“This is delicious,” Jasra announced.
“Thank you.” He rose, rounded the table, and refilled her glass manually rather than use a levitation trick. As he did, I noticed that the fingers of his left hand lightly brushed her bare shoulder. He sloshed a little into my glass as an afterthought then and went back and sat down.
“Yes, excellent,” I observed as I continued my quick introspect through the dark glass suddenly cleared.
I had felt something, had suspected something from the beginning, I knew now. Our shadow walk was only the most spectacular of a series of small, off the-cuff tests I had occasionally thrown her way, hoping to catch her off guard, hoping to expose her as – what? Well, a potential sorceress. So?
I set my utensils aside and rubbed my eyes. It was near, though I'd been hiding it from myself for a long while...
“Is something the matter, Merlin?” I heard Jasa asking.
“No. Just realized I was a little tired,” I said. “Everything's fine.”
A sorceress. Not just a potential sorceress. There had been the buried fear, I now understood, that she was behind the April 30 attempts on my life-and I had suppressed this and kept on caring for her. Why? Because I knew and did not care? Because she was my Nimue? Because I had cherished my possible destroyer and hidden evidence from myself? Because I'd not only loved unwisely but had had one big death wish following me around, grinning, and any time now I might cooperate with it to the utmost?
“I'll be okay,” I said. “It's really nothing.”
Did it mean that I was, as they say, my own worst enemy? I hoped not. I didn't really have time to go through therapy, not when my life depended on so many external things as well.
“A penny for your thoughts,” Jasra said sweetly.
“They're priceless,” I answered. “Like your jokes. I must applaud you. Not only did I know nothing of this at the time, but I didn't make any correct guesses when I did have a few facts to rub together. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
“Yes,” she said.
“I'm pleased there came a point where things went wrong for you,” I added.
She sighed, nodded, took a drink of wine.
“Yes, it came,” she acknowledged. “I was hardly expecting any recoil from such a simple bit of business. I still find it hard to believe that there's that much irony running around loose in the world.”
“If you want me to appreciate the whole thing, you're going to have to be a little more explicit,” I suggested.
“I know. In a way, I hate trading that vaguely puzzled expression you're wearing for one of delight at my own discomfort. On the other hand, there may still be material able to distress you in some fresh fashion on the other side of it.” .
“Win a few, lose a few,” I said. “I'm willing to bet there are still features of those days that puzzle you.”
“Such as?” she asked.
“Such as why none of those April thirtieth attempts on my life succeeded.”
“I assume Rinaldo sabotaged me some way, tipped you off.
“The ty'iga. She's under a compulsion to protect me. You might recall her from those days, as she resided is the body of Gail Lampron.”
“Gail? Rinaldo's girlfriend? My son was dating a demon?”
“Let's not be prejudiced. He'd done a lot worse his freshman year.”
She thought a moment, then nodded slowly.
“You've got a point there,” she admitted. “I'd forgotten Carol. And you still have no idea-beyond what the thing admitted back in Amber-as to why this was going on?”
“I still don't know,” I said.
“It casts that entire period in an even stranger light,” she mused, “especially since our paths have crossed again. I wonder..?”
“Whether she was there to protect you or to thwart me-your bodyguard or my curse?”
“Hard to say, since the results came to the same thing.”
“But she's apparently been hanging around you most recently, which would seem to indicate the former.”
“Unless, of course, she knows something we don't.”
“Such as the possibility of a conflict developing between us again.”
“You should have gone to law school,” she said. “You're as devious as your relatives back in Amber. I can be truthful, though, in saying I have nothing planned that could be taken that way.”
“Just a thought. Please continue with Julia's story.” She proceeded to eat several mouthfuls. I kept her company, then discovered I could not stop eating. I glanced at Mandor, but he remained inscrutable. He'll never admit to magically enhancing a flavor or laying a compulsion on diners to clean their plates. Either way, we did finish the course before she spoke again. And I could hardly complain, considering.
“Julia studied with a variety of teachers after you two broke up,” she began. “Once I hit upon my plan, it was a simple matter to cause them to do or say things which would disillusion or discourage her and set her to looking for someone else. It was not long before she came to Victor, who was already under our tutelage. I ordered him to sweeten her stay and to skip many of the usual preliminaries and to proceed to teaching her about an initiation I had chosen for her-”
“That being?” I interrupted. “There are an awful lot of initiations around, with a variety of specialized ends.”
She smiled and nodded, breaking a roll and buttering it.
“I led her myself through a version of my own-the Way of the Broken Pattern.”
“Sounds like something dangerous from the Amber end of Shadow. “
“I can't fault your geography,” she said. “But it is not all that dangerous if you know what you're doing.”
“It is my understanding,” I said, “that those Shadow worlds which contain shadows of the Pattern can only hold imperfect versions and that this always represents a hazard.”
“It is a hazard only if one does not know how to deal with it.”
“And you had Julia walk this-Broken Pattern?”
“My knowledge of what you refer to as walking the Pattern is restricted to what my late husband and Rinaldo have told me of it. I believe that you follow the lines from a definite external beginning to an interior point where the power comes to you?”
“Yes,” I acknowledged.
“In the Way of the Broken Pattern,” she explained, “you enter through the imperfection and make your way to the center.”
“How can you follow the lines if they are broken or imperfect? The real Pattern would destroy you if you departed the design.”
“You don't follow the lines. You follow the interstices,” she said.
“And when you emerge... wherever?” I asked.
“You bear the image of the Broken Pattern within you.”
“And how do you conjure with this?”
“Through the imperfection. You summon the image, and it is like a dark well from which you draw power.”
“And how do you travel among shadows?”
“Much as you do-as I understand it,” she said. “But the break is always with you.”
“The break? I don't understand.”
“The flaw in the Pattern. It follows you through Shadow. It is always there beside you as you travel, sometimes as a hair-fine crack, sometimes a great chasm. It shifts about; it may appear suddenly, anywhere-a lapse in reality. This is the hazard for those of the Broken Way. To fall into it is the final death.”
“It must lie within all of your spells then also, like a booby trap.”
“All occupations have their hazards,” she said. “Avoiding them is a part of the art.”
“And this is the initiation through which you took Julia?”
“I understand what you are saying,” I replied, “but you must realize that the broken Patterns are drawing their power from the real one.”
“Of course. What of it? The image is almost as good as the real thing, if you're careful.”
“For the record, how many useful images are there?”
“They must degenerate from shadow to shadow. Where do you draw the line and say, 'Beyond this broken image I will not risk breaking my neck'?”
“I see what you mean. You can work with perhaps the first nine. I've never gone farther out. The first three are best. The circle of the next three is still manageable. The next three are a lot riskier.”
“A bigger chasm for each?”
“Why are you giving me all this esoteric information?”
“You're a higher-level initiate, so it doesn't matter. Also, there is nothing you could do to affect the setup. And finally, you need to know this to appreciate the rest of the story.”
“All right,” I said.
Mandor tapped the table, and small crystal cups of lemon sherbet appeared before us. We took the hint and cleared our palates before resuming the conversation. Outside, the shadows of clouds slid across the mountain slopes. A faint music drifted into the room from somewhere far back along the corridor. Clinking and scraping noises, sounding like distant pick-and-shovel work, came to us from somewhere outside-most likely at the Keep.
“So you initiated Julia,” I prompted.
“Yes,” Jasra said.
“What happened then?”
“She learned to summon the image of the Broken Pattern and use it for magical sight and the hanging of spells. She learned to draw raw power through the break in it. She learned to find her way through Shadow-”
“While minding the chasm?” I suggested.
“Just so, and she had a definite knack for it. She'd a flair for everything, as a matter of fact.”
“I'm amazed that a mortal can traverse even a broken image of the Pattern and live.”
“Only a few of them do,” Jasra said. “The others step on a line or die mysteriously in the broken area. Ten percent make it, maybe. That isn't bad. Keeps it somewhat exclusive. Of them, only a few can learn the proper mantic skills to amount to anything as an adept.”
“And you say that she was actually better than Victor, once she knew what she was about?”
“Yes. I didn't appreciate just how good until it was too late.”
I felt her gaze upon me, as if she were checking for a reaction. I glanced up from my food and cocked an eyebrow.
“Yes,” she went on, apparently satisfied. “You didn't know that was Julia you were stabbing back at the Fount, did you?”
“No,” I admitted. “I'd been puzzled by Mask all along. I couldn't figure any motive for whatever was going on. The flowers were an especially odd touch, and I never really understood whether it was you or Mask behind the bit with the blue stones.”
“The blue stones, and the cave they come from, are something of a family secret. The material is a kind of magical insulator, but two pieces-once together-maintain a link, by which a sensitive person can hold one and track the other-”
“Even if the person doing the tracking otherwise has no special abilities along these lines?”
“Even so,” she said. “It's similar to following a shadow shifter while she's shifting. Anyone can do it if she's quick enough, sensitive enough. This just extends the practice a little further. It's following the shifter's trail rather than the shifter herself.”
“Herself, herself... You trying to tell me it's been pulled on you?”
I looked up in time to see her blush.
“Julia?” I said.
“You begin to understand.”
“No,” I said. “Well, maybe a little. She was more talented than you'd anticipated. You already told me that. I get the impression she suckered you on something. But I'm not sure where or how.”
“I brought her here,” Jasra said, “to pick up some equipment I wanted to take along to the first circle of shadows near Amber. She did have a look at my workroom in the Keep at that time. And perhaps I was overly communicative then. But how was I to know she was making mental notes and probably formulating a plan? I'd felt her too cowed to entertain such thoughts. I must admit she was a pretty good actress.”
“I read Victor's diary,” I said. “I take it you were masked or hooded and possibly using some sort of voicedistorting spell the whole time?”
“Yes, but rather than awe Julia into submission, I think I roused her cupidity for things magical. I believe she picked up one of my tragoliths-the blue stones-at that time. The rest is history.”
“Not for me.”
A bowl of totally unfamiliar but delicious-smelling vegetables appeared, steaming, before me.
“Think about it.”
“You took her to the Broken Pattern and conducted her initiation...” I began.
“The first chance she had,” I continued, “she used the... tragolith to return to the Keep and learn some of your other secrets.”
Jasra applauded softly, sampled the veggies, quickly ate more. Mandor smiled.
“Beyond that I draw a blank,” I admitted.
“Be a good boy and eat your vegetables,” she said.
“Basing my conclusions concerning this remarkable tale solely upon my experience of human nature,” Mandor suddenly observed, “I would say that she wished to test her talons as well as her wings. I'd guess she went back and challenged her former master-this Victor Melman-and fought a sorcerous duel with him.”
I heard Jasra's intake of breath.
“Is that truly only a guess?” she asked.
“Truly,” he answered, swirling his wine in his goblet.
“And I would guess further that you had once done something similar with your own teacher.”
“What devil told you that?” she asked.
“It is only a guess that Sharu was your teacher-and perhaps more than that,” he said. “But it would' explain both your acquisition of this place and your ability to catch its former lord off guard. He might even have had a stray moment before his defeat for a wishful curse that the same fate attend you one day. And even if not, these things do sometimes have a way of running full circle with people in our trade.”
“The devil called Reason, then,” she said, a note of admiration in her voice. “Yet you summon him by intuition, which makes it an art.”
“It is good to know he still comes when I call. I take it Julia was surprised, however, by Victor's ability to thwart her.”
“True. She did not anticipate that we tend to wrap apprentices in a layer or two of protection.”
“Yet her own defenses obviously proved adequate-at least.”
“True. Though that, of course, was tantamount to defeat. For she knew that I would learn of her rebellion and come soon to discipline her.”
“Oh,” I observed:
“Yes,” she stated. “That is why she faked her death, which I must admit had me completely fooled for a long while.”
I recalled the day I had visited Julia's apartment, found the body, been attacked by the beast. The corpse's face had been partly destroyed, the remaining features gory. But the lady had been the right size, and general resemblances had jibed. And she had been in the right place. And then I had become the object of the lurking doglike creature's attention, which had distracted me more than a little from the minutiae of identity. By the time my struggle for my life was concluded, to the accompaniment of approaching sirens, I was more interested in flight than in further investigation. Thereafter, whenever I had returned in memory to that scene, it was Julia dead whom I beheld.