"'Sweet blood, no,' he whispered. 'Not now. Please, any time but now.'"
Only the loyal presence of one man has kept him alive. Now that man's loyalty is about to be tested.
In the queendom's royal prison, a young torturer is forced to choose between his principles and his love. At the same moment, a homeless boy living elsewhere in the queendom's capital receives comfort and compassion from a rich man mourning the loss of his son. But when the boy decides to fight the Eternal Dungeon's torturers in order to defend the liberty of his patron, he comes to realize that his battle must extend further than he had expected.
This novella can be read on its own or as the second story in the "Transformation" volume of The Eternal Dungeon, an award-winning historical fantasy series set in a land where the psychologists wield whips.
This is a reissue of an older story.
The orchestra paused; during the interval, the words of the song outside could be clearly heard. It was The Ballad of the Dying Prisoner, which was one of Yeslin's favorites, but before he could judge whether the ballad was well rendered by its singer, the violins had started up another sprightly tune. Under the renewed cover of their notes, Yeslin walked closer to the earnest-looking guests. He could hear now what they were saying.
". . . no heirs to leave his house and business to. There was only the one son, and he's gone."
"And the daughter too."
"The son killed the daughter, did you know that?" One of the women, in a bright red gown, announced this piece of tired gossip as though unveiling a new fashion. "I saw the body after it happened – the sight was simply shocking. I had nightmares for days afterwards."
"I told you that you shouldn't have looked, sweet one," said the man beside her.
"Oh, but I had to see what had happened, didn't I? I mean, it happened right next door to us. And her father was with us when the screams started. You should have seen the look on his face!"
"I heard that, when they arrested the son, his face was as cold and remorseless as though he'd killed a dozen girls – is that so?"
"Utterly remorseless." The woman in the red gown nodded. "I saw it myself."
"I'd have described his expression as stunned," said the man beside her.
The second man gave a sharp laugh. "Stunned at his success? I'd imagine so. Not many murderers can accomplish so bloody a killing without any weapons."
"The poor man." Another of the women, wearing a gown of sparkling beads, cast a glance at the figure lying motionless on the bed. "To lose his daughter in such a way, and for the murderer to be his own son . . ."
"That's not what I heard," said the third woman abruptly. She had been busy inspecting her face with a palm-sized mirror, which she now slipped into her purse. "I heard that the girl's true murderer was her father."
Several members of the group looked instinctively around to see whether anyone was close enough to hear. All that they saw was a commoner youth kneeling down to wipe up a drink that had spilled. Reassured, they leaned in closer to listen.
In a satisfied tone, the woman with the mirror said, "I heard all about it from De Vere – he works at Parkside Prison, you know, and he attended the son's trial. The son testified that, when he was quite young, his father murdered his mother—"
"Oh, yes. And the son said that his father used to tie him to his bed and beat him till he was bloody. And that drove the son out of his mind, and that's why he killed his sister."
"He couldn't have been as crazy as all that if he was giving testimony," the second man objected with a snort.
"Still, you never know. The kindest looking men may hold dark secrets in their lives. . . ."
Everyone turned to look at the figure lying motionless on the bed. After a moment, the woman in the red gown said, "You know, now that I think of it, the son's expression really was stunned."
"Stunned with remorse, no doubt," her husband supplied.
"Or stunned with craziness," suggested the woman with the bright beads. "Completely driven out of his mind by his father's cold-hearted abuse."
"Or the son could have lied about it all," persisted the second man, evidently relishing the role of expressing the minority viewpoint. "He could have made it all up to save his own life."
"Well, he didn't succeed, did he?" remarked the first man.
"He succeeded well enough to save himself from the hangman."
"But the magistrate gave him over to the Seekers. How long do you think prisoners survive in the Eternal Dungeon?"
The woman in the beaded gown gave a dramatic shiver. "Oh, please, let's not talk of such things."
"De Vere told me that, when the son wasn't sentenced to a hanging, his father was furious," said the woman with the mirror. "And he was only satisfied when he learned that the son would be handed over to the hooded Seekers to be tortured for the remainder of his life."
"Let's hope his life was short, then," said the woman in the red gown, who was now dabbing at the corners of her eyes with her handkerchief. "Poor boy. That he should have been driven to such a terrible deed by so cruel a father . . ." She glared in the direction of the man on the bed.
"Really, you know," said the second man, "I'm not at all sure we should have come here today. He doesn't deserve our presence." He turned to take another glass of champagne from one of the passing servants.
Yeslin, putting aside the champagne glass he had picked up from the floor, took a step toward the speakers, and then felt his body yanked back with a painful jerk. Twisting his body to look, he saw that he had been hauled back by Harden Pevsner.
Mr. Pevsner was proof against the saying that face reveals character. He had bland blue eyes, and hair the color of wheat in sunlight. In this respect, he looked very much like his brother.
His hand was tight upon Yeslin's arm, though, as he hissed, "If you cannot keep from glaring at the guests, you ought not to be here."
"But they're telling lies about him!" Yeslin whispered back. "And they're dancing and laughing. . . ."
Mr. Pevsner's grip bit down yet harder as he gave a thin smile at the red-gowned woman, who was now staring with curiosity at the nearby scene. Pulling Yeslin away from the crowd, toward the western window, he waited until they were beyond hearing of the men and women before saying in a soft voice, "The death vigil is intended to give a dying person the opportunity to see his friends and neighbors for a final time – not in mourning, which would be inappropriate for a man facing his rebirth, but visiting in joy in order to remind him of the transformation he will soon undergo. I know that this is hard for you to understand, since you do not have such customs where you come from."
The words, which would have been a gentle reproof if spoken by Mr. Pevsner's brother, were voiced like a falling lash. Yeslin felt himself grow cold. He had forgotten how important it was – so very important – not to act in any way that reminded Mr. Pevsner that he did not belong in this room, but instead should be outside on the streets, where the singing continued.
¶ Available as an e-book (HTML, PDF, Kindle, ePub), with an online sample: Twists and Turns.