"Sometimes Layle wondered why, in the names of all the minor deities, he had chosen a love-mate who kept him continually off-balance, rather than the helpless, compliant victim he had so often dreamed about."
Death lurks everywhere in the Eternal Dungeon . . . even in a torturer's bedroom.
Trained as a young man to execute prisoners by entering their bodies, Layle Smith remains a danger to others, even after he moves to a more civilized dungeon, with strict rules on the treatment of prisoners.
Unfortunately, he's unable to convince a former prisoner of that fact. Faced with an adoring, oblivious love-mate, Layle Smith must decide whether he can hold back his dark desire, or whether he should give in to that desire . . . for his love-mate's sake.
This novelette can be read on its own or as the fourth story in the "Balance" 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.
Layle Smith caught his breath. He always caught his breath when Elsdon Taylor knelt in front of him, as the young man was wont to do at the most unexpected moments, probably because he enjoyed seeing Layle caught off-guard. Sometimes Layle wondered why, in the names of all the minor deities, he had chosen a love-mate who kept him continually off-balance, rather than the helpless, compliant victim he had so often dreamed about.
Then Elsdon would smile up at him, his eyes simultaneously filled with gentleness and wisdom, and Layle would remember.
"What is this?" Layle asked, trying to sound as commanding as a man who held the title of High Seeker ought to sound, though he very much doubted that his love-mate was fooled. Elsdon was a Seeker as well.
"My present," said Elsdon. "Did you think I'd forgotten?"
Layle, sitting in his usual armchair as he tried to finish reading a tall stack of guards' reports on the table beside him, looked down at where Elsdon knelt at his feet. Between his legs, in actual fact, a space which by all rights Elsdon should not have been able to reach without Layle noticing. Layle would have been long dead if he had been that careless with a prisoner. "Never forget that most of the prisoners in this dungeon believe that their only road to escape lies in killing you." He had told that to dozens of Seekers-in-Training over the years, including the young man kneeling before him.
When had he become so complacent to Elsdon's presence that his love-mate could take him unawares like this?
He cleared his throat. "I don't see any gift."
A dimple appeared in Elsdon's cheek. "Yes, you do."
Layle reflected to himself that Elsdon was showing unusual mercy by remaining clothed during this speech. Of course, that could be because he knew how much the High Seeker enjoyed ordering him to strip. Layle sighed and rubbed his eyes. He had not only become complacent; the pattern between him and Elsdon had become so predictable that his love-mate could plan the next move without awaiting Layle's word.
And that, he feared, was precisely what Elsdon was trying to point out to him.
He tried to stall. "Our fifth anniversary was three months ago."
"The fourth month of 355 is when we met. The seventh month is when we became love-mates."
He made a quick calculation in his head – a very quick calculation, for those early days were imprinted in his mind like gold upon scrollwork. "Then our anniversary was three days ago. That's when we first kissed."
"That was before I discovered what sort of dreamings you had about me. And when I did—"
"You quite sensibly broke matters off between us rather than risk being bedded by a sadist." He heard the harshness in his voice. After all this time, he still could not believe that Elsdon had made a wise choice in selecting him as a love-mate.
"And even more sensibly mended matters with you the next day." Elsdon sounded as blithe as he always did when discussing that decision.
"Which means yesterday was our anniversary." He strove to keep control of the conversation. The gods alone knew why; he had never won any battle that Elsdon set out to win.
He looked round the small Seekers' cell that he and Elsdon shared. All about him, he noticed for the first time in many months, were signs that he did not live alone. On a nearby table lay a technical manual on the workings of steam engines, the sort of information which made Layle's mind spin but which Elsdon happily gobbled up in his few spare moments. Nearby was a report by Elsdon about his latest prisoner, carefully composed in his school-neat handwriting. And over the bed-rail in the adjoining room lay Elsdon's hood.
Seekers never removed their hoods except when they were about to bathe or go to bed. They might raise the face-cloth of their hoods when they were in private, but the complete removal of a hood was reserved for bathtime and bedtime. For much of the year, Layle found the mere removal of Elsdon's hood to be an extremely erotic act.
And yet Elsdon had removed his hood without Layle even noticing it. And Elsdon could not have failed to miss the fact that Layle had not noticed it.
Layle rubbed his eyes again. This was beginning to look very bad.
¶ Available as an e-book (HTML, PDF, Kindle, ePub): Death Watch.