“Until one side or the other manages a breakthrough strategy.”
“Oh. Forcing the other side into bankruptcy. Or negotiating a pact with some useful third party, say. For instance, if Loyal Oz could persuade the trolls to switch their allegiance, the EC Messiars would be able to invade Munchkinland through the Scalps. Those trolls are pretty fearsome in battle.”
“Why don’t they then? It sounds pretty basic.”
“Because the trolls under Sakkali Oafish have a deep-seated grudge against Loyal Oz dating back to a rout of Glikkuns called the Massacre at Traum, which happened north of here. They wouldn’t unite with the Emerald City if there were only one troll left alive. They’re proud like that.”
“So if that strategy won’t work, what else might?”
“Maybe the Emperor will die, and the pressure to continue this endless war will lift.”
“Isn’t the Emperor divine? He can’t die.”
“I suppose time will tell. Or one side will discover a new weapon that’s stronger than what their enemy has.”
“Like what kind of weapon?” said Rain, as innocently as she could.
“Beats me. A great big cannon that can shoot a thousand arrows all at the same time? A poison someone can sneak into the food rations of the army cooks? An important book of magic spells that contains secrets no one has managed to unlock yet?”
“None of them sounds very likely,” said Rain.
“Who knows. The word in Shiz, since you asked, is about all these things.”
“And the word in Munchkinland?”
“Some of those same ideas. Being hoped for, anyway.”
She saw a chink. “But what are the other ideas in Munchkinland, that you don’t hear in Shiz?”
Maybe because he wouldn’t answer questions about his family, he felt obliged to answer her now. “Flying dragons would be a good idea. They were used once before by the EC, but in an attack by anarchists the Emerald City lost their stable of dragons and their expertise.”
“Dragons in Munchkinland. Imagine.”
“Few have heard of such a thing. And I’m not saying there are. Just that a lot depends on the fact that there might be. One day.”
“Are you a spy? Aren’t you a bit young to be a spy!”
“We’re all spies when we’re young, aren’t we?” She didn’t think he was being evasive. She knew what he meant. She agreed with him.
“Spies never make promises,” he said, but now he was teasing her.
He wasn’t going to stay there forever. That much was clear. Rain just didn’t understand what conditions would prompt his departure.
She lay awake at night sometimes when Tip was asleep, out of sight, his head on the floor a foot below her head. She could hear him breathing, a faint whine in his nose that never sounded when he spoke. A distilled aroma of sour raspberries on his breath, even from this short but crucial distance. She was becoming aware of the distance between human creatures at the same time she was becoming aware of their capacity to be entwined sympathetically. Perhaps, she thought, this is perhaps how it usually goes, but since she’d never been given to reflection, it seemed as if everything was breaking anew upon her at once.
Tip’s interests in current events made her listen more carefully to what the teachers said when they thought the girls were learning off rubrics of spelling or rehearsing acceptable dinner party remarks in their heads.
“Cutting the salary again, according to the magnificent Gadfry,” murmured Madame Shenshen to Madame Ginspoil one day in study hall.
“We shall be living on bread and water like the miserable armies,” replied Madame Ginspoil, helping herself to a pink marzipan pig secreted in her beaded purse. Rain thought: Armies. Miserable. Bread and water. She would tell Tip.
“It’ll be better though in the spring, which isn’t far off,” said Madame Shenshen. “Everyone says there will be a new push to bring down that General Jinjuria.”
“She seems a right smart tartlet, to hold our army at bay all this time. If she’s captured, she can be dragged here and made to tutor stupid young girls,” seethed Madame Ginspoil. “Quite the suitable punishment. She can live on bread and water for what she has cost Loyal Oz in comforts.”
“The cost of war is in human lives, you mean, surely.”
“Oh, bother, of course, that. It goes without saying. But I have chilblains, what with the reduction of coal allotments for our quarters. Chilblains, I tell you. I have refused to knit balaclavas for the troops this year. If they can’t win the stupid war after all this time, they’ll have no comfort from me. Miss Rainary, are you eavesdropping upon your elders and betters?”
Rain loved to have things to tell Tip. He puzzled over them as if he were a military strategist, but Rain took this to be largely boredom. It seemed almost everyone was more interested in the progress of the war than she was.
“Does your grandfather write you letters?” Rain once asked of Miss Plumbago.
“Grandfather Cherrystone? No,” snapped Miss Plumbago. “You’d think he might. After all, he taught me to read. But he’s apparently too busy to write letters or send me little bank cheques.”
He’s besieged at Haugaard’s Keep still, thought Rain, and ventured her conclusion to Tip, who thanked her for trying but seemed to know this already.
No, it couldn’t last forever. In a couple of weeks, Madame Streetflye told them, it would be time for Rain’s class to take up Butter and Eggs. Most of the girls giggled and blushed. Rain didn’t have a clue until Scarly filled her in. Butter and Eggs was the Pertha Hills softsoap way of talking about Human Sexual Techniques: Practical Clarifications. Rain guessed that once she sat through that class, she could no longer allow herself to share a room with a boy. Neither, probably, would she want to, if she read accurately Scarly’s repertoire of expressions. Primarily scowl and disgust. What would Tip do then?
The matter resolved itself with painful swiftness. On the very day she was bringing back to Tip the latest gossip she’d heard—that men were going to be conscripted from Shiz—Proctor Gadfry Clapp was called up to war.
The way it happened was this. Lord Manning, the Senior Overseer, had stopped to pay an unexpected call, which was his right and privilege. All might have gone horribly wrong, since Tip was just passing through the stables when Miss Ironish rushed in unexpectedly to give some instructions to Lord Manning’s coachman. Tip was caught between Miss Ironish entering the annex from the schoolyard side and the coachman arriving from the service entrance. Luckily, Miss Ironish took Tip for the coachman’s boy. She handed over some papers folded inside a clasped sleeve of leather, school accounts or an inventory of students or something. “Store these in Lord Manning’s pouch, young man.” Tip brought them to the horseman, who in return told Tip to ask the Cook for a few extra apples. The horses had been ridden hard on such urgent business.
Suddenly, on this risky morning, Tip became a fixture in the backstairs without anyone quite having twigged to his lack of specific sponsorship.
“Bring your man this carroty cream crumble, you,” said Cook, who by and large liked men, her several husbands ample proof of that.
“Tell your fellow to tell me something I don’t know.”
Lord Manning had had enough of hysterics. Having delivered his sorry news to Gadfry Clapp, he was in no mood to stay for a cold school luncheon. The proctor sat in marmoreal paralysis in his study, but Miss Ironish followed Lord Manning right into the ablutorium and out again, hissing at him. (The teachers kept their doors open a crack to catch the drama.)
“I am not the Emperor of Oz, Miss Ironish,” snapped Lord Manning. “I do not order a thousand men to march to war. I scarcely order starch for my collars. I am merely implementin
g the diktat come directly from the Emerald City. Now will you spare me your tongue?”
“Would you leave us without a man in the establishment? Lord Manning! I could not hold my head up with the parents of our girls, if they learned we had left them unprotected!”
“I am confident in your professional skills, Miss Ironish. You are perfectly capable of fending off any attempt at assault or rapine.”
“I shall close the school.”
“You have no authority to close the school. Please do not give my headache a headache, Miss Ironish.”
“Without a male in residence, I will not answer to the consequences.”
By now Lord Manning had reached the kitchen, and he barreled through the yard as if he owned the place, heading for the stables. He caught sight of Tip munching a bacon butty courtesy of Cook, and he said, “This boy, he’s old enough to be some help, I’ll warrant.”
“You would take the seventeenth proctor of St. Prowd’s and send him to battle, and leave a strapping stable boy in charge of the protection of school-girls? Lord Manning, have you abdicated your senses?”
For an instant Lord Manning appeared to reconsider. But then he swiveled upon his boot heel and he poked a finger almost up one of Miss Ironish’s flared nostrils. “Our charge is the protection of children, Miss Ironish. Don’t you dare forget it. This boy isn’t old enough to be a soldier, but he is old enough and strong enough for lifting down the trunks from the box room and for chasing away beggars from the kitchen yard. He will be your factotum, and that’s the end of it. Boy, what is your name?”
Tip, according to Scarly who told Rain all about this later, was so startled that he leaped to his feet and answered without hesitation. “Pit.”
“Was your family too poor to give you a last name?” snarled Lord Manning.
“Well, yes, sir,” he answered, “I mean, in a manner of speaking, as I’m an orphan. All they left me was my name.”
Lord Manning blew out air between his teeth and buttoned his overcoat. As he beetled toward the kitchen door, he called over his shoulder, “You will be Miss Ironish’s right hand when she needs you, Pit. We’ll settle details of a salary allowance later, but for now housing and meals, the usual, and so on. Is that clear.”
The Senior Overseer didn’t wait for an answer. He ignored the uninterrupted flow of Miss Ironish’s protests. His carriage left with purpose.
The room slowly quietened down. Miss Ironish dried her face in a tea towel and said to Cook, “A cup of lemon tea to strengthen Proctor Gadfry, if you please, Cook.” And to Tip, she added, “Your employer left you behind in a school of young ladies. He must be mad. Straighten your shoulders and look at me when I talk to you. We’ll discuss your obligations this afternoon. For now…” But she couldn’t take the measure of her new situation yet, and fled the kitchen.
Scarly came to Rain’s room that night to fill her in on the details, but Rain had heard a good deal already through the gossip. Proctor Gadfry had taken to his bed; Scarly had spent much of the day attending him with hot compresses and yeasty correctives. Tip was installed in a kitchen nook behind the wall stove, a corner that had been previously used for storing the butter churn and the lesser china. He had his own bed. The room was windowless but decent warm, said Scarly with more pride than envy.
Come evening, he couldn’t sneak out to Rain’s room the way Scarly could. Cook, who missed her sons, marshaled Tip’s company for her own maternal needs. Besides, she was a guardian of the students’ virtue, so she took to sleeping on a cot in the kitchen. She put it across the door to his cubby so he would have to climb over her to get out at night. In the case of loo emergencies she supplied him with a basin for night waste and a plate to cover it from flies. From Rain, therefore, he was pinned good and proper, but not entirely from Scarly, who during the day had reason enough to pass through the kitchen. At night she brought news of Pit to Rain in the Annex.
“Pit ?” asked Rain, incredulous.
“It was the first thing he could think of. He didn’t want to say his real name, for his own reasons. The easiest thing was to turn his name backward, he said. Tip. Pit. Do you get it?” Scarly was very proud of getting it herself. Now that the stranger boy had been safely pegged into the class system of the household, which she could understand, the maid was eager to get back to studying the secret lessons that Rain had offered to resume.
Rain had her own scholastic travails to deal with. Despite the upheaval to the management of St. Prowd’s Academy, the session called Butter and Eggs proceeded on schedule. Miss Ironish, who customarily spoke to girls at great length about Feminine Virtue, this year marched to the doorway of the classroom and without bothering to enter said shortly, “Girls, the most important thing to know about Feminine Virtue is that you’re going to need a hell of a lot of it. Carry on, Madame Streetflye.”
Rain thought the mechanics of sex less compelling than, say, the way a bird learns to fly from a nest, or a snake contorts to shed its skin. She couldn’t imagine herself ever wanting to descend to what Madame Streetflye called the Happy Hello or to shiver with the Special Sneeze that sometimes followed. Despite all the rude information, she couldn’t picture how the experience was actually managed. But there was so much she didn’t know, and she would learn in time. People changed, sometimes more than you expect, she told herself.
For instance, she’d never imagined herself getting along with a bunch of children her own age. The one thing that hadn’t happened in all her peripatetic youth, she saw now, was having access to other kids. Adults had been such a mystery that she’d paid them no mind, but children might have provided something of a support circle. You don’t have to collect kids; they just clump of their own accord. Like rice otters or phantomescent spiders.
Now she had Tip, a best friend; and Scarly, who was a little miffed at being demoted to second position; and even Miss Igilvy wasn’t quite as damp as the others. Miss Plumbago was a rotter, though.
Still, Rain missed the few weeks of sharing a room with Tip, back in the paradise days before she’d heard of the Happy Hello. They’d never so much as touched hands after that one time their shoulders had brushed together on the ladder to the hatch. But they’d been closer without touching, without words, than all these girls who hugged and squealed and whispered and paraded about with their arms around one another’s waists.
At least she imagined that she and Tip had been closer. There was no way to know.
One afternoon, when Proctor Gadfry had been gone for a while and things were settling down into the new arrangement, the sky suddenly brightened with a sideways, vermouthy light. The air grew tinny. Ropes of clouds divided in parallel lengths, like carded wool. Since there’d been almost two weeks of cold rains, everyone went mad for a promenade.
In the old days the teachers had been considered competent enough to escort young ladies on their excursions, but with Proctor Gadfry gone for a soldier (pity the poor army), Miss Ironish had become more skittish. Or perhaps Shiz was considered marginally less safe this year than last. Who knew? So Tip, the school’s jack of all trades, was enlisted to accompany Madame Chortlebush and eleven girls from Rain’s section on their brisk stroll through the streets of Shiz.
Madame Chortlebush took a dim view of Miss Ironish’s precautions but she tried to toe the line. “You walk first, Pit, and check for anything that might threaten us. Fissures in the paving stones, wild beasts lurking behind lampposts, bands of crazy Munchkinlanders determined to kidnap us in broad daylight and take us hostage. We shall follow behind, marching in pairs and screaming for our lives.”
Ten girls chose their partners so quickly that Rain had to team with Madame Chortlebush. This didn’t bother Rain as she still had little to say to her fellow students. And Madame Chortlebush did seem to enjoy Rain’s company so.
Pit, Pit. Rain was trying to memorize his new name the way she had successfully learned to call herself Rainary. It was funny to see him kitted out in a somewhat i
ll-fitting school uniform found in the boys’ clothes press. Marching along in knickerbockers and thick stockings, and a stupid jaunty scarf knotted around his neck. Pit, Pit. “Miss Ironish’s aide-de-camp while her brother is occupied in military matters,” murmured Madame Chortle-bush to some friend on the street while the girls had been required to stop and gawp at the famous pleated marble dome of St. Florix. “Not my type, our Pit, but he has pretty legs for a boy.”
They had their lemon barleys at a café in Railway Square. Then they crowded onto a trestle bridge to watch the noon train for the Pertha Hills inch thrillingly beneath them, thickening the bright day with coal smoke and steam. When the air cleared and the girls were brushing smuts from their clothes and hair, Rain saw Scarly enter the plaza. She looked all around, frantically, until she spotted the school group descending the wrought-iron staircase at the other side of the tracks.
“Madame Chortlebush,” she cried, and waved. The teacher halted the girls on the pavement before Blackhole’s, the place where university students bought and sold their old textbooks. Scarly caught up with them there.
“Important news, Miss Ironish bade me find you at once,” Scarly said between gasped breaths. The news must be dreadful indeed, for what had been a bright sunny day an hour ago had gone glowery as they crossed the bridge, and the clouds that had pestered the region for two weeks were rushing back as if for a return engagement.
Scarly handed an envelope embossed with the St. Prowd’s emblem.
“I can’t imagine what is so important it couldn’t wait,” said Madame Chortlebush to Rain, while the other girls preened for the benefit of the young men from Three Queens or Ozma Towers brisking in and out of Blackhole’s. Madame Chortlebush ripped the envelope open with all the finesse of a hawk eviscerating a ferret.