It was a perfect day in Amber.
Now, some people act as if every day in Amber is perfect. Right. And visitors frequently come just to sample the sweet smell of the sewer system. Truth is, Amber is just another shadow, nicer than most, true, but still shadow. It's all a matter of perspective. Spend all your time in Brand's grey place, and Amber on a bad day would seem pretty amazing. Spend a month in Amber, and you quickly will realize that some days are good, some middling, and some just plain bad.
Today was definitely not a bad day. The rich blue sky was sprinkled with traces of wonderfully complex and fluffy white clouds. A slight breeze brought delicious scents up from the city while keeping the warm afternoon sun from being too hot. In that sunlight the new towers glowed, almost beautiful enough to make me forget they were built by elves.
Though it was a different batch of guards at the castle, they recognized me immediately. "Duchess Samhaoir, what is your pleasure?"
I tried not to let my dislike of my title show. "I'd like to talk to Dierdre."
"The lady is not available."
"Then take me to her room." I could always leave her a note.
The guard on the right flashed a look at her comrades. There was the slightest hint of something odd, as if my request was somehow dangerous. After a brief exchange of gestures I couldn't understand, she said, "This way, milady."
The halls were strangely empty, not an Amberite to be seen. Something definitely was up.
Have circumstantial evidence that Corwin is alive, disturbing news from the Amber/Chaos border.--Sam
I thought about it a moment, then quickly sketched myself on the bottom. The possibility of help from Dee was worth the chance of my trump falling into other hands. The guard was hemming and hawing by the time I achieved that weird introspective feeling of a trump self-portrait. I slipped it under the door.
"Anything else, duchess?"
"No." Inspiration struck. "Wait. Is Aiken in?"
"I believe he and Nicholas are in the city."
"Very well." I turned, then looked back over my shoulder. "Thank you."
The ocean's tangy organic smell, strong in my memories of the waterfront, was kept manageable by the breeze. As I said, a perfect day.
But it wasn't a perfect area of town. The waterfront looked astoundingly shabby for a place that had been built (or at least re-built) within the last year. This was the last solidly human section of the city, and it was starting to look suspiciously like a ghetto.
I made my way to The Gar, my favorite hangout in these parts. (As much as any joint could said to be your favorite in a place with which you were barely familiar.) The building was new, but it had the same old battered sign that I remembered. As I pushed open the graffiti-covered door, my nostrils were assaulted by the perpetually warring smells of tobacco and frying grease.
"Another round of drinks for Duke Aiken!" The loudmouth swayed visibly as he said it; his many and vocal supporters weren't doing much better.
I scanned the room: off duty sailors and manual laborers, mostly, all human. I sidled up to an unlikely looking young man. "What's Duke Aiken been up to?"
"He's taken the first steps to liberate Amber from this plague of elves!"
"He can simply point, shout, and make an elf explode."
"He did it this morning!"
I thought that was a good enough reason to buy a round of drinks. As the patrons were here and not thronged around them, Aiken and Nicholas probably weren't in the human quarter. So I downed my Scotch and headed for the elfin three-quarters.
Once I got the first scent, it was easy enough to track the rumors back to the source. Sometimes it was an elf exploding, sometimes Duke Nicholas's head. Whatever the story, it was the talk of the town today.
After forty minutes of walking, I reached the site of the alleged events, a not terribly remarkable site along one of the main thoroughfares. The red pattern on the ground to which I was pointed did seem consistent with a low-powered exploding elf. After examining the layout, an intriguing thought padded through my head. The splatter pattern was consistent with a high-powered rifle and exploding bullet shot from the flat roof of the one-story druggist to the north-east. Silly notion, though--firearms don't work in Amber. Perhaps some spell to duplicate the effect.
It took a bit of work to sniff out their trail from there; but Aiken and Nicholas had made a commotion everywhere they went, and I finally worked out their current location: the elfin shamans. What the hell could my cousins want there? The most powerful mages in all existence were in our family.
I blinked and chuckled at myself. Old habits die hard--the redheads had been exiled when it became apparent they had allied themselves with Chaos. I didn't know of any other decent mages in the family, and even if I did, I wouldn't trust family mages on family business. And I probably couldn't do a decent divination for myself.
Not that I'd trust the elves to do it.
At any rate, I ambushed them coming out of their seance, Nicholas's bald head standing out like a greasy thumb. "Aiken! Nicholas! Long time, no see."
"Samhaoir." Aiken replied. "What brings you out here?" More than half a foot taller than me, he was the tallest of our family, and his build seemed closer to Géerard than his father Benedict. Today his inevitable plaid was a full-fledged kilt, and his huge sword was strapped in its normal place on his back.
"I have something I was hoping I could interest you two in. Can we go somewhere and talk?" I looked around at the crowd of elves already gathered around us. "In the human quarter, I think."
Nick, just an inch or two taller than me, tried to look me in the eye. Like most, he just got a glimpse of himself. "Why should we?"
"Drinks are on me."
With a chuckle, they agreed.
As we strolled down main street, the passing elves were coldly indifferent even as they studied our every move. I would have been more comfortable if they had ranted, raved, and chased us out. I was relieved when we reached the cheers of the human quarter.
"Just what, exactly, did you two do? I want to learn this trick of pointing and making elves explode."
"It's nothing, really," Aiken had inherited his father's legendary talkativeness.
We entered that bar on one long sustained roar. Much as I had suspected, I didn't have to pay for any drinks. At my request, the heroes of the revolution and I were quickly ushered into a private room.
"So, what have I missed?"
"When was the last time you were back?" Nicholas asked.
"Right after the war."
"You haven't missed much," Aiken said.
Yeah, right. From the edginess of the guards at the castle and the rampant rumors around town, I knew something was up. I just had no clue what.
No matter. I'd pressing business with Chaos. "I'm planning a little expedition I was hoping I could interest you in."
"We're listening," said Nicholas.
"I've found this place out in shadow. A huge old keep, located at the center of some shadow anomaly. I want it."
"Shadow anomaly?" Nicholas asked.
"It looks like four shadows come together there. Very different terrains, and strange interactions between them. All around weird."
"Why are you telling us?"
"I'd like your help in taking the place."
Nicholas threw me a cold look. "What's in it for us?"
"Primarily, I'll owe you one. And there may be quite a bit of interest in there. It's a fantastic source of magical power. You know the feeling you get standing in the Pattern room? It's comparable to that."
"Which explains why you want help," said Nicholas. "Whoever's in there is going to be damn powerful."
"Who is in there?" asked Aiken.
Don't say anything about Brand. "I don't know. But the guards wore the emblem of a lion rending a unicorn."
Bingo! They shot a glance at each other.
"Tomorrow," Aiken said. "We've a bit of business to take care of first. In the morning we'll talk about this place."
"I'll be waiting for you here," I said, as they stood up to leave. "Are you sure there's nothing to the rumors of exploding elves?"
"Nothing at all," said Nicholas. "Walk back to the castle with us?"
"No thank you," I said. No need for them to know my movements.
"Tomorrow," Aiken said without looking back as they left. I waited five minutes, then followed. It was a gas seeing the effect they had on the human crowds.
"Corwin is alive," I said. "I'm sure of it."
"How?" Dierdre sat on her sofa with her legs curled under her, sipping at tea.
"I made a trump of him. And it functions."
Her tea splashed slightly. "You contacted him?"
"No. He's too far away, or something's blocking the contact. But he's out there."
"We thought about that method. But the trump artists always claim to be busy." She sounded bitter.
"Well, it worked."
"So what are you going to do about it?"
"I'm going to try to get my hands on enough power to punch through a contact."
She raised her eyebrows. But I declined to comment further than that. Instead I changed the subject. "I've two favors to ask."
"First, can you fill me up to date on what has been happening?"
"The big news is that Silmaris has been abducted."
"You really have been out of it, haven't you? Oberon's infant son. By the new queen, Sylestra."
"She wouldn't happen to be an elf, would she?"
"Ah, maybe that explains some of the current elfin/human tensions."
"Today there was a rumor that Aiken pointed at an elf and made him explode. The human quarter is ready to start the revolution now, with Aiken as their messiah."
"Oberon will be interested to hear this. Which brings me back to the point--Oberon offered his crown to the person who can bring back the child."
"What! So if the kidnappers bring the brat back tomorrow, they'll be rewarded with the throne?"
"Something like that."
"Great. Well, all the more reason for my second request. If I go to Tír tonight, will you act as my ground support?"
Dusk found me on the moonlit steps with a live turtle in a sack. Deirdre held my self-sketch. I saluted her and started climbing.
It was my first time climbing Tír-na Nog'th since Oberon re-made the Pattern. Everything changed when he did it; some things in large ways, some things in subtle ways.
Still, the climb matched my many previous experiences here. My shades handled the stairs about as well as normal--that is to say, quite poorly. They continually changed their settings in an attempt to compensate for the weird perception distortions. But wearing them was important, in a metaphysical sense. I ignored what my eyes told me and kept walking. Trust was important, too.
At the top, they stabilized again, bringing out the subtle contrasts in the moonlight landscape. It was all wonderfully gorgeous in a very understated way; many times I preferred this to the almost oppressive assault of beauty that was Amber.
I ignored the oddball denizens of the place as I headed for my father's tomb. I'd learned about the Amber version of it when I was recalled there for the war. It never occurred to them to invite me to the funeral; it took a war for them to decide I was worth some concern. By then the situation was all confused, Corwin found and then lost again.
At any rate, it was a nice hole in the ground, around the side of the mountain. It was one of the few places in the Amber geography specifically linked with dad. If the moonlight was kind, he would be inside.
I rolled away the stone in front, entered. It was empty. Damn.
Too empty. The shadows in the back which normally concealed a wall concealed nothing today. When my shades compensated for the lighting, I could make out a passage. I entered it.
With the odd sureness of a dream, I knew the path I should follow. Indeed, I knew there was some special significance to the windings of these tunnels.
Then it all opened up in front of me. I gazed into a huge cavern, big enough to hold a city the size of Amber, illuminated by the light of a garish mock moon on the far side. It was a perverse echo of the new Amber, the elegance of elves dedicated not to soaring earthy purity, but to squat gilded grotesqueries. Tír's normal lack of smell seemed horribly unnatural here; a city that big had to have a noticeable odor at this distance.
There was fighting in the streets of the city, a regular family reunion, complete with five factions. Eric and Jacob, father and son, fought back to back. Fiona hurled some nasty looking spells as Bleys kept his golden Pattern sword between her and her enemies. Dad swashbuckled his way through the fray next to someone who looked like he should be my brother. Brand and Rinaldo worked with a huge blond man and a petite red-headed woman, making a most potent team. Caine and a fair-skinned elf led an army of ebony-skinned elves, all glittering mail and dark cloaks; they caused the most trouble for the others.
I watched idly, as if in a dream. It was all so distant, even though it was only maybe a half-mile or so away. Elves died left and right, but the family members simply fought on unscratched, occasionally changing partners.
The fighting drifted my way, and it suddenly found myself being charged by a division of elves. Disturbed to be suddenly included in the dream, I turned and fled the way I had come.
It is disconcerting to walk through a dream wide awake. Still, most would agree that disconcerting is a good word to describe Tír-na Nog'th. As such, the question quickly arises, whose dream is it? Obviously not mine, which tended to be of jungles and equations. Besides, if it were mine, I wouldn't be awake. But who else would dream of this?
With a shudder, the answer came to me. Most people anthropomorphized the universe to some extent; I did it more so than most, as it is a convenient metaphor for magic. In such terms, for example, walking a Pattern is one way to call the universe's attention to you, making you more real in its eyes. The same theory lies behind many of my best enchantments. I introduced my shades to the universe years ago, and they worked remarkably well these days.
But, dammit, it was a metaphor!
I didn't like to think that I was caught in a dream of the universe; but it felt right.
The Pattern room wasn't empty. Garrick was there, admiring the thing. He looked my way when I entered. "Samhaoir," he said. His colorless eyes seemed somehow more natural in this setting.
"Garrick," I replied.
He returned to studying the grand design. It occurred to me that, despite his recognition of me, he was Tír ghost.
"What's it like, walking this thing?" he asked.
"Hard. Painful. Exhilarating."
He looked in my shades, scared. "I don't know if I can make it." No one knew who his parents were.
"It's something we all have to face at one point or another."
"But you knew!"
"Paternal descent always leaves room for doubt. And a misstep is just as deadly for one of the blood...
"If you'd like, I'll help you through it. If you walk with me and stay calm, you should be able to make it."
"Perhaps when our father comes home," he replied, fading away.
"Our father?" I said lamely. The resemblance was there, all right, though I couldn't imagine Corwin in that nasty pony-tail thing.
I proceeded to the start of the pinkish glowing thing, took the turtle out. It kept it head and legs safely tucked in, for all the good it would do. I examined my clothing: T-shirt, several different shades of blue, tie-dyed. Grey jeans, tight and well-worn. Boots made for walking. A good set of clothes to make a bit more real.
It started as an almost involuntary whisper, choking out of my throat. I chose words and notes carefully. Strictly speaking this wasn't necessary, but it helped me to concentrate. Gradually I crescendoed.
Without stopping, without even catching my breath, I stepped forward. Immediately I realized something was different. Sparks leapt higher than they should have, and I could feel the heat pounding at the soles of my boots. I offered a silent prayer to the mind whose dream I was in that Brand's pattern hadn't somehow erased my ability to deal with the real thing.
I remembered the feel of strong, flowing muscles, the thrilling scent of prey, the soft grass underpaw, the crunching of bones between strong jaws. I prayed I could resist a transformation here, where it would be most inconvenient. (Though not necessarily fatal, as I had proved years before.)
At the grand veil, sparks burning holes in my jeans, I fluidly reached into the turtle shell and pulled the bottom off, spilling the slowly flaying turtle onto the Pattern. I saw the flames reach up for it...
...and I was in the volcanic region, watching my troops assault the keep. A horn blew, the great gates sprang open, and troops flooded out, overrunning my men. The blond man and the red-headed bitch I hadn't recognized in the family brawl earlier laughed as the last of my men fell.
A beam of light, magic made visible, shot out of the top of the keep. It broke into multiple beams, wound and twisted into a design I suddenly recognized as the caves connected to Corwin's tomb...
...and I reached the center of the Pattern. I skipped the turtle's shell the way I had just come, watched it bounce and fry. I pictured the steps, with my black-haired aunt standing next to them. Imagined the cool night air, breathed in her faint perfume. I said "Ooof" as I abruptly sat on the ground next to her.
"So, what was that about the trouble on the border?" Dierdre asked me.
"Your note this afternoon."
"Yeah, someone built a castle where it used to be. Totally heavy and uncool, eh?" Disoriented as I was, I still remembered not to reveal my dealings with Brand. "So how long was I up there, anyway?"
"Woah. Didn't seem anything like that."
"How was it?"
"Has anyone mentioned the Pattern walk being harder?"
"It was. Quite noticeably." I waved at the scorch marks on my pants.
"Yeah, lots of messed up Freudian stuff."
"Anything I should know?"
"I'll have to think on it."
"Fair enough. Ready to head back to the castle?"
"I suppose. Can I stay in your room?"
"Sure, but why? You have you own rooms."
"You are a duchess, after all. Here." She hauled me to my feet.
My gloriously dreamless sleep was interrupted by a pounding on my door. I opened my eyes, slammed them shut again. It was bright out there. I fumbled around blindly for my shades, slipped them on, and tried opening my eyes again. Much better.
"Who is it?" I rounded up my jeans.
My mind raced. Brand's kid, he had fought in the First Battle of Amber, then wandered off before I had been called up for the assault on Chaos. As a result, we'd never met.
"One minute." Shirt, boots, pouch, and katana: everything I brought with me.
Opening the door, I smelled him before I saw him. He was wearing an astounding perfume, trying to hide some scent I couldn't quite place. "Yes?"
"I visited my father recently." So that was what he looked like: Brown hair with hints of his father's red; framing a face which seemed unformed, a trace duplicitous. Something told me I should take everything he said with a grain of salt.
"Since your visit."
"Let's take a walk." I didn't know that my room was bugged. But I didn't know that it wasn't, either. Besides, the smell would be greatly reduced outside. "To the beach?"
"I need to go to the docks."
"Lead the way."
We engaged in mindless small talk till we neared the bustling human section of town.
"Brand told me you walked the Scrawling." You could hear the capital the way he said it.
"Is that what he calls it?"
No point in denying it. "I did. Have you?"
"No. I hope to soon essay it. What's it like?"
"Easy. Depressing. Disturbing."
"I'm looking forward to it."
A few of the passersby recognized me and let loose with a rowdy "Kill the elves!" I smiled and nodded.
"What's that all about?"
"I associated myself with a few of the heroes of the revolution to come yesterday."
Just then a kid ran by, whirled, pointed at his playmate, and said "Boom!"
I chuckled. "Word going around here is that Aiken pointed at a elf, shouted something and it blew up."
"I don't know; when I asked him, he just mumbled. But I made sure I was seen with them around the human quarter once I heard the rumor."
"Bah. Isn't worth getting involved."
"To each her own."
We reached the docks. One ship stood out among the proud fleet of Amber. In the midst of immaculate ships, tall, strong, was one pathetic sloop, a disgrace to the harbor. It did have a certain tenacity; any sensible ship would have sunk years before, of embarrassment if nothing else.
Quentin headed right for it.
"Do you know anything about how to use the Scrawling to walk through shadow?" I asked.
"Brand described it as a tearing."
"Weird." I pondered how it would work. "Well, let me know what you find out."
"Agreed." He turned and boarded the ship.
Strolling back, I started asking around after Aiken. After six strikeouts in town I headed back for the castle.