1Her angel had been fading before her very eyes and the fact that it had escaped her attention was breaking Lavender's heart. After the disturbing scene of the previous night, it had seemed prudent to keep a close watch on DG under the revealing light of day. Now that she was taking the time to look, what the Queen saw brought back old fears that she had hoped would remain long dead.
Not since Azkadelia's possession had turned her against her sister had the possibility of losing DG been such a startling reality. Even through their recent trials, Lavender's unfailing belief in DG's abilities had kept all panic at bay. Now, though, that familiar, clutching knot had taken residence in her stomach as she frantically searched her mind for the point when everything had gone so wrong.
The DG that Lavender saw before her was not the daughter she knew and loved. Gone was the bright, open hearted child whose light and laughter had warmed the farthest reached of their cold marble palace and the brave, resilient woman who had saved a nation seemed to have vanished overnight. Only the pale, ghostly shadow of a girl remained.
All of the fire and sass that had caused DG to be such a reckoning force had been drained away little by little until only cold ash and confusion were left behind. There was no spirit or life to be found in her dead eyed gaze, she simply watched the world from behind bleak, ice blue eyes, remote and untouched. DG had locked down everything that made her special, choosing instead to quietly endure.
Gentle hands came to rest on the Queen's shoulders and she leaned back, grateful for the comforting warmth of her consort's body. "What have we done, Ahamo? How could we let this happen to our little girl?"
In the days after the O.Z's salvation, life had been more hectic and hurried than Lavender had ever experienced. There had been the resistence of the Witch's men to deal with and the immediate rebuilding of all that had been destroyed over the long annuals of darkness that covered the land. And then, above all the rest, stood Azkadelia.
One moment she was weak as a kitten, the next a fit of madness would overtake her and it required three strong men to hold her, lest she injure herself. On a good day she was almost the Azkadelia that Lavender remembered from her child hood. On the worst of days she would weep endlessly for hours on end, clinging to DG and begging the younger girl to never let go. Everyday the Queen met with mystics and healers and viewers, all of which assured her that her daughter would make a full recovery given enough time and support.
It was becoming harder and harder to believe, though, when every day brought a new low point. Lavender had lost count of the times she'd gone to her daughter's rooms only to find her huddled in a corner, rocking back and forth and whispering apologies to an endless litany of names or doing her best to scrub flesh from bone as she attempted to wash blood only she could see from her hands. There was never a moment, day or night, that Azkadelia went unwatched and it seemed as though DG had been lost in all the chaos.
Lavender turned to face her husband, brilliant eyes finally welling over when she saw her own concerns mirrored on his beloved features. "She's lost so much and we just expected her to go on as though nothing had happened. We snatched her from the only life and world she knew, set her down in a strange land with no guidance or protection, and yet she still managed to find her way to victory."
The Queen took in the sight of her youngest, engrossed as she was in her studies with Tutor and unaware of prying eyes. The little doll danced at her fingertips now, but there was no joy or delight in the action. There was nothing at all. "She was so strong and capable and willing to give. We all just took and took until there was nothing left."
It seemed that the time for confession had come and Ahamo had been dreading this moment since DG's condition had been brought to their attention in such a dramatic fashion. He drew his wife into his arms, both for the comfort her presence offered and for the fact that he couldn't stand to watch her face as he admitted his part in their daughter's pain.
"If blame should fall on anyone, Darling, then it should rest on my shoulders. I saw them together, knew that there were feelings between them, and still I encouraged you to send him away. The fault for that is mine alone."
Call it a father's selfishness, but DG had been lost to him for so many annuals that he had no intention of losing her again when she had just been returned into the arms of her family. Had he allowed Cain to remain in the picture his daughter would have been gone again before he even had the chance to know her. It had seemed reasonable at the time but now Ahamo could only hope that DG would one day forgive him his stupidity.
He had noticed immediately the emotion flowing between the two, first at the bar and then again when they had all survived the night of the eclipse. Cain was a hard man to read but Ahamo had recognized the look in the Tin Man's eyes whenever DG was near. It was the look of a man in love. To him, she was still the little girl of his memory, but to Cain sh ewas a woman he wanted both body and soul.
The fact that DG would return his feelings so readily came as no surprise. There had always been a wildness to DG that spoke more to his peasant artist blood than to her mother's royal lineage, and so it had always been assumed that DG would follow in the Queen's example and take a commoner as her consort. While Azkadelia had always been more easily impressed by the pomp and circumstance of noble titles and courtly manners, in DG's case Ahamo had spent the early years of her life living in fear of the day she finally took notice of the handsome young men in her guard.
His daughter had chosen well with the Tin Man, but Ahamo needed more time. He simply wasn't ready to lose the child that she had been. When the opportunity arose to place Cain at the head of the army tasked with defeating the last of the Witch's minions, he had jumped at the chance. He was ashamed now at his actions and how little thought he had given to the effect on DG.
The Queen gathered herself, drawing on the inner core of strength that had kept her sane and alive through the annuals of torture she had suffered at the hands of the Witch. Resolve firmly in place, she pulled away from Ahamo. "We all hold blame for the wrong that has been done here. It is what we do now to make it right that matters. Before any action is taken, though, I must first know for myself that this man will be the one to bring DG back to us. I need more than just Azkadelia's word. Tonight we will find the truth for ourselves."
It was an odd group that gathered that night before the doors of DG's rooms. All standing close to the door, tension so thick it sparked in the air, stood that Queen and her consort, Azkadelia, the nervous half-beast Viewer, and the former royal advisor, the still raw scar peeking through his hair and speaking greatly of recent trauma. The ever present guards stood idly by, silently questioning the eccentricities of nobility.
Lavender turned to the Viewer, taking his furred hand in her own. "I know that you have read him, Raw. That you have seen into the Tin Man's heart. I need you to tell me if what I think can be found there is real."
The Queen trusted Ahamo's judgement but she would take no chances with the recovery and future happiness of her daughter. If the Tin Man's feeling weren't true Lavender would have the man put down like a dog before she brought him back into DG's life to destroy what was left of the girl.
A shy smile twitched at the corners of Raw's mouth. He knew well the Queen's objections but even the thought of the feelings that he had read off of Cain when it came to DG made him feel warm and safe. Without hesitation and with a strength that still surprised him, Raw set about expressing to the best of his ability the purity and depth of emotion that resided within the heart of tin.
"Cain love DG. Love her more even than he know. Tin Man would never hurt DG. Hurt himself first."
The Queen turned to Ambrose, seeking confirmation. Even when he'd only had half a brain his loving heart had served him well in finding the intentions of others.
"It's true, Your Majesty. The man would die to protect DG. The fact that he loves her so well and so greatly has never been a question in my mind."
They heard it then, that first whimpering cry that broke the still night air like a shot. Ambrose and Raw exchanged worried glances. The two friends had been growing more and more concerned over the welfare of their princess, but even they had been unaware of the extent of the problem. The princess hadn't been acting like their DG, but the anguish being experienced on the other side of the door was incomprehensible.
It was a quick succession then, from gasping and choking to wailing sobs until, finally, the hall was filled with DG's tortured screams, calling out repeatedly for a man that wasn't there to hear.
When the last ringing echo faded to stunned silence, Lavender turned to Ambrose. Tears flowed freely over her cheeks but her manner was calm and determined. "Wyatt Cain knows and trust you. You will ride at first light. I do not care what it takes, but you will bring him back for my daughter."