It had been six months since Ambrose had vanished as entirely as if he had dropped off the face of the O.Z. He had checked out a car, left for Central City one morning to pick up laboratory supplies, and never came back. No one had seen him since.
The Queen had sent her best agents everywhere: into the Realm of the Unwanted, into the Deadly Desert, into the Mountains at the Edge of the World. Cain had traced Ambrose's movements up to the point of his disappearance, but could find no further clues. He had gone out riding many a time, trying to picture just the right spot where his eccentric friend might have chosen to stop and then become distracted. All to no avail. Hope began to flag as summer turned to fall; hope faded as the dying embers of autumn gave way to winter.
And then, one bitter snowswept evening, as Cain was pacing the circumference of the Northern Palace, a figure in the distance, barely distinguishable in the twilight, resolved itself into a beloved form. Ambrose, bedraggled and on foot, wrapped in a heavy hooded cloak, plodded up to the palace gates.
Cain brushed past the startled guards and grasped Ambrose by the shoulders, looking into the pale, strained face, the weary eyes. "It is you," he breathed, hardly able to speak, and wrapped Ambrose in his arms, afraid that if he let go, Ambrose would vanish like an apparition. Feeling Ambrose return the embrace, Cain allowed himself to believe that his friend was really back.
Cain finally released Ambrose. "You look exhausted," he said, nodding toward the flagstone path leading up to the palace entrance. "Shall I send for a car?"
Ambrose shook his head. "I can walk that far. It's so good to be back in familiar surroundings."
Cain took Ambrose's arm. "Lean on me," he said fondly. His heart leapt at the ready smile on Ambrose's face; so often he had feared that his dearest friend, if he ever did return, would be broken. Once they were inside the gates, still within sight of the guards, Cain put out a hand to stop Ambrose, took his chilled face in both hands, and kissed him on the lips. There was the briefest moment of hesitation, and then Ambrose leaned in and Cain felt him relax.
"I'm guessing you're happy to see me," Ambrose said dryly when Cain released him, and they both laughed as they began to walk together toward the palace.
The guards had phoned the palace with the news of Ambrose's return, and a little group had gathered to greet Cain and Ambrose. The Queen came forward and took Ambrose's gloved hands in her own. "It's so good to have you back. You must be chilled to the bone," she said. "Come inside and I'll have a fire laid on." She led them into an elegant reception room, pausing to speak quietly to a servant, who bowed and left. Another servant hastened up and took Ambrose's cloak.
Ambrose smiled. "It's good to see you too, your Majesty," he said. "You look beautiful. Especially the hair." She smiled, patting a dark curl into place. Ambrose remained standing until the Queen seated herself, then settled into a seat near the fireplace, where a servant was hastily preparing a fire. He began to take off his gloves, but the Queen held out a hand to stop him.
"Please, leave your gloves on until it gets warmer, my dear," she said. "The cap and scarf, too. I can see you're still shivering."
"Thank you, your Majesty," said Ambrose gratefully. He looked around the room. "I see you've redecorated! Very nice."
The Queen was about to answer when DG and Azkadellia burst in, both speaking at once.
"We were so worried!"
"Where have you been all this time?"
"Hey, Princesses!" said Cain, holding up a hand. "He's had a hard day. Month. Half-annual. Let's not all jump on him at once."
"It's all right, Wyatt," said Ambrose with a tired smile. He stood and gathered the two princesses into his arms. "I missed you both so much," he murmured.
Finally he released them and stepped back. "Az, I haven't seen you looking so well in ages. I'm so glad! And DG, you look so much at home." Azkadellia caught DG's eye and raised an eyebrow; DG gave the faintest of shrugs. Ambrose continued without noticing. "Perhaps I should go away more often."
"Don't you dare say that," scolded Az gently.
"You haven't had to live with Mr. Cain for the last six months!" DG added.
Ambrose looked at Cain, who wasn't smiling. "I'm sorry, Wyatt," he said earnestly, reaching for Cain's hand.
Cain squeezed his hand. "It's okay."
Ambrose smiled and then looked around again. "Say, where's Raw?"
"The Viewer Ambassador?" the Queen said. "You want to see him?"
"Well, of course!" said Ambrose.
"I'll summon him now," said the Queen, reaching for a silken tasseled cord. "I'm sure he can be here by tomorrow." Just then, a servant came in, bearing a tray from which arose steam and a delicious aroma. He brought it directly to Ambrose and set it before him. "I thought you might be hungry," the Queen said with a smile. "We've just had supper ourselves, so please don't stand on ceremony."
"Thank you kindly," said Ambrose, taking off his gloves and diving in. After a few minutes of near silence, he set down his spoon and looked around. "I suppose you want to know where I've been," he said thoughtfully.