"'The Eternal Dungeon is my home now,' the High Seeker said. But as he spoke, he lifted his face and looked at the Vovimian carving, as a man might look at a beloved he must leave forever."
The Seekers (torturers) in the Eternal Dungeon have always expressed contempt toward the Hidden Dungeon in the neighboring kingdom of Vovim, whose torturers abuse prisoners without restraint. But the balance between mercy and hell is not so clear as might be thought in either dungeon, and now that balance is about to tip. Only the strength of love and integrity will determine the paths of two Seekers whose fortunes are bound together.
A winner of the 2011 Rainbow Awards (within the "Eternal Dungeon" omnibus), this tale of love and adventure can be read on its own or as the third volume in The Eternal Dungeon, a speculative fiction series set in a nineteenth-century prison where the psychologists wield whips.
The Eternal Dungeon series is part of Turn-of-the-Century Toughs, a cycle of alternate history series (Young Toughs, Waterman, Life Prison, Commando, Michael's House, The Eternal Dungeon, and Dark Light) about adults and youths on the margins of society, and the people who love them. Set in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the novels and stories take place in an alternative version of America that was settled by inhabitants of the Old World in ancient times. As a result, the New World retains certain classical and medieval customs.
He had awoken, on that day after, to find himself lying alone in bed.
He discovered this with a quick grope of the hands over the bedcovers, without opening his eyes. As High Seeker, he was one of the Seekers entitled to a double bed, though he had slept alone until the day before. Now, it appeared, the previous pattern would continue.
It had all been a dreaming, then: the promise of everlasting love, the passion that had followed upon that promise, the warmth of Elsdon's body – and more importantly, the warmth of his companionship. Layle had expected it to happen one day: his dreamings had become so real that he had begun to believe them.
He refused to open his eyes. He was afraid that, if he did, he would see something that would force him to confront a far worse possibility: that he had indeed slept with Elsdon, and that Elsdon had crept away while he slept, irreparably damaged by their brief joining.
The covers of the bed were scratchy wool – more scratchy than they needed to be. A form of asceticism, a penance for what he had done in the past and what, from time to time, despite all his will, he continued to do. He lay on his back, his eyes closed, trying to force himself to rise. Time could be of the essence in healing Elsdon – if there was still any chance of healing the young Seeker whom he had hurt so badly so many times now. Perhaps it would be best to let others take over the task he had failed at. . . .
The bedsprings creaked.
He reacted automatically, which meant he reacted violently. Reaching toward the only loose object at hand – the night-table next to the bed – he grasped it by its leg, wrenched it from the floor, and had begun to swing it toward the intruder before he checked himself in time.
He opened his eyes. Elsdon, fully clothed and hooded but with his face-cloth raised, sat beside him. He looked, Layle realized with amazement, more amused than fearful.
"By all that is sacred," Elsdon said, speaking the mildest of oaths, "is this how you always greet your love-mates upon awakening?"
Layle slowly lowered the night-table, feeling the blood thunder within his body. "I've never had a love-mate before who slept with me."
"I can see why, if this is how you wake from your sleep."
Layle slowly raised himself into a sitting position. Elsdon was still smiling, he noted with growing incredulity. The Seeker-in-Training had made a joke about the fact that Layle was a killer born.
Perhaps he was still sleeping. He rubbed his eyes.
"I'm sorry to wake you," said Elsdon softly, "but Mr. Chapman told me yesterday that I should report to him at the beginning of today's night shift. That's not long from now." He glanced in the direction of the water-clock in the corner of the room.
Layle did not need to glance that way. He knew the sounds of the dungeon like a mother knows the sounds of her baby. It said something about his state of mind that he had slept all the way into the brief dusk period between the day and night shifts.
"I have to report as well," said Layle. He began to reach toward the night-table, realized that he had toppled all the objects on it onto the floor, and reached down to fish his hood off the ground. "I need to appear in the dragon's lair."
"Oh." Elsdon stood and watched as Layle settled the frame holding the hood onto his head, then smoothed down the cloth that hid the sides and back of his head and neck. "Will that be bad for you? I mean, I know the Codifier isn't the most patient man . . ."
"Bad?" Layle raised his eyebrows as he placed onto the night-table the Code of Seeking, one of the objects he had tumbled onto the floor. "Bad is meeting you in the corridor and hearing you threaten to send me to the hangman. Being lectured by the Codifier about my lack of control is easy by comparison."
There was a moment's silence, and then Elsdon burst into laughter. He tossed Layle the shirt he had been groping for, one of the many articles of clothing that had ended up strewn on the floor the previous night. Layle was still wearing his trousers – an old habit, for he had never stripped himself fully when raping prisoners in the Hidden Dungeon. Remaining partially clothed allowed a Vovimian torturer to make his prisoner feel vulnerable in his or her nakedness. As Layle stood up and tried to brush out the creases in his trousers, he wondered how long it would be before he could break himself of such old habits. Or whether it was even possible to do so.
"I'm sorry." Elsdon smiled at him. "I'm sure you know that. I badly misjudged you."
He felt worry touch him then, like a knife. "You didn't misjudge me. I'm as dangerous as you surmised, and I've done in the past what you thought I was doing in the present."
"Then I misjudged myself. Layle . . . I remembered yesterday how I killed my sister."
In the midst of tying his shirt closed – the shirt was mussed, but the Codifier wouldn't care – Layle grew still. He searched Elsdon's face, trying to read the pain behind it.
He had known that this would happen eventually. During the past three months, as Elsdon underwent his transition from prisoner to Seeker-in-Training, the young man had gone from the extreme of believing that he was entirely to blame for his kin-murder to the other extreme of believing that he was entirely blameless for the murder. Of course, he might have been entirely blameless, but his loss of memory suggested otherwise. Prisoners did not forget bloody crimes they had committed unless they were trying to hide truths from themselves.
Now the danger existed that Elsdon would return to his old self-hatred. Layle said carefully, "Murders rarely take place for only one reason."
Elsdon sighed. "Layle, I know that. I know I wouldn't have murdered Sara if my father hadn't bound and beaten me harshly for years. But I also know now that . . . I had a choice. There was a moment when I could have stopped myself from killing Sara, and I didn't do so." He turned his face, staring in the direction of the unlit sitting chamber. "It makes me wonder whether I am worthy to be a Seeker."
Layle stepped forward then and took Elsdon lightly by both shoulders, forcing the young man to face him. "None of us are completely worthy to hold the power we do, myself least of all. Whatever you have done is small in comparison to what I have done in the past – believe me when I say that." As Elsdon opened his mouth to ask questions Layle had no desire to answer, Layle rushed on: "We are the lucky ones."
"Lucky ones?" With his brows drawn low, Elsdon frowned.
Layle nodded. "Weldon Chapman and other Seekers like him who have committed no abuses in their past – they are the ones who find it hardest to remind themselves that they are no better than the prisoners. It's a constant temptation we face as Seekers: to think ourselves superior to the men and women we search. You and I have all the reminder we need that this is not so."
Elsdon's expression grew intense as he thought this through. Layle had to resist the impulse to run his thumb down the skin of Elsdon's flawless cheek, as smooth and pale and perfect as an ivory carving. He was still absorbing with wonder the knowledge that, after so many years of hard-fought restraint, he could now permit himself to touch someone he desired.
Elsdon said, "I don't think that's going to be enough to remind me of how fortunate I am. Layle, I ought to be dead. I would have died at the hangman's noose if you hadn't rescued me. And yet, for the past two days, I've been doing my best to destroy you."
"You had what seemed to be good reason. You believed I was abusing this dungeon's prisoners."
Elsdon shook his head so vigorously that his wheat-gold hair peered out from beneath his hood. "It wasn't only that. If you had committed crimes, then I should have treated you like any prisoner should be treated – I should have been concerned about the well-being of your soul. But I wasn't. It's as you said before: I was arrogant. I wanted to think myself superior to you. Even the knowledge that I had committed kin-murder didn't prevent me from lording myself over you."
Layle said nothing. It was clear enough to him that it was no accident that Elsdon had transferred his affection and his obedience from a father who abused his son to a High Seeker who had darkness dwelling in his soul. It was clear enough also why Elsdon had reacted with vehement hatred when he suspected the High Seeker of using his power to abuse his prisoners. Elsdon's father, who had caused him so much suffering, was far away. Layle was near at hand.
That much was clear; the surprise was that, in the space of a very short time, Elsdon had been able to forgive Layle – had symbolically forgiven his father for all the pain he had undergone at that wretched man's hands. Where had Elsdon found the strength to do that, and where had he found the wisdom to realize the danger he posed to prisoners? Layle was still trying to puzzle that out.
Elsdon said in a low voice, "Layle, you're High Seeker, and everyone says you're the most gifted prison worker in the world. How do you prevent yourself from feeling superior to the prisoners?"
"I remember my dreamings."
Elsdon was silent for a minute. From the corridor came the sound of voices: guards and Seekers from the night shift, making their way to work. Layle did not move. His primary duty lay here, with his former prisoner.
When it became clear that Elsdon would not reply, Layle said quietly, "My dreamings are all I need to remind me that, without a great deal of mercy from people I have known over the years, I would be a justly executed prisoner rather than a man who receives the privilege of helping prisoners to their transformation and rebirth. You will find your own method of retaining gratitude for your good fortune. All of us who become Seekers develop a method to keep this thought in mind."
"The hangman's noose." Elsdon's voice was level. "I have to find a way to keep that image in my mind." . . .