The Lion thought for a moment. “Well. The People’s Academy of Art and Mechanics is closed for business. That’s out. The Lord Chuffrey Exposition Hall, which had such beautiful light, now has beautiful shadows. But I think the Lady’s Mystique, that small theater on the edge of Goldhaven, is still standing. And what luck—I’ll bet the afternoon matinee has been canceled.”
“Too small, and too—theatrical. The Emperor will need room to be at some distance from La Mombey. Space around His Sacredness.”
The Lion eventually suggested the Aestheticum, a circular brick coliseum of sorts, long ago roofed over for trade shows. A place where antiques vendors displayed their wares—fine art, and the more collectable of historic furniture. He had once cut something of a figure among the great and the good who ran the Aestheticum, back when he had fancied himself a connoisseur. In exchange for any lingering obligation to the Throne Minister of Oz, current or future, to the extent that the Margreave could plead his case, the Lion agreed to make arrangements. “Deal?” asked Avaric.
“Deal,” said Brrr. “Though I suppose it would be overmuch to request an elevation of my title?”
“To Brrr bon Coward, Lord Level of Cowardly Custard and Environs?” Avaric hadn’t lost his capacity to sneer. Brrr realized he’d gone too far.
“Well, tell me this then, because everyone’s asking,” he countered, as much to change the subject as to hear the reply. “Shell Thropp has shown little love for the people he ruled all these years, the people he’s driven into war and ruined. Why is he yielding to Mombey’s aerial attack? It can’t be concern for massive civilian death or the destruction of the Emerald City. Can he really have begun to fear for his own life? Isn’t he immortal?”
“He’s the sort of immortal who will live eternally after his corruptible human sleeve—his shell, as it were—succumbs.” Avaric could talk political theology as smoothly as if he were discussing the point spread in a wager over the gooseball playoffs. “I suppose you know that his real name, the name given him by his unionist minister father, is Sheltergod?”
“And my real name is Birthdaysuit—” the Lion began, but Avaric cut him off.
“The name reflects a sentiment that some spark of the Unnamed God burns within us all. His Sacredness may have determined that he received the lion’s share—”
“Well, he sure got mine, because I harbor no god within me. It sounds like worms. One would need castor oil, or dipping.”
“—but in the panic of La Mombey’s attack, and in sure and certain fear of an insurrection by his own followers, he has been called to yield.”
“Who called him? Who gets to place that call?”
“Now you’re being snarky. He called himself, of course. Are we done?”
The Lion walked away. He didn’t mind sashaying this time. So God talks to himself. Just like the rest of us do.
All the vendors had taken off during the first of the attacks and by now were either dead on the road amidst shreds of their favorite paintings or were lingering in some summer home waiting to hear news from the capital. The Aestheticum was boarded up. After some pounding and a couple of roars the Lion managed to raise attention at the loading dock. The thrice-bolted door was opened by that clubfooted society hostess from Shiz, Piarsody Scallop, with whom, however inanely, the Lion had once been paired in the press.
“I haven’t got room for another postage stamp,” said Piarsody, but when she recognized the Lion, she added, “especially from you,” and tried to close the door. Her clubfoot got in the way somehow, and Brrr barreled past.
“I’m not negotiating art, either purchase or sale,” he growled.
“You’re the only one in the city who’s not.”
He saw what she meant. The Aestheticum was jammed to the ceilings of the mezzanine with furniture, bibelots, treasured artworks, bolts of better tapestry, carpets. “It’s a madhouse warehouse,” said Piarsody. “People know high-end decoratives will come back, and they stash their valuables here until the first collector sniffs that the war is truly over and moves in for the firesale bargain. But we’re stuffed to the gills. I can’t move, I can’t do inventory, I can’t even see well enough to be able to tell what is good and what is better used to build a fire to cook my lunch.”
“I don’t care if you burn it all and have a really big lunch,” said the Lion. “I want the center of the hall cleared out by noon tomorrow.”
“You’ve lost your mind. I always knew you would,” said Miss Scallop. “A bit too high-strung. Back in Shiz they whispered that to me when you were in the Gents’. They will say it here, too.”
“I’ll help you. I can get others to help. We’ll shift everything to the motherhouse of Saint Glinda across the square, assuming it’s still standing. The war with Munchkinland is over, Miss Scallop, and the little buggers won.”
“Don’t they always?” said Piarsody Scallop.
All afternoon they sorted out antiquities. The better paintings could be hung over the railing of the mezzanine to grace the event. Some of the furniture could be packed drawer against door along the outside walls, under the balconies, slotted so thickly in place as to make a six-foot wooden henge. The rest of the stuff had to go.
Brrr roared himself into the cloisters across the square and commandeered them. The motherhouse had long been under the thumb of the Emperor, unlike the cenobitic mauntery in the Shale Shallows, and the women scurried to oblige, driven nearly mad with delight at having a part to play. The mauntery afforded plenty of space along the arcades to stash a museum’s worth of antique fussiness in home decor.
When the job was almost done, Brrr happened to back into an oak chest standing on its end. The lock sprung open and the lid popped, spilling the contents on the tiles of the mauntery floor. Included were no fewer than seven sets of jeweled shoes modeled after the famous set that Lady Glinda had given to Dorothy Gale once upon a time. The Lion threw all the shoes into the well in the center of the cloister garden. Any splash they had, they’d made a long time ago.
For his work helping Avaric bon Tenmeadows to set up the council for peace, Sir Brrr, Lord Low Plenipotentiary of Traum, Gillikin, was invited to sit in attendance.
“I’ve come up in the world,” he told the meagres under the bridge. “I’m still small fry, but I could probably sneak a few of you in if you want to get a peek at history.”
“Busy. Sorry,” said Rain, in her new iron-hard voice.
“We have to do something useful,” explained Candle to the Lion. “With Liir’s death—we have no choice. It’s that or die.” The Goose, under the obligations of family loyalty, bobbed his head in agreement. He had never liked either Candle or Rain, but was now something of a retainer in their broken circle.
“As for me, I wouldn’t come within a mile of Mombey,” said Dorothy. “It was her court that convicted me of murder, remember. And even if I wanted to brandish that stupid testimonial of my character, it’s probably null and void under the new regime. By the way, Brrr, you risk being imprisoned for aiding and abetting a psychopathic criminal in her notorious escape from justice.” She batted her eyelashes.
But the Lion had lost too much, and gained too much, to be prey to the same worries that had bewitched him most of his life. Nor gone first, and now Liir. What else could they do to him? Really?
It was left to Avaric to plead the terms of the truce with His Sacredness who, rumor had it, was keeping comfortable in a bare cell in the prison of Southstairs. Living on water and celery, and approaching the mercy of a deeper aestheticism.
Avaric had to work to get the Emperor’s attention. Either poor Shell’s mind had snapped or he’d ventured further toward divinity than he may have intended. “It’s a bit of a nonstarter, some conversations,” Avaric said to Brrr. “But we’ll get there. Those creepy Ozmists are lifting little by little—even the dead can’t be bothered to haunt you forever, it appears that they have other things to do—and the dragons are camped on the Plains of Kistinga
me outside of the Emerald City to the north. Mombey can call them in again to move matters along if the Emperor proves unwilling to focus. On some level he knows this. He and his ministers are doing what they can to set matters right.”
“What are the preconditions of surrender?” asked Brrr.
“That’s confidential,” said Avaric, but when the Lion pinned him down and threatened to rip off his arms with a novel dental technique, Avaric changed his mind about confidentiality.
“No, no,” said Brrr. “I’m not interested in what the Emperor is giving up. I know what he’s giving up, and what was never really his to yield, either. What I want to know is what demands he is making of Mombey.”
“The niceties of military surrender are new to me, but it’s my understanding His Sacredness is not in a position to make demands.”
“Of course he is. He can refuse to yield unless Mombey offers something. And if you refuse to yield—”
“I take your point,” said Avaric. “I think I may need that elbow in the future? Thank you. Is there something special that you’d like His Sacredness to request of La Mombey?”
“There is indeed,” said Brrr. “I should like her to bring the corpse of Liir Thropp to the Emerald City so his family can bury him.”
“Mombey has murdered Liir Thropp?”
“Apparently. Well, it stands to reason. If the EC didn’t kidnap Liir from Kiamo Ko, Mombey’s men did. That must be how she managed to marshal the violence of those dragons. She got to him first after all. And to the Grimmerie.”
“If you had done what the court asked of you—find us the Grimmerie—Munchkinland would be suing Loyal Oz for peace instead of the other way around.”
“What His Sacredness is demanding in exchange for signing the treaty of surrender,” said the Cowardly Lion, “is Liir’s earthy remains. Are you sure you’re getting all this?”
That evening, the Lion told his companions—including Rain and Candle—that he’d negotiated the release of Liir’s corpse. Although what kind of achievement, really, did it count as? The dead are no less dead whether buried at home or abroad.
Around the brazier they’d set up underneath the struts of the bridge, they talked about Liir. Thirty or forty homeless citizens of the Emerald City listened as they shared stories of the Emperor’s nephew. Dorothy had known Liir for too short a time, back when he was fourteen or so. “I don’t remember much about him. I think he was sweet on me for a while. But in the end I probably wasn’t his type. Seems my lot in life.”
Her eyes tracked the dirty hem of her dress. She’d carried a torch for him from the age of ten, thought Brrr. Poor thing.
Candle said, “I saw Kynot this afternoon. He has been very kind to me. I told him we hoped to have a pyre to burn the body, if the corpse hasn’t corrupted so fully it has had to be burned already, or been buried in Munchkinland. The Eagle is calling veterans of the Conference of the Birds to attend as an honor guard.”
Rain said, “I’m not sure I want to be there. Am I required?”
Her mother said, “When have we required anything of you, Rain? Except to survive? You do as you see fit.”
The girl sat hollowly in the light of the fire until the fire slumped, and then she did too. The Lion tried to offer comfort, but she would have none of it. All night she lay on the ground shivering, and would take no blanket, as if trying to learn in advance what chill of the grave might be visited upon her father. Tay squirreled into her arms, half a comfort.
Three days later, a caparisoned and hooded cart was escorted by mounted guard through Munchkin Mousehole, the southern gate of the city, and through the Oz Deer Park and along the Ozma Embankment to Saint Glinda’s Square. In lieu of Candle, who had decided her place was at the side of her living daughter and not her dead husband, the Lion stood to receive Liir’s Black Elephant corpse.
In a silence broken only by the rush of the wings of pigeons as they pivoted about city skies now safe again, His Sacredness the Emperor of Oz emerged through some secret egress from Southstairs. The prison governor, Chyde, carried the Ozma scepter and Avaric, Margreave of Tenmeadows, the crown.
Mombey waited on the steps of the Aestheticum. In keeping with the gravity of the day she displayed herself as aquiline of nose, cheeks of pale ice. Her straight tresses, colored steel, almost violet, were looped and fixed in place with constellations of emerald set in mettanite.
It took Brrr a moment to realize that the attendant at her side was Tip.
So many burdens on her young back. She might not be able to tolerate the return of her friend Tip, for whom her affection had been no secret except, perhaps, to herself.
In any case, Tip would guess that Rain might be in the city as well. What else had he expected her to do after he set out to find her father and the Grimmerie? It wasn’t hard algebraics. He’d be looking for Rain here, if he wanted to find her.
But if he didn’t want to find her, was it doing her any good to help her find him?
In the end it was Dorothy who decided the Cowardly Lion on the matter. The Lion had walked her to a clutch of broken pipes protruding from the back of a collapsed Spangletown whorehouse. The dripping pipes were set high enough in the wall that larger creatures could wash without too much crouching, and since Dorothy still had a tendency to croon given half a chance, the Lion stood guard over her virtue, her modesty, and her critics while Dorothy sponged herself and performed a musical set for unbelieving rats and such harlots as hadn’t yet fled the district.
On the way back, Dorothy said, “I’ve been wondering what to make of myself here in the Emerald City.” The Lion, his mind on Rain, didn’t take in what she meant at first. “I mean,” continued Dorothy, “there seems no particular campaign to ship me out of Oz the way there was the first time. Everyone’s so distracted, and who can blame them? So I’ve been wondering if I should just go into some line of work, and settle down here. Back a ways we passed an old sandwich board advertising the eighteenth annual comeback tour of Sillipede at the Spangletown Cabaret. Did you see it? Do you think I might look her up, if she’s still alive, and maybe get some professional advice? I could perform on the boards, you know, and put a few pennies together.”
The Lion shook his head and heard his wattles wuffle. “What are you on about, Dorothy? We’re witnessing an historic change in government, not hosting a jobs fair for immigrants. A little perspective, if you please.”
“You’re not going to stick by me forever. The Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow haven’t been popping up like vaudeville headliners to welcome me with a song-and-dance upon my return to Oz. Do you think I haven’t noticed? Life goes on, Brrr. We move on. I have so few choices, really, if I can’t get myself back home. Maybe that’s what growing up means, in the end—you go out far enough in the direction of—somewhere—and you realize that you’ve neutered the capacity of the term home to mean anything.”
“I never use that word.”
“No. I never say home.” And Brrr realized it was true, and that Dorothy was right, too. We don’t get an endless number of orbits away from the place where meaning first arises, that treasure-house of first experiences. What we learn, instead, is that our adventures secure us in our isolation. Experience revokes our license to return to simpler times. Sooner or later, there’s no place remotely like home.
ll get you back to purple waves of grain and amber plain, somehow,” said Brrr, though he had no ideas at the moment. What was he going to do? Go fish those knock-off slippers from the well in the mauntery motherhouse and make a mockery of Dorothy’s own fond memories of enchanted travel?
They were almost back to the bridge. A mile away some strafed building was finally collapsing. The clouds of dust, even at this hour, evoked the haunting by Ozmists and made those who dozed nearest death to tremble at the sight. “We don’t get too many chances, do we?” said Dorothy. “I’ve had more than my share, even while buildings fall around me on a regular basis.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t think we—as individuals—have much choice in our affairs, after all. Despite any fond hope for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I haven’t been able to avoid Oz or to get out of Oz. I’m just a pawn. I didn’t ask to be born an orphan, or to be taken on by Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. I didn’t ask to annoy everyone with my soapy character. It wasn’t my idea that an earthquake should punish San Francisco the week I arrived. We really can’t do much about our given circumstances, can we? We may have free will but it isn’t, in the end, very free. I might as easily have been born in China.”
The Lion purred in agreement, though it was a wise, consoling purr. “Limited range. We get relatively few chances to make good.”
“Still.” Dorothy’s eyes were unnaturally bright, even for her. “I suppose if we don’t even have bootstraps with which to pull ourselves up, we had better become highway robbers and steal some off someone who has extra.”
“Dorothy,” said the Cowardly Lion, “did anyone ever tell you that you are a piece of work?”