Nine Princess In Amber
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He turned toward me then (he had been staring out of the side window) and said:
"I suppose we've all had that ambition, or at least that thought-I know I have, though I dismissed me early in the game-and the way I feel about it, it's worth the attempt. You're asking me, I know, whether I'll help you.
The answer is 'yes.' I'll do it just to screw up the others." Then, "What do you think of Flora? Would she be of any help?"
"I doubt it very much," I said. "She'd throw in if things were certain. But, then, what's certain at this point?"
"Or any," he added.
"Or any," I repeated, so he'd think I knew what sort of response I would obtain.
I was afraid to confide in him as to the condition of my memory. I was also afraid to tell him, so I didn't. There
were so very many things I wanted to know, but I had no one to turn to. I thought about it a bit as we drove along.
"Well, when do you want to start?" I asked.
"Whenever you're ready."
And there it was, right in my lap, and I didn't know what to do with it.
"What about now?" I said.
He was silent. He lit a cigarette, I think to buy time.
I did the same.
"Okay," he finally said. "When's the last time you've been back?"
"It's been so damn long," I told him, "that I'm not even sure I remember the way."
"All right," he said, "then we're going to have to go away before we can come back. How much gas have you
"Three-quarters of a tank."
"Then turn left at the next corner, and we'll see what happens."
I did this thing, and as we drove along all the sidewalks began to sparkle.
"Damn!" he said. "It's been around twenty years since I've taken the walk. I'm remembering the right things too
We kept driving, and I kept wondering what the hell was happening. The sky had grown a bit greenish, then
shaded over into pink.
I bit my lip against the asking of questions.
We passed beneath a bridge and when we emerged on the other side the sky was a normal color again, but there were windmills all over the place, big yellow ones.
"Don't worry," he said quickly, "it could be worse." I noticed that the people we passed were dressed rather
strangely, and the roadway was of brick.
Purple clouds covered over the sun, and it began to rain. Lightning stalked the heavens and the skies grumbled
above us. I had the windshield wipers going full speed, but they weren't doing a whole lot of good. I turned on
the headlights and slowed even more.
I would have sworn I'd passed a horseman, racing in the other direction, dressed all in gray, collar turned high and head lowered against the rain.
Then the clouds broke themselves apart and we were riding along a seashore. The waves splashed high and
enormous gulls swept low above them. The rain had stopped and I killed the lights and the wipers. Now the road was of macadam, but I didn't recognize the place at all. In the rear-view mirror there was no sign of the town we had just departed. My grip tightened upon the wheel as we passed by a sudden gallows where a skeleton was suspended by the neck, pushed from side to side by the wind.
Random just kept smoking and staring out of the window as our road turned away from the shore and curved round a hill. A grassy treeless plain swept away to our right and a row of hills climbed higher on our left. The
sky by now was a dark but brilliant blue, like a deep, clear pool, sheltered and shaded. I did not recall having ever
seen a sky like that before.
Random opened his window to throw away the butt, and an icy breeze came in and swirled around inside the car until he closed the window again. The breeze had a sea scent to it, salty and sharp.
"All roads lead to Amber," he said, as though it were an axiom.
Then I recalled what Flora had said the day before. I didn't want to sound like a dunce or a withholder of crucial information, but I had to tell him, for my sake as well as his own, when I realized what her statements implied.
"You know," I began, "when you called the other day and I answered the phone because Flora was out, I've a
strong feeling she was trying to make it to Amber, and that she found the way blocked."
At this, he laughed.
"The woman has very little imagination," he replied. "Of course it would be blocked at a time like this. Ultimately, we'll be reduced to walking, I'm sure, and it will doubtless take all of our strength and ingenuity to make it, if we make it at all. Did she think she could walk back like a princess in state, treading on flowers the whole way? She's a dumb bitch. She doesn't really deserve to live, but that's not for me to say, yet."
"Turn right at the crossroads," he decided.
What was happening? I knew he was in some way responsible for the exotic changes going on about us, but I couldn't determine how he was doing it, where he was getting us to. I knew I had to learn his secret, but I couldn't just ask him or he'd know I didn't know. Then I'd be at his mercy. He seemed to do nothing but smoke and stare, but coming up out of a dip in the road we entered a blue desert and the sun was now pink above our heads within the shimmering sky. In the rear-view mirror, miles and miles of desert stretched out behind us, for as far as I could see. Neat trick, that.
Then the engine coughed, sputtered, steadied itself, repeated the performance.
The steering wheel changed shape beneath my hands.
It became a crescent; and the seat seemed further back, the car seemed closer to the road, and the windshield had more of a slant to it.
I said nothing, though, not even when the lavender sandstorm struck us.
But when it cleared away, I gasped.
There was a godawful line of cars all jammed up, about half a mile before us. They were all standing still and I
could hear their horns.
"Slow down," he said. "It's the first obstacle."
I did. and another grist of sand swept over us.
Before I could switch on the lights, it was gone, and I blinked my eyes several times.
All the cars were gone and silent their horns. But the roadway sparkled now as the sidewalks had for a time, and I heard Random damning someone or something under his breath.
"I'm sure I shifted just the way he wanted us to, whoever set up that block," he said. "and it pisses me off that I did what he expected-the obvious."
"Eric?" I asked,
"Probably. What do you think we should do? Stop and try it the hard way for a while, or go on and see if there are more blocks?"
"Let's go on a bit. After all, that was only the first,"
"Okay." he said, but added, "who knows what the second will be?"
The second was a thing-I don't know how else to describe it.
It was a thing that looked like a smelter with arms, squatting in the middle of the road, reaching down and
picking up cars, eating them.
I hit the brakes.
"What's the matter?" Random asked. "Keep going. How else can we get past them?"
"It shook me a bit," I said, and he gave me a strange, sidelong look as another dust storm came up.
It had been the wrong thing to say, I knew.
When the dust cleared away, we were racing along an empty road once more. And there were towers in the
"I think I've screwed him up." said Random. "I combined several into one, and I think it may be one he hasn't anticipated. After all, no one can cover all roads to Amber."
"True," I said, hoping to redeem myself from whatever faux pas had drawn that strange look.
I considered Random. A little, weak looking guy who could have died as easily as I on the previous evening.
What was his power? And what was all this talk of Shadows? Something told me that whatever Shadows were, we
moved among them even now. How? It was something Random was doing, and since he seemed at rest physically, his hands in plain sight, I decided it was something he did with his mind. Again, how?
Well, I'd heard him speak of "adding" and "subtracting," as though the universe in which he moved were a
I decided-with a sudden certainty- that he was somehow adding and subtracting items to and from the world that was visible about us to bring us into closer and closer alignment with that strange place, Amber, for which
he was solving.
It was something I'd once known how to do. And the key to it, I knew in a flash, was remembering Amber. But I couldn't.
The road curved abruptly, the desert ended, to give way to fields of tall, blue, sharp-looking grass. After a while, the terrain became a bit hilly, and at the foot of the third hill the pavement ended and we entered upon a narrow dirt road. It was hard-packed, and it wound its way among greater hills upon which small shrubs and bayonet like thistle bushes now began to appear.
After about half an hour of this, the hills went away, and we entered a forest of squat, big-boled trees with
diamond-shaped leaves of autumn orange and purple.
A light rain began to fall, and there were many shadows. Pale mists arose from mats of soggy leaves. Off to
the right somewhere, I heard a howl.
The steering wheel changed shape three more times, its latest version being an octagonal wooden affair. The car was quite tall now, and we had somewhere acquired a hood ornament in the shape of a flamingo. I refrained
from commenting on these things, but accommodated myself to whatever positions the seat assumed and new operating requirements the vehicle obtained. Random, however, glanced at the steering wheel just as another howl occurred, shook his head, and suddenly the trees were much higher, though festooned with hanging vines and something like a blue veiling of Spanish Moss, and the car was almost normal again. I glanced at the fuel gauge and saw that we had half a tank.
"We're making headway," my brother remarked, and I nodded.
The road widened abruptly and acquired a concrete surface. There were canals on both sides, full of muddy water. Leaves, small branches, and colored feathers glided along their surfaces.
I suddenly became lightheaded and a bit dizzy, but "Breathe slowly and deeply," said Random, before I could
remark on it. "We're taking a short cut, and the atmosphere and the gravitation will be a bit different for a
time. I think we've been pretty lucky so far, and I want to push it for all it's worth-get as close as we can, as quickly as we can."
"Good idea," I said.
"Maybe, maybe not," he replied, "but I think it's worth the garn- Look out!"
We were climbing a hill and a truck topped it and came barreling down toward us. It was on the wrong side of the road. I swerved to avoid it, but it swerved, too. At the very last instant, I had to go off the road, onto the soft
shoulder to my left, and head close to the edge of the canal in order to avoid a collision.
To my right, the truck screeched to a halt. I tried to pull off the shoulder and back onto the road, but we were stuck in the soft soil.
Then I heard a door slam, and saw that the driver had climbed down from the right side of the cab, which meant that he probably was driving on the proper side of the road after all, and we were in the wrong. I was sure that nowhere in the States did traffic flow in a British manner, but I was certain by this time that we had long ago left the Earth that I knew.
The truck was a tanker. It said ZUNOCO on the side in big, blood-red letters, and beneath this was the motto "Wee covir the werld." The driver covered me with abuse, as I stepped out, rounded the car, and began apologizing. He was as big as I was, and built like a beer barrel, and
he carried a jack handle in one hand.
"Look, I said I'm sorry," I told him. "What do you want me to do? Nobody got hurt and there was no damage."
"They shouldn't turn goddamn drivers like you loose on die road!" he yelled. "You're a friggin' menace!"
Random got out of the car then and said, "Mister, you'd better move along!" and he had a gun in his hand.
"Put that away," I told him, but he flipped the safety catch off and pointed.
The guy turned around and started to run, a look of fear widening his eyes and loosening his jaw.
Random raised the pistol and took careful aim at the man's back, and I managed to knock his arm to the side
just as he pulled the trigger.
It scored the pavement and ricocheted away.
Random turned toward me and his face was almost white.
"You bloody fool!" he said. "That shot could have hit the tank!"
"It could also have hit the guy you were aiming at."
"So who the hell cares? We'll never pass this way again, in this generation. That bastard dared to insult a Prince of
Amber! It was your honor I was thinking about."
"I can take care of my own honor," I told him, and something cold and powerful suddenly gripped me and answered, "for he was mine to kill, not yours, had I chosen," and a sense of outrage filled me.
He bowed his head then, as the cab door slammed and the truck took off down the road.
"I'm sorry, brother," he said. "I did not mean to presume. But it offended me to hear one of them speak to you in such a manner. I know I should have waited to let you dispose of him as you saw fit, or at least have consulted with you."
"Well, whatever," I told him, "let's get back onto the road and get moving, if we can."
The rear wheels were sunken up to their hubcaps, and as I stared at them, trying to decide the best way to go about things, Random called out, "Okay, I've got the front bumper. You take the rear and we'll carry it back to the road-and we'd better deposit it in the left lane."
He wasn't kidding.
He'd said something about lesser gravitation, but I didn't feel that light. I knew I was strong, but I had my doubts about being able to raise the rear end of a Mercedes.
But on the other hand, I had to try, since he seemed to expect it of me, and I couldn't tip him off as to any gaps
in my memory.
So I stooped, squatted, grasped, and started to straighten my legs. With a sucking sound, the rear wheels freed
themselves from the moist earth. I was holding my end of the car about two feet above the ground! It was heavy, damn! it was heavy!-but I could do it!
With each step that I took, I sank about six inches into the ground. But I was carrying it. And Random was doing
the same with his end.
We set it down on the roadway, with a slight jouncing of springs. Then I took off my shoes and emptied them, cleaned them with swatches of grass, wrung out my socks, brushed off the cuffs of my trousers, threw my footgear into the rear seat and climbed back into the front, bare footed.
Random jumped in, on the passenger's side, and said, "Look, I want to apologize again-"
"Forget it," I said. "It's over and done with."
"Yes, but I don't want you to hold it against me."
"I won't," I told him. "Just curb your impetuosity in the future, when it involves life-taking in my presence."
"I will," he promised.
"Then let's get rolling," and we did.
We moved through a canyon of rocks, then passed through a city which seemed to be made entirely of glass, or glass-like substance, of tall buildings, thin and fragile-appearing, and of people through whom the pink sun shone, revealing their internal organs and the remains of their last meals. They stared at us as we drove by. They mobbed the corners of their streets, but no one attempted to halt us or pass in front of us.
"The Charles Forts of this place will doubtless quote this happening for many years," said my brother.
Then there was no roadway whatsoever, and we were driving across what seemed an eternal sheet of silicon. After a while it narrowed and became our road, and after another while there were marshes to our left and our right, low, brown, and stinking. And I saw what I'd swear to be a Diplodocus raise its head and stare down upon us. Then, overhead, an enormous bat-winged shape passed by. The sky was now a royal blue, and the sun was of fallow gold.
"We've now got less than a quarter tank of gas," I commented.
"Okay," said Random, "stop the car."
I did this and waited.
For a long time-like maybe six minutes-he was silent, then, "Drive on," he said.
After about three miles we came to a barricade of logs and I began driving around it. A gate occurred on one side, and Random told me, "Stop and blow your horn."
I did so. and after a time the wooden gate creaked upon its huge iron hinges and swung inward.
"Go on in." he said. "It's safe."
I drove in, and off to my left were three bubble-headed Esso pumps, the small building behind them being one of
the kind I had seen countless times before, under more ordinary circumstances. I pulled up before one of the pumps and waited.
The guy who emerged from the building was about five feet tall, of enormous girth, with a strawberry-like nose, and his shoulders maybe a yard across.
"What'll it be?" he asked. "Fill 'er up?"
I nodded. "With regular," I said.
"Pull it up a bit," he directed.
I did, and asked Random, "Is my money any good here?"
"Look at it," he told me, and I did.
My wallet was stuffed with orange and yellow bills1 Roman numerals in their corners, followed by the letters "D.R."
He grinned at me as I examined the sheaf.
"See, I've taken care of everything," he said.
"Great. By the way, I'm getting hungry."
We looked around us, and we saw a picture of a gent who sells Kentucky Fried Chicken in another place, staring down at us from a big sign.
Strawberry Nose sloshed a little on the ground to make it come out even, hung up the hose, approached, and said, "Eight Drachae Regums."
I found an orange note with a "V D.R." on it and three more with "I D.R." and passed them to him.
"Thanks," he said, and stuffed them in his pocket. "Check your oil and water?"
He added a little water, told me the oil level was okay, and smeared the windshield a bit with a dirty rag. Then
he waved and walked back into the shack
We drove over to Kenni Roi's and got us a bucket full of Kentucki Fried Lizzard Partes and another bucket of
weak, salty tasting beer.
Then we washed up in the outbuilding, beeped the horn at the gate, and waited till a man with a halberd hanging over his right shoulder came and opened it for us.
Then we hit the road again.
A tyrannosaurus leaped before us, hesitated for a moment, then went on his way, off to the left. Three more
pterodactyls passed overhead.
"I am loath to relinquish Amber's sky," said Random, whatever that meant, and I grunted back at him.
"I'm afraid to try it all at once, though," he continued. "We might be torn to bits."
"Agreed," I agreed.
"But on the other hand, I don't like this place."
I nodded, so we drove on, till the silicon plain ended and bare rock lay all about us.
"What are you doing now?" I ventured.
"Now that I've got the sky, I'm going to try for the terrain," he said.
And the rock sheet became rocks, as we drove along. There was bare, black earth between, After a while, there was more earth and fewer rocks. Finally, I saw splotches of green. First a bit of grass here and there. But it was a
very, very bright green, of a kind like yet unlike that common on Earth as I knew it
Soon there was much of it.
After a time there were trees, spotted occasionally along our way.
Then there was a forest
And what a forest!
I had never seen trees such as this, mighty and majestic, of a deep, rich green, slightly tinged with gold. They towered, they soared. They were enormous pines, oaks, maples, and many others which I could not distinguish. Through them crept a breeze of fantastic and lovely fragrance, when I cracked the window a bit. I decided to open it all the way and leave it like that after I'd had a few whiffs.
"The Forest of Arden," said the man who was my brother. and I knew he was right, and somehow I both loved and envied him for his wisdom, his knowledge.
"Brother," said I, "you're doing all right. Better than I'd expected. Thank you."
This seemed to take him somewhat aback. It was as if he'd never received a good word from a relative before.
"I'm doing my best," he said, "and I'll do it all the way, I promise. Look at it! We've got the sky, and we've got the forest! It's almost too good to be true! We've passed the halfway point, and nothing's bugged us especially. I think we're very fortunate. Will you give me a Regency?"
"Yes." I said, not knowing what it meant, but willing to grant it. if it lay within my powers.
He nodded then and said, "You're okay."
He was a homicidal little fink, who I recalled had always been sort of a rebel. Our parents had tried to discipline him in the past, I knew, never very successfully. And I realized. with that, that we had shared common parents, which I suddenly knew was not the case with me and Eric, me and Flora, me and Caine and Bleys and Fiona. And probably others, but these I'd recalled, I knew for sure.
We were driving on a bare, dirt roadway through a cathedral of enormous trees. It seemed to go on forever and ever. I felt safe in the place. Occasionally, startled a deer, surprised a fox crossing or standing near the road. In places, the way was marked with hoofprints. The sunlight was sometimes filtered through leaves, angling like tight golden strings on some Hindu musical instrument. The breeze was moist and spoke of living things. It came to me that I knew this place, that I had ridden this road often in the past. I had ridden through the Forest of Arden on horseback, walked through it, hunted in it. lay on mv back beneath some of those great boughs, my arms beneath my head, staring upward. I had climbed among the branches of some of those giants and looked down upon a green world, constantly shifting.
"I love this place." I said, only half realizing I had said it aloud. and Random replied. "You always did." and there might have been a trace of amusement in his voice. I couldn't be sure.
Then off in the distance I heard a note which I knew to be the voice of a hunting born.
"Drive faster," said Random suddenly. "That sounds to be Julian's horn"
The horn sounded again, nearer.