Tomas hovers at the edge of the hall, waiting for the right moment to interrupt the queen. He’s keenly aware of the fact that there probably won’t be a good time to interrupt her — Erica has been on the edge of a bad mood for about a week now, and recent events have set her demeanour into a kind of cold tension that needs only the slightest thing to tip over the edge into incandescent rage.
She is currently chatting with her nephew Hagen, and Tomas has caught enough of their conversation to have filed it into ‘defence of the realm’ and thus, not something he wishes to interrupt. Especially not for a collation of dispatches, gallantry recommendations, ducal posturing, and the draft speech for the Rebman mass.
The conversation stops abruptly, and Tomas looks up from his clipboard, hoping to catch Erica’s eye. But the queen’s demeanour has changed — she’s shifted into a ready stance, and all traces of tiredness have been banished — she looks directly at Tomas and shakes her head slightly, as her hand falls to the pommel of her sword.
Tomas takes the hint, backing out of the room.
“Hide yourself,” she says, and Hagen melts into the shadows of the tapestries behind her.
In the centre of the hall, the air scintillates and takes on human shape. Then there’s a burst of rainbow light and the figure comes sharply into focus. Small, fine-featured, shocking red hair. Fiona. She sinks painfully to her knees, pressing both hands to a wound in her side that has soaked her delicate pale green ballgown in blood.
“Help me, sister, please.”
Erica’s only response is to move her hand away from her sword and to fold her arms across her chest.
Fiona shivers and wets her lips. “Erica. Your majesty. I beg your protection.”
Erica sniffs. “And what am I to expect in return? More treachery?”
“You’ll get no apologies for what I’ve done,” says Fiona, lifting her head to meet Erica’s unfriendly gaze. She is calm, and effuses pride and poise despite her wound. “I’m not so weak as to excuse my past or my choices. But I can tell you exactly what was done to the Pattern, and how, and my theories on how it might be fixed.”
“That’s magnanimous of you.”
A smile draws up the corners of Fiona’s lovely mouth. “Dworkin, Brand and I are the only ones who know the Pattern’s secrets. Brand is barely sane, and Dworkin’s been missing for longer than our father. I can be of help, but I won’t end up like Corwin.”
Erica arches one eyebrow. “Won’t you indeed,” she says softly, then: “Tell me everything, and we shall see.”
Fiona shakes her head. “I want your word that I have your protection.”
“You must know your attacker is right behind you, sister,” says Erica. “How long do you think you can afford to wait?”
“You are the Queen of Amber,” says Fiona calmly. “Nothing enters here without your bidding. Not even Brand.”
“Smugness doesn’t become you, dear,” says Erica, sounding annoyed. She is, indeed, holding Brand at bay in the palace with Penrose stairs and Möbius corridors.
Fiona half-nods. “Brand is extremely dangerous.”
“So are you,” says Erica.
“I’m not mad,” says Fiona softly. “I can be reasoned with. I will keep my oaths.”
Erica sighs deeply. “So you’ll swear an oath, then?”
“If you’ll permit me to raise the Pattern, I’d be happy to.”
The queen inclines her head slightly, and there is an infinitesimal change in the room’s air pressure.
Fiona takes one bloody hand away from her wound and holds it out, and the Pattern springs into life on her palm. “I recognise you, Erica, as my sovereign queen. In return for your protection, I will do all in my power to restore the realm of Amber. I will not keep from you any information which may harm Amber or your person. This I swear, by the Pattern.” There is a pulse of red light from the shape dancing in Fiona’s hand.
“As your sovereign queen, I accept your allegiance,” says Erica. “You will remain in the palace under house arrest until such time as I release you.”
The Pattern dissipates, and Fiona visibly wilts.
Erica glances behind her. “Hagen?”
Hagen is pleased to note that Fiona starts when he appears from the shadows. She hadn’t known he was there. He sketches an expressionless little bow. “Your majesty?”
“Trump Gerard. Tell him to bring his surgeon’s kit and expect a short stay in the palace.”
“Gerard?” says Fiona. “Really?”
“Who else of us would you trust to sew up your guts, dear?”
“Anybody’s guts, or mine especially?”
Hagen holds out a hand, and Gerard appears in a rainbow of trump-light, accompanied by a waft of salty air. He’s dressed in the working uniform of the Amber Navy, though without a jacket. He takes in the scene and goes immediately Fiona’s side.
Erica looks at Hagen, mentally drawing up a list of his abilities. “Ready for Brand?”
“Is that even possible?” he asks.
She replies with half a smile and a tiny shrug, then turns to face the eastern door.
It bursts open as though kicked, and Brand stumbles in, looking ruffled and annoyed. He turns to glare at the door and kicks it closed behind him, muttering under his breath. He’s clearly come from the same party as Fiona, wearing a tuxedo with his shirt front open and the bow tie hanging around his neck.
He swings back towards Erica, barely glancing at the pair in the middle of the room. “Funny old thing,” he says brightly, “shadow’s gone weird in the palace. Never seen it do that before.” One hand flutters up to fiddle with his tie, revealing a heavy blood-stain on his shirt cuff. He seems to notice this, and quickly drops his hand, shoving it in one pants pocket.
“Have you come to finish our conversation, Brand?” asks Erica, sounding annoyed.
Brand frowns gently. “Finish? Didn’t we?”
“Not at all.”
“Oh well.” Brand shrugs. “Probably not that important. Now, this —” here he turns on one heel and peers over at Fiona and Gerard, “—this is important.”
Gerard stands up and does his best ‘loom’. Even despite the fact that he’s the youngest person in the room, he does a pretty good loom. Brand rocks back on his heels a little.
“Woah there, big fella,” says Brand, “no quarrel with you. Just with the murderous bitch who imprisoned and tortured me.” He says it in such a bland tone of voice that it takes a moment for the others to react.
“It can wait,” says Erica sharply. She takes three strides towards Brand, stopping just inside sword-lunge distance.
Brand looks affronted. “No, it can’t. But look, it won’t take long, and then we can go back to talking about — what were we talking about?”
“The Black Road.”
Brand waves a hand dismissively. “That’s a doddle.” A look of pleasant surprise suddenly brightens his face. “In fact, I can fix both problems at once!”
Fiona lets out a whimper as she tries to get her feet. Gerard glances down, concerned.
“I’ll just need Fiona and some things from the treasury,” continues Brand.
Fiona starts pushing herself away, leaving a smear of blood on the marble floor.
“What?” he looks at Erica, nothing but innocent surprise in his eyes.
“You will not touch Fiona. You will not harm her in any way. Is that clear?” There is steel in Erica’s voice.
Brand blinks, and looks hurt. “I thought we’d made up. Hadn’t we made up? I told you none of this was my fault. I was locked up before they even put that army together.” He thrusts a finger at Fiona. “By her, I might add.”
“And before that, brother?” says Fiona. “The weirmonken? The Pattern?” She takes a breath, as though speaking pains her. “What we did to Martin?”
Brand’s demeanour darkens immediately. “We?” He says it with such vehemence that Fiona flinches. “We? If it had been ‘we’, it would have worked.” He takes a step towards Fiona, and Erica sidesteps to keep him in thrusting distance. “You’re the one who failed. You didn’t follow the plan.”
Fiona lifts her chin proudly. “If I’d known what you intended, I would never had gone with you.”
Brand lurches forward, gesticulating wildly. “Lying bitch! You knew exactly —” He stops suddenly, and looks down at the sword-point hovering at his breast.
“Enough.” The room actually seems to have darked a little, just from the weight of Erica’s anger. “Swear fealty to me, swear to leave Fiona alone, swear to help Amber. Or leave.”
Brand looks aghast. “Swear? I don’t need to swear, I’m on your side!” With supreme willpower he stops himself from waving his arms to illustrate the point. “I’m trying to fix this!”
“Fix it?” says Fiona. “We broke it, Brand. We damaged the Pattern. And you’re talking about trying to make it worse!”
Brand makes a face. “Oh, you really are stupid sometimes, Fiona,” he says. “You stopped me from fixing it in the first place. This is all your fault, you know. Ouch.” He pouts at Erica, who has pushed the tip of her sword forward just enough to cause a tiny bloom of blood on his white shirt.
“Swear or be banished.”
Slowly, the pout of aggrieved innocence fades off Brand’s face, leaving a cool reserve. “Banish. Me.” He leans forward slightly, into Erica’s sword, and the blood blossoms across his chest. His voice is calm, measured. “After everything I’ve done for Amber? After I took it upon myself to fix our father’s mistakes? I did that. Me. And this is the thanks I get?”
Erica’s grip wavers — to the others it simply looks like she is hesitating, unwilling to do any real harm to Brand — Hagen, though, can see it’s fatigue.
“Maybe you aren’t worth saving,” Brand says softly.
“Now.” Erica’s command triggers several actions at once, coordinated by the quiet trump contacts Gerard’s been making while Brand has ranted.
Erica drops to one knee, her sword still pointed at Brand but no longer in contact with him.
The space where Hagen was is suddenly full of bats — they swarm over Erica’s head and cascade towards Brand.
Gerard reaches for Fiona and both vanish in a scintillation of trump.
Brand lunges for the space where Fiona was, snarling and cursing even as his outline begins to shimmer with the rainbow effect of a Trump. The cloud of bats slams into him: there is a spray of blood from him and another curse, and then the bats are repulsed as if suddenly terrified of his skin. Some die. Brand disappears in a Trump flash: bright and laser-quick.
Erica says to the ugly silence that follows: “Were you in time?”
The bats become the shape of a man once more. He licks his red lips. “I think so. …I pray so. Else it will be up to Gerard and Venator.”