Tin Horses and Paper Planes

Chapter 15 - A Bird in the Hand

     

Glitch was still unconscious when Vincent carried him down the stairs. The quilt-swathed zipperhead looked absurdly small and frail in his arms, but there was no-one to see; Doctor Oxley had demanded that the way to the kitchens be cleared. Or perhaps 'demanded' was too strong a word - Oxley had simply spoken briefly to the guard outside Glitch's rooms and explained that he would shortly be moving Ambrose for surgery, and bystanders on the stairs and in the halls would be an infection risk.

"I don't imagine that Her Majesty would be too happy if she found out someone had jeopardised Mr Goldstraw's chances of recovery," he'd said pleasantly, and when the guard didn't move at once, had fixed him with a meaningful look. "And she will find out, Private...Sweetly, is it?"

("The doc don't much care for uniforms," Vincent confided to Wyatt afterwards, as they made their way down the deserted stairway.)

Then, in an exchange that was rapidly becoming legend amongst the palace staff, Mr Rawlins had barred their way into the kitchens, his normally-phlegmatic countenance nearly crimson with outrage.

"I demand an explanation. Why have my staff been summarily evicted from their posts? In less than two hours, Her Majesty and her assembled family and guests will be expecting to take their afternoon refreshments, and I find myself without a kitchen, and the staff loitering in the Low Courtyard, gossiping, engaging in horseplay, with some nonsensical story about the kitchens being commandeered for medical purposes." And then, rather bravely given that he was addressing the seven-foot human monolith that was Vincent 'Smasher' Macey, added "and you're not bringing that...person into my kitchens."

'That person' remained mercifully oblivious in Vincent's arms, and it was this fact, and this alone, that prevented Wyatt from letting his temper slip its leash and pummelling Rawlins' face into a new and interesting shape. Then the door opened behind Rawlins, and Oxley, clad in a salmagundi of cook's whites and an apron that had been boiled until it crackled, appeared in the doorway.

"He's not bringing Mr Goldstraw into your kitchen, sir. Vincent is bringing him into my operating theatre. As I suspect that hauteur alone won't protect you against being lamentably trampled by my colleague as he enters, I advise you to stand aside and let him pass unobstructed." Vincent was already moving, and Rawlins was forced to perform a hasty sidestep to get out of his way. Immediately he followed the big man through the open doorway, bristling like an angry cat and grabbed at his sleeve, which was roughly as effective as trying to restrain an avalanche with tissue paper. Wyatt dropped a hand heavily on Rawlins' shoulder, as only a policeman could, and turned the man to face him.

"I don't think you understand," he said through a haze of tightly-controlled anger, "exactly what's going on, here."

Rawlins shook him off, brushing at his shoulder as though Wyatt had left a stain there.

"I understand that the smooth and efficient running of this household is being disrupted for the benefit of one sickly headcase for whom it might be kinder to let nature take its course." He flinched as Wyatt clenched a fist, then Oxley was there, regarding them both with thinly-veiled irritation.

"Enough. Wyatt, go and make sure that Ambrose is comfortable. And as for you," he eyed Rawlins, "if you are truly concerned that the Queen and her guests - which, if I may remind you, includes these gentlemen and myself - will starve if they aren't fed between now and dinner, I suggest you go to the pantry and take as much bread and butter as you can carry, and go and teach them how to use a toasting fork."

Rawlins glared. "You're very sure of yourself when it comes to ordering my staff about, Doctor. I doubt you'd talk that way if Her Majesty was here in person."

"Indeed I would. I'd also tell her to scrub up if she plans on staying. Doctor Spicer has kindly agreed to assist me, but I can always use an extra pair of hands. Unless you want to help me?" When Rawlins' only response was a look of revolted dismay, Oxley gave him a humourless smile and pointed towards the door. "Thought not. Go away and don't come back unless I send for you."

A broad, battle-scarred table ran down the length of the room, and it was at one end of this that Vincent had set up the makeshift surgery. Several clean bedsheets had been spread over the table, raised up at one end to form a gentle incline. Vincent laid Glitch down with such tenderness that Wyatt felt his eyes prickle briefly, and he turned his head away, blinking hard. He noticed Oxley watching him sympathetically, and forced himself to smile.

"You'd better watch out, Doc. Start upsetting the staff and you're liable to find someone's spat in your porridge tomorrow morning."

The doctor murmured a quiet instruction to Vincent, who nodded and retreated to the end of the kitchen, where two large copper pans were simmering quietly on a vast iron range. "My dear Wyatt, if I find myself eating porridge, the worst has already happened. Help me with this, will you?" He took another sheet from a pile further down the table and began to unfold it carefully over Glitch. "Fresh from the palace lines," he said approvingly. "No chance they've been mouldering away in the back of a cupboard somewhere."

Wyatt pulled his edge of the sheet straight, taking the opportunity to get a closer look at Glitch. Whatever Oxley had done, it had eased the panicky butterfly pulse in his throat. Now, he looked peaceful - weak and faded, but peaceful - and Wyatt waited until the doctor turned away to brush Glitch's fingers with his own before covering them. Right here, Glitch. As long as you need me.


"Will he wake up?" he asked, as Oxley turned back, and his heart clenched as he saw the leather straps in the doctor's arms. Leather belts, on closer inspection, buckled together and tangled like a nest of snakes. "You're gonna strap him down?"

"I don't have any choice." Oxley began to lay the straps out on the table, taking care not to let the buckles clatter on the uncovered wood. "I can't risk him making the slightest movement while I'm working. If it were possible to immobilise his head in another way, I would, but it all takes specialised equipment that I don't have and don't have time to acquire." His tone was amiable, but there was an undercurrent of tension strong enough to grasp with both hands. "I had Vincent round these up from the off-duty guards. One can only hope we aren't suddenly besieged."

He couldn't really argue with that. Still, if Wyatt closed his eyes, he could see the eerie third-person flashes and flickers of a Viewer's recall and Glitch, restrained, murmuring soft entreaties that would avail him nothing. "Just... make sure he's under, first? Please? This is nightmare territory for him, and he's already suffered too much."

"I understand. Doctor Spicer will be here very soon, and then we'll get to work." And that was that. It was a sign of how his faith was growing that Wyatt didn't feel the need to explain, or demand further assurance. 'I understand' was enough. "In answer to your first question, yes, Ambrose may wake. If he does so before we're ready to start, I may need your help keeping him calm and distracted while I anaesthetise him. Otherwise, I'll simply keep him unconscious and have Doctor Spicer monitor him to ensure he doesn't feel a thing. Just put those over there," Oxley nodded towards a marble-topped bench behind Glitch as Vincent approached with a cloth-covered tray.

"All boiled and ready for use, doc." Vincent set the tray, still steaming gently, onto the bench with almost reverent care. "I done the best I can, anyway - can't believe a big gaff like this don't have a pressure cooker."

"We will make the best of what we have, Vincent. Wyatt, if you have any other questions now is the time to ask them. Once we're ready, I shall have to ask you to leave."

Wyatt concealed his dismay. "I thought you'd want an extra pair of hands. Isn't that what you told the butler guy?" If anybody's helping out in here, it's me.

"Can't let you do that, I'm afraid. I don't allow family in while I'm operating. In any event," Oxley added, before Wyatt could correct him, "I only said that to get rid of the man. I shall do very well with Doctor Spicer and Vincent."

"But I'm not f-" Wyatt paused. "Vincent? No offence, doc, or to you, friend," his eyes scaled the heights of Mount Vincent and found a benevolent smile at the summit, "but maybe you need someone with hands that are -" smaller than my head "- used to doing fiddly stuff. I've been a tinsmith, as well as a Tin Man." By the way that Vincent and the doctor exchanged glances, it was apparent that this wasn't the first time such a suggestion had been made. Vincent patted Wyatt on the back, causing his ribs to rattle in his chest.

"Don't fret, Mister Cain. I bin helping the doc for years." He nodded at Oxley, who smiled approvingly.

"Vincent produces some of the finest blackwork I've ever seen. Not, I hasten to add, on patients; I simply mention it to illustrate his splendid dexterity. However, today Vincent will be assisting me with the instruments. The 'fiddly stuff' I'll carry out myself." The doctor brought his hands together at the centre of his chest in an attitude that suggested prayer. "I understand you wanting to help, but this is the time when I need you to step back and let me do my job. The surgery will require my utmost concentration, and concerned family members - no matter how disciplined and well-intentioned - are a distraction Ambrose simply can't afford."

There it was again. Wyatt frowned. "I tried to tell you, doc - I'm not family. Glitch is my friend." This didn't seem to concern the doctor at all; on the contrary, he seemed faintly amused at Wyatt's insistence.

"Perhaps so, but he's named you as his next of kin on Doctor Krantz's paperwork."

"Me?"

"Perhaps yours was the only name he could remember. Even so, the name is there, and you are, therefore, family. Otherwise, I couldn't discuss his condition with you."

You still haven't, Wyatt thought, "Since you mention it, what is his condition? How does a whack on the head from a year ago only start affecting him now?"

He stiffened as the kitchen door opened, then let out a sigh upon seeing Doctor Spicer, tiny and austere and magnificent in robes that shifted and shimmered like a field of goldenrod. They looked ceremonial, more the garb of a priest than a doctor. Perhaps, Wyatt thought as he watched the Munchkin make his way over to the bed, ramrod straight and with eyes only for the unconscious Glitch, at times like this perhaps the two things weren't so very different.

Spicer paused, turning to offer a slight bow to Doctor Oxley and, by extension, to Wyatt. Then he turned the sheet back carefully to reveal Glitch's left hand and, with ritual solemnity, coaxed it open so that he could place a small origami bird there. "Umaii ül' enjevaad, üla kassevaad," he intoned gravely, then circled the bed to place a second paper bird in Glitch's other hand. "Gewen sül inime rian a-lohk thallis." This accomplished, he replaced the sheet and looked up at Wyatt.

"I know that there are those who'd say - in modern days - to see a man of science pray is risible! Irrational! Indeed, a practice bordering on dangerous obsession. But for one of Menschkin breed, you see, the medical profession cannot ever be at odds with my devotion to the Gods." The diminutive doctor beamed; it was like watching the suns appear over the stylised thundercloud of his tightly-curled beard. "The two are indivisible."

Oxley, who had been lining up a motley assortment of glass bottles (the label of each crammed with words containing more syllables than Wyatt thought could possibly be decent), nodded thoughtfully. "Well said, Doctor Spicer. Vincent will help you scrub up, and then I'd like you to monitor Ambrose's pulse and blood pressure for five minutes while I make a few final preparations." He had one of Krantz's boxes open - Wyatt recognised the hospital crest - and produced from within a roll of soft leather divided into narrow pockets. Each one was home to a glass syringe, ranging from some no thicker than a child's finger to one that looked as if it had been designed for use on horses. The doctor slid one of the middle-sized syringes free and fitted a long needle to the end.

"I can't explain the delay," he said, choosing a bottle from the hyaline identity parade and wiping the top with a swatch of cloth soaked in something pungent and aggressively orange. "I'm positive the injury has caused his problems, but I can only speculate as to why his deterioration has been so recent and so rapid. As for what's happening now... do you want the technical answer, or the layman's version?"

Wyatt shoved his hands into his pockets, and encountered the familiar outline of his tin horse, the crumpled bullet still firmly embedded in its shoulder. "Give me the simple one. I'm no scientist, Doctor - that's Ambrose."

The doctor nodded, peering intently at his syringe as he drew down a measure of clear liquid from the bottle. "It's all a matter of pressure. I suspect that the injury Ambrose sustained last year caused some sort of subarachnoid blockage, which is to say -"

"Whoa, there. Layman's terms, remember?"

Oxley looked slightly chagrined. "Sorry. I'll give you an analogy." He regarded Wyatt levelly over a second bottle as he guided the syringe through its cap. "And you'd be amazed, or perhaps you wouldn't, by how many people think an analogy is some sort of painful medical procedure." The syringe made a tak! sound as he laid it on the tray. "Have you ever kept fish, Wyatt?" When Wyatt shook his head, a little nonplussed, he smiled brightly. "Oh, I recommend it. Terribly relaxing. I used to have a tank in my little place in the Realm. Gardening's good, too, although that's rather harder to do underground, unless your chief interest is fungi.

"Imagine that the human brain is a fish - one large, very hungry fish - and the skull is its tank. It's so hungry, in fact, that you have a system pumping in food and oxygen continuously, and it monitors how much food and air your fish needs and adjusts the flow accordingly. Now, you also have a second system that constantly refreshes the water in the tank, and carries the old water and waste away down a drain. What happens if the drain becomes blocked? You must imagine that the tank is sealed, and cannot overflow or leak."

Wyatt felt like a student, put suddenly on the spot. "It would fill up?" he hazarded.

Oxley gestured, just-so. "It would indeed. The new water would accumulate and find itself with nowhere to go." He began to tick points off on his fingers. "You have increasing levels of waste within the tank - stagnant water that hangs around contaminating the fresh. You have a buildup of pressure because there's only so much room for the water and it keeps on coming. Because of the pressure, it's harder for food and oxygen to get into the tank, so the fish begins to starve. On top of this, when the monitor senses that the fish is starving, it begins to work harder and harder trying to force in the vital nutrients and oxygen against the increasing pressure and..." Oxley glanced towards Doctor Spicer, who had seated himself at Glitch's side and was listening to his chest with a stethoscope "...eventually the pump itself may burn out."

"You're saying his heart could give out." Just another addition to the growing catalogue of worries. "Give me some good news, doc. Can you help?"

"I make no promises. The agitation of the seizures appears to reduce the pressure for a while, which is hopeful, and Ambrose responded well to me venting some of the excess cerebrospinal fluid. If I can find the cause of the obstruction, and if I can remedy it, I hope to see a dramatic improvement. I can give Ambrose medication against infection, but restoring normal function to his brain is of equal, if not greater importance, if he's to avoid further damage."

Wyatt tried not to think about 'further'. 'Further', he told the universe firmly, was not an option. "I guess I'd better get out of your hair, then."

Oxley, whose hair had fled his scalp and now hung on in a narrow littoral zone at the back of his head, smiled. "We'll do all we can," he said, kindly. "I'm going to give him an anaesthetic now, so he won't wake, and I'll make sure you're called as soon as he's out of surgery."

Wyatt nodded, stealing a last look at Glitch, hating to leave. I promised I'd be here. His fingers brushed the tin horse.

"Can I leave something with him? It's...kind of a good luck charm." He directed the question to Spicer. "It won't screw up your bird thing, will it?"

"By all means, leave your token." The Munchkin turned back the sheet, where one of the yellow paper birds lay in Glitch's loosely curled fingers. "Place it here. There can be no harm in such a charm, and it cannot interfere with words already spoken."

I know it's only a bit of superstition. I don't care. Wyatt rubbed his thumb over the horse, making sure there was nothing sharp that might cut Glitch, then laid it next to the bird.

Just stop one more bullet for me, okay? For him.


***


Wyatt Cain, unsung hero of the Restoration, decorated ex-cop and former protector of the fabled Mystic Man, and Dorothea Ezoria Euphares Garlanda Gale, widely tipped as future queen of the OZ, sat together on a pair of packing cases outside the door of the palace kitchens, and held hands like a pair of fairytale children in a haunted forest.

DG, who had somehow managed to elude her retinue of lurking maids, had arrived in the hall five minutes after Wyatt had posted himself outside the doors, ready to fight off a thousand imperious butlers if they threatened to interfere. Mr Rawlins, wisely, did not reappear. In fact, the hallway remained eerily quiet, which had made DG's fidgeting all the more noticeable. After ten minutes of her pacing and fretting, Wyatt could stand it no longer, and he'd picked her up bodily and set her down on a nearby crate.

"Settle down, okay? You're making me nervous." When she began to bite at her thumbnail, he caught her hand and sat down next to her. "Come on. we'll wait it out together." And so they'd sat side by side, and an hour had crawled by, dragging its feet every step of the way, followed by a second that seemed in no greater hurry than its predecessor. The silence lay around them, a lake of apparent tranquility, stirred only by the faint sounds of palace life. Wyatt listened, half-wanting to hear something from within the kitchen, half-dreading what he might hear if he listened too hard.

I love the man they're trying to save in there. And if... He closed his eyes, swallowing hard. If something happens, no-one will ever know. He'll never know. In the darkness behind his eyelids, he picked up the thought, examining it from every angle. What could you do with a thought like that?

Without even realising that he'd made a decision, he drew back and skimmed it out over the silence.

"DG?" Skip. He could see it, see the ripples spread out across bright water. "You were right."

Skip.


"I was?" DG looked round, perhaps hearing something strange in his voice. "What about?" He could still stop now, if he wanted. Let the ripples die away, and the thought would sink out of sight, safely hidden.

"I do love him." Skip.


This time it was his heart that bounded giddily, and the ripples it made ran through him like a chill. Wyatt gripped his thighs until his knuckles whitened. There; his hands were barely trembling at all.

DG had a way of stating the obvious. Usually he found it endearing, one of those DG-ish quirks, a way of letting some new piece of information settle into place. Today, however, he decided that if she gazed at him with those wide, guileless eyes and echoed 'you love him?', he was going to commit a minor act of treason.

Instead DG smiled. "I know. Me too." When Wyatt didn't smile back or look away she blinked, searching his face. Her eyebrows, which had apparently caught on before the rest of her, made a break for her hairline. "Oh. Oh... Really?"

"Really." Wyatt could feel the colour rising in his cheeks, but he couldn't back down now.

DG's mouth opened, and eventually she managed "So...but...really? Like...love?"

"Yes!" he snapped, exasperation winning out over anxiety for a second. "Exactly like 'love'. Real, honest-to-gods love, with sunssets, and cornfields, and..." he gestured helplessly. "And everything."

"But...you were married."

"Yeah, DG, I do remember," he growled, then wished that he hadn't. DG looked honestly bewildered, and Wyatt couldn't blame her. In a gentler tone, he went on, "I was married, and I thought that meant I was...fixed. I don't regret it, and I make no apologies to anyone, except maybe Adora for never being the man I tried to be." And Jeb, don't forget about Jeb, the familiar hobgoblin voice of guilt chimed in, and Wyatt clamped a pair of mental hands around its throat and began to squeeze, even as he added "And my boy, who I guess won't be in any hurry to reacquaint himself with me if this ever gets out."

"But there's no law against it..." DG spoke slowly. Wyatt waited with all the patience he could muster. The princess had that very particular tone of voice that said 'wait - still working this one out'. You and me both, he thought ruefully. "Back on the Otherside - it's not a crime where I came from, either. I'm not saying it's a bed of roses over there if you're - if you're gay -"

Gay? Wyatt didn't interrupt, but silently added the term to his mental lexicon. If 'frivolous' had been in there, he might have appended it to this word, but it wasn't, and neither was 'appended' so he contented himself with first thinking that it sounded like a nicer word than 'queer', and then reflecting that it probably carried just as cruel a history on the Otherside.

"- but it's getting better. At college, before all of this," she gestured around her, encompassing the palace and the OZ beyond, "There were a few guys who'd come out -"

This time, Wyatt couldn't keep quiet. "Come out?" I've not heard that before."

"Come out of the closet - it means they told people that they were gay..."

The memory was instant, powerful. There had been an unexpected commotion, an interruption in the awful cycle. A girl, a sudden flurry of movement crashing into the scene that had worn away at him like water dripping onto stone. Then a face, filling his vision. It had been so long since anyone's gaze had met his own that it became a physical thing - Glitch might as well have reached through the iron shell and laid a hand on his chest.

The world shook, all noise and jarring sensation. Then the door had swung open and Wyatt had tumbled into freedom, weak as a newborn foal and feeling a dozen times more vulnerable.

"It's a good way to describe it," he said, finally. "Sounds like you've got things figured out a little better over there."

"I'm probably making it sound better than it is," DG gave him a hesitant half-smile, "but you're right. The OZ has a lot of catching up to do."

Silence returned. For a few minutes, the two of them sat together, neither one looking at the other. Wyatt found a knot in the panelled wall in front of him and stared at it fiercely, his mind racing. DG hadn't recoiled from him. She was surprised, that was plain to see, but the disgust he'd anticipated simply wasn't there. And I would have seen it. Maybe the queen had a streak of guile, but DG's wide eyes were as easy to read as a cloudless summer sky. Even so, now he'd told her, Wyatt felt doubt gnawing at him. You can't put a secret like that back in the box once it's out. Or the closet.

He knew he wouldn't need to ask DG to keep his confidence, as surely as he knew that, beside him, she was brooding a clutch of questions and forcing herself not to ask any of them.

"If...later on, we'll talk about this. If you want to," he said, eventually, still focused on the wooden panel, which might have begun to smoulder, had DG not slipped her hand into his, squeezing briefly.

"Okay," was all she said, and Wyatt risked a look at her. She was solemn, but there was warmth in her voice, and the word enfolded him and steadied him and, for a moment, he could see in the young woman's face the queen that she might one day become.

"Okay," he echoed, and they sat amidst the silence, hand in hand, until the doctor emerged from the kitchens and beckoned Wyatt in.

                                                                                                                                   

                                                                                                                                   

 

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