The Wicked Will Rise Page 17

Ozma gave a little pirouette, sending her flowing white gown billowing, and I giggled. The girl was crazy, no question, but I had to admit that she was growing on me.

“Hey,” I said, suddenly curious. “You don’t by any chance keep a giant pair of wings somewhere under there, do you?”

She flapped her arms up and down and hopped on one foot, but no wings sprouted.

So much for that idea. “It was worth a shot, right?” I shrugged, then returned to the subject of myself. Because, really, why not? “The thing is that I don’t even really like him,” I mumbled. “I just think he might be able to . . .” I trailed off without finishing my sentence, suddenly embarrassed that I was trying to get away with such an outrageous lie. Of course I liked him. I didn’t want to find him because he could help; I wanted to find him because I had a crush on him. There, I said it.

I know, I know. How stupid am I?

From the way Ozma was looking at me now, it seemed she wasn’t really buying what I was selling either. She was gazing at me with a deep, bemused kindness that was also a little skeptical, and I had to wonder, yet again, if maybe she actually understood what I’d been saying all along. I stepped closer to her.

“What is it about you?” I asked. She replied by bobbling her neck and twirling her finger at her temple.

Maybe it was because of my dream, but this time I wasn’t quite convinced by her look-how-dumb-I-am act. Was that what the dream had been trying to tell me? That Ozma and her secrets were the key to everything? Or at least the key to something?

I looked her up and down carefully, trying to find a clue. This time, I found one.

At first, it was just a glimpse of something overlaid on top of reality. It was like a double vision, another image that was barely there, hovering around the princess’s body. It reminded me of what I’d seen, for a moment, when I’d defeated the Lion, just before I’d taken his tail. When that had happened, I hadn’t had time to really think about it; I’d been acting totally on instinct. This time I tried to really focus on what I was seeing.

Again, I had to wonder how all this magic was coming so easily to me. Was the fact that Oz was getting its magic back just making it easier to take ahold of, or was I actually finding some kind of power of my own? And if I was, was that a good thing or a bad thing?

As I let myself become distracted by questions, I felt the magic slipping through my grasp. I clenched my fists and tried harder, and then it was gone entirely. But I could tell I was on to something—after all, the instinct I’d had about the Lion’s tail had been right. I wasn’t about to give up now. I narrowed my eyes and tried again.

One of the first lessons Gert had taught me about magic, in the long series of barely successful lessons she’d given me before she’d died, is that it’s hard to hold. Magic is tricky; it will do what it wants to, but not if you boss it around. You have to ask nicely. You have to think it’s the magic’s idea instead of yours. Kind of like Sandie Charlemagne, my old manager at Dusty’s Diner back in Kansas.

It was a funny connection to make, but thinking of Sandie made me think of quicksand, and how the more you struggle the faster you sink, and that made me think about those Chinese finger traps you get when you’re a little kid—the ones you can only get out of if you stop trying. Then I thought of the soap bubble trick from my mother that had helped me fall asleep last night.

I decided to just let all my thoughts drift away, and as my mind began to clear, the glowing aura around Ozma got brighter and clearer while, at the same time, the princess herself became more and more vague.

It wasn’t just Ozma either. Everything in the room was coming in and out, like when you’re driving and the radio reception changes depending on whether you’re going up or down a hill. Why not try adjusting the dial? I thought. And it worked.

When I shifted my attention in one direction, the glowing got stronger while everything else faded away. Everything that had been in the room was still there, except that it was made out of a strange, glittering thread. The screen, the wash basin, the sleeping hammocks, Ozma. Even my own body. All of it was just energy, and all of it was connected to each other.

I knew, on some level, that what I was seeing was the real Oz. I had pulled back the curtain and stepped through it, but instead of finding a humbug wizard, I’d found the controls to the whole operation—and it turned out the whole operation was made out of what appeared to be magical silly string.

Well, that makes it sound kind of lame. It wasn’t lame. It was literally the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. So beautiful that I had to try to touch it: I just reached out in front of me and tried to grasp one of the stray filaments floating randomly in the air. It swayed a little, but it didn’t really move, and my fingers passed right through it. When I tried to grab a fistful of them, I came up empty. But I found that if I sort of brushed my fingers against them, they responded to my touch as long as I didn’t push too hard. And if I was patient enough, I was able to move them around.

It was weird and very cool, but I didn’t really see the point until I noticed that the wayward strings of magic that had seemed to be floating randomly through the air—the ones I’d been playing with—were actually slowly gravitating toward something. And that something was Ozma.

They were flowing into her, sort of, but they were also twisting around her body, which was the brightest thing in the whole room. When I looked closely, I saw that she was just one big knot of magic.

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