Falling from a great height was not how Irik Thijis expected to die.
Given his chosen profession, a sudden pistol shot to the head had seemed more likely. It certainly held far greater appeal. A loud bang, then blackness. It was dignified. Humane. Even a belly full of lead and a few minutes bleeding out would have been preferable to this.
With people, there was always a way out. Always a chance of survival, no matter how slim. Men had second thoughts. Guns jammed. Backup arrived. Your reflexes surprised you.
But there was no talking your way out of a one-night stand with gravity. Gravity’s kind of a bastard that way.
The wind of his passing whipped at his face, freezing his cheeks and bringing tears to his eyes. The tails of his dinner jacket snapped and fluttered like flags caught in a gale. If he’d been slightly less terrified, he might have managed to vomit. Perhaps it would have choked him to death before he hit. It occurred to him, as he fell, that there was something unaccountably unfair about having several seconds to contemplate the absolute inevitability of his demise before painting the rocks below with his vital organs. Five seconds is a lifetime when you’ve been thrown off the tip of Oridos.
Of old the Oridosi peninsula was called Nepthun’s Spear, after one of the old pagan gods, for the way it jutted into the sea like a lance. Its point, crowned by abandoned ruins, stood out as a promontory, an aerie five hundred feet or more above the Inner Sea, with a view rivaled only by the unreachable peaks of the Pillars of the Gods. Thijis had never truly appreciated it.
Sunslight shimmered silver on the waves below. Even past the buffeting air, he could hear the cries of gulls out over the water.
Beautiful, he thought.
It’s strange what passes through the mind in the moments before death.
And so he fell, deciding in the final moments to simply accept it, wondering only what Dalia would think if she could see him now.
In the end, there was no pain. Only a flash of golden light, a feeling like floating, and then nothing. Not so bad after all.
* * *
He tasted brine and bile. He was choking on it, in fact. Perhaps he’d vomited after all. Strange, because he didn’t think the dead had a sense of taste. His head hurt.
There was an incredible, rib-straining pressure on his chest, and then he felt the brine and bile rise and he was vomiting, and he rolled over to press his face into the uncomfortable ground and coughed painfully.
He opened eyes that felt a hundred years old and stared at the pale light of the sky, which was blocked by a dark silhouette that loomed over him like an angel of judgment.
“I’m dead,” said Thijis.
“Not yet,” said the shadow, its voice low and deep. He felt his eyelid peeled back, and a sharp pinch in his neck, and then he died again.
His last thought was to wonder how he could die if he was already dead.
* * *
The chamber he woke up in was something from another age. The walls were cut stone, charcoal grey, smooth but not polished. Even upon first glance, it looked like nothing so much as a jail cell—except the heavy, iron-strapped wooden door stood open, a dim light filtering in from whatever lay beyond. He lay on a small wooden cot. Someone had undressed him.
Putting a hand to his head, Thijis sat up, groaning. It felt like he’d spent the last night and day drinking hard liquor on an empty stomach. He sat up to find a clean change of clothes on a simple chair by his bedside. Next to it was a pitcher of cool water, which he gulped like a dying man.
The worst of the pain in his head faded after he got up and drank more water, but his brain felt in a fog. They threw me off. The memory was a shock, stark and raw: the impossible view as they brought him to edge and pushed, the way the world spun and swallowed him. His heart beat faster in his chest. He felt close to panic. It was too much. Too much had happened, too fast.
For once, for now, he didn’t want answers. He just wanted to breathe. To drink water. To explore the place he found himself in. Thinking about what he’d just been through was too hard. Just a few minutes to breathe. To be alive. No questions.
When he’d reached some semblance of normality, he took one list drink of water, this time using the metal cup that had been provided, and went in search of his host.
He did indeed appear to be in some kind of dungeon. The cell let out into an open area lined with similar cells. The heavy, larger door that served as an exit from the dungeon also stood open.
A few minutes of poking around revealed a spiral staircase leading up. The building he was in seemed to be some kind of castle; the walls were all constructed of the same smooth, closely joined granite as the cell, and after several turns up the staircase arrow slits began to appear in the curved walls. Thijis stopped at the first and peered out.
The wall was at least three feet thick, but through the slit’s narrow opening he could see the glimmer of morning sunlight on water, far below. Briny air wafted in, a pleasant smell, belying the dizzying height, and he could hear gulls crying. He was somewhere on the shore of the Inner Sea, then, which was hardly surprising. The question was where? No place he was familiar with. Even from the scant parts of it he’d already seen, the castle was obviously a large, imposing structure, and off hand couldn’t think of any locations like it anywhere near the city. Even allowing for some amount of drift, falling off the point, how far could have gotten?
He stopped himself before he started thinking about the fall itself again, focusing on climbing the steps.
He was beginning to think the castle was uninhabited and that he’d been saved by benevolent spirits when he heard a polite cough behind him. Thijis whirled to discover a tall, neatly dressed man looking at him with is hands clasped behind his back. He reminded Thijis of Jantis, if without the undertone of malice.
They were standing in an open hall, which seemed to serve as a foyer of some sort: archways and doors led off from ever wall, and a large set of double wooden doors appeared to be an exit. The front entrance, perhaps? He had no idea. He’d gotten turned around, literally, in the staircase, and had been looking for a window when he realized he wasn’t alone.
“Good morning, sir,” said the man. “I’ve prepared you some breakfast. If you’ll follow me.”
Thijis blinked, but the man didn’t wait for him to reply. He turned and walked out of the hall through the archway opposite the large doors, forcing Thijis to follow him.
Thijis followed him. You seem to be allowing a lot of dapper butlers to lead you by the nose lately, Irik. Hopefully this one would be friendlier than Jantis.
He led him through a great hall and into a smaller dining room behind it, pulling out a chair. The room was far cozier than the rest of the fortress, which so far seemed to possess little decoration beyond tapestries and the occasional set of crossed polearms adorning the stone walls. The table was polished to a gleaming shine, and a fire had been lit in the fireplace, which dominated the back wall of the room. The mantle was a plinth held up by wyverns carved in black marble; Thijis could easily have walked into the hearth itself.
“I am Caerans, by the way,” said the butler. “And this is Castle Lorck.”
Thijis tripped on the edge of the Coran carpet that warmed the floor beneath the dining table. “Castle Lorck?”
Every boy who’d grown up running the streets and alleys of the Warrens knew of Castle Lorck. The place was infamous, the setting for a thousand ghost tales and adventure stories, most of which were as bloody as they were lascivious. A lonely black castle, perched on the cliffs created by a small offshoot of the mountains the Oridosi called the Pillars of the Gods. The range cut across Westalen from east to west in one massive sweep, all but blocking off access to the northern part of the continent, while two smaller branches ran roughly south, enclosing Oridos and the Inner Sea in a protective wall that had not been breached since the Khorye Pass collapsed. The castle sat at the tip of the lesser of those southern branches, looking out over the Inner Sea like a sentinel. He’d thought it more legend than reality. Oh, the place was real enough—enough sailors had confirmed seeing its towers from the water to make it more than a fairy tale, but despite its usefulness as fodder for the pulps most intelligent Oridosi presumed it was ruin.
Certainly no one Thijis had ever met had made climb to reach the place and returned to speak of it. He wondered, suddenly, if that was because no one had bothered, or because something had happened to them when they got there.
Caerans nodded. “My master bids me apologize for your accommodations, but he insisted that your safety was paramount. Hence, the dungeon.”
I spent the night in the dungeon of Castle Lorck. Thijis cleared his throat and managed a response. “Don’t worry, it’s not the first time I’ve slept off a bad night in a cell.”
Caerans smiled thinly. “If you’ll be seated, sir, I’ll see about that breakfast.”
After a surprisingly satisfying meal of eggs, sausages, and fruit that seemed far too fresh for the season, Caerans led him to a small study lined with bookshelves and told him that his master would be another few hours.
Thijis hesitated. “A few hours?”
As much as he wanted to meet the man who’d saved his life, the hard truth was that he’d already wasted enough time. There were people back in the city counting on him—or at least expecting something from him—and the longer he was awake, the angrier he was getting.
It was hard to be pissed off when you were falling through the air to a certain death. It was equally hard to be pissed off, it seemed, when you’d just woken up after not expecting to. Apparently fury blossomed best after a large breakfast.
“I have things to see to in the city.”
“Of course, sir,” said Caerans. “And you are free to leave whenever you wish. But my master is very eager to speak with you. I know that he would appreciate it greatly if you would stay a little while longer. In my experience, his assistance is always beneficial.”
It hadn’t even occurred to Thijis that he wasn’t free to leave, despite waking up in a cell. Who would save his life only to keep him locked up in a castle? But Caerans spoke as if it were an issue requiring clarification.
“Who said I needed assistance?” asked Thijis. The thin man only smiled.
* * *
The man who saved his life was tall and broad, the type of man he expected to see standing behind the Lord Protector in ceremonial armor during a public address. His hair was unfashionably long, Elimannen black shot through with silver, and he wore a style of suit out of fashion by at least two decades. Nonetheless he was imposing, and impressive, and the ice blue eyes that peered out of his hardened face pinned Thijis to his armchair like crossbow bolts.
He’d been reading a book, the first volume of a complete set of Herud’s Histories, which in his experience one only found in either the Protector’s library or the collection of a very wealthy, very persistent aristocrat.
His host had managed to open the door to the room, come in, and close it all without a sound, which is how Thijis found him looming on the other side of the study, watching him read.
He shot up straight, sticking a finger in the book to mark his place before realizing he wouldn’t be doing anymore reading. He cleared his throat.
“You have me at a disadvantage, sir,” said Thijis. “Not only have you saved my life, but I don’t even know your name.” He had asked Caerans, the butler, of course, but the man had told him that his master would undoubtedly prefer to introduce himself personally. Butlers seemed to have a talent from being cryptic.
“I do,” said his host, his voice a deep baritone, “and you don’t. Some would call that an advantage, in your position.”
Thijis looked at him quizzically, and was about to ask what he meant when the man waved him off.
“Forgive me,” said his host. “I am an old man, and unaccustomed to guests.” He stepped forward and offered his hand. Thijis took it; his grip felt like clasping an oak branch.
“My name is Farran Kantaris,” he said. “And you are Irik Thijis.”
Thijis couldn’t help a slight hitch in his handshake at hearing that he was known to the man. There were only so many explanations for why his host—as he’d been optimistically thinking of him—would know his name, and none of them struck him as good.
Thijis had never heard the name Farran Kantaris, nor was he familiar with the man’s face. And it was not a face he would forget, particularly given how imposing the rest of him was. It didn’t seem likely that Kantaris knew of him by reputation, and as Thijis was carrying no identification that left the possibility that someone had informed him of who he was.
“I have…uncommon sources of information, Mr. Thijis,” said Kantaris. “Don’t be too worried.” Kantaris released his hand and took a seat across from him in an identical leather armchair, graceful and at ease despite his imposing bulk. “Please, sit down.”
Thijis sat down, a spike of anxiety warring with a strange feeling he couldn’t identify. After a moment, he laughed. Kantaris raised an eyebrow.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that I’m supposed to be the detective. And lately I haven’t been detecting shit.”
Kantaris smiled wanly. “In my experience, the art of detection is nine parts tenacity and one part luck.”
Thijis cocked his head, resigned. “Most would say I’ve got the first part down. As for luck—” He spread his hands.
“Luck is just being in the right place at the right time. It’s not immune to influence,” said Kantaris.
“You’re in the trade?” Thijis asked, knowing full well Kantaris was not. Not in Oridos, anyway.
“In a manner of speaking,” said Kantaris. “But my story is not the most pressing one before us. And I’m sure you’d rather I tell you why you are here.”
“I assumed you were taking a relaxing walk on the beach when you saw a devastatingly handsome consulting detective fall from the sky, and decided you had to save him.”
Kantaris smiled again. “Your wit doesn’t disappoint, Mr Thijis. And I might have done just that, were I of the type to take relaxing walks. But sadly, I have little time or inclination for such things. No, I saved your life because I’ve invested far too much time and energy in you to let you come to such an ignominious end.”
“I thought it quite a dramatic end, actually,” said Thijis. “But what do you mean, invested? Do we know each other?”
“No,” said Kantaris. “We don’t know each other. But I know you, Mr. Thijis. I’ve been watching you for quite some time.”