Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Thief In Amber – Fifth 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.

And some spirits exist for the fight.

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 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 as he rose from his seat. 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.”

“So how do you think you escaped –” Benedict stopped and glanced down at Julian’s unmoving figure.

“Grayswandir” I said simply. “They’re afraid of it, for some reason.”

I remembered something just then.

“And I think Fiona knows they are afraid of it.” I continued. “The evening before Flora and Julian were attacked, she commented on my blade.”

Benedict grimly nodded.
“Go speak to Fiona” he said. We rose together, and he stopped for a moment in thought.

“Be direct,” he advised, “She will think she’s ahead of us, and she might be, but she might lose some of her nerve if you give her reason to think she could have missed something important.

“Good luck, Corwin” said Benedict. “Call me on my trump if you need me, but no matter what, be careful.

“Your blade may help protect you from these ghosts, but you still have to find the hand behind the spirit.” With that, Benedict turned his attention back to Julian.

But Fiona had anticipated more than my fight with the ghosts. Her room was empty, but she left a note in a sealed envelope addressed to me.

Of course, being Fiona, she had put a spell on the envelope which prevented anyone from opening it without saying the right phrase. I tried the normal and predictable phrases I knew she had used in the past to goad brothers and sisters, and since it was addressed to me I included ones she had taunted me with, like ‘Fiona is wise, Corwin tells lies’, that kind of thing. A tired and juvenile game, but Fiona liked to play that kind of thing often.

But this time there were no such games. Fiona had laughed the last time we spoke, but it seemed her mood had changed by the time she wrote her note. I called up Benedict on his trump and explained the situation. He had no advice except to tell me to keep trying.

I kept at it for more than an hour, then threw down the envelope muttering, “I give up”.

The seal appeared and broke on the envelope. I seized it and pulled out the note.

‘Corwin, hello’ began the note. ‘That you are reading this proves either that I am a great fool and feared for no good cause, or that you are as strong as I believed … or as lucky.

‘I have left the Eternal City for the present, because the forces you fight are as unpredictable as they are strong. I know them well enough to give you information, and well enough to flee them while they present a threat to us all. My craft and skills are useless as weapons against them. You, however, have the means to resolve the matter, and sufficient luck that I trust you will survive. I have bet much on your success.’

I smiled grimly at Fiona’s confidence in betting my life on the matter.

‘Trust your sword but not your brothers’, the note continued, and I chuckled at Fiona repeating such a well-known maxim among us, ‘except one whose sword suits the need even better than your own. Ask him nicely …’

I stopped and pondered for a moment who the hell Fiona could mean, then went back to the last part of the note.
‘… and strike you both one step to the LEFT of where you normally aim. Strike twice, but not at yourself.

‘Good luck, Corwin.’

If I did not know her better, that last line would have made me wonder about Fiona’s state of mind. I handed the note to Benedict, rather than have to read those instructions out loud.

Benedict read the note twice, or else slowly, then looked me in the eye.

“She wrote this for you, Corwin. Any idea how she knew you’d be the one to find it?”

“None.” I replied. “Anymore than how she knew you’d be here.”

“She wrote nothing of me” protested Benedict.

“I think she did” I said. “That line about a sword better-suited than my own. With Eric and Brand not here, she has to have meant you.”

Benedict paused in thought for a moment, then nodded sharply.

“Actually, Corwin, she might know my weapons better than I do – at least one of them. I know of a blade which might help here, but I am surprised that Fiona would know of it.”

“She seems to know a lot more than she is revealing”, I commented . “Is that blade of your accessible?”

“Oddly, yes” said Benedict. “Fiona asked about it just last week, when all of this was still largely unknown for the threat it has become.

“It makes me wonder how she considered the threat,” he pondered. “As much as I hate to cast suspicion, Corwin, this point concerns me.”

“I also wonder”, I agreed, careful not to go further with my thoughts. I could not help but wonder, though, if my sister had not started something she found she could not control.

Benedict stopped to Julian’s door, said a few words and handed something small to the guards he had posted. Then he strode away, ostensibly to collect the blade he mentioned.

As I stood in the hall thinking what to do next, I heard a noise, and realized Julian was stirring. As I went to his doorway, one guard moved to stop me but the other waved him away, saying Benedict had cleared me.

“But no one else”, I heard him warn, as I entered Julian’s room.

Julian was conscious, and aware of his injuries. Every other word seemed an oath as he took stock of his condition. He attempted to get out of bed, then quickly thought better of that idea. As he settled back into bed, Julian noticed me for the first time.

“Here to gloat?” he inquired.

“Not at all”, I assured him. “I’m glad you’re going to be OK.”

Julian groaned.

“After I can move without searing pain, I might come to share that opinion”, he muttered. “For now I count myself glad to have survived the experience.”

“What can you tell me?”, I asked, deciding not to mention my own attack.

Julian opened his mouth, then closed it.

“I am not sure I am ready to discuss that”, he said.

“Even with lives at risk?” I countered.

“Even so”, said Julian. He held my gaze for a few moments, then closed his eyes and sighed.

“Look, Corwin”, said Julian, “I can’t say I like you, and I have reason to be wary of who may be behind all this.

“I am especially vulnerable just now, even with Benedict’s protection.”

“What if I can help?” I asked.

“You don’t know what you are saying”, retorted Julian. “I can hold my own against any man, I warrant, but if you had faced what I had to face, you would better understand what you are against.”

“But he has” broke in Benedict, who had returned to the room. “This is one reason I trust him in this.”

“I see no injuries on Corwin” responded Julian. “Convenient, don’t you think, that our brother here could escape unscathed, the spirits which have killed many and almost killed me.”

“Fiona supports Corwin”, answered Benedict.

Julian stared at Benedict, then shook his head.

“No offense, Benedict, but it would mean more to me to hear that from Fiona herself.”

“She is not here”, answered Benedict, “but she left a note for Corwin, and I have read it. Fiona trusts Corwin.”

Julian barked a short, harsh laugh.

“Fiona trusts no one, brother – surely you know that by now.”

“In this”, returned Benedict, “she does.”

Julian said nothing for a few moments, and Benedict and I stood by as well rather than break into his thoughts. Julian stared holes into me with his cold, blue eyes, but I held my silence, as did Benedict.

“One thing,” said Julian, when he was ready to speak again, “I have to know, is just how Corwin faced these ghosts and is no worse for the encounter, yet the ghosts remain.”

“The same reason,” broke in Benedict before I could answer, “that I faced them myself early on, yet could not resolve the matter then.

“These are not honorable enemies, to take risk along with opportunity, but more on the level of jackals, striking when they have the chance, but fleeing if the moment turns against them.”

Julian peered at Benedict with renewed suspicion.

“I heard that this happened,” he said, “but disbelieved it because I know you are more efficient, than to leave an enemy standing after the fight.”

Benedict shrugged.

“You have seen how they move, how they attack,” he reminded Julian. “If we knew their lair, I would attack right now.

“But we lack enough information, partly -” Benedict stopped and looked at me pointedly before turning back to Julian – “partly because we have not been open enough with each other about what we have encountered.”

Julian looked uncomfortable, Benedict looked concerned, and I tried my best to hide my confusion. All three of us had been attacked, but I could not imagine what I knew that I had not told to Benedict. That implied that Benedict believed that I and Julian knew something about the matter that we had kept private, and that he had withheld that same information from the family but believed Julian and I were in on his secret.

Julian stared hard at Benedict.

“Are you saying that we should tell the rest of the family that Osric and Finndo have come back to haunt us?” demanded Julian.

Oh, my. Julian’s question threw a switch in my mind and turned on a light. One of my attackers had looked like family, and now I thought on it could well have been the form of the late Osric. Come to that, Finndo was fond of using a crossbow, and the shot taken at me in our brief contest had sounded like a bolt hitting the wall.

Benedict looked uneasily at the door.

“If they have, then they are truly ghosts,” he said. “I saw them die, many years ago.”

Benedict seemed about to say more, but stopped himself. Julian and I looked at each other, then Julian said to Benedict, “If we are to be open, I should hope you would also choose to share what you know, brother.”

Benedict sighed.

“It’s not really relevant, and I have never shared what happened in that war.”

He turned away from us, as if to leave, but stopped, still facing away.

“If I come to believe that the way Osric and Finndo died is important to resolving this situation, then I will tell you directly.

“For now, I can only ask you to trust my judgment, that their appearance means something else.”

Again Julian and I looked at each other. Neither of us was happy about it, but Benedict, aside from Gerard, was the most trustworthy of us, and in any case neither Julian nor I could do much to compel Benedict to share his secrets. Damning, though, that we were once again at an impasse.

[ to be continued ]