Benedict nods, and moves from where he was standing to say something quietly to Corwin. At this point, it becomes obvious why he had stayed put off to the side... He is limping. He and the king talk for a moment, and Corwin waves him off as Benedict fades away.
"It looks as though I'm the only one on this hunt. Very well."
Scren moves his mount to face the King of Amber. "No, your highness, you're not the only one. All of us are going to look." and it seems his grin gets a bit bigger.
"I meant the only-- never mind." He studies Scren for a moment, then shakes his head.
"I won't even ask who you are. Lead on, whoever is shifting."
As Eleanor begins to pull herself and her companions through shadow, she notices odd things begin to show up... Wildlife decreases, the surrounding forests and brush become starved and dry looking. Even the sky looks paler, less vibrant.
The first cracks begin to show slowly... in the roots of a dry rotted tree, or the shadow of a long dead bush... A place where the darkness is not simply the absence of light, but the absence of anything.
Ellie frowns slightly then shakes her head and slows down slightly, saying to her father and the group in general "Looks like the cracks are starting to show. Anybody apart from Wraecca seen this before?"
The ranger looks around, "Never, and I'm kind of glad for that."
Irmin replies, "Neither have I. Though shouldn't we try and repair as we go to make it less hazardous?"
Ellie nods "We could, but that may leave us drained for the end point of the journey. I'm in favour of pressing on."
Irmin replies, "Marking the place though as the boundary so that we know where the edge is." With that Irmin has Vlar mark a tree.
Scren sniffs and a purple-green tongue flits from between the fangs to taste the air. "We might be better off going on on foot. I would not like to have my mount shy away from something and land me in one of those cracks."
Ellie nods "Or lose them needlessly." She dismounts, patting Domino and loosely tethering her near some water and grass.
The ranger nods and dismounts, "Would you like me to send them back to Saxony?"
Irmin stays mounted, "We are fine for now."
The ranger then sends the horse through a trump gate.
Corwin dismounts, and whispers something to his steed. It gallops off, and he watches it disappear.
"He'll find his way home." He looks at Irmin. "Are you sure you want to stay mounted? With the rest of us on foot, your steed may get a tad impatient with us."
Irmin gives a slight nod and dismounts. After speaking softly to Streak he pulls a trump and sends it away.
Ellie nods and says "Onwards and upwards then." unconsciously mimicking one of her foster-mother's favourite phrases as she again shifts shadow for the group.
The cracks increase, and start to appear more wantonly. They creep out of the shadows and into the open light, crossing the paths of the searchers and each other.
The destruction becomes even more clear, with not a hint of greenery in sight, and no signs of life. The sun becomes a pale yellow disc in a green-grey sky. A wind blows across the hills, sometimes hot, sometimes cold.
Loping in long strides with double-jointed legs, Scren hops over fissures and shadows and he sniffs and tastes the air constantly. A few minutes into the search, Scren sniffs deeply and then turns on the company, and looks at Corwin especially. He hisses softly and then asks "What would Julian smell like?"
Corwin, while his face remains tense, manages a small laugh.
"I don't know. I never made it a habit of smelling my siblings. But I'd imagine anything human you run into has a good chance of being him."
Irmin pulls a piece of cloth out of his pocket, "This is from one of his garments." And hands it to Scren.
A taloned hand takes the piece of cloth gently and sniffs it for a moment. He hands it back to Irmin and with a jump returns to the path and resumes his tracking.
The traces are fleeting, easy to miss. Only in flashes does he find the scent as it blows on the wind and in the dust.
Ellie watches Scren for a moment then leads the group after him, keeping a careful eye on their route.
Scren tries to follow the wisps of scent he gets, sometimes jumping into trees to get a higher smell, sometimes shuffling along the ground. With every wisp he gets more and more frantic.
Corwin watches, hand over his mouth.
"How strong is it?"
Without looking up, Scren replies "Fragmented...vague here..." and he moves his head around "...but strong here..." he stops and sits on his haunches. "It is just as fragmented as the landscape here."
"The wind," Corwin replies. "It's getting in the way." He looks over to Ellie. "I don't want to mess with your variables. Can you tone this down a bit?"
Ellie nods and walks on a bit, staring out at the landscape. Gradually, the wind dies down to a mere whisper. She nods to Scren "That's about as quiet as I can get it with the disturbances here."
Scren's tongue flits in acknowledgement and he continues his tracking, hoping to find a better spoor this time.
As she turns to speak to Scren, her words are drowned out by a gust of wind howling over the landscape, nearly throwing her and her companions off their feet. After a second it dies down, but when it does, Eleanor realizes her pattern is no longer up.
Ellie curses softly and turns to the others "Alright, using Pattern here brings retaliation. My Pattern's gone down."
Scren scrambles upright after the wind blast and lisps "Will try Logrusss..."
He pulls up his logrus view and has one tendril out in front of him and one sampling the scent he still has in his olfactory senses. The tendril in front of him sweeps across the path and in the air to see if he can detect more traces.
His knees weaken as the sensitive tendril encounters the wind... Not just air, he realizes as he feels his hold on the Logrus loosen and dissipate.
A loud snarl sounds from Scren and he beats his fist on the ground. "Thiss Shadow iss alive! It's blocking uss!"
Irmin looks at the group, "Perhaps now is the time for us to use our powers together. What do you think?"
Corwin lowers his body into a crouch. "Perhaps. But a moment..." His hand moves to his side, to his trump case.
"Anyone else notice trumps are dead?"
Ellie shakes her head "No, I hadn't checked lately. I don't like where this is heading though."
Irmin shakes his head. "Now that you have all discerned that one person alone can not change things. I suggest those of us with pattern form a circle and attempt to fix this shadow so that we may move on."
The ranger speaks up from next to Irmin, "Don't bother with magic, it’s dead as well. I think Irmin's suggestion is about the only option left."
Scren shakes his head and slowly his features change back into the human features he had earlier. He is now dressed in a pair of loose-fitting black pants and a black shirt.
"Spare your efforts," he says with a small tone of derision. "This shadow is more powerful in that department. We have to use our wits instead. Something as large as a shadow is very strong, but I guess not very smart."
He looks around and looks at the fissures. "These fissures seem to have a certain pattern to them, maybe they converge somewhere in this shadow. If we follow that pattern, we might find the focus of this shadow and see what's happening there..."
Corwin looks out over the landscape, his hair blow wild, cape unfurled in the wind.
"I agree. Every time we use something, it gets worse. We might want to use that logic to back up before we get completely cut off."
Irmin looks to be losing his composure, and looks straight at Scren. "Last time I checked it was still my father we are looking for. If you wish I can go off and do this myself, or perhaps have someone else kidnapped for you to see I mean what I say. Now. if you wish to still throw barbs at me that is fine, otherwise can we please continue to try and find my father."
Scren puts his hands in his pockets. His hair is blowing in the wind now as well. "You want to go back?" he states simply to Corwin.
The ranger just grins and moves forward through the shadow. Picking his way carefully across the terrain he does not take a step unless he is sure of his balance. "We are wasting time with this useless arguing. If you want to, leave, other wise come on. Obviously powers have no bearing and we'll just have to do this the hard way." With that said he continues on his way.
As he passes Scren, he grabs the ranger by the shoulder and turns him to look at him. "I admire your courage, but what good is it to get yourself lost as well. If logic and our power doesn't work, we need to remain alive to find another way in. I can see Corwin's logic. If we die, there will be no-one to tell them it's this dangerous. Maybe there is someone who knows how to deal with this in Amber." and he releases the ranger.
Ellie nods "I agree with Scren. Getting ourselves trapped isn't going to help anyone. We need to retreat and regroup."
"I appreciate your concern, but I owe this man” pointing to Irmin, “many things. I will not stop. He gave me new life so my life is his. Please do not try to grab me again, I do not like being touched." Then he continues on his wary path.
Irmin nods, "If my mother's pleas would have been answered earlier we might not be in this situation now." He then follows the ranger.
Corwin watches the two of them move off into the storm, his jaw set.
Suddenly he leaps from his crouch, sword drawn, blade down. He cracks Irmin in the back of the head, and Irmin falls to the ground. He looks at the unnamed ranger.
"And if I come back without Julian or his son, things will truly get ugly. We're going back."
"Will you knock me over the head as well? What will it change? We will come back and try again, maybe. What if you think it is too dangerous. Is Irmin to just leave it be? Would Ellie stop now in his position, would Imogen? No. So why should we? We are losing time. You have no reason to detain me. I am going." And he stands off to the side and calls Vlar to him. "This animal knows Julian's scent. He will help me."
"Think about it. Do you think Julian would want his son dead over it? I know that if I were in that position, and I believe I recently was, I wouldn't want Imo or El to come after me.
"We are heading back, now, dammit. I'm not going to have any of you killed over this."
Ellie replies quietly "None of us have said we will leave it be. However, Julian's absence is not the only problem here. You seem to be able to talk to Irmin and his family. Currently, his wife is taking pot shots at Amberites, be they in Amber or Arden."
Grinning again, "I am not so foolish that I am going to walk into certain doom. I am going to trail the scent as far as I can, a scouting mission if you will. I wouldn't leave Irmin to do this alone if he doesn't receive future assistance. Sorry for my lack of confidence, but I am versed in the history of my family. You will see me again, and by the looks of it soon. Have I ever lied to either of you? No. So once again I ask you for your trust."
Corwin hefts Irmin over his shoulder and stands.
"This is as far as you are going. I'd like to know how the hell you're going to track anything in winds like this. Something is causing this, and cutting us off. We need to find higher ground and get the hell back home."
Scren sighs and sniffs the air. "Again, I admire your courage," he addresses the ranger, "but even I cannot find any spoor in these conditions. Listen to Corwin. You'll serve Irmin better by coming with us.”
"Once again, I am quite resourceful.......... I take after my father."
Ellie nods "He's right. Come back with us."
"Thank you, but no. As I have said before, I do not like to repeat myself."
Ellie shrugs then asks "Suggestions on dealing with Julian's wife then?"
"Make friends with Irmin, he can control her. If he wants to."
"Please, then, share. What's your great idea?" Corwin's face grows dark. "I won't start another war with him because I didn't bring you back."
"Don't worry about that, he knows my mind. And my aunt has probably already seen my outcome in the cards, or entrails."
Corwin waves a hand at the growing cracks, the howling winds. "Look around you! If we were heading for Julian, and he's here somewhere, then the man is probably already _dead_. Do you understand that? This is a fool's mission! This is a damn stupid way to die!"
"Of course it is, but tell that man on your shoulder that he will never see his father again, and that you don't know why. Do you think he'll stop? No he won't. All I am going to do is gather information about this little slice of hell. I know that there is no way I could possibly rescue Julian alone, if he is even alive. But if I can learn about this place then maybe we'll stand a better chance when we come back. And he and I will come back."
Corwin's face grows grim. "Our powers are of no use here, and the cracks are growing worse. We have to go back. It will only get worse the further in we go."
"I will go, but before I do I want something. I want your word that you will come back with us. And if nothing else we will find either his body, or what happened to him. Without that, there is no way you will keep me from this. I will be back with or without any help."
"Fine. I will come back. I swear it on my daughter, and I swear it on Imogen. I will return with you."
"Then what are we waiting for, the weather here is terrible. And I never got to eat." Smiling he walks towards the rest of the group. "I would like to suggest we circumvent Arden though, being as Irmin is unconscious and over your shoulder."
"Wonderful. A smart-ass, just like Delwin." Corwin readjusts Irmin again, and begins to head back.
"He did raise me after all, I got some of my aunts traits too."
Ellie and the others follow. Soon they see Domino and Scren's steed. Beyond, they see Gerard, Esta and Imogen approach.
Ellie sees Gerard gallop the them, Imogen following. He reaches the group first, and looks at Corwin.
"What the hell is _that_?!"
Imogen canters easily towards them, and the draws rein at a little distance, looking intently at all the group. Ellie ... Wraecca ... and someone she seems to recognise as a Chaosian. Delwin's son ... the other must be Julian's ... the cause of their problems.
Corwin looks at her, and seems to watch her for several moments, his face strangely hard to read.
"It may be a shadow storm. But it doesn't feel like one."
Ellie nods, in a ripple, her human form returning, then she answers "Irmin and I worked out that Julian may have been looking for the missing Unicorn. This is as far as we've got."
Gerard looks and the blooming darkness, and shakes his head.
"This is way out of my repertoire. We need back-up."
Esta looks at the darkness. "Julian... is _in_ that thing?"
"Theoretically, since we aren't sure if he is alive or not."
Ellie nods and adds to Esta and Imogen "Looks like it, if he is alive." She yawns "No offence but between walking the Pattern to sort something out and getting shot at, I really am tired. We can use trumps from here."
Imogen sees his expression ... and at first she assumes he is angry to see her here, when he left her safe in Amber. Then, with an almost painful start, she realises another probable cause - one that reaches even more deeply into their relationship.
Hastily, she pushes the helm open, the blonde hair framing her face.
"I'm sorry," she says numbly. "I couldn't stay behind."
"I understand," he says softly, then walks up to her horse. "Let's go home, Imo."
"We only have two horses," says Imogen. "Or I'd suggest we hellride out of here - now."
The ranger pulls out a trump and in a flash of light he appears at the castle.
Ellie nods to her father and Imo "I'll see you both later.", then with Wraecca, Scren and assorted steeds, trumps back into the courtyard of Amber.
Imogen reaches down a hand, inviting him to climb up behind her.
Then she looks back at the face of darkness and shivers a little.
"Would the Unicorn really choose to come =here=?" she says softly.
Then she reaches for her trump deck.
He puts a hand on her arm as she pulls out the trump.
"I'm truly beginning to hope that Julian wasn't chasing the Unicorn. I don't want to think she's here."
Imogen nods silently .... then seems the stable yard of Amber shimmer into being around them. Once secure of her surroundings, she slides from the horse, beckoning a stable hand to take it.
"You overpowered Julian's son then?" she says, lifting the unconscious Ranger by his hair to glance at his face.
"We should get him inside. Flora will deal with him."
"No one will be _dealing_ with anyone. I'm going to set him up in Julian's rooms and wait for him to wake up.
"No vengeance. It isn't worth it. A nasty bruise will do."
Imogen looks at him in slight surprise, and then smiles wickedly.
"Well, I was just imagining Flora performing her good angel of mercy act on him. But leaving him strictly alone works too."
She reaches out a hand and touches his arm. "Corwin - I was so scared for you."
"I knew you would be." He smiles and touches her hair. "But don't sacrifice yourself for me.
"And stop calling me your 'lord'" he teases, giving her hair a tug as he moves off to Julian's quarters.
She grins, lifting the helm from her head and shaking her hair free as she walks beside him.
"I thought it as well to stress that you were a person of importance," she says. "By emphasizing my respect, I wanted to stress how very poorly I was going to estimate those who treated you ill."
The wicked smile returns. "And what are you, if not my love and my lord? Am I not your lady?"
As Corwin settles Irmin into his father's bed, he goes to retort, but turns instead.
The Ranger stands in the frame of the door, a huge dog at his side.
When the ranger reaches the courtyard he leans down to Vlar and whispers into his ear. Vlar then lopes off in search of his master with the ranger following.
The huge shaggy dog makes his way through the castle, eventually finding Corwin and Imogen again. Irmin is laying on a plush bed, quietly resting.
The colours of the room are black and green, and hunting trophies and swords abound. Corwin turns at the Ranger's entrance and nods.
Imogen stiffens, watching him.
"Thank you for bringing him here, it may calm him when he wakes to see his father's room." Vlar rushes to the bed and jumps onto it, he then curls up at Irmin's feet.
Corwin nods. "Are you going to stay here?"
"I think I should to make it easier on all parties." Flashing a smile at Imogen, "I trust you have been well since last we spoke."
Imogen nods. "Apart from the hellride," she says drily. "And worrying that Corwin was dead - or worse - I had a lovely time."
She looks across at Corwin. "So what now? Does anyone at all have experience of Shadows like that? It seemed to confound the Chaosian as much as it did Gerard ... and you."
"Look on the bright side, no more fish sandwiches. Anyway, if you folks would leave us, he is going to be very angry when he wakes and I'd prefer I was the only one here. To calm him." The ranger smiles and sits down.
Imogen looks at him a little oddly.
"=He= is going to be angry? He has just been behind a treasonous plot to kidnap the King, murder his heir and cause the most enormous security breach in the country's defences - and we are to worry about =his= feelings?"
"Treason. Interesting word. When did he declare fealty or allegiance to Amber? And the attempt on Ellie's life was not his doing, his mother got a little ahead of herself and has been reprimanded. And yes I would worry about his feelings, he was stopped when he was going after his father. I also might add that at that point Corwin had been freed and we did nothing to stop him from leaving us behind. You may not worry about his feelings, but I gather you don't worry much about anyone. Except for Corwin of course. I pray that you will try and be more civilized in your home than you were in my father's."
Imogen speaks quietly.
"Arden is part of Amber. Everyone in the Rangers swears fealty to Amber when they swear loyalty to Julian - for Julian's allegiance is to Amber. And Julian above all know this. Whatever he does, he does it in the belief that he serves Amber. Whatever his feelings,
whoever he loves or hates in his family, he serves Amber. As do I, as does Corwin, and Ellie, and Wraecca - and all the rest.
"We may love individuals - parents, children, lovers. But that is only one kind of love. There is a higher love - our love of the good, the true - all that Amber is, that it should be, that it can
become - if we work together. And all of our blood serve that ideal above all - or become lost utterly."
"Whether Julian swore to Amber or not has no bearing on Irmin. If your father swore fealty to a monarchy that may expel him from his home if he doesn't, is that the same? Subjects are only loyal if they are willing. I know that not once has Irmin sworn loyalty to anyone or anything but his family. So to call him treasonous when he is not a subject of the court is preposterous. How can you claim lordship over someone that you do not know exists? If that is your idea of right then I say Amber is a fool's land. Do not get me wrong, I have respect for a great many people within these walls, yet some have not shown themselves to know humility. You speak of true love, and I can see your point, but I don't agree. Your first and foremost love should be your family, and this man has shown that love. Do you think he expected to live after what he did? No, he knew his life was forfeit, but he sacrificed it in the name of love, for his father. That is honor. That is duty. That is love. You can only love a country who loves you and yours, when were his shown love? Or him for that matter? In Arden, and so that is where he stays, that is what he protects. He cares not for Amber castle, it is nothing but a symbol to him and those can be replaced. His lifeblood is his family and
their land. If you could only try to understand him, you would have a great ally, he is Julian's second, all rangers listen to him and would lay their lives down for him. I believe it would be wise to at least be civil to each other, then maybe you'd get beyond this insurmountable bickering. All I want you to see is his perspective, I don't want him to die."
Corwin listens to the debate quietly, then rises.
"Technically, the Rangers are allegianced to Amber. But he is right-- they swear to Amber _under_ Julian. And a son taking actions to secure his father's well-being... He was well within his right.
"At this point, I see no need to pursue charges. There will be no beheadings, no trials." On the bed behind him, Irmin stirs, muttering softly in his sleep. Corwin looks at him, then at the Ranger.
"Imogen and I should go. I'm sure we're the last faces he wants to see right now. But before I leave... may I have the pleasure of your name?"
The first genuine smile the ranger has felt since he left his home touches the corners of is mouth, "I am Estes, here is a trump of myself if you need anything. So that there are no misunderstandings I wanted you to know that I regret the pains you have been put through. I hope we can be friends." And with that he reaches forward to shake Corwin's hand.
Corwin takes the card and the handshake, then looks again at the rousing Irmin.
"I think that's our cue. Welcome to Amber, Estes. It's been a long time since we've had your branch here." He turns, Imogen on his arm, and leaves quietly.
Imogen waits till they are well away from the room, then speaks quietly.
"Corwin ... this goes beyond family loyalties. Rangers, acting under orders from Irmin's mother, attempted to kill Ellie. They shot two bolts at her back. It was only Jurt's quick thinking that saved her life.
"My love, a significant portion of our army is dangerously out of our control."
Irmin is awakened by a door closing in the background. Before he can even open his eyes, he feels Vlar's breath on his feet. As he finally gains to courage to opens his eyes, though the pounding in his head seems not to want to stop. Upon opening his eyes he sees Estes his trusted friend standing over him. "Where.......(Licking his lips)..Where are we?"
"And for thousands of years, they have been fine under Julian's control. He may have never been a favoured sibling, but he has always been respected in his realm. And he's never failed us before.
"I don't think our problem is the army: it's the leader who's missing."
Imogen nods. "Then we need to supply one. Immediately.
"A leaderless army is dangerous, Corwin. Already a faction within it have kidnapped you and tried to murder Ellie. What if they try again? Irmin has already threatened it if he doesn't get what he wants."
She draws a deep breath. "I have a suggestion."
"And that is?"
"Put Benedict in temporary command. No-one can bring a fighting force into better shape than he. Under him, Wraecca, who is one of ours and totally loyal, and Irmin - given a chance to redeem himself. And the understanding that if Irmin learns our ways and becomes a loyal subject of Amber, the Rangers will, if his father does not return, be his. A role created for Delwin's son too - but separate from Irmin - to avoid their plotting together again.
"As for Irmin's mother ... " A little smile crossed her face. "She did shoot at Jurt too. I think I'd like to see what Chaosian justice would decree for that."
"Probably something bloody and nasty that would wreck and hope of peace. I can wait for revenge, but we'll have to keep a very close eye on Jurt. I can see him pushing her and her son onto the wrong part of the pattern.
"As for Benedict... You'd have to convince him first. He tends to stay away from the castle and the centre of things. But in a time of emergency... he may. Why don't you pull them together and see what you can do?"
Imogen nods. "I see it as a temporary thing - until Julian comes back - or until we establish that Julian isn't coming back. Then the Rangers, as a disciplined force, can continue under the command of either Wraecca or Irmin - as seems most appropriate.
"Benedict was injured by the Rangers too - I could let him rest a few hours. And check for myself that you are quite unharmed."
She turns and looks up into his face searchingly.
"That was cruel, Corwin ... and so unnecessary. I didn't realise I had it in me to be so angry ... so vengeful."
"It's in all of us. We're a blood thirsty lot, and I doubt it's skipped your generation. Your mother..." He pauses, looking over her plate mail.
"Your mother was as bad as the rest of us."
"That I knew," she says ruefully. "I just hoped that Father played a part in my makeup too."
She looks thoughtful for a moment. "Delwin called him a farm boy ... do you think he knew him? I've been able to learn so little. She takes a step and then looks ruefully down at the
armour. "To coin a cliche, I really think I should change into something a little more comfortable."
"Perhaps you should change. You'd hate to start smelling like an old set of silverware, wouldn't you?" He smiles half heartedly.
"Delwin has always known things he shouldn't. That's what made him a good target for the rest of us. We like our privacy, and well, he didn't."
"Come and help me?" she suggests. She's aware of the tired lines around his eyes - she hopes that if they can be alone for a little, she can help him to relax ...to forget his responsibilities for just a little while.
He nods, and begins to lead her to his chambers, then stops and seems to reconsider. He moves past them, into Imogen's rooms.
There, he closes the door, then turns to Imogen, unbuckling her armour. "This fits you better than I would have thought."
"Mmmm," she agrees, luxuriating in the feeling of the heavy metal constriction being lifted from her soft limbs. "I don't know how Mother could have enjoyed wearing this stuff ... perhaps you get used to it ... "
She looks up at him, now dressed in the simple linen undershirt. "Do I still remind you of her so very much?"
"Not as much as you used to... There's too much of that Gallbraithan upbringing in you. And you're quite a bit softer than she ever was. She was second sword in Amber. You don't get to be that by batting your eyelashes and learning the finer arts of politics."
"I'd prefer it if you listed my talents the other way round," Imogen responds, turning to face him. "I'm much better ... " she moves closer ... "at politics ... " she slides her arms round his
neck ... "than I am ... " she lifts her face to his ... "at batting my eyelashes .... "
But she bats them anyway ....
He kisses her softly, but then pulls back. "You're very good at that too... But there's an aftermath we're going to have to deal with out there, and a deluge of questions from anyone who didn't go. Especially Flora."
Imogen closes her eyes and groans.
"Very well. Give me ten minutes. Fifteen ... I need a shower."
She pauses on her way to the bathroom.
"You too?" she suggests. "I want to be rid of the reek of that Shadow."
He chuckles and grins, following her. "You know me. I need help in the baths these days, old man I am."
It takes a little longer than fifteen minutes before Corwin and Imogen leave her rooms, both washed and changed into formal clothes - and Imogen looking her most demure.
"Flora first, or Benedict?" she asks.
"Flora. She's much more dangerous to put off. Besides..." Imogen turns in time to see him put a card back into his deck. "He's blocking."
"Flora then," says Imogen, and slips her arm through his.
He nods, and tracks down a servant, asking where the flaxen haired princess is. He points them to the lesser library, and Corwin quickly makes his way down.
The lesser library is smaller and darker than its larger cousin, but favoured in times of introspection. Flora sits at a large desk, a book in front of her.
"Flora," says Imogen warmly. "Have you been researching this?"
"Researching what?" she replies testily. "No one has told me a god-damned thing!" She snaps the book shut. "No, this is a tome on Julian... some of his habits. I was hoping it would have a clue as to where the bone-head might have gone."
Imogen glances at Corwin, then shakes her head.
"What we saw ... was not very hopeful.
"Ellie and Wraecca managed to track him to a dreadful Shadow. They got Corwin to help ... "
She looks at Corwin for him to describe the horror they saw.
"Do you remember the Abyss?" Flora nods. "There were breaks, fissures almost. And they were all like looking into the abyss." He shakes off a shiver.
"I think this is becoming a fool's errand, very, very quickly."
Imogen slides into a seat, feeling suddenly sick.
"You mean ... Mother ... it was like =that=?"
Corwin nods, and puts an arm around her shoulder. "Maybe you shouldn't..." Flora cuts him off.
"Nonsense. She should stay. At some point she'll have to put it behind her. Now is a better time than later, especially if our fool's errand _du jour_ is going to drag us back to the abyss or its little cousin.
Flora's bracing tones have their effect. Imogen gives a little shudder, but then manages a reassuring smile for Corwin.
"Flora's right. I'm in this too - and I must know all I can."
She looks straight at Flora.
"So ... tell me about the Abyss."
"It's big, and it's dark, and about the only urge I had to do when I was near it was to spit, though I'm not sure if that had anything to do with it, or my brother standing on the rim of it," replies Flora.
Corwin shrugs. "It's not something we know all that much about. It's on the other side of the universe, so it's not as if we can set up a research lab there."
"The Chaosians could," says Imogen thoughtfully. "Unicorn horn, they probably =have=. I can't see Mandor letting something like that squat on his doorstep without peeping in ...
"Would Ellie know? Would that Chaosian you had with you?
"Eleanor... probably not. From what I know, she's been spending most of her time out in shadow. The other didn't strike me as the type to study that sort of thing.
"We might have to call on a few treaties, sister." Flora sighs.
"I'll go dig them up."
Imogen gnaws at her lip.
"Would anyone in Amber know about the Abyss at all?" she asks. "Dworkin? Grandfather?"
"Perhaps," muses Corwin. "Dworkin is the best bet... He always had his fingers in all the arcane arts, and spent more time in Chaos than any of us."
"We need some jam, scones and clotted cream then," says Imogen. "He does like a good cream tea ... "
In spite of the grave mood, Flora laughs, and Corwin cracks a grin.
"And lots of sugar. He loves sugar."
Flora rises with a sigh. "I suppose we had better get to tracking him down, shouldn't we?"
Imogen dispatches orders with a guard at the door, and then moves swiftly to catch up with Corwin and Flora in their hunt for Dworkin.
As they move along, they meet Ellie coming the other way, looking much restored after even the short nap. She smiles "Hello, Aunt Flora, Dad, Imogen. I was just coming to see how people were."
Corwin smiles, if somewhat weakly. "I'm glad to see you feeling better. How is Jurt?" He adds after a pause.
Imogen, listening to Ellie's response with an expression of polite concern, wonders how long it will be before either Corwin or Ellie hear the full lurid details of their fight. She makes a private wager with herself as to which of their kin will inform Corwin and/or his daughter.
Ellie smiles "Still sleeping. The blood creature he sent to look for you, Dad, took a lot out of him when it got munched by the shadow. I would be asleep too, but Uncle Caine woke me up. Oh, he said to give you his regards, Imogen." She smiles warmly at Imogen and her
father "Is there anything I can do right now to help?"
Imogen's surprisingly dark brow lifts quizzically at Ellie's reference to Caine's regards, but she says nothing.
"We're about to split up to look for Dworkin... We feel he may have more to input on this than we do. I've tried making sense of his notes before, and the man is damnably obtuse."
Ellie nods "There is that room he likes near the main hall. I take it trumping him wouldn't work?"
Imogen smiles. "Only if he wants to be found. And he usually doesn't. We can but try though."
She takes out her trumps from her belt pouch and selects the one of Dworkin.
While Imogen waits for a response, Ellie gently draws her father to one side and says "Dad, I'm really not trying to give you any more problems, but Jurt has already asked me if I would condone retaliation against Irmin."
Imogen, just beginning to concentrate, allows the vestige of a smile to cross her face. Then she looks grave as she begins to focus properly.
The connection is odd... Fuzzy, with overtones of annoyance. Then she gets the oddest vision across her eyes, one of dancing hippos and flamingos, in a bold cartoon style. Then the connection goes dead.
Corwin nods. "I guessed he would. Now would be less than the idea time for anything like that to happen... But don't worry about it."
Ellie nods "I've headed him off somewhat. I told him it wasn't worth it and it was your call. Besides, I think Wraecca is gunning for Irmin too. I headed off a fight out there before you turned up too."
She looks down at her feet then back up "Dad, this may be the wrong time to ask, but once this is all sorted, would it be alright if Jurt and I stayed on for a while? This whole thing has made priorities clearer."
"Well, of course it's okay... As long as you're sure it's okay with him, and his sister. Have you asked him yet?"
Ellie nods "Yes, and he's okay with it if that's what I want. Ryoden we haven't asked yet. She's growing up quickly though." She smiles a little "Don't worry. Things will work out, one way or another."
"They will. Do you think the two of you will want to stay in the Castle..." He sees someone over Ellie's head and nods, then returns his gaze to her. "Or the town?"
Ellie looks surprised "Well, the Castle. Unless you think that's a bad idea?"
Ellie looks surprised "Well, the Castle. Unless you think that's a bad idea?"
"Not at all... But I know some people need space. And Jurt's not all that fond of certain Amberites."
Ellie winces "That's my fault partly. I reacted badly and Jurt gets really defensive if he thinks anything is hurting me. And I messed up a little out in Shadow and gave him a really bad scare, so he's just worried, Dad." She adds very quietly and softly "He's a good man."
"I know. He treats you well, Eleanor. Besides the current mess, you seem happy.
Ellie smiles "Yes, I am. I have lots of ideas too that I'll run past you at some point. Talking of the current mess though, would you like trumps of that shadow made and if so, how many?"
He reckons on his fingers. "One for me. I'm fairly certain Irmin will want one... Bleys showed an interest, as did Fiona. Flora and Gerard seem content to stay out of the field on this one though... Perhaps four? But don't strain yourself."
Ellie nods "Okay, four. That shouldn't be a problem. While I'm working, are there any other trumps that need urgently made?"
"Not really... Random keeps us updated, for the most part. You might want to make a new one of Mouse, however. The older ones of him have stopped working."
Ellie closes her eyes for a moment, remembering the boy with Ryoden on their return. She opens them and nods "Alright, Dad. Will do." She smiles "I better get going. You know where to find me. Oh yes, one other thing..." She hands him the box for his trumps "I got this back
from Irmin. And Uncle Caine is updated too on the situation."
Imogen sighs and puts the trump away. He doesn't want to talk. I think we'll have to hammer on his door ... Where's Mouse? He should be able to find him - he spends half his life hiding from Dworkin - so he's studied where he's likely to be more than any of us."
Corwin looks over. "He'll be with Random, if he's anywhere... I'm sure someone's keeping a close eye on him, things being like they are. Either that, or he's in the kitchens. He's a growing boy, and the scenery is nice there." He grins.
"You mean Sairey the cook maid," she retorts, smiling. "And Mouse is at that awkward age when one can't be sure whether it's her light hand with pastry, or her other considerable assets that interest him most. Random, then."
She pulls out the trump of Random and concentrates ...
His face comes alive quickly. "You again. Just can't get enough, can you?
"I've decided you're too old and raddled for me and I want someone younger instead," she says promptly. "Talking of which - is Mouse with you?"
He laughs. "Giving up Corwin, stepping right over me, and going for Mouse? What, aren't Gerard and all the rest even in the running?
"Yeah, he's here, at swats reach. You want him?"
"Please," says Imogen, smiling. "But for the most innocent of reasons. We need to get hold of Dworkin ... Random - grab Mouse!"
He leans over, and Mouse becomes visible in the contact. "Hey! I just got this-- Oh, hello, Imo. Is everything okay?"
"Better now," says Imogen. "Corwin, Flora and I are looking for Dworkin. We'd appreciate your help."
"Thank you-- I'd hate to have to raid my own library for extras." He pecks her on the cheek. "Take it easy. We may have to go back out. If he gave you my deck back, he must trust you somehow."
Ellie replies drily "It's not mutual, I can assure you." She smiles "I'll get right on this. If there's nothing else Montmartre teaches you, it teaches you to work fast. How about when all this is
over, you, me, Imogen and Jurt take a break in Paris?"
He smiles. "That sounds wonderful. As long as no crossbows are being trained on me, I'll be happy. And if we can keep the breaks out."
Ellie smiles back "Alright. I'll see you later, Dad." and reaches up to give him a quick peck on the cheek before heading off with a warm smile to Flora and Imogen.
As she approaches her rooms, she hears talking, and laughter, one voice Jurt's, the other, a husky female voice.
Ellie pauses for a moment, not recognising the other voice, then opens the door and enters the room.
She sees Jurt in his cotton pants and a rumpled tee shirt chatting amicably with a woman in clothing common among the courtesans, though hers seem to be trimmed in a bit more red than the fashion.
He looks over and sees Eleanor, and she notices his eyes seem oddly bright. "El! You're back!"
She goes over to sit beside him then turns to the woman and smiles politely "I'm Eleanor. I don't believe we've been introduced."
Mouse's eyes grow large. "You're not getting it!" Random hits him on the back. "Well-- okay, fine. But how?"
"I'm willing to leave the details to you," she says. "I don't think he's taking trump calls - although you announcing that you want some extra classes might bring him running. To take your temperature at the very least."
His eyes narrow. "Imogen, you are going to _pay_--"
Random laughs. "He'd be delighted to. We'll work something out and be up. Don't pine too hard." The connection breaks.
"That's right!" blurts Jurt. "This is Lestia! She brought me food! You know, Amber really isn't so bad. Everyone's being so nice this time around..."
Lestia leans forward offering a tray. "Sandwich?"
Eleanor looks at the food, remembering Jurt's over-bright eyes and replies with a smile "Thank you, but no thank you, Lestia. In fact, I'm afraid I must have something of a conference with Jurt on our own. Thank you for stopping by though."
The woman bites her lip for a moment. "I'm afraid it might be... dangerous for me to leave. Besides, Jurt we were having a nice chat, weren't we?" He nods, then looks at Eleanor.
"She's being so pleasant! How could you make her leave? The sandwiches are really good, too."
Ellie's voice becomes cold and steely "What have you done to him?", her green eyes flashing dangerously.
The woman sighs and puts down the tray. "Jurt, why don't you be a dear and finish off these sandwiches? Ellie and I are going to have a chat." He nods vigorously, taking up another sandwich from the tray, then pecking Ellie on the cheek.
"Have fun, sweetie!"
Ellie stands and indicates her studio as a place to talk.
Lestia smoothly rises and moves to the studio, giving Jurt a smile as she goes. In the side room, she waits, hands behind her back, eyes looking out over the sea.
Ellie closes the door behind her and says "I really don't know who you are, but I am sick to the back teeth of threats and attacks on me and mine. Now, I ask again what have you done?"
"_I_ was only acting on a King's orders, and a Princes." She smiles over her shoulder. "But calm yourself. The spell's doing nothing more than making him very, very happy for a while.
"There weren't any favours you needed from him, were there? Because this is a GREAT time to get them."
Ellie takes a deep breath, partly to calm, partly in relief then asks "Which King and which Prince? And how long will the spell last?"
"Oh, a day or so... and Sweetie, you know of any other kings in residence? Your father! Though, to his credit, he wasn't terribly specific. Just wanted to avoid an 'incident.' They really seem to hate those, don't they?
"And the Prince? Oh, that would be Bleys. But that's okay for you to know, and even Jurt."
Ellie nods "Just checking." She shrugs "Ah well, at least it's not potentially fatal. Makes a nice change around here."
She smiles "I owe you an apology, Lestia. Father and Uncle Bleys on the other hand..."
Ellie holds out her hand "May we start over?"
"Don't be too hard on them..." she purrs. "They juggle all they can, but if they have too many eggs, they have a tendency to get yolk on their feet." She takes Ellie's hand and bows deeply. "Highness."
Ellie smiles "Ellie is fine, thanks Lestia." She chuckles "A whole day of 'Happy Jurt'? Oh dear."
She stands back "If you don't mind me saying so, have you ever done any modelling for artists or sat for portraits?"
Lestia laughs heartily as she rises. "Oh, you could say that. There's a few bawdier trumps of me floating around the castle, somewhere. As long as you're going to be practicing, might as well enjoy what you're studying, hm?"
Ellie chuckles as she realises what Lestia is implying and answers "I like you. I used to have friends back in Paris with the same appetite for life." She opens the door "Do you want some coffee or tea or something stronger? If you don't mind chatting while I work that is?"
"Oh, not at all... But, I was being serious about the dangerous part... Jurt is... malleable right now. We shouldn't leave him unattended." She cracks the door open and looks out, then waves briefly and shuts it again.
Ellie nods "Good call and easily remedied." She opens the door and goes through, smiling at Jurt "Jurt, dearest, would you like to come through to the studio while Lestia and I have a chat?"
Jurt gets up quickly and practically skips into the studio, finding a small love seat to sit on. He holds the last of the sandwiches in his hands, and chews on it eagerly. "Are you going to paint?"
Ellie, smiling in amusement, answers "Yes, dearest, I'm going to paint." and starts setting up her easel.
"Goodie! Me or her?" He nods at Lestia. "Or do we have to call someone else... Here, let me get my... Hey! My trump deck is gone!" He pauses. "Oh well," he adds with a shrug. Lestia shoots a look at Ellie, confused.
Ellie shrugs then says "Lestia, Jurt, I'll be back in a moment. I just need to check something." With a quick smiles, she goes through to the bedroom, checking to see if she can find Jurt's trumps.
They don't turn up anywhere, not a card, or even his ornamented box, made by Mandor. In the other room, Jurt and Lestia chat animatedly.
Ellie takes out her own trump deck and withdraws the trump of Caine, focussing on it.
The Trump comes alive, and she sees Caine in a half-lit room, dressed heavily.
Ellie smiles apologetically "I'm really sorry to disturb you, Uncle Caine, but when you came to talk to me, did you by chance see Jurt's trump deck anywhere or the box that contained them? It looks like they've gone completely missing and I'm trying to narrow down the time in which it happened."
He shakes his head. "I'm not in the habit of spying for stray decks, but I didn't notice anything like it offhand.
"A stray Chaos deck is an interesting variable."
The connection breaks.
Ellie frowns "Just a tad, Uncle Caine." then goes back to the studio and smiles at the two. Describing the box quietly to Lestia, she asks "Did you see this anywhere when you came in? It's gone missing and I'm trying to narrow down the time in which it vanished."
Lestia shakes her head. "No bells here." Jurt hums to himself and plays with a few of Eleanor’s paints.
"Oh, don't worry about it, hon! It's just a deck! Ryo'll make me another."
Ellie smiles "I know dear." and adds "Thanks anyway, Lestia. Oh well, first things first."
She takes out her trump deck and specifically her father's trump, concentrating on it.
The image comes alive, and she sees her father standing somewhere else in the castle, Imogen in her own contact in the background. "Hello. Everything alright?"
Ellie smiles perhaps a little too brightly. "Everything is just fine. I'm dealing with an extra-happy Jurt for the next day, apparently to avoid an incident." She becomes more serious "Dad, his trump deck has gone completely missing. Do you know anything about that?"
Corwin looks confused. "An extra...? What in the world is wrong with him?
"I haven't seen his deck, but I haven't seen much since I got back. Random was in charge of him while he was knocked out, though."
Ellie replies "Thanks, Dad. If you see Random, would you ask him if he saw the deck? It's just a bit worrying on top of everything else. Bleys has a spell on Jurt, apparently under your instructions to avoid an incident. I need to stay here as Jurt is malleable right now. I'll show you."
She smiles at Jurt "Jurt dear, come and say hi to Dad."
Corwin puts a hand over his mouth. "I told Bleys to make sure he
didn't _do_ anything! I was talking about guards!"
Jurt bounces over to Ellie, then touches her arm.
Corwin almost breaks the connection from shock.
Ellie smiles "See what I mean?" She gives Jurt a peck on the cheek "You can sit back down now dear." Once Jurt has done so, Ellie looks back at Corwin and smiles slowly "So as you can see, I'm stuck, but painting. When I am free though, Bleys is in trouble..."
"Lestia-- she should be there. I guess she had something to do with it. I had thought she was just posting a watch. She can keep an eye on him if you need to get out.
"Don't be too hard on Bleys... After all, if I had asked Caine to do it, he would have just locked him up in some shadow and kept him there until things were quieter.
"I'll have to admit, the change is a tad disturbing."
Ellie nods then grins, switching to her mental voice *You're telling me. However, at least now you're getting to see something of how nice he can be normally to me. And yes, Lestia's here. We're getting along great. She reminds me of a few of my friends from when I was an
artist's model back in Paris. So if Jurt is effectively confined, what is the situation with Irmin and his friend?*
His voice switches to mental as well. *Caine has agreed to keep an eye on Irmin for me. He was closest to Julian, so I thought it was fitting. Estes, that's his friend, is being entertained by Bleys. He sends me a feed every now and then to let me know everything is going well.*
Ellie bites her lip and her hesitation is clear *Speaking of which, I'm sorry I haven't kept in contact more, Dad. Not everything I've done in shadow worked out and I got kind of messed up once, even lost some memory at one point. I walked the Pattern earlier today though
and got everything back so it's worked out. It was scary though. Dad, I hope you don't get offended, but I see Irmin as a traitor. He should be sitting in a cell. I also know that it's your call. I'm just worried. Will Irmin's mother keep taking pot-shots at me on her whim or people kidnap you whenever they want something?"
Corwin is solemn as he answers. *Then we're going to have to talk later. There's some laws you should be aware of... They aren't good laws, but laws none the less. And I want to know about this memory incident. Tonight. I'll touch base with you tonight.
*Be careful, Eleanor.* The connection closes.
She thinks quietly *You too, Dad.* then smiles and turns back to Jurt and Lestia "How are things going here? Anyone hungry or thirsty?"
Imogen looks up with a smile. "Random and Mouse are on to it. They'll get a result if anyone can."
Corwin looks over, shaking off a trump contact. "Good. We should keep Mouse involved. After all, he'll be dealing with things like this for a long time.
"That was Eleanor. I think you should pop over to see Jurt when you have a moment."
Imogen winces. "Do I have to? We ... erm ... we said things to each other earlier. Things probably left better unsaid. Knowing Jurt, he's probably spoiling for Round Two, have thought of a few more choice insults to hurl."
"Oh, I don't think that's too likely right now. Bleys decided to keep him out of trouble by laying a charm spell on him.
"He called me dad, if that gives you any idea about its potency."
It takes Imogen a few seconds to realise it's undignified for the King's Lady to stand with her mouth open in shock and decide to close it.
"Dad?" An unholy grin crosses her face. "This I have to see."
"I think that goes without saying. I'm going to check on positions, so I'll find you again in a bit... They're in Eleanor's room."
Imogen nods, then rise to tiptoe to brush he lips on his cheeks. "Be careful, my love," she says seriously.
Then she gathers her skirts and moves away from him down the corridor. He hears her say aloud, "Dad?" and the a wicked little chuckle.
"I'm fine," chirps Jurt from his seat on the floor. He has spread out several gobs of colour on a palette, and appears to be scrutinizing them carefully. He holds a brush in his hand, and has a canvas board on his lap. Lestia sits primly in front of him, cross-legged.
Ellie stands quite still for a moment, trying not to show her surprise at Jurt using any of her paints, never mind considering painting. Then a slow smile curves her lips. This she just has to see. Taking the sketchbook, she sits nearby with an encouraging smile to Jurt and starts to make some sketches ready for trumps later.
His talent is just about what Ellie expected: non-existent. He tries unsuccessfully to mix the paints to the right colours, but only seems to be able to make a wide array of purplish browns. This doesn't seem to bother him as he dabs on the canvas, making something vaguely person-shaped.
There is a knock at the door.
"Ellie?" comes Imogen's voice, cool and friendly.
Ellie blinks then rises and moves through to the sitting room to admit Imogen. She smiles and guides Imogen in, saying "Did Dad tell you that Jurt is under a spell? He's really malleable, so be careful please." Ellie chuckles "It's also quite funny."
"Corwin did say something," agrees Imogen. She looks over toward Jurt, intrigued. "Hello, Jurt. Lestia - how nice!"
Ellie leads Imogen into the studio where Jurt and Lestia sit, surrounded by works in various stages of completion. Ellie smiles "Would you like some tea, Imogen?"
"Please," says Imogen, watching Jurt's painting with fascination.
In a short time, Ellie hands Imogen a cup of tea and Lestia one too, should she so wish it. She smiles and sips her own tea before saying "So how are you faring after all this, Imogen?"
"Relief at having Corwin back," says Imogen. "And yes, Lestia, you were quite right, the black ones did work on him more than powerfully. Thank you so much for the hint ... " She smiles at Lestia, but the look she gives Ellie is more thoughtful. "So ... Irmin's witch of a mother tried to kill you. And she's still at large.
"You know, I find myself, uncomfortably close to Jurt's thinking on this one. I want those Rangers =purged=. Now."
Jurt looks up and sees Imogen, and grins broadly. Dropping his marred canvas he hops up and bounces over, throwing his arms around Imo and squeezing tightly.
"Jurt!" responds Imogen, a little well of laughter bubbling up. "What a ... lovely surprise."
Over his shoulder, her eyes met Lestia's, dancing with fun. "Will he remember this in the morning?" she mouths silently.
Lestia nods deeply. "That's the point," she mouths back.
Jurt releases Imogen, but not before giving her a peck on the cheek. "You know something? You smell nice." With that, he goes back to his painting, snagging a cup of tea on the way, and a quick kiss from Ellie.
Ellie chuckles and goes to reply when she overhears Jurt's side of the trump call. Shaking her head slightly, she replies quietly and softly to Imogen "Tell me about it. I've already suggested to Dad Irmin should be in a cell. Apparently there are some laws I need to know about, but I don't like the message this sends out. 'Hey, you too can get what you want by kidnapping the king and taking pot shots at his kid.' And in Arden, Amberites are in open season. So I fully agree with you, Imogen." She pauses "Sorry, trump call. Give me a moment please."
"Uh.... you can't wait until he's given me the papers, can you?"
Scren winks and says slyly "I won't mention the papers."
He pulls out Ellie's trump and concentrates on the image. "Hiya Ellie." he says "How's everything at the castle?"
Ellie replies *Interesting. Jurt is currently under a happy spell to prevent him from declaring open season on Irmin and very malleable so I'm babysitting to try to make sure that's not misused. I have something I need you and Ryoden to do. Would you see if you can pull
in his trumps?*
Scren nods and replies *We noticed the happy spell. And it seems to make Ryo happy too. She's wheedling all kinds of promises from him right now.* he thinks with an amused air about the thoughts. *But I'll ask Ryo about the trumps. Are they in any special box or holder?"
Ellie nods *They were in a box given to him by Mandor. Ryo knows what it looks like. Tell Ryoden to leave Jurt alone on the promises and I'll help her with what she wants when this is all over. I have to dash now. I'll speak to you soon and thanks again for looking after her, Scren. And stay away from Arden. It's too volatile right now. Watch yourselves.*
With that the connection breaks gently.
"Certainly," says Imogen, and turns back to Lestia.
"The only thing that was a little strange was afterwards. Corwin asked me what on earth had given me such an idea. So I told him it was you."
She sips delicately at her tea.
"For some reason he went bright red and speechless. I'm not sure why."
"Oh, that's the boys for you. They hate to admit they've paid for it before, being princes. The only one that never seemed to mind was Bleys. He revels in it. He even asked me to rise my prices the last time he was in...
"You know how silly they can be." She smiles coyly, sipping at her tea.
"Apparently," says Imogen, intrigued. "But why should they object to paying for it? I mean, they admit to other personal services ... they pay their barbers, and their doctors. Why not their sexual therapists?"
"Oh, because if they did that it wouldn't be taboo any more, and taboo is what makes it fun. Not too many people get their jollies from going to the dentist, but I bet if someone shook their finger at them over it, they'd make a beeline for a cleaning."
Ellie turns back to Imogen "Please continue, Imogen." sipping her tea.
Imogen shakes her head. "I don't think I'll ever understand the way men think in Amber," she says. "Do you know, I haven't met one male sexual therapist here? I mean ... what do women do when they want release?
"And I'm not sure there any hermaphrodites either," she says, in tones suggesting disapproval. "I suppose people have to manage with shapeshifters. But that really doesn't seem the same thing at all."
Ellie blinks and asks with a soft laugh "How did we get from purging Rangers to this topic? You know Imogen, you really need to take me to Galbraith at some point."
"I'd love to" says Imogen. "And Lestia, I'm sure you'd enjoy it. But we might need to drug Jurt very heavily indeed to get him into a veil ... "
She smiles wickedly ... and then the smile fades.
"I don't like this situation," she says quietly. "A key section of our armed forces are out of our control, ahh, Kolvir's peaks, they're out of control period. To say that this worries me is considerably understating the matter."
Ellie nods "The question is what we can do about it. They need a leader, but one we can trust. Right now I wouldn't trust Irmin or his close kin as far I could spit them. Wraecca doesn't like Irmin either. Things got really tense out there. Do you know Irmin called Wraecca, Trennix and I freaks?"
Imogen decides to refrain from telling Ellie what Jurt had called her, and contents herself with a disapproving shake of her head.
"I do have an idea," she says, "if he will consent. Put Benedict in charge. There's no-one better to command an army."
Ellie nods then hesitates and answers quietly "A good choice. Imogen, thanks for coming to see us both. I know we haven't always got along. A lot of that is simply Jurt defending me or trying to from hurt and me not thinking straight. This whole business has really made things
clear though and I'd like to stay on in Amber for a while and get to know you and Dad, show you I care about you two as much as I know you two care about me. Jurt agreed to this too, even before the spell."
"Good," says Imogen, and smiles. "I'm glad. For one thing ... it might allow Corwin to relax a little more ... I do what I can ... but ... " She shrugs. "Too many people see me as ... an arm
Across the room, Jurt's head snaps up. "_Another_ trump call! ... Oh, hi Despil! Look at what I'm making!" He holds out his painting in front of him.
Ellie looks surprised "Why? How can they? You work so hard. I thought it was obvious you're smart and anything but an arm ornament." She pauses then adds "I suggested to Dad that the four of us take a break in Paris after all this is over with. It's a great place to relax in and if you like, you can meet my friends there."
She bites her lips and asks quietly, her green eyes very young and vulnerable "Imogen, people don't see me as a freak here do they because of my mother's blood?"
"Some do." says Imogen honestly. "That's largely because they don't know you. The vast majority don't - except in so far as they see all those of royal blood as being ... well, odd.
"Being here, showing yourself, working with people ... that's the way to overcome prejudice. People are suspicious of the unknown - and fear it. After all this time ... I just really have to deal with the prejudice against me as a woman. And I must admit, I haven't cracked that one yet."
She grins ruefully.
Ellie smiles "Thanks, Imogen. That's very good advice. Hey, did you see my demon form yet?"
"No," says Imogen cautiously. "Are you planning on using it a lot in Amber?"
Ellie shakes her head "No, human form is more comfortable here and for me generally. I was just using it going into that shadow for extra defence as was Wraecca and Trennix. And Irmin commented nastily that he was glad we could trust our natural abilities and called the three of us a freak show. I've already had to break up a potential fight between Wraecca and Irmin."
Ellie grins mischievously "Tell me what you think after."
She flexes her neck as her black hair changes hue to dark blue-green, the long tresses becoming barbed at the end. Her face and neck stays the same though the skin takes on a blue hue and blue-green iridescent scales ripple downwards over her form, like a strange
fish or dragon, lending her a degree of protection and oddly pretty. After a moment, she reverts back to human form and smiles shyly at Imogen "When I was a little girl I used to love seahorses you see and grew up by the sea."
Imogen is still gazing, fascinated. "It's impressive, certainly. And ... oddly attractive." She shakes her head. "What do you think, Lestia?"
"Although," she adds hastily to Ellie, "I think your call about human form is right - unless you want to throw Flora into conniptions."
Ellie smiles "I don't want to do that. I like Aunt Flora. And thank you." She claps her hand over her mouth "Has anyone told Grandfather yet what's happened?"
Imogen shakes her head. "Not unless one of the Elders have ... "
Lestia watches from her seat across from Jurt, an eyebrow raised.
"I bet your Jurt has some interesting requests."
Ellie blushes then grins and says "We're both shapeshifters. And that's as much detail as I'm giving. You two should visit the Courts. It can get really interesting at times." She finishes with a wicked grin.
"A diplomatic mission? That could be interesting," returns Imogen.
Ellie smiles "Or just a visit for the fun of it." then glances at Jurt "Do you think Grandfather would mind me telling him later?"
"I could go," says Imogen, rising. "He hasn't thrown anything at me for ... oh, days now."
Ellie nods then dashes over to another sketchbook, hauling out a number of sketches. "Would you give these to him, please? It's something I do for him since he can't get about. Wherever I go, I make a sketch for him to see." She smiles "Thanks for coming to visit, Imogen."
Jurt looks in front of him, nods, then turns to Ellie.
"Huh? About what?
"Oh, guess what?! I have great news! I'm an uncle!"
Ellie grins "That is great news. May I link in, dear?" moving over to sit beside him.
"Oh, no... He's gone now. He wanted to talk to Mandor about something, but he said he'd call me back.
"Hey! I need to call Ryo and tell her!" His hand moves to his side. "Oh... no deck. That's right. Can I use yours, El?"
"I always enjoying visiting you, Ellie." She takes the sketches, and her gaze rests on the absorbed Jurt for a moment. Then she walks over and says to him decisively. "Jurt, I'm sorry we were angry with each other earlier."
"Oh, forget about that." He sits between Ellie and Imogen on the couch. "I didn't really mean any of those things... Well, I did, but I don't anymore!"
"That's good," says Imogen, and then looks up at Lestia.
Smiling she rises. "Well, I should go and see Oberon."
Jurt hugs her fiercely for a moment, and gives her a peck on the cheek. "Oh, you tell him hello for me, okay?"
"I will indeed Jurt," she says with the merest tremor in her voice. "I'll give him your love!"
Then she slips away and out of the room. She waits till she is three corridors away before she starts to giggle (shocking a maid engaged in cleaning).
Guessing at what either Merlin or Despil might be talking to Mandor about, Ellie smiles and says "How about we let your brother call back first? He might give you more to tell Ryoden. So tell me what they said, please, dear."
"It's Despil! He said he had something he wanted to tell me, and when I asked him what, he got all worried and nervous, and said he had a daughter! Her name is Piper, I got that out of him, at least. I started to ask him all about her, but then he got nervous again and said he had to go talk to Mandor."
Ellie smiles "Tell you what, dear. You talk to Wraecca who's just come to see us and I'll talk to Despil and Mandor."
The maid scurries off, ducking into a guest room that apparently needed dusting quite urgently.
Wraecca laughs, "More additions to the family? I'll never keep up. At this speed."
Jurt grins. "Of course you will! You're a shapeshifter, right? A good one, Ryoden said... You could pop out bunches of them! Just find a fertile enough girl. And hey, congrats on the wedding! Lillian's a great girl. Looker, too."
Wraecca smiles with a pleasure. "Thanks Jurt. Lillian has been very good to me. We haven't gotten around to starting our own pack quite yet but there's time. Figure we'd takes things in order, you know, have a wedding and then see about other stuff. Speaking of which, our wedding won't be in Arden as was planned. We are thinking maybe something a little closer to home."
"Huh? Oh, that's too back. But the castle is really great, and the last ball went so well! I mean, besides that whole dead body thing, but hey, always a party pooper, right?"
Wraecca chuckles, "There's always somebody floating belly up in the fish tank. As long as it's not somebody I know, I don't have any issues with it. Hopefully we won't have any of that nonsense at the wedding."
Ellie meanwhile withdraws her trump of Mandor and concentrates upon the image...
The connection is slow, and hard to manage, but finally it comes alive.
"Oh good. I was just about to call you." Mandor stands in a studio, surrounded by sculpture, Despil and a small woman behind him.
Ellie smiles "There was something of a fracas and a spell to render Jurt much happier than normal was placed on him in preference to him beating up one of my cousins. I'm currently with Jurt. I've delayed him telling Ryoden of the news given his current state. Please pass
my congratulations on to Despil. May I ask who the niece or nephew is?"
"The niece is Piper, a rather diminutive yet interesting young lady, who had been hidden in a section of the Ways, unbeknownst to myself, or to anyone else.
"What sort of 'fracas'? I've told the boy before to behave himself."
Ellie replies quietly "My father was being cautious. And Jurt's behaviour has been exemplary, despite provocation." She smiles "I would like to meet Piper at some point if her parents are willing."
"I believe her parents are far from willing, but the fates have chosen otherwise.
"Since Jurt is... out of sorts... perhaps you could inform Ryoden? I'd have to ask you too keep her sharper side in mind."
"Oh, I'm sure not. Hey, you know what? You haven't seen a trump deck lying around? Mine's walked off..." He looks around again.
"Hey! You know what we need to do some time!? Spar! I haven’t had a really good spar in a _long_ time."
Wraecca seems to consider the matter seriously. "I've never sparred with another shape shifter. That would be very interesting. But yeah, I'm game. Did you want to give it a go right here or did you have some place in mind?"
"Here? Uh... Here's fine! El won't mind." He moves over to a coffee table and starts moving things (quite noisily) to the sidelines.
Wraecca tosses off his cloak and removes his sword belt. As he stretches his neck a full 360 degrees he asks, "Are there rules for this kinda sparring?"
"Yeah! No killing! I mean, you haven't offended me or anything, so there's really no need, right?"
Ellie nods as noise filters in from the background. She sighs "Forgive me, Lord Mandor. Another matter needs my urgent attention. Until later."
She breaks the connection and turns to the two men "Somebody want to tell me what's going on?"
Wraecca laughs, "Yeah sounds good to me. All eyeballs gouged must be returned to their owners afterwards-"
Hearing Ellie's query, Wraecca replies, "Nothing much, Jurt wants to spar and I've never done a vis-à-vis with a fellow shifter. We’re just moving the breakables out of the way."
Ellie smiles to Jurt and says "Wraecca, may I have a word?" standing off to one side.
Wraecca sets his end of the coffee table down, "Be back in a sec Jurt."
He walks over to Ellie. "What's on your mind Ellie?"
Ellie replies quietly to Wraecca "How about using one of the sparring rooms? That will also give you more room to move around. Wraecca, Jurt has a happy spell on him from Bleys under orders of my father to prevent him beating up Irmin. Right now, he's very, very malleable and vulnerable."
Wraecca frowns, "Why bother with a spell Ellie? If Jurt wants a piece of Irmin I'd be happy to lend a hand. I don't care much for being labelled a freak, or having our king kidnapped. Nor do I see why Corwin would bother to protect Irmin after all he's done."
Wraecca sighs and says to Jurt. "Hey friend. It might be better if we use a training room down the hall. It's a bit more spacious and we won't have to worry about breaking anything."
"Okay!" He moves the table back. "You going to come watch hon? Hey, how about you, Lestia?" Lestia gets up from her chair in the corner.
"Wouldn't miss it, boys."