Out of Oz, Page 31Gregory Maguire
The dwarf managed a partial rescue. Dragged down the bluff, still he managed to pull his dirk from some inner pouch and slash the leather harness. On sands that shifted, conspiring with gravity to drag them to their wet grave, Brrr scrabbled for a purchase. The Lion escaped, the dwarf leapt clear, but the Clock careered off the bluff. Brrr turned in time to watch the wheels, the carriage, the theater, and finally the Time Dragon disappear into oily deeps. The last thing they saw was its red red eye, until black liquid blinked out whatever final vision it might have enjoyed.
“Ladyfish got ’m at last,” murmured Rain.
And when the Lion had caught his breath—some hours later—he thought: maybe that’s why the Clock told the dwarf to avoid taking on a girl child as an associate. It could see in that decision the chance of its own destruction. When we disobeyed it—it shut down. It wouldn’t accept the Grimmerie anymore. For the Clock, then, it was only a matter of time.
That was the end of the company of the Clock of the Time Dragon. Four days later they prepared for a parting of ways.
The dwarf expressed no preferences. Cross-country to Munchkinland or north, deeper into Loyal Oz—it made no difference now. The Clock was extinct and the Grimmerie deeded to Liir. “Come to Munchkinland,” suggested the Lion. “Without the Clock to slow us down or the book to guard, what harm might come to us? If we need to outrun a border patrol, I can easily carry you and Little Daffy on my back.” He held back from saying, “Your stint as a kindergarten supervisor is over.” He owed his life to the dwarf.
In any event, Munchkinland would be safer for the Lion, who in Loyal Oz might still be considered AWOL from his mission to locate the Grimmerie. Brrr intended to light out to Bright Lettins or to Colwen Grounds or wherever the trial of Dorothy would be staged. He had always thought Dorothy a bit of a blockhead, but not a malicious one. Maybe he could help her. It would be good to help someone. He was beginning to accept that he couldn’t do as much for his own wife as he’d have liked. He couldn’t remove from her history, by force of either comfort or magic, the fact that she’d spent some of her girlhood in prison. He couldn’t repair her. But he could, just possibly, do for Dorothy what he couldn’t do for Nor.
Whom he now would leave behind. But not, they both promised each other, for good.
Little Daffy, for her part, was eager to return to her home after all these years. She’d emigrated as a child, entering the mauntery after a stint at a home for incurables in the Emerald City, but she was returning a married woman in this time of trial. She was ready to stand at the ramparts of her homeland and spit in the eye of any gangly Emerald City Messiar who might deserve it. As long as she had a ladder to stand upon, for the height.
She kept her husband close to her side. What would he do, who would he turn out to be, now that the Grimmerie was traded to Liir, and the Clock of the Time Dragon was history? Maybe he’d find her Munchkin cousins affable, and he’d adjust to domestic life. Maybe when the troubles were over, they’d settle in her childhood home of Center Munch or even in Far Applerue, nearer the Glikkus. Perhaps Mr. Boss would find he had an affinity with the troll-people of the Glikkus, who didn’t farm but mined emeralds for their livelihood. Little Daffy didn’t know. The Clock wasn’t there to advise them. They would have to make it up as they went along.
She was glad, however, she’d collected in a few private pockets a little bit of the poppy dust from the great red flourish in the Sleeve of Ghastille. She was finding that, used in moderation, it came in handy at moving her poor aggrieved husband ahead.
The companions made their good-byes in a grove of oakhair trees. Long strands of new growth, acorns forming at the tips, dropped a kind of silent rain among them. An outdoor room laced with harp strings. As the companions stood there, reluctant to take their leave of one another, a breeze scurried along the floor of the forest. It strummed the strings of the oakhair fronds, a soft and jangled music, an orchestral evocation of the mood that had settled upon them.
“You’ll be better off the farther away from the fighting you get,” the Lion told Liir. “But, taking a leaf from Sister Doctor, don’t tell me where you’re going. It’ll be safer for you if we don’t know.”
“I don’t know myself,” said Liir. “I have an idea or two, but time will have to tell. We wish we could come with you to the defense of Dorothy. But it’s too dangerous.”
“No joke,” replied the Lion. “If you show yourself in Bright Lettins, the Munchkinlanders might impress you to take the Eminenceship of Munchkinland whether you want to do it or not. You’d give Munchkinland an edge. Your investiture would render void the claim that the Emperor Shell is making upon Munchkinland. It wouldn’t be safe for you, and certainly not safe for Rain.”
“We aren’t done keeping her hidden,” agreed Liir.
“We’ll never be done with that,” added Candle. “I think that will be our curse.”
Nor knelt down before the Lion and spoke as if to her knees, not her husband. “I don’t want you to go, but it’s for the best. You do the work at the trial that I would do if I could. The public statement is beyond me, in any venue. And I may be useful yet in helping take care of Rain. If Liir and Candle are ever recognized, if they’re accosted in any way, I’ll be able to stand in for Rain. She is my niece, after all.”
“I know,” said Brrr. “She is closer to you than I am.”
“That’s not what I mean,” said Nor, “and furthermore it isn’t true. No one is closer to me than you are. But she’s in greater peril. She will be grown one day. She may be safe sooner than we think. We’ll meet up again.”
Liir took his sister’s hand as he disagreed with her. “Dear friends. While the country is at war, no living citizen is safe. If we choose to find one another again—and we may never have that choice—let’s agree to use the Chancel of the Ladyfish as a mail drop. We can leave notes for one another on paper weighed down by Rain’s favorite stone—that one with the tiny carving of the question mark sporting the head of a horse. Agreed?”
They all nodded. In this treacherous land, the chapel seemed as safe a rendezvous point as any other.
“It’s time to go,” said Liir.
“Check anytime a Goose flies overhead,” said Iskinaary to the Lion. “If I lose my bowels in your direction, it’s not personal.” He ducked his head under a wing, pretending to work at a nit, to save face in the face of strong feeling.
Rain wouldn’t come forward to say good-bye to Little Daffy or to Mr. Boss. And she wouldn’t look at Brrr. But she seemed to understand that there was a need to move on, even if she didn’t understand why. She put her grandmother’s broom on the ground. She set her shell on the ground next to it. She walked forward to the Cowardly Lion. She didn’t stretch her arms for a hug—how does a girl hug a Lion? Her arms lay straight at her side, as if she were a member of a military guard on duty. She sloped forward and she fell woodenly against the Lion’s cheek and mane and brow. She didn’t cry, but leaned upright against his face as he cried for both of them.
The Judgment of Dorothy
By night the Lion and his pair of comrades crossed into Munchkinland without incident. They’d skirted to the north, avoiding Haugaard’s Keep and those aggrieved lake villages. Restwater and the Pine Barrens were behind them. It felt pretty damn good to be pacing a well-maintained stretch of the Yellow Brick Road. The Free State of Munchkinland might be nearing insolvency, but trust little farming people to keep their blue roofing tiles scrubbed clean of birdshit and their tomatoes staked as if they were prize philanthriums.
“The Munchkinlanders,” said Little Daffy, “call this season of the year Seedtime.”
“I can see why,” said Brrr. It seemed to belie the anxiety of wartime, to spit in its face, this bounty of Munchkinland. Mile after mile of pasture rilled with green fringe. Paddocks dizzy with birdsong and cloudy with bugs. Meadows patrolled by farmers, by the occasional tiktok contrivance on its wheels and pulleys and t
raction belts. “A Gillikin abomination in Munchkinlander fields is my partisan sentiment,” said Little Daffy.
“Machinery in exchange for grain. It’s called free trade,” said Brrr.
“Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the traditional scarecrow. Any chance we’re going to run into your friend? Might he be heading to rescue Dorothy too?”
“Doubtful. He had the brains to make a clean break of the matter. Me, I’m too much of a coward.”
“Mmm,” said Mr. Boss, which was as opinionated as he got these days.
“No wonder this part of Munchkinland is known as the Corn Basket,” said the Lion. He had only ever seen the scrappier bits, the hardscrabble places that Animals had retreated to a generation or two ago, when Loyal Oz kicked them out of the law and commerce and the tonier echelons of the banks and colleges. Now he saw Animals in the fields, more than he’d expected. True, they were labor rather than management. But it was still work. “Do they comb off anything in the way of sharing the profits?”
“I couldn’t possibly say,” puffed Little Daffy. “I left Munchkinland years ago, before the infusion of new labor. Why? Are you looking for a farmhand position after we scope out this business about the trial of Dorothy?”
Well, he wasn’t. He’d done his share of farmwork on pocket handkerchief farms to the south. Barely subsistence enterprises. He’d hauled manure and brought in spattery little crops. He’d been paid in last winter’s carrots and he’d been loaned a flea-infused blanket to sleep under. No one had talked to him for seven years, and that had been fine with him. But had central Munchkinland always been so prosperous? He hadn’t noticed. Too distracted by self-loathing.
With every mile Little Daffy grew more cocky. She’d been born, she told them, up near the terminus of the Yellow Brick Road—Center Munch. From a family of farmers, of course. One of four or five siblings whose names she couldn’t now recall. She’d only traveled the Yellow Brick Road once before, when she was a teenager starting as a student nurse in Bright Lettins. “It was hardly more than a hamlet back then,” she said, “at the head of a tributary of the Munchkin River. I can’t wait to see it gussied up as a capital city.”
“It won’t look like the EC, anyway,” said the Lion. “This place is so different from Loyal Oz. I wonder that Munchkinlanders were ever willing to be ruled by the Emerald City.”
Little Daffy replied, “Nessarose Thropp rose to prominence by exploiting a provincial identity that Munchkinlanders had always felt, but suppressed. We never trusted Loyal Ozians even before the secession. We’re not like you.”
“Well, I’m an Animal,” said Brrr, “but I take your point.”
“I’m not like me anymore, either,” said the dwarf.
“And it’s not just the height thing,” said Little Daffy. “Lots of Munchkinlanders are tall as other Ozians.”
“Lots of us are taller inside our trousers than outside,” said her husband.
“Shut up, you,” said Little Daffy, but lovingly. At least he was verbal.
A few days later they approached the new capital over a series of low bridges spanning irrigation canals. Something of the feel of a holiday park for families, thought Brrr. Bright Lettins wasn’t gleaming and garish, like the Emerald City, nor ancient and stuffed with character, like Shiz, the capital of Gillikin. But it ornamented the landscape with its own brand of Munchkin confidence. From this approach, the effect at a distance was of a huddle of children’s building blocks: roofs of scalloped tile, blue or plum. Entering the city, the travelers found buildings made of stone-covered stucco painted in shades of grey and sand. Many structures were joined by arches over the street, creating a series of outdoor chambers, squares funneling into allées debouching into piazzas. Pleasing, welcoming.
And clean? Gutters ran under iron grills next to the coping in the streets, carrying away ordure of every variety. Windows clearer than mountain ice. The buildings ran to three and a half stories, by diktat apparently, though since they were Munchkin stories they weren’t very high.
“Where do taller people and Animals stay?” asked Brrr.
“Not here,” was the answer they got from chatelaine and inn master alike. After a while someone directed them to an Animal hostelry in a shabbier neighborhood. Reportedly the only place where Animals and humans could find rooms under the same roof, with a sign outside that read A STABLE HOME. The entrance for taller people and Animals was supplied at a side door marked OTHERS. “Well, I’ve been waiting almost four decades to decide who and what I am, and I’ve finally stumbled upon the answer,” said Brrr. “I’m an Other. But how are we going to pay?”
Little Daffy dug from some hidey-purse under her aprons a clutch of folded notes. “Whoa, have you been peddling poppy dust behind our backs?” asked Brrr when he caught sight of the wad.
“Before I left the mauntery several years ago, I dashed to its treasury,” she said. “I guessed that Sister Petty Cash abandoned her stash as she and the others were fleeing for their lives. I’ve never had the need to spend it yet.”
“Isn’t that theft?”
“I consider it back wages for thirty years of sacrifice.”
“I’m not complaining.”
The innkeeper was a dejected widow fallen on hard times. Taking in lodgers out of need. She resented them from the start. But rent was rent. “Your old fellow needs a rest,” she said to Little Daffy as she glanced over at where Mr. Boss was propped against a wall. “He’s not from around here. Sick, is he?”
“He’s a dwarf. He comes like that,” said Little Daffy. “It’s been a long trip. We’ll be grateful to take our key and find our room.”
“You two are just up the stairs. Next to my room, so I can keep an eye on you should you get up to anything.”
“What’s your name so I can call it out during wild sex?” asked Mr. Boss. Grumpiness made him come to life.
“You won’t need my name. I’m in business only until the troubles are over. I don’t leave the establishment untended. Now I’ll thank you to avoid monkey business while in this hostel.”
“I’ll call you Dame Hostile,” said Mr. Boss, grinning to show his tobacco-stained smile.
“I’ll be happy to help you sweep up. I can remove splinters, bake a little,” said Little Daffy hastily. “We’ll be ideal guests, believe me.”
“You,” said the chatelaine to the Lion, “your room is out back. Down the alley. Don’t brush your mane in the public rooms, I have allergies.”
Ah, little has changed for the Animals, thought Brrr. His room, though separate and sparely fitted, was clean enough.
The next day, market day in Bright Lettins. The central district was packed dense with stalls and shoppers. Plenty indeed—mounds of baby squash, punnets of spring berries like pucklegem and queen’s beads. Lettuces so new and tender you could hold the leaves up to the light and see through them. Despite the abundance, however, the haggling was fierce. Voices raised on both sides, vendor and housewife. “No spare coin to be had in this crowd,” murmured Little Daffy. One furious merchant upended a cart of his own pricey white asparagus tips and let his pig eat them rather than sell them for the pittance that had been proferred. The pig sported the only satisfied smirk Brrr saw all morning.
The newcomers settled for elevenses at a café, hoping to overhear something useful. Farmers muttered over the weather, the prices, the progress of the war. Words were said about General Jinjuria, the peasant warrior, and about Mombey, the head of the government. Little Daffy ordered tea and beer and river prawns in tarragon. They ate in silence, listening for all they were worth.
“They’ll never starve us out,” said one old bearded fellow with a prosthetic ear made of tin. “They can siphon all the water they want from our precious Restwater, but as long as our farms are upstream of the lake, we’ll not go short of water and so we won’t go short of food.”
“We should dam the Munchkin River and dry out the lake,” said the waitress, settling down with her own beer.
“We couldn’t drain that lake any way shy of a miracle. It’s fed by runoff of the Great Kells,” someone argued. “That’s part of the rationale for the EC requisitioning the water in the first place.”
“How is this Jinjuria holding the EC forces at Haugaard’s Keep?” asked Brrr. The Munchkinlander locals glanced at one another. Maybe, thought Brrr, Animals don’t talk across café tables to humans they didn’t know socially.
“The Lion asked you a question,” said Little Daffy. “Nicely.”
The old man looked suspicious of their ignorance. He stroked his taffycolored beard, combing it with his fingers. “Jinjuria, she could have held on to Haugaard’s Keep, you know that. It’s almost impregnable. Slitted windows high up, and a pair of moated entrances. With their superior numbers the EC Messiars swarmed up the lakeside of the keep, see, and General Jinjuria’s forces put on a handsome show of repelling them—but only as a lure. Soon as the assailants had gained the ramparts on ladders and arrow-slung ropes, Jinjuria set in motion the quick retreat she’d planned. The bulk of our forces that had held Haugaard’s Keep retreated on the land side, burning the wooden decking on the moat entrance as they went. Not everyone made it out, of course, and the heads of our patriot martyrs were bowled down into the moat for several weeks afterward and bobbed there like muskmelons. But Jinjuria’s strategy worked. She boxed up the Emerald City high command, General Cherrystone as they call him, and the cream of his forces too. She can’t starve him out, as she can’t prevent supplies from arriving on the lakeside, by flotillas of this sort or that. But she can prevent him from leaving by land. And if he left by lake—well, that would be a retreat, pure and simple. No, she’s got him cornered, like a cat playing with a larder mouse.”
“Brilliant.” Little Daffy’s eyes glowed with pride.