The fitting is exhaustive ... and the final dress still hard to visualise as Imogen stands quite still while swathes of material are carefully positioned and pinned against her. At last the tailors are done and, with bows and profuse promises, they leave her.
Imogen watches them leave ... and then she is quite alone in her mother's rooms.
But she is also tired. She makes her way into the inner room where a great bed stands, tugs back the heavy red silk coverlet and crawls in between the stiff linen sheets. Drowsily she wonders who has been ensuring that this bed belonging to a dead woman should have fresh sheets ...
And then she sleeps ...
The dreams are flitting, brief things... Images of her father, her mother... Blood on her hands and on her party dress... Flora with that damn book of hers... And Corwin...
Even in dreams, that isn't clear...
The darkness parts, and she sees him, a storm raging in the window behind him, blood on his hands... A small form in front of him, and somewhere, someone screams...
She wakes up, clutching at the sheets, wet with sweat.
She gets up slowly, stiffly, as though her body was sore and aching. But it isn't ... it isn't.
She walks slowly into the bathroom, and splashes water from the washstand there over her face. Then she looks up and sees her reflection in the burnished silver mirror. Imogen. Not Deirdre.
And yet ...
She speaks ... not to herself ... but to someone beyond the mirror. Behind the mirror.
"Why are you doing this?" she asks softly. "You ... You made me take Pattern. You've brought me here. You made Corwin ... "
She shakes her head, and turns away from the mirror.
Her sense of centre returns, and when she goes back to the main sitting room, her dress is off in a corner, a soft blue with trimmings in mauve... The sun shines in brightly, and she guesses it's about noon.
For a long moment she stands, looking at the dress.
Then she sighs, as though accepting a task.
And indeed she is.
For somewhere in Amber - there must be someone who knows about Donavon Tesler.
She can only hope it's not Corwin ... or Brand ... who have all the answers.
Quietly, she leaves the room, latching the door behind her, and hesitates ... wondering where to start her search.
She thinks. Bill had denied any knowledge about her father. She didn't even know where to find Brand. Flora... Flora might know something...
She wonders how many people actually knew about her mother's life away from here...?
She raises a hand and presses the fingers against her temple. Think ... think ...
Memories of the time when she was small. Memories of the little whitewashed house on the hill ... running through the stiff cornfield, flecked with poppies.
Memories of a sky as bright and clear as Amber's. But not Amber. No ... far away. Secret. Hidden.
Or was it?
Was there a visitor on the yacht? Someone ... unexpected. Unlooked for. Not entirely welcome. And yet treated with politeness. Kindness even.
Because of ... family ties?
Think ... think ...
She needs a face. A name.
A shadow from the past.
Nothing comes, but a hand falls on her shoulder, stirring her from her past.
She wheels to see the man in the glass window... The man on Flora's trumps. Dark haired. Swarthy skin. He eyes her.
She draws a swift, involuntary breath and takes a step away. Her hands are shaking a little and she pushes them together.
"Uncle," she says, striving to be calm. "How ... unexpected."
"As your arrival was." He bows slightly, with a click of his heels.
"I knew not that Deirdre had a daughter."
"Then we are both experiencing surprises. I knew not that she was dead. Still less the manner of her death," she responds, lifting her head with a touch of hauteur.
"She died a hero. Better than she was in life." He bows shortly, then turns, heading away from the main hall.
Imogen flushes and now steps towards him.
"How can you say that? Didn't she fight bravely in the battle? How dare you accuse her of cowardice!"
He turns. "Did I say that? She did fight bravely. But most of the time, we were not at war."
"I see," she says. She remembers the dance that Bill had described ... the three siblings, locked in a macabre dance of love and hate. Flora had spoken of her mother's relationship with Corwin with distaste. What, she wondered, of this one?
"And is there no heroism except in war?" she asked.
"There is. But your mother rarely made claim to it.
"You are much like her."
"Thank you," she replies, with an inclination of her head. "You could, in my eyes, pay me no higher compliment - regardless of your own sentiments."
She regards him ironically.
"Then I hope you knew your mother better than I."
"But somehow, I think not."
"I think not too," agrees Imogen. "Given that she was killed when I was a mere child. Who knows how I might have felt about her, had she lived?"
"And who knows what you might have been?" He pushes his cloak aside slightly. "Or what you were supposed to be? I'm certain you were not being primed to take her place, however."
She looks at him warily.
"Indeed? My mother, people suggest, occupied so many places ... so many roles. It seems a shame ... to let all that die with her."
"She took places that were barred from her in no uncertain terms. Barred, in fact, because of her.
"Do you like your games? A king is a dangerous pawn."
Imogen's hands clenches at her sides.
"I may be a tyro ... but I do not mistake the King for a pawn ... no matter how circumscribed his movements might be by other, lesser pieces."
He bows shortly. "Then perhaps the lesser pieces will allow you to breathe another day." A flash of silver catches her eye, and she sees a dagger in his high boot.
She sweeps a curtsey, one of those low, formal curtsies that she never knew she had it in her to make.
"The novice will be grateful, and will watch the game with all the more fascination," she says. "For ... do you not find ... that it is in the movements of some of those lesser pieces that the true fascination of the game lies?"
"Make sure you know who is a lesser player, and who is a named piece. They can be confusing." With that, he turns and heads down the hallway to a back stair.
Imogen watches him go. Only when she is sure he has truly left her does she release the breath she has been holding. She feels as though she has just run a marathon ... and her brow feels cool with perspiration.
A named piece? Yes. Named ... and numbered.
He doesn't return, and she takes a moment to compose herself, trying her brow and brushing almost imperceptible wrinkles out of her skirt.
The bustle of the servants drifts up to her, involved in the simple dance of putting a ball together.
Flora ... she thinks. I should go and see if she needs some help.
But even as she moves down the stairs, she is aware that this is an avoidance tactic ... because there is someone she is increasingly unwilling to meet.
His room-- She realizes he must be in his room. Everywhere else seems to have been taken over by Flora.
The rose on her chest warms.
"No," she says softly. "No."
But she finds she has half-turned in that direction.
The rose flares the more she thinks of him... Of what she's discovered this day... Her hand floats up to the burning pendant, and she gasps as it grows cold at her touch, and Corwin appears in front of her, a hazy image. Behind him she sees his rooms.
"Imogen? Where did you get a Trump of me?"
"I ... didn't," she falters. And then she realises.
Well, if it wants to decide such things ... let it. She will have to talk to Corwin at some point. Better now than later.
She draws a deep breath.
"Bring me through," she says.
He takes her hand and pulls her to him. He's still in his chambers, and on the breakfast table lies his Trump deck, scattered.
He looks her over. "Where's the card?"
She shakes her head.
"I don't have a card," she admits. "I was ... thinking of you. And then my pendant grew warm. I touched it - and it went cold, and I could see you ... and this room. It was the same as when I looked at the card that brought me here."
She looks at him, puzzled.
"Is it unusual, then, for things that aren't cards to work as trumps?"
But even as she is speaking, she is aware of different feelings tugging at her. The attraction is still there, still as strong as ever. And yet - she remembers Bill's words - all the things she has learned since coming to Amber.
Her eyes are troubled - but not just because of the pendant.
He takes up the pendant. "Odd -- I guess it could be possible... Do you know where you got this?"
His eyes meet hers, and he looks concerned as he reads the worry present in hers.
She shakes her head ... aware of his hands ... so close to the soft skin of her throat ... and her breasts ... a pulse throbs in her neck and she finds it difficult to speak suddenly.
"Fiona," she says hoarsely. "Fiona read my ...my mind this morning. And ... she couldn't ... couldn't find any memory of how I came to be wearing it."
Another moment and she feels she must either pull it from his hands ... or ...
He lifts a hand to tousle her hair. "We'll find out. Most likely whoever got you here in the first place. Someone's playing you as a pawn, and I don't like it.
"Though, why they would throw in a trump of me, I can't imagine."
The echo of Caine's words is almost too much. She draws back, out of reach of his hands.
"People ... people have been telling me things," she says breathlessly. "About ... about my mother. About ... you."
Corwin purses his lips, then sighs, and sits at his breakfast table.
"I knew this would come out eventually... I just didn't think it would be now..."
He looks out the window at the bright day outside, and seems to be looking off into the past. "Not many people understood what went on those years.
"Before I tell you anything, I want you to know that you are not a replacement for her. You are not her."
"Very well," she manages to force between lips that suddenly seem numb. "I know ... that. Or rather ... I want it to be true."
And she suddenly realises it herself - more than anything, she wants passionately to be herself for Corwin - not just someone taking her mother's place in the dance. But however much she can be herself - she needs to see that individuality confirmed in his eyes.
She moves a step forward into the room ... then another.
"I want to know," she says painfully. "To understand - if I can."
Corwin sighs. "Dee. Dee was something amazing. I never understood her, not fully. But there was a bond there, one I felt dwarfed by sometimes. I never knew if she returned it.
"Your mother could be a good woman. A warm, wonderful woman. And she could be dangerous. Manipulative. Jealous.
"The relationship was intricate, involved, sometimes loving, sometimes hatful, but always powerful. It was a storm I found myself caught up in."
"And drowned in?" she asks quietly.
"Bill ... told me you had been lovers ... "
He looks down. "I won't deny it."
"This was a long time ago. Not long before I lost my memories and was sent to the shadow Earth to die."
She stands, half-frozen.
"Was that ... " she whispers, "was that because of what had happened? Did ... did Mother send you away to die?"
Her face is ashen, her eyes intense.
He shakes his head vigorously. "No. I was sent away by Eric. We duelled, and I lost. He placed me on Earth during a plague, and it wiped my memories.
"I don't believe she had anything to do with it. I don't want to think that."
She moves forward and kneels beside, taking his hands in hers and looking up at him earnestly.
"Bill ... Bill said ... and you did too ... it was as though you were rivals for her.
"Corwin ... do you think he did that ... so he could have her for himself?"
He meets her gaze again, though it takes him a second, and touches her cheek. "Maybe. But by then-- a few hundred years of the games. It transcended her. It was just hate, and rivalry. The worst of all things hung between Eric and I.
"We were rivals in everything. Her included."
She shivers a little at his touch, but keeps her eyes steadily on him.
"And Donavon Tesler? What part did he play in the game?"
Corwin shakes his head. "I'm sorry. I don't know who that is." He sighs. "But I'm beginning to get an idea."
She looks down at the ground, feeling so very cold. This is the moment when she could learn to truth, she realises, but what price will she have to pay for learning it?
Slowly she looks up ... and she shakes a little, scared of what she might see in his eyes.
"I ... I have his colouring," she says slowly. "Although I have Mother's features."
"Your father?" Corwin studies her, then shakes his head. "I thought you might know who your father is after all. I can understand you hiding it.
"We kept lovers. It wasn't unusual. And I wondered from time to time if she had a child off somewhere in shadow. But I always assumed not. I wanted to believe she would tell me."
She looks up at him.
"So ... you never saw him?" she says slowly. "You never met a man with my colouring and a small, fair beard ... " She gestures with her hand.
"He had a finger missing on his left hand," she recalls. "His fourth finger ... above the first joint. He'd trapped it in the boom when sailing as a boy, he told me once ... he wanted me to be careful on the boat."
"A finger..." He looks at her, then wave of shock hits his face. "No... No. It can't be..."
She grabs his hands tight, staring up at him, sick with misery inside.
He puts his head in his hands. "It's-- a long story. Please. Do not tell Ellie this. It should-- it should come from me...
"In between the time I got my memory back, and the battle at the rim, Deirdre caught up with me in shadow. We-- we set up a sort of household. She was everything I had ever wanted from her. No more thoughts of Eric. No more scheming. No hurting-- But then I noticed little things. Something was off about her.
"I had to leave-- I can't remember why, now. But then I saw Dee again, and she acted like she hadn't seen me since we parted in Rebma, when I first returned to Amber..."
Imogen frowns. "Go on," she says softly.
He shakes slightly. "The woman-- the woman I had been with for months had not been Dee. She was a copy. A fake. I ran back, and found she was gone.
"I hellrode after her. She must have known I would find out. I finally tracked her down, almost at the edge of Chaos, in a rundown farmhouse.
"We fought... I won.
"And then I heard Ellie cry from the next room."
Imogen raises her hands to her mouth, pressing them against her lips so hard that her lips bruise against her teeth. When she tastes the salt of blood in her mouth, she lowers them.
"Ellie's ... Ellie's mother?" she breathes. "She disguised herself as ... as Deirdre? And ... you killed her?"
Corwin looks away. "I was furious. All the years-- hoping. Dreaming. To be manipulated like that. Some things she did suddenly made sense. She had seduced me just so-- just so she could have Ellie. She wanted an Amberite child.
"Had she just wanted me-- hell, I'm not that hard to distract. A fair face in a crowd. It's not hard to do. But she didn't want to fail...
"And you could say she didn't."
She nods, slowly ... and then is overtaken by a violent fit of shivering. So bad is it that she can feel her teeth vibrating. She fights to calm herself, but the face she lifts to him is pathetically pale - almost scared.
He holds her shoulders, but looks unsure of himself, whether he should try to soothe her, or if that was his place.
"I'm sorry... Please, let's stop now. This is hurting you...
"The last thing I want is to hurt you."
She shakes her head.
"No. No. I ... have to know. If I don't ... I might go on ... imagining ... imagining more terrible things.
"Once I know ... then I can ... decide."
He takes a deep breath, then kisses her forehead lightly. "Okay.
"I went to confront Dee. I was tired of the games. I wanted -- I wanted her to choose. But I never made it.
"I found the right house, in the dark before dawn. A man came out, and I thought-- they way he carried himself, the glimpses... I thought it was Eric. I yelled at him, and we drew blades and I started to fight. I was angry, so goddamn angry...
"I threw a shot at him, and if it had been Eric, he would have parried it... But he didn't. I hit my mark. That's when I realized...
"I saw Dee in the house, unaware... just making coffee... And then I understood. She had set up house with a shadow lover. And this was him..."
"Father?" she whispers.
It isn't really a question.
"Maybe," he whispers back. "It was dark... I didn't stop to search him. I just... left. He was gone. I couldn't do anything. I was sick with myself.
"I had wanted to tell Dee what happened, but then things heated up, and the next time I saw her was at the battle."
She stays on her knees ... her head bowed. Slowly, her shoulders start to shake.
"I found him!" she gasps. "You ... left him lying out in the woods ... like ... like an animal. And I went running out to play ... and I found him!"
She huddles her arms around herself, as though to draw comfort from the self-embrace. But she stays crouched on the floor at his feet.
He sinks to the floor next to her, tentatively touching her shoulders, her hair...
"I -- I didn't know she had a child. If I had known, I would never have left him. I wouldn't have even approached. I thought it was just another--
"I never hurt any of her other lovers. It was an accident. I cannot ask you to forgive. My crime-- is too --
"I can ask nothing. I wish I knew what to do, Imogen..."
She shivers away from his touch.
"Your ... game. You and Mother ... and Eric."
She raises her face, stained with tears. "And Ellie too ... she's another one who's been caught in the game. Like me. Like my father. Like ... how many others?
"How could I ever know, Corwin, that it was me ... me ... and not just you scooping up whatever chips were left on the table when the other two players were gone?"
She laughs bitterly. "That would be a glorious final revenge on her, wouldn't it? To make her daughter your whore? To make me love you as much as you claim to have loved her so that you can have sweet, sweet vengeance in making me suffer as badly as she made you suffer?"
He shudders and looks away from her. "You're not -- a piece. I'm fighting you becoming a piece in the game.
"The game is over. It was no longer victimless-- And now Eric and Dee are gone.
"You think I'd be so cruel... so cruel to take out revenge on someone's orphan? I-- I've hurt you too much, just by not telling you about your mother and I...
"You are not my whore. You are so much more to me. I can't explain it..."
She looks at him, her eyes wide and wild.
"Tell me then ... Tell me who I am and what I am ...
"Because you have destroyed everything I thought I knew about my family ... and my life."
He shakes his head. "I can't. You know I can't... I wish I could change the past. But I cannot change what Dee was to me, or what I've done. If I could, I wouldn't even be in this castle.
"All I can say is that you brought me hope, and love, and now I see all I can seem to do is bring you pain. All I can do is offer you a new life, the life here, or one out in shadow. I cannot bring back the one you've lost."
She looks at him, her eyes still wide, with the same lost look.
"If I went into Shadow ... would you never see me again? Would you leave me alone ... to find my own destiny?"
He looks pained, but nods. "If that is what you wished. I would stay here, and never bother you.
"But you know if you were ever in need... in danger..."
She reaches out and touches her hand against his cheek.
"And if you were in need? Would you never need me?"
He puts his hand over hers. "I do need you, Imogen. But I would not destroy you, not knowingly.
"Do what you think you must."
She looks at him searchingly ... that weary, pained face. She remembers the shock of pleasure it gave her when he smiled ... the delight she felt when he laughed.
And now ... the look of infinite pain. She wants to kiss it away, to see the sadness in his eyes melt into relief ... melt into love.
But two other faces are watching ...
Three. A third is in the shadow of the room, sallow and watchful.
"Corwin," she says quietly. "There is something that you should know."
His voice lowers to a bare whisper. "And that is?"
"You know that I was brought here? That I was brought by a card? I think I know how was behind it. And, if I'm right, he must also be the person who placed this pendant around my neck.
"Corwin ... show me a picture ... of Brand."
He doesn't move for a moment, but then rises from the floor and goes over to a small writing desk in the corner. After a moment of searching, he pulls out a card and hands it to her.
It's not a trump, but rather an actual photograph. The man leans on a red car and is dressed in a green shirt and black slacks. His arms are crossed, and he smiles.
The man in the stained glass room. Younger. Fuzzy. But undeniable.
She looks at it for a long moment, and then sighs.
"That's the one.
"Corwin - I think he sent me here to destroy you."
He sits beside her again. "Then it's beginning to make sense. You were -- a distraction. Something to keep my attention divided. Divided from whatever he wants..." He sinks into thought, a hand over his mouth.
She watches him for a moment.
~I am a pawn,~ she thinks. ~What matters here is not me ... or my Mother ... but Amber. And in comparison with that - my feelings don't matter a damn to him ... or to anyone here.~
There's a part of her that appreciates the logic of that. As a long-serving administrator herself, she has been used to placing the political above the personal, the needs of the many above the needs of the individual.
Her head tells her that this is what must be - for the good of the kingdom.
But her heart .... ah, her heart ...
He looks over to her. "This puts you in danger, Imogen. He's put his sights on you, and if you cease to be of use..." He shudders. "He's been known to kill those that have become expendable."
Tentatively, he touches her shoulder. "Please, let me protect you. It's all I can do."
She turns and looks at him ... and mutely she nods.
Inside her head, she is screaming ... All?
Has he been able so easily to obliterate all those emotions that had seemed to bring them so close?
Yet her voice, when she speaks, is surprisingly calm ... if somewhat heavy with the pain she is trying to push down. "What should I do?"
"You should go on as normal. If he senses that you know... that your job for him is done...
"I can't lose you. Even if, after this, you leave to find yourself in shadow, I can't lose you to death."
She looks at him searchingly. Is this just words to make sure she does exactly what he wants, what he needs to defeat Brand? Or is he speaking from a deeper level, perhaps a deeper need?
He stands and pulls her to her feet, then gently holds her. "You should rest, Imogen. You've been through too much for one day, and you're going to need strength at the ball.
"Is there anything you need?"
The word is so soft she cannot be sure he hears it ... torn from a deep place inside herself.
She takes a deep breath and shakes her head, speaking aloud now.
"No. No, thank you. Some time alone would ... would be beneficial."
She is proud of that whole long word. Cool, calm. That is what she must strive for. That is what she needs.
He strokes her back. "You can stay here, if you want. The wards are strongest here. I will be leaving to talk to some of my siblings." Lightly, he kisses her forehead and whispers,
"Now I'm your Pandora. I could only hope to be your angel, too, one day."
Slowly she nods. She is afraid that if she speaks she will break down and cry openly ... but at last she manages to gulp, "Stay here."
She knows she cannot yet face that other room, with the warrior's armour in the little side room.
He nods. "Then I'll be back later. Please rest." He kisses her cheek lightly and releases her, then leaves. Taking a moment to concentrate on something -- the air, then closes the door behind him.
A few moments later, a servant comes and inquires about lunch for the lady.
Imogen shakes her head. She did eat a good breakfast with Corwin, laughing and teasing together. How long ago that seems now!
Now ... she feels like she will never eat again ....
Once the servant leaves her, she pours herself a glass of wine with shaking hands, spilling some on the sideboard where the decanter stands. She mops at it with a handkerchief ... and for one moment sees the red stains on it as blood. Then she recovers her equanimity a little and goes to sit in a large and comfortable armchair, sipping her wine.
The wine is soothing, helping her grow calm. But being alone in the room ... is unnerving. She misses Corwin's presence, his solidity.
On Gallbraith, she thinks, this wouldn't happen. She would be able to sit down with a peer or a mentor and talk the whole thing through. And the conversation would be treated as confidential ... She needs this ... support.
Restlessly, she rises. Who can she consult here? Who can she tell for the calm, soothing discussion she desperately needs?
Ellie? Hardly. How could she tell Ellie the terrible truths that Corwin has shared with her?
Flora? With a ball to prepare for, there is no way that Flora will sit down and discuss Imogen's problems with Corwin.
And Fiona is just plain frightening.
But who ...
And then she realises.
Bill, who knows much of Corwin's weaknesses and errors - and loves him despite them. Bill, who was so kind, so soothing. Yes. She can talk to Bill.
Her mind made up, she goes over to the door and opens it.
She is eternally grateful to the palace staff, who always seem to be able to track down even the most minor of nobles. She finds Bill in the library, reading a thick leather covered book, bifocals on the tip of his nose. He smiles at her entrance, but it fades as he sees her somewhat tense expression.
"I guess all isn't well in the world of Imogen, is it?"
She tries to answer him, but her voice fails. She shakes her head with a tight little smile and stretches out her hand to him.
A deep breath ... and she manages, "Can we go ... somewhere private?"
"Of course." He rises and takes her arm.
He leads her back to his set of rooms again. "This is as private as we can get here. All the servants are busy with the ball.
"Now, what's wrong? Was there a fight?"
"Not ... a fight.," she says slowly. "I think you could say we were honest with each other. Painfully."
The memory of that conversation takes her and she shudders again.
"I don't know how much I can tell you," she says slowly, "or how much you already know.
"Ellie ... for example. What do you know about her mother?"
Bill shrugs. "Nothing. I always assumed she was some shadow girl that Corwin liked.
"If there's one thing I've learned here, it's that you don't ask if they don't say. Why? What's wrong?"
She stares down at her folded hands, trying to decide how much she can safely tell him.
"Bill ... it was Brand who brought me here to Amber. And when he did ... she told me that Caine had murdered my mother. And that either Eric or Corwin had murdered my father."
She looks up at him.
"And then he set me loose."
Bill says nothing, but eventually he puts an arm around Imogen and pulls her against him. "It looks like we're living in interesting times."
"I'm sorry, my dear."
Imogen relaxes against him. The comfort of another body is an intense relief at the moment. Corwin, she recalls, hadn't really held her ... hadn't dared to hold her. And she wanted .... needed him so badly.
"Bill," she said, "Bill, what am I going to do?"
"Have you talked to him at all? Maybe you should ask-- Just get it over with. I'll go with you, if you want. It's an awful thing to have to ask about alone."
"I asked him," she says softly. "And he told me. It was .... him. He killed my father."
She turns her head, burying it in his shoulder like a little girl.
He holds her tightly, murmuring softly into her hair muffled words of comfort. Finally, he raises his head again. "What... what happened? I've never seen Corwin as the type-- You poor thing..."
"He says it was an accident," she says slowly. "He ... he never meant to ... but he thought it was Eric ... with my Mother. He didn't realise ... that I was there. That I existed. If he had ... "
"I'm sure he wouldn't have. Corwin does not see life as cheap, even shadow life. Especially shadow life. Look at me. And the only thing I can say in his defence is that he told you, when the alternative would have been easier."
He sighs. "Does this mean you're leaving?"
She shakes her head slightly.
"How can I?" she says. Corwin ... thinks I'm in danger. He thinks Brand .... could see me as expendable."
"I think ... I think he may try to use me again."
She shivers, despite the warmth of his arms.
He rubs her arms and shoulders. "I'm sure he'll keep you safe. And with all of them coming home --
"One thing I do know about them: they fight, they scheme, they backstab, but when there's a crisis, they do seem to band together. I don't think they'd dangle you out in harm's way..."
"How could he use you again? You know what he's doing, who he is -- he won't be able to set foot on castle grounds without all sorts of alarums going up."
"That's not what really worries me," she confesses. "You see ... I need to see him again. Bill ... if he survived ... then ... what about my Mother? He's the only person who can tell me."
She rests her head on his shoulder. "Besides, I know he can ... accomplish things others can't. I know that some years ago he got into the Pattern Chamber, and brought someone else there .... and stayed undisturbed for perhaps an hour.
"How do you know he did that?" He strokes her hair. "I know he did odd things. Corwin's told me about a few, but what is known... Well, not too many people knew him well towards the end, and that's really when he gained a lot of his power.
"I can't tell you not to go looking for him. But I know he's dangerous. And he might not want to give up how he got out of the abyss. If he still treasures secrets, I'm willing to bet he's not going to share."
She looks down at the floor.
"It occurs to me," she says quietly, "that if he believes Corwin and I are perfectly, radiantly happier ... it might lure him out of his hiding place. Because it isn't what he expects."
"So you're going to fake being... enamoured with him?" He clears his throat. "As his friend, I have to ask-- how thorough are you planning on being with fooling everyone? Are you going to at least tell him the truth? How you feel? Whatever that is..."
She lifts her head and looks at him. "Oh Bill ... are you truly his friend?
"You see ... I don't know if I dare to tell him what I truly feel. I ... I don't even know if I am right to let myself feel it."
She moves away from him a little, pushing the heavy golden hair back from her face.
"At first I just wanted to know the truth ... and I thought I would do anything to find out. And now I know the truth ... and I would give anything ... to be able to give him my simple, whole heart love without feeling I am betraying my mother ... and my father."
Bill sighs. "Why can't you Amberites have easy problems?" He smiles ruefully at her. "If I could tell you what to do, I'd shame the best advice columnist. But I can't...
"I'm sorry that, out of all the men you could have loved, he was the one who was lucky. Yes, Corwin is someone I truly count as a friend. And as a friend, I think you'd be best to be honest with him about this. Maybe he can help you. I don't know. But if you're not going to leave, I think avoiding him would be hard, this being his castle."
Imogen nods, and even manages a rueful little smile. "That did occur to me too," she acknowledges. "But while Brand is still free ... " She shrugs. "Afterward will be the time to decide whether to leave."
She doesn't sound entirely unhappy to have the decision delayed.
"And now? Are you planning on hiding from him? Pretending to be deliriously happy on his arm?" He sighs. "I'm sorry. This isn't any of my business. But I don't want to see him kicked again. Maybe he deserves it, but I'm still his friend."
"We're agreed that I can't hide," she responds, "and ... I don't want to hurt him. So ...
"To pretend to be deliriously happy would be a lie," she says slowly.
"But I will be there on his arm for as long as he wants ... or needs me. And not reluctantly either ... for if I did, it could weaken him. And it could bring out things that could hurt other people, like Ellie. So, to all the world, I shall not just be there with him, but appear quietly content.
"Only two people will know that however much I love him, at the moment there's so much pain inside me. And one is Corwin himself ... because he knows the truth. And Bill ... I need you. I need to be able to talk frankly with you. I need someone I can be honest with through this horror - or I think I shall go mad."
Bill nods, his face serious. "Of course. I wouldn't let you weather this alone." He smiles, perhaps a bit sadly. "As I said, I wish this were an uncomplicated thing. Amberite or no, you still strike me as young.
"I am," she agrees, "even on Gallbraith. In fact, under normal circumstances, I would be very worried at having such a huge age disparity with my chosen ... but, well, that rather pales into insignificance here."
"I'll help you keep your distance at the ball. There will be a score of people for you to meet, and I can play the good host. Corwin will be busy, I'm sure."
"Thank you," she says gratefully - but there is a wistful look in her blue eyes.
"And if you need somewhere to run, I'm sure we can work something out. Not that I can do the shadow thing, but I do have a set of trumps to where I used to live. You can stay with Bill Jr. You'd like him.
"Don't burn yourself now. You're too young."
"Thank you," she says again, and plants a kiss on his cheek before rising to her feet.
"I'll see you at the ball then."
With a last smile she leaves the library and begins to make her way back to Corwin's room.
Back at Corwin's suites, she sees he hasn't returned, but does see one of the doors ajar, and gets a brief glimpse of Eleanor, with a book on her lap, looking distant.
She walks over and raps on the door gently with her knuckles to try and attract Ellie's attention.
At the gentle tap on the door, she looks up and sees Imogen. She smiles "Hello, Imogen. Please, come in."
Imogen advances into the room ... and sees Ellie's possessions laid around. She hopes the talk with Bill has left her looking calmer and less distraught than when Corwin left her.
But she is smiling as she says to Ellie, "So you decided to move in with your father after all. I am glad."
Ellie smiles "Yes, we had a long talk, He's promised not to interfere with Jurt and I, so that's sorted too." Her look is kind as she looks at Imogen "I do appreciate the offer of help though. How are you?"
"A little sad," says Imogen. "Your father and I had a talk about my mother. They were very close and ... "
She breaks off with a shrug, suggesting this is a painful topic.
Ellie bites her lip "I had heard rumours." Ellie rises and gives the taller woman a hug, offering comfort "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Rumours?" echoes Imogen. "I thought ... everyone knew ... how distraught he was when she was killed. How he tried to die too ... "
She breaks off.
"I'm sorry," she says slowly. "I can't get the image of it out of my mind since Flora told me ... "
Ellie leads Imogen to a chair then sits before her "Imogen, my father loved Deirdre in the past. Of that I'm sure. However, this is the present. Dad loves you, Imogen. I see it in his eyes. And he loves you for who you are, nobody else. You have a chance at happiness. Take it. It's a rare gift here in Amber."
Imogen manages a smile at Ellie. "I know. At least ... I hope I know. These are still very early days for us though. And ... as well as feeling upset about Mother's death - I'm also feeling a little insecure about the future. Especially with Brand about."
Ellie nods "Brand being back has us all on edge, Imogen." She is quiet for a moment, then says "We each just have to do what we can to protect those we love." She smiles "Come, we need a breather. Let's cheer each other up a bit. What colours did you decide on for the ball?"
Imogen's smile deepens, as she appreciates the change of topic.
"Blue ... a pale blue. And the trimmings are in mauve. They're colours I've always loved ...
"What will you be wearing? And do you have any thoughts on how I should wear my hair?" She gestured to the coil of golden hair, neatly pinned in her neck. "I often wear it so for work ... "
Ellie shows her the cream ball gown, simple and elegant. " What do you think, Imogen? And blue and mauve sound lovely." She turns and adds "How about wearing your hair up with some loose curls to soften it? That may be nice. How do you think I should wear my hair? I normally just plait it." indicating the heavy black waist length plait.
"Why don’t we experiment?" suggests Imogen. "There's a full-length looking glass in Corwin's bedroom; if you sit on a chair in front of it, I could experiment - there's a brush and some extra pins that the servants brought for me this morning."
It seems to Imogen that it might give her a chance to talk to Ellie about something that had been troubling her since she learned about Ellie's mother.
Ellie nods and smiles back "That would be nice. Let's." and opens the door for Imogen to precede her.
Imogen indicates the long mirror.
"There. There's a looking glass over this chest of drawers too, that I used to pin my hair up this morning. But we really want to get the full effect."
She retrieves the stool and brings it over to in front of the long mirror.
"Take a seat and I'll get the pins."
She gave a rueful smile. "You know ... I suspect I'm by no means the first woman to have spent the night in this room!"
As Ellie sits on the stool, she shrugs "I'd tend to agree, Imogen. Oberon had a lot of wives apparently."
Imogen laughs. "Did he? I meant Corwin actually, but nothing about the Amberites would surprise me much ... "
She is silent for a moment, unplaiting the beautiful dark hair.
"You know ... the women in Corwin's past don't trouble me unduly," she says at last. "I mean ... it would be far more worrying if he had reached the age he has with no women in his life.
"I don't mean the ones who plotted his downfall," she adds. "I mean ... sweet moments of careless rapture - as we say on Gallbraith. I hope he had lots of those. And I really wouldn't care if I found an ear-ring or a stick of perfume or some other token of their presence here. I know they're the past and I am the future ... if all works out well."
She takes up a brush and begins to brush Ellie's hair rhythmically.
"It's the others that concern me," she says. "Dara ... my mother ... yours."
Ellie is quiet for a moment then asks "Imogen, what did Dad tell you about my mother?"
"Very little," she says. "Bill talked about her some ... that she was from Chaos, and she died. I gather ... but I may be wrong ... that it might have been another attempt on Chaos's part to create the perfect tool to rule Amber - like they did with Dara and Merlin."
Her eyes meet Ellie's in the mirror, and she lays a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
"Look ... even if she was used to trap Corwin, that doesn't mean she was a ... a bad person. She could have loved him very much - and hated what she was being forced to do.
She sighs. "Whatever was between them was probably much kinder and gentler than lay between my mother and Corwin. You spoke of rumours ... I think they hurt each other terribly, over and over again. And Eric too ... "
She shook her head, then spoke resolutely. "You do have lovely hair. Like my mother's actually - I remember it used to be a huge treat to me to be allowed to brush it. Sometimes in an evening I would do that ... and then she would brush mine before I went to bed ...
"Now ... how about we gather it up like this, in soft folds, with some still cascading down? Like a soft waterfall, d'you see?"
Ellie smiles "That is nice, thank you, Imogen." She hesitates then says "I know my mother was from Chaos and that she deceived my father." She says almost in a whisper "That point was made abundantly clear."
She bites her lip then continues "I think the form she took was that of your mother. As to what she really looked like, I don't know though I get the impression I resemble her." She takes a deep breath "I don't think she was that bad a person, but under a lot of pressure. I'll never know for sure though. Dad doesn't want me to have anything to do with Chaos either, but it's half of me that I need to learn about, half of my blood. Yet if I do, I hurt Dad."
Ellie stares straight ahead, not really seeing "Whatever I do, I'll hurt someone."
"Let me try a coronet too, before we makes up our minds," suggests Imogen, brushing Ellie's hair down again and beginning to twist it in an intricate woven pattern.
She is silent for a long moment, then says carefully, "Ellie - have you thought that Chaos might be trying to use you?"
Ellie nods "Of course they are. I'd be surprised if they aren't. I was born as part of a plot. As long as I live, that plot has life. Jurt and I just gives them a new facet to play with. Everyone here or in the Courts plots and schemes." She shrugs "Apparently, it's something to do."
"Yes," says Imogen slowly. "But have you thought about what that plot might be? It wouldn't be anything to help Corwin ... or Amber. They want to destroy both of them."
Ellie answers carefully "As far as I can guess, the plot would be the same as with Merlin. To have someone on the throne of their choosing. May I ask why you're so sure Chaos actually wants to destroy both my father and Amber? Especially now that my brother rules."
Imogen carefully adds a pin to the gleaming black crown of hair Ellie now wears.
"We'd decorate this with flowers," she says, touching it with her hand. "Cream flowers. And a long curl tumbling on your shoulder ... "
Once more her troubled eyes meet Ellie's in the mirror.
"Back on Gallbraith," she says quietly, "I was an administrator. A politician. And when you are defeated ... do you know the best way to regain power?
"You don't attack your triumphant opponent. No ... you attack one who is seen as a common enemy. And you win. You make your triumphant opponent seem weak ... because they couldn't deal with the enemy as well as you can.
"So ... it wouldn't be your brother who'd be looking to defeat Amber. It would be people he'd stepped on in his bid to get to the top."
"Tell me I'm wrong, Ellie. Tell me that Merlin was the people's choice, loved and revered by all. Tell me he didn't put anyone's noses out of joint in his bid for power.
"Because if he did ... Those people are the dangerous ones. Not necessarily to Merlin. But to your father. To Amber. To you, Ellie."
Ellie is quiet then says "Your points are all good ones, Imogen." Her face neutral, she asks "What would you do in my place?"
Imogen thinks before saying carefully, "How close are Jurt and Merlin?"
Ellie smiles a little "It's true to say they have fought, but that was in the past and they get on well enough now. Why do you ask?"
"Then do you think Jurt would tell you honestly who Merlin's enemies or rivals were? People who might want to depose him ... or at the very least get some sort of control over him?"
Ellie considers the question then answers "I don't know, Imogen. I'm not a member of his House and we've only known each other barely three days. I can see where you're going with this, but I don't have the information to give you as much as I wish to help."
Imogen shakes her head.
"It's not me who needs the help, Ellie," she says quietly. "In this, at least.
"Listen Ellie, will you promise me something? If anyone from Chaos asks you to do something that could hurt Corwin ...could damage his position ... please, please will you talk it over with someone before making a decision? If you feel you can't talk to me, or Corwin ... or any of your aunts ... will you talk to Bill Roth? He comes from Shadow Earth ... have you met him?"
Ellie shakes her head "No, I haven't met him. Being blunt, I don't always do what my father wishes me to, but the things that I do are done for good reasons and never to hurt my father or his position. My father told me not to trust any of my aunts or uncles, so how can I talk to them?" Ellie is quiet for a long moment then says softly "What if I just vanished into Shadow? That way I wouldn't be around to be used against my father."
Imogen draws a sharp intake of breath.
"Go into Shadow?" she says appalled. "Ellie .. you couldn't. Not with Brand about. Corwin would go white with worry overnight."
Ellie shrugs "And is Amber any safer? Brand was right out there with Ryoden and I out in the orchard. Nobody stopped him. He could have killed both of us and nobody would have been any the wiser until our bodies were found."
"But Ellie," protests Imogen, "everyone thought he was dead then!"
~Except me~ she silently adds. But that is not significant here.
"Now that we all know, Amber will be defended against him. Shadow ... you'd be all on your own - with Jurt. And that poor little girl perhaps. Oh Ellie, the risk would be appalling!"
Ellie shakes her head "Imogen, I'm young, but I'm not stupid. I'd only move if I thought where I would be going would be safer. And Amber has more than one risk for me. Do you think you're the only one who sees Chaos as the potential enemy? What happens when my mixed blood comes to light? I don't belong here. I don't belong there. You have a place here." Left unspoken is the thought /And I don't./
Ellie shrugs "Don't worry, please, Imogen."
Imogen looks at her in deep concern. All too conscious of the insecurity of her own position, she has a sudden urge to confide in the younger girl.
But to do that would be to betray Corwin.
"I'm just worried that ... oh Ellie, will you promise me one thing? Please? That before you do anything, you'll talk to Bill? I'll introduce you at the Ball tonight. He's a darling - and so very, very sensible. He makes the whole thing seem so straightforward."
Ellie smiles up at Imogen "Let me meet Bill first. Promise to keep this between us until I do?"
Imogen smiles back. "As long as you don't deliberately hide from him!" she says jokingly. "Now ... which way do you prefer for your hair? The crown or the waterfall? Or shall we try something else?"
Ellie smiles "I won't hide, I promise. I think I prefer the waterfall. How about we sort out your hair next?"
"Please," says Imogen, finishing weaving Ellie's hair back into a long simple braid.
Ellie carefully unpins Imogen's hair, brushing it out straight before trying any arrangements. "How are you finding Amber, Imogen?"
"Scary," she says at last. "These people ... have been playing a game with each other ... with countless others ... for millennia. And we are so innocent, Ellie. But we carry the weight of all the penalties they've earned over the years. I don't know if I'll ever have one of them look at me and think 'Imogen' and not ‘Deirdre's daughter'. Or more frequently ... 'that bitch Deirdre's daughter'.
"I’ve met Caine," she adds.
Ellie nods "I know what you mean." Green eyes full of concern meet Imogen's in the mirror. "What was Caine like to you?"
"We spoke of chess," says Imogen. "At least ... we appeared to." She shivers suddenly. "His hatred for my mother was ... terrifying. And I think he sees me as being in her mould."
Ellie stops brushing and hugs Imogen "You're not though. Don't let him spook you, my friend. He'll see you're different. And even if he doesn't, Dad will look after you." She steps back "They never talk directly here."
"Now that will make me feel like I'm at home," responds Imogen with a lurking smile. "Gallbraith held much the same style of speech.
"Although the threats weren't perhaps so mortal," she adds. "Gallbraith is a very civilised place."
She sighs. "I wish I could see it again, sometime."
Ellie smiles "Well, you can if you wish to. If you don't know how to walk Shadow, I'm sure Dad would be willing to teach you." She deftly pulls Imogen's hair into a sleek chignon, then teases out some curls. The look becomes softer, an intriguing blend of polish and whimsical softness. Ellie smiles "What do you think?"
Imogen smiles. "I think ... it's wonderful. And it will look perfect with the dress."
Her hand moves to the little rose pendant at her neck.
"I just wish I could get ride of this."
The pendant stays around her neck, a wish being insufficient. Briefly it grows cold again, and she drops her hand without thinking.
A knock sounds on the door, then it eases open, revealing Corwin. He folds his hands behind his back and nods.
"You both look lovely."
Imogen turns ... a spontaneous movement of sheer pleasure at hearing his voice. But even before she faces him ... she remembers their earlier conversation. The secrets that lie between them.
A tiny check. An infinite void ... deep as the abyss.
By the time she is facing him, she is smiling again ... a smile that lifts her lips ... but not her heart.
"Corwin." She moves towards him, her hands outstretched.
And the smile is on her lips ... but her eyes are begging him for patience, to let her come to terms with all she has learned.
And then ... as always ... The potent physical attraction of him seems overwhelming the closer she gets ... and she doesn't just want him ... she needs him.
And that is more terrifying than any of Caine's sumptuously veiled threats.
"Ellie and I have been practising for the ball," she says, and yields to temptation, letting her lips brush his cheek in a chaste greeting.
Ellie smiles, quietly moving to her own room as she answers, "Yes, it's been a nice breather." She smiles at Imogen "Thank you."
Corwin takes one of Imogen's hands and kisses it lightly, not pressing the issue, and even looking relieved that he got that small sign of affection from her. A touch of hope stirs, and he quickly hides it.
He smiles at Eleanor. "I saw Jurt on my way in. I think he's in Benedict's suites with his sister."
Ellie blinks once then smiles and takes the invitation to leave, quickly heading out of Corwin's chambers.
Left alone with Corwin, Imogen lets her hand rest in his a moment longer before withdrawing it. Then she moves away slightly, her head a little bowed. The back of her neck is quite bare and vulnerable ... except for a stray golden curl.
"I spoke to Bill," she says, "as well as Ellie ... "
She turns and smiles at him, relaxed, a little remote. Only she knows how hard it is to keep from running to him and hugging him fiercely.
But instead she speaks, the practical support she has promised herself she will be.
"Do all your siblings know about Brand now?" she asks.
He shakes his head. "Some are blocking right now, most likely getting ready to head in. But those that should know, do. Everyone else... well, that's what they get when they block Trump calls.
"How are you... doing?"
She tries to smile.
"Not perfect. But not ... bad. Talking to Bill helped ... and Ellie."
She looks at him frankly. "Corwin ... what you told me ... hurt me. Of course. And I will need time ...
But I don't want what happened in the past ... or me as I am now ... to be used against you. Half Amber seems to know about ... about us. Well, let them see me smiling on your arm. Let them see that we are strong together. Not weak. Not tearing each other apart."
She looks at him, a little nervously.
"What do you think?"
He looks away, then nods, pushing some feeling down below the threshold of perception. "That's a good idea. I'm glad you talked to Bill. He's been a good friend to me. And Ellie-- I hope you two keep getting along as well as you are.
"I hope one day it won't be pretend. But I know that's a lot to ask. Too much."
"Corwin," she says ... and there's a little catch in her voice.
"Oh ... Corwin. Not too much. Not to much at all. But ... perhaps ... too soon."
"Then I won't ask." He chances a smile. "Just save a dance for me."
He bows. "You should get dressed."
"Yes," she agrees, smiling back at him, feeling that lift of her heart at seeing him smile. And then she hears herself say, "I hope we can share more than a dance tonight."
Her cheeks flood with colour, as she sinks into a curtsey to hide her embarrassment.
"I ... I'll get changed," she says hurriedly as she rises, and turns to make her way to her mother's suite.
"I certainly hope so," he says softly as she makes her way, blushing, out of Ellie's room.
Her mother's suite is untouched, dress still in the corner, windows offering little light as the sun sets.
But Imogen is used to the soft and gentle light of the dying son of Gallbraith. For the first time, almost, the gentle red glow of the room seems almost homely.
She goes to the bathroom (someone, she is glad to see, has made sure that the plumbing of Amber is somewhat anachronistic - at least in Deirdre's suite). She showers and then walks back into the room, drying her golden fair in the last few shafts of sunlight.
It is a shy young maid at the door, awkwardly twisting her hands.
"Please, your Highness, I've come to light the candles and help you dress. I did knock, your Highness. but I couldn't make you hear."
"No matter," says Imogen, "come in."
She sits by the low dressing table, drying and brushing her hair, while gradually the room begins to fill with mellow light all around her.
"What lovely hair, your Highness," says the girl with soft admiration.
Imogen smiles. "You can help me style it," she tells her - and explains the style she and Ellie had chosen. The girl's hands are deft, and soon Imogen is nodding with satisfaction at her reflection in the mirror.
Carefully, between them, they slide the dress over her and fasten it. The soft silk settles like the wings of some glorious butterfly quivering its brief ecstasy on a woodland branch. The skirt is formally full, the bodice close fitting and modest in its neckline, and the long pointed sleeves display the length and slenderness of her arms.
She turns for a moment, like a little girl playing at dressing up ... and sees her reflection in the looking glass. Elegant. Cool and remote as a lily. Or perhaps, considering the colours she is wearing, a delphinium. No jewels ... she has none. But no-one seeing this serenity, this elegance, will think of the woman found in Corwin's rooms, wrapped in nothing more than a sheet.
At least, so she hopes.
"Thank you," she says to the girl. "You may go."
Left alone, she wishes a little forlornly that she had asked Bill to collect her. Corwin, of course, will doubtless be in demand at a high level throughout the proceedings. Suddenly she hopes that he will find time for that one dance.
She finds herself envying Ellie ... who will have her Chaosians with her. She feels vulnerable suddenly. Of those she meets, many will look at her thinking of her mother - and others of what they have heard of her relationship with the King.
But not for nothing had Imogen held down her job so successfully at such an early age. Not for nothing had she faced down the mine rioters. Proudly, she lifted her chin.
"Well," she says to her reflection. "I'm ready."
Behind her, the door creaks open a bit further from it's crack, and Corwin enters. He looks at her for a long set of moments, then bows.
"Breathtaking. Are you ready?"
She looks at him, dark and saturnine in the candlelight and his formal garb ... and sinks into a low curtsey, letting the candlelight gleam on her hair, and the soft folds of silk. Then she moves forward to his side and slips her arm through his, resting her cheek against his shoulder for a moment.
"Ready," she says. "Let's go."
He leads her out. "Most the others are still gathering... I'm expected to be there a tad earlier.
"This should prove interesting. It's too bad that it will most likely prove interesting in all the bad ways."
The main hall is exquisite-- Most of the decorations had been waiting in the wings until sundown, and then produced and placed, to a dazzling effect. Gold and green, and lots of soft white, set off by countless candles and magical balls of light. Some nobles gather already, though no one she knows.
"Oh!" says Imogen, entranced. "How lovely! Flora has transformed the place ... her sketches only hinted ... "
She looks around, her eyes wide with awed delight, taking an almost childlike pleasure in their surroundings.
He laughs. "She did do a good job on this one, didn't she?" He takes her to the ball room, and Imogen's stomach threatens to growl at the smells therein. Savoury, rich... no simple meat trays for an Amberite's ball.
There is a balcony as they enter, and finally she sees a familiar face... though not the one she'd prefer. Jurt and Ryoden stand near something sculpted in ice, arguing quietly. Imogen is somewhat surprised that they actually look-- presentable, even if Ryoden's hair is somewhat tousled.
"Ellie's chosen," says Imogen quietly. "And that little girl."
A shadow passes briefly over her face as she remembers her conversation with Ellie. She is worried about her - but she has also promised Ellie not to speak to Corwin - if Ellie will talk to Bill Roth. She hopes that Bill's calm good sense will prove as soothing to Ellie as it did to her.
"Will there be other Chaosians here?" she asks, looking up at Corwin's face, wondering what he makes of the presence of his erstwhile foes - even if it is at his son's suggestion ...
Corwin shakes his head. "These should be the only ones. It would have been nice if Merlin could have made it, but-- he's a king. These things can be demanding."
They near Ryoden and Jurt, and Imogen realizes the argument centres around the ice sculpture, and some aesthetic touches Ryoden wants to add... Jurt silences her with a stern look as he spots Corwin, and bows, motioning for Ryoden to follow suit. Reluctantly, she does so.
"Good evening, your majesty."
Corwin nods. "Highness. Where's my daughter?"
"Following. I had to keep an eye on my quick footed sister."
"Hello," says Imogen to Ryoden, having given a coolly polite nod to Jurt. "Just as cold but not quite as tasty as your ice cream this morning, isn't it?
"I had a strawberry ice there later," she goes on, " as you recommended. "They are very nice."
She notices Ryoden's outfit, and smiles. "That's a good idea," she says. "Much more freedom to move around and kick up your heels if you wish."
Ryoden looks down at her garb. "Ellie drew it. It was her idea."
Jurt returns the nod, struggling to stay polite. "You look nice tonight, Imogen." Ryoden looks out over the buffet, searching...
"Flora said there'd be sweets..."
Mandor has already faded into the crowd of nobles when Imogen approaches.
Corwin reclaims her arm, looking relieved. "Apparently there are some health concerns with the girl we're going to have to deal with. Unfortunately, I think this is going to end in Ryoden having to leave. Ellie will be hurt but-- this is for the best."
She looks at him in some dismay.
"Oh - Corwin! I am sorry. I know you wanted to help Merlin. But where can the child go in Shadow? Where would be safe?"
He sighs. "I don't know. I assume that Mandor has some idea, because I don't.
"But she's not safe here. There was an-- well, I guess you could call it a visitation on her person the first night she was here. A woman appeared in her room and nearly scared the wits out of her. Then she gets a visit from Brand... Who knows why." He pauses. "Is it selfish to hope he was targeting the girl and not Ellie?"
She squeezes his arm. "Not selfish at all. Ellie is your daughter, and any fathe ... " She breaks off in a little confusion. "It's only natural," she says firmly, then lifts her face up towards him, trying to smile.
Then a thought occurs to her. "Won't this mean ... won't this separate Jurt and Ellie?"
Corwin sighs. "Yes, I'm afraid it probably will. I'm fairly certain that she's going to make a fuss, and I can't help but be a little insulted that she's this crazy over a guy she met a few days ago, rather than her father.
"That's why I think he's manipulating her."
"Is going crazy over a guy you met recently totally forbidden?" she asks teasingly. "How long an interval must I wait before it's permitted?"
But inside she is worried. Corwin has echoed her own fear ... and she is desperately concerned that this might drive Ellie to do something reckless ... something that could hurt Corwin and Ellie both ...
He laughs. "I think there's some difference between Jurt and I... I have no idea what's charmed her so. Maybe it's the little girl. Who knows." He looks out over the crowd, and spies a large red-haired man talking to Ellie and Jurt. "Ah. Rinaldo made it."
"Rinaldo?" asks Imogen, frowning at the unfamiliar name. "Is he ... an Amberite?"
He nods. "Brand's son... But a good guy in spite of it. He surfaced after Patternfall, and charmed most of us immediately. He rules a kingdom nearby."
"Good guy?" she echoes, frowning a little. "How does he feel about his father's return? He seems ... very relaxed."
"I didn't know he would show up. He doesn't know yet.
"We took spreading the news by level of potential danger. I don't believe his son is in any danger. There's more than enough evidence that Brand wouldn't have used his own child that way."
Imogen shivers suddenly.
"And Ellie?" she says softly. "How great a danger is she in?"
Corwin shakes his head. "I have no idea. He did approach her, and knows who she is now. I'm fairly certain he knows her well enough to make a trump for her or the girl. That's one of the million nightmares that have occurred to me since she told me."
"Oh, Corwin," she breathes, appalled. "No wonder you are so worried."
She raises her hand to the little rose pendant at her throat.
"What ... what about me?" she manages.
"I will protect you as best I can. I-- I don't know what he plans. But I will find out. You will not be his victim, I swear it." He holds her close for a moment, and breathes in the sweetness of her hair and skin, then releases her.
"I swear it."
She looks into his face, her own equally searching, equally grave.
"I trust you," she says quietly. "But I am scared for Ellie ... and the little girl."
"I know. And I hope Ellie will let me protect her. But I think she sees me as something awful. I don't know. She disregards everything I say, like that _boy_ knows more that I do about the universe." He smothers a rising anger.
"The girl-- I hope Mandor knows what he's doing with her."
She holds fast to his arm for a second.
"Corwin ... Mandor. Is he dangerous? To you ... or to Merlin?"
"Mandor? Mandor is very close to Merlin, and was a diplomat for a while after the war ended. He's dangerous if you make him angry... but no, I don't think he's here to take anyone out. He does care for his sister, and wants her safe. He's made that clear.
She tries to smile.
"Gallbraithan politics. Perhaps it's made me paranoid ... or just too wary. I see strings being pulled where none exist. I just had this stupid idea ... "
Corwin pulls her aside to the wall, where fewer ears are present. "No. Please continue. I do value your ideas... You are a fresh perspective that I need."
"It just seems to me," she says slowly, "that if someone wanted to attack you ... Ellie is your most vulnerable place.
She looks up at him, concerned. "Chaos has tried to hurt you in the past. I know your son is King there now ... but has he really destroyed all the old-timers who used Merlin's mother against you ... and Ellie's? Or might some of them still be working to their old agenda?"
She looks over at Ellie. "Like you ... I'm worried about what the Chaosians want her for. And the more you object, or lay down restrictions ... the harder she runs into their all-too-eager arms."
She turns back to him.
"Tell me I'm paranoid, Corwin," she begs. "Please!"
He gnaws on his lip. "I wish I could. I really do.
"I've tried by saying she could stay with the Chaosite. I thought maybe he'd be stupid eventually and she'd tire of him-- but look at her. She can barely be separated from him." He glowers. "I wouldn't be surprised if he already found his way into her bed. He's that type..."
He shakes his head, trying to erase the image of his daughter in a less than demure situation out of his mind. "He might be, either willingly or unwillingly. It was done to me."
She clutches his hand. "Corwin ... you said to me that Amberites were largely infertile. Surely it would just be appallingly unlucky if Ellie ... "
She breaks off. "He can't be using her like that ... he just can't!"
He pales. "If he is... that boy won't see another day..." He looks out at Ellie and Jurt talking quietly.
"It's-- it's possible. That's how she came about. And Merlin. This is a different method... But if I do something, all she'll do is run."
Imogen swallows. "That's what I would be afraid of too," she admits.
"Corwin ... I suggested she talked to Bill. I hoped ... he could give her a fresh perspective. Perhaps make her understand why you are so worried ... why I am too. He is so full of calm good sense."
He touches her hair fondly. "He is. He always has been. I'm glad you told her to go talk to him. I think if I had said it, she would have stayed as far from him as she could.
"I'm glad you talked to him too. It seems-- to have done you some good."
She smiles a little uneasily. "Good? Perhaps. He has helped me to see things more clearly ... to face up to what I feel ... and to what I need to do ... "
She touches his cheek with her fingertips.
"The private me ... feels very strongly about you. Could ... love you. But it will need time to overcome all the things I have learnt. Time ... together.
"But the public me will be devoted and supportive. Will be everything that you need to help you ... and make you strong."
She tries to smile at him reassuringly.
He takes her hand and kisses it gently. "I hope they match one day. I truly do, my Pandora."
He pulls her back to the centre of the fray. "Are you hungry?"
She laughs. "Ravenous! And you have to promise to try the lime and mascapone tart ... it's one of my recipes. Or the coffee marshmallow mousse."
She smiles up at him easily, and even bestows a shy smile on several of the nobility they pass.
~This will get easier,~ she tells herself. ~I just need to practise being a king's mistress.~
The thought makes her smile a little more widely at the irony of it.
He leads her to the buffet, and Imogen is not disappointed. Corwin laughs. "In a family of men (and woman too, though few admit it) that love to eat, we know how to feed our guests." He takes a plate and fills it quickly.
"I haven't eaten all day, what with running around, trumping, the like."
"Me too," she agrees. "Perhaps not quite so active ... although I did get down to the beach."
Thinking of that suddenly reminds her of Caine's cruel, cold eyes, and she gives a little involuntary shiver.
Corwin touches her back, concerned. "Are you okay?" he mummers under his breath. "Did something happen on the beach?"
She turns and smiles at him.
"Yes, I'm fine," she says. "Nothing happened there ... I saw a few people, and I met Ellie. Oh look ... there's the tart I was telling you about! Do try some!"
He smiles and takes one, adding to his quickly filling plate. Apparently Amberites have no etiquette for gorging one's self at a public function.
He leads her to a side table and sits. "I hope this isn't the last chance we have to talk, but since I haven't seen anyone who needs to be informed, they'll surely be on my hands later." He takes a bite of the tart. "Very good," he says, after swallowing.
She smiles back.
"So ... how many of the family are here, and how many are likely to wildly disapprove of me?" she asks, and there is a sparkle of amusement in her eyes, as she glances around the room before looking back to Corwin.
He laughs. "Most of the family is, typically, late to these gatherings. They like to make a good entrance. I see Gerard... and Bleys. Flora, of course. Benedict is doing some last minute security checks, so he'll be in a bit later.
"As for disapproval... I don't know. I think they'll be shaking their collective fingers at me rather than you."
She reaches out and lays her long slender fingers over his.
"They can shake them at us ... together," she says quietly. "We are both responsible for what has happened between us. What is happening.
"Now ... you'll need to tell me who to talk to, and who I need to avoid like the plague." She remembers Caine and frowns. "Apart from those I've already met, of course."
He thinks. "The most polite and discreet of the bunch... I don't know. That's a short list. Bleys is likely to make a few jabs, but he's not cruel. The more you take it in stride the more he'll respect you.
"Flora you know, but she'll be busy all evening. Llewella... well, she can be rather quiet, but sharp when she wants to be.
"Gerard will be mad at me, not you, and most likely will try to be as nice to you as he possibly can be.
"Benedict-- he has always kept most of his opinions to himself. He's safe.
"A very short list."
"All the better," she says. "I like to focus. Any nobles or foreign dignitaries I should be especially nice to, or are they unlikely to want to meet me?" She gives a sudden chuckle. "I'm sorry - This is just so very different from Gallbraith!
"There, you would be standing attentively at my shoulder, perhaps seeing that I was adequately served with food and drink, smiling politely as I made conversation with all the important people ...
"And the other women would be eying you carefully, trying to decide just how ... ah ... attractive you were. How many points I scored in having you as my escort."
Her eyes, smiling, tease him a little.
"I hope I scored enough points for you," he chuckles. "And trust me, women still do the score game here. And you are getting many points. The king is usually alone at these gatherings."
She looks at him in pleased surprise. "Am I?" she says. Then she laughs a little. "Hard to compete though. On Gallbraith ... you would be off the scale."
And he would, she thinks. There is a quality about him that simply places him above and beyond trivial measurements.
~And he's my chosen,~ she thinks with a shiver of pleasure.
Could be, a little voice inside corrects.
If she can ignore, forget, overcome ...
My mother. My father.
Her smile though, on her public face, does not falter.
He laughs. "I'm glad-- Is that because I'm a king, or because I'm Corwin?" He spears a few vegetables and looks out at the string quartet. "Hmph. She forgot a piano. Well, 'forgot.' Flora can't stand family playing the musician at these things. She thinks it's low class."
“She did say something along those lines," Imogen agrees drily. "She spoke of someone called Martin wanting to improvise ... or the other so-called musicians in the family ... "
Her fingers stroke over his, teasingly. "Are you in that unfortunate category?"
He laughs. "Actually, I'm one of her exceptions to the rule. Most likely a few version of some things I wrote back in the day are on the play list. But I'm of a more classical bent, which she likes. Martin is more soul, jazz, and rock and roll, which she finds crude."
Unexpectedly, Imogen starts to giggle.
"Oh, Corwin ... those are all classical forms! Why it must be centuries since rock and roll ... Now, plass and plange .... "
She looks up at him. "I wish you could see Gallbraith. Even if you did have to wear a veil on the streets ... "
"A _veil_?" He laughs. "There's no way... I'm sorry. I'm an arrogant Amberite, just like all of us... Why do the men wear veils?"
"I'm teasing," she admits. "It's an old custom that's dying out, except in the hill villages. The idea was that it curbed men's aggression, I believe. It never seemed to work, even in the hill towns. Men would suggest their willingness to fight by the colours they wore, or their stance, even under the veil."
She touches his cheek. "It was common when I was young, though. My adopted father wore one when he went marketing. I remember the first time I saw a bare-faced man on the street. I found it incredibly erotic - even though, thinking about it, he must have been about a hundred and forty*."
She smiles. "Clearly, I must always have had a weakness for older men."
He chuckles. "Apparently so. And I must have a thing for younger women... But when you're as old as I am, there isn't much choice. At least the outside stays young. It gives me a chance..."
He looks at her with an odd look. "Your shadow... I may not agree with it, but I can't argue with the result. It made a strong woman out of you."
"Yes," she agrees. "But the women are the stronger sex." To her this is clearly a truism.
She looks down at their hands, resting together.
"I get the feeling Mother chose it deliberately," she says slowly. "As though she knew that one day I would come here ... and she wanted me given a grounding in ... what shall I say? Coping mechanisms? To have the confidence to survive?"
"Your mother was wise, then. She knew what it took to survive here... Most of the gir-- women here, my sisters, are stronger than anyone could ever believe. Even fussy Flora." He squeezes her hands and lowers his voice.
"I don't intend for you to stay my mistress forever, if the future tends that way."
"No?" she says, her voice a little forlorn, raising her eyes to look at him.
And then ... she seems struck by something over his shoulder.
Marrek pauses at the landing, waiting until he has drawn all the eyes of those present in the Hall.
"My word," Imogen says, a note of amusement creeping back into her voice. "What an entrance. Who, in the name of Casaubon, is that?"
He turns and looks at the young Chaosite. "That's Marrek... Part of the Chaos delegation, and Mandor's half-brother."
He looks back, a small smile on his face. "No, I do not want you to be my mistress forever... There are some positions I think you'd fill much better."
"Really?" She considers Marrek for a moment, almost dispassionately. "And yet Ellie prefers Jurt ... who seems to be at no pains to charm. Odd."
Then Corwin's words seem to penetrate ... and startle her.
"Positions that Amberites allow to women? Well, yes ... I'd be delighted ...
"But what are they?"
"Allow?" He laughs. "Most of my sisters have kept out by choice, not design. But there's many positions... Advisor, strategist..." His voice lowers to almost inaudible. "Queen."
He looks up at Marrek. "I know. It seems like he would be a much better catch, wouldn't it? He can be quite smooth..."
"And therefore difficult to grasp," she finishes. "Or so we say on Gallbraith. Perhaps Ellie has made the wiser choice then ... "
She looks at him and her voice lowers too.
"Corwin ... surely there would be the most enormous opposition if you do that. Won't you be expected to marry some powerful foreign queen, or well-dowered princess?"
He smiles. "I'm an Amberite. I can have anything I want with a short walk. And if I marry some local princess, it'll most likely cause dissention, and get a few old wounds opened up...
"And I'm not asking tomorrow... This is the future, after we've grown more sure. By then, any opposition will be out and there to deal with."
Imogen nods, slowly.
"I understand. I think I could mention some names already."
He nods. "The most verbal aren't the most dangerous. Some may disapprove, but I think they can be made to see your-- qualifications. All the problems a line of lovers and wives brought the throne with dad."
Her lips quirk up in a smile. "I qualify as problem free? Your Father =must= have had a wild time."
He laughs. "It wasn't the wives themselves. It was the fact that every time he remarried, the children of the last marriage would get upset, because we all felt there were more than enough heirs to the throne... But he always seemed to want more. I put it off as just him being a lusty old man, but then I found out a bit more about shapeshifting..." His sentence trails off, and he looks worried again.
She clears her throat. "Shape-shifting? You mean he could ... " She makes a simple but vivid gesture with her hands.
"And you don't think heirs will be a problem with ... erm ... us?"
"I don't know. But right now, there's only Ellie and Merlin from my line, and one is already on a throne, the other... She needs more experience before she could think about it.
"But given our chemistries, I wouldn't start knitting booties yet, no. Does that upset you?"
He looks down. "If Jurt wanted, he could ensure that Ellie wouldn't get pregnant, or try his damnedest to get her so. I hope she's right about him..."
She reaches out and grasps his hand again.
"So do I, Corwin. But ... I am worried. It seems too convenient ... almost as though they know where her buttons are - and they're pressing them one ...by ... one."
"Like they've been wat--" He chokes.
"Julian knew where she was... What if they did too...?"
Imogen frowns. "Did she say anything about people she knew in Shadow? Visitors, perhaps ... mysterious ones?"
He shakes his head. "We didn't really talk about anyone she knew back there. I knew some of her cohorts by watching her... Artists and the like. I visited her gallery. I never sensed any Chaos around her. My wards weren't perfect, but they were all I could do."
But others could have been watching her too?" suggests Imogen. "Without approaching? Until you brought her here?"
Her blue eyes are steady on his face. "Corwin ... I'm worried."
He nods. "I am, too. Trust me. I am, too."
He looks at Jurt, sitting alone, eating quietly. "If he is using her... I meant what I said."
She draws in a shaky breath. "The cost of that ... would be high, I imagine. For you ... and your children."
Her slim hand still holds his stronger one steadily, unwaveringly.
~I am here,~ it says. ~I am with you.~
"I know-- Merlin... Merlin has a brotherly tolerance for him, but even when Jurt was trying to kill him he didn't want him dead. And Eleanor. I've seen the way she looks at him.
"It would be a last resort. I hope simply keeping her here and sending Jurt and his sister back to Mandor will be enough."
Imogen nods. Her free hand lifts slightly and her fingers start to trace patterns on the rich linen cloth that covers the table.
"Corwin ... I'm afraid that Ellie might see any ... confrontation as... pushing her. And her response might be ... not what you would like."
Those deep blue eyes are lifted to his face, the slight line of a frown between them.
"I know. I was young too, once. I know how to be subtle. My gut instinct says to go over and beat the boy so badly he'll need to regenerate more than just a foot... But I have no proof. And even if I did, I'm sure that she would disregard it, finding some excuse for the boy.
"I can wait. Nothing will be direct."
Imogen smiles, relieved. "Good."
Relaxing slightly, she glances around the great room.
"I like this music," she says. "Do you know what it is? It seems rather too good to waste on people eating."
"Why thank you-- I wrote this actually, back when I was in one of my more artistic moods. You did have me pinned as a composer, did you not?"
He listens for a moment, remembering. The piece alternates between soft and light-hearted, and strangely melancholy. "'Requiem for Mirelle.'"
"Mirelle?" she says, slightly surprised by the spurt of jealousy she feels. Then, inwardly, she grins at herself. He did, after all, call it a Requiem.
"Was she someone you loved?" she asks gently.
He laughs gently. "My half-sister. Random's full sister. A sprite of a girl, we all enjoyed her. But she died young, and for once not of bloodshed or stupidity. She fell ill... This was before her immune system had really kicked in.
"So I wrote this for father and Random. Random was in a pitiful state for months. They were close, only a year apart in age. They acted like twins. She was his better half."
"I see," she says. "And now he has no better half? He's your youngest brother, isn't he? Flora said something rude about his colours ... but then, she said something rude about yours too."
She smiles at him, then wickedly mimics Flora's voice, "'Have you ever considered how hard it is, organising a coronation for a man who insists on looking like a walking funeral'?"
He laughs. "That's Flora. And let me guess... She said Random's were too gaudy, yes? Red, yellow, and orange. She's tried to get him to change any number of times, with no success.
"Now... I guess you could say he has no better half. He was married for a while, but she died in childbirth. For such a lively man, death has always trailed him."
~He's not the only one.~ she thinks, still holding his hand. But aloud she simply says, "Random and Benedict both. I think the word she used was 'scarecrows', but I might be mistaken. How does one choose colours, Corwin? Will I have my own, or do I adopt yours? Or Mother's?"
She looks at his elegant but sombre hues a little dubiously.
"You can choose your own colours. And I'd recommend not using Deirdre's. Schemes tend to be exclusive.
"I picked my colours when I was young, and melancholy, and feeling dark. Plus, the colours looked good with my hair and skin, so I kept them. I've never favoured anything bright."
In the ebb and flow of bodies, he briefly catches sight of Benedict, who watches Ryoden from a distance.
"Scarecrow... That's always what she's called him. It has to do with his looks, and his quiet nature. They normally get along, but lately I've been getting a few hints that something major happened between them... A blow up, or the like."
"Oh?" she says. She remembers the disparaging way Flora spoke of Benedict - in marked contrast to the respect Corwin has shown.
"Yes," she agrees thoughtfully. "That sounds about right. D'you think it is mutual ... or has he just upset her in some way?"
"Benedict is gentle and forgiving. Whatever passed between them, I'm sure he holds no grudge for. Her, though... She doesn't get over her stings easily. And in typical Benedict fashion, he'd rather avoid her until she has something to distract her."
Imogen nods, quietly absorbing this information.
"Could he have been King if he wished?" she asks suddenly.
"Easily. By force, no one could have contested him. By blood, he is the eldest. And legitimacy was made null when Eric ruled.
"What is missing is desire."
"And yet ... desire is not strong within you, I think." she says thoughtfully. "What holds you here, Corwin? Duty? Your love of the place?
"If I am perhaps to share it, I want to understand."
He thinks a long time before answering.
"My father... gave his life so that we could live, and this place could survive. And when we found him, broken as he was, he asked that I rule it...
"How can you refuse, when he's just signed his own death certificate for you? I was never all that affectionate of a son, but I know duty when I see it. And who else was going to? If I left now... I can't see anyone eager for the throne."
She nods, understanding. Appreciating his reasoning. But then she asks, "Not Brand? Corwin - why do you think he's come back? Why did he try to use me to get at you?"
Corwin stares out at the dance floor, not really seeing anything. "Maybe he thought you would try to kill me... after what I did." The slightest of winces. "How he knew about that, I don't know."
"Brand might want the throne, but what he wanted back then was not to rule this place, but destroy it and make it anew. He wanted to create his own pattern."
"Nihilism," she says, almost detached. "Yes. Such a man might have miscalculated our actions ... yours and mine. If you are so obsessed with perfection, you might not see that others might be prepared to work with a less than perfect world.
"As for what happened in the past ... We can't forget it. Either of us. We can only look to build something positive from it. And one day there may be a way."
He nods. "It's-- It's quite a bit to forgive, I know. You're already a bigger person than I am... Than many of us are."
Imogen shakes her head.
"Don't make me better than I am, Corwin. I'm still raw with pain inside ... and I still have to find a way to heal that. But I can't see any good that would come from standing up and screaming it out here ... or from telling anyone about it - Ellie, say ... or even from sticking a knife between your ribs will you sleep. What good would that do to anyone? Least of all my poor father.
"What I need is a way that I can feel not just I but he too could forgive you. And that won't be easy. But I want, oh so badly, to find that way."
Her blue eyes are fastened on his face.
"How else can I live with the way my heart feels about you?" she says softly.
He kisses her softly. "You'll find a way. You're a strong woman." He seems to see something over her shoulder as he pulls back, and winces.
"The greetings begin. Llewella is here. One of the ones that blocked me earlier."
"Ah," says Imogen, and turns to look at this new aunt.
She stands off to the edge of the crowd, drinking quietly and demurely. Her hair is green, but oddly enough, it looks natural against her olive skin. Her dress is somewhat more old-fashioned than many, with trim and bows gracing it in discrete places.
Corwin rises. "I should see to this. Do you care to join me?"
"Certainly," replies Imogen, rising too, and moving to take his arm.
Corwin leads her over to where the green haired beauty stands, looking distant and somewhat aloof. They both nod their greetings, and move off to somewhere more private.
"Llewella. May I introduce Princess Imogen." Another polite nod.
"There is worry in your face, Corwin."
"Aunt Llewella," she says politely, and then stays silent, attentively listening. She knows of old that the junior in such meetings has much to learn.
Corwin looks around, and decides none of the gentry nearby have taken a particular interest in a brother sister reunion. He takes a drink from a passing server, and hides his words behind his glass.
"Brand has returned."
She doesn't seemed surprised by this piece of news, but simply nods.
Corwin quickly fills her in on the details-- his appearance in the orchard, some quotes... Imogen notices he leaves out his involvement with her.
Llewella listens dispassionately, but some interest does eventually spark in her eyes. "I had wondered... how deadly this abyss was."
Imogen gives a little shiver. Flora's account of her mother's death is still haunting - the fear. The scream of terror.
"I've been wondering that myself," she murmurs. "But ... if she did survive, I'm sure Mother ... "
She breaks off, and then continues diffidently. "I'm Deirdre's daughter. I always assumed she died ... although until I came to Amber, I didn't know how."
Llewella nods. "Did you know of Amber?" She looks back to Corwin. "I find this habit of stowing children away ignorant distasteful." She gives a small smile to Imogen. "You are fortunate someone thought to bring you here. Your mother's death could have begot two tragedies."
"I didn't know a great deal," Imogen admits. "It was a name I heard mentioned now and then ... when Mother and Father were talking. I grew up in a Shadow called Gallbraith. Rather ... erm ... different from Amber."
She smiles at Llewella. There's a quality about her she recognises ... although it is hard to put her finger on it ...
She nods. "There are few places like Amber." Turning back to Corwin. "I assume we're not waiting for him to make his next move?"
Corwin shakes his head. "There's little we can do besides wait and make sure our defences are up."
"Are you informing the rest of our siblings like this: one by one?" He nods. "Would it not be easier if we were all informed at once?"
Imogen glances at Corwin, interested to hear his response.
For herself, she always liked to break bad news individually; it gave you a chance to study the reaction more. It also meant it took your opposition longer to gather and present a collective response to your news - which could only be an advantage.
Corwin, she thinks, would be well aware of all this.
He gives an odd little smile, one with centuries of story and familiarity behind it, and replies, "We all have our methods, Llewella. I'm certain you can inform Moire? I have more siblings to contact. Some refused contact earlier."
She returns the small smile. "Of course, your Majesty. We had thought something was going on today... Our little city has been tense today."
Imogen looks at her with sudden interest.
"Do you think the financial markets might have got hold of this?" she asks. "They often have contacts that pick up on details and news before anyone else ... well, they pay people to monitor such things.
At least," she adds, a little more hesitantly, "they do on Gallbraith."
Llewella laughs lightly. "I am sure the last thing we worry about our returned brother affecting is the economy."
Corwin looks amused. "That would be nice, wouldn't it? If the worst we got was a recession?"
Llewella nods, but then looks serious again. "How far has this travelled?"
"Not far. I haven't heard anything in the servant gossip, so those that do know must be keeping quiet."
Imogen is silent. Part of her brain is registering (and being intrigued by) their indifference to the economic fallout. The other part is wondering how many of the people in this room could be affected by the return of Brand ... and deciding, from what she has heard, that the answer must be all of them.
But, she wonders, who first?
"I've told Benedict, and together we managed to track down some of the ones that are in more danger... He always had some affection for you, so we waited on informing you." She nods.
"Does Bleys know? Fiona?" He nods.
"Martin got the word to him." She shakes her head.
"You should have told him personally."
"Can I ask," says Imogen, "Why you think some people will be in more danger? Martin? Is he another brother? And Bleys?"
Corwin grimaces. "Martin... Martin is probably not in danger, but Brand did try to kill him at one point in his plotting. He nearly did, too. And Bleys and Fiona are his full siblings, and fellow plotters.
"I wish I had been there to gauge his reaction, but he was recovering from an injury, so I didn't want to disturb him."
Imogen's hand tightens briefly, almost reflexively on his arm as he explains Martin's danger.
"I've met Fiona," she says. "I would think ... "
She falls silent, remembering the ruthless way Fiona dealt with the attack on Corwin. Would she be a match for Brand?
Or a fellow ally?
"They have plotted with him before?" she asks.
He nods, and Llewella looks away. "They were a cabal until shortly before things got truly nasty. When it broke up, Bleys returned to shadows and Fiona tried to incapacitate and eventually kill Brand." He sighs. "I cut short her attempt, inadvertently allowing him to continue with his plots."
Llewella laughs without humor. "The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft awry..."
"You couldn't have known," she says, almost an automatic reassurance.
But she also knows this is the truth. If Corwin had known, she knows he is ruthless enough to kill Brand. And not killing him then ... the price had been her mother's death. Not a price Corwin would have been willing to pay, she imagines.
Her mother's death?
Supposed death. All bets, it is clear, are off.
"Corwin ... Aunt ... " she says a little hesitantly, "do you think my mother is alive?"
And then she gropes for an answer to her own question.
"But if she is ... where is she?"
Llewella thinks. "Brand... Brand was more familiar with the arcane things than Deirdre. She was more of the school of swords and steel. He might have known something about this abyss before he fell into it. Perhaps he knew what might happen, and planned a way out."
She falls curiously silent, her lips pressed.
Imogen glances at her thoughtfully.
"Is anything known of the abyss in Rebma, that isn't known here?" she asks.
Llewella shakes her head. "I've never ventured a trip to Chaos. I wasn't even there at the Rim. I have my own realm to guard and watch in times of crisis." She nods at Corwin. "You will, of course, understand if I keep to the periphery in these affairs."
He nods, keeping his face neutral.
Imogen's lips part for another question (something along the lines of "Do you really think that's an option if Brand is planning on destroying the universe?"), but she looks at Corwin - and changes it to a polite smile.
He executes a short bow to Llewella. "There are others I must track down. You'll have to excuse me until later."
"Au reviour, Corwin." She motions airily with her glass as he leads himself and Imogen away.
"Well, that went about as well as expected."
"She seems very ... detached," she comments. "Is she always like that?"
He nods. "Her coming into the family was very political. She was born while Oberon was still technically married to someone else when she was born, and her being born in Rebma just made a political mess. There were quite a few fights over her, and eventually Dad made her a legitimate heir. She learned earlier on that the best way for her to survive a sticky situation was to stay in Rebma and avoid us if possible."
"I see," she says softly. "A wise choice, perhaps."
She tilts her head back and looks at him. "Perhaps I'm not very wise," she adds, and smiles.
"Who do you need to tell next?" she goes on, more sombrely.
He looks around. "The others may have chosen to visit their rooms first... And everyone has favourite nobles to catch up with. Or a trump deck to replace.
"Apparently Bleys and Caine have already been to-- damn." He curses, then recovers.
"Gerard. He was out of town when it happened. I wonder if Flora got to him."
She looks at him for a second, wondering at the curse. But then she says calmly, "I guess he's next on the list. Besides, I'm looking forward to meeting him. You said he'd be nice."
"I hope they had cursing on Gallbraith. Because you're likely to get an earful when I tell him." He scans the crowd. "Yes, Gerard is nice. But not nice like Bill Roth. He's hardly gentle. I've suffered any number of bruises from the man."
His eyes land on a large form on the balcony, talking animatedly to a woman in red. Imogen immediately dislikes the colour on her-- From where she is, she can see the woman has a darker complexion, tanned, and brownish red hair. The red clashes horribly. An earth-tone would be better...
Corwin curses again. "And he's talking to a lady... Damn my luck..."
With a weary resolve, he heads over.
Imogen moves at his side, wondering at the identity of the badly dressed woman. Someone Corwin doesn't seem to know ... another newcomer, like herself?
~Heavens, he's big,~ she thinks, and can imagine he could inflict a few bruises if he chose. Absently, she wonders how Corwin might have provoked him. Not by sleeping with other nieces, she hopes.
The woman notices their approach before Gerard, and smiles at them. A nice smile. Open. Fresh. But something about her...
Gerard turns, and nods at Corwin, then looks at Imogen with interest, maybe even amusement.
"Hello there." His face is a bit flushed, and from what Imogen could hear, he had been in the middle of some vivid retelling.
Imogen smiles at the newcomer, then looks back to Gerard.
~Best get this over with.~
"I'm Imogen," she says. "Deirdre's daughter."
And takes in a short breath.
Gerard throws Corwin a look, but keeps his face polite, even friendly, for Imogen. "Yeah. Flora filled me in."
"What else did Flora fill you in on?"
"She was pretty busy-- what with the ball and all. She mentioned her when we met downstairs, but that's about it." He motions to Thomas, then to Esta. "Thomas, Eric's son, and Esta Vordun. Begma."
Imogen looks a little warily at Thomas. The son of the third side of the triangle - she wonders how much he knows of the troubled relationship of the three siblings - Deirdre, Eric and Corwin.
But not for long - for she turns her attention to Corwin and Gerard.
"Pleased to meet you, Imogen. You'll have to forgive me, I'm not quite as 'in the know' and Gerard here."
"That's all right," says Imogen with a slightly wry smile. "I'm pretty new myself."
Thomas looks back at Corwin. "So is the party what you expected, your majesty, or are you actually enjoying yourself?"
Imogen looks up at Corwin, and smiles slightly, wondering what his expectation had been ...
Corwin sighs. "I haven't been enjoying myself. The bearer of bad news never does." Gerard narrows his eyes at Corwin. "Brand is back. Ellie and the little Chaosite saw him. There isn't any doubt." Gerard sucks in a breath and curses, then looks around.
"Flora'll kill me if I break something, won't she?"
"Probably. I'd like to keep this quiet."
"Probably should stay sober tonight then." Thomas puts his drink down and looks at Gerard. "Might be a good idea to finally give me my cards, don't you think? And playing with dragons doesn't sound half bad."
"Cards?" says Imogen, a little bewildered. "Dragons?"
"Oh, it's just that going off and playing with dragons sounds better than meeting a pissed off diabolical uncle."
Esta laughs nervously. "An inside joke... " She looks like she's about to ask a question, then stops. "I think I'll grab something to eat..." Gerard gives her a look, and she nods, heading off.
"So what are we doing about this?" asks Gerard, looking back at Corwin. Corwin sighs.
"What we're already doing. Informing people, and keeping an eye out. We tried his card earlier, just to see if anything would happen, and it's completely blocked."
"Well that was damn stupid. You're going to link to a guy who could blast you through the wall?"
"At least then we'd know it was really him that was alive, wouldn't we?"
Imogen gives a little shiver.
"And ... Mother," she says softly.
"It probably is," agrees Imogen. "But who's to say he won't follow? Then you'll have dragons as well ... "
"Can walk away from Dragons, not from someone who can follow you."
"Oh, he can follow," says Imogen feelingly. "Or be a shadow up ahead of you on the road."
She breaks off and shoots a slightly worried look at Corwin.
"I think I might go grab some food too. Be right back. Want any?"
Imogen shakes her head.
"Thank you ... no.
"But do try the coffee marshmallow mousse!" she adds.
Corwin puts an arm around her, attempting to comfort. Gerard looks sympathetic. "Yeah, that'd be true, wouldn't it? You think she's back?"
"If she is, I'd like to think she'd contact me somehow."
"And me," says Imogen quietly.
"Well, if she is, she doesn't have a deck. Ryoden has hers, according to Benedict."
Imogen looks surprised. "My mother's trumps? How did she get them?"
Gerard shrugs. "She lives near the rim. Apparently she just picked them up one day and added them to her deck. Ben recognized the set when he searched her. He didn't know about you, so he just let her keep it."
Imogen frowns slightly. "That seems ... rather an odd co-incidence to me," she says slowly.
Corwin shrugs. "Not really. Trumps don't fade, and there were only so many of us at the rim. It's possible that she dropped hers--" He breaks off, and covers a moment of pain by looking away.
Corwin purses his lips, but then sighs. "She is family, in a way. But it should have gone back to one of us."
Imogen shrugs slightly. "Be that as it may, I can see it will be useful for me to have a ... a set? a pack? a deck? Is that possible?"
Her hand moves to the pendant around her neck, even as she decides that saying anything about this most private of trumps would not be a good idea.
Corwin nods. "Yes. An oversight on my part. My apologies."
"Don't worry," she says, a smile twisting her lips. "Given my previous experience ... I'm not that keen to use them."
"I was brought here by a trump," she explains to Gerard. "Flora called it a nasty little compelled thing. It wasn't ... very nice."
Gerard squints his eyes as he studies Imogen. "That's underhanded. You know who did that?" Corwin shakes his head.
"It could have been something Dee placed before Patternfall."
"Perhaps," says Imogen. "It was stuck inside the cover of a book of fairy tales I had as a child. It was so old it was starting to fall apart. That was when I found it."
Like a good politician, Imogen believes in telling the truth when it's what her audience wants to hear.
Corwin squeezes her arm slightly. Gerard thinks about the book, then shrugs. "Guess we won't have time to look into it now, huh?" Corwin nods.
"Our first priority is Brand."
Gerard thinks some more. "You know, we have more second generation kids running around than I'm comfortable with."
"It does seem a rather sudden influx," agrees Imogen. "Do you think we're in more danger here than in Shadow?"
Corwin makes a helpless gesture. "Here, you're close to the target. Out there, there's nothing to protect you. Damned if you do..."
Gerard looks out at the crowd seriously, moving his eyes over a few of Imogen's generation. "At least if we have them here, we can defend them. They're babes."
Imogen shivers a little. She's only too aware of her own ignorance ... and how desperately she needs protection.
"Perhaps," she says quietly, "given time, we can learn to defend ourselves?"
Gerard nods. "That's the idea. Teach you, train you... Amberites are pretty damn hard to kill once they're armed and wary. I don't relish the idea of wearing black any time soon."
Corwin nods, pulling Imogen a bit closer, heading Gerard off with a hard look. "It's alright. There's a few tricks to this place that are fairly hard to get around."
She leans her head on his shoulder. ~I'm here.~ she wants to say. ~Here with you.~
She can only hope the warmth of her within his arms is giving him a measure of reassurance. ~He's lost so much. I don't want him to lose me.~
Not, at least, to Brand.
Gerard looks away, and Imogen notices his face isn't totally filled with disdain. Perhaps sympathy? Envy?
Corwin nods his head. "I'll let you get back to your lady-- She seems a pretty thing. Best of luck with her."
Mutely, Gerard nods.
Imogen holds out her hand to him.
"I'm glad to have met you," she says sincerely. "I understand you're one of the sailors of the family. Would you find it a dreadful bore to show me the harbour sometime?"
He takes her hand, but doesn't seem to care to do anything courtly with it. Instead, he just gives it a light squeeze, his palm swallowing her fingers.
"Glad to have met you, too. And feel free to come down to the harbour any time. Just make sure to give me a holler first. I should escort you. Pretty lady in the wrong part of town is asking for trouble."
Imogen smiles at him ruefully.
"I've done enough of that to last me for quite a while, I think. Thank you."
With a last smile to him, she returns (in small measure) the pressure of his hand, then slides it free to glide once again to Corwin's side.
As they move out of earshot, she asks quietly, "How did I do? He didn't seem too angry with either of us. In fact ... almost ... "
"Almost...? I wasn't watching reactions-- more like guarding against them. I think he was disapproving, but dad never said anything about nieces and nephews, or cousins. Almost like he never expected us to reproduce."
Imogen gives him her wickedest smile. "What a miscalculation that was!"
She looks around the room.
"Who's next? I don't suppose ... no, silly of me ... "
Corwin looks amused. "Suppose away, please. If it is silly, I could use a laugh this night."
She tilts her head back and smiles.
"I just wanted to dance with you," she says. "But I know you should concentrate on telling your siblings the news. Later ... perhaps."
He laughs and takes her hand, leading her to the floor. "There's a million shoulds a day I ignore. I used to ignore more, before I was king. Do you know how to waltz?"
"If it's what everyone is doing, then I think so," she returns cautiously. "Only we call it the valse."
She catches up one side of her full skirt in the approved fashion, and moves forward into his arms. "And it's considered daring ... to be embraced in public like this," she adds.
"Such a conservative society. I'm surprised they produced you. You seem a bit more-- emotional than your lot.
"And what would happen on Galbraith, if I kissed you in public? No veil."
Her face is lifted to him, laughing. "Oh, total outrage! You would be taking the initiative, you see ... and also make a very public announcement of a strictly private intention.
"What would the response be in Amber if you kissed me publicly?"
She sways against him as they turn across the floor ... and out of the corner of her eye, she sees Ellie dancing.
"Ah!" she says, pleased. "Ellie's found someone other than Jurt to dance with. Not a cousin, is he? Is her an Amberite noble?"
He glances over. "So she has found a new partner. Here's to hoping. I think he's associated with Mandor somehow. I saw them together earlier." He hides a smile. "Perhaps Mandor has rethought this alliance."
They dance silently for a moment, and as the song winds to a close, he bends down and kisses her softly.
"No outrage here. It's good to be the king."
She smiles. "It's good to be with the King."
She reaches her hand up to touch his cheek gently.
"I'm grateful, Corwin. By bringing me out into the open here, you've made it possible for me to begin to build a place for myself here in Amber."
She doesn't voice her other thought - that he had also carefully positioned her in full view ... Brand, if he was watching, would know exactly what had happened between them, that she was now Corwin's chosen.
But Brand, she reflects, didn't know everything.
"I want you to have a place here, beside me or no. This-- This is your home, Imogen. Many of us spent years denying it, forging out lives in shadow. But we always return.
His eyes survey the room: Flora, flitting and chatting; Gerard, talking with Thomas and Esta; Llewella, sipping wine, and observing as he does; Bleys, teasing a serving girl; Benedict, watching his granddaughter.
"They always return."
She follows his eyes ... and then shivers, thinking of the one who no-one wanted to return ... and who has come. The uninvited guest. Brand.
"What of my generation?" she asks quietly. "Do they really understand ... the danger?"
"I don't think so. I think this generation has been kept too far from the dark side of Amber. I see my mistake with Ellie now. I should have put her somewhere where she could learn what she needed her. Paris is beautiful, but soft." He sighs and shakes his head. "It's on my head if something happens to her."
She clutches at his arm.
"Corwin ... don't." she says. "Ellie is a woman ... if we tell her of the danger, explain, I am sure she will see that she is safest her - with all of you. With us."
She bites her lip, aware of her own suspicions about Ellie. But ... she promised not to say anything - if Ellie would take to Bill.
Now she wishes she could ask Bill what Ellie said.
But there are the other, unknown cousins too, who might be in danger.
"What of the others?" she asks.
"Faetan-- I don't know. She seems a bit reckless to me. But she's latched onto Martin's leg, and he's a sensible boy. He's survived through Brand before.
"Merlin is a king in his own right, and if he's vulnerable, it's not Brand he's worrying about.
"I don't know. Gerard was right. Babes in the woods. And too old to lock in their rooms."
"No locks," says Imogen immediately, and shivers.
She smiles a little weakly.
"Sorry. It's just that ... I have a horror of being locked in. Confined. Once, when I was a little girl, Mother hid me under the floorboards. I must have been tiny. Someone ... came in."
She frowns, remembering.
"I heard voices ... quarrelling. Then a thud. The boards shook above my body. And then ... dripping. Between the floorboards. All over me. Smelling of rust ... "
She shakes her head. "I'm sorry. An old nightmare. That was the first time I remember we had to flee ... "
Corwin looks thoughtful. "You had a turbulent childhood... I don't know who that particular memory belongs to.
"Your mother was a fierce fighter. She never really dabbled in the fairer arts. It was a part of her charm, in a way. I have no doubt she would have fought with everything she had to keep you safe."
"That's true," she says sombrely. "I think - when she felt she couldn't keep me safely with her any more, she selected Gallbraith so that I would have a completely different set of experiences. Cool rationality - rather than fighting all my life with sharp bladed weapons."
She looks around the ballroom, and suddenly there is that glint of mischievous amusement he has seen a few times before. " I don't =think= she was quite grooming me for this role," she admits, and looks up at him, smiling.
"Are you through with telling people?" she asks. "Or are there others who must know?"
He sighs. "At this point, we are covered, unfortunately. Word of mouth travelled a bit faster than I wanted it to. As she said, there were those I should have seen the reactions to." He thinks a moment. "It was his daughter that told him... So she and Martin saw the reaction. I'll most likely want to pin her down later and ask what he said." A wince. "It won't be pretty. She's a live wire, and I get the feeling she's fiercely devoted to Bleys. Bleys inspires that."
"Bleys," says Imogen, thoughtfully. "Brand's full brother, yes? And ... involved in his plans in the past?"
She gives a little shiver.
"What's his daughter called? Do you think she might be inclined to look kindly on her Uncle Brand?"
She hesitates, then says, "Perhaps it would be easier for me to find out than you. Coming from you ... it may antagonise her, if she is inclined to be fiercely loyal."
He nods. "It very well may be better that you approach her. If you can't get anything, then I can step in.
"She may be innocent even if her father is involved. After all, she is fairly fond of Martin by all..." His voice trails off, and a look of worry passes over his features.
"Unless she's not really fond of him at all."
"Feeling can grow even in the most unlikely places," she says steadily. "Even when the head says 'No', the heart can say ... " She looks up at him, her blue eyes gentle, vulnerable. "'I love you.'."
He studies her face, as if trying to discern whether her last words we for him or not. Gently, he holds her close again, his cheek on her hair.
"That it can."
He draws apart again with a sigh. "My worry with Martin is that she's snagged him to use him. I wouldn't have anyone treated thus."
"Martin," she echoes. "Random's son?"
He must be fond of Random, she thinks, remembering the music he wrote for the dead sister Random adored. And the fondness has been passed on to Random's son?
"I'd like to meet both of them," she adds.
And she would. In this mysterious family with its strange animosities and alliances, people who have gained Corwin's affection are clearly at something of a premium.
"Yes, Random's son. Martin you would like. He's a good man. During the last wars he almost died... Brand stabbed him over the Pattern to gain allies. He lived and went into hiding. Many of us had never known him until then
"Random, I feel, you would only pity. He tends to be more a drunk than anything else these days."
"Brand stabbed him to ... gain allies?" Imogen repeats, confused. "It sounds like what I've heard of Brand ... but I don't quite see ... And is that why Random drinks? Because Martin was wounded?"
"Random drinks because his wife and child died a few years back. He's avoiding grieving. He's had to do it too many times.
"Martin getting wounded was what made Random track him down. Before... he never even knew him, only that he lived in Rebma. He ran off with one of the princesses there, then returned her, pregnant. Morganthe gave birth some time later, then committed suicide." Corwin sighs. "Random's always been attracted to the high-strung types. His mother was that way. Vialle was not, which was like a breath of fresh air."
"But then she died. How awful."
Imogen is silent for a few moments, remembering others who have died. And Brand ... like a spider in the centre of a web, spinning out poison. She feels the touch of one of his threads on her and shivers.
"He has to be stopped," she says, speaking her thought aloud. "And here ... on our ground."
But does Ellie see that? Do the others?
And then, another thought.
"Corwin ... why are we all here, now? Brand fetched me ... we know that. What about the others?"
"The others were brought by a faked Royal decree... I though Fiona had done it... She had been bothering me for years about a royal headcount. She hinted she knew who had children and who didn't. Of course, she denied sending anything, but no so vehemently that I'd believe her.
"Perhaps it was Brand. Perhaps not. All of you being gathered is hopefully to our benefit, even if it was a distraction initially."
He smiles wryly. "More for some than others."
Imogen laughs. "I hope," she says a little thoughtfully, "Brand got more than he bargained for when he grabbed me. I suspect he might have thought I was more biddable, and would be more ... unstable in the situation. I think, perhaps, he assumed that anything between us might be destabilising, rather than a source of strength. "She smiles at Corwin. "And that's where we can prove him wrong."
She takes a few paces - a common habit with her when thinking. Then she turns to look at Corwin.
"Still ... it's troubling. What if he wanted us all gathered together? One attack ... here and now?
"Or would he have wanted us to learn the truth ... and scatter to Shadow? Is that why he has only manifested himself to us here, in Amber?"
Corwin licks his lips, looking out at the starry night. "I don't know. He's always been unpredictable. In younger days, he was brash and charming, acid and flowers at once. Some of that impulsiveness wore off during Patternfall, though. Once he became focused... We're still not sure how much of what he did was design, or luck.
"I think he may be trying to distract us from something, and worrying about all of you is a perfect cover. Parents are worried about their own kin, siblings worried about the new layer to consider..." He grows quiet, and looks down at the moon painted flowers.
His voice is soft when he speaks, and he takes a moment to scan the room as he talks. "Jurt-- there were rumours he was mine for a while... Ellie assured me he wasn't..." His brows furrow.
"He's Dara's son, isn't he? Do you think he might have Amberite blood too?" She looks at him, and then her eyes widen. "You think Dara might have ... oh, Corwin, no! Surely not!"
Corwin nods. "I hadn't thought of it before, but Brand did visit Chaos, and Dara's house was one of the Houses he conspired with. It's possible. Jurt does have Amberite features, and I'm hesitant to say it's because of Benedict being his great-grandfather. Great-great, actually.
"We also know Dara was looking to give birth to the next king of Amber. She may have had Merlin in the event that I won, and Jurt..."
"You're not ... " she begins ... and then realises what she was about to say ("You're not letting your dislike of Dara and what she did prejudice you in this ... ") when she realises this is not the most tactful thing to say. "You're not thinking that Ellie might know this?" she amends.
"I don't know. I don't think he could turn her against me in the few days they've had. If anything, he could have just lied about his heritage. Or I could be wrong, and Benedict simply has strong genes, or Jurt adopted an Amberite face for the trip, and maybe prestige." He massages his temples.
"Corwin," she says immediately, moving back to him and resting her cool hands on either side of his head, her fingers stroking gently at his temples. "I know this is hard. But Ellie loves you. I'm sure she wouldn't do anything to hurt you ... or endanger herself ... or you.
"But ... perhaps she should be warned about the possibility."
He nods. "I should do that. Later. Now, I'm not as worried. All of you are under watch right now. Benedict thought it would be wisest to do so, considering. Jurt would be hard pressed to do anything to her.
"She won't like hearing it."
"I know," she agrees. "Although, just because he could be Brand's son doesn't mean that he will seek to emulate his father - or support him ... "
She stops and shivers.
"Still ... Brand and Dara as his parents. Not quite what one wants as the in-laws."
She smiles ruefully. "Not that my parents are ideal as your in-laws either."
He chuckles. "True, true."
"Perhaps it's not as bad as I think, and I'm just trying to find another reason to dislike him. I wish she had waited a while to take a lover... They're tricky things here, as you found out."
Imogen nods. "It's not ground I could argue with Ellie on, though. 'Do as I say, not as I do' has never been a saying of mine.
"But Ellie is younger than me. It might seem insignificant to you, my dear ... but I have had lovers before you - if I can admit that without making you wildly jealous. Ellie ... perhaps Jurt is the first time she has loved."
His face grows grim at the prospect. "I hope not. I truly hope not. She deserves better.
"Perhaps you could ferret this out... How friendly are you two? She says she likes you."
"And I like her," says Imogen simply. "I can ask ... as long as she doesn't ask me not to tell you, I'll let you know. And even then, I would make sure she knows there's a discretionary clause on my confidentiality."
Corwin nods. "I think she can already guess that. It's no secret what you are to me. Still... she's a forthright girl. She may appreciate that." He pauses, and his features are unreadable for a moment. He shakes his head.
"I hope you can get the answer honestly. Because I don't like what's going through my head right now."
She is quiet for a moment. Then softly she says, "Me neither."
She looks up at him, and smiles wryly.
"It's an awful thing. The worried father in me brought it up. Eleanor is the arty-literate type, so chances are good she'd keep a diary... But I can't do that. It's too big a betrayal." He shakes his head. "I feel dirty just thinking about it."
"Parents do it all the time," says Imogen, a little wryly. "I remember when my foster parents did it to me when I was at college ... You're right. It's not nice. Let me talk to her first?
"Unless ... Corwin, do you really believe that Jurt might not just be exploiting Ellie? That he might really be seeking to destroy us all?"
Corwin sighs. "If he is, he won't get far. The boy's not a match for a handful of Amberites, even as disjointed and distracted as we are. I've watched him move. He wouldn't last five minutes in a test of arms with me. I don't think he's the mastermind, if he's involved at all.
"And yes, talk to her first. Snooping is a last resort."
"I agree. In the family, it usually causes more upset than problems it resolves. I'll talk to her as soon as I can. Although ... are there others here that I should meet - and who you need to see?"
"I don't know. Who have you met so far? Did Flora show you around much?"
Imogen shakes her head. "We just worked hard on the Ball preparations. Talking of which ... "She looks up and sees the golden feathers are still in place, waiting to float down on the dancers when the nets are opened. She smiles in satisfaction.
"Just you, really," she tells him. "Everyone else I've met here has been through you - or on your recommendation, like Bill, who's a dear."
She looks around, struck with a sudden thought.
"Do I have a guard? Would it be useful for me to get to know her ... although I suppose it's him in Amber."
Corwin nods. "A male guard. All guards are men in the castle. We had mixed ranks for a while, but there were complications... So now any females wanting to be in the service are usually rangers. They're normally better at that line anyway.
"I'll have to have you better introduced. There aren't all that many of us any more, but it's enough to worry about, as you can see."
"Very well," she says equitably. "I'd still like to meet my guard though. Working as a team is better than eying each other warily."
Corwin nods, then narrows his eyes and looks around, finally catching the gaze of a lithe man, dressed in brown, crossbow at one side, sword at the other.
"Lorak. One of Benedict's men. I'd think twice before tangling with him, and he's the one assigned to watch you."
Imogen turns and glances across, unobtrusively. Her interest seems more drawn to a tapestry depicting a hunt, several yards to Lorak's right. But there is the faintest nod of acknowledgement to the man, approval from those deep blue eyes.
"Impressive," she says to Corwin, apparently intent on the tapestry. "I'm honoured by the choice."
"As you all should be. I've ferreted out the best to keep an eye on you guys. Some of my men, some of Benedict's, some of Gerard's. I'm not losing anyone on my watch."
His words are sure, but his eyes keep moving back to the dark night, and the countless shadows therein.
"Let's dance," she says, wanting to take his mind off the worries that are all too clearly oppressing him. "You've put the best in position ... now all you have to worry about is how stubborn and rebellious the lot of us are."
Almost as the words leave her lips, she regrets them ...
He sighs and rolls his eyes. "I hope Ellie is the worst. I really do. Because if there are worse, Unicorn help me, I might just give them over with a bow on their head."
Imogen looks at him, and then suddenly, unexpectedly giggles.
"In their chosen colours?" she suggests ruefully.
"Oh, I think so, with maybe accents in the receivers, in way of an apology in advance. Maybe that's how I can defeat him. Just hand him some headache and see what he does." He chuckles, and starts to move back to the dance floor, when he notices Ryoden again.
She's moved to sitting on the floor (propriety forgotten) and is studying her trump deck intensely, her companion sitting across from her.
Imogen notices his gaze and follows it with her own eyes.
"Mother's trumps," she says softly.
He nods. "I'll see what I can do. Maybe Merlin can switch them out without her knowing. I wouldn't approach her directly, thought. Part of the reason she detests Benedict so much is because he took them to look at them."
He pulls up near to her, and watches, confused, as the girl goes through an odd ritual. She shuffles the cards, places the deck down, taps it, frowns, then picks up the cards again for shuffling. The boy looks amused.
"What's she doing?" asks Imogen at his shoulder. "It's almost ... we pretend to tell the future like that on Gallbraith."
He nods. "It's a pastime here to throw tarot with our decks. But what in the world she's doing, I have no clue." He shakes his head. "Odd little Chaosite."
"Well, there's one way we can try to find out," says Imogen.
She moves forward to Ryoden and crouches down smoothly.
"Hi," she says cheerfully. "What're you doing? I've not seen the cards used like this before."
"I'm trying to train them. But they won't work!" She grows frustrated and taps them harder.
"Work!" The deck sits there, and doesn't move, which apparently displeases Ryoden greatly.
Corwin looks very confused. "Are you waiting for them to say 'Ow?' That's not how trumps work."
"Do you want me to try," offers Imogen. "I can ... make them dance a little. But you have to put a little more into it ... "
Ryoden looks doubtful, and holds the cards to her chest. "What do you mean, dance?"
Imogen notices that Flora has wandered by, and has stopped not too far off, pretending to be interested in a flower arrangement.
Imogen draws a breath.
"Well," she says, just hoping that what she's about to do won't be counted as sacrilege ... for by her count there are three Elders within pouncing reach ... "You can take them ... and shuffle them... and make them dance in the air. Want me to show you?"
Ryoden looks at her deck, then at Imogen, then at Benedict. Suddenly, she grins wickedly, her eyes meeting her grandfather's, and she hands over the cards. "Sure! Here you go!"
He pretends not to notice.
Imogen nods tightly, to no-one in particular.
~Mother's cards. Oh Casaubon, forgive me, Mothers.~
They feel oddly heavy. Cool.
~Forget that. They're cards. You can do this.~
She shuffles them, quick and fast. All those evenings at college, playing cards with the girls. All those tricks ... her fingers haven't forgotten them. Open shuffles ... the cards seeming to dance from one widespread hand to another ... One hand high .... a downward cascade. Then ... up ... cards seeming to leapt into the air ... up to the hand held at head level. And down ... a curve of cards ... rising to a zenith, then falling to be caught in a sure and certain hand.
"There," she says to Ryoden. "Is that what you wanted?"
Ryoden laughs with delight, and takes back her deck. "Neat. But no. I wanted them to make a pattern." She proceeds to lay out a complex network of cards and ponder, then shrugs and put them back.
"S'posed to tell you all sorts of things. But I can't figure it out. And when she did it all she had to do was tap and they went out. Good trick that."
Imogen is conscious of a smothering, choking sensation in her throat.
"Oh?" she asks, keeping her voice light and level. "Who was the lady who showed you that?"
Ryoden smiles. "I'm not supposed to say! She wanted to be forgotten."
Corwin furrows his brow, and goes to ask something as the eavesdropping Flora finally makes her way over. She bends over Ryoden.
"Why, look. It looks like you're doing a reading! What do the cards say?" Ryoden looks down at her layout.
"I dunno. I don't know how to read them."
Imogen looks up at Flora, her face a little tense.
"Can you read them?" she asks. "I did something similar a few times... in college."
She looks down at the cards Ryoden has spread out and shivers slightly. "Not with cards like this, though," she admits.
Flora nods and laughs. "Oh yes. We all do, though it did fall out of vogue as we got older. Here, child, let me see your deck." Ryoden gathers her cards and once again gives them over, looking at Benedict slyly. Once again, he pretends not to notice.
Flora shuffles through and hums to herself. "Well, to start off, I think we can rule out Disneyworld as having any bearing on the current situation, yes?" She discards a card depiction of a colourful amusement park. "And I think these are a bit much too." She pulls out a handful more.
She shuffles the remaining cards. "Now, what is our question?"
Imogen reaches for Corwin's hand.
"Mother," she says softly. "If Brand is alive ... did she survive too?"
Flora casts a few times, furrowing her brow. Her look becomes uncertain, and she keeps glancing up at Corwin, who studies the cards too.
Ryoden moves her gaze from the layout to Flora, then back. "What, what does it say?"
Imogen looks from Corwin to Flora, trying to read their faces. Her hand tries to read signs from his clasp, his tension. Then she too looks at the cards ...
Every time the cards fly out, she sees the Magician, and then Ryoden. The other cards seem to be of the minor arcana... And her mother's face...
"It's... unsure, at best. The cards can be obtuse at the worst of times." Flora picks them up and shuffles again.
"The child ... seems central to this," says Imogen wonderingly. "Try ... try asking if Brand needs the child. If she is important to his plans."
Corwin looks at Ryoden, who now listens wide eyed. "Ryoden. I think you should go talk to your brother."
She pouts. "But-- I want--"
She stands with a huff and storms off.
"I'm sorry," says Imogen. "I shouldn't have said that in front of her. But Flora ... can you ask that?"
Flora nods and casts again. She sighs.
"Swords, swords... What did that mean again? A trap... or entanglement. Damn, it's been too long.
"There's something weird going on here. Brand and the Chaosite are linked, according to these, but I can't say how."
On Imogen's shoulder, Corwin's hand tightens.
Imogen turns her head and looks at his profile.
"What is it?" she says softly. "What do you see in the cards?"
He shakes his head. "No... Not in the cards. Do you remember what I said about Jurt...?"
Flora looks intrigued, and cocks her head as she gathers up the cards.
"Oh no," says Imogen in horror. "You think the cards confirm that? Oh Corwin, poor, poor Ellie."
She stares down at the cards.
"Why ... why not ask that?" she says finally. "Then at least we will know."
Flora looks at Corwin, who kneels down and says softly, "We think Dara bedded more than one Amberite. And there were only so many Amberites that went to Chaos at the appropriate time..."
Flora's eyes widen. "That little-- now that you mention it, he does look a bit like him... And has that same kind of attitude Brand did when he was younger..."
She shakes her head and casts, casts, then casts again. "Well, there's something going on... But it's hard to say. Damn. I need to add some damn 'Yes' and 'No' cards."
Let me try," says Imogen. "There was something we used to do ..."
She takes the cards and kneels down.
"The sword," she murmurs and deals out cards in a pattern like an elongated crucifix ... then, at the point of the sword, adds two set diagonally.
"This is the sword," she says. "This central card is the key. The cards that make up the 'hilt' represent the past. The two cross pieces represent support ... not necessarily conscious support. The blade is the means that will be used ... and those two diagonal cards at the base ... they represent where the strike will come."
She looks up at Flora and Corwin. "Shall I turn over the cards ... or will one of you?"
Behind them, Imogen sees Ellie approach and greet everyone. Corwin swiftly stands from his crouch and takes his daughter's arm.
"Eleanor. You've been hiding all night. You haven't given me the honor of a dance yet."
Behind him, Ellie sees Flora swiftly picking up what seems to be a discarded tarot reading, Imogen looking on.
Imogen rises too, smiling.
"Ellie! You look lovely."
Ellie grins back "As do you, Imogen. I met Bill Roth by the way. He's really nice."
She then smiles at Corwin "So, would you like to dance, Father?"
He leads her to the floor with a look to Imogen. "I'll meet you in a bit." Flora finishes gathering up the cards, then looks around.
"Now, where did she go...?"
"I'm not sure," says Imogen. "Benedict ... "
Benedict hasn't moved, but occasionally glances to the side. Imogen follow his eyes, and sees Ryoden under a table, glaring at Corwin, and keeping an eye on her deck.
"Ah!" says Flora. "We should get her these back before she turns that glare on us. Always, always try to be the good guy, dear." She makes her way over to the sulky Ryoden.
Imogen follows and crouches down beside the girl.
"Hi," she says. "Thanks for letting us have a go with your cards."
Ryoden crawls out and smiles as Flora gives up the cards freely.
"What did you ask?"
Before Imogen can answer, Flora pulls the girl up and sits her at the table. "Oh, it's just a game. Not really important, is it? Now, we still have to teach you, don't we?"