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 strong.
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 asked.
“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 contact.
“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 them.”
“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 place before.”
“There’s been a… death,” I explained. “Some kind of shake-up going on.”
“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 time.”
“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. Like — ”
“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 her loose?”
“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 her go.”
“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 price.”
“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 pig.”
“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 exploring.”
“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 coatrack.”
“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 value lies.”
“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 attractive.”
“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 you?”
“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 cheerful 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 file?”
“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 classified data.”
“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 assistance.”
“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 hall.
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 apartment.”
“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 with you.”
“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 you, Ghost.”
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-red striped guys.
“I can’t quite swing the omniscience business…” Ghost said after a time.
“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 succeed.”
“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 odd fashion.”
“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 Pattern and — ”
“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 service.