“What would happen if you did?”
“Either Mom would restore herself to the throne with Dalt's gang to back her up, which would require a mess of executions of people I can think of who'd be against it, or she'd say the game isn't worth the candle and settle for the Keep. If she decided to enjoy her retirement, then the coalition which backed him in the first place would probably spring Arkans and continue things from where they'd had to leave off “
“Which course of action seems most likely to you?” I said.
“She'd go for it and there'd be a civil war. Win or lose, it would mess up the country and doubtless keep us out of the Golden Circle this time around, too. Speaking of which-”
“I don't know,” I said quickly. “I'm not empowered to talk Golden Circle Treaty with you.”
“I'd kind of guessed that,” Luke said, “and that wasn't what I wanted to ask. I was just curious whether anyone back in Amber might have said, 'They just blew it,' or `Maybe we'll give them another crack at it a little farther down the road,' or `We'll still deal, but they can forget the Eregnor guarantees.”
He gave me an artificial grin, and I returned it.
“You can forget Eregnor,” I said.
“Figured that,” he said. “What about the rest?”
“I get the impression it's 'Let's wait and see what happens.”
“Guessed that much, too. Give me a good report, even if they don't ask, okay? By the way, I don't suppose your presence here is technically official?”
“Personal,” I said, “from a diplomatic standpoint.”
The lady up front rose to her feet. Luke sighed.
“Wish I could find my way back to Alice's restaurant. Maybe the Hatter would see something we're missing,” he said. Then: “Hey! Where'd he come from? Looks just like you but-”
He was staring past me, and I could already feel the disturbance. I didn't even bother to summon the Logrus, though, because I felt ready for anything.
I turned, smiling.
“Are you ready to die, brother?” Jurt asked. He had either managed to regrow his eye or was wearing an artificial one, and he now had sufficient hair that I could no longer tell about the ear. His little finger was partly regrown also.
“No, but I'm ready to kill,” I said. “I'm glad you happened by.”
He bowed, mockingly There was a faint glow about him. I could feel the power that flowed through and amund his person.
“Have you been back to the Keep for your final treatment?” I inquired.
“I don't believe that will be necessary,” he said. “I am more than adequate for any task I've set myself, now I've control of these forces.”
“This is Jurt?” Luke asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “This is Jurt.”
Jurt cast a quick glance Luke's way. I could feel him focusing on the blade.
“Is that a power object you bear?” he inquired. “Let me see it!”
He extended his hand, and the weapon jerked within Luke's grip but did not come loose.
“No, thanks,” Luke said, and Jurt vanished. A moment later he appeared behind Luke, and his arm went around Luke's neck in a choke. Luke gripped it with one hand, bowed, and turned and threw him over his shoulder.
Jurt landed on his back before him, and Luke made no move to follow up on his action.
“Draw that blade,” Jurt said, “and let me see it.” Then he shook himself like a dog and rose to his feet. “Well?” he said.
“I see no need for a weapon in dealing with the likes of you,” Luke told him.
Jurt raised both hands above his head and formed them into fists. They met, remained in contact for a moment. Then he drew them apart, his right hand somehow drawing a long blade out of his left.
“You ought to take that show on the road,” Luke said, “now:”
“Draw it!” Jurt said.
“I don't like the idea of fighting in a church,” Luke told him. “You want to step outside?”
“Very funny,” Jurt replied. “I know you've got an army out there. No thanks. I'll even take a certain pleasure in bloodying a Unicorn shrine.”
“You ought to talk to Dalt,” Luke said. “He gets his kicks in weird ways, too. Can I get you a horse-or a chicken? Maybe some white mice and aluminum foil?”
Jurt lunged. Luke stepped backward and drew his father's blade. It hissed and crackled and smoked as he parried lightly and drove it forward. There was a sudden fear on Jurt's face as he threw himself backward, batting at it, stumbling. As he fell, Luke kicked him in the stomach and Jurt's blade went flying.
“That's Werewindle!” Jurt gasped. “How did you come by the sword of Brand?”
“Brand was my father,” Luke said.
A momentary look of respect passed over Jurt's face.
“I didn't know...” he muttered, and then he vanished.
I waited. I extended magical feelers all over the place. But there was just Luke, myself and the lady, who had halted some distance from us, watching, as if afraid to come any nearer on her way out.
Then Luke collapsed. Jurt was standing behind him, having just stuck him on the back of the neck with his elbow. He reached then for Luke's wrist, as if to seize it and wrench the blade from his hand.
“It must be mine!” he said as I reached through the ring and struck him with a bolt of pure energy which I thought would rupture most of his organs and leave him a bleeding mass of jelly. Only for an instant had I considered using anything less than lethal force. I could see that sooner or later one of us was going to kill the other, and I'd decided to get it over with before he got lucky.
But he was already lucky. His bath in the Fount must have toughened him even more than I'd thought. He spun around three times, as if he'd been clipped by a truck, and was slammed up against the wall. He sagged. He slipped to the floor. Blood came out of his mouth. He looked as if he were about to pass out. Then his eyes focused and his hands extended.
A force similar to the one I'd just thrown at him struck at me. I was surprised by his ability to regroup and retaliate at that level with that speed. Not so surprised that I wasn't able to parry it, though. I took a step forward then and tried to set him afire with a beautiful spell the ring suggested. Rising, he was able to shield against it within moments of his clothes' beginning to smolder. I kept coming, and he created a vacuum around me. I pierced it and kept breathing. Then I a battering ram spell which the ring showed me, even more forceful than the first working with which I'd hit him.
He vanished before it hit, and a crack ran up three feet of the stone wall which had been behind him. I sent sense-tendrils all over and spotted him seconds later, crouched on a cornice high overhead. He launched himself at me just as I looked up.
I didn't know whether it would break my hand or not, but I felt it would be worth it, even so, as I levitated. I contrived to pass him at about the midway point, and I hit him with a left, which I hoped broke his neck as well as his jaw. Unfortunately it also broke my levitation spell, and I tumbled to the floor along with him.
I heard the lady cry out as we fell, and she came rushing toward us. We lay stunned for several heartbeats. Then he rolled over onto his stomach, reached, hunched and fell, reached again.
His hand fell upon the haft of Werewindle. He must have felt my gaze as his lingers tightened about it, for he glanced at me and smiled. I heard Luke mutter a curse and stir. I threw a deep freeze spell at Jurt, but he trumped out before the cold front hit.
Then the lady screamed again, and even before I turned, I knew that the voice had been Coral's. Reappearing, Jurt half collapsed against her from the rear, finding her throat with the edge of that bright, smoldering blade.
“Nobody,” he gasped, “move... or I'll carve her... an extra smile.”
I sought after a quick spell that would finish him without endangering her.
“Don't try it, Merle,” he said. “I'll feel it ...coming. Just leave me... alone... for half a minute... and you'll get to live... a little longer. I don't know where you picked up... those extra tricks... but they won't save you-”
He was panting and covered with sweat. The blood still dripped from his mouth.
“Let go of my wife,” Luke said, rising, “or there'll never be anyplace you'll be able to hide.”
“I don't want you for an enemy, son of Brand,” Jurt said.
“Then do as I say, fella. I've taken out better men than you.
And then Jurt screamed as if his soul were on fire. Werewindle moved away from Coral's throat, and Jurt backed off and began jerking, like a puppet whose joints have seized up but whose strings are still being yanked. Coral turned toward him, her back to Luke and me. Her right hand rose to her face. After a time Jurt fell to the floor and curled into a fetal position. A red light seemed to be playing upon him. He was shaking steadily, and I could even hear his teeth chattering.
Abruptly, then, he was gone, trailing rainbows, leaving blood and spittle, bearing Werewindle with him. I sent a parting bolt after, but I knew that it did not reach him. I'd felt Julia's presence at the other end of the spectrum, and despite everything else, I was pleased to know that I had not slain her yet. But Jurt – Jurt was very dangerous now, I realized. For this was the first time we'd fought that he hadn't left a piece of himself behind, had even taken something away with him. Something deadly. He was learning, and that did not bode well.
When I turned my head, I caught sight of the red glow before Coral lowered her eyepatch, and I realized what had become of the Jewel of Judgment, though not, of course, why.
“Wife?” I said.
“Well, sort of... Yes,” she replied.
“Just one of those things,” Luke said. “Do you two know each other?”