The Eternal Dungeon is celebrating the Commoners' Festival, and all the elite are feasting. Including a man who is secretly a commoner.
This short story of love and sacrifice can be read on its own or as a side story in The Eternal Dungeon, a speculative fiction series set in a nineteenth-century prison.
The Eternal Dungeon series is part of Turn-of-the-Century Toughs, a cycle of alternate history series (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.
"Nine courses," Elsdon reported with satisfaction as he watched a maid set down a platter filled with rockfish, a delicacy brought in from the bay at the other end of Yclau, no doubt at great expense, judging from the fish's freshness. Nearby, one of the menservants was setting down a tureen of calf's head soup – on feast days, all courses were placed on the table at once – while another manservant decanted a rare wine from the newly independent Magisterial Republic of Mip.
"Yes. And when you were a child?" Layle was adept by now at knowing when Elsdon was avoiding questions. It was a skill he had acquired when Elsdon was still his prisoner.
Elsdon sighed, but his response was immediate, not even waiting for the servants to withdraw. "Whatever other faults my father had, he wasn't a skinflint. We were well-fed on the Commoners' Festival. . . . Sara and I," he clarified, as though it were not immediately obvious which name he was avoiding. Layle only wished he could be of more help to Elsdon as the junior Seeker painfully readjusted his perspective upon his father, whom Elsdon had adored as a child.
Now Layle waited, as he would wait for a prisoner to volunteer information. He was pursuing the conversation – which might or might not bear fruit – largely in order to take his mind off the enticing smell of the so-called Yclau ham, a cured ham that originated in the rural provinces of Yclau that surrounded the capital. It had just been placed on the table by a good-looking maid, but Layle could no more touch the ham than the maid. One of the many disadvantages of being a Seeker was that, while it was not entirely impossible to eat with one's hood on, it was a good deal easier to wait until one was in private and could raise the face-cloth. He and Elsdon would not be able to eat their dinner until the servants – who seemed to be taking their blasted time about it – had finished loading the table with culinary treasures.
"I suppose I took it for granted back then," Elsdon confessed. "Delicious food, all the time. It's different when you can only feast twice a year."
Layle nodded. The Commoners' Festival at the beginning of winter and the Lords' Festival in the spring were the only two days of the year on which the Seekers were permitted to break away from the dungeon's bland diet, designed to keep prisoners alive but not to coddle them.
"And what about you?" Elsdon asked.
Elsdon had timed his question tactfully, for a moment when all the servants had withdrawn. Layle paused a few seconds to ascertain that nobody stood near the door. His ears having assured him of this, he replied, "I never knew of the Commoners' Festival till I came to live in this queendom. I've heard since then that some Vovimians celebrate the traditional Yclau holidays, but when I was growing up in east Vovim, the holiday for feasting and for giving presents to the poor was Mercy's Feast."
"Your goddess's festival?" Elsdon rested his hooded chin on his fists, clearly interested. "One of the girls at my school was originally from Vovim. Her family celebrated the traditional Vovimian festivals. Mercy's Feast is at midsummer, isn't it? Did your servants prepare feasts for you?"
Layle simply looked at him.