“Or rats. Or weasels.”
The torpor of the climate induced a lethargy that the companions didn’t mind indulging; they’d been moving about for some time now. Easier to have your meals delivered than to press on with no assurance of decent foraging ahead. “We’ll know when it’s time to go,” said Mr. Boss, from the hammock he had strung between the post of a bat house and a nearby wrinkleroot tree. “Climb up here and get cozy with me, wife.”
“It’s the middle of the afternoon and that’s a see-through hammock,” protested Little Daffy.
“They don’t mind.” And it was true; the Quadlings acted on their impulses when so inclined, without shame or secrecy. Interestingly, Rain seemed not to notice, either. The innocence of that child, thought Brrr, was troubling when it wasn’t refreshing.
The dwarf and Little Daffy didn’t budge from the vicinity where they’d stodged the Clock. “We have to guard the book,” they reminded Ilianora languidly. “You’re feeling antsy about our prospects, you go find someone to talk to.”
Brrr’s wife held out as long as she could, but finally she wrapped her shawl so tightly around herself that only her eyes showed, and she began to explore the town on her own. She was looking for someone who could translate Qua’ati for them. She found an old woman in a tobacco shop whose feet had been chewed off by an alligator but who could hobble about on sticks. Ilianora persuaded her to come back to the Clock. The nearly deaf old woman agreed to answer what of their questions she could in exchange for a salve that Little Daffy swore would regenerate her feet—but not for a year, which would give them plenty of time to get far away from her. “Anyway, she’s not going to run after us protesting, is she,” murmured Little Daffy to the others, sotto voce.
Her name, as near as they could make it out, was Chalotin. A bitter orange rind of a woman passing herself off as a seer. Brrr, who not long ago had spent some intense hours with old Yackle, could tell the difference between chalk and chocolate. Chalotin was rather thin chalk.
Still, for an old broad she pivoted about on impressively flexible haunches. She ran pinkish fingertips over her perfect ancient teeth as she told them what she knew.
Yes, she said, though the Emperor’s forces got no love no more, no more, they still made a preemptory show of authority every now and then. The only way they ever arrived was the High Parade, the route the company of the Clock had taken—what was left of the Yellow Brick Road. Quadlings let them pass as long as they marched in dress uniform rather than field garb. They never came in the rainy season, though. Or never yet.
“So they could tromp in any day,” confirmed Brrr in a soft roar, that she could hear him.
Yes, her shrugging expression implied. Wouldn’t put it past ’em.
“Where do they set up?”
“One of the government houses.” Warming to her subject, she told them that the EC had once kept a firmer grip on Quadling Country, dating all the way back to the days of the Wizard, when the extension of the Yellow Brick Road first allowed swamp engineers to come in and cull the mud flats of their rubies.
“Emeralds from the northeast, rubies from the south,” said Mr. Boss. “No wonder the Emerald City got so powerful, filching from all over. I suppose there are diamonds in hidden caves in the Vinkus?” He looked at Ilianora hopefully. “We could all maybe get filthy stinking rich back at your place?”
Chalotin didn’t care about rubies except to say that in the act of diving for them, the swamp miners from the EC had upset the crops of vegetable pearls harvested out near Ovvels. It had taken three decades for the agrarian economy to begin to recover, she said, and she predicted it would take three decades more before the natives of Quadling Country could rise to the level of poverty they’d once enjoyed.
“We are no longer friendly to our overlords,” she finished, spitting, but smiling nicely too. “We are polite but we don’t let them to stay. Not after the burning of the bridge at Bengda. That massacre. Not after attack by flying dragons.”
“Dragons,” said Rain, looking up. “Have you seen a flying dragon?”
Chalotin made a gesture to ward off the notion. “When the EC to set flying dragons upon us, oh, years ago, a full five miles of swamp burn south of Ovvels. That much Chalotin know for herself, back when Chalotin could both to walk and to swim. But no dragons since then, no no.”
“So why aren’t your patriotic fellow citizens tossing us out on our arses?” asked Mr. Boss.
She replied that the presence of such a young rafiqi required of the Quadlings basic hospitality and even assistance. She indicated Rain when she spoke, but Rain had lost interest and was crawling around in the dirt, pretending to be one of those white hairless dogs.
“How do we get out of here then?” said Ilianora. “We don’t want to be cornered in Qhoyre if the Emperor is about to send a brigade in after us.”
Chalotin explained that the Yellow Brick Road only went as far south as here because beyond Qhoyre, arcing first to the southwest and then toward the north, a fairly dry and passable berm already existed. Whether it was a natural feature of the land or the remains of ancient earthworks, no one knew, but if the companions left Qhoyre by the road near the Mango Altar they’d be safe and dry.
“Where will that take us, though? An endless circle around Quadling Country?” asked Ilianora. “I’m done with circling!”
Chalotin had had enough. She insisted that Little Daffy supply the salve that would regenerate her missing feet, and when the Munchkinlander came out with a small pot of something rather like cold cream, Chalotin took a portion on her finger and swallowed it. She grimaced but pronounced it useful, if not as a medicinal unguent then as a dip for fennel.
From off her shoulder she pulled a belted sack. Rain wriggled closer to look at it. A lake shell of some sort, larger than anything Rain had ever seen on the shores of Restwater. “What’s that, with all its points?” asked Rain, indicating the reticulated spine of it.
“Deep magic, you buy?” asked Chalotin. “Cheapy cheap for you.”
“What kind of magic?” asked the girl.
“You can’t buy magic,” protested the dwarf, and then, in a softer voice, added, “Of course, you can’t buy feet, either.”
“The Emperor is calling in all magic tools and torques,” said Brrr, thinking he might wheedle the shell out of the old biddy without having to fling coin at her. Nice to supply Rain with her first toy. “That contingent arrives from the EC and finds you with something powerful, you’ll need more than new feet to get away safely.”
“How magic could it be, anyway, if you can’t summon up your own feet?” said Little Daffy, playing along.
“It makes noise,” Chalotin told them, and showed them how to blow it like a horn. “The tip has to be broken first. But Chalotin say: this shell not to sing its voice. This shell to listen to. Conch to talk to you. Conch to tell you what it know.”
“No magic. No buy,” said Mr. Boss. “No good. No deal.”
“Well, we have no coin of the traditional sort,” said Brrr, hoping to force a negotiation of some sort.
“What does the shell say?” asked Rain, nearly breathless with hope. But the old woman scurried backward and shook her head. Without another word she headed down the lane, galumphing along as well as she could on her stumps.
“Wait,” called Mr. Boss. “One more thing.”
Chalotin turned but didn’t stop moving away.
“What are these white critters? Are they puppies?”
“They to be albinoid otters,” she replied. “Smart to avoid them. They to overrun Qhoyre for long long time. When the rice terraces burn, the otters they to lose their protective coloring. Before that no one realize they color from their diet. Now they safer among pale stone buildings than in green-purple swamp. So they to overrun Qhoyre and to mess in the silk farm
s and to eat the worms. Bad fall of letter-sticks. Bad tumble of dominoes.”
“What color are they usually?”
“Rice otters? Green of course. To swim in paddies and marsh.” Chalotin crab-walked away then, and Brrr joined the others in discussing how quickly they might get out of Qhoyre, while they still had their own feet attached. Teasing and tempting the nearer rice otters, Rain wandered about, disappearing for a time and appearing again, a child with her own shadowy concerns among the green shadows of a busy neighborhood.
“But what are you doing with that?” asked Little Daffy at dinner, when Rain showed up with the shell. She checked her purse to make sure Rain hadn’t stolen any farthings. “Did you steal any of my cash?”
She shook her head. “Stole the shell,” she replied.
Little Daffy and Ilianora lit into Rain, but good. Had she learned nothing about honor, about moral competence? What was she thinking?
“You told her you could grow her some new feet,” said Rain. The equivalency of the crimes was debatable, but the girl effectively shut up her elders anyway.
The company left the capital of Quadling Country the next day, doing a favor for their hosts without meaning to. In the early morning, before everyone was awake, Rain had tried to blow a sound from the conch. She couldn’t hear what noise it might have made, but some several hundred white otters congregated around the Clock. The pack followed the companions past the Mango Altar and out along the high dusty road into deepening jungle. The stink was horrific, but at least the pack lagged about a half mile behind them. It was like being dogged by a murky white afghan whose segments came apart and rejoined at will. Neither Rain nor the adults were sure whether to be pleased or alarmed, but they could hear the sound of humans cheering from the squat cityscape behind them.
“Is that why the book sent us south?” muttered Ilianora. “So we could liberate a foreign capital of its pests?”
“We could look at the book agin,” said Rain, slyly enough. “If you en’t sure it was telling us to go south, let’s see. Mebbe now it’ll say go north, or go to the desert.”
But the Grimmerie wouldn’t open for them this time. Perhaps, thought Brrr, it had heard Rain’s suggestion that Yackle was warning them to get away from it. It was sulking. Anyway, keeping its own counsel, much as any unread book does.
Maybe we would be better off without it?
Then Brrr thought, maybe Chalotin set Rain up to steal that shell. If all magic totems are forbidden, Chalotin herself might be safer to be shy of a powerful item.
Oooh, but what a narcotic, paranoia.
Rain had never taken into account creatures en masse. To her, the companions of the Clock retained a stubborn and incomprehensible separateness. But the otters conjoined like individual autumn leaves into a single pile.
She remembered the original lonely fish against her finger, the mouse in the field that was her oldest memory—maybe these were instances of aberration. Single creatures in their single lives.
One rice otter, maybe a little bit smaller than its mates, had a slightly rosier cast. (She couldn’t tell genders even when they were fucking; they seemed entirely too limber to be limited to a single gender. She found herself thinking of the rosier one as it.) Since she could identify it in the horde, she cared for it more than the others.
Miles beyond Qhoyre, miles beyond the ruins of Bengda on Waterslip, the rains began. A throng of pilgrims huddling under palmetto leaves, on their way back to Qhoyre from some ceremony in the swamplands, said in kitchen Ozish that the high city of Ovvels was only a day or two away. The companions would find succor there for the rest of the rainy season if they pressed on, said the pilgrims. Though the pilgrims might have softened their promise of a welcome if they’d known about the white river of otters following like a scourge behind.
High city? In this lowland swamp? What could that mean?
They found out. The track on which the companions had traipsed from Qhoyre slowly raised itself on gravel-banked shoulders. The ramp proved so slight an incline that Brrr hardly felt the strain, even though the wheels sucked into the mud. On either side of the highway—a literal highway—grew a town much smaller than Qhoyre, and more real, in a way. Ancient suppletrees, knitting their elbows together, supported small huts from which walkways were slung. A village of treehouses. Every roof was palmettoed, every window netted with gauzlin. Even in the drenching, some people were fishing from their front doors with strings let down into the swamp.
“Bird people!” cried Rain, though in many ways they proved to be more like fish people.
The main track on which the companions had arrived leveled out on top of a thick wall built of granite blocks. Twenty, twenty-four feet high, and just as wide. “Quadling know-how isn’t up to this job. The flatboat to haul such heavy stone has never been built. This wall was here long before the town,” said Mr. Boss.
“But the stones must have been cut by masons, and laid by engineers, time out of mind,” said the Lion. “If the Quadlings didn’t build this, some earlier population did.” Rain ran her hand over marks left in the surface by ancient adzes and chisels.
The characteristic hospitality of Quadlings asserted itself. Some kind of mayoral commission dragged itself together to negotiate lodging for the itinerants. The side of the wall that slanted northeast had been fitted with ledges and steps leading to cells and stalls. Maybe dug out by later generations. The company could take their choice of rooms. The floors might be muddy, but there were shelves on which the companions could dryly sleep.
It was a simple enough matter to drag the Clock into a barnlike warehouse in which it just fit, to cover the thing with banyan leaves until the rain moved over. The natives were fascinated by it, but Mr. Boss said, “Go away. No looky look.”
Rain was beginning to call the rosy-chinned otter Tay, after a Qua’ati word te, meaning “friend.” Rain and Tay slept in a cell with the Lion and Ilianora. Mr. Boss and Little Daffy took a chamber beyond that. Rain would rather have been in a tree.
She instructed the other otters to sleep outside. They didn’t mind. She couldn’t tell Brrr how she had done this. She didn’t know. The otters weren’t talking Animals.
On the outer wall of the defensive rampart, if that’s what it was, the Quadlings had painted illustrations of huge glowing fish. Gold and blue, ingesting each other, smiling at each other in passing, eliminating one another cloacally. “Is these fish as big as life?” Rain asked Ilianora. “Any fish so big en’t fitting in any rice paddy.”
“These fish look like giant ancestors dating back to the dawn of the gods. It’s art. Pay it no mind. It’s all fabrications and lies. I have no patience for lies of any kind, especially the lies of art.”
“What about the Clock?” asked Rain. “And what it says, or won’t say?”
Ilianora wouldn’t answer.
Rain loved the great staring ovoids. She was living in a wall of fish that were swimming toward her from the past. She hadn’t thought about the past much—not even her own past—but now her memory of the fish in the ice pocket accrued some meaning. It had wanted to get back to its gods or its grandparents. It had had someplace to swim to.
Wouldn’t that be nice, to be a fish. And have someplace to swim to.
It took a while for the companions to realize that the monsoons weren’t necessarily annual events. A monsoon began when it began, and it lasted as long as it wanted. Until this one was over there was no hope to move on. Endless, endless rain. The company of the Clock of the Time Dragon spent almost a year in Ovvels waiting for a spell clear enough for the high road to dry.
A whole year in which no battalion of pursuers from the Emerald City swam up to the long island of the high road.
A year in which no foot-free seer from Qhoyre managed to stump up the ramp to demand her money back or to reclaim her purloined shell.
A year in which no news of the battle between Loyal Oz and Munchkinland seeped into t
he backwashes of soggy Quadling Country.
It was, therefore, a year of quiet. Mercy to some—including Rain—and hard luck on others. She learned to watch her companions more closely, even if she kept her distance.
Mr. Boss declared he’d had decades learning how to kick back when the opportunity presented itself. He could busy himself, thank you very much. Out of balsa bark he whittled figurines handicapped by oversize genitalia. To Rain they seemed more dead than mud, and when he wasn’t looking she stole them and sent them flying through the air, to swim a while and eventually drown.
She liked stealing things, though most of what she stole she threw away. To rescue it, to liberate it. The glossy pink shell, with its spiraled belt of spikes and its silky silvered mouth, was an exception. She kept waiting for it to talk to her.
When Mr. Boss protested that his little people were disappearing, Little Daffy replied, “I think they’re disgusting, but don’t look at me.” The Munchkinlander whiled away the hours trying to teach such advanced medicine as she could to the local fish doctors, though with limited resources her efforts were lacking in smack. The Quadlings took to the Munchkinlander as if she were a kind of toy grandmother. Rain heard Brrr mutter that Little Daffy was having too much fun and wouldn’t want to move on when and if the sun ever returned.
“You think I’m just a rural squash,” the Munchkinlander snapped at the Lion. “You think I’m drunk on exotica. You think I’m going native. Maybe you’ve heard that when I helped my old colleague and nemesis, Sister Doctor, tend to that ailing Scrow potentate, Princess Nastoya, I fell in love with the Scrow. Well, it’s true. I could’ve stayed there. But I had my calling.”
“I’m your calling now, honeybag,” said Mr. Boss. “Don’t you forget it.”
“You kidnapped me,” she told him. “But bygones be gone, as they say.”
Little Daffy gave up running a rural clinic and took to playing a kind of strip canasta with a bordello of Quadling maidens possessed both of loose clothing and morals. When Mr. Boss tried to peer in the shutters at them, she called him a perv and slammed them shut. Then the giggles! The dwarf sulked for a week, fouler than usual.