Chapter Three: The Library
I was standing by a crystal case over by the windows, my mind on distant things and far, far from Amber, when the door swung open.
Turning my head, I saw who it was. He was wearing orange trousers and a red shirt under a light brown jacket, all wrinkled and a bit travel-stained.
He was already over by the desk, lifting tray-covers.
“Victuals aplenty. Lots of leftovers.”
And he dug in. After he'd consumed the mound of pancakes I’d passed over ― which he first managed to drown in syrup ― and polished off a plate of sausages, he located a bowl of cream of wheat I’d overlooked (still quite hot and giving off steam). By then, though, he was slowing a little, so I made my way over and settled into a nearby easy chair.
“All right, Random, what’s up?”
He pushed the bowl away from him and leaned back, smiling.
“Julian said you weren’t in the best of shape when he saw you. Damned if he wasn’t right. You look beat.”
“Yeah? Well, you’re not looking so great there yourself. Where the hell have you been?”
“All over. On business. Ever wonder why so few people are in the king business, Corwin? Because it basically sucks, that’s why.”
“Oh, come on. There’s all that pomp. And, I hear, also a great deal of circumstance.”
He made a skeptical noise, audibly popping air through his lips.
“I think the girls go for that more than anybody,” he said, opening one of the desk drawers, seeking for something. In the next instant he had it, a pack of cigarettes. He extracted two, reaching over to pass me one. “Maybe Amber would be better off ruled by a queen, anyway.”
I was looking around for some means of obtaining a light. The fireplace was cold and, it being a sunny day, no sconces were lit.
“Corwin, over here. I’ve got it covered.”
He produced a small box, out of which he shook a couple of wooden matchsticks. He struck one against a bit of stone and handed the burning thing to me. He was grinning.
“Gunpowder which burns here in Amber is a state secret. But, for some reason, matches are easy to come by.”
“Cool,” I said, grinning back at him and lighting my cigarette.
We both relaxed for awhile, just sitting there and smoking. After about a minute of this, I let out a sigh.
“Okay. Somehow you knew I was on my way here and sent Julian to find me. You even knew where I was, it seems. As much as I’d like to know how you managed those bits of prescience, I’m even more curious as to why. You wanted me here, and here I am. Something’s up. Maybe it’s time you told me what it is?”
“Sorry. It’s been a long...day? Man, it’s been longer than that, but to tell you the truth I’ve lost track. Since I’ve kept you waiting, though, I’ll cut right to the chase. It's Swayvill. He's in trouble.”
“Swayvill? The King of Chaos?”
That was unexpected, all right! Random's small nod and quizzical expression let me know he was serious. Baffled by my bafflement, apparently. But the question wouldn't go away: Why the hell should any trouble for the ruler of the Courts of Chaos be a concern of ours?
“Now you’ve lost me.”
He was considering the smoldering tip of the cigarette that he held in his hand.
“Like I said, the king business is not as fun as it looks. And harder than Dad ever let on. Kinda lonely, too. So, believe it or not, we help each other out when we can.”
“Really? I’d suspected ― maybe hoped ― that by this point running Amber would be pretty routine, even boring. That it would more or less run itself after so many millennia under Dad's control. I take it that’s not actually the case?”
He turned to look at me then.
“Not all of it. You got the boring part right. Now you tell me. What usually happens to a realm when one person builds it up, maintains and sustains it, and then checks out permanently?”
I thought of Alexander, Attila, Canute, and ― someone whose wars I’d actually fought in ― Napoleon.
“Doesn’t often end well, true.”
“Anybody you can think of who pulled it off for as long as Dad did?”
“Not that I can think of. But, then, you knew that already.”
“But there is one. Swayvill. And that’s it.”
I came over to the desk to stub out my cigarette in his ashtray.
“I see. And I get it. Your situations are similar. You can relate.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s it.”
He poured two coffees, so I took one. I dumped sugar into mine, but he surprised me by taking his black. Those syrup-drenched pancakes were still fresh in my mind. We sat back and sampled the dark stuff.
After a bit, Random volunteered, “Llewella told me you’d left Rebma. Me asking Julian to look for you on top of Kolvir was just a lucky guess. The Jewel does come with some wild powers, but I haven’t noticed clairvoyance yet. Though that would make this job a helluva lot easier.”
“That was Brand’s trick. In my opinion, we’re all better off with you running the show instead.”
“Running the show? I’m in the show, all right. Don’t know if I’m actually running it.”
“What do you mean? If you’re not in charge, then who is?”
“No one is, Corwin. It’s too big to work that way. Gérard’s in charge of the navy. Caine helps him, but he really handles the intel. He’s born for the undercover jobs, if you know what I mean.”
Recalling Caine’s nearly successful attempt to assassinate me in my own well-secured quarters, I agreed with a clipped, “I know what you mean.”
“And Bleys can do the foreign minister gig while standing on one foot and juggling sticks of dynamite.”
I sipped my coffee thoughtfully.
“With long enough fuses, sure. Which I suppose explains why you’ve got him stationed at the Courts.”
“Exactly. And Julian watches Arden, while Benedict is only a Trump away.”
“Benedict? With the succession intrigues over, I’d figure he’d be closer to home.”
Random was quiet for a few moments, drinking his coffee, staring at the trays. He replaced the covers, pushed the trays to the left side of the desk, keeping only the coffee within easy reach. Then he put his feet up.
“I’ve more than half a mind to abdicate and hand the crown over to him. Only, Corwin, I don’t think he’d take it. No idea why. But you know what I mean, don’t you? He wouldn’t take it, doesn’t want it, never has. Damn him.”
“He is the oldest. And probably the wisest. Maybe that’s why.”
“Maybe.” From his tone, though, it was clear he didn’t believe his own maybe. “But I think it’s something else.”
I was about to object, but something stopped me. Some new knowledge, some fresh realization, something I hadn’t been aware I’d known until just that moment. It had to be new information, acquired very recently. Whatever it was, it checked the rebuttal I was in the midst of formulating. Instead, all I managed was a weak-sounding, “You could be right.” So I added, “Well, at least Gérard’s stepped up, helped to share the load.”
“You got that right. Don’t know what I’d do without him. Still have no idea how Dad did it all by himself.”
“Except he didn’t,” I reminded Random. “He had Gérard, Caine, Julian, Bleys and Benedict. Just like you. And was intimidating enough, powerful enough, and mysterious enough to keep them all in line.”
“And damned smart,” Random rejoined.
“And damned smart,” I agreed. And then, after a second or two ticked by, I continued, “And he was probably even smarter than Swayvill. Who is, I understand, in some kind of trouble.”
Random gave me a quick good-natured grin.
“Yeah, you’re right, he is. All’s not well over at the Courts. Hasn’t been for a real, real long time, it turns out. Only lately, it looks like it's been getting worse. A lot worse.”
“So why doesn’t he do what Dad would have done?”
“Which would be what? Sic the Unicorn on the trouble? Make the trouble spend two hours discussing the aesthetics of Order versus Chaos with Dworkin?”
“Exile it or kill it,” I answered matter-of-factly.
Random raised his eyebrows.
“Hey, Dad often favored the direct approach,” I pointed out.
“Except when choosing an heir.”
“Yeah,” I admitted, “that did get a little complicated.”
“And Dad was basically the absolute ruler in Amber. Unchallenged. That's not how it is at the Courts. Chaos has been around a lot longer than Amber. We’ve got one royal house. They’ve got at least three. Once there were more.”
Three royal houses? How could such an arrangement even hope to be workable, I wondered? Perpetual civil war would be an obvious result. I tried to imagine it. Constant vendettas, new ones being born even as old ones were retired. Never-ending…well, never-ending chaos.
“You did say, ‘once there were more’?”
Random nodded, holding my gaze.
“There was a fourth, known as the House of Barimen.”
Dworkin Barimen was the oldest inhabitant of Amber, who knew more about Amber and the structure of reality than anyone else could ever hope to learn. It might have rendered him a bit daft, for his mind didn’t work like the rest of ours, and the man even seemed to grasp the fundamental underpinnings of time itself. Only right at the end, just before Oberon’s sacrifice upon the Pattern, had any of us known he was also our grandfather and Amber’s true founder.
“So,” I mulled, “maybe Dworkin in his way did Swayvill a favor when he split off from the Courts?”
Random looked up at the ceiling thoughtfully.
“Haven’t heard the full story. But the drift I get is that Dworkin founding Amber is what allowed Swayvill to take power in the first place. Somebody else held the throne before him.”
“Wow,” I said, chewing on that for a second, “Wow. There’s a lot we don’t know about the Courts. Or at least a lot I don’t know, since you seem aware of more than I ever guessed about that place. And now you say you and Swayvill are allies?”
The cynical expression which settled on Random’s face at that moment was neither a smile nor a frown, but had elements in common with each. The word “smirk” might cover it, but too strongly suggests a component of derision. The best I can do is to say it was an ironic, lop-sided grin.
“Allies? No. But who are the two parties who signed the Amber Accords? Swayvill and me, that’s who. So what if something should, shall we say, ‘happen’ to one of us?”
Sitting there, sipping my coffee, I thought about that. Machinations, almost certainly very complex and well-developed but long held in check, would be set in motion. Those involved, since time out of mind immersed in the intricacies of three-sided royal politics ― in reality, probably composed of many more sides than that ― would be the equivalent of chess grand masters. Who had just been invited to the big international tournament.
While we in Amber enjoyed a false sense of security due to our expertise at checkers.
“That would be…” I ventured, “bad.”
Random looked at me, and then his gaze traveled past me.
“Yeah, real bad. Hi, Fi.”
I winced at the pun. Hi-fi? I wondered who might even remember high-fidelity stereo systems in an era when such things had been buried under decades of technological advancement. And, naturally, I twisted in my chair to regard the library’s big heavy door. Standing just in front of it (strange, but I hadn’t heard the door open or close) was the most dangerous of all our sisters. She was only a couple of inches over five feet in height, slim and strong, striking in a gown of white and gold bound with a silver-and-gold belt, her eyes recalling the wildness and intensity of the green depths of the forest. To call her hair red, when it brought to mind bonfires and sunsets, was to give up too easily, to abandon the poem before even toying with its title. Her complexion was flawless, of course, soft as cream, luminous as the interior of a seashell, as polished pearls. Beautiful? Of course, but to merely call her beautiful was to miss the point ― her presence altered the space around her, defining its new center. She was also the most knowledgeable of all our siblings when it came to matters magical or metaphysical.
And I was glad she was here.
I had jumped to my feet and quickly crossed over to her before really knowing what I was doing.
“Fi,” I offered, a little sheepishly, “good to see you.”
Smiling, she held up her hand, which I took and kissed.
“It really is good to see you. There’s some stuff I need to talk to you about.”
“Dreams,” came Random’s voice from over my left shoulder.
Turning, I shot him a look. He was grinning.
“Relax. Moire told Llewella. Llewella told me.”
“Gee,” said I, perhaps a little more sarcastically than I meant to, “It’s good to know what I share in private remains private for, I don’t know, all of five minutes.”
“But,” Random went on, “that is why you’re here, right?”
I turned back to Fiona. She was smiling broadly.
“Moire? Hmm, I’d heard some rumor of a brother of mine disappearing into the chambers of Rebma’s queen. Of course, I discounted the tale as pure hearsay.”
“The tale is not wholly pure,” I responded. “Nor entirely hearsay. But I’ll be more interested in your opinion of the tale I’ve actually come here to tell.”
“Ah,” said Fiona, not letting go of my hand, and walking with me back toward Random, “that sounds even more interesting! I look forward to hearing all about it.”
And we made our way over to the sofa by the fireplace, while I remained somewhat stung by how truly not secret my so-called secrets were. I determined to deliver every damnable detail, even if it bored my audience to tears. Smiling a little, and feeling in the mood for some retribution, I decided: Especially
if it bored them to tears.
I wasted no time getting started.
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Labels: Beginning, Random