hosted by tripod
Tell me when this page is updated

Faetan Jarl

The spray splashed up into the air, heavy with the smell of salt and seaweed, and I breathed in deep the air of victory.

On the coast, I saw a sizable township, Tolanod, well known for its arts, coffee, and military manufacturing. Actually, it wasn't A township. It was MY township. All mine. Heh heh heh! The campaign against it was brilliant, flawlessly executed. Their soldiers littered the streets, while mine simply plowed forward like juggernauts, claiming more and more of the city with each hour. After less than a day, the city surrendered, and I added a new dot to my empire. A small dot, but that's the way things grow. Fish, people...acne...

I came out to the top deck, to see just how bad the damage was to MY ports, and was pleased that only a few minor areas seemed scarred. Hell, I even started picking out a few places to develop.

I gave my head a toss, black hair flying in the wind, and I stood for a moment, the acme of glory. My empire was coming together, and nothing could distract me...

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a familiar glint of red.

Well, almost nothing.

My gloved hands tightened on the railing of the ship, faintly splintering the wood. The only time my father, Bleys, showed up was either to gloat, or if he wanted something. I had plenty of couldn't hurt to see what he wanted. Besides, I could always say 'no.'

"Father." I released my grip and turned toward the tall, broad-shouldered figure, smiling ferally. "Have you come to feast your eyes on my newest acquisition?" I gestured to the town. "Perhaps down an ale or two with your victorious offspring?" My voice carried the pride of my triumph. "We will exchange a story or two, perhaps!"

He laughed, and his red hair flashed in the sun. Dad, always so blasted proud of that red hair of his. And a peculiar thought flitted through my mind... How the hell did he get on my boat? I was going to have a serious talk with my crew about security.

He walked forward and bowed. "I thought this might be your work. It has the flair of our particular line. You're improving." He'd grown a beard since I'd seen him last.

I just smirked, jerking my head back to the town. "I rather miss the large fires, but...the shopping is excellent here, I see no reason to burn *too* much of it yet." Then I turned back to him, sizing him up. "And what is this growth on your face? Have you taken a pet?" I jabbed at him with my elbow.

He sidestepped it, the big wuss, and hooked my arm with his instead. "A pet? You know, more mature ladies happen to like a beard on a man-- shows he's worldly. Perhaps if you stopped playing with boys..."

He regarded the town for a moment, narrowing his eyes against the sea spray. "Shopping, huh? I hope at least _some_ thought went into location, strategy, the silly little details like that. I know your wardrobe comes first, but when conquering a world for your own, you should at least draw up a loose plan." He winked at me, and led onward to the back of the ship.

"Oh, like YOU'VE got any experience at it," I growled somewhat playfully (he knows how much I hate make-up). "And how many continents have*you* conquered, hm? Ha!" Yet I stayed with him, since it was good to have someone in my company that didn't bow and scrape, nor rival my position. Don't get me wrong, it greatly pleases me when others bow and scrape. But I didn't expect it from Dad. I think I would have vomited if he had. "Besides, the better the shopping goods, the better the influence I'll have with bartering countries and the like. You know port towns are my favorite."

He laughed. "Faetan, I've ruled more places than you've bought lipstick in. What you don't know about me could just about fill your fleet." He touched a strand of my hair, and I stiffened. I didn't like people touching my hair. "And you should like port towns. The sea air does well for you. You look radiant."

Okay, so he'd made up for touching my hair with that comment. "And you haven't changed a bit, in more ways than one!" I laughed loudly. It was true, Dad had one of those ageless faces, the lucky turd. "And I don't wear lipstick unless I try the seductive route...which I *hate*..." I made a face. "I swear, you don't age." I smirked, thinking of my remarkable and nearly inhuman endurance and strength. Perhaps my father... Well, it's a possibility I'd always toyed with, thinking of him as a god. And it would explain much. But I held my peace...for now. I was ready to learn today, but I had to wait for just the right moment.

Either that, or until I ran out of patience.

"So anyhow...DAD...what's new? You didn't come just to get loopy with ale, I'm guessing."

He looked vaguely insulted. "Loopy? Me? You jest. I'm ever the dignified one, unlike those drunkard brothers of mine."

Brothers?! Since when did he have brothers?! He always had the overindulged air of an only child, as far as I could tell. Hmmm...that meant there were a lot of other gods in the family.

He ran a hand through his hair and sat on the side of the ship. "Of course I don't age. A good thing should never change."

There. That was the opening I'd been looking for. I shot a quick glance over my shoulder, making sure the other sailors and mercenaries weren't close by. "Father, you don't have to play coy anymore. I've figured it out." I grinned, flashing my teeth. "You're a god, aren't you? And as a result, I'm a demigod. That's why I heal so quickly, isn't it?"

He smiled, and the clouds shifted just right to land a beam of sunlight on him, lighting up his hair and smile as if they were on fire. One of those things gods did, I suspected, to make themselves look good at the dramatic moment. "What else could I be? But you're no demi-god. YOU are a god-in-training."

I cackled, rapidly tapping my fingertips together. "I just KNEW it!" I gloated for a few moments more. "So which one are you? God of War, possibly? That's what I'D like to be... God of Chaos? Lighting? Cheese?"

He sighed tragically. "Unfortunately my father didn't see fit to give us catchy titles. We didn't even get last names, as it were." He rolled his eyes. "I'd hate to think that he was simply too busy running the universe to exert a little creativity. So all labels are currently open. However, if you insist on 'Goddess of War,' you may want to have a chat with Benedict. I think he'll disagree."

Benedict? Ah...another god, one of the 'brothers' Bleys spoke of. "Well then," I cracked my knuckles with a wry grin, "I'll simply have to have a little session with this Benedict. I'm sure it would be greatly enlightening!" I moved aside as a seagull swooped by closely. There are only a few things I'll step aside for, and flying objects that can crap on you are one of them. "Did you stop by to see Mom yet?"

Bleys smiled even more brightly, but this time I could sense that it was forced. "Oh, yes. Stopped by, had some cheese and crackers, talked about times gone by, all the usual stuff. She wishes you the best."

"Eh...she still wants that little farmtown of Garyon, I just haven't got around to it," I folded my arms stiffly. "Was she...'normal' this time around?" I looked at Bleys out of the corner of my eye. My mom was actually a certified lunatic, but a harmless one that didn't live in any towns or cities where people could condemn her. Of course, that may have contributed to her overly eccentric behavior.

He shrugged non-comittally. "I'm a god, not a miracle worker. You have quite a bit to learn about the business... We had a little row, but I was able to subdue her after a bit. I'll teach you the trick one day. I found it useful being married to her."

I blinked *hard.* "And all this time I thought it was just an affair! Ha...was she ALWAYS loopy, then?" I grinned. And then after a pause, "And when do I start training for godship? After I finish conquering the rest of the world?"

He looked out off the stern of the boat. "If you want, you can. But I can find you a _much_ better world to conquer. Or you can find one yourself."

He looked at his left hand, and I noticed a gold band on it. Quickly he took it off and put it in his pocket. I wondered if he was ashamed of being married to my mother, or if he had truly tender feelings towards her that he didn't want to show to anyone else. It could have been both, for all I knew. "It seemed the thing to do at the time. I wasn't really doing anything, she was young and beautiful and entertaining. But after I showed her what was really out there, she kind of went downhill. Not a strong woman up here." He tapped his head. The understatement of the year. "I considered divorce for a while, but what the hell--she can only live so long."

I stared at his pocket, the one the ring disappeared into. "I never had you fingered as the sentimental type," I sniffed faintly. I had to pick further. "Or Mom either for that matter. Wasn't it you who told me that falling in love was a stupid idea that left you weak and exposed to enemies?"

He patted the pocket again. "This isn't sentiment. It's subterfuge to keep your mother happy. And who said anything about love? She was fun, and then she proved rather fertile, so I stuck around a bit. And, of course, it's a good idea to keep in good with a child's mother if you want to be friendly with the child."

I grinned at that. "I just *knew* you were going to get around to that. So what do you want this time? Not more troops, I hope, I'm planning an invasion of Bera within the week and need the manpower." He never gave one of those men back, either, though he did give me a dozen more ships to make up for it.

He puffed out his chest, as if he were insulted. He did that a lot, I noticed. "An invasion? Of some insignifigant town? I offer you the secrets to the universe, the key to the core of your being, and you blow me off for some child's play? Hmph." He tossed his hair indignantly. "Some daughter."

"Heh!" I flicked his shoulder. "You're bush dancing again! Just tell me whatcha want, eh? I've got some plot--er, planning to do. And some shopping, and some boozing... C'mon, Father, just spit it out!"

He took out a piece of parchment from his belt. "Oh, I don't know. You seem like you're more interested in these shabby port towns. And this is only a little get together. I'm sure a meeting of us godly types is below you, oh Junior Goddes of War." He winked at me.

I snatched the parchment away to look at it, chattering on while I did. "Long as it doesn't keep me TOO long from my duties, I'm in." I glanced up at him quickly, narrowing my eyes. "Do I get an escort from some of my men, or am I only relying on you?" I love my father, but I didn't trust him to watch my back. You can never trust someone THAT charming.

His face contorted with feigned shock. "You don't trust me? Your own father? Your very flesh and blood?!" He smiled. "Good. You'll do well in Amber. But no troops. They're edgy about troops there."

"C'mon, I don't even trust ME!" I pushed the paper back into his hands, frustrated. Whatever language it was written in wasn't familiar to me, and I knew quite a few. "I don't like the sounds too good to be true. Tell me the bad points, enough marshmallows."

He squinted, and I struggled not to smile. He hated it when I refused to play his little games of intrigue. "Alright. But I have one request. Keep this ship moving." I nodded faintly. He paced around for a moment, as if tracing a line of thought back to its source.

"What do you want? What your magical God-in-training powers are? A handful of rather disappointing universal truths? Or a history lesson sprinkled with blood, lechery, and all the best things in life?"

"Ah, they all sound good!" I rubbed my hands together. "Don't know why you want the ship to move, but ah well...if you insist. Let me get some chairs, we'll get comfortable and you can tell me aaaaaalll about it."

I returned in a few moments, two deck chairs set up, a stout keg of ale rolled up onto a stump of wood and two mugs resting on top of the keg. I filled a glass and offered it to him. "You game?"

He sniffed. "For that? Over time, my tastes are a bit more refined." With that, a wineglass appeared in one hand, a wine bottle in the other. I hadn't blinked, so I figured it had to be another one of those god things.

He opened the bottle and filled his glass. "Well, it all started a rather long time ago when your Great grandfather had sex with a unicorn..."

I paused for a moment. Information overkill immediately. "Errr...what's a eunuch-orn? Is that some sort of eunuch with little spikes sticking out of his head?" I imitated the gesture, placing my fingers just behind my ear.

"Close," he replied. "It's a horse with a horn on its head." He handed me a card, and indeed, on it was a picture of a thin-looking white horse with a golden horn on its head.

"That," he explained, "Is your great gradmother."

I reached out to take the card and get a better look. So my great grandmother is a horse. With a horn. On its head, no less. I contemplated it for awhile, and then contemplated Bleys.

I contemplated some more.

Then I shrugged. "Each to their own." And as I raised the mug of beer to my lips I uttered "Kinky," just under my breath.

He rolled his eyes. "I find I live a fuller life by not thinking about it too much. Your great-grandfather is a hunchback."

I took a moment of silence to roll my eyes as well. "Yeah...figures."

He took back the card. "I'm not sure if it was before or after, but he decided to draw this thing called a pattern. It's quite big, and quite impressive, and made where he lived a prime piece of real estate."

"And you want me to conquer this pattern thing?" I asked, lifting my eyebrows. It was my only area of expertise, really.

"Mmmmmm... no. Not today. If I wanted it conquered, I'd have talked to a few of your uncles, gathered a force, done some manipulating, and sat on the throne. Even tried it once. Not worth the effort, trust me."

A lit cigar appeared in his non-wineglass hand, and he puffed at it happily. "Nope, I want you to look at it, and walk it. A bit of exercise will do you good. You're looking a bit... hippy."

"Hippy?" I repeated, lifting the corner of my mouth in a growl. "HIPPY?!" I could feel my hair stir faintly as though blown by the wind, and knew that it was shadowing from black to shocking white. I stood abruptly to my feet, and a long, brown tail thrashed back and forth. "Just look at these arms!" I flexed my right bicep. "I'm in better shape than anyone else on this planet!!!! FEAR ME!" I howled.

And paused.

"If I'm going to walk a pattern, I'd better lay off the booze, eh?"

He smirked. "Oh, sure, compare yourself to a bunch of blow-up dolls. Sweethert, you don't know competition. Your uncle Gerard could make you look like a poory stuffed sack of porridge. But laying off the booze is a good idea. I'll have plenty waiting for you when you're done."

"We'll see...I like the sounds of these relatives. Competitive. They like fights. Probably big fans of weapons, I'm betting?" I looked at him with a grin. The tail curled around my waist comfortably as I sat back down, and ran my fingers through my thick, wild mane of pale hair. "What happens after I walk this pattern? It's not just a party game, I'm guessing."

"Oh yes," he said, a hand dropping to his sword. "Swords, axes, fists, minds, magic... you name it. If there's a way to kill someone using it, we've pretty much mastered it."

He looked at his hand, inspecting his fingernails. "And after you walk the pattern, why, you get one wish. A one way ticket to anywhere you want."

"What's so great about that?" I folded my arms, still sulking over not being able to finish my beer. least the rest of the stein couldn't hurt, so I downed it in one long thirsty gulp. "Unless you had troops with you, I don't see the point of such a thing."

I happened to glance out over the side of her boat and watched the shore. Funny... I should still be in her territory, but I sure as hell didn't remember conquering a desert. I was pissed off.

"HEY!" I bellowed suddenly, the railing nearly crunching in my hands. My hair which had been darkening while I calmed, suddenly shrieked back to white as my tail uncoiled. "Who put that DESERT in MY nectarine orchards?!?!?!"

Beside me, Bleys chuckled. "Oh, you want orchards? I can do that." He started to concentrated, staring intently at the land, and the shore faded to green, then gained some brush, then turned into a far-reaching orchard, ten times larger than the one I remembered should be there.

"Any other requests?"

Appeased, I turned the thought over in my mind. "How 'bout some really studly orchard workers?" I smirked, moving to stand next to him. I wanted to see how he did that. "And an ever-flowing river of ale."

He sighed. "The men I can do, but the ale will only take us off course. I've got the water right, and that's the hardest part." As I watched, the fields filled with sweaty, tanned, muscular men, picking various fruits, and looking even more delicious than the goods they handled. I found myself purring faintly.

"But to continue my story, as I'm sure you're enthralled, the Unicorn soon gave birth to my father, who build a lovely castle on top of the pattern, then proceeded to have a slew of children by a number of wives and lovers. We're still not sure how many there are, but however many, I'm fairly certain the universe would be better off if it were smaller."

My mind became briefly occupied with the thought of a unicorn and a hunchback... And then I immediately regretted the action. "So does our grandfather have a horn on his head too? Or what? I still can't get over that."

He handed me another card, depicting a mischevious wrinkled little man, hunched over with age, and a crooked smile on his face.

"No. No horn. And trust me, it was quite a shock to all of us, too. As I said, don't think about it. The castle doesn't have a house therepist." He sighed. "I see the familial greed is alove in you, but no curiosity?" He waved his hand at the changing scenery. "None at all?"

I gave him one of those 'you-know-me-better-than-that' type of looks. "I don't ask questions if I can help it...lack of knowledge is a weakness. I'm waiting to see just how you're doing it if you *must* know." With a wry grin, I tried to get in a swipe of my foot to kick his rump. But he snorted and sidestepped the move, letting my foot bang into the side of the ship. "But if you want to go ahead and tell me, well...I suppose that's possible."

"I've heard it said that ignorance is a weakness, too. But if you must know, and just don't have the heart to lower yourself to asking your dear old dad questions, then fine. This a side-benefit of walking the pattern. You can move through universes, walk to whatever you want, create the perfect world... I'm sure you'll find a use for it."

I kept my cool, difficult as it was to contain my excitement at the notion of not owning just one world, but hundreds. Millions. "So you're saying that my world isn't the only one. Correct?" A little smile started to twitch the corners of my lips. "I can create any world of my choosing. Subjects and homage galore. What's the catch?"

His lip twitched. "The catch? So far I haven't found one. Sure, my siblings have tried to cut my life short now and then, and every few years something dire happens and I have to drop what I'm doing to save the universe, but those are minor details. I'm sure with your beauty and cunning and demure nature you'll be the belle of the ball at family picnics, and that now that you've completed our little circle, the universe would not dare shudder."

"All right...I'll take a look at it," I shrugged, not promising anything...not yet. But it certainly sounded ideal. "How long does it take to get there?"

He smiled. "Water, sky, land-- it's all in place." He leaned back and waited a moment. Then, his voice a whisper, he pointed. "There." Following his gaze, I could see why my shadow must have appeared so drabby to my father.

I leaned forward, my tail vanishing and my hair falling back into its normal black color. Even as skilled as I was at repressing emotion, I could not hide the wonder that had nearly stopped my heart just before quickening it.

'One never knows what blue is until seeing the Amber skies. One never knows what green is until seeing the Amber dales and valleys...' The words came unbidden to my mind, a dim recollection of something long past in my childhood...perhaps something Bleys recited in my earlier days, or something from my mother. I couldn't remember.

My jaw dropped. It was perfect.

"What do you think?" Bleys asked, again, and I stirred faintly from my silent admiration.

I blinked. "I want it."

He laughed, hard. "Oh, your mother was telling the truth, wasn't she?" He wiped a tear away, and I frowned. Obviously he wasn't taking me seriously. "I wanted it too, at one point. Almost had it. But I've found out this place is like a stripper with herpes. Lovely to look at, but you don't want to @#$* with it."

I gave him a disapproving look, but not because of his language. I'd used worse. "I'll take it someday. Just wait." My smile twitched again as my eyes squinted to scrutinize the entire land. "In the meantime, let's go see about this Pattern you speak of. And my relatives...I want to meet them too."

He sighed. "Still bent on that? Oh well, it was nice being a father."

The boat docked, and he led me off. "So, what first? Annoy the king? Walk the pattern? I can track down a relative or two for you to stun with your witty reparte."

"First the Pattern," I decided firmly. "If it awakens all these powers, I'll need that before making first impressions. Power is essential. Then I should pay my respects to the king." ~And try to refrain from making any snarky comments about unicorns or hunchbacks, I would be real touchy about that if it were me.~ "After that...I think I'd be ready for my relatives," I grinned widely, rubbing my hands together.

"A sensible order." Bleys sounded somewhat surprised. "Here, it's time for another piece of magic." He took out a card, showing off a picture of something blue on black. Very artsy and abstract.

He held the card out and concentrated on it. After a moment, he grabbed my arm, and the vision of a huge room with a glowing line twirling about on the floor opened up before me.

He stepped forward, and the port disappeared, and poof! There we were.

I blinked. Looking behind me, I saw only stone walls and a large oaken door. My head was bobbing slightly with the disorientation from sea to land so quickly, but after a few moments of silence, I nodded once succinctly. "Okay. You realize I'm putting a lot of trust in you by doing this, Father." I gave his shoulder a pat and moved forward. I was nervous and excited all at once. My heart was thrumming in my breast, and somehow I knew this was where I needed to be. Trust in Bleys wasn't even a factor anymore, I knew my place. "Where does it start?"

He moved forward and pointed, and somewhere, somehow, I knew he was right. "Good to see I've won your trust. Discard it immediately. Start with your left foot, and don't stop walking, no matter what. I'll be here to guide you. And please. No bleeding."

I gave him a strange look. "Of COURSE this trust is a one-time thing! But...the benefits outweigh the doubts. So..." And with that, I stepped forward. The sparks were mildly alarming, but my momentum kept me from pausing. To have done so, I knew, would have been disastrous.

A surge of energy flooded through my body, like every cell, every drop of blood was awakened to a sense of being. Yes... I thrilled at it. Pushing forward, my hair began to stand on end with the electricity that fueled me. Visions of memories stood out in my thoughts, playing in some strange and bizarre cinema before my eyes.

"Hush little baby, don't say a word,

Mama's gonna buy you a mocking bird

And if that mocking bird don't sing,

Mama's gonna give his neck a wring."

Cackle cackle cackle...

~Crazy ol' Mom,~ I grinned with the memory, amazed that my mind could reach back that far. I remembered the smell of woodsmoke, of roasted mockingbird on a cold winter night, thus inspiring my mother's lullaby to a small, black-haired child in a shabby cradle.

Channels opened in my mind, vast chasms of experiences and words and faces that came rushing so clearly into view. I couldn't see beyond the Pattern's lines anymore as I watched scene after scene of my life play out. Surely this was no minor trick of Bleys' doing, this was very real.

A boy's face flickered for a moment, and I felt my hard features soften for a moment. A boy with dark hair and flashing brown eyes, hiding behind the shed as he watched a fierce young girl conquer her foes on the football arena. Both of them, ten years old, but only one truly aware of the other.

Until two girls approached the girl. There was some whispering, and her eyes widened for a moment just before her gaze locked onto the boy's. A moment of surprise, and he vanished. The girl roared with laughter and immediately gave chase.

With a pounce and a tackle, she sat herself on the boy's stomach and looked down at him with a benign smile. "Faetan," she introduced herself, folding her arms.

"Jaxx," he smiled back, just looking at her.

She grinned, standing up and helping him to his feet. "You're my new defense. C'mon up," she jogged away and booted the round white ball in his direction.


The sparks began to dance around the tops of my boots now. A turn to the left with a smooth curve that led westward and north. I followed easily enough, until I abruptly came in contact with what I would later call the First Veil. Confused at the sudden resistance, my lip lifted with a snarl. I threw my fist forward in a sort of slow-motion punch, pushing through thickened air. "What's this?!" I demanded. "Get out of my way!" Grunting and snarling, my movement slowed and I felt my hair billow as though caught in a cold wind.

Then I stumbled none-too-gracefully forward, having cleared the first obstacle. She frowned as I pressed forward, displeased at having been challenged by an invisible foe. It's one thing to behold your enemy, to smell his sweat and blood, to see the fear and apprehension in his eyes. Invisible walls of thick air are another thing altogether. But I didn't have long to ponder this further, because the strange and unfamiliar memories were coming back.

A red-haired man appearing on the front step flickered in front of me, and I smirked. Bleys.


Though I hadn't known it at the time, of course, at least this was a memory that I *did* remember. "Faetan," he acknowledged me with a flashy smile.

"Person," my younger self acknowledged right back, staring at him with gleaming black eyes and standing in the doorway obstinately.

"I'm here to see your mother."

"I don't know you. And you smile too much. Come back a few years later." And she slammed the door, looking pleased with herself.

Irritated knocking came, just as she'd suspected. "I hear the beating of a wood thrush!" she exclaimed aloud in sarcastic wonder. "A *nameless* wood thrush!"

"My name is Bleys," growled the response. "I'm your father."

"So?" she shrugged, flopping into a chair.

A pause. Her response clearly wasn't expected. "You don't want to know your father?"

"Been okay for thirteen years of my life, a few more can't hurt." With a smirk, she folded her arms behind her head and swung her leg back and forth.

Then suddenly a hand rested on her shoulder and she blinked, craning her head back to look up into Bleys' not-very-amused face. "It's the first year of many," he responded. Then he smiled, as did she. The door hadn't moved an inch, and the windows were closed. That was my first indication of greatness, I realized, when I found out that I possessed the blood of this man.

The Pattern swirled and continued to weave, almost in a dizzying way. And I gave myself a mental pat on the back for not finishing the keg of beer as I'd been wont to do.

Scenes and images of Bleys' appearance every couple of months...some later, some filled the scenes. Red hair that challenged the light of the sun, a smile that could charm a pine viper into submission, and a stunning dexterity that always seemed to keep him out of the way of my attempted pounces and tackles. But always with a wink and a grin. Always.

Jaxx always seemed to stay away whenever my father came around, respecting the rarity of the visits and my glee at seeing him. But after Bleys would leave, he showed up on the scene not too long after with a football in one hand, a bundle of clover in the other. I couldn't have asked for a better friend, looking back. ~Why have I been unable to remember this until now?~ It's true that my mother loved me dearly, but the instability of the mind always left something to be desired.

Not that I minded completely. I'd enjoyed running the household and fixing up our shack into a modest little house. Jaxx came by now and then to help out.

Sitting outside underneath a large, twisted old tree, both covered with the grime and sweat of their labors, two adolescents watched the sun's descent behind the Yellow Mountains.

"See out there?" I saw myself point. "And there?" she pointed to the Ivory Tower. "That will be mine someday."

Jaxx laughed. "Why do you want it?"

"Because I can't have it," she grinned, folding her arms on her knees. "Isn't that the way of things? If you don't have it, you want it. If you have it, you want a better one."

She caught a hint of a blush in his young face, and cocked her head for a moment. "Pinkening? What's this?"

"Oh...nothing. Just warm," he excused himself hastily.

" seem fine," she poked his cheek with her fingertip. "What's going on in that little head of yours? Spill!" she grinned teasingly.

Flustered, and knowing that she could see right through his lies, and *also* knowing that she wouldn't drop the subject, he coughed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Do you like me?"

"Yes," she said, giving him a 'duh' look.

"No, not that, I mean," he brought his hands down in front of him. "In a way where you might, you know, want to hold hands and stuff. Everyone thinks we're boyfriend and girlfriend."

"Well they don't know much, do they?" she smirked, still watching the sunset.

He sighed. "Guess not..."

"NOT AGAIN!" I snarled, finding myself caught in another thick web of resistance. I snapped and growled, determined to make it through. It's strange how I'd forgotten Jaxx, I couldn't help dwelling on that. Up until that moment I couldn't remember anything about him. Just Mom, and occasionally a charming appearance from Dad. But the familiarity was there. And I wanted to know what happened. My foot lifted, shoving forward, insisting indignantly for passage. ~Can't stop...have to keep going!~ I clenched my teeth tightly together and narrowed my eyes.

The barrier seemed to push back for a moment, as though asking if this was really, truly, what I wanted. "YES!" I snapped...truly an odd scene for the spectator, Bleys. But I didn't care.

And then in a surge of triumph and dancing sparks that surrounded me, elevating to my ribcage, I was moving again. I laughed egotistically, one fist raised in the air as I marched forward, and memories clustered around me again.


Tears. On HER face! ~Wait, back up! Why am I crying? What's going on here?~ Feeling short-changed, I growled at the Pattern. ~You SKIPPED a few, I think!!! I never cry!~

But, the memories didn't change. There was an arm around my shoulders (or rather, of my reflection's shoulders), a slim arm. Mother. Serious for a change, without a cackle. "Faetan...My little Fae."

The girl's shoulders hitched and jerked with her sobs, tears streaming down her cheeks.

A flickering shadow, cast by the firelight, blanketed the young woman and her mother. They both looked up to see Bleys, staring down at them with concern.

"What happened? Where's my world-conquering spitfire?"

"Gone," she sulked, angrily wiping at her tears. "I don't want the world anymore. I want Jaxx."

"Jaxx is gone," he moved around the couch to kneel in front of her and take her hand. "You have to forget him now. Mourning won't help him...he' a better place."

She jerked her hand away petulantly. "I can't forget him! He was MINE! That idiot horse...I'm going to EAT that horse for killing him!" she bellowed angrily.

Subconsciously, my hands clenched into fists as I walked, the scene moving with me. Yes...a riding accident. The horse was spooked by an asp of some kind and reared back, throwing Jaxx. He couldn't get away from the hooves fast enough... I recalled the whispers of the doctors, of the people that watched me approach his still form in the stretcher... I remembered that. And I remembered demanding to know what happened to him, of snapping and growling at anyone that came too close...

"Horses aren't too good for eating," Bleys tried a joke. "Very tough and stringy, get stuck in your teeth."

She just glared, not amused.

With a sigh, Bleys reached out to squeeze her shoulder. "You have to forget him."


"Faetan," he said in a firm tone. "You have a job to do. Dwelling on Jaxx will be your downfall."

"No," she snapped again, glaring at him through dark, angry eyes. "I won't...and I can't anyhow."

"I'll help you." Before she could react, Bleys' fingers reached out to rest lightly at either temple. Her eyes widened with the tingling...

...and her memories of Jaxx vanished...


But now they'd come back. The Pattern awakened every living shard of memory in my mind, giving it new life. New pain, new joy. I sensed a wetness on my cheek and swiped it away quickly. My eyes were narrowed, and my lips twisted in a sneer. It's hard to be angry and grateful at someone in one simultaneous instant, the way I felt about Bleys at that moment. Those were not his memories to take from me. And yet I knew if he hadn't, I would be less. A ghost of my true self, and hardly a sliver of what I was now.

A grand curve presented itself, a long straight path that slowly curved back to the center. The ache of nostalgia faded into the glow of anticipation. The last few steps...

Two more.


"NO!" I shrieked, feeling myself nearly walk into a wall as my progress slowed so much, my movements became barely perceivable. "You can't stop ME!!! I AM FAETAN!!" The barrier seemed to harden that much further, even as I raised my arm to claw my way through.

Feelings were stripped away, tossed aside and baring only my will, and my anger. My muscles strained and tightened, my teeth grinding with the effort. Sparks encased me completely with their hot touch. They become that much more alive, doubling in brightness and intensity. I screamed my defiance, my hair blanketing into a pure white shade that writhed as a maddened cobra. My tail lashed furiously as sweat beaded on my forehead.

Go back.

~NO!!!!! I made it TOO far!! I didn't come here to waste time, I came to WIN!~

A slight trembling. My body gave everything it had as I forced it to continue. I grunted. I snarled. I bellowed, my anger tearing itself from my throat in a loud howl.


Then suddenly I stumbled, collapsing onto the center of the Pattern. The blue glow faded back to its original state, though a bit brighter.

Panting, I rested on shaking arms. My hair fell limp and black around my shoulders, dampened with the sweat that ran freely down my throat, and trickled over my spine. My eyes were closed as my back rose and fell with each gasp and gulp of air. And then I began to tremble. A low chuckle began somewhere deep within, then it turned into a full-bodied laugh.

"Oh yes, Pattern...a marvelous fight. Very good." I slapped my palm on the floor, then struggled to my feet to look back at Bleys. "There," I pointed. And in a pulse of blue light, I appeared next to my father.

"Sleep," I demanded in a mumble. "Then food...and beer." My stomach growled audibly in stubborn protest. "Well...maybe a bit of food first. Then sleep."

He lifted me up and concentrated on a card. I blinked and found myself in a room with so much style that it would have made my mouth water and hands twitch. But since I was so tired, I found I could only appreciate the fact that it had a comfortable-looking couch.

He placed me on it and pulled a cord. A servant entered and Bleys quietly gave a few vague orders about sustenance. The servant left and Bleys returned to me, patting me on the shoulder. "I can't tell you how glad I am you decided to make my life easy by not running off." He helped me to sit up. "Don't worry, you'll feel like a million in a few minutes."

"A million what, slugs?" I murmured sleepily with a wide grin. "C'mon, you act like it was a matter of life and death, it wasn't THAT hard."

He laughed, taking a seat in a highbacked red armchair with gold braiding. "Excuse me, but you didn't look all that elegant while doing the walk. Do I still see tear streaks on your face? And my, some of the words you used--I think I saw the pattern blush."

I began to see what he meant about feeling better... A creeping kind of energy had started to leak into my system, making all my nerve endings feel alive. It was almost like someone had shot espresso and cocaine into my veins, then spun me around a few dozen times. Shaken, not stirred.

"PFEH!" I snorted, shrugging away from him. "Not tears, allergies...those places are really dusty, you should send someone to clean them more often."

He sniffed. "I'll have you know that the singular most important artifact in the universe is kept very tidy, miss. Allergies..." He rolled his eyes. "I would get the only child claiming to be allergic to pattern."

I rolled over, muttering something about 'cheese with your whine.' "So tell me what I can do with this stuff, now. How do I create a world?"

He smiled. "I thought you wanted to meet your family before you made your own hedonistic paradise? But oh well. It's simple really. You just think of what you want, and walk. The universes shift around you. Now, there are a few variations on that, but I find that one seems to work the best for... beginners."

A servant entered, carrying a loaded tray in one arm and a small barrel under the other. Red-faced, he set them down. Bleys applauded and tossed him a coin. The youth bowed and left quickly.

"Now, we eat."

My eyes snapped open, and my brow twitched. Whatever it was on that tray smelled *wonderful*. I sat up in the bed, mouth watering. "Ahhhhhh! Now THAT is truly a meal fit for a god...and goddess!" I reached out to draw a plate into my lap and began wolfing the meal down hungrily. "And it's not like I'm gonna make my world YET," I paused to wipe my mouth on the back of my arm. "But most likely, these other relatives of mine are already way ahead of me. I need something to keep them off-balance, like I've known about this for ages."

I eyed the barrel for a moment, then grinned at Bleys. "Hope that's what I think it is."

He nodded. "Of course." He opened a bottle of wine and poured himself a glass. "Now, about this off-balance bit. Whatever you do, you are likely to get thrown back in your face triplicate. Not that I'm discouraging you, but times being what they are, (boring, that is) I'm sure a new pasttime of my loving siblings could be to knock you down a peg or two. Now, you should have a few cousins coming into town. Perhaps terrorizing them would be less... dangerous?"

"Father, I'm shocked and disappointed," I put a hand to my chest, the other snaking out to grab a glass of dark ale. "I don't attack anyone *that* quickly. Besides, maybe they'll win my favor." ~For awhile, anyway...heh heh heh!~ I did my best to sip at the wine, though I was absolutely parched with thirst. "I'll meet with anyone. Hope they're ready for me," I leered.

Bleys cupped his hand in his chin. "You know, it's a pity that electronics don't work here. I'd love to videotape this. It should be saved for posterity." He finished his wine and took up a piece of cheese. So he DID like cheese with his 'whine'! I delighted in this secretly. "So, oh mini-goddess, when do you want to meet the king?"

"Video...tape? Eh." I shrugged and stuffed half a roll into her mouth. I chewed and swallowed quickly, washing it down with a few more gulps of the intense ale. I polished my teeth against my glove, then bared them at Bleys. "How do I look?" I asked, indicating that I was ready at any time.

He looked at me. "Fine. Not as good as me, but I *suppose* you'll do." Arrogant twit. He stood, and smoothed out his shirt a bit. "Come on. It's time you got introduced."

"Right," I grinned, and crammed the last half of the roll into my mouth as I stood up and brushed the crumbs from my hard leather tunic. "Anything I should know about this grandfather before I go? Words I shouldn't say?" You know, besides his little fling with a unicorn.

He shook his head. "You're not meeting your grandfather. You're meeting your uncle, who by some perverted twist of fate ended up on the throne." He held out his arm. "I'd recommend not talking about silly things like deposing him or whatnot. He might take it personally."

"Oh ye of little faith," I shook my head, and looped my arm around his. "*Really*, I may be a pirate, but I'm also a noblewoman by my own rights back home. I can act formally if that's what the situation calls for."

"Oh, of course. You've been a paragon of higher manners today. How could I forget." As we walked down the hallway, he continued, "So, what did you think of the pattern?"

I gave him a half-hearted glare. "Different. Refreshing in a strange sort of let's-do-this-just-once sort of way." I gave my hand a lick and patted down a stray spike. "I want to learn more."

We rounded a corner. "Oh? And what do you want to learn? Crocheting? Racketball? Skiing? I know all sorts of things. I'm like that."

I snorted into my hand and pointed at Bleys. "You're an expert at crocheting?!" My eye twitched. "BWOH HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!"

He sighed. "No respect. One day you're going to need a woolly scarf, and when that day comes, don't come crawling to me." He smiled, and approached a door. He rapped on it and waited. "Now, could you contain yourself?"

I cleared my throat, still struggling not to snicker. "Yeah...yeah, I suppose. All right, go on." But I snorted again. "So that's where I got my cute little pink baby booties! They were too nice for Mom's normal handiwork!"

The door opened, and Bleys bowed. "Greetings, Corwin. May I introduce my daughter, Faetan."

A young woman, with black hair and green eyes just like the man I was being introduced to, moved to stand near him. Her expression was neutral and polite as she watched us, and I was immediately irritated. Other than myself, I harbor a deep loathing for royalty, and she acted the part every step of the way. I was willing to bet she was incredibly boring too.

I pulled my lips back in a smile, focusing my attention on Corwin. "So you are the great Corwin... Bleys speaks highly of you." And I bowed deeply. "It's a pleasure to meet you." I'd been taught that men liked to have their egos stroked. We would see if it had any effect on this veteran. Then my gaze flickered to the woman. "I am Faetan Jarl. I didn't catch your name," I grinned with a pointed and subtle look at Bleys. ~You didn't tell me about THIS one...~

Bleys thew a facial shrug back at me. Corwin bowed slightly to me, then threw a hand to the noblewoman. "This is my daughter, Eleanor."

Bleys stepped forward and executed a flawless bow, deep and graceful. On the way up he took a hold of one of Ellie's hands and kissed it. "A plasure. My brother should be keel-hauled for hiding such a treasure."

I felt like vomiting.

Ellie smiled politely back, then curtsied in turn answering, "It is indeed a pleasure to meet you, Uncle Bleys." My reflex wasn't reduced in the least by the response, but that's just what you do when you're royalty. Straightening, she smiled to me. "As it is to meet my cousin, Faetan."

"Likewise," I grinned. I allowed Bleys make the first move in conversation, since he seemed to know more about Amber and such.

Bleys stood back again. "So, you've seen her. What nefarious plots do you have in mind for her? Going to force her to join the Navy? I think Gerard would have to toss her overboard after too long, so I'd rather you not."

Corwin shook his head. "I have nothing planned. The letter you received was not an order from me."

Bleys cocked an eyebrow, and I effectively hid my intrigue. "We have another king?" he said. "Hmph. And here I wasn't even invited to the coronation. My bird must have gotten lost in the mail."

My thoughts twirled in my mind. ~So much for pretending to know more than I do... Corwin wasn't expecting someone new. And Bleys was ordered to bring me now...why not before? Protecting me? From what?~

I smiled with nauseating charm, folding my hands behind my back with a quaint and stupid shrug.

Bleys moved over to look at Corwin's wine collection, and I briefly began to wonder how he could possibly have a liver any more. Corwin followed, and they talked quietly together, leaving their progeny alone with one another. Yippy skippy.

I looked over at Ellie, and smiled innocently. "Men are such stodgers about alcohol, aren't they?"

She moved over to stand before me, and I bristled. She smiled and said, "Faetan? That is a lovely name, though not one I've heard before. May I ask from where you have arrived?"

"Ohhhh..." I circled my wrist off-handedly. "A quaint little world, really. Nothing at all like this," I raised my eyebrows. "And Ellie...that is short for something, isn't it?"

I must have immediately and effectively scared her off, for she suddenly plastered an apologetic smile on her face. "I fear I have remembered something I need to check on. If you are still willing to explore Amber with me, I will meet you in the gardens shortly. Thank you for your forbearance."

With a polite nod to Corwin and Bleys, Ellie withdrew.

~Gardens, pfeh! I don't want anything to do with THOSE! I must see this city...the defenses...the relatives that I'll have to beat up if they stand in my way...~ All the while, I kept my smile innocent and almost empty-headed. So I bounded over to Bleys and Corwin...after all, they were looking at alcoholic beverages. I wondered if they had any more of that wonderfully dark, stout ale.

"This looks like a good one," I tapped a slim, purple bottle while barging into their conversation.

Corwin smiled, relieved for the break. By the look on my father's face, Bleys was having a good time scoring hits on the tired-looking noble.

Corwin handed the bottle to me. "Saki. Ever had it? I'm not a huge fan, but I can warm it up for you."

"It's served warm?" I lifted my eyebrows, and smiled widely. This was different. "And would you care to share it with me, your highness?"

He took it back and nodded. "Of course." He looked around. "Where'd Eleanor go?"

I wondered just how tired this Corwin really was, if he hadn't noticed his own daughter's disappearance.

Bleys in turn took the bottle from Corwin and moved to the fireplace, where a few embers still glowed. I silently cursed him, for what good was the attempt at seducing a king when your bloody FATHER is in the room?! He placed the bottle in the fading firelight and waited. "Faetan, making friends already?"

I merely smiled seraphically. "Oh yes, but she had other engagements and had to leave, I'm afraid. But that's all right." My eyes flickered to Corwin. "I don't mind a night with the boys."

Corwin glanced at the door, and I could feel him using almost all his will to keep from bolting out and catching up to her. Hmmm... If it really came down to the wire, I was willing to bet that Ellie would make a most interesting playing piece in the competition for the throne. But later, I told myself. Much later.

Bleys laughed at the fire. "A date already? Hey, she works as fast as you, Corwin."

Corwin dug his fingers into the couch. "Is that damn Saki ready yet?"

"Come on now, luv, she's a big girl." I held out my arm, beckoning him towards the semi-circle. "Only thing you have to worry about is me." ~And that's the truth!~

Corwin sat in a chair near the dying fire as Bleys produced some tiny cups and the warm saki. He poured, and took one up.

"To Amber." His smile was as cutting as the color of his hair.

I smiled at him over the rim of my glass and clinked it gently to his before pulling it back. I inhaled the aroma first before taking a slow, drawn-out sip. "Mmm...yes, that is quite nice. Faintly spiced, light, refreshing...a truly different beverage." I swirled the liquid in my glass. "Ah!"

Corwin regarded me for a moment, the turned to Bleys. "I see you've taken her already." Bleys smiled back.

~Crap, I think my innocence cover has been blown!~ "Taken me where?" I smiled, just in case he was referring to something else, and took another sip. "Come now, speak up!"

Bleys sighed. "It's a good thing it's not based on how bright you are..." he muttered. He turned to me. "The pattern, dear. Big blue thing? You cursed at it? Remember? We can see when someone's walked it."

"Ohhhh, THAT." I smiled, though I wanted very much at that moment to hook my fingers into his eyes. I hadn't wanted to tell anyone just yet what I had and hadn't done as far as my powers went. It's always best to leave them guessing. "And don't poke fun at me, I'll throw it back in your face!" I grinned impishly, raising my glass before sipping again.

Bleys raised his glass. "I have millenia of experience to your paltry--what is it, dear? Two dozen, maybe? A bit more? I've had younger brothers to pick on." He turned to Corwin. "Speaking of little brothers..."

Corwin shook his head. "Not good. Flora's been tending to him."

"It's been a few years now. Tch."

"I know. Flora should just give up."

"The soul of charity, aren't you?"

I made sure to affect a look of concern and sympathy. "One of my uncles isn't doing well, I take it?" my glass slowly lowered, adding to the effect of appearing tender-hearted and compassionate.

Bleys smiled ironically. "If I were of a more romantic bent, I'd say one of your uncles is dying of a broken heart. But I'm not, so I'll just call it a drunken depression."

Corwin frowned. "Now who's the soul of charity?"

I set down my glass, furrowing my brow. "Can I meet him?" I glanced at Bleys. "Maybe I can help."

Bleys threw me a withering look. "I'd rather you not. You have the subtlety of a sledgehammer."

Corwin nodded. "He's not plesant to be around. I'm surprised Flora and Gerard are still at after all these years."

"Maybe bluntness is more up his alley," I grinned at Bleys. "You never know. C'mon, let me pounce on him. At least he'll get angry at me, and that's better than wasting away in sadness."

Bleys snickered. "Pounce? _Pounce_? Gerard will turn you into greasy little splat. I'd pay to see that meeting!" He looked at Corwin. "It must be the saki... She's usually rather demure."

~#@$* his eyes! Let me play my own cards!~ Instead I chuckled, finishing off the drink. "Oh, Father..." I shook my head, then interlaced my fingers and folds my hands on my lap. "I hear that most of my uncles are skillful in the art of fencing."

Bleys matched me by finishing off his cup too, and refilling it. "Some of your aunts, too. Why? Are we anxious to be cut up a bit? I didn't know you were into scars."

"Like my wounds ever stayed long enough to BE scars," I laughed, and was irritated with myself for putting up this stupid charade. "I have to be honest, I'm a bit of a tomboy, your highness. Football champion back home!" I grinned widely and looked back at Bleys. "It, indeed, MUST be the saki."

Corwin took some more of his drink, and muttered something about genetics, which Bleys and I both ignored.

Bleys stood and took out his sword. As it exited its scabbard, I was faintly surprised by the sparks and hiss it let off. He waved it about a bit, and smiled.

"You haven't been cut by everything, yet, have you?"

I let my eyes widen in amazement. "I take it there ARE certain weapons that conflict with our blood, correct?" I sighed, my irritation starting to show. "You said we were gods! And as far as I know, gods don't die!"

Bleys waved the sword a few times, no doubt a man thing, but with a tad less bravado. "No, dear. We can die." He looked at Corwin. "I believe we're through, are we not? I want to show her the rest of the castle."

Corwin nodded, and gave me the rest of the bottle of saki. "Enjoy."

Bleys resheathed his sword, and moved to leave the room.

I paused to kiss Corwin's cheek. "You're a doll, and I mean that. I want to talk to you later." I winked, leaving the demand just as it was, and moved to join Bleys. Once the door was closed, I glanced up at him. "For ruling all of Amber, he doesn't seem to happy about the job, does he?"

Bleys shrugged. "Can't say he does. We've spent a good part of our lives clamouring for the throne, and just at the moment he wins the race, he finds out all of us quit a while ago." He smiled. "And technically, he won because the man with the flag pointed to him. So it's not like he was smarter or faster or sneakier. He was just picked. A bit degrading after so much bother." He walked on.

"Tsk...that IS a shame...ruling nations and countries and people is quite a ball." I grinned ruthlessly. "I like the hearings in particular, I got rid of the whiners rather quickly by dispatching of one or two. Wonder...nah," I shook my head, dropping the subject.

"All right, so I've met the king. Who else can I bother?"

Bleys took out a deck and handed it to me. "These are your relatives. Shuffle and pick one. But first, I want to show you something." We began descending a flight of stairs.

"These are the same cards you used earlier, right?" Before shuffling, I glanced through them, looking at different faces. Green eyes, blue eyes, brown eyes... Some cold, some warm, some distinctly veiled. What a strange family. "All right," I shuffled them expertly and drew one from the pack. "Nope, that's the Pattern again, how boring. Ummmm..." I drew out another and seeing that it wasn't the Pattern, sighed again. It was Bleys. "Ah, my infamous card-playing luck is surfacing again!" I chuckled, and took the bottom card from the stack. "There. Who's this?"

He took the card. "Rinaldo. A fine choice. He's my nephew." A pause. "And he's quite married."

@#$*... He was cute, too.

We rounded a corner and he opened a door to a sideroom.

"Happily so?"

He nodded, and I snapped my fingers in disappointment. "Too bad, always had a soft spot for redheads." But I kept the pack of cards in my hands, sorting through them. "Quite a few good-looking ones, too. Now is this your own special toy, or is it part of the introductory package ALL gods receive?" I grinned at him expectantly.

He laughed. "You all get it, right about the time we're sure that we really want you running around with your own personal link to intrude on our privacy at your every whim." He looked back. "And whim is quite a dangerous word for you, isn't it?"

I ignored the jab and followed into the room behind him. I was faintly impressed by a number of lifelike and lifesize portraits hung on the walls. A quick glance, and I counted a dozen or so. There was something odd, though...the layout seemed off.

"Now who are these people?" I put my hands on my hips, turning slowly about to look at all of them. "And what are you showing me here?"

As soon as the question was out of my mouth, I realized who they were. The people on the cards.

Bleys moved quietly to a painting of himself. Vanity? Or was he trying to make a point? "Do you notice something off about the number?"

Now that he mentioned it... I knew what was odd now. The spaces weren't the same on one wall, Bleys's wall. Looked like a picture was removed, and things shuffled to make up for it.

I narrowed my eyes as I looked at it. "Someone fall off a cliff or disgrace the family line or something?" Still holding the cards, I fanned them out and started comparing. I narrowed it down to a handful. "Not this guy," I waved Rinaldo's card briefly before replacing it in the deck.

He shook his head. "You won't find his picture in there. The one that's missing is my brother, and yes, he did fall off a cliff and disgrace the family line, as hard as that seems."

"Ahhh, my psychic powers are emerging also! Excellent!" I grinned tactlessly. "You don't seem upset. Either you didn't care for him, or it was a long time ago."

He smiled, and for the first time, it was strained. Well! It looked like I struck a chord after all! "My dear, I stood at the end of the world, and watched my brother in the fullness of his insanity. I watched him try to destroy everything and remake it in his image, and I have seen him at the tip of his glory and doom. He fell, taking a sister with him." He turned and regarded a spot on the wall. I wondered if he mourned the brother, or the sister. "Brand was the kind you could adore and detest in the same moment, and not find it odd. And his name is a curse here, but you should know him. He is--was your uncle."

Love and detest? I knew the feeling. And I remembered it well since it was still fresh in my memory. "And that's why you don't keep his card in your deck?" I asked in a neutral voice.

He kept his tone as equally neutral. "After Brand died and everything settled down, we all agreed to destroy out Trumps of him quite systematically, and erase him from Amber." He gestured to the wall. "Some efforts were more half-hearted than others."

"Well, I think that's stupid. I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, but you do seem a bit attached to him. I don't know why you couldn't keep one as a keepsake of sorts!"

He sighed. "My brother tried to destroy the universe. He aimed to imprison us all and force us into servitude. It was not an 'up' day. Doing things like those too often does not get one held close to the bosom of your family, but it does get you to immortality, if in a bad way. So, my family has removed everything of him, about him, by him... In hopes that when the last of us has been slew by our own greed or arrogance, he will only be a fable."

"Huh. Sounds like a crappy way to go," I put my hands on my hips. Then I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. "So why are you showing me this? And it had better not be to tell me that I'm heading in the same direction he is!" I warned. The last thing I wanted was a lecture.

He smirked. "I'd hope not. I'd hate to think you'd be so mundane as to be a copycat." His face grew neutral again as he took out the trump of Rinaldo. "And I'm telling you because he is your full uncle, and could be decent sometimes. You don't need to blurt that to all of creation, but it should be known." He held out his hand. "Come here."

I regarded his hand with faint suspicion, then sighed. If he wanted me blown up into greasy little chunks, I had no doubts he could have chosen to do so whenever he pleased. No, he still had uses for me, I knew. My fingers locked into his, and I stepped forward.

I suddenly found myself regarding the form of a tallish, broad shouldered man, red-haired and bronzed. As a matter of fact, I plowed into him as I stepped forward. Hmph. Hard chest. Must work out.

"Ummmm..." he said.

"This would be Faetan," replied Bleys.

I smiled up at him, trying to keep the appreciation out of my eyes. ~He's married. He's married.~ But what the hell, even married guys have weaknesses. "Hey, you. You must be Rinaldo, eh?"

He smiled, a broad, warm, jovial thing, and on the inside, I cursed and wondered how attached to that wife of his he truly was.

"And she is?"

"Your cousin, and my daughter." Bleys bowed. "A lovely girl when she wants to be. How _is_ that wife of yours?"

I was wondering the exact same thing. Curse my luck...and blast his eyes, but he was handsome! "The good ones are always taken," I murmured, not caring if I was heard or not.

Rinaldo laughed. "Actually, I was technically 'taken' before I could ride a bike without training wheels. But things worked out okay." He motioned to a sitting room, and for the first time I was able to look around.

The place... well, it wasn't without its charm. The walls were a stucco, and the decor was in shades of brown and orange. Manly, in an ugly kind of way.

I frowned faintly, thinking a splash of forest green would do a world of good. But if you want to charm a man, you don't insult his taste in decorating...if it's indeed his. "You, choose the colors in this room?" I asked casually, flicking my gaze around.

He snorted. "Hell, no. I hate these colors. It's a patriotic thing--these are my country's colors, you see, and, being king, I'm somewhat obliged to use them liberally."

Bleys looked around. "Personally, I'd take over Begma if I were you."

"Let me know if you want any help," I grinned. King, eh? Interesting... And then I kicked myself. He was a FULL cousin. Rat teeth and smoldering maggots, but I was never big on in-breeding.

He motioned for us to sit, and moved to a large, white, rectangular box that stood up on its small end. "What's your pleasure? Coke? Tea? Water?"

Bleys walked over and peered over Rinaldo's shoulder. "Interesting. I thought we were too close in for electricity."

Rinaldo nodded. "We are. This is magic."

I quietly decided more alcohol would be unwise at this point. "Coke," I selected, and wondered what it was. "Whatever it is," I added bluntly. Magic...I wanted to do that too. And what the flame was electricity anyway?

Luke pulled out two red cans, and watched as Bleys created his own wine glass, properly occupied. He shook his head. "Sorry, Bleys. No." Bleys banished it and thows him a questioning look. "If Coral saw that, she filet me for dinner."

"Coral? That tiny thing?"

Luke laughed drily. "Not so tiny anymore." He handed me my Coke, opened. I'd made sure to watch how he'd done it, just for future reference. "So, cuz, what brings you to town?"

"Dad," I jerked my thumb over at Bleys. "Thought it was time to walk the Pattern, so I did, and I'm not toasted. So I guess it went pretty well." I looked at Bleys for a long moment. ~Although I don't know why he picked the timing as he did...~

Bleys smiled in such a way that showed that he knew everything, and was saying nothing. He took a bottled water and sighed. "How pedestrian. Why the teetotaling?"

Luke grinned, and looked over his shoulder as a woman, brown haired and tired looking, lumbered in, a good eight months pregnant. Bleys laughed. "Well, looks like you did it, didn't you? Another to add to the bunch."

The woman smiled weakly. "Hi, Bleys."

~Cute!~ the thought sprang instantly to mind. And my thoughts were somewhat benevolently towards the pair. Right, he was a full cousin. It sank in fully. There were plenty of others, in any case.

Bleys sat and opened the water. "Coral, Faetan. Faetan, Coral." He took a sip and sighed mournfully. "Just not the same. So, when will I be able to drink in your house again?"

Coral sat with a whoosh of air from her lungs. "A month." She sighed. "I can't seem to convince my _dear_ husband to take me to a cooler shadow."

Rinaldo winked at her. "Politics, dear. The brown nosers have to make a fuss over you." She glared, a homicidal glint in her eye.

Bleys leaned over and whispered into Faetan's ear, "This is why I made myself scarce when your mother was similarly burdened."

I just smirked and whispered back, "This is another very good reason not to fall in love, eh? It must be *very* unwieldy."

"Especially when conquering the universe," he whispered, eyeing Rinaldo settle his wife. "Now, is there something specific you wanted, or do you want to draw again?"

"Got my Coke, I'm satisfied," I grinned, lifting the can. Setting it aside, I shuffled the deck and drew another card. Without looking at it, I passed it to Bleys with a wide smile.

He looked at it, smiled, and said, "I don't think you're her type." He twisted the card in my hand, showing a petite red-headed woman, smiling a secret smile. I pulled out another card, and was delighted to see this one was the appropriate sex, and kind of nice looking. Bleys laughed. "Dead." Cursing, I pulled a last card. He took it and smirked.

"Male, living, and single. I guess the universe does like you."

"It had better!" I laughed with a snort. Or else it would PAY! "And what is this one's name, hm?"

He handed the trump back. "Martin. A Rebman, but he may be spending some time out of the fishbowl."

He turned back to Luke and chatted for a while, inquiring about the usual banalities of kingship. After the third state offical interrupting and Coral's energy seeming to flag, he smiled and made his farewells.

Exiting the palace, he nodded to the card. "Care to give it a try?"

"Sure! What do I do to activate it? Stare real hard?" I grinned, nudging Bleys with my elbow.

He sighed. "Dust off the brain and use that. Concentrate on it, and when you feel contact, talk." He paused. "Hello usually works rather well."

"And this is why you never quite cut it to teach school," I sniffed, and looked intently down at the card, squinting faintly. "Helloooo..."

The face on the card stirred, and after a moment, a confused-looking man was regarding her. His hair flowed about him, and I realized he was underwater... "Hello. Do I know you?"

"Not yet. Do you want to?" I grinned widely, and held the card forward so he could see Bleys as well.

He looked behind me and saw my father. "Ah. Bleys." Bleys touched my shoulder and smiled. "Do you always let your wenches play with your things?"

"WENCH?!" my face contorted angrily, though I wasn't upset enough to have my hair start changing colors.

Bleys cut in. "This wench happens to be my daughter. I'm giving her the grand tour. Mind pulling us through?" Martin laughed and held out a hand.

I looked at it for a moment. "Sure hope we don't drown," I grumbled, and clasped his palm.

He pulled forward, landing the two of us right in the middle of two other men. The older one didn't look surprised, but nodded at Bleys.

The other man stood back, hand flying to hilt, but quickly calming. Paranoid freak.

And I then realized that we were indeed under water. I thought about panicking, but it was too late and too safe for that. After all, I was still breathing comfortably.

The paranoid guy put his hands down and stepped to the back of the calm one.

I tilted my head to the side faintly, regarding not one, but three rather good-looking men in fairly decent physical shape. Ah yes...the universe was making up for the previous flaws in the random card drawing and get back in good favor with me. "Greetings," I smiled, pushing back a flowing lock of black hair.

My voice was a little muted, but audible nonetheless. The oldest of the bunch bowed to me while Bleys eyed the other one. The older gentleman (not old, mind you, just oldER) motioned to him. "Prince Thomas." Bleys raised an eyebrow.

Thomas nodded to us. "Pleasure."

"Indeed," I purred, lifting my brow appreciatively as I surveyed the little gathering. I found out that the other man's name was Bill, and we started talking.

Bleys muttered something that was masked by the water. "My daughter, Faetan. You're a prince? Of what?" Martin listened too.

"Of Amber, sir. It is good to meet you, Gerard spoke highly of you."

"Gerard..." I mused, and glanced at Bleys. "You mentioned him before."

Bleys looked surprised. "Really? Did we dig up another of Oberon's bastards, or are you from someone else?" He glanced at me. "I've mentioned many people."

"Eric was my father, though I never knew him. Gerard saw to it that I came here."

~Oh yeah...Eric's the dead guy.~ Though of course, tactfully, I didn't say this out loud. "And where is here, exactly? It's very beautiful...and exotic."

Martin swept his hand around. "Rebma, the sea kingdon. My hometown. I'm back from a jaunt into shadows. You've never been here?"

"I'm new to this," I admitted with an almost shy smile, trying a different approach. "There are many wonders to explore, it seems." No one responded, and we all stood around gawking at each other like idiot fish. "Sooooo," I began anew, seeing that everyone was behaving mostly in a quiet and boring manner, "I bet this place is a lot of fun. Can you swim where you want to go, or is it restricted to just merely


Thomas looked at us with an unreadable face, his arms crossed listening to the conversation.

Martin shrugged. "Depends on where you are. Part of the enchantment is gravity working like normal. But, if you jump off a building, you float down instead of falling." He grinned. "Had a lot of fun with that as a kid. Got a shock when I went onto dry land for the first time and broke my arm as a result."

I cracked a smile, glancing over at Bleys. ~I like this kid,~ I thought to herself. ~Reminds me of me...~ Deciding that Martin looked to be the most fun, I appeared at his side, claiming his arm. "Why don'cha show me around this place? Let's go jump off some buildings, hm?"

Martin looked at Bleys, as if looking for permission.

He smiled. "Don't compromise her virtue. She doesn't have much left."

I considered flipping him off, but kept my attention focused on Martin as he led us away.

"So, what will it be? Castle? Downtown? The tallest building you can find? I'll warn you, we're not as big as Amber, and a lot less rowdy. I'm the exception here."

I chuckled, feeling relaxed and casual. "I could tell, that's why I picked you. Where can we find the most action? Mebbe we could climb a building and see how far we can drift to our target," I grinned at him, regarding Martin from the corner of my eye. "What do you normally do around here for fun?"

He smiled, more of a smirk than anything. "I leave, that's what I do. I grew up around here, and everyone down here is so haughty and irksome that I'm surprised I came out so normal. Guess I kept more Amber blood than Rebman." He thought for a moment. "I have a few favorite shadows... Visit my uncle Benedict now and then. Play the sax. And yourself?"

"Conquer cities and sail around on a ship," I shrugged, grinning. He might take it as a joke, who knows. I wanted to see how he handled it first before I told him certain things. The more I saw of Amberites, the more certain I was that abnormality was accepted as normal. "So what's a sax? How do you play it?"

He grinned evily. "Purse your lips and blow. We'd have to go to dry land for me to show you, though. Reed instruments don't work down here." We walked down a flight of stairs and started to head more into the heart of the city. "You must have done your conquering in the shadow boonies if you don't know what a sax is."

"Well...just one shadow. So far." I grinned mischievously at him. "I'm still pretty new at this. Ever conquered anything before? It's great!"

He laughed. "Yeah, you could say that." He shook his head. "An innocent. You don't act like it. Carry your ignorance well." He eyed me, and I wondered what was going through his head. "I wouldn't go announcing that to the whole world though. Or that whole 'conquering worlds' thing. Doesn't sit well with the relics." He nodded back in the direction of Amber. "I made an unfortunate alliance once, and _just_ managed to get back in good with the family."

"That's unfortunate! Touchy sort, are they?" I glanced back over my shoulder in the direction we'd come from. "Never said I was innocent," I grinned at him, revealing my teeth. "Bleys doesn't think I can do very much...and if someone's gonna say I can't do something, I've gotta do it just to prove them wrong. Matter of principle. Keeps people off guard if they don't know what you're capable of."

He smirked. "Calling them touchy is like calling a porcupine fuzzy." He paused, then regarded me with a faux-pedantic look. "Porcupine. Little creature with quills all over its body. Shoots them when PO'd."

"Stickers," I nodded. "We had those too, great fun when you get mad at your crew to let one out in their cabins." I smirked, pushing my floating hair out of my face. Blasted currents. "I can see why you'd want short hair, living down here. What a pain!" We walked further. "Now that you mention it...that *does* fit Dad pretty well."

"What, a porcupine? I never thought so. Porcupines have knee jerk reactions. He and that bunch tend to spread the pleasure of hurting someone over centuries. Take Eric and Corwin, for example. I'm sure that if either of them really wanted, they could have done away with each other in a heartbeat. Instead, they took the long route. Duels, fights, yadda."

He touched my hair. "You know, if you're all that uncomfortable, we could just lop it off now. I know where some pretty sharp coral grows."

I stiffened reflexively, because I wasn't used to types of physical contact in the affectionate matter...not when I wasn't expecting it. "That's all right." Competing relatives and sharp objects just don't mix in my book. "I don't think Bleys intends to stay here very long anyhow. Not to mention my hair grows back pretty fast. Always been like this," I grinned, though a bit more suspiciously.

"Hmph." He studied me. "It *is* a reflex." Without explaining, he forged on. "So, in your whirlwind tour of Amber and subsequent shadows, what's your next stop?" He headed to a bar. "Hungry?"

"To put it mildly," I laughed, forcing the suspicion to fade away from her countenance. It wasn't GONE, it was just more tactfully hidden. How did people eat down here anyway? Did they gulp mouthfuls of water with each bite? I didn't even want to think about how they relieved themselves... "It's more a random tour, Bleys is showing me off to everyone. I'd like to have the aura of a veteran, but Bleys keeps blowing my cover. Foul demon," I grinned good-naturedly.

"Demon? Nice word for your dad. Can think of worse though." We walked into the tavern, and I was mildly disappointed that the bar wasn't the least bit rowdy or debauched. Calm olive and blue people lounged about, talking in subdued tones and sipping bits of white, thin, shell-like glasses.

Martin motioned to the bartender, then picked up a cherry from a jar and tossed it in the air. It floated back down into his palm, and the liquid it had been soaking in floated down too, not dissipating as she had expected. "It's a fairly thorough enchantment down here. Gravity works, just slow. It'd be hell to drink nothing but watered down ale, wouldn't it?"

"A nightmare," I grinned widely, taking up my glass and raising it to his. "Cheers." And I tipped my head back, chugging thoroughly. Slamming my glass on the counter, I made a loud sigh of pleasure before wiping my mouth with the back of my arm. "Not bad. Atmosphere could use a bit more life, but the drinks are nice and powerful!"

Then I struggled not to make a face. The drink was strong, yes, but cloyingly sweet. Martin looked at me expectantly, sipping his.

Finally, a bit of my distaste showed through, and he chuckled. "I know. You _don't_ want to know what goes into it, either. I got curious one day, and it made me swear off of drinking for a year."

He sipped.

"Only lasted a day, but still..."

"Heh... Seems like lust for strong drink run in the family," I pointed out as I waited for my glass to be refilled. I drank more slowly THIS time around. "How long does it take you to get drunk?"

"Drunk?" He knit his eyebrows and thought it over. "If you're talking dead-can't see straight-waking up with strange women king of drunk, it's been so long I can't really remember. Getting drunk as an Amberite gets kind of expensive. I think a good numer of us drink out of habit." He smiled. "I think we're riddled with bad habits just because we know we don't have to deal with the consequences everyone else does."

Another sip. "So, have you been to the Pattern yet?" he asked in an almost over-casual tone of voice.

"Eeyup." I took a long tug on my drink and set it down. "Why do you ask?"

He sipped his drink and kept at it. "Walk the pattern yet?"

"I think you asked that one already," I pointed at him. "Why are you so interested?" I replied casually, hooking my toe on the rung of the barstool.

"I asked you had seen it, and you said yes. You didn't elaborate, so I asked a bit more." He sipped at his drink. "If you can walk through shadows, if we take a little side journey, I won't be yelled at as badly." Sip. "Oh, she of one almost conquered shadow."

"I walked it. Where did you want to go?" I asked, turning away from the bar to face him fully. Just so he knew I was interested. "I need to learn how to shape shadows anyhow. Have to get that river of ever-flowing ale."

Martin shrugged. "Rivers of ale aren't what they're cracked up to be. You get fish scales and mud and stick mixed in, and once you tune it to be what you want, it's never quite worth the effort. Too many details to worry about." He casually took another sip. "You haven't learned to shift yet? Pity. Thought that would be first on the agenda."

"Like I said, I'm new at this," I grinned wryly, and pushed my glass away. It was good drink, but it wasn't ale. And it sounded like he'd tried to make his own river of ever-flowing ale. I definitely liked this guy, but how could I trust someone that was so much like me? At least we'd have a little fun. "You offering to teach me?"

"Oh, I wouldn't want to step on Bley's toes, but if you are looking to step out a bit, I can help push on your little whirlwind tour. I'm getting antsy here anyway." He gave me a sidelong glance. "So, why did your dad bring you back now?"

"Not entirely sure, though it had something to do with a royal decree that turned out not to be so royal." My eyes narrowed faintly, and I grinned. "Whoever wanted me out might not be liking the idea so much once I get going."

He chuckled a wet chuckle. "Intrigue. You'll fit right in." He put down his nearly finished drink. "Are you and Bleys planning some sort of father-daughter coup?"

My only response to that was a mysterious smile, and I crossed my leg. ~Can't let him know EVERYTHING about me...this ought to keep him and the others guessing!~ "I'm bored. Let's go do something else now."

He tossed a few coins to the passing bartender. Another plus to him, then, he paid the tab without question or complaint. "Oh, like what? I know some interesting people, interesting places, interesting times. And I'm sure your imagination is a wide expansive thing." He leaned his back against the bar. "You're not too keen on taking your dad, are you? I like him, but he tends to be a bit overbearing."

"I can take care of myself, sweetie," I winked. "Let's make it a duo, dear ol' daddykins won't mind. You pick the first place. After I see how it's done, I'll make the second."

"Wonderful. I hate dutiful daughers." He took my arm and led me to a back door, keeping an eye out, presumably for Bleys. The path he followed was round-about, and followed the outskirts of Rebma. At one point I *thought* I'd seen my father, but the water obscured so much I couldn't be sure.

He reached the stairs. "Try and be inconspicuous. I'd rather not have your dad chasing after us."

"Unless you've got a reason for him to be chasing, I wouldn't worry," I smiled dangerously. "You got a Trump of him?"

"Oh, stealing his daughter isn't reason enough to come running? Glad to know he cares." He tossed me a smile. "And of course I have a trump of him. What kind of collector would I be if I didn't have the charasmatic Bleys in my deck?"

"Mind if I keep it then? So nothing funny happens?" I winked. "It's not that I don't trust's just that I don't trust you."

"My limited edition Bleys?!" He looked horrified. "How could I? It's precious to me!" A smirk teased the corners of his lips. "What do you have for collateral?"

A game, eh? Oh well, I was bored. I'd play. "I'm only borrowing it," I laughed, and tilted my head slightly down so that I could regard him through my lashes, a hunter's smile plastered on my face. "What would you like in return?" I circled his shoulder with my fingertips. Just to see what he would do.

He raised an eyebrow. "You have something you're willing to loan out for me to toy with? I'd think you were Flora's daughter." He laughed over some stupid joke that I just didn't get. "I want something to make my leap of faith in 'lending' you Bleys's card before I hand it over though."

"Like what?" I put my hands on my hips, tilting my head as though I were curious. "What sort of things are you wanting to borrow?"

He reached in his pocket and pulled out the trump of Bleys, toying with it. "I don't know. I don't know what you have to offer me, do you? I guess if you came to Amber unprepared to make a deal, then you'll just have to trust me, won't you?"

"I'd rather not take the gamble," I smiled slowly. "Just let me borrow it, all right? Call it a loan, I can give you something later."

He stopped and stepped back, blandly regarding the card. "What, is it something you can't give me here? I'd like to know what it is before I give up my treasure. Look, it's even signed." He waved it, just out of my reach.

I laughed like a buffoon, grabbing at it. "How can I give you something when I'm not even sure what you're interested in? How about a tour of my empire?"

He jumped back, laughing. "Oh, maybe. I think that's good enough for, say, a defective Gerard. But a premium Bleys? Noooo... you'll have to try harder than that." He jumped up a few stairs.

I growled semi-playfully, and leaped at him with a flying tackle. "Give it up, boyo!"

His eyes went wide in mock horror as I flew at him, but sidestepped at the last moment, sending me tumbling. Drat, first Bleys, now this kid. I needed to work on my technique. He jumped up a few more stairs as I picked myself up.

"Never surrender!"

"I'm not going anywhere with you without that Trump!" I grinned. "Don't tell me you wouldn't do the same."

He sighed and clasped the card to his chest. "She spurns me. I would follow you to the end of the world." Not a very convincing liar, but oh well. He smiled wickedly. "Not that you'd go very far right now. How about a walk in the woods while we hash out a compromise?"

He gained a few more stairs.

"And what's this morbid fascination you have with following me to the end of the world, hm?" I smiled with a feline expression, sauntering slowly up the stairs. "Do you really think daddykins would approve of an admirer so soon?"

"Daddykins isn't here, is he? So how much can he care?" He waltzed up a few more, and I noticed the surface approaching quickly. "And I could hardly call anything concerning you morbid. That's more for the dark-haired crew. Now, what do you say to the forest?"

"Depends. What's in it?" I smiled at him, and continued to follow in any case. Stupid, but I was sure I could handle him. "What are we going to do?" I folded my arms, my boots making echoing clicking noises on the steps.

He waved his hand grandly, flashing the card as he did. "Ah, there are many things-- Tree and flowers and birds and beetles and dogs--but most importantly, me." He flipped the card over his fingers. "And this."

He turned and ran the rest of the way, breaking the surface of the water and hitting the beach.

I chuckled, running after him. I ended up gasping for air as soon as I surfaced, my hair draping itself over my face wetly. I pushed it aside and blinked the water from my eyes, shivering as my boots touched the sand. I shook my head like a dog, water droplets flying everywhere, and wrung my hair out.

"What a shock," I murmured, and reached behind me to undo the clasps of my hard leather top. Pulling it over my head, I dropped it onto a dry patch of sand and unbuckled my belt as well. Soon I'd stripped down to nothing more than a tank top and a pair of boxer briefs. And socks. But that's another story altogether. "Ah, now that's better!" I tossed my head. "Won't take me so long to dry, now."

He looked a bit surprised. "I'd hope you'd think I trusted you enough to walk with you *sans* strip search. But if you insist." He crossed his arms and looked at me objectively. "Are you familiar with the term 'wet teeshirt contest'?"

"No, why?" I folded my arms, comfortable without the majority of my clothes. "I just want to get dry."

He shook his head. "Oh, nothing. Don't worry about it." He cast a glance back in my direction as he wandered up the beach. "Apparently there aren't bras in your shadow either. We must go there."

"To my shadow, or to the bras?" I asked, wondering what he was referring to. "You don't seem too phased by it, most would be staring. Don't like the view?" I smirked.

"Adore it," he admitted, "but my drool would hardly help you get dry, no? Now, please tell me you haven't been to Arden yet."

"I haven't been to Arden yet. Happy?" I grinned, picking up the rest of my clothes and carrying them slung over my arm.

"Delerious." He let me catch up, and I noticed he no longer held the card. "I'm so glad I got a destination for us while we haggle the details of family trust." He cut up, and headed for a trail leading into a wooded area. "Might want more than socks."

But I didn't follow. I stayed put out on the beach. "Shadows aren't the best place to dry off," I pointed out. "Why not stay out here a bit longer in the sun?"

He turned and sighed, sitting on the beach. "Fine, fine. Stall away. I know you're only following me around because of my card collection." He snorted. "And they called me a nerd."

"Nerds can be very endearing," I smiled, sitting comfortably close to him. I wondered just what it would take to rattle him. He was so infuriatingly calm, it was driving me nuts! "They display amazing amounts of control, however, which is a terrible pity. Aren't you uncomfortable in your wet garments?" I leered openly at him.

"I was raised in Rebma. Wet undershorts are a way of life for me." He tossed his short hair back, sending a few drops my way which I batted at absently. "And who says I have amazing amounts of control? I may be a seething pit of hormones for all you know." He wiggled his fingers mysteriosly at me. "Ooooo~~ beware my hormone rush....."

I don't think there's anything more repulsive in the world than a man talking about his hormones. But it was a game after all, and I continued to play.

I grinned, nipping at his fingers with a small growl. "I'm not afraid of you or your hormones, Mr. Martin."

He pulled back his menacing fingers with a smile. "*Mister* Martin. I like that. Has a ring of authority to it. Will you call me that from now on? Maybe it'll catch on."

"What do I get in exchange?" I purred, leaning in just a little closer.

"Not the card," he replied. "No one's using it yet. And I don't take things like that on good faith." He smiled, noting my movement, but staying put and pretty much didn't react.

"You'll just have to make an offer then," I stretched my arms above my head. ~He's not interested...elsewise he would have made a move by now. Ah well, that Bill fellow was an intelligent sort...wonder what he's like?~

"I *am* making you an offer," he replied, lying back on the beach. "I'll show you the secrets of the universe, a few favorite haunts, and offer up witty and sparkling ocnversation as long as you want. What more could you ask?"

"I can think of a few things," I said with a deep, throaty laugh as I lied back as well, folding my arms behind my head as I gazed up at the warm, blue sky. "Been a long time."

"Since what? Cloud watching? Lying on golden beaches? Visiting enchanted watery realms? Or talking to a young god on the verge of starting a new life as a player in the best game ever made?" He laughed. "You'll find out what a long time is like."

I shrugged, not telling. "Just been awhile, that's all. And who said anything about games? I'M not making any moves for awhile."

"You've already made a move. You walked the pattern. That was your babptism by fire, I'm afraid." He rolled onto his side and looked at me. "Or are you talking about different games?"

He was playing stupid, I knew that much. I smiled widely, my lips curving back to reveal teeth. "One never can tell, can they?"

He smiled. "Yes. That would be the funny thing about the psychic link being down. Odd how that works. You dry yet?"

"C'mon now, why are you so anxious to leave?" I breathed deeply of the sea air, and exhaled with a soft smile. "Got some sort of nasty trap waiting in there?"

"Tons of them," he smiled. "I want to see how good you really are. I spent hours fixing up snares and pits and boulders and ACME kits for a girl I didn't know was going to walk into my life one dull afternoon, visiting Auntie Moire."

"I never did get around to meeting her, did I?" I smiled, my eyes appearing to be closed for a long moment. But he didn't withdraw any weapons, so I opened them again. "All right, very well... Turn around then, I'm going to take my top off. I wouldn't want to offend such sensitive eyes," I snickered.

He leaned back again and watched. "What, are you hiding horrible monsters under there? Or do they talk when uncovered, and throw out naughty words? Because that's the only way I would be offended." He smiled.

"It's no peep show," I sneered. "I don't undress for just anyone, not without proper motivation. Now turn around."

He shook his head. "I like what I've seen so far. Before I invest a day or more and my patent shadow secrets, I want proof positive that I'm getting quality walking companion material." He put his hands behind his head and laughed.

"Stupid pimp," I chuckled, half-meaning it, and pulled the top over my head. It fell in a damp pile beside me, and the sun was warm on my bare skin. "There you are. So? Satisfied now?"

He applauded lightly, like a golf clap, a wide grin spreading over his face. "Brava. I'm a pimp, huh? When do I get paid? I'll try not to slap you around *too* much. I'd hate to bruise those delicate features of yours."

He replaced his hands behind his head. "Now, were you doing that to scandlize me, or for a reason?"

"Just a vague hope you'd next be demanding a feel," I winked, gathering up my clothes. They felt more dry, and I started pulling on my pants. "But I don't think you're up for that sort of thing."