Chapter Two: The South Garden
The south garden is one of my favorite places to be when morning comes to Amber. As with so much else in a city draped on the shoulders of a mountain, it is a terraced affair. Beds of roses, rows of fruit trees, paths weaving forgotten stories with their mosaics of colored stone, gates, bridges, marble statuary, stretches of bright lawn, benches scattered throughout, the occasional table. A fine place for a picnic, perhaps even more so when the rising sun draws first blood from the sea and the sky.
Except for the gardeners going about their duties, I was the only early bird about the grounds. Since it looked like I was in for a wait, I found a table near the lily pond, where I folded my cloak, laid it on the bench and sat down. In my pouch I discovered some bread and cheese, both rather hardened. The bread I broke into bits which I threw to the ducks, geese and birds. It wasn’t long before I was out of bread (though I had gained a greedy gaggle of feathered fair-weather friends ― too much alliteration?). So I brought out the family’s favorite deck of playing cards to pass the time.
Though I expected the cards to point to Random, they didn’t. This might be because I stubbornly refused to remove the Trumps of those no longer among the living. My sisters kept appearing, but the message was far from clear, with no single one among them emerging dominant. My query had been simple enough: Who can help me? The fortunes thus told were typically muddled, but now I couldn’t help wondering whether this was just the way of the cards, or if it was me? Or something else?
I picked up the Trump for Julian, put it down. If he had stood me up, then he surely had his reasons and I'd know them soon enough. So I put down the image of Julian, almost lifelike in his scaled white armor, and picked up the Trump featuring Random.
As shown on the card, he was a trifle sharp-featured, of no great physical stature, and the face beneath the headful of thick straw-colored hair bore a wry expression, as though about to share a joke. The features shifted. I hadn't been trying to reach him ― or had I? The card, cold to the touch like all the family Trumps, seemed to become colder still. The image rearranged itself, and it was Random all right, in some lonely valley streaked with salmon-pink fog which I thought I recognized but couldn’t identify right away.
“Where are you? The south garden?”
“Yes, I am. How did you know?”
“Julian. He’s going to be a no-show.”
“So much is becoming apparent.”
“My fault. I wanted him back in Arden, and I need you right where you are.”
“In the south garden?”
“At the palace. I’ll be there soon. Have to wrap things up here first.”
“See you soon.”
I swept up the cards, replaced them in their case, tucked the case behind my belt. I let out a breath and pushed my hands down my thighs toward my knees. I needed to think and, hell, I was still hungry.
Time to get moving. I got up and started walking. It had been quite awhile since I’d just taken a quiet stroll around this place. Heraldic beasts wrought life-size in stone reared to one side. Scenes out of Amber’s history, scenes out of Amber's mythology ― the distinction not always so obvious ― played out on the paths. Stuff I hadn’t really thought much about since childhood. So long, long ago all that was. But that was then, and this was now.
Could it be that whatever was going on with me was somehow connected to Random’s troubles? The notion, seemingly absurd on the face of it, could not immediately be discounted. In a universe drawn from the blood and brain of actual persons, how much could be called coincidence? Perhaps too deep a philosophical question, but one which nevertheless applies. Me drawn back to Amber at just the time when Random required me to be there? Coincidence perhaps, but I resolved to be alert for any common threads; too many could indicate our problems had been woven on the same loom.
Taking a look around me, I could see I was now on the other side of the pond, regarding through the mists of a fountain the place where I had consulted the cards and communicated with Random. That felt a bit weird, as it wasn’t that short a walk and not much had passed through my head along the way. That’s what happens when you zone out. And now, near the spot where I’d relaxed earlier and walking towards me, I spied a short slim woman. The dress she wore was deep scarlet, a yellow sash belting it at the waist. Her attire created a curious effect as she moved past the roses and herself seemed to become such a flower. Affected by this bit of magic, I stood for a moment transfixed. In that moment I knew her, for she was Vialle, Random’s wife and Amber’s queen.
She moved slowly, as one would expect a blind woman to move, yet confidently. Her fingertips lightly touched the surfaces of shrubs, the petals of flowers, the railings before the statues. The black slippers on her feet slid forward carefully and purposefully, never deviating from the path of stone.
“Lady!” I called across the pond, feeling foolish as I did so. “Your Highness!”
She paused, turned and seemed to regard me from where she stood.
Not running exactly, but not really walking either, I hurried back up the path toward Vialle. Hearing my steps, she tilted her head, then began walking again. Again feeling foolish, I slowed my pace to a normal walk. She knew what she was doing and it was wrong of me to insult her by reacting as though she didn’t.
We met below the statues of two heroic-looking men, eternally fending off some awesome but invisible attack. Her hand strayed to the marble bannister, moved past it to briefly touch the plaque just beyond.
“Your Highness,” I said, taking her other hand. “It is Prince Corwin, who has just today adopted the practice of shouting across ponds. Soon to be all the rage, this behavior is already the style at the Courts. Or so I hear. Good morning.”
She smiled through a few stray strands of brown hair, which she brushed aside.
“I think I heard about this fashion on Bleys’ last visit. We spent five minutes trying it out right here.”
I laughed and, moved more by affection than custom, raised her hand and kissed it.
She blushed a little, which only widened my smile. In fact, I was sure I was grinning like a fool. Her right hand still in mine, I turned us back toward the palace. She acquiesced without a hint of protest. A hawk at that instant swooped low over the water, scattering my winged fan-club. The noise of their collective duck-and-cover (which nevertheless involved a great deal of flapping of wings and the subsequent taking flight) burst like a crazy squall over us, swiftly subsiding. Charlemagne and the seashore, Don Quixote and windmills ― these popped into my mind for no reason at all. Vialle laughed at the surprise, which I explained with one word: “Hawk.”
“And the birds thought the hawk came here for the same reason you did? For breakfast?”
“If he did, then I may be to blame. He may have been attracted by the followers I and my few crusts of bread had won. Proving I retain my knack for causing trouble. And did you say breakfast?”
“Did you think it coincidence that I appeared when I did?”
“Honestly, I hadn’t given it a thought till this moment. You were looking for me?”
“Gérard said you would be here and that you would be hungry.”
“Then why didn’t he come himself? Or send one of the palace staff?”
“Because I wanted to. It is a beautiful morning, isn’t it, Corwin?”
“Truly, it is.”
“Centuries may pass, yet a beautiful day is precious whenever it comes. Some things the ages cannot change. Such as the journey home sometimes being the hardest journey of all. Do you not agree?”
“Yes,” I answered softly.
Coincidence. She had raised the topic which had earlier occupied my thoughts. And she seemed to know something I had not fully admitted to myself; namely, if there had been an alternative to this homecoming, I would have taken it. As good as it was to be home again, being back where so much of signifigance had transpired, where there was so much past, was the farthest thing from my desires. The final chapter had been written; it was good that the tale ― the pain and the glory, tragedy and triumph ― was done. Let that book stay closed, begged a part of myself I had thought I’d lost and forgotten. But I knew that part of me at once, the scared kid angrily rejecting reminders that whatever we love in this world can be taken from us and, sooner or later, will be ― mother, father, sisters, brothers, friends, lovers, places we call home.
The hunger of which Vialle had spoken ― did she know it was more than an unquiet stomach? That I was hungry for answers, for resolution where I had once thought all was resolved? For, let’s be honest, healing? And my fear? Maybe that the cure can often be as bad as the disease?
“So where are we going?” I asked. For I had realized that I was no longer the one guiding our steps and we were passing through a courtyard near the back of the palace.
“To the library. I requested a breakfast be laid out for you there. I hope that’s all right? You like the library, as I recall.”
We approached a side entrance, and shortly found ourselves on a stairway I rarely used.
“Vialle, it’s been too long,” I said, breaking the silence of our climb as we took the second landing. “Tell me what you’ve been doing with yourself. What’s it like being queen of the perfect realm?”
I hadn’t intended the note of sarcasm that had crept in there at the end, but I knew she’d detected it when she squeezed my hand.
“No, nothing is perfect. It is not difficult being queen, though the same cannot be said for being king. Random goes away from time to time, I think because he needs to. And leaves Gérard in charge.”
“Julian mentioned something of this, that Random keeps Gérard very much in the loop. I will admit this surprises me a little.”
“Besides Eric and yourself, Gérard is the only prince with experience running the kingdom. His time as regent during the war was longer than many realize, but because the family was away at the Courts during that period this is sometimes forgotten. Gérard was a very fair and practical ruler.”
“You’re right, I had forgotten. It was years, wasn’t it? Dad apparently knew what he was doing, leaving Gérard behind and in command. The arrangement makes sense, come to think of it, given Gérard’s long-time role as the one entrusted with looking to the security of the harbor and our naval defenses. But enough of that; we were talking about you.”
Vialle steered us around a corner and to the right.
“I’ve been studying the history of art in Amber. Of course, I have paid particular attention to sculpture.”
I nodded, “I see.” And I also saw not far ahead of us the big door to the library. Silence again prevailed as we approached that door, but as I pushed it open I picked up the briefly dropped conversation.
“And you’re augmenting that history with your own contributions?”
On the desk near the room’s center were some food trays and a steaming pot of some warm beverage ― tea, I guessed.
“A little,” Vialle responded as I let go her hand and crossed to the desk. “Did you see the two statues where we met by the pond?”
Unabashedly yielding to my physical needs, I was sniffing the pot. Coffee ― excellent!
Absently, I answered, “Yes, the two valiant defenders. They’ve been there for ages.”
Vialle remained by the door, her expression strangely wistful, possibly even sad. As I poured the coffee, I asked, “Will you be joining me? There’s first-rate coffee.”
“No, thank-you. I’ve already eaten and will be going.” A pause. “You recognized the warriors, then?”
I had already taken a good bite out of the omelette I had discovered under the cover of the middle tray. Before I finished that bite, I tried to recall the two figures, swords raised against implacable opposition, their expressions vivid as they faced fearsome ― and probably hopeless ― odds with clenched jaws and gritted teeth, resolute in the face of impending doom.
“They made an impression on me back when I was just a kid. But that was a very, very long time ago, and I’m not sure there was even a plaque there back then. Why? What do you know of them?”
“They were your brothers Osric and Finndo.” She stepped back, a hand on the door. “I must go. Please enjoy your breakfast. Random should be here soon. Good luck with everything.”
“Thank-you, m’lady,” I answered, my mouth having gone a little dry. “Thank-you...for many things. And a good day to you, as well, Your Highness.”
“Vialle," she corrected me, smiling. “We are family, Corwin. Good day, then.”
And she closed the door behind her.
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Labels: Beginning, Vialle