They ate breakfast in the main room with other travelers. It pleased Cain to see DG tuck into her meals heartily. He'd felt bones while hugging her last night. The head cook had reason to be alarmed. Much about DG's mindset baffled him and she shouldn't bottle it up, but there was a limit on what could be discussed in public. "Thea Cain?"
He had missed how quickly she picked up on trains of thought. "Thea I used before on the Internet. Then I needed a last name I could spell." She wrinkled her nose. "I made it absurdly easy for you, didn't I?"
"My shin would disagree."
"What did you think I would do, surprising me like that?"
Bolt out the nearest exit, but he didn't say it. He finished his eggs. "Internet dating, was that what you wanted to invent with Zipperhead?"
"What didn't you find out about?"
"Your sister and Zipperhead talk fast."
DG's blue eyes danced as she drank her coffee. "The Internet is a way to talk to people, with typing. It's safer to have a pseudonym in case of crazies. But I never needed it for a blind date."
"What do the blind have to do with it?" Cain pushed away his empty plate.
"That's what going out with someone you've never seen before is called."
He shook his head. "We better head out." DG didn't offer more Other Side terminology as they left the village. Surprisingly, she knew what to do on horseback though she was rusty. The horse was docile and patient with her inexperience. They rode side by side on the broken road through the thickening forest. "You made a good trade for the horse."
Her smile dazzled him as her cheeks grew pinker. She patted the mare's neck to hide how pleased his comment made her. "Flicka here had good recommendations, but I'm glad Mr. Smithy didn't try to trick me. He didn't want to take my bike." Her smile went lopsided as she glanced at him. "I didn't cover my tracks there, did I?"
Cain smirked. "It would have worked better at harvest time with more traffic from the farmers."
DG nodded. "Other Side ways trip me up again." But her voice lacked self-animosity. "Harvest time in Kansas means just more trucks on the roads." She shook her head. "So what was the Great Kells like? If you can tell me without giving away top secret military stuff?"
"It was lonely." That admission surprised him, but he expanded it, spurred by her sympathetic blue eyes. "A whole base in awe of one of the Saviors of the Zone. And it was windy. Cut you to the bone no matter how many layers you wore. But you'll probably like the rest of the Western Territories. It looks like your Kansas paintings."
DG looked wistful. "It'd be nice to see prairies again. Nothing against the trees, but there's so many here."
"Prairies," he tried out the Other Side term. "They called them the Grasslands in the Kells. I never heard what anyone living on them called them."
"Vocabulary lessons were never put on my agenda. I don't know if the other stuff was more important or if they decided I couldn't learn any." The hurt had crept back into her voice.
"Stargazing was easy, even if you froze doing it." Cain hoped DG would retreat into a change of subject.
She did. "I didn't take you for an amateur astronomer."
"I had to relearn a lot. Central City blocks a lot of the stars."
"But you can't really complain, it's one of the few places with lights aimed at the sky." DG let the conversation lapse. In truth, Cain found it unsettling. He had braced himself for ceaseless chatter and DG wasn't chattering. She wasn't angry or sad, just quiet. And if he pried into what he suspected she hadn't gotten off her chest, everything would shatter between them.
As he found a hidden trail off the Brick Route leading toward the vicinity of Raw's village, he realized that he hoped Raw could make her open up. Was he taking the coward's way out? His bruised shin voted to follow the Viewer's lead when it came to DG's emotional state.
DG dismounted and came up beside him. "That way?"
"Yep, better lead the horses." She let him go first without protesting. The light from the suns took on a warm greenish tint under the canopy that blotted out the blue sky. This forest was as ancient as the ones the Munchkins built their villages in. The trail was wide enough for the horses and wound around the tree trunks hedged by undergrowth of brambles.
He looked back to DG. "I'm not touching anything," she called teasingly.
"Good," he smirked. None of the plants looked poisonous, but at least DG had learned not to take chances. The light grew brighter ahead.
The trail eased up a slight hill and opened into a meadow of wildflowers at the top. DG gasped as she turned to take it in, including the blue sky above the ringing trees. A breeze made the rainbow in flowers dance. "Wow. It's so beautiful." She jerked towards Cain. "Are these flowers okay?"
"I think so. Why the sudden concern?"
"I got more careful about plants after the head gardener spent a whole day lecturing me after I accidentally wandered into the deadly section of the garden. Though nobody had a good answer as to why that section wasn't fenced off with a locked gate."
"Did they have a good reason for having it in the first place?" Cain took the reins of her mare and secured the horses near the edge of the forest.
"A former queen wanted a preserve of all the plants in the O.Z. and the Army has uses for some of them. But chemical warfare isn't considered a subject fit for a Princess. There's Raw!" She took off across the flowers to reach the Viewer emerging from the woods across from them. Cain followed at a slower pace.
Raw's hug lifted DG off her feet and he spun her around before letting go and seeing Cain. He grinned wide enough to reveal his fangs. "Cain found DG." He nodded with approval. Cain worried what exactly the Viewer was able to feel from him, but DG hadn't noticed anything.
"Did the beacon charm work?" She lifted a marble hanging from a chain around Raw's neck. The pulsing light emitting from it faded with her touch.
"DG's clever magic worked very well." Raw led them to a fallen log. DG sat between the two males. "Humans not welcome in village now." Her face fell as she looked at the ground. "Sorry for having good reflexes."
Her lips twisted into a wry smile. "You bruised him more than I did."
Raw looked over DG's head to Cain's confused face. What were they talking about? Raw held DG's hand. "Not tell Cain?"
"I haven't told anybody."
"Not your fault."
She pulled her hand away. "Keep telling me that and maybe someday I'll believe it."
"If I'm not supposed to know the big secret, maybe you two should stop talking 'bout it." Cain glared at them. Were they talking about the Winter Festival? He dug his fingers into the palm of his hands to not demand to know. Raw winced at him, but DG didn't look at all. She leaned her elbows onto her thighs. This was why prying wouldn't help. "Are you gonna ask him or should I?"
She uncurled herself. "You and Kalm want to come with us? Just like old times."
"Hopefully with less running for our lives and having to save the world," Cain added.
Raw shook his head with a sad smile. "I needed here. Too much anger and fear. I must explain so other Viewers understand."
"Please practice on me, 'cause I don't get it either." DG turned her wide blue eyes on the Viewer. Now Cain winced. They all knew the power of those eyes and were helpless against it.
Raw squirmed, looking away. "Not want to hurt. Will hurt any way."
She leaned her head against his fur-covered shoulder. "Hurts a little to heal, right? I won't hold it against you."
Raw sighed. "The Queen did not get what she wanted with the defeat of the Witch."
"What does that mean?" Cain asked. DG pulled her head off Raw's shoulder and Raw acted like he had delivered the worst news in the world. "She got her family and her throne back. What more could she want?"
"I'm not what she wanted." DG stared at the leaf-littered ground between her feet.
Cain's lips twitched with her flat voice, "Kid."
She jumped to her feet. "And that's the heart of the whole damn problem! Ding, dong, the witch is dead, but her angel didn't come back."
"Queen's hopes for future buried too far in past," Raw broke in explaining to Cain and soothing DG with the same words. "Unprepared for reality. Doesn't understand DG."
"So instead of accepting me, she tries to turn the no-good waitress into a princess. And if that doesn't work, marry her off and get rid of her."
"Queen thinks Prince will protect you."
"Leave that out. Kalm can kick Aedan's ass. Everyone will think her judgment's deteriorated and start another mad scramble for the throne." She growled as she paced. "Why do I even care? I quit, resigned, retired, no more Royal rigmarole!"
"They're still your family, kiddo."
Cain steeled himself against flinching when she glared. "Do you want the seven-year-old back too, Mr. Cain?" She stomped across the meadow.
Raw sighed. "Why you always call DG name she hates? Worth hurting her to hide feelings?"
"I didn't know it hurt her." He should have. She barked back at him that she wasn't a kid the first time he called her one. It was easier to concentrate on her youth rather than how a woman besides Adora or his mother took care of him when he was vulnerable1. He watched her root into her pack.
"DG wants to be your equal."
"She's not my equal; she's a princess."
Now Raw growled. "DG not want to be princess. DG not feel like princess. DG feels worth nothing and longs to hear different. Especially from Cain."
The Tin Man looked at Raw sharply. "Why should my opinion matter so much?"
"Does." He shrugged. "DG fears you will think less of her if you know things."
Cain watched DG plop down among the flowers with a book. "How could she possibly think I would think less of her?"
"The Palace," Raw snarled, "made DG ashamed of life on Other Side that made DG."
Her paintings had shown her feelings of being trapped and missing their camaraderie. Cain didn't remember shame. But the black-haired girl in the ball from hell painting had defensively curled up. "Was she attacked?"
"Not my place to tell."
Their gazes turned to the cap barely visible among the flowers. "Forget I asked that. Is she going to get better?"
"Love heals much if believed in." Raw headed toward DG.
"What do you mean by that?" Cain clenched his fist as he joined Raw. She wanted friends who she trusted and made her feel safe.
"DG found out only love ever knew was not real and then gone."
"Her nurture units."
The Viewer nodded. "Parents hurt thinking it helps her. DG not accept hurt for love. Needs love. Not believe she deserves love. Won't believe love will stay." Raw grabbed his arm. He felt the fingers through the duster and shirt sleeve. "Cain stay with DG." Raw sounded relieved as he let go.
"I gave my word." They were too close to DG now to discuss her. "How the hell did I manage not to screw things up with Jeb?" He didn't add the comparison to the Royal couple.
"Did not expect to find Jeb. Refused possibility when I told the truth. And you very good at seeing world as it is."
Glitch called it bitter cynicism. But no matter how much it hurt, Cain's son had grown up without him and he had to deal with the man he had become. The Queen and Consort might be in the same circumstances, but they had done worse by DG. And he was proud of the man Jeb had grown into. Maybe that was the difference.
She didn't look up as they approached. Her pencil added details to the sketch of the horses and the meadow. "Do you always draw when you're upset?" he asked.
"Do you always check your gun when you've got emotions to hide?"
The image of a wounded animal barring its teeth popped into his head. DG wouldn't care for that comparison, but he used the same techniques--no threatening movements and a soft voice. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything derogatory by calling you a kid."
She searched his face for any insincerity. "Okay, I'm sorry for yelling. It's not that I mind a nickname or term of affection or whatever. Just not that."
Princess was out as well. "Okay, sweetheart." She jerked her reddening face away. "What's wrong with that?"
She cleared her throat. "Nothing. No problem." She closed her sketchbook and stood.
Raw looked like he was silently chuckling. Cain tucked his thumbs into his belt. "Sure you won't change your mind?"
"Needed here. Cain protect DG. DG try to protect Cain."
"Save the defenseless DG talks for when I'm out of earshot." She wrapped her arms around Raw's neck. "Do what you got to. I don't want to see your people fighting the Queen."
"Visit when journey is done. Other Viewers' pride will be soothed by then."
"If we don't kill each other," Cain said. "See you down the road, Furball."
They watched Raw cross the meadow and disappear into the trees. "We can cover a few spans before making camp." Cain glanced over DG's secured pack. "Ready?"
"Yeah, let's go."
Reference to "Washing of the Water" by Allronix.