Crackle. Swish crump.

Runa looks up from her whetstone. The tent is otherwise still and quiet, and that sound – repetitive but annoyingly irregular – is beginning to get on her nerves.

Crackle. Swish crump.

This isn’t her normal bivouac. Normally she’s out to the east, only coming back in to Arden proper for formal reports, or the increasingly rare family dinners. She left Garnath to avoid all those family entanglements. She’d almost let herself forget all the aunts and uncles and cousins and flags and forms of address. Now recent events have the name Caderyn on everybody’s lips again and she feels like she’s been dragged back to Amber.

Crackle. Swish crump.

Of course, she didn’t have to come back. She could have written the report the Warden requested from memory, or sent her own agents into the city, or written to her cousins for information. But it just didn’t seem right to keep it at arm’s length.

In any case, she doubts she’d have found out half so much if she’d done it from a distance. Not that was she has found is particularly comforting. Necromancy is not her area of expertise. Nor are curses, or possession, or the blessed pattern of Amber.

Crackle. Swish crump.

“Oh, Brac’s teeth! That’s it!” Runa puts down the whetstone, sheathes her knife, and pushes herself out of the chair. She strides over to an internal wall of the tent and pulls back the flap.

The Warden is in the space beyond, sitting on a low stool with a wooden writing-board balanced on her knees. She’s surrounded by rugs, cushions, three enormous stormhounds, and a growing pile of crumpled-up paper balls.

One of the stormhounds swivels an ear in Runa’s direction. Another opens its eyes, huffs a doggy hello, and goes back to sleep. The third wags its tail, just once. Thump.

“Runa,” says the Warden, not looking up from the letter she’s trying – and judging by the pile of scrunched-up paper – failing, to write. “What is an appropriate way to begin a polite letter to a vague acquaintance who is also a member of your family?”

Runa frowns at the scene, not quite sure what to say.

“Oh, this is useless.” Julia peels the topmost sheet off the pile of paper.

Crackle. Swish crump.

“My brothers write letters all the time. It cannot be that difficult.”

“I thought you had a secretary to do this?” says Runa.

The Warden looks up. He expression is somewhere halfway between a frown and a pout. “I didn’t think it was appropriate. Secretaries are for official correspondence.”

“Well, just pretend you’re writing to one of your brothers, then.”

“Why would I need to write to them when I can trump them?”

Runa frowns. “You’ve never written to them?”

“Do you write to people you see every day?”

“No. But I do write to my family.” She winces. “Well, not so much lately, but, you know, I send them something on Candlemas. That sort of thing.”

The Warden stares at Runa, either annoyed or confused.

“Do you do Candlemas?” asks Runa. There’s another reason she doesn’t often visit Amber. She’s never quite sure if she should be scared of her boss, or sorry for her. Of course she doesn’t do Candlemas. Her father probably invented it.

“You’ll write it.” The Warden suddenly thrusts the board at Runa, startling one of the stormhounds, who whuffs and looks around the room in case there’s an enemy he should be biting.

“Ah.” Runa learns forward and reluctantly takes the board. “Only, I’m not sure I’ll be any good at this.”

“Please.” It’s half an entreaty, and half a statement of fact.

Runa sighs. She’s heard all the jokes the rangers tell about the Warden’s lack of social graces, but she’s rarely on the receiving end of them. And really, how can you say ‘no’ to a being capable of altering reality? She sits down on one of the cushions and arranges the board in her lap. “Okay. Who’s the letter to?”

Julia pushes one of the stormhounds until it finally, with a sad doggy look of intense betrayal, stands up. She plucks a letter from the floor where the dog had been lying. “My niece, Sioned.” The hound sits heavily, and commences staring at its mistress, waiting for a sign that it can lie back down again. Julia unfolds the letter, gaze flicking over the contents.

“Do you like her?”

The Warden frowns gently. “She’s not an idiot.” After a moment’s thought she adds, “She’s very competent.”

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’,” says Runa. She writes ‘Dear Sioned’ at the top of the paper. “Next, was it a nice letter? Friendly?”

“Extremely useful. She poses some very interesting hypotheses on integrating pattern in conjured items to effect an explosive reaction.”

Runa writes ‘Thank you for your letter. I am most intrigued by your proposals.’

The seated stormhound gives up on Julia and heaves itself back to its feet, walks a few paces over to Runa, and lowers itself heavily to the floor beside her. She’s forced to lift the writing board so the hound can rest its enormous head in her lap. She scratches it behind one ear and it slowly wags its tail. Gingerly, Runa rests the board on the flat top of the dog’s head. It doesn’t seem to mind, so she leaves it there.

“So. She’s got some good concepts. Did you want to talk with her about them? Use them yourself? Have her over for a conjuration party?”

Julia looks slightly surprised. “Do people do that?”

Runa shrugs. “I don’t know. Esmond seems like the sort who would. And she’s … friends … with him, isn’t she?”

“Esmond is not a conjurer. And he’s her lover.”

“Right.” Runa makes a mental note to remember her bosses’ predilection for straight-talking. “So, invite her over to discuss in more detail, then?”

“That sounds like something I’d do,” says Julia.

‘I would be very pleased if you could find some time to discuss your theories in more detail,’ writes Runa. ‘Please feel free to make use of my trump when convenient.’ Runa frowns at the page. “You’ll have to re-write this, so it’s in your handwriting. It’ll look strange otherwise.”

“Yes, yes,” says Julia, frowning intensely at Sioned’s letter.

“Was there something else in the letter?”

Julia looks up. “I don’t know. It’s the sort of thing Caine would say, and I can never tell the difference between him making fun and making comment.”

“I am amazed that he makes fun of you at all.”

Julia smirks. “Oh, he doesn’t. But he does it to Gerard all the time.”

“So, what’s the comment, then?”

Julia looks back at the letter and reads out a passage from the end. “Were the scorpions in your necklace conjurations, or actual scorpions?” She frowns. “Surely a conjurer of her talent would not think that conjured animals are not real?”

“Err.” Runa parses the sentence in her head, and can’t find anything peculiar. “I think she just means ‘were they conjured scorpions, or were they scorpions you found and bent to your will’.”

“I don’t see how the two are any different.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it. I don’t think she’s making a joke, anyway.”

“Hmm.” Julia puts down Sioned’s letter. “What else do I need to write?” She is beginning to sound annoyed by the process.

“Well, maybe just answer her question, and then a nice closing and we’ll be done. Were they conjured scorpions?”

The Warden arches an eyebrow. “Scorpions are not native to this area of Arden. At least not that small. Of course I conjured them.”

“Okay, then.” She writes ‘Thank you for asking about my jewellery. The creatures were conjured.’ She lowers the pen, looking at her boss thoughtfully. “You don’t get to play with other conjurers much, do you?”

“It’s a rare enough skill,” says Julia. “Although there are great many who do a little of it badly, those who have actual talent in it are very rare.”

“That’s what I thought.” She finishes the letter with ‘I look forward to pursuing matters of conjuration with you further.’

Runa pushes the dog off her knee, eliciting a soft growl of annoyance, and stands up, handing the board back to Julia. “Here you go, sir. Re-write it in your hand and sign it, it’ll be all good.”

“And this is how normal people write to each other?”

“I really have no idea.” Runa smiles. “You’re an immortal reality-bending princess, and I’m a steward for a third of the forest that spans all of shadow. To be honest I don’t think anybody who lives in Amber does normal.”

+++

Dear Sioned,

I would be very pleased if you could find some time to discuss your theories in more detail. Please feel free to make use of my trump when convenient.

Thank you for asking about my jewellery. The creatures were conjured.

I look forward to pursuing matters of conjuration with you further.

Julia

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