When I say that I've written Amber fan fiction on and off for the last thirteen years, I do so with equal measures of pride and alarm. Most of my so-called "work" is lost, buried in dead hard disks at the bottom of landfills or deep down in off-line archives. But sometimes I turn up treasures; at least I think they're treasures.
Christophe stared up at the ceiling of his study and prayed for death.
"Darling, I am praying for death," he announced to his wife seated a few feet away.
The syncopated rattle of her needles did not falter. "Is that so."
"Yes, truly. In fairness, I think I will draw on the example of one of the more quaint Begman customs and set fire to my home as my final expression of ennui."
"Do take care to let the cat out. I have my weekly card game down at Madame Zool's this evening, perhaps that would be a good time for you to express yourself."
"Or," Christophe offered, a sudden enthusiasm intruding into his voice, "I could throw myself from the window. I think there is a more or less clear path to the pavement."
"You will just suspend yourself on the crenelations and require rescuing by the Guard."
"Damn, right you are. What if I got a bit of a run-up, and jumped?"
"Impossible. All of our windows are too small. Why not just ask Mr. Zhou to slit your throat, or poison you? I hear his people are rather good at such mischief."
Christophe sniffed dismissively. "Zhou has lost his taste for such things. Too many years in the valet business takes the edge off a man, you know. Besides, it would look rather awkward for my murderer to assist in the burial. Can't have you bothering with all that mess, can I."
His wife put down her needles and smiled wanly. "My dear, that is sweet of you."
"It's the least I can do, the very least," Christophe continued, folding his fingers together across his velvet vest. "It would be rather hard on Pickering, though."
"Yes, it would. He's not in the best of health, and he is so fond of you, you know."
"Yes, quite. Good man, Pickering. The Colonel and I have had our share of scraps. I dare say he would take the news of my death rather hard."
"Especially if the circumstances were less than interesting."
Christophe climbed out of his overstuffed armchair and crossed his study to the window. The steady grey rain which defined the typical Begman day clung to the slate rooftops below, their chaotic steeples looking like a huge half-collapsed house of cards. Beyond them lay the green expanse of the Great Promenade; further beyond, the massive profile of the Chancery and Saint Kleist's Cathedral were dimly visible through the fog.
"It's been too long since we've been back to Amber," he said, tugging absently on the golden tasseled fringe of the curtain.
"Too long," replied his wife. Her needles were silent.
"I asked for the privilege to serve the Crown directly," growled Christophe. "When we were recalled from Anglia, it seemed a sensible request. I had no idea. . ."
"I know you expected to be posted in Amber, dear."
"Bleys had suggested as much," admitted Christophe with a sigh. "But then to be put under that scabby fossil Julius Limm. . . as ghastly a creature as I've ever known. . . I expected more, especially given Bleys' clear representations. . ."
His wife could not reply. The argument was, as it always was, one-sided; a paean of regret and bitter disappointment. It was all she could do to wait until the mood passed.
The clock chimed the hour; Mr. Zhou, wrapped in his royal blue silk housecoat and bearing a silver tray with the afternoon's first cup of tea, glided into the office. On the tray was a bit of folded parchment, sealed in wax.
"Zhou," offered Christophe, suddenly animated, "did you know I was praying for death?"
"Sir, of course, sir. There is a letter from the Kashfan ambassador," Mr. Zhou replied softly.
Christophe lifted the slim note from the tray, snapped the wax, scanned the letter once, then twice.
Then he crumbled it in his hands, a gleeful smile spreading across his normally sour countenance.
"Zhou, pack our bags. We are going to Amber."