Courts of Chaos
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"If you choose to look at it that way."
She shrugged, looked at me.
"Do you want to hear this story?"
I glanced at Random and he nodded.
"Brand was given what he wanted," she said, "but he was not trusted. It was feared that once he possessed the power to shape the world as he would, he would not stop with ruling over a revised Amber. He would attempt to extend his dominion over Chaos as well. A weakened Amber was what was desired, so that Chaos would be stronger than it now is-the striking of a new balance, giving to us more of the shadowlands that lie between our realms. It was realized long ago that the two kingdoms can never be merged, or one destroyed, without also disrupting all the processes that lie in flux between us. Total stasis or complete chaos would be the result. Yet, though it was seen what Brand had in mind, our leaders came to terms with him. It was the best opportunity to present itself in ages. It had to be seized. It was felt that Brand could be dealt with, and finally replaced, when the time came."
"So you were also planning a double-cross," Random said.
"Not if he kept his word. But then, we knew that he would not. So we provided for the move against him."
"He would be allowed to accomplish his end and then be destroyed. He would be succeeded by a member of the royal family of Amber who was also of the first family of the Courts, one who had been raised among us and trained for the position. Merlin even traces his connection with Amber on both sides, through my forebear Benedict and directly from yourself-the two most favored claimants to your throne."
"You are of the royal house of Chaos?"
I rose. Strode away. Stared at the ashes on the grate.
"I find it somewhat distressing to have been involved in a calculated breeding project," I said, at length. "But be that as it may, and accepting everytihing you have said as true-for the moment-why are you telling us all of these things now?"
"Because," she said, "I fear that the lords of my realm would go as far for their vision as Brand would for his. Farther, perhaps. That balance I spoke of. Few seem to appreciate what a delicate thing it is. I have traveled in the shadowlands near to Amber, and I have walked in Amber herself. I also have known the shadows that lie by Chaos side. I have met many people and seen many things. Then, when I encountered Martin and spoke with him, I began to feel that the changes I had been told would be for the better would not simply result in a revision of Amber more along the lines of my elders' liking. They would, instead, turn Amber into a mere extension of the Courts, most of the shadows would boil away to join with Chaos. Amber would become an island. Some of my seniors who still smart at Dworkin's having created Amber in the first place are really seeking a return to the days before this happened. Total Chaos, from which all things arose. I see the present condition as superior and I wish to preserve it. My desire is that neither side emerge victorious in any conflict."
I turned in time to see Benedict shaking his head.
"Then you are on neither side," he stated.
"I like to think that I am on both."
"Martin," I said, "are you in this with her?"
"The two of you? Against both Amber and the Courts of Chaos? What do you hope to achieve? How do you plan to further this notion of balance?"
"We are not alone," she said, "and the plan is not ours."
Her fingers dipped into her pocket. Something glittered when she withdrew them. She turned it in the light. It was our father's signet ring that she held.
"Where did you get that?" Random asked.
Benedict stepped toward her and held out his hand. She gave it to him. He scrutinized it.
"It is his," he said. "It has the little markings on the back that I've seen before. Why do you have it?"
"First, to convince you that I am acting properly When I convey his orders," she said.
"How is it that you even know him?" I asked.
"I met him during his-difficulties-some time back," she told us. "In fact, you might say that I helped to deliver him from them. This was after I had met Martin, and I was inclined to be more sympathetic toward Amber. But then, your father is also a charming and persuasive man. I decided that I could not simply stand by and see him remain prisoner to my kin."
"Do you know how he was captured in the first place?"
She shook her head.
"I only know that Brand effected his presence in a shadow far enough from Amber that he could be taken there. I believe it involved a fake quest for a nonexistent magical tool which might heal the Pattern. He realizes now that only the Jewel can do it."
"Your helping him to get away . . . How did this affect your relations with your own people?"
"Not too damned well," she said. "I am temporarily without a home."
"And you want one here?"
She smiled again.
"It depends on how things turn out. If my people have their way, I would as soon go back-or stay with what shadows remain."
I withdrew a Trump, glanced at it.
"What of Merlin? Where is he now?"
"They have him," she said. "I fear he may be their man now. He knows his parentage, but they have had charge of his education for a long while. I do not know whether he could be gotten away."
I raised the Trump, stared at it.
"No good," she said. "It will not function between here and there."
I recalled how difficult Trump communication had been when I had been to the fringes of that place. I tried anyway. The card grew cold in my hand and I reached out. There was the faintest flicker of a responding presence. I tried harder.
"Merlin, this is Corwin," I said. "Do you hear me?"
I seemed to hear a reply. It seemed to be, "I cannot-" And then there was nothing. The card lost its coldness.
"Did you reach him?" she asked.
"I am not sure," I said. "But I think so. Just for a moment."
"Better than I thought," she said. "Either conditions are good or your minds are very similar."
"When you began waving Dad's signet around you spoke of orders," Random said. "What orders? And why is he sending them through you?"
"It is a matter of timing."
"Timing? Hell! He just left here this morning!"
"He had to finish one thing before he was ready for another. He had no idea how long it would take. But I was just in touch with him before I came here-though I was hardly prepared for the reception I walked into-and he is now ready to begin the next phase."
"Where did you speak with him?" I asked. "Where is he?"
"I have no idea where he is. He contacted me."
"He wants Benedict to attack immediately."
Gerard finally stirred from the huge armchair in which he had sat listening. He rose to his feet, hooked his thumbs in his belt and looked down at her.
"An order like that would have to come directly from Dad."
"It did," she said.
He shook his head.
"It makes no sense. Why contact you-someone we have small reason to trust-rather than one of us?"
"I do not believe that he can reach you at the moment. On the other hand, he was able to reach me."
"He did not use a Trump. He does not have one for me. He used a reverberation effect of the black road, similar to the means by which Brand once escaped Corwin."
"You know a lot of what has been going on."
"I do. I still have sources in the Courts, and Brand transported himself there after your struggle. I hear things."
"Do you know where our father is right now?" Random asked.
"No, I do not know. But I believe that he has journeyed to the real Amber, to take counsel with Dworkin and to re-examine the damage to the primal Pattern."
"To what end?"
"I do not know. Probably to decide on the course of action he will take. The fact that he reached me and ordered the attack most likely means that he has decided."
"How long ago was this communication?"
"just a few hours-my time. But I was far from here in Shadow. I do not know what the time differential is. I am too new at this."
"So it could be something extremely recent. Possibly only moments ago," Gerard mused. "Why did he talk with you rather than one of us? I do not believe that he could not reach us if he wished to."
"Perhaps to show that he looks upon me with favor," she said.
"All of this may be entirely true," Benedict stated. "But I am not moving without a confirmation of that order."
"Is Fiona still at the primal Pattern?" Random asked.
"Last I heard," I told him, "she had set up camp there. I see what you mean. . . ."
I shuffled out Fi's card.
"It took more than one of us to get through from there," he observed.
"True. So give me a hand."
He rose, came to my side. Benedict and Gerard also approached.
"This is not really necessary," Dara protested.
I ignored her and concentrated on the delicate features of my red-haired sister. Moments later, we had contact.
"Fiona," I asked, seeing from the background that she was still in residence at the heart of things, "is Dad there?"
"Yes," she said, smiling tightly. "He is inside with Dworkin."
"Listen, urgency prevails. I do not know whether or not you know Dara, but she is here-"
"I know who she is, but I have never met her."
"Well, she claims she has an attack order for Benedict, from Dad. She has his signet to back it up, but he did not speak of this earlier. Do you know anything about it?"
"No," she said. "All we did was exchange greetings when he and Dworkin were out here earlier to look at the Pattern. I had some suspicions then, though, and this confirms them."
"Suspicions? What do you mean?"
"I think Dad is going to try to repair the Pattern. He has the Jewel with him, and I overheard some of the things he said to Dworkin. If he makes the attempt, they will be aware of it in the Courts of Chaos the moment that he begins. They will try to stop him. He would want to strike first to keep them occupied. Only . . ."
"It is going to kill him, Corwin. I know that much about it. Whether he succeeds or fails, he will be destroyed in the process."
"I find it hard to believe."
"That a king would give up his life for the realm?"
"That Dad would."
"Then either he has changed or you never really knew him. But I do believe he is going to try it."
"Then why send his latest order by someone he knows we do not really trust?"
"To show that he wants you to trust her, I would guess, once he has confirmed it."
"It seems a roundabout way of doing things, but I agree that we should not act without that confirmation. Can you get it for us?"
"I will try. I will get back to you as soon as I have spoken with him."
She broke the contact.
I turned toward Dara, who had heard only our side of the conversation.
"Do you know what Dad is going to do right now?" I asked her.
"Something involving the black road," she said. "He had indicated that much. What, though, or how, he did not say."
I turned away. I squared my cards and encased them. I did not like this turning of events. This entire day had started badly, and things had been going downhill ever since. It was only a little past lunchtime, too. I shook my head. When I had spoken with him, Dworkin had described the results of any attempt to repair the Pattern, and they had sounded pretty horrendous to me. Supposing Dad tried it, failed, and got himself killed in the attempt? Where would we be then? Right where we were now, only without a leader, on the eve of battle-and with the succession problem stirring again. That whole ghastly business would be in the back of our minds as we rode to the wars, and we would all begin our private arrangements to fight one another once more as soon as the current enemy was dealt with. There had to be another way of handling things. Better Dad alive and on the throne than a revival of the succession intrigues.
"What are we waiting for?" Dara asked. "Confirmation?"
"Yes," I replied.
Random began to pace. Benedict seated himself and tested the dressing on his arm. Gerard leaned against the mantelpiece. I stood and thought. An idea came to me just then. I pushed it away immediately, but it returned. I did not like it, but that had nothing to do with practicalities. I would have to move quickly, though, before I had a chance to talk myself around to another viewpoint. No. I would stick with this one. Damn it!
There came a stirring of contact. I waited. Moments later, I regarded Fiona again. She stood in a familiar place that it took me several seconds to recognize: Dworkin's sitting room, on the other side of the heavy door at the back of the cave. Dad and Dworkin were both with her. Dad had dropped his Ganelon disguise and was his old self once again. I saw that he wore the Jewel.
"Corwin," Fiona said, "it is true. Dad did send the attack order with Dara, and he expected this call for confirmation. I-"
"Fiona, bring me through."
"You heard me. Now!"
I extended my right hand. She reached forward and we touched.
"Corwin!" Random shouted. "What's happening!"
Benedict was on his feet, Gerard already moving toward me.
"You will hear about it shortly," I said, and I stepped forward.
I squeezed her hand before I released it and I smiled.
"Thanks, Fi. Hello, Dad. Hi, Dworkin. How's everything?"
I glanced once at the heavy door, saw that it stood open. Then I passed around Fiona and moved toward them. Dad's head was lowered, his eyes narrowed. I knew that look.
"What is this, Corwin? You are here without leave," he said. "I have confirmed that damned order, now I expect it to be carried out."
"It will be," I said, nodding. "I did not come here to argue about that."
I moved nearer, calculating my words as well as the distance. I was glad that he had remained seated.
"For a time we rode as comrades," I said. "Damned if I did not come to like you then. I never had before, you know. Never had guts enough to say that before either, but you know it is true. I like to think that that is how things could have been, if we had not been what we are to each other."
For the barest moment, his gaze seemed to soften as I positioned myself. Then,
"At any rate," I went on, "I am going to believe in you that way rather than this way, because there is something I would never have done for you otherwise."
"What?" he asked.
I seized the Jewel with an upward sweeping motion and snapped the chain up over his head. I pivoted on my heel then and raced across the room and through the door. I drew it shut behind me and snapped it to. I could see no way to bar it from the outside, so I ran on, retracing the route through the cave from that night I had followed Dworkin along it. Behind me, I heard the expected bellow.
I followed the twistings. I stumbled only once. Wixer's smell still hung heavy in his lair. I pounded on and a final turning brought me a view of daylight ahead.
I raced toward it, slipping the Jewel's chain over my head as I went. I felt it fall to my breast, I reached down into it with my mind. There were echoes in the cave behind me.
I sprinted toward the Pattern, feeling through the Jewel, turning it into an extra sense. I was the only person other than Dad or Dworkin fully attuned to it. Dworkin had told me that the Pattern's repair might be effected by a person's walking the Grand Pattern in such a state of attunement, burning out the smear at each crossing, replacing it with stock from the image of the Pattern that he bore within him, wiping out the black road in the process. Better me than Dad, then. I still felt that the black road owed something of its final form to the strength my curse against Amber had given it. I wanted to wipe that out, too. Dad would do a better job of putting things together after the war than I ever could, anyway. I realized, at that moment, that I no longer wanted the throne. Even if it were available, the prospect of administering to the kingdom down all the dull centuries that might lie before me was overwhelming. Maybe I would be taking the easy way out if I died in this effort. Eric was dead, and I no longer hated him. The other thing that had driven me-the throne-seemed now to have been desirable only because I'd thought he had wanted it so. I renounced both. What was left? I had laughed at Vialle, then wondered. But she had been right. The old soldier in me was strongest. It was a matter of duty. But not duty alone. There was more. . . .
I reached the edge of the Pattern, quickly made my way toward its beginning. I glanced back at the cavemouth. Dad, Dwarkin, Fiona-none of them had yet emerged. Good. They could never make it in time to stop me. Once I set foot on the Pattern, if would be too late for them to do anything but wait and watch. I thought for a fleeting instant of lago's dissolution, pushed that thought away, strove to calm my mind to the level necessary for the undertaking, recalled my battle with Brand in this place and his strange departure, pushed that away, too, slowed my breathing, prepared myself.
A certain lethargy came upon me. It was time to begin, but I held back for a moment, trying to fix my mind properly on the grand task that lay before me. The Pattern swam for a moment in my vision. Now! Damn it! Now! No more preliminaries! Begin, I told myself. Walk!
Still, I stood, contemplating the Pattern as in a dream. I forgot about myself for long moments as I regarded it. The Pattern, with its long black smear to be removed . . .
It no longer seemed important that it might kill me. My mind drifted, considering the beauty of the thing. . . .
I heard a sound. It would be Dad, Dworkin, Fiona, coming. I had to do something before they reached me. I had to walk it, in a moment. . . .
I pulled my gaze away from the Pattern and glanced back toward the cavemouth. They had emerged, come partway down the slope and halted. Why? Why had they stopped?
What did it matter? I had the time I needed in which to begin. I began to raise my foot, to step forward.
I could barely move. I inched my foot ahead with a great effort of will. Taking this first step was proving worse than walking the Pattern itself, near to the end. But it did not seem so much an external resistance I fought against as it did the sluggishness at my own body. It was almost as if-
Then I had me an image of Benedict beside the Pattern in Tir-na Nog'th, Brand approaching, mocking, the Jewel burning upon his breast.
Before I looked down, I knew what I would see. The red stone was pulsing in time with my heartbeat. Damn them!
Either Dad or Dworkin-or both of them-readied through it at this instant, paralyzing me. I did not doubt that either of them could manage it alone. Still, at this distance, it was not worth surrendering without a fight.
I continued to push forward with my foot, sliding it slowly ahead toward the edge of the Pattern. Once I made it, I did not see how they . . .
Drowsing . . . I felt myself beginning to fall. I had been asleep for a moment. It happened again.
When I opened my eyes, I could see a portion of the Pattern. When I turned my head, I saw feet.
When I looked up, I saw Dad holding the Jewel.
"Go away," he said to Dworkin and Fiona, without turning his head toward them.
They withdrew as he placed the Jewel about his own neck. He leaned forward then and extended his hand. I took it and he drew me to my feet.
"That was a damfool thing to do," he said.
"I almost made it."
"Of course, you would have killed yourself and not accomplished anything," he said. "But it was well done nevertheless. Come on, let's walk."
He took my arm, and we began to move about the periphery of the Pattern.
I watched that strange sky-sea, horizonless about us, as we went. I wondered what would have happened had I been able to begin the Pattern, what would be happening at that moment.
"You have changed," he finally said, "or else I never really knew you."
"Something of both perhaps. I was about to say the same of you. Tell me something?"
"How difficult was it for you, being Ganelon?"
"Not hard at all," he said. "You may have had a glimpse of the real me."
"I liked him. Or, rather, you being him. I wonder whatever became of the real Ganelon?"
"Long dead, Corwin. I met him after you had exiled him from Avalon, long ago. He wasn't a bad chap. Wouldn't have trusted him worth a damn, but then I never trust anyone I dont have to."
"It runs in the family."
"I regretted having to kill him. Not that he gave me much choice. All this was very long ago, but I remembered him clearly, so he must have impressed me."
"The country? A good job, I thought. I worked the proper shadow. It grew in strength by my very presence, as any will if one of us stays around for long-as with you in Avalon, and later that other place. And I saw that I had a long while there by exercising my will upon its timestream."
"I did not know that could be done."
"You grow in strength slowly, beginning with your initiation into the Pattern. There are many things you have yet to learn. Yes, I strengthened Lorraine, and made it especially vulnerable to the growing force of the black road. I saw that it would lie in your path, no matter where you went. After your escape, all roads led to Lorraine."
"It was a trap I had set for you, and maybe a test. I wanted to be with you when you met the forces of Chaos. I also wanted to travel with you for a time."
"A test? What were you testing me for? And why travel with me?"
"Can you not guess? I have watched all of you over the years. I never named a successor. I purposely left the matter muddled. You are all enough like me for me to know that the moment I declared for one of you I would be signing his or her death warrant. No, I intentionally left things as they were until the very end. Now, though, I have decided. It is to be you."
"You communicated with me, as yourself, briefly, back in Lorraine. You told me then to take the throne. If you had made up your mind at that point why did you continue the masquerade?"
"But I had not decided then. That was merely a means to assure your continuing. I feared you might come to like that girl too much, and that land. When you emerged a hero from the Black Circle you might have decided to settle and stay there. I wanted to plant the notions that would cause you to continue your Journey."
I was silent for a long while. We had moved a good distance about the Pattern.
Then, "There is something that I have to know," I said. "Before I came here I was speaking with Dara, who is in the process of trying to clear her name with us-"
"It is clear," he said. "I have cleared it."
I shook my head.
"I refrained from accusing her of something I have been thinking about for some time. There is a very good reason why I felt she cannot be trusted, despite her protests and your endorsement. Two reasons, in fact."
"I know, Corwin. But she did not kill Benedict's servants to manage her position at his house. I did it myself, to assure her getting to you as she did, at just the appropriate time."
"You? You were party to her whole plot? Why?"
"She will make you a good queen, son. I trust the blood of Chaos for strength. It was time for a fresh infusion. You will take the throne already provided with an heir. By the time he is ready for it. Merlin will long have been weaned from his upbringing."
We had come all the way around to the place of the black smear. I stopped. I squatted and studied it.
"You think this thing is going to kill you?" I finally asked.
"I know that it is."
"You are not above murdering innocent people to manipulate me. Yet you would sacrifice your life for the kingdom."
I looked at him.
"My own hands are not clean," I said, "and I certainly do not presume to judge you. A while back, though, when I made ready to try the Pattern, I thought how my feelings had changed-toward Eric, toward the throne. You do what you do, I believe, as a duty. I, too, feel a duty now, toward Amber, toward the throne. More than that, actually. Much more, I realized, just then. But I realized something else, also, something that duty does not require of me. I do not know when or how it stopped and I changed, but I do not want the throne. Dad. I am sorry it messes up your plans, but I do not want to be king of Amber. I am sorry."
I looked away then, backdown at the smear. I heard him sigh.
Then, "I am going to send you home now," he said. "Saddle your horse and take provisions. Ride to a place outside Amber-any place, fairly isolated."
He snorted and chuckled faintly.