Ariel entered the great hall at Bleys' side, undaunted by the scale and finery. Her poise was polished by years of dance and state functions, her expression one of confidence and mild amusement. She took a moment to observe the setting and note the clusters where important people gather.
(Imogen looked across the room, noticing the woman on Bleys' arm. Not a member of the Guild ... Yet her face was a little familiar.)
The room could have easily catered to a hundred - more if one foregoed dancing. But right now, there was one table in the center, long, set for more than a dozen. Servants tended to a buffet against one wall, while a handful of men and women gathered around the table - talking, drinking, or simply sitting quietly.
Ariel heard footsteps behind her. She turned and saw a young man, sullen and perhaps in his late teens. He nodded to Bleys but then looked at Ariel, a moment of confusion crossing his features.
"Um... hello..." He said, trying his hardest not to stare at her red hair.
Ariel brushed her fingers through her hair and told the young man, "I got it from my mother." She grinned and introduced herself, "I'm Ariel."
(Lillian paused as they both noticed Bleys and Ariel enter. Imogen heard her mutter under her breath, "Oh dear lord... Someone hide Martin. He has another daughter....")
("Oh!" Imogen said, enlightened. "Yes, of course! I was assuming she was his latest licensed sex therapist... I mean needlewoman.")
"Mother?" replied Mouse, sticking out his hand awkwardly. "You mean... Fiona? You're Fiona's daughter?"
"Do we have any other red-headed femmes in residence?" shot back Bleys, picking off an imaginary speck of dust from his clothes. "Ariel, this is Justar... Justar, Ariel... And over there, as you can see, we have Corwin and Imogen, their children, Jolyon and Rissa. Oh, there's Caine, next to him Flora, then Gerard... And the one next to Caine is Lillian. Not family, but close enough."
Ariel shook Justar's hand warmly, "Don't worry, Justar. You're not the first person today who was surprised I had a mother. You're a cousin of mine, are you not?"
"Um, actually," Justar seemed embarrassed as he rubbed his neck. "I'm your uncle. I was, uh, kind of fostered, out in shadow... And they found me a few years back."
"Truly?" Ariel asked, "What kind of shadow was it? Or was there more than one?"
"More than one? Nah. Just a kind of tech shadow, or that's what Random would call it." Justar hemmed and hawed for a moment while they wandered to the buffet. "Um... So... How's your mom doing? Better? Is she coming to dinner?"
Ariel quickly took note of the people Bleys pointed out. Returning her attention to Justar, she replied "I'm afraid Mother's attention is elsewhere tonight. She didn't seem quite right when we last spoke."
"Oh." Justar swirled his drink, struggling for something to say. He was rescued from the futility of the search when Bleys gave him a wide, white smile and whisked off Ariel. "Seats, my lad. It seems dinner is ready! Ariel... why don't you mingle with your cousins? I've business with Corwin." He glanced at one of the seats, empty, next to Lillian.
"Yes, Uncle Bleys," Ariel said obediently.
Ariel told Justar "I'm not comfortable with it either. But for now..." she shrugged slightly. "Now is a time to learn. Perhaps we'll have the opportunity to talk more later." Ariel grinned back at him as she headed towards the seat next to Lillian, "Now I have to see if I can get into some real trouble."
Lillian looked up, smiling, though there was a practiced unease there. A mistrust that flared up behind the flash of her grin. She raised her glass slightly as Ariel joined her. "So... We're welcoming a new cousin as well as Aunt?"
"Looks like it," Ariel smiled back, "Although I'm just here informally tonight, as a guest. I'm Ariel, by the way," she said, seating herself.
A plate is placed in front of Ariel even before she was settled, and a glass filled at her left. Lillian placed her fork down to shake hands briefly.
"Lillian Moore... Wraecca's... Well, Wraecca's better half." She hesitated, as if wanting to ask something, yet not quite ready to risk it.
Ariel responded to Lillian's hesitation with an amused rolling of her eyes. "Oh, ask. I'm here to say a few hellos, not to curse the ill-mannered."
Lillian smiled abashedly, but it faded as she looked over at Bleys. "You're Bleys's guest, correct? Do you happen to share any DNA with him? You have the hair... the pale skin... the artists fingers... even the eyes... I've never seen genetic material run amok like it does with redheads."
"You forgot to mention inherently graceful and devastatingly attractive. Yes, on all points. I'm a redhead, born and bred. A mixed blessing," Ariel said, hesitating slightly, "but one I'd always been proud of."
"That must be genetic, too," Lillian replied lightly. "Bleys and I have always gotten along... as long as he understands we have Needlewomen for a reason. I can't quite put my finger on you... Are you a novice, kept in the closet, or have they been keeping you abreast of things all along?"
Ariel was puzzled by the expression 'needlewomen', but shrugged it off. "Neither, really." Looking a little embarrassed, she said "What you have to understand is that for the past forty years or so... They thought I was dead. I had a little accident with a slow time shadow. And then there was that damned storm which kept me penned up for another age. I only recently managed to work my way free and get back in touch so I could find out what the hell has been going on. Believe me, if I knew, I'd have had a few choice words about the matter."
Lillian speared a small red potato, coating it in gravy with a lazy twist of her wrist. "It's not my place to say, but are you so sure someone didn't know you weren't dead? I mean, I could see Fi hiding the fact that someone dear to her was deceased, but Bleys? He's a maelstrom when he's upset. You should have seen him the night Fiona came back.
"By the way," Lillian lowered her voice, "Needlewoman is the local idiom for 'call girl.'"
Ariel gave Lillian a nod of thanks and paused to pick at her plate. "Am I certain? No. Given that I was not in any real danger... Still... It doesn't quite make sense." She picked up a mouthful of food on her fork and chewed it slowly while she considered. "Why would any of them leave me there? Unless I've already answered my own question.
"Remember that I never actually 'died'. I simply... Never came back."
"That describes half the deaths in this family, actually... Caine's come back God knows how many times. I fear every April first the way some dread Armageddon. Elders have strange reasons for doing things... If it was during Patternfall, they might have been keeping you in the reserves until they sucessfully took over the place and got it redecorated, then annointed you as the first of the next generation." She watched Bleys, pensively playing with her vegetables.
Ariel ate slowly, mulling over what Lillian has suggested. After a few moments, something clicked in her head and she washed her food down with some wine. "Ah. I died during the Patternstorm. Now it makes sense. They might have known I was alive in the slow time shadow, but probably thought the Patternstorm had killed me. I had been wondering about that, actually - how the Patternstorm interacted with those it had passed over."
Lillian picked at her bird, nibbling on the little clawed feet, eyes set on some distant point. "Some things must have survived... All the foundlings did. Many shadows did. I know Mouse - Justar, the one you talked to when you came in - Mouse did some research on it a few years back when he and Random were bored. Made a huge walk out to shadow male bonding journey out of it, too. I'm surprised they didn't just strip to loin cloths and paint their torsos with rabbit paint..."
"All the foundlings survived," Ariel mused. She frowned for a moment and then declared "Oh, bugger. That means I've just wasted twenty years of my life being afraid of the boogeyman." She was a little put out. Shaking her head she said "As for Random and... Mouse? Justar... Maybe that's what they wanted to get out into shadow for."
"Boogeyman?" Lillian replied dryly. "Don't worry... We have bogeymen aplenty here. Your sense of being ill at ease isn't going to be wasted. One of them," she glanced around at the Elders. "Is sure to pull you aside for some cause or another. Trust me." She took up her glass, took a long draw, then set it down with a firm and precise 'click.'
"Why, what are the causes that they're recruiting for tonight?" Ariel asked.
"Oh, that depends on who you talk to... Bleys is most likely looking to set up an attack on broken Pattern the first chance he has... The others aren't _quite_ as ambitious, but that doesn't mean they don't have agendas. It's their way..."
Wraecca turned away to listen in on the conversation Lillian and Ariel were having. Perhaps he could contribute something to the conversation or at the very least be the attentive escort. He frowned as he considered their relationship, or lack thereof.
Lillian noticed his touch on her arm, and glanced back to smile at him, just as...
Marietta rose, and walked around the chairs to between Lillian and Ariel. She calmly waited for either of the two to pause in their own conversation to introduce herself. "Hello, ladies - I fear I am ignorant of your proper titles, right now, but I would like to introduce myself. I am Dr. Marietta Stones, from 'some backwater shadow', as Wraecca puts it." She offered her hand to be shaken.
Lillian turned back, looking slightly startled. She extended her hand, shaking Marietta's calmly. "Lillian Moore," she said politely, throwing a look at Wraecca. "And I'm the royal therap--"
"Crazy house warden," Oberon interrupted with a chuckle. "Hand the lady a crown. She's the one that actually runs the place."
"How do you do." Marietta said, as she shook Lillian's hand and rolled her eyes at Oberon's antics. "That is quite an undertaking, I would guess from my first impressions thus far. An honor to make your acquaintance, Ms. Moore."
Ariel blinked, just now noticing the small crowd of people gathered around. "Ariel Stormbreaker," she said, offering her hand to Marietta. "I've no titles here, so don't worry on that account."
"How do you do, Ms. Stormbreaker?" Marietta replied pleasantly as she returned the handclasp, "I shan't worry I'm leaving off something, then. A refreshing change from an academic environment, I must say."
Ariel replied "Aside from a somewhat turbulent adjustment, I'm quite well, thank you. And please, just 'Ariel'. Stormbreaker is an acquired name, and Ms. Stormbreaker just doesn't sound right."
"Then Ariel it shall be, of course! Although all names are acquired, you know, just the timing differs," Marietta replied with a smile.
Lillian threw Oberon a jestful glare, and he made some comment about 'grapes' and cleavage. "Watch it... I'll convince Imogen to open that 'Old King's' home she's been wanting."
"She installing some Needlewomen?" Oberon grumbled, swatting a waiter and jabbing a finger at his empty mug. It was dutifully refilled.
Lillian turned back to Marietta. "Likewise... You should get around to talking to Mouse, you know... He was in the same spot you are a few years back, being a newcomer to the family, and a sibling at that. It can't be easy on you..."
"What can't?" Marietta looked puzzled a moment, then she realized what Lillian meant, "Oh. You mean, being dropped in the midst of a new group of people, another culture, and finding out that the world is more as the ancient peoples believed than some modern-day, narrow-minded people?
"Oh, not at all. I've done that professionally for quite some time. Of course, having it be a claim of bloodties - and it seems hardly what I'd have called normal human ties - and some geezers, young and old each," Marietta glanced at Wraecca and Oberon, "behaving all over enigmatic and mysteriously secretive can rather get on one's nerves. If one is the sort of rather high-strung person who would be bothered by such things. I'm not really the high-strung type, though." She considered Oberon thoughtfully, stuck her tongue out at him with great deliberateness, and turned back to the two ladies.
Ariel sat back and watches the overlapping conversations with an amused smile on her face. Rather than try to interject her own layer, she listened patiently.
Marietta asked, "Am I right if I guess that by your recent upheaval, Ariel, you mean you are also a recently enlightened member of the, er, extended family? Clan? Or is there another term commonly used?"
"I'm not sure what the term is. I just think of us as the Royal Family. I actually knew about Amber my whole life and have even been to Tir-na Nog'th. So coming here itself is not a shock. Learning that my own branch of the family is responsible for a recent attempted takeover of the kingdom, the marring of the Pattern, and the near destruction of the universe - and that's just for starters - and that those same closest relatives are now suffering from madness, disability, depression, death, or some combination thereof... That takes a little getting used to." Ariel closed her eyes and steadied herself, "I'm coping for now - keeping myself too busy to think about it - but I have a bit of hysteria scheduled for later this evening.
Ariel opened her eyes and looked back up at Marietta, "Sorry to be so depressing. Welcome to Amber."
"Oh, you weren't depressing at all. Don't apologize." Marietta gave Ariel a rueful grin, "But if I could join you in that bit of hysteria, later this evening, I think I may be due some. I have absolutely no idea what all those events and places you referred to are, of course, but I can brew a good pot of tea. That always helps me when I'm feeling unsettled - but then, I am a Brit at heart."
Ariel returned a rueful smile of her own, "I may just take you up on that. I've only learned about the events recently myself, but they affect me directly. Everything else I know is about forty years out of date though, and they were a very significant forty years."
Oberon scoffed, "They weren't that damn special. Wars happen all the time... I had no fewer than a thousand while I was king! These kids should try outrunning Chaos and the Serpent and every hell-bound demon from the pits, if they think Patternfall was exciting. The only thing different about that war was how badly they =bungled= it."
Ariel gave Oberon an incredulous look. She shook her head slightly and elaborated "Although I'm not the best person to explain it, I think whatever military conflict occurred was only a sideshow compared to the metaphysical fallout. Where once we had one power of order and one of chaos, now we seem to have two of each, and too close together for comfort. Plus it saw the succession from Oberon to Corwin, and I can only begin to imagine the ramifications of that."
Wraecca looked over at Oberon, seemingly on the verge of saying something. Instead he looked away, and took a quaff of his drink.
Random cleared his throat, and slowly, wandering eye by eye, he gained the attention of everyone at the table. His clothes were unusually somber, his face haggard, and his usually careless appearance even more so than usual. "I regret to inform you," he said in a voice as quiet as a whisper and yet carried miles, "That Eleanor of New Avalon is dead."
Ariel watched Random, perplexed. She frowned for a moment, and then understood. "I'm not sure," she quietly told Marietta, "But I think Eleanor was the King's daughter."
Marietta glanced around and noticed that the King - and the Queen - had already departed the room. She nodded at Ariel, thinking that must be the case.
Wraecca furrowed his brow at Random's news. He looked askance at his uncle thinking this might be some horribly awful joke. With a trembling hand he set his drink on the table. "Ellie...d-, gone?" The gem he held fell unnoticed from his fingers as he stared out into space. A moment later he faded away, the gem pulsing in faint protest at his disappearance.
At this sudden imitation of the Chesire Cat, Marietta did a double-take. One of her eyebrows rose, as she muttered, "Oddest things happen here." She shook it off like a pro boxer getting set for another round as she stood.
"Thank you all for coming to dinner," Marietta announced, "But given this tragedy, I am sure you have no more appetite for it than I. Let us depart the table. I'll try to meet those of you whom I haven't introduced myself to later on."
Marietta put the snatch on a bottle of whisky before the servers started clearing, however. Then she waited for most of the others to leave before sitting back down at the fairly empty table. She poured out a stiff drink, and took a swig. Then she sipped more slowly, as this was a fairly good whisky.
Oberon set down his glass, barely noticing Wraecca's disappearance. "She was..." he says quietly, pushing his dish away. "She was a good girl... A good herald. My faithful page. I believe the food isn't as appetizing as it was... I want to go back to my room." He reached down and stubbornly tried to move the wheel of his chair himself.
"I agree." Marietta grabbed a bottle, stood and moved to Oberon's side. "Let me get it; I've had some practice." She toed the brake off the back wheel, settled her bottle in a vast pocket of her jacket and took up the pushing handles. "Tell me which way; I haven't learned my way around the maze of stone and mortar, yet. Ariel? You want to come along and drink?"
Ariel nodded to Marietta and sighed, "I would, thank you. But I have an obligation to fulfill before I can retire. Lillian, would you walk with us a ways? I would speak with you briefly, where there are fewer people to hear."
Lillian looked up from where Wraecca had disappeared, a Trump already in her hand. "I-- I really think I should check on Wraecca now. He and Eleanor were close... quite close. "I'll be at the top of Kolvir later... We'll have privacy then. Marietta... Welcome to Amber." With that, she rose and exited, head bowed in thought.
"Take care," Ariel said to the departed Lillian.
Glancing across the table, Ariel didn't see anything that caught her eye. She shrugged slightly and nodded to Marietta, "Alright, I'm done here."
Oberon managed to twist in his chair, attempting a swat at Marietta. "Well? Grab a bottle, will you, on your way out, and some of the dessert. Might as well end this night properly: drunken indigestion."
"Already got a bottle." Marietta commented, "What do you want for dessert, pater?" Once Oberon indicated a preference, she nimbly helped herself to a cover for the platter. Then the whole assemblage got plopped into Oberon's lap. "You can make sure it doesn't get scrambled."
Marietta tucked some forks into a pocket, a couple of glasses into her breast pocket, and then wheeled his chair away. She glanced at Ariel, with a dim twinkle in her eye, and said, "This jacket does come in handy for carrying loot."
"I like your sense of fashion," Ariel told Marietta. Glancing down at her own skirt, she said "I fear Uncle Bleys outfitted me more for style than sense. Hazards of last minute attendance. Literally." Snatching up another small bottle of something potent, she fell into place beside Marietta and added "Now let's find someplace to be off to. I have a feeling we'll be the only two mourning not Eleanor, but the loss of our own lives which we have known."
"Well... I certainly cannot mourn for Eleanor, directly, since I never had the chance to meet her, but I can certainly mourn with those who did meet her and now must grieve at the loss." Marietta rested one hand on Oberon's shoulder a moment, then went back to steering with both again. "As for my life, I'm accostumed to living several different lives, hand in glove. I don't see suddenly gaining round dozens of family - however 'round the bend some of them may be - as a loss of my life. Of course, I'd just walked out on my latest life, it having become far too boring for me to withstand another day. Frankly, I'm going to drink because sometimes, just as there is nothing else to do but laugh, for some situations, the very best thing to do is get extremely potted."
The night chilled Ariel to the bone, as she climbed the stairs to Kolvir's peak. In the town below, bells toll, lolling and clear in the winter night.
Tir-Na Nog'th had risen and was nearly solid under the light of the full moon. Lillian sat at its base, watching as two figures ascended its steps and disappeared into the swirling mists of the memory city.
Ariel approached Lillian, stopping a couple paces away. She looked up at the ascending figures and smiled slightly. She turned back to Lillian and asked "Spotting?"
Lillian jumped, then relaxed... almost. "Yes... Playing it safe. The last time he went up, he nearly got smashed on the rocks... What was it you wanted?"
Ariel nodded and then became more serious. "To give you some more practice being suspicious, I'm afraid. I misled you at dinner. But if I had come up to you and said 'Hello, I'm Fiona's daughter and I'm here to help you,' I think you would have excused yourself to the bathroom and tried to crawl out the window."
Lillian choked out a laugh. "And you'd have had Wraecca and Caine at your throat before appetizers were done! I'm glad you didn't say that...
She looked back at the city, moving over on the fallen log to make room for Ariel. "Help me how?"
Ariel smiled and sat down next to Lillian. "My mother is currently at the Broken Pattern with Julian and Dierdre. They're looking for a way to lure and manipulate Clarice. Unfortunately, you seem to be my mother's first option for this. I wanted to let you know, so you could avoid them."
Lillian jerked her head back to stare at Ariel, then sighed and settled her head into her hands. "God... No offense, but why can't they just =stay= dead... If Fiona screws with Clarice, she gets exactly what she deserves.
"So, what are you telling her? To bugger off? That I was out of Amber?"
Ariel shrugged unhappily, "I haven't told them anything yet. Before I left, I said that it would take time. That was this morning. Yes, she sent me to be the lure. But we have conflicting views on the Broken Pattern... And on a few other things as well, it seems."
"It doesn't surprise me," Lillain said with a sigh. "We didn't get along well either... We differed on issues of privacy, and freedom on information... Shit. I can't believe she's trying to take over the thing...
"I'm sorry it's seperated you and your mother."
"I don't know if..." Ariel shook her head in frustration, "If the Pattern has separated us, if she has separated us, of if I separated us, a long time ago." She looks up at Tir-na Nog'th, "I left her there, after she helped me through the Pattern. But I needed to get away. Now though... I can't find the right word. It's about how we treat people and power.
"But the way she seems now," Ariel added, "I don't like to think of what could happen if she developed the Broken Pattern."
"Neither do I," Lillian said. "Trust me, she's the last one I'd choose to control the thing... But if it's any consolation, her first attitude towards it was to destroy it. It was only recently, apparently, that she wanted to build it up at all."
"How recently, do you think, did she decide that?" Ariel asked.
"I have no clue," Lillian said helplessly. "She was still looking to destroy it when she disappeared... You do know how she disappeared, don't you?"
"Julian," Ariel replied. "Oddly enough, they seemed to get along."
"Partially Julian... There was an inquisition... It was supposed to be a meeting of minds, but it turned into a screaming match between Fiona and Clarice. Julian had been found dead at the center of the Broken Pattern. And that, of course, put her pretty high on the list of suspects. Clarice was killed by an assassin's shot... And all hell broke loose. The best way to describe it was 'Broken Pattern got mad.'"
Ariel blinked. "That's a lot of people to survive dying."
"Quite," Lillian agreed. "The only ones we've kept dead are Eric and Brand."
Uhm, yeah, Ariel thought. About Uncle Brand...
Ariel looked a little puzzled, but shrugged it off. "Strange how that happens. I hope I can learn the trick of it. You were saying something about the Broken Pattern getting mad?"
"Yes... Clarice dying called up these... creatures. Black creatures, all kinds, all sizes, all with a bad attitude. They weren't too difficult to beat, but the sheer number and element of surprise cost us a few... When we were cleaning up, we found Fiona's room had been torn up beyond recognition, and she was gone. Your Uncle was nearly killed in that attack, you know."
"No, I didn't know," Ariel replied. "I haven't had enough time to catch up on everything I've missed."
"The years have been lousy with happenings, between deaths and births and coronations... They should make a Primer for those like you, who get brought in as an adult...
"I can sympathize. Wraecca and I were two of those."
Ariel nodded and almost smiled. "I might not mind so much, if it wasn't for my mother. I've just learned a few things about her, and they don't sit well with me. I'm going to have to face her again eventually, but hopefully I'll be better prepared then."
Lillian toyed with the card in her hand, glancing up at a few stray clouds on the horizon. "Bleys talked to me the night she came back... He had an idea... Several. He must have abandoned them, by now. Typical."
"Abandoned or explored. Still... Did he mention what his idea was?"
Lillian nodded. "He wanted me to try the Pattern... I could read the rest of his idea from his face. If I could be 'fixed,' so could she."
Ariel pointed out, "But Wraecca was the only one to ever cast off the Broken Pattern, even though several others have tried. Plus, you have different imprints."
"That's what I told Bleys. I'm not even of Amber blood... I'd go up like a Roman Candle. So it's not something that's going to work. I think he realizes that I'm not risking my skin for Fiona... I'm sorry. I should talk that way. Losing her was a great blow to Amber."
Ariel became very still. Slowly, she said "You're... not... but... That can't be right."
"I'm afraid so. I'm just your average Shadow girl. Wraecca's the one with the blood."
Ariel pulled her coat tight about her, "I think that's the most frightening thing I've heard yet."
"You're not the only one to think that... Hence, the hostility towards the Broken Pattern. If it's any consolation, not every shadow person can walk it. Most just get killed instantly. I had a little help the first time, though."
"What kind of help?" Ariel asked.
"I was carried, by an initiate. We didn't really know what we were getting into... It was before we know about Amber."
Ariel nodded slightly, "Wraecca?"
"The one and only."
"Have... Do you know if any people without Amber blood have gone through it unassisted?" Ariel asked.
"No, I don't... As far as I know, it's only been people of the blood. Imogen's half convinced I'm some lost bastard of Amber, but I say that's stretching the laws of probability a bit."
Ariel smiled faintly and relaxed a bit. "They're ours to stretch. I wish I could have had a look at you before you took the Broken Pattern, but then I wouldn't have even known to look. Well, if it takes an Amberite or an initiate to get someone through the Broken Pattern, then it might not be so bad. There won't be any armies of darkness springing up anytime soon." Unless my mother decides to try her hand at it, Ariel mused.
Lillian was slient for a long time, studying the sky above, the card in her hands... "...There is one theory on why it let me over..."
Ariel frowned, "You weren't pregnant, were you?"
"No!" Lillian laughed, relaxing. "God no... No, I'm a therapist, and more specifically, I was Wraecca's therapist. Imogen, Wraecca, and a few others that like to theorize as a hobby think that the Broken Pattern kept me alive because it thought it would need me."
Ariel grinned, "Well, on that basis, you should make it through the real Pattern with no trouble!"
Lillian wasn't amused. "Hah. I think the Primal Pattern think's it's doing A-OK... Besides, I've been councilling it's children for a few years now. I think I'd have been made an offer."
Ariel shrugged, "And God said to the drowned rabbi 'But I sent you two boats and a helicopter!' But no. It's probably pretty exclusive and no exceptions. I wouldn't suggest trying it. And if you ever do, have Bleys leading the way for you."
"I can't think of anyone better," Lillian admitted. "And if it comes down to it... I'll give it a try. But only at the eleventh hour. This is my life we're gambling with. Your uncle keeps forgetting that."
Ariel nodded, "I understand." She was quiet in thought for a moment, and then decided "I think it's time I was on my way. I've a busy night ahead of me."
Lillian nodded. "Wish I could say the same... Best of luck, though... And, if it's in you, keep me updated on the Broken Pattern situation."
Ariel stood and looked at Lillian. Nodding thoughtfully, she said "I might just do that.
Glancing up at the sky, Ariel added, "And a strange request. If your friends happen to come across... a cat... looking rather lost... Send it my way?"
"I'll have Wraecca keep an eye out... Got something that smells like it?"
Ariel looked perplexed for a moment, but then shook her head. "If Grey's still up there, he's a ghost by now. But then, he was always a fey sort of creature. It was just a wishful thought.
Ariel turned and walked back down the path from which she came.
Ariel walked along the path down Kolvir, leaving Lillian to watch for her friends. After two turnings, Ariel stopped. Lillian was out of sight, and Ariel had no intention of walking halfway across the universe to her next destination. Focusing her mind, she constructed the image of the Pattern she walked in Tir-na Nog'th. Slowly it came together, and she pressed her way through as it formed. Casting her sight out into shadow, she came to the barren borderlands that surounded her realm. From there she entered her fortress and headed once again to the North Medical Wing.
Denton and Dorothy were off duty. Ariel left the final sample of her mother's hair - the sample taken after her mother's encounter with the Broken Pattern - with the technician on duty. Then she sent a message to Ops to have someone with a push lifter meet her at the armory in twenty minutes.
Arriving at the armory herself after a detour through her quarters, Ariel set down the small pack of equipment she had gathered and started inventorying what she would need. Moments later, the push lifter arrived, along with its attendant.
"Ethan," Ariel said, mildly surprised. "You're a bit high ranking to be pushing a cart, aren't you?"
"I was available, and you asked," her general replied.
"You're keeping tabs on me again."
"Just doing my job, Stormbreaker. Raiding the armory isn't quite regulation. Would you mind telling me what you're up to, this time?"
"Assembling a personal arsenal," Ariel told him, "And you can take the regulations up with my boss. There are a number of people out in the wider universe grabbing for power, and I don't want to be caught unprepared in case things go bad."
Ethan walked over to one of the weapon racks and asked "What sort of world do you want to be prepared for?"
"I'm not sure what kind of world I'll be in. I'll want weapons for a wide variety. From high tech to sorcerous to inert steel. Weapons that travel well are more important than those that exploit specific laws of nature. The region around Amber contains magic, but only pre-industrial technology. Mostly they stick to swords and crossbows. Myself, I don't understand why nobody imports a batch of magical assault rifles and takes over the place."
"In that case, you'll want these," Ethan said, laying a rifle and pistol on a table.
"I'll also want their technological equivalents, and some nonpowered pieces. And a suit of personal armour to go with it."
"Powered or unpowered?"
"Unpowered. The power armour will be more of a liability in a nontechnological environment, and I really don't want to be carrying around a portable fusion plant if physics start to go bad. Besides... The last thing I need is to start another Lunar Mecha Angel craze."
Ethan smiled, "But Aurelle Windrider is very popular with the children. They look up to her."
"I still want to strangle the twit! I swear, Ethan. I hope somebody makes a Saturday morning cartoon out of you. Then maybe you won't be laughing. Now help me get this stuff loaded on the cart. And snag a parachute from Airborne."
"Will you be wanting a squire assigned to help carry your arsenal?"
"Once I get this stuff to Tir-na Nog'th, I should be able to work a little magic to trim it down. That's why I'm heading out tonight. This is the first time I've had access to it in over twenty years. And it's manifesting. Right now."
With Ethan's help, Ariel wheeled the equipment out through a portal and into the borderlands. Once her Pattern Lens was focused on Tir-na Nog'th, the satchel of armaments got balanced precariously on her back. Then, like a hunchbacked Santa Claus, she and her sack of toys vanished under the night sky.
As Wraecca and Star began their pattern walk in the sky caves of Tir-na Nog'th, Ariel appeared far above them amid the ghostly reflection of the Unicorn's Grove. She winced as her heavy sack landed on the ground. Stretching her back, she was relieved to be out from under the heavy burden.
Amber's moon was brilliant in the cold night sky, and Ariel was thankful for the heavy coat she wore. Sorting through her pile of gear, she lifted out a parachute and strapped it on, just in case. She knew Lillian was below her watching out for Wraecca, but nobody was backing her up tonight.
Next from Ariel's assemblage came a silver tablet, a silver bowl, a calligraphy pen, and a medical kit. Baring her arm, she selected a large syringe and drew out a portion of her blood and poured it into the bowl. Nestling the tablet on her lap, she dipped the pen in her blood and began to draw a symbol.
The first three designs were imperfectly executed, blurred by running blood or marred by a poor stroke of the pen. But with practice, the fourth symbol was etched clearly and ready for the next step. Ariel leaned close over the tablet and exhaled softly, whispering the rune's name as her misting breath warmed it and gave it life. The tracery of blood glowed softly, its gentle white light a ghost of the bright moon. It shifted about on the silver tablet, and Ariel touched it lightly, smiling at her new creation.
Ariel executed a dozen more symbols on the tablet, drawing more blood from her body as that in the bowl was used up. Finally she was satisfied with her basic creations and began elaborating upon individual designs. Within the first she executed an eye. Within the second, a rune of violence. Within the third, a rune of protection. She touched the third rune and it curled around her fingers, lifting off the tablet to crawl across her palm. She placed it on the suit of armour she had selected and inscribed another tracery of lines, binding them together. When she finished, the armour glowed softly and faded, but the rune remained. She took the second rune and repeated the process with each of her weapons. Soon all that was left of her equipment was her tablet and a few small items.
Sitting down with the tablet, Ariel started to detail the fourth of the softly glowing symbols. But as she touched pen to metal, one of the symbols faded from sight. Groggy and lightheaded, Ariel stared blankly at the tablet. Passing her hand over the runes, she noted that each of them faded when her hand passed between it and the moonlight. But each also reappeared as soon as her hand was gone - except for the rune with the eye. Looking up from the tablet, Ariel saw that the Moon itself was almost at the horizon, and the light in the sky was slowly changing from silver to gold.
Cursing inwardly, Ariel snatched up the tablet and gathered the remnants of her gear. Tired and drained, she was almost unable to focus on her personal vision of the Pattern. As the Moon touched the horizon, she succeeded and cast herself to the Borderlands as the ghost city vanished in the dawn.
"...And there you have it. My own personal concealed arsenal and early warning system." Ariel finished off her coffee and sent another mouthful of breakfast - lunch, she reminded herself - to its doom.
"I'm sure it will make you very popular with foreign heads of state," Ethan commented. "What do you intend to do now?"
Ariel leaned back in her chair and gazed off into the distance, "I'm not entirely sure. One thing I do want is to secure one of the auxiliary Broken Patterns and see what I can do to manipulate it. But not just yet, I think. I've already bled enough for the cause for one day. I wanted to check in with Uncle Bleys and perhaps make my rounds in Amber. I'm going to have to meet the King eventually, and I also need to make some more allies. I'd also try spying on my mother, but I have a feeling any attempt I make to do that is doomed before it begins. Oh... And I wanted to have a personal look at those samples I brought back for Denton and Dorothy. Maybe I can see something now to give us a head start. I also want to see if the Broken Pattern energies are similar to those from the original Pattern Storm material we have contained in the Pattern Wells.
"Give me a moment here, and we'll head to the medical wing."
In the Iron Citadel's North Medical Wing, Ariel laid out the samples of hair. Those taken from Fiona and herself in Ariel's childhood, and those taken recently. She called up the Pattern Lens and began a cursory examination.
The first batch, the one from her mother's head before Patternfall, was like most hair she finds about her... Though the red strands seemed infused with reality, it was fading, like most things that are cast off from Amberites. Ariel had noticed the quality years ago, when posed with a philosophical question from Brand... something about bodies and cellular division and souls... but it had ended in her looking at follicles under a Pattern lens, then.
The second batch evidenced that same reality, less faded by time, but with streaks of something else within it... Something, that though real, was different. She pressed her mind at this darkness, and was met by nothing... But the nothing reacted to her probe, resisting, as if of substance after all.
Ariel related her observations to Denton and Dorothy. "I want to see how this... void... reacts when I press it further." Teasing out a few strands, she placed them under a microscope-recorder. Then, employing the Pattern Lens, she attempted to manipulate the nothing within - by bending it, changing it into something different, casting it out of phase with the hair, and just plain peeling it off.
When Ariel moved her will onto the void, it began to recede, the darkness fading... However, as soon as her attention shifted, it came back with even greater force, and she could feel it reaching out for her, lashing out... In her hands, the microscope began to disintegrate.
"Not good," Ariel observed. "Ethan, get a disposal portal to the wastes projected here now. Denton, get this on camera. Dorothy, observe what this thing is doing to the microscope." Using her mind and the Pattern Lens, Ariel attempted to hold back the dark power. As the disposal portal formed, she unplugged the microscope and tossed it out of her shadow.
Ariel took a deep breath and exhaled sharply. "Ladies and gentlemen, the next day will be spent in purely theoretical research.
"I'll make a memic copy of what I saw today available. I have a bad feeling we're going to want an expendable lab in the wastes before we pursue this matter in depth. Ethan, please work with Denton to prepare a logistical projection of what we'll need. Dorothy, see if you can figure out what mechanism the void used to disintegrate the microscope. Hopefully I'll be back tonight. Right now, I'm probably late for a funeral."
Assembling her kit and some dark clothing, Ariel departed from Eurayle. After a brief observation of the place where the microscope landed, she cast into shadow and sorted through her trump deck. She removed Bleys' trump and concentrated on the image.
Ariel saw her uncle appear, the light of some land at his back, but it didn't appear to be Amber's sun... the rays were near white, and the land below it was in summer. He appeared to be on a roof top somewhere, hair tousled by a soft breeze.
"Ariel! I was wondering where you'd gotten off to. Where have you been?" Bleys asked.
"Toying with powers beyond my understanding," Ariel told him. "How fare things at your end of the universe?"
"Miserable. I look horrid in black, and wouldn't you know it, it's =summer= here. Ghastly heat. I'm not even at =my= end of the universe anymore. This is New Avalon, the Amber to Corwin's Pattern. I thought it might be a good idea to get here early... I'm regretting that now.
"Now, what's happened with your experiments?"
"I was examining Mother's hair follicles. You know about the streaks of dark power? I was prodding at those. Trying to see if I could manipulate them. They recoiled from the Lens, but when I backed off, they lashed out. Vindictive things. Tried to eat my microscope. Progressive reality failure. That's when I tossed the microscope out into shadow. It's still there - the void stopped short of devouring it. But I'm a little more respectful of the power behind the Broken Pattern."
Bleys narrowed his eyes. "You should be. It's not something to tinker with." He thought a moment, then held out his hand.
"We shouldn't be discussing this over Trump. Will you come to me?"
Ariel took Bleys' hand and stepped through. Once there, she told him "I have to tinker. Because I have to learn. However, necessity does not preclude caution."
"I'm relieved to hear that," Bleys replied dryly. "You should have had me there, at the very least... I've had more of a hand in the entire matter, after all...
"It seems we won't get your mother back to Amber, then, at least not willingly, and not with the two of us. I have my doubts about you and I taking on the thing on our own, and if Fi's going to be on a side, I want her on Amber's side, or incapacitated... This means the plan needs revising."
Ariel said "It would be helpful if you told me more about the Broken Pattern - what it is, what it can do, what it can't do, and what you intend. I realize you may not want to tell me everything, but what you don't tell me I have to try to fill in on my own. For myself, I'm trying to understand the Broken Pattern and how to overcome it. Only then, I think, will we be ready to work against its initiates directly. Until that time, it's a sort of race, and we can only hope they don't work together effectively."
Ariel paced back and forth restlessly, working off nervous energy. She came to a stop and looked back at Bleys, "I just realized I'm being unfair to you. You've been as helpful as I could ask for. Only time and... my own running about have kept you from telling me more. Did you know... I think I've been twice the length of the universe since yesterday trying to learn about what this thing is. And I've only just scratched the surface."
Bleys laughed humorlessly. "How do you think the rest of us feel? We've had the damn thing in our back yard for ten years now, and still don't know anything about it. Unfortunately, interest seems to turn to obsession rather easily with it...
"We're lucky in a few things, with that group. They have weaknesses, weaknesses by the fistful, ones that will keep them from being too effective... Even more if we happen to lose Caine to the mix, though it would be a blow to Amber. He's the one that fired the shot heard 'round the universe... The one that killed Brand and, incidentally, Deirdre."
Ariel raised an eyebrow, "I talked with Lillian last night, and gave her my warning. In conversation, she mentioned that Eric and Brand were the only people we managed to keep dead... I didn't have the heart to tell her about Uncle Brand. As for Caine... From what I've heard, he's more likely to work against Mother's group than with them. Corey is the one I'm worried about. Best case, he's simply acting out of fondness for Deirdre. Worst case, the Pattern and whatever Chaos has may be looking at obsolescence.
Ariel shrugged off her last comment and said, "But please... Tell me more of what you know. Lillian said you had some ideas, and right now I'm working at the level of kicking a wasp's nest to see what the reaction is."
Bleys sat on the head of a gargoyle, looking out at the rampant green that is New Avalon. He took out his blade, the glitter of the Pattern showing in the bright morning light like cold fireworks. "Wraecca, industrious boy he is, tried rewriting the thing... That didn't work. Nearly killed him, in fact. And if anyone is the glorious Amber Cockroach, it is Wraecca." He looked up. "I mean that in the fondest of possible ways, of course.
"Kicking the hive isn't such a bad method... but one must be careful not to kick too much, or too hard. When did Fiona expect you back?"
"I never gave Mother an answer for time. I only told her that since she had ruled out force, it would take some work. My guess is she was testing me, in which case I've failed unless she's less shortsighted than she now seems."
Bleys narrowed his eyes, rising again and passing a hand over her face, then her front, then back, as if trying to sense something... "You're not bugged... That's one thing, at least. But we've no idea how many eyes this new power gives her. We should assume she knows. I believe sticking her into a sack until this is over is becoming our best option. Would you care to hold it open, or carry the big stick?"
Ariel grimaced, "I don't think I could bring myself to hit Mother over the head with a stick. Not unless things were a lot worse than they are now. What I really want is to somehow take advantage of Mother's attempts to learn about the Broken Pattern. To spy on her. But we would also need some way to stop her if things went awry."
"We need something to surprise her," said Bleys, snapping his fingers. "Something she doesn't know about, yet... Our ace in the hole... And you know what that is, don't you?"
[I think so, Brain, but where are we going to get lederhosen at this hour?]
"If I knew how to outwit my mother, I'd be very impressed with myself. The only thing I can think of is Dr. Stones."
(OOC-- Oh god... Now all I'm going to be able to imagine is Pinky and the Brain chattering away atop New Av.)
"Dr. Stones?" Bleys looked momentarily confused, as if that wasn't the answer he was looking for at all. "You mean that Marietta? The woman at dinner claiming to be my sister? What does she have to do with all of this...? I should have looked her over more carefully..."
Ariel tells Bleys "Suffice to say that I do not know what our proposed 'ace in the hole' is. Marietta is simply the only new factor I have encountered since I saw Mother. Well, new to her at least. Dr. Stones is pattern potential, but hadn't been initiated as of last night."
"I was talking about your uncle as our ace... But the good Doctor might be an interesting monkey wrench... I think we should take my new sibling on a walk, don't you?"
"In regards to Uncle Brand," Ariel noted, "I think you're being premature. Not only do we not have him, I'm not sure he would be on our side. The Uncle Brand I remember would find the Broken Pattern absolutely fascinating, and might even encourage my mother in her researches regardless of the consequences. While I dearly want his advice - however indirect - on the Broken Pattern, I would also wish to have another hole card to play.
"As for Dr. Stones, if you're suggesting we help her in her initiation, I'm quite agreeable. But I would want to know a lot more about her and her politics before bringing her into this affair.
Ariel looked off into the distance, letting her gaze wander over this new place. "Who else might you consider bringing in? I want to bring in Lillian - as much for research as for helping with Mother - but she'll need training before she can be very useful. And where she goes... Well, from what I understand, Wraecca is as wild a monkey wrench as anyone could ask for."
"I wouldn't use the term 'research' around Lillian... At least in respects to it being concentrated on her," suggested Bleys, "It sets her on edge. Fiona made some less than gentle inquiries about the possibility, and... I hear the explosions made some wonder of Clarissa were back.
"I would talk to Random, if you can. He's toyed with her blood before, back when we were having problems with unidentified children. Apparently, she's broken a number of his constructs.
"Wraecca-- be careful with him, if you involve him at all. There's little love lost between he and our kind. I don't have any problems with the lad, but I know he has a few with me.
"In calmer times, I would suggest Imogen, but, with the death..." Bleys sighed. "You children have such impeccable timing..."
"Thanks for warning me about Lillian," Ariel said. "I didn't know Mother had approached her. Although in retrospect, I should have realized. Our methods are a little different. With luck, Lillian will come to me. It may be a while, however.
"Imogen. I suspect that Corwin and Imogen will want to interview me eventually. I'm not sure if I should mention to them that I'm looking into the Broken Pattern. Hm... Lillian already knows. I can see disadvantages either way.
Ariel looked about her and made an encompassing gesture, "Have you heard anything more of what happened? With Eleanor. All I know is what Random announced at dinner last night."
Bleys shook his head. "We are woefully uninformed at this point. They've sectioned off the truly mourning from we idly interested parties... But I did get a few words in from Random. They think it was cardiac arrest in the poor girl. I suspect foul play."
"Cardiac arrest," Ariel pondered, "That would be a first for the Royal Family, wouldn't it?"
Bleys touched his nose. "On the dot, Ariel... And she was a shapeshifter, at that. They're usually insanely sturdy... You should see the Olympics Wraecca goes through for fun."
"Uhm... Okay. Uncle Bleys, when did we start getting an influx of shapeshifters? I know about changing form through magic, but it sounds like you're talking about something innate - and something that survives being mixed with Amber blood."
"It started about the time my brothers started rutting around with women that could hook their ankles behind their ears as a matter of whim instead of gymnastics," Bleys replied dryly. But then his gaze went distant, as he almost smiled. "Not that it's a =bad= thing... I have fond memories of my days in Chaos.
"At any rate, we have a number of half-breeds, and you are correct... It is innate. I would ask Wraecca for a demonstration. He's more than eager to give one... Poor Lillian..."
"I really don't want to think about that. Well, maybe... No." Ariel shook her head to clear it. "Another new and interesting ability that I'll have to look into... =Later.= I just don't need that kind of distraction right now," she said grumpily. "I wonder what else is going to come out of Chaos.
"Alright. Back to the matter at hand. Broken Pattern. Can you tell me anything more about its abilities, nature, or quirks?"
"Beyond the suggestion that you not walk it, I have little more to input... Fi and I had drifted apart a bit at that point in her studies. I was more concerned with personal matters, and keeping a low profile... Murder, for me, but necessary. I was still off and on the 'good little Amberite' list.
"As for Chaos, remind me to take you there someday... Even with a few thousand bodies littering it's streets, it was still something to behold."
"Right," Ariel commented. "Well... Next up on the list of fun things to do with Broken Pattern is seeing how it reacts to having a pint of Amber's finest spilled on it. Want to come?"
Bleys paled. "My god, Ariel... Haven't you listened to a word I've been saying?! Spilling your blood on Pattern objects is bad, quite bad... Catastrophically bad! If I could go back in time, I would have scrapped the whole Martin and the tricky trump deal and retired to Aruba while I was still ahead!" He sighed, "But you're not going to be talked out of this... are you? Gads, you're your mother's child..."
Ariel crossed her arms and shut her eyes firmly in defiant concentration. Soon, her body shook, and she couldn't hold back her laughter any longer. "Uncle Bleys, you have just reaffirmed my faith in common sense," she grinned at him.
"Given a more profitable line of inquiry or a satisfactory argument," Ariel said, "I am willing to delay that experiment indefinitely. It's risky as Hell, and will probably result in the destruction of the shadow it takes place in. Also, I'm not sure if my blood would weaken the void, or weaken the Pattern element caging it. Probably the latter, which would be bad.
"I try to take my own advice. And one piece of it is to worry when someone refuses to acknowledge arguments against their intended actions. I've seen something similar in you, with your desire to recover Uncle Brand. And I think we've both seen it in Mother's desire to conquer the Broken Pattern.
Ariel leaned back against the battlements and swung her legs up to sit sideways as she thought. "Still... You may be right," she said quietly. "The first thing we need to learn is -how- to learn. And that's Uncle Brand's specialty."
Bleys snapped his fingers, pleased. "That's right... And when it comes to the theoretical, Brand was always dead on... Though," the smile faded, and he took on a pensive air. "There is one small problem... If you want to hash technicalities, your mother and I betrayed Brand at the end... It really wasn't =that= horrid a thing, seeing as how he had gone a touch mad, but you know his temper... He never forgets anything. Once, I remember, I caught the fancy of a young noblewoman he'd been after... It was a good decade before we could have a decent conversation again..."
"More good news," Ariel sighed. "So. The two people with the knowing to work with the Broken Pattern are Mother, who seems to have decided in my absence that power was the key to a happy life - I hope I'm not going to get a guilt complex over that - and Uncle Brand, the renowned Scapegoat of Patternfall, who would probably love to put the thing in his own toybox."
Ariel leaned back against the battlement and rolled her eyes up towards the sky. "Well, I suppose there's always Dworkin," she said mildly.
Bleys flinched. "Oh... About that... There is =so= much to catch up on, isn't there? Dworkin came to a bad end about five years ago... A little mishap in the Patternroom... He was attempting to kill the little heir Jolyon and Rissa, but it was Coral - a hapless bystander - and he that found the pointy end of fate."
Ariel closed her eyes and thought 'God... What did I ever do to you?' Recalling what she did with her first years after walking the Pattern, she decided maybe she didn't want an answer.
After a moment without speaking, Ariel asked Bleys "So tell me about it. Who are these people, and what drove Dworkin to try killing them? Every little bit helps."
"They were the children of two... slightly less than orthodox relationships. Oberon, and Dworkin as well I now believe, outlawed incest long ago... Though if you want to get specific, he outlawed =sibling= marriages, not nieces and Uncles screwing around... But that's besides the point. He called the children 'abominations,' and was bent on gutting them. He killed Coral, poor girl, and lunged for them, but... Well, strange as it sounds, her =blood= stopped him."
"Go on," Ariel prompted.
"I only have second-hand accounts, mind you... Those from Flora and Gerard. Lorelai's take I never got, but she was so shaken by the whole ordeal, I thought it best not to push.
"At any rate, it seems Coral's blood animated and choked him to death... The body certainly bore up to that, even if there wasn't any blood on him by the time we got to him... I didn't get to see any of this. I was in critical condition, due to Deirdre making her re-entrance. Damn near gutted me."
"Sounds like you had a rough time of it yourself," Ariel said. "Lillian mentioned you were almost killed when Clarice was assassinated, too."
"Oh yes... It was a romping good time," Bleys replied dryly. "She came out on top, though. Not only did she get away without a scratch, she managed to kill her first Amberite. She's a sweet girl, but unnerving, at times...
"Fortunately, we know now not to try to kill Clarice, at least on our own lands. She tends to stir things up in the damnedest of ways."
Ariel rested against the battlement and asked quietly "So... What were they like?"
"They? Who they? There are lots of 'they's' running about these days, and they were all something different."
"They who attacked you when Clarice was shot," Ariel replied patiently.
"Oh! =That= 'they'! Well, they were a curious bunch, fitting with all the nastiness that seems to brew up around the Broken Pattern. They were dark... Not 'black in color,' but like someone had just drawn up an outline, and filled it in... You could tell what you were fighting was a cat, or dragonette, or person, but you couldn't see details. It was like... like fighting a shadow."
Bleys sniffed, "=They= weren't what hurt me... That was left for little DeeDee. They couldn't touch me."
Ariel frowned for a second. "Let me see if I have this straight. Uncle Brand goes mad. Caine shoots Uncle Brand and Dierdre, killing both. Mother convinces Julian to walk the Broken Pattern. He does so, and dies of it. A meeting is held. At the meeting Clarice is killed; dark bubble creatures appear and go berserk; Deirdre - who as far as I know is still dead at the time - expresses her displeasure about being dead by sharing; and Mother disappears, kidnapped by Julian who is also dead... I seem to be missing a few pieces. Can you help me with them?"
Bleys frowned. "Well, you've rather smashed all the highlights together, but yes, you have the main things down... I'll have to draw up a time line for you whe--"
In the town below, a bell tolled, and Bleys sighed. "Blast it! The funeral... I'm afraid we'll have to go down now, dear. It's the service for the family, I think."
Ariel stood and brushed off her coat and pants. Placing her arm in Bleys', she favored him with a smile both weary and wry. As they left the roof to descend to the funeral, she sang clearly "The Sun is blinding - dizzy, golden, dancing green - through the park in the afternoon, wondering where the hell I have been..."
Ariel stood and brushed off her coat and pants. Placing her arm in Bleys', she favored him with a smile both weary and wry. As they left the roof to descend to the funeral, she sang clearly "The sun is blinding - dizzy, golden, dancing green - through the park in the afternoon, wondering where the hell I have been..."
Bleys smothered a smile as they headed down the stairs and into a courtyard thick with roses and flowering climbers. A chapel bell tolled in the distance, causing Bleys to hurry his pace. In no time, he pulled Ariel to the opening of a small, cottage like chapel.
The air was warming in the small chapel, and the candles didn't help matters any. The family was seated in their mourning finest, faces somber, or at least the perfect imitation of it.
The first rows werw occupied by the immediate family: Chaos on one side, Amber on the other. There were no theatrics as the high priest of the Church of New Avalon made his speeches, but faces were tight... Especially those of Ryoden, and Jurt. Their Sawall restraint held true, and their outer shells appeared calm.
On the Amber side, there were a few faces missing... Flora, back tending to Amber, and Caine, along with his children. This didn't raise any reactions, though... in fact, there were few reactions; the faces of the elders were strangely calm and watchful, excluding that of Corwin, who did not even seem to see, moving only once to silence Rissa's incessant humming.
The service for the family was not long, lasting perhaps the better part of an hour. They were blessed by a church none of them followed, then said their goodbyes privately, before the public ceremonies.
Ariel was patient as those close to Eleanor mourned at her casket. She took the time to learn new faces, note familiar ones, and count Corwins. As people drifted out of the chapel, she moved forward to regard Eleanor herself. She studied Eleanor's face for a long moment before returning to Bleys. Quietly, Ariel told him "I wanted to see this woman who inspired love in so many. Love is so difficult for us. I fear that my own funeral would be a much smaller affair." Sighing silently, she nodded "I'm done here. Shall we wait outside?"
"Wait outside?" Bleys asked quietly. "For what? More somber looks? I'm done with this." He rose and said "I abhor funerals. This is why I intend never to die. And as for your own funeral... Three possessive and protective redheads can fill up an entire shadow with ego and ill-wrought intentions. Let us go... I believe, if you still want to seek Ryoden, our quarry has left."
Ariel pointed to the chapel entrance and walked out with Bleys. Once out of the crowd's hearing range, she told him sharply "I'm starting to find your obsessiveness frightening. I haven't forgotten. And I even understand some of your reasoning. I want our family to be whole again too, and I know you feel that ten times as strongly as I do. But it is ideology that separates us now, more than any magical bindings or other influences. Even were that not true, today is not the day to hound anyone. If compassion isn't enough of a reason to show some restraint then remember that I have had over twenty years of instruction in how to be a red-headed bitch from the greatest artist since Grandma.
Ariel crossed her arms and looked imperiously up at Bleys, "What we need now is to expand our options, not discard them. I would like your help in this. Releasing Uncle Brand and kidnapping Mother are two options, both of which are likely to spawn any number of unpleasant consequences. Before we try either of those, we should have more information and more allies. And aggrivating as it is, that takes time.
"So bear with me on this. The more we know, the more options we have, the stronger our position will be. And that must be our goal before we pursue any of the others."
Bleys stepped back, looking stung, as if Ariel had reared her hand back and smacked him. "You have found your eye teeth, haven't you... Very well, then. We research. There aren't many ways to do that, though, unless you have some novel idea... And oh, by the Horn do NOT say you want to go bleed on the thing!"
Ariel's mouth twitched toward a smirk, "I have a temper and I'm not afraid to use it. I spent the better part of my time since Patternfall growing a spine. Sweetness and light only go so far.
"Unfortunately, you have a valid point. Researching is difficult with our present resources. The two ideas I have left now are mapping the Broken Patterns and their environments and seeing what happens when the void interacts with Amber blood. Both are feasible with what I have. We can also try testing the shadows that hold Broken Pattern to see if they differ from normal shadow. Hopefully, one of these will lead to other avenues of research. If you have any ideas of your own, I'd like to hear them.
"Today is just not a good day to approach people about helping us, much as I want to. Eleanor's death is just too much on everyone's mind."
Bleys nodded as he glanced back at the church. "On the other hand... It does distract our king and his queen. The two of them are notoriously skittish on the subject of Broken Patterns... And at least we'll know where Lillian will be if we need her. I heard Wraecca is slotted to be the regent. I can't see her straying far from him, not at a time like this.
"Another thing of note: we seem to be missing a family member. Caine didn't show. I know he was never fond of Eleanor, but with his wardrobe, he's always dressed for a funeral. Strange...
"Alright. We can get out to shadow and go hunt down some other Broken Pattern to play with. Ready?"
"I'm ready," Ariel replied, "but I need to fetch something from shadow first. Then we can start with the experiment least likely to blow up any major landmarks." She nodded towards the castle, "Let's head inside. I dislike observers when I move about quickly.
They headed towards a less populated part of the castle and Ariel commented "There were actually a number of people I didn't see at the funeral. Mother, Deirdre, and Julian at the top of the list, and Corey. Since Eleanor was his daughter, after a fashion, and this was his base of power, I thought he would show. I also thought Clarice might attend. But I guess she's not the type.
Once in a relatively private section of the castle, Ariel told Bleys "It's going to take me a few minutes to fetch the microscope and find a suitable place to work with. I'll trump you when I've made the second jump. I tossed it into the asshole end of the universe, and we really don't want to work there."
Bleys nodded and found a seat on a rather rustic looking bench. "I'll stay here, then... I've rather had my fill of nasty, volatile shadows when I was studying under Dworkin... He had his sadistic days, you know.
"I'm not surprised any of our Broken Pattern group didn't show, but I wouldn't be on Corey... He's much less 'present', and much more 'omnipresent.' Any time I've visited, he's made it a habit to remain unseen unless he was truly needed... And he was rarely needed."
"Actually, I didn't know," Ariel said. "I never met Dworkin."
Ariel focused her mind and concentrated on forming the image of the Pattern before her. She pushed her consciousness through it methodically, feeling the familiar alien change of awareness as they shaped each other. She peered through shadow until she found the morass of shadow near her home. Touching the 'fabric' of that place, she frowned at its consistency. She worked with it for a moment to stabilize a small area before casting herself through.
Ariel focused her mind and concentrated on forming the image of the Pattern before her. She pushed her consciousness through it methodically, feeling the familiar alien change of awareness as they shaped each other. She peered through shadow until she found the morass of shadow near her home. Touching the 'fabric' of that place, she frowned at its consistency. She worked with it for a moment to stabilize a small area before casting herself through.
Upon arriving, Ariel retrieved the microscope and sample of her mother's hair. She invoked the Pattern once again and sought a calm and uninhabited shadow in which to investigate at her liesure. She cast through, and her small island was swallowed by the mire.
Ariel's destination was a sunny field bordering the shore of a lake. She put the microscope down on a flat rock and withdrew Bleys' trump. It came alive almost instantly, and Bleys looked at the items in her hands. He held out his hand and in a moment stood at her side.
"So, what do we have here?" Bleys poked at the broken microscope. "I'll assume this wasn't the result of one of your tantrums."
"More like the Broken Pattern's," Ariel said. She removed the damaged lens casing from the microscope and held it up for Bleys to see. "A minute portion of its power did this. It may not look impressive, but I'm more concerned with the type of damage than the amount. Disintegration. Reality failure. Parts of this component were... Uncreated." She frowned, trying to think of how to explain, "And the... The void - the disintegrating force - even though it wasn't really anything, was more real than the shadow substance of the microscope.
"I wanted to retrieve this sample of Mother's hair as much as to examine the microscope. I know I can agitate the void in it to react, and I want to see what happens when it comes in contact with a drop of my blood. If you have something we can use, I also hoped to find out what happens when it comes up against something else that's real. Something from Amber, but not Pattern charged."
Bleys sighed with relief, taking his hand off of his precious Pattern Blade. "Oh! Of course... That's easy enough to dredge up. Did you have something in mind? Perhaps a mirror, or jewel... Non-powered, of course, and I have a plethora."
"Well, I -would- like to see what happens when the void meets a pattern object, but I only have so much of Mother's hair available," Ariel teased. "Besides, my blood should have enough of a Pattern charge for initial tests. First let's try one of those mirrors.
Accepting a small mirror from Bleys, Ariel aligned the strands of hair and taped them onto the glass so they wouldn't blow away. Placing the mirror on the rock, she said "Now we bring up the Pattern lens and I start poking the dark strands in the follicles. The idea is to make them mad enough to react and see if they can eat through the mirror the way they did the microscope."
The air lit up around them as two Pattern lenses came into focus. They watched the hair laid out on the mirror... At first, there was nearly no reaction. But as Ariel pressed her will upon it, it began to writhe, the darkness welling up, expanding, sending hairline fractures along the mirror's surface... And when Bleys forced all his will upon it, the mirror shattered into mere dust.
"Well," Bleys said after a moment, "=that's= certainly dramatic."
"Nasty stuff," Ariel agreed. "Well, from its reaction, it appears that the Pattern does harm it some, or at least causes it a great deal of discomfort. This little bit of void is giving us a hard time, so I can only imagine the kind of resistance and potential an initiate has. It would probably take a Pattern construct - one with a very forceful will - to overcome any significant portion of void. Which leads me to theory number two of why only Wraecca has been able to throw off the Broken Pattern. It probably gave the real one such a fight when Wraecca switched over that Amber's Pattern has refused a rematch. From the Pattern's point of view, it must be far easier to create a new initiate than to fix a broken one. For once, the Pattern walk might have been harder on the Pattern than on the walker.
"Oh. Theory number one was that Wraecca was able to throw it off somehow because he's a shapeshifter. But that's just a wild guess. I don't know why shapeshifting should have any effect on the outcome."
"Theory two is attractive... But I find myself leaning to theory one..." Bleys gingerly touched the dust, drawing abstract patterns in the remains with the tip of his finger. "Though fear is a strange thing to project onto a construct, is it not? Frightening... But the question is why: Why would it be frightened of this new Power?"
"Because it's not new," Ariel replied. "Mother told me a few things before we realized we were on opposite sides. The Broken Pattern isn't entirely new. Rather, it seems to be some projection of the Pattern caging and pushing back whatever forces of chaos were inflicted upon it during Patternfall. She also referred to it as a gateway. So, it appears the Broken Pattern is a hybrid manifestation of the Pattern's struggle against something very primal and, quite possibly, very old.
"Frightened might not be the best word, but the void may be able to fight the Pattern on relatively equal terms. The Pattern may have a score or so Amberites to work with, and we can always make more. So facing a major confrontation over any one of us is a losing proposition. Individually, we're not that valuable, and it has a lot to lose. The Broken Pattern, on the other hand, is in itself a new... Entity? It's young, very scrappy, and has little to lose in a confrontation. And think of who it's modelling itself after - Clarice."
Bleys cocked his head to the side, toying with a ring on his finger. He spun it in lazy circles. "What do you think would happen if we simply... altered its model?"
Bleys' comment left Ariel with a look of mild surprise. "I think... That could be a very good thing. It would probably alter its approach, acting in the way its new model taught it to act. It's akin to raising a child. You can help and teach, but you'll never be quite certain what they will become."
Bleys studied Ariel as a wry smile played on his lips. "How true... How true... Now, as to how to change Clarice..." He pursed his lips and his fingers drummed out a rhythm on his sword's hilt. "I think a rewrite from day one is in order. I'm fairly certain I could wipe her mind."
"Whoa. That's a bit brutal for my tastes," Ariel said. "But still, if worse comes to worse... It's an idea worth refining. If practical, I would recommend a selective amnesia. It would remove less of Clarice's essence, and leave her stronger for what she's going to have to face. She's still going to have to know enough to teach the Broken Pattern, -and- she's still going to have my mother trying to coerce her at every step. I wouldn't want to leave her defenseless against that.
"Also consider that if she changes too drastically, the Broken Pattern may discard her or throw a major tantrum. And then add in the complications of Wraecca, Lillian, Corey, and whomever else may have an attatchment to Clarice.
"On the upside," Ariel mused, "if the Broken Pattern does discard Clarice... The only person left with a pure Broken Pattern imprint is Lillian, who is probably the best choice for a mother figure."
Bleys lifted an eyebrow. "Now =there's= an interesting idea... Yes, she would make a better model, wouldn't she? If we could get the Broken Pattern to toss off Clarice without us having to alter her to the point of upsetting her loved ones... That would be =much= more elegant! Perhaps if we simply make Lillian more alluring..."
Ariel paused and said "That's an interesting idea. So far, I've been under the assumption that the Broken Pattern would never willingly abandon Clarice as its primary focus - that she's imprinted on it at a level below reasoning. But part of what I'd like to have accomplished with the Broken Pattern is illustrate to it the advantages of rationality. To make a level manner seem more desirable than its current state and give it a target to shoot for in its development. Teaching it that could help move it toward making a switch.
"Also, a twist to the idea of mind-wiping Clarice... If it does come to that, then it may help us in the long run to store her memories in a receptacle. That way the damage can be undone, we gain a bargaining chip if we have to deal with her adherents, and we might even learn something in the process. The Broken Pattern should decide whether or not to switch its focus fairly quickly. Either way, there's little need to keep her as an amnesiac."
"Very true," Bleys nodded. "And if need be, we can edit some of her memories.... Take out select things that, perhaps, soured her. None of us knew her before, but I can't think she's always been such a fire-breather.
"I think the broken Pattern, or the thing that lies beneath it, is not as... Oh, how to put this delicately... It's not as =intelligent= as the other powers. This isn't to say that it won't grow and learn. That's what it seems to be doing now. If we can get it to switch now, while it's still pliant, we'd be doing the universe a favor...
"There is, however, one problem: what will Lillian feel about her new role, if she gets it, and, perhaps more dangerously, what will Wraecca think? Lillian, I think, is adaptable enough, and will fall into the nurturing teacher role... Wraecca, however is a tad protective of her. He snarls quite a bit."
"Lillian, Lillian..." Ariel mused. "Again, the key is Lillian. I don't think she ever dreamed she would be as important as she is. If she still considers family therapy to be her calling, then she hasn't accepted the roles fate has created for her. Which, ironically, is part of her attraction. She won't want to be curator of the Broken Pattern, and would initially want to return the task to Clarice. But I think she can be talked into it. I would appeal to her sense of duty and responsibility to convince her to accept the burden.
"Wraecca I do not know. But I think he would be hard pressed to act against us if we convince Lillian to work with us beforehand. That way, he would be working against her wishes, not just our own."
"Such a clever girl." Bleys almost lifted a hand to pinch her cheek, but remembering some ancient pain set upon him by his wayward sister he drew back. "I should have gone searching for you sooner than I had... Or, at least, better than I did. There were a few forays, but I always came up empty handed."
"You wouldn't have been able to find me," Ariel said plainly. "I was trapped in the eye of a storm. A remnant from Patternfall. It blocked Pattern, and I expect it would have blocked Trump too. If it makes a difference, those years helped temper me.
"I have a question, though. Before Patternfall, during the period I was caught in a slow time shadow... Did anyone know where I was then?"
Bleys shook his head. "I didn't, I know that... As for the others... Well, we're cagey when we're at our best, and downright zipperlipped at our worst. At the time... we didn't really trust each other, you see..."
Ariel caught herself smirking and raised her fist to her mouth to hide her amusement. "Cagey I know about. You'll catch me at it sooner or later. Was there anything going on at the time that made you not trust each other?"
Bleys attempted a non-chalant shrug but faltered. "Oh, there were a few things... I lost a rather important battle... Fiona and Brand were starting to see where their philosophies differed... I was becoming a less and less willing puppet... All sorts of things. The usual fights, on an extraordinary scale."
Ariel nodded sympathetically, "I got the impression Mother was driving you two on." Her eyes fell from Bleys' and she admitted, "Not just you two. But... Can you tell me about the differences they saw? It might help me understand their thinking."
Bleys sighed. "Your mother was always the more practical of we three... She was concerned with all the mundane bits, the details, the odds and ends... Brand was more concerned with the overall goal, what we were going to =do= with a kingdom. Me... I suppose I was somewhere inbetween."
"I'd have thought running a kingdom would become trying to you," Ariel observed. "You must have tried it at some point. What was your experience?"
Bleys smiled, his eyes set on the distant setting sun and a fond air about him as he remembered. "It was wonderful... I ran this little state in the middle of a pastoral countryside. All the best from all the surrounding counties were sent to my court to complain, scrape, beg for favors... My mornings were exercises with whim and numbers, afternoons teas and lively debates, coupled with offhanded insults and playing the nobles off one another... Evenings were lavish dinners, with silent wars of perfume and jewels and handkerchiefs the best armaments ever.... Some of my best years were there."
Ariel smiled gently as she listened to Bleys describe his kingdom. After he finished, she asked "Have you ever run things in a place where shadow didn't bend to your liking?"
"Mmmm.... No, not really... But that was what Amber is, dear. It's the final challenge. The last frontier. The top of the hill. Corwin doesn't know what a gem he has, really. I've thought of offering to fill in, should he abdicate, but at this point most the family sees me as a cute accessory to a terrible time. They would never see me seated. Pity, really."
"I was thinking about the downside of it, myself. How the difficulties there could get really nasty, with no good way to fix them." Ariel gave Bleys a small wry smile, "The motto there could well be 'Amber: All our problems are real ones.'"
Bleys laughed and clapped a hand on Ariel's back. "Cleverer and cleverer! Yes, that's true... I couldn't just wave a magic wand and fix them, but that's what's so alluring... A real problem equals a real challenge, after all.
"There's a downside to everything. I'm certain I would have my bad days, my moody days... But one advantage is I would never, ever be bored. A bored redhead is the most dangerous thing in the world, Father once said... He was referring to Mother at the time, but it applied to her children as well."
"Tell me about it," Ariel said with an amused rolling of her eyes. "It didn't stop with your generation. I had a few... Parties of my own. Once we wound up in the Shadow of Open-minded Stewardesses - don't ask me how." She snapped her fingers, recalling "Oh. Speaking of which... Inga said 'Hello' and wanted to know when you were going to come back and visit. But that was a long time ago," she shrugged.
"One thing I don't understand," Ariel said. "I can see how the differences between Uncle Brand's approach and my mother's could cause some friction. But that should have been a strength, not something that would prevent them from working together."
"Work together?" Bleys laughed sharply. "For a time, we could get on, but it was always more interesting to push and pull, to find each others buttons and not only press them, but wear the damn things down. It was the kind of siblinghood we had found. Balance in imbalance. Gods... but I miss them. These days, no one knows how to have a good sparring match without tossing a blood curse over their shoulder."
Ariel gave Bleys an odd look and said "You're starting to make me glad I was an only child."
"Are you certain?" Bleys looked hurt. "Siblings are a mixed blessing, it's true, but the best times of my life were with one of them at my side, somewhere... And if they weren't there, they were always entertaining to tell it to..." He sighed.
Ariel smiled softly, "No. I'm not certain. Sometimes... Well... I've never really had anyone to talk to. Anyone who was on my level. There were the three of you, older than God and ready to put him in his place if he crossed you. And there were shadow people, who were so many snowflakes in the wind. But no one in between."
Bleys gave her a lopsided grin and rose. "Well, I'll try my damndest to get you another red-readed cousin to play with, but I'm afraid Lestia's never been keen on the idea on getting all rotund and womanly. Vanity... what a glorious sin.
"There are, of course, Brand's children, and mine... but you wouldn't really want to mix with them."
"I seem to have a number of cousins and younger uncles and aunts to acquaint myself with now," Ariel said. "That should help, although growing up is when we really need the company. Before we take to the Pattern. But why do you think I shouldn't want to associate with my first cousins?"
Bleys blinked. "It simply never occurred to me... Our kind never 'mixed' that much... I don't see why you can't. Amber =is= lousy with your cousins, though they always seem so terribly busy... I'm barely able to pin one down, when I need one. Slippery, it would seem."
"Hmm. Terribly busy, are they? Who would have thought they'd be so active." Ariel knelt down and scooped a few spoonfuls of glass dust into a test tube before stoppering it. She tapped the half-full tube and said "This stuff was atomized rather than disintegrated as I had originally expected. I'm going to have it analyzed to see what's left of it and if it can be reconstituted." She pushed the rest of the dust together into a flat mound. "I'm thinking that it can't do much more to the dust, so we can use it as a sort of insulator. Otherwise we'll end up digging the sample out of this rock. Now seems a good time for the acid test.
Ariel scratched her arm with a penknife and held a tissue over the cut while it scabbed. She folded the tissue, put it on the mound of glass dust, and dropped the sample of hair on the bloodied portion. "If my guess is correct, the void should end up warping the Pattern imprint in my blood. Ready?"
Bleys flinched, but nothing seemed to happen at the bare contact. He sighed with relief. "Ready. Shall we put it in a bad mood again?"
"I wonder if it's in this thing to get permanently pissed off," Ariel said, having noted Bleys' discomfort. "And how much power it can actually draw through. There's some element of Pattern in here. If things go bad, concentrate on that and reinforce it." Ariel grinned "That's experiment number four, anyway. Alright. Let's do it."
Ariel constructed her Pattern Lens and focused her will on the dark strands. She felt the air light up around her again, and her focus barreled into the hairs and blood. Her own plasma didn't react until the darkness began to writhe.... She felt the energies wailing, coming together and wrestling each other. The Pattern trying to subvert, the void trying to destroy. Then there was another explosion, a force that shoved both Ariel and Bleys back...
When they looked up, where the dust and hairs had been, there was nothing save perfectly flat ground that lacked even a scorch mark.
Ariel raised herself to a sitting position, looking frazzled and mildly dazed. She blinked and said "Wow. Now that brings back memories..." Looking about with a bewildered expression, she added "I think we're done here."
"Yes... seeing as how our materials are sufficiently depleted... Unless of course, you want me to go tugging on Fiona's pigtails. She abhored that when we were young. Now... I shudder." Bleys picked himself up, then helped Ariel to her feet. "Next time... An observation room and some rather thick walls."
"Agreed," Ariel said emphatically. "You know..." she said, looking at the flat ground "I'm almost certain there used to be a rock here."
Ariel glanced upwards just in case but shrugged, seeing nothing. "Fortunately, that was only part of the sample. I had a feeling my poking around would end with something getting blown up. But I want to think about this before using the rest. Did you notice how the Pattern in my blood was trying to subvert the darkness? I think that's a hint about how to approach it. And..." she added wryly, "we did manage to destroy a portion of the void."
"And the Pattern as well," Bleys replied darkly, motioning to the flat circle. "And nearly anything else that had the misfortune of existing nearby. This is one tick against the idea of direct confrontation. I prefer my own particles put together the way they =are=, thank you very much."
Ariel nodded solemnly, but didn't say any more. Instead, she brought up the Pattern Lens and compared the demolished circle to the rest of the shadow.