“You mean other than wives?”
“I’ve never married, Mum. Don’t accuse me by association.”
“Oh, never mind. I just think Cherrystone is going to need a vaster force if he expects to drive a division right into the heart of Munchkinland, to Bright Lettins or Colwen Grounds. Unless the Emerald City is simultaneously mounting an invasion from the north, through the Scalps. Though I can’t imagine the Glikkun trolls in the mountains would let them get very far with that. Or is Cherrystone going to be content with snatching Restwater and leaving us the rest of the province?”
“I wouldn’t know, Mum.”
“Well, what do you know, Puggles? How would we find out what’s going on in those barns, for instance? I can’t go waltzing around as if I’m used to milking the cows of a spring evening.”
“No, Mum. But I’m not allowed to wander about, either. Guards are posted, you see, beyond kitchen gardens on the barn side, beyond the forecourt on the carriage frontage, and beyond the reflecting pond and the parterre to the west.”
“Is that so.” She wasn’t surprised.
“I do hope you’re not going to contemplate some campaign, Mum.”
“You flatter me with that remark.”
“I have a hunch that General Cherrystone wouldn’t hesitate to restrict your liberties even further than he has already done.”
She began to cross the roof and head for the stairs. “I’m sure you don’t believe me capable of laying gelignite sandwiches on the party platter. Anyway, I can’t cook.”
When she was back in her salon she wandered along all the windows to see what she could see. She had never considered herself an inquisitive woman, but being confined to a suite of only eight rooms made her restless. She was also gripped with curiosity. Why hadn’t she thought to retain someone nubile? Someone who could smolder, sloe-eyed, near a vulnerable soldier? Someone who could pick up some useful information? She herself was too high, Murth was too dead, Rain hardly more than a babe in arms … and Glinda doubted that Chef or Puggles would attract much attention among itchy-triggered soldiers.
Was it too late to exchange Miss Murth for someone a bit younger—younger by, say, a half century? Glinda could pretend to do it out of concern for Miss Murth’s health.
But then Miss Murth came tramping in, hauling six logs of oak she had split and quartered herself, and she knelt down at the hearth to arrange the fire for when the evening chill took hold. Glinda knew that unless she herself brained Miss Murth with one of these spindle-thread vases, the old fiend would probably never die. She’d collapse over Glinda’s grave with dry, red eyes, and then take up a new position somewhere else.
The tedious never die; that’s what makes them tedious.
Glinda remembered the death of Ama Clutch, her governess. Almost forty years ago. Glinda never wakened from any sleep, even the luscious damp sleep that follows rousting sex, without sensing a pang of obscure guilt over her governess’s demise. Glinda didn’t feel she wanted to take on another such debt, especially over someone as irksome as Miss Murth.
“Miss Murth,” she found herself saying, “Puggles was telling me about how limited a range he is allowed to traverse these days. Does the same apply to you?”
“I suspect it does, Lady Glinda,” said Murth, “but I haven’t pressed myself to try. I have no place else to go, and for years I haven’t had reason to leave the premises unless you require my company.”
“What had you been used to doing when I would go to the Emerald City for six or eight months?”
“Oh … tidying up some. Dusting.”
“I see. Have you no family?”
“I’ve been in your employ for twenty years, Lady Glinda. Don’t you think I would have mentioned my family if I had any?”
“You may have nattered on about your kin for yonks. I never know if I’m listening.”
“Well, since you’re asking, no. I am the last of our line.”
And I the last of mine, thought Glinda, who had had no siblings. And she and Chuffrey had never managed to conceive. How quirky, to share this common a loneliness with a member of her staff. Whereas if Glinda had had children—even now, some child or children dashing in every direction, carrying on irresponsibly as the young do—well, what a different place Mockbeggar would seem.
“There are all sorts of maps and missives in the dining hall, Miss Murth, but I draw attention to myself when I enter. There’s no chance you could sneak a peak at them and report to me anything you read?”
“Out of the question. We’re all under supervision, not just you.”
“Do you think that our Rain has the run of the grounds?” She picked at a thread on her shawl as she spoke and didn’t look up. She could hear Murth settle on her heels in front of the fire and let out a worried hiss between those old well-chewed lips. “And does she have any family, do you think?”
“To the best of my awareness, she has no more family than you and I,” replied Miss Murth, vaguely.
The first time a dinner invitation arrived from General Cherrystone, Glinda folded up the paper and said, “Thank you, Puggles. There will be no reply.” The second time she had Murth write a note to decline. “How shall I sign it?” asked Miss Murth. “Lady Glinda, or just Glinda?”
“The scandal of you. Sign it Lady Glinda Chuffrey of Mockbeggar Hall. And none of those twee little hearts and daisies and such.”
But the next night Glinda sent him an invitation. “Dinner at ten, on the roof of the south porch.” She had Puggles and Chef take apart the sallowwood table from the card salon, put it through the windows leg by leg, and reassemble it on the graveled flat of the porch roof. Then she arranged herself upon the balustraded area ahead of time so she wouldn’t have to be seen clambering through a window like a day laborer. The stars were out and the moon was wafery. She wore her midnight blue scallopier with eyelet fenestrae and a ruched bodice the color of wet sand. Chef would serve lake garmot stuffed with snails. “Is it a mistake about the candles?” called Murth through the lace swags. “They’ll drip wax all over the food.”
“Don’t hector me,” said Glinda. “I know what I’m doing.” The two precious spindle-thread vases held a bounty of prettibells and delphiniums selected for their vigor. They better not so much as drop a single petal if they knew what was good for them.
Cherrystone came up the grand staircase just at ten. She could hear the clongs of the grandmother clock strike and the clicking of his heels as he turned at the landing. The windows were wide but the sills two feet high, so he had to sit and swivel to get his long legs across. “A novel place to host a dinner guest. Perhaps you intend to push me over the rail as a divertissement,” he said. “Good evening, Lady Glinda.”
“General. You understand that a person of my position doesn’t entertain in her private apartment, and in any case I notice that the banquet hall has been requisitioned as a strategy center. So I’ve improvised. We dine at my invitation, as this is my home, but we dine neither in my own apartments nor in the spaces you have appropriated. Instead, a neutral territory. Above it all, as it were. Won’t you have a seat?”
He offered a bottle of wine. “Not from Mockbeggar cellars, so I apologize if it doesn’t suit. It’s Highmeadow blanc, a good year. I don’t travel without it. I hope you approve.”
“My butler is a bit stout to be climbing through windows. So this is something of an evening picnic, I’m afraid. Will you do the honors? There’s a cork-pull just here.”
The candles were guttering madly for the first ten minutes. Glinda took care to sip sparingly. “While I understand the intent toward courtesy in your recent notes to me, General, I can’t bring myself to accept an invitation to dine in my own home. My study of etiquette provides no precedent. So I thought I should be cordial and explain this to you in person.”
“Damned awkward I’m sure, but you’re being a brick, as I knew you would be.”
“The meal will grow cold, so please, shall we sit?�
�� She waited for him to pull out her chair. From over his shoulder she could see the campfires of soldiers beyond the ha-ha. The distant sound of singing, more rowdy than tuneful. “How will you keep all these men occupied and out of trouble, General? You’ve clearly settled in for a while, and no matter what construction you’re overseeing in the barns, you can’t be employing more than a smattering of this large number.”
“I trust they’re being no bother. You let me know if they are.”
“I’ll let them know if they are.” She leaned forward, taking care not to seem coquettish, which, she recognized, seemed to be her default position. “Allow me to remove the covers, will you? Since it’s just the two of us?” She lifted the lids off the plated dinner of garmot, braised stalks of celery, and mashed spinach forced to look like a green rose. Oh, Chef could make magic out of whatever lingered in the larder. “I hope this meets with your approval, General.”
“Please; as we’re dining, I should be happy if you called me by my first name. Traper.”
She shook her head as if she were being pestered by mosquitoes. “You make it all very confusing. Traper. A most irregular season! I am detained in my own home, I am forbidden anything but emergency staff, I am asked to house a garrison or a committee or a division or whatever you call this lot—”
“We are roughly three hundred men, which in this instance means a command made up of three brigades. One of our brigades is a cavalry unit, and the other two are foot soldiers. Messiars, as we call them.”
“And Menaciers are officers in training. I know the nomenclature. I did govern the Home Guard once, as you recall. But if what you are overseeing is a command, what makes you a General instead of a Commander?”
“Long years of service, for one. I am allowed to direct as many commands as the Emperor in the Emerald City sees fit to supply me.”
“Then you’re waiting on more commands. I see. Traper. Please, eat; it’ll go cold. There’s slightly more breeze at this height than I’d anticipated.”
He tucked in. “You didn’t ask me here to discuss military strategy, and anyway, it would be boorish of me to bring my work to the dinner table. Tell me about yourself.”
“Yes. Traper. You know a woman loves nothing more than to talk about herself. But you have incarcerated me here and Lady Glinda is bored to migraines with Lady Glinda. Unable to get around as she did, or to invite old friends to spend weekends hunting or playing plunge-ball or Three-Hand Snuckett. No, I asked you here to learn about you. So I insist. I’ve given you your supper, and you must sing for it. Tell me about your long years in the service, as you put it, even if you must keep as confidential your present aims and designs.”
Obediently the General ventured into a loose and nonspecific accounting of various assignments through the years. However, he underestimated the degree to which Glinda had paid attention while she was Throne Minister. She had read everything she could get her hands on, and various details had stuck because of references to old friends and cronies. She knew Cherrystone was from Mistlemoor, a small Gillikinese hamlet a few hours north of the Shiz Gate at the Emerald City. She knew the Wizard had sent Cherrystone out to Kiamo Ko when her old friend, Elphaba, had taken up residence there, and that Cherrystone had had something to do with the death or disappearance of Fiyero’s wife, Sarima, and their children, Irji and Nor. She knew he had had a hand in some nasty business in Quadling Country, where he’d been stationed for nearly a decade, and when things went hot there he was recalled to the Emerald City. A desk job for a few years, under the Emperor. But called into field service again. His final triumph? Before retirement with a pension? She wondered. And all the time she kept smiling like a barkeep, unassuming and unflappable.
“You have a family,” she said.
“Oh, yes,” he replied. His fork poked back and forth as if checking for poison darts hidden in the fish. “A wife and three daughters. Now mostly grown; indeed, a granddaughter at home too, who I rarely see.”
“I can’t imagine. It must be dreadful for you.”
“I’m sure it would be.” He smiled under his lowered brow. “I mean, the noise of a gabbling child and four women under one roof.”
“You don’t fool me. You miss them dreadfully. What are their names?”
“I choose not to talk about them. It helps me not miss them as much.”
“Is that breeze causing the candle to spit wax on your plate? Thoughtless of me.” She leaned back in her chair. “Miss Murth?”
Murth was sitting in an upright chair just inside the window, her hands folded in her lap. “Yes, Lady Glinda.”
“I know you aren’t spry enough to clamber out the window ledge with an oil lamp in a glass chimney. One that won’t gutter so in this updraft. Would you call the broomgirl to do it? She is agile enough, unlike the rest of us.”
“I’m happy to oblige, Lady Glinda,” said Cherrystone. “Allow me.”
“I wouldn’t hear of it. Miss Murth?”
“I think the girl is asleep, Lady Glinda.”
“How wonderful. The lamps on the escritoire. Both of them. Thank you.”
She tried without success to bring up the subject of the construction going on in the barns, but Cherrystone affably declared that too dull to discuss over such a fine meal. What next? He complimented the local landscape. She concurred: the lake before them in the moonlight, sheer silk spangled with diamond chunks, wasn’t it divine? Less cloyingly, they discussed the social makeup of the nearest villages. “I do trust you’re paying the local farmers for all the food you’re demanding from them,” she ventured.
“We’re at war, Lady Glinda. I try to make it look as much like a picnic as I can, but you can’t have forgotten that Munchkinlanders provoked the Ozian army to invade.”
“Well, nor have I forgotten that Oz was massing an army of invasion on the border for weeks and weeks before the Munchkinlanders made a raid against it.”
“Defensive positioning, Lady Glinda.”
“Spoiling for a fight, and the fools bit. Though had they not bit in time, you’d have come up with some other reason to invade. The Emerald City has had its eye on Restwater even since my own time in office, Traper, though I did my best to change the subject.”
“Don’t let’s talk military strategy. Do you play an instrument, Lady Glinda?”
“I have a set of musical toothpicks I must show you someday. Ah, here she is.”
Rain slung one leg over the windowsill. She was dressed in a man’s castoff nightshirt. It made her look like an urchin. Her calves were smooth and pale, the color of new cream in the moonlight. Her dark hair hadn’t seen the benefit of a comb recently. Once through the window, she turned back and took the lamps Miss Murth handed her. The light on either side of her face made her look like a visitation from some chapel story of youthful piety. She was nearly pretty, but for the dirt on her face and her cross, sleepy expression.
“Where does you want ’em,” she said, forgetting to make it sound like a question.
“Oh, how about one on the table and then one on that stone ledge between the windows,” said Glinda. “Then if Miss Murth comes at the General with a crossbow we shall spy her before any damage is done. Miss Murth has many hidden talents.”
“Lady Glinda!” hissed Murth from inside. But Cherrystone was laughing.
“Stay, little Rain,” said Glinda. “We might need something else, and you’re better at getting over window ledges than we are. You can rest with your head against the wall there.” In the lamplight, squatting with her back against the stone, the girl looked like a beggar outside a train station in the Pertha Hills, back in the day. Frottica, Wittica, Settica, Wiccasand Turning…
The light of the oil lamps glazed Cherrystone; he became a more fixed target. Glinda had reached the end of that part of the strategy she’d been able to plan ahead, and she was impr
ovising now. But how formidable he looked. Patient, wary, courteous, buckled up inside himself. He did have utterly lovely eyes for a marauder. A sort of faded cobalt. “I sense that these are early days, Traper. Still, I would be irresponsible to the memory of Sir Chuffrey if I didn’t ask what your ultimate intentions are toward Mockbeggar. I do hope you have no plans to raze it.”
“That wouldn’t be a decision of mine, though I think no one in the Emerald City would bother this place much. I see that it is a jewel. In these few days I’ve come to appreciate why you love it so.”
“Were I at the helm of strategy, I should think that securing Restwater as a permanent source of potable water for the Emerald City would be enough. I’m wondering, should that happen, if you intend Mockbeggar to serve as a satellite capital of the EC, and might decide to leave the rest of the Free State of Munchkinland alone? Munchkinland covers a vast territory, and though decidedly rural, it’s more evenly populated than the rest of Oz, which by comparison is either urban or hardscrabble and too remote to be habitable. The attempt to subdue all of Munchkinland would be punishing.”
“You have a good head for strategy, Lady Glinda, as befits a former Throne Minister. But you retired to seek other pleasures. Like gentlewoman farming, and flower arranging. So I shouldn’t fret about the future. What will happen will happen.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m too selfish to care primarily about Munchkinland. What happens to the stucco walls of Mockbeggar and to its staff also happens to me. What happens to Mockbeggar’s irises and prettibells happens to me. You think me shallow, but I have been breeding prettibells for eighteen summers now. It is my passion. I have a new variety that was even written about in our local newssheet, Restwater Dew Tell.” This was partly true. The gardener had been doing something with that ugly little orange flower. “Rain, can you slip into my library and find a copy of the newsfold with the article on prettibells?”
The girl said, “I don’t know how to find it.”
“It is a printed journal. It will say ‘Prettibells Galore’ in the headline, or something like that. Get up when I speak to you.”