A Shadow Across Amber

Hail, Hail - The Gang's All Here

Martin slumped a bit deeper as his eyes skimmed the library. The recliner he’d selected was almost too perfect; while it helped exaggerate his ‘too helpless to move’ posture and was ideally positioned for view as well as a quick escape out the window should things go south, it was just too damned comfortable and he found himself struggling to keep focused without looking like he was actually paying attention to anything.
He’d grown to love these ‘casual’ family gatherings. Although he generally eschewed most prolonged family contact, this was nevertheless the best way to gauge everyone’s mindset and interests. Tonight’s session was already promising to be highly productive. Most of the family had already settled into their typical schooling patterns, but the addition of the new cousins was like so much chum in the waters. New patterns emerged as the familiar poked at the new, trying to determine how to best consume it without provoking a strike from one of the other sharks.
Fiona, as always, was a shining jewel, casually placed to be inescapable to the eye and a center of attention. She was raw power and skill; if anyone ever challenged her, they’d be toast. Fortunate that she chose to rule from behind the scenes, confident in her own control of everything and content to be merely amused by everyone else. It really was as if they all were beneath her, operating at a level more like ants than peers. She concealed it beautifully, of course.
Benedict chatted with Gerard near the weapons case, always a somewhat serene presence, absent of any twitch that would reveal exactly how prepared he was for just about any attack. Gerard was the easiest of the family to understand – no ambition, pure loyalty. Kinda like a puppy dog. Make that a bull mastiff; Martin had seen Gerard’s grip when he was angry and had no desire to be at the wrong end of his axe….
Dad, of course, played the uncomfortable host at the large desk, with Vialle trying to sooth him; the unease and irritation only partly a show. So much had transpired over the past couple centuries. Random was not only an incredibly good leader, but also a pretty cool father now that they’d gotten past all of Random’s earlier neglect when he was just a young punk himself. Of course, he hated almost all of it – the responsibility, the expectations, the courtly posturing and posing and always putting on a diplomatic face. The fact that he let that all go when dealing with family was clearly a relief.
Caine sidled past and headed over to speak with Julian – now there’s a pair. Martin almost felt sorry for Julian – instead of the normal peacock, he seemed very small – restricted to a leather-bound chaise, his doctor always present at his side. His scale armor gleamed even in this subdued light; beneath the haughty, disinterested smirk, Martin could easily detect labored breathing even without an enhanced view.
Whatever sympathies he could muster for Julian – he was struck down in battle, after all – Martin had none left for Caine. Sure – initially, he’d modeled a lot of his earlier life and strategies after Caine. He was a master manipulator, a keen spy. Hell – he’d faked out the entire family on several occasions by providing a convenient body (once, his own Shadow!) or other incriminating evidence that helped support the story he wanted to tell. But over the years, the respect for skill turned to a loathing of motive and character. Caine could be a brilliant liar, but was also quick to throw his weight towards whatever angle he felt advantageous. With no true agenda or strength of his own (other than for second-hand power and lustful women), he was also relatively easily manipulated. He also had some blind spots you could drive a truck through.
Sure – Dad had a good plan when he paired Caine and Fiona to manage security; working in concert, their opposing strengths would typically serve to help fill each others’ gaps and provide a sort of check-and-balance structure against abuse of power. The problem was their rivalry and ego; they could certainly check against each others’ gaps, but they spent so much time trying to figure out what the other was hiding that some external threats slipped through unnoticed. It was a good thing he’d convinced Dad – and, to a degree, Benedict – to allow him to play safety, a deeper line of defense.
His gaze slowly drifted to Corwin and Merlin. They started out being some of his closest friends and supporters early on. But Corwin has been struggling with the nature of his Pattern and has really lost all taste for adventure, intrigue and power. Although he’s never really said anything specific to Martin, it seemed likely Corwin still feels responsible for Dierdre’s death and, really, a lot of the fallout from the original Chaos attacks. Merlin is an even stranger duck these days. Dara was never a great mother and now rots in the jails of Chaos. And although Corwin’s been a great father in a lot of ways, he’s been completely unable to discipline Merlin in any way; the end result is a lust for knowledge and power gone completely unchecked. Mixed with his quirky naivete and Chaos-schooled brain, it threatens to be an unhealthy combination. It’s a good thing Merlin is completely allied with Amber; if his skills and knowledge could ever be turned…
At this moment, Florimel chose to make her customary entrance; no one could highlight the march of time as fashionably as her. Fortunately, she’d left her demon footmen and hounds elsewhere; they were definitely causing the house staff a great deal of discomfort and would be a real outrage to some of the gathered guests, who still hadn’t gotten over the war and didn’t really recognize the Treaty of the Abyss. He knew that Corwin – and probably many others – had always considered Flora a dumb blonde with no real ambition. And yet, she’d taken the Logrus and seemed relatively unscathed and had snagged her a very influential Chaos Lord as her husband, firming up the diplomatic alliance. No, thought Martin, she definitely knows what she’s doing…
And finally, Llewella and Bleys, chatting near the south stacks staircase – what a perfect blend of color and voice. Bleys’ animated face intent on some conversation that was truly fascinating to him, Llewella abandoning her usual air of sadness and completely engaged in the topic. Martin wished he was tighter with Llewella – she was going through hell in Rebma, so it was heartening to see Bleys succeeding in keeping her spirits up. Bleys seemed to have that effect on everyone, too. The Patternfall wars had left Corwin more mature and brooding, but the transformation of Bleys was equally as dramatic. Always full of life and gusto, he now seemed to truly appreciate what was at stake; the bravado and boisterousness no longer careless, but thoroughly genuine and firmly rooted in appreciation for life.

That just leaves the newcomers… Martin turned on his enhanced senses – passive only, for now – and remembered to tag a filter around Merlin to prevent himself from going temporarily blind. (Got to remember to have another talk with that kid; that ring is dangerous.) A flash of faint auras floated up and around everyone. Some were very subtle – almost no power other than the lightest hint of silver-blue Pattern on most of these new folk. A warm orange on Bleys, Cilantreau and Julian, hinting at their prowess manipulating Shadow-stuff. Brilliant crimson threads around Fi and Merlin, with golden spells strung along them like so many creatures struggling against the webs to free themselves. The oily rainbow of Trump on himself, Merlin and Caine. And a few others, like the undulating purple-black that Flora and Merlin kept deep in check or the soft white healing surrounding Julian and his aide. He switched the enhancement back off and allowed his normal vision to float across the room again.
Kovacs seemed straightforward enough, but Caine was grooming him, so that was strike number one. Definitely one to be wary of, but possibly a good ally in a fight; certainly, on the ball.
Sorell clearly was struggling with the whole thing. He had a lot of problems from his own home and was not to thrilled to be hijacked and have another heap of stink thrown upon his lap, no matter what the rewards. Martin could sympathize; wanted to reach out. But no – better to play it slow for now.
Claudomir was another tragic fellow, but seemed to be falling into place more quickly. Still, the whole pacifist thing really doesn’t work well in the family. Benedict has mastered it better than most, but then again it’s always just the calm before the storm for him. And he’s been through more bad weather than the rest combined.
Cilantreau is fooling no one, of course. Well, at least not Martin. He has lots of power, but grew up in a place where there were a ton of constraints. Good that he learned the moral rules. But so limiting… Still, he’d come around quickly if he just spent a little time with the others and started to drop his preconceptions. The problem with that, Martin considered, is that so far he’s preferred to lecture others rather than listen – something that hasn’t really flown well for those of the family that had spent a thousand years in studies long before Cilantreau’s wet nurse was born. Maybe Merlin can multitask enough to keep engaged…
Of course, Nella is a lot of fun; Martin was thrilled that he got her card. Naive and fun-loving, but quick to react and an intent scholar. The problem, of course, is that his original gift may no longer be feasible, forcing him to figure out a plan B. Kyra’s unexpected appearance pretty much assured that.
Martin took another swallow of water, refilled his glass, pondered. No – it absolutely has nothing to do with attraction, he decided. Both were equally appealing in their own ways. Nella’s crush was simply adorable. The practical matter is that Kyra was a complete unknown; Benedict and Eric had done extremely well hiding her. That meant she was also a critical factor – someone that couldn’t have been in the prophecy, and thus could be of great import in settling things – as a threat, a tool, a surprise weapon, an unparalleled ally. No – of all of these cousins, he decided, he needed to find out what was going on with Kyra.

Amazing. They’d been there almost an hour and he’d successfully avoided any real conversation. Of course, he knew no one was really buying his illness anymore, but he’d long ago decided to keep up the deception. After all, he was really hiding a big lie within several smaller ones. Better they focus their attention on that; pass him off as a poor poser, a weak actor and a weak player in the games. It still served his purpose – they either pitied him (and avoided him because he was complaining/suffering and spoiling their mood) or laughed at him (and avoided him because he was just not really in their league of deceit). Either way, he could sit back and not have to deal with direct conversation and simply watch as they circled each other, looking for an opening.


Dreamline Dreamline

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