Fourteen: "Good Intentions"

       The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. Apparently, the road to Amber is paved with all the other kinds.

       I find I don't feel so much like a leader of men as I do like an underpaid baby-sitter...
       We hit our first snag almost almost immediately the next morning, and it was a biggie. The good news is that we found Grayson. The bad news is he doesn't remember he is/was Grayson, and thinks we're all out to get him, including Gerda, who may actually be the only one rightfully accused of that, though not in the way Grayson thinks.
       After we'd rescued Gerda from him, and "convinced" him to come along back to camp, things continued to decline. Stark had taken his memory loss quite personally, wasn't helping the situation any with her snarky comments and her outright threats against both Gerda and Grayson. I parked Grayson well out of her range, and through gritted teeth pointed out to her that Grayson wasn't Grayson, really, and so heaping scorn upon him wasn't going to make either of them feel any better. I declined to add that it was only going to piss me off, as well. I like Stark. She's a sweet girl, but she's got to learn to either stop hooking up with weirdos, or stop taking it so personally when they go off the deep end. I'll give her credit for Dragos. I'd have beaten him to a pulp had I been in her shoes. But this whole mess with Grayson has gotten right out of hand. Add to that her tiff with Ilie...
       And then there's Gerda and Fletcher. If looks could kill, the ones they were exchanging would have solved my problems quite neatly. Alas, it was not to be so simple. Actually it was far simpler than I'd anticipated. Gerda neatly railroaded any ideas Fletcher had of killing her when she informed us that she knew the paths through Arden, and into Amber.
       Poor Fletcher. I wasn't sure if I should pity him, or laugh at him for the way his face fell when Gerda laid those cards on the table. Discretion being the better part of me not getting myself pummeled, I just withheld all comment.
       So night fell on a rather tension-laden gathering around the campfire. Ilie slunk off to take first watch, and Griffin informed Gerda we'd lost her sister while Fletcher glowered at her impotently. Merlin and Luke wisely avoided involvement in the drama by closeting themselves with the mirror. Stark and I played for a while, though she kept shooting her own dark looks at the forlorn Grayson, who had parked himself as far away from the rest of us as he could manage.
       When nothing violent happened for a while, I felt it was safe to leave the group unchaperoned for a bit, and went to find Ilie.
       He was hunkered down on the outskirts of the camp, knees hugged close to his chest and wings tightly furled against his back. I sat next to him, unconsciously mimicking his pose. "So, what's up?"
       "The night sky and stars," he commented, droll as ever.
       "Funny, ha ha. I see your devastating humor hasn't suffered, even if your usually perky demeanor isn't what it used to be." The gentle sarcasm earned me an unfathomable look, though he refrained from comment.
       "So, what the hell is up with you and Stark?" Tact and subtlety, me?
       His jaw got that set and stubborn line. It took a bit of prying and bullying, but I finally got him to admit what was up.
       "It is just that she keeps asking and asking about him, even though it is obvious she neither cares for him nor intends to return to him!"
       I almost laughed, but managed to quell the urge. "Um, Ilie, let me explain a little bit about male and female interaction where Stark and I come from."
       The irony of me explaining a normal relationship was not lost on me, thank you very much, but I dredged up my college psychology and managed to get my point across. I stressed for the hundredth time that Stark wasn't likely to ever take the marriage seriously, under the circumstances. "Frankly, Ilie, I wouldn't have let him of the hook nearly so... uninjured."
       "We were aware of that." A ghost of a smile crossed his face, and so I let the comment go without retort.
       "Anyway, It may be for the best. I think Stark really only got involved with Dragos to get back at Grayson."
       The smile vanished into a deep, deep frown. Bloody hell. Wrong thing to say. "Look, Ilie. Things are messy enough right now without you and Stark at each other's throats. And I just can't have you moping around all the time."
       "Why are you so concerned with my feelings?"
       I sighed. I wondered if all Eyriens were this dense, or if it just ran in Ilie and Dragos' line. "Because for one, I'm trying to keep this time-bomb of a party from blowing up, and two, I consider you a friend, and I'm worried about you."
       He blinked in what looked like utter astonishment. "I... well... I would like to be your friend."
       "Good." I stood. "just please try not to let Stark get to you. I have enough trying to deal with the others."

       With all continuing to remain quiet on the western front, I retrieved the mirror from Beaker and Dr. Honeydew and spent the rest of my evening fruitlessly scanning shadow for Harry, though I did see a scene of a man who looked very much like Griffin. I wondered if he had any siblings.
       I just hoped when all this was over, I still had one. Wherever you are, big brother, just... just don't do anything until I can come get you.
       My mirror-man also declined to put in an appearance. I had hoped to get some more details of the current climate in Amber before we showed up on his doorstep. Still, it'll be nice to be able to put a name to that intriguing face.
       Morning brought a new set of complications, in that griffin had some sort of dream-premonition that if we took Grayson to Amber, it might completely obliterate his mind. And then the arguing commenced. We finally came to an agreement (in part after I put my foot down) that we'd try this idea Griffin had, of hypnotizing Grayson so he couldn't think of our destination. It seemed successful, and off we went, our very own zombie king in tow.
       I had to wonder, as Merlin and Luke led us away from the fallen hulk of Ygg, what kind of impression we were going to make when and if we made it to our destination...


       Four days and another zombified party member later, after Merlin's ill-luck during our run-in with the basilisk, Amber stood before us in all its ragged, tragic glory.
       The place looked like the ruins I've seen in the far edges of the Northern Territories - once great fortresses fallen to ruin through the ravages of history and time. But this place was still alive, if one could call it that.
       We rode through a shattered town, and the hairs on the back of my neck rose at the unseen eyes that I knew watched us. Casually, I loosened my sword, in case the watchers were the angry type, and not the fearful type.
       We lucked out. Whoever had left this place in its current state weren't in residence, only the bitter victims of what looked like years of successful invasion.
       We coaxed out one, a tired man with a rusty sword, who looked at us like we could do him no more harm than had already been done. But he gave us his blessing, if you could call it such, to pass through the city streets, and to the castle. He also gave us the name of the man who led this place.
       Wondering (and hoping) if this Prince Matthias and my mirror-man were one in the same, I urged my horse on up the steep path to the crumbling castle, the others following, more subdued than I'd seen any of them in a long time.
       The Castle wall held the first intact gate we'd seen, and the guard atop it looked down on us with noticeable scorn. "And what is it that you lot want?"
       I sat up straight in my make-shift saddle. If I was going to play the leader, I should probably make some effort to look the part. I fixed the guard with look that (hopefully) impressed that I meant business.
       I had toyed for a moment with announcing us, but abandoned that idea almost immediately. What the hell would I say? "Hi, we're the Prince's long-lost cousins and we have the real king?" Diplomacy may not be my strongest suit, but even I understand the 'keep it simple, stupid' approach to international relations.
       So I went with the obvious. "We wish to speak with Prince Matthias."
       And then I steeled myself for the cynically-expected unfriendly response...