Barbarians (The Eternal Dungeon)
"With a movement too quick to see, the master torturer used his whip to send the prisoner to his knees. 'Crawl,' he said in the flat voice a man might use toward a stubborn animal."
Vovim was renowned for its strong monarchy, for its love of the theater, and for its skill in the art of torture. In other words, it had all the qualities needed to become a civilized nation. But would anyone be willing to defy Vovim's tyrannical king? And if they did, would they survive?
Grieving over an acrimonious departure from his love-mate, a youthful ambassador from the neighboring nation of Yclau has come to Vovim on a mission to help that barbaric kingdom's prisoners. But he faces unexpected barriers: An insane young king. The king's effeminate companion, who holds his own plans for the ambassador. And a populace whose greatest wish, it seems, is to see the ambassador die during a theatrical performance.
Then arrives the only Vovimian who seems to have a shred of sanity to him. But this man is a skilled torturer, and he is hiding depths that even the ambassador may not be able to penetrate.
This novella can be read on its own or as the second 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.
Though the Code forbade Seekers all private belongings, long-standing custom permitted them a small allowance for luxuries. The High Seeker, being Vovimian-born, spent most of his allowance on books and art, and one evening in autumn, while the rain beat upon the crystalline rock that shed the only light into the underground Eternal Dungeon, the High Seeker had shown Elsdon Taylor an etching of a Vovimian theater company in performance. For the next two hours, Elsdon had listened with fascination to the talk of stage scenery and costumes, of introductory mimes and dramatic dialogues, of divisions into acts, of conflicts, climaxes, and finales, and (since this was, after all, a Vovimian theater) of bloody corpses on the stage afterwards, and of the theater companies' decision whether to fake the deaths or use criminal volunteers who had decided to let their execution be a final act of theater.
"But don't the condemned criminals panic at the last moment and spoil the show?" Elsdon had asked.
The High Seeker had bestowed upon Elsdon that look he often gave when they were discussing his native land, as though a lifetime of words could not complete Elsdon's education in this matter. All he said, though, was, "Not in Vovim."
Elsdon had spent the following night dreaming that he was watching a play in Vovim, performed by the world's finest players. For the next few weeks, his thoughts had lingered upon the regret that he would never have the opportunity to watch a Vovimian theater performance – not unless luck turned his way.
Luck, unfortunately, had turned his way. Amidst all his past dreamings, it had not occurred to Elsdon that he might take part in the performance himself, and that he would play the role of the criminal.
It was perhaps not surprising to learn that the King's palace was equipped with a theater, nor that the theater was located directly across the hallway from the throne room. Nor was it particularly surprising to learn that all of the courtiers and palace guests who had been milling about in the hallway, waiting for the King to emerge from his private audience with his High Master, were delighted to accept the King's invitation to enjoy the performance. They crowded into the vast theater, jostled their way into cramped rows, and stood on benches at the back and sides of the theater in order to get their best glimpse of the stage.
The stage itself had been stripped to the bare minimum, making a striking contrast with the fripperies and frills that usually adorned a royal performance. At Master Toler's orders, the only scenery left on the stage was a blood-red curtain, which would make for an arresting contrast with both the master torturer's uniform and the prisoner's lack of clothes. The middle part of the curtain had been pulled up to reveal the naked stone wall behind, and here a wooden post had been fastened to the stage floor. Attached to it halfway up was a set of iron chains, which sparkled under the lamps. The other lamps in the room shone their light on the stage, or on the narrow walkway leading from the theater door to the stage.
Elsdon made his entrance down this walkway. He was not permitted to walk.
"Crawl," said Master Toler.
¶ Available as an e-book (HTML, PDF, Kindle, ePub): Barbarians.