The Witch Must Burn Page 21

“You’re not the only one who wants to see the real Oz restored,” I said to him, and his face was transformed by a real, full smile.

Gert released me from her embrace and I found that I missed her comforting warmth as soon as she did. I hadn’t had much mothering in my life. “Down to business,” she said briskly. “I’m sorry to be curt, my dear, but we haven’t much time. We must return you to the meadow where Glinda left you, and Nox has to get back to Glinda’s before she notices his absence.” She paused, smiling at me. “Welcome to the future of Oz, Jellia. We’re proud to count you among us.” When she put it like that, I couldn’t help but be a little proud of myself, too.

After that, there wasn’t much else to do. Mombi, Gert, and Glamora assembled in the pool cavern to see me off. Glamora waved her hands, and my soft white robe was replaced with the tattered, bloody dress I’d been wearing when Nox brought me to the cavern. Glamora waved her hands again, and bruises sprang up painlessly across my skin. I poked one cautiously; it didn’t hurt at all, but it sure looked convincingly gory. “Just a glamour,” she said. “They’ll fade eventually, like real bruises.” I looked down at my ruined dress. I was really going to do this. I was really going to spy on Dorothy—and put my life on the line for the future of Oz. What was I thinking? Why had I agreed to this?

“Because you know Oz needs you, dear,” Gert said. I faced her and opened my mouth, ready to tell her I knew no such thing. But the words didn’t come. Instead, I thought of the tiny girl who washed dishes all day long in Glinda’s kitchen. I thought of Nox’s murdered parents. I thought of poor Astrid—how was she faring, back in the Emerald City without me to look after her? I thought of Glinda’s Munchkin cooks, so afraid of Glinda’s power they were willing to spy on the people who they should have been united with. I thought of Ozma, and how things used to be. I cared about them, all of them. I cared about their chance for a better life. For freedom. I cared because they deserved it. I took a deep breath and adjusted my dress so that it looked even more askew.

“Let’s get this over with,” I said. Gert smiled.

“You’re very brave, dear,” she said. “Very, very brave.”

Hopefully, I wasn’t about to be very, very dead.

Gert took my hand and put it in Nox’s. His grip was cool and reassuring. Gert took his free hand and Mombi took mine. The last thing I saw before the cavern disappeared was Glamora’s face, a haunting mirror image of Glinda’s, her big blue eyes looking deep into mine.

We rematerialized in the meadow where Glinda had left me, next to the Scarecrow’s machine. It was night, just before dawn; overhead, the constellations of Oz gleamed like gems in the lightening sky. A handful of astounded Munchkins huddled around the machine, gaping at our unexpected arrival. Gert marched over to them briskly; I could see the air shimmering with magic around her upraised hands.

“Listen, Jellia,” Nox said, and stopped, searching for the right words. “Good luck,” he said finally. “Be careful.”

“You too,” I said. He nodded again and then, to my surprise, he gave me a brief, fierce hug. Without another word, he turned his back on us and loped off into the darkness.

Gert walked back toward us with the Munchkins trailing after her, blinking and dazed. “It’s time,” she said. “Be strong, Jellia. We have faith in you. We chose you because we knew you could do what we asked of you. Not many people are that brave.”

“Or that stupid,” I said.

Mombi grinned and patted me on the back. “Don’t get killed, kiddo.”

Gert turned to the Munchkins. “You remember nothing,” she said gently, and they nodded as one with their mouths open. She smiled at me. “Good-bye, dear. And good luck.” The witches’ outlines wavered, and I watched as they shimmered and then disappeared with a pop, like a bubble bursting. That was it: I was on my own.

The Munchkins were looking around them as though they’d just woken up from a dream. One of them caught sight of me and stood up a little straighter. “You’re alive,” he said slowly. “We’re to take you back to Dorothy, if you’re alive. To the Emerald City.”

I took a deep breath. “What are we waiting for then?” I said. “It’s time to go home.”

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