Thomas in Amber

"Need to borrow your Gerard card real quick. He hasn't given me my own deck yet. And I think I've got one or two. Haven't really had much chance to explore it all, but if you need to hotel someone for a few days, I might be able to help."

Bleys takes out his deck. "The pitiful soul is me. My daughter and Martin have taken residence there, and the noise would interrupt my beauty sleep. I'm sure I can kick them back out to Rebma tomorrow." He hands him the Gerard, but doesn't release it. "And why do you need Gerard?"

"If you need that room, I have to move it's current occupant out. If you want to know more, just hang around." Thomas holds out his hand.

Bleys releases the card, a vaguely impressed look on his face. "I just left you not too long ago. Intrigue already? Your father would be proud." He sits back and crosses his arms, apparently content to wait.

Thomas concentrates on the card, waiting for Gerard's visage to come to light.

He sees Gerard, back at his docks, lit more by lamp-light than sun. He holds a book in his hands.

"Thomas. Back from Rebma?"

"Yes, and it would seem my rooms are getting rather popular. Two uncles want them, but only one has managed to actually ask. Might I trouble you to come here? Might get a little too interesting for my tastes."

He curses. "Fine, fine. Who's bothering you?"

He steps into the sitting room, and Bleys smiles. Gerard frowns in return. "Didn't know you were in town."

Bleys stands and bows slightly. "I'm bringing my daughter to town. You should meet her. I'm sure she'd think you were just ducky."

Gerard allows a long silence speak for itself.

Thomas in the Orchard

The stars shine above Thomas, and he can see a woman in the orchard, moving deftly, but obviously with emotion, about a tree, hitting it with a quarterstaff and dodging imagined attacks. No one else appears to be out this chilly night. He carries his snacks taken from the kitchen in his arms, and he remembers that he never got that dinner...

Thomas, noticing her movements and skill, decides he could learn something while he eats. He takes a bench close by to watch and eat silently.

On the wind, he occasionally picks up a curse from her lips, though not at any mistake. He wonders after a while who she's pretending the tree is. After a handful of minutes of watching her duck, weave, and spin she finally stops, slightly out of breath. She mops off her forehead with a piece of clothing from the ground.

"You're good. Want something to eat?" Thomas holds up a sandwich.

She turns her head, not sharply or surprised. "Yes," she answers, rising. "I'd love it." She moves out of the obscuring shadows of the tree branches and he sees she's dressed in leather breeches and vest, and a loose rough cloth top.

Thomas hands her the sandwich. "My name is Thomas. I don't mean to be rude, but this is about the only quiet place in the castle so far. Sorry if I cut your workout short."

She shakes her head. "No, I was just working out some anger. I don't usually work out at night. I get too wired." She takes a bite. "Thomas. I'm Esta-- Estella, actually, but I prefer Esta."

Thomas nods. "Nice to meet you Esta." He looks around the gardens then back at her. "By the way you were punishing that thing, you must have been pretty upset."

She shrugs. "Oh, some puppy trying to get my attention by acting superior. We had a fight, and I stormed out." The light shifts as a cloud moves, and Thomas can see her sweat rag is in fact a very nice courtier's dress, a contrast with the rough clothes she now wears. "So, you a local?"

"Newly local, yes. This is supposed to be home, though I just found out about it. Nice dress, by the way."

She glares at it. "It's uncomfortable and draughty. I detest dresses. Can't fight in them." She eyes the sword on his hip. "Try it one day. You'll see what I mean."

Thomas smiles. "I don't know, with that leg freedom it shouldn't be too bad, though that corset has got to be a bear!"

She laughs, and Thomas decides he likes that sound. "Oh, god, burn them all. But the material just gets you tripped up, and you're always cold. Too bad you aren't a bit smaller in the hips. I'd lend you mine. I'm done with it."

"I'm quite confident it would look much better on you." Thomas pours out a drink and hands his cup to her. "I wish I'd known I was having company, I'd have brought more."

"Oh, that's fine. I'm sure I can dig something up later." She studies him for a moment: the clothes, his bearing, the sword. She can't seem to make something fit. "Are you a... noble?"

"Yeah, I guess so. Dad was one of the many merry troupe of wandering psychopaths. Mine was king for a bit."

She takes a drink from her cup, and raises an eyebrow. "Really? That so. Which one? Let's test my local history."

"His name was Eric, though I'm afraid I can't tell you much about him. I never met the guy. What about you? You've got to be someone of some prominence to fight like that."

She waves her hand. "I'm a nobody, trust me. This isn't my home." She twirls her staff, a quirked smile on her face. "So, I actually impressed you?"

"Sure, you're really good. Most people I've met so far who fight like that have been here for a long time. You must be a natural. And pretty to boot." Thomas sports a cheesy smile.

She laughs, and he realizes she must hear that a lot. "You wouldn't happen to be a scoundrel, would you? Because that's always the type that likes me."

"Strangely enough, no. I'm afraid I've never had the luxury of learning those skills." Thomas takes a mouthful of sandwich and thinks for a moment. "I'm too blunt to make much of a career as a scoundrel."

"Ohhh... It's not that hard. A bit of bluster, the ability to swing a sword, maybe an eyepatch. I've met hundreds. Dime a dozen." She taps his sword. "You saying you don't know how to use that thing?"

"I'm more proficient with rocks than this, but I can swing it in a pinch. You'd probably clobber me squarely."

She chuckles. "I see confidence is not your strong point. But if I ever need some rocks slung, I'll know who to call." She stops talking, and lifts her chin up, putting a finger to her lips and looking distant.

"You ok?" Thomas puts the food tray down and puts his feet out.

She motions for him to be quiet, and then he hears it too. A rustle of leaves, a mummer, like that of someone talking lowly. Her stance relaxes as she realizes the person is not sneaking. "Tommy?" A familiar voice comes from the dark.

Thomas looks around, looking for that big familiar form...

Gerard appears, his face dogged. "Hey, Tommy. Saw you head out here." He notices Esta and bows slightly. "Lady Estella."

She waves him off. "I'm no lady. Esta. Please."

"Is my room still intact?" Thomas asks dryly.

Gerard puts his hands in his pockets. "Will be in a few hours. Castle heals its self, and the servants'll put everything back. I yelled for some." He kicks something in the dirt. "Sorry."

"Not your fault. You two have quite the antagonistic personalities. Though I'd rather have this outcome than what would have happened if you two weren't there. So thank you."

Esta laughs. "Are you referring to me? How nice to be wanted." Gerard looks at her.

"What, your boyfriend not treating you right?"

She sniffs. "That bookworm? He's not my boyfriend."

"I was referring to Uncle here and another uncle having a disagreement with each other and my furniture. And from the way you were upset, I would have guessed it to be some sort of affair of the heart myself."

She twirls her quarterstaff again, trying to give off an indifferent air. "It was nothing. Didn't even know him a day. He thought I was brain-dead or something."

Gerard shrugs. "The brainy types like him do that." He looks at Thomas. "Bleys is fine, by the way. Black eye, a few other bruises, but he'll live."

"Figured fratricide wasn't going to happen. Does he still want a place to stay?"

Gerard shrugs. "Maybe he'll brave his own room. Who knows. Not like we don't all have a million places set up in shadow."

"Well, it's still his for a bit if he wants it. I'm trying to make a few friends here and my track record so far ain't that great. Of course, the family disease of paranoia doesn't help at all."

Esta grumbles about something under her breath, and Gerard eyes her. She smiles apologetically. "Sorry. Just had too many lectures today about how all Amberites are evil and two-fa--" She realizes who she's speaking to and blushes. "Sorry."

"I, for one, don't like the stigma, but only a few have proven otherwise. Gerard here, for example, is on the up and up for the most part. I try to be. It's just that these guys have been playing this power game for so long they don't know how to quit."

Gerard nods. "But you know all about that... Begma isn't all that far." The muscles in her throat tighten a moment, and she swallows.

With a smile she locks eyes with Gerard. "You can walk shadows, can't you? Mathonwyr hasn't really taken me around."

Thomas thinks for a moment.. "Flora's son, right?" Thomas says, "A tour of shadow would take an eternity, from what Gerard here says. I just learned how to do it myself."

Esta pokes her lip out. Gerard laughs. "All of them yes, but I'm sure I can dig something up for you. Keen on walking?"

"Considering my bedroom is a third world nation right now, might as well. And having a lady from Begma join us would make things a bit more fun. She can kick some ass, by the way."

"Really?" asks Gerard, and looks at her with interest. She points to the tree. "You did that? I think the tree lost."

"Tree got it's ass kicked badly."

She laughs. "It wasn't a fair fight. It refused to hit back." She touches a sword at her side. "But I could have been using this instead. Me thinks it would have hurt more."

"Hell yea it would have. I might have to take lessons from you, you are good."

Gerard eyes the sword. "Didn't know Begma girls were such sword swingers. Have to visit there more." Esta doesn't respond, but begins walking back to the main path. "C'mon. I want to get back before dawn."

Thomas gets up and follows.

Gerard eyes her appreciatively as she leads the way. Under his breath, he says to Thomas, "You know, we had more like her around, I wouldn't mind having a local job. Too bad I'm stuck with Flora."

Thomas whispers back. "I'm with you on that one. I'd love to spar with her someday."

"Then why didn't you? She was looking for a duel..." He stops, then chuckles. "Oh. That. Never mind."

Thomas grins. "Both would have worked for me. Maybe when she's rested a bit."

Gerard laughs. "Age before beauty. I met her first."

Esta turns on her heel. "You know, I can hear a mouse hiccup at one hundred paces." She turns again with a wink.

"So does that mean from you not kicking our asses as badly as that tree, that you're not opposed to sparring?"

She turns again. "Sparring how? I hope you mean with this." And she pulls out her blade with a wide grin flashing in the moonlight

"I'm not THAT crass, Esta. Yea, the blade. I could use a number of lessons considering the uninvited schleps that like my belongings."

"That sounds like a story," she says, striking a defensive pose. "Flats only, got it?"

Thomas draws his blade. "Got it. This ought to be good. Story time!" Thomas makes a quick feint and then goes defensive.

She knocks it aside, then goes right back in, aiming of to the side. He knocks it off, and is rather pleased. Not bad for a guy who never used the thing before.

"Caine, one of the wandering uncles of trouble, seems to have had an eye on this very blade for quite some time." Thomas skits back two steps, then makes a flank attack to the right and left quickly.

She steps to the side with a cat-like agility, and for fun she knocks his blade down, so that the tip is caught in the earth a moment. She whistles. "I can see why. It's nice."

Thomas pulls the blade up and makes a feint thrust and swipe to the side. "Yea, it's pretty alright. I was kinda fond of it, so I figured to get some reinforcements before he buried me without it."

She stops his blade, and something catches her eye when they meet. Her brow furrows, and before Thomas can react, he's been disarmed. She holds his blade and looks at him apologetically. "I'm sorry. Had to stop play early. You're hurting my blade." Her voice is incredulous as she feels several divots in her sword.

"What kind of sword do you have that gets so messed up?" Thomas reaches out to take his blade back.

She shakes her head, but Gerard answers. "Nothing's wrong with hers. It's yours. Her's is just a normal blade. What, you think that thing at your side was just pretty?"

"Just a family heirloom, from what I gathered. What's this thing made of?" Thomas shakes his hand, waiting for the blade's return.

Esta hands it back to him, still looking at her own injured blade. Gerard pats her on the shoulder.

"Eh, we'll get you a new one." He looks at Thomas. "I don't know. All I know is that dad made it, and it hung at Eric's hip from the time he was 15."

"Well, just makes it more important to keep grubby hands off of it. If it means trashing a room to do it, so be it." Thomas looks at Esta. "Though it would help to know how to use the damn thing. Esta, I know you're probably super busy, but if you could spare more time like that to help me learn this thing, I'd be really grateful. I'd put in a really good word for your family in Begma, if it helps."

She laughs. "I have no family there. And it doesn't look like I'll be super busy. But yes, I can teach you." She winks at Gerard. "So if it was age before beauty, then why didn't you spar me first?"

He laughs. "I'd hurt you, dear. It's how I fight."

"I guess I'll need to swipe a practice blade. I'm sure they have some in shadow. Let's go out and grab a few and make an adventure of it."

They near the forest, and Gerard thinks. "You ride, Esta?" She nods, and he looks at Thomas. "How you feel about horses?"

"They smell almost as good as you do. But I ain't got nothing against them personally."

Gerard glares at him. "I live two doors down from Flora, collector of about every damn scented soap there is. Just walking by her room is enough to be qualified as 'bathed.' Esta laughs.

"Tell me about it." Somewhere in the distance, Thomas hears a whinny, and three horses come riding up. Gerard gets on one, and Esta grabs another.

Thomas has the third. Thomas mounts up and looks at Esta. "So you've met Flora, eh? What did you think?"

Esta rolls her eyes. "Of all the people to be travelling with, I had to find Flora." Gerard laughs.

"Think that every day, myself."

"Well, we'll be more fun. The whole world is ours to make what we will of it. Let's go do something fun, and learn a few things while we're at it."

Esta looks to Thomas as she rides. "So, are you leading?"

Gerard grunts. "Wouldn't know many places to go, would he? I know where to go, trust me."

"From what Flora said, you're a bit of a homebody." He snorts.

"Shows how much she knows."

"I'm sure Gerard can find someplace interesting."

Thomas looks down the road.

"Can you put a couple of practice blades on the way, Gerard?"

"Sure, sure..."

He looks over at Tommy. "You watch TV much back where you came from? Place I'm thinking of might have had something like it on there. Westerns."

"Showdown at the corral, eh? Sounds interesting."

Esta looks between the two and begins to say something, but then gasps as the sun starts to climb the western sky.

Gerard looks at her. "That happens sometimes. Shadow lag." She nods.

"So... this 'Western' stuff... what is it?" Gerard furrows his brow, concentrating on the world around him, but answers anyway.

"Oh, you'll like it... plains, crude language, whiskey, horses, that kind of stuff. Not like that 'Avalon' crap all the others seem to be into."

"Yea, and we won't have to resort to sharpened sticks to fight. I'll feel better with a six shooter in my hand."

She goes to ask something, then thinks better of it. Instead, "You'd be surprised what you can do with a sharpened stick. I've had to resort to that quite a few times."

She thinks a moment. "And you can do this too? This shadow thing?"

Thomas looks a little surprised. "I guess it isn't common knowledge where you're from. Yes, I can do it too, though I'm no where near as skilled with it as Gerard here is. I guess Begma doesn't know much about our family." Thomas looks back at Gerard. "Does Amber do a lot of business with them?"

"Oh, um-- I'm really from a more rural part of Begma. We don't deal with, you know, imports there." She looks away as the ground begins to grow treeless and sandy, and the air warms.

Gerard looks at her for a moment, but then returns to his task at hand.

"I just didn't know everyone there could do the shadow thing," says Esta, turning back and smiling brightly.

"It's a family thing. So far, it's also a lot of fun." Thomas watches a roadrunner chase after a sidewinder. "Hey, can we get those trenchcoats and six shooters before we meet up with the locals?"

Gerard nods. "Passing on the fringe? I am. That shit's only in the movies, and it just looks goofy."

His clothes change in almost a shifting manner, and the soft clothes of nobility are exchanged from something rougher. Thomas looks down, and he sees a leather duster on his person and a gun at his side. Besides him Esta laughs, and he guesses she's noticed the change.

"What's this?" she asks, pulling her own gun off her hip.

"Kind of a short range missile weapon. It'll hit about 50 yards with some accuracy. I think some target practice might be in order, so you'll have a chance to play with it." Thomas grins. "I'm beginning to like this, we can live out any movie I've ever seen."

She smiles, and takes the gun off her hip, looking strangely thoughtful.

"Yes, I can see this has potential..."

She examines the gun, then grasps it, and pulls the trigger... It snaps back, and she immediately puts her thumb in her mouth and sucks, looking hurt, and a bit shocked.

"Has a kick," says Gerard, as a town becomes visible in the distance.

"We should expect anything in a town like that." Thomas twirls the gun and holsters it. "Let's get a game of cards going while we're here."

Esta nods, and kicks her horse to a gallop. Gerard curses. "Still has that stupid quarterstaff. Going to look silly in town."

"Well, she just might surprise a few people with that thing. You never know."

"Oh, I don't think surprising is going to be a problem, trust me. She looks plenty quick." He urges his horse to a gallop. "I don't want her to get too far ahead. She has a taste for adventure."

Thomas rides up to follow, fast paced. "How far up is this place?"

Gerard nods to a small gathering of black dots in the distance. "Not far." He keeps quiet as they ride, but Thomas can see something eating at him.

"Alright, spill it. You're as readable as an intact billboard."

Gerard grunts. "Funny as a funeral." He slows a bit and motions for Thomas to hang back. "Begma is close enough to Amber that we share some trade-- some people. That kind of thing."

"She seems a little ignorant."

"So she's hiding something. Unless you want to do an interrogation, our best bet is just to let her slip. She's doing a good enough job of that on her own."

He chuckles. "True. True." He speeds up again and catches up with Esta as she dismounts, looking about, fascinated with the dusty and run down town. Tinny piano music floats out a nearby door.

She smiles. "Not exotic, but new, I'll give you that.""Ah, now this looks like fun", says Thomas, "Let's get a drink and see if there's a card game going on."

The bar isn't crowded, it being about mid-day... The characters around are the usual dark Western black hat type. Gerard orders a few beers and settles down at a table, handing Esta one, Thomas the other.

Thomas looks around the place, beer close to his face. Finally settled on the surroundings, he drinks his beer.

Gerard watches Esta's reaction, and she watches him watch her. She drinks deeply, then sets her mug down, looking as if she's trying to decide what face to wear.

Thomas looks at Gerard. "Remember to bring any cards?"

"One track mind, huh?" He points to Thomas's jacket. "Front left pocket. Yes, I remembered. What's your game?"

"Is there another game? 5 card stud, no draw." Thomas pulls out the cards, shuffles them, and deals out 5 cards to Gerard, Esta, and himself.

Esta picks up her cards, looking uncertain. Gerard looks at her, and she erases the look quickly, and sticks her chin up a bit. "You go first." Gerard shrugs and throws a coin out.

Thomas takes a look at his hand, fingering his new coins in his pockets.

Eh, not bad-- Two pair. Given that there are three playing, it could have been worse. Esta chews her lip and throws out a coin, same as Gerardís.

"Not raising me?"

"Oh, I don't think that's necessary." Thomas puts out two coins. "I'll raise you one."

Gerard smirks and throws out a coin, then looks at Esta.

"Oh-- sure." She throws out a coin. Having been called, Thomas lays out his hand. "Read 'em and weep."

Gerard has an ace high, and he looks over to Esta, who keeps her face plain.

"Flush. Nice." He pauses and looks at her. "Well, take the money." She nearly glares at the coins as she collects them. "Thought poker was popular in Begma. I must be out of the loop, huh?"

"Must not play it in the countryside." Thomas takes the cards back and reshuffles them, looking around the place to see if anyone new has arrived.

The place is pretty dead, and even the patrons seem to have a blind eye towards them.

Esta nods at Thomas. "Oh, no-- you know how it is... There's not much time for silly pastimes."

"Didn't think so." Thomas deals again. "So what did you do out in the wilderlands, warden or something?"

She relaxes. "Something like that. I'd go after the random unruly rabble, bring them in-- Or maybe there was some dangerous beast in the forest that I'd have to track and kill. The usual. Keeping the peasants safe. From time to time I'd team up with a few people."

"And yourself. What did you do? Or do you do?"

"I made a living out of keeping two kingdoms from wiping out a village. And one or the other would pay me to do it too." Thomas takes a drink. "You must have gotten some serious training down there. Do they have a wardens school or did you just pick it up on your own?"

She chuckles. "No-- the road is the best place to learn. I've spent most of my life out on it, and I have to say I like it. A few times I found a place I thought about settling down in, but it just never really stuck..."

"Why not? Not that you'd have to marry and stay at home, but it's always good to put some roots down someplace. I'm starting to learn that myself."

She looks at her nearly empty mug. "I don't know. I have a serious case of wanderlust. I meet people, find places, gain a bit of notoriety-- But I always move on before things start to fade or get complicated."

"I like an uncomplicated life."

"From that look on your face, I take it it's back to being complicated." Thomas looks at his cards, and puts two coins on the table. She mimics him and throws out two.

Gerard folds with a shrug.

"It won't be complicated for long. Maybe I'll hang around here for a bit, then find a road."

"Well, I'd love for you to stay, if nothing else, I gotta get used to sharpened sticks and you're quite good at them. But I certainly can understand if you're having problems at home."

Thomas shows his cards.

She looks at Gerard for judgement as she puts her cards down. He points to Thomas, and she pushes the collection of coins at him.

"Oh, it's not problems... Any road is a road. Maybe I'll look around that Arden that's west of here."

Gerard chuckles. "Fraid that's Julian's, hon."

"I might have an idea then, that'll suit us both."

She perks up, and puts her chin on her fist. "And that is?"

"Well, this trick of going to place to place, I've managed to learn it. You have this need to be in different places. I need the practice in both sword and road. Perhaps you and I could be travelling companions, with me taking us different places, and you helping me learn to fight better."

She grins. "That sounds entertaining..."

Gerard cuts in. "Why don't you stick around people?"

She looks surprised by the question, and searches for an answer.

Thomas reshuffles the deck and hands the cards to Gerard. "Your deal, I'll get us more drinks."

Gerard takes the deck and redeals, and Thomas can hear him telling some off colour joke to Esta, who laughs heartily. Some of her tenseness drops.

Thomas comes back with 3 beers and 3 whiskey shots. "This ought to make the game more interesting." He sits down. "You obviously don't have to say yes or no just yet, just an offer. Think about it."

She nods. "I will."

Gerard takes his drink. "You know, you could bankrupt this shadow trying to get me drunk."

"That sounds like a challenge."

Thomas grins

Gerard smirks. "What, you planning on trying to outdrink me?"

"No, more like enjoying the game a bit more."

He shrugs, and watches bemused as Esta sniffs her shot and pulls back with a frown.

"Oh, that's good stuff. Put hair on your chest. Slam it back." She looks dubious until he demonstrates and lives.

With a shrug she follows suit, and surprisingly enough doesn't gag or cough. Just makes a face.

"The taste could use some work."

"We aren't going to find 15 year old scotch in a place like this." Thomas downs his and looks at his cards. "This place should liven up any time now." Thomas looks around, expecting trouble to start anytime soon.

He notes a miniscule shake of the head from Gerard as he looks about. Esta misses it, studying her set of cards.

"I think I have this down... Maybe."

"It's not a hard game. Gotta still be able to play this inebriated." Thomas grins. She laughs. "I would guess so. I don't get drunk though. Years of habit, I guess."

"Well, is that a challenge then?"

Thomas grins wider.

"How deep are your pockets?" She grins widely.

"Challenge is on." Thomas gets up and buys a bottle and brings it back.

Gerard rolls his eyes, but seems a little bit sombre as he watches the two potential drunkards. "I better not have to carry you back to Amber."

"You play ref, then. If it gets bad, call it off. And deal while you're at it."

Gerard motions to some cards in front of Thomas. "Have to pick up first."

Esta opens the bottle and hands it to Thomas. "Ladies first." She giggles.

"Ok fine" Thomas pours out a tall glass and downs it, picks up his cards and hands the bottle back to Esta.

She pours her own glass, taking a whiff of it. "Same as before?" She studies her cards. "Are we bidding with drinks or money? I think I've played something along these lines."

"Ah, now we're talking. Gerard, you in?"

"I'm not drinking," he mumbles, then thinks.

"I lose, I choose who drinks. Game?"

"You mean if you win, you choose, right?"

"Don't losers drink? Cracked up rules, where Eric stowed you..."

"True, true, ok, then let's play."

The play moves quickly as Esta picks up the game. Gerard keeps dealing, and Thomas can't believe his luck. In easily a dozen hands, he's only lost twice, all the other times going to Esta or Gerard. The he sees the slight of hand from Gerard, who again shakes his head at Thomas while Esta looks at her cards.

Thomas makes no comments or body language to recognize it, simply plays the game. After getting into a rhythm a bit, he starts up the conversation again. "So how did you end up hooking up with the likes of Flora? She invite you to an occasion in Amber or something?"

Esta shrugs, and Thomas realizes she isn't swaying. Gerard fed most of his losses to her, too. "We met on the road. I thought they were ill prepared, two noble types unguarded. Then Math took a liking to me and asked me to continue on with them. And I was supposed to be his date at the ball."

"From your tone, it doesn't exactly sound like what you wanted to do."

She goes to say something sharp, then looks down. "Oh, the spat is just pretty fresh. Truth was he was nice to me... We're just from different worlds, you know?"

Thomas laughs. "Yea, I hear you. I've never met the guy, but from what I hear he's a bit much on himself. They tend to get into a lot of trouble from pissing off the wrong guy."

"Or girl. I was about to show him the what fer with my sword, crappy show blade it was, and that his books wouldn't do him a bit of good, but...

"Well, I haven't actually shed blood in anger in a while, and I'd like to keep it that way."

"Probably wise idea. The place is full of alliances and stuff like that. Makes it even more appealing to hit the road sometime. Amber is nice and all, but I think taking a break once in a while seems to put a damper on things."

"I'm not a politics person either. It hits a sour note, and usually, you have to spend year and years getting those stupid alliances-- I'd rather just vanquish the foe, attend the after battle party, then ride off into the sunset."

"Hear hear!" Thomas laughs. "There's nothing finer than winning a campaign. Especially if someone's life can be saved from it."

"The princess?" she laughs, and raises her glass. "I've saved a few virgins from dragons in my day."

"Or villagers from terrorists" Thomas raises his glass and clinks them. She drinks, and then notes Gerard's look. "Dragons?"

She swallows. "I'm waxing poetic."

"Ok, then how about a story!"

Thomas grins.

"Me?" she looks surprised. "Oh, I'm no god type. I don't have any stories..."

"Oh come now, you've got to have stories. You don't use a sword like that without getting into a few places where you needed it. You tell us one, and I'll tell you one of mine."

She laughs. "Okay, okay--" Suddenly, she looks a little nervous, and seems to be thinking over what she's about to say very carefully.

Thomas tops off everyone's glass, keeping an eye out for new customers in the saloon.

Gerard sighs. "Esta. Time for the truth."

She looks at him, and Thomas sees her hand twitch.

"I won't bite you."

Thomas sits unmoved.

Her face hardens. "Don't know what you're accusing me of, Gerard."

"I'm not accusing you. I'm just curious. Who's are you?"

Thomas looks back at Esta.

"Everybody's got secrets. And if yours will get you in trouble, I for one ain't gonna push it. But Gerard here isn't into politics either. He might be able to help you if Flora's trying to play games with you."

She sighs. "What do you mean by 'whose am I'?"

Gerard lowers his voice a bit. "How'd you really get here. I don't blame you for keeping this a secret but-"

She interrupts him with her laughter. "I didn't lie. That's how I was found. Just a random encounter."

"Maybe Flora or Math found her to be just an interesting person to bring home?"

Gerard shakes his head. "Timing. The timing is just too off. And you're too damn good. So what, you some leftover of Benedict's?" She bristles.

"No!" Esta looks him in the eye and leans in. "I know who my parents are, thank you."

Thomas sighs. "If it's really that bad, you can keep your secrets. Some days I wish I had a few of my own. But you're a bad liar, Esta. Someday somebody with less good intent is going to be sitting across from you. It would help to have someone to call on to back you up."

She sighs. "I know who my parents are. They raised me. They were good to me..."

Her face becomes less hard as she backs away from Gerard and settles back into her seat. "And recently, I found out who sired me, and that's a horse of a different colour."

Thomas quietly shuffles the cards.

She glances at him in annoyment.

Gerard grumbles. "Knew it. You had the look. That yellow haired---" He stops himself. "So, who was it? Benedict? Caine? What?"

She taps the table idly. "A guy named Oberon," she says idly.

Thomas's cards go flying, and he quickly goes to pick them up to hide his jaw dropping.

Gerard has an equally hard time keeping his face straight. "What? Shit-- I don't need more of them--"

She smiles, seeing she has an edge again. "Oh, is this terribly important?"

Thomas finishes picking up the cards.

"Just makes you an Aunt, then."

"Oh that's right-- and you're my brother, correct?" Gerard nods mutely.

"Guess it won't be age before beauty then, huh Tommy?"

Thomas smiles. "I ain't that pretty in any case. And the offer still stands. Just because you're relative doesn't mean I have to hate you or anything weird like that."

Esta waves her hand. "Math gave me a long lecture on not trusting anyone, yadda..."

Gerard looks serious. "You should listen to him."

"I hate these games." Thomas takes a drink.

Gerard coughs. "Like I love them. But I'm stuck here. If you want to play around here, then you have to know the rules of the playground."

"Someday I'll get that vacation."

"You should." Gerard looks at Esta a long time, then curses. "I should have guessed. You look a bit like them. Flora. Fi. Shit, even a bit of Ben."

"Ok, here's the 20 million coin question. What's it mean?"

Gerard shakes his head. "It means we have another Elder."

Esta holds her hands up. "Wait. Hold on. I'm not an Elder. Not one of you." She laughs. "I've only met a few, but I got an earful about this family. I'm nothing like them at all-- Well, maybe present company excluded."

Thomas smiles. "I'll take that as a compliment any day."

"Like it or not, you'll be considered one of the Elder ones," frowns Gerard. "That is, if you come out of the closet."

Esta looks hopeful. "Could I just leave without anyone knowing?"

Gerard thinks a moment. "Prolly not. Not unless you leave now. You plan on doing that?" She shakes her head. "Well, I noticed it within an hour of meeting you. The others will be quicker. You look like one of us. You act like it."

Thomas looks over at Esta. "I guess the real question is what do you want to do now?"

Esta looks down at the scattered cards on the table, and then out the mired windows. "I don't know... Before, before I was just going to look around and go home. I had my answer. But now..."

She sighs. "I'm a bit overwhelmed with the possibilities."

Thomas puts the cards back together."Well, you've certainly got a lot of options. It a wide bunch of worlds out there. I myself am not sure what I'm gonna do yet."

"Well, maybe we can track down an evil tower and some dragons and be heroes once we get home figured out."

Gerard is silent, then looks at his company of two apologetically. "I'm sorry. I have to go check on Bleys. I'll see you back at the castle." He takes out a Trump, and with a wave to Esta and Thomas, and a warning not to dawdle, fades.

"Check on the brother he just beat the crap out of. This family gets weirder all the time." Thomas looks quizzically at Esta. "Well, we're free to do whatever we want. Want to take the long route back to Amber or something else?"

She chuckles. "I don't know. I'm not much on balls, but I would like to meet these siblings of mine. I'm getting mixed signals as to whether I should stay, or find a greener pasture.

"Whatever we do, you're in lead. I can't do the shadow thing."

"Ok, then. We head back home, but at a nice slow pace. We'll take the scenic route." Thomas goes to the bar and gets another bottle. He heads back to the table and offers his hand. "One for the road. I presume Gerard would want his horse back so we'll have it tag along."

She takes his hand with a smile, rising out of her seat, then releases it to go outside.

"We could use the extra horse anyway. Laming and such. Neither of us are exactly feathers, and I'd hate to overburden one."

Esta takes a moment to mummer to her horse for a moment before mounting it. "So, which way?"

"Doesn't matter, actually. It is which way you go, it's a matter of wanting to go somewhere." Thomas gets on his horse and just starts riding a slow pace. "As you go, you make little changes to the world so that after a while, you end up where you want. It's a hard thing to explain. Gerard didn't even try, just made me do it." As they ride, the desert landscape starts to come up with small greenery.

She laughs. "Sounds like how I learned to swim. Dad just took me to the end of the dock and dropped me in. Learned to curse that day too."

"It sounds easy enough. And you don't look like you're too out of sorts. After this ball of theirs we could go track down a white dragon or something. Ever fought one before?"

"Can't say I have, though I have to admit I'm a bit more scared of this ball. Not much of a courtier, in case you couldn't tell." Thomas and Esta enter a nice green plain, with spotted trees and prairie dogs. Off in the distance, bison roam the expanse. "Hopefully it won't last too long."

"In a few hundred years, I've been to a few, and I can't say I'm fond of them. But they will get me a chance to see all my siblings at one go. And I think that will be a fair way to see if I really want to take my place up here, or bid farewell to Flora and Gerard, and be on my way."

She chuckles. "And one thing that seems to be fairly consistent with Balls... they have an abundance of time."

"Well, I don't think I'd be all that interesting to most of them. Hopefully I can just get away with having a good dinner and retiring early."

The plains start to have a bank of a sea show up, with more trees appearing.

"I thought the same thing, but that's certainly been proved wrong. Math and Flora took an interest, and then you and Gerard-- you really should have seen the looks on your faces when I said who my father was." she chuckles.

"Yea, I guess you can have some fun with that. Well, you're the one with the shocking news, I'll just see how everyone reacts to that."The smell of brine fills the air as the gulls get into the air. The trees get thick.

"I get the feeling I shouldn't be imparting that news. Only reason I told you two was because Gerard had caught on anyway, and-- hey, you two seemed the decent sort. Why not? I was getting tired of carrying it alone, with Flora caught up and Math gone."

A small building comes into view, with a beat up wooden sign with a fish on it. "Don't know what I can do to help you on that, but just say the word and I'll try. Especially if it's funny." Thomas stops at the place. "Otherwise I'll just chuckle silently by the bar. Want a quick bite before we get back?"

She laughs. "Aren't we going to a ball? I'd think they'd have food there, wouldn't they? At least, anything formal I've been to has... Or are you looking to skip out now that Gerard isn't watching?"

"Didn't know we were so short on time." Thomas gets back on his horse. "Guess we should get moving. And no, I'm not going to back out, that's why he brought me here. Afterwards, however, is open to discussion."

She laughs. "Indeed, it is..." She kicks her horse into high gear as they hit Arden, and she furrows her brow at the setting sun. "Damn. And I was using my gown as a sweat rag. Well, I hope they have extras..."

They part ways at the stable, and she waves at him fondly. "I'll probably have to beg a pardon from Flora for running off."

"I'm sure you will. Good luck, and I'll see you tonight." Thomas heads quietly back to his rooms, hoping to find them intact.

Surprisingly enough, everything is intact-- Nothing appears to be broken or even out of place. Maybe Gerard is a neat brawler...

On his bed are several more outfits laid out, one a bit fancier than the rest.