Imogen smiles faintly.
"That's asking rather too much, I fear. But ... I will trust you, Ellie."
She looks around. "Erm ... this way I think."
She leads Ellie to the suite of rooms assigned to Deirdre (and they only mistake the way once). As they arrive, Imogen wonders, her colour a little raised, if Ellie notices how close the suite is to Corwin's.
She pushes open the door of the sitting room.
"Here we are. It's a little grand," she says almost apologetically, and they enter the rich splendour that was Deirdre's apartment.
"Now ... "
She walks to the fireplace and tugs on the bell-push. When a footman arrives, she looks enquiringly at Ellie.
"What would you like?"
Ellie smiles "Some tea would be lovely please, Imogen." She smiles and waits patiently while Imogen orders the refreshments. Inwardly, she wonders where this conversation will go.
Imogen decides simple conversation would be best while they wait for the tea.
"You spoke as though you have a new room," she says. "Is yours being commandeered for the ball? Is that's why you're staying with Corwin?"
Ellie answers quietly "No, Dad had put me in Brand's rooms, but with his recent reappearance, Dad thought it safer for me to be elsewhere. I don't really have rooms of my own, at least not yet anyway." She smiles "The ball should be fun though."
"Indeed," agrees Imogen. Then, struck with a sudden thought, she leans forward.
"Ellie ... I've explored here a little and I have at least three huge rooms. Why don't you move in here with me? I should think you might find it a bit restricting to suddenly find yourself under your father's roof ... But sharing with me might be ..."
She breaks off. "Ah good," she says. "Here's the tea."
Ellie stays quiet until the servant departs then says with a smile "That does sound like a nice idea, Imogen. You should know though that Brand's reappearance is not the only reason for me being in my father's rooms."
She blushes slightly as she adds "Dad wants to keep Jurt and I definitely apart."
Imogen pours the tea for them both, her face thoughtful.
"He was treated very badly by the Chaosians," she says quietly. "Particularly Jurt's mother. I can see that he wouldn't want to ... lose you to that family."
She pushes the tea cup in Ellie's direction.
"How does one gain a chosen ... I mean a paramour in Amber?" she asks, then smiles wryly. "Not, I imagine, the way I did it - which would be frowned upon as fast in Galbraith. But what is the convention here? How is the Discussion Group composed?"
Ellie looks genuinely puzzled "Discussion Group? What's that?" She thinks and adds "From what I've seen, gaining or choosing a paramour seems to be a matter of personal choice."
She smiles wryly "Unless you happen to have Corwin as a father." More softly, she adds "That family also contains my half-brother Merlin. Jurt isn't to blame for the sins of his mother. No child is responsible for what their parents did or didn't do." Ellie smiles "Jurt is blunt with no diplomacy and can be abrupt, abrasive even. He can also be kind and thoughtful, loyal and caring. Nobody sees that though. They just look at him and see a Chaosite or the person he was a while back before he got Ryoden to look after."
Ellie blushes "I was initially annoyed with you, Imogen. It was a bad start on both sides. Jurt was abrupt with you I know, but he was just backing me." She shrugs "It doesn't matter, anyway. Corwin is sending him and Ryoden away."
She smiles apologetically "Sorry, I'm rambling."
"Sending him away sounds like a very bad idea," says Imogen. "Particularly if there hasn't been a discussion group."
She hesitates, sipping her tea, and then explains:
"On Galbraith, when a woman meets one she wishes to become her chosen, a discussion group is formed. It usually consists of the girl, her mother, perhaps some older female relatives, perhaps a friend of the girl. And then the merits and the demerits of the young man are discussed, until a consensus is reached. The usual outcome is either that the girl approaches the young man, or representatives on her behalf, in more old fashioned communities. Or else she agrees to find someone else. Or occasionally, where no clear consensus arises, there may be a period of trial courtship, followed by another Discussion Group."
"For you and Corwin not to have reached consensus seems very strange to me," she admits. "Of course ... he is a man. They are not usually part of the Group - although right-thinking women would consult them, of course. The mother of a girl would consult her chosen - the girl's father. And she would decide how much weight to give his words."
She sips her tea again. "This does seem very strange to me," she admits. "I should imagine you're very angry. Failure to reach consensus must be ... frustrating."
Ellie listens fascinated "Things sound very different on Galbraith. Back home on Earth, we had something much less formal, usually just chats between mother and daughter or between two female friends about boyfriends, paramours, or prospective ones."
Ellie is quiet "I can also see why my father's acting as he is. He wants to protect me and still sees me as his child and only as his child. He also rules here."
Ellie hesitates "Imogen, how do you feel about my father?"
Imogen looks at Ellie over the rim of her tea cup. Then she sets it down.
"I don't know," she says frankly. "I find him attractive, exciting. To me he can be tender and gently considerate. When I make him smile my heart lightens. When I make him laugh ... it's as though I've won first prize in a fantastically difficult competition.
"I also feel gripped by pity for him ... sometimes so hard it hurts my guts. Ellie - he has had such a terrible life. In all of it ... I'm not sure if there was one truly happy, uncomplicated love ... that didn't end in pain and guilt and grief. If there was ... he hasn't told me of it."
She shakes her head slightly. "At the same time ... that fills me with an awesome responsibility. Several people - not just you, Ellie, have said to me, 'Perhaps you can make him happy.' But for me ... set against so much appalling, appalling pain ... I feel like a blade of grass, uprooted in the middle of a storm. How can the grass bring back the sun?"
She looks at Ellie before her.
"And I also fear him. His power is immense - he has warned me of his cruelty. He has warned me ... "
She shakes her head.
"Yours is not a simple question, Ellie. There's no simple answer."
Ellie nods "My father is dangerous, but I don't think he would be knowingly cruel. Imogen, above all else, he needs someone to believe in him. A single blade of grass may not bring back the sun, but one person's belief in another can redeem. I thought I could help him, but he wouldn't let me in to help. He will let you. I have no right to ask you to help him, I know, but I love my father and hate seeing him in pain. You care about him. Maybe with him, you can find both find happiness."
Imogen looks at her sharply.
"Ellie, why are you giving up on helping him so soon? Don't you think ... you and I could work together to help him, and to come to let him see both how you want to help him ... and also how much you need Jurt."
Ellie looks down at her feet "There are ... differences of opinion between my father and I about a lot of things, even just down to basic things like learning about Amber. Mixed up with that is a lot of pain. We're too much like each other in some regards."
"All the more reason for you to move in her with me. And as for sending Jurt and Ryoden away ... "
"Something Corwin said ... Ellie, why did they come here in the first place?"
Ellie replies carefully "What have you been told of why they came? What did my father say, Imogen?"
"Corwin said that she was in some danger ... that she's been attacked. And that he was protecting her as a favour to his son, Merlin ... oh!"
Ellie nods "The situation is not looking good. I was helping to look after Ryoden too. The child doesn't even have any friends here in Amber apart from me, Jurt and Marrek. Now, Dad wants to send her away." She shrugs "And I disagreed with that."
"Of course you did," agrees Imogen. "Any decision making process would arrive at the same ... oh, let me think ... let me think!"
The last is clearly addressed to herself. She rises to her feet and paces the length of the room. Occasionally she seems to be speaking to herself. Ellie catches, "What did Bill say?" and later "awful woman!" Finally, she turns, smiling, to Ellie.
"Now," she says, "I think I can resolve it. Or certainly have a good try. I don't really want to burst in on Corwin though ... the timing needs to be right. On the other hand, I don't want him to have informed Jurt that he has to leave ... because then he would have to backtrack ... and that would appear like vacillation and weakness."
She looks a little anxiously at Ellie.
"He hasn't spoken to Jurt yet, I hope?"
Ellie replies "I don't know if my father has spoken to Jurt or not yet about this. Sorry, Imogen."
"Hmmm ... " says Imogen. "Well, you need to ask Jurt. Or," she adds, reluctantly, remembering the Chaosian's attitude to her in the ice cream parlour, "I will.”
"Better you though," she adds hastily.
"You see ... I have a plan."
Ellie nods "I'll ask. What's your plan, Imogen?"
"I think Corwin is seeing this in terms of his love for you ... and his concern," says Imogen. "But I know he loves Merlin too ... and I think he's lost sight of the fact that he's doing this for Merlin. I want to remind him of that. Gently."
She looks at Ellie anxiously.
"The downside of this is that you and Jurt may have to take things slowly for a while. My next idea is that we pull together a discussion group after the ball. I know you've lost your mother ... but we could have Flora, Fiona and me. Then, when we have reached consensus, we could present a united front to your father. He would find it very difficult to go against the four of us, I think."
She looks at the younger woman consideringly.
"But you must understand, Ellie, that you must enter the discussion group prepared to consider all the issues in order to reach consensus. If you are determined to have Jurt as your chosen no matter what the group decides, then there is no point in even trying."
Ellie almost chokes on her tea "Fiona? Imogen, no offence, but I have no inclination to have anything to do with Fiona except under emergencies. She's not some one I can trust. Would you trust someone who tried to have you beaten up?" She pauses "What do you know of my mother, Imogen?"
Imogen refrains from pointing out that it was to Fiona that Ellie turned when she needed help that morning.
Instead she says quietly, "Very little. Just that she was from Chaos ... and that she's dead."
Ellie nods "Yes, my mother was from Chaos. And that is part of the problem between my father and I. Let's just say the event of my birth was not hugely welcome I think, by Corwin anyway. I never realised that until Corwin told me, though he was glad enough later apparently. Anyway, the fact that my mother was from Chaos is not something that's widely known here. How could we go into an open discussion with Flora and Fiona and keep my father's secrets?"
Imogen flinches. The very word suggests to her those secrets that Ellie - she imagines - has little or no idea of. Flora and Fiona might actually be better informed, she thinks, remembering Flora's comments about Deirdre. How much, she wonders, does Ellie know of that bitter triangle?
And then she reflects ... here she is, planning to help Ellie with her father when she doesn't even know herself how she will respond when she sees Corwin again.
Her lover. Her mother's brother. Her mother's lover.
She shakes her head. And this was the man who everyone seemed to think she could make happy?
Ellie watches quietly then says "I'll listen and not judge, Imogen. Think of this as a very small discussion group. What is really troubling you?"
"Your father." says Imogen softly. "And what I feel for him. Or ... what I could feel for him. It terrifies me, Ellie."
Ellie says softly "Talk, Imogen. You've listened to me. I'll listen to you. Why are you so afraid of what you feel?"
Imogen smiles, a twisted, sad little smile.
"Oh Ellie, any woman not afraid of feeling deeply for your father would be a bubble headed fool."
The smiles deepens. "Perhaps that's what he's been lacking alone these years. A sweet little simpleton to hang on his arm and tell him he's utterly wonderful. Rather than screwing himself up with Dara and your mother and my ... my word, who knows how many others?"
Ellie smiles a little "Imogen, I've heard a lot of rumours about my father. I don't think a simpleton is the answer either. Love is terrifying, but it can be worth it too. Quick question. Can you see yourself without him?"
"Without him?" she replies. "I ... "
There is a sharp knock at the door. When she calls out for them to enter, a small sharp-faced man appears.
"Your gown, modom, is ready for your fitting."
"Of course," says Imogen, almost, but not quite, hiding her relief. "Ellie ... if you would excuse me. This is my gown for the ball."
She smiles at her cousin. "Think over what I said about sharing this suite. And find out from Jurt how far matters have progress. I'll give you all the help I can."
Ellie nods "Alright, I'll see you later." and slips out of Imogen's quarters.