Author's Note: Thank you to all my readers, reviewers, and subscribers. This chapter is dedicated to Queen Isabela.
Chapter Forty Five
- Alta Torretta, Heart of the Shining City -
Saturday morning dawned gray and dull, and Azkadellia woke surprised she'd slept at all. Somewhere in the deepest recesses, wisps of a dangerous dream crept along the edges of her consciousness, but when she tried to grasp at it, the misted fragments slipped away.
She needed no reminder of how lonely today would be. Even the weather seemed to be mirroring the mood of Alta Torretta. DG would be in a complete slump, and would act out by being difficult and rebellious. She'd ditch her bodyguard, and wind up underneath of a vehicle in one of the lower level garages, hiding and working on a broken suspension at the same time. Or something equally as strange and crazy. With DG, there was usually no telling, especially when she didn't care or she was using her imagination. She'd always been that way...
Az smiled, though it was faint and short lived. Jeb, just as impulsive as her sister and without the chains of royalty, would have left with his father. Though she was prepared for this, she hated the sinking feeling she got in her stomach. She should be chastising herself for getting attached, for trusting and for feeling such simpering, human emotions; instead, shamefully, she was close to wallowing.
She was going to miss him, and wasn't sure when or if she'd see him again. She was done processing the information, she'd done her best to digest it and move on, and yet somehow still... something inside of her was yanking impatiently, begging for attention. Notice!, it cried out. Care! Feel, damn it!
Caring, feeling... all too hard. It would be so much easier to just forget, to move on. There wasn't time for pining, or for moping, the kingdom needed guidance and the royal family made their sacrifices to give it... she needed to get herself under control... she couldn't let anyone notice, and she'd have to shake DG out of a mood later on as it was. Logically, there was no time for herself.
A chamberlain stood over her breakfast, reciting the days activities, and making sure to punctuate each event with individual importance; to her, however, it was all just come and go, smile and wave. Shaking hands and kissing babies, as DG so succinctly put it. Az tried her best not to yawn as she ate a small bit, and drank her tea. Soon enough, the chamberlain realized that he didn't have her attention; he closed his book with a huff, and left.
Az's hands began to tremble, and she put down her tea, worried she'd dump it onto her own lap; she stared down at her breakfast, most of it uneaten; the thought of putting any thing else in her stomach made her want to throw up. A maid was hovering uncertainly around the fringes of the room, waiting for her to stand, to dress and get ready for the day. But the princess only stared at the table, wanting to crawl back into bed.
She'd wanted to crawl back into bed the day they'd left Finaqua. I should have... we all should have.
Forcing herself to stand wasn't as hard as she'd expected it to be, and neither was starting her day; all in all, once you started moving, it was surprisingly easy to just go off the momentum... Just ignore that nagging feeling deep inside, and it will go away, she told herself, and she believed. By the time her ladies' maid had tied up her corset, she'd gotten her breathing under control, and by the time she'd finished buttoning herself into her dress, the shaking had stopped.
"A car will be waiting downstairs, my lady," the maid said, and left the room.
A car. An appearance... doing what? She hadn't been paying attention.
With a sigh, Azkadellia finished dressing, putting on a coat and gloves. She could feel the cold coming, better than DG could; the autumn was closer now to the beginning of winter than it was to the end of summer. She didn't look forward to winter in the city, where people seemed to make up for the lonely cold by finding solace in whatever loud, unhinged way they could. Though the Northern Palace was her true home, Azkadellia hated the frigid cold, the bitter Ozian winters.
There was a handbag somewhere. Somewhere... Az went back into the bedroom, rummaging on the dresser top, on the chairs. She went to the desk and rolled the top back, pushing aside papers and books... nothing. And then...
"Looking for this?"
Azkadellia whirled around, dark hair flying with the fast motion, to see Jeb leaning casually in the door frame, holding the bag out to her. Her eyes widened as she took the bag wordlessly, watching him warily.
"Thank you," she managed, taking a stab at politeness. Her hands had begun to shake again.
"You ready to go?" he asked her; it was then she noticed he was dressed in the uniform of the palace guard, something he'd been refusing since their arrival in Central City, in the dead of the night. The smirk that crossed his face infuriated her. Her lips settled into a scowl, curving unhappily downwards.
"I see you're still here," she said curtly. Jeb only nodded, watching her with an amused twinkle in his hazel eyes. Taking a deep breath, she tugged at the bottom of her coat nervously. "Is Andrus still denying your transfer request?" she asked him, managing to keep a straight face while looking him in the eye.
"No, I stopped filing them."
Az's eyebrows perked up, despite her need to stay firm. "You don't want to accompany your father?" she asked, this time cautiously.
The smile on Jeb's face broke into a full grin, one that always seemed to melt her resolve; though she tried to steel herself, she was quickly falling the way she always did when he was around. "Oh, I'll go if he ever needs me to," he said, with a nonchalant shrug of his shoulders, as if this, the recapture of the Witch's cruelest general, didn't matter. When he looked at her, there was something deeper in his eyes, unspoken but ever present. "But right now, I've got other responsibilities."
Az opened her mouth to speak, but found the words she had ready weren't the ones she wanted to say.
Tell him you're glad he's staying. Tell him you're happy to see him. Tell him... don't tell him... The back and forth inside her head made her wonder if there wasn't someone else hiding in there, deep down.
So instead, she nodded, accepting of what he'd told her. That he was going to stay with her until he was called. He wouldn't chase Zero into the wilderness, wouldn't comb every corner of the Zone with his own eyes. He'd stay in Central City with her, because somewhere along the line, it had become the two of them. She'd been tossed a line, when she was floundering in the wake of her possession, when hers was the face that every person in the kingdom associated with misery and horror; she'd been given a new chance, and he would be behind her while she tried and gave. And gave... and gave.
"Are you ready to go?" he asked her, interrupting her thoughts. With a weak smile, she nodded. Her hand touched her hair once, in its elaborate, heavy up-do. Jeb stepped towards her, and with an encouraging twist to his lips, took her hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. "You look fine. Don't worry." He nodded towards the sitting room, towards the door to the hallway.
Az was quiet for a long moment, before she nodded, and walked past him, thinking he'd fall into step behind her; instead, she found herself toppling against him into the door frame as his arm shot out to grab her around the waist. With a yelp, and the tiniest hint of a laugh, the princess shoved him away as she straightened herself. Tugging at the edges of her coat again, she found herself smiling at him indulgently as he leaned against the door frame once again, grinning at her.
"Shall we?" she said hesitantly.
He winked at her. "Come on, your Highness," he said, holding out an arm for her to take. "Let's go play with the big kids."
- Alta Torretta, Heart of the Shining City -
DG found that life at Alta Torretta was a series of small compromises. She wore (literally) breathtakingly beautiful but restrictive gowns chosen by either her mother or her sister, and she got to wear whatever she wanted during time that was solely hers – which wasn't often, but pointing that out did little good. She studied language and diction at her mother's request, just so she could practice self-defense with Glitch. She helped to entertain guests and impress big shots during supper almost every evening, and got private, twice weekly brunches with just her family, without even a serving staff. She'd felt that one was her greatest triumph.
She fell into her bed exhausted every night, and dragged herself unwillingly from it every morning; she learned early that being magically removed from the bed by Azkadellia was an unpleasant experience. Mostly, she didn't dream, but when she did, it was the dream of the Papay fields, and of Wyatt Cain standing under her tree.
God, she missed him. Not like she'd miss her shadow, if she ever managed to ditch him for long enough, and not like she began to miss her sister when the days ran too long. Not like she missed her nurture units, a quiet desperation in her heart that echoed with a tiny voice. This was... pain. Opaque and tangible, and at times so overwhelming that she hid from it, forcing Cain far from her mind so that the thought of him wouldn't consume her.
"You're thinking about him again," Az would say too often, as if she knew everything. Did something show? Sitting crossed-legged on Azkadellia's bed, DG touched her own cheek. Her sister was smiling at her.
"Have you told Mother and Father yet?" Az asked delicately, as if she'd just pointed out to her sister she'd had something in her teeth. Moving on... DG thought with a smile.
She shook head. "Not quite sure how to bring that one up," she said with a sigh. "Oh, by the way, you don't have to go find me a prince, I got me a Tin Man?"
"The captain is much more than just a Tin Man, DG," Az told her quietly, and from across the room, DG felt her heart swell in appreciation for her sister. "He's a hero, and so are you. They might be... well, I won't lie." Here Azkadellia paused, and DG could feel herself inwardly flinching. Avoiding her parents was her only plan at the moment; every time she saw them, she was afraid the secret would fall straight out of her mouth if she tried to open it to speak. DG hid her face in her hands as her sister continued to speak. "They aren't going to be happy about it. I don't think they imagined this would happen."
"In my defense, I didn't either," DG pointed out. "Neither of us did. It just... okay, maybe everyone but us did."
"I think Daddy is already suspicious," Az said, a tiny smile gracing her pretty lips.
DG couldn't help the thoughts that began to crank through her brain. If her parents found out some other way, then she wouldn't have to tell them. Az, though, seemed to be able to read her mind, because her sister was shaking her head at her before the thoughts had even finished.
"You need to tell them yourself. Don't let court gossip ruin it for you."
Oh yes, the gossip. She knew enough from living in a small town, gossip was an evil, malicious entity, something that could grow and feed like fire, a living, all consuming being. She didn't want Cain to come back to Central City to find everyone whispering behind their hands. He wanted to keep it private, simply to be able to hide behind anonymity while he was on the road. That could possibly be destroyed, if he was suddenly proclaimed as courting the princess. They'd be outed eventually, and probably prematurely, she knew it, and knew he did too. There would be more trouble from the Queen and Ahamo, if they found out she was sneaking around. Honesty, and all that...
It took her another two days to talk herself into it. She paced ten minutes outside the audience chamber, knowing her mother and father sat alone within. She'd waited for this opportunity, why was she balking? Hass was standing along the wall, and though her back was turned to him, she knew he was smiling at her, knowing exactly what she was fretting over.
Finally... "Wait out here, I'll only be a few minutes," she said, straightening her shoulders.
Hass nodded. "Good luck."
She wanted to sneer at him, to give him some smart ass comment in return, but she found her mouth had become surprisingly dry. Swallowing hard, trying to chase away the fear and doubt that had settled somewhere in her throat, she knocked on the door, three hard raps.
The guard waiting in the audience chamber opened the door for her, bowing a greeting. "Princess."
It just didn't sound right coming from anyone else's mouth...
DG chased the guard from the room; he was more understanding than most, giving her a sympathetic, indulgent smile as he repositioned himself on the other side of the door, out in the hallway. As the door swung shut, she made eye contact with Hass, and for the very smallest second, she thought she saw a glimmer of encouragement somewhere in his face. Maybe it wasn't there, maybe she didn't catch it fast enough, but it was gone too soon and the door was closed.
"My angel," her mother was saying in the soft, willowy voice that was so much like a beautiful breath of wind.
Both of her parents were staring directly at her, their welcoming gazes all too much. DG cleared her throat, swinging her hands nervously. It was getting late, and the lamps were lit; her mother was sitting behind the desk, adding her signature to an ever growing pile of documents. Her father was stretched out lazily on a suede chaise lounger, a glass of what she assumed was some sort of Ozian spirit, the liquid clear and the glass half-empty. He smiled, and motioned for her to take a seat on the sofa opposite him.
"On your way?" she asked him, nodding at the glass.
The smile widened, and he sat up straight. "Already there, sweetheart."
Oh, yes, because that makes things so much easier, she thought with an immediate scowl. That was just wrong. She pointed a finger directly at her father, and his eyebrows shot up into his unruly blonde hair. "Call me 'sweetheart' again, Seeker, and you're the guinea pig during my next lesson with Tutor," she snapped, suddenly nervous again.
The Queen looked up from her papers at her daughter's sudden outburst. "DG, what's wrong?"
DG opened her mouth slowly, and then closed it again. "Nothing is wrong, Mother," she said carefully. She turned back to her father, looking contrite, or trying her best, at least. "Sorry, Dad. Just... I have a name, could you please use it? No one else does." There, that sounded like a good enough reason... did he buy it?
Ahamo smiled at his daughter, and pushed himself to standing. DG expected him to sway, but he stood firm on his feet. Not as drunk as she'd thought... maybe it was for the best. She didn't want to tell an ill-tempered, inebriated ex-Seeker his baby girl had been rolling around in the forest undergrowth with a certain semi-retired Tin Man.
"She looks guilty," Ahamo observed. "You used to look at me like that when you were a little girl." He studied her for a moment, and then his face took on a strange, impassive mask. "What did you do, DG?" His tone was firm, no nonsense.
"Why do you think I did something?" she asked, almost laughing at the absurdity of the face he was giving her. She studied him back for a moment, giving him a good look-over, trying to emulate Wyatt at his most calculating. She even managed the same pained look he got before speaking. "Fine. You're right. I've got to be honest." DG nodded, affirming to herself. She looked at her father, continuing to nod.
"You've got to be honest about what, DG?" her mother asked. She rose from her chair, coming around the desk. Despite herself, DG found herself gazing in awe at the way her mother moved, the even, careful steps. Her mother was prompting her, looking at her expectantly.
DG bit her lip. "I've fallen in love," she said low, not knowing what else to say. Her brain threw around words... dating, courting, boyfriend, lover, and for some God awful reason the term knockin' boots... none seemed to fit and for the life of her, she couldn't make her mouth form his name.
The Queen gave a small gasp, which caused DG's shoulders to slump right away. Her father smirked, an indulging gesture that made her angry... Hank had given her that smirk once, when she was around fifteen. Come to think of it, she might have proclaimed the exact same thing, only it was over the shell of a wreck of an old motorcycle she'd found in a junkyard. That had worked out all right... she and that motorcycle had had a good relationship.
"Your bodyguard? The... the shapeshifter." Ahamo waved absently at the door to the hall. "Him?"
DG laughed. "No, no," she shook her head. She put her hands on her hips, looked at the floor. The design on the tile was intricate, beautiful... "No, not Hass. Oh my God, no." She laughed again. That was kind of funny... oh, she was too, too nervous.
Her mother made a small sound in the back of her throat. "Who is it, angel?"
DG closed her eyes, and ran a hand through her hair. When she opened her eyes, both her mother and her father were watching her. "Do you really not know?" she asked. Her mother quirked her head to the side slightly, subconsciously turning an ear towards her daughter; Ahamo's face, however, hardened before the words left his daughter's mouth. "It's um," she said, coughing a little, "it's Captain Cain."
The stillness that followed was something she doubted she'd ever forget. DG looked at her mother; the Queen had closed her eyes, and was taking a slow, calm breath. When she opened her eyes, the Queen's face was unreadable, but certainly not unhappy; DG took this as a good sign. And then... a very unfriendly growl.
"Oh, you think so, do you?" Ahamo grumbled.
DG considered her father for a moment, but when she spoke, her voice was stronger than she'd anticipated. "Yeah, I do, actually."
"I must say," her mother said slowly, holding up a hand and causing Ahamo to take a step back. He glared at his daughter, angry, but still listened to his wife. Interesting... I'm gonna have to learn that trick, DG thought. The Queen continued, "This is certainly unexpected, DG."
"Yeah, it was," DG admitted, thinking of the 'certainly unexpected' first kiss in his prison cell, of the 'certainly unexpected' clandestine moment in the thicket before the Longcoat run-in. Closing her eyes, she shook it off, sure that now was not the time to think about such things. "Unexpected, definitely. But it's not a bad thing." She looked at her mother beseechingly. "Is it?"
Before her mother could answer, her father spoke up. "Is this why he's agreeing to go with you, after the Eclipse?" Ahamo asked. His fists were on his hips now, and his voice was strained as he tried to control his tone.
"He would have gone anyway," DG said, more certain of this than of anything else. She tried to ignore her father now; she'd known that he'd be upset... he wouldn't be her father if he wasn't, and somewhere deep down she was glad he was concerned enough to feel so angry. Way deep down... up in her head, though, she was just as angry back. But she bit her tongue, not wanting that fight.
"What are your intentions, DG?" her mother asked.
DG blinked once. Was she really being asked what she wanted, what she intended to do? She thought about it, unprepared. "Well," she said slowly, "we want to keep it a secret for as long as possible. We can announce it later. After... everything."
Her mother nodded. "It would certainly be joyous news for the country to hear, after so much darkness."
DG shook her head. Was she hearing right? Joyous news?
"I don't like it."
DG turned to her father. "You don't have to like it. He's a good man, and he's the reason I'm alive. The reason I got anywhere the week before the Eclipse was because of him." She remembered back to the tavern in the Realm of the Unwanted, the standoff between Cain and the Seeker. "This is my choice," she said, and took a small step back. She was done... what else could she say?
She was ushered from the room less than ten minutes later. Ahamo had not given a single inch, and she doubted he would for a while; after all, her stubbornness had to come from somewhere. Her mother was more accepting, though she had yet to figure out why that was. Perhaps because she trusted her daughter, perhaps because she knew the inevitable when she saw it.
Hass was waiting for her, and fell into perfect step a few feet behind her as she headed towards the lift, her own room, and her bed. Once they were safely encased within the elevator, and the doors were closed, he spoke up. "How did they take it?"
DG rolled her eyes, but found herself smiling. "Like parents."
- Beyond the Walls of Central City -
Wyatt Cain left the stable near dusk. It was a one-mile walk into Central City, but he'd been moving around the stable long enough, settling the mare, old Juniper, in the rented box stall; walking into the city was not a problem. With his pack over his shoulder and his hat pushed low, not a single person bothered him as he made his way down the Brick Route towards shining beacon that was home.
Tipping his hat at the gate guard as he passed, he shrugged his pack tighter as he entered the city. It was magic hour, and the streets were beginning to get crowded. He was stopped twice, once by an old drunk who remembered him fondly, and once by a young woman who giggled too much, asking him for directions. By the time he reached his building, he'd bumped shoulders with more people than he'd seen in the last week.
A shower was on his mind, and a change of clothes. Then to track down his son, and visit DG quickly; after that, he'd worry about food and sleep. The next day was already dedicated to filing reports, sitting at his desk at the Armoury; somewhere, he'd need to squeeze in at least two meetings.
Four days, maybe five, until he was on the road again. It wasn't much, but it was better than nothing.
The apartment was dark, and tinier than he remembered. Being out in the open for so long did something to his perceptions, maybe. He tossed the pack down on the floor, put his hat and duster down on the table, and made immediately for the bathroom. When he'd stepped into the shower, the hot water on his skin was a blessing sent straight from the gods on his aching muscles; out in the far reaches, inns and running water had been few and far between.
He stayed under the stream of hot water longer than he'd meant to. Swathing a towel around his waist, he made his way into the bedroom dresser for a clean set of clothes. He'd just hitched his pants over his hips and buttoned them when there was impatient knock at the door.
Smirking, he shrugged his arms into a shirt, leaving it hanging open as he stepped into the small kitchen. He'd expected to have to hunt Jeb down, but it seemed his son was a little more up to speed on things than he'd imagined. With a surge of pride, he unlatched the door, and pulled it open. "Didn't take you long, Jeb," he grumbled, though his tone was good-natured. When he looked up, he was surprised to see DG grinning at him.
"Wow, Cain. Just so you know, your Tin Man senses? Way off on that one. I figured you'd smell me at the end of the hallway," she teased, and her eyes twinkled mischievously at the thought that she'd gotten something by him.
Cain gave her a patronizing look, before his eyes steeled and shot towards Hass who was standing against the wall, trying his very best to suppress a smile. Fighting down a growl, the Tin Man couldn't have been less impressed as he snapped at the corporal. "You left the palace grounds with her?"
The corner of Hass's mouth twitched upwards just once. "You told me to let her get away one day, sir, and stop her before she found trouble."
DG looked back at Hass over her shoulder. "He jumped out of the shadows just as I tried coming into the building," she explained, before looking back at Cain with a brilliant show of teeth.
Cain frowned; it was just one of the many things he was finding hard to believe at the moment. "Why didn't you take her back to the palace, then, Corporal?" he barked. Swells of conflicting emotion were bouncing back and forth inside his head, and after so many weeks on the road, he was finding it hard to concentrate on the foremost anger when DG was grinning at him the way she was. So proud of herself, the brat.
Hass shook his head. "She's got her determined face on," he said, and there was a hint of amusement hidden somewhere in his most serious, deadpan tone. Somewhere in the intervening weeks, the corporal had gotten a handle on his charge; Cain felt relief from an unknown strain, and he felt his jaw relax.
DG glanced over her shoulder, the wattage of her smile never dimming as she shifted from Cain to Hass. "I am going to need to talk to the captain privately," she said, lowering her voice to a whisper. "You get to keep lookout, okay?" She was taunting him, making sure the corporal knew that though he might be paid to guard her life, he was not in charge of it. One look at the young corporal told Cain this was the worst the princess had done since he'd left, so he felt strangely tolerant of her behavior... that, and he'd missed her, more than he cared to admit.
"You're going straight back to Alta Torretta, DG," he said, but he stepped back to allow her to enter the apartment. Hass lifted an eyebrow questioningly. "She'll be out in ten minutes," Cain said.
Hass's lips trembled with his effort to keep a straight face. "Seven," he said firmly, before walking down to the end of the hallway, and taking his position at the top of the stairs. Satisfied, Cain closed the door, and turned to DG.
She was sitting on top of his small kitchen table; the artificial light filtering in from the window showed the outline of her, masses of curls tumbling down her back. When Cain flipped the light on, but with a wave of her hand, DG turned it off again. "How was your trip?" she asked in an innocent, teasing voice.
Cain smirked, and crossed the room. When he stopped a foot away from her, his eyes adjusting to the light, he could see her a little better. A full-toothed grin was etched permanently into place on her beautiful lips, the most amazing 'Welcome home' he could ever get.
"Trip was long," he said with a groan, as she reached out to grip his open shirt in her hands, to yank him forwards. She settled him into the cradle of her thighs, looking up at him. He smiled down at her, glad for the sight of her, that grin, the curve of her thighs on his legs. "Wasn't much to be found out there."
DG's face changed ever so slightly, as she realized her teasing had led to grownup talk. "Ambrose said you managed to ferret out a couple of Longcoats."
Cain nodded grimly. "Eight, all said and done. Not many, and none of them knew anythin' valuable."
There was silence then, as there was nothing to say. He felt her fingers playing at the button holes on his shirt, and he reached up to take her hands in his. Now... now wasn't the time for talking anyway.
With a deep sigh, Cain took another good, long look at his princess. She only stared up at him, returning his gaze, her sky blue eyes pouring love as her body poured her warmth on him. He lifted a hand to her hair, running his fingers through the tresses, entangling at the back of her neck. She let her head fall back expectantly, and he didn't waste a second disappointing her, placing a long awaited kiss on her lips; she was soft, breathing life into him as she moved against him, tongue seeking, tiny moans escaping like sighs.
Her hands ran up his bare chest, stopping to grip at his shoulders, pulling him towards her. The kiss deepened, as it always inevitably did, his tongue running along hers, that familiar taste of her, the sweetness of DG. When he pulled away, it was because he had to, or he would run the risk of scooping her up and carrying her to his bed.
Seven minutes, no matter how much he'd missed her, just wasn't enough.
DG pouted, but seemed to understand. "Will you come back to the palace and see Jeb?"
Cain nodded, glad for the change of topic, the distraction away from her warm hands on his shoulders. His hand was still in her hair; taking a moment to extract themselves from each other, Cain smoothed his hand down her neck, her back; DG went to the buttons of his shirt, doing them up for him.
"He'll be glad to see you," DG said absently, as she maneuvered the small buttons. "You were taking so long, he was starting to get this look in his eye. I think another few days, and he would have headed out to find you."
Cain smirked. "Sneakin' you out with him, no doubt."
DG looked up at him, feigning offense. "Me? Never." She finished her work, leaving the top two buttons undone; she leaned in to place a kiss on the triangle of flesh left exposed. Tilting her head back again, she nuzzled her nose into his Adam's apple. "Missed you," she breathed softly.
He closed his eyes. "I missed you, too, darlin'." He felt her shiver against him.
DG hopped down off the table as Cain finished getting dressed. When he'd placed his hat on his head, she pressed close again, stealing a kiss from under the brim. Cain opened the door to the hallway for her, ushered her through. "Thank you for walking me home, Tin Man," she said, her voice conveying more than just those simple words – pure love, appreciation, respect, all showing without the need for words everything she felt, everything that had resonated so sharply during this last, long separation.
Where the next ten months would lead them, neither knew, and after that... her Light would be the only thing to push back the darkness they faced, and he would protect her, as he'd done since her arrival in the Zone. The Old Road was long, and every bend in the road brought them to a new place, to a new challenge. What they would face, they would face together. And with that assurance, he was able to lead her home.
Cain and DG's adventures continue in Until the Fall.
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