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We hit the a side door to outside, and Martin looked up into the starry sky. "I think we're already too late. Unless you want to try your hand at shadow walking..." He gave me a sideways glance. "Care to try to impress me?"

"I thought you couldn't shadow walk in Amber," I poked his shoulder. "It's too stable."

He clapped his hands in delight. "She can be taught, Ladies and Gentlemen!" He switched the ice cream container to his other hand and grasped my wrist (COOOOOOLD!), then proceeded to drag me down the pathway, into the forest again.

"Unless you want the palace dressmakers to suit you up in something nice and frilly, I think we're going to have to go to shadow, Kitten."

"And are we going to pay for it in ice cream?" I looked at him pointedly as a shudder shook up my body. "GEW!" I jerked my wrist away from his freezing palm. "STOP that!"

He laughed. "Remember the sword, and the shirt? How lucky we were to find them?" He rubbed his palm briskly on his shirt, warming it, then took my wrist again. I didn't object that time. "We're Amberites. We make our own luck."

The forest was dark, not surpisingly, it being night time and all. Martin's voice lowered, and his step seemed to be more careful as we progressed down the trail. "Okay, I think we're far enough. Think about the pattern. Really, really hard."

I looked at him for a good, long, hard moment. This was a chance for me to prove myself. I was new at this, we were both aware of the fact. Then I turned my head forward, my eyes narrowing just slightly with determination. My other hand clenched slightly in a fist, and a slight upward curl of the lip revealed grit teeth. Mentally I pictured finding a sack of gold coins just behind that tree up ahead.

After thinking about that hard for a few moments, I relaxed slightly. "Let's see how I did," I grinned, and stepped forward to check behind the aforementioned tree.

I peeked behind the tree, and indeed, there was a simple potato sack cloth bag. I'd been aiming for something smaller, but this was better. I grinned, pleased with myself. Martin picked it up and shook it, eliciting a small jingle. "Very nice. And hardly surprising. I think everyone looks for gold their first time."

"Sure beats trying to find ice cream," I shrugged.

He tossed me the bag. "Now, let's try changing the shadow. I would recommend that." And he pointed upwards.

"The sky?" I frowned faintly. "What kind of Shadow do you *want* me to make? Oo...I know...the one with the ever-flowing river of ale!"

"If you think the shopping will be good, then fine. But please, at least make it lighter. We're going to break our necks stumbling on a root or something."

"Oh all right all right... Now I'm gonna start concentrating, so don't bug me or anything!" I warned him sternly, shaking my finger at him. I was afraid if he started getting close to me, I'd start conjuring up mirror images of us doing more than we ought to be doing. Clearing my throat, I looked at the sky for a moment. To move to dawn would only make it darker since it was barely even twilight. Very well, backwards we would go!

The sky lightened faintly, moving from navy to indigo to cobalt, to cerulean with a touch of green, then to a fainter cyan...suddenly it became flooded with rose-colored hues, and the sun laboriously retreated into the sky as though pulled back by invisible threads.

Slowly the trees began to that we had a root-free traveling path...and I paused in my shifting to smirk at Martin. "There you go, no more evil neck-breaking roots..."

Now that I had the hang of it, I was going to have some FUN! I interlaced my fingers and cracked my knuckles, and worked my head from side to side. One would have guessed I was about to go jogging, or endure some other physically astounding feat. Dusk brightened into late afternoon...approximately four o'clock, and so I then left that alone. The tree branches began to grow heavy with long streamers of wisteria, giving a more heady and floral scent that was pleasing to the senses and the eye both. Except that they were purple...and I hated purple.

With a frown, they gradually started to sprout red blossoms instead, and before long they outnumbered the purple ones, and then overwhelmed them altogether.

Just for fun, I grinned, and one of the trees was growing donuts. "For you!" I cackled, pelting Martin with a powdered jelly donut.

I paused in my tracks, picturing a village up ahead...this had to be good, because I intended to broaden it out into a large, bustling port town full of trades and goods. After a few moments of hard concentration, my muscles released their tension and I beckoned Martin forward again.

We crested a large hill with annoying mushrooms that I kicked out of the way. "Stupid mushrooms, I *hate* those things, I should've...oh well, we're nearly there." I gave my coin pouch a happy jingle, jogging down the path at a light speed. "This is where

it gets fun," I winked, walking down the dirt road. Gradually it broadened, and hardened into cobblestone. We passed a fountain with water... I frowned, and turned the corner. We saw yet another fountain, now bursting forth streams of beer which left a thick head foaming in the base. "MUCH better!" I nodded sharply. In the distance I could hear the sound of boat horns, announcing their arrival in port. Wiping the sweat from my brow, I sighed with happy relief. "And that's that."

He looked around, obviously pleased with my handiwork. Good. He SHOULD be pleased, I'd put a lot of effort into it! "Not bad for a first go." He let a pregnant pause go by, then trekked down to the river. "Now, what sort of wonderful weapon are we looking for?"

I shrugged. "What do you recommend? Something small and sporty? Or sleek and sophisticated?"

"Uhhh-- are we car shopping or sword shopping?" He considered his own blade. "I think a blade fits your style... Lots of room for flair and showmanship and such. Plus, they're just pretty, no? And a pretty maid should only play with a pretty blade..."

I clapped my hand over his mouth with a hiss. "What, you want the whole world to know I'm a maiden?! It'll destroy my image!" I whispered angrily into his ear. "I'm thinking...yes, that will do," I nodded, and removed my hand to take his wrist again, dragging him into a weapons shop. The walls glittered with steel and ironwork weapons, some lined with silver, other with gold.

But my heart sword was exactly where I wanted it.

A curved scimitar with a slight hook on the non-edged side. The hilt was wrapped in leather...not particularly flashy all in all, but it appeared good and sturdy. I examined it for a moment with a mild shrug of seeming disinterest, and pretended that a large claymore held my attention instead. "Nice selection," I commented casually to the shop owner.

The owner glared slightly at me and grunted something like 'Whachoo want?'

Martin walked about and whistled. "You think grand scale, don't you? I like." He picked up a slight katana and waved it about, and the shop owner began to look a tad nervous. "Are your clothes going to be as spectacular?"

"That, of course, depends on your, darling," I tickled his chin with a nauseatingly sweet smile. I wanted to haggle, and to do that, I had to first appear stupid. "Now isn't THIS one pretty!" I declared, picking up a very shiny and highly decorated sword. Cheaply made, however, studded with rhinestones and not gems, but designed to appeal to the dumb. I gave Martin a disguised wink. "This would just look FABULOUS with my party gown for the ball, wouldn't it? Tee hee!"

"Me?" He threw the katana in the air and caught it. "You mean I get to pick out your clothes! Oh, that's bully." He picked up another katana and waved the two about, but looked displeased. "Never liked two weapon fighting. It's so cheap-martial-arts-movie-esque." He put one back.

He sauntered over to the gaudy over-embellished steak knife I was pretending it drool over and sighed. "Somehow, I think all those stones would catch on the fish-net I have planned for you, my fluffy little bunny. Now pick one out in earnest. I have no idea how much time is passing by here."

"What, don't tell me you have some other pressing engagement," I sulked, and put the sword back. Then I moved to the scimitar and picked it up, playing with its weight. "How much is this one? Hee hee, it makes me feel like a pirate!" I giggled.

The weight was excellent, just like I requested. Ah, the shadows always remember...

Martin took it from me and tested it. "Not bad. Maybe we can go for a 'scoundrel' theme. Bandana, eyepatch, leggings, red and white striped shirt... Now, what hair color will madame be wearing?"

"I can't control what color it is, sweetie, you should know that by now. So unless someone angers me, black. Oh, and would you look at the price tag!" I turned over a convenient tag dangling around the hilt. "It's a real bargain, only half a gold piece! It's just too perfect," I purred, looking smug and pleased with herself. I'd given up on could you impress someone with that anyhow, if you'd designed the shopkeeper to be just what you wanted? It took all the fun out of it.

"Of course," said Martin, taking out a coin and tossing it to the shopkeep. "That's the idea. If it was wrong in any way I'd have to worry about you and your ability to shift." He led me from the shop. "And now...?"

"Man, we didn't even get to haggle..." I sighed. "What's the big hurry, anyhow? Got a date?" I smirked.

He laughed. "I'm on a date, remember? What, is there some wonderful place you were going to take me? I thought we were only shopping?" He eyed a few storefronts and the contents therein. "It's not always good to dawdle in shadows. Time doesn't run the same everywhere, you know. We could get back to Amber and find out a few weeks have gone by."

"Good, we can make up a nasty rumor or two," I rubbed my hands together, looking greatly pleased. "Now as to clothes...there's only one thing I'm buying for sure that you absolutely must wear," I grinned, dabbling my finger over his chest. "It'll be waiting in the shop around the corner. Anything in particular that you want?"

"You're buying something for _me_? Aww-- the wee kitten is pure of heart, mind, and body! How sweet." He grinned maliciously. "But if you plan on keeping me out here, you should at least have the consideration to really give them something to talk about. As if that note hasn't done enough by now."

Tempt me not. I smiled at him. He was so incorrigible. Not to mention cute.

He found a bench and sat. "Shop then. Surprise me."

"Slacker," I snorted, and moved off.


A shopping bag was suddenly dropped into Martin's lap from behind. I leaned on the bench's back, tucking one ankle behind the other. "You can either open it now, or wait." I shrugged. "Your choice."

He grinned widely at me, and put aside his drink... Dark and bubbly, reminiscient of that coke stuff Rinaldo fed me. "Now. I love instant gratification." He leaned over the bag and pulled out the contents.

Out came a bright yellow tunic, stitched with black lettering: "Property of Faetan."

"Not very original," I grinned cheerfully, "but at least I beat you to it. And everyone else for that matter."

He laughed and held it up to his front. "Oh, but yellow? I'm soooo an autumn, not a summer." His hand flew up and spun me off my perch and into his lap. "So, are you laying claim to me, kitten? How long? Don't I even get another duel?"

I blinked, recovering from the sudden move with a grin. "Until I tire of, I got you a fashion accessory, too," I grinned evilly, pushing a paper bag into his hand.

"How could you ever tire of me? Don't dream impossible dreams." He opened the bag and squealed in delight at the collar and leash I'd set in there.

"It's puuuuurrrfect, kitten! It'll look great on you!" He pinned my arms down with a one armed hug and struggled to get the clasp on the dog collar open.

"ASDOIFJ!!!!" I protested, kicking at his arm as I scrunched my shoulders up to protect my neck. "I'm sure it looks...urgh...much better on YOU! It goes with the shirt!"

"But then we'll _match_," he laughed, unsucessfully trying to clamp the collar on my neck. "You think we'll be voted 'Amber's cutest couple' in the yearbook? Maybe we should get matching caridgans." He paused. "And what the hell is ASDOIFJ? That's a new one."

I tired of dodging the collar and tweaked his ear. "Play nice or I'll rip your ear off the side of your head!"

He pouted. "You bought the collar, not me." He relaxed his grip a moment, letting it be more of a casual hug to keep me on his lap. It felt...nice. "Now, did you remember to shop for chothes? Or are you starting a new trend in Amber? Nudism is nice, but it _is_ a tad cold."

"Just a few necessities," I tickled his chin, and glanced behind him at the six large shopping bags loaded to the brim with clothing and fashion accessories...some bracers for my arms, a dozen necklaces... Necessities, as I'd said. "It's so cheap here...I'll have to come back here more often! And wouldn't you know, they had EVERYTHING I wanted, and then some!"

"_Funny_ how that works, isn't it?" He stood, tucking the collar into his pocket. "Well, care to head back now? I don't want your dad to think running off with royalty is a family trait." He took my hand an pulled me off the bench. "Let's see if you can get back to Amber, now."

~Which will be MINE. Oh yes. It WILL be mine.~ "All right...but I don't want to carry all these the whole way back," I said, rounding the bench and sliding each arm under the loops of three shopping bags apiece. "Just around the corner should be my horse...mine's blood red. You going to make one?" I looked back at him, raising my eyebrow.

He thought as we walked. "No, no... I think I'll just..."

We turned the corner and I nearly dropped my bags when I saw my horse, no longer blood red, but cotton candy pink.

"Mess with yours," grinned Martin.

I growled, not amused in the slightest. "Foul know, I should just put a saddle on your back and ride YOU into Amber!!! Rassumfraggin'hoochiecoochiescrawnyweaselfink..."

He smirked. "You know, there's soooo much I could do with that statement. But if you're going to get yourself into a snit, very well." He folded his arms, and I heard a whinny. A red horse rode up, followed by a blue one. They seemed to nod at the pink one, then looked at Martin and me expectantly. He took the blue one. "I still say pink would go better with you."

"Pink is for the *weak*," I snarled, attaching the shopping bags to the oh-so-convenient saddle hooks and latches and packs. Then I launched myself up into the saddle, makes myself comfortable, and smiled cheerfully again. I flicked the reins, moving off at a quick trot. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but all I have to do is get back to Arden...since it's the only way to get to Amber."

Martin looked impressed. "Oooh-- she learns quick. That's usually the first trap."

He urged his horse on. "So, what to do when we get back into Amber? Should we check in with your father so I can show him your virtue is still intact?"

I shrugged, not really caring. "Eh. If you want. If it's still daylight, I've got to check out the city. If it's nightfall...I suppose I need to meet up with more elders. Now, mind telling me why you're in such a hurry to get to Amber?" As we spoke, I turned my horse into the woods and quietly started making shifts.

"Need to keep time-- normally I wouldn't care, but there's a ball around the corner, and the opportunity to see you all gussied up is just too much to pass up." He glanced at me sideways. "Why... is there something you had in mind?"

I cursed. The ball! That @#$* ball! I cursed some more. "Just touring the city is all...I want to know this homeland of mine. Besides, being 'gussied up' as you term nothing spectacular. You wanna really see something out of the ordinary, watch me raid a fishing village. Now THAT'S seeing my best side!" I winked.

"We'll have to add that to our 'to-do' list." He looked thoughtful. "You know, I haven't conquered anything, ever-- not 'town-wise'. Used to be a pretty common assignment, back in the old days. Set the kid up to take over a place, see how they deal with power-- But my generation, I guess we could just go to seed."

The forest returned around us.

"Everyone's got an agenda," I frowned, keeping my concentration focused. Once the forest began refusing to change, I stopped. Continuing more leisurely, I looked over at Martin. "So you've got immortality. What do you plan to do with it? You've got goals, right?"

Martin laughed, but he seemed a bit uncomfortable. "Well, no... not really. I've just been hoping around for a while, picking up the odd talent. I'm not on the Amber 'call-to-arms' list, so I never got bugged during an emergency. I'm pretty much a free-lance god." He urged his horse a bit. "Not everyone plans out their god-life."

"You should, or else you'll get bored," I lectured him sternly. "Drinking and acquiring the odd love slave is entertaining enough, but how long is that going to last?" I thought about it some more. What if, during our eventual mating, we produced a child of sorts? Would I be able to handle that? What would it be like...? "Hmmm... You know, it would be fun to have a kid and..." I left the rest of the thought unspoken, since it was a pretty evil thought. ~Manipulated them, for a good show... Aw crap,

BLEYS!!!~ My eyes narrowed as I snarled, and urged my horse into a gallop. Apparently Bleys and I thought along the same lines...which didn't bode well for me at all! So what kind of show was ol' daddy-kins trying to pull over on me? I had to find out.

Martin followed behind me. "Um, Faetan? Are you okay? I mean, if you're not that good at riding maybe you should slow it down... We really don't need to hellride into Amber you know.... Faetan??"

"WHAT?!" I snapped, my eyes narrowing as I looked back at him. "And who said I wasn't good at riding?! I'm an excellent rider!!"

"Well, hellriding is a bit different, and if you run while shifting, it's bound to happen." He was able to ride next to me as the trail widened. "What's the rush? Your hair's beginning to go white again."

The shifting stopped, and we found ourselves riding through Arden once more. "I'm majorly pissed off, that's what! I want to know why Bleys brought me here RIGHT NOW!"

Martin looked worried. "Spill it. What? I hate it when your dad schemes." He winced and touched his scar. "I've ended up on the bad end of a few."

I wondered if he meant that my father had been the one to stab him... It couldn't be, though. Why would Dad do that?

The sky stayed bright, and I realized we lost the night while we were out in shadow. So he was right about the hours passing after all.

"I don't care for it either," I snarled. "All I know is that he didn't bring me out here because of fatherly love, or just because it's mildly amusing to see me stumble around awkwardly. He got a missive, yeah...but I doubt he put up any sort of protest about

getting it!"

"Oh, are we still on the conjecture part of this? I hate that part. I was hoping you actually had some smoking gun theory going." He pulled ahead slightly. "I could have told you he was up to something. Amberites always are. It's just their-- our nature. But finding out what is the problem." He eyed the flora. "Whatever he's up to, I think that it can't be too horrible. I get the feeling he's a reformed schemer."

"You're just saying that because you're not 'sprung from his loins,'" I frowned. "He's got his plans...I should've realized it earlier." I cursed myself for disregarding the moment he erased my memories of Jaxx. What else might he have put in there as a replacement?

"Faetan, stop!" Martin looked over at me. "You think I don't know about him plotting? I almost got _killed_ because of one of his plots, okay? I think I know about his worse habits, whether I was 'sprung from his loins' or not. Now what exactly is making you so paranoid?"

"How about the fact that you *almost* got killed? And you knew more about this stuff than I did! I happen to enjoy life, and I'm not about to let him end it quickly!" But, I did slow my horse just a little.

"The reason I _almost_ got killed was because of his cabal... He's made an effort to at least be friendly to me..." He reached over and grabbed my reins, stopping my horse.

I refrained from narrowing my eyes at him. If he started lecturing, I was going to pound him.

"Look, today, I could have killed you, easily. We know who's better with the sword, and spitfire you are, you'dve still ended up on the worse end of mine if I had really gone after you."

I grit my teeth, but didn't growl, nor did I reveal those grit teeth. The pain of my defeat was still there.

"I'll tell you what this was. It was a test. If I wanted my revenge on him, even now I could take it. I could have led you out to shadow and left you, or butchered you, or kept you captive. But I didn't. And you, you could have run off and found somewhere where he never would have found you."

All true. I wondered why he was suggesting this to me. Had he considered or even entertained the thoughts? And if that were the case, could I really continue to trust him?

Martin looked down. "I knew when he told me I could take you around. And when he didn't break down the door, knowing we were inside. He's trying to give a little trust."

"Trust, bah..." I snorted, still looking angry as I folded my arms and turned my head away. "Either that or he just doesn't care what happens, one way or the other."

Martin turned away sharply and started back on the path. "I know what having a parent that doesn't care is like, Faetan. Trust me, he at least cares enough to bring you to town. He could have let you rot in shadow."

I considered rephrasing my words into not caring about my welfare, about being made into a chesspiece, but Martin continued.

"I'll never trust your father, not as long as I live. But he's trying to make amends one way or another, and you were a pretty bargaining piece."

"Great, just what I've always wanted to be. A pawn." I wasn't appeased in the least. "Well, at least you got what YOU wanted."

He laughed drily and without mirth. "Who says I got what I wanted? And trust me, everyone who's on the chessboard gets to be a pawn from time to time. If you're a pawn, at least you get to have a good time while being it. I had a knife shoved in my chest and was left for dead."

"So what DO you want, then? You're not hinting I shove more knives in your chest, I hope, it's such a tacky way to go."

"No, I prefer for sharp pointy objects to stay _away_ from my chest cavity." He slowed to let me ride beside him. "What do I want from you? Well, I thought I knew what I wanted, but seeing as how I've now vowed to wait until our 'slave' period is up, I'm beginning to wonder if I should take it, or if I should have a bit more consideration than to bed someone who only seems to show an interest in pouncing me if I insult her."

He was needling me with his words, and I didn't care for it. "Then don't insult me. Doi." I flicked the reins with irritation. "I'm not talking about in the next 24 hours. I'm talking about what do you WANT. To mope around shadows for the rest of your life, and wait to become a pawn again? That's not what *I* want! No, I'm gonna move the pieces myself!"

Martin shrugged. "What are you, some high school counselor? I don't want to play, okay? I'm not keen on all the plotting and scheming. Every time I get involved, it backfires on me, even when what I'm trying to do isn't all that bad."

Was he scared? No, I didn't buy that. Paranoid? Maybe. I couldn't fathom the thought that HE actually cared about what happened to me.

He looked at me again. "And if I don't insult you, what would you do? Just sit there and score hits off of me? Try to get me tied up into some intrigue?"

"Might be fun if you gave it a shot. But oh well, suit yourself... You wanna live a boring life underwater eating fish all your days, that's fine. But I am going to make them see me as something more. They WILL respect me, whether I win or lose! See if they don't!"

Martins set his jaw. "I'm trying to live a _long_ life. I've stared death in the face, and I can't say I like it. What are you about, Faetan? We have peace in the realm, no real enemies about... You just want to stir everything up, just for yucks?"

He had me figured all wrong. "Peace? Ha. Prelude to war is more like it. Can't you feel the tensions? An unhappy king, mysterious forged missives... Something's coming. And forgive the overused cliche, but I can smell it." I glanced over at him. "I want in."

Martin stopped my horse again, and this time I saw anger begining to show in his eyes. "You-- You're a kid. I'm most likely twice your age, and you can see the advantage that it's bought me. Now think about those guys sitting in the castle. They have a couple thousand times your age. I'd like to know how the hell you plan on joining up _without_ becoming a pawn. Or no, wait, in a war, you wouldn't be a pawn. You'd be cannon fodder. Or something someone can use against your father."

This was different. I'd never seen him actually get upset before, much less MAD. What was he about...?

"If and when war comes, you're getting the hell out, you understand? I will drag you out if I have to."

His words had the effect of an enormous bolt of lightning piercing my skull. He DID care. About me. About ME! Why?! He'd said so himself, all I did was pounce and swear at him! It left me in a spin. "Geez, Mart, I'm not a baby!" I growled, and decided to open up a little. "What do you care, anyway? Or are you pallie wallies with ol' daddykins and you feel like you owe him something?"

Martin's face went red. "I don't owe him _shit_, you got that? He still owes me! And, oh, excuse me if I don't get out my lawnchair and watch you get butchered! Is that what you want? To have your life over before you've even hit 100? Before you begin to understand immortality and power? Or hell, do you want to die a virgin?!"

"SHUT UP!" I snapped, my hair flaring brightly. "You don't know the first thing about me!! I've been playing war games for close to twenty years now! And I'd rather die than be a pawn any day!!" I hesitated for a moment, then smirked. "Nice to see *something* get a rise out of you. You're still holding a grudge, aren't you? Maybe you WANT to strike me down...get back at Bleys for how he used YOU. That's it, isn't it?"

"If I wanted you dead, you'd BE dead!" he yelled.

The birds were silenced with the sudden noise. And so was I.

He took a moment to regain his composure, shaking slightly. "You know Benedict? He's been playing wargames to closing in on 5000 years. Your father a bit less, but it's still considerable. It's still way the hell more than 20. Even the least of them can still beat you or me without much trouble."

I watched him passively, hiding my emotions as they came swirling dangerously through my mind. Something was beginning to take shape, and I didn't like that shape. Not at all.

He looked at me darkly. "What are you aiming for?"

"To be better." I grinned toothily...just as dark as the look he was giving me. "And if Benedict won't give me lessons, I'll find a shadow of him that will. And not just warfare...other things. Magic," I hissed the word almost reverantly. "I want it all."

Martin looked at me, and I thought I saw him shiver. Why?

"Ben will give you lessons. I can see to it. A few weeks at Camp Benedict might do you good." He looked down. "And your dad knows magic. I'm sure he'd help you out on that account."

He urged his horse forward again, and his tone was flat and emotionless when he spoke to me again.

"Come on. Let's get home."

I was pleased, and yet I wasn't. He was upset about something I'd said...or maybe something I hadn't. My hair stiffened before relaxing to black. "Why thank you! How very helpful you are. Now doesn't this beat another day in the fishbowl?" I smiled.

He sighed. "I just met another power hungry person who can't appreciate the forest for the trees. Great. Not in Amber a day, and already an Amberite."

He rode on. My mind reflected on an earlier time with him as he watched a bird singing this same forest. It had struck me as odd then. But now I was starting to get it.

Martin was just a genuinely nice guy. But I, however, was not a genuinely nice girl. So were we all wrong for each other? Somehow, I didn't want to be wrong. I liked him. I honestly did. He fascinated me with his honesty...with his chivalry and honor. In fact it dazzled me. So perhaps I reacted with more anger than I should have, because it seemed to me that he was wanting something that I could never be.

"What did you THINK I would be?" I frowned at his back. "Some innocent and sweet little shadow princess? I'm a pirate, for crying out loud! I conquer, I ravage, I destroy, I plot... Sorry if I'm soooo disappointing to you!"

"Not disappointed," he sighed. "Just... You seemed like you were having a good time today. Thought maybe you could put off your plotting for a hundred years or so and just join the party in shadow. There aren't enough of us, and I'm tired of all my friends getting old."

"But what could you DO for a hundred years that wouldn't get boring?" I pointed at him. "With me, no less? I think plotting is great fun, I don't know what you've got against it." I wanted him to answer that with a solution. Spending a hundred years with him... Crap, I hadn't even known him a full day, and already I was planning on spending a century in his company. What was wrong with me?

He reeled his horse, blocking me from going forward. "You think a river of ale is the _end_? There's anything you could want out there, and I'm not just talking points of geographical interest. Whole worlds tailored to your interests. An infinity of people and things to see. Hell, you haven't even been to Chaos yet. Talk about a ride..."

I held my tongue, and let him continue.

"Plotting is serious stuff here. It's the big game, for the big dogs. The last set of plots nearly ended the universe... Nearly, hell, it DID. If it weren't for a few lucky breaks, you and I would have been eaten by primal chaos. You'll be used. I don't know if it's your dad that has a plan for you, or someone else, but if you stick your neck out, it's sure to get cut." He turned. "But I'm done talking. We could have had fun. Now, let's get back." He heads back up the trail, and I saw Amber off in the distance.

Could have had fun, he'd said. Past tense. Was he giving up? No, he couldn't be! I felt something akin to a dagger push itself into my stomach.

I looked at him with huge, wide eyes. " don't want me to be your love slave anymore?" I squeaked, one curled hand raised to my mouth.

He shrugged. "You've battered me at every turn. I won't be accused of rape, Faetan. You're not interested, so let's leave it at that. Besides, you seem more interesting in plotting. I'm sure we've missed all sorts of juicy things at the castle."

He deserved better than me. I knew it from the beginning, and now he was starting to see it too. He was a good guy. And me, well... I was a scummy pirate. "I thought you liked being battered..." my voice trailed off as I hunched over on the horse, depressed.

"Some-- some is all in good fun. I've taken my fair share of girls from the fencing circle to a bed. Some horseplay. But besides that... I do like to feel like you at least are attracted in _some_ way." He kept his back turned to me, and kept ahead, apparently oblivious to my new pose.

It didn't matter anyway, because suddenly he'd struck a chord. Was he blind?! Or just stupid?! "Oh? OH?!" My voice rose an octave in pitch as I fumed. "And I suppose ripping my clothes off and kissing you was nothing more than a paltry parlor game!! You idiot!" A pinecone bonked into the back of his head.

He sniffed and straightened up in his saddle a tad more. "You only did that because of a dare. Or because you were my slave. But, my god, I actually show an interest in touching you? I get berated and beaten and cursed... Here, I give you the gift of the universe, and you won't even kiss me without a mortal struggle ensuing. Some date."

"So I'm not worth a struggle! You don't think I'm worth it!" I pointed at him furiously. If he wanted an easy wench, then I definitely wasn't feeling any sort of regrets in being a pirate! "Stupid man...I told you a secret I didn't even tell my FATHER! I confided in you! And I don't do that for just anyone! Stupid, stupid man!" I resigned myself to sulking again, my mind reeling with confusion. I couldn't believe I actually cared about him. I almost refused to believe it. But what good is lying to yourself anyway?

"I did fight for you. I won, remember?"

True. I accepted that mutely, but unhappily. It wasn't what I'd meant at all.

He let that sink in for a moment. "And I believe I've had a good number of struggles today. You tackling me, beating me, hitting me, cursing me, cursing me again, making up new words and cursing me AGAIN." He shook his head. "But I suppose I'm just some random half cousin. You'll move on... I'll move on too... One day...." Another sniff.

The thought of him with someone else filled me with fire...and not a good fire, either. Another pine cone bounced off of his shoulder. "I'll win next time... I *will* have you."

"Have me how? For dinner? For some knicknack on a shelf to stare at? Fellow ice cream junkie?" He tossed his head a bit, but still didn't look back. "If you make me into a statuette, I hope you at least dust me from time to time. Besides, I thought you already laid claim to me? My parting gift? The shirt?"

He couldn't seriously be this obtuse. "Hmph. I think you know what I'm talking about. And I think you know what I feel. And *I* think it's very rude to try and force me to say it, especially where someone else might be listening!" I couldn't barely admit it to myself, why did he expect me to admit it to HIM?

"The caterpillars do not care, and that's the only thing I can think of that would be around right now."

I didn't say anything. Amberites were notoriously sneaky, and I wasn't going to risk another word.

"If I challenge you to another duel and win, would you tell me?"

I considered it for a moment. It would work. Being bound by an oath tends to loosen the tongue, and makes it far easier than doing something of your own free will. "Yes. But not here in Arden. And you have to SWEAR to me that you won't tell another soul!"

"Where then? And yes, I swear." He kept his back to me. "What's the medium? Swords? Pie eating? Pinecone chucking?"

"Quarterstaves," I decided firmly. Nothing sharp...I didn't want to hurt him, after all. Or at least expose that risk. We were both upset, a mistake could have been easily made. I had to make up a prize for myself if I won...but I wasn't planning on winning, and I couldn't think of anything I wanted more than to release my long hidden feelings. It would do us both a world of good, I hoped. "If I win...mwah ha ha...I'm not gonna tell you what I get if I win, it'll be a surprise!"

"Agreed. And where? The castle has a few grounds. I'd rather get this done sooner than later."

I was now very familiar with what Martin's back looked like. But I didn't let it irritate me at the moment. I was already concentrating on setting the stage.

"Come this way," I turned my horse to the left, and began shadow-shifting...solitary world...not too unlike Arden, but devoid of any and all sentient life...and just so we wouldn't be interrupted, devoid of carnivores and big animals, just in case.

Resting against the tree were two quarterstaves, one of light wood, one of dark. I dismounted and picked up the dark one before he could make a choice, then tossed him the lighter staff. I had plans. "Bring it on."

He grabbed it and took a defensive stance, using both hands on the staff. "I'd hate to bruise you so early. Ladies first."

"Guess that means you go first, hmmmm?" I grinned toothily at him. Then with a shrug, I jumped forward, bringing my left hand back to snap the staff at his stomach.

He blocked and shoved his weapon forward a bit...

And was completely shocked when my staff shattered.

I wasn't nearly as shocked. I'd planned it to go that way.

"Oh." He pulled back. "I guess that means I win..." He looked at his staff, bewildered, then at me warily.

It was nice to know that I could surprise him at least once and have it be noticed.

I temper tantrums, no cussing storms... "Guess so." I tossed away the shards of broken wood, putting my arms behind my back as I paced for a few moments. Then I paused, turned around, and leaned my back against a tree while I toed one of the roots that had popped up from the ground. Where to begin...this wasn't going to be eloquent, I could tell. Nor would it be easy. "I think you're interesting. You don't take my crap. You beat me at a sword fight, and you didn't even gloat about it." I shrugged again, still looking at the root I was kicking. "Maybe I like you. Maybe I find you attractive."

"Maybe? Maybe?! I've beaten you _twice_ and still, only a maybe?" He puffed. "I think I've shown you more than a 'maybe' kind of day. You've been getting prime time Martin!" He sighed, but then laughed a small laugh. "If you tear off your clothes and beat up guys you might like, what do you do once you've made up your mind?"

"Maybe you'll never know!" I glanced up at him with a smirk, watching him carefully through my lashes to judge his reaction. "Besides...I don't like to make up my mind unless I know I'm getting something similar in return." There. The ball was in his court now. If he cared about me too, now was his chance to do something about it.

He smirked back, parodying my face. "I don't just scandalize any girl, you know... Or take her to eat ice cream... Or invade her father's liquor collection... Or make her halter tops. Or sit through a few hours of abuse only to get a stiff, unyielding, panicked kiss."

The movement of my eyes flickered slightly as I studied his face, his posture...the set of his shoulders, the way he held his hands...I was trying to come to a decision. And with a deep breath, I took the plunge. "Care to try that kiss again?"

He smiled and took me in his arms-- his face softened from the smirk, and he leaned in...

And kissed my nose.

"Yup, still a nose. Still cute."

I was irritated...and charmed. An impossible combination, I know, but that's how it was. "Buttmuffin," I was the closest thing I could manage to an endearment. Very well, if he wouldn't do it, then I would. I put my hand to the back of his neck and drew him in, closing my eyes as I pressed my mouth firmly to his...and kept it there.

He kissed me back, making it last for a minute, then pulled back.

"Buttmuffin. Much nicer than 'filthy maggot.' And was that so hard? We could have started off that way and things would have gone so much smoother... Not as interesting, true, but smoother."

~Yes, it was hard...but I think you know that.~ I smiled at him.

"Where to now, Kitten?"

I chuckled, enjoying our closeness. It wasn't at all the physical desires I'd been sensing before (though they were there!) was nicer now. Warmer. And it felt *really* nice. "How about home?" I continued stroking the back of his neck. "Amber, that is to say. I want to see if they gave me a room yet."

"Eh, keep the sign up, and see how long you can keep your dad at bay. The long way or short?" He held up a card, showing the gates. "I enjoy riding, and I'm fairly convinced you'll be able to make your way home now."

"Long," I smiled up at him, not bothering to glance at the card. "I doubt Benedict will be pleased to find that I've grown attached to we won't tell anyone. We'll make it last."

"A secret triste? Ooooooh. I feel so naughty now." He retrieved our horses. "Of course, Ben did meet you while we were playing strip poker, and you invited him to join in, so I doubt he thinks you're very demure, or that we're up to any good."

So much for getting fencing lessons from him.

He winked at me. "And then there's that small matter of the sign..."

"A tempestuous affair is one thing," I winked back. "I'd like to think this was something better. And those 'something betters' are what other people view as weaknesses...things to exploit. I don't think I'm of any importance now, but you on the other hand have had plenty of experience...blah blah blah, you know what I'm talking about." Basically, if someone found out we were close, I could be used as a tool against Martin...just as I could be used as a tool against Bleys if we showed too much affection to each other in public. That disturbed me on both accounts.

He laughed. "You think I'm important? I'm flattered. And I'd like to think this is one of those nefarious 'something betters.'"

The words lifted my heart as we rode back towards the town. So he felt the same. I smiled, and felt hard edges melt away from my face.

"Perceptive of you, though. Yes, relationships are viewed as a weakness. Look at my father for an example. Or maybe I can tell you about this king of ours. There's some nasty ones about him floating about. Or Julian." He shrugged. "But it's a dreary life if you avoid all contact besides bodily. Truthfully, the happiest I saw my dad, and that anyone saw him, was when Vialle was alive..."

He was suggesting marriage... At least I thought he was. Though the thought was entertaining, I doubted we would ever make it to that. "First time I've ever heard of a happy marriage, to tell ya the truth," I vaulted onto my horse. "The one between my mother and Bleys seems to be more an amusement than anything else. So, to be blunt, I wouldn't know." Then I grinned. "Maybe I'd like to...up there...somewhere..." Nope, I couldn't imagine it. i couldn't picture me in a wedding gown tucked in Martin's arm with showers of birdseed raining down on us. I could barely even picture myself in a white dress, as a matter of fact.

"Up there... somewhere... what? Get married? At your age?" He laughed. "Random was married to Vialle as _punishment_. He was just supposed to pout around in Rebma for a year, then run off as he wanted. It would make Vialle a lady of clout, no matter how scummy the prince. They just happened to actually like each other in the end." He looked away. "Luck."

I watched his profile for a moment. Was he covering up his earlier statement, then? Perhaps he'd sensed my apprehension and was cleaning up after himself. ~Don't do that,~ I thought mentally at him. ~Keep being honest. I like that about you.~

"Now correct me if I'm wrong, but is he the ONLY Amberite...besides Luke and Coral...who actually got involved in marriage and sugar-filled happiness? Maybe that's why the rest of them are all so bitter and spiteful. Heh heh... Makes you wonder how you'll turn out a hundred years down the road, doesn't it?" I turned it back to thoughts of marriage again. Just so he knew I wasn't *completely* adamant against it. Merely...apprehensive. It was a serious thing after all.

He seemed to catch on. "I don't know if he was the _only_ one... You have to remember something about these people. They live so long, they kind of live in lifetimes... Eras, if you will. I think that's the only way that they can live."

I merely nodded, waiting for him to continue.

"I don't know if any of them every were happy. I wasn't around to witness it. I know Ben has a habit of keeping a local girl around, but if it's romantic, I could never say. I've even had some rumors about Bill and Flora... But I don't ask. I snoop. That's the Amber way."

"Hmph." But my thoughts were taking very strange turns indeed. I was beginning to soften towards Martin. I don't know if it was because of our flirtatious advances, the result of our fight, or because we shared something similar as far as parents go. All I knew was that it wasn't a normal thing for me. "Curse that Pattern..." I grumbled. Curse Bleys. And curse poor Jaxx. "Now about this ball...em...what does one normally wear? And be specific!" I had to change the subject.

"Well, the women wear fluffy dresses that are rather low cut and long, with lots of material and bows and awful stuff. If you don't trust me, go ask Flora. She'll set you up."

I made a mental note to never never never approach Flora.

He motioned to his somethat indescript clothing. "Men wear tailored stuff, like what you saw in town. You know, leggins, doublets, boots, big ass swords. That fare." He looked at me and cocked an eyebrow. "'Curse that Pattern....'?"

"It's warping my normal train of thought," I glanced over at him, then back to the spot in front of me. "I bet I can get away with a fluffy dress sans the irritating bows."

"Pattern's doing that? Pfft. And here, I thought it was me. Sigh."

I just smiled quietly, content to let it rest at that. He knew otherwise. And so did I.