DISCLAIMER: The Good Wife and its characters are the property of CBS. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
CROSSOVER: The Good Wife/Chronicle of Amber.
FEEDBACK: To Tamoline[at]gmail.com
Flames of a Different Hue
The world almost seems to scream as it approaches its end.
"Well, that's it," Cary says from next to me. "That's our job done."
"What about the people?" I ask. This place isn't uninhabited.
He shrugs. "Not our problem."
He's right. Our contract only said that we had to make sure that this place didn't crash into anywhere important. The simplest, the easiest, the safest way of doing that was nudging the world's course towards the Vortex.
He half-smiles at me. "Why do you care, anyway?"
It's a good question.
My aunt Fiona would say, 'Never exercise power without an objective in mind.'
My aunt Florimel would caution, 'Never let anyone see what you're truly capable of. Always better to let them underestimate you.'
But I was in the war. I've seen too much death.
It's affected me.
Though, doubtless, some, most, would see that as a flaw rather than a virtue.
I guess I'm not quite the golden girl I used to be.
So I shrug. "I'm going to give it my best shot," I inform him.
The shuddering has become worse. Soon even those not mystically attuned might be able to sense it.
"Good luck, then, I guess," Cary smiles. "See you later," he says as he disappears.
He doesn't need to add, 'If you make it.'
I know that much myself.
I hum and enshroud the world with my power.
A flare of pain stabs my head as we hit some of the debris surrounding the vortex, and a mountain vanishes, becoming a plume of dust.
It wasn't inhabited.
I draw deep breath, accessing reserves I haven't tapped since... since the war. I can't bring it all, even most, to bear on the world I'm on without shredding it, but I can at least vaporise any more shards that approach us.
(Almost) too slowly...
I begin to decelerate us from our headlong dive into the Vortex.
The world screeches, a wall of rainbow light appearing across the horizon as I graze its edge, but I've got it.
I've got it.
I drag us slowly away, diminished, but still here, and place the world into a safe orbit.
Safe at least for now.
Someone will doubtless want to claim this world, now that it's been secured.
Move in. Bring their own people. Displace the current inhabitants.
But I can't worry about that now.
I've bought the people of this place life for another day, no matter what happens next.
I've done what I can.
I can't change the politics of the COurts.
I'm having enough problems protecting my world from marauding 'interested parties', let alone-
My back stiffens as I sense it.
Instinctively, I roll away, automatically reaching for a hidden silver dagger as my eyes, and other senses, search for the anomaly.
A misplaced shadow against the rocks.
I tense, balanced on a knife edge between attacking and fleeing, as I wait for the entity -- whatever, whoever it is -- to make the next move.
Shadow solidifies, becoming scales, which in turn become a, if not familiar, then at least recognisable smooth-skinned form.
"Lady Kalinda," I say, nodding my head in greeting.
"Lady Alicia," she responds, inclining her head in turn, looking at me with fathomless black eyes. "And, please, just call me Kalinda."
She would look almost human, if not for the two small horns peeking out from her hair.
She's obviously making an effort to put me at my ease, or at least be polite.
The gesture shouldn't make me more wary, but old habits die hard.
"Impressive," she says, looking around. "I can't think of two other members of the Guild who could have done this so neatly. I can only think of ten who could have done it at all."
Danger, danger, I can hear Florimel's voice say.
Kalinda turns back to me, studying me again. "We've been underestimating you."
My smile remains graceful and unforced only by virtue of Florimel's training. "Just beginner's luck, I assure you. But what can I do for the Guild's Head of Security?"
But even as I ask that, there's something buzzing on the periphery of my senses. Something that's still wrong.
Quickly attuning myself to power once more, I sense two slight distortions.
Almost unnoticeable, unless I was looking for them.
Lying still on the floor a short distance away.
"Doing my job. Looking after the members of my Guild," Kalinda says.
I raise an eyebrow, careful not to look at the hidden shapes. "Oh? Personally? I feel honoured."
"Sometimes things need a personal touch," she replies blandly, before strolling over and reaching down to one of the unseen forms. A quick movement, and it's revealed to be a pale, scrawny humanoid that had been hidden from view by a highly enchanted cloak.
Its pale face is swollen and distorted. It looks like it died hard.
I hope that at least it had been quick.
Clutched in one hand is a knife that radiates both magic and danger. Nasty. Not fatal, not to one of my bloodline, but nasty all the same. If it had hit me when I had been channelling power, saving this world, it would have been all over.
"I don't suppose you know who might want you dead?" Kalinda asks almost rhetorically.
I have to stifle a laugh. Who doesn't want me dead?
My ex-husband's enemies, for obvious reasons.
My ex-husband's allies, for not helping him enough.
Any member of the Courts, my new home, both for my bloodline and for being on the other side during the war.
The family I was born into, for any number of petty grudges that might have been accrued by my father, and had now passed to me with his death. At least they wouldn't be after me for marrying someone on the other side of the war. Common consensus was that family was always far more dangerous than any outsider.
The list is practically endless.
"I don't suppose that you could have taken them alive," I say.
So much death. So much senseless death.
She looks up at me, and I hope that she sees the obvious, practical, reason behind the sentiment. "Don't worry," she says drily. "I know someone for whom that isn't an issue." She shrugs. "Prefers them that way, actually."
Oh. How delightful.
"May I escort you back home?" Kalinda offers.
I eye her for a second, weighing my options.
Every lesson my family ever taught me warns me not to trust her, not to give her an inch that I don't have to.
On the other hand, if she'd wanted to she could have already hurt me badly. Maybe even killed me.
And there was something about her, with her dark glittering eyes and her reserved demeanour, that made me want to give her this much, to allow her this close to me.
"I'd be delighted," I decide, then smile at her. "Have you ever travelled with one of my family before?"
She tilts her head, then shakes it.
"It'll be quite the experience then," I tell her cheerfully. As easily as drawing breath, as hard as drawing blood, I reach out, reach within myself...
And the world changes around us.
As far as reality is concerned, we simply cease to exist. One moment, we're there, the next, we're not. In that reality, anyway. At the same time, in another world, another universe bordering the reality from which we've just vanished, two women suddenly appear. We appear.
From where I'm standing, it's as if the world around us flickers, and is suddenly somewhere else.
Kalinda stumbles a little as the new world springs to life around us. If I hadn't been looking for it, I might have missed the way her eyes widen slightly, infinitesimally, briefly, before instantly returning to their usual emotionless opacity.
I haven't spent a lot of time around Kalinda -- I think this might be the longest we've been in each other's presence, at least to my knowledge -- but it's the first time I've seen anything at all register in her eyes, disturb the calm equanimity.
Kalinda studies our surroundings, head tilted fractionally to one side as she returns her gaze to me.
"No path," she comments, neutrally.
"Our magic doesn't use them." The power that is mine by birthright can do many things, but it can't make anything like the roads I've seen since I arrived in the Courts; delicate yet strong connections that can bridge world after world after world.
Before the war, the many worlds of the Courts were connected by a millennia-old network of such pathways; a sprawling spider's web anchoring countless disparate realms into one unified whole.
Before the web was shattered.
Before the price was paid. The price we are -- that I am -- still paying.
Before the Vortex.
But enough of such thoughts. They haunt my nights already. I'll give them no more time during the day.
I smile at Kalinda. "Do you want to know how it works, or simply that it works?"
She shrugs. "The latter."
My lips tighten. "Even this close to the Vortex, I've moved thousands of people from world to world." And I barely lost any of them.
Being able to do that was what won my family the war.
Once the paths had been destroyed.
It's hard to tell, but I think that Kalinda relaxes slightly at my words. At any rate, she doesn't make any protest as I take another step forward, taking us both into yet another reality.
Of course, I can hear Fiona say, she hasn't explained to you just how she came to conveniently be there when the assassins came for you. Perhaps it would be best if your paths were to... diverge a little.
Florimel would of course disagree. Stay close to someone who can protect you, she would say. You can keep an eye on her that way. And, if she does prove to be unreliable (not untrustworthy, because really, some things simply go without saying), you'll be all the better placed to deliver a knife in the back. Whether literal or metaphorical.
I stifle a sigh. I may be the other side of the multiverse, but even so it seems I still can't escape my family.
But then, who can?
After every hop, skip and jump through the various worlds, my eyes can't help but flicker in Kalinda's direction, but she remains silent and stoic.
I can't tell if her constant presence is reassuring or unnerving.
Probably a mixture of both.
Finally, we reach our destination. Not our final stopping point, but the last that we will reach by walking through worlds. My... My home lies within this realm. I could have taken us directly to it, but to do so would have been... unwise. Call it a legacy of the war.
So we must make our way there by more mundane means.
Well, mundane by the standards of the Courts.
We stand on a smooth, almost chitinous platform that hovers unsupported within a vast, dark abyss. A single, curved pillar sweeps upwards from the rear of the platform, seemingly extruded or grown from its very substance. It curves over our heads, flicking back up to a point at the end, forming a hook from which dangles a small lightglobe.
Somehow, the red-tinged glow seems only to accentuate the darkness, rather than to illuminate it.
Such is a visitor's welcome to the personal world, the Ways, of House Florick.
The throne to which I am an inheritor.
In fairness, I understand this view is quite spectacular in certain modes of vision. But my limited eyes show me only the walls of a great canyon extending both upwards and downwards from where I stand. Both above and below, the solidity of stone -- well, something solid and glistening -- disappears into inky blackness. Up ahead and slightly below us, in the far distance, I can just about make out the flickering lights of civilisation.
"We're here," I tell Kalinda.
She nods. "Impressive," she observes, politely.
Before the Vortex this would have probably have been a backwater, a summer home, for some Lord.
Now? Now it's a precious commodity, a world securely anchored to the rest of the Courts.
"So I'm told," I reply, equally politely. "I'm taking us in now," I feel compelled to warn her, even though, of the two of us, I'm sure I'm the one most likely to fall.
She inclines her head in acknowledgement.
I concentrate on the platform, willing it forward and towards the largest concentration of lights. That's the one that passes for my house these days.
Well, mine plus the near thousand or so servants that live there as well.
Peter always did have traditional tastes.
As we draw closer, the lights and shadows start to resolve themselves into shapes. Twisted, organic structures that even after all this time look to me more like some kind of exotic coral than a place to live. I've travelled the length and breadth of the universe, but even with everything I've seen, everywhere I've lived, 'home' to me will always mean sunlit stone and fresh sea air.
Jagged, familiar, futile pang of longing, quickly pushed aside.
I've made my choices. Now I will live with them.
"Why did you stay?" Kalinda asks. At my look of inquiry, she elaborates, "You have no husband now, and..." she tilts her head, and doesn't need to remind me about the assassination attempt.
I suppress a sudden urge to laugh, and tell her it just reminds me of home.
But it's an honest question and, whatever else, deserves an answer.
I gesture around me, encompassing the world we're in with a single movement. "This. All this. If I left..." I shrug. "Well, someone else would take my place."
She looks at me for a long second. "Responsibility for your servants?"
She makes it a slightly disbelieving question, but I nod anyway.
No one would trust the servant of another lord, even if he is dead.
Too much potential for hidden commands, for biological boobytraps.
It's not unfounded. There are many stories of the COurts that make much of such devices. And from what I understand, everyone keeps all the best ones to themselves.
So any lord, in these desperate times, moving into a new world will cleanse it first, then bring his own poeple in.
It's what's going to happen to that world I saved, but I can't do anything more about that.
I've given them another few days, another few weeks.
I have nothing else to offer.
Kalinda is still looking at me, doubtless trying to figure out what my game is. Finally, she inclines her head. "That's commendable."
"Thank you." I pause for a moment before asking, "Do you have Ways of your own?"
She looks at me coolly. "The Ways of my House were lost to the Vortex."
My stomach lurches a little.
I don't ask how many of her family, her friends were lost with them.
So many lost so much during the conflict.
And I wonder again why she saved me.
"I'm sorry," I say, and mean it, the family game of never quite apologising be damned.
I'm not there now, not with them now.
And I am sorry.
Kalinda doesn't say anything in response, and I let silence fall between us, thick, suffocating, endless.
Until my abode comes into view.
It's beautiful in its own way and I have learned to appreciate it. Here, a gleaming dome sheened with rainbows, like a black pearl. There, a fractal forest, the wind's own orchestra. A soaring, fluted tower. I like that one the best. (Looked at it just the right way, it could almost have been carved from stone.)
I feel the prickle of the House wards -- plus a few extra of my own -- as we reach the outer gate, a sensation not unlike a guard dog welcoming its mistress upon her return. They know me, accept me. And, because Kalinda is with me -- and I give the right mental commands -- they accept her as well. I sneak a quick glance her way, but she, of course, shows no reaction.
Idly, I wonder what would get a reaction from her, but immediately dismiss the thought. Antagonising the Guild's Head of Security -- who may or may not have been following me, who quite possibly knows more than she's saying about that little attempt on my life, and probably knows more ways to kill or maim me than I've had hot dinners -- would not be the wisest idea.
And I've no wish to test my training against hers.
In any case, we're finally home sweet home.
A slab silently recesses into the wall as we approach the entryway, revealing a cleanly-lit interior.
Ktktkt-ktkt, my head servitor, awaits me in the hallway, his glistening black chitin polished to perfection.
I reach out to him mentally. Has there been any trouble?
I can feel him stiffen slightly. No, milady. Should I alert the guard swarms?
Please. And let them know that the people who attacked me had powerful cloaking magics.
Done, milady. He focuses one eyestalk on Kalinda. Will we be having company this evening?
I look to Kalinda. "Would you like to join me for dinner?"
She tilts her head contemplatively for a second, before shaking it. "Things to do."
Hopefully assassins to find, but it's not like I can relax even if she does.
Not unless I'm tired of this life, anyway.
I step off the platform. "If you will it, this will take you to the nearest pathway."
Being a Lady, she could make her own, of course. But, without invitation, it's considered discourteous at best, deadly dangerous at worst.
Depending on how paranoid the lord is.
Peter was not the least paranoid of lords. For good reason, as it turned out.
"I'll let you know what I learn," she says, before disappearing off into the darkness.
Will you? I wonder.
But the thought of seeing her again is far from displeasing.
There are far worse ways to turn a girl's head than a daring rescue, after all.
I feel a light pressure in my mind.
Someone is trying to contact me.
I cautiously let the contact solidify, just enough, not too much, and a figure fades into view. Male. Tall. Alabaster-pale, raven-haired and ruby-eyed. Will. Of course, I know who is calling me as soon as I touch his mind: a tesseract of silver wire and sparkling gemstones, constant motion and dazzling glitter distracting from the murky depths within. Idly, I wonder how my mind feels to him.
Physically, Will -- like Kalinda -- appears more or less human. Apart from the eyes and a couple of other exotic touches. But his form is so carelessly attractive (by Amberite standards) that it has to have been carefully sculpted. He has a fighter's body, an athlete's body; taut muscles and whipcord strength. Perfectly proportioned. A firm jaw, but lips that seem made for laughter. Long-fingered, elegant hands. Musicians' hands. Or those of a master swordsman. Finally, the suggestion of a dimple in his chin. The merest hint of a flaw that somehow manages to transform him from handsome-but-forgettable to like unto a god.
Of course, coming from a family of near-enough gods and goddesses, divine perfection doesn't have quite the same impact it otherwise might.
Still, I do appreciate the familiar touch. And I let him sense that appreciation. After all, as Florimel would say, if someone takes the trouble to dress up for you, it's only good manners to acknowledge it.
Will is standing in his office, the open wall at his back revealing a view of broken and bleeding earth. As the contact stabilises, I see a distant jagged peak shudder visibly, belching clouds of thick black smoke into the air. A fresh wave of lava bubbles out to join on of the slow-moving rivers that cuts across the stark landscape.
Shield or not, there aren't many men who would be comfortable with an actively volcanic landscape at their back. But it certainly is dramatic. And, I have to admit, the ruddy glow of the lava sets off his current form and clothing to perfection.
He always did like to make an impression.
He's smiling, which is always a good start, though not a guarantee, and I find myself smiling in response.
He may be one of the heads of the Guild, with all the skullduggery and political maneuvering that implies these days, but I've always liked Will. We even had a thing, briefly, when I first came to the Courts.
"Alicia," he says. "Well done saving that world yesterday."
Florimel would have liked Will. Always start with a compliment, she'd say. It makes what comes next somewhat more palatable.
"Thank you," I reply, a little uneasily.
"Word of what happened has already spread far and wide." His smile is shaded with pride and admiration. "I've had requests for your personal intervention already."
He doesn't need to add that there are still far too many lords, even minor Houses, without even a Ways of their own. And those that do have them have to fight, to trade favours and influence, to keep them.
Which is, of course, why I'm now a member of the Waysmaster's Guild -- I need its influence to keep this world, this people, my own and safe.
Anyone who can add to the number of stable worlds will be in demand.
Of course, increased visibility is a double-edged blade.
"I'd be happy to serve the Guild in any way I can," I say.
Those of the royal blood of Amber do not serve, Fiona would chide. They rule.
But I don't want Will's job, don't want to even be seen as a potential threat, and I try to communicate that as best as I can without words.
By blood, I'm an outsider here. And, current allegiances notwithstanding, I was on the wrong side of the war. With Peter... gone... I'm in far too precarious a position.
Will's smile widens possibly a fraction more, and I hope that means my message was received and understood. "The Guild can always use someone of your unique abilities, Alicia. Would you care to stop by later so we can discuss how we might best utilise them?"
I sense an abyss in front of me. "Of course. I'd be happy to discuss my abilities with you and Diane any time that's convenient."
I try not to stress the name of the other head of the Guild, but Will's smile dims a little anyway. "Of course," he says smoothly.
I don't know how long I can escape it now that eyes are upon me, but I'd like to avoid becoming a pawn of either Diane or Will in their incessant games against the other for as long as possible.
"Incidentally," he says, so casually that I wonder what new landmine he's about to lay in my path. "Have you decided what to do about that world you saved?"
I blink. "I wasn't aware that I was supposed to do anything with it."
He shrugs. "There aren't any direct claimants." A House, lost to the war. "Which means, as the world's saviour, you have first claim."
"I am involved enough in maintaining my Ways already," I say delicately.
Prior to this, I was bending all my influence just to retain this single world.
Keeping hold of a second?
As someone only married into the nobility, rather than born to it?
That sounds entirely too much like the kind of fun I just don't need in my life at the moment.
"You're a valued member of the Guild," he says in response. "Any help you need, just ask. I'll be happy to see that you get it."
"Thank you," I say, a little uneasily.
Relying on resources provided by the Guild (or by Will) has certain obvious (and, possibly some slightly less obvious) risks.
On the other hand, I'm a little bereft of connections of my own in the Courts. I just have what remains of Peter's, and who knows how far I can trust them?
"Think on it," he says, and cuts the connection.
Well that was a little unexpected.
Proving that my day has, indeed, started as it means to go on, I arrive at my office to find that it isn't there.
Oh, the world is still there. Brightly-coloured and aromatic with alien vegetation, filled with animals and birds that look harmless but can strip a person to the bone in seconds. And will, if they decide that you're an unauthorised intruder.
Lush, beautiful and utterly deadly, just like Kalinda, the person who had designed them.
The building too, that mishmash between hastily thrown up temporary walls and the more artistic sculpture it is slowly evolving into now that the Guild has the influence to hire decent architects.
Even the room, the spacious office that I'd manage to claim because it was sufficiently far away from anyone and anything with even a vague hint of prestige about them.
But the living door doesn't respond to my presence and, from what little I can see through the window, all my things have mysteriously disappeared.
Someone moved my things. Someone took my things.
For a long moment, I'm almost blinded by rage.
But then I take a breath.
Calm. I must remain calm.
"Congratulations on your new office," comes a voice from behind me.
Jolted from my almost trance, I twitch and spin in that direction, one hand flying towards my knife, words of power forming on my tongue.
And then recognition hits me.
Sure enough, the woman herself is standing a little way down the corridor, leaning casually against the wall as if she hadn't just startled a princess of Amber into almost -- almost! -- doing something that at least one of us would regret.
Naturally, she moves not at all.
By the time I'm facing her, I've swallowed my incomplete magic -- and my temper once again -- and I've turned reaching for a knife into smoothing down my dress.
(Not that I really expect her to be fooled, but it's the principle of the thing.)
I can't help but note that she's standing far enough away that she'd probably be out of range of whatever instinctive response she might have surprised me into.
"You like playing dangerous games, don't you?" I say; half amused, half not.
She shrugs, a half smile tilting her lips. "Maybe."
I just bet she does.
"So what are you doing here?" I challenge, looking her directly in the eyes.
If she wants a game, I'm willing to play.
Her smile deepens maybe a hair. "Letting 'our most valuable asset' know that she's been moved into the old offices."
I don't let myself react.
The old offices, the Ways that the Guild used to occupy before the war. A patchwork of minature worlds stitched together.
Not fantastical worlds, not masterpieces of design or taste, but simple, humble, practical realms. The sort of thing that says 'This is what we do.' It was the kind of solid work that survived surprisingly well, albeit not completely intact.
What they are now is high status. Close to the centre of power.
Before, the Guild may have a humble affair, its members viewed as simple mechanics, plumbers and builders. The kind of people you'd call out if one of your worlds had developed a slight tear, or if you wanted to add a new worldlet as a conservatory.
Now, of course, things are different. If you want the constant damage inflicted by the Vortex on your world repaired, if you want a world at all, you need the services of the Guild. The kind of busywork they did before is not going to be a priority again for centuries.
It's home to many of the best and the brightest. Among which I'm apparently now counted.
And we work in the old offices.
I try not to think that duels have been fought over some of these offices.
That there have even been some assassinations over them.
I swear, this place just gets more and more like home every day.
Kalinda turns and walks deeper into the building without another word, and I am drawn along in her wake.
I spot Cary heading towards us, paperwork in one hand.
"Hey," he says neutrally, eyes flickering quizzically towards Kalinda. He's obviously wondering whether her presence signifies that I've gone up in the world or that I'm in deep trouble.
"Good morning," I say in return. I offer him a smile, which he returns a little uncertainly. "Apparently I've got a new office."
"I see." His smile is still a touch cautious. I've apparently still got an office, which can only be good, but he doesn't want to tie himself to someone who may be sinking in front of Kalinda. "Where are they dragging you to now?"
Even as I do it, I know it's a mistake, but I still can't help rolling my eyes a little. "Down to the old offices."
I really don't appreciate the target being fastened to my back.
A flicker of pure envy flashes in his eyes before his smile broadens and he extends his hand. "Hey, well done." He pumps my hand enthusiastically. A cynical woman might think that he wants to suck up to someone going places. "Want to meet up later for drinks to celebrate?"
I might as well try and repair some of the damage that my impromptu promotion will have caused. "Sure. Can you spread the word? Bloody Bill's after work. Drinks are on me."
His eyes widen appreciatively. Bloody Bill's is fairly select. Luckily, I have an in. Any Amber-themed bar, even the one named after the favourite drinking spot of many of my uncles, just about falls over itself to have an actual live princess of Amber visit.
"You do remember why I'm here," Kalinda murmurs once we're away from Cary.
"I'm told Bloody Bill's has excellent security. The only bar fights on premises are the ones they stage themselves to add colour."
Somehow without changing her expression, she manages to make her opinion of the security known.
"Besides, I was planning on inviting you as well. How could I possibly enjoy myself without my favourite security expert present?"
I'm not entirely sure whether she's mollified by that, or she's just given up, but she forbears to comment further, by word or expression, as she turns and walks deeper into the building.
Kalinda leads me through the labyrinth. Officially, it's the old wing. Unofficially, and pretty much accurately, it's the labyrinth.
(I'm half-wondering if I should keep an eye out for minotaurs.)
It's a higgledy piggledy mess of different architectural designs, cramped rooms, corridors and offices, split across multiple worlds. Practically every few steps we're in a different world, each one subtly -- or not so subtly -- different from the one before. Odour, light, gravity, even rate of time flow.
There is a part of me on the alert, constantly waiting for another attack. Not because I necessarily expect Kalinda to lead me into a trap, because I'm sure that there are easier ways to kill me, but just because it's good practice, especially now.
With the rest of my mind I try to just concentrate on memorising the path. And on enjoying the craftsmanship of the worlds around me.
A circular stone chamber lit only by candles. The solid wooden table and chairs at its centre are sized for giants. Time flows sluggishly here, relatively speaking. It feels a little like stepping off a rapidly moving object onto something travelling more slowly. There's a noticeable stutter in our onward progress. (Well, noticeable to me, at any rate.)
From the dim glow of candles burning with a crimson flame to the harsh white brightness of fluorescent strip-lighting. A tiled corridor, white on white. Dry, processed air with an almost medicinal tang. From one of the rooms comes a rapid, staccato clicking sound. Someone typing?
My stomach flips as we pass the next boundary and my inner ear suddenly screams that I'm falling. A heartbeat later, my perceptions adjust to the shift in gravity. I still quite can't shake the nagging feeling that we're walking on the ceiling, but that's just a personal quirk.
It doesn't help that the building we're now passing through seems to have been designed by someone who thinks that optical illusions are just too straightforward. Staircases that turn back on themselves. Floors that become walls. Doorways that we can look through to see our own backs at the far side of the room.
Huh. Apparently someone has been doing some renovations.
I'm sure Fiona has a place like this, purely for messing with some of her brothers.
I take a few mental notes. It's always handy to have a few extra ideas about how to discourage family visits.
More worlds go by until, finally, Kalinda stops.
After some of the wondrous places we passed through to get here, I have to admit that my first impression is that of disappointment. An unassuming corridor with featureless grey walls and gravity that pulls in only one direction. The most interesting thing about it is the light -- a diffuse, apparently sourceless glow -- but I could pull off that trick while I was still an adolescent.
Oh, well. I wasn't really expecting a luxury suite. Plain will do just fine.
"Give me your hand," Kalinda says without preamble.
"Without so much as a date?" I have to ask.
She raises an eyebrow. "I saved your life. Doesn't that count?" she says and holds out her arm expectantly.
I laugh. "Close enough, I guess," I say and offer her my hand, which she places against one wall.
The first thing I notice is that the wall has a presence, almost an intelligence. This close, whilst we're touching, I can feel Kalinda reaching out, soothing it, telling it that it has a new mistress now.
After a few minutes, she lets her hand fall away from mine. (But she does so slowly, part of me notes. Or imagines. I shush it.) "You should be attuned now," she tells me.
Open, I tell the wall, and it flexes, like a muscle. (Like a sphincter, I try to avoid thinking.)
The room beyond is... incredible.
It has the usual furnishings one might expect in an office: desk, chairs, shelves and so on. I'm sure they're more than serviceable, but right at this moment I really couldn't tell you. My attention is caught by the far wall, which seems to have been made of one single, curved sheet of glass. And on the other side of that...
A planet hangs suspended in the vasty deep, a blue-green gemstone on the velvet drape of night. Half in shadow, half lit by a small yellow sun, I can't help but think it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. And the stars! Ah, the stars. Like handfuls upon handfuls of scattered diamonds, they glimmer and glitter as far as the eye can see.
My rational mind tells me that most of it must be a visual sleight of hand, that no worldlet that's part of the old offices could possibly be as big as this appears.
The rest of me shushes that part, just content to glory in the view.
"I trust you approve..."
Kalinda's coolly amused voice comes from somewhere behind me. With a mental start, I realise that I've moved into the room.
"It will suffice," I reply.
She shrugs. "Good. By the way, I'm supposed to tell you that Diane wishes to speak with you."
The harsh intrusion of politics breaks the remainder of the spell the room has over me, and I smile tightly at Kalinda.
She nods, as if wishing me luck, before heading off once more into the labyrinth of the old offices, and I'm left alone.
Great. It never ends.
I can't really blame Kalinda for leaving as quickly as she could after having delivered that message. Anything more, and she'd have been taking sides, Diane over Will, or Will over Diane.
Once you're important enough and you get sucked into that trap, it's almost impossible to escape.
I should bear her example in mind. Apparently I am now important enough.
Of course, her disappearing like that did leave me without a guide. I've never been to Diane's office -- I'll have to find someone who can give me directions, and there just aren't that many people that I can ask who know that much about the old offices.
Very sneaky, Lady Kalinda.
I do approve.
"Excuse me," I ask Brenda. "I'm supposed to go to Diane's office for a meeting." I offer her a quick, apologetic smile. "I don't suppose you could tell me where it is?"
Brenda is what passes for the floor manager in the new offices. If she doesn't know, then she knows someone who does. From the wide smile that she's giving me, after only a flash of calculation, I've come to the right person.
"Sure," she says. "If you follow the right hand corridor to the end..."
I memorise her instructions, thank her and am on my way.
I do hope Diane didn't expect me immediately.
"Diane will see you now," her secretary tells me.
As I cross the threshold into her office, I halt momentarily, almost stumbling for a second.
Whatever I was expecting, it hadn't been this.
A wooden desk dominates the room, situated just in front of a large window displaying a sky so cerulean it gives me sharp pangs of homesickness. A large fireplace with a roaring fire takes up much of the left hand wall, while a large bookcase filled with books stands to my right.
And underneath my feet there's a thick carpet. Carpet. And it even feels right, as opposed to the only other attempts I've seen, clearly made by someone who has only heard of the concept.
The worst (best) thing is that it's all so familiar. It's so very reminiscent of Aunt Florimel's office, the place I practically grew up in.
(Father never had much time for me. My aunt picked up the slack.)
So when a voice tells me to "Please, sit down," I automatically start towards the chair in the corner next to the bookcase.
It's where Florimel always had me sit, out of the way, when she was working.
It takes me an actual moment to realise that I'm not a child anymore, that the voice isn't hers, that I'm not home.
I take a breath. Not much of one, not deep and shuddering, though I really want it to be.
But enough. This place is a tangible hit, and now Diane knows it.
I alter my course and sit in the chair in front of the desk. Diane, who is also looking mostly human today with blond hair (of course), is on the other side of the desk. There's a slight, welcoming smile on her face, which is sending all kinds of mixed messages through my system.
"Thank you," I tell her. "How can I help you?"
The worst part, the thing I really hate about this, is that I know it's working. I can feel myself relaxing, becoming less tense.
"I just wanted to see how you're settling into your duties as a member of the Guild," she says.
This can't be a coincidence. Someone has been telling stories out of school. Someone from home.
My smile comes easily. Slightly rueful. Slightly self deprecating. The smile that always did serve to throw my aunts and uncles off a bit.
Even affecting humility is not exactly a family trait.
"I'm sure you've heard about yesterday," I say.
"Indeed. Though I've always believed that your heritage would offer something unique to the Guild, I wasn't expecting anything like that. And certainly so soon."
I look her in the eyes, trying to gauge her reaction as I say, "Well, I am Fiona's student."
She quirks an eyebrow but doesn't quite manage to carry off surprise. "You haven't mentioned this before."
"It... didn't seem politic."
Being the pupil of the architect of the Vortex does tend to come off a little gauche.
She laughs, loudly, sharply. "I can see that. I take it that there's nothing you can share with me about the Vortex?"
I shake my head. "Fiona likes to keep her secrets."
"Fair enough. Let's keep that between us women. After yesterday, your services are going to be in demand, whomever trained you."
"So I've been told."
"Have you thought about where you want to be, long term? With the right connections, you could rise to almost any position you wanted."
The right connections being Diane's, of course.
I can't say the truth, which is that what I really want is to just secure my place in society, and not make too many waves.
Diane, or pretty much anyone else, probably wouldn't believe me.
I wouldn't believe me.
And, in any case, I've already made waves.
Never forget, Fiona would say, you have power. And power, whether magical or political, can destroy you if improperly wielded.
Florimel would probably purse her lips, and give me a look of concern about what I've gotten myself into.
What you need, she would say, is someone to hide behind. Someone who everyone thinks is the real power.
But Peter is gone, and there isn't anyone else.
So I simply reply, "I have," to see how she reacts.
This is the Courts, and the Amberite tradition of women not having power of their own does not quite hold sway here.
"I see," she says, giving me a slightly admiring glance that looks half feigned, half real. Apparently I'm to have the honour of being treated like an equal, someone to be flattered rather than commanded. "If I can give you some advice, no matter what your plans are, favours and alliances are what makes the Courts go round."
I raise an eyebrow in response. "Oh?"
"For example, that world you rescued yesterday? If you were to just... let it go, there are people, important people, who would be grateful, and remember that favour for the future."
That world again. Now both Will and Diane have mentioned it to me.
Now, no matter what I do, I look like I'm favouring one over the other.
"I'll take that under consideration," I say neutrally.
"Thank you. Now, it does seem like we've been criminally underusing your talents. What do you think the best way of using them is? And how would you like to progress through the Guild?"
I'm just starting to go though my answer when there's a pulse of power and Will appears on the fraying strands of a temporary pathway.
"Diane," he says with a smile on a face that is just as handsome as it was earlier. He raises his eyebrows theatrically upon seeing me. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realise that you'd already started. Alicia, how are you this morning?" he asks me.
"Fine, thank you," I tell him, managing not to add 'just like I was earlier.' I wouldn't be surpised if Diane knows about that by now in any case.
"Good, good," he says, then looks at Diane and shrugs. "I must have missed the memo."
She smiles almost naturally back at him. "I'll check with my secretary, and make sure that she passed the message on properly."
"Don't worry, it was probably my fault," he says. "Now, where are we up to?"
I suppress a smile as they banter lightly, seemingly the best of friends.
Apparently asking Brenda where Diane's office was had spread along the grapevine just as quickly as I'd hoped. I'd seen Diane alone for a bit, just like Will had contacted me earlier, but not for too long. And now I had a chance to get the party line, the compromises they were forging between themselves.
Diane laughs out loud at one of Will's witticisms, and it's all too easy to remember what happened to the previous head of the Guild: Jonas Stern. The man who ran the place back when it stood for an organisation of plumbers and builders.
As soon as it became important, Will and Diane managed to get themselves appointed as joint deputy heads, using influence, power games and credentials that had been earned centuries ago.
And then Jonas was gone, involuntarily retired despite his objections, and shortly after that died of natural causes.
From what I heard, it's quite natural to die when you have that much toxin in your system.
I don't know if either or both of them had a hand in that, or if was just one of their supporters, consolidating their investment, but I don't doubt that they're capable of it.
They're alive and they're in a position of power. I really don't need to know anything else.
Politics, especially house politics, may be in many ways tame compared to life back home, but it can be just as deadly.
It's a useful lesson to bear in mind, as I smile and walk the dangerous line between asset, pawn and threat with the two of them.
While evincing only the best possible humour, of course.
"Hey," I say.
The sound of wind chimes surrounds me, enfolds me. And behind me, about ten feet or so, if I do not mistake my guess, a roughly Kalinda-sized area of complete silence comes to a halt.
"You're learning," comes her voice, laced with a hint of approval.
I turn around just as she's finishing shifting from a pool of darkness into her more normal form.
"I may have been cheating a little," I admit with a smile.
There's a problem with becoming too well known to a sorceress -- she can create wards to detect you with greater efficiency.
And I may have been expecting my shadowy protector.
"Hate to think that I was losing my touch," she says dryly.
"Just getting predictable. One might almost think that you cared about little old me."
It's a romantic notion, a foolish notion -- there's got to an ulterior motive, there's always an ulterior motive -- but I indulge it for a second anyway.
But only for a second.
"Almost," she replies with a trace of a smile.
"Have you managed to find out anything about my attackers?"
"They didn't know much," she shrugs. "They were recruited from a world outside the Courts, and given body modifications and enchanted objects to help them. The person who recruited them obviously changed their appearance to conceal their identity. The one bit of solid information is that it was definitely a lord of the Courts. They made pathways to travel."
That actually relieves me a little. At least it isn't family.
"So what's our next step?"
"They'll try again. Maybe this time we can get a signature."
"Does this mean that we're going to be spending a lot more time together?"
I clutch my hands to my chest. "Oh, be still my beating heart. It's just like I've always dreamed."
Kalinda regards me with something that looks like slightly resigned amusement.
"What?" I ask.
"You're taking this better than I expected."
"Because you're not family?"
I've been here long enough to know that trusting someone not of your House is just generally Not Done.
"I'm from Amber. Trust me, that's a plus point in my book."
"Sounds like an interesting place."
"Maybe I'll tell you about it sometime." Anything's possible, I guess. "Won't Diane and Will have problems with you spending this much time on just my safety?"
"Things are well in hand."
I guess that's code to mind my own business.
I pause, and look at the world around me. A veritable treasure trove of crystalline vegetation, swaying ever so gently in the wind, sparkling prismatically in the amethyst sunlight.
No fauna that I can see, but maybe they're crystalline as well.
This world was lost, cast spinning out during the war. Travelling at far too high a velocity for any lord of the courts to catch it, slow it down.
My first job is to bring it back. Not intensely difficult, just a little time intensive.
I wonder what it is about this place that makes it worth so much effort.
Maybe the crystals are priceless, magically speaking.
Maybe the lifeforms here do something that even the shapeshifters of the Courts have problems reproducing.
Or maybe some high up lord in the Courts wants his pretty pleasure world returned.
But I don't know.
I could almost appreciate that last reason. It is beautiful.
I should be turning my mind, my power, to guiding this world back.
I certainly shouldn't be even thinking about asking someone of unknown allegiance the question that's in my mind.
Fiona would look at me in such disappointment if she knew what I was contemplating.
But I'm in something of a minefield with no idea of where the traps are. And Kalinda seems like she'd be the kind of person to have a map.
Even if she does have her biases.
"Would you mind if I asked you to look into something else for me?" I ask tentatively.
There's a hint of a pause, and she almost imperceptibly tenses. "Go on," she says.
"Diane wants me to reliquish my claim on the world I saved yesterday, and Will wants me to keep it for myself."
She relaxes. Whatever she was worried about me asking, this isn't it. "And you want me to look into it?"
Going for broke, I nod.
"Investigate my own superiors in the Guild?" she asks, but, thankfully, seems more amused than offended.
"When you put it like that..." I say lightly, hoping that I'm gauging her mood correctly.
"Okay," she says.
It's the way she says it, just short and to the point, as though it's no big thing, even though it is, it really is, but I can't help giving her a big smile straight from my heart.
"Thanks," I say, and I try to make that word show how much more this means to me.
Thank you for giving me something, someone to believe in, even if just for a moment.
The rest of the universe will doubtless intrude again soon, reminding me of all the reasons I shouldn't trust someone else, anybody else, even a little bit.
But here, now?
I must manage to convey something of this to her, because her eyes dance at me, just for a second, before they return to their usual stoic impassivity.
"And now," I say, "To business."
I open my senses, and shroud this world in my power.
Time to guide it home.
The scene in Bloody Bill's is at once familiar and utterly alien.
The imitation is much closer than that of Diane's office - clearly done by someone who has not only been to Amber, but who has studied the establishment in question.
The blue sky visible through the grimy windows is perfect. The somewhat sticky texture of the sawdust underfoot certainly matches what I remember of the dive when Owen and I had snuck out there when we were younger. They've even replicated the smell of the fresh sea air mixed with somewhat less fresh fish guts, a dubious accomplishment at best.
The furniture looks the same, but I strongly suspect that it's far less shoddily built. And there are far more private rooms, no doubt suitable for some of the powerful lords that I'm told frequent the place.
The biggest dissonance, and the one they can't do anything about is the feel of the world to my arcane senses. Amber is an unyielding rock of reality, immutable and immovable. This place is of the Courts, wisp thin, a world knitted together out of cobwebs and shadows, fantastic and bizarre.
The contrast between what my physical and mystical senses are telling me hits me with an acute sense of dislocation, and a wave of homesickness so great that I just stop for a second or two, enough time for a furry servitor to come bustling up.
"Princess Alicia," he greets me, using my Amber title, of course. "An honour to meet you," he says, bowing so deeply it almost looks religious.
I really do hope he isn't an Amber cultist.
As he leads me towards the private room I'd booked earlier, I cast a surreptious glance around, unable to help myself looking for a shrine.
After we beat Chaos, one tiny family against hundreds if not thousands of Lords, it caused major soul searching in the Courts, who were used to thinking of themselves as the masters of reality.
How had we won? they asked themselves.
(The actual answer is somewhat prosaic, of course. We did what we always do - we cheated.)
Some came to the conclusion that we were semi divine figures, who they could pray to for succor.
It actually became something of a fad, where nobles adopted a patron Amberite whose attributes they felt spoke to them, or said something about their own qualities.
The whole idea in general, and cultists in particular, seriously creeps me out.
The only good thing is that, since I'm not one of the big names in the family, I haven't met one of my own cultists, to the best of my knowledge.
Luckily, I can't see any evidence of a shrine or shrines, probably because the local religion disapproves of them, but I can't help but think that a place like this must have them.
"It's almost like I'm not here," Kalinda breathes in my ear, "Princess."
I step away and turn to look at her, matching my sour look to her amused one. "I could always uninvite you," I threaten.
"I wouldn't think of disobeying royalty," she says without a hint of sarcasm.
I roll my eyes. "Of course not."
Kalinda steps forward. "How are you ensuring the Princess' privacy and security," she asks the server.
"I assure you, our wards are top of the line," he says stuffily.
"And the room," she presses. "Is it completely private?"
"Of course!" he says. "We have many high ranking visitors who would settle for nothing less."
"Good," she nods. "I will be providing extra security for the Princess," she informs him, staring him down when it looks like he's going to object.
"I'll tell the manager," he finally mutters.
We're ushered into a room which I'm fairly certain the Bloody Bill's in Amber does not sport. It's still Amber style, but fitted with plush velvet furniture and rich, sumptuous fittings. Cary and a couple of others from work are already here, and have already ordered drinks.
"Block their view of me while you hang your coat up," Kalinda murmurs.
I shoot her a curious glance, but do as she says.
Under the cover of my coat, the flesh on her arms blisters and pops, spewing tiny insect-like creatures. They drop off her arms, falling to the ground and scurrying away, changing their colours to blend into the background.
Watch creatures, and not unsophisticated ones to my admittedly uneducated eye.
The holes in her arms heal over within seconds, leaving no trace that anything happened.
"Just in case," she says quietly.
"Have you been using these everywhere I've been?" I ask, equally quietly, albeit a little strained.
She tilts her head, and looks at me skeptically in a way that clearly communicates 'Do you really want to know?'
I decide that I could really do with not inquiring any further.
Just the thought makes me itch.
"What are you ladies whispering about over there?" Cary asks from across the room.
I turn and smile at him blandly. "Getting into the swing of things, of course. Plotting in corners is a favourite pasttime up in Amber, after all."
I go over, sit down and start to try and repair bridges with my ex-colleagues. I'm greeted with a mix of envy, suspicion and the natural desire to try and attach yourself to someone whose star is rising, not to mention the patina of prejudice.
Most of the people here don't have their own world, now.
Most don't even belong to a family who has one.
They just work for the people who have the power and influence to have been first in line to receive or seize a world of their own.
That I, an outsider, have one doesn't make my life any easier.
But that I have saved a world written off as irretrievable makes me someone to watch.
There's always the chance that they can gamble an acquaintanceship with me into skipping the line a little.
Together with the chance to go to a top class establishment means that the entire evening is all-too-artificial, even if I think I manage to soothe the worst of the ruffled feathers.
It isn't made any better that, in playing to the crowd, I quickly lose track of Kalinda, and the next time I spot her, she's casually leaning against a wall, chatting with Cary, who looks entirely too pleased to have her all too himself.
It makes something within my stomach clench, which is stupid.
I don't have any claim on Kalinda, and I shouldn't want any.
She's an unknown, dangerous.
And being emotionally involved would only make things more complicated.
I shouldn't even want to be friends with her.
But maybe that's an acceptable compromise I can live with.
Of course, all this temporising doesn't stop me feeling distinctly less than friendly towards Cary, but I try and keep that off my face.
He could still be a useful contact, after all.
Eventually, the evening is over, and people start dispersing. I don't see Kalinda retrieve her watch creatures, but it's entirely possible she leaves them there. If Bloody Bill's has halfway decent biosecurity, they'll pick them up on a sweep of the room afterwards. If they don't... then it's probably just as well Kalinda used them.
Who knows what else could have been left in there?
Kalinda and Cary make their goodbyes just outside the bar, then Kalinda turns to follow me as I make my way home.
"Have a good evening?" I ask.
She shrugs. "You did a good job of mending fences," she says by way of reply.
"I certainly hope so," I say a little ill-temperedly.
"Didn't have a good time?"
"Oh, it was perfect." I pause for a moment. "Are you and Cary..?"
"He'd certainly like to be," she says neutrally.
"I don't date within the Guild."
It's a curious mixture of a slight sting and equally slight satisfaction that I feel. I hadn't been hoping, not really, but...
"Politics?" I inquire.
She rolls her eyes. "Especially now, having two bosses."
"I can only imagine. Of course, even most people outside the Guild have a connection to us these days."
"It makes things interesting," she admits. "I just don't let anything get too serious, or let anyone compromise me. How about you?" she asks, throwing the question back at me.
"No one since Peter. Up until recently I was pretty much political poison to people in power, and a world with a body attached to everyone else. Not exactly conducive to dating."
"You do realise that you don't have to date to have a good time," she says with a grin.
"I've been too busy keeping ahold of my world to get out much. And now? What would my security expert think of a random hookup?"
For a moment she just looks at me with an indecipherable expression. Then she smiles a little mockingly. "Probably best not."
The rest of the journey is spent in silence, until I take my leave just outside my Ways.
Kalinda nods at me. "See you tomorrow," she says, and disappears.
It's about a week later, and I'm on a world that seems to be composed of flying rocks of all sizes. From pebbles the size of my fist to chunks of rock the size of mountains, like the one I'm currently standing on. The sky, for want of a better word, considering it's beneath me as well as above me, is a psychedelic rainbow swirl.
Luckily, there's air, somehow, otherwise I'd have had to find some kind of spacesuit that works locally. Water too, judging from the waterfall cascading into seemingly infinity in front of me.
Kalinda's next to me. As usual, she looks completely unconcerned, but she is glancing around a bit more than usual.
"Have you spotted anything?" I ask.
There have been a few more attacks since the first one, each one growing in intensity. Nothing serious yet - each time Kalinda dealt with them Before I even got to see my assailants.
"A small band of attackers - maybe thirty," she says and her eyes take on a predatory gleam. "Won't be bothering you."
"Have you managed to find out where the leak is?"
So far, each attack has happened on a world that I'm doing a job for the Guild.
Someone inside is my attacker, or is feeding them information.
"Not yet," she says, and purses her lips. "Managed to find something on that other matter, though."
"Which particular other matter?"
"Diane and Will's interest in that first world you saved. The one with no obvious owner."
"Great. What is it?"
I had been getting repeated inquiries from both of them about it, and it was getting harder to make excuses.
"Diane implied that an assistant to someone on the Emperor's Council would receive the world."
"So she'll be embarrassed if I don't give it up, and I'd get to offend a dignitary at the same time. Great."
"Pretty much. Though the assistant is part of the House of Childs."
Great. Why did Diane have to promise a world I rescued to a member of the most virulently anti-Amber House in the Courts?
"So it's not like I'd be making a friend in any case. And if I do give it up, I'll be strengthening Childs."
Kalinda gives me a little shrug, as if to say 'You seem to have the right of it.'
I purse my lips and think. I really don't have the time to look after another world, and I certainly don't have the either any ability at shifting or the connections to call someone else in to add my own loyal population to the world.
Given time, I could leave the Courts and find a world where I was worshipped as a goddess, or another similarly loyal population, but leaving now wouldn't be politic. I know for a fact that Will and Diane have booked my services for the next year at least.
What I need is...
An idea slowly forms in my head.
"Your house is currently independent, isn't it?" It's one of the reasons she's managed to retain her position as head of the Guild
Her eyes flicker in assent. "What there is of it."
"I know it comes with any number of complications, not to mention probably attracting the attention of whomever is after me," I say, aware that I'm babbling a little, "But would you do me the honour of accepting rulership over the world I rescued?"
She looks at me, wide-eyed, not saying a thing.
"I know you're supposed to swear allegiance to me, but I wouldn't expect it in any but the most technical fashion," I continue. "And I'm already trying to stay as neutral as possible, so it hopefully shouldn't impact your balance between Diane and Will," I say, then pause as I try and run more of the variables through my mind.
She finally says something into the quiet. "Why? Why would you give this to me?" she asks in a strained voice.
I hear her unspoken questions. If I'm going to offer rulership over the world on those terms, why not offer it to someone of importance, someone with connections?
"You don't think repeatedly saving my life isn't worth something?" I say not entirely seriously.
She gives me a flat look, telling me clearly to cut the crap.
"You're a known quantity, one not without influence," I say, smiling wryly. "And if I'm trying to not become part of either Diane's or Will's factions, you're the best bet I can think of."
She nods. "I'll think about it."
She doesn't say that With the right choice, I wouldn't need the influence the Guild offers me.
That I could retire, leave the Guild behind me.
(Leave her behind me.)
And I don't say that I feel guilty about the loss of her world during the war.
That I think she'll make a good Lord of a world, that she might even spare the remaining inhabitants, despite the dangers.
That I honestly like her.
Because none of those reasons make sense, not in the Courts, and I certainly couldn't repeat them to anyone else.
After a while she says, "You do realise that this will manage to give both Will and Diane pause?"
I give her a wide grin. "Oh yes. I was absolutely counting on it."
She thinks for a few moments longer. "Okay, I'm in. My liege."
"Is Diane free?" I ask her secretary.
She gives me a quick, professional smile. "I'll just go see," she says, and disappears through the doorway behind her.
I can't help moticing that the door she goes through is a different shape and texture to the last time I was here. Taller, rounder with a slightly iridescent sheen to it.
Reshaping your chambers on a whim is one of the perks that you can afford as a head of the Guild, I guess.
The secretary comes out five minutes later.
"Diane should be able to squeeze you in just before lunch. Can you return then?"
My body clock is currently insisting that it's fast approaching time to go to bed, rather than a couple of hours before lunch - the perils of world travelling - but I nod anyway. I do briefly wonder if Diane is actually busy, or if this is just a petty exercise of power.
It doesn't really matter, I guess. And maybe, if it is, it'll salve some of the sting of what I've got to say.
Because it's going to look like I'm siding with Will against her, and this is the last thing that I want to imply.
But I'll be damned if a Childs gets to keep this world that I've saved.
"Alicia. What can I do for you?" Diane greets me, smiling benevolently.
Her room has changed since the last time I was in it. Gone are the faux Amber trapping, the carpet, the roaring fire. In their place are smooth, almost organic walls that give the impression that if you look closely you might see small scales. There's furniture, but it's the kind that changes shape to suit the person using it. It's all very traditional High Chaos in style.
It's possible that this is a different room entirely, in a different world even. It's certainly not beyond the local arts to make one doorway lead to different locations.
Diane herself looks different, as if to suit her surroundings. Sculpted, mother of pearl skin, slightly insectile eyes and a frame that has proportions just subtly wrong to my eyes, she's definitely been entertaining traditional visitors today. Or she's sending me a message.
"I've come to talk to you about the disposition of the world I saved."
I watch her face, but she doesn't so much as twitch, just raising an elegant swirl where an eyebrow would be.
"I've decided to claim it." There, the sting. And now, hopefully, the salve. "I don't have time to look after it myself, of course, but I've found someone who could do an admirable job as a knight. The only problem is," I offer with a hopefully suitably embarrassed smile, "That I'm not really sure about the correct way to go about this."
I may be siding with Will by retaining the world, but I hope, I hope, that by voluntarily putting myself in debt, albeit a minor one, to her, that will balance things.
In both her eyes, and Will's.
Well done, Flora would approve, there can be strength in displaying a certain weakness.
There's a momentary pause as she studies me thoughtfully. "A knight of your own?" she asks with a slight smile. "You are moving up in the world, Alicia. Anyone I know?"
"I imagine you know most anyone of importance," I say in return. Telling her at this stage that I'm planning on knighting Kalinda would be a somewhat larger coin than I'm really comfortable with.
Again a pause, but apparently she decides not to pursue it. "Very well. I am, as you know, always eager to help members of the Guild."
I stifle a sigh of relief.
Peace offering accepted. I hope.
"Do you want to come in?" I ask Kalinda as we're standing outside my home an hour or so later.
"Really?" Kalinda asks, a little tentatively, as if she hasn't just being eyeing up the Ways speculatively.
"If I can't trust my own liegewoman, who can I trust?" I ask, not entirely seriously.
Don't trust anyone too much, Fiona would say.
Get close to them, Flora would say, don't let them get close to you.
And I'd tried to follow their advice as best I could with Peter. (Though look where that had gotten me.)
But I do trust Kalinda, possibly a little more than I should.
It's hard to tell with her and her silences, but she seems to take my commenty in the spirit in which it is meant. In any case, she follows me into the interior.
Ahead the corridor ends in a shaft that leads upwards and downwards.
"Watch out for the gravity shift," I say as I reach the edge and leap forwards.
As always, my stomach lurches as I pass, twisting and turning, through an area of zero gravity, and then I'm being tugged downwards, and what was once a shaft is now a corridor.
"Cute," Kalinda comments as she follows me.
"Apparently one of Peter's ancestors considered himself something of an architect of worlds. I'm given to believe that his sense of aesthetics wasn't generally shared in the Courts, but he certainly made sturdy work."
"Is the shift fixed, or variable?" she asks.
That's not just a friendly question. That's someone asking about interior defenses, and I give her a look.
She tilts her head slightly. "Becoming your liegewoman is going to stir things up. I'm... nervous."
"Enough to give unsolicited security advice?" My question seems light, but it isn't. This is becoming a redefining of our boundaries.
Kalinda looks at me expressionlessly. "Apparently."
A Lord's Way, and everything about it, especially security, is one of the most intimate things that you can discuss with another Lord. It doesn't just affect you, but potentially your descendants as well. You only do it with people you trust without reservation.
I've been here long enough to pick up some of the mores, and certainly long enough to know how much of a breach in etiquette Kalinda is making, and what she must actually be asking.
Do you trust me?
How much do you trust me?
I have to stop, then, and turn to look at her, really look at her. Her expression is still closed, as if she hadn't just put herself out there.
"Why do you care?" I ask, as gently as I can. Because it's at this point that I need to know.
Is it just a job? An intrigue? A betrayal waiting to happen?
Why is she trying to protect me?
"I-" she starts, stops, and her eyes go wide, like she's a trapped animal.
I wait, patiently, keeping my eyes on her.
"You're not like I imagined," she begins again, and her voice is only slightly off, only a little strangled.
"As a Princess of Amber?" I ask, "Or as a Lord?"
That gets a slight smile, and when she replies, her voice is back to normal. "Either," she says with a slight smile, before she loses it again. "But mainly the former."
"Not elegant and ethereal enough?"
She rolls her eyes a little. "Never heard those traits in the stories before. More like not nearly enough malice, rage and arrogance."
And I know she's just being flippant, and not exactly serious, but it still hurts, still burns.
If only she knew, I guess.
"Not so much any more," is all I can manage.
She steps foward, and suddenly she's holding my hand, and it's frightening how easily she can get within my personal space without me noticing, without me caring.
"Any more?" she asks, and I close my eyes.
"The war changed us all."
And some more than others.
My eyes are still shut when she replies, still gently holding my hand. "I like who you are now." A beat. "Never thought I'd say that about any of your line."
I open my eyes, and her face is closer than it had been when I closed them, her own eyes as vulnerable as I'd ever seen them.
I like you too, I think, but can't bring myself to say.
I just move my head closer, and kiss her instead.
The next morning arrives, and I catch Kalinda still looking speculatively at the security nodes.
"Still bothered about my safety?"
She gives me a look that clearly says that she's doubting my sanity for asking that question.
I roll my eyes. "Come this way, then. I can't take you through the wards I set up - I doubt the details of how I crafted power would make much sense anyway - but I can at least show you the main biosecurity controls."
Kalinda considers that. "Thanks." And then, after a moment, "When could you go through how your wards work?"
"You really do want all my secrets."
I'm saved from having to reply by arriving at the location of the first keynode. Guardian servitors, mandibles chittering warily at the presence of an unknown entity, guard an armoured plate set into the ceiling.
"Can you lift me, please?" I ask one of them politely.
Striking arms still tensed just in case I'm notwho I appear to be, it lifts me with its grasping arms, then runs lightly up the wall, holding me in position so I can touch the plate.
Lady Alicia, I think, reaching out mentally at the same time as I reach out physically, your mistress.
There's a sickening moment as it pauses, as I really hope nothing has gone wrong with the security in my home, but then I feel the lock accept my credentials, and the plate recesses.
"I'm authorising my companion entrance," I tell the guardians firmly, sending a fresh wave of unease through them.
She's of a different house, and they've been bred for a hundred generations to stop circumstances very close to this - a foothold situation where forces from another house have managed to penetrate far enough to reach one of the key security nodes.
A trueborn Lord of Chaos would be able calm them properly, release the right kind of pheremones to deactivate the territoriality hardwired into them. I can't - not being of the bloodline of Chaos means that I can't access their power to change my shape. All I have is their loyalty, given to me when I married Peter.
So I'll have to try something else.
"She's one of my knights," I say, and Kalinda flashes me a look.
It's not quite true, at least not yet, but I hope after last night that question at least has been settled.
The guardians calm down as Kalinda is reassigned from 'intruder' to 'house' in their minds.
"Thanks," Kalinda murmurs after she joins me in the keynode.
I shrug. "Not a problem."
I go through a similiar rigmarole with the intelligence controlling the node. Authorised, Kalinda touches the panel, her hands sinking into it, bonding with it, becoming one with the glassy organic material. Her eyes roll back as her consciousness merges with the House security system, and I sit back to wait.
About an hour later, she jerks and suddenly her body is animate again. She draws back, reassembling her lower arms and hands from the diffuse strands that she'd woven through the panel.
"What's the verdict?"
She gives a little shake of her head as if to clear it. "Basis isn't bad, though could be improved. Been allowed to go somewhat feral, though."
"Getting trustworthy help here has been a little hard."
Her mouth twitches a little. "Glad I could help with that, at least."
"So what do you recommend, Lady Kalinda?" I ask, resisting the urge to bat my eyelashes at her. "Do I need to get a security expert to spend a lot of time here, bringing everything up to scratch."
She nods, once. "Speaking as your knight, yes."
"Do you know where I could find one?"
"I'd offer very competitive rates."
"Room and board included, of course."
"I think I know someone," she murmurs, leaning forwards and kissing me.
"Oh good," I reply a little breathlessly after coming up for air, before going back in again.
The news that Kalinda is now my knight (after a public ceremony following the far more private ones conducted in my Ways) spreads the wildfire through the Guild.
Officially, of course, nothing changes. Under the polite fictions that Chaos works under, lines of allegiance don't, can't affect how things are done. If no one works with an organisation which has a blood enemy in a position of power, nothing would get done.
Unofficially, of course, the move sends shockwaves through the Guild.
The first sign is that both Diane and Will take a step back from dealing with us directly. Suddenly everything gets done through an intermediary.
It's not completely unexpected.
Individually, either one of us would be a substantial, but not insurmountable, advantage to whomever claimed us.
Together, though, would be a different case. If either Diane or Will controls us as a block, then they'd have the Guild. The best the other could do would be a schism, a split sundering the organisation. And they'd only have a good chance of that if they struck first, before the new allegiances and lines of power sorted themselves out.
It's a precarious situation.
And if either is even seen to be in a position to court me, it'd be more precarious still.
No one wants that. And so, miraculously, despite my new status, both Diane and Will contrive to never so much as even set eyes on me.
I'm not altogether displeased by this.
The second sign is the fallout this has among the lower echelons of the Guild. Kalinda and I have formed a third faction in the Guild, and we're by far the weakest one.
I do get a few friendly inquiries, by people who want my patronage, either because they don't want to be caught between Will and Diane either, or (more cynically) because they're hoping for a chance to get their own world as well.
Mostly, though, what I get is aggravation. I can't imagine that Will or DIane is especially amused by my maneuver and, though they can't do anything publically, enough filters down to let the rank and file know I'm not in favour, from either side.
Nothing obvious, of course, just a series of minor delays and accidents whenever I need something done. Nothing that I can point to, but by the end of the first week, my nerves are running ragged.
Even though the last thing I can afford is a burst of anger.
So I spend a lot of time meditating, trying to compress my feelings, wall them away, try to pretend they don't exist.
I can't even talk to Kalinda about them - I worry that if I start, if I even begin to tap that well, I'll end up having a fully fledged screaming rant about the Guild and everyone working in it.
And I can't do that. I really can't.
She finds out anyway, of course. Over the next few days, news of a series of unfortunate and humiliating accidents involving security systems and people who have been letting these accidents happen spreads through the grapevine.
And all of sudden my work life is humming along again as everyone who works with me starts doing so extremely efficiently.
I don't say anything, of course, but I make sure to thank her that night, thoroughly and wordlessly.
The other thing is that, contrary to Kalida's worries, the attacks stop.
Nothing happens, for days, weeks, even a couple of months.
Rather than feel better, Kalinda seems to feel even more unease. She completely redoes the security of my Ways, renovating and innovating, to the point where it should be able to hold off an army for some time.
Even finishing that doesn't seem to help.
She acts as though the sword of Damocles is suspended above her head, and she's just waiting, impatiently, for it to drop.
Not that she talks to me about what's bothering her, resorting to her usual generalities whenever I ask.
I try not to pry too much.
We all have our own secrets, after all.
Warm, dark water surrounds me, enfolds me, cradles me.
It feels a lot like being in my mother's womb must have felt like. The mother whom I never knew.
I'm hurt, Florimel would doubtless say if she could hear me say that.
There's a flicker of light next to me, and suddenly all I can see is Kalinda incandescent, bioluminescent patches blazing in the inky fluid. My eyes adjust, but the watery abyss around me is only slightly illuminated, shoals of fish ducking into and out of the light.
"Are we secure?" I ask her, the physics of this world permitting me to speak as well as breathe underwater.
She doesn't look satisfied, but nods anyway. Detaching a glowing area of skin from her arm, she smooths it out and adheres it to my forehead, so now I have a light source of my own. "For the moment."
I share her unease. This is the biggest job for the Guild I've done yet - a actual fragment of the old Courts. Five worlds still connected by the old path structures. It was found spinning ever further away from the core.
There are adepts of the Guild on each of the other worlds, maintaining the structure of the path system. My job is to guide the whole thing back.
I don't have much doubt that I can move them. Controlling them as we approach the Courts, making sure that we don't crash into the existing structures, that'll be the trick.
There are no limits to what a princess of Amber can accomplish, properly motivated, Fiona would tell me.
No limits indeed.
But we never did catch whomever in the Guild was connected to the attacks. And this would provide an ideal opportunity to stage one.
So far, though, so good.
I sneak a look around, even though we must be alone, before sneaking a kiss off Kalinda. "For luck," I tell her.
"Luck," she replies, taking another look around herself.
I wait a moment, then enfold the entire structure with my power, first slowling it down, then beginning the voyage back to the Courts.
We are, of course, on final approach when I feel a pathway forming.
From the sudden tension I notice in Kalinda, she feels it too.
There's a moment...
As I try and decelerate the worlds as much as I can.
As a pheremone plume erupts from Kalinda.
As the first scaled, lizardlike creatures appear from a pathway, a hole in the world.
And then everything happens at once.
Kalinda goes shadowy and indistinct, plunging seemingly immaterial hands in the chests of the first few creatures, who twitch and die.
Swarms of fish suddenly look far less innocent as the pheremone wave hits them, exposing sharp teeth and razor like fins as they descend upon the newcomers.
But the intruders have numbers, and swarms, of their own, and they keep flooding out of the pathway.
Kalinda and her fish stop most of them, but some inevitably make it past.
I cull the first few groups, flash freezing them, altering the properties of the local water to suddenly have a freezing point well above ambient.
But that takes time, and makes waves in the structure of the world, waves I can ill forward as we get ever closer to the Courts.
Finally a group manages to get too close, and I dive foward, angling to attack them from below before they adjust their formation to account for the three dimensional structure of the world.
I am my father's daughter, after all, and his lessons come back to me.
They've got spears, and all I've got is a dagger.
I need to trade up before I get skewered.
I manage to get in close, and then I'm among them, silver dagger flashing around me.
(My aunt Fiona would be proud. She was the one who taught me where to stick the knife.
Florimel always preferred the humble hand grenade.)
Their wounds ignite incandescently, like magnesium strips burning in the darkness.
I have just about enough time to register that these must be locals, because recruits from outside the Courts wouldn't have that reaction to my blade, when they're dying, their weapons floating upwards and I have to be quick if I'm going to grab one before they get out of reach amd the next wave is on me.
Kalinda, from what I can see through the crimson mist surrounding her, has solidified to a lizard like war form of her own, all scales and muscle, conserving energy, as she slashes around her, marshalling her troops. It's hard to tell in all the chaos, but she seems to be doing well.
There's something else there, something niggling in the back of my mind, but I don't have time to think about it right now.
Still, no one of real power is on the field yet, despite the fact that house troops are being used in the assault.
And, as if my thoughts summoned them, they emerge from the pathway.
A large lizard like figure, all too much like Kalinda's.
"Murali," she spits, but she doesn't sound surprised. Not shocked in the slightest.
"Kalinda," he says, as a new wave of troops comes out from behind me, engaging and tying up Kalinda's remaining forces.
Murali, of course, swims straight for me, a squad of elite looking soldiers with him.
I grip the spear in one hand, my dagger concealed in the other.
He comes to a halt, a little way away, judging me before the final approach.
Damn, the cautious ones always are the most trouble.
"Witch of the Vortex," he says formally, and my blood runs cold. "I'm here to end your blight on my home."
But he doesn't know enough as he gestures and his soldiers fan out.
I have to make a move now, or I'm dead.
I have to make a move now, or we're all going to be dead.
I have to make a move now, or it's going to be too late in any case, and the worlds I'm guiding are going to crash into the Courts, causing devastation.
I wish that that didn't sound like a best case scenario.
I dive towards him, but it's too soon and he's too good.
He blocks my blow, binding my spear long enough for one of his soldiers to run his weapon through me.
Blood explodes out from me in a crimson cloud.
Pain explodes within my body, and I can feel my consciousness and control waver, just a little bit.
I don't need my eyes to feel the Vortex suddenly shooting out a flare towards us.
I don't need to see through the clouded water to know that rainbow light is suddenly flickering all around.
And I don't need to feel to see the winds of Vortex sweeping through the world, carrying everything away.
I'm alive, I tell myself. I'm still alive.
But all I can see is rainbow light. All I can feel is the winds of the Vortex, carrying me hither and yon.
It feels... almost peaceful. Almost like I just want to let go and drift.
Then a face flashes in front of me.
It belongs to someone important.
I grasp after it, catch it.
And suddenly I have something focus on again.
I am alive, I tell myself again.
And a sharp pain stabs me, my injury reasserting itself, the searing pain burning through me.
But I'm stronger than this, I tell myself, and thrust aside awareness of it as best I can.
I have something much more important to do right now.
Kalinda, I think, trying to find her signature.
She must have been swept away too.
But she could have survived, at least for a while.
Time is a hazy concept here at the best of times, and this definitely hasn't been that, but I keep on searching.
Please, you must be still alive, I beg her silently.
Please, I can't have killed you as well.
It's been... a while when I finally locate her body.
She's retreated behind a tough shell, becoming a sphere to minimise exposure and protect her vital regions behind as much flesh as she can.
Her surface is scored, abraded, as though she's been in a sandstorm.
It could have been worse. It doesn't look like she encountered any major debris.
It could definitely be better, though. She's retreated so much that I can't tell if she's still alive or not.
She has to be still alive.
I take hold of her, step out of the Vortex and straight into my Ways.
Alarms klaxon at the breach of the wards, servitors and guards rushing towards me.
I dismiss them with an unsubtle wave of power.
I would be gentler, but I don't have the time, don't have the patience.
I locate the infirmary, and am there in a single step, using my powers to hop half out and then in the world again.
Alarms blare again as I do, but this time I just block them out of my consciousness completely.
There's a nutrient bath there, ideal for a shifter to regain lost energy and mass.
I place Kalinda in it as gently as I can, and she bobs to rest.
Nothing happens immediately, and I try to suppress my panic.
Nothing should be happening immediately, right?
I need help.
I need a specialist, and I haven't got one here.
But I know who could get a hold of one quickly,
I reach out and contact both Diane and Will with my power.
There's a snap as they try to resist, unsuccessfully, being drawn into mental contact with me.
But I am what Fiona made me, and brute force is something I can do like no other.
Their struggles stop, anyway, when they see who it is.
"Alicia," Will says, his handsome face looking shocked.
"We thought you were lost," Diane says at the same time.
I don't have time for this.
"Kalinda's hurt, badly. I need the best doctor you can get."
Will reaches out to me, looking like he wants to say something, but Diane quells him with a glance.
"Of course," she says smoothly. "What is she suffering from?"
"Prolonged exposure to the Vortex." They both widen their eyes a little at that. "We did make it," I say, lips pressed this, "There are those of us that can reach into it."
"You understand that no one has any experience with this. But we'll send you the best specialists we can find."
I incline my head. "Thank you," I say, and she disappears from mental contact.
"Alicia," Will finally says, cautiously. "Remember to take care of yourself as well."
I look down. I had almost forgotten about where the spear had entered my body. I can't see the injury, but there is a sticky red stain spreading slowly across the right side of my clothing.
The pain flares up again, draining my furious energy.
I slump into a chair, my legs suddenly unable to support myself.
"We'll send a doctor who's familiar with Amber biology as well," Will says gently.
"Thank you," I repeat, numbly, the room starting to go a little grey around me.
"Alicia," Will says again, attracting my attention. "Do you know if anyone else managed to get out?"
I shake my head. "Sorry. I just don't know."
Suddenly even keeping my eyes open seems like too great an effort.
"Stay with me, Alicia," Will says, and I manage to force my eyelids open again. "Diane is dealing with the medical staff, but you've got to remain conscious long enough to let them past the wards."
The wards are probably swiss cheese from my subtle worldjumping earlier, but my guards are already agitated, and are likely not to appreciate intruders.
"Keep talking to me," Will says. "What happened?"
"We were attacked. Ambushed. Things got out of hand. Then..." I wave my hand.
Will looks even more worried, if that's possible. "Someone's managed to learn how to use the Vortex as a weapon?" he asks.
Even now, I know enough to evade that question. "Maybe," I say. "Let me know what you find."
"Do you have any idea who attacked you?"
I give him a groggy smile. "I'll be sure to give the head of security all the details."
He opens his mouth again, unimpressed, but Diane chooses that moment to re-establish contact, interrupting him. "We're outside. Can you let us in?"
"Sorry," I say to Will. "There's someone at the door."
I summon a servitor, who helps me walk stiffly to the entrance.
Diane is there, surrounded by a dozen people. Two look like guards, but the rest of them are carrying medical equipment.
That's more than acceptable for a Lady of Chaos, and I wave them in.
"Welcome to my humble abode," I tell them.
One of them, a woman with ash grey skin and vibrantly green hair, immediately comes over to me.
"Will you permit me to treat your injuries?"
"I want to get everyone to the infirmary first. Then, yes."
She purses her lips in an unsatisfied manner, but nods.
I lead everyone in that direction, but just moving becomes more and more difficult. I summon another servitor to help me, and then hoist me between the two of them as we get closer.
By the time that we get there, my world consists of nothing but a tunnel with a small patch of light at the end.
But that small patch frames Kalinda's body, and so it's enough.
And then there's just darkness.
I wake up in a bed in the infirmary, mildly surprised to still be alive.
In some ways, it might have been more convenient for... certain parties if I simply succumbed to my wounds. It isn't like such a thing wouldn't have been exceptionally easy to arrange, under the circumstances.
In my panic, I had proven myself at least somewhat threatening to those in power, and that's rarely wise.
I prop myself up in bed and wince as I pull my injury. It's still sore, but between the dressing and the rest, it's feeling a lot better already.
A servitor bustles over. "How long have I been out?" I ask it.
"Almost eight hours," it replies in a humming, clicking voice.
That felt about right. My family always did bounce back quickly.
"Can you take me to Lady Kalinda?" I ask it, getting to my feet, and wrapping myself in a silk robe.
It scuttles out of the room, and I follow it into another part of the infirmary.
A humanoid, horned, lizardlike figure lays supine in the bed, attended by two of the people I saw with Diane.
I reach out with my power, partly to confirm it's her, and partly to reassure myself, brushing my magic against her familiar aura.
It is, and she's alive, and her aura is much stronger than before.
I can't help relaxing, just a bit.
"How is she?" I ask the doctors.
"Suffering from overextending her shifting abilities, and a little from shock, but otherwise she's basically fine," says an inky black, utterly featureless humanoid.
I swallow. "How long before she's awake?"
"There are obviously a lot of complicating factors, but we think she should be conscious within a day."
"Good. That's... good." I find a chair, and sit myself down in it. "I'll wait here until she does."
The doctor somehow manages to convey the air of exchanging a glance with his compatriot, but apparently decides to say nothing. I settle down as comfortably as I can, content to just watch her.
Before she wakes, and things start to get complicated.
I think I'm actually dozing when it happens, but there's a noise and movement, and suddenly I'm wide awake and reaching for the dagger that isn't actually there.
It's just her, though, turning her head to look around.
"I'm alive?" she asks, her voice hoarse.
Quickly -- well, as quickly as I can -- I'm over there, and holding her hand. "You are," I confirm, with a smile that may be a touch tremulous.
Her dark eyes are full of questions, both to be asked and answered, but all she says is, "Good," and grips my hand in turn.
Questions can wait for later.
"Hey," Kalinda says, popping her head, now back to its more common human-ish looks, into my room.
"Hey," I say, putting down the book I had been attempting to read. "How are you feeling?" I ask.
Are you more in the mood for company now, is a question I keep to myself.
She had drawn in on herself earlier, clearly indicating that she'd wanted to be left alone, and I'd complied, not wanting to force the issue.
Now, it appears, she wants to talk.
I'm not actually sure that's a good sign.
She gives me a slightly forced smile, and enters the room.
After sweeping the place for bugs and other security risks -- which seems to consist of looking in every single part of the room except my eyes -- she finally settles in one place and leans against a wall
"So," she says, and trails off.
I give her a moment or two, but after having made made a start, she seems oddly reluctant to follow it through. Steeling myself, I take the opening instead. "You knew the ambusher." That isn't a question. "Murali?" That isn't really, either, although it sounds more like one.
I have eyes. 'Murali's' warform bore more than a slight resemblance to my lady knight's. Whilst not proof positive, that was certainly... suggestive.
And she had said most of her house had died in the War.
"Yes," she says flatly, before a faint light flares in her eyes. "Is there any chance...?"
I bite my lip, knowing what she's asking, wishing I could give it to her, but... "I don't think so, sorry. How close were you?"
"He was my brother," she whispers. She shakes her head. "Stupid. Stupid."
"Did you know he was behind the attacks?"
She suddenly becomes very interested in the floor. "He had become obsessed by you, said that he had to kill you."
"And so you 'helped' him."
She looks up at me in shock. "You knew?"
"I... had suspicions. Vague ones. It was very convenient that you turned up just in time to kill them. And that I couldn't find any trace of a pathway apart from your's and Cary's."
"I didn't want him to get hurt. And if my brother had succeeded..."
"My relatives aren't known for their mercy," I finish for her. And no one gets to kill family except family.
She smiles, bitter-sweet. "And then I got close to you, and everything became more complicated. Even before you offered to make me your knight. That was the last straw. He didn't feel that he could trust me after that, wouldn't tell me anything." She laughs, loud, harsh. "I'd hoped... I'd hoped that he'd given it up as a bad idea."
"Was what happened between us real?" I whisper.
Was any of it real?
Was that her only betrayal?
Her eyes flick away again. "I thought so," she says, voice strained, and I'm torn between relief and apprehension.
Relief because, if everyone is going to betray me, this, at least, is a betrayal I can live with.
Apprehension because... Because, well...
Here it comes.
"He said... he said that you were responsible for the Vortex. That if he killed you, it would disappear. I didn't believe him -- everyone knows that Fiona is its architect -- but... When you were attacked, it came." Her gaze accuses me, pierces me like the spear had.
I lick my lips, and suddenly I'm cast back in time. "I grew up in Amber. Your forces came, attacked us unprovoked. Killed a lot of people I knew. Killed my father."
I see his bloody, pale body again. Hear the words with which he cursed the forces arrayed against us as he lay dying. And the dying curse of a prince of Amber can have terrible power.
"I was angry. So very angry. And then we struck back, attacked your home."
A night where my uncles argue amongst themselves, trying to find a way out, trying to find a way their forces can win against those of the hundreds of worlds arrayed against us.
A feeling of hopelessness as Fiona gently explained to me afterwards that there wasn't any solution to be found, not unless...
"My rage and my power were used as components in creating the Vortex," I admit.
'Keep calm,' I hear my aunt murmur. 'Keep concentrating,' she says, even at it feels like my soul is being ripped from my body, as the winds whip up, start to keen, louder and louder.
They've never stopped.
"I didn't expect to survive."
I hadn't really cared.
"BUt I did."
And, so, here we are.
She looks at me, her gaze raw with pain. "You killed my Ways. You killed my family." She draws a hoarse, rasping breath and the look in her eyes cuts me like a blade. "You killed my House."
"Yes," I whisper.
I'm so sorry.
She takes a single, halting step towards me. "And if I kill you, the Vortex ends." She's tense, like she's torn between springing towards me and running away; between ripping my throat out and something else.
I give my own bitter smile. "If only it were that easy. It took all my anger. All my anger. And when I saw all the destruction, all the deaths, all the pain," All the families, "I stopped it." I take a breath. "I'm still stopping it."
Her body abruptly loses its tension, and she almost collapses against the wall. She looks at me desperately, full of hope for the first time since this conversation began.
"That's one thing," One very convenient thing, "your brother got wrong. Killing me won't stop the Vortex. It will fully unleash it."
"Oh," she says, choked.
"I'm really sorry about Murali," So very sorry, "But when I was stabbed, I lost control momentarily." Enough.
And the Vortex surged towards us.
That seems to cut the last her strings, and she slides down the wall into a huddle on the floor. For the first time since I've known her, her composure cracks completely, and tears flood down her face.
Instinctively, I move towards her, arms outstretched to hold her, to try and help her anyway I can.
I'm next to her before I realise that she probably doesn't want me there, that I am the architect of so much of her anguish.
Just as I am about to get up again, take myself away where I can't do any more to her, she nestles in to me, and my arms automatically go around her.
There we stay, her silently shaking, me murmuring "I'm so sorry," into her black hair, over and over again, until at last she falls still.
"I'm going to need some time," she murmurs, almost affectlessly into me.
"Is there...?" I ask, before stopping.
It's not the time, not the place, but I still want to know.
Is there any chance of saving us?
"I just need time," she repeats. "I knew... I knew that you were on the other side during the war. What that meant. I just... I just need time."
"Okay," I tell her, trying not to hope.
And somehow, miraculously, despite the fact that I know it must be costing her dearly, she manages to muster up a half smile. "Don't worry. You're not getting rid of me that easily."
She gets to her feet, and I walk her to the entrance to the Ways.
"One more thing," I say. "Did your brother have a room decorated in green and lavender and purple?"
She looks at me, a little quizzical. "Yes."
Well, that confirms some suspicions.
I nod. "Thanks," I say, but don't elaborate further.
She doesn't press, though I get the feeling that that is merely a matter of time.
"Try not to get killed before I next see you," she merely says.
I hold her, a little too long and a little too tightly.
"You too," I whisper in her ear.
"I'll try my best," she says, and disappears along a pathway.
Later, composed, after a few preparations, I reach out with my power, all the way to Amber, searching, finding.
A polite, gentle touch, which is accepted, opened.
Fiona is framed by an open window, a familiar clear blue sky behind her, fresh sea air with just a tang of salt that I can almost taste.
It makes me so homesick just for a second that I almost lose track of everything else.
I just want to go home again.
I just want to be home.
But I can't.
Not ever again.
"Dear Alicia," Fiona says. "How lovely to hear from you again. How are you doing?" she asks, clad, as always, in her colours.
Of green, lavender and purple.
"I've been having some problems recently, actually."
"Oh?" she asks, one eyebrow raised elegantly.
"A lord of Chaos has been trying to kill me."
"I do trust he hasn't been of any inconvenience," she says in a tone that suggests that she really hopes that she taught me better than to be bothered by a mere solitary lord of chaos.
"The funny thing is that he was one of your cultists."
She blinks. "Is that still a thing in Chaos? I remember finding it all rather embarrassing."
I almost roll my eyes. Fiona is many things, but averse to having her ego flattered is not one of them.
"And he also knew that I was involved in creating the Vortex. Which only the two of us knew."
"And you think that I might have had something to do with it?" She manages to look both shocked and slightly insulted.
I decide to drop the polite act. "We both know that you did, dearest Auntie. And my position is still the same: I'm not leaving Chaos."
She doesn't look perturbed in the slightest. "If I had done such a thing, and, of course, I am not saying that I have, then it would merely be to show you where your true place is. With your family. And not with some barbarians that would try and kill you if they knew what you had done. Which, apparently, one has already attempted."
"Naturally you tried this by setting someone to try and kill me," I say with heavy sarcasm.
She waves a hand carelessly. "As if one lord of chaos could do that."
"Fiona. I am not going to move back to Amber. More importantly, I'm not going to move far enough away from the Vortex that I can't control it any more." And if Murali had killed me, I'd have lost control in a different way. "I'm not going to let Chaos be destroyed."
Her eyes flash. "Chaos is our enemy, Alicia. You can't turn your back on an armed opponent, and just trust that they won't take advantage. Do you think that they'll forgive the Vortex, dear? Do you really think that they'll ever forget?"
I press my lips together. "I don't care. I'm not going to be a part of any more death. And, Fiona? If I happen to die, I can assure you that the Vortex is still enough a part of me that it will find you wherever you try and hide."
She looks narrowly at me. "You'd even send it against Amber?"
"That reminds me, auntie dearest. You might not be welcome there for some time. I sent a message to Florimel explaining what you've been up to. And how you created the Vortex."
How you exploited a vulnerable child's anger.
How you exploited me.
She goes a little pale.
Florimel is fiercely protective of me. And, while their brothers may be blind to quite how viciously effective she can be in pursuit of a grudge, Fiona is very much not.
No one who has any idea of what Florimel is really capable of wants to be on her wrong side.
Especially not whilst in Amber.
I hadn't told anyone about what had happened before now.
It had been too personal, too private. And, despite everything that living in my family had taught me, I'd somehow thought that Fiona really did care for me, in her own way, and I hadn't wanted to hurt her.
Maybe she really does. But she won't let that get in the way of business.
And now, neither will I.
Especially now because I've found something that I'm willing to kill for.
She's now in the firing line, and if family history has taught me anything, it's that loved ones are far from safe in conflicts.
I'm not going let anyone, especially Fiona, hurt her.
"Well played," she eventually says. "Now, if you don't mind, I believe I've got some packing to do."
And for the first time, she isn't talking me to me like I'm a child, a student.
It's an ambiguous achievement, but I'm going to take it for what it's worth.
Welcome to the family proper, I think sourly, and cut the connection.
I sit back in the chair, hanging my head backwards and staring at the ceiling.
This is my home now, and it's even, at long last, starting to feel that way.
Maybe even a proper home, without all the backstabbing.
And that's Kalinda's fault, really.
I'm going to give her all the time she needs, anything she wants that I can provide.
I'm going to wait until she's ready.
Because she isn't getting rid of me that easily, either.
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