If only I could tell him. If only I could tell somebody. The year of mourning for DG had finally come to an end and the best part of a month had elapsed since she had left off the veil, feeling ashamed and angry, feeling like a fraud. Ambrose had been there at the funeral, clutching a small clockwork songbird he had made for the youngest princess and, when all others had departed, the Queen had watched in anguished silence as he placed the bright little contrivance beside the grave and stood, a hand pressed to his eyes, and wept while the little bird filled the air with a pure, liquid cascade of notes.
No-one can know. It was too dangerous. Ahamo had been gone for six months - an extended 'mission of diplomacy' to the Munchkins, the official story claimed, but how long before the questions began? How long before she would have to admit that he was not coming back? A story would be required, and one that would quickly pervade the Realm so that Azkadelia would not pry too deeply. An accidental death, perhaps? Or would the new tragedy, compounded with the supposed death of her angel, her best-beloved daughter, weaken her in the eyes of the O.Z.? Something else then - an opportunity to remind the world that she was still strong. A banishment - another lie to add to her growing catalogue. Let him be banished, and his name obliterated from every record. It would be painful - one more test of her heart, but it would allow her consort to slip away, the Whithervane safe in his possession. Leaving her alone, with Akadelia growing in power, pawing at her mind in the night like a cat with a tightly ravelled ball of yarn. Gentle for now. Testing. How long before she showed her claws again?
My Azkadelia... what has become of you? More than that: What are you becoming?
She realised that she was still toying with the device, and looked up at Ambrose with a wan smile. His own smile faded.
"Majesty... you don't look well at all. Perhaps you should rest." And that was Ambrose all over, she thought, fondly. Not many members of the court, even now, would dare to tell her she looked anything other than radiant. But if the inventor was ever tactful, it was most always by accident - he had a way of speaking his mind, no matter who was listening. And in spite of his tendancy to become distracted as each new flurry of ideas struck him, when he was there - both physically and mentally - there was a great deal of wisdom in the things he said.
Not alone after all, perhaps?
"It's nothing, Ambrose. Just my head... sometimes it aches. I should borrow your spectacles for all of these crop reports, perhaps." Ambrose glanced over at the thick sheaf of papers sternly, as if they had deliberately and maliciously strained the Queen's eyes.
"You have people in court to read these things, Majesty."
"Nevertheless, I wanted to see then for myself. This blight is affecting us all, City and Realms, and I cannot chance missing even the smallest detail." She also let her eyes rest on the reports, aware of a deep well of horror that had been filling inside her ever since she had found DG's motionless form. The revival of her daughter had drained the well to begin with, but now every new missive the envoys brought to her spelled a growing disaster that might well be beyond her remaining power to avert. The blight and Azkadelia. Azkadelia and the blight. The two were twisted together like poison vines, and the Fates only knew what dreadful flowers were yet to bloom.
Ambrose gently took the brass gadget - no larger than a pocket watch - from her hands and tucked it away in his waistcoat, then nodded towards the crop reports.
"I'm no farmer, but might I look these over? Something might occur to me..." The Queen inclined her head gracefully, hiding any hint of hope - it would be unfair to expect anything to arise from his whim, yet she was suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling that there was something momentous about this small moment. Unsettled, she cleared her throat delicately and, casting about for a change of subject, gestured towards the slight bulge of the... what had he called it?
"Ambrose, you really must think of some simpler names for your devices. You never told me what it does..." She bit her lip, amused by the childlike enthusiasm that lit his face at the opportunity to talk about his invention.
"It's a... well, it's a location device, for... locating things! Well... people." Ambrose coughed self-consciously. "Well... me, at the moment. It's a prototype." He took the little gadget out of his pocket again and must have pressed some hidden lever, because it sprang suddenly to life, a soft golden glow filling the filigree, blossoming outwards from the centre to suffuse its surfaces. Glancing down in surprise, the Queen noticed a fine tracery of light drifting over her sleeve before falling away to skim the grass beneath her chair. "Ohh, don't worry about that, Majesty. It's just taking a look around." The reports clutched, forgotten, against his chest, he launched cheerfully into a convoluted explanation from which the Queen managed to glean a handful of comprehensible facts: the device could somehow learn its surroundings, a tiny portable memory, beacon and map combined, tracing its skein of questing light over nearby trees or distant mountains with equal, absurd ease. Its appetite was as eclectic as it was voracious, drawing power from the molten light of the afternoon suns, from the movements of its bearer and, failing all else, from a tiny clockwork mechanism buried somewhere in its heart. She let herself be carried along on the gentle, cryptic flow of technical detail, occasionally picking out words like 'gyroscope matrix' and 'intuitive landmark mapping' like a woman selecting favoured bonbons from a dish, before giving up on understanding with a laugh and a graceful shake of her head.
"I'll satisfy myself knowing that you won't get lost between here and Central City." Ambrose stared at her, open-mouthed and faintly indignant. "Again," she needled, unable to resist.
"Majesty! I did not get lost. That was a-a-an unplanned diversion." He nodded decisively, as if she'd agreed with him, and she made no attempt to keep her face straight this time. Oh, but it felt good to smile. She'd watched herself in the mirror, the premature greyness of her hair framing her pallor, and seen herself becoming narrow and drained, birdlike with unwelcome fragility. Like something out of a Munchkin myth, she'd thought, and drawn a cloth across the mirror's unflattering eye, wishing that Ahamo was there to warm her and remind her she was not just a queen but a woman. It hadn't escaped her that Ambrose felt something for her, something deeper than a courtier's respect or a friend's affection, and in quiet moments like these she'd wondered what it would be like to let him hold her and to bury her face in the dark curls he tried so hard to tame into respectability. Just for a moment, to let the weight of the Realms lift from her shoulders and simply be held and comforted. No. I couldn't do that to you, dear Ambrose. Even if you'd welcome it, I couldn't use you so selfishly. The burden was hers to bear, and there would be no abdication, either from rule or from responsibility. She felt the decision settle on her heart like a physical weight, but refused to let go of her smile. It's only a small thing but, by the Gale, she won't take it from me without a fight.
"Ambrose," she rejoined, "you could get lost in your own rooms. Why do you think I forbade you using the Maze Gate on your own?" Ambrose drew himself up to his full height and she tried not to giggle.
"I stopped to watch some interesting butterflies."
"For three hours?"
"They were very interesting butterflies," he insisted, with an air of slightly dented pride.
"They must have been," she agreed solemnly, but laughter overtook her, a clear chime of merriment on the slow summer air. Ambrose smiled at her gentle teasing, apparently happy to be the source of her amusement if it gave her respite from her cares, and turned the device in his hand, letting its arcs and meshes of searching light dance over his face.
"What would you have me call it, then? Something short and hard to forget." It was a minute before she answered, because a bright line of light had paused momentarily in its gliding travels, bisecting him from brow to chin, and something cold and awful had uncoiled briefly inside her. Then it was gone, and the suns were warm upon her skin once more, and the lights had slipped away to explore other playgrounds.
"You might cast modesty aside and give it your own name. The Goldstraw Positioning System..." Perhaps I should rest, if I'm to start jumping at lights as well as shadows. The Queen cast the thought aside and watched Ambrose trying the name out speculatively. "It would certainly be easier to remember than..."
"...the Intuitive Data-Aggregating Topographically-Referenced Portable Location Beacon," he completed smoothly, then shot her a guilty little grin. "It doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? G.P.S. it is, then." He suddenly seemed to remember the sheaf of paper he was holding, and his expression grew serious. "I should take a look at these - if you'll excuse me, Majesty?" She inclined her head and he stowed the device away in his pocket once more before rising to his feet.
"We intend to call the Council to assemble the day after tomorrow. Perhaps you should attend." She nodded to herself. "You'll be sent for, Ambrose - if you have any thoughts on what might be done to help the farmers, we would be glad to hear them." He bowed, recognising the formality of her speech as his cue to withdraw, and made his way towards an ornamental stone path, already turning the pages of the first report. She smiled.
"Ambrose?" He stopped in his tracks, and blinked as she pointed in the opposite direction.
"That would have been my second choice," he mumbled, and hurried past her, suddenly very intent on the pages of the report. At least, with his little device, he shouldn't get too lost, she reflected, watching him make his way up the gentle incline that led away from the lakeside, and wondering whether he shouldn't have named it a Portable Ambrose Locator instead.