Tin Horses and Paper Planes

Chapter 7 - Tea and Empathy

"...been spoken to in such a way."

"You've never been to the Realm of the Unwanted, have you, love?"

DG paused in the doorway, listening. The family often took afternoon tea together on a private terrace - a custom, her mother had once informed her fondly, that had been in practice since DG had been a baby - and it was an opportunity to put aside their royal faces for a while and spend time together, uninterrupted by affairs of the palace.

"I'm not a prude Ahamo, but that man was simply vulgar."

DG didn't want to interrupt her parents' conversation, but curiosity got the better of her.

"Which man, Mother?" She gave her hands a cursory glance, but they seemed okay - no signs of paint or engine grease to earn her the look of gentle reproof the Queen was so good at. Using magic to get your hands clean is probably against some ancient law, but you have to admit, it works... Satisfied, she went out onto the broad terrace to join her parents, wondering if there had been news about Glitch. Iskra looked up and her expression softened, but DG was aware of the annoyance that surrounded her in a crackling cloud.

"Your mother's had a difference of opinion with Mr Cain." Ahamo was trying not to smile, and DG relaxed a little. It couldn't be anything too awful, if her father found it amusing. Don't be too sure, kiddo. He's got a weird sense of humour.

Iskra sniffed irritably. "'A difference of opinion' is hardly the way I'd describe it." Once DG had taken her place, the Queen recounted the interview, to her growing disbelief. "I know that you're fond of him, DG, but he has no respect. If it were not for the service he has rendered to the OZ, I would have him sent away that very minute."

DG stared at her mother, wide-eyed. "Mr C- Wyatt actually told you to-"

"Right up the old Brick Route," Ahamo chimed in cheerfully, and grinned as Iskra gave him a scolding look. "Sorry, beloved, but you have to admit, the man knows no fear. He wouldn't be such a bad choice to head up the Royal Army. You like people to speak their minds. Didn't old Lonot once call you 'a silly little girl with a head full of fancies'? And you took his sword off him and offered to make him wear his own entrails as a hat, and see who looked silly, then?"

"No, that's what you wanted me to do." The memory brought a brief smile to the Queen's face. "In fact, I sent him off to spend a week helping the nursemaid tend to Azkadelia, so he'd have some basis for comparison."

"Ah, diplomacy," Ahamo murmured fondly, and put his arm around her. DG regarded her mother, who was gazing into the distance, her expression troubled. You're not angry because he was rude, are you, Mother? You're angry because he was right.

"Why don't we go down and see Ambrose this evening? Together," she suggested tentatively. She'd long since stopped using 'Glitch' in her mother's presence. In the first few months after the eclipse, she'd called him 'Ambrose' when he was connected to his brain, 'Glitch' when he wasn't, but that had been too much like dealing with two separate people, and it hadn't taken DG long to realise that he was already struggling with a raging identity crisis, and she wasn't helping.

"Ambrose. My name is Ambrose. But... but you, and Raw, and Cain..." And then a pause as he caught up with himself and remembered that Wyatt Cain had gone home; DG recognised the little flicker of dismay in his dark eyes. "You can call me 'Glitch'. Reminds me of the good old days..."

She'd asked him again, in the Brain Room, trying to keep her voice low and simultaneously understanding that it was ridiculous to do so, when everything she said must pass through the attendant Viewer in order to reach that remote, floating mind in the tank.

"Those were the good old days. Until you found me in that cage, I'd spent most of my time scared, or lonely, or falling off, or over things." He'd smiled, but the expression hadn't reached his eyes. "And then there was you, and Raw... and Cain, and it was time that - that stayed. Not the circular, same-again days I'd had before; time with definition to it. And I wasn't lonely, then." Then his smile had grown warmer, though it hadn't been enough to keep DG from lying awake that night, wondering if he was lonely now. "Of course, being scared and falling off things persisted for some time afterwards. Call me 'Glitch', if you wish, Highness. I must learn to be both, or I'm doomed to be neither."

DG recalled that she'd been about to correct him. I don't want to be 'Your Highness'. I'm just DG. But maybe she should listen to her mother's advisor. Learn to be both, or you're doomed to be neither.

Iskra favoured her with a wan smile. "Perhaps you should take your sister. I'm sure Ambrose would-"

"I went to see him this morning. I took some breakfast to him." Azkadelia had been sitting so quietly beside the balcony that DG hadn't realised that she was there. "DG's right, Mother. I'm sure he'd like to see you."

Iskra looked between her daughters, trapped. "He won't remember me. I'll only confuse him."

"He's already confused. I think -" Azkadelia glanced at DG for support, and DG nodded, relieved that she had decided to speak up. Someone needs to say it, and Mr Cain's way doesn't seem to be working. "We think, Azkadelia continued, "you might be avoiding him."

"My dear, that's preposterous," Iskra countered uncomfortably. "I've spoken with Ambrose many times since he came back to us. We've discussed the Sunseeder at length, and the changes he's made to the design. It's all very interesting, although I don't pretend to understand half of what he's saying." She tried to smile, but there was a hint of desperation in her attempt at lightness.

"But that's just it, Mother - you only speak to him while he's in the - while he has a Viewer with him so that he can work." Azkadelia's tone was gentle, but her gaze was direct. "I don't believe I've ever seen you talking to him outside of there, and when he remembers to come to Court dinners you always put him right down the table, away from you."

We're all trying really hard not to talk about his brain, aren't we? DG thought. 'While he's in the Brain Room'. We don't talk about what's floating in that tank, or mention the zipper, or call him Glitch. She moved to perch on the arm of the padded settle where her parents sat, so that she could take her mother's hand.

"He's still Ambrose. Sooner or later, Mother, you're going to have to talk to him without a Viewer there to try and make out nothing's changed." She felt her eyes well with tears, and blinked them away vigorously. "And if it was me, I'd want to do it sooner, because..." She shook her head. "Wyatt's right. The doctor doesn't have any answers, and he doesn't seem to be in a hurry to find any. Can't we find someone else, even if it's just for a second opinion? Aren't there experts over here? Neurologists and things?"

"I, ah... I know a brain surgeon," Ahamo volunteered quietly. There was a silence, while all three women stared at him. "I do," he insisted. "Well - he was, years ago. Quite a reputation in the City, he told me once, but he upped and left when they started looking for..." he faltered, glancing at Azkadelia. "When they -"

"When the Sorceress started recruiting medics to headcase the people she couldn't bully or bribe. It's all right, Father. You don't have to keep on treating me as if I'll fall apart at the first mention of that creature," Azkadelia protested, but she dropped her gaze after a moment, and DG felt a sudden rush of sympathy for her. You still feel responsible for what happened to him, don't you? Even though it was all the Witch's doing.

"I'm sorry, Az. I'll put the kid gloves away. Anyhow, when things started getting hot in the City, the refugees started showing up. Some of them just wanted out of the regime, but there were those she'd marked out as useful, and the Realm of the Unwanted was the one place you stood a chance of getting lost in. Doc Oxley showed up about five years after I got there, and the Realm swallowed him up just the same as everyone else." Ahamo shrugged. "Of course, he might not even be there any more. It's not exactly the kind of place where folks retire and grow daffodils."

'Push up daisies' is more like it. DG was sceptical. "Could we trust him? The whole place was full of con-artists and mercenaries."

Ahamo nodded. "I know - I was one of them." Azkadelia rolled her eyes and he grinned. "I'm not telling her anything she didn't already know," he protested easily. "Anyway - doesn't that qualify me to say if we could trust him? You have to be good at working people out if you want to stay alive down there. Doc Oxley's all right."

"Shouldn't we just call the Royal Hospital and send for a doctor from there?" DG asked, unconvinced. "Someone with recent experience? You can send a fa- a Telex to the City, can't you Mother?"

Iskra didn't answer, and DG looked up, about to ask the question again. The queen was looking fixedly ahead, and her eyes were brimming, her lips pressed together to keep them from quivering. "Mother?"

"I failed him. I failed all of you." Iskra whispered. DG and Azkadelia both broke in at once.

"No, Mother, you can't blame -"

"You didn't fail any- "

"My darlings, be still. I did what I thought was best, but I could have done so much more. And Ambrose, poor, faithful Ambrose - I have stayed away. DG, you were so young, you must barely remember him as he was. To see him now, so - so diminished and muddled... it breaks my heart to see him that way, and so I save myself the pain and avoid his company."

Ahamo had said nothing throughout this exchange, but now he put his arm around Iskra and pulled her to him, kissing her hair tenderly.

"The war was bound to leave casualties, love. He knew the danger, and he faced it. And he's still alive - that's more than be said for many who stood up for the OZ. You've nothing to reproach yourself for."

And that was half true. It's not your fault the witch hurt him, Mother. If we're all stepping up to take some blame, I ought to be first in the queue; I let her out. But if you don't go and see him now, because it makes you feel guilty to look at the zipper... I can't make excuses for you. DG said none of this, but her wide blue eyes were badly suited to subterfuge. Iskra studied her sorrowfully for a minute, then nodded.

"No more excuses. This evening, if he isn't too tired, I'll visit him." The tears that had been building finally spilled over, but Iskra waved away the handkerchief DG offered, producing one of her own from a neatly concealed pocket in her skirts and drying her eyes briskly. "And I'll talk to Spicer. He had that look he always wears when something is preying on his mind."

"We'll both go."

       "We'll all go," DG spoke a second after Azkadelia, and they swapped conspiratorial glances before turning to look at Ahamo, who shook his head.

"I think I'll sit this one out. Four's company, but five's getting dangerously close to a mob. Besides, it's you girls he'll want to see. I'll set up camp in the Rose Room - send a few Telexes. There's a bunch of City officials who all came down with a convenient case of food poisoning just in time for your mother's birthday, and I bet they're all just as conveniently recovered now."

"I'm sure they had some reason for their absence," Iskra tucked the handkerchief away. "Though I doubt it was poor digestion. I've yet to find a Councilman who was unable to stomach even the most challenging of banquets."

Ahamo smirked. "I doubt they'll admit to it, but what they're all suffering from isn't a shade of green around the gills, but a big streak of yellow running down their backs. They're afraid of being attacked if they leave Central City."

"The Longcoats wouldn't dare come anywhere near the Old Road, would they?" DG asked, perplexed. "I thought -"

"No, not by renegade Longcoats. By your everyday, average folk in the country. Farmers. Ranchers. Maybe the odd rogue Papay Runner. Now people are getting back to normal, they're starting to ask questions. Like 'how come even when the rest of us were scraping to survive, Central City had enough food, liquor and money to go around?' I can't see them chasing after the City council with pitchforks and horse-whips, but they might change their minds if they'd heard the council stonewalling - hah - when we said we were planning to have the gatehouse taken down." He rolled his eyes. "Can't have undesirables just wandering into the City, can we?"

DG thought about Antoine Demilo's rolling sleaze emporium. Yeah, they must really be worried about their standards slipping. "I suppose we're lucky that Doctor Krantz was here already. Sounds like we're way down people's To Visit list." The Queen cleared her throat gently.

"I will ask Doctor Krantz to suggest a fellow physician to lend his expertise. The two of them, working together, may provide the answers we seek." A hint of sharpness crept into her voice. "I will not be accused of denying Ambrose the help that he requires."

"In that case, I'll send word to the Realm and see if I can't scare up Doc Oxley, as well," Ahamo asserted. "He might be some help, even if he isn't a hot shot city doctor."

Iskra rested her head against his shoulder, looking a little happier now that the conversation had moved on to more practical matters. "If you think that he would be of help, then by all means send for him, my dear. I will, as in all things, be led by you."

Ahamo smiled, his eyes meeting DG's, and he winked. Why do I get the feeling he's heard that before? she wondered, amused in spite of herself.

"Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses..."

DG jumped, then tried to pretend that she hadn't. "Mister Rawlins, have you ever thought about wearing a bell? Maybe something in brass? Little coronets embossed on it to go with the buttons?" The tall man, whom Wyatt would have instantly recognised as his impatient guide, inclined his head in a way that would have made the deepest of bows seem cursory, and approached the Queen, sinking smoothly to one knee. He held out a flat, wooden box, lifting the lid so that Iskra could take out a folded page from within.

A nod from Mister Rawlins. That's practically a belly-laugh, coming from him. DG considered pressing her advantage and seeing if she could raise an actual smile on the man, then she caught sight of her mother's expression and all thoughts of teasing the austere manservant fled.


Iskra looked up from the note, dismayed. "It's from Spicer. He says that Ambrose has had another seizure. He's called for Doctor Krantz."

DG gazed at her, anxiety rising slick and bitter in the back of her throat. Suddenly, the thought of summoning a renegade brain surgeon from the Realm of the Unwanted didn't seem quite so impulsive.


Chapter 6 ~~~~~~~~ Back to Tin Man ~~~~~~~~ Chapter 8



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