The Wicked Will Rise Page 31

Maybe I was being stupid—weak, a pushover—but I believed her. I lifted myself off the monkey queen and stood, now holding on to my knife only for the light it was casting.

Lulu breathed deep in relief.

“Thank you,” she said. She didn’t stand; instead she crawled forward on her haunches in a crouch, just looking Ozma up and down.

Now that the monkey’s attention was on her, Ozma’s calm demeanor melted away, and she began to shake her head manically. She clenched her fists to her temples, yanking frantically at her hair. “No, no, no,” she chanted to herself. But she didn’t back away.

Lulu hardly paid attention to the way Ozma was freaking out. It was like she had expected it.

“She’s so different now,” the monkey queen murmured, half to herself and half to me. “You should have seen her before, witch girl. When she was born, she was so tiny I could hold her in the palm of my hand. Now look at her, all grown up and pretty as a penny fresh from the mint. Powerful, too. So I hear.”

“She is,” I said. It might have been a lie. Or it might not have been.

“And she was a good queen, when she had to be. I wish I’d visited, but I didn’t know what to say. Still, I knew. She was one of the best. I’m an awfully good queen myself, so I should know.”

“You are,” I said.

Lulu seemed very far away now. “I didn’t expect any of this,” she said. “Didn’t ask for it, didn’t want it, it just happened. I was just a monkey. Don’t know why I was the one to stumble into all this. I just was. Stranger things happen.” She glanced at me sheepishly. “But not that much stranger.”

Lulu bowed her head to the dirt and didn’t say anything else. Her shoulders were trembling now, and she took her sunglasses out and put them on again to hide her face as she wept.

Somehow it made everything even sadder that she was so proud of Ozma—the girl she’d loved as her own—and sadder still when you thought about everything that she wasn’t saying. About what had been done to her, what had been done to Ozma. About everything that can go wrong even when you have every best intention.

Lulu was a monkey queen and I was a girlfrom Kansas, but we were the same in a few ways. I wondered what it was like for her, how it must feel to see Ozma again now in a place and time as strange as this, with both of them so changed. I wondered if I’d ever find out the answer for myself.

Okay, so I was crying, too. Only a little bit. Even a wicked witch like me has a heart, you know?

The confusing show of emotion must have been what got Ozma’s attention. She was now looking back and forth from me to Lulu, thinking god knows what.

Lulu was still stooped over, but she had recovered herself and lifted her head with a graceful, stubborn pride.

Ozma bit her thumb nervously, and her eyes locked with Lulu’s for the first time. The fairy queen took a tentative step forward, looking a little frightened and a little curious and maybe—I mean, maybe—like something was coming back to her.

Just that tiny move, that small show of familiarity, was enough to make Lulu brighten. But when Lulu stood up and began to open her arms, the princess jolted and backed away again. Lulu looked like she understood.

“I’m sorry, honey pie,” Lulu said softly. “It’s only me. Good old Nursey Lu.” At that, Ozma just turned her back to us, facing out into the darkness beyond my magical ring of light.

“Lulu—” I said.

“No,” she interrupted. “It’s what I expected. I understand.” With that, it was like we were making a silent agreement to pretend we hadn’t noticed what had just happened.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

I wiped my eyes and shook my head. “It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t even have a choice. They made you a slave. It’s demented.”

She made a loud buzzer noise, like the sound on a game show when someone messes up. “Wrong! I could have done something. Maybe I couldn’t have done anything about the deal the Wizard made with the Western Witch, but I could have stopped Dorothy from . . .”

Instead of finishing her thought, Lulu fluttered her oversize paw halfheartedly in the air. I understood. It was too much to talk about.

The silence was heavy but something she had said snagged my attention. “The Wizard. He’s the one who made the deal with the witch. He sold you out.”

“Sure did, toots. No use thinking about it. That’s yesterday’s news and I canceled my subscription to that paper a year ago anyway.”

I was confused. “But you’ve worked with him. He’s the one who gave Ollie and Maude their paper wings. I thought he was your friend.”

“Nah, not a friend, but not an enemy either. Not anymore. He made his mistakes a long time ago. Time might move slow around here, but everything else changes fast. It wasn’t his fault anyway, not really, and Mr. Wiz paid the price. Got himself right with me and mine. I can’t say I ever know what the hell is going on underneath those dinky little hats of his, and I won’t be picking his nits for him anytime soon, but he’s okay by me until he messes with the monkeys again. Or with her.”

Lulu jerked a thumb toward Ozma.

“Seriously? How can you forgive him?” I couldn’t decide if I admired her willingness to put the past behind her or if I thought it just made her seem a little bit weak.

“Forgive him? I didn’t say I forgave him. Didn’t say I didn’t either, though. It’s not the point. Don’t worry about me, hon. No need to go poking your beak into my birdseed. But I want to tell you something and I want you to listen like I’m talking real quiet. You need to be worried about yourself. I heard all about what you did with the Lion. Heard you scared the fur off half the monkeys.”

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