“Get away from that window or you’ll go blind,” he growled at Rain, who was just passing, minding her own business.
She didn’t answer him, just slid on by. Watching. Adults were more broken than animals, she thought. She missed the birds of the sky, the big birds: in the jungle, only sodden little feather-fluffs hopped from branch to dripping branch under the jungle canopy.
Every now and then she went to look at the Clock, to see if it had wakened up. She was the only one to visit it as far as she knew, but the thing stayed frozen, dead as one of the dwarf’s ugly carvings.
For Brrr’s part, the months of inaction made him consider that the one thing that had characterized his life since infancy was his constant motion. No matter how much he’d enjoyed life among the great and the good in Shiz or the Emerald City, he wasn’t a house Lion at heart. He was a roving beast. Maybe his lifelong tendency to take umbrage at minor slights was a symptom of his chronic eagerness to get going somewhere else. He only ever needed a good reason.
He wouldn’t leave Ilianora, though. He could tell this waiting was hard on her too. Waiting for what? The book—they had kept trying to open it—offered no further advice. Meanwhile, Ilianora’s veil, which for so long had stayed down, was raised again, in more ways than one. She lived in a new silence, and slept with her back to him. They’d never been lovers, of course, not in the physical sense. But they’d been lovers as most of us manage, loving through expressions and gestures and the palm set softly upon the bruise at the necessary moment. Lovers by inclination rather than by lust. Lovers, that is, by love.
So Brrr was cross, too. Everyone was more or less cross except for Rain.
The Quadling children tried to make friends with Rain, but she felt unsure of their intentions. Anyway, they didn’t like the otters, who bit children when provoked. Though Tay never so much as nibbled at Rain. Except a little. And it hardly hurt.
Alone most of the day, Rain was turning into a little monkey on the vines and trestle-passes of the supplewood trees. Tay scurried along behind her like a kind of white trailing sock. Brrr watched her with cautious eyes. She was growing, their Rain. Her limbs liked this damp climate. Ilianora had had to sacrifice another veil to make a longer tunic for the girl, lest she flash her private parts by accident and invite a disaster.
Just in time, before a couple of marriages broke irreparably, the sun returned. Steamy yellow and obscure white. It hurt their eyes. With it arrived new generations of biting bug who were impervious to the few remaining sachets of unguent the companions had harvested more than a year earlier. It would be time to get moving before long. “What’re we waiting for?” asked Ilianora.
“For a sign of some sort,” said Mr. Boss.
“You’re not over that yet? The Clock is broken. There are no signs.” Her tone was aggrieved in a cosmic way. The dwarf rolled his eyes.
The painted fish looked now as if they were swimming in light instead of streaked green air. Early one morning Rain caught sight of an etiolated matron touching up one of the fishes with some blue paint ground up in a gourd. She was dabbing with her fingers and singing to herself. This old flamingo had never seen a big fish like that, but still she had the temerity to instruct it to swim for another year?
Strange. Another lie, thought Rain.
“We don’t have a prophecy from the Time Dragon, we get no reading from the Grimmerie,” said Mr. Boss one day. “The sun is our alarmus. We’re off and away with the piskies. Let’s unshroud the Clock and oil the axles and it’s hey, hey, for the open road. The book don’t like it, let it give us some better advice.” He got no argument, except from Little Daffy, who had to be encouraged to swaddle her breasts again. “I’m going to miss the old damp hole in the wall,” she said, sweeping it out with that Munchkinlander frenzy for housecleaning. “If we ever retire, darling Mr. Boss, perhaps we can come back here for our sunset years?”
He didn’t answer. He was cheery for once, swarming as high up the Clock as he could, though he was no match for Rain.
All of Ovvels gathered to see them drag the Clock out of its tomb. However feeble the Qua’ati that the companions had managed to learn in a year, it served well enough for good-byes. A berdache of some sort, a smeary-eyed young man with pinkened lips, made a speech hearkening back to some time when another troupe of northerners had come through and lived with them for a while. Before his day, but it was local lore. “They to try convince us to believe in something they say is not there,” he said, “the god who is unnamed.”
“Missionaries,” said Little Daffy, who had put her own past behind her with dizzying alacrity. But “Couldn’t you just puke?” had to do for social comment, and after that she kept her mouth shut.
“We did not to kill them,” said the berdache. “Minister come to educate and steal our souls for his god who won’t to name itself. Rude man. Man of moldy thought. But he has girl with him we do not forget.” He smiled at Rain as if she were that girl, and he wasn’t discussing something that happened a hundred thousand years ago in folk memory but this very week. “He has little green girl with him. His oldest girl. She to sing for him, when we to harvest vegetable pearl. She sing the pearl off the vine. I am not there but she is like you.” He nodded to Rain.
The others bowed to Rain. She put her shell up to her head and turned away, as if she preferred its windy noise over their attention.
Brrr said, “How can you know our Rain is like that girl if none of you were alive back then?”
The man shrugged. He indicated to Ilianora that he would accept the gift of her scarf. She didn’t hand it over. Sighing, he answered Brrr as best he could anyway. “Some Quadlings to have sense to see the present, to know the present,” he finished. “We to see your young rafiqi girl and we to know she is the one they talk about.”
“I to see myself into a loony bin in about one minute,” said Mr. Boss. “Let’s go.”
Brrr wondered what they saw when they looked at Rain, and why they waved at her so affectionately when for a year she hadn’t given them the time of day. Of any day.
“Aren’t you going to show us the Clock?” asked the berdache. “Before you go?”
“It doesn’t show truth to pagans,” said Mr. Boss. “Why would you believe it when you can’t believe in a god you can’t see?”
“We housed you and fed you through months of rains. You won’t deny us a look at the future. Quadlings, when they’re able, can sometimes see the present, but this Clock tells the truth of all things.”
“I never said that,” swore the dwarf, stamping.
“You never did,” agreed the berdache, batting his eyelids. “But I can see the present, and I know that is what you think.”
The companions were in a bind. They couldn’t leave without paying the Quadlings of Qhoyre something for a year’s lodging and board. Cursing up a head of steam, the dwarf made valiant effort to rev the old girl up. Put on a little demonstration. All things being equal and buyer beware, and so on.
“Come on,” said Rain on her haunches, bouncing up and down like the monkeys she played with. “Come on!”
The Clock obeyed nobody’s deepest wishes. Mr. Boss couldn’t get a shutter to open, a crank to turn, a single puppet to appear and blow a kiss at the assembled crowd. “It’s done for,” he declared. His furrowed expression showed him to be sincere. The Quadlings had no choice but to offer him their condolences on the death of the future.
“It died just like that god who slid off the world and lost his name,” said the berdache. “Never to mind. Is pretty dragon anyway.”
“The Unnamed God isn’t a person,” said Little Daffy, out of some final spasm of feeling for her religious past.
“And fate isn’t limited to a tiktok dragon’s sense of theatrics,” added the Lion.
“Nor the spell of any magic book,” offered Ilianora.
The Quadlings began to bow and wave the companions off. They didn’t want philosophics. They’d wanted a bite at the future, and were wi
lling to live without it the way their ancestors had done. The berdache walked them a little way out of town, on the northern ramp off the elevated road. “Perhaps the world is to heal,” he said. “The vegetable pearls healthier this spring than I ever to see them. Perhaps the rice otters to learn their old way and go green as before, now there are pearls to help harvest.”
“Too much mystery for an old fraying hairdo like mine,” muttered the dwarf, disconsolate. “So long, chumpo.”
“Lord Chumpo,” said the berdache, rushing to give out embraces. Ilianora turned her head and beckoned Rain to walk with her. But Rain was getting too big to order around. Her head was higher than Ilianora’s elbow now—almost as high as her breast.
Their spirits lifted as they left Ovvels behind. Such was the power of the sun that even under the jungle canopy a year’s worth of monsoon drippage burned off in a matter of days. The companions didn’t find the passage tough, only slow, as they had to clear undergrowth every quarter mile.
Brrr had hoped, once they began to move again, that Ilianora’s mood would improve, but she continued to seem vexed. It took him a few days of watching her watch the girl before he was able to frame his thought.
The girl was growing up. Their Rain. That’s what was agitating Ilianora.
Growing up, and growing beyond them.
Rain had not been theirs, not for a moment. Brrr could still read with a parental eye how the world could present itself to a young girl like Rain. And how Rain might respond, this girl who seemed, increasingly, to be interested in learning to read everything except how human beings talked to one another.
“She’s all right,” said Brrr, splashing through the lily pads, the floating beehives. And Rain was all right. But Ilianora—he had to face it—was not.
That night, he thought another, more common thought. Maybe it’s that time of Ilianora’s life. Maybe it hurts Ilianora to admit that Rain isn’t her daughter. That there will be no daughter now. Not even if Ilianora could unstitch the seam and find a human male as another husband. The vegetable pearls were not growing for Ilianora.
They’d been told they’d leave the mucklands behind soon enough, and the road would climb some sandy slopes, and eventually debouche into the Sleeve of Ghastille. This broad and fertile valley led northeast, marking the border between the Vinkus and Quadling Country. The berdache of Ovvels had insisted that the companions would find few inhabitants in the valley, but they must beware nonetheless.
“If it’s so fertile, why is it uninhabited?” Mr. Boss had demanded. The answers had been incoherent. The natural landscape between the Great Kells to the west and the Quadling Kells to the east proved low and dry and well drained. Surely it seemed an ideal route for the Yellow Brick Road? Back in the day when it was being laid out? And why had any human travelers to the Thousand Year Grasslands to the west chosen to brave the inhospitable track over Kumbricia’s Pass rather than this lower and more welcoming approach?
It didn’t take long for the companions to see why. The pass was a set of gentle crescents around foothills that abutted the horizon from east and west. From slope to slope, at this time of year anyway, an ocean of carmine red flowers took their breath away. Poppies.
“I know about poppies,” said Mr. Boss. “Grim business, even for me, who likes a tidy profit if I can turn one.”
“I know about poppies,” agreed his wife. “All kinds of useful applications that you can rarely take advantage of because of side effects. We were forbidden to use them in the surgery when we could even get them, which was seldom.”
Brrr felt their effect at once. The odor was of scorched cinnamon, savagely beguiling. In the freshening light and the wind that swept west from the swamplands and the grasslands, the air pushed the pollen heavily ahead of them. It inflected the day no less than fog or rain or brutal heat might have done. The travelers struggled through the endless carpet. Were anyone to try to follow them after all this time, too bad: the tracks of the cart were swallowed up as the blossoms closed ranks.
Rain hunted daily for high-flying birds. Remembering the Wren? But even eagles and rocs seemed to give this valley a pass.
At night Brrr slept fitfully, with dreams of things he would rather not remember. Appetites long suppressed, for one—and healthily so, he remonstrated himself upon awakening. Chief among them an appetite for shame.
They were all affected. They pushed to get through the sweep of bloody blossom at as swift a clip as they could manage. But the Sleeve ran vaguely uphill, and the labor of hauling the Clock seemed harder than before. Or had Brrr grown soft again during nearly a full year of downpour?
The new anxiety came to a head on the third afternoon of wading through thigh-high blossoms. Rain had been caught stealing some sugar brittle from the Clock’s supplies, and the dwarf went overboard railing at her. Brrr lunged to the girl’s defense. “You’re so noble? Tricking people for decades about fate with this diabolical dragon routine? Give her a break. When’s she ever learned about right and wrong?”
“Not from you,” replied the dwarf. “You great big shameless Cowardly Lion.”
“You’re hardly one to talk about conscience,” began the Munchkinlander.
“Stop,” said Ilianora in a low, deadened sort of voice. They did, but only because she hadn’t spoken for a while. “Prophecy is dead, and conscience is dead too.”
They kept walking, making whiskery sounds of passage in the verdure.
She continued, dry as a sphinx in the Sour Sands. “That berdache believed that any Unnamed God must be a dead god. But it’s conscience that’s dead. Maybe the dragon really w-was … was the conscience of Oz. But it’s dead. Oz is broken in parts—Loyal Oz divided from Munchkinland, and who knows what polders and provinces might splinter off next? There isn’t any full Oz anymore, and no conscience, either. That’s why the dragon died. Just about the time those other real dragons threatened to attack Munchkinland. We’re broke. We’re broke and we can’t be fixed.”
“Nonsense,” said Brrr, trying to hurry a little to her side, but he was so tired, and the heavy cart of dead conscience dragged at him.
“And what’s left then?” The Lion’s wife tried to stifle a gasp of remorse. “We’re all schemers and liars, thieves and scoundrels. To our own private good cause. There’s no primary conscience to call us up.”
It was Little Daffy who replied—she who had toed the line of unionism the most faithfully all those years in the mauntery.
“If there’s no good conscience to trust,” she declared, “no Lurline, no Ozma, no Unnamed God, no standard of goodness, then we have to manage for ourselves. Maybe there’s no central girl in some hall in the Emerald City, all bronzed and verdigrised, all windswept hair and upthrust naked breast, lots of bright honor carved in her blind and focused eyes. No conscience like that, no reliable regula of goodness. So it’s up to us, each of us a part. A patchwork conscience. If we all make our own mistakes, from Rain stealing stuff to the rest of us lying to ourselves and each other—well, we can all make amends, too. No one of us the final arbiter, but each of us capable of adding our little bit. We’re the patchwork conscience of Oz, us lot. As long as the Unnamed God refuses to take off the mask and come for a visit. As long as the dragon has croaked on us.”
No one seconded the notion. No one objected. They staggered on. Wilting, aggrieved, conscience-stricken, dulled.
They read the solar compass, the play of shadows on staggered sets of slope. It shouldn’t take more than fifteen or twenty hours to cross the Sleeve of Ghastille, they guessed. Still, every day they could manage no more than a few miles before exhaustion set in. Brrr was aware that sunlight was good for the eradication of mange, but he needed to rest under the cart. In the shadows. Outside, in the bright light, the red of poppies burned against his retinas through
his closed eyelids. A siege of coral light, a siege of fire.
Even Little Daffy, with her familiarity with amelioratives and strikems, purges and preventicks, seemed dazed with the effect. “Consolidated airborne precipitate. How do these blossoms manage?” she moaned, and rolled down on the ground next to her husband, exposing her bosom to the glow. The liberty of Quadling mores had rooted in her in a big way.
Ilianora, however, became ever more shrouded in her veils. Only her eyes showed.
The Sleeve was ahead of them and behind them, a river of mocking full-lipped smiles lapping a third of the way up the foothills on either side of them. Had anyone been able to look overhead, they would have thought the sky was red, too, probably; red, or by that trick of compensation that human eyes manage briefly, perhaps green.
The companions had decided to try traveling under the red stars at night, when the effect of the vegetation was less oppressive. During the day they napped or lay down with handkerchiefs over their eyes, stoned. Ilianora, perhaps because she kept her veils over her nose and mouth, became the de facto lookout, and even she found her attention hard to marshal. “You should take some water,” she would murmur, to no one in particular, and then get some for herself when no one replied. On one such occasion she rounded the corner of the Clock and walked into a loosened shutter.
The main doors of the Clock had swung open. Rain was lying on the stage, a hand draped over the edge as if she were dabbling her fingers in a brook.
Then Rain sat up, and her eyes were wide and staring, but not at Ilianora. The child’s expression was equal parts horror and fascination. Rain seemed in a spell of delusion, beginning to reach out to invisible creatures on the ground, to pet something, to lift them up, then to recoil her fingertips as if they’d been bitten or burned.