The white salt plain took my horse, and also the bird sent by Joaquim. My feet were all I had to take me across these shadowless Shadows; nothing frail could survive in this land of white.
The letter-- the first one-- struck again a pang of regret within me; I composed a reply, meant to assuage the guilt over what I felt was a betrayal of brotherhood. Brotherhood through the Knights is the closest bond I could have hoped to have with Joaquim. Neither of us are the sort to have friends.
In the letter, I apologized, and outlined my intention of never putting anyone in the family in danger again, and to seek vengeance on those who made me.
And then, with the powers newly awakened in my blood, I made a bird of from my blood and sent it winging towards Joaquim, in distant shadow.
The salt plain beckoned. A land of stark contrasts served as a sort of balm to my soul; I was tired of all the shades of gray. I wandered onward.
As night-time neared-- a good forty hours after I entered this desert-- I spied a small cabin, with a pump beside it, casting long shadows in the sharp light. I hailed the house. An older gentleman came out.
"Welcome, traveler," he said.
"Might I have a drink, grandfather?" I said respectfully.
He nodded, and I pumped out a stream of foul-smelling water into a tin bucket that hung off the spout. The scent of rotten eggs permeated the liquid. I didn't care. I drank it all, and pumped four more buckets before I stopped.
"Artesian well," the old man said. "Where do you hail from, traveler?"
"Most recently, from Amber," I told him, figuring that the truth was just as easy as a lie.
"Ah... Amber," the old man said, a yearning look in his eye. "It's been a long time since I heard that word..." He turned and opened the door of his cabin. "Come in, out of the sun, and I'll share my dinner."
I went in, and he followed. The cabin was merely the shelter for the entrance to a tunnel, carved from the salt. We went down into the tunnel, which opened onto a cooler but blindingly bright room.
"So you're taking the back way to Chaos," he said. "A dangerous route."
"Less dangerous than walking in the front way," I hazarded. So that was where this trail led.
"Depends, I suppose," he said. "On who you meet, and how. If you've come from Amber, I can see why you'd come through this."
I nodded. He spooned up two plates of a stew thick with beans, heavy with salt and short on meat. "Thank you."
"No thanks necessary, Sir Knight."
I was wary before; now I calculated with what ease I could kill him with my spoon.
"What makes you think I'm a knight?" I said guardedly.
"Because I know that you are," he replied.
"How do you know that?"
"How do I know anything? I'm just a shadow, cast by your mind. I appeared when you shifted me into being. You wanted me to know, so I do."
"That's just a theory," I said. "No one knows that for sure about the formation of shadows."
"So, you think you just found me, the me that I am, who knows you're a knight, who's heard of Amber? Me? Out of infinite shadow?"
"It's certainly possible," I replied. "Likely, even. Amberites are known for being able to influence probability. It's one of the few perks."
He began to chortle for some reason.
"What's funny about that?" I demanded.
"Oh, a private joke," he answered. "I couldn't possibly explain it."
We ate in silence for a time. Then he gathered up our plates, and took them out to the well to wash them.
I took the opportunity to do something I had managed to keep from doing all day. I couldn't help it, though; I had to know.
The setting sun had illuminated the salt chamber to a bloody red. The brilliant blue of the star sapphire was turned an unhealthy color by the glaring redness all around. But when I cupped it in my hand, its silvery cross gleamed with a light of its own. The gem warmed slightly in my palms; the south-pointing arm of the cross began to shine with a brighter light, and the other points darkned. I couldn't make out any other details, except that she felt alone... abandoned.
I've done no better than Mirelle, I told myself.
My host came back down the tunnel, tin plates polished to mirror-like perfection. He put them on a shelf on the wall, propped against it, as though they were on display. It was a long moment before I could look away from them.
"You like mirrors?" my host asked.
My revery broken, I turned to look at him, clenching my left fist around the star sapphire. "What a strange question."
"I live on a salt plain."
"And an even stranger explanation."
"The unending white, the constant heat and light-- tends to bring madness. Now. You like mirrors?"
I looked again at the gleaming tin plates. "No. No, I hate them."
"What a strange response."
I turned to look at him-- really look. He had the body of a man once vigorous, and had given in to age. In my home shadow terms, coming up on 200-- late in his twilight years. His hair was a funny apricot color, the way a redhead grays. His eyes sparkeled a deep amber color. He was studying me.
"Who are you?"
"You can call me Fagan," he answered. "Make full use of the allusion."
I could not.
I heard the shrill cry of a raptor in the distance. "That'll likely be for you," Fagan said.
I nodded and went upstairs. The plain was blood-black; only a sliver of the sun stood above the horizon. The raptor was circling. I held out my arm for it, and it landed. I winced slightly as its thick claws sliced through my flesh. I took the note and read it. I kept the raptor on my arm-- it was all that kept me from exploding again, that pain there.
"Fagan!" I called. "I have to go."
He appeared in the doorway of the cabin. "To Chaos?"
"No. Something else."
"The girl then."
Without expecting a useful answer, I asked wearily, "How do you know there's a girl?"
He said sagely, "There's always a girl."
"Thank you for your hospitality."
"Quite welcome. It's very lonely here, so any company is welcome. No matter who they are, or what they've done."
I laughed bitterly. "I wish I could stay, and hear more of your riddles. Figure out how you know so much about me."
"I know so much," he replied, "because I am not afraid of mirrors. Good journey, Sir Knight."
I walked away, raptor talons piercing my flesh to the bone, keeping me sane.