In the morning she was gone, and there was no message. Her maid served me breakfast in the kitchen and went away to do maid-things. I’d disregarded the notion of trying to pump information out of the woman, as she either wouldn’t know or wouldn’t tell me the things I wanted to know and would no doubt also report my attempt to Flora. So, since it seemed I had the nun of the house, I decided I’d return to the library and see what I could learn there. Besides, I like libraries. It makes me feel comfortable and secure to have walls of words, beautiful and wise, all around me. I always feel better when I can see that there is something to hold back the shadows.
Donner or Blitzen, or one of their relatives, appeared from somewhere and followed me up the hallway, walking stiff-legged and sniffing after my spoor. I tried to make friends with him, but it was like exchanging pleasantries with the state trooper who signaled you to pull off the road. I looked into some of the other rooms as I went along, and they were just places, innocuous-looking ones.
So I entered the library, and Africa still faced me. I closed the door behind me to keep the dogs out, and I strolled around the room, reading the titles on the shelves.
There were lots of history books. In fact, they seemed to dominate her collection. There were also many art books, of the big and expensive variety, and I leafed through a few of these. I usually do my best real thinking when I’m thinking about something else.
I wondered at the sources of Flora’s obvious wealth. If we were related, did that mean that perhaps I enjoyed somewhat of opulence, also? I thought about my economic and social status, my profession, my origins. I had the feeling that I’d never worried much about money, and that there’d always been enough or ways of getting it, to keep me satisfied. Did I own a big house like this? I couldn’t remember.
What did I do?
I sat behind her desk and examined my mind for any special caches of knowledge I might possess. It is difficult to examine yourself this way, as a stranger. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t come up with anything. What’s yours is yours and a part of you and it just seems to belong there, inside. That’s all.
A doctor? That came to mind as I was viewing some of Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings. Almost by reflex, in my mind, I had begun going through the steps of various surgical operations. I realized then that I had operated on people in the past.
But that wasn’t it. While I realized that I had a medical background, I knew that it was a part of something else. I knew, somehow, that I was not a practicing surgeon. What then? What else was involved?
Something caught my eve.
Seated there at the desk, I commanded a view of the far wall on which, among other things, hung an antique cavalry saber, which I had overlooked the first time around the room. I rose and crossed over to it, took it down from its pegs.
In my mind, I tsked at the shape it was in. I wanted an oily rag and a whetstone, to make it the way it should he once again. I knew something about antique arms, edged weapons in particular.
The saber felt light and useful in my hand, and I felt capable with it. I struck an en garde. I parried and cut a few times. Yes. I could use the thing.
So what sort of background was that? I looked around for new memory joggers.
Nothing else occurred to me, so I replaced the blade and returned to the desk. Sitting there, I decided to go through the thing.
I started with the middle one and worked my way up the left side and down the right, drawer by drawer.
Stationery, envelopes, postage stamps, paper clips, pencil stubs, rubber bands — all the usual items.
I had pulled each drawer all the way out though, and held it in my lap as I’d inspected its contents. It wasn’t just an idea. It was part of some sort of training I’d once received, which told me I should inspect the sides and bottoms as well.
One thing almost slipped by me, but caught my attention at the last instant: the back of the lower right-hand drawer did not rise as high as the backs of the other drawers.
This indicated something, and when I knelt and looked inside the drawer space I saw a little box-like affair fixed to the upper side.
It was a small drawer itself, way in the back, and it was locked.
It took me about a minute of fooling around with paper clips, safety pins, and finally a metal shoehorn I’d seen in another drawer. The shoehorn did the trick.
The drawer contained a packet of playing cards.
And the packet bore a device which caused me to stiffen where I knelt, perspiration suddenly wetting my brow and my breath coming rapidly.
It bore a white unicorn on a grass field, rampant, facing to the dexter.
And I knew that device and it hurt me that I could not name it.
I opened the packet and extracted the cards. They were on the order of tarots, with their wands, pentacles, cups, and swords, but the Greater Trumps were quite different.
I replaced both drawers, being careful not to lock the smaller one, before I continued my inspection.
They were almost lifelike in appearance, the Greater Trumps ready to step right out through those glistening surfaces. The cards seemed quite cold to my touch, and it gave me a distinct pleasure to handle them. I had once had a packet like this myself, I suddenly knew.
I began spreading them on the blotter before me. The one bore a wily-looking little man, with a sharp nose and a laughing mouth and a shock of straw-colored hair. He was dressed in something like a Renaissance costume of orange, red and brown. He wore long hose and a tight-fitting embroidered doublet. And I knew him. His name was Random.
Next, there was the passive countenance of Julian, dark hair hanging long, blue eyes containing neither passion nor compassion. He was dressed completely in scaled white armor, not silver or metallic-colored, but looking as if it had been enameled. I knew, though, that it was terribly tough and shock-resistant, despite its decorative and festive appearance. He was the man I had beaten at his favorite game, for which he had thrown a glass of wine at me. I knew him and I hated him.
Then came the swarthy, dark-eyed countenance of Caine, dressed all in satin that was black and green, wearing a dark three-cornered hat set at a rakish angle, a green plume of feathers trailing down the back. He was standing in profile, one arm akimbo, and the toes of his boots curled upwards, and he wore an emerald-studded dagger at his belt. There was ambivalence in my heart.
Then there was Eric. Handsome by anyone’s standards, his hair was so dark as to be almost blue. His beard curled around the mouth that always smiled, and he was dressed simply in a leather jacket and leggings, a plain cloak, high black boots, and he wore a red sword belt bearing a long silvery saber and clasped with a ruby, and his high cloak collar round his head was lined with red and the trimmings of his sleeves matched it. His hands, thumbs hooked behind his belt, were terribly strong and prominent. A pair of black gloves jutted from the belt near his right hip. He it was, I was certain, that had tried to kill me on that day I had almost died. I studied him and I feared him somewhat.
Then there was Benedict, tall and dour, thin, thin of body, thin of face, wide of mind. He wore orange and yellow and brown and reminded me of haysticks and pumpkins and scarecrows and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. He had a long strong jaw and hazel eyes and brown hair that never curled. He stood beside a tan horse and leaned upon a lance about which was twined a rope of flowers. He seldom laughed. I liked him.
I paused when I uncovered the next card, and my heart leaped forward and banged against my sternum and asked to be let out.
It was me.
I knew the me I shaved and this was the guy behind the mirror. Green eyes, black hair, dressed in black and silver, yes. I had on a cloak and it was slightly furled as by a wind. I had on black boots, like Eric’s, and I too wore a blade, only mine was heavier, though not quite as long as his. I had my gloves on and they were silver and scaled. The clasp at my neck was cast in the form of a silver rose.
And a big, powerful man regarded me from the next card. He resembled me quite strongly, save that his jaw was heavier. And I knew he was bigger than I, though slower. His strength was a thing out of legend. He wore a dressing gown of blue and gray clasped about the middle with a wide, black belt, and he stood laughing. About his neck, on a heavy cord, there hung a silver bunting horn. He wore a fringe heard and a light mustache. In his right hand he held a goblet of wine. I felt a sudden affection for him. His name then occurred to me. He was Gerard.
Then came a fiery bearded, flame-crowned man, dressed all in red and orange, mainly of silk stuff, and he held a sword in his right hand and a glass of wine in his left, and the devil himself danced behind his eyes, as blue as Flora’s, or Eric’s. His chin was slight, but the beard covered it. His sword was inlaid with an elaborate filigree of a golden color. He wore two huge rings on his right hand and one on his left: an emerald, a ruby, and a sapphire, respectively. This, I knew, was Bleys.
Then there was a figure both like Bleys’s and myself. My features, though smaller, my eyes, Bleys’ hair, beardless. He wore a riding suit of green and sat atop a white horse, heading toward the dexter side of the card. There was a quality of both strength and weakness, questing and abandonment about him. I both approved and disapproved, liked and was repelled by, this one. His name was Brand, I knew. As soon as I laid eyes upon him, I knew.
In fact, I realized that I knew them all well, remembered them all, with their strengths, their weaknesses, their victories, their defeats.
For they were my brothers.
I lit a cigarette I’d filched from Flora’s desk box, and I leaned back and considered the things I had recalled.
They were my brothers, those eight strange men garbed in their strange costumes. And I knew that it was right and fitting that they should dress in whatever manner they chose, just as it was right for me to wear the black and the silver. Then I chuckled, as I realized what I was wearing, what I had purchased in the little clothing store of that little town I had stopped in after my departure from Greenwood.
I had on black slacks, and all three of the shirts I had purchased had been of a grayish, silvery color. And my jacket, too, was black.
I returned to the cards, and there was Flora in a gown green as the sea, just as I’d remembered her the previous evening, and then there was a black-haired girl with the same blue eyes, and her hair hung long and she was dressed all in black, with a girdle of silver about her waist. My eyes filled with tears, why I don’t know. Her name was Deirdre. Then there was Fiona, with hair like Bleys or Brand, my eyes, and a complexion like mother of pearl. I hated her the second I turned over the card. Next was Llewella, whose hair matched her jade-colored eyes, dressed in shimmering gray and green with a lavender belt, and looking moist and sad. For some reason, I knew she was not like the rest of us. But she, too, was my sister.
I felt a terrible sense of distance and removal from all these people. Yet somehow they seemed physically close.
The cards were so very cold on my fingertips that I put them down again, though with a certain sense of reluctance at having to relinquish their touch.
There were no more, though. All the rest were minor cards. And I knew, somehow, that somehow, again — ah, somehow! — that several were missing.
For the life of me, however, I did not know what the missing Trumps represented.
I was strangely saddened by this, and I picked up my cigarette and mused.
Why did all these things rush back so easily when I viewed the cards — rush back without dragging their contexts along with them? I knew more now than I’d known before, in the way of names and faces. But that was about all.
I couldn’t figure the significance of the fact that we were all done up in cards this way. I had a terribly strong desire to own a pack of them, however. If I picked up Flora’s, though, I knew she’d spot in a hurry that they were missing, and I’d be in trouble. Therefore, I put them back in the little drawer behind the big drawer and locked them in again. Then, God, how I racked my brains! But to little avail.
Until I recalled a magical word.
I had been greatly upset by the word on the previous evening. I had been sufficiently upset so that I had avoided thinking of it since then. But now I courted it. Now I rolled it around my mind and examined all the associations that sprang up when it struck.
The word was charged with a mighty longing and a massive nostalgia. It had, wrapped up inside it, a sense of forsaken beauty, grand achievement, and a feeling of power that was terrible and almost ultimate. Somehow, the word belonged in my vocabulary. Somehow, I was part of it and it was a part of me. It was a place name, I knew then. It was the name of a place I once had known. There came no pictures, though, only emotions.
How long I sat so, I do not know. Time had somehow divorced itself from my reveries.
I realized then, from the center of my thoughts, that there had come a gentle rapping upon the door. Then the handle slowly turned and the maid, whose name was Carmella, entered and asked me if I was interested in lunch.
It seemed like a good idea, so I followed her back to the kitchen and ate half a chicken and drank a quart of milk.
I took a pot of coffee back to the library with me, avoiding the dogs as I went. I was into the second cup when the telephone rang.
I longed to pick it up, but I figured there must be extensions all over the house and Carmella would probably get it from somewhere.
I was wrong. It kept ringing.
Finally, I couldn’t resist it any longer.
“Hello,” I said, “this is the Flaumel residence.”
“May I speak with Mrs. Flaumel please?”
It was a man’s voice, rapid and slightly nervous. He sounded out of breath and his words were masked and surrounded by the faint ringing and the ghost voices that indicate long distance.
“I’m sorry.” I told him. “She’s not here right now. May I take a message or have her call you back?”
“Who am I talking to?” he demanded.
I hesitated, then, “Corwin’s the name,” I told him.
“My God!” he said, and a long silence followed.
I was beginning to think he’d hung up. I said, “Hello?” again, just as he started talking.
“Is she still alive?” he asked.
“Of course she’s still alive. Who the hell am I talking to?”
“Don’t you recognize the voice, Corwin? This is Random. Listen. I’m in California and I’m in trouble. I was calling to ask Flora for sanctuary. Are you with her?”
“Temporarily,” I said.
“I see. Will you give me your protection, Corwin?” Pause, then, “Please?”
“As much as I can,” I said, “but I can’t commit Flora to anything without consulting her.”
“Will you protect me against her?”
“Then you’re good enough for me, man. I’m going to try to make it to New York now. I’ll be coming by a rather circuitous route, so I don’t know how long it will take me. If I can avoid the wrong shadows, I’ll be seeing you whenever. Wish me luck.”
“Luck,” I said.
Then there was a click and I was listening to a distant ringing and the voices of the ghosts.
So cocky little Random was in trouble! I had a feeling it shouldn’t have bothered me especially. But now, he was one of the keys to my past, and quite possibly my future also. So I would try to help him, in any way I could, until I’d learned all I wanted from him. I knew that there wasn’t much brotherly love lost between the two of us. But I knew that on the one hand he was nobody’s fool: he was resourceful, shrewd, strangely sentimental over the damnedest things; and on the other hand, his word wasn’t worth the spit behind it, and he’d probably sell my corpse to the medical school of his choice if he could get much for it. I remembered the little fink all right, with only a touch of affection, perhaps for a few pleasant times it seemed we had spent together. But trust him? Never. I decided I wouldn’t tell Flora he was coming until the last possible moment. He might be made to serve as an ace, or at least a knave, in the hole.
So I added some hot coffee to what remained in my cup and sipped it slowly.
Who was he running from?
Not Eric, certainly, or he wouldn’t have been calling here. I wondered then concerning his question as to whether Flora was dead, just because I happened to be present here. Was she really that strongly allied with the brother I knew I hated that it was common knowledge in the family that I’d do her in, too, given the chance? It seemed strange, but then he’d asked the question.
And what was it in which they were allied? What was the source of this tension, this opposition? Why was it that Random was running?
That was the answer.
Amber. Somehow, the key to everything lay in Amber, I knew. The secret of the entire mess was in Amber, in some event that had transpired in that place, and fairly recently, I’d judge. I’d have to be on my toes. I’d have to pretend to the knowledge I didn’t possess, while piece by piece I mined it from those who had it. I felt confident that I could do it. There was enough distrust circulating for everyone to be cagey. I’d play on that. I’d get what I needed and take what I wanted, and I’d remember those who helped me and step on the rest. For this, I knew, was the law by which our family lived, and I was a true son of my father…
My headache came on again suddenly, throbbing to crack my skull.
Something about my father I thought, guessed, felt — was what had served to set it off. But I wasn’t sure why or how.
After a time, it subsided and I slept, there in the chair. After a much longer time, the door opened and Flora entered. It was night outside, once more.
She was dressed in a green silk blouse and a long woolen skirt that was gray. She had on walking shoes and heavy stockings. Her hair was pulled back behind her head and she looked slightly pale. She still wore her hound whistle.
“Good evening,” I said, rising.
But she did not reply. Instead, she walked across the room to the bar, poured herself a shot of Jack Daniels, and tossed it off like a man. Then she poured another and took it with her to the big chair.
I lit a cigarette and handed it to her.
She nodded, then said, “The Road to Amber — is difficult.”
She gave me a very puzzled look.
“When is the last time you tried it?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Be that way then,” she said. “I just wondered how much of it was your doing.
I didn’t reply because I didn’t know what she was talking about. But then I recalled that there was an easier way than the Road to get to the place called Amber. Obviously, she lacked it.
“You’re missing some Trumps,” I said then suddenly, in a voice which was almost mine.
She sprang to her feet, half her drink spilling over the back of her hand.
“Give them back!” she cried, reaching for the whistle.
I moved forward and seized her shoulders.
“I don’t have them,” I said. “I was just making an observation.”
She relaxed a bit, then began to cry, and I pushed her back down, gently, into the chair.
“I thought you meant you’d taken the ones I had left,” she said. “Rather than just making a nasty and obvious comment.”
I didn’t apologize. It didn’t seem right that I should have to.
“How far did you get?”
“Not far at all.” Then she laughed and regarded me with a new light in her eyes.
“I see what you’ve done now, Corwin,” she said, and I lit a cigarette in order to cover any sort of need for a reply.
“Some of those things were yours, weren’t they? You blocked my way to Amber before you came here, didn’t you? You knew I’d go to Eric. But I can’t now. I’ll have to wait till he comes to me. Clever. You want to draw him here, don’t you? He’ll send a messenger, though. He won’t come himself.”
There was a strange tone of admiration in the voice of this woman who was admitting she’d just tried to sell me out to my enemy, and still would — given half a chance — as she talked about something she thought I’d done which had thrown a monkey wrench into her plans. How could anyone be so admittedly Machiavellian in the presence of a proposed victim? The answer rang back immediately from the depths of my mind: it is the way of our kind. We don’t have to be subtle with each other. Though I thought she lacked somewhat the finesse of a true professional.
“Do you think I’m stupid, Flora?” I asked. “Do you think I came here just for purposes of waiting around for you to hand me over to Erie? Whatever you ran into, it served you right.”
“All right I don’t play in your league! But you’re in exile, too! That shows you weren’t so smart!”
Somehow her words burned and I knew they were wrong.
“Like hell I am!” I said.
She laughed again.
“I knew that would get a rise out of you,” she said. “All right, you walk in the Shadows on purpose then. You’re crazy.”
She said, “What do you want? Why did you really come here?”
“I was curious what you were up to,” I said. “That’s all. You can’t keep me here if I don’t want to stay. Even Eric couldn’t do that. Maybe I really did just want to visit with you. Maybe I’m getting sentimental in my old age. Whatever, I’m going to stay a little longer now, and then probably go away for good. If you hadn’t been so quick to see what you could get for me, you might have profited a lot more, lady. You asked me to remember you one day, if a certain thing occurred…”
It took several seconds for what I thought I was implying to sink in.
Then she said, “You’re going to try! You’re really going to try!”
“You’re goddamn right I’m going to try,” I said, knowing that I would, whatever it was, “and you can tell that to Eric if you want, but remember that I might make it. Bear in mind that if I do, it might be nice to be my friend.”
I sure wished I knew what the hell I was talking about, but I’d picked up enough terms and felt the importance attached to them, so that I could use them properly without knowing what they meant. But they felt right, so very right…
Suddenly, she was kissing me.
“I won’t tell him. Really, I won’t, Corwin! I think you can do it. Bleys will be difficult, but Gerard would probably help you, and maybe Benedict. Then Caine would swing over, when he saw what was happening —”
“I can do my own planning,” I said.
Then she drew away. She poured two glasses of wine and handed one to me.
“To the future,” she said.
“I’ll always drink to that.”
And we did.
Then she refilled mine and studied me.
“It had to be Eric, Bleys, or you,” she said. “You’re the only ones with any guts or brains. But you’d removed yourself from the picture for so long that I’d counted you out of the running.”
“It just goes to show you never can tell.”
I sipped my drink and hoped she’d shut up for just a minute. It seemed to me she was being a bit too obvious in trying to play on every side available. There was something bothering me, and I wanted to think about it.
How old was I?
That question, I knew, was a part of the answer to the terrible sense of distance and removal that I felt from all the persons depicted on the playing cards. I was older than I appeared to be. (Thirtyish, I’d seemed when I looked at me in the mirror — but now I knew that it was because the shadows would lie for me.) I was far, far older, and it had been a very long time since I had seen my brothers and my sisters, all together and friendly, existing side by side as they did on the cards, with no tension, no friction among them.
We heard the sound of the bell, and Carmella moving to answer the door.
“That would be brother Random,” I said, knowing I was right. “He’s under my protection.”
Her eyes widened, then she smiled, as though she appreciated some clever thing I had done.
I hadn’t, of course, but I was glad to let her think so.
It made me feel safer.