Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Thief In Amber – Third Draft (Still Very Very Rough)

Some people are hard to kill. I don’t mean the moral decision to kill, but the difficulty in getting someone to die, who is stubbornly opposed to the idea. Some people are hard to kill because they are physically tough, some have one of those spirits that refuses to quit, and some are just plain durable.

So imagine how much more difficult it can be to kill someone, who is already dead but comes back anyway.

It was in the early days, before all the betrayals and family intrigues … OK, we always had those going on, but this was back in the days when we still imagined that we played by the rules. You couldn’t attempt to murder a sibling then, without at least feigning innocence, and alliance with genocidal maniacs was only allowed if the said monsters were friends of Oberon.

So, when word got out that someone or something was making its way through the halls of Castle Amber at night, killing members of the staff and generally hurting the castle’s reputation for fine dining and keeping folks safe from threats to their safety, the family decided it was time to take matters in hand. And, being expected to take the lead, I did so.

Oberon, as he commonly did, was traveling and away from Amber. Caine and Gerard were at sea and therefore also unavailable. Dierdre and Llewellen on a diplomatic mission for the Golden Circle, Brand, Random and Eric were out of the city for reasons not known to anyone else in the family, or if known not shared with me. That, of course, was also a reason for me to take charge; it would gall Eric no end if I could resolve things before he even heard about them … and give me no end of amusement if I could find a way to suggest he was somehow responsible for the problem. I was in those years when I was trying to show up everyone else, and convinced I looked good doing it. So it was that four princes and two princesses gathered for dinner, as we often did when we wanted to discuss issues of importance, and to imagine ourselves civilized.

The food was fine. The conversation, however, was wholly unsatisfying. It soon became apparent that none of us knew what was really going on, had any idea who or what was behind the attacks, and no one wanted to appear as helpless as we all felt.

After dinner, we all went to the library for drinks, and a second try at strategy. That fell apart as soon we chose our drinks. I watched as we chose different drinks, then different seats. Hell, we weren’t even looking at each other. I tried logic, first sitting with Benedict, who usually presented the best plan for dealing with any threat to Amber, but Benedict was even less talkative than usual. I followed with Julian, who was still angry with me for a prior disagreement, and he refused to even acknowledge my presence.

And so it went until I came to Fiona.

I knew something was about, when she smiled at my approach. Fiona and I never shared amusements or ideals, so a smile from her could only come at my cost. It also struck as strange that she seemed to be enjoying the present crisis. Was she its instigator, or if not, what was the source of her pleasure in this moment? I chose a drink, a seat, and a gambit.

“Hello Fiona”, I said. “You couldn’t just kill your enemies in a duel, like anyone else in the family?”

Fiona glared at me for a moment, then that smile returned as she realized – all too quickly – that I was just trying to draw her out.

“You play at things you do not understand, Corwin”, she answered. “As usual.

“I have no interest in your word games, and I must say I disapprove of your manners, and their lack.”

“I am not playing a game here” I protested, “but hunting the cause and source of our present threat. It is an elusive bird, truth, one which seems to be hidden by at least one of our princesses.”

Fiona smirked and replied, “Whereas wit is a bird that eludes the hand of rather too many princes.”

I shrugged. “Your disapproval concerns me even less than usual, Fi. All things considered.”

She tossed her head, red hair like a fall of flame. “Yet, perhaps it should. All things considered.”

I did things with my own eyebrows, emptied my glass, swung my boots down from the table, and headed for the door.

She chuckled, behind me.

I stopped, refrained from turning, and waited. Fiona could never resist showing the rest of us that she was a step ahead. Or pretending to be.

“You are wearing your blade,” she said. “Good.”

I went out, uttering no clever comments. With at least three murderous ghosts stalking Castle Amber, the time for such things was past.’

Hours passed, as I waited with blade drawn and senses wary, sitting in the hallway outside a row of rooms where I thought an appearance most likely by one or more of our homicidal specters.

I guessed wrong. The most dangerous thing to pass my way that night was an odor wafting from Julian’s room. I could pretend it was some feral scent from our nocturnal attackers, but I am sure it was simply the unwashed aroma of a pair of his dogs. In any case, I saw no spirits floating about, encountered no need to use my weapon, and generally felt like I was wasting my time.

Until I heard Flora scream. Down another hall, and far from my chosen station. Naturally. Or un-naturally. Whatever.

I felt damn foolish as I ran towards Flora’s room, hoping my missed guess would not be a costly mistake.

Fortunately, the volume of Flora’s shouts was not matched by actual peril. That is, Flora was not a passive screamer; when assailed by spirits coming at her, as she claimed, from within the walls, she not only cried for help but began throwing things at her attackers. It was hard to tell if any of them was some effective weapon, or the sheer volume of makeup, jewelry, hair care items and mirrors had thwarted their aggression. For all I knew, Flora had surprised them as much as they surprised her. There was no way to be sure. For the moment, we all relaxed in the discovery that our disembodied attackers seemed able to make mistakes, and we felt more confident that we ourselves were perhaps immune to their threat.

Then Bleys found Julian, more than half-dead in his quarters. Julian did not appear for breakfast, and Bleys was the first to check his rooms. I began to wonder why I had not heard anything from my vigilant post, and why Julian’s dogs had done nothing to defend him.

Also, for some reason Julian had not worn his armor the previous night. That cost him. He had been attacked from behind, as was evident by the burn marks on his back. He had fought off his attackers, but his arms, back, and legs were badly burned. I wished I could ask Julian what he had seen, and how he had fought off his assailants, but he was in a coma from his injuries, or the same thing for practical purposes. Benedict saw to his wounds and set a guard to door, with instructions to call him the instant Julian awoke – or anything appeared that might be the spirit murderers coming to finish the job.

I was not friendly with Julian, but an attack on family trumped personal arguments. Besides, just as I stood to gain from Eric’s humiliation if I could solve a mystery he was not around to handle, so too I would suffer my own humiliation if I could not resolve the problem right in front of me – and if a brother prince died on my watch, especially one I was not close to, I could count on Eric making me pay for it. And Father had made it clear that he counted fratricide as unforgivable. Failing to protect a brother was guilt by omission, and I knew that no defense I could present would clear me unless Julian lived. And I resolved the mystery and destroyed the threat.

I spoke to Benedict again, and – while cryptic – his comments included suggestions on where I might try my next vigil, and when I might expect to meet my foes.

It was very late, or rather early, before one of the walls opened in a place where it should not have done, and something that was both silver and shadow joined me.

Grayswandir felt good in my hand as I put down what I was finished drinking anyway, and waited.

Patience, they say, is a chiefly a virtue for statues, but I’d made more than my share of mistakes, thus far, and blood is hell to get out of good rugs.

Came a whisper, out of darkness. “Corwin, is it time?”

A fight for my life, I expected. Temporal confusion from the spooks, I have to admit, I did not see coming.

“No, go back to sleep”, I tried. OK, not a brilliant strategy, but I was tired and didn’t expect the question anyway.

There was a moment of silence, then the forms began to take shape. I expected something, I don’t know, human-like and perhaps demonic. These were, after all, undead spirits seeking to kill the living. Nor was I wrong.

Not exactly.

The attackers swirled into the room like sentient fog, and quickly surrounded me. I suddenly realized something was behind me, taking more substantial shape, and – I felt dread rush up my spine – preparing to strike me the same it had attacked Julian.

Something like lightning flashed, and surprised me. Mostly because the lightning came from inside the room … from Grayswandir.

I jumped to my feet, swinging up Grayswandir with one arm as I threw the book behind me into the – face? – of my posterior assailant. I heard the book smack into something, which swore as if hurt, and I pivoted, putting my back against the wall while swinging my sword into a guard position. Then I stopped.

That was a mistake.

The spirits, once the sword, stopped moving, resumed their attack, and I felt a crackle of something hot shoot past my head, striking the wall hard as if a crossbow bolt. Something else, like a burning lasso, wrapped my boots and tried to trip me. I hopped reflexively, brought my sword up again and swung it about me as if trying to burn cobwebs with a torch.

And shadows fled before me, and I was alone.

My book was on the floor, blackened. Damn. I watched lightning flicker and wondered if I would ever know what I fought, or why. Family politics seemed as tiresome as ever.

Three ghosts, Benedict had said, and had been on the brink of saying more ere his face had smoothed and he’d turned away.

Which meant he’d recognized the one he’d seen.

So had the lamplighter, before the ghost that slew him caught up with him and burned his skull bare, from within.

Coln had died, before that, and one of the cooks. Seven maids, or more by now, since.

Then they started on us. Flora had almost fallen to one, and then Julian. Almost.

We’re tough meat, we of Amber.’

Speaking of meat, I found myself famished. Deciding between preparing for a second round with the spooks, alerting the rest of the family to my attack, and getting an early breakfast, the stomach spoke with the greatest authority. Besides, I was somehow sure the attack for the night was done, and I needed to think through what had just happened before I spoke to anyone else. If one of us was behind the attacks, I had no intention of giving out thoughts on how to make sure I was properly killed next time.

I made my way to the kitchen and found it empty, as I hoped it would be. A half-dozen eggs, some cheese, ham and the appropriate spices produced a passable omelet, which I ate with coffee I made while I thought over the attack. I’m a good enough cook, but the quality of thoughts I considered diminished my appetite a bit.

I realized that I had to share my encounter, with at least one person. The attacks on Flora, then Julian so close afterwards showed that anyone could be next, and I had to help protect the innocent. If only I could be sure none among us was the guilty …

I decided on Benedict. He had shared the plan to catch out the spirits, so I already owed him a report on the attack for that reason. Also, he was the least likely to try a sneak attack on any of us – and if he had, his victims would not have survived. No, this was not Benedict’s trick, whatever it was.

I found him sitting with Julian. Julian remained still and lifeless, to all appearances. Enough to make his usual loquacity and stiff behavior seem positive ebullient. Benedict was not much more enthusiastic. I think I knew why. Julian was not so strong as some of us, but a prince of Amber should not be laid low so easily by anything. He seemed not to be resting, so much as lying helpless. That could be any one of us, even Benedict, and I could see that in Benedict’s thin, grim face.

“No Change, Corwin”, said Benedict, as I entered the bedroom.

“So I see”, I answered. “But I have news for you.”

I handed Benedict the scorched book from my encounter. He looked at it, then met my eyes with his own.

“You encountered them, then?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Yes, but unlike you, I did not recognize any of them” I said, watching for a reaction to my observation. But Benedict remained solemn and still, as was his usual mood, even in happier times.

I waited for him to speak, but Benedict simply held my gaze, and after a moment. I continued.

“Yes, I was attacked”, I said. “Where you said they would likely be, and only an hour or so after the time you predicted. Which makes me curious, of course, how you knew …?”

I somehow expected Benedict to smile at being prescient, but he remained solemn. I also expected him to provide more helpful information, but I was wrong on that count as well.

“What do you know about this, Corwin?” asked Benedict, his left hand casually resting on the hilt of a dagger he had on his belt. There was no menace in his tone, but Benedict was clear in his meaning.

“Of the attacks? Nothing to speak of, Benedict.” I replied. “I told you my thoughts the last time we spoke, and I am trying to free us from who or whatever is attacking us."

“Convenient, though”, remarked Benedict, “that you were the closest to Julian of us all, and yet you saw and heard nothing when he was attacked.”

“I know”, I protested, “and you know I would have arranged an alibi if I were going to attack Julian. Like, say, being away from Amber during the attacks?”

Benedict shook his head in irritation.

“Don’t start that stupid game again, of plots and intrigue, Corwin.”

“I won’t”, I replied, “as long as you agree to stop accusing me of being behind the attacks I’m trying to stop.”

Benedict sighed.

“All right”, he agreed. “But you were attacked, yourself, yet you have not yet told me about it.”

So I did. Including my reluctance to trust the full story to anyone in our family who might be the plotter behind the ghosts.

Benedict sighed again.

“I hate to agree with you on this, Corwin” he said, “but I sense that these attacks are part of something larger.

“And until we find a way to stop it, our danger will only grow.”

[ to be continued ]

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