Muddle-headed Kay (mhw) wrote,
Muddle-headed Kay

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The Road Taken, Part 2

TITLE: The Road Taken
AUTHOR: Kay Dekker
EMAIL: kaydekker @
RATING: Suitable for adults and mature younger people. Occasional sex and violence.
SUMMARY: Set in Roger Zelazny's Amber universe, somewhat after Prince of Chaos. Florimel's son Joseph has created a problem, and his companion Kenton is off in Shadow helping to resolve it.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks are due to everyone who helped me while I was writing this, by encouragement, suggestions, or beta reading. The copyright has been assigned to Griff because this was a birthday present for him. If you want to do anything with this story, you need to talk with him.
DISCLAIMER: Some characters and places mentioned in this story are the property of the estate of the late Roger Zelazny. Others are mine or belong to various players in our periodic Amber roleplaying game. This story is not intended as an infringement upon anyone's rights and is meant for entertainment only. The story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the copyright holder.
COPYRIGHT: Adam Griffen Sanford, 2005.

Kris seemed to catch something of my thoughts, because he turned in his seat to look directly at me, and his eyes were wary. ‘You don't need to worry about me,’ he said, and if over the years I hadn't heard too many people saying the same thing, up to their necks in it and whistling in the dark, I might almost have believed him. ‘I'm really grateful for the ride and the food, truly I am, but I'll be fine. Honestly I will.’ He took a deep breath and summoned a smile. ‘Now you've heard all about me, isn't it your turn to tell me about yourself?’ Of course, I hadn't heard all about him; far from it, but I let that slide and wondered instead how I could explain my situation to him.

My name's Kenton, but call me Kent. I know that right now I may look as though I'm in my early twenties, but I have absolutely no idea how old I am any more. That is, even if the concept of age makes sense, when a day for you here might be a week or a minute for me only one Shadow away. I'm on a mission, but I've had my mind carefully edited so that I don't consciously know what it is and can't let slip too much about it if I run into difficulties. I live in whichever edition of the universe I happen to be in at the time, and I'm hoping to go back home — wherever home may be, because I've had that fogged away too — when and if I can get this job finished. Assuming I don't get captured or killed on the way.

Yeah, right. Scare the little guy, why don't you? I'm scared enough myself for the two of us, thank you.

I gave him an OK-you-got-me smile. ‘I suppose it is. My name's Kenton Armstrong. Call me Kent.’

He looked surprised at that. ‘That's an unusual name. English?’

I shook my head, and trusted that whatever it was that got me through the shifts would keep my terminology acceptable. ‘English ancestry, generations back. I'm Virginian by birth, though I've been over here for quite a while now.’

That got me a raised eyebrow and then a glance of understanding pity. ‘Of course … you were one of the lucky ones, then,’ he said softly. ‘You must have been very young when … I'm sorry. I don't suppose you want to talk about it. I know that I wouldn't.’ He shuddered, then carried on. ‘That's why you speak the language so well, I suppose.’

I nodded without really understanding what he meant. Obviously something really bad had happened across the Atlantic in this Shadow, and my ignorance of local history meant that the safest strategy would be for me to play the strong, silent type, at least for the moment. ‘Yeah,’ I said after a long pause. ‘Very young. You're right, though; picking up languages easily, that's been a real lifesaver for me. I can get jobs anywhere, pretty much.’

‘So what is it you do?’ Kris asked. ‘If it's not too bad of me to ask?’

I took the pack of cigarettes out of my pocket and offered him one, which he refused with a polite smile and a shake of his head. Nudging open the ventilation a little more, I hit the cigarette lighter and lit my cigarette, taking a deep drag and exhaling, thinking about what I was going to say.

‘My job? I've done a lot of things in my time.’ He nodded, obviously paying attention, encouraging me to keep going, but I flicked the ash off my cigarette and took another couple of drags before I continued. ‘Nowadays … well, ‘courier’ is close enough. It's what's on my papers. People who want things delivering safely or discreetly, they come to me. It pays well.’ I caught his questioning glance and shook my head. ‘No. Nothing illegal.’ I ground my cigarette out, suddenly realising that I hadn't really wanted it after all. ‘I don't touch anything like that. If the official documents aren't perfectly in order, I won't take the job.’

‘Must be nice to have the option …’ he mumbled, and once again I found myself worrying about him. He looked OK, I told myself. That wasn't junkie pallor, just fair skin. And that rash round his mouth was normal adolescent acne. I shook myself angrily. I'd seen worse, far worse, in my journeying: slavery, famine, plague, nanowar, most varieties of misery that could be visited on humanity. And before that, I'd witnessed worlds destroyed, realities annihilated to underscore a debating point or simply on a whim; that was the way of the people with whom I'd had to learn to live. No protest would make any sense to any but a handful of them, let alone influence their decisions; all that I could do was to hold on and keep reminding one of them, someone more precious to me than life itself, that he too had once been an unsuspecting pawn in their games. I was the only one who'd fight to keep him at least a little human. So why should I worry about one Shadowbrat in a billion billion billions? I'd drop Kris off somewhere, and that would be the last that I'd see of him and, most likely, this Shadow.

Just thinking about getting rid of him made my guts start to knot up again, so the mind control was obviously still active, even if it hadn't been noticeable for a while. I began to consider seriously that Kris might well be charming in more senses than the obvious one, so I did one of the head-clearing exercises that I'd been taught. It came up with nothing; someone had done a real job of work on me. At that point it dawned on me that it was entirely possible that the controlled behaviour had been implanted in me by the people for whom I was working. It was certainly something that lay entirely within their capabilities. What I couldn't understand, if that were so, was why.

I pretended that I hadn't quite heard his last comment and nodded vaguely. ‘You said you're a student, right?’ I asked, flicking on the headlights as the night closed in, and he nodded. ‘What are you studying?’

Kris chewed nervously at the skin at the edge of his thumbnail, then shook his head. ‘I'm not really studying anything at the moment, just taking a few classes here and there. Finding my feet, working out whether I'd be any good at what I think I'd like to do.’

I cocked an eyebrow at that. ‘That being?’

‘Ethnomusicology,’ he said sheepishly. ‘You probably haven't even heard of it. It's …’

‘The study of music in relation to culture, and vice versa?’ I laughed a little at the expression of surprise on his face. ‘Don't look so amazed. When you travel around as much as I do, listening to the radio, it's hard not to get interested in the stuff that you hear. It's one way of picking up an education. The University of the Air, if you like. As for music, most of the stuff that I get to hear is trashy Europop and the same everywhere I go, but …’ I shrugged. ‘There's more interesting stuff now and again. I've always liked music.’

‘Do you sing, or play any instrument?’ He shifted in his seat, stretching first his legs, then interlacing his fingers and bending them backwards until they popped. I winced at the sound — for some reason I've always hated people doing that, even though I do it myself — but I didn't let my discomfort show.

‘I don't play anything,’ I replied with a chuckle, ‘but people have accused me of singing before now. Sometimes I sing while I'm driving, just to help while the hours away.’

‘Would you sing for me?’ he asked simply. ‘I'd like to hear you.’

My mind went blank. Do you ever get that? Not stage-fright as such, but a sudden empty-headedness when you're on the spot and you have to remember something quickly. I knew that I had hundreds of songs in my head; Joseph and I used to sing together all the time when we were … Damn. That was a name that I shouldn't have thought of, a name that belonged somewhere a myriad realities from here, and, for safety's sake, well out of my mind. My throat seized up and my eyes stung, suddenly feeling all the loss coalesce into a hard lump inside me.

‘Are you OK?’ Kris asked, his voice hesitant but concerned, and I turned to answer him. Maybe it was something in his posture, or perhaps a trick of the light, but for a moment I could have sworn that — no. If you travel for a while, soon enough you'll think that you see someone you know. There'll be something in the way that someone's holding their head, a similarity in dress or hair, a particular laughter, a fragmentary resemblance that evokes the familiar. It happens all the time.

Someone once explained to me that out at the ends of Shadow, where the true realities are, there are only so many real people, only so many real things. Because everything else, the Shadows and the people and things in them, is just a distorted reflection of those archetypes, they turn up again and again like images in an endless hall of ever so slightly imperfect mirrors. I'd met a few of my analogues, and I'd got used to it soon enough. I'm about as real as a Shadow person ever can be.

I gave him a weak grin and nodded. ‘Just thinking of something to sing for you, that's all. Hm. How about this?’

Clearing my throat, I envisioned the correct pitch and started to sing. Black is the Colour of my True Love's Hair came out easily and well, so I carried on with Storm's a-Rising and The Herald of the Morn, which I've been told I sing extremely well, and finished off with the Eriskay Love Lilt. Of course it would have been easier if I'd had … someone … to sing along with me, and perhaps the Lilt may have been a bad choice because driving with eyes fogging with tears isn't the most sensible thing to do, but from the way he sat listening he was loving it.

‘I've never heard any of those!’ he exclaimed when I'd wiped my eyes and got my breath back. ‘And I thought I knew a lot about English folk songs. Who taught you them?’

I shrugged. ‘Picked them up here and there, I suppose. Like I said, I travel a lot.’ Great move, I said to myself. Sing songs from another Shadow to a folk music nut and he'll be whipping out his notebook and pen before you know where you are and trying to trace them. And good luck to him. At that point the rain changed from a sad drizzle to a full-on downpour, so heavy that the wipers had a tough job keeping the windscreen clear enough for me to see through.

‘I don't really fancy driving much further through this,’ I said. ‘What do you think to finding the nearest rest stop and calling it a day?’

He looked at me quickly, then just as quickly away. ‘You're the driver,’ he said quietly and started to zip his jacket back up. Something had obviously rattled him, but for a moment I couldn't think what it was. Then it dawned.

‘Hey,’ I said. ‘You think I'm going to kick you out when we stop, is that it?’ He didn't say anything, just looked resigned, as though this wouldn't be by any means the first time that it had happened.

‘I already said we'd be stopping for something to eat, didn't I?’ Actually, I hadn't; I'd actually only said that I'd be getting food when we stopped, but the intention had been there, I promise. I wasn't going to leave him without food and shelter, at the mercy of whoever happened to pick him up next. ‘And you want to get to Tallinn, right? We're not going to make it there tonight, not in this weather, so my plan's to get to wherever there's hot food and something approaching a comfortable bed, and see how things look in the morning.’ He started to say something, but I cut in. ‘And before you say that you can't afford it, or anything like that, it's not an issue. I make more money in this job than I have free time to spend it in, and you've been ripped off, so I'm buying for both of us tonight. I know what it's like not to have money.’

Actually, I didn't, though I felt that I ought to say that I did. Even before my new life had made money irrelevant to me, I'd never been poor. My father's legal practice had made him wealthy, maybe not beyond the dreams of avarice, but enough so that I'd reckon he was among the richest five per cent of the men in the county, and our county had been by no means a poor one. As he always said, ‘Markets can crash. Products can become obsolete. But as long as there's sin in the world, son, there'll be a need for the law.’ I don't want to make it sound as though he was obsessed with money; he wasn't. He gave as freely as he earned, perhaps more so, to the Church, to charitable works, and — very discreetly — to those who needed a helping hand, even if they'd fallen foul of the law that he assiduously maintained. Even though he took the big cases that paid well, he never turned down anyone who needed justice, even if that meant funding their cases from his own pocket. I'd like to think that I have something of his integrity, even in situations that he could never have comprehended, and he'd have taken pains not to make someone like Kris feel bad, so I would do my best to do the same.

Kris turned his face to me, and the shy smile on his face was enough to make my heart lurch. Strict conscience asked me: would I have been prepared to do as much for someone who didn't remind me so strongly of someone else, someone for whom I could never do enough? But that wasn't the point; at least, I hoped that it wasn't. ‘OK,’ he said, and swallowed hard. ‘But you'll have to let me make it up to you somehow, some time.’

‘Sure,’ I nodded. ‘It's a deal.’ I had no idea how he could ever make good his words, but it was enough that he felt that he'd be able to square his conscience. We drove on a while in silence, the only sound the purring of the engine and the slashing of the rain. It seemed impossible for either of us to renew the conversation without awkwardness, and yet it wasn't a comfortable silence; everything that had happened had seemed to serve to bind us in complicity in an uncertain future, with boundaries no less perilous for being unspoken. It was probably as much a relief to him as it was to me when, just outside Riga, a neon sign advertising a motel ahead broke the gloom.

‘How's that look to you?’ I asked, and he laughed.

‘You're the traveller, Kent,’ he said. ‘If it looks good to you, it's good to me. I'm no judge of these things. But if it has hot food and a shower and a comfortable bed, I'm in heaven. Shall we take a look, at least? If it's too rancid, there'll be another soon enough.’

We pulled in and got out, hunched against the rain, and ran for shelter.

Maybe it wasn't heaven, but it was close enough. At those prices, it ought to have been. I couldn't help noticing Kris wince when he looked at the room prices as we headed for the booking desk.

‘Are you sure?’ he whispered. ‘That's crazy money! I could live on that for a week at home.’

I shrugged. ‘It's not cheap, sure, but we probably won't wake up scratching, which counts for a lot. Hell, why not? Two rooms and two decent dinners won't break me, not unless you go for the lobster Thermidor and the premier cru champagne, which I don't doubt they don't sell anyway.’

‘One room,’ he said softly. ‘One will do.’ His face flushed. ‘Unless … unless that's not what you'd prefer.’ I'd been apart from people for long enough for it to take a couple of seconds before what he was implying filtered through, and then I found myself at a complete loss for words. If I took him up on the offer — and I'd be lying if I said that, had circumstances been otherwise, I wouldn't have wanted to — would he feel that I was letting him pay me back? And if I didn't, would that make him feel even more vulnerable? I stopped and turned to him.

‘Look,’ I said. ‘If things had been different, if we'd met some other way, if today hadn't happened, would you be asking me the same thing, Kris? Just tell me yes or no. Because I honestly won't do anything that isn't what you want.’

He gave me another of those heart-melting smiles and nodded. ‘It's what I want. You're a good man, Kenton Armstrong. I know I'm safe with you.’

As it was, I took a room with en-suite shower and twin beds. For one thing, some cultures are fussy about two guys sharing a bed for whatever reason, and for another it gave Kris a chance to back out gracefully if he had second thoughts. A boy wearing a rather fancy uniform carried our bags up to our room, and as we got out of the lift I noticed Kris giving me an amused look.

‘What's so funny?’ I asked, and he looked down at the case that, as usual, I was carrying with a firm grip.

‘I hope that you don't sleep with that thing,’ he murmured. ‘I might get bruised.’

I laughed. ‘I take my job seriously, Kris, but not that seriously.’ That was a lie. I did take my job that seriously, and more so.

The door to the room opened easily to the card-key and the kid with our bags carried them in and put them carefully on the floor, trying not to look too obviously expectant. I took out my wallet and extracted what I hoped was a reasonable tip, based on the prices that I'd seen in the lobby. I suppose that it must have been more than enough, because it got me a smile and a formal bow. I inclined my head politely in response and he left, whispering the door shut behind him.

‘Is there time for a shower before we eat?’ Kris asked, pulling off his jacket and wrinkling his nose fastidiously. ‘I don't know about you, but I stink.’ I stepped behind him and let my nose and lips brush through the ringlets at the nape of his neck. He smelled delicious, and I said so. A little sweet, a little spicy, and … and a lot like someone else. I stepped away and sighed contentedly, but an uncomfortable thought had blossomed in my mind.

‘Go ahead,’ I said. ‘The shower's all yours,’ and I watched as he took off his clothes, not seductively, not shyly, but simply and easily, as you might undress with a friend. He turned, naked now, and stretched, and I saw muscles that I'd not expected ripple under his skin. Muscles that I half remembered from somewhere else.

‘I swim,’ he said simply. ‘Exercise helps me concentrate.’ He saw my eyes travelling over his body, and he laughed. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘at times you look like someone else.’

‘And who would that be?’ I asked, amused. With the shifts I spend most of the time looking like someone else, I suppose, but Kristjan wasn't to know that.

‘Me,’ he answered. ‘At home I have a painting, a portrait — my friend Sophie painted me. I'll have to show you it, and maybe you'll see what I mean.’ Then a shadow crossed his brow. ‘I don't suppose that your … your family might have … could any of them have been over here around then? Because sometimes when I look at you, it's almost like looking at that painting, somehow. Ah, no, I'm being stupid. Don't pay any attention to me, it's just that orphan thing of wanting to have some family at all, anywhere.’

I shook my head sadly. Poor kid. He really was adrift here. I thought suddenly of bringing him with me, and as quickly dismissed the idea as utterly impractical. ‘If any of my family ever were here, I never heard of it. Of course, there could always be some distant ancestry, centuries back, but I think it's far more likely to be no more than coincidence. Actually,’ I smiled, ‘I've been thinking of how strange it is; in some ways you remind me of someone. A … a very dear friend.’

‘A lover?’ Kris asked after a moment, and I sighed a little and nodded.

‘A friend and a lover, yes, though we haven't seen much of each other recently. His job keeps him even busier than I am, if you can believe it.’

‘I'm sorry,’ Kris sighed, and I could see that he meant it. ‘That really sucks. I don't know whether it's worse having nobody, like me, or having someone that you can't spend time with, like you.’ He turned away, with exactly the expression that Joseph has when he's been forced to let someone down over something. ‘I'd better take that shower. I promise I shan't take long.’

As the bathroom door closed behind him and the sharp blast of water from the shower hit the side of the cubicle, I considered what had occurred to me as I inhaled Kristjan's scent. He hadn't stunk, not in the least; there'd been hardly a whiff of unwashed skin, and when I quickly checked his discarded clothes, I was sure that they hadn't been slept in, whether under a bush or anywhere else. I sat down heavily on the bed and considered my situation. Suddenly I felt lonelier than I had in — in however long it had been since I could last remember seeing Joseph. Not that I actually could remember the last time I'd seen him, of course, but you know what I mean. I put the case on one of the beds and stretched out beside it, trying simultaneously to remember and not to remember.

Wetness on my cheek woke me suddenly, and I sat up, almost colliding with Kris, who was sitting by me and towelling his hair dry. ‘Shower's free,’ he said, wiping away the droplet of water that had disturbed me. ‘Unless you're too tired?’

I shook my head and stood up. ‘I was only taking a quick nap,’ I said, and yawned. ‘I'll make it a really quick one and then we'll go and get something to eat.’ The shower did something, but not enough, to ease my weariness; when I'd finished I noticed, but didn't comment on, the wet handprints on the surface of the case.

The food was excellent, as motel food goes. No, scrap that, the food was excellent. We didn't talk much during the meal: Kris was evidently making up for missed meals, though he didn't guzzle, commenting briefly but appreciatively on each course; as for myself, though I couldn't put a finger on the reason, I definitely felt uneasy. My conversation can't have been much above the monosyllabic. I opened a plastic tube of honey and stirred it into my coffee. Something, somewhere, was very wrong indeed. I told myself that I was just being stupid, that a job like mine was bound to induce the jitters now and again. That didn't work. Kris had lied to me, for whatever reason, and too many things had started nudging at the corners of my memories. Tiny scraps of conversation drifted into my head, only to dance away like fluttering ribbons when I reached for them ….

Fiona can set up the blocks for you. She has as much to lose as any of us.

The sooner we have the problem under control, the happier Bleys will be.

They'll be too busy plotting around you, Joseph, to pay any attention to him. I'll make sure that it stays that way too.

I wouldn't trust Delwin further than I could throw him, but what choice do we have? Only he knows how to build things like that.

I surfaced from my reverie to find a pair of cool grey-green eyes studying me. Was that desire or a different hunger dancing there?

‘Something's eating you,’ Kris observed.

I shrugged. ‘I don't know what gives you that impression. I think it's just weariness.’ A last voice trickled through my head:

It's a race against time, and you have to consider him expendable. They don't feel any better about him than they do about you, I'm afraid.

Then it was gone, and I was alert again. He glanced at my coffee cup, and I noticed that I was still stirring it.

‘If you stir it any longer,’ he said, ‘you'll wear a hole in the bottom of the cup. Shall we just ditch it and go back to the room?’ He chuckled quietly. ‘Just to sleep, if you like. It's been a long day for both of us, after all.’

Suddenly I felt very worn. Though by appearance at most a decade separated us, there was a kind of unabraded vitality, a new-mintedness about him, an energy and venturesomeness that made me feel world-weary and jaded in comparison. He might be a kid bumming around this Shadow, but for all his aimlessness he seemed just then to have more vitality than I had had in a long time. And why not, I smiled to myself: I still remembered what it was like to be a teenager. I drained my coffee and pushed back my chair.

‘Sleep's the last thing on my mind,’ I said. And it was true; though I wasn't going to say what was.

A couple of hours later I was feeling my age again, though in a pleasantly sated way. It wasn't the best sex that I'd ever had, but a hungry man doesn't need a gourmet chef. Maybe he was a virgin, though I hadn't thought so before. Maybe I was just sorely out of practice. Anyway, I wasn't complaining, and neither was he. Warm and for once as happy as I could be, I held Kris close to me as I tumbled into sleep.

I dreamed that I was sitting in the Library at Castle Amber. Most of the Family, or at least most of the Family that I knew, were there, and none of them were looking particularly cheerful; not even Gérard, who generally did. Joseph was sitting next to me and holding my hand tightly while someone whom I'd seen only in the cards was explaining something to everyone, conjuring glowing displays out of thin air with negligent gestures as he spoke. That was Delwin.

‘We've managed to locate most of them,’ he said, brushing away a strand of blond hair that had flopped over his eyes. His long fingers traced rainbows over a geometric diagram of light that hurt my eyes when I looked closely at it. ‘Half of them are no real threat, now that we've managed to … neutralise Leonardo,’ — I felt Joseph's hand clutch convulsively at mine, though I didn't know why — ‘and Sand and I have them very carefully monitored. The Shadows they're in are specifically locked against anyone of the Blood; or of Chaos for that matter, but Chaos have their own problems right now, so I doubt that they're a present threat.’

There was some unconvinced muttering at that point, but Delwin stilled it with an abrupt gesture. ‘My information about Chaos comes from the Regent, and if you disagree with my assessment I suggest you take it up with Bleys himself. You've asked me to come here to give you what help I can, so I'd be grateful if you'll pay attention and not comment until I've finished, when there will be time for questions. Thank you.’ With a tight smile he returned his attention to the diagram and continued. ‘To the best of our knowledge, there are still a dozen or so who are not known to be dead and who are not yet in containment. Unfortunately, these rogue elements are among the most dangerous, and they could be almost anywhere in Shadow. If you'll turn to page five of your briefing notes —’

I noticed that everyone there, myself included, was holding a parchment folder. I opened mine among a rustling of sheets and turned the pages. The names didn't mean anything, but the faces were dreadfully familiar. You know those composite faces that law enforcement agencies put out that supposedly show the face of someone that they're after? Good. Now imagine seeing a sheet full of faces that are diverse combinations of the features of you and of someone you know. That's what I was looking at. Pictures of younger Josephs with some of my features, younger Kentons with some of his, and a few where I couldn't say which of us was preponderant. I noticed that Joseph hadn't bothered to open his folder, and then I realised why. He knew every single face there already, including Kristjan's.

Then the dream shifted, as dreams do, and I was in Joseph's apartment at the Castle. Joseph was there, pacing the floor as he does when he's about to have to make a tough decision. His mother, the lady Florimel, was standing by the fireplace, watching him apprehensively; Delwin was still talking, though this time he was sprawled in an armchair with a cynical smile on his face and the case open on a small table beside him. I tried to see what was inside the case, but the angle was all wrong.

‘By rights, nephew,’ Delwin said, ‘you ought to be the one to clear up the mess, since it was your stupid idea in the first place.’

Joseph stopped and turned to Delwin, his eyes blazing, but Delwin held up his hand in a gesture of peace.

‘I'm simply being objective, and I'm working with the benefit of hindsight. You weren't to know. That's one of the problems with this place; people mess up and nobody ever talks about it, so the same stupid mistakes get made over and over again. One reason amongst many that Sand and I got out of here when we could. I have to say I'm surprised you haven't done the same.’

With a sigh, Joseph nodded. ‘You're right,’ he said slowly. ‘It wasn't the right thing to do, and involving Lucien was idiotic, and if I'd had a shred of humility …’

Delwin snorted. ‘If you collected all the humility possessed by our dear relatives, it wouldn't power a single nun. If I'd known what you were up to —’

‘You make it sound as though I hadn't tried to get in touch with you,’ Joseph snapped. ‘Ask Tremayne. Ask your sister. Ask Llewella. You're the one who doesn't ever answer Trump calls. It's all very well for you, being able to step in now and make yourself the hero of the hour, but …’ The resentment in his voice was all too apparent, and I was worried that he might throw more than reproaches at Delwin.

‘Boys, boys …’ Florimel spoke softly, but they stopped bickering at once and paid her close attention. ‘Nobody, not even Gérard, has suggested that you acted out of malice, Joseph — that's one thing of which our side of the family has never been guilty, after all. I've spoken with him about this several times, and he accepts now that your project was nothing like what Kyoshi did, even if he still thinks that you acted appallingly. He probably won't talk to you for a century or two, but eventually he'll come round. What's important now, and Bleys agrees with me, is that we contain and resolve the problem as expeditiously as possible.’

‘Fair enough.’ Joseph bowed his head to his mother, and Delwin nodded.

Florimel turned to me with her best motherly smile. ‘And that, of course, is where you come in, my dear. No matter what Delwin says, and whether or not Joseph agrees with him, it's simply not practical for Joseph to participate in this. You, on the other hand …’

The dream fogged over, and I realised that I was feeling cold and rather queasy. I reached out, still mostly asleep, for where I expected soft warmth, and found none. More awake now, I reached for cold metal, and found that missing also. I sat up, my eyes snapping open, taking in the room, filled with a soft bluish glow and the sound of a familiar voice speaking a language that I hadn't heard in a long time.

‘Because if you've got this far,’ Joseph's voice said, ‘it can mean one thing only. The case is designed so that it can be opened only by one of my blood. Even Kenton can't open it. That makes you, whoever you are, one of my — and his — sons, or one of their descendants. It's possible that you've killed him to get hold of this case. If so, I regret it bitterly, and I think you will come to regret it also. He is, or was, the innocent in this wretched affair; the responsibility for your existence, the guilt if you see it that way, is mine, and mine alone. Hurting him can't gain you anything. I hope that he's safe and well. If you're hearing this, Kent, remember that I love you with all my heart.’

Kristjan — or Owen, as I now remembered him to be from the briefing that I'd read in Amber one afternoon — was sitting on the floor with the case open in front of him, his body naked and trembling, either with the cold or with some emotion; I couldn't tell. The light came from the upper half of the case, which I realised from the way in which the light changed must contain some kind of screen. At a sharp angle to me, I couldn't see what it showed, but I suspected that it was Joseph's face.

‘I'm asking you to come home,’ Joseph's voice continued, and my heart wrenched as I realised that it wasn't me to whom he now spoke. ‘I can't tell what you know, or what you think you know; I do know that we haven't got off to a very good start, you and I; that seems to be rather a family failing. Regardless of that, I am a Prince of Amber, and my word counts for something, even now, so I ask you to trust me in this, if only for a while.’

Even though the voice wasn't directed at me, I could feel what lay under it. That wasn't just a request; underlying it there was a layer of programming, working to calm and instil a sense of trust. Thari, the language that the Family and their friends use, isn't just a medium of communication; it's part of the way in which they control and alter reality. Most of them have been taught to resist that aspect of it fairly thoroughly before they're allowed to risk exposure to potentially hostile relatives. A Shadow person, or an untrained Family member, is easy to manipulate with it. Evidently Owen hadn't had that training, because he was staring transfixed at the screen instead of running, like he probably would have wanted to. I would have, if I'd been him. Even if he didn't yet completely realise that he'd just slept with one of his parents, I did. There aren't many cultures where that's treated lightly.

Joseph's voice continued. ‘This, it should be obvious to you, is a recording. For a lot of reasons, I'm not able to be with you as you hear this. But before we continue, I'd like to know which of you I'm now speaking to. This machine can determine that, even if you don't know who you are; I'm aware that some of you have had your memories extensively altered. Put your hand on the illuminated square in the bottom of the case.’

I watched, my breath tight in my chest, as the boy slowly reached inside the case, wary as though it might snap shut and sever his hand. A chime as of a distant bell sounded, and the screen flickered.

‘Owen,’ Joseph's voice said, and I could imagine the smile that would accompany his words. ‘Your name is Owen. Hello, son. It's been a long time.’

I can read lips, even in that dim light, and I could see Owen's frame an answering ‘Hello, Father.’

‘You'll see that a compartment has opened,’ Joseph's voice continued. ‘Take out what it contains, Owen, and look at it carefully. It's my first gift for you.’

Owen withdrew a small envelope and tore it open, pulling out a rectangle of some thin material, rather larger than a normal playing card. I saw the movement provoke the first of a slow succession of tears down his cheek, and I'd have moved to hold him if I could have.

‘What you're holding is called a Trump, Owen,’ Joseph continued, ‘and it's your way home. When you wish to return, look deeply at the fountain in the courtyard and will yourself to be standing by it. It will bring you here to me, to your family, to where you truly belong. You have my word as a Prince of Amber, and as your father, that no harm will befall you. If that is insufficient, and I fear that because of what has happened that it may be, I am instructed to tell you that Bleys, Regent of Amber and your great-uncle, has commanded all who obey him to give you safe passage home and to render whatever aid you may need. No matter what anyone else may have told you, we keep our word here in Amber, and you have ours.

‘All that I can say now, my son, is that I wish you all success and that you will come back to Amber in peace, not only a Prince by right of Blood, but my child, as soon as you are able to. For now, farewell.’

I'd been so absorbed by the sound of Joseph's voice and by Owen's reaction to what was happening that I hadn't noticed the air thicken and darken by the door to the room. A man, blond and green-eyed, clad in dark leather, stepped out from the darkness and shot Owen calmly between the eyes.

‘Nice one,’ Delwin said approvingly as he looked over at me, holstering his weapon.

‘But why?’ I asked, shocked, unable to move as he walked across the room, squatting down by the body, taking the Trump from the lifeless fingers and pocketing it without a glance, crumpling the envelope and tossing it into the wastebasket, and then snapping the case shut.

He hoisted Owen's body across his shoulders and stood looking at me with a little sympathy in his eyes. Eventually he shrugged, making Owen's head roll sickeningly.

‘A higher order game,’ he said with a sigh. ‘I do wish you wouldn't keep asking me that, but I suppose it's in your nature. Take it up with Bleys, if you must. Anyway, you have your job to do, and I have mine, so I'll be getting along. Three left, if you're interested, so we're almost done.’ He raised his voice, enunciating clearly, and my memories began to adjust back into their usual patterns. ‘Forget the boy, forget today, resume the hunt, and I'll see you in Amber.’

He shifted his burden and was suddenly gone, leaving me with the case and the scent of sex and weapons.

In the morning I peeled out of the crumpled bed and hurried to my van, mindless in Riga. The air stank of sulphur and diesel, and I had promises to keep.

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