Wyatt Cain sat in an exquisitely uncomfortable side chair in the anteroom, his hat on his knee, waiting. He wasn't accustomed to being summoned like this with no idea as to the reason. His own office was in the Forum of Government, and he spent as little time here in the Spire as he could get away with. Being here always made him feel like a poor relation, just a shabby old Tin Man, although the description hardly fit him these days; as a member of the Queen's Cabinet he was a personage of some import. Even so, he preferred the practical, unadorned halls of the Forum to the Spire's opulence, and he came here only for meetings, or when DG asked him to. "I haven't seen you in a week, come over for dinner," she'd say. "You're working too hard. Take tomorrow off, we're going riding," was another frequent declaration. She pushed, pulled, dragged and cajoled him into having a life, but to be fair, he let her do it.
But he wasn't here today because of DG. He'd been informed this morning that Ahamo wanted to see him, as soon as possible, no details offered.
Why does he want to see me? What the hell does he…
He shut that down, and fast. Speculation would do no good. He forced his legs to be still when they wanted to bounce and his hands to be at peace when they wanted to fidget.
He jumped up. "Yes?"
The Consort's assistant was standing near the door. "His Highness will see you now."
"Uh…thanks." He passed the man without another glance and entered the chamber.
Ahamo was sitting on a settee near the windows. He looked…troubled. A quick sliver of anxiety slid into Cain's stomach…is something wrong with DG?…but he quelled it. Nothing was wrong, he'd spoken to DG that very morning and she'd sounded as well as could be expected. A little preoccupied, but that wasn't cause for alarm. Was it? "You wanted to see me, sir?"
"Yes. Please, sit down."
Great. He wants me to sit down. Can't I just stand up and hear whatever it is and get the hell out? Cain perched on the edge of another masterpiece of furniture discomfort and waited.
All the fidgeting Cain hadn't allowed himself seemed to have been revisited upon Ahamo. "Cain, I asked you here because…well…" He sighed and raked a hand through his hair, which was already unkempt as if he'd been doing so all morning. "I need you to do something for me. For the kingdom, rather."
Cain blinked. "I'm at your service, sir. I'll do whatever I'm able."
"Well, yes. Naturally. That's just it."
Cain waited. Ahamo just kept staring at his hands. "What is it you need me to do, sir?"
"You know of the Queen's illness," the Consort said, his voice going quiet.
The abrupt subject change gave him a moment's pause, but Cain had no choice but to go with it. "Yes, sir," he said. It was a placeholder question; everyone knew of the Queen's illness. The kingdom was already in pre-emptive mourning for their Queen, so long in exile, so welcomed upon return, now with only a few months to live. He felt for the man before him. Separated from his wife for many years and rewarded with a joyous reunion, only to face losing her two years later. As a man who'd lost his own wife, Cain felt a certain kinship with Ahamo, while at the same time the Consort's situation made him realize that in some ways, he had been fortunate. He had lost Adora, but at least he hadn't had to watch her slowly deteriorate before his eyes over many months, as Ahamo was doing. He couldn't imagine anything worse.
Ahamo would survive. It was DG that Cain worried about. Hank and Emily's programming had been irreparably damaged by Azkadellia's virus and they no longer remembered her. Their loss had been devastating for her. Now she was losing her real mother, too, after having had such a short time to know her. Cain's shirts had soaked up DG's tears on more than one occasion, and his inability to comfort her or ease the burden on her never failed to frustrate him.
Ahamo went on. "What isn't widely known is that my wife will be relinquishing her throne in a few months."
Cain sat up a little straighter. "I see, sir." That was news. Her Majesty was clearly not long for this world, but he hadn't known she planned to give up her rule before death took it from her. He was still waiting to hear what this had to do with him. "So, Azkadellia will become Queen."
Ahamo sighed, fixing Cain with a significant look. "No."
Cain was nearly struck dumb. That couldn't mean… "Are you telling me that DG will take the throne when her mother steps down?" He sounded impertinent, he knew, but he couldn't help himself.
"Azkadellia's health is more fragile than is generally known, and she is not confident that her rule would be accepted by the people, so she has abdicated her claim in favor of her sister."
"And DG's okay with this?"
"She says she is."
Cain was speechless. DG had never desired power, or wanted to take the throne herself. She was still so new to the O.Z., to her own identity, to her own abilities. It had been assumed, by himself and by everyone else, that when the Queen died the throne would pass to Azkadellia. This must have been in the works for some time. Why didn't DG tell me? It was juvenile, he knew, but he couldn't help feeling a little hurt that she hadn't confided in him about this, as she did with most things.
"You've been a tremendous help to this family," Ahamo said.
Cain shook himself out of his distraction to respond. "Thank you, sir."
"We've all come to depend on you a great deal."
"Thank you, sir." Cain didn't know how else to respond but to repeat himself.
"Your service record as Defense Minister has been above reproach."
I can't say 'thank you' one more goddamned time. "I appreciate that, sir."
"Which makes what I have to ask you all the more…awkward."
Cain's brain was spinning, trying to imagine all the dangerous, illegal, tiresome, or just plain inconvenient things Ahamo could ask him to do. "What is it, sir?" Had he really been sitting here in this room for his entire life, or did it just feel that way?
Ahamo looked up, meeting his eyes for the first time, and Cain saw that the man was exhausted. "I need you to marry my daughter, General Cain."
DG paced in her study, her sneakers squeaking on the marble floor. She felt sick to her stomach. She couldn't recall the last time she'd been this nervous. "I can't believe I agreed to this," she muttered.
"Will you please sit down?" Azkedellia said, for at least the tenth time. "You're making me dizzy."
"How can I sit? He's in there right now with Father, you know that, right?" She shook her head. "I should have asked him myself."
"You said you didn't want to."
"I should have anyway. God, I can't believe I'm going along with any of this! I shouldn't have to have a husband to be Queen! What kind of a sexist attitude is that, anyway?"
"You don't have to have a husband to be Queen. It's your…particular situation. You're so new, and so young…and there are threats."
"I know all about the threats." She finally sat down, her head falling into her hands.
Azkadellia moved to sit at her side. "DG, we've been through this. I thought you'd made your decision and accepted the necessity."
DG sighed. "I had. But now, knowing that it's all happening…" She looked up at her sister. "How'm I going to look him in the eye? How'm I going to deal with him now?"
"It doesn't have to be different. He's your friend, right?"
DG nodded. "My best friend, or one of."
"Well, that's something. Isn't it?"
DG shrugged. "Maybe a stranger would be better. At least I wouldn't be asking someone I actually cared about to make this kind of sacrifice."
"He may not view it as a sacrifice."
She snorted. "How can it be anything but? Az, Wyatt Cain does not want to marry me. I doubt he ever wants to marry anybody, ever again! If he agrees, it'll be because he feels duty-bound, or because he knows I need it, or just because he wants to protect me like always. Any way you slice it, it'll be a sacrifice." She sighed. "I just hope he can forgive me for asking him to make it."
Ambrose watched Cain pace, waiting patiently for him to say something. At length, he did.
"Why me?" he said, stopping in front of Ambrose's desk.
"Did you say yes?"
"Of course I said yes! What was I supposed to say? 'No, Your Highness, I'm afraid I can't do that, so your daughter will just have to remain vulnerable to sneaky suitors and hostile takeovers?'" Ambrose said nothing, his fingers steepled in front of his mouth, and eventually Cain flopped into one of the chairs facing the desk. "Why didn't you say something to me about this? A little warning might've been nice before Ahamo blindsided me."
"None of us were allowed to speak of it."
Cain shook his head. "What did DG say when she found out who they had in mind?"
Ambrose sighed. "It was her idea."
That got Cain's attention. His head snapped up. "It was?"
"I don't believe you," Cain said.
"It's true." Ambrose leaned forward. "This was all pretty sudden, Cain. No one thought the Queen would step down so soon. And no one thought Azkadellia would abdicate. Until a week ago, DG had no thought that she'd ever become Queen, let alone so soon. She was ready to be the Queen's free-wheeling sister, flitting around the O.Z. doing her little projects and organizing her charities and making an occasional appearance on Az's behalf. She thought it would be Az dealing with the power-hungry neighbors and the pushy suitors and the invaders hunching up to the borders. Then she finds out it's going to be her. The suitors are going to come sniffing after her, a lot of them with their own agendas, the invaders are going to see her as a newcomer, heirless and alone with no one to support her but an otherworlder father and a frail, disgraced sister. Given all that, it didn't take much convincing to get her to agree that she ought to be married before she takes the throne."
Cain stared at his hands. "It just doesn't seem like something she'd accept."
Ambrose hesitated. "You know the guilt DG carries around." Cain nodded. "She feels responsible for Azkadellia's possession, and her mother's imprisonment, and just about everything bad that's happened, whether it's her fault or not. She wants to do what her parents want and fulfill her responsibilities to the O.Z. even if she resents it at times."
"I know. But…why me?" Cain repeated.
Ambrose arched one manicured eyebrow. "You got a better idea?" Cain said nothing. "No, neither did anybody else. She can't possibly meet someone new and trust them enough to marry them, there's no time. When her father asked her who she would choose to stand by her and help protect her throne, who she could trust with this kind of responsibility…I have to say, it took her about half a second to say your name."
Cain was shaking his head. "It's not right. She's still so young. She shouldn't be tied to me for her whole life! She should have the chance to meet someone and fall in love!"
"Rulers don't always get to have that," Ambrose said, quietly. "And you seem willing to give that up for yourself."
Cain stared at his hands. "I was lucky enough to have that once. I'm done. I'm not giving up anything."
"Come on, Cain," Ambrose said, "you're hardly ready for the retirement home. You could fall in love again. Are you willing to become her Consort and give up that…possibility?"
He nodded, his eyes still averted. "If that's what she needs."
"Then you should respect her right to make the same sacrifice, for her kingdom and the security of her rule. If she's willing, it's not our place to question her decision."
"I still don't think I'm the best choice."
"Even if you're not, you're her choice."
"How can I help her fend off invaders and hostile foreign leaders? I'm no diplomat."
"No, but you represent the Queen's forces and the rule of law."
"I'm not of noble blood."
"The Queen knighted you, you're noble enough. Besides, no one cares about such things these days."
"Oh God," Cain groaned, putting his hands over his face. "This is real, isn't it?"
"Cain, I think we all need to quit thinking of this as some great tragedy we're suffering through and started looking on the bright side. A wedding is supposed to be a happy occasion! DG isn't being dragged into this kicking and screaming, you know. She's making the best of the situation she's in, and I suggest you do the same."
Cain jumped up and leaned over the desk. "Glitch, I am going to have to have sex with her. Do you realize that?"
Ambrose recoiled, a little taken aback. "Well…yes, I suppose you are."
"How am I supposed to make the best of that?"
"Is it really so terrible?"
"Yes! Because it's DG! I've never…I don't…oh, hell." He sat back down.
Ambrose watched his friend's face with sympathy. He knew that it was easy for him to tell Cain to make the best of things; he wasn't the one being asked to marry the future Queen. "I know you, Cain. You'd never let DG go into this alone when she's asked for your help."
"Of course not. I just…I don't want to be the thing holding her back from the kind of life she deserves. I don't want to be something she's enduring for the sake of the O.Z., or to please her parents."
"No one wants that. But we all have our crosses to bear, don't we? I mean, look at me. I have a scar down the middle of my skull and a tendency to break into song at the slightest provocation."
Cain chuckled. "One of your many charms, Glitch."
For a few moments, there was silence. "So," Ambrose said, "I think you've kept her waiting long enough, don't you?"