Brand lets go of the dagger. It falls to the ground, taking the pierced Trump with it. Around it, blood burns into the Pattern, searing a scar into its flawless surface. The black stain spreads like a wound in the skin of the world; he imagines its tendrils unwinding from the centre of the universe, expanding to the most distant points of creation.
His theories are confirmed. He should be elated.
He pulls out his Trump deck with bloody hands, shuffling out Fiona's. Red thumbprints mar the perfection of her portrait. Brand focuses on making contact.
She knows, as soon as she sees his face.
"It's done," Brand says anyway. "Come through."
She does not flinch from taking his reddened hand, even when the blood smears her own delicate fingers. She steps through, into the centre of the marred Pattern, breath caught in shaken awe at what they have done.
What have we done?
Fiona regards him with keen assessment. "Are you well?"
"Not a scratch." Brand spreads his arms in demonstration. The blood on his hands is not his own.
"And Martin?" A delicately phrased question.
"I don't know. He broke the contact." Brand cannot shake that memory: those final moments of wild panic and dawning horror. "He was in bad shape."
"Well. It doesn't matter now. We must contact our allies. Let them know the way is open." She gives Brand the kindest look he can remember, since he was five and lost in the depths of Castle Amber. "Go get cleaned up, brother. I'll take care of the rest."
He nods, words locked in his throat.
Fiona bends for the dagger. "Don't forget this."
"Leave it," Brand says, surprising them both. "I don't want it anymore."
Brand stares into the mirror, hollow-eyed. He runs the tap once more, clear water washing through his hands, swirling down the sink. Not a speck of blood remains on his fingernails. He has scrubbed thoroughly, with soap and sponge and pumice, suddenly fastidious.
He has never cared about getting his hands dirty before.
Brand dries them on a towel and steps into his tower room. Unfinished paintings watch him from their easels: Martin gazing out the window, Martin reading on the couch, Martin sprawled upon the bed. Martin, lit up by the smile that was for Brand, and Brand alone.
--Martin, broken and bleeding, staring with bewildered eyes--
Brand rips the canvases from their frames, and crumples them into the fireplace. They curl up and wither into ash, edges bright with flame, the odour of burning paint and cloth searing his nostrils.
He spies a pair of wineglasses resting on the mantelpiece. He takes one down, and casts it into the fire. It explodes into tinkling shards.
Brand stalks around his residence, seeking out other tell-tale mementos. A map of constellations, a handful painstakingly circled. A book on natural history, a marker halfway through. A rumpled cotton shirt draped over a chair. A note pencilled in familiar handwriting. The unplanned clutter colonising his life. All go into the fire, without exception.
There is no point in saving things that will never be used again.
"This is for you." Martin dropped to one knee and offered his prize to Brand: a conch ridged with delicate spines, glistening with a rainbow sheen. Brand took it into his hand, stroking its rough texture. Such an ordinary thing, but dredged up from the depths of the sea, for him alone.
Martin watched him expectantly. Brand had the feeling he had stumbled into some Rebman courtship ritual. "It's very pretty."
"If you listen to it, you can hear the sea."
"Can you now?" Brand gave it an experimental shake. "And what is it saying?"
"I think you know," Martin said, breath warm in his ear. "It's saying just three words."
Brand laughed. Martin smiled. And then they made patterns together in the sand.
He stands before the fireplace, as the tower grows thick with acrid smoke, choking his throat till it closes up, stinging his eyes till they water. He wants to walk into the fire himself, burn away regret in a purifying flame, leaving only cold purpose behind.
He clenches his fist, the pressure cracking the shell to pieces, spines tearing his palm open. Blood on his hands again.
Perhaps it could have been different, in another universe: a world where Brand confessed the truth to Martin, or where he was genius enough to find another way, or where they walked into Shadow side by side and left Amber behind. A world where he chose love over destiny.
In another world, they could have found all the constellations together.
But there is only one true universe. And he has just destroyed it.