"'This prisoner deserves special treatment.' The hooded man looked over at the young man again."
Elsdon Taylor, a prisoner accused of committing a terrible murder. Layle Smith, a torturer with a terrible past. Their meeting in the Eternal Dungeon appears certain to bring out the worst in both men.
Yet neither man is quite what he appears. As the prisoner and his torturer begin to be drawn toward each other, the ripple effects of their meeting will have a powerful impact on other inhabitants of the Eternal Dungeon: Layle's faithful guard, struggling to contain his doubts. A younger guard determined to take any shortcuts necessary to ensure that his life follows the path he has already chosen. An old love from Layle's past, still sorrowing. And most of all, a prisoner who has not yet arrived at the Eternal Dungeon, but whose fate will depend on how Layle handles Elsdon Taylor . . . and on how Elsdon handles Layle Smith.
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 first 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 (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.
They had passed through three checkpoints to reach this far. Even the guards serving as escort were beginning to look nervous, staring back at the lengthy, narrow passage they had travelled down, from the cavern's mouth. The prisoner they held in their grasp had turned so pale that observers might have wondered whether the young man would pitch head-forward down the remainder of the steep passage.
Several observers indeed stood below, though they could not be easily seen: they were half-hidden in the shadows at the bottom of the cavern that the prisoner and his escorts had been walking down. It was hard to tell how far the cavern reached, for where the passage stopped, the cavern widened. All that could be seen, within the narrow confines of the passage, was an entry hall that ended abruptly in a man-made wall. Against that wall, reaching up toward the ceiling, was an enormous tablet of slate with words scribbled upon it in chalk. In front of this formidable display of secretarial work was a desk occupied by a balding man with spectacles.
He was looking up at someone standing next to the desk, but the walls of the passage hid his companion. Only as the visitors reached the bottom of the passage did the other man come into view: he was dressed in a dark shirt, trousers, boots, and an old-fashioned belt, clothing little different from those worn by a thousand workmen in the world above. Only his face was different: a black hood covered everything but his eyes.
Seeing this, the prisoner came to an abrupt halt, then stumbled forward, pushed on by his escort. The movement caught the attention of the hooded man, and he looked over at the new arrivals. His eyes were a deep green, the color of the algae clinging to the rock walls.
The man at the desk took no notice of the interruption. He pushed a paper toward the hooded man and raised his voice slightly over the sound of dripping water. "Look at this, sir – why do these requests always arrive at the same time? Four rack rooms we have, and five Seekers have requested use of them."
The hooded man picked up the paper, glanced at it, and said, "Let me see the prisoners' records, please."
His voice was quiet, as were his movements as he reached out to take from the balding man a pile of bound documents that had been sitting on the desk. He leafed through them slowly, while the guards escorting the new prisoner, who had come to a halt before the desk, shuffled their feet impatiently. Finally he said, without looking up from the documents, "I deny Mr. Chapman's request. He can break his prisoner using the whip alone."
The balding man nodded, took back the documents, and finally acknowledged the existence of the new arrivals. "Well?" he said sharply.
"Sir, this is a prisoner transfer." The taller guard was the speaker; the shorter guard looked as though he was endeavoring to hide behind the prisoner.
The balding man ran his eye up and down the young prisoner, who had his hands clenched together in an effort to keep them from shaking. "I didn't think you were delivering to me our Queen," the Record-keeper said dryly. "Do you have the transfer papers?"
The shorter guard handed the papers over to the Record-keeper as the taller guard said, "It's a death-sentence case."
"You don't say," replied the Record-keeper, beginning to finger through the papers. "And here I thought our job was to question prisoners who stole children's slingshots."
The taller guard flushed; the shorter guard came perilously close to smiling. Then he looked over at the hooded man, and his expression sobered rapidly.
The prisoner barely noticed this exchange. His gaze was locked with that of the hooded man, who seemed content to allow the Record-keeper to handle this matter. After a moment, though, the hooded man broke his gaze from the young man and leaned over to take the records being proffered to him.
"You haven't submitted the previous prison's searching record," observed the Record-keeper.
The older guard cleared his throat and said, "No searching was done at our prison, sir. The victim's father—"
The Record-keeper sighed heavily. "Don't you people living in the lighted world ever learn your jobs? There must be a searching record, even if it only says why the searching failed to take place. . . . Oh, very well, I'll make one out myself."
He pulled forward a piece of paper, lifted a pen from where it stood in the inkwell, and looked up expectantly. "Name?"
"I'm Raol Merritt."
The Record-keeper sighed again. "Not your name, the prisoner's. I need the official spelling."
The taller guard flushed once more and spelled out the name. The Record-keeper wrote down the words so quickly that, by the time the guard had finished, the Record-keeper was already asking, "Who made the decision to proceed without a search?"
"The keeper of Parkside Prison, sir. The victim's father—" He stopped abruptly as the Record-keeper put up his hand. The guard waited as the balding man finished writing and looked up again.
"Go on," the latter said. "The victim's father did what?"
"Requested the prisoner's transfer here, sir. Based on his knowledge of the prisoner, he believed that a searching by lesser means would be unsuccessful."
The hooded man, who had been examining the transfer papers all this while, looked up now, but said nothing.
"The victim's father is acquainted with the prisoner, then?" said the Record-keeper, leaning over to take the records back from the hooded man.
"Yes, sir. He's also the prisoner's father."
The Record-keeper paused in the midst of taking hold of the papers and raised his eyebrows.
The shorter guard, eager to take part in this exciting revelation, said, "You see, this vermin murdered his younger sister in cold blood—"
"Sir." It was the hooded man; his voice was as quiet as before. "You are in the Eternal Dungeon, and in the Eternal Dungeon, prisoners are treated with respect. They are not referred to as vermin."
The shorter guard swallowed. "Yes, sir. If you say so, sir. I mean, you're in charge—"
He stopped as the older guard reached over and punched him in the ribs. The hooded man looked at the Record-keeper, who had turned to stare at the ceiling-high tablet. This, on close inspection, could be seen to be covered with names and numbers. "Assign the prisoner to me, Mr. Aaron," the hooded man said.
The Record-keeper turned back in surprise. "You, sir? But you've just completed four days in a rack room. You're entitled to a day off. "
"This prisoner deserves special treatment." The hooded man looked over at the young man again.
Elsdon had already begun to shiver. He told himself that it was because of the coldness of the cavern, but in fact the dungeon was not nearly as cold as he had thought it would be. It seemed that the tales about the iciness of the dungeon were false. Beneath his feet was not the cave ground but an artificial floor that kept away the chill of the rock. The place looked less like a cave than a house of business, built to house the latest machinery.
Machinery of all sorts. Elsdon looked again at the giant tablet with its names. Nearly all of the names had been neatly crossed out.
"Right, we have the information we need now. You can leave him with us. Just be sure you bring the proper transfer records next time you deliver a prisoner." The Record-keeper's expression suggested that, if his advice was ignored, the consequences for the guards would be dire.
The guards were already sliding away, eager to be gone. They came to an abrupt halt, though, as the hooded man said, "Before you go . . . Why is the prisoner unbound?"
The taller guard appeared distinctly uncomfortable. It was clear that he expected to be arrested at any moment for dereliction of duty. "The keeper of Parkside Prison made that decision, sir. We had some difficulty binding the prisoner, and as the prisoner had been otherwise cooperative, our keeper believed it would be safe to escort him here unbound."
The hooded man nodded. He turned away from the Parkside Prison guards and said, "Mr. Sobel, there is no need to bind the prisoner unless he causes trouble."
Elsdon, who had been glorying momentarily in the feeling of being unrestrained by guards or cells for the first time in two days, twisted to look behind him. Out of the shadows stepped two new guards.
They were not hooded like the man nearby. They looked very much like the guards who were hurrying back up the steps, already far enough away to be challenged at the lowest of the three checkpoints. The new guards wore grey uniforms and had sheathed daggers at their right hips; each also had a whip curled into a circle at the left hip. One of the guards was holding something black in his hands. As he reached Elsdon, he brought the object down over Elsdon's head without preliminary.
Elsdon screamed. He reached up with his hands to tear off the cloth blinding him, only to have his hands caught and held – he began to struggle frantically against the guard who was holding his hands. After his initial scream, he struggled in silence. He heard the hooded man behind him say something in an unperturbed voice, and then his hands were released and the cloth lifted from his head.
He could see, now that the cloth was removed, that it was a hood very much like the one worn by the man nearby, except that it had no eye-holes. He closed his eyes, trying to regain his breath. Beside him, the younger of the two guards took hold of his arm. He shuddered then but did not pull away; he was bracing himself for the return of the hood.
The hooded man spoke again, and the guard's hand dropped away. Elsdon opened his eyes to see that the hooded man was watching him with a steady gaze.
"Mr. Taylor," he said, "will you obey the guards?"
Elsdon had to resist the impulse to turn and look for his father. It was the first time anyone had addressed him by his adult title. Always he had been "Elsdon" or, to his father, "son." He had not expected such formality in this place, but perhaps it was one of the methods used to cut prisoners off from their ordinary lives.
"Yes, sir," he replied breathlessly. "I just— I mean, yes." He tensed, biting his lip to keep himself from screaming this time.
The hooded man nodded and turned to the older guard, saying, "Mr. Sobel."
The older guard, who could apparently be trusted to assess the situation without need for instruction, folded the cloth and placed it in his jacket side-pocket. "I would ask that you keep your eyes shut, sir," he told Elsdon.
Elsdon did so. He remembered, now that the crisis was over, that prisoners to be hanged were hooded first. He tried to decide whether it would be better or worse to be hanged now rather than be taken away to the cell awaiting him.
It seemed, though, that he had no choice. "Breaking Cell 4," the Record-keeper said briskly. "And for love of the Code, Mr. Sobel, turn in a complete report this time!"
"Will do," said the older guard in a light manner. Then his voice took on another tone as he leaned over to Elsdon. "You are not to speak until we arrive at the cell. If you speak, you will be punished. Do you understand?"
Elsdon hoped that his face did not reveal what the rapid beating of his heart did. Nodding, he felt a hand push his back. He began stumbling forward. Behind him, the Record-keeper was addressing the hooded man again.
A door creaked on its hinges in front of Elsdon; then, as he continued to walk forward, he heard the same door creaking behind him. The air had changed. Before, it had held the scent of wet rocks; now it had a closed, musty smell. The sound of dripping water had disappeared as well, and he could no longer hear the echo of footsteps against the cavern wall. The place he was travelling through was chilly and as silent as death, but for the distant sound of a man sobbing. He shuddered again but he did not pause in his step, fearing that, if he did, the younger guard would take hold of him once more. Then he felt a hand hold him indeed, but it touched him only lightly; he guessed that it must belong to the older guard, Mr. Sobel. Feeling the instruction that the touch conveyed, he halted.
Metal jingled nearby, then scraped. He heard the screech of another pair of door-hinges. Without waiting to be pushed, he walked into the destiny that awaited him.
The room was small. He was not sure how he knew this, for his eyes were still shut. Perhaps it had to do with the way his footsteps sounded upon the floor. The room was warm as well, warmer than the dungeon's entry hall had been, and light danced against his eyelids. He tried not to think what the purpose of the fire might be.
Next to him, Mr. Sobel said, "You may open your eyes, Mr. Taylor."
He had no desire to do so; it would be easier to face what came next if he did not have to see it. But he guessed that the words were not an invitation but an instruction, so he let his eyelids rise.
The instruments of torture he had expected were not there. All that he could see was an ordinary prison cell, a better one than he had left. Whereas his old cell had housed two dozen prisoners, whom he had feared more than the guards, this cell was designed for a single man. The floor of his old cell had been made of dirt and straw that attracted vermin; this one was of flagstones. In his old cell, he had slept on the floor; here a low, body-length shelf graced the left wall, and it even had blankets, a pillow, and a thin mattress. His old cell had chains. He remembered that most of all, and so, no doubt, did all of the inhabitants of Parkside Prison, for he had kept the prisoners awake until midnight his first night, screaming his throat raw. His guards, who had been frustrated from taking action against him by the knowledge that his transfer to the Eternal Dungeon had already been arranged, had finally released him from his bonds. Thereafter, the keeper of Parkside Prison had commented dryly when he came to speak to Elsdon of his transfer, Elsdon had acted as a model prisoner.
He doubted he would be able to remain quiet here for long. He looked more closely at the cell, seeking some small sign of what would happen in the hours to come. A flash of metal caught his attention, but he quickly saw that the metal was no more than a collection of implements for his toiletry: a covered chamber-pot, a pitcher and bowl, and a set of cloths. It was far more than he had known at Parkside Prison. As for the fire . . . that was the oddest part of all. There was no fire in this place, not even a lamp. Instead, at the far end of the long, rectangular cell, the wall seemed translucent, like thick ice upon a pond, and beyond it was the dancing light he had seen behind his eyelids when he entered the cell. He stared at it, trying to ascertain the cause of the fire.
Behind him, Mr. Sobel said, "Now, then . . ." His hand fell upon Elsdon's shoulder.
Elsdon spun with the desperate haste of a man who has felt a dagger touch his back, and thrust away with his hands, propelling the guard into the left-hand corner against the wall that held the open cell door. Mr. Sobel's head met the wall with a crack, and his eyes turned up in his head.
Elsdon saw no more than this, for he was backing away, as hastily as he could, seeking refuge from what he had done. None was to be found; the cell was too small for a hiding place. He ended up in the right-hand corner next to the door, and it was there that the younger guard's whip reached him.
His breath gasped in at the bite of the lash, but his mind was scarcely on the burning line across his forearm. He had turned his head, half expecting to see another corpse lying motionless upon the ground. Vomit filled his mouth.
The whiplash came a second time, harder. He closed his eyes against the pain and waited for the remainder. He could not tell whether the younger guard wanted him on his knees or crying for mercy or sobbing out apologies.
He could never tell. That was the trouble.
"Mr. Urman!" Mr. Sobel's voice was reassuringly sharp. Elsdon opened his eyes and looked over to the corner opposite of him, where Mr. Sobel had pushed himself away from the wall and was rubbing the back of his head. The older guard said to his companion, "There is no need to continue once the prisoner is subdued, Mr. Urman. You would be better off closing the door you left agape."
The younger guard looked over at the doorway, within easy reach of Elsdon, and his face went pink. Trailing his whip behind him, he moved hastily toward the door, which opened outwards.
"You may wait outside," Mr. Sobel told him. He was still rubbing the back of his head, and his face was paler than it had been before. As the door closed, he turned to Elsdon. With a rueful expression, he said, "He's in training. May I see your arm?"
Elsdon stared at him, but the guard did not move from where he stood, so Elsdon nodded and held out the arm that had two neat lines of blood across it. He was beginning to shake now, and he had to swallow the foulness that still filled his mouth.
Mr. Sobel misconstrued the cause of his strain, saying, "Those are nasty cuts. You may need to see the healer."
The guard's face remained pale, though he had let go of the back of his head in order to examine Elsdon's arm. Elsdon said hesitantly, unsure whether he would be believed, "I'm sorry."
Mr. Sobel, who had taken out a clean handkerchief from his pocket and was dabbing at Elsdon's wound, looked up. After the briefest of moments, a smile crept into the corners of his mouth. "It's my fault," the guard replied. "Unnecessary touching of a prisoner – the High Seeker would give me a hard beating if he'd witnessed that. Now, as I was saying before I became so careless . . . Water's in the corner there and will be replenished at mealtimes. If you run short, just knock on the cell door. Mr. Urman and I, or the guards who take the day shift, will be standing outside the cell at all times."
"Watching?" Elsdon blurted out. It seemed unlikely, given the solid nature of the door, but Mr. Sobel nodded and pointed to an eye-level hole in the door, barely more than a pinprick.
"Watching at intervals," he said. "Or full-time, if we should be ordered to do so. You won't know when we're watching, so I suggest that you not try anything creative in here."
Elsdon looked back at the cell, wondering what creative activities the previous prisoners had attempted. He could see no way to escape, even if such an idea had been on his mind. Aside from the watch-hole and the tiny gap between the door and the floor, the cell was completely enclosed, in a manner that began to make him feel uneasy. It was like being chained. . . . Thrusting the idea away hastily, before it should take effect upon him, he made himself think about the thick glass wall. There was something beyond it, some fire that was bringing light and warmth into this room. The feeling of imprisonment here was just an illusion, he told himself, knowing that he lied.
"Do you have any questions?" Mr. Sobel asked.
He had many questions, but he could not clear his throat to speak, for he had finally found what he was looking for. Almost invisible against the translucent wall hung a metal ring, at about the level his hands would be if he held them above his head. He had seen rings like that at Parkside Prison, and had seen them put to use.
Behind him, as quiet as a schoolmaster murmuring approval, a voice said, "Thank you, Mr. Sobel. I will answer any questions the prisoner has."
Elsdon turned slowly. The hooded man stood in the doorway. He was dressed as he had been before, unarmed but for the look in his eyes. He stepped away from the doorway as Mr. Sobel made his exit. Then, as the door shut behind the guard, he said, "Good evening, Mr. Taylor. I am your Seeker, Mr. Smith."
Elsdon made no reply. His eyes were searching the Seeker's belt, looking for a rope or a chain or any other sign of what was to take place here. His gaze jerked up, though, as the Seeker said, "Mr. Taylor, do you enjoy pain?"
Elsdon swallowed. He shook his head.
"Then I advise you to listen carefully to what I have to say next," continued Mr. Smith. "You will be given few rules that you need to follow during your time here, but we treat violations of those rules seriously. The first rule is that you must show proper respect toward me, your Seeker. You must rise to your feet whenever I am present, and where necessary you should address me as 'Mr. Smith' or 'sir.' If you fail to show the same sort of respect toward me that you would toward a schoolmaster or a workmaster, then I fear that your visit here will shortly become quite unpleasant. Is that clear, Mr. Taylor?"
"Yes," he said faintly. Then, as his heart thudded within him: "I mean, Yes, sir."
The Seeker did not respond for a moment. His posture was stiff, as though he were a guard on ceremonial duty, and his eyes in the dancing light looked alternately dark and glittering cold. He continued, "The second rule – and this is by far the most important rule for prisoners – is that you must at all times answer my questions truthfully. If, for some reason, you do not feel ready to discuss a particular subject, you may say so, or you may remain silent. But under no circumstances may you lie to me. The consequences for such lying would be severe. And I should warn you ahead of time, Mr. Taylor: I have been working in this profession for twenty years. It is not easy for a prisoner to pass off to me a lie as the truth."
He waited. Elsdon said, even more faintly than before, "I understand, sir."
The eyes remained cold. Elsdon wondered whether the Seeker had noticed that Elsdon had made no promises. After a while, Mr. Smith said, "Those are the bindings placed upon you as a prisoner. I should add that the same bindings are placed upon me as your Seeker. I must treat you with respect in the manner indicated before, and I must speak truth to you. If at any time you believe that I have violated my duties toward you or that you have been ill-used by one of your guards, you have the right to ask to speak to the Eternal Dungeon's Codifier, who oversees the inhabitants of the dungeon. In the extremely unlikely event that your request should be ignored, you may bring the matter to the attention of whichever magistrate judges your case, so that he may investigate this violation of your rights. Is that clear?"
Elsdon's heart was beating faster than before. It took him some time before he was able to repeat, "I understand, sir."
"Do you have any questions?" the Seeker asked. "About the routine of the dungeon? The times you will be fed? The questions you will be asked? The instruments of torture I use?"
The faintness went beyond Elsdon's voice this time and entered his body. He could feel the sweat upon his skin; he wondered whether he had turned white. He blurted out, "What if I'm innocent?"
The Seeker's green gaze did not waver. "If you are innocent, then I trust that our time together will be short. I would far rather find a prisoner innocent than guilty; too many prisoners are sent to us, and the quicker that we can release them from here, the better. If your release is to the lighted world rather than to the executioner, it is likely to come more quickly. But we are commissioned by the Queen to ascertain the truth of accusations of death-sentence crimes, and we are committed to fulfill that commission. Please don't waste my time with false pleas of innocence, Mr. Taylor. It will only make our time together more difficult."