Roger Zelazny. Sign of chaos
THE AMBER CHRONICLES - BOOK EIGHT
SIGN OF CHAOS
I felt vaguely uneasy, though I couldn't say why. It did not seem all
that unusual to be drinking with a White Rabbit, a short guy who resembled
Bertrand Russell, a grinning Cat, and my old friend Luke Raynard, who was
singing Irish ballads while a peculiar landscape shifted from mural to
reality at his back. Well, I was impressed by the huge blue Caterpillar
smoking the hookah atop the giant mushroom because I know how hard it is to
keep a water pipe lit. Still, that wasn't it. It was a convivial scene, and
Luke was known to keep pretty strange company on occasion. So why should I
The beer was good and there was even a free lunch. The demons
tormenting the red-haired woman tied to the stake had been so shiny they'd.
hurt to look at. Gone now, but the whole thing had, been beautiful.
Everything was beautiful. When Luke sang of Galway Bay it had been so
sparkling and lovely that I'd wanted to dive in and lose myself there. Sad,
Something to do with the feeling. . . . Yes. Funny thought. When Luke
sang a sad song I felt melancholy. When it was a happy one I was greatly
cheered. There seemed an unusual amount of empathy in the air. No matter, I
guess. The light. show was superb. . . .
I sipped my drink and watched Humpty teeter, there at the end of the
bar. For a moment I tried to remember when I'd come into this place, but
that cylinder wasn't hitting. It would come to me, eventually. Nice
I watched and listens and tasted and felt, and it was all great.
Anything that caught my attention was fascinating. Was there something I'd
wanted to ask Luke? It seemed there was, but he was busy singing and I
couldn't think of it now, anyway.
What had I been doing before I'd come into this place? Trying to recall
just didn't seem worth the effort either. Not when everything was so
interesting right here and now.
It seemed that it might have been something important, though. Could
that be why I felt uneasy? Might it be there was business I had left
unfinished and should be getting back to?
I turned to ask the Cat but he was fading again, still seeming vastly
amused. It occurred to me then that I, too, could do that. Fade, I mean; and
go someplace else. Was that how I had come here and how I might depart?
Possibly. I put down my drink and rubbed my eyes and my temples. Things
seemed to be swimming inside my head, too.
I suddenly recalled a picture of me. On a giant card. A Trump. Yes.
That was how I'd gotten here. Through the card. . . .
A hand fell upon my shoulder and I turned. It belonged to Luke, who
grinned at me as he edged up to the bar for a refill.
"Great party, huh?" he said.
"Yeah, great. How'd you find this place?" I asked him.
He shrugged. "I forget. Who cares?"
He fumed away, a brief blizzard of .crystals swirling between us. The
Caterpillar exhaled a purple cloud. A blue moon was rising.
What is wrong with this picture? I asked myself.
I had a sudden feeling that my critical faculty had been shot off in
the war, because I couldn't focus on the anomalies I felt must be present. I
knew that I was caught up in the moment, but I couldn't see my way clear.
I was caught up. . .
I was caught. . . .
Well. . . . It had all started when I'd shaken my own hand. No. Wrong.
That sounds like Zen and that's not how it was. The hand I shook emerged
from the space occupied by the image of myself on the card that went away.
Yes, that was it. . . . After a fashion.
I clenched my teeth. The music began again. There came a soft scraping
sound near to my hand on the bar. When I looked I saw that my tankard had
been refilled. Maybe I'd had too much already. Maybe that's what kept
getting in the way of my thinking. I fumed away. I looked off to my left,
past the place where the mural on the wall became the real landscape. Did
that make me a part of the mural? I wondered suddenly.
No matter. If I couldn't think here. . . . I began running . . . to the
left. Something about this place was messing with my head, and it seemed
impossible to consider the process while I was a part of it. I had to get
away in order to think straight, to determine what was going on.
I was across the bar and into that interface area where the painted
rocks and trees became three-dimensional. I pumped my arms as I dug in. I
head the wind without feeling it.
Nothing that lay before me seemed any nearer. I was moving, but Luke
began singing again.
I halted. I turned, slowly, because it sounded as if he were standing
practically beside me. He was. I was only a few paces removed from the bar.
Luke smiled and kept singing.
"What's going on?" I asked the Caterpillar. "You're looped in Luke's
loop," it replied. "Come again?" I said.
It blew a blue smoke ring, sighed softly, and said, "Luke's locked in a
loop and you're lost in the lyrics. 'That's all."
"How'd it happen?" I asked.
"I have no idea," it replied.
"Uh, how does one get unlooped?"
"Couldn't tell you that either."
I turned to the Cat, who was coalescing about his grin once again.
"I don't suppose you'd know-" I began.
"I saw him come in anD I saw you come in later," said the Cat,
smirking. "And even for this place your arrivals were somewhat . . .
unusual-leading me to conclude that at least one of you is associated with
"Your own comings and goings might give one pause," I observed.
"I keep my paws to myself," he replied. "Which is more than Luke can
"What do you mean?"
"He's caught in a contagious trap."
"How does it work?" I asked.
But he was gone again, and this time the grin went too.
Contagious trap? That seemed to indicate that the problem was Luke's,
and that I had been sucked into it in some fashion. This felt right, though
it still gave me no idea as to what the problem was or what I might do about
I reached for my tankard. If I couldn't solve my problem, I might as
well enjoy it. As I took a slow sip I became aware of a strange pair of
pale, burning eyes
gazing into my own. I hadn't noticed them before, and the thing that
made them strange was that they occupied a shadowy comer of the mural across
the room from me
that, and the fact that they were ,moving, drifting slowly to my left.
It was kind of fascinating, when I lost sight of the eyes but was still
able to follow whatever it was from the swaying of grasses as it passed into
the area toward which I had been headed earlier. And far, far off to my
rightbeyond Luke-I now detected a slim gentleman in a dark jacket, palette
and brush in hand, who was slowly extending the mural. I took another sip
and returned my attention to the progress of whatever it was that had moved
from flat reality to 3-D. A gunmetal snout protruded from between a rock and
a shrub; the pale eyes blazed above it; blue saliva dripped from the dark
muzzle and steamed upon the ground. It was either quite short or very
crouched, and I couldn't make up my mind whether it was the entire crowd of
us that it was studying or me in particular. I leaned to one side and caught
Humpty by the belt or the necktie, whichever it was, just as he was about to
slump to the side..
"Excuse me," I said. "Could you tell me what sort of creature that is?"
I pointed just as it emerged-many-legged, long-tailed, dark-scaled,
undulating, and fast. Its claws were red, and it raised its tail as it raced
Humpty's bleary eyes moved toward my own, drifted past.
"I am not here, sir," he began, "to remedy your zoological ignor- My
It flashed across the distance, approaching rapidly. Would it reach a
spot shortly where its cunning would become a treadmill operation-or had
that effect only applieD to me on trying to get away from this place?
The segments of its body slid from side to side, it hissed like a leaky
pressure cooker, and steaming slaver marked its trail from the fiction of
paint. Rather than slowing, its speed seemed to increase.
My left hand jerked forward of its own volition and a series of words
rose unbidden to my lips. I spoke them just as the creature crossed the
interface I had been unable to pierce earlier, rearing as it upset a vacant
table and bunching its members as if about to spring.
"A Bandersnatch!" someone cried.
"A frumious Bandersnatch! " Humpty corrected.
As I spoke the final word and performed the ultimate gesture, the image
of the Logrus swam before my inner vision. The dark creature, having just
extended its foremost talons, suddenly drew them back, clutched with them
against the upper left quadrant of its breast, rolled its eyes, emitted a
soft moaning sound, exhaled heavily, collapsed, fell to the floor, and
rolled over onto its back, its many feet extended upward into the air.
The Cat's grin appeared above the creature. The mouth moved.
"A dead frumious Bandersnatch," it stated.
The grin drifted toward me, the rest of the Cat occurring about it like
"That was a cardiac arrest spell, wasn't it?" it inquired.
"I guess so," I said. "It was sort of a reflex. Yeah, I remember now. I
did still have that spell hanging around. "
"I thought so," it observed. "I was sure that there was magic involved
in this party."
The image of the Logrus which had appeared to me during the spell's
operation had also served the purpose of switching on a small light in the
musty attic of my mind. Sorcery. Of course.
I-Merlin, son of Corwin-am a sorcerer, of a variety seldom encountered
in the areas I have frequented in recent years. Lucas Raynard-also known as
Prince Rinaldo of Kashfa-is himself a sorcerer, albeit of a style different
than my own. And the Cat, who seemed somewhat sophisticated in these
matters, could well have been correct in assessing our situation as the
interior of a spell. Such a location is one of the few environments where my
sensitivity and training would do little to inform me as to the nature of my
predicament. This, because my faculties would also be caught up in the
manifestation and subject to 'its forces, if the thing were at all self
consistent. It struck me as something similar to color blindness. I could
think of no way of telling for certain what was going on, without outside
As I mused over these matters, the King's horses and men arrived beyond
the swinging doors at the front of the place. The men entered and fastened
lines upon the carcass of the Bandersnatch. The horses dragged the thing
off. Humpty had climbed down to visit the rest room while this was going on.
Upon his return he discovered that he was unable to achieve his former
position atop- the barstool. He shouted to the King's men to give him a
hand, but they were busy guiding the defunct Bandersnatch among tables and
they ignored him.
Luke strolled up, smiling.
"So that was a Bandersnatch," he observed. "I'd always wondered what
they were like. Now, if we could just get a Jabberwock to stop by-"
"Sh!" cautioned the Cat. "It must be off 'in the mural somewhere, and
likely it's been listening. Don't stir it up! It may come whiffling through
the tulgey wood after your ass. Remember the jaws that bite, the claws that
catch! Don't go looking for troub-"
The Cat cast a quick glance toward the wall and phased into and out of
existence several times in quick succession. Ignoring this, Luke remarked,
"I was just thinking of the Tenniel illustration."
The Cat materialized at the far end of the bar, downed the Hatter's
drink, and said, "I hear the burbling, and eyes of flame are drifting to the
I glanced at the mural, and I, too, saw the fiery eyes and heard a
"It could be any of a number of things," Luke remarked.
The Cat moved to a rack behind the bar and reached high up on the wall
to where a strange weapon hung, shimmering and shifting in shadow. He
lowered the thing and slid it along the bar; it came to rest before Luke.
"Better have the Vorpal Sword in hand, that's all I can say."
Luke laughed, but I stared fascinated at the device which looked as if
it were made of moth wings and folded moonlight. .
Then I heard the burbling again.
"Don't just stand there in uffish thought!" said the Cat, draining
Humpty's glass and vanishing again.
Still chuckling, Luke held out his tankard for a refill. I stood there
in uffish thought: The spell I had used to destroy the Bandersnatch had
altered my thinking in a peculiar fashion. It seemed for a small moment in
its aftermath that things were beginning to come clear in my head. I
attributed this to the image of the Logrus which I had regarded briefly. And
so I summoned it again.
The Sign rose before me, hovered. I held it there. I looked upon it. It
seemed as if a cold wind began to blow G through my mind. Drifting bits of
memory were drawn together, assembled themselves into an entire fabric, were
informed with understanding. Of course. . . .
The burbling grew louder and I saw the shadow of the Jabberwock gliding
among distant trees, eyes like landing lights, lots of sharp edges for
biting and catching. . . .
And it didn't matter a bit. For I realized now what was going on, who
was responsible, how and why.
I bent over, leaning far forward, so that my knuckles just grazed the
toe of my right boot.
"Luke," I said, "we've got a problem."
He turned away from the bar and glanced down at me.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
Those of the blood of Amber are capable of terrific exertions. We are
also able to sustain some pretty awful beatings. So, among ourselves, these
things tend to cancel out to some degree. Therefore, one must go about such
matters just right if one is to attend to them at all. . . .
I brought my fist up off the floor with everything I had behind it, and
I caught Lake on the side of the jaw with a blow that lifted him above the
ground as it turned him and sent him sprawling across a table which
collapsed, to continue sliding backward the length of the entire serving
area where he finally came to a crumpled halt at the feet of the quiet
Victorian-looking gentleman-who had dropped his paintbrush and stepped away
quickly when Luke came skidding toward him. I raised my tankard with my left
hand and poured its contents over my right fist, which felt as if I had just
driven it against a mountainside. As I did this the lights grew dim and
there was a moment of utter silence.
Then I slammed the mug back onto the bartop. The entire place chose
that moment in which to shudder, as if from an earth tremor. Two bottles
fell from a shelf; a lamp swayed, the burbling grew fainter. I glanced to my
left and saw that the eerie shadow of the Jabberwock had retreated somewhat
within the tulgey wood. Not only that, the painted section of the prospect
now extended a good deal farther into what had seemed normal space, and it
looked to be continuing its advance in that direction, freezing that corner
of the world into flat immobility. It became apparent from whiffle to
whiffle that the Jabberwock was now moving away, to the left, hurrying ahead
of the flatness. Tweedledum, Tweedledee, the Dodo, and the Frog began
packing their instruments.
I started across the bar toward Luke's sprawled form. The CaterpilIar
was disassembling his hookah, and I saw that his mushroom was tilted at an
odd angle. The White Rabbit beat it down a hole to the rear, and I head
Humpty muttering curses as he swayed atop the bar stool he had just
succeeded in mounting.
I saluted the gentleman with the palette as I approached.
"Sorry to disturb you,'' I said. "But believe me, this is for the
I raised Luke's limp form and slung him over my shoulder. A flock of
playing cards flew by me. I dew away from them in their rapid passage.
"Goodness! It's frightened the Jabberwock!" the man remarked, looking
"What has?" I asked, not really certain that I wished to know.
"That," he answered, gesturing toward the front of the bar.
I looked and I staggered back and I didn't blame the Jabberwock a bit.
It was a twelve-foot Fire Angel that had just enteredrusset-colored,
with wings like stained-glass windowsand, along with intimations of
mortality, it brought me recollections of a praying mantis, with a spiked
collar and thornlike claws protruding through its short fur at every
suggestion of an angle. One of these, in fact, caught on and unhinged a
swinging door as it came inside. It was a Chaos beast-rare, deadly, and ,
highly intelligent. I hadn't seen one in years, and I'd no desire to see one
now; also, I'd no doubt that I was the reason it was here. For a moment I
regretted having wasted my cardiac arrest spell on a mere Bandersnatch-until
I recalled that Fire Angels have three hearts. I glanced quickly about as it
spied me, gave voice to a brief hunting wail, and advanced.
"I'd like to have had some time to speak with you," I told the artist.
"I like your work. Unfortunately-"
"Good luck. "
I stepped down into the rabbit hole and ran, bent far forward because
of the low overhead. Luke made my passage partiжularly awkward, especially
on the turns. I heard a scrabbling noise fat to the rear, with a repetition
of the hunting wail. I was consoled; however, by the knowledge that the Fire
Angel would. actually have to enlarge sections of the tunnel in order to get
by. The bad news was that it was жapable of doing it. The creatures are
incredibly strong and virtually indestructible.
I kept running till the floor dipped beneath my feet.
Then I began falling. I reached out with my free hand to жatch myself,
but there was nothing to catжh hold of. The bottom had fallen out. Good.
That was the way I'd hoped and half expected it would be. Luke uttered a
single soft moan but did not stir.
We fell. Down, down, down, like the man said. It was a well, and either
it was very deep or we were falling very slowly. There was twilight all
about us, and I could not discern die walls of the shaft. My head cleared a
bit further, and I knew that it would continue to do so for as long as I
kept control of one variable: Luke. High in the air overhead I heard the
hunting wail once again. It was followed immediately by a strange burbling
sound. Frakir began pulsing softly upon my wrist again, not really telling
me anything I didn't already know. So I silenced her again.
Clearer yet. I began to remember. . . . My assault on the Keep of the
Four Worlds and my recovery of Luke's mother, Jasra. The attack of the
werebeast. My odd visit with Vinta Bayle, who wasn't really what she seemed.
. My dinner in Death Alley. . . . The Dweller, San Francisco, the
crystal cave. . . . Clearer and clearer.
. . . And louder and louder the hunting ,wail of the Fire Angel above
me. It must have made it through the tunnel and be descending now.
Unfortunately, it possessed wings, while all I could do was fall.
I glanced upward. Couldn't make out its form, though. Things seemed
darker up that way than down below. I hoped this was a sign that we were
approaching something in the nature of a light at the end of the tunnel, as
I couldn't think of any other way out. It was too dark to view a Trump or to
distinguish enough of the passing scene to commence a shadow shift.
I felt we were drifting now, rather than falling, at a rate that might
permit us to land intact. Should it seem otherwise when we neared the
bottom, then a possible means of further slowing our descent came to mind-an
adaptation of one of the spells I still carried with me.
However, these considerations were not worth much should we be eaten on
the way down-a distinct possibility, unless of course our pursuer were not
all that hungry, in which case it might only dismember us. Consequently, it
might become necessary to try speeding up to stay ahead of the beast-which
of course would cause us to smash when we hit.
Luke stirred slightly upon my shoulder. I hoped he wasn't about to come
around, as I didn't have time to mess with a sleep-spell and I wasn't really
in a good position to slug him again. That pretty much left Frakir.
But if he were borderline, then choking might serve to rouse him rather
than send him back-and I did want him in decent shape. He knew too many
things I didn't, things I now needed.
We passed through a slightly brighter area, and I was able to
distinguish the walls of the shaft for the first time and to note that they
were covered with graffiti in a language that I did not understand. I was
reminded of a strange short story by Jamaica Kincaid, but it bore me no
clues for deliverance. Immediately following our passage through that
band of illumination, I distinguished a small spot of light far below. At
almost the same moment' I heard the wail once again, this time very near.
I looked up in time to behold the Fire Angel passing through the glow.
But there was another shape close behind it, and it wore a vest and burbled.
The Jabberwock was also on the way down, and it seemed to be making the best
time of any of us. The question of its purpose was immediately prominent; as
it gained, the circle of light grew and Luke stirred again. This question
was quickly answered; however, as it caught up with the Fire Angel and
The whiffling, the wailing, and the burbling suddenly echoed down the
shaft, along with hissing, scraping, and occasional snarls. The two beasts
came together and tore at each other, eyes like dying suns, claws like
bayonets, forming a hellish mandala in the pale light which now reached them
from below. While this produced a round of activity too near at hand for me
to feel entirely at ease, it did serve to slow them to the point where I
felt I need not risk an ill-suited spell and an awkward maneuver to emerge
from the tunnel in one piece.
"Argh!" Luke remarked, turning suddenly within my grasp.
"I agree," I said. "But lie still, will you? We're about to crash-"
"-and burn," he stated, twisting his head upward to regard the
combatant monsters, then downward when he realized that we were falling,
too. "What kind of trip is this?"
"A bad one," I answered, and then it hit me: That was exactly what it
The opening was even larger now, and our velocity sufficient for a
bearable landing. Our reaction to the spell that I called the Giant's Slap
would probably slow us to a standstill or even propel us backward. Better to
collect a few bruises than become a traffic obstruction at this point.
A bad trip indeed. I was thinking of Random's words as we passed
through the opening at a crazy angle, hit dirt, and rolled.
We had come to rest within a cave, near to its mouth. Tunnels ran off
to the right and the left. The cave mouth was at my back. A quick glance
showed it as opening upon a bright, possibly lush, and more than a little
outof focus valley. Luke was sprawled unmoving beside me. I got to my feet
immediately and caught hold of him beneath the armpits. I began dragging him
back away from the dark opening from which we had just emerged. The sounds
of the monstrous conflict were very near now.
Good that Luke seemed unconscious again. His condition was bad enough
for any Amberite, if my guess were correct. But for one of sorcerous ability
it represented a highly dangerous wild card of a sort I'd never encountered
before. I wasn't at all certain how I should deal with it.
I dragged him toward the righthand tunnel because it was the smaller of
the two and would theoretically be a bit easier to defend. We had barely
achieved its shelter when the two beasts fell through the opening, clutching
and tearing at each other. They commenced rolling about the floor of the
cave, claws clicking, uttering hisses and whistles as they tore at each
other. They seemed to have forgotten us entirely; and I continued our
retreat until we were well back in the tunnel.
I could only assume Random's guess to be correct. . After all, he was a
musician and he'd played all over Shadow. Also, I couldn't come up with
I summoned the Sign of the Logrus. When I had it clear and had meshed
my hands with it, I might have used it to strike- at the fighting beasts.
But they were paying me no heed whatsoever, and I'd no desire to attract
their attention. Also, I'd no assurance that the equivalent of being hit by
a two-by-four would have much effect on them. Besides, my order was ready,
and filling it took precedence.
So I reached.
It took an interminable time. There was an extremely wide area of
Shadow to pass though before I found what I was looking for. Then I had to
do it again. And again. There were a number of things I wanted, and none of
In the meantime, the combatants showed no sign of slackening, and their
claws struck sparks from the cave's walls. They had cut each other in
countless places and were now covered with dark gore. Luke had awakened
during all of this, propped himself, and was staring fascinated at the
colorful conflict. How long it might hold his attention I could not tell. It
would be important for me to have him awake very soon now, and I was pleased
that he had not started thinking of other matters yet.
I was cheering, by the way, for the Jabberwock. It was just a nasty
beast and need not have been homing in on me in particular when it was
distracted by the arrival of its exotic nemesis. The Fire Angel had been
playing an entirely different game. There was no reason for a Fire Angel to
be stalking about this far from Chaos unless it had been sent: They're
devilish hard to capture, harder to train, and dangerous to handle. So they
represent a considerable expense and hazard. One does not invest in a Fire
Angel lightly. Their main purpose in life is killing, and to my knowledge no
one outside the Courts of Chaos has ever employed one: They've a vast array
of sensessome of them, apparently, paranormal-and they can be used as Shadow
bloodhounds. They don't wander through Shadow on their own, that I know of.
But a Shadowwalker can be tracked, and Fire Angels seem to be able to follow
a very cold trail once they've been imprinted with the victim's identity.
Now, I had been trumped to that crazy bar, and I didn't know they could
follow a Trump jump, but several other possibilities occurred to
me=including someone's locating me, transporting the thing to my vicinity,
and turning it loose to do its business. Whatever the means, though, the
attempt had the mark of the Courts upon it. Hence, my quick conversion to
"What's going on?" Luke asked me suddenly, and the walls of the cave
faded for a moment and I heard a faint strain of music.
"It's tricky," I said. "Listen, it's time for your medicine."
I dumped out a palmful of the vitamin B12 tabs I had just brought in
and uncapped the water bottle I had also summoned.
"What medicine?" he asked as I passed them to him. "Doctor's orders," I
said. "Get you back on your feet faster. "
He threw all of them into his mouth and downed them with a single big
I opened the bottle of Thorazine. They were 200 milligrams each and I
didn't know how many to give him, so I decided on three. I gave him some
.tryptophan, too, and some phenylalanine.
He stared at the pills. The walls faded again, the music returned. A
cloud of blue smoke drifted past us. Suddenly the bar came into view, back
to whatever passed for normal in that place. The upset tables had been
righted, Humpty still teetered, the mural went on.
"Hey, the club!" Luke exclaimed. "We ought to head back. Looks like the
party's just getting going."
"First, you take your medicine."
"What's it for?"
"You got some bad shit somewhere. This is to let you down easy."
"I don't feel bad. In fact, I feel real good-"
He tossed off the whole fistful.
The Jabberwock and the Fire Angel seemed to be fading now-and my latest
exasperated gesture in the vicinity of the bartop had encountered some
resistance, though the thing was not fully solid to me yet. Suddenly, then,
I noticed the Cat, whose games with substantiality somehow at this point
made it seem more real than anything else in the place.
"You coming or going?" if asked.
Luke began to rise. The light grew brighter, though more diffuse.
"Uh, Luke, look over there," I said, pointing
"Where?" he asked, turning his head.
I slugged him again.
As he collapsed, the bar began to fade. The walls of the cave phased
back into focus. I heard the Cat's voice. "Going . . ." it said.
The noises returned full blast, only this time the dominant sound was a
bagpipelike squeal. It was coming from the Jabberwock, who was pinned to the
ground and being slashed at. I decided then to use the Fourth of July spell
I had left over from my assault on the citadel. I raised my hands and spoke
the words. I moved in front of Luke to block his view as I did so, and I
looked away and squeezed my eyes shut as I said them. Even through closed
eyes I could tell there followed a brilliant flash of light. I heard Luke
say, ``Hey!" but all other sounds ceased abruptly. When I looked again I saw
that the two creatures lay as if stunned, unmoving, toward the far side of
the small cave.
I grabbed hold of Luke's hand and drew him up and over my shoulders in
a fireman's carry. Then I advanced quickly into the cave, slipping only once
on monster blood as I edged my way along the nearest wall, heading for the
cave mouth. The creatures began to stir before I made it out, but their
movements were more reflexive than directed. I paused at the opening where I
beheld an enormous flower garden in full bloom. All of the flowers were at
least as tall as myself, and a shifting breeze bore me an overpowering
Moments later I heard a more decisive movement at my back and I turned.
The Jabberwock was drawing itself to its feet. The Fire Angel was still
crouched and was making small piping noises. The Jabberwock staggered back,
spreading its wings, then suddenly turned, beat the air, and fled back up
the high hole in the cleft at the rear of the cave. Not a bad idea, I
decided, as I hurried out into the garden.
Here the aromas were even stronger, the flowers, mostly in bloom, a
fantastic canopy of colors as I noshed among them. I found myself panting
after a short while, but I jogged on nevertheless. Luke was heavy, but I
wanted to put as much distance as I could between ourselves and the cave.
Considering how fast our pursuer could move, I wasn't sure there was
sufficient time to fool with a Trump yet.
As I hurried along I began feeling somewhat woozy, and my extremities
seemed extremely distant. It occurred to me immediately that the flower
smells might be a bit narcotic. Great. That was all I needed, to get caught
up in a drug high while trying to bring Luke back from one. , I could make
out a sill, slightly elevated clearing in the distance, though, and I headed
for it. Hopefully, we could rest there for a bit while I regained my mental
footing and decided what to do next. So far, I could detect no sounds of
Rushing on, I could feel myself beginning to reel. My equilibrium was
becoming impaired. I suddenly felt a fear of falling, almost akin to
acrophobia. For it occurred to me that if I fell I might not be able to rise
again, that I might suжcumb to a drugged sleep and be discovered and
dispatched by the creature of Chaos while I dozed. Overhead, the colors of
the flowers ran together, flowing and tangling like a mass of ribbons in a
bright stream. I tried to control my breathing, to take in as little of the
effluvia as possible. But this was difficult, as winded as I was becoming.
But I did not fall, though I collapsed beside Luke at the center of the
clearing after I'd lowered him to the ground. He remained unconscious, a
peaceful expression on his face. A wind swept our hillock from the direction
of its far side, where nasty-looking, spiked plants of a nonflowering
variety grew. Thus, I no longer smelled the seductive odors of the giant
flower field, and after a time my head began to clear. On the other hand, I
realized that this meant that our own scents were being borne back in the
direction of the cave. Whether the Fire Angel could unmask them within the
heady perfumes, I did not know, but providing it with even that much of an
opportunity made me feel uncomfortable.
Years ago, as an undergraduate, I had tried some LSD. It had scared me
so badly that I'd never tried another hallucinogen since. It wasn't simply a
bad trip. The stuff had affected my shadow-shifting ability. It is kind of a
truism that Amberites can visit any place they can imagine, for everything
is out there, somewhere; in Shadow. By combining our minds with motion we
can tune for the shadow we desire. Unfortunately, I could not control what I
was imagining. Also unfortunately, I was transported to those places. I
panicked, and that only made it worse. I could easily have been destroyed,
for I wandered through the objectified jungles of my subconscious and passed
some time in places where the bad things dwell. After I came down I found my
way back home, turned up whimpering on Julia's doorstep, and was a nervous
wreck for days. Later, when I told Random about it, I learned that he had
had some similar experiences. He had kept it to himself at first as a
possible secret weapon against the rest of the family; but later, after
they'd gotten back onto decent terms with each other, he had decided to
share the information in the interest of survival. He was surprised to learn
then that Benedict, Gerard, Fiona, and Bleys knew all about itthough their
knowledge -had come from other hallucinogene and, strangely, only Fiona had
ever considered its possibility as an in-family weapon. She'd shelved the
notion, though, because of its unpredictability. This had been sometime
back, however, and in the press of other business in recent years it had
slipped his mind; it simply had not occurred to him that a new, arrival such
as myself should perhaps be cautioned.
Luke had told me that his attempted invasion of the Keep of the Four
Words, by means of a glider-borne commando team, had been smashed. Since I
had seen the broken gliders at various points within the walls during my own
visit to that place, it was logical to assume that Luke had been captured.
Therefore, it seemed a fairly strong assumption that the sorcerer Mask had
done whatever had been done to him to bring him to this state. It would seem
that this simply involved introducing a dose of a hallucinogen_to his prison
fare and turning him loose to wander and look at the-pretty lights.
Fortunately, unlike myself, his mental travelings had involved nothing more
threatening than the brighter aspects of Lewis Carroll. Maybe his heart was
purer than mine. But the deal was weird any way you looked at it. Mask might
have killed him or kept him in prison or added him to the coatrack
collection. Instead, while what had been done was not without risk, it was
something which would wear off eventually and leave him chastened but at
liberty. It was more a slap on the wrist than a real piece of vengeance.
This, for a member of the House which had previously held sway in the Keep
and would doubtless like to do so again. Was Mask supremely confident? Or
did he not really see Luke as much of a threat?
And then there is the fact that our shadow-shifting abilities and our
sorcerous abilities come from similar roots-the Pattern or the Logms. It had
to be that messing with one also messed with the other. That would explain
Luke's strange ability to summon me to him as by a massive Trump sending,
when in actuality there was no Trump: His drug-enhanced abilities of
visualization must have been so intense that the card's physical
representation of me was unnecessary. And his skewed magical abilities would
account for all of the preliminary byplay, all of the odd,
reality-distorting experiences I'd had before he actually achieved contact.
This meant that either of us could become very dangerous in certain drugged
states. I'd have to remember that. I hoped he wouldn't wake up mad at me for
hitting him, before I could talk to him a bit. On the other hand; the
tranquilizer would hopefully keep him happy while the other stuff worked at
I massaged a sore muscle in my left leg and rose to my feet. I caught
hold of Luke beneath the armpits and dragged him about twenty paces farther
along into the clearing. Then I sighed and returned to the spot where I had
rested. There was not sufficient time to flee farther. And as the wailing
increased in volume and the giant flowers swayed in a line heading directly
toward meglimpses of a darker form becoming visible amid the stalks-I knew
that with the Jabberwock fled the Fire Angel was back on the job, and since
this confrontation seemed inevitable, this clearing was as good a place to
meet it as any, and better than most.
I unfastened the bright thing at my belt and began to unfold it. It
made a series of clicking noises as I did so. I was hoping that I was making
the best choice available to me rather than, say, a bad mistake.
The creature took longer than I'd thought to pass among the flowers.
This could mean it was having trouble following my trail amid its exotic
surroundings. I was hoping, though, that it meant it had been sufficiently
injured in its encounter with the Jabberwock that it had lost something of
its strength and speed.
Whatever, the final stalks eventually swayed and were crushed. The
angular creature lurched forward and halted a to stare at me with unblinking
eyes. Frakir panicked, and I calmed her. This was a little out of her
league. I had a Fire Fountain spell left, but I didn't even bother with it:
I knew it wouldn't stop the thing, and it might make it behave
``I can show you the way back to Chaos," I shouted, "if you're getting
It wailed softly and advanced. So much for sentimentality.
It came on slowly, oozing fluids from a dozen wounds. I wondered if it
were still capable of noshing me or if its present pace were the best it
could manage. Prudence dictated I assume the worst, so I tried to stay loose
and ready to match anything it attempted.
It didn't rush, though. It just kept coming, like a small tank with
appendages. I didn't know where its vital spots were located. Fire Angel
anatomy had not been high on my list of interests back home. I gave myself a
crash course, however, in the way of gross observation as it approached.
Unfortunately, this gave me to believe that it kept everything important
well protected. Too bad.
I did not want to attack in case it was trying to sucker me into
something. I was not aware of its combat tricks, and I did not care to
expose myself unduly in order to learn them. Better to stay on the defense
and let it make the first move; I told myself. But it just kept moving
nearer and nearer. I knew that I'd be forced to do something soon, even if
it were only to retreat. . . .
One of those long, folded front appendages flashed out toward me, and I
spun to the side and cut. Snicker-snack! The limb lay on the ground, still
moving. So I kept moving, also. One-two, one-two! Snicker-snack!
The beast toppled slowly to its left, for I had removed all of the
limbs on that side of its body.
Then, overconfident, I passed too near in racing to round its head to
reach the other side and repeat the performance while it was still
traumatized and collapsing. Its other extensor flashed out. But I was too
near and it was still toppling: Instead of catching me with its clawed
extremity, it hit me with the equivalent of shin or forearm. The blow struck
me across the chest and I was knocked backward.
As I scrambled away and drew my feet beneath me to rise, I heard Luke
say, groggily, "Now what's going on?"
"Later," I called, without looking back.
Then, "Hey! You hit me!" he added.
"All in good fun," I answered. "Part of the cure," and I was up and
"Oh," I heard him say.
The thing was on its side now and that big limb struck wildly at me,
several times. I avoided it and was able to gauge its range and striking
Snicker-snack. The limb fell to the ground and I moved in.
I swung three blows which passed all the way through its head from
different angles before I was able to sever it. It kept making clicking
noises, though, and the torso kept pitching and scrabbling about on the
I don't know how many times I struck after that. I just kept at it
until the creature was literally diced. Luke had begun shouting "Old!" each
time that I struck. I was perspiring somewhat by then, and I noticed that
heat waves or something seemed to be causing my view of the distant flowers
to ripple in a disturbing fashion. I felt foresighted as all hell,
though-the Vorpal Sword I'd appropriated back in the bar had proved a fine
weapon. I j, swung it through a high arc, which I'd noted seemed to cleanse
it entirely, and then I began folding it back into its original compact
form. It was as soft as flower,petals, and it still gave off a faint dusty
glow. . . .
"Bravo!" said a familiar voice, and I fumed until I saw the smile
followed by the Cat, who was tapping his paws lightly together. "Callooh!
Callay!" he added. "Well done, beamish boy!"
The background wavering grew stronger, and the sky darkened. I heard
Luke say "Hey!" and when I glanced back I saw him getting to his feet,
moving forward. When I looked again I could see the bar forming at the Cat's
back, and I caught a glimpse of the brass rail. My head began to swim.
"There's normally a deposit on the Vorpal Sword," the '' Cat was
saying. "But since you're returning it intact-"
Luke was beside me. I could hear music again, and he was humming along
with it. Now it was the clearing, with its butchered Fire Angel, that seemed
the superimposition, as the bar increased in solidity, taking on nuances of
color and shading.
But the place seemed somehow smaller-the tables closer together, the
music softer, the mural more compressed and its artist out of sight. Even
the Caterpillar and his mushroom had retreated to a shadowy nook, and both
seemed shrunken, the blue smoke less dense. I took this as a vaguely good
sign, for if our presence there were a result of Luke's state of mind then
perhaps the fixation was losing its hold on him.
"Luke?" I said.
He moved up to the bar beside me.
"Yeah?" he answered.
"You know you're on a trip, don't you?"
"I don't. . . . I'm not sure what you mean," he said.
`'When Mask had you prisoner I think he slipped you some acid," I said.
"Is that possible?"
"Who's Mask?" he asked me.
"The new head honcho at the Keep."
"Oh, you mean Sharu Garrul," he said. "I do remember that he had on a
I saw no reason to go into an explanation as to why Mask wasn't Sharu.
He'd probably forget, anyway. I just nodded and said, "The boss."
"Well . . . yes, I guess he could have given me something," he replied.
"You mean that all this . . . ?" He gestured toward the room at large.
"Sure, it's real," I said. "But we can transport ourselves into
hallucinations. They're all real somewhere. Acid'll do it."
"I'll be damned," he said.
"I gave you some stuff to bring you down," I told him. "But it may take
He licked his lips and glanced about.
"Well, there's no hurry," he said. Then he smiled as a distant
screaming began and the demons started in doing nasty things to the burning
woman off in the mural. "I kind of like it here."
I placed the folded weapon back upon the bartop. Luke rapped on the
surface beside it and called for another round of brews. I backed away,
shaking my head.
. "I've got to go now," I told him. "Someone's still after me, and he
just came close."
"Animals don't count," Luke said.
"The one I just chopped up does," I answered. "It was sent."
I looked at the broken doors, wondering what might come through them
next. Fire Angels have been known to hunt in pairs.
"But I've got to talk to you . . . ," I continued.
"Not now," he said, turning away.
"You know it's important."
"I can't think right," he answered.
I supposed that had to be true, and there was no sense trying to drag
him back to Amber or anywhere else. He'd J just fade away and show up here
again. His head would have to clear and his fixation dissipate before we
could discuss mutual problems.
"You remember that your mother is a prisoner in Amber?" I asked.
"Call me when you've got your head together. We have to talk."
"I turned away and walked out the doors and into a bank of fog. In the
distance I heard Luke begin singing again, some mournful ballad. Fog is
almost as bad as complete darkness when it comes to shadow-shifting. If you
can't see any referents while you're moving, there is no way to use the
ability, that allows you to slip away. On the other hand, I just wanted to
be alone for a time to think,
Y now my head was clear. If I couldn't see anybody in this stuff,
nobody could see me either. And there were no sounds other than my own
footfalls on a cobbled surface.
So what had I achieved? When I was awakened from a brief nap to attend
Luke's unusual sending to Amber, I'd been dead tired following extraordinary
exertions. I was transported into his presence, learned that he was
tripping, fed him something I hoped would bring him off it sooner, hacked up
a Fire Angel, and left Luke back where he had started.
I'd gotten two things out of it, I mused, as I strolled through the
cottony mist: I'd stalemated Luke in any designs he might still have upon
Amber. He was now aware that his mother was our prisoner, and I couldn't see
him bringing any direct action against us under the circumstances. Aside
from the technical problems involved in transporting Luke and keeping him in
one place, this was the reason I was willing to leave him as I just had. I'm
sure Random would have preferred him unconscious in a cell in the basement,
but I was certain he would settle for a defanged Luke at large; especially
so, when it was likely that Luke would be getting in touch with us sooner or
later regarding Jasra. I was willing to let him come down and come around in
his own good time. I had problems of my own in the waiting room, like
Ghostwheel, Mask, Vinta . . . and the new specter which had just taken a
number and a seat.
Maybe it had been Jasra who had been using the homing power of the blue
stones to send assassins after me. She had the ability as well as a motive.
It could also have been Mask, though, who I'd judge had the abilityand who
seemed to have a motive, though I didn't understand it. Jasra was out of the
way now, however; and while I intended to have things out with Mask
eventually, I believed that I had succeeded in detuning myself from the blue
stones. I also believed that I might have scared Mask somewhat in our recent
encounter at the Keep. Whatever, it was extremely unlikely that Mask or
Jasra, whatever their powers, would have had access to a trained Fire Angel.
No, there's only one place Fire Angels come from, and shadow-sorcerers
aren't on the customer fist.
A puff of wind parted the fog for a moment and I caught sight of dark
buildings. Good. I shifted. The fog moved again almost immediately, and they
were not buildings but dark rock formations. Another parting and a piece of
dawn or evening sky came into view, a foam of bright stars spilled across
it. Before too long a wind whipped the fog away and I saw that I walked in a
high rocky place, the heavens a blaze of starry light bright enough to read
by. I followed a dark trail leading off to the edge of the world. . . .
The whole business with Luke, Jasra, Dalt, and Mask was somehow of a
piece-completely understandable in some places and clouded in others. Given
some time and legwork it would all hang together. Luke and Jasra seemed to
be nullified now. Mask, an enigma of sorts; seemed to have it in for me
personally but did not appear to represent any particular threat to Amber.
Dalt, on the other hand, did, with his fancy new weaponry-but Random was
aware of this situation and Benedict was back in town. So I was confident
that everything possible was being done to deal with this.
I stood at the edge of the world and looked down into a bottomless rift
full of stars. My mountain did not seem to grace the surface of a planet.
However, there was a bridge to my left, leading outward to a dark,
star-occluding . shape-another floating mountain, perhaps. I strolled over
and stepped out onto the span. Problems involving atmosphere, gravitation,
temperature, meant nothing here, where I could, in a sense, make up reality
as I went along. I walked out onto the bridge, and for a moment the angle
was right and I caught a glimpse of another bridge on the far side of the
dark mass, leading off to some other darkness.
I halted in the middle, able to see along it for a great distance in
either direction. It seemed a safe and appropriate spot. I withdrew my
packet of Trumps and riffled through them until I located one I hadn't used
in a long, long time.
I held it before me and put the others away, studying the blue eyes and
the young, hard, slightly sharp features beneath a mass of pure white hair.
He was dressed all in black, save for a bit of white collar and sleeve
showing beneath the glossy tight-fitting jacket. He held three dark steel
balls in his gloved hand.
Sometimes it's hard to reach all the way to Chaos, so I focused and
extended, carefully, strongly. The contact came almost immediately. He was
seated on a balcony beneath a crazily stippled sky, the Shifting Mountains
sliding to his left. His feet were propped on a small floating table and he
was reading a book. He lowered it and smiled faintly.
"Merlin," he said softly. "You look tired."
"You look rested," I said.
"True," he answered, as he closed the book and set it on the table.
Then, "There is trouble?" he asked.
"There is trouble, Mandor."
He rose to his feet.
"You wish to come through?"
I shook my head. "If you have any Trumps handy for getting back, I'd
rather you came to me."
He extended his hand.
"All right," he said.
I reached forward, our hands clasped; he took a single step and stood
beside me on the bridge. We embraced for a moment and then he turned and
looked out and down into the rift.
"There is some danger here?" he asked.
"No. I chose this place because it seems very safe." "Scenic, too," he
replied. "What's been happening to you?"
"For years I was merely a student, and then a designer of certain sorts
of specialized machinery," I told him. "Things were pretty uneventful until
fairly recently. Then all hell broke loose-but most of it I understand, and
much of it seems under control. That part's complicated and not really worth
He rested a hand on the bridge's side-piece: "And the . other part?" he
"My enemies up until this point had been from the environs of Amber.
But suddenly, when it seemed that most of that business was on its way to
being settled, someone put a Fire Angel on my trail. I succeeded in
destroying it just a little while ago. I've no idea why, and it's certainly
not an Amber trick."
He made a clicking noise with his lips as he turned away, paced a few
steps, and turned back.
"You're right, of course," he said. "I'd no idea it had come anywhere
near this, or I'd have spoken with you some time ago. But let me differ with
you as to orders of importance before I indulge in certain speculations on
your behalf. I want to hear your entire story."
"Because you are sometimes appallingly naive, little brother, and I do
not yet trust your judgment as to what is truly important."
"I may starve to death before I finish," I answered. Smiling crookedly,
my step-brother Mandor raised his arms. While Jurt and Despil are my half
brothers, borne by my mother, Dara, to Prince Sawall the Rim Lord, Mandor
was Sawall's son by an earlier marriage. Mandor is considerably older than
I, and as a result he reminds me much of my relatives back in Amber. I'd
always felt a bit of an outsider among the children of Dara and Sawall. In
that Mandor was-in a more stable sense-not part of that particular grouping
either, we'd had something in common. But whatever the impulse behind his
early attentions, we'd hit it off and become closer, I sometimes think, than
full blood brothers. He had taught me a lot of practical things over the
years, and we had had many good- times together.
The air was distorted between us, and when Mandor lowered his arms a
dinner table covered with embroidered white linen came into sudden view
between us, soundlessly, followed a moment later by a pair of facing chairs.
The table bore numerous covered dishes, fine china, crystal, silverware;
there was even a gleaming ice bucket with a dark twisted bottle within it.
"I am impressed," I stated.
"I've devoted considerable time to gourmet magic in recent years," he
said. "Pray, be seated."
We made ourselves comfortable there on the bridge between two
darknesses. I muttered appreciatively as I tasted, and it was some minutes
before I could begin a summary of the events that had brought me to this
place of starlight and silence.
Mandor listened to my entire tale without interruption, and when I'd
finished he nodded and said, "Would you care for another serving of
"Yes," I agreed. "It's quite nice."
When I glanced up a few moments later, I saw that he was smiling.
"What's funny?" I asked.
"You," he replied. "If you recall, I told you before you left for that
place to be discriminating when it came to giving your trust."
"Well? I told no one my story. If you're going to lecture me on being
friendly with Luke without learning his, I've already heard it."
"And what of Julia?"
"What do you mean? She never learned. . . ."
"Exactly. And she seems like one you could have trusted. Instead, you
turned her against you."
"All right! Maybe I used bad judgment there, too."
"You designed a remarkable machine, and it never occurred to you it
might also become a potent weapon. Random saw that right away. So did Luke.
You might have been saved from disaster on that front only by the fact that
it became sentient and didn't care to be dictated to.
"You're right. I was more concerned with solving technical problems. I
didn't think through all the consequences.
"What am I going to do with you, Merlin? You take risks when you don't
even know you're taking risks."
"I didn't tmst Vinta," I volunteered.
"I think you could have gotten more information out of her," he said;
"if you hadn't been so quick to save Luke, who already appeared to be out of
danger. She seemed to be loosening up considerably at the end of your
"Perhaps I should have called you."
"If you encounter her again, do it, and I'll deal with her."
I stared. He seemed to mean it.
"You know what she is?"
"I'll unriddle her," he said, swirling the bright orange beverage in
his glass. "But I've a proposal for you, elegant in its simplicity. I've a
new country place, quite' secluded, with all the amenities. Why not return
to the Courts with me rather than bouncing around from hazard to hazard? Lie
low for a couple of years, enjoy the good life, catch up on your reading.
I'll see that you're well protected. Let everything blow over, then go about
your business in a more peaceful climate."
I took a small sip of the fiery drink.
"No," I said. "What happened to those things you indicated earlier that
you knew and I didn't?"
"Hardly important, if you accept my offer. "
"Even if I were to accept, I'd want to know."
"Bag of worms," he said.
"You listened to my story. I'll listen to yours."
He shrugged and leaned back in his chair, looked up at stars.
"Swayvill is dying," he said.
"He's been doing that for years."
"True, but he's gotten much worse. Some think it has, to do with the
death curse of Eric of Amber. Whatever; I really believe he hasn't much
"I begin to see. . . ."
"Yes, the struggle for the succession has become more intense. People
have been falling over left and rightpoison, duels, assassinations, peculiar
accidents, dubious suicides. A great number have also departed for points
unknown. Or so it would seem."
"I understand, but I don't see where it concerns me." "One time it
would not have."
"But?" "You are not aware that Sawall adopted you, formally, after your
"What?" "Yes. I was never certain as to his exact motives. But you are
a legitimate heir. You follow me but take precedente over Jurt and Despil."
"That would still leave me way in hell down on the list."
"True," he said slowly. "Most of the interest lies at the top. . . ."
"You say `most.' "
"There are always exceptions," he answered. "You must realize that a
time such as this is also a fine occasion for the paying off of old debts.
One death more or less hardly rouses an eyebrow the way it would have in
more placid. times. Even in relatively high places."
I shook my head as I met his eyes.
"It really doesn't make sense in my case," I said. He continued to
stare untll I felt uncomfortable. "Does it?" I finally asked.
"WeIl . . ." he said. "Give it some thought."
I did. And just as the notion came to me, Mandor nodded as if he viewed
the contents of my mind. "Jurt," he said, "met the changing times with a
mixture of delight and fear. He was constantly talking of the latest deaths
and of the elegance and apparent ease with which some of them were
accomplished. Hushed tones interspersed with a few giggles. His fear and his
desire to increase his own capacity for mischief finally reached a point
where they became greater than his other fear-"
"The Logrus. . . ."
"Yes. He finally tried the Logrus, and he made it through."
"He should be feeling very good about that. Proud. It was something
he',d wanted for years."
"Oh, yes," Mandor answered. "And I'm sure he felt a great number of
other things as well."
"Freedom," I suggested. "Power," and as I studied his half amused
expression, I was forced to add, "and the ability to play the game himself."
"There may be hope for you," he said. "Now, would you care to carry
that through to its logical conclusion?"
"Okay," I responded, thinking of Jurt's left ear as I floated away
following my cut, a swarm of blood-bead: spreading about it. "You think Jurt
sent the Fire Angel.' "Most likely," he replied. "But would you care to
pursue that a little further?"
I thought of the broken branch piercing Jurt's eyeball as we wrestled
in the glade. . . .
"All right," I said. "He's after me. It could be a part of the
succession game, because I'm slightly ahead of him; on that front, or just
plain dislike and revenge-or both. "
"It doesn't really matter which," Mandor said, "in terms of results.
But I was thinking of that crop-eareD wolf that attacked you. Only had one
eye, too, it seemed. . . ."
"Yes," I said. "What does Jurt look like these days?"
"Oh, he's grown about half the ear back. It's pretty ragged and
ugly-looking. Generally, his hair covers it. The eyeball is regenerated, but
he can't see out of it yet. He usually wears a patch.''
"That might explain recent developments," I said. , "Hell of a time for
it, though, with everything else that's been going on. Muddies the waters
"It's one of the reasons I suggest you simply drop out; and let
everything cool down. Too busy. With as many arrows as there seem to be in
the air, one may well find" your heart."
"I can take care of myself, Mandor." "You could have fooled me."
I shrugged, got up, walked over to the rail, and looked down at the
After a long while he called out to me, "Have you got any better
ideas?" but I didn't answer him because I was thinking about that very
matter. I was considering what Mandor had said about my tunnel' vision and
lack of preparedness and had just about concluded that he was right, that in
nearly everything that had happened to me: up to this point-with the
exception of my going after Jasra-I had mainly been responding to
circumstance. I had been far more acted upon than acting. Admittedly, it had
all happened very quickly. But still, I had not formed any real plans for
covering myself, learning about my enemies or striking back. It seemed that
there were some things I might be doing. . . .
"If there is that much to worry about," he said, "you are probably
better off playing it safe."
He was probably right, from the standpoints of reason, safety, caution.
But he was strictly of the Courts, while I possessed an additional set of
loyalties in which he did not participate. It was possible-if only through
my connection with Luke-that I might be able to come up with some personal
course of action that would further the security of Amber. So long as such a
chance existed, I felt obliged to pursue matters. And beyond this, from a
purely personal standpoint, my curiosity was too strong to permit me to walk
away from the unanswered questions which abounded when I could be actively
seeking some answers.
As I was considering how I . might best phrase these matters in my
reply to Mandor, I was again acted upon. I became aware of a faint feeling
of inquiry, as of a cat scratching at the doors of my mind. It grew in
force, thrusting aside other considerations, until I knew it as a Trump
sending from some very distant place. I guessed that it might be from
Random, anxious to discover what had transpired since my absence from Amber.
So I made myself receptive, inviting the contact.
"Merlin, what's the matter?" Mandor asked, and I raised my hand to
indicate I was occupied. At that, I saw him place his napkin upon the
tabletop and rise to his feet.
My vision cleared slowly and I beheld Fiona, looking stern, rocks at
her back, a pale green sky above her.
"Merlin," she said. "Where are you?"
"Far away," I answered. "It's' a long story. What's going on? Where are
She smiled bleakly.
"Far away," she replied.
"We seem to have chosen very scenic spots," I observed. "Did you pick
the sky to complement your hair?"
"Enough! " she said. "I did not call you to compare travel notes."
At that moment Mandor came up aside me and placed . his hand upon my
shoulder, which was hardly in keeping with his character; as it is
considered a gauche thing to do when a Trump communication is obviously in
progress-on the order of intentionally picking up an extension phone and
breaking in on someone's call. Nevertheless. . . .
"My! My!" he said. "Will you please introduce me, Merlin?"
"Who," Fiona asked, "is that?"
"This is my brother Mandor," I told her, "of the House of Sawall in the
Courts of Chaos. Mandor; this is my Aunt Fiona, Princess of Amber."
"I have heard of you, Princess," he said. "It is indeed a pleasure."
Her eyes widened for a moment.
"I know of the house," she replied, "but I'd no idea of Merlin's
relationship with it. I am pleased to know you."
"I take it there's some problem, Fi?" I asked.
"Yes," she answered, glancing at Mandor.
"I will retire," he said. "Honored to have met you, Princess. I wish
you lived a bit nearer the Rim."
"Wait," she said. "This does not involve any state secrets. You are an
initiate of the Logrus?"
"I am," he stated.
". . . And I take it you two did not get together to fight a duel?"
"Hardly," I answered.
"In that case, I would welcome his view of the problem, also. Are you
willing to come to me, Mandor?" He bowed again, which I thought was hamming
it a bit.
"Anyplace, Madam," he responded.
She said, "Come then," and she extended her left hand and I clasped it.
Mandor reached out and touched her wrist. We stepped forward.
We stood before her in the rocky place. It was breezy and a bit chill
there. From somewhere distant there came a muted roar, as of a muffled
"Have you been in touch with anyone in Amber recently?" I asked her.
"No," she stated.
"Your departure was somewhat abrupt."
"There were reasons."
"Such as your recognizing Luke?"
"His identity is known to you now?"
"And to the others?"
"I told Random," I answered, "and Flora."
"Then everyone knows," she said. "I departed quickly and took Bleys
with me because we had to be next on Luke's list. After all, I tried killing
his father and almost succeeded. Bleys and I were Brand's closest relatives,
and we'd turned against him."
She turned a penetrating gaze upon Mandor, who smiled.
"I understand," he stated, ``that right now Luke drinks with a Cat, a
Dodo, a Caterpillar, and a White Rabbit. I also understand that with his
mother a prisoner in Amber he is powerless against you."
She regarded me again.
"You have been busy," she said. "I try."
". . . So that it is probably safe for you to return," Mandor
She smiled at him, then glanced at me.
"Your brother seems well informed," she observed.
"He's family, too," I said, "and we've a lifelong habit of looking out
for each other."
"His- life or yours?" she asked.
"Mine," I replied. "He is my senior."
"What are a few centuries this way or that?" Mandor offered.
"I thought I felt a certain maturity of spirit," she noted. "I've a
mind to trust you further than I'd intended."
"That's very sporting of you," he replied, "and I treasure the
sentiment. . . ."
". . . But you'd rather I didn't overdo it?"
"I've no intention of testing your loyalties to home and throne," she
said, "on such short acquaintance. It does concern both Amber and the
Courts, but I see no conflict in the matter."
"I do not doubt your prudence. I merely wanted to make my position
She turned back toward me.
"Merlin," she said then, "I think you lied to me."
I felt myself frowning as I tried to recall an occasion when I might
have misled her about something. I shook my head.
"If I did," I told her, "I don't remember."
"It was some years ago," she said, "when I asked you to try walking
your father's Pattern."
"Oh," I answered, feeling myself blush and wondering whether it was
apparent in this strange light.
"You took advantage of what I had told you-about the Pattern's
resistance," she continued. "You pretended it was preventing you from
setting your foot upon it. But there was no visible sign of the resistance,
such as there was when I tried stepping onto it."
She looked at me, as if for confirmation. "So?" I said.
"So," she replied, "it has become more important now than it was then,
and I have to know: Were you faking it that day?"
"Yes," I said.
"Why?" "Once I took one step upon it," I explained, "I'd have been
committed to walking it. Who knows where it might have led me and what
situation might have followed? I was near the end of my holiday and in a
hurry to get back to school: I didn't have time for what might have turned
into a lengthy expedition. Telling you there were difficulties seemed the
most graceful way of begging off."
"I think there's more to it than that," she said.
"What do you mean?"
"I think Corwin told you something about it that the rest of us do not
know-or that he left you a message. I believe you know more than you let on
concerning the thing."
"Sorry, Fiona. I have no control over your suspicions," I said: "Wish I
could be of more help."
"You can," she replied.
"Tell me how."
"Come with me to the place of the new Pattern. I want you to walk it."
I shook my head.
"I've got a lot more pressing business," I told her,"than satisfying
your curiosity about something my dad did years ,ago."
"It's more than just curiosity," she said. "I told you` once before
that I think it's what is behind the increased" incidence of shadow storms."
"And I gave you a perfectly good reason for something; else being the
cause. I believe it's an adjustment to they partial destruction and
recreation of the old Pattern. "
"Would you come this way?" she asked, and she turned from me and began
I glanced at Mandor, shrugged, and followed her. He came along.
We mounted toward a jagged screen of rock. She reached it first and
made her way onto a lopsided ledge which ran partway along it. She traversed
this until she came to a place where the rock wall had broken down into a
wide V-shaped gap. She stood there with her back' to us then, the light from
the green sky doing strange things to her hair.
I came up beside her and followed the direction of her gaze. On a
distant plain, far below us and to the left, a large black funnel spun like
a top. It seemed the source of the roaring sound we had been hearing. The
ground; appeared to be cracked beneath it. I stared for several minutes, but
it did not change in form or position. Finally, I cleared my throat.
"Looks like a big tornado," I said, "not going anyplace."
"That's why I want you to walk the new Pattern," she' told me. "I think
it's going to get us unless we get it first."
If you had a choice between the ability to detect falsehood and the
ability to discover truth, which one would you take? There was a time when I
thought they were different ways of saying the same thing, but I no longer
believe that. Most of my relatives, for example, are almost as good at
seeing through subterfuge as they are at perpetrating it. I'm not at all
sure, though, that they care much about truth: On the other hand, I'd always
felt there was something noble, special, and honorable about seeking truth-a
thing I'd attempted with Ghostwheel. Mandor had made me wonder, though. Had
this made me a sucker for truth's opposite?
Of course, it's not as cut and dried as all that. I know that it is not
a pure . either/or situation with the middle excluded, but is rather a
statement of attitude. Still, I was suddenly willing to concede that I might
have gone to an extreme-to the point of foolhardiness-and that I had let
certain of my critical faculties doze for far too long.
So I wondered about Fiona's request.
"What makes it such a threat?" I asked her.
"It is a shadow storm in the form of a tornado," she said.
"There have been such things before," I answered. "True," she
responded, "but they tend to move through Shadow. This one does have
extension through an area of Shadow, but it is totally stationary. It first
appeared several days ago, and it has not altered in any way since then.''
"What's that come to in Amber-time?" I asked.
"Half a day, perhaps. Why?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. Just curious," I said. ``I still don't see
why it's a threat."
"I told you that such. storms had proliferated since; Corwin drew the
extra Pattern. Now they're changing in. character as well as frequency. That
Pattern has to be' understood soon."
A moment's quick reflection showed me that whoever gained control of
Dad's Pattern could become master of: some terrible forces. Or mistress.
So, "Supposing I walk it;" I said. "Then what? As I understand it from
Dad's story, I'd just wind up in the middle, the same as with the Pattern
back home. What's; to be learned from that?"
I studied her face for some display of emotion, but my' relatives tend
to have too much control for such simple self betrayal.
"As I understand it," she said, "Brand was able to trump in when Corwin
was at the middle. "
"That's the way I understand it, too."
". . . So, when you reach.the center, I can come in" on a Trump."
"I suppose so. Then there will be two of us standing at the middle of
``. . . And from there we will be in a position to go someplace we
could not reach from any other point in existence."
"That being?" I asked.
"The primal Pattern which lies behind it." "You're sure there is one?"
"There must be. It is in the nature of such a construct to be scribed
at a more basic level of reality as well as the mundane."
"And our purpose in traveling to that place?"
"That is where its secrets dwell; where its deepest magics might be
"I see," I told her. "Then what?"
"Why, there we might learn how to undo the trouble the thing is
causing," she answered.
Her eyes narrowed.
"We will learn whatever we can, of course. Power is power, and
represents a threat until it is understood."
I nodded slowly.
"But right now there are a number of powers that are more pressing in
the threat department," I said. "That Pattern is going to have to wait its
"Even if it may represent the forces you need to deal with your other
problems?" she asked.
"Even so," I said. "It might turn into a lengthy enterprise, and I
don't believe I have the time for that."
"But you don't know that .for certain."
"True. But once I set foot on it, there's no turning back."
I did not add that I'd no intention of taking her to the primal
Pattern, then leaving her there on her own. After all, she had tried her
hand at king-making once. And if Brand had made it to the throne of Amber in
those days, she would have been standing right behind him, no matter what
she had to say about it now. I think she was about to ask me to deliver her
to the primal Pattern then but realized that I'd already considered it and
rejected it. Not wanting to lose face by asking and being refused, she
returned to her original argument.
"I suggest you make time now," she said, "if you do not wish to see
worlds torn up about you."
"I didn't believe you the first time you told me that," I answered,
"and I don't believe you now. I still think the increased shadow-storm
activity is probably an adjustment to the damage and repair of the original
Pattern. I also think that if we mess around with a new Pattern we don't
know anything about, we stand a chance of making things worse, not better-"
"I don't want to mess around with it," she said. "I want to study-"
The Sign of the Logrus flashed between us suddenly. She must have seen
it or felt it somehow, too, because she drew back at the same instant I did.
I turned my head with sure knowledge as to what I would see.
Mandor had mounted the battlementlike wall of stone. He stood as still
as if he were a part of it, his arm, upraised. I suppressed my first
impulse, which was to shout to him to stop. He knew what he was doing. And I
was certain that he would not pay me the slightest heed, anyway.
I advanced to the notch in which he had taken his position, and I
looked past him at the swirling thing on the cracked plain far below.
Through the image of the Logrus, I felt the dark, awful rush of power that
Suhuy had revealed to me in his final lesson. Mandor was calling upon it now
and pouring it into the shadow-storm. Did he not realize that the force of
Chaos he was unleashing must spread until it had run a terrible course?
Could he not see that if the storm were indeed a manifestation of Chaos then
he was turning it into a truly monstrous thing?
It grew larger. Its roaring increased in volume. It became frightening
to watch it.
From behind me, I heard Fiona gasp.
"I hope you know what you're doing," I called to him.
"We'll know in about a minute," he replied, lowering his arms.
The Sign of the Logrus winked out before me.
We watched the damned thing spin for some time, bigger and noisier.
Finally, "What have you proved?" I asked him.
"That you have no patience," he answered.
There was nothing particularly instructive to the phenomenon, but I
continued to watch it anyway:
Abruptly, the sound became a stutter. The dark apparition jerked about'
suddenly, shaking off bits of accumulated debris as it contracted. Soon it
was restored to its former size, and it hit its earlier pitch and the sound
grew steady once more.
"How did you do that?" I asked him.
"I didn't," he said. "It adjusted itself."
"It shouldn't have," Fiona stated.
"Exactly," he replied.
"You've lost me," I said.
"It should have gone roaring right on, stronger than ever, after he'd
augmented it that way," Fiona said. "But whatever is controlling it had
other plans. So it was readjusted."
". . . And it is a Chaos phenomenon," Mandor continued. "You could see
that in the way it drew upon Chaos when I provided the means. But that
pushed it past some limit, and there was a correction. Someone is playing
with the primal forces themselves out there. Who or what or why, I cannot
say. But I think it's strong testimony that the Pattern isn't involved. Not
with Chaos games. So Merlin is probably correct. I think that this business
has its origin elsewhere."
"All right," Fiona conceded. "All right. What does that leave us with?"
"A mystery," he said. "But hardly, I think, an imminent threat."
A faint firefly of an idea flitted through my mind. It could easily be
dead wrong, though that was not the reason I decided against sharing it. It
led into an area of thought I could not explore in an instant, and I don't
like giving away pieces of things like that.
Fiona was glaring at me now, but I maintained a bland expression.
Abruptly then, seeing that her cause was fruitless, she decided to change
"You said that you left Luke under somewhat unusual circumstances. Just
where is he now?"
The last thing I wanted to do was to get her really mad at me. But I
couldn't see fuming her loose on Luke in his present condition. For all I
knew, she might actually be up to killing him, just as a form of life
insurance. And I did not want Luke dead. I'd a feeling he might be
undergoing something of a change of attitude, and I wanted to give him every
break I could. We still owed each other a few, even though it was hard
keeping score; and there is something to be said for old times' sake
Considering what I'd judged his condition to be when I'd left him, it was
going to be a while before he was in decent shape again. And then I had a
number of things I wanted to talk to him about.
"Sorry," I said. "He's my province at the moment."
"I believe I have some interest in the matter," she replied levelly.
"Of course," I said, "but I feel that mine is greater and that we may
get in each other's ways."
"I can judge these things for myself," she said.
"Okay," I told her. "He's on an acid trip. Any infor- ormation you'd
get out of him might be colorful, but it would also be highly
"How did this happen?" she asked.
"A wizard named Mask apparently slipped him some chemicals when he had
"Where was this? I've never heard of Mask."
"A place called the Keep of the Four Worlds," I told her.
"It's been a long time since I heard the Keep mentioned," she said. "A
sorcerer named Sharu Garrul used to hold it."
"He's a coatrack now," I stated. "What?"
"Long story; but Mask has the place these days."
She stared at me, and I could tell she was just realizing that there
was a lot she didn't know in the way of recent developments. I'd judge she
was deciding which of several obvious questions to ask next when I decided
to beat her to the punch while she was still off balance.
"So how's Bleys?" I asked.
"He's much improved. I treated him myself and he's recovering quickly."
I was about to ask her where he was, which I knew she would refuse to
answer, and hopefully we would both smile when she saw what I was driving
at: no address for Bleys, no address for Luke; we keep our secrets and stay
"Hello!" I heard Mandor say, and we both turned in the direction he was
facing-back out through the notch.
The dark tornado-form had collapsed to half its former size, and even
as we watched, it continued to diminish. It fell steadily in upon itself,
shrinking and shrinking, and in about a half minute it was gone, completely.
I could not suppress a smile, but Fiona did not even notice. She was
looking at Mandor.
"Do you think it was because of what you did?" she asked him.
"I have no way of knowing," he replied, "but it may well be."
"But does it tell you anything?" she said.
"Perhaps whoever was responsible did not like having me tinker with his
"You really believe there's an intelligence behind it?"
"Someone from the Courts?"
"It seems more likely than someone from your end of the world."
"I suppose so . . . ," she agreed. "Have you any guesses as to the
"I understand," she said quickly. "Your business is your business. But
a general threat is everybody's business. That's what I was really getting
"True," he acknowledged. "This is why I propose investigating it. I'm
at loose ends at the moment. It might be amusing."
"It is awkward asking you to communicate your findings to me," she
said, "when I do not know what interests might be involved."
"I appreciate your position," he replied, "but to the best of my
knowledge the treaty provisions still hold and no one in the Courts is
promoting any special designs against Amber. In fact. . . . If you like, we
might pursue the matter together, at least part of the way."
"I've got the time," she said.
"I don't," I injected quickly. "I've some pressing business to attend
Mandor shifted his attention to me.
"About my offer . . . ," he said.
"I can't," I told him.
"Very well. Our conversation is not concluded, however. I'll be in
Fiona looked my way then, also.
"You will keep me posted on Luke's recovery, and his intentions," she
"Good day, then."
Mandor gave me a small half salute and I returned . it.
I began walking then, and as soon as I was out of sight I began
I found my way to a rocky slope, where I halted at withdrew my Trump
for Amber. I raised it, focused my awareness, and transported myself as soon
as I felt my way through. I was hoping the main hall would be empty, but at
this point I didn't really care that much.
I came through near Jasra, who was holding an extra cloak over her
outstretched left arm. I ducked out the doorway to my left into an empty
corridor and made my way to the back stair. Several times I heard voices and
I detoured to avoid the speakers. I was able to make it to my rooms without
The only rest I had had in what seemed an age and a half had been a
fifteen-minute nap before Luke's spaced-out sorcerous faculty had caused him
to summon me to the Looking Glass Bar via a hallucinatory Trump. When? For
all I knew, it could have been yesterday-which had been a very full day
before that incident.
I barred the door and staggered to the bed, flinging myself down upon
it without even removing my boots. Sure, there were all sorts of things I
should be doing, but I was in no condition for any of them. I'd returned
home because I still felt safest in Amber; despite the fact that Luke had
reached me here once.
Someone with a high-powered subconscious might have had a brilliantly
revelatory dream following as much crap as I'd been through recently, and
then have awakened with a wonderful series of insights and answers detailing
appropriate courses of action. I didn't. I woke once, in a small panic, not
knowing where I was. But I opened my eyes and satisfied myself on that
count, then went back to sleep. Later-much later, it seemed-I returned by
degrees, like some piece of flotsam being pushed higher and higher onto a
beach by wave following wave, until finally I was there. I saw no reason for
going any further until I realized that my feet hurt. Then I sat up and
pulled my boots off, which might have been one of the six greatest pleasures
in my life. I removed my socks in a hurry then and threw them into the
corner of the room. Why doesn't anyone else in my line of work seem to get
sore feet? I filled the basin and soaked them for a time, then resolved to
go barefoot for the next few hours.
Finally I rose, stripped, cleaned up, and put on a pair of Levi's and a
purple flannel shirt of which I am fond. The hell with swords, daggers, and
cloaks for a time. I opened the shutters and looked outside. It was dark.
Because of clouds, I couldn't even guess from the stars whether it might be
early evening, late night, or almost morning.
It was very quiet in the hall, and there were no sounds as I made my
way down the back stair. The kitchen was deserted also, the big fires banked
and smoldering low. I didn't want to stir things up beyond hanging a pot of
water to warm for tea while I located some bread and fruit preserves. I
turned up a jug of something like grapefruit juice, too, in one of the
walk-in ice boxes.
As I sat warning my feet and working my way through the loaf, I began
to feel uneasy. I was sipping my tea before I realized what it was. There
seemed a great necessity that I be doing something, yet I had no idea what.
Now I had something of a breather, and it felt strange. So I decided to
start thinking again.
By the time I'd finished eating, I had a few small plans. The first
thing I did was to make my way to the main halt, where I removed all of the
hats and cloaks form Jasra and swept her off her feet. Later, as I was
bearing her stiff form along the upstairs hallway in the direction of my
room, a door opened partway and a bleary-eyed Droppa watched me go by.
"Hey, I'II take two!" he tailed after me.
"Reminds me of any first wife," he added then, and closed the door.
Once I had her installed in my quarters, I drew up a chair and seated
myself before her. Garishly clad as part of a savage joke, her hard sort of
beauty was not really diminished. She had placed me in extreme peril on one
occasion, and I had no desire to free her at a time like this for a possible
repeat performance. But the spell that held her claimed my attention for
more than one reason and I wanted to understand it fully.
Carefully then, I began exploring the construct which held her. It was
not overcomplicated, but I could see that tracing all of its byways was
going to take a while. All right. I wasn't about to stop now. I pushed on
ahead into the spell, taking mental notes as I went.
I was busy for hours. After I had solved the spell, I decided to hang
some more of my own, times being what they were. The castle came awake about
me as I worked. I labored steadily as the day progressed, until everything
was in place and I was satisfied with my work. I was also famished.
I moved Jasra off into a corner, pulled on my boots, departed my
quarters, and headed for the stair. In that it seemed about lunchtime I
checked out the several dining rooms in which the family generally ate. But
all of them were deserted and none of them were set up for a meal yet to
come. Nor did any of them show signs of a meal having recently been
I suppose it was possible my time sense was , still skewed and I was
much too late or too early; but it did seem that it had been daylight long
enough to bring me into the vicinity of the proper hour. Nobody, however,
seemed to be eating, so something had to be wrong with this assumption. . .
Then I heard it-the faint click of cutlery upon plate. I headed in the
apparent direction of the sound. Obviously, the meal was taking place in a
less frequented setting than usual. I turned right, then left. Yes, they had
decided to set up in a drawing room. No matter.
I entered the room, whew Llewella was seated with Random's wife,
Vialle, on the red divan, dinner laid on a low table before them. Michael,
who worked in the kitchen, stood nearby behind a cart loaded with dishes. I
cleared my throat.
"Merlin, "Vialle announced with a sensitivity that always gives me a
small chill-she being completely blind. "How pleasant!''
"Hello," Llewella said. "Come and join us. We're anxious to hear what
you've been doing."
I drew a chair up to the far side of the table and seated myself.
Michael came over and laid a fresh setting before me. I thought about it
quickly. Anything Vialle heard would doubtless get back to Random. So I gave
them a somewhat edited version of recent events-leaving out all references
to Mandor, Fiona, and anything having to do with the Courts. It made for a
considerably shorter story and let me get to my food sooner.
"Everybody's been so busy lately," Llewella remarked. when I'd finished
talking. "It almost makes me feel guilty."
I studied the delicate green of her more-than-olive complexion; her
full lips, her large catlike eyes.
"But not quite," she added.
"Where are they all, anyway?" I asked. "Gerard," she said, "is down
seeing to harbor forti- fications, and Julian is in command of the army,
which has now been equipped with some firearms and is set to defend the
approaches to Kolvir.".
"You mean Dalt has something in the field already? Coming this way?"
She shook her head. "No, it was a precautionary measure," she replied,
"because of that message from Luke. Dalt's force had not actually been
"Does anyone even know where he is?" I asked..
"Not yet," she answered, "but we're expecting some intelligence on that
soon." She shrugged. Then, "Perhaps Julian already has it," she added.
"Why is Julian in command?" I asked between nibbles. "I'd have thought
Benedict would take charge of something like this."
Llewella looked away, glancing at Vialle, who seemed to feel the
shifting of focus.
"Benedict and a small force of his men have escorted Random to Kashfa,"
Vialle said, softly.
"Kashfa?" I said: "Why would he want to do that? In fact, Dalt usually
hangs out around Kashfa. The area could be dangerous right now."
She smiled faintly.
"That is why he wanted Benedict and his guard for escort," she said.
"They may even be the intelligence- gathering expedition themselves, though
that's not their reason for going right now."
"I don't understand," I said, "why the trip should be necessary at
She took a sip of water.
"A sudden political upheaval," she replied: "Some general had taken
over in the absence of the queen and the crown prince: The general was just
assassinated recently, and Random has succeeded in obtaining agreement for
placing his own candidate-an older noblemanon the throne. "
"How'd he do that?"
"Everyone with an interest in the matter was even more interested in
seeing Kashfa admitted to the Golden Circle of privileged trade status."
"So Random bought them off to see his own man in charge," I observed.
"Don't these Golden Circle treaties usually give us the right to move troops
through a client kingdom's territory with very little in the way of
"Yes," she said.
I suddenly recalled that tough-looking emissary of the Crown I'd met at
Bloody Bill's, who had paid his tab in Kashfan currency. I decided I did not
really want to know how close in point of time that was to the assassination
that had made this recent arrangement possible. What struck me with more
immediate force was the picture that now emerged: It looked as if Random had
just blocked Jasra and Luke from recovering their usurped thronewhich, to be
fair, I guess Jasra had usurped herself, years ago. With all that usurping
going on, the equities of the thing were more than a little hazy to me. But
if Random's ethics were no better than those which had gone before, they
were certainly no worse. It looked now, though, as if any attempt on the
part of Luke to regain his mother's throne would be met by a monarch who
possessed a defense alliance with Amber. I suddenly felt willing to bet that
the terms of the defense provisions of the alliance included Amber's
assistance in internal troubles as well as help against outside aggressors.
Fascinating. It sounded as if Random were going to an awful lot of
trouble to isolate Luke from his power base and any semblance of legitimacy
as a head of state. I supposed the next step could be to get him outlawed as
a pretender and a dangerous revolutionary, and to put a price on his head.
Was Random overreacting? Luke didn't seem all that dangerous now, especially
with his mother in our custody. On the other hand, I didn't really know how
far Random intended to go: Was he just foreclosing all of the threatening
options, or was he actually out to get Luke? The latter possibility bothered
me in that Luke seemed on halfway good behavior at the moment and possibly
in the throes of reconsidering his position. I did not want to see him
needlessly thrown to the wolves as a result of overkill on Random's part.
So, "I suppose this has a lot to do with Luke," I said. to Vialle.
She was silent for a moment, then replied, "It was Dalt that he seemed
I shrugged mentally. It seemed that it would come down to the same
thing in Random's mind, since he would see Dalt as the military force Luke
would turn to to recover the throne. So I said, "Oh," and went on eating.
There were no new facts to be had beyond this, and nothing to clarify
Random's thinking any further, so we lapsed into small talk while I
considered my position once again. It still came down to a feeling that
urgent action was necessary and uncertainty as to what form it should take.
My course was determined in an unexpected fashion sometime during dessert.
A courtier named Randel-tall, thin, dark, and gener- ally smiling-came
into the room. I knew something was up because he was not smiling and he was
moving faster than usual. He swept us with his gaze, fixed upon Vialle,
advanced quickly and cleared his throat.
"M'lady Majesty . . . ?" he began.
Vialle turned her head slightly in his direction:
"Yes, Randel?" she said. "What is it?"
"The delegation from Begma has just arrived," he answered, "and I find
myself without instructions as to the nature of their welcome and any
special arrangements that would be suitable."
"Oh dear'" Vialle said; laying aside her fork. "They weren't due until
the day after tomorrow, when Random will be back. He's the one they'll be
wanting to complain to. What have you done with them?"
"I seated them in the Yellow Room," he replied, "and told them I would
go and announce their arrival."
"How many of them are there?"
"The prime minister, Orkuz," he said, "his secretary, Nayda-who is also
his daughter-and another daughter, Coral. There are also four servants-two
men and two women."
"Go and inform the household staff, and be sure that appropriate
quarters are made ready for them," she directed, "and alert the kitchen.
They may not have had lunch."
"Very good, Your Highness," he said, beginning to back away.
". . . Then report to me in the Yellow Room, to let me know it's been
done," she continued, "and I'll give you additional instruictions at that
"Consider it done," he replied, and he hurried off.
"Merlin, Llewella," Vialle said, beginning to rise, "come help me
entertain them while arrangements are being made."
I gulped my last bite of dessert and got to my feet: I did not really
feel like talking to a diplomat and his party, but I was handy and it was
one of life's little duties.
"Uh. . . . What are they here for, anyway?" I asked.
"Some sort of protest over what we've been doing in Kashfa," she
replied. "They've never been friendly with Kashfa, but I'm not sure now
whether they're here to protest Kashfa's possible admission to the Golden
Circle or whether they're upset about our interfering in Kashfa's domestic
affairs. It could be they're afraid they'll lose business with such a close
neighbor suddenly enjoying the same preferred trade status they have. Or it
may be they had different plans for Kashfa's throne and we just foreclosed
them. Maybe.both. Whatever. . . . We can't tell them anything we don't
"I just wanted to know what subjects to avoid," I said. "All of the
above,'' she answered.
``I was wondering the same thing myself," Llewella said. "I was also
wondering, though, whether they might have any useful information on Dalt.
Their intelligence service must keep a close eye on doings in and abou
"Don't pursue that topic," Vialle said, moving toward the door. "If
they let something slip or want to give something away, fine. Bring it home.
But don't show them you'd like. to know."
Vialle took my arm and I guided her out, heading toward the Yellow
Room. Llewella produced a small mirror from somewhere and inspected her
features. Obviously pleased, she put it away, then remarked, "Lucky you
showed up, Merlin. An extra smiling face is always useful at times like
"Why don't I feel lucky?" I said.
We made our way to the room where the prime minister and his daughters
waited. Their servants had already retired to the kitchen for refreshments.
The official party was still hungry, which says something about protocol,
especially since it seemed to take a long while before some trays of
provender could be attractively assembled. Orkuz was of medium stature and
stocky, his black hair tastefully streaked, the lines on his broad face
seeming to indicate that he did a lot more frowning than smiling-a practice
in which he indulged most of the while that afternoon. Nayda's was a more
pleasingly sculpted version of his face, and though she showed the same
tendency towardl corpulence, it was held firmly in check at an attractive
level of roundedness. Also, she smiled a lot and she had pretty teeth.
Coral, on the other hand, was taller than either her father or sister,
slender, her hair a reddish brown. When she smiled it seemed less official.
Also, there was something vaguely familiar about her. I wondered whether I
had met her at some boring reception years before. If I had, though, I felt
I might have remembered.
After we had been introduced and wine had been poured, Orkuz made a
brief comment to Vialle about "recent distressing news" concerning Kashfa.
Llewella and I quickly moved to her side for moral support, but she simply
said that such matters would have to be dealt with fully upon Random's
return, and that for the moment she wished merely to see to their comfort.
He was completely agreeable to this, even to the point of smiling. I had the
impression he just wanted the purpose of his visit on the recorD
immediately. Llewella quickly fumed the conversation to the matter of his
journey, and he graciously allowed the subject to be changed. Politicians
are wonderfully programmed.
I learned later that the Begman ambassador wasn't even aware of his
arrival, which would seem to indicate that Orkuz had come so quickly he had
preceded any notification to their . embassy. And he hadn't even bothered
dropping in there, but had come straight to the palace and had a message
sent over. I leanned this a little later, when he asked to have the message
delivered. Feeling somewhat supernumerary to Llewella's and Vialle's
graceful cascades of neutral talk, I dropped back a pace to plan my escape.
I was not at all interested in whatever game was being set up.
Coral backed off also and sighed. Then she glanced at me and smiled,
surveyed the room quickly and came closer.
"I've always wanted to visit Amber," she said then.
"Is it the way you imagined it?" I asked.
"Oh, yes. So far. Of course, I haven't seen that much of it yet. . . .
I nodded, and we , withdrew a little farther from the others.
"Have I met you somewhere before?" I asked.
"I don't think so," she said. "I haven't traveled that much, and I
don't believe you've been out our way.Have you?"
"No, though I've grown curious about it recently.'
"I do know something of your background, though," she went on, "just
from general gossip. I know you're from the Courts of Chaos; and I know you
went to school on that Shadow world you Amberites seem to visit so
frequently. I've often wondered what it was like."
I took the bait and I began telling her about school and my job, about
a few places I'd visited and things I'd enjoyed doing. We made our way to a
sofa across the room as I spoke, and we got more comfortable. Orkuz, Nayda,
Llewella, and Vialle didn't seem to miss us, and if I had to be here I found
talking with Coral more enjoy- able ,than listening to them. Not to
monopolize things, though, I asked her about herself.
She began telling me of a girlhood spent in and around Begma, of her
fondness for the outdoors-of horses and of boating on the many lakes and
rivers in that region -of books she had read, and of relatively innocent
dabblings in magic. A member of the household staff came in just as she was
getting around to a description of some interesting rites performed by
members of the local farming community to insure the fertility of the crops,
and she approached Vialle and told her something. Several more staff members
were in view outside the doorway. Vialle then said something to Orkuz and
Nayda, who nodded and moved toward the entrance. Llewella departed the
group and.came our way.
"Coral," she said, "your suite is ready. One of the staff wilt show you
where it is. Perhaps you'd like to freshen up or rest after your journey."
We got to our feet.
"I'm not really tired," Coral said, looking at me rather than Llewella,
a hint of a smile at the corners of her mouth.
What the hell. I suddenly realized I had been enjoying
her company, so, "If you'd care to change into something simpler," I
said, "I'll be glad to show you a bit of the town. Or the palace."
It became a full smile worth seeing.
"I'd much rather do that," she said.
"Then I'll meet you back here in about half an hour," I told her.
I saw her out, and accompanied her and the others as far as the foot of
the big stairway. In that I still had on my Levi's and purple shirt, I
wondered whether I should change into something more in keeping with local
fashion. The hell with it, I decided then. We were just going to be knocking
around. I'd simply add my swordbelt and weapons, a cloak, and my best boots.
Might trim my beard, though, since I had a little time. And maybe a quick
manicure. . . .
"Uh, Merlin. . . ."
It was Llewella, her hand on my elbow, steering me toward an alcove. I
allowed myself to be steered.
Then, "Yes?" I said. "What's up?"
"Hm . . . ," she said. "Kind of cute, isn't she?" "I suppose so," I
"You got the hots for her?"
"Jeez, Llewella! I don't know: I just met the lady."
". . . And made a date with her. "
"Come on! I deserve a break today. I enjoyed talking with her. I'd like
to show her around a bit. I think we'd have a good time. What's wrong wish
"Nothing," she answered, "so long as you keep things in perspective." ,
"What perspective did you have in mind?"
"It strikes me as faintly curious," she said, "that Orkuz brought along
his two good-looking daughters." "Nayda is his secretary," I said, "and
Coral's wanted to see the place for some time."
"Uh-huh, and it would be a very good thing for Begma if one of them
just happened to latch onto a member of the family."
"Llewella, you' too damned suspicious," I said. "It comes of having
lived a long time."
"Well, I hope to live a long time myself, and I hope it doesn't make me
look for an ulterior motive in every human act."
She smiled. "Of course. Forget I said anything," she told me, knowing I
wouldn't. "Have a good time." I growled politely and headed for my room.
And so, in the midst of all manner of threats, intrigues, menaces, and
mysteries, I decided to call a holiday and stroll about town with a pretty
lady. Of all possible choices I might have made, it was certainly the most
atractive. Whoever the enemy, whatever the power I faced, the ball was now
in its court. I had no desire to hunt for Jurt, duel with Mask, or follow
Luke about until he came down and told me whether or not he still wanted the
family's scalps. Dalt was not my problem, Vinta was me, Ghostwheel was
silent, and the matter of my father's Pattern could await my leisure. The
sun was shining and the breeze was, gentle, though these could change
quickly at this season. It was a shame to waste what could well be the
year's last good day on anything less than enjoyment. I hummed as I repaired
myself, and I headed downstairs early for our meeting.
Coral had moved more quickly than I'd guessed, however, and was waiting
for me. I approved of her sensible dark green breeches, heavy coppery shirt,
and warm brown cloak. Her boots looked fine for walking, and she had on a
dark hat that covered most of her hair. There were gloves and a dagger at
"All ready," she said when she saw me.
"Great," I replied, smiling, and I led her out into the hallway.
She started to turn in the direction of the main doorway, but I led her
off to the right, then later to the left.
"Less conspicuous to use one of the side doors," I said.
"You people are certainly secretive," she said.
"Habit," I replied. "The less that outsiders know of your business the
"What outsiders? What are you afraid of?"
"Just now? A great number of things. But I don't really want to spend a
nice day like this making lists."
She shook her head in what I took to be a mixture of awe and disgust.
"It's true what they say then?" she asked. "That your affairs are so
complex you all carry scorecards?"
"Haven't had time for any affairs recently," I told her, "or even a
simple score." Then, "Sorry," I added, when I saw her blush. "Life has been
a bit complicated for me lately."
"Oh," she said, glancing at me, clearly asking for elaboration.
"Some other time," I said, forcing a laugh, flipping my cloak, and
greeting a guard.
She nodded and, diplomatically, changed the subject:
"I guess I came at the wrong time of year to see your famous gardens."
"Yeah, they've pretty much had it for the season," I said, "except for
Benedict's Japanese garden which
kind of far out back. Perhaps we can go and have a cup of tea there one
day, but I thought we'd go into town now."
"Sounds fine," she agreed.
I told the postern guard to tell Henden, Amber's steward, that we were
heading into town and weren't sure when we'd be back. He said that he would
as soon as he got off duty, which would be pretty soon. My experience at
Bloody Bill's had taught me the lesson of leaving such messages-not that I
thought we were in any danger; or that Llewella's knowing wouldn't be
Leaves crunched beneath our feet as we took one of the walks toward a
side gate. With only a few strands of cirruis high overhead, the sun shone
brightly. To the west, a flock of dark birds flapped its way toward the
"It's already snowed back home," she told me.
"There's a warm current that gives us a break," I said, remembering
something Gerard had once told me. "It moderates the climate considerably;
compared to other places at equal latitude."
"You travel a lot?" she asked me.
"I've been traveling more than I care to," I said, "recently. I'd like
to sit down and go to seed for about a year."
"Business or pleasure?" she asked me, as a guard let us out the gate
and I quickly surveyed the environs for lurkers.
"Not pleasure," I answered as I took her elbow for a moment and steered
her toward the way I had chosen. When we reached civilized precincts, we
followed the Main Concourse for a time. I pointed out a few landmarks and
notable residences, including the Begman Embassy. She showed no inclination
to visit the latter, though, saying she'd have to see her countrymen
officially before she left, anyway. She did stop in a shop we found later,
however, to buy a couple of blouses, having the bill sent to the embassy and
the garments to the palace.
"My father promised me some shopping," she explained. "And I know he'll
forget. When he hears about this, he'll know that I didn't."
We explored the streets of the various trades and stopped for a drink
at a sidewalk cafe, watching pedestrians and horsemen pass. I had just
turned toward her to relate an anecdote concerning one of the riders when I
felt the beginning of a Trump contact.Ii waited for several seconds as the
feeling grew stronger, but no identity took shape beyond the reaching. I
felt Coral's hand upon my arm.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
I reached out with my mind, attempting to assist in the contact, but
the other seemed to retreat as I did so. It was not the same as that lurking
scrutiny when Mask had regarded me at Flora's place in San Francisco,
though. Could it just be someone I knew trying to reach me and having
trouble focusing? Injured, perhaps? Or-
"Luke?" I said. "Is that you?"
But there was no response and the feeling began to fade. Finally, it
"Are you all right?" Coral asked.
"Yeah, it's okay," I said. "I guess. Someone tried to reach me and then
"Reach? Oh, you mean those Trumps you use?"
"But you said `Luke' . ." she mused. "None of your family is named-''
"You might know him as Rinaldo, Prince of Kashfa," I said.
"Rinny? Sure I know him. He didn't like us to call him Rinny, though. .
"You really do know him? Personally, I mean?"
"Yes," she replied, "though it's been a long time. Kashfa's pretty
close to Begma. Sometimes we were on good terms, sometimes not so good. You
know how it is. Politics. When I was little there were long spells when we
were pretty friendly. There were lots of state visits, both ways. We kids
would often get dumped together."
"What was he like in those days?"
"Oh, a big, gawky, red-haired boy. Liked to show off a lot-how strong
he was, how fast he was. I remember how mad he got at me once because I beat
him in a footrace."
"You beat Luke in a race?"
"Yes. I'm a very good runner."
"You must be."
"Anyway, he took Nayda and me sailing a few times, and on some long
hikes. Where is he now, anyway?" "Drinking with a Cheshire cat."
"What?, "It's a long story:"
"I'd like to hear it. I've been worried about him since the coup. "
Mm. . . . I thought quickly about how to edit this so as not to tell
the daughter of the Begman prime minister any state secrets, such as Luke's
relationship to the House of Amber. . . . So, "I've known him for quite some
time," I began. "He recently incurred the wrath of a sorcerer who drugged
him and saw him banished to this peculiar bar. . . ."
I went on for a long while then, partly because I had to stop and
summarize Lewis Carroll. I also had to promise her the loan of one of the
Thari editions of Alice from the Amber library. When I finally finished, she
"Why don't you bring him back?" she said then.
Ouch. I couldn't very well say that his shadow-shifting abilities would
work against this until he came down. So, "It's part of the spell; it's
working on his own sorcerous ability," I said. "He can't be moved till the
drug wears off.
"How interesting;" she observed. "Is Luke really a sorcerer himself?"
"Uh . . . yes," I said.
"How did he gain that ability? He showed no signs of it when I knew
"Sorcerers come by their skills in various ways," I explained. "But you
know that," and I suddenly realized that she was smarter than that smiling,
innocent expression indicated. I'd a strong feeling she was trying to steer
this toward an acknowledgment of Pattern magic on Luke's part, which of
course would say interesting things about his paternity. "And his mother,
Jasra, is something of a sorceress herself."
"Really? I never knew that." Damn! Coming and going. . . . "Well, she'd
learned it somewhere:" "What about his father"
"I can't really say," I replied.
"Did you ever meet him?"
"Only in passing," I said.
A lie could make the matter seem really important if she had even a
small idea as to the truth. So I did the only other thing I could think of.
There was no one seated at the table behind her, and there was nothing
beyond the table but a wall. I wasted one of my spells, with an outof sight
gesture and a single mutter.
The table flipped over as it flew back and crashed against the wall.
The noise was spectacular. There were loud exclamations from several other
patrons, and I leaped to my feet.
"Is everyone all right?" I said, looking about as if for casualties.
"What happened?" she asked me.
"Freak gust of wind or something," I said. "Maybe we'd better be moving
"All right," she said, regarding the debris. "I'm not looking for
I tossed some coins onto our table, rose, and headed back outside,
talking the while of anything I could think of to put some distance between
us and the subject. This had the desired effect, because she did not attempt
to retrieve the question.
Continuing our stroll, I headed us in the general direction of West
Vine. When we reached it I decided to head downhill to the harbor, recalling
her fondness for sailing. But she put her hand on my arm and halted me.
"Isn't there a big stairway up the face of Kolvir?" she asked. "I
believe your father once tried to sneak troops up it and got caught and had
to fight his way along."
I nodded. "Yes, that's true," I said. "Old thing. It goes way back.
It's not used very much these days. But it's still in decent shape."
"I'd like to see it." "All right. "
I. turned to the right and we headed back, uphill, toward the Main
Concourse. A pair of knights wearing Llewella's livery passed us, headed in
the other direction, saluting as they went by. I could not help but wonder
whether they were on a legitimate errand or were following some standing
order to keep an eye on my movements. The thought must have passed through
Coral's mind, also, because she quirked an eyebrow at me. I shrugged and
kept going. When I glanced back a bit later, they were nowhere to be seen.
We passed people in the garb of a dozen regions as we strolled, and the
air was filled with the smells of cooking from open stalls, to satisfy a
multitude of tastes. At various points in our career up the hill, we stopped
for meat pies, yogurts; sweets. The stimuli were too overpowering for any
but the most sated to ignore.
I noticed the lithe way she moved about obstacles. It wasn't just
gracefulness. It was more a state of beingpreparedness, I guess. Several
times I noticed her glancing back in the direction from which we had come. I
looked myself, but there was nothing unusual to see. Once, when a man
stepped suddenly from a doorway we were approaching, I saw her hand flash
toward the dagger at her belt, then drop away.
"There is so much activity, so much going on here . . . ," she
commented after a time.
"True. Begma is less busy; I take it?"
"Is it a pretty safe place to stroll about?"
"Do the women as well as the men take military training there?"
"Not ordinarily. Why?"
"I've had some training in armed and unarmed combat though," she said.
"Why was that?" I asked.
"My father suggested it. Said it could come in hand for a relative of
someone in his position. I thought he might be right. I think he really
wanted a son."
"Did your sister do it, too?"
"No; she wasn't interested."
"You planning on a diplomatic career?"
"No. You're talking to the wrong sister."
"A wealthy husband?"
"Probably stodgy and boring."
"Maybe I'll tell you later."
"All right. I'll ask if you don't."
We made our way southward along the Concourse, and the breezes picked
up as we neared Land's End. It was a winter ocean that came into .view
across the distance; slate-gray and .white-capped. Many birds wheeled far
out over the waves, and one very sinuous dragon.
We passed through the Great Arch and came at last to the landing and
looked downward. It was a vertiginous prospect, out across a brief, broad
stair-the steep drop to the tan-and-black beach far below. I regarded the
ripples in the sand left by the retreating tide, wrinkles in an old man's
brow. The breezes were stronger here, and the damp, salty smell, which had
been increasing as we approached, seasoned the air to a new level of
intensity. Coral drew back for a moment, then advanced again.
"It looks a little more dangerous than I'd thought," .she said, after a
time. "Probably seems less so once you're on it."
"I don't know," I replied. "You've never climbed it?"
"Nope," I said. "Never had any reason to."
"I'd think you'd have wanted to, after your father's doomed battle
I shrugged: "I get sentimental in different ways." She smiled. "Let's
climb down to the beach. Please." "Sure," I said, and we moved forward and
started. The broad stair took us down for perhaps thirty feet,
then terminated abruptly where a much narrower version turned off to
the side. At least the steps weren't damp and slippery: Somewhere far below,
I could see where the stair widened again, permitting a pair of people to go
abreast. For now, though, we moved single file, and I was irritated that
Coral had somehow gotten ahead of me.
"If you'll scrunch over, I'll go past," I told her.
"Why?" she asked. .
"So I can be ahead of you in case you slip."
"That's all right," she replied. "I won't."
I decided it wasn't worth arguing and let her lead:
The landings where the stairway switched back were haphazard affairs,
hacked wherever the contours of the , rock permitted such a turning.
Consequently, some descending stretches were longer than others and our
route wandered all over the face of the mountain. The winds were much
stronger now than they were above, and we found ourselves staying as close
to the mountain's side as its contours permitted. Had there been no wind, we
probably would have done the same. The absence of any sort of guard railing
made us shy back from the edge. There were places where the mountain's wall
overhung us for a cavelike effect; other places, we followed a bellying of
the rock and felt very exposed. My cloak blew up across my face several
times and I cursed, recalling that natives seldom visit historical spots in
their own neighborhoods. I began to appreciate their wisdom. Coral was
hurrying on ahead, and I increased my pace to catch up with her. Beyond her,
I could see that there was a landing which signaled the first turning of the
way. I was hoping she'd halt there and tell me she'd reconsidered the
necessity for this expedition. Hut she didn't. She turned and kept right on
going. The wind stole my sigh and bore it to some storybook cave reserved
for the plaints of the imposed-upon.
Still, I couldn't help but look down upon occasion; and whenever I did
I thought of my father fighting his way up along these steps. It was not
something I'd care to try-at least, not until I'd exhausted all of the more
sneaky alternatives. I began to wonder how far we were below the level of
the palace itself. . . .
When we finally came to the landing from which the stairway widened, I
hurried to catch up with Coral so that we could walk abreast. In my haste, I
snagged my heel and stumbled as I rounded the turn. It was no big deal. . I
was able to reach out and stabilize myself against the cliff s face as I
jolted forward and swayed. I was amazed, though, at Coral's perception of my
altered gait just on the basis of its sound, and by her reaction to it. She
cast herself backward suddenly and twisted her body to the side. Her hands
came in contact with my arm as she did this, and she thrust me to the side,
against the rock.
".All right!" I said, from rapidly emptying lungs. "I'm okay."
She rose and dusted herself off as I recovered.
"I heard-" she began.
"I gather. But I just caught my heel: That's all."
"I couldn't tell."
"Everything's fine. Thanks."
We starred down the stair side by side, but something was changed. I
.now harbored a suspicion I did not like but could not dispel. Not yet,
anyway. What I had in mind was too dangerous, if I should prove correct.
So instead, "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain," I said.
"What?" she asked. "I didn't understand. . . ."
"I said, `It's a fine day to be walking with a pretty lady.' "
She actually blushed.
Then, "What language did you say it in . . . the first time.
"English," I replied.
"I've never studied it. I told you that when we were talking about
"I know. Just being whimsical," I answered.
The beach, nearer now, was tiger-striped and shiny in places. A froth
of foam retreated along its slopes while birds cried and dipped to examine
the waves' leavings. Sails bobbed in the offing, and a small curtain of rain
rippled in the southeast, far out at sea. The winds had ceased their
noise-making, though they still came upon us with cloak-wrapping force.
We continued in silence until we had reached the bottom. We stepped
away then, moving a few paces onto the sand.
"The harbor's in that direction," I said, gesturing to my right,
westward, "and there's a church off that way," I added, indicating the dark
building where Caine's service had been held and where seamen sometimes came
to pray for safe voyages.
She looked in both directions and also glanced behind us and upward.
"More people headed down," she remarked.
I looked back up and saw three figures near the top of the stairway,
but they were standing still, as if they'd only come down a short distance
to try the view. None of them wore Lleweila's colors. . . .
"Fellow sightseers," I said.
She watched them a moment longer, then looked away. "Aren't` there
caves along here somewhere?" she asked.
I nodded to my right.
"That way," I answered. "There's a whole series. People get lost in
them periodically. Some are pretty colorful. Others just wander through
darkness. A few are simply shallow openings."
"I'd like to see them," she said.
"Sure, easily done. Let's go." .
I began walking. The people on the stair had not moved. They still
appeared to be looking out to sea. I doubted they were smugglers. It doesn't
seem like a daytime occupation for a place where anyone might
wander by. Still, I was pleased that my faculty for suspi-cion was
growing. It seemed appropriate in light of recent events: The object of my
greatest suspicion, of course, was walking beside me, turning driftwood with
the toe of her boot, scuffing bright pebbles, laughing-but there was nothing
I was ready to do about it at the moment. Soon. . . .
She took my arm suddenly.
"Thanks for bringing me," she said. "I'm enjoying this."
"Oh, I am, too. Glad we came. You're welcome."
This made me feel slightly guilty, but if my guess were wrong no harm
would be done.
"I think I would enjoy living in Amber," she remarked as we went along.
"Me, too," I replied. "I've never really done it for any great length
"I guess I didn't really explain how long I'd spent on the shadow Earth
where I went to school, where I had that job I was telling you about . . .
," I began, and suddenly I was pouring out more autobiography to hera thing
I don't usually do. I wasn't certain why I was telling it at first, and then
I realized that I just wanted someone to talk to. Even if my strange
suspicion was correct, it didn't matter. A friendly-seeming listener made me
feel better than I had in a long while. And before I realized it, I was
telling her about my father-how this man I barely knew had rushed through a
massive story of his struggles, his dilemmas, his decisions, as if he were
trying to justify himself to me, as if that were the only opportunity he
might have to do it, and how I had listened, wondering what he was editing,
what ~ he had forgotten, what he might be glossing over or dressing up, what
his feelings were toward me. . . .
"Those are some of the caves," I told her, as they interrupted my now
embarrassing indulgence in memory. She started to say something about my
monologue, but I simply continued; "I've only seen them once."
She caught my mood and simply said "I'd like to go inside one."
I nodded. They seemed a good place for what I had in mind.
I chose the third one. Its mouth was larger than the first two, and I
could see back into it for a good distance. "Let's try that one. It looks
well lighted," I explained. We walked into a shadow-hung chill. The damp
sand followed us for a while, thinning only slowly to be replaced by a
gritty stone floor. The roof dipped and rose several times. A turn to the
left joined us with the passage of another opening, for looking back along
it I could see more light. The other direction led more deeply into the
mountain. We could still feel the echoing pulse of the sea from where we
"These caves could lead back really far," she observed.
"They do," I replied. "They twist and cross and wind. I wouldn't want
to go too far without a map and a light. They've never been fully charted,
that I know of."
She looked about, studying areas of blackness within the darkness where
side tunnels debouched into our own.
"How far back do you think they go?" she inquired.
"I just don't know."
"Under the palace?"
"Probably," I said, remembering the series of side tunnels I'd passed
on my way to the Pattern. "It seems possible they ' cut into the big caves
"What's it like down there?" .
"Under the palace? Just dark and big. Ancient. . . ."
"I'd like to see it."
"The Pattern's down there. It must be pretty colorful."
"Oh, it is-all bright and swirly. Rather intimidating, though."
"How can you say that when you've walked it?"
"Walking it and liking it are two different things." ``
"I'd just thought that if it were in you to walk it, you'd
feel some affinity, some deep resonant kinship with it."
I laughed, and the sounds echoed about us.
"Oh, while I was walking it I knew it was in me to
do it," I said. "I didn't feel it beforehand, though. I was; just
scared then. And I never liked it."
"Not really. It's like the sea or the night sky. It's big' and it's
powerful and it's beautiful and it's there. It's a natural force and you
make of it what you will."
She looked back along the passageway leading inward.
"I'd like to see it," she said.
"I wouldn't try to find my way to it from here," I told her. "Why do
you want to see it, anyhow?" '
"Just to see how I'd respond to something like that "
"You're strange," I said.
"Will you take me when.we go back? Will you show it to me?"
This was not going at all the way I'd thought it would.: If she were
what I thought, I didn't understand the request. I was half tempted to take
her to it, to find out what she had in mind. However, I was operating under
a system of priorities, and I'd a feeling she represented one concerning
which I'd made myself a promise and'; some elaborate preparations.
"Perhaps," I mumbled.
"Please. I'd really like to see it."
She seemed sincere. But my guess felt near-perfect.
Sufficient time had passed for that strange body-shifting spirit, which
had dogged my trail in many forms, to have; located a new host and then to
have zeroed in on me again and be insinuating itself into my good graces
once more. Coral was perfect for the role, her arrival appropriately timed,
her concern for my physical welfare manifest, her reflexes fast. I'd have
liked to keep her around for questioning, but I knew that she would simply
lie to me in the absence of proof or an emergency situation. And I did not
trust her. So I reviewed the spell I had prepared and hung on my way home
from Arbor House, a spell I had designed to expel a possessing entity from
its host. I hesitated a moment, though. My feelings toward her were
ambivalent. Even if she were the entity, I might be willing to put up with
her if I just knew her motive.
So, "What is it that you want?" I asked.
"Just to see it. Honestly," she answered.
"No, I mean that if you are what I think you really are, I'm asking the
big question: Why?"
Frakir began to pulse upon my wrist.
Coral was silent for the space of an audible deep breath, then, "How
could you tell?"
"You betrayed yourself in small ways discernible only to one who has
recently become paranoid," I responded.
"Magic," she said. "Is that it?"
"It's about to be," I replied. "I could almost miss you, but I can't
I spoke the guide words to the spell, letting them draw my hands
smoothly through the appropriate gestures. There followed two horrible
shrieks, and then a third.
But they weren't hers. They came from around the corner in the
passageway we had recently quitted.
"What-?" she began.
"-the hell! " I finished; and I rushed past her and rounded the corner,
drawing my blade as I went.
Backlighted by the distant cavemouth I beheld three
figures on the floor of the cave. Two of them were sprawled and
unmoving. The third was seated and bent forward, , cursing. I advanced
slowly, the point of my weapon directed toward the seated one. His shadowy
head turned in my direction, and he climbed to his feet, still bent forward.
He clutched his left hand with his right, and he backed away until he came
into contact with the wall.
He halted there, muttering something I could not quite hear. I
continued my cautious advance, all of my senses alert. I could hear Coral
moving at my back, then I glimpsed her accompanying me on my left when the
passage widened. She had drawn her dagger, and she held it low and near to
her hip. No time now to speculate as to what my spell might have done to
I halted as I came to the first of the two fallen forms. I prodded it
with the toe of my boot, ready to strike instantly should it spring into an
attack. Nothing. It felt limp, lifeless. I used my foot to turn it over, and
the head rolled back in the .direction of the cavemouth. In the light that
then fell upon it I beheld a half-decayed human face My nose had already
been informing me that this state was no mere illusion. I advanced upon the
other one and turned him, also. He, too, bore the appearance of a
decomposing corpse. While the first one clutched a dagger in his right hand,
the second was weaponless. Then I noted another dagger-on the floor, near
the live man's feet. I raised my eyes to him. This made no sense whatsoever.
I'd have judged the two figures upon the floor to have been dead for several
days, at least, and I had no idea as to what the standing man had been up
"Uh. . . . Mind telling me what's going on?' I inquired.
"Damn you, Merlin!" he snarled, and I recognized the voice.
I moved in a slow arc, stepping over the fallen ones. Coral stayed near
to my side, moving in a similar fashion. He turned his head to follow our
progress, and when the
light finally fell upon his face, I saw that Jurt was glaring at me out
of his one good eye-a patch covered the other-and I saw, too, that about
half -of his hair was missing, the exposed scalp covered with welts or
scars, his half-regrown ear-stub plainly visible. From this side I could
also see that a bandana suitable for covering most Of this damage had
slipped down around his neck. Blood was dripping from his left hand, and I
suddenly realized that his little finger was missing.
"What happened to you?" I asked.
"One of the zombies hit my hand with his dagger as he fell," he said,
"when you expelled the spirits that animated them."
My spell-to evict a possessing spirit. . . . They had been within range
of it. . . .
"Coral," I asked, "are you all right?"
"Yes," she replied. "But I don't understand. . . ."
"Later," I told her.
I did not ask him about, his head, as I recalled my struggle with the
one-eyed werewolf in the wood to the east of Amber-the beast whose head I
had forced into the campfire. I had suspected for some time that it had been
Jurt in a shape-shifted form, even before Mandor had offered sufficient
information to confirm it.
"Jurt," I began, "I have been the occasion of many of your ills, but
you must realize that you brought them on yourself. If you would not attack
me, I would have no need to defend myself-"
There came a clicking, grinding sound. It took me several seconds to
realize that it was a gnashing of teeth. "Miy adoption by your father meant
nothing to me," I said, "beyond the fact that he honored me by it. I was not
even aware until recently that it had occurred." "You lie!" he hissed. "You
tricked him some way, to get ahead of us in the succession."
"You've got to be kidding," I said. "We're all so far down on the list
that it doesn't matter."
"Not for the Crown, you fool! For the House! Our father isn't all that
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "But I'd never even thought of it
that way. And Mandor's ahead of all of us, anyhow. "
"And now you're second."
"Not by choice. Come on! I'll never see the title. You know that! "
He drew himself upright, and when he moved I became aware of a faint
prismatic nimbus that had been clinging to his outline.
"That isn't the real reason," I continued. "You've never liked me, but
you're not after me because of the succession. You're hiding something now.
It's got to be something else, for all this activity on your pan. By the
way, you did send the Fire Angel, didn't you?"
"It found you that fast?" he said. "I wasn't even sure I could count on
that. I guess it was worth the price after all. But. . . . What happened?".
"You're very lucky. Too lucky," he replied. "
"What is it that you want, Jurt? I'd like to settle this once and for
"Me, too," he answered. "You betrayed someone I love, and only your
death will set things right."
"Who are you talking about? I don't understand."
He grinned suddenly.
"You will," he said. "In the last moments of your life I'll let you
"I may have a long wait, then," I answered. "You don't seem to be very
good at this sort of thing: Why not just tell me now and save us both a lot
He laughed, and the prism effect increased, and it occurred to me in
that instant what it was.
"Sooner than you think," he said, "for shortly I will be more powerful
than anything you ever met."
"But no less clumsy," I suggested, both to him and to whomever held his
Tnimp, watching me through it, ready to snatch him away in an instant. . . .
"That is you, Mask, isn't it?" I said. "Take him back. You don't have
to send him again either and watch him screw up. I'll promote you on my list
of priorities and come calling soon, if you'll just give me an assurance
that it's really you."
Jurt opened his mouth and said something, but I couldn't hear it
because he faded fast and his words went away with him. Something flew
toward me as this occurred; there was no need to parry it, but I couldn't
stop the reflex.
Along with two moldering corpses and Jurt's little finger, a dozen or
so roses lay scattered on the floor at my feet, there at the rainbow's end.
As we walked along the beach in the direction of the harbor, Coral
"Does that sort of thing happen around here very often?"
"You should come by on a bad day," I said.
"If you don't mind telling me, I'd like to hear what it was all about."
"I guess I owe you an explanation," I agreed, "because I wronged you
back there, whether you know it or not."
"Go on. I'm really curious."
"It's a long story . . . ," I began again.
She looked ahead to the harbor, then up to Kolvir's heights.
". . . A long walk, too," she said.
". . . And you're a daughter of the prime minister of a country with
which we have somewhat touchy relations at the moment."
"What do you mean?"
"Some of the things that are happening may represent kind of sensitive
She put her hand on my shoulder and halted. She stared into my eyes.
"I can keep a secret," she told me. "After all, you know mine."
I congratulated myself on having finally learned my relatives' trick of
controlling facial expression even when puzzled as all hell. She had said
something back in the cave when I had addressed her as if she were the
entity, something that sounded as if she believed I had. discovered a secret
So I gave her a wry smile and nodded.
"Just so," I said.
"You're not planning on ravaging our country or anything like that, are
you?" she asked.
"To my knowledge, no. And I don't think it likely either."
"Well, then. You can only speak from your knowledge, can't you?"
"True," I agreed.
"So let's hear the story."
As we walked along the strand and I spoke, to the accompaniment of the
waves' deep notes, I could not help but remember again my father's long
narrative. Was it a family trait, I wondered, to go autobiographical at a
time of troubles if the right listener turned up? For I realized I was
elaborating my telling beyond the bounds of necessity. And why should she be
the right listener, anyhow?
When we reached the port district, I realized I was hungry, anyway, and
I still had a lot of telling to do. In that it was still daylight and
doubtless considerably safer than when I'd made my nighttime visit, I found
my way over to Harbor Road-which was even dirtier in strong light-and,
having learned that Coral was hungry, too, I took us on around to the rear
of the cove, pausing for a few minutes to watch a many-roasted vessel with
golden sails round the sea wall and head in. Then we followed the curving
way to the western shore, and I was able to locate Seabreeze Lane without
any trouble. It was still early enough. that we passed a few sober sailors.
At one point a heavy, black-bearded man with an interesting scar on his
right cheek began to approach us, but a smaller man caught up with him first
and whispered something in his ear. They both fumed away.
"Hey," I said. "What did he want?"
"Nothin'," the smaller man said. "He don't want nothin'." He studied me
for a moment and nodded. Then, "I saw you here the other night," he added.
"Oh," I said, as they continued to the next corner, turned it, and were
"What was that all about?" Coral said.
"I didn't get to that part of the story yet."
But I remembered it vividly when we passed the place where it had
occurred. No signs of that conflict remained.
I almost passed what had been Bloody Bill's, though, because a new sign
hung above the door. It read "Bloody Andy's," in fresh green letters. The
place was just the same inside, however, except for the man behind the
counter, who was taller and thinner than the shaggy, cragfaced individual
who had served me last time. His name, I learned, was Jak, and he was Andy's
brother. He sold us a bottle of Bayle's Piss and put in our order for two
fish dinners through the hole in the wall. My former table was vacant and we
took it. I laid my sword belt on the chair to my right, with the blade
partly drawn, as I had been taught etiquette required here.
"I like this place," she said. "It's . . . different."
"Uh . . . yes," I agreed, glancing at two passed-out drunks-one to the
front of the establishment, one to the rear-and three shifty-eyed
individuals conversing in low voices off in one corner. A few broken bottles
and suspi- cious stains were upon the floor, and some not-too-subtle artwork
of an amorous nature hung on the far wall. "The food's quite good," I added.
"I've never been in a restaurant like this," she continued, watching a
black cat, who rolled in from a rear room, wrestling with an enormous rat.
"It has its devotees, but it's a well-kept secret among discriminating
I continued my tale through a meal even better than the one I
remembered. When the door opened much later to admit a small man with a bad
limp and a dirty bandage about his head I noticed that daylight was
beginning to wane. I had just finished my story and it seemed a good time
to- be leaving.
I said as much, but she put her hand on mine.
"You know I'm not your entity," she said, "but if you need any kind of
help I can give you, I'll do it."
"You're a good listener," I said. "Thanks. We'd better be going now."
We passed out of Death Alley without, incident and made our way along
Harbor Road over to Vine. The sun was getting ready to set as we headed
upward, and the cobbles passed 'through a variety of bright earth tones and
fire colors. Street and pedestrian traffic was light. Cooking smells drifted
on the air; leaves. rattled along the road; .a small yellow dragon rode the
air currents high overhead; curtains of rainbow light rippled high in the
north beyond the palace. I kept waiting, expecting more questions from Coral
than the few she had asked. They never came. If I'd just heard my story, I
think I'd have a lot of questions, unless I were totally overpowered by it
or somehow understood it thoroughly.
"When we get back to the palace . . . ?" she said then.
". . . You will take me to see the Pattern, won't you?"
. . . Or unless something else were occupying my mind.
"Right away? First thing in the door?" I asked.
"Sure," I said.
Then, that off her mind, "Your story changes my picture of the world,"
she said, "and I wouldn't presume to advise you. . . ." ,
"But-" I continued.
". . . If seems that the Keep of the Four Worlds, holds the answers you
want. Everything else may fall into place when you learn what's going on
there. But I don't understand why you can't just do a card for it and trump
"Good question. There are parts of the Courts of Chaos to which no one
can trump because they change constantly and cannot be represented in a
permanent fashion. The same applies to the place where I situated
Ghostwheel. Now, the terrain around the Keep fluctuates quite a bit, but I'm
not positive that's the reason for the blockage. The place is a power
center, and I think it possible that someone diverted some of that power
into a shielding spell. A good enough magician might be able to drill
through it with a Trump, but I've a feeling that the force required would
probably set off some psychic ; alarm and destroy any element of surprise."
"What does the place look like, anyway?'' she asked.
"Well . . . ," I began. "Here." I took my notebook and Scripto from my
shirt pocket and sketched. "See, all of this area is volcanic." I scribbled
in a few fumaroles and wisps of smoke. "And this part is Ice Age." More
scribbles. "Ocean here, mountains here. . . ."
"Then it sounds as if your best bet is to use the Pattern again," she
said, studying the drawing and shaking her head.
"Do you think you'll be doing it soon?"
"How will you attack them?"
"I'm still working on that."
"If there's any sort of way that I can help you, I meant what I said."
"Don't be so sure. I'm well trained. I'm resourceful. I even know a few
"Thanks," I said. "But no."
"If you change your mind. . . ."
". . . Let me know."
We reached the Concourse, moved along it. The winds grew more blustery
here and something cold touched my cheek. Then again. . . .
"Snow!" Coral announced, just as I realized that a few middle-sized
flakes were drifting past us, vanishing immediately when they hit the
"If your party had arrived at the proper time," I observed, "you might
not have had your walk."
"Sometimes I'm lucky," she said.
It was snowing fairly hard by the time we reached the palace grounds.
We used the postern gate again, pausing on the walkway to gaze back down
over the light-dotted town, half screened by falling flakes. I knew she kept
looking longer than I did, because I turned to gaze at her. She
appeared-happy, I guess-as if she were pasting the scene in a mental
scrapbook. So I leaned over and kissed her cheek, because it seemed like a
"Oh," she said, fuming to face me. "You surprised me."
"Good,"I told her. "I hate to telegraph these things. Let's get the
troops in out of the cold."
She smiled and took my arm.
Inside, the guard told me, "Llewella wants to know whether you two will
be joining them all for dinner."
"When is dinner?" I asked him.
"In about an hour and a half, I believe."
I glanced at Coral, who shrugged.
"I guess so," I said.
"Front dining room, upstairs," he told me. "Shall I pass the word to my
sergeant-he's due by soon-and have him deliver it? Or do you want to-"
"Yes," I said. "Do that."
"Care to wash up, change clothes . . . ?" I began, as we walked away.
"The Pattern," she said.
"It would involve a lot more stairs," I told her.
She turned toward me, her face tightening, but saw that I was smiling.
"This way," I said, leading her to the main hall and through it.
I didn't recognize the guard at the end of the brief corridor that led
up to the stair. He knew who I was, though, glanced curiously at Coral,
opened the door, found us a lantern, and lit it.
"I'm told there's a loose step," he remarked as he passed me the light.
"Which one is it?" He shook his head.
"Prince Gerard's reported it several times," he said, "but no one else
seems to notice it."
"Okay," I said. "Thanks."
This time Coral didn't object to my going first. Of the two, this was
more intimidating than the stairway on the cliff face, mainly because you
can't see bottom and after a few paces you can't see much of anything beyond
the shell of light within which you move as you wind your way down. And
there's a heavy sense of vastness all about you. I've never seen the place
illuminated, but I gather that the impression is not incorrect. It's a very
big cavern, and you go round and round and down in the middle of it,
wondering when you'll reach the bottom.
After a time, Coral cleared her throat, then, "Could we stop for a
minute?" she asked.
"Sure," I said, halting. "Out of breath?"
"No," she said. "How much farther?"
"I don't know," I replied. "It seems a different distance each time I
come this way. If you want to go back and have dinner, we can see it
tomorrow. You've had a busy day."
"No," she answered. "But I wouldn't mind your holding me for a minute."
It seemed an awkward place to get romantic, so I cleverly deduced that
there was another reason, said nothing, and obliged.
It took me a long while to realize that she was crying.
She was very good at concealing it.
"What's the matter?" I finally asked.
"Nothing," she replied. "Nervous reaction, maybe. Primitive reflex.
Darkness. Claustrophobia. Like that."
"Let's go back."
So we started down again.
About a half minute later I saw something white near the side of a
lower step. I slowed. Then I realized that it was only a handkerchief. A
little nearer, however, and I saw that it was held in place by a dagger.
Also, there were markings upon it. I halted, reached out, flattened it, and
read. "THIS ONE, DAMN IT! -GERARD," It said.
"Careful here," I said to Coral.
I prepared to step over it, but on an impulse I tested it lightly with
one foot. No squeaks. I shifted more weight onto it. Nothing. It felt fine.
I stood on it. The same. I shrugged.
"Careful, anyway," I said.
Nothing happened when she stepped on it either, and we kept going. A
little later, I saw a flicker in the distance below. It was moving, and I
guessed someone was doing a patrol. What for? I wondered. Were there
prisoners to be tended and watжhed? Were certain cave mouths considered
vulnerable points? And what about the business of locking the chamber of the
Pattern and hanging the key on the wall near the door? Was there some
possible danger from that quarter? How? Why? I realized that I ought to
pursue these questions one of these days.
When we reached the bottom the guard was nowhere in sight, however. The
table, the racks, and a few foot lockers-which constituted the guard
station-were illuminated by a number of lanterns, but the guard was not at
his post. Too bad. It would be interesting to ask what the orders called for
in the event of an emergencyhopefully also specifying the possible natures
of various emergencies. For the first time, though, I noticed a rope hanging
down from the darkness into the dimness beside a weapons rack. I drew upon
it ever so gently and it yielded, to be followed a moment later by a faint
metallic sound from somewhere high overhead. Interesting. Obviously, this
was the alarm.
"Which . . . way?" Coral asked.
"Oh, come on," I said, taking her hand, and I led her off to the right.
I kept waiting for echoes as we moved, but none came. Periodically, I
raised the light. The darkness would recede a bit then, but nothing came
into view beyond an . additional area of floor.
Coral seemed to be slowing now, and I felt a certain tension in her arm
as she hung back. I plodded on and she kept moving, however.
Finally, "It shouldn't be too much longer," I said, as the echoes
began, very faintly.
"Good," she replied, but she did not increase her pace. At last the
gray wall of the cavern came into view, and far off to my left was the dark
opening of the tunnel mouth I sought: I changed course and headed toward it.
When we finally reached it and entered, I felt her flinch.
"If I'd known it would bother you this much-" I began.
"I'm really all right," she answered, "and I do want to see it. I just
didn't realize that getting there would be this . . . involved. "
"Well, the worst of it is over. Soon now," I said.
We came to the first side passage to the left fairly quickly and went
on by. There was another shortly thereafter, and I slowed and extended the
lantern toward it.
"Who knows?" I commented.. "That could take you through some strange
route back to the beach."
"I'd rather not check it out."
We walked for some time before we passed the third opening. I gave it a
quick glance. There was a vein of some bright mineral partway back in it.
I speeded up and she kept pace, our footsteps ringing loudly now. We
passed the fourth opening. The fifth. . . . From somewhere, it seemed I
heard faint strains of music.
She glanced at me inquiringly when we neared the sixth passageway, but
I just kept going. It was the seventh that I wanted, and when we finally
came to it I turned, took a few paces, halted, and raised the lantern. We
stood before a big metal-bound door.
I took the key down from the hook on the wall to my right, inserting it
in the lock, turned it, withdrew it, and rehung it. Then I put my shoulder
against the door and pushed hard. There followed a long moment of
resistance, then slow movement accompanied shortly by a complaint from a
tight hinge. Frakir tightened upon my wrist, but I kept pushing till the
door was opened wide. Then I stood to the side and held it for Coral.
She moved a few steps past me into that strange chamber and halted. I
stepped away and let the door swing shut, then came up beside her.
"So that's it," she remarked.
Roughly elliptical, the intricately wound oval form of the Pattern
glowed blue-white within the floor. I set the lantern aside. It wasn't
really necessary, the glow from the Pattern providing more than sufficient
illumination. I stroked Frakir, calming her. A jet of sparks rose at the far
end of the great design, subsided quickly, occurred again nearer to us. The
chamber seemed filled with a half familiar pulsing I had never consciously
noted before. On an impulse-to satisfy a long-held point of curiosity-I
summoned the Sign of the Logrus.
This was a mistake.
Immediately the image of the Logrus flared before me, sparks erupted
along the entire length of the Pattern, and a high-pitched banshee wail rose
from somewhere. Frakir went wild, my ears felt as if icicles had been driven
into them, and the brightness of the writhing Sign hurt my eyes. I banished
the Logrus in that instant, and the turmoil began to subside.
"What," she asked me, "was that?"
I tried to smile, didn't quite manage it.
"A little experiment I'd always meant to try," I told her.
"Did you learn anything from it?"
"Not to do it again, perhaps," I answered.
"Or at least not till the company's left," she said."That hurt.''
She moved nearer to the edge of the Pattern, which had calmed itself
"Eerie," she observed. "Like a light in a dream. But it's gorgeous. And
all of you have to walk it to come into your heritage?"
"Yes." She moved slowly to the right, following its perimeter. I
followed her as she strolled, her gaze roving across the bright expanse of
arcs and turns, short straight lines, long sweeping curves.
"I assume it is difficult?"
"Yes. The trick is to keep pushing and not to stop trying even if you
stop moving," I replied.
We walked on, to the right, circling slowly around to the rear. The
design seemed to be within the floor rather than upon it, seen as through a
layer of glass. But nowhere was the surface slippery.
We paused for a minute or so while she took its measure from a new
"So how are you responding to it?" I finally asked.
"Esthetically," she said.
"Power," she said. "It seems to radiate something."
She leaned forward and waved her hand above the nearest line. "It's
almost a physical pressure," she added then.
We moved farther, passing along the back length of the grand design. I
could see across the Pattern, to the place where the lantern glowed on the
floor near to the entranceway. Its light was negligible beside the greater
illumination we regarded now.
Shortly, Coral halted again. She pointed.
"What is this single line, which seems to end right here?" she asked.
"It's not the end," I said. "It's the beginning. That is the place
where one commences the walking of the Pattern."
She moved nearer, passing her hand above it also.
"Yes," she said after a moment. "I can feel that it starts here."
For how long we stood there, I am uncertain. Then she reached out, took
hold of my hand and squeezed it.
"Thanks," she said, "for everything."
I was about to ask her why that had such a final sound about it, when
she moved forward and set her foot upon the line.
"No!" I cried. "Stop!"
But it was too late. Her foot was already in place, brightness
outlining the sole of her boot.
"Don't move!" I said. "Whatever you do, stay still!" She did as I said,
holding her position. I licked my lips, which suddenly seemed very dry.
"Now, try to raise the foot you placed upon the line and draw it back.
Can you do it?"
"No," she replied.
I knelt beside her and studied it. Theoretically, once you'd set foot
upon the Pattern there was no turning back. You had no choice but to
continue and either make it through or be destroyed somewhere along the way.
On the other hand, she should already be dead. Theoretically, again, anyone
not of the blood of Amber shouldn't be able to set foot upon it and live. So
much for theory.
"Hell of a time to ask," I said. "But why'd you do it?
"You indicated to me back in the cave that my guess was correct. You
said that you knew what I was."
I recalled what I'd said, but that was with reference to my guess at
her being the body-shafting entity. What could she have taken it to mean
that had to do with the Pattern? But even as I sought after a spell that
might free her from the Pattern's hold, the obvious answer to things drifted
into my mind.
"Your connection with the House . . . ?" I said softly.
"King Oberon supposedly had an affair with my mother before I was
born," she said. "The timing would have been right. It was only a rumor,
though. I couldn't get anyone to provide details. So I was never certain.
But I dreamed of it being true. I wanted it to be true. I hoped to find some
tunnel that would bring me to this place. I wanted to sneak in and walk the
Pattern and have the shadows unfold before me. But I was afraid, too,
because I knew that if I were wrong I would die. Then, when you said what
you said, you answered my dream. But I did not stop being afraid. I am still
afraid. Only now I'm afraid that I won't be strong enough to make it."
That sense of familiarity I had felt when I first met her. . - . . I
suddenly realized that it was a general family resemblance that had caused
it. Her nose and brow reminded me a bit of Fiona, her chin and cheekbones
something of Flora. Her hair and eyes and height and build were her own,
though. But she certainly did not resemble her nominal father or sister.
I thought again of a faintly leering portrait of my grandfather which I
had often studied, in an upstairs hallway, to the west. The lecherous old
bastard really got around. Giving him his due, though, he was a very
goodlooking man. . . .
I sighed and rose to my feet. I laid a hand upon her shoulder.
"Listen, Coral," I said. "All of us were well briefed before we tried
it. I am going to tell you about it before you take another step, and while
I speak you may feel energy flowing from me into you. I want you to be as
strong as possible. When you take your next step I do not want you to stop
again until you have reached the middle. I may call out instructions to you
as you move along, also. Do whatever I say immediately, without thinking
"First I will tell you about the Veils, the places of resistance. . .
For how long I spoke, I do not know.
I watched as she approached the First Veil.
"Ignore the chill and the shocks," I said. "They can't hurt you. Don't
let the sparks distract you. You're about to hit major resistance. Don't
start breathing rapidly."
I watched her push her way through.
"Good," I said, as she came onto an easier stretch, deciding against
telling her that the next Veil was far worse. "By the way, don't think that
you're going crazy. Shortly, it will begin playing head games with you-"
"It already has," she responded. "What should I do?"
"It's probably mostly memories. Just let them flow, and keep your
attention on the path."
She continued, and I talked her through the Second Veil. The sparks
reached almost to her shoulders before she was out of it. I watched her
struggle through arc after arc, then tricky curves and long, sweeping ones,
turns, reversals. There were times when she moved quickly, times when she
was slowed almost to a standstill. But she kept moving. She had the idea,
and it seemed she had the will. I did not think that she really needed me
now. I was certain that I had nothing left to offer, that the outcome was
entirely in her own hands.
So I shut up and watched, irritated with but unable to prevent my own
leaning and turning, shifting and pressing, as if I were out there myself,
When she came to the Grand Curve she was a living flame: Her progress
was very slow, but there was a relentless quality to it. Whatever the
outcome, I knew that she was being changed, had been changed already, that
the Pattern was inscribing itself upon her, and that she was very near to
the end of its statement. I almost cried out as she seemed to stop for a
moment, but the words died in my throat as she shuddered once, then
continued. I wiped my brow on my sleeve as she approached the Final Veil.
Whatever the outcome, she had proved her suspicions. Only a child of Amber
could have survived as she had.
I do not know how long it took her to pierce the last Veil. Her effort
became timeless, and I was caught up in that protracted moment. She was a
burning study in extreme slow motion, the nimbus that enshrouded her
lighting up the entire chamber like a great blue candle.
And then she was through and onto that final short arc, the last three
steps of which may well be the most difficult part of the entire Pattern.
Some sort of psychic surface tension seems joined with the physical inertia
one encounters just before the point of emergence.
Again, I thought she had stoppped, but it was only an appearance. It
was like watching someone doing tai chi, the painful slowness of that trio
of paces. But she completed it and moved again. If the final step didn't
kill her, then she was home free. Then we could talk. . . .
That final moment went on and on and on. Then I saw her foot move
forward and depart the Pattern. Shortly, the other foot followed and she
stood panting at the center. "Congratulations!" I shouted.
She waved weakly with her right hand while slowly raising her left to
cover her eyes. She stood thus for the a better part of a minute, and one
who has walked the Pattern understands the feeling. I did not call out
again, but let her recover, giving her the silence in which to enjoy her
The Pattern seemed to be glowing more brightly just then, as it often
does immediately after being traversed. This gave a fairyland quality to the
grotto-all blue light and shadow-and made a mirror of that small, still pool
in the far corner where blind fish swim. I tried to think ahead to what this
act might mean, for Coral, for Amber.... She straightened suddenly.
"I'm going to live," she announced.
"Good," I replied. "You have a choice now, you know."
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"You are now in a position to command the Pattern to transport you
anywhere," I explained. "So you could just have it deposit you back here
again, or you could save yourself a long walk by having it return you to
your suite right now. As much as I enjoy your company, I'd recommend the
latter since you're probably pretty tired. Then you can soak in a nice warm
bath and take your time dressing for dinner. I'll meet you in the dining
I saw that she was smiling as she shook her head.
"I'm not going to waste an opportunity like this,'' she said.
"Listen, I know the feeling," I told her. "But I think you should
restrain yourself. Rushing off someplace weird could be dangerous, and
coming back could be tricky when you haven't had any training in shadow
"It's just sort of a will and expectation thing, isn't it?" she asked.
"You kind of impose images on the environment as you go along, don't you?"
"It's trickier than that," I said. "You have to learn to capitalize on
certain features as points of departure. Normally, one is accompanied on
one's first shadow walk by someone with experience-"
"Okay, I get the idea."
"Not enough," I said. "Ideas are fine, but there's feedback, too.
There's a certain feeling you get when it begins working. That can't be
taught. It has to be experienced-and until you're sure of it, you should
have someone along for a guide."
"Seems like trial and error would do."
"Maybe," I answered. "But supposing you wound up in danger? That'd be a
hell of a time to start learning. Kind of distracting-"
"All right. You made your point. Fortunately, I'm not planning on
anything that would put me in such a position. "
"What are you planning?"
She straightened and gestured widely.
"Ever since I learned about the Pattern, there's been something I
wanted to try if I got this far," she said.
"What might that be?"
"I'm going to ask it to send me where I should go."
"I don't understand."
"I'm going to leave the choice up to the Pattern."
I shook my head.
"It doesn't work that way," I told her. "You have to give it an order
to transport you."
"How do you know that?"
"It's just the way it works."
"Have you ever tried what I'm saying?"
"No. Nothing would happen."
"Has anyone you know of ever tried it?"
"It would be a waste of time. Look, you're talking as if the Pattern is
somehow sentient, is capable of coming to a decision on its own and
"Yes," she replied. "And it must know me real well after what I've just
been through with it. So I'm just going to ask its advice and-"
"Wait!" I said.
"On the off chance that something happens, how do you plan on getting
"I'll walk, I guess. So you're admitting that something could happen?"
"Yes," I said. "It's conceivable that you have an unconscious desire to
visit a place, and that it will read that and take you there if you give a
transport order. That won't prove that the Pattern is sentient just that
it's sensitive. Now, if it were me standing them, I'd be afraid to take a
chance like that. Supposing I have suicidal tendencies I'm not aware of?
"You're reaching," she answered. "You're really reaching."
"I'm just counseling you to play it safe.You have your whole life to go
exploring. It would be silly to-"
"Enough!" she said. "My mind's made up, and that's it. It feels right.
See you later, Merlin."
"Wait!" I cried again. "All right. Do it if you must. But let me give
you something first."
"A means of getting out of a tight spot in a hurry. Here."
I withdrew my Trumps, shuffled out my own card. Then I unfastened my
dagger and sheath from my belt. I wrapped my card around the haft and tied
it there with my handkerchief.
"You have an idea how to use a Trump?"
"You just stare and think of the person till there's contact, don't
"That'll do," I said. "Here's mine: Take it with you. Call me when you
want to come home, and I'll bring you back."
I tossed it out across the Pattern, underhand. She caught it easily and
hung it on her belt on the side opposite her own.
"Thanks," she said, straightening. "I guess I'll give it a try now."
"Just in case it really works, don't stay long. Okay?"
"Okay," she answered, and she closed her eyes.
An instant later she was gone. Oh, my.
I moved to the edge of the Pattern and held my hand above it until I
could feel the forces stirring there.
"You'd better know what you're doing," I said. "I want her back."
A spark shot upward and tickled my palm.
"You trying to tell me you're really sentient?"
Everything swirled about me. The dizziness passed in an instant, and
the first thing I noticed then was that the lantern was beside my right
foot. When I looked about I realized that I was standing on the other side
of the Pattern from where I had been and was now near the door.
"I was within your field and I'm already attuned," I said. "It was just
my unconscious desire to get out."
Then I hefted the lantern, locked the door behind me, `
and hung the key back on its hook. I still didn't trust the thing. If
it had really wanted to be helpful, it would have sent me directly to my
quarters and saved me all those stairs.
I hurried along the tunnel. It was by far the most interesting first
date I'd ever had.
As I passed out of the main hall and headed along the back hallway
which would take me to any of a number of stairs, a fellow in black leathers
and various pieces of rusty and shiny chain emerged from a corridor to my
right, halted, and stared at me. His hair was of an orange Mohawk cut and
there were several silver rings in his left ear near what looked like an
electrical outlet of some sort.
"Merlin?" he said. "You okay?"
"For the moment," I replied as I drew nearer, trying to place him,
there in the dimness.
"Martin!" I said. "You're . . . changed."
"I'm just back from a very interesting shadow," he said. "Spent over a
year there-one of those places where time runs like hell."
"I'd judge-just guessing-that it was high-tech, urban...."
"I thought you were a country boy."
"I got over it. Now I know why my dad likes cities and noise."
"You a musician, too?"
"Some. Different sounds, though. You going to be at dinner?"
"I was planning on it. As soon as I get cleaned up and changed."
"See you there, then. We've a lot, of things to talk about. "
"Sure thing, Cousin."
He clasped my shoulder and released it as I passed. His grip was still
I walked on. Before I'd gone very far, I felt the beginning of a Trump
contact. I halted and reached quickly, figuring it was Coral wanting to
return. Instead, my eyes met those of Mandor, who smiled faintly.
"Ah, very good," he said. "You are alone and apparently safe."
As things came clearer I saw that Fiona was standing beside him,
standing very close as a matter of fact.
"I'm okay," I said. "I'm back in Amber. You all right?"
"Intact," he said, looking past me, though there was not much to see
beyond wall and a bit of tapestry. "Would you care to come through?" I
"I'd love to see Amber," he replied. "But that pleasure will have to
await another occasion. We are somewhat occupied at the moment."
"You've discovered the cause of the disturbances?" I asked.
He glanced at Fiona, then back at me.
"Yes and no," he said. "We've some interesting leads but no certainty
at the moment."
"Uh, what can I do for you then?" I asked.
Fiona extended her index finger and suddenly became much clearer. I
realized that she must have reached out and touched my Trump for better
"We've had an encounter with a manifestation of that machine you
built," she said. "Ghostwheel."
"Yes?" I said.
"You're right, it's sentient-social AI as well as technical. "
"I was already certain it could pass the Turing test."
"Oh, no doubt about that," she responded, "since by definition the
Turing test requires a machine capable of lying to people and misleading
"What are you getting at, Fiona?" I asked.
"It's not just social AI. It's downright antisocial," she replied. "I
think your machine is crazy."
"What did it do?" I asked. "Attack you?"
"No, nothing physical. It's wacky and mendacious and insulting, and
we're too busy to go into details right now. I'm not saying it couldn't get
nasty, though. I don't know. We just wanted to warn you not to trust it."
"That's it? End of message?" I said.
"For now," she answered, lowering her finger and growing dim.
I shifted my gaze to Mandor and was about to explain that I had built a
host of safeguards into the thing, so that not just anybody could access it.
Mainly, though, I wanted to tell him about Jurt. But our communication was
suddenly severed, as I felt another presence reaching toward me.
I was intrigued by the sensation. I had occasionally wondered what
would occur if someone tried for a Trump contact when I was already in touch
with someone else via a Trump. Would it turn into a conference call? Would
someone get a busy signal? Would it put the other party on hold? I'd doubted
I'd ever find out, though. It just seemed statistically unlikely. However. .
"Merlin, baby. I'm okay."
Mandor and Fiona were definitely gone. "I'm really okay now, Merle."
"Yeah, as soon as I started coming down I switched to a fast lane. In
this shadow it's been several days since I've seen you."
He was wearing sunglasses and green swim trunks. He was seated at a
small table beside a swimming pool in the shade of a great umbrella, the
remains of a large lunch spread before. him. A lady in a blue bikini dived
into the pool and passed from my line of sight.
"Well, I'm glad to hear about that and-"
"So what happened to me, anyhow? I remember you said something about
someone slipping me some acid when I was a prisoner back at the Keep. Is
that how it went?"
"It seems very likely."
"I guess that's what happens when you drink the water," he mused.
"Okay. What's been going on while I've been out of it?"
Knowing how much to tell him was always a problem. So, "Where do we
stand?" I asked.
"Oh. That," he said.
"Well, I've had a chance to do a lot of thinking," he replied, "and I'm
going to call it quits. Honor has been satisfied. It's pointless to keep
pushing this thing against everybody else. But I'm not about to put myself
in Random's hands for a kangaroo trial. Now it's your turn: Where do I stand
so far as Amber's concerned? Should I be looking over my shoulder?"
"Nobody's said anything yet, one way or the other. But Random is out of
town now and I just got back myself. '' I haven't really had a chance to
learn what the others' feelings might be on this thing."
He removed his sunglasses and studied me. "The fact that Random's out
of town. . . ."
"No, I know he's not after you," I said, "because he's in Kash-" `and I
tried to stop it just a syllable too late.
"So I understand."
"What the hell's he doing there? Amber was never interested in the
"There's been a . . . death," I explained. "Some kind of shake-up going
"Ha!" Luke remarked. "That bastard finally bought it. Good! But. . . .
Hey! Why's Amber moving in so suddenlike, huh?"
"Don't know," I said.
He chuckled. "Rhetorical question," he said. "I can see what's going
on. I've got to admit Random's got style. Listen, when you find out who he
puts on the throne let me know, will you? I like to keep abreast of doings
in the old hometown. "
"Oh, sure," I said, trying unsuccessfully to determine whether such
information could be harmful. It would become public knowledge very soon, if
it wasn't already.
"So what else is going on? That other person who was Vinta Bayle . . .
"Gone," I said. "I don't know where."
"Very strange," he mused. "I don't think we've seen the last of her.
She was Gail, too. I'm sure. Let me know if she comes back, will you?"
``Okay. You want to ask her out again?"
He shrugged, then smiled. "I could think of worse ways to spend some
"You're lucky she didn't try to take you out, literally."
"I'm not so sure she would've," he replied. "We always got along pretty
well. Anyhow, none of this is the main reason I called. . . ."
I nodded, having already guessed as much.
"How's my mother doing?" he asked.
"Hasn't stirred," I answered. "She's safe."
"That's something," he said. "You know, it's kind of undignified for a
queen to be in that position. A coatrack. Jeez! "
"I agree," I agreed. "But what's the alternative?"
"Well, I'd sort of like to . . . get her freed," he said.
"What'll it take?"
``You raise a very thorny issue," I stated.
"I sort of figured that."
"I've a strong feeling she's the one behind this revenge business,
Luke, that she's the one who put you up to going after everybody. Like with
that bomb. Like encouraging you to set up that private army with modern
weapons, to use against Amber. Like trying for a hit on me every spring.
"Okay, okay. You're right. I don't deny it. But things have changed-"
"Yeah. Her plans fell through and we've got her."
"That's not what I meant. I'm changed. I understand her now, and I
understand myself better. She can't push me around that way anymore."
"Why is that?"
"That trip I was on. . . . It shook loose my thinking quite a bit.
About her and me. I've had several days now to mull over what some of it
meant, and I don't think she can pull the same crap on me that she used to."
I recalled the red-haired woman tied to the stake, tormented by demons.
There was a resemblance, now I thought of it.
"But she's still my mother," he went on, "and I don't like leaving her
in the position she's in. What kind of deal; might be possible for turning
"I don't know, Luke." I answered. "The matter hasn't come up yet." .
"Well, she's your prisoner, actually."
"But her plans were directed against all of us."
"True, but I won't be helping her with them anymore.
She really needs someone like me for carrying them out."
"Right. And if she doesn't have you to help, what's to prevent her from
finding someone like you, as you put it? She'd still be dangerous if we let
"But you know about her now. That would crimp her style quite a bit."
"It might just make her more devious."
He sighed. "I suppose there's some truth in that," he admitted. "But
she's as venal as most people. It's just a matter of finding the right
"I can't see Amber buying someone off that way."
"Not when that person is already a prisoner here."
"That does complicate matters a little," he acknowledged. "But I hardly
think it's an insurmountable barrier. Not if she's more useful to you free
than as a piece of furniture."
"You've lost me," I said. "What are you proposing?"
"Nothing yet. I'm just sounding you out."
"Fair enough. But offhand, I can't see a situation such as you describe
arising. More valuable to us free than a prisoner. . . . I guess we'd go
where the value lies: But these are just words."
"Just trying to plant a seed or two while I work on it. What is your
greatest concern right now?"
"Me? Personally? You really want to know?"
"Okay. My mad brother Jurt has apparently allied himself with the
sorcerer Mask back at the Keep. The two of them are out to get me. Jurt made
an attempt just this afternoon, but I can see it's really a challenge from
Mask. I'm going to take them on soon."
"Hey, I didn't know you had a brother!"
"Half brother. I have a couple of others, too. But I can get along with
them. Jurt's been after me for a long time."
"That's really something. You never mentioned them."
"We never talked family. Remember?"
"Yeah. But you've got me puzzled now. Who's this Mask? I seem to
remember your mentioning him before. It's really Sharu Garrul, isn't it?"
I shook my head.
"When I brought your mother out of the citadel she left the company of
a similarly stricken old guy with RINALDO carved on his leg. I was trading
spells with Mask at the time."
"Most strange," Luke said. "'Then he's a usurper. And he's the one
slipped me the acid?"
"That seems most likely."
"Then I have a score to settle with him, too-apart from what he did to
my mother. How tough is Jurt?"
"Well, he's nasty. But he's kind of clumsy, too. At least, he's screwed
up whenever we've, fought and left; a piece of himself behind."
"He could also be learning from his mistakes, you know."
"That's true. And he said something kind of cryptic today, now you
mention it. He talked as if he were about to become very powerful."
"Uh-oh," Luke said. "Sounds as if this Mask is using him as a guinea
"The Fount of Power, man. There's a steady, pulsing source of pure
energy inside the Citadel, you know. Inter-Shadow stuff. Comes from the four
worlds jamming together there."
"I know. I've seen it in action."
"I've got a feeling that this Mask is still in the process of getting a
handle on it."
"He had a pretty good grip when we met."
"Yeah, but there's more to it than plugging into a wall outlet. There
are all sorts of subtleties he's probably just becoming aware of and
"Bathing a person in it will, if he's properly protected, do wonders
for strength, stamina, and magical abilities. That part's easy for a person
with some training to learn. I've been through it myself. But old Sharu's
notes were in his lab, and there was something more in them - way of
replacing part of the body with energy, really packing it in. Very
dangerous. Easily fatal. But if it works you get something special, a kind
of superman, a sort of living Trump."
"I've heard that term before, Luke. . . ."
"Probably," he replied. "My father undertook the process, with himself
as the subject-"
"That's it!" I said. "Corwin claimed that Brand had become some sort of
living Trump. Made it almost impossible to nail him."
Luke gritted his teeth.
"Sorry," I said. "But that's where I heard about it. So that was the
secret of Brand's power. . . . "
"I get the impression this Mask thinks he knows how it was done and is
getting ready to try it on your brother."
"Shit!" I observed. "That's all I need. Jurt as a magical being or a
natural force-or whatever the hell. This is serious. How much do you know
about the process?"
"Oh, I know most of it, in theory. I wouldn't mess with it, though. I
think it takes away something of your humanity. You don't much give a shit
about other people or human values afterward. I think that's part of what
happened to my father."
What could I say? Maybe that part was true and maybe it wasn't. I was
sure Luke wanted to believe in some external cause for his father's
treachery. I knew I'd never contradict him on it, even if I learned
differently. And so I laughed.
"With Jurt," I said, "there'd be no way of telling the difference."
Luke smiled. Then, "You could get dead going up against a guy like
that, along with a sorcerer, on their own turf."
"What choice have I got?" I asked. "They're after me. Better to move
now. Jurt hasn't had the treatment yet. Does it take long?"
"Well, there are fairly elaborate preliminaries, but the subject
doesn't have to be present for some of them. It all depends on how far along
Mask is with the work."
"I'd better move pretty fast then."
"I won't have you going in there alone," he said. "It could be suicide.
I know the place. I also have a small force of mercs bivouacked in Shadow
and ready for action on short notice. If we can get them in, they can hold
off the guards, maybe even take them out.''
"Will that fancy ammo work there?"
"No. We tried it when I pulled the glider attack. It'll have to be hand
to hand. Body armor and machetes, maybe. I'll have to work it out."
"We could use the Pattern to get in, but the troop can't . . . and
Trumps aren't reliable for that place."
"I know. I'll have to work on that, too."
"Then it would be you and me against Jurt and Mask. If I tell any of
the others here, they'll try to stop me till Random gets back, and that may
be too late".
He smiled. "You know, my mother would really be useful in there," he
said. "She knows more about the Fount than I do."
"No!" I said. "She tried, to kill me. ".
"Easy, man. Easy," he said. "Hear me out."
"Besides, she lost to Mask last time they met. That's why she's a
"All the more reason for her to be wary now. Anyway, it had to be
trickery, not skill. She's good. Mask must have surprised her. She'd be a
real asset, Merle."
"No! She wants all of us dead!"
"Details," he explained. "After Caine, the rest of you are just
symbolic enemies. Mask is a real one, who took something away from her and
still has it. Given the choice, she'll go after Mask."
"And if we're successful, she'll turn on Amber afterward."
"Not at all," he said. "That's the beauty of my plan.''
"I don't want to hear about it. "
"Because you already know you'll agree, right? I just figured a way to
solve all your problems. Give her the Keep after it's liberated, as a kind
of peace offering, to forget her differences with you guys."
"Just hand her this terrible power?"
"If she were going to use it against you, she'd have done it a long
time ago. She's afraid to employ it in the extreme. With Kashfa down the
tubes, she'll grab at the chance to salvage something. That's where the
"You really think so?"
"Better Queen of the Keep than a coatrack in Amber."
"Damn you, Luke. You always make the stupidest things sound sort of
"It's an art," he replied. "What do you say?"
"I've got to think about it," I said.
"Better think fast, then. Jurt may be bathing in that glow right now."
"Don't pressure me, man. I said I'll think about it. This is only one
of my problems. I'm going to eat dinner now and mull things over. "
"Want to tell me about your other problems, too? Maybe I can work them
into the package some way."
"No, damn it! I'll call you back . . . soon. Okay?"
"Okay. But I'd better be around when you snap Mom out of it, to kind of
smooth things over. You have figured out how to break the spell, haven't
"Glad to know that. I wasn't sure how to do it, and I can stop working
on it now. I'm going to finish here and go shape up the troops," he said,
eyeing the lady in the bikini who had just emerged from the pool. "Call me."
"Okay," I said, and he was gone.
Damn. Amazing. No wonder Luke kept winning those sales awards. I had to
admit it was a good pitch, despite my feelings about Jasra. And Random had
not ordered me to keep her a prisoner. Of course, he had not had much
opportunity to tell me anything the last time we had been together. Would
she really behave as Luke said, though? It made a sort of sense, but then
people seldom keep company with rationality at times when they should.
I passed along the hallway and decided to use the back stair. As I made
the turn, I saw that there was a figure standing near the top. It was a
woman, and she was looking the other way. She had on a full-length red-and
yellow gown. Her hair was very dark and she had lovely shoulders. . . .
She turned when she heard my tread, and I saw that it was Nayda. She
studied my face.
"Lord Merlin," she said, "can you tell me where my sister is? I
understand she went off with you earlier."
"She was admiring some art, and then she had a little errand she wanted
to run afterward," I replied. "I'm not sure exactly where she was going, but
she gave the impression she'd be back pretty soon."
"All right," she said. "It's just that it's getting near to dinnertime,
and we'd expected her to be joining us. Did she enjoy her afternoon?"
"I believe she did," I said.
"She's been a bit moody recently. We were hoping this trip would cheer
her up. She was looking forward to it quite a bit."
"She seemed pretty cheerfulll when I left her," I admitted.
"Oh, where was that?"
"Near here," I said.
"Where all did you go?"
"We had a long walk in and about town," I explained. "I showed her a
bit of the palace, also."
"Then she's in the palace right now?"
"She was the last time I saw her. But she might have stepped out. "
"I see," she said. "I'm sorry I didn't really get to talk to you at any
length earlier. I feel as if I've known you for a long while."
"Oh?" I said. "Why is that?"
"I read through your file several times. It's kind of fascinating."
"It's no secret that we keep files on people we're likely to encounter
in our line of work. There's a file on everyone in the House of Amber, of
course, even those who don't have much to do with diplomacy."
"I'd never thought about it," I said, "but it figures."
"Your early days are glossed over, of course, and your recent troubles
are very confusing."
"They're confusing to me, too," I said. "You trying to update the
"No, just curious. If your problems have ramifications that may involve
Begma, we have an interest in them."
"How is it that you know of them at all?"
"We have very good intelligence sources. Small kingdoms often do."
"I won't press you on your sources, but we're not having a fire sale on
"You misunderstand me," she said. "I'm not trying to update that file
either. I was trying to discover whether I might be able to offer you
"Thank you. I appreciate that," I told her. "I can't really think of
any way you could help me, though."
She smiled, showing what seemed a set of perfect teeth.
"I can't be more precise without knowing more," she said. "But if you
decide that you do want help-or if you just want to talk-come and see me."
"Well taken," I said. "I'll see you at dinner."
"Later, too, I hope," she said, as I passed her and turned down the
What had she meant by that last bit? I wondered. Was she talking
assignation? If so, her motives seemed awfully transparent. Or was she
merely expressing her desire for information? I was not certain.
As I passed along the hallway in the direction of my rooms I noted an
odd lighting phenomenon ahead of me: A bright white band about six or eight
inches in width ran up both walls, across the ceiling, and over the floor. I
slowed as I neared it, wondering whether someone had introduced a new method
of illuminating the place in my absence.
As I stepped over the band on the floor, everything disappeared, except
for the light itself, which resolved into a perfect circle, flipped once
about me and settled on a level with my feet, myself at its center. The
world appeared beyond the circle, suddenly, and it looked as if it were made
of green glass formed into a dome. The surface on which I stood was reddish,
irregular and moist in the pale light. It was not until a large fish swam by
that I realized I might be underwater, standing on a ridge of coral.
"This is pretty as all hell," I said, "but I was trying to get to my
"Just showing off a bit," came a familiar voice which sounded eerily
all about my magic circle. "Am I a god?"
"You can call yourself whatever you want," I said."Nobody will disagree
"It might be fun being a god."
"Then what does that make me?" I asked.
"That's a difficult theological question."
"Theological, my ass. I'm a computer engineer, and you know I built
A sound like a sigh filled my submarine cell.
"It's hard to get away from one's roots."
"Why try? What's wrong with roots? All of the best plants have them."
"Pretty bloom above, mire and muck below."
"In your case it's metal and an interesting cryogenic setup-and quite a
few other things-all of them very clean. "
"Maybe it's mire and muck that I need, then."
"You feeling all right, Ghost?"
"I'm still trying to find myself."
"Everyone goes through phases like that. It'll pass."
"When? How? Why?"
"It would be cheating to tell. Besides, it's different for everyone."
A whole school of fish swam by-little black-and-redstriped guys.
"I can't quite swing the omniscience business . . ." Ghost said after a
"That's okay. Who needs it?" I said.
". . . And I'm still working on omnipotence."
"That one's hard, too," I agreed.
"You're very understanding, Dad."
"I try. You got any special problems?"
"You mean, apart from the existential?"
"No. I brought you here to warn you about a fellow named Mandor. He's-"
"He's my brother," I said. There was silence.
Then, "That would make him my uncle, wouldn't it?"
"I guess so."
"How about the lady with him? She-"
"Fiona's my aunt."
"My great-aunt. Oh, my!"
"It's bad form to speak ill of relatives, isn't it?"
"Not in Amber," I said. "In Amber we do it all the time."
The circle of light flipped again. We were back in the hallway.
"Now that we're in Amber," he said, "I want to speak ill of them. I
wouldn't trust them if I were you. I think they're a little crazy. Also
insulting and mendacious."
I laughed. "You're becoming a true Amberite."
"Yes. That's the way we are. Nothing to worry about. What came down
between you, anyhow?"
"I'd rather work it out on my own, if you don't mind."
"Whatever you think is best."
"I don't really need to warn you about them?"
"Okay. That was my main concern. I guess I'll go and try the mire and
muck bit now-"
"You seem pretty good at transporting things through Shadow these days.
"I seem to be improving, yes."
"What about a small band of warriors and their leader?"
"I think I could manage that."
"Of course. Where are they and where do you want go?"
I fished in my pocket, found Luke's Trump, held it before me.
"But . . . He's the one you warned me not to trust", Ghost said.
"It's okay now," I told him. "Just for this matter. Nothin else
though.Things have changed a bit."
"I don't understand. But if you say so."
"Can you run him down and set things up?"
"I should be able to. Where do you want to go?"
"Do you know the Keep of the Four Worlds?"
"Yes. But that's a dangerous place, Dad. Very tricky coming and going.
And that's where the red-haired lady tried to lay a power lock on me."
"I never knew her name."
"She's Luke's mother," I explained, waving his Trump.
"Bad blood," Ghost stated. "Maybe we shouldn't have anything to do with
either of them."
"She might be coming with us," I said.
"Oh, no. That's a dangerous lady. You don't want her along. Especially
not in a place where she's strong. She might try to grab me again. She might
"She'll be too occupied with other matters," I said, "and I may need
her. So start thinking of her as part of the package."
"Are you sure you know what you're doing?"
"I'm afraid so."
"When do you want to go there?"
"That depends in part on when Luke's troops will be ready. Why don't
you go and find out?"
"All right. But I still think you might be making a mistake, going into
that place with those people."
"I need someone who can help, and the die is damned well cast," I said.
Ghost coalesced to a point and winked out.
I drew a deep breath, changed my mind about sighing, and moved on
toward my nearest door, which was not that much farther up the hall. As I
was reaching for it I felt the movement of a Trump contact. Coral?
I opened myself to it. Mandor appeared before me again.
"Are you all right?" he asked immediately. "We were cut off in such an
"I'm fine," I told him. "We were cut off in a once-in-a-lifetime
fashion. Not to worry."
"You seem a trifle agitated."
"That's because it's an awfully long walk from downstairs to upstairs
with all the powers of the universe converging to slow me."
"I don't understand."
"It's been a rough day," I said. "See you later."
"I did want to talk with you some more, about those stones and the new
"Later," I said. "I'm waiting on an incoming call."
"Sorry. No rush. I'll check back."
He broke the contact and I reached for the latch. I wondered whether it
would solve everybody's problems if I could turn Ghost into an answering
I hung my cloak on Jasra and my weapons belt on the bedpost. I cleaned
my boots, washed my hands and face, hunted up a fancy ivory shirt-alI
ruffled, brocaded, frogged-and put it on, along with a pair of gray
trousers. Then I brushed off my deep purple jacket, the one on which I'd
once laid a spell to make the wearer seem a little more charming, witty, and
trustworthy than is actually the case. It seemed a good occasion for getting
some use out of it.
As I was brushing my hair there came a knock on the door.
"Just a minute," I called.
I finished up-which left me ready to go and also, probably, running
late-then went to the door, unbarred it, and opened it.
Bill Roth stood there in browns and reds, looking like an aging
"Bill!" I said, clasping his hand, arm, and shoulder and leading him
in. "Good to see you. I'm just back from some troubles and about to take off
after more. I didn't know whether you were here in the palace now or what. I
was going to look you up again as soon as things slowed a bit."
He smiled and punched my shoulder lightly.
"I'll be at dinner," he replied, "and Hendon said you'd be there, too.
I thought I'd come up and walk over with you, though, since those Begman
people will be there.
"Oh? You got some news?"
"Yes. Any fresh word on Luke?"
"I was just talking to him. He says the vendetta's off."
"Any chance of his wanting to justify himself at that hearing you asked
"Not from the way he sounded."
"Too bad. I've bean doing a lot of research, and there are some good
precendents for the vendetta defense-like, there was your uncle Osric, who
took on the whole House of Karen over the death of a relative on his
mother's side. Oberon was particularly friendly with Karen in those days,
too, and Osric offed three of them. Oberon acquitted him at a hearing,
though, basing his decision on earlier cases, and he even went further by
stating a kind of general rule-"
"Oberon also sent him off to the front Iines in a particularly nasty
war," I interrupted, "from which he did not return."
"I wasn't aware of that part," Bill said, "but he did come off well in
"I'll have to mention it to Luke," I said.
"Which part?" he asked.
"Both," I answered.
"That wasn't the main thing I came to tell you," he went on. "There's
something going on at a military level."
"What are you talking about?"
"It's even easier to show you," he explained. "It should only take a
"Okay. Let's go," I agreed, and I followed him out into the hall.
He led the way down the back stair and turned left at its foot. We
moved on past the kitchen and followed another hallway which turned off
toward the rear. As we did, I heard some rattling sounds from up ahead. I
glanced at Bill, who nodded.
"That's what I heard earlier," he told me, "when I was passing by.
That's why I took a walk up this way. Everything around here makes me
I nodded, understanding the feeling. Especially when I knew that the
sounds were coming from the main armory. Benedict stood in the midst of
activity, peering at his thumbnail through a rifle barrel. He looked up
immediately and our eyes met. Perhaps a dozen men moved about him, carrying
weapons, cleaning weapons, stacking weapons.
"I thought you were in Kashfa," I said.
"Was," he replied.
I gave him a chance to continue, but nothing was forthcoming. Benedict
has never been noted for loquacity.
"Looks like you're getting ready for something close to home," I
remarked, knowing that gunpowder was useless here and that the special ammo
we had only worked in the area of Amber and certain adjacent kingdoms.
"Always best to be safe," he said.
"Would you care to elaborate on that?" I asked.
"Not now," he answered, a reply twice as long as I'd anticipated and
holding out hope of future enlightenment.
"Should we all be digging in?" I asked: "Fortifying the town? Arming
"It won't come to that," he said. "Just go on about your business."
He turned away. I'd a feeling the conversation was over. I was sure of
it when he ignored my next several questions. I shrugged and turned back to
"Let's go eat," I said.
As we walked back up the hall, Bill said softly, "Any;:: idea what it
"Dalt's in the neighborhood," I told him.
"Benedict was in Begma with Random. Dalt could be causing trouble
"I've a feeling he's nearer."
"If Dalt were to capture Random. . . ."
"Impossible," I said, feeling a slight chill at the idea.
"Random can trump back here anytime he wants. No. When I talked about
defending Amber, and Benedict said, `It won't come to that,' I got the
impression he was talking about something close at hand. Something he feels
he can control."
"I see what you mean," he agreed. "But then he told you not to bother
"If Benedict feels we don't need to fortify, then we don't need to
"Waltz and drink champagne while the cannons boom?"
"If Benedict says it's okay."
"You really trust that guy. What would you do without him?"
"Be more nervous," I said.
He shook his head. "Excuse me," he said. "I'm not used to being
acquainted with legends."
"You don't believe me?"
"I shouldn't believe you, but I do believe you. That's the trouble." He
was silent as we turned the corner and headed back toward the stair. Then he
added, "It was that way whenever I was around your father, too."
"Bill," I said, as we began to climb. "You knew my dad back before he
regained his memory, when he was just plain old Carl Corey. Maybe I've been
going about this thing wrong. Is there anything you can recall about that
phase of his life which might explain where he is now?"
He halted a moment and looked at me.
"Don't think I haven't thought about that angle, Merle. Many a time
I've wondered whether he might have been involved in something as Corey that
he'd have felt obliged to follow through on once his business here was
finished. But he was a very secretive man, even in that incarnation.
Paradoxical, too. He'd done a lot of hitches in a lot of different varieties
of military, which seems logical
enough. But he sometimes wrote music, which goes against that hard-ass
"He'd lived a long time. He'd learned a lot, felt lot."
"Exactly, and that's what makes it hard to guess why he might have been
involved in. Once or twice when he'd; had a few drinks he'd mention people
in the arts an sciences I'd never have guessed him to be acquainted with. He
was never just plain Carl Corey. He had a few centuries worth of Earth
memory when I knew him. That makes for a character too complex to be easily
predictable. I just don't know what he might have gone back to-if he went
We continued on up the stairway. Why did I feel that Bill knew more
than he was telling me?
I heard music as we neared the dining room, and when we entered,
Llewella gave me a nasty look. I saw that food was being kept warm at a
serving table off against the far wall, and no one was seated yet. People
stood about talking, drinks in hand, and most of them glanced in our
direction as we entered. Three musicians were playing, off to my right. The
dining table was to my left, near the big window in the south wall,
providing a glorious view across the town below. It was still snowing
lightly, casting a spectral veil over the entire bright prospect.
Llewella approached quickly.
"You've kept everybody waiting," she whispered. "Where's the girl?"
"I'm not sure where she's gotten off to," I said. "We parted company a
couple of hours ago."
"Well, is she coming or isn't she?"
"I'm not sure."
"We can't keep things waiting any longer," she said. "And now the
seating arrangement's screwed. What did you do, wear her out?"
"Llewella. . . ."
She muttered something I didn't understand in some lisping Rebman
dialect. Just as well, probably. She fumed away then and moved off toward
"You in a heap of trouble, boy," Bill commented at my side. "Let's hit
the bar while she's reassigning places."
But the wine steward was already approaching with a couple of drinks on
"Bayle's Best," he observed as we took them.
I sipped and saw that he was right, which heartened me a bit.
"I don't recognize all of these people," Bill said. "Who's that fellow
with the red sash, over by Vialle?"
"That's Orkuz, the Begman prime minister," I told him, "and the rather
attractive lady in the yellow-and-red dress who's talking to Martin is his
daughter Nayda. Coral-the one I just got chewed out about-is her sister. "
"Uh-huh. And who's the husky blond lady batting her eyes at Gerard?"
"I don't know," I said. "And I don't know that lady and the guy over to
the right of Orkuz either."
We drifted inward, and Gerard, looking perhaps a trifle uncomfortable
in layers of ruffled finery, introduced us to the lady he was with as Dretha
Gannell, assistant to the Begman ambassador. The ambassador, it turned out,
was the tall lady standing near Orkuz-and her name, I gathered, was Ferla
Quist. The fellow with her was her secretary, whose name sounded something
like Cade. While we were looking in that direction, Gerard tried slipping
off and leaving us with Ferla. But she caught his sleeve and asked him
something about the fleet. I smiled and nodded and moved away. Bill came
"Goodness! Martin's changed!" he announced suddenly. "He Looks like a
one-man rock video. I almost didn't recognize him. Just last week-"
"It's been over a year," I said, "for him. He's been off finding
himself on some street scene."
"I wonder if he's finished?"
"Didn't get a chance to ask him that;" I replied, but a peculiar
thought occurred to me. I shelved it.
The music died just then, and Llewella cleared the throat and indicated
Hendon, who announced the new seating arrangement. I was at the foot of the
table, and -I learned later that Coral was to have been seated to my left
and Cade to my right. I also learned later that Llewella had tried to get
hold of Flora at the last minute to sit in Coral's place, but Flora wasn't
taking any calls.
As it was, Vialle, at the head, had Llewella seated to her right and
Orkuz to her left, with Gerard, Dretha, and Bill below Llewella, and Ferla,
Martin, Cade, and Nayda below Orkuz. I found myself escorting Nayda to the
table and seating her to my right, while Bill settled himself at my left.
"Fuss, fuss, fuss," Bill muttered softly, and I nodded; then introduced
him to Nayda as counsel to the House of Amber. She looked impressed and
asked him about his work. He proceeded to charm her with a story about once
having represented the interests of a dog in an estate, settlement, which
had nothing to do with Amber but was a good story. Got her to laughing a
bit, and also Cade, who was listening in.
The first course was served and the musicians began playing again,
softly, which shortened the distance our voices carried and reduced
conversation to a more intimate level. At this, Bill signaled he had
something he wanted to tell me, but Nayda had beaten him by a second or two
and I was already listening to her.
"About Coral," she said softly. "Are you sure she's all right? She
wasn't feeling ill when you parted-of anything like that-was she?"
"No," I answered. "She seemed healthy enough."
"Strange," she said. "I had the impression she wad looking forward to
things like this dinner."
"She's obviously taking longer than she'd intended in whatever she's
about," I observed.
"What exactly was she about?" Nayda asked. "Where did you part?"
"Here in the palace," I replied. "I was showing her around. She wanted
to spend more time with certain features of the place than I could spare. So
I came on ahead.
"I don't think she could have forgotten dinner."
"I think she got caught up by the power of an artistic piece."
"So she's definitely on the premises?"
"Now, that's hard to say. As I said before, a person can always step
"You mean you're not sure exactly where she is?" I nodded.
"I'm not certain where she is at this moment," I said. "She could well
be back in her room changing her clothes."
"I'll check after dinner," she said, "if she hasn't shown up by then.
If that should be the case, will you help me find her?"
"I was planning on looking for her anyway," I answered, "if she doesn't
put in an appearance soon."
She nodded and continued eating. Very awkward.
Beyond the fact that I didn't want to distress her, I couldn't very
well tell her what had happened without its becoming apparent that her
sister was indeed an illegitimate daughter of Oberon. At a time such as
this, when I had been cautioned about saying anything that might strain
relations between Amber and Begma, I was not about to confirm to the
daughter of the Begman prime minister the rumor that her mother had had an
affair with the late king of Amber. Maybe it was an open secret back in
Begma and nobody gave a damn. But maybe it wasn't. I didn't want to disturb
Random for advice, partly because he might be extremely occupied in Kashfa
just now; but mainly because he might also start asking me about my own
immediate plans and problems, and I would not lie to him. That could get me
into too much trouble. Such a conversation might well also result in his
forbidding my attack on the Keep. The only other person I could tell about
Coral and get some sort of official response from, as to how far I might go
in informing her family, was Vialle. Unfortunately, Vialle was completely
occupied as hostess at the moment.
I sighed and returned to my dinner.
Bill caught my attention and leaned a little in my direction. I leaned
a little, too.
"Yes?" I said.
"There were some things I wanted to tell you," he began. "I was hoping
for some leisure, some quiet, and some privacy, though."
"Exactly," he continued. "I believe this is the best we're going to get
for a time. Fortunately, voices don't seem to be carrying if one keeps them
down. I couldn't make out what you and Nayda were talking about. So it's
probably okay, so long as the musicians keep playing."
I nodded, took a few more bites.
"Thing is, the Begmans shouldn't hear about it, on the one hand. But on
the other, I feel that perhaps you ought to know, because of your
involvement with Luke and Jasra. So what's your schedule? I'd rather tell
you later, but if you're going to be tied up, I can give you the gist of it
I glanced at Nayda and Cade. They seemed totally occupied with their
food, and I didn't think they could overhear us. Unfortunately, I didn't
have any sort of sheltering spells hung.
"Go ahead," I whispered from behind my wine glass.
"First," he said, "Random sent me a whole slew of papers to go over.
They're the draft of an agreement whereby Amber will grant Kashfa privileged
trade status, the same as Begma. So they'll definitely be coming into the
"I see," I said. "That doesn't come as a complete surprise. But it's
good to know for sure what's going on."
"There's a lot more to it, though," he said.
Just then the musicians stopped playing and I could hear voices from
all around the table again. I glanced off to the right and saw that a
steward had just taken the players a food tray and some wine. They were
setting their instruments aside and taking a break. They had probably been
playing for some time before I'd arrived and were doubtless due a rest.
Bill chuckled. "Later," he said.
"Right." There followed a funny little fruit dish with an amazing
sauce. As I spooned it away, Nayda caught my attention with a gesture and I
leaned toward her again.
"So what about tonight?" she whispered.
"What do you mean? I said I'd look for her if she doesn't show up."
She shook her head. "I wasn't referring to that," she said. "I meant
later. Will you have time to stop by and talk?"
"According to your file you've been in a bit of trouble recently, with
someone trying to get you."
I began wondering about that damned file. But, "It's out of date," I
said. "Whatever's in there has already been cleared up. "
"Really? Then nobody's after you just now?"
"I wouldn't say that," I replied. "The cast of characters keeps
"So somebody still has you marked?"
I studied her face.
"You're a nice lady, Nayda," I said, "but I've got to ask, What is it
to you? Everybody has problems. I just have more than usual at the moment.
I'll work them out."
"Or die trying?"
"Maybe. I hope not. But what's your interest?"
She glanced at Cade, who seemed busy with his food,. "It is possible
that I could help you. "
"In what fashion?"
"A process of elimination," she stated.
"Oh? That refers to a person or persons?"
"You have some special means of going about this sort of business?"
She continued to smile.
"Yes, it's good for removing problems caused by people," she continued.
"All I'll need are their names and locations."
"Some sort of secret weapon?"
She glanced at Cade again, since I had raised my voice a bit.
"You might call it that," she answered.
"An interesting proposal," I said. "But you still ,, haven't answered
my first question."
"Refresh my memory."
We were interrupted by the wine steward, who came around topping off
goblets, and then by another toast. The first had been to Vialle, led by
Llewella. This one was proposed by Orkuz, to "the ancient alliance between
Amber and Begma." I drank to that, and I heard Bill mutter; "It's going to
get a bit mire strained."
"The alliance?" I said. ,..
I glanced at Nayda, who was staring at me, clearly expecting a
resumption of our sotto voces. Bill noted this, too, and turned away. Just
then Cade began talking to Nayda, however, so I finished what was on my
plate and took a sip of wine while I waited. In a little while the plate was
whisked away, to be replaced shortly by another.
I glanced at Bill who glanced at Nayda and Cade, then said, "Wait for
I nodded. In a sudden moment of silence I overheard Dretha say, "Is it
true that King Oberon's ghost is sometimes seen?" Gerard grunted something
that sounded like an affirmative just as they were drowned out again. My
mind being a lot fuller than my stomach, I kept eating. Cade, trying to be
diplomatic or just conversational, turned my way a little later, addressed
me and asked my views on the Eregnor situation. He jerked suddenly then and
looked at Nayda. I'd a strong feeling she'd just kicked him under the table,
which was fine with me because I didn't know what the hell the Eregnor
situation was. I mutterred something about there being things to be said for
both sides of most matters, which seemed diplomatic enough for anything. If
it were something barbed, I supposed I could have countered with an
innocent-sounding observation about the Begman party's early arrival, but
Eregnor might actually be some tedious conversation piece that Nayda didn't
want to get into because it would cut off our own discussion. Also, I'd a
feeling that Llewella might suddenly materialize and kick me under the
A thought hit suddenly then. Sometimes I'm a little slow. Obviously,
they had known Random wasn't here, and from what I already knew and from
what Bill had just said, they weren't too happy with whatever Random was
about in the neighboring kingdom. Their early arrival seemed intended to
embarrass us in some fashion. Did that mean that whatever Nayda was offering
me was part of some scheme that fitted in with their general diplomatic
strategy on this matter? If so, why me? I was a very poor choice, in that I
had no say whatsoever concerning Amber's foreign policy. Were they aware of
this? They must be, if their intelligence service were as good as Nayda had
indicated. I was baffled, and I was half tempted to ask Bill his views on
the Eregnor situation. But then. he might have kicked me under the table.
The musicians, having finished snacking, resumed the entertainment with
"Greensleeves," and Nayda and Bill both leaned toward me simultaneously,
then glanced up, their gazes meeting. Both smiled.
"Ladies first," Bill said loudly.
She nodded to him.
Then, "Have a chance to think about my offer?" she asked me.
"Some," I said, "but I had a question. Remember?
"What was it?"
"It's kind of you to want to do me a favor," I said, "but at times such
as this, one must be excused for checking the price tag."
"What if I wem to say that your good will would be sufficient?"
"What if I were to say that my good will isn't worth much at the policy
She shrugged. "Small price for a small return. I already knew that. But
you're related to everybody in this place. Nothing may ever happen, but it's
conceivable that someone might ask your opinion of us. I'd like you to know
you have friends in Begma and to feel kindly disposed toward us if that
I studied her very serious expression. There was more to it than that,
and we both knew it. Only I didn't know what might be on the horizon, and
she obviously did.
I reached out and stroked her cheek once with the back of my hand.
"I am expected to say something nice about you folks if someone should
ask me, that's all, and for this you will go out and kill someone for me if
I just supply the particulars. Right?"
"In a word, yes," she replied.
"It makes me wonder why you think you can manage an assassination
better than we could. We're old hands at it.
"We have, as you put it, a secret weapon," she said. "But I was
thinking that this is a personal matter for you, not a state matter-and that
you might not want any of the others involved. Also, I can provide a service
that will not be traceable."
Bag of worms time again. Was she implying that she thought I did not
trust all of the others here-or that I should not? What did she know that I
didn't? Or was she just, guessing, based on Amber's history of intrigue
within the family? Or was she intentionally trying to stir up a generational
conflict? Would that suit Begma's purpose in some fashion? Or. . . . Was she
guessing that such a situation existed and offering to remove a family
member for me? And if so, did she think I'd be stupid enough to get someone
else to do the job? Or even to discuss such a notion and thereby give Begma
a shot at sufficient evidence to have some kind of hold over me? Or. . . .
I drew back from the view. It pleased me that my thought processes were
finally working properly for the company my family keeps. (Both my families,
actually.) It had taken me a long while to get the hang of it. It felt good.
A simple refusal would foreclose all of the above. But, on the other
hand, if I were to string her along a bit, she might prove a tantalizing
source of information.
So, "Would you go after anyone I would name?" I said. "Anyone?"
She studied my face very carefully. Then, "Yes," she answered.
"You must excuse me again," I responded, "but doing it for such an
intangible as my good will causes me to wonder about your good faith."
Her face reddened. Whether it was a simple blush or anger I could not
be certain, because she looked away immediately. This didn't bother me,
though, because I was certain it was a buyer's market.
I returned my attention to my food and was able to put away several
mouthfuls before she was back again. "Does this mean you won't be stopping
by tonight?" she asked.
"I can't," I said. "I am going to be completely occupied."
"I can believe you ane very busy," she said. "But does that mean we
will not be able to talk at all?"
"It depends entirely on how things break," I said. "I have an awful lot
going on just now, and I may be leaving town soon."
She started slightly. I was certain she considered asking me where I
was going, but thought better of it.
Then, "This is awkward," she said. "Have you refused my offer?"
"Is the deal only good for this evening?" I asked.
"No, but it was my understanding you were in some peril. The sooner you
move against your enemy, the sooner your sleep is untroubled."
"You feel I am in danger here in Amber?"
She hesitated a moment, then said, "No one is safe, anywhere, from an
enemy of sufficient determination and skill."
"Do you feel the threat to be a local one?" I inquired.
"I asked you to name the party," she stated. "You are in the best
position to know."
I drew back immediately. It was too simple an entrapment, and obviously
she'd already smelled it.
"You've given me much to think about," I answered, and I returned to my
After a time, I saw that Bill was looking at me as if he wanted to say
something. I gave him a minuscule shake of my head, which he seemed to
"Breakfast, then?" I heard her say. "This trip you spoke of could
mpresent a time of vulnerability. It would be good to settle this before you
"Nayda," I said, as soon as I had swallowed, "I would like to be clear
on the matter of my benefactors. If I were to discuss this with your
"No!" she interrupted. "He knows nothing about it!"
"Thank you. You must admit my curiosity as to the level at which this
"There is no need to look any further," she stated. "It is entirely my
"Same of your earlier statements cause me to infer that you have
special connections within the Begman intelligence community."
"No," she said, "only the ordinary ones. The offer is my own."
"But someone would have to . . . effectuate this design."
"That is the province of the secret weapon."
"I would have to know more about it."
"I've offered you a service and I've promised you total discretion. I
will go no further as to means."
"If this idea is wholly your own, it would seem that you stand to
benefit from it personally. How? What's in it for you?"
She looked away. She was silent for a long time. "Your file," she said
at last. "It was . . . fascinating reading it. You're one of the few people
here close to my own age, and you've led such an interesting life. You can't
imagine how dull most of the things I have to read are-agricultural reports,
trade figures, appropriations studies. I have no social life whatsoever. I
am always on call. Every party I attend is really a state function in one
form or another. I read your file over and over and I wondered about you. I
. . . I have something of a crush on you. I know it sounds silly, but it's
true. When I saw some of the recent reports and realized that you might be
in great danger, I decided I would help you if I could. I have access to all
sorts of state secrets. One of them would provide me with the means of
helping you. Using it would benefit you without damaging Begma, but it would
be disloyal of me to discuss it further. I've always wanted to meet you, and
I was very jealous of my sister when you took her out today. And I still
wish you'd stop by later."
I stared at her. Then I raised my wineglass to her and took a drink.
"You are . . . amazing," I said. I couldn't think of anything else to
say. It was either an on-the-spot fabrication or it was true. If it were
true, it was somewhat pathetic; if not, I thought it a rather clever bit of
quick thinking, calculated to hit me in that wonderfully vulnerable place,
the ego. She deserved either my sympathy or my wariest admiration. So I
added, "I'd like to meet the person who wrote the reports. There may be a
great creative talent going to waste in a government office."
She smiled, raised her own glass and touched it to mine.
"Think about it," she said.
"I can honestly say I won't forget you," I told her.
We both returned to our food, and I spent the next five minutes or so
catching up. Bill decently allowed me to do this. Also, I think, he was
waiting to be certain that my conversation with Nayda was finally concluded.
At last he winked at me.
"Got a minute?" he asked.
"Afraid so," I said.
"I won't even ask whether it was business or pleasure going on on the
"It was a pleasure," I said, "but a strange business. Don't ask or I'll
"I'll summarize," he said. "The coronation in Kashfa will take place
"Not wasting any time, are we?"
"No. The gentleman who will be taking the throne is Arkans, Duke of
Shadburne. He's been in and out of various Kashfan governments in fairly
responsible positions any number of times over the years. He actually knows
how things work, and he's distantly related to one of the earlier monarchs.
Didn't get along well with Jasra's crowd and pretty much stayed at his
country place the whole time she was in power. He didn't bother her and she
didn't bother him."
"In fact, he actually shared her sentiments on the Eregnor situation,
as the Begmans are well aware-"
"Just what," I asked, "is the Eregnor situation?"
"It's their Alsace-Lorraine," he said, "a large, rich area between
Kashfa and Begma. It has changed hands back and forth so many times over the
centuries that both countries make reasonable-sounding claims to it. Even
the inhabitants of the area aren't all that firm on the matter. They have
relatives in both directions. I'm not even sure they care which side claims
them, so long as their taxes don't go up. I think Begma's claim might be a
little stronger, but I could argue the case either way,"
"And Kashfa holds it now; and Arkans says they'll damn well keep it."
"Right. Which is the same thing Jasra said. The interim ruler,
however-Jaston was his name, military man-was actually willing to discuss
its status with the Begmans, before his unfortunate fall from the balcony. I
think he wanted to repair the treasury and was considering ceding the area
in return for the settlement of some ancient war damage claims. Things were
actually well along and headed in that direction."
"And . . . ?" I said.
"In the papers I got from Random, Amber specifically recognizes Kashfa
as including the area of Eregnor. Arkans had insisted that go into the
treaty. Usually-from everything I've been able to find in the archives-Amber
avoids getting involved in touchy situations like this between allies.
Oberon seldom went looking for trouble. But Random seems to be in a hurry,
and he let this. guy drive a hard bargain."
"He's overreacting," I said, "not that I blame him. He remembers Brand
"I'm just the hired help," he said. "I don't want to have an opinion."
"Well, anything else I should know about Arkans?"
"Oh, there are lots of other things the Begmans don't like about him,
but that's the big one-right when they thought they were making some headway
on an issue that's been a national pastime for generations. They've even
gone to war over the matter in the past. Don't doubt that that's why they
came rushing to town. Govern yourself accordingly."
He raised his goblet anр took a drink.
A little later Vialle said something to Llewella, rose to her feet, and
announced that she had to see to something, that she'd be right back.
Llewella started to get up also but Vialle put a hand on her shoulder,
whispered something, and departed.
"Wonder what that could be?" Bill said.
"Don't know," I answered.
"Shall we speculate?"
"My mind's on cruise control," I told him.
Nayda gave me a long stare. I met it and shrugged.
Another little while, and plates were cleared and more were coming.
Whatever it was looked good. Before I could find out for certain, though, a
member of the general house staff entered and approached.
"Lord Merlin," she said, "the queen would like to see you."
I was on my feet immediately. "Where is she?"
"I'll take you to her."
I excused myself from my companions, borrowing the line that I'd be
right back, wondering if it were true. I followed her out and around the
corner to a small sitting room, where she left me with Vialle, who was
seated in an uncomfortable-looking high-backed chair of dark wood and
leather, held together with cast iron studs. If she'd wanted muscle, she'd
have sent for Gerard. If she'd wanted a mind full of history and political
connivance, Llewella would be here. So I was guessing it involved magic,
since I was the authority in residence.
But I was wrong.
"I'd like to speak to you," she said, "concerning a small state of war
in which we, seem about to become engage.
After a pleasant time with a pretty lady, a series of stimulating
hallway conversations, and a relaxing dinner with family and friends, it
seemed almost fitting that it be time for something different and
distracting. The idea of a small war seemed, at least, better than a big
one, though I did not say that to Vialle. A moment's careful thought, and I
shaped the query:
"What's going on?"
"Dalt's men are dug in near the western edge of Arden," she said.
"Julian's are strung out facing them. Benedict has taken Julian additional
men and weapons. He says he can execute a flanking movement that will take
Dalt's line apart. But I told him not to."
"I don't understand. Why not?"
"Men will die," she said.
"That's the way it is in war. Sometimes you have no choice."
"But we do have a choice, of sorts," she said, "one that I don't
understand. And I do want to understand it before I give an order that will
result in numerous of deaths."
"What is the choice?" I asked.
"I came here to respond to a Trump message from Julian," she said. "He
had just spoken with Dalt under a flag of truce. Dalt told him that his
objective was not, at this time, the destruction of Amber. He pointed out
that he could conduct an expensive attack, though, in terms of our manpower
and equipment. He said he'd rather save himself and us the expense, however.
What he really wants is for us to turn two prisoners over to him-Rinaldo and
"Huh?" I said. "Even if we wanted to, we can't give him Luke. He's not
"That is what Julian told him. He seemed very surprised. For some
reason, he believed we had Rinaldo in custody."
"Well, we're not obliged to provide the man with an education. I gather
he's bean something of a pain for years. I think Benedict has the right
answer for him."
"I did not call you in for advice," she said.
"Sorry," I told her. "It's just that I don't like seeing someone trying
to pull a stunt like this and actually believing he has a chance of
"He has no chance of success," Vialle stated. "But if we kill him now,
we learn nothing. I would like to find out what is behind this."
"Have Benedict bring him in. I have spells that will open him up."
She shook her head.
"Too risky," she explained. "Once bullets start flying, there's the
chance one might find him. Then we lose even though we win."
"I don't understand what it is that you want of me."
"He asked Julian to get in touch with us and relay his demand. He's
promised to hold the truce until we give him some sort of official answer.
Julian says he has the impression that Dalt would settle for either one of
"I don't want to give him Jasra either."
"Neither do I. What I do want very badly is to know what is going on.
There would be small point in releasing Jasra and asking her, since this is
a recent development. I want to know whether you have means of getting in
touch with Rinaldo. I want to talk to him."
"Well, uh . . . yes," I said. "I have a Trump for him."
I got it out. I regarded it. I moved my mind into that special area of
alertness and calling. The picture changed came alive. . . .
It was twilight, and Luke stood near a campfire. H had on his green
outfit, a light brown cloak about his shoulders clasped with that Phoenix
"Merle," he said. "I can move the troops pretty fast.. When do you want
to hit the place and-"
"Put it on hold," I interrupted. "This is something different. "
"Dalt's at the gates; and Vialle wants to talk to you before we take
"Dalt? There? Amber?"
"Yes, yes, and yes. He says he'll go and play someplace else if we give
him the two things he wants most in the world: you and your mother."
"Yeah. We think so, too. Will you talk to the queen about it?"
"Sure. Bring me thr-" He hesitated and looked into my eyes.
He extended his hand. I reached forward and took it. Suddenly, he was
there. He looked about, saw Vialle. Immediately, he unclasped his sword belt
and passed it to me. He approached her, dropped to his right knee, and
lowered his head.
"Your Majesty," he said. "I've come."
She reached forward and touched him.
"Raise your head," she said.
He did, and her sensitive fingers slid over the plane and arches of his
"Strength," she said, "and sorrow. . . . So you're Rinaldo. You've
brought us some grief."
"It works both ways, Your Majesty."
"Yes, of course," she replied. "Wrongs done and wrongs avenged have a
way of spilling over on the innocent. How far will it go this time?"
"This thing with Dalt?" he asked.
"No. This thing with you."
"Oh," he said. "It's over. I've done with it. No more bombs or
ambushes. I've already told Merlin that."
"You've known him for several years?"
"You've become friends?"
"He's one of the reasons I'm calling it off."
"You must trust him, to come here. I respect that," she said. "Take
She removed a ring she wore upon her right forefinger. The band was of
gold, the stone a milky green; the prongs of its setting caught it in a
fashion to suggest some mantic spider guarding dreamland treasures against
the daybreak world.
"Your Majesty. . . ."
"Wear it;" she said.
"I will," he replied, slipping it upon the little finger of his left
hand. "Thank you. "
"Rise. I want you to know exactly what has occurred."
He got to his feet, and she began telling him what she had told me,
concerning Dalt's arrival, his forces' disposition, his demands, while I
stood stunned at the implications of what she had done. She had just placed
Luke under her protection. Everyone in Amber knew that ring. I wondered what
Random would think. I realized then that there would not be a hearing. Poor
Bill. I believe he was really looking forward to arguing Luke's case.
"Yes, I know Dalt," I heard him saying. "Once we shared . . . certain
goals. But he's changed. He tried to kill me the last time we met. I'm not
sure why. At first I thought the wizard of the Keep had taken control of
"Now, I just don't understand. I've a feeling he's on a leash, but I
don't know who holds it."
"Why not the wizard?"
"It makes no sense to go to these lengths to claim me when he had me
and let me go just a few days ago. He could simply have left me in my cell."
"True," she replied. "What is this wizard's name?"
"Mask," he answered. "Merlin knows more about him than I do."
"Merlin," she said. "Who is this Mask?"
"He's the wizard who took the Keep of the Four Worlds away from Jasra,"
I explained, "who, in turn, had taken it away from Shah Ganul, who is now
also a coatrack. Mask wears a blue mask and seems to draw power from a
strange fountain in the citadel there. Doesn't seem to like me much either.
That's about all I can tell you."
I'd omitted mentioning my plan to head that way for a showdown soon,
because of Jurt's involvement, for the same reason I hadn't wanted Random to
know about it. I was certain Luke had tossed me the question because he
wasn't sure how far I wanted it taken.
"That doesn't really tell us much," she decided, "as to Dalt's
"There may not be a connection," I said. "I gather Dalt is a mercenary,
and their relationship could have been a one-time thing. He could either be
working for someone else now or pulling something on his own."
"I can't see why anybody wants us badly enough to go to such dramatic
lengths," Luke said. "But I've a score to settle with that guy, and I'm
going to combine business with pleasure. "
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"I assume there's a way to get down there in a hurry," he said.
"One could always trump through to Julian," I said, but what have you
got in mind, Luke?"
"I want to talk to Dalt."
"It's too dangerous," she said, "since you're what he wants."
Luke grinned. "It could be a bit dangerous for Dalt, too," he replied.
"Wait a minute," I said. "If you've got more in mind than just talking,
you could blow this truce. Vialle's trying to avoid a conflict here."
"There won't be any conflict," Luke said. "Look, I've known Dalt since
we were kids, and I think he's bluffing. He does that sometimes. He hasn't
got the kind of force to risk another attack on Amber. Your guys would
slaughter him. If he wants Mom or me, I think he'd be willing to tell me
why, and that's what we want to find out, isn't it?"
"Well, yes," I said. "But-"
"Let me go," he said to Vialle, "and I'll find a way to get him off
your back. I promise."
"You tempt me," she told him. "But I don't like your talk of settling
accounts with him at this time. As Merlin said, I want to avoid this
conflict-for more than one reason."
"I promise not to let it go that far," he stated. "I can read the dice.
I'm good at playing things by ear. I'm willing to postpone gratification."
"Merlin . . . ?" she said.
"He's right, in that," I answered. "He's the deadliest salesman in the
"I'm afraid I don't understand the concept."
"It's a highly specialized art, back on that Shadow Earth we both
inhabited. In fact, he's using it on you right now."
"Do you think he can do what he says?"
"I think he's very good at getting what he wants."
"Exactly," Luke observed. "And since we both want the same thing here,
I think the future looks bright for all of us."
"I see what you mean," she said. "How much danger would this put you
"I'll be as safe as I am right here in Amber," he said.
"All right, I'll speak to Julian," she agreed, "and you can go to him
and see what you can learn from Dalt."
"A moment," I requested, "It's been snowing on and off, and that's a
pretty nasty wind out there. Luke just came in from a more temperate clime,
and it's a pretty flimsy-looking cloak he has on. Let me get him something
warmer. I've a nice heavy one he can take, if he finds it suitable."
"Go ahead," she said.
"We'll be right back."
She pursed her lips, then nodded.
I passed Luke his weapons belt and he buckled it on. I knew that she
knew I just wanted to talk to him alone for a few minutes. And she was
certainly aware that I knew it. And we both knew she trusted me, which
brightens my existence, as well as complicating it.
As we passed along the hallway toward my rooms, I'd intended to fill
Luke in concerning the upcoming coronation in Kashfa, as well as a few other
matters. I waited, however, till we were well away firm the sitting room,
because Vialle has inordinately acute hearing. This, though, gave Luke a
foot in the door, and he began to speak first.
"What a strange, development," he said. Then, "I like her, but I've a
feeling she knows more than she's telling."
"Probably true," I answered. "I guess we're all like that."
"These days, yes. It's gotten that way."
"You know anything more about this situation that I should be aware
I shook my head. "This is very new, and she gave you the whole story I
know. Would you, perchance, know something about it that we don't?"
"Nope," he said. "It came as a surprise to me, too. But I've got to
"I guess so."
We were nearing my stretch of corridor now, and I felt obliged to
"We'll be to my rooms in a minute," I said, "and I just wanted you to
know your mother's in there. She's safe, but you won't find her too
"I'm familiar with the results of that spell," he said. "I also recall
that you said you know how to lift it. So. . That leads into the next topic.
I've been thinking. This interlude is slowing us down a bit in our plan for
going after Mask and your brother."
"Not all that much," I responded.
"We don't really know how long this is going to take me, though," he
went on. "Supposing it drags out a bit? Or supposing something happens to
really slow me down?"
I gave him a quick glance.
"Like, what have you got in mind?" I asked.
"I don't know. I'm just supposing. Okay? I like to plan ahead. Say we
get delayed on this attack. . . ."
"All right. Say that," I said, as we neared my door.
"What I'm getting at," he continued, "is, what if we get there too
late? Supposing we arrive and your brother has already undergone the ritual
that turns him into hell on wheels?"
I unlocked my door, opened it, and held it for him. I did not like
entertaining the possibility he had just described, because I recalled my
father's stories of the times he'd encountered Brand and faced that uncanny
Luke stepped inside. I snapped my fingers and a number of oil lamps
came to life, their flames dancing for a moment before settling to a glowing
Jasra was there in plain sight before him, holding a number of my
garments on outstretched arms. I was concerned for a moment as to what his
reaction might be.
He halted, studying her, then advanced, his speculations concerning
Jurt forgotten. He regarded her for perhaps ten seconds, and I found myself
growing uncomfortable. Then he chuckled.
"She always lide being decorative," he said, "but to combine it with
being useful was generally beyond her. You've got to hand it to Mask, even
though she probably won't catch the moral of it."
He turned away and faced me.
"No, she'll probably wake up mean as cat piss and looking for trouble,
" he reflected. Then, "She doesn't seem to be holding that cloak you
"I'll get it."
I moved to an armoire, opened it, and fetched out a dark fur one. As we
traded, he ran his hand over it.
"Manticore?" he asked.
"Dire wolf," I said.
I hung his within and closed the dorr while he donned mine.
"As I was saying when we came in here," he offered, "supposing I don't
"You weren't saying that," I corrected.
"Not in so manu words, " he admitted. "But whether it's a small delay
or the big one, what difference does it make? The point is, what if Jurt
goes through with the ritual and succeeds in obtaining the powers he's after
before we can do anything about it? And supposing I'm not around right then
to give you a hand?"
"That's a lot of supposing." I said.
"That's what separates us from the losers, man. Nice cloak."
He moved toward the door, glanced back at me, at Jasra.
"Okay," I said. "You go down there, Dalt cuts off your head and uses it
for a football, then Jurt shows up ten feet tall and farting fire. I'm
supposing. How does that separate us from the losers?"
He stepped out into the hall. I followed him, snapping my fingers
again, leaving Jasra to the darkness.
"It's a matter of knowing your options," he told me, as I secured the
I fell into step beside him as he headed back down the hall.
"A person who acquires that kind of power also picks up a
vulnerability, by way of its source," he said.
"What dows that mean?" I asked.
"Specifically, I don't know," he told me. "But the power in the Keep
can be used against a person who is empowered by the Keep. I learned that
much in Sharu's notes. But Mom took them away before I read them all, and I
never saw them again. Never trust - that's her motto. I think."
"I'm saying that if something happens to me and he comes up a winner in
this game, I believe she knows some special way of destroying him."
"I'm also pretty sure that she'll have to be asked very nicely."
"Somehow, I think I already knew that."
He gave a humorless chuckle.
"So you tell her that I've ended the vendetta, that I'm satisfied, and
then offer her the citadel in return for her help."
"What if she says that's not enough?"
"Hell! Turn her back into a coatrack then! It's not as if the guy can't
be killed. My dad still died with an arrow through his throat, despite his
fancy powers. A deathstroke is still a deathstroke. It's just that
delivering it to a guy like that is a lot harder."
"You really think that'll be enough?" I said.
He halted and looked at me, frowning.
"She'll argue, but of course she'll agree," he said. "It'll be a step
up in the world. And she'll want revenge on Mask as much as that piece of
her former holdings. But to answer your question, don't trust her. No matter
what she promises, she'll never be happy with less than she had before.
She'll be scheming. She'll be a good ally till the job's done. Then you've
got to think about protecting yourself against her. Unless..."
"Unless I come up with something to sweeten the pot."
"I don't know yet. But don't lift that spell until things are
definitely settled between Dalt and me. Okay?"
He resumed walking.
"Wait a minute," I said "What are you planning?"
"Nothing special," he answered. "Like I told the queen, I'm just goint
go play things by ear."
"I sometimes get the feeling you're as devious as you make her out to
be," I said.
"I hope so," he replied. "But there's a difference. I'm honest."
"I don't know that I'd buy a used car from you, Luke."
"Every deal I make is special," he said, "and for you it's always top
of the line."
I glanced at him, saw that he kept his expressioin under control.
"What else can I say?" he added, indicating the sitting room with a
"Nothing, now," I answered, and we entered there.
Vialle turned her head in our direction as we came in, hr expression as
unreadable as Luke's.
"I take it you are properly attired now?" she asked.
"I am indeed," he answered.
"Then let's be about this," she said, raising her left hand, which I
saw to contain a Trump. "Come over here, please."
Luke approached her and I followed him. I could see then that it was
Julian's Trump that she held.
"Place your hand upon mu shoulder," she told him.
He did, and she reached, found Julian and began speaking to him.
Shortly, Luke was party to the conversation, explaining what he intended to
do. I overheard Vialle saying that the plan had her approval.
Moments later I saw Luke raise his free hand and extend it. I also saw
the shadowy figure of Julian reaching forward, though I was not part of the
Trump nexus. This was because I had summoned my Logrus Sight and had become
sensitive to such things. I needed it for the timing, not wanting Luke
whisked away before I could move.
I let my hand fall upon his shoulder and I moved forward as he did.
"Merlin! What are you doing?" I heard Vialle call.
"I'd like to see what happens," I said. "I'll come right home when
things are concluded," and the rainbow gate closed behind me.
We stood within the flickering of oil lamps inside a large tent. From
outside, I couild hear the wind and the sounds of stirring branches. Julian
stood facing us. He let Luke's hand fall and regarded him without
"So you are Caine's killer," he said.
"I am," Luke replied.
And I was remembering that Caine and Julian had always been
particularly close. If Julian were to kill Luke and cry vendetta, I was
certain that Random would merely nod and agree. Perhaps he'd even smile.
Hard to say. If I were Random, I would greet Luke's removal with a sight of
relief. In fact, that was one of the reasons I'd come along. Supposing this
whole deal were a setup? I couild'n picture Vialle as a part of it, but she
could easily have been deceived by Julian and Benedict. Supposing Dalt
wasn't even out there?
Or suppose he were - and that what he'd really asked for was Luke's
head? After all, he had tried to kill Luke fairly recently. I had to admit
the possibility now, and I also had to admit that Julian was the most likely
candidate to be a willing party to such a design. For the good of Amber.
Julian's gaze met mine, and I wore as affectless a mask as his own.
"Good evening, Merlin," he said. "Do you have a special part in this
"I'm an observer," I answered. "Anything else I may do will be dictated
From somewhere outside I heard the growling of a hellhound.
``So long as you keep out of the,way," Julian said.
"Sorcerers have special ways of avoiding notice, " I replied.
He studied me again, wondering, I am certain, whether that involved
some sort of threat-to defend Luke or avenge him.
Then he shrugged and turned away to where a small table held an
unrolled map, weighted in place with a rock and a dagger. He indicated that
Luke should join him there, and I followed when he did.
It was a map of the western fringe of Arden, and he' pointed out our
position on it. Garnath lay to our sout-southwest, Amber to the southeast.
"Our troops are situated here;" he said, with a movement of his finger.
"And Dalt's are here." He described another line, roughly paralleling our
"What about Benedict's force?" I inquired.
He glanced at me, showing the slightest of frowns.
"It is good for Luke to know that there is such a force," he stated,
"but not its size, location, or objective. That way, if Dalt were to capture
and question him, i" he'd have a lot to worry about and nothing to act
Luke nodded. "Good idea," he said.
Julian pointed again, to a spot midway between the lines. "This is the
place where I met with him when we spoke earlier," he explained. "It is a
clear, level area, in view of both sides during daylight. I'd suggest we use
it again, for your meeting."
"All right," Luke said, and I noticed that as he spoke, Julian's
fingertips caressed the handle of the dagger that lay before him. Then I saw
that Luke's right hand, in casual movement, had come to rest upon his belt,
slightly to the left and near to his own dagger.
Simultaneously, then, Luke and Julian smiled at each other, and held it
several seconds too long. Luke was bigger than Julian, and I knew he was
fast and strong. But Julian had centuries of experience with weapons behind
him. I wondered how I would intervene if either made a move toward the
other, because I knew that I would try to stop them. But they let their
hands fall to their sides then, as if by sudden agreement, and Julian said,
"Let me offer you a glass of wine."
"Don't mind if I do," Luke replied, and I wondered whether my presence
had kept them from fighting. Probably not. I'd the feeling that Julian had
just wanted to make his feelings clear, and Luke had wanted to let him know
he didn't give a damn. I really don't know which one I'd have bet on.
Julian placed three cups upon the table, filled them with Bayle's Best,
gestured for us to help ourselves as he corked the bottle, then picked up
the remaining cup and took a swallow before either of us could do more than
sniff ours. A quick assurance that we weren't being poisoned and that he
wanted to talk business.
"When I met with him we each brought two retainers along," he said.
"Armed?" I asked.
"More for show, really."
"Were you mounted or on foot?" Luke asked.
"On foot," he replied. "We each left our lines at the same time and
proceeded at the same pace till we met there in the middle, several hundred
paces from either side."
"I see," Luke said. "No hitches?"
"None. We talked and returned."
"When was this?"
"Around sundown. "
"Did he seem to be a man in a normal state of mind?"
"I'd say. I count a certain arrogant posturing and a few insults toward
Amber as normal for Dalt."
"Understandable," Luke said. "And he wanted me or my mother, or both?
And failing to get us, he threatened to attack?"
"Did he give any indication as to why he wants us?"
"None," Julian replied.
Luke took a sip of his wine.
"Did he specify whether he wanted us dead or alive?" he asked.
"Yes. He wants you alive," Julian answered.
"What are your impressions?"
"If I give you to him, I'm rid of you," Julian said. "If I spit in his
eye and take him on in battle, I'm rid
of him. Either way, I come out ahead."
Then his gaze moved to the wine cup, which Luke had picked up with his
left hand, and for an instant his eyes widened. I realized he had just then
noticed that Luke was wearing Vialle's ring.
"It looks as if I get to kill Dalt, anyway," he concluded.
"By impressions," Luke went on, unperturbed. "I meant, do you believe
he will really attack? Do you have any idea where he came from? Any
indication where he might be headed when he leaves here-if he leaves?"
Julian swirled his wine in his cup.
"I have to go under the assumption that he means what he says and plans
to attack. When we first became aware of his troop movements, he was
advancing from the general direction of Begma and Kashfa-probably Eregnor,
since he hangs out there a lot. Your guess is as good as anyone's as to
where he wants to go if he leaves here."
Luke took a quick swallow of wine a fraction of a second too late for
it to conceal what appeared to be a sudden smile. No, I realized right then,
Luke's guess was not as good as anyone else's. It was probably a hell of a
lot better. I took a quick drink myself, though I'm not sure what expression
I might have been concealing.
"You can sleep here," Julian said. "If you're hungry, I'll have some
food brought in. We'll set up this meeting for you at daybreak."
Luke shook his head.
"Now," Luke said, with another subtle but obvious display of the ring.
"We want it set up right away."
Julian studied him for several pulsebeats. Then, "You'll not be in the
clearest sight of either side in the dark, especially with snow coming
down," he said. "Some little misunderstanding could result in an attack,
from either side."
"If both of my companions bore large torches-and if both of his did the
same-" he suggested, "we ought to be visible to both sides at a few hundred
"Possibly," Julian said. "All right. I'll have the message sent to his
camp, and I'll choose two retainers to accompany you."
"I already know who I want to have with me," Luke said. "Yourself and
"You are a curious individual," Julian observed. "But yes, I agree. I
would like to be there when whatever happens, happens."
Julian moved to the front of his tent, opened the flap, and summoned an
officer with whom he spoke for several minutes. In this space, I asked, "You
know what you're doing, Luke?"
"Certainly," he replied.
"I've a feeling this is a little more than playing it by ear," I said.
"Any reason why you can't tell me your plan?"
He appraised me for a moment, then said, "I only recently realized that
I, too, am a son of Amber. We've met, and we've seen that we're too much
like each other. Okay. That's good. It means we can do business, right?"
I allowed myself to frown. I wasn't sure what he was trying to say.
He clasped my shoulder lightly.
"Don't worry," he said. "You can trust me. Not that you have a great
deal of choice at this point. But you may a a bit later. I want you to
remember then that, whatever happens, you must not interfere."
"What do you think is going to happen?"
"We haven't the time or the privacy to speculate," he said. "So let it
go, and remember everything I said this evening."
"As you said, I haven't much choice at this point."
"I want you to remember it later," he said, as Julian lowered the flap
and turned toward us.
"I'll take you up on that meal," Luke called to him. "How about you,
"Lord, no!" I replied. "I just sat through a state dinner. "
"Oh?" he inquired almost too casually. "What was the; ocasion?"
I began to laugh. It was too much for one day. I was about to tell him
that we hadn't the time or the rivacy. But Julian had just reopened the tent
flap and was calling for an orderly, and I wanted to throw a few curve balls
through Luke's broken field just to see what they did to his composure.
"Oh, it was for the Begman prime minister, Orkuz, and some of his
staff," I explained.
He waited while I pretended to take a long drink of wine. Then I
lowered it and said, "That's all."
"Come on, Merlin. What's it about? I've been relatively square with you
"Oh?" I said.
For a minute I didn't think he'd see the humor in it; but then he began
to laugh, too.
"Sometimes the mills of the gods grind too damned fast and we get
buried in grist," he observed. "Look, how about giving me this one for free.
I don't have anything brief to trade right now. What's he want?"
"You'll bear in mind that this is classified until tomorrow?"
"Okay. What happens tomorrow?"
"Arkans, Duke of Shadburne, gets crowned in Kashfa. "
"Holy shit!" Luke said. He glanced at Julian, then back at me. "That
was a damned clever choice on Random's part," he said after a time. "I
didn't think he'd move this fast."
He stared off into some vanishing point for a long while. Then he said,
"Well, does it help or hurt?" I asked.
"Me, or Kashfa?" he said.
"I hadn't split it down that fine."
"That's okay, because I'm not sure how to take this. I need to do some
thinking. Get the big picture."
I stared at him and he smiled again.
"It is interesting," he added. "You got anything else for me?"
"That's enough," I said.
"Yeah, probably you're right," he agreed. "Don't want to overload the
systems. Think we're losing touch with the simple things, old buddy?"
"Not so long as we know each other," I said.
Julian dropped the flap, returned to us, and sought his wine cup.
"Your food will be along in a few minutes," he told Luke.
"According to Benedict," he said, "you told Random that Dalt is a son
"I did," Luke acknowledged. "One who's walked the Pattern, at that.
Does it make a difference?"
"Won't be the first time I've wanted to kill a relative," he stated.
"By the way, you're my nephew, aren't you?"
"Right . . . uncle."
Julian swirled the contents of his cup again.
"Well, welcome to Amber," he said. "I heard a banshee last night. I
wonder if there's any connection?"
"Change," Luke said. "They mean things are changing and they wail for
.what's being lost."
"Death. They mean death, don't they?"
"Not always. Sometimes they just show up at turning points for dramatic
"Too bad," Julian said. "But one can always hope."
I thought Luke was going to say something else, but Julian began again
before he could.
"How well did you know your father?" he asked.
Luke stiffened slightly, but answered, "Maybe not well as most. I don't
know. He was like a salesman. Always coming and going. Didn't usually stay
with us long."
"What was he like, near the end?" he inguired.
Luke studied his hands.
"Well, he wasn't exactly normal, if that's what you mean," he finally
said. "Like I was telling Merlin earlier, I think the process he undertook
to gain his powers might have unbalanced him some."
"I never heard that story."
"The details aren't all that important just the results."
"You're saying he wasn't a bad father before that?"
"Hell, I don't know. I never had another father to a compare him to.
Why do you ask?"
"Curiosity. It's a part of his life I knew nothing about."
"Well, what kind of brother was he?"
"Wild," Julian said. "We didn't get along all that well. So we pretty
much stayed out of each other's ways. He was smart, though. Talented, too.
Had a flare for the arts. I was just trying to figure how much you might
take after him. "
Luke turned his hands palms upward. "Beats me," he said.
"Well, no matter," Julian replied, setting down his cup and turning
toward the front of the tent again. "I believe your food is about to
He moved off in that direction. I could hear the tiny crystals of ice
rattling against the canvas overhead, and a few growls from outside:
concerto for wind and hellhound. No banshees, though. Not yet.
I walked a pace or so behind Luke, a couple of yards off to his left,
trying to keep even with Julian, who was over to the right. The torch I bore
was a big thing, about six tapering feet of pitchy wood, sharpened at its
terminus to make it easy to drive into the ground. I held it at arm's
distance, because the oily flames licked and lashed in all directions in
accord with vagaries of the wind. Sharp, icy flakes fell upon my cheek, my
forehead, my hands, with a few catching in my eyebrows and lashes. I blinked
vigorously as the heat of the torch melted them and they ran into my eyes.
The grasses beneath my feet were sufficiently cold to give a brittle,
crunching sensation every time I took a step. Directly ahead I could see the
slow advance of two other torches toward us, and the shadowy figure of a man
who walked between them. I blinked and waited for the flow from one or the
other of his torches to give me a better look. I'd only seen him once, very
briefly, via Trump, back at Arbor House. His hair looked golden, or even
coppery, by what light there was upon it, but I remembered it as a kind of
dirty blond by natural light. His eyes, I recalled, were green, though there
was no way I could see that now. I did begin to realize for the first time,
however, that he was pretty big-either that or he had chosen fairly short
torchbearers. He had been alone that one time I'd seen him, and I had had no
standard for comparison. As the light from our torches reached him I saw
that he had on a heavy, green sleeveless doublet without a collar, over
something black and also heavy, with sleeves that extended down his arms to
vanish within green gauntlets. His trousers were black, as were the high
boots they entered; his cloak was black and lined with an emerald green that
caught our light as the cloak furled about him in shifting, oily landscapes
of yellow and red. He wore a heavy circular medallion, which looked to be
gold, on a chain about his neck; and though I could not make out the details
of its device, I was certain that it bore a Lion rending a Unicorn. He came
to a halt about ten or twelve paces from Luke, who stopped an instant later.
Dalt gestured, and his retainers drove the butts of their torches into the
ground. Julian and I immediately did the same, and we remained near them, as
Dalt's men were doing. Then Dalt nodded to Luke, and they both advanced
again, meeting at the center of the box formed by the lights, clasping right
forearms, staring into each other's eyes. Luke's back was to me, but I could
see Dalt's face. He showed no signs of emotion, but his lips were already
moving. I couldn't hear a word that was being said, between the wind and the
fact that they seemed intentionally to be keeping it low. At least, I
finally had a point of reference for Dalt's size. Luke is about six three,
and I could see that Dalt was several inches taller. I glanced at Julian,
but he was not looking my way. I wondered how many eyes regarded us from
both sides of the field.
Julian is always a bad person to check for reactions. He was simply
watching the two of them, expressionless, stolid. I cultivated the same
attitude, and the minutes passed, the snow kept falling.
After a long while Luke turned away and headed back toward us. Dalt
moved off toward one of his torchbearers. Luke stopped midway between us,
and Julian and I moved to join him.
"What's up?" I asked him.
"Oh," he said, "I think I found a way of settling this without a war."
"Great," I said. "What did you sell him?"
"I sold him on the idea of fighting a duel with me to determine how
this thing goes," he explained.
"God damn it, Luke! " I said. "That guy's a pro! And I'm sure he's got
our genetic package for strength. And he's been living in the field all this
time. He's probably in top shape. And he outweighs you and outreaches you."
"So, I might get lucky," he said. He looked at Julian. "Anyway, if you
can get a message back to the lines and tell them not to attack when we
start this thing, Dalt's side will be holding still for it, too."
Julian looked over to where one of Dalt's torchbearers had started back
toward his lines. He turned toward his own side then and executed a number
of hand signals. Shortly, a man emerged from cover and began jogs toward us.
"Luke;" I said. ``This is crazy. The only way you're going to win is to
get Benedict for a second and then break a leg."
"Merle," he said, "let it go. This is between Dalt and me. Okay?"
"I've got a bunch of fairly fresh spells," I said. "We can let this
thing start, and then I'll hit him with one at the right time. It'll look as
if you did it."
"No!" he said. "This really is a matter of honor. So you've got to stay
out of it."
"Okay," I said, "if that's how you want it."
"Besides, nobody's going to die," he explained. "Neither of us wants
that right now, and it's part of the deal. We're too valuable to each other
alive. No weapons. Strictly mano a mono. " .
"Just what," Julian inquired, "is the deal?"
"If Dalt whips my ass," Luke replied, "I'm his prisoner. He'll withdraw
his force and I'll accompany him."
"Luke, you're crazy!" I said.
Julian glared at me.
"Continue," he said.
"If I win, he's my prisoner," he went on. "He goes back with me to
Amber, or anywhere else I care to transport him, and his officers withdraw
"The only way of assuring such a withdrawal," Julian said, "is to let
them know that if they don't they're doomed."
"Of course," Luke said. "That's why I told him that Benedict is waiting
in the wings to roll down on him. I'm sure it's the only reason he's agreed
to do this."
"Most astute," Julian observed. "Either way, Amber wins. What are you
trying to buy with this, Rinaldo, for yourself?"
"Think about it," he said.
"There is more to you than I'd thought, Nephew," he replied. "Move over
there to my right, would you?"
"To block his view of me, of course. I've got to let Benedict know
what's going on."
Luke moved while Julian located his Trumps and иs shuffled out the
proper one. In the meantime the runner from our lines had come up and stood
waiting. Julian put away all of the cards but one then, and commenced his
communication. It lasted for a minute or so, then Julian paused to speak
with the runner and send him back. Immediately, he continued the
conversation with the card. When he finally stopped talking or seeming to
listen, he did not restore the Trump to the inner pocket where he kept the
others, but retained it in his hand out of sight. I realized then that the
contact would not be broken, that he would stay in touch with Benedict until
this business was finished, so that Benedict would know in an instant what
it was that he must do.
Luke unfastened the cloak I'd lent him, came over, and handed it to me.
"Hold this till I'm done, will you?" he said.
"Yes," I agreed, accepting it. "Good luck."
He smiled briefly and turned away. Dalt was already moving toward the
center of the square.
Luke advanced, also. He and Dalt both halted, facing each other, while
there were still several paces separating them. Dalt said something I could
not hear, and Luke's reply was lost to me, also.
Then they raised their arms. Luke struck a boxer's stance, and Dalt's
hands came up in a wrestler's defense.Luke threw the first punch-or maybe it
was just a feint; either way, it didn't land-toward Dalt's face. Dalt
brushed at it and stepped back, and Luke moved in quickly and landed two
blows on his midsection. Another shot at his face was blocked, though, and
Luke began to circle, jabbing. Dalt tried rushing twice then and got clipped
both times, a little trickle of blood coming from his lip after the second
one. On his third rush, though, he sent Luke sprawling but was unable to
crash down on top of him, as Luke was able to twist partly away and roll
when he hit. He tried kicking Dalt in the right kidney, though, as soon as
he'd scrambled to his feet, and Dalt caught his ankle and rose, bearing him
over backward. Luke landed a kick on the side of his knee with his other
foot as he went down, but Dalt kept hold of the foot, bearing down and
beginning to twist. Luke bent forward then, grimacing, and managed to catch
Dalt's right wrist with both hands and tear his foot free of the larger
man's grip. He doubled and moved forward then, still holding the wrist,
regaining his feet and straightening as he advanced, passing under Dalt's
arm on his right side, turning, and dragging him face downward to the
ground. He moved quickly then, bending the arm up into a hammerlock, holding
it with his right hand and seizing a handful of Dalt's hair with his left.
But as he drew Dalt's head backward-preparatory, I was certain, to slamming
it a few times against the ground-I saw that it wasn't going to work. Dalt
stiffened, and his arm started to move downward. He was straightening it
against Luke's lock. Luke tried pushing Dalt's head forward several times
then, without effect. It became apparent that if he released either hand he
was in trouble, and he wasn't able to maintain the hold. Dalt was just too
damned strong. Seeing this, Luke threw all of his weight against Dalt's
back, pushed, and sprang up. He wasn't quite fast enough, however, because
Dalt's freed arm swung around and clipped him across the left calf as he
moved away. Luke stumbled. Dalt was up and swinging immediately. He caught
Luke with a wild haymaker that knocked him over backward. This time, when he
threw himself upon Luke, Luke was unable to roll free; he only managed to
turn his body partly. Dalt landed with considerable force, twisting past a
slow knee aimed toward his groin. Luke did not get his hands free in time to
defend against a punch that caught him on the left side of the jaw. He
turned with it and fell completely flat. Then his right hand snapped upward,
its heel striking the point of Dalt's chin, fingers hooking toward the eyes.
Dalt jerked his head back and slapped the hand away. Luke threw a hammer
blow toward his temple with the other hand, and though it connected, Dalt
was already moving his head to the side, and I couldn't see that it had any
effect. Luke dropped both elbows to the ground and pushed himself up and
forward, bowing. His forehead struck Dalt's facewhere, I am not precisely
certain-before he fell back. Moments later, Dalt's nose began bleeding as he
reached out with his left hand to grasp Luke by the neck. His right hand,
open, slapped Luke hard on the side of the head. I saw Luke's teeth just
before it landed, as he tried biting at the incoming hand, but the grip on
his neck prevented this. Dalt moved to repeat the blow, but this time Luke's
left arm came up and blocked it, while his right hand caught hold of Dalt's
left wrist in an effort to pull it away from his neck. Dalt's right hand
snaked in past Luke's left then, to take hold, creating a two-handed grip on
Luke's neck, thumbs moving to depress the windpipe.
I thought that might well be it. But Luke's right hand suddenly moved
to Dalt's left elbow, his left hand crossed both of Dalt's arms to seize the
left forearm, and Luke twisted his body and cranked the elbow skyward. Dalt
went over to the left and Luke rolled to the right and regained his footing,
shaking his head as he did so. This time he did not try kicking Dalt, who
was already recovering. Dalt again extended his arms, Luke raised his fists,
and they began circling once more.
The snow continued to fall, the wind to slacken and surge, sometimes
driving the icy flakes hard against faces, other times permitting the snow
to descend like a troubled curtain. I thought of all the troops about me and
wondered for a moment whether I would find myself in the middle of a
battlefield when this thing was finally over. The fact that Benedict was
ready to swoop down from somewhere and wreak extra havoc did not exactly
comfort me, even though it meant that my side would probably win. I
remembered then that my being there was my own choice.
"Come on, Luke!" I yelled. "Flatten him!"
This produced a very odd effect. Immediately, Dalt's torchbearers began
shouting encouragement to him. Our voices must have carried though the
wind's lulls, for shortly there came waves of sound, which I at first took
to be some distant part of the storm and only later realized to be shouting
coming from both lines. Only Julian remained silent, inscrutable.
Luke continued to circle Dalt, throwing jabs and trying occasional
combinations, and Dalt kept swatting away at them and trying to catch an
arm. Both of them had blood on their faces and both seemed a bit slower than
they had been earlier. I'd a feeling they'd both been hurt, though it was
impossible to guess to what extent. Luke had opened a small cut high on
Dalt's left cheek. Both of their faces were beginning to look puffy.
Luke connected with another body combination, but it was hard to say
how much force there was behind the blows. Dalt took them stoically and
found extra energy somewhere to rush forward and attempt to grapple. Luke
was slow in withdrawing and Dalt managed to draw him into a clinch. Both
tried kneeing the other; both turned their hips and avoided it. They kept
tangling arms and twisting as Dalt continued reaching after a better grip
and Luke kept defeating the efforts while attempting to free an arm wind get
in a punch. Both tried several forehead bashes and instep stompings, but all
of these were avoided by the other. Finally, Luke succeeded in hooking
Dalt's leg, driving him backward to the ground.
Half kneeling atop him then, Luke caught him with a left cross and
followed it immediately with a right. He tried for another left then, and
Dalt caught his fist, surged upward and threw him back to the ground. As
Dalt hurled himself upon him again, his face a half mask of blood and dirt,
Luke was somehow able to strike him beneath the heart, but this did not stop
Dalt's right fist which came down like a falling rock on the side of Luke's
jaw. Dalt followed it with a weak left to the other side, a weak right,
paused to suck in a great breath, then landed a solid left. Luke's head
rolled to the side and he did not move.
Dalt crouched there atop him, panting like a dog, studying his face as
if suspecting some trick, his right hand twitching as if he were
contemplating striking again.
But nothing happened. They remained in that position for ten or fifteen
seconds before Dalt slowly drew himself erect, eased off of Luke to Luke's
left, then rose carefully to his feet, swayed for a second and straightened
I could almost taste the death spell I had hung earlier. It would only
take a few seconds to nail him, and no one would be certain how he had died.
But I wondered what would happen if he were to collapse now, too. Would both
sides attack? It was neither this nor humanitarian considerations that
finally restrained me, however. Instead, it was Luke's words, "This really
is a matter of honor. So you've got to stay out of it," and, "Nobody's going
to die. . . . We're too valuable to each other alive."
Okay. There was still no sound of trumpets. No rush of men to combat.
It seemed that things might actually go as had been agreed. This was the way
Luke had wanted it. I was not going to interfere.
I watched as Dalt knelt and began to raise Luke from the ground.
Immediately, he lowered him, then called to his two torchmen to come and
carry him. Dalt rose again and faced Julian as the men advanced.
"I call upon you to observe the rest of our agreement," he said loudly.
Julian inclined his head slightly.
"We will, provided you do," he answered. "Have your men out of here by
"We leave now," Dalt replied, and he began to turn away.
"Dalt!" I called out.
He turned back and regarded me.
"My name is Merlin," I said. "We've met, though I don't know whether
He shook his head.
I raised my right arm and pronounced my most useless and at the same
time flashiest spell. The ground erupted before him, showering him with dirt
and gravel. He stepped back and wiped his face, then looked down into the
rough trench that had appeared.
"That is your grave," I said, "If Luke's death comes of this."
He studied me again.
"Next time I'll remember you," he said, and he turned and followed the
men who were carrying Luke back to his lines.
I looked over at Julian, who was watching me. He turned away and
uprooted his torch. I did the same. I followed him back the way we had come.
Later, in his tent, Julian observed, "That solves one problem. Possibly
"Maybe," I said.
"It takes care of Dalt for the moment."
"Benedict tells me the man is already breaking camp."
"I don't think we've seen the last of him."
"If that's the best he can manage for an army these days, it won't
"Don't you get the impression this was an impromptu mission?" I asked.
"I'd guess he pulled his force together very fast. It makes me think he had
a tight schedule."
"You may be right there. But he really gambled."
"And he won."
"Yes, he did. And you shouldn't have shown him your power, there at the
"You'll have a wary enemy if you ever go after him."
"He needed warning."
"A man like that lives with risks. He calculates and he acts. However
he figures you, he won't change his plans at this point. Besides, you
haven't seen the last of Rinaldo either. He's the same way. Those two
understand each other. "
"You may be right."
"If the fight had gone the other way, do you think his army would have
stood for it?" I asked.
Julian shrugged. "He knew mine would if he won, because he knew I stood
to gain by it. That was sufficient."
"Excuse me," he said. "I have to report this business to Vialle now. I
assume you'll want to trump through when I've finished?"
"Yes. He produced a card and set about the business. And I found myself
wondering, not for the first time, just what it was that Vialle sensed when
it came to a Trump contact. I always see the other person myself, and all of
the others say that they do, too. But Vialle, as I understood it, had been
blind from birth. I've always felt it would be impolite to ask her, and for
that matter it's occurred to me that her answer probably wouldn't make much
sense to a sighted person. I'll probably always wonder, though.
As Julian addressed her shadowy presence, I turned my mind to the
future. I was going to have to do something about Mask and Jurt soon, and it
looked now as if I'd be. doing it without Luke. Did I really want to follow
his advice and try to talk Jasra into an alliance against them? Would the
benefits really be worth the risk? And if Ididn't, how would I manage the
thing? Maybe I should make my way back to that strange bar and see about
renting the Jabberwock. Or the Vorpal Sword. Or both; Maybe -
I heard my name mentioned, and I drifted back to the present moment,
present problems. Julian was explaining something to Vialle, but I knew
there wasn't all that much to explain. So I got to my feet, stretched, and
summoned the Logrus Sight.
I saw her ghostly form clearly when I directed my vision toward the
area before Julian: She was in that same stiff chair where I had last seen
her. I wondered whether she had remained there the entire while or had just
returned. I hoped she'd had a chance to go back and eat that dessert I
hadn't had a shot at.
Julian glanced at me, then, "If you're ready to go, she's ready to take
you through," he said.
I crossed over and stood beside him, dropping the Logrus vision as I
did so. I had decided it was not a good idea to bring the forces of the
Logrus and the Pattern into too great a proximity. I reached out and touched
the card, and Vialle's image sprang into full focus. A moment, and it was no
longer an image.
"Anytime," she said, extending a hand. I reached out and took hold of
"So long, Julian," I said, as I stepped forward.
He did not reply. Or if he did, I didn't catch it.
"I did not mean for things to go this way," she told me immediately,
not releasing my hand.
"There was no way of foreseeing what happened," I said.
"Luke knew," she replied. "It makes sense now, doesn't it? Some of
those little remarks he made? He planned the challenge all along."
"I guess so," I said.
"He's gambling on something. I wish I knew what."
"I can't help you on that," I answered. "He didn't say anything to me
"But you will be the one with whom he will get in touch, eventually,"
she said. "I want to know immediately when you hear from him."
"All right," I agreed.
She released my hand.
"It would seem there is nothing more to say, for the moment. "
"Well," I began, "there is another matter I think you ought to know
"It concerns Coral's not being present at dinner this evening."
"Go on," she said.
"You are aware that we took a long walk about town today?"
"I am," she said.
"We wound up below," I continued, "in the chamber of the Pattern. She'd
expressed a desire to see it."
"Many visitors do. It is pretty much a matter of judgment whether to
take them. Often they lose interest, though, when they learn about the
"I did tell her about it," I said, "but it didn't discourage her. When
she got there, she set foot upon the Pattern-"
"No!" she cried. "You should have watched her more closely! All that
other trouble with Begma . . . and now this! Where is her body?"
"Good question," I responded. "I don't know. But she was alive the last
time I saw her. You see, she claimed Oberon was her father, and then she
proceeded to walk the Pattern. When she'd finished, she had it transport her
somewhere. Now, her sister-who is aware that we went off together-is
concerned. She was pestering me through dinner as to where Coral might be."
"What did you tell her?"
"I told her that I'd left her sister enjoying some, of the beauties of
the palace and that she might be a bit late to dinner. As things wore on,
though, she seemed to grow more concerned and made me promise to search for
her tonight if she didn't turn up. I didn't want to talk about what had
really happened because I didn't want to go into the business of Coral's
"Understandable." she replied. "Oh, my."
I waited, but she said nothing more. I continued to wait.
Finally, "I was not aware of the late king's affair in Begma," she
said, "so it is difficult to assess the impact of this revelation. Did Coral
give you any indication as to how long she intended to stay away? And for
that matter, did you provide her with any means of return?"
"I gave her my Trump," I said, "but she hasn't been in touch. I got the
impression she didn't intend to be away for too long, though."
"This could be serious," Vialle decided, "for reasons other than the
obvious. How does Nayda strike you?"
"She seemed quite sensible,'' I said. "Also, I believe she rather likes
Vialle brooded a moment, then said, "If word of this gets to Orkuz, he
could well get the impression that we are holding her hostage against his
proper performance in any negotiations which might arise out of the
situation in Kashfa."
"You're right. I hadn't thought of that."
"He will. People tend to think of such matters when dealing with us. So
what we need to do is buy some time and try to turn her up before this
begins looking suspicious."
"I understand," I said.
"Most likely, he will send to her quarters soon-if he hasn't already
done so-to discover why she was not present at dinner. If he can be
satisfied now, you will have the entire night in which to try to locate
"You're the magician. You figure it out. In the meantime, you say that
Nayda is sympathetic?"
"Very much so. "
"Good. It seems to me that the best course of action then would be to
attempt to enlist her aid. I trust you to be tactful and do this in the
least distressing manner possible, of course-"
"Naturally-" I began.
"-because of her recent illness," she went on. "All we need to do now
is give the second daughter a heart attack."
"Illness?" I inquired. "She hadn't mentioned anything about that."
"I'd imagine the memory is still distressing. She was apparently quite
close to death until very recently, then rallied suddenly and insisted on
accompanying her father on this mission. He's the one who told me about it."
"She seemed fine at dinner," I said lamely.
"Well, try to keep her that way. I want you to go to her immediately,
tell her what happened as diplomatically as possible, and try to get her to
cover for her sister while you search for her. There is, of course, the risk
that she will not believe you and that she will go directly to Orkuz.
Perhaps you might employ a spell to prevent this. But we have no other
choice that I can see. Tell me whether I'm wrong."
"You're not wrong," I said.
"Then I suggest you be about it . . . and report back to me immediately
if there are any problems, or any progress, no matter what the hour."
"I'm on my way," I said.
I departed the room in a hum but shortly came to a halt. It occurred to
me that while I knew the general area of the palace in which the Begman
party was quartered, I did not really know where Nayda's rooms were located.
I did not want to go back and ask Vialle because it would make me look
stupid for not having found out during dinner.
It took me the better part of ten minutes to turn up a member of the
palace staff able to give me directions - along with a smirk - and then to
follow them at a jog until I stood before Nayda's door.
I ran my hand through my hair, brushed off my trousers and jacket,
wiped my boots on the backs of my pants legs, took a deep breath, smiled,
exhaled, and knocked.
The door opened a few moments later. It was Nayda. She returned my
smile and stepped aside.
"Come in " she said.
"I was expecting the maid," I told her as I entered. "You surprised
"Since I was expecting you, I sent her off to bed early," she replied.
She had changed into an outfit that looked like a gray sweat suit with
a black sash. She also had on a pair of black slipper, and she had removed
most of her makeup. Her hair was now drawn back severely and tied with a
black ribbon. She gestured toward a couch, but I did not move to seat
I clasped her shoulder lightly and stared into her eyes. She moved
"How are you feeling?" I asked.
"Find out," she said softly.
I could not even permit myself a sigh. Duty called. I slipped my arms
around her, drew her to me, and kissed her. I held the pose for several
seconds, then drew away, smiled again, and said, "You feel fine to me.
Listen, there are some things I did not tell you-"
"Shall we sit down?" she said, taking my hand and leading me toward the
Vialle had told me to be diplomatic, so I followed her.
Immediately, she continued our embrace and began to add refinements.
Danm! And me constrained to rush her out to cover for Coral. If she would,
I'd be happy to cover her afterward. Or any other interesting position
Begmans might go in for. I'd better ask quickly, though, I decided. A couple
of minutes more and it would be very undiplomatic to begin talking about her
sister. Today was just a bad day when it came to timing.
"Before we get too involved here," I said, "I've got to ask a favor of
"Ask me anything," she said.
"I think there's going to be a delay in turning up your sister," I
explained, "and I'd hate to worry your father. Do you know whether he's sent
to her rooms yet, or been by them, to check on her?"
"I don't believe so. He strolled off with Gerard and Mr. Roth after
dinner. I don't think he's returned to his apartment yet. "
"Could you possibly find a way of giving him the impression that she
hasn't strayed? Buy me some time to find out where she's off to?"
She looked amused.
"And those things you haven't told me . . . ?"
"I'll give you the whole story if you'll do this for me."
She traced my jawline with her index finger.
"All right," she said then. "We have a deal. Don't go away."
She rose, crossed the room, and passed out into the hall, leaving the
door a few inches ajar. Why hadn't I had a nice normal affair since Julia?
The last woman I'd made love to had actually been under the control of that
strange body-shifting entity. Now . . . Now there was the faintest of
shadows across the couch, as I realized that I'd rather be holding Coral
than her sister. That was ridiculous. I'd only known her for half a day. . .
There had simply been too much activity since my return. I was getting
punchy. That had to be it.
When she returned she seated herself on the couch again, but this time
with a couple of feet separating us. She seemed cheerful enough, though she
made no move to resume our earlier occupation.
"It's taken care of," she said. "He will be misled, if he asks."
"Thanks," I told her.
"Now it's your turn," she stated. "Tell me things."
"All right," I began, and I launched into the story of Coral and the
"No," she interrupted. "Start at the beginning, would you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Give me your whole day, from the time you left the palace togethet
until you parted."
"That's silly," I protested.
"Humor me," she said. "You owe me one, remember?"
"Very well," I agreed, and I started again. I was able to skip over the
bit about blasting the table in the cafй, but when I glossed over the
business in the sea caves by saying that we'd looked around in them and
found them pretty, she interrupted me.
"Stop," she said. "You're leaving something out. What occurred in the
"What makes you say that?" I asked.
"That is a secret I do not care to share just now." she explained.
"Suffice it to say I have a means of spotchecking your veracity."
"It's not relevant," I said. "It will just confuse the issue. That's
why I omitted it."
"You said you'd give me the whole afternoon."
"All right, lady," I agreed, and I did.
She bit her lip while I told her about Jurt and the zombies, and she
licked idly at the beads of blood that appeared thereafter.
"What are you going to do about him?" she asked suddenly.
"That's my problem," I said then. "I promised you the afternoon, not my
memoirs and survival plans."
"It's just that. . . . Remember, I offered to try to help you?"
"What do you mean? Do you think you can nail Jurt for me? I've got news
for you: He's practically a candidate for godhood at the moment."
"What do you mean by `godhood'?" she asked.
I shook my head.
"It would take most of the night to tell you this story properly, and
we don't have the time, not if I'm going to start looking for Coral soon.
Just let me finish with the business about the Pattern, will you?"
I did, and she showed no surprise whatsoever at the matter of her
sister's paternity. I was going to question her as to her lack of reaction.
Then I said, the hell with it. She's done what I wanted, and I did what I
promised. She hasn't had a heart attack. And now it's time to go.
"That's it," I said, and I added, "Thanks."
I began to rise, and she moved quickly and was hugging me again.
I returned her embrace for a moment, then said, "I'd really better be
going. ,Coral could be in danger."
"The hell with her," she said. "Stay with me. We have more important
things to talk about."
I was surprised by her callousness, but I tried not to show it.
"I've a duty to her," I said, "and I've got to see to it now."
"All right," she said, sighing. "I'd better come along and give you a
"How?" I asked.
"You'd be surprised," she told me, and she was on her feet and smiling
a twisted smile.
I nodded, feeling that she was probably right.
We hiked back along the hallway to my apartment. When I opened the door
and summoned the lights, Nayda did a fast survey of the first room. She
froze when she saw my coatrack.
"Queen Jasra!" she said.
"Yep. She had a disagreement with a sorcerer named Mask," I explained.
"Guess who won?"
Nayda raised her left hand and moved it in a slow pattern-behind
Jasra's neck and down her back, across her chest, then downward again. I did
not recognize any of the movements she was performing.
"Don't tell me that you're a sorceress, too," I said. "It seems that
everyone I run into these days has had some training in the Art."
"I am not a sorceress," she answered, "and I've had no such training. I
have only one trick and it is not sorcery, but I use it for everything."
"And what is that trick?" I asked.
She ignored the question, then said, "My, she's certainly tightly
bound. The key lies somewhere in the region of her solar plexus. Did you
"Yes," I replied. "I understand the spell fully."
"Why is she here?"
"Partly because I promised her son Rinaldo I'd rescue her from Mask,
and partly as an assurance against his good behavior."
I pushed the door shut and secured it. When I turned back, she was
"Have you seen him recently?" she said in a conversational tone.
"Oh, no special reason."
"I thought we were trying to help each other, " I said.
"I thought we were looking for my sister. "
"It can wait another minute if you know something special about
"I was just curious where he might be right now."
I turned away and moved to the chest where I keep art supplies. I
removed the necessary items and took them to my drawing board. While I was
about it, I said, "I don't know where he is."
I set up the piece of pasteboard, seated myself and closed my eyes,
summoning a mental image of Coral, preliminary to beginning her sketch.
Again, I half wondered whether the picture in my mind, along with the
appropriate magical endorsement, would be sufficient for contact. But now
was not the time to mess around being experimental. I opened my eyes and
began to draw. I used the techniques I'd learned in the Courts, which are
different yet similar to those employed in Amber. I was qualified to execute
them in either fashion, but I'm faster with the style I learned first.
Nayda came over and stood near, watching, not asking whether I minded.
As it was, I did not.
"When did you see him last?" she asked.
"This evening," I answered.
"He was here earlier.''
"Is he here now?".
"Where did you last see him?"
"In the forest of Arden. Why?"
"It seams a strange place to part."
I was working on Coral's eyebrows.
"We parted under strange circumstances," I said.
A little more work about the eyes, a bit on the her....
"Strange? In what way?" she asked.
More color to the cheeks. . . .
"Never mind," I told her.
"All right," she said. "It's probably not that important."
I decided against rising to that bait, because I was suddenly getting
something. As had occasionally happened in the past, my concentration on the
Trump as I put the final touches to it was sufficiently intense to reach
"Coral!" I said, as the features moved, perspectives shifted.
"Merlin . . . ?" she answered. "I . . . I'm in trouble."
Oddly, there was no background whatever. Just blackness. I felt Nayda's
hand upon my shoulder.
"Are you all right?" I asked.
"Yes. . . . It's dark here," she said. "Very dark."
Of course. One cannot manipulate Shadow in the absence of light. Or
even see to use a Trump.
"That's where the Pattern sent you?" I asked.
"No," she answered.
"Take my hand," I said. "You can tell me about it afterward.".
I extended my hand and she reached toward it.
"They-" she began.
And with a stinging flash the contact was broken. I felt Nayda stiffen
"What happened?" she asked.
"I don't know. We were suddenly blocked. I can't tell what forces were
"What are you going to do?"
"Try again in a little bit," I said. "If it were a reaction thing,
resistance will probably be high just now, and it may ease up later. At
least she says she's all right."
I withdrew the packet of Trumps I normally carry, shufflied out Luke's.
Now seemed as good a time as any to see how he was faring. Nayda glanced at
the card and smiled.
"I thought you just saw him a little while ago," she said.
"A lot can happen in a little while."
"I'm certain a lot has happened."
"You think you know something about what's going on with him?" I asked.
"Yes. I do."
I raised the Trump. "What?" I said.
"I'd be willing to wager, you won't get through to him."
I concentrated and I reached. I reached again. A minute or so later I
wiped my brow.
"How'd you know?" I asked.
"Luke's blocking you. I would, too . . . under the circumstances."
She gave me a quirked smile, crossed to a chair, and sat down.
"Now I have something to trade with you again," she said.
I studied her. Something jiggled and fell into place. "You've been
calling him `Luke' rather than `Rinaldo,' " I said.
"So I have."
"I'd been wondering when you'd show up again."
She continued to smile.
"I went and shot my eviction-notice spell," I observed. "Can't
complain, though. It probably saved my life. Do I owe you that one, in some
"I'm not proud. I'll take it."
"I'm going to ask you again what you want, and if you say it's to help
me or to protect me, I'm going to turn you into a coatrack."
"I'd have guessed you'd take whatever help you could get right now,"
"A lot depends on what you mean by `help' ."
"If you'll tell me what you have in mind, I'll tell you whether I can
be of any assistance."
"All right," I said. "I'm going to change clothes while I talk, though.
I don't feel like storming a citadel dressed like this. May I lend you
something tougher than a sweat suit?"
"I'm fine. Start at Arbor House, okay?"
"Okay," I said, and I proceeded to fill her in while I garbed myself in
tougher fare. She was no longer a pretty lady to me, but rather a nebulous
entity in human form. She seated herself while I was talking and stared at
the wall, or through it, over steepled fingers. When I was finished, she
kept staring, and I went over to my drawing board, took up Coral's Trump,
tried again, but couldn't get through. I tried Luke's card, also, with the
As I was about to replace Luke's Trump, square the deck, and case it, I
glimpsed the next lower card and a lightning chain of recollections and
speculations flashed through my mind. I removed the card and focused on it.
I reached. . . .
"Yes, Merlin?" he said moments later, seated at a small table on a
terrace-evening skyline of a city behind him-lowering what appeared to be a
cup of espresso to a tiny white saucer.
"Right now. Hurry," I said. "Come to me."
Nayda had begun to make a low growling sound just as the contact
occurred, and she was on her feet and moving toward me, her eyes fixed upon
the Trump, just as Mandor took my hand and stepped through. She halted when
the tall, black-garbed figure appeared before her. They regarded each other
without expression for a moment, and then she took a long sliding step
toward him, her hands beginning to rise. Immediately, from the depth of some
inner cloak pocket where his right hand was thrust, there came a single,
sharp, metallic click.
"Interesting," Mandor said, raising his left hand and passing it in
front of her face. Her eyes did not follow it. "This is the one you told me
about earlier-Vinta; I believe, you called her?"
"Yes, only now she's Nayda."
He produced a small, dark metal ball from somewhere and held it upon
the palm of his left hand, which he extended before her. Slowly, the ball
began to move, describing a counterclockwise circle. Nayda emitted a single
sound, something halfway between a cry and a gasp, and she dropped forward
to her hands and knees, head lowered. From where I stood I could see saliva
dripping from her mouth.
He said something very fast, in an archaic form of Thari which I could
not follow. She responded in the affirmative.
"I believe I've solved your mystery," he said then. "Do you recall your
lessons on Respondances and High Compellings?"
"Sort of," I said. "Academically. I was never exactly swept away by the
"Unfortunate," he stated. "You should report back to Suhuy for a
postgraduate course sometime."
"Are you trying to tell me . . . ?"
"The creature you see before you, inhabiting a not unattractive human
form, is a ty'iga, " he explained.
I stared. The ty'iga were a nornially bodiless race of demons that
dwelled in the blackness beyond the Rim. I recalled being told that they
were very powerful and very difficult to control.
"Uh . . , can you make this one stop slobbering on my carpet?" I said.
"Of course," he replied, and he released the sphere, which fell to the
floor before her. It did not bounce, but began immediately to roll,
describing a rapid circuit about her.
"Stand up," he said, "and stop releasing bodily fluids upon the floor."
She did as he ordered, climbing to her feet, her expression vacant.
"Seat yourself in that chair," he directed, indicating the one she had
occupied but minutes earlier.
She complied, and the rolling ball adjusted itself to her progress and
continued its circle, about the chair now.
"It cannot vacate that body," he said then, "unless I release it. And I
can cause it any amount of torment within my sphere of power. I can get you
your answers now. Tell me what the questions are."
"Can she hear us right now?"
"Yes, but it cannot speak unless I permit it."
"Well, there's no point to causing unnecessary pain. T'he threat itself
may be sufficient. I want to know why she's been following me about."
"Very well," he said. "That is the question, ty'iga. Answer it!"
"I follow him to protect him," she said, her voice flat.
"I've already heard that one," I said. "I want to know why."
"Why?" Mandor repeated.
"I must," she answered.
"Why must you?" he asked.
"I. . . ." Her teeth raked her lower lip and the blood began to flow
Her face grew flushed and beads of perspiration appeared upon her brow.
Her eyes were still unfocused, but they brimmed with tears. A thin line of
blood trickled down her chin. Mandor extended a clenched fist and pened it,
revealing another metal ball. He held this one about ten inches before her
brow, then released it. It hung in the air.
"Let the doors of pain be opened," he said, and he flicked it lightly
with a fingertip.
Immediately, the small sphere began to move. It passed about her head
in a slow ellipse, coming close to her temples on each orbit. She began to
"Silence!" he said. "Suffer in silence!"
The tears ran down her cheeks, the blood ran down her chin. . . .
"Stop it!" I said.
"Very well." He reached over and squeezed the ball for a moment between
the thumb and middle finger of his left hand. When he released it, it
remained stationary, a small distance before her right ear. "Now you may
answer the question," he said. "That was but the smallest sample of what I
can do to you. I can push this to your total destruction."
She opened her mouth but no words came forth. Only a gagging sound.
"I think we may be going about this wrong," I said. "Can you just have
her speak normally, rather than this question-and-answer business?"
"You heard him," Mandor said. "It is my will, also."
She gasped, then said, "My hands. . . . Please free them."
"Go ahead," I said.
"They are freed," Mandor stated.
She flexed her fingers.
"A handkerchief, a towel . . . ," she said softly.
I drew open a drawer in a nearby dresser, took out a handkerchief. As I
moved to pass it to her, Mandor seized my wrist and took it from me. He
tossed it to her and she caught it.
"Don't reach within my sphere," he told me.
"I wouldn't hurt him," she said, as she wiped her eyes, her cheeks, her
chin. "I told you, I mean only to protect him. "
"We require more information than that," Mandor said, as he reached for
the sphere again.
"Wait," I said. Then, to her, "Can you at least tell me why you can't
"No," she answered. "It would amount to the same thing."
Suddenly I saw it as a strange sort of programming problem; and I
decided to try a different tack.
"You must protect me at all costs?" I said. "That is ;your primary
"And you are not supposed to tell me who set you this task, or why?"
"Supposing the only way you could protect me would be by telling me
Her brow furrowed.
"I . . . ," she said. "I don't. , . . The only way?"
She closed her eyes and raised her hands to her face. "I. . . . Then I
would have to tell you. "
"Now we're getting somewhere," I said. "You would be willing to violate
the secondary order in order to carry out the primary one?"
"Yes, but what you have described is not a real situation," she said.
"I see one that is," Mandor said suddenly. "You cannot follow that
order if you cease to exist. Therefore, you would be violating it if you
permit yourself to be destroyed. I will destroy you unless you answer those
"I don't think so," she said.
"Ask Merlin what the diplomatic situation would be if a daughter of the
Begman prime minister were found dead in his room under mysterious
circumstances-especially when he's already responsible for the disappearance
of her sister."
Mandor frowned and looked at me.
"I don't understand what that's all about," he said.
"It doesn't matter," I told him. "She's lying. If something happens to
her, the real Nayda simply returns. I saw it happen with George Hansen, Meg
Devlin, and Vinta Bayle."
"That is what would normally occur," she said, "except for one thing.
They were all alive when I took possession of their bodies. But Nayda had
just died, following a severe illness. She was exactly what I needed,
though, so I took possession and healed the body. She is not here anymore.
If I depart, you'll be left either with a corpse or a human vegetable."
"You're bluffing," I said, but I remembered Vialle's saying that Nayda
had been ill.
"No," she said. "I'm not."
"It doesn't matter," I told her.
"Mandor," I said, turning to him, "you said you can keep her from
vacating that body and following me?"
"Yes," he replied.
"Okay, Nayda," I said. "I am going somewhere and I am going to be in
extreme danger there. I am not going to permit you to follow me and carry
out your orders."
"Don't," she answered.
"You give me no choice but to keep you pent while I go about my
"So you've found a way to get me to violate one order in order to get
me to carry out the other. Very clever."
"Then you'll tell me what I want to know?"
She shook her head.
"I am physically unable to tell you," she said. "It is not a matter of
will. But . . . I think I've found a way around it."
"What is that?"
"I believe I could confide in a third party who alstt desires your
"If you will leave the room for a time, I will try to tell your brother
those things I may not explain to you."
My eyes met Mandor's. Then, "I'll step out in the hall for a bit," I
And I did. A lot of things bothered me as I studied a tapestry on the
wall, not the least being that I had never told her that Mandor was my
When my door opened after a long while, Mandor looked in both
directions. He raised his hand when I began to move toward him. I halted,
and he stepped outside and came toward me. He continued to glance about as
"This is Amber palace?" he inquired.
"Yes. Not the most fashionable wing, perhaps, but I call it home."
"I'd like to see it under more relaxed circumstances," he said.
I nodded. "It's a date. So tell me, what happened in there?"
He looked away, discovered the tapestry, studied it.
"It's very peculiar," he said. "I can't."
"What do you mean?"
"You still trust me, don't you?"
"Then trust me in this. I've a good reason for not telling you what I
"Come on, Mandor! What the hell's going on?"
"The ty'iga is not a danger to you. It really does care about your
"So what else is new? I want to know why. "
"Leave it," he said, "for now. It's better that way."
I shook my head. I made a fist and looked around for something to hit.
"I know how you feel, but I'm asking you to drop it," he said.
"You mean the knowledge would hurt me in some way?"
"I didn't say that."
"Or do you mean that you're afraid to tell me?"
"Drop it'" he said.
I turned away and got control of myself.
"You must have a good reason," I finally decided.
"I'm not going to give up on this," I told him. "But I haven't the time
to pursue it further against this kind of resistance. Okay, you have your
reasons and I have pressing business elsewhere."
"She mentioned Jurt and Mask and the Keep where Brand gained his
powers," he said.
"Yes, that's where I'll be heading."
"She expects to accompany you."
"She is wrong."
"I would counsel against taking her, too."
"You'll keep her for me until I've taken care of things?"
"No," he said, "because I'm coming with you. I'll put her into a very
deep trance, though, before we depart."
"But you don't know what's been going on since our dinner. A lot has
happened, and I just haven't the time to bring you up to date."
"It doesn't matter," he said. "I know that it involves an unfriendly
sorcerer, Jurt, and a dangerous place. That's enough. I'll come along and
give you a hand."
"But that may not be enough," I countered. "We may not be
"Even so, I think the ty'iga could turn into a hindrance."
"I wasn't referring to her. I was thinking about the stiff lady near
"I'd meant to ask you about her. Some enemy you're I punishing?"
"She had been an enemy, yes. And she's nasty, untrustworthy, and has a
poisonous bite. She's also a deposed queen. I didn't freeze her, though. The
sorcerer who's after me did it. She's the mother of a friend, and I rescued
her and brought her back here for safekeeping. I had no reason for releasing
her, until now."
"Ah, as an ally against her old enemy."
"Exactly. She's well acquainted with the place I'm t going. But she
doesn't like me and she's not easy to deal with-and I don't really know
whether her son gave me enough ammunition to make her trustworthy."
"Do you feel she'd be a real asset?"
"Yes. I'd like to have all of that animus on my side. And I understand
she's an accomplished sorceress."
"If additional persuading is needed, there are only threats and bribes.
I've a few private hells I've designed and furnished-for purely esthetic
reasons. She might find a quick tour very impressive. On the other hand, I
could send for a pot of jewels."
"I don't know," I said. "Her motivations are somewhat complex. Let me
handle this, as far as I'm able."
"Of course. Those were only suggestions."
"As I see it, the next order of business is to rouse her, put the
proposition to her, and attempt to judge her response."
"There is no one else you might bring along, from among your kinsmen
"I' m afraid to let any of them know I' m going. It could easily result
in an order not to, until Random gets back. I haven't the time to wait
"I might summon some reinforcement from the Courts. "
"Here? To Amber? I'd really be up shit creek if Random ever got wind of
that. He might start suspecting subversion."
"This place reminds me a bit of home," he remarked, turning back toward
When we entered, I saw that Nayda was still seated, her hands upon her
knees, staring at a metal ball that hovered about a foot before her. The
other continued its slow circuit down on the floor.
Seeing the direction of my gaze, Mandor remarked, "Very light trance
state. She can hear us. You can rouse her in an instant if you wish."
I nodded and fumed away. Now it was Jasra's turn.
I removed all of the garments I'd hung upon her and placed them on a
chair across the room. Then I fetched a cloth and the basin and washed the
clown makeup off her face.
"Am I forgetting anything?" I said, half to myself.
"A glass of water and a mirror," Mandor stated.
"She may be thirsty," he replied, "and I can just tell she'll want to
look at herself."
"You may have a point there," I said, drawing up a small table. I
placed a pitcher and a goblet upon it; also, a hand mirror.
"I'd also suggest you support her, in case she collapses when the spell
I placed my left arm about her shoulders, thought of her deadly bite,
stepped back, and held her at arm's distance with the one hand.
"If she bites me, it will knock me out almost instantly," I said. "Be
ready to defend yourself quickly if this occurs."
Mandor tossed another metal ball into the air. It hung there for an
unnaturally long moment at the top of its arc, then dropped back to his
"All right," I said, and then I spoke the words that raised the spell.
Nothing as dramatic as I'd feared ensued. She slumped and I supported
her. "You're safe," I said, and added, "Rinaldo knows you're here," to
invoke the most familiar. "Here's a chair. Do you want some water?"
"Yes," she replied, and I poured some and passed it to her.
Her eyes were darting, taking in everything as she drank. I wondered
whether she'd recovered instantly and might not now be stalling for time as
she sipped, her mind racing, spells dancing at her fingertips. Her eyes
returned more than once to Mandor, appraising, though she gave Nayda a long,
Finally, she lowered the goblet and smiled.
"I take it, Merlin, that I am your prisoner," she said, choking
slightly. She took another sip.
"Guest," I replied.
"Oh? How did this come about? Accepting the invitation escapes my
"I brought you here frem the citadel at the Keep of the Four Worlds in
a somewhat cataleptic condition," I said.
"And where might `here' be?"
"My apartment in the Palace of Amber. "
"Prisoner, then," she stated.
"Guest," I repeated.
"In that case, I should be introduced, should I not?"
"Excuse me. Mandor, I introduce Her Highness Jasra, Queen of Kashfa."
(I intentionally omitted the "Most Royal" part.) "Your Majesty, I request
leave to present my brother, Lord Mandor."
She inclined her head, and Mandor approached, dropped to one knee, and
raised her hand to his lips. He's better at such courtly gestures than I am,
not even sniffing the back of her hand for the scent of bitter almonds. I
could tell that she liked his manner-and she continued to study him
"I was not aware," she observed, "that the royal house here contained
an individual named Mandor."
"Mandor is heir to the dukedom of Sawall in the Courts of Chaos," I
replied. Her eyes widened.
"And you say he is your brother?"
"You've succeeded in surprising me," she stated. "I had forgotten your
I smiled, nodded, stepped aside and gestured.
"And this-" I began.
"I am acquainted with Nayda," she said. "Why is the girl . . .
"That represents a matter of great complexity," I said, "and there are
other things I am certain you will find to be of much greater interest."
She cocked an eyebrow at me.
"Ah! That fragile, perishable item-the truth," she said. "When it
surfaces so quickly there is usually a claustrophobia of circumstance. What
is it that you want of me?"
I held my smile.
"It is good to appreciate circumstance," I said.
"I appreciate the fact that I am in Amber and alive and not occupying a
cell, with two gentlemen behaving in a conciliatory fashion. I also
appreciate the fact that I am not in the straits my most recent memories
indicate I should occupy. And I have you to thank for my deliverance?"
"Somehow I doubt it was a matter of altruism on your part."
"I did it for Rinaldo. He tried getting you out once and got clobbered.
Then I figured a way that might work, and I tried it. It did."
Her facial muscles tightened at the mention of her son's name. I'd
decided she'd prefer hearing the one she'd given him, rather than "Luke."
"Is he all right?" she asked.
"Yes," I said, hoping it were so.
"Then why is he not present?"
"He's off somewhere with Dalt. I'm not sure as to his location. But-"
Nayda made a small noise just then, and we glanced her way. But she did
not stir. Mandor gave me an inquiring look, but I shook my head slightly. I
did not want her roused just then.
"Bad influence, that barbarian," Jasra observed, choking again and
taking another drink. "I'd so wanted Rinaldo to acquire more of the courtly
graces, rather than doing rude things on horseback much of the time," she
continued, glancing at Mandor and granting him a small smile. "In this, I
was disappointed. Do you have s something stronger than water?"
"Yes," I replied, and I uncorked a bottle of wine and poured some into
a goblet for her. I glanced at Mandor and at the bottle then, but he shook
his head. "But you have to admit he did well in that track meet against
UCLA, in his sophomore year," I said, not to let her put him down
completely. "A certain amount of that comes from the more vigorous side of
She smiled as she accepted the drink.
"Yes. He broke a world record that day. I can still see him passing
over the final hurdle."
"You were there?"
"Oh, yes. I attended all of your meets. I even watched you run," she
said. "Not bad."
She sipped the wine. .
"Would you like me to send for a meal for you?" I asked.
"No, I'm not really hungry. We were talking about truth a little while
ago. . . ."
"So we were. I gather there had been some sorcerous exchange back at
the Keep, between you and Mask-"
"Mask?" she said.
"The blue-masked sorcerer who rules there now."
"Oh, yes. Quite."
"I do have the story right, don't I?"
"Yes, but the encounter was more than a little traumatic. Forgive my
hesitation. I was surprised and did not get my defenses up in time. That was
really all there was to it. It will not happen again."
"I'm sure. But-"
"Did you spirit me away?" she interrupted. "Or did you actually fight
with Mask to get me free?"
"We fought," I said.
"In what condition did you leave Mask?"
"Buried under a pile of manure," I said.
"Wonderful! I like a man with a sense of humor."
"I have to go back," I added.
"Oh? Why is that?"
"Because Mask is now allied with an enemy of mine - man named Jurt, who
desires my death."
She shrugged slightly.
"If Mask is no match for you, I fail to see where Mask and this man
should represent a great problem." Mandor cleared his throat.
"Begging your leave," he said. "But Jurt is a shape shifter and minor
sorcerer from the Courts. He also has power over Shadow."
"I suppose that would make something of a difference," she said.
"Not as much as what the two of them apparently plan to accomplish," I
told her. "I believe that Mask intends running Jurt through the same ritual
your late husband undertook-something involving the Fount of Power."
"No!" she cried, and she was on her feet, the rest of the wine mixing
with Nayda's spittle and a few old bloodstains on the Tabriz I'd purchased
for its delicately detailed pastoral scene. "It must not happen again!"
A storm came and went behind her eyes. Then, for the first time, she
"I lost him because of that . . . ," she said.
Then the moment was gone. The hardness returned.
"I had not finished my wine," she said then, reseating herself.
"I'll get you another glass," I told her.
"And is that a mirror on the table?"
I waited till she was finished primping, glancing out of the window at
the snow and surreptitiously trying again to reach Coral or Luke while my
back was turned to her.
No luck, though. When she put down the comb and brush she'd borrowed
from me and laid the mirror beside them, I gathered she'd finished
organizing her thoughts as well as her hair and was ready to talk again. I
turned back slowly and strolled over.
We studied each other while practicing expressionlessness, then she
asked, "Is anyone else in Amber aware that you have awakened me?"
"No," I replied.
"Good. That means I've a chance of leaving here alive. Presumably, you
want my assistance against Mask and this Jurt?"
"Exactly what sort of help do you desire, and what are you prepared to
pay for it?"
"I intend to penetrate the Keep and neutralize Mask and Jurt," I said.
"'Neutralize'? That's one of those little euphemisms for `kill,' isn't
"I suppose so," I replied.
"Amber has never been noted for its squeamishness," she said. "You have
been exposed to too much American journalism. So, you are aware of my
familiarity with the Keep, and you want my help in killing the two of them.
"Rinaldo has told me that if we were to arrive too late and Jurt had
already undergone the transformational ritual, you might know a way to use
that same power against him," I explained.
"He'd gotten further into those notes than -I'd realized," she said. "I
am going to have to be frank with you then, since our lives may depend on
it: Yes, there is such a technique. But no, it won't be of any help to us.
Some preparations are required to turn the power to such an end. It is not
something I could simply reach out and do at a moment's notice."
Mandor cleared his throat.
"I'd rather not see Jurt dead," he stated, "if there's a possibility I
could take him back to the Courts as a prisoner. He could be disciplined.
There might be a way of neutralizing him without really ... neutralizing
him, as you put it."
"And if there isn't?" I asked.
"Then I'll help you to kill him," he said. "I have no illusions about
him, but I feel obliged to try something. I'm afraid that the news of his
death could push our father over the edge."
I looked away. He could be right, and even though old Sawall's death
would mean his own succession to the title and control of considerable
holdings, I was certain he was not anxious to acquire them at that price."
"I understand," I said. "I hadn't thought of that."
"So give me a chance to subdue him. If I fail, I'll join you in
whatever must be done."
"Agreed," I said, watching to see how Jasra was taking this.
She was studying us, a curious expression on her face.
" 'Our father'?" she said.
"Yes," I replied. "I wasn't going to mention that, but ,since it got
out, Jurt's our younger brother."
Her eyes were alight now, at the scent of connivance.
"This is a family power struggle, isn't it?" she asked.
"I suppose you could put it that way," I said.
"Not really," Mandor said.
"And yours is an important family in the Courts?"
Mandor shrugged. So did I. I'd a feeling she was trying to figure a way
to cash in on that end of it, too, and I decided to stonewall her.
"We were discussing the task at hand," I said. "I want to take us in
there and accept Mask's challenge. We stop Jurt if he gets in the way and
give him to Mandor. If it is impossible simply to subdue him, we go the rest
of the way. Are you with us?"
"We have not yet discussed the price," she said.
"All right," I acknowledged. "I've talked about this with Rinaldo, and
he told me to tell you that he's called the vendetta off. He feels things
were settled with Amber when Caine died. He asked me to release you if you
would go along with this, and he suggested that in return for your help
against the new lord of the citadel we restore the Keep of the Four Worlds
to your sovereignty. Bottom line, as he put it. What do you say?"
She picked up the goblet and took a long, slow sip. She'd stall, I
knew, trying to figure a way to squeeze more out of this deal.
"You've spoken with Rinaldo very recently?" she said.
"I am not clear as to why he is running about with Dalt; rather than
being here with us, if he is so much in agreement with this plan."
"Okay, I'll tell you the story," I said. "But if you're with us, I do
want to get moving soon."
"Proceed," she said.
So I recounted the evening's adventure in Arden, omitting only the fact
that Vialle had placed Luke under her protection. Nayda seemed to grow
progressively distressed as I told the tale, uttering small whimpering
sounds at odd intervals.
When I was finished, Jasra placed her hand upon Mandor's arm and rose,
brushing him lightly with her hip as she passed, and she went to stand
"Now tell me why the daughter of a high Begman official is restrained
here," she said.
"She is possessed of a demon that enjoys interfering in my affairs," I
"Really? I've often wondered what hobbies demons might pursue," she
observed. "But it seems this particular demon has been trying to say
something in which I might be interested. If you would be so good as to free
it for a moment's conversation I promise to consider your offer afterward."
"Time is running," I said.
"In that case my answer is no,'' she told me. "Lock me up someplace and
go to the Keep without me."
I glanced at Mandor.
"In that I have not yet agreed to accept your offer," Jasra continued,
"Rinaldo would call this an entertainment expense."
"I see no harm in it," Mandor said.
"Then let her speak," I told him.
"You may talk, ty'iga," he said.
Her first words were not addressed to Jasra, however; but to me:
"Merlin, you have to let me accompany you."
I moved around to where I could see her face.
"No way," I told her.
"Why not?" she asked.
"Because your penchant for protecting me will actually hinder me in a
situation where I will probably have to take some chances."
"That is my nature," she responded.
"And my problem," I said. "I mean you no ill. I'll be glad to talk to
you when this is all over, but you're going to have to sit this one out."
Jasra cleared her throat.
"Is that the entire message? Or is there something you wished to tell
me, also?" Jasra asked.
There followed a long silence, then, "Will you be accompanying them or
not?" Nayda inquired.
Jasra took just as long to respond, obviously weighing her words:
"This is a clandestine, personal operation," she said. "I am not at all
certain it would be countenanced by Merlin's seniors here in Amber. While it
is true that I stand to gain if I cooperate, I will also undergo
considerable risk. Of course, I want my freedom and the restoration of the
Keep. It is almost a fair trade. But he also asks a quitclaim on the
vendetta. What assurance have I that this means anything here, and that the
hierarchy of Amber will not hunt me down as a troublemaker afterward? He
cannot speak for the others when he operates on the sly this way."
Somehow, it had become a question addressed to me, and since it was a
very good question to which I did not really have an answer, I was glad that
the ty'iga had something to say:
"I believe that I can persuade you that it would be in your best
interest to agree to accompany them and to render every assistance you can,"
"Pray, begin," Jasra told her.
"I would have to speak with you in private on this matter."
Jasra smiled, out of her love for intrigue, I am certain.
"It is agreeable to me," she said.
"Mandor, force her to say it now," I said.
"Wait!" Jasra declared. "I will have this private conversation or you
can forget about my help."
I began wondering just how much help Jasra really represented if she
couldn't call upon the Fount to dispose of Jurt, should that become our
biggest problem. True, she knew the Keep. But I didn't even know for certain
how accomplished a sorceress she might be.
On the other hand, I wanted this thing settled now, and one more adept
could make the difference.
"Nayda," I said, "are you planning something that could be damaging to
``No," she replied.
"Mandor, what do ty'iga swear by?" I inquired.
"They don't," he said.
"What the hell," I said. "How much time do you want?"
"Give us ten minutes," she told me.
"Let's take a walk," I said to Mandor.
"Surely," he agreed, tossing another metal ball toward Nayda. It joined
the others in orbit about her, a little above waist level.
I fetched a key from my desk drawer before departing. And as soon as we
were in the hall I asked him, "Is there any way Jasra could free her?"
"Not with the additional circuit of confinement I established on the
way out," he replied. "Not many could figure a way past it, and certainly
not in ten minutes."
"She's just full of secrets, that damned ty'iga," I said. "Kind of
makes me wonder who's really the prisoner here."
"She's only trading some bit of knowledge for Jasra's cooperation," he
said. "She wants the lady to accompany us if she can't go herself, since it
will mean extra protection for you."
"Then why can't we be present?"
"Nothing that I learned from her sheds any tight on this," he said.
"Well, since I have a few minutes, there is a small errand I want to
run. Would you keep an eye on things here and take charge if she calls us in
before I get back?"
"If one of your relatives strolls by, should I introduce myself as a
lord of Chaos?"
"I thought you were also a lord of deception."
"Of course," he said, and he clapped his hands and vanished.
"I'll hurry," I said.
"Cheerio," came his voice, from somewhere.
I hurried off up the hall. It was a little pilgrimage, I suppose-one
that I had not made in a long while. On the brink of an enterprise such as
this, it seemed somehow appropriate.
When I reached the door, I stood outside it for a moment, my eyes
closed, visualizing the interior as last I had seen it. It was my father's
apartment. I had wandered through it on many occasions, trying to judge from
the furnishings, the layout, his bookshelves, and his curious collections
something more than I already knew about the man. There was always some
little thing that caught my attention, that answered a question or raised a
new one-an inscription on the flyleaf of a book or a note in a margin, a
silver hairbrush bearing the wrong set of initials, a daguerreotype of an
attractive brunette signed "To Carl, Love, Carolyn," a snapshot of my father
shaking hands with General MacArthur. . . .
I unlocked the door and pushed it open.
I did not move for several seconds, however, as a light glowed inside
the place. For more long moments I listened, but there were no sounds from
within. Slowly then, I entered. A number of candles burned upon the dresser
set against the far wall. There was no one in sight.
"Hello?" I called.out. "It's me. Merlin." There came no answer.
I drew the door closed behind me and moved forward. A bud vase stood
upon the dresser amid the candles. It contained a single rose, and it
appeared to be silver in color. I drew nearer. Yes, it was real, not
artificial. And it was silver. In what shadow did such flowers grow?
I picked up one of the candles by its, holder and moved away with it,
shielding its flame with my hand. I crossed to my left and entered the next
room. Immediately, on opening the door, I saw that there was no need to have
brought the candle. More of them were burning here.
"Hello?" I repeated.
Again, no answer. No sounds of any sort.
I set the candle upon a nearby table and crossed to the bed. I raised a
sleeve and let it fall. A silvery shirt was laid out upon the counterpane
beside a black pair of trousers-my father's colors. They had not been there
when last I had visited.
I seated myself beside them and stared across the room into a shadowy
corner. What was going on? Some bizarre household ritual? A haunting? or. .
"Corwin?" I said.
In that I'd hardly expected a reply, I was not disappointed. When I
rose, however, I bumped against a heavy object hung upon the nearest
bedpost. I reached out and raised it for a better view. A belt with a
sheathed weapon hung upon it. These had not been present last time either. I
gripped the haft and drew the blade.
A portion of the Pattern, contained within the gray metal, danced in
the candlelight. This was Grayswandir, sword of my father. What it was doing
back here now, I had no idea.
And I realized with a pang that I could not stick around to see what
might be going on. I had to get back to my own problems. Yes, timing was
definitely against me today.
I resheathed Grayswandir.
"Dad?" I said. "If you can hear me, I want to get together again. But I
have to go now. Good luck on whatever you're about."
Then I departed the room, touched the silver rose as I passed and
locked the door behind me. As I turned away, I realized that I was shaking.
I passed no one on the walk back, and when I approached my own door I
wondered whether I should enter, knock, or wait. Then something touched my
shoulder, and I turned around but no one was there. When I turned forward
once again Mandor stood before me, his brow slightly creased.
"What's the matter?" he asked. "You appear more troubled than when you
"Something totally different," I told him, "I think. Any word from
"I heard a shriek from Jasra while you were gone," he said, "and I
burned to the door and opened it. But she was laughing and she asked me to
"Either ty'igas know some good stories or the news is favorable."
"So it would seem."
A little later the door opened and Jasra nodded to us.
"Our conversation is concluded," she said.
I studied her as I entered the room. She looked a lot more cheerful
than she had seemed when we'd left. There was a bit more of a crinkling
about the outer edges of her eyes, and she seemed almost to be fighting the
corners of her mouth down into place.
"I hope it was a fruitful interview," I said.
"Yes. On the whole, I'd say it was that," she answered.
A glance at Nayda showed me that nothing had changed in terms of her
position or expression.
"I'll have to be asking you for a decision now," I said. "I can't
afford to cut things much closer than this."
"What happens if I say no?" she asked.
"I'll have you conducts to your quarters and inform the others that
you're up and about," I said.
"As a guest?"
"As a very well-protected guest."
"I see. Well, I do not really care to inspect those quarters. I have
decided to accompany you and assist you under the terms we discussed. ".
I bowed to her.
"Merlin!" Nayda said.
"No!" I answered, and I looked to Mandor. He approached and stood
"It is best that you sleep now," he told her, and her eyes closed, her
shoulders slumped. "Where is a good place for her to rest deeply?" he asked
"Through there," I said, indicating the doorway to the next room.
He took her by the hand and led her away. After a time, I heard him
speaking softly, and then there was only silence. He emerged a little later,
and I went to the door and glanced inside. She was stretched out on my bed.
I did not see any of his metal spheres in the neighborhood.
"She's out of it?" I said.
"For a long time," he replied.
I looked at Jasra, who was glancing down into the mirror.
"Are you ready?" I inquired.
She regarded me through lowered lashes.
"How do you propose transporting us?" she asked.
"Do you have an especially tricky means of getting us in?"
"Not at the moment."
"Then I will be calling upon the Ghostwheel to take us there."
"Are you certain it is safe? I've conversed with that . . . device. I
am not sure it is trustworthy."
"It's fine;" I. said. "Any spells you want to prime first?"
"Not necessary. My . . . resources should be in good order."
I heard a clicking sound from somewhere within his cloak.
"Ready," he said.
I withdrew the Ghostwheel Trump and studied it. I began my meditation.
Then I reached. Nothing happened. I tried again, recalling, tuning,
expanding. I reached again, calling, feeling. . . .
"The door . . . ," Jasra said.
I glanced at the door to the hallway, but there was nothing unusual
about it. Then I looked at her and realized the direction of her gaze.
The doorway to the next room, where Nayda slept, had begun to glow. It
shone with a yellow light, and even as I watched, it grew in intensity. A
spot of greater brightness then occurred at its center. Abruptly, the spot
began a slow up-and-down movement.
Then came music, from where I was not certain, and Ghost's voice
announced, "Follow the bouncing ball."
"Stop it!" I said. "It's distracting!"
The music went away. The circle of light grew still.
"Sorry," Ghost said. "I thought you'd find a little comic relief
"You guessed wrong," I replied. "I just want you to take us to the
citadel at the Keep of the Four Worlds."
"Do you want the troops, also? I can't seem to locate Luke."
"Just the three of us," I answered.
"What about the one who sleeps next door? I've met her before. She
doesn't scan right."
"I know. She's not human. Let her sleep. "
"Very well, then. Pass through the door."
"Come on," I said to the others, picking up my weapons belt and
buckling it on, adding my spare dagger, grabbing my cloak off a chair, and
drawing it over my shoulders.
I walked toward the portal and Mandor and Jasra followed. I stepped
through, but the room was no longer there. Instead, there came a moment of
blurring, and when my senses cleared, I was staring down and outward across
a great distance beneath a heavily overcast sky, a cold wind whipping at my
I heard an exclamation from Mandor and, a moment later, another from
Jasra-behind me and to the left. The great ice field lay bone-white to my
right, and in the opposite direction a slate-gray sea tossed whitecaps like
serpents in a bucket of milk. Far below, before me, the dark ground simmered
"Ghost!" I cried. "Where are you?"
"Here," came a soft response, and I looked down to behold a tiny ring
of light near the toe of my left boot. Directly ahead and below, the Keep
stood stark in the distance. There were no signs of life outside its walls.
I realized that I must be in the mountains, standing somewhere near the
place where I had held my lengthy colloquy with the old hermit named Dave.
"I wanted you to take us into the citadel within the Keep," I
explained. "Why did you bring us up here?"
"I told you I don't like that place," Ghost answered. "I wanted to give
you a chance to look it over and decide exactly where you wished to be sent
within. That way I can move very fast on the delivery, and not expose myself
overlong to forces I find distressing."
I continued to study the Keep. A pair of twisters were again circling
the outer walls. If there had not been a moat, they would probably have done
a good job of creating one. They stayed almost exactly 180 degrees apart,
and they took turns at illumination. The nearest one grew spark-shot with
bolts of lightning, acquiring an eerie incandescence; then, as it began to
fade, the other brightened. They passed through this cycle several times as
Jasra made a small noise, and I turned and asked her, "What's going
"The ritual," she n'sponded. "Someone is playing with those forces
"Can you tell how far along they might be?" I asked.
"Not really. They could just be starting, or they could be finished
already. All the poles of fire tell me is that everything is in place."
"You call it then, Jasra," I told her. "Where should we put in our
"There are two long hallways leading to the chamber of the fountain,"
she said. "One is on the same level and the other a floor above it. The
chamber itself is several stories high."
"I recall that," I acknowledged.
"If they are working directly with the forces and we simply appear
within the chamber," she continued, "the advantage of surprise will only be
momentary. I can't say for certain what they might hit us with. Better to
approach along one of the two hallways and give me a chance to assess the
situation. Since there is a possibility that they could note our approach
along the lower hallway, the upper one would be best for all our purposes."
"All right," I agreed. "Ghost, can you put us back a distance in that
The circle spread, tilted, rose, stood high above us for a moment, then
"You are . . . already . . . there," Ghost said, as my vision swam and
the circle of light passed over us, head to toe. "Good-bye."
He was right. We were on target this time. We stood in a long, dim
corridor, its walls of dark, hewn stone. Its one end was lost in darkness.
Its other led into an area of illumination. The ceiling was of rough
timbers, the heavy cross-beams softened by curtains and plumes of
spider-webbing. A few blue wizard globes flickered within wall brackets,
shedding a pale light that indicated they were near the ends of their
spells. Others had already gone dead. Near the brighter end of the hallway
some of these had been replaced by lanterns. From overhead came the sounds
of small things scurrying within the ceiling. The place smelled damp, musty.
But the air had an electric quality to it, as though we were breathing
ozone, with an edge-of event jitteriness permeating everything.
I shifted to Logrus Sight, and immediately there was a considerable
brightening. Lines of force like glowing yellow cables ran everywhere. They
provided the additional illumination I now perceived. And every time my
movements intersected one, it heightened the overall tingling effect I
experienced. I could see now that Jasra was standing at the intersection of
several of these and seemed to be drawing energy from them into her body.
She was acquiring a glowing quality I was not certain my normal vision would
have detected. When I glanced at Mandor I saw the Sign of the Logrus
hovering before him also, which meant that he was aware of everything I was
Jasra began moving slowly along the corridor toward the lighted end. I
fell in behind her and slightly to her left. Mandor followed me, moving so
silently I had to glance back occasionally to assure myself he was still
with us. As we advanced I became aware of a certain throbbing sensation, as
of the beating of a vast pulse. Whether this was being transmitted through
the floor or along those vibrating lines we continually encountered, I could
I wondered whether our disturbing this net of forces was betraying our
presence, and even our position, to the adept working with the stuff down at
the Fount. Or was his concentration on the task at hand sufficiently
distracting to permit us to approach undetected?
"It has started?" I whispered to Jasra.
"Yes," she replied.
"How far along?"
"The major phase could be completed. "
A few paces more, and then she asked me, "What is your plan?"
"If you're right, we attack immediately. Perhaps we should try to take
out Jurt first-all of us, I mean-if he's become that high-powered, that
She licked her lips.
"I'm probably best equipped to deal with him, because of my connection
with the Fount," she said then. "Better you don't get in my way. I'd rather
see you dealing with Mask while I'm about it. It might be better to keep
Mandor in reserve, to lend his aid to whichever of us might need it. "
"I'll go along with your judgment," I said. "Mandor, did you hear all
"Yes," he replied softly. "I'll do as she says."
Then, "What happens if I destroy the Fount itself?" he asked Jasra.
"I don't believe it can be done," she answered.
He snorted, and I could see the dangerous lines along which his
thoughts were running.
"Humor me and suppose," he said.
She was silent for a time, then, "If you were able to shut it down;
even for a little while," she offered, "the citadel would probably fall.
I've been using its emanations to help hold this place up. It's old, and I
never got around to buttressing it where it needs it. The amount of energy
required to attack the Fount successfully, though, would be much better
"Thanks," he said.
She halted, extending a hand into one of the lines of force and closing
her eyes as if she were taking a pulse. "Very strong," she said a little
later. "Someone is tapping it at deep levels now."
She began moving again. The light at the end of the hallway grew
brighter, then dimmer, brighter, dimmer. The shadows retreated and flowed
back repeatedly as this occurred. I became aware of a sound something like
the humming of high wires. There was also an intermittent crackling noise
coming from that direction. I increased my pace as Jasra began to hurry. At
about that time there came a sound of laughter from up ahead. Frakir
tightened upon my wrist. Flakes of fire flashed past the corridor's mouth.
"Damn, damn, damn," I heard Jasra saying.
She raised her hand as we came into sight of the landing where Mask had
stood at the time of our encounter. I halted as she moved very slowly,
approaching the railing. There were stairs both to the right and the left,
leading downward to opposite sides of the chamber.
She looked down for only an instant; then she threw herself back and to
the right, rolling when she hit the floor. Taking out a piece of railing, a
ball of orange flame fled upward like a slow comet, passing through the area
she had just quitted. I rushed to her side, slipped an arm beneath her
shoulders, began to raise her.
I felt her stiffen, as her head jerked slightly to the left. Somehow, I
already knew what I would see when I turned that way.
Jurt stood there, stark naked save for his eye patch, glowing, smiling,
a pulse away from substantiality.
"Good of you to drop by, brother," he said. "Sorry you can't stay."
Sparks danced at his fingertips as he swung his arm ip my direction. I
doubted that shaking hands was foremost; in his mind.
The only response I could think of was, "Your shoelace is untied,"
which of course didn't stop him, but it actually had him looking puzzled for
a second or two.
Jurt had never played football. I do not believe he expected me to come
up fast and rush him; and when it happened, I don't think he anticipated my
coming in as low as I did.
And as for clipping him just above the knees and knocking him back
through the opening in the railing, I'm sure he was surprised. At least he
looked surprised as he went over backward and plummeted, sparks still
dancing at his fingertips.
I heard Jasra chuckle, even as he faded in mid-fall and vanished before
the floor got to spread him around a bit. Then, from the corner of my eye, I
saw her rise.
"I'll deal with him now," she said, and, "No problem. He's clumsy,"
even as he appeared at the head of the stair to her right. "You take care of
Mask was on the opposite side of the black stone fountain, staring up
at me through an orange and red geyser of flames. Below, in the basin, the
fires rippled yellow and white. When he scooped up a handfiil and worked
them together as a child might shape a snowball, they became an incandescent
blue. Then he threw it at me.
I sent it past with a simple parry. This was not Art, it was basic
energy work. But it served as a reminder, even as I saw Jasra perform the
preliminary gestures to a dangerous spell purely as a feint, bringing her
near enough to Jurt to trip him, pushing him backward down the stair.
Not Art. Whoever enjoyed the luxury of living near and utilizing a
power source such as this would doubtless get very sloppy as time went on,
only using the basic frames of spells as guides, running rivers of power
through them. One untutored, or extremely lazy, might possibly even dispense
with that much after a time and play directly with the raw forces, a kind of
shamanism, as opposed to the Higher Magic's purity-like that of a balanced
equation-producing a maximum effect from a minimum of effort.
Jasra knew this. I could tell she'd received formal training somewhere
along the line. That much was to the good anyway, I decided as I parried
another ball of fire and moved to my left.
I began descending the stair-sideways-never taking my gaze off Mask. I
was ready to defend or to strike in an instant.
The railing began to glow before me, then it burst into flame. I
retreated a pace and continued my descent. Hardly worth wasting a spell to
douse it. It was obviously meant for show rather than damage. . .
Well. . . .
There was another possibility, I realized then, as I saw that Mask was
simply watching me, was making no move to throw anything else in my
It could also be a test. Mask might simply be attempting to discover
whether I was limited to whatever spells I had brought with me-or whether I
had learned to tap the power source here directly and would shortly be
slugging things out with him as Jurt and Jasra were now obviously preparing
to do. Good. Let him wonder. A finite number of spells against a
near-limitless source of energy?
Jurt suddenly appeared upon a windowsill, high and to my left. He had
time only for a brief frown before a curtain of fire was rung down upon him.
Both he and the curtain were gone a moment later, and I heard Jasra's
laughter and his curse, followed by a crashing noise off to the other side
of the chamber.
As I moved to descend another step, the stairway faded from view.
Suspecting illusion, I continued the slow downward movement of my foot. I
encountered nothing, though, and finally extended my stride to pass over the
gap and on down to the next stair. It also vanished, howevex, as I shifted
my weight. There came a chuckle from Mask as I turned my movement into a
leap to avoid the area. Once I was committed to jumping, the stairs winked
out one by one as I passed over them.
I was certain Mask's thinking must be- that if I had a handle on the
local power, reflex would cause me to betray that connection here. And if I
didn't it might still cause me to waste an escape spell.
But I judged the distance to the now-visible floor. If no more stairs
vanished I might be able to catch a handhold on the next one, hang a moment,
then drop. That would be perfectly safe. And if I missed, or if another
stair vanished . . . I still felt I would land reasonably intact. Better to
use an entirely different sort of spell on the way down.
I caught the rearward edge of the farthest stair, dangled and dropped,
turning my body and speaking the words of a spell I call the Falling Wall.
The fountain shuddered. The fires sloshed and splashed, overflowing the
basin on the side nearest Mask. And then Mask himself was thrown backward to
the floor as my spell continued its course of descent.
Mask's arms rose before him as his body seemed to sop up the swirling
glow, his hands to expel it. There was a bright arc between his hands, then
a shieldlike dome. He held it above him, warding off the final collapsive
force of my spell. I was already moving quickly in his dirsction. Even as I
did so, Jurt appeared before me, standing on the far lip of the fountain
just above Mask, glaring at me. Before I could draw my blade, throw Frakir,
or utter another spell, however, the fountain welled up, a great wave
toppling Jurt from its side, sending him sprawling upon the floor, washing
him past Mask and across the chamber toward the foot of the other stair,
down which I now saw that Jasra was slowly descending.
"It means nothing to be able to transport yourself anywhere," I heard
her say; "if you are a fool in all places."
Jurt snarled and sprang to his feet. Then he looked upward, past Jasra.
. . .
"You, too, brother?" he said.
"I am here to preserve your life, if at all possible," I heard Mandor
reply. "I would suggest you return with me now-"
Jurt cried out-no recognizable words, just an animallike bleat. Then,
"I do not need your patronage!" he screamed. "And you are the fool, to trust
Merlin! You stand between him and a kingdom!"
A series of glowing circles drifted like glowing smoke rings from
between Jasra's hands, dropping as if to settle about his body. Jurt
immediately vanished, though moments later I heard him shouting to Mandor
from a different direction.
I continued to advance upon Mask, who had guarded successfully against
my Falling Wall and was now beginning to rise. I spoke the words of the Icy
Path, and his feet went out from beneath him. Yes, I was going to throw a
finite number of spells against his power source. I call it confidence. Mask
had power. I had a plan, and the means to execute it.
A flagstone tore itself loose from the floor, turned into a cloud of
gravel amid a grating, crunching noise, then flew toward me like a charge of
shot. I spoke the words of the Net and gestured.
All of the fragments were collected before they could reach me. Then I
dumped them upon Mask, who was still struggling to rise.
"Do you realize that I still don't know why we're fighting?'' I said.
"This was your idea. I can still-"
For the moment, Mask had given up on trying to rise. He had placed his
left hand in a simmering puddle of light and had extended his right, palm
toward me. The puddle vanished, and a shower of fire emerged from the right
hand and sped at me, like drops from a lawn sprinkler. I was ready for this,
though. If the Fount could contain the fire, then it had to be insulated
I threw myself flat on the other side of the dark structure, using its
base as a shield.
"It is likely one of us is going to die," I called out, "since we are
not pulling our punches. Either way, I won't have a chance to ask you later:
What's your bitch? What am I to you?"
The only reply was a chuckling sound from the other side of the Fount,
as the floor began to move beneath me.
From somewhere off to my right, near the foot of the undamaged stair, I
heard Jurt say, "A fool in all places? What about close quarters?" and I
looked up in time to see him appear before Jasra and seize hold of her.
A moment later he screamed, as Jasra lowered her head and her lips
touched his forearm. She pushed him away then, and he fell down the
remaining steps, landing stiffly, not moving.
I crept to the right of the Fount, over the sharp edges of the broken
flooring, which jiggled and sawed at me within the matrix of Mask's power.
"Jurt is out of it," I commented, "and you stand alone now, Mask,
against the three of us. Call it quits, and I'll see that you go on living."
"Three of you," came that flat, distorted voice. "You admit that you
cannot beat me without help?"
" Beat?" I said. "Perhaps you consider it a game. I do not. I will not
be bound by any rules you choose to recognize. Call it quits or I'll kill
you, with or without help, any way I can."
A dark object suddenly appeared overhead; and I rolled back away from
the Fount as it came to rest in the basin. It was Jurt. Unable to move
normally because of the paralytic effect of Jasra's bite, he had trumped
away from the foot of the stair and into the Fount.
"You have your friends, Lord of Chaos, and I have mine," Mask replied,
as Jurt moaned softly and began to glow.
Suddenly Mask went spinning into the air, as I heard the flooring
shatter. The Fount itself died down, grew weaker, as a flaming tower twisted
ceilingward, rising from a new opening in the floor, bearing Mask with it on
the crest of its golden plume.
"And enemies," Jasra stated, moving nearer.
Mask spread his arms and legs and wheeled slowly through the middle
air, suddenly in control of his trajectory. I got to my feet and backed away
from the Fount. I'm seldom at my best at centers of geological catastrophes.
A rushing, rumbling sound now came from the doubled fountain, and a
high-pitched, sourceless-seeming note accompanied it. A small wind sighed
among the rafters. The tower of fire atop which Mask rode continued its slow
spiraling, and the spray in the lowered fountain began a similar movement.
Jurt stirred, moaned, raised his right arm.
"And enemies," Mask acknowledged, beginning a series of gestures I
recognized immediately because I'd spent a lot of time figuring them out.
"Jasra!" I cried. "Watch out for Sharu!"
Jasra took three quick steps to her left and smiled. Something very
much like lightning then fell from the rafters, blackening the area she had
"He always starts with a lightning stroke," she explained. "He's very
She spun once and vanished redly, with a sound like breaking glass.
I looked immediately to where the old man had stood, RINALDO carved
upon his right leg. He was leaning against the wall now, one hand to his
forehead, the other implementing a simple but powerful shielding spell.
I was about to scream for Mandor to take the old boy out, when Mask hit
me with a Klaxon spell which tempo rarily deafened me while bursting blood
vessels in my nose.
Dripping, I dove and rolled, interposing the now-rising Jurt between
myself and the sorcerer in the air. Jurt actually appeared to be throwing
off the effects of Jasra's bite. So I drove my fist into his stomach as I
rose and turned him into an even better position to serve as my shield. A
mistake. I received a jolt from his body, not unlike a nasty electrical
shock, and he even managed a brief laugh as I fell.
"He's all yours," I heard him gasp then.
From the corner of my eye, I saw where Jasra and Sharu Garrul stood,
each of them seemingly holding one end of a great long piece of macrame work
woven of cables. The lines were pulsing and changing colors, and I knew they
represented forces rather than material objects, visible only by virtue of
the Logrus Sight, under which I continued to operate. The pulse increased in
tempo, and both sank slowly to their knees, arms still extended, faces
glistening. A quick word, a gesture, and I could break that balance.
Unfortunately, I had problems of my own just then. Mask was swooping toward
me like some huge insect-expressionless, shimmering, deadly. A succession of
brittle snapping sounds occurred within the front wall of the Keep, where a
series of jagged cracks raced downward like black lightning. I was away of
falling dust beyond the spiraling lights, of the growling and the whining
sounds-faint now within my ringing ears-of the continuing vibration of the
floor beneath my half-numbed legs. But that was all right. I raised my left
hand as my right slid within my cloak.
A fiery blade appeared in Mask's right hand. I did aot stir, but waited
a second longer before speaking the guide words to my
Fantasia-for-Six-Acetylene-Torches spell as I snapped my forearm back to
cover my eyes and rolled to the side.
The stroke missed me, passing through broken stone. Mask's left arm
fell across my chest, however, elbow connecting with my lower ribs. I did
not stop to assess damages, though, as I heard the sword of fire crackle and
come free of the stone. And so, turning, I struck with my own more mundane
dagger of steel, driving its full length up into Mask's left kidney.
There followed a scream as the sorcerer stiffened and slumped beside
me. Almost immediately thereafter I was kicked with considerable force
behind my right hip. I twisted away and another blow landed upon my right
shoulder. I am sure it was aimed for my head. As I covered my neck and
temples and mlled away, I heard Jurt's voice, cursing.
Drawing my longer blade, I rose to my feet, and my gaze met Jurt's. He
was rising at the same time, and he held Mask cradled in his arms.
"Later," he said to me, and he vanished, bearing the . body away with
him. The blue mask remained on the floor, near to a long smear of blood.
Jasra and Sharu were still facing each other from kneeling positions,
panting, bodies completely drenched, their life forces twisting about each
other like mating serpents.
Then, like a surfacing fish, Jurt appeared within the tower of forces
beyond the Fount. Even as Mandor hurled two of his spheres-which seemed to
grow in size as they fled down the chamber, to crash into the Fount and
reduce ii to rubble-I saw what I believed I would never see again.
As the reverberation of the Fount's collapse spread and the groaning
and grinding within the walls was replaced by a snapping and swaying, and
dust, gravel and timbers fell about me, I was moving forward, skirting the
wreckage, sidestepping new geysers and rivulets of glowing forces, cloak
raised to protect my face, black extended.
Jurt cursed me roundly as I came on. Then, "Pleased; brother? Pleased?"
he said. "May death be the only peace between us."
But I ignored the predictable sentiment, for I had to get a better look
at what I thought I had seen moments before. I leaped over a piece of broken
masonry and beheld the fallen sorcerer's face within the flames, head
cradled against his shoulder.
"Julia! " I cried.
But they vanished even as I moved forward, and I knew it was time for
me to do the same.
Turning, I fled through the fire.