Imogen : Talking with Bill

Imogen winces and stares down at her feet where, impeccably shod, they peep from beneath the hem of her demure dark blue gown.

"That damned sheet," she mutters ruefully.

He looks surprised. "You mean it's true?" He recovers. "Well-- I'm happy for you then. He's been alone too long. He needs some fresh blood..."

"But it's none of my business, to be sure. What would you like to know now?"

Considering the Amberites' apparent penchant for violence, Imogen reflects that Bill could have chosen a less sanguine expression ... It makes her sound like the helpless victim of a vampire, rather than ...

An avenger?

She gives a little shiver.

"Tell me more about Merlin's mother, please," she says firmly. On the surface, she can tell herself that this is purely her interest in a woman who must be a formidable political manoeuvrerer.

Even to herself she will deny that her curiosity might in any way be based on a certain desire to discover if the Lady Dara could ever possibly be a rival for Corwin's attentions.

He shrugs. "I've never met her. Corwin doesn't have a high opinion of her. From what I've gathered, she seduced him so that she could have a child of Amber. There was this whole plot... Very long and convoluted, and I'm not sure I even have it straight.

"She keeps to her end of the universe nowadays, though, supposedly controlling the crown down there."

"Her son," says Imogen thoughtfully.

Like Jurt was her son too ... No wonder Corwin had seemed so negative about the thought of Jurt being Ellie's chosen!

"So ... what are these Chaosians like?" she asked. "Are they our friends ... or our enemies?"

He chuckles. "A little from column A, a little from column B... There are some we get along with, some we don't. There's quite a bit of shadow in between to keep things bloodless. Plus, neither side has fully recovered from Patternfall, a rather large and nasty war.

"Chaosites are as varied as anyone here. Once Mandor- that's Jurt's and Ryoden's half brother- said to me that Amberites are only Chaosites that moved. True enough. Dworkin and Oberon were Chaosites before they became Amberites."

Imogen's eyebrows lift. "I see. So that makes all of us ... Chaosians too. Interesting."

So Corwin's objection was more likely to be due to Jurt's mother than the fact that he was a Chaosian, Again, interesting.

And he had spoken of Jurt as a minor Prince ... of no account. Yet Imogen wondered if it was really that which lay at the root of his objection. Corwin, she rather thought, was not the man to set excessive store by such things ...

"All right," she said. "Now ...practical matters. What do you think I should wear to the ball? My opinion is that it should be something a very very long way from a sheet."

He laughs. "Oh, I don't know. You'd certainly be the talk of the town. And Flora would just be green knowing she wasn't the one setting the world abuzz with what she wore.

"Wear what you want. You're a princess, and no amount of public opinion can change that."

"That," she says wryly, "is about as helpful as Corwin was."

She looks at him thoughtfully.

"Perhaps we should head back towards my rooms. Corwin did promise that I could have tailors to adjust some of my mother's old gowns. That might be best - although she did rather share his taste in colours."

She wrinkles her nose. "I don't really want to appear at my first ball in black - no matter how chic it may be."

He stands and helps her up. "Are you asking me for fashion advice? You're looking at the wrong person. Flora had to henpeck me for months to get me to go local. Even now she complains... My colours, my beard. My hair. So I would look at a cloth sack and say it looked wonderful."

"I hope," she says cautiously, "I can do a little better than that. It would hardly be must of an improvement on the sheet, don't you think?"

She rests her hand on his arm as they leave the throne room. Corwin has, she thought, made a wise choice of mentor for him. He has the empathy of one who has done this himself, and a practical nature that appeals to her as well. There is also the fact, she thinks, with a stab of inward amusement, that he must be among one of Corwin's loyalest supporters ...

"Is this the quickest way?" she asks. "I have my mother's rooms ... they're close to ... to the King's."

She blushes a little.

He smiles, noticing the reddening, and patting her arm. "A piece of advice. Don't be shy about it. If this morning was any test, most the castle knows anyway. If you act ashamed, then there will be all sort of attentions you don't want..."

He looks forward again. "Are you ashamed?"

She considers.

"It's difficult to say," she says slowly. "Last night ... was strange. At first I was ... almost scared. And then it felt so right for me to be with him."

She takes a few more steps. "For me to realise I will almost inevitably be defined in terms of another person is ... restricting," she says at last. "I suppose men on Galbraith must feel the same. It is so important to be chosen if you are a man. If you are not ... that is shaming."

A few more thoughtful steps.

"I am not ashamed to be Corwin's lover," she says at last. "But I have concerns about being known as his lover. Does that make sense?"

He nods. "Perfect sense. He's a visible person, and that will make you all too visible." He thinks for a long time.

"You don't have to let him define you. I don't think that's what he'd want. It's not what anyone would want. Sure, some empty headed serving girl who found her way into his bed is going to be defined by that. But you have clout of your own to discover. And quite frankly, if you did, you'd be the first of your generation to bother trying."

She turns and looks at him with some amusement.

"It's the way I was trained. To serve ... by leading," she says.

"But do tell - what do most of my generation do instead?"

He thinks. "Most of them seem to be happy to stick to the background, but maybe I'm being unfair. Most are as new at this as you are."

He turns down a hallway, Corwin's hallway. "But I can see why it's difficult. You're jumping into a world they created, with a million unwritten rules. It's been fascinating sitting on the sidelines."

"I suspect it will be even more fascinating playing the game," Imogen rejoins.

She moves along the corridor - and then hesitates. She can't resist taking a quick look at Corwin's room ... perhaps he will be there ...

Softly she pushes open the door.

The room is empty, though a number of trunks and bags sit about that weren't there before.

Bill peers in over her shoulder. "Leave something?"

Imogen shakes her head, bewildered.

"Not mine. I don't know ... "

She moves forward with a slight feeling of dread. What if Corwin has already dismissed her?

A stupid thought. She was speaking not him not an hour ago and he was perfectly affectionate. His feelings could not have undergone so sudden an alteration, surely.

And yet ... why did he say nothing to her about a planned journey?

Resolutely, she opens one of the bags.

"Perhaps I'd better just check," she says by way of excuse to Bill.

She peers inside.

The bag contains a man's clothes, of impeccable taste, mostly in blacks, blues and greys.

Bill looks over her shoulder. "Doesn't look like Corwin's stuff..."

He touches a label. "Armani?"

"Perhaps that's his name then," says Imogen. "We sometimes label our clothes on Galbraith - don't you?"

She folds the clothes carefully and replaces them in the bag.

"Bill," she says, a little awkwardly. "You won't ... you won't tell Corwin that I panicked, will you?"

She looks up at him anxiously.

He shakes his head. "Of course not. Everyone has at least a touch of paranoia here. I can understand your pos-- your situation."

He helps her up. "Now, to your mother's rooms?"

Gratefully, she nods.

"I wonder who Armani is," she says suddenly as they leave the room. "Another cousin perhaps,"

He laughs. "It's a fashion designer. I doubt he's an Amberite. I'm not sure who those belong to, but I'm fairly certain that he doesn't threaten you. Now, which door?"

"That one," she says, and indicates the one she means. "What's a fashion designer?"

"A very specialized tailor slash artist. Makes very stylish clothing for a living. I'd think you'd have those... You seem like a cultured young woman."

"Oh," she says, enlightened. "A couturier. Yes, we have them. But they don't put their names on your clothes. I mean, one just knows if it's a Granesh or a Foulajbe."

He opens the door, and the room is still dark, and decorated in deep reds and black, with trims in silver... Not the light colours she remembers of her childhood home, or the lively splashes of her mother's garden.

She steps inside, and looks around wonderingly.

Then she walks decisively across the room to the window and throws wide the heavy drapes, letting the light flood in on a scene of decaying magnificence.

She regards the heavy furnishings, the grand and sombre colours for a moment in silence.

"This," she says at last, "is not how I remember Mummy."

The room, to her surprise, while still sombre, is in wonderful condition. It doesn't even appear to be 'preserved,' only temporarily vacated, as if a proud woman in a cotton sundress and dark hair should step back in at any moment...

Bill looks around. "I never knew her. But Corwin spoke of her often..." He trails off, then seems to avoid her gaze.

"Where's this wardrobe of hers?"

"I'm not sure," admits Imogen. "I remember her as the sort of woman who would be happy to live out of a suitcase ... or a backpack even ... I remember some great camping trips when I was tiny ... "

Her voice trails off a little, and she nods towards a small door. "Through there, perhaps?"

She walks to the small recessed door and pulls it open.

"Oh my," she says faintly.

This... This cannot be her motherís... A set of armour, shining so brightly it glows... But a few dents, some wear... It was used? It is her size, but Imogen struggles to see it on her mother's frame...

Beside it, a nasty looking dual edged axe.

Bill touches it. "Oh. I wondered if she had an extra. There's a painting or two of her in this."

Imogen swallows.

"Mother ... wore this? And fought?"

The answer is clear. She shakes her head slightly and advances into the room.

There are other weapons here - mostly of the axe variety, and a couple of hefty broadswords. Imogen begins to hope profoundly that Corwin won't expect her to emulate her mother in all things ...

"Do you think," she says at last, "that she ever wore ... dresses? Because turning up to a ball in a suit of armour seems to me almost as bad as the sheet.

"Although," she adds, "considering what I've been told so far, armour might be considered de rigeur."

"Oh, she wore dresses, I'm sure..." He eyes a particularly nasty scimitar. "But she was quite a swordsman. From what I'm told, the only man who beat her once she hit her stride was Benedict, and he's master of arms."

He leaves the closet (if it can be called that) and Imogen hears a number of doors open and close. "No... no... Ah! Here we go!"

Imogen turns and hurries out, slightly glad to leave the little room. Of course, on the one hand she is glad that he mother was so prodigious in feats of arms.

But still ...

She looks around for Bill.

"What have you found?" she asks eagerly.

"Dresses," he replies, and she can see him feeling various materials. "Looks like she wasn't into the puffy stuff, which is just as well. Hell to dance with a woman wearing that." The colours are once again dark, and Imogen can see in her mind how stunning her mother must have been. Some have red, some have silver... Some are simply black.

She moves forward ... and stretches out a hand to one dress. Plain ... a medieval style ... with a tight bodice, long pointed sleeves that with emphasis the length and slimness of her arms, and a full skirt, which even has a small train that will flow behind her.

The neck is perhaps cut a little low ... and square.

She wonders how Corwin would react to her dressed in this ... She sees them standing together ... black and silver for him ... and black, with her golden hair, for her.

But what if he looked at her ... and remembered the last time he saw his sister wear the dress?

Suddenly it seems all wrong. She wants to be herself ...

Yet how can she do it?

She moves into the closet where the dresses are hung, searching ...

Bill touches her shoulder and pulls her back from the increasingly futile search.

"You aren't her..." He looks away. "You said you didn't want to be defined by Corwin and the fact that you're his lover. Why would you want to be defined because you're Deirdre's daughter?" He looks back and smiles. "There are dressmakers here."

Imogen nods ... then smiles too.

"You're right - of course. But is there time? The ball must be less than six hours away. Probably much less by now.

"I would like him to ... to see me," she adds a little wistfully. "Imogen, I mean. Not ... Deirdre's daughter."

But she is guiltily aware oh how she had exploited that the previous night.

He leads her out of the room, taking her arm again. "Trust me, the dressmakers have a few tricks up their sleeves. They don't actually do their work in Amber." He winks.

"And I'm sure you'll be Imogen to him. You're not really a dead ringer for your mom. Actually, if I had to pick, I would have said you were Flora's. Blonde, tall. But then again all I know about Deirdre is what your father's mentioned. The others don't really talk about her."

She glances at him as they walk down the corridor together.

"You like Flora, very much, don't you?" she asks, a little shyly.

"What has Corwin said about my mother?"

Bill chuckles. "I like Flora. She's an interesting person. Surprisingly shallow and deep in one go. Sharp and soft. You never quite know what face you're going to get."

He is silent a long time before he attempts her second question.

"He has-- a number of feelings about your mother. Love, for one. But others too." He shakes his head. "I shouldn't really say. It's in the past now."

Imogen stops and turns to face him.

"Bill," she says quietly, "since I came here, people have warned me again and again that Amber is dangerous - that I am in danger. And to my mind, safety lies in knowing as much as I can. I think Corwin agrees - that was why he sent me to you - for you to tell me things... "

She looks at him earnestly.

"It may be in the past ... but it could shape my future."

He sighs. "I don't want to talk badly about your mother. I never even met the woman. And this-- I don't think this is one of the things that could kill you."

He sees her steadfast look and looks away. "Your mother... played games."

Imogen bites her lip.

"With Corwin?" she says finally. "Using .... his affection?"

It sounds dangerously close to what she has been doing.

"With Eric and Corwin, as far as I can tell. She would play them off each other, get them at each other's throats. Sometimes it backfired... Eric and Corwin spent a good amount of time trying to kill each other, and at some point, it became about more than her.

"He adored her, but he also felt a lot of other things for her too. It was not a peaceful trio."

She nods. Suddenly, it's hard to speak for the lump in her throat - but she manages it.

"Has ... has he ever mentioned a man called Donavon Tesler?"

Bill shakes his head no. "I'm afraid not. Why do you ask?" He takes her arm again and pats it. "If you don't mind my asking. Maybe we should wait on the dress. You look like you need some air."

"I think he was my father," says Imogen simply.

She glances up at him. "Air would be nice. Sometimes ... this can be hard to deal with.

"But we should see about the dress too. Perhaps then you'll let me buy you an ice cream sundae in the city. I found a place that was very warmly recommended - by Ellie, and the little girl she had with her."

He nods and silently leads her out to the gardens. "We'll work something out. Don't worry." He pats her arm. "You're taking all this well. Much better than I would have. You Amberites must have survivability in your genetic make-up."

He sits her on a bench and takes the seat next to her. "Why do you think Corwin may have known your father?" he asks quietly.

"It was a hope more than anything else," she admits with a little sigh. "He died when I was very young - and it was soon after that when Mother sent me away - to Galbraith. Coming here ... as made me remember the time before so much more vividly.

She is silent for a moment and then says quietly, "I found his body, you see."

Bill keeps his thoughts to himself for a moment, but then finally looks away and sighs. "I'm sorry."

"Where is this leading?"

"I don't know," admits Imogen. "Coming here ... I hoped I would find someone who could tell me why he died ... and what scared my mother so badly that she hid me away and never saw me again before she died herself."

She looks at him again.

"If she feared so much for my safety then, how safe am I here now? And why have I been brought here?"

Bill holds up his hands helplessly. "Who brought you? I'm not really a player in what they do. Most of the time, if a plot is about, I don't find out about it until after. And the way they work, sometimes it's years before things make any sense. Look at Patternfall. We're still putting the pieces together."

"I can't look at it," says Imogen, and there is now lurking amusement in her face. "I don't know anything about it. I think you're meant to be telling me ... "

She rises to her feet and shakes out her skirt. "Tell me, does one ever get over the feeling that one's wearing fancy dress here? Talking of which - we should go and see about my costume for tonight ... "

He stands and takes her arm again.

"You get over the feeling. Give it time, you'll be comfortable here."

He leads her back into the castle. "You're safe here, I'm sure. The wolves aren't hungry right now." They find their way to a room filled with fabrics and tailor's dummies, and a thin, nervous looking man. "What colours, dear?"

Imogen moves along the rows of fabric, her eyes a little dazzled by the profusion.

"Blue, I think. Pale. And a soft mauve ... "

She indicates the type of shades she has in mind.

"Something soft ... "

And as unlike her mother's strong colours and armour suit as possible, she silently adds.

The man moves deftly about her, measuring her, chatting idly with Bill, who declines the offer of a new outfit.

"I have enough to stuff my closet, thank you."

The measuring doesn't take long, and soon Imogen is being whisked away again. "How about something to drink? You look like you need it."

Imogen nods. "Please."

Then she considers the notion and finds it interesting.

"Are men permitted in places where alcohol is served here?"

He laughs. "You are a long way from home, aren't you? The only things that are segregated here are the public bathrooms, trust me."

His mirth fades. "You need to understand. Men aren't considered inferior here. And only the stupid think the same of women. There may not be as many women, but they are still formidable when you mess with them. I've seen Flora go off on Gerard. Not pretty."

He pulls her into a smaller room, lit by cool cantrips of magic. Imogen is amused by the swift change in atmosphere from fancy and over tailored to simple, almost rugged and plain. He pulls out a decanter. "Like brandy?"

"Please," she says.

She accepts the balloon glass, and swirls the rich amber liquid around thoughtfully.

"I think that is the hardest thing to deal with," she admits. "I mean... I don't see men as inferior, no, not at all. But there are certainly patterns of behaviour here that seem strange."

She glances around the room.

"For example," she explains, "on Galbraith, men will drink only in private houses. Well, I suppose you could say the Castle is private... but ... "

"A few more daring young men might visit a bar with their chooser, and perhaps older men might meet in very quiet bars ... but generally they're places for women to meet and talk. Men ... " she colours a little. "Well, on Galbraith, they would expect to be the centre of attention. It's more relaxed without them.

"I'm sorry," she says apologetically. "I'm sure it's different here."

He nods. "Oh, quite. Don't think I'd like to visit your Galbraith, being one of the supposed 'weaker' sex." He pours himself a glass and sips. "Things are very different. You've adapted well, and I don't think I have to tell you not to play by your rules."

He sips. "Chooser?"

"The woman who's chosen him as her mate," she explains. "He's her chosen."

She stares down into her brandy glass as though struck by a sudden thought, and her cheeks slowly flush with colour.

"You know ... it's strange ... but with Corwin ... I feel more like his chosen than his chooser," she admits.

He laughs. "Rules. It's much too complicated. But your lexicon implies one is superior over the other... And I don't think you can apply that here.

"Yes, he's stronger, older, and hell, he's a king. And trust me, he's smart. Very smart. And you caught his attention... Maybe you were chosen...

"But I was married for over thirty years. This balance changes over time, and changes back. When we married, I thought I was the stronger, the caretaker... Then I realized I was wrong. But when Alice was sick..." He goes silent and drinks.

"Time changes a lot of things."

She slides her hand across the table to take his.

"I'm sorry," she says quietly. "You must miss her very much."

Something that has created a bond between him and Corwin, she guesses.

He nods. "Cancer. About ten years ago now, though time is so crazy it's hard to say."

He puts the decanter aside. "And yes, I do miss her. Which is why I laugh when people jab me about Flora."

"I'm sorry," she says again.

And then what he has said hits her.

"Do you think ... one never gets over such a loss?"

"You do. I've considered going out into the fray again. It gets easier with time."

"You're talking about Deirdre, aren't you?"

She nods. "Yes," she admits, gazing down into the brandy glass.

"The way people speak of her ... she was so important in his life for such a long time. And when I saw him ... I was aware ... "

Of what? Suddenly the words are so very hard to frame.

"That ... I was attracted to him. And he ... "

She shakes her head and takes a slug of brandy.

"I have to get beyond this," she says softly. "If I'm trapped here in Amber, then I must make my own way here."

"You think you're trapped?" Bill furrows his brow. "What makes you think that? Don't you have pattern?"

He looks uncomfortable as he tries to frame his next question. "What's-- How do you feel about-- taking your mother's place, so to speak?" He lowers his voice. "With Corwin?"

"I have ... taken Pattern," she says cautiously, trying to get the phrasing right. "What difference does that make?"

"Mother's place?" Her colour surges up again. "Do you think that Corwin and she ... "

She breaks off in some confusion.

"There are =lots= of taboos against that on Galbraith," she says in a very small voice. "Even having Corwin as my chosen ... would be seen as shocking."

"Well, that's what lets you move through shadow. Didn't you know that?" Bill looks confused. "I would think someone would cover that..."

Bill flushes too. "Yes-- I thought you knew that. That particular taboo was broken, according to Corwin. He was drunk and admitted it to me... It's not something he's particularly proud of... And that is still a taboo here. The old king even outlawed such things, but never really laid out why or any sort of punishment. Just that it shouldn't happen."

Imogen looks at him in shock.

"But ... "

She breaks off, realising that she feels suddenly very cold. And with fear she realises what she wants, what she needs. Corwin's arms around her. Holding her, reassuring her that - impossibly - everything was all right.

She takes a sip of brandy and realises she is shaking.

"And ... and Mother? Did ... did she want this? Or ... "

She swallows the fiery brandy with a gulp the makes her eyes water.

Bill gently takes her hand. "As far as I know, she was as willing in this as anyone. Corwin's not the type to..."

He takes the glass out of her trembling fingers and refills it. "Maybe we should talk about something else. I don't want you to be upset."

Imogen manages to nod, but, dazed, is beginning to wonder if things have moved beyond that.

When Brand told her ... it had seemed so simple. Either Corwin or Eric had killed her father. She simply had to discover which - and then, if necessary, decide what to do.

And now she is learning ... the three of them - Corwin, Eric and her mother - had been locked in a cycle of need and love and hate - that none of them was innocent ...

So ... what had her father's role been in all of this?

Was he the missing piece that could complete the jigsaw? Or had he always been a watcher in the shadows as Deirdre performed her intricate and infinitely dangerous dance with her two siblings?

Bill watches her in silence a long time. "Maybe I'm not the one you should be talking to," he says quietly.

He stands and gently pulls her to her feet. "Come. Let's see how the set-up for the ball is progressing. Or would you like that sundae now?"

"The ... the ball," she says. Then she draws a deep breath and forces a smile.

"Perhaps I'm not taking all this quite as well as you thought," she says quietly.

She gives him her arm. If she has secrets she chose to keep from Corwin, it is becoming apparent that he too has secrets he kept from her.

He leads her out to the main entry, and keeps off to the side while she composes herself.

Flora is nowhere to be seen... at least in body. In spirit, she's seems omnipresent, in the bustle of the servants and the myriad of decorations being pulled on high. White, green, gold. None of the offensive black anywhere.

Absently, Imogen is pleased to see golden feathers being brought in, and a few of the key ingredients to her recipes being bandied about.

"Sundae?" mummers Bill.

More composed now, she turns and nods.

"Please. It's a little cafe just off the main street."

He leads her out and down the steps, and she can feel that the air is warming from the morning chill, and the colour is beginning to return to the world.

The town is even busier now, now that the middle class businesses and such are opened up. Bill nods to a few people, says hello... Finally she leads him to the shop she saw Jurt and Ellie, and the young girl. Ryoden.

"You said they were here with a child... Must be the little Chaosite that's visiting. I haven't seen her yet. Heard she's been a handful."

"She seemed sweet," replies Imogen, signalling a waitress over. "Iced coffee, please."

She turns back to Bill and smiles. "And a great fan of the chocolate ice - although she seemed to be wearing as much as she was eating when I saw her." Her smile fades for a moment, and she frowns. "Do you know Jurt? What do you think of him?"

"I don't really know him," he replies honestly. "I think everyone formed opinions of him when he was a bit younger and brasher, and going through a tough time. Merlin's opinion has changed over the years. Last time we talked, he was actually proud of him. Said he took raising his sister very seriously."

He orders a vanilla ice. "Why?"

She hesitates, unsure if she's betraying a confidence. But then, it is nothing in what Ellie has said to her - more in what she observed in the younger woman's manner.

"I think Ellie might be seeing him as her chosen," she says carefully, nodding acceptance as the waitress brings the long tall glass of coffee ice.

Bill smiles. "Oh, that's nice. From what I've heard she's a nice girl. Gerard seemed to like what he saw of her. And Corwin has always had a deep love for her. I'm one of the few that knew something about her before she came here."

"But I think 'chosen' isn't what I'd use. Maybe paramour, which a lot of the young people around here are fond of."

"Paramour," repeats Imogen, tasting the word almost like she tastes the coffee ice.

Then she sighs.

"Whatever you call him - I don't think Corwin is terribly keen on the idea. He seemed ... annoyed ... when I mentioned it. He was worried about the little girl too, I think."

"Worried how? I know he mentioned she had been attacked in Chaos, but I didn't know anything had happened up here." He sighs. "Jurt is a Chaosite. That must be the problem."

"I'm not sure," replies Imogen, a little cautiously. "I don't really ... at the moment, I may be misreading his moods.

"As for Chaos ... he's had bad experiences there, hasn't he? With ... with Dara?"

She takes another bite of ice, her expression thoughtful and the wrinkle of a frown between her brows.

"He seems ... to have had a very unhappy life," she says slowly. And she is feeling a great consciousness that she may well be adding to the negative side ...

Bill sighs. "He's a king. I've never read about a happy one. It's one of the reasons that thereís no longer a race for the crown like there used to be. They see now what it really means, and keep away.

"And yes, Dara was a very bad experience. She used him, and then, in a way, stole his son away from him by never telling him he existed. Merlin was a grown man by the time that Corwin met him."

Imogen nods slowly, absorbing the information.

Then she reaches in her purse and pulls out one of the coins Corwin gave her, to pay for both of them (she is, after all, the woman).

"Do we have time to go a little further, or should we be getting back? I saw the sea earlier ... It looked so light and ... fresh. On Galbraith, the sea is always dark - deep blues, azures and rich purples. Because our sun is so old, I think. It would be nice to get a little closer here. But I suppose we may need to get back for the ball."

She looks at him inquiringly.

He laughs. "You've reminded me I'm being truant. There's a few things I need to look over at the castle, and since I won't be able to burn the midnight oil... Are you sure you're okay? I'd hate to leave you when you're upset. I'm sure Corwin would forgive a few things being late."

"I'm fine," she says swiftly. "Really. And some time alone ... might be just what I need."

Her smile is almost too bright.

"Really," she repeats. I'll just take a little stroll down to the sea and come straight back. I promise."

He laughs. "Don't get your shoes wet. You'd hate to have blisters for your first Amber ball." Bill pauses then kisses Imogen briefly on the cheek.

"You're a good girl, Imogen. I hope you find happiness here." He bows shortly, then leaves the shop, leaving Imogen alone again.

Imogen stares after him for a moment. She likes him - and trusts him too, she decides. Perhaps because what he told her hurt him to tell - and hurt her to hear.

But Corwin ...

Ah, Corwin ...

Slowly she rises and makes her way from the little parlour. The tang of the sea is sharp in the air , and she turns to make her way down the steep hill towards it.

She finds herself eventually on a small cliff, overlooking the slow rises and falls of the beach. Somewhere off in the distance she sees a few figures gathered, talking...

The sound of the waves is refreshing, and drowns out the mummer of the town easily. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees someone, not too far off, standing. Watching.

Watching her?