A grin broke out on my face when I was shown to my seat for dinner. Standing to my right was Celene, just waiting for a stupid lug like me to help her into her seat. I was glad to oblige, and she gave me a demure smile and thanks. Ah, I thought to myself, this is the life!
But that was just the beginning. Across from me, another redhead was helping another dark-haired beauty to her seat. This particular redhead was half my size, and dressed in a nasty purple and yellow suit. Towering over him, the lady looked remarkably like Celene, though taller and possibly more attractive. It was hard to tell; she seemed very subdued, perhaps a bit sad, and I find a smile does wonders for a lady's appearance.
The guy to my left didn't seem to be enjoying himself. He was fidgeting like crazy, and trying not to make eye contact with the sad damsel now seated directly across from me. He was yet another redhead, though not so small as the one across from Celene. He looked as though he was dressed for a nightclub, not a banquet at a castle, and seemed very out of place.
The guy across from him wasn't helping any. "So, Diana, when was the last time you saw your mother?" The big black-haired man's words seemed innocent, but there was malice in his voice as he said them. Hearing them, the sad beauty glowered at the redhead on my left.
"A few years before the war," she replied quietly. Something seethed inside her.
"How about you, Maximilian?" the provoker continued, now obviously addressing the guy on my left. "When's the last time you saw dear old Brand?"
I threw a questioning glance over at Celene, who was listening intently to all this. She caught my eye, winked, and said, "My apologies. You've not been properly introduced. Roland, this is Diana, daughter of Dierdre;" she indicated the upset beauty across from me; "my brother Malachi;" I nodded to the much smaller redhead across the table; "Ian, son of Caine;" the man next to Diane who was trying to stir up trouble; "and Maximilian, son of Brand;" leaving only the target of Diana's wrath, desperately trying to shrink back in his seat. "Cousins, brother, this is Roland." She left it hanging, giving me the chance to fill in my heritage. I did not oblige.
I got the impression that she expected me to understand what was going on once I'd been introduced to everyone, but I was still quite clueless. However, it was obvious that the next conversational gambit was mine. Best to change the subject, let Max off the hook.
"So," I ventured, "who has been to Amber before?"
"`Who hasn't?' is a better question, I'd say," Rinaldo, sitting next to Malachi, broke into our conversation for the first time.
"I've never been here formally," I responded. Let them make of that what they would... I certainly wasn't given away terribly valuable information there.
Ignoring my conversational foray, Ian quickly returned to his taunting. "You know, Maximilian, one thing has always confused me," Ian said. "Why did Brand go through all the hassle of drawing Martin's trump when he had you around?"
Rinaldo and Diana grimaced, and Maximilian just looked confused. With the timely interruption of the soup being served, the conversation faltered for a few moments. It was a mild, but rather delicious garlic soup, the freshly grated cheese sprinkled on top similar to Parmesan, but subtly different.
Maximilian, looking upset, was clearly about to say something. From the look of glee on Ian's face, it was obvious that his last statement had been a triumph, and he was enjoying the pained expression Max wore. It was starting to become clear that keeping this conversation civil was going to be rough, but I was determined to try.
"Unusual cheese," I interrupted, internally groaning. If I continued to hang around this group, I was going to need practice at ad-lib verbal fire extinguishers. "Perhaps a good cheese for a back bacon and pineapple pizza? What do you think, Malachi?"
Malachi looked briefly startled to be addressed, then replied, "I hate pineapple on pizza."
For a moment it looked like my second conversational foray was going to go the way of the first. In desperation, I nudged Celene's foot. She blinked. "What's pizza?"
Malachi, bless him, answered. "Dough covered with cheese, tomato sauce, and other ingredients, and then baked. It's one of my favorite foods, as long as it doesn't involve pineapple."
Rinaldo figured out what Celene and I were up to, and saw fit to give us a hand. "Mine too," he added.
"Pineapple and bacon on tomato sauce?" Ian queried, delighted to find new targets for scorn. "Revolting."
I could see the main course being brought out, and breathed a little sigh of relief. "I typically don't have tomato sauce on a Hawaiian pizza. If you have the right cheese, it compliments the pineapple and bacon perfectly, and that's all you need." Rinaldo nodded, and then dinner was upon us.
Heaping platters of smoked turkey. Steaming ears of fresh silver corn on the cob. Something that looked like cauliflower, but when Celene finally convinced me to try it, tasted more like white chocolate. Steamed asparagus, cooked to perfection. Fried wild rice, with bits of something that might be venison.
Needless to say, we didn't do a whole lot of talking during dinner, and what talk there was was pleasant.
"Friends, family, next generation, lend me your ears." No sooner had I finished my sherbert than King Random arose and started speaking. He matched the physical description of Random I'd learned years ago: the shortest of his generation, with straw-colored hair and mischievous blue eyes. But with the Jewel of Judgment around his neck, his regal manner was completely at odds with the wild youngest son about whom I'd heard.
"I welcome you now formally to your home, and I hope your first proper introductions to your extended family, were... not too painful. Although I initially had my doubts, I must confess that Florimel and the others who thought it was time we brought the family together were right. For the first time in longer than I care to remember, there is peace in Amber. Where once there was conflict without," he gestured toward the man at the end of the head table, who I had gathered was from Chaos, "there is now peace, and for the first time ever an ambassador. Where once there was conflict within, feuds and cabals, there is now cooperation and trust."
It was starting to sound like a bad political speech. Sure, cooperation and trust are great. But I had yet to see any special signs of it today.
Random continued. "I understand that for many of you this is your first trip to Amber, and the first opportunity for some of you to walk the Pattern. Whether you have never walked the pattern, or have walked through shadow for years, I ask that you consider your opportunity to live in Reality, and reflect on the responsibilities to the maintenance of order that your powers bring."
More of that peculiar Amber chauvinism I'd heard of, claiming that shadows are somehow not reality. From a political speech to a bigoted graduation address; not much of an improvement.
"I've taken up enough of your time on this, your first night in your ancestral home. I would ask you to spend the rest of this evening thinking about the power, the privilege, and the responsibilities which each of you are heir to.
"And of course, entertain yourselves as befits members of the one true royal family, both by exploring the castle itself, and by enjoying the dance that will begin as soon as the tables have been cleared away.
"I look forward to seeing you at the Banquet tomorrow. Until then, I ask you to dance, drink, and be merry."
We toasted to that. I sincerely hoped Random was right, with his talk of cooperation and trust. But I was leery of the talk of responsibility. This was starting to sound like it might be an excuse for Random's generation to saddle my generation with the tasks they'd rather not do.
We stood up and moved away from the tables as the musicians warmed up. It was a string octet, with two violins, two violas, two cellos, bass, and harp. I stuck close to Celene. "I wonder what they'll play."
"I've heard Corwin is a songwriter."
I nodded. "I'd heard that also. You think perhaps they'll play something of his?"
They struck up the first number, a stately waltz with a very melodic tune. Celene and I both turned to look at Corwin, who looked surprised and delighted.
"I'd say something written by Corwin, and arranged by the first cello player, from the look of things." Celene nodded. "My I have the first dance, milady?"
She may have not known much about movies or shadow, but Celene certainly did know how to dance.
Somewhat later, in a secluded place, I trumped Lady. "Well, I survived dinner."
"Have you waited long enough for any slow effect poisons to start working?"
"I've gotten quite a vigorous workout dancing. Surely that would have brought any ill-effects from the food to the fore?"
"Ah! So you're already up to no good, dancing with those upstarts claiming the throne. Figure to start a dynasty the easy way, eh?"
"Not at all. Merely dancing with a few cousins. I've strictly avoided my aunts."
"Hmmm. Hey, Dave," Lady looked away from me, called down the hall, "do any of the independent states still let you marry a cousin?"
"Enough!" I thundered, scratching my friend behind the ears. "I'll call you back later this evening."
"Over and out." She beat me to breaking the contact again. I don't know how she does it so consistently.
Castle Amber is a pretty amazing place, and it took me the better part of an hour to get an idea of the basic layout. That out of the way, I decided to head to the library, hoping to pick up some more information on my family's genealogy and history.
As I casually walked in the door, I heard Celene excitedly asking, "What do you mean he's not dead?" She was there with Malachi, Collin, and Fiona, apparently in the middle of a heated discussion. Suddenly I put two and two and two together to get six. Collin must be Celene's brother, making them all the children of Fiona. And judging by the hair colors in the room, I was a close relative of all of theirs.
My entrance had not gone unnoticed, and now three redheads and one black-haired beauty stared at me. "Sorry to intrude," I started, but Celene interrupted.
"He's practically one of us," she said. "I say we let Roland in on this."
Fiona frowned. "He's certainly not one of mine."
"Fiona..." Celene began, only to be cut off by her mother.
"Enough," Fiona said, echoing the comment with a forceful gesture. Silence ensued.
"Sorry to bother you," I said, and I slunk out.
I decided to look for the best route from the library to the kitchen, as it seemed a useful path to know. After two false starts, I stood at a hall intersection trying to remember which one was correct. It was becoming apparent I'd have to cheat by using my nose when I was joined by Celene.
"Fiona likes her little secrets," Celene said sympathetically.
"Not meant for the likes of me?"
"Not yet, anyway." She looked quizzically at me for a moment, thinking; as she did so, a lock of hair fell over her eyes. She decided something, announced it to the world by decisively pushing her hair back into place. "Let's look for a place a little more private, to exchange information."
"One of those second floor sitting rooms?" I suggested.
"Lead the way."
My way to the second floor ran through the kitchen, where instead of the snacks I had been hoping for before being chased down by Celene, I acquired a bottle of wine and two glasses. Soon we were situated in a small sitting room, chairs pulled up to a small round table, door securely shut.
"A toast," Celene said. "To new friends."
"Aye," said I, as our glasses clinked, and then I took a good sip of the sweet white wine. She did likewise, and a brief moment of silence ensued.
"So," she finally broke it, "what do you know about recent events in Amber?"
"Far too little," I replied. "The last I'd heard, Eric was regent of Amber, and Corwin and Oberon were missing."
"And now Random is king. I can see how that might be a little confusing." Damn, I liked her smile.
"Can you clear up my confusion?"
"What will you give me in exchange?" she slyly asked me. "A description of your favorite films? Interesting places you've been? Your life history?"
"Sounds reasonable," I replied. Okay, maybe I'd hold back a bit on my life history, but I was willing to tell her all I knew about the others, and I'd be glad to have her to share them with.
"Tell me," she said, "what's the romantic place you've ever been?"
Thoughts of my cove flashed into my mind, but the romance was as much in the associations with that place as the place itself. Then the answer came to me. "There's this coral reef..."
"...so the evil woman takes shameless advantage of the innocent, smitten man?"
"More or less," I replied. I felt the beginnings of a trump call then, and realized we'd been talking for quite a while. "So, dinner at my place, soonest evening we both have free?" Luckily, Dave isn't very hard to block.
"Agreed," she said. "Shall we get back to the rest of them?"
"I need to run some errands around this way. I'll see you later."
I'd greatly improved my knowledge of recent Amber history, and promised to take Celene on a whirlwind tour of my favorite things; not bad for an hour's work. When she was out of sight, I took Dave's call.
"Concert starts in fifteen minutes," he said.
"Sorry. You'll have to go it without me tonight."
"I expected so," Dave replied, "but thought I'd check to make sure."
Lady rubbed against his leg, joined the contact. "No big deal," she said. "I'll cover Roland's parts."
"Yeah, right," Dave said to her as he broke the contact.
As I walked back towards the great hall, an arm beckoned to me to enter a side room. It was Max.
"Thanks," he said, as he closed the door.
"For giving me a chance."
"It was no big deal," I replied, but I could see it was for him.
There was an awkward pause. Finally he asked, "What do you know about my father?"
"Not that much," I replied. He gave me a hurt look, and I concluded he was desperate to know anything I knew. "Let's see," I continued, "would you like to hear all of it?"
He nodded gently.
"Brand was the full brother of Bleys and Fiona." As I said "was", his face flushed, but he said nothing, and I continued on. "It's said that he was a traitor; that he went mad, and tried to destroy the Pattern. His first attempt involved spilling the blood of Random's son Martin on it. Martin somehow escaped, but what of his blood had touched the Pattern had already seriously damaged it.
"Brand had made some sort of pact with Chaos; I don't really understand that part of the story. Eventually, Chaos prepared to invade Amber, which launched a preemptive strike. There on the battlefield Brand appeared, and when things started going against him, grabbed Dierdre as a hostage. Caine shot Brand, and Brand fell into something called the Abyss, dragging Dierdre with him. Both are believed dead."
Max was quietly taking this all in when our conversation was interrupted by a sound I was familiar with only from movies--automatic gunfire. "What gives! I thought guns didn't work in Amber?" I was already on my feet, heading towards the sound.
"I didn't think they did either," Max said, as he sprinted after me. The first fork in the hallway was obvious--the sound must have come from the right hand passage. But I was briefly stymied at the second fork. I stared blankly at the wall hanging, wondering which way to go, taking in the tapestry's depiction of a young redhead leading a small charge of cavalry against a much larger force without really seeing it. Max's perception was keener. "Is that a picture of you?"
I looked more closer at the redhead, and he did appear to be me, though he had none of my familiar heraldry, nor was the scene anywhere I recognized.
Then I heard a commotion coming from the north hallway, and we tore off that way in a run again. In moments we hit a human traffic jam in the hallway. Nearest to me was the big guy from Harvard--Baldric, I thought.
"Can you believe that?" he asked.
"Automatic weapons in Amber? I thought they didn't work here."
"What?" he said, looking at me as if I were daft. "No, their behavior. I was just trying to help. You'd think they'd want a real doctor at a time like this."
Odds were they had a real doctor, I thought, considering what I'd heard about the family's medical training. "What happened?"
"I was trying to decide how to get the bullet out from where it is lodged behind the ribs. That was the only really serious wound, I think; the rest of the bullets didn't get near anything important. Anyway, the big one--what's his name, Géerard?--literally picked me up and set me aside. `Get away from my brother,' he said."
"How serious is it?"
"Serious enough they shouldn't be knocking aside a Harvard M.D. so that the victim's brother can treat him."
"Who was shot?"
Baldric paused at this. "The black haired one. Looked like a sailor. Caine?"
I glanced over at Max, who was still standing next to me, quietly taking this all in. It looked like his father's death was avenged.
"Just Caine's son," Baldric said, as Ian pushed his way through the crowd to us.
"You're responsible for this," he hissed. It took me a moment to realize he was talking to Max. "How dare you stand there now! You never should have been allowed to come to Amber in the first place. You didn't even have the courage to pull the trigger without hiding your face behind a mask."
Everyone stared at us as Max sputtered. I said, as coldly and distinctly as I could, "You must be mistaken. Maximilian was with me when your father was shot."
"You damned redheads!" Ian raged. "Amber won't be safe until you all are dead."
"Well, then, let us hope it is a long time until Amber is safe," I replied.