Aiken wasn't in, but Garrick was, and so I found myself knocking on his door.
Xavier answered. "Yes?" He hadn't changed; a little heavier and a little taller than me, with the same black hair. That he'd traded his usual jeans for heavy plate mail suggested that things were a bit worse than I had suspected.
"May I see Garrick?"
"He's busy." Bright blue eyes narrowed, perhaps wondering what was safe to tell me. "Doing me a favor."
"Might I ask what?"
"He's painting a picture."
"Really? Of whom?"
"An acquaintance of mine."
"May I come in?"
The place was fantastic. Paintings were everywhere, totally covering the walls, leaning in odd places, some still on easels. Most of the beautiful oils showed a high tech place not that different from my former home, but there was an assortment of portraits as well.
My eyes gravitated to a picture of Deirdre, and I moved over to it. It was lifelike, rich, and... yes, when I studied it, I felt contact start. I damped it down quickly and turned to look at the painter, suitably impressed.
Garrick was the spitting image of his Tír-na Nog'th ghost; only this version wasn't as pale, and smelled enough of oil and turpentine to stand out in this room.
His current work was of an infant. I put two and two together. "That's the heir."
"Yes," said Xavier. "We're going to trump him."
"How did you get enough of an impression to make a trump?"
"I visited his nannies, shared their images with Garrick."
My eyebrows raised.
Garrick spoke up without pausing in his work. "I'm worried that the child won't be able to handle the contact. I don't have much experience using these things, and I've no idea what it will do to an undeveloped mind."
"I'll do it," I said.
The casual observer may wonder, at this point, what was going through my head. It was simple. I didn't believe for a second a trump created that way would work. These things were delicate, after all. On the other hand, Garrick seemed to be a very capable trump artist, and if his Tír ghost could be believed, my brother. He would seem to be a valuable ally in my quest for Corwin, and I was willing to humor him in this.
I studied his technique. Amazing. It wasn't even clear that me that he understood what he was doing, but he could paint. He laid down strokes deliberately, each making the the picture noticeably more lifelike. I couldn't tell that he was imbuing the painting with the trump nature. On the other hand, I've never watched anyone make a trump before. Maybe it always looked like this.
It wasn't long at all. "It's done."
I glanced at Xavier, who shrugged. "Might as well be now," I said. I concentrated on the glistening still-wet oils of the pudgy little fellow.
And found myself staring at a teen-aged kid. Fine grained features and pointed ears betrayed some elfin heritage. His skin was incredibly fair, fairer than mine, as if he had not been outside in years.
I felt Xavier join the contact an instant before I felt his hand on my shoulder. I bit back the urge to quick him out, and concentrated on shielding my mind.
The kid was confused; I guessed it was his first trump contact. This wasn't a simple kidnapping, that was for sure. Obviously a fast time shadow was involved. I gestured in a way that I hoped suggested peaceful intentions. "Silmarus?" Behind him in the darkness I caught a glimpse of fine bright mail glinting from under a flowing dark cloaks. My blood chilled, as I recalled my recent visions of dark elves.
Silmarus was taking it all pretty badly, so I held out my hand, and, both in gestures and words, tried to communicate: "Take my hand." He spoke several words in a fluid language I didn't recognize. Panic started to show in his face, and he gripped the hilt of his sheathed sword.
Xavier projected pictures at the kid: Oberon and an elfin lady I suspected was the Queen. I yelled "Stop that!" But it was too late; the kid was emanating almost visible waves of hate. No big surprise that whoever had taken it upon himself to raise the kid out in shadow had indoctrinated him to hate his parents as well.
I was still thinking, "Wow, that kid can draw fast," when his blade pierced my stomach. Looked like my magic shirt was going to need repairs.
I wrenched myself backwards and broke the contact.
I sometimes wonder what I would see if I walked out and found the shadow where someone who was almost me had grabbed the sword and pulled the kid through. My doubleganger would have gone on to become Queen of that world. Would it have made a difference in the frenzied events that followed? Could I possibly have united the various factions?
No. It would have been a short reign, and bloody.
But the nature of shadow suggests that somewhere, somehow, there is a shadow where I did it, and succeeded. The question, of course, is whether it is the circumstances of that shadow that are different, or just my actions. If I had made the proper choices, could I have prevented the bloodshed?
A whiff of the void stirs my imagination, and I remember the lesson of the Scrawling. It's all the same, in the end.
Xavier said, "Oberon must know," and I said, "Right," and sent him out with the still wet painting.
As Garrick went to follow I grabbed his shoulder. "Could you do a portrait from someone else's sketch?"
"I've never tried, but I don't know why not. What are you thinking?"
I pulled out my sketch of Corwin. "This."
He studied for a moment, then nodded. "I can do it." He placed it on an easel. "But first, I'd like to see what happens."
"One thing first. Do you have something I can use as a bandage?"
When we reached the throne room Xavier was talking to the elfin lady he'd recently projected through my mind. He'd left out the scent of lilacs, but otherwise he had it right: tall, pronounced features, fair hair. She moved with a stately grace that suggested thousands of years of refinement. Try as I might, I'd never make it look as natural as she did.
The Queen looked grave, and said something I couldn't make out to a servant, who promptly left. She then pulled out a trump and started concentrating.
I saw the new tapestry, one long wall now dedicated to depicting the final battle. While I tried to find myself in it, Flora strolled casually into the room. Trust her to be in the place where the action was. I gave her a smile, and a little nod; she smiled back.
The Queen, meanwhile, had pulled through Benedict. The general dusted himself off, bowed to his Queen, and surveyed the situation. He noted the hole in my shirt, the bloodstains, and shook his head. He went to discuss the situation with Xavier.
Géerard ran in, lumbered towards Benedict. After they'd exchanged a few words, Géerard pulled out his trump deck. A moment later he pulled through Caine, Aiken, and Nicholas.
Dierdre stepped next to me, pointed out what I had been looking for. They were a very small part of the large picture in the war, my hand-picked group of commando troops. As an outsider, and a neophyte at that, I couldn't be trusted with an army. But we had capably performed our tasks, smashing a flank of Sawall's forces at a critical juncture. The few survivors and I were there for the final battle, now recorded forever on four square inches of tapestry.
The door to the royal chambers opened and Oberon stepped out. It was the first time I had seen him since the war, and I was stunned by the extent of his physical deterioration. His relationship to Dworkin was now clearly chiseled for all to see. Still, the Jewel of Judgement pulsed red around his neck, and he maintained most of his majesty. I would not want to match him in a duel of wills.
He joined the group talking with Xavier. Still not appreciating the magnitude of what was happening, and eager to get caught up, I headed for Aiken and Nicholas.
Then I stopped dead. There was a hint of brightness from under the dark cloak Aiken was wearing, clothing very unlike any I had seen him wear before. Indeed, if it weren't for the color of his skin I would suspect that he was one of Silmarus's shadowy companions. Where the hell had he been before Géerard pulled him through?
The room dropped to a hush. Seeing everyone staring behind me, I turned to see Oberon concentrating on the painting. His lips silently moved and a dismayed expression came to his face. He pulled out his sword; a pathetic sight, the once grand old man fencing with shadows. I could see the dismay on the faces of my relatives; I was the only one with the first-hand experience to know that he wasn't crazy.
Finally he broke the contact and whirled on Xavier. "How dare you do this to me?"
I dimly sensed a gentle blip in the air pressure from behind me, followed by a breath of musty air. I turned to see Brand and Rinaldo in the far corner of the room, away from the doors, along with their two companions from my Tír vision. Now I could see that the well-built man wore the emblem of the lion rending a unicorn; I got the impression that he was the lion.
The Lion and Rinaldo held the half-elfin kid, now gagged and bound. Brand kicked him towards Oberon, who stared in disbelief. Brand laughed deeply. "No, Oberon, that is your son. I'm here to claim my throne."
On cue, the Lion pulled out a big gun. As we watched in shock, seven shots rang out in the throne room. Big portions of Benedict splattered against the wall, and he collapsed in a rapidly widening pool of blood. Some strange scent, not at all like gunpowder, wafted through the silence that followed.
My time sense seemed to be distorted. I don't know how long it was before Oberon screamed; I just know that he ran at Brand. It was in a horrible slow motion that Brand pulled out a handgun. Each of the four shots seemed to ring out in distinctly.
There was a brilliant flash of red and my vision briefly shifted into infrared. Oberon was gone, as was the Jewel of Judgement. Brand growled a curse.
Even as most of the room was recovering from the glare, I watched Aiken fast draw his crossbows from beneath the huge cloak. I couldn't imagine how he could see, but he got off simultaneous shots at the Lion and Brand. The first scratched the gutted unicorn on the Lion's shield; the second lodged itself in Brand's neck.
The would-be king raised his stump to the protruding arrow, uselessly. "Kill that one," he said, pointing at Aiken with his good hand.
A part of my brain screamed out orders. If I dived and rolled... we'd all have to move, but we could stand with Aiken and take the usurpers down. Sure, Rinaldo and the petite redhead held guns on the rest of us, but they couldn't take us all out.
Instead, we all stood and watched as the Lion shot from the hip, blowing out Aiken's left knee. I wasn't sure if there was anything left connecting Aiken's lower leg to the rest of his body; at any rate, he fell on Benedict's still body.
Meanwhile, the Queen kneeled quietly, head bowed down, cradling the picture of her lost son in her arms. Brand carefully sighted and put a bullet through her brain.
None of the rest of us reacted, except to edge closer to the exits. Looking back on it, it is hard to accept. I have always pictured myself as a woman of action. But the horrible feeling of hopelessness overwhelmed me then. Brand had taken control of things so decisively that it was hard to picture defying him.
The room hushed again, the only sound Bleys, Fiona and Quentin entering the room from the double doors directly across from the throne. Bleys was whispering something to Quentin.
Brand spoke then. "I think everybody will want to remain still." He looked at Deirdre, Garrick, and I, and we stopped edging for the door.
"My first act as king," he announced, looking at Caine. "Come here." Caine came over. "Your right hand." I hadn't noticed the switch, but Brand now held his sword Werewindle instead of a gun. He chopped Caine's right hand off with one swift blow. "Now your left." Whack. "You are free to go."
Caine stooped over and tried to scoop up his hands. Brand objected, "No, those will stay here." Caine whirled and left.
Brand's gaze swept the room. "Ah, Julian," he snarled. "Something special for you should be here any time. I've decided the elves will be going to Arden." He was interrupted by several of his men dragging in Morgan, gagged and bound very securely. "I've heard you dislike the elves. That is no longer acceptable. If I hear one report of elves dying in Arden, Morgan dies."
Tall, trim, dark-haired; perhaps the empathy I'd always felt for Julian's daughter was because we seemed cut from the same mold. Surely we little else in common. Her skin had the luster of someone who spent her time outdoors--I don't think she'd spent too much time in front of a computer terminal. And her prowess in battle was frequently compared with Aiken's; even now Brand was muttering something about her killing 53 of his people.
He turned to Rinaldo. "Make sure Silmarus and Morgan get to the dungeons. Have three guards on them at all times. I will not have them escape, or be rescued." The hunk nodded, and moved over to consult with Brand's guards.
Then he turned his attention to Nicholas. "Nicholas, your father has something of mine in his room. I'd like you to get it for me."
Nicholas said "What?" Sweat glistened off his bald head.
"Playing stupid will do you no good. Get it." Nicholas spun and stomped from the room. I hoped that he was going to take Brand's hand and get out of here with it. I wasn't sure if it would be better to destroy it, or preserve it for its potential magical uses, but it was clear that it was better out of Brand's grasp.
As she was dragged out the door, Morgan bit through her gag. She yelled "It was Quentin who killed the unicorn. This is all his fault!" Quentin squirmed, Brand just smiled.
So there was something to my vision of the dying unicorn. I'd have to ask Morgan what she knew. Still, it seemed like a non-sequitur to me; I didn't see what it had to do with Brand gunning down Oberon and Benedict.
Brand slowly approached the throne. He reached out tentatively, caressed it from its arm up onto the highly ornate back. Then he whirled and threw himself into it.
Nothing was said for a minute, as we all stayed very still and considered our new situation.
Then Nicholas strode confidently back into the room, carrying Brand's missing hand gingerly. I groaned, hopefully inaudibly. Brand beamed. "Thank you, Nicholas. You'll go far." He took the hand, held it to his stump for a moment. A moment later he was flexing his fingers.
I was going to have to bawl out Nicholas for this. He probably had just lost us our biggest lever against the new king.
He then addressed all of us. "You're all free to do as you wish. But while you're here in Amber, I expect your full support.
"Leave me to consult with my council."
Géerard picked up (most of) Benedict. Julian picked up Aiken.
We were silent all the way down to the infirmary. I was glad the others knew the way, for it was nowhere near where I remembered it.
We threw the wounded on the cots. Fiona looked at Benedict's corpse, and sighed. She moved over to Aiken. "This I can do something for." She waved her hand over his knee--rather, where his knee should have been--and it started mending itself. Wish I could do that.
She puttered around, making sure everyone else was okay, and then left us cousins to ourselves. Aiken turned to Garrick. "If you love Amber, you'll take us to somewhere that can heal my father."
"I'm going home," Garrick replied quietly. "You're welcome to come with me."
"Let's go," I said.
Aiken collected up Benedict, and he, Xavier, Garrick and I filed through the hallways. Brand's guards already were taking the usual positions in the castle. I'd no idea how he got them there so quickly.
When we reached his room, Garrick collected a few paintings, maybe five or six, and I grabbed my sketch of Corwin.
We assembled in front of a painting of a small apartment, all computer screens and bed. "Hold hands," Garrick said, and we went through.