Burb Rocking
Sunday, April 26, 2009
  Chapter Three: The Mountaintop

[Writer’s Notebook disclaimer: There are two discarded chapters in Book Two of The Chronicles of Shadow, and this is the other one. Not much to say here that didn’t get said in the note heading the former second chapter, ‘The Shore.’ Don’t know if anything can be salvaged from ‘The Mountaintop,’ but fragments below may show up later on. One section in particular should survive in some form. It isn’t easy to spend a lot of time and effort to write something and then decide it must be tossed in the recycle bin, but it happens. Any reading of the following material constitutes going through the stuff left out on the lawn for the tag sale. Recyclables can be found below.]

CHAPTER THREE

Its eyes — the first visible detail — were pale green. Curled up, its shape was difficult to discern. A small black hand, like a raccoon’s, pushed the flap farther aside. Though the digits were distinct, even human-like, the points of five retracted claws suggested feline origins. The vertical pupils dividing the eyes also suggested this. A raccoon’s cousin from another planet? No, for now followed the sleek head, swept back from a snout so narrow that the skull could pass for the sharp end of a spear or something local tribes once shaped from flint. And there was something about its black mane...

An otter with feathers?

In a sudden spring, it shot upward, leaving both pack and table behind, gliding through an opening in the ring of onlookers, disappearing behind Merlin. A moment later, it appeared again upon Merlin’s shoulders, its probing green gaze luminous with intelligence.

Yes, gliding.

Stretched between the extended limbs and narrow body like black sailcloth there had been, no, not wings exactly. But something.

“What on God’s green—”

Maio had actually jumped.

“Jinx.”

Merlin’s head was turned toward that of his companion, and he said, “Jinx,” again, but more softly as the two regarded one another. Whether the word denoted an epithet, a name, or a species, it had been spoken with affection. In response, the creature stretched its neck a little to touch its nose to Merlin’s, making a small noise as it did so.

“The two of you seem to be friends,” I observed.

Merlin reached forward, slipped fingers between the glittering black feathers, lifted something which flashed at the animal’s throat. A blue crystal with flecks of red light caught in its corners. Turning it slowly, he caused it to shift, briefly becoming a red crystal splintered with blue lines and points, then back to blue again.

“Jinx is my oldest friend.”

My son’s pet was a riddle too deep to unravel just then. So I returned to the more immediate question concerning the contents of his pack. One at a time, I withdrew the items, placed them on the table:

A folded cloak, like a quilt on one side where it was sewn with panels, gray and blue and marked with some design on the other;

An unusual dagger, shaped like a plus-sign, hilt as long as the blade, carved of green wood, like a stage prop, cut with runes on blade and hilt, completely harmless in appearance;

A slender ivory tube, marked up as though someone had played tic tac toe on it with a meat cleaver;

A wide collapseable cone, half-open, composed of telescoping segments, alternately silver and black — an optical instrument, something for eating ice cream out of?

“Okay, we’re going to get to the bottom of this,” I announced. “Right here, right now.”

They looked at me. Flora, beautiful and baffled. Maio, smiling, curious, and as caught up in the mystery as anyone there. Merlin, starting to seem like his old self again, posture erect and confident, gaze only now torn from the four things removed from his pack, a faint smile playing on his lips. Jinx, who had joined Merlin in contemplation of the table display, glancing at me before returning its attention to the mystery objects.

“Everyone,” I continued, “please have a seat.”

They sat. But I didn’t. I felt close to something important. And knew I had become a hunter again, though I did not know what it was that I hunted. And it’s harder to hunt sitting down. It’s also hard to hunt when you can’t see very well; dusk had arrived, so I walked over to the doorway, switched on the overhead chandelier. One of those adjustable affairs, so I settled for something a little stronger than firelight, deciding good atmospherics might be useful at this juncture.

Then I walked around the table, seeing the dagger, the mica-and-obsidian telescope thing, the cloak and the tube from different angles, seeing the faces of those seated there each in turn. I stopped when I reached the place opposite my sister.

“Flora, we’ll start with you.”

Her hand crept up toward her throat, an involuntary movement suggesting apprehension and surprise.

“Me? I don’t know anything.”

“We’ll see about that. For now, let’s start with those trucks parked outside. ‘Tarot Trucking’?”

The hand moved downward, the tightness around mouth and brow relaxed a little, and what she said next was uttered in a lower, calmer voice.

“Oh. You mean Random’s project. You mean Amberline Enterprises.”

“Random’s?” That took me a little by surprise. “Isn’t that Gérard’s operation?”

Flora shook her head.

“Perhaps that is what you were told, Corwin. And I suppose that is how it could seem. I guess it’s even true in a sense. May I ask where you got that idea?”

I thought back. Where had I gotten that idea? It was upon my return to Amber, that much I knew.

“I’m not sure. Things I heard from Julian, Random and Vialle. Flora looks to imports from the Shadow Earth — had that from Julian. And both Random and Vialle affirmed Gérard enjoyed, if not his old position as master of the navy and the man in charge of Amber’s port, then an expanded role where trade is concerned. Are you telling me I was misinformed?”

Flora swallowed, and it was then that I knew she was not quite as stupid as I had once thought. She understood the implications of what I was saying well enough to consider her next words carefully.

“Perhaps not fully informed, then. I don’t know how much input Gérard may have had, but it was Random’s decision. Everyone then followed their orders. Including Gérard, of course, being a loyal servant of the crown.”

“Yes, yes. Faithful Gérard, doing what is expected of him. You’re right, nothing unusual there. The King’s will is law, and all that. So this was really Random’s idea. Interesting. So now I guess I am asking why Random’s trucks are parked outside. What’s the story, Flora?”

“Bandits.”

“Say again?”

“Bandits. Pirates,” she said, and paused a moment before adding, “They prey on shipments moving from here to Calyddon.”

“Calyddon? Never heard of the place.”

“The Tecys,” Merlin said.

Flora turned toward Merlin. We all did. Except for Jinx, who, after registering everyone’s reaction, went back to keeping watch over his possessions.

Keeping watch.

That was it, of course. And doubtless correct. The animal, whatever it was, was not merely a pet. It was specially trained, which explained how it had remained quiet and unnoticed in the pack for as long as it had. And that training plainly included keeping an eye on items valuable to Merlin. Specifically, the things spread out upon the table before us. Mystery solved: Jinx was a watch-otter. Flying version.

Merlin seemed surprised by the quiet which had descended, by the impact of his words. The half-smile he had earlier flirted with came back, went away. With thumb and forefinger, he pushed at the cone, turning it first one way and then another, a safecracker searching for some combination that would unlock its secrets.

“The Tecys. Benedict’s friends. Martin’s friends.”

Now with his left hand he picked up the segmented cone, shook it, so that it telescoped open. Like a fat spyglass, an eroded sandcastle, an overturned ziggurat.

“My friends.”

The name was very familiar. My mind scrabbled after the memory, and in short order produced it: People trusted by Benedict in an unfrequented and, in keeping with Benedict’s strategic approach to things, therefore secure slice of Shadow. My brother had allowed that trust to include Martin, whom he had taken under his wing at the time, and had introduced the Tecys to Martin. Dear now-departed brother Brand had used Martin as a human sacrifice upon the Pattern — thereby precipitating the whole bloody business of the Black Road, the sporadic attacks and then open war waged by Chaos against Amber, all of which had culminated in the defeat of Chaos, the deaths of family-members and the recasting of the Pattern by our father Oberon. Martin, however, had survived the murder attempt, subsequently recuperating in the care of the safest people he knew: the Tecys.

“For an amnesiac, you are suddenly suffering from an embarrassment of remembrances,” I commented, walking around the table to stand at my son’s shoulder. “What does Calyddon have to do with the Tecys?”

Glancing up at me, Merlin answered simply, “They live there.”

I reached for his left hand, turned it over.

Gleams, glints, and glass. Crystals, lenses, facets. Concave, a hollow shell. Yeah, a crushed kaleidoscope, a geode for accordion-players, a shiny bowl.

I released his hand.

“So what is this thing, Merlin? Some kind of toy?”

His eyes went to the dagger. Maio, next to him, saw the look and picked up the useless weapon, then peered more closely at the object Merlin held, a small smile occurring on his face as some notion opened before him. With the dagger he pointed at the thing of metal and glass.

“The blade and the chalice,” Maio declared with a certain air of triumph. “Standard alchemy.”

“He’s right,” Merlin concurred. “I might show you. But not here. Many things don’t work here. This is a special shadow with special rules. That’s why great-grandpa said this was such a dangerous place.”

“I lived here for a very, very long time. Flora, too,” I pointed out. “So what’s so dangerous? What makes this shadow different from any other?”

Merlin frowned up at me, seeming puzzled.

“This is a place where the influences of Chaos and Amber nearly cancel each other out. There is no other world in Shadow that I’ve found where the powers of both are so weak. But you would know that better than anyone.”

Maio, studying the dagger’s runes, looked up, glanced at Merlin, then turned to me.

“‘Shadow’? Your name for the Otherworld? Shadow,” he repeated, tasting the word, smiling. “Yeah, I kinda like it.”

Flora spared Maio a swift side-glance, then looked at me, brows drawn together. We were breaking family protocol by discussing such things openly in front of an outsider.

“It’s okay, Flora,” I told her, “He knows.” To Maio, I said, “Better to use the plural in this case: ‘Otherworlds.’”

Whatever scent my mind had caught, I realized then that I had lost it. Maybe I had all the pieces of the puzzle with simply no clue how they might fit together? There was relief in me that Merlin had not lost all his memory, and there would be time to fish after whatever of value he still knew before our return to Amber. Most I would try to extract this evening. Meanwhile, goods moving from Earth to Amber passed through Benedict’s territory. News to me, but from a security standpoint, an excellent idea. Yet raids were being conducted on the route protected by the most formidable of all my kin. Why, and how? Was Benedict absent, confronting some greater menace elsewhere? A change in regime was either about to occur in the Courts of Chaos or had already occurred. Had Benedict been dispatched by Random, as now seemed likely, to the far end of Shadow to bear witness to the transfer of power and to prepare for what would follow? The dissolution of the Amber Accords and a renewed war on Amber. A war which, whether anyone besides Merlin, Bleys and myself knew it or not, King Zirlar had promised. Still on my undercover mission to find out what was going on in Chaos and what had befallen Merlin and Martin, I had been lying low. But it was becoming more and more apparent that the mission had failed and was over. More pointedly, I had failed. With the exception of finding my son, I had little to show for my pains. Worse, when I reported in, I would not merely be reporting on my failure. I would be admitting to my complicity in a plot against Amber, in — for all intents and purposes — treachery. I had aided the enemy by handing over three new allies to them. Along with the artifact known as the Dreaming Diamond. Earning imprisonment for myself, memory-loss for Merlin, and an unknown and unhopeful fate for Bleys. Angrily, I fought a wave of despair as the extent of my defeat descended upon me, seeking some balance between my thoughts and emotions.

Resignedly seating myself in the remaining chair, I stared across the table to see the flying otter staring back at me. Merlin was watching me, too.

“You understand how this place is different?” my son asked me.

“No,” I replied. “That is, not the way you seem to. We’re in a sanctuary, not a death-trap.”

Flora chimed in with, “I know I feel safer here than in many other places.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “More technologically advanced than most other worlds, doctors and hospitals do a better job patching you up. Phones and computers supplement our Trumps, so almost anyone in this locale can be reached quickly, easily. Cars and planes also make getting to other locations around here simpler. Hell, Random and I drove a certain Mercedes from here most of the way to Amber—”

“My brothers, the car-thieves,” Flora interrupted with a laugh.

Grinning, I finished, “And bullets tend to be faster than blades.”

Reflecting my mood, Merlin regarded me with a curious mix of amusement and amazement.

“But all those things you talk about—each one works against the higher abilities that are the birthright of a Prince of Amber. Or Chaos. You see it, don’t you? Why Uncle Random sent us here so many times? And why...”

What began as a look incorporating amusement and amazement changed then, all trace of the former going away as he let the sentence trail off.

“Yes?”

“Why you were left here to die.”

“To—? Oh, got it.”

Right between the eyes. The guy who had lost much of his memory was reminding me of something I’d momentarily forgotten. My brother Eric had left me in this shadow with just one expectation in mind: Corwin should die here. And had happily deposited a grievously wounded version of me in the middle of London in a year of the Plague.

“You’re right. It cuts both ways. What works against an enemy here also works against anyone using this place for a refuge. I can defend myself with an automatic weapon. Or be killed by one. You make a good point.”

Maio was muttering something.

“What’s that you’re saying?” I asked the old man.

“I said either all of you are brujos. Or you’re all crazy as Saturday night.”

“Why must it be an either-or question?” I asked, chuckling, “I’d say a little from Column A, a little from Column B.”

At that moment, a phone rang.

Reaching into a pocket, Merlin pulled out something that looked for all the world like a Star Trek communicator. He flipped it open and started talking into it.

“Hey, thanks for calling me back. No, I’m where you are, right here in Connecticut.... A Bose-Einstein condensate? You think that’ll work? You know I was thinking a rubidium beam, too. But using a hot plasma medium instead. Ah, there’s another call, got to go. Okay, talk to you soon.... Hello...? In Connecticut. With my Dad.... Tomorrow, I think.... I’ll put him on.”

He skidded the shiny thing across the table toward me. I lifted it to my ear.

“Hello?”

“Carl?” the familiar voice coming through the phone asked. Not just a familiar voice, a friend’s voice, one I recognized right away.

“Bill? Bill, it’s been a long time. Too long. Good to hear your voice again. How are you? And how are Alice and the kids?”

I heard a short laugh.

“Carl. Carl Corey. You still go by that?”

“When circumstances dictate. Today, though, and for the foreseeable future, I’m stuck being Corwin. Just don’t tell the front desk at my hotel.”

“Hotels aren’t sticklers for getting names right where I come from. Especially if you pay with cash.”

“Which,” I cheerfully rejoined, “by a strange coincidence, I do.”

“Just the word I would use for a Napoleon expert who drives cars into lakes, leaves priceless jewelry in compost heaps, gets hospitalized with nearly fatal stab wounds, is featured on a pack of Tarot cards, vanishes into thin air before startled nurses, reappears over twenty years later asking how my family’s doing. Just like there’s nothing out of the ordinary about such things. That’s the word for it: strange.”

That set me back a little.

“Over twenty years? It’s been that long?”

“Who was President last time we saw each other?”

I cast my mind back, to what events had been transpiring in America and the world then. A troubled time, to be sure. The OPEC oil embargo, coming on the heels of Nixon taking the dollar off the gold standard, had contributed to inflation and a persistent recession. The Vietnam War had only worsened the financial picture and had just ended, a political and military disaster, leaving the Cold War in high gear. There is always another military conflict, of course, and there had been new ones in Cambodia and Angola, along with the war between Egypt and Israel. Nuclear arms control was a major issue; the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty between the U.S. and Soviet Union had just been signed. The SALT agreement was the last big thing I could recall from that period of upheaval. Sonny and Cher had split up, the Eagles had made Winslow, Arizona, famous, Pink Floyd had been looking at the dark side of the moon, Stephen King was making horror interesting again, and Spielberg had made people afraid to go into the water.

So I answered, “Ford. No, wait, there was a new guy from Dixie, right? Farmer?”

“Carter. There have been four presidents since then, Corwin, and a couple hung on for two terms. Remember those twin grandsons I showed you last time? One’s in trucking school and the other is doing grad work at RIT designing videogames.”

Regret hit me in the gut, followed by the usual accompanying kidney-punch delivered by the other fist, guilt. My throat had become a little dry; I swallowed.

“Bill, I—”

“Have a life?”

“No,” I said, the truth blindsiding me, smarting as it always does, “I don’t. And am having trouble remembering the last time it was when I did. That’s the sad part.”

“You know what’s better than being sad?”

“Being happy?”

“Meeting me tomorrow for breakfast. There’s a place I know down in the City. You game?”

“Bill, this whole not having a life thing—”

“It’s not really working for you? So you’ll be there?”

It was crazy. The entire universe, or multiverse, whatever you want to call it, was under threat from the Courts of Chaos, from witches, from long-lost — though probably not too sorely missed — relatives. Memories had been stolen from my son. Amber’s foreign minister, the most well-informed link between the two ends of existence, was a prisoner in the heart of Chaos, or worse. And my nephew, heir to Amber’s throne, was missing, possibly deceased. If there was a right time for renewing old friendships, this surely wasn’t it.

So I said, “What time?”

He laughed and said, “Great. Bring that boy of yours along, too. Very smart kid. A little strange at times, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it? Okay, let me give you the directions.”

Once I had the directions, and we had settled on a time, we said our good-byes. And I handed the phone back to Merlin, who ended the call.

I looked at Flora.

“Where are the drivers for those Peterbilts?”

“Caine is sending someone.”

“When?”

“In a day or two, I think. Why do you ask?”

“Because I’ve got an anti-pirate detail lined up to escort them. Which you are not to mention to Caine when you hear from him. People think I’m dead? Let’s leave it like that for a little while longer. Hey, what’s that I smell?”

Maio pointed behind me, said, “Dinner.”

Turning, I saw Anya wheeling a food-laden cart out onto the porch.

Merlin’s stuff was returned to the purple backpack to make the necessary room. Little was said during the meal, and what got said was mostly along the lines of, “Pass the salt.” Which was fine, as I chewed and thought about events down the road. And the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of seeing Bill the next day.

Bill Roth was my closest remaining friend from my old days, when I dwelt in this shadow. Realizing that truth made me keen not to lose him and that had been my initial reason for deciding to see him. He was also an attorney, had taken care of selling off my house for me. A pretty big favor for which I owed him. And he had helped me track down the whereabouts of the Jewel of Judgment when it had briefly resided here, before Brand had absconded with it. Also good reasons for seeing my old friend again.

There was another reason, though. He obviously had been in some way party to Merlin’s and Martin’s activities here. He was therefore important as a potential source of information. So, on this occasion at least, sentiment and expediency would go hand in hand when we had our breakfast. Whatever was left of my mission, it was back on track, and I resolved to put off my questions for Merlin till then. We had already covered a fair amount of ground in what had been an interesting day, and a long one.

When we finished up, there was a final drink, along with a round of small talk. Flora surprised me by interrupting a discussion of the Thimble Islands to mention my walking the Pattern in Rebma, which had restored my memory. She then suggested this might serve as a remedy for whatever had been done to Merlin’s mind. Indeed. Another reason to follow up tomorrow’s breakfast with a very long trip through Shadow, as far as we could go.

All the way.

Merlin expressed concern for the shipping difficulties, pushing Flora for her thoughts on conducting actual shipping, using the nearest major wharf, back in New Haven. For whatever reason, Flora frowned on the idea. Probably worried this would draw genuine pirates into the Sound and within view of her idyllic retreat. Maio paid no attention to any of the talk of either Rebma or the New Haven wharf, using every opportunity to engage Anya in conversation.

Afterward, four tired persons found beds in Flora’s mansion, since three of them would be leaving for Manhattan before dawn. Anya wrote something down on a piece of paper for Maio before she left on her drive home.

Which is why I drifted off to sleep wistful, sad, yet also oddly pleased. The old character who had so much knowledge of living on the edge of things, of music, of harps, might be a little off-the-wall (though who was I to call a kettle black?), but he had something I had lost. He had a life.

One day soon, I would too. Perhaps it was that thought which sent me off into dreams and the dark, smiling and happy. More probably though, it was just the wine.

[...to be continued...]

copyright © 2009 Lokabrenna @ Blogger (JTB)
 
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