the Code itself encouraged the High Torturer to adopt his policy of tolerance. The problem, Layle decided, was not so much in the tolerance as in the arbitrariness of it all. Nobody in the outer dungeon seemed quite sure which deeds would cause them to be punished. This left the dungeon workers on edge, and also inspired a gambling attitude: if you didn't know which deeds were considered wrong, you might as well draw a bone and take your chances. Hence the spread of vice within the outer dungeon.
The problem with the Code, Layle decided, was that it was not concrete enough. It provided numerous passages which spoke of high ideals, but often it did not back those ideals with practical rules. The fact that the torturers decided for themselves how much torture a prisoner should receive was a sign of how badly the Code needed to place limits on the dungeon workers. The Eternal Dungeon, though it remained a place of high ideals, was currently in a state of anarchy. Sooner or later, the anarchy was bound to erode the ideals.
Scrutinizing the Code in hopes of finding new insight, Layle reflected to himself that it was strange that no torturer or guard in this place had reached similar conclusions. Perhaps that was because, according to the laborers, the inner-dungeon workers were a motley crew. Though all high-born or of the mid-class, the torturers and guards came from dozens of backgrounds. Mr. Longmire had owned a tavern prior to becoming a torturer; Angus had worked as a business clerk; the High Torturer's junior night guard had flirted with the idea of taking up the theatrical arts before his parents persuaded him to adopt a more respectable calling. From the gossip that Layle had overheard and encouraged that night, he gathered that very few of the inner-dungeon workers were what he would term "professionals": men who had chosen prison work as their lifelong profession. Even the torturers, whose oaths bound them to the dungeon until death, seemed to treat torturing as a sideline to their off-duty leisure activities.
What the Code needed, Layle decided, was more passages about the dungeon workers. There needed to be passages that instilled pride in the torturers and guards and laborers for the unique, precious work they were doing. The men and women of the dungeon needed to recognize that they were the only people in the world who were doing this work: they alone held the privilege of helping to search prisoners by means unknown in other prisons. Even if other prisons should imitate the Eternal Dungeon – and Layle gathered from the gossip that the Eternal Dungeon was not without influence – this place would still be the hub for all experiments in prison reform. The Eternal Dungeon was the heart of the prison world.
But how to make the dungeon workers recognize that? Layle frowned as he reached the title page of the Code. The authors' names were written there – more than one name. The last name in the list gave him pause.
He turned the page to where the date of the publication was listed and
found, not one date, but many.
Original edition, H. Wallace et al., in the year 202 by the Tri-National Calendar.
First revision, R. Platt, 228 TNC.
Second revision, N. Douglass, 255 TNC.
Third revision, B. Harrison, 283 TNC.
Fourth revision, T. Jenson, 313 TNC.
"'T. Jenson,'" Layle murmured to himself. "How can the Code be improved if its latest author is also the dungeon's High Torturer? You're not likely to listen to me, High Torturer, if I point out to you all the mistakes you've made."
Nonetheless, the multiple publication dates cheered him. There was a note on the bottom of the page which stated that the Code must be updated in every generation, to reflect the consensus of the inner-dungeon workers about any changes that needed to be made. So there was a chance that the current Code's flaws could be removed during the next revision.
Layle thought hard. He did not know who the next reviser of the Code would be, and on reflection, it didn't matter. What mattered, if he understood correctly, was that there be "consensus" among the torturers and guards over how to run the dungeon.
At the moment there was consensus, but all in the wrong direction: the consensus was that the current Code worked well. How could Layle hope to change that belief?
He must have fallen asleep some time later, for he dreamt again of a prisoner being mercilessly tormented. But the prisoner was a kitten found on the street, and its torturer was four years old.
His mother, discovering him with the dying kitten, listened to his shouts and curses as he angrily denied that he had done anything wrong. At length she said, in that cool manner she had when she was very disappointed with Layle, "If you must be a torturer, my dear, the least you can do is be a polite torturer."
He woke then, startled, and looked over at the water-clock in the corner of the room. Two hours were left before the dusk shift began. Stretching, he rose and then went over to fetch his uniform. As he did so, his mother's words echoed in his head: "The least you can do is be a polite torturer."
He paused, his hand on the uniform. He had possessed a reputation in the Hidden Dungeon, not only for viciousness, but also for politeness. Master Aeden had once remarked drily that, if Layle managed to survive to adulthood without being murdered by one of his fellow torturers, he had his politeness to thank.
He thought again of the manner in which Mr. Sobel's attitude had begun to change toward him at the beginning. Was it because he had reprimanded Mr. Sobel? Or was it perhaps because he had granted Mr. Sobel the dignity of a title? And a similar transformation had taken place in the prisoner when Layle had shown courtesy toward him.
Be polite. That was what his mother had told him, and it seemed that Mercy, in sending the dream, had the same message. Be polite, be formal, act with the dignity that the Code of Seeking seemed to demand of him. And perhaps . . . perhaps that would make a difference.
He must not break the current Code. He knew that, without even having to think the matter through. If he began picking and choosing which bits of the Code he wanted to follow, his own life would fall into as much anarchy as the Eternal Dungeon was experiencing.
But there was nothing to stop him from doing more than the Code demanded, was there? While following the current Code, he could circumscribe stricter boundaries for himself than the Code demanded. He could set an example. And in doing so, perhaps he would influence other workers in this dungeon.
He turned away from the uniform and began rereading the Code of Seeking to determine what new limits he should impose on himself.
Layle arrived at the entry hall that evening to find himself ignored.
He had half-expected everyone to gawk when he entered, but it appeared that they had heavier matters on their minds. The torturers and guards were clustered in groups, muttering with one another; the drinks and the dominoes lay abandoned. Even the Record-keeper kept casting looks toward the Codifier's office.
What finally emerged from that office was not the Codifier, nor even the High Torturer, but two guards. One of them turned away immediately, before Layle could identify him; he made his way to the door leading to the outer dungeon and departed swiftly. The other – Mr. Sobel – went over to the Record-keeper and spoke to him. The Record-keeper, without a word, rose and went over to a giant slate tablet behind him. He wrote something on the tablet; Layle was too far away to see the words. Then the Record-keeper crossed out what he had written.
All of the mutters in the hall had died out. Men were exchanging glances with one another. Most did not even bother to go up to the tablet; it appeared they already knew what was written there.
Layle caught hold of a guard who was standing on his own, staring bleakly at the tablet. "That slate-board," he said, pointing to the slate. "What is it for?"
The guard did not look away from the tablet. "It lists our prisoners and the cells in which they were searched. The prisoners whose names are crossed out have been executed."
Layle made his way slowly forward. Some young guards was jostling each other in front of the tablet, in an attempt to see what was written there, but they made way for him when they saw his hood. He stared at the new words on the tablet, which were crossed out: "A. Longmire. Codifier's office."
Beside him, the young guards were whispering.
"I heard they brought out his body at noon."
"That's a lie. No one ever sees the bodies afterwards. The Codifier has flesh-eating fish that eat them."
"Don't be a fool. He was a torturer. Torturers' ashes are placed in the Crematorium. They're prisoners, after all."
"A condemned prisoner, in this case."
"But what did he do?"
"I don't suppose we'll ever know."
"He angered the High Torturer. That's all we need to know."
"If we don't know what he did wrong—"
The speaker stopped abruptly. Layle, turning his head, saw that Mr. Sobel had joined them.
"Night shift has started," the High Torturer's senior night guard said in his usual mild voice. The other guards melted away.
The entry hall was emptying now of everyone except the night guards who were awaiting prisoners. None of them seemed inclined to talk, though several had begun to pour drinks for themselves. Layle had a vision of a drunken party following this episode.
"Mr. Smith? Why are you dressed this way?" Mr. Sobel spoke in a low voice.
Layle turned his attention to the guard. He had forgotten, amidst everything, his change of appearance.
"Sir, if you had no time in which to dress properly . . ." Mr. Sobel's voice ended on a hesitant note. Layle guessed that he was trying to reconcile the torturer's half-dressed state – no jacket, no vest, only the black shirt, black trousers, and scuffed work-boots that Layle had worn during his flight from Vovim – with the fact that Layle had lowered the face-cloth of his hood.
Layle managed to gather his wits together in order to make his prepared speech. "The Code of Seeking requires that face-cloths be lowered during torture. It gives no other guidance as to the use of the hood. I prefer to remain formally dressed from the moment I leave my living cell."
"But . . ." Mr. Sobel gestured toward the rest of his clothes.
"Formally dressed," said Layle, "as a prisoner. And I trust that, on this night, you won't protest that I and the other torturers aren't really prisoners."
Mr. Sobel's mouth twisted. "No, sir. Torturers are bound to this dungeon by their oaths of eternal commitment. And if you prefer to wear clothing which signifies that fact . . . Well, I'll speak to the High Torturer about this. It would be best to obtain his permission."
"I gathered that." Layle did not bother to look at the tablet.
Mr. Sobel began to speak, then flicked his eyes toward the guards sitting nearby. Layle gestured again, this time toward the door to the inner dungeon, and after a moment's hesitation, Mr. Sobel followed.
The corridor was silent; for once, none of the guards there seemed inclined to chat. All were at their posts . . . except for two who were sitting on the floor, eating buns.
Mr. Sobel sighted them in the same moment that Layle did. "On your feet!" he said, striding over. "You have a prisoner to guard."
"But—" The senior day guard cut off his protest abruptly as he caught sight of Layle. "All right. Sorry."
Layle waited until the day guards were back at their posts in front of his prisoner's cell before he came forward. "I'll check on the prisoner now," he told them.
Mr. Sobel, who had been speaking in a low tone to the senior day guard, said to Layle, "Sir, I haven't had my breakfast yet . . . nor my supper from yesterday morning. Do you mind if we delay the searching for a few minutes this evening?"
Layle would have said no – the need for punctuality had been beaten into him by Master Aeden – but he still had questions to ask, and they could not be asked in the presence of a prisoner. "Very well," he said. "Let's go back to your rooms."
Mr. Sobel hesitated before saying, "I'd like to stop at the Crematorium first, sir, if you don't mind."
The Crematorium was empty, except for a body in the fire-pit, awaiting burning. Looking down at the blanket-covered object, Layle said, "You told the High Torturer?"
Mr. Sobel replied quietly, "I am required by my duty to report to the High Torturer everything that you say."
Layle nodded. He had expected as much. "And you reported our conversation about Mr. Longmire?"
"Yes, sir. The High Torturer told me that he hadn't been aware before now of Longmire's misuse of power."
That was a lie if Layle had ever heard one. Any fact that was widely known among the guards must surely be known by the High Torturer. Layle wondered why, if Mr. Longmire had been blackmailing guards into his bed for some time, the High Torturer had chosen this moment to take him to task.
"Is this the High Torturer's usual manner of issuing a reprimand?" Layle gestured toward the body.
Mr. Sobel hesitated before saying, "In serious cases, sir."
"And he doesn't tell anyone afterwards why he has executed the torturer or guard?" The Eternal Dungeon was beginning to feel more and more like his old workplace. He remembered how the High Master had treated one torturer who was foolish enough to protest that he couldn't torture a prisoner who was innocent. The torturer had not been allowed to die quickly.
Layle turned to Mr. Sobel, who was struggling for an answer. "At what point," Layle asked the guard, "do you stop carrying out the High Torturer's orders?"
Mr. Sobel was quiet a moment before saying, "When he breaks the Code, sir. That's where the limit lies for me. He has never broken the Code, to my knowledge – but if he did, I would not obey orders."
It was a daringly honest response; Layle appreciated that. And it was a response he could accept. What it came down to once more was that the Code needed to be revised. Mr. Sobel, it seemed, had made the same choice that Layle had: to follow the current Code, even where it was flawed. If he and Layle were in that much agreement, they could continue to work together.
"As far as the Code requires," he told Mr. Sobel, "and farther, if it is in keeping with the Code's principles."
Mr. Sobel's gaze drifted over Layle's new uniform. "As I say, sir, it would be best to clear all matters with the High Torturer."
Layle wondered how the High Torturer would react when he learned that Layle was stepping beyond the normal customs of the Eternal Dungeon. Well, there would be time enough to worry about that if Mr. Sobel turned up at Layle's door to arrest him. For now, Layle had a prisoner to break.
"Sir, I hope you don't mind if I say . . . That is, I hope you won't be offended . . ." Mr. Sobel trailed off a second time and bit his lip as he closed his apartment door. Layle, already standing in the outer-dungeon corridor, eyed the guard with curiosity, wondering whether he should have spoken more during the midnight meal. After all, Mr. Sobel had been Layle's host.
During the first night of breaking, Mr. Sobel had invited Layle to dine in the entry hall. No special provisions were made for the dungeon workers at the dusk and dawn mealtimes, for it was assumed that most workers would prefer to eat outside the dungeon, either in the palace above or in the surrounding city. The prisoners and torturers, who could not leave the dungeon, were served meals in their cells, brought from the kitchens in the palace.
But at midnight and noon, a light meal was served in the entry hall, so that the torturers and guards could eat quickly before returning to their duties. One visit to the entry hall during dining hours had been enough for Layle; he had watched, with appalled fascination, as a prisoner on his way to his trial – and perhaps to his execution – had been forced to weave his way between the wadded-up food balls thrown by the younger guards at each other.
Fortunately, Mr. Sobel, who was one of the few guards to live within the dungeon, kept a stash of food on hand in his rooms. At Layle's suggestion, the two of them had retreated in quiet dignity from the riotous dining in the entry hall.
Perhaps he had been a bit too quiet tonight, Layle reflected. His mind had been on the Code, trying to figure out whether he had missed anything important. He had tried an old mental game he had learned as a lad when his mother set him to memorizing the simpler of the sacred dramas: he had searched his memory for all instances of particular words within the Code, then had checked the Code itself to see whether he had missed any places where the words were used.
"Rack." Only three mentions; the Code had surprisingly little to say about this instrument of terror, other than to make analogies between the rack and the stress placed upon the prisoner's conscience.
"Innocent." The word never appeared in the Code. That was hardly surprising; Layle had gathered from various passages that any prisoners sent to the Eternal Dungeon had already been determined guilty by other authorities; the job of the dungeon's torturers was simply to obtain a confession before the trial . . . and hopefully a statement of remorse.
"Madness." Oddly enough, four passages mentioned madness, all in metaphors to describe the anarchic state of a criminal's soul.
Enough. Mr. Sobel was waiting for an answer.
"Go on," said Layle, not very helpfully.
Mr. Sobel, staring at the floor as he pocketed his key, said, "I was wondering, sir, whether you might have the inclination to speak to our healer."
Layle, who had been about to turn in the direction of the inner dungeon, stopped dead. After a moment, he said, "You have a healer here?"
"Yes, sir. He was hired by the Codifier three years ago, because the dungeon was having to call upon the services of the palace healers so often. Our healer is fairly young – he only completed his training half a dozen years ago – but he has a good reputation. He not only cares for the prisoners but also for any dungeon workers who wish to consult with him."
Without thinking much about it, Layle fingered the place on his belt where his whip had once been looped. "He works for the Codifier, you say?"
Mr. Sobel's gaze flicked up. "Yes, sir. But he's a member of the Guild of Healers. I don't know whether you're aware, sir, but all healers who belong to the guild are required to take an oath not to reveal to others what they learn from their patients, other than with the patients' permission. As far as anyone knows, the Codifier has never pressured our healer to break his oath. And I don't think David – Mr. Bergsen, that is – would ever break his oath, even under pressure."
Layle considered this. One fact he had learned during his night as a dungeon laborer was that only two torturers in the entire history of the Eternal Dungeon had broken their oaths of eternal commitment. Given that the Eternal Dungeon had now existed for a century and a third, this suggested that the Yclau treated their oaths with great seriousness.
Mr. Sobel added hesitantly, "He has a reputation, sir, for being concerned with the health of the whole man: body, soul . . . and mind."
Layle said nothing. After a minute, Mr. Sobel dropped his gaze again. "I'm sorry, sir."
"That's all right." He spoke the polite response automatically, but decided, after further consideration, that he had spoken the truth. "I appreciate your suggestion. It isn't a course of action that would have occurred to me. I'll give it some thought . . . but not until I finish with my current prisoner."
Mr. Sobel glanced up at him, his gaze opaque, and Layle wondered whether Mr. Sobel thought he was afraid of having his secret torments revealed to the Codifier before he had been accepted into training.
In actual fact, Layle was worried about what would happen to him within the healer's office. He had seen healers cut men open; would something like that happen to his mind if the dungeon healer began probing him to discover a medical cause for his dreamings? If so, it would be better for Layle to wait for a day when he was momentarily free of his duties to the prisoners.
Though perhaps, Layle reflected, Mr. Sobel thought it would be better for him not to wait too long.
Layle said, "Mr. Sobel, I know that I can trust you to have good enough judgment to take charge of the situation if my . . . illness should endanger the prisoner."
"Thank you, sir," Mr. Sobel murmured. "I don't see any need to do so at this point. Many of the torturers here prefer to continue searching prisoners, even at times of the year when their health is not the best. In most cases, they're able to carry out their duties."
"Yes?" said Layle, intrigued by this analogy. "Well, after all, any duty that is also a pleasure . . . What does this door lead to?" He pointed to the door that was next to Mr. Sobel's apartment door.
Mr. Sobel started, visibly startled by this change of topic. "Sir?"
"The door," Layle replied patiently. "Where does it lead to?" What was quite obvious was that it led to a space that was directly behind Layle's room. Layle had not managed to stay alive for three years in the Hidden Dungeon without taking care to check that nobody could enter his bedroom from any direction whatsoever.
Unless he was seducing them, of course.
Mr. Sobel hesitated. It was the hesitation that decided Layle. He tried the door, found that it was unlocked, and slid his way inside while Mr. Sobel was still trying to articulate a protest.
The stove and lamps in the room were unlit, but with the aid of the dim light from the corridor, Layle had no trouble seeing his surroundings. A quick look at the walls, ceilings, and floors assured him that there was no easy way to travel from this room to his own. And in any case – he thought, running his eye over the tables, the food bins, the jacket and vest folded over a chair, and the colorful framed posters on the wall – it was clear that this was a living space, not a workspace.
"My junior night guard lives here?" he said to Mr. Sobel. Odd how, after only three days, Layle had come to think of the High Torturer's guards as his own guards.
Mr. Sobel, who was still standing outside and had been saying something about the tradition of privacy in the Eternal Dungeon, stared at him.
Smiling slightly, Layle added, "You don't have much faith in my ability as a torturer to search for clues, do you?" He waved his hand toward the posters. "Theatrical scenes. I heard that my junior night guard liked the theater."
"Ah . . . yes, sir." Mr. Sobel looked visibly uncomfortable.
So Mr. Sobel did not like to gossip about people behind their backs? That was good to know. Taking pity on him, Layle withdrew from the apartment, closing the door behind him. "Will I receive the opportunity to speak to him soon?" he asked. It would be good to talk with someone in this art-forsaken land who knew the difference between a backstage and a forestage.
Mr. Sobel's mouth quirked. "Yes, sir. Quite soon."
Layle eyed him, wondering whether Mr. Sobel had faith in Layle's ability to break the prisoner quickly, or whether, instead, the guard had concluded that Layle was likely to fail to break his prisoner. Either way, it was likely that Layle would indeed have leisure time on his hands within a short while.
He resolutely turned his thoughts from what might come from the appointment with the healer.
"Layle," said the High Torturer, "how are matters going with your prisoner?"
Suppressing a sigh, Layle turned to face the High Torturer as Mr. Sobel paused to reprimand a guard who was sloppily dressed. Layle had noticed that, in the past three days, Mr. Sobel had become less and less inclined to overlook poor performance by the other guards or to accept backtalk from them. Some matters in this dungeon were changing for the better.
Other matters, on the other hand, remained tediously the same. Layle told the High Torturer curtly, "I've determined that he's lying to me, sir. I'm trying to determine now the exact nature of the falsehood."
"Bloody blades, man, we don't have this kind of time!" The High Torturer gripped hard the handle of the whip on his belt. "The Queen wants a report of progress by tomorrow. Tomorrow, do you understand?"
Layle was still a moment. Then he said, "Yes, sir. I'll have his confession by the end of my shift."
His statement caused the High Torturer to stare. "How can you be sure—?"
"By the end of my shift," Layle repeated flatly. "Now, if you will excuse me, sir . . ."
He turned away, very aware of the High Torturer's hand upon his whip, but too angry to heed the warning. Searching was not supposed to proceed like this – not in the Eternal Dungeon. The Code said that the torturer should take however long was needed to obtain a confession and a statement of repentance.
Well, perhaps if he obtained a confession quickly, he could persuade the High Torturer to let him spend a day or two more on his searching, helping the prisoner recognize his wrongdoing.
On the other hand, it was unlikely that the prisoner would be in any shape for thought if Layle had to proceed with his breaking that quickly. As Mr. Sobel came to join him at the door, Layle said to him, "I'm going to be making one last chance tonight to make the prisoner see reason."
Mr. Sobel flicked a glance at the departing High Torturer. "Yes, sir."
"That last chance will not be pleasant." With those words, Layle entered the breaking cell.
Breaking a prisoner by words alone was a skill he had learned when he first arrived at the Hidden Dungeon, at age fifteen. The young man who had taught him – Master Aeden's other apprentice – had been far more skilled at that form of searching than Layle would ever be. Layle's own native talents lay in physical torture, quickness of movement, keenness of eyesight and hearing, deception, and seduction. Nonetheless, he had done his best to learn what he could of this arcane skill of word-breaking, rarely practiced in the Hidden Dungeon because the torturers there could use any instruments they wanted to break the prisoner.
Later, during his flight to Yclau, it had occurred to Layle that he had received perfect training for being a torturer in the Eternal Dungeon, whose Code encouraged the torturers to delay physical torture until all other methods of breaking had been exhausted.
Layle was beginning to think, though, that he would have shown greater mercy to this prisoner by placing him straight on the rack.
Layle paused to let Mr. Sobel hand the prisoner a handkerchief. The prisoner had thoroughly soaked his own handkerchief a while back; Layle made a mental note to carry an extra handkerchief at all times.
Mr. Sobel's expression had been one of uneasiness throughout the night's searching, perhaps because he knew that, if this searching failed, he would be the man to turn the wheel on the rack. He had ceased, however, to fiddle with the pistol in his pocket; apparently his conversation with Layle at midnight had reassured him that there would be no need to use the gun in order to protect the prisoner.
Though protecting the prisoner seemed a moot point now. Layle said in a mild voice, "You're making matters more difficult for yourself than they need to be."
By this time, the prisoner had come to know what Layle's mild voice meant; he flinched at this preparation for a new onslaught. "I'm telling you the truth, sir," he protested in a breathy manner, obviously trying to hold back sobs.
"I know you are. And I also know that you're holding back information. What work do you do?"
"I am employed by the Queen. I assist with any tasks my supervisor deems necessary—"
"—because you're a spoiled boy who never would have received a privileged post if it weren't for the fact that your foster father has influence?"
The prisoner bit his lip so hard that it bled. Layle's probing had uncovered Mr. Howard's underlying insecurity: his fear that he had no real skills at his current work, which had been chosen by his family rather than himself. The prisoner also keenly feared that his employer and his supervisor would recognize his worthlessness. Layle had continued to probe at that weak point, driving the prisoner into more and more despair. Hopefully, in time, the prisoner would begin to doubt his ability to hold out against Layle.
It appeared, though, that Mr. Howard had some inner reserve of strength connected with his searching, for after a moment he threw the handkerchief onto the floor defiantly, saying, "Maybe. And maybe after this is all through, I'll be sacked from my job. But that doesn't change the fact that I didn't do what I'm accused of doing."
"Don't be absurd," said Layle, still in his mild voice. "You were caught by the Queen herself."
"Who told you that? The High Torturer? And you trusted what he told you?"
For the first time in three days, Layle felt himself hesitate. It was an old trick, of course; the prisoner would accuse his accusers of lying, because that was the only way in which to escape the charges.
What made Layle hesitate was a memory of how many times in the Hidden Dungeon he had heard statements like that, and the statements had been true.
In the Hidden Dungeon, it did not matter whether a prisoner was actually innocent. The torturers were ordered to obtain a confession of guilt, no matter what. And here in the Eternal Dungeon . . . Here in the Eternal Dungeon, every prisoner questioned had already been determined guilty by other authorities.
But what if Layle's prisoner was innocent?
This was ridiculous. Mr. Howard was lying about something, probably something connected with his crime. And he was clearly trying to avoid answering the question about his work, which evidently was the key to the evidence of his crime. "Very well," said Layle in a light voice that caused Mr. Howard to flinch again, "let me ask you a question that even you should find simple to answer. Look at me while you reply. Did you rape the Queen's niece?"
The prisoner looked him in the eye. In a steady, calm voice he said, "No, sir, I did not rape the Queen's niece. I have never met the Queen's niece. I have not committed a crime of any sort."
The cell was still. Mr. Sobel, who had been watching the proceedings with a troubled expression on his face, made a note in his memorandum book. Layle felt the blood pound in his body.
After a minute he said, "Mr. Howard, you will lie on the rack tonight."
The prisoner's knees gave way. Mr. Sobel managed to catch him in time and ease him into a sitting position on the bed-shelf.
"But I told you the truth!" The prisoner's cry rent the stillness.
"Then confess to a lesser crime. That is your only hope at this point." Layle signalled to Mr. Sobel, who hurried over to open the door. Mr. Howard buried his face in his hands.
Layle left the cell quickly and then stood stiffly as the senior night guard locked the door. The blood continued to pound through his body. Mr. Sobel, looking considerably shaken, turned toward him.
"Mr. Sobel," said Layle in a remarkably steady voice, "how soon can the rack room be ready?"
Mr. Sobel hesitated before saying, "Not before the day shift, sir. All of the rack rooms are in use at the moment."
"Then arrange for one to be assigned to the prisoner at the beginning of the next night shift, and explain to the High Torturer that the prisoner's confession has been delayed for that reason. I will have Mr. Howard's confession on the High Torturer's desk within the second hour of the beginning of tomorrow's night shift." This was being generous. From what Layle had seen, the prisoner would break within minutes, provided that Layle took him up to the highest levels of the rack immediately.
"Yes, sir," murmured Mr. Sobel. "May I have permission to stay with the prisoner for a while longer, in order to prepare him for his ordeal?" His troubled expression had increased, but he made no protest against Layle's orders.
He knows, thought Layle, feeling foul liquid enter his mouth
from his throat. He knows that the Code makes no provision for prisoners
who are truly innocent.
Layle sat sleepless, forlornly flipping through the Code, seeking a word that was not there.
The room was quiet. Mr. Sobel had not yet returned from the breaking cell, while the corridors in this part of the outer dungeon received few visits from the laborers and serving-women, much to Layle's relief. He turned another page as the lamp flickered, the flame guttering as it reached the end of the oil.
The words blurred in Layle's tired vision.
When the prisoner arrives at the dungeon, he shall be placed in a breaking cell. His dignity as a human being must be recognized; he shall be provided with bedding and warmth and other such comforts as shall keep him in conditions no worse than that of his torturers . . .
Who had lied to Layle? The Queen? Had she delivered an innocent prisoner to the Eternal Dungeon for some political purpose, or out of petty revenge for some small harm done to her?
Or was it the Codifier? Had he delivered the Queen's message, and twisted it to seem as though the prisoner himself was the criminal, when in truth the Queen merely desired that the prisoner be questioned for evidence on who the true criminal was?
Or was the High Torturer the culprit, as the prisoner had implied? Had the High Torturer lied about the prisoner's guilt for his own reasons, as the High Master was accustomed to do from time to time? Had he believed that Layle was not skilled enough to know that the prisoner was telling the truth when he proclaimed his innocence?
Or perhaps the prisoner was Layle's test.
The prisoner shall be searched within one day of his arrival, so that he shall not have to endure undue apprehension. He shall be questioned by a torturer, who may receive assistance from his guards. At all times, the prisoner shall be watched over by at least two guards . . .
Yes, that made the most sense. The prisoner was Layle's test. The High Torturer had deliberately given Layle a prisoner who was known to be innocent. The High Torturer wanted to see whether Layle had enough loyalty to follow the Code even under these circumstances.
And what difference did it make if Layle should rack the prisoner in
order to obtain a false confession? No doubt the prisoner would be given
some suitable reward afterwards for his suffering. But if Layle should
refuse the High Torturer's orders . . .
The torturer must keep in mind at all times the best interests of the prisoner. If the torturer searches a prisoner who has committed murder or rape, he shall proceed in the following fashion: He shall encourage the prisoner to offer a confession without compulsion. If this does not work, the torturer shall use whatever harsh words are necessary to break the prisoner. If the prisoner continues to remain obdurate, then, and only then, will the torturer resort to—
Layle stopped. His eye turned back to the beginning of the paragraph. "The torturer must keep in mind at all times the best interests of the prisoner. If the torturer searches a prisoner who has committed murder or rape . . ."
He stopped again. "If the torturer searches a prisoner who has committed murder or rape . . ."
"'If,'" he whispered aloud. "Not 'when.' 'If.' Oh, sweet blood."
It was the first time he had spoken an Yclau oath. He would recognize this later as the moment when he became Yclau.
The corpse in the Crematorium was gone. There was a label on a shelf with the corpse's name, but no candle was lit. Layle took a candle from its box, lit the candle, and carried it over to stand behind the label for Mr. Longmire.
Then he stepped back, contemplating the prayer-candle. Contemplating the possibility that his own candle would stand on this shelf in a short time.
He had tried to sleep, hoping that rest would clear his mind. But over and over he had dreamt that he had seen the goddess Mercy, and he had tried to speak to her, but she had turned away from him, failing to recognize him as her faithful servant.
"Is this why you brought me to this dungeon?" he murmured to the goddess, staring at the candle. "Is death your grace?"
Perhaps it was. Perhaps Mercy was giving him the opportunity to die for the only good deed he would perform in his life.
And if he declined her gift, his life would return to evil. He thought of Mr. Sobel, lighting candles in the Crematorium, and he wondered what would become of the guard if Layle chose life rather than honor.
As far as the Code requires, and farther, if it is in keeping with the Code's principles. It had been a pledge, though he had not known it at the time.
He turned away. He was not quite good enough a man yet to sacrifice his life only for a prisoner he barely knew. But perhaps he was good enough a man to sacrifice his life, not only for the prisoner, but also in order to save the soul of a guard he had come to respect. Combined together, those two motives would have to suffice.
"Well?" said the High Torturer sharply. "Don't waste my time. Have you broken him?"
Layle took a deep breath. "It all depends on what you define as broken, sir."
"Don't turn the scholar on me, young man," the High Torturer replied in an irritated voice. "Have you beaten him? Racked him? Done any of the things you were hired to do?"
"I beat him when he was insolent to me, but—"
"But? But?" The High Torturer rose from behind his desk, leaning onto the desk with his fists. "Give me a straightforward answer: Have you made him give you his confession?"
He met the High Torturer's eyes then. He felt a strange sort of calm – the same sort of calm he had felt on the day that Master Aeden placed him on the rack, and he had known that all was lost. "No, sir," he said quietly. "I believe that he's innocent."
The loudest sound in the High Torturer's office was the hiss of the lamp-flame feeding on its oil. The High Torturer said, in a very soft voice, "I will give you one more chance. Will you, or will you not, carry out your duty?"
"No, sir." He heard his voice as though from a long distance away. "I won't torture anyone whom I know to be innocent. Never again."
The High Torturer's unforgiving gaze was as heavy as a pressing-stone upon him. Then the High Torturer sat down. "Leave," he said.
"Sir," he said, trying to keep desperation from his voice, "the Code of Seeking says—"
"I know what the Code says. Leave this office."
The High Torturer was no longer looking up from the papers on his desk. Layle departed, before he should attempt something suicidally stupid, like telling the High Torturer that he was wrong in his interpretation of the Code.
Outside, he leaned back against the High Torturer's door, his eyes closed as he tried to think. Surely, if the High Torturer planned to torture him or kill him or merely throw him in a life prison, he would have given orders for Layle's immediate arrest. Or had he decided that the young torturer was so monumentally stupid that Layle would passively await such punishment?
As, in fact, he would. Layle opened his eyes and contemplated the scene before him. In the three days since he had arrived, matters in the entry hall had gradually settled back to normal. With nobody willing to back Layle's efforts, the guards and torturers had gradually returned to their idle gossip, their idleness of mind. The Record-keeper – one of the few men in the dungeon who showed any diligence in his work – had returned to struggling alone to keep up with the tide of documentwork, while nearby, a group of impressionable young guards watched their elders gambling their hours away.
"Oh, High Torturer," murmured Layle. "This dungeon could be so much better than it is. How can I make you see that?"
He stood for a long time, watching the business of the dungeon continue. The Record-keeper turned a page, a prisoner arrived under escort, the Record-keeper questioned his escort, the prisoner was handed over to dungeon guards, the prisoner was taken to the breaking cells, the Record-keeper wrote down his name and cell number on the slate tablet . . .
Beyond this image, for some reason, Layle's thoughts failed to go. He had never been one to ignore instinct. Turning to face the tablet, he carefully read all the names there. Failing to find the one he sought, he read it again. Then he looked thoughtfully at the Record-keeper.
No, on second thought, he would not ask the Record-keeper, who might feel duty-bound to lie to him. So might Mr. Sobel. There was one man – and one man only – who could answer his question truthfully.
The cell door was deserted this time; no day guards stood outside. Layle had no key to enter the cell, but that had never stopped him from entering any place he wished to go. He managed to jigger the lock without his tampering being noticed by the other guards in the corridor.
The prisoner was where Layle had left him, sitting on his bed-shelf, stripped of his jacket and vest, talking to Mr. Sobel. He broke off as Layle entered; both men turned to look at him and then rose to their feet.
Both looked highly apprehensive. It was quite clear, from their expressions, that they believed that Layle was here to take the prisoner to the rack room.
So, that much of what had occurred in this cell had been true.
If nothing else.
"Mr. Howard," said Layle, "there is one question I forgot to ask you – one very important question."
"Yes, sir?" The prisoner sounded puzzled.
"Are you my junior night guard?"
A smile slowly spread across Mr. Howard's face. He turned toward Mr. Sobel. "You win. I owe you a week's pay."
Mr. Sobel returned the smile. "You ought not to take wagers when the odds are that high against you."
The Hidden Dungeon had never been known for its cuisine. Whatever other grumbles that the Vovimian people might make against their royal dungeon, nobody had ever complained that the torturers there ate much better than their prisoners.
Layle, poking half-heartedly at the rich pastry of his midnight meal, did not look up at the other inhabitants of the dungeon's entry hall. He knew already what expressions were turned toward him. Gradually, as the days had passed, the initial mockery toward him had shifted, in an ominous manner, toward fear and anger. First there had been his attack on Mr. Longmire in the entry hall; then there had been his brutality toward the High Torturer's junior night guard in the dungeon corridor; then Mr. Longmire had been arrested and executed, mere hours after speaking to Layle; then rumors had begun to fly about Layle's assault on the Queen's guards . . .
. . . and now, somehow or other, the tale had spread of his moments of unawareness. Nobody knew for certain what Layle Smith's glazed looks meant, but everyone was prepared to speculate.
The whispers, hostile and malicious, continued around him. Across the table from him, Mr. Sobel leaned back in his chair to accept a light from a passing guard.
"Still minding the baby?" The guard cast a venomous look at Layle as he lit Mr. Sobel's cigarette. "Can't you join us in our game, then?" He shook the dominoes in his free hand.
Mr. Sobel glanced quickly at Layle before saying, "Maybe tomorrow, Harry. Save a place for me."
The guard snorted and passed on. Mr. Sobel, reaching for his cup of rum, said in a low voice to Layle, "I wouldn't let all the talk worry you, sir. Underneath those bloody grumbles, you'll find that some of the men here respect what you're—"
He dashed the cup from Mr. Sobel's hand.
The silence in the entry hall was as complete as on the first day of Layle's arrival. Mr. Sobel stared down at the rum, which had splattered onto his uniform and had drowned his lit cigarette. Then he looked up, with an expression on his face that was so blank that even Layle could not interpret it.
Layle had spent the last few hours contemplating images of his idiocy: The day guards, missing from their post, surprised to receive a rebuke from Mr. Sobel. Mr. Sobel, luring Layle from the prison cell that was empty because the junior day guard had spent all night assisting with Mr. Longmire's arrest. Mr. Sobel, declining to return to his rooms, because he and Layle might pass the junior night guard on his way back from changing out of his uniform.
The High Torturer, informing Mr. Sobel that "all was ready" in the prisoner's cell.
Layle had risked torture, he had risked death, he had shown himself faithless to the High Torturer and the Codifier and even the Queen. He had thrown away his only chance to work in the Eternal Dungeon. And he had done all this, not in order to save a prisoner's life, not in order to save Mr. Sobel's soul, and not even because he loved the Code more than his life. No, he had sacrificed what he most wanted, simply because he was so much a dullard that he had allowed himself to be tricked.
Since his time with the Queen, Layle had never been so close to tears. But it seemed that a certain role was expected of him here. Very well; if everyone in this dungeon considered him to be a dangerous rebel, let him be a dangerous rebel.
He rose to his feet. Looming over the High Torturer's guard, he said in a clear voice that reached to all corners of the entry hall, "Mr. Sobel, I have no doubt that my work time with you will be short. But as long as you remain working under me, you will not drink, you will not gamble, you will not smoke, you will not curse, you will not address other men informally while on duty – in short, you will act in a manner that demonstrates respect for the principles put forth by the Code of Seeking. Whatever anyone else in this dungeon may do, I will not allow the purity of the Code to be tainted by a guard who has been placed under my command. Is that clear?"
"Perfectly, sir." Mr. Sobel's voice was as denuded of emotion as his face. His eyes flicked to something over Layle's shoulder. "Excuse me, please." Grabbing a napkin with which to wipe his uniform, he slipped from his seat.
Not bothering to see what excuse Mr. Sobel had used for his departure, Layle sat down and begin poking listlessly at his food again as the vicious whispers returned with greater force. So, he had lost his last ally – if Mr. Sobel had ever been an ally. Layle was now officially the most despised man in the Eternal Dungeon.
Which, after all, was no more than he deserved. He felt his jacket pocket to be certain that the Code of Seeking was still there, and resolutely turned his mind from all lingering, wistful thoughts of what he had done before his arrival in the Queendom of Yclau.
"Well?" said the High Torturer.
Seward Sobel was too well trained to shift in place, but he did not quite meet the High Torturer's eyes. "Well, sir, I would say that you have allowed into this dungeon a firebrand. He dislikes the customs here, dislikes the regular methods of searching, dislikes how the Code is applied . . . and has every intention of fighting anyone in this dungeon who refuses to adhere to what he deems to be the Code's 'purity.'"
"And he has won your loyalty," observed the High Torturer, leaning back in his chair.
Seward Sobel, never a man to directly lie, dropped his gaze and said nothing. The High Torturer glanced over at the Codifier, who was leaning back in his own chair behind his desk. "Any further questions, Josh?"
The Codifier shook his head. "You may go," he told the guard.
The guard, reserving a final, apologetic look for the High Torturer, made his exit. The High Torturer waited until he was gone before saying, "Well!"
"Aptly put." The Codifier contemplated the book under his fingers. "I would have thought the cycle of time would end before that exceedingly faithful guard of yours would switch his loyalties elsewhere."
"He is dangerous," said the High Torturer, not speaking of his guard.
"He is indeed. He passed the test you set for him: he refused to torture an innocent prisoner . . . and even proved to be skilled enough to strip your courageous junior night guard of his well-acted disguise. So what will you do with him?"
The High Torturer shrugged wearily. "What else can I do? You know the position we're in, Josh. Even before Abe Longmire was fool enough to flaunt his misdeeds in the presence of my senior night guard, you and I had realized that neither Longmire nor any other torturer in this dungeon possessed the skill and integrity to be trusted with that." He pointed to the book in the Codifier's hands.
The Codifier nodded. "Twenty years ago, you revised this book, removing the worst of its past errors. In five or ten years, we must select another man to take on the same task of bringing the Code up to date – but him?" There was a genuine note of query in his voice.
"Him," replied the High Torturer flatly. "If we survive so long. Josh, Layle Smith may be the Eternal Dungeon's savior . . . or he may destroy our dungeon."
The suggestion of a smile appeared on the Codifier's face. "You were ever a gambler."
The High Torturer sighed. "And now my gambling days are over. Curse it, I always enjoyed a good game of whist." He raised his hand to his head, and as he did so, his own smile appeared. "I suppose," he said to the Codifier, "that I will have to get used to addressing you as Mr. Daniels."
He pulled down the face-cloth of his hood.
This text, or a variation on it, was originally
published at duskpeterson.com as
part of the series The Eternal Dungeon. Copyright © 2009-2010 Dusk
Peterson. May 2010 edition. Some rights reserved. The text is licensed
under a Creative
Commons Attribution Noncommercial License (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0).
You may freely print, post, e-mail, share, or otherwise distribute the
text for noncommercial purposes, provided that you include this paragraph.
The author's policies on
derivative works and fan works are available online (duskpeterson.com/copyright.htm).