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Out of Oz, Page 14

Gregory Maguire


  I.

  The Lion backed up as the dwarf turned a red no beet would ever manage. “I sent you to collect a library book, and you come back with a child?”

  Uh-oh, thought Brrr. Bad move. He arched his backbone—a bit of alley cat attitude that no one could be fooled by, but it made him feel better. He hadn’t seen the dwarf this seriously off his nut before.

  To Ilianora, the dwarf added, “Look, Little Nanny Ninnykins, I always thought you were simple, but I see I was wrong. You’re demented. Take her back where you got her.”

  To Brrr’s surprise, Ilianora gave Mr. Boss no quarter. “You’re interested in the future,” she said to him. “Any child is a head start on the future, no matter who they are.”

  “So we should maybe kidnap a whole orphanage? Listen, I won’t stand for this. Send her packing.”

  “Don’t get your little knickers in a twist,” the Lion said mildly. “We can take care of her. Principles of child governance—how hard could it be?”

  “You couldn’t govern a coffee grinder. You’re too big a sissy to run a nursery school.”

  “On the contrary. Cowardice is a virtue when it comes to protecting the young and frail. If I can be as scared as a child is of, oh, bumblebees or something, I can better remember to keep us both safely away from them.”

  “I en’t scared of no bumblebees,” inserted Rain.

  The dwarf ignored her, and snapped at the Lion, “You sure put the pussy in pussycat. You couldn’t even stand up to Lady Glinda when she foisted this hoyden on you.”

  Well, there is truth in that, thought Brrr.

  Ilianora said to the child, “When did you last have something to eat?”

  “I am hungerful,” admitted the girl. “Lady Glinda en’t all that good a cook.”

  Brrr let the child slip off his back. The dwarf fumed and spat but the Lion stood his ground. “We’ve got bigger problems than kindercare,” he said. “Have you forgotten that the fleet that the Clock showed us has been attacked? Someone will be wondering who did it, and putting it all together.”

  “It gots stuck in the middle of the water,” said Rain.

  Ilianora, rooting about in a satchel, located some shreds of ham and bread. A pot of mustard and a spoon. The dwarf took the Grimmerie off into the underbrush of the pine barren, probably to return it to the Clock. In a clearing upslope, the assistants pitched quoits, ponying about and paying no mind.

  “Why should he be so aggravated about a kid tagging along?” Brrr asked his wife. “He’s already saddled with us. What’s one more, and a little one at that?”

  “Let me first see to some supper for the child, Brrr.”

  When she had finished her meal, Rain looked about her with brightening interest. “Here’s where you live?” she asked.

  “Until Mr. Boss gives us the word to press on.” Ilianora removed her veil and shook it out. Her white braid was coiled upon her head in a henge of black pins.

  The Lion said, “I do hope we’ll get going soon. There’ll be a marksman or even a posse on our trail by dawn, I bet. Anyway, this place gives me gooseflesh.” He had never liked the forest, any forest. That sense of lostness. How a horizon so quickly gets knotted up in the fractal digression of branches. Though this stand of junk trees was thinner than some.

  Sotto voce, Brrr to his all-too-human wife: “I don’t want to be the only timid one at the table, but don’t you agree we should light out before that General sends hit men to find the Grimmerie? And to mow us down while they’re at it? We could move faster on our own, you and me. With the girl, of course. Since her welcome to our own little tribe has been, shall we say, a little thin.”

  Ilianora bit her upper lip, considering. “I’ve felt we should all keep together, but now that we’ve obeyed the Clock, delivering the Grimmerie to Lady Glinda and collecting it from her again, you might be right. Though where would we go?”

  “You need to find your brother.”

  “I don’t need to do that.” She lived and breathed, Brrr knew, with a high tolerance for detachment—like a lake jellyfish floating in a glass casket, oblivious of japing crowds.

  He’d been with her for six months now. In that time she’d learned—or remembered—how to laugh. Gulpily. Bitten-off retorts, like poorly suppressed hiccups. She’d seemed to grow younger through the winter. He didn’t want to see her lose any ground. “Shall we skive off?” asked the Lion again, in a lower voice.

  She shrugged. She’d know what was to come next when she knew it, thought Brrr. And though no magistrate had recorded their union—any cross-species romance revolted Mice and Munchkinlanders alike—he and Ilianora enjoyed a marriage just the same, and he’d stick by her side either in or out of the shadow of the Clock.

  The dwarf was waddling back. Not for nothing was he called Mr. Boss. “You lot of layabouts, this is no picnic. We’ve got problems to see to. Up, up, off your furry rump, Sir Brrr. Miss Fiddlefuck of the Fairies. Hey, you noisy boysters, shape up—we’re hotfooting it back to the lookout bluff, where we can see down the lake, and catch the news on the wind.”

  Brrr raised his eyebrows to the child, and she understood; she galloped toward him and sprang onto the Lion’s back. “Don’t get used to me,” he found himself saying over his shoulder. “I’m no one’s defender. I’m not reliable.” Her finger dug into the rolls of skin at the nape of his neck and she nuzzled her face in his mane. This made her cough. He wished he’d given himself a shampoo more recently, but conveniences were in short supply in the Pine Barrens. Another reason to detest the place.

  They’d stashed the Clock at the dead end of an old logging road; above this, the hills mounded to a lookout. Brrr didn’t wait for Ilianora, the dwarf, his boys. He vaulted ahead, passing the Clock, breasting the hill.

  The sun was just beginning to set. The stripe of glare down the lake, too bright to see at first, pinned the flotilla within it. Then the Lion’s sight steadied, and Rain’s must have too. The girl murmured, “Holy Ozma.”

  They saw four ships and six impossible dragons encased in a floating belt of ice, a flat island of white. Ice had run up the ratlines and shrouds and stiffened the sails into glass. Men had shucked their uniforms in the summer heat and jumped onto the floe. In little but braies and singlets they were hacking with axes. Here and there campfires had been set, as if to puncture the ice with melt-holes. The dragons bellowed!—you could hear it even at this distance. One or two had worked a wing loose. The military were staying clear of the twisting, snakelike heads, which snarled and snapped in rage at everything and nothing.

  “They din’t do nothin’,” said Rain. “T’ent their fault, them beasties.”

  “Fell in with the wrong crowd,” said Brrr, “and they’ll pay. Mind who you choose for friends, Rain.”

  “Friends,” snorted the girl, skeptical of the concept, maybe.

  Out from Sedney and Bigelow to the south, from Haventhur and Zimmerstorm to the north, Munchkin boats were emerging. Shabby little barks such as had been snugged into port or tucked under screens of pine branches proved trim and ready for this opportunity for sabotage. Twelve, fifteen, twenty vessels. Compared to the mighty ships Cherrystone’s men had built, these were laughable toyfloats. Powered by forearm and sail and cheery, puffing steampipes. Here came a bark shaped like a gilded swan—that must be from one of the ancestral piles farther up the lake.

  “High holy hysteria,” said Mr. Boss, arriving with the others in time to see the Munchkinlanders take revenge for the burning of their crops.

  The dragons were making so much noise, down below, that the soldiers seemed slow to comprehend the net of lake midges drawing around them.

  “Brrr, turn around, take the girl away from this,” said Ilianora suddenly.

  “This is the world in which she has been born,” barked the dwarf. “Better to know early. Take a good look, girlie.”

  Ilianora came up beside Brrr and reached for one of Rain’s hands; Rain shrugged her away. She didn’t take her eyes off
the lake.

  “The local riffraff is ready with muskets of some sort,” said Brrr, as punches of thready smoke also bloomed out around the raggle-taggle peasant fleet. It wasn’t long before columns of cloud smeared the air from the gunnels of The Vinkus, the Munchkinland, the Gillikin, the Quadling Country. A hearty response from professional artillery.

  Perhaps the kickback of Cherrystone’s cannon began to shatter the ice. The rocking worked some play into the frozen girdle, and the navy Menaciers seemed encouraged. But soon it became clear that the Munchkinlanders were united in a simple strategy. Spare the ships; attack the creatures. The slaughter of one dragon, then a second and third simultaneously, made all the onlookers, even Mr. Boss, catch his breath. The great dragon-heads fell to one side, old sunflowers listing. The dragon-wings burst into thin flame, translucent first, then oranged, rouged; they fell to ash within minutes.

  “Ow,” said Brrr. “You’re hurting me, Rain.”

  The fourth dragon died. The fifth broke loose in the commotion, at last, and rose above the fray so high that the company on the bluff drew back, ready to scatter should its eye fall upon them. But it dove upon one of Cherrystone’s ships to snap the stubbed mast. Then it whirled about and attacked the gilt-tipped swan boat. It caught the silly hooped neck of the prow and rose in the air with it, dashing it upon one of the frozen ships. Brrr couldn’t see if the swan’s navigator or skipper had dived to safety.

  The liberated dragon dropped from the air again. At first they thought it was attacking another ship, but the dragon was heaving in a death throe. In the muck of ice floes and floundering vessels, it overfreighted one of Cherrystone’s vessels to the starboard side, and the ship upended with a sound of suction and shattering, stove through.

  The sixth and final dragon managed to rip free, now that the spell was losing its grip. Into the sky it racked its way. Taking no notice of floating armies or vengeful ambushers, it staggered in the sunset light. Crazed perhaps. It turned to the south, heaving over Bigelow and the foothills of the Great Kells. Heading for the Disappointments, maybe, or the murk of the badlands. None of its band would follow it into Quadling Country. It had no living mates left.

  2.

  After soaking a puck of congealed tadmuck and mashing it up, the company of the Clock of the Time Dragon disported itself about a small fire of coals to cook their penance and eat it. They were silent at first. The smoke kept the jiggering mosquitoes off, but the light drew the moths. Cross-legged on the ground, Rain cupped her chin in her hands. Her eyes followed the mauve wings. As if she’d never seen moths before, Brrr thought. Or perhaps she was contemplating the kinship possibilities between moth and dragon.

  “Not to ruin anyone’s digestion,” said Brrr at last, “but we’re probably marked enemies of the administration lording it up in the Emerald City. Ilianora and I were talking and—well, don’t you think we should scram while we can?”

  “I don’t work by committee, never did,” snapped Mr. Boss. “I want your sympathy, you faggoty cat, I’ll ask for it. You can go foul your knickers for all I care.”

  “What’s the matter? Some mountain goat nibble at your testicles?”

  Ilianora shot Brrr a look and indicated the child. But Rain continued oblivious to anything but the flutter of moth and flame, and Brrr kept at the dwarf. “What is it? You don’t like anyone else making a decision? Such as our taking on the girl when Lady Glinda suggested it?”

  Mr. Boss had been kind to Ilianora for the past year. She had always before been able to cozen the dwarf from his tempers. Now, when she sat down near him and put a hand on his knee, he swatted it away. “You want somebody more functional than Sissyboy Lion, help yourself to one of the lads. I’m not interested in you.”

  Behind the dwarf’s back, Brrr mouthed singsongingly to his wife, You’re i-in trou-ble.

  “We’ll only keep the girl till we can find somewhere safe for her to stay,” she said to the dwarf. “We more or less promised Lady Glinda. In exchange for releasing the book back to us.”

  Mr. Boss flicked a piece of ratty bark into the fire, taking out one of the moths. Rain gasped, quietly.

  “We got your precious book,” said Brrr, trying not to sound panicky. “The girl is a bonus. What’re we waiting around for?”

  “I don’t know. How the hell should I know?” Mr. Boss’s tone was darker than usual.

  “Ask the Clock?” suggested Ilianora, as if that thought might not have occurred to him.

  “I can’t.”

  Brrr had only been with the company of the Clock for the past six months. Still, he’d heard that the Clock decided for itself when it needed a rest. When this happened, the company would sometimes disband for a while. Maybe it was time. The Lion asked, “What, is the thing on strike again? Holding out on us?”

  Mr. Boss shifted this way and that without answering. Off to one side, to the plinks from a silver guitar and a set of jingle-tongs, the bawd came through clearly. The seven lads were improvising more lewd verses to their nightly lay of the endless lay. Some evenings the boys sang of themselves taking their pleasures in a whorehouse, sometimes in a female seminary, sometimes in front of an audience of kings and bishops. The boys were equally godlike in endurance and readiness, the girls indistinguishably gorgeous except for variations in hair color. Hardly lullabye material, but soon enough Rain slumped in the Lion’s forearms and noodled herself toward sleep.

  “Now,” said the Lion, “I don’t mean to rush you, but assassins are no doubt starting out to find us, the Clock, and the book. They’ll have put it all together, given we showed them an excerpt of what to expect. Do you want to tell us what’s going on?”

  Mr. Boss sighed, and a single golden tear slid out of his eye and lost itself in his bottlebrush mustache. Brrr didn’t trust the tear of a dwarf any more than he trusted the Unnamed God to appear in the clearing and settle the universal contest of good versus evil. Or even good versus bad taste.

  Ilianora extended their chieftain the benefit of the doubt. “What’s upset you? It surely can’t be the child?”

  The dwarf sunk his chin farther into his chest, as if he’d rather speak to his lap. “I hoped getting the book back from Lady Glinda would refresh the Clock’s executive function, but I don’t believe it has done so.”

  Ilianora and Brrr exchanged glances, and waited.

  “You always see the entertainment message of the Clock,” explained Mr. Boss. “That’s all anyone ever sees. The audience side with the stages, the apertures and balconies and suchlike. But there’s a difference between public demonstration and private revelation. Around the corner? Not the side with the storage cabinets, but the back end of the cart? Where the placard says HE DREAMS YOU UP AND SWALLOWS YOU DOWN? That advertisement hides from everyone’s view a private stage you never saw because I never mentioned it. To anyone. When I’m alone I go sneak a look there. I watch for direction every few days. Even if the Clock prefers to show no opinion about what might happen, always before this it has quivered with secrecy. It’s been like a child trying to keep perfectly still. Can’t be done. No one can play dead dead enough, not even a Clock. Until now. It gave me one more tirade while you were gone, today. Then—it died. It’s mastered the art of being dead. Or comatose.”

  “What did the Clock say?” asked Ilianora.

  “It said keep away from any grubby underage girlykins who have no business mucking with history.” He tossed his brow toward Rain but couldn’t bring himself to look at her. “And then it collapsed.”

  The lads were settling down into their usual mound. They always slept apart from management. Rain was lost into a dream of her own.

  “Perhaps the Clock needs the Grimmerie to function properly?” suggested Brrr. “Like a kind of yeast, or a key? Maybe now that we have it back…?”

  “More often than not, the book has been clear of the Clock, and still the Clock told me whatever it needed me to know. The Clock and the book are separate systems, though sharing a cousinly intere
st in influence.”

  “Then maybe the Clock doesn’t like having the Grimmerie back,” said Brrr. “Maybe you should hot-potato it back to Lady Glinda’s lap.” He wouldn’t relish being delegated for that mission, not in the current climate.

  “Right. And maybe the stars are really the toenail cuttings of the Unnamed God. Don’t talk about that which you don’t bloody get, Sir Pussykit.”

  So even history can get tired too, thought Brrr. How many futures has the Clock told in its time? It’s been humping around Oz for what, thirty, forty, fifty years now? And the dwarf slaving in attendance to it except during the periods when the Clock was hidden in some crevice of Oz, and the dwarf could go out and live something of a life? “Well, if you can’t start it up with a hand crank, maybe it wants to be dead,” said Brrr. “Ever think of that?”

  The dwarf only groaned. “The Clock isn’t just a font of prophecy. It’s—a kind of conscience, I think.”

  “It won’t be the first conscience ever nodded off. I’m joining it. Good night.”

  But the Lion’s rest was pestered by the calls of hootch-owls and the slither of pelican beetles under dried pine needles. He was worried that the dwarf seemed immobilized by the Clock’s paralysis. He was worried they shouldn’t be sleeping here, but should be on the road already, getting away. He could hear marksmen in every scrape and shudder of forest.

  Always some itch that worrying couldn’t scratch. Brrr slipped sideways in and out of the kind of sleep that masquerades neatly as the actual moment—is he a Lion aware of being almost asleep in a summery pine forest, or is he dreaming of that same reality?

  Apparitions of his past detached from the fretwork of chronology and drifted into consciousness, out again. The Lion swam in that underwater wonderland where action and consequence lose their grip on each other.

  Look who’s here on conscience’s catwalk: striking poses between wakefulness and dream.

  The nobleman who’d thought up for the Lion an agent’s assignment. The man who had smelled of licorice and tobacco. Avaric, Margreave of Tenmeadows. His thin pumpkin-colored mustache and goatee, that bearing few Animals could imitate. Damn the confidence of the titled!