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Out of Oz, Page 58

Gregory Maguire

  “If my father isn’t in prison, I’m not going,” said Rain. “I’ll take my chances outside.”

  Avaric said, “On your own head, then. We can’t wait. His Sacredness must descend to the safety of the megalithic tombs, to emerge in triumph when the aerial assault is over.” He began to beetle away, and the fragments of court society that had continued to gather in the corridor flooded after him.

  Shell, in his humble garments, stood his place a moment longer. “Rain Thropp,” he said. “I never had daughter nor son of my own. I took many a woman but never a wife, as I couldn’t find one suitable for my ambitions. His Sacredness does not have a wife.”

  “You’d better hurry,” said Rain, as the thunder gathered again.

  “Your right to the Eminenceship of Munchkinland supersedes mine,” he concluded. “Your being my only living female relative also consolidates in you the right to be Throne Minister of Oz, as the historical line of Ozma is severed and dead these five decades. Should I fail to emerge for reasons of transcendence, it is your throne to accept, your scepter to grasp.”

  She didn’t answer. She grabbed Dorothy’s hand and they ran away.

  The guardhouse had been hit. What had been Proctor Gadfry Clapp lay in pieces, his other limbs severed and spread out from his chest as if hunting their missing brother leg. Farther out, poorhouses had collapsed, and the corpses of men too frail to have gone for soldiers were already being laid upon the streets. Something called the Ministry of Offense was in flames. It was hard to value the relative sounds of terror: that of the thunderous clouds, from which dragons stitched down like great herons gaping underwater to gobble up terrified minchfish, or that of response from the ground, where buildings shuddered, and the trapped and the shocked and the grieving and the terrified wailed with one voice.

  “We’ve got to get out of here,” said Dorothy. “Back to Westgate, back to our friends.”

  But there was a child who’d been jettisoned in a tree, somehow, and Rain said, “We can’t leave that infant there.” Its mother in the dirt with her skirts over her face, dead, and the baby carriage on its side, wheels still spinning. “Tip wouldn’t let that child loiter in branches.”

  They claimed the child and placed it in the arms of a woman who was rushing somewhere with a barrel of melons; she took the baby without comment and hurried away.

  At the Ozma Embankment the girls came upon a bevy of ladies who had flung themselves into the water to escape the first wave of flaming parcels dropped by the dragon fleet. In their big skirts they couldn’t clamber out. Dorothy and Rain yoked themselves together and pulled, but unless the women conceded to abandoning their finery to the ashen water and climbing up in their petticoats, they would remain only floating lily pads in a pond that reflected skies of lightning, gold fire, and scudding clouds. The women bowed to the urgency of the moment and allowed themselves to be rescued, and hurried off, giggling, as if public nudity were a greater scandal than the fall of the Emerald City.

  Rain hadn’t seen dragons since her efforts, with Lady Glinda, to call winter upon the water. She remembered the creatures with some affection, but she wasn’t as inclined to admiration now. The beasts swooped from the clouds with a malice she couldn’t have imagined. She didn’t know if from Munchkinland her father had used the Grimmerie to focus their attack, or if the climate of storm from which they emerged had terrified them to fight harder. She couldn’t tell what they carried in their claws and what they dropped, but all about the Emerald City explosions burst as large as torched trees—like trees turned into flame, a central trunk of impact from which limbs and arteries and fringed hems of fire bloomed instantaneously.

  The dragons and their detonations would do more than bring down the government, if they hadn’t managed that already. They would slaughter every living creature in Oz.

  Only then did Rain realize that in the welter of panic she had lost track of Tay. “We have to go back,” she told Dorothy.

  “We can’t,” said Dorothy. “Tay will find us.”

  “Like Toto?” said Rain. “Come on.”

  “Tay is smarter than Toto. Not that it’s hard to be smarter than Toto.”

  Rain was no hero, she was no saint; she knew that. It was no lost child hanging from a tree branch, no dead school administrator in pieces on the ground that pitched her mind to thinking of a solution. It was the loss of Tay, her silent companion. She couldn’t bear to lose the rice otter, not when she’d lost so much else. Over and over again, the losing.

  She stood on the edge of a schoolyard of some sort, amid some children’s rusticated ramps and gymnasial fretwork, and she said to Dorothy, “Give me the shell.” Dorothy obliged without comment, for once. Rain said, “I don’t know if this will work, but it can’t hurt.” She lifted the shell to her lips and sounded a call as long and hard and intensely as she could.

  When Rain had finished, Dorothy supported her to keep her from falling over and passing out from the effort. “The Ozmists?” asked Dorothy.

  “They said they’d come if they could. And they’re already dead, so how could anything harm them? The dragons have cover from the clouds; perhaps the Ozmists can provide cover from the ground.”

  No one hurries for history, not even ghosts. The Ozmists emerged slowly, evincing themselves more as a kind of cloaking odor at first than anything else—the laundry sweetness of freshly prepared shrouds—but they did come.

  On the first day, the lower districts of Oz saw shreds of white tendril coalescing as thin filmy fountains. They appeared to emerge from the cobbles, and before long they joined to form a low canopy about four feet above the street. The air beneath was breathable, and survivors searching for water or for the bodies of their kin could safely make their way—squatting, hunched, lurching from the well to the lean-to and back again.

  The maw of the high-security prison, Southstairs, open to the sky, and the Burntpork district, and the corn warehouses beyond the military garrisons near Westgate, and the taverns of the so-called Quadling Quarter—that is, the haunts of the downtrodden—were hidden first. Properties on higher ground, the Mennipin Squares, the government houses, the theater and opera circuit, remained exposed. They took their beating by the dragons, who had apparently been taught only to attack what they could see. The dragons had no power against the poor and the lowly as long as the poor remained properly invisible, which suited the poor just fine, this once.

  On the second day the Ozmists strengthened. More of the Emerald City was protected, though the assaulting dragons sounded fiercer because frustrated. But people will pick themselves up and go about the next day’s work, whether it be hunting for potatoes or looting in the rubble of Mirthless Neddy’s Ruby Exchange. A cadre of Palace ministers stormed the doors of St. Satalin’s Nook for the Criminally Insane, recognizing it as the safest spot to convene a crisis government, in case His Sacredness the Emperor of Oz proved undivinely mortal. The criminally insane, however, threw them out, saying they already had their lives under control as well as could be expected, thank you very much.

  Before dawn on the third day Brrr found Rain sleeping under the steps to a bridge on the Ozma Embankment. “Why didn’t you come back to us?” he said, nosing her awake.

  “I knew you would brave it if I needed you,” she replied to him, putting her arms around his neck. “But how did you find us?”

  “Tay came and led us here,” said Brrr. And there was Tay, hanging back, green as a goblin’s hoard, whiskering now up to Rain’s ankles.

  Rain told the Lion she didn’t believe her father was in the EC; the attack coming from the east must prove he and the book had been abducted by the Munchkinlanders.

  “So we’ll go there,” said the Lion. “No?”

  “Not yet. There’s too much to do here.”

  The Lion didn’t reply at first. Then he said, “Well, tell me what to do.”

  “I have no plan. Never did. But if Munchkinland is winning this war, their army will enter the city before long. W
e’ll wait and greet them when they come. If the Grimmerie is important enough to La Mombey, she’ll bring it with her, and she’ll bring my father with it.”

  “Any day we wait might be a day she takes his life,” said Brrr.

  “Any day we wait might be—” began Rain, but she was fully awake now. Dorothy was rousing from under a greasy tarpaulin of some sort, yawning. The first work beckoned—finding breakfast for those children living under the steps on the far side of the bridge. So Rain’s reticence kicked in. “Where’s Little Daffy? And Mr. Boss?”

  “They’ve come forward, despite their apprehensions. She’s liberating decoctions from ruined apothecaries and administering them as best she can. And she’s bossing Mr. Boss around to help her. We’ll meet up with them later, if we survive the day.”

  “We’ll survive this day,” said Rain, grinning. “The Ozmists are strengthening daily, don’t you think?” It was true. As the day advanced, the mist thickened. It made travel difficult but also safer in some ways, and the sound of attacks from dragons was limited to ever more circumscribed neighborhoods.

  On the fourth day Candle arrived by broom, accompanied by Iskinaary and the venerable old Eagle named Kynot. She found Rain at the edge of the Ozma Fountain, rinsing the sores on what was left of the legs of a teenage pickpocket. Rain hardly looked at her, just handed her mother a roll of bandage and explained what needed to be done. Only in the evening, when Candle crowded under the bridge with Dorothy, Rain, the others, did the daughter learn what the mother had done. But Candle brought out her news slowly, cautiously.

  “I remembered that Nor could learn to fly the broom as a young woman,” said Candle, lying on stones, her eyes closed and one palm over her forehead, the other palm tucked into Rain’s two hands. “I thought: maybe the ability to fly isn’t given just to the young or to the talented, but to the needy, too. In any event, if I couldn’t fly on the broom, I thought you might. I found the thing and I mastered it. Well, let me be honest. I didn’t master the art of flying, but I managed it.”

  “You managed,” murmured Rain, apprehending the feel of her mother’s palm but almost asleep herself. “How did you know how to find me?”

  Candle said, “But that’s the intuition. The seeing the present. You may have it too, someday, if you don’t have it yet.”

  “I can’t see my own toenails,” said Rain. “Too tired.”

  “Tomorrow we’ll start in Quadling Quarter,” said Little Daffy to Mr. Boss. “There’s a nasty rash flushing up on the hindquarters of the squelchyfolk that I don’t like the look of one bit. We’ll boil up some unguent in that copper laundry tub you nicked from the kitchen yard of Fancy-Pantsie House or whatever it was called.”

  “Never marry a dominatrix,” said Mr. Boss, and he rolled over to snore himself silly.

  “Have you heard what has happened to your father?” whispered Candle, once everyone else had gone silent.

  Rain tried to find in herself some capacity for knowing the present. All she could know of the present was exhaustion. “I have not,” she admitted.

  Her mother sat up. “Ready yourself, Rain.”

  “I’m never ready for this,” she replied. “But tell me.”

  Candle spoke carefully, drawing each phrase from her mouth like a rounded stone she could set down in a line, barely touching the next. “An old friend. Saw your father. Bewitched into a foreign corpus. And die on a cart. That Eagle named Kynot. He broke with the habit. Of Birds. To stay aloof. He sent out word. To let me know. For Liir had been an honorary Bird once. Before you were born.”

  “What can Eagles know?” whispered the haunted child.

  “Liir was born a bastard. He flew as a Bird. As an Elephant he was hauled across the border into Munchkinland. He has died inside that skin. I’m afraid this is so, dear Rain. I cannot see it otherwise.”

  Rain wept a little. The tears were hard as ice. Dorothy sat up, eyes closed. Her shoulders shook just a moment, and then she sleep-hummed a tune of mourning or condolence, something that seemed to provide her some comfort. Perhaps for once her melody comforted the others, too. Though Rain didn’t expect to sleep, she drifted off holding her mother’s hands, dreaming of her father’s hands.

  The shreds and selvage of a life, her own or her father’s—she couldn’t tell the difference anymore.

  Iskinaary kept a vigil by the bridge, his eye for Liir dry.

  By the fifth day there was nothing left for the dragons to attack but the great dome of the Palace of the Emperor. It alone rose above the bank of Ozmists that had saved the City of Emeralds from annihilation. As the sole final target of the dragons, the dome suffered tremendous damage, though not as much damage as the pickpocket, the proctor, the laundress or the nursery orphan. It never collapsed upon the palace, but it remained scarred and defiant in the fog of history.

  Midday, the dragons were called off. Almost immediately the Ozmists began to thin, but not to disperse. At dusk on the fifth day, La Mombey entered the Emerald City triumphant. A pack of nearly visible spider-thugs on their furry scrabbling stems surrounded her gilded sledge, which ran along the drifts of silted ash as neatly as if they were drifts of snow.

  To Call the Lost Forward


  Avaric, Margreave of Tenmeadows, was waiting in front of the Bureau of National History to meet La Mombey’s conveyance. The Emperor had given him the dirty job of emcee at the armistice negotiations. At first he wore the sneer of a playground monitor. Well, the place was a shambles. No one had taken a broom to the city yet. The piazza was littered with fragments of marble Ozmas. The sound of trumpeteen and brass-flummery, though shrill, inadequately masked the muttering of the mingy crowd.

  It’s a loser’s job to broker the conference, thought Brrr, who peered from behind a toppled column. How surprising that they didn’t offer it to me.

  The Lion was looking out for signs of Liir, on Rain’s behalf as well as his own, but the Lion wasn’t eager to be recognized by Avaric. Later, Brrr would hold his tongue when people said of the Margreave that through the truce negotiations he had comported himself with a deference to the Eminence of Munchkinland that seemed little short of concupiscent. Such is the shame of the lawyer. Avaric, they whispered, had never managed to be that fawning even before His very Sacredness, the divine Emperor of Oz.

  Which comment, true or not, attached itself to Avaric for the rest of his life and made public dining at the Oak Parlor in the Florinthwaite Club a bloody pain in the arse.

  La Mombey alighted in uncinched bell-curves of pure white linen dropping from the shoulder. The mob of spider-things clustered about her with the devotion of bloodhounds until she clicked her fingers, and then they rolled themselves up into bobbins and an assistant swept them into a casket. Once they were gone everyone breathed a bit more easily.

  The Lion watched carefully. He’d always possessed a decent eye for detail. He saw how Hiri Furkenstael might have treated the pomp of the occasion. How a student of the School of Bertius might have handled La Mombey’s bib, freely suggesting its pale mink tippets and its appliquéd off-white lozenges inscribed with sigils like letters in a foreign script.

  He was memorizing the moment so he could tell his companions about it. How the pale beautiful woman appeared as a smudgy blankness, almost, among the colored leaves of those ornamental shrubs and trees that hadn’t been blasted by shrapnel. Something about her so—so lambent and concealed at once. Floating amid the blur of dissolving Ozmists, or was that sentiment clouding his eye? How to put it?

  But so often, before words can rise to the mind to imply the ineffable, the ineffable has effed off. From his place near the ruined Hall of Approval, the Cowardly Lion watched the impossible happen: Loyal Oz falling to the upstart Free State of Munchkinland. Words would fail him, later on.

  La Mombey paused so Avaric could approach her. In rounded public tones she summoned the Emperor of Oz to join her for a discussion of the terms of peace. Then her voice dropped, and Brrr couldn’t hear w
hat else was said. After she retreated to her sledge, Avaric stood nodding and bobbing till it slid away. He turned almost at once to where Brrr was hunched behind broken stone. Apparently not hidden well enough, then.

  “Sir Brrr, Namory of Oz,” called Avaric. Naturally, thought Brrr, the only time my title is used in public is after the throne that conferred it has collapsed. Figures. “I see you there. I need your advice.”

  Brrr prowled up to the man who, once upon a time, had arranged the Lion’s plea bargain and brought him into service of the Emperor’s secret agencies hunting for the Grimmerie.

  Avaric spoke as if they’d just fallen in step somewhere in Oz Deer Park or along the Shiz Road. “A propitious time to return to the capital. Now that the army of Animals can lay down its—teeth. But I see you didn’t personally drag in the sledge of La Mombey.”

  “I’ve done enough menial toil in my day. That foursome of Tsebras managed an elegant enough job of it without me. Oh, are you implying I’ve arrived as part of a conquering army? Me? How droll. As if I was ever on the winning side. Really, you flatter me.”

  Brrr was glad the crowd had melted away with La Mombey’s departure. No one was close by to hear Avaric reply, “You were assigned to discover the whereabouts of the Grimmerie and you never returned. It’s not for me to prosecute you, but I’ll remind you that you jumped probation as set by the magistrates of the Law Courts—”

  “One might wonder if those resolutions have been nullified. Given that there’s about to be a new administration in Oz. Anyway, the Law Courts are in recess just now. I passed what was left of them on my way here.”

  “Exactly so,” said Avaric. “Leaving other matters aside, I need your help. I can tell by your bedraggled state that you’ve been out and about on the streets of the city. Tell me what you know. What building left standing might be large and dignified enough to house the teams that will work out the conditions for a ceasefire? The Palace is intact, or most of it is, but it might seem ungracious to invite La Mombey in for tea only to have the central dome collapse upon her.”