Morning in Amber Castle (Desta)

Darkness.

It's the first thing Desta becomes aware of she slowly slides into something resembling consciousness. Yawning, the fatigue that clings to her seems slow to disperse.

Then the fog parts, and memory comes flooding back — who she is, what she's done, where she's been. While a bit of morning coffee might help put her back at 100%, she's more or less awake and aware.

And then she sits up in bed, opening her eyes.

Is this right? Clearly, she's in her rooms in the castle, but something doesn't feel quite right. Was she in the castle yesterday, or in Julian's camp in Arden? Oddly, she can't remember going to bed last night… so how did she wind up here? Clearly, her memory isn't entirely as clear as she might have thought… simple morning fuzziness? Did she maybe drink too much last night?

One thing's for sure, she probably won't find the answers simply lying in bed.

Desta swings her legs over the edge of the bed and sits there for a bit, rubbing her eyes groggily, trying to attain that state sometimes called alertness. Finally standing up, she splashes some water from the washbasin on her face a few times before finding and pulling on some clothes and combing out her hair. This all takes several minutes, with her puzzling to herself all the while how she happened to be in the castle.

No answers seemed forthcoming, though, and nothing good ever happens when your stomach is empty. Hoping she wasn't expected to report in soon, Desta heads to the door in search of food.

As she's leaving her room, though, she notices something odd sitting on a table near the door. Looking closer, she realizes it's a bell of some kind, made of clear crystal. Carved with a number of decorative designs, it looks quite beautiful. More importantly, it isn't hers. And she certainly never remembers seeing it before. How did it wind up in her room? Perhaps Julian left it for her? It doesn't seem like something he'd do, and definitely not without telling her. Still… who else would put it here?

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The thought passes idly through her mind that maybe something good could happen when your stomach is empty. Desta stops and inspects the bell, picking it up and looking at it closely. She gives it a ring.

As she rings the bell, it gives off a clear, mellow chime that echoes across the room. It doesn't seem to be a very loud sound, but it's a solid, full note. While the chime sounds, Desta feels a slight chill ripple across her skin. Suddenly, she realizes - without knowing how - that this bell is almost certainly more than it seems. The faintest touch of magic seems to cling to it, shimmering within its crystal.

She stills the sound with a hand to the base, looking it over again. Very mysterious. Who knew the castle could be interesting? Putting the bell carefully in a drawer for now, she continues on her first course — out of her room and down back halls to the kitchen. She walks more slowly than usual, thoughtful, and trumps Julian on the way.

As she heads down to the kitchens, she idly notices that there don't seem to be any servants around. Usually, there's always one or two scurrying around, waiting upon the needs of their temperamental masters, keeping the castle tidy, or carrying out some other duty they've served for decades. When she Trumps Julian, she receives no response. Perhaps he's busy and blocking. Or perhaps he's too far away for her to reach with the Trump. Of course, there's also the possibility that he's dead, but that's almost unthinkable.

Once she reaches the kitchens, she faces another disappointment. There are no cooks, no scullions… the kitchens are empty. The great stoves - which normally run almost night and day to meet the needs of a castle full of people - are cold.

No one around. Maybe there's some sort of event going on that everyone's getting ready for… but usually special events mean lots and lots of cooking. Curiouser and curiouser.

But first things first. Desta digs some bread out of the cupboard, and then she starts exploring, starting in the servants’ quarters. As much fun as the idea is of having the run of the place, it's… creepy. And there aren't too many things someone in her line of work would classify as creepy. There were too many unexplained things all bunching up together.

She finds nothing in the Servants' Quarters. More accurately, she finds nothing in the Servants' Quarters. No servants, no unmade beds or messes, no sign that anyone has been there any time recently.

Strange.

As she heads up towards the second floor rooms, it occurs to her that she'll have to decide how to search. Simply look through all the hallways in the hopes of finding someone? Begin knocking on doors? Or just finesse her way in by trying to pick a lock or three?

Desta ponders. No servants in sight, no one else around, nothing going on…

If she's going to have a dream where she's the only person left in the world, why did she have to get stuck in the castle? There were tons of other places in Amber. Yet, considering the dreamlike quality of the whole affair, wandering up and down the halls ringing the bell like a town crier might actually be what's needed. She studiously ignores memories of Alima's warnings about unknown objects and powers. Obviously, this was different.

She brushes crumbs from her clothes, and hey - there wasn't anyone nearby to get all worked up if she wasn't as tidy as they thought she should be - and then makes a detour back to her room to see if anything had changed. It didn't seem like there was any hurry. And while she's at it, she grabs the bell again.

Assuming all is as it was before, her exploration takes her towards the part of the castle where the day-to-day operation of Running Everything took place - whether that's the Throne Room, Great Hall, an office area near the Royal Chambers, what have you. And as she walks, the little crystal bell rings in time with her own silent steps. Surely, if there's anyone else around, they'll hear and come see who it is ringing it? Besides, usually one has to accomplish something in these sorts of dreams. May as well hop to it.

No one comes running to find the source of the chiming by the time she's made it back downstairs. Poking her head into a few of the more "official" rooms, she doesn't find anyone. It's definitely starting to look like she's here alone. Of course, she hasn't looked in any of the uppermost floors yet, or outside the castle, so it's possible she might find someone yet…

And then she enters the Throne Room (well, the audience chamber, really), and finally catches her first sign of life. Sitting on the throne is a woman in a red dress, seemingly asleep. No, strike that. Sitting on the throne is a life-sized porcelain doll in a red dress, its arms resting folded in its lap, its eyes closed.

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A… doll?

Desta remembered once coming upon a group of servants talking about something one of the Royals had done - Prince Caine, if she recalled correctly. The incident was unimportant, itself, but one of the servants had commented sagely that truth is often stranger than any fiction. At least in terms of the Royals. In which case, this whole… thing… whatever it was… possibly could be just too odd even to be a dream.

She goes up to the doll, stepping up onto the dais and much closer to the symbolic seat of power than she'd ever been, and investigates closely with all senses. A number of things happen then, almost all at once.

As she draws close to the throne, the eyes of the doll snap open, and it lurches forward with a snarl, hands outstretched, reaching for her throat. What makes it even more disturbing, in a way, is the fact that the doll's facial expression is completely fixed, and apart from the now-open eyes, not a single trace of emotion shapes its features, even though it's apparently filled with killing instinct.

Desta jumps back as the doll reaches for her, ringing the bell by accident as she moves to avoid the grasping hands. And suddenly, as when the bell rings, the doll seems to spasm and flinch before falling back into a sitting position on the throne. It continues to twitch as its delicately ball-jointed fingers flex and clutch at the armrests, and its head shifts back and forth on its neck. Its dark eyes stare back into Desta’s wide ones, almost seeming to bore into her. Strange, how something so lifeless can also seem so filled with hate.

Wow…

Frowning, the hunter cocks her head to the side thoughtfully. Stepping back somewhat out of reach first, she readies some defensive weaponry in one hand, and then experimentally rings the bell again. With the second ring, the doll spasms a bit more, and a low growl comes from its throat. It doesn't seem to be freed from whatever bonds might be holding it back, but it definitely seems to be the bell that's having an effect, and not simply coincidence. Though whatever effect it's having seems to be a bit more complex than a simple on-off switch…

Desta paces slowly back and forth in front of the dais a few times, watching the doll. Coming to a stop after a bit, she stands just out of lunging range - as best she can estimate it. "Can you speak?" she asks it.

Silence, for a moment. Perhaps it cannot speak? Perhaps it chooses not to? Maybe it doesn't even understand her words. But then:

"Yes… mistress." The words come slow, as if a great deal of effort was involved.

Desta's face lights up. She didn't actually expect it to work, but sometimes it paid to try the simple stuff first. She squats down on the floor where she's standing, looking up at the doll from a new angle, idly running a finger around the edge of the bell. So many possible questions! "What's… what's your purpose here?" she finally decides on.

"Purpose? Perhaps I should ask what your purpose is, despoiler!"

Desta notes that the doll (or maybe we should call it a puppet, now that it's moving and talking? Though, if it's a puppet, who's pulling the strings?) "speaks" without moving its lips - the voice seems to somehow project outward without visible source. It doesn't seem like telepathy, though… more like some odd quirk of whatever magic animates it (because it almost has to be animated by magic, right?). The only part of the face with any capacity for movement seems to be the eyes… which seem to narrow as the doll/puppet/automaton/etc. stares back at Desta.

"I know not what foul magics you wield, but you'll not find Amber undefended. Do not think that because you have shackled she who holds the throne that you'll survive this transgression!"

Since the doll/puppet/whatever seems to be stuck on the throne, Desta sits down cross legged on the floor and props her elbows on the dais. She rests her head in her hands, pondering. "You could ask my purpose," she replies after a bit of thought. "But I don't know why I'm here. I don't even know how I got here. But don't worry, I'm not going to attack Amber. I work with Prince Julian to help defend Amber."

"You'll not fool me with your lies, demon. At the very least, you should have named a Royal who actually exists."

Desta's eyes narrow at the word demon and she becomes very still for several seconds, but then she shrugs, sitting back up and resting her hands in her lap instead. "So you're saying a woman rules Amber and that Julian doesn't exist," she says after a bit. "That's just more to add to……" she trails off, expression turning startled. She pulls out her Trumps and shuffles through to Julian's card to see if it seems normal, since she hadn’t actually used his card the first try. For that matter, she checks to see if they all seem normal.

Well, they're cold, anyway. That's normal. And the pictures… well, they seem normal as well. At least, they seem to be showing the same royals she remembers being on them. And the other cards, of course. At least the cards didn't somehow transform into showing completely different and unrecognizable people or something. Something like that might start someone questioning their own memories, their sanity…

She's got Julian's card in her hand, still. Maybe she should Trump him. Or maybe she should try to figure this mess out herself before crying for help.

No, no. He had already not answered once. He was irritable enough as it was. She looks at her cards for a time, thinking, but then sticks them back in the case. "I'm talking to a doll," she mutters to herself, as though that's explanation enough. Apart from no one else being around, everything else seemed normal enough. Well, and the bell. And the talking doll.

She turns her attention back to the doll, staring at it with a hard, considering look for a time. "You called me mistress before," she says, standing up again and stepping closer to the thing. She holds the bell up meaningfully. "That means you have to do what I say, yes?"

The eyes seem to narrow even more, as it stares back at her. No, not really making friends here, it seems. "…Yes. But consider this - there may come a time when I am free of your infernal compulsion. And no force in all of Shadow will save you from your fate. I assure you, you will pay a thousand times over for every indignity you inflict on me now."

And then the voice becomes almost sardonic. "So by all means, mistress, feel free to give me more reasons to carve you into tiny bits once you find yourself at my mercy."

Desta dismisses the threats with a shrug. "You're not the first to hate me for my blood.”

"Perhaps not the first, but I may have a far better chance of doing something about it."

"Eventually. Maybe. But not right now," Desta points out. “And I just want you to answer some questions is all. To start with, who are you, and how'd you become a doll? Pretend I don't know," she adds.

The doll seems to draw herself up, though not so much that she rises from the throne. "I am Andromeda, daughter of Titania, Queen of Amber. As for the rest of your question, I have no idea what you mean."

"'Cept, Random is the King of Amber," Desta tells the doll. "Not for very long, but before Random was Oberon. And before Oberon…" She thinks. "Don't think there was anyone before Oberon, but I could be forgetting."

"Again you claim authority from men who don't exist. There is no Oberon in Amber. There is no Random." For a moment, its voice becomes almost incredulous. "I mean, Random? Who would name their child Random? There is no king in Amber, and there never has been. The men of the line have never been interested in the throne, nor fit to rule."

The head tilts slightly. "Perhaps you are not evil after all. Perhaps you're merely insane. Not that your lunacy will save you from the consequences of your actions." It nods then, as if coming to a conclusion. "Free me now, and I'll even agree to let you live."

Desta sighs. "Even if I wanted to free you - and you're not giving me much incentive - I don't know how anyway. Besides, you're a talking doll, for Unicorn's sake."

The doll makes a sound like it's sniffing in disgust. "Playing with powers you don't even comprehend? That's the wisdom of a fool. All you have to do to release me is to proclaim it so."

"Really?" Desta says with great interest. File that away under interesting information.

"As for incentive… you've already admitted you have no idea of what sort of power you wield. How long will your ensorcellment last? What do you think will happen when it fades? Do you plan to sleep? How do you plan to keep me from avenging myself upon you if your accursed compulsion ends, leaving you vulnerable? And what will you do, when the others come for me?"

"Well, if they're all like you, I think a hammer ought to do the trick," Desta says thoughtfully, considering the fragile properties of porcelain. As far as can be determined, she's not being in the least bit ironic, merely considering the way to deal with a potential problem.

Then she shakes her head. "Besides, I've lived in Amber my whole life, and I've never heard of Titania or you. So you can go on all ya want about weird stuff, but as far as I can tell, it's just the rantings of some bespelled doll that went crazed."

"Have you?" The doll’s words are harsh, and they send a chill up Desta's spine. "Perhaps you merely imagine it so. Perhaps you yourself have been enchanted to imagine phantoms and dreams. What proof do you have that would make your memories more valid than mine? And that, of course, assumes that you're not merely the creature of darkness you appear to be, seeking to confuse me with your lies. I will not be bent, demon. I shall not be broken."

Desta scowls. "You have to do what I say, remember, and I say you'll not be calling me a demon anymore. And in return, I won't call you a crazy dollface."

It twitches at the command. "You can compel obedience, but you cannot control thought. Regardless of whether I am capable of saying it, I will continue to think it. After all, it's not as if you've done a single thing yet that convinces me you aren't what I say you are."

"I've hardly had time. And you've not been specially polite, either, so we're square," Desta retorts. She ponders for a few seconds before asking in a more conciliatory tone, "Is there anything I can do or say that would convince you of my sincerity?"

Andromeda laughs, an almost silvery sound. "It should not take a sage to realize that sincerity is something that must be earned, not commanded from the other end of a leash."

Desta shrugs. "Fine, then. There's no point in having you insult me more, so you have fun in here." She turns and heads towards the door.

"Remember what I have said. You bear power, but you do not understand it. You carry it with you, but it can be taken away. You have learned a use for it, but you do not know its weaknesses. There may soon come a time when your borrowed strength proves insufficient to the tasks you set for yourself." The doll pauses, and runs delicate fingers across the golden hilt of the sword that hangs from its belt. "When that day comes, it would be best to pray that I cannot find you. Because I will remember what you have done this day."

Desta stops about midway to the door as the doll speaks. She sighs out sharply, an exasperated sound, and then pivots to face the dais again. "Tell me what I've done, then," she orders. "Pretend I don't know, and spell it all out for me."

"Considering I am still sitting here, unable to control my own actions, it should be crystal clear even to the most moon-struck of fools what you've done. I say again - free me."

"And then you'll do… what?" Desta questions.

"I've already given you my word." The voice sounds almost offended, in a way, as if she considers the implied questioning of her honor to be an insult. "Free me now, and I'll set aside this incident. Leave me bound, and things will go differently."

Desta considers the doll's words. The thing had the attitude down pat, she had to admit. With an internal sigh, she decides to play along. "Highness, I wasn't questioning your word. I just wanted to know what your plans are after I free you. I might be able to help."

Silence, for a moment. Is it, perhaps, considering her words? Pondering its answer? "Free me, and we can discuss it," it says at last.

Desta frowns a little again. "Alright," she says. "As a show of good faith, and as long as you don't try to attack me, you're free."

The doll shudders again, then slowly stands. Rolling her head and flexing her fingers, she seems to be working kinks out. Then she turns her head, and stares at Desta. This is obviously the part where she shouts for guards. Or pulls some hidden lever and sends Desta falling into a pit full of spikes and alligators. Or throws a fireball at her. Or draws her sword and lops Desta's arm off before she can ring the bell again.

And then the doll - Andromeda - chuckles, shaking her head. "You are… strange. I still think you are insane, but I'll at least concede the point that you might not be a demon."

Well, Desta's still alive. That's probably a plus, right?

Desta walks back over to the dais and gives Andromeda an acceptable courtly bow. She hadn't quite gotten the knack of it, but it was an attempt, anyway. She does not, however, get close enough for a lunge or other physical attack, and keeps all senses open for anything untoward.

"I'll grant insane, Highness," she says. "No offense to you, but I'm still talking to a doll." She looks around for a mirror, to show Andromeda what she's talking about. The doll doesn't respond to that - perhaps she considers it beneath her to argue such a point with someone who is clearly insane - and unfortunately, Desta's impromptu search for a mirror turns up nothing that would serve.

"If, for the sake of argument, I grant the point that you believe some of the things you have been saying, rather than simply lying, then insanity does indeed seem to be the most likely scenario. Unless, of course, you hail from some near-Shadow of the realm, which has deluded itself into mistaking reflection for that which is real. Still,” it adds after a brief pause, “that does not explain your presence here. How did you come to this place?"

Desta shrugs, giving up for now on her search for a mirror. One would present itself eventually. She holds the bell much more casually as they talk, pressed discreetly against her leg so it doesn't ring on accident. "I woke up here, Highness," she explains. "I dunno how I got here. I woke up in m— a guest room, and there was this bell there. I haven't seen anyone else in the castle yet 'cept for you. No servants, no nobles, no other Royals. Castles are usually pretty crowded, yes?"

"Servants? What need is there for servants, when the castle itself serves at need? As for the other royals, to you expect them to be aimlessly wandering the halls? Each has their own interests, and can be found indulging their particularities where they feel best suited."

Desta bites her tongue and waits a few seconds before answering, still trying to play nice. "In my Shadow, which had a castle very like this that I visited a time or two, it was always noisy and crowded. I think I like your vision much better."

The doll pauses, as if thinking. "But if what you say is true, and you simply woke up here, then something odd is indeed afoot. And it would seem someone is playing a game I don't find amusing."

At last they were getting somewhere. Maybe. "If you like, Highness, I could look about the castle some more, and see if anyone else is here 'sides us."

"Perhaps you should." Andromeda narrows her eyes a bit. "I'd suggest, however, that you don't go binding everyone you meet along the way. Some of my sisters and brothers aren't quite as forgiving as I am."

Desta nods. "Your warning is very kind, Highness," she says after a pause for thought to find something appropriate to say. She bounces a little on the balls of her feet, itching to go on her scouting mission. That is much more her area of expertise. "Where should I find you to make my report?"

She pauses for a moment, before reaching into her belt sash, and pulling out a deck of cards. Shuffling through them, she pulls one out, and holds it out to Desta. Yes, it's a Trump. Of Andromeda.

Desta accepts the card, somewhat gingerly, and inspects it. The card seems like any other Trump she's ever seen - cold, smooth, with the likeness on the card an incredibly life-like representation of the subject. Of course, in this case, the word "life-like" is stretched nearly to the breaking point, all things considered.

"Thank you, Highness," she says. "I'll keep in touch." Desta bows herself out to begin her search, but before she can decide which way to go, she begins to hear music from someone off to her left. Piano… and… singing?

Desta stacks the new Trump at the top of her deck and then puts them away again. Turning towards the piano music, she cautiously heads down the hall in that direction, keeping a wary eye out for anyone else on the way - human or doll. She shifts her hold on the bell to around the bottom so it doesn't ring and give her position away, because really, she's already been attacked once this morning.

Creeping around the corner, she finds her way to the music room. The music has stopped now, but there are still voices coming from inside. It sounds like at least four different people talking - two men and two women - though that's just based on voice alone. There could easily be a dozen people in there and simply not speaking.

Peering in, she gives silent thanks to Julian for training her in stealth. Once she's able to hear the voices more clearly, and see their visual appearance as well, she recognizes at least two of the people inside. The other two… well, the one woman she doesn't know at all, though the other man looks vaguely familiar.

Several possible scenarios flitter through her mind, but it sort of boils down to the fact that this is the castle, and she's sort of a guest, and heck, Prince Aleric might like to know there's a talking doll in the Audience Chamber…

With that decided, Desta moves into sight, leaning against the door jamb to observe, but not intruding on what is obviously a family reunion.

***

As they converse, Crowley notices movement behind the group - someone new has just appeared in the doorway, standing there casually but quietly. He doesn't recognize her, though. As of yet, none of the others are facing in a direction where they can see the newcomer.

Francesca holds herself as one used to having their hand kissed. "I thank you, my lord. But now may we dispense with all this courtly behavior?" She smiles. "I have lived too long in a society entirely too permissive and casual to hold to such."

Crowley steps back and grabs his sword, with a glance towards the door. "And we may have yet another guest…" The smile is still on his lips but not in his eyes anymore.

Francesca pivots smoothly around and drops into the stance Aleric saw earlier. There isn't a person in this room that is not armed, so she doesn't seem to be in any big hurry to draw steel.

Aleric smiles at Francesca. "Whoa, settle down…it's…it looks somewhat dangerous, but doesn't…is it…it's…"

He walks up to Desta and kisses her cheek. "Desta. Every time I try to hide someplace you always seem to find me. You're very good at hide and seek, I must confess."

Francesca rolls her eyes in a good natured sort of way and looks to Crowley and Cordelia. "Does anyone have a light?" she asks, producing the still yet to be lit lancero.

Desta takes one step into the room as the others turn, taking in the tableau with a serious and unsmiling expression. She is dressed simply in dark brown clothing of a utilitarian cut and is not obviously armed, though she's holding something in her left hand.

She holds quite still as Aleric walks over and kisses her cheek, as though exercising great forbearance. "I'm sorry to interrupt," she says, glancing past him at Crowley with a sort of puzzled look, as though trying to place him. She looks at Aleric again. "It's been a strange morning."

Crowley is able to provide matches.

"So," he comments, "to get back to the point, how many of us are there, and what is happening?"

"It's been a very strange morning," Aleric agrees with Desta's assessment. "That's my brother, Crowley. Are you okay?" He glances down to see what she has in her hand.

"I shall put you on my list of possible love interests," Francesca declares to Crowley after her lancero is burning appropriately. By her tone, one would believe this was quite the honor. "You all are the only ones I have seen," she continues, now sounding irritable. "I haven't the foggiest idea what is happening, and I admit I do not like that at all. I have no idea how I got here. My initial suspect is looking less and less likely. And as creepy as I am finding the situation inside, the situation outside is even moreso."

Desta turns her hand up so Aleric can see she's holding, well, it's a bell. Crystal, rather pretty, about five inches long. She's holding it in such a way that it doesn't ring, the clapper snicking dully against the sides as it moves. Her puzzled expression clears when Crowley is identified, and she passes a quick look over the other two people present. "Yes, I'm fine," she answers the Prince's question. "I'm gonna search the castle. You're the only other people I've seen so far. But you'd probably enjoy a visit to the Audience Chamber."

"There are a couple of girls upstairs," Cordelia remarks. "Well, 'ladies', I suppose. Aside from you lot, that's all I've seen."

Crowley turns to Aleric, looking thoughtful. "Two girls upstairs, plus those three…. Bad news: the world has ended. We're the only ones left. Good news," he grins widely, "we're gonna have to repopulate…"

"More seriously, what's happening out there? Is it as empty as here? We need to gather more data before we can come up with a viable theory and a solution to the problem."

"I'm going to go downstairs and check the various locked doors, Patterns and the secret rooms," Aleric says with a chuckle. "If you hear me scream, I tripped over that damned loose step."

He bows to the ladies, then claps Crowley on the shoulder. "I should be back within the hour. If I'm late to dinner, send a search party." Laughing, he heads out.

Having said what she stopped in to say, Desta follows him out of the room, but heads down the hall in the opposite direction.

"There are no horses in the stables, no one in the courtyard. You cannot even hear birds. From the wall, it looks as if the city is as empty as this place." Francesca's voice fades as Desta moves away.

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