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The Greatest Gifts

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Cidgeon felt Lovey-Dove land in his hair, back from a quick stretching of her wings, and he straightened, taking a deep breath as he turned from the calm of the evening balcony to the riot of color and light inside instead. Time to go in, then, and get ready for bed. A cup of tea, perhaps, and the book he’d bought himself down in the South Figaro markets—some fascinating research was coming out about the former monsters which had roamed the world, now there was no magic. He’d opted to treat himself and it was a good plan for the evening, right enough.

He wended his way through the crowded banquet hall, fending off casual well-wishers and those who wanted favors with the same even-handed grump. A man couldn’t even have a party without playing politics these days, he snorted to himself. Not that he’d wanted the party in the first place; some bright spark in the court had thought one of the world’s heroes needed their birthday celebration to be a splashy Occasion. Cidgeon had told them to do what they wanted, and they’d run with it, but it didn’t mean he had to stay, so he wouldn’t. He’d made an appearance more for the royals’ sake than his own.

His eyes were drawn to the groaning banquet tables; the chefs had been working overtime for the feast and the customary enormous fish lay in pride of place. Cidgeon made the smallest face. There was other food, of course, but the tables were swarmed. Food started to sound like too much trouble, just as this party was. Perhaps if he could slide out through a side door…

His boy, of course, had clearly thought the whole gathering was a fantastic idea. He whirled through the final steps of a dance with some unlucky maiden new to the court who had thought the grey streaks in his hair had meant he would be a sedate conversational and dance partner. Cabanela had more than proved her wrong, as the panting young woman retreated to the wall and tried in vain to salvage her hair, which had come down from its elaborate style. Alma, her watchful eye as always on the peace of the court, had already sent a maidservant to escort her to a place where she could freshen up.

Cabanela, left bereft of his dance partner for the moment, caught Cidgeon’s eye and whirled over to him. “Greeeat party, eh dad?” He gestured around. “All here for you!” He waved at someone across the hall, who gave him an enthusiastic wave and a smile back. “Give ‘em a smile, nothin’ like it.”

“Oh, go on, no one knows who I am next to you and it’s the way I like it,” Cidgeon shrugged, ignoring the “dad” as had become his usual, but as ever letting it warm his chest. “Go on and enjoy the dance, boy. I have a book and the remains of a quiet night waiting for me.” He pointed up at the royal dais, where Jowd sat looking out at the party, his expression glazed with polite boredom. “You might have better luck with that one than these young things who keep thinking they can out-dance you.”

Cabanela grinned. “The king dancing? The world may eeend again.”

Alma walked by and caught his hand, only overhearing the last part. “Let’s see what happens if the queen and His Grace both ask, shall we?” She gave Cidgeon a warm smile. “Unless you’d care to dance?”

Cidgeon backed up a step, hands raising in defense. “No, no, you three fools go dance and let me get to my book.”

They both smiled wide, mischief and love gleaming in their faces. Alma said, “Well, good night, then, dad. Happy birthday. Join us for a small family breakfast in the morning?”

Cidgeon swallowed the small, unexpected lump in his throat and nodded. He knew what it had taken her to come to the point of considering someone else as close as family, but he wouldn’t be himself if he didn’t harrumph and turn away, knowing they’d understand. Lovey crooned at him, and he hurried his steps before he was caught by some other fool on a mission. He did sneak a glance at the laden tables but ignored his rumbling stomach and told himself he’d get some later, when some of the fools had cleared out and the castle was still again. Too much chance someone would catch him and want something from him, although—he looked around—Cabanela had already drawn the eyes of the court as he and Alma executed some sort of complicated clapping, stomping, noisy dance which, reluctantly, Jowd had found himself drawn into. Still. Better to go on about his way and get the food later.

Figaro had built Cidgeon a small research suite and quarters by the court libraries, and he hurried through the chilly desert evening to his own quiet rooms with relief. As he opened the door Lovey-Dove croodled a greeting, and he stepped in, only to find Kamila and Tabatha quietly chatting in his sitting room. Kamila greeted him cheerily.

“Gramps! I brought you some food. And some cake!” She gestured to the nearby table, where she had a covered plate standing by for him. “And Grandma brought some of that tea you like.”

“I knew you wouldn’t last long in there, you old grump,” Tabatha said, waving him to a seat. “But Jowd and Alma are having to do the royalty thing, so they have to stay. The perks of being retired, hm?”

“Cabanela too,” Cidgeon said, his voice wry. “The boy’s enjoying it, though. Well, I suspect they all are.”

“More than I ever did, even when Zeno was alive,” Tabatha said, her tone forthright. “Even Jowd! That boy doesn’t take after me as much as I thought. I heard him laughing all the way out here earlier...and it sounded like it was a real one too. He’s having fun in there.”

“Gramps, you know,” Kamila said as she poured him a cup of tea, “Uncle Cabs does love parties, and he knows you don’t…”

“Yes, I know,” Cidgeon said. “Let the boy enjoy himself. Got to do precious little of it for far too long.”

“Well,” Kamila looked shifty, and pulled him in to whisper. “Uncle Cabs said his birthday gift to you was distracting everyone so you could make a run for it. He sent me here with the food, too. And some extra for Lovey!”

Cidgeon blinked, then barked out a laugh. “Best gift the boy’s ever given me. And he got your parents in on it too, I see.”

“No, mama probably just did it because she enjoys messing with the court as much as Uncle Cabs does,” Kamila said seriously. “She sent you a gift too, though. It’s here!” She indicated another small table with a small heap of gifts on it.

“It’s good to see her getting to play,” Tabatha said, her voice regretful. “She always did take the world too seriously, that girl.”

“Because she had to,” Kamila agreed, looking a little sternly at her grandmother. “Being a queen is hard work.”

“You’re telling me.” Tabatha leaned back in her seat and laughed. “But now’s not the time for all that.” She gestured at the food. “Warm yourself up, old man, get yourself some food. Kamila and I will leave you to it.”

“Oh, but…I really want to give you my gift before we go,” Kamila said, her voice earnest. “It’s actually in your lab. Do you mind?”

Cidgeon took the little bag of precious seeds from the plate, clearly harvested from Cabanela’s own garden, and scraped a few out to give to Lovey, who chirped in sleepy appreciation as she took them and swallowed them before tucking her head back in and falling asleep. It seemed she had no interest in going anywhere for a little while; the flight earlier and the party had worn her out. “Of course not. My book will be here when I get back.”

“Mind if I come along?” Tabatha said. “She’s been working on this in secret for weeks, and not even her ol’ grams knows what she’s been up to.”

“Come on then,” Cidgeon said, his voice gruff, but he smiled, just a little. Like son, like mother, and neither could ever restrain their curiosity.

They trooped into the lab and Cidgeon lit the lanterns around the door. The rest of the lab lit up a second later as the machinery ferried power to the other bulbs and the room was lit by their warm glow. Who needed magic when such technology had come to exist?

Kamila hurried to a large covered table in the corner. “Ready?” She pulled off the cover without waiting for an answer, already too excited to wait.

Cidgeon blinked, stunned into silence by his protégée’s creation: a small-scale model of Figaro, about the size of Lovey-Dove. With the push of a button on the housing, gears whirred and clanked, and the castle drew into itself and sank underneath the sand upon which it was bedded. Push it again, and it came out again. Cidgeon bent to examine it. All the requisite measures were in place to protect even these small gears and niches from the depredations of sand. It was intricate and perfect in every detail. He could tell how hard she’d worked, but glanced at her, a little puzzled. Toys were all very well and good and an excellent way to gauge her skill at machining, but it wasn’t her usual style of gift, at least not to him.

She grinned, just as mischievously as her mother had earlier, and guided him around the edge of the table. Another button, identical to the first but hidden from the front, waited. She gestured to it. “Try it, Gramps!”

He pushed it without hesitation, curious to see what had her so excited. The castle drew itself together again, but this time, instead of sinking, it began to rise, an updraft of warm air from vents underneath the model slowly lifting it free of the sand. Large wings, supplemented with balloons blown up by cleverly concealed mechanisms, popped out from the sides and the miniature castle made its maiden flight around the room, guided by the control Kamila produced from nowhere.

Tabatha and Cidgeon watched, open mouthed. It flew once around the room and Kamila, with skillful movements, guided it to land in Cidgeon’s open hands.

“A neat trick indeed,” he said, examining it. “Especially for doing it without magic.”

“Rindge helped me with the flying parts!” Kamila looked satisfied. “But gramps, this is just a toy.”

“I am aware.”

“I want to do this to the castle for real. And I want you to help. The toy’s your gift, but…” she looked nervous. “I was really hoping you’d help me with this project. It’s too big for just me.”

Tabatha blinked, then threw back her head in a shout of laughter. “Oh! Zeno would have loved you so much right now. He dreamed of doing this someday…” She turned away slightly, but Cidgeon could see how her nose had reddened.

Cidgeon blinked at Kamila, then down at the little castle in his hands. “It won’t be easy. Just scaling up from here won’t necessarily work.”

“Exactly why I need your help!” Kamila wrung her hands in the gesture she’d learned from Lynne. “I just…wanted you to leave your mark on Figaro the way you have with all of us. It’s your home now and…and…we love you and…I need your help.”

Cidgeon melted, as he knew he always would when it was Kamila involved. “We’ll start as soon as you’re ready.” He thought for a second, frowning a little, but he knew it would probably be necessary. “We’ll probably have to bring in help from my niece and that friend of yours.”

“Oh, gramps!” Kamila threw her arms around him. She’d gotten so tall she had to stoop, but Cidgeon found himself not minding. “Memry and Amelie won’t mind, I know it! Thank you, thank you! And happy birthday!”

“Now, now, it’s not worth all this fuss,” he said, not meaning it, and knowing Kamila knew he didn’t. “Calm down and get yourself back to the party. Princesses have royal duties too…but don’t stay up too late.”

She rolled her eyes, but said, “Yes, gramps,” obediently, and turned to go. “Grandma? Are you coming with me?”

“I’ll be right there,” Tabatha said, eyes on the toy in Cidgeon’s hands. “Just need a word.”

“OK, see you later!” Kamila pranced out of the lab, her face elated as she went to share the news.

Cidgeon waited until her footsteps had died away. “You all right?”

“Zeno would have been so proud,” Tabatha said. “And it’s just…not fair he doesn’t get to see this.”

Cidgeon nodded. Many things about the gone-but-unlamented Empire were unfair. Zeno’s death had been just the beginning.

“But…I’m so glad you do, and you’re standing in for him,” Tabatha said, nodding firmly. “And he would be too. You’re a better grandparent to her than I could ever be, and I’m grateful you’re here.”

Cidgeon shook his head. “She doesn’t think that way. She’s glad for us both.”

“She’s the best of us both, old man.”

“And I imagine Zeno, too. And isn’t that the best birthday gift of all?” Cidgeon put the castle down gently in its sandy bed. “Care for another cup of tea?”

“No, I’ll leave you to your book.” Tabatha give him a broad smile. “Thanks for letting me see our granddaughter in action.”

Cidgeon gave her a rare smile in return and gestured her ahead of him as he turned off the lab’s lights and prepared for his much longed-for quiet evening. “Anytime.”