Nine Princess In Amber
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"I see. Will you give me your protection, Corwin?" Pause, then, "Please?"
"As much as I can," I said, "but I can't commit Flora to anything without consulting her."
"Will you protect me against her?"
"Then you're good enough for me, man. I'm going to try to make it to New York now. I'll be coming by a rather circuitous route, so I don't know how long it will take me. If I can avoid the wrong shadows, l'll he seeing you whenever. Wish me luck."
"Luck," I said.
Then there was a click and I was listening to a distant ringing and the voices of the ghosts.
So cocky little Random was in trouble! I had a feeling it shouldn't have bothered me especially. But now, he was one of the keys to my past, and quite possibly my future also. So I would try to help him, in any way I could, until I'd learned all I wanted from him. I knew that there wasn't much brotherly love lost between the two of us. But I knew that on the one hand he was nobody's fool; he was resourceful, shrewd, strangely sentimental over the damnedest things; and on the other hand, his word wasn't worth the spit behind it, and he'd probably sell my corpse to the medical school of his choice if he could get much for it. I remembered the little fink all right, with only a touch of affection, perhaps for a few pleasant times it seemed we had spent together. But trust him? Never. I decided I wouldn't tell Flora he was coming until the last possible moment. He might be made to serve as an ace, or at least a knave, in the hole.
So I added some hot coffee to what remained in my cup and sipped it slowly.
Who was he running from?
Not Eric, certainly, or he wouldn't have been calling here. I wondered then concerning his question as to whether Flora was dead, just because I happened to be present here. Was she really that strongly allied with the brother I knew I hated that it was common knowledge in the family that I'd do her in, too, given the chance? It seemed strange, but then he'd asked the question.
And what was it in which they were allied? What was the source of this tension, this opposition? Why was it that Random was running?
That was the answer.
Amber. Somehow, the key to everything lay in Amber, I knew. The secret of the entire mess was in Amber, in some event that had transpired in that place, and fairly recently, I'd judge. I'd have to be on my toes. I'd have to pretend to the knowledge I didn't possess, while piece by piece I mined it from those who had it. I felt confident that I could do it. There was enough distrust circulating for everyone to be cagey. I'd play on that. I'd get what I needed and take what I wanted, and I'd remember those who helped me and step on the rest. For this, I knew, was the law by which our family lived, and I was a true son of my father....
My headache came on again suddenly, throbbing to crack my skull.
Something about my father I thought, guessed, felt--was what had served to set it off. But I wasn't sure why or how.
After a time, it subsided and I slept, there in the chair. After a much longer time, the door opened and Flora entered. It was night outside, once more.
She was dressed in a green silk blouse and a long woolen skirt that was gray. She had on walking shoes and heavy stockings. Her hair was pulled back behind her head and she looked slightiy pale. She still wore her hound whistle.
"Good evening," I said, rising.
But she did not reply. Instead, she walked across the room to the bar, poured herself a shot of Jack Daniels, and tossed it off like a man. Then she poured another and took it with her to the big chair.
I lit a cigarette and handed it to her.
She nodded, then said, "The Road to Amber--is difficult."
She gave me a very puzzled look.
"When is the last time you tried it?"
"I don't remember."
"Be that way then," she said. "I just wondered how much of it was your doing.
I didn't reply because I didn't know what she was talking about. But then I recalled that there was an easier way than the Road to get to the place called Amber. Obviously, she lacked it.
"You're missing some Trumps," I said then suddenly, in a voice which was almost mine.
She sprang to her feet, half her drink spilling over the back of her hand.
"Give them back!" she cried, reaching for the whistle.
I moved forward and seized her shoulders,
"I don't have them," I said. "I was just making an observation."
She relaxed a bit, then began to cry, and I pushed her back down, gently, into the chair.
"I thought you meant you'd taken the ones I had left," she said. "Rather than just making a nasty and obvious comment."
I didn't apologize. It didn't seem right that I should have to.
"How far did you get?"
"Not far at all." Then she laughed and regarded me with a new light in her eyes.
"I see what you've done now, Corwin," she said, and I lit a cigarette in order to cover any sort of need for a reply.
"Some of those things were yours, weren't they? You blocked my way to Amber before you came here, didn't you? You knew I'd go to Eric. But I can't now. I'll have to wait till he comes to me. Clever. You want to draw him here, don't you? He'll send a messenger, though. He won't come himself."
There was a strange tone of admiration in the voice of this woman who was admitting she'd just tried to sell me out to my enemy. and still would--given half a chance--as she talked about something she thought I'd done which had thrown a monkey wrench into her plans. How could anyone be so admittedly Machiavellian in the presence of a proposed victim? The answer rang back immediately from the depths of my mind. it is the way of our kind. We don't have to be subtle with each other. Though I thought she lacked somewhat the finesse of a true professional.
"Do you think I'm stupid, Flora?" I asked. "Do you think I came here just for purposes of waiting around for you to hand me over to Erie? Whatever you ran into, it served vou right."
"All right I don't play in your league! But you're in exile, too! That shows you weren't so smart!"
Somehow her words burned and I knew they were wrong.
"Like hell I am!" I said.
She laughed again.
"I knew that would get a rise out of you," she said. "All right, you walk in the Shadows on purpose then. You're crazy."
She said, "What do you want? Why did you really come here?"
"I was curious what you were up to," I said. "That's all. You can't keep me here if I don't want to stay. Even Eric couldn't do that. Maybe I really did just want to visit with you. Maybe I'm getting sentimental in my old age. Whatever, I'm going to stay a little longer now, and then probably go away for good. If you hadn't been so quick to see what you could get for me, you might have profited a lot more, lady. You asked me to remember you one day, if a certain thing occurred...."
It took several seconds for what I thought I was implying to sink in.
Then she said, "You're going to try! You're really going to try!"
"You're goddamn right I'm going to try," I said, knowing that I would, whatever it was, "and you can tell that to Eric if you want, but remember that I might make it. Bear in mind that if I do, it might be nice to be my friend."
I sure wished I knew what the hell I was talking about, but I'd picked up enough terms and felt the importance attached to them, so that I could use them properly without knowing what they meant. But they felt right, so very right. . . .
Suddenly, she was kissing me.
"I won't tell him. Really, I won't, Corwin! I think you can do it. Bleys will be difficult, but Gerard would probably help you, and maybe Benedict. Then Caine would swing over, when he saw what was happening--"
"I can do my own planning," I said.
Then she drew away. She poured two glasses of wine and handed one to me.
"To the future," she said.
"I'll always drink to that."
And we did.
Then she refilled mine and studied me.
"It had to be Eric, Bleys, or you," she said. "You're the only ones with any guts or brains. But you'd removed yourself from the picture for so long that I'd counted you out of the running."
"It just goes to show you never can tell."
I sipped my drink and hoped she'd shut up for just a minute. It seemed to me she was being a bit too obvious in trying to play on every side available. There was something bothering me, and I wanted to think about it.
How old was I?
That question, I knew, was a part of the answer to the terrible sense of distance and removal that I felt from all the persons depicted on the playing cards. I was older than I appeared to be. (Thirtyish, I'd seemed when I looked at me in the mirror--but now I knew that it was because the shadows would lie for me.) I was far, far older, and it had been a very long time since I had seen my brothers and my sisters, all together and friendly, existing side by side as they did on the cards, with no tension, no friction among them.
We heard the sound of the bell, and Carmella moving to answer the door.
"That would be brother Random," I said, knowing I was right. "He's under my protection."
Her eyes widened, then she smiled, as though she appreciated some clever thing I had done.
I hadn't, of course. but I was glad to let her think so.
It made me feel safer.
I felt safe for perhaps all of three minutes. I beat Carmella to the door and flung It open.
He staggered in and immediately pushed the door shut behind himself and shot the bolt. There were lines under those light eyes and he wasn't wearing a bright doublet and long hose. He needed a shave and he had on a brown wool suit. He carried a gabardine overcoat over one arm and wore dark suede shoes. But he was Random, all right-the Random I had seen on the card-only the laughing mouth looked tired and there was dirt beneath his fingernails.
"Corwin!" he said, and embraced me.
I squeezed his shouder. "You look as if you could use a drink," I said.
"Yes. Yes. Yes...." he agreed, and I steered him toward the library.
Ahout three minutes later. after he had seated himself, with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, he
said to me, "They're after me. They'll be here soon."
Flora let out a little shriek, which we both ignored.
"Who?" I asked.
"People out of the shadows," he said. "I don't know who they are, or who sent them. There are four or five though, maybe even six. They were on the plane with me. I took a jet. They occurred around Denver. I moved the
plane several times to subtract them. but it didn't work-and I didn't want to get too far off the track. I shook them
in Manhattan, but it's only a matter of time. I think they'll be here soon."
"And you've no idea at all who sent them?"
He stalled for an instant.
"Well, I guess we'd he safe in limiting it to the family. Maybe Bleys, maybe Julian, maybe Caine. Maybe even you, to get me here. Hope not, though. You didn't, did you?"
"'Fraid not," I said. "How tough do they look?"
He shrugged. "If it were only two or three, I'd have tried to pull an ambush. But not with that whole crowd."
He was a little guy, maybe five-six in height, weighing perhaps one thirty-five. But he sounded as if he meant it when he said he'd take on two or three bruisers, single-handed. I wondered suddenly about my own physical strength, being his brother. I felt comfortably strong. I knew I'd be willing to take on any one man in a fair fight without any special fears. How strong was I?
Suddenly, I knew I would have a chance to find out.
There came a knocking at the front door.
"What shall we do?" asked Flora.
Random laughed, undid his neckite, tossed it atop his coat on the desk. He stripped off his suit jacket then and
looked about the room. His eyes fell upon the saber and he was across the room in an instant and had it in his
hand. I felt the weight of the .32 within my jacket pocket and thumbed off the safety catch.
"Do?" Random asked. "There exists a probability that they will gain entrance," he said. "Therefore, they will enter. When is the last time you stood to battle, sister?"
"It has been too long," she replied.
"Then you had better start remembering fast," he told her, "because it is only a matter of small time. They are guided, I can tell you. But there are three of us and at most only twice as many of them. Why worry?"
"We don't know what they are," she said.
The knocking came again.
"What does it matter?"
"Nothing," I said. "Shall I go and let them in?" They both blanched slightly.
"We might as well wait"
"I might call the cops." I said.
They both laughed, almost hysterically. "Or Eric," I said, suddenly looking at her. But she shook her head.
"We just don't have the time. We have the Trump, but by the time he could respond-if he chose to-it would be too late."
"And this might even be his doing, eh?" said Random.
"I doubt it," she replied, "very much. It's not his style."
"True," I replied, just for the hell of it, and to let them know I was with things.
The sound of knocking came once again, and much more loudly.
"What about Carmella?" I asked, upon a sudden thought.
Flora shook her head.
"I have decided that it is improbable that she will answer the door."
"But you don't know what you're up against," Random cried, and he was suddenly gone from the room.
I followed him, along the hallway and into the foyer, in time to stop Carmella from opening the door.
We sent her back to her own quarters with instructions to lock herself in, and Random observed, "That shows the strength of the opposition. Where are we, Corwin?"
"If I knew, I'd tell you. For the moment at least, we're in this together. Step back!"
And I opened the door.
The first man tried to push me aside, and I stiff-armed him back.
There were six, I could see that.
"What do you want?" I asked them.
But never a word was spoken, and I saw guns.
I kicked out and slammed the door again and shot the bolt.
"Okay, they're really there," I said. "But how do I know you're not pulling something?"
"You don't," he said, "but I really wish I were. They look wild."
I had to agree. The guys on the porch were heavily built and had hats pulled down to cover their eyes. Their faces had all been covered with shadows.
"I wish I knew where we are," said Random,
I felt a hackle-raising vibration, in the vicinity of my eardrums. I knew, in that moment, that Flora had blown
When I heard a window break, somewhere off to my right, I was not surprised to hear a growled rumbling
and some baying. somewhere off to my left.
"She's called her dogs," I said, "six mean and vicious brutes, which could under other circumstances be after
Random nodded, and we both headed off in the direction of the shattering.
When we reached the living room, two men were already inside and both had guns.
I dropped the first and hit the floor, firing at the second. Random leaped above me, brandishing his blade, and I
saw the second man's head depart his shoulders.
By then, two more were through the window. I emptied the automatic at them, and I heard the snarling of Flora's hounds mixed with gunfire that was not my own.
I saw three of the men upon the floor and the same number of Flora's dogs. It made me feel good to think we had gotten half them, and as the rest came through the window I killed another in a manner which surprised
Suddenly, and without thinking, I picked up a huge overstuffed chair and hurled it perhaps thirty feet across the room. It broke the back of the man it struck.
I leaped toward the remaining two, but before I crossedd the room, Random had pierced one of them with the saber, leaving him for the dogs to finish off, and was turning toward the other.
The other was pulled down before he could act, however. He killed another of the dogs before we could stop him, but he never killed anything again after that. Random strangled him.
It turned out that two of the dogs were dead and one was badly hurt. Random killed the injured one with a
quick thrust, and we turned our attention to the men.
There was something unusual about their appearance
Flora entered and helped us to decide what.
For one thing, all six had uniformly bloodshot eyes. Very, very bloodshot eyes. With them, though, the con-
dition seemed normal.
For another, all had an extra joint to each finger and thumb, and sharp, forward-curving spurs on the backs of
All of them had prominent jaws, and when I forced one open, I counted forty-four teeth, most of them longer than human teeth, and several looking to be much sharper. Their flesh was grayish and hard and shiny.
There were undoubtedly other differences also, but those were sufficient to prove a point of some sort.
We took their weapons, and I hung onto three small, flat pistols.
"They crawled Out of the Shadows, all right," said Random, and I nodded. "And I was lucky, too. It doesn't seem they suspected I'd turn up with the reinforcements I did-a militant brother and around half a ton of dogs."
He went and peered out the broken window, and I decided to let him do it himself. "Nothing," he said, after
a time. "I'm sure we got them all," and he drew the heavy orange drapes closed and pushed a lot of high-backed furniture in front of them. While he was doing that, I went through all their pockets.
I wasn't really surprised that I turned up nothing in the way of identification.
"Let's go back to the library," he said, "so I can finish my drink."
He cleaned off the blade, carefully, before he seated himself, however, and he replaced it on the pegs. I fetched Flora a drink while he did this.
"So it would seem I'm temporarily safe," he said, "now that there are three of us sharing the picture."
"So it would seem," Flora agreed.
"God, I haven't eaten since yesterday!" he announced. So Flora went to tell Carmella it was safe to come out now, so long as she stayed clear of the living room, and to bring a lot of food to the library.
As soon as she left the room, Random turned to me and asked, "Like, what's it between you?"
"Don't turn your back on her."
"She's still Eric's?"
"So far as I can tell."
"Then what are you doing here?"
"I was trying to sucker Eric into coming around after me himself. He knows it's the only way he'll really get
me, and I wanted to see how badly he wanted to."
Random shook his head.
"I don't think he'll do it. No percentage. So long as you're here and he's there, why bother sticking his neck
out? He's still got the stronger position. If you want him, you'll have to go after him."
"I've just about come to the same conclusion."
His eyes gleamed then, and his old smile appeared. He ran one hand through his straw-colored hair and wouldn't let go of my eyes.
"Are you going to do it?" he asked.
"Maybe," I said.
"Don't 'maybe' me, baby. It's written all over you. I'd almost be willing to go along, you know. Of all my relations, I like sex the best and Eric the least."
I lit a cigarette, while I considered.
"You're thinking," he said while I thought, "'How far can I trust Random this time? He is sneaky and mean and
just like his name, and he will doubtless sell me out If someone offers him a better deal.' True?"
"However, brother Corwin, remember that while I've never done you much good, I've never done you any especial harm either. Oh, a few pranks, I'll admit. But, all in all, you might say we've gotten along best of all in the family-that is, we've stayed out of each other's ways. Think it over. I believe I hear Flora or her woman coming now, so let's change the subject. . . . But quick I don't suppose you have a deck of the family's favorite playing cards around, do you?"
I shook my head.
Flora entered the room and said, "Carmella will bring in some food shortly."
We drank to that, and he winked at me behind her back.
The following morning, the bodies were gone from the living room, there were no stains upon the carpet, the
window appeared to have been repaired, and Random explained that he had "taken care of things." I did not see fit to question him further.
We borrowed Flora's Mercedes and went for a drive. The countryside seemed strangely altered. I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was that was missing or new, but somehow things felt different. This, too, gave me a headache when I attempted to consider it, so I decided to suspend such thinking for the nonce.
I was at the wheel, Random at my side. I observed that I would like to be back in Amber again-just to see what
sort of response it would obtain.
"I have been wondering," he replied, "whether you were out for vengeance, pure and simple, or something more," thereby shifting the ball back to me, to answer or not to answer, as I saw fit.
I saw fit. I used the stock phrase:
"I've been thinking about that, too," I said, "trying to figure my chances. You know, I just might 'try.'"