Someone is trying to contact me.
I cautiously let the contact solidify, just enough, not too much, and a figure fades into view. Male. Tall. Alabaster-pale, raven-haired and ruby-eyed. Will. Of course, I know who is calling me as soon as I touch his mind: a tesseract of silver wire and sparkling gemstones, constant motion and dazzling glitter distracting from the murky depths within. Idly, I wonder how my mind feels to him.
Physically, Will - like Kalinda - appears more or less human. Apart from the eyes and a couple of other exotic touches. But his form is so carelessly attractive (by Amberite standards) that it has to have been carefully sculpted. He has a fighter's body, an athlete's body; taut muscles and whipcord strength. Perfectly proportioned. A firm jaw, but lips that seem made for laughter. Long-fingered, elegant hands. Musicians' hands. Or those of a master swordsman. Finally, the suggestion of a dimple in his chin. The merest hint of a flaw that somehow manages to transform him from handsome-but-forgettable to like unto a god.
Of course, coming from a family of near-enough gods and goddesses, divine perfection doesn't have quite the same impact it otherwise might.
Still, I do appreciate the familiar touch. And I let him sense that appreciation. After all, as Florimel would say, if someone takes the trouble to dress up for you, it's only good manners to acknowledge it.
Will is standing in his office, the open wall at his back revealing a view of broken and bleeding earth. As the contact stabilises, I see a distant jagged peak shudder visibly, belching clouds of thick black smoke into the air. A fresh wave of lava bubbles out to join on of the slow-moving rivers that cuts across the stark landscape.
Shield or not, there aren't many men who would be comfortable with an actively volcanic landscape at their back. But it certainly is dramatic. And, I have to admit, the ruddy glow of the lava sets off his current form and clothing to perfection.
He always did like to make an impression.
He's smiling, which is always a good start, though not a guarantee, and I find myself smiling in response.
He may be one of the heads of the Guild, with all the skullduggery and political maneuvering that implies these days, but I've always liked Will. We even had a thing, briefly, when I first came to the Courts.
"Alicia," he says. "Well done saving that world yesterday."
Florimel would have liked Will. Always start with a compliment, she'd say. It makes what comes next somewhat more palatable.
"Thank you," I reply, a little uneasily.
"Word of what happened has already spread far and wide." His smile is shaded with pride and admiration. "I've had requests for your personal intervention already."
He doesn't need to add that there are still far too many lords, even minor Houses, without even a Ways of their own. And those that do have them have to fight, to trade favours and influence, to keep them.
Which is, of course, why I'm now a member of the Waysmaster's Guild - I need its influence to keep this world, this people, my own and safe.
Anyone who can add to the number of stable worlds will be in demand.
Of course, increased visibility is a double-edged blade.
"I'd be happy to serve the Guild in any way I can," I say.
Those of the royal blood of Amber do not serve, Fiona would chide. They rule.
But I don't want Will's job, don't want to even be seen as a potential threat, and I try to communicate that as best as I can without words.
By blood, I'm an outsider here. And, current allegiances notwithstanding, I was on the wrong side of the war. With Peter... gone... I'm in far too precarious a position.
Will's smile widens possibly a fraction more, and I hope that means my message was received and understood. "The Guild can always use someone of your unique abilities, Alicia. Would you care to stop by later so we can discuss how we might best utilise them?"
I sense an abyss in front of me. "Of course. I'd be happy to discuss my abilities with you and Diane any time that's convenient."
I try not to stress the name of the other head of the Guild, but Will's smile dims a little anyway. "Of course," he says smoothly.
I don't know how long I can escape it now that eyes are upon me, but I'd like to avoid becoming a pawn of either Diane or Will in their incessant games against the other for as long as possible.
"Incidentally," he says, so casually that I wonder what new landmine he's about to lay in my path. "Have you decided what to do about that world you saved?"
I blink. "I wasn't aware that I was supposed to do anything with it."
He shrugs. "There aren't any direct claimants." A House, lost to the war. "Which means, as the world's saviour, you have first claim."
"I am involved enough in maintaining my Ways already," I say delicately.
Prior to this, I was bending all my influence just to retain this single world.
Keeping hold of a second?
As someone only married into the nobility, rather than born to it?
That sounds entirely too much like the kind of fun I just don't need in my life at the moment.
"You're a valued member of the Guild," he says in response. "Any help you need, just ask. I'll be happy to see that you get it."
"Thank you," I say, a little uneasily.
Relying on resources provided by the Guild (or by Will) has certain obvious (and, possibly some slightly less obvious) risks.
On the other hand, I'm a little bereft of connections of my own in the Courts. I just have what remains of Peter's, and who knows how far I can trust them?
"Think on it," he says, and cuts the connection.
Well that was a little unexpected.
Proving that my day has, indeed, started as it means to go on, I arrive at my office to find that it isn't there.
Oh, the world is still there. Brightly-coloured and aromatic with alien vegetation, filled with animals and birds that look harmless but can strip a person to the bone in seconds. And will, if they decide that you're an unauthorised intruder.
Lush, beautiful and utterly deadly, just like Kalinda, the person who had designed them.
The building too, that mishmash between hastily thrown up temporary walls and the more artistic sculpture it is slowly evolving into now that the Guild has the influence to hire decent architects.
Even the room, the spacious office that I'd manage to claim because it was sufficiently far away from anyone and anything with even a vague hint of prestige about them.
But the living door doesn't respond to my presence and, from what little I can see through the window, all my things have mysteriously disappeared.
Someone moved my things. Someone *took* my things.
For a long moment, I'm almost blinded by rage.
But then I take a breath.
Calm. I must remain calm.
"Congratulations on your new office," comes a voice from behind me.
Jolted from my almost trance, I twitch and spin in that direction, one hand flying towards my knife, words of power forming on my tongue.
And then recognition hits me.
Sure enough, the woman herself is standing a little way down the corridor, leaning casually against the wall as if she hadn't just startled a princess of Amber into almost - almost! - doing something that at least one of us would regret.
Naturally, she moves not at all.
By the time I'm facing her, I've swallowed my incomplete magic - and my temper once again - and I've turned reaching for a knife into smoothing down my dress.
(Not that I really expect her to be fooled, but it's the principle of the thing.)
I can't help but note that she's standing far enough away that she'd probably be out of range of whatever instinctive response she might have surprised me into.
"You like playing dangerous games, don't you?" I say; half amused, half not.
She shrugs, a half smile tilting her lips. "Maybe."
I just bet she does.
"So what are you doing here?" I challenge, looking her directly in the eyes.
If she wants a game, I'm willing to play.
Her smile deepens maybe a hair. "Letting 'our most valuable asset' know that she's been moved into the old offices."
I don't let myself react.
The old offices, the Ways that the Guild used to occupy before the war. A patchwork of minature worlds stitched together.
Not fantastical worlds, not masterpieces of design or taste, but simple, humble, practical realms. The sort of thing that says 'This is what we do.' It was the kind of solid work that survived surprisingly well, albeit not completely intact.
What they are now is high status. Close to the centre of power.
Before, the Guild may have a humble affair, its members viewed as simple mechanics, plumbers and builders. The kind of people you'd call out if one of your worlds had developed a slight tear, or if you wanted to add a new worldlet as a conservatory.
Now, of course, things are different. If you want the constant damage inflicted by the Vortex on your world repaired, if you want a world at all, you need the services of the Guild. The kind of busywork they did before is not going to be a priority again for centuries.
It's home to many of the best and the brightest. Among which I'm apparently now counted.
And we work in the old offices.
I try not to think that duels have been fought over some of these offices.
That there have even been some assassinations over them.
I swear, this place just gets more and more like home every day.
Kalinda turns and walks deeper into the building without another word, and I am drawn along in her wake.
I spot Cary heading towards us, paperwork in one hand.
"Hey," he says neutrally, eyes flickering quizzically towards Kalinda. He's obviously wondering whether her presence signifies that I've gone up in the world or that I'm in deep trouble.
"Good morning," I say in return. I offer him a smile, which he returns a little uncertainly. "Apparently I've got a new office."
"I see." His smile is still a touch cautious. I've apparently still got an office, which can only be good, but he doesn't want to tie himself to someone who may be sinking in front of Kalinda. "Where are they dragging you to now?"
Even as I do it, I know it's a mistake, but I still can't help rolling my eyes a little. "Down to the old offices."
I really don't appreciate the target being fastened to my back.
A flicker of pure envy flashes in his eyes before his smile broadens and he extends his hand. "Hey, well done." He pumps my hand enthusiastically. A cynical woman might think that he wants to suck up to someone going places. "Want to meet up later for drinks to celebrate?"
I might as well try and repair some of the damage that my impromptu promotion will have caused. "Sure. Can you spread the word? Bloody Bill's after work. Drinks are on me."
His eyes widen appreciatively. Bloody Bill's is fairly select. Luckily, I have an in. Any Amber-themed bar, even the one named after the favourite drinking spot of many of my uncles, just about falls over itself to have an actual live princess of Amber visit.
"You do remember why I'm here," Kalinda murmurs once we're away from Cary.
"I'm told Bloody Bill's has excellent security. The only bar fights on premises are the ones they stage themselves to add colour."
Somehow without changing her expression, she manages to make her opinion of the security known.
"Besides, I was planning on inviting you as well. How could I possibly enjoy myself without my favourite security expert present?"
I'm not entirely sure whether she's mollified by that, or she's just given up, but she forbears to comment further, by word or expression, as she turns and walks deeper into the building.
Kalinda leads me through the labyrinth. Officially, it's the old wing. Unofficially, and pretty much accurately, it's the labyrinth.
(I'm half-wondering if I should keep an eye out for minotaurs.)
It's a higgledy piggledy mess of different architectural designs, cramped rooms, corridors and offices, split across multiple worlds. Practically every few steps we're in a different world, each one subtly - or not so subtly - different from the one before. Odour, light, gravity, even rate of time flow.
There is a part of me on the alert, constantly waiting for another attack. Not because I necessarily expect Kalinda to lead me into a trap, because I'm sure that there are easier ways to kill me, but just because it's good practice, especially now.
With the rest of my mind I try to just concentrate on memorising the path. And on enjoying the craftsmanship of the worlds around me.
A circular stone chamber lit only by candles. The solid wooden table and chairs at its centre are sized for giants. Time flows sluggishly here, relatively speaking. It feels a little like stepping off a rapidly moving object onto something travelling more slowly. There's a noticeable stutter in our onward progress. (Well, noticeable to me, at any rate.)
From the dim glow of candles burning with a crimson flame to the harsh white brightness of fluorescent strip-lighting. A tiled corridor, white on white. Dry, processed air with an almost medicinal tang. From one of the rooms comes a rapid, staccato clicking sound. Someone typing?
My stomach flips as we pass the next boundary and my inner ear suddenly screams that I'm falling. A heartbeat later, my perceptions adjust to the shift in gravity. I still quite can't shake the nagging feeling that we're walking on the ceiling, but that's just a personal quirk.
It doesn't help that the building we're now passing through seems to have been designed by someone who thinks that optical illusions are just too straightforward. Staircases that turn back on themselves. Floors that become walls. Doorways that we can look through to see our own backs at the far side of the room.
Huh. Apparently someone has been doing some renovations.
I'm sure Fiona has a place like this, purely for messing with some of her brothers.
I take a few mental notes. It's always handy to have a few extra ideas about how to discourage family visits.
More worlds go by until, finally, Kalinda stops.
After some of the wondrous places we passed through to get here, I have to admit that my first impression is that of disappointment. An unassuming corridor with featureless grey walls and gravity that pulls in only one direction. The most interesting thing about it is the light - a diffuse, apparently sourceless glow - but I could pull off *that* trick while I was still an adolescent.
Oh, well. I wasn't really expecting a luxury suite. Plain will do just fine.
"Give me your hand," Kalinda says without preamble.
"Without so much as a date?" I have to ask.
She raises an eyebrow. "I saved your life. Doesn't that count?" she says and holds out her arm expectantly.
I laugh. "Close enough, I guess," I say and offer her my hand, which she places against one wall.
The first thing I notice is that the wall has a presence, almost an intelligence. This close, whilst we're touching, I can feel Kalinda reaching out, soothing it, telling it that it has a new mistress now.
After a few minutes, she lets her hand fall away from mine. (But she does so slowly, part of me notes. Or imagines. I shush it.) "You should be attuned now," she tells me.
Open, I tell the wall, and it flexes, like a muscle. (Like a sphincter, I try to avoid thinking.)
The room beyond is... incredible.
It has the usual furnishings one might expect in an office: desk, chairs, shelves and so on. I'm sure they're more than serviceable, but right at this moment I really couldn't tell you. My attention is caught by the far wall, which seems to have been made of one single, curved sheet of glass. And on the other side of that...
A planet hangs suspended in the vasty deep, a blue-green gemstone on the velvet drape of night. Half in shadow, half lit by a small yellow sun, I can't help but think it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. And the stars! Ah, the stars. Like handfuls upon handfuls of scattered diamonds, they glimmer and glitter as far as the eye can see.
My rational mind tells me that most of it must be a visual sleight of hand, that no worldlet that's part of the old offices could possibly be as big as this appears.
The rest of me shushes that part, just content to glory in the view.
"I trust you approve..."
Kalinda's coolly amused voice comes from somewhere behind me. With a mental start, I realise that I've moved into the room.
"It will suffice," I reply.
She shrugs. "Good. By the way, I'm supposed to tell you that Diane wishes to speak with you."
The harsh intrusion of politics breaks the remainder of the spell the room has over me, and I smile tightly at Kalinda.
She nods, as if wishing me luck, before heading off once more into the labyrinth of the old offices, and I'm left alone.
Great. It never ends.