"'Shall we allow criminals to roam the streets at will because we're afraid to take the chance of harming an innocent prisoner?'"
A bloody knife from a crime scene becomes a mystery to be solved and a foreshadow of trouble to come.
The ties forged between the noble-minded Eternal Dungeon and an abusive foreign dungeon have set off an unpredictable chain of horrific events, in which the love between two of the Eternal Dungeon's Seekers (torturers) will be tested to the straining point. Caught in the middle of the struggle are Barrett Boyd and Seward Sobel, loyal guards who will find themselves questioning their most fundamental beliefs about the royal prison's ideals.
Barrett must help his Seeker determine whether their mild-mannered prisoner is an attempted murderer. His friend Seward has pledged to guard his own Seeker against an assassin . . . or should Seward be protecting the dungeon inhabitants against his Seeker? But when the guards' two Seekers fall into a lovers' quarrel, that is when the real danger begins.
A winner of the 2011 Rainbow Awards (within the "Eternal Dungeon" omnibus), this tale of friendship, romance, and suspense can be read on its own or as the fourth volume in The Eternal Dungeon, an alternate history 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 diverse alternate history series (The Eternal Dungeon, Dungeon Guards, Michael's House, Life Prison, Commando, Waterman, Young Toughs, 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.
"Most people would consider it a demotion," said Barrett Boyd. "To go from being senior day guard to the second-highest ranked Seeker in the dungeon to serving a junior Seeker . . ."
"Anyone who has seen Mr. Chapman and Mr. Taylor at work would understand," replied Mr. Sobel in a quiet voice, his gaze slowly grazing the posted guards as he passed them. "Mr. Chapman well deserves his rank, but he breaks his prisoners through the same, time-honored methods each time. He doesn't experiment with new techniques. Mr. Taylor, on the other hand—"
"That's exactly right!" Barrett interrupted. "Elsdon Taylor is fresh, new. He uses bold methods to break his prisoners; he isn't afraid to try techniques that haven't been tried before."
Mr. Sobel nodded without looking Barrett's way. "Mr. Smith is like that as well. He nearly gave heart attacks to the senior members of this dungeon during his first six months here. He was pressing the boundaries of the Code so hard that everyone was convinced he would not be permitted to take his oath as a torturer."
"And instead he became High Seeker." Barrett was not disturbed by the fact that Mr. Sobel continued to keep his face turned away from his fellow guard. Barrett was off-duty; Mr. Sobel was on-duty, and the greater part of his attention must be focussed on supervising the other guards of this dungeon, checking that they were properly watching the prisoners in their cells. It was a measure of the trust between Mr. Sobel and Barrett that the High Seeker's senior night guard would converse with him in a casual manner while on duty. Some guards, Barrett thought sourly, would be all too likely to take advantage of Mr. Sobel's familiarity.
Mr. Sobel nodded, his eyes narrowing as he sighted something he did not like. "He has continued to experiment, though. After twenty-two years, he is as inclined as ever to press the boundaries of the Code. . . . Mr. Crofford."
"Sir?" squeaked the young guard standing by the door of a prisoner's cell, clearly alarmed at being singled out for reproof.
"Am I right in surmising you are left-handed?"
A look of bewilderment appeared on the young guard's face. "Yes, sir."
"Then you may carry your dagger at your left hip rather than your right, if you wish."
Mr. Crofford's expression grew yet more bewildered in the dim lamplight of the dungeon corridor. "But sir, the Code says . . ."
"The intention of the Code is to place the dagger at closest hand, in case an emergency should arise. For right-handed guards, that means at their right hand. The High Seeker has always permitted guards who are left-handed to wear their daggers at the left."
"Oh!" Mr. Crofford tugged at the sheath on his belt. Although his speech had been fumbling, his movements were not, Barrett noted with pride. He had trained Mr. Crofford himself, and as he passed on, his eyes linked with Mr. Crofford's in a wordless acknowledgment of their tie.
Mr. Sobel was saying, "It's a good choice, but Mr. Urman will be angry when he hears that Mr. Taylor has picked you. He was hoping for that position himself."
Barrett snorted. "He had his chance to be a senior guard for Mr. Chapman last year, and he wrecked it," he said – perhaps a bit unkindly, he admitted to himself. Mr. Urman had paid the price for his carelessness in handling one of Mr. Chapman's prisoners. "Besides, can you see him working under Mr. Taylor? He's been at Elsdon Taylor's throat since the day Mr. Taylor arrived here."
"Understandable," said Mr. Sobel. "Has Mr. Urman told you about the beating?"
"Whose, Mr. Taylor's? I know he was beaten when he was the High Seeker's prisoner, if that's what you're asking."
"The beating was in error." Mr. Sobel lowered his voice yet further, though they were beyond the other guards now, entering the lampless stretch of corridor past the rack rooms. "But that's Mr. Urman's tale, if he has not already told it." He frowned. "What's going on here?" He strode forward, with Barrett at his heels.
Mr. Urman was a competent guard, Barrett had to admit as they came out of the darkness into the lamplight next to the crematorium doors. Even before they emerged, Mr. Urman had his dagger out and his other hand on his whip. The junior guard relaxed as he saw the two senior guards come forward.
"What are you doing here, Mr. Urman?" Mr. Sobel's voice was perhaps too sharp, but given Mr. Urman's history, that was hardly surprising.
The junior guard shrugged as he sheathed his dagger. "How should I know? I was under the impression that the night shift was my time for sleep. But it appears I was mistaken about that. The almighty wise one – namely, Taylor – grabbed me and posted me here several hours ago."
"Mr. Urman, you will refer to him as Mr. Taylor," said Mr. Sobel, his voice edged like a blade, as Barrett cast a sympathetic glance at him. He had always been glad that Mr. Sobel, not himself, was senior-most guard in the dungeon and therefore was burdened with the uncomfortable task of having to reprove the speech of his fellow guards.
Mr. Urman shrugged again. "The High Seeker's love-mate put me here. Is that identification enough?"
Mr. Sobel chose to ignore this. He was staring beyond Mr. Urman at the crematorium doors, which, when opened, were just wide enough for a corpse and its attendants. "What does he want in there, I wonder?" the High Seeker's guard murmured.
"The almighty one? To play Torturer and Prisoner in the High Seeker's bed, I suppose." Mr. Urman's voice was acid.
Mr. Sobel's gaze switched to the junior guard. "Mr. Urman," he said in the matter-of-fact voice that made him so different from the High Seeker, "I do hope I will not have to ask you to visit me in the guardroom again."
The junior guard shifted uneasily. This gave Barrett the opening he needed. "What's this I hear about Mr. Taylor and a beating?" he asked.
Mr. Urman glared at Mr. Sobel. "I thought you were supposed to keep silent about disciplinary matters."
"We were discussing Mr. Taylor's beating," Mr. Sobel said mildly.
"You were beaten?" Barrett said to Mr. Urman. "Because of Mr. Taylor?" He was curious rather than surprised.
For a moment, Mr. Urman looked as though he would explode; then he shrugged. "That was a long time ago, when Mr. Taylor first arrived here as a prisoner. I made a mistake; I didn't tell the High Seeker something about Mr. Taylor's actions he should have known."
"So Mr. Taylor was beaten when he should not have been," prodded Mr. Sobel.
"That's what the High Seeker said afterwards, anyway." Mr. Urman's tone was sulky. "That was his excuse for ordering my beating." He shrugged again, as though trying to remove the memory of the lash from his shoulder-blades; then he glared at Barrett. "I was in training then. Don't tell me that you never received a beating when you were in training."
Barrett had enough sense not to speak aloud the truth, which was that he had received no beatings and few reprimands during his time as a guard-in-training. He also bit back the retort that Mr. Urman had received fifteen disciplinary beatings since becoming a fully-trained guard, tying the all-time record for disciplined guards in this dungeon. The beatings were not entirely Mr. Urman's fault. Boldness and innovation were encouraged in senior Seekers and senior guards; the same qualities were discouraged in junior Seekers and junior guards to a degree that Barrett found disturbing. He was not surprised that a guard like Mr. Urman, restless to try new methods, had endured Mr. Sobel's whip on so many occasions. He was only surprised that Mr. Taylor had not.
But since the High Seeker would have been the one to order Mr. Taylor's beating, perhaps that was not so surprising after all. Barrett toyed with this thought for a moment, trying to decide which image was odder in his mind: Mr. Smith ordering his love-mate's beating, or Mr. Smith not ordering his love-mate's beating.
Mr. Sobel apparently felt that the conversation had turned too grim. He said lightly, "Isn't the central Vovimian rite the marriage of Mercy and Hell? Perhaps the High Seeker needs Mr. Taylor to assist him with whatever religious rituals he is performing down there."
Mr. Urman's expression made Barrett snort again. He supposed that Mr. Urman had never been privileged before now to hear the High Seeker's senior night guard make a filthy joke. Barrett added, "We can guess which of them is playing Mercy."
"And who is Hell." Mr. Sobel gave the slight grimace of discomfort that he always showed on the few occasions when he poked fun at his Seeker.
Mr. Urman evidently decided it was safe to join the merriment. "And we can imagine what the rite is like too. Mr. Smith will go down on one knee before Mr. Taylor—"
"He'll pledge to him his undying love," said Barrett.
"He'll offer him flowers—"
"—and all the riches of his life and body—"
"—and then he'll tie up Mr. Taylor and use his instruments of torture on him," Mr. Sobel said wearily as the other two men crowed with laughter. "Yes, I know; we've all heard the jokes before."
"The trouble is," said Barrett, wiping away tears of amusement, "that those jokes are likely to be too close to the truth. I can't imagine why Mr. Taylor stays with the High Seeker."
"Let's just be thankful that he does," replied Mr. Sobel shortly. His head had turned toward the darkness behind them, and Barrett knew he was thinking that he should return to his patrol.
Mr. Urman, though he had not moved from his post during this conversation, allowed himself to lean back against the narrow crack between the crematorium doors. "What does it matter if those two stay at peace with one another?"
Mr. Sobel's head snapped back. He and Barrett exchanged looks.
"What?" asked Mr. Urman, frowning.
"Mr. Urman," Mr. Sobel replied in that patient voice Mr. Boyd remembered him using often during Mr. Urman's training, "have you noticed, by any chance, that Mr. Taylor is an extremely stubborn individual?"
Mr. Urman gave a short laugh. "Stubborn? I suppose that's the polite way of putting it. Bloody-minded is how I would have put it."
"And have you noticed," contributed Barrett, "that Mr. Smith is also a very stubborn man?"
Mr. Urman did not bother to reply this time.
"And has it occurred to you to wonder," finished Mr. Sobel softly, "what would happen to this dungeon if Mr. Taylor's stubbornness came into conflict with Mr. Smith's stubbornness?"
Mr. Urman opened his mouth, and left it hanging. There was a pause. The crematorium doors slid open.
Mr. Urman, who was still leaning against the crack, nearly fell flat onto his back. He was saved by Mr. Taylor, who managed to put Mr. Urman back on his feet with such swiftness that it appeared that Mr. Urman had not moved. A characteristic generosity, Barrett thought to himself, as he ran his eye over the junior Seeker.
Elsdon Taylor, lit by the lamp over the doorway and by candles in the chamber beyond, looked as though he were about to drop from exhaustion. Barrett could not blame him. By tradition, only the men and women who would one day be buried in this crematorium – mainly Seekers and former prisoners who lived in this dungeon – were permitted to use the death chamber. Barrett had once gone there, though, to assist a Seeker who was too elderly to make his way up the stairs without assistance. They had taken the journey in easy stages, with long pauses periodically, but even so, Barrett had been shaking as hard as the elderly Seeker by the end of the journey.
By contrast, the High Seeker looked as though he had spent the last few hours sitting behind his desk in his office. His gaze, half-hidden within his hood's eye-holes, travelled over the three guards. Under normal circumstances, his gaze would have been cool, in a manner that always made Mr. Boyd's stomach churn, as though he had received the sudden, disastrous misfortune of becoming a prisoner to the High Seeker. But Mr. Smith's expression was different on this occasion: it seemed vague, as though he were not fully present.
Mr. Boyd had seen this expression before, in the eyes of other vigil-keepers emerging from their isolation. He often wondered what it was that vigil-keepers saw during their weeks of silence and darkness.
Mr. Urman, recovering his composure without so much as a glance of gratitude to Mr. Taylor, took something from his pocket and thrust it toward the High Seeker. "This arrived from the Codifier's office an hour ago, Mr. Smith. I was instructed to give it to you when you emerged. The messenger said that it's a separate matter from the news that Mr. Taylor conveyed to you."
The High Seeker took the folded note silently and used his teeth to cut through the string. Barrett had never wanted to ask how the High Seeker had learned to use his teeth like dagger-blades. As Mr. Smith read the note, Mr. Taylor gave a nod of greeting to Mr. Urman, a nod of greeting to Mr. Sobel, and a word of greeting to Barrett. Given that Mr. Sobel, not Barrett, was Mr. Taylor's close friend, Barrett felt the compliment as though it were warm tea entering his body on a winter's day.
"Mr. Sobel." The abruptness of the High Seeker's voice made everyone present jump, even Mr. Taylor, who must assuredly be accustomed to abruptness from his love-mate.
"Sir." Mr. Sobel, not surprisingly, was the quickest of the guards to recover.
"There will be an inner-dungeon meeting at tomorrow's dusk break. All active-duty Seekers and guards are to attend, other than the dusk-break guards, with whom I will speak later. See that word is spread."
Mr. Sobel murmured an acknowledgment that the High Seeker did not await; he had brushed past the guards and was swallowed up quickly by the darkness. He had not shown the note to Mr. Taylor, Barrett noted. Mr. Taylor paused a moment in the doorway, and then hurried after the High Seeker.
"Well," said Mr. Urman, not quite long enough for the High Seeker to be out of earshot, "what do you suppose that was about?"
Barrett waited until the Seekers' footsteps had receded far enough for him to safely reply, "We'll find out soon enough, I suppose. Mr. Sobel, do you want me to spread word to the Seekers and guards on the day shift, when they come on duty?"
"Thank you, Mr. Boyd." Mr. Sobel did not look at him; he was still staring into the darkness, his brow creased.
Barrett asked hesitantly, "What is it?"
Mr. Sobel replied slowly, "His eyes."
"So? He has been in vigil for three weeks; they always look like that when they come up from the pit."
The High Seeker's senior night guard did not reply but continued to stare into the darkness. Nearby, Mr. Urman said cheerfully, "Bed at last. At least I'll be able to get a couple of hours' sleep before my shift."
Mr. Sobel turned round swiftly, as though the renewed acid in Mr. Urman's voice had awoken him. "I need your help in spreading word to the guards who are on their monthly leave. Some of them have left the dungeon; you'll have to go retrieve them from the lighted world."
"Oh, for love of— Honestly, Mr. Sobel, I think you must hate me. You could easily choose another guard to do that. . . ."
Barrett let them battle the matter out. He stepped into the dark stretch of corridor, his mind no longer on the High Seeker. Instead, his thoughts were on the junior Seeker, hurrying to catch up with the man who had not looked his way.