He sat in an outdoor cafe, a half eaten sandwich in front of him and an untouched cup of coffee at his right hand. He had a view of the river and of the trees blossoming all along the street, and he looked out into the distance, seemingly oblivious to things closer to him.
I'd never smelled chestnut trees before, but I had no doubt that these were chestnuts. My father wouldn't have accepted anything else. I was coming up from behind him, so I walked past then turned to come back. Grayswandir wasn't in evidence, but I doubted he'd be unarmed.
His eyes remained on the trees, but he raised two fingers to acknowledge my approach. "I don't recommend the coffee," he said. "It kicks like a mule, but it tastes like chalk."
"Good to know." I pulled out the chair across from him and sat. I said nothing further, content to wait for his attention to return. This business might be urgent, but he already knew that. He'd chosen to take the time to be here, in a place that wasn't Paris.
After several minutes, he shifted his focus to look at me. "I'd have thought you were too busy these days to run errands." He picked up his sandwich and took a bite.
"Tracking you down is as much in my interests as it is in Random's. I just had a better idea where to look." The sandwich appeared to be cheese and tomato between thick cut slices of crusty white bread. I wanted one. I looked around for a waiter.
My father chewed and swallowed. "You have to go inside to order. Have to bus your own dishes, too. I picked it for the view, not the service."
I hesitated. Tracking him down had not been as easy as I'd implied. Without much effort, he could be gone by the time I returned. If he wanted to lose himself in Shadow, I wouldn't be able to find him, not in the time I had.
"Go." He twitched one hand in a dismissive gesture. "I'll be here when you return. My word on it. I'll not enjoy my meal if you're watching me the whole time, wishing it were yours."
Saying anything would have called his word into question, and I had no desire to insult him. I pushed back my chair and rose from the table. When I returned, I had my own sandwich and a cup of coffee. It wasn't that I doubted him about how it tasted. I just wanted to see if really had enough kick for me to notice. If it did, there was probably something to be done about the taste.
By the time I sat down, he had finished his sandwich. He had his hands curled around the coffee cup, but I didn't think he'd so much as tasted the contents. "It's a pity about the coffee," he said. "I'd like something hot just now."
"Perhaps chocolate or tea might be better." I tried to remember if there was some reason either beverage wouldn't be available in Paris of 1905.
He frowned into his cup. "Perhaps. The popularity of this 'coffee' doesn't lead me to hope for much from any other beverage."
"I doubt it's the flavor that makes it popular." I took a cautious sip from my cup. I've never tasted chalk, so I can't say if this was the same flavor, but it reminded me of the smell of dusty lecture halls, only wet and with a hint of something unpleasant underneath. I wrinkled my nose. "If I expected coffee, I'd think I was being poisoned." I could think of two poisons, off hand, that had a similar aftertaste.
"I had a cup earlier, and I've suffered no ill effects. I'm merely more awake than I expected to be."
"We're neither of us so easy to poison as all that." I wondered if he'd ever had training in poisons. My relatives in Amber didn't seem to favor such techniques. Possibly they simply had trouble finding substances that would be effective. Poisons in the Courts very often had to be tailored to the individual, depending as they did on the form the target was currently inhabiting.
He turned his cup around in his hands. "Did you ever make up your mind about Coral and Julia? I suppose I should ask about the vampire and the woman from House Hendrake, too."
"Rhanda and Gilva?" I picked up my sandwich. "I've really been very busy." Did he think I'd sought him out, hunting through all of Shadow, to discuss my love life? Not ready to talk about it and not wanting to offer an alternative topic of conversation, I took a bite. Chewing would get me out of answering for a little bit.
He waited for me. He didn't move, and his expression of polite interest never wavered. He wasn't going to let me off the hook.
I swallowed. Best to start with the easy one. "Coral's in hiding. I don't even know where. With both the Pattern and the Logrus hunting her, her choices are limited. She can't go home." And she couldn't join me in the Courts for fear of upsetting the balance between Pattern and Logrus. "I think Luke and Dalt are still with her."
His expression sharpened and he leaned forward. "And the baby?"
The one that might be-- and probably was-- mine. "I don't know. She didn't look pregnant the last time I saw her, but I don't know how much time has passed for her." I took another bite of my sandwich. I decided not to tell him that I suspected Ghostwheel of tracking Coral. Admitting that would mean I had to take official notice of it, and it was better if I knew nothing. I trusted Ghostwheel.
He frowned and tapped a finger against his cup. "I don't like the thought of my grandchild being hunted through Shadow."
I shrugged. "Until there's peace or until Coral loses the Jewel, there are limits to what I can do. The Logrus may not rule me, but neither do I rule it."
"Life was easier before primal bits of reality started talking."
That required no response, so I applied myself to my sandwich once again. The sandwich was good. The tomato was firm and sweet and the cheese sharp with a tang that struck my tongue after the cheese had passed. The bread resisted each bite just enough to have character. It wasn't heavy, but it also wasn't so light that I felt like I was eating nothing.
When I set down the sandwich, he said, "And Julia?"
I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, trying to buy time. "Julia is difficult. I've been putting her off for months, and it's wearing thin. More than thin. She's tempting, but she has a history of not taking rejection well, and under the current circumstances, she'd be a temporary dalliance. Little as I like it, sex is political now." I hesitated, deciding not to mention the stolen kisses. "Then there's Jurt." I shrugged one shoulder, lifting my hand as if weighing something. "If he finds out that she offered, even if I say no-- and I haven't yet-- he'll be angry. I just made peace with him."
He narrowed his eyes as I spoke. He looked down at his coffee. "I wonder what your mother would make of Julia," he said softly. "She's playing games with Dara's children. Dara might be willing to use you, but I doubt she'd take well to someone else doing it. I'm not clear how she feels about Jurt, but you said he was the baby. I wouldn't be surprised if Dara took steps."
I took a sip of my coffee. "That seems rather permanent. I don't wish Julia ill."
"If you say no-- even if you just keep delaying-- Julia will retaliate. It fits her history. I'm surprised she hasn't already. Under the circumstances, Jurt is her best weapon. All she has to do is say that you approached her first. From what you've said, he'll believe it of you. He sees you as always taking away what he has."
"I like Julia."
"You have an unfortunate history of liking people who have tried to kill you. It's entertaining, but it's not a survival trait."
"I haven't really been in danger."
He didn't say anything, but his lips twisted, and his eyes didn't move from mine.
I looked away and took another bite of my sandwich.
He tapped a finger on the side of his cup. "So who did you leave in charge? There were a lot of people unhappy about your... situation."
I set down my sandwich. "I created a committee." I was reasonably proud of that.
"Less so than the alternatives." I eyed my sandwich but decided against another bite. "With a little luck, I'll get what I want out of it."
He raised his eyebrows, but he didn't ask what I wanted out of it. Just as well. I wasn't sure myself. "So," he said after a considerable silence, "you and Random are looking for me, and you came personally."
"Well, there wasn't really anyone I could send. I'm not supposed to know where you are. That is, mother still seems to think you're imprisoned. At least, she hasn't shown any sign of the rage I'd expect on discovering your escape." I turned my cup around. "I think Random set Bleys to find you."
"Bleys doesn't know me as well as he thinks he does."
"I hardly know you at all, but I found you."
"We've been more honest with each other than most. And it doesn't hurt that you've walked my Pattern."
"It's about your Pattern, really." I leaned forward. "Have you thought-- Your Pattern isn't a great power yet."
"I don't expect it wants to be. That's not why I created it."
I frowned. "Have you asked? Amber's Pattern and the Logrus believe they're playing a zero sum game. Neither of them welcomes a third player at the table."
"It's hard to get a zero sum out of infinity."
"I'm not sure Shadow is infinite. There's a clear end point at the Abyss."
He waved a dismissive hand. "Irrelevant."
"Be that as it may, the Logrus tried to break your Pattern once already. I believe the Pattern is working more subtly. Fiona is convinced that your Pattern is the cause of ongoing instability in Shadow."
"I'm sure her solution for that is direct." He actually looked more alert, as if expecting Fiona to appear without warning.
"She was rather put out when you disappeared, but I think she's afraid, too, of what might happen if your Pattern is destroyed." That was the only explanation I could come up with for why she hadn't used me to erase my father's Pattern.
"And the Jewel is no longer available to break the storm."
"I'm sure that, wherever Coral is, she'll protect herself if it comes to that." I picked up my sandwich and took a bite. It was almost gone. I should have gotten two.
"None of this explains you seeking me out so urgently."
"Random wants peace. I want peace. The Logrus and the Pattern... not so much. We need to know where your Pattern stands and what you're going to do with it."
He raised his eyebrows and didn't say anything.
"I needed to get away for a little while, too." I couldn't help fidgeting in my chair. "I'm not suited to being king. I want to build things, to experiment, to explore."
"So don't go back." He looked around, evaluating the passersby.
"If I don't, I never can."
"Would you miss it that much?"
"What if you could never go back to Amber?"
"I'm not sure I can." He closed his eyes for a moment. "Not that I'm not welcome. Random was very pleased to see me, even with the news I brought. I just-- I've changed. It's not the time I spent in Dara's prison, either. Dworkin regarded me as a colleague."
"You do belong to a rather select group of people."
"I'm a bit... unsure about what I'll find around my Pattern. It won't be Amber."
I tried to remember what he'd told me about drawing his Pattern. "You didn't think about Amber. You thought about Earth." I looked around and inhaled deeply. I smelled the trees and the river, and I imagined I could also catch the scent of old books. "Paris. Berlin. The South Pacific."
"I also-- Dworkin drew his Pattern in blood. That never occurred to me when I started mine."
"Then blood might not be the way to break yours." I'd sleep easier if I thought that Fiona knew that. Perhaps I should tell her. Perhaps she'd even believe me. I took another bite of my sandwich and washed it down with some chalk flavored caffeine.
"I'm not inclined to experiment."
I nodded. I leaned back in my chair and looked up at the nearly cloudless sky. It really was a beautiful day.
After a few minutes, he said, "I tried to find the Earth I knew."
I sat up and rubbed the back of my head. "About that... It's changed a lot. I could see not recognizing it. It's probably changed even more since I was last there."
"Every place I found was wrong somehow. At least here it's only the coffee."
"This place is pleasant enough." I wondered if he thought it more than pleasant.
"I wonder what I'll find if I look deeper. What sort of poetry do they write here? What's the current fashion in art?"
"Do you plan to stay long enough to find out?" I hoped not. The place wasn't bad for an afternoon, but it lacked the things I'd enjoyed about Earth. I preferred technological toys.
"I had thought to. Do you really think I'm needed elsewhere? The universe seems to have moved along quite well without me." He gave me a sharper look than his tone lead me to expect.
"I think that it's a bad idea for your Pattern to be guarded only by Patternghosts. I can't help." I couldn't play Oberon to his Dworkin. "Well, I could help, in a way. Guarding your Pattern will require children. You're better off with a woman of power. Those from Amber are all close kin."
"That didn't stop you with Coral."
"That wasn't my choice. Or hers."
His eyes caught and held mine. He said nothing for a long moment. "I'm not minded to breed heirs. I've been used that way once before."
I spread my hands. "I won't apologize for existing."
He smiled, but it looked forced. "I don't regret you. I'm simply not sure that I can set out to do it deliberately. I liked your mother. Look where that went."
"You really don't have a choice." We both had to face it. "I can't do it. I have other commitments." There was Coral's child, of course, but that came with a whole host of other problems.
He made a noise that wasn't quite agreement but that I hoped meant he was thinking about what I'd said.
I decided I wasn't going to get more out of him and changed the subject. "I have something for you." I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small stack of Trumps. "I haven't had as much time for this as I used to. I tried to think who would be most useful to you." I slid them across the table.
He fanned out the cards. He nodded as he ran his eyes over them. Then he stopped and raised his eyebrows. "I don't recognize this one." He pulled the card from the stack and turned it toward me.
Of all the Trumps, this was the one subject who wasn't human. Suhuy's demon form, red, gray, horned and scaly, had seemed more true to him than his human form. "That's my Uncle Suhuy. I didn't think most people from Chaos would interest you, but he's our equivalent of Dworkin. Well, I doubt he made the Logrus. He just knows more about it than anybody else. I thought you might have reason to consult with him."
"I can't think why," he said, but he tucked Suhuy's Trump back into the stack. "Thank you. I didn't like to ask Random for a deck."
"I'll make more as I have time. This being king comes with a lot of responsibilities."
"Which you are shirking, just being here."
"The status of your Pattern has... repercussions, even in Chaos."
"It's gone years, if not decades, on its own."
I wondered, not for the first time, just how long my mother had held him prisoner. Time in the Courts tends to run fast compared to Amber, and years had passed in Amber. "That doesn't reassure me." The thought of a feral great power terrified me. The thought of one that was merely lonely was only marginally less frightening.
He raised his cup, sniffed the contents, shook his head and lowered the cup. "I can't bring myself to drink it."
"Then don't." I hadn't touched my own cup in quite a while. "Father-- I will return home and make the best of things if you will go to your Pattern. If nothing else, you'll likely be safe from mother there."
His hand tightened on his cup. "I'm not concerned about Dara."
"I don't think she knows yet that you've gone."
"If you start sending me potential brides, that won't last."
I shrugged. "She's bound to find out eventually." I didn't look forward to her wrath. She'd certainly suspect my involvement, and she was already unhappy with me. "I don't think she'd go so far as to try to depose me." Though Despil or Jurt might be more obedient to her wishes. Not a line of thought I wanted to pursue, not when I wasn't sure I wouldn't rather someone else were king. "I envy you. There are worlds and worlds to explore. I know what the Shadows cast by the Courts and the Shadows cast by Amber are like. I can only imagine what the Shadows cast by your Pattern are like."
"They may be empty."
"Then recruit colonists. This is a universe created from your mind and memories."
His lips quirked into something not unlike a smile. "That's the problem. Aren't there things in your mind that you'd rather not see?"
I shrugged. I thought about denying it, but he wouldn't believe me.
He tilted his cup one way then another, apparently fascinated by the movement of the contents. "I've spent too long alone with my mind to want to explore it further."
I remembered what a month in the blue cave had done to my sanity and nodded. "Nevertheless."
The corners of his mouth drew in and down. "Nevertheless."
"I can't make you do anything."
"No more can I make you." He met my eyes.
"I wish I could go with you, but I have to go home."
"Home." He seemed to turn the word over on his tongue.
I wished I had Luke's gift for persuasion. "You might wander a long time in search of that."
He gave a huff that was almost laughter. "And I might as well look near my Pattern? Perhaps. Right now, it's Schrodinger's cat."
"The options are rather more than binary."
"But equally uncertain."
"Eventually, you have to look in the box."
"Eventually, I will. I just want a little time first." His hands dropped below the table. "I don't think I've had that since Eric died."
It seemed to me that he'd had nothing but time for years, but I nodded. "Maybe another sandwich?"
He shook his head. "They're not as good as I remember. I think I need to wander Shadow for a while."
"You shouldn't do it alone." I tapped my index fingers on my cup. "If you trust Bleys, given Fiona, he's a possibility."
"I'm not sure I trust Bleys, given Bleys." Now he did smile. "But he's not bad company."
"You might find someone in Shadow." Pushing him seemed like the surest way to make him take longer. 'Eventually' was the best I was going to get for now.
"I might." He looked distant for a moment then shook his head. "The most interesting people have lives they can't leave."
"I could suggest someone from down my way." Keeping track of him that way couldn't hurt.
"I prefer to find my own friends. Perhaps I will turn to Bleys. He's good company, and he won't keep me overlong."
I nodded, pushed back my chair and stood. I picked up my plate and cup and looked around. "You said we're to bus our own dishes?" After a moment's consideration, I added his plate and cup to my stack.
"Inside." He nodded his thanks. "In the very back."
He was gone by the time I returned.