“Master Lisius!” the guard called, pounding on an oak door in the first floor east corridor. He waited, but no response, not the slightest sound returned from the other side. His unease grew by the moment, by infinitesimal amounts. The sunlight of the courtyard, creeping tentatively into the hallway from the ajar door at its end, was drawing further away, and only a fraction of the recently added gas lamps were lit. Rumors of happenings in this very corridor were abundant. It was widely known that the mouth of the palace’s dungeons opened its ugly maw somewhere in this corridor, at one of these nondescript, gothic-arched doors. Somewhere in this hallway, his master was conducting business.
The guard shuddered involuntarily.
It was irrational to fear the dungeons. Or, perhaps it was rational to fear the dungeons, but certainly not the corridor outside of them. There was absolutely no danger here. It was a hallway like any other. The guard moved on to the opposite door, soles of his boots clicking on the uneven stones of the floor, echoing up and down the dark corridor. He hammered its fist upon the door’s surface, rattling a loose hinge. “Master Lisius!” he called again.
A faint noise from beyond. He stopped his knocking and pressed his ear to the door. The noise did not return. Perhaps he had merely imagined it in the first place. What had it been anyway? It was faint enough—a weak little sound. Perhaps a whimper. Perhaps a rat.
Perhaps it was merely a product of the apprehension that he tried to ignore in the corners of his mind. He rejected these thoughts and moved to the next door. He fixed his eyes on its surface and raised a fist to hammer on it.
“What is it you wish to accomplish,” inquired a quiet, sibilant voice behind the guard. “With that senseless noise of yours?”
The guard’s body went rigid in fear, if only for an instant, his right hand instinctively going to the sword hung at his belt—despite the fact that he had a pistol concealed in his jacket. A fraction of a second later in time, the guard identified the voice, and the tension petrifying his body released. “Master Lisius,” he said with appropriate formality, turning to face the man, who was about a head shorter than the burly guard.
Lisius looked at him with his standard blank expression. Lisius was a man who kept his thoughts and emotions obscured, under all circumstances. If he had emotions at all. That was a topic of some debate. He was a convincing actor when the need arose, but Lisius did not see a few brief words with his hired help as need for acting.
“What?” Lisius spoke plainly, only the slightest shadow of contempt pulling at the corner of his neatly mustached lips. The sickly glow of a nearby gas lamp cast unsettling reflections on the surface of Lisius’s amber eyes.
“Prince Thainen, sir,” ventured the guard, voice quavering slightly from his recently departed fear. “Blansus and I saw him in the courtyard, speaking with the empress. Not directly, I mean. They were staring at one another, eerily focused. The empress had this look on her face like she was trying to concentrate on a difficult task. It was plain what was going on. You said to watch for this.”
Lisius nodded gravely, the shadow of a grimace defining his features. “Return to your post,” said Lisius peremptorily.
The guard nodded, all too eager to do so. He made to turn and set off down the corridor, when something caught his eye. It was like the light that danced and played on the beds of clear pools, a rippling, shimmering sort of distortion, which for a second passed across the stone wall to his right. Lisius saw it as well, and eyed it with displeasure. The guard noticed, with a jolt of apprehension, a minuscule splatter of blood adorning Lisius’s jawbone and another on his ruthlessly starched white collar.
Lisius turned back to face the guard, and repeated, with undeniable finality, “Return to your post.” The guard nodded and did precisely as he had been instructed.
Lisius’s eyes followed the guard as he retreated down the hall. His thick, clumsy boots thudded against the stone. When he reached the end of the corridor, he nearly dove out into the courtyard, pulling the heavy door closed behind him in obvious haste.
“Announce yourself,” Lisius spoke to the corridor at large, knowing that his words would fall on his desired audience. “Or I will make you regret not doing so.”
For moments, there was silence. Then, a small sigh, barely audible, swept down the length of the room. “You requested me,” said a soft, disembodied voice, packing vast amounts of ambiguity into those three words. “So I came.”
The words drifted off like a question.
Lisius nodded fractionally, keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead, unable to locate the source of the voice. Whomever it was that spoke took pains to disguise themselves—that much was evident.
“It sounds to me like you have somewhere else to be,” said the same voice, the soft sound of the words enveloping Lisius from all directions, rising in pitch in the same questioning manner.
“As do you,” muttered Lisius darkly, already feeling paranoid towards this new acquaintance. “Remain here until I return.”
The voice did not respond. Lisius needed no affirmation of whether or not that mysterious voice would carry out his command. He felt confident that they would obey. He strode towards the end of the corridor, speculating about the course of coming events.