Last Trump to Amber

It's been one of those kind of nights.

The Furrowed Brew was pretty much empty by the middle of the second set, even though normally the band can fill it for three, no problem. Something was just off, wrong, and not in the normal way that has to do with the rotating drumming position that never seems to quite fill just right. Maybe it's the funky weather, which has been awful.

Whatever it is, it's like a trip gone bad. And it makes the guy who's been sitting in the alley outside the Brew for the last couple of weeks saying 'the end is near' sound less whacko than he normally might.

It's set break, and Folly is slumped in the back of the pub in her favorite tall booth. Soren's gone to keep an eye on the product table, which Folly hadn't really expected to need, since there's not really anybody here, and on nights like this who makes any money anyway? But there is someone there, and the first glimpse of him makes Folly's heart almost stop because Christ! he looks so much like Syd for a second that she's sure it's him ...

... then she does the visual comparison of him and Soren and it can't be, the guy's too tall, not quite stocky enough, just a little different all the way around. And he buys CDs, three of them, all, Folly notices, ones they did when Syd was drumming, before heading to the bar, out of her line of sight. So she slumps in her booth again and closes her eyes and thus is surprised when someone says, "May I join you?"

The guy even speaks in the same range as Syd. Probably sings there too. He's stuck the CDs in his jacket and is holding two beers. There's no one else there, so the second one has to be for Folly.

Soren is watching, but he doesn't seem to have rated the guy a sufficient threat to warn him off.

Folly brushes aside the remains of two shredded cocktail napkins and proffers a third, folded into a limp origami bird. "I'll trade you a duck for one of those beers...."

He sets them down on the table, one in front of her, and one in front of the spot where he ends up when he slides into the booth. It's Folly's favorite -- either he noticed what she was drinking on stage or he asked the bartender.

She smiles, brushes her unkempt hair out of her eyes -- she looks as though she has not slept in several days -- and takes a long look at his face, wondering whether he's noticed the gooseflesh rising on her arms at the sound of his voice. "I haven't seen you here before," she says, trying to make it sound like a friendly observation rather than a pick-up line. "Are you out on holiday? The weather doesn't usually suck this hard -- and neither do we," she adds with a smirk. "I'm glad you had enough faith to pick up some of our discs. My favorite ones, too," she adds. "Hey, you don't drum, by any chance, do you?" She seems about to ask something else, but then thinks the better of it. Instead, she draws her knees up under her chin like a child awaiting a ghost story.

He considers his response to Folly's questions for a moment. "Some gigs just don't gel," he finally says. "But you carry the rest of them even when they fall over, Folly. I'm not local, no, but I'd heard of you before I got to Texorami. Even though I'm only here tonight, I wanted a chance to hear you before I had to go. My name is Martin. And no, I don't drum; that's -- it's not my thing." If he has noticed the gooseflesh, he's too polite to say.

He offers Folly a neatly manicured hand across the table. One of the callus patterns on it says guitarist, but there's at least one other Folly is pretty sure she doesn't recognize.

Folly touches his fingertips lightly with her own, slowly tracing each callus as if trying to divine his identity through them. Maybe.... No, she decides, that's just wishful thinking. She chuckles at her own ridiculousness. "Well met, Martin," she says. "Forgive me for being so... whatever I'm being... but you remind me of someone. I would've guessed 'younger brother', but all his brothers are much older, I think...." She slides her hand into his and asks, "So, what does bring you out on such a whirlwind trip to Texorami? Have you found what you were after?"

His hand is warm and ... real. There's no other word for it.

Folly lets out a tiny gasp as deja vu sets in.

"Maybe," Martin says, and with his other hand pulls a box of the sort that might hold a deck of cards out of his inner jacket pocket. He thumbs the box open as if he's done it about a thousand times before and slides out the top card, which he turns to face Folly.

The figure on the card is dressed as some kind of Faire character in a riot of colors, orange and red and brown and such. No question who it is, though, even in the strange get-up: it's Syd.

"I believe we know someone in common." And Martin waits for Folly's reaction.

"Oh, god -- what... where...." Her grip tightens on Martin's hand as she stammers, and her hands tremble. Finally her most pressing question fights its way out of her mouth, barely louder than a whisper:

"Is he OK? Please tell me he's OK...."

Martin's own grip tightens in response, enough to be secure and comforting, but not to hurt. He looks a little worried.

"He was OK the last time I talked to him, which was for me less than a day ago. But things are really complicated now -- there's a lot of trouble, family trouble, things are -- it's just really complicated. More than I can explain right now, when there's not a lot of time.

"He talked to you about the family, I guess, and Amber? How much did he tell you? A lot or a little? It'll make the rest of what I have to tell you easier if I know."

"He told me very little directly," Folly replies, visibly relieved to hear that Syd is still alive, "but he hinted about a lot. He told me a little about his family -- he has a lot of older brothers and a few older sisters, his father has been married several times, he came here to get away from them all -- and I've pieced together from other things he's said that they are probably very famous or powerful, or both. I got the impression that most of them don't get along with each other.

"As for Amber.... Most of the time when I asked Syd about where he grew up, he'd just smile and say, 'You can't get there from here.' Sometimes, though...." Folly seems to be struggling to find the right words. "I know what I know, but when I say it out loud it sounds impossible. I think.... Somehow, this isn't real. This bar, this city, this world.... Syd called it a shadow. Sometimes we would get high, and he would make things change -- I don't understand how, but at the same time I do understand, because when I sing, I can kind of feel the difference between what's real and what isn't.... But I think he is real, and Amber is real, and ... and you are real, and I'm pretty sure I am, too, but I don't know why.... It sounds insane, doesn't it? Sometimes I can almost convince myself that I only feel that way because I've tripped once too often, or because I'm supremely arrogant, or because love does wacky things to your brain -- I mean, who doesn't think that their lover is the only real thing in the universe? -- but those explanations just don't feel as true as the one that doesn't make any sense...."

Folly pauses to take a long drink, but she doesn't let go of Martin's hand. "So, how'd I do?" she asks. "Am I crazy, or just really confused?"

Martin does a reasonably good job of not reacting to anything Folly says (although she may be able to tell in a couple of places that he's sitting on his reactions pretty hard).

"No," he says, "you're not crazy. Not unless I am too."

Martin takes up the card with Syd's picture on it and puts it away, back into its box, which he leaves sitting on the table. "This is all going to sound like mysterious bullshit, and I wouldn't blame you if you told me to go take a long jump off a tall cliff, but here it is: you're right -- there's a line between what's really real and what's not and you and I are on one side of it, and most of the rest of the universe is on the other."

He pauses for a minute to take a breath, then decides on a drink of his own beer, then continues. "I came to Texorami to take you to Amber, if you're willing to go. To find out what it means to be real. I don't know if you believe in the End Times: Armageddon, Ragnarok, the Kali Yuga, whatever, but it's real too, and it's happening, here and maybe even in Amber. I've got to get back to Amber tonight before everything falls apart. I need to know if you'll come with me."

"Holy shit. You're completely serious." Folly glances around the room as the implications of Martin's words sink in, and her eyes fall on Soren. "Soren thinks I'm too trusting. He would tell me that I should make you answer every question I have before I decide -- but somehow I doubt we have that much time.... And anyhow, I already know. I have to go with you. 'All roads lead to Amber....'" she says, holding up her glass as in a toast before downing the rest of its contents. She wipes her mouth with the back of her hand and then shakes her head vigorously, as if making sure she's really awake. She seems giddy and frightened at the same time.

Suddenly, a new thought occurs to her. "Hey, how much time do we have? If I'm about to disappear without a trace, I should probably warn Soren... and I guess inviting you to jam with the band is out," she adds with a nervous laugh, running her thumb over Martin's calluses.

"You're gonna miss the third set, but the gig was sucking anyway," Martin says, sounding a little relieved.

"But Folly, you have to know before you do this -- don't think it's going to be all champagne and roses with Dad --" and he winces, obviously not having meant to use that word, then continues. "Don't come with me to pick up with him where you left off, because it's not going to happen. You have to do this for yourself, Folly, not for him, or you'll never be happy."

Folly starts as though she's been slapped. She covers her gaping mouth with her hand, scrutinizes Martin's features again... and starts to giggle. "Oh... my... GOD, that little SHIT!" she says as lightly as she can, but she is obviously overwhelmed with conflicting emotions. "I had no idea... but... well, except for the part where I can't work out how he could be that old, I guess I'm not really that surprised. I just wish...." She gets lost in thought for a moment while she regains her composure.

Martin continues to hold her hand, steadying her, as she does so.

"Thanks for telling me -- for warning me. I understand. It doesn't change my answer. My whole life, I've felt like I've been living in a slightly different reality from everyone else. This is my chance to understand my reality. I feel like I'm finally going home. The stuff with Syd will sort itself out. Finding out who I am -- what I am -- is the part that matters most."

Martin looks even more relieved. "That, I can help you with, at least. I can even probably explain some things about Dad, but that's a pretty long story, and will have to wait for later. Right now you need to say your goodbyes and grab anything you want to bring -- anything that you can fit into a shoulder satchel, because both hands will be busy. If you bring an instrument, make it acoustic, though, because there's no power in the Castle."

Folly nods. Her mind is already piecing together a plausible subset of the truth to tell her band. To buy herself another minute to consider her story, she grabs another cocktail napkin, retrieves a pen from her belt pouch, and scribbles out a new set list. "They might decide to bag the third set -- I mean, there's nobody here -- but... well, if they stick around, this'd be pretty funny...." She takes a deep breath, gives Martin a 'wish me luck' look, and walks over to the product table to talk to the rest of the band.

"Hey, guys," she begins when she has their attention. "Um, something really unexpected, really big, has come up. I have to go. Martin is a... um... a relative of Syd's. Syd is having some sort of big complicated family mess, and -- well, god knows he kept an eye on me while I was having all that trouble with my parents. I have to go, and I'm not really sure how long I'm gonna' be gone. Here's some suggestions for the third set, if you decide to stick around for it --" she hands the napkin to Soren "-- or, hell, there's nobody here, you could just rehearse for an hour if you wanted to. Soren, sweetie, would you mind picking up my mail and checking on Thelonious while I'm away? I think half the neighborhood is feeding him, so he shouldn't be that much trouble...." Folly is speaking very quickly, as if she's afraid to let anyone else get a word in edgewise. "I'm sorry about the short notice -- I guess it's kind of a good thing we haven't had any luck getting gigs this month...." She hugs each of her bandmates. When she gets to Soren, she also kisses him on the cheek and whispers, "I'll be OK, I promise."

"You better be."

She turns to go, motioning for Martin to follow her.

As Martin walks past, Soren's hand snakes out and stops Martin.

"I've never been able to stop her when she gets a wild hare like this, and honestly it wouldn't be worth trying now. But sometimes she gets hurt on her adventures. I am excessively protective of the girl, if you catch my drift. I will find you if I can't find her later."

Martin looks at Soren with an expression that's difficult to read, but contains both a touch of amusement and a touch of respect. He looks for a moment like he might say something, but reconsiders, and merely nods once, abruptly.

Soren looks at him for a moment, removes his hand and says "And tell Syd I've still got his skins."

"I'll do that." says Martin, and follows Folly.

"God, I hate this weather," Folly says as they exit the pub. "Gives me nightmares." She shudders. "I'm glad we don't have far to walk." She hurries down a nearby alley and up a narrow flight of stairs next to the back entrance of a used bookstore. The stairway is almost completely dark, and Martin can hear Folly counting the steps as she ascends. When she gets to 36, she says, "Hold up a second. Let me turn on the light...." After a little fumbling and a lot of mumbled cursing, Folly gets the door open, flips on the living room lamp, and invites Martin in.

Martin has no trouble following Folly up the darkened stairway -- he doesn't stumble on the loose board on step 17, and stays right behind her without stopping short when she halts on step 36.

Folly's apartment is a cross between a museum and a disaster area. The walls are hung with small tapestries and eclectic art, mostly in bright colors. The sparse, hand-me-down furnishings have been shoved into corners to make room for the large collection of musical instruments and electronics. The ceiling fan appears to be doubling as a drying rack for Folly's undergarments. "Have a seat -- I'll only be a minute," she says. She pulls off her t-shirt -- a long scar on her back peeks out from under her black bra, and she is wearing some sort of pendant, a deep red stone on a black silk cord, which was hidden under her shirt -- and disappears into the back room.

Martin turns away while Folly undresses. He seems less embarrassed by her nudity than politely reluctant to stare, even if she is unashamed.

When she re-emerges a few moments later, she is carrying a leather satchel and a small wad of clothes -- a few shirts and sweaters, a pair of jeans, a dress. She pulls on an old grey sweater that is several sizes too big for her and shoves the rest of the bundle into the bag, followed by some of the undergarments from the ceiling fan, a stack of loose papers -- music and lyrics, it appears -- and a small leather-bound book.

While Folly is packing, Thelonious comes to investigate Martin. He purrs and rubs against Martin's leg, and Martin reaches down to scratch him. Thelonious bats at Martin's hand, and Martin grabs his paw gently, but with fast, fast reflexes, then releases. It's macho posturing between man and tomcat, and Martin is victorious. Thelonious departs, tail swishing with annoyance, and bathes himself: "I let him win. I intended to do that."

Martin allows Thelonous to retreat gracefully by turning his attention to the liner notes of one of the CDs he bought.

Folly turns her attention to the musical instruments. She packs up a small mandolin into its case, then grabs an intricately carved wooden flute. She considers the walls for a moment and pulls down one of the tapestries, a long piece of patchwork velvet that looks as though it has been embroidered by a child. This she wraps carefully around the flute before adding it to the contents of her satchel. She looks thoughtful for a moment, and then grabs some blank paper and a vividly purple pen from the shelf. She scribbles two quick notes, labeling one 'Mum' and the other 'Gish', and adds a doodle -- it looks like a cartoon unicorn -- beside Gish's name. She sets the notes on the kitchen table on the way to refill the cat dish. When she is done, she slings the satchel and the mandolin over her shoulder. After one more glance around the room, she grabs a long violet wool cape from a hook on the back of the door and threads it through the strap of her bag. Then she turns and faces Martin. All the baggage makes her look very small. "I think I'm ready," she says, and her voice seems small, too, but her face is aglow with excitement and anticipation. "Have I forgotten anything? What do we do now?"

Martin laughs. "How am I supposed to know if you've forgotten anything, Folly? Don't worry about clothes; we'll get you some at the Castle. Here, let me take that," and he relieves her of most of the baggage, taking a moment to stuff the CDs in the satchel. "Syd Chance," he says in a tone that combines incredulity with a certain amount of awed respect for his father's chutzpah. "Where does he come up with this stuff?"

Then Martin draws out another card, one showing the gate of a medieval-looking castle, and places it in Folly's left hand. The card is cool to the touch, and Martin frowns as he hands it to her. Then he takes her right hand with his left, and concentrates on the card.

Nothing happens.

Martin's face screws up some in a way that implies intense concentration, but nothing continues to happen. "Shit!" he says, and takes the card back.

Then he looks up, out the window of Folly's apartment, into the night, and says in a voice of awed fear, "Fuck." And when Folly looks up into the night, she sees it too, a black rain that seems to dissolve the brightness of the city sky by night as it rolls towards her and Martin.

In the moment that Folly stares into onrushing Armageddon, Martin flips out another card, this one actually cold, and places it in Folly's hand. This card depicts the back view of a stunningly gorgeous redhead lying on a divan, a sheet artfully draped over her buttocks. Martin also secures his grip on Folly -- he's no longer just holding her hand, he's got her in what ought to be a bone-crushing wristlock.

Staring into the card with intense concentration, Martin says, "Paige?" with an unspoken _Answer, dammit! Please, god, let her answer!_

From Folly's point of view, what happens is this:

The stunningly gorgeous redhead on the card moves from her winsome gazing-over-shoulder position and her lips move, but no sound comes out. Martin's volume increases as he speaks to her: "Paige, Paige is that you? Paige, PAIGE BRING US THROUGH NOW!" And the redhead, who is no longer nude, either, reaches out and grabs Martin's arm, or he reaches through the card and grabs her, maybe, or something, and then time and space and reality are distorting in strange ways, because he's going into the card, then so is Folly.

Then she's inside the looking glass with Martin, and Folly thanks whatever higher powers she does or doesn't believe in for Martin's superhuman strength, because wherever they are is trying to tear the two of them apart from each other or maybe just apart, and both of them and maybe the other woman too are flowing and changing like Tam Lin in the arms of his lover and it's kind of hard to tell where Folly ends and Martin begins if either of them does begin or end or if either of them exists at all....

From Paige's point of view, what happens is this:

The trump contact is extremely faint, and Martin's lips seem to be moving but no sound comes out until he's yelling and then she hears him faintly, as if through water or thick glass. She reaches out to grab him with both hands and pulls him with all her might, but somehow she seems to be being pulled into the card, except that Martin and the girl have the card, it's insane, that can't possibly happen can it? And time seems to stop and for a second or maybe forever and Paige thinks that she will fall in with them and they'll all three be lost in the middle ...

The Paige throws herself backward with all her strength and power, and PULLS, and Martin and Folly come through and all three of them land in a heap on the heavily carpeted floor of Paige's sitting room.

Folly tries to sit up, then thinks the better of it. She rolls onto her back, covers her face with her hands, and mutters, "Fuck. That wasn't supposed to happen that way, was it?"

Paige's soft chuckle is mixed with a bit of anger, not seemingly directed at Folly. "No, not at all." She hasn't let go of Martin's hand yet, as if to make sure he's really here and all in one piece.

Folly digs her fingers into the carpet, thick and real, and realizes that she really has made it to Amber at last, and in one piece. Relief floods over her, and she laughs. She reaches out to touch Martin's hair and Paige's ankle -- the parts of them she can reach without moving -- and says, still laughing, "Thank you. Thank you both. Oh, if I had any strength left, I could just fuck you both right here." It is not clear from her tone whether she means this as just a figure of speech.

This inspires more laughter from Paige, now deeper, the anger banished by this interesting turn of phrase. She pulls Martin around to face her, her hazel eyes boring into his, "You went through all that, for a menage a trois?" But Martin, who knows Paige a bit better, hears, _I'm glad you're OK._

Folly is small, not much more than five feet tall, with sharp pixieish features and delicate hands. Her hair, long and dark and unkempt, has a couple of purple streaks dyed into it. The faint laugh lines around her eyes indicate that she is probably in her mid-twenties, but she could easily be mistaken for a teenager, particularly given her attire: an old oversized charcoal grey sweater and a pair of well-worn purple leather pants. She is not conventionally beautiful, but she has a sort of free-spirited rock-star charisma. At the moment, she is absent-mindedly caressing Paige's ankle and the back of Martin's neck as she glances around the room. She looks a little dazed.

Paige stands, when standing, only an inch taller than Martin and has a lithe figure, much like a swimmer or perhaps in Shadow where they know of rock-stars, a fashion model. Her red hair is pulled back in a loose ponytail. From Folly's perspective, she's wearing soft, thin, green slippers, much like ballet shoes. The skin of her ankle is soft and tanned and the fabric of the pants above her ankle is a green velvet, loose and flowing. She gives a little shiver as Folly's hand brushes her calf.

With the grace of one's who's obviously untangled herself from similar circumstances before, Paige wiggles out of the pile and sits up, her legs crossed before her. Folly can see now that her top matches the loose pants, allowing a great freedom of movement and looking really comfortable. "I'm sorry, I don't normally receive guests in such a fashion."

"Oh, no worries," Folly relpies. "I don't usually.... Well, come to think of it, I do rather make a habit of dropping in on my friends unannounced, but I don't usually make such a spectacular entrance."

A smile quirks Paige's red lips, noticibly the only makeup she's wearing. "I'm Paige. Welcome to my place."

Folly smiles and extends a hand to clasp Paige's. "Well met, Paige. Well, and barely. I'm Folly." She laughs suddenly and adds, "...and in all the times I've asked my friends, 'Can I crash at your place?' I've never meant this...."

A smile for the first and a chuckle for the last, from the redhead. Now, surveying the room, Folly can see that they are in a sitting room. It's appointed in warm wooden panels, every other one depicting a serene landscape. Currently behind Paige is a single door, only remarkable from the panelling in its doorknob. Continuing around the room in a clockwise fashion there's a small sitting area with a couch in dark green and two matching chairs around a low table set with candles and a few books. This extends almost to the windows on the next wall, which hold several low bookshelves and one high backed wingchair, with a reading lamp. Currently the curtains are drawn and a heavy rain can be heard without. The next wall holds double doors, done in gold trim that seem to slide back into wall pockets, and a small table, with four chairs about it. On the table can be seen a pale green scarf and a set of fortunes.

Martin, who's been busy catching his breath during most of this exchange, rolls off the satchel and gear, most of which was under him, and sits up, saying, "Um, yeah, Paige: Folly; Folly: Paige. Paige, Folly's a relative; Grandfather asked me to bring her to Amber. Folly, Paige's father is one of Dad's older brothers."

At "Folly's a relative," Folly sits up and looks at Martin quizzically. She seems about to say something, but then stops as several somewhat alarming things occur to her at once.

Martin's return look says _It's OK_.

It may occur to Folly that something about the way Paige and Martin look at, talk to, and act towards each other suggests more than cousinly friendship. In fact, it suggests in some ways that her presence might be preventing a particular kind of reunion between great and good friends, as it were. (Fortunately, it seems like Paige doesn't mind sharing!)

Martin opens what's obviously a musical instrument case first, taking out a mandolin and looking it over quickly before passing it to Folly. Then he's got the large satchel in his lap and is sorting through it, ignoring clothes until he comes up with a patchwork velvet bundle that he unwraps gingerly to reveal a flute, which he also examines and then passes to Folly. "I don't think I damaged either one of them when I landed on them," he says to Folly, "but I'm not sure they'll sound quite the same after that."

Folly takes the mandolin and cradles it like a baby as she inspects it, then checks the tuning by playing a few bars of a lively tune. "No, not quite the same, but not terrible," she says. "It'll do. The flute I mostly brought for sentimental reasons -- it was a gift from my Papa." She picks it up and starts playing a haunting melody, shivers, and switches back to the mandolin, which she plays very softly in the background as Martin and Paige continue talking. The music is soothing and cheerful, quite a contrast to the gloom of the weather.

Paige listens attentively, seemingly catching both the conversation and the tune without much trouble...

Martin, who has been quite tense, seems to relax a little under the influence of the tune. He looks around and takes in his surroundings, then looks quizzically at Paige. "We're not at the castle, are we? Where are we? And how long was I gone?"

"No, as I mentioned to Folly, we're at my place in town. You suggested someplace I wouldn't be distracted, so I came some place people wouldn't look for me with distractions," Paige says. "As to crashing here, I'm not so sure you have any other choice. The rain started not long after you left and I came here. You've been gone most all the day, but time's become rough for me to judge with the weather. I had figured to Trump to the Castle once you returned, but I'm unsure I like the idea after that.

"So here we are, at least for now. I can have Michelle send up some food. I know I could use some, and we need to get Folly's strength up," Paige winks at her new relative, "especially if she plans on thanking you properly."

Martin perks up at the mention of food.

Folly looks up from her instrument. "I think I'm gonna need to get my strength up just to understand what's going on. Martin kinda glossed over a lot of the story -- good thing, too, otherwise we might not've made it here in one piece, I suspect -- and I've got so many questions I don't know where to begin. The thanking," she adds with a friendly smile, "we can worry about later."

Martin replies, "Your continued existence is thanks enough for now, Folly. Paige, can I get some coffee with that snack?"

Paige smiles and says to Martin, "Seems you're safe for the moment, dear." She rises, going to the door behind her. It opens on a hallway and she calls, "Liam!" In a moment a young boy in well tailored servant clothes is standing at the door.

"Yes, Lady Sommers?" the boy asks.

"Please have the kitchen send up some of the game hens it was preparing for dinner this evening. I doubt we'll be seeing any of the regulars, what with this weather. Probably six will do with the wild rice pilaf and capers. Have them steam some of the fresh string beans Michelle ordered in, too. Settings for three, please."

She looks to the others, for opinions, "Send up a good bit of bread with the honeyed butter and some salads first. Bring me two, no, three bottles of whatever Jean feels with go best with all that. And a pot of coffee to start with, for Lord Martin."

Martin looks grateful. He's absently playing along with Folly's mandolin on a non-existent guitar of his own, probably rhythm guitar from the timing and the chord progressions.

"Yes, Lady Sommers," Liam answers and he scurries away toward the servant's stairs to the kitchen.

Closing the door behind her and turning back to the others, she asks, "Well, what would you know? I'm sure there's a lot Martin can answer that I can't, but what he can tell, I'd hope he's told me already. And I'm sure I can relate it better than he can, especially as distracted as he currently is."

By which she may well mean 'exhausted'. (He is. Too much of that relaxing music, and he'll be taking a nap.)

"Or if you'd like to freshen up first, you can do that..." Paige indicates the double doors behind Folly, opposite the couch.

Martin says to Folly, "If you want to, go ahead; I'm not going anywhere, and the story isn't either." He stops the absent-minded air guitar.

"Probably a good idea. Beer and fear are a dangerous combination," Folly responds, placing a hand on her bladder, "and I'm sure I reek of pub." She returns her mandolin to its case, retrieves a comb from one of the small pockets on the front of the satchel, and heads for the double doors. She seems a little unsteady on her feet.

Paige's inner chamber, her bedroom, is approximately the same size area as the sitting room. Here again is the rich wood paneling, adorned with several paintings, seemingly all by the same hand, probably Paige's, as the easel standing near the window has a roughed out portrait of Martin upon it. The cover drapes over it, but it can still be seen. It's done in a unfinished style, primarily his head and chest, shirtless. It seems to finish abruptly beneath his pecs as if Paige didn't know how to continue. Odd for someone who seems to have an intimate enough relationship to have seen him shirtless. There's a lounge, beside which lies a table with an inkwell and several sheets of paper. The flow of the lines leads Folly to think of poetry or lyrics without actually ever looking at the words. Lying beside the table is Paige's lute. The largest item in the room is, of course, the bed, a large four poster emsemble as wide as it is long. Folly's convinced that if the storm does not blow over the three of them could bed down for the night here and possibly not touch each other. Silk scarves are tied about the posters, possibly to coordinate the duvet and other linens with the rich carpeting. On the opposite wall from those she entered is the open door to the bath.

The bathing chamber is done in green marble with beautiful veining, and green tile on the floor. All the fixtures are done in precious metals. It's totally opulent, even decadent, except that there's no obvious running water, and no electrical plugs in sight (as Martin mentioned). However, the floor of the room is warm somehow.

The tub itself is something out of a sandal-and-toga movie: big enough to do a little swimming in, and warm. There's a second small tub which probably has tepid water in it.

Folly thinks there may be a second similar chamber behind the far wall. In Texorami, where running water and electrical power are the norm, such a setup would not be trivial to purchase, assemble, and maintain. In a society without modern water delivery and electricity, what it costs to build and maintain such a place is mind-boggling. Paige is obviously incredibly wealthy.

Oh, yes, and there's a chamberpot for beer recycling. (There may be a more standard head somewhere else in the building. Probably is, with this setup.)

Martin watches Folly go, concerned, then turns back and picks up Paige's trump from the ground where it has lain since Folly dropped it, and looks grim for a moment. Then he hands it to Paige.

The card is no longer cold.

"Shit. What the Hell does that mean?" Paige asks rhetorically. She hands it back to him, he puts it away, and with Folly out of sight, she kisses him deeply. She then pulls away and hits him, punctuating each word, "Don't. You. Dare. Scare. Me. Like. That. Again."

Martin endures this abuse without complaint. He just looks tired and rather sad now, and like he'd like a hug. He's not quite at the end of his ability to cope, but he's pretty close.

When he goes to pull her close, she puts her hands up to stave him off, turning to gather her own Trumps from the table by the door, where Liam will soon be bringing salads and such.

Paige's own cards have also lost their coldness.

"No, not now, but I'd like the story, too." _Then I'll have all sorts of questions that you're not getting out of easily._ She wraps her Trumps in the scarf they're sitting upon and places them in a carved wooden case on one of the bookshelves.

Then Paige gives in, to herself more than even him, and pulls him tight, not wanting to let go...

Martin slides his arms around Paige and leans against her, not moving, until the food comes.

Paige whispers softly, "It'll be OK." Her words are almost lyrical, as if she's singing him to sleep. _I'm here for you, always._

Paige calls to Folly, "Find everything, OK?"

"Mostly.... Um... towels?" comes the reply. After a brief pause, Folly adds, "Paige, you live better than my mother." Her voice is tinged with awe. She says nothing more, but Martin and Paige occasionally catch little snippets of humming and singing.

Folly surveys the room in awe for nearly a full minute -- even her own priveleged childhood was nothing compared to this -- before the need to relieve herself becomes too great to ignore. By the time she is done, she has abandoned her original plan just to splash a little water on her face; the tub just looks too inviting. She leaves her clothes and shoes in a pile on the floor and climbs in for a relaxing soak. After a few minutes, however, she realizes she's in danger of falling asleep in the tub; the evening's excitement, together with several weeks of restless, nightmare-filled sleep, have left her exhausted. She gives her whole body a vigorous scrub and then climbs out onto the rim of the tub to comb her hair, hoping that the coolness of the air on her damp skin will help to revive her. Though not normally much of a coffee drinker, Folly is suddenly glad that Martin thought to ask for a pot....

Martin. Folly feels the gooseflesh rising on her arms again. Just the cool air, she tells herself.... She finishes combing her hair, reaches for her clothes... and realizes she has made a tactical error....

While Folly is bathing, the servant boy brings up the requested bread, salads, wine, and coffee. The rest will be ready soon, he advises. Martin somehow manages to wolf down about two-thirds of the bread and his own salad without looking like a mannerless lout.

Folly returns to the sitting room, wrapped in a large green towel. "Forgot something," she says sheepishly, retrieving clean undergarments from her satchel, then returning to the bathing chamber. When she re-emerges, she is dressed but barefoot. She plops down on the floor near Martin and brushes her damp hair out of her eyes. "Is it story time yet?" she asks in a tone that suggests that her real question is, "What the hell have I gotten myself into?"

Large portions of the bread and one of the salads (Martin's) have vanished. Some bread and butter has been left for Folly, but Martin's eyeing it in a way that suggests that only manners have kept it on the table thus far and that an offer of it would be graciously accepted. Both of the women suspect that he's waiting with some impatience for the arrival of the promised game hens. Still, if he's talking, he can't be eating.

Folly puts the bread on Martin's plate with an affectionate smile. _Too tired for manners. Eat. Feel better._ She then turns her attention to her own salad. She would probably be eating almost as quickly as Martin, except that her hands are shaking a little, and she keeps pausing to stifle yawns. When she is done with the salad, she pours herself a cup of coffee and sits back to await story or game hen, whichever comes first.

Paige has been nibbling at her salad, her other hand on Martin's, a look of concern in her eyes.

Martin's eyes say _Thanks_ as he wolfs down the rest of the bread. He's a surprisingly nice eater even in a hurry. He pours himself another cup of coffee and takes a long drink before starting his tale.

"I guess", Martin begins, "it's Dad's story you really want, Folly, but you can't really tell a story about Amber and the family without talking about Grandfather, so I'll start with him." Martin says the word "Grandfather" the way some people say "God".

"Our grandfather's name is Oberon, and he's been the King of Amber for as long as just about anyone can remember. That, by the way, is several thousand years. You can stop worrying about your retirement plan now; if you die in the next couple of thousand years, it won't be of old age.

"Anyway, Grandfather has married maybe half a dozen times, and had a score of mistresses. and as you might imagine, he has a castleful of kids. I think there are" and here Martin has to stop and count on his fingers, "eight sons and four daughters still living. There are also quite a few dead: Osric and Finndo" (which seems to be one word) "Eric, Caine, Mirelle ... anyway, we're mostly talking about Dad, here, so we'll fast-forward to Grandfather's last marriage, to Paulette.

"Paulette was very young, and not very stable, and she took a lot of flack from Grandfather's other children. Most of her stepchildren were quite a bit older than Paulette, and they, well, honestly, they thought she was sleeping around on Grandfather. She had two kids, Dad -- Random, that's his name, by the way -- and Mirelle. Both of them were apparently handfuls, and why not? What's more useless than another prince and princess in a castle already overflowing with them? Especially when there's already some ugly succession rivalries among the older sons.

"So Dad came of age with no discipline and no allies, and Mirelle came of age a few years later. In our family, there's a certain ... ritual, I guess you'd call it ... that lets you take full control of your abilities. To walk in shadow, the way Dad does, and Paige and I do, and other things, too, if you study and practice them. Dad's really good; he's got a very subtle touch with -- but anyway, I'm getting distracted.

"The test will kill anyone not of the blood. It's reasonably rough on even a family member, but we're all pretty tough. Mirelle took the test and died, which the rest of the family seems to have taken to mean that she was the result of an affair by Paulette and not Grandfather's at all. Paulette couldn't take the pressure, and she killed herself. Grandfather pretty much stopped bringing women home at that point.

"So Dad was left alone in a really big universe with nothing to do, his mother a suicide, his father's attention divided, and a wild streak about as wide as a bus. He spent his first couple of centuries messing around and doing nothing much. This was pretty normal; it's what a lot of his older brothers had done. Heck, it's what I did."

Martin tells this next part slowly, as if he's picking his words carefully. "Then he did something a little different. He went to Rebma, which is another kingdom near here, and he seduced the elder daughter of Queen Moire. They ran away together, and then she came home, alone. Pregnant. With, um, me. She killed herself, too, before I was a year old. Dad was an outlaw in Rebma after that, so he never came for me. Actually, he never really even acknowledged that I was his until recently, like, um, a couple of weeks ago. Everybody knew, though, and some of my uncles, and Aunt Llewella, who lives in Rebma, were pretty decent about it -- anyway, I'm getting distracted again. This isn't my story.

"Anyway, he kept on messing around in Shadow, which is what he was doing when he met you, Folly. Meanwhile, Grandfather had vanished, and the succession rivalry had not only gotten more brutal, but it looked like one of my uncles had killed another one. Dad got a distress call from one of his brothers, which was why he left Texorami, and ended up as a result of all that in Rebma. Grandmother, Queen Moire, that is, was pretty pissed at him, and gave him a choice of getting married to a woman of her choice or dying. He had to stay in Rebma for a year, too, although everyone figured he would run off after that. He kind of has a reputation as a fuck-up.

"So Dad got married to Vialle, who you'll meet when we go up to the Castle tomorrow. She's actually pretty sweet. She's also blind, which is why she couldn't find a man to marry her, which is unusual in Rebma, where women pretty much run things." Martin again slows to choose his words carefully. "The weird thing is, it seems to have worked. They're in love, and he's really happy with it. When Dad came back to Amber early and tried to kill Uncle Eric, Vialle came and joined him in the dungeon, and convinced Uncle Eric to let him out of jail and under house arrest. Which was where he was right up until Uncle Eric got killed a few weeks ago. Everyone says he's gotten really mellow, and he's decided to take an interest in me, and ... anyway, they're just really very happy together, you know, which is the closest thing to a successful marriage I've ever heard of in the family. Weird." His pained expression says _I'm sorry_ without words.

"After Uncle Eric died and Uncle Corwin took over, he found out about what had happened to me, which is" and here Martin looks at Paige and gets careful again, "a long story of its own and not suitable for discussion over dinner. The key parts are that one of our uncles tried to kill me and that he did it as part of a ritual that messed things up, so Grandfather is having to fix things, and that's the big trouble everyone's been trying to deal with all this time. So Dad and most of the uncles are off fighting our enemies to keep them busy while Grandfather is doing that.

"But I've leapt ahead again. Dad found out that I'd almost been killed, and I guess his newfound inner mellow was harshed, and he came looking for me, and he found me and brought me back to Amber, which is where he wanted me to stay. But I'd been," Martin hesitates, "in contact with Grandfather before that -- he found me after I got hurt, and helped me out, and I'd been running some errands for him. And Grandfather told me I had to go get an unknown cousin -- that's you, Folly -- and gave me a sign to follow, but told me to come back to Amber right away and not dawdle like I did listening to your second set. And he said you knew Dad, and would probably come with me if I showed you his Trump, but he didn't explain how. So anyway, here we are, and I guess this is where you ask all the questions you must be dying to ask me."

Paige chuckles, thinking _An errand? That's all I am? Harumph._

It's at this point that the rest of dinner arrives, and Folly (and Paige) can ask questions as soon as the server leaves.

"I never knew much of that, well... not to that extent." Paige listened thoughtfully the whole while, her own heart breaking so his didn't need to...

Folly has managed, but just barely, not to cry during Martin's story. She seems to be maintaining her composure by fidgeting in mildly self-destructive ways, like sticking her finger into her hot coffee and scraping her fork across her forearm. When she looks at Martin, her expression reveals a longing to comfort and be comforted, thinly veiled beneath the _I'm tough, I can take it_ exterior she's struggling to maintain.

Martin scoots across the floor, where he's been sitting as he eats, and calmly takes the fork out of Folly's hand. Then he calmly gathers Folly into his lap and holds her until she can talk.

Over Folly's head, he looks bleakly at Paige for a moment before turning his attention back to Folly.

Paige's heart breaks.

Folly steadies her own thoughts by concentrating on Martin. She presses her palm against his chest, taking comfort in the rhythm of his heartbeat and the almost-but-not-quite-familiar contours of his body.

When she believes she can speak without her voice breaking, she asks the following questions, becoming gradually calmer, less emotional, more intellectually curious, as the conversation progresses:

"Does he know I'm here?" She's clearly talking about Random rather than Oberon.

Martin hesitates, then says "He's not here to know. He was only here for a very short time himself, before he left with Uncle Benedict and the rest of them." Hesitation again. "I'm sure he would have asked after you if he'd had the chance."

"No.... I mean.... What I mean is...." Folly stammers. She has gone a little pink. She grimaces, trying to regain focus. "Did he know you were sent to find me? I guess it doesn't really matter, but -- well, if he gets home, and he hasn't been warned...." She smiles weakly. "Maybe I'm just overly sensitive, what with our having just spent the evening dropping bombs in each other's laps...."

"When he gets back, we'll deal with it. Dad's gotten -- quite mature, actually -- about dealing with things he might not otherwise want to face," says Martin, an odd expression stealing over his face.

Folly continues: "Why would your grandfather bother with having you retrieve me?" This question seems directed as much at herself as it is at Martin.

"Grandfather does things for his own reasons."

"How, exactly, are we related?" Folly seems a little nervous about the answer. "And," she adds suddenly, "is that why I'm real?"

"Yes, that's why you're real. As for how, exactly, I'm not sure myself. But are you sure you weren't adopted? Or, um," more hesitation, then Martin just says it: "are you sure that your mother's husband is your father? My uncles -- our uncles -- get around a lot, you know." He hesitates some more. "Dad told me some things about his travels, Folly, and I don't think he's been to Texorami but once."

Folly turns an even deeper shade of pink and covers her face with her hands. "Oh, god...." She looks as though she may finally have crossed over the edge of despair -- but when she uncovers her face a moment later, she is laughing, deeply relieved, her mood lighter than it has been all evening. "My family has never talked about it -- I'm not even sure Papa knew -- but I've known for years that he couldn't be my real father. Mum was...." Folly searches a moment for the right words. "Mum was famously licentious in her younger days."

Martin actually laughs at this. "That could be said of a bunch of us, Folly."

Folly continues: "These abilities your family has -- do I have them too, then? How do I learn to use them?"

"We'll teach you," Martin responds.

"Everyone excels in different areas, Folly." Paige says. "They're not some set of laws, they're more like augmenting your natural abilities, but you'll see. It's nothing to stress over."

"What do you mean when you say that things are 'messed up', and how is your grandfather trying to fix them?" asks Folly.

"That's a lecture in advanced metaphysics that makes my head spin. Do we have to have it now or can we eat instead?" Martin asks plaintively.

By now Folly has calmed down enough to remember that she is still quite hungry. "I think the rest of my questions can wait 'til after food, and sleep," she says, digging in to her game hen. When she tastes it, she gives Paige an impressed and appreciative look. "For the last few days, I've been living on beer and uncooked toaster pastries," she says. "You have no idea how good this tastes to me right now. Thank you."

"The clientele's kinda thin this evening, and here in the city, well... there's not that much keeping meat too long." Paige says. The unspoken is, _What's mine is yours. We all need something or someone at some time. You're welcome._

By the time she has finished her food and washed it down with a couple of glasses of wine, Folly's exhaustion has nearly gotten the better of her. "I definitely need to lie down for a while before I can process any new information," she says, "and I think most of what I want to know -- y'know, the nature of the universe and stuff -- is going to take quite a while to learn anyway. I do want to hear your story -- both your stories -- and I should probably tell you a little more about me, too... not that there's that much to tell," she adds, with a quick glance at Martin. "For now, though, I need to sleep, or at least try to rest. I'm zonked." She looks to Paige for further instructions.

Paige smiles softly, "You know where the bed is, and I'm sure Martin can find his way there. We're all mature adults here, no? There's already pillows and blankets galore, but is there anything else you need?"

"Not that I can think of," Folly responds. "I'm generally pretty low-maintenance. Cat-like. All I really need is food, sleep, and maybe a little petting." She smiles her thanks at Paige.

Martin wolfs down about half of what was brought to the table. When Folly suggests bedding down for the night, he says, "Grandfather warned me that the Trumps would go dead and that -- other things might happen before he finished what he was doing. I'd be happier if I stayed in sight of both of you. Why don't you two take the bed and I'll drag a chair into the bedroom. Honestly, I'm so tired I could sleep standing up if you let me."

"Are you kidding? That bed is huge! You should just...." Folly begins, then realizes that Martin may not be especially enthusiastic about sharing a bed with his father's former lover. "You should do whatever makes you most comfortable," she concludes. "Either way, I'm cool with it. Please don't deprive yourself of comfort on my account. And anyhow, we're all so exhausted -- well, except maybe for Paige --" Folly winks at the redhead "-- that there's not going to be much besides sleeping going on tonight...."

Paige smiles back with a sardonic, _Not much?_ visible in her eyes for Folly. _He needs it._

Folly's return look is difficult to decipher, as if she is still sorting through conflicting ideas. Subtle changes in her body language when she catches Paige's meaning -- a little catch of the breath, a slight shift in posture -- betray her interest in the possibility, but she also seems hesitant.

By way of explanation to Folly, he adds: "I rode from Amber to Texorami today. Like what Dad showed you, shifting the shadows. Normally I'd take that ride slower, but, like I said, Grandfather warned me not to dawdle."

"But you decide you had time to watch the second set?" Paige laughs. "You're forever complicating the errands you're given."

Aside to Folly conspiratorially, "Especially when they involve women he's attracted to..."

Folly smirks, then blushes a little.

Turning to Martin, Folly nods. "I haven't gone through anything that strenuous -- unless you count the violent sucking the band did this evening -- but I think I understand the exhaustion level. I haven't really been sleeping, or eating properly, for weeks. With any luck, I'll be asleep within ten minutes." She grabs her satchel and heads toward the bedroom.

When she gets to the double doors, she pauses and turns to face Martin and Paige. "Hey, listen -- I know I've seemed a little unstable, perhaps, this evening. I'm not normally like this. I'm just kinda' stressed at the moment -- physically drained, mentally stunned. Emotionally... smacked across the psyche with a bucket of sharp pointy things. But I'm gonna' be fine. Really. I'm sure I'll feel worlds better after a good night's sleep. Thank you both for everything...." She disappears through the doors to change clothes and get into bed.

Paige follows, "I hope we all feel better in the morning." She walks into the room behind Folly and goes to a large chest at the foot of the bed. She removes a light nightshirt, oversized and shapeless, if a bit thin, and offers it to Folly. "I don't know how much you were able to grab on your way out, but if you need... well, I'm taller, but not that much bigger than you. If it covers my ass, it should cover at least near your knees." Paige laughs as she tosses Folly the shirt.

"Thanks!" says Folly, also laughing. "I've got a few things of mine I could sleep in, but this is much better." She changes into it and crawls onto the bed, sprawling face down on top of the covers. "Mmmph. Bed. Bed good." She luxuriates in the sensation for a moment before arranging the pillows and climbing under the covers.

Paige chuckles as she selects a pair of pajamas and walks back to the door.

"Hey, Merman, here." She tosses him the bottoms, keeping the tops for herself. "Guess this is as close as you'll come to getting in my pajamas tonight." Her smile takes the bite from the words. She steps out of her own pants on the way back to the room. Obviously when she bends over, she's not wearing any undergarments. She removes the velvet top and slides on the pajama top, walking to the bath chamber. Softly she's humming a tune under her breath that sounds like a gospel spiritual.

Reflexively, Folly improvises a countermelody around Paige's tune in a soft, clear, slightly melancholy voice:

"Shall we gather at the river and wash away the past?
Those memories are shadows, we knew they wouldn't last.
Another curtain opens, another die is cast:
We step into the maelstrom -- but can we survive the blast?

"Shall we gather at the river and wash away the pain?
We drown our former selves in lakes of armageddon rain.
An echo in the silence marks the bittersweet refrain:
All roads may lead to Amber, but you can't go home again."

As she sings, the tears she has been stifling all evening flow freely. She pours into the song her mourning, her heartbreak, her fear, expressing in music what she could not convey in words alone, until she achieves a sort of catharsis. She wipes away her tears and settles back against the pillows, her melancholy replaced with a feeling of hopefulness.

Paige is now standing framed in the doorway of the bath, a soulful expression on her face, obviously wanting to hold her, but not wanting to actually be too forward.

Martin changes quickly, out of sight of the door. When he enters the bedchamber, Folly sees that he has a large, ugly scar starting at his lower ribs and running diagonally across his midsection. It looks like someone tried to gut him like a pig. The scar doesn't look exactly recent, but it has not yet started to fade with age. Martin carries himself with a certain self-consciousness that suggests he'd rather no one notice the scar but almost draws attention to it.

Folly now understands why Martin's portrait remains unfinished.

Paige obviously had forgotten when she provided him the pants. _It's just part of who you are, Martin. Nothing more, nothing less. Some scars are just more obvious than the ones others carry._

This is obviously an old argument between Paige and Martin. _If nobody ever saw it again, including me, it would be too soon!_

"If you don't mind," he says, stifling a yawn unsuccessfully, "I think I'll take you up on that offer of a square foot or two of that bed."

Folly scoots toward the middle of the bed. "I saved you a warm spot," she says with a drowsy smile, indicating the space she has just abandoned.

Martin gets under the covers with Folly. He could have used a bath himself, but for whatever reason he didn't take one. Folly notices, perhaps not for the first time, that Martin even smells familiar, especially with the pub scent of the Furrowed Brew still on him.

When he gets settled in, she leans over and gently kisses his temple. She almost seems to be moving in slow motion, so reluctant is she to retreat from the warmth of his body. "Sleep well, Beautiful," she whispers, her look inviting him to fall asleep in her arms.

Folly is not sure that Martin was awake long enough to hear the endearment.

Paige has finshed plaiting her long red hair and goes around the sitting room first, then the bedroom extinguishing lamps and candles before climbing into bed beside Folly.

"Good night, all."

The only reply from Martin is the warm, even breathing that Paige associates with slumber.

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Last modified: 18 Jul 2001