Zack paused in the hike. Chelsea lagged again. "He's got to be getting heavy." Hal had refused to let anyone carry him but Chelsea. Zack held out his hands anyway.
She swung Hal from her hip and into his hands. "I'm not used to carrying him this much."
Hal squirmed, so Zack swung him up on his shoulders. "There, enjoy the view." He kept his hands on Hal's torso, but the toddler was delighted to be taller than Cain now.
"Do you have younger siblings? You are very good with Hal, for a boy."
"No, but there were always kids younger than me when Allie and I were in foster care."
"Foster care?" Glitch looked over his shoulder at them when Chelsea asked. Zack remembered what Cain had said last night, how Zack wouldn't be able to fool anyone with a change of clothes.
"What happens to orphans in the Zone?" He needed information for a believable story. And no wonder DG got angry with her friends and husband. They slipped into an everyone-knows-this-already attitude without realizing it.
"Family members take them in, or neighbors. If you're old enough, you can start working and avoid the orphanage if you don't have anyone else." Chelsea watched her steps. "I was lucky. My mother got me a job with Lord Gillikin before she died."
"On the Other Side, people volunteer to take care of kids who don't have any other family instead of going into an orphanage. You can't start working until you're over eighteen annuals."
"That sounds nice."
Zack made a face. "Maybe if they had fewer kids. I always felt lost in the shuffle. If I hadn't had my sister, I don't think I would have made it."
Chelsea nodded. "I know I felt lost in the castle, afraid I would do something wrong and they'd dismiss me." She sighed, looked at the group again, and lapsed into silence.
Zack couldn't think of anything else to ask her, so he let it stay. The clothes DG had conjured up weren't uncomfortable. His black backpack was stuffed into the canvas pack on his back now. He wore his soft-soled boots with the trousers and hid his sais under the material. The baggy dark blue shirt had way too many buttons, but at least he didn't have to wear a vest. Both Glitch and Cain had vetoed that.
"We're here." Cain stopped the group as they emerged into the clearing. Quelala Fortress was twice as big as the ruins of Gillikin. There was a crane putting blocks into place on the straight west wall, and the moat was dug halfway around the fortress. The south and east walls curved until they reached the river that flowed behind the fortress, making the unfinished fortress look off balance.
"He needs to hire a better architect," Glitch said.
"Oh good, that's what I was thinking," DG said.
Cain looked up to the sky with a sigh. "Time to do your thing, Zipperhead."
Glitch took the lead. Cain and Raw flanked DG. Zack fell behind Chelsea, after she took Hal back, bringing up the rear of the group. They passed a stream of peasants leaving the fortress with empty wagons.
The two guards in purple uniforms watched them approach the gate. Glitch addressed the one on the right. "Please inform Lord Quelala that Princess Dorothy Gale is here to meet with him for her inspection of the Northern Guild territories."
The guard looked over their group and DG drew her shoulders back. "Anderson!" A younger man answered the summons. "Tell Lord Quelala that the Princess wants to see him." As Anderson ran off to complete that errand, the guard gave a small half-bow. "If your Highness pleases, you can rest here for his Lordship." He ushered them to just inside the gate where a crude bench had been set up out of the sun.
"Thank you," DG said and sat. She smiled at Chelsea. "Come sit, Chelsea. There's enough room."
Chelsea gulped, "Yes, your Highness," and sat with Hal on her lap.
DG continued to smile. "It's alright, I don't bite." Chelsea tried to smile back, but her stiff body brought her lips up to a grimace. Zack patted her shoulder, hoping that would help her relax.
"Princess!" He noticed Cain's grip tightening on his holstered gun as the young man wearing black pants, a crisp white shirt, and a purple waistcoat embroidered in red and gold shouted and approached them. He bowed as DG stood up. His black hair was tied back into a short pony tail at the base of his neck. "Lord Quelala, at your service."
Chelsea scooted off the bench and moved behind Zack as DG held out her right hand. "Lord Quelala, it's a pleasure to meet you."
He kissed the back of DG's hand and continued to hold it as he straightened. The embroidery on his waistcoat was a repeated small mons of the five-sickle wheel. "Princess, please forgive our lackluster fanfare. Had we known you were coming, we would have prepared something appropriate."
"I'm afraid this is a surprise inspection of the Northern Guild territories," Glitch replied as he freed DG's hand from Lord Quelala's grasp and hooked it to his arm. "Since none of the Guild lords answered the Queen's summons to court."
"I sent my regrets, sir. I'm afraid that we had much rebuilding after the defeat of the Sorceress." Lord Quelala waved his hand at the back wall of the courtyard set flush with the tower's south wall. "Though, if I had any inkling that the court was hiding your beauty, Princess, I would have found a way to attend." Raw growled at the end of that speech. "As it is now, we will have to struggle to find proper entertainment for you in my rustic home."
"Please, don't go to any trouble. I came as much to escape the pomp and circumstance as to learn about the O.Z." DG's laughter was strained to Zack's ear. "I like the informal."
Lord Quelala smiled, showing his teeth. "Then please, call me Ichiro, your Highness."
"Alright, if you call me DG."
Ichiro's grin grew oilyer, and all of Zack's brotherly instincts wanted to push him in front of a rolling subway car. Cain probably wanted to make him the next star of Faces of Death. "It would be an honor, DG." A man dressed in a white pants and tunic approached the group. "I would be delighted if you would accept my hospitality for your entourage, and join me for supper. Political matters are easier to manage at a meal."
"That would be wonderful, thank you."
Ichiro's dark eyes swept over them and singled out Chelsea and Hal. She pressed closer to Zack, and he took notice of him. "The stories of your boon companions did not include babies and children. We are so uninformed in the North."
"We met along the way," DG said.
"Bit young to have a babe and looking to homestead," Ichiro managed to not sneer it.
"They're my cousins. My aunt just died and we're going to Central City to find my brother, sir." Zack said with barely masked contempt.
"Much too dangerous to let them travel alone," Glitch broke in. "The Princess put them under her protection."
"Of course, I would expect nothing else," Ichiro said matching Glitch's tone. He waved a hand at the servant. "Sigvat will show you to your chambers." He bowed again. "Until supper, DG."
"I'm looking forward to it." DG didn't take her hand off Glitch's arm as they followed Sigvat across the courtyard and into the doorway of the tower.