“Not such a hard choice,” said Rain. “Chestnut stuffing or bread?”
“And to think your grandmother was a celebrated activist in defense of Animals. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
The lake was mad with fish, so they ate fish, which Tay caught for them. They sometimes discussed whether there was any such thing as a Fish, an opinionated cousin of the presumably nonsentient variety. Iskinaary, who liked fish as much as he disliked flesh, agreed to put his head under the water and try to speak to them. But there was no reason to suspect that Fish would speak the same language as air-breathing creatures. Since he could never manage to start a reasonable conversation among equals, the Goose always gave up and allowed himself a snack.
Still fascinated by letters and words, Rain had begun to work out languages in Oz. She collected languages, the idea of them anyway. There seemed to be a primary tongue that she had spoken since birth. For lack of another term it was called Ozish, though to a child it seemed effortless as breathing. But there were other languages. Qua’ati, of course, which she’d picked up in Qhoyre—Candle spoke it well, and Liir, haltingly. And variations of birdsong that Iskinaary seemed capable of using. Rain couldn’t tell if the language was universal among the airborne or specific to certain species, Goose subtly different from Duck or Swallow. But she was too proud to ask Iskinaary.
Nor told her that the Arjikis had a language of their own, though it shared a grammar with Ozish. The Scrow and the Ugubezi and Yunamata each had different language systems. The trolls in the Glikkus spoke a dialect of Ozish that sounded like sneezing, and who knows what tribes in the unexplored far west of Oz might be able to demonstrate yet more cryptic tongues? Rain’s aunt had heard that an isolated clan of Draffe people lived near Kvon Altar in the arid southwest of the Vinkus. “Draffe people? Part Draffe, part human?” wondered Rain, but Nor told her there had been no successful interspecies mating as far as she knew, and the term Draffe probably just meant the people were gangly and thin, the way Munchkinlanders were squat and short.
Still, Rain began to wonder about Nor and Brrr. A woman and a Lion. If they ever reunited, would they have children? Could the Grimmerie make it possible? Rain might get a kind of cousin who was part human girl and part Lion cub boy. She couldn’t quite see how it would work out, but she hoped it could happen. The Lion part might eat Iskinaary by accident. That would be fun.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said the Goose.
“You do not.”
He craned his neck and trained one beady eye at her. She tried not to rear backward. “Well, you’re right,” he admitted, “but I know it isn’t nice.”
“It’s nice to me,” she told him.
Then, toward the end of the third summer at Nether How, a trapper came through, an isolated Scrow who had been drummed out of his clan for some unmentioned reason. Maybe for being antisocial. Rain collected him; he was her first Scrow. His name was Agroya. He stayed a few days and helped the grown-ups shore up a terrace wall behind which Candle was trying to establish a stand of mountain rice. In halting phrases he brought news of the world beyond Nether How.
Rain didn’t count years any more than days. She hardly knew how to understand Agroya when he said it was now the fourth year into the war between Loyal Oz and Munchkinland.
He told them about the conscription of Animals in Munchkinland and how the second front of the war—the battle of the Madeleines—was faring. (Not well for either army, a tidal sweeping of forces back and forth, with heavy loss of life on both sides.) Nor flinched at this and wondered if her husband might have been drafted to serve in the Munchkinland army.
“Brrr? Hah. He’ll have slipped through that duty,” said Liir consolingly. “They didn’t call him the Cowardly Lion for nothing.”
Nor didn’t speak to Liir for some time after this. Maybe, thought Liir ruefully, his half-sister had never entirely forgiven him—or his mother—for sweeping into the lives of her parents, unsettling everything, forever.
“How do you know so much about the progress of the war?” Candle asked Agroya. “Out in this wilderness, so far from the battle lines?”
In his halting way he replied, “I possess little else to pay for the goods of your table. I carry news in my mind. I traffic in it. A useful coin.”
“Tell us more, then,” said Liir. “What about Lady Glinda?”
But Agroya had never heard of Glinda, which made everything else he said a little suspect. “I don’t go to cities,” he admitted. “Tribal life among the Scrow is life in grasslands. Moving, camping, moving, always. Following the herds.”
“Is Shem Ottokos still the chieftain of the Scrow?” asked Liir.
Agroya spat but admitted as much. Ottokos must have been the one to exile him, Liir guessed. Then Liir regretted having asked the question, because Agroya turned and squinted at him. “So you’re Liir? The one who helped our queen through her final passage?”
Liir sat ramrod straight, unwilling to confirm his identity, and Candle picked up on his hesitation, but Agroya saw through their silence. He said, “I was in disgrace that time, in chains in a tent, but I heard what you did.”
“I never did,” interjected Nor. “This is news to me. Tell me.”
“Princess Nastoya was stuck between life and death, unable to move because of a disguise locked upon her, and together you two brought the disguise off.” Agroya pointed at Candle. “You played some stringed instrument so well you make dead relics to sing, and you”—now he pointed to Liir—“you had a charm of remembering; you helped our Nastoya leave behind her disguise as a human, and die as an Elephant. This is legend with our people.”
“How droll,” said Nor to their guest. Ever leery of pomposity. “I hope you sell little pictures of it to passing travelers.”
“And she talked to you before she died,” said Agroya to Candle.
“Oh, did she?” said Liir to his wife. He’d been away up until the last moment. “You never mentioned this.”
“She awakened, as the dying sometimes do,” the visitor reminded Candle. “She told you about your child.”
Candle, apologetically: “I was pregnant, very pregnant.”
After sending Rain out on a fool’s errand, and Iskinaary to keep her at bay, Liir returned to the subject. “What did Nastoya say?”
Agroya helped himself to a handful of walnut meats. “She said that she saw the promise and trouble your child will bring.”
“Oh, that,” said Candle. “What child isn’t full of promise and trouble?”
“Our princess said that we Scrow will watch for your child and help her if she needs help. Nastoya pledged us to this.”
“Wasn’t that sweet,” said Candle. “And then she died.”
“I’m no longer a full brother to my tribe,” he continued, “but in honor of my ancestors and my former queen, I must ask if your daughter needs the help we promised to give.”
“Oh, not today, thanks,” said Candle. “How kind of you to remember.”
The fluting formality of her voice made sense to Liir: Candle had become wary. She’d seen the danger too. “Let me get you some cakes to take on your way,” he said.
They loaded Agroya up with as much as they could spare. Nor agreed to escort him well beyond the northern lake. As soon as they were gone, Liir asked Iskinaary to rush Rain away to the southern lake, five hundred yards to the south, ostensibly to find owl pellets to add to her collection.
Then Liir rounded on Candle, but good. He was incensed that Princess Nastoya’s dying comments had never come up before. Candle pooh-poohed his sensitivity. “What did her comments mean anyway? Nothing that any dying old matron wouldn’t say to any pregnant young woman.”
“The trouble that Rain would bring—did Nastoya’s mention of that decide you to leave Rain behind when you slipped away from Apple Press Farm?”
At this Candle turned pale—in a Quadling it looked like fever—and she was unable to speak for some moments. When s
he regained her voice, she spoke in an unfamiliar register. Colder, acerbic. She said, “This isn’t about Rain, at its heart. Is it? You’re not even angry about what Nastoya said or not, or whether I told you before. Are you. Are you. You’re still angry about what I’ve never said about Trism.”
“Wide of the mark,” snapped Liir. But damn her, she was right. So Candle could still see the present. Her talent had seemed submerged as they’d gotten older.
Yes, he was cross about her never having mentioned Nastoya’s dying comments. But Candle was accurate that he was still harboring a wound about his old friend and lover, Trism. Another of the stories they didn’t rehearse in front of Rain.
And it happened, all of an instant, in his mind again. Like seeing the past. This time his own.
Trism had come to Apple Press Farm that same dreadful season, while Liir was away, while Nastoya was in the orchard trying to die, while Candle was readying to give birth. Liir had never found out exactly what happened. Hunted by EC soldiers who’d once been colleagues, beautiful Trism had either taunted Candle with the knowledge of Liir’s affection for him or, just as possibly, fallen for Candle in Liir’s absence.
Maybe their mutual passion for Liir, their mutual worry about his safety, had brought Candle and Trism together. It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing had happened. But Candle had never spoken about it, and Trism had disappeared from Liir’s life.
By the time Liir had returned, to find the ailing Princess Nastoya and a contingent of Scrow in residence at Apple Press Farm, Trism was gone. After Liir and Candle had helped Nastoya shuck her disguise as a human being and die as an Elephant, Liir had accompanied her corpse back over the highland route known as Kumbricia’s Pass. Returning only a few days later, he’d found that Candle had fled. The new baby, hardly a day old, lay wrapped up in cloths and hidden for him to find.
Of course Candle knew he was nearing; she knew that kind of thing. She’d left a goat so he could have milk for the child. He’d always assumed that she’d abandoned the child for fear that Trism might have been trailed by assassins in order to discover Liir’s hideaway. But now he wondered if she left infant Rain because Nastoya had said their daughter would bring promise and trouble. Candle’s apprehension of their daughter had always been different from his. Just as loving, but more stony and matter-of-fact.
He knew what happened next. Eventually she’d made her way back to the mauntery. Word had arrived there that Trism had been beaten—well, tortured was the uglier but more honest word. Presumably Trism hadn’t been able to reveal Liir’s whereabouts because he didn’t know them. And whether Trism, the top dragon mesmerist in the arsenal of the Emerald City, had even survived … there was no way to tell.
What had survived—maybe all that had survived of Trism—was Liir’s sense of him. A catalog of impressions that arose from time to time, unbidden and often upsetting. From the sandy smell of his sandy hair to the locked grip of his muscles as they had wrestled in sensuous aggression—unwelcome nostalgia. Trism lived in Liir’s heart like a full suit of clothes in a wardrobe, dress habillards maybe, hollow and real at once. The involuntary memory of the best of Trism’s glinting virtues sometimes kicked up unquietable spasms of longing. To this day Liir had endured them in solitude, even as his beloved Candle sat across from him at the hearth.
Candle herself might dream of Trism, too, with dread or with desire. Liir didn’t know. She and Liir never talked of it. She’d refused to speak of Trism when Liir, baby in arms, met up with her again. To protect Liir’s good impression of his friend?—to keep Trism’s romance of Candle to herself? You could go around and around about it, but unless Trism showed up again and filled in the blanks, Liir couldn’t know.
Candle wasn’t telling.
And Liir and Candle had had more urgent things to deal with than the perils of shifting affections. They had a daughter born green as bottleglass.
Green, and with few obvious virtues. On her mother’s side, the girl was a bona fide peasant. Before she met Liir, Candle had been an itinerant Quadling, easily mattressed like all of her clan. Abandoned at the mauntery by an uncle who had wearied of her.
On Liir’s side, Rain descended from a line, if not noble, then at least notorious. One of her ancestors had been the Eminent Thropp, de facto governor of Munchkinland before secession. Her grandmother had been the divisive Wicked Witch of the West, no less. Who knew what license or limitation descended through that bloodline?
Liir had no reason to lord it over Candle, or anyone else. He knew himself to be anything but polished. He’d grown up without the attention of Elphaba or, most of the time, her affection. Deprived childhood, Your Honor! He hadn’t made things better for himself by going AWOL from the army under the command of Cherrystone. Another bad career move: he’d helped Trism destroy the EC’s stable of flying dragons being used to foment unrest among tribes in the west. Tally it up for us, my good man: at the time of Rain’s birth, Liir’d been no more than a ragamuffin ne’er-do-well being hunted down in case he might lead them to the Grimmerie.
Under these circumstances, to be presented with an iridescently verdant child even harder to hide than the famous and dangerous tome … what a lot of laughs, this life. I beg your mercy.
By the time he’d caught up with Candle again, after a series of misadventures with the Scrow, the infant was almost too big to carry in his arms. For Rain’s own protection, he’d drawn a hood upon her face and told passersby that she was afflicted with a sensitivity to light. What had this done to a child, for all those months to hear through burlap the sounds of human voices but rarely to see the face of anyone but her worried and stupid father?
What had he done to Rain, in order to preserve her life?
After he’d met up again with Candle at the mauntery, they wandered the landscape. Seeking a way to keep Rain from being smothered, literally and metaphorically. They had no plans, just kept moving.
One day, in some nameless hamlet, they’d stopped to barter for bread and milk and wine in return for doing fieldwork till sunset. On the far side of a sullen patch of finger potatoes, Candle straightened with her hand on her lower back and turned around with a cry. Set in a potato basket at the end of a hoed row, the baby was sitting up. Either she’d clawed her burlap caul off by herself or the fox at basket’s edge had pulled it away with its teeth.
“Easy,” said Liir to Candle, “easy. I haven’t known foxes to be vicious.”
“The light, please, it hurts her eyes,” began Liir.
“The dark hurts her far more.” The Fox sat down to look at the child, and the child looked back unblinkingly. Liir and Candle inched forward, gripping each other’s hands. “I never met that green firebrand out in the west, that one with the broom, but I heard tell of her. And I imagine she looked like this.”
“I suspect so,” said Candle, honestly enough. “I never met her either.”
“Your kit will have fights on her hands,” said the Fox. “I suppose you’re suitably traumatized over that.”
“Oh, very,” said Liir, “and then some.”
The Fox laughed. “I like her. She doesn’t seem afraid of me.”
“She’s seen very few creatures other than us,” said Candle.
“And I thought it was my native charm. Some consider me rather good-looking, but I’ll leave my social life out of it. She might benefit from a little protective coloring. Have you thought of that?”
Liir had, but Shem Ottokos of the Scrow hadn’t managed the job.
“You know what I mean? The green frog in the algae, the striped chipmunk upon the striped stone? But put a green frog in the middle of a snowy meadow and you don’t have a green frog for very long. I’m thinking you’ll want to afford this child a little protection.”
“We’d be less than sensible if we didn’t,” said Liir.
The Fox sat for a long time without speaking. His eyes and the eyes of the girl—almost a toddler now, had they let her toddle—didn’t break their hold. Finally the Fox said, “I believe I can offer advice.”
“What do you have in mind?” asked Candle.
“Though you’re correct that while she’s a child she needs the most protection, in your panic you’re just about killing her. Daily. Now, I happen to know a Serpent with a talent for sorcery. I’ve seen him do wonders with a poor albino hedgehog who begged abjectly enough…”
Liir and Candle walked a few steps away to discuss the proposal while the Fox kept a watch on Rain. The idea of a Serpent seemed alarming, and the whole concept of disguise could get dicey when it backfired—hadn’t they seen Princess Nastoya struggle at trying to shuck her disguise off? But the child was suffocating in her life, no doubt about that. And anyway, Candle and Liir together had managed to bring the human disguise off Nastoya when the time was right. Liir hadn’t inherited any of his mother’s talent at sorcery, but he did possess that occasional capacity for deep memory. And Candle could cast a certain charm of knowing with the practice of her music—she had done it for Liir and for Nastoya alike. So between them, Candle and Liir had the goods to help their child reveal herself when the time was right. Didn’t they? No small authority in the matter, being her parents.
So they had the Fox engage the Serpent, and the Serpent came at once.
They began to regret their decision when he arrived, for the Serpent looked menacing to them. But as he himself pointed out, what oily emerald Serpent doesn’t seem menacing to human eyes? The very argument for cloaking Rain’s green skin.
“I believe in certain laboratories they call it protective chromatization,” said the Serpent, each syllable sliding out with an almost slatternly emphasis. “You are wise to consider it, but she’ll need more help than camouflage. A very sluggy caterpillar can dress itself up as a butterfly, but that does it little good if the transformation occurs in a glade locked tight with the webs of poisonous spiders.”