Burb Rocking
Monday, June 09, 2008
  Chapter Ten: The Well

CHAPTER TEN

In my youth, in better days long past, I’d visited these mountains and this valley with my brother Brand. I knew the Bandarnath Temple and the well, whose fame ran out from this place to the ends of the Shirai, to Keshwar where the river finally surrendered itself to the sea, to the holy city of Anrakan off in the mountains at the river’s headwaters. There was a time when kings and conquerors would not go into battle without first entering the temple to implore the favor of the Old Ones, the earliest generation of the gods of this land. The kingdoms to either side of the Shirai, however, had not gone to war in an age, and no ruler had visited the temple in centuries.

A drink from the well was supposed to confer a blessing. All I knew, though, standing there in heat that made the air flinch, was that I was thirsty. So I started up the path through the temple grove. Many things were turning in my head, so I didn’t hurry.

I was free.

But I was not where I had hoped to be. How had this happened? Perhaps, considering where I’d been held, the unpredictable forces of Chaos were responsible? There was also, I realized, the remote possibility of an Amberite performing some sort of operation on the Trumps. But it would have to be truly global, so all Trumps everywhere, even mine in my cell, were affected.

The chances of such a thing occurring at all, and occurring whilst I was testing out one of my homemade jobs, would normally be rather low. But if Chaos and Amber were now openly at war, almost anything could be happening.

Or I had simply screwed up, somehow focused on the wrong Trump. Entirely possible, given my oddball setup for getting them to work.

The temple grove behind me, I had come abreast of the terraced vegetable garden, and could see the way ahead more clearly.

There was a woman sitting by the well. I hadn’t noticed her before because her robes, like the well, were white.

Intrigued, I shifted my meanderings toward the back of my mind.

A few minutes of hiking at a renewed pace brought me within the circle of trees. Turning, I looked down toward the temple, which stood at the west end of town, overlooking a deep and sweeping valley. Clouds left soft blemishes on the green and yellow slopes below, grays which were almost blue. Probably a trick of the sudden widening of the sky there. Dust-choked roads ran through it, carrying merchants, farmers, travelers, and their carts, wagons and carriages, many following the banks of the gleaming Shirai. A view I had not seen in several hundred years, and it was good to see it again.

“A drink, traveler?”

She was seated in a chair draped in fine cloth of dark purple dye. The screen of a parasol painted with gods and heroes striving within the wheel of time stood over her. As she sat in the shade, it seemed logical the parasol offered protection from debris falling from the trees rather than an excess of sun. Either way, it was a nice decoration.

“A drink would be good, yes.”

“You have alms?”

“In days of old, a simple task performed on behalf of the temple was known to suffice. But that was all on the honor system. Back then, no one waited at the well.”

She lifted the brim of her thin silk hat — thin as gauze, so that I could see through it a little. And slowly looked me up and down. Blue eyes, red hair that made no secret of its treasure of silver, laid out in streaks found near the temples. Though she smiled, her gaze was strangely intense and searching.

“That was a very long time ago.”

Gesturing over my shoulder with my eyes and a slight turn of my head, I assented to that.

“Longer than I’d have guessed. The view’s changed.”

Her look suggested the question. So I answered it:

“The Sadar Gate no longer guards against the valley.”

She seemed to accept that.

“A long time,” she agreed. “What brought you here on that other occasion?”

“More of a ‘who.’ My brother liked to paint when he entered one of his bad spells, and this region was one of his favorite subjects.”

“You came to test its beauty against his paintings?”

“No, I came for his own protection. I was worried about him. But was glad I came. Yours is a pleasant and peaceful land.”

“You loved this brother, who perhaps no longer walks in this world?”

I realized I had spoken of Brand in the past tense.

“Sometimes. You know how brothers can be.”

“And now something else brings you here. And you wish to drink once more from the sacred well, though you have no alms.”

I glanced down at myself. My uncombed beard fell to my chest, and the hair hanging down to my shoulders was in no better shape. I was barefoot, but as the excess of my water ration had been invested in my art project, little had been left over for cleaning purposes. The truth was that I was filthy. If anything, I imagined I resembled a beggar or a prophet.

So why would a sweet old lady insist I pay for a drink of water?

I gave myself another look. The trousers were of good weave and my light jacket suggested that — once, perhaps — I might have enjoyed a better life. Did she think me some nobleman in disguise, wandering the land as one of its poor, learning how it went with the people? An old story, and a rather trite one. But not unheard-of. If such was her thought, however, wouldn’t she prefer the good opinion of someone in power?

Not necessarily. She might consider honoring temple rules and divine law to be of such great importance as to override all other considerations.

Whatever, I was here to play the beggar, and the beggar I would be.

“Is it still possible, as it was in days of old, to earn a drink with basic labor?”

“It is easier than that,” she answered, keeping her eyes on mine. “A simple kiss will do.”

“What?”

“A kiss. On the mouth,” was her matter-of-fact response.

“I —”

“Yes?”

An unusual request, though certainly fair. I’d formally kissed baronesses at a few of Dad’s state functions, many of them much older than the woman before me. Yet…a strange request all the same. Still, what the hell? If she wanted a kiss from a hairy old beggar, I supposed I could oblige.

Before I could make answer, she added, “You are a very handsome young man, you know.”

“Really? Because I haven’t checked, but I may have fleas.”

She laughed.

“Very well, then. Your name, a kiss, and the water is yours.”

“You need my name?”

“You come here skulking and shame-faced, then you are unworthy of the well’s blessings. What does your soul tell you? Are you brave and good? Or too proud, or perhaps ashamed, to reveal yourself to the gods of the temple, the well and the grove? Can you tell me your name?”

“Well, I’m not too sure about the ‘good.’ Or the brave part either, come to think of it.”

“But you will give me your name?”

She was watching me closely.

It was silly of me to object. Who knew of Prince Corwin of Amber in this outback of Shadow? What could be the harm? There was trade with Amber, however, through the port of Keshwar, so the possibility existed that a few of our wretched crew were known here (though it was most likely that the best of our number, Gérard, was the only prince of Amber known in these parts — he dealt with captains from Shadows far and wide). Otherwise, though, her arguments were reasonable.

“I might lie. We beggars are known for our lies.”

“You won’t. So I can expect to hear a name?”

“All right.”

She got to her feet, very slowly. And something happened.

This lady was older than I — at least older than I looked. And there was a power in her. No wonder she did not care if I came from high or low. The low-born could not do anything to her, of course, but, then, I didn’t think the high-born could either.

She held out her hand to me, as though we might embark upon a pavane. Very formal, and confident.

There was something of the air of enchantment here. I sensed it strongly now. Three times she had demanded my name, weaving the charm. And I had granted her the right to require it of me. Her power was real enough.

But she was trying to use it on a prince of Amber. I was out of her league.

Her boldness and her imminent failure both made me smile as I took her hand and bestowed a gentle kiss on her dry lips.

And, prepared as I was, she still surprised me. There was more to her than I’d guessed. A moment passed while my surprise registered, and she pressed her mouth — not so dry, after all — firmly against mine, with the sort of passion a lady might show a lover.

Just as I was about to draw back, she pulled away, her smile having much in common with cats who do terrible things to canaries.

“And now?”

There, I caught it. An accent she’d nearly lost. I could almost place it.

“After the drink, I’ll tell you.”

She inclined her head in response and moved over to the well.

“You don’t need to do that. I’ll be happy to haul up the water.”

“I will do it.”

She did, and I realized she was strong, stronger than any old lady I could recall. And perhaps not as old as I had thought. That well probably went over one hundred feet down. Yet the rope flew through her hands. In no time, the bucket rested beside the well. From within her robe, she produced a simple stone cup, filled it, and offered it to me.

I reached for it, but she shook her head.

“This is the temple’s cup. It cannot leave me.”

“And you’d like my name?”

“That, too.”

I wanted to lie to her, but I had just witnessed her feat of strength. More was surely going on than was meeting the eye. So I hedged.

“You were somewhat interested in my earlier visit here. And I freely gave up a lot of information about myself. I’m attempting to travel anonymously at this time — some bad people are after me. So how about this? Will you settle for my brother’s name instead?”

She didn’t hesitate.

“Yes.”

“His name was Brand.”

And she nodded, as if she’d known it all along. Then she stepped close and held the cup to my lips.

Greedily, I drank.

She gave me two more cupfuls of the well’s sacred water.

It had not been all that long since I’d consumed some of my water ration, but what came from that cup was cold, sweet, pure. Surpassed only, as far as I knew, by that found in the Grove of the Unicorn.

She put away the cup, took my hand in hers, began leading me back down the path.

“Where are we going?”

“You are hungry.”

Once she said it, I knew that I was. Famished, actually. For real food, not prison fare.

“The High Priestess of Bandarnath will give you a meal and help set you on your way.”

“She will?”

The woman in the white robe glanced up at me as she drew me along.

“I am the High Priestess of Bandarnath.”



And that is how, after more than five hundred years, I came again to the well at Mirata.

And she was as good as her word. She led me up to the porch on the second floor and left me sitting by a table, staring off into space. It was a moment before I really saw the gift she’d given me. Because I was still seeing the first floor temple interior through which we’d just passed.

It had been a corridor bisecting other corridors down which we’d walked. No doors, and everything speaking of unstinting opulence. Every bit of the walls and ceilings were intricately carved (of wood, I assumed), and overlaid with ivory and gold. The floor an elaborate mosaic I had not tried to unravel. Lamps and braziers burned everywhere, again causing me to wonder if the interior were truly carved of wood — if so, then the temple was an inferno which hadn’t gotten around to igniting just yet.

I’d waited till we’d left the flickering, glittering space, so as not to disturb the priestesses, acolytes, worshippers and others moving through their rituals, quietly seeking a better understanding of the wisdom of their gods. As we had ascended toward the upper deck, though, I’d asked my question.

“My memory is hardly reliable, but wasn’t this place once consecrated to the Bright God, the Lord of the Stone?”

“It still is.”

“Were there priestesses here then? I can’t recall any.”

“The temple was destroyed, the priests killed. Our order rebuilt it. We are the living female energy to the god's transcendent male energy.”

“Ah, I see.”

Which explained the upgrade from the simpler and more airy temple space I’d remembered — “This Temple Under New Management.”

The gift she’d arranged for me was a slightly altered version of the prospect across the valley I’d been afforded from the well. Then the food started coming, and I was distracted again. Vegetables, beans and grains prepared in a variety of ways, most of them spicy and hot, all of them good. That no meat touched the table didn’t surprise me too much; it was not their way, these folk who valued all life. When I’d demolished the main courses, out came the desserts of fruit, which I doggedly wiped out. All presented very prettily, I might add, but I showed none of the foodstuffs a trace of mercy. The meal tested my appetite just the same, and I lost track of the courses they served, slowing only when I realized they’d truly filled me up.

In short, they fêted me like, well, like a prince.

I was sad, though again, not surprised, when wine, beer, or any other head-spinning stuff failed to put in an appearance.

So I enjoyed the tea.

And I noticed things. Like the golden girl with the long dark hair and long dark eyes, who could not keep the look of consternation out of those eyes as she took away the party-sized bowl of noodles and vegetables which I’d emptied. And the beautiful girl with dark gleaming skin, who used both hands to carry away the wide fruit basket I’d lightened, mouthing an “Oh” as she rounded the table. And the gray-eyed elven lass who brought out the after-dinner tea — and a small pot of honey — who, seeing the astonished girl heading back to the stairs with the empty fruit basket, allowed a corner of her mouth to quirk upward.

“Plenty of diversity in this region,” I observed. “Rarely have I seen its like, save in my own land.”

“History has already happened here,” she acknowledged, setting down her cup with a jiggle, looking down at the rippling surface, watching (I supposed) the tea leaves dance. “Every way imaginable to kill and torture each other has been used here in the service of all manner of societies, religions and governments. From one side of the continent to the other. And once the rulers and warlords had exhausted all the possibilities, they would go back to the beginning and start the whole business over again. Diversity has been a curse to us, though it was through our many peoples and their many ways that we finally found a remedy. And peace.”

“So what was the cure?”

“The Harp of Harmony. The Cup of Contentment. The Sacred Song. The Light of Love. The Dance of Duality. The Grace of the Grail. The Lyre of Lir —”

“Crap,” I said, and watched her patiently steeple her fingers, letting them rest against her lips. Her eyebrows lifted a little, inquiringly. That I suspected her to be holding back a smile made me burn a little, but I checked my natural responses right there. Because I’d belatedly remembered my manners.

“I shouldn’t have said that. Please allow me to apologize.”

“Why?” she asked, seeming surprised.

“Because they’re your beliefs.”

“And you were about to state yours,” she said. “I wish you would.”

“Okay,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Well, why does this system of beliefs require so many aliases? If a belief system with that many names wrote me a check for my soul, I’d expect to have some trouble cashing it.”

Then she really caught fire. When it came to verbal sparring, she held her own just fine. And it quickly became obvious that she enjoyed people who disagreed with her. She let me know that not only did the continent contain every race, and a hundred or more kingdoms, but that there were also thousands, even millions, of gods. She claimed the multiplicity of religions was one of the reasons for the many names for their underlying truth.

“With that many gods hanging around,” I said, “it stands to reason there’s a fair chance of bumping into one or two on your way to the bathroom. Must happen all the time.”

Her eyes widening appreciatively, her expression very serious, she agreed, “It is sometimes necessary to ‘hold it’ all day, due to the line. And getting mirror time can be a real problem.”

“Then I won’t shave,” I announced. “And I’ll stop eating and drinking. Problem solved.”

She burst out laughing then, so that I couldn’t help a chuckle myself.

The conversation wound its way through all manner of topics — music, something this old city was known for in particular, renowned as it was for its manufacture of musical instruments, and art, astronomy and cartography — before she introduced a certain subject. And the whole time, though both of us were having fun, it was a conversation between two people without names. She seemed to enjoy calling me “Brand’s brother,” while I had little choice but to call her “High Priestess.”

“Brand’s brother, where will you go when you leave here?”

“Back whence I came, High Priestess.”

“And where is that?”

“Jail.”

“That is a very strange answer.”

“I know.”

She sighed.

“Well, perhaps I can help you. Do you require provisions of any kind?”

“I do.”

“Name them for me.”

“Art supplies and a small room in which to work.”

“That answer is stranger than the other.”

“I know.”

“I will help you, if you will do something for me in exchange.”

“And what would that be?”

“Allow me to watch. And to help you, if I can.”

“Your answer is as strange as mine, I think. But, yes, I won’t mind either a spectator or a critic, or both.”

“Then we are agreed, brother of Brand?”

“We are agreed, Priestess who is Most High.”

That got me an odd look, so I pointed to her teacup.

“I was just beginning to wonder if the acolytes were having a little fun, maybe, spiking the tea with something. No? Well, of course not. Just a joke. No offense taken, I hope? I’m still getting my art supplies?”



She kept her sense of humor, and I got my art supplies.

My studio consisted of a small shed, open on one side, roofed with cloth stretched over the two crosspieces overhead, with just enough room for me and my stuff. It was situated only a few yards away from the well, from which vantage she liked to watch the valley, the traffic going into and out of Mirata, and, of course, the approach of those who desired the blessings of the well.

When no one was around, she would watch me work. And offered small doses of praise, tempered by simple constructive suggestions. Never more than one suggestion at a time. Her advice being remarkably insightful on the whole, I found myself implementing most of her ideas, always with good results.

Also, because we were alone with each other for long stretches, she gave me her name.

“‘Claire’ is what those who know me well call me. You may call me ‘Claire.’”

“That name belongs in Mirata about as much as I do. But I already had you pegged as an expatriate from somewhere else. As for me, I’m known to some as ‘Corey.’ You can call me that, if you like.”

“What makes you want to go back to jail, Corey?”

“An attack of conscience. I don’t feel I’ve finished paying my debt to society, you see.”

Thinking I heard a chuckle, I turned my head away from my canvas (where a half-decent study of the valley was taking shape) to glimpse the expression on her face.

She was serious and serene, her hands folded neatly in her lap.

Perhaps I’d imagined the chuckle. I returned to the canvas.

“How noble of you,” she remarked. “You know, our kalsha” — the golden tree-topper that completed the temple's spire — “is not fixed very securely. The next big storm will knock it down, and beggars and thieves less honest than you will try to make off with it. You could repay some of your debt to society by better securing it to the tower.”

“How will that help society?”

“Stealing from a temple is a serious crime. You will be helping other unfortunates avoid a lot of trouble. And, as society paid for that kalsha, you will be sparing society needless additional expense.”

“You are very wise, High Priestess.”

“Another benefit,” she continued. “Sir Corey will be furthering his spiritual development, which may also be good for society.”

“Or at least not as harmful as the alternative,” I tried.

“It is as though you are reading my mind.”

That time I was able to turn quickly enough to catch her grin.

It turned out she liked to draw, paint, make things. She showed me a woodcut she’d done of the well years ago, and I was impressed. As I’d already surmised, she had obviously had another life in some other place before coming to Mirata, the City of Music. She never spoke of it, though, and I never asked. I was grateful for what she was willing to share of that other time and place — namely, her expertise in art.

So I got better. Much more quickly than I’d have done on my own, of that I was sure. Still, nowhere near quick enough. Though I was burning with impatience, with the urgency to come to Amber’s aid, I remained convinced that this was what I needed to do. The old Corwin had miscalculated in the past, and paid a terrible price, without any benefit accruing to Amber. I was not about to charge into the middle of things without being ready. And I wasn’t ready.

But I was aching with curiosity. How were things going at home? To find out, I’d only have to hellride out to the Forest of Arden, see how close I could get. Easy enough, as so many mistakes are. If the place were embroiled in full-scale war, I could very quickly find myself at the mercy of whatever was happening there. And then what? Without a set of Trumps, or some other special advantage, I could lose my freedom and much else besides.

So instead I chose to spend a few weeks in the company of an attractive older woman, whose humor and intelligence delighted me, while I practiced drawing and painting. In the mornings I rose and put myself through some basic physical exercises. Checking with the acolytes of the temple, I would inquire after any chores that I could take on. (And I did fix the kalsha — a wedge, rope, some crosspieces and a few rocks did the trick.) They trusted me enough to send me into Mirata to purchase oil for the lamps, spices they were unable to grow on the premises, ingredients for their medicines, paper, and other sundries.

A couple of times, I yielded to the temptation to take a detour off into Shadow, where various temple necessities happened to be readily available (because I willed them to be, of course), returning to the temple with the items and the unspent funds, which I suggested be put back into the till. This earned me a few strange looks. Word naturally got back to the High Priestess — Claire — who never troubled to mention it to me.

Though she did help me with my painting, my skill in drawing showed more promise. As soon as I felt ready, I attempted my first Trump, an Eiffel Tower. Didn’t work, of course.

Seeing my frustration, she asked, “What is wrong?”

“I’m trying to create a special effect, but it’s not working.”

“A special effect?”

“Yes, an image hidden within the drawing, which I’m trying to keep in the background. But there’s a problem.”

“What is the problem?”

“I need to give the hidden image added depth, greater dimensionality. Yet if I draw too much attention to that image, it threatens to overwhelm the actual subject.”

“That is a difficult problem.”

“Yes, I’m at a loss.”

“Try trees.”

So I did. I tried for a stretch of trail in Arden. It was easy to hide the Pattern in the sea of leaves. She showed me how to stagger the image, so that it was echoed in more than one place, found in more than one line.

I set the drawing down on a page in the artist's notebook/sketchpad I was developing.

And this time, when I felt for the place on the other side of the image, something was there.

Arden waited for me, and I knew how to make Trumps.

I wanted a Trump for Rebma, and Claire showed me how to use the waves. My Trump for the Eiffel Tower offered places for the Pattern in the steel beams, in the delineation of city skyline, in the shadings of the sky itself.

Each subject offered a different challenge; you had to be creative about it each time.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it was easy. There were definitely a few tricks to it. For one, when it came to working the Pattern into an image, the best approach for me was a bit like automatic writing, or Ouija. It worked better if I relaxed and let things flow. Also, I found it helped if I had a representation of the Pattern to one side or the other of the space where I was working, even on both sides. Its presence at the periphery of my vision seemed to make things go better. Don't know if that was some conditioning left over from my time in my cell, the place Airu had called Valtuya. But it worked.

I couldn’t yet produce genuine Trumps, pasteboards imbued with the power of the Pattern. Mine were several times larger, and laid out on stiff sheets in my sketchpad. Not as easy to carry, or to use and then put away, as one of Dworkin's decks. None of that mattered, of course, so long as they worked.

So, slowly, carefully, I labored to produce the Trumps I thought I needed.

And then I was ready.

“I’m ready,” I told her.

“To go back to your jail?”

“That’s right. Your help has been invaluable to me. Thank you for everything.”

“Thank you for the donation you left with the temple this morning. May I ask where you came into possession of such a fortune in jewels? And how?”

“By honest means, rest assured. The temple need not worry about tainted wealth. I’m an amateur geologist; there’s a place by a waterfall I know of, off in the mountains. That’s where I went yesterday.”

A small lie. I had gone away the day before, but to a sleeping volcano in another Shadow where corundum in the rough could be chipped from exposed rock, and also could be found in the stream running down its slopes. There had even been a waterfall close by. A jeweler in Mirata had cut the stones for me, keeping a few for himself as payment.

“It is the largest gift we've received in the living memory of the temple.”

“And still less than you and the temple deserve. I’ve rarely been so well looked after, or so at peace. And the art instruction you've given has been priceless.”

“Stay one more night,” she said unexpectedly.

“Why?”

“If I have helped you,” said she, gentle yet insistent, “then stay one more night.”

I owed her too much, and so did not refuse. That night I fell asleep on my pallet as I had dozens of times. This time, though, I woke sometime after midnight, restless, and went to stand outside my hut. The moon shone bright and strong on the mountainside and made the valley glow. Tigers sometimes prowled here, so I waited. But I heard no tiger. After awhile, I went back inside.

Someone was there.

She was stretched out on the place where I slept. A daughter of the temple? A girl from the town? It wasn’t like I hadn’t had offers. Nevertheless, I had worked hard to cultivate the persona of a monk. So I was still rather surprised.

She sat up as I came closer, leaning back on her elbows. Even in the dark, I could see her smile. Slowly, she reached out toward me, and I leaned closer to her as she did. She placed a finger on my lips and sat all the way up, putting her other hand around my neck. The heady scents of flowers, herbs, and other things made a forest of her hair and a country of her skin, lighting up my senses, sparking my brain. Her face moved toward mine.

We kissed.

The touch of her lips made me think I might be dreaming.

“Corwin,” she breathed, and a part of me wondered that she knew my name. But I was already on the bed with her, and she was already drawing me closer.

I answered so softly that she might not have heard the word: “Yes.”

“Love me,” she whispered back.

Her hands were sliding beneath my clothing. Her skin was cool where it touched mine. She kissed my ear, ran fingers through my hair. Cool skin, and I had goosebumps, a thrilling skein woven wherever she touched.

And I caressed her, covered her with kisses of my own. The world went away as I held her, breathed her, tasted her.

Loved her.



When I woke the next morning, she was gone, my only company the questions she had left behind. Slowly, I dressed and got my things together. Stepping outside my hut, I took a look around.

The High Priestess had taken her place beside the well by this time as she always did. Seeing me, she looked up and smiled. With my sketchpad in one hand and pack in the other, I descended toward the well.

There was so much unspoken, and so little of it which I was prepared to say. Though I hadn't meant to let her get so close, in that moment I understood just how important to me she had become. So I simply said, “You never told me why.”

“The kiss?” she asked, her smile widening.

“We could start there.”

She turned her gaze up toward the leaves above her, then looked down toward the temple before she made her reply.

“As High Priestess, one of the roles I play is that of teacher. The kiss was both a lesson and a test. It was really no different from my helping you with your drawing. If you gained by it, then you learned something.”

“I will never be a real artist,” I confessed, while turning her words over for their full meanings, “but, thanks to you, I can see into my own mind better. And show what I see. You have been an excellent teacher.”

“I did have another student once,” she let me know, thoughtfully regarding me once more.

“Then I feel I’ve benefitted from the teaching practice he — or she — provided. I suppose you’ll always have another vocation available to you, if you should ever tire of temple life.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “That part of my life is over. It was nice revisiting it again with you, but Mirata is where I belong, at its temple. And now I will share with you a secret, if you would like to hear it.”

“I’m all ears,” I said, as I folded away the sketchpad, stowing it in the backpack I’d purchased with my new funds. I had also picked up some new clothes, not to mention a pair of boots. Ready for travel. It was another day hot enough to make the air shimmy and shake. My gaze wandered westward beyond the Temple of Bandarnath. The valley below beckoned, and I was eager to be on my way.

“I enjoy meeting those who come to the well,” she began. “Different things bring people here, and some come from distant lands, very far from here. Other worlds, I hear. There is a land called Avalon, very, very far away, and very hard to find, hidden somewhere in the Western Sea. Beyond it, they say, is a place even farther off, where our boldest sailors sometimes go…”

“Amber?”

“You know it? It is not a myth?”

“No myth,” I answered, straightening and hoisting the pack onto my shoulder. “I’ve been there. The city on the Mountain that Faces the Dawn truly surpasses description. But I will try. The streets sparkle, as though embedded with chips of diamond. Much of the city is of white stone, like your well here. The towers, green and gold, soar upward like shafts of light. The palace rises up from the mountainside, a dream of pale marble born from the mind of a madman or a genius. And there are those who say he is both. A stair cut into the mountain's eastern face wends back and forth across it in a journey that takes those yet-uncounted steps on a breathless descent from the city to the sea. Mountains rear behind that jewel, the mountain of light, in a long march to the southwest, clothed in the most magnificent wood that has ever been, the Forest of Arden. To the south the Vale of Garnath opens, divided by the great river Oisen, which runs down swift and strong from Jones Falls. And somewhere between Garnath and the summit of the mountain called Kolvir, cradled upon a ledge on the western slopes, it is said there is a place called the Grove of the Unicorn. A nook tucked into the mountainside that is supposed to eclipse the beauty of the palace gardens, whose splendor is a fable in many worlds.”

“A madman and a genius,” she whispered, staring across the valley as I had done just moments before, but seeming not to see it as her mind wandered down old paths. “There is always one, sometimes more than one, in every land. Before your first visit to Mirata, I knew such a one. He taught me my craft as an artist, and was truly a master.”

Before my first visit? Briefly, I hung on those words, wondering if she knew what they really meant. I hadn’t noticed any funny ears on her, but perhaps she was one of those half-elven folk, many of whom could be found in these parts. Like Amberites, they were very long-lived.

I took a step toward her, knelt, extended my hand.

“Fair lady, Claire, High Priestess, I thank you, verily from the depths of my heart, for all you have done, which is more than you can know.”

She slowly put out her hand, which I took, lifting it to my lips for a kiss.

“He was called Dworkin,” she said. “Perhaps you have heard of him?”

“Even in my land, we know that name,” I answered, releasing her hand.

“You never asked me the name of my other student.”

“I think we both know what his name was,” I said, rising. “And now I must be going. Farewell.”

And I walked down the path toward the temple without looking back.



Now that I was finally on my way, there was no rush. I made my way down into the valley, walking the dusty road with others bound for the Shirai. Inside of three hours, I was on the river's banks, stripping for a swim. When I emerged, refreshed, I dried off, dressed, and found a place off the tow-path, where the last trees leaned over the water.

There I took out the sketchpad, flipped it open to the proper page, and concentrated on the image there.

It took only a few moments, and then the place was real enough to touch. So I turned the picture away, reached for the fully realized actuality.

And I was back in my cell. I returned the pad to my pack.

The thunder bucket was gone. No one was here, but someone had been, and therefore knew of my escape. I was pleased no new tenant had been forced to take up residence. Slowly, I turned to examine the wall. My engravings were untouched, which was all I really cared about.

So now I would try it again. The chaotic landscape, littered with smoke and fire, the tower crouching on the hill, the swarm of flying rocks.

There was no peculiar jolt on this occasion, no unpremeditated headlong plunge into Shadow. Ready for anything, I took the fateful step. Right away, the fumes burning my nostrils let me know I had gotten it right this time. I saw I was standing in a ruined heap of cables, struts, torn pieces of wing. Much of the crashed vehicle's red paint had been worn away. The twisted bits of metal and fiberglass were singed and scorched. The ground was hot; I was suddenly grateful I hadn’t gotten through on my first try. I’d have been barefoot.

Looking up, I could see billows of smoke, swirls of gas, jets of flame. Then, lowering my gaze, I spied the tower. There was something sinister about that place, the way it overlooked this infernal region. It loomed too close for my comfort, and I hoped I wouldn’t have to travel out to it.

But no. Half an hour of searching, first within the pile of wreckage itself, and then on the steaming ground around it, turned up what I was after. It was on the side of the broken sailplane facing away from the tower, half buried in sand, one corner visible. It was while I was scuffing up the soil around the grave of Random’s flying machine that I kicked it loose.

I had what I had come for, so I slipped it into my pocket. And took out the sketchpad again (concerned a little, I’ll confess, that a stray bit of ash or ember might alight upon it at any moment).

The drawing of the limbo I had only just left felt cold to my touch, a dramatic and exaggerated sensation given my current environs.

Time to go.

Leaving the realm of Brand’s tower behind, I let the hand holding the sketchpad fall to my side, and was once more within the cell which could no longer hold me.

This time I would depart through another door. I’d dismissed its value before as a refuge, as a base from which to rebuild ruined plans, as a strong suit in the current game. Things had changed, though, and I now knew a different game was being played. Old skills were called for and new players needed to be brought in. I had made up my mind early on during my stay in Mirata what to do if I ever found myself in Valtuya again. So no time was wasted wondering what to do now.

My mind took hold of the image on the wall, and then it took hold of me. The cell fell away as that other place and I moved toward one another. Then the engraving was gone, superceded by the reality — trumped by it, some might say. I took stock of my new surroundings.

People. In a rush on their way from a million anywheres to a thousand somewheres. I stood on a sidewalk, pedestrians pushing past, some giving me looks, others seeming unaware of me except as another obstacle. The human traffic competed with that of the cars, cabs, trucks and buses — noisy, pungent, frenetic. Exhaust fumes fell upon me, fell back, intermittently mingling with the aromas of pretzels, hot dogs, pizza. Along with the food, street sellers hocked clothes, gadgets, tchotchkes, music, magazines, postcards, brochures, books. Every door opened onto a shop, a restaurant, a bank, a hotel, even a church. The very air was charged with vitality, a transformative energy, the feeling of something on its way to becoming something else. Yet the buildings, tall and small, new and old, metal and glass, stone and concrete, modern and Gothic, effortlessly embraced centuries, surrounding all the relentless motion and change with a kind of timelessness. Witnesses, those buildings, monumental and discrete, to hundreds of years fluttering past like leaves in the late summer breeze.

The sign above the shop next to me had three words on it, and they made me smile: Bagel, Deli, Salad.

I had done it, I had gotten to Gotham.

As for Mirata, there were questions in my mind, questions needing answers. One day soon, I would have to go back, learn the truth about Claire and her connection to Dworkin and Brand, and perhaps other things. Was there something besides the scenery that had drawn Brand there in days gone by? It now seemed likely there had been. If so, I would have to find out what it was. Too much of Brand’s story remained unknown.

The mystery girl who had come to me last night was still very much on my mind. Just a chance encounter, an adventurous girl from town? Or was there something more? Perhaps Claire could provide answers here, too. Something told me she knew what had happened, might even have set it up.

Yes, I would be paying the well at Mirata another visit.

But other matters would have to come first. Bleys I would have to rescue, and I was now certain that I could do it. With Bleys at my side, we would get the lay of the land, spy on Amber, spy on the Courts, learn what was really going on.

And we would rescue Merlin. I would make sure of that.

Finally, there was the still-unsolved puzzle of my dreams. The future they had seemed to represent had entered the present. Whatever process was at work, it had moved into a new phase. And that process, as I had feared, did indeed somehow tie in to the disaster which had befallen Chaos, which now threatened Amber. The Arena of Doom had made that obvious enough.

A host of challenges and unknowns lay before me, but I was filled with confidence. I had done much, and there was much left to do. But I felt good.

I was alive, healthy, in good spirits and standing in the heart of the Big Apple. And in that moment it struck me that Sinatra had gotten it right. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

I started walking up Fifth Avenue toward the Empire State Building, whistling as I went.

END OF BOOK ONE

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