'Til Kingdom Come
It was an ambush, and Cain had been in on the whole thing.
Well, that second part was debatable, but at that exact moment in time, DG was feeling none too charitable. She was, however, feeling ready to bolt and she wasn't sure why. She certainly hadn't been made to feel unwelcome, she hadn't been chastised, propositioned, or otherwise berated, but she had a nasty, twisting feeling in the pit of her stomach that by the end of her visit with her mother, she'd find herself agreeing to do something that she didn't really agree with at all.
"More tea, darling?"
"No, thank you, Mother." Two cups were enough.
From her position by the window, her mother smiled. She was a vision of loveliness, and DG had been watching her carefully as she'd moved about the sitting room, directing the pair of pretty maids who worked tirelessly to give the suite a deep clean that was ten years overdue. Today they were pulling down the heavy draperies to send to the cleaner.
Outside the windows, evening was falling fast and the glass was filled with reflection and lamplight, and it wasn't long after the offer of a third cup of tea that her mother dismissed her servants with their armloads of dusty velvet drapery. Once the door had clicked softly closed behind them, her mother turned toward her, brushing her hands off on her trousers as if she'd been the one up on the ladder.
"I'm proud of you," she said, though she didn't look happy about it.
DG wrinkled her nose. She'd missed council. It had to be a trick.
"I know that the couple who cared for you left the city today," Lavender went on. "Your father suggested last night that you might try to sneak out to see them."
Huh. That, she hadn't been expecting. With a kingdom at stake and the outer realms swarming with deserted Longcoats, she would have thought the least of her parents' concerns would be what was running through her mind. Well, then. "I thought about it," she admitted carefully.
Her mother's serious expression softened. "And yet you did not go. When you missed the meeting, I was worried that you had."
DG squirmed a little. Sentimentality was not her thing, but her mother seemed to wear it like perfume, and it made her horrifically uncomfortable. "I just needed some time to think."
Her mother smiled, actually smiled. "And what did you discover, my angel?"
"I discovered –" and here she paused, and sighed, thinking of the dead gardens and her Kansas parents and Cain. "I discovered that I need more time to think."
Her mother's smile fell; DG could almost hear it shatter like so much brittle ice. "I wish with all my heart there were time for us to mend ourselves," Lavender said sadly, and she took her daughter's hands in her own. DG looked at her, wishing with all her heart that she had the words to both comfort her mother and put the entire god-awful situation to an end.
"I was not so foolhardy as to think for even a moment we would all come out of this unscathed, but nor could I ever have imagined the terrible circumstance we now find ourselves in. I would have thought it impossible."
DG didn't like the sound of that. What had happened at that meeting? She replayed what Cain had told her in her mind – an ambush on a supply train? As far as she could recall, since the end of the war there had been three ambushes in as many weeks, and none of the other attacks had left her mother in such a bereft state. No, something else was going on, something she was certain she was meant to understand – if she could just figure out what it was.
"There will come a time for our wounds to heal," her mother said wistfully, almost as if she were trying to convince herself it was so. "Time enough, once we've finished. There is still so much left to accomplish."
"Would that it had all ended at the tower. We're in need of such a happy ending," Lavender said, and her grip on her daughter's hands tightened.
DG tried her best not to wince. She frowned, and gave up pretence all together. "Mother, I don't really understand," she said.
"I know, darling," her mother said, and gave her daughter's hands a gentle squeeze before letting her go. "I find it difficult to comprehend at times, myself. For now, know this: there are still battles to be fought before we can consider ourselves safe."
This time, DG couldn't help but cringe, her throat cinching. "More fighting?"
Lavender reached out to brush her fingers over her daughter's hair; it was a struggle to sit still, to stop herself from jerking away from a gesture that was meant to be motherly, that would have been motherly if she were just more daughterly. Her mother's hands were soft, familiar, but it just felt alien still, and she just didn't know what to do.
"Some battles are not fought with soldiers, but with words and deeds – and promises, too."
DG tried her best to hamper an aggravated sigh, but she still huffed a bit as she said, "Okay, Mother. I really need you to speak more plainly. I missed council, and I'm sorry, but I don't understand what you're talking about."
Her mother's pretty lavender eyes searched her face, and DG wished she had something more to give than sheer exasperation. Like sentimentality, mind games and wordplay were just not her thing, and she'd read enough Martin to know that meant she wouldn't survive a day at court even if her mother did re-establish one, and that someday she might make an excellent pawn in the aspiring schemes of some dastardly mustachioed jackass.
"You know our position here is precarious," Lavender said, and DG nodded, though she was pretty sure precarious was an understatement. "Our family's claim to the throne is a strong one, the strongest, but should the guilds protest it, or heaven forbid ally with each other to oppose us, we do not have the strength of arms to hold Central City."
This, DG knew. The resistance had fought to restore their lost queen to power, to put an end to the horror and hunger of the reign of the Sorceress, but after nine years without knowing if their queen still lived, nine years of fighting the Longcoats as they ransacked the countryside searching for the emerald, the cause of the resistance had lost its way.
Whatever benevolent presence had been plucking the strings of fate must have had taken pity on their cause the day a rogue band of the fractured resistance had ambushed a prisoner transport to reunite Cain with his son. Without that singular spark of random chance, DG could not see how there ever could have been a hope of stopping the Sorceress and her machine. Without the emerald, DG hadn't had a shred of proof as to who she was, and yet Jeb and his soldiers had trusted her – no, surely it hadn't been her Jeb had trusted, but the man who'd stood at her back through it all.
Still, it was a comforting thought, and it gave her the courage to smile at her mother. "Will we be able to convince the generals otherwise? Make them see the light?"
Her sorry excuse of a joke made her mother frown. "I don't know, darling. Perhaps."
DG slumped back against the cushions, giving up on princess posture. Her mother's frown deepened, but that didn't bother her as much. "So what do we do?" she asked, looking down at her hands in her lap, at the discoloured upholstery, anywhere but into her mother's eyes, which could always manage to look both sorrowful and disappointed when she did meet them.
"For one thing, we don't miss any more council meetings," her mother chastised lightly, and DG summoned the decency to look sheepish. Maybe she should have slipped out to say goodbye to Hank and Emily after all; she had a feeling she was going to be regretting it for days.
"Whatever is decided to be the best course of action, I am certain you will fulfil your role with dignity and grace."
DG raised an eyebrow. "My role?"
Her mother took her hand again, but instead of squeezing her fingers comfortingly as she had before, she turned DG's hand over and ran an absent thumb over her unmarked palm. "Astor always said there was great power in you, darling, did you know?"
Something inside DG's chest tightened. "I remember him saying something like that." She closed her eyes. Remembered? It was branded in her mind forever, an ugly memory that was heavy with guilt and rust.
"Your sister is more powerful than you."
"I don't wish to frighten you, DG," her mother said, "but there are difficult times ahead, and I must know that I can rely on you to help see our family through."
Family. Our family.
DG had had a family once, a mother and a father and an old barn cat who would come when she called him, all blown away by a storm, whisked away, stolen away, for a cause and a purpose and a destiny she hadn't known she had.
She hadn't realized how much chasing the ghosts of the past would cost her. She'd gained so much more, true parents and a sister and her friends, but what about what had been lost? Everything she had known, all the experience that had shaped the person she was had been based on a lie. Who was she if she wasn't what she'd left behind?
Can a house still stand when its foundations have been washed away?
"You can rely on me, Mother," she said, and the words were empty words, but we believe what we want and she wanted to believe.
"Soon we will know enough to plan our course out of this storm for good and all," Lavender said, and for a moment DG wanted to believe whatever it was that her mother believed because it sounded so much more reassuring than anything she could come up with. "I have faith that you will be up to whatever task I set you too."
She nodded quickly. "Of course I will." As soon as the words had slipped out of her mouth, DG got a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach that agreeing so readily, so blindly to her mother's wishes was no better than signing off on a contract without reading the fine print – or any print at all.
There was a knock on the door soon after, and her mother rose to answer it herself. DG watched her go, struck by the grace of movement her mother possessed, even when wearing a pair of trousers. The leather corset she wore over the outside of her blouse was cinched lightly to give better form to a slender body, one that DG herself had inherited. With her long hair braided down her back, this was as plain and simple as her mother ever dressed, and still she was the most beautiful creature DG had ever laid eyes on.
Her mother stood back to allow her guest entry. Tutor walked in, as big and solemn as he always was, glancing around the room nervously with his hands deep in his pockets.
She waved at him over the back of the sofa. "Hi, Toto."
Tutor looked surprised to see her. "Hello, DG. We missed you at council today."
"Yeah, I'm getting that," DG said unhappily. She was pretty sure she knew what was coming.
"Darling," her mother said, "there is business that I must attend to."
DG sighed, and smiled. See?
As much as it had made her dreadfully uncomfortable, she had thought that perhaps she and her mother had been coming to some sort of understanding, in an are we there yet? kind of way – or perhaps Tutor was saving her from signing her life away to her family forever out of guilt.
"I'll see you tomorrow, Mother," she said, and left the room quietly. Whatever business the two of them had with each other, they saved it until after the door was shut behind her.
The corridors were dimly lit, cold, and completely empty. It was a welcome change from the glaring lamplight and warm stuffiness of her mother's rooms, and DG found herself slowing her steps to prolong the walk to her own rooms, where much of the same awaited her. Her thoughts, however, stayed back in her mother's suite.
It bothered her to no end that her mother had used words like plan, and course, and task. And her personal favourite, the harbinger of all her mother's great and terrible words, storm. Of all the words in all the worlds, that was the one that made her blood run cold, right up there with emerald and flayer, the ones that made her feet itch to start running and not stop until – well, never seemed just about right to her.
But she couldn't. And she wouldn't, because –
"Whoa there, kiddo, watch where you're going."
Because there were hands on her shoulders, and it was time she grew up.
"Sorry, Cain," she said, surprised by how many apologies she was making today.
"It's all right," he said, and let her go as fast as he'd grabbed her. DG paused, and gave him a more thorough look over. He seemed agitated, or rather, more agitated than was normal for him. One step above growling and one step below putting a hand on his holster, had he been wearing one. "Just be more careful."
He made to step around her without further discussion, which only confirmed her suspicions. Angry, glaring avoidance. Something was definitely wrong, and somehow Cain's problems seemed far more appealing than her mother's. She didn't waste any time contemplating on just how messed up that sentiment was in and of itself, instead reaching out and snagging the tin man by the arm as he walked past.
"Whoa there, yourself, Tin Man. Where's the fire?"
"Listen, I gotta go –" He shot her an impatient glance that didn't quite meet her eyes. He'd set his lips into a hard scowl.
DG didn't let up her iron grip on his arm, which was tense and hot beneath her hands. He'd rolled his sleeves to the elbow sometime since she'd seen him last. She suddenly wished she'd kept her hands to herself, but it was that touch alone that seemed to have stopped him in his tracks.
"Cain, what's wrong?"
He sighed, and his shoulders slumped. He watched her for a moment before he said, "Looks like I have to go out of town for a couple of days."
"Oh," she said, and she cleared her throat before she continued, unhappy with how disappointed she sounded. "Wait, since when?"
He looked around, and even though they were utterly alone, DG could understand why he did so. The palace had always seemed a place where the walls could eavesdrop as they pleased, and tell the tales to those who knew the right questions to ask. It was unnerving, and creepy, and it sent a shiver down her spine just to think about it.
"Don't think here's the best place to be talking about it," he said, and the look he gave her was hard, and she shrank back, finally letting her fingers slip off his arm, but he caught her hand and held it tight and what was it with people and her hands tonight?
"Listen –" he began, but paused, looking down at her and thinking, brow furrowed and nostrils flaring. "Let me get a few things put in order, and I'll come see you before you go to sleep. I'll explain then, all right?"
She frowned. "Can't you at least tell me –"
"DG," he said firmly, and he dropped her hand like he'd only just then realized he was holding it. "Later. All right?"
She nodded, and he walked away without another word with heavy steps, shoulders weighted with burden. She watched him go, knife twisting in her heart, and she had to wonder why it was that she missed one damned council meeting, and the whole world went to hell.