Imogen looks to the glass in her hand, and the sliver of cheesecake in front of her. A sigh leaves her, and she recognizes the passing of another year.
In her office. Alone.
Her life is comfortable. She has power, connections, money… She's been blessed with a fair education, an inheritance, and the gift of the fairer sex in a society run by them.
Then why does she feel so empty?
Her hand drifts to a locked drawer, and she finds herself pulling out a little leather bound book. Opening it, she finds photos, faded by time, but still powerful triggers to her memory. Her mother, smiling on a veranda, behind her a rose trellis. Her father had told her a joke to make her laugh, and then flashed the camera…
A strong man looks out from the next photo, hair the color of red clay and freckles that never seemed to fade. He mans a sailboat with a younger Imogen secured to his waist. What simple times.
She glances down, and sees her book of bedtime stories, the ones she begged for every night, the ones she kept under her pillow until she was well into her twenties. She hasn't looked at it in years.
She lifts it up gently. Her fingers feel the familiar dents, the slight tear in the lefthand corner, the long crease where she accidentally bent it back one day. Slowly, she lifts it up and sniffs ... no,no, inhales it. There is a scent about it ... faintly salty. Long days of carrying it clutched to her when they went on the boat ...
As she had clutched it to her when ...
Impatiently, she stands up, and moves elegantly, easily, to the huge curving window. Height means status ... and Imogen is far above the grimy streets, the raucous cries of the gangs and the vendors. Looking down not only on the workers' flats, but on the more spacious middle ranking dwellings of teachers, doctors, lawyers (at least, of the lesser kind).
She gazes out to where the rich reddened lights of the dying sun are refracted against the smooth silken shield of the great dome. Normally she loves this time of day ...
But today ...
She turns, frowning, towards her desk ... and realises she must have opened the volume of fairy tales without intending to. Slowly, she approaches again the desk where it is lying ...
She smiles, remembering. The page is open to a story about a cat and a shapeshifting ogre. Her father used to make the most wonderful voices... She can't look at the words without remembering him, feeling his breath touch her ear as he read, soothing her to sleep.
She turns the page, and flips... on the back cover, a picture of a castle, one her father drew. As an adult, she realizes the lines are a bit sloppy, the coloring akward, and the angles a mess, but as a child it was the most perfect castle she had ever seen.
Her fingers touch it, and she frowns as she realizes it's cold. It didn't seem that chilly in the office.
Startled, she presses her hand over the extent of the back cover, finding it all cold. She stretches out her fingers, smiling a little as she remembers that when she was a little girl, her fingers could not reach from one side of the picture of the castle to the other. Now she is an adult, of course, her handspan encompasses it easily. But there seems no explanation for the strange chill ...
Carefully, she lifts the back cover of the book and looks within.
She feels the cover... Cool, like it had been sitting near a vent. She touches the aged page and discovers a corner of the paper glued to the back of the book is coming up. Absently she touches it, and feels that it's sticky-- freshly glued?
A tug, and the covering comes off, and a card slides onto her lap...
For a long moment, Imogen sits quite still. There's a strange, choking fear in her throat, making it difficult to swallow, almost difficult to breathe.
Why? Why is a simple piece of card causing her such paranoia? She is struggling to make sense of this ... she =never= panics ... even when the Lower Council had to deal with the riot in the Kalzin mines, and she was sent out alone to negotiate ... even then, the vids remarked on her coolness.
But now, this simple card has frightened her. And what she finds truly frightening is that she can think of no reason why it should ...
Slowly, she reaches a hand to her lap, and takes the edges of the card gingerly in her fingers ...
The card is cold, and she feels a quiet urging in her mind to concentrate...
She studies the picture intently, and finds it’s of a room filled with stained glass windows... light shines in them intensely, and she notes they seem to be of people... people among rose vines.
The picture grows in intensity, and the light behind the windows shifts from high noon to a dusky red sunset... The picture opens up before her, and she wonders what the hell is on this card.
She stands without knowing why, and steps forward.
And she is there.
But =where= is there? It looks like no room she has ever seen before ...
Then she amends that. No room she has seen for a very long time - and even then, only the fevered product of her imagination ... and necro.
No wonder the card scared her - there must be some link between that and that whole foolish business when she was ... how old? Eighteen? And just touching it set off some strange chain of association ...
And yet ... yet ...
This seems so real ... almost ... more than real.
Nervously, she glances around the room.
She turns in place, as if expecting the beautiful faces in the glass are going to step out of their glass prisons and rend her limb from limb.
Someone behind her chuckles. "Took you long enough..."
She wheels, and the fading light colored by the glass falls on a man, slight and pale, his eyes calm, and his hair bright as sunset... He smiles, and she realizes she knows him... The man the night of the necro...
She takes a deep breath ... then another. Calming. Forcing herself to relax. There is, after all, no need to show this man that he has succeeded in alarming her.
He seems ... as real as the room.
"Who are you?" she asks, cool, with a faint touch of hauteur. "Where have you brought me?"
He laughs. "I'm no one. A servant of the fates. Ex-patriate extrodinaire. And I have brought you home, oh wayward orphan."
He turns his head to look out the stained glass. "I'm sure you have questions, belle dame sans merci..."
"Even servants have names," says Imogen quietly, "and expatriates's certainly do."
She moves towards the window, and looks out at the rich colours of sunset. But there is something wrong, something different. And then she realises.
The colours are the richness of sunset - but this is a young and fierce sun, not the mellow ancient sun of Galbraith that she knows. A sense of loss grips her ... a wild strangeness. Almost instinctively she turned her head, as though half-expecting that her own room will lie behind her. But there is nothing .... no sign at all of the room where she stood so recently. She shivers a little, then turns to the man.
"Why do you call me that?"
And then suddenly ... from out of a past so long pushed away, the question came bubbling up. "Why have you brought me here? Are ... are my parents here?"
"You don't need my name. I'm sure you'll find your way through the jungle without it."
He focuses on a window across the room, and in his silence, she feels compelled to follow his gaze. Her stomach drops as she realizes what she's looking at.
Tall, fair, with a mass of black hair and dark eyes, created in a fusion of metal and glass and light... She knows that face. The face that whispers from memory, the face that held her and cried. Now it looks serene among its black roses.
She scans without thinking for her father, but doesn't find him. The man chuckles at her confusion. "They aren't here... not even in spirit. Killed. Murdered. One for passion, one for the noble cause of being in the wrong place at the worst possible time."
She feels her face trying to twist in a silent howl of pain - but she knows too that he is watching her. She forces her expression to stay unchanged ... unmoved. But she walks slowly forward, and stretches out her right hand to the stained glass window that portrays her mother. Her fingertips connect with the hard, unyielding glass fingertips of the lifeless hand. Then Imogen tilts her hand forward so that it presses, palm to palm with the hand in the glass. A voiceless salute, perhaps, or the only form of connection she can make now.
For a long moment she looks at that proud and lovely face.
"I guessed," she says, allowing her hand to drop away. "They would have come to me if they could. I guessed they were dead, but I didn't know how ... or when ... or where ... or why."
She turns to look at him levelly. "Can you answer those questions?
"Or were you their murderer?"
His smile drops. "Think, child. If I was their murderer would I go to all the effort of planting magic on your person, waiting for you to activate, all to tell you I killed them, and then be done with you. No. I've spent too much time on you..."
He moves nearer to her and points out the two windows preceding her mother. "One of them took your father. Which one, I was never sure, but I was too busy to investigate. Corwin and Eric. Eric is quite dead, but Corwin draws air yet."
He crosses behind her and moves to another window, touching it faintly. "This one took your mother."
"Caine," she repeats quietly, committing the name to memory. "And Corwin."
She gazes at the windows intently, as if learning every feature of the faces, the figures portrayed there.
She turns again to the man who has brought her to this room.
"Tell me how they died," she says, "and what these ... men ... were to my parents."
She looks at him, with a kind of detached irony. "I hardly think you have brought me here as a kindness ... although why you claim to have spent so much time on me appears mysterious still. If you wanted an assassin, you could have acquired one with far less effort - I could give you the names of at least three."
"I hate loose threads," he says, studying his fingernails. "You were one. And I have other things to attend to." He smiles cruelly. "I let you live, and brought you to the place where you could find answers. That's the most I've ever done for anyone."
Without a word he turns and disappears into the wall.
"Wait!" she exclaims, stepping towards him.
But he is gone ... leaving her alone in a strange place.
Imogen draws a deep breath. So ...
Just because she dislikes the man who brought her here, there is no reason to assume he's lying.
No reason to assume he's telling the truth, either.
Clearly, judgement must be reserved and she ... must investigate.
That he spoke the truth in telling her that her parents were dead, she does not doubt. Years ago, she believed she had reconciled herself to that knowledge. And yet ... to receive the knowledge itself hurt no less because it was long expected.
So - either the man was telling the truth and pointing her towards her parents' murderers, or he was lying ... but still expecting she would encounter the mysterious Caine and Corwin.
But not, she decides, as Imogen Tesler. While their names were strange to her, she has no reason for believing that her own would be so unfamiliar to these men. And even if they were not prepared to kill her at once, as they might have done her parents, nevertheless, she stands a greater chance of discovering the truth if she is incognito.
She looks up again at the stained glass portrait of her mother. So dark ... unlike Imogen, who has her father's fair colouring. And yet her mother's features were similar to her own ...
Too similar? She would have to see. Perhaps she will be able to claim to be a niece or nephew ... she remembered her mother talking, with some bitterness, of her own brothers and sisters. Perhaps ... simple ignorance will serve her best. For the moment.
She moves again around the room, considering all the stained glass portraits.
She is relieved as she finds a door, leading to a hallway, and the light returns.
The hallway isn't anything special, but at least it's unguarded. She listens for voices, but again, only that unnerving silence.
Inwardly, she debates which way to go along the corridor. Finally, she turns in the direction where the light (candles?) seems to be brighter and walks swiftly that way. Anyone who did not know her well (and, after all, who does know her well?) might remark on her self-assurance and calm.
She keeps her calm as she moves through the corridors, and watches in fascination as the decor brightens and becomes richer, more elaborate.
She rounds a corner, and down the hallway she sees a woman from one of the windows. Blonde and poised, and preoccupied with a small book. Imogen wracks her brain, and finally comes up with the name.
Imogen hesitates. To simply approach the woman and announce cheerfully that she is lost, and has no idea where or when she is, seems to her a little foolhardy. But then ... simply to wait in the shadows seems equally foolish ...
She moves forward slowly, giving a little cough to attract attention as she does so, her eyes watching the other woman warily ...
Flora looks up and appraises the girl curiously. "Well... where did you come from?" The woman seems to pay particular attention to Imogen's clothes.
"I'm not entirely sure," says Imogen a touch ruefully. "At least, I know very well where I came from - my office on Galbraith. But where I am now ... I have not the slightest idea."
She glances down at her clothes too - but is unsure what is wrong. The pale suit hovers somewhere on the border of pale blue and silver grey, and the skirt is of a conservative length, being slightly below the knee. Her heels are modest, her stockings unladdered and her hair braided back into a neat pleat (although a couple of rogue curls have escaped this late in the day).
But then she looks at the other's clothes ...
The woman is dressed in a red dress, somewhat formal. Perhaps Imogen looks underdressed?
Flora snaps the book shut. "Perhaps you had better show me..." She sighs. "Oh, Unicorn, not another one."
A servant girl walks by, bowing briefly to Flora who pays her no heed. Imogen suddenly realizes what's wrong. The girl's clothes... they look like something out of a period movie, maybe England in the 17th century.
"Another one?" says Imogen, privately wondering if the mysterious man who brought her here had brought others too. She has a sudden vision of a long line of unknown assassins, all primed to kill the mysterious Caine and Corwin, and has to fight down a half-hysterical giggle.
"I'm afraid this is conventional wear in Galbraith," she adds apologetically. "Is it unacceptable here?"
Flora waves. "Oh no. You're fine." She studies the dress once more. "I like the color, dear."
She looks around, then takes the girl by the arm and leads her to a side hallway. "Now, I've always heard the beginning is a good place to start..."
"Indeed," agrees Imogen, allowing herself to be led, but nonetheless not relaxing at all. Nevertheless she manages a friendly smile for the woman. It is, after all, possible that she will learn something of the people she has been told about. She may even, she reflects, learn something of her own parents.
But not yet - unless the information is freely volunteered. Later on will be the time to dig ...
In the mean-time, she wonders what is happening. Is it one of those medieval banquets that some of her colleagues have attended? But then she dismisses the thought. There are no signs at all that this is a modern location masquerading as something much older. Every last detail seems perfect - and so very, very real.
"So," she says, as they move along the hallway, "what is the beginning?"
"Oh no," says Flora. "_Your_ beginning, not mine. How did you get here, and where's your little invite?" She pulls out a piece of parchment and hands it to the young woman. "Someone's having jokes at my expense, and I can't say I appreciate it."
"Believe me," returns Imogen, a little grimly, "I'm not overly amused about it myself."
She pauses, considering. Then she reaches into her jacket pocket and slides out the card that brought her here.
"I was looking at an old book - and I found this glued inside the back cover. I loosened it ... pulled it out ... and then I found that I was staring at it. Fixed. Riveted.
"Then suddenly I was ... I was in a room, decorated with rich stained glass windows. I still don't understand how looking at a card could have triggered this. At first I thought it must be a hallucination. But ... I decided to explore - to see if I could find anyone. And ... here I am."
She glances down at the parchment Flora has handed her.
As she touches the trump again, she feels herself focusing again, being drawn in...
Flora slaps her hand with a force that seems too hard for the delicate looking woman, and the card goes flying. The impulse to focus leaves Imogen, and she finds herself nursing her wrist and watching Flora bend over the card.
"Nasty little compelled thing... Don't touch it." She curses and tries to flip it over with her shoe. Giving up, she kicks it under a side table. "I'll get some gloves later." She crosses her arms. "So, who are your parents, dear? I really didn't know this family was that fertile..."
Remembering the parchment, Imogen opens it and manages to decipher a few lines of overly flowery script. Something about bringing children to Amber to be presented to the king...
She looks up at Flora.
"My adoptive parents were Marion and Ranulph Corven," she responds, truthfully enough - for these two had indeed acted as guardians for much of her childhood, and trustees in the days of her young adulthood.
"As for my real parents ... when they left me, it was without leaving their names."
And that too was true - if one discounted Imogen's own memories.
"Why?" she asks, curiously. "Is my parentage important?" She taps the parchment. "Who are thse children? And what is Amber?"
She studies Imogen and purses her lips. "None of these look familiar, do they?" She pulls out a deck of cards and fans them before her.
She sighs. "Not another mystery... I have a dinner to get to, a ball to plan..."
Imogen looks at the cards spread before her. Her mother ... the one the stranger called Caine ... the one called Corwin ... and one that could be the stranger himself.
Again she avoids the lie direct.
"These are the people in the stained glass portraits in the room upstairs, aren't they?" she asks. "I would ask you who they all are - their significance ... but I can see how very busy you are.
She hesitates, and then adds diffidently, "Perhaps I might be of assistance. In Galbraith, I am the Senior Administrator for the province of Keowinn. Helping to organise a ball should be challenging but not, I think, beyond my capabilities."
Flora clasps the small book to her chest and looks over at a painting of a Unicorn. "By the Pattern-- you saw fit to send me something I_needed_..." Quickly she collects her cards again, a smile on her face. "Oh, we'll get this settled later, won't we? I'll tell you all about the lovely things around here and figure out who's playing games with me... But for now we have a ball!" She takes Imogen by the arm. "Forget dinner. We have planning."
"Well," said Imogen, with a slight air of caution, "food too would be nice ... "
She allows herself to be led along the corridor.
"Someone is playing games with you?" she asks, with a surge of fellow feeling. "What sort of games?"
"Nasty games. There may be some grand plot about it, but to tell the truth, it's so obscure I'm not going to take my time for it." She thinks for a moment, and a sandwich appears in her hand, roast beef on rye. "Here," she says, handing Imogen the sandwich, "eat on the run."
"Thanks," said Imogen, taking the sandwich with a slightly doubtful expression. She bit into it and found it good - although a little heavy on the horseradish. Still.
"That sounds bad," she went on, between relatively dainty bites. "Erm ... what is this unicorn you've mentioned? And what's the Ball for? Have you set up a database for it yet?"
"Database? Oh, you came from tech shadow, didn't you? Those wonderful little gadgets don't work here. Just as well. Dependence on machines is dangerous."
She opens her book. "The ball is a family affair, impromptu, but we're trying to cover up that for the lesser nobles." She looks at Imogen. "I really wish I knew who's you are. The seating is going to be hell."
She sighs... "Now what else... OH! Yes, the unicorn. Patron saint, and our grandmother. 'Our' meaning my family."
Flora rolls her eyes. "Oh no... this family needs arranged seating like a penitentiary needs cells. Everyone has at least one grudge to cope with." She taps her pen on her book.
"Important women... you didn't happen to pop in from a matriarchy, did you?" She sighs. "It's always something, isn't it?"
"Galbraith moved on from direct inheritance positions of responsibility centuries ago," Imogen assures her with a smile. "We are a global democracy ... and have been for eons."
She looks a little oddly at Flora. "We do give men the vote, you know. That happened some time ago. We even have a Junior Minister in my sector with responsibility for Masculine Matters. MMM, we call her." She gives a little chuckle.
"So ... you would prefer a more formal arrangement. Would a geographical ordering help? Or should it be in order of seniority within the family? I can see that familial seating could be a problem ... especially if there are unknown quantities like me."
She shoots a thoughtful look at Flora. "One thing - how are you so sure I am a member of the family? Is it the card I had? Or the way that it drew me here?"
Flora closes the book a moment and considers the girl again, red lips pursing. "You must be family. It's just my horrid luck. Besides, I doubt someone would go to all the trouble to plant a Trump on you and get you here if you weren't something significant." She taps her foot and looks at the ceiling. "And whoever it was, wasn't taking any chances compelling a card like that." Her face grows distant, and she looks back at the double door. "I must remember to retrieve that..."
Shaking herself, she opens her book again. "Normally, seniority would be fine, but since, " she makes the slightest of faces, "Benedict has decided to grace ourselves with his presence, I need to rethink that."
She pauses, and looks at Imogen again. "But what of you... Perhaps your parent has no desire for you to know who they are. Or, maybe they just don't want to commit themselves to your education, and figure that one of the more kind-hearted," she coughs and flips her hair, "members of the family would take you on."
"At any rate, I think some subterfuge is in order, yes? You look about right for shadow Earth. Maybe a tad uptown, but they'd expect that from me. If anyone asks, say... oh, say you're from New York."
"New York," repeats Imogen obediently. Flora might be kind-hearted, she decides, according to her lights, but her habit of shooting out bits and pieces of information at random is proving slightly disconcerting. "And shadow Earth." There is, for one thing, all this talk of shadows. She wonders, briefly, if Earth is any more shadowy than Galbraith.
The reflection on her parents she ignores. After all, Flora is not to know that it is Imogen's own choice not to reveal their identities.
But one phrase sticks out in her mind ... "Benedict has decided to grace ourselves with his presence". Clearly, from the phrasing, someone important. And someone who her new mentor dislikes.
"Benedict," she repeats. "Might he be the one who threatens you?"
She laughs scornfully. "That scarecrow? Everyone's terrified of him, but really, he's no more guts than a schoolboy." She makes a noise, something akin to a growl, but immediately straightens and resumes her poise.
"But there's not much to be done. He's here, and I certainly can't ignore him, or Corwin might just fall over from fright."
The name the mysterious stranger gave her. The one who might ... just might ... have murdered her father.
Her skin feels cold and clammy suddenly. Perhaps she has broken out in a cold sweat - but she doesn't think so. Years of training have kicked in, and she knows she is as calm and outwardly unruffled as before.
"Corwin?" she says with polite interest. "Who is he? Does he frighten easily?"
"Corwin?" Flora shrugs. "He's the king, and he's always been a bit scared of Ben." She smirks. "And now he's just quaking, thinking Ben has an army camped out somewhere to take him. He's made an icon of the man."
She waves her hand. "But this is besides the point. Know any good desserts?"
"Coffee marshmallow mousse, lime mascapone cheesecake and summer pudding," says Imogen absently. "I can give you the recipes."
Internally her mind is reeling. Her father's possible murderer is the =King= here?
She is not sure which shocks her most - the level of power the man holds - or the fact that the kingdom seems to follow an archaic (some might say barbaric) power structure.
And why a king? Had the Queen had no daughters at all to whom she might leave the throne? But what of Flora? She spoke familiarly of Corwin ... and then Imogen realises, with a stab of shock that sends a faint flush to her cheeks. Of course. Flora is the Queen ... and the quaking Corwin her husband.
She can only hope she has behaved with sufficient respect.
"There's also a delicious recipe I know with couscous," she adds, and then, a little hesitantly, "your Majesty."
Flora's head snaps. "_Magesty_?" She laughs. "You have good taste, but I'm a princess. And I wouldn't bed that man if he were the last man in the universe. _Besides_ being my brother, I find him a bit brutish and crude for my tastes."
"Corwin has no queen, not even a lover that I know of."
Imogen shakes her head, bewildered.
"But I don't understand. If you are his sister, then why aren't you Queen? Surely women have precedence, even if men aren't excluded from the throne for unfitness."
Flora laughs. "Oh. This is a sick joke, isn't it? Raise a girl in a Matriarchy, then plop her in the middle of Amber. Either someone had high plans for you, or had a dark sense of humour."
She waves her hand out. "My dear assistant. Welcome to the most sexist of systems, the father of all patriarchies. Ruled by men, owned by men, played by men. Not that women don't have a seat in it. Just not the prettiest seat."
"Patriarchy?" says Imogen. "Like some of the primitives out beyond the Shell Wall practise ... " She looks at Flora, and sees she isn't joking.
"Ah, she says thoughtfully. "This will be interesting."
She draws a deep breath. "I'm Tess. Short for Theresa. Is that the sort of name a New York person might have?"
Flora thinks a moment. "Tess Agier. Daughter of Raymond and Della. I knew them on shadow Earth, but they've been dead a few years. Car accident. Nasty thing. It's not totally out of place that they'd have had a daughter."
She eyes Imogen. "Think you can keep that straight? A failed lie can be deadly here."
Imogen nodded. "I think so. Agier. Darling Mum and Dad - Della and Raymond."
She wondered why Flora was so eager, albeit inadvertently, to help her keep her true origins concealed. Uneasily she wondered just how much danger she really stood in - just by being an Amberite, let alone by being Imogen Tessler.
"Will other people guess I'm an Amberite too, though?" she asked. "Or will I just pass as an inhabitant of this Shadow Earth?
"Oh, and what is a car? Is it a means of transportation ... like a flitter?"
"Oh, yes. It has four wheels and runs about. Not the fastest, but fairly consistent throughout shadow."
Her hand flashes out and gently takes Imogen's chin. "I don't think so... You aren't a dead ringer for anyone in particular, although I think you have the general haughtiness down pat. I wouldn't recommend getting too chummy with anyone, though." She pauses. "And if anyone takes a particular interest in you, I'd make an excuse and run."
"I understand," says Imogen gravely.
There is danger then. Danger in being an Amberite with unknown parentage - would it be worse or better if her parents were known? She's inclined to think the former - after all, the odds are certainly in favour of their both being dead - and although she wasn't prepared to take the stranger's words on trust, she was becoming more certain that they had been murdered ... The facts would be too easy to check.
As she sat opposite Flora, writing out the proposed menu to be served at the supper (and the recipes for certain dishes she had recommended), she glanced up at the older woman thoughtfully - then went back to writing.
"While you're doing those lists, perhaps you could tell me something about the people behind them," she suggested. "Corwin's the king, you say, but Benedict's older? Was he illegitimate or something? Oh, and how do I address people correctly? I would hate to seem overly familiar."
Flora hums to herself quietly as she works. "'Your Highness' usually works rather well. But for the most part, stick to 'your honour' and other such nonsense. We have a number of nobles that aren't family running around. The Bayles, the Dururs, I think Bill has some duchy somewhere off of the coast."
She absently takes out her deck again and starts flipping through. "Benedict was legitimate at one time, but Oberon dissolved the marriage, taking Ben and his brothers out of the line. He pretends not to care. Next after that was Eric, but once again, the waters muddied, since Eric was born out of wedlock. He held the throne for a while anyway, and wasn't doing too poorly. I served under him as well."
She makes a few notes, then continues. "Corwin was next, being his brother, and he's the first of the legitimates. Then Deirdre." Here she pauses, considering the trio of cards she's tossed out. "All full siblings." She shakes her head and continues.
Imogen swallows past a suddenly huge lump in her throat. An idea occurs to her. Was this the reason her mother was killed - her closeness to the throne? And then she rejects it. Flkora had been very definite that this was a patriarchy. But still ... the idea gives her a sense of unease ...
"Oh, then we have the redheads. My lovely sister," her voice drips with venom, "Fiona. Stay away from her. And her brother, Bleys. I hear he's about right now. Funny, but very sharp. I'd guard yourself around him." She flips out the pictures, and Imogen realizes the picture she thought was her ex-patriate stranger is close, but not quite the man Bleys. The smile is a tad too wide, and perhaps he stands a bit taller. Close, though.
Imogen nods, then glances up at Flora. For a second she is tempted to ask if Bleys has any children ... but then she hesitates. There was something about the stranger that seemed ... ancient. Almost lizard-like ...
Perhaps she should be asking about Bleys' father ...
Another time. She looks at the cards again, as Flora flips them out quickly.
"Oh, and we have Julian and Random and everyone else... Those aren't too dangerous. They're always too wrapped up in some personal problem to notice a new girl in town."
"I see," says Imogen politely. Then she reaches the edge of one card and draws it towards her.
"Who's this?" she asks, although in fact she knows full well from the portrait in the glass.
The man the stranger claimed murdered her mother.
"Caine?" She looks at the card. "He's not around much. He dabbles in swords and dark arts and in general carries a foreboding aura about him that keeps him from getting many social calls." She shrugs and pushes the card away. "We've never gotten along, but that goes without saying. He's not a bastion of evil, but rather simply lacking in over tones of nobility."
Imogen absorbs the information silently, although her main pre-occupation appears to be writing down the best recipe for summer pudding.
"How many of these people are we expecting at the Ball?" she asks. "Will any one them be bringing their children?
"And when is it, by the way?"
"Tomorrow. And knowing how many is problematic. There's the local nobles who have been whining for something, and Benedict is in town. Gerard, too, of course. I trumped a few of my siblings and warned them, but most of those answers were ambiguous." She sighs. "And I have no idea about children. Ben and I have children, and now Corwin has another, and since Bleys is about I assume he's similarly blessed. But as for the rest... We seem to enjoy keeping the wee ones secret." She glances over the recipes. "Hmm-- I'll have to send out some runners to shadow. I think we're a bit short on supplies."
"Shadow?" echoes Imogen. "I'm sorry, your Highness, to be so ignorant - but why do you talk so much of Shadows?"
And yet ... in her mind ... she is pulling together the answer. Her mother, talking of Shadow worlds as she told her bed-time stories. Her own question ... "Will I travel in Shadow too, Mummy?" She gives herself an inward mental shake. She cannot afford to become caught up in her own past. There is too much to learn about the past as it affectected her parents ... and her own future ...
"The menus seem complete," she says, handing the last to Flora. "What would you like me to do next?"
She looks at Imogen again, studying her intently, as if searching for something. Finding it, or not finding it, she responds. "Shadows are reflections of Amber, where we're sitting. They work like universes. Your home was one. The shadow Earth was another." She leans back.
"What did your adoptive parents tell you about your bloodline? Any pictures or such? Perhaps a story."
"They didn't talk of my parents much," says Imogen with perfect truth. "I don't think they ever met them. They knew an old woman who handed me over - they thought she was my grandmother, because she cried very bitterly when she had to leave me."
Old Marthe ... loyal, devoted Marthe ... what had happened to her, she wondered fleetingly.
"They thought it was a standard adoption," she went on. "They were on the list, as they were unable to have children, so an agent calling with a suitable child wasn't really so surprising.
"The first time they got wind that something might be different was after the adoption went through - and they were suddenly informed that there was a huge trust fund in my name ... enough to have kept us all in luxury, I daresay. But they're sensible folks ... we lived modestly but comfortably. And they adopted three more children later, so I grew up with siblings ... who don't have mysterious trust funds, by the way, and all of whom have Galbraithan backgrounds.
"You see, when they tried to check for me, later, all they came up with was dead ends. The agent had disappeared ... so had the grandmother - even the records office that should have held the data on my background had been mysteriously destroyed by fire, and the computer network was afflicted by a malicious virus.
"Someone went to a lot of trouble to hide the truth."
~And to protect me,~ she adds mentally. For if her adoptive parents had been unable to track back, so too had anyone been unable to track forward, to Galbraith.
Except ... the mysterious stranger ... who looked so like the one called Bleys.
Flora furrows her brow. "How old were you when this happened? And what about before? Do you remember anything?"
Her eyes grow clouded as seems to consider something.
Imogen spread her hands wide, ruefully.
"To be honest, I don't remember much, as I was so young. And even what I do remember - I'm not clear as to whether I truly remember it for myself, or whether it just comes from remembering what people have told me about it. Before ... " She shrugs. "I remember roses on a trellis. But there was a trellis on my balcony too ... it might have been the same one."
She looked at Flora with an expression of hope. "Why? Does that give you some idea of who my parents might be?"
Flora sighs. "Horticulture? I'm afraid not. Unless..." Her eyes widen, then she groans and puts her hand on her forehead. "No. Oh, no. That man has not spawned again." She looks up at Imogen, her other hand holding a card from the table. "The only one of us connected to roses is Corwin." Her eyes flit back and forth between the card and Imogen's face. "Perhaps... you have some of the features. Maybe around the eyes..."
Well, that made sense, Imogen reflected. Flora had said they were full siblings ... She kept her face still, tranquil, as though she were sitting for her portrait, although inwardly she was thinking with some amusement of the prospect of being introduced - as his own bastard daughter - to the man who might have killed her father.
"Do you think that might be the answer?" she asked hopefully. "And ... if it were the answer ... would he be pleased to see me?"
She waves her hand. "Oh, I don't see why not. He's been nice enough to Merlin and that new girl of his... oh, what is her name... Eleanor! Another child should just send him into a goddamn tizzy." Her face grows dark, and once again, that flawless poise shows a few cracks. "Normally, we're not this fertile."
She sighs and collects her trumps and the recipes. "So does this mean you want to meet him now?"
Imogen stretches out a swift hand and catches Flora's arm, an almost imploring gesture.
"Meet him ... yes. I would like that very much. But please - let's not tell him what you suspect. I ... I would feel that people would believe I had come here just to claim to be the king's daughter. And what if I wasn't?"
She swallows awkwardly. "Can you ... just introduce me as your friends' daughter? That way ... if things don't work out, he need never know."
She looks at Flora pleadingly.
She sighs. "Oh fine. A distracted assistant isn't much use anyway." She stands and looks at the card in her hand. "Don't forget, you're my assistant." She concentrates, then speaks, apparently to thin air, her voice slightly muffled. She extends her hand, and the form of the man on the card takes shape, at first blurry, but then clearing until she can see him, clad in black and silver, looking tired and less young than in the picture. He sees Imogen out of the corner of his eye and turns to nod at her. No flicker of recognition hits his face, and Flora, for a moment, looks relieved.
He turns back to her. "You wanted to discuss the ball?"
She likes him.
She hasn't been expecting that. She thought that she might dislike him on sight ... and that it would be all too easy to see him as her father's killer, so that she has been guarding against too negative a reaction. But she hasn't been expecting to feel such sympathy for this man, clearly weary with the weight of responsibility laid upon him (why don't these people do the sensible thing, and hand over power to the women, who would be better able to cope, she wonders).
But she can't afford to let herself like Corwin. Not with the memory of her father, with his laughing eyes, and strong, gentle, capable hands, seizing her and tossing her up, up into the air until she cried out with laughter. Not until she knows for certain how he met his end ...
She frowns a little, and turns it into a worried frown at the notes she hold in her hands. This is the pose she needs. Flora's assistant, taking her duties seriously, and waiting to be introducing to the King.
He sits with a sigh. "Why aren't you at dinner?"
"Oh, I sent a note to Mathonwyr saying I'd be too busy arranging this. He isn't there?" Corwin shakes his head, and Flora smiles saucily. "Ah. Well. I'm sure he's found something to entertain himself."
Corwin looks over at Imogen. "Tess. My new assistant. I'm borrowing her from shadow Earth." He nods and smiles slightly, and Imogen swallows hard as she realizes how much he does favour her mother. The dark hair, the clear eyes. She imagines in happier times he was stunning. Even now, with the weight of the world on his face, he's still attractive.
"I used to live there," he says politely. "For quite some time, actually."
"Oh, super," responds Imogen, a little hollowly, well aware that two minutes conversation is going to reveal her knowledge of her supposed residence is totally non-existent. Quite some time? Well, thanks, Aunt Flora.
"Actually," she says, "since Mummy and Daddy died, I've spent some time travelling in Shadow - thanks to Princess Flora. The whole thing ... made Earth seem terribly desolate to me."
She looks wistful - it's a look that has served her in good stead when persuading underlings to meet impossible deadlines. Particularly male underlings.
Then she looks up and smiles, a gallant little smile, that is telling him - no matter what her sufferings have been, she is determined to put her troubles behind her and move bravely onwards.
"But I'm so pleased to be here. I just hope I may be able to help the Princess and repay her kindness to me." And there is no need to fake the sincerity of this last.
Imogen feels a touch on her knee, Flora's slight fingers. She feels a stirring in her mind, and stiffens ever so slightly as she hears Flora's voice in her thoughts.
/You are from New York, the Village./ An image of a city, somewhat rural and dirty, with only ground vehicles moving about, and crassly archaic neon lighting. /This was your home. No matter what you think, Tess would think it classy./
Flora's face remains still next to her.
Imogen swallows nervously. If Flora can do =that=, how much can she actually =see= inside Imogen's mind?
Corwin nods. "It's good you've been through shadows. That makes it easier to work here. Are you planning on staying?"
"I don't know, your Majesty," she says honestly. "At the moment it's all so very strange and new. I would like to stay for a while, and learn more about this place - and the people. From what her Highness has told me, I realise you have new people arriving here - who are relations. I know that ... " She drew a deep breath. "Perhaps ... if I could fulfil some useful function, it might be possible for me to stay and learn?"
She looks up at him, a little diffidently, and is again shaken by how she is drawn to him. The urge to tell him the truth at once is suddenly so strong ... stronger by far than it was with Flora. And yet she knows full well that Corwin is the danger ... Corwin and Caine.
"I ... I want to understand this place ... and these people," she says ... and is horribly conscious that she sounds like an eager young student - not the woman who has been Administrator for three Provinces for the last five years. Flushing slightly, she looks away.
He nods, and his eyes drift down. For a moment she wonders how he can be so crass, ogling her like that! But then his hand reaches out.
"Your pendant... Did you get it on earth? I didn't know their workmanship was so fine..." He touches something on her chest, and she realizes she's wearing a necklace. Chancing a look down, she notes it's of a gold rose, so fair and delicate she wonders that you can't see dew on it's tiny, breath-thin petals.
When her eyes move back up, he's staring at her oddly, something burning behind his eyes. She struggles to recognize the emotion, but Flora breaks the moment.
"Corwin... Corwin! Do you know how many are coming?" He shakes himself and pulls back, quietly saying 'no' to Flora.
Imogen finds herself breathing faster ... as though she has survived some interrogation ... some initiation rite.
But what =is= the pendant she is wearing? She knows she has never seen it before. Could it be something that symbolises her mother? Even worse, could it be something that was placed around her neck by the stranger - a mocking token of his power? That seems all too horribly likely.
And yet ... Corwin's reaction - she doesn't know what it was, but its power and its unexpected onset seemed to shock him as much as it did her ...
Appalled, she slips one hand over the pendant, covering it from view, and raises the notes that she holds in her other hand.
Only then does she realise her hand is shaking.
The pendant is warm in her fingertips, as if his touch had ignited it. Slowly, the sensation fades.
Flora interrogates the distracted Corwin a bit more, and seems to grow more and more concerned over the almost involuntary glances he keeps throwing at Imogen. Finally, she stands, snapping her book shut. "Well, we really must be going. I have an order to get out to the runners, you know." She lightly touches Imogen on the arm. "Come along."
As they leave, Imogen can feel Corwin's eyes in the back of her head.
At the doorway she turns and sinks into a low, deep, formal curtsey - surprising even herself (she had no idea she could do such a thing ... )
"Your Majesty," she says respectfully, and rises, her eyes full and intent on his face.
Their gaze is intense, and Corwin goes to say something but Flora, once again, jumps in.
"I'll contact you later. Hope dinner is well. Ta." She pulls Imogen out of the room and quickly down a coridoor. She looks back, her face puzzled.
"Well, either he recognized you as something, or is smitten with you. Both, I'm sure, are not the best thing to happen to you." She looks at the rose. "That is nice. You must take me to your jeweller sometime."
She moves them into a side room, one obviously meant as a general purpose sitting room. "You met him. Did he ring any bells?"
Imogen shakes her head, not trusting herself to speak at first.
"No," she says, and is pleased to discover how calm and level her voice is. "If I ever saw him in my life before, it was when it was too young to remember it.
Inwardly, she is evaluating the encounter. Smitten with me. Or recognises me ... recognises Mother, perhaps, in me. Or Father ... Either way, it would seem that I have some great effect on the man. That's power - the kind of power I need.
On the other hand, she admits wryly, it will be an odd sort of power if she herself is reduced to much the same helpless, uncertain state by his presence as he is by hers.
To stay nothing of the fact that Flora was in a state of lively alarm, clearly anticipating a father and daughter showing every signs of becoming overly familiar.
Well, understanding this strange attraction between Corwin and herself, and how she could take advantage of it, could wait for another day. Her first task was to placate Flora - and make herself indispensable.
So she smiled and said, "And I'm afraid I can't help you over the pendant. It was a gift ... from an unknown admirer.
"Now, have you thought about what colours of flowers should decorate the ballroom?"
Flora launches into a list of colour schemes by season, occasion, whim... Talking almost to herself, she finally concludes on white with liberal doses of dark green foliage, and some yellow fall leaves. "Our state colours. I simply hate Corwin's scheme. Do you know how hard it is to design the coronation for a man who walks around like a one man funeral procession?"
She idly straightens a few trinkets on a shelf. "All the men have horrid colours. Benedict insisted on brown, orange, and yellow. Random and Bleys just look like clowns." She sighs. "I don't know why dad had so many of them."
"There do seem to be a lot," agrees Imogen, smiling. "Let me see ... how many can I remember?"
She counts them off on her fingers ... "Benedict - he's the eldest, and the one the King holds in awe. He has brothers, I think you said - but you didn't name them. Do they live far from here? And he has children.
"Then ... Eric ... but he lost the throne, I think you said ... to Corwin. Was it because he was illegitimate?" She frowns. "But in that case ... oh well. Then Corwin." She is pleased by how naturally and easily she says his name. And he has a son and a daughter. I think I am going to have to make a card index for the family!"
"Then there was a sister, yes? Deirdre. And then two red heads ... Fiona and Bleys."
She looks inquiringly at Fiona. "Am I right so far? You then said there were younger one - You must be one of those yourself! And also ... Gerard, Caine ... and Random."
"How am I doing? Have missed any out?"
"That I told you, no," she replies. "Eric lost the throne because that's what tends to happen when you die. He was killed in battle, a rather nice one. All the boys were very pleased with it."
"Benedict's brothers are dead also. They fought with father, who never liked to be crossed, and paid the price. Deirdre is gone also, pulled into the abyss during another battle all the boys thought was neat."
She waves a hand. "The rest... oh, I'm sure I'll get around to them. I'd need a pointer and a flowchart to explain our lines."
~Pulled into the abyss.~
She felt sick. Mother, loving, vital Mother, with her unruly mane of dark hair and her wonderful deep blue eyes ... pulled into an abyss.
It fixed an indelible image on her mind. She saw her in her head, over and over again. Falling. Screaming.
She stood up and moved across to the window ... then stopped. She could not cope with looking down from any height at all just now. Instead she turned and gave a pallid smile at Flora.
"I'm sorry," she said. "That ... seems to me ... an awful way to die."
But something was striking her as strange. "Pulled" Fiona had said - which suggested someone doing the pulling. And the stranger had said Caine killed her. But to pull her into the abyss, surely he would have fallen too? And Caine, from Flora's account, was very much alive.
"Pulled her," she said slowly, searching for a way to frame the question. "You make it sound ... as though someone caused her death."
Flora eyes her warily. "Well, it is fairly bad, but most ways are. She was pulled in by Brand. It was a case of bad timing. She was being held as a body shield, and managed to get away, but Caine chose that second to shoot Brand, and he caught Deirdre’s hair and pulled him back with her."
She lowers her voice. "He insisted later that he had to do it then, and I half believe him. Corwin was mad with grief for a while. Random had to knock him out to keep him from trying to get her."
Imogen had always thought of herself as possessing an equable temper. Cool. Even.
But now, suddenly, she was conscious of a desire to shake Flora until she told a story straight and simply ... without shooting out bits of information like a firework set at an uncomfortable angle.
Corwin ... had been mad with grief. It was like a cooling draught of air. Corwin ... had =cared=. Yes, she could honour him for that.
"Corwin loved his sister, then?" she said, aware of how inadequate the words were.
And then she frowned. "So ... who was Brand, who died with her?"
Flora smiles an odd smile. "Oh yes, Corwin loved his sister." She plays with a pendant around her neck. Her tone drips with suggestion, but she doesn't elaborate.
Imogen flinched inwardly at the suggestiveness there. And unbidden, the thought came into her head ...
What if Corwin's love for Deirdre had been a jealous one? What if that was what had lead him to murder another man who had loved Deirdre, a man who had, in turn, gained Deirdre's love? The man known as Donavon Tesler - and Imogen's father?
"Brand was an evil man... He tried to destroy the universe and remake it in his own image. Came uncomfortably close, too. Deirdre died for a good cause. I just wish she had been more heroic about it. Perhaps it would be easier to mourn her."
"Ah well," said Imogen, fighting to speak levelly. "As you say, there are no good ways to die. Perhaps there are no truly heroic ones either. And unless we are tested, we shall never know how we would respond ... "
So ... now she knew the outline. There were more questions ... there had to be more. But she would take things gently ...
"So you favour letting the ivy trail from the balcony?" she asked, writing orders for potted plants, and on some remote level even amused at the inanity of the task. "Have you thought about filling nets that hang from the ceiling not with balloons, but with soft feathers dyed a rich cornfield gold? Then, when they are released, it will be like dancing in a warm, soft golden snowstorm ... "
She wrote a careful note.
"I have a picture of your Brand in my head as a great hulking dark-browed brute," she added casually - and untruthfully. "Was he like that?"
In truth, she was starting to have a very different image of the evil Brand ...
"Brand? Hulking? No... he was one of the redheads, slim and bookish. He never looked all that healthy to me, like someone who doesn't get out enough. Pallid, if you will."
Imogen's jaw clenches. She knows who he was now - just as she has started to suspect, The stranger, who brought her to Amber - and attempted to wind her like a deadly clockwork toy and set her going.
But ... he must have known that she would hear these tales soon enough. He must have known that she would learn exactly how her mother had died ... Then why had he been so confident she could be used against Caine and Corwin?
Had he thought she would act in the heat of rage? Surely not if, as he claimed, he had been studying her for years. But if not ... then what =was= his plan? Why has he brought her to Amber with a strange card of such compulsion that it shocked Flora?
Flora shudders. "Deirdre... she screamed as she went over. I don't think I'll ever forget that face. No rage, no anger, just terror. I heard that scream in my sleep for years, and saw her fade into the abyss, him at her back..." She shivers again.
Imogen feels her nausea return. But suddenly there is a cold hard core to it.
Brand fell ... with Deirdre. The two went into the abyss together.
And yet ... Brand is alive ... that she is sure of. Indeed. she has seen him herself.
But if Brand is alive ... then what of her mother?
Flora seems to notice the shock still visage of Imogen. "Tess? Hello?" She smiles slightly, then turns and opens her book again. "I love the feathers idea. I'll have to put that on the list."
She doesn't look up as she writes. "Any more thinly veiled questions?"
Imogen forced herself to smile.
"Dozens. I'm sorry to be such a pain. Shall I be less thinly veiled?"
She makes a note to organise the feathers, then looks up.
"I think I have the older part of the family clear in my mind now. Can I start pestering you about the younger ones? You must know them much better if you were one of them.
"So there were just the three red-heads, right? And then .... oh, you've mentioned you, Julian, Gerard, Random .... are there any more? Are you closer to them?"
She finishes the note.
"Will there be a formal dinner for family and honoured guests before the Ball to organise, or will people just dine quietly and then come on? We do seem to have catered enough food to feed an army!"
She holds out the shopping list she had drawn up for the shopping in Shadow, and gave another apologetic smile.
"I hope I'm being a sufficient help to compensate for my rampant curiosity," she says apologetically. "Oh heavens - musicians! What sort of music do you want playing during supper? Should we draw up an order ?"
Flora's tone is almost over-kind. "A bother? Hardly. You're family after all. How could I not at least _try_ to leave a good impression? But really, if you want to know something, just ask." She smiles a sweet smile.
"But as for music, I generally prefer strings. A tad overdone, true, but if you start getting too creative, Martin or one of the other so-called musicians might jump up and improvize."
"We have an ancient string music on Galbraith," says Imogen thoughtfully. "Small harps ... and then its accompanied by little wooden pipes. The melodies are poignant ... often heart-rendingly lovely. But perhaps not the right thing for supper."
She looked up again.
"What do you think I should do for clothes?" she asks. "What I'm wearing seems out of place - and I have an awful suspicion that my charge accounts won't extend here ... "
She flushes suddenly. "I can't get my money at all, can I? What can I do?"
Flora laughs. "That depends on the face you choose. As my assistant, it wouldn't be out of place for you to have an allowance. As a child of Amber, you would have a bit heavier a purse." She shrugs. "If, of course, you chose to take your place."
With a flip of her hair, she changes the subject again. "The harps are a lovely idea. Nothing too maudlin, though. Nobles can be so dramatic at times. I'm afraid we're in the throws of a romantic revolution again, so the boys are pale and wan and the girls listless. I much prefer the ages of adventure that pass through." She waves her hand. "Oh well. A new turn can't be any more than a few hundred years off. I suppose I'll live."
The pen slips from Imogen's fingers and she stares wide-eyed at Flora.
"You ... you reckon time differently here?" she says at last.
"A year is still a year," sighs Flora, "but being immortal makes them matter a bit less. I've learned patience." She watches Imogen with a mild amusement. "Oh, that's right, you didn't know that."
"No," says Imogen a little drily. "No ... I didn't."
She regards Flora with a certain rueful amusement. "I am not going to be so crass as to ask ... but I assume we are taking centuries of age here, not just decades? In fact, my assuming you were about thirty-five Galbraithian years would be something of an under-estimate, yes?"
Flora's eyes go wide. "Thirty-_five_?! How could you assume so much! I'm no where _near_ middle aged looking!" She tosses her hair and lifts her chin. "But you are correct about centuries versus decades. I stopped counting a few millenia ago."
"I hope you're not," responds Imogen, smiling. "On Galbraith I reckon my age as thirty-three - but with a life span of 200, I am seen by many as having barely reached the age of responsibility ...
"Immortal ... " she says softly. "Is this a gift given to my generation too, I wonder ... "
Then she speaks more briskly.
"If I am to be your assistant, then may I beg an advance on my allowance? I do not wish to embarrass you with a shoddy appearance at the ball .. "
"Of course, of course..." She opens a pocket in her book and pulls out some coin. "I wouldn't have you playing the ignorant shadow person. I'm glad you said something, after all. It took me months of gentle hinting to get Bill out of his jeans." She looks up. "Not that way."
She drops the coins in Imogen's hand and continues. "Immortality is apparently catching. Merlin and Martin, our eldest of your generation, show no signs of needing canes yet."
"Well, that's reassuring," murmured Imogen, accepting the coins. "Now, how should I purchase clothes? Does one go to a shop here, or ask dressmakers to attend one?"
She pulled a face. "I suppose I will need a room too ... oh dear, I hate feeling so helpless!"
Flora taps her pen to her lip. "Helpless. Yes, I can imagine you'd feel that way." She starts writing again, but this time Imogen gets the feeling it's more for effect than need.
"You know, if you want, I have a way to make you feel a bit less helpless."
"Oh?" said Imogen, cautiously, but carefully allowing a note of hope to creep in to her voice. "That would be ... lovely."
Flora doesn't look up from her book, and her tone is carefully casual. "Well, it makes you more vulnerable in a way... Some who would think to look would see right away that you were a daughter of Amber. But most would be content to see another shadow girl prancing about, and not think any more on it. And if it comes to pass, I can pretend you're a daughter of mine from long ago, and I'm just around to getting you up here."
She pauses. "And hope you weren't purposefully rejected by one of my darling siblings. It's been known to happen."
"Are you interested?"
Imogen looked at her thoughtfully. "I might well be," she said. "This is all so new ... strange to me. But I'm not entirely clear what you want me to do ... "
"Well, you know, you could start by telling me the truth." Flora smiles, and this time it is not so kind. "I'm taking a great chance, hiding you. Now tell me." She leans in. "When did you take pattern?"
Imogen looks at her in honest bewilderment.
"Take pattern? I don't know what you mean. What is pat ...
And then she breaks off and looks at her hostess in horror. A sudden flush begins in her cheeks, slowly flooding her face with colour.
"Is ... is that what you call necro? Look, I only took the filthy stuff once ... when I was eighteen. It was ... it was a stupid sort of dare at college. It was meant to make us seen visions and be fun, but ... it was awful. Awful!"
She buries her head in her hands. Clearly the memory has affected her deeply - she is even shaking a little.
"They said ... they said it could recur," she says painfully, not looking up, "that the hallucinations could come back. But .... how can it be so obvious to you? It was so long ago - and I've never touched any drug since!"
She raises her head and looks at Flora, shaken. "Is this all a hallucination? Is this the necro after all this time?"
Flora looks genuinely surprised. Apparently, this was not the reaction she was looking for at all.
Imogen feels her distraught face scoured by Flora, perhaps looking for traces of her acting or lying. Finding none, Flora puts down her book and takes up her pen in earnest. She tears a fresh page, and starts drawing something.
"The Pattern is not a drug. It's large and glowing and resides on the floor. Ring any bells?"
"Resides on the floor?" echoes Imogen, bewildered. "Some sort of ani ... "
She gives a sudden gasp. "Tell me," she says urgently. "Is it like a maze ... surrounded by blue fire ... with invisible walls to block you?"
Flora nods slowly. "Yes, that would be it. Tell me, about how long ago did you walk it?"
"I think ... I think it must have been ... " Imogen begins. Then she draws a deep breath. "It was fifteen years ago. The night I took the necro. My hallucination ... was this strange maze in a dark cave ... and walking ... "
She looks up at Flora. "But it was a hallucination!" she exclaims.
Flora cocks an eyebrow. "I don't know of many hallucinations that can be shared over the span of 15 years, a handful of shadows, and complete ignorance of one another's existence." She stands crisply and snaps shut her book. "Come. Field trip time."
Imogen rises to her feet, and straightens her skirt.
"Where are we going?" she asks, although she has a strong suspicion of what the answer will be.
"Field trip," reiterates Flora. "Hope you don't mind stairs, the dark, or a long walk, because we're going to have to cope with all three." She leads Imogen out the of the room and confidently leads her down a series of hallways, leading into the bowels of the castle. She doesn't talk, and motions for Imogen to follow suit.
Finally they come to an ordinary looking door, guarded by a weary looking guard. Flora greets him cheerily and accepts a lantern from a stand nearby. She opens to door, and all Imogen can see is darkness.
After the door is closed, Flora speaks again, low, but her voice seems to echo endlessly. "Now, tell me exactly what happened."
"Where should I begin?" counters Imogen.
Then she sighs and takes a deep breath.
"All right. It was the last night of school. All of us ... in my dorm ... had some sort of stupid bet that we would take necro ... It a powerful hallucinogen ... it is meant to give you incredible visions. Anyway ... one by one, the others started to describe what they were seeing. One was in a flower garden ... and she knew all the flowers really loved her ... that sort of thing.
"And I was getting ... nothing. Zilch.
"I closed my eyes ... and suddenly I was being dragged to my feet, by my shoulders ... someone behind me .... it was as though the chair had turned into a person ... I opened my eyes, of course, because it was just so strange ... and I was in a large, dimly lit cavern. And there was a sort of maze on the floor at my feet. It ... flickered. Blue fire. Rather lovely ... but frightening too, somehow.
"Well, I assumed all this was my hallucination, so I started to describe it aloud - as the others had done ... and then someone hit me ... very hard ... on the back. A riding crop, I think. I stumbled forward ... and my foot made contact with the maze ... the straight off it. And the blue fire flared up ...
"It was odd at the time, and it seems odder to say it now ... but I felt it was welcoming me."
"A common reaction," interjects Flora. "I had it too, my first time. I don't know if it was the fear or if it is actually welcoming to those that would assay it, but I only felt that urge that one time. So the point is academic, and i've walked it several times since, with no result."
She waves her hand and continues down. "And then..."
Imogen looks art her a little oddly. So Flora had walked the maze - what had she called it? The Pattern - too ...
Had her parents, she suddenly wondered.
But she continues her story.
"I took a few more steps ... I don't remember how many. And then I came to ... a blockage. It felt ... I don't know. Like air compressed until it was solid. Impossible to get through. I half-turned ... and he yelled at me. I had to go on, or I would die he said. And suddenly ... I knew that was true."
She swallows suddenly.
"And the sparks ... were rising higher. It seemed like the hardest thing I had ever down ... And then suddenly - I was through. And I knew I had to ... to go deeper. To become one with the maze ... Oh, it's hard to explain ... "
She tries to make out Flora's face in the darkness.
"Was it like that for you?" she asks, almost shyly.
"One with the maze... that's a fairly good way to put it. I was forced to remember some of the more painful memories of my life. It hit me a bit unawares... I almost stopped." She's silent for a moment, lost in memory.
They hit the bottom of the stairs, and Flora silently leads the two of them, encased in the hazy orb of light cast by their lantern, down a roughly hewn hallway. She counts doors, then stops and turns.
A key clicks, and the door swings open.
And there is the pattern.
Imogen's sharp intake of breath confirms her recognition, even before she speaks.
"That's it ... oh great Cassopan, that's it!"
Her breath comes out half as a laugh, half as a sob. "And all these years ... I thought it was a terrible hallucination!"
"No," sighs Flora. "It was some terrible reality."
She enters the room and paces about it. "Now, tell me who brought you here."
"I don't know," says Imogen. "No-one whose picture you showed me. No-one whose portrait was in the room with the stained glass ... Or so I believe.
"But he seemed to understand the maze. He was calling instructions to me ... later on it was even harder to move ... and he yelled at me ... he even abused me ... until I fought my way through - as much to escape the sound of his voice as anything.
"I tried to see his face ... but it was hard. Lit from underneath with blue fire ... and just occasional glimpses. I think he deliberately positioned himself where it would be hard for me to see him ... "
She frowns. "And then ... when I reached the centre ... "
She remembers the voice ... asking the same questions over and over again.
~Who came to the house?~
~Did you see him die?~
~Did you see the blood?~
~Was your mother there?~
~Was she hurt?~
~Did you hear him cry out?~
~Did you hear her scream?~
~Who came to the house that night?~
Over and over, his voice growing feverish and hoarse, wild with a thick, desperate fury. And she ... had shaken her head, dazed. Had screamed out at him to stop - to shut up - to leave her alone. Had sunk to the floor, wanting the blue flames to protect her ... for even if her conscious mind was telling her this was all a hallucination, she was still terrified.
And then the contempt in his voice as he dismissed her for knowing nothing. Ordering her back to the dorm, and what had seemed the very real retribution that had awaited her there.
"He ... he ordered me to go back to the dorm," she says aloud. "As though I were some vile thing that had displeased him. I didn't know what he meant - but I thought of the dorm with - oh, such longing! And then suddenly ... there I was."
A flash of compassion crosses Flora's face. "Poor thing..." she whispers. "It's already not a pleasant experience." She puts a comforting hand on Imogen's shoulder. "And you didn't see him? Not even a glimpse you could show me?"
Imogen shook her head.
"It's his voice I would know again from that, rather than his face," she said with perfect honesty. "I could say I thought he bore a family resemblance to some of those pictures you showed me ... but I expect most faces would, glimpsed in those unexpected angles."
She looks at Flora, their own faces lit merely by the dim radiance of the Pattern. "Would you know me again, purely on the basis of this light? Especially if I were at pains to keep my face as hidden as I could?"
She shrugs. "All I can say is that if I hear his voice again while I am with you, I will tell you at once. And that I know one member of the family who it wasn't.
"It wasn't Corwin."
She gazes over the lines of the Pattern again, and gives a little shiver. "How did you know I'd walked .... what did you call it? Taken Pattern? How could you tell?"
Flora thinks a moment, pacing in a way that's slightly reminiscent of the walkways of fashion shows. "There's a reason it's called 'taking pattern' instead of 'walking pattern.' A small lexiconical difference, but one that is all the world. When you traverse it, you take some of it with you. You are... oh, what did Dworkin say... rewritten in the eyes of the universe. And one who is fairly proficient in it's use can see when someone else has taken it."
She smiles. "It's a bit akin to losing one's virginity and wondering if anyone can tell. Except in this instance, one can tell."
"So... it wasn't Corwin. Well, that's hardly surprising. I've never thought him cruel. Daft, yes. Weak, yes. Cruel? Never."
Imogen, watching her movements in the dim light, deems it best to remain silent. Flora, after all, knows Corwin better than she - over the centuries, not doubt.
And over the years as a politician, Imogen has learned that listening is as valuable a tool as any she possesses...
But she is intrigued by the fact that Flora has spoken of others here ...
Flora thinks a moment, then shakes her head. "If the person who I think pushed you on the pattern is in fact the perpetrator, then you don't have much to worry about. He's rather busy being dead at the moment."
She takes Imogen's arm. "I suggest we go back now. It's getting rather late, and people get antsy if you stay down here too long."
"Certainly," replies Imogen, allowing herself to be guided away from the Pattern. "What I would really like to do is find some clothes which would make me ... well, more inconspicuous. Then perhaps I could make some sketch plans of the seating arrangements you drew up. You said different members of the family favour different colour schemes ... perhaps we could work on a design that might complement that ... "
Deliberately she focuses back on the Ball and not on their conversation as they leave the Chamber. Inwardly, she is more than ever convinced that she knows the identity of the stranger. And in this strange new world, without money, family (except this bewildering flock of unknown relatives) or friends, Imogen is more than ever aware that knowledge is power ...
Flora takes out a card and concentrates, and the dusky smell of the Pattern's chamber is replaced by a sweet, delicate aroma.
The room is exquisite, and obviously decorated by a woman. Frills, lace, swirls... not overbearing in it's femininity, but enough to make any man a bit uncomfortable.
Flora scans the room. "I guess dinner isn't out yet. You'll meet Math later, dear." She leads Imogen to a room and shows her a wardrobe, brimming with appropriate clothes. "I should probably see how that's going. I hope you don't mind."
She pats Imogen on the shoulder lightly, and flits back out of the room again.
"Certainly," says Imogen. "I don't mind at all - I'm sure you must have masses to do."
Left alone, she studies the display of clothinng ... an impressive one. The difficulty is finding anything modest and unassuming enough.
How would the mythical Tess dress, she wonders, when she is much tempted by a gown of soft pale blue velvet, which - as she discovers when holding it against her as she looks in a mirror - deepens the rich blue of her eyes. Perhaps the gown is too gorgeous for the modest guest that Flora is employing as her social secretary ...
She puts it to one side, not without regret, and instead selects a dress of the finest woollen material, falling in full soft folds to the floor. A pale blue again, but this time a blue that shades almost on grey ... She slips it on, reflecting that she and Flora must be much of a size, as it fits he almost perfectly ...
Then she moves into the outer room, a well-appointed living room, to await her hostess' return, wondering, a little uneasily, whether she could take this opportunity to explore the Castle a little more. She'll give Flora half an hour, she decides ...
She paces the room several dozen times, and a clock somewhere gongs the half-hour passing. Flora doesn't return, and it looks like Imogen was right.
She leaves, and thinks about where she knows to get to in the castle. The stained glass room. The ball room. The pattern room. She's fairly certain she knows where the kitchen is. Other than that, the castle is a mess of doors and knickknacks.
She thinks, and tries to focus on what she's looking for. After all, there are a few servants milling about. They should know something.
And there is someone else who may know something too. Dare she risk it?
Suddenly, she thinks of her mother, the way she would lift her head, proudly, challengingly. And Imogen knows she will take a chance - just as her mother did.
She reaches inside the neckline of her dress and frees the rose pendant, so that it gleams against her gown. Then she stops one of the busy servants ...
"Excuse me," she says, "could you tell me the way to the throne room?"
The young woman with a spattering of freckles across her young face points the way, then returns to her task of carrying off dinner dishes.
As Imogen makes her way, she feels her stomach go cold. Man, king, god, uncle, murderer-- she swims in the possibilities of who or what he may or may not be.
She comes to a set of double doors, the ones that the servant described.
She takes a deep breath, and her fingers stray to the rose around her neck, almost for reassurance.
Then she pushes open the door and walks into the room beyond, feeling a pulse beating wildly in her throat.
At first she thinks the room is empty. The throne (only one?) at the head of the room is unoccupied, and the balconies and various sideways are filled only with shadows. She is painfully of the sound of her hard-soled shoes on the marble floor as she moves forward.
From behind her, she hears the soft sound of fabric shifting, like someone moving behind her.
"Tess, wasn't it?" comes a low voice.
For an instant she is silent ... and Flora's words earlier echo in her head.
~A failed lie can be deadly here.~
Then she turns, calm, relaxed - at least on the surface.
"Yes," she says steadily. "That's right. Tess Agier."
She smiles ruefully, apologetically. "I'm sorry - I thought people would be at dinner and I could check this room to see what flowers we could use to decorate it for the Ball ... "
Corwin looks... haunted. He stands against the wall, and his face is deathly pale against his dark clothes and skin. The moon filters in from above, leaving his eyes lost in shadows. He moves forward, shaking his head, sound distracted as he looks at her. "No, this won't be used for the ball. We have a room for that..." He stops a few feet short of her, and seems to be searching her face.
"What is it?" she says quietly, her eyes full on his. "What's wrong?"
To Imogen he seems a person in such pain that she wants to reach out towards him, to rest her hand against his cheek. But ...
It's not so much that she believes the stranger - it's more that she doesn't trust him to have lied to her totally. What happened to her mother - well, he put his own slant on it, but his account was not wholly inaccurate. So what of his claims of her father's murder? Eric ... or Corwin. She has to know ... and this man before her probably knows the answers ...
Slowly, almost as though mesmerised, she raises her hand to her cheek, brushing her fingertips over the smooth flesh ... Does he recognise an echo ... of the sister he loved so much that her death almost drove him mad?
He sucks in a breath and turns on his heel. "Nothing. It's been a long day."
Across from her, on a wall, Imogen catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror, and her stomach twists. In the dim light her hair and eyes appear dark, and she finds a shadow of her mother staring back at her.
Corwin crosses the room and takes out a decanter. Rushed, he fills it, and downs the dark drink in a gulp.
Suddenly, she hates herself for what she is going to do ... but she knows she must do it. She takes a step after him ... then another. Here, she is aware, the light will bring back the golden lights to her hair ... She has to keep him uncertain. Once he knows for sure, this precious chance might be lost.
"You looked at me ... as if you knew me." Her hands clench into fists at her sides, the nails driving into her palms. "You said you knew Shadow Earth. Did ... did you know my parents?"
She hesitates - and then adds softly, "My real ones ... "
He turns, putting down the decanter midway through refilling his glass. "I lived there, but I never met..." he stares at her a long time.
"That's not what you mean, is it?"
Mutely, she shakes her head, her eyes full on his face.
He stands for a long time, hand on the serving table, lit only by the sickly light of the moon and stars. Finally, he turns and motions for her to follow.
The room they end up in, off of the echoing loneliness of the throne room, is smaller and warmer, with a lit fire crackling happily and hundreds of leather bound books lining the wall.
He doesn't look at her as he sinks into a chair, eyes set, zombie-like, on the flames consuming the blackening remains of logs. "Who are you?" he rasps. "Why now?"
She looked around the room. A sanctum? A bolthole? Or is it no more to him than a useful antechamber where the King can receive more privately?
She does not seat herself, but remains standing, quietly, watching him. Junior governors rarely sit in the presence of their seniors - she's trusting that Galbraithan etiquette will at least protect her from any gross errors.
But his questions deserve answers - and she has none to give. None she can safely give.
"I don't know," she says. "The Agiers adopted me when I was very young. It was handled privately. Not even Flora knew. When you looked at me... I thought perhaps ... you might know who my real parents are."
She turns away and swallows painfully. "It ... doesn't matter. The Agiers were very good to me - and I loved them dearly.
His voice is a bit gruff. "So that's why she brought you up? To find you some parents? I barely know who all my children are, so no, I don't know yours." He doesn't look at her, but grips the arm of the chair a bit tightly.
"I thought it was too convenient she had a new assistant."
"The Princess Flora didn't bring me here," she says steadily. "She offered to help me when she found that I have been brought here. By a card I found in an old book of fairy-tales."
Once more, as though for protection, her hand lifts to the rose pendant around her neck.
"A card... Trump then. Damn that woman." He refuses to raise his eyes to her face, but keeps them locked onto the fire. "She should have told me. What would I have done? Killed you for being abandoned."
The rose warms to her touch, unnaturally so, sending a chill through her. He seems to hear her shudder and opens his decanter. "I'm sorry, I should have offered." He moves to get a glass.
She looks at him ... and his averted gaze sends a pang through her that feels almost like a physical slap.
"Thank you," she says quietly. She lowers her hand from the rose and stretches it out towards him, to take the offered glass. Even as she does so, she sees his hand ... his fingers. Strong hands ... strong fingers. And suddenly, she feels she knows something about him ... from a dim, almost-forgotten past.
"You're a musician," she says, and it is a statement, not a question. "And a composer."
His eyes snap up. "Flora told you that?" Their hands touch as the glass passes from him to her, and the rose flares again. "I thought she never cared about..."
He looks down again. "Sit. Please."
"The Princess Flora didn't tell me," she says, taking a seat on the other side of the fireplace from him. Your hand told me you played ... the shape of your fingers .... and the way you held the glass.
"And your eyes told me that you compose," she adds quietly, her hand moving to the rose again, as though it gives her reassurance. "And other things too."
She raises the glass to her lips and sips slowly, watching him.
He avoids her gaze, but she knows he feels it. "I do play. Or I did. Before I was a king." He doesn't speak for a while, but drinks, and Imogen notices his hand shakes slightly.
"What... do you mean by other things?"
"Pain," she says softly. "The pain of someone who has loved deeply ... and lost. Who has sought to replace that aching void ... and not found it."
The rose seems scorching against her breast now; she lifts it slightly away with her fingers. She finds it almost hard to breathe ... so much of this is assumption, based on what Flora has told her. But ... surely this is not a man who has found happiness?
Absently, she caresses a petal of the burning rose ... and does not feel the pain ...
He stiffens as she talks. "So you come out of nowhere to tell me what I know?" He downs his drink. "I told you I don't know who sired you. Maybe you should go." His voice is shaking, and he keeps his face hidden from her.
"If that is what you want," she says gently. "I can leave you now ... I can leave Amber entirely - so entirely that you will never see me again."
She lets the pendant fall again against her breast.
"If that is what you want."
She pauses ... and then sets the wineglass down firmly. In the quite room it makes a hard, distinct sound, like the crack of a bullet.
"I didn't mean..." He shakes his head, as if trying to clear a cobweb from it. "What's going on? What the hell are you?" His breathing becomes laboured as he massages his temples. "What are you after?"
She stands up suddenly ... but instead of leaving the room, she moves towards him, and kneels down swiftly at his feet, her hands lifting to his, resting over them as if she is laying healing hands on him.
"Don't ... don't ... " she begins. "Listen to me ... look at me ... please Corwin!"
Her face is lifted towards him, the firelight catching the red lights in her golden hair.
"I don't know what ... or whom I am. I'm lost ... and I want you ... I need you to help me find my way."
She looks up at him ... and her heart seems to beat faster at the sight of his expression.
He pulls back as if her hands burnt him. "This isn't real..." He stands and moves away from her. "You're a ghost. Why is she doing this to me...?"
He stares at her, then sinks to the floor, his expression swiftly changing from haunted to hunted.
She rises swiftly and moved to the decanter. There are several different sizes of goblet there - she unerringly chooses the largest and fills it with the rich dark wine he offered her earlier. Then she moves across and couches beside him, holding the wine glass to him.
"Here," she says. "Drink this."
She waits a moment until he seems calmer, and then says, "I’m no ghost - and you know that. But ... you see my mother in me, don't you?
"Who was she, Corwin?"
He drinks deeply, and stares at her intently. "How... but she never told me..." His eyes fill with pain. "Why wouldn't she tell me?" He touches her cheek so lightly Imogen almost doesn't feel it. "Dee..."
He hands her back the glass, but as their fingers touch he drops it, and grasps her hand. "Why me? Why come to me?" His eyes are intense now, and she begins to get the feeling that he doesn't know how he's going to calm them.
She looks down at where the small pool of wine from the dregs in the glass is spreading over the carpet. There's a splash of red on her dress ... against the grey of the material it looks black. With an absent part of her brain she wonders if the stain will ever come out and what she must say to Flora ... and more immediately, she is amused that her mind can even be processing such matters at all ...
But above all ...
~but she never told me ... Why wouldn't she tell me~
But it's the second question she answers first - slowly, as though brooding on the answer.
"Because you loved her ... and I saw that in the way you looked at me when we first met. And more ... I felt ... I feel something of what she must have felt towards you ...
"And yet ... she never told you. Did she love you ... and fear you? What would you have done to another man who loved her? Who she loved?"
He chokes. "I don't-- don't ask me that. I'm sorry..." He covers his head with his hands. "Oh, god... it was an accident." He shakes.
"Why now? Why all the demons now...?" the rose burns, and absently, Imogen wonders if it will leave a mark on her delicate skin. "Did she love me?"
"Yes," she says. "Oh yes ... so very much."
How can she say this, she wonders, when the blood is roaring in her ears so loudly?
~it was an accident~ ... ~Why all the demons~
She looks at the broken man before her - and thinks of another man, unbroken, maliciously smiling. She thinks of her mother dying, screaming in terror, her father's red, red blood ...
And she feels cold.
An ice, spreading through her, so intense, so powerful that she almost expects to see the hoar of frost form on her hands. But the steel of ice has entered her face as she forces her aching muscles into a smile of love and pity.
"She loved you so very much," she tells him, and then the smile fades and she feels the tears forming, miraculously unfrozen as they brim on the edge of her eyelids. "I know it ... because .... if she didn't love you ... how could I feel like this now?"
He looks at her, his face streaked in the firelight. He grabs her wrist and pulls her into his arms, resting his head on her shoulder. He holds her tightly, almost painfully.
"I didn't know."
He whispers something to her, but it's muffled in the material of her dress... but she thinks it's something like 'forgive me.'
For a long moment she is silent. How can she forgive him when she cannot even begin to understand the enormity of what he has done? How can she forgive him her father's death - when she doesn't yet understand what happened? But in her mind, slowly, thoughts are forming ...
She cannot respond to those half-heard words ... but ...
Her arms move to hold him in turn. And she gently rocks to and fro, holding him fast in her arms and murmuring to him, as a mother might soothe a child. And as she does so, she is beginning to glimpse a way forward ...
"Corwin," she says softly. "Flora thought ... you might be my father ..."
He touches her hair. "It might be so..." he rasps. "But I don't think so. It was so long ago... and I was certain. I watched her." He shakes. "Please, don't let you be his... A son, that's enough... but a daughter, by her..." He touches her hair softly.
"I hope to god not... Is Tess... your name?"
She looks at him.
"My mother called me Imogen," she says. "Who ... who do you fear was my father?"
As she is speaking, her hand lifts and rests against his cheek ... and her own reaction surprises her. For inside he still feels the same icy deadness ... and yet ... she feels another kind of warmth as well ... a sensation of the body, not the mind.
Her eyes search his, almost anxiously, looking for the answering flare ...
"Eric..." he whispers. "My brother. Tell me he isn't, even if it isn't true..." He holds her hand to his cheek, and look behind his eyes-- flitting from passion to terror, hope to sorrow. She wonders that he doesn't simply collapse.
"Imogen... she never spoke that name to me."
"It isn't true," she says simply and with complete conviction. "I never heard the name until I saw it today, in the room of stained glass ... until Fiona spoke of him ...."
She give a broken little laugh. "Besides ... look at me. Look beyond her ... and see .... my hair ... my colouring. Eric was dark, Corwin - and my father must have been fair."
She caresses his cheek. He has spoken of a brother ... a son born to him and Deirdre? Or with Eric as the father? She remembers Flora's darkly veiled hints ...
She will not think of that. Instead she will think ... she draws her hand forward a little, brushing her wrist over his lips.
"You're right..." he whispers. "Or you could be... just another pleasing shape..." He shdders, and she can feel him try to draw away from her, and the rose flares...
He looks back to her eyes, his passion and fear renewed... and he no longer shrinks from her caress. He takes her wrist and kisses the back of her hand, cradling it.
She gives a little gasp, perhaps from the sudden burning of the rose between her breasts.
"I’m not ... oh, I'm not!" she says passionately. "I'm her daughter ... you know it. You can see it in me ... can't you? Can't you?"
She moves her face closer to his ... as if pleading for acceptance ... as if pleading ...
He moves quickly, faster than she's ever seen a flesh and blood human move. His hand is at the back of her head, and he stares at her, dark eyes burning, tormented.
"Forgive me, Dee--"
He presses his lips to hers, and the rose flares on her breast, but this time she barely feels it...
For a long moment she feels herself stiff, unyielding ... and almost instinctive level of fear. And then, as the pleasure of his lips on hers begins to seep through her with aching pleasure, she feels a melting relaxation spreading with it. Her lips part, even as her eyes close and she can give herself over to physical sensation.
And yet ...
Slowly she eases her lips away from his, the rose like a white hot coal at her breast. She looks into his eyes. She knows so little of him ... so little of this place ...
"I'm ... I'm afraid," she says softly, for all the world like a shy young girl with her first lover.
He moves a strand of hair out of her face. "You don't know the half of it... Imogen, they should have named you Pandora..." He moves as if to get up, but she feels the heat of the rose again, and he sits.
"Why... What do you know about me?"
She rests against him, her head on his chest. She can hear the rapid beating of his heart, she realises. Nearly as rapid as her own.
"Nothing," she admits, and give a half-choking little laugh. "That ... that's why I am afraid ... "
She tries to turn in his arms and look up at him, seeking reassurance.
"Who was Pandora?" she asks, suddenly worried.
He touches her hair. "A girl who opened a box, and let out all sorts of evils on a perfect world-- but at the bottom was hope. An old story, told in all the shadows..." He sighs. "Who brought you to me?"
He holds her tight, his hand keeping her head against his chest. "I wish I could tell you about me-- but my mind... I'm dizzy. I don't know why."
"Then don't try to think," she says quietly. "Just ... feel ... "
She stays quite still against his for a moment. He is quite right in one way - she can see she has lifted the box on some ugly memories. But what hope does she bring him?
She turns in his arm again and lifts her arms to encircle his neck, her lips moving towards his.
"Are we quite alone here?" she asks softly.
He nods and presses his lips against hers, pulling her in again, and clutching at her back and waist, like a man drowning.
He pulls back. "I'm not even here, usually..." He touches her hair, fascinated, mesmerized. "Just a coincidence..."
"No," she says. "No co-incidence." She curves her body against his, her softness against his strength. "This is fate ... or whatever you wish to call it. There is a pattern here as real as the Pattern in the underground chamber ... "
And then she kisses him, moving a little backward to that he can gaze down at her on the golden deerskin rug before the fire, her hair spread like a flaming aureole around her head, and the silver rose gleaming redly in the firelight.
"Tell me," she murmurs, "tell me how much you loved her. Show me ... "
The morning sun filters in, and it takes several minutes for Imogen to understand her surroundings-- the rich room, decorated in silver and black... the oversoft mattress... the arm encircling her waist with the tickle of someone breathing on the back of her neck.
She turns and remembers-- Corwin. The man she thought murderer of her father... perhaps he was...
He looks peaceful now, in the dusty red haze of morning-not tortured as he was last night, a storm in his eyes.
He stirs, but does not wake.
Imogen lies still for a moment, slowly revolving in her mind the events of her momentous birthday.
Well, not so momentous until the evening ... when she found the card .... and was compelled to come her by the stranger ... to receive the information about her parents.
She props herself up on one elbow and looks down at the sleeping Corwin. There is something loveable and vulnerable about sleepers. We often find our truest, or best feelings when we watch someone sleeping.
But Imogen finds only ice when she looks at Corwin ... The ice that settled on her when she heard his gasped confession ... the accident which, she believes, he blames for her father's death. Only ... she knows it was no accident.
With a sigh she rolls over ... and surveys the ruins of the dress she had been wearing the night before. As if it hadn't been damaged enough by the wine ... by the time they had reached the bedroom they had both seemed possess by the same desperate, life-affirming need. She groans, knowing the only other clothes she possesses in the world are tucked away in Flora's room.
From being a wealthy and successful politician with an assured and secure future ahead of her, overnight she has become a powerless creature without even a decent item of clothing to her name. If she is ever to leave this room, it seems she will be dependent on Corwin's charity ... just as she depended on Flora's yesterday.
Yes, but at least she performed a job of work for Flora!
A rather cynical inward voice tells her that she could look on any gift from Corwin as a payment too ... for a rather different kind of work.
She gives a low moan and sits up, her cheeks flaring with colour. Last night, it seemed such a good idea to take Corwin's attraction to her and use it ... to turn it into a weapon to punish those ... including Corwin himself ... who were involved in her parents' murders.
Now ... she seems to have succeeded only in making herself more vulnerable ... more helpless than she already was.
She pushes back the covers and stands up quickly, naked apart from the rose pendant around her neck. With any luck .... Yes. A silken dressing gown - in the ubiquitous black and silver. No wonder Flora complains bitterly.
Fora! However is she to mend bridges with her, she wonders dolefully as she knotted the dressing gown's silken sash.
Perhaps this is respectable enough to try to wander through the palace, she thinks ... moving to a looking glass.
One look assures her that it is so palpably Corwin's dressing gown that to parade through the Castle wearing it would be tantamount to wearing a sign around her neck stating "The King's Whore".
And besides ... where can she go? Flora's rooms? To face not just Flora but also her unknown son? The stained glass room? Perhaps ... if it offers a safe route back to Gabraith. But she has seen no sign of one.
The ice in her heart is matched by sheer cold fear in the pit of her stomach at what will happen to her now.
She walks to the window and looks out at the beautiful city of Amber spread out below her, as though for her delectation.
But she doesn't see it.
Her eyes are filled with tears.
On the bed behind her, Corwin stirs again, and though she doesn't look back, she knows somehow that he looks at her.
"Imogen..." he says her name softly, as if not calling her, but simply remembering. "I thought it was a dream." He sits up in bed and watches her quietly.
For a long moment, she stares out at the city. Her shoulders shake a little as she fights back her tears. Finally, she draws a deep, if shaky breath, and wipes the tears from her eyes with the sleeve of his dressing gown. Only then does she turn and face him, lifting her head and facing his gaze.
"That," she tells him, "should not have happened."
He swallows hard, and she can see the muscles in his shoulders tense. "You came to me," he rasps, and he runs a hand through his hair. "Why did you do that if it shouldn't have happened?"
He kneads his temple and grimaces.
"I came to talk!" she protests. "I thought you knew about my parents ... I wanted to know about ... my parents."
She turns away, not able to look at him anymore, and one hand lifts to the little rose pendant.
Through the window, the city lies before her. Amber - a pearl, a jewel.
She has nothing here. Then she must fight - for what she needs.
She turns to face him, resolved.
"Corwin ... " she begins, then stops, looking at him.
He takes a deep breath. "I knew your mother... I could write volumes about her. Your father..." He looks away. "Him, I didn't know."
The rose glows warmly, not the searing heat of last night, but a soft radiance.
"I didn't take advantage of you," he mutters, rubbing his temples.
"No," she says dryly. "You didn't take advantage of me.
"You are King here, with power and untold wealth. You have the wisdom of centuries, compared to my brief years. You are surrounded by those who obey you - to whom your slightest wish is law. And I am a stranger, lost and alone in a new land - a new world. I must beg you even for clothes to put on my back if I'm to leave your room."
She looks at him levelly. "And you wish me to say it was all my fault?" she asks bitterly.
He grimaces. "I don't want to say anyone is at fault. I don't want to think that of..." He puts a hand to his forehead and sighs. "Last night, I fancied you an angel by firelight..."
He turns his face back and studies her by the pale dawn light... "You don't have to beg for anything, Imogen." His eyes are not the tormented orbs of last night, but now tempered, filled with a soft sadness coming back from the centuries.
For a long moment, she stands quite still, looking at him across the width of his great bedroom. Then slowly, almost as though she is fighting an urge within herself, she moves towards him ... and pauses in a shaft of early sunlight that lights her hair with a glowing lustre.
"And what am I now, your Majesty?" she asks quietly.
He sighs heavily. "I fear you're now my Pandora." He looks at her. "The way you looked at me last night-- what you said. Do you have any idea how much you look like her? Act like her?"
He shudders. "What will you have of me?"
She looks at him again ... then moves to the bedside and kneels beside it, so that she looks up at him. The robe slides open a little - not wide, but allowing him sight of the curve of her breasts and the pendant hanging between them.
"You have ... my everything," she says quietly, her blue eyes full on his face. "All that I have, I gave to you last night. And I take nothing from you - except what you wish to give me. And a hope ... that it is what she would want."
He holds out a hand to her and draws her into the bed with him. He cradles her, softly petting her hair. "Then you are my Pandora, and my firelight angel..." His hand brushes over the pendant, and he shivers.
"You've unleashed a million horrors his day, Imogen. And hope. Perhaps I can hope..."
She slips off the silken dressing gown as she slides into the bed beside him, feeling a sudden modesty about exposing her body to him openly in the cool light of morning. But her smooth body curves against the warm of his, as her head rests on his chest and her hair spreads like a gold web on his shoulder, brushing against his face.
"Perhaps I have come ... as a sign of forgiveness," she says slowly. "You ... you couldn't save her ... so I have come instead. A second chance for you."
She rolls over so that she can look fully into his face, her eyes searching his. She lifts a hand ... and her forefinger softly traces the old lines of pain and experience on his face.
"What will you do with me?" she asks simply.
"Do?" He holds her close. "I barely know what to do with myself right now..." He touches her hair, her back, as if not quite sure that she's there. "What would you have of me? A string of universes, like baubles on a child's necklace? A ballad that will filter down through the shadows like a trickling stream and be read forever? What can I give you? You came out of night, out of the shadows, asked for naught..."
She looks at him, then bends forward and touches her lips to his before pulling back slightly.
"And now," she says, "I shall ask for everything.
"Give me your heart, my love."
He touches her cheek, and that same look from last night begins to surface. This time, however, Imogen notes her rose does not even warm. He studies her with wonder, fear, sadness, and perhaps the smallest trace of something lighter-- hope?
"You had it before you knew to ask."
She gives a little laugh and lifts her arms to him, her face to his ...
"My love," she says again. "My King!"
And silently ... the third designation ...
In the King's chambers, Corwin embraces Imogen warmly, for the first time his hands sure, not nervous or filled with passion.
A knock sounds at his door.
He groans and pulls away from Imogen, grabbing the robe she discarded and heading for the door. He opens it...
His eyes meet Eleanor's, and she notices he looks strangely flushed, his eyes almost a bit wild. for a brief moment, Ellie wonders if he even recognizes her.
He shakes his head and attempts to smooth his hair. "El-- Ellie."
Ellie looks up at her father "Are you alright, Dad?" She adds quietly "I came to apologise for skipping out on things last night."
"Skipping out?" He puts a hand to his forehead and frowns. "What are you talking about? I don't remember..." He shakes his head. "I'm... I'm fine." He looks at her strangely, as if only half remembering her face.
Ellie's concern shows in her face "The dinner last night, remember? Benedict and Oberon argued and Benedict left then I did. Are you okay, Dad? You look as if you barely know me."
He steps back, shaking his head. "I'm having trouble..." He stares at nothing. "I was... in the ball room. I don't know why. I didn't remember dinner..."
On Imogen's chest, the rose begins to warm again.
Ellie looks seriously worried now "Dad, what kind of trouble are you having?"
Hearing the voices at the door, Imogen tugs at the upper sheet to free it. She could attempt to dress in the bedraggled woollen dress she had worn the night before - but it is little better than a rag. Besides ...
Besides ... if her presence in Corwin's chamber is remarked ... and the inference obvious ... then she will be much harder to dismiss ...
She gives a little shiver. What if the woman whose voice she hears at the door is a beloved mistress? Even his wife? She has no way of knowing.
No - the man whose arms she lay in the night before is not a contented man, happy in his private life. His pain was all too real.
She moves to the looking glass and views her refection. Perfect. Her shoulders are bare, with her golden hair tumbling down in tousled disarray - but the silken sheet makes a more than respectable covering ... it even looks elegant. She takes a step forward, and a shapely leg is revealed ... but not to excess.
She smiles a little wanly at her reflection, and then moves softly towards the door.
As Corwin moves back, Ellie and Imogen see each other for the first time.
Corwin sits, holding his head. "Remembering. I can't..." He sees Imogen enter, and watches her with an odd look in his eye. He seems to forget Eleanor's presence, and simply eyes the silken sheet. Ellie looks again at her father and shrugs, her own face becoming masked, then turns to Imogen "Good morning, I'm Ellie. Do you know if my father had an accident or something? There seem to be memory problems."
Imogen shakes her head slowly.
"No," she says.
She moves to beside Corwin and kneels beside him, taking his hand and smiling up at him.
"Corwin, my love, Ellie is worried. You should reassure her."
She turns and smiles at Ellie, a warm smile with no hint of self-consciousness at how she is dressed or what it reveals.
"My name is Imogen. I'm your cousin."
He touches Imogen warmly on the cheek and kisses her softly. At the mention of his daughter's name, however, he looks away from her and at Eleanor.
"Imogen... This is Eleanor, my..." He frowns, and touches his forehead.
Ellie says quietly "Daughter. I'll see you both later." With a nod to them, she then retreats to the shared quarters, drawing out her Trump deck as soon as she enters and Benedict's card specifically.
After a few moments though, she realises she's not getting through. Trying Gerard yields the same results. Belatedly, she looks around and sees Marrek and Jurt "Hi. Do either of you know a good person to call if there's a problem in Amber? Benedict and Gerrard are both busy."
Marrek snores lightly, and Ellie flushes as she realizes she is addressing a sleeping person. Jurt touches her shoulder, his face concerned and the slightest bit frightened. "What do you mean by wrong?" He starts to get up. "Ryo's with Benedict-- should I get her?
We can call Mandor and be out of her in seconds." Ellie replies quickly "Dad's lost it. He's with my cousin Imogen and has no memory of me or of the dinner last night. Ah well, as needs must."
Taking out Fiona's trump, she concentrates, hoping to get through. It is, after all, in Fiona's interest to keep Corwin as he is or so Ellie hopes.
The contact comes quickly, surprising Ellie. Almost instantly she regards a pale, small woman, finely featured, and red of hair. She looks at Eleanor with some interest and almost, some amusement. A coolness slips into her mind.
"You called, Princess Eleanor?"
Ellie answers at once "Yes, Aunt Fiona. There is something seriously wrong with my father. My cousin Imogen is with him too. He seems to have developed amnesia. He doesn't remember things and told me he had a problem with it. He doesn't even remember who I am. I know you have no reason to help me, but I thought it would also be in your interest to keep my father as King. Please help him."
Fiona's bemused smile fades and she steps through. A chill runs up Ellie's spine as she realizes Fiona didn't actually grab anything to do so...
"His quarters?" At Ellie's nod, she leaves the room and heads for the king's chambers.
Ellie turns to Jurt "I'll be back as soon as I can." She hesitates and quickly adds "If you want to come along, I'd appreciate the backing." She then turns and follows Fiona to her father's chambers.
As Ellie leaves them, Imogen feels a cold touch of fear. She knows what Ellie is doing - hell, in her place she would do the same thing. Corwin's daughter has gone to get help.
She lifts his hand to her lips and kisses it passionately.
"Corwin ... listen to me. Ellie ... is worried. She thinks ... something is wrong."
~And so do I~ she thinks, but she cannot stop to question it now. She only knows, with a sickening dread, that if she loses him now, it could be for all time.
"Corwin ... they are going to try to take me away from you. You are going to lose me ... like you lost Mother ... unless you can stop them."
There is desperation in her face now ... perhaps even a little of the terror that was his last sight of her mother. For Imogen feels an abyss of her own yawning beneath her.
"Corwin, my love, help me!"
He shakes and takes her by the arm. "Why..." He looks at the door, and Imogen gasps as the rose nearly burns a hole in her chest. "My daughter?" He groans and holds his head, and Imogen can see veins pop out on his forehead.
He manages to look up and point, and Imogen realizes the pain in his eyes this time isn't emotional, but physical. "Trumps," he grunts through clenched teeth.
"What?" she says, bewildered. His pain is so intende that she seems almost to feel it herself. She looks desperately around - and sees a deck of cards similar to the card she had earlier.
She runs across to the chest, almost tripping over the sheet - she needs clothes, damn it - and hesitates, remembering the power of the card she had found. But a groan from behind her steadies her resolve and she seizes them and runs back to him, dropping to her knees once more and caressing his face.
"Here," she says, handing them to him.
He grimances as he shuffles through them, and bites his lip-- a line of red runs down his chin as his tooth cuts the skin.
The rose actually begins to glow and he drops the deck with a yell of pain. The door opens, and a small red-headed woman dressed in green and gold silk enters, and observes the scene with a frown.
"Who _are_ you?"
Imogen draws a swift breath. This is not the stranger ... but there is a distinct likeness.
"I'm Imogen," she says steadily, although inwardly she feels sick, both at Corwin's suffering at the consequences of what has happened.
"Corwin told me last night ... that I'm Deirdre's daughter."
She keeps her arms around him ... almost as though she is protecting him.
Fiona eyes her for a moment, and she nods. Swiftly she moves to Corwin and kneels in front of him. "Corwin. Corwin!" She touches his temple and pauses.
"He's being attacked." She closes her eyes and concentrates, and his cries quiet, although the tenseness doesn't leave his shoulders and neck.
She shakes her head, then raises her fist and brings it down sharply on the back of his head. He collapses in a heap.
"What are you doing!" shouts Imogen, shocked and angry. "He's hurt ... You're making it worse, not better!"
She tries to push the woman violently away, and to move back to Corwin, to hold him.
"Corwin ... please," she begs, "please ... be all right for me."
She's conscious of tears on her cheeks - and is inwardly shocked. To plan her revenge was one thing - but it shouldn't be like this. Not this appalling pain and confusion.
For one thing - it reminds her all to vividly of another death.
Ellie rushes in the room at this moment, her father crumpled on the floor at Fiona's feet, Imogen wide-eyed and wrapped in her sheet. She hears Jurt enter behind her and grab her arm. Dimly, she feels the presence of another in his touch, and realizes he's holding a trump contact open.
Ellie asks Fiona quietly "What is wrong with my father?" She holds Jurt's hand as she looks at Imogen. She says nothing to her cousin, the look in her eyes masked.
Fiona looks at the tearful Imogen haughtily. "He was being attacked mentally. One who is unconscious cannot be attacked."
She allows Imogen to sit near Corwin, moving with a shrug to Jurt. "Close that." Her eyes fill with steel, but Jurt glares at her. With a sigh, she utters something, and Ellie feels the connection go dead.
"This is not something I want getting out. Now. What has happened, young lady, and why have I never heard of you?" She stares at the ill-clad Imogen.
"I don't know why you never heard of me," says Imogen . She wipes away the tears from her eyes with her fingers, nothing else being available. "I only knew I was adopted when I was young ... on another world. I think ... you call it a Shadow."
Gently she lifts Corwin so that his head can rest in her lap, and strokes her hand gently along his face.
"I came to see him last night," she says. "I was brought here yesterday when I found one of those ... cards." She gestures to Corwin's scattered trumps. "I had met Flora ... but she didn't know ... although she was sure I was an Amberite. But Corwin ... when I saw him with Flora ... he seemed to know something. So I came to the throne room. And he told me then."
Her voice is flat ... and filled with a great weariness.
"He seemed ... a little confused. But not much - and I thought it was just the shock of seeing me and realising ... who I was. But this morning ... when his daughter came ... it suddenly became much worse."
She bends forward, and the pendant is clearly visible, swinging from her neck.
Ellie's voice is level and quiet, though Jurt can feel a slight tremble in her hand, as she asks Fiona "Do you know by whom or what he is being attacked? What can be done to help him?"
Fiona thinks. She closes her eyes, then reopens them, a peculiarly distant look in them.
"That. What is that?" She bends down and takes up Imogen's rose, then narrows her eyes at its bearer.
Imogen's back stiffens as she feels something racing through her mind. She's forced to remember the events of last night-- her college years-- her dorm room at school-- the pattern walk-- her father, laughing-- then her mother...
Flora hold's the young woman's gaze for a moment, then stands, her hands on her hips.
"So you are her daughter... Her death hid it well." A smile appears on her lips. "Curiouser and curiousier..." She taps on the rose. "Where did you get that?"
Imogen shakes her head slowly, and there is a look of anger in his eyes, resentment at the intrusion ....
"If you can do that to me, lady, then you know the answer to that question. Perhaps you know it better than I do - for all I know is that I found it around my neck when I came to this place."
Ellie replies quietly "Why so angry, Imogen? You are not the one who is being attacked or who lies unconcious." She then asks Fiona "What is the significance of the pendant, please?"
Fiona ignores Eleanor's quietly heated words and keeps her eyes locked on Imogen. "I was looking for your mother, not your choice in jewellery. But very well, if you insist."
The attack is twice as strong this time, and now Imogen begins to get an idea of why Corwin was in such agony. The images come too quickly for her to breathe, and once the pressure lets up, she collapses over Corwin, weak.
Fiona touches her hair. "It would appear that the trinket was, indeed, placed on Imogen unawares." She touches it. "Things such as these take time to decipher, but I believe it has a hold on your father." She eyes Imogen's sheet. "And _your_ lover."
She examines the rose and frowns. "I don't like this. But I think the magics are fading."
Jurt slides an arm around Ellies waist, and she can feel his other hand move to his amulet slowly. Fiona turns and glares at him, and his arm drops again.
Imogen looks up, her eyes dazed as she sits up once again, careful not to disturb Corwin.
"Is this the cause of what happened?" she asks, a little incredulously, flicking at the pendant with her finger. "Then I should remove it!"
She looks down at the face of the man resting in her lap.
"Should I leave him?" she asks quietly. "Will he even know me again?"
Burt even as she asks, perhaps without her even realising it, her hands tighten on the material of his dressing gown as though she could not, would not be parted from him.
Ellie suggests "Perhaps you would do better to see how my father feels about you when he wakes." She pauses then adds "You appear to care about him and that is something he needs." Ellie's face though remains neutral as she looks at her cousin.
Fiona eyes the charm and test the chain. "No clasp. And strong. Short of beheading, I don't see how it will come off." She looks at Corwin ironically. "Destroying a sword that pierced him would not heal the wound. Any damage done last night will still be there regardless." She smiles cruelly at Imogen. "I'm sure he'll have quite a clear memory of what passed between the two of you, so don't worry about that."
She presses her fingers to his temple again. "He's being blocked, and I can see he was fighting them." She looks at Eleanor, and her knees go weak for a moment. "Mostly fighting the block on you."
She looks at the rose again, then at Imogen's face. "You are quite the herald, are you not? Not even a day in Amber." She turns. "Get dressed. The sheet does not become you, child."
Corwin stirs on Imogen's lap, and his eyes open. Fiona notes this and makes a motion about the pendant. It burns, but this time, Corwin doesn't react.
"Imogen--" He winces and puts his hand to where Fiona hit him.
"Corwin," she says softly, and with some relief.
"I'm here. Don't worry. You were being attacked. And ... Fiona stopped it." She looks up at her aunt. "Fairly forcefully," she added drily.
She draws a deep breath, and suddenly the relief that Corwin seems to be all right makes her lips quirk into a ironic smile. This, she thinks grimly, is going to see her totally humiliated in front of these three strangers.
"As for clothes," she says, a little defiantly, "I have none. None that are fit to wear, at all events."
Ellie asks coolly "Where is your room? Do you have any clothes there that you wish fetched?"
Fiona bends down and looks at Corwin. "If you've dallied with your niece enough, brother, you're needed downstairs. Flora is having fits, and I'd rather not lower myself to the station of interior decorator." She turns on her heel, and heads for the door.
As she exits, she looks at Jurt. "And how is your brother?"
He bites back a snappy response, but then smirks. "Merlin? Oh, he's peachy." She shoots daggers at him, but leaves, letting it drop. Jurt whistles lowly. "Glad I didn't use the line about Mandor playing with his balls..." he mutters.
Corwin pulls himself up and looks at Imogen, then Eleanor. He glances at the window and the rising sun. "Pity it's too early to drink."
~You and me both~ thinks Imogen wryly.
She pulls back into herself, drawing her knees up to her chest.
"I don't have a room," she says flatly.
~And as for asking Flora for my clothes back ...~
She cringes inwardly.
"I'll wear that," she says, gesturing towards the ragged remains of the blue woollen dress. "If you'll leave me alone to get changed ... "
She looks at Corwin a little wistfully.
~I should have asked for universes instead,~ she thinks sadly. ~Or at least a little dress shop in a fashionable street.~
Ellie nods "Have no fear. I'll leave you both alone. Good day." She turns to Jurt "Thank you for your support, Jurt."
With that, she turns and walks back to her chambers. She takes a deep breath as she considers what to do next.
Jurt follows her. "What? What was I supposed to do?" He grabs her arm and turns her. "Don't be mad, please?" He lets his hand fall to her and lowers his voice. "Look, we'll think of something to do, okay? But Fiona is a big gun."
Back in the bedroom, Corwin finds another robe for her and gently wraps it around her. "You have a room," he says, softly. "And you don't have to worry about clothes. We'll figure something out." He touches her hair, and his eyes are clear for the first time since she met him.
"Are you hungry?"