The noodles were just starting to curl when my house tried to get my attention.
It beeped quietly at me, just loud enough to be heard over the Book of Merlyn soundtrack. I glanced at the kitchen monitor, which immediately displayed the intruder and started a report. It showed a gnarled old man, dressed in vaguely medieval clothing. He was not in the house's databases. It believed he was unarmed, and informed me that it was ready to hit him with Fadeaway. I shook my head. Lady has a pretty good nose for trouble, and she wasn't making a big fuss over this guy.
"Yes?" I called out, adding the eggs and shrimp to the wok.
"Good dog. Nice doggy," came from the next room. There was a pause, and then, "Roland?"
"Yes," I said, "who is it?"
I already had a guess. Popping up like that suggested he might be connected with Amber, and I'd only heard of one guy who matched that description: Dworkin, mad artist, maker of the Pattern and family trump. I'd no idea what I might have done to earn a visit from him. I'd stayed as far away from my relatives as possible, and I hoped that most of them had little or no idea who I was.
He called out, "Nice trump here. Strong basics... Novel style."
As I stepped away from the stove to grab the fish sauce, I glanced through the doorway to see that he was looking at the ground level trump of the cove. "Thank you, sir. To what do I owe the honor of this visit?"
My visitor entered the kitchen and sniffed. "Smells good. Something oriental?" Lady's toenails clicked on the hardwood floors as she followed him in.
I nodded as I threw in the chopped peanuts. "Pad thai. Care to join me for dinner?"
"It would be a pleasure."
"Good. Mind getting some wine from the cellar while I finish this up?" I was grateful that he had caught me on this particular day. I had eaten lunch with my parents, and despite the upcoming concert, I was still dressed respectably.
"Not at all."
A few minutes later I gave us each a hefty serving of the main course, set the remaining noodles on the table, and hung my apron on the nail in the pantry door. Dworkin reappeared from the direction of the cellar, and poured the already open wine. We both sat down.
The large west window in the dinning room showed a stunning view of the fall woods in sunset, just as I designed it. Having finished "Second Argument", the stereo system now softly played Copland's Piano Variations, much more appropriate for dinner with a mad friend of the family.
Dworkin ignored the Western-style silverware in favor of the chopsticks, deftly plucking up a shrimp and two noodles. "Delicious."
I sniffed the wine, took a sip. "Perfect." It wasn't the Riesling I would have picked; indeed, to judge from the label, it wasn't even from this shadow, much less my cellar.
"You've the look of one of Clarissa's line." Dworkin was making quick work of dinner.
Lady nuzzled my foot, but she'd have to wait until after dinner for her snack tonight.
"Fair skin, red hair." He stabbed a shrimp on his plate and sucked it off the chopstick. "But where did you get all those freckles?"
We ate our lime sherbert on the porch, watching the broad river flow slowly in the twilight. "So, what brings you here?" I asked.
"We are having a banquet to celebrate the successful conclusion of the war, and King Random's coronation."
This was not what I had expected to hear. Actually, I'm not sure what I thought was coming, but this would certainly not have been on the list. Had Chorovius been holding out on me? Even Chaos would have learned of a new king in Amber fairly quickly, and I'd not even known there was a war. I was definitely going to have a long talk with him after this was over.
Dworkin continued, "You, naturally, are invited."
I slowly nodded. "My thanks. When and where is the event?"
"Let me see," Dworkin pondered. "About sixty-three hours, your time."
I made a mental note--Thursday, 9 am or so. "Who else is expected?"
Dworkin smiled. "All of my other great-grandchildren."
More startling news. Sure, I'd heard he'd been around forever, and I knew he was vaguely connected with the family. But if I was understanding him, he was claiming to be my great-grandfather. Presumably on Oberon's side? Wow.
"I look forward to meeting my cousins."
"Indeed," he said, rising. "Be sure to be there on time." And he was gone, not even the rainbow after-image of trumping left behind. But he did leave a trump of Amber on the floor where he had stood.
If I'd known what was coming, I'd have been tempted to call Chorovius and head for the hills. Between the two of us and Lady, we might well have been able to wait everything out, hidden in some backwater Shadow. Sure, it could have changed the fate of the omniverse, or whatever you want to call this mess of Shadows we live in. But it would have been a hell of a lot easier.
Instead, I cleared the table and put the dishes in the dishwasher. Chores done, I threw on a Tull jersey, Lady and I piled my gear into the pickup, and we headed out. It was a Monday in the fall, and so Total Chaos was playing at the Bird of Paradise.
I didn't take the direct route. Instead, I carefully pictured the sunset, and headed for a properly curvy road. The sun peeked back over the tree line, and we watched the perfect colors again. As it ended, we turned onto Plymouth road; we'd cut forty minutes off our drive. Shadow is such a convenient thing. In no time at all I pulled into my parking spot.
"About time you two got here," Anna called as we entered the club.
Lady ran forward and rubbed her side against her blonde friend's legs. "Is there anything left for us to do?" I asked.
"Set up your stuff," Dave said. "As usual, we're ready to go. Will you ever make it on time?"
"Don't you remember that time last season?"
"Was that the night the rest of us were sick?"
"Yup. So, do I need the Red Special tonight?"
"No. We're going to work on a bunch of swing stuff, and some of the side two pieces from the last album."
By now Lady had worked her way over to Dave, and he was scritching her head.
I surveyed my instruments. The piano was open and the clarinet rested on its stand. The only remaining thing was to tune the violin. I got to work on it. "So what are we starting with?"
Anna replied. "`Total Chaos', the acoustic `Chasing Shadows', and `Circle and Rhythm of Life'."
"`Total Chaos' is hardly swing or acoustic."
"You don't need the guitar for it."
Even as I finished my tuning, I could feel and hear the low bass rumble that started the song "Total Chaos". Hearing it, Lady got off Dave and trotted to her blanket, right in the center of things. Anna blew someone in the audience a kiss; Greg looked deadly serious, as usual. None of us had anything to do yet; the computer controlled this part of the show.
It started working between just a few low tones, rumbles really. They were randomly selected according to a set of rules Dave had carefully specified. Gradually the rules changed, increasing the random factors, making it much more complicated. Soon the notes were coming faster and higher, now definitely sounding like an old analog synth.
Gradually other computer voices entered in, following Dave's complex pattern. Once a five part fugue was underway, he signalled me I could proceed. Sitting down at the piano, I quietly tapped three notes, do, re, so. The computer caught my sounds, and weaved them into its pattern. Hearing how it was working them tonight, I started in on more complex riffs. Across the stage, Anna answered me on her sax, and Greg started a series of slides on his trombone.
We continued in this way for maybe three minutes, the computer coordinating our complex feedback system, making it, with our help, something much more than a cacophonous collection of notes. The long crescendo just kept on building.
And then Dave entered in on drums, and we rolled into a swing version of "Chasing Shadows", earning a roar of applause from the audience.
Afterward, we went over to Dave's for the usual post-concert hanging out, mostly involving the swimming pool and hot tub, some crazy improvisations, and discussions of what to play at the next concert. Once that had been settled, Greg and Anna took off, leaving Dave, Lady, and me--a burly redhead, a trim black Labrador retriever, and an even bigger redhead--to ourselves. I shared the details of my dinner with Dave.
"So you're going to this party?" Dave's hair was more of a brownish shade than mine, and, amazingly enough, he had even more freckles.
I nodded. "I've got mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it will be nice to meet my relatives, especially my cousins. Odds are at least a few of them have to be nice.
"On the other hand, it means they'll meet me. I've a horrible feeling I'll get caught up in whatever the current political struggle is."
Lady spoke up. "I don't like it, Roland. I don't think Dworkin meant you any harm, but who knows how you'll get tangled up in their games."
Dave sighed. "Life's never simple, is it? Obviously a couple of them know about you. Even if you stay, you'll probably get caught up somehow."
"I know." I reached over and scratched Lady under her chin while I looked at Dave. "I want you to stay in touch with me. If something happens, I'll need you and Lady to pull my ass out of the fire."
"Hey!" she half-barked. "I'm going with you."
"Sorry, old girl. There's no way they're letting dogs into their banquet. If you stay here with Dave, you two are a single trump call away."
Dave nodded. "So we're the cavalry, eh?"
"Exactly." Not to mention that Lady could protect Dave and the others. My friends were obvious targets, if anyone wanted to get at me indirectly.
Lady looked at me with those sad eyes retrievers inherited from beagles. "Will you leave us a trump of Amber, in case we can't get a hold of you?"
"Agreed. And a trump of Chorovius, as well."
"I don't like it, but I'll do it."
Wednesday night the moon's reflection in the river pointed at our small sailboat, and stars surrounded us. Our only company was a few ducks floating a few hundred feet away. Lady didn't so much as bark at them; she just lay in the stern and sulked. "Did you finish that song today?"
I shook my head. "Couldn't find anything that rhymed with `loaves and fish'."
"How about `at most a wish'."
Lady snorted. "Did you do any work at all?"
"What have you been doing? Preparing for the banquet?"
"I pressed my outfit."
"That took you what, ten minutes?"
"Well, there was our morning walk, and lunch with Mom and Dad."
"Yeah, yeah, I was there. And after lunch, you had a rendezvous with Ellen. I still don't see what you see in her."
"You haven't liked anyone I've seen since Erin."
Lady's eyes flashed. "You haven't seen anyone worth liking since Erin. Why don't you go out with Anna?"
I groaned. "Not that again. She's my friend, dammit. And you don't risk breaking up a great band."
"How are you going to meet someone, then?"
"Who knows--maybe I'll meet someone tomorrow."
"They're going to be your cousins."
"Well, maybe they'll introduce me to Miss Right, then." I stared at the coastline.
"Do you think any good will come out of this dinner?"
"Well, at the very least I should learn the political situation in Amber. I mean, how could Random end up king?"
"Maybe your other uncles got themselves killed in the war Dworkin mentioned."
"And Oberon too? Sounds like I picked a good war to miss."
"You never know. They could have picked a fight with Chorovius's people."
"Chaos? As far as we know, there's never been much contact between the two kingdoms." I saw an decrepit boathouse I recognized. "We're just north of Harsen's Island. Ready to turn around?"
"How do I look?"
I turned around fully for Lady, nearly whapping my recently polished sabre into the wall.
"Like the pride of Vienna. But will this do in Amber?"
"If I'm really embarrassed, I'll trump back right away."
"Are you sure you don't want to tell Chorovius about this?"
"Positive. The bozo must have known something was up, and held out on me. Damned if I'm going to share any information I pick up until I'm good and ready."
"You will call me, right?"
"Of course. I'll check in every hour or so Amber time, at least at first. If I'm more than a day between calls, trump me. If you can't get me, try Chorovius."
"All right. I'll be waiting at Dave's, then."
"I'll see you at the football game Friday."
I wished I could hug her. But I needed to keep my good outfit free of black dog hair. I settled for a paw shake and rub behind the ears.
I took out my old trump of the stairs to Tír-na Nog'th. I focused on the three stone steps that seemed so ordinary in the light of day, concentrated on the deep blue of the sky. It was only a few moments before I could smell the sea on the breeze that came through the cold card; the clouds in the picture came to life. I stepped through and was there: the top of Mount Kolvir.
I'd never walked this way before, but I knew where I was going. I started down the path that would lead to Castle Amber, and my family.