I’m not sure how long I spent trying to find— or make— a fissure in the walls of the blue cave. I know that I didn’t stop looking, didn’t sleep at all, for a long time. I stopped a few times to drink water and to piss, but I had to get out somehow.
But I couldn’t find a way out. Luke had prepared too well. I wondered how long he’d been planning to trap me and what he planned to do with me later. I didn’t doubt that he’d come back. He’d put too much work into keeping me alive not to have other plans.
After I gave up searching the walls, the ceiling, the floor, and always, always, the thoroughly sealed cave mouth, I sat for a while, doing nothing at all. I’m not sure I even thought during that time. Instead, I reached desperately for any aspect of power that I might be able to touch. Nothing, nothing, and more nothing.
Then, I think— my memory is not clear— I screamed and beat the walls. As if either might have an impact. I suppose it was worth trying. The blood of both my families is potent and has unexpected effects on the environment from time to time. I certainly bled enough for that.
Eventually, my body gave out. That was inevitable. I wonder how much of that Luke expected? He knew me, knew me better than I knew him. But I did know him pretty damned well, and I think I surprised him, too.
When I woke, I still wasn’t letting myself think very much, but I approached the problem differently. I ate and drank and washed, then took time to figure out just how pleasant— or unpleasant— Luke had bothered to make my prison. That would tell me how long he expected to keep me here or, at least, how long he expected to keep me here before he— or someone else— would have to visit.
There was bedding, nothing luxurious, but enough to keep me off the stone floor. There were several changes of clothing but I couldn’t find a way to clean any of it. I didn’t like the idea of changing one filthy bit of clothing for another. It was enough to make me start itching. But there definitely wasn’t enough water for me to wash clothes without dying of thirst long before the food ran out. If I was careful, the water would last at least four months. If I was careful.
If Luke didn’t want me to starve, he would have to come back sooner. Those supplies were more limited. How long would they last? A month and a half, maybe two. Not more than that unless I started shorting myself immediately. I didn’t like that idea, but I thought it might be better to short myself now and to eat my fill when it came close to the time when he might come back. If I was half-starved, I’d be a lot less able to stop him from doing whatever he had planned.
And what did he have planned? Did he keep me alive because we were friends or because I might be useful later? I didn’t know, and I suspected he might not know either. The difference might matter. Or it might not. Both were thinner protection than I liked.
Next I sat down and tried the smaller things that I could do. I could still change my shape, but it took more work than I expected. I wasn’t sure if it was the place or if it was simply that I was out of practice. I looked down at the claws I’d made of my hands and thought that that, at least, might prove some use if— when— I had to fight him.
I found, through experimentation, that I could still work lesser magics. Even the smallest spell, however, took time, much more time than I was likely to have if I needed magic to fight Luke. Still, I could purify water, and that meant I could wash if I was very, very careful.
I tried not to think what I would do if I had reason to keep him in a similar situation, but I knew— I would never let him see me resupply the place. I would have control of the air supply, and there are airborne drugs that work even against our family. I might mount some defense if I spotted the problem in time, but would I?
And could Luke spy on me in here? If the cave walls blocked my access to the Pattern, the Logrus, and Trump energy, perhaps Luke couldn’t use any of those things to look in. But there are other ways to spy, so I set myself to searching for cameras.
I didn’t find any, but I was inclined to put that down to Luke having hidden them well rather than to their complete absence. There was always the possibility— probability really— that whatever he was using didn’t resemble anything I’d encountered before.
Corwin survived years of imprisonment in a space smaller than what I had. He’d been blind, too, for part of that. I had no wish to be less than my father, so I set my mind to staying sane. I’m not sure that I even remotely succeeded. No, I know I didn’t. I think I remember Mother offering me advice. I know I remember taking it.
"I don’t know so much about dealing with your Amberite aunts," my mother told me after I’d eaten a third of the food Luke had left me.
I had a vague sense that za was repeating zanself, that we’d had the discussion before, but I wanted zan to be there. I wanted not to be alone.
“But I do know a lot about the men of Amber,” za went on. “I know that, mostly, you’re better off if they assume you’re just like them. They respect men. They don’t respect women, not until after the woman has a knife in their guts and maybe not even then." Za frowned and tapped a finger against zans lips. "We’ve spent a lot of time on you being Corwin’s son because the men of Amber wouldn’t accept anything else on the throne. Just never forget— you’re not human. They will, but you must not."
I had no idea what my mother was getting at, but za obviously thought it was important.
"I had to be Benedict’s grand-daughter." Za glared at the ceiling, and I was glad za wasn’t angry with me. "Amber will always see me as a woman, will always treat me as a woman." Za looked directly at me and put her hands to either side of my face. I could almost feel them there. "Always remember, they will see you as less threatening as a woman." Za shook her head and let zans hands drop.
Oh. Yes. That. Za wouldn’t suggest it if it wasn’t going to work. Mother wouldn’t do that to me. I just really wished za would hold me and make everything okay. Why couldn’t I have that?
"The men of Amber think only of a few things. First, gaining power. Second, revenging slights. Third—" Zans lips twisted. "Third, they think about where they’re going to shove their dicks. They don’t know your appearance as a female human. Use that if you’re cornered. It might make them think you’re harmless. It might… If necessary and as a last resort, it might let you seduce one of them.
"Our house, our… handlers, thought I needed those skills, and to catch Corwin, I did. They would object to my teaching them to you, but— seriously, fuck them. You’re the one who’ll be taking all the risks. There’s a long term price for it in terms of how the bastards will treat you later, but it may save your life."
So I wondered— Luke was a threat. My life hung by the thread of his attention and his whim. Could I change the balance by seducing him? Was that what my mother meant? Were there any other options? Well, I could probably kill him. I had Frakir, and I had everything in the cave. Even if I weren’t able to shapeshift, I could kill him.
I just wasn’t ready to go there if I didn’t have to.
I was pretty sure Luke was heterosexual— at any rate, I’d never seen him show interest in anyone who wasn’t female and attractive in a very particular way— so I’d have to be female, and there was no way to pretend that Merlin just stepped out and left me in his place.
I stared at the walls and tried to distract myself by thinking about how much I loathed the color blue.
If Luke saw me as a woman, would he think me less threatening? More controllable? If he’d been raised in Amber, I’d be sure of it, but I had no idea where he’d grown up. I didn’t think it could be the Courts. A son of Brand could not have been concealed there. Well, not easily. But he had to have a connection to someone with power or he’d never have reached the Pattern to walk it. Yes, the family assumes that the Pattern guards itself, but it’s still not easy to wander in from Shadow and gain access. Could someone from the Courts have gotten him in? Or did he have an ally within the family? Or maybe an ally in the castle would be enough. I couldn’t think that an ally in Rebma was at all likely, not given Martin, but…
He had been old enough to know his father when his father died, but he hadn’t said how old. Maybe he’d been grown enough that his father found a way to get him to the Pattern? But, in that case, I’d have expected him to stand with his father as the Shadowstorm approached or, given Luke, to have worked at assassinating members of the family who wouldn’t know who he was or that he was a threat. I’d have done that in his position. It wouldn’t have been as hard as the family likes to think.
For a while, I distracted myself by making plans for assassinating various relatives in the battle at the Courts. That was the past, so those plans could be safely academic exercises. Still, eventually, my mind circled back to my current predicament.
I hadn’t addressed the question of Luke’s mother. Who was she? Where was she? Did I need to worry about her if I got around Luke? Even if he stopped thinking I was dangerous, she would probably see more clearly.
I had more experience of my father’s sisters than my mother ever had. They were all more dangerous than my uncles because they had to be, and they were dangerous in very different ways and under very different circumstances. Was Luke’s mother like one of them? Or was she like my mother and not a woman at all? Brand spent time in the Courts. A shapeshifter was not out of the question, and that would alter matters with Luke considerably.
I didn’t know enough about Brand to know what sort of person he’d have chosen.
In the end, I had to go with what I knew of Luke. I hadn’t been female in a very long time, so that change was more challenging than I liked. I wanted specific physical features that I thought would appeal to him, but those were too hard to keep. I didn’t think he’d find me attractive if my body parts kept melting and reforming, so increasing my breast size wasn’t going to work, and there wasn’t much chance I could manage to be blonde.
Of course, at that point, none of my clothes fit. I could manage, mostly, but my boots were completely out of the question. That alone tempted me to stay in male form as long as I could, but I couldn’t afford that. I didn’t know when he’d come, and I needed to be sure that I could hold form which meant sticking with it.
At least, focusing on that kept me from more hallucinations. Mostly. The ones that got through were less pleasant than visits from my mother. Whenever I slept, I dreamed of the Pit of the Logrus, of being trapped there forever.
By this time, the thought of killing Luke slowly was pretty damned appealing. I knew, though, that that would vanish the moment he started talking to me. Well, it would if he realized the danger he was in. I didn’t see how he could miss it, though. I really wished I was skilled enough with changing my shape to secrete poison. Hell, would it occur to him that I might? He might not be willing to touch me in that case, and all of this would be wasted effort.
I spent a lot of time considering how to act if— when, damn it, when— he returned. But, even if he meant to come back, he might be killed or captured or even just delayed. I was very aware of the slow dwindling of my supplies. So, when he came back, would he want me to act like the Merlin he’d known or like someone else entirely? Would he think that looking different made me different?
I was right. He did drug me. I noticed in time to keep myself from falling into the privy pit but not in time to figure out how to shift myself to filter out the gas. I tried. I tried damned hard, but each time I thought I had something that worked, it slipped away from me. I surrendered and lay on the floor rather than risk an uncontrolled fall.
When I woke, one of my wrists was tied down. My other arm was still free, and I couldn’t figure out why until I realized that the noise I heard was Luke trying to keep Frakir, the Logrus imbued cord I usually wore around my wrist, from strangling him. I pushed myself up as far as I could given the bound wrist and considered what I saw.
Sadly, Luke was winning. I rather suspected that Frakir had surprised him and that, within the cave, Luke also couldn’t access the powers that would normally let him end the fight quickly. Frakir was mostly useful as a surprise weapon, one that could move on her own, as opposed to being all that lethal under normal circumstances.
“I’m really hoping Frakir wins,” I said in the dryest voice I could manage. I looked around and saw that the cave entrance was blocked. Luke must have people on the outside, waiting to open it again for him after— After. I wondered vaguely how he’d let them know then pushed the thought away as a distraction.
Luke actually snarled.
“There aren’t many ways this ends well for me,” I went on, “and the prospect of taking you with me appeals.” It didn’t, actually, but I didn’t want him to realize I was desperate. Assuming he hadn’t already guessed, and I didn’t see how he could have missed it. I pressed my lips together for a moment then said, “Were you even going to wait for me to wake up before you started fucking me?”
Luke managed to pin Frakir to the floor. He was breathing hard. “If you don’t call this damned thing off, I’m going to burn it.”
I wasn’t sure that Frakir could burn, not given the Logrus at her heart, but I didn’t think that finding out would be beneficial. “Frakir,” I said softly, holding out my free hand.
Frakir tried very hard to reach me, but Luke wouldn’t allow it. He shook his head. “Not a chance.”
I sighed and let my hand drop. “What do you suggest?”
“I’m going to seal it up tight, and you’re going to tell it to cooperate.”
I expect my expression was fairly frank about really not liking him very much in that moment. Which was not at all what I’d planned. I needed him to think I wanted him. “I think you have the necessary order of actions confused.”
He bared his teeth at me, and I wondered how badly he was likely to hurt me in retaliation. I hadn’t thought he would at all, and that rather changed things.
“Frakir,” I said, “enough.”
Frakir stilled. She went as limp as if she were an ordinary bit of string.
Luke lifted Frakir and walked away.
I didn’t see what he did then, but I could guess. I tugged on my bound wrist, testing the strength of the binding. I didn’t think I’d be able to break it that way. I could probably shift my arm and hand and slip free, though. I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to let Luke know that I could, not this soon. Just in case he’d thought to bring something that would stop me shifting, I tested it. Yes, I could if I wanted to, but should I?
When Luke came back, he stood for a moment, looking down at me. “I’m not actually stupid, Merlin.”
“I know.” I did. I just didn’t have any other cards to play.
“You wouldn’t look like that—” He nodded at me. “—if you weren’t trying for this response.”
“I was thinking with a little less of the being tied down and a little more of the making you think it might be fun to keep me around.”
He went to one knee and pushed me down onto my back.
I resisted for a moment then sighed and let him. “Were you going to wait?”
“I had planned to, actually. Not waiting would be too close to necrophilia.”
Not to rape. I closed my eyes for a second. Would he let me say no at this point? A moot point. I wasn’t going to.
His fingers closed on my free wrist. “The idea of you tied down is kind of hot,” he said with a certain amount of amusement in his voice, “but it’s not really how I ever imagined this going. Not that I imagined this.” His other hand brushed over my breasts. “Do I have to tie you down?”
I opened my eyes. “Would you believe me if I said no?” I certainly wouldn’t have believed me, but maybe he would.
He hesitated. His free hand touched my face then my throat then my breasts again. “I kind of like the idea of cutting those clothes off of you.” He smiled as if he was joking, but I think we both knew he wasn’t, not entirely. The hand holding my wrist squeezed hard enough to hurt.
I didn’t react to that because I really, really didn’t want him getting the idea that hurting me was fun or would get any sort of response. I didn’t fight when he tied that wrist down, too. I just kept my eyes fixed on his face.
He cupped my cheek with one hand then leaned down and kissed me. He was gentler than I’d expected, so I relaxed a little and kissed back. I felt him start to smile. When he pulled back, he said, “I always thought you were hot as a guy. Now… I really can’t wait to see you naked.”
I considered asking if he would rather I was a guy. I was willing if that was what he wanted, but I thought asking that might be pushing my luck. I wasn’t sure if he was thinking that I was somehow a woman who had been hiding in the shape of a man or if he realized that I was both and neither. Most of our mutual relatives would have found the latter option appalling.
So I held my tongue as he started cutting my shirt off. The knife he used was sharp enough that he didn’t have to saw at all even though the fabric was heavy enough to be difficult. I scarcely dared breathe.
When my breasts were bare, he spent a while playing with them, caressing them, licking them, sucking on them.
I gasped and arched my back, trying to make him think I was enjoying that more than I was. Not that I wasn’t, just that it wasn’t all that.
Then the knife was at my throat. “Don’t,” he said.
I froze, and my eyes crossed as I tried to focus on the blade.
He kept it there for a moment as he studied my face. “We both know you’re playing me. Don’t insult my intelligence. I’ve sold enough bullshit to know it.”
I didn’t say anything until he moved the knife. “So you don’t want me to enjoy this?”
“I don’t give a flying fuck, actually.” He hesitated then touched my face gently. “I don’t want to hurt you, but… I might have to.”
I turned away. I was pretty sure he’d understand that to mean that I’d thought better of him.
I heard him set the knife on the floor. He laid a hand on my belly. “I see a path forward that doesn’t require you staying here forever or dying or— I hope— being tortured. My mother wants you to suffer. The cave isn’t quite enough, but she’ll accept it for now because you might be useful. And I had to talk damned fast to convince her of that.” He tugged on my chin, forcing me to look at him again. “Corwin’s son will always be an obstacle, an enemy. She might not kill him— you— if I brought him out, helpless, and was brutal enough and kept doing it.” He swallowed hard. “I’m not sure if you can imagine how bad that would have to be.”
I could actually. My mouth had gone dry. I licked my lips. “I’m still… who I was.”
“Yeah.” He ran a finger over my lips. “I’m going to fuck you because you’re Merlin and I want you, but I’m going to hope like hell that, when I come back next, you’re pregnant. If you’re not, we’ll try again. She won’t want anyone to harm you if— If.”
Oh. Oh. “It would be simpler if you’d let Frakir knock you out.” I couldn’t keep exhaustion out of my voice. “Then I could pretend to be you and just walk out of here.” I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be anything like that simple, but I didn’t want to look at the other options.
He stared at me. “You could do that?”
I hadn’t meant to let him know that. “Not for very long,” I admitted. I didn’t see much point in lying. “But long enough.”
He kissed me again, roughly this time.
I didn’t try to answer, just let him do what he wanted. I’d known he wasn’t going to let me go, but this— that he preferred keeping me and torturing me to the possibility that I might— What? What did he think I could do if I escaped? I occupied myself with wondering while he cut my trousers off. There was no need for him to do that— he hadn’t tied my legs at all— so I supposed he must actually find it hot.
Did I have to learn what turned Luke on and play to that? Long term? Or was there still a chance that I could overpower him somehow? I could get my arms free any time, and he didn’t know that, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to beat him into unconsciousness. Killing him, I could almost certainly manage, but assuming he was telling the truth, he was all that was standing between me and dying horribly. I couldn’t imagine that me killing him would make his mother want to hurt me less.
“I don’t want to die,” I told him as he ran his hands over my naked thighs. “I hate this cave, but…” The cave, the isolation, had almost destroyed me, and it had only been weeks.
“It’s a temporary solution.” He stood up and started removing his clothing. “I can’t keep coming back forever.”
I’d wondered if he was going to bother stripping. I appreciated the view, but to be honest, nothing else about this situation was remotely sexy. I didn’t think seeing Luke naked was going to help much in that direction at all. I had wondered. I had fantasized. I didn’t want to be there.
When he was naked, he came down to my level again and said, “I’m not letting you go. You can forget about that.”
I got the impression that saying that— no, that he could say it and have it be true— turned him on. “Do you want me to struggle? To attempt to escape and fail? To—” I turned my head away from him again. He wanted to own me. I wondered if that had been true when I was male. He’d wanted something then.
He made some perfunctory gestures toward making sure I enjoyed myself, and he didn’t try to hurt me, but the whole thing definitely wasn’t in my top ten. Or top one hundred. When he was done, he moved away and looked at me with an expression that I couldn’t read.
“I want to,” he said, “and I could.”
I kept my expression as neutral as I was able given that I wasn’t sure if he just meant he could fuck me again the same way or if he meant he could do worse. Either seemed possible. “You could.” Judging by my own experience, he could get it up several more times before he needed to rest. “Are you going to?”
He actually looked away and went a little red. “This isn’t… I hoped for something better. I was afraid of worse, but I wanted better.”
I almost couldn’t hear the last sentence, and I kind of wished I hadn’t. “I didn’t make your choices.” I couldn’t quite keep the bitterness out of my voice. “I was hoping for something better, too.”
I’d also hoped to get something for it other than the appalling decision I was facing. I could conceive if I wanted to. Or not, if I didn’t. What I wasn’t sure of was if I should. Life as the mother of Luke’s child sounded a hell of a lot better than being tortured or staying in this fucking cave, but a child would be someone else to protect and a huge difficulty if I found a way to escape. I couldn’t leave a child behind. I didn’t trust Luke that way, and it sounded like I really, really couldn’t trust his mother.
And would the safety Luke was promising actually extend past the birth of the child?
But it would buy me time and more possibilities for escape.
So, I was going to do it. I closed my eyes and focused my attention on my body to make sure everything worked the way I needed it to. I didn’t try to hurry things much beyond triggering ovulation. I could have, but I wanted time to reconsider, just in case.
“Merlin?” Luke actually sounded worried. “Are you okay?”
“I’m not comfortable if that’s what you’re asking.” I opened my eyes.
He looked worried, too.
“I’m still tied down,” I reminded him. I tugged on the straps binding my wrists.
“Ah, yes.” He came down onto the floor again and stroked my arm. “Maybe, some time, we can do this, and both actually want it, both actually enjoy it.”
It sounded very much like my mother was right about the men of the family. I tried to take comfort in the thought, but I didn’t like the idea that Luke wasn’t seeing me as me any more. Did he really not understand that, as long as I was his prisoner, wanting or not wanting wasn’t relevant?
Better that he didn’t.
And I also wasn’t convinced that he hadn’t enjoyed it. I just figured that wasn’t the time to say it. “I really hope you’re usually better at sex than that.” It didn’t actually matter that much. If he wasn’t, I’d pretend he was. Bad sex was a small price to pay for staying alive. I’d willingly pay one much higher.
Hell, I was very near to committed to paying one infinitely higher.
He smiled at me. It wasn’t actually a happy expression. “I wanted to be able to say I forced you,” he told me.
Was his mother that terrible? I stared at him.
“Can you— I have no idea how this works, but can you make yourself look bruised? Without actually being injured, I mean.”
I really had no idea, so I tried.
He pulled his hands away from me. His face told me that I’d more than succeeded.
It took a lot of concentration, and I knew I’d never be able to hold it for long. I probably couldn’t exactly duplicate the pattern, either, so trying to bring the ‘bruises’ back later wouldn’t work. “How long will I need them?”
“Right now?” He hesitated. “A few minutes. I don’t think Mother will come in here herself.”
I let the apparent bruises fade. “I can do a few minutes. Anything longer…” My stomach twisted. “Anything longer, and they’ll have to be real.” I hesitated. “I can do that myself.” I didn’t much want to let him off the hook for that— I wanted him to feel guilty— but if I made them myself, I could control the damage considerably better— facial bruises, for example, without brain bruising, surface bruises without internal injuries.
“I was going to knock you out again.” His face said that he knew he should but that he didn’t want to. “But you can’t hold those bruises if you’re unconscious.” It was a statement, but I could hear the question under it.
I couldn’t. I shook my head, closed my eyes, and swallowed hard. “I don’t think we get out of this without me hating you. Right now, I’m just pissed, but...” I didn’t want to hate Luke. It was completely inevitable that I would.
He touched my face then leaned down and kissed me lightly on the lips. “Next time, I’ll make sure it’s good for both of us.” He pulled back far enough that he could see my face. “Unless…” He ran his eyes along my body. “Are you going to rescind this invitation? I don’t think you’re getting what you wanted out of it.”
I bared my teeth at him then sighed and let my face relax. “I wanted not to die,” I admitted. “You… seem not to want me to die.”
He just looked at me for several seconds. “Probably more than you want not to die.” He ran a hand along my side. “If— you’d want to, and I don’t know that I could.” He pulled back and just looked at me. “This— is it permanent? Can you be the Merlin I knew again?”
I closed my eyes. “Not if you really want me pregnant. Not until… after.” There were other forms I could take, but a male human form would not accommodate that without modifications that I couldn’t hold for more than a few minutes.
“Ah.” He sounded disappointed. “I suppose I should have asked that first. I just— I wondered what sex would be like with you if you were you.”
I glared at him. “I'm the same person no matter what form I'm in.” I made the words a challenge. “It's not like either this form or that one is how I was born.” I shouldn't have risked that, not with my life depending on Luke's goodwill. If he felt revulsion, death might be the least terrible thing that would happen to me.
He looked utterly fascinated. “What does that mean?” He ran his hands over my body. “This feels very real.”
I stomped hard on the urge to be sarcastic. Why wouldn't I be real? Was I mythical or something? I forced myself to sigh. “Shapeshifters can be anything, Luke. It's just that this end of the universe is pretty damned nasty to people who don't look… sufficiently human, and shape here is… It's who you are. It’s not who I am.”
Luke didn’t look like he believed it, but he didn’t argue, just kept touching me. His eyes stayed on my face. After a while, he said, “I do want to fuck you again, but…” He shrugged.
“I’m not really in a position to say no.” I didn’t see much difference between what he was already doing and what he wanted to do, but I wasn’t going to point that out.
“Yeah.” He ran a finger along my cheekbone. “I’m not all that keen on that. Once was necessary. More than that… You’re not ever going to be in a position to say no.”
I wasn’t sure that him seeing that was a good thing for me. It took away some levers I’d really hoped to use. I sighed. “Could I have some water?”
Luke stared at me. “That’s going to be really fucking awkward.”
As long as I was tied down, he meant. I shrugged. “Nevertheless.” I gave him a hard look. “Do you think I look like this because I want to kill you?”
The corners of his mouth twitched upward. “If I hadn't knocked you out, there was at least a chance you'd get that cord around my neck while I was kissing you.”
“I wouldn't let Frakir kill you.” I tried to put sincerity into the words. “If I wanted that, I could have set a trap.”
I could see him realize that I probably could have. He glanced around, presumably evaluating the possibilities for lethal traps.
I had found seven, but I was pretty sure he wouldn't spot all of them. “If you start torturing me, I suspect my stance on killing will change rapidly,” I told him.
He tilted his head to one side and started to laugh. “Some people,” he said, “would consider this torture.” He waved a hand to indicate my body on the ground.
My laugh was genuine. “Some people lack imagination.” I shook my head. “This isn't fun by any means, but you haven't hurt me. Yet.” I turned my head away so that he wouldn’t see despair in my eyes. “What will you do to keep me from running?” There had to be something. Outside the cave, I had too many options, and Luke wasn't stupid enough to let me use them. I hoped, for the sake of the as yet theoretical child, that there would be a way for me to shapeshift. If I couldn't or didn't shift enough during the pregnancy, the child might never be able to either, and the thought horrified me.
Then I wondered how Luke and his mother would react to a child who wasn’t always human. That was enough to make me consider changing my mind. I suspected that they’d react better to that than they would to a human child who was sometimes male and sometimes female and sometimes both or neither.
I wanted to stay alive but not at that price.
“I have a little time to make something. Jewelry probably, just something you can't take off without help.” He sounded like he was considering options. “Mother might want chains even under the best circumstances.”
I had lost track of what he was talking about, and I think that that— and my distress about other things— must have shown in my face.
“Merlin?” He touched my cheek.
I flinched and tried to think beyond my nausea. “How much about a child would you— could you— hide from your mother?” I wasn’t sure I could trust Luke for this, no matter what he said.
“I can’t— I won’t— do this if it means harm to my child.” I turned back to look at him and let my determination, anger, and willingness to kill show on my face. “I am not human. My child would not be, and I won’t allow myself to get pregnant if my child is going to be cut off from a part of zans heritage.” I’d rather kill Luke and gamble that I could find a way out.
“Ah.” That single syllable told me that Luke actually did understand. He pulled his hands back and let them rest on his thighs. “Yes. My mother would want that.” I couldn’t read his expression. “She’s a shapeshifter. I’m not. My father didn’t approve of it, not for his child.” He looked down at his hands. “She’d think it had to hold for his grandchild, too. She… still wants to please him.” The last sentence was almost inaudible and deeply bitter.
“Let me go, Luke.” I think we both knew I wasn’t talking about the cords holding my wrists. Two of his options would destroy me, and the third… was sounding less and less possible.
His face told me that he considered it, but after about thirty seconds, he shook his head.
I’m pretty sure that despair showed in my body. I didn’t have it in me to conceal it any longer. “Then I stay in this hole,” I said it softly and as much without emotion as I could. The cave would kill me in the end, either my mind or my body.
Was that better? Yes. I’d sell myself to survive. I wouldn’t sell my child.
“If you try to force me out, I will fight, and one of us will die.” I knew, as he certainly did, that all he had to do was drug me again and haul me out, but I hoped desperately that he would accept that I’d rather die.
He was entirely still. After several seconds, he said, “You’re not actually tied down, are you?”
My lips twitched as I suppressed a smile. “Clearly, I am.” I tugged on the cords that bound my wrists.
“Yeah.” He definitely wasn’t buying. “How much would you have let me hurt you if I’d gone that way?”
I had no idea, so instead, I said, “Will you take it as a threat if I sit up?” I didn’t move until he shrugged. Then I shifted first one hand and then the other so that I could slip out of the bonds. I moved slowly to sit up, keeping my hands where Luke could see them. “I would still like water.”
He looked at me through narrowed eyes and clearly considered telling me to get it myself. Finally, he shrugged, stood, and walked away. He took his knife with him.
I considered clothing because the cave was not particularly warm, but I thought staying naked made a point that Luke wasn't likely to miss. I considered shifting male to stop the process I'd put in motion earlier, but I knew I had time, several hours at least. Ovulation to fertilization was far from an immediate thing, and I wasn't sure I wanted Luke to realize that the change was that easy.
Instead, I took advantage of Luke's absence to piss. I didn't much want to do it while he watched, and it took less effort to prevent a UTI that way than by shifting.
I made a cushion by folding my ruined clothing and was sitting on that, waiting, when Luke came back.
He held a cup of water and a bowl of raspberries. He raised the bowl. “I thought you might like some fresh fruit. A treat.”
I thought, based on his expression, that he really wanted me to be pleased, so I smiled. “Canned fruit does get kind of old.” I wondered if he had taken away the old cans. I didn’t see how he could miss them being potential weapons.
He glanced at my cushion of clothing as he sat on the floor, but he didn’t ask me to share. He handed me the water and the bowl. He didn’t even snag a berry.
That made me a little suspicious, so I tested both water and berries for drugs, letting a small amount of each rest on my tongue for several seconds. As far as I could tell, everything was clean. I’m pretty sure that Luke noticed, but he didn’t say anything. I ate slowly, savoring each berry. I might not get more.
After I had eaten all of the raspberries, I looked directly at Luke. “I’m nearly out of ideas, but I also don’t know—” I waved a hand to indicate everything. I shook my head. “Are you— Would you be willing to lie to your mother? At all?”
His eyes narrowed. “My mother is very good at spotting lies.”
I looked away. “Either you have to lie to her about me or you would have to lie to her about our child. Well, or leave me here to rot.” I’d already asked him to let me go. I didn’t see a point in repeating that. “She doesn’t know what I look like as a woman…” I really hoped that he’d be willing to go with that. “I could be anyone.” Luke would keep me prisoner as he seemed to want to do, but maybe, just maybe, I could see the sun. And have regular showers and a toilet that flushed.
He frowned at me. It seemed more thoughtful than anything, so I let myself hope a little.
I set my teeth on the urge to babble and waited to see what Luke would say.
“I don’t spend most of my time with my mother,” he said at last, “but I’m not sure… I can’t take you with me everywhere, and there aren’t many places I could leave you that aren’t this cave or worse. With her would work, but… We’ve discussed the problems there. I don’t think I trust Dalt for it, either. He’d hold onto you, but… He might not treat you well.”
He rubbed the back of his head and looked embarrassed. “There’s also— Technically, I’m married. I haven’t seen her since she was about eight, and I was sixteen or so. It was… Mother managed to get me named heir to the throne of Kashfa which is a Shadow just outside the Golden Circle. Marrying Coral is supposed to make peace between Kashfa and Begma, which actually is part of the Golden Circle. Mother doesn’t give a damn about Coral, but Dalt likes her. So there’s that.”
I wondered if he was really embarrassed or if he just wanted me to think he was. I frowned. “Setting up to rule a Shadow near Amber seems kind of… ah… suicidal given your long term plans.” Did he actually think no one would notice? Did his mother think no one would notice? If nothing else, there’d come a point when he’d been around for too long without aging to be anyone but family.
Luke shrugged. “I think that was before Mother got really serious about killing people.” He sighed. “She’s not happy with how I killed Caine. She wanted him to suffer. I don’t think she understands the scope of the problem.” He spread his hands to indicate that scope. “I may never be good enough to capture an uncle. I doubt I’ll be able to kill one without that element of surprise, either.”
His mother sounded unhinged. I supposed that that might explain her having married Brand, but Luke didn’t seem that kind of crazy. I licked my lips. “Is there anyone she doesn’t want dead?”
He looked at his hands. “Llewella and Florimel can live. Maybe Gerard can since he looked after my father after Fiona stabbed him and wasn’t actually there at the end. Anyone who’s abandoned the family, of course. Oh, and apart from you, all the relatives in the Courts of Chaos are safe.”
Gerard would rip off Luke’s arms for killing Caine. If Luke killed someone else, Gerard would go further. Llewella and Florimel would be… more creative.
But Luke didn’t actually want to kill anyone. At least, I was hoping that I was reading that right. I closed my eyes for a second. If I’d been in Luke’s position, I probably would have killed Martin first and then Random in the hope that the family would tear itself apart again, trying to decide who should rule. It would make killing people ever so much easier. Since Martin was a friend and Random had been kind to me, I pressed my lips closed on the urge to suggest it.
I sighed. “Neither of you know any of them well enough to know how to trap them.”
Luke’s expression sharpened. “Do you?”
I shrugged. I might be able to manage it. I doubted he could. My father’s family trusted me, in as much as they trusted anybody, and I had been pretty thoroughly trained to exploit weaknesses. “What assets do you have?” I asked him softly. “What powers? What places? What allies?” I wasn’t convinced he’d tell me, but if he did, the information would be useful no matter what happened.
“I don’t suppose I should count you.” It wasn’t quite a question.
I shook my head. “Not for killing. Not for torture.” I didn’t want to give Luke a list of who I was and wasn’t willing to kill. It would tell him far too much about me. There were ways he could push me down the slope, little things that would make bigger things more likely, and he was damnably good at that sort of thing.
I wondered about Ghostwheel. When Luke had trapped me, he had said he was going to persuade Ghostwheel to help him, but, if he had, I suspected that killing everyone in the family wouldn’t seem so daunting a task.
“So, possibly for kidnapping? As long as I’m not going to kill them?” Luke’s lips twitched.
“You’d need a better place to put them than this.” And I wouldn’t trust his mother or Dalt, whoever Dalt might be, if Luke wasn’t there to keep an eye on them. I wondered if Luke would give me opportunity to kill either of them and if I could do it without him realizing I had. I looked at my knees. “If we have a child, Luke, I’m going to be tied to you. That child’s safety would depend on you winning, on no one knowing who you were at all, or on no one knowing you were the child’s father.” That was a lie. No one in Sawall would give a damn, and they’d close ranks to protect us, but I suspected that Luke didn’t know much about the Courts.
And we weren’t going to have a child.
I looked up and met his eyes. “This was all so much simpler in my head, before you came back. We’d have sex, and it would be good, and you’d decide— Well, I never quite got that far except that it wouldn’t involve me dying or stuck here or anything terrible at all.
“I don’t actually know what you want. You, not your mother or anyone else.” I wondered if he’d be anything like honest with me. I wondered if I’d be able to tell the difference.
He hesitated for a moment, but he didn’t look away. Finally, he said, “Caine dead could be the end of it for me. He’s the one who actually killed my father. Your father… That’s a more complicated thing. He fucked up Dad’s plans from one end to the other, but he didn’t kill him.” He looked at the floor. “I’m not sure Dad’s plans could ever have worked. Mother is sure they could.” He traced a circle on the ground. “Oberon is dead. Fiona and Bleys… They imprisoned Dad, and we lost years with him. He was different when he came back.”
The bleakness in his voice and face surprised me.
“I wouldn’t mind taking something out of them for that, but I don’t feel like I have to kill them.” He smiled, a bitter, unpleasant expression. “I could see chaining them to a rock and sending raptors to eat their livers, over and over. Maybe, after a century or three, I’d feel different.”
I thought about stretching, but I was pretty sure he would assume I was doing it to draw attention to my breasts rather than because I needed to. And I kind of would be. Luke focused on my body was a hell of a lot safer than Luke talking about torturing people. I just wasn’t sure that Luke thinking I was trying to play him would be a safe thing for me. I hadn’t forgotten the knife at my throat. “And after that, what? Unless you die, there will be an after.” I shook my head.
He reached toward me, but he was a little too far away to actually touch me.
I raised a hand and took his. “We’re talking in circles. Only you can decide what comes next. Maybe… Could you kiss me and all when we’re both into it? Not thinking for a while would be good for both of us.”
The look he gave me told me he knew perfectly well that I was manipulating him. The smile that went along with it told me he was willing to let me. “Not on the floor, I think.”
“My bedding is filthy.” I’d done my best with magic, but it had been two months. I slept there anyway because it was better than the floor.
“Ah, yes.” Luke rubbed the back of his head. “I'll replace that before I go.”
Which would be appreciated but didn't address the current problem.
“I did bring you clean clothing. We could use that.”
I nodded immediately because I didn’t want to think about the tradeoff. If I spent too long on it, clean clothes right now would outweigh the vague possibility of something better than dying later on.
We ended up making a thin, wide pad with the clothing. It was all the sort of thing that I’d have worn for comfort back on Earth— sweatshirts and sweatpants, mostly, with some flannel pajamas as well.
Luke shrugged when I raised my eyebrows at his clothing choices. “It’s not as if you’re going anywhere,” he told me. “I thought warm and comfortable was the way to go.” He raked his fingers through his hair. “It’s not as if I knew—” He waved a hand to indicate my body. “I think most of it will still fit.” He looked at my chest for a few moments. “Probably.”
I sighed. “I’d rather have shoes that fit,” I admitted. “I’m not sure I remember when my feet were warm.” I smiled at him with just a trace of malice. “Of course, I now have someone to warm them up for me.”
He laughed, but he also winced. “I suppose I deserve that.”
I didn’t disagree.
I wanted to ask him why keeping me prisoner was so important to him, but that would take us back to the topics we were avoiding. It would need saying eventually. I just wasn’t sure that he actually knew.
Instead, I sat on a red and white flannel shirt and tugged Luke’s hand to pull him down beside me. Then I kissed him and ran my hands over his chest. I touched him where I could, and he did the same. I expected him to try to take charge, to assert his power, but he didn’t. Instead, he was surprisingly tentative. I thought about reassuring him that I wasn’t breakable, but I rather suspected that that wasn’t the problem.
I think he half expected me to try to kill him. I think he had realized that I very easily could. I wasn’t going to, but I could.
After a few minutes, I pulled back and looked at him. “I considered it,” I told him, “but you seem to be the only one around— apart from me— who wants me alive.” I took a deep breath and tried to center myself. “I don’t have many options, and whatever happens next, those options are only going to narrow.” I closed my eyes and laid my head against his shoulder with my face turned toward his neck. I allowed myself a bit of trembling. That was genuine enough. Luke would have spotted it if I’d faked. I just wouldn’t normally have let it out.
I really hoped he was enough a son of Amber, culturally speaking, to react instinctively to a woman admitting helplessness and to assume that he had all the power. I hoped he hadn’t really processed that I was no more a woman than I had been a man.
Luke wrapped his arms around me. He laughed, but it wasn’t a happy sound. Then he let his head rest on top of mine. We stayed like that for a while. Finally, he said, “I want to want to let you go. The part of me that wants to keep you, even like this, is… ugly. And probably not very likely to make you happy.”
I wasn’t planning to give up on making myself happy, and I was pretty sure that didn’t involve staying with Luke any longer than I had to. I just didn’t think it was time to mention that. His words told me that he thought it was all in his hands, and I wanted him to think that. I considered tears, but I really thought that would be overselling things. I sighed. I let my body relax against his as if I actually trusted him, as if he wouldn’t be unconscious this very moment if I had the means to make him so.
His arms tightened just a little.
The sex was better this time. That was a damned low bar to clear, of course, but we were both trying hard to please. There was a lot of cuddling, too.
After, I really didn't want to talk, but I knew we needed to. I just hoped he'd be more open to negotiation than he had been earlier.
“What are we going to do, Luke?” I tried not to sound as urgent as I felt. He was going to be fine, no matter what happened, and I wanted to hate him for it.
His arm tightened around me. “You know my preference.” He said it flatly with no give.
I bit my lip and offered the alternative I thought he was most likely to go for. “I… I will stay with your mother, if that’s what you want, as long as I’m not Merlin and as long as there is no child.” Part of me mourned the child that I had started to imagine, but that was a private pain, one that I would never share with Luke.
He made a sound that told me that he was considering it, and I hoped he wouldn’t reject the idea out of hand.
I wouldn’t be happy about staying with Luke’s mother, not in the least. I just couldn’t think of anything better, not that Luke was likely to find acceptable. “You can tell her whatever you want to as long as it won’t… I’m not willing to be tortured.” I wasn’t going to suggest any ideas in that direction, but he was going to want his mother to take steps to keep me from leaving. He would have to give a reason.
He didn’t say anything for almost a minute. “It might do. For a while. She’ll figure it out eventually, but maybe, by then, she’ll like you. If she doesn’t, I—” He shook his head. “I won’t be able to protect you.”
I parsed ‘won’t be able to’ as ‘will choose her over you.’ That was no surprise. I’d already understood that part. I didn’t like it at all, but there really wasn’t anything I could do about it. I shrugged. “When you decide what you’re going to tell her, let me know. I’ll need time to get the details down.”
“I think maybe you should come from Earth. That way we both know what we’re starting from.”
I laughed. “There’s still a hell of a lot to trip us up. How did we meet? How long have we known each other?” Those were the easy questions. If his mother was going to keep me from leaving, she’d have to know that I had some way of doing it. And my set of powers was fairly unique. That could be a real problem. I was pretty sure Luke knew that I would escape if the opportunity presented itself. Having the likely outcomes be death, torture, and death by torture made me oddly reluctant to stay.
“You could be Florimel’s daughter and born there while she was watching Corwin. Maybe if you accidentally found out that I can use the Pattern to move through Shadow?”
If Aunt Flora had a daughter, that daughter would always have at least three ways to escape wherever she happened to be and would generally appear to be much less competent than she was. Aunt Flora had always known she was weaker than her siblings, and she balanced that by playing them against each other, by being useful but not so useful as to appear threatening, and by spending a lot of time in Shadow.
I narrowed my eyes. Brand certainly hadn’t known all of that about his sister, so Luke’s mother probably didn’t either, but I didn’t like relying on Luke’s mother underestimating Aunt Flora. She might not share her husband’s— and his brothers’— inability to see how dangerous the women in the family could be. Of course, if she thought she could leave Aunt Flora and Aunt Llewella alive after killing everyone else, she really didn’t understand the danger.
And the main thing was that she shouldn’t realize that I was Merlin.
“And your mother doesn’t think that Aunt Flora needs to die.” My tone was as dry as I could make it.
“There is that.” Luke’s answer was as dry as my statement.
I took that as confirmation that that was the point. Luke’s mother wanted me tortured or dead because of the father I barely knew. I sighed. “Do you have a name in mind for me?”
“After her mother? Is she the sort who would do that?”
I shook my head. “I’m pretty sure not. There’s a reason she goes by Flora instead of by Florimel. Flora sounds more harmless.”
I could almost hear his views on Aunt Flora rearranging themselves.
“A flower name seems likely,” I said. “I’m just not sure which language. When am I supposed to have been born?”
“Rose? Lily? Violet? Ivy? Myrtle? Petunia?” He was almost laughing.
“Rosamund or Rosalind or even Rhoda seem more likely. I don’t think Lillian, Lillias, or Lilith would appeal to her, and the others are too… common.” I wasn’t willing to share his laughter. If this went wrong, I was the one who would die. “I could be any age. She wouldn’t have taken a child to Amber longer than required for walking the Pattern. Trump in, walk the damned thing, and leave, all without seeing anyone else.” I tried not to think of the traps waiting for me.
He shrugged. “I brought some paper. Write yourself a history and memorize it.”
The ‘and then burn it’ seemed obvious enough, so I didn’t comment.
“I’ll be back in three or four weeks.”
That made my stomach clench, and I regretted the raspberries. I wasn’t sure what that much longer alone would do to me. I looked at Luke and saw that he didn’t realize. How could he not know? He knew people. Did he just not want to think he was hurting me?
“I’ll let you rough out how we met to begin with. We’ll figure out why I can’t let you go later on.” He looked away. “This would still work better if you were pregnant.”
I growled at him and grew fangs and claws. “I already told you no.”
He flinched. “I know.” He looked unhappy, possibly even ashamed. “I just… I started to think about it. I… liked the idea of a child, of our child.”
I stood and walked until I was about ten feet away from him. If I stayed, I’d certainly hurt him. “Don’t. If I change my mind, I’ll bring it up. You don’t get to decide that for me.” I didn’t turn to look at him. Part of me wanted to cry. Part of me wanted to rip his throat out. Tears might serve me, but I didn’t think now was the time. Ripping his throat out… I’d already considered why that was a bad idea.
I heard him stand. “Rosalind or Rosamund or whatever her name might be doesn’t have to be my lover.” He hesitated. “I would like her to be, but only if she actually wants to be.”
Secure in the knowledge that he couldn’t see my face, I bared my teeth. Did he really think I’d give up that lever out of wanting or not wanting? And I had loved Luke as much as I loved anyone. The sex hadn’t been terrible the second time. I composed my face into a friendlier expression and turned back to look at him. “What now?”
He rubbed the back of his head. “I don’t think any of the men helping me got enough of a look to realize you’re female. It’s probably better not to let them guess. Mother might make the connection.” He didn’t meet my eyes as he said, “You’ll have to be unconscious. I’m not that trusting.”
I’d expected that, but I’d hoped he’d miscalculate that way. I tried to figure out if I understood the drug he’d used on me before well enough to resist it now. I would certainly try. There was a slim possibility that I might find some way to escape if Luke thought I was unconscious and I wasn’t. Would he be smart enough to use a different drug next time?
We put away the clothing that had been our makeshift bed and made the place look as if what had happened had been considerably more unpleasant for me than it actually had been. I shifted human male and raised bruises on my body.
Luke watched in fascination and obviously wanted to touch, but he didn’t ask, and I didn’t offer.
Fortunately, I didn’t actually have to bleed that much to leave obvious smears on my body and the floor as proof that I had.
I considered clothing. “Do you want them to think that you raped me? If I’m naked, they will.”
He shrugged. “They’re not important, but… I’m not sure what the hell might have filled all this time. Beating you bloody while you were helpless wouldn’t take that long.”
Merlin was about to die, so I didn’t think it mattered. The likelihood that any of Luke’s minions were going to talk to anyone else who might actually care was vanishingly small. I shrugged in answer. I closed my eyes for a moment. I was pretty sure I already knew the answer, but I asked anyway, “Frakir?”
“I’m not even remotely that stupid.”
I hadn’t thought he was, but I’d been wrong before. I sat on my pallet. “Do whatever you’re going to do.”
He stood there, looking at me, for more than a minute. I think he wanted forgiveness.
I met his eyes but didn’t say anything. I didn’t have that in me. I didn’t intend to let myself end up there. Not ever. Maybe if he apologized, meant it, and then let me go. But he wouldn’t.
He looked away. He walked over to the shaft that led to the blocked exit.
I really should have searched the room while he was out getting me water. I wasn’t particularly surprised when he reached behind a pile of rocks and pulled out something that looked like— and presumably was— a gas mask. He put it on then pulled on some sort of cord that definitely hadn’t been part of my prison before. I supposed it must be a temporary thing to signal his people that he was ready to come out. It wasn’t as if he could use Trump.
I inhaled deeply. The air was still clean, but it wouldn’t be for long. I kept my eyes fixed on Luke.
When the gas came, I could taste it in the air. I lay down and closed my eyes so that Luke wouldn’t know exactly when I passed out, and I tried to fight the drug, tried to stay conscious as long as I could. I thought I had a better feel for how the drug worked, but I wasn’t sure I could stop it from affecting me. Certainly not this time and probably not next.
But I would try. Luke and I both knew it.