“There you are, Princess. Princesses,” Cain promptly corrected as he fully rounded the bush and caught sight of Azkadellia hidden by its green fullness. Neither princess stirred. Cain nudged DG’s foot with his boot. If she’d been Ambrose it would have been a nudge to her side. Of course if she had been Ambrose, a nudge to the side would have ended with Cain on his rear. Instead he got a mumbled something that never made it past DG’s lips.
Cain squatted in the long, lush grass. A hand jostling DG’s shoulder got him a half-open eye and an attempt to wiggle away from his presence. “Oh no you don’t…” Cain reached under her arms and pulled her up.
DG’s head flopped for a moment before she yanked it up, suddenly and forcefully awake. “Hey!”
“Your sister is still sleeping.”
“Hey!” she repeated more softly. “What about me sleeping?” She put her hands in Cain’s and let him help her up from the grass.
“I can’t carry you both.”
She stuck her tongue out at him. “Fine. Have a good point. See if I care.”
Smiling at her mock-annoyance, Cain crouched beside Azkadellia and gently slid his arms around her. There was a smart comment on the tip of his tongue for DG, whom he could feel watching him intently, but his intent was to let the sleeping princess sleep not zing the one who was awake. Overhead birds chirped, insects buzzed and there was constant breeze that was the only remnant of the previous night’s rain. Azkadellia stirred when Cain stood with her in his arms.
Looking over his shoulder she blinked sun-blind eyes at her sister as she wrapped narrow arms around the Tin Man. “Deeg?”
DG smiled and closed the distance between them. She tugged at her sister’s arm, the one that wasn’t clutched tight around Cain’s neck, until she could grasp Az’s hand. “Go back to your ni-ni, sister-mine.”
Azkadellia gave her sleepy half smile, distant and foggy enough that DG wondered if she would remember any of this later, before turning her head into Cain’s neck. “She’s weird, sometimes.”
“Tell me about it,” Cain murmured to the sleeping princess. A glance over his shoulder told him what he had suspected, that DG had a hold of her sister’s hand and wasn’t about to set it free. They were ready to go.
“You found her!”
The small party came to a slow stop as Ahamo, coming from the other direction, caught up to them in the hall. “Your Highness.” Cain offered the Prince Consort as deep a nod as he could manage with his arms full of Azkadellia.
“But where’s DG?”
A hand appeared behind Cain’s back. “Hiding, of course.”
Ahamo peered around the Tin Man and his sleeping daughter to find DG standing just behind him, holding Azkadellia’s hand. “You two have fun? I see you’re wearing your play clothes.”
Frowning, she quickly glanced down at herself in one of the pairs of trousers and shirts she’d borrowed from him and grinned. “Yeah, actually.” Her eyes widened as if she couldn’t quite believe it. “Playing is hard work. Now if only someone could convince Tutor.”
Laughing, Ahamo shook his head. “I’ll leave that up to you, DG. I’ve already been accused of playing favorites.”
Her eyes brightened and she shot up on her toes to look at him from over Cain’s shoulder. “Really? How.”
But he only smiled and shook his head. “No pushing your luck, sweetheart.” He turned his attention to the two standing in front of him. “Thank you, Tin Man, for finding my daughters.”
“Just doing my duty, Your Highness.”
“More than just your duty, I think.” He looked up from Azkadellia’s curls falling over the back of her plum dress into Cain’s eyes. “I’ll take her.”
Giving the Prince Consort a brief nod, he helped maneuver the sleeping princess into her father’s arms and into a, hopefully, more comfortable position for both of them. It hadn’t been easy walking with her toes bumping into his shins.
Ahamo smiled down at her tenderly. “She’s all arms and legs at the moment, isn’t she?”
Cain nodded again. “I expect she’ll grow out of it, sir.”
DG stepped around him to help position her sister’s arms so they were less akimbo. “I’m the one who should be carried around, sleeping in someone’s arms. Talk about your boundless energy. She doesn’t have legs, she has springs,” she grumped good-naturedly before placing a kiss on Az’s forehead. Pulling back, she stuck her hands in her back pockets and rocked back on her feet. “You gonna see Mother?”
“Yes.” Ahamo eyed her rocking with interest. In his mind there was a little girl in a vivid blue dress rocking back in sensibly sturdy shoes wanting to know the very same thing. Except it had been “Mom.” Ah well… “She was worried about you both.”
“Sorry about that.” She colored slightly. “Guess we lost track of time.”
“All that springing.”
She snorted, cleared the distance between them and quickly kissed his cheek. “I’ll do better next time. We’ll do better.”
“You’d better. Or Tutor will never let you live it down.”
“Speaking of which, don’t you have a lesson soon?”
“After lunch,” Cain supplied.
DG rounded on him. “How do you know my schedule?”
Cain raised an eyebrow as if to say You’re not really asking me that, are you?
Chuckling, Ahamo gently shifted Azkadellia in his arms so that she fell closer to his chest. “I’ll see you two at dinner,” he called over his shoulder as he went back the way he had come
“Hey, Az. Go back to sleep, sweetheart.”
“I was asleep.” One thin arm slid up and around his neck, the other around his waist as she snuggled closer. “I dreamed.”
“What did you dream, honey?”
“I dreamed that you went away. You and Mother and DG. You all went away.”
“But that isn’t true, is it?”
Ahamo took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he let his eyes drift along the arched doorways of the wide hall, empty save for himself, his daughter, and the men positioned in every fifth door.
“No, Az. It’s not true. Not anymore.”
A soft sound of contentment followed his promise as she made a sleepy attempt to burrow into him.
Cain and DG stood in the hall, watching Ahamo take Azkadellia back to her room.
DG was watching. Cain was waiting.
Finally satisfied, DG sighed and made a sloppy half turn in the direction of the kitchens. Cain followed. “Thought you swore never to sleep on the cold hard ground again, Princess.”
“I’ll have you know that the ground was neither cold nor hard. The grass made it soft and warm.”
Cain restrained a half-smile. “Uh huh. So what happened?”
“Just what I said. We played hard. We got tuckered out. I don’t seem to remember being this tired when I used to play with Az.”
“If I recall, Princess, you were about seven annuals at the time.”
“What, so now that I’m twenty-two I’m an old fogey?”
Cain chuckled. “I’m just saying it’s different with kids.”
“She’s hardly six.”
“She’s nowhere near twenty-two either.”
Sighing and rolling her eyes, DG conceded the point. “Y’know going from being an only child, to a little sister, to a big sister in under a ye—er…annual is just plain weird.”
This time Cain was willing to concede. “Even for the OZ, it’s strange. But Ambrose and the alchemists thought she’d grow out of it on her own.”
“Sure. In about…” DG counted on her fingers. “…five annuals. Unless you reach majority here differently?”
“Okay…” She counted on her fingers again. “Seven annuals.”
“Did you count on your fingers when you were a waitress, too?”
DG shoved him as they walked.