Welcome to the weekly reread of Camber of Culdi! Last time, Camber joined the rebellion, and Coel conspired to frame Cathan for murder.
This week, Imre runs tragically out of control, disrupting plans on all sides.
Camber of Culdi: Chapters 10-12
Here’s What Happens: Chapter 10 picks up directly where Chapter 9 left off, with Imre shocked by Coel’s revelation that Cathan ordered Lord Maldred’s murder. Coel slithers and whispers and insinuates, until he has Imre convinced Cathan really wants to kill him.
Imre’s reaction actually makes Coel nervous. The king wants no official punishment. Imre burns the incriminating document and swears Coel to absolute secrecy. Then he orders Coel to summon Cathan to his chambers before tonight’s feast. As Coel leaves, he hears the king weeping.
Cathan obeys the king’s order. The narrative takes its time getting him to the room, describing the room, describing Cathan alone in the room, musing at length on how life and friendship have changed.
Eventually Imre appears, startling Cathan. Cathan begs pardon, though he has no idea what he’s done. Imre strings him out, tells him Maldred is dead. Cathan is startled, but he can see Imre is up to something. He treads very carefully. Imre is very volatile, very quick to lash out. Cathan swears he never blamed Imre for the peasants’ deaths.
They come to an awkward sort of detente. Imre observes, quite casually, that Cathan has been “implicated” in Rannulf’s death. Cathan is honest about his dislike of the man and his policies. Imre counters with the fact that Rannulf was “noble, Cathan, noble.”
They discuss the nature of nobility and the proper death for a nobleman. Imre is meditative. He beckons Cathan to him, all sweetness and lingering regret.
And stabs him in the heart.
Coel finds him with Cathan dead in his arms. Imre is all torn up between “having” to kill Cathan and being profoundly appalled that he did it.
Coel has to be very, very careful. This is not the turn of events he was trying to orchestrate. He has to play Imre’s veer off the script to his advantage, and convince Imre that Cathan’s whole family is a threat. Imre is terrified by what Camber will say. Coel keeps pressing the idea that Cathan was not the only danger, and talks Imre around to presenting Cathan’s death as a sudden collapse. The wound doesn’t exist, he declares, if Imre says it doesn’t, and the body has to be sent home to the family.
Coel treats the king like a bomb about to go off. After he’s organized the cleanup, he returns to find the king drunk and smashing wine glasses. He’s trashed his dressing room and terrorized his servants, and suddenly decided to wear scarlet instead of the previously and universally prescribed winter white.
Coel gets rid of the servants and sorts the king out. Before the king goes down to dinner, Coel has one last thing for him to do: approve Coel’s orders about Camber. The king, Coel realizes, is not in fact drunk. Imre signs the order without reading it. Coel points out that he could have written anything. Imre responds, “Not even you would dare that.”
The barbed conversation continues. Imre refers to Cathan’s “foul murder.” Coel counters with “sad demise,” unfortunate but necessary. Then he escorts the king to dinner.
It is not a happy occasion. The king is drastically late. Ariella has already begun the banquet. Imre’s attire is shocking and his drunken behavior more so. Ariella is annoyed. Imre spins off into crazy grief, starts throwing glassware, orders everyone out, then storms off to his rooms. Ariella takes off after him, but can’t get in; she decamps to her own chambers.
Imre is utterly beside himself. He makes his way eventually to Ariella and confesses the murder. She comforts him. Comfort quickly turns to something very different. It’s the first time, evidently, but it’s presented as inevitable—and fully consensual.
Chapter 11 opens with the arrival of Cathan’s body at Caerrorie. The family already knows: Cathan’s body squire brought the news in the night. We get a flashback in the squire’s viewpoint. His name is Crinan, and apparently he’s human, since he notices that Camber already seems to know what’s happened, and perceives this knowledge as uncanny and Deryni. Camber makes sure the rest of the family including Joram gets the news, and sends everyone to bed.
The timeline shifts back to the morning, with everyone waiting, in detail, for the body to arrive. The king’s lieutenant is annoyed by the way all the people line the road and bow as the bier passes—that’s a royal salute—but he’s too afraid of Camber to do anything about it.
Camber does not do anything violent. He takes possession of the body and politely but firmly shuts the king’s men out of the village church where Joram celebrates the funeral Mass.
The view shifts to Camber as he realizes the king’s men are still there during the funeral. He worries that they’re all about to be arrested, and wonders what the king knows.
He has a plan, and he still intends to execute it. He sends a page away unobtrusively, and the view shifts to Rhys, who wonders what’s going on.
The juggling of grief and politics continues. Camber brings Rhys with him to the sacristy, where Joram, finished with the Mass, has taken time to mourn. Camber needs to know what Joram told Cathan—which was nothing.
Camber thinks Imre suspects something. There’s no other explanation for Cathan’s death. Joram and Rhys to have to ride to St. Foillan’s immediately and extract Cinhil.
The logistics are challenging. They can’t use the Transfer Portal—it’s in the castle and the guards are right outside the church. They’re not expected in Dhassa, where they’ll all be safe from Imre, for three weeks. There’s an underground passage which ever so conveniently has an access door in this exact room, and the page is waiting at the other end with horses and supplies.
Joram wants to know how Camber will explain his absence. Camber won’t: Joram will still be there.
Rhys is clueless. Joram is horrified. This is a terribly immoral and deceitful plan, whatever it is. Camber is coolly implacable. They have to do this. There is no choice. “We’ve gone too far to stop now.”
Joram is furious. Rhys is still clueless. Camber remains immovable. It was their plan, but he’s totally on board now, and totally in charge.
“Concedo,” says Joram.
Finally Camber explains to Rhys what’s going on. This is about shape-changing. That’s black magic, Rhys says. Not exactly, says Camber. It’s more grey. End justifies means and all that. (Our world has Machiavelli. Theirs has Camber.)
Camber is going to change two servants into Joram and Rhys. One will be Crinan, the other will be Wulpher the steward. They’re loyal and they’re “somewhat used to magic.”
Joram is still sulky. There’s still the burial rite, and Wulpher is not a priest. Camber has a comeback for that, too. Camber is not backing down.
He sends the confused and anxious Rhys to fetch the servants. Rhys is all a-shiver about practicing forbidden magic.
The rite is another of Kurtz’s elaborate liturgical-style rituals, with wards in place as Rhys comes back with the servants. Wulpher is all devoted and servile. Camber is all understanding and “I need this service of you” and so on and so forth. They’re both wide-eyed and awed.
Camber tells them what he’ll be doing with them. They’re dubious. Camber lets them know it involves magic. They’re even more dubious. Camber assures them they’ll be safe, it will be fine, there’s nothing to worry about. Wulpher falls to his knees and is all faithful and servant-y. Crinan wants to be sure this isn’t about killing the king. Not at all, says Camber. That’s all right, then, says Crinan.
With a little further backing and forthing and exchanging of clothes, the ritual finally begins. Camber is in charge, with Rhys in telepathic link. Rhys shifts first, with much surprise and amazement.
Camber is exhausted, but chuffed. No evil. “Joram will be pleased.”
There’s some considerable time devoted to Crinan being all amazed and wow and gee, and then he’s sent off to play at being Rhys, and it’s Joram and Wulpher’s turn. It’s all very wow.
Rhys goes off to spy on his double, feeling weird and uncomfortable about the whole thing. Then Camber and faux Joram emerge, ignoring him, and go to join faux Rhys in the church. Real Joram beckons him back into the sacristy, and off they go to St. Foillan’s. No tunnel adventure. Just off and out.
Chapter 12 returns to the funeral service and the burial. The royal guards are remarkably sympathetic, but they’re still there. They camp for the night in the castle yard.
Evaine joins her father in his study, and they “communed as only two Deryni might.” Then she follows him trustingly through the Transfer Portal to an unknown place: “the Michaeline Commanderie at Cheltham.”
Evaine wonders if the Vicar General will be happy to see them. Probably not, says Camber. Evaine works on keeping calm in the confined and exitless place. There’s no way out but through the Portal, and the air is getting harder to breathe.
Eventually a wall opens on men with swords, all very martial and alarming until they recognize Camber. They’re ushered into the presence of the bluff soldier Alister Cullen, who is not exactly thrilled with this new alliance, and who was not expecting to see Camber tonight.
Camber explains that there’s been a change in plans. Joram and Rhys will be there in four days, and Cathan is dead.
Cullen is shocked and deeply grieved. Camber tells him what happened—and yes, they examined the body and found the wound. He explains the rest as well, including the shape-changing spell.
Cullen is a practical man. He doesn’t condone it but he understands it. They work out the logistics of moving the whole family plus the two disguised servants to sanctuary, and allowing for a Plan B if Imre catches on before Joram and Rhys can extract Cinhil from the monastery.
Cullen is on it. The Michaelines can make their move in three days if they have to. “Until the true king comes again,” says one of his loyal henchmen, “the Michaelines shall cease to exist.”
Camber is amazed. Cullen’s man is vehement in his antipathy toward Imre, “the usurping son of regicides.” They all agree that it’s time for a Haldane restoration.
Camber worries that Cinhil might not be willing. Cullen is confident he will, and asks what he can do to help with the departure from Caerrorie. But Evaine and Camber are on that.
As they wrap the meeting, Cullen allows as how Camber might keep the two servants disguised for a while, if they’ll agree. For insurance. Cullen isn’t comfortable with this, but as noted above: practical man.
He asks if there are Deryni among the king’s guards in Caerrorie. The lieutenant, Camber answers, and maybe others. Be careful, says Cullen.
Camber likes him. He asks Cullen to pray for all of them. Cullen is surprised. Clearly they have some history, but now, equally clearly, they’re on the same side.
Camber and Evaine transport back to the sacristy and find Cathan’s widow Elinor waiting in distress. The lieutenant wants to speak to Camber. There’s a blizzard brewing, and he wants to move his men into the hall.
Camber is less than thrilled. He hurries to put on a nightrobe and clear out his mind. “(After all, the man was a Deryni.)”
The lieutenant is restless and pacing. Camber moves smoothly to make excuses. Of course the guards can come inside, but he really does hope they’re not planning to stay “indefinitely.” Would the lieutenant be so kind as to define the term?
The lieutenant can’t. He’s to remain “until I receive further orders.”
Camber presses him for specifics. Is the family under arrest?
The lieutenant is very uncomfortable, and Camber isn’t letting up. So Cathan didn’t just collapse? The lieutenant can’t answer that, either.
Camber is courteous and grants the lieutenant his wish for shelter. On Camber’s way out, one of the king’s men, who looks vaguely familiar, high-signs him.
They meet in the shadows. It’s Guaire of Arliss, and of course Camber knows who he is. He tells Camber about Earl Maldred’s murder. Camber asks if he’s Deryni, but he isn’t. Camber pulls him away further, to a storage room, and asks if Guaire and Cathan had linked minds.
They had, and Camber begs permission to do the same. Guaire is a true friend. Camber picks up that Imre had something to do with Cathan’s death, and that Coel Howell was heavily involved.
He sends Guaire back to the hall, and Guaire promises to let him know when new orders arrive. Then Camber goes back through the hall, thinking about Joram and Rhys and grieving for his elder son.
And I’m thinking: So Camber goes out for no perceptible reason, then goes back in, with soldiers bowing and forelock-tugging along the way. Not suspicious at all. Nope. Uh-huh. And how very convenient that a nice, loyal young man is one of the royal watchdogs.
That’s not so well thought out. Nor is the whole telepathy thing. It shows up when it’s useful and otherwise it’s just sort of not there, and suddenly a Deryni commander is worrisome but he picks up nothing despite the heavy-duty magic going on right under his nose, not to mention all the people coming and going, openly and otherwise. It reminds me of cell phones before they became ubiquitous, when writers were figuring out how they worked, and hadn’t quite caught on yet to all the ramifications.
I have to give Camber props for actually asking permission to turn two servants into Joram and Rhys. You know he won’t let them refuse, but it’s nice of him to give them an illusion of choice.
These chapters otherwise are pretty heavy hitters. Imre flies off the rails, and suddenly Cathan is dead. Even wily Coel is caught off guard by that, and so is Imre. He is clearly not sane. And then he tops it off by going to bed with his sister.
He’s an interesting character. Everybody is nervous around him; he’s dangerous and unpredictable and ultimately deadly. But he obviously loves Cathan, and he grieves terribly for the loss.
None of it bodes well for anyone under his power. He would be almost too much—it’s obvious we need a huge honking reason for the conspiracy to restore the Haldanes—but it actually works. Imre is weirdly sympathetic even while he’s hateful enough that we’ll all cheer if and when he bites the dust.
On the other hand I’m finding it hard to feel anything about Cathan’s death. Obviously it’s a huge tragedy for his family, and it’s a strong precipitating event for the Haldane Restoration, but he’s such a manifest idiot and so blindly loyal to the monstrous Imre that it almost feels as if he had it coming. He’s literally too stupid to live.
The other great tragedy of the series so far, the magical murder of Bronwyn and Kevin in Deryni Checkmate, takes much longer to unfold and struck me much more strongly when it happened. It’s a more poignant situation and even though Bronwyn isn’t really any brighter than Cathan, she doesn’t go around begging to be killed, either. Cathan ought to realize how unstable Imre is, and take better precautions than he does.
He’s seriously outplayed by Coel, though the Coel versus Camber celebrity deathmatch is still ahead. It’s clear nobody is a twistier politician than Camber, and Camber has just had Enough.
Cathan is a plot device. He’s fridged, and the plot ramps up to full gear. Now the race is on to find Cinhil and convince him to take up his heritage before Imre (or Coel) catches on.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, a medieval fantasy that owed a great deal to Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni books, appeared in 1985. Her most recent novel, Forgotten Suns, a space opera, was published by Book View Café in 2015, and she’s currently completing a sequel. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies, some of which have been reborn as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed spirit dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.