Mercy's Prisoner #1
The year 385, the third month. (The year 1890 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
Against themselves men may be violent,
And their own lives or their own goods destroy;
So they in the second ring in vain repent
Who rob themselves of [this] world, or make a toy
Of fortune, gambling and wasting away their purse,
And turn to weeping what was meant for joy.
—Dante: Inferno XI:40-45 (translated by Dorothy L. Sayers).
The magistrate who sentenced me to Mercy Life Prison told me, "We are not barbarians. You have committed a vile and savage act, one that any other nation would punish with death. Our punishment, on the other hand, will only be to give you what you want. You have sought to live in a world without boundaries of civilization, and such a world shall henceforth be your dwelling place. The place you are being sent to has no boundaries but death, and you will not be permitted to travel that far except in the natural manner. Other than that, you will find yourself in a society with no rules, no restrictions, no restraints. And soon you will come to discover that a lack of boundaries can mean only one thing: pain, pain, and unending pain."
I was foolish enough to disbelieve him.
On the tenth anniversary of my arrival at Mercy Prison, I lay beneath my guard, trying to make my mind dwell on thoughts other than what he was doing to me.
It was not difficult. Of all the Mercy guards who had watched over me in this place, Avery was undoubtedly the most merciful. He disliked the sight of blood – not many guards could say that – and was disdainful of the guards whose idea of entertainment was forcing their charges to undertake humiliating and degrading acts. Avery's only desire was for a quick, hard fuck, and thanks to his queasiness about blood, the pain was minimal enough that I could usually put my mind to other matters while he was with me. It was the most pleasant time I'd had with a guard since my arrival at Mercy Prison, and I found myself wishing that it could last. But of course I knew that it wouldn't.
And indeed, Avery was now sighing as he withdrew, saying, "Ah, that was nice. You're a good one, Merrick; I'm sorry this won't happen again." He gave me a slap on my ass in token of his gratitude.
I didn't stir. When I had first arrived here, a guard touching me on the cheek had stirred me into a frenzy of self-defense; now it would take a beating with the leaded whip before I would emit a note of protest. Instead, I merely opened my eyes and said, "I'm to have a new guard, then?"
"A guard all to yourself – lucky you." Avery gave me a grin as he pulled on his trousers. "If you were assigned to Compassion Life Prison, you'd be serviced each night by every guard on your level, if the rumors I hear about that place are true. We're a bit more gentlemanly here at Mercy."
"Everything is relative," I agreed. There is a division of opinion among the prisoners of Mercy as to whether it is better to cooperate with your guard or defy him. I've tried both methods and haven't seen that it makes any difference one way or the other; the guards get what they want in the end, either way. But I prefer the guards who like to pretend that their prisoners are whores who deserve fair payment for their services. Those guards are usually willing to offer valuable news to their prisoners.
Knowledge of the arrival of a new guard was certainly valuable news. There had been times I wasn't aware that a transfer had taken place until I woke to find myself choking upon a strange cock.
Avery – who had always been polite enough to wake me before starting proceedings – stretched his arms a moment before pulling on his shirt. Like most of the guards, he was a big man, outweighing me and every other prisoner on this level. I'd tested his strength only once, when we first met, and that had been in an attempt to goad him into stabbing me. He had done nothing more than to knock me unconscious with the hilt of his dagger. When I awoke a minute later with an aching head, he had laughed and helped me to my feet, telling me that I wouldn't escape Mercy Prison that easily.
He had always been an amiable guard. Now he smiled at me and said, "Those sadists over at Compassion are hardly better than the bog-scum they guard. The few times I've visited there, I've had a hard time telling which was which, the guards or the prisoners."
I was tired of being told by the guards that I was fortunate to be assigned to Mercy. Moving my eyes to watch Avery strap on the heavy belt holding his whip and his dagger – I'd once tried to steal a guard's dagger and had received a broken wrist to mark that occasion – I asked, "Why the transfer?"
Avery's smile dropped away. He looked down at the belt he was adjusting. "My request. I wanted shorter hours; I've been having troubles at home with my youngest."
I would have laughed if I hadn't known the dangers. He had troubles? I had nothing but contempt for guards who whined on about their domestic problems, while surrounded by life prisoners who knew that death was the only mercy they would ever receive. I turned my head, which had been resting upon my forearms, and rubbed the incipient smile from my face before saying, "Who's the new guard? Anyone I know?"
Avery paused in the midst of buttoning up his vest. He looked at me with that searching look he had given me during the first week of our acquaintance, before he had become certain of how I would behave. In a voice I could not read, he said, "I doubt it. He's from Compassion."
It is never truly silent at Mercy. Even late at night you can hear the sounds of groans and screams. Now, in early morning, Mercy was a cacophony of sound: prisoners shouting to each other from their cells; guards ordering them to be quiet or joining the conversation, as the mood took them; the clang of metal from cell doors opening and the hiss of fire from the central pit. In this cell, where the inner door was closed, the air was dark and chill, and I felt pinpricks cover my back.
Hoping that my voice was as unrevealing as Avery's, I said, "One of the sadists?"
"I assume so." Avery was avoiding my eye now. He had finished donning his jacket and was now carrying out an inspection of my cell for forbidden items. "He got into some sort of trouble at Compassion. I don't know the details, but apparently it took the intervention of Compassion's Keeper himself to keep this guard from being released from his service. Instead, they're giving him a second chance by sending him here. Perhaps they think the influence of more civilized guards will tame him." He snorted.
"Unlikely," I said. My heart was pounding harder than a whip now, and I had to bury my face within my arms in the hope that Avery wouldn't see the expression there. With only my eyes visible, I made the muffled comment, "You'd think they'd assign him in accordance with which prisoner deserved him most."
Avery straightened up from where he had been crouching, looking under my blankets in the corner. His eyes travelled back to me, lying naked upon the hard bed, with only one bruise upon my shoulder to mark his taking of me. In a chill voice such as he had never used toward me before, he said, "They undoubtedly did."
And then he was gone, slamming the outer door shut on his way. That was the last I ever saw of Avery.
It took me a moment to stir myself. As always, Avery had left the solid inner door open, and through the bars of the outer door came puffs of smoke from the central fire-pit that provided the only warmth in this dark, frigid place. A guard, striding down past the cells, glanced into mine and made a lewd remark, then walked on without breaking stride. I ignored him, as I ignored the sound of trickling water in my cell; my mind was on weightier subjects.
I lay for a while like that, bare-skinned. In my first year at Mercy I caught five colds, but one becomes used to the temperature, especially when one is kept stripped half the time. After several minutes I got up. Trying to ignore the ache in my ass, I dressed myself in my striped, rough-fabric prison uniform and sat down in the middle of the floor, with my back to the doors. It was the closest I could come to privacy, since the solid inner door was always left open except when a guard desired privacy with his prisoner. I let my eyes travel over the familiar surroundings.
The cell was the shape of a slim trapezoid, with the broad expanse of part of the prison's outer wall before me and the narrow entrance into the round fire-pit area behind me. On this level of Mercy, as on the four levels above, all of the cells were located between the circular outer wall and the level's circular fire-pit, arranged like spokes on an endless wheel. It was the only touch of beauty that Mercy held; all else that I beheld was tedium.
The smooth walls, punctuated only by a slot toward the ceiling of the outer wall. The hard ledge that served as a bed. The two blankets on the bed-shelf; they would seem to be sufficient, if it had not been the case that they also served as my bedding. The covered hole in the corner that served as a combined latrine and rubbish heap. The trickle of water draining from a crack in the ceiling that was too fine for me to see; when I wished to drink, I had to lick the wall. I had tried denying myself food and water once, hoping that no one would notice, but the daily cleaning of my rubbish hole had revealed the food stuffed there. That evening I had learned the more painful methods by which food and water can be inserted into a prisoner.
The water continued to trickle, a pleasant sound. The water eventually made its way down into the hole. One ingenious prisoner I knew had covered the hole entirely and stuffed blankets under the inner door, in hopes that the water would drown him. Of course, the door would not have been closed if his guard had not been present. When the guard awoke to find an inch of water on the floor, he simply removed the cover of the hole and allowed the prisoner to live with the results for the next week.
Most of us at Mercy had tales like that. My last try at self-murder had involved the third of my blankets, painstakingly torn into long shreds, and an attempt to somehow fasten a noose around the slick vertical bars of the outer door. I was noticed while still trying to puzzle the matter out, and I paid accordingly, but even lengthy contemplation of the dilemma during the painful week that followed did not provide me with an answer. For indeed, there was none. As the magistrate had truly told me, there was no escape from life prison except through death, and that would not be granted to us.
Except, perhaps, from a Compassion guard.
I felt the same thrill enter me as had coursed through me at Avery's news. It had been a long time since I had felt hope, and I tried to beat it away, but it kept creeping back. Most of the guards at Mercy were not sadists, alas; they were simply brutish men who liked their pleasure to come easy and who had no qualms about using whatever methods necessary to receive their pleasure. But a guard who truly enjoyed inflicting pain . . . There were rumors among Mercy's prisoners about prisoners at Compassion who had died far short of their allotted term, pushed past the boundaries of life by overeager guards. And it appeared that I was about to receive the services of such a guard. There could be no other explanation for his transfer except that he had violated the single rule placed upon guards of life prisoners: that the prisoners be kept alive.
For the first time in ten years, I had hope that I might escape.
We were late to work that morning. An idiot newbie prisoner had tried to intervene when his guard took a whip to an older prisoner who was working too slowly in chopping wood for the fire-pit. Anyone who had been at Mercy for more than a month could have explained the folly of such intervention, but newbies always convince themselves that they can transform Mercy into a place worthy of its name.
Or almost always convince themselves; I couldn't recall having ever held such delusions myself. I began to fall asleep during the tedium of the public punishment – the rhythmic sound of the whip-crack and the prisoner's sobbing was like a lullaby – but came abruptly awake as a thread of pain travelled across my bare arm. Clutching the line of blood, I looked up to see that the newbie prisoner's guard had bent over the balcony railing and sent down a taste of his whip onto me. He smiled at me as he rolled up his whip. "For old time's sake," he said softly.
I felt a shiver travel through my body – Sedgewick was the only guard who could still do that to me – and then turned my attention toward the guards standing on the ground near the rest of us prisoners. This was an all-level punishment, and I eyed the guards unfamiliar to me, wondering which of them had been assigned to me. That big brute in the corner, nodding with satisfaction as he watched? That tall man nearby, yawning as he tossed dice in his hand? Or, perhaps most dangerous of all, it might be that hard-muscled guard toward the front, watching the proceedings without expression.
There were visitors as well. Mercy's Keeper, who was never seen except on important occasions such as this, had emerged from his quarters along the balcony, bringing along what looked to be family friends: two young girls who were hugging each other about their waists and emitting soft wails, an older woman who kept dabbing at her eyes and declaring to all and sundry that it was a pity such things had to occur, and a young man who was doing the best of the four to remain still and silent.
Beside the young man was a man of about fifty, dressed in uniform, and as I caught sight of his chill eyes I felt as though I had been thrown into the cells below my feet, where prisoners deserving lengthy punishment are kept without benefit of a fire-pit.
I knew who he was, of course. The pictures of the Keepers of the nation's three dozen life prisons were displayed in the hall where we stood, and the prisoners of Mercy often speculated as to whether the personality of Compassion's Keeper matched his looks. It would appear so. A hard smile was travelling now over the Keeper's thin lips, his eyes were narrow under his straight brows, and he had as tight a grip on the young man's shoulder as though he were holding him prisoner. Indeed, I thought sourly, it said enough about Compassion's Keeper that he would bring his family to watch this event.
That left me only with the need to find one more man, and I located him finally, half hidden in the shadows behind the Keeper. His face was wholly concealed by the darkness, but he wore the uniform of a Compassion guard, and as I watched, he carefully and methodically broke a bamboo rod in his hands into a dozen even pieces.
My mouth grew dry as I watched the deliberate destruction. I would have preferred that it be messy. This was a man who would not be easily goaded into losing control; even if I succeeded, it would take time to stir his anger sufficiently. And in the meanwhile . . .
A truncated cry cut off my thoughts. I looked over at the other end of the balcony in time to see the newbie fall slack in his chains. Mercy's Keeper gave a sigh of impatience and gestured to Sedgewick to release the fainting man from his bonds. Around me there was no response from the prisoners but for the faintest sound escaping from the throat of someone beside me. Looking around I saw that the man next to me was the older prisoner who had been defended by the newbie.
I dismissed him from my thoughts. Any prisoner who was fool enough to develop love for another person here – whether that love was friendship or something more – deserved whatever increased agony he endured. The only way to survive the life prisons was to cut oneself off from feeling, as much as was possible. There were even prisoners who, trying to defy the pronouncement that the only escape from Mercy was death, had gone mad. But my judgment, from watching the mad prisoners, was that they suffered no less than the rest of us. No, only death would take me from this place.
I looked back up at the party from Compassion Prison, only to be disappointed. My new guard had disappeared altogether, while the Keeper and his family were in the process of leaving the hall. The mother was now sobbing with pleas of mercy for all prisoners. I noticed that she didn't translate those pleas into any concrete action, like trying to intervene on our behalf. The face of Compassion's Keeper told well enough what he thought of this display. He leaned over and said something to the young man, who was continuing to remain silent. The young man replied something briefly, then turned to offer his mother his arm. They disappeared from the hall.
I barely noticed all this. My gaze was upon the young girls, the first I had seen since my arrival at Mercy ten years before. They were about seven and nine years of age, but with their faces contorted with grief they looked younger. I let my gaze linger in their direction far beyond the time during which I could actually see them.
"Like to get your hands on them, eh, Merrick?"
The comment came from Tyrrell, who lived in the cell next to me. He was accustomed to making remarks like this. I could never be entirely sure whether he was expressing sympathy or beating me over the head with a reminder of my past.
I had never seen any reason to worry myself with speculation over such matters. "Too old for me," I said tersely. "How old's your sister, Tyrrell?"
He went for my throat, the fool. I stayed passive, so that the guards, reaching us quickly, issued their punishment where it was deserved. I grinned, listening to Tyrrell's yelps as I was led away to my day's work. There weren't many pleasures at Mercy, and I savored them all the more when they came.
That afternoon, as it chanced, was showering day.
I had never seen showers before my arrival at Mercy Prison; those were rich men's luxuries. I had wondered upon my arrival what reason, other than lack of space, had caused the designer of the prison to favor shower stalls rather than tubs. I'd also wondered why the stalls had shackles hanging from the wall.
A couple of days later, I discovered the answer to both questions, shortly after I came close to dislocating a guard's jaw during a difference of opinion between us over whether my ass should be free to his use. It was said that some prisoners over the years had died under cold-water treatment. Unfortunately, I wasn't one of them.
Now a reassuring haze of steam was emerging from each stall ahead of us. I dropped my clothes in the enormous pile of dirty clothes that would eventually end up in the laundering room and joined the line of naked prisoners awaiting showers. Anyone who was shy about showing off his body got over it double quick at Mercy Prison.
A few of the prisoners ahead of me were eyeing each other in a meaningful manner. I caught the newbie prisoner, Dorn, glancing back down the queue. I knew that he was probably seeking sight of the older prisoner who cared for him, but I glared at him anyway. He shrank back as though I'd attacked him, then turned to see a guard beckoning him into a free stall. Dorn gulped visibly.
It said something about Mercy, I reflected to myself as Dorn reluctantly walked forward, that they would force a prisoner into a steaming shower on the very day that his back had been ripped raw with a whip. I could guess, though, that the shower wasn't what was worrying him most.
Sedgewick, sitting in a leisurely manner on the guards' stool just outside the stall, smiled at his prisoner as Dorn approached. Dorn gulped again, but forced himself to enter the stall. The guard put his hand out in an apparent attempt to position Dorn properly under the nozzle. It appeared that the positioning required him to run his hand over the lower half of Dorn's body. Dorn made a small sound.
"Two minutes," said Sedgewick. "Make sure your hair is clean. I don't want to feel any lice in it tonight."
It didn't take any imagination to figure out under what circumstances Sedgewick would have his hands in Dorn's hair. Dorn nearly dropped the soap that Sedgewick flicked into his hands. Some of the other prisoners had politely turned their gazes to the other stalls, where less interesting transactions were taking place, such as Tyrrell cheerfully informing his guard, Oslo, that the water was lukewarm. Oslo clipped Tyrrell on the head in a bored manner. Tyrrell merely laughed.
Sedgewick had reached over to fiddle with the gauge regulating the temperature of the water. He paused and smiled at Dorn again. "And make sure you're clean inside," he added softly. "I'll be very angry if you aren't."
From Dorn's yelp as the water started, I guessed that Sedgewick had turned the heat up higher, so as to irritate the wounds on Dorn's back as much as possible. Dorn scrubbed himself with frantic haste. I noticed he followed both of Sedgewick's orders.
Several prisoners in front of me in the queue had been called over to other free stalls. Dorn stumbled out of the shower, sobbing as he pulled his towel around his waist. He was met almost immediately by the older prisoner, who carefully guided him into the line where prisoners who had showered were waiting to be issued clean clothes before being given their weekly shave. I glanced over at Sedgewick to see whether he had noticed this little encounter and found that he was beckoning me.
Cursing the magistrate who had sent me to this prison, I made my path to the shower. Sedgewick seemed uninterested in my arrival; he was fiddling with the gauge again.
When the water came on, I howled so loudly that all of the whispered conversations between the prisoners in the queue came to an abrupt halt. Sedgewick smiled at me. "We're short of hot water today," he said, throwing the soap into my hands. "Do you need help?"
I glared at him, but said nothing. Sedgewick was perfectly capable of manacling me to the shower wall.
Two minutes later I emerged from the shower, covered in goose-pimples and shaking violently. Sedgewick hadn't handed me a towel to dry myself with. Tyrrell, who had been delayed by Oslo's desire to conduct an unneeded body search on him, joined the queue just as I did. He looked me up and down and shook his head. "You could use some warming up," he said. "A good night of play in bed, that's what you need."
I began to tell him what he could do with his bed-play; then I found myself with my back flattened against the floor. Sedgewick's hands tightened around my throat.
"Did I say you could talk on my shift?" he asked. His voice was very cool. "Did I?"
How he expected me to talk when he was squeezing the life out of me, I didn't know. I knew better than to hope that he'd complete the act. Just when I was beginning to see sparks behind my eyes, he let go of my throat. My vision cleared, and I began coughing and gasping hoarsely. Tyrrell was outside my line of sight. He had probably been wise enough to move on.
Sedgewick contemplated me a moment. He was sitting on my stomach like a heavy stone, but I didn't bother to try to throw him off. He had my arms trapped with his knees.
He drew his dagger. "Do you remember," he asked, addressing the dagger, "how I came to work on the second level?"
The fingernail of his free hand scraped my skin delicately as he drew an invisible line across my chest, then another parallel to it, just to the right of my right nipple. Then he drew a third line directly across the first two. The fourth line, parallel to the third, scraped both my nipples.
"We were playing cross-hatch, Rufus and I," Sedgewick said as he drew his pattern. "I was winning. You took it into your head to object to the fact that we were carving lines onto your cell floor. You created such a fuss that a guard, overhearing your shouts, panicked and clanged the riot alarm. Which meant, of course, that our Keeper was awoken from his morning nap."
Sedgewick raised the blade and turned it, so that I could see the edge, honed like a razor. Behind the dagger, his gaze was steady on mine.
"We were demoted," said Sedgewick. "Not because we were gambling in a prisoner's cell. Not because we were drinking on duty. Not because we were smoking. Our Keeper didn't care about any of that. What he cared about was that his morning nap had been disturbed. So we were sent down to second level, and our duty time was tripled."
A smile entered Sedgewick's face slowly, starting with the eyes. "Very clever of you," he said softly, "or it would have been, if you hadn't been so foolish as to get yourself in trouble again, so that you were transferred to the second level soon afterwards."
He lowered the blade to where he had drawn the fourth line. I felt the prick as the point pressed at my right nipple. Over my moan, Sedgewick said, still more softly, "Shall we play cross-hatch together? I'll let you choose which mark I should make first."
Several prisoners walked past us. So did Oslo, who was careful not to look our way. Sedgewick didn't like being disturbed when he was busy with his prisoners, and while I wasn't his prisoner, that made little difference here.
Suddenly Sedgewick's head jerked up, and he glared at something in front of him. I wondered which prisoner or guard had been foolish enough to stop and gape at us. I didn't dare try to look, though; Sedgewick's blade was still pricking my nipple.
After a moment, Sedgewick looked back down at me. He stared at the blade in his hand, as though he were not sure what it was doing there. Then, without a word, he sheathed his blade, got up, and left me lying on the ground.
Tyrrell was the one who pulled me to my feet. I ignored him; I was looking round to see who had been the silent eyewitness to this encounter, other than Tyrrell. Finally I was forced to say, "Oslo?"
Tyrrell gave me an odd look. "New guard," he replied. He opened his mouth to say more, but at that moment Oslo came forward to warn us about the penalties of talking while in a queue.
I shrugged. I'd know soon enough what the meaning of that silent exchange had been.