For just a little while, life was good again. I didn't even mind Griffin and Merlin's good-natured ribbing, even when they got Harry into it. For the first time in weeks, it felt like things were finally going right.
Excuse me while I go see if I have naive tattooed to my forehead.
Gesturing for Griffin to take the lead for a while, I reined my horse in a bit, dropping back to the rear of the group where Harry and Salome were studiously avoiding any conversation. I edged my brother off to the side a bit. "What's up?" I jerked my head in Salome's direction, and was rewarded with a patented Harrison Greyfalcon look of disdain.
"Whyever would anything be 'up'?"
"Because your forehead is all wrinkled up like it always gets when you're disgruntled."
He made a sour face at me, and I grinned like a fool. I wasn't able to pry any details of whatever it was between him and Salome (and honestly, I may really not want to know), but I had an enjoyable time bickering with him.
"So who is this 'Luke' character?" He asked suddenly.
I felt my cheeks go red, and heard a poorly muffled snort from Merlin's general direction. "An arrogant, insufferable man with a death wish." I looked back over my shoulder, to catch Merlin's eye, when Harry replied drolly, "Ah. No wonder you two seem to get along so well."
I at least had the satisfaction that Merlin had to literally bite his lip to keep from laughing. When I tuned back to Harry, he was staring straight ahead, expressionless, though the corner of his mouth twitched periodically.
Shaking my head, I sighed happily. Having Harry back was worth a little friendly humiliation.
That was pretty much the end of our reprieve. We found Shen about an hour later, under the night skies of a windswept plain of tall grasses. He wasn't as happy to see us as we were to see him, and when he'd finished explaining why, I really couldn't blame him. Even Salome was sobered by his news, and for just a moment her grief peeked through that bad-ass demeanor that so gets on my nerves. It made her seem a little more human, a little less like the enemy I'd pegged her for since day one. I still don't trust her, but I guess, maybe, I can understand her a little better.
Shen, on the other hand, was even more remote than usual, and that took a lot. He wore his sorrow like a cloak, which he drew about himself for what little protection it might afford. His eagerness to learn the Pattern rang of desperation, and his normally fathomless eyes were troubled. In the weeks we've all been together, Shen has been the only one of our number to seem mostly unaffected by all that has transpired. He's been our rock, a calming influence on us all.
Seeing him like this shook me, and my heart went out to him.
Were I the superstitious sort,
I'd have seen what happened in the
Rheari as an omen. As it was though, we rode back into Amber,
unsuspecting what awaited us. So, when we rode through the smoldering
town, and the shattered gates of the castle, it was with an air of stunned
disbelief. The Windriders had attacked in our absence, impossibly carrying
crude flintlocks and a cannon, and left the already-shattered city in even
Stark (who'd taken charge and done a damn good job of it) brought us up to date: how they'd emptied the treasury (bastards have the mirror!), and worse, kidnapped Matthias and Syrana. Fletcher had returned not long before us, and had gone out with Gerda to retrieve Gerard by Trump.
Griffin made no outward reaction other than the grim tightening of his mouth, but he stepped forward and said he was going after them.
"I'll go with you." I yanked the saddlebags from my horse, intending to restock provisions.
Griffin shook his head. "You have just been reunited with your brother..."
"I'm not letting you go off alone, Griffin. Harry's safe, and that's what counts. Besides, this sort of craziness is what I do best." That was the truth, but I also was deeply worried about Matthias. Given his infirmity, he wasn't likely to escape on his own. All he had was his status as a Prince of Amber. And Goddess only knows how far that will go with our enemy if we don't cooperate. Besides, it was a blow to morale Amber couldn't take right now. And we can't afford to parlay with terrorists. Best to foil their plans at the source. If it was Zamorna behind all this, all the better. He needed to be shown we weren't putting up with his crap any longer.
I was on my way into the castle when I overheard Stark telling Merlin that Luke had been shot three times. Once I had raided the pantry for a few more days worth of rations, I found the makeshift recovery ward that had been set up in one of the smaller dining halls. Luke was near the door, pale and apparently asleep. I walked over quietly, and he opened one eye. "You're back."
"And off again. Griffin and I are going after Matthias and Syrana," I explained at his quizzical look. I nodded at his bandage-swathed chest. "You're supposed to duck faster."
He made a face. "I'll have you know I got these protecting our prince. I think Syrana took one, too."
Oh, for the love of little green apples. It just kept getting worse. Luke nodded in agreement at my unhappy expression. "I'd best get going then." I gave him a last look. "Stay out of trouble, eh?"
He almost smiled as I turned and walked out the door.
Griffin and I made good time, following the trail of the retreating attackers. But for a short friendly spar as to our relative years of experience with the world, he was quiet and intense, in a way I hadn't seen him before. It seems recent events are brining out all sorts of hidden qualities in my companions.
Except for Fletcher, anyway. He was his usual genteel self, demanding I return to Amber when we caught up with him and Gerda. The resulting argument had the makings of a knock-down, drag-out fight until Gerda interrupted to remind Fletcher that I was in charge.
I'm not sure who was more suprised by that, me or Fletcher, but I wasn't going to complain. Frankly, if anyone should be returning to Amber it should be Fletcher and Gerda. Between the two of them they have more tactical skill and ingenuity than I could ever hope to have. I'm good with a sword, and better with a gun, but let's face it, I'm a front line kind of girl, and right now, Amber needs scheming minds as much as, if not more than a single sword. Besides, I may be good, but I'm not going to be able to make much of a difference against another full strength attack like Amber just weathered.
Commando-style raids, on the other hand, are just my thing...