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 know that?”
“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 facing me.
“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 Rinaldo.”
“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 through and…
“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 beside me.
“What happened?” she asked.
“I don’t know. We were suddenly blocked. I can’t tell what forces were involved.”
“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 roundabout fashion?”
“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,” she said.
“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 same results.
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 subject.”
“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 normally 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. The 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 again.
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 wail.
“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 tell me?”
“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 function?”
“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 these things?”
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 questions.”
“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 business.”
“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 also desires your safety.”
“You mean — ”
“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 said.
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 brother.
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 he advanced.
“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 learned.”
“Come on, Mandor! What the hell’s going on?”
“The ty’iga is not a danger to you. It really does care about your welfare.”
“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 enough.”
“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 the door.”
“I’d meant to ask you about her. Some enemy you’re 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 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 here?”
“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 around.”
“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 my door.
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 turned 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 is removed.”
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 hand.
“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, hard stare.
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 mind.”
“I brought you here from 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 afterward.
“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 double lineage.”
I smiled, nodded, stepped aside and gestured.
“And this —” I began.
“I am acquainted with Nayda,” she said. “Why is the girl… preoccupied?”
“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 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 life.”
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 looked vulnerable.
“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?”