Imogen hesitates for a moment.
Then she reflects.
~This is Corwin's daughter - and I hardly got off to the best of starts with her this morning. And the man with her ... he was there too.~
Her cheeks burn at the memory. One thing is clear - she needs to make friends with these people - or at least try to avoid having them regard her with open hostility.
She surveys the groups again. Of the three, the child definitely seems the least threatening.
She moves towards her and smiles.
"Hello. What flavour's that? Do you recommend it?"
Ellie turns round at the sound of Imogen's voice. Quietly, she says "I believe the flavour is caramel." She then turns to Ryoden "This is my cousin Imogen, Ryoden." Ellie looks again at Imogen, her face neutral "Imogen, this is Ryoden."
Ryoden waves, her face and fingers a mess. "Caramel and chocolate and cherry and marshmallow."
Jurt looks up from his cards.
"I see she found clothes," he mutters.
Ryoden proceeds to lick the mess off of her, and Jurt sees this. Sighing, he takes her and leads her to a fountain, grabbing a handful of napkins on the way. She protests, but it falls on deaf ears.
Ellie and Imogen find themselves alone together, amid a crowd of people.
Imogen is still a little flushed by Jurt's remark. But she takes a deep breath.
~This is clearly my morning to grovel to sundry new relatives.~
Outwardly she smiles and extends a hand.
"I'm sorry," she says easily. "It wasn't the best of introductions this morning, was it? Both of us worried about ... about your father. I'm finding it all a little overwhelming, to be frank. Perhaps, being brought up here, you find it easier .... "
Ellie takes her hand in a light handshake "No, it wasn't a good start on either side. My temper can get away from me at times. And I wasn't brought up here. I only discovered Corwin to be my father two, no three days ago now. Before that I was raised elsewhere."
At that point, Ellie's strawberry dessert arrives. She smiles at the young woman serving her and thanks her before turning back to Imogen.
Ellie says quietly "If you wish something less messy, they serve a wide variety of dishes, all of superb quality. Ryoden has a fondness for caramel though I can recommend too the strawberry dishes."
Ellie hesitates then indicates one of the stools "Would you like to join me? The coffee here is very good too."
"I think I might try a coffee ice and combine the two," responds Imogen, signalling to the waitress.
She looks down at the marble of the counter, and nibbles at her lip as she wonders how to frame her next point. Perhaps Ellie's own words give her a clue ...
"And were you as ignorant as I was of Amber, and everything that seems to have happened here?" she asks quietly.
"It must have been strange to meet your father, and discover he was the King ... "
She finds her cheeks growing a little pink as she suddenly becomes aware that she really does want to discuss Corwin ... as if, she thinks ruefully, she really is becoming Flora's romantic fool. She traces a finger over the icy glass placed before her thoughtfully. No matter what she hears of Corwin, she mustn't lose sight of her task, her goal.
To discover the murderer of her father.
Ellie is quiet for a moment then replies "I had known Corwin for all my life. He visited, played with me as child and kept an eye on me as I grew. I thought him a friend of the family and my foster parents to be my parents."
She pauses and says flatly "They're dead now."
Taking a deep breath, she continues "My father brought me here after I was 'forcibly restrained' by an uncle. It was only then I discovered him to be my father. Since then, I have learned from a number of people, if not my father."
Ellie's green eyes, so like her father's, gaze steadily back "And what brings you to Amber?"
"Which uncle?" says Imogen involuntarily.
Damn it, did people know Brand was alive? Surely not - Flora had categorically told her he was dead and unable to harm her further... No, Brand was her secret, she was sure.
Aloud she answered Ellie's question.
"I was summoned by a trump card. A rather nasty compelling if our Aunt Flora is to be believed."
Ellie nods and asks "Why does it matter which uncle was responsible?" She shrugs "The intent was to teach my father a lesson through my injuries."
Imogen gazes at her cousin in horror.
"But ... surely Corwin has the power to prevent such abuses? At least here, in Amber."
And yet she was thinking of the things he had suffered himself, according to what both he and Flora had said. And hadn't she seen his pain for herself when he was attacked?
But surely he had the power to protect his own daughter?
Because if he couldn't do that. what sort of chance did his mistress stand?
"I'm beginning to believe that this is a barbarous place," she says feelingly as she scoops up her coffee ice.
Ellie shrugs "It wasn't in Amber. It was in my home elsewhere. And as for here, it's not so much barbarous as a fairytale with equal measures of light and shadow. This is a dangerous place though, Imogen, and my father has his share of enemies."
"Who?" says Imogen swiftly.
Then she reaches out a hand towards Ellie. "Iím sorry. But if I am to help Cor ... your father, it will help me if I know where to expect danger. If you and I perhaps could work together to help him."
Ellie takes Imogen's own hand "Fiona is the power behind the throne and Julian her henchman. She it was who sent Julian to beat me into a pulp. She has an interest in maintaining the status quo though I think. Chaos is no real danger as my half-brother Merlin, my father's son, rules there. The biggest danger is a ghost come back from the abyss. I believe there is very little he will not do to harm my father, directly or indirectly." Ellie's look grows serious "If you should ever meet a red haired man with green eyes, dressed in green and black, get away from him as fast as you can. He is a liar and loves plots and he will have no compunction about using you to get to my father." Ellie looks apologetic "I'm not trying to scare you, Imogen. My father cares for you and I think you may care for him and bring him happiness. His welfare matters greatly to me, even if we're not always in agreement."
She smiles ruefully "My father and I are too much alike at times for easy living."
~She's seen him,~ Imogen thinks, dazed. ~Either Ellie ... or someone close to her.~
"Does Corwin know this?" she asks urgently, her hand suddenly tightening on Ellie's wrist. "Ellie ... you speak of Brand, don't you?"
She releases her wrist.
"Forgive me. I didn't mean to hurt you. But ... My mother was meant to have died with him in the Abyss.
"But if Brand survived ... then what of her?"
Ellie nods, not mentioning his name again "Of course my father knows he is back. I told Father of this earlier after my encounter with him. His return makes this a whole new ball game." She says quietly "I don't know of your mother's fate, I'm sorry."
Imogen rises to her feet, her expression dazed.
"I must go to him. I must talk to him about ... "
She looks at Ellie - and for a moment her gaze is unfocused, as though she wasn't really seeing her cousin. Then suddenly she moves forward and give her a swift hug.
"I believe you ... that Fiona is the power behind the throne," she murmurs in Ellie's ear. "That's why ... you and I .... must help your father. Protect him." She looks again at her cousin.
"I need to find him," she says. "To find out what he knows about ... about my mother."
She moves swiftly to the door of the cafe and then up the cobbled roadway to the Castle gates.
Imogen flies up the steps, barely feeling them pass under her feet.
In the castle an ancient steward informs her that the king is in a meeting with the Prince Benedict in the king's chambers.
She finds her way back to his rooms, and as she approaches the door, she realizes she can hear voices within. She knocks tentatively. After a few moments, the door swings open, and Corwin motions her in.
At the breakfast table sits a man, tall and dour, with the side of his face bandaged. Corwin motions to him. "Benedict, this is Imogen... Deirdre's daughter." Benedict nods.