With a song in my heart and a spring in my step, I walked the main road to Castle Amber, its cobblestones worn smooth by countless feet. How many millions of people had come this way before me? How many had come back? If the latter figure was smaller than the former, I hoped it was because my predecessors had been enchanted by the rich blue sky, the pleasant sea breeze, and the cries of the gulls. It was easy to see how a person could get to like it here.
A bend in the road brought the port city into view. Below me, it encircled a natural bay and sprawled a little way up the mountain, an amazingly diverse, vibrant, and alive metropolis. Unlike my experiences with such places, I had not smelled this one before I saw it--and yes, the wind off the amazingly blue ocean came through the city before it reached me. The ships in the harbor called out to some part of me I had hardly realized was there, and I was forced to stop and admire.
As I did so, my sabre slapped my leg, reminding me this wasn't just a pleasure trip. I was walking into the mouth of the lion, and the pretty trappings made it that much more dangerous. I didn't expect the blade to be of much use, but her familiar presence was comforting.
It wasn't until I was nearly there that another bend in the road brought the castle into view. I'd seen it once previously, from Tír-na Nog'th high above, but that view only hinted at the majesty now before me. I was following the only road onto the outcropping of rock from which castle loomed over the ocean far below. Its eclectic set of towers set off a great bas-relief unicorn; under it, a series of frescos showed a great war leader sweeping in and establishing a kingdom. Immediately below that, a great gate lead into the castle.
It is difficult to convey the feeling that went through me as I got my first close view of my ancestral home. Beautiful as it was, during our travels Chorovius and I had seen castles that were bigger, more sophisticated, or more intricately crafted. This one perhaps had the distinction of incorporating the most styles, as if it had grown organically. The clashes in design should have been grating, but somehow they added up to a unified whole.
I had an overwhelming sense of deja vu, as a deep chord was struck in my soul. This home of mine was a grand place. Why had I waited so long to pay my first visit?
Shaking off my strange musings, I proceeded down the road and up to the open gate. Within I saw a familiar figure in the shadows: a touch taller and a good bit smaller than me, the only person I know who can give the impression he's standing up straight even when casually leaning against the wall. "Roland," he called out, his voice distorted by the echo chamber, sounding slightly disappointed.
I joined him. "Chorovius."
We made quite a picture as we walked together, no doubt from one of those comics whose artist had flunked history. Chorovius would have fit into Victorian England easily, where my Viennese outfit of eighty years earlier would have been quaintly unfashionable. "I'd rather hoped he wouldn't be able to find you."
"Thanks a lot," I grumbled.
"It's nothing personal, old man, you know that," Chorovius said with a smile and a wink. "It's just that I have a very bad feeling about this evening. But hell, what do I know? I put my money on Truman back in '48."
"Hurmph. You were supposed to be my backup, not the other way around." What had he been doing in a world with a president Dewey? "So, what did you think of Dworkin?"
"He was a pleasant enough chap. Wouldn't trust him to water my plants, though, if you know what I mean." So, someone else thought the old guy was Dworkin.
"What exactly do you think is going to happen tonight?"
"Let's just say," Chorovius replied, lowering his voice even further, as we approached a great set of double doors which I assumed must be our destination, "that everyone is going to be surprised by a few of the guests who show up tonight."
I was about to reply when it suddenly struck home that I'd seen no guards thus far. For the closest thing to the capital of all existence, security seemed appallingly lax.
My worries were crowded out by amazement when we stepped forward into Amber's Great Hall. It was dominated by a great stain glassed window on its far side. Two stories high and perfectly backlit by the late afternoon sun, it depicted a great unicorn stomping a snake. Around us, lazily drifting dust was brilliantly colored by it.
Dazzled, I slowly took in the high vaulted ceiling, the abundance of balconies, the richly hung tapestries. Servants scurried everywhere, around zillions of tables, through a crowd of eclectic characters.
It brought back strong memories of Erin's home, and I had to blink back a tear or two. As I did, my eyes were assaulted by an outrageous lace and silk ensemble, worn by a fastidious looking fop descending upon us. I sincerely hoped he wasn't a relative; he gave the impression that he had served the family for most of his fifty or so years. "And where are your escorts?" Not the way I expected a conversation to start; certainly not a polite greeting to two who were hopefully his superiors.
"Excuse me?" I said.
"I said," he repeated slowly and distinctly, "where are your escorts? The Lady Florimel, at my suggestion, has arranged for each of you to be formally introduced as you arrive."
We stared blankly at him. "The guards at the gate, you gave them your invitations, they gave your introductions to your escorts, your escorts were to escort you here, and then introduce you." He sounded very put out, as if we were intentionally playing dumb. "Where are your escorts and your introductions?"
With frighteningly similar movements, Chorovius and I shrugged and drew forth our invitations.
"Well," the fop conceded, "they do appear to be in order, but how can you be properly introduced if . . . oh well, bother it all! I will do it myself."
He stomped off toward the trumpeters and herald, behind us and a bit to our right. We took the opportunity to scan the crowd. "So, where are Corwin and Deirdre?" I whispered to Chorovius.
"Corwin's right over there. I don't see Deirdre anywhere."
"Then Eric's missing." I waved at Dworkin. "Lots of cousins here, eh?"
The trumpeters blew our arrival; they were good, but I'd rather watch Anna play. The trumpets attracted the few remaining members of the crowd not already staring at us, just as the herald cried out "Introducing the Princes ghakkkk!"
The extremely large man who now stood behind the herald drew his extremely large hand off of the herald's back. He boomed out, "All rise for the Princesses Gwynfar and Biscilla, rightful heirs to the throne of Amber."
Ah, the family genealogy. Last I had heard, my grandfather Oberon, king of Amber, was missing. His eldest son, Benedict, was from an annulled marriage, and there was considerable debate over the question of which of Corwin or Eric, the next oldest sons, was first in line. When you throw in my many ambitious younger uncles, you had a very muddy picture. And of course, I was here for Random's coronation, so obviously something had changed the picture.
To the best of my prior knowledge, that picture did not include the black-haired women now standing behind the last speaker, even as incidental background figures. Certainly the streak of white in the hair of the one with the sword would have stuck in my memory. From the looks on the faces in the room, I surmised that no one else had heard of the statuesque pair either.
I shot a glance at Chorovius, who silently indicated he had expected something like this. Then the pompous little fop said, "I'm sorry, but tonight's festivities were by invitation only."
The one with the streak stared for a moment, then laughed. "But we were invited, my little peacock. I think you should introduce us while your ... friend," her look indicated the herald still trying to catch his wind, "recovers." Her voice had a strong, sexy edge, though it was as cold as steel. "You will do that for me, won't you?"
"Uurmp... ahhhhh... that is, of course I will," the fop replied, taking the invitations from the outstretched hands of the ladies. "Introducing the Princesses, Gwynfar and Biscilla, daughters of King Oberon."
The sudden and total silence of the room was interrupted by Chorovius's whisper. "I think we should join the crowd before somebody thinks we're with them."
"Agreed," I whispered, as we moved into the fray. "Any idea how good their claim is?" Chorovius's grunt was non-committal. As we headed for the drinks, I scanned the crowd for friendly faces, and it struck me that I was going to have trouble remembering names.
There were several females in the crowd who appeared to be about my age. But then, I'm not sure how aging affects my family, so who knows? There did seem to be two distinct age groups present, though it was more a matter of manner than appearance. No, manner isn't exactly right, either. My aunts, even those talking and laughing with my uncles, had a sense of presence about them that was quite imposing. At any rate, while all the females present would turn a male's head, only the younger ones struck me as even vaguely approachable.
Even as we were appraising them, they were appraising Chorovius and me. One, delightfully long-limbed and full figured, quickly cornered us. She made eye contact with me, smiled, and I instantly fell under the spell of her dark eyes.
"I'm Celene," she said. "I didn't quite catch your name?"
Not willing to take my eyes off the long black hair framing the perfect features, I stammered, "Roland. And this is Chorovius."
"Pleased to meet you," Chorovius added, not so spellbound to forget his courtesy.
"Charmed," she replied. "I take it you're not with those two?"
I glanced at them. "I've never seen them before tonight."
Chorovius dodged. "I wonder how far they are willing to go to press their claim?"
"It would have to be a long way," Celene replied. "Everyone seems to support Random." There was a slight hint of a question there at the end, which Chorovius again sidestepped with a vague "Indeed."
I wasn't sure how to respond. I didn't have anything against Random, but I didn't really have anything for him, either. I wasn't too keen to commit myself one way or another without a lot of learning. So I did the only thing I could think of--changed the subject. "Good dim sum," I said, popping another appetizer into my mouth.
Celene laughed, an enchanting sound. Chorovius shrugged and excused himself, wandered back into the crowd.
"You like gourmet food?" Celene asked. I nodded and chewed, she smiled. "I do too. That is to say, at least I enjoy eating gourmet food. I'm afraid that I'm rather less than fond of cooking."
I swallowed. "Really? I find cooking quite relaxing after a hard day's work."
"You cook?" she exclaimed. "Why, I've never before met one of Oberon's grandsons who could do anything in a kitchen but eat."
"I'm pretty good at that as well."
She gave me a sly smile. "I've a feeling you're going to provide me with no end of surprises." She was about to continue when there was another disturbance at the door.
"Introducing Collin, son of Fiona." Collin was a good five inches shorter than me, about Celene's height, and his red hair was curly. The only one in the room wearing glasses, he seemed the quiet bookish type. He gave the impression of having just run a race, only to be confused at ending up here. His red, green and yellow clothes struck me as a bit ostentatious; Celene's simple yet elegant deep blue off-the-shoulder dress was so much more tasteful and appropriate.
Celene muttered "Collin, Collin, you never change."
"You know him?"
Celene's attention snapped back to me. "Yes," she replied, giving me a smile which could melt a glacier. "You don't?"
"I don't believe I've met any of our cousins." I instinctively left out Chorovius, as it was still hard to think of him as a cousin.
"You're not missing all that much."
"They can't be all that bad."
"You might be surprised."
I shrugged. "No doubt. It's that sort of day."
She gave a significant look at my sabre. "So you've studied fencing." Another change in conversation direction, but one I could handle.
"Some. It comes in handy every now and then, in shadow."
"Where have you been?" she asked, taking to the subject.
"Well, I live on Earth." That seemed more than sufficiently vague. "I've explored its neighboring shadows a lot. Wandering afield, I've been to Pelicudar, the Ellwick Festival, Oerth, the Continuing Time--all over the place."
"I've never heard of those places. Except--isn't it said Corwin's exile was spent on a place called Earth?"
I was about to reply when another newcomer entered the hall. "Introducing Kierin, son of King Random." So did that make him heir to the throne? Or just a walking target?
Kierin was taller than me, but of more average build. He had short curly brown hair, and was immaculately shaven. It seemed out-of-place with his head-to-toe black leather outfit. I was not impressed. He went over and kissed Random on the forehead.
"What was that you were humming?" Celene asked.
I hadn't been aware I was. "Did it go like this?" I hummed the beginning of "Princes of the Universe".
"How about this?" This time I tried "Gimme the Prize", and she nodded. "It's the Kurgen's theme," I explained.
"Highlander. It's a movie where a bunch of near-immortals fight the final battle for world domination." I grinned broadly. "The Kurgen's the overgrown bad guy."
"You like movies?"
"Definitely. Magic caught in light, preserved. When well-made, something worth partaking again and again."
She smiled. "They're considered something of an old-fashion novelty where I'm from."
"So you haven't seen The Long Run or Lawrence of Arabia?" I wondered if she considered movies old-fashioned because the technology was far in her past, or if they had just gone out of style.
"I've never even heard of them."
"We'll have to remedy that."
Celene smiled most alluringly. "I'd like that." She had me wrapped around her little finger, and I didn't give a damn. "So, is this Highlander a great film?"
I shook my head. "Nah. It's a fun film with some great scenes and a great soundtrack, but it's not the sort of movie one would search shadow to find." I looked around the room significantly. "Still, it frequently reminds me of our family."
Another redhead, slightly shorter than me, slighter but healthy and muscular--a runner, maybe--broke in. "So you're Roland, eh? I'm Rinaldo. Pleased to meet you." He shook my hand with a firm grip, and seemed to size me up. He had the sort of face that women probably would consider handsome despite his once-broken nose, and an infectious friendly nature.
"Rinaldo? Do you know Celene?"
"We've met," Celene replies, possibly a little coldly. I wondered if it was wishful thinking on my part.
"Delighted, as always," Rinaldo flattered. He was obviously one smooth customer.
"We were just discussing the family," Celene said. "Have you had any insights of late?"
Rinaldo laughed. "I think we still live in interesting times, to say the least." He nodded to indicate Gwynfar and Biscilla. "If the rumors I've heard are right, this may be an even higher stakes game than the pre-Patternfall throne war." Geez, was I the only clueless one around?
"So," Celene replied, "you've also heard that these two are nearly Benedict's age?" Luke nodded. "Is their claim on the throne legit?"
"Damned if I know. The biggest mark against them is that Unicorn didn't pick them."
Aha! Is that what happened? The confusion to the question of succession became so complicated that they somehow asked the Unicorn to resolve it? It would explain a lot.
Pondering this, I zoned out slightly while they slipped into a discussion on Amber's current relationship with the Golden Circle shadows. If I had wanted to sift through the near incomprehensible conversation, I'm sure I could have picked up some interesting new facts. But I wanted to move on, meet a few more cousins, so I made my excuses. Rinaldo gave me a hearty handshake, Celene a knowing smile.
I headed across the room, towards a brown-haired, emerald-eyed beauty, when my path was cut off by a man even larger than me. "Did I overhear you talking about Lawrence of Arabia?"
"Yes," I admitted. "I'm Roland."
"Baldric. I attended med school at Harvard. Perhaps you've heard of it?"
"I've visited there. The Commons bookstore is particularly good, in several different shadows." For some reason I didn't feel like telling him I grew up in the Midwest. I'd been there less than an hour, and already I was starting to think like a classic Amberite. Hopefully I could stop short of full insanity.
"Really! Astounding! When that touched old man delivered that card to me, I never thought it would actually get me here. And once I was here, I never thought I'd run into anyone else who knew home."
"Quite." I waved around the room. "Interesting group, aren't they?"
"I'll say! Yonder lady," he indicated the brunette I'd been heading towards, "is one of the most beautiful I've ever laid eyes on. Yet if we had a pageant with those in the room, she'd come in third at best." He grinned broadly. "Most of us males present are doing pretty well, as well. A collection such as this would be most unusual back home."
As dinnertime rapidly approached, I decided it was time to call home. I headed out of the Great Hall, and found a more secluded place to pull out my trump. "Lady?"
"Roland! We were getting worried."
"No problems yet, though there is one complication. Chorovius is already here."
"So we can't use him as a backup?"
"No, he's still a good second try if you can't reach me. But anything that I get caught up in here may well affect him also. You may be on your own."
"Everything else is going well?"
"Two previously unknown aunts showed up and laid a claim to the throne, but nothing has come of it yet. I don't think anyone here supports them, so I've got the numbers with me if they get violent."
"I will. How long has it been back there?"
"Almost three hours."
"It's been a little more than an hour here. Say a two-and-a-half to one time ratio? Anyway, it's just before dinner; I'll call you right after. Deal?"
"Deal." She broke the contact.