“Nice work if you can get it,” said Mr. Boss, his first comment in hours.
“The Munchkinlanders had enough of godliness after their years under the yoke of Nessarose,” replied the Ivory Tiger. “They’re commonsense when it comes to commerce, but they get their backs up when it comes to dogma. They won’t negotiate with a god. Who could? So just as it seemed a peace might be brokered, the Emperor had to go do a pious makeover and provoke the humble Munchkinlanders, who never ever shall be slaves. It’s not money. It’s some dim little ember of self-respect that won’t die out in the stout breasts of Munchkinlanders.”
“I’m not that stout,” said Little Daffy. “I’d say pleasingly plump.”
“The plumper, the pleasinglier,” said Mr. Boss, laying his head thereupon.
“Who is leading this Munchkinlander resistance to a brokered settlement?” asked Brrr. “When Nessarose was killed by that house of Dorothy…”
“I remember that,” said Little Daffy. “I was there that day.”
Brrr continued. “… the first response upon liberation was to revoke the rights of the Eminences of Munchkinland and centralize control. No? I remember someone named Hipp, or Nipp, who named himself Prime Minister.”
“I didn’t read history, ancient or modern,” said Muhlama. “I’m a creature of the hills and shadows. As you ever knew. But the Eminenceship is not entirely dead. Titles never die, they just go somnolent. Some crone or crony of the old Wizard of Oz has emerged to claim authority, if I have it right. Someone named Mombey. A kind of witch.”
“Hasn’t the Emperor called in all magic utensils, hasn’t he forebade the casting of spells? I thought the time of witches was done,” said Brrr.
“It’s never done,” said the Tigress. “Besides, you’re forgetting the Emperor doesn’t have the rights to legislate about magic in Munchkinland. That’s part of what they’re fighting against.”
“I’m going to bed,” said Ilianora, and she crept into the shadows of the useless Clock, pulling the ratty leather wing over her head like a blanket. “Come, Rain, settle with me. There’s no need to hear gossip about government. It’ll only give you gas.”
“It’s my belief that Munchkinlanders will launch a counterinvasion,” said Muhlama. “Won’t that be fun? Overrunning the EC with pudgy little ferret people? They have a dynamic military commander who has managed to hold on to Haugaard’s Keep, after all. A steeltrap farmgirl now goes by the name of General Jinjuria. She calls herself the Foill of Munchkinland.”
“A stage name for a commanding officer,” said the Lion. “It’s all stage stuff now, isn’t it?”
“Get me my wrap, I don’t need the second act,” she replied.
The dwarf and the Munchkinlander retired on the other side of the Clock. Rain and Tay crept in among the earthquake ruins, and no one stopped them. Muhlama and Brrr stayed awake, side by side, looking not at each other but at the horizon to the east, where creatures with names like Mombey and Jinjuria were providing some background static to the story of the Cats’ rendezvous.
Under stars at first, then under a waterstain of vaporous cloud, high up. They didn’t talk anymore, not till morning.
Ilianora gave the Tiger ample distance, and offered her no coffee.
“I’m no threat to you, Brrr. I’m joining no mission,” said Muhlama. “I’m bringing you out to your counterparts where they wait, and then going my own way. Ever was a rogue Tigress. But I confess to a little curiosity about that Matter of Dorothy. When I heard you were involved, I admit I was surprised. You didn’t seem to have it in you to get so deep into a mess like that.”
“Yes, well, life, it does broaden you. It was just after I left you.”
“I left you,” she reminded him. “But let’s not monkey with nuance. Tell me about that creature. The things that are said about her! A holy fool, say some. A saint. A termagant. A pawn of someone’s larger campaign. She brought down the Wicked Witch of the West, for all her clumsiness—maybe through her clumsiness, for all I know. You were there. What happened?”
“I was nearby,” said the Lion. “I wasn’t present, no matter what the papers said. No one was there but Dorothy and the Witch. No one saw what happened. Liir and I were locked in the scullery, and I had managed to break through the door…”
“My hero,” she purred, meanly.
“But I didn’t get up to the parapet on time. The Witch was gone, and Dorothy descended, blasted and incoherent about what had happened. She was never coherent about very much, come to think of it.”
“Spoken like someone trying to distance himself from the inconvenience of a prior sympathy. But I never understood about the shoes. Magic shoes. Shoes, of all things? Why not magic braces? Or underwear?”
“I didn’t write the script. Don’t ask me.”
“The Witch’s reputation is ripe for a comeback,” said Muhlama. “At least in Munchkinland it is. That peculiar creature, Elphaba Thropp, had positioned herself in opposition to the stony faith that ran in her family. Her minister father, her totalitarian sister—and now her brother is god himself! Never underestimate the mood swings of the crowd. Dorothy’s gone from being thought a heroine to being tagged as an assassin, and Elphaba from Wicked Witch to martyred champion. At least in some circles.”
“The pendulum will swing.”
“Ah, but is there such a thing as a pendulum anymore?” They looked at the collapsed Clock, which Mr. Boss continued to try to clean and organize as if by dint of polish and spit he could persuade it to revive. But it was the preparing of a corpse, no more than that. Everyone could see it.
“You haven’t said to whom we’re headed,” said Brrr. “Is it Lady Glinda? Is she released from house arrest?”
“I don’t follow the columns,” said Muhlama. “Anyway, I’m not talking.” She glanced over at Tay, the rice otter, who lay unrepentantly greenly in Rain’s arms. “You never know who is a squealer.”
Brrr had to agree. “So enough is enough,” said Muhlama. “I’ve done my work, I need to get on.”
“But get on where?” he asked her, as they righted the husk of the Clock. The broken dragon head cantilevered forward, eyeless and insensate.
“Where are you going? And alone? Or is there a companion?”
“You’re so coy.”
“Stay with me, now,” said Ilianora to Rain. “Keep close.” But the girl paid her no more attention than she ever had.
“I’m causing trouble,” said Muhlama to Brrr, tossing her head toward Ilianora. “Pity.”
“Only so much I can do,” replied the Lion, equivocating.
That night Brrr asked of the companions, “Are we going our separate ways?” Muhlama, having said she would deliver them to their party in the morning, had taken herself off for a hike, to give the companions privacy to confer. “I mean, there can be no company of the Clock of the Time Dragon anymore, can there, if there is no Clock?”
“It’s resting. It’s called Time Out,” said the dwarf, back to his old belligerence.
“The Lion has a point. Your primary charge was security for the Grimmerie, wasn’t it?” said Little Daffy to her husband. “To hear you tell it, the Clock was invented as a wheeled cabinet for safekeeping. Distraction to the masses on the one hand, a magic vault on the other. No one would fault us if we ditched the scabby thing now. We sure could move ahead faster without it. The book is still intact.”
“Brrr, you do what you like,” said Ilianora to her husband. “It makes no difference to me. You are no house pet. Go with Muhlama, or not.”
“I’m not going with her,” said Brrr, though he didn’t know if it was go with in the adolescent sense, or go with as in the future intentional. And he also didn’t know if he was telling the truth. Ilianora’s suffering charged the conversation with horseradish. If he couldn’t know what
his wife felt or meant anymore, how could he understand his own changing aspirations?
“I’ll see the girl to the next juncture,” decided Ilianora, “and I’ll carry the book that far too. I can’t care for her anymore.” Because caring for Rain would hurt—that much was evident. Too much of the young wounded Nor was still, after all this time, alive in the elegant veiled adult. Alive and dead at once. Like the dragon, whose wings flopped in the grass as if with spirit, but nothing like the spirit it had once, magically, possessed.
Midmorning came, a series of brief squalls. Cool, without monsoon steam—glorious. Acorns thrown from trees; the last of some wild plums. Native woodland, nothing magnificent—but at least northern. On the lip of a promontory ahead of them, Muhlama pointed out the arches of some ancient helm that had probably guarded the environs of Restwater from any predation ascending through the Sleeve of Ghastille. “That’s where you’re headed,” the Ivory Tiger told them. “There’s something of a roof left still. You can shelter from the rain there, should it come down stronger, and meet your maties. Then my job is done, and I’m off.”
Brrr didn’t comment. He just pulled the hobbledy-hoy cart, maybe for the last time. Up a road packed with ancient grey cobbles, a road fringed with drying nettles and slipweed knot. He thought of the toddler’s game, building a church with the fingers of two hands. The guardhouse raised its ribs like the fingers of one of those hands, cupped against the air. Built like that? Or had the fingers of an opposite hand collapsed down the slope years earlier? Yes, he could see ancient slates cladding a shed dependence. He could smell a kitchen fire, a roasting haunch of venison, or maybe loin chops of mountain grite. For a moment when the wind died down he heard the sound of a stringed instrument.
The approach to the ruined keep rose to a point slightly higher than the fingertips of the broken arches. Then the path descended in a gentle S-shaped curve. Muhlama led the way, pacing elegantly, her whiskers twitching to sniff out trouble. But the stiffness in her shoulders relaxed. No danger here apparently except the danger that new circumstance presents to old allegiance. “I’ve done what I said,” she called. “Oley oley in-free. Wherever you are, come out, come out. They’re here.”
Brrr was released from his shafts, slipped from buckles and leathers, by the time a low wooden door opened and their hosts emerged. He didn’t recognize the Quadling woman with a domingon in her hands, though he guessed her to be the one called Candle. He knew Liir, though. Coming behind her, his palms on her shoulders. Liir at thirty or thirty-two, maybe. Fuller in the shoulders, higher in the brow, a great mane of dark hair even a Lion could admire. A habit of youthful quiet and temerity aged into something almost like courage. But what would the Lion know about courage?
“The book,” announced Muhlama, “and the girl who comes with it, as a kind of bonus.”
The humans looked at one another. Curiosity and wariness shaded into something not yet like recognition, not yet like wonder. A mathematically perfect pivot, equal amounts of hope on one side and, on the other, alarm that the hope might be unfounded, that this revelation might yet be a mocking lie.
Brrr let them have their human moment. He kissed his good-bye to Muhlama—a final one, a temporary one? He didn’t know. He realized that Ilianora would soon be relieved of responsibility for Rain. Perhaps her distress would lift, once Rain’s parents took in the fact of their daughter. He wouldn’t abandon Ilianora in any pain, whether he could help that pain or not. If, in time, he couldn’t help it—if, in time, he realized that his not being able to help was making it worse—well, he would reconsider.
But not yet. For now, he’d stay by her side, through the next round, whatever it might be. Together he and Ilianora, the dwarf and the Munchkinlander, had delivered Rain to her home, or such home as she might hope to have. Rain was safe, or safe enough.
Now Brrr was left to shield the other bruised girl, the stillborn one huddled inside the veiled woman, for as long as he could. If he could. There wasn’t now, nor would there ever be, any shortage of girl children whose safety he would need to worry about, either in or out of Oz.
The Chancel of the Ladyfish
The outlaws had been told by a Swift that Muhlama would be heading a delegation of exiles, but not who would be among them.
Liir gripped his wife by the hand. Hold back this instant longer, Candle. We’ve been waiting for all these years. Don’t scatter her into the clouds, like the little wren she resembles.
She was here. She had come back. (She’d been brought back. She’d been brought in.) There would be time enough to study her. Time had begun again.
He could feel his wife strain to break free, to surround the child with scary, pent-up love. His forearm would be bulging as he staked Candle immobile. Don’t rush the girl.
Brrr had gone silvery about the whiskers. He must be nearing forty, surely? So was it age, exhaustion, or nerves that made the Lion’s left rear leg quiver? His mane was full and nicely aerated though even his jowls were bejowled. He’d developed not only a paunch but also a bit of an overbite. However, both tokens of age disappeared when the Lion reared to his hind legs. As if he’d suddenly remembered he was a Namory of Royal Oz. He looked ready to curtsey, but he extended his front paw to Liir.
The Cowardly Lion said, “A lifetime or two ago, somebody you may remember as Dorothy Gale once browbeat me to look after you. I paid little attention. Later, a ripe old fiend named Yackle asked me to protect this child if I could. I tolerated her request without imagining I could oblige her. Yet here I am—surprise, surprise. Presenting my consort, Ilianora, and my young friend who goes by the name of Rain. I’ve unwittingly obeyed both bossy females and done you two services on the same day.” Dropping the sarcasm, he said more huskily, “Would that I could have been of greater service, Liir son of Elphaba.”
Liir hooted. “Don’t take that tone to me. It sounds like you’ve wandered out of some pantomime about Great Moments of Chivalric Oz. ‘Liir son of Elphaba’? I call myself Liir Ko now.” Nonetheless, he fell into the Lion’s embrace. The musk of the Lion’s mane was rank; it smelled like young foxes and incontinent humans. “You old pussy,” he murmured. “I never liked you much, and damn it, now I’ll be in your debt the rest of my life.”
“A rare thing, for me to have any advantage,” replied Brrr. “I’m sure I’ll squander it.” The dwarf nodded in agreement, character assassination at work.
Liir pulled back to say, “This is Candle Osqa’ami.” He beckoned his wife forward. She nodded from the waist; but her eyes never left the girl, who was twisting her ragged tresses around her forearm as if in an agony to tear off her own head. A small greeny-white creature, a ferret or a rotten mink maybe, writhed at the girl’s ankles as a hungry cat might do.
Finally Liir turned to the woman the Lion had introduced as his consort. Only now was she folding the veil back off her foreheard, pulling its drapes away from her cheekbones. The cry Liir gave made everyone start except for Rain, who seemed oblivious.
Nor held up her hand, holding Liir back. “Food first, and water,” said Nor, in a voice that was and wasn’t the voice Liir remembered from childhood. “Our histories have waited this long; they can wait till the washing up. Candle Osqa’ami, show me a chore, and I’ll help you with what needs doing. I’m south any appetite for overwrought reunions.” As she passed Liir, she trained her eyes forward, but the fingers of her left hand reached out to graze his elbow and his hip.
Candle didn’t budge, just flapped
a hand toward the crumbling narthex as if to let the busybody find whatever she would in there. “We’ll follow right along,” said Liir. Nor drifted into the building alone.
Candle dropped to her knees, so Liir dropped too. Candle clapped three times. The girl looked at Candle with mild curiosity, maybe aversion. Candle clapped again, twice, and this time their daughter clapped back. Once. Feebly. It was a start.
“Oziandra Osqa’ami,” said Candle.
“Commonly called Rain,” remarked the dwarf, to whom no one had been paying attention. “And as we old ones remember from those decades of the Great Drought, Rain rarely comes when she’s called. Even when she’s called by the name she knows. Rain.”
“Oziandra Rain,” said Candle.
“Child,” said Liir. He didn’t know the significance of that Quadling clapping. He just lifted his hands, palms out, as he might to a sniffing hound or a hurt wolf-cub. Safe, open. No stone, no knife.
The dwarf cuffed Rain on the crown of her head. “Go to them, bratling, or we’ll never get a bite to eat. After all that poppy-dust in the nostrils I’m stranded on the famished side of peckish.” So Rain stepped forward, out of everyone’s shadows—out of the shadows of the last eight years. And Liir looked at her.
In the sloping light of evening Liir couldn’t tell if he was noting a condition of facial structure or an expression. Or was it a lack of expression? The girl’s eyes seemed cloaked. She had Candle’s high cheekbones and hazelnut jaw, but she was urchin-thin and dusty as a rebel. She held a translucent porcelain something tucked into an elbow. A shell, he saw. Far the largest shell he’d ever laid eyes on.
“You’re nice but that’s nicer,” he said, pointing at it. “May I see it?”
“You’re taking liberties before you have a license,” observed the dwarf, but the Munchkinlander dame cuffed him good and proper. Then the small square couple followed Nor into the keep. Even Brrr started to pad away, but the girl whimpered, so the Lion sat down halfway. He set to grooming himself with a desultory air.