He 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?"
She looks at him, a little apprehensively, and then suddenly gives a slightly weak little laugh. "Ravenous," she admits. "Flora had us both working for hours yesterday on just a plate of sandwiches ... "
She looks into his eyes.
"Corwin ... last night ... how much was ... was really you?"
He rings a cord and smiles, remembering. "I can't say. I feel clearer now... more level-headed." He breathes deeply and looks out at the rising sun. "But if given the choice, I'd do it again."
A servant enters, and Corwin quietly orders a large breakfast. The middle-aged man glances at Imogen curiously, but betrays nothing else.
Alone again, he puts a hand down to her. "I'm sure the floor cannot be comfortable."
She smiles and stretches out a hand to him. Then, with a look of almost comical dismay, she clutches the sheet towards her and tries to secure it.
"This is a _most_ impractical garment," she assures him, and sudden laughter dances in her eyes.
And then the laughter fades as she stands before him, gazing up into his face, seeing the lines of weariness and strain. Fiona had read her mind, she knows. But how much had she truly seen? And what would she tell Corwin?
"I didn't mean to hurt you," she says softly, and then thinks sadly of how inaccurate this was. For if he proved to be the murderer of her father, she intended a good deal worse than that.
He picks up the robe he took out for her and secures it again, this time tying it. "We'll find you something better. Trust me."
"You didn't hurt me. Not any way I think I can blame you for." He touches her face. "It was... unreal. I feel like I've just woken up, and my white rabbit is still here." He touches her hair. "What happened? I remember Ellie coming to the door..."
Imogen nods. "She did ... and you seemed distracted. You had difficulty remembering who she was. I ... erm ... I think she was worried. When she went away ... I was worried too. I thought I would loose you." She shivers a little, recalling that heart-stopping fear. "Then ... Fiona came back with her and ....cured you. She ... read my mind. Not pleasant."
She gives another little shiver.
"She says I am Deirdre's daughter," she says softly.
"Then she manages a little smile. "Is your white rabbit a good thing to be? Perhaps I would rather be your Pandora."
The smile fades and she looks away.
"By now, a growing number of people must be calling me your ... well, something else."
He pours a light white wine into a flute and hands it to her. "Do you care?" He takes his own and clinks it against hers. "Of all the people in the castle to be the 'something else' of, I rejoice it's me that got the privilege."
"To my white rabbit, Pandora, and firelight angel." He raises his glass and drinks.
He studies her face. "I could have told you you were Dee's daughter without reading your mind," he says softly.
She flushes a little at his opening words as she takes the wine, and even his compliment elicits only a small tight smile.
"I don't know whether I care or not," she says slowly. "Where I come from, it is not uncommon for a woman to have three of four lovers. If they are particularly young, or strong and beautiful, it can enhance a woman's status. But the ... the young men themselves do not hold a high status in our society. Flora ... said this was a patriarchy - and I wondered if the positions were reversed. So ... perhaps I should care."
But when he speaks of Deirdre, she looks up, and almost seems to glow ...
"Am I truly like her?" she asks.
He nods, sombre. "The little things. The way you move. The way you speak. the way you move your hands." He chuckles and looks down. "A host of things."
He raises his gaze again and meets her eyes. "You will not be frowned upon. I swear it. My father held this position before me, and his ladies were never frowned upon. I've kept my chambers alone since I gained my crown, so you actually might have a bit of prestige from novelty."
She draws a deep breath. "And if I bear your child?" she asks. "What happened to Ellie's mother? And your son's?"
Corwin shakes his head. "Ellie's mother is dead, killed in a fight. There was a war..." He stops, deciding that would take too long to explain. "Dara, Merlin's mother, is still alive. We parted ways, although I'm certain she would have liked to have tossed me to a demon."
He touches her hair. "And if you bear me a child, unlikely as that is, then I would have another heir, would I not? Ellie's shown little interest in the throne. But our lot is an unfertile lot. With two of our line..." He shakes his head.
She nods slowly, absorbing the information.
An abstemious man then, it seems. Or had there been many mistresses, and only two children?
She sips at the wine, and decides that worrying about Corwin's past amatory history is something of a luxury when she has a position to establish for herself.
And now might just be the time to begin.
"Corwin," she says, "I want a room of my own. A place that is wholly mine.
"And," she adds, "I want something to do. I don't want simply to sit here waiting for you ... like a toy for your amusement."
She considers for a moment. "I could go on assisting Flora - if she'll still speak to me. Or I could work in some branch of administration. There must be something I can do!
"And I want a tutor. Someone who can teach me about Amber. Someone who is straightforward and honest."
She smiles suddenly. "And I want the ballad you promised me that will ring out through the ages. I want to sit at your feet on cushions while you sing to me, Corwin, and feel your hand reach out to touch my hair ... "
The smile becomes mischievous. "And of course, if you do want to shower me with rich silks, heavenly fragrances and glittering jewels, I suppose I can bear that too ... "
He laughs, but then falls to into thought. "A tutor..." He snaps his fingers. "Bill. Bill is always looking for something to do. And he's never had enough chances to use his histoire locale..."
He looks at her. "Flora... that's right, you were helping her. If you enjoy that, then you can continue. She'll forgive you, I'm sure. There aren't enough of the fairer sex around for her tastes."
He puts an arm around her waist and speaks quietly into her ear. "And I would string along universes for your delight, but if you'd rather something local, your mother's old rooms are still near."
She looks up at him, her face suddenly a little strained, but with a very real pleasure.
"I would like that very much. Can we go there after breakfast?"
For she believes she can hear the clatter of a trolley, and suddenly feels very hungry indeed.
He nods, and she sees a glimmer of her pain reflected there.
The servant enters and quietly places trays of food on a side table. Like a ghost, he steals away, silent. Corwin leads her to the array.
"I haven't been in a long time. I visit, but it's too intense... The feeling I'll turn and she'll be there."
She nods in her turn, understanding.
"For a long time, when I was first on Galbraith," she says slowly, "every time there was a knock at the door, I thought it would be her. And I would run to the door ... "
"It nearly broke my adoptive parents' hearts," she says, "to see me suffer so. They are good people. But not ... "
She shakes her head, then turns to inspecting the food trays before helping herself to a plate of cold meats and cheeses with some bread and fruit juice.
When they are seated again, she smiles at him.
"Tell me about Amber," she invites, and the wickedness of her smile tells him she knows how wide this topic is. "Or ... tell me three things about Amber ... and three things about Corwin."
He laughs. "Three things about each? Creative approach."
He takes a bite of ham and thinks. "Amber is the most beautiful place I've ever known. It is the beginning to everything, and the only thing real enough to fret over keeping. That applies to everyone connected to it, everything in it, and everything that runs about it. All roads lead to Amber." He takes another bite.
"And of it's king? He was chosen to succeed by his father and fate, and the fact that no one else really cared for the job once it was actually up for the taking. He has lived in ignorance of his powers in shadow and been a common soldier, a poet, and a mix of something in-between. And now, he is ravenously hungry, as he almost always is." He finishes off the piece of ham and takes up a bagel.
"And what of you? Three things?"
She smiles. "My own medicine? Very well."
She considers. "When I was twelve years old, I was chosen to play the Queen of the Fairies in a play. And I wore the most beautiful dress of blue ... I've wanted one like it ever since. And I was so proud, because I had been chosen over all the others, even though I was called 'Mouse' because I was so quiet.
"When I was twenty-five, I bought my first apartment, on the highest floor of an old crumbling palace ... even though it was the wrong end of town - just because it was so beautiful."
She hesitates, then says quietly. "When I was four years old, I woke up very early in the morning, because it was my birthday and Daddy was taking us sailing. Only he wasn't there ... so Mummy sent me out into the woods to play.
"And I found him. I thought he was asleep with his eyes open. So I tried to wake him.
"And when I ran home to tell Mummy that I couldn't wake him up, she screamed because she thought the blood that was smeared all over me was mine - and not his."
He looks at her, and for a moment she wishes the pendant wasn't protected. He's so much harder to read when he has his wits about him.
"I'm sorry-- I can find you the finest dress of blue there is, find you a thousand, and make you the most dazzling fairy queen ever... I can give you a thousand castles, each more wonderful than the last, and declare you goddess of them all, and have the occupants worship you to the end of your days."
"But I can not give you back your father. It is ones as you and I and the rest of my kin that understand loss the most clearly."
"I know," she says softly. "I know."
Then she looks at him.
"I think ... I wanted you to know ... that I have felt pain ... that ... I'm not a child in such things. Not your equal either ... but if I can be your Pandora, it's because I understand something of the bad things in the box too."
She lowers her knife and fork to her plate.
"Will you resent me being in her rooms, or will it help to ease the pain?" she asks quietly.
He looks at her softly. "If anyone should be in her rooms, it's you." He pauses long enough to eat some eggs. "And I know you're not a child. Would I take a child to my bed, crazed or no?"
"What is it you want to do? Your desires weren't a part of your three things."
She blushes slightly at his speech, shaking her head ... but when she hears his question, she looks up at him startled.
Then she grins.
"Well, this time yesterday, my greatest desire was to be a Provincial Governor, First Class before I was forty-five. That's twenty five years younger than it is usually achieved .... and I had an excellent chance. I would be a good Governor too ...
"Now? My desires have become ... unsettled. Apart from the desire to explore your body inch by inch ....
"For example, did you know you have a small mole just behind your left ear lobe. I know ... because I saw it, and kissed it. And I desire, very passionately, to do that again ..."
"Other desires must wait until I explore the possibilities of Amber," she tells him, pouring some coffee into a fragile porcelain cup, and offering it to him.
"But you know Amber. What are your desires?"
He looks down, and she's slightly surprised to see a blush work up his neck. A man of countless centuries, and she can make him red?
He laughs softly. "I want this breakfast not to end. I want to stay in this moment forever, and ignore my red-headed icebox of a sister, ignore all the empty headed nobles, and just have a singular day like all my days used to be."
He looks back at her. "So you were in politics, huh? You'll fit in here fine..."
"I was in =administration=," she corrects, but her blue eyes are dancing with amusement. "We left politics to those dilettantes who couldn't cope with the real work."
She pauses, the teasing expression still on her face. Then she says, even more wickedly, "But why don't you play truant this afternoon? Dispatch all your business this morning - use the excuse of your ... your indisposition of earlier. Tell them all you need to ride out in the fresh air to clear your head.
"And I shall make sure that my arrangements this morning include the procurement of a riding habit so that we can ride out together. Would you like that?"
"I'm an indifferent rider at best," she admits. "It is not the preferred mode of transport on Gallbraith - but we all had to learn as sometimes our expeditions took us to remote parts where even flitters could not go. I shall have to depend on you to teach me."
Her face glows a little as she looks at him. "Perhaps we could take a picnic," she suggests, "and a rug to spread out under the trees."
Suddenly, almost as though abashed or ashamed as what she is saying, she looks down at her coffee. "But perhaps you are too busy. And I must certainly make my peace with Flora."
He leans back and takes a long draw of his own coffee. "I might have a plan. Make an appearance to Flora, and tell her what you wish of you and I. She can learn it from your mouth, or the servants. I don't really care which. Make amends if you want, and I'll arrange for gear to be brought up here."
He laughs. "A truant tyrant. You're a bad influence on me."
Imogen nods. "I shall make amends," she says thoughtfully. "For one thing, Flora was kind to me when I arrived - when she could just have dismissed me without a thought. For another ... I don't want to find my seat at the banquets somewhere between the over-loud orchestra and the privy door ... I suspect my aunt of having a piquant way of obtaining revenge ... "
She looks at Corwin then, a little shyly.
"There is, then, a you and I?"
She leans her cheek on her hand, her elbow on the table, and regards him with her head a little on one side.
"Are you a tyrant?" she says musingly. "Do you use your power for cruel and excessive demands on your people? It doesn't seem so ... to me."
"You and me," he replies softly. "And maybe I'm not a tyrant. But I'm hardly a great king. Ask anyone." His look is a strange one: a mix of sadness, anger, and perhaps the smallest trace of amusement. Laughing at himself?
"And beware Flora. She's damnably subtle. Not a cruel person, though. She's more likely to invite you to a costume ball, only for you to find out it was a Black and White formal, than to stick a knife in your back." He laughs. "There was a time-- I enjoyed her. Now, we're all too grown up."
"I'll be careful," she promises. "Besides, she's an ace administrator. I think we recognised we had that in common. But she knows Amber ... there's a lot I can learn from her."
She breaks off and looks at him again. His face is ... more varied than the previous night. Then it seemed shut deep in sadness ... even before he saw her at Flora's side. Now ... she has never seen a face that looks so ... so alive, she decides, with some astonishment.
"Greatness is usually a scale measured in blood when it comes to kings," she says slowly. "Or so I was always told of the patriarchal days. "Wouldn't it be better to bear the title Corwin the Just?"
He laughs bitterly. "The Just? What in the world has made you think I'm just? I should have told you how I attempted to _get_ this crown the first time." He sighs. "We're an underhanded, ugly bunch. And sometimes, that's how I've had to rule. I don't do it as well as Dad, did... I wonder sometimes what it was like for him those early days, alone with crazy old Dworkin, no wife or kids... just sitting on the Universe."
She listens, her eyes seeming to darken to royal blue as she listened to him. He had no illusions about himself, she thinks, unless it was an illusion that he was less than he truly was, than he truly could become.
And then she is surprised at herself ... at the vision that had come into her mind ... of an alliance between them ...
She draws a slightly sharp breath, then smiles at him warmly to hide it. No ... whatever alluring prospects Amber seemed to hold out for her, they were illusory. She needed to find out who had killed her parents and then ... take her revenge. It was that simple.
Except ... one of the possible murderers was sitting opposite her, his face falling back into those lines of weary sadness ... and she was conscious that she wanted to go to him, and put her arms around him, and touch her fingers, her lips against those lines - and ease his pain away.
She looks down at her hands, and fights to keep them from shaking.
"Perhaps ... perhaps we could see my mother's rooms now," she says quietly.
He touches her arm. "If you wish." He stands, done with breakfast. "The rooms aren't far, but if you'd rather have something more proper, I can send for someone..."
He touches her cheek and leans down to speak in her ear. "I know. I know how it feels. Trust me."
"To have nothing?" she says, a little bitterly. "To have lost everything?"
Then she put a soft hand on his arm. "I'm sorry. I have found you ... But ... I have lost so much of my life!"
He shakes his head, an ironic smile on his face. Seeing her pain, it fades.
"I spent three hundred years of my life wandering one shadow, without my memories, my powers, or any advantage but my own wits. I regained them, only to have my eyes put out with hot pokers, and my person imprisoned in the bowels of the castle for four years. I escaped, attempted to gain revenge on Eric, only to find him already dead, a hero of Kolvir. Then I lost Deirdre to the Abyss..."
"Now I have a crown. Does it look like I have all that much? I count you and my daughter and a few friends, most of whom will be dead within another century."
She stares at him for a long moment in silence, her eyes wide and the blue colour seeming to darken almost to a rich, royal blue. Then she stands and move slowly towards him, wearing the silken sheet with all the dignity of an Empress. And she holds out her arms and draws him gently towards her, resting his dark head against the soft curve of her breast as though he were the child, and she the mother comforting him.
And so she stands, for a long, long moment.
He holds her for a time, then gently pulls back and kisses her forehead.
"It was a long, long time ago. A lifetime ago, it seems. When you live long enough, everything is bound to happen at one point or another."
He draws back. "We should get dressed. The day calls."
Imogen wanders down the halls of castle Amber, now properly attired. She thinks back to the velvet dress in Flora's room and becomes wistful for a moment. Corwin had said she should dress a bit more richly now...
But no. Simple wool. Standing out was not what she wanted now.
She finds Flora in the main hall, scolding helpers who fly about her in a flurry of activity. She orchestrates them with a practiced air, and it seems almost a ballet...
She sees Imogen, and raises an eyebrow, then beckons her to come closer.
Imogen moves meekly to her side, but under her arm is a clipboard and sheaves of parchment she armed herself with - as well as a quill pen (she gave up all hopes of finding a data pad in Corwin's rooms).
"I'm so sorry I'm late," she says. "I ... erm .. was waylaid last night. I'll explain when we can be private. For now - what would you like me to do?"
"Waylaid? Interesting choice of words. The servants have been in a tither about you."
She looks back to her book. "You certainly have interesting ways of going about getting information."
Imogen grits her teeth - but silently. Veiled comments, she realises, are likely to come a whole lot nastier than Flora's with regard to her activities.
"At least I know for sure now who my mother was," she offers. "The rest ... was unexpected."
She looks at Flora thoughtfully, and then waits until they are comparatively alone ... and unlikely to be overheard. Then she speaks straightforwardly.
"Aunt Flora ... I'm sorry if I've disappointed you. I'm really grateful for all you did for me - and I really do want to help as much as possible. Starting with doing as much as I can to help with the ball. I do realise I'm a total novice here in Amber, no matter ... no matter what has happened. And that you have much you can teach me.
"Can I help you? And, in return, learn from you?"
Flora looks surprised by the sudden outburst, but manages a nod. "I'm not disappointed... Just a tad surprised. It was really one of the last things I had expected."
"I wouldn't have called it a well-reasoned strategy myself," says Imogen ruefully.
She narrows her eyes. "So, who is your mother?"
Imogen draws a breath. "Deirdre," she says, watching Flora cautiously. "Corwin ... saw the likeness at once. And Fiona was able to access my earliest memories and confirm it."
Flora goes to say something, stops, then turns, shaking her head. "Disturbing..." She mutters a few things, then turns back to Imogen.
"I certainly hope this isn't some absurd plot. Because you're an unlikely candidate for queen, being his niece." She leans back onto a side table. "So what happened? I don't need anything pornographic, but I'd like an idea."
"No plot," says Imogen, a little grimly. "When I plot, my preferred position is not on my back, believe me. I don't believe anything is gained from a position of weakness." She hesitates, then glances at Flora. "And it seems to me, that for women to hold power here, it almost has to be by default, with the men unaware of how much the women are in control. That ... is unfamiliar to me - and not entirely pleasant. I still find it strange that males are allowed to be part of the decision-making process - they are notoriously unstable, and prone to emotional outbursts."
She sighs. "Be that as it may. I went to see the King last night because he had reacted so strongly when he met me. I wanted to discover if there was any reason ... and I learned there was - that he was able to identify me as Deirdre's daughter. And then ... "
She moves away, her cheeks a little flushed. Absently, she picks up a spray of green leaves in her hand and starts to stroke the glossy foliage.
"He was in such pain, it seemed. He needed ... comfort. And I ... could give it. So I did."
She looks across at Flora.
"I've never felt like that before," she says quietly. "That I could so meet another's needs that it was like a key smoothly turning a well-oiled lock."
Flora is silent a long time. "Damn. We are in the middle of a Romantic Age, aren't we?"
She sighs. "Women do hold power. There just aren't that many of us around. Llewella, she stays to her realm in Rebma... Mirelle and Deirdre gone... Fiona and I are really the only ones about at this point. And unfortunately the men tend to stick around more..." She sits on a side chair.
"The throne... I would never want it. Ever. I think I'm one of the few left that haven't made a go for it. I've spent all my life just supporting it. That's my strength. Diplomacy, order, etiquette. Being at the front requires a different set of abilities."
"Agreed," says Imogen. "And the abilities you listed - well, it's screamingly obvious you possess them in abundance. And in a better regulated society ... ah well."
She gives a slightly crooked smile at her aunt. "I am a complete tyro here in Amber. That's not to say that my previous life hasn't gifted me with some skills and strengths. But ... it would be foolish to behave as if I possessed either power or experience when I have neither."
She looks down again at the foliage she still holds.
"What were the servants saying about me?" she asks, a little nervously.
She laughs. "The usual commoner gossip. That the king has a new paramour... That you two were seen escaping from the throne room to his chambers... and that you made a show at breakfast wearing only a sheet, and later the kings robe. They all wait with baited breath for the next instalment of the Tess-Corwin love story."
She eyes Imogen. "It doesn't tend that way, does it?"
"Which way?" responds Imogen, guardedly.
She frowns. "Don't play coy with me. I invented coy, young lady. The way I'm referring to is the wide-eyed, empty-headed monster called 'infatuation' that you might have a mind to turn to love."
"Oh," says Imogen. "That way."
She looks down at the foliage, and begins, very carefully, to shred the lower leaves from the stem, so that it can be more easily used to form part of a floral decoration.
"I find him ... attractive," she says in a low voice. "And I am grateful to him for his recognition ... "
She bites her lip. "And I feel ... "
She breaks off and selects another stem. "Sometimes he says things ... I don't understand. He told me - he lost everything - his powers, his memory, his sense of who he was - for a terribly long time. And ... and that he had his eyes burned out with a red hot poker."
She looks up at Flora, troubled. "But that's impossible. He sees ... perfectly well. His eyes ... are beautiful."
"They were quite burned out, dear. I didn't watch, but I saw him afterwards, every year, dragged out in chains to have dinner to celebrate the reign of his captor."
"And trust me, he did wander about without his memories for a long time. I watched over him during that time, or at least part of it."
She sighs. "The recklessness of youth. It always surprises me."
Imogen's face is pale and she lays down the stems of greenery.
"Then ... how can he see now? Was it some sort of surgery? And what happened to the ... the tyrant who did that to him?"
Flora looks confused for a moment, then snaps her fingers. "Ah. I keep forgetting you don't know about this... We regenerate, dear. Fingers, limbs, eyes. It's rather useful. You didn't find it odd that a man who swings a sword is completely free of scars?"
"And the tyrant is quite dead. Eric. Our former king. But he had every right to do what he did. Corwin tried to over throw him, and was unsuccessful. He's lucky to have his life."
"His own brother?" falters Imogen, her eyes wide. "And ... we can regenerate?"
She pushes the greenery away for a moment.
"Aunt ... I must ask you to forgive me. But I really do feel I need some air."
She nods. "Perhaps this ball will tax you too much." She rises and leads Imogen out of the room. "Ah, well, there will always be another. And I've coped this long without an assistant. I suppose I'll live."
She returns to the tither of underlings, issuing orders and vague threats once again.
Imogen walks out of the room and down the steps that led, a servant had earlier informed her, to the courtyard. She passes from the coolness of the stone corridor and into a light more dazzling than the dying sun of Galbraith could offer. Across the courtyard was another flight of steps, leading up to the castle walls. Imogen hesitates, then makes her way there. Surely there could be nothing wrong in enjoying the view - one which must be similar to that glimpsed from Corwin's windows?
For a moment she stands quite still, sniffing the fresh salt air, and revelling in the freshness and newness of it all.
The sea sparkles in the mid-morning light, and bordering on it, she sees the town of Amber... Quaint, like the opening of a period movie. Smoke rises from chimneys and faintly she can see its residents move about, just another day to them.
Would it really do any harm to take a short walk beyond the gates and into the city? After all, the gates are wide open ... invitingly so. And no-one has said it is dangerous to leave the Castle.
Besides, never in her life has she had the opportunity to walk down a cobbled street, looking at the whitewashed buildings adorned with glorious plants ... wisteria. Bougainvillea. Clematis.
She turns ... and realizes she has, unknowing, already moved beyond the gates.
She continues down the street, her eyes bright with fascination at all the strange new sights.
She winds her way down, amused by the quaintness of it all. It's as if she's stepped back into time, back to a simpler time...
Somewhere, she laughs at the irony.
She smells chocolate as she drifts, and looks over to the sweets shop. At the counter stands two familiar figures.
Jurt and Eleanor.
He sits, looking over a pack of cards, and she talks to him. A small girl is nearby, devouring a rather sticky concoction.