He shook his head. “Another way we are made for each other. I can tell even less clearly than you can. I just tramp on and on and I feel as if I never change much. I’ve been a boy since I was born.”
He had raised the subject, but now he seemed to regret it; there was tension in his face, and he walked ahead for a while. She let him go, looking at his stride, the easy throb of his lengthening hair against the straps of his rucksack. She knew what it was to have a broken childhood. It was easier to understand Tip, she now saw, than it had been to figure out the girls of St. Prowd’s. That wasn’t their fault, of course; perhaps she’d been supercilious to them. Too late now.
She caught up to him. “Tell me about La Mombey, then.”
That eased the invisible rack of distress on his shoulders. “She’s a mighty dangerous woman to have as a landlady,” was all he would say at first, but he relented. “She’s got scented oil instead of blood, I think; she slithers inside her clothes.”
“Do you mean that really, or are you prettifying through language?”
He laughed. “I’m not sure. Sometimes you say something to be pretty and it turns out to be pretty accurate. I guess I mean she’s a mystery even to me, and I’ve lived with her my whole life.”
“Well,” she said, “are you her son, then?”
“I am not.” Said firmly.
“If you don’t know who your parents are, how can you be so sure?”
“For a good many years Mombey was a ferocious old hag, like someone you’d see grubbing for coins in the street outside the opera. She had bristles on her chin, and her back was bent double. She couldn’t walk but for sticks and my shoulder; I was her ambulatory cane. Since she was unable to move without me, I went everywhere with her and I saw everything.”
“So she’s too old to be your mother, you’re saying.”
“Yes. I suppose she could be my great-great-great-grandmother. But who cares?”
“What is she doing without you now you’ve run away?”
“Oh, I’m talking about long ago, before she was named Eminence of Munchkinland. You wouldn’t recognize her by the description I’ve just given. I hardly can remember it myself.”
“What happened? She found a spa and took the waters?”
“No. But she dragged me on a long journey over the sands to one of the duchy principalities, I think it was Ev—”
Rain stopped in her tracks. “No one can cross the deadly sands.”
“You believe that?”
“Everyone believes it—isn’t it true?”
“Oh, well, if everyone believes it.” He was mocking her. “And lunch pails grow on trees, too, you know, in some parts of Oz. And even the little bunnies have their own Bunnytown.”
“Don’t make fun of me. I only had one year of schooling, and we concentrated on the life and times of Handy Mandy, a child burglar.”
“Well, I have had no schooling but whatever I picked up at Mombey’s hip. And those so-called deadly sands aren’t impossible to cross. They’re only deadly if you’re stupid enough not to pack properly. Though, to be fair, Mombey may have made it easier because of some spell or other. We had a sand sledge and pressed on through windstorms a week in duration, and when we arrived Mombey presented herself to some second-rate duchess who served us vile sandwiches on alabaster plates. The duchess knew a secret for changing the shape of her head and her body, and performed it for us as a kind of afternoon entertainment. Like charades. Or putting on a tableau vivant. There was only a screen at the end of the room, and she showed us that there were no trapdoors or hidden chambers in which a bevy of beautiful women could wait their turn to pretend to be the duchess. Her magic was limited to that one party trick, but she did enjoy demonstrating it. Her beauty made Mombey look even more hideous by comparison.”
“So when we left, we returned via a lengthy tour of other places where Mombey had private audiences with various potentates, and I watched the sledge. Eventually we reemerged in northern Gillikin, making landfall someplace near Mount Runcible. Mombey drove the vehicle into a gulley, so we had to catch the train heading south from the Pertha Hills. And on the train old Mombey went off to use the powder room, and she powdered herself pretty damn pretty, because I didn’t recognize her when she came back.”
“Had she bought the charm, do you think?”
“I didn’t ask. Later I wondered if the duchess of Ev woke up on her fainting couch the morning after we said good-bye to find herself dead. But La Mombey has never looked back, and presents herself effectively. Shortly after that, she managed to become elevated to Eminence of Munchkinland, due to some odd distant relationship to old Pastorius.”
Rain didn’t know ancient Oz history and didn’t much care, but Tip had never talked so much about his past before. She didn’t want to cut him off. She let him go on about Pastorius and how he was married to the last reigning Ozma, called Ozma the Bilious, who died of an accidental poisoning involving rat extermination pellets. Pastorius was to serve as Ozma Regent until his daughter grew up, but then the Wizard of Oz arrived in his famous balloon, blah blah, blah blah, and that was the end of Pastorius.
“And the baby?” said Rain, thinking of the Arjiki baby in the papoose.
“You really have wandered a far foreign strand, haven’t you? Old crones and cronies cherish the legend that the baby is nestled in some cradle underground, waiting to reemerge in Oz’s darkest hour. The second coming of Ozma, they call it. Since the first coming was a bit of a blunder.”
“Well, that’s old folks. What about anyone else?”
“The Wizard of Oz wasn’t known for sentimentality. Anyone who could send that Dorothy and her minions out to slaughter your grandmother in her retirement castle would just as easily have ground up a little of that rat poison into the baby’s formula and let the infant have her fatal teat. Poor mite.”
“Hey, watch your mouth. One of those so-called minions is Brrr, my defender.”
“I’m your defender now,” he told her.
They were only teasing, but Tay became upset at the tone of their voices, and chattered in a scolding, magpie way. So they softened their tones, and held hands to pull each other up over the rocky way.
They came into the hamlet of Red Windmill when the sun had just set. The mountains were dark cutouts above them, while the sky to the west retained its paleness, as if it rose so high it became scarce of air. One of the shepherds in the village could speak enough Ozish to tell them that the castle of Kiamo Ko was only a short distance along, but the climb was difficult at any hour and impossible by dark. Rain and Tip could be there in time for morning coffee, though, if they set out at sunrise.
Finally—because she could distract herself no longer with interviewing Tip on all subjects that came to mind—Rain had to think about what they might find. The village translator wouldn’t understand the questions she asked, perhaps on purpose. He said it would be safe for Rain to go and see for herself. Now good night, and leave the cups from the mint tea on the small carpet outside the door.
Tip was gentle and held her through the night, as her panic grew and then subsided. Surely Candle and Liir were there, and safe. Maybe the theft of the Grimmerie was only a rumor designed to strike fear and confusion into the military opposition. Or maybe her parents had fled, and left a note for her. Or fled and left no note at all, and there would be nothing but a hatchet on the floor and dark patches where the blood had dried to char.
Or maybe Candle and Liir—my parents, practice that!—would be waiting, a fork luncheon slapped out upon some sideboard, like St. Prowd’s on Visitation Day. After all, Candle had been able to see the present, somehow. Maybe Candle knew that her daughter was restless tonight in the village below the castle walls of Kiamo Ko.
Maybe her mother knew she was sleeping with her arm
s around Tip. Maybe she knew that Rain had finally understood that the one missing detail in the lectures about Butter and Eggs is that the basic effects become more gratifying the more clothes you remove.
She didn’t know if she slept. She must have. She must have dreamed that a little white rat poked its head out of the sack of millet in the corner of the storeroom where she and Tip had been made comfortable, and that the white rat had said, “Everything changes you, and you change everything.” But she must be awake now, for Tip was saying “And you’re going to dawdle, today of all days?”
She gulped a spoonful of some hot tea made of roasted straw and scarab chitin, and couldn’t wait any longer. She curtseyed as Scarly had used to do, back in that lost life when Scarly had been her only friend. Then Rain and Tip hurried out of Red Windmill, past the decrepit mill that stood sun-bleached of red and any other color and, since devoid now of sails, neutered in the buffeting winds. The travelers began the final ascent on a track wide enough for a cart, though only a pair of skark could have the strength to pull a cart up a slope this severe.
A condensation on the weeds of a local skip, a damp glisten upon the sunny side of boulders. Melted sugar on cobbles. Rain and Tip couldn’t speak to each other even if they wanted, the climb that arduous. They scrabbled around the brutal finials of standing stones lurking at a corner of the mountain, and then Kiamo Ko loomed above them. It wasn’t at the peak of Knobblehead Pike, not even close, but it crowned its own calf of hill with an air of mold and decay one could smell from here.
A moat of sorts, dry now, and a drawbridge of sorts, permanently down. Not much by way of defenses, if anyone could get this far, thought Rain. All of the timbers but two had rotted into the moat’s ravine, so Tip and Rain held hands and balanced each other like street performers as they trod across the breach and tiptoed into the castle courtyard through gates of iron oak and jasper warped permanently open.
Four flying monkeys stood in some sort of ceremonial arrangement, two on each side. Lances crossed to make a triangular passage underneath. “I thought they were figures of myth,” whispered Tip. Other flying monkeys were less elegantly disported about the sloping cobbled yard leading past sheds, stables, gardemangers, collapsed greenhouses, and ornamental stone pergolas. Beyond loomed the central castle keep and its several wings and dependences.
A broad flight of outdoor steps led to a door opened to the light and air, and the sound of horrible singing filtered out from some room deep inside.
“You’ll have to hurry, they’ve begun already,” said one of the monkeys, lowering his rip-edged staff to scratch his behind.
Rain and Tip walked up the steps to the front door, neither hurrying nor dawdling, as if they knew they were expected, as if they knew themselves what to expect. The entrance hall was huge and barren, almost a second courtyard, roofed with a groined ceiling. A steep staircase without benefit of balustrade rose against several of the walls of the irregularly shaped space. The music drew Rain and Tip along the ground level though, farther in. Through three or four successive chambers, each a few steps above the previous one. As if the castle itself had continued climbing the hill before deciding to rest.
They paused at the last door, and then went into a room more like a chapel than anything else, because the narrow tall windows were filled with colored glass set in lead fretwork. Two dozen congregants turned at the sound of their arrival. Neither Candle nor Liir was among them. The first one to speak was the Lion. No, not speech—but a howl such as Rain had never heard before and hoped never to hear again.
He paced toward Rain and looked her forehead to foot as if he was worried he was conjuring her up. His mane was in disarray, his spectacles blotched with tears. Transfigured by distress, and Rain was a little frightened of him. She said softly, “I en’t grown up that much, have I? It’s Rain, Brrr.” Then she was running her hands through his mane, and he nuzzling her hip, smearing her tunic with damp. He only wept, and she said, “It’s Rain, it’s Rain,” and looked over his great trembling head at Tip and shrugged her shoulders to say, What? What did you expect, a fanfare? Then she noticed the coffin in its shadows on a bier made of sawhorses.
After the fuss over their arrival had died down, the Goose had to continue with the ceremony of funerary rites. Rain sat them out, feeling incapable of taking up the study of new grief. Tip, in her stead, who ought to have been freed of strong emotion in this matter, attended and witnessed and wept on Rain’s behalf. Some older girl was singing a song that made no sense at all.
Nor was dead, Auntie Nor. She was dead and laid to rest in a coffin milled from starsnap pine. She was dead and never to walk again, never again to sit up and in that affectless manner look around at the treacherous world and its chaotically foolish citizens. She was dead and had stopped steaming and had begun to reek, and the flowers on the coffin were meant to cancel as much of the smell as possible. She was dead of grief, or dead of pain, or dead by the unsweet accident of coincidence. She was dead from pitching off a cliff just as Tip had done, though she didn’t fall six feet but sixty. The fatal tumble, thought Rain. It was always about to happen to someone. Ilianora Tigelaar was dead now and would be dead tomorrow and all the tomorrows too numberless to name. All that was best of her had been carried away in Lurline’s golden chariot, and the leftovers needed to be hurried off somewhere before the mourners succumbed to retching from the odor.
By lunchtime the pyre had begun to consume the coffin, by evening the coffin had been burned to ash. No one looked at what remained. The flying monkeys would sit watch all night to make sure the ice griffons didn’t come down to snatch charred bones to crack in their wicked beaks. The monkeys were used to this, practicing the same rituals when the day of final flight arrived for one of their own. They considered it an honor to stand guard. Tip brought them cups of lemonade but kept his eyes trained away from the bonfire that hissled in the orchard beyond the castle walls.
It was easy enough for Rain to hear the bare structure of the incidents that had led to her aunt’s death, but it was hard to understand them. Iskinaary filled her in with what he knew.
The raid had occurred before dawn some eight, ten weeks earlier. The Lion and his companions hadn’t yet arrived in Kiamo Ko—they were still a couple of weeks out. They might have made the difference. Even a cowardly Lion can throw his weight around sometimes. As it was, panicked monkeys launched themselves airborne, shrieking. Liir had been manhandled out of his bed, and the nearby Grimmerie snatched up and satcheled. He’d been identified as Liir Ko, only child of Elphaba Thropp, the Wicked Witch of the West who had once lived as a hermit in this very place. He’d been hogtied and roped over the flanks of a mountain skark, and the five men in black hoods and gloves rode off with him. They hadn’t been Arjikis. If they were Munchkinlanders, they were among the taller type who couldn’t be distinguished from Gillikinese by height. Maybe they were abductors hired by La Mombey. No one could venture a guess.
Though Candle had screamed to be taken too, the dawn intruders had tossed her aside. They had no interest in her. They thought her weak in the mind. Probably a Quadling woman held no interest for them. Candle had bundled herself in goatskin boots and raced after them on foot, and though her pursuit proved fanciful and vain, she kept at it for a few days.
Upon returning, she had pleaded with Nor to break the pledge under which she’d been bound—bound by Liir and Candle themselves—to conceal from them where Nor had hidden Rain. Originally they hadn’t wanted to know, for fear that just such an ambush might happen at last, and that Liir or Candle might reveal their daughter’s whereabouts if they were beaten to the margins of death for it. Liir had made Nor promise never to tell them. Never.
Rain could work out Nor’s motives in resisting Candle’s entreaties. Back at the crossroads between Nether How and St. Prowd’s, Nor wouldn’t have been hard persuaded to carry out the task laid upon her. She had understood. She who’d been kidnapped about the age Rain had been when entering St. Prowd’s—she who’d tried to live with the knowledge that her own mother, her aunts, her full-blood brother had all been slaughtered by Commander Cherrystone, as he was then—she who’d been incarcerated in Southstairs Prison deep in the bowels below the Emerald City—she understood full well what crimes mortals might commit in the name of some advantage or other. She had promised not to reveal Rain’s whereabouts until the girl would have reached the age of maturity.
No matter how Candle railed and wept, Iskinaary continued, Nor couldn’t go back on her word. She reminded Candle that if Liir’s abductors killed him in their attempt to get him to decode the deadly book for them, they would need Rain even more desperately. They would hunt for her even more diligently. They would stop at nothing. Nor knew such men. She had sewn herself up with a rough needle and a coarse thread soaked in vinegar. She afforded the world no child of her loins to maim and abuse, and she wouldn’t let Rain escape from her womb, either.
The Lion took up the story.
After his long absence from his wife, he’d arrived at Kiamo Ko from Munchkinland in time to see that the reunion was for naught. Under the relentless pleading and hectoring of Candle, Nor had gone mad, said Brrr, his paws in his mane and his back sore from the heaving of his sobs. His wife’s fragile hold on anything like hope had given out. She took to wandering out of the castle to avoid Candle’s weeping rages, to avoid the Lion’s own overtures and condolences. Whether Nor slipped or whether she threw herself, unable to bear the unreadable future, no one could venture a sound opinion.
Maybe the mountain merely shuddered, as it had been doing for some time now. With a kind of mercy only the wild world knows, maybe the hillside had buckled, no longer willing to give fair purchase to a soul in such torment. The tremors that had begun with the great quake—the one that had toppled the east wing, where Sarima had once held her apartments—had continued reverberating on and off ever since. The residents of Kiamo Ko had almost become used to them.