“Cherrystone did this,” said Trism, and pushed Liir’s attentive nose away and dressed himself. “Under the Emperor of Oz, your uncle Shell Thropp, Cherrystone did this to me. Cherrystone. Do you think I would stay in Oz where I could be caught again? Slowly peeled away with hot knives? Until I had decided to seek you out and lead them to you, betray you to protect myself from being shaved like a carrot? I’m lucky this is all they took off.”
“You did that for me,” said Liir.
“Don’t look for satisfaction. None of us knows why we did what we did back then. I know why I’m doing what I’m doing now. And I’m here to ask you to listen to Mombey’s request, and help us.”
Liir listened. His ears were big enough now to hear anything.
“Your uncle, taking a leaf out of the old tricks of one of his predecessors, the Wizard of Oz, has been launching an attack on the Animal armies, which have been pushed entirely out of the Madeleines into the Wend Fallows. Another foothold in Munchkinland, see. Shell has ordered the construction of small-scale aerial balloons filled with light gas. He’s sending them over the hills to explode upon impact as they descend. The panic is immense and the Animals are close to scattering, or worse yet, surrendering. If we lose the Wend Fallows, the EC Messiars will be in Colwen Grounds in a matter of days, and it’s all over.”
“Frankly, I’m surprised the Animals didn’t scatter at the first chance.”
“Many of them remember their parents having to flee Loyal Oz a generation ago, under the Wizard’s Animal Adverse laws. They harbor an old grievance, and when Animals fight, they fight fiercer than humans. But few creatures, human or Animal, will fight to the death to defend the honor of a dead generation. So the strictest of Mombey’s human commanders are in charge of the Animals, and the Animal conscripts receive a more merciless punishment for going AWOL than I did.”
“The Animals are an army of prisoners, effectively.”
“Indentured mercenaries. But without pay. You said it. And when those prisoners finally panic and break loose, the bedlam will not be believed. We’re in the final days of this war, one way or another.”
“So why have you brought me here?”
“It wasn’t my idea. Mombey brought you, to read the book to us.”
“I still don’t understand. How are you involved, then?”
“You remember my original training in the Emerald City? Your mother long ago had given the Wizard of Oz a page from the Grimmerie, On the Proper Training and Handling of Dragons. I was the chief dragonmaster. I trained those dragons who attacked you years ago, the ones we later slaughtered before we fled.”
“I remember. Trism the cute dragon mesmerist.”
“When I left Loyal Oz, I carried with me the secrets of the trade. It’s hard enough to secure a dragon’s egg and raise it to life, and keep it alive—dragons don’t like Oz. Oz is too wet and full of life for them. Dragons are desert creatures. But a few years ago Cherrystone got his hands on a clutch of eggs and managed to raise them to maturity. The creatures were to be used in the attack on Haugaard’s Keep.”
“I heard about that,” said Liir, though he didn’t understand that his daughter had been partly responsible for slowing the attack. “Do you remember Brrr, the so-called Cowardly Lion? He told me what he knew about that campaign. He was in the vicinity when it happened.”
“I never met that Lion.”
“The dragons were destroyed, I understand.”
“Not all of them. One of them escaped, and it was found tending its wounds on the banks of Illswater in the south of Munchkinland. It was captured by Mombey’s people, brought north, and stabled not far from here. It yielded a clutch of eggs a short time later. They came to term.”
“With no male to fertilize them? Capable dragon.”
“There is much we don’t know about dragons.” Trism still had that I’molder-than-you tone, Liir noticed.
“So you’ve raised the baby dragons up, you traitor dragonmaster.”
“I have indeed,” he said. “And not a moment too soon. They’re ready to go. But Mombey knows this is her last chance. She can’t risk their failure. The dragons have to do the job right.”
“She’s not one for letting things slide? Just my luck.”
“She’s been smart about keeping the Munchkinlanders focused and fired up. That show trial of Dorothy happened in the nick of time, as interest was flagging and recruitment was off, what with the endless stalemate. The arrival of Dorothy and the attention paid to her trial helped Mombey corral her first battalion of Animals in a single week.”
“The conscription of Animals was promoted as defense, but really she needed to open a new front in the war. I see.”
“Yes. General Jinjuria had lured Cherrystone in Haugaard’s Keep but forgot to figure in the cost of keeping him under siege there. She can’t knock him out of Haugaard’s Keep; it’s said to be so well fortified that he has imported a barge full of dancing girls and a craps game that goes on all night. He’s running a fucking resort there on Restwater. He keeps Jinjuria guessing and occupied. And she can’t rush what’s left of her forces up to the Fallows. Something’s got to give, and soon.”
“So you’ll use the dragons to attack Haugaard’s Keep.”
“If you can help, we’ll use the dragons to attack the Emerald City.”
He had said it. Liir turned his head and looked at Trism with the other eye, to see if his first eye had missed something. “There are civilians in the Emerald City.”
“There are civilians in both armies, too. At least they were civilians before they were drafted. Look, if we can strike against the Emerald City hard enough, we might be able to pull Cherrystone and his floating vacationers out of Haugaard’s Keep; they would be recalled to defend the Emperor. Munchkinland could retake Restwater and offer a truce. How many civilians’ lives will have been saved then?”
“A lot of ifs, I suppose.”
“With your great schnoz, can you smell possibility in this plan?”
It was a shame to say that he could. So he didn’t say it. He just looked at Trism. They had both grown old enough to have learned how to ignore the needs of individual lives for the purported good of the lives of nations.
Trism knew him still; he saw what Liir was thinking; he threw himself against where Liir’s arms would be if Liir had had arms; Liir wrapped the shattered stranger in his trunk and held his best beloved tight.
Perhaps they ought to have followed Temper Bailey’s advice, because the track they chose to wander along faltered and lost itself in a small but confounding wood. The leaves were beginning to change, the lavender of pearlfruit and the red of red maple and the gold of golden maple. The tarnishy tang of fox musk under the jealous snout of the jackal moon, who wanted to be down there with them—it was all a glorious adventure. But they were lost and doing no one much good.
“We’ll find our way out tomorrow,” said Dorothy. “I think there’s some song about that. There ought to be.”
The next morning they woke up even more lost. A bank of fog canted from the warmish earth into the chilling air, rather thicker than what they might have expected at this time of year. It wasn’t only visibility that gave out, but also sound. Stifled. A clammy tightness seemed to filter through the lower branches, as if the air was congested. Any leaves much above head level dissolved into a pale ruddy glow.
“You stay close to me, Tay,” said Rain.
“Shall we sing to keep up our nerve?” asked Dorothy. No one bothered to reply.
Then Brrr paused and said, “I know what this is. Or I think I do.”
He had spoken so seldom recently that they were all surprised. They waited for him to continue.
“I saw this once before, this trick of atmospherics. When I was hardly more than a cub. I think this is the Ozmists. But what are they doing so far south? We can’t have wandered off course so badly that we missed Shiz and entered the Great Gillikin Forest? That’s where they live, as I
“Not a chance,” said Mr. Boss, who of them all had traveled the widest in Oz, and for the longest time. “We’d’ve had to cross the rail line to the Pertha Hills, and we never did. So we’re still west of the forest and west of Shiz. Though whether we’re heading south still or have veered some other way I can’t say in this swamp of wet tissues. Anyhow, I never heard of any Ozmists. Who are they? The essence of royalists gone to ground, literally, and their appetite for the crown seeping up?”
Brrr spoke with more urgency than he’d shown for weeks. From this new danger, a new capacity for governance. “Listen. If something comes over us—everyone—listen carefully. You must not ask them any questions if you don’t have something to tell them in return.”
“But Ozmists,” demanded Rain. “We don’t know about them.”
“They’re particles of ghosts, I think,” hurried the Lion, “ghosts who can’t congeal into anything like the individuals they once were. Fragments of rotted leaves in a puddle never coalesce into living leaves again. Listen, once I saw a friend lose his way in life by forgetting to give them news. You see, the Ozmists exist—it’s not living, but it is existing, I guess—for their future. Their future, which is our present. They hunger to learn what they couldn’t know in life—and they might answer a question if we chose to ask it. But our question can’t be about now, for they are dead and don’t know now. Now is what they’re hungry for. Our question must be about something in the past that they might have knowledge of—this is important, pay attention! Or you’ll pay too steep a price.”
They heard the tremor in his voice; it was their old Lion, forceful and worried for them, herding them together. They gathered into a circle, and even as he spoke a cloud of sparks seemed to shimmer with its own fulguration, an orgy of lightning bugs packed into a space the size of a stable.
“Hang on,” said Brrr. His voice sounded far away to them though he was right there; they were all right there.
They hung more than stood in a void not like the world. For a while they couldn’t see their feet or paws or hands, just their profiles, like dolmens rendered flat and brooding by soft weather.
Then the Ozmists greeted their audience, just as the Lion remembered it, in one voice, though indistinctly. The way a single head can have a thousand overlapping shadowy profiles if a thousand candles are placed about it. Barter, chuntered the Ozmists.
The companions waited for Brrr to answer for them. Would he have the courage? It took a moment. Or a week.
“I know about barter,” replied Brrr. “What do you want to know?”
Is Ozma returned to the throne of Oz?
“She is not,” said the Lion.
“Not as far as we know,” said Little Daffy. “I mean, we haven’t had news of the Emerald City”—she heard the Lion fake a cough and she amended her statement in time—“not the Emerald City, of course; but we know that Munchkinland is fighting strong to remain independent, holding the line at Haugaard’s Keep, holding the line at the Madeleines, keeping faith with the Glikkuns to the north, and sweeping the poison sand off their thresholds at the desert back door.”
The Ozmists seemed to take a few moments to absorb this considerable punch of news. Where is Ozma? they answered.
“It’s our turn to ask a question,” said Brrr. Rain tugged at his mane to quiet him, but he wouldn’t be silenced. “Where is Nor?”
“No, Brrr, don’t,” whispered Mr. Boss. “Don’t do that.” But the question had been asked.
The Lion waited as the lights spiraled, not unlike the waltz of corpuscles that sometimes trickle across the surface of the eye.
“Where is Nor?” asked Brrr again, more firmly still. “I know how this works. I’ve been here before. We’ve answered your question. Now you answer ours. You can’t hold out on us.”
There is nothing of Nor here, came the reply.
“She isn’t dead? But of course she’s dead,” murmured Little Daffy.
We consist only of the appetites that would not die, the Ozmists churned. There was nothing of her left that wanted to know more. This is how it is with some deaths. We know little more about where her spirit is than we know about the lives of the living. We are caught in the middle by our lust for answers. We are the part of Oz’s past that cannot give up its hope for the present. That is all.
“Since you ask about Ozma,” said Rain, “then it follows that she isn’t there with you. But perhaps Ozma, like Nor, has passed into nothingness. She was only an infant when she was killed. She could have no appetite for the present; she was too young to know the difference between past and present and time to come.”
She never passed through us, said the Ozmists. It is believed here that she has not died.
“She’d be a thousand and eighty,” said Little Daffy wonderingly.
“No one is that old, except Nanny,” said Rain.
“Baby Ozma might have taken an omnibus to hell. You Ozmists aren’t the only filter to the Other Side,” said Dorothy staunchly, in that bullishly public voice she sometimes had.
If there could be said to be a pause in a hissle of ghostly fragments, there was a pause.
“What happened to my parents, then?” asked Dorothy. “If you’re so comprehensive? They died at sea, in a boat going to the old country. It sunk, and that was that. Where are they? What did they want to know about me? I don’t believe you have a thing to say about it.”
The Ozmists had nothing to say about it. Neither, noticed Brrr, did they pester Dorothy for news. Perhaps they didn’t want to know about the Other Side that Dorothy hailed from. Even ghosts have their limits of tolerance.
“Tell us about Elphaba,” said Rain.
Barter, said the Ozmists, a sense of relief in their voices.
“The head of St. Prowd’s, Proctor Gadfry, has gone for a soldier.”
That’s of no significance to us.
“It is to him, and it’s his history,” said Rain. “Unless he’s died and is with you now, it’s as significant as anything else. The history of this war hinges on what every single person alive chooses to do or not to do. Now tell me about Elphaba.”
Still they resisted. Clangingly, silent-noisily, dark-lightly.
When the Ozmists spoke, they were cautious, even a little apologetic.
In all of history, of most human lives, there is no proof of passage, they said, neither coming in nor going out. Don’t be offended if someone you love has left no trace. That doesn’t mean they were absent in their own time.
“So you’re going to be coy about it too?” asked Rain. “Figures. Useless phantoms.”
You think that someone with the capacity of Elphaba Thropp would let us gossip about her, even if she were here in our midst? In life she paid no attention to the rules of the game. In death she’d not suddenly go corporate.
“So she’s not dead? Or is she?” asked Rain. But this they wouldn’t answer.
You strayed at the stand of four beeches, several miles back, they said, relenting.
“I don’t remember four beeches,” said the Lion.
We’ve been moving while we’ve been congregating. Ghosts can’t keep still. You won’t find the beeches again. But keep the stream on your left and you’ll soon be on the right track.
“And what track is that?” asked Dorothy.
To the future, they said, wistfully. And, you? With the shell?
“Yes,” said Rain.
Blow it once, they said.
She did. It had almost no sound in this cloaking paleness, but the Ozmists took on a glow like that of lights in water, a wetter look. A blueness, as of heat lightning.
If you need
us, blow the horn for us, they said. We will come if we can.
“Why would you do that? I’ve given nothing to you. It’s all about barter, isn’t it?
You give news even when you don’t open your mouth. What you’ve given to us is for us to know. It is enough. There is no balance due.
“Hey, what about Toto?” Dorothy thought to call out. “Is he a phantom dog now, romping about with you?” But the Ozmists were lifting and would not reply.
The world they left behind—the commonplace world of now—felt a little more tightly pulled together, as in a blackout between scenes of a theatrical piece stagehands rush on and plump the pillows. Each glowing rotting leaf on its trembling stem stood out to be counted.
Rain looked, noticed. She did not count them.
“Really, we got precious little out of that but a chill,” said Little Daffy, rubbing her forearms. “Anyone for a pastry, to get the juices flowing again?”
The Black Elephant had regained the native strength that elephant musculature and armature allow. He was standing on all four legs in the sunlight outside, being washed with buckets of water and scrubbed toward ecstasy with long-handled brooms. The sun smelled of everything in the entire cosmos. His eyes were closed and the water was paradise, was better than air in his lungs and beetles in his bowels. But his ears heard the commotion when a boy was escorted into the yard. The newcomer was tied and bound and laid on the back of two yoked Wolves running in tandem.
Liir didn’t think he was intended to see this miscreant’s arrival, but the Wolves were thirsty for water after their hard run, and they made straight for the buckets from which the Elephant minders were working. And Wolves have little regard for hierarchy even when the hierarchy is La Mombey. They let foot soldiers and garden boys and Jellia Jamb pull the lad off their backs as they slavered up the water meant for Liir’s capacious backside. The Elephant trumpeted in their faces but they paid him no mind. Not the first ones to do so.