Author's Note: Thanks so much for all the AMAZING feedback. I really, really appreciate it. I'm trying to write shorter chapters—about 3,000 words—and update every 10 daysish. This chapter and the next one are going to have—wait for it—ACTUAL PLOT! Let me know if you like the direction it's going. Oh, and I'm a huge Oz fan, so you'll notice a few Ozisms from the books—The Three Pearls, Rinkitink, Pinagree, etc.—are all from the book, "Rinkitink In Oz."
Aftermath – Chapter 10
Angry voices drifted toward us before we made it to the top of the last flight of stairs.
"By Ozma, Ambrose. You have to concentrate. This is important!"
"Concentrate! Ha! That's easy for you to say. Your marbles aren't scattered around the tower like, like—like something that's really—scattery!"
"Ambrose." It sounded like more of a growl than a word, and a bubble of choked laughter slipped out before I could stop it. Looked like I wasn't the only one who managed to frustrate the heck out of Tutor.
The bookends on either side of me paused. Then, moving like synchronized swimmers on speed, they stepped in front of me, shoulders closing into sliding doors of muscle that kept me from stepping on to the landing. If they'd gotten a quarter of an inch closer to my nose when they met in the middle, they would have knocked me down the stairs backward.
I bit back a sigh and reminded myself that I was going to be cooperative. I had to do some deep breathing, but I didn't order them to move it or lose it.
When Cain turned to walk out of our room, I'd noticed two things. First, that he was sexy even when he was being a smartass. And second, that even though he was teasing me, his eyes were—burdened.
My father may have been a robot, but Popsicle had lived in the real world working as a Kansas farmer for 15 years. Whoever designed him must have poured their heart and soul into getting the eyes just right because one of my most vivid memories was of the expression in them in months—and there were more than a few of them—when the ends didn't quite meet. I could remember he and Mom sitting at the kitchen table, holding hands across the width of it, and talking about how we were going to manage.
It never failed to make me determined to find a way to help them.
I only got a flash of it before he had his shields back up, but the same tired desperation had been in Cain's eyes for a second. And just like that, I felt like the world's biggest, most obnoxious, most spoiled brat. He'd been pouring everything he had into helping me, and I was acting like an ungrateful jerk, fighting him every time I didn't get my way. If compromising my independence a little bit for the next few days would help Cain, then that's what I was going to do.
Even if it killed me.
Which was unlikely, because even though I didn't think I needed them, at least the two bodyguards Cain picked seemed like good guys. They sort of reminded me of the football players at my school, typical JuCo athletes—long on sincerity but a scoche short on brains.
The voices rose again, and I had to scramble down a step to keep from being knocked on my ass as my guards turned around to question me.
"Princess, are you sure you want to—"
I waved a hand, interrupting Grear. Thus far I'd managed not to ask if Michaels was mute or if Grear had just gotten lucky and gotten to use the voice today—hey, if the Three Fates can share an eye, who says the Two Sentries couldn't share a voice. At this point, though, I was running low on tact.
"It's nothing to worry about. They always do that." I made a shooing motion. "Let's just head on up."
They looked back and forth between one another but didn't show signs of moving.
"Look, you guys can go in the room first and threaten to pull out their fingernails with hot tongs if you want."
There was another silent conversation, then some nodding. And big surprise, Grear spoke again. "Yes, your majesty." His voice was earnest enough to give me a second of worry about Tutor and Glitch, but before I could really get going with laying the ground rules—no calling the dog catcher on Tutor, no commenting on Glitch's coat—I heard a sharp, "Yip!" followed by a howl that sounded suspiciously like Glitch.
I shoved past the Grear and Michaels without really thinking about it and rushed a few feet down the hallway and into an open doorway the commotion was coming from. I wasn't worried about myself, but from the sound of things, it seemed like there was a good chance Tutor and Glitch might kill each other if someone didn't get in there to mediate.
Inside, I found Glitch hopping on one foot, holding his ankle and spouting threats. Tutor has retreated to dog form, and even though he was only 10 inches tall, the growl he was sending Glitch's way would have done a Mastiff proud. He looked like he was five seconds away from making Snausages—or, you know, whatever other tasty treat shape shifting, friends-of-state, little dogs preferred—out of what was left of Glitch's brain.
"What the heck is going on," I demanded as I pushed into the room, my entourage hot on my heels.
"DG! Hey, Doll! How 'ya feeling?"
I heard my guards clamber in behind me and turned around to flash them a quick smile that I hoped was reassuring. "See, no terrorists. Just a royal advisor and his little dog, too."
Before either one of them—ok, who am I kidding, Grear—could answer, there was a series of squishy pops, and Tutor was back on two legs. Remembering how thrown I was the first time he shape shifted and considering the fact that my guards were armed, I swiveled my head again to reassure Grear and Michaels, but they seemed to be taking it in stride. Surprisingly urbane of them—sort of like New Yorkers finding nothing at all weird about a guy with 17 extra holes in his head and a pair of horns.
"Thank the Grey Gale. Now maybe we can get somewhere. Princess, I'm looking for—"
I cut Tutor off before he could finish. The guys seemed trustworthy, but I figured the last thing we needed were rumors about the Undoing getting out and starting a panic. I've seen enough disaster movies to know that life-as-we-know-it ending information is best kept close to the vest. I mean, just look what happened to poor Jake Gyllenhaal in The Day After Tomorrow. Better safe than trapped in a library while the rest of the country is being evacuated to Mexico.
"Hold that thought, Tutor." I turned to my guards. "Look, guys. I think I'm going to be awhile here, so is there maybe something else you need to be—"
"We'll secure the room and be right outside the door, Princess," Grear interrupted me.
I couldn't keep the sigh inside this time. I'd figured that was what was going to happen. "Are you sure?" I asked again, trying not to sound insultingly eager to get rid of them. "I mean, I'm going to be right here. You could just secure the room, and then go do something—else. There's a bunch of work downstairs, right?"
Holy crap, he speaks.
Michaels' voice was a deep baritone, and the fact that he actually used his words, er, word, seemed to surprise Grear as much as it did me. He didn't sound like the kind of guy you argued with very ever, so I decided to accept defeat gracefully.
"Ok, then. I guess you should start—securing."
"Watch for the books in the floor while you secure," Glitch piped in, sounding cheerful. "Whoever organized this library wasn't very—organizational."
"It was your library once, Ambrose," Tutor ground out. "The witch had it moved from the Northern Palace when the tower was built."
"Really?" He looked around. "Wow. I had a lot of books."
He wasn't kidding. The room was huge and round, and the entire thing was filled with floor to ceiling shelves so stuffed that books had started piling up into mountains on the carpet. There were big books, little books, books in every color of the rainbow. And there didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the way they were shelved. At my shoulder, a massive brown book with gold words I couldn't read carved into the a leather spine was shelved next to what looked like an Ozian comic book called "The Adventures of the Tin Men in Central City." Someone needed to introduce Glitch to our friend the Dewey Decimal system.
"I already told you that twice, Ambrose," Tutor was growling again.
"Told me what?"
The guards finished their securing, and ducked out of the library. They pulled the doors closed behind them and looked thankful to do it. I couldn't blame them. Escape sounded like an excellent idea. Too bad it wasn't an option on my menu for the day.
"Told you that this foolish mess of a—"
"So," I interrupted gamely. "What are we hunting?"
"A book." Tutor's voice was flat.
"Gee, I never would have guessed." Ok, maybe that was a little sarcastic, but sometimes I can't help myself. Plus, and I don't know this for sure because I've only been with him for two days, I'm pretty sure Tutor brings out the smartass in me. "Any particular book, or can we just say 'Eenie, Meanie, Miney, Mo?'"
"Eanie, Meanie—I'm not familiar with that spell."
Oh good God. Well, at least I'd distracted him from Glitch. Tutor was starring at me and frowning. Lovely. I decided I should probably try to explain. "I—no—it's just a—Hey!" I yelped when Glitch came up beside me and whacked me on the back. "What was that for?" I demanded.
"Oh. I thought you were glitching."
Can princesses growl? I was pretty sure they could. But I managed not to do it. Instead, I forcefully changed the subject back to the topic at hand. "So about that book?"
Tutor rubbed a hand across his jaw. "Ambrose always had a great interest in the ancient Ozian artifacts of magic. He probably had more information on them than anyone else alive."
"Oh yeah? Now that sounds like an interesting hobby, collecting magical doohickeys. I think I could really have some fun with that."
"Ambrose, focus." Tutor turned back to me. "I don't understand much of what your sister said before you used the Twilight spell, but she was right about one thing. Something's—off—magically."
I felt a curl of alarm. "What do you mean?"
Tutor sighed. Beside him Glitch, who'd been gamely stacking books to try to make a path through the chaos, looked up at him.
"The O.Z. is a land of magic," Tutor finally said. "And it's filled with many creatures who rely on that magic for not only their abilities, but their very survival. Shape shifters like me—are one such people. For a long while now, shifting has been getting more difficult. Once I'm in my canine form, it requires an increasing amount of concentration and power to shift back to my human shape. While I was in the witch's dungeon, I thought it was her power making the difference. But based on what your sister said, now I'm not so sure."
I nodded. "In a weird way, that actually makes sense."
"Yes, well, as magical as The O.Z. you know is, it used to be much, much more so."
"Used to be? You mean like before the witch—"
"No, no," Tutor interrupted. "Long before that. Since before even my great-great-grandfather was a pup. Things of magic have been slowly," he paused then, and I thought he was searching for words.
"Dying," Glitch suggested.
"No. Not dying exactly. More like, disappearing. Getting lost. Or just fading away."
The stack of books I was standing next to seemed sturdy enough, and suddenly I felt like I needed to sit down. "You're going to have to be a little less vague, tutor. Fading away?"
Tutor shrugged. "Suffice it to say, they're gone. At this point, many of them have been lost for so long, they've drifted into legend, and we don't know if they were ever real at all."
"You mean like the emerald?" I asked after I'd had a few seconds to chew it over in my mind.
"In the case of the Emerald of the Eclipse, in ancient times, it sat at the crown of the highest tower in Central City—which was once actually called Emerald City. The House of Gale knew it was real, and knew it was powerful and would be of utmost importance. So your ancestors hid it in a safe place and passed the secret down to the queens of their line, but for all intents and purposes, to the people of the O.Z. it was gone. Exactly like that, D.G. Excellent."
I gave a slight eye roll. "Thanks. I guess I had a good teacher. So what other magical goodies do we have hidden and why do we need Glitch's library to help us get to them if the Queen knows where they are?"
Tutor was shaking his head. "You misunderstand. The kings and queens of The O.Z. didn't hide all of the disappeared tools. The House of Gale didn't even have access to many of them—to most of them, really. They were spread around the lands and used by the people to whom they belonged."
"Okay. So that means—what?"
"It means that the doohickeys we're looking for are going to be even more scattered than my marbles," Glitch interjected. "Right, Tutor?"
"Right." Tutor's voice was grim.
"Let me get this straight," I held up a finger. "One, we don't know what we're looking for," another finger. "Two, we don't know where it is," another finger. "And three, even if we figure out the first two, it might not even exist, period?"
"Crymanilly! And this is the best plan you have?" I threw my hands up in the air. "The O.Z. is doomed. We should just make a huge travel storm right now and all immigrate to Kansas!"
Tutor was staring at his shoes, his expression somber. "I'm sorry, D.G., but it's my only suggestion right now. If would could find something in these old legends that might help us bring balance back to the O.Z.—well, it's a place to start, at least. The witch, as difficult as it is for me to admit, was much wiser in matters like these than I am, and it seemed to be what she was trying to do."
"You know what, I bet the answer is in here—somewhere," Glitch was obviously trying to sound positive, but his voice ended on the wan side of upbeat. He sighed and drummed his fingers on a book. "It's just too bad we don't have the Three Pearls. Now those would be helpful."
Tutor and I raised our heads whiplash fast. We looked at one another. I turned and squatted down beside Glitch, speaking very slowly.
"The Three Pearls?"
"I was just looking through this book—that's my handwriting, see. It looks like I was really fascinated by this Rinkitink character. He seems like an interesting guy—"
"The pearls, Glitch," I interrupted, careful to keep my voice even. The book Glitch was holding maybe the most ancient looking thin I'd ever seen. It reminded me of an illuminated manuscript from ancient Rome I'd seen in a museum once. I was speaking softly, and I realized it was because I was afraid the pages would turn to dust if I breathed on them too hard.
Glitch didn't seem quite as worried about it as I did. He gently lifted a page and turned it as he continued.
*"Oh, well they were gifts to King Kitticut from the Mermaid Queen. There was a pink one, a blue one, and a white one. Prince Inga and Rinkitink used them to save the Kingdom of Pinagree from Regos and Coregos."
"Pearls? How would you use pearls to save—"
"The Pink Pearl protects the person who's carrying it from danger, and the Blue Pearl gives them incredible strength. The White Pearl, though, that's the one we need. It can answer questions and gives wise counsel to its owner."
Stunned silence filled the room for heartbeat, then I was on my feet whooping and laughing. I pulled Glitch up from the floor and into a hug, spinning him around. "Glitch! You're a genius! You did it."
Tutor reached in and snagged the book, setting it on a table and gently looking at the pages. His smile was a mile wide, though, and he was bouncing a little on the balls of his feet. If he'd had a tail at the time, it would have been wagging.
"I am? I mean, of course I am!" He sucked in a big breath of air when I finally let him go. "Er, just to be clear, what did I do?"
"You found something that can help. We just need to get that white Pearl and ask it what's going on, right. Like the Ozian version of a Magic 8 Ball."
Glitch was shaking his head, frowning sadly. "That's a really great idea, D.G., but we can't."
I resisted the urge to smack myself in the head. Why couldn't anything ever be easy in the O.Z. "Can't? Why not?"
"Because the Three Pearls were lost thousands of years ago."
"Yup. They disappeared."
Glitch frowned. "Are you glitching again? You're repeating everything I just said. Do you need me to whack you?"
"No! I just—"
"Ambrose, where did you find this book?" Tutor interrupted.
"Huh? Oh, on the table. I guess the witch thought Rinkitink was interesting, too."
Tutor had flipped to the last page and was gently tapping a sticky note—good to know the important things like Post-Its bridge even transdimensional boundaries—this isn't your handwriting, is it?"
Glitch looked over his shoulder. "Nope. It's too girly."
"I think," Tutor said slowly. "That the witch was on the same track you are, Glitch."
"Huh. Great minds think alike, I guess."
"Yes, or maybe it's something she got from your brain."
I looked at the note, too. "Adepts? What are Adepts?"
"They're three very powerful fairies who live in the Land of the North. Their powers only work voluntarily, and only when all three of them are together." Tutor said absently, still staring at the note.
"Are they from Pina—whatever? With the Pearls?" I asked.
Glitch shook his head. "Nothing about them in the book."
"Well, the witch clearly thought they might be of assistance in finding the Pearls," Tutor countered.
"So we're going—fairy hunting?" I asked, trying not to sound skeptical.
"We won't have far to hunt. About three months ago, the witch put one of them in the cell next to mine."
My eyebrows rose up and almost popped off my head. "Seriously? That's awes—er, great." I corrected myself so they'd know what I meant.
Tutor sighed and started rubbing his temple. "Great? You've obviously never met Audah."
Was it possible for a black man to go pale?
I studied him for a minute. I guess it was.
I was worried for half a second before I remembered one very important little fact. Audawhatshername had never met me before, either.