I trailed my hand in the fountain's still water, watching the ripples collide and scatter. The stone edge upon which I was seated was chill, colder some might say than the stones around it. There is a legend I remembered hearing as a child; that stones have the power to hold someone's soul if that person's blood is spilled upon them. I held tightly to that thought after Pappa was killed here. Some of the staff found it morbid I do think, and perhaps it was, but here I feel like I can still sense him, still feel him in my heart. Soft footsteps interupted my melancholy musings. Only one person ever dares to approach me when I am here, so without turning, I said, "Come to make sure I am keeping myself out of trouble, Jero?"
He snorted as he loomed over me. "Though you might like to go for a walk."
Our grounds are crisscrossed by many tree-lined paths, some miles of them in fact. As children, Jero, Randy and I spent countless hours in their maze, creating fantastical worlds of adventures and myths. I suddenly found that somewhat ironic as Jero and I paced in silence along the smooth dirt, each of us quietly contemplating the fantastical world and adventures we had left that morning.
I was about to break the silence when something ahead caught my eye. Rhigothiel had just crested the horizon, and in the moon's pale glow I saw a figure melt out of the trees. I stopped.
Jero did as well, and the figure, heavily cloaked, stepped directly into our path. The hood fell away from the figure's face and I could not contain a gasp of shock as delicately curved and tapered ears were revealed by Rhigothiel's growing light.
"You are brave, to tread here," I said quietly, recovering my composure.
Nodding, his almondine eyes locked on mine, and hesitantly he spoke. "This may seem an odd question, my lady, but could you tell me your name?"
"Elaine Madaari." I sensed Jero tense at my ready reply, but I was quite curious. The Danjan was taking great risk by his very presence here, and had he meant me harm, I'd likely already me dead. No. I wanted to know what was so important to bring him into the heart of Glorethien.
"And..." He seemed nervous, and eager all at once. "And, my lady, your mother's name?"
I hesitated before replying this time. "Annaleine." He nodded in absent thanks.
"Now," I started conversationally, "perhaps you will return the favor and identify yourself."
He blinked, as if he had not been expecting that question. "I am Lytos. I am a cousin of our late emperor." He gazed at me for a long moment.
"Well, Lytos, pray tell what interest you have in me and my mother." I wanted to run over and shake the information out of him, but kept my calm and played it out slowly. If he had any true words of my mother, I didn't dare risk losing them to temper or impatience.
Again, that mix of fear and excitement. "I believe, Lady Elaine, that I know your mother...
Almost unconsciously I stepped forward to hear his words when an arrow suddenly sprouted from his throat, and I was knocked to the ground by Jero as another shaft passed through the very spot I had stood a moment before.
The next moments passed in a blur as Harlan appeared from the path behind us and tackled the archer out of a nearby tree. When the scuffle ended, I pulled myself up and surveyed the scene. The archer was quite dead, his fall having broken his neck. But the Danjan still breathed.
Pulling away from Jero, I ran to the prone form and fell to my knees at his side. "Please, I must know..." He could not speak, and in desperation I touched his mind, and was drawn into a swirl of images, those thoughts of a dying man. But for a moment, he heard me, and I saw in his thoughts an image of a dias, upon which stood a woman near a throne,holding hands with a tall Danjan. Lytos impression of the man was of respect and love to a family member, but my focus was locked on the woman at his side. My mother.
Shaking, I broke away as the light in his eyes died. When I finally stood, Harlan was there, watching me with some concern. He handed me a gold coin. "I found this in his pockets," he gestured back to the would-be assassin.
It was not Glorethien, but Harlan, frowing slightly, then added, "It's from Lira. One of the Golden Circle Shadows."
"Harlan, I would like to speak with you on this matter when we return to the house."
He looked down at me with a sharp look. "Of course. After we return to the house." He nods at the trees in a manner that seems to say "unless you want to wait around for more tree-skulking assassins."
We slipped quietly into the house, and without a word Jero vanished off in the direction of the kitchens. Conducting Harlan to one of the still intact sitting rooms, I lit the lamps. "What, if anything, did you learn of my mother during your search, Harlan?"
Ever the proper gentleman, he stood waiting for permission to sit. "Quite a bit, but none of why..."
I gestured him to a seat, but stood looking out the window myself, trying to calm my still fluttering heart. "The why will resolve itself when we know all of the what, cousin." I stared out into the darkness, pushing the window open to breathe deeply of the fresh air scented with the garden of flowers in full bloom. "If you would tell me what you learned..."
"She has a predilection for medieval landscapes," he began, "and for solving problems. The first place I tracked your mother to, she was revered as a saviour, a bringer of peace." He pauses. "When I got to this shadow, I could tell it was different. It is a guarded shadow. I don't know how well guarded, but no one can enter or leave without being found by a troop of guardsmen. In any case, I tracked her first in this shadow to the Emperor's court."
"The Danjani Emperor," I echoed a bit distractedly, the images from Lytos' mind replaying in mine. I wondered if Pappa had known, or if his stalwart resistance to war had been due to some unconscious influence Mother had worked upon him.
"Yes," he replied.
The moons were now completely risen. Paewen dark in eclipse, while Rhigothiel shone brightly full and small Elirethien was just opening his eye. There are many fables of the moons, but I remember one in particular, one my mother oft told me at bedtime, that the moons were the eyes of the Bright Lady, and each saw into a different part of a person. Tiny Elirethien was the eye of the Soul, Paewen the eye of the Heart. Bright Rhigothiel was the eye of the Truth, and as the story goes, so long as it shone open, no one could lie.
I remember now, that Rhigothiel had been in eclipse the night my mother died.
Such melancholy was not going to create answers. I turned from the window and seated myself across the way from Harlan. "The 'what' does not seem to be helping the 'why' in this respect," I commented wryly. "Unless it was her intention to forestall war between the Danjani and Glorethien."
He took a deep breath, looking suddenly uncomfortable. "I'm almost positive that this was her intention."
I felt a cold shiver run down my back. "And again we are left with the 'why,'" I met Harlan's eyes. "Unless you know something more..."
If anything, he looked even more uncomfortable, 'til he leaned forward in his seat, elbows on knees, and looked squarely at me. "Mirelle appears to have been married to the Emperor for some time. Then, suddenly, she disappeared one day. It was all the more tragic for the court because she was some months pregnant."
The analytical corner of my mind nodded agreeably with that, happy to see some of the little pieces fall into place. The rest though... "And exactly how long ago was this disappearance?" I replied in what I hoped was an even tone.
"About twenty-one years of this shadow's time." He nodded slowly at the expression of dawning comprehension in my eyes. "You look much like Mirelle. Enough so that it obscures your other parent's features."
I stood abruptly and strode back to the window before he saw the tears that suddenly welled.
"What more do you wish to know?" He eventually asked.
"All you know, Harlan," My voice sounded strained. "All of it." If my entire world was to crash down upon me, I at least wanted to know the details.
"The Emperor was so in love with Mirelle," he began to tell me, "that he never married again. Which left his succession in question. The throne there is empty. Completely vacant. There are any number of people struggling for a solution. And there is a group that is looking for the lost heir, convinced that Miranda-- that was her name there-- did not die before she gave birth."
I clutched the windowsill for support. Heir to the Danjani throne... that is one possible way to forestall war, indeed. Create a link of blood and influence. "Lytos, then was likely one of this group."
" Very likely."
For a long moment I tried to focus not on the truth of what he had told me, but only its consequences, none of which pleased me greatly. "The 'why' then becomes what interest an assassin carrying a coin from a Golden Cirle Shadow has with me or the truth behind... my birth."
"That, I do not know," he said. "And I wish I did."
"Well," I said with a forced and brittle cheeriness, still looking away out the window. "We have at least resolved some of the why." Why, Mother? Why?!
"I know it's hard," Harlan added softly, quite obviously seeing past my attempts at brushing off what I had just learned. Those quiet words hit me like a stone and I choked back a sob at the sudden welling of grief, anger and betrayal, covering my mouth with my hands to muffle the sound.
I heard Harlan rise and approach. "Elaine?" There was an edge of alarm in his voice.
"I... I'm fine." I silently cursed myself as my voice broke and betrayed my tears.
In a low, soft voice, Harlan commented, "It's very difficult to discover you're a child born for a destiny not of your choosing. It's like a blow to think that perhaps you weren't loved for yourself, but for what you are meant to accomplish, or to stand for." He now stood right at my side. "I can imagine it's all the harder for finding out so late."
"Almost everything I've known, or loved is either gone, or a lie..." I pressed the back of my hand to my lips as I choked back another whimper. I had not cried in front of anyone since the night my mother died. I was not about to start now!
I felt his hand settle gently on my shoulder "I know, Elaine," he said, his voice raw. "I know."
"People died because of who I am..." It was not death that bothered me, but the sense I felt that I had betrayed those who counted on me for protection. I had failed those for whom I was responsible.
"But not because you willed it." He pointed out, squeezing my shoulder gently. "Do you want me to fetch Jero?"
Shaking my head emphatically, I covered my face with my hands. Then, quite unexpectedly, Harlan's arm slipped about my shoulders. "It'll be all right..."
That simple gesture was more than I could handle at that moment, and I turned and sobbed against his chest. His other arm came around and he just held me in silence until I managed to pull myself together a few moments later. Drawing a kerchief from my sleeve, I wiped at my eyes, feeling an utter fool. "Forgive me. You must think me quite silly."
"On the contrary, my dear lady. As always, I find you quite charming."
I looked up to see a small, tender smile on his face, and I realized he more than understood. "Thank you... for understanding."
He gave a courtly half-bow. "My pleasure."
The release had been, I must admit, somewhat cathartic. Between three assasination attempts, the destruction of my home, the deaths of so many of my extended family, the various truths behind my heritage coming to light, and the introduction to Amber and all the baggage that brought with it, I'm a bit surprised I held it in this long. "Well," I could not quite contain the edge of wry amusement in my voice, "now that I've gotten that out of my system, perhaps we should discuss what motives someone from the Golden Circle, or Amber, may have in creating havoc in Glorethien. Or, why someone may want us to think that."
He turned to lean against the windowsill, arms crossed, looking out at an angle. "Several possibilities spring to mind. But I've seen no evidence for one over another."
That meant he was one step ahead of me. "Your counsel is always welcome," I hinted quite unsubtly.
He smiled faintly. "I know, I'm just trying to organize my thoughts. All right. From the beginning. Lira is a country with long-standing and good connections to Amber. It would be foolish for them now to change their stance, but not unheard of. There are... rumors of unrest in the Golden Circle, but none there could, in theory, be able to travel to shadows, especially shadows as distant as this." He paused. "It does fit that someone is trying to frame Amber's allies. Given the strange circumstances surrounding Des' kidnapping."
"Which," I mused, "from what I gathered, involved someone or someones of Amber blood."
"It would pretty much have to," he said reluctantly.
Another what put in place. "It would follow, then that whomever is trying to remove me knows of my Amber side, and likely knew of it before you found me. Unless they are just using that to as you said frame someone else, perhaps as a diversionary tactic."
We continued on like this until we both came to the realization we didn't have enough information to turn any of the whats we'd managed to confirm into whys. Harlan began to sketch as I paced. "Unfortunately, the Sorceror's Guild has gained no more information about Acrost or Raj..." I paused suddenly remembering my conversation with Jero about that, when I'd woken up after the explosion. "But Jero did have a run in with Raj right before he disappeared, and I believe Jero... obtained an item or two from Raj's person." "Perhaps we should call Jero in, then..."
I found a glum Jero in the kitchen I knew something was wrong; he hadn't eaten a bite of the oatmeal in front of him. "Harlan and I need to speak with you about your last run in with Raj. Are you all right, Jero?"
With a sigh he pushed the bowl away and followed me into the hall. "Am I all right? Nothing much is right, these days, Elaine. I've never wished more in all my life for a chance to start all over," he sighed again. "But to be honest, I don't think that would change a thing. I hate this, Elaine. I don't feel like there's any way me and mine can change anything."
I stared down at the floor, unable to meet his eyes. "Jero,I'm so sorry you got caught up in all this."
"Bright Lady, Elaine, it's not your fault. You were just going along like the rest of us until they tripped you up."
"Not my fault, perhaps, Jero, but still because of me... It's become far more complicated, Jero. Far more than either of us could have imagined."
"Hmp," he grunted. "It's fair humbling, is what it is."
I stopped, placing a hand on his arm. "Jero, I must tell you... what I learned from Harlan. You... deserve to know, to make any decisions about continuing on here, with me."
"So, tell me already."
I dragged him off to an empty side room, not wanting to have this discussion in the middle of the hall. "I discovered, from the Danjani, and Harlan confirms, that my mother, before coming here, was married to the Danjan emperor. She vanished from there 21 years ago, and was pregnant at the time."
He frowned, pausing to take this in. "Well, I wouldn't say that makes you Danjani for sure," he said, ruffling his hair a bit. "What with all this in and out of shadows, and so on, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if that were completely circumstantial evidence." He leaned back against the wall. "And if it is true, I think you should remember you're Madaari. Doesn't much matter to me who your father was once, it was who your father was when it mattered. Right? Right." He nodded to himself sharply.
There were few constants in my world of late, and it was good to know I could count on Jero's innate sense of how the world should work to keep me on an even keel.. "Thank you, Jero. But if the Danjan do believe I am their lost heir, and come looking again, it may come out. I just felt you should be aware of the possible... complications."
He heaved a deep sigh. "Well, yeah, that could get complicated. Since you'll have no Madaari blood then. Your rivals won't look too well on that, a foreigner ruling a house here."
"Even those who are my allies may shift sides if that comes to light."
He sniffed slightly, as though he was coming down with a cold, and nodded. "Well, there is surely a way around it, and it'll come to me sooner or later."
I gripped his arm tightly. "No doubt it will," I smiled softly at him. "But in the meantime, perhaps we can hasten it along by talking to Harlan..."
"Yes, yes, first you stop me, then you chide me for not hurrying. Women!" He smiled down at me, patting my hand.
"And whatever would you men do without us..." and sticking my tongue out at him, I went into the study, but not before I heard "...probably end up like Joaquim," faintly from behind me.
Jero upended the bag of items he had taken from Raj. Out dropped a large, red jewel set on an earring, a star sapphire ring, and a small, folded piece of paper.
The paper held a script I did not recognize and I dropped it back on the pile with a frown. Harlan's face held much the same expression as he surveyed yet more whats we coudn't fit into the grabd why. "I think we may need help."
I could not help but laugh softly. "So we are back to square one."
"At least it's a square we know," Harlan smiled.
Jero, looking between us, coughed slightly. "Well, as it happens, when I was in Amber, I asked about the gems and the piece of paper," he admitted with an embarrassed look.
I gave Jero a long, knowing look. "And were you, Captain Olassa, going to tell me that at any point?"
He sniffed. "Well, I figured you were going to ask sometime, and I didn't want to interrupt your busy-ness."
Harlan watched our 'battle' with a grin as Jero took in my mock glare. "Awright," Jero grumped, as he always does when I pretend I am annoyed with him. "That Lady Fiona says that the red one is probably a dragon's blood stone. The last drop of dragon's blood produces a jewel, usually the color of the blood, see? And you can use it for lots of different things." He rubs his nose. "The Lady Fiona has a theory that their crown jewel, the big one, the Jewel of Judgement, is a similar sort of thing-- o' course, theirs comes from the oldest, biggest, most powerful dragon, and this one is from a teeny, tiny little one, probably barely a dozen years old or so. Yeah. So, it's supposed to get warmer when you wear it. And the star sapphire is a spell that's been enchanted to track something-- you, Elaine. And the paper is a note in the High Religious Script of Chaos, whatever that is, saying 'meet at noon'."
I refrained from grinding my teeth in frustration. More damned misleading or confusing pieces. "I have only heard bits about Chaos. What interest would they have in me?"
"We still don't know where Mirelle is," Harlan mused in partial reply. "With the very real possibility that she is alive, who knows what she might be up to."
"Quite true," I said, frowning faintly. "It is either utterly simplistic, or there are implications within implications. "Perhaps Chaos attempting to implicate Lira, or someone attempting to implicate Chaos, or yet another, possibly even Mother, doing both..." I rubbed at my temples. This was going to give me a headache.
Harlan shrugged. "It's too deep for me, really. I only know that Random wants to find her... badly."
My uncle wasn't the only one. "Indeed, I would like to find her as well," I looked again out the window into the darkened gardens, subtly lit by Rigothiel's light, an edgy of icy cold in my voice. I had the sense of a silent exchange behind me, though when I looked back, Harlan was studying his map, and Jero seemed to be working at a hangnail.
I wasn't fooled, and I think Harlan realized that, for he looked up at me. "I'm still trying to find her, Elaine."
I gave them both a long look, but only nodded at Harlan's comment. "Since we seem to have reached the end of our proverbial rope, for the time being, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I think I will retire for the evening." I needed time, time and space to grieve again and think and plan.
I will be no pawn in someone else's game, so mayhap I will have to start my own as player...
Jero walked me back to my room, still uneasy at letting me out of his sight. "I'm going to have to go back to Amber fairly soon, Jero."
"Oh, I know. But you'll be fine there as long as I'm with you, eh?" He grinned.
I flung my arms around his neck and hugged him tight. "Whatever would I do without you?"
"Oh, I don't know," he said, looking embarrassed, "but you'd probably do it with less style."
That earned him a mock swat. "Let us not get into an argument of style, Captain. I wouldn't want to humiliate you," I teased, happy for this tiny moment of normal. "Good night, Jero."
"Good night, Elaine."