Nine Princess In Amber
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I held it in both hands for a moment then quickly placed it on my own head and declared, "I crown me, Corwin, king of Amber!"
It was removed immediately and replaced upon the cushion. Several blows fell upon my back. There came a murmuring throughout the hall.
"Now pick it up and try it again," said Julian. "Take it and hand it to Eric."
Another blow fell.
"Okay," I told him, feeling my shirt grow wet.
This time I hurled it, hoping to put out one of Eric's eyes.
He caught it in his right hand and smiled down at me as I was beaten.
"Thank you," he said. "Now hear me, all you present, and those of you who listen in Shadow. I assume the crown and throne this day. I take into my hand the scepter of the kingdom of Amber. I have won the throne fairly, and I take it and hold it by the right of my blood."
"Liar!" I cried, and a hand was clapped over my mouth.
"I crown myself Eric the First, King of Amber."
"Long live the King!" cried the nobles, three times.
Then he leaned forward and whispered to me, "Your eyes have looked upon the fairest sight they will ever hold. . .. Guards! Take Corwin away to the smithy, and let his eyes be burnt from out his head! Let him remember the sights of this day as the last he might ever see! Then cast him into the darkness of the deepest dungeon beneath Amber, and let his name be forgotten!"
I spat and was beaten.
I fought every step of the way, but was taken forth from the hall. No one would look upon me as I went, and the last thing I remember was the sight of Eric seated upon the throne, pronouncing his blessing upon the nobles of Amber, and smiling.
That which he said was done to me, and mercifully I fainted before it was finished.
I have no idea how much later it was that I awakened within absolute blackness and felt the terrible pains within my head. Perhaps it was then that I pronounced the curse, or perhaps it had been at the time that the whitehot irons had descended. I don't remember. But I knew that Eric would never rest easy upon the throne, for the curse of a prince of Amber, pronounced in a fullness of fury, is always potent.
I clawed at the straw, in the absolute blackness of my cell, and no tears came. That was the horror of it. After a time-only you and I, gods, know how long-sleep came again
When I awakened. there was still the pain. I rose to my feet. I measured off the dimensions of my cell. Four paces in width, five in length. There was a lavatory hole in the floor and a straw-tick mattress in a corner. The door contained a small slot at the bottom, and behind it there was a tray which held a stale piece of bread and a bottle of water. I ate and I drank, but I was not refreshed.
My head ached so, and there was nothing of peace within me.
I slept as much as I could, and no one came to see me. I awakened and crossed my cell and felt for food and ate it when I found it. I slept as much as I could.
After seven sleeps, the pain was gone from out my eye sockets. I hated my brother who was king in Amber. Better he had killed me.
I wondered at the popular reaction, but could not guess.
When the darkness reached as far as Amber, however, I knew that Eric would have his regrets. This much I knew, and this comforted me.
Thus began my days of darkness, and I had no way of measuring their passage. Even if I had had eyes, I could not have distinguished day from night in that place.
Time went on its way, ignoring me. There were occasions when I broke into a sweat over this and shivered. Had I been there months? Only hours? Or weeks? Or had it been years?
I forgot all ahout time. I slept, I paced (I knew exactly where to place my feet and when to turn), and I reflected upon things I had done and hadn't done. Sometimes I would sit cross-legged and breathe slowly and deeply, and empty my mind and keep it that way for as long as I could. This helped-thinking of nothing.
Eric had been clever. Although the power lived within me, now it was useless. A blind man cannot walk among Shadows.
My beard had grown down to my chest and my hair was long. I was always hungry at first, but after a time my appetite waned. Sometimes I grew dizzy when I stood up too rapidly.
I could still see, in my nightmares, but this hurt me even more when I awakened.
Later, though, I felt somewhat distant from the events which had led up to this. It was almost as though they had happened to a different person. And this, too, was true.
I had lost a lot of weight. I could visualize myself, pallid and thin. I couldn't even cry, though I felt like it a couple of times. There was something wrong with my tear ducts. It was a dreadful thing that any man should be brought to this.
Then one day there came a light scratching upon the door. I ignored it.
It came again, and still I did not respond.
Then I heard my name whispered, in the interrogative.
I crossed the cell.
"Yes?" I replied.
"It's me, Rein," he said. "How are you?"
I laughed at that.
"Fine! Oh just fine!" I said. "Steak and champagne every night, and dancing girls. God! You should make the scene sometime!"
"I'm sorry," he said, "that there is nothing I can do for you," and I could feel the pain in his voice.
"I know," I said.
"I would if I could," he told me.
"I know that, too."
"I brought you something. Here."
The little gate at the bottom of the cell door creaked slightly as it swung inward several times.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Some clean clothes," he said, "and three loaves of fresh bread, a head of cheese, some beef, two bottles of wine, a carton of cigarettes, and a lot of matches."
My voice caught in my throat.
"Thanks, Rein. You're all right. How did you arrange this?"
"I know the guard who's standing duty this shift. He won't talk. He owes me too much."
"He might try to cancel his debts by squealing," I said. "So don't do it again-much as I appreciate it. Needless to say, I'll dispose of the evidence."
"I wish it had turned out different, Corwin."
"You and me both. Thanks for thinking of me when you were ordered not to."
"That part was easy." he said.
"How long have I been in this place?"
"Four months and ten days," he said.
"So what's new in Amber?"
"Erie reigns. That's all."
"Back in the Forest of Arden with his guard."
"Some strange things made it through Shadow recently."
"I see. How about Caine?"
"He's still in Amber, enjoying himself. Wenching and drinking, mostly."
"He's admiral of the entire fleet."
I sighed with a bit of relief. I was afraid his withdrawal during the naval engagement might have cost him something with Eric.
"And what of Random?"
"He's up the hall aways."
"What? He was taken?"
"Yes. He walked the Pattern in Rebma and showed up here, with a crossbow. He wounded Eric before he was taken."
"Really? Why wasn't he slain?"
"Well, rumor has it he's married a noblewoman of Rebma. Eric didn't want to court an incident with Rebma at
this point. Moire has quite a kingdom, and there is talk that Eric is even considering asking her to be his queen. All gossip, of course. But interesting."
"Yes " I said
"She liked you, didn't she?"
"Somewhat. How did you hear?"
"I was present when Random was sentenced. I got to speak with him for a moment. The Lady Vialle, who claims to be his wife, has asked to join him in prison. Eric is not yet certain how to reply."
I thought upon the blind girl, who I had never met, and I wondered at this.
"How long ago did all this happen?" I asked.
"Mm. Thirty-four days," he replied. "That was when Random showed up. A week later, Vialle made her request."
"She must be a strange woman, If she really loves Random,"
"Those were my sentiments," he replied. "I can't think of a more unusoal combination."
"If you should get to see him again, give him my regards and my regrets."
"How fare my sisters?"
"Dierdre and LIewella remain in Rebma. The Lady Florimel has been enjoying Eric's favors and stands high in the present court. I do not know where Fiona is presently."
"Has anything more been heard of Bleys? I am sure that he died."
"He must have died," said Rein, "His body was never recovered, though."
"What of Benedict?"
"As absent as ever."
"How about Brand?"
"Then I guess that covers the whole family tree, as it stands at present. Have you written any new ballads?"
"No," he said. "I'm still working on 'The Siege of Amber,' but it will be an underground hit, if at all."
I reached my hand out through the tiny gate at the bottom of the door.
"I would clasp hands with thee," I said, and I felt his hand touch mine.
"It was good of thee to do this thing for me. Don't do it again, though. It would he foo!ish to risk Eric's wrath."
He squeezed my hand, muttered something, and was gone.
I found his CARE package and stuffed myself with the meat, which was the most perishable item. I ate a lot of the bread. to accompany it, and I realized that I had almost forgotten how good food can taste. Then I grew drowsy and slept. I don't think I slept very long, and when I awoke I opened one of the bottles of wine.
It didn't take as much as usual, in my weakened condition, to get me kind of high. I had a cigarette. sat down on my mattress, leaned back against the wall, and mused.
I remembered Rein as a child. I was already full grown by then and he was a candidate for court jester. A thin, wise kid. People had kidded him too much. Me included. But I wrote music, composed ballads, and he'd picked up a lute somewhere and had taught himself how to use it. Soon we were singing with voces together raised and all like that, and before long I took a liking to him and we worked together. practicing the martial arts. He was lousy at them. But I felt kind of sorry for the way I had treated him earlier, what with the way he had dug my stuff, so I forced the fake graces upon him and also made him a passable saber man. I'd never regretted it, and I guess he didn't either. Before long, he became minstrel to the court of Amber. I had called him my page all that while, and when the wars beckoned, against the dark things out of Shadow called Weirmonken, I made him my squire, and we had ridden off to the wars together. I knighted him upon the battlefield, at Jones Falls, and he had deserved it. After that, he had gone on to become my better when it came to the ways of words and music. His colors were crimson and his words were golden. I loved him, as one of my two or three friends in Amber. I didn't think he'd take the risk he had to bring me a decent meal, though. I didn't think anyone would. I had another drink and smoked another cigarette, in his name, to celebrate him. He was a good man. I wondered how long he would survive.
I threw all the butts into the head and also-eventually-the empty bottle. I didn't want anything around to show
that I had been "enjoying" myself, should a sudden inspection be held. I ate all the good food he had brought me, and I felt
surfeited for the first time since I had been
in durance. I saved the last bottle for one massive spell of drunkenness and forgetfulness.
And after that time had passed, I returned to my cycle of recriminations.
I hoped, mainly, that Eric had no measure of our complete powers. He was king in Amber, granted, but he didn't know everything. Not yet. Not the way Dad had known. There was a million-in-one shot that might still work in my favor. So much so, and so different that at least it served to grant me my small purchase upon sanity, there in the grip of despair.
But maybe I did go mad for a time, I don't know. There are days that are great blanks to me now, as I stand here on the brink of Chaos. God knows what they held, and I'll never see a shrink to find out.
There are none of you, good doctors, could cope with my family, anyway.
I lay there and I paced there, within the numbing darkness. I grew quite sensitive to sounds. I listened to the scurrv of rats' feet through straw, the distant moaning of other prisoners, the echoes of a guard's footsteps as he approached with a tray of food. I began estimating distances and direction from things like this.
I suppose I became more sensitive to odors also, but I tried not to think about them too much. Aside from the imaginable nauseating ones there was, for a long while, what I would swear to be the odor of decaying flesh. I wondered, if I were to die, how long would it be before someone took notice? How many chunks of bread and bowls of slop would go uneaten before the guard thought to check within after my continued existence?
The answer to that one could be very important.
The death odor was around for a long while. I tried to think in terms of time again, and it seemed that it persisted for over a week.
Though I rationed myself carefully, resisting the compulsion, the handy temptation, for as long as I could, I finally found myself down to my final pack of cigarettes.
I tore it open and lit one. I had had a carton of Salems and I had smoked eleven packs. That was two hundred and twenty cigarettes. I had once timed myself with one, and it had taken me seven minutes to smoke it. That made for a total of one thousand five hundred and forty minutes spent smoking, or twenty-five hours and forty minutes. I was sure I had spent at least an hour between cigarettes, more like an hour and a half. Say an hour and a half. Now figure that I was sleeping six to eight hours per day. That left sixteen to eighteen waking hours. I guessed I was smoking ten or twelve per day. So that meant maybe three weeks had passed since Rein's visit. He had told me it was four months and ten days since the coronation, which meant that it was now around five months.
I nursed my last pack, enjoying each one like a love affair. When they were all gone, I felt depressed.
Then a lot more time must have passed.
I got to wondering about Eric. How was he making out as leige? What problems was he encountering? What was he up to right now? Why hadn't he been around to torment me? Could I ever truly be forgotten in Amber, even by imperial decree? Never, I decided.
And what of my brothers? Why had none of them contacted me? It would be so easy to draw forth my Trump and break Eric's decree. None did, though.
I thought for a long while upon Moire, the last woman I had loved. What was she doing? Did she think of me ever? Probably not. Maybe she was Eric's mistress by now, or his queen. Did she ever speak to him of me? Again. probably not.
And what of my sisters? Forget it. Bitches all, they.
I had been blinded once before, by a cannon flashback in the eighteenth century on the Shadow Earth. But it had only lasted for around a month and my sight had returned. Eric had had a permanent thing in mind, however, when he had given his order. I still perspired and shuddered, and sometimes woke up screaming, whenever memory of the white-hot irons returned to me-hung there before my eyes-and then the contact!
I moaned softly and continued to pace.
There was absolutely nothing I could do. That was the most horrible part of the whole thing. I was as helpless as an embryo. To be born again into sight and fury was a thing for which I would give my soul. Even for an hour, with a blade in my band, to duel once again with my brother.
I lay back on my mat and slept. When I awakened, there was food, and I ate once again and paced. My fingernails and my toenails had grown long. My beard was very long and my hair fell across my eyes, constantly. I felt filthy, and I itched all the time. I wondered whether I had fleas.
That a prince of Amber could be brought to this state drew a terrible emotion from the center of my being, wherever that may be. I had been reared to think of us as invincible entities, clean and cool and diamond-hard, like our pictures on the Trumps. Obviously, we were not.
At least, we were enough like other men to have our resources.
I played mental games, I told myself stories, I reviewed pleasant memories-there were many of these. I recalled the elements: wind, rain, snow, the summer's warmth, and the spring's cool breezes. I had had a small airplane on the Shadow Earth, and when I flew it I had enjoyed the sensation. I recalled the glistening panoramas of color and distance, the miniaturization of cities, the broad blue sweep of sky, the herds of clouds (where were they now?) and the clean expanse of the ocean beneath my wings. I remembered women I had loved, parties, military engagements. And when all was done, and I could help it no longer, I thought of Amber.
One time, when I did so, my tear glands began to function again. I wept.
After an interminable time, a time filled with blackness and many sleeps, I heard footsteps which paused before the door to my cell, and I heard the sound of a key within the lock.
It was a time so long after Rein's visit that I had forgotten the taste of the wine and the cigarettes. I could not realty estimate its span, but it had been long.
There were two men in the corridor. I could tell this from their footsteps even before I heard the sounds of their voices.
One of the voices I recognized.
The door swung open and Julian said my name.
I didn't answer right away, and he repeated it.
"Corwin? Come here."
Since I didn't have much choice in the matter, I drew myself erect and advanced. I stopped when I knew I was near him.
"What do you want?" I asked.
"Come with me." And he took my arm.
We walked along the corridor, and he said nothing and I'd be damned if I'd ask him any questions.
From the echoes, I could tell when we entered the big hall. Soon after, he guided me up the stair.
Up, and into the palace proper we went.
I was taken to a room and seated in a chair. A barber set to work cutting my hair and my beard. I didn't recognize his voice when he asked me if I wanted the beard trimmed or removed.
"Cut it off," I said, and a manicurist set to work on my nails, all twenty of them.
Then I was bathed, and someone helped me to dress in clean garments. They hung loose on me. I was loused also, but forget that.
Then I was led into another black place filled with music and the odors of good food and the sounds of many voices and some laughter. I recognized it to be the dining room.
The voices subsided a bit as Julian led me in and seated me.
I sat there until the trumpet notes, to which I was forced to rise.
I heard the toast called out:
"To Eric the First, King of Amber! Long live the king!"
I didn't drink to that, but no one seemed to notice. It was Caine's voice that had called out the toast, from far up along the table.
I ate as much as I could, because it was the best meal I had been offered since the coronation. I gathered from conversation overheard that today was the anniversary of Eric's coronation, which meant I had spent an entire year in the dungeons.
No one spoke to me. and I didn't make any overtures. I was present as a ghost only. To humiliate me, and to serve as a reminder to my brothers, no doubt, as to the price of defying our liege. And everyone had been ordered to forget me.
It went on well into the night. Someone kept me well provided with wine, which was something, and I sat there and listened to the music of all the dances.
The tables had been removed by this time, and I was seated off somewhere in a corner.
I got stinking drunk and was half dragged, half carried back to my cell in the morning, when the whole thing was over save for the cleaning up. My only regret was that I hadn't gotten sick enough to dirty the floor or someone's pretty garments.
Thus ended the first year of darkness.
Nine Princes In Amber
I shall not bore you with repetition. My second year was pretty much like my first, with the same finale. Ditto for the third. Rein came twice that second year, with a basket of goodies and a mouthful of gossip. Both times I forbade him ever to come again. The third year he came down six times, every other month, and each time I forbade him anew and ate his food and heard what he had to say.
Something was wrong in Amber. Strange things walked through Shadow and presented themselves, with violence, to all and sundry. They were destroyed, of course. Eric was still trying to figure out how they had occurred. I did not mention my curse, though I later rejoiced in the fact that it had come to pass.
Random, like myself, was still a prisoner. His wife had joined him. The positions of my other brothers and sisters remained unchanged. This bolstered me through the third anniversary of the coronation, and it made me feel almost alive again.
It! One day it was there, and it made me feel so good that I immediately broke out the final bottle of wine Rein had brought me and opened the last pack of cigarettes, which I had been saving.
I smoked them and sipped and enjoyed the feeling that I had somehow beaten Eric. If he found this out, I felt it might be fatal. But I knew he didn't know.
So I rejoiced, smoking. drinking and reveling in the light of that which had occurred.
Yes, the light.
I'd discovered a tiny patch of brightness, off somewhere to my right.
Well, let's take it like this: I had awakened in a hospital bed and learned that I had recovered all too soon. Dig?
I heal faster than others who have been broken. All the lords and ladies of Amber have something of this capacity.
I'd lived through the Plague, I'd lived through the march on Moscow.
I regenerate faster and better than anybody I've ever known.
Napoleon had once made a remark about it. So had General MacArthur.
With nerve tissue it takes me a bit longer, that's all.
My sight was returning to me, that's what it meant- that lovely patch of brightness, off somewhere to my right.
After a time, I knew that it was the little barren area in tbe door to my cell.
I had grown new eyes, my fingers told me. It had taken me over three years, but I had done it. It was the million-to-one thing I spoke of earlier, the thing which even Eric could not properly assess, because of the variances of powers among the individual members of the family. I had beaten him to this extent: I had learned that I could grow new eyeballs. I had always known that I could regenerate nerve tissues, given sufficient time. I had been left paraplegic from a spine injury received during the Franco- Prussian wars. After two years, it had gone away. I had had my hope-a wild one, I'll admit-that I could do what I had done then, with my burned-out orbs. And I had been right. They felt intact, and the sight was returning, slowly.
How long till the next anniversary of Eric's coronation? I stopped pacing and my heart beat faster. As soon as someone saw that I'd recovered my eyes, I'd lose them again.
Therefore, I'd have to escape before the four years had passed.
I hadn't thought about it much up to this time, because even if I could figure a way to get out of my cell, I'd never make it out of Amber-or out of the palace, for that matter-without eyes or aid, and neither were available to me.
Now, though. . .
The door of my cell was a big, heavy, brass-bound thing, with only a tiny grille at a height of about five feet for purposes of looking in to see whether I was still alive, if anyone cared. Even if I succeeded in removing it, I could tell that I couldn't reach out far enough to touch the lock. There was a little swinging gate at the bottom of the door, large enough to push my food through and that's about all. The hinges were either on the outside or in between the door and the jamb, I couldn't tell for sure. Either way, I couldn't get at them. There were no windows and no other doors.
It was still almost like being blind, save for that feeble reassuring light through the grille. I knew my sight hadn't returned fully. That was still a long way off. But even if it had, it was nearly pitch dark in there. I knew this because I knew the dungeons under Amber.
I lit a cigarette, paced some more, and assessed my possessions, seeking anything that might be of aid. There was my clothing, my sleeping mat, and all the damp straw I wanted. I also had matches, but I quickly rejected the notion of setting fire to the straw. I doubted anyone would come and open the door if I did. Most likely the guard would come and laugh, if he came at all. I had a spoon I'd picked up at the last banquet. I'd wanted a knife, really, but Julian had caught me trying to lift one and snatched it away. What he didn't know, though, was that that was my second attempt. I already had the spoon tucked inside my boot
So what good was it?
I'd heard these stories of guys digging their way out of cells with the damnedest things-belt buckles (which I didn't have)-etc. But I didn't have time to try the Count of Monte Cristo bit. I needed out in a matter of months, or my new eyes wouldn't mean anything.
The door was mainly wood. Oak. It was bound with four metal strips. One went around it near the top, one near the bottom, right above the gate, and there were two which ran from top to bottom, passing along either side of the footwide grille. The door opened outward, I knew, and the lock was to my left. My memories told me the door was about two inches thick, and I recalled the approximate position of the lock, which I verified by leaning against the door and feeling the tension at that point. I knew that the door was also barred, but I could worry about that later. I might be able to raise it by sliding the handle of the spoon upward between the door's edge and the jamb.
I knelt on my sleeping mat and with the spoon I traced a box about that area which containcd the lock. I worked until my hand was quite sore-maybe a couple of hours. Then I ran my fingernail over the surface of the wood. I hadn't scarred it much, but it was a beginning. I switched the spoon to my left hand and continued until it, began to ache.
I kept hoping that Rein would show up. I was sure I could talk him into giving me his dagger if I really pressed the matter. He didn't put in an appearance, though, so I just kept grinding away.
Day after day I worked, until I was perhaps half an inch into the wood. Each time I'd hear a guard's footsteps I'd move the pallet back to the far wall and lie down on it with my back to the door. When he had passed, I'd resume work. Then I had to stop for a while, as much as I hated to. Even though I had wrapped them in cloth torn from my garments, my hands had blistered and the blisters had broken. and after a time the raw flesh underneath began to bleed. So I took a break to let them heal. I decided to devote the time to planning what I'd do after I got out.
When I'd worked my way far enough through the door, I'd raise the bar. The sound of it falling would probably bring a guard. By then, though, I'd be out. A couple of good kicks would break out the piece I was working on and the lock could stay right where it was if it wanted to. The door would swing open then and I would face the guard. He would be armed and I wouldn't. I'd have to take him.
He might be overconfident, thinking I couldn't see. On the other hand, he might be a bit afraid, if he recalled how I had entered into Amber. Either way he would die and I would then be armed. I gripped my right biceps with my left hand and my fingertips touched. Gods'. I was emaciatedl Whatever, I was of the blood of Amber, and I felt that even in that condition I could take any ordinary man. Maybe I was kidding myself, but I'd have to try it.