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He put a hand to his heart and looked injured. "I'm a good boy, Faetan. You think I could take advantage of your prone innocence? Why, I'd sooner eat my own liver. With ketchup, of course." He stood and dusted off his clothes, then shook his hair free of any residue sand. "So, are you ready to go? Or do you need to reapply your mascara?"

"Just as I thought," I snorted. And I buckled the straps to my upper body armor. Then I shoved my feet into my boots, running my fingers briefly through my hair which was beginning to spike up again. "And I *don't* wear make-up," I tossed my head. One of the great privileges of dark eyes and hair, you didn't really need it.

"Just as you thought?" he echoed. "That sounds like disappointment, Faetan. Are you heart-broken I'm not a scoundrel? I was supposed to take lessons from Bleys, but he kept skipping our class-times. I could try, though, but I inisist... I'm the very soul of honest, pure, innocent actions, thoughts, and intent." He made dog eyes at me and bowed.

One thing you learn quickly, especially from Amberites. Anyone who solicits their trust is obviously NOT to be trusted. "Endearing, I'm sure... To other innocents who have no thoughts in their heads other than to bat their eyelashes and sigh!" I mocked the expression with a giddy giggle. "C'mon then, let's go see this Arden of yours!" I grinned, and went to elbow him as I walked past. But he trapped my elbow in the crook of his arm and led me to the forest.

@#$*. How did he and Bleys DO that?!

I was never one for the woods, but I had to admit, if I was ever forced to go camping, it rather it be done here. The sunlight filtered through the canopy like light through a church's stain-glassed window. The air was suprisingly pleasant, almost perfumed. Spring buds were on the trees, leaving everything a fresh green.

"What, you don't find me endearing? My. You must have tougher standards. Could have fooled me by the way you undressed without me even having to ask."

"I go around in less around my crew at times," I shrugged in response. "I don't see what the big deal is. Besides, I'm sure it's nothing YOU haven't seen before," I poked his shoulder several times with my finger to make my point. "I just don't get what the big fascination is to men...'course you weren't all that fascinated, maybe you've got some sense after all."

"Or maybe I have a wonderful poker face. If it doesn't bother you, why are you getting dressed again? I'd hate for you to be uncomfortable. I even know of a few places to get even scantier clothing, if you'd care to further your comfort." He found his way to a well walked trail.

"Because we're going into a forest...duh," I rolled my eyes, dusting sand off of my trousers. "I don't exactly relish the idea of thorns and pine needles digging their way into my skin that easily."

"Perish the thought. But I can't help picturing Faeten the wood nymph trasping among the greenery."

"Wood nymph, PFAH!" I snorted derisively.

He hopped over a log.

"Now, have we were here to barter for your father's card, no?"

I still didn't trust was time to try a different route in obtaining Bleys' card.

"Hmmm...y'know, maybe you can just keep it. After all, I'm going to have a full deck of my own soon enough!" I gestured grandly with my hand. "What's so special about yours that I'd want to give up something for it...especially when it would only be on loan the most...another hour?"

"Only an hour? That's as long as I get the sparkling wit of Faetan... Faetan... do you have a last name?"

"Jarl," I smiled ferally. "It's just a forest, what would you do here that could *possibly* take longer than an hour?"

He raised an eyebrow. "The best things take more than an hour. Amberites have wonderful stamina. I once dueled Merlin for two days." He noted a bird singing on a tree branch and smiled.

Curious, that...I didn't call any attention to it, and kept up at the current conversation.

"Merlin...his parents must have hated him to curse him with a name like that," I chuckled rudely. "And the best things do, indeed, take more than an hour. But not in forests," I winked.

"What, don't like burrs in your hair? They have these things called brushes, you know. Lovely things." He ran a hand through his short hair. "But long hair, popular with our bunch, is just too much trouble for a shadow prince like me."

"Well, that's one of my special gifts!" I flicked my wrist through my spiky black locks. "My hair doesn't change. I could shave myself bald. Two minutes's back to normal. Has a mind of its own, I'm afraid."

"What a curse!" he said. "You mean you're stuck with one style? Is it a hex or something? You could get it cast on Flora and watch her commit hari-kari." He touched my hair. "Bald might be a good look for you. Shame."

I stiffened slightly, dancing out of his reach. I still didn't feel comfortable when he did that. "Nah... And I like my hair, thankyouverymuch! Why so intent on clipping it, hm?"

"Maybe I know voodoo?" he teased, picking a flower off a vine and spinning it between his fingers. "Maybe I'm going to make a little doll of you. A limited edition Faetan Jarl doll, with kung-fu action."

"It'll whoop your @#$!" I laughed, watching him twirl the blossom. "And so will I, if you ever come near my head with any sharp objects!"

"Is that so?" He touched a sword at his hip. "Care to test that boast?"

"Only if you want a very angry Bleys crawling up your butt if you succeed!" I narrowed my eyes with a wide smile. A fight! Now THIS was more up my alley! "Got an extra?"

"No, but..." He concentrated, and as we topped a hill, I noticed a sword, complete with scabbard, hanging off a limb crossing over our path. "Ah. I knew I felt lucky today. And I promise not to hurt you too badly."

"You wish," I snorted, taking up the blade. "I've gotta learn how to do that..." I muttered to myself for a few moments more, then extended my sword arm. "Bring it!"

He pulled out his blade and knocked MINE aside with a smile. "But what are we dueling for? There must be a prize..."

My blade circled beneath his after his beat, and I lunged at his shoulder with a feint. "You name your prize first...and I'll top it," I suggested.

He parried, looking bored, moved to my side, and quickly hit my rump with the flat of his blade. KILL!!! "Hmm... you never told me what you were offering. But I suppose I could demand a dinner or something equally as mundane."

"If I win, you're my love slave for 24 hours," I leered at him, growling deep within the base of my throat. ~A dinner? Hm...he doesn't know my cooking very well, elsewise he wouldn't ask for THAT!~

Not that I would necessarily mate with him...but I sure wasn't the type who avoided a really GOOD massage. And love slaves give the very best ones.

He shifted back to a more defensible postion and readied his blade, not attacking, just waiting. "Love slave. And that entails...."

"You'll find out, partridge," I smirked. I whirled forward with a flurry of blows, stamping my foot with one of my lunges. Any sort of noise or unexpected movement can throw off your opponent.

But it wasn't working.

He parried them all and laughed. "What, you think you can teach me something? Oh, how novel." As I pulled back, his blade flashed in and cut one of the straps for my bodice armor. Fortunately, it stayed up, but hindered my sword arm a bit.

"You're just a wee babe, I could teach you a *thousand* things," I wiggled my eyebrows. "Though for a're not too bad with a sword..." It increased my fervor to fight all the more, and I moved to attack again with a loud snarl.

He knocked my sword aside again, this time with more force. My hand tingled a moment, and he took advantage of the fact by moving in and poking all the nose! I was pissed. "Now, how are we going to know when someone has won?"

I narrowed my eyes, a gloved hand rubbing at the tip of my sore nose. "I *always* win," I growled angrily. I was half-aware of my hair while it began shifting...white streaks began to stand out amongst the black.

He raised an eyebrow. "Nice. I like the highlights. You should keep them. Of course, one has to be careful not to be likened to a skunk, but I'm sure you have that covered, no?" His blade flashed in and took the other strap. The top stayed up, but with the

distraction, I found myself having a difficult time concentrating on the battle at hand.

I shrieked angrily, the hair shifting to pure white as a tail lashed with fury. "@#$*^#!" I cursed at him. This was no longer a mere game. I was out for blood now! With a savage howl, I launched myself at him again, swinging my sword with all of my strength and holding nothing back.

He dodged, letting me pass. As I turned to face him again, he twirled his blade around mine, disarming me neatly. He caught the blade, then stuck it in the ground. "It's just sparring, Faetan." He eyed me carefully. "No reason to go homocidal."

I clenched my hands into fists, then punched a tree with a savage roar. "How could you beat me?! ME?! I'm the best there is!!"

He smiled ruefully. "How could I have forgotten? I'll know better next time. Is swords the only thing you're good at?"

I folded my arms over my breasts, scowling as I panted and turned my head away arrogantly. "I'll beat you..."

"At what?" He moved closer and attempted to take my arm again to continue our walk. But I wasn't ready to have any of THAT.

With a hiss, I jerked away. "Next time you won't be so lucky! I swear it!"

He backed off. "Okaaay... well, in the sore loser category you _do_ seem to have me beat, I agree. So, let me recall, if you won, you got dinner, if I won, you became my love slave, correct?"

I eyed him reproachfully for a moment, wondering what game he was at. My tail swished from side to side, betraying every emotion that flitted through my mind. We both knew that wasn't the original deal. And now he'd changed it. Why?

Interest...mistrust...desire...apprehension... I just couldn't seem to decide which to settle on.

He smiled, forcing all his charm behind it. "I have a horrid memory. I simply can't remember these things. I've been too stunned by your witty reparte."

"Now you're mocking me," I pointed my finger at him, jabbing his shoulder. "You realize if word gets out about this duel, I'll lose my reputation! Do you know how HARD it is to conquer nations when you're not feared?!"

He touched a finger to his lips. "Perhaps if you trade me a few of those things you were going to teach me, you can buy my silence..."

I paused for a few moments, my eyes roaming over his face in search of just what his motivation is. "What is it you want from me, huh?"

"What I'm getting," he replied honestly. "An afternoon's entertainment and distraction. You've caught my interest and kept it going. A rare thing for someone with the universe at his beck and call."

"All right... I did make a vow, after all," I calmed just a tad. "And I keep my promises." A faint smile touched my lips. "And I've never met someone that could best me with the blade. Intriguing...and infuriating at the same time."

"Isn't it though?" he laughed. "I'll take you to meet Benedict. He's the paragon of sword-play. He could defeat just about anyone with one hand tied behind his back, a leg missing, and a badger chewing on his head."

"You jest!" I scoffed...though the visual image was something to mull over. I folded my arms again, tugging at the broken strap uncomfortably. "So what's it going to be? Dinner, or love slave? You won fair and square, after all."

He resheathed his blade. "Oh, I don't know. I am a bit hungry... Can you cook? I love a woman that can cook."

I snorted with laughter, and my hair started to darken. I could see it out of the corner of my eye. "I can cook, but the end results are not edible. Fair warning."

"Hmmm..." He rubbed his chin. "But I don't know how Bleys would take to me compromising his daughter's virtue, as I'm sure you're a pure as a mountain spring, no?"

I laughed outright, and the tail vanished. "Ducky, I've seduced over a hundred men in my lifetime, all in the name of warfare. You're NOT the first." I chose my words carefully...and I wasn't about to tell him that I had.

He made a face, as if wondering what seduction had to do with warfare. Some men just aren't too bright, I suppose. "And here I was just doing it all this time to get laid. Silly me."

"I don't do love," I winked. "If you're looking for something long term, you've got the wrong girl."

He thought about something. "Well, I _could_ just duel you every 24 hours or so and keep you that way..."

"I *will* beat you next time," I growled lowly.

"We'll see," he muttered non-committedly. "Does that mean you're going to keep trying every day until you do?"

~Naturally.~ I smirked. "You talk too much."

He crossed his arms. "What should I be doing? You don't like thorns on that delicate skin of yours, and I've seen you cranky. It's not pretty."

"Hey, I'm YOUR slave. I was under the impression you'd cart me off over your shoulder to some exotic bedchamber." I contemplated for a few moments. "Strange...I've never made love underwater before. You'll have to enlighten me one of these days." Again, carefully chosen words.

He laughed. "I'll do that tomorrow, when I beat you again. But I'm not carrying you. It's a long walk back." He took my arm and started leading me back to Amber.

I thought about pulling away...but I reconsidered and stayed put. "Nice to see you've got such lofty goals for the future," I muttered.

He waved his hand grandly. "I've got a lot of future. If I squander a few days on bedding my cousin, then so be it."

"Half-cousin...right?" I looked at him through narrowed eyes.

He thought for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, we share a that would make us, what, first half-cousins?" He seemed suprisingly unbothered by the relation.

"Okay, I can deal with that," I shrugged.

"You don't have much choice, do you?" He laughed. "But I'm not going to take you up on anything this minute. Any ideas for what to do the rest of the fading day?"

"Suppose we should eat're going to need all your strength," I smiled toothily at him.

He grinned back. "We'll see. I may just consider that our next duel."

"I'll win, you know...count on it." I suddenly felt part of myself coiling around his waist, for it was warm and strong... To my surprise, the tail had emerged and was drawing Martin closer to me.

He noted it and eyed it curiously. "Do you always favor animals? An interesting addition, I have to admit." He touched it, chuckling.

I purred, for his touch felt rather nice. "It's always been a part of me...though this is the first time it's come out without my hair going white." I puzzled for a moment, frowning. "Has a mind of its own." I couldn't help purring faintly with his gentle touch on my highly sensitive fur-lined tail. I hated it when people grabbed it. The pain was so intense that it nearly paralyzed me when someone else had done it. So most times, when it was out, I kept it tightly curled around my waist like an odd belt.

He looked me over. "Any other animals in there? This could get interesting..."

"Not in the literal sense," I smiled, placing my other hand over his arm as I nudged closer to him.

He took it as a hint, and in the style of all of the great romances, suddenly pulled me close. He looked into my eyes, dipped me, moved in.... then kissed the tip of my nose. With a skip back he broke the embrace and continued on the trail, humming.

I just stood there like an idiot, dumbfounded for a moment. ~He did NOT just dip me... NO ONE has dipped me before!~ I stared at his back for a moment, then growled as I stomped just behind him. ~Why can't I figure this guy out? What's he after anyway?~

He reached back and took my arm again. "C'mon kitty. Don't want to get stuck out here in shadow. Love slaves are hard to come by, you know."

"KITTY?!" I spat, indignant. "What a stupid thing to call a world conqueror!"

He sighed. "Okay, my tiger mistress then. Happy?" He pulled me along. "You're the one with the tail, not me."

I stumbled after him, terribly confused at his odd behavior. But it was too tacky to ask just now... Why did I feel like control was rapidly slipping through my fingertips? "Er..." was all I could manage.

He laughed, picking up the pace, seeing me off center. "Er? Er.... what? Am I Er-esistable? Er-itating? Er-reverant?"

"All of the above," I recovered slightly with a wry grin. "Do you duel for love slaves very often? You seem so practiced at this."

He sighed. "No, I usually duel out of boredem or when Benedict tracks me down and forces a lesson down my throat. I think it's his odd way of male bonding. I'd prefer watching football and drinking beer, but hey, can't pick your family, only the ones you make love slaves."

I chuckled. This was the second time Benedict was mentioned to me, concerning the art of battle. "Benedict, huh...? I might have to postpone our next duel so I can wrench a lesson or two out of this guy. Everybody mentions him."

He looked hurt. "But if you postpone, I lose you as a love slave for a day. How would I survive? I would fade away..."

"And give *me* the upper hand! Mwah ha ha!" I laughed evilly. "I told you, I'm going to *win* next time. What little faith you have in your beloved half-cousin!"

"I have all the faith you'll try as hard as you can. But don't pull the white hair rage thing on Benedict. He'll just embarrass you, and I don't believe he takes love slaves, so he won't care if he bruises you." He smiled at me. "I like my prizes in mint condition."

"But not their garments," I frowned as I tugged at my top again, to keep it from sliding to my hips.

He noted this action and concentrated as we rounded a corner. Hanging off a branch was a low cut halter top, red. He smiled. "Oh look. And your size too."

"So red's your color, hm?" I purred, removing the top and holding it up to me. I'd always had a great fondness for red. The color of blood and passion. "Nice." Without a further word, she I pulled my damaged body armor over my head and discarded it.

He leaned against a tree and watched as I pulled on the top. He cursed. "I forgot to put 'Property of Martin' on it. @#$*."

"Why don't you summon some paint on the next tree? You can stroke the letters on personally," I teased, tossing my hair.

"Nah, my penmanship is awful. They might think it said Merlin, and then I'd be in a mess. Merlin doesn't share." We emerged onto the beach again.

"Use fingerpaints," I chuckled evilly. I glanced at the beach for a moment, then back at Martin. "Rebma after all? Or is there some sort of shortcut that leads to Amber from here?"

He pulled out a card and showed it to me. It was of a garden. "No, we can take a shortcut if your feet are hurting you."

"Just wondering what our next stop is," I shrugged, embracing his arm.

His arm took the embrace stoically. He concentrated on the card, then stepped through, into a Japanese garden. He looked around, nodded, then sat at a table. "Ben's garden. Nice secluded place." He motioned for me to sit.