The Queen’s first order of business, once she’s properly on her throne again, is to hug DG as tight as she can. Her second order of business is to hug Azkadellia. Her third is to kiss Ahamo again. Her fourth is to thank Cain. Her fifth is to have the half of Ambrose’s brain that is still in the jar brought to her. She opens the zipper on Glitch’s head, places the half-brain carefully, does something that shines a halo over Glitch’s head, and then he’s smiling in a completely different way. His speech is different; his steps are different. He’s standing straighter.
He’s Ambrose again, and Cain looks away and out at the sunset because the man who smiles at him isn’t someone he knows.
They celebrate for a week. The Queen declares a holiday and across all the lands it’s decreed that the week should be spent with family and friends, enjoying company and good food. At the castle, there’s a huge dinner every night. The Queen and Ahamo sitting at the head of the table, their daughters flanking them on their right, Cain and Ambrose on their left. Cain chuckles dryly at DG attempting to maneuver her skirts, and she makes a face as she rustles and fidgets and settles again.
Cain can’t bring himself to look at Ambrose, done up in a proper jacket and trousers and highly shined shoes. His hair is combed back straight from his forehead, just the edge of the zipper visible where it rests on his crown. There’s no dirt under his fingernails, no patches on his pants, and the conversations he has are precise and to the point. There’s no rambling or fumbling, no wandering off in mid-sentence, eyes faraway while his mouth moves for another second or two. He is completely and totally put together, and it makes Cain’s teeth itch.
“You do not seem to be enjoying yourself, Mr. Cain,” Ambrose says, eyes just as bright as they’ve always been but now so very polite.
“I’m not one for parties.” And it’s the truth. Down the table, smiling and laughing, Cain watches Jeb as he entertains two beautiful women. Raw’s been excused from celebration duties by The Queen due to his general ill ease around large groups of people. Cain wishes he’d made a similar request.
“And you’ll stay on at the castle?” Ambrose is still at it. Making conversation Cain doesn’t want to hear.
“Yes.” The polite, questioning look Ambrose gives him tells Cain he has to fill in the rest. Glitch would have just nodded and prattled on about something entirely off-topic. Cain’s still slightly surprised that he misses those conversations. “The Queen’s asked me to head up her personal protection as well as work in a recon capacity from time-to-time.”
“Wonderful,” and then Ambrose goes back to eating his potatoes. Glitch would have clapped his hands or tilted his head or given Cain a smile that wasn’t societal and polite.
Cain counts to five hundred in his head, folds his napkin into a precise square, and stands up from the table. He gives a polite nod to The Queen and Ahamo, smirks at DG’s dress struggles again, and walks out of the dining hall. He takes the long way to his quarters, trying to discover if there’s a room in the castle he’s not yet seen. His living space, Cain knows from his walks throughout the grounds, is the least ornate. He’s grateful to The Queen for the kindness, but the rooms are still too much for him. They're all brocade and silk and expensive, smooth woods. Cain misses the home he built with his own callused hands and sweat.
He sits in one of the chairs in his sitting area, embroidered with more thread than he’s sure he’s used in his life, and pulls off his boots. He leans into the chair, sighs and rubs his nose. There’s a knock on his door, and Cain lifts his hand to stare at it. He’s not been gone from the dinner that long, and he’s only just gotten to his room. It could be coincidence.
Law men, as a general rule, do not believe in coincidence. Cain, in particular, does not. He stands, wary and uneasy but trying to relax. The Witch is dead. Zero’s locked away in the deepest dungeon under the castle, courtesy of the new guard Cain sent to retrieve him from the suit, and the rest of the Long Coats wouldn’t dare try.
“Mr. Cain?” Ambrose’s voice through the door is that same polite inflection he’s had all night and all week.
“Yeah,” Cain says, and it’s more of a growl than he means it to be. He opens the door and eyes Ambrose, still perfectly pressed and pleated, that infuriating smile still in place. “Did you want something?” Short and clipped. Cain doesn’t miss the way Ambrose’s mouth tightens. Glitch would have called him cranky and wanted to know what was so bad about the night that Cain had to be a sourpuss.
“I thought I would come up and see if you were feeling well. You left quite abruptly.”
Cain tries to stare him down, but Ambrose just meets him with a placid, polite look, mouth fixed in a half-smile like the half-smile Cain had gotten used to. Cain’s so very tempted to slam the door or stomp on Ambrose’s shiny shoes. He takes a deep breath instead. “I’m fine. Just not one for parties.”
“Of course.” Ambrose gives a small nod and smiles fully. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”
Cain watches him head for the staircase and wrangles with his options before finally asking, just loud enough for Ambrose to catch it, “Are you happier now?”
Ambrose turns smartly on his heel, and Cain is hit with a stare of an intensity he’s never seen from Ambrose or Glitch. They stand like that for almost a minute, Ambrose at the head of the stairs, Cain in the doorway of his rooms.
“I’m not sure,” Ambrose says, breaking the pause. He looks down at his shoes and twists one of the buttons on his jacket. “It’s a very odd experience to have one’s brain resettled into one’s head.”
“I’ll bet,” Cain says, soft with no sarcasm.
“I don’t think I’ve quite settled in yet.” With that, Ambrose gives one more nod and heads down the stairs.
Cain stands in his doorway for another minute, listening to Ambrose’s shoes on the stone. He closes the door when the steps become more echo than sound and walks back to the chair. He doesn’t sit; he just looks at it. There is a scene woven into the silk, a grove of trees and two girls holding hands. It makes Cain smile a little, and he sinks onto the settee, his feet hanging over one arm, and lets his mind take its leave.
It’s two hours later when there’s another knock on the door. Cain holds a vague hope that it might be Ambrose, but he’s not terribly surprised to open the door and find DG.
“I can’t get out of my dress,” she says, her arms twisted behind her back in the winged-elbow stance of any woman trying to undo her own dress. “And this thing is tight.”
Cain laughs outright, happy to have a problem that isn’t death or near-death or the feeling like he’s lost a friend. “You have a sister now. Isn’t this what they’re for?”
“She’s still down there dancing, and I can’t breathe.”
“Get in here.” Cain stands aside to let her through and closes the door behind him, checking to be certain it's latched. The last thing he needs tonight is some errant guard on rounds stopping to investigate his unlatched door and discovering him and the beloved return princess acting like they actually know one another. Propriety has always bothered him, made him twitch a little, and he wonders what he's doing here.
“I mean, seriously, who wears these things?”
“Princesses.” DG throws him a look, and Cain smirks, suddenly glad to be where he is. “You are one now, princess.” He steps up behind her and eyes the dress. His wife’s dresses were always much simpler, given their life out in the woods. This thing in front of him is all buttons and clasps and precise ribbons with perfect, ironed bows. He unties one and nothing happens. “This a dress or a tent?”
“Like I would know.”
He tries another ribbon, and DG breathes out. “Better?”
He follows that ribbon down and once it’s unlaced, he’s faced with a line of buttons. “How many layers are you in, princess?”
“I stopped counting after the third petticoat.” She lifts her skirt and eyes her undergarments. “It’s a petticoat, right?”
Cain snorts. “How would I know?” The buttons are small and slippery and he swears a bit as they slide around the calluses on his fingertips, but after a couple of minutes, DG shrugs off the dress in one piece and peels off her maybe-petticoats. Cain loosens the laces on her corset, glad he can still recognize some part of this whole feminine mess. He raises an eyebrow as she walks over to one of his chairs and sits herself down in nothing more than her now-loosened corset and her bloomers. “You know, if someone should walk in—”
“I’m a princess. I’m allowed to be eccentric.” DG waves him off.
“Eccentric does not equal half-naked.”
“So give me something to wear.”
“Because that’ll make things much less incriminating,” he mutters, but he turns towards the wardrobe that’s the length of the sitting room in his old cabin and digs around until he comes up with a pair of plain pants and an undershirt that he figures will do. The Queen had seen it her duty to make sure he had plenty of clothes. Cain is certain he isn’t supposed to be using them to dress her daughter. As he doesn’t plan to ever tell her, he passes the clothes to DG and directs her towards his lavatory.
She leaves the door cracked, and he listens to the sounds of her changing while he sits on a chair that faces away from the door. When she comes out, she throws her corset and bloomers carelessly on top of her dress and assorted layers and drapes herself over his settee. “Thank you.”
They sit in silence as the coolness of the night seeps into the room, and DG tucks her legs under her and looks at Cain. “Are you okay being here?”
Cain stands up to start a fire. There are servants who could do it, but Cain’s made it clear that outside of requisite dusting and polishing, his rooms are to be left alone. He lights the bottom of his carefully constructed log pile and waits for the fire to catch. He brushes his hands together to remove the bits of wood and ash, and then he turns and looks at DG squarely. “I don’t know.”
She smiles a small, crooked smile. “Really?”
“We’re not all royalty, princess.”
“Yeah. I’m totally royalty.” DG rolls her eyes. “I was slinging coffee before I fell on my ass on this side of things.”
“Doesn’t change your bloodline. You’ve always been royalty here.”
“I can barely walk in that thing,” she gestures to the dress with exasperation. “And I think I used the wrong fork tonight.”
Cain laughs low in his chest and stands. He puts his hands on his hips and looks DG up and down. “Forks and dresses don’t make a princess. You’ve got a good heart. You’ve got hope.”
DG stands and walks over to him. She presses her fingers against his chest. “You’ve got a good heart, too.”
“Withered and exhausted as it is.” She rolls her eyes again, and Cain kisses her forehead. “Grab your dress and whatever else they used to trap you in the thing. I’ll walk you to your room.”
“Rooms,” DG corrects as she bends down and gathers her pounds of things into her arms. “I think they’re bigger than the house I grew up in.”
Cain knows that feeling, but he doesn't commiserate, just opens the door and follows a step behind her as they cut across the castle to DG’s suite. He leaves her at her door with a soft goodnight and a tip of a finger to the hat he’s not wearing. It makes her smile, and he gives her a small smile in return.
He takes the walk back to his own rooms at a slow pace, stopping to look out windows and check in with a few of the men on night guard. All's quiet, they tell him, but Cain feels like the whole place echoes with every small noise. He misses his house, where the creaks were always near his ear, and quiet meant the sound of the animals and Adora breathing softly in her sleep. Once he’s back in his rooms, and in his overly comfortable bed, he falls asleep quickly. He dreams of the dinner and the dance and of Glitch moving in ways that Cain would have never guessed he was capable. When he wakes up, he remembers dreaming of dancing.
Every morning, twenty minutes after everyone’s breakfast, The Queen sits down with her various advisors and walks through the needs of the day. Ambrose sits to her right at the head of the table, Cain sits to her left, and Cain is grateful with the arrangement. He can’t ever see Ambrose straight on, and it makes him more comfortable.
“Mr. Cain,” The Queen says, because she has made it clear that she will never, no matter his insistence, refer to him by his last name as if it is his first name. “What news do you have for me?”
“Your personal guard will be training in units for the next four weeks, your highness. I have divided them equally into groups of ten, and they will refresh themselves on various modes of defense as well as defense tactics for the castle.” Cain passes her a list in his best handwriting followed by a detailed schedule. “The units that are in training will not be participating in their regular duty during their training week to allow them time to rest between days.”
The Queen nods and gives Cain a pleased look that makes him feel more important than it probably should. “Thank you, Mr. Cain.” She skims the unit breakdown and schedule. “Is there anything I or anyone else here can do to help the guard units during their training?”
“I was hoping,” and Cain has to stop and clear his throat to get out the whole sentence, “that Ambrose could demonstrate a few of his simpler defense moves for the men. I’ve seen him fight before, and I believe his knowledge could be of some use.”
The Queen looks at Ambrose, and Cain doesn’t miss the way Ambrose looks blank. He’s seen it a few times before, when he’s mentioned other things Ambrose did while they were traveling, and he can’t decide if it’s some sort of defense tactic on Ambrose’s part, as if maybe he thinks his time as Glitch isn’t worth remembering. “Ambrose, would you have the time?” The Queen asks, as though it won’t become an order if needed.
“I can certainly make the time, your highness, if that’s what you would like.”
The Queen smiles. “I would like it very much.” She turns to Cain again. “Consider it agreed. You and Ambrose can speak afterwards about an acceptable time and regiment of activity.”
“Yes, your highness,” Cain agrees, and then fades into the background as the meeting moves to the next issue. He watches Ambrose when he talks, wonders about the blank look that had been on his face. There’s no blank look now. Now he looks interested and animated, if slightly reserved. He’s passing around papers; Cain takes one and skims it. It’s covered in figures and names of the outer regions. Cain ignores the numbers and checks the names. He’s been compiling a list of places to visit within the next few months, places that were hit hardest by the witch’s rule, places with people who may not quite believe the truth of their independence. Ambrose’s figures, written in a hand that seems both careless and precise at the same time, put Cain’s plans into perspective. They’re rebuilding numbers, and they help organize exactly how he would like to plan his route around The O.Z.
Another three-quarters of an hour, and Cain’s free. He heads for his office, an elaborate construction of stone and heavy rugs where he doesn’t quite feel comfortable, and he’s almost grateful when Ambrose intercepts him halfway there and asks about the training.
“What, exactly, would you need of me, Mr. Cain?”
The ‘Mr. Cain’ line is getting old, but Cain’s not sure how to go about telling Ambrose to stop being an over-polite pain in his ass. He could have stated it as such to Glitch, but Ambrose has an air about him that makes Cain think he’s easily offended. Society manners and all that. “You’re obviously well-versed in some very advanced defense techniques, Ambrose,” Cain will be damned straight to the same dank cell as Zero before he starts using ‘Mr.’ in front of Ambrose’s name. “I’m a firm believer that extra techniques mean extra protection. You can teach my men something they don’t yet know, and they can use that knowledge to better protect her highness, her family, and the castle at large.”
“That I understand,” Ambrose says slowly, as though he feels the need to be exceptionally clear. “What I do not understand, Mr. Cain,” and here Cain grinds his teeth to keep from being rude, “is when you saw me perform any defensive strategies at all.”
That makes Cain blink. “You can’t be serious.”
“I assure you, Mr. Cain, I’m very serious. I do not recall a time when you and I were in such a situation that you would have seen-”
And that is the last straw. “You took out a regiment of Long Coats when we were trying to get DG back from the Witch.” Cain watches Ambrose’s face for some sort of sign of recollection. He’s getting a blank stare. And it’s polite. If Cain were any more frustrated he’d be cursing a streak that would make Ambrose flinch. Glitch would have probably complimented his vocabulary and added a few words of his own because he liked the sound of them. “How do you have no memory of this?”
Ambrose’s face twists in thought. After a moment, he raps his knuckles against his head. The action makes Cain’s stomach twist a little. “When The Queen put my brain back to rights, I think some things ended up a bit scrambled. I recall quite a lot of my time as—” he pauses and seems to be searching for the proper term. “When I was incapacitated,” he finally says, “but some of it seems to have slipped out.”
“You,” Cain shakes his head and clenches his hands. “You weren’t incapacitated,” he hisses out between his teeth. “You were just—” just Glitch, he thinks, but doesn’t say. He shakes himself like he’s coming out of a lake after a swim. “No matter what may have gotten muddled in your brain, you do know advanced defense tactics, yes?”
“Yes,” Ambrose agrees, looking relieved to be back on topic. “And I would be pleased to teach your men some of my basic maneuvers. What time would be most accessible for you?”
“Early morning would work best. It’ll be a good warm up for the rest of the day and allow the men to start with something more difficult and get it out of the way before they’re put through their paces.”
“And the time frame?”
“An hour a day should get them started. If you have the time, we can discuss a regular training schedule for any of my men who are interested in pursuing a more complete education at a later date if you think you'd be available for that sort of activity.”
“That would be fine.” Ambrose gives the same little nod he’d given Cain last night. It seems to be about the only thing the man does that doesn’t make Cain twitch. “If you’ll excuse me—”
“Yeah. Go.” Cain waves him away before he has to hear another ‘Mr.’ come out of Ambrose’s mouth. He stalks the rest of the way to his office, closing his door with more force than necessary, and spends a moment fuming at the room in general before bending down, grabbing the nearest heavy rug, and rolling it into a precise tube. He rolls another four rugs, moves his coat rack to rest behind the door, and props all five rugs in the now open corner. He’ll get one of the servants in to move them to storage some other time, but at the moment, just having a stone floor beneath his feet makes him feel a little bit better. He sits in his desk chair and starts sorting his papers. There’s a knock, and he barks, “Come in,” without looking up.
It’s Azkadellia with a paper wrapped bundle. She holds up a hand to keep Cain from rising. “Please, don’t. I’m not here for anything official.” She closes the door behind her and hands over the package. “DG asked me to drop these by. It seemed best, given the contents.”
“Which means it’s the clothes she borrowed last night.”
Azkadellia smiles, and Cain appreciates the way it looks on her. The smile of the Witch was something completely different, hard on the edges at all times. Azkadellia’s smile is honestly warm. “You are an excellent law officer, Mr. Cain.” He gives her a look. “Cain,” she corrects with another smile. “Or I could call you Wyatt.”
“No, thanks,” Cain says, with a touch of amusement. “That’s a reserved name.”
“For a reserved man.”
“Is there anyone in your family who doesn’t feel the need to come in and poke at me?”
“I doubt my mother’s been in recently.” Azkadellia laughs when Cain just gives her a look. The laugh is also completely different. Cain approves. “Well, she certainly hasn’t been in today.”
“Only because I’ve just left the morning meeting.”
“Perhaps.” Azkadellia looks around the room, and Cain wonders why. He sees her gaze fall on the rugs. She says nothing, but Cain catches the knowing look in her eyes. He’s not up for a discussion on his view of the castle’s overabundance of rugs.
“Is there something else I can do for you, princess?” He tries to sound helpful, but he’s sure he just sounds curt.
“You seem troubled,” Azkadellia says, and takes a seat in one of the chairs in front of his desk. She folds her skirts around her in a practiced motion, and Cain thinks back to DG at dinner. It doesn’t make him smile. He wonders if DG can give him tips on how to settle in with minimal fuss. He doesn’t seem to be settling at all.
“Do you have a clear memory of everything that happened when the Witch had you trapped?” The way Azkadellia flinches makes Cain flinch as well. “That was inappropriate.” He adds, and Azkadellia starts talking before he can add an apology.
“Are you afraid I’m some sort of threat, Cain?” Azkadellia’s tone is icy, but there’s a quaver on the undertone, and Cain feels like he’s just threatened a child.
“Not at all, princess,” he says in the nicest voice he has. “It’s curiosity, and none of my business, and you’re welcome to slap me in the face and walk out.”
“You’re very sweet.”
“Yeah, I’m a prince.”
Azkadellia chuckles, but there’s a false note to it, and when she answers, Cain can hear years of royal court manners warring with discomfort in her tone. “Not quite, but still very sweet. To answer your question, I have an excellent memory of what it was like to share my body with the Witch. Given the chance, I believe I would allow myself to forget it, but on the other side of the picture, knowing what she did and how she did it is assisting in the renewal efforts across The O.Z.”
Cain considers her answer. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” It comes out a bit more tired and resigned than he means it to, and the way Azkadellia looks out the window and breathes in slowly makes Cain think that she’s in some form of agreement.
“That is possibly as apt an analogy as we’ll find on the situation.” Azkadellia stands, her skirts arranging around her with, what looks to Cain, like the barest fidget of her fingertips. “And if you’ll excuse me, I have work which needs seeing to.” She states it like a request, but Cain can see the slight tremor in her hands and feels guilty for having pushed her. She’s not the witch any longer, he reminds himself, and she doesn’t need to be jabbed for information.
“Of course.” Cain rises to see her to the door, no matter her objections. It’s one thing to keep his seat when she comes in for unofficial matters, it’s another to not see her out after making her uncomfortable. “Good day, princess.”
“And you as well, Cain.”
He closes the door behind her and settles back at his desk. He breathes out hard and stares out the window at the grounds. The training for his men starts next week, and the only person on the grounds in the gardener. Cain watches him work for a few minutes before shaking his head at his own procrastination and putting his mind firmly on his work. The paperwork is almost constantly boring, but it is, at least, time consuming, and it feels like he’s accomplished something by lunch.
DG knocks on the door at a quarter after the noon hour and walks in with a tray in her hands. “Would it be so difficult to eat with everyone else?” She’s in a simpler skirt than the night before and moves in it with more confidence, setting the tray on Cain’s desk and pulling a chair close before sitting.
“If I did that, how would you remember your humble beginnings?” Cain sets aside his papers and takes the top sandwich off the pile. “And what’s kept you busy today, princess?”
“Etiquette lessons,” DG says with the same fatal tone that Jeb had used for his schoolbooks. “Mother insists on the whole morning getting wasted away with forks and spoons and walking around in those godawful skirts.” She bites into her sandwich, chews and swallows. “I mean, really, would it be so traumatic if I wore pants like everyone else?”
“You’re not everyone else.”
“Quit saying that.”
“Yeah. Yeah.” She pours herself water from the pitcher on the tray and takes a drink. “I’m a fairy princess with magical powers, and that’s cool and everything, but I miss my pants.”
Cain thinks she misses a lot more than that, but if he says it, she’ll tell him how wonderful his heart is again. He can only take so much of that. “You talked to your father?”
“About the dress thing, I mean.”
DG looks confused. “No. Why would I?”
“He’s a hunter; he’ll understand the need for pants better than your mother. She was raised in those skirts of yours her whole life, and while she’s aware, on a level, that you lived a completely different life for a lot of annuals, she may not see your issue with the whole skirt thing.”
DG smiles, and it’s radiant, and Cain feels like the day might get a bit better. “You’re a genius.”
“Sure,” he says and takes another bite from his sandwich.
“You are,” she insists, and he doesn’t contradict. She eats half her sandwich before asking, her head tilted in the same way it was when she asked to borrow his razor, “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Cain sighs heavily, so tired of the question he’d kick her out for it if she weren’t exactly who she was. “I’m fine.”
“Look, princess,” and he can’t keep the edge out of his tone. “I spent a handful of annuals in that tin box you got me out of, and then a week later, The O.Z. was back in the proper control of your mother. It takes some time to adjust to all of it. We didn’t all grow up with fairy tales to smooth the way into new and unusual territory.”
DG’s mouth quirks a bit. “All right.”
There’s a sudden burst of noise from outside Cain’s window, and he stands up to see what’s happening. DG nudges him over so she can get a look, and they watch as Ambrose and four men make their way across the lawn, a collection of carrying cases and rucksacks slung over their shoulders and clutched in their hands. Ambrose says something not quite loudly enough for Cain to overhear, but the rolling chuckle from the men in his wake carries up just fine. Cain looks away from the window and walks back to his chair.
DG takes her own chair again a few moments later. She takes a drink of water and looks at Cain like she’s deciding something. “Ambrose bothers you,” she states.
Cain raises his eyebrows and considers denying it. “I’m getting used to him.” He says instead of admitting to anything.
“He’s really nice.”
“I’ve got no complaints to the man’s attitude.”
“But he’s not Glitch.” Her eyebrows have come together, and Cain’s about ninety percent certain she’s about to pout.
“He’s still Glitch,” Cain says because he’s still mostly certain he believes it himself. “It’s just getting used to Ambrose.”
They sit in the silence they tend to fall into when they have nothing important to say. It’s a comfortable silence. For all the chatter she can create, she knows when to put quiet to good use. They finish their lunch, and she smiles at him before gathering up their crumbs and dishes and walking out the door with the tray.
Cain leans back in his chair and stretches his arms. Mornings are for paperwork; afternoons are for legwork. He stands and grabs his hat, setting it firmly on his head before heading out the door and out to the east lawn. He motions to the sentry on duty with a crook of his fingers. The man jogs over, saluting and standing at attention. “Report.” Cain orders.
“All quiet, Captain.” The man cringes at the withering look Cain gives him. “Cain,” he stutters. Cain’s made it clear to them all that no matter what the official title may be, he doesn’t want to be a captain. The word sounds false to him; he’s a lawman, always has been, and the idea of being known by a rank makes him uneasy. Tin Man had been suggested by DG, half-jokingly, but Cain had shot it down and told the men to just call him by his name. It had worked just fine all his years as an officer, Cain thought, and it was the most comfortable title he had.
“Nothing at all to report?”
“Excellent.” He pats the man on the shoulder and moves around the outer wall of the castle, checking in with all the sentries before running into Jeb by chance.
“Jeb,” he greets because he still feels awkward looking at the grown man in front of him and calling him 'son.'
“Dad, Ahamo and I were going out on a hunt. I was headed to saddle the horses.” Jeb greets with similar awkwardness. They haven’t talked much since the end of the eclipse; Cain’s pretty certain it’s because they have no idea what to say to one another. They should be catching up, getting to know one another, and Jeb’s talking about Ahamo.
“What’s in season?” Cain asks, because he’s at a loss.
Cain nods and considers the kinds of conversations they could have had had they not been separated when Jeb was so young. All those years of imagining what he’d do, and it never centered around finding his family again. It was never plans for talking to Jeb and coming to terms with their past.
“What are you hunting with?”
“Bows. Ahamo says he may be able to improve my accuracy for when I go back.” Jeb always says it that way: ‘go back.’ like it’s an open-ended idea of leaving, but Cain can read the way he digs the toe of his boot in the ground, and he knows ‘go back’ has ‘soon’ attached at the end whether Jeb says it or not.
“Come by my rooms tonight,” Cain offers without thinking. “Let’s have dinner.” Let’s have a conversation, he thinks, of something that isn’t trivial. The smile Jeb gives him makes Cain feel ten feet tall.
“Sure,” and Jeb’s walking away with a wave, headed for the back stables.
Cain feels lighter and rounds the next corner with a bit of a smile. Ambrose is standing on a small incline, some three-legged contraption balanced in front of him. There’s a young man of about twenty annuals standing next to him, nodding and making notes as Ambrose rattles off numbers.
“Mr. Cain,” Ambrose says with a nod.
“Ambrose,” Cain says as he steps up the incline. “What’s this?”
“We are surveying the grounds. It’s not been done since the Witch took her reign, and it will help us make some decisions in terms of crop placement and use of the land.”
“Uh huh,” It sounds like the most boring work Cain can imagine, but the way Ambrose’s eyes shine make Cain shift his weight so he’s a touch closer. “Anything my men or I can do to help?”
Ambrose looks surprised at the offer, and Cain takes some pride in wiping the polite look off his face. “No thank you, Mr. Cain, but the offer is appreciated.”
Just once, Cain thinks, he’d like to make Ambrose talk like they’re not at a big deal ball trying to hold onto a conversation neither of them really wants to have. “I’ll head out, then.”
“Good day, Mr. Cain.”
“Yeah. See you, Ambrose.” Cain heads to the next checkpoint and the next and the following one. There are no reports from anyone, not that he’d expected any, but until training starts, Cain needs to do something to feel like a man in charge. Paperwork doesn’t accomplish the same feeling. He needs to talk to people. It’s the people at the bottom, Cain knows from experience, who have the most information about what’s going on anywhere at all. He burns away the afternoon chatting with the gardeners and stable hands as well as making conversation with the washer women who are hanging sheets to dry in the sunlight. They tell him nothing of importance, but he learns some names and gets a few knowing looks and feels like he’s made some progress in the staff trusting him as he mounts the front steps of the castle.
Cain steps inside, removes his hat, and heads for his office. Halfway there he’s met by The Queen. “Your highness,” he greets with a short bow.
“Mr. Cain,” she says with delight. “I was hoping to see you. Your son and my husband have caught enough pheasant to feed, I believe, the entirety of the castle and the neighboring village. Jeb mentioned that you and he had plans for a dinner in your rooms tonight, but I was hoping I could persuade you to join us all in the dining hall.” She holds up a hand before Cain can protest. “No fancy dress, Mr. Cain, simply everyone sitting down for a nice, hearty meal.”
“Will there be dancing?” He asks before he can stop himself.
“None at all,” she says, her eyes sparkling.
“I’ll see you there, then.”
“Excellent. We’ll eat at seven bells.”
“Yes, your highness.” Cain gives her another short bow and finishes mounting the stairs. He checks his office for any new notes left in his absence during his rounds, and once he’s squared away the last bit of business, he locks up and heads up another flight to his rooms.
Jeb’s sitting outside the door, freshly washed in a pressed shirt, and he smiles when Cain approaches. “I tried to discourage it.”
“It’s fine,” and in that moment it is, because Jeb’s by the door, and Cain feels warm that Jeb’s made it over by himself. “I just need a quick wash up and fresh boots and we can talk a bit before dinner.”
“Great.” Jeb stands and smiles, a little timid. “I got four. Ahamo got six.”
“Very nice,” Cain replies and smiles back. “I took your mother pheasant hunting once, and she came home with twice as many as me.”
“Really? I don’t remember that.”
“You were very young. We left you with the neighbors. She was a hell of a shot.”
“She was,” Jeb says proudly. “Before she—” he cuts off and looks at Cain, uneasy.
“It’s okay,” Cain says, and gestures him to a chair as he latches the door. “I thought she was dead long before I saw her grave. You too, for that matter. I’m just glad to have you.”
Jeb nods. “Okay.” He swallows once, twice, then pushes on with his story. “We were raided by Long Coats about six months before she died. I was out in the yard when they approached, and they went for me, and before I could even get up my fists, she’d shot one of them straight through the shoulder.”
Cain smiles at the image, allowing himself a moment to remember his wife as the strong woman she’d been and not the broken woman he’d been imagining had been left behind after Zero had put him into that suit. “That’s nice to hear,” he tells Jeb as he pours water from a pitcher into his wash basin. He dips the soap and washes from his fingertips to the middle of his forearms. “If I had known—”
“I know,” Jeb says, and Cain thinks that maybe they both believe it a little.
Dinner is a casual affair. The Queen serves up the pheasants herself and announces that they are only using the very basic necessities. “Dinner amongst friends, I have been informed, does not require four separate forks.”
Cain shares a look with DG, who shrugs and uses her single fork to spear her beans. “They’re good looking birds,” Cain says because his manners are always better when he’s not required to be trussed up in a tie and coat.
“Jeb is an excellent shot,” Ahamo says with a nod to Jeb who sits next to Cain. “I fear my lessons won’t be terribly useful.”
“It was a good hunt,” Jeb says politely while managing to take no credit for his own success, and Cain is slightly perturbed at the way Jeb seems comfortable in giving away his victories. He considers jumping to Jeb’s defense, or at the very least pointing out that nearly half the birds are there by Jeb’s hard work, but then Ambrose hurries in late, and Cain finds himself distracted.
Ambrose settles himself across from Cain and places his napkin precisely in his lap. Cain can’t help but watch the way he puzzles over the lack of numerous forks. The indentions between his brows makes him look more like the man Cain remembers from their trip over the Old Road than anything else Ambrose has done in the past few weeks. Ambrose sees him watching.
“Yes, Mr. Cain?”
Cain fumbles for something to say. “Your buttons are off,” he says because it’s true.
Ambrose looks down at himself and shakes his head. “Oh, dear. My apologies.”
“Oh, Ambrose,” The Queen says with an indulgent smile. “You always have been so very proper, even at casual dinners.”
For some reason, that piece of information doesn’t surprise Cain. “Any telling stories, your highness?” He asks, because getting used to Ambrose might be easier if he has some background.
“When the girls were very young,” The Queen starts as Ambrose suddenly flushes, “they invited him along to a picnic. He attempted to impart high tea manners. I had to explain to him that small girls have no use for high tea manners while sitting on an old blanket in a large field sipping from their favorite tea set.” There’s polite laughter around the table while Ambrose looks mildly uncomfortable, and Cain feels bad for requesting a story.
“On my wedding day,” Cain starts, and sees the way Jeb glances up from his peripheral vision, “my mother kept demanding I watch my cuffs so I wouldn’t have to get married with mud on my legs. She had a valid point. I didn’t listen, and my darling wife never let me forget it.” He smiles a little at Ambrose who smiles back, and Cain can see Jeb smiling as he turns back to his meal.
Dinner carries on, DG and Azkadellia telling tales on each other now that DG remembers her time with her sister before the Witch took over. Ahamo tells stories of his years underground waiting for DG’s return. Jeb talks about the resistance. The Queen tells stories of her years growing up in the castle. Cain and Ambrose both stay quiet unless there’s a need for laughter or murmured agreement. Ambrose keeps glancing at Cain, and Cain’s not sure why, but it’s making him twitchy. He’d removed his gun before walking down for dinner, but he taps his fingers against his thigh and wishes he hadn’t.
“Tell me, Jeb,” The Queen says as they eat dessert. “What are your plans for the next few weeks?”
Jeb swallows and wipes his mouth in a way that is almost dainty, and Cain is again struck by the way his son seems to have picked up some court manners. It doesn’t seem right somehow. There’s nothing wrong with the manners he taught Jeb as a boy. “I plan to head back to my settlement, your highness, as soon as the end of the week, perhaps. My people there have taken my letters in good grace, but I know they need to see me to really believe that they’re all safe.”
“A noble endeavor,” The Queen says with a nod. Cain agrees but doesn’t say anything. “And you, Cain?” The Queen asks, and Cain feels his eyebrows pull together before he can stop himself.
“Your highness?” He asks because he has no idea what he’s expected to say.
“Will you be accompanying your son on his trip to his settlement?”
Cain finds that he hasn’t actually considered it. His duty is here at the castle, training the guard and making sure things runs smoothly. Jeb is a grown man, and Cain is well aware of the rift between them. “No, your highness.” He states it in such a way that she gives a sharp nod and does not try for more information.
Jeb grabs Cain by the arm as they stand from dinner. “You’re really not?” And in his eyes, Cain sees the eight-year-old boy that tried to fight off Zero and a handful of his goons. He also sees the man who also hadn’t considered the option and feels guilty for it.
“They’re your home.”
“You’re my father.”
Not really, Cain thinks, but he appreciates the sentiment. “My place is here.”
“I see,” but Cain watches Jeb’s face close off and knows that he doesn’t.
“Never mind,” Jeb walks away without looking back, and in the line of his shoulders and the clench of his hands, Cain sees himself clearly.
“I’m sorry,” Ambrose says from Cain’s elbow. Cain hadn’t heard him approach. He wonders if Ambrose means it or if he feels it’s just polite to say something because he’s still in the room.
“Sure,” Cain responds flatly.
“I am,” Ambrose says, and the wide-eyed, honest look he gives Cain prompts Cain to turn and walk away.
He can handle Ambrose, Cain thinks as he circles the castle, up and down hallways and stairs and into corners he doesn’t quite recognize yet, but not when so much of Glitch starts to break through. What’s he doing here, he wonders, that it means more than getting to know his son? Anyone could run The Queen’s guard. It’s not a terribly difficult job. He doesn’t even like it here much. It’s too much of everything. Silk and brocade, heavy curtains and enough rugs, Cain thinks, to carpet an entire village from the front gate to the last house on the road.
“Dad,” and Jeb’s coming up the stairs. “Look, I—”
“No,” Cain says and holds up his hand. “Whatever conversation we’re about to have, let’s just skip over it. Whoever we are, Jeb, we’re not men who know each other. As much as you’re my son, you’re a stranger, and I think it’s the same for you.”
Jeb looks down at the steps and presses his lips together. “Yeah.” He looks up again. “But-”
“Let’s know each other as men.” Cain holds out his hand. “Whatever other chances we had, they’re off on their own now.” He sees the way Jeb’s considering fighting him, hands clenching at his sides. Jeb's hands relax; he breathes out hard.
“You’re probably right.”
He’s probably not, but Cain shakes his hand and pats his shoulder. “When you get back to your settlement, send me a message; let me know you arrived.” The hope that flares in Jeb’s eyes is just what Cain was trying for.
“I’ll do that. We’ll find a balance.”
Cain stands at the top of the stairs and watches Jeb descend. Maybe, he thinks and makes his way to his rooms. He lights the fire and a few lamps and sits in a chair and stares at the walls as he considers the day and the week before it, and the weeks before that. A longer, stranger trip, Cain thinks, probably won’t happen to him again.
There’s a knock on the door, and Cain answers it. The servants have come with his bathwater, and he stands aside to let them fill the tub that sits along the wall near the fireplace. Once they’ve gone, Cain strips down and slides in, glad to be at the end of the day so that he can wash off and push his thoughts into an organized list of issues as he soaps up and dunks his whole body under to rinse off. When he comes up, DG is sitting next to the tub and smiling.
“Hey!” He nearly shouts, shocked.
“Hi,” and she waves like they’ve run into each other on the street. “I just came in to say goodnight.”
“I swear, princess, you’re just trying to get me stuck in some compromising situation.”
“You were mean to Ambrose, tonight,” DG says, like it’s not important that Cain’s sitting naked in the tub. “He was trying to be nice.”
“I’m not in the mood for nice.” Cain agitates the water because he can’t get out. There’s a washcloth on the edge of the tub, but reaching for it means moving his hands from where they’re blocking DG’s view. “Look, princess, unless you’ve got something useful to add, get out so I can get dressed.”
“You should be nice,” DG says as she stands and walks for the door. “And I didn’t see anything.”
“I’ll just bet,” Cain mutters to himself as he tries to relax again.
The week closes out with no real incidence. Jeb goes back to his settlement, Cain seeing him off with a pat on the shoulder and a hug so awkward Cain almost wishes it hadn’t happened. DG throws him looks every time he says anything to Ambrose that isn’t perfectly nice and shiny, and Cain sits in his office and stares out his window counting the hours until training starts. Training will keep him busy, and maybe it’s keeping busy that he needs to find his feet in this place.
Ambrose drops by his office the day before training starts. Cain’s desk is covered in notes and scribbles and one very large map of the grounds, which he is using to double-check the placements of the training exercises.
“Mr. Cain,” Ambrose says as he eyes all the papers. “I thought we could talk in a bit more depth about my role in your training exercises.”
“You’re teaching my men some of your basic maneuvers, Ambrose. That’s all we need to discuss.” Cain’s shirtsleeves are rolled up, and he’s eyeing the map warily. “Your surveying,” he says with a wave of his hand to get Ambrose to sit. “Are you finished with the northwest lawn?”
“Yes,” Ambrose says brightly. Cain thinks that maybe he really does enjoy something that sounds so boring. “We finished it two days ago. We’re down by the lake at this point, so I believe we’re well out of your way.”
“Excellent.” Cain scribbles a note to himself and turns the map ninety degrees. He studies it for a few more minutes before deciding that the course of action he already has outlined should work well enough. He’ll know better after the first couple of days if any adjustments will be needed. When he looks up he realizes Ambrose is still sitting in his office. “Something you need?”
“We’ve talked a bit on how you’ve seen me defend myself before,” Ambrose says quietly, and Cain gets the feeling whatever he’s about to say feels very important to him.
“Yes,” Cain says quietly and sits in his chair.
“I called it dancing,” Ambrose says and gives Cain a small, shy smile that Cain completely recognizes. “And I believe I went on for some length about rhythm.”
Cain smiles. “You did.”
“I think, perhaps, that the befuddlement came from my description versus what you actually saw. I had a memory of dancing. You had the proper memory of my defensive tactics.” Ambrose smiles another small, shy smile. “A ridiculous confusion, really.”
“It’s not,” Cain says softly, but he sees that Ambrose hears it. He tries to come up with a follow up, something insightful and helpful that will let Ambrose know he appreciates that he’s come by to tell him something that probably, to Ambrose, seems trivial. “It looked like dancing,” is all he has, and he rubs a hand across his mouth to hide his need to smile when Ambrose tilts his head just so and grins full out. It’s not a polite smile. There’s nothing societal or proper in the way Ambrose’s eyes close for a moment like he’s pleased beyond measure.
“Thank you,” Ambrose says very quietly. Cain watches him watch his hands. “I am never sure, day-to-day, where, exactly, my mind is.”
“Nothing new there,” Cain throws out before he can stop it. There’s a heart-stopping moment where he’s met with silence, and he’s forced to wonder if he’s gone too far. This isn’t Glitch, he reminds himself. Ambrose may not just roll his eyes and agree and forget about it twenty seconds later.
“It was never new, actually. I’ve always been a bit scattered.” Ambrose’s smile quirks a little and settles more on the left side of his face. “The removal just made things a bit more obvious.”
Cain’s lost for words again. He can handle any number of things people say, but he’s never had a knack for counter-acting self-deprecation. He taps his fingers on his thigh, just above his gun, and tries not to look terribly uncomfortable. “You’re a smart man,” he finally says after a pause that he knows is too long.
Ambrose nods once, stands, and walks to the door. “Let me know if you need anything else, Mr. Cain.”
“Thanks, Ambrose.” Cain looks away as the door opens and doesn’t look back until he hears it latch. He counts to thirty before standing and moving towards the window. It’s another forty seconds before Ambrose comes out of the side door of the castle headed towards the lake. Cain watches him go, appreciating the way he moves and realizes fully for the first time just why Ambrose has been quite so bothersome.
“Son of a bitch,” he breathes out. He grabs his hat and coat and makes for the door. He clatters down the grand staircase off the main foyer of the castle and nearly runs down Ahamo. “Excuse me,” he says distractedly.
“Cain?” Ahamo asks, gripping Cain’s bicep to keep him from getting away. “You look pale, sir, are you all right?”
Cain stops and breathes in and out for a moment. He looks hard at Ahamo and considers his options. “Personal revelations are a pain in the ass.”
Ahamo’s eyebrows go up, but he releases Cain’s arm. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”
“Thank you.” Cain picks up his purposeful stride out the grand front doors of the castle and circles around from the west until he’s positioned himself at the edge of the orchard that borders the lake. He presses his body against a tree and watches Ambrose as he instructs some young man in the placement of the survey equipment he’s been hauling around for days.
It’s been so long he’s forgotten, Cain thinks. And Adora did most of the work, smiling at him first, talking to him first, asking him to dance during a town social. Glitch had asked him to dance, and Cain had assumed the shiver up his spine had been his body preparing itself for the fight against the Long Coats. Glitch had sat next to him on that pile of blankets in the wagon and shown him the horse, and Cain had blamed the way his hands trembled on the chill that the fire hadn’t quite cut. Excuses are for the weak and idiotic, Cain has been telling people since he was old enough to believe it true, and now he wonders exactly which of those two he is. He wonders if he’s both.
Cain considers everything that’s come before this afternoon and Ambrose and their conversation in his office. Ambrose when he was Glitch; the way he would smile and trail off, eyes still on target but mind somewhere Cain can’t even begin to imagine. The loose-hipped walk of Glitch, familiar to Cain because he’d once had an old nag of a horse with a similar gait. Glitch’s smiles and laughter, the tattered regal coat that Cain now firmly believes he kept because he really had always believed himself to be a fine advisor to The Queen, even on the days when he didn’t know it at all.
All those years in the suit, watching and re-watching his family being ambushed, he’d never once considered the possibility of being free. It was those kinds of thoughts that caused men in those suits to end up crazed when they came out. He’d kept himself focused on the important part. His family had been taken; were he to get free, he would get them back, or barring that, get revenge.
Zero’s in the smallest, filthiest cell in the castle dungeon. The Witch is dead. What Long Coats are still on the run will soon be at their deaths, of that Cain is certain. Revenge has been had. His wife is avenged. His son is alive. His own wounded heart had started mending the moment he’d been freed from that suit. Looking at Ambrose now, as he smiles and says something to his assistant, Cain knows why he agreed to let them tag along. DG’s got the wide-eyed innocence and casual determination of a puppy wanting to play at tug of war, but Glitch, and Ambrose, have a sense of purpose. Ambrose has a sense of justice. Ambrose knows who he is and where he should be and how things should be done. Cain admires that. Ambrose has a quick wit and a sly smile and enough brains to be quicker than the world, even at half-power. Cain appreciates that. Ambrose is beautiful, in a pale, proper way but with a wicked glint in his eyes that makes Cain think it would be dangerous to set the man loose on an unsuspecting blowhard.
It’s been twenty-something annuals since Adora first asked him to dance, her hand wrapping solidly around his wrist as she pulled him to the floor, and now, stopping to lean against a tree and catch his breath, Cain comes to terms with the fact that he’s fallen in love again.
I’ll be damned, he thinks and smiles a little. He glances around the orchard and spots the small apples that are starting to come in on the trees. Cain picks one. It’s tart and juicy and makes his fingers sticky. He feels young again, now that he’s come to terms with himself and Ambrose and Glitch. What he’ll do about it, he’s not sure, but just knowing where his head is keeps the smile on his face as he cuts across the front lawn and walks into the castle.
Training starts just after dawn. Cain’s as benevolent as he can be, makes sure his men are full of a proper breakfast and plenty of hot tea. There’s a nip in the air signaling the start of fall, and he pulls his coat in tight as he surveys his men while they stand in formation.
“What you learn this week will be expanded upon during your tenure here as the Queen’s Guard,” he says, grave. He’s never had to raise his voice much to keep the attention of any men he’s commanded, but he’s got it a notch above the usual just to make sure they’re really listening. “This is the basics. I want to see that you know what you’re doing, that you know how to respond. I picked you because you had promise. Don’t make me regret it.” He turns to his left and motions to Ambrose. “And for a start, Ambrose is going to kick your butts for an hour. You will do as he orders. That clear?”
Ten men, at the top of their voices, respond in unison with, “Yes, Cain.”
Cain catches a smile Ambrose tries to hide. “What?”
“Cain?” Ambrose is amused.
“I’ve been told that once a tin man, always a tin man, but that sounds ridiculous if you say it in unison.” Cain watches Ambrose absorb the information; Ambrose doesn’t seem to think much of it. “Don’t kill them.”
“Of course not.”
Cain gives him a nod and walks up a nearby incline. He’s picked this particular bit of ground because of the slope. He can stand a few feet up from the action and see what’s going on, keep track of who’s really showing promise in what they’re being taught. It also gives him a perfect view to watch Ambrose. Just because he’s not participating in the training doesn’t mean he can’t pick up a few pointers along the way.
Ambrose is out of his usual outfit of regal coat, pressed slacks and shirt, and shined shoes this morning. He’s in a pair of trousers that look homemade to Cain and a simple linen shirt. The chill is still in the air, but Ambrose doesn’t seem to notice as he lectures the squad on the importance of stretching while leading them through a set.
“They’re here to work, Ambrose,” Cain calls down.
“Stretching is work, Mr. Cain,” Ambrose retorts, not even bothering to look back.
Cain settles back on his heels and keeps his mouth shut as Ambrose starts demonstrating basic maneuvers. He moves like he’s made of rubber, Cain thinks as Ambrose performs a near-back bend that he’s certain will send his men into spasms.
Forty minutes in, and the full squad is still standing. Cain’s impressed. He knows they’re good, but he’d expected at least one man to fall on his face by now. Ambrose is walking amongst the ranks, checking their stances, adjusting the width of their legs and the bends in their arms. He’s patient, cheerful, giving compliments sparsely but honestly, and Cain can see that the men already like him. It’s a promising start, Cain thinks, and a good one, as forty minutes rolls over to fifty minutes and Ambrose starts them stretching again.
“Up, up, up,” Ambrose chants as he raises his arms high above his head and the men do the same. Cain catches a glimpse of Ambrose’s stomach, not surprised to find it as pale as the rest of him, and he looks away when he realizes he’s been looking at all.
Ambrose calls the whole thing done with a clap of his hands, and Cain descends from his position on the incline to inspect the men. “Fifteen off, then over to the southern field for archery.”
“Yes, Cain,” the men say in unison, before breaking ranks and gathering their things.
Cain watches them go and waits for them to be well out of earshot before turning to Ambrose. “Well?”
“They are dedicated.” Ambrose says as he wipes sweat from his neck. “And they are willing to work hard. You picked good men, Mr. Cain.”
“Thank you.” Cain watches the fine shiver that works its way up Ambrose’s spine and looks around for Ambrose’s coat. “You cold?”
“Just a touch chilled now that I’ve stopped moving.”
Cain spots the coat and picks it up from where it’s folded neatly on the ground. He holds it out with one hand, and Ambrose takes it with a nod. “So,” Cain says as Ambrose slips on the coat, “sure you want to do it tomorrow?”
“I am always happy to help, Mr. Cain.”
Ambrose looks up from where he’s buttoning his coat, eyebrows at angles and a lock of hair slipping from its carefully styled place. “I’m sorry?”
“No ‘Mr.’ I’m just Cain.” Cain swears he can see the gears working through their ratchets in Ambrose’s head.
“You’re not The Queen, sweetheart.” It’s more sarcastic than Cain means to be, but he can’t help it. The “Mr.” routine was bad enough when he didn’t quite like Ambrose, but now that he’s settled his feelings on the man to possible love, it’s really irritating. “It’s Cain.”
“I see,” and Ambrose seems to have closed himself off suddenly. “I’ll be sure not to make that mistake in the future.”
The way Ambrose stands, his shoulders rigid but his fingers still buttoning up his coat, Cain doesn’t know what to do. He’s thrown off his game by the sudden aloofness. “Look, I—”
“We are clear, Cain.” There’s a touch of extra emphasis on his name, and Cain can only stare as Ambrose turns on his heel and walks away.
“…the hell?” He mutters as he heads the other direction. He arrives at the makeshift archery range to find DG and Azkadellia sitting on a blanket and watching as the men prepare their bows and arrows. DG’s in a skirt, and Cain smirks when he sees her. “Lose a bet?”
“She did,” Azkadellia says with a triumphant smile. “So I made her wear it.”
“I still don’t get how you walk in these things,” DG complains and fusses with her skirt.
“One leg in front of the other, princess.” Cain grins when DG swats at his legs. “Got room for one more?” The women scoot over, and Cain makes himself comfortable. Azkadellia offers him tea, but he waves it away. “I’m just here to watch.”
“What are you hoping to see?” Azkadellia asks as she pours DG more tea.
“Today’s about getting an idea of what the men can do. The rest of the week is for the men to figure it out themselves.”
“And if they do not figure it out?”
“I’ll tell them.” Cain states, and sees Azkadellia and DG share a look. “What?” The women share another look, and Cain can see the little girls they were once. “Would one of you just say whatever it is you’re thinking?”
“Azkadellia thinks you’re hot when you’re getting ready to bark orders.” DG says, and ducks away when Azkadellia tries to shove her.
Cain hides a grin by looking down the range as the men line up. “I’ll take it as a compliment and nothing more.”
“I appreciate it.” Azkadellia says in a tone that’s almost regal. She pokes at DG when DG starts to laugh. “Was she this much trouble when you met her, Cain?”
“More,” he says without a pause.
“Hey!” DG exclaims in her own defense. “When you met me, I wasn’t alone. Glitch counted for at least half of the trouble.”
“More like two-thirds,” Cain says to make her smile and laugh. “Not that you helped with your ridiculous requests.”
“She borrowed my razor to cut into a cocoon of the Papay.” Cain says to Azkadellia. “And then one bit me, and we had to run for our lives.”
“You cut the cocoon yourself, mister. And if you hadn’t, Raw would have been left to die.”
“We had to leap for our lives off a cliff that should have rightly killed us.”
Azkadellia laughs and pats DG affectionately. “She’s always gotten me into trouble.”
“You get one girl possessed by a witch…” DG mutters.
Cain lets his smile show this time. “Yeah, it’s a high bar we set up for you, princess.”
DG rolls her eyes. “You’re in a mood today.”
“I’m fine,” Cain watches the way DG’s face tightens up and knows he’s given himself away. “Don’t start,” he warns, pointing a finger at her.
“Did something…” DG starts to ask, but sees the look on Cain’s face and presses her lips together. “Never mind,” she says and turns back to Azkadellia, striking up a conversation about nothing important.
Cain watches the rest of the archery practice and nods to the men as they head for artillery training. He nods goodbye to DG and Azkadellia and walks to his office. After artillery training, he’ll meet the men for lunch, but right now, he knows there’s paperwork waiting for him on his desk. If he starts now, he should have the whole of his busywork cleared by lunch and still have time to double-check the set-up of the East Wing meeting room before he meets the men for a discussion of defense tactics.
Ambrose is waiting outside of Cain’s office, pacing back and forth and muttering to himself. Cain stops short at the sight of him and realizes after a few moments that Ambrose is so wrapped in his thoughts that he hasn’t noticed Cain approach.
“Ambrose,” he says, and is surprised at the way Ambrose spins around and balances on the balls of his feet, his hands coming up in a defensive motion. “Is there something you need?” Cain asks, ignoring the way Ambrose relaxes back onto his heels and starts to pace again. How deep he is in his own head is a guess Cain isn’t willing to make, but coming out in a defensive position means he’s tense. Cain reaches out and grabs Ambrose’s arm, raising his eyebrows when all he gets is a blank look. “Why are you here?”
“This would be a conversation better had in your office, I think.” Ambrose’s gaze flicks about the hallway, and Cain can feel the tension through the grip he has on Ambrose’s elbow.
“Okay, then.” Cain unlocks the door and gestures Ambrose in, latching the door behind him and watching Ambrose as he rounds the room to his desk. He doesn’t sit; the tension in the room won’t let him, but he tries to relax his back and shoulders so that he doesn’t look like he’s ready to attack. “What’s going on?”
“I must apologize for my abrupt exit earlier. I feel that I…” Ambrose trails off and looks around Cain’s office. Cain waits him out, knowing from the way Ambrose’s hands are fidgeting that he’ll get his answers soon enough. “I am a well-educated man brought up with the best manners and tutors, Mr. Cain,” Ambrose says, and Cain feels like the conversation’s gone completely sideways.
“Ambrose, whatever you’re saying, just say it.”
Ambrose gives Cain a long look and finally nods. “Very well, if that’s how you wish to handle this. The time I spent as Glitch is an embarrassment for me.”
Cain blinks at the news and swallows back his first response of denial. A man with Ambrose’s background, he knows, really would find Glitch an embarrassment. Ambrose goes on before Cain can say this aloud.
“It is very strange, Mr. Cain, to be back in my full mind. I have so many memories that are not at all appropriate for a man of my education and background. I ran about the countryside in tattered clothes with wild hair and no idea of propriety or proper manners.”
The last part makes Cain snort, and when Ambrose looks up at him, Cain does it again just for the effect. “Define proper,” Cain says, but holds up a hand as Ambrose opens his mouth. “Rhetorical smartass remark, there.”
Cain waits for more but just gets a long stare from Ambrose. He’s going to have to say something, he realizes. Ambrose has come to him for help for some ridiculous reason, and now Cain has to help him. “When you found me, I was locked up in a tin box with a beard down to my belt, and I was caked in the stench of my own fear.”
“I remember,” Ambrose says seriously, his eyes fixed on Cain.
“And you let me out and watched me clean myself up and didn’t say a word.”
“Yes.” It’s barely more than a whisper. Cain can see that Ambrose has no idea where he’s going with his side of the conversation.
“A less proper person would have asked questions the second I fell from that damned suit.” Cain watches Ambrose’s face twitch into a confused expression. The same lock of hair from earlier in the morning is making another daring escape, and Cain wonders if all of Ambrose’s propriety is in place because of how he sees his own actions when he was Glitch.
“You’re saying that you found me proper as Glitch?”
Cain laughs at that, short and blunt, but it’s a laugh. “Not even close. I’m saying that you had certain moments when you were brained where you knew when to hold off and wait. Last I checked, that counted as proper manners.”
“I see,” Cain’s not sure if Ambrose really does until he gives Cain a tired smile. “I appreciate your words.”
“They’re true.” Cain watches the way Ambrose’s eyes close when he smiles again. It’s fascinating to Cain, the bits and pieces of Glitch that were, and still are, a part of Ambrose. “Clothes don’t mean a thing if the man wearing them is useless. Manners don’t mean a thing if the man using them is an idiot. You were a headcase; that doesn’t immediately make you less than you were.”
“It made me half a brain less,” Ambrose says, factual. “I do believe that counts for a great deal, your kind words aside.”
“Half a brain left, and you could still fight. You could still talk. You could still insult me as needed,” Cain rolls his eyes at the way Ambrose flinches. “Trust me, I had it coming.”
“Insults are so—”
“Necessary sometimes.” Cain makes an exasperated noise low in his chest and waves his hand towards one of his windows. “There’s too much propriety in this damned place. It’s all niceties and politeness and conversations that would put the whole O.Z. to sleep if they had to listen to them every night.”
“This is a royal court, Mr. Cain—”
“It’s Cain,” Cain spits out and doesn’t miss the way Ambrose flinches. “It’s always been Cain.”
“Or Tin Man,” Ambrose says quietly, and Cain watches as realization dawns across his face. “Oh, dear, what you said to me earlier, I said it to you.”
“Necessary insults, like I said.”
“I…” Ambrose looks out the window, and Cain watches the way his face changes as the sunlight hits it. The line of his nose is sharp, and Cain gets caught when Ambrose turns back and meets his eyes. “I am a royal advisor to a royal court, as are you now. There are certain expectations.”
“Boring is an expectation?” Cain smiles a little when Ambrose grins just a bit. “I’m not saying all those fancy tricks and tips you all have is a bad way to be, but too much of a proper thing is…” Cain finds himself without words and thinks back, almost against his will, to Glitch. “There’s propriety, and there’s kidding yourself. Last I checked, I got by just fine in my life with the manners I had. There’s no need to dress them up just because the company’s different.”
“I see,” Ambrose stands and straightens his coat. He pushes his errant lock of hair back into its wanted position. “You are a man of strong convictions, Cain.”
“Yeah,” Cain says because now he’s the one who’s not sure where the conversation is going.
“And a man of strong convictions is a man to be considered.”
Cain’s left to stare at Ambrose’s back as he leaves his office. It’s not often he’s completely flabbergasted, but he’s feeling it now. When he’d been a Tin Man in Central City, there’d been a bottle of decent whiskey in his desk for moments like this. He wonders if there’s some royal equivalent somewhere in this damned castle.
By the time the squad shows up for lunch, Cain’s certain there’s no whiskey to be found in the whole of the castle. There’s a basement somewhere he’s sure he hasn’t searched, but the search itself was enough to get him focused again.
The men are in good spirits, talking and joking as they load their plates, but Cain doesn’t miss the way they wait for him to eat before they dig in themselves. It bothers him and makes the back of his neck itch. He’s a Tin Man, not some royal court pony, and he’s not the one who’s been out in the sun all morning. He eats quickly and leans back in his chair, checking the men for injuries. There don’t see to be any, but he spots a bruise here and there. He stands, and the men stand with him.
“Sit,” Cain barks, and they drop back to their seats. “Let’s get something clear here and now; I’m your superior in rank only. You don’t wait for me before you eat. You don’t stand when I leave a room. Understood?” There’s a general murmuring of assent, and Cain nods. “Good. There’s enough pomp and circumstance in this place. Let’s not give it another layer. Half an hour, and I’ll see you in the East Wing meeting room.” He turns on his heel and leaves, forcing his shoulders to relax once he’s out of eyesight.
The East Wing meeting room is already set up, the servants have left water and glasses around the table and hung the maps of the grounds and buildings that Cain had given them the night before. He nods at the arrangement before realizing Ambrose is sitting in a shadowy corner with his hands in his lap and his eyes on the door.
“The Queen thought that it would be best if I sat in for this session, given my knowledge of the castle and the grounds,” Ambrose explains before Cain can ask. “I am aware that—”
“You gave your brain,” Cain snaps out before Ambrose can lapse into an apology Cain doesn’t need to hear and is sure he doesn’t deserve. “The Long Coats came and they sliced you up, and you gave your brain.” Ambrose blinks, and Cain watches him, wondering what he’ll say to that.
“What else could I have done, Mr. Cain?” Ambrose stands and smoothes his coat and adjusts his cuffs. “What else was there for me to do? I swore my allegiance. I stood by it. I watched The Queen’s face at every turn. Azkadellia, possessed or not, was still her daughter. The Queen believed herself at fault, believed herself to be the cause of the destruction of The O.Z. She had birthed her, after all, and she had been the one to watch one daughter kill the other.” Ambrose looks up, and Cain’s caught in the most truthful, painful stare he’s ever seen in his life. “The Queen gave her magic on the slimmest hope of redemption. How could I not give my brain under the same circumstance?”
Cain walks across the room and stands toe-to-toe. He searches Ambrose’s face, his manners, and all he sees is loyalty and trust and respect and honor. He presses his hand against Ambrose’s chest and feels his breath, the thump-lump of his heartbeat under layers, and the fine stitching on his coat. Ambrose watches him back seeing things Cain can only imagine. There’s a long, slow pause, and during it, the sun comes out from behind the sparse clouds and shines straight into the room, straight in the window right behind Ambrose, and everything’s clear as that shaft of light, and Cain feels like he can see the workings of the world.
He leans in and kisses Ambrose. Ambrose kisses back. They pull away and stand together and share air while the sun dips back behind the clouds.
“Cain,” Ambrose says, but it’s in a different tone than before. It’s softer and more casual, like they’ve known each other ages. It makes Cain smile.
“You can call me Glitch.”
Cain’s smile widens at the offer. “I think Ambrose will work out just fine.”
Ambrose presses his hand against Cain’s ribcage and scratches lightly with his fingertips. “I think you’re right.” He trails the seam of Cain’s vest and looks thoughtful in the same, half-dreamy way Cain remembers from their travels. “You fell through the ice.”
“That horse you carry, it saved you.”
Cain feels his eyebrows come together, and he watches the way Ambrose cocks his head at him. “You didn’t remember this?”
“No. I…I had this, this feeling, every now and again, and I couldn’t place it. I kept seeing you asleep, and I couldn’t figure out what it meant.” Ambrose flushes suddenly and takes a step back. “I mean—”
“I know what you mean,” Cain says, stepping forward. “Zero sent me out a window. I fell through the ice and pulled myself out, and the next thing I knew, I was—”
“The wagon,” Ambrose says, and Cain watches the full memory come to life at the way Ambrose’s eyes widen and his smile quirks just a little to the side. “Goodness, but it was a sight.”
“An ugly sight.” Cain chuckles as Ambrose laughs. He recognizes the edge to Ambrose’s laugh. It’s not quite hysterical, more that Ambrose is realizing just how much he’s forgotten.
“I wonder if I’ll ever remember it all.”
“I don’t know.”
Ambrose smiles; it’s a touch sad. “Truthful to a fault.”
“Suppose I am.”
“Not a terrible thing for a Tin Man, that honesty.”
Cain chuckles again. “Suppose not.”
“I was hoping…” Ambrose trails off and his cheeks get red. Cain can’t find it in himself to look away. “Would you like to have dinner with me this evening?”
“Yes.” The smile that crosses Ambrose’s face makes Cain curl his fingers into Ambrose’s coat. “What time?”
Cain grimaces. “I told The Queen I would give her an end-of-the-day update then.”
“Eight?” Ambrose’s smile hasn’t wavered.
“Nine. I can make it by nine.”
Cain let’s the smile he’s feeling slide across his face. “Nine in your rooms.” There are footsteps in the hallway, and Cain steps away, schooling his face into a sterner expression. “Nine,” he repeats, just to say it.
“Nine,” and Cain thinks Ambrose says it for the same reason.
Cain takes another step back as the door opens, and as the squad leader walks in, the men behind him, to find Cain and Ambrose standing a respectable distance from one another, both looking serious. “Okay to enter, sir?”
“Of course,” Cain says and walks to the front of the room. “Get seated, and we’ll get started.” Cain turns on his heel to face the room and doesn’t miss the small smile on Ambrose’s face.