"He was weaponless. Or rather, not quite weaponless, for he knew what he was capable of doing with his body, but he bore no blade, nor any whip, nor any lead pipe with which to stun his victim, nor any rope with which to strangle the victim . . . The number of potential weapons he had deliberately laid aside was frighteningly high."
No weapons, no allies, and no guarantees that he will survive the test.
A killer has arrived at the palace of the Queendom of Yclau, ready to make an offer that the Queen may not be able to refuse. But this is a killer with a difference. For the young foreigner who struggles to fetter his own darkness is about to enter the queendom's Eternal Dungeon, where idealistic torturers strive to transform the hearts of their prisoners. Surrounded by great-spirited men who are determined to put him to the test, the young foreigner may be the only man who can recognize the flaws in the dungeon's ethical code.
This novella can be read on its own or as a prequel to 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.
"If you ever meet our King . . ." Master Aeden had once said.
"Yes?" he had prompted impatiently. Patience came hard to him in those early days.
Master Aeden, who had been whetting his blade, gave him a level look. "Crawl on your belly," the master torturer had said flatly. "If you're lucky, you'll survive the encounter."
Layle Smith had laughed in response. He had laughed routinely in those days to any threat of danger. Now, standing in the vestibule of the King's enemy, the Queen of Yclau, he felt his stomach clench over and over, as though Master Aeden had forced boiling water down his throat. Again.
He was weaponless. Or rather, not quite weaponless, for he knew what he was capable of doing with his body, but he bore no blade, nor any whip, nor any lead pipe with which to stun his victim, nor any rope with which to strangle the victim . . . The number of potential weapons he had deliberately laid aside was frighteningly high. He fingered the book hidden in his cloak pocket, wondering how the torturers who had written it managed to break prisoners while demonstrating such unusual restraint.
Nearby, the Queen's guards eyed him uneasily. He was used to that. He had never met a man – nor a woman, for that matter – who did not fear him within a short time of meeting him. He had the aura of the High Master of hell, Master Aeden had once said, only half mocking. Layle had felt complimented at the time. Now he wished that he had a more innocent look, for the cold fearsomeness and sly intimacy he had used to bring himself to this point had encountered an unexpected barrier.
"I will not be moved," said the man sitting at the table in front of him.
The man was middle-aged, but he looked much like the elderly High Master of what had recently come to be called the Hidden Dungeon: he had the expression of a man who has seen everything and trusts no one. His eyes barely touched Layle's as he said, "You have managed to bribe and bluster and seduce and threaten and terrify your way past a dozen sets of guards in your quest to see our Queen. Those methods will not work with me."
He winced inwardly at the man's slight emphasis on the word "our." He had a good ear for accents and had never forgotten how his Yclau mother spoke – how he himself had spoken in his early childhood, before his mother died and he was left to make his own path in the Kingdom of Vovim. He had made good use of that accent ever since his arrival in the Queendom of Yclau, passing himself off as the son of an Yclau gentlewoman. Since his mother had in fact been an Yclau gentlewoman until she was abducted to Vovim by Layle's father, this was not a hard act to play.
The Queen's secretary, still not deigning to look Layle straight in the eye, picked up a pen and said reflectively, "You are rather young to be assigned the role of an assassin. I assume that you instead have some private grievance against the Queen, which you wish to air to her ear?"
Layle's dark humor took hold of him then; he just managed to keep from laughing at the idea that he was too young to murder. "I wish only to petition her, sir. I know that she is very busy with more important business, and I would not ask for a minute or two of her time if the matter were not so urgent—"
"Take him away." The secretary gestured with one hand while beginning to write with the other. "And if he re-enters the palace grounds again, I'll have Colonel Cartwright court-martial every guard in this palace."
The two guards came toward him, but slowly, reluctantly, with their hands gripping the hilts of their ceremonial swords. Layle waited until they were too close to be able to easily release their swords; then he stomped on the foot of one of them and punched the other one in the stomach. Amidst the howls of pain, he slipped free, as easily as a fish, and ran toward the Queen's door.
He had just reached the door when he heard a click behind him. He froze, recognizing the sound. Then he turned his head slowly in the direction of the click.
The secretary was standing now, both arms outstretched as he gripped a pistol that was levelled at Layle's head. "The Queen's guards may be fools," he said, "but I am not. Lie down on your belly."
Within three minutes, Layle had been stripped of all his clothes. He remained on his stomach, his fingers interlaced behind his head as he had been instructed, while the secretary and the Queen's guards discussed what they had found in his clothing. He was spending the time trying to figure out how best to extract himself from this situation. If this had happened only a month ago, the solution would have been easy: both the guards and the secretary would be dead by now. But he dared not kill, nor even maim the men.
No matter how much pleasure that would give him.
He was still contemplating this thought, and was wishing that he had developed ways over the years to disable men in a relatively harmless manner, when he heard a voice, frigid with disapproval, say, "What is going on here?"
He lifted his head cautiously. He could not see the new arrival, for the secretary, perhaps seeking to shield the arrival's modesty, had stepped forward to block the view. His back was now to Layle. The guards, frowning with concern, hurried over to their prisoner. One put his boot hard upon Layle's back, the other his blade against the back of Layle's neck.
A moment later, the first guard was lying on the floor writhing, while the second was staring with disbelief at his hand, which was dripping blood from his own sword. Layle, who was already regretting his precipitate action, ignored the secretary's pistol, which was ground against his temple. Kneeling down, he laid the guard's sword at the arrival's feet.
"Madam," he said, bowing his head to the Queen of Yclau, "might I beg your graciousness to spare a minute or two of your time?"
¶ Available as online fiction and as an e-book (HTML, PDF, Kindle, ePub): The Unanswered Question.