“Good idea,” I said.
“Indeed,” Mandor acknowledged.
She led us to what must have been guest quarters, not too far away, and left us with soap, towels, and water. We agreed to meet back in the narrow room in half as hour.
“Think she's planning something nasty?” I asked as I drew off my shirt.
“No,” Mandor replied. “I like to flatter myself in thinking that she would not want to miss this meal. Nor, do I feel, would she want us to miss seeing her at her best, having so far seen her at something less than that. And a possibility of gossip, confidences...” He shook his head. “You may never have been able to trust her before and may never again. But this meal will be a Time-out if I'm any judge.”
“I'lI hold you to that,” I said as I splashed and lathered.
Mandor gave me a crooked smile, then conjured a corkscrew and opened the bottles-“to let them breathe a little”—before he tended to himself. I trusted his judgment, but I hung on to the Sign of the Logrus in case I had to duel with a demon or avoid a falling wall.
No demons sprang; no masonry toppled. I entered the dining room behind Mandor and watched him transform it with a few words and gestures. The trestle table and the benches were replaced by a round table and comfortable-looking chairs-the chairs so situated as to provide a good view of the mountains from each. Jasra had not yet arrived, and I was carrying the two wine bottles whose respiration Mandor found most appealing. Before I could even set them down, Mandor conjured an embroidered tablecloth and napkins; delicate china, which looked as if it had been hand decorated by Miru; finely wrought silverware. He studied the tableau a moment, banished the silverware, summoned a set with a different pattern. He hummed as he paced and regarded the layout from various angles. Just as I moved forward to place the bottles on the table, he summoned a crystal bowl filled with floating flowers as a centerpiece. I took a step backward then as crystal goblets appeared.
I made a small growling noise, and he seemed to notice me for the first time in a while.
“Oh, set them there. Set them there, Merlin,” he said, and an ebony tray appeared on the table to my left. “We'd better check to see how the wine is holding up, before the lady arrives,” he said then, pouring some of the ruby fluid into two of the goblets.
We sampled these, and he nodded. It was better than Bayle's. By far.
“Nothing wrong there,” I said.
He rounded the table, went to the window, and looked out. I followed. Somewhere up in those mountains, I supposed, was Dave in his cave.
“I feel almost guilty,” I said, “taking a break like this. There are so many things I should be tending to—
“Possibly even more than you suspect,” he said. “Look upon this less as a break than a retrenchment. And you may learn something from the lady.”
“True,” I replied. “I wonder what, though.”
He swirled his wine in his glass, took another small sip, and shrugged.
“She knows a lot. She may let something slip, or she may feel expansive at the attention and grow generous. Take things as they're dealt.”
I took a drink, and I could be nasty and say my thumbs began to prickle. But it was actually the Logrus field that warned me of Jasra's approach along the hall outside. I did not remark upon it to Mandor, since I was certain he felt it, too. I simply turned toward the door, and he matched my movement.
She had on a low over-one-shoulder (the left) white dress, fastened at the shoulder with a diamond pin, and she wore a tiara, also of diamonds, which seemed almost to be radiating in the infrared range amidst her bright hair. She was smiling, and she smelled good, too. Involuntarily I felt myself standing straighter, and I glanced at my fingernails to be certain they were clean.
Mandor's bow was more courtly than mine, as usual. And I felt obliged to say something pleasant. So, “You're looking quite... elegant,” I observed, letting my eyes wander to emphasize the point.
“It is seldom that I dine with two princes,” she remarked.
“I'm Duke of the Western Marches,” I said, “not a prince.”
“I was referring to the House of Sawall,” she replied.
“You've been doing homework,” Mandor noted, “recently “
“I'd hate to commit a breach of protocol,” she said.
“I seldom use my Chaos title at this end of things,” I explained.
“A pity,” she told me. “I find it more than a little... elegant. Aren't you about thirtieth in the line of succession?”
“Even that great a distance is an exaggeration,” I said.
“No, Merle, she's about right,” Mandor told me. “Give or take the usual few.”
“How can that be?” I asked. “The last time I looked-”
He poured a goblet of wine and offered it to Jasra. She accepted it with a smile.
“You haven't looked recently,” Mandor said. “There have been more deaths.”
“Really? So many?”
“To Chaos,” Jasra said, raising her goblet. “Long. may she wave.”
“To Chaos,” Mandor replied, raising his.
“Chaos,” I echoed, and we touched the goblets together and drank.
A number of delightful aromas came to me suddenly. Turning, I saw that the table now bore serving dishes. Jasra had turned at the same moment, and Mandor stepped forward and gestured, causing the chairs to slide back to accommodate us.
“Be seated, please, and let me serve you,” he said.
We did, and it was more than good. Several minutes passed, and apart from compliments on the soup nothing was said. I did not want to be the first with a conversational gambit, though it had occurred to me that the others might feel the same way.
Finally, Jasra cleared her throat, and we both looked at her. I was surprised that she suddenly seemed slightly nervous.
“So, how are things in Chaos?” she asked.
“At the moment, chaotic,” Mandor replied, “not to be facetious.” He thought a moment, then sighed and added, “Politics.”
She nodded slowly, as if considering asking him for the details he did not seem to care to divulge, then deciding against it. She turned toward me.
“Unfortunately, I'd no opportunity to sight-see while I was in Amber,” she said. “From what you told me, though, life seems a bit chaotic there also.”
“It's good that Dalt's gone,” I said, “if that's what you mean. But he was never a real threat, just a nuisance. Speaking of whom-”
“Let's not,” she interrupted, smiling sweetly. “What I really had in mind was anything else.”
I smiled back.
“I forgot. You're not a fan of his,” I said.
“It's not that,” she responded. “The man has his uses. It's just"-she sighed-'politics,” she finished.
Mandor laughed, and we joined him. Too bad I hadn't thought to use that line about Amber. Too late now.
“I bought a painting awhile back,” I said, “by a lady named Polly Jackson. It's of a red '57 Chevy I like it a lot. It's in storage in San Francisco right now. Rinaldo liked it, too.”
She nodded, stared out the window.
“You two were always stopping in some gallery of other,” she said. “Yes, he dragged me to a lot of them, too. I always thought he had good taste. No talent, but good taste.”
“What do you mean, 'no talent'?”
“He's a very good draftsman, but his own paintings were never that interesting.”
I had raised the subject for a very special reason, and this wasn't it. But I was fascinated by a side of Luke I'd never known, and I decided to pursue the matter.
“Paintings? I never knew he painted.”
“He's tried any number of times, but he never shows them to anyone because they're not good enough.”
“Then how do you know about them?”
“I'd check out his apartment periodicaliy “
“When he wasn't around?”
“Of course. A mother's privilege.”
I shuddered. I thought again of the burning woman down the Rabbit Hole. But I didn't want to say what I felt and spoil the flow now that I had her talking. I decided to return to my original trail.
“Was it in connection with any of this that he met Victor Melman?” I asked.
She studied me for a moment through narrowed eyes, then nodded and finished her soup.
“Yes,” she said then, laying her spoon aside. “He took a few lessons from the man. He'd liked some of his paintings and looked him up. Perhaps he bought something of his, too. I don't know. But at some point he mentioned his own work and Victor asked to see it. He told Rinaldo he liked it and said he thought he could teach him a few things that might be of help.”
She raised her goblet and sniffed it, sipped her wine, and stared at the mountains.
I was about to prompt her, hoping she'd go on, when she began to laugh. I waited it out.
“A real asshole,” she said then. “But talented. Give him that.”
“Uh, what do you mean?” I asked.
“After a time he began speaking of the development of personal power, using all those circumlocutions the halfenlightened love to play with. He wanted Rinaldo to know he was an occultist with something pretty strong going for him. Then he began to hint that he might be willing to pass it along to the right person.”
She began laughing again. I chuckled myself, at the thought of that trained seal addressing the genuine article in such a fashion.
“It was because he realized Rinaldo was rich, of course,” she continued. “Victor was, as usual, broke himself at the time. Rinaldo showed no interest, though, and simply stopped taking painting lessons from him shortly after that-as he felt he'd learned all he could from him. When he told me about it later, however, I realized that the man could be made into a perfect cat's-paw. I was certain such a person would do anything for a taste of real power.”
“Then you and Rinaldo began the visitation business? You took turns clouding his mind and teaching him a few real things?”
“Real enough,” she said, “though I handled most of his training. Rinaldo was usually too busy studying for exams. His point average was generally a little higher than yours, wasn't it?”
“He usually had pretty good grades;” I conceded. “When you talk of empowering Melman and turning him into a tool, I can't help thinking about the reason; You were priming him to kill me, in a particularly colorful fashion.”
“Yes,” she said, “though probably not as you think. He knew of you, and he had been trained to play a part in your sacrifice. But he acted on his own the day he tried it, the day you killed him. He had been warned against such a solo action, and he paid the price. He was anxious to possess all of the powers he thought would come of it, rather than share them with another. As I said-an asshole.”
I wanted to appear nonchalant, to keep her going. Continuing my meal seemed the best measure to indicate such poise. Then I glanced down, however, I discovered that my soup bowl had vanished. I picked up a roll, broke it, was about to butter it when I saw that my hand was shaking. A moment later I realized that this was because I wanted to strangle her.
So I took a deep breath and let it go, had another drink of wine. An appetizer plate appeared before me, and a faint aroma of garlic and various tantalizing herbs told me to be calm. I nodded thanks to Mandor, and Jasra did the same. A moment later I buttered the roll.
Several mouthfuls after that, I said, “I confess that I do not understand. You say that Melman was to play a part in my ritual slaying-but only a part?”
She continued eating for a half minute or so, then found another smile.
“It was too appropriate an opportunity to pass up,” she told me then, “when you broke up with Julia and she grew interested in the occult. I saw that I would have to get her together with Victor, to have him train her, to teach her a few simple effects, to capitalize on her unhappiness at your parting, to turn it into a full-blown hatred so intense that she would be willing to cut your throat when the time came for the sacrifice.”
I choked on something which otherwise tasted wonderful.
A frosty crystal goblet of water appeared beside my right hand. I raised it and washed everything down. I took another sip.
“Ah, that reaction is worth something, anyhow,” Jasra remarked. “You must admit that having someone you once loved as executioner adds spice to vengeance.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw that Mandor was nodding. And I, also, had to agree that she was right.
“I must acknowledge it as a well-conceived bit of revenge,” I said. “Was Rinaldo in on this part?”
“No, you two had grown too chummy by then. I was afraid he'd warn you.”
I thought about it for another minute or so, then, “What went wrong?” I asked.
“The one thing I'd never have guessed,” she said. “Julia really had talent. A few lessons from Victor, and she was better than he was at anything he could do-except painting. Hell! Maybe she paints, too. I don't know. I'd dealt myself a wild card, and it played itself.”
I shuddered. I thought of my conversation with the ty'iga at Arbor Horse, back when it was possessing Vinta Bayle. “Did Julia develop the abilities she sought?” it had asked me. I'd told it that I didn't know. I'd said that she'd never shown any signs... And shortly thereafter I'd remembered our meeting in the supermarket parking lot and the dog she told to sit that may never have moved again... I'd recalled this, but—
“And you never noticed any indication of her talent?” Jasra ventured.
“I wouldn't say that,” I replied as I began to realize why things were as they were. “No, I wouldn't say that.”
... Like that time at Baskin-Robbins when she caused a change of flavors 'twixt cone and lip. Or the storm she'd stayed dry in without an umbrella...
She frowned a puzzled frown and narrowed her eyes as she stared. “I don't understand,” she said. “If you knew, you could have trained her yourself: She was in love with you. You would have been a formidable team.”
I writhed internally She was right, and I had suspected, had probably even known, but I'd been suppressing it. I'd possibly even triggered its onset myself, with that shadow walk, with my body energies...
“It's tricky,” I said, “and very personal.”
“Oh. Matters of the heart are either very simple or totally inscrutable to me,” she said. “There doesn't seem to be a middle ground.”
“Let's stipulate simple,” I told her. “We were already breaking up when I noticed the signs, and I'd no desire to call up the power in an ex-lover who might one day want to practice on me.”
“Understandable,” Jasra said. “Very. And ironic in the extreme.”
“Indeed,” Mandor observed, and with a gesture he caused more steaming dishes to appear before us. “Before you get carried away with a narrative of intrigue and the underside of the psyche, I'd like you to try a little breast of quail drowned in Mouton Rothschild, with a bit of wild rice and a few amusing asparagus tips.”
I had driven her to her studies by showing her another layer of reality, I realized. And I had driven her away from me because I had not really trusted her enough to tell her the truth about myself. I suppose this said something about my capacity for love as well as trust. But I had felt this all along. There was something else. There was more...