Months Of The Year:
Horseman (Winter Solstice 1 Horseman)
Knight (Vernal Equinox 8 Knight)
Tower (Summer Solstice 15 Tower)
Boatman (Autumnal Equinox 22 Boatman)
Vere is in his watchful mode as Needle shows him around and introduces him to the Rangers currently in camp. Any questions Needle has about his level of woodcraft will be answered completely, but without bosting, and without any of the verbosity Vere has sometimes been known to show. Vere has his own questions about the current status of the war with the Deep Green, and any other pressing threats of the moment.
Vere is interested in learning more about the Rangers individually, as people, and in piecing together as much about there overall society as he can. He's also looking for ways in which his own talents can aid them, while doing his best not to seem like either a pushy noble who expects special treatment or a know-it-all outsider. He is approaching them with the idea that they are the experts in their own environment, and that anything that is done in a way that seems strange or unusual to him has some reason behind it.
Ranger hierarchy is both rigid and invisible. On the surface, no ranger 'ranks' another, but invariably each knows his or her place in the chain. This leads to some friction, but for the most part the rangers are all willing to work for whoever Julian and his inner circle give tasks to, and those who cannot, leave. If they can barely get along, they tend to merely spread their territories to be far from each other.
It wasn't always this way, but it's been that way as long as these rangers have known.
The organization is small and not truly suited to man an armed frontier. Some nights, not all ranger posts have rangers at them. They are eyes and hunters and protectors and each is expected to be able to face down the beasts and humans of the forest with no little or no support.
For this war, Julian has recruited from the people who live near his forest, but it's clear who is a ranger and who is not.
Julian often travels with no more than a handful of ranger companions. Here, he has two score, which is a measurable portion of all the rangers.
The rangers here are curious about what Vere can teach them.
Vere is very interested in comparing the woodscraft he learned in the Isles and the Eastern Forest with that of the Rangers, and comparing the plants and beasts of the the world of his birth with those of this Primal Forest. While his operating hypothesis is that the vast majority of his wilderness lore is tranferable, he is sensible enough of the potential differences between realms to pay close attention to anything the rangers have to say that indicates potential differences.
Vere quickly comes to the conclusion that what he knows about rocks and water is the same, that large animals are very similar, and that plants are the most different. He has much to learn about herbalism in this forest, but little to learn about hills and caves.
Still, these differences all have cascading effects. Vere has to learn which fallen leaves can be walked on silently, which plants are eaten by which animals, how to track a person based on how long ago a branch got bent as they passed by, and how not to get downwind of predators.
He anticipates that he will need several years, so that he can learn the land in all seasons. His Dannan skills and knowledge combined with his rate of learning will likely convince others that he's an accomplished woodsman long before he feels himself to be so.
Anything that he knows about woodcraft that they don't he will be happy to teach them, although he is approaching the situation with the assumption that the accumulated knowledge of the rangers will be greater than his own practical knowledge.
Vere's endurance and fire are still better than most rangers. He can teach the new ones much about fighting, especially about fighting woodland creatures like boars or monsters. Or people. Few of the rangers have done much fighting against people.
Vere will be happy to share his knowledge of fighting humans, large beasts, and monsters with the rangers. Unarmed combat, armed combat, improvised weapons and group tactics. He uses that training to learn more about the rangers as well, and to get a better feel for the social dynamics of the group. It's especially interesting that a gathering of this many rangers is an unusual event for them, and Vere watches for the sorts of tensions and social maneuvering that can occur when a group of loners are forced to work more closely than usual.
The accumulated lore of the Rangers is wide and deep, and definitely includes a lot that even a hero trained by the Brotherhood of the Stag doesn't know. It seems to Vere that perhaps the lore of the Brotherhood has been incorporated and adapted, almost as if someone had taken what they considered the best parts of the Brotherhood and used it to mold the Rangers according to their desires.
After some days of camp duty, Vere and Needle are up for a patrol. What kinds of Rangers would Vere like to take with him on patrol into the Deep Green?
Everything Vere has learned about the Rangers convinces him that they work best in small patrols, so he'll keep his to no more than five people. Besides himself and Needle he'd like one Ranger with a great deal of experience with the Deep Green, and another who has impressed Vere with the depth of their knowledge of woodcraft. The team will be rounded out by a relatively inexperienced younger ranger, as missions like this are vital to give them the experience they will need in the future.
There aren't a lot of novices in this camp, just relative novices. Those seem to be the new Rangers who were brought in during the war. The divide between them and the "old" Rangers recruited before the war is clear, even if they seem to be working together under Julian's guidance.
(None of the "new" Rangers have been accepted into Julian's inner guard, despite some losses in Julian's numbers at the far end of the universe. His close followers are all veterans of Chaos, or joined the Rangers prior to the wars.)
Needle suggests Mum for his Deep Green expert, Modal for his woodcraft expert, and, if he wants one of the newcomers, Rain.
Vere is happy to accept Needle's suggestions.
The group assembles the next morning.
Mum is a drop-dead gorgeous fellow; Vere's seen no one quite like him before. He's carrying a heavy pack with what Vere suspects is some extra gear. Modal is an older ranger. His dark hair is streaked with grey in his braids. He and Mum exchange quiet greetings, though from the size of his pack, it's clear he's already consulted with Modal. Rain, the third Ranger, is a tough-looking woman. She clearly didn't get the memo, because her pack isn't as heavy as either Modal's or Mum's.
Needle seems to have gotten some of the memo. His pack is middling heavy.
They look to Vere for a lead and instructions. Needle has made arrangements for horses for them, though sometimes horses are lost on patrol.
Vere greets everyone, and asks Mum to give them a quick briefing on what they can expect in the Deep Green.
The Deep Green is much like the rest of Arden, only more so, as far as the superficial goes. It's bursting with life, full of exotic plants appropriate to the climate and small animal life: a lot of small to medium herbivores. But there's also a sly and, to Mum's mind, vaguely hostile intelligence in the Deep Green. Paths change, so that you can't retrace your steps. If you're trying to maintain quiet, plants and animals will almost conspire to betray your position. If you're trying to go somewhere, it's almost as if the Deep Green will conspire to lead you astray. There are a million small things Mum can show on the way, and he will, but the key is to expect the unexpected.
Oh, and stay together. Splitting up is how you lose people in the Deep Green.
Right, then. Vere emphasizes the "Don't split up" rule, and stresses that we should expect the Deep Green to try to throw things at us that will make it seem reasonable and necessary for someone to go off on their own.
Do not do this.
We will set out, letting Mum lead the way.
Mum advises that Vere and Rain be in the centre, and Modal should take the rear.
It rapidly becomes apparent from the instructions Mum and Needle are giving to Rain that the Rangers expect threats to come from any direction: vertical as well as horizontal, and sometimes from below as much as above. Mum occasionally stops to take leaves from a plant.
They have food with them; Mum takes a rabbit the first evening, but inspects it thoroughly before he roasts it. He explains that there are signs of Green contamination that Vere and and the others should be looking for. (Part of the duty of a Deep Green patrol is to measure the level of infestation. Another piece is to look for demigods.)
As they travel Vere stays alert to every sight, sound, and smell in the forest, as well as more subtle sensations that he could not put a name to, but that make up a complex mosaic of information about his surroundings.
When Mum inspects the rabbit Vere asks questions about the signs of infestation.
Mum says that it’s hard to explain but he’s pretty sure that Vere will know it when he sees it. Especially with Vere being royal and all. The Warden has always had a real sense for Green corruption.
Things that are infested by the Green aren’t really what they were. And they’re certainly not safe or good to eat.
Vere nods, and marks this down mentally as something to watch for.
He also clarifies exactly what they are supposed to do with demigods if the find any...
Observe. Do not make contact unless contacted. Be polite but careful. In this situation, with Vere being royal and all, he’s probably going to be the one any demigods want to talk to. Also any goddeses.
He makes sure Rain isn't around and that he and Vere are working on something alone before he says something about the forest goddesses offering themselves to men, and how Vere should know not to take them up on any such offers.
Vere nods his understanding and agreement. He considers for a few moments, and then asks, "Do they ever combine these offers with mental compulsions or enchantments? I am thinking of various fae who will combine seduction with glamours designed to dampen the critical faculties and inhibitions. For example, appearing as the object of a man's desire, while suppressing his ability to question why that person would be wandering around in the middle of a forest."
Mum hasn't personally experienced such a thing, but he wouldn't be surprised if they tried such a trick. Mum's opinion is that he's not that valuable in terms of putting to stud. But a royal might be different, though. Mum does wonder if the royal gifts like the Warden has won't protect Vere.
Vere makes a quiet noncomittal noise in response to this.
It goes without saying that they set up a guard rotation for the night. Vere will inquire about standard sleeping protocol in a patrol such as this - back in the Isles they would have taken to the trees and made simple night nests while travelling through hostile sections of the Eastern Forest.
It varies. In this terrain hammocks or night nests or whatever you want to call them are probably safe, but deeper in the Green, you might end up with an infested tree trying to do something unpleasant with you while you're sleeping in mid-air. Mum keeps sealed tents overnight against that -- there are things it won't protect you from, but nothing can get at you trivially, at least.
Vere will defer to Mum in this, and in most things to do with travelling through these woods, until and unless he ever feels confidant that he has surpassed the senior ranger's knowledge and judgement.
Mum rousts everyone in the morning, has them all inspect themselves thoroughly and they make their way further into the Deep Green, carefully watching for corruption. It's about halfway through the morning that Vere gets a whiff of something that's wrong: not so much that he can sense it with his usual senses, but more like he feels it in his bones.
At about the same time, Mum has drawn his bow and has an arrow ready to nock. Mum's gesture sets off the others and suddenly everyone in the group is like a bristling porcupine, ready for action.
"How many of you smell it?" Mum asks.
"There is ... something," Vere replies quietly. "Something wrong."
He opens his Third Eye and examines their surroundings.
Vere's third eye is nearly overwhelmed. There is so much life and it all shines. Vere is aware of every plant, every insect, every bird and every drop of water. They move in patterns that look to Vere as if all of Nature were breathing in and breathing out. Vere can't see very far since there is so much life surrounding them, and all of it is green.
"Air De Droit," says Needle, slipping into the Ranger shorthand. The other Rangers as a unit turn to the right and point their bows up into the trees.
"Modal, you're on torch." That Ranger puts down his bow and picks up a half-burned piece of wood from the fire, coaxing it to light.
Mum clucks. "Can't tell if it's in the trees or just the trees. Rain, I need you to pack our gear, on the quiet. We're here to scout, and if it's just a tree, then we mark it and send an assault team."
Needle looks at Vere. "Can you tell anything?"
"Everything," Vere breathes. "All around us. It is all connected, all Green." He shakes his head, as though to clear it, and then tries to focus his attention up into the trees to the right, to see if anything there stands out in any way. If he doesn't spot anything with his third eye after a few seconds he will drop it and use his less esoteric senses.
Needle nods. "It's like that, My Lord. My Grandmother was a sailor. They talk of the Deep Blue the same way we talk of the Deep Green. We're not talking about the shade of the green, but the depth. Like the Ocean. We all have our Mother Carey."
Vere spots something on the branches of the tree. Some sort of giant black cat. When Vere spots it, it moves further back into the trees.
He thinks he could reach it, if he heads up into the branches. The rest of the patrol probably couldn't.
"Feline," Vere says quietly. "Large. Black."
At once all the rangers, even Rain, come to attention. To the extent that they weren't locked and loaded, they are now. "Verde!," says Mum, moving back and to the side. Needle's bow is pointed mostly in the direction of the target, but it's not clear he's tracking it yet. Modal is following his lead with the torch, but neither of them seems to have the instinct. Rain is covering them as best she can from the other side.
After a moment, Modal switches his center of attention so he's covering their back, as it were, along with Rain.
The beast seems to be aware it's being tracked, and moves back into the leaves.
"I will go up after it," Vere says. He waits for a moment to see if anyone has an argument against doing that before he begins to climb.
“Fire!” Mum calls to Vere as he moves to climb up the tree. “You’ll need to burn it to kill it.” He moves to light the arrow he has nocked so he can take a clear shot before Vere gets too close to the retreating cat.
Vere considers that for a moment, then says, "Too dangerous to take fire into the trees. I shall focus on knocking it to the ground, where the rest of you can burn it."
While Vere and Mum are debating, the cat slinks further away. Vere will need to hurry to catch up with it or to have any chance of knocking it from the trees to the ground. Meanwhile, Mum has moved toward Modal and the torch with his arrow, possibly with the idea of shooting a flaming arrow into the cat at some point if needed.
Vere turns away from his companion and climbs the tree quickly, keeping an eye on the cat. He wants to get above it, with several possible avenues to follow towards it depending on which direction it moves, if possible.
The cat is swift and seems to know its way about the trees, as it slides off into the foliage with Vere in climbing pursuit. He is able to keep sight of it and follow because he's an expert in seeing the possible lines of travel in the overground and guessing which the cat will take (usually the one most difficult for Vere to follow). Vere isn't losing the cat, though he might be leaving his ground support behind if he's not careful.
He doesn't think he can catch up with the panther without some special effort, and certainly not without abandoning his team.
Vere briefly considers Sorcery, then instantly dismisses the thought. Instead, he coninues moving after the cat, and concentrates on the certainty that one of the branches the animal is about to move onto is weaker than it appears, and will break under the cat's weight.
The cat makes a screeching noise, different from, but eerily similar to an actual cat as it falls. It hits the ground hard, and heads off downhill. If the terrain here is at all normal, there should be water that way, eventually. Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem slowed down. Vere could maintain chase in the trees or follow on the ground. His team is coming up as well, but if he waits for them, he’ll lose the beast.
There’s some blood where it hit the rocks, or at least a brown smudge. If the creature lost that much blood, it’s not in good shape.
Vere makes a long leap to the ground, rolling to absorb the shock as he hits, then springs to his feet. He takes two running steps after the cat, then comes to a stop, shakes his head, and turns, checking to see how far behind his companions are. "Do not get separated," he says quietly to himself, with a small smile on his lips.
The patrol catches up with Vere and, seeing the brown spot on the ground, immediately apply the torch to it. It sputters and smokes and spreads faster than it should, and the immediate need is to stay clear of the fire. Mum warns him against putting it out before the beast is dead, because it’s like the roadside grass on the back road.
Unless the beast is circling back to attack, it’s likely far away by now.
Vere throws a longing glance in the direction the beast took, then turns back to his companions. "I believe that I could have caught up to it," he says, "But I also believe that I made the right decision in not choosing to do so, and separating from the rest of you. It occurs to me that it might well have been trying to lure me away in just that manner."
Mum nods in agreement as the others, who were strung out behind him, catch up. "If it is, it'll be back for another crack at us. At you," he says to Vere.
Once the group is assembled, they report. The brown spot was completely burned out, so no taint was allowed to set into the ground. None of the others were injured by anything falling from the tree or as they tried to keep up with Vere and Mum. Mum has to ask the same question of Vere: any injuries, any broken skin? It sounds like a formality but Vere can tell from his tone that the question is serious, if routine.
"No injuries," Vere reports. "I never closed with it." He turns, examining their surroundings. "If it does come back, might we arrange for me to be in an apparently exposed position, to lure it into an ambush which we can turn back upon it?"
Mum says, "That's not a bad idea. If it's gone off to report, there'll be another attack." The rest of them nod, Rain a half-beat later than the others, and more out of loyalty to the shared understanding of Rangers than out of any personal knowledge if Vere is any judge. "Is it more important to deal with the cat or to complete the patrol circuit?" he continues, directing the question at Vere, whom he clearly considers in charge of setting mission priorities for the group.
Vere considers the question for a few moments before answering. "Completing the circuit takes priority," he finally decides. "It is always possible that the cat was sent as a distraction to prevent us discovering something more important. Taking down the cat remains a high priority if we get the chance, but we will not allow it to distract us from completing the patrol."
He falls silent for a few moments again, listening to the life around him, the rhythms and flows of it, so that any changes will be all the more obvious.
"Suggestions on ways to lure it, and/or any reinforcements it might be bringing, into an unwise attack while we travel?" he asks.
Mum laughs. “It’s hard to come up with something that isn’t unwise on our part, without stopping the patrol. When the war was at its worst, it would come at us in human form, actually looking like people we knew who they’d killed. Back then, if someone got separated from a patrol, they had to prove they weren’t a greenie by holding their arm over the fire.
“But the thing is, they can change shape, too. That cat might infiltrate that ash sapling over there, or a salmon if it suited it. We’ve encountered their scout, as it were. The rest of the patrol is to see if they’ve moved closer to us. There’s a river that was stopping them the last time I was here, but there also weren’t no cats on this side.”
Needle nods. “They don’t die when they should. I’ve heard stories. Decapitated greenies fighting you with their hair.”
Rain looks alarmed by this story. Modal nods. “Heard that one, mysel’. Twas a horse they used. It attacked Ro— Lady Robin.” Modal sniffs the air. "We should move. There’s a campsite at the end of today’s walk, if we don’t dawdle. If they plan to attack, they’ll attack. We ain’t more vulnerable moving as staying here."
Vere nods. "Logical," he says. "They are not living creatures in the way that we understand it. Do not assume they are dead just because they look dead. Until they are burnt, consider an apparent corpse, a body part, or blood to be an active threat."
He gives a decisive nob. "Move out," he says.
The group forms up in its previous orientation--it's hard to get anything but a file line in the Green, which are deep enough forest that they sometimes have to hack a new trail where one used to be even when the growth isn't apparently contaminated. As the group moves on, the sun slowly starts to sink lower in the sky. Afte a while of hacking and marching, Mum pulls Vere aside to put a question to him: at this rate the group won't make the campsite by sundown. Would Vere rather stop soon and pick a potentially defensible campsite, or press on after dark?
Vere looks around, judging the defensibility of the local area, as he asks, "How long do you estimate it would take us to reach the campsite if we do push on? I am inclined to think that traveling through this underbrush in the dark would be too hazardous, but it might be worth risking it for a short period."
Mum ponders the question. "I'd say maybe half to three-quarters of a glass after sundown, assuming it doesn't get any more difficult to make our way there--and that you can hold the path, if you don't mind my saying so." Needle nods to the last bit, as does Modal. Rain looks a touch confused for a moment, but then her eyes light with understanding as she catches on to what Mum means.
Vere nods. "Describe the campsite to me, and give me as close an estimate as possible of its distance and direction from here, and I shall not lose the way. A very short time at higher risk against a night in a location with defensibility issues seems a reasonable gamble."
Vere listens carefully to the description of where they are heading, asks a few questions about the terrain between, then leads them as quickly as possible via what seems to him to be the best route, adjusting probability as they travel to give as clear and trouble free a journey as possible until they reach the campsite.
The trip passes without event, which is to say no creatures of the Green attack them en route. Vere can feel a sort of pressure on him as he manipulates probability here. It's not sorcerous per se, but his use of the Pattern is--not so much opposed as tested, perhaps? He has a sense of his strength being measured and taken.
When they arrive at the campsite, it is more overgrown than Mum expected, and he takes it as a very bad sign. Fire clears out the excess vines and plants: they retreat from it almost physically. By the time they're ready to eat and assign watches, they're all very tired. Even Vere notices the efforts they've had to take.
Vere gathers them around the fire, keeping a watchful eye out while they talk. "I mislike this," he says. "I have the sense we are being observed, and this overgrowth is excessive. I will take the first watch. Get rest, you may well need it before this night is out."
After they eat (carefully), the rangers arrange their hammocks and prepare to sleep, splitting the later watches so Rain is paired with Mum and Modal with Needle. Soon enough, they're all asleep, based on the sounds from the hammocks. Even Rain has learned to sleep where she can.
Perhaps an hour into his solo watch, Vere catches a glimpse of something moving in the trees near the limit of his vision. It's pale and sort of luminescent, from the glimpse he gets.
Vere cocks his head to one side, considering it for a few moments, then slowly turns a full circuit, using all of his senses to check the surrounding terrain in all directions, including above and below their campsite, for sounds, movements, scents, and anything else in any way unusual. He doesn't want to be taken by surprise by a sudden attack from a different direction, in case this is a distraction, and he also wants to get a sense of how the more 'natural' inhabitants of the Green are reacting to the presence of this ... whatever it may prove to be.
The natural inhabitants of the Green, such as they are, don't seem to be paying whatever it is a lot of attention. It's man-sized, and roughly man-shaped. It makes no sound as it moves in the general direction of the campsite, and as Vere watches, he can see that the creature, or being, doesn't disturb the plants as it passes by them. Vere's nose isn't good enough to smell anything, either.
If Vere's historical experience with them is any guide, it's entirely possible that this thing is the manifestation of a ghost, as it appears in the Green.
Vere moves silently to Mum's hammock and nudges him awake. "Something approaches," he says quietly. "Let me know whether or not you are able to perceive it. It is quite possible you will not." Then he moves closer to the edge of the campsite, watching the figure approach.
Vere feels Mum's landing as he leaps down from the height of the hammock that Vere had had to reach up to. He already has a long knife in his hand, one that Vere recognizes as suitable for cutting animals or plants.
He spends some time looking around the campsite as Vere watches the figure approach. "I can't see it," Mum says after a bit.
Vere nods. "That is valuable information. Thank you."
He steps a little closer to the edge of the camp, careful not to actually walk into any of the vegetation. He tilts his head to one side and tries to get a better look at the figure, looking for any hints of details.
As the figure gets closer, Vere confirms that it's in the shape of a man. It's also definitely green, and it makes Vere's teeth itch in that way he's learning to associate with the Green. No: it was a man. Now it's sewn together with Green energy somehow, from what Vere can see.
He stops, finally, and looks at Vere, and says, "Hello, man of Amber."
"Something very bad is wrong here," is what Mum has to say, though he doesn't seem to have heard the approaching man or ghost or whatever it is.
"Something that was a living man once," William says to Mum quietly. Then, more loudly, he says, "Greetings, spirit of the Green."
The figure comes to the edge of the campsite and stops. "Why do you come into the Green?" Now that it's a bit closer, Vere has a better view of it. Him. This was, Vere thinks, a Ranger once, from the clothes, or what's left of him. But he was wounded viciously, mortally. And from him, from those injuries, leaks the Green, some of it as a glow, some of it like fresh maggots from open wounds, crawling out and onto the ground.
They are not approaching Vere or Mum. Not yet.
"The Warden sends us to see what is to be seen," Vere answers. "To hear what is to be heard, and to know what is to be known." He holds a hand behind his back, and gives the Ranger signs for 'Fire' and 'Wait.'
There are rustles behind Vere as Mum, and, Vere reckons, some of the others, get into position to attack, even if they can't see what they're meant to be attacking.
"Do you wish to see all that you could see? To hear all that is to be heard? To know all that you could know, man of Amber?" The man's grin splits his face, not entirely metaphorically, and green light shows through his mouth.
Behind him, Vere hears the sound of a torch in flames.
The green maggot continue to crawl off the ghost.
Vere smiles very slightly. "I have no desire nor intention to give up my identity for some greater unity," he replies. "Forget any such designs you may have."
"You are of Amber." The ghost's tone is dismissive. "Those who travel with you are not, though." From behind him, Vere can hear the sound of a torch being waved at something, or perhaps pushed into it.
"I have a message for the Warden. Will you take it?"
Vere begins mentally walking the Pattern in his mind, concentrating on the certainty and order of his existence. "I will," he says, watchful for some sort of attack or treachery on the part of the spirit of the Green.
"Tell him this," the ghost intones, and the cadence of his voice changes, as if he's taking on the qualities of another, or perhaps something else is speaking through him. "Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. Anarchy is loosed upon the worlds. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and the ceremony of innocence is drowned.
"He will know whereof we speak."
"I shall carry your message," Vere says. He continues walking the Pattern in his mind, and stays alert to the sounds behind him and the progress of the Green.
"Your grace is noted." The ghost makes a motion and the green maggots or drops or whatever they are coalesce back into their creature of origin. "Farewell, man of Amber. I hope we will not meet again, for your sake."
Vere nods, remaining watchful. "Farewell." He takes a step backwards, then turns his head slightly so that he can see what is happening behind him in the camp.
The ghost strides off into the Green.
The rangers have gathered behind him, armed with torches and bows (in Rain's case, a crossbow), and they're all watching carefully, keyed up like high-tension wires, waiting to snap. There are no visible ghostly maggots close by, and those that might have been moving toward the rangers seem to have returned to their source.
Mum glances at Vere at a break point in his scan of the area. "Has it gone, whatever it is?" he asks.
Vere relaxes slightly. "It appears to be," he says. "We should not relax our vigilance completely, as it may be simply a ruse, but I believe the danger is over for now."
He begins to walk a circuit of the campsite, making certain that there are no encroachments of the Green left inside the perimeter.
There is nothing of the Deep Green inside the perimeter as best as Vere can tell with all of his physical and magical senses. Mum also walks the perimeter separately, widdershins to Vere's deosil, and pronounces it clear as best as he can tell.
The group looks to Vere for further instructions: back to bed with same watches, change up, or vacate the camp for somewhere else? Or something else entirely?
"Back to sleep, if you can," Vere says. "We shall continue the same watch rotation for tonight, and head back first thing tomorrow."
Vere will remain awake all night, himself, just in case.
The night passes uneventfully, although the forest is full of noise. The patrol huddles miserably in the shelter, and warm, fat rain starts falling just as the moon sets.
Eventually, the sun rises and alleviates some of the gloom. Rain looks out, puzzled. "I swear those trees weren’t there last night."
Mum nods. "That happens. They’re sending a message."
Needle follows Mum’s glance. "Yeah, 'Get out'." There’s a straight, clear path between the trees leading back towards the main Ranger encampment.
Needle looks at Vere. "I think we should take this opportunity to depart."
Vere nods. "We are being given a polite chance to leave. If we do not take it I expect violence will follow. I do not see any way in which it is to the Warden's benefit for us to allow that to occur at this point. Let us gather everything and depart." He smiles very slightly. "Watchfully, of course."
The rangers pack the camp and restore it to its pristine state as quickly as possible. Mum suggests that any reinforcement of the place that Vere wishes to do with his royal gifts would be in order. He thinks it may already be too far gone to the Deep Green, but he’s not an expert on it. No one is, save the Warden. He doesn't seem to know what they are, the gifts, but he clearly expects Vere to have some idea what he's asking for and to be able to do something about it.
Vere glances around the area, considering the request for a few moments, then replies, "There is something I could try. However, I am not certain whether or not it might provoke a reaction from the Green in retaliation, and I am loathe to risk open conflict without the Warden's express direction." He considers it a bit longer, humming a soft tune, then says decisively. "No, I shall err on the side of caution for now." He nods to Mum. "It was well thought of, however."
Once they're ready to go, Mum leads the group out along the path indicated by the straight track of the Green. After an hour or so, the track peters out and Mum takes some time and does some observations to confirm that they are where he thinks they are. He asks Vere which way Vere thinks they should be going, clearly trying not to influence Vere's observations.
The rest of the rangers are on high guard, particularly Rain.
Vere points. "Unless the Green has played us false by shifting us through Shadow, which I believe I would have noticed, the Warden's camp is that direction." He tilts his head to one side, then specifies exactly how far they are from it as well.
Mum nods, impressed. “That’s a good two days, at the pace we’ll be making, or nearly that. We should be back in normal forest by that point. The key is to find where it changes, as it were.”
Needle also stares in the direction Vere indicated. “We don’t usually take the straightest way back, though. There’s a river just south of here, seems to be flowing the right direction. We could try to float back, but I ain’t sure the river becomes the river down by the camp. It’d cost us a few hours to build a raft, but then we’d be at the camp tonight."
Vere smiles slightly. "I find it very probable that it is the same river," he says dryly. "Let us build the raft."
And unless something interrupts them, they will proceed to build the raft (keeping lockouts on alert all the time, naturally). When they set out on the river Vere concentrates on his certainty that it is, in fact, the same river that leads to Julian's camp.
[OOC: So, as a note, this is the kind of thing that doesn’t generally work. Canonically, probabiity manipulation works on events: "Will she answer the door?” and can be overcome by strong-willed or chaos-tinged creatures opposing. You can manipulate probability such that “we won’t meet anyone on the road” or such.
You can move through shadow while rafting, as per normal moving-through-shadows. The canonical way to travel to a place of your desire is the successful way: If you know the area of the river by the camp, you can add or subtract things by shifting through shadow to get to where you’re going.
There are also powers that can help you, like Dead Recokning, which would give you knowledge of how far you were from a place you’d left in the past. With that power you might know you’re 10.3 miles from the camp, but you can’t know that this river will or won’t turn towards it.]
The rangers set to making a raft, enthusiastic to get further from the green area. The others defer to Needle, who seems well-versed in boating. He takes the lead in the endeavor. The raft launches ahead of schedule, and makes good progress.
Vere keeps careful track of their progress down the river relative to his awareness of exactly where the camp is.
Vere notices, after a while, that there is a crow or raven that seems to be following them. It doesn’t look friendly.
Vere points it out to Mum. "What do you think?" he asks.
"It's not one of the Warden's stormhawks, that's for sure." Mum scrutinizes it, his face screwed up in concentration. "Nothing obviously Green about it, but better to presume it's one of theirs, meant to keep an eye on us, than not. Especially at this point." He looks to Vere. "Can you tell anything about it, special?"
"I do not like it," Vere answers. "It feels hostile. But I do not know anything definite." He is silent a moment longer, then says, "There are things I could do to try to get more information, but I an loathe to reveal too much of what I can do to the Deep Green without more cause."
“That may be the point, if you take my meaning,” replies Mum, squinting up at it. “We could try to take it down with normal means.”
Rain has a bow in hand. “You want to take the shot? You’re definitely faster than I am."
Vere regards the bow for a moment, then shakes his head. "it is not actively hostile at the moment, and I will not initiate hostilities when I have a report to get back to the Warden. We will keep an eye on it, and watch the banks and the river for any further sign of the Green."
He moves to the bow of the raft, and considers their relative position to Julian's camp, the speed and direction of the river, and any other signs he can pick up from their surroundings.
The patrol is on high alert for the rest of the voyage back to camp. The potentially hostile black bird follows them, watching their passage down the river toward the territory claimed by Julian and the rest of the Rangers.
At a particular point, most of the way there, the crow or raven or whatever it is--the wing pattern once it's in the air is more swoopily predatorial to Vere's eyes--circles them twice and heads back in the direction from which they had all come. It is at about that point that Vere feels the group has passed out of the influence of the Deep Green and into a more Ordered part of Arden or Arcadia.
Vere nods as the bird departs. "The Green wanted to be sure we were departing," he says. "And just possibly it was trying to provoke an attack as an excuse to take us."
A few minutes later, Mum confirms: "Plants look cleaner here."
"Good," Vere says. "But let us not relax just yet. Better safe." He thinks for a moment, then adds, "And let us search the raft for any possible hitchhiker from the Deep Green."
He will use his Third Eye as well to examine the raft and his companions, and assuming the top of the raft is clean he will then swim over the side to check the underside of the raft.
On the edges of the raft, Vere finds some Green in the algae gathering itself on the boat, but no more than he might expect given that such things have attached themselves in the first place. The rangers scrape it off with their knives under Vere's direction, and Needle hands Vere a heavy knife that would be particularly good for doing the same underneath before he jumps into the water.
Mum suggests they burn the raft when they get back to camp.
Vere nods his agreement with this suggestion.
There are no riders on the people, nor any riders beyond the level of river dross on the underside of the raft.
Vere takes a last look all around them under the water, to be certain that nothing unusual (Green or otherwise) is lurking anywhere, then (assuming there isn't) he returns to the surface and climbs aboard the raft. "All clear," he tells them.
He surveys the shore, looking to see if he can spot the watchers he is certain Julian would have stationed to watch the border.
At a certain point, later in the journey than Vere might have expected, he catches the sound of Cadence whistled into the wind, and a response from one of the Rangers on the raft. Then there's a hawk in the sky that Vere can see, headed off in the direction of the river.
In all this, Vere has only caught sight of the movement of the Rangers on the shore because he knew where the sounds were coming from, and then because the hawk launched from the same place. They're good, and the blinds and shelters constructed here are well-hidden.
Needle says, perhaps unnecessarily, "They're telling the Warden we're coming."
Vere nods, then quietly whistles the exact sequence of Cadence that he had just heard. "I'm still learning Cadence," he says. "Please explain the precise meaning of this call and response."
Needle calls Rain over. "Rain, you explain to Vere what the call and response was." She looks between the two of them, aware she's being tested, and launches into an explanation.
The explanation is apparently good enough for Rain to pass, though Needle patiently corrects and clarifies her explanation on several points. Although Rain has been a Ranger for several years to Vere's certain knowledge, she has yet to manage all the intricacies of cadence.
Vere listens intently, adding this information to his steadily increasing understanding of Cadence, and simultaneously refining his opinions of what was important and unimportant to Rangers based on relative significance and complexity in Cadence.
Vere looks up as the camp comes into sight, taking in visual and auditory information, judging the mood and activities of the Rangers he sees, making rapid decisions about the state of alert and readiness shown, and analyzing any changes since they left.
It’s quieter than normal, not the sounds of camp awaiting action, but a camp awaiting news. There are fewer horses in the paddocks, and Julian’s standard is not flying over the camp.
Vere’s nose tells him that there is cooking going on, so the camp isn’t being abandoned.
As they come around the last bend, Vere sees a group of young Rangers, being taught by a youth. The youth and about half the Rangers are very dark skinned, in tones that are not common either in the Isles nor in Amber.
They stop training when they see the boat coming in and run to the makeshift dock to help land it.
Vere assists in making the raft fast to the dock, then asks the youth, "Has the Warden departed?" He examines the youth as he speaks.
The youth examines him back. While he has the outward signs of youth, he somehow seems older than his years. "He has, but I was left to wait for you. I am Iron Eye, a Ranger of Broceliande. He does not expect to be gone for very long, but is taking an opportunity to scout in force. The Green Enemy is pushing towards this place, and the Warden is flanking.
"It's likely that the lines will shift, either tonight or tomorrow. It's not clear how long the supply line will remain open. The warden and I have been discussing supply for his army via Broceliande."
“He said the paths need shoring up, which is a thing beyond even my magics."
"Iron Eye?" Vere says. "The shade of Ysabeau spoke the name Iron Eye to me once. I am Vere, nephew of the Warden."
He bows. "May her shade be at peace, as she never was in life. I am from the Rangers of Broceliande. Yee-sa-bo was my wife, and the mother of my first daughter."
Iron Eye watches as his charges go off with Rain and the other rangers.
"When the Warden returns, he will decide if this camp is to move. It seems prudent, but he will know the enemies moves. You were gathering information for him, as well." It's a statement, not a question.
Business completed, Iron Eye seems most interested in Ysabeau. "What did the shade of my wife say to you, Prince Vere?"
"She was summoned to speak to two of her daughters, and to my sister, the Princess of the Isles, so that we could ask her if the Isles could be saved from destruction. We did not know at that time that your daughter was also her daughter." Vere smiles slightly. "She mentioned your name when she said that you were the only husband she had taken who had the strength to raise one of her daughters." Vere's brief smile passes away. "I do not know if she had ever mentioned the Isles to you. She was drawn back to them in the end, to serve as goddess for her people. She advised strongly that her daughters leave the Isles and not return, to avoid a similar fate."
He smiles, it’s almost a laugh. “Hannah chose to raise herself, mostly. I am proud to have raised a daughter who, when seeing a unicorn, would follow it to see where it went.” Iron Eye becomes more serious, as if he was recalling some unhappy events. “She spoke frequently of the Isles. She was drawn to her home, and yet afraid it would cause her dissolution. Perhaps eventually she let that happen. When she was with me, she fought it like a tribesman fights alcoholism.”
The camp is watchful, but it gives Vere and Iron Eye space. “Do your men need food? Sometimes the young forget.”
Vere nods, and slightly chastened says, "You are right, and I should have seen to that already." He turns back to the Rangers to be sure that they go and get some rest and food after the rigors of patrol. Then he returns to Iron Eye. "May I speak with you more, sir?" he asks.
He nods. "Call me E-sta-mah-za. Or Carles, the name my father game me, if it's easier on your tongue. Rangers need to have the sense to sleep when they are tired, eat when they are hungry, and to come in from the rain. If not they are not likely to be of much use to the tribe."
"E-sta-mah-za," Vere repeats, replicating the cadences perfectly. He grins, "And they need to take into account that not everyone is a young fool whose parentage gives them more stamina than their companions, as well."
Iron Eye leads Vere to a camp table with benches on either side. It looks like it's normally for meals, but is being used to create arrows at the moment. Iron ye gestures for Vere to sit, and picks up an arrow. "What do you wish to speak of?"
Vere sits and begins making arrows as he speaks. "First, a question of personal interest to me. Do you know if Robin has yet returned to the camp?"
He nods. "Your intended? She was here when I arrived. I spoke briefly with her, and she went to investigate some signs of unusual activity I had seen coming from Brocéliande. She was given her choice of two tasks, and chose that one.
"The other task is still undone, which is to deliver several dispatches to the Castle of Amber. It is a task requiring a ranger whom we expect to be able to get through to Amber, which is a limited set of men and women."
Vere tilts his head to one side and considers this for a moment. "How important are these dispatches? I am one of those who can reach it, but it is my impression that the Regent of Amber prefers that members of the Royal Family not visit without good cause."
Estimaza shrugs. It's an eloquent shrug that seems to say much more than any words could. "I have not read them. Vista handed them to me in the chaos of his departure with the Protector." He pauses, for a moment. "Excuse me, it’s 'Warden'. The words are the same in my language.
"I was asked to pass them along if anyone came through who could take them to Amber."
"Indeed," Vere says. "And no specific word was left for me, regarding any other tasks that the Warden might have for me?"
Estimaza shrugs again. "That is correct. Part of how a ranger determines their role is by what they do when they have no orders. What will you do?" For a man who looks seventeen, Estimaza seems like he could be ten times that old.
"I will carry them," Vere decides. "It is a task that needs doing, and a thing that I can do."
Estimaza pushes the stack of dispatches towards Vere.
He pauses for a moment, then says, "I hope you will excuse my impertinence if this is rude. But your face does not match your age?" He makes the statement a question.
The cherubic-faced ranger nods. "You see clearly. It is no impertinence to be curious. The only way learn about the world is to question what we see. I am Estimate of the Ponca, father of Hah-nah, chief of my tribe, and a senior Ranger of Broceliande. I was born perhaps 200 winters ago to the daughter of a chief of the Ponca and a French trapper, and I spent many years living in the Blue World with one of my wives, who was Hah-nah's mother. I once was young, then I was old, and now I am young again. I cannot say how, but it is so."
Vere takes the dispatches and looks them over. He is not breaking any seals, but if any of them are open he will read them. While doing this he says, "Most interesting. It leads one to wonder if you might have the blood of the Family in your veins."
None of them are open, so there is nothing to read.
He nods. "My daughter is convinced that I am the child of Random's brother Corwin, but she has apparently decided that all things beyond normal human experience are things of your family's world. I have promised her not to try to walk the pattern and she has promised to find out why she thinks this must be."
He seems neither excited nor unhappy at the idea of being a member of the Family.
Vere considers this for a moment before asking, "Have you met my cousin Brita yet? She can smell the blood of the Family."
He shakes his head. "I wonder if her power is similar to that King Random has. He says he can tell if someone can walk the pattern, but he cannot say why. I admit that I do not find this answer particularly satisfying."
"The Family Blood can show itself in strange ways," Vere says. "We are each of us unique cases." His line of sight drifts to somewhere above and beyond Estimaza's left shoulder. "Do you have any questions regarding the Family that I might answer for you?"
Estimaza laughs, gently. "I have questions. I do not expect that you can answer them. I like to believe that there are answers. 'Why can some children of the eldest walk the pattern, and some cannot, and how does one tell?' You have already suggested that the ways are strange, but it is my hope that they are knowably strange."
Another Ranger patrol comes in, from the south this time. They are also greeted by the Rangers who are left here. Vere's estimation is that that this camp could not survive a concerted attack by the Green.
Vere smiles very slightly. "I also have the hope, and the belief, that all questions have answers. But some of those answers are either unknown to anyone, or deeply hidden. Our exact relationship to the Patterns is one of those. The strength of the blood is a major factor, I know. But there are others, or else it would be a simple matter of calculating lineage, and it is clearly far more complicated than that. I suspect Dworkin knows the answer, if one could only find him, and if her were willing to answer."
He tilts his head slightly. "Have you been told of Dworkin yet?"
"I have been told three apparently contradictory stories. He is the creator of all things, or perhaps he is your great-grandfather, or perhaps he is an insane hunchback who was once the court magician of Amber. Or some combination of the three."
He smiles. "Do you have a fourth tale of him to tell me? I am apparently a collector of tales."
"Dworkin Barimen," Vere says meditatively. "Barimen would appear to be a House of the Lords of Chaos, and Dworkin himself was a Great Lord of Chaos before he inscribed the Pattern and fixed Order into the Universe. The other Lords of Chaos consider that a crime, a perversion, or just extremely bad taste, depending on the individual Lord. He is the father of Oberon. Some say that Oberon's mother was the Unicorn, although whether that is metaphor or not I do not know. He does appear to have gone insane for some considerable time, during which time he was thought by many to be Oberon's vassal, rather than his father. Which of Oberon's children knew his true identity I do not know."
Vere smiles. "Since Oberon repaired the Pattern Dworkin appears to have recovered his sanity. Although the sanity of an ancient Lord of Chaos who created the framework of the Ordered Universe may not be something you or I could understand."
Robin is quickly in her element: Deep woods that aren’t exactly the Deep Green, but that may not have seen a human in generations. The harts and hinds have no special fear of Robin, nor do the predators. Everything grows larger here, and the light filters down with a special quality.
Robin follows the directions Iron Eyes provided. She finds the landmarks he saw easily: a mountain in the distance, a ravine with a double waterfall, the remains of a forest fire from a decade ago.
It’s pretty shocking when she comes across what looks like some sort of animal trap: a spring loaded set of steel jaws that would pin anything smaller than a grizzly bear, and attached to a chain.
There are tracks where someone checked the trap. They’re probably 2 days old.
Robin frowns as she looks over the trap. Carefully, she leans forward to get a good scent trace. Then, taking a large stick, she first purposefully springs the trap. Then, equally purposefully, wrecks it in such a way as it cannot be repaired. A smile dances across her lips as she thinks of Silhouette. Her cousin would probably be more... graceful about the examination and disablement of a mechanic device, but Robin's methods work too.
As a child of Amber, Robin’s strength is more than a match for the trap. Not only will it never be used as a trap again, it’s also a clear message to whoever finds it.
Then she's off on the hunt. Robin is careful not to walk directly on the trail but to shadow it from nearby, where she has a clear view.
Robin continues along, the tracks go higher into the hills, and she finds the snow-line. The trapper isn’t bothering to conceal his trail. Robin comes across what might’ve been another trap site. It’s hard to tell, because scavengers have picked the carcass of the dead bear clean.
Robin’s frown deepens. It’s one thing to set a trap, it’s another to be wasteful of a kill.
The trail continues to a river, which has a trot line across it. There are no fish caught by it, but it should catch some soon.
Across the river, Robin sees a plume of smoke from the next valley over. It doesn’t look like a wildfire, so it’s probably people.
When Robin finds the trotline an angry buzz starts up in the back of her throat. In short order the trotline gets the same treatment as the previous trap: complete and definitive.
Robin is cautious as she crosses the river, using the firelizards as forward observers.
Once across the river, the Ranger-once-more climbs a likely looking tree to get a better view of the smoke plume. One campfire, many chimneys, burning wood or something else?
Robin sees a cottage in the center of the clearing. It’s not very large, but it may have two or three rooms. It’s a permanent structure, and the smoke rises in a single plume from a chimney or smoke-hole in the small building. The wood smells like it's dry, seasoned and slow-burning. There’s also the smell of smoking food in the plume. Part of the building may be a smoke-house.
The sun sets as Robin looks at the place. The fire is probably also for warmth. It’s getting colder as Robin watches.
Hmmm... Robin rubs her chin as she thinks. Deciding on her tried and true full-frontal reconnoiter style, she climbs down from the tree.
The Ranger takes a few moments to make sure both she and the firelizards are calmer before setting off toward the cottage. The firelizards get sent aloft with fond crooning to watch her flanks. And Robin tweaks the wind slightly to make it more difficult for missile weapons to successfully find their targets.
Then she sets out for the cottage fairly directly.
As Robin approaches the cabin, the door opens and a large, muscled man looks out. He may not have shaved since the spring. "Bonjour! Je n'ai pas vu deja ici. Entrez!"
Behind him is a woman wearing buckskin clothing.
"Merci Beaucoup," Robin says as she enters. She briefly sends her hope that the firelizards will stay outside unless there's an emergency. At which point they would be welcome to join her.
"I've been away and am just now returning to these parts," she continues as she looks around the interior of the home. She's especially looking for any little Ponca touches in the décor or the woman's clothing.
She could be a Ponca or a related tribe. It's hard to say. It is easy to see that she's pregnant.
The man closes the door against the cold and offer her a seat. There are two candles lit in the main room and a fire in the cooking corner, which can't be called a kitchen as such. "Are you? I don't know of any women trappers, in these parts or any parts, not white women, anyway. But you’re here, and that speaks volumes. Unless I'm wrong, and you're a castrati or something." He holds out his hand, "I'm Carles, and I'm the best fur-trapper on this riverway. Lorraine, please get our guest a warm drink. Something strong, I'd say."
Robin shakes the offered hand firmly. “Strong would be nice.
"I'm Robin. And I'm not a trapper. I'm a nature spirit." Close enough, she thinks.
"Nature Spirit, huh? Shouldn't you be getting ready to sleep through the winter? Šišóka šni kiŋ waná lowáŋpi."
Lorraine smiles as Carles' comment. She passes a mug of a very different kind of spirit to Robin. It is eye-wateringly strong. Carles takes one himself. "You are welcome in this house, šišóka," says the young woman. "Can we assist you? Why have you made the voyage from the blue world to ours?"
[OOC: http://mahpiyalutatimes.blogspot.com/2013/03/lakota-phrase-of-day-sisoka-ki-wana.html ]
"Merci." Robin takes a hospitable sip from the mug, before addressing the two seriously. "I come not-so-much from the blue world as from the Green one. There is a great deal of unrest in that world. Wars are brewing and being fought between family members. It is bad." She shakes her head sadly.
"Worse, the edges between that world and this world are blurring and shifting. Your traps, Carles," she nods to him, "have caught the spirits' notice. They are not acting as yet, but..." she shakes her head, "this is not a good time to come to the spirits' attention.
"I see that this is your home. And that you are planning a future here." She gestures to Lorraine's midriff. "And I am not fool enough to tell an edgeman to leave his place." She smiles at them both before getting serious again.
"But there is grave danger nearby and if you plan to remain, for the babe’s sake -- live as quietly and as unnoticeably as possible. Return to the old ways if you can. And be very, very careful of strangers." Robin smiles as she says this last and takes a heartier swig from the mug.
He laughs. "I’m not very good at living quietly, but I am very good at living. I take your point, stranger. I do indeed."
Lorraine smiles. "Forgive my husband. He, like you, is a nature spirit dreaming that he is a man, and sometimes he forgets how to be himself."
Carles rolls his eyes, but doesn't contradict her.
Robin chuckles into her mug. Momentarily she wonders if Carles is another of Daeon's progeny.
"That's good. It means you'll have some defense. But bad in that it means you'll attract more attention." Robin kicks back the rest of her mug.
"That being said, I should take my leave." She puts the mug down and stands. "I do not live quietly either." She smiles at Carles, "And I do not wish to bring unwanted visitors down on you with my trail."
Carles stands, but gestures to Lorraine not to get up, probably in deference to her pregnancy.
Carles looks at Lorraine. "We'll be here through the winter, and then move on come spring. If I need to dig in here to protect my wife and child, I will."
Lorraine looks grave. "What spirit or beings should we expect, Spirit of the Green World? We will pray and make offerings as the Spirits need. Grandfather Bear will protect me, but I cannot call upon him if I do not know what the danger is."
"The Dragon stirs." Robin says seriously, "And her daughters fight for or against her emergence. Beware of that which has more life than it should. And beware of the unseasonal." She smile ironically.
"The spirits I have fought have come in many forms but most of them are confusers of the mind. And liars of shape." Robin shrugs. That's the best she can do.
The woman nods. "Thank you for the warning, Spirit of the Green World."
The man looks grim. "Dragons are creatures of the Old World. These people don't even have those myths. I think I know what I need to do, Robin." He stops, briefly. "Robin is such an English word, and doesn't come easily to me," he says. "The French word would be Le Merle, which I think suits you better. I thank you for your warning as well, Merle. If you come here to look for us again, we will be gone before the thaws."
Robin bows. "Thank you for the name. Both of them." She smiles to Lorraine as well.
"I’ll take my leave then. Be safe." With that, Robin sees herself to the door and out into the cold night.
The night is cold, in a high-altitude, first-frost kind of way. If Robin were inclined to dabble with the probabilities, she could probably bring on an early snowfall. It might happen even without Robin’s nudging.
The forest is vast, but it's not Arden, and it's not Brocéliande. Robin could shift to either of those, if she chose to do so. Or she could explore here. There's a mountain range she can see in the distance, which would give her a good view of the forest and of what lies beyond. There's also just plain wandering, a Ranger on patrol, looking for interesting and dangerous situations.
Robin fluffs herself in the cold and greets the firelizards as she strides into the forest. Slowly, she begins to shift her way back toward Arden. But she keeps herself open to possibility. If there’s one new marked place, there might be others. And those are definitely something the Warden needs to know about.
Robin enters a clearing, sometime after she's shifted the snow back towards the Arden spring, and sees two things. One is a stone plinth with a basin on it, full of rainwater. The other, nestled in a crag on the side of a cliff, is a small castle.
A curious chirp escapes Robin as she cocks her head. Approaching the plinth, Robin looks it over respectfully and more importantly Listens to it. She's curious to know whom the plinth and the water is dedicated to and who dedicated them. She's also looking if there are any traces of Family or Enemies, which these days Robin has to grant are different.
To Robin's (non-sorcerous) glance, it's clearly something, but it's not clearly a thing of chaos or order. What it mostly seems to be is connected to this place. The surface of the water is still and reflective.
Peep lands on Robin's shoulder. She leans towards the water, and makes a curious noise, as if she wishes to get closer to the water.
Robin glances at Peep with a fond smile. "Okay," she says, "Let’s poke it and ask nicely."
Hoping that it's a ward and not a scrying pool, Robin touches the water with one gentle finger. "Hello, my name is Robin. I come with no ill intentions and for no purpose of harm."
The water bubbles a bit where Robin's finger touches it. Rather than damping down the water keeps rising and falling, like a tides. In the distance Robin hears thunder.
Peep wraps her tail around Robin's neck.
"Yep." Robin nods, "That's got someone's attention." [OOC - What direction did the thunder come from? And is it an ongoing sound or just one boom?]
[OOC: It came from the far side of the mountain that the castle is on. Or the castle itself.]
"Well, let's see what the guardians of this place have to say." Robin loosens her sword and nocks her bow, just in case. She's wary, but not looking for trouble.
A mounted knight, fully caparisoned and his visor closed rides into the clearing at the far end. His shield is green with a lion on it. He lowers his lance and points it at Robin.
"Really?" Robin says. "Not even a hail?"
Quick as a wink, there’s an arrow in her bow. If that horse or knight moves toward her, she intends to shoot the horse in such a way that it will fall, trapping the knight beneath it. (And she's not above tweaking local conditions to do so.)
If she gets time, she will tweak in such a way as do minimal damage to Shadow, horse and man. In that order.
Raven gives the Pattern a good, hard look when they reach it; it's part skeptical - the floor is on fire, but clearly people have survived this - and part curiosity. After all, it's not something she's ever seen before, even if she's seen a lot of things she's never seen before in the last few years.
After a moment, she shucks her coat and starts rolling up her shirt-sleeves; as she does, she turns to Jerod and says, "Right. You got anything else I need to know here?"
"Just like I said before." Jerod says, taking the coat. "Don't stop, for anything. Don't quit, don't back down, don't give in. The stress of the walk may deceive your senses, don't trust them. Trust yourself, only yourself. That core that you are, find it, use it and be it."
Raven nods. "'Trust yourself and don't quit' ain't all that different from what they told me the first time I went up the rigging in a storm," she observes. "Also, 'don't fall off the boat; we won't come back for you.'" She snorts softly and shakes her head. "Less fire there, though. Suppose I'll meet you back at the ship, after?"
"That will be up to you." Jerod replies. "Keep in mind that once you are done the Walk, you will have the opportunity to go anywhere you want. And I literally mean anywhere. Be cautious with your thoughts and desires at that moment. You could find yourself on the other side of reality without even blinking."
Raven eyes him and then snorts. "Sorry, but do you actually think that after spending all that damn time trying to get back, that I want to get my arse dumped on the other side of reality? By myself, with nothing much in my pockets? I got more sense than that, thanks. Anyway, there's a job to do. Won't be the first time I slept something off on a ship on the way to making a point to someone that annoyed the Crown."
"Let's just say that freedom can be intoxicating and leave it at that." Jerod says with a slight smile. "Time to proceed."
"Aye, I suppose so." Raven squares her shoulders and takes a deep breath. Then she moves forward, to set foot on the Pattern.
Through the walk, Jerod will be watching from the sidelines.
Raven stands before a glowing line, tracing a pattern around the basement of this giant stone building. Deep underground, with Jerod near the beginning, it's like looking into a mirror and seeing your own ghost. Good thing sailors aren’t superstitious.
Raven quickly finds her rhythm, step after step after step. The pattern resists. It threw off sparks as she steps through it and it pushes back against her boot. The pressure isn't much, here, but it's clearly going to take some will power to keep moving forward.
It isn't, currently, any worse than walking on a rolling deck. Raven finds her mind wandering to the decks she’d walked in Amber's service for all these years.
"Many years. And yet, they're done, aren't they, Bosun. Or is it Captain now?" Admiral Caine steps along beside her, the rolling deck not disturbing his stride in the least. "I haven't been to sea since Dad died. Is that what you want? You should give up this dream and go back to being a Bosun. Give me your hand and I'll help you escape."
Raven notices that it's getting harder to stay on the pattern.
Well, it would certainly be simpler; Raven can't deny that. Following orders always was easier than giving them. But - "Bit late for that, isn't it, sir?" she asks. "I never figured, when I took over the Vale, that it was going to be anything but ill-fitting, going back to Bosun, and then all this happened. Can't say as how any of the rest of this was part of my dreams, but I can't go back and make it not so. And what captain is going to want to boss around a Bosun that's a Royal? Not anyone I'd want to work for, yourself and Admiral Gerard and any other Royals aside." She shakes her head, growing more certain as she speaks. "There's no going back. If that means I can't get out to sea as much as I like, I guess I'll deal with it. Can't help but think that some of that not getting out has to do with being Admiral, though, sir."
“No going back? Maybe, but is there anything worth going forward for? The Navy is full of younger princelings, we don’t need admirals or sea-lords, and no admiral will have you as Captain, so you’ll end up as either my pilot or Gerard’s. This varies between difficult and boring, and I was raised for it. You should just stop, before you get so swamped you can’t right your ship.”
The admiral stops, dead, in front of her, standing on the line, and across a particularly tricky spot.
"I know plenty about 'difficult and boring'," Raven answers. "It happens. Don't matter who you are or what you do, it happens. That ain't a reason. Besides, speaking of difficult... if nobody is going to want me, why'd you tell me I'd probably stay Captain before?" She shakes her head. "I'll figure something out; the sea's in my blood, and you ought to know as well as I do that she calls. I'd rather stay Navy, but if that ain't going to work... I'll figure it out. Maybe I'll get a ship of my own. Now, you should move, sir." She snorts. "Or be not really there and in my head so I can just walk through you. I'd go for that, too."
Caine chuckles. “Never assume that the voices in your head aren’t real, stripling, or that they’re gone when you can’t hear them. You express confidence very well, and will do so right until you break your keel on rocks you didn’t know were there.”
If Caine is still with her, he’s at least silent now. Raven continues stepping carefully along the bright red track on the ground. The resistance peaked sometime when Caine was talking, and the new equilibrium is harder than before. The sparks dance around Raven’s waist and the steps are now like crossing a deck in a bad storm. It's less a fear of missing a step than an effort to make a step at all.
The curves are like waves, and Raven finishes a major one, a curve that stretches for a large part of the pattern, and is working her way through a series of small delicate turns when she hears her mother’s voice.
“You dance like a girl, not a sailor. You’ve gone and gotten noticed by some powerful people who can settle matters for you regardless of what you want. Was that your intention?"
"Should have known it was too much to ask to be spared you here," Raven says, resigned. "I ain't dancing. And not all of that noticing was my fault. Some of it's yours by way of a strange woman sniffing me and a King that decided that meant something. No, it weren't what I had in mind, but it's not all that different than it was, is it? Wrong person finds out and takes offense, and I'm out and in trouble - don't matter if it's my Captain or my King."
“Yes, but now you’re in the game of Queens, not that of Captains, and you don’t even know who you are. Or why I’d take a risk and hide a daughter as a son. To be honest, I hadn’t expected the whole deception to last past puberty, but you were always strong-willed, by which I mean you always did the exact opposite of what I telled you.
She frowns, and suddenly looks older and, frankly, better. She looks like the successful innkeeper Raven found in Xanadu, not the one from Amber. “You could at least use my right accent when your subconscious talks for me, Raven. You’re just being lazy, and you never wanted to see past appearances. What’s more you get by by hoping everyone else is a lazy as you are.
“There’s things you need to know about who you are and where you came from, and if you don’t find out, you’ll be stepping off the stair sure as if you went to Tir with a storm comin’ in.
“Now, for once, listen to your mother and stop this nonsense, at least until we talk.” Her mother reaches out to take her hand.
Raven starts to reply and then snaps her mouth shut, locking away several responses that would have started yet another argument with her actual mother. And then several more. "You're right," she says finally. "I do the opposite of what you tell me. We're oil and water, aye? Known that for a long time. As for the rest - no. Knowing who I am and knowing where I come from, those ain't - " She scowls and very pointedly revises, "Aren't the same thing. I know who I am, and maybe it wouldn't fit right for anyone else, but it fits right for me. And it has precious little to do with where you came from and whatever you think I ought to know about that, since you couldn't be bothered to give me two words about any of it until you left Amber. And even then, 'two words' is maybe a bit generous for what you did say, aye? Fine, though, you want to talk - aye, we can talk. Or argue, more like. Or maybe I'll go talk to that brother you got all of a sudden. Later. All that, that's happening later. Right now, I'm going to keep doing exactly the opposite of what you just told me to do." She brushes the hand aside and keeps walking.
Her mother gets in front of her again, talking more rapidly, and with more of a Rebman accent than she ever had, or at least than she had while Raven was an adult.
“It’s not my business to keep you from being a Lir-damned fool, but I can try to keep you from being a dead fool. You’re trusting Jerod, girl. Jerod! The devil’s own grandson, he is. He’s the one telling you this is safe when it kills most all the Rebmans who walk it. There’s things you don’t know about yourself that if he knew, he’d gut you like a flounder, no questions asked.
“I don’t expect you to do what I say now, but if you were smart, you’d swim away and not look back, and maybe you’d live.”
Scarlett is directly in front of Raven now, and Raven can't move on except through her mother.
"Nope," Raven says. "One, I ain't trusting Jerod; I'm trusting that he does things for reasons. Not sure what else I think of him, but that part, I can trust as much as I can trust anything else about anybody else. If he's got reasons to dump me on this thing to die instead of just being efficient and putting a blade through me or dropping a rock on my head, I don't know about it." She snorts. "And if you do, you'd have done better to say that first. Two, I ain't Rebman. Even if you are - and I'm not sure I believe that, as many stories as you've told me - that means I'm at best only half. That's a good, solid at least half a chance to survive if this thing just hates Rebmans, ain't it? Better odds than I had when we were lost; I'll take 'em. Besides, I hear that 'most' you just said in there; most ain't all."
She levels a glare at Scarlett and keeps on course. "Move, Mother. You weren't any good at holding me back when I was little, and you ain't any better at it now, fancy new accent or not. You can do the swimming away. Or you can just stand there and I can walk right through you too."
“You’ll have to.” says Scarlet, crossing her arms. Raven will indeed have to stop to avoid walking into her mother.
Raven scowls, stakes her head, and keeps walking.
Scarlett stands her ground and Raven walks through it. She whispers one word in Raven’s ear as she passes. “Princess”. Even if anyone else were here to see, no one else could have heard it.
Raven steps through her mother and the woman goes away, but the word lingers. What did she mean? Who did she mean? What does it mean that she said it then, and if she was really just a figment of Raven’s imagination, how could she possibly know something Raven didn’t?
And that's something Raven resolves to chew over later. 'Princess' and 'Rebma' - well, that'd be a thing, for either of them. Of course, it could just be that even in her mind, her mother has to get in the last word and make it a dig.
Raven keeps moving. The Pattern’s sparks flew higher and the resistance became greater after each of these veils.
“Raven, Help!” Just off the pattern, just out of reach, Max lies in a crumpled heap. His eyes dart from left to right, looking for funnel clouds. “The next one is the killer! It knocked me off it. Oh, please help, it’s going to eat me!” He reaches his little hand towards her, just out of reach.
Raven says some things then that a lad his age should probably not hear - but also probably has heard, given where he grew up. But as much as she wants to stop and rescue him - and she does, she very badly wants to; even if it was just any kid, she would, but this one's special because he's her brother - she hasn't forgotten what she was told. This thing has rules. Breaking them is death.
She says grimly, "I can't. If you know you're going to die, you know why I can't. Ain't either of us could escape it if I did. You have to come to me, Max." And much as it pains her to do so, she keeps going.
Another intricate set of turns takes Raven away from Max and back towards him. This time he's within arms reach. He's still sitting on the ground, between the lines, but he's reaching up to her with one hand. "Save me, Raven!" He looks like he's been crying.
"Get up and come here," Raven answers, frustration coloring her voice. She holds out a hand towards him, hoping to catch him and drag him along if she has to, but she doesn't change course or stop walking. "Can't do much to save you if you don't help me do it, kiddo. You don't help, I can't come over there or I get killed too. Get up and come on."
“My feet are stuck!” He wobbles as he gets up, but he reaches up to Raven through the sparks.
In his other hand, behind his back, more or less, is Lucas’ pistol.
Raven's eyes narrow slightly. "What," she asks pointedly, "have you got there? And what do you think you're going to get up to with it out here? It ain't going to make this any easier." Her hand stays outstretched, but she still doesn't stop moving.
"If I don't live, promise me you'll kill the woman who killed my father." His free hand is within reach, but it won't be after Raven's next steps.
"No." There's frustration in Raven's voice, but no doubt. "I ain't getting involved in promising anybody that I'll kill someone for revenge. In battle, aye. In anger, when I got to. Because they deserved it, maybe. But not revenge. Especially not for you. You ain't old enough to know better, yet, but you'll learn it." She swears again, looking at his hand and the path ahead. "I'm sorry, Max. I want to save you, I do, but you've got to be in my head too. Ain't no more reason you'd be here than there was for our mother. You ain't going to die here."
And she drops her hand, gritting her teeth, and walks on.
He pulls the gun up and shakily points it at her. "Either you kill my Da's murderer, or I swear by Lir I'll shoot you down right here."
Raven blinks at that, and then shakes her head. "Shoot, then," she says. "You're too young to be asking for that kind of thing. You should be a kid still. Playing games. Getting into things Ma will tan your hide for when she finds out. Stealing food when you think she ain't looking, like I saw you do before. I ain't promising to kill someone that I don't even know who it is for someone that don't understand why that might be a problem. Life ain't that clean. 'Sides, not that I know much about those things, but I don't figure you're actually going to hit me with your hand shaking like that."
Max snaps his arm steady and Raven hears the click of the gun and the bang. She has a split second to react. She can hit the ground or take the bullet.
Raven grits her teeth and takes it. Not because she wants to - it's more because she's pretty sure that hitting the ground is a worse idea.
The bullet hits her shoulder, just as she's turning around a tricky part of the pattern. She doesn't feel it, and it doesn't leave an entrance wound. If it exits her body, she doesn't see it do so.
When she turns back around, Max is gone.
The pattern offers no respite, no relief and no rest. Raven must and trudge through, until she is doing nothing but focusing on moving forward, until she is nothing but focus. The Pattern is Raven's crucible, burning her away until all she can do is focus her will to get through the challenge.
It's almost a relief when she sees a figure ahead. Intellectually she knows this is yet another challenge from The Pattern and that there is risk in it, but at least it's different.
The woman ahead is so many things Raven isn't. She looks poised and elegant, immaculately dressed as a lady of the court. She has a manicure and a fan.
"Is it time at last for you to be me?" she says.
She has Raven's face.
Raven opens her mouth.
Shuts her mouth again and shakes her head, fighting down the impulse to laugh.
"You ain't fooling anyone in that getup," she says finally. "Specially not me. I ain't a lady."
The woman isn't laughing. She looks Raven up and down. "And you're only fooling yourself. You ain't a nobleman. If you're really going to live for thousands of years, your big secret won't last six months. And when it's gone, you can either keep up the act or learn what it is to be a woman. Cause you won't be allowed to lie to everyone and also be trusted by anyone. Nobody likes a fraud. Girl. Do it soon or do it later, and have to crawl back that much more deceit. Do you think Caine can't find out if he sets his mind to it? Random? Jerod?
"Be smart. You need me. You're not complete."
The path ahead runs through her.
"'Learn what it is to be a woman'?" Raven echoes, with a snort. "You're wearing too fancy a dress to be talking like that, girl. Aye, I figured out they're likely to know, sooner or later. But I ain't giving up the way I've lived all this time just because they might not approve. Ain't like this is new; you could say the same about the Navy, or anywhere else I spent my time."
Every step is agony and more difficult than the last. Raven continues only through sheer will.
The woman who looks like Raven stares at her with contempt. "Stakes are higher now, my dear. Huon was raised as a Prince and was exiled for 500 years. Ysabeau died in exile. Nobody knows if Solange will ever be allowed back. There's not a one of your cousins and aunts who doesn't do as she pleases, but you still think you have to lie to do so. You should just give up and die right now, because you're not strong enough to really do this. If you were, you wouldn't bother to lie. It starts with lying to yourself. You need to stop."
Raven's muscles and nerves all want to agree with her. Stopping would mean cessation of pain, at least.
Raven snorts again, and then smiles a smile that's more teeth than mirth. "Look, sweetheart," she says, "I ain't made a habit of giving up and dying, and I ain't about to start now. Sometimes it ain't about who's stronger. Sometimes it's about who's more bloody-minded. Not sure I can be more bloody-minded than a burning thing on a floor, but I can damned well try. For the other thing - ain't a lie to say I only know how to act like a man. Also ain't a lie to say that I ain't interested in being... well." She glares at the woman. "You. It ain't always comfortable, being me, but it's me. This family I got all of a sudden, they'll find out sooner or later, when I choose to tell them." She snorts again and adds, a little more thoughtfully, "Or when they figure it out, which - can't say I don't half suspect at least one of them won't, sooner or later. I mean, how else do you bring that up, girlie? Sit down to dinner and say, 'Please pass the bread, and by the way, I've got tits under my shirt and nothing in my pants'?"
She shrugs, moving directly onto the pattern before Raven. "You’d prefer to have Random announce it at dinner? He might even use the same turns of phrase. If you don't choose, you won't get to choose."
She may be wearing a ball gown, but she's still got Raven's face, and it's her stubbornest face that she sees. It's the face Raven argues with Scarlett from.
"What is wrong with you? You rebelled against every other stupid thing your mother shoved at you, but this is the one you internalized? The one that cripples you? You should've grown up decades ago. It’s not too late, but you’ve got to do it."
"Because," Raven snaps, her temper starting to fray - and her expression is a perfect mirror of her double. "I ain't crippled, and there ain't anything wrong with me. I made a choice. Couldn't do much as a woman, it seemed like - get married and make babies, maybe. Work like the girls did. Turn into Ma." She shakes her head sharply. "No. Those things ain't me. I wanted to go to sea, so I went to sea, and I had to stay in trousers to do it. So I did. Don't regret it." She hesitates and then snorts a laugh. "Well, almost all of it. One or two things I maybe should have not done. But I don't regret doing it as a man. Ain't anything some tarted-up version of me can say will make me regret that part. And I ain't doing some sort of butterfly thing, where I just wake up some day and put on a frilly dress and color my lips and shit. I get it that I'm going to have to tell them; you came outta my head, you think I don't know that? I'll tell them that need to know when I'm ready to tell them." She eyes the woman before her with annoyance and keeps walking. "Besides, Ma hates it now. Wouldn't be needling me about it if she didn't."
Her tone and annoyance seem to match Raven's note for note. "Yes, I'm in your head. I'm of your head, and I'm gobsmacked at your pigheadedness. You must be Gerard's child, you're too stubborn to be anyone else's." She doesn't seem particularly gobsmacked. "This is a crucible and you're insisting that your papier-m&acaret;ché persona isn't flammable.
"You can take a leap and transcend your self-imposed limits or you can commit to more lies and more trouble. Don't assume that just because you made a choice before when there were fewer options and you knew less that you did the right thing for all time. Live broadly or narrowly, that's your choice. Make it now."
She stands across the pattern, and Raven can either stop or walk through her.
"So, what - that's what you want?" Raven growls. "You think I don't know that there's no choice that's the right one forever? I ain't stupid, and you ought to know that better than most. And being not stupid, I'm pretty sure I ain't the only one with secrets that the person that has them ain't exactly hiring a herald to shout them out for everyone to hear, and I can't figure I'm the only one that doesn't want to share those secrets with folks they just met right out of the gate. So your demand that I just decide now and - what, hop off of this thing and go shout it from the top of Kolvir? That ain't happening. You're probably right that I'm going to have to tell 'em, and I ain't going to argue that with you. But I'm doing it my way, damn it, and there's no fake choices you can offer me that're going to change that."
She keeps walking.
She steps through the woman. As she steps through her, that more feminine voice says, quietly. "It's not too late. Yet."
Raven finds the resistance suddenly snaps and she nearly stumbles with the loss of it, but keeps her feet for the last three steps. She finds herself at the end, having completed the pattern-walk. She knows that she knows things, but Raven is too tired to sort out what's new at this point. Raven is thoroughly spent, and might fall to her knees.
She can make the pattern do things for her. She can have it carry her places. Anyplace. Any place she can imagine. It's too bad that she's too drained to imagine much. She feels as if she should go somewhere.
Raven takes a knee - not both, though, because in theory she can get up again. If she had to. Possibly. And then she swipes sweat off her face with shaking hands and takes a deep breath.
Right. Put the whole thing on the list of things she'd rather not do again if she doesn't have to. With prejudice, even.
And somewhere to go. Well, there's only one place you go when you're this tired, and that's to your damn bed. Good enough for hangovers and long watches and storms, good enough for this. And the damn bed is right now on the ship she came here from Amber in, so that's clearly where she wants to go. Ship, cabin, bed, sleep. In that order.
So that's what she imagines.
The door to the pattern chamber opens. Random strolls over to the Jerod’s position. He’s carrying a folding table, two chairs, and a basket that turns out to have a bottle of scotch and a couple of glasses in it.
“The second veil’s always the hard one,” he says by way of greeting.
Jerod nods, taking the table and setting it up (assuming his majesty passes it over).
"I usually found them all to be a serious pain the first time I did it." he says. "I vaguely recall Uncle Corwin's Pattern was somewhat testy on the third veil."
He sits once Random's taken his own seat. "I'm curious. This is yours." he says, nodding towards the Pattern. "What happens when we walk it? To you I mean?"
Random pours a glass for himself and passes the basket to Jerod. "Good question, and you're the first to ask, or at least the first to ask me. First of all," he says, and pulls on his short shock of hair, "this isn't red, so don't ask me math questions. I'm only a mathematical genius when it comes to music.
"Second of all, something, but it's hard to explain, because there's not really a vocabulary. So, I'm gonna be all wise old elder and turn the question around, and the point is to get us a common vocabulary."
Random clears his throat. "Ready? Ok..."
"What do you think happens to me when one of you walks the pattern?"
"Not sure." Jerod says. "I'll speculate but we'll keep in mind it's speculation fueled by lack of knowledge and the beginnings of decent scotch," as he pours himself a drink.
"Pattern is supposed to harden our reality, define who we are, at least according to Dad and Corwin. I've always thought it an inconsistency to say our reality hardens because that implies we don't change, and yet we would continue to learn and grow in strength. One might argue that our inherent self doesn't change but gets more real but I'd wonder if that's getting more into the metaphysical as opposed to the higher order mathematics the redheads favor.
"I've sometime thought perhaps that it sharpens our interaction with reality in some way, letting us become more aware of it. Like a lens you might say for people with bad eyesight. In a perfect reality, the lens is unnecessary. As you go further out, things blur, become harder to focus, to control. The more reality we carry around, the more we can focus it on our immediate surroundings. That's how we impose Order...we carry a limited vision, the ability to force what we want to see. Your version isn't limited...it's literal.
"That of course begs the question - where does that reality come from? Gotta come from somewhere. So does the walk strip away elements of chaotic influence within ourselves and sharpen the inherent sense of Order, thus allowing us to impose ourselves on reality. Or do we gain Order from the Pattern?
"In one case, we're sacrificing chaotic influence...which has to go somewhere. in the other, we're taking Order. If the Pattern is your version of a reality, then you're the one who would power it. That's a bit too simplistic though...I'd say more that you're the one that channels it, that the power is elsewhere. And because you channel it, if we walk the Pattern, then whatever process happens out there, you get affected by it as well. Whether you get chaotic influence, or you pass on Order, that I can't say.
"I'd also guess that regardless of the whole order/chaos deal, you get some sense of us. Memories maybe? Thoughts, intent, desires. A sense of their self. Would certainly explain why Oberon was able to keep at least a moderate level of control over his kids."
Random nods. "If you're worried that it lets me in your brain to rifle through the card catalog and pull things out, it's not really like that. Imagine that there's a giant ledger somewhere, and in it is written 'Jerod', along with a lot of other things.
"So when you walk the pattern, you're really tracing over your own name in the ledger, making it more distinct, more bold, more accurate. The pattern is really a misnomer. You're the pattern, and I'm the pen. Because that thing is in some ways me. And you're you, but just like how if you write on a piece of paper the grain of the paper may affect where your strokes start and stop, using my pattern has an effect on what your you looks like. And re-writing it in the ledger changes you a bit, because the ledger is the universe and when you re-write it you re-write yourself.
"This analogy is getting messy. But sometimes I do get images, mostly from pattern walks. Some people come through more clearly to me than others. The veils are where it happens. They're all metaphors for reinforcing the parts of you that are aligned with the pattern and getting you to metaphorically and explicitly reject the parts of yourself that are not compatible with the pattern.
"So, I hope that clears everything up. Does it?"
The king sticks his finger in his scotch and stirs the ice around with it.
Jerod looks out at the Pattern where Raven is walking for a moment, then back to Random. "If someone rejects a part of themselves that is incompatible with a pattern, but reinforces other parts that align, does that mean that all Patterns have the same alignment/rejection parameters? I'd assume not. Would that mean you could reject a pattern of yourself walking one Pattern, but then re-acquire it on another?"
Random waves out at the pattern. “I can’t really explain it. Maybe. Corwin certainly regained an image of himself, if that’s what you’re asking. But maybe not. Maybe it’s more like a river that you cross. The you is different and the universe is different, too. You never get as much reinforcement as the first time, so maybe there’s a law of diminishing marginal returns. It’s not like the Pattern Experiment Ethics Panel has cleared a lot of experimentation on the thing.
“Raven, for instance, is out there defining himself through his opposition to his mother. If that relationship gets better or worse, what was reinforced? Or did she just grow up and stop worrying about small stuff?
“Who knows? Maybe walking the pattern is a great rite of passage for us into adolescence, but what if it’s keeping us in this sort of perpetual arrested development?
“Some days, I wonder if we’re just part of the reproductive life cycle of patterns.”
The king frowns at his empty glass, and takes a slug of scotch, straight from the bottle, and offers it to Jerod. Suddenly, Random gets an odd look on his face for a moment, and then begins laughing uncontrollably. He might drop the scotch if Jerod doesn’t take it.
Jerod collects the bottle in a perfectly smooth movement and pours another dose into his glass. He looks at the Pattern for a moment while Random is laughing, noting Raven's progress and wondering what difficulty has been brought up now to face.
"Something amusing with our latest recruit?" Jerod asks once Random is done laughing.
The king suppresses a further bout of laughter. "Well, yes. But nothing I'm gonna share with you. In the first place, I'm well known for being easily amused, and you might not share my sense of humor, which would crush my fragile ego, and I'm not taking a chance on that. And in the second place nobody should have the dirty tricks of their own subconscious' attempts to sabotage them put on display like their life was a soap opera, at least not without getting royalties for it, and the crown is notoriously stingy with those.
"So, yeah, scenes with high emotion are most likely to bleed through, which tend to be what you face in the veils. Also different people are more share-y than others.
"Oh, and there is a change of Royal Policy, based on Reid's death. All pattern-capable children are allowed and encouraged to walk the pattern as soon as it's safe for them to do so, because they need the tools to deal with our enemies. Waiting a few decades is still a good idea, but it’s not a luxury we can afford if someone is out there who'll take samples from our dead.
"I will be sure to keep that in mind, should I come across any children that I might have...acquired...in my travels." Jerod says with a slight smile. "Have you determined a royal policy concerning how we're going to deal with those who take the samples?"
"Anyone's children. Don't hesitate to bring them in. This isn't a matter for playing games and keeping score." Random frowns. "As to the other thing, I don't know. Perhaps I'll let Brita chat with them. I'm in the royal recommendation-seeking phase of the decision making process." He looks out at Raven, now almost fully submerged in a fountain of sparks.
"Let me ask you three questions about it. First, what would be just? Second, what would be wise? Third, what would you do? And fourth, what do you want us to do?"
"Mmm...what would be just?" Jerod asks. "That depends on whom is being deemed as being offended by the actions of those who are offending. That would usually come down to how best to make sure said offence does not recur. That would also fit with what is wise...can we obtain a just solution that is beneficial to both offender and offendee. If it cannot be balanced, then usually, though not always, you lean towards the offendee as having greater priority. That holds if the means of obtaining the just solution doesn't cause further problems, like starting a war over one person's injury.
"That's the nice clinical answer though, and it doesn't usually work in real life." he says, before consuming half his drink.
"What would I do? I'd want to know what the monks are up to. Why are they collecting samples, who are they working with, what's their end goal? Destroying their outpost has simply made them slightly more aware we're displeased them but it won't stop them. They'll go to ground, pull the layers over them and keep working on whatever they are working on. They've been around for a long time and even Grandfather either couldn't, or chose not to try to get rid of them. He wasn't omnipotent, but he could've done some serious damage if he'd wanted to.
"And once I'd found out what I'd found, I'd be looking to see how to find a balance point. Are they are threat, or are they just scared of us and looking for a big stick to keep the bad wolf at bay? If they're a threat, how do I deal with them without getting killed and making sure they know they're going to pay way more than its worth to get what they're looking for.
"As for what I'd want Family to do? I'd rather not bury anymore of us, or have to find out someone had blood taken from them or cells, or worse. Gateway's about to find out the consequence of that behaviour...I'll be sure to leave something standing if its feasible and reasonable to do so, but that's a situation that's a last resort I don't want to keep seeing repeated. Salting the ground your enemies walked on has a real nice feel for vengeance but it gets you nowhere fast."
He pours himself another glass, having worked his way through the remaining contents. "Too many enemies cropping up from old days...and we need to keep together and stay focused."
Random nods, and turns his attention back to the pattern, a slightly worried look on his face. "You're right, and it ends up with the plate-spinner's dilemma. You can give your attention to the one that wobbles the most, but all the others get worse while you do it. At best it's a perfect balance of all of them equally bad. Sometimes you can't make an omelette without smashing a few plates, if only to get them out of the way.
"Caine thinks there’s a conspiracy of our enemies to distract and attack us now. I think certain paranoid-inclined people should lay off the drugs that cause paranoia in the so-inclined. It's just opportunism, like catching the flu while you've already got bronchitis. Or kicking someone while they’re down.
"That's what the lesson should show, but it's got to be properly directed, and it’s got to be clear."
Jerod nods once. "They've been studying us long enough to see how opportunistic we are. They're imitating us." he says.
"You still want Gateway to be next?"
Random nods. "Don't see a way around it, but I know you have interests there, so I'm going you a lot of leeway. If I sent Bleys, he wouldn't even go to Gateway. He'd manipulate shadow and shadow-paths so that some other, more pliable shadow took on the role of the natural bridge between Rebman and Amber trade, then cut off their shadow and let them fade into irrelevance. It's an elegant approach. Caine would study them, then assassinate the right people. Corwin would f**k 'em until they were on our side. Benedict would defeat them at war in a way they'd never recover from.
"We're spinning plates on sticks here. Your mandate is to make sure we don't have to go back to Gateway for a long time, and that nobody wants to try what they tried. We can't ignore it and let people think they can kidnap and bleed a son of Amber with impunity. So impunity is off the table.
"Once we set an example there, we'll have to deal with these priests. I suspect they're a bigger challenge. If you happen across any evidence that they're connected to the people who took Marius, it'll go on their tab for the reckoning."
Jerod nods but says nothing, filing away the details for future reference, noting how they fit with his own general plans. He smirks only once when Corwin is mentioned.
Random looks out at Raven. "She's got guns in her subconscious, I see."
An eyebrow goes up. "For or against?"
Random matches Jerod, eyebrow for eyebrow. "Both, my boy, both. It's like pain. Pain is the body's way of saying 'stop doing that'. It's for your own good, but it's not friendly." Random looks distracted "Put it this way. Gerard doesn't feel pain in his legs. That's the dangerous part."
Jerod looks out at the Pattern for a moment to observe Raven's presence, digesting both comments. The latter, for some reason that he can't quite focus on, disturbs him more than he thinks it should. He files it away for future reference.
Raven continues his path to the inevitable conclusion at the center. After he pops out, Random gets up. "Raven's left the castle, but not Xanadu. Probably sleeping it off. That was a doozy, I think." Random looks around the pattern chamber. "I wonder if I should put in a reviewing stand down here. Some height would make it easier to watch, don't you think? Anyway..."
"You probably can't leave until Raven wakes up. Take care of any last minute prep, goodbyes, etc. Then at last off to run that errand..."
Jerod remains silent as he considers where Raven is likely to go to "sleep it off" and decides a ship would be the most likely. He'll do some checking to find out where shortly.
"We'll be in touch your Majesty." he says, once Random is done.
Random nods. "Let me know if you need anything."
Jerod verifies what ships are in port to figure out where Raven is likely to be. This is mostly for curiousity as opposed to actual need. He also checks through the castle staff and the locals what family are in residence, who has come and gone (that would be publicly known of), the latest rumors and gossip, etc, etc, etc, plus hellos to family he can get to here, plus his significant other (assuming she's in residence and not off busy with something).
That will keep him occupied while Raven recovers. It also means Jerod will be out and about enough that once Raven recovers, it won't be hard to find him.
Raven awakens. She’s in her bed on her ship. She's sore all over, like she’s done a turn aloft in a typhoon. The ship is quiet, resting at high-tide in the harbor. Out the porthole she sees dappled sunlight on the calm harbor waters.
She recalls what she did last night.
Raven groans and levers herself out of bed reluctantly. She reaches for clean clothes then, changing quickly until she strips off her shirt and comes to a dead stop at the sight of a very fresh, very unexpected tattoo. On her arm. Where there weren't any before.
She considers poking it to see if it's really there, but she recalls other sailors with fresh tattoos and decides not to instead. The design is a compass rose; as she studies the shape, the direction indicator ticks to a few degrees off northwest, and then moves again to point south. Well, that's... new.
She finishes dressing after a minute or two of staring and heads for the door. Food and something to drink sounds good. And she should probably track down Jerod and her coat.
Raven emerges from her cabin into a hot, sweaty night, as if the weather is considering storming, but was still recruiting heavy clouds. The ship smells of a ship at harbor: all pitch and cargo and what the city dwellers throw in the bay. It would be a good time to get out of port. The city beyond the docks is lit up, in pools of gaslight, and the castle above looks to be electrified. The boatswain is an old hand named Herald but some of the other crew left on deck look like replacements.
"Captain," Herald says. He's clearly being loud so that the rest of the crew can react to the officer. Typical boatswain. She'd've done the same, two years ago.
Raven smiles faintly at that. "Mr. Herald," she answers. "Anything I ought to know about?"
Men are climbing aloft, finding duties elsewhere, or become highly absorbed in their very important scrubbing.
"No Captain. A Lord was down from Castle looking to know if you were aboard. Featherstone told him you were, and asleep. He ordered us not to wake you. After he left, the Mate decided that you really shouldn't be disturbed, so we did not. Do you need a meal, Captain? Cookie is below, even if half the crew is ashore."
Raven nods. "Aye, I can guess which Lord that was. How long ago was that?"
"He didn't give his name, and I am not familiar with the local lords, Captain. I was born at sea and never lived in Amber. As to the visit, it was around midwatch," he replies.
Ossian goes to his rooms in Xanadu, freshens himself up, and then pulls out his Trump of Corwin. He frowns. The news he carries are not good at all, and the questions he wants to ask are of the prying kind. Whatever.
He calls Corwin. "It's Ossian. I hope you will bring me through."
Corwin takes a moment to respond to the initial Trump request, and then, once Ossian has identified himself, he takes a moment--which Ossian guesses is to find a private place--and then brings Ossian through. The King of Paris is in a lounge which Ossian takes a moment to realize is probably part of a public restroom somewhere.
"We're in a cafe in Paris, after the opera. What news, before we join the others again?"
Ossian bows. "Short version then: We returned to that monastery. Things went bad, but we got Reid's body and destroyed the place. But they had a Shadowpath."
Ossian pauses "To Greenwood Hospital."
Corwin looks broody on a good day, but something about the way his expression changes when Ossian breaks the last bit of information out for him tells Ossian this is no longer a good day. Evening. Whatever.
"Greenwood Hospital? The same one where I was a patient for a time? Because that's very much not good news. Who have you talked to about this? Specifically have you talked to Bleys or my sister Florimel? And Random. I'll assume you've already talked to Random, to tell him about Reid."
When the cards and books are exchanged and the Trump contact closes, Brennan gets up from the chair and takes another look at Camelopardis' remains. Mostly, just to see if the unraveling continued after his death so he won't be surprised when he summons Balen back in. But also an Astral glance just to make sure nothing weird-- nothing new and weird-- is going on. He tucks the note that the Maghee dictated, and the device he described, into a pocket as well.
He’s still deteriorating. Technically the term might be ‘mummifying’, or (if it continues) ‘skeletonizing’.
As Brennan expected. But it's better than 'rotting' at least.
[OOC: At an appropriate moment, he’ll turn to dust and blow away. This may or may not be a clue to the question ’say, how old was this chap, anyway?’]
Then he steels himself back into the Walker persona, opens the door, and gestures Balen back in.
"He's gone," he says. "He did right in the end. I'd see his body treated with respect. And he reckoned this one," he holds up Moire's image, "was the priestess giving orders, working the corsairs. Ain't know exactly why this place, though. Me, I reckon if we had Cledwin close to hand, we could beat some information out of him, but we ain't, and there's an army between him and us." Walker clenches his fists to crack the knuckles, and to indicate that this distance is the only reason Cledwin's teeth aren't decorating the floor right now.
"About that army, though... now we got a problem. The Maghee was the price to buy those boys off, out there. I ain't think they want him like this. And I ain't think it's smart to give him back like this anyway. What's it like out there-- they kept their truce?" Walker moves to one of the windows to see the field while Balen brings him up to speed.
She nods. “Mostly. They’re digging in, but that could be that if the Corsair Captain doesn’t give ‘em something to do, they’ll get bored and make mischief. Or desert. Actually, the longer they besiege us, the worse it may go for them, assuming they can’t use their secret weapon on the walls.”
She frowns. “And Cledwin doesn’t bring another army back from wherever he’s gone to.”
Walker looks up at that, not quite eager but not entirely distressed at the prospect. "You reckon he will?" he asks. "I don't. When he skipped, he'd done his job and everything broke their way, far as he could tell." He shrugs, neither ashamed nor too humble-- depending on how one wants to look at it-- to admit, "It was a good plan. Nah, that clown'll make me hunt him down, I reckon.
"We got some time, anyway-- they want their fella back more than they wanna risk the fight, or we'd be fighting already." Not that he doesn't believe her, but Walker wants to see the scene for himself, so he walks out along the parapet to do just that. That's not limited to the array of Corsairs digging themselves in, either, he wants a quick astral view as well. Mostly, because that should cause the transient man-made artifact of the tank to fade from view and reveal the living worm itself. How big is the thing, give or take? How lively?
Brennan remembers the tank from seeing it. It’s only slightly larger than the kind of tank you might put a decapitated head in, if you were they type of thing you might do.
[OOC: It looks like this, but with a worm in it instead of a skull.]
Astrally he can see the worm. It’s about twenty-five feet long. And it’s not really a worm. It has legs. It also has teeth.
Hopefully the spell keeping it inside the jar didn’t depend on Camelopardis actively maintaining it.
Is there some kind of space warping going on, that Brennan can see? Because 25 feet long or no, something that fits in a tank that small doesn't... quite... seem terrifying.
[OOC: Cameleopardis studied at the feet of the masters, and remembered the lesson, "Never summon anything bigger than your head."]
[OOC: As far as you can tell it’s a tiny tank with a tiny thing in it, which when you look at it astrally is not tiny, but rather taller than the castle walls.]
"So these Maghee folks. I heard his side of it, but that ain't mean much. How do they sit with you, and the Protector?" Walker asks.
She shrugs. “Landless thieves and vagabonds. Some say they took a curse from the Sorcerer-King, but that’s the best thing I ever heard about ‘em and it still don’t make ‘em good people. Father didn’t let ‘em camp on our land, because horses would disappear when they visited."
"Tracks what he said," Walker jerks a thumb back in the direction of the library that they just left. "Didn't mention a curse, but claimed they were the ones sunk the Sorceror King's island and wrecked his towers for him. Sounds like enough to get a curse to me. They worth fighting with, or only against?"
"Dunno. Haven't done either. They don't have any land, so no one much bothers to fight 'em." She looks down, trying to see what Walker was looking at. "I don't know as I buy their history. Sounds like the kind of thing that someone would cook up to make their history sound noble."
"Could be," Walker admits. He's obviously had the same thought. While he is inclined to believe the deceased Maghee-- since he may have been alive for it or very shortly after-- he's not about to try to reason Balen out of something she wasn't reasoned into in the first place. A seed is enough.
He sees Balen trying to see what he's seeing and says, "It just ain't seem that dangerous, something fits in that little pot, does it? Gets bigger, the Maghee said it would. But he ain't seem too happy about it when that glamour got taken away." In the back of his mind, a plan is beginning to take shape. The open question is, is it easier simply to reinforce that spell Sorcerously and make it effectively permanent, or to reinforce the local laws of nature with Pattern against rapid size changes, thereby making its current size the new normal. Two potential routes to get to the same place. The other question, of course, is how likely either of those are to work, but if Cameleoprdis could do it-- or even Dara or Moire-- then so can Brennan.
"He didn't seem too happy being snookered by this Moire woman, either. You done something particular to get her goat? Or is this all just to keep you pinned here while the real fight's somewhere else?" he asks.
“She is desperate, as any deposed Queen is. Her kingdom was close to The Protector’s Realm, along magical roads that were hidden from mortal men. We can threaten the intervening hill towns, so they must protect against us and not help against the port town. The port is important because it threatens the supply lines of anyone trying to invade Avalon. There’s a game we play, called Dominos. We are part of a very large chain of them. Take us out, and Avalon loses our protection.
Balen bites her lower lip, absently. “What I don’t understand is why are we the key, where there are many other dominos that could be in play. Perhaps she saw it in a vision.”
Walker looks keenly interested at the mention of magical roads. "We called 'em Bones, in Reme," he says. "We ain't near one of those roads here, are we? That could explain it."
He pauses for the answer, whether "yes" or "no" or "search me." But expects "no."
She shakes her head. “The further one gets from Avalon, the wilder the country gets, and sometimes it shifts completely and we have new neighbors. If they are martial people, they survive. But our mountain has been stable for a long time."
Walker is visibly disappointed by this. More than disappointed-- frustrated. "Too bad. Thought maybe one might take me home."
Then he scowls and says, "I remember, before we figured out what that thing was," he gestures to the worm in the pot, "Your man Lunk thought maybe they was digging those trenches trying to sap the caves below the castle. Which, turns out, yeah. But when I took those caves out to wreck their plans, your brother was right worried I'd take the wrong path, open a wrong door. Said it would doom me and you both. Something down there could help her?" Walker asks.
“No,” she replies, unexpectedly curtly.
A hit, a palpable hit, Brennan thinks. He doesn't believe that for a minute, and he didn't miss the casual reference to stability, either.
Brennan feels the familiar mental tug that indicates that someone is trying to reach him via trump.
Brennan doesn't answer it immediately, but feigns to take Balen's curt response as a dismissal. He nods sharply, too. "Ain't matter anyway," he says. "Ain't help us any about that thing out there. I'm gonna go get a kit," (a reference he doesn't explain,) "decide how much I trust that Maghee wizard, and find my boys." He looks to Balen as if to say, unless you have some better idea.
"Speaking of the Maghee... that magic ain't stop after he died. His remains'll have to be moved with care."
When he's gotten away from Balen and to somewhere relatively private, he'll accept the contact. Preferably an armory, or the storeroom where they moved the shipment of weapons that they had brought with them on the caravan. Someplace with a door that he can close behind him.
When the contact forms, Ossian can tell that he is not who Brennan expected... but the idea that Brennan would expecting a Trump call from anyone is unusual. Brennan is dressed out of his traditional colors, in armor that's seen quite a bit of use in the recent and not so recent past. He's got grit and dust and sweat on him, which is to say that he hasn't conjured it away. His hair is cut short and whiskers are more than five o'clock shadow but less than a beard. The surroundings are gloomy, indoor, and somewhere that falls closer on the spectrum to Amber than to Xanadu or Paris.
"What news?" he asks. His voice is low.
"Lots." Ossian says. "First, the worst, I guess. Reid is dead. The Klybesian monks had his body, but we managed to recover most of it. You have met the monks haven't you?"
Unexpected Trump calls are always bad news.
Brennan closes his eyes and bows his head out of respect for Reid. "D-mn," he says, opening his eyes. His voice is still pitched low, but it is now more obviously controlled. He had never been as close to Reid as some of his cousins, but he is still visibly upset. "Only one of them-- Signy's man, Tomat. He's still with her, I think." He then amends that: "Only one that I know of. What did they have to do with it? And what do you mean, most of it?"
Ossian's mouth gets thinner. "Someone had taken tissue samples. It's almost certainly a Dr. Chew. By coincidence the monastery was connected by a tunnel to Greenwood hospital, probably the same place Corwin spent some time in way back. And Martin and Folly also ran into this Chew.
"I have volunteered to go back and investigate Greenwood."
"This is the same outfit that Marius claims colluded with Huon in his bid for Rebma? Does your investigation end with salting the earth beneath the ruins of it?" Brennan asks. He is not joking. Then he pauses, scowls becuase something is bothering him, and says, "Wait. I've never been to Flora's place, but I thought it was a tech shadow. Monastery doesn't really fit my mental image of the place. Are you saying they had a tunnel through shadow?"
"I would not be surprised if it is the same place as Marius talked about." Ossian pauses. "And yeah, they had a Shadow path. I am not convinced salting will be enough, but it is a good start, however." He grins. "Besides, it seems I, and you, might have personal issues with the monks as well."
Brennan's eyes narrow, and he can obviously see where this is leading, but he lets Ossian tell it his own way. "Go on," Brennan says.
"Just before I met the monks the first time, and learned that Reid was dead. Before Jerod, Raven and I destroyed the place. We met a woman named Regenlief. Later she was captured by the monks, but I bargained for her freedom.
"The monks said she had a child with Amberite, and she claims the monks took the child and placed it in an orphanage in Shadow. When I showed her your picture she said you were the father." Ossian frowns. "Did you ever go by the name Gamble or Ramble?"
Brennan is still for a long moment, closes his eyes in memory, and nods. "Yes. Ramble. That's the name I went by in those days, the days after the Black Road first... manifested. I thought-- well. I thought a lot of things, some of which were even true. One was that Brand had something to do with that. And that I needed to know more about it. Another was that using my real name might not be wise. So I followed it as best I could under assumed names. Ramble was one of them. There were some places along it that were... hard to pass. More local trouble than you could walk through alone, but if you gave a wide enough berth, you couldn't follow it. Sometimes the only way to get through was to throw in with the local forces.
"It was a place like that, that I met Regenleif. Actually, I always thought she was the one who started people calling me 'Gamble.' Some of my tactics might have seemed a bit risky, in the face of what we were fighting." He shrugs. It was a long time ago. "So, yes, it's possible. Is there any reason not to believe her?"
Then, somewhat delicately, since he holds no moral high ground, here, "How did you come be separated? She is a Valkyrie, and one of the fiercest warriors I've ever met."
Ossian shrugs: "My fault, I guess. I had brought a companion that isn't that much of a warrior. The monks attacked us, maybe because we were with her. My friend was captured, and we had to surrender.
"I do not think she lied to me, but she might of course be mistaken. But since you confirmed her story... I wonder why she left Asgard."
"No, that's not what I meant. I meant... I always assumed that when we discovered who she was, your mother would turn out to be dead. Brand found you in an orphanage, after all." He reflects on that, then answers his own question, tentatively: "But you said Shadow, again. It wouldn't matter how many of them she killed if you were in a different Shadow, and she simply could not get there."
Through all this, Brennan's face has grown as cold as his Trump. His words are calm and measured on the surface, and still quiet, becuase he does not wish to be overheard, but there is rage in the depths.
"This group needs to be unmade," Brennan says, "and made into something else, or into nothing at all. The insult of what they've done to you, to Regenleif, to me, is enough to warrant their extinction. But there are things we need to understand. I was not travelling under my real name. I rarely did, and never gave my lineage. My existence wasn't widely known. So how did this group even identify me, and you through me? And if they knew about me, then who else? If they did this, then what else?"
Ossian goes quiet too. "They do have at least one sorceror, and an unhealthy curiosity about our family. I do suspect they have some aspect of reality, as they turn up a bit too often.
"Regenlief seems to know a bit about them. And maybe Corwin, if he remembers anything from that hospital visit.
"And I agree on the destruction."
Brennan starts to say something, then stops. Twice.
"This is not good," he says at last. "But it would explain some things. As you say, for instance, how they keep turning up. Knowing that they kidnap our children and take tissue samples from our dead... Ossian, they're Family, aren't they? Some of them. Distant, maybe. Maybe not so distant if Brand hadn't taken you out of there.
"Have you shared that speculation with the King?" Brennan asks. "If not, do so. Soon. And one other thing about this-- what about Jasmine?"
"I will ask the King about her, but I will be her guardian if he allows me to. I have not had the opportunity to break the bad news to her yet.
"Without much reason I do not think Chew is family. But someone behind him might be."
Brennan nods. "Do as you think think best for her. I'll treat her as I would a grand-daughter, if that's how you decide." He actually smiles faintly at the thought.
Then he looks around himself somewhat conspicuously, and sighs. "This is not the best of times for a long talk, though. I'm in Avalon, working for our uncle, and the situation is... complicated and violent. Weathering a siege that's going to be broken, one way or the other. But this is very important-- do you have any Trumps of Celina, or anyone who might be with her? Last I heard, Conner and Brita were in that area. Possibly Ambrose, as well," he asks.
"I don't, but Brita is in the Trump booth. I was going to call her anyway. Do you have a message?"
Brennan mutters some mild Uxmali obscenity under his breath. "Yeah, tell her Celina and I need to be in contact very soon. Preferably with Brita and Conner at the same time. It's too much for just message passing, though. But this is a bad situation for Trump use. I'm concealing who and what I am, so every time I take a call, I need to duck away from someone. And very shortly I expect to be... busy." He gives a humorless smile. "And possibly engaged in Sorcery. So whoever calls should use a light touch. If I block, that just means I can't take it right then."
"Ok. I will call her. Then I'll start preparing for going back to Greenwood. Have to find someone to accompany me there."
"Silhouette," he says. It must be obvious to him, because he doesn't have to think about it at all.
"And Ossian, I know I'm usually the one counselling to go in heavy, take no prisoners, make some examples and all that. All subject to the King's command, of course, I don't think that's the right answer, here-- not yet. We can make examples if we want, but this is a group that has some understanding of Shadow, and has been around long enough to use that intelligently. They'll just go to ground for a decade or a century, and let us think we won. If we want to unmake them, we need to figure out how to decapitate them in one stroke... and what that stroke really entails."
"I agree on that. I will do my research. Destruction is not my forte... And if you happen to have finished that siege before I am finished with the monks, will you help?"
Brennan considers that, but can't give an answer: "I really don't know. Much as I'd like to drop everything and go reduce something to rubble, this siege is a small corner of a picture that might get very ugly, very soon. I might be asking for back-up myself, if this goes poorly. That's why I need to be in touch with Celina, so they know what's happening here."
Ossian nods. "I'll let her know. Do you have any words for Regenlief?"
"Yes," Brennan says. "One way or another, today, tomorrow, at a time and a place that is pleasing to us, there will be a reckoning with these people." There is more, of course, but that will suffice for now.
Ossian nods again. "Good luck then."
"And to you both," Brennan says. "Hopefully, next time we'll talk at greater leisure."
When Ossian breaks off the Trump contact, Brennan takes a moment-- a very long moment-- to gather himself. To master himself, really.
Regenleif? Yes. Yes, that's more than possible. Despite never having even had the thought, it feels right. With Ossian turning up first in an orphanage and then as a ward of Brand, he'd simply assumed that Ossian's mother was long dead, and to the extent that he had thought about Regenleif, he'd simply assumed she was alive and hale, even decades later. She is, after all, a Valkyrie. Blind spots. Stupid blind spots.
And the Klybesians. The only thing keeping him from bellowing in rage is pride. Pure hard pride. He is not going to yell like a fool. He is not going to throw a tantrum in the armory and break their practice dummies. He is not going to give Balen any reasons-- well, any more reasons than she already has-- to think Brennan is other than who he says he is. And he is not going to completely break the cover he's clung to steadfastly for the past several months. Too much is riding on this, for Benedict, but especially for Celina and for himself.
Luckily, there is violence on the horizon, and more than enough for Brennan to rein in his rage now, the better to direct it properly soon.
And the first part of that is dealing with that stupid Bobbitt worm. Preferably in a way that advances his own aims. Brennan finds-- conjures if need be-- a good pair of protective gauntlets and puts them on. He might or might not need them shortly and doesn't want to need to conjure something in the middle of Sorcery. Then, although he doesn't perform a full astral projection, he does open his third eye and repeat the clairvoyance performance from a few nights ago, this time getting a good close look at the worm and its container. He inspects the handiwork of the spell keeping the thing in its present form, and any ancillary spells that might be on the container.
During the inspection, he is primarily looking for triggers that would cause the spell or spells to be broken prematurely.
He is also curious if this looks like the work of the same person who doomed Cameleopardis, or not. (If not, Brennan will assume the obvious-- that it is Cameleopardis' own work.)
Finally, he wants to understand how the spells work so that he can reinforce them.
Brennan gets a good look at the thing. It's shadow magic. Whatever is in it is miniaturized. Water, air, worm, etc. If you reached in for the worm, you'd find your hand miniaturized and probably too small to make a good Bobbitt snack. There are tides across the top of the water.
There look to be two ways to activate it. Either the jar could be poured out, or it could be smashed. It’s perfectly serviceable shadow magic. It looks like something Camelopardis, if he really was a sorcerer of a tribe of sorcerers, would be able to do. Things that Brennan could do to stop it include making the jar shatterproof and putting a lid on it. Of course, neither of those would help if the magic was undone and a vast amount of water appeared in a tiny jar...
Oh, that's clever, Brennan thinks-- the magic is on the container, not the worm itself. That's almost elegant.
It is still a tradeoff of weaknesses, though. True, any object placed in the tank will also shrink and face the same challenge. But Brennan is a Sorcerer of an entirely different octave, and not limited to physical objects... no matter how satisfying it would have been to twist the thing's head off. In fact, since Cameleopardis has gone to the trouble of shrinking everything in the container, he's really just made it easier for Brennan to affect the whole thing. Or the water in it. Or the air dissolved in the water which the worm needs for respiration.
So, Brennan decides on a subtle touch-- he simply causes the dissolved air and oxygen in the water to turn solid, precipitating gently to the bottom of the tank, and in any case completely unbreatheable. The worm might recognize, in some remote part of the nervous system that passes for a brain, that it is suffocating, but by then it will be too late. Suffocation is followed rapidly by slumber and then death.
Brennan watches to see how this turns out, ready to tweak the worm's metabolism up to hasten the suffocation if necessary.
Brennan is glad he set the duration to a watch, because the creature is a natural burrower, and can likely last for some time without air. However, his spell blocks the breathing holes on it with the solid air.
The creature becomes increasingly frantic and struggles inside the vessel, eventually knocking it off the table where it was resting.
The glass container plummets to the ground and shatters, releasing an immense quantity of water and a thrashing, suffocating giant worm-creature.
The water and a significant portion of the camp are washed away, as is the bobbitt worm. It may have ended up in some deep ravine off the side of the mountain.
If it didn’t die before it got out of Brennan’s spell, it might’ve burrowed into the ground or swam downstream to the sea.
The besiegers lost perhaps a quarter of their troops, half their supplies and tents, and their primary weapon. They seem angry, like a nest of ants that has been disturbed.
Brennan doesn't need to feign surprise, here, since that is not at all his intended result.
He throws one Hail Mary spell at the worm as it disappears, a quick working of Space on the solid air particles blocking the creature's respiratory system, expanding them a bit so that they don't dislodge as it's washed away. Even a five or ten percent increase should be enough to wedge those things in so tightly the worm would need a hammer and chisel-- and hands-- to get them out. And, hey, if he's really lucky, he'll give the thing an embolism. Given the situation, though, Brennan can't even think about waiting to see the effect of that.
The spell is cast. Brennan is not aware if it succeeds or fails, or merely annoys the creature. It probably depends on how long a mud-burrowing giant worm can go without breathing.
Just long enough to be annoying, is what Brennan figures. But in the ultimate scheme of things, he reasons, every moment it is staying active, it is burning oxygen. And if it had tremendous reserves, it probably wouldn't have panicked so quickly.
Walker charges into the courtyard, near the gates. He doesn't wait to see where Balen is, much less what she's doing, before bellowing orders. He intends to capitalize on this as quickly as humanly possible. The basic gist of the orders goes like this:
Infantry are to form into two very uneven groups, one to stay and man the defenses, and a larger one to carry the attack. Cavalry are to support infantry. And a very small group-- a dozen or so-- are told to get long hunting spears, climbing gear, commandeer some oil or pitch if possible, and remain ready. Walker adds his considerable force of personality to the mix to get things done as soon as possible. He wants the attack launched before the Corsairs can recover. Walker keeps local equivalent of sergeants in line, as they get the men formed up.
Burl can stay with the defenders, since his position as town guardsman should give him some insight. Radish is with Walker in the main group, whose goal is to overrun the Corsairs entirely, slaughtering as many as possible and driving as many more possible off the cliffs after the elephants.
Kim and Chiu can go with the horsemen, whose job is to support the infantry. One quick rush against the Corsairs to start the panic, and then they are left to the discretion of their commanders-- either help herding the Corsairs off the cliffs, or, if necessary and prudent, keep them from dispersing past the tree line.
Unless Brennan stops him, Trippel plans to lead the cavalry. It's unclear if this is militarily or medically wise. On the up side, he looks healthier.
The squad with the hunting spears stays put, to be ready when Walker gets back or if the worm shows up.
It's not a complicated plan, really-- hit hard, hit fast, use the confusion, run them off the cliff, and keep them from running away.
Unless there is some obvious defect in this plan (including resistance from the Montparnassians) Walker sets it into motion. Walker is with the main force on foot, crashing into the wet, bedraggled Corsairs.
And, while Brennan has been extremely reluctant to have Walker display any knowledge of or talent at Sorcery, he is more than willing to show Walker's martial skills, as both a field commander and a warrior.
There's remarkably little fighting. Some of the enemy run before Walker’s troops even reach them, others seem content to surrender after token resistance. No one actually flees towards Elephant's Leap.
The Montparnassians seem perfectly willing to break the siege and let the rabbits run away. They are convinced they won't be a threat again and that they are already broken. Walker may have to give a speech to convince them to slaughter surrendering corsairs.
Brennan is mad enough at recent events-- the revelation that his son did not just "end up" in an orphanage but was kidnapped by the Klybesians, and the strong implication that if he successfully kills all the Klybesians he may end up killing other kin in the process-- to be looking forward to some good, honest slaughter and bloodshed. It's not as though the Corsairs don't deserve it.
But he's sufficiently in control of himself to take critical stock of the situation: The Corsairs have lost their mage. They've lost their biological battering rams. They've lost their biological sapper... as far as they know, anyway. They've lost a quarter of their forces before any major engagement. They've lost at least half of their supplies before the siege is even three days old. The Montparnasse forces, by comparison, have lost relatively little.
By any definition, it's been a military debacle for the corsairs.
If they want to surrender, and Trippel and Balen want to accept it, that's their call. And it sounds like they've made it.
Walker directs his battlefield energies to making it stick: Walker can tolerate small to middlin' numbers of Corsairs running away, but he does direct the cavalry to cut off escape into the woods if it looks like large numbers of them, especially officers. He wants Trippel to accept surrender from Jellicoe personally. The remaining supplies are also either confiscated or destroyed on the spot, as soon as is practicable. Scouts are sent into the woods to make sure they're not gathering for a counter-attack. Trippel should know if they have any larger supply caches out in the woods, as well-- that knowledge is sent along with the scouts.
Walker does put the word out (including to Trippel) that Jellicoe or his highest surviving subordinate should be taken alive.
Jellicoe and a small band surrounding him surrender last. It's Walker's estimation that they're not fighting to win, but to delay Trippel's forces from following those who fled. Some do, but Walker and company catch a number of the remaining force.
That is what the cavalry are supposed to be doing, with or without Trippel.
Jellicoe himself comes forward to negotiate the surrender. He wants to withdraw from the mountain with his men and swear to never return.
Trippel and Balen call Walker into conference. "Here's what I propose, brother," says Balen. "They are given until nightfall tomorrow to gather their dead and leave the mountain, on pain of death. They pay us weregild for everyone they killed. They pay ransom for their own release at a pound of gold a head, or suffer my curse if they do not deliver it to our agents in Port Methryn by the Feast of the Harrowing of Lir."
Trippel nods. "Your thoughts, Captain?" he says to Walker.
Walker leaves himself out of any wrangling on prices.
"Any reason we ain't keep Jellicoe and a few of his boys as surety?" Walker asks. "Gives us a chance to talk, all neighborlike." If his smile is neighborly, Jellicoe shouldn't be eager to meet Walker's neighbors in a dark alley at night.
That is Walker's opening position. What he actually wants-- and he will whisper in Balen's ear to make it clear to her-- is to question him for at least the period that they are gathering their dead. He especially wants information about Cledwin, and will remind Balen about the Moire angle if she needs reminding. He doesn't think she does.
Between magic and the tradition of honoring parole, neither Trip nor Balen seems inclined to keep Jellicoe, but as an officer, he can be invited to the state dinner. Balen suggests that Mayness and Crisp should be invited as well.
Trippel smiles at the thought, and asks if that would suit Walker's needs.
It's not exactly what Walker had in mind, but he senses that he's not going to much better than the offer on the table. Although, if the state dinner can be postponed until tomorrow, so much the better. Walker suspects no one will argue since it fits with the timeline given for the removal or burial of the dead.
And, significantly, it gives Walker time to go make sure that worm is dead.
Walker borrows a horse from Montparnasse’s stables and rides in search of the beast. He tracks the worm down the ravine, which is easy enough to do, even with the damage of the accompanying flooding. It takes several hours, and Brennan expects he’ll either find a corpse or a very angry worm at the end of the route.
The borrowed horse is a nervous mountain animal, and not at home in the riverbeds downstream from the castle. It balks at dodgy footings, and possibly at some completely safe footings.
If the horse is that skittish, Brennan will leave it roped to a tree somewhere along the way. Being thrown while hunting a giant, castle-destroying worm is not in the cards today, and he judges that it is extremely improbable that anything will wander along and bother it.
He's also cagey enough that he looks to make sure he's not being followed. If the worm is alive, he doesn't plan a conventional battle. He might want to call Fiona by Trump when he's done, as well, and is not interested in anyone seeing him do that.
Brennan comes around a bend and finds the Bobbit Worm. It had been eating something... furry, like an elk or a deer. Its facial mandibles are covered with blood. When Brennan rides into sight, the worm rears up. It is approximately the height of the castles walls of Montparnasse. It roars out a challenge or a warning.
It might be able to strike Brennan from here. It's mostly neck, after all.
For the first time in weeks or months, Brennan is unconstrained by observers and he is in no mood to mess around with this thing. He scans the mountain face above him, and selects a nice head-sized stone or something a little larger, moves it with the principle of Gravity until it is over the worm, then drops it. As it drops, he uses the principle of Space and (again) Gravity to make the rock massive and heavy enough to crush the thing's spine as it hits, and to guide it so it hits true.
The worm pays no attention to the rock moving like a cloud above his head. Brennan sends it hurling down, faster than gravity and growing exponentially larger.
It strikes at Brennan, who dives upslope. The rock hits the creature in the spine, just at the juncture where the body is on the ground, severing the spine and breaking the chitinous armored beast clean in half. The head and neck, with all the momentum from the strike at Brennan, continue on, unfettered by the body. Brennan keeps rolling to avoid the corpse.
He rolls to a stop and scrambles up, coated in the ichor and internal parts of the worm. They don’t seem to be toxic or even caustic, but they are nasty.
From the ridge above a voice calls out. “Brennan?” The owner seems surprised to find him here, or at least in these circumstances.
Benedict is atop the ridge on his striped horse, his scythe-like weapon strapped to his back.
Brennan is just considering the very minor dilemma of how best to remove ichor stains from his outfit when he hears Benedict's call. He is, initially, as surprised to hear his real name used as the voice is to be using it these circumstances. He turns, scans the ridge, identifies Benedict and steps back from the worm-corpse. If he is discomfited by his appearance, it doesn't show.
"Uncle," he confirms, in much the same tone of mild surprise. "I have much to report, but if you don't mind I'd like to get one of these mandibles as proof that this thing is dead, before I clean up."
If Benedict permits it, Brennan will remove one of the mandibles as though he were removing a drumstick from a particularly vile turkey dinner, using a knife so long it might properly be called a machete. If it's too large to transport, he'll settle for breaking off a tip the length of his arm.
Regardless, this is the report that Brennan gives, when he gives it:
"I've passed two reports to Folly by Trump since I've been here, but time is strange-- you may not have gotten the second one. I'll start at the beginning and add more detail after the time of the first report. My scouting method is simple: pose as an itinerant, backwoods mercenary, get hired on in the region of interest-- here, on Methryn's Isle-- and follow what looks interesting from a strategic point of view."
He goes on to describe his major encounters and activities up until the time of the first conversation with Folly and Martin: Taking the name Walker, hiring on as a guard with Cledwin and Crisp as the later made his way to Montparnasse, watching Crisp dealing in arms and eventually ending up wedded to Mayness. Brennan gives a sketch of the route they took so that Benedict has a clear idea which areas are flooded with new weapons, and makes it clear that he can give a very detailed accounting of the Who's, the Where's, the How Many's and the What Type's if Benedict requires it... but he knows better than to drown someone in details while giving a report.
He also describes the encounter with Balen and her aura reading in some greater detail: "Her first guess was too close to the mark to be random chance-- she made me for your agent immediately, but she kept it to herself until we were alone. From there, she leapt to the conclusion that you sent me there, directly, for the express purpose of supporting Montparnasse. I chose not to acknowledge any of it-- I can't be effective as a scout or a spy if half the countryside knows your redheaded nephew, or even your agent, is tearing around the area. Besides, she spent so much time poisoning her sister Mayness' well that I had to wonder about her, too."
"This," he adds, "is about when I spoke first to Folly. And this is where things get complicated."
He takes a breath and pushes forward with part two, the siege. "Reconstructing it after it happened, and allowing for how it was disrupted, the Corsair plan was this: First, Cledwin let a small group of assassins into the keep to kill Prince Maibock. Curiously, his son Trippel had somehow embedded with that group. If his plan was to disrupt their attempt, the best that can be said is that it didn't work-- we disrupted each other. Maibock is dead, Trippel is wounded but alive and running the defenses. Balen is alive and healthy. Crisp and Mayness were taken into custody. Cledwin escaped.
"Second, the main force arrived shortly afterward. Very shortly." Brennan gives a brief description of the quality and quantity of men in the besieging army, then adds, "and along with that, they had a force of elephants, a hedge wizard, and," he gestures to the dead worm, "a bobbitt worm. That's in retrospect. The worm was magically shrunk in a container and the elephants were behind the tree line so it took some time and effort to sort the situation out. It happens that there's a passage under and out of the castle known only to the royal family, and, now, to me as they let me use it to scout the opposing force. In the course of that scouting, there was a good opportunity to disturb and stampede those elephants, so I took it. They did some structural damage to the keep, but mostly they ended up running off a cliff before they could be used. In the confusion, there was a chance to take the wizard captive so I did that, too. It was a disaster for the corsairs, but nothing that couldn't be explained by plain bad luck. That almost ended the affair right there, with the Corsairs agreeing to pay a ransom for their wizard and simply be gone from the theater.
"Then I started questioning the wizard. He died during questioning, and it's not," Brennan emphasizes, "what it sounds like. There's a separate story there that I'll get back to. But what we learned for the battle was that they had that," he gestures to the worm, "magically shrunk in a small container for use as a siege weapon. The full plan was apparently to prepare the field for it with earth works during the siege, let it loose to undermine the keep walls, and follow it with the elephants to batter the rest into rubble.
Brennan exhales sharply. "As I said, though, the wizard died, and with him the truce and ransom arrangement was going to collapse. Balen and I discussed the matter, and I left to see to the defenses and come up with a plan. I contrived to be alone briefly, because I had a Trump call from my son, which you'll want to hear of as well. When the call was over, and since I knew what the worm was and how it worked, more or less, from the Maghee wizard, I worked a small Sorcery of my own, which resulted in a lake's worth of water washing the worm and portions of the besieging camp off of the mountain. We capitalized on the confusion, rode forth from the keep, broke their will and took their surrender. There will be a state dinner tomorrow with the surrendered Corsair captain Jellicoe, as well as Crisp, and the three children of Maibock. Which brought Walker to this place, making sure that," another gesture to the worm, "is really dead."
Brennan lets out a long breath, having summarized the military situation. Then he takes another and continues:
"But this wizard is where things get very interesting, and probably more important than anything I've said so far. The wizard named himself Cameleopardis Findanus, of the Maghees, a tribe which by their telling descends from Lir's castellan after he raised up the Silver Towers and then departed to fight in foreign wars. Be that as it may, they say their ancestral home, the city Maghdeburg, is on a sunken island along with the ruined Silver Towers. This Cameleopardis the wizard was exploring that place, looking for knowledge and history, by his telling. He described some of the things he saw-- a forest of kelp, a throne room with a throne of solid sapphire-- before describing a vision. He didn't use the words, but what he described could only be interpreted as a man walking a Pattern while fighting another man. You, who he named only as the Protector. And the Witch-King, who he properly named as Karol Le Magne, Corwin."
Brennan spreads his hands: No, wait, there's more.
"After that vision, he passed out. When he awoke, the Pattern was gone from the floor, but a woman was on the throne, the Protector at her side, and rune-carved blade hovering handless at her throat, although she addressed the unseen wielder as Corwin. The Protector and the unseen figure fought, the Protector lost and subsequently regrew his arm, and the rune-blade sank below the floor, apparently with the unseen Corwin. The vision of the Protector vanished also, but the woman remained, turned to Cameleopardis and identified herself as Dara who sought to bring down the new kingdom of the Sorceror-King. Given the Sorcerer-King's reputation, he readily agreed, so she put him to sleep and bade him wait for Lir's priestess.
"Now, part of Walker's cover story," Brennan explains, "not that anyone has yet bothered to ask, is that he is a soldier displaced from his home by the Black Road War, giving him some motive to pay heed to rumors of fey and eldritch things that might be able to return him home. I also had some mundane images of Dara, Moire and Moins from Folly and a cover story for those as well. I showed him the images. Dara, he identified immediately. Moins he recognized as a legendary figure. Moire... he hesitated. He seemed to recognize Moire, but could not say how or when, and we both came also to believe that he hd been bewitched. We asked Balen if she could undo this, and she did, but at a cost. I believe that Cameleopardis was far older than he realized and had been kept alive by Sorcery. When his memory was returned, the other Sorcery collapsed and he began aging rapidly. But he lived long enough to identify Moire as this priestess of Lir, the one who bade him to take her ships and attack Methryn's Isle, which apparently led him to here. Long enough to repent and repudiate Moire, as well. He did not live long enough to explain the obvious involvement with Cledwin, though. It was very quick."
Brennan pauses, with the sense that he is leaving something important out. Then he has it. "I should add, Folly was with me by Trump for most, but not all, of that interrogation, should you require another perspective.
"Which again brings me to here. Cameleopardis did repudiate Moire at the end. Before I broke the worm's container, I dropped a few hints to the effect that he had done something to the worm that would help us. And since there is no possible way someone like Walker could defeat something like that worm... as far as I'm concerned, it was like that when I got here, or worse. Cameleopardis did it before he died. So. Nothing has happened here that could not be explained by bad luck, betrayal, and treachery." Which sounds like a normal day in Avalon, to Brennan. "It is possible to guess, but nothing screams out that a scion of Amber was here guiding the defeat... except for Balen and her uncanny ability to read auras. I don't know exactly what she thinks right now," probably that Brennan is an idiot, he doesn't say, "but everything I did broke in her direction so there hasn't been any reason to question it, so far."
An astute listener may note that Brennan's lengthy report was long on facts and events, with an overlay of his motives and goals, but short on analysis, interpretation, or speculation.
He waits for Benedict's inevitable raft of questions.
Benedict and his striped mount come down the slope during Brennan's report. "I'll ride with you back to Montparnasse. I need to greet Trippel. What do you think Moire's rationale for having Corsairs attack this castle might be? Did she know of your involvement?"
Benedict pauses. "You may want to clean up before retrieving your horse. She won’t like the smell of that creature on you."
Brennan nods agreement. "I crossed a stream not far back," he says, "where we'll find some clothes that match these." He eyes flick down at himself. "And some soap," he mutters.
"To the best of my knowledge, no, Moire knows nothing of my involvement under my own name. I took pains to avoid it. We can't rule it out, of course, but even if she got lucky and saw me through a mirror or had a description from Cledwin, I'm not sure she'd recognize me.
"As to motives... with my current understanding of geography, if I were in her position and trying to retake Rebma by force, I would open operations in the kelp forests that Cameleopardis mentioned in his tale. What he told me led me to believe that it is Nedra, and lies roughly between the fallen towers and Rebma. If the Maghees have other wizards of comparable skill and all follow her, they may have the strength to support an army, or at least strike teams, long enough to reach breathable waters.
"At the same time, I would want a force to approach along the Faiella-Bionin proper, as we discussed before. If Montparnasse falls or is pinned, it cannot support the low-lying coastal areas. If the coastal areas and port towns fail, they cannot protect the sea lanes or project force toward the veil to Rebma. The balance of power in the region shifts in such a way as to leave that entire region exposed. If she thinks you are distracted, she at least increases the chances of a force reaching that region unmolested. Otherwise, she presents you with a strategic dilemma: Defend the Isle of Apples and other key allies, or protect the Great Road.
"If forced to give an opinion which of those attacks is the feint," Brennan hesitates, considering it again, "I would opt for Nedra. That would be my feint, because I do not fully understand the dangers that it presents or its relationship to the Dragon of Rebma. But then, I don't understand Moire's relationship to it, either, so that conclusion's not worth much."
"I will point out, though, that those fronts would be best if coordinated. The arrival of the Corsairs, the arrival of Crisp's wedding party, and the assassination attempt were all too tightly coordinated to be chance. I find it very likely that Cledwin or Jellicoe have some ability to communicate with someone, whether Moire personally or not. This attack may also have served as a test of their ability to coordinate. If so, then despite the overall failure of the mission, I'd call the test itself a success.
"What I do not understand at all," Brennan says, "is Dara's role in all this... if any. And finally, I came here-- to Avalon, not to Montparnasse-- with the idea that Moire would use it as a staging ground for an invasion. Despite the evidence, I'm aware that everything I've said merely confirms a pre-existing notion, and that bothers me. But, for the moment, it is my best analysis. It fits the facts I have."
The Protector dismounts and walks his horse, who doesn't seem to be bothered by Brennan's ichor-soaked clothing. He accompanies Brennan as he cleans up and recovers his own horse, and sets out for Montparnasse with him.
"I am working to neutralize Moire, because it is more important to me to prevent the wars of Avalon from spilling into Rebma. Moire has several options here. She can gather an army of competent soldiers here, which would be helpful in a straight fight. She might be able to bring them in inside the walls, if she could get them to the Faiella-Bionin. Or she could go the other way, work with the tritons, and attack from outside.
"Or, she could hope to emulate Corwin. She could set up a threat and arrive with an army of her own to relieve Rebma, just as Celina is shown to not be up to the job. She might well be restored by acclamation, and convince everyone that she had to leave the city to her daughter to save it now."
Brennan nods-- either of his two basic scenarios fit Benedict's observations if combined properly.
"The difficulty for Celina is that she has to guard against all these assaults, while pleasing her subjects and keeping those who lost in the battle from being disgruntled enough to go to war.
"It’s an exhilarating prospect. I envy her."
"Let's not forget hold Huon in custody," Brennan says.
Benedict nods casually, as if he’s not particularly concerned about that angle.
The uphill ride through rough country is difficult, but Benedict's striped mount seems to have a penchant for finding a good path.
"Did you get any sense of when Dara was here, or how long ago Camelopardis went to the towers? His name is legendary in the lineage of the Magees."
Brennan seemed about to make a comment on Benedict's other observations, but answers the direct questions instead.
"Yes," Brennan says slowly, "but not with great precision. Much about that story bothers me, so I've been giving it much thought.
"Cameleopardis referred several times to the fall of the Towers as something achieved by his ancestors. It was an historical event, not part anyone's living memory. On the other hand, when the spell preserving him unraveled, all the effects came undone, hence the rapid aging. That didn't end when he died. We can look at the remains or ask Balen about them, if there are any. An educated guess... centuries ago. But at least a century after the Towers fell.
"Dara, though," Brennan continues, "made references to Corwin's new kingdom. Now, Cameleopardis could only interpret that as a kingdom here in Avalon, but it must have been a reference to Paris." He walks that back a moment later: "If you want to stretch, it could refer to his time in Amber, but that's an odd turn of phrase for it. It sounds post-Amber to me.
"At the risk of adding unnecessary complications," he adds, "I can conceive of a scenario where Dara actually has not been here yet." The last five words are enunciated carefully, to show that they are considered carefully as well.
"Dara has been here once, at least. And long enough that she was able to trick Corwin. She's also been in that throne-room vignette, but I have no idea if it was anywhere or if it was reflected into multiple throne rooms."
Benedict pauses and nods to the west. Brennan can see a trail that looks to have been made by a man or men running down the mountain towards the coastal plains. It might be corsairs.
Brennan angles his horse to get nearer to that trail, because he wants a better look. His instinct is that this could be the route Cledwin fled, and he is looking for evidence to confirm or deny it. Numbers, mainly, and if possible, time: If the trail is made by one man or only a small number, that's a good indicator; if it was made by many, it might just be part of the general route. Likewise timing: If it's a weathered trail that's been here some time, well, Cledwin might have used it, but he might not. If it's only days old, that indicates Cledwin.
It's probably hours old. Fresh breaks in the plantlife and signs that it was a small number of people fleeing down-mountain. It's too new to be Cledwin, but of course the new trail could cover an old one.
On foot or on horse? It doesn't matter too much, because there is no doubt that Brennan can move faster than they can. It matters a little though, in terms of how long it will take them to get where they're going.
Foot. They ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles and they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn't go.
But Brennan can outrun or outride them.
To Benedict, he says, "Is there any reason to think that it wasn't reflected to every throne room?" That must have made fascinating viewing for Moire, if so. "But in this context.... other than these visions, or vignettes as you say, is there reason to believe that throne room is or was associated with a Pattern?"
Benedict shakes his head. "It was a unique event, so there is not reason to think it was or was not reflected in other throne rooms. However, there is no throne room for a pattern throne at the bottom of the western sea, so the point should be moot. There can't be a pattern this close to mine. It would move.
"One might wish to question Dara on the matter, though. If indeed it was not a reflection of her as well."
Even unique events follow principles, Brennan thinks. But he does agree, so he nods when Benedict speaks of moving Patterns: "To a place along the Faiella-Bionin, if nothing else," he agrees.... and frowns. "That was my understanding, but given what happened, I had to ask."
He glances at the trail and then back at Benedict. "This was made about the same time as we broke the siege. They left during or just after, I'd say, probably trying to get a message back to their beachhead. If they're not using magic or Mirrors to coordinate, it won't be long before they know the siege is broken beyond recovery. If they are..." He shrugs. Then they already know. And they will sooner or later anyway, if all communications go dark.
Benedict doesn't seem too interested in the trail down the mountain, even though he says he is. "I am somewhat curious about who is captaining the ship or ships, but if they regroup, gather reinforcements, and come back, then you and I will both be waiting. That could be interesting."
He turns to ride up the hill. "Unless you wish to pursue? We could split up."
Brennan turns that over in his mind, but ultimately decides, "No. If I have their strategy right, they wouldn't have left any reserves nearby. This is the lynch pin of the plan, they'd have brought everything they have. They might lead me to Cledwin, but he has days of lead on me. And we have at least one captain captive at Montparnasse-- Jellicoe of the Gazellicorn. I've spoken with him briefly but haven't had the opportunity to question him at length. Also, we have Crisp, the merchant captain. That alone should make for interesting dinner conversation."
Brennan follows Benedict.
Bendict's path leads them back to the main mountain road to the castle. Benedict stops, and pulls a banner from his saddlebag. He attaches it to a long, complicated bladed weapon he is carrying strapped to his back, giving the effect of a flag. He intends to approach the castle flying his personal colors. He offers to find one for Brennan as well, but understands if "Walker" is not so equipped.
Walker is not so equipped, in fact.
Before they make their final approach, there is one more item on Brennan's agenda. "There is more news, though. I mentioned my son Trumped me earlier today-- Reid is dead." Brennan waits a moment before proceeding, out of respect for Reid.
"Jerod and Ossian recovered his body from a Klybesian monastery. Apparently, at least some of their bases are built on Shadow paths."
Brennan cannot read Benedict's body language, which is probably intentional. "The monks overreach. Or else someone else is manipulating them to make them appear to be incautious. Were I to wish to distract us as a group, I would want us to find an old enemy suddenly intolerable. Have the Klybesians offered explanations?"
"Unknown, but I don't think there is one we would accept," Brennan says. "Reid's body was not intact. They took tissue samples. And when Ossian followed a Shadow path starting under that location, he ended up in a place called Greenwood. Apparently this is a facility that held Corwin for a time before his return."
"I mislike the Greenwood connection more than the monks, who may have been playing at being a known quantity. Corwin was there and unconscious, if his tales are to be relied upon. Did Flora buy their services or did Brand? I don't believe that it can be a mere coincidence, nor do I believe that they are still there because of luck. They could be doing many things, including buying more guns from Corwin's supplier."
Brennan narrows his eyes in skepticism-- would that powder be useful anywhere but Amber proper?
"I suspect they have spent a very long time convincing us to underestimate them. Or else someone else wants us to think so."
Brennan shakes his head, slightly. "Or a moderating influence has been removed," he says quietly.
Benedict looks over at Brennan and nods, absently. "What do you and your son propose to do?"
The answer, surprisingly, is a long time coming from a man who is rarely without a plan or a theory or an opinion.
"My first instinct is to go to the place called Abford, gather the stuff of it to my heart, and burn a hole through the tissue of Shadow down to the fundament of Creation. Let it serve as warning through Eternity that Family is inviolate, for they have also taken something of mine. But I am a Lord of Amber, and I move by my will and the words of the Kings and Queens of Order only," he says.
"And my will in this matter is to act decisively.
"As the situation is, we cannot," Brennan says. "They are too dispersed, too mobile. They must be made to commit to a decisive engagement or we will be centuries hunting them down, or more. We don't know how to draw them out, yet."
Brennan pauses to reflect, then adds, "I share your mistrust of coincidence, but my son said something more trenchant than he may have known. In addition to having some command of Sorcery and motion through Shadow even if only along pre-existing paths... they tend to show up too often, he said. They tend to show up too often around us," he enunciates carefully. Then, looking back directly at Benedict, he asks, "What does that sound like to you?"
He's not quite sure if that's a a rhetorical question when he asks it or not. But if Benedict doesn't answer it, Brennan will: "To me, it sounds like a description of how Family keep meeting each other in infinite Shadow." Brennan hasn't directly answered the question, yet, but that's necessary context for it.
Benedict nods again, encouraging this line of thought. "You know that Caine sends away most of the blood from Amber, I assume? He is acting on my advice. The more of us congregate somewhere, the more of us are drawn there. And not just us. Those who are more real are more capable of putting a strain on a place, deforming it by their mere presence. You could study Corwin’s Shadow Earth in depth, if you wished to see what we did to a shadow without even using our powers.
"If this did not happen, it would never be possible to search for someone in shadow, and it is also the basis for following someone through shadow, even if we cannot express what it means to cause a deformation in a dimension that we cannot see."
Brennan nods, but not impatiently. He knows all this, but it is necessary to the question he anticipates from Benedict.
"So what does your conjecture imply about who the Klybesians are?"
"Us," Brennan says simply. "In some number, to some degree, the simplest answer by far is... they are us. Limited command of Sorcery and the too-often nature of our encounters are the hallmarks, and the frequent use of Shadow paths is highly suspect. And the obsession with tissue samples, blood, and orphanages speaks to an intent to maintain or increase that degree, at great risk. There are other answers-- despite our own self-obsession, there are other things that are real besides Family-- but it's the simplest and the best one.
"But if true, that's something that must have had a beginning, a time before which it was not true. Was that before or after Oberon banished them from Amber?" Brennan asks. [OOC: However Brennan replies...]
The pair approach the castle. Benedict lets Brennan go first.
The guards have clearly seen the banner, and the gate is lowered. Through it, Brennan can see several of the senior corsairs in the courtyard. One of them is Jellicoe.
Folly exits the music room, gathers up a sketch pad and a few art supplies, and moves back into the kitchen to sit at the table -- quietly, so as not to disturb her daughter's bathtime (which she still holds out hope will eventually turn into naptime, but not if she goes in there to talk to Martin about Serious Adult Things.) She has calls to make, but they will all require borrowing elder-trumps from her husband. Well, or making a sketch of Celina, which she has never gotten explicit permission to do, but this might be an urgent enough situation to warrant it.
Or she could call Random. Which she would really, really like to do. But probably not until she's talked to Martin.
Restlessly, she tears a blank page out of the back of the sketchbook and divides it into two columns. On the left-hand side she begins jotting down details of her conversation with Brennan, the story they got from Cameleopardis, the Fortune reading; and on the right, she starts a list of what they would need to do to be ready to leave here. She bounces between the lists almost at random, sometimes even mid-sentence, as things occur to her.
She's keyed up, she knows. From time to time she stops to listen to the sounds of bathtime: her daughter's laughter, Martin's singing, his playful exasperation when Lark demands one more song, one more story, one more minute in the tub.
Eventually the sounds of splashing and laughing subside, and then it's just Martin, singing softly. Folly slips quietly from the table to go check on them.
Lark is settled in her own bed, conked out, and for all that Martin is still singing about the pink hippopotamus whose boat is sinking for perhaps the tenth or twelfth time this evening, he looks like he's ready to join Lark. But he finishes out the verse, makes sure Lark is asleep (she is), and steps out to join Folly in the hall. The door closes quietly behind him; it never sticks or squeaks when Martin shuts it.
He leans against the wall and arches his eyebrows at Folly in the dim evening light, asking well? and how did it go? without words.
She wrinkles her nose, shakes her head, and takes Martin's hand to lead him to the den, where they can sit together on a comfy couch and talk quietly without disturbing the little one.
When they're settled, she says, "So, remember Merlin telling you about seeing Corwin and Ben dueling it out over the Pattern during his Walk? Brennan just interrogated a guy who saw the same thing in the ruins of his ancestral home, sunk beneath the waves outside Avalon. Where someone who looked like and identified herself as Dara, of the lineage of Lir, asked the guy to join her vendetta to take down the Sorcerer King Corwin and his new realm. And then a woman who identified herself as a priestess of Lir, but who looked just like Moire, gave him a fleet to go attack Methryn's Isle, which is where Brennan is now." Folly shakes her head again and throws up her hands as if to say 'I mean what the bloody hell I can't even.'
Martin nods at the question about Merlin, unsurprisingly. As he listens to the rest of the story, his eyebrows start inching upward; they've attained maximum height by the end of the recital.
His initial reaction is best characterized as, "Well, f**k."
What he actually says is, "That's too much to process without alcohol, or preferably something stronger."
Folly gives a wry smile. "I know what you mean. Unfortunately, I've got to keep a clear head for now, because I think I've got some calls to make after this -- but... yeah." She gestures for Martin to go ahead and get what he needs from the alcohol-and-other-things cabinet.
As he gets up to do so, she amends, "Well, maybe just a wee shot of something for me."
Martin brings back a bottle of something that looks strong and deep, with a tumbler for himself and a shot glass for Folly to take a dram if she likes. He pours for her and then himself, a couple of fingers in the glass to start.
"May the step off the stair be quick," he says, and takes a long gulp.
Folly raises her own glass and takes a small sip.
"All right, let me tell you what I know. Ben lost his arm during the war, and he had this metal arm for a while, that Corwin got out of Tir. Supposedly Corwin saw Dara and Benedict in some distant possible future, and Corwin cut it off Ben's arm. At which point Ben _used it_, which hell if I understand, but it served him to block some scheme of Brand's, and then when I brought Dara to Amber under our grandfather's instructions, there was some reversed version of the scene where Corwin got it and Grayswandir cut it off Ben's arm while I was right there watching. And this whole thing sounds weirdly like the story Corwin told about what Dara said to Corwin--that he reported to Merle, that I'm reporting to you, so take it with the appropriate grain of salt--except obviously with a very different outcome."
Folly nods slowly. "When Corwin saw the distant-future Benedict, or when you witnessed the removal of Ben's spooky new arm in Amber -- where in the castle did those things take place?"
"It was in the throne room. But I wasn't inside. I saw part of it through an archway, but I couldn't get in. Neither could Corwin--he came up while it was happening and couldn't get in. But it was definitely Grayswandir on the other side somehow, even though he was wearing the d*mn thing while he was trying to get in there." Martin shakes his head and shrugs. "I think Grandfather was f**king around with time somehow, with Tir. I don't know where he got the arm, either, though I could make some educated guesses."
"Well, the story this guy told didn't mention that the arm was mechanical," Folly says -- slowly, as she tries to recall and piece together all the relevant bits -- "but otherwise it echoed that story in most details."
She hesitates, then decides that perhaps she should go back and start at the beginning. "So, this guy, Cameleopardis of the Maghee clan, told Brennan that his clan's ancestors defeated the Sorceror-King in days of old by sinking Corwin's towers -- and the land they stood on, along with their ancestral homeland that was once part of Avalon -- beneath the sea. Mag... Magga... Maghdeburg, I think. Made a deal with the Fae to get some of the magics they needed to pull that off.
"So this Maghee fellow, who is a hedge wizard himself, was on his way down through the kelp forests with his little spell that lets him breathe underwater, when he ran across some soldiers coming the other way out of the forests from some battle they'd lost in an undersea city ruled by women. Apparently they'd had rather a rough time of it in the kelp forests -- chased out by deep monsters, and all that -- and thought to make for Maghdeburg themselves, so they captured the Maghee to serve as their native guide.
"They made for the palace. The Maghee described it as a ruin, its opulence long since stolen or drowned, but the Captain of the soldiers insisted that 'the treasure is below'. Which... well. I don't know what he thought he was looking for, but that's certainly suggestive. They found the throne room, a thousand feet across and dominated by a sapphire throne -- also an interesting detail. Cameleopardis says as soon as he saw it, he was struck by a vision: great spirals of light on the floor, with a man walking along them. Then, in front of the man, Corwin with his sword raised, fighting the Protector. At that point the Maghee passed out next to the throne, and when he awoke the soldiers and the Pattern and the dueling figures were gone. A woman sat on the throne with a rune-carved sword at her throat -- though no one was holding it -- and the Protector standing on her far side. She addressed the invisible swordsman as 'Corwin' and then the Protector stepped up to fight him. In the process the phantom blade struck off the Protector's right arm, which regrew from the stump like smoke. The severed arm and the floating sword floated toward the floor and then passed through it -- and then the Protector was enveloped in smoke and disappeared, too. So it was just the Maghee and the woman, who identified herself as Dara.
"She got excited when he told her his ancestors were the ones who overthrew the Sorceror-King. She said she was there to research him, too, and figure out how to destroy him and his new kingdom. When he offered his aid, she said he would sleep for a while and then a priestess of Lir would tell him what to do.
"So he slept by her magics, and when he awoke there was another woman tending to him. When he asked if she was Lir's Priestess she said she was, and gave him ships to go and attack Methryn's Isle. He was less sure about her identity, but when Brennan showed him my sketches, he was sure Dara was Dara and thought the priestess might have been Moire, but felt that some kind of a geas had been put on him so he couldn't remember exactly."
Folly pauses, frowning. "So, a lot of these things could reasonably be things that have happened recently -- the soldiers in the kelp forest could have been Huon's forces taking refuge after the recent altercation in Rebma, and Dara could have been looking for new ways of irritating Corwin and the family after all the fun at the Coronation -- but when one of the people working with Brennan tried to counteract the geas, the Maghee suddenly aged years, maybe centuries, right before our eyes. Which means that some of those things could have happened anywhen, and been part of your grandfather's -- or somebody else's -- time manipulations."
She takes another tiny sip of her drink and blows out a breath that lifts the hair from her forehead. "There's more, but... I'm interested in your take on all of that first. Do any of those details map to other stories, besides the thing with Corwin and Ben and The Arm, and Merlin's story of his patternwalk?"
"The metaphysics are still over my head," Martin says, pulling a short blond strand of hair away from his head. "But the thing that I notice first is there are two different _events_ conflated here, apart from the additional Rebman trappings. First, the bit with Ben and his arm on the one hand, and the second, the duel between Ben and Corwin that Merlin claims he witnessed during his Walk." He pauses there and reviews what Folly said, nodding slightly along with the rhythm her words had been spoken in. "The regrowth of the arm is--suggestive. Of something. I'm just not sure what."
"Yeah, it almost feels like that place was behaving like some kind of node, or nexus---" Folly downs the rest of her drink in one gulp so that she can talk with her hands "---with overlapping reflections all kind of passing through it at the same time, you know? Or maybe with Avalon being adjacent to Tir---"
She hesitates, and a new thought takes her. "Well, I was going to say something about the 'ghosts of Tir', but the visions Corwin saw when he was there turned out to be the actual people, just in a different time and place, right? So maybe Corwin and Benedict did actually once fight over a pattern. Or will do, someday. Or---"
She hesitates again, and her eyes widen. "Or possibly long ago and far away the Sorceror-King drew his own pattern in the basement of his castle, and now that he went and grew up and drew another one the universe thinks they're actually the same point and is folding reality back on itself." She frowns. "Okay, that's a long shot, but I think Corwin just moved up to the top of my list of elders to talk to next. Is the Rebman throne an actual sapphire?"
Martin is doing his best to follow that explanation. Folly can tell he's skeptical of the double-pattern explanation, and is considering opining on it, when she changes direction to a question he can actually answer. "No. It's called the Sapphire Throne as a metaphor, because the stone that's part of the regalia is a sapphire, or appears to be the way the Jewel of Judgement appears to be a ruby. Now the actual throne has sapphires on it, and it wouldn't surprise me if there were a throne made out of sapphires somewhere in the castle, but that wasn't the one in use when I was living in the castle."
"So if what the Maghee saw was meant in some way to represent the throne of Rebma, it at least wasn't the throne of Rebma _now_," Folly says. "It does rather strain credulity that Ancient Corwin would just happen to have picked sapphire for his own throne. Although perhaps," she adds with a smirk that is audible more than visible, "it was a gift from Moins. Or, I dunno... from Moins to Finndo, and Corwin ended up with the hand-me-downs. Er, did I mention the part where the Maghee identified himself as 'Camelopardis Findanus'?"
"No," Martin says, and does not facepalm, but he does shake his head. "As much as I like Brita, I wish Finndo had kept it in his trousers more often. If this Camelopardis Findanus is one of his, it makes something like a dozen troublemaking descendants I can think of off the top of my head." He frowns and shakes his head again.
Folly gives a wry smile; she may not know the full list he's thinking of, but she has at least a few guesses.
"Okay, so you're going to talk to Corwin, presumably in person since this is not the kind of discussion you want to have by Trump. Are there any more stops you have in mind? When do you think you'll be back?"
"Well...." Folly hesitates, frowning, then says, "I think before we can figure that out I've got at least one more question for you. You may have noticed how both Dara and Moire figured into the story told by the Maghee, although there are plenty of details to suggest that not everything he saw was really 'here' and 'now'. But... well, you know both of them better than I do. If you had to hazard a guess, does either of them feel like the one whose fingerprints are on that plan to send Camelopardis and a fleet to attack Methryn's Isle?"
Martin shakes his head. "Neither one of them has the skill to pull off Grandfather's timey-wimey games. Now either one of them might have tried inspiring forces and using them. Dara's got the shapeshifting, to boot." He frowns. "The whole complex plan with third parties and agents is more Grandmother's style, though." He ponders it a bit more, and shrugs, finally, uncertain. "I don't know. Could be either. I don't think it's both of them together, though, because I have a hunch that they wouldn't be able to work together for long without egos getting in the way."
"Well, that's a relief, at least. Brennan is inclined to think Moire is involved, I think, but that's mostly because that's the involvement he's been looking for." Folly begins fidgeting with her empty glass. "We did a Fortune reading while we were talking. I let Brennan pick the question, and he came up with 'What's the best way to catch Moire?' And the answer, as far as I could tell, was that eventually she would come to Lark, who is sitting here all undefended by a Pattern."
She looks up and meets Martin's eyes. "I know we're safe for the time being since nobody knows we're here, but the way we bend things out in shadow so that we all roll into each other eventually, I feel like if we stay here it's only a matter of time until it becomes inevitable that someone finds us."
"Then we don't stay. I like Lauderville just fine, but we're going to run out of road here in a couple of years no matter what." As best as Folly can read Martin's expression, which is particularly flat and stonelike, he knows what she's getting at and is choosing not to acknowledge it for the moment. "We can do a lot with her records to show she is what we need her to be. The facts are that she's different, though. We're different. And not just in ways that have to do with the trust fund and the band. Eventually that tells."
Folly nods; she's got some experience with that herself.
"Maybe this place was a mistake. Gerard was here. Solange was here. It's already been interfered with. I'm okay with being a vagabond for a few decades while we sort it out." He shrugs, not liking the conclusion, but there it is.
"Well, and on the plus side I'm sure Lark will enjoy the chance to surf every beach ever while we're on our universal tour," Folly offers with a wry smile. More seriously, she adds, "We'll make it work."
"How do we think Moire is getting around? Because she's not a Patternwalker and doesn't have our skills. We can seal natural paths if we need to."
"I don't know enough about Rebman magics to know what her options would be. Did you tell me once that she could possibly use mirrors for that?" Folly frowns thoughtfully. "And if so, who do we know and trust that could tell us something about how that would work?"
"Celina," Martin is certain on that point, "who learned it from her." He's less certain about that second point. "I'm pretty sure she needs the right kind of mirror to land in, and I have no idea what the transit restrictions are, but I'm pretty sure it's technically possible to travel by mirror. The question is whether you can do a shadow transit that way.
"I know they can spy through them, which is part of why I've always so picky about where we have mirrors in the house and what kind of mirrors they are." He gestures toward the dining room, which has a mirror for light reflection--one with an artistically cracked and textured surface. "I've assumed that the precautions against spying would also serve against transits.
"If the next question is 'can she spy through mirrors cross-shadow?', the answer is 'I don't know, but on that I realistically assume the worst."
"I've been assuming mirror magic to be roughly the analogue of trumps, until I know more," Folly says, "and those can certainly do cross-shadow somethings. I think Celina is now solidly on my priority list right after Corwin...."
She gets a faraway look in her eyes. "Now that I think on it, Corwin's Paris seemed rather full of mirrors, didn't it? It hadn't really occurred to me at the time because there are so many other reasons that could be the case, but now I wonder how much he knows about the possibilities of mirror magic."
"Depends on whether he can pick it up by osmosis through--" and Martin's gesture leaves no doubt as to which activity he thinks most likely to have brought Corwin into close contact with a mistress of mirrors.
"The mirrors I've seen in Paris, though, most of them were--" Martin looks for a word "--they had black on them, like they'd been through a fire. So they reflected light but the view was distorted. That's a common way to defend a mirror against being used for magical purposes. Which on the one hand is common knowledge to anyone who's spent enough time in Rebma, and which on the other hand is a lot of effort for someone to go to for a whole palace. But he's the king, so--" Martin has both hands in the air as if he's weighing possibilities physically as well as mentally.
"Ah. I'd noticed that, but figured it was a side-effect of manufacturing at that technology level, or the gaslight environment, or something," Folly says. "It's comforting to know it's probably intentional -- that all those mirrors weren't just Corwin's way of saying 'come up and see me sometime', you know? Or alternatively, cavalier arrogance that no other powers out there could possibly be a match for him, so why worry about defending against them? Not that I would put it past Corwin -- or most of his brothers, for that matter -- to decorate primarily in the motif of 'trick out with your prick out'. But it's nice to know he didn't, necessarily."
She sets her empty glass aside. "So. Corwin first, and that's a conversation that should probably happen in person. Then, most likely, Celina." She looks at Martin and arches an eyebrow, asking-without-asking his thoughts on whether that also ought to happen in person. Even if that also means In Rebma.
"Any conversation you have over trumps can be overheard. Any conversation you have in person in Rebma can be overheard. Same for Paris. So it's a matter of picking your poisons." Martin does some slow-motion cogitation on the whole thing and adds, "I really don't want Lark near any of the Patterns. It'll raise too many questions if she goes to Paris and not to Xanadu. And I think regardless of anything else, neither one of us wants to take her to Rebma. Not until we have more certainty about my grandmother's situation than we have, no offense to Celina."
"Oh, we're definitely on the same page there; I was already counting on it being a solo mission if I end up going there." She offers up a wistful smile and adds, "...although it does feel strange that my first trip to your boyhood home might be without you. I'd offer to pick up souvenirs, but I think I already know what you'd most want me to bring back...." She reaches for his hand.
Martin lets Folly get hold of his hand, squeezing her fingertips when she has a good grip on him. "Other than yourself? The things I wanted out of Rebma aren't there any more. There's nothing left for me but the people. The people and the ghosts." Another squeeze, and a bit of a grin. "But if you want to pick up some salt tea at the duty-free, you can do that too."
Folly returns the grin. "I'll see what I can do."
She has a few preparations to make before she's ready to contact Corwin, not least among them getting cleaned up from her beachy morning lounginess to a dress that passes, more-or-less, as a Paris-appropriate tea gown. She makes a couple of updates to the in-case-of-emergencies list that hangs on the fridge (not that she thinks Martin will need it, but it makes her feel better) and quietly looks in on her napping daughter.
"You've got my card if you need it, and I've got yours," Folly says to Martin once she's ready to go. "I don't expect to be gone long, but...." She gives a little shrug. Martin knows as well as she does the particular kinds of time-properties they were looking for when they settled in this place. "If my short time elsewhere starts turning into a long time here, call me." She looks for a moment as if she is about to say more, but instead pulls her husband into a tight hug.
After a long moment, she lets out a sigh and reluctantly eases her grip. "Would you rather loan me your card, or make the call and pass me through?"
After a few minutes, the last strains die away; the pendulum returns to rest; and Folly blows out a breath and stands up to retrieve something from the center of the device. She pulls out a small card, inspects it critically, blows gently on it to ensure the ink is dry enough not to smudge, and then proffers it to Martin. "It's not a trump," she reassures him. "But it is... interesting."
In the center of the card, maybe an inch and a half long along its bigger
axis, is a near-perfect tracing of the Pattern.
As morning makes its way into Rebma, it finds Signy finishing a long vigil at forge in the back of the shop.
She's not quite sure how she ended up there. The last thing she really remembers is the breakup of the Family meeting, with Ambrose's casual, off-hand remark tossed out there to sit out there in full view of everyone. She suppresses yet another momentary flash of irritation at him just tossing that out, as she finishes the last quenching of the dagger that she had spent the night crafting.
She pulls the blade back out and eyes her work. The blade doesn't reflect much light, a dull grey sheen that just seems to kill the light that does reach it. Much in the same way that the glances that she occasionally caught from him over the years as he taught her slowly withered away and stopped, especially after the conflicts between her and Weyland became more overt, more confrontational.
She looks at the edge, razor-sharp, a mean curving expanse that ends abruptly but more than capable of slipping between someone's ribs to reach their heart. She wonders if there was something similar happening those years when she was locked away at her father's whim, that kept Brother Tomat coming by the door to her quarters where she was locked away. He never really spoke, or made any overt noises, but he was out there. Just how she knew when he had come by she wasn't too sure, but she knew he did. She supposed the visits stopped when her father sent him back to the Order.
She rolls her shoulders, stretching muscles cramped from the night at the forge.
An ugly blade, for an ugly mood.
She slips behind a wooden partition, and quickly changes into a fresh set of clothes that she leaves here, and works on putting away the traces of her night. She looks at the dagger, before slipping it into a plain leather sheath and then tucking that into the small of her back, held in place by a plain leather belt.
Both Edan and Tomat should arrive shortly -- she dispatched pages last night to find them both and ask them to meet her here right around now. She quickly grabs some bread and cheese and sets it out on a table. Plain fare, but she also doesn't think that people will much feel like eating, either.
Edan arrives, wearing the trunks and belt that are so common in Rebma. It reinforces just how thin and spare he is, as if all the water were burned out of him long ago. That, and his cinnamon-brown skin, look completely out of place here. He wears no weapons. He inclines his head in greeting, and moves to seat himself at the table. "Cousin. Thank you for arranging this."
A few minutes later, Tomat shows up. He has also adjusted to Rebman clothing: he's wearing shorts and a shirt-like thing that's made mostly of metallic chains in a fine gauge with large opening, so it's light, and looks mostly like a large piece of metallic cloth with a hole in it for Tomat's head. There's a belt holding it around his waist. It drags a bit in air, but Signy and Edan can see how it would drag less than a cloth shirt in the waters of Rebma.
"Am I late?" he asks Signy. "I'm sorry." He looks to Edan, whom he does not appear to recognize. "I'm Tomat," he adds by way of introduction.
Edan stands and extends a hand, though the act is still uncomfortable for him. "I am Edan. Bleysson. I have asked my cousin Signy if I may speak with you."
Signy offers a brief smile of encouragement. "There are some questions that have come up about the Order, and we were hoping you offer some answers based on your time there."
"I'll be glad to help however I can. What questions do you have? I was involved with negotiating with agreed petitioners when I left the Order. I never was raised any higher in the Order's strategic counsels, so there are many things I don't know." Tomat looks from Signy to Edan and back again. "But I will tell you anything I do know, gladly. The Order will have named me an enemy for leaving with Marius; I have no reason to keep their secrets now."
"I am sorry that a powerful organization has named you enemy, but I was kind of hoping it would be like that. There are many things I would like to learn." Edan doesn't know how well Tomat reads people, but he suspects he's about to find out; he deliberately relaxes his own body language, or tries to. "There are things you will not know. There are things you do. There are things you might suspect. I would learn all of them. The Order has attracted our attention, lately, and I will share the circumstances with you, but I think it best if we started at the beginning. How did the Order start? What are its connections to the Paresh, who once dwelt in Amber?"
Tomat has to think about the answers to those questions for a moment before answering. "The Order dates to the ancient of days. Legend has it that the Order was originally sponsored by Oberon of Amber, but I don't know whether that's true, or whether that was an ancestral order of monks of whom Klybes, the founder of our Order, was once a member. The Order is tied to many religious foundations across shadow. I don't know the Paresh in particular, but it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn the Order had ties to them, or even received reports from them. The Order has wanted eyes and ears in Amber ever since Oberon banned the religious from the city."
Signy silently lets out a breath that she didn't realize that she had been holding.
"If Oberon sponsored the Order originally, what is their take on why they ended up getting caught up in the ban?"
Edan smiles at Signy. "It is almost exactly what I was thinking. An organization, it is not just created from air. It has a dogma. A belief. A goal. A...purpose. What was its purpose, at the beginning? If the man who sponsored them banned them, how did that purpose change?"
"With all due respect, my life is not so long that I could answer that question well, sir." Tomat looks at Edan curiously. "I would think the princes of Amber would know better why their father banned the religious orders, but that was many centuries ago. I do know that members of the royal family were welcome in our company of old. Legend has it that Prince Osric's wife, Princess Pastoral, was among them, and she died long before the banning.
"If I had to guess based on what I do know, the old Orders all have played the Game of Thrones, as the princes were wont to do. Both of you know the rules of that game as well as anyone: you win or you die."
Edan looks like he was about to ask about something else, but now he pinches the bridge of his nose as if he's getting a headache. "Osric was Reid's father," he says for Signy's benefit, "and I am willing to wager Pastoral was his mother. Tomat, the Order has our cousin Reid's body. Was he a member?"
Signy nods slowly at Edan's question, before giving Tomat an encouraging look. "And was there anyone else in the Family that they had ties to?"
Tomat looks back and forth between Signy and Edan, frowning as he picks through the pieces of his memory, rumors and legends.
"I know some of the Princes were in the martial orders. Legend has it that one of the sons of Oberon attempted to become a religious and was removed from the succession for his trouble. That might have been a part of the banning if it's true." He pauses to pick back through what he's been asked. "I don't know Reid, nor do I know a brother by that name. Sometimes people change their names when they join, though. If there's an image, I might recognize him, but--" and his voice is troubled here "--I didn't know everyone. There were many brothers who didn't come to the Chapter House."
Edan clears his throat. "Well, that's one small thing we may can settle. I know what Reid looks like, at least." With a cheese knife and a hunk of cheese, he rapidly whittles a likeness.
Tomat watches Edan work at the cheese sculpture until a likeness is completed. "As best I can say from this, I don't know or recognize him."
Edan nods his acceptance. "Very good. Let me switch, then, to the question of communication. I am under the impression that the Klybesian Order is spread out across shadow, yes? A Chapter here. An army there. A body here. How are they communicating? We are aware that the Order has taken possession of Trumps. I was not aware that such things could be used outside of Family."
"Most of the Order's communication is sorcerous, or messages delivered by the brethren in person, either along the Shadow paths or through place Cards," Tomat explains. "Only the most senior brethren I've ever seen have the Cards--Trumps as you call them--and not many of those. The cards they have are always of places, and not of the Order's sanctuaries. Just places close by. Anyone can use such cards, though I'm told that it's easier for those who have even the slightest touch of Amber blood, no matter how thin it runs."
Signy's eyes narrow slightly, though her voice remains mild. "Were there many who had Amber blood in the Order, do you know?"
Edan nods his agreement. "And these cards- if you were fortunate enough to see one used by someone in the Order, I'd be interested in knowing what the backs of the cards looked like."
"I've seen a couple of them, over time, in the hands of the seniors like Father Sebastian. They weren't consistent. The backs, that is." Tomat looks at Edan, then at Signy, then back to Edan. "They probably were gathered over time. As in, centuries of time."
He turns his full attention back to Signy. "Most of us have some distant Amber blood. It runs thin in most of the brethren, but if you want to ascend to any kind of higher rank, you must have enough to perform sorcery."
Edan nods again, and switches gears. "Do you know of a Klybesian monk known as the Turcopolier?"
"I'm not acquainted with the brother who holds that office, but I know what he does. He's the seniormost of the brothers who deals with the branches militant. Now they're mostly mercenaries," Tomat explains, "but there was a time centuries ago when we had martial priests among the Klybesians and we were closely associated with knightly orders.”
He’s still mostly looking at Signy.
Edan leans forward. "Now, that's interesting. These militant branches, they would still take direction from the Order, yes? This Turcopolier has Trumps that I need returned. I don't think a polite request will be sufficient incentive."
Signy returns his gaze calmly.
"And what was the relationship between the Turcopolier and the militant arm and my father?"
Tomat is still looking at Signy, so it's her question he answers first. "He did business with your father on behalf of the Order. I don't know all of the terms of the bargain, only that I was sent to train you in Sorcery and anything else you might need to know as part of it." Then he turns his attention back to Edan.
"The militant branches have, as I said, mostly failed, but there are still warriors, mercenaries if nothing else, who follow the Turcopolier and act on the Order's behalf. Sometimes a condotta captain will come to the Order with a request and bind himself for a time as part of his own bargain. In other cases, the Turcopolier hires them outright for a price from the treasury. True Knights militant are rare, though many of the brothers have a little sword or staff training, or a little martial magic. It's too useful not to have some of one or both."
Edan nods his understanding. "They are the place I must go, then. One more question: if this man, this Turcopolier, could be said to have a permanent place of residence, where would I find it?"
Tomat closes his eyes briefly. "The office attends the Father Superior, but our--" he pauses, and then emphasizes 'their'. "...their leaders may never see each other until it's time to elect a replacement for a dead officer.
"If you wish to find him, he is where the Order is fighting." Tomat glances at Edan. "You might do well to consult the Bronze Legion."
Signy frowns slightly. "What is the relationship like between the Order and Chaos?"
Edan smiles. He looks a lot like Bleys when he does so. "I can answer part of that, since I have already been to see the Bronze Legions," he says. "They say the Order wishes to recruit them for their strength and their abilities. The relationship might be somewhat strained, however, since they claim the Order raided a group of them to obtain the deck of Trumps I was looking for. Sent them back to the Mountain, they said. It is a... somewhat... dismal place."
"The Turcopolier conducts 'independent diplomacy'--" a phrase that Tomat doesn't air- or water-quote, but the way he says it suggests something of the same meaning "--so I can't be entirely surprised. A deck of Trumps is a valuable prize. It's exactly the kind of thing all parties--the Bronze Legion, the Order, anyone with cross-Shadow interests--would try to claim by force.
"Not that I'm asking for myself or the Order, but what price do you think such a treasure would fetch? Even if the Order meant to trade it away to a rebel Prince, or someone like your father, Signy, you can both understand the value of the deck."
Edan's smile starts to fade. "More than they anticipated, I am afraid," he says. "because I have been tasked with getting it back. The question then becomes, 'what would they take for it?' or in extremis, 'how much trouble will we be avoiding by returning said item?' I do not think the Order would have wanted to draw the Family's attention this way."
Signy gives a thoughtful frown.
"What would the Order have, though, that would get such a prize as a Deck? Would they be in a position to threaten to take such a thing?"
Tomat considers that, and frowns at what he comes up with. "Depends on who had it. I wouldn't put it past them if they thought they could get away with it. As for what they have--they collect things and knowledge, and have been collecting them for centuries from across Shadow. They're owed a lot of favors. Sometimes they exchange those.
"I helped them make bargains, but only for knowledge. Nothing so rich as a deck. The Order likes to say they bargain fairly, but they come in with an advantage. Anyone who seeks them out has already demonstrated that they'll go to a great deal of effort to obtain what they desire from the Order."
"They had to know we would come after a deck of Trumps," Edan says. "If it's that rich a prize to them, if they're that desperate to keep it, I don't see this ending well." He sits up. "Then again, there are still questions to be answered about cousin Reid."
Signy pauses, considering both Tomat's reply and Edan's.
"Surely The Order had to know given who they were...interacting with, that there were good odds that they'd get on someone's bad side. What were their plans for when that happened?"
"Wait until Amber's fit of temper blows over?" Tomat shrugs. "Losing one chapter house to a prince's fit of pique isn't that terrible of a blow to the Order at large. If the King wants that deck, he can be brought to the negotiating table for something the Order wants."
"That's a bold plan," Edan says, "but risky. You've described the best case scenario for the Order. Let me describe another one. The King decides the insult is too much to bear. One or more of us are sent to systematically dismantle and destroy the Klybesian Order until it is decided the price of a deck of Trumps is too high." His head tilts. "That is, under the best case scenario for Family. But we have many enemies who have made their appearance, neh? Why waste our strength on the Klybesians when there are so many others ready to take advantage of our distraction? The Order would know this. It might even have been planned that way." He leans forward, and his alien eyes lock with Tomat's. "Especially if the Order had made alliance with one or more of Amber's old enemies."
Tomat is silent for some long moments, in a way that Signy associates with an internal struggle to find the right words to answer one of her own difficult questions. He does not look away from Edan, though, he shifts uncomfortably in his seat. "If I understand Amber's history aright, and forgive me if I am wrong, or impertinent, but I speak of things as the Order sees them--the worst enemies Amber has are its own Princes, are they not? I speak not merely of the bitter politics of the court here, though the legends say that would be enough to derail or distract from the sort of effort it would take to get rid of the Order. But also, how many times has a Prince of Amber rebelled outright against the Crown? How many are in exile, or otherwise missing, now? Can you be sure all of them are truly loyal to Amber, and couldn't be swayed by what the Order could offer?"
Signy nods soberly.
"Did the Order have other arrangements with members of our Family, like the one you had with my father?"
Edan nods in agreement with Signy's question.
Tomat shakes his head in the negative. "Not to my knowledge--but given that I was deeply involved in the arrangement with your father, I doubt I would have been told more. I can't imagine that none of your aunts or uncles or cousins had come to the Order before Marius did, though. Especially if they had something that they wanted badly."
Edan nods his understanding of the response, but he doesn't look happy. Rather the opposite, as he internally follows several lines of reasoning to their logical conclusions. "I thank you for your candor," he finally says. "Now you know that the Order has possession of a deck of Trumps, and may or may not still have possession of cousin Reid's body. We're going to be wanting them back, and there will be those of us who will want the Order to answer for it. You already have heard or seen what the Family is capable of, when roused. Knowing this, do you have anything you would like to share, some form of advice, perhaps, along those lines?"
Tomat thinks about this, and looks to Signy for a long time before returning his gaze to Edan. "Consider these things, which I offer as advice, not as threats: the Order is old and deeply rooted in Shadow. It has many chapters, and exterminating several of them will do nothing to destroy the Order itself. Some of the Brothers are old and powerful in their own right, and the Order has allies and debtors that I know I can't begin to list. Not to mention the resources that they've hoarded across the centuries. I pray you, do not underestimate them."
"The wise man does not underestimate his opponent," Edan agrees. "Such a simple thing, but so often forgotten. I thank you, Tomat, and I will bring your words to the King. I thank you, Cousin, for permitting this interview."
Signy gives Tomat and Edan a thoughtful look. "What or who is at the top of the Order?"
Tomat doesn't bother to look at Edan. "I know there is--was--a bishop above my abbott, and there have been archbishops above that, but I don't know who they are, nor how to find them."
Edan simply watches to see if Signy has a followup for that. His expression is politely quizzical, as if thinking the Order sounds more like a collection of spy cells than a quasi-religious bureaucracy.
Signy pauses for a minute, considering what he's said.
"There were never any visits from the higher-ups to check on the Order? All organizations have politics. There were no brothers that would discuss the policies or...foibles of the higher-ups, or who the next bishop or abbot would be?"
Tomat shook his head. "The only time I ever saw the bishop, and that briefly, was when I was sent to your father. Sometimes we thought he must have come, because the abbott was not at dinner. I know there were other abbotts because I saw the abbott's volumes of letters from them and was told what they were, and of the possibility that I would be sent to another House of the Order when I completed my duties on the Plain.
"Now as for speculation about the next abbott, that was constant, but only among ourselves. The abbott had been in charge for many years, though he didn't seem to age as quickly as some of the other Brothers did. And some of the more--accomplished?--Brothers seemed as if they might be likely candidates to take his place if he were elevated."
Edan bows his head; when he lifts it again, he is using the Third Eye, something he wasn't willing to do before. He's mostly checking to see if Tomat has some form of geas upon him to prevent talking. He also will be looking to see if Tomat already has his own Third Eye open.
"The Order sounds less and less like a sacred organization and more and more like a spy group," he says. "No central dogma? No one knows who's in charge? The Chapters are far removed and half-hidden in Shadow? The problem with this cell structure is that they're not very effective unless someone has good communication with the boss. Or bosses. Otherwise, they're all off doing their own thing and working against one another."
He leans forward. "Perhaps I'm asking the wrong questions. Let's start simply. What was the name of your local Abbott? Where in Shadow is your Chapter located? A detailed description of the place and the environs would be sufficient."
Signy lets Edan speak, though she doesn't seem happy with what she's gotten in reply from Tomat.
"Did anyone in the Order remember Abbots other than the one you had? Was he promoted from the Order, or did he just arrive one day?"
Tomat is, Edan is certain, a sorceror of some power in his own right. He has some minor enchantments on his person, but they're all protective or of some miscellaneous use (for instance, one of his carrying pouches is larger on the inside). He does not appear to have any imposed sorcery or enchantment on his person. Nor does he appear to be using his own Third Eye at the moment.
He considers this round of questions. "Our purpose, our dogma if you will, is that we must gather knowledge. Because the order of the universe must be known, to perfect ourselves and make ourselves as the Unicorn would have us be. The Order itself must bargain for knowledge because some of it is deliberately hidden and obscured, not least by the scions of Amber. To the extent that they keep the secrets of the universe to themselves, they are inherently enemies of the Order. Do you see?" He pauses there for an answer before going on to the other matters Edan and Signy have questioned him about.
Edan nods. "I understand. In many ways, the Order are like marids."
Signy's eyes blink twice, before narrowing slightly in thought.
"Does the Order believe in Fate?" She asks him this quietly, but still stresses the word, makes it more of a real thing than an abstract concept.
"The Order believes in the Unicorn's power," Tomat says, looking at Signy. "But it also believes that there are those who oppose it. There's no guarantee that the Unicorn's way will prevail. It's why, or at least one reason why, the Order struggles as it does." He doesn't ask if that's what she means, but his voice is a little uncertain.
It takes him a moment to pull his eyes away from Signy and turn his attention back to Edan. "Why do you say the Order is like the marids?" It's a simple question; Tomat doesn't seem insulted by the comparison, nor unclear on what marids are.
"The marids I know are information brokers," Edan says. "They will go to great lengths, sometimes offering themselves into long service, in order to procure knowledge. Of all the djann, they are the most patient, and the most open to barter. The djinn are too capricious, the dao too secretive, and the afriti," he smiles a little at this, "too full of pride."
"The Order has dealt with the marids," Tomat says, nodding his agreement with Edan's assessment. "I can see the likeness when you put it that way."
Signy maintains a thoughtful look at Tomat's last couple of answers.
"If the Order is concerned about perfecting ourselves according to the Unicorn's wishes, how do they view the Unicorn's children and grandchildren?"
Tomat doesn't hesitate on this answer. "There are things you and yours know--or that the Order thinks you know--that you're withholding from the rest of the universe. The Order wants to know what they are. Once, sorcery was known only to the princes of Amber, but the Order learned it from your family in ages long past. The Order means to do the same with the rest of your secrets."
Edan sits back. "The Order deals in information, neh? If someone wants something the Order has, they must go to the Order and offer something in return. Has the Order not tried this tack with Family?"
Signy takes a deep breath.
"Take my Father -- was I the price for the Order, or the prize?"
Tomat shakes his head, rejecting the implications of Signy's question. "My service as your tutor in sorcery was the price he claimed for some service your father did for the Order, or something he created for them. I don't know what the other part of the exchange was. Nobody ever told me. But I was the one sent in exchange. Never you."
Edan sits and listens and politely waits.
Signy shakes her head. "It seems like the opportunity to get in close to one of the Family, especially one that was young, and teach them would not be something that the Order would have that much of a problem with. I don't see my father considering that to be a good price for one of his favors."
She leaves unsaid the thought that the Order would not have just sent someone out to such a role without any supervision or...other orders.
Tomat shakes his head again. "The price of tutoring in true sorcery is not cheap. Apart from the other work a sorceror could do for the Order over the time that it takes to train a young woman to learn the skills and disciplines. There aren't so many of us out there, save in the royal family of Amber, who can teach it. And your father was either unwilling or unable to go back to them.
"The Order wouldn't have been sorry to use me against you, one way or another, in due time." Tomat looks Signy straight in the eye. "But I was given no order with respect to you other than to teach, to learn about you, and to earn your trust. That I was spied upon to the extent the Order could manage is something of a given. But I obeyed the charge I was given, and did no more. I didn't understand until afterwards how they might use you, not until I saw how they meant to use Marius, and then when I had the chance, I fled from the Order."
"How they were going to use him when he came to the Order with Dierdre's ring?" She doesn't disguise the surprise in her voice. "What were their plans?"
"And how did they manage to spy on you in a place where a Sorcerous method could so easily be circumvented?" Edan asks.
"I don't know. I don't know the answer to either of those questions." Tomat stretches his hand across his face for a moment in a long gesture that ends with his fingers and thumb pinching the bridge of his nose. "But your father is a smith and a maker of items of power." That term seemed almost to merit a spoken capitalization. "Even apart from commissions of their own, there are many ways they could use him, and the knowledge he must have, to their benefit.
"As for spying--I assume there are secrets I was not privy to. One of them would be how to spy on people like me. Sorcery is one of the Order's skills, but not the only one."
"I am pretty much out of questions," Edan says, "but one thing caught my attention. The Order believes in, well, Order. And the Unicorn's power, as you said. Did that come directly from the Unicorn, some time in the past? Or, perhaps, translated from some individual, some prophet, who claimed to speak the Unicorn's will?"
Signy's eyes harden slightly at Tomat's immediate contradiction of what he had just said, but holds for his answer to Edan.
"The original texts were taken from the Church of the Unicorn. The one in Amber that was suppressed. The inner secrets of the Church live on in the Order, expanded." Tomat is still watching Signy, and his tone grows uncertain.
Edan was expecting some weird vibe between Tomat and Signy here, considering what he heard yesterday, but Tomat sounds nervous at times Edan doesn't expect. He looks back and forth between the two, trying to figure it out.
Signy's voice hardens slightly, and Weyland starts to creep into her voice ever so slightly.
"So you had no choice but to flee the Order because of how they were going to use Marius, but you don't actually know how they were going to use him?"
She locks Tomats eyes with her own and crosses her arms, waiting on his reply.
Stung, Tomat leans forward, not dropping his gaze from Signy's. "I didn't need to know exactly what they were going to do with him to know it was going to be terrible. They didn't mean to recruit him. They meant to use him, and he didn't bring much other than himself to offer. If he'd brought an army, or a blade of power, or some special skill or power like your father's, it might have been different. They might have been afraid of him. But he came as a suppliant, alone, and he’s not one of the princes of legend. You've traveled with him. You know what I mean."
"So the Order made Marius a sacrifice for Huon's benefit. Or gave him to Gateway to do the same. You can be damned sure Marius will have an army now. And he won't be looking to trade the Order information with it. Are you aware of what was done to him?" It is decidedly warmer around Edan now.
Signy leans towards Edan slightly but continues to hold Tomat's gaze. "It sounds like the Order is nothing so much as a threat in the Shadows, and our choices are to either hunt them down like rabid dogs, or always have to worry that they'll be around every corner looking to pick us off one by one."
She shifts her attention back to Tomat. "You may not have known exactly, but it sounds like you may have a bit of an idea as to what they may have been capable of." Her voice is quiet, but Weyland is still lurking in her tone.
"I don't know what you want me to say." Tomat still hasn't dropped his gaze. "I know I don't know all the secrets of the Order, any more than you know all the secrets of Amber. Do you have to know everything your elders can do to know when they mean to do something terrible? You know the legends of your father--how true are they? Would you trust him not to abuse someone who had something he wanted very much? If not, why do you tax me for doing the same?"
Signy sighs slowly and looks away for a moment, thinking, before turning back to Tomat. "I may not know what he is going to do, but I can make some guesses, at least as to what he is looking to get."
She sighs again.
"What was the Order afraid of?"
To Edan, it seems that this conversation is equally exhausting for Tomat.
Tomat's reply, when it comes, is halting; he's pondering his words carefully. "As the Order? Very little in the short term. In the longer term, that the house of Amber would do as you've suggested and hunt them down, before they obtain the mystical knowledge that will perfect them. As individuals--the Order breaks all ties of family, precisely so no one can be influenced by threats. But every man, every sorcerer, has desires and dreams, and equally fears that can be exploited. No man wants to die. No man wants to see his dreams destroyed. No man wants to have his chance at perfection destroyed."
"Some of the Family believed enough in it to join, if Pastoral is among them," Edan says. He looks over to Signy to see if she has anything to add about Weyland's plans.
Nestled deeply within a ring of coral walls, the Lower Market seethes with activity - as vibrant and colorful as any living reef.
Boisterous hawkers offer up the sea's rich bounty; sponges, squid, crustaceans, and fish of every shape and size. Makeshift kitchens allow patrons the benefit of a quick meal, each serving as a tiny community of people. Daring fish dart around these diners, ever-hopeful for a spare morsel. Nothing goes to waste here.
Beyond the food stalls, dozens of shops of every ilk and size crowd together - their owners vying for business. Clothiers, jewelers, pharmacists, repairers, toy makers, wholesalers, and more. Like deep-sea predators, they use their wiles and glamour to lure in the unwary, siren voices leaving people confused and lighter in the purse. The cramped space drives some to attacking each other - exchanging harsh words that question parentage and intelligence. Patrons simply smile and enjoy the posturing show, rewarding those with the inventive vocabulary.
And so, as Edan drifts through this tide of humanity, it's odd that a singular voice rings out over them all. A siren call, otherworldly and delicate, woven with exotic words and harmonies.
When he rounds a corner, he discovers a small crowd circling a dark-haired woman and a young, male street musician. Although dress in Rebman garb - a sheer dress of sea-mist green - Edan immediately realizes she is from the Above. Smooth olive skin, and hair as dark as volcanic ash. As she sways in time to the music, the water around her lithe body shimmers almost imperceptibly, not unlike a hydrothermal plume. There's also something... familiar about her, a ghost-impression that nags at the brain.
When her song ends, the crowd applauds, offering up money for the performance. She politely waves it off; instead, making certain all the monies go to the young man. They briefly exchange pleasantries before she disengages and steps back into the crowd.
It's then her forest-shadow eyes find Edan.
A curious smile curls Silhouette's lips, recognizing another Outsider.
It is an easy task; for the man she sees is as out of place here as the burning sun. At first glance, he could be a twin to Bleys or perhaps Brennan; but his skin is a cinnamon brown, and he is as thin as if the sun had burned all the water out of his body. His eyes are a bright, molten gold. Even in the scaled shorts that are so commonly worn by Rebman men he is out of place; but he carries himself with the hauteur of a prince. Those curious passers-by drawn by the sensation of this alien man look their fill and then quickly move on, proving that he is certainly not the first remarkable foreigner in their memory.
Edan heads directly to Silhouette, ignoring the stares from others. He has the slightly confused expression on his face that one would associate with trying to remember something.
"Forgive me. You...look familiar. I feel as if I have seen you in another place, but I do not recall the meeting. Who are you?"
With all the allure and wickedness of an angler fish, Silhouette smiles widely. "I am whomever you desire me to be, my lord." She dips her head, chuckling. "But until you decide who that may be, you may call me Silhouette."
Edan's jaw drops; he distantly hears it click shut. "Then I have seen you another place. It was in Paris, at Lucas's funeral. I am Edan ibn Bleys ibn Oberon al-Kehribar al-Salaam al-Djinn-al-Ghanii. As I recall, you were Huon's envoy, and claimed to be Florimel's daughter, Eidothea."
Silhouette nods, placing her hand over her heart. "Sabaahal-khayr, Edan ebn khali. Eidothea Kabeiro ap Cadmilus is a name I've not used for many years." She cocks her head, enjoying his reaction. "Some day you may ask why."
She offers him her heavy bag to carry. Even in this aquatic medium, the fragrant nature of its contents cannot be understated. Musky, earthy, almost sweet - with a hint of mossy decay.
"Walk with me, and let us cleanse the Way between us," she says. A sly smile. "Unless you fear me to be a shedim in disguise, of course."
Edan nods his acceptance of the burden. "I do not know this word shedim, but I suspect I've been called one more often than you have. I should mention, if this is some badly-planned effort to kidnap me for Huon's benefit against my father, you will find me suitably prepared." Edan looks like he's only carrying a boot knife, but his words sound earnest.
Silhouette chuckles softly, lightly taking his arm. Her skin radiates warmth like sun-drenched brass. "How disappointing. Now whatever shall I do with the bindings I brought for just that purpose?"
She leads him away from the crowds - although that's relative when one considers the market's bustling population. "I am no longer in Prince Huon's employ. Whatever plots he has for your father remain his and his alone. So, rest easy in that regard." A slight smile, "And, as such, if you have intentions against him, I am not your avenue. We did not part well."
"I have no such designs. Either against him, or you. Whatever issues Huon and Bleys have, I am happy not to be in the middle of them." He gives Silhouette a sideways look. "So, then, you are a free agent? I had not heard of any vows made to Xanadu, but I have been away for a time. Perhaps you have pledged your loyalties to Rebma."
Silhouette lightly dips her head, "In a manner of speaking. I've offered my proper allegiances to our Kings and Queens, as the Grand Design dictates. And, yes, my loyalties are stronger to Queen Celina - as she allowed me to claim my birthright." A pause, weighing her words. "But, in truth, I still serve Creation above all else."
She cocks her head, "And you, Edan. Whom do you serve?"
"My allegiances are to Random, King of Xanadu and Amber, and Bleys, my father. As is proper. I am de facto Sultan of the Seven Tribes of the Dar-es Salaam, so my loyalty is still to them. As it is to all our family who hold the same allegiances that I do. In other words, if you have made vows to Random, and you call upon me for help, I will do all I can." A pause. "Not terribly long ago, cousin Lilly and I came across Ambrose, who was leading his people ahead of a pursuing Chantico and her army. Chantico is his sister, by Brand. Lilly and I felt a duty to lend our aid to Ambrose- he had made these vows to Random and Family, and she had not."
"She's Brand's daughter, then?" Silhouette says softly, almost to herself. "That may explain..." He voice drifts off, lost to the currents.
A slight nod, her hand squeezing his arm. "So, is that what brings you to Rebma then, Ebn Khali? Or do you have other matters to attend to here?"
"I came here to have words with cousin Signy, among others. And explore a little of Rebma, as I have not been here before." He turns his head towards Silhouette. "I was going to ask you about this Grand Design you had mentioned. But I would rather hear your thoughts on this Chantico."
"Ah, Signy, yes. We shared a forge once, and I was quite taken with her," Silhouette says with genuine respect. "Quite the craftswoman."
She guides them away from the crowds, down an alley flanked by walls of azure coral. From asymmetrical windows, Rebmans casually glance down at them like lazy eels inspecting their domain.
Her voices drops slightly, "As for Chantico, I know very little. She is likely involved with the Lady Dara - a Chaosian shapeshifter of some repute. Both may be supporting the former queen, Moire. Also, if she is Brand's Get, then I can only surmise she has traversed the Pattern at some point. Which may explain how her mother remains out of reach. If she possessed an army, it raises several considerations. Not the least of which, what her intentions are toward Rebma and her sister?"
"If you're talking about Chantico, she styles herself as a fire goddess. I doubt she'd be interested in...excuse me, who are you talking about? Who is her mother? I'm sorry, you'll have to be more specific with names."
Silhouette thinks on this, "Her mother may be Dara. Or, at least, that's what I can gather from discussions with our cousins. And she also has apparent ties to Moire, the former Queen of Rebma."
A distant look comes over her face, as if she is in another time and place. Her voice is mechanical, metallic as blood on the tongue. "'Chantico is a goddess of flame. She is my father's daughter in all his deeds, and has attacked me in the past in the hopes of mastering his legacy and destiny in Uxmal. Apparently she's moving on to a larger stage.'"
The tenor of her voice resumes its sensual undercurrents; an apologetic smile on her lips. "Cousin Ambrose's words, not mine," she explains.
Edan's mouth opens, then closes; he stops dead in the street for a moment, then continues. "Chantico and Dara. Clarissa hinted at the possibility. That Dara might 'eat' Chantico if she were no more use. Like Chaosi are wont to do with their affines, or progeny. I thought of Chantico as merely a tool; I did not have the wits to see the rest." He walks a few steps more and adds, "I do not think Chantico had walked a Pattern when I met her, but she may have since. I was not ready to take that risk at the time. It was one of the reasons why I did not try to kill her."
Silhouette sighs, "Pity. We may suffer for your mercy. But opportunities missed cannot be mourned. Only reacquired."
A faint smile, "Apparently, it was suggested that I am Dara and ate Flora's daughter." She cocks her head, "Can you Enlighten me further on your experience with Chantico?"
Edan shrugs. "It came down to a one-on-one fight between Lilly and Chantico. Lilly didn't know, I didn't know at the time, that Chantico had cheated; she wasn't completely there all along. Only part of her. So I drew her and her cronies fully into the fight, and eventually leveled the battlefield with an explosion.
"It has been mentioned, and more than once, that I should not have used fire. Chantico is a fire goddess, and I should have known she would survive. I counted on that knowledge; what I did was deliberate." Edan looks sideways at Silhouette. "I meant for her to survive. I do not know you, Silhouette. Florimel declared before Family that you are not her daughter, and she has not recanted that claim. But if she is wrong, if you are Family, then mark this well; killing each other is not tolerated. Even beyond Random's moratorium, it is not done. We may embarrass each other, injure one another, fight one another, even lock another up and burn out their eyeballs with hot pokers. But if you kill, the rest of the Family will line up against you, for all of eternity. Brand's death was something of the exception that proves the rule, but no one will ever look at or interact with Caine the same way again. He crossed the line that should not be crossed, even doing what had to be done.
"I gave Chantico a gift. I treated her like Family, because I knew she was Brand's daughter. I embarrassed her in front of her kin and her followers, hurt her with her own specialty. I stopped her plans. She will think twice before engaging me or Lilly again. But I did not kill her. If you are as you claim...that is our way."
Silhouette's expression shifts throughout Edan's description, from respect to disapproval and back again. In the end, she nods in appreciation. "Killing for me has always been a matter of causality," she admits. "So, it will take me time to adjust to the Family Way. But adjust I shall. Even if our adversaries - Family or no - do not adhere to the same conventions."
They turn another corner, entering a wide marketplace, one of refined tastes and people She appears to be heading them toward a shop - its windows are dark, no signs or symbols to reveal its purpose beyond a green door.
"You are a creature of Fire, then?" she says, a low, yearning tone echoing behind her words.
"Among other things. I am part afrit." He points to one of his eyes. "I speak the language of fire. And you? What are you a creature of?"
Silhouette pauses, considering her companion for a moment. "I am unsure," she admits. "And hesitant to guess."
As they approach the green door, she breathes out, as if under a great weight. "I once believe I was a daughter of Draig-Talamh. The Earth Dragon. But I am told such things are creatures of Chaos. Even mentioning such an association places me at risk. Beside, Chaos is... abhorrent to me." She looks into his eyes, "All I know is I died and was reborn in flames. And now, they hold no threat to me.
"Perhaps, I am a phoenix given flesh. But such an idea is better suited for legends, not cold truths."
"We are the cold truths from which the legends grow," Edan says automatically. "And if you know of the Pattern, then you probably know how to quash whatever rumors you hear circulating about you. For what it is worth, I didn't start any of them." He tilts his head. "What is this place?"
Silhouette gives a quiet laugh at his admission, but from a creature of steel and brass the sound is resounding, musical. "Well, I am certain many will pluck your thoughts after this meeting."
She opens the green door to a small airlock - another door offering egress from water to air, once room drains.
"This is my home. And soon my business," Silhouette says, stepping inside. "You shall be the first visitor. I would enjoy playing hostess, if you'd oblige me."
"Very well." Edan steps in with her. "I am interested in hearing of this dragon you mentioned, and of your philosophy."
After a thankful smile, she leads him inside the building...
Sometime later, they are on the second floor - a dry, desert-warm environment. Austere, the single-room loft appears to be more workshop than home. The dining area is little more than a table surrounded by four chairs, crisp settings placed before each. Currently, the contents of Silhouette's packages sit to one side, brightly colored bottles of ambergris.
The main area is dominated by several tables and bookshelves, as well as a workbench. While most of the tables are covered with scraps of fabric and sewing materials, the workbench hosts a canine-shaped construction of brass and wires and glass. Its blunt muzzle is lined with razored teeth, which gleam in the phosphorescent lights. Though lacking eyes, the empty sockets still seem alive - as if something is staring out from the metallic darkness.
A small area of two spongy chairs and a coffee table serve as the 'living' space. A Shatranj set sits on the table, its beautifully glazed pieces standing in perfect formation.
Beyond this, Edan sees the sleeping area, a space consisting of little more than a plush bed, a chifforobe, and nightstand. A Muk Yan Jong sparring dummy and mat floor finish off the area.
Silhouette is in the kitchen area, cleaning a batch of prawns for her royyala iguru curry. "I have some white wine from Paris, if you'd like to open it," she calls to him. "I have glasses as well. Perhaps it is unjust to Rebman culture, but one cannot appreciate enjoy fine wine out of a bulb's sphincter."
"I will try," Edan says. "Glass bottles of wine are not common where I come from. But I have seen the procedure done multiple times when I was in Paris." Mostly, Edan is hovering over the construct on the table. "Did you build this thing? Is it art?"
Silhouette glances over and smiles knowingly. "It's one of my Mechanika. A Hunter-Killer, to be exact. Do be careful of the teeth. There may be a trace of poison on them."
She drops the prawns into a marinade of garlic, turmeric, and sea salt. "I've been adapting its heart to burn materials more conducive to Rebma paradigms. Ambergris, in this case. Enlightenment always calls."
She cleans off her hands, and then fetches the vegetables. "Speaking of which... you had questions for me. Which shall I answer first?"
Edan shrugs. "That's easy. What is this Grand Design you speak of?"
Silhouette begins chopping the onions and tomatoes, "To explain the true precepts of the Grand Design would take far longer than we have. Briefly, it is the sacred duty of obtaining Perfection. The World is a Machine. And any Machine is only as great as the sum of its parts, and thus is invariably flawed. To obtain Perfection, these parts must be understood and tested. This may only be accomplished through Action. And Action is inspired by Purpose."
She sighs, "Regrettably, my recent Patternwalk has given me somewhat of a crisis of Faith. But Enlightenment comes when we least expect it."
"I am not unfamiliar with this crisis of Faith," Edan says. "My entire life, I was brought up to believe in the Merciful One. And then I discovered that he was but Shadow." He turns away from the construct. "But where does this dragon of yours fit in?"
Silhouette beckons him over, so she doesn't have to continue straining her neck while she cooks. As he approaches, she gestures to the bottle of wine.
"When I was a slave-child, I lost nearly all hope," she admits, unable to meet his gaze. "The death of my father and sisters, coupled with exhaustion and the beatings led me to despair. But when I could escape the barracks, I went to the foundry and watched the iron dragons in their final stages of construction. They were magnificent creatures of cold-iron and flame. Even incomplete, I sensed them stirring like children about to be born. Impossible, I know, for all their grandeur they were little more than automata of cogs and pneumatics. Yet, the more I watched them, the more I saw evidence of life. Idiosyncrasies of movement and function that hinted at individual personalities, dare I say... souls. Behind those glass eyes something looking back at me.
"And then one day, I had to adjust one of their mainsprings. There, deep inside the dragon's heart, I felt its presence all around me. A harmony of gears and wheels and steel that flooded me with its simple majesty. A wondrous impossibility that verged on the divine. That day, I knew that something lay beneath the veil of reality, an underlying Truth begging to be discovered. Being only human, limited to human words and concepts, I named it. Draig Talamh. The earth dragon."
She sets the food into the skillet. "And thus began my study of the Grand Design... and she was my teacher."
"I see." Edan looks down and away. "I tried to find God in mathematics. It sounds ridiculous, neh? But studying the essential formulae that encompass the Pattern and Order, I found room for God to exist. But I was wrong. The universe, as we know it, is held together by a brooding composer and a manic drummer. And beyond that is Chaos." He smiles, thinly. "The idea of a dragon, a creature of Chaos, sounds incongruous with something that sounds intrinsically Ordered."
Silhouette pauses in her work at the mention of mathematics, her eyes lighting up as if Edan has just recited the greatest love sonnet. Then, as with most things of the heart, everything turns to wistfulness - reality intruding like a cold wind.
She stirs the onions and bay leaves, "I know it is not wise to question our Elders, but I struggle with the concept of dragons being creatures of Chaos. They are the Aspects of Nature, which is the truest representation of Order. Then again, the unenlightened generally view Nature as being chaotic. And, I have not witnessed the dragons of which they speak. For me, they are more esoteric constructs defined by geomancy and other arcane studies."
A weighed silence, then she speaks in a hushed tone. "There must be something beyond the world-view of our Family. I cannot believe that Creation is little more than the imaginings of a vain and hollow people, each blinded by aeons of self-righteousness. Where I seek Enlightenment, all I discover is half-truths and veiled threats." She glances over at him shyly, "I fear there is no room for a gnostic in this murder of crows."
"Many of us are searching, one way or another." Edan's head is bowed, but he still manages to look at Silhouette with a sideways glance. "My search has ended. My proofs were incorrect. Overall, I found that all I was doing was limiting myself with rules that did not apply to me. To be one of us, that is to embrace a whole different set of rules." He smiles, slightly. "Perhaps you will be more fortunate with your own search. May you find what you seek in that regard."
"Thank you, Edan," she says, dipping her head. A gentle smile curls her lips. "And what do you hope to find? Enlightenment? Purpose? Although one search has ended, you must begin a new one. Otherwise, you invite Stagnation into your heart."
The smile broadens, "I ask because you remind me of myself in many ways."
"Oh, I have enough to keep me busy for a time," Edan says. "I have tasks Random has asked me to pursue. I have projects of my own, that take some occasional attention. I have to take time out to appreciate some of the gifts that have been given to me. How do I remind you of yourself? I would say that I am far different than almost all of my cousins."
Silhouette begins stirring in the shrimp, "Even though the previous laws of Creation no longer apply to you, I sense the desire to serve something greater than the Family. Order, perhaps? Not the manic precepts our cousins and parents pretend to dominate, but the Truth behind the facade or Reality." She flips the pink shrimp, "Even Gods can answer to higher powers."
"There are members of my Family that would disagree with you," Edan says. "They would say our only limits are within ourselves...or each other. You're looking for an answer to it all, a secret Truth behind the universe as you see it. As I did. I did not find it. Any answers I seek at this point, they will be within myself."
"Or the Patterns," Silhouette offers. "And the Mysteries thereof."
A simple shrug punctuates the last statement before she removing the food from the heat. She gathers two plates, spooning jasmine rice onto them from a rice-cooker in perfect mounds. The royyala iguru is added next, a colorful, fragrant juxtaposition against the white. She carries them to the table, setting them down. "Tell me, how far do our Familial Laws of 'mercy' extend? Only to Blood? Or are our Intimates equally protected?"
Edan joins her at the table, makes a gesture of gratitude for the food, and holds a chair for her. "First off, have you walked a Pattern? I would not do it again. It is like a great storm that blows through your entire universe and could kill you without pity or remorse. I would not take that chance, unless my need were greater than my desire for life."
She sits, smiling at him in thanks. "It was a taxing venture," she says, the mechanical tone of her voice doing the task no justice.
He goes to the wine he opened after Silhouette is seated (OOC: if she does, or we can adjust) and pours. As he brings the glasses back to the table he adds, "As for Intimates, I am not sure what you mean. Many of us have others in our retinue. To interact with them, I was taught to first call upon those who are responsible for them. Let me give you an example. There is a man, named Chi-lin, who once was a vizier in the Land of Peace. He visited much suffering upon the tribes of the Deep Desert, who were under my protection. I heard that he was in Amber, and under other circumstances I would have killed him there; but I also heard Brita was responsible for him. So he remains alive, simply because he is under my cousin's protection. Does that answer your question?"
Silhouette nods, "It answers the core of the question, yes. As such, I will need to reexamine certain permutations. And further confounds me in some regards."
She spears a prawn and pops it in her mouth. After delicately eating it, she continues. "Query. Hypothetical. If you knew a person with Familial protection would cause the Family great harm would you preemptively dispose of said person? Or would you allow said person to cause great harm, and then allow the Familial to deal with them?"
Edan only slows a second on the way back to his own seat. "I suppose," he says slowly, "that would entirely depend on the nature of the great harm, as well as the person under protection and the person protecting them."
Silhouette waits for Edan to sit, "Let us say that someone's continued existence would lead to war, and possibly damaging one of the Patterns. Possibly even the murder of a cousin. But the perpetrator is the paramour of an Elder."
Edan raises an eyebrow at that last. "Ah, so. Your thoughts are going the direction I expected. I hope you have proof."
"Proof?" Silhouette says softly. "We're speaking hypothetically, are we not? I'm simply adding certain perimeters to the questions."
She dips her head, "However, yes, if such a situation existed, I would acquire proof prior to Action."
Edan frowns a little. "So you have...a hunch? Were I in such a situation, I would wait. Only if I had proof, would I go to that Elder. And I would tread carefully."
It's Silhouette's turn to frown, "Thank you. But I assure you, if Action is required, there will be more than enough proof to justify it." She sighs slightly, "All causalities would need to be examined, as well. I will not make the same mistake I did with..."
A trouble line etches her perfect brow. "Huon has not - nor will - give up his vendetta against your father. A million deaths are not enough for our uncle. Only the One will satisfy his bloodlust."
"I won't wish him luck," Edan says. "That is between my father and Huon, and Father is aware of where Huon is and what danger he represents. I am not involved unless someone brings me into it. Or if Huon succeeds, which I am sure he is well aware of the case for vendetta on my part. Until then, it would be an insult to my father to assume he could not take care of himself."
He is casual and pleasant about it, but Edan waits until Silhouette eats and drinks before trying his own food and wine. "This is delicious."
Silhouette smiles brightly, "Thank you. It's rare that I eat, let alone cook. So sharing a meal with good company is a cherished gift."
She eats with polite grace, more interested in Edan's enjoyment of the food than her own. "Do you know what began the vendetta between your father and Huon? I did not realize it was such until too late. Otherwise, I would have refused his patronage. But now that I am associated with this conflict, any Enlightenment you offer is welcome."
Edan shakes his head. "Huon earned royal displeasure to the point that he is not spoken of. I believe my father was given the duty of either watching over Huon, or driving him away. Or both. I do not know the details."
Silhouette raises a brow, "And what does he say of me, I wonder? Considering your initial reaction to me, it cannot be... positive."
Edan looks momentarily confused, and then he says, "I see. The royal displeasure would have been Oberon's displeasure, so I could not ask him. He is dead. But for what it's worth, Huon earned Random's and Celina's displeasure as well. Just not as much of it, apparently. You've spoken to both Random and Celina, neh? What is your opinion of your own standing with them?"
Silhouette sets her fork down, thinking on this. "I believe Queen Celina has grown fond of me. She sees beyond my past associations and activities to the woman I've become. For the moment, we must remain distant in most aspects. I serve her from the shadows. And shall continue to do so, as I believe she is a Potential.
"King Random's feelings are difficult to assess. He has been benevolent, accepting, even protective at times. But I am a comely woman, and he is... Random."
"Perhaps he knew all along that you were Family," Edan says. "Or not. I've not tried to understand him. Each time I've met him, I felt like I was being tested, somehow. The first time, we played drums and I danced." His head tilts a little. "What do you mean by Potential?"
"In the Grand Design, there are Potentials," Silhouette explains. "In simple terms, they are avatars of Change. Their actions resonate through Creation and move it closer to Perfection. They are like living hinge factors, if you will. Turning points in history.
"Celina is one such Potential, and because she is connected to the Pattern, her influence will be wider felt."
Edan looks like he's about to say something, but stops. "If you have walked the Pattern, as you say, then I think you should learn the Maths. Then I think you would see that history has no turning points, only branches that go different directions in the web of probability and Shadow. My father would be able to say it more eloquently. But let's start simply. What would you think is Perfection? And what if someone else's perception of Perfection is different than your own?"
"The underlying principle of Perfection is encouraging and maintaining the Greater Good," Silhouette says. "The Greater Good promotes societal harmony, Enlightenment of the masses, and the unification of the Whole toward the betterment of Creation. It provides Purpose and inspires Order.
"However, one must recognize that Perfection is an unobtainable goal. Creation can always be improved, otherwise society will fall into Stagnation. And the Greater Good does not and cannot provide Perfection for all. Some must suffer for the Greater Good to be maintained. Those who promote Disharmony must be brought to heel, or better yet... utilized as a unifier for the Masses. Society must have an Adversary."
"The need of the many outweighs the need of the few," Edan says without emotion. "And if you're not with us, you're against us. Tell me about Chaos, and why it's so bad."
"Order - like any Machine - cannot function properly when exposed to Chaos," Silhouette says immediately. "I do not speak of randomness, the purview of Nature. That form of chaos is an inherent part of Order, and can be of great benefit.
"I speak of True Chaos. Entropy. That Which Destroys Without Purpose. Unconfined, it can bring dissolution and ruin to all Creation."
She sips her wine, "Have you heard of or encountered Dara? She is a manifestation of what I speak."
"I have not encountered her personally," Edan says, "but I have heard the stories, especially what happened at the Coronation Ball. I have met other entities of Chaos. Dragons. Lords. It has been my experience that this manifestation you speak of stems from the attitude of individuals, not their origin. Are you aware of the history of our Family? And our ancestry?"
"Very little," Silhouette frowns. "Huon offered up only pieces, and they were tainted with his prejudices. The remainder of the Family have not illuminated me as to our past. I know there was a Great War of some kind that destroyed our ancestral home. We've made numerous enemies, including the Moon Riders. And that we are descended from a man called Oberon. But beyond that, nothing."
"Oberon, yes," Edan says. "He was my father's father. Sire to all our elders, including Huon. Many of whom intermarried and bred with those of Chaos." He smiles, just a little. "I am of Chaos, descended from Clarissa. She named me a Lord of Chaos and of Order, and I will accept that title."
Silhouette raises her gaze at this, "You are of Chaos?" A sad smile touches her lips. "Then, I suppose, I should not feel entirely guilty poisoning the prawns. I promise, it will be painless. Almost restful."
She sips her wine, hiding the grin behind her glass.
"And I thought it was the curry," Edan says. "I hope you kept some extra, though. If you are of the Blood, then chances are..." He lets the rest drop. "Did you walk the Pattern here?"
Silhouette smiles, "So, Chaosians possess a sense of humor. Intriguing. I wonder what other traits you possess."
She sets her glass back down, "But, yes, as to your question, I walked the Pattern here. I'm curious about the others. But do not intend to attempt them in the foreseeable future. Which did you traverse?"
"I walked the Pattern at Tir-na Nog'th," Edan says. "I would not want to attempt any of the others. One was enough."
"The Ghost City?" Silhouette says, her tone unconscionably dubious. "Tell me of it. How did you avoid the Riders and their Queen?"
"It was some time ago," Edan says. "The Riders were not in Tir at the time, at least not that I saw. Are they there now?"
Silhouette shrugs slightly, "To that, I am unsure. Apparently, the King has forbidden any travel to the Ghost City, much to my academic disappointment. I wished to see the City for myself; one of the reasons I agreed to be Huon's representative." She smiles gently, "What is it like, if I might ask."
Edan has finished his food, and is sipping on his drink. "Why mention the Riders if you haven't been there? The City of Dreams is...well...it is like the Shadows. Having walked the Pattern, you now have the power to walk to whatever you can dream or imagine. Tir-na Nog'th is like a piece of Shadow in the sky. Whatever is in your head, conscious or subconscious, you could encounter it there."
Silhouette rises to clear the dishes, "I've been told that the Riders intend to return to the City. And this might be a concern. But, as you point out, much of what I am told by the Family is... clouded by opinion."
A wistful smile, "I would very much enjoy to travel there. To encounter my dreams... yes, I find that very appealing."
She returns from putting the dishes down to soak, "Did you find your dreams there?"
Celina waits for Brita in her office while tending to a long list of requests from Families of the City.
When the scratch comes at the door, she calls, "Come in Brita."
The door swings in to reveal B'nath. "Your Majesty, the page has not returned with your Cousin yet. However, the Archivists ask for more time to narrow down the matter of the funeral attendants."
"And the Tritons have your message about the request for battle histories. There was no return response. Shall I ask the Heirophant to the palace?"
"Oh no," Celina shakes her head. "I'll go there if we hear nothing by tomorrow. I actually like getting out of the palace." When B'nath inclines her head in silent permission to withdraw, Celina waves her fingers with a theatrical walking motion and smiles. "Send Brita when she arrives, even if someone else is with her. And we will need some light edibles."
The Queen goes back to her lists once she is alone.
A short while later, there is another scratch at the door and B'nath ushers Brita inside when bid. Brita is carrying a large bag. She greets Celina with a head bow and "Queen-Cousin, I had Thought to give you a Choice of Medium for Your Trump." The bag disgorges several shells, coral chunks, and small pieces of slate. Most of the shells are fairly flat with fluted edges, but there are a couple of long ones with pearlescent insides. Brita picks up a piece of slate and pulls out a dark stick of charcoal. She begins to sketch as she continues, "I Can of course Do a Traditional Paper Trump, but I Thought You Might Want One that was More Durable - Like You." Brita smiles slightly, although she is still focused in her sketching.
Celina comes to look at the many materials in the bag. "How interesting. Yes, why not?" She examines the shells and admires the heft of the rock types. Her hands flow and dance over the offerings, testing each sample and then moving through them all again. Finally she takes up a dark piece of slate and licks it. She smiles. "From common clay, under pressure and ordered heat, given a dark smoothness, layers of rough scarring can make it more beautiful and warm." Celina laughs. "That's me all right." She looks at Brita. "But not as durable as you."
Brita's brief smile is more of a grimace. "I Feel as if I Have gone Through Ragnarok Again. I Feel Adrift and Alone....and afraid." She shakes her head. "And So Very Angry - Ready to Drown Those Responsible in an Ocean of Acid." The charcoal stick snaps in her hand, pieces floating and darkening the water until she waves impatiently at it to disperse the bits.
Celina draws much closer but moves slightly behind Brita where she will not interfere with the artist's arm motions and the sketching. She touches Brita lightly on the neck. Her fingers trace the muscles there, following the tight anger in Brita's body down her back. "We create. We define our lives, or we are defined by our enemies. Anger creates more anger and less definition of what we need to move past the agony."
If Brita does not resist, Celina brings up her other hand and traces tight shoulder muscles on her cousin. "I am often afraid. When asleep, I have nothing to solve, nothing to fix, nothing to keep my hope up. So the nightmares start. Yet living in a nightmare is still living. Still creating. Better than the alternative. Fear can be a blessing. It shows your weaknesses to you. Anger is a subtraction of your own Ordered Will, unless you are Gifted with Clarity within your Anger."
Celina starts to massage Brita's muscles, easing the dammed energy into Brita's blood and frame to redistribute. "You are not alone. Your brave words build the bridge. I walk across it and embrace you."
Brita tenses at the first touch, but does not shrug it off and eventually relaxes for the massage. "Better than the Alternative. Yes. My Anger is Definitely Not Clear." She shakes her head. "I Must Move Forward. Keep to the Pattern and Move Forward - Never Stop. Our Will will Bring the Chaos Created by These Enemies to Order. It Will Be So. We Will Make it So." Brita smiles over a shoulder at Celina with a shark-like grin. She turns back to her sketches and gestures back to a seat. "Come sit so I can Capture Your Image. The Slate is a Good Choice for You, I Agree. It will be Easier to Paint On as Well. I Am Planning on Going With Cousin Ambrose when he Travels to My Mother to Work on His Translation Endeavors." She throws in the last as she continues to sketch.
Celina works Brita's muscles a bit more, occasionally tapping a TaKhi point to make sure the paths are clear. Cousin Brita has an impressive physique. As Celina finishes the brief massage. She marvels at how many of the things Brita has said often run through her own thoughts at night.
And why not? They've both chosen Never Stop over the Alternatives.
Celina moves past Brita to the seat. "Can an artist make a Trump from a Trump, Brita? If this work of yours was stolen---could a Trump artist make another before the original was retaken?" She sits down arranging her limbs as if she was going to have a morning of Court. Those mornings can be long and her pose is one she can hold all day if she has to.
"Unlikely. The Image is Flat and gives one Little Information about the Personality, the Essence of the Person. I Suppose Grandfather Could Tell what the Artist Intended in the Strokes and Decipher the Meaning Behind It, but I Doubt Others could. Knowledge of the Artist may also be Necessary to Interpret the Trump. It is Why I Cannot just Copy Another's Work." Brita has pulled out another, slightly larger slate to sketch on.
Celina swishes that idea around in the water for a bit. "So if I want a Trump of me in the booth at Xanadu and one in Paris and one in Avalon, then I'm asking you to do this favor three times over. That is a lot of work. I'll understand if you have to leave before you can accomplish all that. Ambrose told me that he needs to work on his Translations before the mechanisms break down." Celina watches Brita's hands moving and limning away. "What favor can I return you for this Trump work?"
Brita looks up quickly with a startled expression. "I do Not...," a distracted look crosses her features. "Trump Contact," she says as she sets the slate aside and rises, reaching her freed hand out to Celina. "Who Calls?" Brita asks the aether.
Celina's expression shifts from surprise to a fierce look. She stands and steps to Brita and takes her hand. Her other hand digs into a hidden pocket in her tanga and she readies three bead crystals.
The contact with Ossian feels cold and clear, like a mountain stream in the spring. A whiff of sadness can also be felt.
"Ah, Celina also. " Ossian says "Greetings my cousins.
"Since time seems to be important, I will try to stay brief.
"Brita, there is no way to say this gently. I went through shadow looking for Reid, but I was too late. We do not know who killed him, but we know the Klybesian monks greedily held his body. It is in Xanadu now."
Celina relaxes her defensive stance.
Brita, conversely, tenses back up. "Master Reid's...Cousin Reid is in Xanadu," Brita seems a little relieved. "Cousin Edan had Relayed The First News. He Said Some Were Sent to Seek Retribution. Were You One?"
"Yes. Me, Raven and Jerod." Ossian pauses.
"We recovered the body, but there are still Klybesians around that need a lesson. I will try to investigate more. A certain monk called Chew seems all too interested in collecting tissue samples of Amberites."
Celina's emotions at Ossian's comment about Chew spike through the contact. She's appalled and then very angry. "So you gave a lesson, but feel the lesson is incomplete? Do you have further authority from King Random to investigate? Do you need help?"
"Yes, yes and yes. It would be unwise of me to go there by myself. Not that I am wise."
Brita's emotions feel like a suddenly becalmed sea. "Samples of Amberites." She repeats. "Could the Samples...." She becomes very focused on Ossian, "As a Fellow Artist, Do You Think Live Samples would Retain the Connection to a Trump?"
"I have no idea, but the thought has occurred to me. That would be disgusting, wouldn't it?" For some reason Ossian grins. He then turns somber again. "I think we should ask Merlin. There is the distinct possibility that just making the call would kill the sample."
Celina looks sideways at Brita and then again at Ossian. She wrinkles her nose. "I do not support a universe where Trump is so enamored of Contagion that Trump links to inanimate flesh. Ossian, beware of traps. These monks are experienced with Family retribution. They certainly have a ....contingency for pursuit. You should not follow into shadow alone. If Jerod is still available or working on this, that would be better. Have you heard from Brennan? And who is Raven?"
"Raven is a new cousin. Random-approved, of unknown lineage. A sea-captain I think. I just spoke with my father. He needs you to contact him as soon as possible."
"If You Speak with Cousin Merlin or Grandfather, Ask Why a Trump would Remain Cold for One Deceased. Who Will You Need to Investigate These monks?" Brita asks.
"I'm not picky. I got Jerod last time." Ossian smiles wrily. "But preferrably a sorceror."
"Perhaps Cousin Edan Could Assist or Cousin Ambrose - but he Plans on Decoding His Father's Writing. I am Not Skilled Enough - Was Master Brennan Available?" Brita asks.
Celina bides a moment waiting for that answer.
Ossian shakes his head. "No. His siege seems not to be going well. He wants you two to call him. Preferrably Conner too, if he is close. Do you have a Trump of my father?"
Celina responds, "No, I have no trumps at all as yet. Do you have one you could lend us?"
"I Have sketches and could Make a Sketch Fairly Quickly," Brita notes.
Ossian nods somberly "He did seem to think it was urgent. I do have a sketch that I could lend you. I hope it survives the transfer." Ossian suddenly has his trump deck in his hand.
Celina holds up a hand, "Wait." She smiles, squeezes Brita's arm. "Brita is wise in this. We are in the waters. Your generous offer touches my heart Ossian, but keep your sketch for when it's value is most assured. We shall contact Brennan when we may if Brita has time to work a sketch here. We hope to talk to him soon. Meantimes, I think Conner should very much like to hear your story. If you are leaving to further explore this matter of Reid and the Monks, give me a day to mention this to Conner. He certainly will have advice even if he does not have time to help directly."
She looks at Brita and then back to Ossian. "If that suits."
Brita nods in concurrence.
Ossian nods too. "Work quickly, Brita. He might need help. And if Conner knows things I will listen. I need all knowledge I can get."
Celina nods once. Ossian can feel through the connection she is satisfied. "Expect Conner to get in touch then."
Ossian nods: " Take care, lovely cousins."
Celina shakes her head. "So much going on. And a lot seems to be resting on your shoulders, Brita. I'm glad you came to Rebma and will be sorry to see you go."
Brita smiles. "My Shoulders are Fairly Sturdy. Shall I Will Work on a Sketch Trump of Cousin Brennan first? I Will use the Slate for Both Your Trump and the Sketch to make them Viable in the Rebman Environ."
Yes, I've noticed the shoulders. Celina nods and smiles. "Please. Brennan says something is urgent and he needs to talk. This can only mean a situation fraught with complexities and third order dangers. Let's put his needs ahead of mine."
Brita nods and states "I Will Start Now." She proceeds to do just that, pulling out colored oils and beginning on an image on the slate. "I will Need a Space that is Part Air as well," she notes. "Some of my Studies of Master Brennan are On Paper." She appears to be working on the general shape, first outlining an area that quickly becomes a shirt followed by the shape of the face and hair above.
Celina nods once. "We have such an Air Chamber. And we'll move there when you are ready. I'll make arrangements." Celina moves off to get food and drink sent to the Airy Chamber in the palace. She'll also send a Triton messenger to Conner, even if he is doing rounds in the City, he should be found.
The message is: "Brennan may need assistance. Ossian has asked for your help. Direct communication maybe within the palace soon."
Conner will pretty much drop everything and seek out Celina when the messenger finds him. He arrives at the airy chamber carrying a slate in one hand and a piece of chalk in the other. He takes a moment to adjust to breathing air once more and then enters fully.
Celina has changed to casual clothes and orchestrated a sideboard of food. She nods and welcomes Conner. Brita appears to be hard at work with papers and tools and slate.
Conner nods to them both. "Your message was most intriguing, Cousin. What have you heard about Brennan and Ossian?"
Brita waves a hand holding a pencil at her brother although she does not look up from what she is doing. She has a fairly deep basin of water next to her and her other hand is in the water. She puts her hand with the pencil in the water, glancing back at her open sketchbook. Then, after a few minutes, she dips her face in the water as well although only for a few seconds before glancing back at the book.
"We spoke with Ossian, who gave us the news again of the death of Reid and recovery of his body from the Klybesian Monks. Reid's body is now in Xanadu awaiting farewells." Celina begins with the most difficult parts of this and describes the party sent by Random to recover the body. She does not skip the details of how Reid may have been in a lab for 'sampling' by the monks---or that almost all the monks escaped through shadow, and that Ossian speculates they will need to be brought up short as they are taking such liberties.
Conner's hand tightens around Halosydne's hilt as Celina describes what Ossian found.
Then she switches to Brennan's request for communication. "And Ossian said Brennan's siege in Avalon is not going well and he hopes to talk to you and I. To which I speculated that Brennan would not say he needed to talk to us, or that things were 'not going well' unless the implications were very serious. Ossian did not disagree or offer anything else. Though Ossian did say he is willing to take help in going after the Klybesians to learn more and he mentioned you.
"So Brita offered to immediately work on a Trump sketch of Brennan." Celina crosses to Conner and hugs him. "Welcome back."
Conner didn't realize just how tense his muscles were until Celina's embrace caused him to relax a bit. "It is good to be back but from the sound of this news, I shall soon be away again." Conner sighs. "Though I think it more likely it will be Avalon rather than wherever Ossian is bound much as I would see these Klybesians punished."
Last modified: 25 October 2014