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The Eternal Dungeon
Volume 5

SWEET BLOOD
Dusk Peterson

Love in Dark Settings Press
Havre de Grace, Maryland



Published in the United States of America. August 2017 edition. Publication history.

This story was originally published at duskpeterson.com. The story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Copyright (c) 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 Dusk Peterson. Some rights reserved. The story is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0). You may freely share this story, provided that you include this copyright notice. If you transform or otherwise adapt this story, please give credit to Dusk Peterson for the original story and make clear that you made changes to the original story. Sample credit for a transformative work: “This fanfic is inspired by [Story Name] by Dusk Peterson (duskpeterson.com).” Please also read Dusk Peterson’s Shared Universe Disclaimer (http://duskpeterson.com/copyright.htm#disclaimer).


CONTENTS

=== Front matter ===

Maps.

=== Sweet Blood ===

The Eternal Dungeon has been split by a civil war, with the division clearly marked by a quarrel between two Seekers (torturers) whose faithfulness to each other has already become legendary. Into this explosive situation arrives a new Seeker, one who is determined to see that past evils do not continue in the dungeon. But can he keep control of himself when assigned a prisoner who falls in love with him?

1 | Bonds. A prisoner meeting his fate. A torturer meeting his demons. And between them, a man whose bonds are on the point of shattering.

2 | Searching. Walking into a trap may be the only way to create one.

3 | Split. It was his duty to transform the prisoner’s soul. But which one?

4 | Checkmate. The Eternal Dungeon is no longer a prison. It’s a battlefield.

5 | Truth and Trust. Time is running out.

Sweet Blood: Epilogue.

Sweet Blood: Historical Note.

=== More Turn-of-the-Century Toughs fiction ==

Risk (excerpt). A preview of a volume collecting stories from The Eternal Dungeon and related series.

Whipster (excerpt). A preview of a volume in a related series.

=== Back matter ===

Appendix: Turn-of-the-Century Toughs calendar systems.

Appendix: Turn-of-the-Century Toughs timeline. Includes links to all the current Toughs stories.

Credits and more e-books by Dusk Peterson.

MAPS

A larger version of the first map is available at:
duskpeterson.com/toughs

o—o—o
o—o—o
o—o—o

=== Sweet Blood ===

Stars that behold our world upon its way,
Pure legions camped upon the plains of night,
Mute watchful hosts of heaven, what must you say
When men destroy each other in their might?
Upon their deadly race each runner starts,
Nor one but will his brothers all outrun!
Ah, see their blood jet upward to the sun
Like living fountains refluent on our hearts!
O dead divinely for so great a faith,
Help us, whose agony is but begun,
For bitterly we yield you up to death,
We who had dreamed that Life and Love were one.

—Anna de Noailles: Our Dead (translated by Edith Wharton).

Sweet Blood #1
BONDS

Present values change past history. That is the first lesson one learns as a historian. As values shift over time, our perception of historical events changes, giving new meaning to past events, and stripping away old meanings that were clear to inhabitants of the past.

Nowhere is this fact more obvious than in historical accounts of the Eternal Dungeon. The intense secularism of our modern world blinds us to many aspects of Yclau’s royal dungeon that were manifest to the contemporaries of the torturers and guards who controlled the dungeon. The very word for the dungeon’s torturers – “Seekers” – would have evoked meanings that are virtually lost to our generation. But perhaps no other word from the Golden Age of the Eternal Dungeon has become so impoverished as the word “blood.”

Blood. The word appears on practically every page of early accounts of the Eternal Dungeon. “The prisoner was whipped until he shed blood.” “His life’s blood was severed by the hangman.” “The document ordering torture was a bloody blade in his hand.” To many of our generation, such passages denote mere brutality. To the average man or woman today, the term “sweet blood” is merely a curse, with no underlying meaning.

It is time, then, that we turned our attention to the religious beliefs underlying the actions of the Seekers and guards.

We will start with a myth, not entirely lost to our generation, though it is rarely heard outside of the increasingly rare traditional services of the Yclau faith. Here is how the myth appeared during the Golden Age of the Eternal Dungeon, in a picture book that might have been read by any child of that day.

A man died, and with him died his friend, who dearly loved him. They were sent to a place of great beauty, with a shining sun, soft breezes, and a luxurious carpet of grass and flowers. The water in the brook bubbled softly, and birds flitted from tree to tree.

For many years the man and his friend dwelt happily in this place, as did others who lived there. For many years, the sun shone, the breezes blew softly, and birds sang in the trees.

Finally, however, the man grew restless. “Nothing ever changes in this place!” he cried.

But that is why it is so beautiful,” his friend argued. “Nothing changes here, so there is no suffering and no dying. We are living in eternity.”

What use is there in living in eternal painlessness if nothing ever grows, nothing ever renews? See those flowers over there? They will never die, and so new flowers will never be born. Autumn leaves will never fall from the trees. Baby birds will never be hatched. I cannot bear to live in this changelessness forever. You must help me to escape.”

His friend begged and pleaded, but the man remained adamant. Finally, with great distress, the friend loaned the man his dagger. Eagerly, the man released himself from the changeless world, allowing his blood to flow from his body. “Sweet blood,” he whispered as he left eternity. “Sweet, sweet blood.”

As the man died, the friend wept for his loss. But then he saw something strange occur. Down in the world of suffering and change that he and the man had left behind, a baby was born. It was a new baby, with new joys and sorrows awaiting it. Yet somehow the friend could sense that deep within the baby lay the man who had refused to live in eternal changelessness.

So that is how man was first reborn: not through peace, but through the shedding of his own sweet blood.

“Sweet blood.” Those two words resonated with a multitude of meanings to every Yclau man and woman of the fourth century. We can begin to peel off the layers of meaning by looking at a bloody episode that began in the Eternal Dungeon in the springtime of 363.

In this year, a lasting treaty of peace was signed between the Queendom of Yclau and the neighboring Kingdom of Vovim, as Vovim’s increasingly beleaguered King redirected his attention to troubles at home. In this year, the Magisterial Republic of Mip broke away from the ethical principles of the United Order of Prisons, turning its back unexpectedly on the prison reform movement. And in this year, the High Seeker of the Eternal Dungeon, Layle Smith, entered his forty-third year . . .

Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.

CHAPTER ONE

The year 360, the eleventh month. (The year 1881 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)

The main corridor in the Eternal Dungeon was cold. It was always cold; he had never known it to be otherwise. The prisoners received the comfort of heating in their cells, and presumably the Seekers did as well, though D. Urman had never lingered long enough in a Seeker’s cell to find out. Guards such as himself shivered in autumnal temperatures year-round.

The corridor was also dark, lit only by a minimum of electric lamps that cast shadow-palls over the prisoner they escorted. Few guards were present in the corridor; the High Seeker had stripped the inner dungeon of all but the skeleton crew of the dusk-shift guard, forcing every other guard and Seeker to watch the coming event.

Mr. Urman – addressed that way by friend and foe alike in the stiltedly formal setting of the Eternal Dungeon – would just as soon have taken his annual leave this week. It wasn’t as though he had never seen a punishment before. He had administered many himself, quelling murderous prisoners into obedience or brutalizing innocent prisoners – whatever his Seekers demanded of him, he had done. But today’s punishment, everyone agreed, would be like none that the dungeon had seen for many decades. Mr. Urman wished that he had his prisoner’s courage to rebel against orders.

They reached the closed door at the south end of the corridor, which lay closest to the great gates above the dungeon. The prisoner – walking unbound between his escorts – halted abruptly before the door. His breath and heartbeat were rapid; his skin was bleached clean of color. Mr. Sobel, senior night guard to the High Seeker, frowned on the other side of the prisoner. Like Mr. Urman, he had seen many a prisoner faint in his bonds. This prisoner looked as though he would not get as far as the place of his punishment before his knees gave way.

Mr. Urman thought this was eminently sensible of him. “Look,” he said roughly to the prisoner, keeping his voice low enough that he would not be overheard by any of the guards they had recently walked past, “you don’t have to go through with this. You can still ask for the other sentence to be passed.”

Mr. Boyd’s mouth twisted into something not quite a smile. He did not look in the direction of Mr. Urman; his attention was on the door. “Take the path of my late prisoner, you mean?”

“It’s suicide either way!” His voice was too loud; Mr. Sobel shot him a look, and Mr. Urman quickly lowered his tone. “Mr. Boyd, you know that you’re going to die either way. The High Seeker is determined to have his revenge on you for helping a prisoner escape from his cruelty. The only question is how long it will take you to die. Why let the High Seeker have his extra pleasure at your lingering death? Are you some sort of masochist?”

Mr. Sobel winced, but he made no effort to cut the conversation short. No doubt he had been making similar pleas to Mr. Boyd in the hours leading up to this moment. He and Mr. Boyd had been the closest of friends since the time that Barrett Boyd had agreed to the dubious honor of assisting Mr. Sobel to guard the High Seeker during his notorious breaking of the army officer Thatcher Owen.

Mr. Urman half expected Mr. Boyd to make some joke, perhaps in reference to Elsdon Taylor. But Mr. Boyd, staring at the door, simply said, “No.”

“Then why satisfy his sadism?” Mr. Urman demanded. “For love of the Code, don’t you know what kind of flogging you’ll receive in there? By the time the High Seeker is through with you, your back will be nothing but strips of flesh hanging from bone, while your life’s blood puddles on the—”

“Mr. Urman.” Mr. Sobel’s quiet voice held a distinct note of warning. Mr. Urman shut his mouth. Too late, he saw that Mr. Boyd had paled to the color of curd.

The imprisoned guard turned his face slowly toward Mr. Urman. His face was slick with sweat. His eyes seemed glazed over, like a dead man’s. He said, in carefully spaced words, “If I allowed myself to be hanged quietly . . . If I allowed Layle Smith to take me discreetly away and execute me in a room far away from any eyewitness . . . How would matters change in the Eternal Dungeon?”

Mr. Urman started to speak, stopped, and tried to think of the right words to say.

“They would not change.” Mr. Boyd’s voice was unusually hard now. “Matters didn’t change after the High Seeker murdered Mr. Ferris through a sentence of hanging. The High Seeker executed the oldest Seeker in this dungeon for a small disobedience, and nothing happened except that people here grumbled a bit for a day or two. If I allowed myself to be hanged – quickly, painlessly, privately – then the High Seeker would be free to continue on the murderous path he has chosen. Only by making this execution public – only by allowing the High Seeker to exercise his sadism on me in front of others – can I have any hope that the other inhabitants of this dungeon will be shocked into an awareness that they are being governed by a man who engages in behavior that is as vindictive and vicious as the behavior of any of the criminals we are supposed to be guarding the Queendom of Yclau against.” Mr. Boyd took a deep breath before adding, “This is the only way in which I can make the High Seeker himself aware of what he has become. Mr. Urman, Layle Smith’s soul is as much in danger right now as that of any unrepentant criminal.”

Mr. Urman struggled for a reply, but Mr. Boyd had already turned away from him. “Let’s get this over with,” Mr. Boyd said in a flat voice, “while I still have enough courage left to do this.”

And with those words, he opened the door and walked into his execution chamber.

o—o—o

Three days later.

“I count seven violations of the Code,” said the Codifier from behind the desk in his office, reading under the oil lamp that he had insisted remain in his office, even after the recent electrification of the dungeon. “Am I correct? Or have I miscounted?”

“You may be a few counts short, sir.” Sitting in the chair opposite the Codifier’s desk, Layle Smith thought that he would have preferred another place for this interview. Barely a month had passed since his love-mate had nearly died in this office while testing new equipment for the dungeon. That Elsdon Taylor was now expected to make a full recovery was merely a testimony to the young man’s innate vitality. It was not due to any wisdom Layle had shown during that incident, or any other incident recently.

But he need hardly make a tally of his latest offenses; the Codifier was doing that for him, while perusing the appropriate passages in the Code of Seeking, which lay open before him. “‘The High Seeker shall consult with the Codifier on all important disciplinary matters in the Eternal Dungeon.’”

“Yes, sir.”

He did not try to offer the Codifier any excuse for his conduct. Mr. Daniels supplied his missing words. “You sent me a telegram. You received a telegram back from my housekeeper, indicating that I had decided to take a journey to Mip to visit friends, and that I would not be available for consultation until my return. You then took it upon yourself to decide that this matter – this death-sentence matter – could not await my return.”

“Yes, sir.” Being flayed alive would be easier than being reprimanded by the Codifier, Layle decided. He sat stiffly in his seat, awaiting the next scrape of the blade.

“‘All sentences of death that are passed by the High Seeker for disciplinary matters must be approved by the Codifier.’” Mr. Daniels waited, his eyebrows raised.

Layle made no reply. He knew, as he was sure the Codifier knew, that a sentence of one hundred lashes was not a death sentence.

Not unless the sentence was carried out by Layle Smith.

The Codifier continued in his remorseless fashion. “‘No Seeker shall touch any instrument of torture except with permission of the Codifier, unless it is necessary to save a life.’” Mr. Daniels looked up from the slim volume of the Code. “And which life, Mr. Smith, did you think you were saving when you bypassed the procedure for permission to use an instrument of torture? A procedure, I might add, that was most strenuously emphasized to you at the time you became High Seeker, thanks to your past background.”

That was not a blade under the skin; that was a blade through the throat. Layle could feel himself begin to ache from the tension of his muscles. He remained silent.

“But perhaps you forgot the passage in the Code which states, ‘All disciplinary beatings of guards shall take place under the supervision of the High Seeker and shall be carried out by the High Seeker’s senior night guard.’”

The Codifier seemed to be waiting for an answer this time. Layle forced himself to say, “No, sir. I did not forget that passage.” He could hardly forget it, having written it himself.

Mr. Daniels turned a page. “‘No torture shall be greater or lesser than this Code requires.’ I need not ask whether you remember that passage; I recall that you stated it to Mr. Ferris, shortly before you sentenced him to be hanged for violating that passage. One extra stroke is no different than ten extra strokes, Mr. Smith, as I’m sure you know. ‘The Seeker in charge of a prisoner shall cease any torture if the healer deems that the prisoner’s life is endangered.’ Again, I need not linger over that passage; I have heard you state it on many occasions. ‘The highest conduct in the Eternal Dungeon shall be required of the High Seeker, so that he may set an example for the other inhabitants of the Eternal Dungeon.’” The Codifier removed his reading spectacles and stared levelly at Layle. “Have I failed to name any ways in which you have most grievously violated the Code in my absence?”

“Yes, sir,” he replied quietly. “‘The healer shall take into account both the physical health and the mental health of any prisoner when judging whether that prisoner is fit to be tortured.’”

It was the passage that had kept him awake every night since this nightmare began. The passage said nothing about the High Seeker taking into account the mental health of the prisoner – a careless, callous omission on his part when he had revised the Code sixteen years before. But he should have known – he should have known – that his duty lay there.

The Codifier leaned back in his chair. Softly around the office came the rush of water down the wall, and the occasional splashes made by fish in the pool nearby. It had taken a considerable amount of exertion on Layle’s part, but he had managed to persuade the Queen that the recent renovation of the Eternal Dungeon need not extend to the Codifier’s eccentric desire to surround himself, not by the artificial walls found elsewhere in the dungeon, but by cave-rock, stalactites, and tiny cave-dwelling animals.

Layle understood the reason for this symbolism, even if the Queen did not. The Codifier represented the history of the Eternal Dungeon, extending back to the day, a century and a half before, when the torturers of the royal dungeon had rebelled against their bloody past and remade their methods of inquisition into something that would benefit the prisoners, as well as the Yclau citizens whom the Queen’s justice protected.

The Codifier existed to protect the prisoners. He alone had the power to overrule and discipline the High Seeker; he served no one except the Code and the Queen who permitted the Code to exist. The rough surroundings of the cave spoke a message: “However sophisticated and modern and civilized you may think yourself to be, I remember. I remember this dungeon’s bloody past, and I will not allow that past to return.”

“‘The healer shall take into account both the physical health and the mental health of any prisoner when judging whether that prisoner is fit to be tortured.’” Mr. Daniels repeated the words as he folded his fingers over his belly. “Yes. I have had that passage very much in mind since I received word yesterday of the events that have taken place in this dungeon during my absence. Shall we start from the beginning of the tale, three months ago? The High Seeker orders one of his Seekers to rack a prisoner who is too ill of mind to be able to confess to the death-sentence crimes he has undoubtedly committed. The healer approves that order. A guard assists the prisoner to commit suicide, in order that the prisoner should thereby escape from torture. The High Seeker declares, correctly, that the guard has committed a death-sentence crime. The High Seeker sentences the guard to the alternative army punishment of one hundred heavy lashes. The High Seeker carries out the punishment. . . . All of this followed from that single act, a failure to take into account the mental state of the prisoner. Am I correct?”

“Yes, sir.” He wondered whether the Codifier was measuring him for his coffin. This was not the first time Layle had violated the Code; the first two times, Mr. Daniels had sentenced him only to suspension of duty, but surely there must be a limit to how far the Codifier’s patience extended.

In the past, Layle would gladly have accepted the death sentence for his crimes – indeed, he had pled for it then, in the name of justice. But now he had another person in his life to consider.

Sweet blood, how would Elsdon survive Layle’s death, knowing the part he had played in all this?

“‘The healer shall take into account both the physical health and the mental health of any prisoner when judging whether that prisoner is fit to be tortured.’” Mr. Daniels’s fingers remained laced upon his belly. “And on the very next page, the Code states, ‘The Codifier shall overrule the healer’s decisions if he believes that the prisoner’s life or soul is endangered.’”

With a jolt like electricity passing through him, he recognized the change of direction in the conversation. “Sir, you have been on leave of absence, by advice of the Queen—”

“But I was not absent when you ordered Elsdon Taylor’s prisoner to be racked; nor was I absent when the healer approved that racking. Mr. Smith, yesterday evening I tendered my resignation to the Queen.”

“Sir, no!” He was alarmed now; he could think of no worse fate for the Eternal Dungeon than to lose the cool, strong, wise man who had served as its Codifier for nearly a quarter of a century. “The Eternal Dungeon is in a state of crisis, thanks to what I have done. The last thing it can afford is the absence of its leader—”

“So the Queen told me when I indicated to her that your first action, when I walked through the gates of this dungeon, was likely to be to resign from your post as High Seeker.”

He was silenced, as he had been so many times over the years, by the superiority of the Codifier’s vision. Mr. Daniels picked up the resignation letter that Layle had written and dropped it into the oil lamp. The flame sputtered and flickered as it ate the paper, throwing light onto the Codifier’s weary face.

“It would be easier for me,” Mr. Daniels said, staring at the flame, “if we were both to resign. Or, barring that, it would be easier if I advised you to withdraw the policy we both formulated five months ago, of requiring strict adherence to the Code of Seeking. It would be easier for me, and it would be easier for you. But would it be easier for the prisoners?”

He turned his eyes toward Layle. In the dim lamplight, the waterfall nearby sparkled, dancing flickers of light back onto the Codifier. Mr. Daniels’s expression was grave as he said, “High Seeker, I should not need to remind you of why we instituted that policy. One lash more than a prisoner was sentenced to is a mild version of the flagrant violations of the Code that have occurred in recent years: Seekers deciding, on their own initiative, to order a prisoner beaten for twice as long as the Code requires. Guards offering comforts and assistance to prisoners that the Code does not permit. Seekers and guards alike deliberately disobeying orders issued by you. Mr. Smith, it is a miracle that we have only had one suicide in this dungeon in recent years. It is a wonder that we have not had a score of suicides, murders, and escapes.”

“Yes, sir.” He murmured an acknowledgment to the old, familiar problem. It was a problem that Elsdon, who held no supervisory duties, could never be made to understand. Layle was responsible, not only for his own actions, but for the actions of every Seeker and guard in this dungeon. To allow a Seeker or guard to blatantly violate the Code, even if it seemed in the best interests of the prisoner, could ultimately lead only to the destruction of the Code. The time would come, if the violations continued, when Seekers and guards would cease to allow their consciences to be shaped by the Code that had turned the royal dungeon from a place of bloody abuse into a place where prisoners found hope and transformation.

“Seven violations of the Code, Mr. Smith,” said the Codifier. “Eight, if we count my own. All that our transgressions prove is that this dungeon desperately needs the Code and desperately needs leaders who are willing to take on the burden of punishing violations of the Code. If you and I were to resign today, who would take our places? Weldon Chapman, a man who barely escaped death for his own violation of the Code? Elsdon Taylor, who defied your orders to such a degree that his own senior night guard – a man of exemplary behavior until that time – took it into his head to loan his dagger to a mentally ill prisoner?”

Layle’s fists clenched, his automatic reaction to any attack on his love-mate. “Sir, I am to blame for Mr. Taylor’s refusal to rack his prisoner. I did not sufficiently impress upon him—”

“Mr. Smith, I am not trying to apportion blame here. Mr. Taylor is a junior Seeker and has been working in the dungeon for only five years; it is natural for him to make mistakes. I am simply pointing out that there is currently no man in this dungeon who holds the qualities of leadership necessary to take over your position or mine during this crisis, should either of us resign or even receive temporary suspension from our duties.”

The Codifier carefully closed the Code of Seeking. Without looking Layle’s way, he said, “It is the judgment of our Queen that we should remain at our posts, as we are needed here to deal with this crisis. It is also her judgment that we should continue our policy of requiring strict adherence to the Code. If any Seeker or guard violates the Code deliberately in the future, they will undergo discipline, just as Mr. Boyd did . . . but they will do so under my supervision of your actions.”

He was silent for a long while. He knew, from the heaviness in his chest, that he had hoped for a different outcome. Resignation from his post, temporary suspension from his duties, a retraction of the policy of disciplining any guard or Seeker who violated the Code in even the smallest way . . . Any of these changes would have relieved him of the pain of continuing to fight the junior members of the dungeon who opposed his policy – of continuing to fight Elsdon over matters that his love-mate could never fully understand, because he had never been a senior Seeker . . . and never would be, if he continued to defy the High Seeker.

Oh, Mercy and Hell. He would gladly allow himself to be flayed for eternity if he could thereby escape the responsibility of disciplining Elsdon for any future violations of the Code.

He could feel the Codifier’s eye upon him. He forced himself to speak the words he knew must be spoken: “I am the Queen’s servant.”

The Codifier slid the Code of Seeking into his desk drawer and rose to his feet. “If you were not, Mr. Smith, I would not have approved your appointment as High Seeker. Now let us put aside all thoughts of our own guilt and find a way to bring this dungeon back into order.”

CHAPTER TWO

Three days before.

Barrett Boyd had no sooner walked over the doorway’s threshold than he stopped dead, jarring Mr. Urman, who was walking close behind. Stepping to the side to see what the obstacle was, Mr. Urman found that the Eternal Dungeon’s entry hall was filled to the brim with guards and Seekers.

This was no more than he had expected. The entry hall was the meeting place for the Seekers and their guards, as well as for the small number of guards employed by the Codifier. The number had been larger in decades past, when the Codifier’s guards might have been called upon to do active battle against the torturers’ guards in order to enforce the Codifier’s will, but that day was long past. For over a century now, the torturers had bowed their will in submission to the Codifier. Certainly the present High Seeker had rarely been called into the Codifier’s office for one of the “little executions” that Mr. Daniels issued, as Mr. Urman had once humorously described the Codifier’s reprimands.

Mr. Urman had been in that office only once, to give witness against the High Seeker when Mr. Smith shoved a prisoner against the wall; consequently, Mr. Urman held none of the nervousness that many of the other guards held toward that office. To Mr. Urman’s mind, the Codifier’s office was a refuge, a sanctuary against the abuse that took place in even the best-run prisons.

At least, that was how Mr. Urman had regarded it until recently. He frowned, looking at the Codifier’s guards, lined up in front of the office, along with the Codifier’s secretary. Mr. Daniels himself was on leave; in his absence, the guards took their orders from the High Seeker. No help could be found from that quarter.

Nor could help be found from the Seekers and their guards, Mr. Urman thought, running his eye over the restless crowd in the dark cavern of the entry hall. They were like blind bats: following their leaders, taking orders, and issuing punishments without thinking through the consequences of what they did.

And Mr. Urman was the blindest of them all, he reminded himself, for he knew clearly what the Seekers did when they placed a man on the rack and urged him to confess, upon penalty of further pain. He, of all men, had no excuse for helping the Seekers tear apart the bodies and wills of the helpless.

His eyes scanned the room, seeking the one man whose behavior seemed to set him apart from the other Seekers. But Elsdon Taylor was still in recovery from being accidentally electrocuted the previous month; he was nowhere to be seen.

His love-mate was there. Standing near the platform, leaning toward one of the new electric lamps, the High Seeker carefully, lovingly inspected his whip.

He had not owned a whip until the previous day. No Seeker owned a whip. Mr. Urman had assumed that the High Seeker would borrow Mr. Sobel’s whip, as he had done on the few occasions that the Codifier had permitted him to show off his considerable skills to the guards. But no – apparently the “stub whip,” the Eternal Dungeon’s deliberately shortened whip that fit the cramped confines of the breaking cells, did not satisfy Layle Smith’s full lust for vengeance.

When Mr. Urman learned that Mr. Smith had ordered a whip sent to him from a Vovimian merchant in the city, he had been appalled. He had half expected a leaded whip to show up. What had arrived was nearly as bad: the dreaded “black whip,” used by executioners in the Kingdom of Vovim for deaths by flogging.

“The black whip is used in Vovim’s prisons too, just for discipline,” Mr. Sobel had said, determined, as always, to defend his Seeker’s indefensible acts.

“And this is supposed to reassure me?” retorted Mr. Urman.

The High Seeker – who had spent three years of his youth as an apprentice torturer in Vovim’s notorious Hidden Dungeon – looked like a barbarian Vovimian at the moment. Normally only half-dressed in the Seeker uniform of shirt and trousers, he had gone even further this evening and was stripped to the waist. In an automatic manner, Mr. Urman looked around to see whether the dungeon’s female Seeker was present to witness this shameless display.

She was not; Mistress Birdesmond, Mr. Urman knew, had taken leave recently to care for her adopted son, who was weathering a bad spell of bronchitis, a common illness in the damp dungeon. But the inner dungeon’s other female inhabitant was there: the temporary healer, whose name Mr. Urman could never quite remember, and who was also being served up for the High Seeker’s vengeance.

Mr. Urman assumed as much, anyway. There was no reason why the healer should be here. It was true that, in any case of serious torture – and one hundred heavy strokes was as serious as you could get – the dungeon’s healer could request to be present in order to stop the torture if the prisoner’s life was endangered. But the High Seeker, Mr. Urman was sure, had no intention of truncating the count of this particular flogging, and the healer looked as though she wanted to be anywhere but standing on the punishment platform. She was quite young – almost as young as Mr. Urman’s sisters – and she had turned so pale that Mr. Urman guessed she would pass out the moment that blood was drawn.

Some of the guards, Mr. Urman knew, blamed the temporary healer for having allowed the torture of the prisoner who had killed himself. Mr. Urman did not. He had worked under Mr. Smith on a number of occasions over the years – was being forced to work under him now, though he planned to ask for a transfer the moment the Codifier returned. He knew how difficult it was for even their regular healer – a crusty, opinionated man – to hold out when the High Seeker got it into his head that some prisoner needed to be racked. A slight child like the temporary healer had no hope of holding out against demands that she approve the torture of a prisoner.

She certainly would make no difference today. Mr. Urman dismissed her from his sight and turned his attention back to Mr. Boyd. The imprisoned guard was still frozen in place, staring at the crowd – which was odd, for he had known that all the guards and Seekers would be present to witness the humiliation of his excruciating death. Then Mr. Urman followed his gaze and understood.

Clifford Crofford, Mr. Urman’s closest friend, was standing on his tiptoes amidst the other junior guards, trying to see through the crowd to the platform ahead. He had not yet noticed Mr. Boyd’s entrance, yet his face was as bloodless as the imprisoned guard’s. He already clutched a handkerchief in readiness.

“Mr. Boyd, we must continue,” Mr. Sobel murmured from the other side of Barrett Boyd, gently urging him on with the touch of a hand.

Mr. Boyd nodded, but he did not take his gaze off Clifford until they had reached the western steps to the platform. By that time, Clifford was hidden in the crowd, so Mr. Urman did not see the junior guard’s reaction to the entrance of his imprisoned love-mate.

A silence fell over the crowd as the prisoner and his escort came forward. The High Seeker – who had no doubt known of their presence from the moment they walked through the door – did not look up; he was painstakingly examining each twist of the leather on his whip. The prisoner and his escort passed within an arm’s length of Mr. Smith as they walked up the short flight of steps to the platform, where the whipping post awaited.

Mr. Urman had been whipped more times than he liked to remember during his five years in the dungeon. Every time he made some small mistake, and every time he rebelled against some hideous plan that his Seeker had for a prisoner, he was tied to the fat whipping pole in the guardroom.

Mr. Urman figured that he could have endured worse fates. The pole’s surface was smooth against his bare chest, and his wrists were tied on the opposite side of the pole, which was more restful than having them bound above his head.

Apparently too restful; here also the High Seeker had made special accommodations for Mr. Boyd. An army post had been brought in, under the excuse that the whipping post in the guardroom could not easily be moved into the entry hall. Mr. Sobel – normally the most imperturbable guard in the dungeon – had taken one look at the army’s version of a whipping pole and had whistled mournfully.

It was a T beam – a long, tall, rectangular beam upon which rested a shorter beam in horizontal position. The tall beam was far too thin to embrace the prisoner’s entire body; every time the lash landed, the prisoner’s chest would grind against the thin post, and against its sharp edges.

As for the wrists, they would be tied far apart on the topmost beam, stretching the prisoner wide open in a painful manner. Rather than be bound with soft leather, as the dungeon’s prisoners and disciplined guards invariably were, Mr. Boyd would be forced to place his wrists within cold iron manacles whose edges would scrape his skin raw as the punishment proceeded.

Perhaps Mr. Smith had even hoped that the beam would be so high that Mr. Boyd would be forced to stand on his toes, but in that respect he was foiled, for Mr. Boyd was a tall enough man that his hands could reach the manacles. Now, having arrived at the ugly instrument of torture, Mr. Boyd did not spare it a glance. Without waiting to be asked, he stripped off his shirt. He had already been stripped of his jacket, vest, undervest, and weapons at the time of his arrest for his self-confessed crime. All that was visibly left were his trousers and boots. He turned without a word, raised his arms, and placed his hands within the open manacles.

“Not yet, Mr. Boyd,” murmured Mr. Sobel. Mr. Urman guessed that he was trying to spare Mr. Boyd a few extra minutes of torture from the gruesome whipping pole. It was a constant wonder to Mr. Urman that Seward Sobel – a guard clearly sensitive to where the boundary properly lay between keeping order and committing abuse – invariably backed any action that the High Seeker took, however much the High Seeker’s prisoners might suffer. Mr. Urman had tried to understand, had tried to show patience toward Mr. Sobel’s desire to remain loyal to Layle Smith, but recent events had removed from Mr. Urman the ability to sympathize with the senior night guard’s divided loyalties. Mr. Sobel could not see – had willfully blinded himself from seeing – that a battlefield had been formed. On one side of the field stood the Old School of Seekers and guards who were determined to continue their abuse of the prisoners. On the other side of the field stood the New School, made up almost entirely of junior guards, who held a higher vision of how the dungeon could be run. Mr. Sobel, by remaining the High Seeker’s shadow, had made himself an enemy of the New School, and Mr. Urman was no longer willing to try to convert the enemy. He knew, from past experience, how few lackeys to bullies ever recognized the need to convert their ways.

Helping a murderous prisoner to repent of his crime was far easier than convincing an abusive Seeker and his senior night guard that they were violating the spirit of the Code.

“Mr. Urman.” Mr. Sobel glanced his way. “Ask Mr. Smith whether he is ready to proceed.”

“Mr. Fucking Smith is ready to proceed with torture any hour of the day or night,” muttered Mr. Urman, but he kept his voice too low to be heard by the senior guard. His remark was easily swallowed by the continued murmur of the onlookers. Clifford had made his way up to the edge of the platform; Mr. Urman could almost imagine him flinging himself between Barrett Boyd and the High Seeker’s lash. Poor, besotted fool. Mr. Urman gave him a gesture of greeting which the younger guard failed to notice, so absorbed was he in watching Mr. Boyd. Well, that was nothing new.

Mr. Urman would be the first to admit that he was not swarming with friends. Clifford was the only one left, if truth be told. It didn’t matter. Mr. Urman had long since figured out that most men smiled at you one day and then beat you to pulp the moment they got you into a quiet alley. He was selective in which men he chose as friends; even so, some friends, such as Mr. Sobel, ultimately turned their backs on him and went over to the enemy.

But it wasn’t that simple. Nothing was ever that simple in life, Mr. Urman recognized. Mr. Sobel truly thought he was serving the best interests of the prisoners by allying himself with the High Seeker. And Mr. Urman was no easy man to befriend, he knew. As a matter of fact, he probably wouldn’t have bothered to befriend himself.

For some reason, Clifford seemed to be able to put up with Mr. Urman’s sharp tongue, but Clifford’s thoughts were wholly absorbed these days in his new love-mate. Well, that was the way of the world. Best not to worry about such things; what mattered was the prisoners’ welfare.

Mr. Urman clattered down the rickety steps on the western end of the platform. On his way, he nearly tripped over the stretcher that the healer had foresightedly placed at the edge of the platform. The High Seeker was still near the bottom of the steps, checking his whip as meticulously as a mother might check her baby. He did not look up as Mr. Urman stopped in front of him. The black face-cloth of the High Seeker’s hood – featureless except for the eye-holes – hid his expression.

“Mr. Urman.” Layle Smith ran his fingers lightly over a nasty-looking tassel at the end of the whip.

Mr. Urman delivered the message. The High Seeker, tenderly twisting a bit of leather that was coming loose, said, “Ask Mr. Sobel whether the prisoner has any final request before we proceed.”

“So that you can refuse it,” Mr. Urman muttered as he made his way back up onto the platform. Feeling as though he had been demoted to a messenger-boy, he repeated the High Seeker’s words.

Mr. Sobel looked silently over at Mr. Boyd. The two of them were in the same position as before, with the imprisoned guard’s back facing the audience, but Mr. Boyd kept looking over his shoulder. He seemed not to have heard Mr. Urman speak.

Touching him lightly, Mr. Sobel caught his attention and softly repeated the message. Mr. Boyd looked over his shoulder again, as though he had not heard. Then, looking back at Mr. Sobel, he said, “Does he need to be here?”

Mr. Sobel wordlessly looked over at Mr. Urman. Mr. Urman – wondering when he would be issued the little peaked cap that the Union Telegraph boys wore – made his way back to the High Seeker and delivered the request.

For the first time the High Seeker looked up. He turned his gaze toward Clifford Crofford, who was practically hanging his chest over the platform in an effort to allow Mr. Boyd to see him. The High Seeker’s gaze drifted back to the whip. With his head bowed as he smoothed out a kink in the lash, he said, “You may tell Mr. Sobel that Mr. Crofford is excused from attending the punishment.”

For a moment, Mr. Urman was disconcerted. Then he understood. The High Seeker was making a show of mercy in an attempt to pretend that this flogging was an act of justice, not a travesty of the Code. No doubt he simply worried that Clifford Crofford would interfere with the punishment once it started.

Back up onto the platform trotted Mr. Urman, wondering whether he should bring out the little memorandum book all guards carried, so that he could begin making notes of all the messages he carried. He delivered the message, and Mr. Boyd’s breath emerged all at once, as though he were a hissing gas pipe. Mr. Sobel said, “Mr. Urman, please tell Mr. Crofford—”

“I know, I know,” said Mr. Urman crossly. As he turned away, Mr. Sobel called to him. Sighing, Mr. Urman turned back in preparation for a reprimand.

However, Mr. Sobel said only, “You are released from guard duty here. I can handle both the count and the supervision of the flogging.”

“Well, finally someone shows some fucking sense.” Mr. Urman turned away before Mr. Sobel could lecture him about his language. He went to the front of the platform and jumped down beside Clifford.

Even then, Clifford did not notice him. He was chewing on his bottom lip, wriggling this way and that as Mr. Boyd continued to look over his shoulder. Mr. Urman took his arm. “Come on,” he said, “the High Seeker says for you to leave.”

To his surprise, Clifford – normally the most compliant of guards – jerked away. “No!” he cried, like a child being removed screaming from his mother’s arms.

“You bloody idiot.” Mr. Urman jerked his thumb in the direction of Mr. Boyd. “It’s his request. He’s about to go through the worst experience of his life. Do you think he wants to worry about you on top of all that?”

Clifford looked uncertainly up at Mr. Boyd. Sighing, Mr. Urman took Clifford’s arm again. “Come on, you can wait in my rooms. I’ll tell you afterwards what happened, I promise.”

And with any luck, he thought as he pulled the young guard away from the platform, the very act of escorting Clifford to the outer dungeon would cause Mr. Urman to miss the flogging.

o—o—o

Three days later.


Layle hated the new electric lights in his cell with a passion. The businessman who had supervised their installation had promised wonders: A steady light that never flickered. A lamp that had no wick which needed replacing. An end to countless hours of filling lamps with oil.

What Layle had received in place of the old, comforting oil lamps was an electric chandelier that flickered and buzzed and snapped continuously, and that was forever going out with a loud pop. Usually when Layle was standing directly beneath it.

The electric lights were a necessity, though, since the Seekers were required by the Code of Seeking to share the same living conditions as the prisoners in the breaking cells, as far as was reasonably possible. The Queen had ordered the lights installed in the prisoners’ breaking cells, along with a central heating system to replace the old, smoke-belching furnaces that had once heated the prisoners’ cells.

The new heating system did not extend as far as the Seekers’ cells, however; Seekers had never been permitted to keep stoves. Because they lived their entire lives within the Eternal Dungeon, they were allowed small luxuries beyond which most of the other prisoners possessed, such as desks and kitchen areas; the lack of heating reminded them that, by law, they were not free men but prisoners – men who had voluntarily chosen to imprison themselves eternally in order to share the lives of the men and women they searched for crimes.

Layle had firmly denied permission for new luxuries to be installed in the Seekers’ living cells, though some of these had tempted even him: gramophones, stereoscopes, kaleidoscopes. He could have let himself and the other Seekers enjoy access to the world’s music and art, but he had ruthlessly thrust aside the temptation. He was a prisoner. All Seekers were prisoners. It wasn’t right that they should live lives that far above the lives of the prisoners in the breaking cells.

One new luxury he had permitted, but only for the sake of the outer dungeon’s laborers: a system of running water had been installed, with washbasins in each Seeker’s cell. No longer would servants be forced to bring hip-baths full of water to each Seeker once a week. Seekers could draw their own bath-water now, using a pail, and could also have access to fresh water whenever they wished.

Running his hand across the wooden hand-pump over the basin sunk into the kitchen countertop, Layle wondered whether he had been neglectful. He had been so busy trying to keep the Seekers from being saddled with luxuries they did not need that he had not given enough thought to items that might be of use to the prisoners. Why shouldn’t the prisoners be permitted sinks? If the central water boiler was kept tepid enough, the water could do them no harm. And perhaps some way could be found to install water closets in each breaking cell, similar to the water closet that had graced the outer dungeon’s dining hall for many years now.

Layle knew of no dungeon or prison in the world where the prisoners were permitted to have running water and toilets. All the more reason for him to consider the idea. This was the Eternal Dungeon, and one of the roles of Yclau’s royal dungeon was to serve as a leader in prison reform.

So absorbed was he in thoughts of the prisoners’ comfort that he did not hear the steps outside the door. Or rather, he heard them, but he ascribed them to the daily passage of men and women through the corridor that ran from the inner dungeon, where the prisoners and Seekers lived, to the outer dungeon, where the guards and laborers lived.

Then he heard the door rattle. His hand flew to the side of his belt.

Just as quickly, it flew away. His heart was pounding. Twenty-two years had passed since, at the age of eighteen, he had abandoned his abusive work as a torturer in Vovim’s Hidden Dungeon. In all the years since that time, he had never worn a blade. And yet his hand had gone automatically to where his blade would have been in the old days – as automatically, indeed, as it would have gone in the days of his early youth, when he had worked as a criminal, torturing and murdering helpless victims.

Twenty-two years. After all that time, the instinct toward immediate violence should have drained from him. But it still overtook him at moments when he was startled. And he had felt that impulse more strongly than ever in the past three days, since he had wielded a living whip that removed flesh in great swaths.

His heart now hammering, he walked toward the door. Elsdon was fumbling with his key outside, no doubt because of the infernal, ever-flickering electric lights in the corridor. Layle unlocked his side of the door. Elsdon slipped inside, closed the door, bolted it behind him, and tossed back his face-cloth.

He was still pale from the rigors of the past month, as his body slowly recovered from the effects of the electrocution, but he looked considerably better than he had when Layle had mistaken him for a corpse. The color was back in his cheeks, and his eyes were alert and searching.

They searched Layle now, in a pattern that he had become accustomed to. Layle knew why. Elsdon was seeking some sign of what had taken place between the High Seeker and the Codifier during their interview that day.

Layle was interested in the results of a different interview. Without warning, he slammed his hands onto both sides of the wall beside Elsdon, trapping him in place.

Layle was careful to leave enough room to allow his love-mate to escape the trap. Elsdon, with his Seeker alertness, could instantly tell the difference between pretend imprisonment and real imprisonment. The last was forbidden between them, not because Elsdon would have objected to being taken temporarily captive by the High Seeker, but because he had endured an abusive childhood. The emotional aftereffects of that abuse limited the number of activities he and the High Seeker could undertake.

But pretend imprisonment was enough for both of them. Now, leaning forward so that his face was close to the other Seeker’s, Layle saw Elsdon’s pupils grow. He did not need to look downwards to know that another part of Elsdon’s body was growing. He could smell the change: a muskier scent that came only when his love-mate was aroused.

“Has the healer given you permission to return to your work?” Layle asked in a hard voice.

Elsdon’s eyes searched Layle, trying to puzzle out the meaning of his question. “Yes,” he replied finally. “He said that I could resume my duties—”

All your duties?” Layle pressed his body onto Elsdon’s. It was a chance, but a chance worth taking; Elsdon had learned to accept being pressed against a wall, provided that he was given due warning.

Elsdon’s pupils widened yet further. “Yes, sir,” he replied breathlessly. “I can undertake any duties you wish.”

“Good,” said Layle into Elsdon’s ear. “Because right now you’re going to strip off those clothes, fall to your knees, and take my whammer in your mouth.”

Elsdon’s breath had turned rapid. Layle guessed this was as much due to the fear coursing through his body from the entrapment as it was from Layle’s words. But Elsdon had no objection to a small amount of fear, and Layle, having been raised in a kingdom where terrifying deeds were played out on the stage, had gradually come to reconcile his love for Elsdon with his pleasure at Elsdon’s fear. Elsdon never seemed harmed by their play-acting – indeed, he seemed as eager as any Vovimian to participate in private stage-tales of abduction, imprisonment, torture, rape . . . and the gentle love-making with which Layle always ended these tales.

“Yes, sir,” Elsdon said now, his groin providing evidence of how much he enjoyed this turn of events. “If I knew . . . If you would be kind enough, sir, to tell me who and where we are.”

Layle closed his eyes for a moment. He had been thinking about this all day, ever since he had left the Codifier’s office. He had remained uncertain whether he possessed the courage to go through with this. But if there was ever a time in his life when this might work, it was one month after Elsdon’s near death and three days after Barrett Boyd’s bloody flogging.

He had sought in the early days of their relationship to hide from Elsdon the pattern of his dark desire. It had been futile to do so. Elsdon had quickly realized that Layle was most aroused in the hours and days after he had tortured prisoners. And after one terrible, unforgettable episode when Elsdon was sent on a dangerous mission for the Queen, Elsdon had come to realize that Layle’s arousal reached its peak when Elsdon himself suffered pain.

Elsdon still loved him. This was a fact that Layle had never ceased to wonder at. Elsdon knew that his love-mate received pleasure from his suffering, yet he remained loyal in his love. To Elsdon, the simple fact that Layle would do anything in his power to save his love-mate from needless suffering balanced the fact that Elsdon’s suffering invariably roused Layle’s whammer and set into motion his deep-seated desire for absolute possession. Most wondrous of all, Elsdon could know that Layle’s pleasure derived from his real pain, and yet could himself receive pleasure from their bedroom play. This despite the fact that Elsdon had never shown any sign that he himself received pleasure from pain. His pleasure derived from Layle’s pleasure.

A most extraordinary man. There could not be another man like him in all the world. And Layle received the high honor of being his love-mate.

Now Layle let himself feel the pounding of Elsdon’s heart, the sweat beginning to film Elsdon’s skin, the rapid breath, the slight noises of protest in Elsdon’s throat.

One month since Elsdon had nearly died, due to an accident that Layle had caused. Three days since Layle had torn apart Mr. Boyd’s body. It might be enough. It might be enough, for the first time in Layle’s life.

Layle pulled back far enough that he could see Elsdon’s eyes. He and Elsdon were the same height, so he could see clearly his reflection in Elsdon’s eyes: a torturer in the Eternal Dungeon, his face-cloth pulled back to reveal what lay within. “Where we are,” said Layle, “is the Eternal Dungeon, and we are the High Seeker and his love-mate.”

He almost regretted his words in the next moment as he saw the sharp joy in Elsdon’s eyes. He wanted to cry, “This probably won’t work!” But he had set the scenario in motion; he must continue through with it. Stepping back, he gave Elsdon room to strip naked.

Elsdon did so slowly, knowing that Layle appreciated the very act of increased vulnerability. There was little for Elsdon to remove, though. Seekers, like the prisoners they searched, were only permitted to wear a shirt, belt or suspenders, trousers, lower undergarments, and footwear. Elsdon, in his usual enticing manner, had taken to dispensing with the undergarments during his off-duty hours.

Now he carefully unknotted his belt. It was a regulation dungeon belt, designed to carry weapons if need be, though Seekers rarely had such need. Layle, his thoughts momentarily distracted by the memory of a certain sentence in the Code that forbade Seekers to touch instruments of torture, remained barely aware of Elsdon as the junior Seeker pulled off the remainder of his clothes.

As always, though, Layle was brought sharply back into awareness as Elsdon removed his hood. It was the ultimate act of stripping for a Seeker. A Seeker might be stripped of every article of clothing on his body, but only if he removed his hood was he truly naked.


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