Fiona remembers being an only child. Vague stories of half siblings far away hardly count. All she knows is the wide swing of her father's arms as he lifts her high, and the warm embrace of her mother's arms as she cradles her close. She blooms in the attention they lavish upon her, absolute centre of their world.
It is only later that she learns the centre of the world has been somewhere else all along.
"I don't want to be his big sister," Fiona says.
"It's not something you can choose, dear one," her mother says, stroking her hair. "Family is forever. And blood is thicker than water."
Things get better when Bleys grows old enough to start walking and talking. He tumbles over his own feet and springs up again laughing, delighted at his own cleverness. He babbles about everything he sees, and Fiona corrects his words with patient superiority. She discovers she likes having someone to order about, someone who will listen to her and follow her lead.
By the time Brand is born, Fiona is ready for another little brother. There are games you cannot play with two people. You really need three.
Bleys is not quite tall enough to see into the crib. But Fiona stands on tiptoes and reaches through the bars, to the red-haired baby who gazes back at her. He curls his small hand around her fingers and holds tight.
Later, when the storm subsides, Fiona ventures forth. The house is in disarray, valises lying open, as her mother yanks clothes from the wardrobe.
"Are you going away again?" Fiona asks her father, boldly.
"Yes," he says, ruffling her hair. "But this time, you're all coming with me."
"This is your home now," he says.
It is not only her home. She meets her father's other children, for the first time. A girl named Deirdre, sad and solemn, a few years older than herself. Three boys, Eric and Corwin and Caine, curious about the new arrivals, but inclined to be occupied with their own contests and quarrels. And the eldest, Benedict, already a man and a warrior, whose quiet intensity intimidates Fiona. They are all of them tall and dark and imposing, grown up here together, with their own hierarchies.
They are not fond of interlopers. They do not like her mother, her brothers, or her self. But Fiona learns she is better than they are at trading barbed remarks. She lets their subtle insults flow off her, smiling silkily. It makes them wonder if she is bluffing, or only pretending to bluff. Either way, she draws their fire, and dispels it.
Fiona likes to explore the library, a sanctuary free from unfriendly eyes. Some books are written in scripts she cannot read, though magic whispers its promises beneath her fingers. One day, she meets a strange little man, when he steps right through the wall.
"How did you do that?" she demands, in astonishment.
"I drew a picture," he says.
Her brothers, naturally, grow interested too. All Fiona has to say is, "Watch this," and Brand will say, "Show me how."
"I suppose you will want to stay here," she says to Fiona. She knows well the allure of Amber, one true world at the heart of all worlds, knows her daughter is carving out her own place in it.
"I'll visit, I promise," Fiona says, embracing her. And she keeps her word.
But when she thinks of family, she thinks of her brothers.
It is a problem with no easy solution, although Fiona is bent on finding a way.
"Who do you like the least?" Bleys says. "I vote Eric." He is probably not joking. Eric has ambitions of his own. He is the one most likely to stand in their way.
"That's actually tempting," Fiona says. Everyone knows he is the one who slew Corwin. "But no. It would attract too much attention. Any of them."
They are, after all, family.
Brand says nothing, but he listens.
Her first thought is that he has done himself a harm. She scans him up and down, pulse racing. But he chuckles. "Relax, sister. It's not my blood."
Unease prickles her spine. "Then whose?"
He hands her a torn Trump. It shows a young man with blond hair, a faint smile upon his sharp features. He seems oddly familiar. A swift glance at Brand, who confirms it. "Yes. That bastard son of Random's. No one has seen him in years." Brand smiles. "Except for me, just now."
"Brand," she says, unable to think what else to say. She had intended to make this a ritual of the three of them, one third each of their blood, their triumvirate bound together forever by this shared sacrifice.
"It's the perfect solution," Brand says. "No one will miss him."
Martin, she recalls, has no sisters or brothers.
"No, I suppose not," Fiona says at last.
Jasra has red hair and sparkling eyes. She is laughing and clever and fierce. They might actually be a match. Fiona is watching her little brother grow up.
"I'm happy for you," she tells him. "Finding someone you love."
"Love?" Brand echoes. He smiles. "It's an alliance that suits us both very well." He rests his hand against the wall. It thrums with ancient power. "And this place suits me very well."
"About Brand," he says. Not a question.
None needed, between them.
"Your new home," Fiona answers, from the other side of the cell door.
It has taken all her cunning, all her skill, to devise this prison. Brand is chained to the wall with manacles of iron, sigils mark every stone of this tower, monstrous guards patrol its gates, and a shining serpent encircles it. Fiona has learned to build fortresses.
Brand must do no more harm. Not to others. Not to himself. Even now, Fiona sees the faint glimmer within his hands, where flesh has been transmuted into pure energy. How much can a man lose, how much of himself can he trade, before he is no longer human?
He has remade himself. And he desires no less than to remake the universe.
Brand watches her through the bars of his cell.
"Fiona, Fiona," he says, shaking his head, pacing towards her. "Are you jealous of my triumphs? I have excelled beyond your imaginings, gone where you fear to follow. You never thought I would surpass you. Do you really think your wards can hold me?" Brand flexes his hands against his chains. They smoke, but they hold.
"You should know better than to underestimate me," Fiona says. "I am still your elder sister."
Brand reaches his hand through the bars. But Fiona turns away.
Fiona gazes at the Trump of her brother, a portrait painted when Brand was young. Dworkin has perfectly captured that restless questing heart, that fierce joy and aching discontent. Fiona gazes at the lines of resolution and rebellion warring upon his face, knowing how they have been shaped by her choices.
Some say you can read your future in the cards.
Fiona wonders what it would have been like if she had been more like her sisters: if she had chosen to pursue war like Deirdre, or love like Flora, or solitude like Llewella. Instead, she took the road less travelled, into the secrets of the universe, the hunger for hidden lore, the path of sorcery and power, where her brothers followed.
What would it have been like if she had settled for an ordinary life instead? She could have been running through the green hills forever, Bleys and Brand by her side.
Her brothers and sisters think Brand is a hero. But soon they will find him, and then they will all know: what he has done, what he has become. And their admiration will sour to revulsion.
Fiona slides out the dagger in her sleeve.
She can still look after him.