"You must be wondering why I have asked you all here today," Fiona began, addressing her assembled brothers and sisters.
They were gathered in the Castle Amber library, all of them regarding her with wariness. Fiona had proven where her loyalties lay, in the Patternfall War, but old habits died hard. They had been no less suspicious at the last family conference, which Corwin had summoned, and which had concluded so memorably.
Julian evidently remembered it too. "The last time we tried this, sister dear," he remarked, "one of us ended up bleeding to death on the carpet."
Fiona smiled. "You're welcome to search me, if you like." She lifted her arms, turning a slow circle, silk skirts whispering.
Julian flushed. "Don't think I wouldn't."
"Enough," Random cut in. "Let's get on with it. Fiona, you said it was about Merlin."
She nodded. "Merlin is missing. And we must find him."
They absorbed that.
"Must we? Perhaps he's simply off in Shadow somewhere." Flora stretched, yawning, but Fiona knew she only liked to pretend laziness. In truth, they were none of them close, but since Deirdre's death in the war, those who remained had grown more aware of each other.
"Merlin is no longer just another scion of Amber," Fiona said. "He is in line to become the next king of Chaos. His very absence raises their suspicions of us."
"Of course it would be politics," Julian said. "Unicorn forbid it should be familial concern."
Fiona favoured him with another smile, then said, "I propose we attempt to contact him by Trump. All of us, together."
There were murmurs, but no objections.
Fiona pulled out her Trump of Merlin and focused on it, while around her, the others did the same. She had drawn this one herself: a young man, dark-haired and keen-eyed, with echoes of Corwin in his resolute expression.
They tried for an hour. The Trump stayed dead as winter.
"How did it go?" Mandor asked, over a glass of claret.
Fiona shrugged an elegant shoulder. "As expected. They're taking the matter much more seriously now." She leaned back against the divan, sipping from her own glass.
A knock on the door of her rooms. "Come in," Fiona called.
Random entered. "Fiona, what did--" He halted when he saw Mandor. "Oh, hell, no."
Mandor rose and bowed. "Your Majesty." The last time they had met, there had been alarums and explosions, and the destruction of a substantial section of the castle. Although to be fair, it had not entirely been Mandor's fault, that certain cosmic forces had chosen that venue as their battleground.
"Lord Mandor is my guest," Fiona began, also rising.
Random held up a hand. "I don't even want to know."
"Princess Fiona has requested my assistance in this matter," Mandor said. "Which I am happy to offer."
"You can help us find your brother?" Random said.
"I hope so. Despite the differences between us, I find myself rather attached to him."
"So what do you suggest?"
Mandor gestured to Fiona, inviting her to continue.
"There is one avenue we have not yet attempted," she said. "Ghostwheel."
"That construct of Merlin's?" Random seemed doubtful. "It seems to cause more problems than it solves."
"Nevertheless, it is a powerful artefact. And it is loyal to Merlin."
Random considered for long moments, but eventually he pulled out the Trump that Merlin had left in his care, and summoned its subject forth.
Ghostwheel appeared, a glowing white circle, electrical surges coruscating from its rim like solar flares.
"You!" he said, to Fiona and Mandor.
"They're with me," Random said. "Apparently."
Fiona smiled. "Ghostwheel, we need your help to find Merlin."
His intensity fluctuated. "I've already tried. I've searched through every Shadow in my index, and I've indexed them all." His distress sounded almost human.
"Not every one," Fiona said. "Every one cast by the Pattern, correct?"
Random got it straight away. "But there's another Pattern now."
"Yes. The Pattern that Corwin drew."
"You think Merlin has walked his father's Pattern?"
"What else? He could transport himself to any of the Shadows cast by that Pattern--a whole new universe--where none of his enemies can follow. The perfect hiding place."
Random brooded. "Say you're right. That doesn't solve our problem. None of us can follow him either. Only one descended of Corwin's blood can walk his Pattern."
Fiona smiled, delicately. "Ghostwheel is a construct built by Merlin. Made with his blood."
"You're kidding me," Random said. "You want that thing to walk the Pattern?"
"If I may be so bold," Mandor interposed, "I can verify that this construct has already traversed the Logrus. There is a high probability that it will also prove capable of traversing the Pattern."
Random stared at Ghostwheel. "Unicorn help us all."
The valley lay shrouded in fog, white tendrils drifting in eddies, parting to reveal tantalising glimpses of blue fire ribboning across the ground.
This was the place of Corwin's Pattern, drawn in desperation, a safeguard against the destruction of the original Pattern, a last stand against the end of the world. And yet the original Pattern had endured, and the world had not ended, although this remained.
Ghostwheel hovered at the beginning of the Pattern, a disk of light, waiting for the signal.
"I'm still not sure I like this idea," Random said. "That thing is already too powerful as it is."
Fiona laid a hand on his arm. "It's for Merlin. He's family." In a low voice, she added, "What if it were your son? Wouldn't you tear up the universe to find him?"
Random's face changed. Because Martin had been missing once, had almost died at the hands of his traitor uncle Brand. And Random had not rested until Martin was found.
"All right." A slow nod. "Let's try it your way."
They watched, intent, as Ghostwheel moved upon the Pattern. Blue sparks flew. It was all slow motion, like pushing through water fathoms deep, resistance rising as he traced each line and followed each curve. It took an eternity before Ghostwheel reached the centre, revolving in place, as fragments of designs flashed across his surface.
"Random, may I speak to him?" Fiona said.
He nodded, passing her Ghostwheel's Trump.
"Ghostwheel, how do you feel?"
"Interesting. It'll take me a while to completely analyse. But I'm ready to go look for Dad."
"Take me with you." Fiona reached through the Trump contact before Random could do more than make startled noises. The next moment, she stood in the centre of the Pattern with Ghostwheel.
She smiled brightly, waving, before Ghostwheel enveloped her, and the sky changed.
Fiona stood in the centre of a Pattern the mirror image of the one she had left. But the landscape had utterly changed. Gone was the valley shrouded by fog; instead there was a broad plaza ringed with arches and avenues, and everywhere, white trees in full flower, the scent of chestnut blossom drifting through the air. Somehow, Fiona knew that here it was eternally springtime.
This place, sacred and inviolate, was a piece of Corwin's heart.
And for a moment, Fiona ached for the brother who had saved them all, who had sacrificed so much, and who was no longer with them, whether by choice or circumstance. This could well be his final legacy.
But he was not here, and she had something she had to do.
"Ghostwheel," she said, to the circle of light hovering at her shoulder, "take me to Merlin."
The castle hung suspended in the sky, its turrets pointing down towards Fiona like swords. She cast a levitation spell and rose, through a starscape whose constellations revolved beneath her feet.
Beyond the castle gates, a grand staircase swept into a large hall, whose floor was tiled black and white like a giant chessboard. A red carpet unrolled to the far end, where a pipe organ loomed.
Merlin sat cross-legged on the carpet, busy with a scatter of glass tubes and golden wires and cogs carved with runes. He looked up at her entrance. "Sorry about the mess," he said, with no hint of repentance. "I wasn't expecting visitors."
"What do you think you're doing, Merlin?"
"I can tell you what I'm not doing, Aunt Fiona. I'm not going to end up as anyone's puppet."
"So you'd rather be a hermit instead?"
"At least long enough for some breathing space. Everyone wants a piece of me." He eyed Fiona. "Everyone."
"You have responsibilities," she said. "We all have responsibilities. The world doesn't go away just because you do."
"I never asked to be king of Chaos."
"Do you imagine Random asked to be king of Amber?" No answer. "If I can't persuade you, maybe someone else can. Ghostwheel?"
He floated forward. "Dad? This isn't like you. Are you sure everything's okay?"
"I told you before, everything's fine. Now go on home. You're not too old to ground."
"Wait--" Fiona said, but the circle of light had blinked out.
"That's low," Merlin said, "dragging him into whatever your scheme is."
"He cares about your welfare. As do I."
Merlin narrowed his eyes. "Are you sure it's not because you're tempted by whatever power is in this universe?"
"Power," Fiona repeated, and smiled. "One of the things I've learned is that power is not an end in itself. Power has one purpose: to protect the things you cherish. And believe it or not, I cherish the universe we live in. Oh yes, it surprises me as much as you."
Merlin shook his head, and stood. "I'm sorry, Aunt Fiona, I'm not going. And I can't leave you wandering loose around here. Who knows what trouble you'll get into?"
"I was about to say the same thing, Merlin."
They raised their hands simultaneously, the air crackling with unspoken spells.
Fiona wiped the blood away from the cut on her forehead, no energy to waste on healing minor wounds. She hauled Merlin, limp and unconscious, across the back of the dreamsteed she had conjured, and then mounted up herself.
The boy had talent and cunning, but so did she, and she had a thousand years on him.
They galloped for the doors, as the castle crumbled around them, chandeliers smashing into shards on the chessboard floor. Ghostwheel would have been exceedingly useful about now. But his Trump stayed dead, no matter how many times Fiona called upon it. Without his aid, she would have to return to the Pattern the hard way: hellriding through Shadow.
The landscape shifted as she concentrated, flowing like a kaleidoscope, and the dreamsteed rode through it. Black mountains gave way to silver plains; glaciers retreated from ridges and deserts flooded into lakes. The sun rose and set. The moon waxed and waned and waxed again.
The dragons circled, wings like stormclouds, eyes like balefire, homing in on their prey. Fiona had exhausted her store of spells, and she did not share in the martial skill that her sisters possessed. Only speed would be her salvation now.
One dragon landed in front of her, barring the way, and exhaled a sorcerous flame. The dreamsteed reared up. It unravelled beneath her, flesh dissolving into ribbons of mist. Fiona flung herself clear, landing in a crouch, Merlin cradled across her knees. The dragon prowled forward. Fiona tensed, reaching for the dagger hidden in her sleeve.
Ghostwheel descended like a shooting star, white light reflecting from tooth and claw. His circle yawned wide, disgorging an arrow that pierced the dragon in one eye. Flora stepped through the circle, already nocking another arrow to her bow. She was followed by Julian, sword drawn, and Mandor, spells flying; and then the rest joined them too, her brothers and sisters of Amber, turning their might upon the suddenly reluctant predators.
"You came," Fiona said, faintly.
"What's family for?" Random said, pulling her to her feet. "But I swear, if you ever pull another stunt like that--"
Flora only said, "I'm tired of losing sisters."
They rematerialised in the valley shrouded in fog, in the centre of Corwin's Pattern.
"I can manage," Fiona said to Random, her arm around Merlin's shoulder. "Here, you'd better take your Trump back."
Random accepted it, half-turning as he tucked it away.
Fiona drew her dagger. She slid the blade between Merlin's ribs, deep as she could manage. He hardly made a sound, only jerked once, then collapsed. Blood gushed from the wound, pooling at their feet.
Flora cried out. The dagger was wrenched from Fiona and her arms were seized. Merlin lay motionless; Mandor crouched over him, checking his wounds.
"It won't kill him," Fiona said. "He's of the blood of Amber and Chaos."
The Pattern smoked and hissed, the stain spreading as they watched, blue fire guttering out everywhere.
"What the hell," Random said. He was dead white, remembering Martin. He grabbed her by the collar. "What the hell, Fiona?"
She regarded him calmly. "There was never meant to be a second Pattern. The balance between Order and Chaos is all out of skew. You know the consequences."
"Did you plan this from the beginning?"
"It had to be done," Fiona said. "We are the lords of Amber. We have responsibilities, no matter how unpleasant."
Random released her, swearing.
"Are you going to execute me?"
Random pushed a hand through his hair, wearily. "We'll continue this tomorrow. Gerard, Benedict, take her back to Amber."
"He will live," Mandor pronounced, looking up from Merlin. "Barely." His eyes met Fiona's, and irony still spun within, but all warmth had been quenched.
Fiona closed her eyes briefly, in acknowledgment.
"Julian," she said, "if it comes to a trial, will you be my advocate?"
Julian's eyes widened. Stiffly, he bowed.
Fiona took out a handkerchief and wiped her fingers clean. She stood very straight and regal, as she prepared to be escorted home, the smouldering Pattern behind her.