Imogen swallows. What had seemed so simple when she started up the hill to the Castle now seems unexpectedly complicated. She remembers Flora speaking (somewhat disparagingly, it is true) of Corwin's enormous respect for this brother.
She drops into the same formal curtsey with which she greeted Corwin the night before - this time directed at them both.
"Your Highness," she says respectfully. "Your Majesty."
As she rises, her eyes are fixed, a little apprehensively, on Corwin.
"Sire ... I've been speaking with your daughter."
Corwin nods. "Where was she? I talked to her myself some time ago. Is there a problem?"
"We met in the town," she replies, shooting a slightly nervous look towards Benedict. "She ... told me a ghost had returned from the past. Your brother Brand."
She bites at her lip. "If he survived ... could my Mother have survived as well?"
Corwin sighs. "I don't know. We don't know enough about the Brand threat yet to say. We don't know how he got out, what happened after he fell... Hell, most of us don't know enough about the Abyss to fill a postcard."
He looks at her gravely. "Donít get your hopes up, Imogen. Brand is a wild card, and has always had a trick up his sleeve. Just because he's around doesn't mean your mother is."
"I suppose it's something only Brand himself can tell us," she says, a little bitterly.
She curtseys again.
"If you will excuse me, my Lords," she says formally, the rose pendant suddenly sparkling as it catches the light.
Corwin catches her arm. "If there is a way... we will get her back." His face, though, is uncertain, worried.
Benedict stands and bows slightly. "I should check on my granddaughter," he says quietly, and moves to exit.
Imogen smiles up at Corwin, a little tremulously, and nods at his words. Then, what Benedict is saying strikes her, and she looks across at the dour Prince.
"I saw her in an ice cream parlour in Amber, with Ellie," she tells him. "And another Lord as well." She hesitates, and then adds, with a slight blush, "The .... the one who was with her this morning. When I ... when you were taken ill, Sire."
Corwin curses. "I told her... Dammit!"
Benedict stops and turns. Corwin explains. "I told her to stay away from Ryoden. I don't want her in the line of fire..."
Benedict simply nods grimly, his face stone, and exits. Corwin grumbles to himself.
"She was better behaved on Earth..."
"Why do you want her to stay away from the child?" asks Imogen, bewildered. "She seems a nice little girl ...
"I can't say the same for the man though," she add, her cheeks flaring as she remembers Jurt's expression ... and his words. "Is he Ellie's chosen?"
"Damn well better not be," he grumbles. "She can do better than some low ranked prince with no manners and no love lost for Amber. He's reckless and rude and..." His clenches his teeth for a moment, then relaxes.
"He's a toy. That's it. Her way of rebelling, I'm sure."
He breathes a bit slower. "Someone is after the girl. And I don't want Ellie to get hurt getting caught in-between."
Imogen nods her total agreement of Corwin's assessment of the Prince she has seen with Ellie, but asks, "So the little girl ... what is her name? ... Is Benedict's grand-daughter? Who are her parents then? Can they not protect her?"
"Her mother is Dara... Merlin's mother. My son. Her father has been dead a few years, from what I hear. Jurt is her brother and primary caretaker."
He looks away. "Most likely Dara is too busy to protect her, and whoever is after her is rather talented. I'm doing this as a favour to Merle."
"I see," says Imogen, noting his care in drawing distinctions in this.
"And Jurt is the Prince that Ellie favours? Brother ... to her brother? And your son?"
She smiles suddenly, wryly.
"We do seem to believe in keeping it within the family circle, don't we?" she says ruefully, smiling at him.
He chuckles, and for a moment, the mood lifts. "Actually, there's little relation there. Merlin and Jurt don't share a father, so it's simply relations by marriage. Although Dara, incidentally, is Benedict's grand-daughter."
He chuckles again. "In the family, indeed."
She smiles back at him ... conscious that being able to make this haunted man smile seems such a marvellous achievement that her own heart lifts. She moves lightly towards him, her hands held out to him.
"So," she says. "What shall I wear for this ball? Something nice and demure and plain to make up for that scandalous sheet ... the news of which reached Flora before I did this morning!"
He laughs. "I imagine so. I'm sure she howled over her breakfast with that one. If you want a scandal, go ahead. Be the bell of the ball. You can't shame me." He kisses her hands. "I'm an old man."
"Really?" she answers, her eyes wickedly teasing. "That was not at all the impression I gained last night.
"But I shall try to avoid scandal," she adds more seriously. "I want ... "
She suddenly breaks off as a thought strikes her, and she looks at Corwin in consternation.
"Corwin ... do you think Brand might be behind these attacks on the child?"
He sighs. "It's a possibility. A very very real one. They sounded political in nature at first but..." He sighs and shakes his head. "What would he want with her? She's not that important." He looks at the floor, his eyes a confusion of conjecture and unanswered questions.
"I'm sorry," she says quietly. "I shouldn't have asked ... at least, not until I know more of the facts and can make reasoned deductions myself ... rather than acting on blind emotion.
"Didn't you say that there was someone here who could teach me about Amber? I am certainly eager to learn!"
He sighs. "Your guesses are close though. And I'd prefer you to not go snooping around Brand's wake. He's dangerous."
Corwin takes a moment to think. "Bill... Bill would be in the throne room now. That's usually where he spends his mornings. He's an older man. Not too old, but he has some silver. Usually wears brown."
Imogen nods. "Does he get on well with Flora?" she asks. I really would like to make myself useful - and if he's agreeable, perhaps he could talk to me and explain things while I do that. That way I can learn on the job, as it were."
She stretches up and kisses his cheek gently. "Your firelight angel should be useful, as well as making you happy, I think."
Corwin laughs. "Some like to speculate that he does, but he's told me truthfully. They're friends, and though he's toyed with the idea, like any red-blooded male, he knows Flora's too high-maintenance."
He pulls her close. "You are useful. Go and learn."
"Hard, when you hold me like this," she tells him.
But she kisses him once more and slips from his arms.
"You will send for me when you want me?" she asks. "Or shall I see you at the ball?"
She is surprised, as she moves back into the corridors of Amber, to realise how much the encounter has soothed her. She frowns thoughtfully. Corwin's powers of attraction are dangerous - not least because he uses them unthinkingly. She has set out to entrap him ... and yet now she feels like ... like a fly struggling in slowly thickening amber.
~He killed my father,~ she tells herself. ~Maybe.~
And there is the rub. It was to discover the truth that she sought him out - and yet she is beginning to dread the truth. What if she asks him and he says, "Yes, I did"? He has told her himself that he has done terrible things - of which he is deeply ashamed.
Still lost in her thoughtful mood, she stops suddenly, and becomes aware that she is in the throne room. She glances around for the man in brown with silver hair - and wonders if this is the 'Billí who Flora said was so reluctant to wear Amberite clothing.
A few nobles mill about, talking, holding rolled parchments. Most of them pose and try to look terribly important.
One man stands against the wall, dressed in brown with a hint of silver. His hair is short and is salt-and-peppered. He looks over a book, brow furrowed. A sword is at his hip, though he seems to not be used to it.
Imogen makes her way over to him and stands quietly, not attempting to distract him, but waiting for him to notice her, and amusing herself as she waits by examining the furnishings of the throne room. History has shaped this room, she reflects - the influence of Flora and Corwin is not so readily apparent - but she doesn't doubt it is there.
And her own influence? She smiles a little at the thought. That, she knows, is a thing of gossamer.
He eventually looks up, and smiles blandly at Imogen. "You're new." He puts away the paper. "I'm Robert Roth. Bill. The king's retainer. Have you been assigned to his court, or just visiting?"
"Very new," she replies, and smiles. "I'm Imogen Tesler, Deirdre's daughter."
She holds out her hand, Galbraithan style, palm outward for him to touch with his palm.
"As for assignment or visit ... I arrived here unexpectedly. The King suggested that you might be able to help me assimilate ..."
She smiles at him.
"I think I may be staying," she says.
"Deirdre..." He takes her hand and turns it sideways, grasping it firmly. "Corwin's sister. I remember. I never met her, but Corwin's spoken of her quite a bit." He smiles kindly. "Sorry to hear about her end."
Imogen is a little surprised at his treatment of her hand, but accepts it as an Amberite custom, smiling a little wryly at Bill.
"I was sorry to hear it myself," she replies. "I only learned of it yesterday - from Princess Flora. She left me with foster parents when I was quite small - but I remember her ... and my father ... with affection."
As she is speaking, she is watching him closely, to see if he reacts at all to what she is saying. She likes him; there is an intelligent honesty about him that is very appealing. But he is Corwin's friend ... he may know more of what happened to her father than he is revealing.
"Would it be possible for you to help me?" she asks. "To teach me something of Amber?"
"Of course!" He takes her arm in his and leads her to a more private alcove. "There's quite a few of you around now, isn't there? I met two new ones yesterday... Faetan and Thomas. And I hear Corwin has one too." He laughs. "And here we are about to hit the third generation... Coral's due in a few weeks."
He sits down on a bench. "What do you care to know?"
"Well, who Coral and Faetan and Thomas are to begin with," she replies, laughing. "Ellie - Corwin's daughter - I've met. She seems very nice."
She pulls a comic face. "I'm still in a muddle over my aunts and uncles ... I've hardly begun to grasp the cousins at all!"
Suddenly her face stills ...
"And there are other things," she says softly. "The pain ... Corwin told me ... he had been blinded ... imprisoned. And my mother ....
"And then there are the powers I keep being told we have. Immortality. Regeneration ... "
She spreads her hands helplessly.
"I'm lost. And I get the feeling that being lost might be a very dangerous state to be in."
He chuckles. "As long as you don't stand out too much, it isn't bad. I was fairly lost when I first came to Amber... then again, I'm not royalty."
"The cousins... well, there aren't as many of them, so fewer to confuse. And Corwin's generation? It's not so hard to get straight."
He sombres. "Corwin doesn't have the lightest history. I wasn't there when they burnt his eyes out-- it was after he left Earth. But I've heard retellings from some of the ones that were there, or saw him later. It did happen."
Imogen's hand tightens involuntarily into a fist, the nails cutting into her palm.
"I find it hard to believe in such barbarism," she says frankly.
"On Galbraith ... violence was ... unthinkable. A few individuals might ... need to be treated ....but .... "
She looks around the throne room. Suddenly the medieval hangings don't seem so quaint - and she shivers.
"Tell me about the cousins," she says swiftly. "Who will I meet at the Ball?"
"Everyone, I'd imagine. I don't know Faetan all that well, but she's Bleys' daughter. Heard from some serving girls this morning that she's already causing scandal with Martin, Random's son." He ticks off on his fingers. "That's two. Then there's Rinaldo, but I don't think he's coming. His wife is about eight months along, so they're staying close to home. Thomas is Eric's son, but from what I could gather, raised by Gerard. Mathonwyr is Flora's child, but he went back home last I heard, after some spat. That's five... Eleanor is six."
He smiles ruefully. "Confused yet?"
Smiling, she shakes her head. "I think I can keep that straight," she says. Then she frowns. "Eric's son? Wasn't Eric the one who ... "
Bill pauses. "Eric was king here for a while, if that's what you mean. Between Oberon and Corwin. Is that what you mean?"
Slowly she shakes her head.
"I heard ... that he was ... cruel. That he was the one who ... " She cannot complete the sentence - ~who killed my father~. Shaken, she lowers her head. "I'm sorry," she says, almost in a whisper.
An arm goes around her shoulders. "No, no, it's alright. From what I know he wasn't that bad... I mean, there was that business with Corwin's eyes, but he didn't kill him, after all. I talked it over with Julian at one point, and it was the only thing that saved his life..."
"Save his life?" she echoes a little bleakly. "Then ... "
She leaps to her feet and paces up and down, agitated.
"I don't think I'll ever understand these people! They may be meant to be my family ... but they ... they are so brutal! It comes of allowing the men to take control - I'm sure of it. How can you hand over control of a political system to creatures so stuffed with emotion that they will fly off the handle on the least provocation and turn to violence to get their own way?"
She turns and looks at him. "You say you come from another Shadow," she said. "Are things the same there? Or are there cool heads in control? Fully informed and integrated debate? Consensus decision making? In a word - women?"
Bill looks a bit taken aback by the outburst. "It wasn't-- I mean, it was treason Corwin was charged with. By law he should have been put to death. The reason they put out his eyes was so he couldn't use powers to escape..."
He chuckles nervously. "My world wasn't so bad. It was more or less run by both. Some times this was more subtle than others, but there none the less."
He touches her hand and tries to get her to sit again. "This can be a bloody place, but trust me, from what I hear, they're all brutal. The woman are as guilty as the men, even if they don't carry swords."
"Corwin said something ... something about invading Amber. That was the treason, I suppose? On Galbraith, he would have been in therapy for years for trying something like that."
She walks back and sits down beside Bill, then leans back and rests her head against the wall. "And .... knowing what this place is like, you have =chosen= to live here?"
If he looks at her, he will see she is smiling faintly.
"What made you decide to come to Amber, Bill?" she asks.
He chuckles. "I don't think any amount of therapy can change these people. I think they take shots at each other because they're bored. They've lived so long, I think they've done it all. Twice."
He looks around at their room, letting it sink in. "I came here because I wanted to be a part of something bigger. I knew Corwin back on Earth, back when he was just plain old Carl, no powers, no god-hood. I liked him. We were friends for a long time, and I'd like to think we still are."
He smiles at Imogen. "Could you go back? Just pretend this didn't happen? I couldn't."
Go back to a place where she had made a career for herself, where she was rich, powerful, successful? Where there were challenges, but known challenges? Where her life would fall into a pattern of its own, gently and flexibly at first, but with increasing rigidity as they years went on. Where she could pretend her parents were still alive somewhere, not dead, brutally murdered.
It sounded like heaven.
And yet ... now that she knew ... there was no going back. She had a heritage in Amber - and she was suddenly sure that Deirdre had seen Galbraith as a school, where her daughter could be trained for her life in Amber. She smiled a little grimly. She would have to see how perspicacious her mother had been.
And it was more than a heritage. There was a mission too. Too learn the truth about her father's death ... and to revenge it.
Against that .... what power could a pair of haunted eyes have, what power a twisted, bitter smile, suddenly warming into life?
And yet ...
"What was he like when he was plain old Carl?" she asks, almost against her will.
He laughs. "A great guy. We lived near each other. He was odd at times, disappearing and reappearing, but now that makes sense. For the most part he seemed normal, if not exceptionally worldly. He knew my wife and my kids... He'd come over for dinner now and then.
"Now that I look back, I see there was something missing. He was fairly happy, but he knew that there was an element to him that was gone... He found it when he came back. I don't know if he's happier now that he has it, but he's complete.
"He once told me those were the happiest years of his life at times."
Bill shakes his head.
Indeed," says Imogen with sincerity.
She glances at Bill for a moment. He must be close to Corwin. Perhaps he knows ...
No. If she is to learn the truth of that, she will learn it for herself openly and honestly, not by tricking others. That might be the way of things in Amber - it isn't on Galbraith.
For the moment ...
"Who is Prince Jurt?" she asks. He seems related to Corwin's son - and yet Corwin spoke of him with disfavour."
He laughs. "A lot of people don't like Jurt. He's just moody, and from what I've seen, he has his buttons to push that make him soft. His sister is one. She knows how to tame him.
"He's Dara's- that's Merlin's mother- third son. He isn't a familiar presence up here. I've met him a few times in more neutral places.
"Lacks diplomacy, I've noticed."
"Up here?" echoes Imogen.
"Erm ... where is 'down there' then?"
"Down? Down, I suppose, would be the Courts of Chaos. Never really been there, but I've heard it's something akin to an Amber on hallucinogens. Full of shapeshifters and demons and the like. Jurt and Ryoden are from there. Actually, their brother is king.
"You'll meet Merlin if you stick close to Corwin. He visits from time to time."
Bill looks uncomfortable and goes to ask something, but then thinks better of it.
Imogen sees something of his discomfort, and takes a guess at the cause.
"What is it, Bill?" she asks. "Please ... tell me. I've been asking you enough questions!"
He blushes faintly, but it's mostly covered by his beard. "It would be impolite of me to ask." He chuckles lightly. "But servants do say the damndest things."