Disclaimer – as per usual, I own nothing except some DVDs and this plot line!
A young woman stood alone in an austere room. Only the most basic necessities were present, a bed, a single chest and a wash bowl. She needed no more than that for her mission in the City. As she stood looking out the window of her apartment, she fixed her eyes on the palace gleaming in the fading sunlight. This room had been chosen for that very view. It gave her all the incentive she needed to stay focused on her goal. Her justice, her vengeance could be found there. Her eyes burned with hate.
I will keep my promise, Father. One day soon, they will pay for everything that has happened to you.
Despite her intensity, most people would label this woman as average. Neither tall or short, thin or fat, she fell into a mid-range of both height and weight. Her hair was a mousey kind of brown, kept long and pulled up as appropriate for a modest young woman. She appeared to be in her late teens, even though she was barely fifteen. Her face, while not fashionably pretty, had a pleasant regularity to its features. All in all, she could have been any one of a thousand girls of the OZ. That was one of her weapons – her very anonymousness.
"The pieces are in place then?"
At the unexpected question, she spun around, eyes widening. She had not heard anyone enter.
A cloaked figure stood before her, a figure she recognized. Although she breathed an inaudible sigh of relief, she snapped to attention. Her leader deserved the respect. The man moved further in the room, taking a seat on the end of the bed and looking at her. He allowed the silence to stretch out, carefully watching her bearing and expression. She kept herself steady and her face both blank and receptive as he stared at her from the shadow of his hood. After several long minutes, he nodded.
"You are assuredly your father's daughter," he said, voice mild with faint approval. "Report."
"Everything is prepared and in order, sir," she replied briskly. "The package is prepared, and three separate dates are scheduled for possible delivery."
"And the courier?" he pressed.
"Yes, sir. The courier is also ready."
He considered her for a long moment. She could feel his eyes weighing her even though she could not see his expression.
"In all likelihood, the courier will be intercepted after the delivery. What policy has been prepared for that probability?"
She took a deep breath, but did not waiver.
"Such an event is expected. Anonymity will be difficult to maintain at that point, and interception is anticipated. Appropriate measures have been organized to ensure the privacy of the sender of the package, should it occur."
"Brave and intelligent – a good combination for one to have; young as you are, I believe we have chosen well. And the second recipient?"
"My apologies, sir," she replied, head bowing slightly in shame. "No word of the second recipient is being discussed outside of closed circles. Although there have been some gossip and idle tales, no two stories agree on that person's itinerary. Some of the information may be accurate, but there have also been some deliberate false trails laid down."
He nodded, and then bent his head in consideration, leaving her at attention. As the minutes stretched out, she forced herself to remain calm and steady, awaiting his next question or response. Finally, he stood.
"Fine. We will worry about getting a delivery to the second person later. As far as the first delivery goes however, it is to be done at the first possible date. It has been long enough, and it is time to start collecting on our due. What is the earliest date you can arrange delivery?"
"In two days time, sir," she answered confidently. "One hour after the morning bells will be our first opportunity."
He paced to the window behind her and stared at the palace, still easily visible in the twilight. Uncomfortable with having someone at her back, her shoulders twitched. However, she did not turn around, but held her position and her posture.
"So be it," His voice rang out, finality in each small word. "It is time."
He came back around, and stood directly in front of her, so close she could feel the anger and the heat radiating off him. An icy trickle of fear ran down her back, but she refused to look away. Keeping her chin high, she focused on the black shadow of the hood. A light chuckle came from within as a hand came up to squeeze her shoulder.
"You fear me, but you do not back down. That is good. Remember who you are…remember your purpose. There can be no greater honor than the path you are about to walk. Know that you carry all of our futures when you fulfill your duty tomorrow. I believe your father would be proud of you. You follow in his footsteps as a martyr to the cause. Farewell and good journey, Elisbet, daughter of Vy-Sor."
With a final nod, the figure walked to the entrance and slid out of the room. As the door shut softly behind him, she waited a few minutes to be sure he did not return. Finally, she allowed herself to slump in relief. Finally it was time. She could at last avenge her father. Soon her revenge would set in motion and with it the coming of the end for the house of Ozma.
Oh, Father, it is time! The beginning is here! The fabled line of Ozma, chosen of Luriline, is going to fall!
No one remained to see as her face glittered with a little smile, her eyes shimmering with madness. She turned back towards the window and to her absorption in the view of the palace.
Day starts way too early around here.
Jeb Cain grimaced as he stood up from behind his desk and tried to stretch out all of the kinks which had formed in his back and legs from being hunched over reports for the better part of the morning. Between the reports on various minor incidents involving the Guard dealing with detractors and malcontents, and the more worrisome missives about increased Longcoat activity, he and his officers had spent six hours inside thus far. His adjutant had at least two more large stacks for him to look at this afternoon. He had long since grown into his role as Commander of the Royal Guard, but he still detested paperwork.
This is the stuff they leave out of the recruitment details! Papers, words, ink, more words, numbers, and more words – my eyes are crossing and I swear I'm going to have nightmares about dying in an avalanche of parchment!
He gave his fellow sufferers a long look and a smile.
"Okay, that's enough," he said, popping his back. "Let's break for lunch, and we'll get back to this in a couple of hours…if you can find my hiding place!"
They laughed with him, just as relieved to escape the drudgery for a short time as he was. Most of them departed the palace to seek luncheon with their families in the city. The few members who still remained single went to the barracks mess hall in order to share their meal with friends and good talk. Jeb, on the other hand, had a previous engagement. He made his way to the privacy of the Royal Gardens.
As he entered the Gardens, he nodded to the Garden Keepers stationed at the gate. These men, and their companions, had been handpicked by himself and his father and then given a nondescript title to hide their true ranking. Their highest loyalty and most profound oaths were to the Royal Family itself. The original plan had them answering to the Queen alone, but she felt that too dangerous in light of the example set by the Witch. They answered to the Consort and Jeb equally – she would decide on deadlocks, but she could not overrule when both of them were in agreement. Unlike the other sections of the Guard, they took no oath to the Guard or to the O.Z. and its people. With the exception of DG, each member of the Royal family had two of the Keepers as their constant companions. More remained stationed around the palace, in the court, and especially around the Garden.
As the Garden remained one of the few places that the Royals held deeply private, it had been determined that a large force of Keepers would be placed here to prevent any kind of infiltration. While fully expecting to deal with the dangerous sort, criminals, malcontents, and the like, they also had to deal with uppity members of the nobility, merchants and craftsmen looking for patronage, and just plain nosy folk who thought that every action of the family had to be revealed and exposed for all of the O.Z. to see.
According to his people, this last group is what had led to the Queen setting up the screening magic that kept the garden and family balconies from being visible. She hated using that kind of magic, but the prying eyes and constant spying had nearly led her eldest daughter to have a nervous breakdown. Finally, she had set up the screens to give her daughter some where other than her rooms to be herself, free from the criticism of watchers. Only the Royal family and a handful of others were permitted to enter the grounds themselves. Two of the most trusted Keepers had a love for growing things, and they had accepted the responsibility of being the Royal Gardeners in addition to their protection duties. Other than these two, only Jeb himself, his father, Glitch and Raw were ever permitted to enter the grounds.
For a moment, his thoughts darkened with concern as his father crossed his mind. Although they received regular letters and reports from the four Wanderers, as the Guard called them, they still seemed intent on circling all of the Outlands before coming back to the city for a visit. With the full quarter of the North yet to visit, it looked to be another year before they made it to Central City once more. The last time he had actually seen them had been the morning they had ridden out towards the west. As his feet confidently followed the path to the central gazebo, he remembered that morning.
Three years ago…
"Are you sure about this?" Jeb asked his father, watching as Cain cinched up the saddle. He chuckled softly to himself…now even he was referring to his father by his surname. A quick, amused glance from ice blue eyes led him to rolling his own. Cain only gave a half smile.
"Yeah," he said softly, looking back to the palace before turning to his son. "This kills multiple birds with one stone. The Outlands have been pushed off long enough in our struggle to get the City back in order. This way we can get a good look at them, and they won't feel slighted with a Princess coming to see them. We can also serve notice that anyone harboring enemies will not be tolerated. Plus my princess there has the authority to make decisions without waiting for instructions."
Jeb raised a sardonic eyebrow and Cain smirked.
"I know," Cain shrugged. "Those are the official excuses. We don't like leaving you. We'd stay if we could, but…this city, these people…they're pressing too close. There's too much noise."
Both of them looked back at the palace to see the final leave-taking between parents and daughter. The sisters had shared a private farewell earlier, and the eldest princess watched from her sitting window above. Despite DG's sorrow at leaving her family, a glow permeated the entire being of the youngest princess. One could almost feel that static in the air at her excitement in escaping. Jeb huffed out a little laugh as she visibly restrained herself from skipping down the steps. Perhaps the only thing more amazing than watching the Queen and Consort give their daughter a blessing to depart had been the wedding the night before.
Much like a romantic legend of old, or a fairy tale told to children, the former Tin Man, rescued from an unjust prison, had won the heart of the magical Princess who had set him free. Even more astounding, he had won the favor of her mother and father, and had been given her hand in marriage. Jeb had stood beside his father to watch as the two of them were bound in unity. Although a small wedding, he could admit it had been touching. With her sister as her attendant, DG had never looked lovelier and his father had shed years before their eyes.
Now, the newlyweds were preparing to ride off with only Glitch and Raw in attendance.
"I'll miss you," said Jeb, "but I do think this is best for you."
Cain smiled and put his hands on his son's shoulders.
"You're ready. This is your time and your place now, not mine. I'll always come when you call, but you don't need me. The four of us just don't fit anymore…if we ever really did. We have to find our own way, and right now it leads out of here. We'll be back, never doubt that."
"I don't. Good luck and good journey, Dad."
The two men shared an embrace, breaking apart as DG joined them. She gave Jeb a brilliant smile before catching him in a hug.
"Jeb, you be careful, and please take care of Az for me?" she asked, pulling away to look up at him. He grinned down at his father's new wife.
"Don't worry, I'll keep an eye on her, and keep her safe."
"That part never worried me. Of course you'll keep her safe…you're a Cain. I think it's in your blood somewhere that you have to protect a Princess."
Cain rolled his eyes.
"Well, if certain princesses were not always getting themselves into one sort of trouble or another…"
"You'd be bored within a fortnight," interrupted the brunette, smirking up at him.
"You two had better gather the rest of your party and get going, or the entire city will be up to see you leave," he said.
"Nope," said DG immediately. "We are out of here."
She began pulling Cain back towards the horses with a scary determination. She obviously wanted to be gone before anyone could find a reason to keep them here or figure out where they were headed. Cain shrugged and gently tossed her up on her horse before mounting his own. He leaned down to clasp Jeb's forearm as an equal. He pinned a serious look on his son.
"Remember, we will always come when you call. Make Az your top priority…let the others worry about Queen and Consort. I love you, son."
With those final words, the four friends had waved one last time and then ridden out in the half-light before dawn.
End of flashback
Coming back to the present, he smiled as he rounded the last hedge before the gazebo and caught sight of his lunch companion. Her every movement graceful and yet open, the eldest princess set out a picnic luncheon under the elegant arches of the structure. Her dark hair hung loose down her back, pulled away from her face by a simple purple ribbon. Her lips curved upwards as she worked, humming a light tune and swaying as she placed each dish. Her eyes which had once been haunted and full of shadows now sparkled in the sunlight as she turned and caught a glimpse of him standing in the path. Turning to face him fully, she gave an impish smile and planted her hands firmly on her hips.
"You, sir," she declared, "are late!"
He continued over to the gazebo at a slow amble. As he drew closer, his affectionate smile turned into an amused grin.
"Oh, am I now? I wasn't aware we had set an exact time."
She folded her arms over her chest and tilted her pert chin up.
"It was implied."
"My deepest apologies, Your Highness," he said, giving a deep bow. "However, you must understand that such common folks like myself simply do not speak 'implicitly' at all well."
She lost the fight with her giggles at the deliberate and exaggerated expression of confusion he plastered across his face. As her laughter spilled out into the garden, he could almost see the plants and flowers responding in a swaying dance. Her very light seemed to enrich the air around her, bringing life and peace and serenity. This above all else had convinced people, himself included, that she had been a victim of the Witch, not an accomplice. It had taken years to bring her a sense of joy again, but now she spread wonder and delight to all who came in contact with her.
"Really, Jeb, the look on your face!" she chortled as she sat on the wooden floor of the gazebo.
He sauntered up the steps and sat down next to her, reaching for two glasses to pour them each a drink.
"Well," he said, giving her a wink. "I should hope I'm not getting 'above' myself. It's not quite the…thing, you know."
She rolled her eyes, annoyance in every facet of her expression.
"Oh, really, the people who mutter on about that! At least you didn't pack yourself off to an estate, hole up and pay tribute…and hope to be ignored when the Witch was in a mood! You actually did something. They should be the ones worried about getting 'above' themselves."
Her exasperation, so clearly expressed in each word, caused him to smile.
"I wouldn't worry too much about it, Milady," he replied, snagging a buttered roll. "They can keep their estates and titles…you couldn't pay me enough to take one."
"I'd give mine away if I could," she nodded. "Only, that would mean DG would have to be Queen, and she hates it even more than I do!"
Her smile turned just a bit sad as she talked about her absent sister. Jeb reached out and flicked her nose lightly.
"Ah, no," he said, shaking his head in warning. "Remember our agreement? No sad faces here! Those have to be at breakfast."
She giggled once more.
"Right! Breakfast is for the sad stuff since everyone still wants to be in bed anyway…by lunchtime, we have to have something happy to discuss," she recited.
"Exactly!" he exclaimed. "So, who's first today?"
"Me, first!" she said, almost bouncing with excitement.
He gave her a perplexed look. She almost never got this animated over something unless a letter from the Wanderers had come in. Since they had gotten a letter just two days ago, it was too soon for that. Lifting one eyebrow in suspicion, he narrowed his eyes at her.
"Okay, Milady, what did you do?" he asked, fighting the smile that wanted to curve his lips.
Her smile morphed into a proud smirk, and she tilted her head to one side as she gave a half shrug.
"Do you remember Lord Eniola? The one that has the mines in the Near South?" she asked.
"Unfortunately," he replied, his nose wrinkling in distaste. He remembered the strange foppish fellow. He had never actually met a man who carried a mirror on his person at all times and spent more effort on his hair than most men spent on their entire wardrobe. The man had shown up to ask for Az's hand in marriage, and had been completely perplexed when the entire Royal family had turned him down.
"Well," she said, drawing the word out. "He came back to court this morning, and began trying to follow me around again."
Jeb frowned, but she shook her head.
"No, it was all right. My Keepers kept him away, but you should have seen how Ginger dealt with him! He kept coming back, again and again and again…I thought Savoie was going to pop a gasket! You'd think Eniola would have taken one look at Savoie's scowl and fled…Sav scares most people silly with just a look. Apparently his Lordship's brains have been affected by all that stuff he uses on his hair."
Jeb laughed. Savoie's ability to frighten people on sight was one of the reasons he had been chosen for Az's personal guard. A peace-loving man with the build of an ox, his ability to stay patient and low-key had won him a favorable review from the Queen, while Jeb's father had recommended him for his sense of fair play and wicked ability with a knife. Savoie had taken two bullets for Az in the past few years. Above and beyond that, she absolutely adored him. For his part, Savoie had an almost paternal interest in the princess. His daughter had been a victim of the Longcoats, suffering terribly at their hands. In Az, he had seen another victim, one he could help as he had been unable to help his daughter.
"So, what did Ginger do?" Jeb asked, reaching for a bit of cheese.
"Well, he tried to saunter his way past Sav to enter the library with me, and Ginger had apparently had enough. She grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and shook him like a disobedient puppy! She then proceeded to lecture him on the multiple points of Court propriety and etiquette that he had so 'callously disregarded' and told him to 'go back to his mother until Lady Yejide had reminded him of his duty'. You should have seen his face!"
Az began giggling once more, and Jeb could not help but laugh. Someone had obviously forgotten to inform Lord Eniola that the Royal Guards and every division attached to them, had members from every class of people and every district of the O.Z. Jeb had decided early that there would be no chance for anyone to complain about an unfair advantage being given to one particular group or section of the country. The Queen had backed his plan with her full authority. He had drawn his force from every people and class.
Savoie may have come from a low caste worker family, but Ginger came from a noble family in the Quadling district. She could claim the title of Countess if she desired, but she had deferred to her younger sister. Her strongest gifts lay in a more physical nature, not the diplomacy and mannerisms required by Court. However, she knew the rules as well as anyone, and she had learned to play the game when necessary for Az's safety. There were some places Savoie simply could not go. However, having a Keeper of noble blood meant that Az was not required to find another companion for propriety's sake.
They brought their laughter back under control, and Az took a long sip out of her goblet. Her smirk still held too much mischief, so Jeb knew he had not yet heard the full story.
"I don't think you've told me everything, Milady," he said, learning forward to meet her gaze.
"Well….," she said, drawing the word out, impish delight in her tone. "I may have…sort of…um…tossed a little magic his direction."
"Magic to do what?"
She ducked her head and played with the ribbon on her dress for a moment before peeping back up at him from under her lashes. As he lifted his goblet to his lips, she gave a small shrug.
"His 'beauty' products are going to backfire on him," she replied.
He choked on his drink. Coughing to clear his throat, he gave her a dark look. She just smiled.
"That wasn't very nice, Az," he said, smiling to assure her he was joking. "How long?"
She scrunched up her nose in confusion.
"How long will the spells on Eniola last?" he clarified.
"Oh," she said. "About a month."
Jeb threw back his head and laughed.
"Serves him right!"
Az started giggling right along with him, and they spent the rest of their lunch sharing laughter and other stories. They did their best to ignore anything beyond the safety of the garden, at least for a little while.