Author's Note: Blanket disclaimer, do not own. This story is dedicated to my readers, those who've been with me since "Of Light" and all those who've found me along the way. I do this for me, and I do this for you. This story includes the introduction of Carver Lindsey, a.k.a. the Hot Longcoat from the final battle at the end of the mini-series. Enjoy!
Concerning the Rating: It will change when the plot dictates. Consider yourself warned if you don't want to start a story that will eventually change in rating.
Spoiler Warning: For everything ever.
'Til Kingdom Come
"Hm!" said the Scarecrow, thoughtfully. "If it is such hard work as you say, how did the women manage it so easily?"
"I really do not know," replied the man, with a deep sigh. "Perhaps the women are made of cast-iron."
L. Frank Baum, The Marvellous Land of Oz
The council table in the Silver Hall was made to seat thirty-two. A great behemoth of heavy pearlwood and ornately carved serpentine, the table was as old as the palace itself. It dominated the council hall, this ancestral table, a shadowed ghost of what had once been. From the high gallery that overlooked the hall, another fifty or more people could stand to look on and listen as matters great and small were brought before the queen. A half a century before, the hall and those who spoke and fought and ruled there had reached for the spires of greatness, there at the heart of the Shining City.
Now, instead of silver and satin and emerald glass, there was dust and decay and lingering gloom. A scuffed, dusty table, surrounded by windows covered with a decade's worth of soot and grime, empty frames where once the gilt mirrors had reflected the centuries of history's making. Now, instead of a council of the greatest, most powerful minds of the kingdom, nine ragged souls sat around the table, each in turn more weary than the last.
Lavender – the Lightless, it was whispered, if one listened to idle talk – sat at the head of the long table, her chair on a small dais, and watched her makeshift council impassively. Nine, when it should be ten, she thought, frowning at the empty seat that had been occupied only the day before. But then she happened to glance over to the next vacant seat down the line, and the next, and the next, until at last her eyes came to the high seat opposite hers, a place of honour and importance with only a ghost to hold it.
What a piteous motley she had gathered there. The abrupt ending of the war had made strange allies of them all, and she could not restore order to her country alone. It did not help matters that at just that moment, two of her bedfellows were exchanging bitter profanities, the heavy table between them bearing their weight as each leaned threateningly toward the other.
Perhaps she would not restore her country at all. The empty seat mocked her with that grave uncertainty.
To her left sat her husband, hopelessly slouched in his chair as he watched the proceedings with a smirk on his lips. To her right sat her once-advisor, Ambrose – now called Glitch, a name that did not roll off the tongue so well – caught in a moment of abject stillness, but for his eyes darting back and forth with each thrown insult.
"Please, gentleman," Lavender began, but her words went unheard as the young resistance fighter and longcoat field captain continued to exchange their hostilities. Fifteen annuals prior, when the dark witch had taken Azkadellia, these soldiers had been small children, blissfully protected by their mother's skirts. Now, in the wake of the war – the Emerald War, they were calling it – Lavender could not forget that these young men were hard and haggard, seasoned by their battles, and each was utterly despised by the other.
They were making her head ache.
"Gentlemen," she tried again, but her voice did not have the strength it had once held. Once upon, she'd been able to silence the council chambers with that single word. She'd scarcely needed even that.
At the far end of the table, emptiness struggled to fill the seat opposite hers, lonely and cursed. She mourned the old man. Oft times, she even missed him.
The argument grew more heated, the contenders heedless of those watching anxiously. A fist was slammed down, rattling nearby ink-pots and candlesticks. As far down the heavy table as she was, Lavender felt no reverberation, but the sound cut through her nevertheless. She winced, and stood.
"Enough," she all but shouted, far sharper than ever intended. The fighting came to an abrupt end, and all eyes turned on her. Very well then. "How many men were lost?"
"Three of mine," said Jeb Cain, still seething and glaring across the table.
The subject of his loathing was a young Longcoat, the highest ranking officer to remain loyal to Azkadellia after the surrender at the tower. When the smoke had cleared, only a few hundred of the witch's forces had thrown down their weapons. The rest had fled once the clouds had parted and the suns had slipped out from behind the moon.
"And the deserters?" Azkadellia asked, and for all the steel in her voice, her eyes were cast down. Rarely did she look up anymore, shy and scared, drawn inward by her pain. Yet still she fought for purpose, to right the wrongs she'd inadvertently done, and for that Lavender was both proud and grateful. The rest would have to come slowly.
"Three as well," the dark-haired captain said, sitting up straighter at the voice of his mistress. "A failed ambush. The rest disappeared after the fight, but tracking them at this point is unlikely." He was not so open with his hostility as his rebel counterpart, but the menace in his voice had not diminished.
"And the supplies?" asked Glitch, reminding Lavender of the Ambrose he'd been with his practical concerns.
"Supplies were recovered and accounted for," said Wyatt Cain, tapping his fingers restlessly on the table. He looked at Glitch over the empty seat that separated them, seemingly as troubled by it as Lavender was. "Requisitions were sorted out at the base camp, and the rest is already on its way to Central City. Should be here before nightfall."
Lavender allowed herself a small smile for the peace the news brought her. Her kingdom was bleeding, her people were starving, they deserved all the relief she could provide in these brand new days of peace, however little it might be. Small refugee camps had already started cropping up outside the walls of the city, ragged mothers and their hollow-eyed children, the wounded and the homeless and the exiled.
"Has there been any word from the generals yet?" her husband asked, though in truth they were generals no longer. In the golden antebellum annuals, it was little more than an honorary title given to the warmasters of each province, the men voted to lead the provincial forces by the people of the four outlying guild factions, men who had sworn their fealty to the queen and council of Central City, the fifth province and seat of power in the Outer Zone.
"Andrus is dragging his feet," said Jeb Cain with some distaste. "My scouts are still trying to ferret out the others."
"You won't find Bluesire until he wants to be found," his father said, and Lavender found herself agreeing. The warriors of the Midlings were notoriously prickly about unwelcome visitors.
"Give them time," she said, still holding to hope. "Rumour travels faster than truth, but eventually they will come out of hiding to ascertain it, and we will be waiting. Have your scouts keep searching."
Once her kingdom had been united by the support of these generals, these four great men. Five, she reminded herself, staring down the seat opposite hers, the chair identical on its dais, carved and crowned and beautiful. Yet the war had taken the old wizard and divided the rest, and while each of her generals had fought the forces of the Sorceress, they had also descended into fighting amongst each other, and in the nine annuals Lavender been imprisoned no one had managed to unify the resistance factions in her name.
And yet this rogue band of the southern resistance, under the leadership of a young man barely old enough to remember the O.Z. as it had been, had come to the aid of her daughters and helped to win the war. She no longer held the rosy view of her world as she once had, and she doubted this young, sandy-haired rebel was up to the tasks necessary to unite the provinces and return her to her throne, and yet...
He was of an age with her youngest daughter, and deeds spoke truer than words. She could not bring herself to imagine the loss, sacrifice, and determination that had put him where he was, at the council table in the Silver Hall of Alta Torretta, the ancestral home of the royal family at the heart of Central City. She looked again to the empty seat that belonged to her DG, and sighed.
"I put additional patrols on the west branch of the brick route," said the young Cain. "Longcoat insurgents aren't going to simply forget about the stores in the tower."
The Longcoat captain across the table – Lindsey, she was certain his name was – looked sharply at Jeb Cain, his mouth twisting in an attempt to keep his tongue. The bitterness of turned tables, yes, Lavender knew that well, but she could not in her heart sympathize with those who'd lost everything in service to the witch's cause.
"How long can we expect the stores to last?" Lavender asked, touching a cold hand to her brow. The tension of the table was beginning to tire her. She could not fathom how she'd once spent entire days in this chamber, listening to her councillors bicker over policy while the nobles in the gallery quietly tipped the scales of favour with their coin.
"Not long," said the deep, solemn voice of Willem Lesley, a professor of magicks from far off Rossa, beyond kingdom of Evonny. The most educated man at her council after the unfortunate headcasing of Ambrose, her daughters had known him affectionately as Tutor, and he rarely answered to any other name. A quiet, contemplative man, he sat last among them.
"And the treasury?"
This time it was another who spoke, the dark-skinned man who left Azkadellia's side only to sleep, a man her daughter referred to as Vye. "There is little that remains of the queen's treasury as you remember it, my lady," he said in an officious manner, one she recognized as belonging to a well-schooled advisor. "It was the export of the moretanium that funded the expansion and allowed the tower to be built."
"Export to where?" asked Glitch. "The amount of moretanium needed to build the Sunceder alone –"
"The foremen kept the miners very... dedicated," Vye said with a wry smile. "Trade was mostly with Evonny. Ixii cut ties after Central City fell. They were very fond of the Mystic Man, and took his betrayal rather badly."
The news of Ixii did not surprise her. Relations had been strained long before she'd ascended after the death of her mother. The betrothal of her DG to the heir of the Ixiian throne had been meant to strengthen the crumbling alliance. Her daughter's 'death' had sent it all spiralling.
"And what of Aurissau?" Lavender asked. She was deeply unsettled. With the chaos that had surrounded her constantly since the events of the eclipse and the final battle on the steps of the witch's tower, she'd given no thought to the lands beyond her own borders. The state of the world had mattered so little.
"There's been no contact with Aurissau since the port of Qhoyre was destroyed," Azkadellia said in a small voice.
"Qhoyre no longer stands?" Lavender could scarcely believe what she'd heard, but the sudden sag of her daughter's shoulders told her terrible truths.
"The city was found to be smuggling well-connected royalists out of the country," Vye finished for Azkadellia, and left it at that.
Lavender sat back in her chair, at a loss for words. All that remained of the alliances forged by her ancestors were ashes long scattered to the wind.
"Your Grace, I believe it may be necessary to seek aid from the other kingdoms," Tutor said, a reassuring voice she remembered well, always careful, always truthful. "Without funds or support, we stand little chance of flushing out the remainder of the Longcoat deserters. Your position is vulnerable. The next few annuals will be very harsh, and if the insurgents continue to attack –"
"Support comes from the generals, once they pull their heads out of the sand," her husband said, with some heat.
"Without monetary aid, we won't be able to supply our own men, let alone keep the torch-and-pitchfork crowd fed and happy," Glitch said, managing to be both crude and astute.
Lavender held up a hand, and her councillors fell quiet. She looked around her, at her daughter with hands locked in her lap, at her scarred advisor with his fluttering smiles, at the ex-lawman who always stayed so quiet, at the two young hot-heads who could not get past their blind hate of the other's cause to work together toward a common goal of lasting peace. Last she looked to the empty seat to her right, set between a concerned Glitch and a brooding Wyatt Cain.
"I believe we are finished for today," she said, and stood. Almost immediately, her husband was at her side, holding out an arm and she gave him a grateful smile. To the rest, she said, "I want those supplies distributed as soon as they arrive. Captain Cain, have a small group of your men ride out to meet them. I'll have no thefts, there are hungry people waiting."
"Yes, Your Grace," said the young Jeb Cain, and he bowed as he left the room.
The old tutor was not to be deterred so easily. "With all due respect, Your Grace, we must –"
Again, she held up a hand. "I will think on what you've said, my friend, I promise you." She looked around the great hall, haunted by ghosts with familiar faces, the echo of nine lost annuals calling out with every footstep taken. It sent a chill deep down into her, one of foreboding that lingered in her bones.
"Are you all right, Your Majesty?" asked Glitch, with soft concern.
She nodded, shaking off her dark fears as only so much stress and worry. "Yes, I am," she said. "Now, would someone please bring me my daughter?"