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Please note that GLBT Bookshelf -- the community wiki which was the parent to this fiction blog -- went offline on May 31, 2016, after seven years' service to members.

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The Unanswered Question (The Eternal Dungeon)

"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.

"This story does a great job of showing how Layle became so important to the Eternal Dungeon, and of giving more insight into his character." —Review of The Unanswered Question (with major spoilers for the first volume of the series, but not for this particular story) by Zoe Cannon at LibraryThing.


With the door safely barred, Layle carried out his usual nightly routine of checking his bedroom for traps and poison. He did not yet know how high the murder rate was between torturers here, and until he knew, he would take no chances. He had been the most talented apprentice to enter the Hidden Dungeon in recent years; all the other youths' hands had been against him, once they had realized that he was a future contender for the position of High Torturer.

Here he would be lucky if the Codifier permitted him to clean the floors, but the other young torturers could not know that. So he searched diligently, but the bedroom was clean of all murderous items, perhaps because it ordinarily served as Mr. Sobel's bedroom. Mr. Sobel himself was spending a night on the sofa in the next room, which he had termed his parlor.

Layle surveyed the bedroom, trying to decide how to spend the next few hours. The Code of Seeking required junior torturers who were assigned to the night shift to be on-duty from the end of dusk shift to the beginning of dawn shift, other than a brief break for a midnight meal. At this time of year, in early autumn, that meant his shift lasted roughly ten hours. A further four hours – the length of the dusk shift and dawn shift combined – were set aside for meals and leisure. That left the junior torturers with a luxurious ten hours in which to sleep.

Layle required only six hours of sleep. Seeking a way to entertain himself, he brought out the Code and began browsing through it. This time he did so with a critical eye, searching for ways in which the Code could be exploited to bring about abuse.

There were many. After a while, Layle sought out a pencil in the room and began making careful notes of how an unscrupulous member of the dungeon – himself, for example – could follow the rules of the Code, yet destroy other members of the dungeon . . . including the prisoners.

He must have fallen asleep in the process. When he slept, he dreamt of his old workplace, and of what he had done there.

He awoke, shivering from cold sweat, just as he was on the point of spurting his whammer. He was so very close . . . but once awake, the image of a battered prisoner was taken from him, and he knew that he was in a place where he could not carry out such deeds.

Not because it was impossible to do so. He knew that now. He knew that he could commit every crime in the Yclau law books and get away with it here. That meant he was more of a danger to this place than he had contemplated upon his arrival.

He fell into fitful sleep again, and this time he dreamt, not of his past prisoners, but of the prisoner awaiting him in the breaking cell. He would find some excuse to send away Mr. Sobel, or else he would find a way to bribe or intimidate the guard; Mr. Sobel, who had arrived here with honor shining upon him, had clearly had his honor gradually stripped from him under the corrosive influence of his fellow workers at the Eternal Dungeon. So Layle would exploit Mr. Sobel's weakening ability to tell right from wrong, would strip the prisoner of his clothes and his defenses, would use all the instruments in the rack room on him, would end with the instrument of his own body . . .

Again he awoke in the moment before he would have spurted. His baubles ached unendurably. Shivering, he knelt down and began building a fire in the grate.

This must not continue. It had happened every night since he had left the Hidden Dungeon, with the result that he had barely received any sleep. To a certain extent, he could offset that with the training he had received to remain clear-headed when called upon to torment a prisoner for many hours. But if this continued, he would soon be falling asleep at his work.

And the dreamings when he was awake were a worse threat. How could he break the rapist of the Queen's niece if he was sucked into a dark dreaming of abuse every time that he contemplated torturing a prisoner?

He sat back on his haunches, watching the flames lick the wood, and remembering that he must wean himself from this comfort, since the torturers' living cells contained no stoves and presumably no fireplaces. The autumn-cool dungeon was considerably warmer than the winter streets he had slept on as a child; he was unlikely to die of pneumonia here, sleeping under the warm blankets.

But the coldness inside him could not be eradicated so easily. He had realized that on his way to the Queen's palace – had realized that he had established habits too deeply rooted to be weeded immediately. Even as he outwardly vowed to remain loyal to the high principles of the Code, the dark desire within him rebelled. And the form that rebellion was taking was unending images of what he had done and what he might do. Dreams when he slept; dreamings when he was awake.

And now temptations to act on those dreamings, having realized how easy it would be to continue his old life here.

"This isn't why I came here," he murmured as he stood up. "If I had wanted to continue serving Hell, I could have stayed in the Hidden Dungeon."

The charcoal glowed red, like the eyes of Hell, watching, waiting.

Since an early age, he had served the High Master of hell – whose name could only be spoken in the presence of the damned – and had been formally dedicated to the god when he reached his journeyman years. Hell was the patron god of all the torturers in the Hidden Dungeon. Layle Smith in particular had reason to be grateful to the torture-god who had granted him such great talents.

And now, by fleeing from his work for Hell's representative, the King of Vovim, Layle had broken his oath of loyalty to the god. It occurred to him that he had not prayed since he had made the decision to leave the Hidden Dungeon. How could he pray to a god he had spurned?

But there were other gods in the world. And staring down at the red eyes of Hell, Layle knew what he must do.

He raised his face and his hands toward heaven, awkwardly, having never taken this position of prayer before. He whispered, "Mercy, I do not deserve your grace—"

And then he stopped. What else, after all, could he say to the goddess Mercy?

He thought hard, for so long that his arms began to ache, but he did not lower them. Finally he added, "I broke my oath of service to your Brother. . . but I believe that you are the one who guided me to this dungeon. If I am wrong, I will accept any punishment you deem proper for my broken oath. But if I am right in believing that you sent me here for your own purposes, please show me how I may serve you."

Yes, that was good; that was a proper petition from someone in his situation. He lowered his arms, feeling relieved. He had thought himself alone in his struggles here, but if Mercy had enticed him away from his work for Hell, then she must have some plan for him. He merely had to figure out what it was.

Available as online fiction and as an e-book (HTML, PDF, Kindle, ePub): The Unanswered Question.

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