Chapter Seven: The Lake of Sleep
Looking through the wedge-shaped window upon the shining lake below, I saw mists curdling on its smooth surface. A Möebius strip of frosted glass the size of the Statue of Liberty blocked out part of the varicolored heavens as it slid past. Behind it, an abstracted two-hundred-foot-tall rhino or armadillo of shifting plate-walls — somehow very clearly a building, an inhabited residence of some sort — took ponderous steps as it slowly turned, and six cones joined together, three points rooted in the lake, seemed barely to move at all, while the finger of Thelbane stood still against the restless sky. The abyss was not now the carelessly tumbling night I had crossed in Random’s big black bird. At this moment it was the wrong end of a rainbow raised by the king of the leprechauns, bent and stretched nearly to breaking as it ran the impossible distance that took it right out of the universe.
“You’ve gotten used to this?”
Behind me, I heard Bleys chuckle.
“We are princes of Amber. We can get used to anything. Sit with me.”
We were in an octagonal room with windows on three sides. It was set high up on the side of the thing Bleys had brought us to, a great gleaming many-sailed barge or land-locked ark, a Guggenheim fantasy seemingly built of ice or glass, but spun, I suspected, from pure carbon. A castle woven of diamond sailcloth, which had caused me to wonder if Bourgeois’ gigantic spider-sculpture might be lurking just around the corner.
My brother was sitting by a kind of floor-to-ceiling open-faced flue, through which streamed sparks and green flame. Ordinary lamps and candles lit other spaces in the room, including the big heavy table beside him. The table, like most of the room’s other furniture, was of a reddish brown wood, possibly cherry. Two large goblets stood beside the bottle set upon it, both carved of quartz or some similar mineral, both filled with wine.
As I crossed the room, I took note for the first time of the carpet in its center. And was a little surprised to see that it bore a dramatic scene from the past. Woven into its strands was a close-up view of Kolvir’s eastern stair, filled with soldiers in single file, but in the foreground, in the scene’s center, one soldier was hurling an object — a small black card case blazoned with a unicorn device — into space, directly toward whomever might be standing on that carpet.
The guy throwing the card case was me.
I covered my reaction as best as I could, crossed over to the table, picked up one of the goblets and took it with me to the chair on the other side of the peculiar hearth. As I sat down, an unexpected feeling came over me. With all the unusual lighting effects going on, I was suddenly reminded of Christmas. The feeling was so out of place in these circumstances that I gave vent to a short laugh and shook my head.
“Like the subject?” Bleys asked, smiling, so that I knew my attempted nonchalance had not fooled him.
“The carpet? Yeah. Interesting presentation, leaving yourself out of it, focusing on me.”
“A gesture to honor your gesture. I never thanked you.”
“Are you thanking me now?”
“I am. Thank you.”
“Well, you’re welcome. You know, you also never told me why you didn’t try to spring me after I was captured.”
Bleys swirled the wine in his goblet, stared at the liquid as it turned.
“Eric I could not trust. Caine had broken his word. Gérard had no real influence over Eric — less after giving your fleet passage through the southern waters. This left me Julian. I contacted him and asked what their plans for you were. Julian said he could not predict Eric, but, as Eric had not taken your life in Arden on that other occasion, he did not believe he would now.”
“Okay, but —”
Bleys looked up then, met my gaze and held up his hand.
“I know. Not good enough. I then extracted a promise from him that he would do all in his power to see your life spared. In return, I promised not to try to give you escape.”
“But why? Why not just trump me out of their hands and avoid all the chit-chat and deal-making?”
Bleys drank a little of his wine, then continued.
“Fiona and I knew the trick of using a combined effort via the Trumps. We were not sure if Eric’s group had this information. We did not think they did, but again there was Caine. As you later learned, he had discovered how to spy on us, using the Trumps. Though not a true adept, we knew he was smarter than his partners. We did not wish to encourage anyone on their side to experiment with the Trumps. Especially Caine. An attempt to free you could have provided just the right kind of provocation to motivate them to try.”
“Sounds overly cautious to me, especially coming from you.”
“And,” Bleys went on, “we also thought Random, Deirdre or Llewella would try to free you. Afterward, we learned Llewella feared to court trouble between Amber and Rebma, and had persuaded Deirdre to hold off for a time. If Deirdre had acted, she might have lost Rebma as her sanctuary. Random was under house arrest there and under close watch. Everyone waited too long to act, for then Eric had you blinded and no one could use your Trump to aid you.”
“Yes, the blinding part was Julian’s idea. Cooked up to give Eric an option that stopped short of killing me.”
“Thereby keeping his promise to me.”
“Well, I’m still not too happy about it.”
“Understandable. Would you like me to apologize?”
I searched his face and felt the offer was sincere. He seemed to mean it, and the sons of Oberon are not generally very forthcoming with apologies. Giving one about every century or two, by my last count. I shook my head.
“Not necessary. You tried to act in my interest. And I still haven’t gotten the apology owed me by Caine for his much more serious offense of trying to murder me.”
“You’re right. He should apologize for that.”
“That’s my view also.”
The absurdity of the conversation reached me, breaking through the resentment I’d been nursing. I allowed myself a small smile.
“Well, now that we’ve covered that topic, a funny thing happened to me on the way to the Courts of Chaos.”
“I’d acquired an escort of wyvern-riders. It scattered over the abyss. As if there were a sudden hurricane, raging sandstorm or volcanic eruption. As if a natural disaster had just occurred.”
“No natural disaster was evident. Something rather unnatural, even supernatural, however, was rising out of the abyss.”
There was a knock on the door. Bleys said, “Enter,” and two soldiers of Avernus stepped into the room, wearing blue silken tunics and trousers and carrying trays of food. They set the food down on the table. Bleys thanked them and dismissed them. The two fellows left, while I took a seat at the table and fell to; my previous meal had consisted of a few bites of rations aboard the Wing Thing
. Dumplings, some spicy soup, something resembling calamari or clam strips, crispy noodles, and thin slices of a dense bread tasting a lot like rye. Bleys sampled a little of this, some of that, but spent most of his time smiling as he watched me devour everything in reach. The soup, full of bits of fish or some sort of crustacean, was particularly good.
“More?” Bleys asked as I polished off the last of the seafood strips.
Shaking my head, I pushed my plate away and reached for the wine. After refilling my goblet, I tipped the chair back a little and sipped, relaxed and enjoying it.
Bleys produced a couple of cigarettes, lighting both with a small golden lighter. He extended one to me and I took it. I noticed they were Camels — tacit evidence of Flora’s role as exporter of goods from the Shadow she and I had inhabited for centuries. We smoked in silence for a time.
“You were saying?” Bleys inquired as he tossed his stub into the green fire.
I rose and threw my stub into the flue after his. My goblet in hand, I settled back into the big chair by the fire and took another sip.
“In the Shadow where I spent my centuries of exile,” I began, “a philosopher once said, ‘He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself; and if thou gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into thee.’ Well, I gazed into the abyss, and saw that it was looking right back at me.”
Bleys gave a slow nod.
“I know this saying. Some wisdom cannot be kept to a single Shadow. ‘He who fights too long against dragons….’ Tell me, what did you see?”
“A dragon, you say?”
“The granddaddy of all dragons. Biggest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Then things are as I thought. Your coming here — it is to do with Martin and Merlin, is it not?”
“That’s right, yes.”
“What do you know of the disposition of the Courts?” Bleys asked.
Frowning, I replied, “I’m not sure what you mean. I only know what Random has seen fit to pass on. Swayvill has enemies here, and the boys were close to figuring out their game when they went missing. Random’s been rather stingy with the details.”
“That is because there aren’t many details. They had already gone underground for what in Amber would be five or six months.”
“Difficult to say. The sky turns, then turns back again. Though the rate seems constant, there are times when that cycle seems of a duration sufficient for complete rest, or an entire schedule of activities. Yet at other times, it would seem to amount to no longer an interval than that spent on a game of chess. Our common sense notion of time does not apply. Its passage, of course, we know to be in general far more swift here than in Amber — though not always.”
“Your best guess, then?”
“More than a week, less than a month. Perhaps three weeks of local time.”
“At that time, communication was limited to coded pulses of Trump contact. Partly because Trumps are so ineffective here. Partly to frustrate any spies who might be watching. Caine’s idea.”
“Clever idea. Trust Caine to come up with something like that.”
Bleys stood, poured more wine for us both. After handing my goblet back to me, he turned to stare into the flue’s strange fires, streams of twisting, rippling sheets of green flame wrapped in a cloud of sparks.
“’The Courts of Chaos’ has more than one meaning.”
He glanced at me, but I said nothing, waiting for him to continue, and he returned his attention to the fire.
“By convention, this city adrift on the Lake of Sleep is called the Courts of Chaos. Swayvill, as High King, need not travel. The Lords of Chaos must come to him. Their power derives from other realms. These are the true Courts of Chaos.”
“You mean they have territories extending into other parts of the Shadowlands here?”
Without turning to look at me, Bleys smiled.
“You have half the truth. Mount Melgem is not the only Chaos stronghold overlooking the abyss.”
“Well, where are they?” I asked. “Farther west? East?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then how far does the abyss stretch in either direction? Perhaps we can field expeditions out to its farthest ends.”
Bleys turned away from the flames, wearily resumed his seat.
“No one knows, but it is said that it goes on forever. Both ways.”
“How can that be? This world is not a sphere, so it can’t eventually wrap around. You’re saying the abyss is…infinite?”
My blatant incredulity won a swift smile that crossed my brother’s face like a shooting star, there and gone.
“So all here maintain,” Bleys stated evenly. “They truly seem to believe it, and no evidence to the contrary has ever been produced.”
“Bleys, that’s impossible. Chaos might be flat, or saddle-shaped, or have some other crazy topology. But it can’t be infinite.”
“Why not? It’s Chaos.”
I tried to digest that, gave up, shelved it for later contemplation.
“All right. There are other realms out there. How do you reach them?”
“I am not sure. Their rulers guard that information well. It is not hard to understand why.”
“Does Swayvill know?”
“He may not. Melgem sits, if you like, off a bay where the abyss penetrates deeper into Shadow than at any other place. Wherever the other realms might be, the nature of time and space here is such that the masters of those realms must pass this place on their way to Shadow. Hence Swayvill's power.”
“You believe Merlin and Martin found the way to those places?”
“I do,” Bleys confirmed without hesitation.
“Then I guess my next question would be: Who are these rival Chaos lords?”
“There are many. The two strongest lead the House of Imrys and the House of Havgan. These houses —”
“Are royal houses?”
I smiled on seeing Bleys draw his brows together, though his confusion lasted only a moment.
“Random told you? Then you also know the history of dynastic struggle here?”
“No, but do I have to?”
“I suppose not.”
“Then let’s skip that for now. How would we begin investigating what happened? Where would we start?”
He waved toward the window.
“Out there, in the Floating City.”
“Not in Swayvill’s tower?”
“Wherever his enemies are,” Bleys said. He drank some wine, then roughly set the goblet down, rising to his feet. “Yes! You’re right. His enemies are everywhere, even in Thelbane right under Swayvill’s nose. We will begin there!”
“Tomorrow, though,” I suggested. “Let’s start tomorrow. Visiting Tir-na Nog’th, crossing over a big chunk of Chaos territory in Random's flying machine, coming face to face with whatever that was in the abyss all adds up to a very long day and one very tired Corwin. And, by the way, what the hell was it that I saw?”
He took up his glass again and slowly sat back down.
“You named him right enough. You saw the Dragon, Leviathan, the Lord Who Lies, the Devil in the Deep, the all-encircling Striker in the Dark. He has many names, and has appeared four times since the war. Now five times.”
“Some say it is because Chaos lost the war and lost power, and the Beast craves revenge. Others say he cares not a fig who wins or who loses. His hunger was to be appeased by the sacrifice of the millions fated to die in the war, but the war was won too swiftly, with too few casualties. Still others say other things.”
“What other things?” I wanted to know.
“When our father repaired the Pattern, some believe he did what Brand hoped to do.”
“Reshape reality, imprinting Shadow with his will in some fashion?”
I snorted, “The notion’s ridiculous.”
“Not everyone thinks so.”
“If Dad had wanted to do things that way, he could have let Dworkin destroy the old Pattern and then cast an entirely new one himself. And Dad would still be alive.”
“And Dworkin dead,” Bleys reminded.
“I guess I’m still lost. Explain to me how anyone can think Dad decided to remake Shadow in his own image. And at the same time understand that he gave up his life reinscribing the Pattern to preserve reality as it was.”
“There is more than one hypothesis,” Bleys answered, calm and deliberate. “Most rely on the assumption that Dad knew something everyone else didn’t. One idea is that he knew he only had to repair the Pattern’s circuit without necessarily restoring it precisely to its original configuration. By this means, he could save Dworkin and at the same time leave his own mark on existence. An advantage of this idea is that it makes his willing sacrifice more understandable.”
“Hmm, all right. Now that you mention it, I seem to recall Fiona hinting at something like this.”
“She believes it to be a possibility. I do, as well. There is also another idea about what really happened. Dad prevented you from attempting the repair yourself. He had already decided he would be the sacrifice. Again, one may wonder what he really intended by this act. Preserve the old order? Preserve Dworkin’s life and heal his mind? Both? Or only one?
“He had spent several years testing you, testing your loyalty to Amber. Perhaps the final test, which no one ever guessed, was to see if you were willing to try to cast your own Pattern.”
“Wait a minute —”
“Allow me to finish,” Bleys interjected. “If that were so, then his entrusting you with the Jewel of Judgment makes even better sense. He repairs the Pattern and heals our grandfather. Was it necessary to complete the Pattern, however, in order to repair it? Once the damaged areas were restored, his job was done. In fact, it may be that once the damaged portions were repaired the newly restored circuit would instantly kill him. He may have known this all along.”
“I really don’t see where this is going.”
“How did he send you the Jewel if he was still using it to redraw the Pattern? And if he was done with his task, and completing the task would kill him, how could he send the Jewel to you if he were already dead?”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” I answered slowly, troubled, wondering what else concerning Oberon's final act might have been overlooked.
“And there is the change wave,” Bleys continued, “the Chaos storm which commenced the moment he began to repair the first section of the Pattern. It spread out from Amber until it reached the abyss. How did he send the Jewel through Shadow where there was no Shadow, only the torn remnants of worlds in turmoil? The Trumps would not work through it, a child of the Unicorn could not hellride through it.”
“When you put it like that, it definitely looks like Dad in action, all right. Leaving plenty of mysteries behind him.”
Bleys nodded his agreement.
“Now consider this. What if he sent the Jewel to you before
he even began walking the Pattern? What if he sent it out into Shadow just after he used it to send us the message in the sky?”
“Is that how he did it? I’ve always wondered.”
“We’re not certain,” Bleys said, and by his “we” I knew he referred to Fiona and himself, the family’s two experts on Pattern lore. “But that is how we think it was done. Now, I say again, what if he sent you the stone before he walked the Pattern?”
“That would explain how the Jewel was able to reach me. The bird he created to carry it simply flew ahead of the storm. But then that leaves us with an even bigger question: How did he repair the Pattern without it?”
“He did as you had done, when you held the Pattern firmly in your mind in order to cross the Black Road. You undid the damage of the Black Road there, restored that tiny patch of Shadow.”
Recalling that experience, I saw in my mind again the ruined strip of Shadow, that dark and dim swath of black trees, clinging black grasses, heavy mists and leaden sky, and the slice of green growth which had returned where I had passed through. And very nearly passed out, pushing back at the Black Road with the image of the Pattern and every ounce of concentration that I could put behind it. I had never wondered further about it. It had been an exercise of the Pattern, a demonstration of its power. But now, yes, Bleys was right that it bore thinking on. Not waiting for my slow brain to work out the implications, he went on.
“You accomplished the feat without the Jewel. Dad explained that this same effect would be managed on a much larger scale by performing the same trick on the Pattern itself. Yet why did he require the Jewel where you had not? He was more powerful than any of us and understood the properties of the Pattern, Shadow and Chaos better than any save, perhaps, Dworkin. Do you really believe you were able to do something our father could not do?”
I was stunned. Opening my mouth to speak, I found I had nothing to say.
“So now you see. He knew how long the road to Chaos was, that your riding the whole distance and staying ahead of the storm was impossible. He sent you the Jewel knowing you’d be overtaken by the tidal wave of Chaos. Knowing you would have no choice but to try to draw a Pattern yourself, and knowing you would be willing to make the attempt.”
“So,” I said, my voice having returned, “his sacrifice upon Amber’s Pattern was…?”
“The paying of his lifelong debt to the man who had made him what he was. Giving his life to save the man he loved the most, respected the most, to whom he owed the most. He gave his life to heal his father. Another reason he could allow no one else to make that sacrifice.”
“And my Pattern?”
“It may be that no Pattern, once damaged, can truly be restored. Some here in the Courts believe your Pattern is what now holds the worlds together. It either merged with and replaced the Pattern in Amber or occupies some plane even higher than primal Amber.”
“This is incredible. I would never have guessed any of this. How come no one ever mentioned these speculations to me?”
Still smiling, Bleys raised his goblet toward me. I returned the gesture, and we both drank.
Then he said, “You disappeared soon after the end of the battle before the abyss. You were there for our father’s funeral, and then remained in Amber only a short time during the treaty negotiations afterward. Random said you’d gone off into Shadow again, presumably to the place of your exile, though no one was sure. Later, of course, you turned up in Rebma. By then such talk was old news and everyone had moved on.”
“The Dragon. He may not like the reality you have created.”
Bleys rose, set his goblet down on the table.
“I’m to bed. In the morning we shall take a walk around Melgem, see what we can find?”
I got up, too, set my goblet on the table beside his. Together, we left the room for the corridor outside. A minute later we bade each other good-night, and he left for his quarters, while I found my way to mine.
Like the sitting room I’d just left, my apartment featured an open flue, except this one was filled with purple sparks swirling about a core of blue flames. The bed chamber itself was somewhat small, wedged into one of the building’s many corners under a domed ceiling, lit by three strangely shaped pieces of glowing crystal — green, red and indigo. The illumination from the crystals waxed and waned unpredictably, filling the room with an ever-changing light.
Standing by the circle of the window, I looked down once more upon the calm surface of the lake that — somehow — seemed to effortlessly support the constantly shifting cityscape of unusual buildings, some burning steadily with inner light, some dark, others homes to light which seemed to travel within their surfaces like liquid trapped between panes of glass. Thelbane itself was not visible from this vantage point. Instead, under a sky now once more dark and full of cavorting stars, the view beyond the city gave onto an indistinct mass of twisted shapes. What they were, I could not guess. Whatever that mass might be, I wondered what lay beyond. Some lesser annex of the Courts? A military camp? Jails? Docks giving onto the abyss and the ghostly roadways which rode it? A leper colony? Gardens? Central Park West?
Maybe I’d find out tomorrow. As I stretched out on my bed, sensing sleep’s unsubtle ambush crouching close by, I thought about the Dragon. And wished him pleasant dreams, as it’s always been my wish to let lying dragons sleep.
The waters of Haylish, the Lake of Sleep — if waters they were — lying alongside the paths and promenades reflected pieces of city and sky, undulated slightly under the influence of mysterious and barely perceptible currents. Light-filled bubbles seamlessly floated up out of the lake — an almost hallucinatory effect, for they left the surface completely undisturbed, as though they did not exist in the external world at all, but lived solely in the minds of their observers. The street before us gradually flexed one way and then another, neither rhyme nor reason apparent in its turning and twisting, while the quivering will-o’-the-wisps, coming in all colors and sizes, rose, fell, and slipped in myriad directions through the middle air. Rounding a corner, a green and blue-white palace somehow reminiscent of both St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Taj Mahal came into view, while at the other end of the same ribbon of water reared a monument proud, solid, looking as though it were made of gold, its mighty and squared dimensions recalling the Kaaba or the Arc de Triomphe. Here an ethereal pagoda, and there a spacecraft standing on a pad and about to launch. A ship always preparing to set sail, a ziggurat, a bold bridge to nowhere. Much of what I saw was difficult to describe. One ivory building was cast in the shape of a reclining giantess, a female Colossus, a goddess of the wind playing a flute, hair and body streaked, stretched as if blown and gripped by a swift storm, her green eyes great windows, the flute a tunnel giving access to what could only be a unique interior. Across from the giantess, separated by two hundred or more yards of water smooth as glass, waters belonging in every sense to a lake named for slumber, towered a sculpted team of horses, each a great building suitable for the destruction of a Troy.
From the High Road of the Prophets to the Low Road of the Beggars, down the Avenue of Mirrors, over to the Lane of Lust by way of the Road of Ruin, where we came to the Courtyard of the Dancers...
“Don’t stop,” Bleys advised.
“Why not?” I wondered, for the lively tune was well into my blood, and the splendid dancers, swirling silks and scarves, stepping and spinning to mellifluous music, had caught my eye. I was already moving to join them.
“The dance does not end till someone dies. As a prince, like as not you’d live, but it takes its toll.”
Reluctantly, I drew myself away from the marvelous dancers, the enthralling music.
“Bleys,” I prompted as we passed into a park of giant wierdly shaped crystals, each singing a different note as we moved among them, notes which shifted as our location did while we walked. “I’d like to correct an impression you may have received. You might have gotten the idea that I was hanging around Amber just waiting for something to do.”
“But that’s not so,” Bleys surmised, stepping over the unconscious body of a stout full-bearded chap about four feet in stature, pickaxe stuck in his leather belt, curled around a brown jug of hooch the size of his head. He muttered, “Vagrants,” even as he detoured around another prostrate dwarf.
There were a number of dwarves, in fact, scattered about the park. They were generally either semiconscious or completely out of it. Not all were enamored of the demon rum. Some sucked on the blue smoke of their hookahs, while others smoked yellowish rocks in bulbous pipes, and still others were inhaling pale powder.
I asked, “Who are they?”
Bleys noted the direction of my gaze.
“Melgem’s lost souls, the underclass.”
We angled across the sunken garden of stone. Colors brightened and spread outward through the silvery moss in each place where we put down our feet, sending pulses of radiance upward as the waves of color broke on the bases of the nearest gleaming polyhedrons. With each footfall on the springy surface we moved deeper into a spontaneous symphony and a rippling spectrum of light.
Bleys seemed to know where he was going and appeared little affected by the impromptu concert of light and sound generated by our passage. In contrast, I imagined my responses ― turning my head to follow expanding rings of red and green sent out by Bleys’ feet, and blue and orange from mine, frowning as I sought to untangle the musical web we wove ― gave me away as a tourist from some bucolic Shadow where soil and sky were limited to only three or four colors. How these city-dwellers would smile to learn my sky merely ranged between two.
“Underclass,” I echoed, finding the word interesting. “You mean lower class, peasantry, the poor?”
“No,” my brother answered, shaking his head and slowing his pace. “Imagine Amber without her mountains, most of Arden stripped away, the sea all gone. What would become of her rangers, vintners, woodsmen, sailors, shipwrights and traders? That is Melgem. And they” ― he stopped to gesture all around him ― “are the dispossessed. Swayvill doles out food, whiskey, drugs, entertainment. The dwarves, and others like them, are hardly better than slaves. They never wake, and die while dreaming. And so Haylish truly is the Lake of Sleep.”
“How nice. But what of Swayvill’s Shadowlands?”
“Depopulated wastes, nameless deserts, forgotten ruins.”
“All of them?”
Reflections of our visual duet returned, ran through the moss where we stood. Bleys put off his answer while the currents of music, joined to the onrushing colors, swept together into a magnificent crescendo that crashed all around us.
Colors and music subsided, and in their wake Bleys said, “No, not all.”
We began walking again.
Introducing a fresh topic, I announced, “I’ve been having crazy dreams.”
Nodding, I said, “With an unusually wide range, showing both past and future. And with effects which reach into the real world.”
My brother gave me a strange look, but kept walking, and then asked, “What sort of effects?”
“They mostly concern Grayswandir. When I wake, it is often in a new location nearby, unsheathed. Sometimes my deck of Trumps is lying right next to me, on my pillow. Most recently, I was attacked by two of Chaos’ overgrown cat creatures right after dreaming about them. In Garnath.”
Bleys said nothing, veering to the left around a trio of gnomes, clad in dirty blue and yellow garments, alert enough to drunkenly belt out a worksong, offkey. Precious stones were featured prominently in the lyrics.
“And that’s what brought me back to Amber,” I continued. “I’ve been plagued by bad dreams and was looking for a cure. Do you think there’s anyone in the Courts who can help me?”
“There is an entire science devoted to the logic of dreams here in the Courts.”
“Really? What do they call it?”
“I should have guessed.”
A smile flashed across my brother’s face.
“Yes, dreams carry much weight here. Trustworthy practitioners of that science are much sought-after. And hard to find. Their advice guides those at the highest levels of power.”
“Surely Amber’s foreign minister, brother to Amber’s king, could pull a few strings?”
There was another smile.
“There may be something I can do. I will see what I can arrange.”
Then he stopped and pointed to something ahead of us, a great towering ovoid. Its stylized exterior was as smooth as an eggshell, too. And the thing was the size of a coliseum.
“The Arena of Doom. Many come to watch pain and judgment, death and near-death. Enemies and allies meet here every day.”
Bleys gave me a signifigant look with that last statement. We approached the gate.
The gate was a chill arch of green ice, and along the underside of the arch ran a line of red fire. A tall man all in black, in a long coat, his face lost in the shadows of his wide-brimmed hat, stood alone under the fire which never got very warm and the ice which never seemed to melt.
“You wish to enter the Arena of Doom?” his voice rasped.
Bleys answered, “We do.”
“You will abide by its judgments?”
As we passed through the flickering entrance, Bleys whispered, “Accept no challenges, nor offers of any kind. All that is said and done here is binding and enforced by the Law of Necessity and the Ordeal of the Wheel.”
“Not sure I like the sound of that.”
“Come,” Bleys said, and led on.
We ascended a curving ramp. Light rippled along the vitreous surface of the walls at either hand, alternately rosy pink, blue-green, orange, violet. Waves of color washed over us as the way wound upward. We walked past occasional openings giving onto curving organic spaces shaped like huge internal organs, walls ribbed and spiraling upward. In one there was a mighty gent with blue skin, webbed fingers, a fin running along his scalp, shouting from a dais at a group of amazons, women with skin like coal, clad in yellow armor and bearing bows and spears. In another chamber beings human and otherwise stood on small disks balanced atop narrow poles, leaping from one disk to the next, fighting to keep their balance — two screamed in dismay as they fell. A third space, narrow and deep, seemed empty at first, but, when I stepped closer to the edge I could see a quasi-human pyramid of “men,” some with the tusked heads and reddish fur of boars, others not human at all (two of my feline friends from Garnath were visible at the bottom), one cyclops supporting the center, struggling to reach the place where I stood. A solemn feast was in progress in the last, lit solely by red flames leaping up from golden bowls.
During our progress up the winding way a peculiar feeling worked its way into my bones.
“I’ve been here before,” I said, not realizing I'd voiced the thought out loud till it reached my own ears.
Bleys’ right eyebrow went up, the top of a question mark, even as the left eyebrow drew down skeptically. The frown punctuated his expression.
“We are deep inside the city, Corwin. Perhaps you are mistaken.”
“No mistake,” I insisted. “Tonight the Sign of the Bear meets the Tiger in the local zodiac. One is ascendant and one on the way out. At least, that is how it was in my dream.”
My brother’s eyes widened a bit, though he had no opportunity to respond. Because then we were there.
The corridor leveled off as we caught up with a group of Chaos folk who pushed purposefully into the great space that opened beyond. Incomprehensible words, music, and shouts swept over us — we entered a sea of sound.
Sloping down to our left, row after row of benches dropped gently and steadily away from us toward the center far below. Across from us, similarly canted rows of seats rose up the opposite wall. The walls converged overhead, forming the ceiling, finally twisting together at a bright point from which light streamed down. This vision of the building’s core crystalized a notion that had been growing within me, that the building was not so much an elaborated and stretched out egg as it was closer to an idealized and smoothed out conch shell. At the same time, however, this central cavity reminded me of nothing better than the yoke suspended inside an egg.
Bleys edged past those onlookers favoring the nosebleed seats, pressing onward and down toward the place where all the lights were. We fell in behind a fellow of a type I’d not seen before, a sort of walking tree, wearing a crown of what looked to be blue candles — a wreath/crown/candelabra — his green and gray hide bark-like but scaled like a snake’s, much of his thirteen-foot-plus frame wrapped in purple ivy. Yet he was man-like, striding forward on two mighty legs, two heavily thewed arms swinging at his sides. He was accompanied by a pale woman — tall at nearly half the tree-man’s height, though almost diminutive beside his height and bulk — in a gown woven entirely of blue metal leaves, her flowing hair the color of turquoise.
Turning to my brother, I asked, “Why didn’t Chaos send an army of him against Amber? They would have been virtually unbeatable!”
“Have a care,” Bleys cautioned. “If he should hear you, you could find yourself pitted against him on the Wheel.”
“What about my diplomatic immunity?”
“Less than worthless. We agreed to submit to the judgments rendered here.”
“We can die here.”
Taking a look around, hoping to spot a way out should one be needed, I noticed no exit signs. And saw also that the tree-man’s companion had turned her head. Our gazes met. A skeptical half-smile playing on her lips, she turned her attention forward again. The towering chap beside her leaned down to better hear something she was saying.
I resolved to be more careful.
We found our seats, but no one was sitting. The two we had followed were nearby; somehow I didn’t think our tall friend would have any problem seeing the action, or that anyone would tap him on the shoulder for obstructing their view.
The event was just getting started. The floor of the place was a white oval about thirty paces across, a ten-foot hole cut into its center. Ranged around it were half a dozen doors set into the high curving wall. Two of the doors stood open, framing the individuals who were just arriving onstage.
First to catch my eye was a being who was more polar bear than man. He wore a golden bandolier and a few strips of golden armor. When he stepped forward the crowd answered his roar with one of their own.
Immediately following the entry of the bear-man into the arena, a man with a tiger’s head stepped in, his two feet the paws of a tiger, his hands semi-human with tiger-claws, his tiger’s tail twitching. Black leather covered much of his torso, barbed vambraces strapped to his arms. As with the bear-man, his deep-throated bellow drew an enthusiastic response from the audience.
“Bleys!” I exclaimed.
“I know,” was all he said.
As the two began warily circling each other, the floor on which they stood slowly lifted into the air, aided by nothing visible, floating, turning as it rose. A breeze rushed through the great space, ruffling hair, fur, feathers and clothing as the case might be, carrying a wealth of strange scents. The breeze might have risen from beneath the floating disk. Below the disk it was dark and nothing very distinct was visible, though perhaps those were beams of wood or metal running down the sides of the hole into the deeper darkness.
Seeming to shift — though not always predictably — in response to the movements of the two whom it bore, the disk tilted slightly first one way, then another. It continued to turn slowly but ceased to rise, surfing on nothing, dropping a few feet for a bit, only to rise several feet moments later.
A third roar went up from the assembled onlookers, as objects were hurled up into the air from the lowest level of the arena, landing on the disk with a clatter. Weapons. The bear-man swept up a halberd, held casually by a mighty paw, and the man-tiger snatched up two spears.
Battle was instantly joined.
The man-tiger hurled both spears, nearly simultaneously, one just ahead of the other. Spinning the halberd like a baton, the bear-man deflected both with almost contemptuous ease. The man-tiger did not pause to observe his opponent’s reaction, but used the time to pick up a sword and a heavy maul. The bear-man’s advance continued, virtually unabated, the halberd destined for the man-tiger’s midriff. The halberd head was knocked aside by a powerful swing from the maul. Yet fur flew — the man-tiger had been grazed. Using enviable coordination, with the sword in his left hand the man-tiger aimed a blow at the bear-man’s head.
The bear-man, completing the swing of his weapon, twisted, using the halberd’s haft to catch his opponent’s blade. The blade slid away harmlessly, and the two warriors leaped back at once, eying each other carefully, searching for opportunities.
“I’m guessing we’re seeing the resolution of some dispute?” I suggested.
Turning to me, Bleys said, “This is justice, such as it is in the Courts. Aggrieved parties may apply to Swayvill to address perceived wrongs. This takes time and occurs at the High King’s pleasure. If one party feels he may lose a royal judgment, or is impatient, he may offer a blood-price to settle the matter. It is often the case that neither wishes to resort to Swayvill and neither will offer or accept a private settlement.”
“So they come here? And fight to the death?”
“Not always. Mercy is permitted, and concessions are always possible. You may buy your life if you can. Or die. Or fall into the Pit of Despair.”
“You’re kidding. ‘The Pit of Despair’?”
“The joke is on those who fall in, who are rarely amused.”
“Has anyone who’s fallen in ever come back out?”
Bleys shook his head: “It is not good to fall into the Pit.”
We went back to watching the fight. Both combatants had been wounded, retreating to opposite sides of the disk. The bear-man reached behind his bandolier to produce a flat square from which he unwound a silvery cloth. This he wrapped around the wound on his right arm, where flames spurted forth. The man-tiger had discovered a similar remedy, tucked into a sleeve woven into a strip of leather encircling his right thigh. He used the silver mesh to cover the burning wound on his left side.
The man-tiger was quicker to bind his wound. He charged his foe, and as he did his form softened, altered, so that he became more tiger than man. Then he launched himself through space, while retaining his grip on the mallet in his left hand.
The bear-man stretched the bandage material wide and held it out in the front of his body, seeking to entangle the flying tiger. The tiger may have anticipated this maneuver, or one like it, for he was already hurling the maul at the bear-man’s head. Desperately, the bear-man tried to bring up his left paw — the one unwinding the bandage — to take the blow. Meanwhile, the tiger crashed his body into that of his enemy.
The maul struck a glancing blow to the bear-man’s head as he reeled under the force of the tiger’s impact. Already close to the edge of the disk, he fell two steps back, right to its edge, struggling to regain his balance. The disk, however, tilted further up and away from him. For an instant he hung there, swinging both his mighty paws before him.
Then he fell. Two daggers could be seen sticking from his side. Flames burst forth as he dropped from sight.
The collective shout that filled the arena the next instant nearly deafened me. And everywhere money was changing hands. Bets being paid off?
The disk leveled, slowed its turning, lost altitude, settled back into its place against the lower wall. The form and features of its only remaining occupant slid, rearranged themselves until the man-tiger stood once more before us. He took three steps forward, stooped before the fallen war-hammer. Picking it up, he swung it above his head two times, then bellowed what must have been his name — “Ojin!” — before hurling the weapon up into the air, out over the audience. Somewhere someone must have caught it, or sustained a terrible blow. Whichever, the crowd screamed back, “Ojin!”
Ojin shouted back, “Corwin of Amber!”
The woman with the blue hair turned and pointed at me.
“Here is Corwin!”
It seemed I was about to participate in a sporting event. In shock, I looked at Bleys.
“You must go, and either accept the challenge or accept dishonor by refusing. Give me Grayswandir.”
I unbuckled my sword, handed it to my brother.
“Yes,” Bleys answered grimly. “Kill him. Before he kills you.”
“Who is he?”
“A warlord. Be very careful. And take nothing of value with you. It could be lost forever.”
“Then you’d better take this,” I said, drawing the chain of the pendant from Tir-na Nog’th over my head and handing it to him. Not wanting to advertise its existence to the world, I had kept it hidden till then beneath my shirt.
My brother’s eyes went wide.
“Where did you get this?”
“From the sky-city. Hold onto it for me, will you?”
Bleys, marveling at the thing in his hand, tore his gaze from it to look at me.
“You must tell me how you came by this artifact.”
“Just the motivation I need. I promise to tell you after the fight.”
“Then go. And good luck.”
“Thanks,” I said, turning away, then stopping. Turning back, I added, “On the off chance I don’t come back, though, get it to Dworkin, okay? Once he’s figured it out, it should go to Merlin. Those are my wishes. Good-bye.”
“Good-bye, Corwin,” he said and, extending his arm, clasped mine. I gripped his arm in return.
Then hands took hold of me. I was pulled, pushed, nudged, guided. As I made my way down with help from the crowd, my mind turned back to the dream which had given me a sneak preview of today’s events. I’d recognized the enormous shell once we were inside it and had known the power of a tiger would be tested by that of a bear. Desperately, I searched the muddled memory of that dream. Looking for clues concerning anything useful — say, for instance, whether I would live or die. All I got beyond what I had already recalled, though, was the sight of Grayswandir flying through space, Grayswandir falling. And that was it. It would no doubt make perfect sense later, after the fact, as tends to be the case with most omens and prophesies.
In less than ten minutes, I stood before the faceless man in the wide-brimmed hat. Behind him stood a diamond-shaped doorway.
“You are?” the reptilian voice demanded.
“Asking your name. How are you called?”
From the shadows beneath that hat issued a series of hisses, which I took to be laughter.
“I am Ankou. Now give me your name.”
“I am Corwin of Amber, and I never agreed to accept the judgments of your arena.”
“But you did.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “My brother Bleys did. So know you this, Ankou of Chaos, I submit to no one’s will here, not yours, not even that of your king. Now: Let me through.”
It probably wouldn’t do me an ounce of good, but, whatever happened, I wanted that on record.
This time, as I passed Ankou I caught a whiff of him as I did. He smelled of death and decay, and I had a vision of worms wriggling into a coffin. Angrily, I pushed the vision from my mind. The only one who would be feeding the worms today would be the man-tiger I’d never met who wanted to claim my life.
There was a short corridor, which bent twice, then another doorway, open. Without breaking my stride, I stepped through.
A shout went up. It was my name.
Ojin, the man-tiger, stood on the other side of the disk.
He growled, “By entering here, you accept the challenge.”
Another doorway opened. The third player to enter the deadly game smiled as he set foot on the disk. Part man, part wolf he seemed. No, not wolf, I decided, nor dog. Dingo?
The crowd corrected my impression with a great shout.
With a flourish, Coyote paid me a mocking bow and offered Ojin a salute which terminated in a rude gesture.
“I also accept the challenge!”
I wondered at that moment if the rules were being closely observed. Then, remembering where I was, I wondered if there really were any rules at all.
The disk was already adrift.
Up we went, the arena turning around us as the disk rotated. There was another shout, and the weapons fell at our feet.
A heavy saber lay near at foot, so I took it up. With it, I saluted my adversaries, who by this time held weapons of their own.
“Gentlemen, before mayhem and murder commence, one question.”
They regarded me curiously.
“My son is known to you, I think. Merlin, son of Dara, great-granddaughter of the hellmaid Lintra and Benedict of Amber.
“This is your chance to tell me what you may know of him. Whoever tells me something I can use, lives. Whoever doesn’t can explore the Pit of Despair. Anyone feel like talking?”
Silence. Coyote, however, appeared amused.
So I ran forward, leaned down to scoop up a crossbow. It had a bolt already cocked. Running straight for Coyote, I fell to one knee, twisted, shot the bolt at Ojin, dropped the crossbow, and rolled to my right. Ojin’s spear landed where I had been. As it was he who had called me out, the attack came as no surprise. Coyote was the variable in the equation. Cancel out x
, solve for y
Also seeming to understand the equation, Coyote had held back, traditionally armed with a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other. He stood watching and made no move.
Ojin stared down at the bolt protruding from his belly and looked unhappy.
I was back on my feet and sprinting to where a quiver lay. Shouldering the quiver, I whirled, fully expecting either Coyote or Ojin to be on top of me.
But Ojin, snarling, yanked the bolt out. The wound belched fire, which he ignored so he could run to a spear five paces away.
Coyote’s dagger was already in flight. It bit into Ojin’s leather and stuck till the man-tiger grabbed the spear. The dagger came unstuck then, fell. Ojin leaned back, holding the spear somewhere behind his ear.
Staying in motion seemed my best defense. About half-way between me and Coyote lay a bow. I ran for the belt of daggers three paces to the right of it, keeping one eye on Ojin. So I saw the spear as it sped toward me, and twisted, narrowing my profile and trying to bring the saber into line at the same time. The saber only brushed the spear as it struck my shoulder with enough force to almost knock me over.
I also saw Ojin stop in his tracks with a howl as a second thrown dagger bit into his belly, four inches to the left of the wound made by the crossbow bolt. He sank to his knees.
My ears ringing, I fell forward, threw my hand out toward the disk, dropping the saber. Kneeling where I was, I picked it back up and looked around for Coyote. The damn spear was still lodged in my shoulder and hurt like a son of a bitch.
He was standing only a few feet away, the belt of daggers draped over one shoulder. He still held the longsword, but the other gripped the bow I’d been after.
“Looking for this?”
“Goes with the nice quiver,” I gasped. Blood was running down my right arm from the shoulder.
He nodded and tossed it. It skidded, bumped against my right knee. I didn’t reach for it.
“It’s yours. Anything else?”
“I’d still like to hear anything you can tell me about my son Merlin. You know, before I die. Care to help a brother out?”
“Sorry, Corwin, former prince of Amber. Can’t help you there. Anything else?”
“Yeah. Could you pull this spear out? And…”
“Throw Mr. Ojin into the Pit of Despair. I’d consider it a personal favor.”
He glanced over at Ojin, still down, sluggishly dealing with his wounds and seeming pretty much out of the picture, then looked back at me.
“Truce?” he asked.
He stepped closer.
“This is going to hurt.”
He put down his weapons, watched me and waited. I lay the saber down. Then he came closer still, reached behind his belt, produced a bottle of blue fluid, extended it toward me.
“Pour this on the wound. I will be quick.”
Taking the bottle in one hand, I picked up the saber with the other and placed the blade between my teeth, biting down.
He yanked out the spear. I dropped the saber and saw stars, but remained conscious. Then, swaying, I opened the blue bottle, poured some of the contents onto the wound, felt it tingle.
“Prepared for the Pit?”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Unless, of course, you have something to offer?”
“Nothing comes to mind.”
“On your feet then.”
Coyote smiled, and motioned me toward the hole in the center of the disk. I moved closer to it, and noticed as I did that Ojin had made some progress in binding up his wounds, and was standing uncertainly on his feet.
“Corwin of Amber!” Coyote shouted in a loud voice, so all could hear. “I consign you to oblivion!”
At that moment, something flashed toward me through the air. Reflexively, I caught it and my hand knew it before my mind did.
It was Grayswandir.
“What do you say you go into the Pit first? Let me know what it’s like?”
Around a toothy grin, Coyote said, “I’ll see you in hell first.”
“Then let’s go there together.”
And so our duel began. He was good, this Coyote. And, perhaps more importantly, undamaged. More important than that, the damage I'd taken now had me wielding Grayswandir left-handed, something I could do but certainly not my strongest suit as I was not ambidextrous. Feint, cut, parry, riposte — your basic swordplay, but fought at an intense pace. We both seemed to know many of the same tricks. I’d studied the blade under Benedict; there was no better teacher in all the worlds of Shadow. But as we fought around the platform I learned two things: I was stronger, and he was faster. In this sport, unfortunately, speed mattered more, and I’d a feeling he would beat me. Gnawing on that, I recalled that besides swordplay my only other real talent was that I could talk a good game even if I couldn’t play one. That is, not only could I shoot the bull, but I could get others to believe it was a horse while I beat the hell out of the carcass. Small talk for a small advantage? Worth a try.
“Want to tell me why you two thought it would be fun to come gunning for me today?” I asked as I moved to his left, so that we circled one another, taking the opportunity to catch my breath and to try formulating tactics with which to defeat my opponent. “Or how you even knew I’d be here for the target practice?”
“Second question first,” Coyote replied, circling as I did, perfectly aware of what this brief break in the action meant to both of us. “All of Chaos knew of your arrival. It was inevitable you would come here sooner or later, so Ojin was waiting for you.”
“Ojin. What about you?”
“I am Coyote. No mystery am I. Where there is trouble, there you will find me. I came here tonight hoping to see Ojin’s head handed to him. Saw him call you out instead and knew a prince of Amber would meet his fate.”
“And decided if a tiger couldn’t finish me off, then maybe a Coyote could?”
His smile widened.
“Something like that.”
He aimed a cut at my chest. I blocked it easily enough, but that had merely been an opening gambit. He came on strong, trying a shoulder cut that veered off toward my head. Suddenly, we were corps à corps
, glaring at each other up close and personal.
“So you come looking for your son? And not the Pattern you drew?”
We both shoved then, jumped back, each striking an en garde
“I’m not picky; I’ll take what I can get. Up to and including your hide.”
Coyote laughed and further stepped up the pace, pressing his advantage in speed, each blade now a blur. I’d lost blood, though the peculiar salve loaned me had turned into something like Play-Doh and staunched my wound. All the same, I was slowing. He came at my chest again, but it was another feint, intended this time for my shoulder. I managed to parry it, but it felt more like luck than anything else. He then launched a swift series of attacks, and, realizing I simply couldn’t match what he was doing, I retreated before the onslaught.
Then there was yet another cut at my chest that I desperately tried to parry. Only this one was really meant for my side, and the bastard ran me through.
“That’s gonna hurt in the morning,” I wheezed, fighting to keep my feet, falling back a few steps.
Then, because I could see Ojin over Coyote’s left shoulder, and Coyote obviously couldn’t, I hurled my blade at the man-tiger. Missed him, but managed to throw him off his game. His spear-cast went astray, missed Coyote by almost a foot.
Coyote, noting the fallen spear, said, “That bit of foolishness may have just bought you your life,” and reached out to me where I stood, wavering by the edge of the Pit. I stumbled, trying to avoid the hole, but — in a sickeningly familiar replay of the demise of the bear-man — the disk shifted under me as I did. Behind my eyes, I was seeing stars again.
“Then again,” I answered, reaching for his hand, missing it as one leg gave out under me, “maybe not.”
As the blackness took me, my last thought was that if anyone would be sending a postcard back from the abyss, then it was going to be me.
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Labels: Bleys, End