Authors: Roger Zelazny
Some there be that shadows kiss, Such have but a shadow's bliss.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
PEOPLE SOMETIMES ASK me whether the title Jack of Shadows was intended to sound like a description of a playing card used in some arcane game, as well as representing my protagonist's name and a matter of geography. Answer: Yes. I've long been fascinated by odd decks of cards, and I had an extensive collection of them at one time.
"Ha!" they usually respond on hearing this admission. "Then this business about the cards and the reference to shadows ties this story in at some subterranean psychological level with your Amber books, right?"
Well, no. The last time I was down in the catacombs I couldn't locate any connection. I was simply attracted by the imagery. On the other hand, nobody ever asked me, "Why Jack?"
I could have answered that one: Jack Vance.
In this, my tenth book, I'd decided to try for something on the order of those rare and exotic settings I admired so much in so many of Jack Vance's stories. It seemed only fair then, once I'd worked things out, to find a title with "Jack" in it as a private bit of homage publicly displayed. Now you all know.
I suppose the inferences concerning a relationship to Amber could have been strengthened, though, by the fact that this book came out between the publication of Nine Princes in Amber and The Guns of Avalon, the first two books in that series-proximity breeding speculation and like that.
But while the setting may owe something to Jack Vance, the character doesn't. I took my opening quotation from The Merchant of Venice only because it seemed so apt once I'd pried it free of its context. The Shakespearean work to which I actually do owe a debt here came along about eight years after Merchant. I refer to Macbeth. True, Birnam Wood does not come against Jack, and the play contains no quote I wanted to uproot and employ here. But Jack's character undergoes an interesting progression, which owes something to Shakespeare's portrait of the bloody Scot. I don't care to say anything more about it, though, because I feel that introductory pieces should not spoil story lines. Someone named J. 1. M. Stewart almost ruined Vanity Fair for me that way years ago.
This was not one of my experimental books, such as Creatures of Light and Darkness, Doorways in the Sand, Bridge of Ashes, Roadmarks or Eye of Cat. Those are the five wherein I worked out lots of techniques I used in many of the others. This was a more workmanlike job in that I knew exactly what I wanted to do and how to do it, with the protagonist-as usual-indicating the direction. Of the five, only Creatures of Light and Darkness preceded Jack of Shadows. Looking back upon jack in this light, I do feel that I might have gained a certain facility there for the brief, impressionistic description of the exotic which could have carried over into both Nine Princes and Jack. And maybe not. But if it owes it anything, that's it.
It is interesting to me, too, in looking at a story across the years this way, to see it in terms of what came after as well as what preceded it. I do feel that the shadow of Jack fell upon the protagonist of Today We Choose Faces. Also, there is something of Jack's sardonic attitude as well as his caution in the later tales of Dilvish the Damned-another wrongfully punished man whose character was twisted by the act.
I have also been asked several times whether the name that Jack assumes Dayside-Jonathan Shade-owes anything to the character of that name in Nabokov's Pale Fire. Sorry. While I do enjoy playing an occasional literary puzzle game, I wrote Jack of Shadows before I came to PALE FIRE.
And yes, I did once do a short graphic prequel to this book ("Shadowjack") in collaboration with artist Gray Morrow, in The Illustrated Roger Zelazny. And no, nothing in that story is essential to the understanding or enjoyment of this one. It is a minor piece, and totally independent. So this is the story that Jack built-with a little help from me on the paperwork. Picture him if you will as a Figure on a playing card. Make it a Tarot. Maybe the Broken Tower...
IT HAPPENED WHEN Jack whose name is spoken in shadow went to Igles, in the Twilight Lands, to visit the Hellgames. It was there that he was observed while considering the situation of the Hellflame.
The Hellflame was a slim urn of silvery fires, gracefully wrought and containing a fist-sized ruby at the uppermost tips of its blazing fingers. These held it in an unbreakable grip, and the gemstone glimmered coolly despite them.
Now, the Hellflame was on display for all to regard, but the fact that Jack was seen looking at it was cause for much consternation. Newly arrived in Igles, he was first noticed while passing amid lanterns, in line with the other on-lookers, who were moving through the open-sided display pavilion. He was recognized by Smage and Quazer, who had left their places of power to come to compete for the trophy. They immediately moved to report him to the Games Master.
Smage shifted his weight from foot to foot and tugged at his mustache until the tears rose in his squarish eyes and he began to blink. He stared up at his giant companion Quazer-hair, eyes, flesh all of a uniform gray-rather than regard the colorful bulk of Benoni, the Games Master, whose will was law in this place.
"What do you two want?" he inquired.
Smage continued to stare and blink until Quazer finally spoke in his flute-like fashion.
"We have information for you," he said.
"I hear you. Tell it," replied Benoni.
"We have recognized one whose presence here should be cause for some concern."
"We must move near to a light before I may tell you."
The Games Master twisted his head on his bulging neck, and his amber eyes flashed as he glared first at the one, then at the other.
"If this is some sort of prank-" he began.
"It is not," said Quazer unflinchingly.
"Very well, then. Follow me." He sighed; and with a swirl of his orange and green cloak, he turned and headed toward a brightly illuminated tent.
Inside, he faced them once again. "Is this bright enough for you?"
Quazer looked about. "Yes," he said. "He will not overhear us."
"Who are you talking about?" asked the Games Master.
"Do you know of one called Jack, who always hears his name if it is spoken in shadows?"
"Jack of Shadows? The thief?-Yes, I've heard stories."
"That is why we wished to speak with you in a brightly lit place. He is here. Smage and I saw him only a few minutes ago. He was studying the Hellflame."
"Oh my!" The Games Master's eyes were wide and his mouth remained open after the exclamation. "He'll steal it!" he said.
Smage stopped touching his mustache long enough to nod several times. "... And we're here to try to win it," he blurted. "We can't if it is stolen."
"He must be stopped," said the Games Master. "What do you think I should do?"
"Your will is the law here," said Quazer.
"True... Perhaps I should confine him to some lock-up for the duration of the Games."
"In that case," said Quazer, "make certain that there are no shadows in the place where he is captured or in the place where he is to be confined. He is said to be exceedingly difficult to contain-especially in the presence of shadows."
"But there are shadows all over the place!'
"Yes. That is the main difficulty in keeping him prisoner."
"Then either brilliant lights or total darkness would seem to be the answer."
"But unless all the lights are set at perfect angles," said Quazer, "and inaccessible, he will be able to create shadows with which to work. And in darkness, if he can strike but just the smallest light, there will be shadows."
"What strength does he derive from shadows?"
"I know of no one who knows for certain."
"He is a darksider, then? Not human?"
"Some say twilight, but close to the dark- where there are always shadows."
"In that case, a trip to the Dung Pits of Glyve might be in order."
"Cruel," said Smage, and he chuckled.
"Come point him out to me," said the Games Master.
They departed from the tent. The sky was gray overhead, changing to silver in the east and black in the west. Stars dotted the darkness above a row of stalagmitical mountains. There were no clouds.
They moved along the torchlit way that crossed the compound, heading toward the pavilion of the Hellflame. There was a flicker of lightning in the west, near, it seemed, to that place on the boundary where the shrines of the helpless gods stood.
As they neared the open side of the pavilion, Quazer touched Benoni's arm and nodded. The Games Master followed the direction of his gesture with his eyes to where a tall, thin man stood leaning against a tent pole. His hair was black, his complexion swarthy, his features somewhat aquiline. He wore gray garments, and a black cloak was draped over his right shoulder. He smoked some darkside weed rolled into a tube, and its smoke was blue in the torchlight.
For a moment Benoni studied him, sensing that feeling men know when confronting a creature born, not of woman but of an unknown darkstroke, in that place men shunned.
He swallowed once, then said, "All right. You may go now."
"We would like to help-" Quazer began.
"You may go now!"
He watched them depart and then muttered, "Trust one of them to betray another."
He went to collect his guard force and several dozen bright lanterns.
Jack accompanied the arresting party without offering resistance or argument. Surrounded by a party of armed men and caught at the center of a circle of light, he nodded slowly and followed their instructions, not saying a word al] the while.
They conducted him to the Games Master's brightly lighted tent. He was pushed before the table at which Benoni sat. The guards moved to surround him once more with their lanterns and shadow-destroying mirrors.
"Your name is Jack," said the Games Master.
"I don't deny it."
Benoni stared into the man's dark eyes. They did not waver. The man did not blink them at all.
"... And you are sometimes called Jack of Shadows." There was silence. "Well?"
"A man may be called many things," Jack replied.
Benoni looked away. "Bring them in," he said to one of the guards.
The guard departed, and moments later he returned with Smage and Quazer. Jack flicked a glance in their direction but remained expressionless.
"Do you know this man?" Benoni inquired.
"Yes," they said in unison.
"But you are wrong in calling him a man," Quazer continued, "for he is a darksider."
He is called Jack of Shadows."
The Games Master smiled.
"It is true that a man may be called many things," he said, "but in your case there seems to be considerable agreement. -I am Benoni, Master of the Hellgames, and you are Jack of Shadows, the thief. I'd wager you are here to steal the Hellflame." There was silence again. "... You need not deny it or affirm it," he continued. "Your presence is ample indication of your intentions."
"I might have come to compete in the games," Jack ventured.
"Of course! Of course!" he said, swabbing away a tear with his sleeve. "Only there is no larceny event, so we lack a category in which you may compete."
"You prejudge me-and that is unfair," said Jack. "Even if I am he who you have named, I have done nothing to give offense."
"-Yet," said Benoni. "The Hellflame is indeed a lovely object, is it not?"
Jack's eyes seemed to brighten for an instant as his mouth twitched toward an unwilling smile
"Most would agree on that point," he said quickly.
"And you came here to win it-in your own fashion. You are known as a most monstrous thief, darksider."
"Does that rule out my being an honest spectator at a public event?"
"When the Hellflame is involved-yes. It is priceless, and both lightsiders and darksiders lust after it. As Games Master, I cannot countenance your presence anywhere near it."
"That is the trouble with bad reputations," said Jack. "No matter what you do, you are always suspect."
"Enough! Did you come to steal it?"
"Only a fool would say yes."
"Then it is impossible to get an honest answer from you."
"If by 'honest answer' you mean for me to say what you want me to say, whether or not it is true, then I would say that you are correct."
"Bind his hands behind his back," said Benoni.
This was done. "How many lives do you have, darksider?" the Games Master asked.
Jack did not reply.
"Come, come now! Everyone knows that darksiders have more than one life. How many have you?"
"I don't like the sound of this," said Jack.
"It is not as if you would be dead forever."
"It is a long way back from the Dung Pits of Glyve at the Western Pole of the world, and one must walk. It sometimes takes years to constitute a new body."
"Then you've been there before?"
"Yes," said Jack, testing his bonds, "and I'd rather not have to do it again."
"Then you admit that you have at least one more life. Good! In that case, I feel no compunction in ordering your immediate execution-"
"Wait!" said Jack, tossing his head and showing his teeth. "This is ridiculous, since I have done nothing. But forget that. Whether or not I came here to steal the Hellflame, I am obviously in no position to do it now. Release me, and I will voluntarily exile myself for the duration of the Hellgames. I will not enter Twilight at all, but will remain in Darkness."
"What assurance have I of this?"
Benoni laughed again.
"The word of a darksider who is a piece of criminal folklore?" he finally said. "No, Jack. I see no way to assure the safety of the trophy but by your death. As it is within my power to order it, I do so.-Scribe! Let it be written that at this hour I have judged and ordered this thing."
A ring-bearded hunchback, whose squint made lines on a face as brittle as the parchment he took up, flourished a quill and began to write.
Jack drew himself to his full height and fixed the Games Master with his half-lidded eyes.
"Mortal man," he began, "you fear me be cause you do not understand me. You are a daysider with but one life in you, and when that is gone, you will have no more. We of darkness are said not to have souls, such as you are alleged to possess.' We do, however, live many times, by means of a process which you cannot share. I say that you are jealous of this, that you mean to deprive me of a life. Know that dying is just as hard for one of us as it is for one of you."
The Games Master dropped his eyes.
"It is not-" he began.
"Accept my offer," Jack interrupted, "to absent myself from your games. Allow your order to be fulfilled, and it will be you who will be the ultimate loser."
The hunchback stopped writing and turned toward Benoni.
"Jack," said the Games Master, "you did come to steal it, didn't you?"
"Of course I did."
"Why? It would be hard to dispose of. It is so distinctive-"
"It was for a friend to whom I owe a favor. He desired the bauble. Release me and I will tell him that I failed, which will be no less than the truth."
"I do not seek your wrath upon your return-"
"What you seek will mean little compared to what you will receive, if you make that trip necessary."
"... Yet a man in my position cannot readily bring himself to trust one who is also known as Jack of Liars."
"Then my word means nothing to you?"
"I am afraid not." And to the scribe he said, "Continue your writing."
"... And my threats mean nothing?"
"They cause me some concern. But I must weigh your vengeance-several years removed- against the immediate penalties I will suffer if the Hellflame is stolen. Try to understand my position. Jack."
"I do indeed," he said, turning toward Smage and Quazer. "You of the jackass ears and you- gynandromorph!-neither will you be forgotten!"
Smage looked at Quazer, and Quazer batted his eyelashes and smiled. "You may tell it to our patron, the Lord of Bats," he said.
Jack's face changed as his ancient enemy's name was spoken.
Because magic is slowed in Twilight, where science begins, it was perhaps half a minute before a bat entered the tent and passed between them. During this time, Quazer had said, "We compete beneath the banner of the Bat."
Jack's laughter was broken by the creature's passage. When he saw it, he lowered his head and the muscles at the hinges of his jaws tightened.
The silence that followed was interrupted only by the scratching of the quill.
Then, "So be it," said Jack.
They took Jack to the center of the compound, where the man named Blite stood with his huge axe. Jack looked away quickly, and licked his lips. Then his eyes were drawn irresistibly back to the blade's bright edge.
Before he was asked to kneel at the chopping block, the air about him came alive with leathery missiles that he knew to be a horde of dancing bats. More of them poured in from the west, but they moved too quickly to cast him shadows that mattered.
He cursed then, knowing that his enemy had sent his minions to mock him in his passing.
When it came to a theft, he generally succeeded. He was irritated at having to lose one of his lives on a sloppy job. After all, he was who he was ...
He knelt and lowered his head.
As he waited, he wondered whether it was true that the head retained consciousness for a second or two after being severed from the body. He attempted to dismiss it, but the thought kept returning.
But could it be, he wondered, more than simply a botched job? If the Lord of Bats had laid a trap, it could only mean that one thing.