She walks away from Amber.

~oaks become pine trees, the air cools, the pressure drops~

Stubborn, that’s what her father used to call her. That, and several far unkinder words. She remembers a time, when she was still a child, when her father was kind. He changed, of course. He moved on to other women and forgot her, forgot the echo of her mother he used to see in her.

~snow begins falling, clouds dipping lower to drop thick drifts of it, turning the world white~

She saw him repeat that process over and over. With each new woman, be she mistress or wife, there would be children, and he would dote on the boys like little war heroes, and the girls like miniature beauty queens. Her sisters accepted that while learning to fight was expected of them, they should never be unfeminine, and they should never surpass their brothers. It was for men to rule, and women to look vapidly pretty.

But not Deirdre. Deirdre was stubborn.

~a shifting of cloud reveals a glimpse of the cliff drop, the grey valley below~

Benedict tried to teach her the value of meeting expectations. He said that being underestimated was a useful strength. Easy for him to say that. Nobody ever underestimated his skills.

~the clouds close in again, the whole world nothing but white, only the sound of her footsteps and distant noises to give clues about location, as the sound of far-off farm animals drifts through the fog~

And her sisters? Llewella, with her pitying smile, so smugly superior to the drylanders. Erica, always giving orders and trying to explain what was ‘for the best’. Matilda, trying to fit in with the commoners. Fiona, always with her head in a book. Julia, inexplicable to all but her brothers. Flora, with a different sort of pitying smile, as though a disinterest in makeup revealed some deficiency of intellect. Sand, with dirt under her fingernails but never on her clothes. And little Mirelle, hiding in Caine’s skirts. The only one of her sisters worth anything was Alma.

And look what we did to her.

~somewhere in the fog, somebody is chopping wood~

Deirdre scowls, and sets aside that train of thought. Not helpful. Not useful. She imagines discarding trump cards in her mind, dropping each one in turn until only Benedict is left. Benedict. Stubbornness. Expectations.

~the sound of axe on timber fades away, replaced by a faint rumble, perhaps a waterwheel~

She’s always had a talent for walking shadow. She’s reasonably certain that she’s done far more of it than her siblings. She’s almost positive that she and Alma were the only ones who ever tried to walk through Chaos. It was stubborn determination that got her through that. An unwillingness to admit that she was less than anything. A desire to prove that there were things she could do that her brothers could not.

~the noise becomes harsher, deeper, then recognisably mechanical~

So when they hide in shadow, sometimes it’s amusing to let them know that she can still find them. And it must be noted that Benedict is not particularly good at hiding.

Or perhaps it’s simply that he’s only hiding from certain people.

Deirdre smiles at that, imagining the cat’s-bum expression Erica makes when she’s stymied.

~voices now, and engines, and through the white the faint smell of oil~

Then she remembers all the pointless and frustrating shadow walks she took looking for Corwin, and her smile vanishes.

Stop thinking about Corwin.

~oil and petrol and the rich smells of food and the noise of a city~

Benedict. Xing Fú.

Xing Fú. That’s her father’s attitude to the ‘other’ right there. His mother named him after the fashion of her people, but Oberon’s children must be named by him, not by a mere woman. So Benedict he became.

How humiliating.

~the city noise becomes duller, petrol engines replaced with quietly thrumming electrics, still the susurrus of people but now a blending of languages, still the smells of food but more spices~

She asked him once if he preferred to be called by his Venway name or his Amber one. He said that he belonged to neither, so what did it matter?

~spices, meat, people, engines large and small, and a million tiny devices beeping for attention~

She pauses, head cocked to one side. Almost there.

~a slamming door, a tinkling bell, the smell of dust~

She ducks.

The flitter misses her by mere millimetres, fog pushed before it and curling behind it, the sound of a horn and a thread of colourful swearing receding quickly.

She smiles, taking in her surroundings as the movement of the crowd and the passing of traffic slowly sweep away the fog.

“Shadow-walking without visual cues,” she mutters. “I’d like to see the boys try that.”

The store front is glossy with colour, pieces of recovered stained glass distorting the figures within. Most of it looks like religious artwork, windows from old churches, but there are a few blocks of more modern glass. The glass is perfectly clean, the people glimpsed inside are well-dressed, sipping coffees and tall glasses of juice. It all looks as though it’s trying a bit too hard. What’s that word Lara used? Hipster.

On the surface, ‘trendy coffee bar’ doesn’t seem like the sort of place she should find her brother, but her senses tell her this is where he is, so she pushes open the door. The swing of the door sets off a tiny bell, and a man behind the counter glances over. He scans the new customer cursorily, and smiles as though very tired.

“Coffee?” He asks, disinterested.

Deirdre meanwhile, has in those few moments taken in the people in the cafe (regulars and tourists, all quite forgettable), the layout of the place (tables placed haphazardly, and judging by the scratches on the floor, moved regularly), and the presence of a large pile of tatami against one wall (currently being used as a lounging station by a satisfied Birman cat, but enough to cover the floor), and the ‘no entry’ sign across the staircase.

“Two espressos, please,” she says.

“What blend?” Drawls the barista. “We have-”

Deirdre cuts him off. “Medium strength, not too acid.”

Five minutes later, she collects the two coffees and makes for the stairs.

“Oh, you can’t go up there,” the barista says tartly.

She pauses on the bottom step, balances the two coffees in one hand, and lifts the chain barrier, daring the barista to do something. He frowns.

“Well, when he throws you out, don’t complain about the bruises,” he says. He goes back to cleaning the coffee machine. “Bloody groupies,” he mutters under his breath.

She follows the smell of dusty books upstairs.

Groupies. Hagen certainly had that problem, but never Benedict. No, Benedict made too great a study of aloofness to ever attract that kind of obsession.

The room at the top of the stairs clearly serves many purposes. There’s a small bed against the far wall, with an old mahogany chest at its foot. In front of the chest (clearly doing double duty as both chair and storage) is an easel currently set up with blank canvas. Nearby is a collection of paints and jars of brushes, and several completed canvases lean against the wall beside the artist’s detritus.

Bookshelves hug the wall to either side of the doorway, and frame a garret window whose sill is also serving as a coffee table. An overstuffed high-backed chair is positioned just so in the sunbeam admitted by the window, and is occupied by a smug caramel coloured Birman cat, perched on the high back of the chair, and her brother Benedict, sitting with one leg curled beneath him, a book in his lap. Neither look particularly happy to see her, but feline enjoyment is always so hard to discern.

Benedict arches one eyebrow. The cat stretches languidly, demonstrating that the entire chair belongs to it, and it alone.

“Coffee.” Deirdre holds out one of the cups. After a moment, Benedict takes it, setting aside his book. He doesn’t offer her a chair, but then, there aren’t any to offer.

“This is an unexpected pleasure,” he says.

Deirdre lowers herself to the floor, folding up cross-legged without disturbing her coffee. “I need to ask a favour,” she says.

The other of Benedict’s eyebrows lifts to join the first. This is followed shortly thereafter by, much to Deirdre’s surprise, a smile. He lifts the coffee cup, inhales the aroma, and stares at Deirdre over the wafting steam.

“Caught you at a good time, then?” she mutters, filling the silence with the first thing that comes into her head. Benedict’s always made her nervous. Always makes everybody nervous.

“Is my good humour really so rare?” says Benedict.  

“No. Yes.” Deirdre scowls. “I mean, you always make us feel as though we’re interrupting something.”

“What do you expect, when you turn up unannounced?”

“It’s not like I could have made an appointment.”

“It must be said; you didn’t try to.”

Deirdre regards her brother critically for a moment. This conversation constitutes more small talk than she’s had from Benedict in a hundred years. Since he does nothing without good reason, she begins to wonder what he’s stalling for. She blinks. Or who.

“Benedict,” she says slowly, “who are we waiting for? Do I have cause to be worried?”

A slow sigh, and Benedict reaches up to scritch the cat. It commences purring, slinks into his lap and throws itself on its back. He dangles fingers over it as the creature bats playfully at his hand.

“You are out of practice, sister,” he says, sounding slightly annoyed. “One: I am sitting in full sunlight, which puts me, as well you know, at a disadvantage. This should tell you that I knew you were coming, and that I chose to display that I meant you no harm. Two: I accepted your gift,” here he lifts the coffee cup slightly, the motion attracting the keen attention of the cat. “and thus we have entered a relationship of guest and host, which you should know I take very seriously. And third,” here he pauses, and fixes Deirdre with a pitying look that takes her back to uncomfortable lessons as a child, “third, I have chosen not to take offense at your assumption that I am in any way playing the petty politics so attractive to my younger siblings.”

Deirdre squirms. “I’m… sorry?”

“Apology accepted,” says Benedict lightly. He smiles again, warm and open. Deirdre hasn’t seen him smile like that for an age.

“You just seem … different.”

“Perspectives change,” says Benedict gnomically. “You said you needed to ask a favour. From you, that is just as extraordinary.”

“I…” her brows pull together in an expression equal parts annoyance and distress. “I learned not to ask for help.”

“Perhaps it’s time we stopped recommitting the sins of the past.”

Her expression doesn’t change. “Really. You’d know all about that, brother.” She regrets it the moment she says it, but it’s too late now.

Benedict makes a face. “Is this to be that old argument again, sister? Where you accuse me of murdering Harla’s children by failing to act? Or the one where I’m responsible for father disowning you because I refused to lie about your weir-taint? Or is it the one where I should have put myself on the throne? I am just as tired of being told what I ought to do as everybody else is.”

The silence stretches between them, ancient and sullen.

“Erica’s dying,” she says finally, wanting to say anything to fill that awful quiet and clutching at the first thing that comes into her head.

“I am aware,” snaps Benedict. “Do you expect me to swoop in and rescue her? Because the idea is both offensive and impossible.”

Deirdre shakes her head. “No, I know. It’s just, I wasn’t sure you knew.”

“You would do well to offer her your support, Deirdre.”

“She wouldn’t accept it from me,” says Deirdre. “And I’m not sure I can forgive her for what she did to Corwin.”

Benedict sighs. “In a few months your moral high ground may well be moot.”

“Yours too, I suppose,” says Deirdre, annoyed.

“I thought you came here to ask me a favour,” he says, changing the subject.

After a moment, Deirdre nods. “There’s somebody I need to apologise to,” she says.

Deadpan. “Only one?”

She ignores the comment. “This person has a particular fondness for whiskey, and I know you have some knowledge about that, so I thought you’d be the best person to ask.”

Benedict looks thoughtful. “Flora?” he asks.

Deirdre takes a sudden deep interest in her coffee. “No. Just. Somebody else.”

“Huh.” Benedict considers his sister, the nervous way she’s avoiding the subject, and decides it’s probably a lover. Given how careful she’s been about keeping her lovers a secret in the past, it’s probably serious. “Perhaps you could tell me a little about this person? Whiskey is rather a broad church.”

Her fingers tighten on the cup. “That could be complicated,” she says quietly.

“Because you don’t trust me.” It’s not a question, or even an admonishment. Just a simple fact.

A sad little smile pulls at the corner of her mouth.

“Yet you trust Corwin, who is far more self-centered than I.” He pauses. “Than any of us, except perhaps Bleys.”

“Corwin had the courage to stand between me and Dad, which is a damn sight more than you did.” She’s not sure, but she she thinks she sees him flinch.

“The safety of Amber–”

“Don’t give me that fucking speech again, Benedict.”

There’s a clatter of porcelain as he puts the coffee cup down on the window sill. She glances up, expecting that stern look he always wore when his siblings had crossed a line. Instead, he looks thoughtful. His brow is deeply furrowed, and he’s chewing on his lower lip. He looks, she realises, very young.

“Please forgive me,” he says at last. “I’ve fallen back into old habits.”

She stares at him, open-mouthed.

“It is none of my business who you want the gift for, and I should not use it as an opportunity to score points in our petty family feud.”

She closes her mouth, but still can’t think of anything to say. She’s always thought of Benedict as their father’s creature, always aloof, and so, so careful not to breach any of Oberon’s edicts. This strange vulnerability puts her on edge, and she wonders again what game he’s playing, beneath the friendly facade and the insistence he’s not playing games at all. Because of course he’s playing games. We all play games.

“Come back tomorrow,” says Benedict. “I’ll have a bottle for you.”

+++

She comes back the next day, timing her visit to the setting sun. She does this for many reasons, among them a need to show Benedict that she’s not afraid to approach him when he’s at his strongest.

But the garret room is empty when she arrives. The birman cat is curled up in the easy chair, snoring gently.

On the chest at the foot of the bed is a box, its leather binding embossed with art nouveau leaves. An envelope of thick cream paper sit atop it, inscribed, in Benedict’s carefully florid calligraphy, with her name.

Deirdre opens the envelope, noting there’s no seal. Inside is a card with a simple inscription – “for your friend”, and a letter.

“This bottle of Uisgebaugh, or ‘water of life’, is taken from one of the three barrels of ancient spirit discovered by archeologists working on the Auchindoun Castle ruins. It is thought that the barrels were buried during the Jacobite rising, and they have been dated to the early 1700s. It is thought that the spirit’s survival is due to the unexpectedly fine oak grain of the casks. The spirit is blessed with a unique bouquet. It is robust, powerful, melodious, and utterly graceful. A sublime mix of coffee beans, black pepper, potpourri and butterscotch, with an oaked intensity and muscular malt.”

Deirdre reads the letter in silence, then looks at the box, afraid to open it. “300-year-old whiskey,” she mutters. “I’m almost tempted to try that myself.”

+++

Dorina likes the palace at this time of morning. Too early for the royal family to be up and about. At least, too early for the ones she prefers to avoid. The terrifying ones.

She’s humming to herself as she works, dusting Lady Lara’s rooms. She’s thinking about the break she’ll take this afternoon, to go down to the city and steal some time with the chandler’s assistant. She knows her mother would say he’s ‘beneath her’, that a royal lady’s maid should be setting her sights far higher. But she likes Arnolph. He’s sweet and kind.

She hears a noise, as of somebody clearing their throat, and she looks around, annoyed to be interrupted. But the admonishment dies on her lips when she sees the person standing in the doorway. Her Royal Highness, the Princess Deirdre. Definitely one of the terrifying ones. She swallows hard, then remembers herself and sinks into a low curtsey.

“Your highness?”

Deirdre makes a little huffing noise. “I don’t bite,” she says sharply, “and I’d prefer not to enter the room without the owner’s permission, so could you-?” She gestures with one hand at the box held out in the other.

Dorina blinks, then rises slowly. Trying to make herself as small as possible, she slinks across the room and bobs another curtsey, fixing her gaze firmly on the floor. She knows from palace gossip that Princess Deirdre doesn’t like the staff, or at least, she growls at them whenever they try to clean her rooms, and has been known to throw things if interrupted.

Deirdre holds out the box with both hands, and Dorina takes it carefully, managing to neither meet the princesses’ gaze, nor brush her fingers.

“Give it to your mistress when she returns,” says Deirdre.

“Y-yes, highness,” says Dorina, bobbing another curtsy.

When the princess leaves, Dorina realises she’s been holding her breath. She steadies herself a moment, and then carefully carries the box over to Lara’s big oak desk. She sets it down with exaggerated care, squaring it up against the desk blotter.

The envelope accompanying the box is dark blue, and Lara’s name name is printed on it in a style rather more floral than Dorina would have expected from princess Deirdre. She double-checks the arrangement of desk, box, and envelope, and when satisfied, she collects her dusting cloth and closes the door behind her.

+++

The Gift

An oaken box, dressed in leather, embossed with leaves in an art nouveau style. Within, a bottle of fine crystal, containing an amber liquid.

bottle

In the envelope, there are two notes.

The first is on pale blue marbled paper:

Lara,

There are a great many things I fear to tell you, and a great many things I cannot say. I can’t apologise, or take back any of the things I’ve done. Accept this gift, and know that no matter how much it may seem otherwise, I would stand between you and any horror you face.

Deirdre.

The second is printed on thick creamy white stock, and reads:

This bottle of Uisgebaugh, or ‘water of life’, is taken from one of the three barrels of ancient spirit discovered by archeologists working on the Auchindoun Castle ruins. It is thought that the barrels were buried during the Jacobite rising, and they have been dated to the early 1700s. It is thought that the spirit’s survival is due to the unexpectedly fine oak grain of the casks. The spirit is blessed with a unique bouquet. It is robust, powerful, melodious, and utterly graceful. A sublime mix of coffee beans, black pepper, potpourri and butterscotch, with an oaked intensity and muscular malt.

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