"He was the flame, and his love-mate was the kindling. To say they were mismatched was an understatement. He knew that it was only a matter of time before their relationship was tested. . . . Layle had simply not expected the test to be a pile of dirty dishes."
They are two of the most talented prison-workers in the world. It's a pity their skills don't extend to dishwashing.
When the kitchen laborers of the queendom's royal prison refuse to clean dishes until their demands are met, the High Seeker and his love-mate must figure out how to accomplish simple housework that elite men such as themselves never condescend to do. It seems an easy enough task. But hidden between the two men lie memories and secrets that will turn a simple task into something much more.
This romantic short story can be read on its own or as a side story in The Eternal Dungeon, an award-winning 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 (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 was the flame, and his love-mate was the kindling. To say they were mismatched was an understatement. He knew that it was only a matter of time before their relationship was tested.
Layle had simply not expected the test to be a pile of dirty dishes.
They both stared at the heap of plates, saucers, cups, glasses, and silverware that were covered with congealed food. The heap represented their meals during the past two days, as both Layle Smith and Elsdon Taylor had bolted food in between questioning their prisoner in one of the breaking cells of the Eternal Dungeon. The heap of dishes lay on the floor in the middle of their sitting room.
Layle was not used to seeing dirty dishes in his living quarters – his "living cell," in the dungeon parlance. Dirty dishes – like dirty towels, dirty clothes, and anything else filthy – was usually spirited away while he was at his work.
Layle was legally a prisoner within the dungeon and within the small portion of the palace above that he was permitted to visit. All Seekers were classified as prisoners, so that they would not develop dangerous attitudes of superiority over the prisoners whose souls they sought to transform. Yet Layle, who was High Seeker of the queendom's royal prison, had the reputation as being the most skilled prison-worker in the world. Elsdon Taylor, who was reaching the end of his period as a Seeker-in-Training, had begun to show his own talent in the breaking cell. Men like them were not expected to clean dishes.
Men like them were not expected to know how to clean dishes.
"Er . . . I don't suppose you ever learned how to wash dishes, did you?" asked Elsdon in a dubious voice.
Layle switched his gaze over to his younger love-mate. They'd only been together for seven months; Layle was still delving into the complexities of Elsdon. Sometimes Layle suspected that his delving would take a lifetime. Still, Layle would not have expected Elsdon – who was currently questioning an alleged murderer in the calmest of manners – to be intimidated by a pile of kitchenware.
"Didn't you?" Layle challenged. "You were in charge of running your father's household."
"We had servants!" protested Elsdon.
Layle should think so; Elsdon's lineage could be traced back to the fourth daughter of one of the queendom's previous monarchs. "But you supervised them."
"For love of the Code, Layle, I didn't stand over them in the kitchen while they carried out their duties! My mother did that sometimes, before she died, but—" Breathing heavily now, Elsdon looked at Layle. "What about you? You told me last week that you grew up poor."
"My parents died when I was young." Layle frowned; his past was not something he wished to discuss with Elsdon. "After that . . . Well, I was not in any position to observe housework." He had been living on the streets committing crimes, at first because it was the only manner in which he could obtain food, and then—
He forced his mind back to the present, as though it were a prisoner who had sought to escape. That was the past. There was no reason that he should discuss his past with Elsdon. Layle added, "Dishwashing must be simple. We don't hire the outer-dungeon laborers for their skill in thinking."
Elsdon scraped at one of the plates with his fingernail. The food stayed solidly put. "How long is this strike likely to last?"
"It's not officially a strike." Layle tried to keep his voice patient, though he had spent much of the morning explaining this fact to everyone, from the dungeon's Codifier to the Queen herself. The Queen, who had no patience with strikes, had suggested replacing the troublesome dishwashers with young women who knew their proper place. Layle, who understood better than the Queen how difficult it was for commoners to survive in a world of hostile employers, had begged permission to handle the matter in his own fashion. He had come home, expecting to be able to have a couple of hours before bed to deal with the problem—
Only to find himself confronted with this blasted pile of dishes.
"We could leave the dishes till tomorrow," suggested Elsdon. "Perhaps the strike-that's-not-a-strike will be resolved by then."
Layle imagined letting the dishes pile up. Then he imagined all of the Seekers letting their dishes pile up, and what that would mean for the young dishwashers once they returned to work. He shook his head. "We don't want to put that extra burden of labor upon the dishwashers. They seem to be sensible young women." They had shown their sensibleness by selecting a male laborer from the outer dungeon to present their petition to the High Seeker. Layle did not think he could have coped with the added burden of an enticing female representative. All females were, by definition, enticing. "They've sworn to me that they very much desire to continue working for the Eternal Dungeon, and they've shown their faithfulness by volunteering to do other labor in the dungeon while I consider their petition."
Elsdon picked up the piece of paper from the rough work counter that served as a table for their meals. He frowned as he perused the petition. "'Modern fixtures in the dungeon's kitchen—' That seems a reasonable request."
To Elsdon, perhaps; Layle had already gathered that Elsdon had a boyish interest in inventions. Layle explained patiently, "There is a reason that the workers in this dungeon use older tools, such as daggers rather than revolvers. It serves to keep us rooted in the traditions of the past, so that we do not forget the time when the Code of Seeking was first created."
Elsdon glanced toward the slim volume that regulated their lives as Seekers. "But the Code of Seeking was revolutionary for its time, wasn't it? It required the dungeon's workers to put the best interests of their prisoners first; that departed from centuries of tradition in prison practice. Even your revision of it broke away from past versions of the Code. I would have thought you would welcome modern inventions into the dungeon."
Layle wondered whether he should explain to Elsdon how often modern inventions fell apart when Layle came near them. But no, they were straying from the subject at hand. "First we have to deal with these dishes," he pointed out.
Elsdon sighed and stared again at the plates, saucers, cups, glasses, and silverware. "It can't be so very hard. All we need is water, surely."
They both looked toward their bedroom. Sitting upon the night-stand next to the bed was a pitcher of water, fresh from being refilled by a maid while they were at work. Under the pitcher lay a small basin. The living cells of the Seekers contained no wash-stands, much less pumps or faucets. Layle had never seen the point of them; the pitcher and basin supplied water just as well as modern plumbing.
Nor was there any sink in the tiny area of the living cell that Layle referred to as their "kitchen." Storage bins to house nuts and fruit for snacking during their leisure hours, yes, but why should there be a sink? He and his love-mate didn't prepare food for themselves.
"We could use the water in the pitcher," Elsdon suggested.
"And pour it where?" asked Layle, looking around as though he expected a sink to pop up at any moment. "That basin is too small for the plates."
"There's our washtub. . . ."
Layle snorted. "I am not going to clean dishes in a tub where we bathe weekly. The kitchen must have some sort of container in which we can wash dishes. We simply need a maid to fetch it for us."
There was a pointed pause. Even Elsdon, who did not know the details of Layle's fraught past, was aware by now of Layle's nervousness around women.
Finally Elsdon said, "I'll find the maid."
This was ridiculous. Layle was a Seeker. He dealt daily with prisoners accused of heinous murder and rape. For the Queen's love, he ought to be able to deal with a giggling girl.
"I'll do it," he said grimly in the same manner that he might announce he was about to venture into hell.