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The Game

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I open my eyes to see Martin staring down at me. He leans on the oak dresser, mouth twisted into a smile that is more wry than devilish. As he sees me blink, the expression changes, shuttering and growing cold.

I open my mouth, and nothing comes out.

“I’ve decided that it is improbable that you will heal quickly,” he says mildly. He smiles then, sharp and distant. Calculating. “You can say that’s impossible, that nothing can calculate the odds on an Amberite. You’d be wrong.”

I blink once. I have questions. I have no doubt he has answers. The only question is whether he’s willing to give them to me.

“Sleep.” He touches my eyelids, and they close without my telling them to.

So I do.

#

He sits, the next time I see him, compact frame stretched as he sprawls in the chair, just out of reach. I try anyway, willing my arm to lift, irritated when it refuses to obey.

He must guess something of what’s in my mind. His perception surprises me, and I wonder how much time has passed for him since I stabbed him. Enough for him to grow into his Amberite skin. Enough time for him to become more than his father ever would, irritating runt that he is.

“Caine’s arrow nicked your spinal cord,” he says with a tilt of his head. I see worry there, which only makes me smile. The years have yet to steal his heart.

He stands, coming close and pulling back the sheets to show that I lie there, naked and vulnerable beneath the covers. “You’ll heal slowly,” he says. Fingers drift over my skin, and I feel the memory of them more than I note their passage now. “Sensation will return. Eventually you’ll be able to talk. By then, you might have even figured out what you want to say.” He touches my face, thumb pressed against my mute lips. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to hear it.”

He leaves.

There is nothing else left for me to do, so I sleep.

#

I drift. Hours pass into days, and days into weeks. I lose track, counting time by awake and asleep, but I know those aren’t days by anyone else’s reckoning. And who knows how time flows here? A year could pass in the blink of an eye, or a lifetime could be lived in a day. Time is relative, and painful when there is no way to move, and nowhere to go. Silence is as much a prison as anything more physical.

He’s right; I could plan my words carefully. I was always silver-tongued, far more so than Corwin could dream of being. I could be eloquent, with proper turns of phrase, twisting Martin around until he swore down was up, and I had meant to save his life, not take it.

I never meant to take it.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, and I took the chance that he would be as irritatingly hardy as his father. And I was right. I am rarely wrong.

I knew, as well, that I wouldn’t die on falling into the Abyss. It was a calculated move to stage the end game there. Careful planning, cautious moves of each piece into position. The arrow was unexpected, but then, Caine never had played by the rules.

The only question was which of my brothers would be the one to realize what I had done and pull me out.

In the end, not a brother at all. A nephew.

Once a friend.

Martin.

#

I wake to the pain of a lash. It licks my skin, little tendrils of fire, swiftly set and left to smolder. “Does it hurt?” he growls, the lash falling again and again, until I am awash in pain.

Sensation has never been so welcome. So new.

He grips my hair, twisting his fingers into strands that have grown unusually long, yanking my head back. “Do you feel that?” he asks again, and I cry out, giving him the answer he needs. He grins, sharp and feral. “Good.”

He has a knife in his hand, the tip pressed just under my collarbone, skin split slightly. I feel a wet drip sliding over my skin, then a fresh trail as he draws with the edge. “I could kill you.”

“You could.” My words are raw, my throat pained by saying them. I’m not bound; I could resist. But I’m weak, and I want him to trust me. “But you won’t.”

“You seem so sure of that.” The tip digs in just a bit deeper, twisting. “You tried to kill me.”

All the words I could have prepared are nothing that would work now. I keep his gaze focused on mine and speak carefully. “If I had wanted you dead, the blade would have struck a shade to the left.”

He reads the truth in my gaze and steps back. “I don’t believe you.”

“Think it over. You’ll see.” I let my eyes close, trusting he won’t drive the knife home.

I lie there in the silence when he leaves.

#

Martin props me up with pillows. I’m still weak, but can move my hands and hold a spoon on my own. My voice is stronger. I still can’t walk, although I’ve tried when he’s left me alone.

“You were the first one who actually cared who I was.”

It has been days since we spoke of the past. There is a rough note in his voice. I stay silent to let him speak his piece. Far be it for me to interrupt a rant which has obviously been brewing until well-prepared.

He takes out a sponge, working it harshly over my skin. “You acted like you cared, then you bled me on the Pattern. Why?”

He may have grown, but he is still too blunt to survive in our family. “It doesn’t matter any more. Has the world ended?”

“No, no thanks to you.”

My eyes close. He doesn’t know the truth of it, and it’s nothing I can explain. “It would have all played out very differently,” I say quietly. “And you survived. Are you stronger for it?”

He pulls back. “I’m not going to thank you for stabbing me, Brand.”

I smile when he uses my name. “I didn’t think you would. But a game of cards while I recuperate wouldn’t go amiss.”

He wins, of course, almost every game. He has his father’s luck. I had banked on that, as well. That line, they always fall on their feet.

#

“We were friends, once.”

I find him in the gardens outside the tiny cottage he has kept me in. He is surprised to see me, walking on unsteady feet. We both know that this changes everything, now that I can move under my own power. All I have to do is walk away.

“Once,” he replies. “But not again.”

“Is that so?” I ask. He is taller than me, as I stand before him. Broader through the shoulders, but not quite stocky. Defensive in the set of his body, squared off and slightly turned, as if defending from a strike I haven’t made. Wary.

He has been fired. Hardened. It suits him and draws me in. I walk behind him, let my fingers drift across his shoulders.

His jaw tightens, but he doesn’t show weakness by pulling away. “I could kill you still,” he says. “This is my place. My rules.”

“But you won’t,” I reply. “No more than I would have killed you long ago. The difference is, you were my pawn then. We are equals on the playing field now.”

“This isn’t a game.” Flat, dry. Angry.

I laugh. “You still have a lot to learn. Life is a game. Surviving is only one way to win.”

“What does that mean?” He turns in place, hand coming up to knock mine away, glaring down at me. I wait. He takes a step back and I smile. He thinks he is in control, but he isn’t, not entirely. A few more years, even a dozen, will give him the confidence he needs.

I take a step back myself, and bow. “When you find me again, perhaps I’ll tell you.”

It only takes me two more steps to slip between the shadows. It doesn’t matter that I walk slowly. My shifts are quick and brutal, changing where I am to where I want to be with every step.

I know he’s following me.

I know he’ll find me.

I just need to make sure he takes enough time that he’ll be the best opponent he can be when he does.

It’s a new game after all. I think I’ll enjoy it.