Rain hadn’t often been in such an enclosed space. The great gears made of carved wood rose like clock faces, while those of hammered iron lay horizontal. The wooden ones smiled, but some of their teeth were splintered or missing. The iron gears looked more treacherous, as if they would stop for no mouse or magician, but chew up history any way they liked.
The dust-silted interior of the Clock was all-business—a different world from the gilded scrollwork of the outside. The air was drier in here, less punitive. Greenish banyan light seeped in where a board had warped or a shutter failed to hang true. She felt like a new seed in the green light of undergrowth, or a fish in scummy shallows.
Almost lackadaisically a twiglet of moss, sort of brown and green both, began poking through a crack at the bottom of one of the shutters. Thinner than a pencil, more like a pipette. It was joined by another, and then a third and a fourth. The sensate tentacles stiffly carved out half circles in the dust, reaching in, probing. Rain didn’t know what they were, but they were animated and curious.
There was room for them; they could come in. But try as she might, she couldn’t budge the shutter door. She was trapped in here until her companions opened the door from the outside.
If anything happens to the Clock’s minders, she finally thought (and this was perhaps the first time Rain had ever thought conditionally), I’ll be locked up here tight as Lady Glinda in her housey house.
She couldn’t hear any noise from outside. No chittering of mob monkeys. No appreciations of one’s own remarkable plumage by the teenage birds. Instead she sensed a kind of hush, a seasoned thickness of sound.
Oh, but those little crab-fingered fingerlings really wanted to get in! Now some were trying to claw up through an old knothole whose bole had aged and didn’t sit true in the plank. Six or eight of those strands poked up. If she could only knock the bole out, they could swarm in, maybe. She hit it tentatively with her hand but she couldn’t focus her force enough to make a difference. She saw that the back side of the wagon, through the screen of meshing gears and flywheels and pendulums, was also being explored for entrance by a host of twitching finger-limbs. But here came the dwarf opening her door, and the spiderlets melted away.
“Free and clear,” he said, “we’ve done ravaging the forest for medicinal help.”
“Did you see them twiggy spider folks? Where’s they get to?”
“What’re you on about? All we saw were buzz-bugs the size of luncheon plates.” The dwarf and Little Daffy and Ilianora insisted that the Clock hadn’t been besieged by anything. The Lion, who had kept an eye on the Clock even while scavenging, told Rain she was inventing things. “It sounds nasty,” he told her. “Like giant bedbugs. You’re trying to terrorize me. It isn’t hard to do, I realize, but just stop it. You know how I despise spiders.”
“I didn’t make ’em up.” Rain described their legs or fingers as best she could, but none of the party had seen a single creature like that, let along a posse of them. Little Daffy gave Rain a tonic to calm her nerves, but the girl threw up. She didn’t want her nerves either calmed or inflamed. She wanted the spiders to come back and tell her what the spider world was like.
Near sunset a human creature came slinking through the jungley-woods. He was neither a northern soldier, tall and armored, nor a Munchkinlander outcast. He looked more like a local drunk. His coloring was dark and his clothing brief. Knitting needles pinned the lanky hair piled on his head. On his back he carried a basket filled with mushrooms of a certain heft and texture and stink.
At first he spoke to them in a language they didn’t understand, but he made an effort to remember another tongue, and tried again. He was a scavenger plying his trade, and he could offer the more potent of wild mushrooms rooms for sale. Very very good specimens very very rare. Little Daffy looked interested, as she knew the medicinal properties of his stock, but Mr. Boss cut her off and said they had no use for recreational fungi.
The native never told them his name, but he recognized at once that the company must be the prey of the Emperor’s soldiers, of whom he had heard the gossip. Rain wondered from whom: Parrots? Monkeys? Spiders?
Haltingly, Heart-of-Mushroom told them, “Your soldiers? They looking for you still. But emergency make them to divert from their task. They are not to give up too quick-like. They to return. Risky if you to go on, but more deeper riskiness if you to stay put.”
“Well, that’s a nice menu to choose from,” said Mr. Boss. “And you look as if you wouldn’t hesitate to turn us in.”
“I to sell mushrooms, not people,” he replied, taking no offense. He flicked open his loincloth and urinated on the ground between them. Was this a gesture of disdain, or a proof of nonaggression, or merely sign of a full bladder? Brrr thought, Well, if I ever get back to high society, there’s a new trick to try out in a crowd.
The man said, “Emperor’s men not welcome in Quadling Country. Heart-of-Mushroom not to sell information to bad men.” He took a mushroom from his basket, scrubbed it against the hair in his armpit, and took a bite. When he offered it around, everyone professed to be full.
The Lion said, “Would it be better for us to leave the Yellow Brick Road and cut across country?”
The Quadling shook his head. “You are safer on the road of yellow brick. The trees and vines and clinging growth only thicken as you go south. Also jungle leopard to make short meal of you.”
“I can take on a jungle leopard,” said Brrr.
The mushroom vendor snorted and took another nibble. “Also forest harpie and small vicious deadly jungle dormouse.”
“Well, then,” said Brrr. “I take your point.”
“But even if you not to believe me, you to think of your baggage,” he concluded. “Quadling Country is wet to the shin.” He looked at the dwarf and then at the Munchkinlander. “Or to the waist. You to be bogged down in mud. Easy for soldiers to catch and kill. But yellow road is built dry and high. You to move deeper from your enemies that way. Faster away from the north.”
“But they’ll follow the Yellow Brick Road toward Qhoyre, surely,” said Brrr. “They’ll move faster than we can. I’m surprised they haven’t caught up with us yet. What was the emergency that diverted them?”
“They stumble upon rogue dragon,” said Heart-of-Mushroom. “Not ticky-toy thing like yours. Real one. They stop to try to capture it but cannot to manage it. It fly away. So now they to take up hunt for you again.”
“They saw a dragon close up, and I en’t seen nothing but spiders?” Rain was incensed.
“But if we stay on this road—they’ll be following us,” persisted Brrr.
“No road goes only one way. When engineers to build the only dry access into Quadling homeland, they also build only dry access out of Quadling homeland. So when EC soldiers betray Quadling hosts and kill and steal and burn their bridges? EC soldiers walking away on Yellow Brick Road make easy target for Quadling dart and Quadling arrow.” He spat out a mushroom bug and cursed in Qua’ati. “Quadlings not to kissy kiss EC soldiers any more.”
“What’s to stop your countrymen from shooting at us?” said the Lion. “I’m from Gillikin originally, and my wife is from the Vinkus. Little Daffy is a Munchkinlander, and Mr. Boss—”
“I’m undeclared,” said Mr. Boss.
“We’re a walking gallery of the enemies of the Quadlings. And you’d send us down Slaughter Alley? Hardly sociable,” finished Brrr.
“Not so,” said the Quadling. “You have your rafiqi, and Quadlings to give you safe passage.” He bowed just a little to Rain. “She is Quadling, no?”
Brrr looked at the girl. He hadn’t thought of her as positioned anywhere in Oz, ethnically speaking. But Brrr could see what the mushroom peddler meant. Rain’s face was somewhat heart shaped, a little flatter than those of her companions. Her lips fuller. You couldn’t say that her skin was as ruddy as Heart-of-Mushroom’s, but now, in this light, maybe…
Brrr caught the eye of Mr. Boss. “So the Clock told you t
o beware of a little girl. Did it. I think the Clock was just jealous. We got ourselves an ambassador.”
The itinerant vendor spoke to Rain in Qua’ati. She didn’t notice he was addressing her.
“Not to mind,” he told them. “My people to see what I can see. She is to promise you safe passage on the Road.” He nibbled another portion of his wares and smiled balefully. “Qhoyre is big city where you can to lose yourself. Such a small band of soldiers will not dare to follow you into Qhoyre. You to be safe there.”
“Safe from soldiers,” said Mister Boss. “How about invisible spiders?”
They tried to explain what Rain claimed to have seen. “Maybe the Emperor has trained bloodhound spiders through the magic he denies everyone else?” asked Ilianora.
“Invisible spiders,” said the Lion. “Did I mention that even visible spiders cause me angina of the psyche?”
They never learned what Heart-of-Mushroom thought about invisible spiders, for at their very mention he paled. In a moment he’d melted away back into the forest, for all practical purposes having gone invisible himself.
“Another one who didn’t come along,” said Rain. “We isn’t too friendified, is we.”
The Quadling’s terror at spiders that only Rain had seen made the adults more squeamish than ever. Rain, however, experienced a sort of gingery buckling sensation inside. People couldn’t see the spiders and they couldn’t see inside of her—they hadn’t been able to figure out that she’d been telling the truth.
An apprenhension of isolation—that sudden realization of the privacy of one’s most crucial experiences—usually happens first when a child is much younger than Rain was now. The sensation is often alarming. Alone as a goose in a gale, as the saying has it. Rain felt anything but alarmed, though. The invisible world—the world of her instincts—though solitary, was real.
They heard her singing that night, a rhyme of her own devising.
Spidery spiders in the wood
No one knows you very good.
No one can and no one should.
The deeper they penetrated into Quadling homelands, the more signs they saw of Quadling activity. Rushes laid out on the margins of the Yellow Brick Road to dry in the sun. Donkey dung and human feces. A broken harness for a water buffalo. Meanwhile, no alarums of horse hooves sounded behind them. The Yellow Brick Road south of Gillikin and Munchkinland might be Slaughter Alley, but not for a band of irregulars accompanied by a child with evident Quadling blood.
They made sure to keep Rain front and center, on the Clock’s most prominent seat. No one much believed in the spidery figments, but neither did they believe in taking chances with Quadling poison-tipped arrows.
“I’d like to know what our intention is, when we arrive in Qhoyre,” Ilianora said as they made an evening meal of poached garmot and swamp tomato. They sat right in the middle of the road, their cooking fire banked up upon the brick. “We’re about to have obeyed the advice mimed out of the Grimmerie. We’ll have stuck together and gotten south. But what next? And why? We’re going to take a flat there? Start a plantantion to harvest mildew? Set up a circus? Learn Qua’ati?”
“Tut tut, my little Minxy-Mouth of the Marshgrass.” The dwarf fingered out a fishbone. Marriage had eased his nerves somewhat. “No one knows where home is until it’s too late to escape it. We’ll know what to do when we know what to do.”
“Qhoyre can’t be anyone’s home,” argued Ilianora. “Otherwise so many Quadlings wouldn’t have migrated into the northern cities.”
“What is the world after Qhoyre?” asked Rain, who seldom listened to their discussions.
Mr. Boss shrugged. “The Road peters out, as I understand it, but Quadling Country squelches on.”
“Oh, even Quadling Country ends, eventually,” said Little Daffy. “At least according to the lessons in map reading we got in petty nursery. The province meets up with the ring of desert that surrounds all of Oz.”
“But what’s after the desert?” asked Rain.
“More desert,” said the Munchkinlander. “Oz is it, sweetheart.”
“To hear Ozians speak, other places don’t exist,” said Mr. Boss. “There’s no place to the north, like Quox, for instance, except as a supply of fine brandy and the source of a certain plummy accent. Ev, to the south over the sands, doesn’t really exist—it wouldn’t dare. But oh, we do like our Ev tobacco if a shipment gets through.”
“Hey, Oz is bigger than Ev or Quox or Fliaan,” said Brrr in mock effrontery. “Those dinky sinkholes are hickabilly city-states founded by desert tribespeople.”
“Who cares what’s outside of Oz?” agreed the dwarf. “No one goes there. Oz loves itself enough not to care about provincial outposts.”
“But after the deserts?” said Rain.
“Ah, the innocent stupidity of kids,” said the dwarf. “You might as well ask what is behind the stars, for all we’ll ever know. The sands aren’t deadly, that’s just the public relations put out by edge communities. Not that I’m proposing we keep dropping south to become nomads in bed linens. The deserts aren’t hospitable. It’s where dragons come from, for one thing.”
“She wants to know where we’re headed, that’s all,” said Ilianora. “I’m with her on this.”
“Headed to tomorrow. Equally impossible to tell what’s on the other side of that, but we’ll find out when we get there,” said the dwarf. “Everyone, stop your beefing. You’re giving me cramps.”
The tomorrows began to blur. In a climate that seemed to know nothing but one season of growth, maturity, decay, all happening simultaneously, perpetually, even time seemed to lose its coherence. The company grew quieter but their unhappinesses didn’t subside. The cost of wandering without a named destination was proving steep.
Eventually the Yellow Brick Road petered out—brick by brick, almost—but the tramped track remained wide enough to accommodate the Clock of the Time Dragon. The signs of human enterprise grew more numerous. The companions began to spot Quadlings in trees, in flatboats, even on the mud-rutted road. The natives gave the company of the Clock a wide berth but a respectful one. Brrr observed that Quadlings, the butt of ethnic smears all over Oz, seemed in their own homeland to be more capable of courtesy to strangers than Munchkinlanders or Gillikinese.
Ilianora put her veil back upon her brow despite the steamy everlastingness of jungle summer.
There was no good way to avoid Qhoyre. The provincial capital had colonized all the dry land making up the isthmus-among-the-reeds upon which it squatted. And squatted was the word. Brrr, who had lived in the Emerald City and in Shiz, knew capital cities to be places of pomp and self-approval. Qhoyre looked mostly like a collection of hangars for the drying of rice. Indeed, Brrr reasoned, that was probably how the city began.
At ground level, the stuccoed administration buildings showcased an extravagance of softstone carvings both profane and devotional. Above them, ornament was abandoned for louvers, weathered out of plumb, and perforated screens of raffia or stone. Shabby, genteel. The hulks of Rice House and Ruby House and the Bureau of Tariffs and Marsh Law—titles carved not in Qua’ati but in Ozish even Rain could now read—loomed beside soapbone shops that wobbled on stilts above household pork-pen and pissery. But government house and grocery alike featured spavinned roofbeams. To swale away monsoon-burst, Brrr later figured out. Sensible in that climate, though the first impression was of a dignified old city in its dotage.
The Quadlings swarmed about the companions without evident panic. “They never heard of the Clock,” said Mr. Boss under his breath. “How bizarre. They don’t want a glimpse of the future from us. We could retire here, no?”
“No,” said Ilianora, spooked by the crowds.
sp; To Brrr’s eye the Quadlings seemed louche and convivial. They’d survived all attempts by unionist ministers to convert them, preferring their own obscure dalliance with fetishes, radishes, and the odd augury by kittle-stones. Stalls on the edge of market squares might be shrines or chapels, or then again they might be the tipping place for one’s household refuse. Little Daffy, with her Munchkinlander’s lust for a good scrub, was appalled. “It’s not even the nakedness behind those loincloths,” she said. “It’s that you can see they haven’t even washed well back there.” With aggressive cleanliness she took to pumicing her own face on the hour.
When the company paused for the night in a blameless nook, natives emerged from alleys and mews-ways to bring rattan trays of steaming red rice and fresh fruit and stinking vegetables. They set their offerings before Rain as if she were their local girl made good, and skittered away. “Monkey people,” said Little Daffy.
Rain showed no particular interest in this population to whom, Brrr conceded, she did bear some resemblance. She tried to make friends with the myriad hairless white dogs who cowered everywhere, under open staircases of cedar and rope. Rain put out rice and then fruit, and they would venture forth to sniff at the offering, but scurry back. She tried with some of the brown vegetables, the ones like voluted woody asparagus, and they also turned up their snouts at that. Then she arranged some of the asparagus into a few words—FOR YOU. EAT. So they did.
“How does she do that?” asked the dwarf of Brrr. “Have you any idea?”
“I’m the muscle in this outfit, you’re the brains,” replied the Lion. “As long as they don’t come and eat us, I don’t care how she does it. Are they dogs?”