The ringing of the go-between woke Azkadellia up. She had fallen asleep in the small study they had made into a communications room when they took over this wing of Baron Colfer's home. She reached out for the still-ringing instrument. "Hello?"
"Az, what are you still doing up? You need to sleep too."
"Where have you been, DG!" The force of her words shot Azkadellia to her feet. "I've had to deal with a paranoid Council, newly ill, Mother." She chocked up and couldn't yell any more.
"I went to the Other Side and got some doctors to figure out what's wrong."
Azkadellia's voice returned, but her crazy sister's actions drove words right out of her head. "You did what!"
"Not now, Az! You can chew me out all you want after everyone is better. But right now, the doctors need to get started and I'm counting on you and Hank and Emily to help them. Whatever they need they can have, okay?"
DG was now Queen. Az took a deep breath. "Of course, I'll do that."
"Thanks, Az. Now I'm going to find my bed in this place. You get them started and spend some time in yours or I'll tell them to sedate you. I love you and give my love to everyone else."
"I love you too." Az set down the go-between instrument. Obviously she and her sister needed to have a long talk about DG risking her neck now. She heard a commotion in the hall and rushed to the doors separating this wing from the rest of the house. Hank was keeping someone from opening them with one hand lodged against the wood. "It's okay. DG got doctors from the Other Side."
The white-haired tiktok gazed at her suspiciously as he took his hand off the door. "She did what?"
"Got us from Earth." Two men pushed their way inside and shut the massive doors behind them.
Azkadellia gasped. "Mr. Cain, you shouldn't be in here! What if you catch it too?" DG's Tin Man was dressed differently in a tight shirt and slightly less tight trousers. DG couldn't lose Wyatt Cain too, but why was he looking so annoyed at her for saying so?
He sighed out his annoyance. "I guess I better get used to that. I'm Doctor Stephen Connor, and Mr. Cain and I only look alike. This is Doctor Miles McCabe."
The younger brown-haired man had a nice smile. "You must be Azkadellia."
She nodded. The doppelganger situation wasn't helping her sense of everything falling apart.
"Where did DG dig you fellows up at?" Hank examined the pair with more curiosity than suspicion now.
"We're from the National Institutes of Health," Connor answered.
"Not the ones who locked up Lieutenant Dan then, good."
Azkadellia jumped back in as the doctors exchanged looks. "DG said we were to help you with whatever you needed."
Connor turned back to her. "How many patients do we have now?"
"Fifty-six. My father and I still haven't developed a fever or a cough. The twenty-five left from Neverdale are the worst off. Six tiktoks to minister. Eleven from Baron Colfer's household, including himself." Azkadellia closed her eyes. "Is it wrong to be thankful Baron Colfer didn't run to a more populated town?"
"We're all grateful for that right now." She opened her eyes to see a softer expression on Connor's face. Cain typically reserved that expression for DG or his son. "Miles, start examining the patients. I'll start with the dead."
"The dead?" Azkadellia looked at Hank.
The nurture unit shook his head. "Queen Galinda is the only body we kept. There wasn't enough healthy hands to dig graves in Neverdale, so the Princess cremated them with her magic."
Before the disapproval could be made manifest, she added, "I put the remains in silver urns with their names engraved. They deserved some dignity." Tears pricked her eyes.
"It's done." Connor turned to Miles. "See which patients are capable of interviews so we can track down Patient Zero."
"Zero?" She jolted at the name.
"That's what we call the first one to get sick," Miles explained.
"We put everyone upstairs," Hank said. "Follow me."
Connor turned to Azkadellia as Miles left with Hank. "I will have to do an autopsy on your mother. Knowing how this disease is killing people helps us figure out how to fight it."
She didn't know what an autopsy was but DG said they were to have everything they needed. "This way." The wide hall ended in the manor's kitchen. Emily and another tiktok were working on the next batch of soup for those who could keep food down. DG's maternal nurture unit spotted them and hurried over. Azkadellia moved into introductions since being misidentified upset the doctor. "Emily, this is Doctor Stephen Connor. He only looks likes Mr. Cain. He needs to examine Mother."
"I figured that's where DG had gone, especially since her cohorts didn't want to say." She shook her head. "Maybe you will have better luck coaxing your father out."
"He's still in the freezer?" Azkadellia hurried across the kitchen to the large metal door.
"I finally got him to take a blanket," Emily called after her.
She wrestled the door open. The freezer's dim lights showed Father perched on a stool next to the table she had made for Mother's body. The silken blanket was draped over his shoulder, but inertia held it there. He continued to stare at Mother's composed face. "Father, please come to bed. This does you no good."
"I'm not leaving her again!" Ahamo snarled and Azkadellia jerked her hand away from him. "You separated us for fifteen years and now you want to do it again."
She stopped herself from wailing it wasn't me, it was the witch! She needed to be stern, that usually worked for Mother. "Father, come out now. DG found doctors and he needs to autopsy Mother."
Ahamo twisted off the stool and the blanket fluttered to the ground. "How much more are you going to put her through! Bad enough you tore the country apart, now you want to gut your mother like a fish!"
Azkadellia gasped. Ahamo had never shouted at her like this. "DG saidó"
"Of course she doesn't care; we're not her parents! And you're listening to her again, just like always. Had to go into the cave, have to carve up your mother. Just stay away from her!"
She blinked away the tears from her eyes. "Daddy." Ahamo turned back to Mother's corpse. She scooped up the blanket and steeled herself. "This has to be done."
"What's a little more vivisection on your record?" He spat. "At least you waited until she was dead."
"That's enough." Connor moved from behind Azkadellia and seized Ahamo's arm.
The thinner man couldn't shake off the grip. "Extending your gallant protection to both my daughters now, Cain?"
"If I must," Connor said in Cain's softly dangerous tone. "Your grief is no excuse to tear into your daughter like that."
Emily took the blanket from Azkadellia and wrapped it around Ahamo's shoulders, effectively gripping the former Consort as well. "What would your wife say, your Highness? Come along now." Connor let Ahamo go and Emily led him out of the freezer.
Azkadellia didn't move. She expected the people to feel that way, most of Neverdale's older sick had been vocal in laying blame on her. But her father? He felt the same? She jumped with a hand grazed her arm.
Connor looked sympathetic. "Are you okay?"
She nodded, realizing wiping her face would just draw attention to it. "My father is grieving hard, I... I apologize on his behalf."
"He didn't give consent for the autopsy."
She took a deep breath. "His consent isn't necessary. DG is queen now and she already decreed it." He nodded, showing that he heard her, but his gaze scanned the freezer. "But our mother deserves a state funeral and our customs--" She faltered when he swiveled his very Cain-like stare on her. "The people can't know she was cut up!"
"I'm sorry to put you through this, but the only way to know how she died is by going in and looking. I promise to stitch her up so only the ones who dress her for the funeral will know."
She tried to smile to accept his apology, but it felt more like a grimace. "Is there anything else you require?"
He glanced around the freezer again. "A real post-mortem examination room."
His Slipperisms made DG's comprehensible. She set her hand on his arm. "Close your eyes and picture what you need." His brow furrowed in confusion but he did as she said. Her magic dipped into his memories and wants, and shifted the freezer contents to match his expectations. The wooden table Mother rested on turned to metal. The light changed to one that could be focused onto it. She didn't concentrate on the supplies conjured next to the table beyond making them solid. "Does this suit your needs?"
Connor blinked before looking at her in shock. "And I thought your sister creating a paper trail for our disappearance was impressive."
"If there's nothing further you require, I'll stand guard to ensure you are not disturbed." She didn't stay for his reply, shut the freezer door almost completely, and slid against the wall beside it until she sat on the floor. Most undignified for a princess, but she was hidden from the working tiktoks and free to deal with her father's sharp, stabbing words. She let the tears slide down her cheeks.