"He was skilled by now at making innocuous remarks in the presence of the Shining Ones. Nobody had even guessed that he knew what they were."
The Eternal Dungeon is filled with prisoners who shine like the sun.
No one knows this except Barrett Boyd, a guard notorious for having survived a disciplinary punishment that should have killed him. He is also notorious for his rebellion against the authorities of the royal prison. At a pivotal time in the Eternal Dungeon's history, when abusive practices of the past may finally be abolished, Barrett finds himself drawn to the mystery of a younger guard, Clifford Crofford, who claims that he and Barrett are love-mates.
Barrett has no memory of this. He has no memory of anything before his punishment. What does the past matter, compared to Barrett's determination to protect the prisoners? But Barrett cannot ignore his bond with Clifford, and the closer that Barrett comes to Clifford, the more the danger arises that Clifford will question Barrett's sanity. . . .
This novelette (miniature novel) of disability and love 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 where the psychologists wield whips.
The Eternal Dungeon series is part of Turn-of-the-Century Toughs, a cycle of alternate history series (Dark Light, Waterman, Life Prison, Commando, Michael's House, and The Eternal Dungeon) about disreputable men on the margins of society, and the men and women who care for them. Set between the 1880s and the 1910s, the novels and stories take place in an alternative version of America that was settled by inhabitants of the Old World in ancient times. One of the series in the cycle, Waterman, combines elements of the 1910s with retrofuturistic imagery from the 1960s.
He always felt pain after touching the Shining Ones. It was not that they burned him with heat, although they glowed brighter than the hot-white heat of the greatest furnace in the world. No, the pain he felt was the pain of touching something indescribably cold, like the middle of an iceberg, or perhaps the chill sparkle that lay within the most beautiful diamond in the Queen's treasury.
Now he could feel himself trembling. He had deliberately – deliberately – laid his hand upon a Shining One for ten whole seconds. And not for duty's sake; if that had been the case, he knew, the pain would have been bearable. It might have kept him awake half the night, nursing his wounded hand, but no sacrifice was too great for the Shining Ones, and he knew that his duty to them required that he touch them – that he touch them, grasp them, perhaps even bind and beat them if necessary, though the last act always left him half dead from the pain.
This time, though . . . He turned to look at Clifford Crofford, quietly sitting in a chair as he sipped his tea.
Clifford noticed him watching and smiled. The smile came close to blinding Barrett Boyd. He always had to be careful not to look directly at Clifford, for the young man shone more brightly than any of the other Shining Ones.
"More tea?" Barrett asked. He was skilled by now at making innocuous remarks in the presence of the Shining Ones. Nobody had even guessed that he knew what they were.
"Thank you, sir." Clifford continued to smile up at him. Deep within the enveloping cocoon of diamond-bright light, he looked like an ordinary young man – a little plain-faced, perhaps. But his eyes sparkled with all the colors of the rainbow, like jewels.
As always, Barrett had to forcibly stop himself from falling onto his knees, to do homage. "Sugar?" he said. The grains of sugar, each a little prism in itself, were dull slags compared to the Shining Ones, but he offered this Shining One all that he could.
"If I could have some milk . . ." Clifford said tentatively.
He made no reply – his throat was tight at the prospect of assisting one of the Shining Ones – but instead leaned over and pulled open the door of the small icebox that was placed in his room, by virtue of his position as a senior guard in the Eternal Dungeon.
Clifford, a junior guard, possessed no icebox. Oh, the ironies of this world.
The time he spent retrieving the bottle and pouring its milk into a pitcher allowed him to recover from the dazzle in his eyes. During the first weeks after the change, it had taken him a while to learn how to look upon the Shining Ones. Never directly – that would be both dangerous and disrespectful. But if he looked just to the side of them, he would see all that he needed to see. And his duty required that he watch them, for the Shining Ones were here because, in most cases, they had committed crimes. Only with the help they received in this dungeon would they be able to admit to themselves and to others that they had done wrong.
He still believed that, despite the whip-scars on his back.
"Biscuits?" he asked Clifford as he placed the pitcher of milk at a safe distance from the junior guard. Even this close, he could feel the cold brightness stroking him, like arctic wind – pure, untouchable.
The gratitude in Clifford's voice was so great that it nearly set him trembling again. He sternly reined in his feelings. He had learned to do so with the Shining Ones, during those early weeks. True service, true homage, required that he serve the best interests of the Shining Ones – which, paradoxically, meant keeping them captive. On the one occasion he had forgotten this – when a seemingly innocent Shining One had asked his help to escape the power of an abusive Seeker-in-Training – he had let himself be fooled into forgetting what he should never have forgotten: the Shining Ones were here because they were damaged. They were damaged by their own misdeeds – all but the very few who were innocent, and in most cases the innocent few were identified quickly by their Seekers. The guilty ones, the ones who had committed murder or rape, required special care – in some cases, stern measures – in order to heal to their full brightness.
He had seen that healing happen. He had seen the dim light of broken Shining Ones grow brighter and brighter.
But none shone so brightly as Clifford Crofford, who had never done any serious wrong, except to demand of Barrett a type of love he could no longer give.
"Sir . . ."
"Yes?" He stood with the plate of biscuits in his hand, feeling foolish. Whenever he felt foolish – he knew from other people's testimony – his expression grew truculent.
Clifford dipped his eyes. Oh, sweet blood, Barrett had scared the younger guard again. It was so easy to do that. But this time he did not have to figure out, fruitlessly, how to mend the damage he had done, for Clifford said, "I was wondering . . . would it be all right for me to call you Barrett? When we're in private like this?"
He stood still, uncertain what Clifford's words portended. Finally he said, in a voice that was flat because he was trying to control his own fear that matters had gone wrong again, "I don't want you to mistake why you're here."
Clifford quickly shook his head. "No, sir. I know you're not inviting me into your bed. But we can be work partners, can't we? We can work together to help the prisoners?"
He felt relief strike him. He wished he could find a way to say, "You are more precious to me than any of the other Shining Ones." But that would dishonor the other Shining Ones, and he could not dishonor such beauty. Instead he said, still flatly, "You don't need to do this. It's not part of your duties." What exactly Clifford's true duties were, Barrett wasn't sure of. The young man was a guard, and he acted as though he wanted to be a guard. That must mean something.
"But I want to, sir!" Clifford nearly spilled his tea in his effort to make his point. "To be able to work with you again – to help you fight to protect the prisoners against abuse . . ." He took a deep breath and said more steadily, "I want that more than anything else in my life."
He had to turn away then. He was afraid that he would drop the biscuits. One of the Shining Ones wanted him . . . wanted him badly. And after all the times he had hurt Clifford. Sweet blood – what had he done in his previous life, that he should be granted such a gift?
"Sir?" Clifford's voice was tentative again. "Did I say something wrong?"
Blast and blast and blast. Would he never cease hurting Clifford?
It would have been easier if he could have told Clifford the truth. If he could have said, "Everyone believes that my brain was changed, and it's true. Ever since this dungeon's High Seeker nearly beat me to death for shielding a prisoner against his cruelty, I've seen the prisoners here in a way that no one else sees them. I've seen the light that shines within them, as bright as a sun. I've seen how wondrous they are, and how fragile at the same time. I've dedicated my life to serving them in the only way I know how. . . . And I am dedicated to you as well. You are the only one, besides the prisoners, who shines with that deep, bold light. I am your servant, now and forever. I'll give you anything that I can – anything that will please you. Anything but the love of a love-mate, for if I touched you for more than a few seconds, I would die of the exquisite pain.'"
He had always possessed enough sense not to say that to Clifford or anyone else. Always, from the first few weeks of his awakening.