Nine Princess In Amber
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After maybe ten minutes, I succeeded in gimmicking the proper
case. It was tricky. Then, pack in hands, I found a comfortable seat for the consideration thereof.
The cards were just like Flora's and they held us all under glass and were cold to the touch. Now, too, I knew why.
So I shuffled and spread them all out before me In the proper manner. Then I read them, and I saw that bad things were in store for the entire family; and I gathered them all together then.
Save for one.
It was the card depicting my brother Bleys. I replaced the others in their case and tucked it into my belt. Then I considered Bleys.
At about that time there came a scratching In the lock of the great door to the library. What could I do? I loosened my blade in its scabbard and waited. I ducked low behind the desk, though.
Peering out, I saw that it was a guy named Dik, who had obviously come to clean the place, as he set out emptying the ashtrays and wastebaskets and dusting the shelves.
Since it would be demeaning to be discovered, I exposed myself.
I rose and said, "Hello, Dik. Remember me?"
He turned three kinds of pale, half bolted, and said:
"Of course, Lord. How could I forget?"
"I suppose it would be possible, after all this time."
"Never, Lord Corwin," he replied.
"I suppose I'm here without official sanction, and engaged in a bit of illicit research," I said "but if Eric doesn't like it when you tell him that you saw me, please explain that I was simply exercising my rights, and he will be seeing me personally-soon."
"l'll do that, m'lord," he said, bowing.
"Come sit with me a moment, friend Dik, and I'll tell you more."
And he did, so I did.
"There was a time," I said, addressing this ancient visage, "when I was considered gone for good and abandoned forever. Since I still live, however, and since I maintain all my faculties, I fear that I must dispute Eric's claim to the throne of Amber. Though it's not a thing to be settled simply, as he is not the first-born, nor do I feel he would enjoy popular support if another were in sight. For these, among other reasons-most of them personal-I am about to oppose him. I have not yet decided how, nor upon what grounds, but by God! he deserves opposition! Tell him that. If he wishes to seek me, tell him that I dwell among Shadows, but different ones than before. He may know what I mean by that. I will not be easily destroyed, for I will guard myself at least as well as he does here. I will oppose him from hell to eternity, and I will not cease until one of us is dead. What say you to this, old retainer?"
And he took my hand and kissed it.
"Hail to thee, Corwin, Lord of Amber," he said, and there was a tear in his eye.
Then the door cracked a crack behind him and swung open.
"Hello," said I, Rising and putting a most obnoxious twang to my voice. "I didn't expect to meet with you this early in the game. How go things in Amber?"
And his eyes were wide with amaze and his voice heavy with that which men call sarcasm, and I can't
think of a beffer word, as he replied:
"Well, when it comes to things, Corwin. Poorly, on other counts, however."
"Pity," said I, "and how shall we put things aright?"
"I know a way," he said, and then he glared at Dik, who promptly departed and closed the door behind him. I heard it snick shut.
Eric loosened his blade in its scabbard.
"You want the throne," he said.
"Don't we all?" I told him.
"I guess so," he said, with a sigh. "It's true, that uneasy-lies-the-head bit. I don't know why we are driven to strive so for this riduculous position. But you must recall that I've defeated you twice, mercifuily granting you your life on a Shadow world the last occasion."
"It wasn't that merciful," I said. "You know where you left me, to die of the plague. The first time, as I remember, it was pretty much a draw."
"Then it is between the two of us now, Corwin," he said. "I am your elder and your better. If you wish to try me at arms, I find myself suitably attired. Slay me, and the throne will probably be yours. Try it. I don't think you can succeed, however. And I'd like to quit your claim right now. So come at me. Let's see what you learned on the Shadow Earth."
And his blade was in his hand and mine in mine.
I moved around the desk.
"What an enormous chutzpah you possess," I told him. "What makes you better than the rest of us, and more fit to rule?"
"The fact that I was able to occupy the throne," he replied. "Try and take it."
And I did.
I tried a headcut, which he parried; and I parried his riposte to my heart and cut at his wrist.
He parried this and kicked a small stool between us. I set it aside, hopefully in the direction of his
face, with my right toe, but it missed and he had at me again.
I parried his attack, and he mine. Then I lunged, was parried, was attacked, and parried again myself.
I tried a very fancy attack I'd learned in France, which involved a beat, a feint in quarte, a feint in sixte,
and a lunge veering off into an attack on his wrist.
I nicked him and the blood flowed.
"Oh, damnable brother!" he said, retreating. "Report has it Random accompanies thee."
"This is true," said I. "More than one of us are assembled against you."
And he lunged then and beat me back, and I felt suddenly that for all my work he was still my master. He was perhaps one of the greatest swordsmen I had ever faced. I suddenly had the feeling that I couldn't take him, and I parried like mad and retreated in the same fashion as he beat me back, step by step. We'd both had centuries under the greatest masters of the blade in business. The greatest alive, I knew, was brother Benedict, and he wasn't around to help, one way or the other. So I snatched things off the desk with my left hand and threw them at Eric. But he dodged everything and came on strong, and I circled to his left and all like that, but I couldn't draw the point of his blade
from my left eye. And I was afraid. The man was magnificent. If I didn't hate him so, I would have applauded his performance.
I kept backing away, and the fear and the knowledge came upon me: I knew I still couldn't take him. He was a better man than I was, when it came to the blade. I cursed this, but I couldn't get around it. I tried three more elaborate attacks and was defeated on each occasion. He parried me and made me retreat before his own attacks.
Now don't get the wrong idea. I'm damn good. It's just that he seemed better.
Then there were some alarms and excusions in the hall outside. Eric's retainers were coming, and if
he didn't kill me before they arrived, then I was confident that they'd do the job-probably with a bolt from a crossbow.
There was blood dripping from his right wrist. His hand was still steady but I had the feeling then that under other circumstances, by fighting a defensive fight, I just might be able to wear him down with that wrist injury going against him, and perhaps I could get through his guard at the proper moment when he began to slow.
I cursed softly and he laughed.
"You're a fool to have come here," he said.
He didn't realize what I was doing until it was too late. (I'd been retreating until the door was at my
back. It was risky, leaving myself with no room for retreat, but it was better than sure death.)
With my left hand, I managed to drop the bar. It was a big, heavy door and they'd have to knock it down now to get in. That gave me a few more minutes. It also gave me a shoulder wound, from an attack I could only partly parry as I dropped the bar. But it was my left shoulder. My sword arm
I smiled, to put up a good front.
"Perhaps you were a fool, to enter here," I said. "You're slowing. you know," and I tried a hard, fast, vicious attack,
He parried it, but he fell back two paces in doing so.
"That wound's getting to you," I added. "Your arm's weakening. You can feel the strength leaving it-"
"Shut up!" he said, and I realized I'd gotten through to him. This increased my chances by several percent, I decided, and I pressed him as hard as I could, realizing I couldn't keep that pace up very long.
But Eric didn't realize it.
I'd planted the seeds of fear, and he fell back before my sudden onslaught.
There was a banging on the door but I didn't have to worry about that for a while anyway.
"I'm going to take you, Eric," I said. "I'm tougher than I used to be, and you've had it, brother."
I saw the fear begin in his eyes, and it spread over his face, and his style shifted to follow suit. He began fighting a completely defensive battle, backing away from my attack. I'm sure he wasn't faking either. I felt I had bluffed him, for he had always been better than I. But what if it had been partly
psychological on my part too? What if I had almost beaten myself with this attitude, which Eric had helped to foster? What if I had bluffed myself all along? Maybe I was as good. With a strange sense of confidence, I tried the same attack I had used before and I scored, leaving another trail of red on
"That was rather stupid. Eric." I said, "to fall for the same trick twice," and he backed around a wide chair. We fought across it for a time.
The banging on the door stopped, and the voices which had been shouting inquiries through it fell silent.
"They've gone for axes," Eric panted. "They'll be in here in no time."
I wouldn't drop my smile. I held it and said: "It'll take a few minutes-which is more time than I'll need to finish this. You can hardly keep your guard now, and the blood keeps running-look at it!"
"By the time they get through, there will he only one prince in Amber, and it won't be you!"
Then, with his left arm, he swept a row of books from a shelf and they struck me and fell about me.
He didn't seize the opportunity to attack,. however. He dashed across the room, picking up a small chair, which he held in his left hand.
He wedged himself into a corner and held the chair and his blade before him.
There were rapid footsteps in the hall outside, and then axes began to ring upon the door.
"Come onl" he said. "Try and take me now!"
"You're scared," I said.
"Academic," he replied. "You can't take me before that door falls, and then it will be all over for you."
I had to agree. He could hold off my blade with that setup, at least for quite a few minutes.
I crossed the room quickly, to the opposite wall.
With my left hand, I opened the panel through which I had entered.
"Okay," I said. "it looks like you're going to live-for a time. You're lucky. Next time we meet, there won't be anyone to help you."
He spat and called me a few traditional vile names, even putting down the chair to add an obscene
gesture, as I ducked through the panel and closed it behind me.
There came a thunk, and eight inches of steel gleamed on my side of the panel as I was fastening it. He had thrown his blade. Risky, if I chose to return. But he knew I wouldn't, for the door sounded about ready to fall.
I descended the pegs as rapidly as I could, to the place where I had slept earlier. As I did, I considered my increased skill with the blade. At first, in the battle, I bad been awed by the man who had beaten me before. Now, though, I wondered. Perhaps those centuries on the Shadow Earth were
not a waste. Maybe I had actually gotten better during that time. Now I felt that I might be Eric's equal with the weapon. This made me feel good. If we met again, as I was sure we would, and there was no outside interference-who knew? I would court the chance, however. Today's encounter had scared him. I was certain. That might serve to slow his hand, to cause the necessary hesitation on the next occasion.
I let go and dropped the final fifteen feet, bending my knees as I landed. I was the proverbial five minutes ahead of the posse, but I was sure I could take advantage of it and escape. For I had the cards in my belt.
I drew the card that was Bleys and stared at it. My shoulder hurt, but I forgot it, as the coldness came upon me.
There were two ways to depart directly from Amber into Shadow. . .
One was the Pattern, seldom used for this purpose.
Another was the Trumps, if you could trust a brother.
I considered Bleys. I could almost trust him. He was my brother, but he was in trouble and could use my help.
I stared at him, flame-crowned, dressed all in red and orange, with a sword in his right hand and a glass of wine in his left. The devil danced in his blue eyes, his beard blazed, and the tracery on his blade, I suddenly realized, flared with a portion of the Pattern. His rings flashed. He seemed to move.
The contact came like an icy wind.
The figure on the card seemed life-sized now and changed position into whatever stance he presently held. His eyes did not quite focus upon me, and his lips moved.
"Who is it?" they said, and I heard the words.
"Corw in," said I, and he held forth his left hand, which no longer bore the goblet.
"Then come to me, if you would."
I reached forth and our fingers met. I took a step.
I was still holding the card in my left hand, but Bleys and I stood together on a cliff and there was a chasm to our side and a high fortress to our other side. The sky above us was the color of flame.
"Hello, Bleys," I said, tucking the card into my belt with the others. "Thanks for the assistance."
I suddenly felt weak and realized the blood was still flowing from my left shoulder.
"You're wounded!" he said, throwing an arm about my shoulders, and I started to nod but fainted instead.
Later that night, I sprawled in a big chair within the fortress and drank whiskey. We smoked and passed the bottle and talked.
"So you were actually in Amber?"
"Yes, that's right."
"And you wounded Eric in your duel?"
"Damn! I wish you'd killed him!" Then he reflected. "Well, maybe not. Then you'd have held the throne. I might have a better chance against Eric than I'd have had against you. I don't know. What are your plans?"
I decided upon complete honesty.
"We all want the throne," I said. "so there's no reason to lie to one another. I'm not about to try killing you for it-that would be foolish-but on the other hand. I'm not about to renounce my claim because I'm enjoying your hospitality. Random would like it, but he's pretty much out of the picture.
No one has beard from Benedict for some time now. Gerard and Caine seem to he supporting Eric, rather than promoting their own claims. The same goes for Julian. That leaves Brand and our sisters. I don't know what the hell Brand is up to these days, but I do know that Deirdre is without power, unless she and Llewella can raise something in Rebma, and Flora is Eric's creature. I don't know what Fiona is up to."
"And so that leaves us," said Bleys, pouring us each another drink. "Yes, you're right. I don't know what's going on in everone's head right now, but I can assess our relative strengths and I think I'm in the best position. You made a wise choice in coming to me. Support me, and I'll give you a regency."
"Bless your heart," I said. We'll see."
We sipped our whiskies.
"What else is there to do?" he asked, and I realized that the question was important.
"I might raise an army of my own, to lay siege to Amber," I told him.
"Where among Shadows lies your army?" he inquired.
"That, of course, is my affair." I said. "I don't think I'd oppose you. When it comes to monarchs. I'd like to see either you. me, Gerard, or Benedict-if he still lives-upon the throne."
"Preferably you, of course."
"Then we understand one another. So I think we can work together, for the time being."
"And I," I agreed, "else I would not have delivered myself into your hands."
He smiled within his heard.
"You needed someone," he said, "and I was the lesser evil."
"True," I agreed,
"I wish Benedict were bere. I wish Gerard bad not sold out."
"Wishes, wishes," I told him, "Wish in one hand and do something else in the other, and squeeze them both and see which comes true."
"Well taken," he said.
We smoked a while in silence.
"How far can I trust you?" he asked.
"As far as I can trust vou."
"Then let's make a deal. Frankly, I had thought you dead for many years. I hadn't foreseen your showing up at a crucial time and pressing your own claim. But you're here, and that's that. Let's form an alliance, combine our forces and lay siege to Amber. Whichever of us lives through it winds up on top. If we both do, well-hell!-we can always fight a duel!"
I thought about it. It sounded like the best deal I'd get anywhere.
So I said, "I'd like to sleep on it. Tell you in the morning. okay?"
We finished our drinks then and fell to reminiscing. My shoulder throbbed a bit, but the whisky helped, and the salve which Bleys had supplied. After a time, we were almost maudlin.
It is strange, I guess, to have kin and to be without kinship. for as long as our lives had led us along our separate paths. Lord! We talked the moon out of the heavens before either of us grew tired. Then he clapped me upon my good shoulder and told me that he was beginning to feel his load and that
a servant would be by in the morning to bring my breakfast. I nodded, we embraced. and he retired.
Then I moved to the window, and from that vantage I could see down far into the chasm.
The campfires below burned like stars. There were thousands of them. I could tell that Bleys had assembled a mighty force, and I was envious. But, on the other hand, it was a good thing. If anyone could take Eric, it was probably Bleys. He wouldn't he a bad thing in Amber; it was just that I preferred me.
Then I watched a while longer, and I saw that strange shapes moved among the lights. I wondered then as to the nature of his army.
Whatever, it was more than I possessed.
I made my way back to the table and poured me a final drink. Before I quaffed it, however, I lighted a taper. In its light, I withdrew the pack of cards I had stolen.
I spread them before me and I came across the one depicting Eric. I laid it in thc center of the table and put the rest away.
After a time, it came to life; and I saw Eric in his sleeping garments and I heard the words, "Who is it?" His arm was bound.
"Me," I said, "Corwin. How are you?"
He cursed then, and I laughed. This was a dangerous game and maybe the whisky had contributed to It. but I continued: "I just felt like telling you that all goes well with me. I also wanted to advise you that you were right when you spoke of the uneasy head. You won't be wearing it long, though.
So cheerio! Brother! The day I come again to Amber is the day you die! Just thought I'd tell you, since that day is not too far off."
"Come ahead," he told me, "and I'll not want for grace in the matter of your passing."
His eyes focused on me then and we were close.
I thumbed my nose at him and passed my palm over the card.
It was like hanging up a telephone, and I shuffled Eric in with all the rest.
I wondered though, as I approached sleep. concerning those troops of Bleys which occupied the defile below, and I thought upon Eric's defenses.
It would not be easy.
Nine Princes In Amber
The land was known as Avernus, and the assembled troops were not quite men. I reviewed them the following morning, walking behind Bleys. They were all of them around seven feet in height, had very red skins and little hair, catlike eyes, and six-digited hands and feet. They wore garments that looked as light as silk, but were woven of something else and were mainly gray or blue in color. Each bore two short blades, hooked at the end. Their ears were pointed and their many fingers clawed.
The climate was warm and the colors bewilderIng, and everyone thought we were gods.
Bleys had found a place where the religion involved brother-gods who looked like us and had their troubles. Invariably, in the terms of this mythos, an evil brother would seize power and seek to oppress the good brothers. And of course there was the legend of an Apocalypse where they themselves would be called upon to stand on the side of the surviving good brothers.
I wore my left arm in a black sling and considered those who were about to die.
I stood before a trooper and looked up at him. I asked him, "Do you know who Eric is?"
"The Lord of Evil," he replied.
I nodded and said, "Very good," and passed on.
Bleys had custom-made cannon fodder.
"How large is your army?" I asked him.
"Around fifty thousand," he replied.
"I salute those who are about to Give Their All," I told him. "You can't take Amber with fifty thousand men, even providing you can get them all to the foot of Kolvir intact-and you can't It's silly even to consider using these poor bastards against the immortal city, with their toy swords and all."
"I know," he said, "but they're not all I've got."
"You'll need a lot more."
"Then how do three navies sound, half again the size of Caine's and Gerard's fleets put together?
"I've a way."
"Not yet enough," said I, "and barely a beginning."
"I know. I'm still building," he said.
"Well, we'd better build a lot more. Eric will sit in Amber and kill us as we march through Shadows. When the remaining forces finally reach the foot of Kolvir, he'll decimate them there. Then there will be the climb to Amber. How many hundred do you think will remain when we reach the city? Enough to be dispatched in five minutes, at almost no cost to Eric. If this is the best you've got, brother Bleys, I have misgivings concerning this expedition."
"Eric has announced his coronation in three months' time," he said. "I can triple my forces by then-at least. Perhaps I can even have a quarter of a million Shadow troops to lead against Amber. There are other worlds like this one, and I will penetrate them. I will raise me such a force of holy crusaders as has never been sent against Amber before."
"And Eric will have had the same time to intensify his defenses. I don't know, Bleys . . . it's almost a suicide run. I didn't know the full situation when I came here-"
"And what have you brought with you?" be asked. "Nothing! It is rumored that you once commanded troops. Where are they?"
I turned away from him.
"They are no more," I said. "I am certain."