“To the north, the Glikkun alliance is managed by a mangy old trollwoman named Sakkali Oafish,” replied Iskinaary.
Brrr closed his eyes. He remembered Sakkali Oafish. The Massacre at Traum, for which he’d earned his sobriquet as the Cowardly Lion. The one thing about a social indignity was that, like several of the nastier rashes, it was never completely cured, and could flare up at a moment’s notice.
“In Munchkinland proper,” the Goose continued, “the mastermind is an old witch named Mombey.”
“That’s not a Munchkinlander name,” scoffed Little Daffy.
“She’s Gillikinese originally. But as you may have noticed, the Munchkinlander that might serve, won’t.” Again Iskinaary indicated Liir. “And the one that would serve, namely the Emperor, isn’t welcome. So Mombey’s holding things together somehow. Her chief military strategist, who’s kept Cherrystone boxed up in Haugaard’s Keep all year, is a saucy young warrior princess named Jinjuria. General Jinjuria, she calls herself.”
“Yes, Muhlama told us about her. Well, Munchkinland was ever a stomping ground for strong women,” said Little Daffy. “Nessarose Thropp, this Mombey, this General Jinjuria. You got to hand it to them.”
“Yes, they’re just as bitter and conniving as men,” said Iskinaary. “They might’ve offered a position to one of the many Animals who took refuge inside their borders all those years ago, back during the Wizard’s pogroms. But noooooo. When women share power, they share power with women.”
“And you have a problem with that?” Little Daffy picked up a small sharp stone and tossed it up and down.
The dwarf intervened. “Come on, Husky Honey, remember we’re guests. Not nice to stone our hosts.”
“This is hardly news,” said Iskinaary, “but Nessarose was no fainting sweetheart, once she took the chair. The way I hear tell it, Elphaba Thropp had her own permanent case of broom rage too. Don’t murder the messenger. I’m just answering the question you posed.”
Once again Brrr broke in. “Is Lady Glinda free?”
“The latest gossip,” said the Goose, “is that she was charged with treason against Loyal Oz. For somehow arranging the assault on the armada. As if she could manage that!—she who can’t manage to thread a needle. But if she’s been taken from Mockbeggar I couldn’t say. My circle of informants doesn’t stoop to information of such particularity.”
“It en’t all her fault.” They hadn’t seen Rain and Candle come back, arms full of satiny white peonies glowing in the fading light. The girl said, “Me and Lady Glinda—we did it together.”
“Keep marching in the direction you’re going, little girl,” said Iskinaary, “and you’ll hit the banks of Restwater again. If you apologize to General Cherrystone nicely, maybe he’ll only slap you in prison for the rest of your life instead of killing you outright.”
Ilianora gasped, and Liir bellowed, “Iskinaary! Mind yourself.”
“Somebody’s got to tell that girl the truth,” snapped the Goose. “Or eventually she’ll put herself in the same kind of danger she’s putting you.” He craned his neck and looked, just for an instant, regal—at least regal for a Goose. He kick-stepped his way across the stones to where Candle and Rain had paused and he stood before them. From Brrr’s vantage point, his graphite feathers made a sort of silhouette against the white blossoms drooping from Rain’s arms. The Goose all but honked at the girl. “I have no reason to like you, Miss Oziandra Rain, but neither will I let a damaged child waltz into peril because her companions are congenitally foolish.”
“Well, I don’t like you either,” said Rain, pelting the Goose with her heap of blooms. Unfazed, he poked his bill among them to enjoy the ants crawling in the sweetness. Brrr had to admire his composure.
Candle hid a small smile of her own by raising her armful of blooms up to her nose.
Under their common blanket Liir comforted Candle that evening. “You hover too close, you’ll scare her away,” he murmured. “She feels safe with the Lion. There, there. Hush, don’t let them hear you.”
“You always said I could see the present,” said Candle, when she could speak. “But I can see nothing about her—my own daughter.”
Liir smoothed his hand over her silky flank. “Maybe that’s not so surprising. Maybe all parents are blindest to their own offspring.”
“It isn’t right. It isn’t natural.”
“Hush. They’ll hear you. Remember—the morning is always brightest after the moonless night.”
Eventually she fell asleep, if only, he guessed, to escape his platitudes. But it was the best he could do.
Even at this slight elevation, Highsummer was passing more quickly than in the valley. The dawn revealed a new ruddiness to the greenery. “I want to have a better look at that Clock,” Liir told the dwarf after breakfast. “You’re the chargé d’affaires about that, right?”
“You could call me the timekeeper,” said Mr. Boss, “only I seem to have lost track of the time. Sure, come along. There’s little to be lost or gained in the Clock’s prophecies anymore.”
They stumped down the stone path to where they’d left the Clock the night before. The assemblage look weather-beaten with age. Which it had every right to look, after all these years.
“I always thought this Clock was apocryphal,” said Liir.
“It is apocryphal. That’s the point.” The dwarf seemed to be tilting into a sour mood.
“I never expected to see it,” said Liir. “Somehow it’s smaller than I imagined.”
“Most of us are. You too, bub.”
Liir had more than his share of personal flaws, but rushing to take offense wasn’t one of them. “How’s this thing work, anyway?”
“It doesn’t. That’s the crisis.”
The stage curtains yawned open like a fresh wound. “Is this supposed to simulate something?”
“Ruin,” said the dwarf. “Of the Clock, or of my life. Makes little difference. Perhaps its time has come. Even a thing can die, I guess. Though I never thought about that before this year.”
“Maybe someone could fix it up?”
“Some magician, you mean?” The dwarf glanced up at Liir. “I know your mother is said to have been Elphaba. The Wicked Witch of the West. Great stage name, that. But I doubt you inherited the talent.”
“I have no capacity. I wasn’t volunteering for the job. I was just wondering.”
“The magic of the Clock doesn’t originate in Oz, so it can’t be amended here.” The dwarf kicked at the hub of a wheel. The drawer with the Grimmerie in it sprung open. “I suspect you were looking for this little number, once upon a time.”
“The Grimmerie?” guessed Liir.
“Yes, I was. Once, anyway. Maybe twice… I hunted through Kiamo Ko for it, but it’d either been hidden or taken away.”
“It’s made the rounds, this great book. It was given to Sarima, your father’s wife; then to Elphaba; then to Glinda, more than once. When it’s not being used it’s come back to me. But the Clock can’t keep it safe anymore, and I can’t determine through the Clock who should have it. So it’s yours now. Happy birthday and no happy returns. I don’t want it. You’re as deserving a candidate as any. Besides, I hear your daughter can read it some.”
“But—whoever brought it to Oz—whoever magicked the Clock—might want it back.”
“Whoever.” The dwarf snarled.
“I mean, your boss.”
“My liege and master?” Mr. Boss made a rude gesture. “He cast me away in this land with a job to do and a Clock by which to count the hours of my service. He hasn’t come back. If the Clock is done counting my shift, so am I. The book is yours, bub.”
“What if I don’t want it either?”
“Try to get rid of it and see what happens.” Mr. Boss grinned, nastily. “I wouldn’t like to be an enemy of that thing. I’ve managed to stay neutral, but even so.”
“Yeah. I’ve tried to stay neutral too. I
t isn’t always possible.”
They paused, in a stalemate about something neither could name.
“Well. Are you going to pick it up?” asked the dwarf.
“And what if I don’t? I came here with Candle to protect her, to protect myself. I’m not Elphaba. Never could be. I know my limitations. I don’t deserve anything this powerful. I can’t use it and I can’t protect it.”
“If you don’t take it, sir,” said the dwarf, “I shall give it to your daughter.”
So Liir had no choice. A moment that comes, sooner or later, to all parents.
Rain saw Liir carry the Grimmerie into the chancel. She was uneasy about the great book now she knew that Lady Glinda had gotten into trouble by reading it. Yet Rain still felt the book’s subtle allure. Her mouth watered. She was eager not to do magic but to read. She’d had too little reading. What few things that General Cherrystone had taught her were languishing in her head, pollywogs that could never grow up into frogs.
“What you going to do with that?” she asked, as casually as she could.
“I don’t think this is a good thing for you to look at. It’s powerful stuff, from all I’ve heard.”
“I’m powerful stuff.”
He grinned and shook his head. Without having words to express it, Rain knew that a smile tends to avert or disguise the natural tension that pools around people trying to be in the same place at once. But Liir’s smile would have no effect on her. She would see to that. “Where you going to stow it?”
“I don’t know. No place seems safe enough.”
“I’ll hold it for you.”
“That would be like giving you a boa constrictor for a pet. No father would do that.”
“You’re not my father.” The words just slipped out—they weren’t antagonistic, just commentary.
“Actually, I am. Though I surely can see how you might doubt it.” As if he was afraid the book would open up of its own accord, he set it on the ground and sat on it. She hoped it would bite him on his behind. “If you could look in this book, what would you be looking for?”
“Words,” she said, cannily, honestly.
“Which ones? Magic ones?”
She didn’t feel like saying that all words were magic, though she thought so. But she wasn’t skilled at indirection. She was more arrow than hummingbird. “I want to read the burning words,” she said at last.
She couldn’t think of Liir as her father, she couldn’t.
Liir looked at her with sudden sharpness. “What do you mean, the burning words?”
She shrugged at that and she would have wandered off to make a point about how free of him she was. But there was the book. He was sitting on it. She wanted to see where he would put it. In case.
Was he still waiting for her to speak?
She couldn’t force a remark any more than she could force a smile, any more than she’d been able to force herself to read before she’d been taught the rubrics. She waited, squatting on her haunches, casting sideways looks at the Grimmerie in case it began to leak language out onto the stones.
“You want to read the burning words,” prompted Liir.
He blinked. Another language she didn’t get, how people blink. How they make their eyes go wet. “Where do you find the burning words?” he asked her.
She thought of the armada scorching the ice. Something was being spelled out there; fire moved in such a way, and smoke issued from fire, as if to hide what was being spelled inside the heat. Oh, but all that was too fussy a thought. She took up a bug that didn’t mind the chilly air and studied it on her forefinger instead.
She could tell this man wanted her to soothe him somehow. Burning words in his head? She didn’t know what they might be, and it wasn’t her job to put them out. She only saw charred letters in a lake. The alphabetic remains of ships.
“What are you going to be when you grow up?” asked Liir.
She thought and thought about that. She felt her calves begin to ache; she felt the tickle of the bug’s legs against her fingers. Someday, presumably, she wouldn’t have these legs or these fingers, but the legs and fingers of someone who stood as tall as this man could. She twisted in her thinking, trying to be honest since she didn’t believe she could be smart, and she gave the answer to the insect rather than to the man who claimed to be her father. She wouldn’t think of Liir as her father.
What would she be when she grew up? She whispered the answer. “Gone.”
Gone, when she grew up. A terrible thought. But in a way she was gone already, right now. Her form had come back to them but her spirit was balking.
Candle mourned that Rain wasn’t bothering with her much. Liir asked himself: What mother wouldn’t? But it seemed as if, instead of Liir’s and Candle’s warmth melting Rain’s resistance, it worked the other way around. The child’s aloofness was contagious. Candle and Liir were learning to weather a mutual pain separately, independently. No matter the closeness of the marriage bed, the history between them.
Maybe to distract himself from his other worries, Liir tried to fasten on his half-sister. He and Nor shared a father, presumably, though Liir had never met that distant figure, Fiyero. But Nor was also floating at some distance away from Liir. The great reunion that he’d dreamed of for years was a sham. Kidnapping, prison, escape, disappearance? You’d never know it by her self-effacing manner. She might as well just have come home after shopping for biscuits.
He didn’t want to crowd his sister any more than he wanted to crowd his daughter. He watched Nor move about with a woodenness that sometimes seemed like grace, and sometimes not. Maybe this was her normal way? He wouldn’t know. He hadn’t seen her since she’d been abducted. Back when she’d been a girl roughly the age that Rain was now.
As if he were writing a catalog on the subject of human misery.
Another way to avoid admitting how it had settled in too close, like lice.
The opportunity to engage Nor without threatening her arose naturally enough. Every couple of weeks Liir was in the habit of descending from the mount to a wildwood garden. He collected mushrooms, fiddleheads, frostflower pods, and lettuce. It was half a morning’s hike. The next time he needed to thin the lettuce or lose it, he bundled up a few baskets, some stakes, a trowel, and he asked Nor to come along.
They strolled equably enough, chatting about the landscape and the moods of the climate. From time to time they fell into silence. A bird hopped on a blighted oak limb. A few chipmunks, at the business of growing their hoards, scampered like shadows of something overhead. The wind sawed through the thickery. You could hear the autumn inching in.
“Looks as if this has been a productive yard for generations,” said Nor, indicating the ancient stone tablets tilting at the end of the sunnier furrows.
“Behold: here lies the last person to tell the truth.”
She blinked at him.
“Sorry. Graveyard humor. But if those stones ever said anything like that, they stopped saying it long ago.”
Nor nodded. “They look like teeth. And your hermitage, or whatever it once was—it looks like a mouth too. A big open jaw swallowing the wind.”
“Swallowing the poppy trade, probably,” said Liir. Nor raised an eyebrow. “You don’t know about the poppy trade?”
“I don’t know much. Even though we swam through the bloody sea of them.”
“Sometimes the Yunamata venture south as far as here to harvest the poppy pods. The takings are useful for their groggy rituals, and the illegitimate opiate market is always eager to barter. Your little Munchkinlander apothecaire knows all about that, I’m sure. Some of the harvest seeps through the black market for smoking in certain parlors in Shiz and the EC, I’m told.”
“You’re not an habitu�
“I haven’t been into a parlor of any sort since I grew facial hair.”
Nor bent to pick the lettuce, which was near to bolting. “Situated where it is, maybe your private stronghold used to be a countinghouse for the poppy merchants. Or maybe the defense headquarters against such a trade.”
“Whoever might tell us is probably long ago buried in the lettuces. It’s all guesswork.”
“But the trade has dropped off?”
“Seems so. Certainly the EC authorities don’t approve; they’re afraid the opiates will get to the conscripted soldiers and erode morale. You didn’t see sign of anyone marking out a little meadow for harvesting?”
“Not a soul.”
They worked in companionable silence. Liir staked the stems of frostflower so they would winter over. They were best cut down in the early spring. Finished with the lettuce, Nor put her hand on the small of her back and stretched. She dropped the heap of curled green pages into her shawl, and turned her attention to some radishes, but she gave up when one after another pulled up mealy. “What next?” she asked.
Liir leaned back on his heels. “I have something to show you.” She waited. He pulled from his tunic a folded bit of paper. “I found this at Kiamo Ko. Can you bear to look at it?”
She came over to squat next to him. The browning paper, creased into softness, showed a faded drawing of a young girl. Hardly more than an infant, though with a certain crude spark in the eye. A personality. The letters in childlike hesitancy said
Nor by Fiyero.
This is me Nor
by my father F
before he left
It took her a half an hour to compose herself. Liir left his arm slung around her as if around the shoulder of a drinking mate—not too close. Not imprisoning. Just there. When she was ready, she tapped the page twice with a forefinger and said, “I found that drawing before you did. It was in the Witch’s room at the castle. My father had drawn me for his mistress, and she had kept it. She who seemed impervious to sentimentality had kept it all those years. When I came across it—I must have been rooting through her room one day, bored, as children will be—I wrote the caption and put the page back where it was, so the Witch would know she could keep the paper but she couldn’t keep my father from me, not in my memory.”