It is a day in fall, when Morgana sits at the sturdy dining room table, across from her father, Osric of Amber. His sitting room is dark, thick, blood colored curtains drawn against the offending sun... and the offending sound of church bells. He grips his book tightly, and as she watches his deceptively calm face, she hears the sound of tearing paper.
There is crying out in the streets, a joyous celebration, as the days festivities begin, festivities that she, her father, and her elder uncle have chosen to absent themselves from: the marriage of Oberon, King of Amber, to Faiella of the Low Lands.
Morgana finally decides she isn't going to eat the pear she has been holding and sets it back on the table. She uses both hands to push herself up and away from it. "Well, that's it. My transformation from Princess to Nobody is complete." She crosses the room to slide one drape open enough to peer out at the celebration.
Would it really hurt to go out and join in the fun, she wonders, now that the point has been made. A quick glance at the book reminds her that it would. She settles for a muted sigh and drops the curtain back into place. She returns to the table and reseats herself in preparation for what could be the longest, most boring day of her life. Morgana remains still for all of a minute. "Ok. Point made. Now what?"
"We wait," says Osric with deceptive calmness. "One of them is bound to..." Just then, they hear the downstairs door being answered, and someone being admitted. "See?" Osric smiles grimly. "One was bound to stop by." He returns to his book, and when the door to the sitting room opens, he looks hopelessly ensconced.
In the frame of the door, young, lanky Benedict stands, his clothes the overdone trappings of a noble, and they look stiff, and awkward on them. This fall marks his twelfth year, and he tries to look every inch his age as he addresses Osric.
"Father's called for you," he says, back straight, fingers itching to tug and the stiff lace and starched fabric entrapping him.
Upon hearing the door opened downstairs, Morgana says, in a voice far less calm than she meant to use, "Congratulations, you've achieved 'too important to ignore'." She doesn't pick the fruit up, figuring she would just be playing nervously with it when their visitor arrives. She hides her hands under the table.
When she sees that it's Benedict who's come, she wonders whether him being the messenger was meant to be an insult. She finds it hard not to laugh at his appearance, but manages not to. Glad the she doesn't have to be dressed in something so uncomfortable, she'd love to know if he feels as trapped as he looks. Not wanting to embarrass her young uncle, Morgana holds her thoughts to herself and waits for her father's response.
"Then he can come himself," says Osric, giving his brother an indifferent shrug.
"He's been Trumping you since last night!" retorted Benedict, clenching his fists. "You've been blocking him!"
"I'm not coming, Ben," he says evenly. "You've failed in your mission. You can try to get Finndo, now."
Ben sighed in exasperation, his eyes falling. "I can't... He's... He's at Lady Alta's and..." He turns red at the mention of the infamous Madame's house. "And they won't let me in, even if I push about being a pr--"
"A prince? Give it up, Ben. We're charity cases, now."
"Yeah," says Morgana, needing to say something to avoid the depressing reality. "Come on in, loosen that uncomfortable junk you're wearing.shred a book. Then you can tell me, at least, what a royal wedding is like. I'm not likely to be in one now. Did they let you do anything?"
Benedict looks uncertain, and then makes his way to a stool, sitting and loosening his cravat. "I watched Eric, for the most part... It was long, boring, and full of speeches and organ music. It was like going to church, except more people were there..."
He looks up at Morgana, uncertain. "He's asked to see you too... Oberon, that is."
Her intended joke dies on her lips. "Uh, me?" Morgana asks, taking a quick glance at her father. Impulsiveness wins the short battle with fear. "I guess I had better go, then."
He says nothing, still focused on his book, taking more than a little care every time he turns a page, on the surface, oblivious to his daughter and sibling, but underneath, all too aware of the silence pinning them there.
Finally, he only says, "Then you had better get going, hadn't you?"
"Don't be like that. You and Finndo have the power to go anywhere. I'm not even halfway done with my training for the pattern." It wasn't what she meant to say, but the words just tumbled out. With a sigh, Morgana rises to her feet. "Let's get you put back together, Ben. It's time to go." She'll wait for her uncle to retie the cravat and follow him out.
Benedict makes short work of the knot, hurrying out as quickly as possible; his face dark as they descend the stairs and make their way to the celebration outside.
"Thanks," he says quietly. "If I came back with no one... Can you do me a favor? Can you help me with Madame Alta's? If only Osric is missing, father won't be =too= mad..."
Incredulous laughter bubbles forth from Morgana. "If you couldn't get him to come, I doubt I can either. Besides, if my father doesn't go, I'm =sure= Finndo can't go alone. Still, I've never been there either and it might be worth it just for a peek inside."
A few moments later she adds, "You're welcome."
He nods, and they soon come up to the unpresumptuous front of Madame Alta's, a plain fronted house of brick, and wooden siding. They get in the front door unmolested, and find themselves in a small, simply decorated entry room. Upstairs, music and the sounds of raucous laughter can be heard.
The bellhop is not a young, spry boy as is common in other establishments... He's a strapping man, face scarred from battle, his hands so large and meaty that they swallow the pencil he had been writing with. He looks at the young Prince, then Morgana. He chuckles.
"You brought back reinforcements, huh? Well, Ben, if your aunt the Highness will vouch that you won't go dabbling, you can go in."
Looking around, Morgana is pleasantly surprised by the simple décor. She had been imagining opulence and a complete lack of taste. Of course, she reminds herself, she hasn't seen the upstairs.
She smiles at the bellhop. "That's niece, and I'm sure he'll be good. Well," she says to Benedict, "let's go on in."
Benedict follows her, and as they are lead up the stairs, his eyes grow wide, then wider, then, finally, fearing they would pop out of his head, he lowers them, staring at the gaudy red and gold weaved carpet.
The women, at least, are half dressed, but the half they cover isn't anything that needed it. They spill out of bustiers, flashing skin whenever they move. The doors are half open, and they coo at the young prince, giggling and nudging each other like school girls.
They find Finndo in the last suite, with two silky haired blonds: twins, by the looks of it. He lazes in a smoking jacket, feet propped up on one, head on the other, as he tells them of his last clash with the Moonriders (more than a little embellished).
He looks up when the door enters, and grins broadly at Morgana.
"Morgie! Planning a career change?"
Morgana's face shows mild amusement at Benedict's discomfort. She lets it go unnoticed by him. As they head inward, she takes in the sights and decides it is something she could have done without. She focuses her attention on the neck of their escort.
Somehow the scene she finds Finndo in is exactly what she was expecting. She's not sure whether to be annoyed with his opening comment or grateful for the familiarity. Finally, she steps aside for Benedict to enter.
"I am." She waves Benedict in with mock flourish. "How about Herald?"
"Herald?" Finndo procures a tobacco box and begins to pack his pipe. "How so?"
Benedict clears his throat, looking up at his brother with every inch of royal presence he could muster. "Father wants to see you," he said firmly. Finndo sighs.
"I suppose I'll have to change, won't I... I was hoping to go without a stuffy suit today, you know."
"Dad's not coming," Morgana says evenly.
Finndo stops pulling off his jacket, and with a huff, pulls it back on. "Well, if =he's= not going..."
Benedict turns long enough to glare at Morgana, then, with a sigh, looks up at Finndo, hands clenched in front of him.
"Please... If I only show up with Morgana, he'll be angry... If I at least have you, he'll just scream at Osric. Just do this. I'll never ask you for anything again..."
Finndo relents, sighing, and shrugs off the jacket. He disappears behind a screen, returning moments later looking, if a tad gaudy, at least presentable.
"Very well. I can't have you strung up by your ears, boy, not before we have you across Pattern...
"If it still going to be allowed to us," he grumbles under his breath as he passes Morgana.
"Wait a minute!" Morgana says loudly, worried about her father being the lone hold out. "I'm sure dad didn't think you would go," she says to Finndo. "I at least need to tell him."
They make their way down to the street, Finndo waving jauntily to the dark windows of Madame Alta's. "Oh, fine... Give him another chance to say no, make us late for the verbal beating we're going to get..."
"I know he's going to say no. It just.it just doesn't seem fair not to tell him." Annoyed at being in a position with no good solution, Morgana turns to Benedict. "How soon did Oberon say he wanted us back?"
Benedict shrugs, his eyes centered ahead of him, his mouth set in a thin line. "I think we can assume it wasn't 'whenever you can make it.'"
Ahead, Osric's house comes into view, and on the air, Morgana can make out the sounds of voices, floating above the din... Loud voices, full of drink and ire. Finndo's eyes widen, and he breaks into a run as they realize that the sounds are coming from Osric's upper story.
"I think we're late already," Morgana says to Benedict, "or else the stinker waited until I was safely out of there to start answering trumps." Cursing, she races after her other uncle.
They hear the words, vile curses, coming from the study where she had left her father. The speech was slurred with liquor, and, thankfully, not her Osric's. She could hear her father's calm voice beneath the rush of epithets and insults... Morgana catches words about money, and credit, and paying dues owed.
Finndo hits the door first, sword drawn and eyes burning, and Morgana can see Osric beyond him, blade also drawn and lowered. Across from him is a man, a noble of a local merchant family, red and filled to the brim with the day's offerings of wine.
Morgana stops at the entrance, relieved. Still, she's now more convinced than before that all the consequences of this day are going to be negative. She follows Finndo in and moves to be near her father, outside of accidental sword-stroke range however. "Is something the matter, father?"
Osric does not look over as he watches the wavering blade of his opponent. "Apparently," he says evenly, "Since our disowning, our credit and honor seem to be in question..."
The man staggers forward, brandishing his blade. "I want our Karm's accounts paid in full, before the king pulls your allowances... And I want your bastard hands off my sister! We don't need her to bear some filthy bastard of yours!"
Morgana has no desire to intercede on behalf of a drunken fool. She steps back, intending to let the scene play itself out.
The man sneers, turning on his heel and beginning to stumble out. His eyes, though, land on the young Benedict, who stands to the side of Morgana, eyes flitting back and forth from this two brothers, and the Karm before him.
"So, you little shit... You might want to start sucking up to the nobles now... I've been looking for a new stable boy..."
Pent up frustration turns quickly to anger. "Sir," Morgana says, sharply. "This is =my= guest in =my= house. You will apologize at once and depart."
"=Your= house?!" He laughs, flooding the air around Morgana with the smell of cheap whisky. "You're nothing... You'll be lucky to get a spot at Madame Alta's..." There is a flash of silver at his throat, and the man steps back, looking down at the blade held at his throat. At the other end of it is Osric, eyes full of fire. Immediately, the man begins to call out, and Morgana can hear men in the street call back, and the door downstairs open.
The fumes catch in her throat and Morgana coughs once. She holds back a sharp retort. Having decided the time for talk is past, she gets out of her uncles' way and, hoping she won't need to use it, finds a blade.
She turns, finding one on a wall, a fine silver saber with a red, lacquered line up the middle of it. She whirls back in time to see Benedict, dagger in hand and face drained of blood, pushed behind Finndo, as a man barrels into the room, broadchested, strong, and, unfortunately, not full of drink. He looks at the three (four, counting Morgana's young uncle) armed Amberites facing off the drunk Karm, and grits his teeth, drawing his own sizable blade.
"You nobles think you're so grand, that you can fight a man three to one?"
Osric faces off with him, their swords a hair's breath apart. "He intruded on my home," he says calmly. "And insulted not only me, but my daughter and brothers. He has every right to be finding metal at his throat, Louis--"
Louis growls, and their weapons meet, clashing with angry barks and clangs in the small sitting room.
Osric is a swordsman without compare, excepting the ever-exceptional Oberon, of course. With a few strokes, it becomes obvious the fight is no contest, and on Louis's face, the first traces of panic begin to appear.
His companion, eyes wide and red with alcohol, lunges, but not to join in the fray.
As he reaches for Benedict, Morgana steps between the man and his target. She bats the hand away and holds the silvery blade in a guarding position
He growls, slashing out at Morgana this time, his blade coming within a hair's breath of her bodice.
While tempted to kill the man, Morgana reasons that it would be unwise (and the part of her that says "You've never killed anyone before" is happy to support her choice). She uses the saber to force her opponent back and then attempts to disarm him.
Her weapon twirls about his, and while she can't quite get a hold on it, she realizes this is far from his skill, but his inebriated state that's frustrating her.
Behind him, the battle rages on between Osric and Louis, blades clashing and swears trading. Osric lunges forward, and the heavy falls back, trying to put space between himself and the advancing Amberite... His back hits his drunk kinsman, who lurches forward...
And Morgana's blade smoothly enters his chest. His eyes widen with disbelief, as blood begins to pour down the saber...
Training doesn't allow shock to take over. Morgana withdraws the blade quickly and steps aside. Her eyes follow the man's body to the ground. Face pale, she draws a deep breath and brings a hand to her mouth. Almost furtively, she takes a look first at Benedict and then the duelists.
Louis stumbles back, falling across the body of his kinsman. He rolls, ready to spring up again, until he sees the blood, and a set of dead, staring eyes. He lets out a cry as Osric backs up, sword down, eyes on Morgana's bloody saber. From next to her, she feels someone knock it out of her hand: Finndo.
Benedict hides behind her, chest still as he holds his breath, trying to avoid the pool of blood creeping up to his boots.
"Murderers!" bellows Louis as he gathers up the body of his kin, and moves to leave. Neither Finndo nor Osric move to stop him.
Her vision suddenly hazy and damp for no good reason she can think of, certainly not sympathy for the dead man on the floor, Morgana watches silently as Louis takes his kinsman with him. "I didn't do it," she says woodenly. "I mean I didn't mean to do it," she continues with more animation. "I was trying to disarm him."
She sees her uncle at her side, rubbing at the pommel furiously, using a corner of her dress. After it is fully burnished, he grips it firmly, then places it down on the floor again.
"I know, Morgana, I know. Louis didn't see who was holding the blade though. When they come, and they will, and ask, you and Benedict are to say it was =me=, do you understand?"
Morgana watches her uncle work, all the while asking herself why he has to use her dress. "As you wish," she says dully. Taking comfort from her family around her, she pulls herself together and looks up, flashing a very brief smile. "There's blood on my shoes," she points out.
Osric sets his blade on the study's table, staring at the floor. "Good. There should be. Don't try to hide that when we're searched. Say Finndo was protecting you and Ben, and some of the blood managed to get onto you." His face is grim, but no heightened emotion plays on his face. He is neither scared, nor horrified, nor angry. For all that shows on him, he could be balancing a ledger.
Finndo grips the blade firmly, then tosses it on the table as well. "If Father's been looking for an excuse, he's just found one, hasn't he?"
"And it's all my fault," Morgana says. "If he is looking for an excuse, wouldn't he go easier on you two if I did take the blame?" Not wanting to track blood all over the house, she slips out of her shoes and walks to the bar. It takes only a moment to find her favorite armagnac and pour herself a glass. She waits to sip of it until after she has flopped heavily in a chair and donned her shoes.
"It's us he wants, Morgana. There were arguments you weren't privy to... It was stupid to push him about naming one of us heir, but at the time, it was borne by frustration. I don't care to see that sprat Eric follow us, but Father refuses to commit."
"So, now what?" Morgana's eyes keep being drawn back to the blood on the floor. When she looks away, it's only to find blood on the saber. "I don't suppose we can continue this conversation in another room?"
The guards do come, an hour later. There is no smashing of doors or pointing of swords, or yelling. The head of the guard of Amber steps in, nodding respectably, as if he was only a guest for tea. He does not have to say what is expected of him, or them. Finndo and Osric admit to their crimes, the actions leading up to the death of a noble, then are escorted to the castle.
Considering she was already intending to answer the king's summons, Morgana finds something to wear that isn't speckled with blood and then makes her own way to the castle. If Benedict didn't go with his brothers, she asks him to wait for her.
Oberon is not in the throne room, but in the private library at the top of the castle. She is shown there by a pale faced serving girl, then abandoned just as quickly. She knocks, and a gruff, "Come in!" is barked.
Morgana places a tentative hand on the door. She takes a deep breath, firms up her grip, opens it and enters. After closing the door behind her, she performs the appropriate courtesy. As much as she would like to just start talking, she waits for the King to notice her.
He looks up, studying her, waiting for something... Screaming fits? Perhaps. Grovelling? Maybe that as well. He doesn't find it, though, and he shrugs.
"If you've come to ask about your father and uncle, they're alive, and guarded in their rooms, until the trial."
"I have come," Morgana replies, "because you sent for me." Having survived the initial moment, she now reminds herself not to get cocky.
"And I had called," he retorts in the same even tone, "To prevent an event like what had passed today from happening. Seeing as how it came to pass anyway, the meeting has now been rendered moot. You are dismissed." He lowers his head, and looks back at his papers, a trade treaty of some kind.
Her face flushes instantly from shock. Morgana stands silently for a moment. Some part of her goes on thinking and wonders if he shouldn't be with his new wife. "Grandfather," she finally says, her voice filled with emotion, "does this . thing mean I no longer matter to you?"
He spares her a quick glance, then grunts, rolling up a scroll. She catches the words 'Karm' and 'South holdings' before he stows it away.
"Morgana, these are hard times we're forced to live through, and what matters to us isn't worth anything if we can't keep a kingdom stable. I can't have everything I've sacrificed, everything I've worked for, be wiped out by two men who've neither the sense nor the sight to rule."
His statement stings, but also elicits unexpected calm and resolve. More firmly, but in a tone still not perfectly controlled, she says, "I can accept that. But does it leave me with any place here?"
He sits back in his chair, studying her, hands folded in his lap. If there was any emotion in there, behind that perfectly calm, though slightly irritated face, she couldn't tell. "You will never be a pauper," he says finally. "But... as for the royal line... you are no longer in it. Yours is the standing of a Royal bastard. Honored, and privileged."
"And the pattern?"
"It is your bloodright," he says quietly. "Risk it, if you feel it will help you prove something."
Morgana realizes she has been holding her breath, afraid he would say 'no' and afraid he would say 'yes.' She nods her head slightly. "Dworkin believes I am not yet ready. I will trust his judgment." She pauses for a moment before asking, "What will happen to father?"
"The trial is tomorrow morning," replies her grandfather without emotion. "You will see then. Both Osric and Finndo will have a chance to defend themselves. I want you and Ben there."
"Of course. With your permission." Assuming she gets it, Morgana will leave.
Morgana quickly leaves the castle and sets her feet on the path home. Long before arriving she turns aside, not willing to return to the empty house with the memory of death freshly staining it. As she walks along the city, she listens to the sounds. The boisterous, street-filling celebration that had been is gone now, replaced by a more subdued mood. Further down the hill, where the death of a noble has less immediate impact, she can hear louder, happier sounds.
With a quick look at her attire, she decides to limit herself to the city she knows. Cleere's pub is lit and inviting and she lets herself in. It is not as crowded as usual and Morgana finds an empty table near the bar. Kenny is behind the bar and she signals the large man with a wave. He pulls down a glass for her and opens a bottle. After a moment's thought, he brings both the glass and the bottle to her. "I heard the news, kid," he says sympathetically. She nods without answering and he makes his way back behind the bar.
Having found what she wanted, a place to be alone but with company, Morgana studies the other occupants of the pub. She doesn't need to look to know that she's been noticed by everyone. She doesn't need ears to sense when she becomes the subject of a conversation. Some of them are sympathetic, most aren't. No one actually moves away, but as people come in, the empty seats near her remain unfilled.
Jon Cleere opens a door leading to the offices of the establishment and steps into the area behind the bar. He looks around, seeking a reason for the lowered volume level in his pub. His eyes settle on Morgana and her bottle. He frowns for a moment, then approaches. His voice is quiet. "I hate to tell you this," he pauses, searching for a title, "milady, but unless you brought cash, I'm going to have to reclaim that bottle."
"I've just seen the King. The Monarchy is still covering my expenses."
Cleere frowns at her again. "Could you take that into the private room then. You're bothering my customers."
Morgana's temper flares, but she holds it in and decides not to make a scene. "I'm sorry," she smiles up at him. "I came here because I didn't wish to be alone." She drains the glass and stands, leaving the bottle on the table. You'll always be alone now, an inner voice chides her.
Walking quickly, she returns to the house. She forces herself to enter the dining room and takes in the tapestry of the morning's events again. It adds to her new-found sense of self-reliance. She gives the room a curt nod of acknowledgement and steps out.
The throne room of Amber, the next day, looks austere, stripped of the liveries of wedded bliss. Every trace of merriment has been removed, and the minor flags of the room are black, that of mourning. The collected gentry crowd every imaginable crevice, filling the alcoves and balconies, the side rooms and stairwells. At the center of the gathering stand Osric and Finndo, unfettered, but obviously not free to simply walk out, evidenced by the guards flanking them.
At the head of the room, is Oberon, his new queen at his side, child Eric in her arms. Among the nobles is Morgana, Benedict at her side, trying very hard not to clutch at her hand like a frightened child. Instead, he grasps a sword, one of Osric's, a simple short sword that manages not to trip the youth too badly.
"Don't fret too much," she says softly. "It very much was self-defense." She gives Benedict a reassuring smile. Her eyes and ears return to studying the assemblage, trying to gauge the mood.
Oberon bangs his scepter on the left hand of his throne, and the room silences. "You know the charges," he says, in a voice that is powerful without yelling, and full, without bellowing. "How do the two of you plead?"
"Self defense," says Osric evenly.
In the moment that follows Osric's statement, Morgana leans over to the uncle, who because of the closeness of their ages, feels more like a brother, and whispers, "Don't forget, if asked." She stops as she looks at Oberon's undreadable face. "If this is about politics more than truth." She lets the second thought trail off as well.
Oberon seems to see his granddaughter for the first time, bent over whispering to Benedict, and his eyes narrow before they return to Osric and Finndo.
"Self-defense?" he says, and Osric pauses a moment before responding.
"Half-so... It was my own we were defending. I consider Morgana and Benedict as much a part of myself as an arm, or eye. I will defend them as such."
Oberon's attention causes Morgana to straighten up. Another lesson learned, she notes. Who knew crises could be so valuable?
Oberon nods, half at his son, and half at his granddaughter. "You were defending yourself... But only half so." A murmur rises in the room, as nobles whisper to each other, moving lips barely concealed behind splayed hands. Another rap of the scepter brings back the suffocating silence. "You've been taught to fight, and fight without killing. The death of this man was not necessary... Was it?" Osric's jaw clenches.
"It was not just his honor at stake, Father."
Morgana's imagination is kept under control. She watches and listens intently.
Do tell," says Oberon coolly. "Please." Osric straightens and steps forward, his eyes ice, matching his father's for caliber.
"My brothers and I, no matter how what you nullify, no matter who you cast out, are of the Blood, and are real. These people, these nobles you scrape and cater to," He sweeps his hand behind him. "Are not. We do not play by their rules, Father, so lowering us to their level is useless. We are princes of Amber. =They= do =not= throw their small minded ignorance at us, no matter how much we may be in your disfavor."
Although she keeps her face even, Morgana's heart sinks at her father's reply.
Oberon's eyes narrow as a murmur of awe, mixed with anger, sweeps through the room. The woman at his side, a dark haired beauty who was now queen, seems to shrink as Osric's gaze falls on her, and the child in her arms. Oberon's frown deepens, and he motions to a guard. Even over the dull roar of the crowd, Morgana can hear her grandfather's words.
"Get the nobility out of here."
Morgana carefully avoids the mass of exiting nobles and remains where she is.
Benedict remains at her side, though he is a sidestep closer to her. In minutes, the throne room is clear, even of the guards. Osric stands his ground, feet set apart, back as straight as any of the Grecian statues that line the wall.
"Getting rid of witnesses?" He asks calmly, and Morgana hears Benedict give a small gasp.
Morgana squeezes Benedict's arm gently. "Don't worry. If it was going to lead to execution, the others would have stayed. Not," she adds absently, "that we aren't in trouble."
You know I need Karm," he says darkly. "I also don't need this much dissention, this close to the throne--"
"Then you shouldn't have tossed aside mother," growls Finndo, looking at Faiella, who holds her newborn son tightly. "There will only ever be =one= queen of Amber, father."
"Recriminations are," Morgana breaks in, unable to contain herself any longer. "at this stage pointless. The question is what's to be done now?"
"Recriminations are," Morgana breaks in, unable to contain herself any longer, "at this stage pointless. The question is what's to be done now?"
Oberon studies his sons, hands now clasped over his middle, and his blue eyes hard and flat, like the morning sky. "Now? You are correct... I can't have nobles pushing around those of the blood, even if they aren't in line for the throne... It opens up too much questioning of power, later. I need that absolute." He is still, and at Morgana's side, Benedict holds his breath. Finally, Oberon takes up his scepter again and raps it once, his face masked from any show of emotion.
"I rule this as self-defense, and proper in view of your lineage... Charges are dismissed."
Oberon looks to his granddaughter, and his young son beside her. "You are still family," he says slowly, "Line for the throne or no. And with that lineage comes responsibility. You know my problems are not limited to the ones of Amber City, but out in the shadows."
Osric frowns, taking a step forward. "Yes, we know that... But there have always been problems in the shadows. There's nothing strange about that."
Oberon holds up a hand, stopping his son. "You are correct in one way: most shadows are not of our concern. But those close to us, are. The people, the families, the trade. If they are stable, and strong, our defense is strong. I need you to see to that, in Ganesh."
Morgana smiles to herself. It is no more than she expected. Her part done however, she has nothing to add to the conversation.
Morgana nods. To Benedict she says, "Take good care of everything for me.and everyone," she adds with a look at the Queen and Eric. She faces her grandfather and curtsies before the King and Queen. "Sire, your Majesty." If there isn't anything else for her, she'll withdraw and leave the arguing to her uncles.
Morgana heads home and sets about packing what she thinks might be necessary for an extended visit to a troublesome shadow. When the sword she used yesterday is returned, she adds it to the collection.
By nightfall, they are ready to leave, a few crates packed and an army at their beck and call. Finndo and Osric speak little, that which is left unspoken tensing the air painfully. Benedict tries to help, and even asks about being a page for them, but he is dismissed, and sent back to the castle.
They leave in the cover of night, Osric in the lead, taking the well traveled through shadow. Morgana, in the back of the wagon, can hear him grumble to his brother under his breath. "He had this ready to go too quickly, you know."
"I'm sure," she says, loudly enough for them to hear, but no louder, "that if there had been no fight we would have been on this road yesterday." Morgana crawls forward and sticks her head out between them. "So what does this all really mean?"
Osric looks over his shoulder at her, seemingly unsurprised at her sudden attention. "What does it mean? I think we'll find the answer at the end of the road. If this battle against Ganesh is won easily, then it was a way for him to get us in good favor with the court again. If it is difficult, but not outlandish for the region, then he was having difficulty in the area, and could not afford to leave Amber at this time."
"That isn't what we expect, though," says Finndo, lighting up his pipe and staring up at the slowly changing sky. "Or rather, what I expect. You can think what you want. =I= think we're going to be trapped into an unwinnable battle, slaughtered tragically, writ up in some insipid bard's tune, and written off, as the history of Amber goes."
Morgana is silent for a moment, considering the possibilities. "The first two don't bear worrying about. If this is a trap." She hesitates before resuming. "If this is a trap, what are you going to do about it? The sorcery I'm supposed to learn in the field isn't that much yet. I've got a lot I want to do with my life yet."
Osric turns, tossing the reins to his brother, who snatches them out of the air with a careless deftness, and takes over the guiding of their horses. "You think I'd lead you out to possible butchery? No... But our life is changing, Morgana, not that you need me to tell you that. I think now is our time for saying goodbye to Amber... What say you?"
Firmly Morgana says, "Let's go. But I'll be back."
The woods, Morgana notes, seem almost primal as they ride through them. The shift from Arden to here had been almost imperceptible, save for small details, like new kinds of flowers, or a slightly toned down shade of blue above them. There were no villages, not in these woods of thick oaks and brilliantly berried bushes. The only signs of life were the rustling passings of animals, and the three Amberites in their horse-drawn wagon.
This is the retirement shadow of Cymnea, first wife of Oberon, lady of Barimen. On the way there, after disposing of three look-alike bodies in the middle of a battle, Osric had told her the story of whisking his mother away in the night and hiding her here, before Oberon chose a more permanent method to rid himself of her. He had kept his actions secret so long, under fear of her discovery, but now, supposedly dead to Amber, he seemed at peace.
Finndo was less content, sitting in the back of the wagon, toying with a dagger and uttering strange magics under his breath.
Several days travel in, they finally come to a house, a rude little cabin set in a sudden clearing. Osric reins in the horses, readying to tie them up and relieve them of their burden, when a small, unexpected noise comes from the cabin: a baby's cry.
Morgana glances at both of her uncles. Upon seeing them both surprised, she asks "How long has grandmother been here? Boy, would the King be surprised." Leaving the mounts to her uncles' care, she approaches the cabin and raps on the door.
The crying is muffled, and there is a short set of moments, filled by the rustling of fabrics and creaking of feet against a wooden floor. The door opens, and Morgana sees Cymnea, tall and thin, though she seems slightly thicker than usual, brown hair braided back, and a tiny bundled squirming against her chest. She stares at Morgana, then at her two sons, who stand not far behind.
"What... what is the meaning of this?" she says quietly, shocked.
Morgana smiles tightly. "I'll let father explain that. I'm not exactly sure of all the details. But I heard a baby. Am I a niece again?"
Finndo, though, is the one to step forward, looking over the tiny bundle with all the curiosity of looking at a horrid accident between carriages. "Well, mother, we thought since you couldn't come to our most likely opulent funerals, we'd bring our bodies to you for a private viewing."
Cymnea pales, holding the infant tighter as she scans the three of them, then the empty cart left behind them. "But-- Benedict! Surely you didn't leave him behind! He's not--" Osric steps forward, leading her into the cabin, holding her shoulders.
"No. He's not dead. But we couldn't bring him with us without alerting Father of the false nature of our demises... He wouldn't hurt the lad. Benedict was not included in our exile."
"He's the only one of us with any sense," Morgana says thoughtfully. "I'm sure Ben will be fine. Unfortunately, we're on the lam." She peeks at the bundle. "I suppose it means that you'll be on the lam as well. Which means packing. So, can I hold him.her?"
"Her," she says softly, handing the bundle over. As Morgana cradles her, she notes the child's wide blue eyes, and tufts of brown hair, eyes so like hers, or...
"That child," says Osric softly, staring at the eyes, the hair, the intense look, "Is Oberon's, isn't it?" Cymnea nods once.
"Her name is Esta."
Morgana looks down at the infant. "Welcome to our strange, little family, aunt Esta." Still holding the child, she walks inside and picks out a comfortable-looking chair on which to sit. "I'll be happy to entertain her while the three of you get ready to leave here." Larger worries temporarily set aside, Morgana coos over the baby in her arms. Had her grandfather pushed Eric upon her, she is certain she would still be in Amber.
"I'm not leaving," says Cymnea softly, taking a seat on a chest. Osric moves to protest, taking a step forward, his face a mixture of confusion and disbelief (still reeling from the discovery that he has a new sister, after all these years), but she holds up a hand, forestalling him. "Please... I know where you're going, if I can still predict you, and that's the Courts of Chaos. I've no wish to be drug into an politics, whether the avenging of your lost statuses, or the gaining of new ones." She smiles warmly at the bundle in Morgana's arms, then frowns sharply at her sons. "And you will -not- be dragging Esta into your messes either. Morgana, you are ever welcome to stay, but within these bounds, Chaos does not exist, nor Amber, nor any of the politics with it. I've barred my lands from any but you three, and that is how this forest is going to stay. I'm done."
Momentarily taken aback, Morgana waves a finger in front of Esta's face. "I can't stay," she finally says heavily. "I do have a status to acquire. I' ll leave the outside world behind when I come to visit if that's okay. Of course it may be some time before I can do that." She grins at the baby one last time before handing it back. "You had better take her back though, or I might decide to stay for a while. Good luck, grandmother." Careful not to squish her aunt, Morgana gives her grandmother a hug.
To her father, she says "The Courts of Chaos, huh? Sounds fascinating. So, am I ready for that or is it as bad as trying the pattern?"
"Worse," he says, bending to give his mother a gentle hug and his new sister a long, sizing look. "But you should make it through just fine. I'll have to renew my connections with the Courts, of course... What would you care to be? A lady of a major House? A grand owner of a House Minor? A member of the Academy of Magics and Sciences? It's all open now."
After giving the question ample consideration, Morgana answers honestly, "I don't know. I do think the Magics and Sciences thing is right out." Speaking as she thinks, the words come out slowly. "I have ambition, father. I lack experience. Ownership of my own house sounds like a task for one with a bit more practice. Besides, being part of a major house means I don't have to marry my way into one and I can start my own minor one later. I think there is a lot I'm going to want to know."
The days grow wild as they approach Chaos, and on the journey there Osric and Finndo tell tales of their lost homeland, something that Morgana begins to sense was a forbidden topic in the walls of Amber. They paint their journey with tales of wild balls and mind-boggling shapes and magics, of enchanted homes and shifting, churning lands. It sounds wonderful and impossible and terrifying to the woman whose experience with shadow was only in the shadow of her uncle or father.
Finndo disappeared into Chaos when they came within sight of the place, and Osric took advantage of the pause to teach Morgana shapeshifting, something she will need to be anything of import in Chaos. The lessons are long and painful, and years later, she still hesitated to recall them.
It seems years before Finndo returns, though it was only a few short months in reality. Connections had been made, hands shook, and identities forged. "You have a place in Chanicut now, dear," says Finndo, his clothes smelling lightly of something almost medicinal in its alcoholic content. "A minor one, to be certain, as the bastard of a former poker buddy who didn't pay up the last few times we gamed. He'd always wanted a daughter, seeing as how his sons have been a rotting mess."
"Erdowyn," says Finndo, taking a seat on his folded up cloak. "Though that's just the short version. Old coot, now, though in his hey day he was quite spritely. I don't think you'll be putting up with him for long." He crosses legs into a relaxed Lotus position, looking out over the shuttering dunes. "As for me... I think wearing this face is too dangerous. I'll need a new one, and a new story, and a new life, which, given the life I've given up, isn't all that bad a lot."
The shifting landscape and her uncle's quiet response finally cause the change in her life to settle in to Morgana's heart. She watches the changing sky in silence, savoring the last little space before the old life is completely gone. "Just try not to forget where you left me, huh? What about you, father?"
Osric puts an arm around her shoulder and gives her a brief but sincere hug. "We won't forget. Just don't get lost in the thick of Chaos. I'll be renewing a few contacts and finding my own place in the Lower Courts. I've missed a few generations of talk and gossip. I'll have to see if it was worth missing."
Finndo sighs, looking out over the wild courts. "Well... It's no Amber, but I think we can make something of it, don't you? It has potential, and the few years I spent here were filled with their own delights. I think we could put Chaos back on the map."
"All by yourselves?" Morgana asks, and laughs. "You go ahead and do that. Give me a while. I've got a few things to do before I start working on making a name for myself. Rest assured, however, that I won't get lost in Chaos. Well, not for very long anyway."
Morgana learns one thing in her days in Chanicut: how to take her time. Erdo, as he likes to be called, is an aging man of Chaos, slinking to the background and genuinely glad to have a 'daughter' to tend to him and give him a dose of witty repartee every day. He has quite a wit on him, and the day she is forced to don red and watch his body being pitched into the Abyss is one that sends a real pain piercing through Morgana.
She takes Logrus, not after, and learns the joys of shadow she had only known thought her father and Uncle. There, she finds Caledon... A land of magic and chivalry and treachery, where she takes position as their sorceress, and bears child, sees him to adulthood, only to live through Oberon's pain of losing a child for the better fate of a kingdom.
Returning to Chaos, Caledon a painful memory behind her, she founds her own house, a minor one named Lefayne. In her stronghold in the Lower Courts, she witnesses the carnage of Patternfall, the Rise of Merlin, the coming of the Amberite Cults, the petty uprisings of the demons. It is dynamic, dangerous, challenging, but it is a typical life in the lower courts, and she finds a certain peace there.
Amber she hears of in bits and pieces. Finndo and Osric chuckle over Benedict's rise to master of swords, and one of the most revered Amberites of all that have set foot in Chaos.
And of Esta, she sees the blue eyed babe turn into a lithe, immortal woman, as vital as their blood comes, and as fresh as the forest she rules.