Disclaimer: All the characters, some dialogues and most of the plot belong to Roger Zelazny.

I still could not figure out what had happened. Rinaldo hired me as he did many times. This time he wanted me to go with him to the Keep of Four Worlds and rescue his mother Jasra.? Nothing new. He seemed to dislike his mother, but he always helped her if necessary. I could understand his feelings, although his lack of consistency was so irritating.

We had a great deal in common. First of all - a common enemy - Amber - "the center of all things" - as it is often said. Paradoxically we were Amberites ourselves. Long time ago my mother was taken prisoner by Oberon - the King of Amber. Having her prisoner was not enough for him. He raped her. Nine months later I was born. Oberon was my father, but this does not stop me from hating him and the whole Amber. My mother and I tried to destroy them, but did not succeed. She was killed in a battle and I was badly wounded. Later on Oberon died in quite mysterious circumstances, but this was a different story and I know little about it.

Rinaldo's father - Brand - was an Amberite, but for some reasons he fought on the side of Chaos. Brand also died in the battle and it was his brother Caine who killed him. Rinaldo managed to kill Caine. He also tried to kill other Amberites who were indirectly involved, but failed.

However at the moment it was not Amber that worried me. It was my own mental state. I did something I should have never done, but I don't remember exactly what it was. I remember attacking the Keep. The attack was going on quite well and suddenly something strange happened. Apparently I tried to cut Rinaldo into pieces without any obvious reason. At least my soldiers told me that. They were surprised seeing Rinaldo disappearing somewhere. Later on, I remember that someone wanted to contact me via trump. He said Rinaldo was with him. I tried to attack... Attack whom? Rinaldo? The guy who called me? Both? I don't remember. My soldiers told me that my action looked intentional and they simply thought it was a part of my plan. That's why they did not react. It was very likely that Rinaldo thought the same. I am a mercenary and, because of that, people think I would just fight for anyone who pays me. They believe I will betray my friend if his enemy promises me to pay more. This is a highly simplified view. I do fight for people who pay me, but when I accept the offer I never betray my employer. Besides, Rinaldo was more than an employer. He was the only person who did not despise me. He criticized me very often, but accepted and understood me. Possibly this way he wanted to show he was independent from his mother. She considered me an outlaw, but at the same time she was hiring me when she was in need. Whatever the reason of Rinaldo's friendship with me was I appreciated it. Now I was afraid it might have been over. The only thing I could do was to contact Rinaldo as soon as possible and explain him everything.

I took his trump, but there was no response. I knew I had wounded him badly. Was it possible that he was dead? Did he die thinking I betrayed him? No, I could not even think of it. Maybe he was unconscious or simply asleep. I tried to contact him again. This time I felt as if there was the beginning of connection, but either he refused it or something else disturbed. He was alive, this was something.

In the meantime one more reason to contact Rinaldo appeared. It was the opportunity to regain the throne in a kingdom called Kashfa. Jasra used to rule in Kashfa before she was overthrown and had to flee. But she has always wanted to come back to power. Just briefly before her unfortunate attack on the Keep she suggested that it would be very good to do something referring to the Kashfan throne just after she sorts out things in the Keep. Now the situation in Kashfa looked promising, but neither Jasra or Rinaldo were around. This "promising thing" was the death of Jaston - Kashfan king or usurper whatever the name you want to use. Officially he fell out of the balcony. Anyway, Jasra can come back, but she has to be quick, because otherwise someone else would become the king. This "someone else" is Arkans, Duke of Shadburne. I remember him quite well. He used to have various posts in different Kashfan governments, but when Jasra took power he withdrew from politics. He didn't like her, but he did not act openly against her. So she left him alone. Now, he came to power. At the same time Random, the king of Amber visited Kashfa. It was quite obvious that Amber brought Arkans to power. It was yet another reason I did not want Arkans in power. On the other hand I knew that once Amber got involved they will be determined to get things finished. Probably Random knew very well that Arkans' claims were much less legitimate than Jasra's and Rinaldo's. First thing he would like to do would be removing them from the action. That would mean having them imprisoned or killed. Hopefully just imprisoned. My plan was quite risky, but fortunately Random was not in Amber and it was Vialle, his queen who was in charge at the moment. She was said not to like bloodshed, so I might succeed. At least I could hope that I would not be killed on the spot. I decided to dig in near the Arden Forest and threaten to attack Amber if they do not hand Rinaldo and Jasra to me. I would pretend (if "pretend" is a right word) I have an argument with Rinaldo and his mother, because this way Amber would be more likely to co-operate thinking that we have a common enemy. If only they give me a chance to talk to Rinaldo or Jasra without witnesses... I must talk to one of them (preferably Rinaldo) to plan further actions. If I am wrong and Amberites do not hold Rinaldo or Jasra, then I might offer my help in looking for them.

So I passed my ultimatum to Amber and we started negotiations. The man I was talking to was Julian. He was calm, self-confident or possibly trying hard to look like that. He told me they had no idea where Rinaldo was, but the only thing they could assure me was that he was not their prisoner and not even in Amber. He did not say anything clear about Jasra. I had a feeling Jasra was in Amber or at least he knew where she was, but I felt it would not be a good thing to discuss this topic any further. Finally I was asked to wait until Julian consults the queen. So I waited.

It was already late night when I finally saw three men with torches. One of them was Julian, the other was someone unknown to me, but I had a strange feeling we had met before, although I could not say anything more specific. The third man was Rinaldo. He looked quite happy and relaxed. I gestured to him to come closer. He asked his companions to stop and I did the same. We spoke quietly so that no one could hear us.

"Are you still going to kill me?" said Rinaldo.
"I wish I knew what had happened in the Keep. I can hardly remember anything" I said.
"Unlike me. I can remember everything" he replied.
"I'm very sorry. I was not myself that time." I said and added "But you look quite well now... You see, I risked my life to get you out from Amber. We have to go to Kashfa. Do you know that Random is making Arkans the king there? We have to be quick. We must"
"I know about Kashfa" he interrupted.
During further conversation it turned out that Rinaldo's relationships with Amber became much better, which started worrying me. Nevertheless, I understood that now Kashfa was our priority. Although, when I asked Rinaldo to come with me - he opposed.

"They must not suspect anything" he said. "They must think we are enemies and you are taking me prisoner."

I must admit I did not understand quite well, although I agreed that we must pretend enemies, after all it was my idea. Finally we agreed to stage a fight between us. Rinaldo would be defeated and taken prisoner. After that we should depart. Rinaldo did not mention anything how we could get his mother out of Amber. I did not ask him. I was sure he would come with the idea later on.

So we fought. At certain point I thought Rinaldo forgot that the fight was staged and started fighting sincerely. The man who came with him (the one I could not recognize) started shouting:
"Come on, Luke! Flatten him"
He called him "Luke". This was the name Rinaldo used on Shadow Earth. I know he had a friend there... A friend was an Amberite... Was it possible that Rinaldo made a deal with Amber and betrayed me? He mentioned that his relationships with Amber improved. So it was very likely that he betrayed me. This also would explain why he seemed not to care about Jasra. He had promised his friend as an exchange for his mother! The only solution for me was to fight. I looked stronger than Rinaldo, but it did not necessarily mean I was stronger. But I had to do my best. I felt better when my people started shouting to encourage me. Finally I made a solid left and Rinaldo fell unconscious. I tried to lift him, but he was too heavy or rather I was too tired. I asked my companions to carry him to our camp.

For a moment I feared whether Amberites will keep their promise and let us go. I looked at Julian and said:
"I call upon you to observe the rest of our agreement"
"We will, provided you do," Julian answered and added quickly. "Have your men out of here by daybreak"
I did not want to wait until the daybreak or even any moment longer.
"We leave now," I answered and started going away. Then I could hear the other man calling my name.
I turned back and the man said.
"My name is Merlin. We've met, though I don't know whether you remember"
I thought I remembered. Now I remembered that the circumstances were unpleasant to both of us (this is the case of most of my encounters, anyway). However, there was no point in admitting that I remembered anything, so I shook my head.

Then I heard, saw and felt the ground erupting before me. I was covered with soil and gravel. They did not keep their promise. It was really unlikely they would. I did not feel fear. Rather bitterness and anger with myself I could be so stupid to trust Amberites. "That is your grave," the man calling himself Merlin said. Then he added: "If Luke's death comes of this"
I looked at him and wondered. So I was wrong, there was no direct danger for me. He was just concerned about Rinaldo's fate. I could sympathize with him. I was even temped to say that Luke would be okay and there was no need to worry, but this was not something Rinaldo would approve, I guess. So I just stated:
"Next time I'll remember you" and I went away.

Rinaldo was unconscious for quite a long time. His first words when he woke up were:
"You must have treated my idea too seriously. You have nearly killed me." "Well you were quite serious, too. For a moment I thought you wanted to hand me to your new friends." I replied and added: "You made some friends in Amber. Merlin for example. He really wanted you to win.
"Were you talking to Merlin?" he asked. "Not much. He just dug a grave for me, promising to burry me if you die. So I'm happy you woke up"
Rinaldo smiled, but remained silent for a while. Then he asked:
"Do you know anything new about Kashfa?"

I told him some details we had no time to talk about before. We both agreed that we had to be quick. Once Arkans is crowned it would be more difficult to gain support in overthrowing him. He was quite popular even now. The reason was a strong desire in Kashfa to include this kingdom into a Golden Circle (I always wondered what for, but I'm not a politician). Another reason was that Arkans received a promise from Amber to get Eregnor - a border province between Kashfa and Begma. This has always been a matter of ambition for Kashfans. I am from Eregnor myself, but I do not care who the ruler will be, for I'm outlawed in both kingdoms.

Rinaldo and I had to prepare the operation carefully. Once we got the power we should wait for Jasra. Rinaldo was sure that she was safe, because Merlin would not allow to hurt her. I did not quite understand his confidence, but I had no alternative solution but to wait. My concern about Jasra had purely practical reason. I could help Rinaldo, because he is my friend, but my have to be soldiers paid. Rinaldo had not enough resources, so I needed Jasra. She talked to me a long time ago, before she headed to the Keep and that time she promised to pay, which was quite surprising, I admit. Regular payment was particularly important this time, because my soldiers could not count on any extra resources. We had to deliver Jasra's property intact, so it was understandable that looting could not be the option.

Something less understandable was that Rinaldo insisted that Arkans must not get hurt in any way. He should be put under house arrest and treated very well. I could understand why we should keep him alive, but not much more than that. Was Rinaldo getting more and more sentimental? Or rather more pragmatic? Or both? One thing I was sure about: there was no point in discussing this issue. I simply had to follow his orders.

Our action in Kashfa went surprisingly easily. We met almost no resistance and in a short time the whole capital city and the neighboring area was in our hands. It was the time to call Jasra. Rinaldo drew out her Trump and after a while the picture of a red-haired woman came alive.

"How are things going?" she asked. "We win" Rinaldo replied. "There were almost no casualties.
Jasra smiled.
"I knew you will succeed" she said. "Now, you have to prepare the coronation as soon as possible"
"Do you want to repeat your coronation?" Rinaldo asked. "It won't be a good idea. It would look as if you were an usurper the previous time"
"It won't be me. It will be you, Rinaldo. You are the king of Kashfa" she said.
We were both surprised. I was glad. My relationships with Rinaldo were much better than with his mother. I wanted to congratulate him, but I noticed that he was not too happy. "Dalt, did you know that!" he asked me angrily.
"No, I had no idea" I answered.
"Yes, you were talking to her before the action" he insisted. "You knew her plans"
"I did not" I answered as calmly as I could.
Jasra started talking again:
"It would be much better" she said. "I've just regained the control over the Keep. I will have the Keep and you will have Kashfa. Of course, I will help you with my advice. After all I have certain experience."

Rinaldo looked very angry. I knew they would quarrel and I did not want to listen to their quarrel. Jasra hated when anyone was witnessing the arguments she had with her son. I have even heard that once upon a time she ordered to kill all the witnesses of such a quarrel. I don't know if it was true, but anyway, there is nothing enjoyable in listening to their arguments. So I just said:

"Your highnesses, would you excuse me for a while? I have to check the situation in the outskirts"
I knew that the situation in the outskirts was perfectly under control, but I could not think of anything better. I went away not waiting for the answer.