ONE YEAR BEFORE

      Being a small account of some events which occurred,
      coincidentally enough, one year before the end of the
      Century of Peace, in the one hundred and sixty-ninth year
      of the reign of the good King Tylor I, reckoned as the
      1431st year of Amber.

CONTENTS

AUTHORIAL PREFACE

1. THE RECRUITMENT OF PRINCESS NANAMI MINOR TO THE QUEST
2. THE RECRUITMENT OF THREE MOST ILLUSTRIOUS CASTLE GUARDS TO THE QUEST
3. THE GATHERING IN THE OFFICES OF PRINCE DRAKE
4. THE WORDS EXCHANGED BETWEEN PRINCESS NANAMI MINOR AND CAPTAIN UOTANI, AND THE INTERJECTION OF CAPTAIN TOMOS
5. THE PREPARATION BY PARTIES INDIVIDUAL AND SEPARATE FOR THE QUEST
6. THE FAREWELL BETWEEN THE QUESTERS AND THOSE AT THE EMBASSY OF THE COURTS OF CHAOS
7. THE UNEXPECTED ARRIVAL AND FORCIBLE DEPARTURE OF PRINCE COREY
8. THE SECOND EXCHANGE OF WORDS BETWEEN PRINCESS NANAMI MINOR AND CAPTAIN UOTANI, AND THE INTERJECTION OF CAPTAIN HANAJIMA
9. THE ARRIVAL OF PRINCE DRAKE AND HIS DAUGHTER, PRINCESS SUMIRE
10. THE QUESTERS DEPART INTO SHADOW
11. THE COMPANY STOPS TO REST AND HAS A MOST MYSTERIOUS ENCOUNTER
12. ARRIVAL IN AVIGNON
13. PROPER DISGUISES
14. AN AUDIENCE
15. THE ENCRYPTION KEYS OF ST. PETER
16. BAPTISMAL BY FIRE
17. A REPRISAL OF A SMALL CONTEST BETWEEN CAPTAIN UOTANI AND PRINCESS NANAMI MINOR
18. THE SURPRISING AND UNUSUAL USES OF FORMERLY ATTACHED APPENDAGES
19. EXIT FROM AVIGNON
20. THE THIRD EXCHANGE OF WORDS BETWEEN PRINCESS NANAMI MINOR AND CAPTAIN UOTANI, AND THEIR FIRST EXCHANGE OF BLOWS, AND THE INTERJECTION OF PRINCE DRAKE
21. PRINCE DRAKE'S FIRST DISCOURSE ON THE URGENCY OF THE MISSION
22. THARKHOLD, THE WORLD TO END ALL WORLDS
23. THE TERRIBLE CITY
24. SINKING THE BATTLESHIP
25. ORBITAL DEATH LASERS AND ESCAPE
26. THE SUSPICIONS OF CAPTAIN HANAJIMA, AS EXPRESSED TO CAPTAIN TOMOS AND CAPTAIN UOTANI
27. ANOTHER UNEXPECTED INTERRUPTION OF THE JOURNEY
28. PRINCE DRAKE'S SECOND DISCOURSE ON THE URGENCY OF THE MISSION
29. ARRIVAL IN MARKETPLACE
30. SUITING UP
31. PRINCESS NANAMI MINOR REFUSES IMPLANTED CHIPS
32. PRINCE DRAKE EXPLAINS THE CONCEPT OF "HACKING"
33. THE INFILTRATION OF THE HEADQUARTERS
34. AN AMBUSH BY A MOST UNUSUAL NUMBER OF NINJAS
35. THE FORMULA IS, AT LAST, ACQUIRED
36. SUBTERRANEAN ESCAPE
37. THE CONTEST BETWEEN CAPTAIN UOTANI AND THE MONORAIL
38. CAPTAIN TOMOS'S BURNING LOVE LOVE NEUROMANCER
39. FLIGHT THROUGH SHADOW
40. THE FOURTH EXCHANGE BETWEEN PRINCESS NANAMI MINOR AND CAPTAIN UOTANI, AND THE FINAL TALLY OF THEIR COMPETITION
41. HOME AT LAST
42. PRINCE DRAKE REVEALS ALL
43. OF WHAT OCCURED TO OUR HEROES THEREAFTER, BROADLY SKETCHED

AUTHORIAL PREFACE

      In which a discourse regarding the nature of texts and time
      is embarked upon, in the hopes that our readers may acquire
      by such not confusion and obfuscation, but a deeper and more
      lucid understanding of the tale to follow.

It has been our observation that men too swiftly move to apply the appellation of timeless to a story, as amateurish cooks too swiftly lose the flavour of a dish by an excess use of salt and spice. This most regrettable failure in criticism is matched or exceeded only by the hasty leaps to proclaim the universality of one tale or another, which so very often denotes only that the critic believes that the tale most surely ought to be universally admired, rather than any actual fact about the universal admiration for or relevance of the tale. Or perhaps our point may be made more concretely, if not succintly, by allowing the Poet to speak in our place:

      anyone lived in a pretty how town
      (with up so floating many bells down)
      spring summer autumn winter
      he sang his didn't he danced his did.

      Women and men (both little and small)
      cared for anyone not at all
      they sowed their isn't they reaped their same
      sun moon stars rains

      children guessed (but only a few
      and down they forgot as up they grew
      autumn winter spring summer)
      that noone loved him more by more

      when by now and tree by leaf
      she laughed his joy she cried his grief
      bird by snow and stir by still
      anyone's any was all to her

      someones married their everyones
      laughed their crying and did their dance
      (sleep wake hope and then) they
      said their nevers they slept their dream

      stars rain sun moon
      (and only the snow can begin to explain
      how chilren are apt to forget to remember
      with up so floating many bells down)

      one day anyone died i guess
      (and noone stooped to kiss his face)
      busy folk buried them side by side
      little by little and was by was

      all by all and deep by deep
      and more by more they dream their sleep
      noone and anyone earth by april
      wish by spirit and if by yes.

      Women and men (both dong and ding)
      summer autumn winter spring
      reaped their sowing and went their came
      sun moon stars rain

Trusting as we do in the intelligence of our readers, we need make no explanation as to the relevance of this to the discussion at hand. Take as our next point that we shall assert in opposition to the waywardness we have mentioned the timeliness of tales, stories, fables, romances, epics, chronicles, histories, novels, fantasies and other vehicles of narrative by which are related events tragical, comical, fantastical, mundane, tragical-comical, fantastical-mundane, tragical-comical- fantastical, and otherwise all such fictions as are relevant or irrelevant to the human or inhuman condition.

Such an assertion, baldly stated, is this: stories are products of time, and, in fact, cannot exist without time. Lest we be mistaken (or misrepresented, by those our more malign critics), we do not assert the hermetic singularity of stories; we do not assert the story-in-and-of-itself; we do not assert that intertextuality is a beast, born of the fancies of critics, lacking head or limbs or any bodily substance.

What we assert is the timeliness of stories, but, knowing as we do of the nature of Reality, we must by extension trace this path of logic:

a) Shadow, being infinite, contains all possibilities infinitely.

b) Thus, everything not only happens, but happens all the time, in infinite amounts.

c) But not all in the same place, for to have such a thing occur would annihilate infinite numbers of possibilities.

(ed: here the manuscript becomes obscured for three and one quarter pages by dark brownish stains of an unknown nature.)

x) In conclusion, all Real things that might occur are not only somewhere recorded in the infinity of Shadow, but are everywhere recorded, in every possible medium, with every possible variation.

y) As to why the Real seem incapable of making proper use of this apparently limitless resource, there are many different theories:

(ed: at this point in the manuscript are missing some seventeen pages.)

      117. They are simply very dim.

z) But as to the relevance of this to the tale that is to unfold:

      1. It is possible that it occured, and occured in this
      manner.

      2. It is possible that it occured, but in an entirely
      different manner.

      3. It is possible that it occured, rather in this manner,
      but with some variations.

      4. It is possible that it will occur, and occur in this
      manner.

(ed: at this point another stain, this one a light but opaque blue in colour, and with a somewhat odd velvety texture, obscures two and one half pages)

      32. It is possible that it did not occur at all, and that
      all of what is to come are but mad shadows, fancies of
      deranged minds, or malicious lies.

Such decisions are, in our most humble and unpretentious opinion, best left to you, Reader, to address, once you have perused the contents of this tale, which we, singular as we are, cannot claim any authorial privilege to beyond that in some place, at some time, we bear (as all possible singularities, in some place, at some time, bear) responsibility for the contents.


1. THE RECRUITMENT OF PRINCESS NANAMI MINOR TO THE QUEST

On a cold Thursday morning in February, 1431 AY, a fight nearly took place on the streets of Amber City, a sprawling metropolis that seems to be in constant attempt to escape the shadow cast by the high palace on the slopes of Kolvir. That a fight nearly took place is not, it must be said, at all unusual; fights nearly take place every day, every hour, perhaps even every minute, in any great city. What was exceptional about the fight that nearly took place was the following: the participants, the fact that the fight did not in fact take place given the participants, and the circumstances by which it was averted, which were to be the beginning, at least for this narrative, of a most remarkable series of adventures.

Of the setting under which the aforementioned fight nearly took place, the following may be said of it, and certainly more: the Ward of the Elves, one of the hundred wards into which Amber City is divided, lay some distance to the west of the centre of the city, and even in the winter, its forested grounds retained a great depth of loveliness. While for the most part snow cannot fall upon any district of a great city without swiftly transforming from pristine white to sullen gray, the Ward of the Elves--whether by enchantment, fortune, nature, or the favour of the Unicorn--managed to retain throughout the cold months that crystalline loveliness usually granted only to forests deep in the countryside and unplagued as yet by substantial human development. A clean, fresh blanket of snow, new-fallen in the night, scalloped in waves by the consistent easterly blowing of the wind, lay upon it that morning, and in the light of the bright sun, icicles glistened cleanly on the limbs of the trees.

Much more, of course, could be said of this lovely setting--a pastoral in ice and snow--but such word-painting should be left aside in favour of providing the reader with a description of the first of our near-combatants. There are any number of ways by which a person's appearance and character may be evoked. We may, for example, quote the Poet: "And though she be but little, she is fierce." Or we may say that were she a beast of the jungle, she should be a jaguar: small beside the lion and the tiger, but no less deadly to a man. Or we might give her title and name, Princess Nanami Minor, but this evokes only a partial image, biased heavily by a reader's own expectations of the character of a princess, and familiarity with her elder namesake. Perhaps it is merely best to sketch her plainly, to say that she is but a little above five feet in height, that her hair is a gold so pale as to appear in some lights as though bleached entirely of colour, that it nearly always hangs down nearly to her ankles in a long single braid, that she should rather wear a fool's motley than wear a dress, that the proportions of her body are pleasing, that the shape and character of her face is most beautiful, and that she is strong enough to put her fist through a brick wall, a steel plate, or the body of a man, and that she has done all three of these things on more than one occasion.

We may come back and, perhaps, simply repeat: "And though she be but little, she is fierce." Of the reasons for her presence in the Ward of the Elves that day, the simple explanation is a morning constitutional. To watch the princess moving over that new clean snow was a graceful sight, for she ran with great swiftness, but with such lightness that often she left the crust atop the snow entirely unbroken.

Such grace stood in contrast to the character of the other who nearly came to blows that morning. Of him the Poet might say, rightly, "Then imitate the action of the tiger; stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise fair nature with hard- favor'd rage; then lend the eye a terrible aspect." This one should be a tiger (as our citation of the Poet indicates), secure in the outward show of his power, a great ruddy beast. For red was his colour, in his hair, his eyes, his clothes, his character, and his name was Lord Kyou of House Souma of the Courts of Chaos, of late assistant and bodyguard to Lord Shigure, also of House Souma, and of late Ambassador to Amber. He stood a fair good height above the princess (though there were few men who did not), but how much is not exactly recorded; he wore a plain but well-made outfit of shirt and trousers; and, like the princess, he seemed to have dressed for winter exactly as he might have dressed for spring. He, too, was in the Ward of the Elves that day to exercise himself by a brisk run, but, unlike the princess, he did not so much run atop the snow as force his way through it.

Of the past relations between these two, no more need be said at this point than that they existed, and the relationship was one driven, for the most part, by rivalry and competition, such a rivalry as would entirely necessitate from any perspective dramatic, narrative or otherwise that their paths should cross; in this case, a short distance from where a company of elves had made camp a short week ago, pitching their heavy winter tents in a grove, nearest to the northern border of the Ward.

Upon sighting one another, which they did almost simultaneously from a fair distance, each recognizing the other at first by gait and style of movement rather than by any feature of the body, they slowed their paces and approached one another, both now breaking the snow beneath their feet. When they stood less than a dozen feet apart, they ceased to walk, held themselves in stillness, and regarded each other in a silence that Lord Kyou broke first.

"Morning, Princess," he said with rough eloquence and a certain measure of politeness that, if not springing naturally from within him, had obviously been carefully learned.

"Hello, Kyou," the princess replied in greeting. The foggy clouds sent forth by their words met in between them and nearly mingled. "Is Yuki here as well?"

A scowl born of a long-held indignation and enmity appeared on Lord Kyou's face at the question, and he answered, his tones becoming a little rougher, "Why you ask?"

In response to the scowl and the questioning of her question, the princess cocked one small hand upon her hip and put a pert frown upon her face, and said, "Just answer the question, Kyou."

"Answer mine," he growled, then added, perfunctorily, "Princess."

"I asked first," the princess replied, placing her other hand upon her other hip and taking a step forward. "You're being rude."

"No, _you're_ being rude," Kyou shot back, in tones that made it clear that this was a most telling rebuttal. "Just 'Hello, Kyou', and then, 'Where's Yuki?', huh?" He took his own step forward.

The princess adopted an expression of mock contrition and said, in the honey-sweet voice of condescension one might use upon a small child, "Are somebody's feelings hurt? Poor kitty." With a subtlety that would have been invisible to any outsider not highly-trained in the arts of unarmed combat, she shifted her stance slightly in preparation to receive a charge. Which was, indeed, an act of wisdom and foresight, as Lord Kyou snarled some unintelligible thing (a curse or some other expression of frustration), and flowed towards her like a scarlet avalanche, fists raised and eyes blazing.

We should pause here and note that an exchange of this type, leading to fisticuffs, was not at all uncommon between Princess Nanami Minor and Lord Kyou of House Soma, and, in fact, formed their predominant mode of interaction. This was, in fact, quite suited to the both of them; it does the savant of any art much good to have worthy rivals, and the arrival of Lord Kyou and Lord Yuki of House Souma in Amber City had provided two of them to the princess, when before her only regular equal in her particular field of expertise was one Captain Special Agent Uotani (of whom much more will be said later, both in and of herself, and in regards to her difficult relationship to the princess). So, as should now be clear, there was no more genuine rancour or hostility in the exchange and the apparently-inevitable battle than is usual between such competitors.

However, as has previously been mentioned, the battle did not, in fact take place; the camping elves were undisturbed by one or the other or both being flung into their tents, as had occured before during such battles; no trees were shattered into frozen splinters by a powerful blow or a hurled body. The reason why was as follows: as Lord Kyou came forward and Princess Nanami Minor prepared herself to receive him (to, in fact, dart to one side at the last moment, beneath his outstretched fist, applying as she did a kick to the side of his right ankle that would send him sprawling into the snow), a light, half-mocking clapping was heard by them. Under most circumstances such a thing would not have checked either of them, but such was the character of said clapping (you may scoff at the possibility of clapping having such a character, but this clapping was indeed possessed of it), such was the constrained authority hinted at by it, that Lord Kyou pulled himself to a halt with some difficulty, and Princess Nanami Minor glanced towards the tree from beneath whose boughs the clapping emanated.

We may sketch Princess Sumire (for, indeed, she was the one clapping) briefly: she is tall and graceful and lovely, and her hair, neither quite russet nor quite crimson, but something in between, is cut in line with her jaw. Because it is winter, she wears her winter fashion: an ankle-length coat in dark purple with white fur as a trim, and beneath it a matching blouse and skirt of a lighter purple over white tights, and high black boots. Her face is framed by the fur-circled hood of her coat, and upon it is a light smile that emphasizes the beauty mark beneath her left eye. Finally, a white fur muff is tucked beneath her right elbow, in order to leave her graceful hands free to clap.

"Very impressive, both of you," she said, with both restrained amusement and mild disapproval. "A fight early in the morning in the Ward of the Elves. They complained to your grandmother the last time, Minor, did they not?"

It should be noted for those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Royal Family of Amber that Princess Sumire's abbreviation of Princess Nanami Minor's name in this manner was no insult, but simply family custom to aid in distinguishing her from her namesake grandmother while retaining brevity, though Princess Nanami Minor's exact feelings about the abbreviation are unrecorded. For these same purposes, from this point on we shall adopt a similar standard abbreviation.

"Why, yes, Sumire, indeed they did," Minor replied with carefully-guarded hostility. Sumire frowned at the use of her name without its following the proper "Aunt", which was the standard by which she expected to be addressed by those of her relatives in the position of Minor, which is to say, the grandchildren of her father's siblings.

"Good morning, Princess Sumire," Lord Kyou said uncomfortably, scuffing the snow beneath his feet. He had been by now well- trained in how to greet the members of the Royal Family, though not, perhaps, in such situations as this.

"Good morning, Lord Kyou," Sumire replied politely, giving him a cool glance before returning the full ice of it to Minor. "And do you remember what occured of that, Minor?"

"No more sparring in the Ward of the Elves," Minor mumbled, swallowing her irritation and resentment as a polite guest might swallow sour wine.

"By?"

"Royal Order."

Sumire nodded. "It is fortunate you remembered and stopped yourselves."

"Yeah," Lord Kyou agreed. Minor simply nodded, resolving inwardly to show Princess Sumire the respect deserved as the daughter of the man she esteemed most in all the family; of course, our ability to make such resolutions is not always matched by our ability to carry them out. Nor, in truth, is it even matched by such ability very often.

"Morning walk, Aunt Sumire?" Minor asked, turning her back on Kyou, which under any other circumstances would have been an act of eminent foolishness.

Sumire shook her head. "No, niece; the truth is that Father sent me to find you after you didn't answer his trump call."

"I was running," Minor replied. "If it was important, whoever it was would call me back when I was done."

"And if it had been an emergency?"

Minor laughed. There was just a faint draught of bitterness in it. "Aunt Sumire, if there were an emergency in the family, I'd not be the first person who got called, and by the time it got round for me to be told by trump, I'd know from one of the people who got called first, like Dad."

Sumire smiled; it was neither a kind smile nor unkind one, but perhaps wavered in between the two, or served merely as an expression of her amusement. "True. And in a real emergency, there are other ways of swift contact." She said this in such a way as to hint at hidden knowledge that she might or might not have possessed. "But for the moment, such discussion is meaningless; Father wants to see you. Come along." She extracted a trump from her muff and held out her hand.

"The man wants me," Minor said to Lord Kyou, in tones that expressed unequivocally that this was an excuse for breaking any other engagement she might have under any circumstances. "See you, Kyou."

Lord Kyou, in reply, grunted. "See ya, Minor." There was a pause. "You too, Princess Sumire."

"Farewell, Lord Kyou," Sumire said, as Minor walked over and took her offered hand in a grip that almost but did not quite express the capacity to tear Sumire limb from limb now that contact had been made. Sumire gave her niece a look that almost but did not quite express that such a thing could only be done if Minor could prevent Sumire from snapping her mind like a twig in an effective manner, then regarded the trump (which was, for the record, of her father Prince Drake's offices in the castle of the Royal Family of Amber). She and Minor dissolved into translucent figures of rainbow light, then vanished entirely.

Lord Kyou, left alone in the early morning in the park, kicked irritatedly at the ground. "Damn it," he said. "I'm all worked up now, and the bitch," He said this in a tone of voice that made it much less pejorative than it appears as written, "Didn't stay around to let me finish off." Because of the nature of his character, Lord Kyou was unaware of the double entendre nature of his words, which should, to our intelligent readers, be obvious enough that we need not point it out.


2. THE RECRUITMENT OF THREE MOST ILLUSTRIOUS CASTLE GUARDS TO THE QUEST

While Lord Kyou was taking the opportunity to express his rather great displeasure upon the uncaring and unresponsive ground, a somewhat small set of people well known to him were puzzling over a scrap of parchment which had been delivered to them by one of the innummerable and underappreciated pages who moved through Castle Amber like blood through the body, bringing the communication that were the very humors of the kingdom itself. That it was parchment was not in question, for indeed it was, of the sort often used in such messages, made of the finest rushes from the lowland marshes that ran along the Sethmore hills in the south of the kingdom. Nor was the ink, cunningly applied with the use of some writing instrument such as a quill, particularly special; being an suitably inky black, well blotted with sand to keep it from smearing after application to that fine parchment. Further, the language written upon the fine page, with the black ink, was Thari, a tongue which the current holder of the page was more than tolerably well acquainted.

Before we move on to describing the content of that mysterious letter, let us take the opportunity to again describe a setting, for it speaks no small amount of the people who had chance to inhabit it when the missive was delivered. The chamber itself was a somewhat largish room, possessed of a rather wide variety of--to choose a rather charitable phrase--eclectic furnishings, the majority of which had been selected not for their elegance or taste, but for comfort and durability. The latter of these two qualities was perhaps the more important, for the spanse was dedicated to the use by the elite of Amber's Guardsmen, who as a whole, while noble and brave beyond redoubt, are known to be somewhat hard of wear on their living accessories, much to the dismay of of the operating expenses line in the books of the High Chamberlain Nabiki. The walls of the room were spartan, marked only by a few sketched maps depicting the floorplans of the castle, a few racks of blunted and padded training weapons, and the occasional odd notice which, upon inspection, might prove to be a schedule of duty rotations or a list of upcoming events which might interest those in the guard.

Turning our attention to the inhabitants of the room of which, at present time, there were only 3, what with the page having evaccuated the premises upon successful completion of his delivery. The first upon whom we will dwell had the honor to be Captain Special Agent of the Crown Tomos Valois. Tall of stature, lean of build but with a certain wiry strength that reminds one of an ancient tree which has withstood all comers that Nature in her infinite guises could supply, with a handsome face marked by a chin and jaw just short of strong and a patrician's nose ever so slightly bent left by a previous break, and hair the color of sun-warmed sand that falls loose to the collar, the Captain cut quite the figure as he did his duties about the castle. To continue a habit we have previous introduced to the reader, we shall compare him to the cunning wolf, for his loyalty to his adopted pack is known to be equally boundless, and he would harry and dog those who would set themselves against it with the same nearly limitless energy. Few that know him would speak of him as anything less than a gentleman, though some would add, in private that he is perhaps too brave and courageous for his own good, and a smaller set might go so far as to call him suicidal or a fool. However, when such comments make their way back to the Captain, he inevitably but laughs--deeply and clearly, with his whole being, as he does most things--as he takes great amusement in the labelling of his vast love for the very act of living a deathwish.

To the left of Captain Tomos was the Captain Special Agent of the Crown Hanajima, second of the trio, and seemingly absorbed in a book. The perceptive will note the use of the adjective seemingly in the previous statement; for Captain Hanajima, The Black Flower of the Guard, Good Witch and Master of the Air-Wave, has acquired the reptutation--fairly or otherwise--as being most entirely inscrutable. However it is with a firm heart and clear conscience that we can assert for the reader that with the arrival of the mysterious letter her preoccupation was less than complete than first glance might suggest and that some non-insignificant portion of her attention was being paid to her companions. To pick a single aphorism that could describe the Captain Hanajima, "still waters run deep" might be perhaps be best; for beneath her placid demeanor, and behind the cool eyes and hair both the dark green tint of mid-winter pine needles, lay a personality of surprising complexity and warmth. Like the wise owl, she keeps her counsel and speaks but softly, listening, watching, and waiting for those moments when she could strike with astonishing silent quickness. On this day, as many others, her hair was gathered in a loose thick braid, slung down around her graceful neck and across her pleasantly ample chest, her well rounded body wrapped comfortably in great mantle of black velvet and lace with her feet tucked up beneath her.

Sprawled upon a well-loved sofa, across a sturdy table from Captain Hanajima was the final member of the trio, the equally sturdy Captain Special Agent of the Crown Uotani, whom the reader will remember we have had chance to mention once previously, while treating on the near altercation of Princess Minor with Lord Kyou. Indeed, to treat on one all but necessitates a discourse on the other, to do otherwise is to discuss the glories of the shore without speaking of the sea, for that difficult relationship between Princess Minor and Captain Uotani spans most nearly a century and plumbs depths that few men can but imagine, let alone know in the fullness of experience. Like Minor she moved with the grace of a cat, though hers was a rougher, lazier grace; that of noble lion, the natural leader of a pride. Also like Minor she was well proportioned in the classical sense, though perhaps a touch fuller in the bust and hips and longer of torso, with a face that, while lacking in traditional delicate beauty, holds a certain unpolished handsome character of its own, and long brown-blonde hair worn loose. And, to further the comparsion, an activity that would no doubt drive both in to a towering fury, as with Princess Minor, the Captain Uotani had trained herself in unarmed combat beyond mortal limits, acquiring levels of strength and skill possessed by only a very few in all of time and space.

Now, having completed our woefully inadequate, but momentarily sufficient, survey of our faithful Guardsmen and women, we return to the delivered message; which remains, as before our diversion, in the hands of Captain Tomos.

"What does it say?" asked Captain Uotani, who was not nearly so well known for her keen curiousity as her much more visually impressive ability to stand toe to toe with the Princess Nanami Minor in a battle of fisticuffs, but for whom curiousity was in fact a rather defining facet of her person.

Replied Tomos, while rereading the message, "It is a missive from Prince Drake, directing the three of us to present ourselves to his office most immediately for a matter of some importance."

"Hana--"

"I have not heard about anything that might require our intervention." Uotani took no umbrage at Hanajima's mild interruption, for it was no small habit of Hanajima's to answer questions before they had been brought to the ripe fullness of completion, and at times, before they'd begun to even sprout like new buds from the lips of the questioner. Nor was it unusual for Uotai to have started such a question, for if anyone was to know such things without being told, it would be her good friend Hanajima, through the cunning use of her air-wave.

"Nor, I nearly think, have I," added Tomos, handing the paper to Uo.

Uo's brow creased as she glanced at the paper, which had upon it words nearly identical to those Tomos had announced. "Nearly. That always means you know something else, too."

"So, and if I do?" The captain in question leaned back in his own chair, a pleasantly amused expression on his face.

"So then you should tell me instead of asking me about it like you always do." Her brow furrowed further, eyebrows working as if to try and meet firmly above the bridge of her nose.

Tomos laughed, eyes twinkling merrily like the stars in the sky. "Well, it is not so much that I have heard of any impending missions, for, as you might perceive, like Hana-chan," he paused to favor the witch a smile, "I have not. But it is more a matter of what I have not heard."

Uotani's reply was a lazy, "Oh?" as she passed the message to Hana, who accepted silently but did not chance to look up from her tome.

"Well, as I have it, Prince Drake has been rather quiet for the past month or two." The three paused to silently reflect on this fact, for it was well known by all, including our gentle reader, that for all of the many things that Prince Drake was compentent at, the restraint of his tongue was not one of them, nor was sitting around idlely. "So, I propose, by manner of simple reasoning, that the mission must be secret in nature."

"Hot damn. It's been a while since we've had a good one of those, hasn't it?" Uotani was sitting up now, feet planted on the floor like pillars rising from the fundament, elbows loosely resting on thighs that had crushed rocks, eyes glittering and alert like the lion we had chance to compare her with only all too recently in this narrative.

"So it has, dear Uo, so it has." All but the most casual observer would have noted the matching hunger in his eyes.

Hanajima closed her book firmly with one hand, producing a sharp clap in the otherwise quiet room. With no more passion betrayed in her manner than one might express for a passable but otherwise unspectacular meal, she but said, "We will go and see."

And so the three rose as one and did precisely that.


3. THE GATHERING IN THE OFFICES OF PRINCE DRAKE

Much more has been written of the relative worth of pictures, be they charcoal sketch, watercolour, oil pastel, or photograph, to words, be they those of the novel, poem, romance, or letter, in the area of evoking an appearance (be it of a lovely woman, a cluttered room, or a natural landscape) than that pithiness that makes so precise a mathematical claim as to the worth of a single picture being that of a thousand words. To even briefly sketch the arguments involved would be too taxing an endeavour, so let us but promise we shall attempt to evoke the offices of Prince Drake, in the Royal Castle of Amber, in less than those vaunted thousand words.

To begin with, they are not comfortable, as Prince Drake is a man who clearly delineates the areas in which comfort is acceptable, and confines it to his private life nearly all of the time. The furnishings of all of a type: dark, wooden, and sturdy, tending to angles rather than curves, free from padding in rather the same manner that the body of a superb athlete is free of fat, with a character--though to anthropomorphize furniture to such a degree may seem to some an unbearable excess in style, we can evoke Prince Drake's furniture in no other way--akin to that of a severe judge, an aesthetic monk, or a harsh commander. Even the office door, which is but shortly to open and admit those three whom we have just lately met, radiates a weighty severity from its ponderous oaken expanse that makes the observer wonder if it, and the heavy desk, and the half-dozen identical chairs, and the wide table, and the long, high bookshelves, and even the very floorboards, might not all have been carved from one single great tree, so obvious is their kinship. The room's single window stands to the left of the desk, and is a single great pane of magically-strengthened glass designed to render any attempts to assassinate Prince Drake from a distance more likely to succeed if they cast their missile through the adjoining stone walls. In such times as when the heavy dark curtains are not drawn across it, it overlooks the practice yards of the castle, for Prince Drake sometimes finds the observation of regular weapons practice and other such exercises to be conducive to his thinking. But today the curtains are drawn, tightly, and the only light comes from a narrow iron chandelier hanging overhead.

As to the contents of the furnishings, we need but say the following: that maps, papers and charts in great number stand upon both desk and table, either spread out and unfolded or in neat stacks; that two of the great desk's eight drawers are open, allowing access to further maps, papers and charts; that just a finger less than two dozen books, ranging in size from less than a quarto to more than a tome, lay open or closed upon table and desk; and that, finally, three of the half-dozen chairs--two before the desk and the one behind it--were occupied by, in order, Princess Nanami Minor, Princess Sumire, and Prince Drake. Of these first two you have already been informed of their appearance and something of their character, but of Prince Drake until now you have heard little beyond his name and what may be derived of his character from the choice of his office furnishings (though we must note that we have not touched upon all the incidentals, as will soon be soon, but have but laid out a certain degree of initially obvious detail, just as one notes, under usual circumstances, the colour of a lady's hair before the colour of her eye, and the shape of her body before the shape of her lips, and whether she is lovely ahead of whether she is clever).

So, as to Prince Drake: to begin he is old, near twice the totalled age of the five who are but soon to gather in his office, and in him are mingled something of jaguar, tiger, wolf, owl and lion, and many more besides (all are, of course, chimeras, but the eldest can be both the least and most chimerical of all), though most of all, perhaps, the eagle, imperial bird. He is dark, with the sort of complexion that gives the impression of a permanent tan, and glossy black hair, and neat black beard trimmed to a sharp point; if the appelations "commanding" or "imposing" come to mind before "handsome" when one speaks of Prince Drake, it is only because they are very strongly the first, second and often the third impression he gives off. Command comes to him as music does to some other men, and while surpassed in the arts of the sword by some few in the universe, there is no greater leader of men, planner of campaigns, military strategist, or battlefield tactician. Prince Drake carries, most famously and for many long centuries, the Pattern Blade Werewindle, the Day Blade, and, of late, in what initially seemed the continuation of a feud well beyond the point where one of the feuders has been given to the grave, the Pattern Blade Greyswandir, the Night Blade, whose predecessor was once wielded by his half-brother Prince Derith, whose notoriety is such that we must simply skip over him entirely lest we occupy ourselves too much at length with any description of him.

Prince Drake, as we have indicated, was a man born to command, though not perhaps a man born to lead: for the most part he inspired respect rather than fondness, and fear rather than love. In this he was the very opposite of his brother the king, but of King Tylor we must regrettably say no more than our little comment as to his parallel nature to that of his full brother, Prince Drake, who is the subject immediately at hand. Indeed, Prince Drake lacked, or avoided, any sort of charisma on a personal level; like more than a few military men, his great self-esteem and confidence in his own abilities, and lack of modesty in expressing them, tended to alienate those who were less confident, less skilled, more humble, or all three. His outward greatness was to the many rather than to the one, and of his private life, his relations with his wife, Lady Nabiki, and his daughter, Princess Sumire (of whom a portrait has already been sketched in a previous chapter), we are not at liberty to expound. He was, given all of these things, a man who was always listened to, if not always liked.

Princess Nanami Minor, who was not to say the least a woman inclined by nature to indiscriminate fondness, liked Prince Drake, and wanted very much to be like him, and was very often frustrated that her natural aptitudes left her considerably better at besting up a phalanx by herself then at leading it in a victorious overrun of the enemy position. Prince Drake, in turn, seemed to take a personal interest in her that, if not exactly affectionate, was at least something somewhere above the apathy or distate with which he regarded many others of her generation; this was not unusual, given that the very old, most of whom have had to watch their youthful illusions demolished in the courses of their life, do not often have much patience for the comparatively young, with their illusions still entirely intact. But to come to a point: Minor (we return to this abbreviation now) would have done most nearly anything to bring some further favour from Drake upon herself, and was barely capable of containing the glow of pride she felt due to this seemingly very personal summons upon first arriving in Drake's offices, where she was greeted by Drake with words of "Hello, niece, please sit down" that had a slight warmth to them that elevated them above the merely perfunctory. After she had sat, something she seldom did comfortably (Minor was of such a character as to find the stillness usually required by sitting almost impossible to bear), and Sumire had sat, and Drake had looked at the map on the desk before him beside the small framed portrait of he and his wife and his daughter (one of those aforementioned incidental details not until now given a concrete form to you, reader), and coughed, and made three marks upon the map, and taken a sip of his glass of wine, Minor ventured, into the silence (Sumire had by now opened a slim volume plucked from the edge of the desk and was consulting it), "Sir, you wanted to see me?"

Drake looked up with an expression that conveyed his mild surprise at the interruption, at even the faintest hint that Minor apparently felt the need to remind him of something he knew perfectly well, and by doing so question his memory, his competence, and the very basis of his character. "Yes, niece, but there are more people coming to whom I need to speak of the same matter, and thus, for the sake of efficiency, we will wait until they arrive."

"Yes, sir," Minor said, feeling, though doing her best not to show by fidgeting or blushing, a certain degree of embarassment at her presumption.

"Uncle Drake," Drake corrected, bending his head to the examination of his map again. After a moment, he said, "Sumire, do offer her something to drink."

Sumire closed the book, marking the current page with a long- nailed index finger, and said, so politely it was nearly an insult, "Would you like something to drink, niece?" It occurs to us just now that we have assigned some bestiomorphic character to all those characters of significance introduced so far but Princess Sumire, so let us say this: she is a mink, lovely, but also vicious.

Minor shook her head, sat with apparent perfect stillness in the chair, and began to slowly tense and untense the muscles of her body one by one, as she was wont to do in situations where etiquette, discretion or personal safety required the appearance of serenity. It was an exercise that she began nine out of ten times at her toes, and this time was not an exception. As she performed the exercise, she pondered such possibilities as: for what matter had Drake summoned her here? who else was to arrive and be addressed along with her regarding it? was it some routine matter (though it did not have the feeling of routine to her), or something of greater import?

Perhaps it was some mission of significance for Amber. It would not be entirely unusual for her to be dispatched upon such an endeavour; not by herself, under most any circumstances (and this to her, who counted independence and personal competence among the highest goods, was more than a little galling), but often as a bodyguard, protector, right hand or factorum of some member of the family whose skills lay in more subtle directions. Unhappy is the heart pulled by desire in one direction, and by inclination in another. Like her father Prince Ramon, Princess Nanami Minor was best suited to a dualistic role within the family hierarchy: she dealt out punishment to the enemies of Amber, and, less often but still with some frequence, received it, often in order that one of the aforementioned more subtle members of the family (all of whom were almost universally less capable of absorbing the slings, arrows, rocks, lightning bolts, falling doors, sword thrusts, balls-and-chains, axe swings, bludgeonings and otherwise of outrageous fortune) did not have to. This did not always please her in the abstract, long-term sense, though in concrete moments when she had a chance to show off her particular expertise, she exulted in her superiority to many others in the family in a way that, judged by any objective standard, showed rather an excess of pride, though whether this sprang (as the charitable might believe) from some attempt to compensate by outward show for inward doubt or from (as the cynical might profess) a deficiency in her character is not a fact available to us at this time.

But breaking from our discussion of the princess's character to return to the details of her silent and invisible exercise, she had nearly reached her shoulders for the third time when there came a knocking upon the door. Prince Drake, not even looking up from his map, not even bothering to ask who was knocking (for his skills were such that he knew, merely by the manner of knocking, the particular quality of how the knuckles were thrice applied with a certain amount of pressure before the pause, in a rhythm that reminded him of a song once popular in his youth, now long forgotten, exactly who it was, as you shall shortly discover and have likely already guessed), said, "Enter."

[ No further pages of the manscript have yet been discovered ]