Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Camber the Heretic, Chapters 8-9

Welcome to the weekly reread of Camber the Heretic!

Last week saw the end (at last) of Cinhil the reluctant King. This time we attend two very different councils: the human regents make their move, and the Deryni scramble to deal with it.

 

Camber the Heretic: Chapters 8-9

Here’s What Happens: Camber comes to after his vision of Cinhil’s passage into the light, to a worried family and a (possibly intentional) echo of Mark Twain from Joram: “Is he dead?”

Camber’s response is wry and distinctly ironic. They all compare notes. Nobody but Camber saw the passage of Cinhil, just the breaking of the circle.

Camber pulls everyone back to reality. They have to inform Alroy he’s now king, and clean up the ritual site, so no one will know what happened there. Cleanup includes spiriting the boys back to their beds, so they can be woken there with the news of their father’s death.

Joram has one last question before they go their separate ways. Did Cinhil find out about Camber and Alister? Yes, Camber replies with a tear in his eye. And when Joram asks the next question: Yes, Cinhil accepted it.

Joram is greatly comforted by this.

Camber, left alone, takes a moment to be awed at his own strength, to have endured what he endured. He gets a literal shock in the process, and concludes that the sacred Host protected him during his journey beyond the veil, and that it’s not his time. God still has work for him to do.

Camber has never suffered from an excess of humility.

Camber finishes cleaning up the chapel, finally carrying a supernaturally light Cinhil to his bed. Then he opens the door and lets Jebediah know it’s over.

Jeb is grieving, of course. He does so for a little while, then focuses on what has to be done next. Princes first. Then the regents—bearing in mind that once their council meets, the king’s Deryni officials will probably be relieved of their positions.

Finally he asks if he can do anything for Camber. Camber is touched, but sends him on his way.

Dear Jebediah. So deeply and latently in love with Alister/Camber.

Meanwhile, back in the nursery, the younger generation of the Camber family sneak the princes back into their beds, one by one and in detail, with magical backup. Rhys takes a little extra time to make sure Tavis is well under and completely enspelled.

Then they go back through the secret passage to Camber, and brace themselves for the deluge.

It begins slowly, with the sound of horses—messengers carrying word of the king’s death around the kingdom—and the tolling of bells. Then people start arriving, including Murdoch and company. Murdoch is leading the new king, Alroy, who is very sleepy.

The regents are a villainous-looking crew, especially at this late hour. While the princes react in their various ways, Rhys zaps Camber a summary of what he did to Tavis. Camber files it for later.

Camber makes sure he’s the first to salute poor befuddled Alroy as king. Then he kindly leads the child to his father’s body and forces him to accept a “gift” from the dead king: the Ring of Fire. This triggers the Haldane magic, though Alroy isn’t aware of it.

Just doing what Deryni do, and Camber most of all: coercing the humans for their own good.

Once the magic is set, the too-large ring can come off Alroy’s finger and into his hand. He’s very grateful for the gift. Maybe his son can wear it at his coronation, Camber says, ever so sweetly. Alroy wonders, poignantly, if he will ever have a son.

Just as Camber gets going with “Of course you shall,” Murdoch yanks the child away. Camber sets about being diplomatic. Murdoch is all soft snarls and threats. The regency council is in charge, he makes sure Camber knows.

The council will meet tomorrow. Murdoch continues to be not so subtly threatening. He’s up to something, Camber can tell.

Murdoch sweeps everyone out. Camber, left alone once again, promises the dead king he’ll do what he can for the king’s sons. He’s too grief-stricken for much more. Finally Joram puts him to bed.

Next day, with much setup and detail, the regency council meets. Only Jaffray and Camber are Deryni. This, Camber thinks, is not good.

Alroy is looking young and frail. He’s wearing the Eye of Rom (with a false memory of the king having given each of his sons an earring a few days before) and has the Ring of Fire on a chain around his neck. The sword of state, which has been imbued with magic, sits in front of him.

Camber appreciates the irony of the human regents swearing fealty on a magical sword. He sweeps in with an air of confidence, to find Murdoch and the other human regents in a huddle. Murdoch is quite rude.

This is not looking good. Jeb, entering with the Deryni Bishop Kai, concurs. Murdoch is a little too pleased with himself, Jeb observes.

They speculate as to what Earl Ewan is doing there. Replacing Jeb as Marshal, Camber suspects. Jeb concurs with that, too.

Jaffray arrives. Alroy is not welcoming. This is also bad news. He’s been indoctrinated by the anti-Deryni faction, Camber is sure.

Murdoch takes charge and tells Jebediah to convene the council. Jeb does so.

Murdoch, smirking, announces the composition of the council: the four humans who were already known. Then he springs the trap we’ve seen coming since the beginning: the document Cinhil signed under cover of something else. Any four regents can expel a fifth “if they unanimously judge him to be incompatible.”

And of course, that fifth is Camber/Alister. Earl Ewan is his replacement.

Camber keeps his cool, to the point of ice—assisted by Alister’s ice-colored eyes. He asks to see the document.

Murdoch keeps right on smirking. Naturally the document is in order, even though Camber knows it’s got to be a trick.

Camber for once in his life is flummoxed. Everyone else reviews the document and agrees, it looks legitimate. Camber allows as how he has to accept it. Rule of law and all that.

Once that’s taken care of, Murdoch orders Jaffray to swear in the regents. Jaffray can’t very well refuse.

Then it gets worse. The old council has to resign, and that disposes of the Deryni, except for Jaffray, who can’t be forced out. Joram wonders mentally what Camber will do now. Camber has no idea, except keep his head down and make a strategic retreat.

He plays it for maximum drama, with the flat stare and the long, long pause and the slow, slow removal of the chain of office.

Then he makes a totally Machivellian speech to poor confused Alroy, about how he would have been honored to serve the new king, but the regents didn’t think so, and he hopes they’ll serve Alroy as selflessly as Camber served Cinhil.

He finishes with an address to the regents, leaning hard on the old king’s wishes and wisdom and responsibility and good faith. Hubert gets all fanatical and “Are you threatening us?”

Oh, no, says Camber. Just warning. There’s a lot at stake, you know. Don’t be selfish. “We’ll be watching you, my lords.”

Rhun (the Ruthless) snaps back in kind. Camber doesn’t engage. As he bows and gets ready to leave, Jebediah offers Alroy his fealty and also warns him about selfish servants, and promises to be available if Alroy ever has need.

Alroy has no idea what’s happening. All the Deryni bow and leave, and meet outside. Camber calls a more organized meeting for tonight—that would be the Camberian Council, we can surmise.

Kai comes out in a right temper. Camber calms him down. He allows as how he’d best get out of Valoret and go back to being an itinerant bishop. It won’t be safe here. Baron Torcuill agrees. They’re all concerned for Jaffray—they don’t think he’ll last long among these humans.

Torcuill sums it up: “This is no place for a Deryni to be.”

The chapter ends with Camber worrying over this, and wondering what will happen to them all.

Chapter 9 sees Camber waking from a refreshing nap. It’s night, and Camber feels comfortable enough to ponder his experience at Cinhil’s passing, including the long con he had to run in order to stay close to the king he made.

He takes his time doing it, then we get a rare-for-this-book infodump about the Camberian Council. We learn how and when it was founded, who its members are, and the fact that one of them died in a fall, so instead of eight there are seven; the eighth has not been replaced. Jebediah joked that the empty seat was reserved for Saint Camber—knowing of course that the saint is a fraud—but the members who don’t know the truth leaped on the idea. So it became a thing.

Camber hurries off to the Portal in Jaffray’s apartments, where we get an in-depth view of his magical lock-picking and his equally magical use of the Portal.

Jaffray is waiting on the other side, all nervous and apologetic about the regency council. Camber calms him down. He says Tammaron was given Camber’s office—Camber expected that. They underestimated Murdoch; there’s not much to be done.

Jebediah is waiting at the door of the Council chamber with Jesse, and Camber’s two grandsons, who have been policing the roads to keep Deryni hooliganism in check. Camber deduces that Rhys and Evaine have left it up to him to decide whether Deryni power-suppression technique should be revealed outside the Council. Camber is good with that.

He goes past them into the elaborate, and lovingly described, chamber. Gregory is there with Joram and Evaine, and is thrilled to see “Alister.” He doesn’t remember a thing about his recovery from the riding accident.

There’s some backing and filling and extended setup, and Camber gets the others’ approval to bring the visitors in.

While they wait for Rhys, they share various bits of news, including Alister’s ouster from the regency council. The young folk are shocked and appalled. As they chew this over, Rhys finally arrives.

There follows a (mercifully short) summary of the minutes of the meeting, until they get to the main issue: the removal of Deryni powers. Gregory is distinctly testy about his induced amnesia. Rhys is apologetic, but also quietly proud of what he managed to do.

Jaffray is actively concerned about it. He’s a Gabrilite, with access to major arcane lore, and he’s never heard of such a thing.

The debate goes back and forth. Is it like giving power to a Haldane? Is it totally different?

Grandson Davin breaks in. He had no clue about the Haldane power ritual. His Aunt Evaine explains. Jeb asks if Rhys could give powers to any human. Nope, says Rhys. Haldanes are Special.

Jeb shifts the discussion back to the removal of Deryni powers. Or is it a blockage? Camber asks. If the latter, it’s maybe not so bad.

They debate the pros and cons of shutting off powers. And also rationalize a big question readers probably had, which is if Deryni are so powerful, why humans could get near them at all. Numbers, Camber explains. Enough humans with swords would leave the far less numerous Deryni no time to limber up the magical powers. Not to mention that use of powers would only confirm the humans’ conviction that Deryni are the Devil.

This segues into the question of whether a Deryni in Off mode is detectable as such, and what about drugs that only act on Deryni but not on humans? Rhys is the expert here. The best option, he says, is to suppress knowledge of such drugs. Meanwhile he’ll do tests to see if the drugs work on a blocked Deryni.

This gets jokey as Jeb and the Camber offspring lightly volunteer to be test subjects. Evaine is actually intelligent here, in among blowing kisses—presenting various options and alternatives, and proposing that this might all be moot if it’s just something odd in Gregory.

Camber and Jaffray want to bring in someone else with Healer training, to help with the tests. Evaine pulls them up short. This needs to stay strictly within the Council. If the humans find out, it will get very bloody very fast.

The men all gasp and gape, until Jebediah pulls the man card. She’s right, but maaayyyyyybe she’s just a little biased, being Rhys’ wife and all. Evaine stands up for herself, but the big man bulldozes on past her to minimize the whole power-suppression issue and make the meeting all about the roving bands of Deryni raiders.

Camber goes for it. The discussion veers off toward hooliganism and how to identify and stop the culprits. That’s what the visitors are here for, after all.

The meeting adjourns. Joram briefs the nephews via mind-whammy, and Camber tackles Jesse, who is new to the procedure.

Camber briefs Jesse, brilliantly and easily, of course, and in detail. Jesse is loving it. Not only that: he knows who the “young toughs” are. He and the nephews will get right on it.

As the chapter ends, Camber and Joram have another little bonding moment. Jesse is ever so well trained, Camber says. He’d be a menace if he had Michaeline or Gabrilite training.

Joram teases him. There’s grinning and arms around shoulders. Camber is quite upbeat. Let’s get to bed, he says gaily. “Lord knows what those bloody regents will have in store for us tomorrow!”

 

And I’m Thinking: Well, that’s nice and devil-may-care. Camber is singularly unperturbed here, despite all the lip-service paid to the human danger and the Deryni-hooligan problem. Not to mention those awful regents. He’s just so far above it all, it hardly touches him.

And yet in the previous chapter, he seems to honestly grieve for Cinhil—a bit of a stretch considering how out of patience he usually was with the man, but I guess over a dozen years of constant association, plus the Alister part of him, has made its mark.

He has definitely been outmaneuvered by the regents—and deserves to be. He has far too high an opinion of himself. It makes him oblivious to the possibility that he might not always be the smartest person in the room.

Poor little Alroy. He’s so weak and confused. Camber tries to help, but aside from tripping the power switch (which he forced Cinhil to install), he doesn’t do much. He’s backed himself into a corner.

As for the “Deryni can’t do anything against masses of humans” argument, I think there’s some merit in it—Deryni magic relies heavily on elaborate and time-consuming ritual—but I also wonder if the ritual is actually necessary. Was it invented, maybe, to control Deryni, and keep them from simply rampaging across the world?

Because I’ve observed before, Deryni are pretty horrible as a species. They’re very much given to treating humans like domestic animals, and they can be as beastly to each other as they are to humans. So much of what they do relies in mind-rape and coercion. Even Healing has that darker component.

In any case, they are, willfully or not, pretty much powerless against the storm that’s coming. What the Council is trying to do is either run a last-ditch defense with Rhys’ power-blockage, or try to patch the dike by catching and punishing rogue Deryni.

There’s no thought at all of enlisting human help, or trusting humans not to be murderous bigots. If they can’t turn the humans into a sort of mega-Deryni in the Haldane mode, there’s nothing to be done but hunker down and wait for the pitchforks.

That seems terribly limited and short-sighted to me. But I’m human after all.

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 new short novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, has just been published by Book View Cafe. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, some of which have been published 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.

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