Cain and Ahamo turned to see DG sitting at her desk. "Is this thing recording?" She poked at the projector. "This is for Glitch, 'cause I know you and Az will steal this from the Queen as soon as you find out about it. Any way, Glitch, add a little red light that turns on when you're recording. Makes it more user friendly."
DG sat up straighter in her chair. Cain moved to get a clear look at her face. His chest tightened. She had lost weight over the last annual, and she never had much to spare. The dark smudges under her eyes betrayed many sleepless nights. Her black hair was braided and the pants she wore could be found in the O.Z. She planned on blending in wherever she had gone.
"By now, you should know that I'm gone." DG laced her fingers together in her lap. "No one coerced me or kidnapped me. I'm twenty-two-years," she grimaced, "annuals-old, and by the Zone and Other Side laws, I'm old enough to do what I damn well please. And what pleases me right now is getting the fuck out of this gilded iron suit!"
She paused to bring her anger back under control. "I should have written this down. Well, I tried my best to be what you wanted, your Majesty. I went to every lesson, every meeting, wore those torture devices you call clothes, played nice with stuck-up snobs kissing up to the Crown. And what did I get in return?" She spread her hands before making fists.
"I got a Palace full of people ashamed of everything connected to me. I got strangers for parents who order me around when they remember I'm not dead, stuck on the Other Side, or seven. I have snobs gleefully setting up things that I'll react to so they can snicker at me! I got a stalker that has Mother's A-okay because he has a goddamned title! He owes Raw his life, and you don't invite any Viewers to Raw's celebration because the little prick is suddenly offended by them. We'd all be frozen in darkness if it wasn't for Raw!"
Cain gestured to Glitch, who paused the time loop. "What the hell is she talking about? Raw's not invited to the celebration of the Battle at the Eclipse?"
"No Viewers were," Azkadellia shook her head. "Prince Aedan said they made him uncomfortable, but it wouldn't do if he wasn't there when they announced the engagement. Everyone told Mother it wasn't right." She threw up her arms. "No matter that it is beyond the realm of wishful thinking at this point."
Ahamo sighed. "Commander Cain, please keep quiet about this. My wife is fit to rule. The rest of her decisions are sound."
"She just has no matchmaking skills," Glitch added.
"There was never supposed to be any matchmaking," Ahamo countered.
Cain wanted to differ with the Consort. Nothing was sound about the decision to send him away from his son and DG, but that was a pointless discussion. "How did Raw save Prince Aedan's life?"
"I don't know. DG never said anything about it." Azkadellia winced at the frozen DG. "I wish she had."
Glitch restarted the time loop. "Bad enough how the Sorceress treated them, but I expected better from you, Mother," DG snarled. "Maybe I shouldn't have. After all, you ordered away the only people I trust. The only ones who explained this crazy place to me instead of expecting me to remember something erased from my memories. The only ones who didn't treat me like I was a moron because I don't know something."
She looked at her hands. "I don't know why you're pushing the throne at me so hard with how stupid you think I must be. Did you laugh when I hugged Cain good-bye? Did you have a good chuckle every time Glitch's assistant pushed me out of his lab?" Her voice grew bitter. "Did you giggle filling out my schedule, so I needed to be in a dress in the afternoon and no time to change, so of course, I'd have to wear proper Princess attire all day? Dorothy Gale is such a Slipper, she'll never figure it out. Did you enjoy it as much as those other snobs enjoyed laughing at me for dancing with Raw, for not recognizing muglug, for almost breaking my neck every time I'm in high heels? Yeah, there's a bunch that'll take me serious as Queen."
DG thrust herself up and shoved the chair back to the desk. "And before you go all apeshit that someone spilled your precious secrets, I figured it out on my own." She paced across the carpet. "Your telling me I have to marry the prick because he's the only eligible prince and we need that more than we needed the alliance confirmed what I feared. My friends, the heroes who suffered for their loyalty, were not good enough for you."
She stopped and looked into the projector's lenses. "If they aren't good enough, there's no way this Kansas farm girl will ever be good enough for you. I thought I could stick it out and fix what I had broken," she shrugged on a faded wool jacket and stuffed her hands into its pockets. "But you don't trust me to help with anything. And when I saw the orders you are going to send Cain," she shook her head before glaring again.
"Wyatt Cain has nothing to do with my decision not to marry Prince Aedan! You like the little prick so much, adopt him. Az can have fun torturing his ass. Az, I mean it, be all Sorceress evil because he is the one bastard in this world who deserves it." Azkadellia looked alarmed at the recording of her sister who now looked at the floor. "It's been six months and I still can'tů." She shook her head again.
"Anyways, I love you, Az, and I'll miss you. Glitch, take care of my sister like you really want to. Tell Jeb not to worry because I have a plan. Consider this Princess DG's resignation letter."
DG blinked out of existence.
Cain realized he was clenching his hand and relaxed it. "Orders for me?"
Glitch shrugged, but Ahamo answered. "I know your name was on the short list of personnel capable of commanding the Frozen Pass Fortress. I didn't realize Galinda had made a decision."
"Excuse my language, your Highness, but what the hell did Cain do to deserve exile?" Glitch glowered. "There is a reason that fortress was abandoned a hundred annuals ago!"
I like a Princess too much for a loyal subject. Haven't you figured that out yet, Zipperhead? Cain didn't say it, and was touched that Glitch was indignant on his behalf. "Should we take this evidence to the Queen?"
"Yes, before she commits the Army to a grid search of the entire Zone." Ahamo took the time loop projector and led the way down the stairs to the throne room.
The Queen stopped berating the Captain of the Royal Guards as they walked inside. Jeb glanced at his father, but didn't leave the line of Royal Army leaders standing at attention. "Commander Cain." He stared into the lavender eyes without flinching as he stopped before the dais. "Where is Dorothy Gale?"
"Out of Central City by now."
"What did you plan?" Her fist slammed on the throne's armrest.
Cain's voice froze, and it usually sent criminals running away at top speed. "Per your orders, I have had no contact with the youngest Princess since I left Central City. I arrived early for the ball, went to the barracks to see my son, and was told he was here in the Palace. Before I could leave a message for him, Ambrose and Princess Azkadellia asked me to investigate Princess DG's disappearance with the Consort." The Queen only blinked.
Ahamo reached his wife's side. "DG ran away. This is her note." He handed her the time loop projector but closed his hand around hers before she activated it. "Watch it in private." She frowned, but Ahamo didn't let go. "You do not want that out in court."
The Queen nodded. "Did she give any clues as to where she was going?"
"No, she didn't."
"Then she must be found. Commander Cain, can you do your duty and return Dorothy Gale to the Palace?"
Return her to these people who hurt her so deeply? Not considering any other possibilities between them, didn't he have a duty to the girl who freed him from the suit? Cain's lips twitched. "I always do my duty, your Majesty."
"How many men do you need?"
"None. You don't want to draw attention to the fact the Princess is missing."
The Queen's eyes narrowed, but Ahamo nodded. "That's a sound plan. Plus Commander Cain can move faster alone." Her suspicious expression transferred to her husband. Ahamo leaned closer and dropped his voice to a whisper.
The Queen lost most of her frown once Ahamo moved back. "Very well. Commander Cain, take whatever resources you need. The rest of you are dismissed." She swept off the dais and through the door behind the raised curtain.
The Captain of the Royal Guards and the Army leaders fled trying to not look like they were retreating. Jeb stopped in front of Cain. "Some visit."
"At least I didn't waste money on a room. DG said to tell you not to worry because she had a plan. What does that mean?"
Jeb grimaced, "Less than you're probably hoping for. She snuck away from lessons one day soon after you left and I found her. Her excuse was she needed a break, and while we talked she said she had a plan for when all this got to be too much. I asked her what it was but she only said 'All life's answers are found along the Old Road.' Since the Brick Route is the only road out of Central City in every direction, that's not very helpful."
"Her nurture units told her that," Cain frowned. Even DG had to realize Milltown would be searched.
"I'm coming too, Cain." Glitch stood ramrod stiff as he joined father and son.
Cain glanced over the Advisor's shoulder. Azkadellia stared at the mural on the wall, hugging herself. "No, you're not. You're gonna take care of her sister like DG wants."
His brown eyes flicked guiltily to Azkadellia. "Don't play that game, Tin Man."
"No game, Zipperhead. I don't want to deal with DG trying to kick your backside 'cause you didn't listen." Glitch looked unconvinced and Cain patted his shoulder. "'Sides, crowding DG is a bad idea, and Azkadellia needs protecting."
Glitch deflated. "Damn nest of vipers around here." He looked ready to say something more, but wiped it from his demeanor. "Good luck, Cain." He stepped away as the Consort reached Jeb's side.
"Sorry to have pulled you from your duties, Captain Cain, for a false alarm." Cain felt Ahamo's eyes appraising him while he addressed Jeb.
"With all due respect, your Highness, the Princess isn't safe out there alone."
"So it's a good thing the Princess isn't out there." Ahamo smiled at Jeb's confusion and turned to Cain. "Walk with me, Commander, while we get your supplies."
"My things are still at the barracks."
"I'll see to that," Jeb offered, "and find you a fresh horse." He left with a bow to the Consort.
"I don't know what else I could need," Cain said when they were alone in the throne room. The smooth-shaven man was fashionably dressed, but it felt like he was addressing the Seeker again.
"Money and food make every journey easier." Ahamo led the way down an offshoot hallway of offices. "DG gets her stubbornness from her mother. I argued against your posting in the Great Kells until I was hoarse. But Galinda has decided DG's Slipper behavior can only be nullified by marrying her to another royal or a lesser noble, and DG won't consider another man as long as you were around. So off you went."
Cain stopped in the empty hallway. "Your Highness, I neverů."
"You think I'm accusing you of taking advantage of my daughter?" Ahamo laughed. "I may be pathetic at politics, but I can read people. Actually, I'm trying to offer my apologies and support."
"Apologies?" Cain eyed him warily as they walked again.
Ahamo's mirth died. "If I had kept my mouth shut about a man screaming my daughter's name as I carried DG away, Galinda would not have seen you as a threat to her heal-the-Zone plans." Cain glared at him for daring to bring up that moment, even with sympathy. "And if DG chooses you, you have my blessings for what they're worth. Though telling her that probably won't help you court her."
"I'll keep that in mind, sir." That seemed the safest response since they had reached the treasury office. It didn't matter if he hadn't hidden his feelings as well as he thought; DG didn't feel that way about him. She hadn't even left a goodbye message on the time loop projection for him.
Ahamo turned from the clerk to consider Cain. "There's no such thing as an unlimited expense account? A thousand platinums then; that should be enough."
Cain's blue eyes opened wide. "Your Highness?"
"Not all in cash. One hundred in cash and the rest on that voucher all banks recognize." The clerk nodded and started his paperwork. "I don't expect you to spend all in one place, Commander. But with DG, it's better to be prepared."
He decided not to argue, signed where he was told to sign, and pocketed the cash and bank passbook he was given. He hadn't started searching for DG yet, and already his head pounded.
Ahamo led them further into the bowels of the Palace. "I envy you a lot, Commander. Your son remembers you."
Cain didn't trust all this male bonding. "What we have now isn't easy."
"I don't doubt that. But I would prefer it over watching your child flinch when you ask what's wrong."
Since the only answer Cain had for that was a complaint about the Consort's judgment in the Realm of the Unwanted, he grunted instead.
Ahamo got the kitchen staff to pack food suitable for the journey. "You drag the Princess back here and she's going to starve to death." The head cook said, running a rolling pin over a pile of dough, and Cain took a half-step back, just to make it easier to duck.
The Consort chuckled, "I'm sure DG eats when she gets hungry enough."
"Right, of course, your Highness," she continued. "Far be it for me to actually see the evidence of uneaten meals leaving her rooms. Or talk to the head seamstress over how the youngest princess's corsets needed taking in. All because the Queen comes meddling."
"I'm sure she meant only the best for DG."
"What does the Queen know about taking care of homesickness?" She whirled, brandishing the rolling pin. "When everything you knew has been upended and all you want is a taste of home?" Cain gave Ahamo credit. He didn't flinch as the rolling pin flew past his nose. "Even you sneak down here for that thing you call a hamburger even though there's no ham in it!" A scullery maid cleared her throat. The older woman snatched the sack of food from the girl with a gruff nod. "If you drag the Princess back here, I will feed her what the young lady wants to eat. And only what she wants to eat." She tossed the pack at Cain. "And if your wife interferes again, sixteen servants will leave for market and only fourteen will come back!" The kitchen door slammed behind both men.
Cain adjusted his hold on the sack. "So the kitchen staff let DG out?"
"And Galinda has been breaking toes to turn DG into a proper princess." Ahamo shook his head. "She appreciates all this finery. I've adjusted to it, and no one knows if Azkadellia can function without it. So of course, something is wrong with DG because she hates it." His head turned, making sure they were alone in the hall. "Which is why I'm changing your orders."
Cain raised his scarred eyebrow.
"If DG wants to come back, which I highly doubt, bring her back. But if she'd rather stay away, keep her safe."
Cain felt relief. He hadn't been sure what he was going to do with DG, and after everything he had seen and heard, he was leaning heavily toward seeing if Azkadellia could make a travel storm. This option would be better all round. "You have my word, your Highness."
Ahamo clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Thank you. Now let's get you on your way."
The Consort didn't follow Cain out of the Palace and Jeb waited with a fresh horse in the parade grounds. Cain secured the food and double checked his transferred tack. "The Gate Watch reported a motorcycle rider leaving through Shiz Gate a little after dawn."
"She didn't waste any time."
Jeb rubbed the bay's muzzle. "It doesn't make any sense. I figured she'd take Westgate. The Northern Palace isn't an escape, and there's nothing else she knows that way."
"You expected her to head straight to the Tower?" Cain checked the shotgun in the saddle holster. "Or that she would circle down to Milltown?"
"DG likes the tiktoks, but even she would know that would be the first place searched. Besides, a search unit has already reported Father Vue hasn't seen her. So why didn't she take the Vinkus Branch?"
"That doesn't lead to anywhere she knows either." Maybe her plan didn't extend past getting out of Central City. Cain clenched his fist.
"It leads to you, eventually." Jeb smirked, "She missed you. Nothing that can convince me her greeting 'Hi Jeb. Have you heard from your father lately?' was due to her worrying about our relationship."
First Ahamo, now his son. "Why chase after me when she has you?" That came out more bitter than he intended.
Jeb frowned, "It wasn't like that, Dad. We weren't allowed conversations any more than you were allowed to be in the same region of the Zone with her. The only ones she could spend time with were family and Prince Aedan. Wouldn't do if she picked an unacceptable suitor." His son met his glare calmly. "DG and I would meet in passing, she'd ask, I'd tell her some tidbit from your letters, she'd say to tell you something like she finally mastered the waltz, and we'd continue on our separate ways. I'm sorry if my letters gave you a different impression. I thought you'd want to know what she said."
Cain sighed, "I'm sorry, son. It's been a bad day."
"I know. Be careful out there." Jeb hugged him stiffly and Cain tried not to be as stiff returning it. "And be careful with DG."
"What do you mean?"
"You told me if you don't have heart, you have nothing. Her heart's been dying a little every day. I don't know how much she has left." His son's observation mixed with DG's paintings echoed in Cain's mind as he left Central City.