The clang of steel filled the silent training yard, the sound carrying to the windows. The spectators ringing the yard muttered and murmured, following the action in the yard. The combatants danced and parried, pressing an advantage here, losing ground there. Courtiers stood in the windows and the doors of the lowest levels of the palace, watching and placing bets on the maneuvers of the combatants. No one bet on the outcome of match. It wasn’t in question.
Ahamo’s and Cain’s swords slid along each other, catching on the guards. “A truce, Your Highness?”
The Prince Consort grinned. “You mean you don’t want to keep going on like this forever?”
“Not today, Highness. ‘Sides, I’m gettin’ hungry,” Cain quipped.
Laughing, Ahamo nodded. Cain disengaged their crossed swords first. “Your Highness.” He bowed from the waist, sword pointed deferentially at the ground.
Ahamo slapped him on the back. “Get up! You know I hate that stuff.”
Rising, Cain said, “That’s why I do it.” He took Ahamo’s sword. “That was good. You’re better than I thought you’d be, Highness.”
“Ditto. Wouldn’t have pegged you for a sword and sandals kinda guy.”
Confused, Cain said, “I don’t think sandals are considered appropriate footwear for the training yard.”
Laughing, Ahamo waved him off as they started toward the Weapons Master’s shed. “Never mind. So how’d you get so good anyway?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing.”
“Nuh uh. With power comes privilege. Besides, I asked first.”
Cain snorted. “If you must know…my father taught me.”
“Really? Didn’t think swordplay was really the in thing for regular people.”
“Family tradition I guess.”
“Remember your guard arm, Wyn. Enemy sees a weakness, he goes for it. So you can’t give him anything to go for. Got that boy.”
“Good lad. There can be no weakness in a Queen’s man. And I can see it. You’re gonna be a Queen’s man.”
“Gonna teach Jeb?”
Cain blinked. “Sorry. You were saying, sir?”
“Asking, actually. You planning on teaching Jeb swordplay?
“Eh…don’t know when I’ll have the chance but I want to. I’ve actually been trying to get something started before he leaves with his company again. Course he’s a little old, and a lot busy. We’re pretty happy to get half a day to go fishing together.”
Ahamo snorted. “I know the feeling. It’s been, what, three annuals? If I’ve spent three whole days out of those three annuals with Lav, I don’t remember it.”
“But you two are the Queen and Consort. You literally get to make the time,” Cain said prosaically. They were standing just outside the shed, beyond earshot of the training yard and the windows above.
“No we can’t.”
“Too much responsibility?”
Ahamo nodded. “You know how it is.”
“Ye-ah. I got workaholic in my blood.”
“And I can’t keep Lavender from being anything but the Queen. Just wouldn’t be right. Hey there Nelson,” Ahamo said, greeting one of the Weapon Master’s journeymen apprentices. “How’d the two old guys do?”
Straight-laced as the actual Weapon’s Master, Nelson took the swords in their sheaths from Cain. “You both did very well, Your Highness. Good form. Excellent control. You’re a little weak on your left, sir.”
Ahamo nodded. “Yeah, I know.”
“And you were holding back, Mr. Cain.”
Ahamo punched Cain’s shoulder. “I knew it!”
“Ow! I don’t think the Queen would appreciate it if I sent you back with a few more holes than what you started with.”
“Either princess, Your Highness. All the Gale women seem to have become rather attached to you, sir.”
Ahamo gave him a knowing look as he accepted towels from Nelson for them both. He tossed one to Cain. Together the walked into the palace proper.
A page hurried toward them. Both men moved to one side to let the young man pass, but he veered to intercept. “Mr. Cain…”
“Yup. What can I do for you?”
“The Queen would like a private audience.”
Cain glanced at Ahamo. Who shrugged. “Don’t know what Lavender’s up to. Probably another attempt to get you into the ranks. You don’t think this free pass to the palace is just out of gratitude, do you?”
Laughing, Ahamo slapped him on the back. “Alright, so that’s part of it. Go on, before you piss off your Queen.”
“Your Majesty, Mr. Wyatt Cain is here.”
“Your Majesty, Wynston Camp answers your summons..”
The Queen turned from the window.
The Queen looked up from the large, weathered book sitting on her study and the notes she was making on a fresh sheaf of papers. “Thank you, Morris. You are excused.”
Cain waited until the young page had left the room before stepping in further. “You wanted to see me, Your Majesty.”
“You requested my presence, Majesty? How may I serve?”
“Yes, Mr. Cain, I did. You are coming from the training yard with my husband, yes?”
“From the twittering of the courtiers it sounds as if you both acquitted yourself well.”
Cain nodded. “Journeyman Nelson seemed to think so.”
Smiling faintly, she said, “That is the only opinion I would count on as well. At least for swordplay. It’s a dying art. Ahamo knew something of it before he slipped over, but most of what he now knows he learned here. The Prince Consort is expected to proficient at such things.”
“I imagine so.”
Her smile widened. “You want to know why you’re here. But you’re too polite to ask.”
“You are my Queen and I live on your sufferance,” he said with a smile. It wouldn’t be the first time the Queen had taken a roundabout route in her quest to have him on her staff. This was actually more straightforward than usual.
“With a silver tongue like that I can see how you seduced one of my Great Mothers.”
“I comes clear as to why my Dian has become taken with you.”
The world stopped moving, as his head went spinning. Hadn’t he just had this conversation with Doc a week ago? Hadn’t they decided that keeping their secret was even more important now than it had been before the Witch’s reign?
“I don’t know what you mean, Your Majesty,” he said evenly. “I wasn’t born during your great-grandmother’s time.”
Inclining her head, the Queen rose from her seat. “Correct. You were born long before Great-Grandmother Felice’s reign.”
He hadn’t felt the buzz in three annuals. Longer. Not since before the DG took out the Witch.
Cain cocked his gun. It wouldn’t do much against another Immortal, but it’d slow him down long enough for Cain to… To what? Take his head? Her head?
If that’s what it takes, he thought grimly. He’d always regretted not being able to take care of the last immortal he’d crossed, but there had been too many witnesses and he’d been trying to prove a point. It just hadn’t been possible. Course this might be his chance to change all that…
He was on his regular beat in an odd part of town. The chief kept trying to make him a detective, a desk jockey, but Cain resisted every time. The Queen wanted just about the same out of him, and if he could say no to her then he could say no to the chief, too. Sides, three annuals later Central City still needed as many Tin Men on the daily beat as they could get. Most of their guys, and gals, were still green around the ears. Some of’em were Resistance and, while they were good, most of them weren’t used to the particular discipline you needed to be a Tin Man and not go on a homicidal rampage every night.
Standing in an alley, gun at the ready, waitin’ for the bad guy to step into view. It’s like one of those bad picture shows they show at the Saturday matinee .
And then the Immortal did.
His hands snapped out. “Step into the light where I can see you,” he growled.
“Step into the light,” he repeated, enunciating carefully. Didn’t matter that the voice sounded familiar. There weren’t that many Immortals in the OZ. After a while they all got to being familiar.
The stranger stepped out of the shadows of the building, turning slowly. “You know that thing won’t stop me.”
“No, but it’ll slow you dow— Doc?” Cain raised his gun, flicking on the safety. “Doctor Abe Orrin?”
The tall man was slight and wiry, the way you’d expect a runner to be. Except he hadn’t built his muscle running. He looked young, younger than Cain’s apparent thirty-five. Cain knew for a fact that Doc was just as old as he was, possibly older.
“Wyatt Cain! I knew it was you. You know you growled at me the same way the first time I met you.” Sighing, he looked up at the dark sky and placed a hand over his heart. “Oh the memories.”
“I said step into the light where I can see you.”
Cain ignored his racing heart as the other immortal shuffled from the shadows of the alley between the barn and the tall hay bales behind it. He had his sword out and ready. He hadn’t planned on taking a head tonight, and he hoped that other immortal wasn’t either. Cain didn’t want to have to explain to the family he worked for why half the farm was on fire after the quickening lit everything up.
“Sure thing,” the other immortal answered.
“Tonight,” Cain growled.
“Got bit good by a papay not too far from here. Wound hasn’t healed—”
“Don’t care ‘bout your dealings with the papay. They’re peaceful enough if you don’t try to steal from’em.”
“Man’s gotta eat.”
“Into the light!”
And he was there. A tall, wiry man with a ragged bandage around his left thigh and a torn and bloody shirt showing very new, very pink looking skin underneath. There was a sword hanging from his belt, but it was sheathed. The man’s hands were up as he limped into the moonlight.
Cain took a step back but didn’t lower his sword. His father had taught him better than to offer an enemy a weak joint in your armor. “How long you been limpin’ along?”
The man shrugged, shaking his head. “Don’t right know. I’ve passed out a couple of times, but I don’t think I’ve died, otherwise these would be gone.”
“That papay must have got you real good if you’re still walking around wounded.”
The man grimaced. “Don’t know if I’d call it ‘good’ but yeah…he did his work. Name’s Abram Arren. This wouldn’t happen to be your farm, would it?”
Grinning, Cain shook his head. “Don’t make me gun whip you, Doc.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Good thing one of us got his MD.”
Doc snorted, grabbing Cain up in a quick hug. “It’s good to see you with your head where it belongs.” He slapped Cain’s back. “How long’re you on duty for? You wanna get a drink after?”
“Sounds good. I got a couple more hours on the beat. Meet you at the BODC?”
Doc frowned. “Bar of a Different Color? That place survived?”
With a grim smile, Cain said, “Not exactly. The Sorceress had it burned down and old Luke was killed. His boys rebuilt it after the war. They’re good kids. It’s a good bar. Father’d be proud.”
“Alright then. See you at the BODC.”
The Queen settled herself on the divan under the window and Cain followed. “So you deny your involvement with my Great Mother Dian? She was the youngest daughter of my fifth-great grandmother, if you didn’t know.”
“Forgive me, Majesty, but I’m denying even being around when she was alive.”
She gave him a small, knowing smile reminiscent of the one Ahamo had given him down by the Weapon’s Master’s shed. “There are records, Mr. Cain. Or shall I call you Wynston. Wynston Camp. That was the name you were using when you seduced my Great Mother, isn’t it?”
He looked down as her hand tightened on his arm. “Highness?”
Wide-set hazel eyes met his. “They are watching us, Mr. Camp.”
She flashed him a bright, giddy smile. “Wynston. It still sounds so strange to say.”
He patted her hand. “Be that as it may, this is—”
“Yes, I know. But I didn’t expect everyone to stare so.”
Eyes on hers, he brought her hand to his lips. “You want them to stare, Princess.” With his free hand he threaded a loop of hair around his finger and leaned in close to her ear. “That is the point.”
“So how’s it been since the end of the war?” Doc asked, sliding the beer along the bar. “How long have you been with the Tin Men?”
“Thanks.” Cain took a long draft. “I’ve been with the force since the Queen reinstated us.”
“Something like that. And what about you, Doc? You been takin’ heads or fixin’em up?”
Doc kicked his shin. “You know I always preferred fixing to taking.”
“Never could figure how they decided you should be one of us instead of…someone else.”
Doc raised his eyebrows. “They?”
Cain gestured to the bar, the world, at large before taking a sip of his beer. “Yeah, ‘they.’ Whoever ‘they’ is.”
“Whoever they are, they suck.”
Cain laughed. “Yeah, they do. So what about you, Doc? You survived the war.”
“Surprised more of us didn’t, actually.”
Nodding, Doc took a drink. Then another. “Speaking of things that suck, how our metabolism just eats through alcohol.”
Doc sniffed. “Not enough.”
“Who?” Cain pressed.
“Last I knew, less than fifty. Maybe a little more, maybe a little less.”
“A little more.”
Doc looked up from his drink and at Cain. “Who?”
Doc swore. “That bastard’s half the reason so many of us are gone. Why else do you think the Sorceress went from hangings to beheadings as her execution-style of choice?”
Cain rubbed the spot between his eyebrows hard enough to leave a mark.
“Never put it together, huh?”
“Nope. Not really.” He looked up at Doc. “Not that it would have done any good.”
“Nope. Not really.” They lapsed into silence, both men hunched over their drinks.
Cain shifted. “Explains a few things, though.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
Studying the pattern of the wood on the bar, Cain told him that he was the first Immortal he’d crossed paths with in the last three annuals. Doc stared at him hard. “In a town like Central City? As busy as it is?”
“And I’m a Tin Man. It’s not like I don’t get around.”
Doc swore again.
“I half thought you might be Zero.”
“You didn’t kill him?”
Cain shook his head. “Didn’t get the chance. Too many witnesses.”
“Look, I know the rules as well as anyone but I think—”
“I had the princess, Advisor Ambrose and a Viewer in tow. Plus my son, and a Resistance cell. You think if I’d Quickened off’a Zero’s death they wouldn’t’ve noticed?” Cain raised the beer to his lips. “It wasn’t exactly the way I’d planned on telling Jeb his daddy was gonna outlive him.”
“So where’d you leave him?”
Smirking into the glass, Cain said, “Stuck in a tin suit.”
“That’s cruel, Cain.”
“It’s fitting. He’d already done the same to me.”
Cain felt the air leave his body, like he’d been punched in the gut.
“You look a little peaked, Mr. Cain. Or shall it be Mr. Camp?” She gestured with her free hand. “There is chair behind you if you’d like to sit.”
The offer, though mildly suggested, brought him back to himself. Cain straightened his shoulders and strengthened his resolve. He loosened the death grip he had on the towel in his hands. “No thank you, Majesty. If it pleases you, I’ll stand.”
“Stand if you prefer. What would please me, however, is a straight answer.” She turned her eyes from him to the book she’d brought with her to the divan. “According to Great Mother Felice’s notes you were her daughter’s lover for the better part of an annual, though you had been in service to the Crown far longer. After the tryst, which produced no children Felice was happy to report, you disappeared. This is, in fact, the first time you’ve been in court since then.”
“Majesty, again I don’t know how that’s possible. I’m only thirty-five annuals old.”
Her faint smile was cold. “Is that so? Shall I read how my great-mother describes you? Yes, I think I shall.
“ ‘He is striking, our Mr. Camp. Truly, his form might be picked out of any crowd, the hair of his head being so very nearly white as to serve as a beacon. To be close to him is to be made aware of the breadth of his shoulders, the strength of his arm, and of the height of him. So, too, his features compel remembering. Whilst his hair is very white, his eyes are very blue. There is to be no forgetting of Mr. Wynston Camp, as We wish Our Dian to do. It is of no surprise that she is taken with his figure. There are a very great many courtiers who are so taken. That he seems to encourage her fancies, however, causes Us great distress. We had plans for her marriage. Yet even if it were not so, We would not have her emotions toyed with in such a fashion. For all he seems to be honorable, his actions prove that presumption false.’”
The Queen looked up from the book and squarely into Cain’s eyes. “There is a sketch of you in the margin. It is not the best. To be sure Great Mother Felice was not known for her artistic skill, but it is unmistakably you.”
He returned her gaze with a steady one of his own. “Maybe a relative. Blond hair is a family trait.”
Nodding slowly, she broke their locked gazes and began to slowly flip through the book. “I would perhaps be inclined to agree with you, Mr. Cain, were it not for two things. Your romance with my ancestress aside, your tenure in Queen Felice’s court was not the only time you served the House of Gale. Although, as you say, it is more likely that an equally distant ancestor of yours has served to besmirch your exceedingly good name so many annuals later. However, there is this second thing.”
He waited in tense silence as she continued to page through the book, apparently at ease.
“Ah. Yes, here it is.” She marked the spot with a ribbon, then brought her attention back to Cain. “Have you ever heard of the legend regarding the Immortals?”
“An urban legend, Your Majesty.”
She quirked eyebrows. “Now, perhaps. These things do have a tendency to change as time goes on, don’t they? But the royal records are rather more thorough than common oral tradition. Such things are recorded and changes noted. Also noted…” She smiled softly. “…are similarities. The details that don’t change.
“The core of the legend of the Immortals is this: There are, living among us, a certain number of men and women who cannot die. Disease, drowning, violence are no threat to them. Only they can kill each other. Which they do for reasons known only to themselves. Rather simple, isn’t it? Supposedly they cannot reproduce as normal men do, and yet how they keep their numbers from dwindling to a mere handful is never explained. Although, perhaps, it is not possible and so no explanation is needed.”
Cain very carefully kept his muscles loose. He knew the legend. He also knew that it was usually more wildly embellished than what she had just told him, which meant that she had studied it until she’d gotten down to the meat of the matter.
“Now you’ll remember that I said that Wynston Camp was not your first incarnation before this court?” she continued once it became clear that he wasn’t going to say anything. “You also very briefly served as the bodyguard of the Princess Royal and her brother some hundred annuals ago. You only went by one name then, or perhaps it is the only one recorded. ‘Wyn.’ Does that hold any significance for you?”
He shook his head.
Kadel and her brother, Aden, stifled screams as their hiding place was discovered. Kadel quickly pushed her brother behind her. His magic wasn’t as strong as hers. Maybe she could distract them and he could get away. Find home. Be safe.
Before, fear had chased the Light right out of her. Now she used it to pull it out and gather it in her small fists.
She turned to her brother. “Aden, they have found us. I am going to stop them.”
“No! Kady. You cannot. You will die.”
“I do not want to die. But if I don’t stop them, they will kill us both. I am sure of it. I am going to make it so they cannot see. When they are blinded, you must run from this room, to the outside and find a village. If they do not recognize you, show them your Light. They will instantly—”
Another crash made them both jump. Soon the room would be opened.
“—take you to the palace,” Kadel continued. “And then you will be able to lead our mother and father back to me.”
Aden wrapped himself tightly around his sister. “Do not leave me!”
“I am not leaving you.” Kadel untangled herself from her brother. She knelt beside him. “You are leaving me. You will be my rescuer. It will be like all the great stories our father, the Prince, tells to us. You will be a hero.”
His face the picture of misery, Aden said, “I do not wish to be a hero.”
The heavy wooden door crashed open. Three men stepped inside.
“Though only briefly in her service, you made quite an impression on the young Princess Kadel. She drew a rather childish picture of you not long after the crisis of that moment passed. But she continued to make you a primary figure in her art, recreating you from memory. It is recorded here that, when they were newly married, her husband thought that she was blatantly flaunting an affair, until, of course, your role in her life was explained to him. By her brother, I believe,” she said, consulting the book. “The one you also protected.”
Kadel felt the Light heavy on her hands. She had never pulled so much of it before. She couldn’t remember ever seeing another magic-wielder pull so much either. Her small hands were burning with it, though they didn’t burn. She and Aden were still hidden behind chests and furs and treasures. “Remember what I said.”
Kadel pushed through the things that had protected them. She raised her hands.
The men raised their hands to protect their eyes. The one in front, tall with hair that glowed in her Light, dropped to one knee. “Your Highness. We have come to save you. Pray, do not blind your servants. The way to the surface is long and treacherous.”
She could hear Aden squirming behind the chests.
“I do not believe you!”
“Your Highness, I bear the royal seal.” Allowing his sword to drop with a clatter that rang around the room, he held up his right hand. Behind him, his men did the same. In the palm of each of their hands the seal of the House of Gale burned and pulsed in time to the glow of Kadel’s hand. “Your Highness, you are rescued.”
Kadel sagged in relief. The power in her hands burned another moment before winking out. Kadel stumbled.
“Hold on to me, Princess.” The man, the one with the glowing hair, had caught her arm and was steadying her. “Where is His Royal Highness?”
“Aden! Aden, come out. Our mother has sent them. We are safe.”
“Not yet, Your Highness, but we will be soon.” Still on his knees before them, he reached out for Aden. “You will be safe when we are at the royal palace again.” Drawing Aden into his arms, the man stood. The other men stood as well, one of them taking their commander’s sword. “Are you strong enough to walk, Princess?”
She thought she might cry.
“There was always something about you that bothered, Mr. Cain. I never could put my finger on it. Eventually I decided it was the stress of the situation—that a virtual stranger had to help my daughter defeat the Witch when I could not. Then I decided it was DG’s rather inappropriate attachment to you that was the cause. You had been married, you are ten annuals her senior…I could only foresee heartbreak in her future. But you made yourself so distant by refusing my repeated requests to join my staff that it did not seem to matter overmuch.
“Then, a few months ago, I was asked to review the art that had been recovered from the Sorceress’ reign. And there you were. Again, and again and again. Queen Felice may not have been known for her artistic skill, but Queen Kadel most certainly was. She figured you in stone, in clay and on canvass. She made figurines for her brother, on whom you also made a deep impression. As a young woman, she styled many of her male models on your features and physique, and so I was afforded the chance to see you in many guises with longer or shorter hair, or red or brown or black. But your eyes she always kept blue.”
The man turned to one of the others. “David, take Her Royal Highness.”
“But then two of you will be unable to fight!”
The three men shared a grin between them. “We will manage just fine,” the commander said. Wrap your legs around me,” he told Aden.
Despite her protest, Kadel was happy to rely on someone else’s strength finally. Aden had his arms and legs wrapped tightly around the commander as if he would never let the man go. The third man handed the commander and David their swords. “Keep your heads down,” the commander said. He nodded for the third man to open the heavy wooden door which had swung shut behind them.
“What is your names?” Kadel blurted out before the door could be opened.
The commander turned. “He is Bert and I am Wyn,” the commander answered.
Bert opened the door. The sound of screaming and fighting and dying assaulted them.
Queen and Tin Man stared at each other for a long time.
“Do you deny my charges now, Mr. Cain? Are you not the one time protector of a young princess and prince, and lover of their many-times great-granddaughter? Are you not Wyn and Wynston Camp, as well as Wyatt Cain?”
He took the seat then. “I didn’t sleep with your Great Mother.”
Doc set his beer down with a heavy thud. “When was this? How long?”
“Three annuals ago. It was Princess DG that got me out. As for how long…least eight annuals.”
“Where were Adora and Jeb when this happened?”
“At the time, I thought dead.” Cain took a long pull on his beer. “They survived okay, though. Found another safe haven. Jeb joined a Resistance cell and Adora… He won’t talk about it, so I don’t rightly know. I’m guessing she did some work for the Resistance. Nothing so obviously as the crazy jobs we were pulling.”
Doc snorted. “We knew we wouldn’t die.”
“Yeah, but they didn’t. Anyway, Zero came to the house, whatever house it was then, and killed her. That was about an annual before I got out. He had Jeb in one of those things, too. Three months.”
“I’m sorry. If I’d known—”
Cain waved him off. “There was a reason all of us split up once the war was on. Don’t get me wrong. I miss Adora something fierce. Some days she’s all I can think about. But I can’t say I’d do anything different either.”
“And knowing that hurts, too.”
“It sure does.”
The Queen’s eyebrows rose. “Is that so? Everyone seemed to think so.”
“That’s how Princess Dian wanted it. Queen Felice was set to marry her off to some jerk and…” He dragged his eyes away from the windows and the distant past. “At first she just needed a friend. Then she needed a way out of the marriage, or at least some bargaining room.”
“Am I to believe you didn’t sleep with my great mother when all the court, including her mother and sisters and brothers thought she was?”
“You believe that I’m over a couple hundred annuals old. This is harder?”
Cain let out a bark of laughter. “I taught her card games and board games. She taught me how to dance and how to read the language of the Ancients.”
Brows quirking again, the Queen asked if he still could.
“No, ma’am. I’m out of practice. Artifacts from the Ancients used to be around a lot more back then, so it was a neat trick. Nowadays…” He shrugged.
“Do you even remember, Queen Kadel?”
“And her brother Aden. Yeah. Not too well, though. They were good kids. ‘Course they were scared out of their wits, so that might have had something to do with it.”
“Does Jeb know that you aren’t his father.”
Cain was glad he was sitting. It was another punch to the gut. “You do know how to aim low, Your Majesty.”
“I would do anything to protect my daughters, Mr. Cain.”
Frowning, he regarded her carefully. “What does any of this have to do with either of the princesses?”
Slowly closing the huge tome in her lap, the Queen seemed to consider her answer. “I believe that DG fancies herself in love with you. Perhaps she even is,” she added quickly, forestalling what he might have said. “But while Princess Dian was trying to avoid a marriage of convenience, DG does not have that option. She may very well find herself having to marry to serve the kingdom and not her heart. Though I would have it otherwise, the kingdom is still very unsettled. We need to shore up internal and external perceptions of the monarchy. I don’t know whether it would be better for her to marry an Ozian noble or the younger son of one of our allies. I would hope that he would be someone she could like and eventually love, but I can’t promise it for her. And Azkadellia…I can promise her no marriage at all, assuming she wants one.
“DG is our only hope. She will be Queen after me. Considering all that has happened with me and with Azkadellia, DG’s name must be beyond reproach—without even the hint of scandal. You may be a war hero, Mr. Cain, but a marriage to you would not bring stability to either the kingdom or the monarchy.”
“Kind of cold blooded, don’t you think, Majesty.”
He had to hand it to her, she didn’t react at all. “It’s not the future I foresaw for my daughters when they were children. But the Witch changed all that. The good of the kingdom is more important the happiness of its Queens.”
“So you’re giving me a free pass to have an affair with Princess Azkadellia, but stay away from DG?”
Her face turned thunderous. “This is not a joking matter, Mr. Cain. It would have been bad enough if you were a normal man toying with my daughter’s affections. You are a war hero after all, and while not the ideal husband I would have chosen, you would have cachet with the common people and those in the Resistance. But you are not a mortal man. You will not age. You will not die, except by the hand of another of your kind. How long could you have stayed with DG? An annual? Two? Perhaps as many as five or six? How long before she noticed that she was aging while you did not? Such a thing would escape the notice of the court for many, many annuals perhaps, but not a lover.”
“Maybe I’d tell her—”
“That you had no more than ten annuals together before the courtiers and the servants began to notice? The pending annuals would pull on you both until you came apart, fraying at the seams.”
He didn’t even know why he was arguing with the Queen when he had no intention of doing anything with DG at all.
“You will not pursue my daughter.”
Nodding, he said, “You have my word.”
She studied him for a long moment before appearing to be satisfied. “You have been a good friend to this family,” she said eventually.
There was nothing to say to that.
“I very much wanted you on my staff, in spite of DG’s very obvious feelings for you.”
“If I was a normal guy and I had joined your staff and something happened between me and DG, what would you have done?”
Her eyes drifted away from his face, studying the room at large. “Fumed, perhaps, until Ahamo talked me down. Hopefully nothing too rash beforehand. And then…” She took a deep breath and held it before letting out in a rush. “And then I hope I would have done my best to finesse her happiness. Perhaps giving you a minor landed title. Which I may do anyway.”
Cain felt himself begin to get angry. “I won’t be paid for avoiding—”
“This has nothing to do with DG,” she said dismissively, as if she couldn’t believe that he’d jumped to such conclusions. “Rather a justly deserved recognition for all that you’ve done for the Crown and kingdom. You risked your life and your family for the OZ. Your son now serves in the Queen’s Army. I can’t bequeath anything on Richard. Ambrose,” she added quickly at the confusion on his face. “He comes from landed nobility and so the gesture would be quite lost on him. And Raw simply won’t accept anything.”
“Maybe a sanctuary,” Cain ventured tentatively. The conversation had swung almost a hundred and eighty degrees in the other direction.
“They are always welcome here and at Finaqua and the Northern Palace. His people know that. I receive regular reports from the estates whenever they are in residence.”
“Something to think about then?”
The Queen nodded. “Indeed. And I will also consider how best to gift you, Mr. Cain. It has been long overdue.”
“If you say so, Your Majesty.”
“Might I, uh, can I go?”
“Yes.” He stood up. “And might I ask you one more question before you do?”
“How did you come to be this way? Immortal? My natural inclination is to History, else your secret may have remained a secret much longer.”
Cain couldn’t see how the conversation could get any weirder so: “Sure. I was killed.”
“Yeah. In battle. That’s how it always happens for us. After the first violent death you just…don’t anymore. Otherwise the immortality doesn’t kick in and you die of natural causes.”
Striding down the hall outside the Queen’s private study, Cain could suddenly feel just how sticky he was. And smelly, too. Guess she was serious, he thought to himself, remembering now that the windows were closed. The Queen hadn’t once indicated in even the slightest way that he stank to the high heavens, which he was sure he did.
Cain sniffed an armpit.
Yup. He did.
“Hey! Mr. Cain!”
He turned at the sound of DG’s voice. “Where are you coming from?”
“Hey there, Kiddo. Just had a meeting with your mother.”
She grinned. “Trying to get you to join the ranks again.”
He answered her smile with one of his own. He’d promised the Queen that he wouldn’t go chasing after DG. That was no reason to shut the kid out. “Something like that.”
“Whoa nellie!” DG tried to clear the air with her hand as she got within smelling distance. “Did this meeting happen in a pig sty?”
Cain laughed. “The meeting happened right after a practice session with your father. I haven’t had a chance to get cleaned up yet.”
“You’re telling me. So I guess I’ll let you go then. Will you be at dinner?”
That had been the plan originally. But now…
“Haven’t made up your mind yet, huh?”
Cain shook his head. “There’s a friend of mine in town. Haven’t seen him since before the war and—”
“Wow. That long?”
“Yeah. There was a whole group of us, but we got split up when we joined the Resistance.”
DG blinked those big blue eyes of hers at him as if she wasn’t quite sure how she should react. He could understand. “That…really sucks. Not the him being here, but the not seeing your friends for…”
“About ten annuals. Yeah. Well…it was war. So we’ll see about dinner.”
DG nodded and smiled but he could tell she wasn’t happy. “Okay. Maybe definitely next time.”
“Okay now off to a shower before you knock out half the courtiers with the reek. Actually…”
Laughing, Cain started down the hall.
Sighing, Cain finished off his beer. “So how long’re you in town for, Doc?”
“I was actually planning on sticking around.”
Cain’s eyebrows rose. “Really?”
“Less you know some reason I shouldn’t.”
Cain pretended to give it serious thought. “Nope.”
“Good. ‘Cause I need a place to sleep.”
“You old…” Laughing, Cain caught the bartender’s eyes. “All right then, but you’re buyin’ tonight.”
“Not a problem. So what do we do now? I know there was some talk about us coming clean to the public. The Game was starting to get a little out of control there. But now there’s only about fifty of us. I don’t know that there’s ever been this few.”
“Is that full Immortal?” Cain asked. “Or everyone. Potentials, too.”
“Everyone. Absolutely everyone.”
It was Cain’s turn to swear. “I don’t know Doc. They think only we can kill each other.”
Doc nodded. “I know the legends. If they find all it takes is one good—”
“We’re dead now, Cain.”
“When did we become the leaders of a new Resistance?”
Smiling thinly, Doc shrugged. “Not today. I’m just happy not to be alone.”
Cain raised his glass. “I’ll drink to that.”