Out of Oz, Page 56Gregory Maguire
La Mombey came out on a balcony above him. Liir could smell that her face was more puckish, like the rosewater face of a maid over a counter of chocolates. Younger, fuller. He could smell the pink in her cheeks, augmented by powdered sugar mixed with dust of sun-dried and pummeled red grape that had come into season four and a half weeks ago, on the sunnier side of some slope fed by iron-rich aquifers. Oh, to have a nose.
“You dare to come back?” shouted Mombey. “Or you are fool enough to be entrapped? Answer me, don’t make me stand here waiting.”
The boy—half boy, half man, like the rest of us, thought Liir, forgetting for a moment he was actually an Elephant—rolled onto his knees and stood up with an enviable elasticity. Ah, to be young, too. Though maybe the lad had been treated relatively better than Liir had. The boy dusted himself off and said to the Wolves, “You did your job and you managed to avoid eating me. Fellows, my commendations.”
“Answer me,” bellowed Mombey.
“I went on a bit of a walkabout,” called the arriviste. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, and I hope I haven’t made trouble. I was on my way back to accept my sentence already when your Wolves recognized me and insisted on ushering me home. Find a prison deep enough for me, a chore too hard to survive, and I’ll endure it for as long as I can. I’ve learned I have no place out there without you, and I accept my punishment as the price of what I’ve learned.”
A stinking bouquet of lies, and Liir almost tromboned his laughter at them; but he noted Mombey’s caught breath, and he thought, She loves him so much she is unwilling to believe he might be lying. Smart as she is, she can’t see a lie from this kid.
“You had me frantic,” said Mombey. “I thought you’d been kidnapped so someone could barter with me for your release.”
“Who would kidnap your boot boy?” His voice was innocent but scornful. “Would you kidnap someone just to get advantage?”
“You shall pay for your mistakes,” she said, but her voice was full of joy; no revised countenance could disguise that. “Sir Fedric, Sir Cyrillac, you have done your duty well. A year’s liberation from the effort of the war for you and all your kin.”
“We are a randy pair,” said Fedric, and Cyrillac nodded. “We are related to every Wolf in your army.”
“Then a year’s liberation for you and your wives and cubs, and let that be enough.”
“Thank you, Your Eminence,” said Fedric, and Cyrillac added, “We are not of a monogamous bent, and we have between us married every female we know and sired every cub younger than we are.”
“It’s the wolf in us,” said Sir Fedric, modestly and without shame.
“Then a year’s liberation for you two alone, and if you make any other conditions, a year’s incarceration for dragging this conversation out.”
The Wolves nodded and skulked away like dogs that have been scolded.
“Tip, come up here,” said Mombey. “Come into the house and let me see that you are all right.”
“Hi, Tip,” whispered Jellia Jamb, waving one hand and biting a nail on the other.
Liir’s nose followed the boy as he made his progress to a flight of stone steps on which the servants were spreading spittlegreek and lavender to dry upon an oilcloth. Liir could smell that Tip had the brush of Rain on his lips. For the safety of the boy, in whom he could smell no honesty but no menace either, and for the safety of his daughter, Liir held his tongue, but his nose was primed for more salient information. Had he come across this lad once before? Liir’s nose had a better memory than his brain.
As Tip was succumbing to Mombey’s embrace, Trism appeared from around the conservatory. He noticed—for he was no fool—the rapt attention that Liir the Elephant was paying to this reunion. Before Trism could say anything, though, before the yard could clear, an Owl flew down from the corner of the building and landed clumsily on the drying lavender, clouding the air with the scent of old ladies’ water closets.
“Abysmally bad timing,” said Mombey to the Owl. “I’ll take no report out here in the open.”
“As you wish, my liegitrice,” said the Owl. A more obsequious creature Liir had never met, either as Elephant or man.
But he heard what the Owl said before the final shutter was pulled. Liir’s nose might be more magnificent but his ears were also as large as palmetto fans. “I found her on a road west of Shiz, but I lost her in a sudden and puzzling fog. When it lifted, I studied the road to which I had directed them, where your spidery agents were waiting to apprehend them. But somehow the travelers slipped through the unseasonable weather, and I lost—”
“Indeed you did,” Mombey said, and there was a sound of something not quite a whip, not quite a mousetrap, but something iron and deadly. Liir heard no more from the Owl after that.
When the yard had cleared, and the maids put away their brushes, and Liir had come to accept that no one would scratch his rump again today in the way that gave him joy, he turned to look at Trism, who had remained.
“Tip?” said Liir.
“Her factotum,” said Trism.
“Her son, it must be.”
“No one knows. He was lost and he is back. This means she will move immediately into action. The dragons are ready. The only hold against our striking earlier was whether she might inadvertently be putting him in danger, not knowing his whereabouts. If the boy is back, and secured, any remaining prohibition against an attack has been lifted. You’ll be propositioned tonight. Mark my words.”
“They’ll ask you to confirm that the spells I’m trying to cast through the arcane language of that solitary page of the Grimmerie are accurate. They’ll ask you to examine the book and refresh the spells, refine and intensify them, with any other charm that you can find. It’s why you’ve been brought here. Only your mother showed any real skill with that book; everyone else has fumbled and failed with it. Even Mombey is dubious about reading it. She will promise you something real, and she’ll keep her promise, if you help her bring down your uncle.”
“That boy knew my daughter,” said Liir.
“You must put that sort of thought aside. Perhaps you can survive long enough to be a help to your daughter again.”
“I have been no help to her at all. Ever.”
“Get ready for what they will ask. They’ll ask only once.”
“Will you love me whatever I say?”
“No. I don’t promise that. I may have made my own choices, for my own reasons, but I won’t love you unless you make your own choices, for your own reasons. That’s the bargain of love.”
A man and an Elephant, talking about love, and neither of them shamed. What a world I’ve come up through, said Liir to himself. Oh, what a world, what a world.
Trism knew about which he spoke. By the light of the jackal moon Mombey came into the garden behind Colwen Grounds, where Liir had been allowed to graze. She presented herself as a woman of gravity, with a furrowed brow and silvering hair, and she walked with a cane, but she hadn’t gone so far as to concede to a wrinkled neck. Trism walked four feet behind her, his head down, his eyes cloaked, his hands clasped, trying to be as remote as possible in the presence of an Elephant who still loved him.
“We will launch our attack by dawn,” La Mombey said. “Will you help?”
“I can tell by my sight, my smell, and my hearing that my family is not here. Beyond that, I don’t know where they are,” Liir replied. “Naturally, I can’t help you target anyplace they might be, and they might be anywhere.”
“What if I told you we know where they are? Both of them?” said La Mombey. “Your wife and your daughter? And they would be spared? What if I gave you proof? Would you help us then?”
“It doesn’t matter that your proof could be false.” He stood firm on his big Elephant feet. “You’ve also targeted places that harbor any child who is not mine, and I find no difference between them and a child who is mine.”
“With your proboscis, you can’t
smell the difference between your own kin and someone foreign?” she said, laughing.
“With my proboscis,” he said, “I can smell that there is no difference. I will not help you.”
He didn’t have to bother to say that he believed the skill to read the Grimmerie, just as the tendency to be born with green skin, might skip a generation, the way corrupted thumbs skipped in the northern Quadlings, or obesity in certain fruit flies. It didn’t matter. He turned from Trism, who was wringing his hands; he turned from Mombey, who was drunk with elation. “Ready the fleet,” she said to her dragonmaster. To Liir, she said, “You have sealed your own doom by your refusal to assist in this campaign. Count your final moments.”
“Trism, no,” said Liir.
“Mercy on your soul,” said Trism to Liir.
“Mercy on yours,” replied the Elephant, without malice, only heartache.
With the advice of the Ozmists, Rain and her companions managed to avoid Shiz entirely. Unwittingly, they also sidestepped the cohort of jumbo shadowish spider-thugs Mombey had sent across the border to apprehend them. The travelers approached the capital, just another clutch of private citizens set roaming by wartime hysteria. Rain hadn’t known what to expect of the EC. From a distance, it looked seven, nine, nineteen times more immense than the university city of Shiz.
Dorothy proposed that they make their way into the Emerald City via the great squared archways known as Westgate. So the companions stopped to take stock on the graveled slopes outside the city walls, where travelers arriving from the West were required to unroll their Vinkus carpets, lay out their satchels for inspection, and present papers of introduction if they had serious government business. Rain was daunted.
So were her friends. “It’ll be impossible to find a kidnapped man in this canyon of towers,” said Mr. Boss. “Tall buildings, begging your pardon, dwarf me.” He looked dubious. He’d never dared risk bringing the Clock of the Time Dragon through any of the gates of the capital, so the EC was one district of Oz about which he was entirely ignorant.
“I’ve come this far, but I don’t know as I’d be welcome farther, being a Munchkinlander,” said Little Daffy. “Sadly, I have no state secrets to sell to the Emperor of Oz. Only curious cupcakes and the like.”
Rain turned to Brrr.
“Well, I’m with you,” he said. “I’m not bailing.”
“But aren’t you still wanted in this town?” Rain asked him.
“Yes, I had a prison sentence converted to a civilian assignment, to find the location of the Grimmerie and report it, from which I went skipping away five or six years ago. And yes, some magistrate or another might remember. But I’d venture everyone has other matters on their minds these days.”
“You must be mad,” said Rain. “Back then, you were one of the centerpieces of their campaign to locate the Grimmerie. You failed to bring it in. You can’t risk showing your face here. You’d never get out alive.”
“Nobody does,” said the dwarf. “You’ll have figured that out by now, sweetheart.”
“I’m going alone,” said Rain.
“You can’t go alone,” said Brrr. “We can’t let you.”
“I’ll go with her,” said Dorothy. “It’s safest for me. Anyway, I remember this place. I can do the Emerald City. I’m older now, I’ve been to Kansas City and San Francisco. We can find our way together.”
Rain turned on her. “Not on your life. I’ll need to be circumspect. You couldn’t be circumspect even with your mouth tied up in muslin bandages.”
“You know, I used to like you people in Oz a lot more than I do now,” replied Dorothy. “Time was I could just open my mouth and people would be quiet and listen. Now it’s just jabber jabber jabber, shut up and sit down. Well, too bad, Rain. I’m coming with you.”
“But you’re Dorothy,” said Rain. “You make a spectacle of yourself just by how you stare at things so deeply.”
“It’s called astigmatism and it’s correctable with lenses but they got crushed in the landslide in the Glikkus. As far as I’ve ever heard, it’s a free country, Rain. So I’m traipsing along. I’ll promise not to sing and I’ll go buy a shawl from one of those vendors. We’ll get by just fine. I can be your big sister. You can call me Dotty.”
The dwarf and the Munchkinlander looked at each other. “Dotty. It has a certain legitimacy,” said Mr. Boss. Rain gave up.
Dorothy found a shrub to hide behind as she wriggled out of her skirt. She turned it inside out. The several kinds of cloth used to patch and line it were unmatched and worn. Suitably seedy. “We make do in Kansas,” said Dorothy. The reversed garment helped conceal that look of dirty glamour a tourist can bear. Draped in a rough grey wool shawl, Dorothy could almost pass as a peasant milkmaid from the Disappointments—one who has somehow avoided rickets and malnutrition due to fierce inner strength.
Meanwhile, Rain had always managed to mosey along without attracting attention even though she’d been hunted her whole life long. She said to Dorothy, “You better carry the shell. I don’t want Tay disappearing into the crowds,” and she drew Tay up into her arms.
“Heavens, not that,” agreed Dorothy. “If Tay is anything like Toto, you’ll be dropping the avoirdupois chasing after him. I’d have always preferred a French poodle, frankly. Though I’d never tell Toto that to his face. It would ruin him.”
Rain said good-bye to the Lion, the dwarf, and the Munchkinlander. “We’ll make up a plan as we go along,” she said. “Maybe Dorothy will be an asset after all.”
“Maybe this time,” sang Dorothy, but then restated that without musical expression.
“Rain, are you sure about this?” asked the Lion. He seemed to have shrugged off some of his distractedness following the death of Nor. The congress with the Ozmists may have set his mind at rest—whatever else might be said, Nor was no longer suffering. Anywhere. Now, Brrr could look with beaded focus and a certain concern at the girls standing before him.
Rain shrugged. “Dorothy might be able to get an audience with the Emperor. She once saw the very Wizard of Oz himself, even though he was a recluse. Few can say they ever did that.”
“Indeed,” said the Lion.
“She might be able to find out if they are holding my father. She might be able to strike a bargain for his release. I’ll keep my head down. I promise. We’ll just look about. We’ll see what we can learn, and we’ll come back. Will we find you here?”
The Lion said, “Rain, when thunderheads are about to open, it’s hard to say which way anyone will run. Think about it. Various thugs hunted your parents down in Apple Press Farm. You yourself had to flee from Mockbeggar Hall. Then someone found out about Nether How. Now your father is hauled away from Kiamo Ko. The only place you’ve ever stayed unmolested is the Chancel of the Ladyfish above the Sleeve of Ghastille. Should we get separated, remember our plan to leave messages there. Weighed down by that question mark horse-stone. All right? Agreed? But I promise you this, we won’t leave here unless we have no choice.”
“There is no safe place in Oz, is there,” said Rain.
“There is no safety anywhere,” said the Cowardly Lion.
Those to stay behind took their leave in a formal fashion, like parents departing from their scholar daughter in the reception room at St. Prowd’s Academy. As the storm clouds gathered—literal, heavy rain clouds, the seasonal burst approaching at last—Rain and Dorothy and Tay turned to slip among a large group of foreigners come for market day, some plains Arjiki and some Yunamata froggy-folk. Together Dorothy and Rain passed under the massive carved transoms of Westgate. Through which so many years ago (but how many?) Dorothy and the Lion, the Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow had originally emerged after their famous interviews with the Wizard of Oz, their instructions firmly in hand: to march to the castle at Kiamo Ko and kill the Wicked Witch of the West.
Dorothy didn’t remember the names of the thoroughfares that interlaced the vast city, but once they reached the knoll of a
public park she identified the towers of the Palace in the distance. “That much hasn’t changed,” she promised. “It was called the Palace of the Wizard when I had my several audiences with him, and just as I was leaving Oz last time around they were talking about renaming it the Palace of the People. But it doesn’t look any different. A Palace is a palace.”
Rain barely listened to Dorothy’s prattle. She was trying not to be daunted by the weirdness of it all. Not the buildings—what meant buildings to her, really? The statues on their plinths, the great crescents of fine houses, the iron railings and the pushcarts, the monumental stone tombs of art and commerce. Rain was more aware of the people. So many. Who could ever make a collection of so many people?
When they passed one of the market squares, it was life as Rain knew it, people squabbling for food, bargaining over prices. But the trestle tables set up under bentlebranch arbors offered small choice, and more to the point—Dorothy saw this too—the vendors and the shoppers were predominantly female. An occasional elderly bearded man in green glasses, carrying a blunderbuss; that seemed the police force and the minister and the army, the whole local patriarchy all at once. Schoolboys, to be sure, and toddler boys nearly indistinguishable from toddler girls, and genderless babies. But men the age of her father? Absent.
“We wouldn’t want to start our search for your father in Southstairs, would we?” whispered Dorothy.
“The prison? I hope not,” replied Rain. “Let’s go directly to the Emperor. If we can’t get in to see him by dint of one trick or another, you can reveal yourself as Dorothy.”
“What if that doesn’t cut the mustard with him?”