The Wicked Will Rise Page 18

And what do you do with knots? Well, duh. You untie them.

I didn’t want to hurt her. I just wanted to see what would happen. And so I hovered my fingers around Ozma, trying to see if I could get the jumbled lines of magic to untangle themselves.

At first, it seemed like it wasn’t doing anything, but after a few minutes, I noticed that one tiny thread was now twisting out from her elbow, and I managed to catch it on my finger, and I tugged on it, feeling just the slightest bit of give.

I bit my lip in concentration, careful not to pull too hard. And, just like I was tugging on a loose string on an old sweater from the thrift store, Ozma began to unravel.

No—it wasn’t her that was unraveling, exactly. It was more like I was unraveling some kind of spell. Meanwhile, Ozma herself was changing shape. She was getting bigger. Taller. Her shoulders broadened into a man’s. Well, a boy’s, I guess. And I could tell from his slouch and the tilt of his head that it was a boy I knew.

“Pete,” I muttered under my breath.

As soon as I spoke, it all slipped away. I was back in the real world, Ozma was gone, and Pete was standing right in front of me, wide-eyed in surprise. He took a step backward toward the door and held up his hands, looking as guilty and sheepish as someone who has just been caught shoplifting a Hostess Twinkie from the Piggly Wiggly.

“Um, hey?” he said. “So, uh, that was pretty weird, huh?” He scanned me up and down. “Nice outfit,” he said, grinning.

I didn’t know what to think. All I knew was that Pete had played me one too many times already, even if I didn’t know why, and I wasn’t going to let him do it again.

Still, I couldn’t help it if I was just a little bit happy to see him. Because it was Pete, who had saved my life about five minutes after I’d first arrived in Oz. Pete, who had kept me from going crazy when I’d been trapped in Dorothy’s dungeons. Pete, who had been the only person I could talk to when I had been posing as a servant in the Emerald Palace.

“Forget the outfit,” I said shortly. I took a step back and felt a sizzle of heat in my palm as my knife appeared without me even calling for it. “I think it’s time for you to do some talking.”

He brushed his dark hair from his green eyes. The same exact eyes that belonged to Ozma. He looked away and took a deep breath. When our eyes met again, I suddenly saw a sadness in him that I recognized from somewhere. “It’s kind of a long story,” he said. “Don’t we have better things to talk about?”

“Dude,” I said. I took a step toward him, and I saw him glance at my knife. I didn’t want to fight him, but I would, if it came to it. “I’ve known you longer than anyone else in this whole messed-up fairyland, and I still don’t know you at all. All you’ve done is lie to me. So yeah,” I spat. “I like you. I think. But I think you’d better start giving me some explanations.”

Pete just nodded with resigned understanding. He took a deep breath and slumped against the wall, folding his tense, sinewy arms across his chest. “Okay,” he said. “But you might as well have a seat, ’cause I wasn’t kidding when I said it was a long story. And I don’t even know the whole thing.”

I considered it, and then sat back down in the hammock I’d slept in, leaving my bare feet firm on the ground to steady myself. For now, I kept my knife in my hand. I didn’t think I would need it, but you could never be too safe around here.

“Let’s hear it,” I said. “Just tell me everything you do know.”

“Where should I start?”

“The beginning.”

So Pete started at the beginning. “Once upon a time . . . ,” he said.


“Once upon a time,” Pete began, “there was a little girl—a fairy, actually, but who knows what a fairy really even is? I’ve always been sort of fuzzy on that. Anyway. She was a princess. Or, well, really she wasn’t a princess at all, because she had no parents, so technically she was the queen. But everyone thought it seemed dumb to call her a queen, because she was just a baby. I mean, she couldn’t even walk. So they called her Princess Ozma.”

“How can a baby be queen?” I asked. “Was she just crawling around the palace by herself? Who was taking care of her? And, like, who was ruling Oz?”

“She had a nursemaid,” Pete explained. “A winged monkey named Lulu whose family had worked for the royal family for ages. She took care of Ozma, and after a time, Lulu came to think of Ozma as her own.”

I did a double take. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Queen Lulu?”

“I guess that’s what she’s calling herself these days,” Pete said with a rueful smile. “Everyone and their babysitter’s got a crown in this stupid fairyland, huh?”

“Actually, Queen Lulu wears a tutu and cat-eye sunglasses,” I pointed out.

Pete snickered. “I meant, like, a metaphorical crown,” he said. “Because, look, the thing about Oz that you have to understand is there’s only one true queen. It didn’t matter that Ozma was a baby or whatever. She’s the only living descendant of the fairy Lurline, so that makes her the one in charge. It’s like the law or something. They call it Old Magic. Look, I don’t totally understand it either, but I don’t have to. Everything sort of depends on it, you know?”

“Not really,” I said. “But keep going. Maybe I’ll get it later.”

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