Looking down on empty streets, all she can see
Are the dreams all made solid | Are the dreams all made real
Two hundred years.
She used to keep a who’s who of Amber city in her head. She knew where to find the people who had it, the people who wanted it, the next big things. Knew where the best salons could be found, and on what days the most interesting people would be there. Could even tell you which were the best pubs for a rough night out, if that was what you were looking for.
Two hundred years.
She got to know a different world. She learned the nooks and crannies of a little shadow she finds herself missing now, just a bit. Different clubs, different bazaars, different movers and shakers. She’s been back from exile a year now and she still keeps mis-remembering things. The guy in the souk who sold exotic weapons doesn’t live in Amber. Nor does the woman who was so talented with ballistic cloth. But she keeps heading out to visit them, and is surprised when she recalls she’s no longer on Earth.
She’s back home, in Amber. And it’s going to take a little while for this place to feel like home again.
She runs her thumb around the back of the ring she always wears. Frowns, remembering that she took that ring off years ago. Left it in Namibia with the man who gave it to her. But her finger keeps returning to that spot, like picking at a scab.
All of the buildings, all of the cars
Were once just a dream | In somebody’s head
If she’s not in the practice hall, the palace garden is always the best place to find Erica. Meditating, Flora calls it. Her sister meditates in one of two ways: creation or destruction. This aspect, the creative one, is the one Flora prefers to deal with. She watches from the garden gate for a few moments, knowing that her sister is fully aware of her presence and will make some sign when it’s polite to interrupt.
Flora would be lying if she said she wasn’t scared of Erica. She sees her as a stormfront, a gathering wind waiting to unleash thunder and lightning, to lay waste to everything in her path. She’s only ever seen her let loose like that once. She feels slightly complicit in that destruction, not because she unleashed it, but because she helped cover up the aftermath. She still wonders if Corwin deserved it.
Erica steps back from the ash tree she’s been working on, stares at it for a beat. “You’re not happy,” she says to Flora.
“And you’re not healthy,” replies Flora.
“It would be polite not to mention it,” says Erica. She turns and approaches her sister, a gentle smile on her face.
“I can’t be the only person who’s noticed.”
“It’s better than it was,” says Erica, avoiding the issue and closing the subject.
“Have you had any luck?”
Flora shakes her head. “No. I don’t know why you thought I’d be able to find him.”
“Because everybody trusts you, dear sister.”
“No,” says Flora, a little smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. “They know I’m not a threat. There’s a difference.”
She pictures the broken glass, pictures the steam
She pictures a soul | With no leak at the seam
Brand is perched uncomfortably on a metal chair on the small balcony outside the palace’s infirmary, drinking tea. She makes sure to be clumsily noisy in her approach, so as not to startle him. He turns his head to watch her, and she’s struck again by how thin and worn he looks, even more so than Erica. The scars on his face have faded to white lines.
Her memories of Brand have always been neatly divided into this Brand and that Brand. She’d always been very good at recognising which was which; knowing when to politely end a conversation and depart before the dangerous version surfaced. Oddly, she can’t now tell which aspect of her brother is at the forefront, and she wonders if the rumours she’s heard are true.
He looks slightly startled. “What? What have I done now?”
Flora smiles, shaking her head. “No, no. Nothing at all. I just came to visit. How are you?”
“Fine,” he says, too quickly.
She adjusts the angle of the chair opposite him, and settles into it, arranging her handbag in her lap. He watches, eyes narrowing, looking for all the world like a deer about to bolt. He flinches when she reaches into her bag, though she tries to keep her movements slow and steady. She pulls out a gold cigarette case and a matching lighter. Flicks open the case and offers it to Brand.
“Sarina will kill me,” he says, taking a cigarette anyway.
Flora takes one for herself, and then leans forward to light Brand’s before lighting her own. She puts the case and the lighter on the table between them. Metal clinks on metal, and Brand flinches again. He slumps back in his chair and hunches his shoulders forward, looking unhappy; cornered.
“I was hoping you might be up to a little politics,” says Flora. A disarming move, designed to derail the train of thought that has him thinking she’s out to get him.
He frowns. “Politics. I’m no good at politics.” Some of the tension goes out of his shoulders.
“Duke Feldane needs an ally at court. The throne war cost them a great deal.” A way of bringing up Bleys, without bringing up Bleys.
“I don’t plan on staying in Amber,” says Brand. “People keep trying to kill me.”
“I thought you might be less likely to want to wander in shadow, given who’s out there,” says Flora carefully.
Brand looks very briefly angry, then seems to remember who he’s talking to, and his expression changes to one of faint confusion. “I don’t remember most of it,” he says slowly. “Memory’s like swiss cheese.” He’s fishing, wanting information from her before he spills any of his own. It’s a familiar game.
Flora stares at him a beat, considering. She remembers the last time she saw Brand, back on Earth. She was unpleasantly surprised to find him violating her little shadow. She never did find out what he was really up to, beyond meddling with Corwin’s ‘treatment’. That Brand did not have scars. That Brand, she’s beginning to think, may not have been Brand at all.
“Look, I have a theory,” says Flora. She leans forward a little, makes a show of glancing back into the infirmary to check there’s nobody listening to them. “But I need you to answer two questions before I can take it any further.”
Brand shrugs. “And why should I care about your theories?”
“Because it’ll exonerate you, for a start,” says Flora.
“Have you not kept up with current events?” says Brand tightly. “Everybody thinks I’m mad. I finally found out why, and nobody believes me, because they still think I’m mad.”
“It’s because your version of events doesn’t match up with eye-witness accounts,” says Flora. “Fiona says it was you who proposed destroying the Pattern, that it was you who wanted Martin dead. You were seen negotiating with the weir. You were seen in Careoc before it became part of Amber.” She takes a breath, and a terrible risk. “And you were seen on Earth in a hospital with Corwin.”
Brand shakes his head. “Fiona’s lying. And I haven’t been to those other places.” He looks annoyed, tired of explaining the same thing, over and over, and having nobody believe him.
Flora leans forward, gesturing into the space between them. “I want to believe you,” she says quietly.
“Oh, sure you do, but…”
“Please don’t be like that, brother. Just answer two questions, and I will believe you.”
Brand sighs. “Go for it. But I reserve the right to not answer.”
“Thank you.” Flora smiles warmly. “First, tell me when you got those scars.”
Brand lifts one hand to his face and runs his fingers over the scars around his left eye. “When? I don’t know.” He scowls. “Fiona did it. One of her stupid guard-beasts when I tried escaping.”
“…from the tower that your son rescued you from?”
“Pretty sure I’ve told Erica the story,” he says sourly.
Flora wets her lips. “But you were on Earth with Corwin, after Bleys and Fiona tried the coup, and before you were rescued from the tower.”
“Pretty sure I was tied to a wall when they were arguing over the crown.” He arches an eyebrow. “You’ve got an idea, don’t you? What’s your other question?”
“Does Bleys have any talent in shapeshifting?”
“Don’t be stupid. Dad would have slapped him silly.”
Flora raises her eyebrows. Cigarette smoke wafts between them. “Are you sure?”
Brand swears softly, and runs a hand through his already messy hair. “Cold as fucking ice, those two.” He looks away suddenly, though Flora catches the look in his eyes, and not for the first time, she feels sorry for him.
“Help me find him?” she asks.
“Are you fucking kidding?” He stabs out his cigarette, angrily grinding the filter into pulp on the metal table-top. “How many more chances to kill me should I give them, huh?”
“I’m not asking you to join a posse,” says Flora.
Flora smiles. “I have an idea…”
Let’s take the boat out | Wait until darkness
Let’s take the boat out | Wait until darkness comes
“Oh! I’m so glad I ran into you,” exclaims Fiona. She clasps Flora’s hand tightly, beaming, then leans forward and stands on tiptoe to kiss her on the cheek.
Flora returns the affection flawlessly, giving her sister’s shoulder a little squeeze as she returns the kiss.
“I have missed you terribly,” says Fiona. “Please say you’re staying in Amber.”
“Nothing could possibly make me leave,” says Flora. “After all, how many girls get to organise a coronation?” She can’t help it. And it’s such a little thing. A single point scored.
Fiona smiles graciously. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it,” she says. “Perhaps next time.” One all.
“So what’s the emergency, dear sister?” asks Flora. She puts a conspiratorial finger to her lips. “It was your gala dress, wasn’t it? I’m sure my dressmaker would just adore taking you under her wing.” Advantage Florimel.
“Oh, that’s very sweet of you, dear,” says Fiona. “But I feel that we elders must make a point of only patronising the noble quarter.” One all.
“I understand completely,” says Flora smoothly. “I forget sometimes you are actually terribly older than I. Your cosmetician is a genius.” Advantage Florimel.
“The Venway really are very good at that sort of thing,” says Fiona. “But I wanted to give this back to you — I think you dropped it at the gala.” She presses a small metal object in Flora’s palm. “I felt it was terribly important,” she says, showing teeth.
Flora glances at her open palm, quickly closes her hand over a gold ring. Her expression tightens. “I was not wearing this at the gala.”
“Oh? Somebody said they saw you drop it. They thought it best to give it to me for safe keeping.”
Flora knows exactly where she dropped that ring, and when. Her thumb rubs the blank space at the base of her finger.
“I just wanted you to know that I’m watching out for you, little sister.” Fiona leans in to give Flora another little kiss, and whispers in her ear: “I’d hate to see you make any more … mistakes.” She turns and walks away down the corridor.
Nowhere in the corridors of pale green and grey
Nowhere in the suburbs | In the cold light of day
A little fresh air. That’s what she needs. Fresh air, salt, water, the gentle roll of the ocean.
She’s sitting on the long lounge in the captain’s quarters on Gerard’s flagship, staring at the stained-glass light playing across the floor.
Gerard silently refills her whiskey glass. His own glass is barely touched.
“I wanted to slap her,” she says suddenly.
“Who?” asks Gerard. Beyond ‘can I come through?’ these are the first words she’s uttered. He was beginning to get concerned that something serious had happened.
Flora shakes her head. “I shouldn’t let her get to me. I used to be better than that.”
Gerard makes a face. Tallies up the sisters in his family, chooses the one most likely to annoy Florimel, who is, in his opinion, the most calm-headed of all his sisters. “Deirdre?” he guesses.
Flora looks up with a guilty expression, and takes another sip of whiskey. “Fiona,” she says.
“Ah.” That would have been his second guess, but only because Flora is so staunchly on Erica’s side, and Fiona, well…
Flora waves a hand dismissively. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Because if you did, you’d have gone to Caine?” says Gerard, smiling.
“Maybe,” she says softly. After a moment’s thought, she adds: “It must be nice to have full siblings you can trust.”
“Don’t you trust me, Flora?” he says, sounding a little hurt.
“It’s a funny thing, trust,” she muses. “I do trust you.” She looks up at him, and lifts her glass in a little salute. “I would trust you with my life. I trust you to do what’s right for Amber. I trust you to protect Erica, and all the rest of us, from each other.” She drains the glass. “But I can’t trust you with my heart, brother.”
Gerard nods slowly, his fingers tightening a little on the bottle. He knows there’s only one thing that his family will kill and die for, and that, ironically, is family. He doesn’t know what family Florimel might have out in shadow, but she was gone for two hundred years, so she’s had ample opportunity. He makes a mental note to keep a closer eye on Fiona. It occurs to him that that’s probably exactly what Flora wants.
“If you need somewhere safe to send them, Flora, I have shadows Fiona can’t find.”
“There’s nowhere in shadow one of us can’t find,” says Flora. “But thank you for the offer.”
There in the midst of it so alive and alone
Words support like bone
“May I come in?” Flora stands on the threshold of the royal chapel. The morning sun is filling the small space with multi-coloured light. There’s a figure kneeling before the altar, her back to the doors. White hair spills down over her shoulders.
Alma turns her head. “This isn’t a private space,” she says. “Any who wish succour can come here.”
Flora takes a few steps into the chapel. She doesn’t know Alma. She knows her face from the family portrait hall, but Alma and her brothers were gone long before she was born. In her portrait, Alma has a quiet strength, but in person there’s something very fragile about her.
“I was hoping you’d be willing to talk to me,” says Flora.
Alma sighs. “I do not wish to be involved.”
“I know. I just…” Flora frowns. A part of her wants to leave it there. But she can see, racked up carefully in her mind, all the things she could say to get the reaction she wants.
She walks further into the chapel, sits down on one of the pews to Alma’s left. Alma watches her, frowning.
“I need some information.”
Alma looks annoyed. “About whom?”
“Hah.” Alma turns back to the altar and makes the sign of the unicorn before standing up. “Do you know I tried to murder her?”
Flora arches an eyebrow. She did know, but she didn’t expect Alma to be so open about it. “I can appreciate the sentiment,” she says.
“Is this to be a comparison of wrongs, then?” says Alma darkly. She slides into the pews beside Flora. “Because I think we would both find ourselves disappointed.”
“No. But I did have a theory I wanted to run past you.”
Alma folds her hands in her lap, and levels a flat stare at Florimel.
“Well.” Flora takes a deep breath.”You’re a shapeshifter.”
“Was a shapeshifter,” says Alma.
Flora files that away for the future. “Have you ever taught anybody else how to do it?”
Alma looks surprised. “It’s not something you teach. It’s something you catch.”
“Okay, then. Could Fiona have taken that from you, and given it to somebody else?”
Dreaming of Mercy Street
Wear your inside out
Dreaming of mercy | In your daddy’s arms again
Dreaming of Mercy Street
Swear they moved that sign
Dreaming of mercy | In your daddy’s arms
Flora stares at the door, mere inches from her nose. She’s not used to people slamming doors in her face. It’s the kind of rudeness that just puts her teeth on edge. Cutting remarks are fine, even threats of violence. But Deirdre just opened the door, saw her face, and slammed the door in it. Graceless. Not that Deirdre has ever been possessed of much grace. Or any at all, really.
She knocks again, a little firmer this time. Annoyingly, she’s been in this position before. Deirdre refusing to adhere to even basic standards of dress, and Flora trying to convince her otherwise, usually with their father standing in the wings, glowering.
Funny to be thinking of their father again. She hasn’t seen him since she left Amber. Erica never even told her that he’d gone missing. Not that anybody really knew he’d gone missing.
“Please, Deirdre? I just want a few words. Alma thought you might be able to shed some light on—”
The door lurches open suddenly, revealing Deirdre, wearing a scowl. Flora blinks. And a bra, and a pair of men’s satin boxers. She opens her mouth to say something about her sister’s state of undress, then thinks better of it and smiles sweetly instead.
“Five minutes.” Deirdre steps to one side and waves Flora inside.
Flora looks around, carefully keeping up a friendly façade. Deirdre’s quarters probably do get cleaned regularly, but the staff are fighting a losing battle against piles of dusty books, armour stands, weapon racks, whet stones, and oily rags.
“Well?” Deirdre sits on one corner of a large desk toppling with books, scrolls, and last night’s half-eaten sandwiches.
Flora decides to dive straight in. Deirdre’s never been one for niceties. “Did Corwin tell you about having met Brand?” she asks.
Deirdre looks slightly surprised. “What, no lecture on couture?” she says dryly.
“You only gave me five minutes,” says Flora.
Deirdre purses her lips. “And why should I help you?”
“Fiona’s up to something. I’m trying to work out what. And I know you don’t like her any more than I do.”
“Well, I’m not giving you carte blanche. What, exactly, are you trying to determine?”
Flora nods. It’s better than she expected. “When Corwin saw Brand on Earth, did he have scars on his face?”
Pulling out the papers from drawers that slide smooth
Tugging at the darkness, word upon word
Back in her own rooms, Flora considers how to approach the next person on her mental list. On the one hand, she normally prefers to do such things in person, and the walk down to Arden would be a pleasant, if long, diversion. On the other hand, her sister Julia has never been particularly good at societal niceties, so arriving on her doorstep unannounced is unlikely to produce the reaction she wants.
She retrieves her trump deck and spreads the cards out on the table in front of her. Throughout her exile, her deck had slowly dwindled, until there were less than a dozen cards in it. She’s never examined the mechanics of that beyond supposing it was a combination of distance from Amber, a locked shadow, and her own deliberate distancing. As she runs her fingers over the cards, she wonders if the same thing has happened to other such decks; if her missing siblings can no longer reach out because they no longer have the means to do so.
Her fingers pause over Corwin’s card. She remembers how frightened she’d been when she thought he’d stolen her deck. Just for a moment, she’d been faced with the horrifying thought that without those cards she’d be stranded on Earth forever.
She gathers up the cards, leaving two on the table — Erica and Fiona — and then shuffles the deck. Slowly, she turns over card after card, laying them on the table in four distinct groups.
Brand turns up first, and after a moment’s thought, she places his card under Erica’s, but crosswise.
Matilda goes in the left-most pile, face up.
Sioned under Erica. Likewise Caine and Lara.
Llewella’s card joins Matilda. So does Alma, though crosswise.
Finndo goes face down on the right-most pile. Theodric joins him.
She flinches when she turns over her father’s card, and immediately looks away from it, as though afraid she might make a contact. She tucks it back in the bottom of the deck.
Isaac; face down on the right.
Bleys. Fiona’s pile.
Gerard to Erica.
Delwin on the left.
Her own card is next. She notices that the face looking out from her card these days is road-worn, wearing dusty clothes more suited to a dig in Namibia than the court of Amber. She puts her card down on Erica’s pile.
Martin. She barely knows Martin. Like many of the younger members of her family his face is not one she’s used to finding in the deck. After a moment’s consideration, she puts his card crosswise on Fiona’s pile.
Corwin’s card shows an unshaven, dishevelled man. This is how she remembers him from Earth — a drifter with memories so shattered he never recalled having met her, year after year. Some part of his mind simply avoided any mention of Amber. She puts his card on Fiona’s pile. After a moment, she turns it sideways.
Deirdre joins Corwin.
Julia. She goes on Erica’s pile.
Mirelle goes face down on the right-most pile. Luce joins her.
Hagen. She pauses, hand hovering between the two centre piles. Finally puts him crosswise on Erica’s.
Random goes with Corwin and Deirdre.
Daud to the right, face down. Osric as well.
Sand to the left.
Emil joins Hagen and Brand.
Benedict to the left.
There are still cards in her hand, places in Amber that no longer look the way they do in her head. Oberon is in there too, and perhaps a new card, though she doesn’t want to go looking for that one just yet. She’s a little worried about who she might see looking out at her from that trump.
She picks up Julia’s card again. The trump depicts her in full armour, sitting on a window ledge in this room, gazing out at the city below. That’s her favourite memory of Julia. Flora was only ten or so, and she remembers having been very sick at the time. So sick she was going to miss the parade put on by the Kashfan delegation, something she’d been looking forward to for months. She’d cried for hours, and worried her maids by refusing to eat. On the day of the parade, Julia came to visit her. Julia, who never had more than a few cold words for her; who as far as Flora could tell, regarded her as some kind of delicate toy she was neither responsible for nor remotely interested in. Julia sat in that window for hours, relating in glorious, painstaking detail all the things happening below.
The card goes cold in her hand, and she sees it come to life. Julia is sitting in a tent, probably somewhere in Arden. She has a curry-brush in either hand, grooming one of her stormhounds the way one would a horse. Flora smiles warmly. “Sister. Am I interrupting?”
Julia inclines her head. “No. What do you want?”
From any of her other siblings, Flora would take that as rudeness. From Julia, it’s simply a question. “I wanted to pick your brains about a certain class of artefact,” says Flora.
Julia arches an eyebrow. “You should come through.”
Confessing all the secret things in the warm velvet box
To the priest, he’s the doctor | He can handle the shocks
She seeks out Caine later that day, finding him, as she expected, on the docks. She’s pleased at how surprised he looks to see her there.
“Not your usual haunt, sister,” he says.
“Oh, I don’t know,” replies Flora, “It has a sort of rustic charm.”
Caine grins. “Don’t tell our sisters, or I’ll never get any peace.”
She laughs, and links her arms in his, pulling him into motion. “Walk with me a little?”
“I can spare a few minutes,” he replies.
“You work too hard,” she chides.
He chuckles. “Not half as hard as you, it seems.”
“Have you been spying on me, brother dear?”
“Don’t take it the wrong way, Flora. I spy on everybody.” They weave between the dockworkers, walking slowly along the waterfront.
She pats his arm gently. “In that case, you already know why I’m here.”
“To be honest, I’m a little hurt that I’m last on your list.” He leans towards her so he can whisper in her ear. “You must really think I’m a pushover.”
“Perhaps I just know how well ‘innocent and helpless’ works on you.”
He snorts. “I don’t remember a time when any of my sisters were either innocent or helpless.”
“But it pleases our brothers to behave as though we are,” she replies with a smile.
“I’m not giving you my sword,” he says flatly. “No matter how innocently you flutter those eyelashes.”
Flora stops walking, and Caine, out of politeness, is forced to pause with her. “It’s not as though I want to keep it,” she says, annoyed.
“No.” He arches his eyebrows. “Defence of the realm.”
“Is well in hand, I should think.” She gestures at the sword on his hip. “Especially as a second one is in play now.”
“Lara barely knows how to swing a sword,” he says. “And who knows if it won’t just go back to Corwin when she’s not looking?” He narrows his eyes. “I’m guessing that’s why you want Havenskoye rather than Greyswandir, am I right?”
Flora wets her lips. “Caine, please. I don’t need it for more than—”
“Don’t you trust me, Caine?”
“Does that actually work on anybody other than Gerard?”
Flora purses her lips. She’s so used to being able to gently influence people that the few it doesn’t work on infuriate her. Worse, Caine always seems to send her back to a time when she was a fawning ten-year-old, and he a terrifyingly competent elder brother. “Look. Julia thinks she can use one blade to find another, by—”
“I don’t care how she thinks she’s going to do it. Nobody is futzing around with my sword.”
“It won’t actually damage the sword, Caine.”
“Surely you have faith in your sister’s abilities?” she says, trying a slightly different angle.
“What I need you to understand, Flora, is that this is not about trust.” He rests a hand on the sword’s pommel, frowning at his sister. “This is not just an artefact. There is mystical shit going on in here that even Dworkin couldn’t fathom.”
Flora makes a face. “Did Corwin tell you that?” she asks, somewhat derisively.
“Benedict. Our father pulled this sword off Finndo’s corpse and gave it to me on my sixteenth birthday, but Benedict still taught me how to fight with it, and I am not about to dishonour him, or his brother, by giving it up.”
Flora suddenly finds she can’t meet his eyes. “Oh,” she says finally. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re not,” he says sharply, “but you’ll live with it.”
She pouts at him.
“And just because I’m a nice guy, I’ll give you another option.”
“You’ve seen him, haven’t you?” says Flora hopefully. “You’ve found a way to spy on him!”
“No, Florimel,” he drawls, voice dripping with sarcasm. “Massaging my ego will not make me a better trump artist than Bleys.”
She sighs. “That was supposed to be an opportunity for you to prove how brilliant you are.”
“Sorry to disappoint. You want Hagen.”
Flora frowns. “How does Hagen help me find Bleys?”
Caine gives her a pitying look. “Flora. Think.” He drums his fingers on his scabbard.
She stares at him a moment, annoyed that he’s playing games, then something clicks. “Hagen.” Her shoulders slump. “Caine, Hagen is not likely to want to chat with me about his long-dead father.”
“Then I’d catch him on a good day if I was you.”
Flora wrinkles her nose. “How would I tell?”
Dreaming of the tenderness, the tremble in the hips
Of kissing Mary’s lips
Dreaming of Mercy Street
Wear your inside out
Dreaming of mercy | In your daddy’s arms again
Dreaming of Mercy Street
Swear they moved that sign
Looking for mercy | In your daddy’s arms
When Flora returns to her rooms, she notes that the maid’s been through, neatening everything up. She didn’t touch her trump cards, though, which are still laid out in piles on the table.
She picks up the small pile of unplaced cards, unconsciously shuffles them as she considers the cards already laid out. She knows there are seven place trumps left, and one face card. Or two, perhaps. How long does it take before the cards add a new family member?
She puts the small pile down. Squares them up. Returns her attention to the face-up cards. Slides Hagen’s trump towards her, rotating it upright. Her gaze slides back to the unsorted cards, and she realises that she’s rubbing the empty spot on the back of her finger again.
No, not empty. She looks down at her hand. She must have put the ring back on, after Fiona gave it to her. She frowns, annoyed. Pulls the ring off. She weighs it in her palm for a moment, remembering.
Maximilian Talbot. The Colonel.
A walk, she thinks. A walk will do me good. She reaches for the pile of trumps, deciding to go wherever the card depicts, and take the long way back to the castle. She turns over the topmost card.
The ring falls from her fingers.
Anne, with her father is out in the boat
Riding the water | Riding the waves on the sea
“Mercy Street”, by Peter Gabriel, from the album “So”, 1986