By Myranda B. Kalis

The page waiting in the hall was a young sidhe girl, somewhere between older childling and younger wilder, her simple uniform of breeches, boots, and belted tunic laying on a body that, from a distance, could easily be mistaken for a boy's. It was the delicacy of her features, sharply drawn and fine, dominated by a pair of large, leaf-green eyes, that took most of the illusion off, and the aureole of fiery hair, still more orange than red, that hung most of the way down her back. She was idly tossing a rubber ball from hand to hand, squeezing slightly, when Scathan stepped back into the hall, a deeply bemused expression on his face, and nodded to her.

She executed a quick and technically correct courtesy. "Lord Ambassador?"

"Yes," Scathan repressed a strong urge to look over his shoulder. "And you are...?"

"Evayne. The Mistress of Chambers has assigned me to your service." Her tone was grave, her eyes deadly serious, and he could see that this was one youngster who took the gravity of her position very much to heart.

"Call me Skye." Scathan firmly believed that seriousness in young people needed to be quelled for the good of all Kithain. "I have the feeling we'll get to know one another rather well, so we might as well keep the formalities off to one side. You know where my quarters are?"

"Yes, my--Skye." It took a moment of internal struggling to make her say the name without a flinch.

"Then you're a bit ahead of me. You know the castle well?"

"Yes, Skye." A bit shyly this time.

"Good. Then you'll have no problems at all showing me as much of the place as possible en route to my chambers. Shall we?" He offered her his arm.

After a moment of silent dithering, she took it, despite the difference in their heights and obvious ages. They attracted more than their share of startled looks as they started down toward the more populated areas of the castle--the tall, slender, very dark and substantially older man in close-fitting black and silver, and the small, coltish, fair-haired and eyed young girl in the page's clothing, and Scathan found a slightly amused smile lurking at the corners of his mouth and let it stay there. As he had suspected, young Evayne, like most childlings, knew more about the castle than probably even the builders probably did, having had the opportunity to explore it thoroughly in an effort to avoid the more onerous chores that pages were usually assigned. Her running commentary about the various places, things, and people to be seen about the (vast) grounds gave him some things to consider as he mentally attempted to map what he could of the place. It had been designed with defense in mind, as well as the beauty of its natural surroundings, sitting in the living eddy between upstate New York and the true Dreaming, and the two complemented each other, mostly with harmony. The outer curtain walls were thick enough to repel most attempts at storm, and he wouldn't want to be a part of the sapper unit sent to attempt to undercut them; there were guardposts set at regular intervals, crenellated nooks for archers to conceal themselves in, and no small number of armed and armored knights in various House and personal arms prowling about in what he hoped would be an observable pattern. There was no moat or other outerworks to speak of--rather, the enormous freehold, standing atop a mountain as though growing straight from its green-shrouded slopes, kept its back to the wall of a sheer drop that terminated on the rocky banks of a river that flowed through the Dreaming alone. Its gates were as formidable as the walls, complete with barbizan and security checkpoints before one could actually step into the freehold proper.

The curtain wall that covered the verge of the cliff, Evayne told him, was called the Widow's Walk ("Because most of the Grandames who lost a husband--and some Greybeards who lost a wife--during the Accordance War spend a lot of their days there, just walking along the battlements or talking or playing fychell or something."). It had recently acquired new infamy for the sheer number of lovestruck and hopeless Fiona lovers who had thrown themselves off it in the last few years ("You should have seen the look on Lady Edgehill's face when he went diving off the wall past her.").

The royal quarters were, sensibly enough, in the very center of the giant edifice, along with the main throne room, the meeting chambers of the Parliament of Dreams, and many smaller government offices occupied by the officers of the Court and their various functionaries. Guests occupied most of the eastern wing of the castle; semi-permanent residents occupied the western wing. The north wing, overlooking the Widow's Walk and the misty river valley, was occupied by the dignitaries of the Court, including ambassadors of the freeholds and the designated leaders of the Houses, lobbyists and petitioners to the Parliament, and the general political rabble who found it necessary to be in the capitol while the legislature was in session. The south wing, watching over the Gate and the King's Road beyond it, was occupied by Tara-Nar's military presence, the Royal Guard, hand picked by the High King, and the Red Branch Knights, who went wherever the High King was at any given time. Several areas of the south wing were firmly restricted in access, as were parts of the royal quarters, and the restriction was enforced by stony-faced Knights in both Gwydion green and the crimson of the Branch; Scathan comforted himself in the knowledge that an open door wasn't the only way to get into a room. By the time the afternoon had whiled itself away almost to nothing, Scathan had a decent idea of the general layout of the freehold, which places would not require his considerable powers of sneak and which would, and some of the precautions he would have to take given Tara-Nar's generally excellent security. Captain Hendricksson and Commander Tysia had more than earned whatever they were charging for their expertise, if they were charging anything at all, and he felt the enjoyable little thrill that came with a challenge worth his efforts.

"You managed to get decent enough quarters because you arrived relatively early--a lot of the Ambassadors don't put in until a few days before the Parliament is scheduled to go into session. I think it's a drama thing." Evayne snorted slightly. "They probably had your baggage sent directly up from the gate."

Scathan nodded, his dark eyes flickering around the hallway, which was wide and roomy enough for even the tallest Troll in the most elaborate ceremonial costume to move about more or less freely. Doors lined it on both sides, evenly spaced, and a thick rug muted any footfalls; directly between the doors was a lamp that cast a warm golden radiance. Evayne counted off doors quietly before pulling a key from her belt pouch and slipping it into the lock, turning it vigorously and pushing the door open. "I swear, sometimes I think they're trying to lock *everybody* out."

The room beyond carried the scent of a recent cleaning and airing, the smell of whatever soap was used to keep the chimerical floors gleaming and the rugs from showing the wear of too many feet. A sitting room, clearly--a fireplace with an elaborately worked mantle, surrounded by a loose circle of chairs, upholstered in ambassadorial-dignified colors. The single large window's curtains were drawn back, and the outside shutters opened to admit the light, though the window itself, cut glass worked in fanciful patterns, was closed. A low bookcase hugged the wall beneath the window and contained a selection of mostly harmless volumes on Kithain history and politics, as well as the requisite knickknacks. An oval table likewise set with tall-backed wooden chairs sat nearby, a lamp in the center surrounded by freshly cut spring flowers was obviously intended to take a private-yet-social meal.

Evayne opened the door nearly hidden by the edges of the chimney flue and peered inside, "Okay...this one's the bed-and-bath. You brought two packs and a heavy leather case."

"That's mine." Scathan crossed the room and peered out the window; the curve of the north curtain wall passed directly beneath and, as he watched, a liveried Knight strode past, carrying a halberd that was almost longer than he was tall.

"You travel light," Her tone was wry. "Most of the ambassadors carry half their lives along with them, I swear. Horse or carriage?"

"Carriage--though if I needed a horse I could send home for one." The guard lingered for about five minutes, then continued on his way.

"You might, if you're ranked a Knight, they'll probably try to coerce you into displaying your prowess on the field at Midsummer." She tossed the bedroom door open the rest of the way when Scathan showed no immediate signs of joining her, tugging open the curtains and tying them neatly back. "You want me to unpack your things?"

"No...I'll do it myself later." Scathan turned and crossed into the bedroom, glancing about. A large bed dominated one corner, wide and becurtained, with a pair of bedside tables on either side and an elaborately carved head and foot board. Curtains and bedclothes were both a deep royal blue that complemented the rug on the floor and the thick, heavy tapestries lining two of the walls. A large clothespress stood in one corner, along with a slightly smaller bound chest; his packs and medicine case were piled neatly in that same corner. Next to it stood a door, rather unobtrusive, that had to be the bathchamber entrance. Glazed blue tiles surrounded the slightly smaller fireplace, a supply of tinder and wood occupying the small bin next to it. Late afternoon light shimmered in the blue highlights in the glass window, picking out the openable seams and the blonde tints in Evayne's hair as she propped them open.

The breeze carried the scent of new leaves and the bite of still-early spring, damp with a hint of rain later in the evening. Evayne turned and made him another courtesy. "They'll expect me down in the hall before too much longer--if you need me, there's a pull next to the bed," she pointed out the dangling braided cord, "and there's always a page loitering on every floor for general services. Dinner's every night at about eight in the main hall, but if you're hungry later or just want to take dinner privately in your rooms, you can have it sent up."

"Thank you...I'll bear that in mind."

"I'll be back later to check and see if you need anything after dinner. Bye!"

She darted off with the speed only a childling could manage, closing the door behind herself, and Scathan privately promised himself to be a very bad influence on her before the summer was over. A wry smile curled his lips and he turned to face his least favorite part of assuming a new position...unpacking.