“You must be quite the masochist,” said Thijis, feeling more than a little concerned.  “But I’ll have to ask you to explain.”

Kantaris crossed his long legs and leaned back in his chair.  “We have a common interest.  And a mutual acquaintance.”

“Oh?”

“My sister was born Agniah Kantaris, but she married a lord named Hevrany.”

Thijis groaned.  “So that makes you—”

“The Margravine’s uncle,” explained Kantaris.  “Mariel is…she is not what any of us expected.  But she has done quite well for herself.”

“So you’ve been, what, keeping an eye on me for her?  Or do you report to that sniveling butler?”  The words slipped out spitefully, though he wasn’t quite certain why he should be angry at Mother.  She’d offered him a job, he’d accepted.  Not that there had been a world of choice in the matter.

“I’m sorry, Lord Kantaris,” said Thijis.  “I meant no offense.  It’s just that, as you have undoubtedly noticed, I have some reason to regret entering into your lady niece’s employ.”

“None taken,” said the older man.  “My niece and I do not commonly see eye to eye.  If I can get her to listen to me once out of every three times, I consider myself successful.  And make no apologies for Jantis.  The man is a snake.”

Thijis sat back in surprise.  The moment Kantaris had mentioned the name Hevrany, he’d felt sure he’d fallen directly back into Mother’s hands, likely to be called to account for fumbling what should have been a relatively straightforward investigation and walking out despite Jantis’s attempt to detain him.

“To answer your question,” continued Kantaris, “the answer is no.  My interest in you is related to my niece’s…exploits, but she does not run me.”  He put a surprising amount of emphasis on the last part.  “You are aware, then, of Mariel’s…shall we say, nocturnal activities?”

So he doesn’t know everything, thought Thijis.  Outing Mother’s identity could be an incredibly bad idea, but Thijis got the sense that her uncle was already well aware of the Margravine’s alter ego.  He decided to roll the dice.

“If she’s my Mother, does make you my great uncle?”  He smiled thinly.

“It may surprise you to learn,” said Kantaris, returning Thijis’s smile grimly, “that the Margravine does not have events as well in hand as she pretends to.”

“Not that I’d admit as much to her, but the thought had occurred to me,” said Thijis.  “Hiring me was a strange move for the matriarch of organized crime.  Either she has another agenda, or she’s desperate.”  Kantaris nodded once.

“And yet you took the job, knowing that either could mean…”  He trailed off, pursing his lips and looking at Thijis with calculation.  You know where I’m going with this, said the look.

“My quick and unfortunate demise?” Thijis finished.  “Of course.  I’m stupid, but I’m not stupid.”  He spread his hands.  “What can I say?  I needed the money.”  Money he had yet to spend.  The Margravine’s impressive line of credit was whole and untouched; Thijis had yet to collect a thin copper for his troubles.  Which was his own damned fault, of course.  He should have taken out a portion of his fee and set it aside before doing anything else.

“You’re in this line of work for the money?” said Kantaris, deadpan.  Thijis laughed.

“You’ve got me there,” he admitted.  “No, I’m in it for the dazzling social opportunities.”  The old man’s face remained serious, and Thijis cleared his throat.  After a moment, he tried again.

“A soldier fights.  A baker bakes.  I…do this.”  Kantaris seemed to understand, because he nodded.

“ ‘A calling is a need written on the soul,’ ” quoted Kantaris.

“Something like that,” agreed Thijis.  “Nabur had a way with words.”

“That he did,” said Kantaris.  “Not that it saved him in the end.”

Girath Nabur had been a High Prelate of the Church, before the Great Plague that decimated the city of Oridos and the Elimannen Empire.  He’d been murdered under mysterious circumstances.  His death had been one of the sparks that started the great race war.  Appropriate, Thijis thought.  What was Kantaris saying?  Was Thijis fanning a flame of some kind?

“What am I doing here, Lord Kantaris?” asked Thijis.  He was tired of conversation and wordplay, tired of circling around the unknown.  “I would greatly appreciate some answers.”

“Wouldn’t we all,” said the old man.  “And I’d say you’re entitled to them.”  Kantaris rose, straightening his antique suit and staring down at Thijis with those eyes that seemed to glare all of their own accord.

“If you’ll follow me,” he said, “I think we can find some answers together.”

* * *

            Thijis followed him out through the great hall and down the same staircase he’d ascended after waking.  They passed the bank of cells where he’d slept, following the stone hallway deeper into the lower levels of the castle.  He noticed that the floor began to slope downward, almost too gradually to notice, but he was certain by the time they reached the reinforced door at the end of it that they’d descended a good twenty feet or more.

“What did you mean when you said you’d been watching me?” asked Thijis, as Kantaris produced a large key and unlocked the door.

“Exactly what I said,” said the old man, engaging what appeared to be a truly massive steel lock with a heavy click.  “I’ve been watching you.  Studying your movements.  You’ve proven a useful agent, Mr. Thijis.”  The door swung open on well oiled hinges, revealing a landing and more stairs.

“Then I’ll be sure to send you a bill,” snapped Thijis.  That the man was deliberately avoiding answering his questions was obvious, but the fact that he was so blithe about it had begun to chafe.

Kantaris took the stairs confidently, apparently unmoved by Thijis’ annoyance.  He moved with the quickness and agility of a man half his age.  Irik, still sore and, if he were honest, a little disoriented from his fall and subsequent strange waking, had trouble keeping up with him as he flowed down the stairs.  The staircase was built from the same dressed stone as the rest of the castle, but after two full turns about the spiral it became clear that they had descended into the stone of the mountain itself.  Who had built this castle?  Who would go to the trouble of delving such a dungeon in this place?  If Castle Lorck was located where the stories said it was, it had never been an inhabited area.  It was mountains and cliffs and the Inner Sea, two dozen miles or more from the point of Oridos.

Which brought to mind another question: what had Kantaris been doing out by the Oridosi cliffs in the first place?  How had he found him, and how had he brought him back here?  He wasn’t thinking straight, that much was clear.

He was out of breath when he caught up to Kantaris, who had already unlocked an identical, heavy oaken door at the bottom of the staircase.  He replaced the large key in his coat pocket and gestured Thijis inside.  Irik passed him with a glare, unable to keep the growing impatience from his face.  The only reason he wasn’t sure this man had drawn him down here to murder him was because Kantaris had already had ample opportunity to do so.  Or maybe he just likes his victims awake and conscious for the event.

Tolvaj’s men had taken his pistol, and even his pocket knife was lost to the sea.  More importantly, Kantaris looked more than able to handle himself, despite his age, and size like that mattered, even if a man didn’t know how to use it.  Kantaris looked like he did.  Thijis didn’t like his chances if it came to a fight with this man.  Then let your tongue do the work, as always.  Stop bitching and wasting time.

“Why don’t you tell me why I’m down here, Kantaris,” said Irik, scanning the chamber he’d just entered.  It seemed to be a storeroom of some kind: secure-looking cabinets higher than his head lined two walls.  They were solid oak, footed and strapped in iron, with heavy hinges and forged handles made to last for centuries.  The walls across from him were bare but for a series of iron hooks and two work tables.  The walls themselves were the raw rock of the mountain, ground smooth by some ancient hands.  Between the tables was yet another door, just as imposing as the first two.

When Kantaris didn’t respond, Irik took a deep breath, and forced himself to acknowledge the thing he’d been avoiding thinking about.  “There’s no way I could have survived that fall,” he said flatly.

“No,” agreed the old man.  “Not by any normal means.”

Turning, Thijis confronted him, almost hesitating upon seeing his imposing frame again.  “So?  Why am I here?”

Kantaris appeared to consider him for a moment, pursing his lips.  Just when Thijis was about to demand answers once again, he strode past him and opened one of the high cabinets.  After some brief searching he removed a plain wooden box and closed the cabinet door.

“You’re here,” he said, “because of this.”  Kantaris placed the box on one of the work tables and gestured for Thijis to open it.

It was unlocked, a simple thing but finely made.  He lifted the bowed lid to find a shining amber orb within.  He looked at Kantaris for permission, and at the man’s nod lifted the orb out of the chest, cradling it in both hands.  The size of an apple, it was heavier than brick, and appeared to be a perfect sphere, but there was no question about what it was.  Thijis had seen too much of the stuff lately to even question it.

“Elekstone,” said Thijis.  Even after seeing the massive warehouse beneath the Derukammer ruins, this much of it still held his eye.  He held in his hands a fortune in the rarest substance known to the civilized world.

“Yes,” said Kantaris.  “A seeing sphere.  Or so they were called, long ago.”

“It’s very pretty,” said Thijis, “but that doesn’t really answer my question.”

“But it does,” said Kantaris.  He picked up the small chest and held it out, nodding for Thijis to replace the orb inside.  “There is more to the world than you can dream of, Mr. Thijis, and much of its wonder is contained in this very substance.”

Tucking the small chest under one arm, he removed his key from his pocket again and opened the third door, stepping through into darkness.  Thijis stepped hesitantly through the doorway, stopping when he realized that the blackness was complete.  After a few moments a light, dim and golden, began emanating from high above him.  At first he thought it was just his eyes adjusting, seeing low light where at first there had only been darkness, but as he stepped deeper into the room the glow increased, driving away the darkness like a gas lamp as the valve opened.

He couldn’t contain a quiet gasp as the light finally revealed the chamber in its entirety.  The storeroom was clearly an antechamber, a mere foyer for the place Kantaris had just revealed to him.  Its size was impressive, almost incongruous, given the relatively tight quarters of the spiral staircase and the storeroom behind them.

The space was easily fifty feet high, lit by elekstone orbs hung in bronze settings hung between the ranks of arches supporting the high ceiling.  Three carriages could ride abreast in it with room to spare, and the great hall ran a spectacular distance in length.  Ranks of glowing lanterns were coming on as he looked into the far end of the room.  It reminded Thijis of the nave in the Cathedral of the Synod in the middle of Oridos, or perhaps the ruins of the Prosekhal—the columns were the same.  This chamber’s purpose, however, was far less clear.

The long nave was lined with work tables similar to the ones in the antechamber, but these were covered with a variety of instrumentation and equipment.  Two held a complex chemical laboratory, another what appeared to be several steam-powered machines designed to mill and shape metal, and on still another lay a number of firearms in various states of disassembly.  The others held chests of drawers and stoppered bottles, racks of blades, swords and axes, a number of pieces of shaped brass that looked almost like ancient armor, and books: too many books to count.  They were piled on the tables, crammed into wooden shelves hung from the stone walls, and ensconced in every corner and nook and cranny.

A wide central aisle led down the long room between the workbenches, terminating in a sort of apse that was really more of a vast circular chamber with a domed ceiling, rising above the height even of the nave.  Kantaris had already walked beneath it, Thijis had spent so long gawking at the rest of the place, and when he followed, his footsteps disconcertingly silent on the bare stone floor, he found that the room had another source of light as well.  Long, narrow shafts of daylight speared into the apse from skylights cut into the dome, the white light of day mixed with the diffuse amber light of the elekstone, resulting in an ethereal atmosphere that felt almost airy.

“What is this place?” he asked, his eyes on the great ceiling, his mouth gaping slightly with barely contained awe.

“A sanctum,” said Kantaris.  “A refuge.”

The apse, too, was lined with a combination of bookshelves, tables, and, against the rear wall, a great wardrobe, in the same heavy, iron-strapped oak as the cabinets outside.

The old man reached behind one of the work tables and did something Thijis couldn’t see on the wall.  “Stand back,” he said, and Thijis stumbled a few steps backward just in time to hear the crunch of gears engaging beneath the floor.  The center of the stone floor was capped with a sort of bronze bezel, surrounding an engraved seal that Thijis only noticed when it split in half and concealed itself beneath the heavy floor tiles.

From a hole beneath, a pillar rose.  As wide around as his waist, it supported something large draped with a dark cloth.

Thijis’s eyes were glued to the draped thing on the pillar as whatever mechanism drove it rumbled to a halt, leaving the two men in sudden silence again.  Kantaris’s own eyes never left Irik’s, and Irik couldn’t help but feel like he was being tested.

Licking dry lips with a dry tongue, he stepped forward and whisked away the cloth.

He hadn’t expected to be surprised, and he wasn’t.  Instead, a quiet sort of doom settled into the pit of his stomach.

“I don’t believe in omens, or portents, or any of that shit,” said Thijis, “but if I did I’d really be starting to think that someone was trying to tell me something.”

Unlike the enormous raw ingots and masses of elekstone that he’d seen in the underground warehouse, this was a marvel of finished craftsmanship.  The size of a large man’s head, cut into a multi-faceted pyramidal shape, the gem sparkled with a brilliance that seemed designed to catch the mingled rays of the skylights and the elekstone lanterns above.

“To answer your question, this is how I’ve watched you,” explained Kantaris.  “This is how I know that Mariel hired you, that she’s in over her head, and that there is a conspiracy afoot in Oridos that threatens to bring the continent to its knees if left unchecked.  Orban and his underlings have done more than amass elekstone and seize political power.  They’re meddling with things they don’t understand, trying to open doors that ought to remain locked.”  The man looked at him grimly.  “I can only wish I had more time to explain, but I do not.  So I will show you, and you will do your best to listen and keep an open mind.  And then, God willing, we will unravel this thing together.”

His mind felt on the brink of something, a feeling he recognized as the one that preceded realization.  He wanted to question, to doubt, to demand further explanation, but he couldn’t sum up the energy.  He was too tired.  Tired of the chase, tired of being on the losing end of things, tired of being three steps behind everyone else.  In the absence of will, there could be only trust.  All at once he decided to trust this old man, and everything be damned if he was wrong.  By all rights he ought to be dead already.  Kantaris hadn’t saved his life at the cliffs just to trick him now.

“Show me,” said Thijis, and the old man nodded.  Throwing a switch on his side of the pillar, Kantaris walked around and took Irik’s hand, holding it over the nearest facet, a wide, polished expanse of translucent amber the size of a saucer.  A low hum had begun to drift upwards from the base of the gem, which was ensconced in a pronged brass setting secured to the top of the pillar.

“Do as I say and you’ll live through this,” said Kantaris.

Then he slapped Irik’s palm onto the elekstone and a buzzing electrical shock ate away reality until the gemstone was all that was left.