Her name was Julia, and I'd been damn certain she was dead back on April 30 when it all began. My finding her grisly remains and destroying the doglike creature which I'd thought had killed her were pretty much the way it started. And we had been lovers, which I suppose was how things had really commenced. Long before.
Perhaps I could have trusted her more. Perhaps I should never have taken hex on that shadow-walls which led to denials that took her away from me, down dark ways and into the studio of Victor Melman, a nasty occultist I later had to kill-the same Victor Melman who was himself the dupe of Luke and Jasra. But now, perhaps-just barely-I might have been in a position to forgive myself for what I'd thought I'd done, for it seemed that I hadn't really done it after all. Almost.
That is to say, I learned that I hadn't been responsible for it while I was in the act of doing it. It was when I drove my knife into the side of the mysterious sorcerer
Mask, who had been on my case for some time, that I discovered that Mask was really Julia. My half brother Jurt, who's been trying to kill me longer than anyone else in the business, snatched her away, and they vanished then, immediately following his transformation into a kind of living Trump.
As I fled the burning, crumbling Keep there at the Citadel of the Four Worlds, a falling timber caused me to dodge to my right, trapping me in a cul-de-sac of crashed masonry and burning beams. A dark metal ball flashed past me then, seeming to grow as it moved. It struck the wall and passed through it, leaving a hole one could dive through-a hint I was not slow in taking. Outside I jumped the moat, using my Logrus extensions to knock aside a section of fence and a score of troops, before I turned back and shouted, “Mandor!”
“Right here,” came his soft voice from behind my left shoulder.
I turned in time to see him catch a metal ball, which bounced once before us and dropped into his extended hand.
He brushed ashes from his black vest and ran a hand through his hair. Then he smiled and turned back toward the burning Keep.
“You've kept your promise to the Quecn,” he remarked, “and I don't believe there's anything more for you here. Shall we go now?”
“Jasra's still inside,” I answered, “having it out with Sharu.”
“I thought you were done with her.”
I shook my head.
“She still knows a lot of things I don't. Things I'll be needing.”
A tower of flame began to rear itself above the Keep, halted and hovered a moment, heaved itself higher.
“I didn't realize,” he said. “She does seem to want control of that fountain fairly badly. If we were to snatch her away now, that fellow Sharu will claim it. Does that matter?”
“If we don't snatch her away, he may kill her.” Mandor shrugged.
“I've a feeling she'll take him. Would you care to place a small wager?”
“Could be you're right,” I said, watching the fountain continue its climb skyward, following another pause. I gestured toward it. “Thing looks like an oil gusher. I hope the winner knows how to cap it-if there is a winner. Neither one of them may last much longer, the way the place is coming apart.”
“You underestimate the forces they've generated to protect themselves,” he said. And you know it isn't all that easy for one sorcerer to do in another by sorcerous means. However, you've a point there when it comes to the inertia of the mundane. With your permission..?”
With a quick underhand toss he cast the metal ball across the ditch toward the burning building. It struck the ground and with each bounce thereafrer it seemed to increase in size. It produced a cymballike crash each time it hit, entirely out of proportion with its apparent mass and velocity, and this sound increased in volume on each successive bounce. It passed then into the burning, tottering ruin that was the near end of the Keep and for several moments was gone from sight.
I was about to ask him what was going on when I saw the shadow of a large ball pass before the opening through which I had fled. The flames-save for the central tower from the broken Fount-began to subside, and a deep rumbling sound came from within. Moments later an even larger circular shadow passed, and I began to feel the rumbling through the soles of my boots.
A wall tumbled. Shortly thereafter part of another wall fell. I could see inside fairly clearly Through the dust and smoke the image of the giant ball passed again. The flames were snuffed. My Logrus vision still granted me glimpses of the shifting lines of power which flowed between Jasra and Sharu.
Mandor extended a hand. A minute or so later a small metal ball came bouncing our way, and he caught it. “Let's head back,” he said. “It would be a shame to miss the end.”
We passed through one of the many gaps in the fence, and sufficient rubble filled the ditch at one point for us to walk across on it. I spent a barrier spell then, to keep the re-forming troops of the prenuses and out of our way for a time.
Entering through the broken wall, I saw that Jasra stood with her back to the tower of fire, her arms upraised. Streaks of sweat lined her face zebra through a mask of soot, and I could feel the pulsing of the forces which passed through her body. About ten feet above her, face purple and head twisted to one side as if his neck were broken, Sharu hung in the middle of the air. To the untutored he might have seemed magically levitated. My Logrus sight gave me view of the line of force from which he hung suspended, however, victim of what might, I suppose, be termed a magical lynching.
“Bravo,” Mandor stated, clapping his hands slowly and softly together. “You see, Merlin? I'd have won that bet.”
“You always were a better judge of talent than I was,” I acknowledged.
“...and swear to serve me,” I overheard Jasra saying. Sharu's lips moved.
“And swear to serve you,” he gasped.
She lowered her arms slowly, and the line of force which held him began to lengthen. As he descended toward the Keep's cracked floor; her left hand executed a gesture similar to one I had once seen an orchestra conductor employ in encouraging the woodwinds, and a great gout of fire came loose from the Fountain, fell upon him, washed over him, and passed on down into the ground. Flashy, though I didn't quite see the point...
His slow descent continued, as if someone in the sky were trolling for crocodiles. I discovered myself holding my breath as his feet neared the ground, in sympathetic anticipation of the eased pressure on his neck. This, however, did not come to pass. When his feet reached the ground, they passed on into it, and his descent continued, as if he were an occulted hologram. He sank past his ankles and up to his knees and kept going. I could no longer tell whether he was breathing. A soft litany of commands rolled from Jasra's lips, and sheets of flame periodically separated themselves from the Fountain and splashed over him. He sank past his waist and up to his shoulders and slightly beyond. When only his head remained visible, eyes open but unfocused, she executed another hand move. went, and his journey into the earth was halted.
“You are now the guardian of the Fount,” she stated, “answerable only to me. Do you acknowledge this?”
The darkened lips writhed.
“Yes,” came a whispered reply.
“Go now and bank the fires,” she ordered. “Commence your tenure.”
The head seemed to nod at the same time it began sinking again. After a moment only a cottony tuft of hair remained, and an instant later the ground swallowed this, too. The line of force vanished.
I cleared my throat. At the sound Jasra let her arms fall and turned toward me. She was smiling faintly.
“Is he alive or dead?” I asked, and then added, “Academic curiosity.”
“I'm not really certain,” she responded. “But a little of both, I think. Like the rest of us.”
“‘Guardian of the Fount,’ “ I reflected. “Interesting existence.”
“Beats being a coatrack,” she observed. “I daresay.”
“I suppose you feel I owe you some gratitude now, for – my restoratin,” she stated.
“To tell you the truth, I've other things to think about,” I said.
“You wanted an end to the feud,” she said, “and I wanted this place back. I still have no kind thoughts toward Amber, but I am willing to say we're even.”
“I'll settle for that,” I told her. “And there is a small loyalty I may share with you.”
She studied me through narrowed eyes for a moment, then smiled.
“Don't worry about Luke,” she said.
“But I must. That son of a bitch Daft-”
She continued to smile.
“Do you know something I don't?” I asked.
“Many things,” she replied.
“Anything you'd care to share?”
“Knowledge is a marketable commodity,” she observed, as the ground shook slightly and the fiery tower swayed. “I'm offering to help your son and you're offering to sell me the information on how to go about it?” I inquired.
“If I thought Rinaldo needed help,” she said, “I'd be at his side this moment. I suppose it makes it easier to hate me if you feel I lack even maternal virtues.”
“Hey, I thought we were calling things even,” I said.
“That doesn't preclude hating each other,” she replied.
“Come on, lady! Outside of the fact that you tried to kill me year after year, I've got nothing against you. You happen to be the mother of someone I like and respect. If he's in trouble, I want to help him, and I'd as soon be on good terms with you.”
Mandor cleared his throat as the flames dropped ten feet, shuddered, dropped again.
“I've some fine culinary spells,” he remarked, “should recent exertions have roused some appetites.”
Jasra smiled almost coquettishly, and I'd swear she batted her eyelashes at him. While he makes a striking appearance with that shock of white hair, I don't know that you'd exactly call Mandor handsome. I've never understood why women are as attracted to him as they usually seem to be. I've even checked him out for spells on that particular count, but he doesn't wear one. It must be some different order of magic entirely.
“A fine idea,” she responded. “I'll provide the setting if you'll take care of the rest.”
Mandor bowed; the flames collapsed the rest of the way to the ground and were damped therein. Jasra shouted an order to Sharu, the Invisible Guardian, telling him to keep them that way Then she turned and led us toward the downward stair.
“Underground passage,” she explained, “to more civilized shores.”
“It occurs to me,” I remarked, “that anyone we encounter will probably be loyal to Julia.”
“As they were to me before her and to Sharu before me,” she replied. “They are professionals. They come with the place. They are paid to defend the winners, not to avenge the losers. I will put in as appearannce and make a proclamation after dinner, and I will enjoy their unanimous and heartfelt loyalty until the next usurpation. Mind that third step. There's a loose flagstone.”
So she led us on, through a section of fake wall and into a dark tunnel, heading in what I believed to be a northwesterly direction toward the area of the Citadel which I had investigated somewhat on my previous journey this way. That was the day I had rescued her from Mask/Julia and taken her back to Amber to be a coatrack in our citadel for a while. The tunnel we entered was totally dark, but she conjured a darting dot, bright in its will-o'-the-wispiness, which preceded us through the gloom and the damp. The air was stale and the walls were cobwebby. The floor was of bare earth, save for an irregular patch of flagstones down its middle; there were occasional fetid puddles at either hand; and small dark creatures flashed past us-both on the ground and in the air-every now and then.
Actually, I did not need the light. Probably none of us did. I held to the Sign of the Logrus, which provided a magical way of seeing, granting a silvery, directionless illumination. I maintained it because it would also give me a warning against magical effects-which might include booby trap spells about the premises or, for that matter, a bit of treachery on Jasra's part. One effect of this seeing was to note that the Sign also hovered before Mandor, who, to my knowledge, has never been much into trust either. Something cloudy and vaguely Pattern-like also occupied a similar position vis-b-vis Jasra, completing the circle of wariness. And the light danced on before us.
We emerged from behind a stack of barrels into what appeared to be a very well-stocked wine cellar. Mandor paused after six paces and carefully removed a dusty bottle from the rack to our left. He drew a corner of his cloak across its label.
“Oh, my!” he observed.
“What is it?” Jasra inquired.
“If this is still good, I can build an unforgettable meal around it.”
“Really? Better bring several to be sure then,” she said. “These go back before my time-perhaps before Sharu's time even.”
“Merlin, you bring these two,” he said, passing me a pair. “Carefully,now.”
He studied the rest of the rack before selecting two more, which he carried himself.
“I can see why this place is often under siege,” he remarked to Jasra. “I'd have been inclined to have a go at it myself had I known about this part.”
She reached out and squeezed his shoulder.
“There are easier ways to get what you want,” she said, smiling.
“I'll remember that,” he replied. “I hope you'll hold me to it.”
I cleared my throat.
She gave me a small frown, then turned away. We followed her out a low doorway and up a creaking flight of wooden stairs. We emerged in a large pantry and passed through it into an immense, deserted kitchen.
“Never a servant around when you need one,” she remarked, casting her gaze about the room.
“We won't be needing one,” Mandor said. “Find me a congenial dining area and I'll manage.”
“Very well,” she replied. “This way then.”
She led us through the kitchen; then we passed through a series of rooms till we came to a stairway, which we mounted.
“Ice fields?” she asked. “Lava fields? Mountains? Or a storm-tossed sea?”
“If you are referring to a choice of views,” Mandor responded, “give me the mountains.”
He glanced at me, and I nodded.
She conducted us to a long, narrow room, where we unfastened a series of shutters to behold a dappled range of round-topped peaks, The room was cool and a bit dusty with shelves running the length of the near wall. These held books, writing implements, crystals, magnifying glasses, small pots of paint, a few simple magical instruments, a microscope, and a telescope. There was a trestle table at the room's middle, a bench on either side of it.
“How long will it take to prepare this?” Jasra asked.
“A minute or two,” Mandor said.
“In that case,” she said, “I would like to repair myself somewhat first. Perhaps you would also.”